Thursday, September 29, 2011

Superteam iPad Program (XtraNormal)

Episode III of "The Paragon" begins after Bowie has rescued team captain Muffy from an attack by the Russian Robot Brigade. In the aftermath, Muffy asks him to think about implementing an iPad program for their team.

Superteam iPad Program

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Horn Dog: Technidiot (XtraNormal)

Episode II of my XtraNormal series, "The Paragon."

Muffy, team captain to The Paragon, confronts Horn Dog after he misses the rescheduled team meeting. Horn Dog apparently has trouble with modern technology. Anyone who met Horn Dog in Episode I ("Horn Puppy & Crew Cuts") will have no trouble believing this.

Horn Dog: Technidiot

Dear creators and writers of "Archer,"
Please feel free to find these episodes so uncontrollably hilarious that you contact me at and ask me if I would be interested in writing with you. Or, better, creating a show that came on after "Archer." Peace out, hippie.

Drive, We Said

My Bloody Valentine--"Drive It All Over Me" (mp3)

If there was any doubt that Ryan Gosling is the greatest actor of his generation, Drive lays that controversy to rest definitively. In it, Gosling takes a character type that Jason Strathan introduced in the Transporter series, throws out all of the macho, Euro-glamorous bullshit, and plays out the character in the ways that such a character would really play out. It's not pretty; in fact, it's downright ugly. And costly.

Just as in the Strathan movies, Gosling plays a character who will drive other people in and out of dangerous situations for money. Just as in those movies, the character has a set of rules that he uses to stay disconnected from his payloads. But that's where the similarity ends. Gone are the exotic European locales. Gone are the unbelievably beautiful actors. Gone are the big payoffs. All that is left is L.A. And what an L.A. it is, a city of unbelieveable sprawlingness when seen from a high perch, of seedy strip malls when observed up close. And people who have been cast out of Hollywood or hang only on its fringes, but are still looking to score. Or to get by. There isn't much difference.

Ostensibly an action film, Drive takes almost every convention of the genre and flips it on its head. Gosling,'s character, of course, is at the center of this; as hero, he moves through the city either nearly catatonic or simultaneously moral and sociopathic. Both make sense for him, as he reserves his actions until he needs them, and then his pent-up responses can completely overwhelm a situation.

But I am talking about the movie, which is stunning in its own right, when I mean to talk about Ryan Gosling. If you saw Robert DeNiro when he was young--in Mean Streets and The Godfather, Part II and Taxi Driver, then you can understand the genius of Ryan Gosling. Like DeNiro, Gosling makes his living on oddball, inarticulate characters. DeNiro's Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, as well as his character Michael in The Deer Hunter, could not find enough in the language to express themselves, relying instead on meaningless, self-focused phrases like "Are you talking to me?" or "This is this" that Derrida would have had a field day analyzing.

When Gosling's character in Drive moves beyond the monosyllabic utterances a good third of the way into the film (ignoring, of course, his memorized speech about his driving rules at the start on the phone), it is to issue a stock, cliched threat to a former client. In fact, his character has almost nothing interesting to say the entire movie, except occasionally when talking to a child. Instead, it is his actions that keep us enraptured--a kiss at the most inappropriate of moments, the way his fist clenches inside a leather driving glove, and, perhaps most of all, his smile.

This actor's smile envelops the entire movie, balances out his blank stare. It has to be something that Gosling figured out when preparing for the part; there is no way that it is written into a Hollywood script, however indie the movie might be. That smile is, by turns, protective, genuine, nostalgic, bemused,
resigned, even vulnerable. It is his way of communicating with other people in ways that words can no longer capture for him. We don't know a thing about his past except that there is nothing to say about it.

I have a student who turned down a role in our school's production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest because it didn't have enough lines. His decision reveals, in my opinion, his lack of understanding of what acting is about, especially in light of Gosling's performance in Drive. In the film, words matter very little, even for two people developing a love for each other. It is gestures, it is the decisions and the doing, however flawed, that reveal the truth about every person in the film. And Gosling is particularly masterful in portraying that hesitation, that careful choosing of when to speak. When he speaks too much, he says too much.

I am no aficionado of Gosling's work. At best, I'm a casual fan. Yes, I was in awe of his performance in Half-Nelson, but I have yet to see Lars and the Real Girl, Blue Valentine, or even much of The Notebook. But even the few roles I've seen him play have told me that, eventually, I need to see everything that he's doing or done. It got to that point with DeNiro back in the late 70's and early 80's. After seeing the early films, I just felt like I needed to see whatever he was doing.

With Gosling's movies, the days after seeing him act have been filled with regular, intermittent reflection on the recurring images in my head. His characters, their behaviors and gestures are not easily forgotten. When I talk to other people who have seen the same movie, there is this kind of tendency to reopen whatever wounds and scabs watching the movie gave us. We can't help it. Gosling's presence is that real.

Like most of the actors that have come before him, Gosling is likely to eventually be overwhelmed by Hollywood and its demands, and then will, like DeNiro, become a parody of himself, his edge and his toughness and his tenderness used against him for some comic purpose. Maybe Daniel Day-Lewis has avoided that. If so, I can't think of anyone else who has. But for now, Ryan Gosling is like the fighter Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, so committed to his craft that he has no sense of the bigger picture, the danger he's in, the damage that he can do. He's just a man doing a job.

What I like about Gosling is that it's almost impossible to imagine him hanging out in his trailer on the set playing poker with his buddies. No, instead I get a sense of his method, of his immersion, of his commitment to doing everything his character would do and nothing that he wouldn't.

Which is why Drive provides such a perfect role for him. He really does seem like the kind of guy who would offer a little kid a toothpick, simply because a toothpick in the side of his mouth is a small pleasure for him, with no awareness of why a child might not see that as a meaningful gift. That Gosling, he's all in. And wherever he's driving, I think most of us will want to ride along.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

XtraNormal Fiction: Episode One

Arwen (Acoustic) - Sam Gray (mp3)
Humdrum - Pallers (mp3)

My first series on XtraNormal went to the heart of the issue: the absurdities of groupthink in a school environment. While inspired directly by my experiences at my own job, by the people who surround me every day, it wasn't so much intended as a slam on them as it was on the way educators and administrators are in general.

However, when I showed off my creations to friends and spouse, the resounding response I got was: "You'd best not let these get out. It would be bad for you, professionally speaking." Well, I can ignore one voice, but ignoring five or six is a different story.

So I went back to the drawing board. Rather than creating characters who were mash-ups of several people I knew from work* talking in a school environment, I added one extra degree of separation. Rather than seeing the absurdities of school through the administrators and teachers, I decided to reveal it through the parents. And, just in case it still hit too close to home, I made the parents superheroes.

Yes, this has sorta already been done by The Incredibles, but not like this.

The group is named The Paragon after a supergroup a friend and I invented in the '80s. So far, my characters are Horn Dog, Bowie, and Muffy. Horn Dog is the father to Horn Puppy, the freshman high school student at a local private school. Bowie is the single bachelor with a British accent and a mullet (translate: you just know he gets laid). And Muffy is the S&M ripoff who has ascended to the elected role of group leader.

Enough talk. Here's Episode 1.

Horn Puppy and Crew Cuts

Friday, September 23, 2011

11seven (final)

Knock Yourself Out - Filligar (mp3)
You Don't Know How Lucky You Are - Keaton Henson (mp3)

This is the final entry of my unfinished fiction work, tentatively titled "11seven." I offer it in small mostly digestible doses of between 700-1,100 words. It contains strong language and sexual situations as intended for a mature audience. Parental discretion is advised. (I got all that from watching "Justified"!) Each entry will come with a song from our BOTG mailbox and discussion questions for Oprah.

PART ONE: Solitary Confinement in a Convenience Store
PART TWO: Stu & the Lost Male Art of Subtlety

PART THREE: All Desperate Horny Teens Deserve Charity
PART FOUR:  Going Steady

Clash of the Titans

A few weeks later, the inevitable happened. Jimmy the cop shows up when Stu’s hanging out at the counter.

Stu looked like he’d just been caught with a kilo of cocaine, the latest issue of Hustler sitting right there on the counter next to him in a brown bag. Except, he was trying to act like he wasn’t doing anything wrong. It’s the stupid guilty-looking green-under-the-collar criminals who get caught.

Jimmy smiled at Stu and leaned over the counter. “Hey hot stuff.”

“Where you been, stranger?” I asked. “It’s been so lonely I’ve had to force boys at gunpoint to hang out with me past curfew.”

I looked over at my boy, and he’d already slinked toward the exit. He looked like I’d shot him, this wounded gunshot puppy. Stu mumbled a goodbye with lightning efficiency and backed out the door.

