Friday, December 30, 2011

Jesus and the Detritus

Christmas Must Be Tonight - The Band (mp3)
Shotgun - Pete Yorn (mp3)

Shepherds in the fields, tending to their sheep.

Those were the first people to hear the news of Jesus’ birth. Would gangsters be the modern-day shepherds? Were Jesus born in 2011, to whom would the angels deliver their first birth announcement?

Right about the time I first raised my candle into the air during “Silent Night,” sitting in my comfy spot in the choir loft of our almost-capacity church crowd for our Midnight Service, as angels were supposedly singing “gloooooooooooria” from on high at the birth of a savior, shots rang out in downtown Chattanooga.

Nine people injured at a Christmas Eve service slash party at a church slash nightclub called MOSAIC. In the aftermath, the city government has vowed to do whatever is in its power to end this farce of a church, and most of the city is understandably supportive of this, as MOSAIC has seen more than a few run-ins with pugilistic youth and young adults.

I celebrated the birth of a humble baby in a manger with a bunch of older, middle-class-and-up white people who were born believing in the baby in a manger. Nine out of every 10 people crammed into those pews on Christmas Eve had parents who took them to church, and they grew up in a culture happy to inundate them with stories of wise men and guiding stars and angels and virgin births.

We’re lucky if our celebration converted a single soul.

What if someone’s Christian soul was saved at MOSAIC on Christmas Eve? How much physical pain and human damage is a saved soul worth? Is it worth nine gunshot wounds?

Christopher Hitchens (RIP) and any number of atheists would say that a single gunshot, a slap in the face, even halitosis, is too high a price for conversion to Jesus, and there’s a practical and rational part of me that agrees.

But the part of me that believes -- in something more, in magic, in miracles, in God -- thinks nine gunshots with no deaths would be cheap bargain for a saved soul. This strange, twisted part of me believes MOSAIC is attempting -- perhaps feebly, perhaps failingly, perhaps misguidedly -- the very real work of ministry and evangelism the entire New Testament proclaims, the kind of ministry so few of us traditional American Christians actually do.

So is Tim Reid, the “minister” behind MOSAIC, a shyster? Is he a fool with good intentions? Is he precisely the kind of missionary our world craves, and the forces of our corrupt world are bearing down on him to try and stop something good and righteous?

My gut tells me he’s somewhere in that land between shyster and fool. My gut tells me MOSAIC is a crock hiding behind tax-exempt status to throw parties that provide neither sanctuary nor enlightenment. My gut tells me MOSAIC is the kind of place where cults like The Yellow Deli are given birth.

My gut, however, has been wrong quite a lot. And ever since I read this story on Christmas morning, I’ve found myself troubled my my own judgments on this man, on his church, and on our city’s reaction to all of it.

Shouldn’t professed Christians in this city be reacting to this event by wondering what we can do to reach the lost and forgotten? It’s obvious most of my Christian brethren and sistren don’t want gangstas or the smelly indigent sitting in the pews next to them, but that doesn’t mean we’re powerless to help them.

And if helping them only means sending Christmas presents and canned goods to their neck of the woods, I can’t help but think we’re missing something about our responsibilities. Canned goods are merely fingers in the broken dike, aren’t they?

A bag of Christmas presents given to a child who goes home and gets beaten, or who watches his mom get beaten by some boyfriend or druggie pal, or watches his older siblings involved in any sort of illegal activity... do they plant a priceless seed about the kindness of our fellow man and woman, or are they merely a nice and depressingly temporal distraction from the chaos of the everyday hell?

Nine gunshots at a Christmas Eve service. Something terrible is happening, and the way we are reacting, as a city, could be more dangerous and damaging than a single magazine's worth of bullets.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

I'm A Game-Playing, Russian-Killing Vegetable

There is a pleasant overwhelmingness to the holidays, a sense of more things to do than there is time, a plethora of preparations, a ferment of family, a gaggle of gifting. And then it's over and you think, this wasn't a vacation at all. This was exhausting.

I'm not much good today. Not much good for anything, save Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which requires me merely to do whatever my current officer tells me to do (so far, I've been three different characters in the game). There is a pleasant word which appears on the screen of the game most of the time. That word is "follow."

How different following is from hosting out-of-town family who mean to apply no pressure but who wait expectantly for every next move. I had "snacks" waiting for them when they arrived--wine, smoked chicken wings, cheeseboard and crackers, edamame hummus, homemade onion dipped, chargrilled oysters, habenero-roasted pineapple dip, pickled shrimp. I had Christmas dinner for them a few hours after that--cream of garlic soup, smoked ham, homemade rolls, shrimp and crawfish etouffee, shrimp and oyster dressing, pear-cranberry-pecan salad, smothered greens, maque choux, chocolate mousse. The next day we ate out a couple of times, which only involved negotiating restaurants that fit the various desires of foodies, veggies, pickies, and all of the other eaters out there, and a trip to the movies. The next day, I took them to Atlanta to see Picasso to Warhol, as well as a restaurant, again only a cheese and cracker spread before a late Champy's supper, then Christmas cookies and a roaring fire before bed. Today, a final outing at the Blue Plate.

But I am exhausted. Half-heartedly, my family and I have been putting the house back together, a house that we busted our asses to get ready for days before their arrival. Much of our preparations were undermined by a cat allergy.

Yes, the crazy holidays can wear you down. The planning, the preparation, the logistics.

But it is all good. This is certainly no complaint. A gathering of family with minimal politics and maximum conversation is very rewarding. But tiring. And all-consuming. My father proclaimed last night, "Well, shall we do it again next year?" I am not yet ready to consider that possibility. He took most of the time off, not accompanying us either to lunch and the movies one day or to Atlanta the next, so his vision is a little different. And, frankly, while acknowledging that families like to create all kinds of traditions, I had already created one--going to New Orleans the day after Christmas. So this one conflicts with that one.

Families are large, unwieldy things. Mobilizing 11 people to do anything takes a good deal of effort, a fair amount of compromise, and plenty of good old wheedling, so I am forgiving myself for being more worn out than energized right now, for dwelling on the meaningless details, instead of the meaningful connections, for nodding at comments about what a great time it was (it was) while looking at the mopping up (none more than emotional) that still needs to take place.

So if you call and I am less than excited, if you try to catch me in a conversation about a career decision while I am wondering how me and my men will be able to retake Paris, if you look for coherence from me while I am looking in the refrigerator for leftover wine, please know that this is something of a temporary condition and that, soon enough, I will be ready for people again.

Oh, yeah, the wireless router blew out, too. Dead. So if you've been wondering where I've been, I've been here just incommunicado for one more reason, one that I spent the day fixing. Hello, blog. Hello, world. The holidays are over, for the most part. New Year's Eve is nothing compared to Christmas. I'll be back up to speed by then. See ya.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Gift Card Debate

Shake Me Down - Cage the Elephant (mp3)
Any Other Heart - Go Radio (mp3)

A fondue set. A briefcase.

A fucking fondue set, and a damn briefcase.

My wife and I have been giving one another gifts for going on 17 years now. She knows me better than anyone save for, possibly, one or two friends. Nothing about our affection or familiarity guarantees the success of our present-buying efforts.

My wife is almost impossible to shop for. She has few hobbies, few obsessions, basic fashion sense and a practical nature that renders most traditional gifts comical. The perfume I bought her three years ago, perfume she actually likes, still sits more than half-full on our bathroom counter. (“Half-full” is optimistic unless you’re talking about a bottle of liquid purchased three years ago.)

Her friends, both sets of our parents, all of us lament the challenge of trying to find presents to please this great gal. This challenge is one of the many reasons I fell in love with her, because she was never terribly haunted by her paucity of material goods, and this was going to be a priceless and essential gift of any woman willing to marry me, if we were to remain married.

