Tuesday, May 31, 2011

I Like God

Taffy - Lisa Loeb (mp3)
Just Like Zeus - Jenny and Johnny (mp3)

God is on Facebook. Almost 3 million people Like Him.

Jesus is on Facebook. He takes many forms. His most popular is called Jesus Daily. 5.6 Million people Like Jesus Daily.

The first thing worth noting is that, on Facebook, Jesus is more popular than God.

Maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe God doesn’t really quite understand how the Internet works, or how to use those newfangled smart phones. Maybe Jesus is sitting in his wing of their palatial estate in Heaven, with his netbook and Xbox and iPad, checking out the entire world with the electronic powers of modernity. God, meanwhile, watches us the old-fashioned way, with hard work, sweat, and the perfect Omniscient Eyeballs app He uploaded to his own hard drive at the time of Genesis 1:1.

Or maybe this is one more moment where God is a jealous God, and he’s trying not to get too worked up that his Son is more popular than He is.

Jesus was a pretty nice guy in the 33 years he lived, so I imagine God would have a tough time being too angry about it. He would likely be proud of his only begotten son, that whosoever should Liketh him might have everlasting Facebook status updates.

But enough of the cute easy jokes.

In truth, I was strangely troubled that God was on Facebook. I was bothered at people Liking God.

Ultimately, I’m a believer. I believe in God. I can make jokes and trip the sacrilige fantastic because I kid the ones I love. Just ask my wife or anyone else in my circles of affection. I can joke with and about God because I love Him. Which is to say, I don’t Like Him.

And yes, there is a big, big difference.

It just so happens I have a prize-winning author supporting my point. The morning after I encountered God on Facebook, my BOTG pal Bob showed me the NYTimes op-ed from Jonathan Franzen, more or less the message he delivered at Kenyon College’s commencement. Please don’t let the following awesome excerpt keep you from reading the whole thing::
If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you've despaired of being loved for who you really are. And if you succeed in manipulating other people into liking you, it will be hard not to feel, at some level, contempt for those people, because they've fallen for your shtick.


...A world of liking is ultimately a lie.
It’s fair to accuse me of overthinking the whole Like & Love & God thing, especially in Facebook terms. But I can’t get past it.

You can’t Like a deity.
You can’t Like Ganesha.
You can’t Like Anubis.
You don't invite these folks to the local bar for a few brewskis. They’re not peeps you run into at the office Christmas party. They’re friggin’ gods. Take ‘em or leave ‘em. Love ‘em or don’t. But neither they nor us benefit a whit from us Liking them.

Maybe some people think it’s better to invite the focii of their faith to Facebook. Better to include them in the party than leave them in the cold, right? Besides, if the language of Facebook excludes that silly overrated word "Love," then when in Rome... We’ll settle for Like.

I have several beloved relatives and friends who incorporate their faith into almost every status update. Bible verses. Mentions of Jesus. (Yeah, it’s only Christians who seem to feel this obligation.) I’m not the biggest fan of this approach, but at least it feels more real and from a more genuine place than clicking that I Like Jesus, as if that’s accomplished a damn thing.

Using what is a painfully superficial computer program to release a warm and fuzzy Jesus vibe feels like trying to explain a supernova using a pen light. If the catch phrase is “Don’t Limit God’s Power,” how much more limiting and sad can a deity get than to have their own page on Facebook?

I can see Jesus up in Heaven, holding a statue and crying, "You Like me! You really really Like me!"

* -- Side note: The Holy Spirit only has 97 friends. Holy Ghost! has 15,000, but that’s the name of a band, not the third part of the Holy Trinity.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Why Life Is Great

Primus--"Pudding Time" (mp3)


So, we're sitting at Rib and Loin, having finished a mid-week supper. But things are strange. First, we're at a barbecue joint, and none of us has eaten any barbecue. My wife and I went for large, meatless salads, and my daughter ordered a combination of "sides" like okra, mac 'n cheese, etc. So you know it's an odd set of circumstances when a family of three (other daughter still at college at the time of these events) goes to a place full of fatty pork and lots of fried things and orders the light(er) offerings. You just don't say, 'Hey, I'm trying to eat better. Let's go to Rib and Loin.'

Plus, Rib and Loin has about the best sweet tea in the world in huge, all-ready-to-go styrofoam cups with lids, lemons, and straws, but we fiddle with that, too. My wife and daughter order "half and half" (half sweet, half unsweet) and I just get plain unsweetened tea. If this meal were gasoline, ours would be cut-rate, part-water fuel that wouldn't start an engine in the world.

But then, a waitress, not ours, walks up, with a lunch tray filled with smallish, to-go, styrofoam containers with lids on them.

"Here," she says, "Would you'all like one?"

"What are they?" I ask.

"Banana pudding."

"You're giving them away?"

"Yes, we have a new policy: if it gets close to closing and we have a bunch of banana pudding left over, we just pack it up and give it away to customers for free."

"Well, heck," I say. "I'll have one."

"Me, too," say my wife and daughter and our light, healthy barbecue joint meal is shot to hell as we rip the lids off, tear open the cellophane to remove the plastic spoons, and dig in. And it's good.

The waitress moves on to the next table, a couple of older gentlemen. I don't pay much attention, being too into my own pudding, but it's clear that she's having to do a lot of explaining, she's going through the whole giveaway program and how it's free. The man facing me is having a lot of trouble with it. He asks another question that I can't hear and she answers, still trying to give him the pudding. She's got it in her hand and she's holding it out to him, sealed plastic spoon on top. He pauses for several more seconds, then makes his decision.

"Nah, I got puddin' at home."

STOP. For some reason, that statement has struck me as just about the funniest thing I've heard in the last three weeks. I say it all the time. We say it to each other. He was so serious about it. It was such a considered decision. It carried the weight of moral correctness. And having made it, he went back to his conversation, went about his business, while everyone around him either wolfed it down or took it home to loved ones.

It makes you wonder, doesn't it? Was there a little old woman waiting for him with the best bowl of sweet stuff any of us could ever hope to dip our fingers in? Had he promised her he'd wait? Was there just a little left and she was saving it for him? Or was it just an easy excuse, a way to say no? He certainly did agonize over it.

There is a lesson here, and the lesson is this: if you've already got puddin' at home, it's not right to take free puddin' from someone you don't even know, no matter how tempted you might be to do so.

I saw Daniel Webster conquer the Devil. I saw Shoeless Joe Jackson turn down the bribe. I saw Michael Douglas walk away from Glenn Close and back home to Ann Archer, leaving both no reason to ever make a film called Fatal Attraction and a very happy rabbit. Just Say No starts with a plastic spoon that never comes out of its wrapper, never scoops a perfect mix of custard, vanilla wafer, and banana.