Jimmy was looking at me. Then I looked back at him, and he looked at the door where Stu had been, and then back at me. And he had that funny halfway one-sided grin.

So I gave him my big ol’ cheerleader ear-to-ear, and he cocked his head to the side. Then he looked back at the door. And then he started taking steps toward the door.


He was gonna go after Stu. Who the hell knows what he was going to do with Stu, but he was gonna do something. Probably just be all coppy and talk stern-like to him ‘til the kid pissed himself or something, but still.


He stopped halfway there and watched the kid’s car putter out to into the great beyond. And then, after his display of alpha male possessiveness, he walks over to me at the counter, with his cop poker face of 20 emotions at once.

“I betcha I’m gonna love this story,” he says to me.

“What story?” I tell him, biting on my straw like some bad scene out of Grease! or something.

“That kid couldn’t’ve looked guiltier if y’all’d been fucking on the counter,” he says.

“Awww, aren’t you a sweetie, all jealous and such,” I said, and I leaned over the counter and gave him one of those June Cleaver ya big galoot lovey punches to his cop jaw.. “Even with that pretty little ring on your finger.”

“What’s there to be jealous of?” he says.

“You tell me Officer Jealous.”

“You’re not fuckin’ him are you? I wasn’t even sure he was old enough to drive.” He was sorta kidding and sorta not. But it was adorable.

“I’d answer you ‘cept that you’ve turned into exactly the kind of guy I don’t owe explanations to,” is what I told him. “If you’re that sweet cop who keeps me company and cares about my well-being and who ain’t jealous of some old widow who hardly ever leaves her store just ‘cuz she’s made pals with some sad lonely kid, then I’ll talk ‘til I’m blue in the face about every last detail. But if you’re gonna be some Rottweiler who wants to pee on my front door, then you can politely just kiss my ass.”

Cute Jimmy. If there’d been some disco strobe lights, each blink would have revealed some new microscopically-noticeable expression on that face. Pissed off. Amused. Confused. Tender. Pissed off again. But he finally settled on the worst of all: the disappointed daddy.

“I’ve hardly ever touched a hair on your pretty head, Gladys.” He pointed at the door. “That’s a boy. A boy who you said yourself is a sad and lonely boy. You are a sad and lonely woman, and you being beautiful and funny and sweet don’t change that. What kind of idiot would I have to be not to see something going on with the little drama scene I walked in on?”

I just kinda smiled and shrugged.

“You wanna play this off as me being some jealous oaf? Have at it. Merry fucking Christmas. But what it is is weird.”

“Oh get off it,” I told him. I don’t even know if it made any sense to say that, but that’s what came out.

I took another sip of my drink and chewed some more on my straw. The silence was pretty intense. I gotta tell you, it was the first time in a long time I’d really been aroused quite like I was just at that moment. In fact, the idea of dragging Jimmy into my back office and ripping every last thread off his body flashed joyfully through my mind.

“Fine fine fine. Fair enough,” I said to him. “But it’s not like that. It’s just nice to have someone to talk to sometimes. That’s as far as it goes, and that’s as far as it’ll ever go.”

I mostly meant it.

“Just like you,” I told him.

He chuckled a little and rolled his eyes. “Honey, ain’t nothing about that boy gonna ever be anything like me.”

“That kid’s gonna be a successful something or other. Big time. You can just tell.”

“Like I said, nothing, ever, anything, like me,” he says, and starts walking over to get him a coffee.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

No Brakes, No Brains

Tommy Stinson--"Zero To Stupid" (mp3)

There's a story making the rounds at our school, a tale of courage and luck and all of that. It involves a runaway tractor with no brakes and the man, a guy who works here, had to leave the relatively-safe confines of traffic and cross a thoroughfare that run across the front side of our campus. That he did so with arms flailing and a healthy dose of good fortune and some ability to slow the tractor's progress so that he wasn't hurt and neither was anyone else has already made the story of the stuff of legend.

There's only one problem. He didn't drive with no brakes willingly. That's where I've got the edge on him. Here's my story:

Back when there were Turtles music stores and we had one located over on Ringgold Rd. in East Ridge (a few doors down from where Amigo's is now located), I headed out one early evening to take a look at their CDs, to see if there was anything new. Leaving my wife and daughter at home, I drove the copper-colored old Volvo 740 GLE that we had purchased from my father several years earlier. He likes to sell cars to us right about the time when things go wrong with them.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: If you read these pages regularly, you know that I typically have back luck with cars. And you know that much of that is my own fault or neglect.

I guess the brakes had been getting kind of spongy; I don't really remember. But after I had left my neighborhood, traveled Tunnel Blvd, turned onto Brainerd Road and then right onto Germantown Road, driven its length until it dead ends at Ringgold Road, where I soon took a left into the parking lot, as I pulled into the parking space at the side of the building, I had no brakes. Before I could react, my tires slammed into the concrete parking barrier, the Volvo kind of hopped up into the air a little bit and then came to an uneasy stop.

After the initial panic, I decided that I wouldn't deal with it until I went in and looked at CDs. What was I thinking? I couldn't concentrate on music; my car was several miles from home with no brakes. There were no cell phones back then. I didn't know where my AAA card was. I would have to borrow Turtles' telephone and call a wrecker to come tow me. I would have to get someone to come pick me up. As someone who is often motivated by not wanting to be the center of attention, not wanting to be embarassed, I pondered an alternative solution.

That, of course, was to try to drive back to my house without any brakes. That makes sense. Right? Risk death to avoid embarassment? Sure. Why not?

As I returned to the car and started it up, I started envisioning routes and imagining scenarios in my mind. Germantown Road, for example, the way that I had come, would not work for a return, since it culminated in a steep downward hill as it approached Brainerd Road. In my mind, Belvoir seemed like the better option. I could remember any steep places, and, at the Brainerd intersection, it was flat.

None of those route plans took into consideration the minimum 6 traffic lights that I would encounter and wouldn't be able to stop at. Under any circumstances. So I tried to improvise. Using hand brake and low acceleration, I held back some distance from the first stoplight, the one at the edge of the Turtles parking lot. When it turned green, I gave the Volvo a little gas and made the left turn onto Ringgold, heading away from my house, but, hopefully, heading toward flatness.

Somehow, I also made the turn onto Belvoir easily as well. I'm thinking, 'Yeah, I'm getting the hang of this, drive slowly, hold back, wait until it turns green, I can do this.' Belvoir is a winding road, past churches and through neighborhoods, until its crossing over the interstate, which I managed fairly easily, because the light was already green when I got there, and until it ends at a busy intersection of Germantown Road, which I didn't.

Belvoir onto Germantown is actually a bit of an incline and the light which was green had turned yellow and then red by the time I got there. I hadn't thought about running into the car in front of me, because the issue hadn't come up, but, as luck would have it, there wasn't one. But that also meant that rather than a minor fender bender, I was headed onto one of Chattanooga's main roads through a red light, picking up speed.

The light had only recently turned red and I was coming full on and about to make a 90 degree left turn at a higher speed than I'd ever done, and I was doing it approaching the cars at the light were just starting to accelerate at their green, so I pushed my horn and waved my hand and started mouthing 'I don't have any brakes' and trying to keep a car pulling toward a pole on the road and all of a sudden I was through!

Heart pounding, I made it through the next two lights on the flat road, which actually started to rise a little bit, making the situation more manageable. I took a right onto Tunnel Blvd. and used my low gear and parking brake to make the eventual turn into my neighborhood, which rose up a hill and then onto my street, which rose again, where I parked in front of my house, aimed uphill with the parking brake on.

Back I was to wife, back to family, after a near brush with complete stupidity. Not much to brag about.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

11seven (five)

Doubt - Amanda Mair (mp3)
Dandelion - The Asteroid Shop (mp3)

Presented this month is my unfinished fiction work, tentatively titled "11seven." I offer it in small mostly digestible doses of between 700-1,100 words. It contains strong language and sexual situations as intended for a mature audience. Parental discretion is advised. (I got all that from watching "Justified"!) Each entry will come with a song from our BOTG mailbox and discussion questions for Oprah.

PART ONE: Solitary Confinement in a Convenience Store
PART TWO: Stu & the Lost Male Art of Subtlety

PART THREE: All Desperate Horny Teens Deserve Charity
PART FOUR:  Going Steady

A Port in a Storm

The second time Stu come in was something special. There was a part of me that was surprised, ‘cuz I’d done told myself I’d never see that adorable boy again, and he had already gone down into my little personal private history book of memories that made me love owning this store – maybe I’ll share a few others with you sometime, but it’s not a long list. Seven or eight at best. There was another part of me, though, that saw him walk in and didn’t think nothing of it.