I’ve missed the mark many times, and she has missed on me as well. While I might crave new golf clubs or the complete series of LOST on DVD, I occasionally get a damn briefcase. I even had to drag the thing to my office, every damn day, for 18 damn months, just so my wife and my mother, who went in on this gift together, would think I really liked it.

These acts of false appreciation are, believe it or not, proof of love. This is what we do for those who care for us.

Sometimes love means taking a shot in the dark with your gifts. Sometimes love means acting or convincing yourself of being grateful for that which you don’t really appreciate. And I love that about love. That it would cause someone like myself, who is gifted at being selfish and self-centered, to go through such acting to prevent my mother and wife from seeing my distaste for what they so earnestly purchased.

Growing up, my two best friends and I would intentionally go and find albums or books we knew would be loathed and/or mocked (Debbie Gibson, Winger, Air Supply, etc.). It was like a clever gift card. We didn’t do this merely for the humor value, but because deep down we couldn’t really be sure what to get one another.

If it’s such a challenging if not impossible task for our spouses and parents to know what gifts might bring us true joy, what chance in hell do mere friends or more distant relatives have at pleasing us regularly?

Over 400,000 have seen the song “Present Face” on YouTube, and by next Christmas it’ll be into the 1.5-2 million numbers, because it’s so sadly funnily beautifully spot-on when it comes to people and their gifts. We’ve all made that face. It’s as ubiquitous a part of the holiday season as fruitcake and cranberry sauce.

So why do so many folks hate on the trustworthy, if vanilla, gift card? In spite of our universal acknowledgement that so many of the gifts given to us out of love suck a big hairy donkey dick, we decry the credit card as somehow deficient, lazy, unloving. We can’t have our cake, nor can we eat it.

Here’s why I don’t like shopping: I rarely need something badly enough to shop for it, not badly enough to justify, in my mind, the expenditure of my hard-earned cash. This is especially true for clothing, because I have zero confidence in my fashion sense, and with historical reason. Why should I spend my hard-earned money to make a dubious fashion decision?

But someone gives me a gift card, and the paradigm has shifted! Shopping is no longer about guilt; it’s about obligation! It’s no longer my money! It’s just this piece of plastic that has absolutely no value unless I take it to a specified location and buy shit with it! And if I don’t go shopping, I’ve not only wasted money, but I’ve insulted the person who gave me this gift and spent their hard-earned money on it!

With the exception of Starbucks cards, I prefer to Stuff cards to Food & Drink cards. Food is a necessity, so I prefer paying for that myself. Stuff is rarely essential, so gift cards are my permission slip to indulge in them. Starbucks is probably an exception because, if we're being honest, paying $4 for a cup of fucking coffee is beyond indulgent no matter how acceptable it's become for me and millions of others.

Gift cards are to presents what singles are to baseball. They're underrated. They're far more essential to a successful team than home runs. Aiming for the fence results in a far higher strike-out ratio and a lower OBP. Winning teams get on base. They buy gift cards.

So, here's my permission slip. Buy me a gift card. I won't be insulted by your laziness.

Friday, December 23, 2011

BOTG Music Superlatives for 2011

In 2011, I acquired over 1,100 more songs. Most new. Some I burned off CDs to “complete” my collection of songs from certain beloved bands. Some were added as I filled in missing gaps from decades past.

In years past, I’ve attempted, with feeble skills at music criticism, to offer up a BEST OF list. Usually albums. Sometimes songs. Never with much confidence. Instead, this year I’m going to pay homage to what I know, which is how to pretend I’m in high school. And yearbooks never did BEST OF lists. They made SUPERLATIVES. So I’m going with it.


Most Likely To Continue Heavy Rotation In 2012: Belle Brigade - The Belle Brigade
Foo Fighters - Wasted Light
Florence & the Machine - Ceremonials

The Belle Brigade were the best thing to serendipitiously land in my eardrums since the Stereophonics fell into my lap at a Tower Records listening station back in 2001. They not only earned more earplay in my iPod than any other album this year, but they had me going back and reacquainting myself with Fleetwood Mac's Tusk.

Dead On Arrival:
TIE: Paul Simon - So Beautiful or So What Navy - The Last Place
Eisley - The Valley

Metacritic gave Paul Simon's latest an 85. As in, 85 out of 100. As in, one of the best 20 albums of the year. So I was excited. I'm quite the Simon & Garfunkel fan, and I played both Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints so heavily that the tapes broke. I listened to it the first time with my eyebrows raised and ears perked up, like a dog eager to hear his master. All I heard was... well, it wasn't shit, but it certainly wasn't terribly impressive. To me, Paul sounds tired. And depressed. And unsure of himself, musically. The guy is an amazing talent, and what he compiles is musically sound, but there's no punch to it. It's an entire album of resignation. Maybe that's what critics love about it.

Most Likely To Go To Eleven: Agent - Celebrasion
Foo Fighters - Wasted Light
Dropkick Murphys - Going Out in Style

I don't know if Sleeper Agent is punk, or post-punk, or just irreverent garage rock. I only know their music deserves to be played loudly. In a car is preferable, but alone at home is fine as well. This is the kind of album that resurrects Beavis and Butt-Head just so they can headbang a little more.

Proof The ‘80s Are Neither Dead Nor Evil:
TIE: Lady Gaga - Born This Way
M83 - Hurry Up We’re Dreaming
Florence & the Machine - Ceremonials
The Book of Mormon Soundtrack

Proof That Some Artists Have Reached or Passed Their Expiration Dates:
Paul Simon - So Beautiful or So What
Stereophonics - Keep Calm and Carry On
The Go! Team - Rolling Blackouts
Fountains of Wayne - Sky Full of Holes

Still Water Albums (Artists Whose Work Neither Hurt Nor Helped My Opinion Of Them):
Coldplay - Mylo Xyloto
The Mountain Goats - All Eternals Deck
Mates of State - Mountaintops Welch - The Harrow & the Harvest
Matt Nathanson - Modern Love

My "Expiration Dates" list is my official announcement that, barring some minor miracle, I have cut those artists off from ever receiving another penny of my song-purchasing dollar. They're nice people, and they have plenty of talent, but as albums go, they're spoiled, and they need to be removed from my musical fridge.

My "Still Water" group isn't dead... I'm just not sure I need to buy anymore of their stuff. I suspect they have branched out as far and wide as their talent will allow them, and what I own of their stuff to this point will likely suffice. Fans of these groups, fret not. I'm not dissing you or them. The three Mates of State and Matt Nathanson albums I own continue to get a lot of playtime, and I love them both. But I'm not sure I see them doing anything on their next albums that change anything for me... unless they put out shit, at which point I guess they'd sink.

Yeah yeah, Coldplay is massively uncool. I get it. But I happen to enjoy them a good bit. However, with this latest album, I felt like I've acquired sufficient amounts of Apple's Daddy to get me through the rest of my years.

Best Album I've Never Listened To Start to Finish:
Hurry Up We’re Dreaming - M83
Runners-Up: At Once - The Airborne Toxic Event
Mission Bell - Amos Lee

Hurry Up We're Dreaming is a really really really amazing and bold concept double-album. It's over 73 minutes long. Anthony Gonzalez has stolen some of the '80s most over-reaching syntho-orgasms -- including not just a few highlights from Queen's soundtrack for the movie Flash -- and creates a Dreamscape meets Legend world. The sound and the feel are cool, and I wish to hell I was still a teenager who could go into my room, cover my ears with some badass big headphones and disappear into the whole thing from start to finish sans interruption. But that ain't how my life works in 2011. So instead I just have to settle for knowing it's an amazing and daring album that I'll never be able to enjoy as much as I oughtta.