But this is my letter to the world. Dear Wife, Family, and Friends, if ever I am out and about and somebody is giving away free puddin', regardless of whether I have some at home or not, I'm havin' it. I'm just not that strong.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Bipolar Work Disorder

Bring Down - Midlake (mp3)
Suppose - Buffalo Tom (mp3)

May is the cruelest month.

The long year of routines, assignments, obligations, ideals, hopes, goals and opportunities is pulling into the garage. The joys of new and successful experiments have begun to fade. Attempts at getting others excited about new ideas run into deaf ears and tired eyes. Some things didn’t get done. Some things didn’t get done well. Friends are retiring or leaving for other schools or different locations.

Everyone is desperate for an ending, even as many of us will continue to return to our school every day over the summer, even as the work of preparing for another school year must go on.

At the beginning of the school year, I find myself reeling in a panicky sense of vertigo. Work feels like one of those games where someone stands in a glass-walled booth while money flies all around them, and the stress and excitement comes from just trying to snag and grab onto as many of the possibilities and ideas as you can. In the fall, the dollar bills are flying all over the place, but by May, it seems like there’s just a few bills in the air, and you just can’t seem to get your hands on any of them.

In the fall, amidst trying new things and breaking new ground, all the standard parts of previous years come and go, and dozens of unexpected fires and challenges emerge. Fall becomes about time management, about prioritizing, about keeping your head in the chaos.

May, for me, is about next year. What can I do to improve? What changes can I make in our routines to increase efficiency? What new concepts or angles must I pursue, and what can I afford to let go of?

The problem is, getting momentum on this kind of thinking, for me, requires cooperation, conversation, discussion. I’m in a position that relies largely on the buy-in of other people. And, in May, few people give a shit about next year. They care about four beautiful letters -- J-U-N-E -- and call out to her like they were in a Calgon commercial. "June, take me away!"

Mostly I’m very zen about these things. I sympathize with the frustrated voices, the tired eyes, the listless posture and slumped shoulders, the comments about how ready everyone is to get the frick outta Dodge and enjoy a nice summer break. I get it, and I understand it. And not all of it is negative and tired. Some of the looking forward to summer is positive and eager and excited, and even though my job remains basically the same all summer, to be utterly spent in May just happens in this biz.

Yet in a flash, my peace and calm can turn to anger, or deep sadness. I get angry that better-compensated coworkers are checked out. Or sad that other schools are busy making big ambitious announcements while we’re just staring at those big letters: J-U-N-E.

Then I get happy again, because a coworker is retiring, and all these people stand up and say great things about him, and his life is such a testament to what we’re trying to do here, and his words bring tears to my eyes, and I’m so very proud of what I do for a living and where I do it, because we are a legitimately impressive community.

Then I get angry again, because the goober five chairs away from me doesn’t know how to silence his phone in a faculty meeting, and it erupts twice during the retiree’s emotional speech. And his techno-ineptitude serves as a reminder of just how many people around me have no friggin’ clue about technology, nor do they seem to feel the slightest bit of discomfort about their ignorance.

In fact, they sometimes act angry that the world refused to freeze in place and instead expects them to keep learning shit. Just because your passion is history or physics and a student’s is Call of Duty or YouTube doesn’t make you any different than they are if you can’t open up and learn stuff you find boring. Some teachers are to technology what dumb jocks are to chemistry: This is stupid. This has nothing to do with me. This is for nerds.

Educators, of all people, should enter their workplace every day expecting that they’re gonna have to keep learning shit. You know, “lifelong learners” and all that? It ain't just a tag-line. It's fer real, yo.

Frustration becomes sadness because we’re losing some amazing veteran teachers to retirement. And, even if they were a little too embittered at times, they were still dazzling and amazing teachers, and their gifts in the classroom will not be easily replaced.

And then I get tired, because switching from one emotion to another so quickly and unexpectedly and constantly is exhausting. Not to mention it’s friggin’ hot outside, and I hate the heat.

It’s a cruel month. So then I, too, think it: J-U-N-E...

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Foot-In-Mouth Disease

Elvis Costello--"Waiting For The End Of The World" (mp3)



My poor father. I feel like he has cycled through at least 5 different "favorite" Republican candidates in the last month. First there was Trump then the always-favorite Mitt then Daniels then Newt and now probably Pawlenty. The one he really liked was Newt Gingrich. Has, in fact, liked him for a long time, but for his sexual indiscretions and what my father now calls his tendency "to put his foot in his mouth."

I was sitting at lunch with a friend today and we got to talking about similar topics and somehow it came to one or both of us what that really means. People like to say all the time, "Yeah, he really put his foot in his mouth that time" or "I wonder what a shoe tastes like." We take it as a given. We take it as a negative.

But what my friend and I realized was that the phrase is really kind of a positive. Usually, if you put your foot in your mouth, it means that you told the truth. The problem, of course, is that you told the truth to someone whose hearing of the truth was going to cause trouble for you. So, my English colleague who accidentally hit reply to "English" instead of just to me, got a response from the headmaster, who (invisibly, though everyone knows it) gets all email that is sent to a department like "English." My colleague made a comment that, while true, wasn't necessarily the kind of truth that you speak to headmasters.

Same with poor old Newt. He epitomizes the problem that all Republican candidates face: in unguarded moments, most of them hold values, moderate values, that normal people like you and I hold. It's just that they can't state those values publicly, lest the religious and far right and Teapartying wing discover that they are not nearly as conservative or as religious as they must pretend to be to have any hope of getting the Republican nomination. So Newt says what he really thinks about Paul Ryan's inhumane Medicare proposal and, all of a sudden, his whole campaign is trying to do damage control.

We've all done it. Ironically, the greatest example of a lack of self-control may be letting the truth slip out. The harsh truth. The brutal truth. Even the honest truth.

But, this newsrich has yielded an even more definitive way for someone to put his foot in his mouth. I'm talking, in case you can't tell, about predicting the end of the world. Now, I'm not fully ready to make fun of someone for predicting the end of the world. After all, I once predicted the imminent demise of my Fantasy Football league and was soundly proven wrong. And even one of the founders of this great school went up on the Ridge and waited for the end of the world.

So, predicting the end of days, the Rapture, the premise of bad John Cusack movies is perhaps a bit more mainstream than you might think. It's our damn need for closure.

