Thursday, March 31, 2011

In Praise of Manboys

Because Bob's kitchen and beyond is currently gutted, being cleared of its lead paint, and otherwise off-limits, he cannot access his CD collection in the basement. If he could, he intended to post Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul's song, "Men Without Women," to go with the post. He hopes to continue post music at some point in the near future.



It is no great revelation to point out, as popular culture has done for decades, that our society is full of men who refuse to grow up in one way or another. But it may be a bit of a surprise to realize that I am one.

Not that, as someone who has taken a "mancation" to New Orleans for the better part of the past ten years should be at all surprised to discover his own boyishness. But, as the famous writer once said (I'm updating the English), "The life so short, the craft so long to learn."

Now, at the risk of glossing over the subject, I'm going to summarize those trips fairly quickly--drinking, gambling, overeating, oogling, bead-soliciting, sports watching, women watching, sex joking, fart joking, gay joking (about sharing a bed with another man), carousing, karaokeing, spending, public urinating, boasting, sarcasticing, batchelorette-party crashing, bragging, jukeboxing, masturbating-joking, strutting, risqueing, lawbreaking (real or imagined), bow-necking, and probably some other equally-long list of related gerunds.

In fact, I was sitting in a bar in New Orleans with a former student and his girlfriend (hopefully, soon fiancee) having a few beers with them when the boyman's parents and sister came into the bar. I had met them years ago when he was a student and they remembered me and we greeted each other and they knew their son had been drinking all day, so as they passed on through, they cautioned him, "Be careful." And then his mother looked at me. "You be careful, too," she said.



That's when you know that you are a manboy.

But all of that serves as an admission. Yes, I am a manboy. Tell me something that I won't acknowledge with a little prodding.


What I hope to do, though, is to offer an impassioned defense of this phenomenon. Manboying is good. Manboying is productive. Manboying is essential.

Today's man is a heavily-controlled creature. His boss owns him, the days of a participative work environment having long since passed in favor of the tight reins of economic fiscality. His parent or parents still want to see him as a son who will react positively to all of the advice that they have to offer about child-rearing, investing, relationship-managing, and any other life lessons that haven't quite taken hold yet. His wife lives in the fear that if he gets too far off the leash, he will implode in some significant way, endangering both family and future.

And so, if he can get off into an environment that is relatively-safe but with a lot of freedoms for just a few days where he can just be one of the boys, that is an effective carrot to dangle in front of him to keep him in line much of the rest of the year. And when he gets to that few-day escape, society expects the worst of him. Those close to him really don't want to know what goes on. If it's true that "what happens in the French Quarter stays in the French Quarter," then the real reason is because no one is asking. When he leaves town, the responsible safety net around him takes a collective deep breath and can only fully exhale when he returns to the fold safe and sound.

But that misunderstands the purpose of such a trip. All of those behaviors I listed up above, for the most part, are minor, occasional, sometimes only-happened-once aspects of such a trip. They are not the focus. They are not sources of danger or risk in any significant way. Yeah, one of our ranks almost got kicked in the head by a police horse, one regularly embarassses himself on the karaoke stage, one tends to drop a couple of hundred dollars in the casino each trip, one likes the cheap drinks in the Chart Room, but so what?

What really happens, what really makes a manboy trip so productive is that the men involved compare notes. They spend perhaps 80% of such a trip doing exactly that. Men need to debrief with each other about work (theirs and others), about marriage, about children or career paths, about, in the broadest sense, what is working and isn't working in their lives. While those on the outside think that their men are off doing things that they need to turn a blind eye (or several) to, in fact, their men are rejuvenating themselves for nothing more than a return to the fold. With nothing to hunt, with nothing to gather, they are simply out in the "wilderness" reminding themselves of what is there as a rev up for domesticity. And so, manboying is essential.

Sure, when he gets back, your man may be a little coarser, may drive a little faster, may go to the fridge for one more beer than he usually has, but those are just leftovers. If anything, as this last trip demonstrated, men disappoint each other more than anything else. They arrive in the Emerald City with grand visions of debauchery and end up (for the most part) in bed before midnight, bloated on beer or po-boys or maybe just freedom. They can't gorge on too much of it before their bodies shut down.

Or, depending on their ages, they may reach that crystalline moment when they realize, hey, I'm the oldest person in this bar or hey, this song I'm singing is older than most of the people in this room. Or, hey, it will be nice go to bed a little early and sleep in as long as I want and maybe eat something tomorrow that someone might tell me I shouldn't be eating, but this one time I can enjoy it guilt free. Is that rebellion?

I know nothing of women trips. I only know that my wife went on one and really didn't like it. But I can only hope that, in their perfect state, they accomplish the same things our manboy trips do--allow us to talk way more about doing than what we'd actually ever do, enable us to talk safely about sensitive issues, push us to step only tentatively and slightly across whatever lines we might have drawn for ourselves. And go to Krystal at midnight for a double cheese Krystal and a Chili-Cheese Pup, if we so desire. Somehow, that's living.

See you next year, boys. I hope. Or men.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Dear Mr. Olyphant...

Dream On Cowboy - Flesh For Lulu (mp3)
Bad Boyfriend - Garbage (mp3)

For the fourth time over Spring Break, I found myself drifting back into the land of the vulgar and wild west known as DEADWOOD. Or, what I’ve called The Greatest Show Ever On Television.

The only current television show I’m watching with loyalty is JUSTIFIED, currently in its second season on F/X network.

These two shows have many things in common, but one stares at you with piercing eyes so potent you actually worry your corneas might bleed if you stare back too long. The owner of those eyes is Seth Bullock a.k.a. Raylan Givens a.k.a. Timothy Olyphant.

I’ve never been shy about my man crushes because they’re not particularly sexual in nature. It’s possible for a man -- on an admittedly rare occasion, I grant you -- to actually find himself drawn powerfully to another person without it having the slightest thing to do with his pecker. I get the impression women are generally more comfortable with this feeling, some strange mixture of admiration and attraction. Men don’t seem willing to cop to it as easily.

When I first witnessed the storm that is Timothy Olyphant in the prurient yet highly enjoyable teen flick “The Girl Next Door,” I certainly hoped I was making acquaintance with a man I’d meet again. He managed to make the bad guy both frightening and charismatic. He was both bully and enemy to fratboys and preppie snots the world over. He was the kind of character who, in an S.E. Hinton novel, would have had a compelling back story and been the protagonist for whom we cheered.

“The Girl Next Door” wasn’t his debut. He cut his teeth slowly up the ladder, including a related if slightly more sadistic and evil version in GO. But TGND was the film that launched him into the next level.

Since my obsession with DEADWOOD began, I’ve managed to watch almost everything Olyphant has been in. It’s weird how that works. And it’s not just this one guy.

I chase around Ian McShane a.k.a. Al Swearengen, too. Hell, I watched every minute of that show KINGS. I think I was the only human on the planet who did, and I still argue that if McShane's character was just one time allowed to say "c**ksucker," ratings would've shot through the f**kin' roof. And if Nathan Fillion sneezes on camera, I’m likely to be sure I see it at least once. I don’t even think CASTLE is that good a show, but I watch because I loves me some Nathan, and his cop pal ain’t so bad herself, neither.