Best Overdue Classic to Be Added to My Collection:
Rolling Stones - Exile on Main Street
Prince - Sign O' the Times
Yes - 90125

The Best Album of 2011: - 21
Foo Fighters - Wasted Light
The Belle Brigade

Now listen. I'm not saying Adele is my favorite musician ever, and I'm not even claiming that she's who I want to sit atop my Best Of list. What I'm saying is this: Adele is the rare modern artist who transcends both genre and demographic. My 70-year-old mother enjoys Adele. My two tween daughters love Adele (at least they did... but they listen to radio, which is guaranteed to numb passion for any pop artist eventually).  I love Adele, because she's very much got what Roger Daltry acknowledged as the ability to front a band. She's more than an American Idol finalist. She's a distinct voice with tidal wave power.

It's possible, if she can hold onto her voice and her passion, that she could be a modern Frank Sinatra. So, while I might personally like and listen to the two runners-up more frequently, Adele was bigger than me and my personal musical leanings.


Most Likely To Get Me Weepy While Driving Alone In My Car:
The Most - Lori McKenna
Poison & Wine - The Civil Wars
I Will - Dar Frampton & Blake Shelton

Few things are as precious in my heart as songs that give me the excuse to cry. The odd exhilaration of music that makes me short of breath, that makes the road get blurry in my over-moistened eyes, that makes my voice crack and split when I try to sing along. These three aren't the only weepers from 2011, but they're my favorites.

Song Most Begging to Be Played By a Talented High School Student or Students:
The Graveyard Near The House - The Airborne Toxic Event
Gracefully - Antigone Rising
I Will - Dar Framption & Blake Shelton

Song Demanding the Volume Go To Eleven: - Foo Fighters
Shirt - The Belle Brigade
Fire & Dynamite - Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors
Peg O’ My Heart - Dropkick Murphys (w/Bruce)
No Light, No Light - Florence & the Machine

Most Criminally Overrated SONG of the Year:
Pumped-Up Kicks - Foster the People
Party Rock Anthem - LMFAO
Moves Like Jagger - Maroon 5

So "Pumped-Up Kicks" is about a kid who's gonna shoot up his school. Or kill some popular kids. Or whatever. I don't really care about the amoralistic vacuous or disgusting nature of the lyrics. I just know it's the most venomously and annoyingly repetitive song of the year. This song is the very essence of Earworm. I'm pretty sure people don't even LIKE the song... they just can't get the fucking thing out of their head, so they finally give in and claim to like it.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Life As An Office

The Horrors--"Still Life" (mp3)

One of the many ways that I have ended up wasting hours of "down time" during the first days of this Christmas break has been watching episodes of The Office.

It's so easy. On Netflix, as played through the Wii, as soon as one 22-minute episode is finished, we simply click on the next one and keep going and keep going and keep going. It's like crack, or, as Ryan on the show says, "I love how people who have never done crack compare everything to crack." So maybe it isn't like crack. Maybe it's more like inertia--it's far easier to watch one more episode than it is to get up and do anything else, so there's always that one more. Until we got to the end, and then we had to face our loss.

I'm not even kidding. I started out, all those years ago, as an Office snob. Big surprise. Yeah, I was one of those who experienced The Office first through the original British version created by Ricky Gervais. For years, I refused even glance at the American version. "The British version is superior, " I would pronounce, without proof. Then Netflix happened and soon I was "cracking" my way through one episode after another of the first season on my computer (the TV hookup was a year away at that time).

Some 150 episodes later, it's very easy for me to pronounce the American version as by far the superior reasons, for the very reasons that undermine the original:

1. The characters are endearing.
2. The characters are endearing.
3. The characters are endearing.

While the British version was like cringing at an accidental stumbling upon a bad wreck that you don't want to see but that you can't turn away from, the American version, perhaps simply because it has been around so long, turns these walking disasters into people that I can't help but care about. If that violates the original comic conception, so what?

What happens instead is that as longtime viewers connect with the characters, the characters become more and more real. Based on the last couple of days, I would say that this quality really shines when one watches many episodes or seasons back to back. Sure, some of the characters are static and somewhat one dimensional, but the main characters develop all kinds of nuances over the course of hours.

There's one episode in particular that haunts me with its illumination of reality. In it, Michael and co. are being repeatedly bested by a rival salesman (Timothy Olyphant), so they attempt first to outsell him, second to spy on him, and, finally, to hire him for their company, Dunder-Mifflin.

What intrigues me so much is what happens when Michael Scott hires him. The people who work at the office, including the salesmen who are losing sales to him, are outraged. To attempt to win them over, Michael asks this question: "How do you want your life to be? Better? Worse? Or the same?"

Naturally, he assumes that they will say "better." Naturally, he is wrong. Almost in unison, when asked if they want their lives to be better, worse, or the same, they respond, "The same."

The same. That one answer, that one episode, whacks me like Maxwell's silver hammer. "Oh, my God," I think, "these aren't just caricatures, these aren't just characters being played for comedy. These are real people. These are me and the people I work with and the mass of men." And that is powerfully painful. The ways that ambition is either overarching or underwhelming, the inability of all of us to get beyond ourselves, the petty rivalries and slights and infighting--all are too real.

(And do any of us really want to see a "rival salesman" or any other outsider have to come in and rescue us?)

Saddled with a narcississtic boss, a dysfunctional workplace, a dead-end job and a local living and working world where things happen for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with fairness or logic or hard work, people would rather that things stay as they are than risk a change that appears it would make things better. With very few exceptions, that is my office, your office, and The Office.

The powerful impact of The Office is, at best, bittersweet. While I would not hesistate to give the show the label "comic genius" and while I can just as easily not count the number of times that the show has made me laugh until there were tears in my eyes, the show has also forced me to recognize that the lives it depicts, the ways that it reflects my life are hard to acknowledge as true. There are some mirrors that I don't necessarily want to look into.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Western State of Mind

Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes (mp3)
Wild West Hero - Electric Light Orchestra (mp3)
“He squatted before a slight body. ‘This one here can’t be more than sixteen, I’d say. Well, he should have known better than to travel with such hotheads.’” -- Charlie Sisters, commenting in the aftermath of killing a small group of riders.
Charlie and Eli Sisters are hired killers in the Wild West. They are the protagonists, or anti-heroes, or main characters, in Patrick deWitt’s novel The Sisters Brothers. The book follows these two men on a journey to their next deadly assignment, a road trip story with horses and pistols.

It is literally impossible to read this book and not think of the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of True Grit, as both juggle the intermingling of the absurd and amusing with the harsh and unforgiving. Having just left the pseudo-medieval-fantasy realm of A Game of Thrones -- a gun-metal grey land wherein lies little hope, and wherein that smidgen of hope is doomed to be treated like a sissy in maximum security prison -- the Wild West feels technicolor giddy.

Name a Western-themed movie or TV show from the past decade, and odds are I've watched it, and odds are that I like it much more than the average viewer.

A frontier without laws. Normal people -- sometimes families, sometimes small groups of men -- venturing out into uncharted land, or into territory unfamiliar to them, hoping for the best or just desperate for better. A struggle for meaning and connection when nature, and often most of humanity, seems indifferent.

Everyone in these tales seems to posses a level of self-reliance we can’t even begin to grasp in our 21st-Century world. Their need for self-reliance is an assumption, because the ones who don’t fail to live very long. We think self-reliance is using Google Maps rather than stopping to ask for directions.

Above all, the lawlessness of the Wild West is ultimately what makes everything so compelling.

In the America of 2011, we are drowning in laws. This isn’t a judgment or a criticism. Beyond a minor neglect of our roadway’s speed limits, I am a staunchly and predictably law-abiding citizen who feels guilty even stealing music from the Internet. So I support our laws and sympathize with those charged with upholding and enforcing them.


Our every move and decision seems to be tracked or observed by someone, often by an authority figure. The actions that aren’t tracked, we record for ourselves and then post them to Facebook for everyone to see.