But here's where it gets dicey. If you are going to predict the end of the world and it doesn't turn out well for you, for gosh sakes, have the decency to shut the fuck up and disappear yourself. Hey, we all take risks, go out on limbs, sometimes take even really big risks, but you took the biggest one of all: you said the world would end and it didn't. I'm not sure even Vegas had odds on that one. It's like when our lacrosse coach stood up in chapel this year and said that after the dust settled from a big game that weekend, that there would only be one team standing. He implied, nay predicted, very, very strongly that it would be our team. It wasn't. Disappear.

But the evangelical preacher Harold Camping has not had the good sense to put his tail between his legs and slink off into the sunset. No, he has tried to change the rules. As the San Fransciso Chronicle reports:

"Harold Camping, the Alameda resident who broadcast to the world that this past Saturday would be Judgment Day, told reporters yesterday that he now understands that Saturday was an "invisible" judgment day and that the true, final destruction of the world will still occur on October 21st.

Camping had originally said that those who were "saved" would go to heaven on Saturday, while those who weren't saved would live in a kind of hell on earth here until October 21st, when the world would end for good."

Now, I'm as much a believer in the "invisible world" of Cotton Mather as the next guy. I really am. But not as a way out of a Major League gaff, a pompous decision to read the mind of God. Certainly not as a way to change the rules after the fact. The fact is that no one asked Mr. Camping to clue us in on when the Rapture was coming. I'm not even sure it's something that we're supposed to plan for. Should I declare right now, In Case Of Rapture There's A Perfectly Good Just Opened Ice Cold Beer Down In Bob's Basement But Please Turn The Lights Off When You're Finished?

This is not just a good laugh, a ha-ha-look-at-these-idiots. People uprooted their families, quit their jobs, stopped saving for their children's college because of this guy. Because of his cosmic diddling, Camping caused people to plan for the care of their pets after they were gone. I'm not going to laugh at that. Those are caring, well-meaning people. Now he simply says, in defense of his multi-million dollar religious empire that will not help out some of these ruined families that it is "not in the business of financial advice?" In other words, he's no better than Otter in Animal House, who responds to a pledge's brother's destroyed automobile: "Hey, you fucked up. You trusted us."

Yeah, there's people who put their foots in their mouths by being too candid, and there are preachers like Harold Camping who are better at preying than praying, who make foot-in-mouth disease a terminal condition because they cannot admit to the failure of their position, to the tangible detriment of other people. Probably, that foot needs to be stuck somewhere else besides their mouths.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Singing in the Forest

A Praise Chorus - Jimmy Eat World (mp3)
How Can I Keep from Singing? - Enya (mp3)

Nancy Flanagan taught music for 30 years. She’s a successful consultant to schools. Her opinion deserves to be in Education Week, and mine is on a silly little music blog. Based on her post, Ms. Flanagan and I have at least one thing in common: neither of us are very fond of American Idol. From there, unfortunately, our opinions begin to diverge.

She’s a music teacher; I’m a music listener. And that, as they say, has made all the difference.

Some of the things she writes in "Music Teacher Hates American Idol" are painfully misleading. Much of what she says is true without being honest, or honest without being real. Something is missing in there, and it's either because she wears earplugs or because she wants a different reality than the one in which the entirity of humanity has existed since the dawn of man- and womankind.
Everyone who can speak can sing. Really. Singing is just extended, rhythmic speech.
True statement. But what is not true -- and this is important to most people with ears -- is that not everyone can sing well.

Does this mean people should be discouraged from singing? Not necessarily. Bad singing is why God invented showers and hard-top automobiles, so that bad singers like myself, who love to sing and love to do it loudly, can express ourselves musically without causing irreparable harm to those we love.

Ms. Flanagan is like most idealists. They refuse to see the forest for their own super-special tree of expertise.

Speaking of, if a tone-deaf person sings in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a bad sound?
What bothers me, as a music teacher, is that children watch American Idol, and have now developed this idea that singing is something that should be attempted only by the "talented." Children see judging singers as an amusing spectator activity, and making fun of imperfect singers as perfectly OK. Hilarious and justified, in fact: anyone who dares to sing in front of a camera deserves our scrutiny and scorn.
Poppycock, I say. This program is 10 years old. It has become one of the most-viewed programs in the history of television. Anyone who waits in that line, puts their mug in front of those cameras and tries out has no real excuse. I’ve only watched four, maybe five episodes in a decade, but I still know the name William Hung.

American Idol is not a classroom or an obligation; it is a voluntary talent show. (Her classes, on the other hand, were probably required.) Further, not once in my life or in the experiences of my children has watching this show created in us a fear of singing anymore than listening to Barbara Streisand or The Three Tenors, or anymore than watching Heathers made me scared of high school.

Seriously, what’s her point? Does she even like recorded music, or does the very act of deciding that some musicians are worthy of recording while others are not risk giving our precious flowers the impression that one kind of expression is better than another? Does she hate Mozart and Beethoven for taking all the good gigs away from the rest of the composing world? Does she despise Frank Sinatra for suggesting that you had to have oily hair and a slick personality to make it as a singer? Just how far down this ridiculous and slippery slope does she want to go?

Further, if we're really looking for all the ways something on TV can be translated as unhealthy for our children, I would like to think we'd worry more about the abuse of issues like sexuality before we attacked the crime of Vocal Prejudice.
If there is someone in your past who suggested that your singing voice is substandard, that person has done you harm, making you self-conscious about your primary expressive instrument... Nobody can tell you that you can't sing.
Can't sing? Agreed. No one should say tell you that. Everyone should be entitled to express themselves in such a fashion. Can't sing well? Yeah, that one is fair game.

And Ms. Flanigan, if you think American Idol has ruined our humanity and our ability to know about the power of singing, please explain this video (I get misty every single time I watch it):



One day, when advocates and idealists grasp the unfortunate fact that life isn't a Disney movie and live with the rest of us in the real world, they might actually make a positive impact.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Mighty Mississippi

The Bottle Rockets--"Get Down, River" (mp3)

During a self-designed grant in 2001, I travelled most of the miles of the Mississippi River, usually following it from the shore, crossing a few times, but often staying on one side or the other, depending on the. circumstances. I crossed it at its source, Lake Itasca, in a pair of rubber sandals, with a number of other tourists in a state park who wanted to be able to say they had walked across the Mississippi. I crossed it way down below New Orleans on a free ferry, at Point a La Hache, Lousiana, a boat that served industry rather than tourists, to pick up the road that would take me back to the city. Everywhere else, I crossed by bridge, except in St. Louis, where we rode a sightseeing riverboat. But the bridges, locks, and dams of the Mississippi define the river as much as anything.

I took a piecemeal trip, any Huck Finn instincts overruled by family considerations. With my daughters, aged 8 and 11, I first tackled the stretch from Memphis down to New Orleans. My older daughter served as photographer while I drove and navigated, knowing I wanted to document the trip (you will see some of the photos as part of this post), but not knowing when and where I would want a picture snapped.