But Olyphant’s collection is especially impressive for being both understated yet strong.

Stop-Loss. A Perfect Getaway. The Crazies (as zombie horror films go, this one’s very good and unusually accessible for the non-zombie types out there). A turn in the second season of Damages. And then his portrayal of a Kentucky lawman come home to roost in JUSTIFIED.

F/X just announced that they have renewed ol’ Raylan Givens for a third season. Ratings for season two are up. Even though I don’t think this season is one hair’s breadth better than the first, I don’t mind if some folks are late to a great party so long as the party keeps going.

Dude, you can even make a friggin' STAR WARS reference and still bleed coolness!



Don’t worry, Timothy. I don’t want to marry you, and I don’t want to be some repressed Felix Unger in your midst. But even if you’re only half as damn cool and charismatic as the characters you play, feel free to upload some of that into the cloud and share it with all us nerdy scrawny awkward types. We sure would be mighty obliged.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Rorschach Test

Melancholy Bridge - Kacy Crowley (mp3)
Lonely Boy - Andrew Gold (mp3)

An old man lives there. His clothes are raggedy, and he wears a moth-eaten sportscoat over torn white pajamas. His hair and overlong beard are more salt than pepper. And overalls. He has overalls on, too. But not a dog. His dog died many years before. As did his wife. She died many years before the dog. And he didn’t have any children. Or maybe he did, and they left him. They gave up on him. Maybe he wasn’t there enough for them, and now it’s irreparable.
It’s quite possible I have crossed over Thrasher Bridge a thousand times in my life. The bridge, which crosses over the Chickamauga Dam in Chattanooga, looks out to the west upon a railroad bridge some 300 yards away. Atop that old, bronzed and rusted metal structure, in the middle of the water’s width, sits a once-white house now gray from time and pollution. The house has no yard. It has no porch or deck. It barely has room for a front door and a walkway wide enough to stand outside.

I first remember seeing it when I was five or six. No telling how long it had been there. Must’ve been a bitch to build.

In railroad-speak, I’m sure this house has a very specific and vital function. In fact, it’s probably not called a house at all. Probably has some railroady name like “overlook station” or something. But I formed my story on this one early in life, and I’m not about to go let an education get in the way of my imagination in this particular instance.


Because this house has been the focus of my attention off and on for more than 30 years, how I see it and the characters I’ve invented to live in that structure have become an undeniable Rorschach Test on where I am at a given moment.

As a small kid, I remember thinking that house must be awesome. It’s so high up you could see practically anything. You had this awesome pool surrounding your house. You could dive in right off the front stoop. You could hop a train as it passed underneath and travel practically the whole world. Anything was possible.

In my teenage years, I thought more about Rapunzel. The house was a prison, and some teenage boy had been locked away up there. His job was merely to observe and report on all he saw from his perch. His punishment was to be limited in his interactions to merely that: observing and reporting. He could never actually do. Only see.

In my 20s, I thought the house would make the perfect location for a superhero base. He could get anywhere in the city quickly by way of rail, water or roadways, and the metallic column supporting his house could easily hide vehicles specific to each need, because no one looked that closely. He could have a secret drop that went alllll the way to the bottom of the river -- kinda like the firepole Batman would ride to his cave in the TV show. It was both the perfect Fortress of Solitude and efficient gateway to anywhere.

Lately, I’ve seen that sad old man. Loved ones have died. He’s living up there by choice, a prison of his own choosing. In some sense, he’s similar to the Rapunzel character of my teenage vision, but now he’s his own warden, his own captor, and the only reason he doesn’t come down is because he doesn’t want to, or can’t find the courage, or doesn’t see the point.

Prior to this latest version, the house's primary resident has always been some direct version of myself. The wild and fancy free version of childhood. The trapped teenage prisoner. The superhero atop a world of possibility. But this last one, the old man, I try to imagine him as someone else.

At times, I think this is because I’ve grown wiser, that I've begun connecting the house and its fancied inhabitant with the people around me, with circumstances beyond my own self-absorption. Other times, I’m pretty sure it’s because I’ve memorized that scene from The Empire Strikes Back, and I know if the light saber slices off that old man's facade, the face emerging from the smoke just might perfectly reflect my own.

Anyways.

Anyways, it's a cool house to stare at whilst driving across the bridge.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

How It All Ends

James Vincent McMorrow--"This Old Dark Machine"(mp3)


It started with a question from the guy selling the movie tickets: "Adult or Senior?"

I paused for a second. "Adult," I finally answered, but I had my own question, internally, which was, do I look like a senior citizen.? Gray hair, for sure, but beyond that? I don't know. I think my step is still pretty spry, but then, so are many of theirs. And I don't really know when the "Senior citizen's discount" kicks in at a Florida movie theater. 55? 65? Do they keep pushing it upwards like my Social Security-related "retirement age"?

There was a time about ten years ago when I relished being both "carded" for a drink and offered a "Senior citizen's discount" at a movie in the same week. Clearly, those days have passed.

No matter. I headed towards my movie, Martians Invade L.A. To Find Moms, or something like that. Hey, it was a Spring Break afternoon, I wanted to see a movie, so I picked one that looked like it would be okay, based on the poster outside the theater. But when I walked into the theater, which was all the way down at the end and then all the way to the right, there was no one in there. No one. I don't know about you, but that kind of creeps me out. I don't know what I think would happen, but whatever it might be, nobody's coming to the rescue.

So, I punted, went with my second choice, The Lincoln Lawyer. I'm not a fan of Matthew McConaughey's acting ability, but I figured he had the natural chops to play a sleazy lawyer, and I do like Marisa Tomei's chops. So I decided I deserved some popcorn and a drink to go with my new movie.

Armed with some sustenance, I entered my second theater. It, too, was hardly crowded less than ten minutes before it was supposed to start. An older couple sat a couple of rows up; another older couple a few rows above them. I decided on the second row of the risers, second seat in. Now, I know that violates the "creeper rule" I've often explained to my children (you never sit next to an open aisle seat because it leaves you vulnerable to the late-arriving solo weirdo), but I figured it wasn't going to be crowded, so what difference could it make?

An older gentleman arrived and sat in the row in front of me, a few seats over, in one of those stadium seats that reclines back. He kept looking back at me, but I didn't know why, so I concentrated on my popcorn. Within seconds, a trio of elderly women arrived, or maybe two older women and a daughter, and, surveying the mostly-empty theater, decided that they were going to sit in my row.



"I'll bet you can't believe we're going to sit here," one of them said as I rose and they slid past.

"I am surprised," I said. They sat, the closest with one seat between her and me.

Then the two women that the gentleman from the row in front had been waiting for arrived with their snacks, and they settled in, and leaned back in their recliners. This caused some consternation among my three row mates, who, after some raised eyebrows and whispered discussion, looked my way and then all moved one seat closer to me. "They told me to sit next to you," the closest one said.

"No problem," I responded lamely. Within just a couple of minutes, I had gone from sharing the imminent film with my popcorn and root beer, to having 60% of the audience in a room that seats hundreds sitting within ten feet of me.

Then another threesome of mixed elderly people entered from the left, and took the three recliner seats in front of me. My next-door-neighbor leaned over and said confidentially, "Watch out. If they lean back, you're toast." I watched out.