If, as the saying goes, “Character is what you do when no one is watching,” then modern Americans have ever-fewer opportunities to discover our character. The Wild West is the closest thing we get, as a backdrop, to a complete control of our character. Most of what happens in Westerns is witnessed only by one or two people, and often most of the witnesses wind up dead.

Us modern folk spend 90% of our lives being watched. If there’s a single way I believe teenagers of today “have it worse than we did,” it’s in this: they are infinitely more supervised, policed, guarded. Maybe that’s why so many of them fly off the deep end and go wild when they finally escape the imaginary camera eye, the judgmental supervision of their provincial existences.

And maybe many of us adults do the same stupid self-destructive things for the same reasons. Many of us feel like the overprotected preacher’s daughter whose life is so controlled and locked down that her only escape is through wildly irresponsible explosions. Rebellion as an almost instinctive Tourette's tic. (NOTE: If you think I’m projecting my own issues outward, so be it. I’d originally written this all in first-person but thought it too narcissistic.)

In the Wild West -- be it the fictional imagined version or the real one -- a man had time to think about shit. Time to decide what kind of character he wished to be, time to determine what kind of light or darkness he wished to project onto the world, time to reflect and mull by the fire on the open range, the soundtrack of coyotes and owls in the background.

Most people in Westerns are virtuous and good, even when no one is watching, even when they are not governed by The Laws Of (sexist) Man. Inevitably, however, even the good people encounter the bad ones, and the drama almost always involves how far good people can or will go when stuck in the path of evil.

Ultimately, more often than not, the best Westerns are about redemption. The greatest heroes almost always have dark secrets, checkered pasts, burdened souls and bear a compulsion to set things right, to make things better, to see justice done.

The freedom to form character, for better or worse, in an environment hungry for those desperate for redemption. This is why I love them.

Oh I wish I was a Wild West Hero...

Santa Claus Vs. The Moms

Blues Magoos--"Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" (mp3)

At first glance, second glance, third glance, fourth glance, and fifth glance, I found the Best Buy ad campaign to be distasteful. If you have turned on a TV in the last three weeks, there is no way that you haven't seen it. In each of the commercials, the Mom of the family gets the better of Santa Claus by buying gifts that her family really wants, while Santa shows up planning to drop off the same stock gifts as always (cologne for Dad, etc.).

What makes the ads so irritating is the sort of "Game on, Santa" attitude that each of the moms has. She is always waiting for Santa to show up, almost ambushing him, with a smug, gloating expression on her face and an aggressiveness that leads her to infringe on Santa's turf in a number of different ways--pointing to her superior gifts, eating or drinking the snacks that have been left for him, etc.

Who needs you, Santa? is the basic message of the ads. She can do better simply by going to Best Buy.

The ads make me feel sorry for Santa, and I had to figure out why. Is it because he's a respected icon beyond reproach (what does he get out of being Santa Claus?)? Is it because he's an old man and it looks like he's being picked on? Is it because the ads make him look like he is out-of-touch and no longer essential? Is it because he's a man?

For the last 120 years or so, we've been living under a particular paradigm: man in red comes down chimney and delivers presents to everyone (I think it started as toys for children) as a symbol of kindness, goodness, and generosity. Regardless of who was actually buying the presents or where they were actually coming from, their presence was attributed to this universal (at least in Western civilization), larger-than-life, magical being who only appeared once a year and then returned to some unknown place (which is probably why a North Pole was need as the center of toy-making operations). A wizened, white benefactor from beyond our imagining.

Imagine if you're not a man. Imagine you're not white. Imagine you've busted your ass to put a bunch of things you can't afford under a tree because because society demands it or, more likely, you can't stand to disappoint your children that deeply.

You might want to stick it to Santa. Or you might not want whitey in your house. You might be so tired of yet another circumstance where an old, white male comes to the rescue, where he knows your own children (and husband or wife) better than you do, where he takes control of an important moment and decides for you.

I've started to see those commercials as the Moms finally striking back against Santa Claus in a way that is not necessarily bad or wrong. Santa isn't a benevolent figure. Santa is "the man."

Now, I have no belief at all that Best Buy is pushing this underlying social agenda that I've probably created out of thin air. If they were, Santa wouldn't be getting his comeuppance from Mom outshopping him. She wouldn't be boasting to him using gifts that cost far more than what he was bringing into the house. Nor would she be saddled with all of the shopping, because we all know that, in reality, she works. Or did.

I hope she's not getting that shit, lowbrow diamond from Zales from hubby, 'cause that thang ain't much.

Still, I've gotten a kick out of the "rise of the planet of the Moms" that is taking place in a number of commercials this season. Think also of the Wal-Mart commercial where the Mom gets everything on her Christmas shopping list the first time around.

More power to ya, babe. Though not intended, this recognition of your triumph has been a long time coming and is well-deserved. Anyone who is not noticing the increasing power of women in our society in every way is not paying attention. When my students haul out their tired, stereotypical comments about the role of women or the way that their marriages will go, I just laugh. There's nothing more ironic than thinking that you're in control when you're not. Right, Santa?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A List of Thanks

Sly and the Family Stone--"Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" (mp3)

One of the yearly columns that used to annoy me the most back in the old Chattanooga News-Free Press before the two papers merged was this guy's piece around Thanksgiving or Christmas that consisted of nothing more than a tedious list of all of the things that he was thankful for. So, of course, I'm going to steal the idea.


1. I am thankful for the Italian rosemary ham at Costco.

2. I am thankful for my wife's explorations into veganism and how it forced me to adapt my cooking.

3. I am thankful for Neil Young's example.

4. I am thankful for the firepit in my back yard.

5. I am thankful for people who rise to the occasion when I am "beating the bushes;" I hope that I do and will do the same.

6. I am thankful for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

7. I am thankful for my younger daughter's social intelligence, my older daughter's vision.

8. I am thankful for the hope that a garden brings every spring.

9. I am thankful for friends that push me.

10. I am thankful for President Eisenhower's interstates.

11. I am thankful for foreign students.

12. I am thankful for Emily Dickinson's poetry, which makes the world new with each reading.

13. I am thankful for dreams that scold me.

14. I am thankful for a new kitchen.

15. I am thankful for Bob, who made me get a guitar 36 years ago and for Jeff, who makes me play it now.

16. I am thankful for the salad at Lupi's, the onion rings at Ankar's, the Eggs in a Basket at Cracker Barrel, the bologna sliders at Urban Stacks, the nachos at Taco Roc, the chicken at Champy's, the Sonoma Chicken wrap at Greenlife and all of the other go-to food in this city.

17. I am thankful for community service, which did not exist when I was in high school and which has now largely transcended its usefulness on a college application.

18. I am thankful that I did not follow my major and pursue a business career.

19. I am thankful for the companionship of my dog.

20. I am thankful for Monday Night Football gatherings.

21. I am thankful for Garden and Gun magazine, which continues to present our South in its best light.

22. I am thankful for the Ebonys, Big Star, The Weepies, Rilo Kiley, Calexico, Frightened Rabbit, Meaghan Smith, and The Walkmen for surprising, stunning additions to the Christmas song canon. And, of course, Sufjan.

23. I am thankful for my father's wisdom, even when I don't agree.

24. I am thankful for this blog and how it keeps Billy and me searching. And that people actually read it.

25. I am thankful for the influences that New Orleans has had on my life; America would be stale and pale without it.

26. I am thankful for Bud's Thursday nights and how they help to maintain friendship.

27. I am thankful for the Walnut Street Walking Bridge.

28. I am thankful for my daughters' colleges and how fortunate both girls were to find such good fits.

29. I am thankful to have so much Bruce Springsteen and Led Zeppelin on the soundtrack in my head.

30. I am thankful to know how to bake bread.

31. I am thankful for live music, how it is always worth the effort; even when I don't make the effort, I know that I have missed something.