I don’t mean like I was hedging my bets or nothing like that. But deep down, I felt this connection between us, the kind of connection you don’t want to tell people about, the way people don’t talk about love at first sight until months or years later. And especially since there’s nothing noble about connecting like that with a boy barely old enough to drive, I wasn’t exactly giddy about rolling around in that particular feeling too much.

Stu, on the other hand, must’ve stewed on it – ha, yeah, I know – a lot. I bet he spent that whole week trying to decide whether or not to follow his gut and come back. I was trying to deny myself that feeling of intense connection; he didn’t have a name for it. He only knew it seemed dirty and bad, but he couldn’t explain why to himself.

Maybe it’s not right for me to speak for the boy, but trust me I know what he was thinking. Or I’m in the right ballpark anyways. When I told him that first day that I was psychic, yeah I was kidding, but the truth of it is that we seemed to get each other almost like we were psychic. I just always had more benefit of experience.

Just like a guy, he just walks in and walks straight up to me at the counter. Johnny’s monologuing in the background, and there’s this gleam in his eye. Later on I’d fantasize that he was walking straight up to the counter to lean over and shove his tongue into my mouth, some intense Top Gun kind of kiss. But I shoulda known he was a guy, which means that instead, he walked up to me and says, “So, like, are you OK with me buying those magazines from you, or was that, uh, just a one-time thing?”

I bet I sounded like a donkey in heat the way I laughed at that one. He was a little taken back with it – the volume, I think – but he also knew why I was laughing. He knew I wasn’t laughing at him. Which also means he knew that my laugh was all but a guarantee what my answer would be.

“Well you ain’t getting another free one ‘til you turn 17, Stuart.”

Here's another thing about guys. He came in so confident and direct because he had created this illusion that the conversation was about porno mags. He had sold himself and worked up the nerve by convincing himself it wasn't about him and me, like I was merely the toll booth operator rather than the destination. And even if he deep down knew it was bullshit, it didn't matter, because it was enough of a lie to keep him comfortable.

“Oh. Oh I know. Totally. I’d totally pay,” he says, and he’s almost bouncing on the balls of his feet like some eager puppy.

“Just make sure no one else is in the store when you do, OK?” I says to him.

“Oh yeah of course totally. Totally.”

“There’s one other thing,” I tell him, and I know his mind got kinda dirty a little on that one. He kinda looks up like he’s expecting me to say something about doing me from behind or who knows what, and I fight hard not to donkey laugh again. “Just hang out with me and talk for a little while. It gets kinda boring in here, you know? And you seem like a good kid.”

I know I know. Pathetic. Totally. I felt like I was back in sixth grade when I said it, like I was askin’ him to go steady or something. So then I kinda had to backtrack.

“Not for long or anything," I tell him. "Just, you know, a few minutes.”

Qualifying it was even more pathetic than the first request.

“Must get kinda boring in here, huh? Do you have to be here all night?” he asks me. Like I said, he felt the connection too.

Here’s what’s messed up. Right there that very night, I pretty much told this kid, this horny testosterone-addled boy, my life story. And even more messed up is that he sat there and listened to the whole thing. Asked me questions. Paid attention. Never drifted off to Johnny on the screen behind me or anything. Just totally involved himself in my story.

A lot of the stuff about Ralph, like how we met (except without as much of the story about being deflowered) and how we come to own a 7-11, and how I hurt my neck and lost a kid and lost a husband to fantasies of Elvis. How I was locked up in here for so long. This conversation kept going after Letterman signed off.

“Did you love him?” he asked me when I got to the part where Ralph run off.

“Well yeah I loved him. I didn’t love all of him,” is what I said, “but I loved a whole lot of him.”

He mulled on that one. “And that’s good?” Stu says to me.

I kinda rolled my eyes on that one. “Hell yeah that’s good. Hon, if you can be with someone for more than 20 years and still love a whole lot of ‘em, then it’s true love. Ain’t no two people, not real people I’m talking about here, can live and spend time and pass through a decade or two without finding parts of each other they hate. They can pretend like it ain’t true. Or they can be all polite about it at least. But true love is about loving a whole lot of somebody a whole lot of the time.”

He shook his head like I'd just told him God was dead, like I'd just denied him some clear and unbreakable truth of life that was just too obvious to reject.

“I want to love all of someone all of the time,” Stu says. And not, like, to insult me. But because he’s just a damn boy with visions of gumdrops and lollipops and bad romance novels in his head. And then he melted me: “But it’s, like, really cool for, you know, like, how you managed to come out of everything OK. I admire that.”

I mean Christ on a cracker, how many guys are there who’ll do that for you, who’ll just sit and let the story be about you for a change? Who’ll tell some older lady he admires her?

For a while I thought maybe he was just afraid to back away from the counter ‘cuz he had some serious boner and didn’t want me to see. But who can keep a boner with some wrinkly lady going on about her suicidal husband and boring convenience store life?

Stu more or less explained that nerdy awkward boys, barely old enough to drive who have never once in their whole goddamn lives gone on a single date, are absolutely enthralled at the idea of talking to a female. Or, in this case, of listening to one. Any drop of water in the desert, I guess. Or is it port in a storm? Whatever.

And me? Hell yes, I took full advantage. I exploited a weakness. But that’s OK as long as I wasn’t working some sinister angle, right?

Discussion Questions: Is Gladys right or wrong with her definition of true love? Is the connection between Gladys and Stu sexual?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Nectar Of The Gods

Yo La Tengo--"Autumn Sweater" (mp3)

I fear that I have written this before, and perhaps I have, though I can't find it, so ingrained is it in the yearly cycles of my life.

There are any number ways to tell ourselves that the seasons have changed, that summer things must be left behind, that the coolness and the crispness of fall has taken their places.

For me, it is apple cider.

My family likes to tease me about my stated desire: "Dad likes a fall trip." Still, yesterday, we headed down to Dawsonville, Georgia to an outlet mall, a destination which has its own rewards and which offers so many savings, especially in a down economy, that you can't help but come home broke. Oh, the savings!

But to get there and to get home, you have to go through apple country. Apple country in Georgia ranges from hilly to mountainous, reachable only by small backroads that can clog when the fall celebrations reach a fever pitch of corn mazes and hayrides and carnivals and festivals, but in mid-to-late September, it's still pretty navigable.

By now, most of the harvest is in, but a stop at one of the many apple company stores is still a confused blend of summer and fall--the last of the tomatoes and zuchinni and okra available but off to the side, making way for fall crops of sweet potatoes and potatoes and gourds and pumpkins and ornamental squash and, most of all, apples.

Apples of every kind--Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Mushu, Jongold, Honeycrisp, Staymen Winesap, and more. Apples in every form--in bushels, pecks, and 1/2 pecks, dried and packaged, glistening in fried pies, baked into breads and other desserts, jarred as butters, and jellies, and applesauces. Even frozen into apple slushies.

And most of all, cider. Not bottled cider, which only has its cloudiness to distinguish from apple juice. And not hot cider, so laden with spices and likely to burn your tongue that the appleness of it is a secondary concern. You may as well drink chai.

No, I am talking about the ice cold cider, the liquid gold, the nectar of the gods. Cider whose first sip leaves you craving the second and so on until you have drained the glass. Cider that starts the day, or pairs with cheese, or sits patiently on a table in your backyard while you watch the leaves trickle down. A glass of cider is a glass of nature, the most perfect liquid in the world, whose flavor matches the fruit it comes from exactly.

A superior gallon of cider is not accidental. It is a brewing masterpiece, no different from a fine wine or whiskey, a blend of the sweetness, the tartness, the earthiness, the almost-potatoness of different kinds of apples, mixed in the proper proportions for the time of the season. For, yes, cider changes. The cider you buy in September will taste different from the cider you buy at the same place in December. Different apples ripen at different times, and ripen differently, so that where you taste them in their ripening can affect the taste of the cider dramatically.

I like ice cold water, coffee, milk, orange juice, root beer, iced tea, wine, beer, a good gin and tonic. But I love cider. And I love the four months that it is available, especially the batches from Fairmount Orchards on Signal Mountain, which I consider to be the best I've ever tasted. What ever else we may have to say about autumn, about the dying and the death of things, there is no doubt in my mind that a glass of apple cider is the glass of how delicious life can be.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Skin Remembers Everything

Ty Segall--"You Make The Sun Fry" (mp3)

I've already confessed to my wife, so now I'm confessing to you.

On Thursday, I experienced the touch of another woman. For the first time since I've been married, another woman had her hands all over me. She led me to a room and had me take off my clothes. When we began, I wore nothing but a piece of paper. Ok, it was a pretty big piece.