Then, I guess an entire bus arrived. In streamed some 15-20 more senior citizens who scoped out the whole theater and decided to sit, you guessed it, in the two rows directly behind me. I started to sweat, feeling the slightest bit claustrophobic and wondering where I could flee to. Back to the Martians? My neighbor must have noticed, because she remarked, "You're really in the thick of it now."

"I didn't expect to be so popular," I said.

"Maybe we're after your popcorn."

I had no response, and, really, none was needed, because the population of my movie sub-division had reached some kind of critical mass and suddenly burst into a dozen or more overlapping conversations on topics I can't remember, until we got to the previews and I could hear various women's voices commented on the trailer ("That looks good" or "Isn't he handsome").

I began to wonder if everyone would keep talking during the movie. Oddly, I was the irritated adult and they were the teenagers having too good a time to be clued-in to their surroundings. I guess that's how it all ends.

But, no worries. When the movie started they all settled down and we all settled into the plot. My elderly compadres enjoyed the same one-liners that I might have laughed at were I not so self-conciously not a senior citizen. "You got more balls than a Chinese ping-pong tournament!" another character told McConaughy's lawyer at one point. That certainly brought some giggles. It's all context, you know. If you work a movie theater in a town full of retirees, of course you're going to ask if someone is a senior citizen or not. And, if you are visiting that town for Spring Break, no worries for you either. If you keep coming back over enough years, eventually you'll fit right in with those seniors.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Floridaville

Vic Chestnutt--"Florida" (mp3)
Guadalcanal Diary--"The Likes Of You" (mp3)

Back in the 1980's, when my grandmother lived in Ft. Lauderdale and my in-laws were just settling into their new condo in Venice, Florida, the concept of "Floridaville" smacked me in the face.

What is it, you ask? Floridaville is the idea, conceived by real estate developers, that old people don't want to have to drive very far for the services, stores, and entertainments that they desire and require, and so it becomes possible and profitable to repeat those same stores and services every few miles.

At that time, 20 or more years ago, this was only happening in Florida. And it has never stopped. I noticed during my trip to the condo this summer that now there are two Publix grocery stores within 2 miles of each other on the same road, just in opposite directions from the entrance of that large retirement community.

Now, of course, we all live in Floridaville.

Whether it's Starbucks or Bi-Lo, McDonald's or Panera , we can climb into our cars and pick four or five different directions to get to one of our favorite franchises. And now that they've got us hooked on so many prescription drugs, we can find drug stores a block away, across the street from each other, down the road, and every place in between.

This strikes me as insidious. You may remember that scene from the movie, Brazil, where the main character is driving out of town and lining both sides of the road are non-stop billboards. But, hell, we don't even need that. Why advertise a place on a big sign when if people will just drive a little farther down the road, they'll run into it anyway?

Or, take as an example, Starbucks. I know many of my compadres enjoy the convenience of a close-by Starbucks (remember when there was only one Starbucks outpost in all of Chattanooga?) for upscale coffee and romantic trysts, but, in spite of Starbucks' ability to imprint its brand and make it ubiquitous everywhere from Target to Timbuktu, Starbucks only seems like good coffee until you taste great coffee, and then you realize that Starbucks over-roasts their beans and clings to the notion that bitter=gourmet. Most Chattanoogans will never figure that out because the lag time just to get Starbucks here means that we still think it's cool to go there. And, heck, you'd have to drive across town to have even a shot of getting a better cup.

See, what you gain in Floridaville is convenience, but what you lose is choice. Or maybe something worse is happening: when you live in Floridaville, you lose your desire for choice.

Because now choice requires effort and choice might cost a bit more and choice is unpredicatable. You know you'll get the exact same breakfast at every Cracker Barrel from Minnesota to Mississippi; in fact, the menu is pretty much imprinted in your brain, if you're like me, so why take a chance on some seedy-looking place along the side of the road that looks like it's been there forever and needs a paint job? So what if their biscuits are far superior to what comes out of the Cracker Barrel box?

Perhaps all of this seems like much ado about nothing when the examples concern food and drugstores. Though, as we all know, it is easy to add clothing, books, cars, phones, colleges and God knows what else to the list.

If you've ever read Brave New World, then you know that we're living it. But here's the twist: instead of cloning us, as the societal directors do in the novel, manufacturing the human race using the assembly line techniques of Henry Ford, they've cloned everything else. Just about every single aspect of our lives has been cloned. And in doing so, they've pretty much succeeded in cloning us. They've achieved the uniformity of thought and behavior that they desired, but they did it through products, stores, good, and services, through brands and labels and logos of status.

And, cleverly, they've put so many products on the shelves and so many different chains to shop in that they've succeeded also in creating the illusion of choice. My daughter came home from school the other day furious that one of her friends was wearing the same thing that she already owned and that her friend had seen her wearing. 'She shouldn't have bought it,' the thinking goes, 'I had it first.'

But when we've been conditioned to act so that people of the same class and status shop in the same stores, drink the same drinks, swallow the same pills, how realistic an attitude can that be?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Trouble I Seen

The following was originally posted on February 19, 2009.


Fall on Tears - Love Spit Love
King of Pain (live) - Alanis Morrissette

Random things I've recently witnessed and can't shake:

A spider was spinning its web between two of my office chairs the other morning during a meeting. A co-worker bent down, pulled the spider up by its thread, and dangled it for everyone to see. Then he took that spider, placed it in a corner, and let it crawl away. I would have just stepped on it. My choice would likely have gone unchallenged, and no one would have been too upset with me. Just a damn spider, after all. But my co-worker's actions inspired us all to pause and consider what he'd just done. Mercy is a quiet but powerful force.

A bulldozer spent the weekend leveling an area across the street from us. It would scoop up dirt, drive up the hill, and dump it onto a mud pile. Several times it scooped up some plastic tarp that had been laid out. At one point, the dozer dumped out the dirt, but the tarp wouldn't come off. It had just barely wrapped itself around one of the teeth, and most of it was dangling on the earth pile. The dozer's driver was shaking that blade up and down, back and forth, but the tarp wouldn't come off. At some point, I expected him to step down and pull it off with his hands, but he never did. He just kept jostling that blade for several minutes. Finally, he backed up and then drove the blade right into the dirt mount with speed that suggested tremendous frustration. When he backed up a second time, the tarp was gone, buried underneath the pile. Even with our biggest and strongest technologies, we still get caught up on tiny distractions.

A squirrel failed to properly latch on during what looked to be a routine tree-to-tree jump outside our house. It fell some 30 feet, thudding onto our back yard. It stopped for only a second, perhaps to catch its breath or make sure all its body parts were in tact, before running like hell back up the same tree out of which it had just fallen. Even squirrels must believe the devil you know is better than the devil you don't.

At the casino last week, I entered the restroom to attend to personal matters only to open a stall door and see a large pile of pudding-esque shit on the tiles two feet before the toilet. As my eyes scrolled up to the toilet, I saw that the guilty party had removed his underwear and simply dropped that soiled item into the water. Some elderly man must have held on a few seconds too long, perhaps for one extra spin on the slots, and failed to make it in time. He chose to go commando rather than try and find some other way out of that bathroom with any of his dignity in tact. Acceptable loss. Collateral damage unavoidable.