32. I am thankful when I am not intolerant.

33. I am thankful for a job that requires me to reread books I like and to discover new ones.

34. I am thankful for the iPhone. It has become my timer, my reminder, my GPS, my computer, my network, my Kindle, my Netflix, at times, my lunch companion.

35. I am thankful for Linda's Produce, for its figs and tomatoes and red peppers and Christmas trees.

36. I am thankful for Barber's Adagio For Strings and the many settings it is perfect for.

37. I am thankful for Christmas Eve and all of the ways it is better than Christmas.

38. I am thankful for the quirky behavior of cats.

39. I am thankful that Paul McCartney met John Lennon; neither would have or did flourish without the other. I am thankful that, even now, George Harrison continues to reveal new listening pleasures to me.

40. I am thankful for the hours from 5PM to midnight, the second life after work.

41. I am thankful that Americans never stop investigating what they don't believe.

42. I am thankful that my wife found a church.

43. I am thankful each barbeque joint, each region of barbeque can do it so differently, can take the basics of meat and smoke and transform it in wonderful, different ways.

44. I am thankful for the ways that holidays energize life.

45. I am thankful to live in a city that has the finest fresh apple cider that I have ever tasted.

46. I am thankful for the anchor of my wife and daughters.

47. I am thankful for students with ideas; they are my work's blood.

48. I am thankful for the solitude of my backyard in the early morning.

49. I am thankful for how what I think I believe is always put to the test of experience, and how the smallest events and things can carry such meaning.

50. I am thankful for pretzels.

I'm finished for now. When you make a list like this, it's what you leave out that gets you in trouble, so I'll add that I'm thankful for everything else, too.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Lost and Found

Rich Robinson--"Lost and Found" (mp3)

I am sitting in my basement with my Ipod on shuffle, listening to a mix of 431 Christmas songs, a full 24 hours of Christmas tunes, if I so desired. The problem is that it isn't my current Ipod, or even the one I owned before that. It's a cast-off Ipod that one of my daughters bequeathed me when she opened a perfectly-packaged new Ipod three or four years ago.

The other problem is that the Ipod in question's screen is a Rorschach blot in the shape of an oak leaf. No words will ever appear on this screen again, as all of the ink, or whatever it is, has pooled into the above shape in the lower right corner.

The only way to use the Ipod is to connect it to a computer and run it off that computer's Itunes. The other other problem is that the computer in question is a cast-off computer from my daughter's last 6 years at private school. It doesn't work without a power cord; I have no idea where the battery is. And, for some reason, it defrags itself every other night or so, wiping out anything that I have attempted to store on it.

Currently, I sit trapped between the power cord on my left and the adaptor plugged into the headphone jack and running to the Bose sound system on my right. It's quite a set-up.

Most of the Christmas songs I have ever owned are on this Ipod and can only be played this way. It is nice to have them, but I know full well that their time on this Earth is completely dependent on a portable machine whose ticker could go at any second. I only found the Ipod recently, as it was stacked in the pile of lost (but is there still a chance they might work someday?) Ipods in some dark corner of our house renovation last spring and summer. So I have the songs, but I don't. Most of their parent CDs are nowhere that I know of; most of the individual files I picked up here and there exist nowhere else.

Yesterday, the hard drive on my school computer crashed. All of the music files that were on the computer are gone. Much of the email. In addition to that, all of my Word documents are gone. By my estimation, I have lost some 15 years of words.

It's an interesting prospect to ponder. The first thing you realize is that you have no idea what you have lost because you had no idea what you had. You just kept saving it.

Then you start to focus on the "highlights," those pieces that you do know that you wanted that were stored on that computer. I know that I was supposed to back all of it up, but I didn't. Over the past three or four years, my problems with the computer centered on it getting too full, so my focus has always been on the quick fixes that would get things off of it. My maintenance of my computer involved looking for things to delete so that it could operate at a decent speed. So, yeah, I am stupid.

Anyway, the highlights, for me, were a cookbook I wrote for my 50th birthday, a variety of stories and poems in various states of disrepair, a play that was still waiting for its final act. I had hundreds of college recommendations that I had written and that were no longer of particular use, and probably thousands of handouts, essay prompts, quizzes, worksheets, exam topics, tests and the other daily papers of decades of teaching English classes.

You probably think that I am morose. For whatever reason, I am not. Early in the renovation process of our house, I dragged a file cabinet outside and went through four drawers of paper that represented my earliest years of teaching before the computer was so central to creation and storage. I threw at least 95% of that stuff away, and didn't give it a second thought. I had no nostalgia for it--I am now teaching different books and I am now a different teacher.

I remember when my friend Steve retired a few years ago and basically gave everything away or threw everything else out. Though I was kind of shocked at the time, I feel pretty much the same way now. My old schoolwork probably does not merit a saving for posterity. Whatever good ideas there were have probably been passed on orally, the same way others' good ideas have been passed on to me. The other stuff, whether missteps or unrecognized genius at the time, can disappear safely into posterity. Someone else will either figure the same thing out or will figure out something better.

What I do miss from today's word holocaust are the things that I had written. The loss of those, like the taking of a photograph for some natives, feels like I have lost a bit of my soul that cannot be regained. Unlike the other teaching selves that I freely abandon, I am always interested in my previous writing selves, just in case there was something there that I didn't notice at the time.

Oh, this digital world is a strange world, one in which we don't own anything, even though we think that we do, even though we think that our "possessions" are as safe as those we keep in drawers and cabinets. It is a world where what we do own, we do not always own on terms that are easy for us. The music, for example, may be ours to listen to, but not ours to share. In the very next few years, all of this will change even more. My daughter declared today that if I had Spotify, I would not need anything else. But that is not true. Not yet. What I need is the ability to hold onto what is important to me and to cast off what no longer matters. I feel that power slipping away.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Wanted: Dance Chaperones

And We Danced - Hooters (mp3)
Get Low - Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz (mp3)
Wanted: High School Dance Chaperones

Must be on staff of school. Must be willing to stand and watch teenagers dance for extended periods of time, including girls age 15-18 in ridiculously tight-fitting dresses, but finding the scene neither arousing nor disgusting, but rather merely just what teenagers do these days. Especially teenagers with overly-permissive parents who apparently don’t mind their daughters looking like expensive escorts from Thailand or some poor section of what used to be Russia.

Must be willing to say the following to teenagers jacked up on hormones:
  • “Please stop grinding” up to 20 times, knowing full well they will go back to grinding as soon as you are more than five feet removed from their presence
  • “Please consider returning your skimpy dress down to its intended location, thus covering your backside and preventing your thong from being seen by others”
  • “No I was not looking at your girlfriend’s bare ass”
  • “OK yes, I was looking at her ass, but only because it’s my job. And because you were showing it to me and everyone else and even using your hands to point to where I should apparently be looking. And I’m asking you to remedy the situation so that I may no longer have the free show”
  • “No I do not enjoy this job. I needed the Christmas money because I’m a teacher, you little prick”
  • “Yes, when you’re in college, you can fellate yourself in the main quad for all I care, and you can have group orgies disguised as a dance in your frat basement, but this dance is organized and sponsored by an educational not-for-profit institution, and we are in some small way responsible for your behavior while at this event”
  • “No, we’re not violating your fucking privacy. You have no privacy on a dance floor”
  • “No, the $30 you paid for you and your date does not purchse you the right to do whatever you like while you’re here”
  • “Yes, it is our business. Now please cover up your girlfriend’s breasts so that I can go back to looking you in the eye when we’re talking”
  • “And say no to drugs”
If you are capable of saying these things to sometimes large teenage males and their dates -- young innocent flowers who certainly have no responsibility whatsoever in these acts because they almost never say anything in protest or anger but merely shrug and return to their grinding activities -- please apply as soon as possible. We’re running short on adults willing to do this job.

the School Administration
Yes, this was inspired by my weekend. I again chaperoned one of our dances. And all reasonable minds seem to agree that, as high school dances nationwide go, ours is relatively tame. (Then again, so was the tiger that mauled Sigfried's pal Roy.)

