Thursday, June 30, 2011

Little Vignettes

It Is Well With My Soul - Amy Grant (mp3)
Stay for a While - Amy Grant (mp3)

The condensation on my can of root beer, outside in the muggy weather. A drop rolls down, growing in size and gaining speed until it pools at the bottom.

Across the table at a poorly-lit bar, the look from a friend, whose eyes say everything because they say, without the need for words, "I understand you... and yet I remain your loyal friend."

Girls playing Two-Square, and one girl keeps screaming for do-overs and rules changes, but the other two patiently tolerate her. For love of the game, or kindness? Does it matter?

A woman's voice, projected through a computer from New Hampshire, shows me something amazing and new, and I'm continually reminded that technology advances with two or three positive atoms for every negative one.

Two women in their 70s stand outside a church entrance, embracing one another over news of a friend who died earlier that day. It looks like they are holding one another's frail bodies up, but then they separate, and you realize they're stronger than the hulkiest teenagers.

An older acquaintance, in a moment of inebriated freedom, admits he's held a grudge against one of his teachers for more than 40 years. And you realize you can't really predict when or how most grudges come about; you only know that once they set in, they're harder to remove than blood stains on cotton.

A crow chases a squirrel down a tree and across several dozen yards, and you wonder if the squirrel knows the crow is just screwing with it.

The face of my daughter on a computer screen as she sits 180 miles away in North Carolina, a beautiful face with a thousand different expressions. And although my phone calls with her rarely last more than a few minutes, I look up and realize we've Skyped for 12 minutes and counting, and I don't really want to say goodbye because my eyes are still eagerly and hungrily soaking her in.

At a stop light, a young couple pull up in a dirty, dented beat-up clunker with plastic covering one of the backseat windows. He looks left at the preppily-dressed guy on a scooter, shakes his head, smiles, and shouts out the window, "Four wheels move the body, but two wheels move the soul."

Three men, all around 40, stand beside a hospital bed wherein lies an 85-year-old man. They have watched maybe 100 UNC basketball games together in the past decade. The elderly man is rehabilitating after a stroke. He chokes up as he attempts to express his appreciation.

Amy Grant shows up on your iPod as you shuffle your collection, and a blast of pictures and flash-memories from 25 years ago flitter through your mind like old Super-8 film. The cheesy glee of it all is almost enough to buckle the knees.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Not-So-Bad Teacher

Van Halen--"Hot For Teacher" (mp3)

Bad Teacher does not need to be made into something that it isn't. It is not satire, social commentary, an indictment of our educational system, a witty expose or anything of the sort. It is not especially relevant to our times or mandatory viewing for anyone entering the profession.

But it's pretty funny and it does get a lot of things right.

PLOT: Self-serving gold-digger becomes teacher after fiance dumps her. Convinced she can get another rich man with a "boob job," she begins scheming for the money to do that.

Forget, for a moment, the Hollywood trappings of the film that must make her as outrageous as possible. As a teacher, Cameron Diaz's character, Elizabeth Halsey, shows movies to kill class time, sucks up to the principal by feigning interest in his hobby, minimizes her indiscretions, disparages the teacher who seems to do everything perfectly, doesn't bother to learn her students' names, teaches to a test, pays little attention to her required chaperoning duties, has nothing to say to parents on Parents' Night, tutors solely for the money, does whatever it takes to win the "teaching bonus." And, when a student bring her a homemade gift of cookies, she doesn't hesitate to tell the girl how much they suck. She does the same thing with student essays, with even more extreme language.

In short, she is some combination of the daily actions (and desired actions) of a typical teacher. Not all teachers, of course. Not all teachers do or want to do or say all of these things. But after a quick, mental, ethnographic study of my school, I have no trouble coming up with teachers who do each of her "bad" actions in the list above. In fact, there are many candidates for each of them.

Her hungover-driven malaise captures the challenges of the profession. Some of the work is drudgery. Some students have been so tightly wound for success by their parents that they are practically insufferable. Some teachers have staked out and continually defend some turf so much that it makes them poor colleagues. As the outsider trying to take advantage of the system, she also exposes its pettiness—the little things one must do to be part of the team.

Among her colleagues, we see the ones who are afraid to challenge the rules in any way and the "good teacher" ones who work the system in "good" ways that are rewarded--tattling on other teachers, focusing on state standards to a fault, scheming in their own ways for their own advancement. But even the “star” teacher is a victim of the system—she got into her teaching too much 3-4 years earlier and apparently had some kind of breakdown that her adminstrators refuse to forget.

You know, my wife hates movies and television shows about lawyers. Why? Because she is one. And, as such, she can't stand the liberties that such films take with courtroom procedure or the use of evidence or the obvious conflicts of interest that would keep particular lawyers from actually being involved in the cases in question. She can’t suspend the disbelief necessary to watch them. Similarly, so many teaching movies, despite their best intentions, become cringe-worthy. Even something as uplifting as Dead Poets' Society (the soaring ending with a student suicide and a teacher firing) has not held up over time. These teachers who are so committed, so driven to help their students to be the best, they don't exist. There is no point to showing their lives outside the classroom.

You can’t make that criticism of Bad Teacher. Despite the exaggerations of her circumstances, it’s refreshing to see a teaching character who deals with real-life concerns outside the classroom, who can’t drag her best self to school every single day, whose personal relationships impact her relationships with her students, who needs the extrinsic motivations of money and vanity to kick her into doing her best work.

No, Bad Teacher doesn’t need to be made into something that it isn’t. But neither does teaching itself. Teaching is not about the grand gesture, the noble sacrifice, or even about being one of the ranks of committed professionals. It’s about the daily grind, the small victory, the offhand comment or spontaneous action that may change a student’s life forever. And it’s also about a paycheck and the unpleasant things and mundane jobs someone might have to take on to keep or to augment that paycheck. And about the self-doubt that haunts every real teacher, the worry that someone might discover that we, like Elizabeth Halsey, are the frauds that we often think we are.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

An Employer's Market

Good Work (live) - The BoDeans (mp3)

It's a great time to hire someone. It's an employer's market.