On our drive home, on the side of Alabama Highway 27, a mangy dog gave one last try at standing up. It had been hit, and fairly recently. Although there was no blood, the back half of its body had clearly been crushed by the impact. None of us had a way of putting it down, and it would never have made it to a vet, so we kept driving. I looked back to see the tan, short-haired dog -- must've been part Boxer, maybe part Lab -- merely lay down on its side and put its face down onto the cold gravel. I kept staring back at him until we went over a hill, but he never moved again. Watching a creature suffer prior to an inevitable death is always more agonizing than seeing it already dead, even if we have no control over either situation and exist only to serve as a witness. Yet, if given the choice, we would always want to be with our loved ones in their final moments.

Driving the four blocks from home to work and going slowly over a speed hump, I passed a Barbie doll, completely undressed, sprawled out on the curbside, inches from the road. Her hair was tangled and wild. One of her shoes had fallen into the road. Otherwise no clothes were around. The life of a homicide detective must be like placing your heart in battery acid.

"Fall on Tears," one of my favorite songs from the '90s, is from Trysome Eatone. Alanis' version of "King of Pain," which is certainly not as good as the original but not at all bad, is from her MTV Unplugged album. Both can be found on iTunes or Amazon.com's mp3 site.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Divine Inspiration?

Louque--"Cry, Cry" (mp3)
Louque--"Time Will Take" (mp3)

You know, we are coming up on our 1-year "Blog-a-bration (yes, good seats are still available, but we don't know where it will take place)," and I would be remiss not to dip my toe at least a little bit into the pool of our inspiration.

Billy and I have been friends for years, and way back when, I was even his teacher and he was my student. But, that was a long time ago, and those roles have changed sometimes, become blurred sometimes. I admit, for example, that I knew nothing about Hanson until I read of Billy's hero-worship for those land-locked boys from the Midwest.

But the idea for the blog came to me in New Orleans, that greatest of American cities. It was down there on our annual pilgrimage that I thought, 'Ya know, Billy and I might be able to make some beautiful music together.' Beautiful or not, here we are almost a year later.

I feel like New Orleans hovers in the background of almost every post we write. It has probably been six months or more since Billy and I took stock of the blog, and he said,"And, you know, we haven't even talked about New Orleans yet." That was when we wondered if we would have enough topics to keep going.

I was at a concert the other night, a Dan Crary concert, at a strange little venue just down the street from school. Sidebar: Dan Crary is one of the great flat-picking guitarists of the last 40 years, and it was quite an honor to experience the range of his abilities (For those keeping track of my New Year's Resolutions, that is Concert #2 in 2009--I've got to do better). Anyway, I ran into a friend there, a woman whose conservatism is currently consuming her like a fatal disease, and among her many rants over a 10-minute monologue was the anti-Global Warming rant, which centered on her visit to New Orleans this year, where she argued that it was ridiculous for us as a country to spend one dime on a city like New Orleans that is not "viable." I wanted to punch her in the face, something I have rarely done to a woman (or a man). In fact, never.

New Orleans holds such a place in my psyche that I cannot imagine it not existing. I cannot imagine people existing who don't want it to exist. When I think of going places, it is the place that I want to go to. During Katrina and the aftermath, I never turned on the television to see the devastation. Neither did any member of my family. We heard, but we didn't want to see. We bought a book a couple of years later and were amazed at what we saw. But, I guess what we should have realized is that floodwaters and tragedy merely (and I don't mean to suggest lighty, but rather matter-of-factly) add another layer to the city that evolves more overtly and quickly than any other place I've been.

There is a temptation to say that New Orleans is most like a European city and that that notion explains its charm. I disagree. While it has some of the age and the history of a European city, New Orleans' own qualities are unique because in some ways there has been more of a compression of time, so that not only have all of the different layers of culture followed more closely upon one another, sometimes they have not even followed, but existed concurrently. This is why the food, the music, the architecture, the people, the outlook are so different from anywhere else. Unlike, say, New York, which will have its Italian sections and its Russian sections and its Middle Eastern sections and every other section, in New Orleans, everything has always blended together. There is no Chinatown in New Orleans. If and when there is a Chinese, or as is currently the case, an Hispanic influence, it will almost immediately be assimilated into the other influences already in place. Which is not to suggest any particular tolerance or acceptance, since races have struggled against each other in New Orleans since the start, and, in many ways, that still continues.

Somehow, when I'm in New Orleans, I feel more alive. I never hang out in my hotel room; to do so feels like I am cheating myself and wasting life. Even the very basic decision of where to eat lunch can be a crucial decision, a chance for enlightenment, a reach for transcendence. Perhaps because of the quirks of its history, New Orleans seems like a place that, paradoxically, never takes itself for granted while also resigning itself to forces and changes beyond its control. And, I've come to realize that like every other thing of beauty, New Orlean's beauty is dependent upon that very transience and fragilty.

If you are coming to this post a little late, by the time you read it, with any luck, both Billy and I will already be in New Orleans. Rest assured that whatever happens there, we will have stockpiled enough posts to see us through those days and until we return to this outer world with its washed-out colors and muted tastes and sameness of days.


Louque's one and only CD (that I know of) is availabe at Itunes. They are a contemporary band from New Orleans.

Monday, March 21, 2011

FROM THE ARCHIVES: A Little Light in the Belfry

This was originally posted on October 16, 2008. Reposted with permission from the author. Well, I'm the author. And I gave permission to myself.

Tennessee (Live) - The Wreckers
1000 Miles Away - Hoodoo Gurus


We ate lunch Tuesday at a little restaurant called Bandon Boatworks in Bandon, Oregon. Its existence thrives on the view from its western windows, which look directly out to the town's centerpiece, the Bandon Lighthouse.

This is the first lighthouse I've ever seen.

The view of this inlet, of the Pacific, of this lighthouse, stirred a range of emotions, all which likely speak more to my psychology than to the view itself.

As we have driven up the coastline over the past two days, often driving mere feet from the edge of huge cliffs, staring out into the vast blue eternity of the Pacific, I've felt two seemingly countervailing forces: yearning and loneliness. Something about being able to stare into a place where the blue of the horizon barely distinguishes itself from the blue of the sky, but knowing how much is out there in The Great Beyond makes one yearn. I look out and think how little I know, how little I've seen, how little I am. Were I raised on this coast, I'm conifdent I would have hopped on a boat by now and made my way out there. Perhaps just to fish, but maybe to see distant lands. All I know is, you look out there, and suddenly your own backyard feels confined, like a prison.

Yet... it's also so very lonely. I look out into that emptiness and am so powerfully grateful to be surrounded (metaphorically, not physcially) by loved ones, family, friends. That ocean is huuuuuge. Isolating.

These two feelings -- yearning and loneliness -- are sisters.

You can't long for something more, something different, something better, without a willingness to leave behind those things that make you comfortable. Finding success (or change) requires neglecting the safety of home, of confinement. At some point, if you yearn strongly enough, you're willing to pay that toll of loneliness to get where you long to be.