At the end of the dance, we all decided the grinding at this year’s event was less disturbing and less all-encompassing than it had been at last year’s event. However, considering a ban was enacted on grinding at dances, and considering that decision was made by and demanded by people who were nowhere to be found chaperoning this event, I found myself getting angrier the farther I get from the experience.

One of the boys, an absolutely great kid who danced in completely appropriate ways the entire evening -- hell, he even actually talked to and looked his date in the eyes -- told me, “I really don’t see how anything we do out here is your business. I know you’re all claiming to look out for us, but I think it’s pretty clear we can take care of ourselves, and all you’re doing is proving to these guys that you’re out of touch.”

His honesty was painful, refreshing, and downright infuriating the farther I get from it. His generation is more sexually responsible and no more slutty than any recent previous generation, from what I've read on the subject. So maybe he has a point. But he's also rubbing my face in it. Literally. And I'm not getting paid enough to have his point rubbed in my face, not by a longshot.

No matter. His point won't scare me away. I’ll be attending every single dance I can when my daughters hit high school. They’ll get their friggin’ dance floor privacy when they move far far away to college.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Tale of Two Christmas Songs

Ramsey Lewis--"Here Comes Santa Claus" (mp3)

"I hate "Here Comes Santa Claus," my daughter said yesterday. "It's the worst Christmas song. It's so lazy."

You know how it goes:

Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus
Right down Santa Claus Lane
Vixen and Blitzen and all his reindeer
Pullin' on the reins, etc.

Not even knowing that the song was written by Gene Autrey, the singing cowboy, I immediately rose to the song's defense. "I like it," I said, "it's the only song that connects Santa Claus and Christianity."

Can you think of another one?

"Here Comes Santa Claus" makes a Christian connection to Santa Claus throughout its verses, with lines like "Hang your stockings and say your prayers/'Cause Santa Claus comes tonight" and "Santa Claus knows we're all God's children/That makes everything right" and the one that I remembered immediately when my daughter criticized the song, "Let's give thanks to the Lord above/That Santa Claus comes tonight."

Autry boldly goes where other Christmas songs don't do--they're either religious or secular.

"Here Comes Santa Claus" reminds us of that sometimes-forgotten need to create religions that human beings, as a species, have. It reminds us that the more "modern" religions are, of course, going to draw on some of the characteristics and stories of the older one and try to blend them into something coherent. Jesus and the Easter Bunny. Grendel and Cain and Satan. Most of the time, we like to think that, yeah, we're basically done with religion, that all of the good ones have already been created, but even something as annoying as the primary campaign of Mitt Romney tells us that, much as we may not like it, we will have to confront religions that are "too new." Maybe not this time around, but soon.

Meanwhile, "Here Comes Santa Claus" slips innocuously into our consciousnesses each year and posits God as the power behind the red-clothed man slipping down chimneys. I kind of like that. Just as Cotton Mather spoke of the "unseen world," many of us in this modern, over-analyzed, supposedly-quantified world still hunger for the mystery of things. It probably explains why my friends' children have such a hard time letting go of that elf. For all the talk of Santa, they never really see much tangible evidence (parents gobbling down cookies and carrots aside), but the elf who moves and gets in trouble and responds, well, maybe, just maybe, there's a chance. As with the other cosmic unknowns we hope might be true.


For as much Christmas music as I listen to, there is only one song that can actually move me to tears, or at least to misty eyes. Oh, there are many that I respond, remembering nostalgically my childhood or my deceased mother or my lost youth, there are ones that make me wistful, contemplative, even worshipful. But only one stirs my emotions so much that I tear up.

The surprising thing is that the song is "Fairytale of New York" by the Pogues, with Kristy MacColl.

Set in a New York jail, in a "drunk tank," it's a kind of flashback/reminiscence/update of a relationship between a man and a woman who started out their relationship with such hope and ended up, well, in a drunk tank. When they talk of how they first met and kissed, their language is positive and romantic, when they ponder their current state, they are downright hateful as they trade insults back and forth:

You're a bum
You're a punk
You're an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it's our last

Hardly the stuff to make people weep, eh? Perhaps as much as anything, it's the melody that gets me, especially the soaring part where the "boys from the NYPD choir still [sing] 'Galway Bay'/And the bells are ringin' out for Christmas Day." But I don't think so, though I do love that part. There's something sweet about the song, something that has both parties acknowledging that the American Dream didn't quite come true and that they've seen the worst that each has to offer to the other, but they still haven't quite given up.

The song says that the birth on Christmas offers a chance for rebirth for the rest of us, and the song, for all of its vulgarity, hammers that point home. It's a reminder of failure and defeat, disappointment and despair. But somehow that also makes it a celebration of a special day, a day of hope against hope. And I'll always cry for hope.

This post is dedicated to the memory of the late, great Kristy MacColl.

Friday, December 9, 2011

And the Shelf He Rode In On (Part III)

In the Bleak Midwinter - Beth Whitney (mp3)
Where Are You Christmas? - Faith Hill (mp3)

Part One -- "The Origin of Laura Jane," wherein I mention our transgendered hero/heroine, Nicole Kidman, late night elf pornography, and Gmail

Part Two - "Bad Dad," wherein I experience the stages of grief, emotionally abuse my daughter, and am reminded why the Christmas season is so despicable

My second daughter continues to write to Laura Jane, our transgendered Elf on the Shelf and the ever-present reminder of a failure of my fatherhood.

She wrote that damn elf five times in November, each time desperately (but as patiently as her little heart would allow) anticipating Laura Jane’s response. My eldest hasn’t mentioned Laura Jane. We’re fairly certain she’s aware that the elf has no clothes, so to speak, and she's hinted as much, but we can’t be sure, and there’s no easy way to ask that question without giving it away.

And this story, split into three lengthy parts, sums up why I tend to despise “special” days, most especially Christmastime. We create these days where things have to be more. They have to be bigger, and better, and greater, and more important. Why? Because people need bigger, and better, and greater, and more important. Because normal isn't good enough.

This is proof that too many people allow their everyday to slip into something bad, something negative and undesirable. They then look to Special Days to rescue them from their monotony and boredom. It's like the abusive spouse who justifies his daily cruelties by being super-sweet on birthdays and anniversaries. I prefer trying, sometimes feebly, to value each day and to not save up my happy karma for Special Days, but rather to celebrate my joys whenever I can find them.

Wednesday, Bob wrote about being sick of winning. But isn’t Christmas, like, the World Heavyweight Champion of Days? Haven't we manufactured Christmas into nothing more than winning? Our entire fucking economy depends on it, fer cryin' out loud. Families depend on it to spend time together, to invest in one another, to think of one another first for a change. Moms (and some dads) need it to get out of the house at midnight on Thanksgiving as some sad proof that they must really really love their families.*

[* -- On the day after Thanksgiving, one of my friends had written on Facebook, “I’m in Target at 3:42 a.m. I can’t believe HOW MUCH I LOVE MY CHILDREN!” If you aren’t bothered by this leap in logic, I pity you. Fortunately for him, some 30 people responded that they, too, were out and about, and that they, too, desperately loved their children enough to invest in Black Friday.]

Christmas has become some maniacal race. It’s become competitive. It's become about winning.

How we got from the story of a family who couldn’t afford a room in an inn and had to sleep in a barn, to elves on shelves made in China but born in the North Pole and who mess up houses and hide and write emails that make children cry is truly beyond my grasp, but almost nothing about this holiday makes me feel one bit more religious.