Two weeks ago, I posted a job opening for my office. When I last filled this position in 2007, it was an employee’s market. Unemployment was down, and employee expectations were up. The housing bubble had not yet burst, and the Great Recession had not yet commenced.

The competition for this job circa 2007 was not terribly intense. If I recall, I received maybe a dozen applications, and we interviewed four people. We made the decision fairly quickly that one young woman was our best bet, and she was exactly what we wanted: young, capable of writing well, and with some software knowledge in design and photography.

The job is and was always intended to be a starter job. Stay 3-4 years, build up your experience and your resume, and move on to bigger and better things with my full support and encouragement. That’s exactly what happened with her.

But something wicked happened on the way to ‘11.

By the time I close it down on tomorrow, I will have received more than 30 applications, almost triple what I got four years ago. Same starting salary, triple the interest.

Only two have backed away after learning the salary; the rest... well, what was too low for consideration in 2007 has become good enough in 2011.

Salary. Benefits. Free lunches. Great vacation time. Who could ask for anything more, at least until we get out of the mess we’re in? Good enough for now.

My assistant director and I took a cursory glance through the pile of 25 we’d received by the end of last week and ranked them independently. We both agreed there were at least 15 people who could, for all intents and purposes, come in and do the job. Narrowing down the group has become an entirely different exercise in four years. Instead of looking for “capable,” we’re looking for “best fit” and “highest upside.”

I will turn away some 30 people. To the handful of candidates we interview, all but one will receive an awkward call from a guy who will sincerely mean that they’re awesome and have a promising future... just not with this particular job. And the comments will ring cold and superficial, and I will hate myself for having to say it, even if I'm trying my hardest to be sincere.

Apologies if this reads as a self-pitying post. That’s not my intent. I don’t feel sorry for myself at all. It’s part of the merry-go-round, and it goes with my intimidating and impressive job title and seven-figure salary (if you count the decimal points). But I can’t help, in moments like this, getting intensely aggravated.

My sadness and frustration goes at reading reports that, while the richest people in this wonderful country of ours continue to find ways to expand their financial portfolios at phenomenal rates, they don’t much seem to give a shit what happens below them. Their hot air balloon is so high up, they can’t even see the pissants down on the ground working for them. Or not working but sending out overqualified resumes for jobs that were once intended as entry-level.

Not only do most of the super-wealthy seem calloused to “their fellow Americans,” they generally seem to align themselves politically with people whose entire platform is based on not caring about other people except in ways that might judge them morally. Tea Partiers and hardline Republicans care what you do with your reproductive organs. They care what you do with addictive substances. But they don’t care whether you are doing OK, whether you are employed, whether The American Way has given you a golden shower... (and that's not a good thing).

Funny thing is, I don’t want my government solving all these problems, either. I’d rather see the private sector, companies with overcompensated CEOs, show up on the scene like Superman out of the phone booth and start rescuing people with good hard-workin’ jobs for almost-decent wages. But corporations have had several years of opportunity now, and they seem to be stuck in their phone booths. They’re too scared to come out.

Meanwhile, that Big Evil Government we hear about? It swooped in and rescued Detroit, Wall Street, and several foreign countries. Rescued. As in, saved the lives of dozens if not hundreds of companies, thousands if not hundreds of thousands of jobs. I didn’t really support the bailouts, but few reasonable minds can argue their efficacy.

So here I am, practically begging for conservatives to prove me wrong. And they can’t. Apparently because they all refuse to do anything productive until Obama is out of office.

That’s just not my kind of hero.

All of the images from this post are from the Ryan Star video for "Breathe." You can watch it on YouTube here.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Paint

In a way, I suppose there is nothing more mundane than paint. The act of putting a color or a non-color or the combination of all colors on a wall, ceiling, floor, or piece of furniture requires more patience than skill, and probably more prep work and cleanup than actual painting. It is boring and monotonous work. Some would call it drudgery.

And yet, is there anything more satisfying?

The people who painted our kitchen painted it badly. Missed spots, drips and runs, wrong paint, steel brush on newly-polyeurethaned floor to get up a spill, too few coats in the less obvious places (and sometimes in very obvious places), places that had only been primed instead of actually painted, paint right over sawdust, four or five attempted coats to cover a brown bookcase without success.

That's why, with the contractor's blessing and chagrin, someone else is coming in to do the kitchen, to make it right. When you hear him talk, you can tell he is a pro, that he knows things about painting that we, in all of our frustration, never even thought. "What really chaps my ass," he said on Friday, "is this right here." He pointed to some razor thin openings between two pieces of wood on the cabinets where sometimes paint had sealed the crack and sometimes it hadn't. So, feeling like we're in pretty good hands, we've moved on from the paint agony of the past three weeks. We think it will be done right this time.

But for the weekend painter, the home painter, all of those rules go pretty much out the window. The painting of a room or a collection of outdoor furniture is a grand adventure where you get to figure out the lines and you do your damndest to paint within them. If you don't, you'll find some way to fix it that might involved a finger, a piece of tape, even a wet sock. For the home painter, the motto "Improvise, Adapt, Overcome" could not be more true. Some things like a hanging moth larva or a strand of a spider web aren't going to slow you down. By the second coat, who will even notice. If there is a nail hole in the wall, enough paint, eventually, will fill it. If you put on paint with a flat finish you can hide all kinds of imperfections that a professional could not let pass. And where you slipped up a bit on the wall, well, you have another shot at correcting it when you paint the trim. Or the ceiling.

I love to paint, but I don't like to talk about it all that much. I don't even care about the colors. Leave that to greater minds and designer friends. To me, the 5000 shades of white that are available in the world through companies like Martha Stewart or Benjamin Moore or Behr or Sherwin-Williams seem like a pretty silly concept. I understand that there are needs for different whites, but the nuances are beyond my mental palette. Most likely, I could live with 500 shades of white, or maybe even fifty. Take my dog hostage and force to me to pick from only 20 shades of white, and I'll bet I could come up with something under all that pressure. Something white, but with a touch of yellow.