She started at the bottom and worked her way up, her soft hands stroking the tops of my feet, and running up my legs. I didn't stop her.

Along the way, she said things to me that no one else has ever said:

"You're pink," she said, "There isn't a thing yellow about you."
"Looks like you're ready for Halloween," she said.
"Skin remembers everything," she said.
"We could take care of that now," she said, "Or we could do it another time."

She asked about my past as she rubbed her hands on my back. I was honest with her. I told her about every encounter I could remember. It seemed to satisfy her. For the longest time, she looked at me, at my face, put her hands on both sides of my neck, ran her fingers through my hair, over my ears.

"Oh, you're a pink boy, all right," she said.

Were there any issues in my groin area I wanted her to look at? Well, no. It stopped there. I got dressed. Of course, my wife had known for some time. She had set me up with this woman. She wanted us to get together, and so she scheduled it.

After all, I'm in my 50's; it was time to see a dermatologist.

And so, having had my fun playing with implications, now I get to switch to the Public Service Announcement aspect of this blog post. My new dermatologist says that it is in the 5th and 6th decades that skin cancer starts to present itself, but we know exceptions to that rule, earlier occurences, especially among those of us who are pink boys and pink girls.

I have been irresponsible in the sun. Many of you are far more careless than I am. I don't seek the sun; I just don't seek the sunscreen enough. I don't think about lathering up to go cut the grass. Many of you, one of you in particular, still go through periods where you think that a healthy dose of the sun is a good thing, where a nice red burn is somehow excused by the justification that you took your kids to the pool all day. Others of you, especially women, for some reason, seek a tan. I guess that means you're more yellow than pink, and that somehow makes you impervious to longterm exposure.

Well, I can't do anything about that, but I can suggest that it's time to go to the dermatologist and see if she sees the beginnings of anything, something that can be nipped in the bud. Maybe it isn't even something you did, but something that happened to you when you were a child and there wasn't even any sunscreen.

One thing I've learned this week: skin remembers everything.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

11seven (four)

What Do You Want Me to Say? - The Dismemberment Plan (mp3)
Mace Spray - The Jezabels (mp3)

Presented this month is my unfinished fiction work, tentatively titled "11seven." I offer it in small mostly digestible doses of between 700-1,100 words. It contains strong language and sexual situations as intended for a mature audience. Parental discretion is advised. (I got all that from watching "Justified"!) Each entry will come with a song from our BOTG mailbox and discussion questions for Oprah.

PART ONE: Solitary Confinement in a Convenience Store
PART TWO: Stu & the Lost Male Art of Subtlety

PART THREE: All Desperate Horny Teens Deserve Charity

Going Steady

That was a year ago last February, so, what? Fifteen months I’ve known Stu? Fifteen months he’s come into my store once, sometimes twice a week? Always later at night, because his parents are older and tend to pass out by 9 ‘cuz Stu’s a nerd and never been in a lick of trouble his whole sad nerdy clueless jerkin’ off life.

I wouldn’t say we’re dating, because I’m married to Johnny and keeping Jimmy the Cop on a leash, but we’re doing something fun and a little wrong, like cowtipping or Ding Dong Dash.

But we’re seeing one another regularly. And at that time of night, it’s almost exclusive. Maybe an occasional alkie comes stumbling in, and maybe a few people stop for an emergency fill-up, but mostly our time is ours. Well, and Johnny Carson. I can’t totally leave my second hubby out of it, so he watches over me in the background while Stu and I talk about all those things 40-year-old women and 16-year-old boys just don’t and apparently shouldn’t talk about.

Which is to say tits and pussies and asses and cocks and sex. And sometimes all that other stuff, too. Like school, girlfriends, marriage, drinking, friendship, running a business, sleeping in an office, wondering if your parents really love you. What’s been a little frightening is that, beyond the sex, where Stu is utterly clueless, so much of how he sees and experiences the world ain’t all that different than how I do. People say men don’t listen, and men can’t have really great conversations. What they really mean is, men don’t listen and can’t have really great conversations unless once in a while something about sex gets thrown in the mix.

There was that experiment I saw featured on PBS one time, where these lab rats got trained to push a lever and get cocaine. Anyway, they called it random intermittent something or other, and what it meant was, the rat never really knew exactly how many pushes it took to get the drug. Maybe two pushes. Maybe 20 pushes. Maybe 100. But if it was convinced that it would get the drug at some point, it would push forever. The rats would literally kill themselves pushing that button, ignoring water and food and sleep until they just keeled over and died.

Men are like that with conversations as long as sex is some random intermittent topic. As long as they think sex talk will show up – two seconds, 20 seconds, 100 seconds, whatever – they’ll pay attention and listen attentively to knitting stories if you like.

I’d love to tell you that the reason I haven’t jumped across the counter and thrown sweet little Stuie up against the chip rack and ridden him like a rented Shetland Pony is because I’m a queen of morality and self-restraint, but if I’ve learned anything about people, it’s that most of us are only as moral and well-behaved as we have to be. When given opportunity and capability, we’ll usually ruin ourselves.

You see, the reason it’s been so easy for me to swear off sex isn’t as simple as wanting to get back on my feet. When I was 19, I chipped a vertebra in my neck, right near the base of my skull. Doctors said it was a miracle I wasn’t paralyzed from the neck down for life.

I’d miscarried earlier that month, and Ralph and I kinda had ourselves a tough time dealing with that. We’d been engaged before I got knocked up, if you’d believe that, and we both really wanted a kid. What the hell else is there to hope for when being a rocket scientist is out of reach, right? Anyway, I didn’t handle it too well and must’ve spent most of the month drinking myself silly.

At 5’3” and barely 100 pounds, which is what I was back then, drinking a pint of whiskey was about three times more than I needed to get good and shitfaced, and I did it pretty much daily. Poor Ralph was in his own world o’ hurt and kinda let me alone for a while. Finally, though, he’d had enough and set me down to tell me I had to stop. We had words, and I eventually hit him with a frying pan and jumped on top of him and started wailing away at him. He shoved me off, and my neck cracked against the seat of one of the kitchen table chairs.

If all that had happened today, with no witnesses, poor Ralph woulda been put away or something. Everyone woulda just assumed he’d beaten me silly for no reason, and that I was only trying to defend myself. People really are stupid about couples and fights. All I would have had to say is that Ralph started it, that I was just a sweet innocent victim, and there he goes into the clink.

Anyways, I’m all laid up in the hospital with my neck when more problems happen with my private parts, and next thing you know, me and my broken neck are getting rushed in for an emergency hysterectomy. Bye-bye babies.

Meanwhile, my neck injury left my fingertips and toes pretty numb. I’ve cut myself slicing a tomato or something and not even noticed for a while. It’s kinda spooky. I also get real dizzy when I bend my neck too far in any direction. You might not believe it, but when your neck movement is limited, some of the fun of sex goes away. Some people talk all about how pleasure and pain mix real nice, but those people don’t have massive neck trauma where one degree of extra torque leads to this fiery sword feeling straight down the length of their spine followed by this weird all-body charley horse thing. Ain’t no perverted fetish groups out there with that particular interest.

Not to mention we couldn’t have kids, and we weren’t quite as liberated about the whole Sex Is Fun shit as maybe we coulda been in the first place. So what we ended up becoming was just really good business partners who occasionally helped each other get their rocks off.

Once I’d mostly recovered was when Ralph decided to buy into the franchise. I’d always told him it would be easy for me to do most of the work inside a store like that, and he’d always been one to save every damn penny he could, so we jumped in and never looked back. And with both of us putting every bit of sexual frustration and useless parenting instinct we had into this store, we were making bank and then some by the end of the first year.

Sure, it’s kinda tough to stock things and unbox things with all my medical ticks, but sex, God bless it, is kind of a choice. Surviving ain’t.

Discussion Questions: Is sex a choice? How do you react to her observation about Ralph being arrested for abuse?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

11seven (three)

Talking Out of Turn - Sleeping in the Aviary

Presented this month is my unfinished fiction work, tentatively titled "11seven." I offer it in small mostly digestible doses of between 700-1,100 words. It contains strong language and sexual situations as intended for a mature audience. Parental discretion is advised. (I got all that from watching "Justified"!) Each entry will come with a song from our BOTG mailbox and discussion questions for Oprah.

PART ONE: Solitary Confinement in a Convenience Store
PART TWO: Stu & the Lost Male Art of Subtlety

All Desperate Horny Teens Deserve Charity

“Cut the shit, Stuart,” I says. “I’m not gonna turn you in or call your folks, and I’m not gonna preach at you. I’m just testin’ out my own psychic abilities,” I says.