It's lonely at the top, they say. It's probably lonely trying to climb there, too. (Or, to keep from mixing metaphors, it's lonely trying to sail there, too.)


Then there are lighthouses. All the cliches about them, all the obsession with them, are definitely the stuff of eye-rolls. The love of lighthouses is no better or worse than some people's obsessions with penguins or panda bears or unicorns. There's nothing original about these fascinations. Yet seeing it with my own eyes, I felt these cliches in my own heart, and they felt very genuine. They didn't feel worn. They didn't feel boring. Seeing these lighthouses all along the coastal drive feels invigorating, warm, and hopeful.
They are the story of the Prodigal Son, the story of hope, the story of homecoming, the story of refuge. They are also a reminder that we have a greater responsibility to our neighbors, and to strangers, if we are on solid ground and they are adrift or lost.

Human nature is to yearn, to carry this longing to be more, do more, see more. But some must remain ashore, shine a light out into the vast darkness, and be anchors on which others can depend. Those who have the courage to go out into the ocean of possibility earn my respect. But those who work the lighthouses are the true heroes.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

fun. the band. (Plus: It's Really Fun to Dance!)

Barlights - fun. (mp3)
Bullet - Steel Train (mp3)

NOTE: Bob and I depart for the birthplace of our child today. We’re bound for New Orleans along with two other annual journeymen, all of us desperate to escape the maddening normalcy of our daily routines only long enough to remember we miss it and enjoy it.

We will drink. We will eat. We will be merry. And tomorrow we, hopefully, will live.

In honor of some of our favorite shows, we will spend next week re-posting some of our more beloved posts from the last three years. What I’ve quickly learned in glancing back randomly at previous entries is that, over time, our readership has kept changing. We’ve held onto a handful of the same regulars, but others have come and gone, and new people keep stumbling on us, with a few hanging out and adding their insights to the mix.

So odds are many of you have never actually read most of what we wrote, and you’re probably better off for it, but these are a small sampling of stuff we wrote that we’d like you to remember or to experience for the first time.

We’ll start Monday. Or maybe earlier if we’re feeling really keen.
In the meantime, I’d briefly like to share my experience at the fun. concert in Atlanta this winter.


fun. -- that’s the name of the band. Three small letters and a period. The lead singer used to be the dude behind The Format. He apparently likes vague names that screw with Google. But the name “fun.” is appropriate, because that’s kind of what the music is. fun for the tortured soul. Which is why they have no capital letters and that persnickety period.

Anyway, I had the exquisite pleasure of seeing them in Atlanta, and they were everything I expected and several hundred amphetamines’ worth of energy and bombast more than that. What made the show so incredibly memorable was how totally devoted to the lyrics the entire packed standing-room-only crowd were.

The thing about fun. songs is, he packs a lot of words in his songs. Like, a lot a lot. So it’s not easy to know those songs, especially in the 21st Century when few of us actually buy the CD or album and sit down with headphones on and read the lyric sheet as we listen nonstop to the album three straight times until 2 a.m. (Uh, yeah, I totally used to do that when I was in high school and had no life.)

My point is, if you can come away from a fun. concert not feeling better about life, about music, about why musicians sacrifice money and happiness and health and relationships for the chance to perform on a stage in front of fans and the uninitiated, then you are not in possession of a human heart and human ears. You are an alien.


This particular fun. concert also rekindled another memory of concerts past: the kick-ass opening act.

In college, here are the bands I fell in love with because they opened for another band I loved. I discovered Weezer, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Gin Blossoms, Lemonheads and the Connells all because they opened for other bands in Chapel Hill.

At fun., the opening act was a New Jersey band of Hip Jewish Men better known as STEEL TRAIN. (I put them in caps. I think you can write it normal-like.)

I didn’t like them right away. They were energetic, but something about that first song didn’t quite sell me. But they were so intense, and they were determined to have fun, and they eventually forced you to pay attention to them. By the third or fourth song, they had earned the full attention of most of the crowd -- if you know opening acts, you know this just doesn’t always happen -- and then they went wacky on us, and I knew I would have to support them.

They explained that they had recorded a song for Yo Gabba Gabba, the trippy kids television program. And they sang it. And it was exactly what you’d expect an indie rock band song made for Yo Gabba Gabba to be. Goofy and simple and utterly infectious.

So, in honor of the spirit with which I depart tomorrow for New Orleans, I offer you a song by fun., a song by Steel Train, and an embedded YouTube video of the latter performing their Yo Gabba Gabba hit, “It’s Fun to Dance.” If you listen to these songs and watch this video, you can close your eyes and, for just a few minutes, know exactly the kind of emotions I’m feeling as I sit in a bar in the French Quarter (or dance in one).

Cheers!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What's Tragic

"O Gertrude, Gertrude,
When sorrows come, they come not single spies
But in battalions."

--Shakespeare


Vic Chestnutt--"Sponge" (mp3)
Vic Chestnutt--"Where Were You" (mp3)

Sometimes the tragedies of the world become so overwhelming that I don't know what to do, don't what to think, don't know how to process. I mean, I'm just looking around right now, at photographs and videos, at maps, at a smattering of news stories, at email exchanges, even at distasteful jokes that are already surfacing, and I really cannot conceive of a single action that I should take. Checking in in that American, Internet way in Japan, in the Middle East, in South America, in Mexico, I am frozen.

It feels to me like the entire world is frozen. Okay, maybe not frozen, just wading through jello. Countries, even. Countries like ours know how to throw money, troops, resources, food, or pretty much anything else at a problem, but that's just it--we throw it. Much of the time, we throw whatever it is away. We seem to mobilize too slowly, too late. It doesn't get where it should go. It doesn't accomplish what it is supposed to.
Our country reminds me of the communication system that is much of the problem in the book (and film) Black Hawk Down. In trying to steer a convoy through Mogadishu to a helicopter crash site, an airplane flying overhead relays directions to a command helicopter flying beneath who then tells the lead vehicle in the convoy which way to turn. By the time the convoy gets the message, they have missed the turn they were supposed to make, make a later turn on command, and then get even more lost.

We are so wrapped up in the political ramifications of what we do that we cannot mobilize efficiently anywhere. You may think that I am referring to a particular, unnamed situation. I am not. I am merely staring on screens and phones at the latest round of tragedies.

A friend and I were sitting at lunch today, trying to work through our job frustrations and he asked me what we should do. I gave him the same answer that I gave a different friend at lunch yesterday: "We should do the best job that we can and then go home."

I know that is not particularly insightful or brilliant. I don't even know if I believe it.

But in this mini-society that we work in here, even if we could fix the problems that enter or affect our respective realms, there would still be so many beyond our grasp that I doubt that we would find much satisfaction from our small victories. We would either see each solution opening a new set of problems or we might look past the ones that affect us the most to the ones are even larger, even more systemic. Maybe I'm wrong. I also suspect it's pretty much the same everywhere. Maybe I'm wrong about that, too.

After two lunches like this, as kind of a half-joke, I sent my two lunch friends "The Serenity Prayer." You know how it goes:

The Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
Amen.

--Reinhold Niebuhr

It offers sound, if generalized, advice. Its opening statement is as powerful as it gets, were it only possible to know how to figure out the difference between those two parts of our lives. Certainly, wisdom worth asking for. That prayer, with its fixed gaze toward the next life, was to have been a nod to Billy's post yesterday as well.