No, what I like about painting is the mission. Painting is a campaign that must be planned, mapped out, supplied with the necessary gear. One of the best moments of painting is when you have your cart loaded up with everything you need at the Ace Hardware. You've already talked man to man with the young kid there about all things paint. He knows you're the kind of guy who likes to tackle home improvement projects. He's given your paint a shaking that would reduce James Bond's vodka martini to slush. He's given you a free wooden stirrer just in case. Now all you have to do is actually paint, and in your mind, all you see is perfection.

What I don't like is bad painting. Amateur painting, which I obviously do, I admire. Bad painting, like I saw yesterday in the bathroom of a Mexican restaurant, makes me shake my head in disgust. It's when you do things like try to put one coat of red paint on a green wall and leave it at that when the green so obviously continues to show through. It's just not that hard. They say that everything looks better with a coat of paint. Correction: everything looks better with enough coats of paint.

Me, like most amateurs, I'm all about the coverage. If I've got a space that needs to be covered, I will put coat after coat after coat on it, if necessary, until it is absolutely covered, until there is not the slightest hint of what paint may have been underneath. That's what absolutely transforms a room or a chair. And when it's finished, there is nothing better than sitting down in a chair and looking at the walls with deep, yes deep, satisfaction.

And, actually, watching paint dry is pretty fun, especially when it goes from wet to flat, when the different areas at different stages of drying take on different hues which, slowly, gradually, eventually coalesce into a perfect shade.

Like cutting grass, painting is a project with a tangible result and a "zone." When it's just you and the paint and the roller and maybe a little music, all other concerns and obligations from the world fall away. Life becomes simple and easily solved. You have your mission. The mission is all that matters. It's just paint. And paint is good.

If something or someone messes with it in some way, all you do is slap on another coat to hide those ugly spots. I guess that's why cover-ups are so prevalent in our world. Metaphorical paint.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Wasting Light

Dear Rosemary - Foo Fighters (mp3)

On April 8, the Foo Fighters released the best rock album of the year.

It’s also the best rock album of the last three years.

It’s also quite possibly the best rock album of the 21st Century.

Wasting Light was the long-awaited and heavily-hyped reunion of Nevermind producer Butch Vig and Dave Grohl. Grohl intimated in several interviews that he avoided working with Vig because he didn’t want to appear too eager to feast on the carcass of the band they both loved and an album that kicked their careers into the stratosphere.

They recorded Wasting Light in Grohl’s garage. Like, a garage on a house where he really lives with his wife and his kids. And Grohl doesn’t live in some Trump-esque megamansion. It’s just a really nice house with a nice garage. And a lot of expensive equipment above in a “monitoring room.”



The album was crafted in a sweet spot in Grohl’s life, I think. He was finally willing to accept that he and Foo are beyond having to prove they’re not Nirvana or riding on his former band’s coattails. And as any real fan of either band would (I’d like to think) quickly acknowledge, Foo’s sound and Nirvana’s don’t have a damn thing to do with one another beyond that both use, like, electric guitars ‘n’ stuff. Wings stole more from the Beatles than Foo did from Nirvana.

At the same time he was finally releasing the ghost of Kurt Cobain, he was getting comfortable with family life and being a father. And part of being comfortable with domesticity is having the unbridled desperation to do stuff that makes you more than just a dad and a husband. In Grohl’s case, he’s gotta get his groove on.

None of the songs from Wasting Light seem to be inspired by domesticated life -- Dave Grohl ain’t Lori McKenna. It’s mostly just songs about heartbreaks, screwed-up relationships, and angry people. The album knows what it wants to be when it grows up: a punching upbeat rock assault with the heart of a pop classic.

Foo songs have never yearned to explore the depths of the ocean. They’re fairly happy to stay up near the surface in the daylight zone. Once in a while, they’ll drift down into the twilight zone, but Foo will never be a band in the midnight zone of lyrical depth. They’re not Radiohead.

You want deep, musical aggression and anger? Oh yeah, they'll go to the ocean floor. But they lyrics rarely go down there with them.

I first paid real attention to the Foo Fighters when their song “My Hero” showed up in the movie Varsity Blues, so it’s not like I’ve been blindly loyal to or crazy about them from the get-go. I wouldn’t even say I became a full-fledged fan until their 2005 double-album In Your Honor.

Grohl has never come across as a tortured artist (see: YouTube clip above). Maybe that’s why some people hate him. He’s that guy who was somehow both the president of his fraternity but also ridonkulously talented as a musician. His personality has always reminded me of the Beastie Boys, guys who are in on the joke of their success and who realize that superstardom is a little too goofy and easily attained, yet you know that when those two bands are behind closed doors and working on their music, they’re serious and intense. Making music is important and heavy and serious shit.

You know this because he pulls in none other than Bob Mould -- The Master of Serious, the King of Heavy -- for a guest appearance (“Dear Rosemary”), and it’s a beautiful thing.

What makes Wasting Light an album of transcendent greatness is that it holds its strength from start to finish. If you like the first song, you’ll like all of them. You’d think the history of recorded music would be full of albums that stay strong from start to finish, but it’s just not true, especially of albums with pop sensibilities. Sometimes the pop misses the mark. Or sometimes the gear-shift doesn’t quite work.

Everything works here. Beginning to end.

They conclude the album with “Walk,” my favorite ever Foo song, the kind of song that, if the band quit tomorrow, would be one helluva last song on a last album.

I thought this might be the best album of 2011 about a week after I got it, but almost three months later, it just gets better, and bigger, and more impressive. It’s one for the ages.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

PTSD

The Byrds--"You Ain't Going Nowhere" (mp3)

"Post-traumatic stress disorder is a type of anxiety disorder. It can occur after you've seen or experienced a traumatic event that involved the threat of injury or death."

I suppose that the one-year anniversary of the event was observed in the most appropriate, if unplanned, way. At 2:30AM, my cell phone rang. When I looked to see who was calling, all it said was "Blocked," which my sleep-brain couldn't quite figure out, so I pushed the button to answer the call and then held the phone to my ear, saying nothing. The caller kept saying a name I can't remember and something about how if he was going to come he would need to know where to park. I continued to listen silently, my heart pounding.