His eyebrows furrow, and he looks a little more intently at me. He don’t believe me, and I reckon I didn’t blame him. “Well I’m right, right?” I said.

His chickenshit-brown hair cocks over to the side, and he acts like he’s got one up on me now. “Are you one of those Tarot card people? Like, a gypsy or something?”

I chuckled a little at him. “OK, I ain’t so serious about that part, but the part about not callin’ anyone was true. So tell me, which one was it? Playboy or Penthouse?”

He kept staring me down, trying to decide what to think of me. And I gotta tell you, it stirred me up. I’m not some horny monster of a woman who needs to tickle myself to orgasm every day. About once a week does me just fine. And between the day Ralph disappeared and the day Stu walked in, I hadn’t so much as nudged a man’s testicles. It’s tough to get too horny when you’re subsisting off Twinkies and Pepsi and cramping from trying to catch every last Z in a fucking office chair.

The only nuts I even tease are owned by Jimmy the Cop. A woman alone in a convenience store gotta make the right friends if she wants to keep safe, so Jimmy comes by a couple times a night on his shifts for free coffee, free hot dogs, free whatever the hell he wants. And I don’t consider it stealing or even taking advantage. If anything, I’m getting off cheap. More Jimmy, less armed robbery. Simple as that.

Jimmy’s married, and I lucked out that I’m pretty sure he’s interested in staying that way, so mostly we just do this harmless flirt thing with each other, and he swears he’ll never come in drunk and off duty or in any way touch me inappropriately, and in return I swear I’ll never show up on his doorstep in the middle of the night or boil a bunny in his kitchen. (Didja see that movie? It ‘bout pulled my eyelids back, that one did.)

I know cops. Trust me, most of 'em mean to be decent guys, but something about that gun and those handcuffs clinging to their hips every day, feeling like John Wayne or Ponch, it messes with their heads. But Jimmy actually believed he was doing good work, that people are good and his job is to protect them. All that crap. It's not his fault he's a guy, with a dick, and a wife that apparently forgot about it plenty. Most decent family men only just need to know there's someone out there waiting for them in a definitely maybe sort of way. If they have that, just a little bit of teasing, just a healthy dose of flirting, they can get by. Most of them. That's kinda how Jimmy and I had arranged things.

But back to Stu, who was standing there trying to figure me out, which had me all hot and bothered and feeling a teensy bit naughty, since the boy had only barely probably figured out the whole wet dream thing.

Finally, he broke. “Penthouse.”

“I KNEW it!!” I shouted and did a cheesy Icky Shuffle-looking thing that probably risked giving away my gin intake, except that Stu was young and seemed pretty clueless about all that stuff. When I looked up from my moment of joy, my celebration of feeling I was capable of looking into other people’s souls and knowing what’s there – porn, usually – Stu had made it most of the way to the door, apparently thinking my dance was meant to humiliate him.

“Wait!” I says, probly a little too excited-like, but who cares. Stu turns around, like, what else is this wacky bitch gonna do to me, and I say something silly: “Don’t you wanna know what I got for your birthday, Stuart?”

Again with the furrowed brow. All intense and trying to peer into my skull. “Go grab that issue. It’s on the house. Happy birthday,” I says.

Stu looked at me, and them brows unfurrow, and he laughs a little, then he stops laughing and looks down the aisle at the mag rack, and then he whips his head back to me like maybe I’m testing him or entrapping him in some massive horny teen sting, and I gesture my arms Vanna White style back toward those mags and nod my head like a Beatlemaniac, and Stu raises those precious eyebrows up. “Really?” is what those precious eyebrows are saying.

“Really. Mean it,” I says.

And this was the part where I knew I loved Stu. He walks all the way down the aisle toward that March 1988 Penthouse, never once taking his eyes off me the whole way, scrutinizing my face every step of the way to make sure I’m not shitting him. Then he looks up, grabs it, and walks slowly back toward the door, still looking at me.

At the door, he stops. “Really?” he says.

“Happy birthday, kid,” I says. “Just keep your pants on 'til you get back home. Don’t want you to wreck or nothin’.”

Poor boy gets a little red – I guess he didn’t realize I might know the magazine had a utility purpose beyond mere boner-inspiration – and then backs out of the door with a barely-audible “thank you” before hopping in his 1980 Toyota Carolla hatchback and inching away like a grandpa.

Actually, he said, "Thank you, ma'am."

Discussion Question: Is there ever any scenario where it is acceptable to discuss one's own onanistic habits?

Sunday, September 11, 2011


The Awkward Stage--"The Morons Are Winning" (mp3)

As a young teacher, I liked to partake in all of the competitions against students--flag football, basketball, etc. It didn't really matter that much that I was expected to block or that I didn't get in much in a b-ball game. We did it because we lived in the dorms, because we knew the boys, because the kind of trash-talking that went on before and after was part of the friendly rivalry and essential camaraderie that we had with our students.

But soon, a certain element of the faculty took over--the ones who had to win. At that point, there was talk of strategy, of recruiting, meaning talking to faculty who hadn't shown up, but who could help the team, of practicing, rather than just showing up for the game. It wasn't too long after that I stopped playing.

Some years later, after the death of Pete Maravich, a group of over-40 faculty members formed a Geriatric Basketball Association, a weekly outing of friendly/competitive basketball that. There were a couple of us who were allowed to join because we "played like we were over 40." What that really meant was that we understood the spirit of the "league." That spirit involved pick-up games where we tried to make the teams even, where we would play for a long time before we even played for points, where we tolerated the guy who drank wine before we played and could clear out the lane just with his farts or the guy who couldn't shoot at all or the intra-departmental rivalry at point guard or music teacher who didn't know the rules of basketball and just blocked people.

After a couple of years, some younger faculty arrived on the scene, and hearing of the weekly game, asked if they could play. Almost immediately, you can guess what happened. The young Physics teacher who still fashioned himself a skilled post player was bashing bodies with an older guy who knew someone who knew someone who let him into the league. And there were heated words and stand-offs and people storming out of the game on at least one occasion.

You see the pattern. It would be too easy and a mistake, I think, to put the blame on the young. This isn't about young vs. old; it's about the need to win, to dominate, to crush one's opponent at the expense of everything else.

I see it even now in my Fantasy Football league. Sure, all of us would like to win, would like to have the $100 that goes to the overall winner, but most of us know that our league was formed as a social league. It is indeed kind of humorous when you think about it, grown men thinking that they "own" a team and getting so fired up about winning with that team that they are no-nonsense at the draft and get into the minutae of league rules and don't really engage all that much socially. It's something that all of us who play, I'd guess, have been caught up in at one time or another. Maybe.

I just feel it a little more right now. Maybe it's the economy (which is a convenient excuse for anything anyone can think of--not having sex? It's probably the economy) and there's someone who doesn't so much want to win as feels like he needs to win. If you get into our league needing to win the $100 first place, you are in the wrong place. Fantasy Football is far more about luck and who you happen to pick up in the middle of the season than in any strategy on Draft Day or whatever research you may have done in preparation for it.

I suspect it's bigger than that. The need to win has become so pervasive in our society that, for many people, loyalty to a sports team or a presidential candidate or a date is unlikely to survive any serious downturn. We're as fickle as the politicians who base decisions on the polls that capture our fickleness. And what we--as schools, as political parties, as participants in competitions--will do to win has long since breached the boundaries of acceptable behavior.

Along the way, just at this school, I can remember softball tournament started by a sophomore leadership organization. In its best moments, it was the all-school tournament where I could play on a team called "The 700 Club," which had nothing to do with the Christian Network show and everything to do with having to have at least a 700 on at least one part of the SAT. Needless to say, the team did not go far, but the fun, the camaraderie, the self-awareness that the team wasn't about winning, that's what the tournament did for these boys.

It became the tournament where a 10th grade student umpire's call at second base caused him to get chewed out by a fully-grown, supposedly-adult faculty member. Where in the same faculty/student tournament, faculty members recruited teams a year in advance, and where faculty members got into shouting matches with other faculty members' wives who were sitting up in the stands. That the tournament no longer exists is now blamed on a shift in the varsity sports alignment, but those of us who have been here know that the fun went out of the tournament long before it died its slow, eventual death.

The funniest, not-so-funniest aspect of having to win is that the drive to get there destroys everything around it, so that by the time everything is in place for the best possible chance of winning, there isn't anyone who still wants to play. Yeah, that makes me sad, in a way, but I like it. It's the revenge of those of us who are not ultra-competitive. I guess it's how we win.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ryan Adams Rethinks "New York, New York"

This is worth a listen. Ryan Adams is the ultimate reminder that great musicians aren't always the most affable people. But his song was in the right place at the right time to tap our spine in a time of pain, and he's got plenty of talent to back it up.