My girls also accompanied me from New Orleans down towards the Gulf of Mexico, but they had little interest in this part of the journey and slept while I drove through a strange mix of rural poverty and giant oil refineries. Our next leg, again with the two girls, ran from St. Louis down to Memphis and then back home to Chattanooga. And so, the trip was first a family journey.

The final portion, the upper half of the river, I travelled with my father, who took a train to Fargo, North Dakota, where I picked him up and we drove to the source of the river and then worked our way down to New Orleans. My mother had died just a few months before, and the upper river became, in its own a way, a journey of a father, a son, and a river, just like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

But the other result of this trip, is that I can picture the Mississippi in my mind, all of it, can see it flowing from near the top of America to the bottom, a single river with wildness, but also wildly-different lives lived along its banks. I do say, with some confidence, that my blend of travel, reading, listening, watching has given me some understanding of this massive, currently-flooded waterway that we have tried to tame and control for centuries, always with only temporary or limited success. My guess is that relatively few people have a sense of it, top to bottom, bottom to top.

I'll try to tell you what I think I know.

First, there is no road that you can get on and travel the length of the river, or even significant portions of it. There are indeed many, many places where a major road affords you wonderful views and vistas, but there are also entire cities and many other places where you have to find your own way. And, it is on those roads that sometimes maps don't explain where you likely see the real river--farms, plantations, unremarkable levees, train tracks, towns that fly the Swedish flag instead of the American one, people living along the river like it was 150 years ago. So you must search for the road, and you must know that the river is not that road, not anymore and not for a person without a purpose.

Second, there are no levees in the North. Think about that for a moment. All the talk you've been hearing in the news for weeks about levees and breaches and spillways and flooded farmland to ease pressure on cities and the rest of it, that's all to the South. There aren't really levees above St. Louis, and, actually, none for a ways below it. There are other problems, other solutions, like the wall that can be opened or closed at Cape Girardeau in southern Missouri. But levees are a southern thing.

And here's another difference: in much of the northern part of the river, it is used for recreation. Not so in the south, where barriers are built to protect the shores from the water. Up north, people rent houseboats and take out speedboats and spend summer vacations on the river, living and travelling and waterskiing. Down south, the river is all business, but for the occasional riverboat trying to play on nostalgia. Tourist outposts in the south might include Mark Twain's birthplace of Hannibal, Missouri or Mud Island in Memphis, but these are rare, and not necessarily focused on the river.

As a result, cities in the north take different approaches to protecting themselves from the potential water, if they do at all. One of the Quad Cities, Davenport, Iowa, famously offers itself no barriers to the water, since the waterfront and the views are essential to tourism and to the city's economy. Others, as mentioned above, build seawalls, doors and other elaborate partial or temporary methods.

I suppose, in 2011, living along the Mississippi is an acceptable risk, more acceptable the farther north you are, since each mile downstream likely adds more and more water to the river basin, from other rivers, tributaries, streams, run-offs. It certainly doesn't seem that way right now, with the flooding that has already occurred and our nervous neighbors to the south waiting to see if the harsh steps taken by the Army Corps of Engineers will save cities like Baton Rouge and New Orleans from disaster. But our relationship to the river has always been an uneasy one; we have to know that all of our attempts to harness it, to slow it, to contain it are temporary at best. And, yes, it is our relationship, and, yes, it is our river.

If you ever look at a map of the United States with its rivers highlighted, you will see that some 2/3 of our states feed water into this central river. When you travel the river, talk to its people, eat its food, when you listen to the music that has come from its banks, you feel all of those influences. You feel the layers of our nation's history--the immigrant influences still fresh as far north as Minnesota and as far south as the Gulf, the battles fought, the famous Americans birthed, the great chain of cities. That giant river connects much that is great about America.

It is a shame to me that, when New Orleans has a hurricane or other coastal areas face the same plight or rivers overflow or when something happens any place where inhabitants must accept a certain amount of risk and pray for a certain amount of luck (irony mine), so many other Americans living in townhouses elsewhere will say, as they wash their hands of it, why are people living there, or along there, anyway? They knew what they were getting into, so we can't feel sorry for them. Why do they stay?

Because it's their home, their livelihood, their way of life, perhaps all that they know, certainly a way of life that benefits the rest of us whether we know it or not. Must we really be that simplistic?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

"The Sperminator"

Dirty Denim - The Donnas (mp3)
B is for Brutus - The Hives (mp3)

I would never have voted for Arnold Schwarzenegger. “The Governator” (alt. “Guhvinator,” “Guvinator”) wasn’t a complete disaster during his two terms in California’s highest elected position, but history won’t be kind.

Generally speaking, I’ve come to believe we get the politicians we deserve. We get the politicians who reflect who we are, who we think we are, or who we think we want. We rarely if ever get the politicians we need, people who could actually do something powerful and positive and beneficial. Those people are generally ugly or nerdy, or they have the charm of a roadkill skunk, and we treat politics like “American Idol” or a beauty pageant, expecting entertainment and demanding these people stroke us to earn our votes.

Politics is prostitution. They seduce our minds, and we pay them with our votes and shove them out the door. Politicians rail against the horrors of prostitutes because they’re trying to eliminate the competition.

When the latest news about Arnold emerged this week, it raised eyebrows. I had the rare opportunity on Tuesday to be the one who revealed this information to a handful of people (thanks, Twitter!), and their collective reaction was perfectly 2011. Shock and surprise for all of 30 seconds -- the standard length of a political ad -- and then quick downshift into cynicality and surrender.

No, really? But they’ve been married for so long.
What am I saying? Of course he did.
What did we expect?
He’s no different and never was.

California deserved The Governator. They got the leader they deserve just as Chattanooga deserves Fred Skillern, a man who would apparently joke with a reporter that he wouldn’t invite African-American council members to his house because didn’t think he “could cook barbecue like them n------.”

I digress. Back to Arnold.

It wasn’t 20 minutes into the revelation he had fathered a child a decade ago that the Twitterverse referred to him as “The Sperminator.” Ouch. Humor in Twitterville is like a tsunami, swift and harsh and unflinching.

Meanwhile, my reaction has been quite different. Because I’ve never seen Arnold as a man to idolize or think of as “a good man,” revelation of his infidelity only serves to confirm that which I already assumed: that I didn’t need to waste my time admiring him.

Instead, my reaction is a feeling that we have an opportunity here. If we as a country have an ounce of brain juice left in us, we should take this as an opportunity to reevaluate our foolishness, our obsession with celebrity, our superficial fixation with morality.