For the next 4 1/2 hours, I lay awake, recalling what had happened one year earlier: at 3AM, probably because I left the back door unlocked after grilling out for Father's Day, two men entered our house and I interrupted them just as they were beginning to look around, one going through my wife's purse, the other walking into the den, where I had fallen asleep.

There are many, many nights when I continue to listen, my heart pounding.

A slight noise, like the cat jumping from the railing to the steps on the back landing can jolt me awake and leave me listening for the next sound. Rustling wind blowing things around the back yard sounds like people. The new icemaker or even a large fly inside of a lamp in the dark or any of the noises that come with an old house can startle me and then keep me awake for hours. Waiting for that next sound which means I will have to act.

I have been in many beds in the past year. I do not like to sleep upstairs because I feel out of control. I do not like to sleep on the couch where I was when it happened because I relive it. No, I like to sleep in the basement. Irrationally, I feel like I have the best sense of what is going on in and around my house from down there. Not that there is much that I can do about it. I have thought often of putting a golf club by that bed, but I don't.

I did not buy a gun. I thought I wanted a gun, wanted to learn to shoot, wanted to spend time at firing ranges honing my skills. But I was at someone's house the other night, and he has gotten into guns, and the seeing of the shotgun in the corner, the .22 and 30-30 that lie in cases on one bed, the human target with his best "grouping" that lies on the other bed, and the pistol that he brought to the table and the bullets that he passed around so that we could compare various calibers reminded me that I want to have nothing to do with guns, that they are no kind of solution.

With the house work we've been having done, our house is safer. We are more vigilant about making sure the doors are locked. But the murder of an elderly woman during a home invasion last week, not far from us, gave all of us a reminder that we didn't want, especially so close to the anniversary.

And while I liked to think that I was managing all of the psychological issues privately, a couple of weeks ago, I got up about 4 0'clock in the morning to let the cat out, and doing that required my unlocking the lock on the door where they entered. It makes a very distinctive unlatching sound. The next morning, my younger daughter told me she heard it and was awake for hours.

We don't talk about it, but I'd guess, to some extent, we all have it.

My anxiety has ebbed some during the past year, but, if, in the middle of the night, I get in my head the one particular image of that hand reaching into the den and feeling around for the light switch, I still get a full-body chill that rises up into my scalp. It is that one image. What happened before that I recall only from the half-daze of pulling myself awake, and what happened after that is a blur. But the hand pushing the door slightly open and reaching inside remains the crystalline moment of terror. My heart rate speeds up even as I type this now.

I cannot imagine what it would be like to live with a full-blown case of PTSD, haunted by images of what you had done or seen in war, traumatized by having been at Ground Zero on 9/11, or unable to shake some other harrowing circumstances. There are simply too many "triggers" out there--sounds, media images, conversations, well-meaning bumper stickers. It would be overwhelming, especially in our graphic, violence-rich society.

Mine usually only comes at night, and not every night. If I can sleep past the magic hour of 3AM, I'm usually pretty good. By 4:30AM or so, and definitely when I can hear the first birds begin to make their sounds, I've convinced myself that we're all good, that it's too late for someone to be out trying doors of houses to see if they're unlocked. Then I know it's just the cat.

I would like to say that when I see two or three young men walking along Tunnel Blvd as I drive past that I don't wonder whether they might have been the ones, but I do. I do. And Father's Day, I'm afraid, will always be the day that father left the door unlocked, father heard footsteps creaking on the wooden floors, father yelled for help, father ran upstairs and stood while his family locked themselves in a room, father waited for the police. Father's Day is the day that father began his vigil.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

Forever My Father - Go Radio (mp3)

We’re asked the question innumerable times as kids and teens. We’re constantly asking ourselves this awful trap of a question from the minute we begin to grasp that yes, one day, we will actually grow up and become our own versions of the old people we see sulking around us, bossing us around, stressing out over tire pressure and leaving the house on time and carping about some coworker named Hanrahan.

Unlike having my wisdom teeth pulled or my first kiss or the first time I dove off the high dive, I don’t recall much about the moment I actually realized I would become a grown-up.

Maybe it happened the way the whole Santa Claus bubble burst, which is to say gradually in such tiny increments that I don’t know the day it began so much as I know the day I couldn’t go back. It wasn’t until my college years when I saw my own mom crumble into pieces as she dealt with the death of her own parents that I knew I couldn’t remain a child.

My mom kept this cool pre-fabricated booklet that chronicled my elementary school years. In addition to a folder for pictures and keepsakes, it included a list of factoids (height, weight) and blanks. “Favorite sport,” “Favorite book,” and the aforementioned “What I want to be when I grow up.”

In second grade, I wanted to be a baseball player. I had moved up from catcher in first grade to second baseman, a huge leap forward in baseball evolution. Modern people don’t know this, but in my day, the catcher on a first grade team had to sit in a little box several feet back behind home plate. No mask. No big cool mitt. Just stand in the corner and wait for foul balls. And, if you caught a foul, the batter was out.

So basically, the catcher was for the kid who couldn’t play anything, and the catcher’s only job was to be the asshole who broke the heart of players on the other team. So a move up to second base was kind of a big deal.

In third grade, I wanted to be a priest. The only two denominations I’d ever known to that point were Baptist and Presbyterian, and neither of them had jack squat to do with priests. But I was at this new school, Lutheran School, and their religion seemed really intense and formal compared to mine. That's my best guess.

And so on with fourth grade (football player!) and fifth grade (fireman!) and sixth grade (fireman again!).

And then I moved up to junior high, and I stopped filling out those surveys because the book ended. And I went to a school with all boys, so we stopped playing those games where you fold paper into funky origami shapes and predict your future and your girlfriend. And we stopped playing any and all games where the point was to find love or romance, because we were too busy playing games where actual points were scored using spherical objects of some size or another.