Adams went on WNYC to perform a mesmerizing arrangement of his song, "New York, New York," a song that reminds us that the soundtracks to our lives don't always have to be perfect matches for our moods or our moments. They only have to be there with us, burning a timecode into our memory.

The song starts at the 5:45 mark. I dare you not to be moved.

Friday, September 9, 2011

11seven (two)

Higher Love - James Vincent McMorrow (mp3)

Presented this month is my unfinished fiction work, tentatively titled "11seven." I offer it in small mostly digestible doses of between 700-1,100 words. It contains strong language and sexual situations as intended for a mature audience. Parental discretion is advised. (I got all that from watching "Justified"!) Each entry will come with a song from our BOTG mailbox and discussion questions for Oprah.

PART ONE: Solitary Confinement in a Convenience Store

Stu and the Lost Male Art of Subtlety

Stu. I swear. I didn’t have to be captain of the cheerleading squad to know the minute that kid walked into my store what he was looking for. Boy looked every bit of 14 and was rolling in right before midnight. He coulda practically pushed the door open with his boner at the thought of a Penthouse if he hadn’t been so damn nervous about the whole thing.

He was cute enough, though. First stopping and looking through my aisle of automotive crap, like what he really came in to buy was some 10w-30 or a gas cap. And then he’s looking at the damn dental floss and playing cards, at the rows of candy bars and potato chips, all the while making glances over at me, and glances over at the magazine rack in the back near the beer.

A greener soul might’ve thought he was scoping the beer, but that kid was so dialed into the thought of titties he was practically projecting them onto the back wall.

I just kept on watching Johnny Carson. He and I got to be good buddies after Ralph left. I sorta secretly married the guy in my head. Not, you know, like I’m crazy. It’s not like I’m in that “Purple Rose of Cairo” movie, which sucked, by the way. But I swore to God I didn’t want to deal with men for a long time, not ‘til I got back on my own feet and had enough cash that I never needed to depend on any man with pork breath, not even my own daddy, God bless him. Johnny gave me a strong imaginary commitment. He was my televised teddy bear. Besides, he’d been married so many times, I figured he’d never even remember whether we’d actually gone and got hitched.

I was three months from 40 when Stu walked over to that magazine rack, peering at those issues of Vogue and U.S. News & World Report.

What is it with teenage boys and dirty mags? Do they all read this secret field manual on how to look pathetic in a convenience store? They all do the same damn thing, swear to God. Up and down a few aisles. Over to the rack. Peruse the other items, as if you don’t really quite know what tickles your fancy and just wanna flip through everything. Hmm, I wonder what the latest NASCAR Weekly has to say for itself. What about the latest Better Homes & Gardens? Nah. Hmm, Penthouse. Wonder what’s in that?

I’d had a couple of shots that night – don’t worry, it’s not an every night kind of thing; maybe once or twice a week, and never more than two or three, swear to God. But when you swear off men, you gotta find something to take their place, right? And just like a man, gin is wonderful in short spurts when you can put it away at your own leisure.

The guy who delivers my Dolly Madison stuff, his name’s Rodney, and we’ve got a sweet deal going where he throws in a fifth of gin with every delivery. I mentioned it to him one time, how I needed to tie one on but couldn’t get out long enough to stock up, and the next time he pulled up with his treats truck, he handed me that fifth of Gilbey’s and smiled and said it was his contribution to the cause. Maybe he thought he’d get laid, too, but I mostly think he was just being all paternal. And if you have a fifth of gin for me, I’ll allow a little condescension to go with it.

Anyway, poor Stu had me so tickled at his sad attempt at subtlety – peacocks are more subtle, seriously – that I just couldn’t help myself.

“Hey kid,” I says.

Stu just looked over at me, all doe-eyed-like, blinking.

“Come over here please,” I says.

He looks around him, back at the beer fridges, and then around the store, and then back at me and points to himself in the chest, like, Who, me?

“Yeah. C’mere please.”

Instantly, he looked like a scalded dog. His chickenshit-colored hair drooped down over his bowed head, and his hands immediately stuffed into his pockets, and his shoes barely rose above the tile enough to keep from scraping.

“Yes ma’am?” he says when he finally gets over to me.

“How old are you?”

“Um, 18?” he says. Yeah son, you’re 18 and I’m the Mata Hari. But I didn’t say that. I think I just kinda chuckled.

“Is that a question?” I says. “Sounds like you’re not too sure.”

He wasn’t scared or anything, but he was definitely ashamed. Shame and fear are different things, but on a teenage boy’s face, sometimes they look the same. Maybe he was a little scared I’d call the cops or something, but he wasn’t scared of me. Hell, he hadn’t even looked long enough at me to form any opinions at all.

“Sixteen,” he says.


“Yes ma’am,” he says.

“’Cuz you don’t look a day over 14,” I tell him.

“Yesterday was my birthday. Got my driver’s license today and everything,” he says.

“Oh really? Well congratulations.”

He didn’t say nothing back.

“So,” I says. My Johnny’s saying something to Kevin Costner on his show in the background, and our third wheel Ed is giving off that God-awful laugh of his. Poor ol’ Ed. “It’s Penthouse, ain’t it?”

His face rockets up and his eyes meet mine, “I was just lookin’ through –”

“Oh cut the shit… what’s your name?”

“Stu?” he says. Like he’s asking me permission for it to be his real name.

Discussion Questions: Is there any modern equivalent to the rite of adolescent male passage that was entering a convenience store for the chance to see boobies? Does this entire scene require a more thorough description of the actual convenience store, or is it better to leave it to the reader's own idea as to the store's layout and appearance?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Further On Up The Road: A Reconsideration of Springsteen's The Rising

Bruce Springsteen--"Further On (Up The Road)" (mp3)

This Sunday, it will have been 10 years since the towers came down, the Pentagon collapsed, Flight 93 became the ultimate battle of good and evil.

But there is one aspect of this powerful, emotional anniversary that few realize: ten years down the road, no one has tried to heal this nation, except Bruce Springsteen.

Our president sent us shopping and off to war. The "Never Forget" stickers peeled off our cars. Other musicians, though still relatively few, gave us the rage, the revenge, even the understanding (as in Steve Earle's brilliant "John Walker Lindh"), but nothing that we could use to heal. Bruce Springsteen gave us a soundtrack as a balm for our pain.

You may have been surprised, as I have been, by the dearth of 9/11-related songs. But then, there is no great song about Pearl Harbor, is there? I think I expected the range and dexterity of the Vietnam War songs, but those developed over years about a situation that lasted years. We may have wanted a song like Neil Young's "Ohio" about 9/11, but it never materialized and what would we protest against anyway? Instead, we got The Rising and we continue to have The Rising and little else. Luckily, it's been enough, all these years.

Always a champion of newer music, I nevertheless will argue that The Rising contains many of the best moments in popular music over the last ten years--"Lonesome Day" is the strongest opening song on a CD that I can name (and the song that holds up to repeated listenings more than any other), "You're Missing" stands as the most powerful testament to the losses on 9/11, the singular most defining event for an American these past ten years, and the "Na-na-nanana-nas" of "The Rising" are the most redemptive, cathartic moments of 21st century popular music. Bar none.

That being said, we would be remiss not to remind ourselves that Springsteen is a commercial artist; The Rising is a commercial endeavor. When we start there, we can concede that the CD's famous first and last tracks, "Lonesome Day" and "My City Of Ruins," have absolutely nothing to do with 9/11 or New York City. "Lonesome Day" is a song about a relationship, a failed relationship, and all of the emotions that go with being the one who didn't choose to end it. Wikipedia, pompous rock critics like Dave Marsh, and others have simply got it wrong because they are so desperate for unity, so desperate to take words like "vengeance" and "Hell" and tie them in to that day. What they miss is that, tonally, a song like "Lonesome Day" or another song that has nothing to do with 9/11, "Waitin' On A Sunny Day," simply fit because they evoke similar feelings--loss, anger, hope, need for vengeance--to those that 9/11 inspired. "My City Of Ruins," as is well known, was written before 9/11, about Springsteen's New Jersey hometown, not New York City. But it fits. And like any true artist, Springsteen is not going to waste a song that fits, regardless of its origins.