It’s a no-brainer that, had this news about “Ahnolt” come out earlier, he would never have been coronated as The Governator. This news was certainly an election killer. It’s killed Spitzer, Hart, Edwards, Sanford... seriously, this list would go on forever. Sex scandal has killed or threatened more politicians than all of Tom Clancy’s novels combined.

But we have an opportunity right now to ask ourselves the most important question possible: Did Arnold’s personal scandal, one unbeknownst to us, affect his ability to do his job?

I believe, confidently, that The Governator would have sucked no less or no more in his elected position had he not knocked up a “household assistant.” Keeping his privates out of his maid would not have given him greater wisdom, and it would not have solved California’s horrifying fiscal issues. Ahnolt stunk as a governor, but it had nothing to do with sexual scandals.

The day may never come, but we eventually need to accept a difficult but essential truth about humanity: Being a great employee or office leader or business owner or elected official has absolutely nothing to do with how you handle your non-work personal relationships.

Of equal or greater importance is this following realization: Being a great and dedicated husband or father or friend has absolutely nothing to do with how well you do a job. In fact, if we know anything in the 21st Century, it’s that placing too high a priority on family can actually hurt one’s professional career.

If we know the second part, that being a good person doesn’t make you a good employee, then why can’t we accept that the opposite is also true? We insist on clinging to this illusion that the only people we can elect with good conscience must be squeaky clean.

Our modern society would not have elected Thomas Jefferson. To anything.

I want that to sink in. It’s pretty friggin’ disturbing.

Please understand. I’m not defending The Sperminator. His scandal conveniently arrives on our doorstep after we were already prepared to stop giving a shit about him, and I can only hope this makes things easier on his family.

The Sperminator will go away. Our delusions that some singular issue of morality determines a person’s leadership skills, on the other hand, will not.

We don’t have to become Italy. We don’t have to become a place where Silvio Berlusconi becomes the standard-bearer of our country.

But what seems clear to me is that, for all our hemming and hawing over the importance of morally-upstanding role models in elected office, America is hardly doing any better than other countries at policing dirty behavior.

Maybe it’s time we took a different approach.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Alas, Poor Fortune Cookie....

PJ Harvey--"Good Fortune" (mp3)
The High Dials--"Chinese Boxes" (mp3)

There is no greater evidence of the decline in standards in our modern lives than the diminishment of the fortune cookie in Chinese restaurants. This once-noble combination of sweet crunch and sweeter wisdom, this little package of pocket Confucism whose cookie was to be savored while its message was pondered, has become little more than a kind of post-modern joke.

The name itself implies a kind of bilateral satisfaction. Originally invented by the Japanese, this staple "dessert" at the end of a Chinese meal in an American city served as both a light, but sweet, ending to a meal and a kind of restarter for lingering conversations. If the cookie was a bit stale, it really didn't matter if the dictum inside was intriguing enough. Conversely, if the prediction was bad (which it rarely was), the bland sugar taste of the cookie made it more palatable.

But not any more.

Nowadays, the cookies have been elevated to near-gourmet status in pretend-Chinese places like P.F. Chang's. You can almost picture some team of food scientists somewhere in New Jersey deconstructing and then rebuilding with superior ingredients what was never meant to be much more than a baked blend of egg whites and sugar. Even in the indifferent family-run Chinese outposts now, the corporate cookies contain a hint of orange flavoring. I can't deny that they are tastier, perhaps, but these cookies were never meant to be more than an afterthought, a clever container for the mysterious words inside.

And this focus on the cookie seems to have been at the expense of the fortune. And, the fortune at the expense of a bunch of numbers that I guess I'm supposed to take to my bookie and bet on.

Case in point. Last week, at my favorite local Japanese/Chinese dive, after a fairly satisfying meal of wonton soup (Chinese), sushi (Japanese), and fried rice (either), our waitress brought us the usual check and fortune cookies. After my lunch partner and I went through the mutual process of opening first the wrapper and then the cookie, I couldn't believe what I read:


Say hello to my little friend!

What? That isn't a fortune! Has Tony Montana expanded his drug empire and taken over the production of fortune cookies too? What is my next cookie going to say, Never Get High On Your Own Supply? No, though my "fortune" may be a famous quotation, it isn't a presentiment of anything. You can't do anything with it at all. The only thing you get when you take the time to ponder it is, What the hell? And it won't even work for the popular game where you and a spouse or a date or a table of people read fortunes aloud followed by the words "in bed." Imagine this scenario:


"Hey, Bob, what does your fortune say?"

"Um, say hello to my little friend....in bed." Yeesh.

A friend of mine got one a couple of weeks ago that he taped up in my office so that people would see it when they opened the door to leave. It said, Get over it! Now, I have to admit, most people like that one when they read it, but it is, in its way, of the same ilk. It's snarky, it's pop culture lingo, it's supposed to be hip. But when was a fortune cookie fortune supposed to be hip? It was supposed to hold the ancient, pithy truths of the Far East.

How long will it be until one of us opens the cookie that just says, Fuck you. Isn't that what we're headed for? I used to think it would be fun to run a fortune cookie company that prided itself on the kinds of modern, ironic witticisms that would undermine the whole notion of the genre, but I have since come to my senses. There is something sacred about the traditional fortune cookie. It's like a Bazooka Joe comic or a Norman Rockwell painting. We know they're going to be sort of hokey, but we take solace in the sameness of their message, and we kind of want them to be true.

On the rare occasion that I get a standard fortune like You will soon reunite with a long-lost friend, I immediately and completely ignore everything I know about the folly of fortune-telling and predicting the future and the complete randomness of the piece of paper that has come into my possession. No, I just focus on trying to figure out who that long-lost friend could be and where that reunion could possibly happen. Yeah, I should get over that, but I can't.

I do have a fortune that I carry with me at all times, because I consider it to be the perfect fortune. It's a great one to ponder in its literal sense AND it's a great one for that game mentioned above where you read it aloud and put those two words at the end:

Travelling to the south will bring you unexpected happiness.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Dancing On The Floor

It’s a blue, bright blue, Saturday, hey hey.

Bob’s post yesterday about Danceworld led me to thoughts of Goldfrapp.

I’m an alien to this place called Danceworld. Modern dance and I are vinegar and water. Between opera and modern dance, I probably feel more ignorant and clueless in modern dance, because opera carries this sense of being from a different historical era, so it makes sense that I wouldn’t get it. Modern dance feels, well, modern. Which means we moderners -- especially those who appreciate art and creativity and dancing -- should have a better sense of it than we do.

Yet here I am, an illegal alien in Danceworld.

This thought led me to Goldfrapp’s video for A&E, easily one of my favorite songs of the past decade.