My goal isn't to sap your joy, dear reader. If you find Christmas in Walmart, bully for you. I'm actually a bit jealous.

For me, however, the only times in this month-long stretch when I feel closer to God, or like a somewhat better version of myself, is at the dinner table with my family and in church singing hymns... and neither of these are seasonal.

And then, finally, at 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve, we get our service when I finally get the chance to feel undistracted, undiluted joy. Our standing room only church of people raise candlelights above their heads as they sing “Silent Night.”

That service is the very opposite of Black Friday. We pause. We reflect. We listen. And we do it all together in the middle of the night as a way of finally -- one hour before the Most Important Day of the Year -- clarifying for ourselves what the whole damn day is really supposed to inspire in the first place.

Not iPads, not a Lexus in the driveway, and not something from Jared.
Families. Huddled together.
The acknowledgement of a world in desperate need of hope and meaning.
A communal feeling of love surging through people like a strong gust of wind, carried through them from the notes of a pipe organ or a hammer dulcimer or the sound of a choir.

Christmas finally arrives, deux ex machina, and rescues us from the previous 30 days of misguided obsessions and pepper-spraying our fellow consumers. And nothing, no matter how much bile and bitterness and anger they invoke in me leading up to that evening, can shake the power of the Day itself. It's bigger than we are, and we can't ever completely screw it up.

For that, I am eternally thankful.

And the Shelf He Rode In On (Part II)

You Gotta Get Up - Five Iron Frenzy (mp3)
Please Daddy (Don't Get Drunk This Christmas) - John Denver (mp3)

Part One -- "The Origin of Laura Jane," wherein I mention our transgendered hero/heroine, Nicole Kidman, late night elf pornography, and Gmail)

November 29, 2010. My elder daughter -- let's name her Billie Jr. -- writes a letter to Santa and places it under our Christmas tree. In it, she requests a new Elf on the Shelf of her own so that she doesn’t have to share Laura Jane (our gender-transformed female elf who looks like all the other male elves) with her sister.

You see, my second daughter was always far more obsessed with Laura Jane writing her emails almost every month... and we didn’t know it because we didn’t check Laura Jane’s email account until Thanksgiving Perhaps because Billie Jr. was resigned to never be capable of loving Laura Jane quite as ardently as her sister, she was hoping to start over with a new elf.

And this is where I morph into the bad guy. Here comes my Tragic Flaw.

I crafted an email from Laura Jane that started something like this:
My Dearest Billie Jr.,

I read your note to Santa because I thought it was for me.

Have I done something wrong? I am feeling quite awful about this and wonder how I have failed you. Just this morning you want to know about my life at the North Pole, and then this evening you are asking for a different elf. I am trying not to cry, because I must have done something awful or mean for you to want another elf.
The email went another two paragraphs. Laura Jane was heartbroken. Santa can’t send multiple elves to households. It’s one or none. She might lose her job. The sky is falling, and the Pole with her.

We have struggled with Billie Jr.’s increasing inability to attune to the aches and needs of others, to empathize and to grasp the depth of The Golden Rule. What better way to address that level of selfishness, I thought, than to let the voice of absolute North Pole innocence address it?

Her mother and I had sat her down on numerous occasions to discuss this matter with her, but we had gotten nowhere. Perhaps Laura Jane could accomplish what we could not.

If results can be measured by the level of psychological and emotional distress inflicted, then I earned a gold medal. My daughter looked like death warmed over for two days. She lost the ability to speak in complete sentences, and it was obvious that every time she emerged from a moment of privacy that she’d spent her alone time crying.

Her first email to Laura Jane first thing in the morning was a panicked apology. Her second reply, later that evening, was this:
you have made me cry even i am very sad.I am so so so so sorry!i wrote that note because (my sister) & i argue about who has you and so on,but i am truely sorry.My thoughts have changed so much and thank you for reading the note. it has made me relize christmas even more.
You'll need to trust me on this: Billie Jr.'s apology was more about the fear of losing everything than about an appreciation for what she had. Her concluding sentence was more platitude than truth... although I think she really wanted to believe it.

The 72 hours after Laura Jane’s heartbroken email involved a gradual evolution of personal assessment for me. At first I was proud. Laura Jane’s email had worked. The message had penetrated. The seed would grow into something good.

Then I was defensive. My daughter needed to be taught a lesson, dammit, and some lessons are hard. But sometimes you can’t learn about a stove eye being hot unless you touch it and burn your hand, and human emotions are the same way, and she needed to learn about selfishness.

Then I was panicked. Had I just embodied the persona of one of Santa’s elves and crafted a note intended to stab a psychological knife into my own daughter’s heart? Nooo, of course not... no. Not quite. No no, nothing that awful.....

Then I was horrified. What kind of father does something like this? Isn’t what I did, in some way, even more dangerous and harmful than if I’d pulled out my belt and lashed her a few dozen times, something I would never in a million years do? Isn’t inflicting emotional scars far more cruel and dangerous?

Not to mention the hypocrisy of me -- ME -- having the gall to try and teach someone else about being self-centered or selfish. Who the frick was I to go judging my daughter so much more harshly than I’ve ever been willing to judge myself??

Suddenly I was eyeball-deep into a state of despondency not unlike that which had overtaken my daughter the first day of Laura Jane's “lesson” to her. Except as the puppet-master and supposed adult, my sadness went deeper, and my self-evaluation was unflinchingly brutal. Everytime I heard or thought “Merry Christmas,” I cringed. The season was suddenly a symbol of deception, heartbreak, manipulation... nothing good.

A week later, Laura Jane was dead to me. My wife didn’t handle my resignation very well. I have little doubt that I failed to share in any adequate way my internal nuclear chain reaction with her. I probably mentioned to her once or twice that I was bothered by what had transpired, and the next thing she knew, I was quitting, and it was non-negotiable. That jump from "bothered" to "done" seemed extreme and unfair, I'm sure. (Like many men, I'm not fond of breaking down in the presence of others.)

She begrudgingly and angrily took over Laura Jane duty and carried that seething frustration with her like a sack of coal, thus adding one more body to the list of Christmas casualties, all borne from my single heartbroken manipulative scheming late-night email.

Now it's the 2011 Holiday Season. Daughter Number Two has continued her pen pal devotion to Laura Jane...

Part Three - "The Night Before," Wherein at last shines a faint glimmer of hope.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

And the Shelf He Rode In On (Part I)

We Wish You a Merry Christmas - Shonen Knife (mp3)

A f*#king elf might be the death of me.

Have you seen the Nicole Kidman movie “The Others”? In it, she’s the mother of two special-needs children whose skin is hyper-sensitive to light, and they have become recluses and shut-ins in a mansion/castle in the UK.

(SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT... although if giving away the surprise ending to a decade-old movie is a spoiler, it means you didn’t plan on seeing it...)

The big catch of the movie, and one I failed to properly appreciate the first time around, is that the terrible mean ol’ servants aren’t the enemies in the film. They’re the heroes. The enemy in the film is their mom.

Back to the f*#king elf. Laura Jane arrived by box, purchased from a store by a relative seeking revenge on us for some previous crime, three years ago.

My children had many times over witnessed a box precisely like it in one store after another, constantly begging us for one, a special elf for our house. We’d heard of these damn things, and we were certain it was a terrible idea. But now one was in our house, wrapped up without our knowledge or approval. We had been infiltrated.

My daughters unwrapped the package. They shrieked and screamed. They opened the box. Inside the box was, encased in mixed paper and plastic, an Elf on the Shelf. Much like Stormtroopers, all these elves look exactly alike. Which is to say nothing like any other elves on any other Christmas shows. They look like Justin fucking Bieber.

My daughters opened the box. They removed the Elf from his bondage. They hugged him and tested to see if he had any special features, sounds, or moving parts. They then, right there at that moment, mutually agreed that this Elf was female, and that her name was Laura Jane.