But it got blocked from delivery by the school's firewall. "The Serenity Prayer." Blocked as spam.

I know that should be funny and ironic. But it hit me differently. It felt more like this layer of cyber-protection was yet another way that we are being controlled into inactivity, that the efforts to maintain what we have make us feel secure enough that we don't have to look outward. What was it about this innocuous poem that suggested to our technology that it was a threat?

Telling someone to do a good job and then go home is either wonderful, wise, if obvious, counsel or it is an extension of a kind of self-serving helplessness, a narcissistic defense. Tonight, I'm not sure which. Yes, I look around, locally and globally, and I don't know what to do. I go online and look at lists of what I can do, and they say nothing to me. Sending money, collecting t-shirts, offering prayers, wishing for regime change, begging for the disappearance of invisible, toxic clouds, all of that carries the same weightless futility. Tonight, I can only say to the world and its various peoples, I'm sorry for what is happening to you right now. I hope it gets better. That isn't much, I know.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

When We All Get to Heaven

Somewhere In the Middle - Casting Crowns (mp3)
Everything'll Be Made Right - Superdrag (mp3)

Hipster youngster pastor Rob Bell has published a controversial new book, Love Wins. In it, he apparently offers the not-particularly-radical notion that Hell is either very small, temporary, or non-existent. If you want to watch his very intriguing "trailer" video for his book, watch here.

(Side note: For another recent version of this argument, see If Grace is True, a book I happened to like a whole lot, thankee.)

I first read Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis about six years ago and enjoyed it, although it felt like it was written in 5-minute spurts, as if he just jotted stuff down every time he sat down on the john. But it had its moments, and I found it to be a worthy side reading project for wayward lib’ral Christians, much like Blue Like Jazz.

I’ve known four pastors and preachers well enough to have had intense and personal conversations with them, and I’m related to two more, one of whom was my grandfather, whose fiery Baptist sermons were counteracted by private journal entries where he expressed one doubt after another about his own faith. I know two more who are about to finish or have recently finished seminary. Of those six men and two women, every last one of them has “The Gospel I Believe” and “The Gospel I Preach,” and with all of them, those two Gospels aren’t the same Gospel. They have a lot in common. Probably 80-percent of them are the same. But all of them have beliefs or doubts or concerns in their personal beliefs that get covered up, glossed over, or ignored when preaching publicly.

And all of their responses, in private, are along these lines: My congregation “can’t handle it,” or “isn’t spiritually open to it,” or “would kick me out on my dainty bum.”

I’m not saying confidently that There Is No Hell. I’m not confident about much when it comes to Christianity. I only know what I hope, and I know this hope has nothing to do with my own selfish desires. It’s not for my own protection or sense of being, but because it seems the most just.

And it’s this: We all get to heaven on airplanes.

The most saintly among us, like Mother Theresa, get private Lear Jets that fly them immediately up. The very faithful and good get first class and are sent off the runway in expedient fashion. The highly flawed are forced to sit on the runway for several years, not allowed to use the bathroom or unbuckle, and forced to sit next to the people you were most judgmental towards in your lifetime. (I mostly put myself in this category, but I might be shooting too high.)

The malicious, the cruel, the rabid disbelievers, and those whose misguided faith led them to do the most harm to others in the name of God, they’re forced to endure several decades of layovers. They don’t get hotel vouchers. They sleep, night after night, on uncomfortable airport chairs. They eat nothing but poorly-cooked fast food that rips the stomach up. The Starbucks is permanently closed due to repairs. The heat doesn't work. They don’t get Wi-Fi, and the cell reception constantly drops out at exactly the wrong times. The bathrooms smell and never get cleaned, and bile randomly spews forth from the toilets. And the only reading or viewing material is a recording of all the horrible things they’ve done in their lives, mixed in with all the good things they could have done had they taken different paths.

The only way their plane finds a pilot is when they have a Bill Murray-esque moment from Groundhog Day. When they finally accept their mistakes and repent for their destructive or wasted lives, they are granted passage and taken up.

Finally, there are those who choose separation. That’s, according to the wise old Milton, precisely what Satan chose. He was the first rebel. And maybe there are just those in our midst who, after death and granted full and total enlightenment, would still choose to remain separate. I cannot imagine a God who would force us to do anything, so I guess they’ll get their wish.

Maybe this makes me a Unitarian, or a Universalist. Maybe this makes me sacrilegious. Maybe this guarantees I’m gonna be stuck in that airport for several painful lifetimes. I’m sure I deserve it.

But one day, somehow, I’ll get there. And so will you. And when we meet, hopefully God will let us listen to some of our favorite music, even if it was a song by Judas Priest.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Casino Life

I feel a little bit like I'm stealing this topic from Billy, but I thought he'd have written about it by now, so what the heck. Maybe he will weigh in on this topic, too, since he sees a side of casinos that I don't...

Wilco--"Casino Queen" (mp3)
Clive Gregson and Boo Hewerdine--"Sin City" (mp3)

I harbor a certain fondness for places that are artificial and decadent--Las Vegas, cruise ships, the French Quarter, the tourist sections of Key West. Aside from the obvious connection of activities and vices, these places share another quality--they make you forget about time and the outside world.

My daughter's return from Disney World a few weekends ago has had me thinking about this very topic, though the truth is that I've never been to Disney World, even though it meets both of my criteria above, albeit in the guise of good, clean family fun. But that is perhaps a topic for another time. One of my favorite created decadent worlds is the casino.

On the surface, since I'm not much of a gambler, you wouldn't think that this would be so. After all, the last time I was in a casino, during Christmas vacation, I put $20 in a penny slot machine, elected to play every line available (if you aren't a slot player, a "penny" slot can cost you 50 cents or more, if you want to have a realistic chance of winning), pushed the play button one time, won immediately in the form of "free spins," and after these and numerous bonus rounds, my winnings totaled $80. From one push of a button. I immediately cashed out and didn't play another slot the rest of the night.

Nor do I go there to play poker. In fact, these days, I usually don't go unless my dad is paying, but that doesn't mean that I don't cherish my time there. Or my timelessness there. Or the wealth of experience. I've been to all manner of casino--the big themed ones in Vegas, the cruise ship diversions, the sad imitations in Tunica, the Indian reservation variety, even the docked riverboats on the Mississippi.

I entered my first casino in Las Vegas in 1980. A friend and I were driving cross-country to California and stopped in the magic city for a night or two. Back then, nothing was too high tech or sophisticated. In fact, one of the lures for us was that casinos advertised their "All-You-Can-Eat" buffets for $.99. That's right, ninety-nine cents. You got cheap roast beef, pre-fab mashed potatoes, lettuce and maybe a few carrot sticks and Thousand Island dressing (the only choice), jello, and chocolate pudding. Maybe a roll and butter.

We stayed at a Motel 6 and frequented the Circus, Circus casino. My friend, long-deceased by his own hand, fancied himself a skilled blackjack player who eventually came to believe, later in the trip, that we could subsist in Reno on his blackjack winnings, would spend his time at those tables while I tried to keep from losing anything at the prehistoric slot machines and video poker and blackjack games.