I’m not saying I stopped thinking about the future just because I went to a boys school. But it certainly decreased greatly in frequency, and I stopped talking about it. Even late night sleepovers with friends rarely involved talk of adulthood. We were too busy wondering whether Jean Gray and Scott Summers ever actually did it or playing a 12th-level paladin or 7th-level dwarf. Talk of romance and adventure always revolved around the characters we created, not ourselves.

By eighth grade, even if the words never passed my lips, all I knew for certain was that I wanted to be a dad someday. I knew it so intensely that I took it for granted. Nobody talked about it. I think most of us assumed it was just going to happen, that it was part of growing up. Circle of life yada yada.

In fact, I more specifically remember my friend Scott proclaiming he didn’t want kids. He said he didn’t want kids because he was so scared he would screw them up, because he felt so screwed up himself. And I remember being so scared, because I wanted to be a sympathetic friend, but I was also horrified that his opposition might be contagious, and I couldn’t have this particular desire taken from me.

Even though I spent most of my adolescent life feeling like the garbage monster from Star Wars, my desperate awkwardness never wrecked my warped certainty that I would be a good and loving father.

The only obstacle I ever saw that would prevent my fatherhood was the need to find some woman foolish and desperate enough to see me as a worthy mate and partner. That part was in question right up to the point where the preacher said I could kiss her and walk out of the church as husband and wife, and there were times after that when I was pretty sure it was all just a dream from Dallas.

Fatherhood has had some crap days. I’ve had days when I wanted to flush my own head down the toilet rather than listen to my daughter whine or attempt to negotiate with my son during a demonic temper tantrum. But the crappiest days are the days I’ve gone to sleep feeling like a failure father, when my own flaws and shortcomings and failings bleed into the lives of those wonderful creatures who share my blood and my roof.

I never thought my parents were perfect, and I never expected parental perfection of myself. I just want to be “good enough” or maybe just a smidge better.

For better or worse, Happiness was never my parental goal*. A sense of purpose and meaning, a sense of responsibility, and the comfort to know that I will love them no matter their flaws or their failures yet demand and expect that they always yearn to improve.

I can’t help but believe if they have these things -- purpose, responsibility, love, drive -- they’ll find joy more often than not.



* -- The latest Atlantic parenting-related article (“How To Land Your Kid In Therapy”) is so exciting for parents like me to read, because it validates our fear that too many parents are too involved, too controlling, too insistent that everything in their child’s life be like Candyland instead of like Sorry!  

** -- The T-shirt text on the right is a bunch of shit, because happiness is not a fish you can catch or some pet hamster you can simply buy and keep.

Monday, June 20, 2011

"When The Change Was Made Uptown And The Big Man Joined The Band"

Clarence Clemons (with Jackson Browne)--"You're A Friend Of Mine" (mp3)

The second time I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band was in the summer of 1978. I was attending summer school for the hell of it at William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA. Because I was living a spartan life in a dorm room that summer, I didn't have a stereo with me, just a small cassette player and a bunch of tapes that had accompanied me on the drive down and that now provided music for my dorm room.

Luckily, I made friends quickly, and primarily, with a couple of boys named Doug. Both were from Virginia and were at summer school because they had to be, trying to get back in William and Mary's good graces for the upcoming year. One of the Dougs had a car and in that car an 8-track player and in that tape player a copy of Darkness On The Edge Of Town. Without a stereo, I had been missing Darkness, an early summer release that my brother and I liked to play over and over down in our basement while playing ping-pong.

So getting to ride around in Doug's car with Doug and Doug listening to Bruce was one of the highlights of that summer.

If you've never had to deal with an 8-track player, then you don't know that the 8-track only plays in one direction--forward. You couldn't fast forward or rewind; you had to listen in order. Your only hoping of finding the song you wanted was to to flip the 8-track over and hope it was playing on the other side. The other issue was that if the two sides weren't equal timewise, you would have long gaps of nothing but hiss, so the music companies would put whatever song was closest to the length of the potential hiss gap on the 8-track twice. In the case of Darkness On The Edge Of Town, that song was "Candy's Room." If you played the 8-track straight through, you had to listen to "Candy's Room" twice as often as any other song.

There are worse things, but it was still annoying.

The good news was that, while at W+M, Bruce's summer tour got underway, including a stop at Hampton Roads, Virginia. And either Doug or Doug, I forget which, got us tickets.

That show of shows kicked off what was, for me, the greatest year of rock music, for two simple reasons--Bruce Springsteen's Darkness On The Edge Of Town and Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps and the tours that supported (or in Neil's case, introduced) them.

But in the immediate moment in the Hampton Roads Coliseum, there were other matters, specifically a stunning, marathon concert from a band who hadn't yet achieved national fame, so you felt like you were in on something special, exclusive, even intimate, despite the thousands of others in the audience.

And there was Clarence. Hampton was a bit of a homecoming for him. His family was from Norfolk and they were all in attendance, a cheering section the likes of which I'd not seen at a concert. It was kind of like when you were young and you ran into your teacher in the supermarket and realized that, wait a second, she exists outside of school. She has a life. Seeing Clarence's family that night cemented for me the fraternal nature of that band, how even the superstardom on the horizon would not change their essential brotherhood all that much. It's hard to imagine Keith Richards' extended clan getting a shoutout from Mick at a Stones' concert.

Although when we hear the shows now, we think of that Darkness tour as featuring Bruce because he unleashed a guitar sound and style that no one had heard before, the shows belonged just as much to Clarence, that rock and roll anomaly. Not only the only black guy in an all-white band, but a sax player. And Bruce's onstage foil (sorry, Stevie). And very much the hero of the crowd. At that time, David Bowie was about the only other rock musician using, occasionally, minimally playing, sax. But here was Clarence, front and center, featured prominently at the top of his powers.

Though Darkness started to downplay Clarence's sax role, limiting him to short, punctuated solos or no solos at all, the setlist in 1978 still drew heavily from the past, and Clarence's solos on "Spirits In The Night," "Jungleland," "Kitty's Back," "Rosalita" and others took the crowd to new heights. When there wasn't sax, he was still vital. His strong percussion and vocals at the start of "Not Fade Away/She's The One" made me sit up and notice a song I hadn't really paid attention to. At the climax of the show, Bruce stood atop one speaker tower and Clarence atop the other.