And the pain has started to slip away, hey hey.

The video seems to me a perfect example of what Bob talks of in Danceworld: What happens in the video has almost nothing to do with the subject matter of the song, yet somehow the underlying emotion and feeling of the song is very much being communicated. It’s one of the more haunting videos I’ve run across in a while.



I’m in a backless dress in a pastel ward that’s shining.

I’ve put this song on a lot of mixes in the past few years. In fact, it’s fair to say that if you’ve received a mix CD from me in the past two years, there’s a 95% chance this song has been on one. And this song has come up in conversations after the fact on several occasions, far more than most of the songs I’ve included. I can think of four people who have said something like, “That Goldfrapp song is really mesmerizing/beautiful/memorable.” And I will nod and enthusiastically agree.

And then I ruin it for them.

“You know what it’s about, right?” I ask.

I think I want you still, but it may be pills at work.

“The narrator is in the hospital after a botched suicide attempt,” I say.

“What? I'm not sure that's what it's about.”

“Oh yes. It definitely is. She’s either in the ER or the psych ward, but she’s definitely in the hospital. And it’s definitely because of an overdose.”

“I thought it was just a break-up song.”

“It IS. And it's a love song, too! That’s what makes it so freaky and haunting and beautiful!”

Do you really wanna know how I was dancing on the floor?
I was trying to phone you when I’m crawling out the door
I’m amazed at you, the things you say that you don’t do
Why don’t you ring?

Apparently, the song was inspired by an experience Allison Goldfrapp had in the A&E -- the UK’s version of the “ER” -- but I’m comfortable betting that she’s far closer emotionally to this song than a mere visit to the emergency room. This song feels, to me, like it could only be written a safe distance away from an intensely-connected past event, and she’s in a place where she can look back on her more intense and passionate and lost and foolish self and think, “You were royally screwed up, but my God you were beautiful.”

There might be a fine line here, but I don’t think she’s wishing she had succeeded in her suicide attempt. Rather, I think there’s something about that past version of herself she remembers and loves in spite of her near-fatal flaws. And what has to be the best line becomes the translation of post-overdose convulsions to "dancing on the floor."

And the pain has started to slip away, hey hey.

It’s a love song to her old self, a self better left in the past, but necessarily remembered. That I finished Jennifer Egan’s mesmerizing Letters from the Goon Squad, a novel that won roughly a bajillion awards including the Pulitzer Prize at the same time I'm rekindling my love for this song is perfect serendipity, because the song reminds me of Sasha, the main female character around whom the novel flows.

But that’s for another day. Back to the video.

No matter how beautiful I find this song, the video had to come from a different place. A concert video wouldn’t work, nor would some attempt to literally translate the song for the viewer, because it would freak people out in the wrong way entirely.

So you turn to some dreamy, psychadelic modern dance in the woods. Goldfrapp becomes some fairy tale character in white, surrounded by dancing leaves and trees who eventually break up their synchronized routine to go their own expressive invidual ways while she loses her mind. Then they return to settle her back down into her dreamy slumber. Then it all becomes some vision or dream of Goldfrapp’s other member, who’s out on his own camping.

But early on, when she stands in the center of four "leaf-dancers" in the shape of the cross and takes herself a nice little crucifictitious pose... wow.

A&E - Goldfrapp (mp3)

Totally freaky. Totally weird. Totally Goldfrapp. And a perfect match for a song few people seem to like more once they know what it’s about.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Dance World

Winter Gloves--"Dancing My Heart Out" (mp3)

Almost by accident, I have become something of an aficionado of modern dance. For the past 8 years of one or both of my children have been involved in modern dance programs, with somewhere between 2 and 4 performance viewed during each of those years. So I've seen the shows, put my time in, and, most of all, really come to enjoy them. That isn't something I ever expected to happen.

And, since the start, I've had to know something about modern dance because I had been expected to know something. After each performance, my older daughter demands that we retire to an eatery (usually the Friendly's in Mt. Vernon, Ohio) to break down the performance. I get the club sandwich and the rasberry tea.

But I had to be able to critique, so I trained myself. First, I figured out that some of the pieces were just silly, like the girl birthing herself as a chick from a shell, and that it was okay to realize that. Like modern poetry, modern dance can allow for the self-important to get carried away. I also discovered, because of my ballet training, that I had a pretty decent sense of what good dancing was and what wasn't (and by 'ballet training' I mean my years as a ballet dad before the modern dance years). The modern pieces use the precision of ballet, at times, but incorporate direct acting and a world dance catalog that leads to a lot of cross-cultural pollination. Finally, I guess like a viewer of modern art, I tried to develop an appreciation of technique over substance. I didn't have to understand the dance to appreciate it (though I didn't every fully accept that premise).

To be a casual aficionado, you don't need to ramble on and on. I guess you could, to establish your aficionadacity, but you don't have to. All you need are a couple of talking points. And, after a number of concerts, you have benchmarks and bases for comparisons anyway. Last weekend, after my daughter's last Kenyon dance, I had these two things to tell her: 1. "That was the most gymnastic dancing I've ever seen you do (a compliment!)" and 2. "I've noticed something about choreography--if dancers don't have anything to do, they shouldn't be on the stage; otherwise, they kill the energy." I remain pretty confident in those opinions.

Here's the fascinating part of the experience, at least for me. Humans love narrative, especially English teaching humans. Modern dance tends to eschew narrative. If it tells a story, the story will not be the point. If there is something linear about it, it will veer wildly from that pattern. Nor will it even help you much with what it's about, not even with the title of dance itself. The last two pieces my daughter danced in were titled "Enotrope" and "Monarchs of a Permeable Kingdom." Those sound more like songs from Yes albums in the '70's than titles that would help to focus an audience on what they're about to see.

And so, when I watch a dance, I create the narrative in my head, or, if not a fully-fleshed out story, at least some reasons for why the dancers do what they are doing. I may not understand the title of the dance or the purpose of the music, but I do look for some resolution in the behavior of the characters.

Over time, though, I've reached an unusual place. I've started to think of modern dance as a world, a world that transcends any individual piece, a world that runs parallel to our own, but with a different set of rules. I call it "Danceworld."

In Danceworld, human speech is almost unnecessary. Certainly, it is not needed to negotiate interactions with others. Sure, there are random utterances, chants, overlapping recitations, and even, at times, statements of purpose shouted to the heavens (or to the blackness above the stage), but mostly mouths are about exhalation, about exertion, about breathing to stand still, to maintain yourself, after some colossal endeavor. My daughter was in one highly-regarded piece that used a lot of language to critique societal expectations of women, but that is the exception.