From my perspective, always somewhat on the outside, what drew me to casino life was the desperation. If you like to watch people, there is no better place than a chair in front of a slot machine in a casino. Especially if you like to watch people on the edge. Especially if you are desperate yourself. My dominant memory from that first trip is a non-descript bride in a light blue dress trailing behind her newly-minted husband through the room of games and machines, her special day sullied by his desire to spend part of that day living casino life.

Today, you can see the same desperation in simple details: the casino card on a lanyard around a woman's neck, as if somehow enough senseless spending will reap rewards (those rewards will be discounts to encourage future trips to the casino), the ATM receipt left hanging in the machine, someone in too much of a hurry to grab it, the empty drink glasses and full ashtrays stashed between machines (because now the drinks are free and you can even order them using a button on the slot machine), the photographs of winners as you walk into the casino (the amount they've won to make the wall far less than it used to be), the willingness of all of us to believe the happy, smiling faces of gamblers that we see on the billboards. Inside a casino, the real look of a gambler is weary resignation, the look of someone in it for the long haul. Even if someone wins, the celebration is brief, the joy is transitory. A win keeps you gambling; it does not change your life.

And so, gambling, at least on slot machines, is about buying time. You know that you are going to lose, that given enough pulls of that machine, everything that you have will be taken. But that is a deal that you are willing to make, as long as the house will make those machines loose enough that you can spend the evening in that fantasy land of stale smoke and no windows and not have to go back to that ATM too many times.

I have a friend with whom I've gambled a time or two, and his goal is to win. He plays the big slots, the dollar slots, because he thinks that that is what he has to do if he is going to make money on the transaction. (NOTE: if I were Bob Dylan, I would stop here to write a song about how if you have to win, you're bound to lose)

One time when we gambled together, he ran through all of his money in about 10 minutes, while another friend and I nursed our investments and chugged free drinks at the cheapest slots we could find. The other time we gambled, which was actually in the Las Vegas airport, my friend who has to win actually got up on machine, but couldn't let it go, had to keep pushing buttons until his early winnings had dissipated, and we boarded the plane with that sourness in both of our mouths.

All of which may have you wondering why, exactly, I am enamored with casinos. Well, put simply, I like to be in places where pretensions are stripped away. My friend who has to win is a good, church-going man, and his self-allowance to grapple with these machines shows him one of his true selves that he might not want to see, but that we all need to be reminded is there.

I am much the same. Though I have no weakness for gambling, there is no doubt that every time I pull a lever or push a button, I have visions of a bell-ringing, everyone rushing to my machine kind of victory, the hope against all odds, even as I remind myself that I am no different from a primate in a lab pushing a button repeatedly in hopes that, randomly, if I keep pushing that button enough, something good will happen. Sometimes it does. So, it might again.

Couple that with the fantasy element of living, however briefly, in a small, self-contained world with few rules and a singular purpose, and you've got me hooked--on the experience, at least.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Burn Out or Fade Away

Summer - Buffalo Tom (mp3)
So Fast So Numb - R.E.M. (mp3)

Why do successful bands refuse to die?

In the annals of humanity, few stories are as repetitive and inevitable as this: that we rage, rage against the dying of the light. We’ve romanticized the notion so heavily that, even when we don’t have any energy left in us, and even when we don’t have any rage left in us, we still refuse to embrace the Grim Reaper.

One of my coworkers’ mothers is 78 years old and just underwent septuple bypass open-heart surgery. The doctors and family pondered over it for a day or two. Sure, the surgery might fail, or it might kill her, but she had a 75-80 percent chance of making it.

A decade earlier, she had just wanted to see her dear grandson get married. If she could just see him get married and happy on his wedding day, she would die a happy grandma. But he went and got married while she was still plenty healthy, three years ago. So the deal changed. Now she wanted to see that first great-grandchild. If she could just see that, she could die happy.


I’m a spry 40. It’s easy for me to look at people who have lived almost two of my lifetimes and proclaim that they should accept death as an inevitable part of life and get right with their divine creator rather than finding massively expensive medical measures just to delay what cannot be stopped.

My mother turns 70 this year. My cavalier and callous attitude towards death upsets her greatly. “I guess I used to think that way. I know I did,” she’d say, shaking her head. “But now that I’m getting closer and closer to death’s door, I guess I’m just not all that excited about opening it yet. There’s more to be done. I want to see my granddaughters graduate high school. And college. And maybe if I’m lucky I can see my great-grandchildren born. And I still have a lot to contribute to our church, and to our family. I’m just not ready yet. Not nearly as ready as I thought I’d be 30 years ago.”

In other words, when death is a distant relative in a foreign land, we’re cool with him. When death is a next-door neighbor, we rally the association and do our best to get his ass removed from the premises at all costs. Even if we know damn well he has a right to live there, and even as his dog continues taking regular shits in our rhododendrons.

Perhaps it’s unfair of me to expect bands to approach death differently.

Beady Eye is Oasis Minus Noel Gallagher. It’s a band trying to sound like a band whose entire raison d'ĂȘtre was to riff off and amplify THE band of all bands. Or, put another way, it’s a band that just doesn’t want to accept that maybe they were already better off dead several albums ago.

R.E.M. has a new album out. The critics are all praising it and claiming it’s the best thing they’ve done in 15 years, since their vastly under-appreciated New Adventures in Hi-Fi. But if you look closer at these critics’ statements, it says the following: this album is a compilation of some of their biggest highlights over the last two-thirds of their career! In other words, what they do great with this album is to sound a lot like they already have previously. In other words, why not just compile a Greatest Hits 1997-2011? (Same exact things were said by critics when U2 came out with All That You Can’t Leave Behind, by the way.)

If the best you can do, as a band, is skillfully simulate a sound and a feeling you already created, aren’t you a zombie or a Xerox machine already and just don't know it?

But the story of rock, the story of successful performers, is similar to old people in general. Mick Jagger and my mother say the same things with different words. The closer these bands get to death, the more they want just one more milestone, just one more little reminder that they’ve lived the good life and fought the good fight.

I bought that Beady Eye album. I’ll probably buy the R.E.M. album. I’ve purchased recent albums by the Hooters, the BoDeans and Buffalo Tom, too. The more like family they’ve been in my music collection, the more my babbles about accepting mortality fail to match my actions of helping to keep them alive.

When the fit hits the shan, nobody likes saying goodbye to a loved one.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Scrabble, by any other name....

My Morning Jacket--"Wordless Chorus" (mp3)

STUDENT: hey mr b i just emailed you about the test, can i take it now

STUDENT: ill just take it and you decide what you want but it cxloses soon right

ME: Take it now where did you go I marked you absent

STUDENT: i sat in the library and studied for it...just took it matching pumbled mee

STUDENT: true and false i did alright tuff test


Bear with me. I will establish the relevance of the above conversation.

Like most Americans, I have a certain amount of disdain for any social trend that I am not a part of. Seen from the outside or from the distance of years, almost any fad looks stupid. Like culottes for women. But right now, I am absolutely in the thick of the "Words With Friends" craze that is sweeping through the ranks of anyone who has an Iphone or another way to play the game.