And now Clarence Clemons is gone. It must feel to Bruce, as it does to me, as if his guts have been ripped out. Even older, ailing, having to sit down, with fewer sax parts to play, Clarence struck me as the one member of the band who could not be replaced. His sound was so distinctive, so integral to the best of Springsteen's music that to move on from here and either to replace it or to omit it seems like a mistake.

I mourn for Clarence. I mourn for the E Street Band. For when the Big Man died this weekend, for me, the band died with him. I have no doubt that there is still great music to come from Springsteen with or without some or all of his longtime bandmates, but, sadly, it will not be the E Street Band. Not without Clarence.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

One Rule to Rule Them All

Everybody Wants to Rule the World - Ted Leo & the Pharmacists (mp3)

Jesus had two rules. Wabash College has just one. They one-upped Jesus! Here is their rule:
"The student is expected to conduct himself at all times, both on and off the campus, as a gentleman and a responsible citizen."
My daughters’ school has three rules:
I will respect myself and others.
I will take responsibility for my actions.
I will treat others the way I want to be treated.
Wabash has had its “Gentleman’s Rule” for almost 60 years. My daughters’ school has had the same three rules since it opened its doors in 1991. Meanwhile, the school where I work has a 62-page handbook of rules. At least one school I know has a handbook that approaches 80 pages.

Every year, my school adds and subtracts pages of rules. Mostly adds. Same story at schools across the country.

It’s like the entire history of the Torah, where 10 simple commandments became three books of the Torah that rival the worst portions of The Bartimaeus Trilogy, has been ignored. ("But Pa, it's not fair! You only had to memorize 10 commandments, and I have to memorize 406 pages!" "Shut up and eat your manna.")

Seriously, Christians circa 2011 can’t even remember 10 f**king commandments, much less whether some dude’s ox needs to be gored if it attempts to hump your goat on your side of the fence if your wife or daughter witnesses it. Nor do we know where to look in the Torah to find out.

Two schools, four rules.

Neither Wabash nor my daughter’s school spends hours and days in meetings attempting to clarify or tweak the rules they have laid out. Neither school has lengthy meetings with parents and/or students where the administrators must begrudgingly acknowledge that the rule against inappropriate sexual conduct did not explicitly state that one student could not grope a female student by the buttocks, so therefore the student cannot be punished for doing what was not expressly forbidden in the rules from doing. (For the record, it stated “breasts and genital areas.”)

To be fair, neither school has a military component, and many of the schools obsessed with lengthy rulebooks do, or at least did at one point in time. And anyone with military experience knows that the handbook on how to properly prepare and eat toast is at least 16 pages long.

Did you ever see A Few Good Men? Remember that scene where Lt. Caffey grabs the Army field manual and asks Noah Wyle if anywhere in there it says how to go to the mess hall for meals, and Wyle says “Nossir.” And Caffey throws him the Gitmo field manual and asks the same question, and Wyle says, “Nossir.” Remember that?

Well, I gay-ron-tee you that, when the movie came out, Army brass dudes looked at one another and said, “Is it really not in there? F**k!! We need to add that to next year’s edition!” And next year, there was a 14-page breakdown on how to get to a mess hall for three squares a day. Complete with bullet points that looked something like this:
  • Breakfast
    • Between 4:30 a.m. - 6:30 a.m.
      • Meat Lover preferences
      • Dairy allergies
      • For those with religious dietary restrictions
      • Vegetarian preferences
        • Pure vegan
        • Traditional vegetarian
        • Just no moo cows or cluck clucks or oink oinks, please
          • No exceptions version
          • "Bacon is too good and must be granted exception" version
    • Between 6:30 a.m. - 8 a.m.
And so on. And each of those bullet points included multiple paragraphs of explanations that would make even the sharpest contract lawyer raise a unibrow of begrudging respect.

I’m not convinced that the One Rule or Three Rule model is a perfect fit for our school or any school, but doesn’t it more effectively get to the heart of what education is supposed to, ultimately, be about: getting students to think for themselves?

To annoy Bob, I’ll whip out my own bastardized version of Occam’s Razor again: All things being equal, the simplest explanation is most likely the right one. Which is to say, if both approaches to rules are a guaranteed pain in the ass for administrators and students, then isn’t too few rules better than too many?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

"The Best Smelling Street In America"

As if you needed another reflection on the Bessie Smith Strut...


A friend of mine remarked the other night as the Strut was winding down that he felt like it had been "oversold." I think what he meant was that it didn't measure up to his expectations--for him, maybe music not great, food all of a type, purposeless meandering in the heat. He hadn't been in quite awhile. And I know what he meant.

A "successful" Strut somehow has to be more than the sum of its parts, and if it isn't for you, then you ask, what's the big deal? If it's too hot, you become miserable. Drink too much beer, you feel dull. Wait too long to get something to eat, you get a crunchy, charred sausage that has been sitting on the grill for 4 hours. Don't really care for the music, you get bored. And if those things are not working for you, you realize that you are in the middle of a giant throng of people, a circumstance you may try to avoid the other 364 days of the year.

Teenagers from the Bridge Christian Church Youth Group pass out koozies to adults carrying beers. The koozies bear the logo of the church.

But, really, isn't that true of anything? A trip to Paris can be spectacular, or, in a moment of existential awareness, you just might think, wait a second, this is just another city in another country with a bunch of people who do the same things that they do in every other city.

Smoked sausages, jerk chicken, turkey legs, potato salad, chicken or alligator on a stick, hot fish, funnel cakes, hot dogs, ribs, barbecue, grilled salmon and a whole lot else, but it's when those sizzling, grilling onions get into the air that you pause in your walking and take a couple of deeper smells.