To catch others attention, you merely meet their eye, touch their shoulder, hoist them, roll with them, climb through them, over them, mimic them, join in kinesethic agreement with them. Their interest, more than likely, will be transitory, as soon they must move to their own spots, their own places or towards others who will do different things with them. But conversation, as such, will transmit almost exclusively through bodily languages. They will travel with you part of the way. You may end up together, but there is no sense that you will stay that way.

Isolation and monogamy are both ultimately tragic, as bodies must touch to talk, and energy travels from person to person like God's imminent contact with Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Isolation, rather than being pitiful, seems self-indulgent, the stage being too large for just one person for very long. To dance with just one partner, well, that happens back in Balletworld. Here, in what is often a dark, difficult world, there is a definite strength in numbers, an implied misery loves company, a need to reach many bodies. And bodies leave the stage quickly and often return randomly, leaving dancers to sort out the awkward reconnections after their foreseeable indiscretions.

Danceworld is about falling, getting up, falling, getting up, falling perhaps from being pushed, getting up perhaps with the help of someone else, or slipping or being overwhelmed by circumstance. It is a world where human contact is like a car crash, a battering ram, a sleepover pillowfight, a game of dominoes. It is a cosmic game of chase and catch, catch and release. Bodies fly around like electrons, each following a charted course, but destined to collide, or at least to navigate around each other.

Most of all, Danceworld is about desolation, or at least sparseness. It is life stripped bare in ways that we are, perhaps, unwilling to confront, unless forced to. Though the dancers wear costumes of one sort or another, the costumes move through the context they imply, getting instead only the barest of sets. And even then, rather than the costumes suggesting characters, they tend to show us various kinds of partial selves. We see creatures and travelers, but we are never quite sure of the reasons for the baseness or the destination.

To observe this world, to lean into it from the close rows, is to remind ourselves that there are violences that we cannot prevent, attractions that we cannot deter, mysteries that have no solution. For modern dance never, ever answers a question, and often obscures even what the question might be. Against that unfathomable backdrop, we sit and watch the endeavors of others, hoping that they, and we, have rehearsed enough to be able to make some kind of way with grace.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Agony of Discretion

There’s No Secrets This Year - Silversun Pickups (mp3)

To keep your secret is wisdom; but to expect others to keep it is folly. -- Samuel Johnson

I wrote something funny, and it cannot be shared.

I had this incredible, awesome, cathartic experience of scathing creative comedy, borne of a mere two hours of feverish and obsessive work, and the product must be locked away like a kidnapped child, never to be revealed to the world.

It all started when a friend of mine created an amusing video as he lamented his own pending 40th birthday. He has been so paralyzed by this birthday that he disappeared into his computer and started creating a movie to manage his anxiety.

He used this site called xtranormal.com, where you can create short movies using one or two characters from more than a dozen different genres. Each genre has a handful of scene choices and a dozen or so characters. You pick one or two characters and a scene, and you start. You create the script. You add hand gestures and sound effects and body movements. You can even micromanage the camera angles.

If you’re curious, here is his brainchild:



Fate had it that my friend sent this video to me immediately after a frustrating series of interactions with coworkers and fellow administrators at my school. Making a “humorous” video out of his own anxieties seemed to have helped him, so I figured I should dive in and find my own humor catharsis as well.

And I did.

I signed up. I picked perfectly unidentifiable characters, sat them in a school office setting, gave them perfectly unidentifiable names, and used them as amalgamations for the personality glitches and shortcomings of five or six different coworkers, including myself. I made up names of schools that were only barely similar to our own schools. Every single thing I did guaranteed that no single person at my school could possibly accuse me of targeting them.

But then I did an awful thing. I showed my wife.

I’d been holed up in my computer room, giggling maniacally, and I let her watch as I proofed an early draft.

“Kinda funny?” I asked. “I mean, it’s not Daily Show material, but it’s kinda funny, right?” (You see, my wife doesn’t laugh aloud at stuff that comes through on a TV screen. She laughs at people, at conversations, but she doesn’t ever laugh aloud at a TV or computer.)

“Oh, it’s funny. It’s very funny.”

“So what’s wrong?”

“You’re going to lose your job.”

“Oh come off it. That’s silly. There’s absolutely no way anyone can connect this to me or the school,” I said.

She looked at me, shaking her head.

“What?”

“I’ve said my part. You’ll lose your job. Good night. Love you.”

“What??”

“The minute you send this to anyone, it’s got your name attached to it."

And she was right, of course. The essential part of my beautiful creation is that the only way I can share it with anyone is to tell them, and the only way to tell of such creations in a digital realm is to email them, Facebook them, tweet them. And in all those realms, it’s all too easy to trace these things right back to my doorstep, to my paycheck, to my pathetic and desperate attempts to claim I didn’t have specific people in mind when I skewered them in my cute little movie.

That I’m one of those getting skewered wouldn’t be much of a good defense as I packed up my office and polished up my funny resume.

So instead of getting to share my fun creation, it sits hidden in a virtual drawer, and I know what it is to have that secret drug addiction, that secret lover, that secret murder weapon. I created my own personal Jack Bauer emergency in the form of a stupid silly expose on the idiocy of school administrators. I armed the device, and all I can do now is keep it locked away and try my best to guard the door.

Even though what I want so badly is to let people in.

Dammit.

As always, there’s a silver lining. Before this week, I never understood how to write a screenplay, or true dialogue without novelistic exposition. There was some disconnect in my feeble skull. But with XtraNormal, it makes sense. I can write dialogue and test it out. Yes, it’s poorly-enunciated, kitschy computer voicing, but just moving that one step into verisimilitude gives me loads of confidence and has me hungry to keep writing more.

I’m about to finish the second in what is certain to be a series. This one was inspired by summer reading programs.

I probably can’t show that one, either.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Maslow Was Probably Right

I know I have some bigger thoughts somewhere, some deeper ambitions. But I just can't connect with them right now. All I can think about are floors, paints, stains, cabinets, dust, scratches, drips, leaks, outlets with no power, and two all-important questions: a) where will my dog stay today, and b) where will we stay tonight.

Abraham Maslow was probably right. His "Hierarchy of Needs," seemingly somewhat out of favor right now, feels just about dead-on accurate to me. If you ever took Psychology 101 in college, or even some Psych course in high school, you remember Maslow:

There are five different levels in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

1.Physiological Needs
These include the most basic needs that are vital to survival, such as the need for water, air, food and sleep. Maslow believed that these needs are the most basic and instinctive needs in the hierarchy because all needs become secondary until these physiological needs are met.

2.Security Needs
These include needs for safety and security. Security needs are important for survival, but they are not as demanding as the physiological needs. Examples of security needs include a desire for steady employment, health insurance, safe neighborhoods and shelter from the environment.