How, you ask? How can children of relative intelligence and sanity open a box “Made in China,” pull out a cloth mass-produced creature, and convince themselves that this thing came from the North Pole? I do not know. I only know it happened, and I didn’t have the courage or the cruelness to crush their enthusiasm like a grape.

From that day to Christmas, we became a predictable stupid American family. Laura Jane hid at night. She messed shit up. She ate cookies and spilled milk and snuck into the computer room and watched porn late at night. She was a cute adorable deviant menace.

She disappeared to the North Pole after Christmas, and we thought that was the end of Laura Jane, the transgendered fabric elf from China. But no, the next Thanksgiving, the girls were literally frothing at the mouth for Laura Jane’s return.

Although I’m not competitive about most things in life, I can’t say that about creativity. In my mind, I am hands-down the single most creative living mind not currently working in Hollywood, the book publishing industry, the comedy circuit, the newspaper-column industry or the big-time blogosphere.

So if regular normal boring parents could make their elves hide and mess shit up and be all playful, then I would by God kick it up a notch.

Therefore I created a Gmail account for Laura Jane, and she started sending nightly emails to the girls. Probably after she was done watching all that elf porn, but how would I know, right? Laura Jane even stole our camera and took a few pictures (clean, safe) and attached them to her emails. Ours was a technologically savvy elf.

The season was fun. Everyone enjoyed playing with the elf. I was super-cool creative, and we were awesome parents. Yada yada.

But something happened on the way to heaven.

(You can read my post foreshadowing all of this, from November 2008, here.) 

Part Two - "Bad Dad," wherein I experience the stages of grief, emotionally abuse my daughter, and am reminded why the Christmas season is so despicable

Part Three - "The Night Before," Wherein at last shines a faint glimmer of hope.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Winning Trap

We are suckers for a beautiful woman, a handsome man, and winning. Myself susceptible to the first, admiring of the second, and guilty of the third, I nevertheless must retreat (or better yet, recoil) from the obsession with coming out on top. At least right now.

I like to think that I work around, live around, people with reasonably strong moral codes. They will likely shout down racism, recycle whenever possible, attend church far more than I do, and exhibit any number of neighborly traits that they don't have to, except that they have probably been raised right and seek to live out the traits that were instilled in them when they were young.

But give them a chance to win, and it will all go out the window.

The purchaser of the lottery ticket, the sports fan, the irate parent whose child has been "wronged", the hardcore ______ (insert political party here), the friendly arguer who turns unfriendly--all have to emerge victorious.

Some aspect of our lives, and maybe it's our capitalistic lives, has convinced us that there are some things that we absolutely must win. There are rivals that we must face down. There are paybacks that we must not concede. There are affronts that cannot be tolerated. There are situations that must be corrected, situations that are unimportant when compared to the amount of time and/or money that we are suddenly willing to invest in them.

Even though most readers of this blog are not Japanese, we nevertheless have mostly embraced the concept of "saving face," which is its own form of winning, but our face-saving is a perverted form. Somehow our pride has come to depend on the outcome of contests that we have not participated in or battles that we have not fought, but ones that are associated with the reputation of the institutions that we work for or live under, the academic institutions we attended, or, in the worst case, teams and organizations that we simply share geography with.

And our only hope of seeing the stupidity of this is if it is a situation where we don't care whether or not we win. I exist right now in that rare void. I see the folly of sacrificing personal and societal values in order to win. Right now, the desire to win that surrounds me concerns sports. And I am miserable. Sweet Jesus, I am miserable. I am so consumed with the wrongness of what I am watching that I can barely think of anything else.

Of course, if this were a situation where I did need to win, then it really wouldn't matter if Satan incarnate was driving the race car or passing the football or running for the office that is important that I have put my hopes behind. I, too, have been consumed by the desire to win sports. If you are a Steeler fan as long as I have been, then you have tolerated a member of the "Steel Curtain" taking pot shots at cars on the freeway back in the late 70's and you have tolerated your quarterback assaulting a young woman in Georgia just in the last couple of years, and any number of misdeeds in between.

But it feels different right now, because no matter where we work, whether it's the U.S. Post Office or Bennigan's or some corporation in a high rise building in a large city, that place of employment espouses some set of institutional values, and however hokey those values might be, however overwrought a mission statement might seem, we still grab for those values as some kind of a benchmark. And if we feel like we are not hitting that benchmark, then we start not to believe.

Because nowhere, even in the most cynical, profit-driven Wall Street firm does the motto read "We will win at all costs" or "We will chuck our values out the window in order to win." No place is that outwardly craven.

Winning is a trap. It becomes its own goal and casts aside any benefits or lessons or silver linings or whatever noble might have inspired a desire to win in the first place. Left instead is just the winningness itself, an unpolished stone, which brings only the briefest of satisfactions, which is all that it can do, because when we are left time for any kind of reflection, we can't help but remind ourselves what it cost us to get there. By the time that stone is cut and polished, we haven't the interest and can barely look at it, so focused are we on the next stone, the next win, that we must attain.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Heartbreak Ridge

The Future's Nothing New - The Alternate Routes (mp3)
A Circus - Army Navy (mp3)

Last week, one of the founding members of our fantasy football league announced his intentions to retire. This announcement -- which in the world of rational and reasonable thought should be about as significant as him saying he got new glasses -- was significant on several levels.

First, this owner claimed it was just time, that he was getting too old for it, that the experience was played out. Why? What’s wrong with him? How dare he desert us in this, our time of desperate need?? Is this some kind of Fantasy Football Owner Lockout, and we didn’t get the memo? Here I thought we were all, like, Al Davis, that the only way you could take our team ownership away was from our cold, dead hands.

The second level was even more disconcerting. Was this merely the first defection? Was the entire league either doomed or irreparably altered?

My thoughts then drifted to this blog. Even as we approach 1,000 posts and soon after that the completion of our fourth year (if it survives to March), death is on my mind. How old is a 4-year-old blog? It’s gotta be like dog years, except more like goldfish years, right? How long do we go until this has become a hobby that merely keeps us from trying other ways of exorcising our creative demons?

Things. Must. Change.
(Psst. this will be a running theme, off and on for the remainder of the year, possibly for eternity. It started with “William 4.0” and even showed up in my Oasis post yesterday.)

Must. It is inevitable. It is fact. The challenge for the wise, it would seem, is not to cling desperately to everything in our lives in some nutty attempt to prevent or dodge change. The challenge is to identify what we most value, what we hold most precious, and to figure out whether honoring and protecting those things requires holding fast to them or finding ways to adapt and evolve them.

I cannot be a good parent if I insist on treating my 11-year-old daughter the same as when she was six. I can’t be a good employee if I’m still sending snow alerts to radio stations as our sole advisory.

Oh crap. Know what I just realized? Maybe schools can’t be very good schools if we’re still doing 95% of everything we did back when my mother was 12. Maybe we’re clinging a little bit too tightly to too much? Ya think?

So maybe fantasy football and blogs -- and office environments and job descriptions and schools -- aren’t in and of themselves what I fear losing. Maybe it’s not about Calvin Johnson and shoddy opinionating. The challenge is figuring out what I need from these outlets, why they mean something to me, why my soul aches a little at the thought of losing them, and what I need to do to hold onto what’s important about them. In all likelihood, with just a little contemplation, I can find other ways to feed those parts of me currently fed by those pursuits.

When the day comes to say goodbye to fantasy football, were I wise, I would already know what my next step would be. I would know what it is I love about the experience, and I would already have plans to funnel that energy into some new endeavor.

Improvise. Adapt. Overcome. These are the words of the new normal and the essential. They are the words of the wise. They are the future, and we will be.

(I just made a reference to Prince/Batman AND a Clint Eastwood movie in the same paragraph! WOOOT!)