Ten years later, the CD's best 9/11 songs still paint a complex portrait of people not sure to how feel about what has happened to them or to their country as a result of those specific events. "Into The Fire," "Empty Sky," "You're Missing" and "The Rising" illuminate the specific circumstances of those involved and of those left behind. The immediacy of these songs has lost nothing to either the years that have passed or to multiple listenings. Others, like "Further On Up The Road" and "Countin' On A Miracle" are raw musical statements, with searing, unguarded vocals and melodies that capture a kind of desperation and hopelessness, sometimes tinged with bravado, sometimes intensely intimate, that the other songs don't have, but that the CD needs.

Taken as a whole, The Rising's songs evoke the most personal of losses. If the CD has a dominant motif, it is the loss of a kiss, the emptiness of a bed meant for two with only one person in it. Springsteen territory.

Not that there aren't some duds. "Nothing Man" nobly tries to capture what is was like to be a hero on that day, or, more specifically a survivor, but it doesn't delve into the soul like the aforementioned songs or offer the brutal details of "You're Missing." Still, it reminds what it must be like for survivors who are still here because of a whim, a casual decision, a stroke of luck, a simple twist of fate. Other songs, like "Worlds Apart" or "Skin To Skin" or even the haunting "Paradise" simply fail because they reach beyond the CD's mixture of love and loss toward reconciliation with an enemy that we still don't understand. "Paradise," while evocative, is simply misplaced on the CD, the second to last song a sensitive portrayal of a terrorist? No. Plus, "Worlds Apart" and "Skin To Skin" are the weakest songs, musically, on the CD.

In terms of instrumentation, The Rising belongs to Nils Lofgren. While the parts he plays, often on lap steel, are not challenging, they are the standout musical moments on a CD that more often wants to build a wall of instruments and voices. It is Lofgren's notes that usually make the songs soar.

The other thing that's happened in the interim, of course, is that the E-Street Band has taken these songs out on the road, in my opinion, with mixed success. While "Lonesome Day" or "The Rising" can stand with Springsteen's best concert numbers, a song like "You're Missing" loses meaning out of context and a song like "Waitin' On A Sunny Day" is revealed as the lightweight song that it is when removed from the original song cycle. The much-maligned (by my friends) "Mary's Place" is maligned because of the way it is used in concert, as a late-in-the-show replacement for audience party songs like "Rosalita" or "Kitty's Back." In context, it's a nice contrast to some of the rougher numbers.

Ultimately, The Rising is clumsy, in the way that all rock and roll is clumsy. But that is its charm--boys, now men, trying to explore their emotions and match those to music has always been the best that rock had to offer. No man would say in person what he will say in song. That a rock band, in almost its 30th year together, would be expected to, would dare to, take on a national tragedy was never in the cards when rock was young. That Springsteen is able to do that in a sprawling, loose commercial venture that addresses the wounds of an entire nation with a certain amount of timeliness and complete non-partisanship (while revitalizing his own career) is even more amazing. In effect, what was once a rockin' party band throws 15 musical darts at "the big topic", and a good 2/3 of those hit their mark, or come close.

But then music in general, rock and roll in particular, has always been about salvation for Bruce Springsteen. Those who love him understand that; those who don't or who are indifferent apparently don't need to share in that salvation. And that's fine. Perhaps, for 9/11 and its aftermath, Springsteen found himself as the perfect artist, nay, by 2002, the only artist, whose natural musical tendencies fit so perfectly with addressing our unhealed wounds.

If art is supposed to be a reflection of society, then there is precious little art that matters where the life-changing events of September 11, 2001 are concerned. The only one who figured out that people like me were hurting, sitting in our dark kitchens each 9/11, drinking beer and contemplating God-knows-what along with our unexplainable sense of loss, was that larger-than-life character "Bruuuuuuuuuuuuce!" Despite all my years of listening to him, that still somehow amazes me.

So, yes, Mr. Springsteen, I will indeed meet you further on up the road. I know you'll have a song to sing to keep us out of the cold.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

11seven (one)

Amor Fati - Washed Out

Presented this month is my unfinished fiction work, tentatively titled "11seven." I offer it in small mostly digestible doses of between 700-1,100 words. It contains strong language and sexual situations as intended for a mature audience. Parental discretion is advised. (I got all that from watching "Justified"!) Each entry will come with a song from our BOTG mailbox and discussion questions for Oprah.

Solitary Confinement in a Convenience Store

Of course I’m not going to sleep with a boy less than half my age. But I’ll be good and goddamned if I didn’t fantasize about it until my entire laundry basket smelled like a brothel.

Stu first entered my store a year ago last January. The bell dinged while I was watching Johnny give one of his monologues. So I have it down to a 5-minute window on precisely the date and time I first saw him. Thursday night. 11:35 p.m. January 28. 1988. Shit like this happens when you least expect it. Usually during Carson.

I’d only had the store to myself a little over a year at that point. Ralph and me ran it together for a while. Six years, I think? Maybe seven? Yeah, it was ’82, I remember, ‘cuz ET come out the same year. Anyway, Ralph up and disappeared on me late in ’86 and took most of our money with him. I figured he’d fled the country, but cops found him dead in a Vegas hotel bathroom eight months later. Ralph always idolized Elvis. Died same age, same hotel, different damn bathroom. Cops swore it was an OD, but that’s just ‘cuz nobody really appreciates just how much Ralph loved Elvis.

Me? Fuckin’ hated him. Elvis, not Ralph. Ralph was good to me. Good enough, anyways. He was a lineman on our football team when I was a freshman, and I was cheerleading of course. I was a hot little number like you wouldn’t believe, honey. Anyway, we were all over at Stan Crawford’s house at a party, and Ralph got all sweet on me ‘cuz we were both drunk. His breath smelled like a pulled pork sammich, and he didn’t really give me much of a choice. They call that kind of thing date rape today, but I only said no a couple of times. I don’t mean to go excusing all the assholes in the world who pull that kind of stunt; most of ‘em should have their peckers cut off with a butter knife. I just mean to say that deep down I objected only just because I thought I was supposed to.

Once he actually pushed himself inside me and we got past that first sensation of someone sticking an M80 up my twat, I knew damn well I didn’t mean “no.” I meant “I had no idea.”

Then, after I knew – some folks call it “enlightened” – I didn’t say “no” no more. And to just know all that about sex and men even with some fella smellin’ all like a pork barbecue sammich? I mean, even if it’s a good damn sammich – and I love me some pulled pork – nobody fantasizes about screwin’ one. Sex, even at its unsexiest, is still sex.

After Ralph up and left, by something close to the grace of God I somehow got by enough to hold onto this convenience store. My daddy gave me a loan of $16,000 and took out a second mortgage to do it. I let go of all our staff but Maria and slept in the office for 11 months. I’d be crying behind the register in that pathetic sniffly one tear at a time way proud women do, and people who knew me thought it was about Ralph, but I was mostly crying because I couldn’t believe Daddy gave me that loan, and I couldn’t believe I was in a situation where I had to ask for it. Shit, I get all misty just remembering it. Misty and pissed off.

Right about when I’d started pulling back in the black, I found out about Ralph croaking in the Vegas shitter. I’d repaid Daddy after four months and was pissed it took that long, but not a penny of profits went into my pocket until I’d paid him back. Took me seven more months to get enough saved up to feel damned good about finding a cheap pre-furnished one-bedroom and to pay back Maria for the time she worked at less than minimum wage.

Way I figure, there wasn’t much difference between a prison term and that stretch of 11 months where I never once left my store. And when I tell you I didn’t leave, don’t take this as some Big Fish story. I mean I didn’t. Leave. The damn. Store. I bathed most of the time using just a washcloth and the bathroom sink, but I got by pretending I was Scarlett O’Hara, roughing it and waiting for the perfect opportunity to kick Rhett’s ass. (Yeah, I would have rewritten the script a little bit.)

Seriously, showers are one of those things modern idiots think are necessities, but bathing out of a sink is just as effective and uses less water. It just don’t make for a very good Calgon commercial.

Sure, I got visitors, and plenty of them, but they weren’t much by choice, and they sure as shit weren’t conjugal. And half the visitors who come into my store act an awful lot like prisoners. No bars, no cells, maybe, but they sure don’t act free. If we are all judged by how we treat others and how we behave in our darkest or most mundane moments, then I could be the Almighty Judge of lots of folks, and ain’t many souls would make it past those pearly gates on merit. People are mostly overcast, distracted, rude, and pissed off to pay so much money for cigarettes or a gallon of milk that costs half a dollar less down at the Food Lion. When they grouse, I just smile and say, “That extra bit pays for the convenience part” and wink. Sometimes they cheer up a little, and sometimes they act like I cheered ‘em up, and sometimes they just cuss me under their breath. I just enjoy the bald cute truth of it.