In case you don't know, it's Scrabble under another name. The difference is that instead of a family of four sitting on the living room rug with a bowl of popcorn in front of the fire, parents beaming at the words their children come up with but still making a point of beating them soundly, you play the game online, against an opponent from another phone, someone you know or don't. But the longer you play, the more you settle on people you know because those whom you've played pass your "Words With Friends" screen name around like a cheap whore. Especially if you're an English teacher. And, all of a sudden, you've got games lined up like jets waiting to take off at La Guardia.

What better bragging rights than beating your English teacher at a game of Scrabble-ish? Right?

The game is quite fun, more fun than Scrabble. It has a different kind of pacing, in some ways more like chess, in some ways, more like cards. Like chess, "Words With Friends" allows you to take your own sweet time. You can ponder a move as long as you want. You can look at the board, contemplate, shut it down, come back to it another time. Or another day. If it does have a "timer" at all, it's something like 5 days. I've never reached that.

Like poker, it is not about having the best "cards" aka letters, it is about knowing how and when to play them. It's not about winning one game. Sometimes you just don't get the letters and the opportunities on the board to rack up the points you need, and you fold. At first, you're desperate to win every game against every opponent, but then you get philosophical about it, then you appreciate the beauty of moves, yours or theirs, and you know that if you don't win, a new game can start immediately.

Today I played P-O-R-N for 55 points, even though the total letter value for those 4 letters is only 7 points. But get that P on a "Triple Letter Score" tile and that N on a "Triple Word Score" tile and cozy those letters up against letters already on the board to make smaller sidewords and all of a sudden, they start adding up. The other day, I played J-A-N-E for 102 points, using the same strategy.

And, believe it or not, "Words With Friends" is the latest social network. I am playing with former students, colleagues, a godson, students from my class, current students I've never met, my daughters. So far. But that doesn't make it a social network, you say. That just makes it a game. The funny thing is when your phone makes that special noise telling you that one or more of your opponents have made a move, it's almost like they're calling you, almost like you have a connection. I am in touch with people that I was not in touch with.

But there's more to it than that. The conversation you see at the top of this post, which happened last night, is a first for me, the crossing of a barrier. There is a place in each game of "Words With Friends" where you can leave messages, exchange taunts, whatever. But last night, as you can see, that message board became a way for a student to communicate with his teacher. It's weird, I know, but, more and more, it's probably going to be the way with everything. It's smart, too, since I happen to be beating that student by about 150 points and he may be thinking that if he contacts me within the game, I'll take pity on him.

I know I'll tire of "Words With Friends," maybe even soon. It's a fad, like most things related to the Internet. Maybe by the time you get into the game, I'll look at your opening move with the jaded condescension of a chess master. But for now, it's healthy competition, it's a way for teenagers and adults to connect, and it's a lot of fun to take that phone out before I go to bed and to get all of my games up to date. But, if I forget to turn the phone off, it will make that special noise about 2:45AM or 5:37AM or when I know a student is in someone else's class. By the way, that person in the stall next to you fiddling with his or her phone is probably playing me.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

My Musical Malaise

Birth School Work Death - The Godfathers (mp3)
I'm Not Okay (I Promise) - My Chemical Romance (mp3)

Friday, March 4

Dear Diary,

When it comes to music, the last few weeks can be summed up by a single word: MEH.

Musically, I’m somewhat bipolar. In my manic times, I’ll download 40-50 songs submitted to our BOTG mailbox, listen to them and my many other new purchases voraciously, and then post a “Music Bonanza” of my favorites. I’ll make mixes for people. I’ll be sitting in my office or a meeting, and a song will pop into my head because of some random comment or dialogue. When I’m musically manic, the 9,000+ songs on my iPod are like non-corporeal entities swimming around me at all times.

The downside comes in the depressive phases like the one I’m in now. For the last week, I’ve barely listened to my iPod. I’ve acquired half a dozen new albums over the past month, but none of them are getting spins. One might be inclined to think this is due to the lack of quality of said purchases, but in times like these, who’s to say?

Saturday, March 5

Dear Diary,

As a test, on my way home yesterday evening, I turned off NPR and put on my “Five Star Playlist,” the list of some 300 songs that should never, under normal circumstances, stop playing once they’ve begun. The most important 3% of my collection. And what did I do? I skipped past the first five. I skipped through half a dozen more in the 23 minutes it took me to make it home.

This, people, is dire. It is musical malaise.

Sunday, March 6

Dear Diary,

Things are so bad that tonight I actually sat next to my wife on our couch and disintigrated almost two whole freakin’ hours of my life watching the 25th Anniversary concert of Les Miserables.

I realize that thousands of music-loving souls think Les Miz is just about the greatest piece of artwork since the Sistene Chapel, but I ain’t one of ‘em. What’s more, it wasn't the entire musical. It was just the actors half-acting, but without any of the stage movement. Just standing in front of mikes singing the songs.

While my dear wife drifted off on a heavenly cloud of “One More Day” and “On My Own,” my daughters asked dozens and dozens of machine-gun annoying questions, all justified, because being young girls, they desperately wanted to know WTF was going on so that they could like and understand WTF they were hearing and WTF was making their mother so orgasmically joyous.

The only explanation for me enduring this estrogen-stirring spectacle with my female family was that I’m in a deep, deep musical depression.

Monday, March 7

Dear Diary,

I think I’ve figured it out.

The National, The Civil Wars, Lori McKenna, Justin Townes Earle. These are the highlights of my recent acquisitions. It’s all great music, but it can be a little somnambulant at times. The albums I bought attempting to perk me up failed. "Perky" isn't really what these bands are shootin' for.

Once in a while, the gravitas of my preferred musical leanings wear me down. It’s like the hangover our society felt after the grunge overload of the early 1990s. And at times like these, I need Eric Stoltz to raise up that adrenalin needle and slam it right down into my heart. A few years back, it was The Black Parade by My Chemical Romance.

I know most True Music Fans detest MCR, and I ain't about to go trying to convince anyone of their musical genius. But when you’re drowning in the quicksand of folk acoustic singer-songwriters, nothing pulls you out quite like the seething screamy electric war. MCR were my Dread Pirate Roberts diving in after me and pulling me out of my quagmire of musical malaise.

So last night, in a desperate attempt to wash the taste of Les Miz from my ears, I bought the latest Dropkick Murphys album Going Out In Style for $5 at Amazon.com. (If you must know, The Boss makes a guest appearance on "Peg 'O My Heart"; that fact, plus the discounted price, plus the awesomeness of their song in The Departed all combined to make this a no-brainer purchase.)

I still love my pop music, but increasingly an acoustic guitar, a little harmonization, and some straightforward production quality sends an arrow through my heart more effectively than bombast. But like any drug, too much of a good thing leads to serious consequences, and I was drowning in the wonder of too much heavy dirge and too little superficial lightness of being.

In come a bunch of punky Irish laddies from Boston, driving their Irish car bomb 120mph into my droopy ears, jolting me back into reality faster than talk of tiger blood and rock stars from Mars.

Thank you Dropkick Murphys. You can't sing well, and your songs kinda all blend together in my head, but you rescued me, and you have therefore entered a small but select group of bands capable of curing my musical malaise.

Just in time for St. Patty's Day.