My love of the Strut has developed, over time, because of its mystery. I, too, stayed away for years. Perhaps my life is too pedestrian, but the Strut, to me, is a grand adventure, and I'm always amazed by those who choose not to join in. Let's face it, an event like this in a city like this involves throwing a lot of volatile ingredients into a pot with no idea how they might turn out. Some people stay away because that scares them; I go because I want to know.

A long street, a stage at either end, and anything that can happen in between. Who will you run into as you stroll down that boulevard? A former student trying to establish himself as a bluesman on the street? The guy who runs your lawn service? One of your daughter's friend's mothers, now with a "26.2" tattooed on the back of her shoulder? Someone who scares you? Someone who makes you do a double-take, for any number of right or wrong reasons? Too many police? Not enough? Or just people looking at people, as Fitzgerald once said, "both attracted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life?"

Conversations are easy while you wait for the Port-O-Johns. A shared need, for some, a shared desperation. Anywhere else, people would stand silently and wait.

And it is about the walking, really. Up and down that street, back to where you were one more time, back to get something good that you saw, down a side street to the Port-o-Johns. By the time you get to the end of strut night, you've logged in quite a few miles and, most likely, your feet are screaming. You walk past places you've driven past for years but never noticed--"Retired Gentlemen's Club."

John Lee Hooker Jr.'s band churns out one of his daddy's songs, "Boom Boom."

But, sadly, the blues themselves are starting to get lost in the shuffle (or strut). A friend correctly identified the only authentic player on the whole street as an old man with more guitar strings than teeth, perched on a stool behind a bass-heavy aged amplifier. Besides him, there were white guys playing stuff like "Imagine" and "Wish You Were Here" at their own perches, while up on the stages, the music drifted either more towards rhtyhm than blues (a synth solo? really?) or towards surf guitar. John Lee Hooker Jr. has the pedigree and Jimmy Thackery has the chops, but neither served Miss Bessie well on this night.

And when it ends, when darkness falls, you find that you aren't quite finished, and off you go into the night, with comrades, down darkened city streets in search of some wistful ending of your own, some way to extend the night.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Strut Eleven

TODAY'S POST IS IN TWO PARTS. MY PART IS NOW. BOB'S IS WHEN HE GETS TO WORK AND DECIDES TO STOP WORKING AND INSTEAD ADD STUFF TO THIS BLOG.

part one: billy's inebriated recollections

Strut - Cheetah Girls (mp3)
(Yes, I posted this song last year, and I will post it next year if I go. It's just too cheesy and perfect not to.)

Tonight was Strut Night. Or, as a classmate of mine put: “This is the best night of the year.”

While it’s up for debate whether he would state that so confidently without having imbibed an excessive amount of alcohol, his aim was true. The Bessie Smith Strut, now in its young adulthood as an annual tradition.

I don't want to ruin my mood or the spirit of the Strut by getting too verbose, but I can't help but break down the following 30-second video with the passion of Kevin Costner reviewing the Zapruder film.



Let's work from the right. Or, as Costner might say, Back... and to the left.

In the background, right-center of the screen, is what we delightfully referred to as the Quiet Grinders. The guy hardly ever moved. The woman hardly ever moved. But very, very, very subtly, they were grinding. Just trust me on this.

Next, the guy with the funky cloudy Hawaiian shirt thing. At first, he just looks kinda funny. But watch again. And again. If you pay attention, he starts to look like a marionette. In fact, if you can zoom in, you will see strings dangling from his left arm and both legs. I only know for sure because I did this exact same dance with one of my puppets back home when I was in 4th grade.

The guy in the yellow shirt. I love his shirt. I wish I owned that shirt. Actually, I'm pretty sure I own that shirt. Also, that's exactly how I bob my head when I'm at a concert I love. Also, I used to own jorts just like that. Holy shit. It's my twin brother from another mother!

And now, to the true star of the show. I've had to watch CARS roughly 100 times in the past few months because of my son's unhealthy obsession with the film, and I'm almost positive that the woman with the visor is the original owner of Mater, the tow truck voiced by Larry the Cable Guy. Early in this video, you see her playing the fabled Air Guitar. But what you fail to realize, because you weren't there, is that this laid the important groundwork for a later part of the dance where she stops playing the fret part of the Air Guitar, and it becomes more of a Madonna-esque, public masturbatory kind of experience where it's just her and the strumming along her private region.



In a better world, I'd love to tell you this was the kind of thing we watched, but it wasn't. It was bad. Real bad. So bad you start using bad English and stuff. So bad you start drinking Miller High Life and enjoying it. And drinking it faster so all of you can leave with the excuse of needing another beer.

And then there's the sideshows.

The preachers -- who, for the record, have finally realized that telling everyone they suck and are going to hell isn't working -- got nicer. Their big signs just have general vague non-threatening Bible verses on them. They scream stuff about love and forgiveness. They don't have goatees. In short, they're a lot more boring. But in a way Jesus would find highly relieving.

The vendors. This year's best item was the "OBAMA got OSAMA" shirt. I'm posing (in disguise) at right with the vendor.



The sales girls. At left, I'm posing with the sorority sisters who drew the short straw and had to chaperone the Oscar Mayer (Anthony) Weinermobile. This picture is the closest I've ever come to exposing a large wiener via social media, and I hope for my sake and yours to keep it this way. What you can't quite tell from this picture is that these girls, bless their hearts, really really didn't want to take this picture. They were just being nice. OK, maybe it's obvious. But bless their hearts for trying not to make it TOO obvious.

Here's your final advice for the night, at least from Billy and "part one": the food. Chicken on a Stick from Champy's should be the next menu item on the list if Heaven ever offers a 7-course meal. It was fried and just a little bit spicy and had potatoes and onions and chicken, and I'm honestly shocked that no one shot anyone else this year at the Strut merely from fighting over these delicious wonders.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Women Are From Venus, Men Are From The Toy, Game And Sports Departments At Target

Au Revoir Simone--"The Boys Of Summer" (mp3)

This past weekend, I smoked meat, drank beer, sweated until my armpits stank, turned up music too loud, swore plenty, foraged for fire wood and then threw unnecessary logs on the fire, stayed up too late, brushed off ticks, made a lot of either disparaging or self-deprecating remarks, shoveled cake in my mouth after midnight, made half-hearted efforts to clean things up. And, most of all, I played games.