By the time Stu first entered the store, I was back down to working about 80 hours a week and had even got my own little apartment. I’d hired Sha’nice and Tracee to help out me and Maria. No, it wasn't much, but it sure as shit beat living out of a 12x14 office and eating convenience store food 24/7 to survive.

Discussion Questions: When did the concept of "date rape" come into vogue? Roughly how many women had been date raped prior to our cultural acceptance of such a thing? Is it unbecoming for a woman to have a potty mouth? Did she love Ralph? Who's the evil villain?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Knocked Down A Notch Or Two

The Who--"Faith In Something Bigger" (mp3)

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

I guess we all need the reminder, every so often, that there are forces greater than us, that our puny plans and accomplishments don't always stand up.

August. Chattanooga. One-quarter inch of rain for the entire month. Half the time we're rejoicing, those of us who cut grass. "Weeeeeee! We may never have to cut grass again." The other half of the time, we forget to water a plant and it shrivels up under the constant 90+ degree sun. The shrubs and bushes that ornament our homes begin to turn brown, regardless of time spent holding hoses over them.

I'll admit it. I've been feeling pretty smug. The house I have lived in for the past 18 years has never looked better, especially inside, and I have been relishing the additional work that it will take to finish it--painting, moving, sorting, giving away. Nothing, and I mean nothing, makes one feel more smug than life with a plan, when that plan is working.

A big part of that plan has been a usable basement. The main room, cleared out, new ceiling, floor painted, can easily function as a "guest room" now, at least for more rugged guests, since it is, after all, still a basement. But it has a king bed, its own bathroom, and now, its kitchen with stocked refrigerator, grill top stove, sink and table and chairs and.....

Last night, I was at Billy's house, a place I hadn't been before. It's a nice place, a big place, and he was showing me around, the revelation of each room making it even more comfortable and spacious. And I could tell he was proud of it. "In the three years it was on the market," he said, "only one other family looked at it. Because it sits down here at the bottom end of this long driveway, people who drive by don't realize how much house is here." I made a joke about it flooding. "We've taken care of that," he said. "We got it fixed."

September 5th. Chattanooga. One day. More than 8 inches of rain, the "leftovers" from Tropical Storm Lee, pummel the city, causing flooding, school closings, and, ultimately, with high winds, downed trees and power outages.

This morning, my "new" basement is wet, the result of water that started coming in about 5 hours after the rains picked up yesterday, rivulets of water than ran under beds, into a bathroom, under my new sink, stove, dishwasher, and into a carpet that I'd moved downstairs. I came home yesterday and said to my wife, "I feel like we're back in the same house we've always been in."

Billy's situation is far worse: seven trees downed on his property, effectively shutting him in taking away his power and preventing him from driving anywhere. I haven't talked with him since this morning. I don't know what he's gone through today. But he sent this last night, after our Fantasy Football draft at his house, after the first tree hit:

"...a tree fell across our driveway, right between my Honda and our front porch.

Had it fallen several minutes earlier, Hank and Ryan and Joel and Randy would have been leaving the house.
Had it fallen an hour or so earlier, it would have landed directly on both Alverson's and Chakwin's car.
It was inches away from crashing into our porch.
It was inches away from landing on my Honda."

I guess we all need the reminder, every so often, that there are forces greater than us, that our puny plans and accomplishments don't always stand up. It isn't a reminder that we want, but I guess that even those of us who are not kings with grand designs and huge monuments to ourselves need to be knocked down a notch or two, shown once again in some unexpected way that our self-designed life with a plan is only a tipped tree, a saturated lawn, a fallen power line away from interruption and even, God forbid, drastic change. I need the reminder that while I'm lamenting a wet rug or the sudden growing of the grass, while Billy struggles with out power, exhausted from a day of sawing logs, a colleague of ours has lost a family member to a fallen tree.

It does feel, though, like those reminders are coming all to often. Those of us who went through the tornadoes here last April, regardless of how much they affected us personally, saw too much not to have those images and feelings come back today. Yeah, I was getting smug. Now, I'm just kind of low. Maybe that was part of the lesson.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Road Rage Refined

The following post is rated "R" for excessive use of unsavory language. Parents are cautioned never to use any of these language examples when they are in the car with their children.

Scott McLatchy--"A Dark Rage" (mp3)

OK, I think I've got it down to a science.

Sure, when that guy cuts in front of you, when that woman is driving way too slow in the fast lane, when some idiot speeds up and rushes toward you because he sees you're trying to make a left hand turn, you lose all rational thought and slip into blind anger. But with a little bit of planning, with some mental training and the pre-planting of a mantra, you can equip yourself with a quite rational, measured response to all of the assholes who don't follow the basic rules of road courtesy.

First of all, and, really, last of all, there's only one rule: You only need one word. I'll admit, I've been kind of a free-styler in the past, just as likely to yell, "Hey, fuckface, way to come into my lane and slow down!" as I am to "Yo, shitbreath, I'm on cruise control, what's your excuse?" or "Really, dickwad, really?" Yeah, my language could really go all over the place. And uncontrolled language can get you in trouble. I'll vouch for that. You need some refinement to get control of the situation.

Want to know my secret? It's "douche." Yep. "Douche" is the magic word. I can't quite remember how or where or when I settled on it, but I've been happy ever since.

Wikipedia reminds us that "[d]ouche usually refers to vaginal irrigation, the rinsing of the vagina," but the Urban Dictionary embellishes that definition: "a word to describe an individual who has shown themself to be very brainless in one way or another, thus comparing them to the cleansing product for vaginas."

I apologize to my sisters who see this word choice as detrimental or demeaning to women. We simply don't have a similar product.

But, at least, everyone can take pleasure in the fact when you unleash "douche" on some hapless fool, you are working the double-entendre, you are tossing out a word has layers of subtlety and meaning. Yes, there is contentment in that knowledge. He or she can't know whether you are referring to an ordinary household product or whether you are calling him or her a knucklehead.

Maybe "douche" is the new "gay"? Generalized, non-specific, insulting, but no longer reflecting its previous meaning.

I mean, if you call someone "dickbreath," depending on persuasions and proclivities, he or she might take offense. Or they may get all embarassed and wonder, 'Did I forget to brush my teeth? How can he know that?' "Asswipe," another favorite of my old self, also is likely to provoke a negative reaction. There's something coarse about it. Yelling "toilet paper" would probably be nicer. I mean, given the basic passive-aggressiveness of road rage anyway, the last thing you want is to say something that's going to amp the other person up so that you have to amp it up even more than their ampage, which they then try to ratchet even higher. And so on.

One time in Camden, Maine, at the junction of the most evil traffic creation anywhere, the Flashing Yellow/Flashing Red Intersection, I encountered a man who, while I had the flashing yellow, pulled out in front of me, which prompted a lengthy honk from me and a subsequent finger-wagging from him, which, in turn, provoked me to yell so that he could read my lips, "I'm not the one who's wrong, you're the one who's fucking wrong!" which inspired him to turn around as soon as possible and chase me, my pregnant wife, and young child all over town in hopes of kicking my ass. Not my best day. I got outraged big time. And when I finally pulled over, when the guy finally caught up with me, I began to put down my window to try to reason with someone who had reversed direction and followed me all over that quaint summer vacation town, my wife told me I was a complete idiot and to get us the hell out of there. I obliged, but she didn't have to get so angry about it.

The beauty of "douche" is that no one can even tell that you're saying it. You might as well be saying "dude" or just about anything else that doesn't require much movement from the lips. You can look at them, you can even smile at them, while saying "douche" and even if they can figure it out, they can't possibly know which definition you are using.

Of course, the other beauty of the word is its flexibility. It can, literally, fill almost any role in the litany of parts of speech:

"Get over, Douche!" (noun)
"Dude, you're really douching me." (verb)
"Buddy, that was a douche move." (adjective)
"Lady, you are driving really douchely." (adverb)

And since road rage is all about feeling superior--

I'm a better driver than you, I never would have done that, I can't believe you thought that was a good idea, Don't you look to see what's going on around you, Who taught you to drive, You drive like a woman/man/child/alien/ethnic slur

--nothing makes you feel superior like getting control of language in the language control game. Someone cut in front of you and you honk and they give you their middle finger? You are simply amused. You are embarassed for his lack of finesse. Because you have spoken a word which simultaneously put him in their place without his even knowing it, passed judgement on him in a way that gave him no way to respond, gained the upper hand with your windows rolled up and your air-conditioning going, while the air still echoes your self-satisfied pronouncements on anyone who doesn't play the driving game the way you want it played and maybe doesn't even know it. Isn't that what it's all about? Hooray.

Except that what I'm proposing here is 1st degree, pre-meditated road rage, isn't it? What a douche.