3.Social Needs
These include needs for belonging, love and affection. Maslow considered these needs to be less basic than physiological and security needs. Relationships such as friendships, romantic attachments and families help fulfill this need for companionship and acceptance, as does involvement in social, community or religious groups.

4.Esteem Needs
After the first three needs have been satisfied, esteem needs becomes increasingly important. These include the need for things that reflect on self-esteem, personal worth, social recognition and accomplishment.

5.Self-actualizing Needs
This is the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Self-actualizing people are self-aware, concerned with personal growth, less concerned with the opinions of others and interested fulfilling their potential.

--http://psychology.about.com


There are times in life, even for those of us who haven't been caught up in any of the great tragedies of history, when it feels impossible to get beyond the first level. Maybe a bit into the second level of "safety." This is one of those.

We focus on food, clothing, toothpaste, temperature, a place to shower. Not much else. Even on those days when we've had a television, I haven't watched anything except a Piers Morgan interview with Chelsea Handler. The newspapers sit unopened and yellowing in the front yard. We traveled somewhat numbly through the recent tragedy of storms and tornados, because, for us, life without electric power and then life when electric power came back on were really not all that different.

My most elaborate concern, one I've seen in my wife and daughter, too, has been, where is my safe haven? Where is that one place where I can put what few things I keep with me and know that no one will mess with them? Where is that one place where I can be and not be bothered? Some days, that's been difficult to find. What is more difficult, what I now realize is the psychology of manipulating people either individually or in groups, is when that safe haven isn't in the same place twice, or when a person adapts to a small, safe space, only to discover that the next day it is smaller. That's how you break people (or crack them, like Melvin in Office Space). The most beautiful moment of the last month was the day my wife cleaned up all the debris, washed the towels, put up new shower curtains and created a clean, well-lighted place in the basement that was the only escape from the chaos.

What's been an epiphany for me is that, having gotten into this mindset, I currently have zero interest in getting out of it. I'm not thinking, Gee, I can't wait until all of this is done so that I can get back to reading Marcel Proust. No, I'm thinking Chik-fil-A would be good and maybe I'll go to bed again early tonight. We're not thinking, wow, the floors are done, let's move everything back upstairs as soon as possible. No, we're often not thinking, just walking through the empty rooms, looking at floors and walls and out windows. When we are thinking, it's about where something is that we can't find or if the milk is still good. There's not a strong urge to wipe dust off of walls or to wash dishes from three weeks ago.

There just this feeling that the existence we have today is better than it was three or four days ago, and somehow, that's enough. There's no rush at all to get back to what we once had. I'm guessing that people who have recently faced real tragedies and disasters, rather than the self-bought, self-inflicted inconvenience we're in the middle of, are experiencing a similar mindset.

The top of that pyramid looks like a pretty tough climb from down here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Afternoon of Mourning

Every Devil - Tanya Donelly (mp3)
Wish You Well - Katie Herzig (mp3)

It’s 6:10 a.m. I’m in the kitchen with my mother. I’m 6 years old. I’m eating one of the Monster Cereals for breakfast. Probably Count Chocula. Mom is pouring another cup of coffee before we head to the car for another day of school. Then, in the midst of the mildly frantic hubbub, she stops. The world stops with her. She’s staring into the blackness of the window, swept into a different dimension far away from me, from the kitchen, from that present moment.

She’s thinking about my biological father. Her brain has called up some memory -- a passionate kiss, or an intense fight, or some random moment where their fingers grazed one another as they reached for the salt shaker at the same time, whatever -- and she has fallen into that well of grief where her mind still struggles to accept that he’s dead.

This is fiction. I made it up.

I don’t have a specific memory of a specific morning from a specific childhood age. What I do have is a jumble of memories of seeing my mother stare off into the distance, yanked out of body and out of that moment, spaced out and incapable of communicating. And I have the wisdom and experience of age now, enough to realize she was mourning her dead husband, enough to realize she almost never let me in on this secret for fear of it having some undesirable consequence on my own childhood.

As I continue my all-too-rapid approach to midlife, I’ve learned it’s not just my mom who has these lost spells. We all do at some point. Once we’ve encountered a tragedy or event too powerful for us to simply swallow and process, our minds will occasionally pull us away from reality and force us to continue digesting the meaning and consequence of a lost loved one, or a divorce, or a tornado ripping our house to shreds, or a serious car accident.

If I learned one seriously painful and life-altering lesson from the death of my adopted father, it’s that we place far too much cultural emphasis on “being there” for someone immediately following a tragedy, and far too little on being there later. When we’re in shock and reeling from a life-altering event, we find our head buzzing, our bodies in a sort of vertigo, and we’re surrounded by concerned people and covered dishes. But later, when the shock has worn off, and the mundane repetitive nature of our lives has been fully restored, and that grief yanks us away from our daily existence for a minute or a day or a week, we feel alone and forgotten. No covered dish. No concerned visitors. No sympathy cards.

Because we’re supposed to be better. We’re supposed to have healed. We had our time to mourn, and now it’s way past time to have moved on.

There might be no lonelier and more heartbreaking thing to say, to oneself or someone else, than “It’s time to move on.” If you don’t believe me, go rewatch Ghost.

The tornado that tore through our Southeast and the outpouring of concern and care that has overflowed in its wake has been truly amazing, but it’s also important to remember that rebuilding for most victims of such an event doesn’t happen overnight. It takes weeks, months, even years. It’s true of tornadoes, and it’s true of tragedy in general.

My point is this. Think of someone you know -- anyone, really -- who has lost a loved one. Be it the death of a parent from old age or cancer, or a sibling, or a child. It can even be someone who went through a rough divorce. Think of that person in your head.

Now, right now, no matter how long ago that tragic moment occurred, think about writing them a letter, by hand, telling them that they’re on your mind. (You can add in a little religious seasoning to taste if you lean that way, but it’s not necessary.)

Tell them they are on your mind and your heart. Tell them you know, from your own experiences, that we might not ever fully heal from the tragedies we survive, but maybe that’s not always a bad thing. Tell them that you admire them for how very well they’ve seemed to manage, and even though there’s probably nothing you can do, you’re thinking of them and there if they need anything.

Yes, it’s possible your note will make that person cry. It’s possible you’ll be picking an emotional scab that was better left all crusty, and if that’s the case, I apologize to the both of you. But I can tell you by name the two people who have reached out to me at completely unexpected and random times, and I can tell you I remember their act of concern and kindness a bajillion times more intensely than I remember those covered dishes and those hugs of sympathy at the visitation.

It never hurts to know someone is thinking of you.