Yep. You guessed it. Men together.

It was the occasion of my friend's 40th birthday, a surprise gathering in the mountains of West Virginia, in Fayetteville, centerpiece of the New River Gorge and self-proclaimed "Coolest Small Town In America." His brother-in-law rented a vacation home for 4 days and we all chipped in and snuck in and pulled off the surprise and made quite a weekend of it. There were seven of us.

My wife went on a "girl trip" last summer, but she didn't really like it, and, or at least didn't like it for very long. Since she's never said that much about it (except when she called all the time while she was there), I can't really say why she didn't connect with it. The subject did come up on Saturday, when a bunch of us were leaning against the deck railing in the backyard, either smoking or watching meat smoke.

"What do women when they go on trips like this?" somebody asked.
"Talk," someone else responded. "They sit around and talk."

It wasn't said as a put-down. It was said very matter-of-factly. I'd guess it's probably true, but I'm not hanging my hat on it, having never been on such a trip, though I have been on a "couples" trip or two, and they have tended in that direction. Let's just say that the crowd in West Virginia didn't have the "personal statement of Christian faith" discussion that we had down in Charleston last summer. When we weren't shopping or eating in that city, we were back in the apartment chatting.

Men, on the other hand, play games and sports and activities. Before I arrived, they had spent the day whitewater rafting. In the backyard, a choice between Ladder Ball and Cornhole, games played at all times of the morning and day and at night until it was too dark to see. During the late evenings, there was poker for the foolish. One day, the brave went zip-lining, and the rest of us journeyed into the gnat-infested woods to play Frisbee golf.

But everything, and I mean everything, was a competition, not only in this crowd, but in every all-male gathering. The one night we went out to dinner, as soon as we sat down, someone instituted a rule, I can't remember the name of it (and not because I lost!), where if you were caught holding your beer with your primary hand, you had to chug the drink. Luckily, I have slight ambidexiterity from my father, and drink with my right hand even though I'm left-handed.

Even music, as I have mentioned in these pages before, is a matter of one-upsmanship. While we didn't engage in the legendary "Ipod Wars," listening to music with a bunch of guys most certainly does not involve putting Sarah McLachlan on in the background and being done with it. Instead, it's about getting your turn with your Ipod playing your songs that show who you are and why your songs are perfect for the moment. And taking the heat if it doesn't turn out. I'm proud to say that I introduced the concept of women who make music to this Ipod crowd. With limited success.

I celebrate this friendly competitiveness. It certainly made the weekend more fun, but it also speaks to something larger. Men have got to have at least a little something at stake (their egos, if nothing else) in order to fully engage in life. They have got to be able to prove to themselves that they can face their fears or get a little better at something new than they were the first time they did it. Or they need to know that there is another crack at it, whatever it is, waiting out there. They need the nod of approval from their compadres, the high five, even if it's only for one decent throw, shot, toss, save, or hand in a long, losing effort.

Like Beowulf and his thanes in the mead hall "forgetting the woes of the world," modern men still lose themselves in activities and games, beers and meals. They communicate with bottles clunked together, shared songs, the communal lure of the fire, and words that focus mainly just on what they are doing right then. Otherwise, they'd have to sit around and actually talk to each other.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Eat Prey Love

Damn These Vampires - Mountain Goats (mp3)
Do the Vampire - Superdrag (mp3)

Love is predatory.

This isn’t always true, mind you. There’s plenty of gushy huggy Care Bear love out there between people who see one another with rainbow auras, emotional wells full of nothing but beauty and perfection and big red cartoon hearts dotting the i.

But sometimes, love is about predators finding their prey not through talons or teeth, but through the heart.

I saw the movie LET ME IN this weekend. It’s the American remake of the Swedish film Let The Right One In (or, if you must, Låt den rätte komma in). American translations of respected foreign films almost always serve to remind us how polished and pathetic our glossy plastic notions of quality have become. In the case of LET ME IN, however, respect was paid, and changes were made wisely.

If you read the critics reviews, many share this opinion: truly great flick, but the only reason it was ever made is because Americans can’t/won’t read subtitles.

True, perhaps, but I saw a difference in the two films, and it was a significant difference.

In Right One, I saw a slightly different take on the love relationship between the two main characters. In Let Me In, I saw an intense exploration of the nature of predators, the nature of prey, and the interdependence of these sides. (Fair Warning: Plot points revealed below.)

Owen, the boy at the center of the story, is the ultimate prey. He is awkward and outcast and odd, and he is an emotional wreck from the pending divorce of his parents. He is, in numerous ways, the human equivalent of that wounded young antelope in the open field. The evil bullies at his school know it. The residents of his apartment complex know it. And his new 12-year-old neighbor Abby knows it.

The film is set in Los Alamos, NM, in the early ‘80s, the kind of perfect undertone for the film’s issues. As director Matt Reeves said:
“I started thinking that for this little boy, who is mercilessly bullied and has these dark fantasies of revenge, it would be very confusing to be growing up at a time when Reagan is telling us that evil is something outside of us, and Americans are fundamentally good.”
And to set this up in the birthplace of the nuclear bomb. Nice.
“Los Alamos has the highest IQ per capita and the highest number of churches per capita, because of all the scientific research that is going on there, so it’s this grappling of conscience.”

From the beginning, Abby is preying on Owen. I didn’t see this in the Swedish version. It might have been clear, but I somehow missed it. I misinterpreted her aims in the Swedish version as loneliness. But in the American version, as portrayed by the same girl who raises eyebrows in KICK-ASS, it’s all too clear she is seizing on an opportunity.

See, she looks 12, but she’s a seasoned pro of many lifetimes. And her “father,” the man who has been at her side since he himself was a pre-adolescent, is wearing down. He’s old, and he’s finally begun to lose his mind. This happens alot when you find yourself becoming a serial killer who drains blood to feed the love of your life who is forever stuck inside the body of a pre-adolescent girl even as you become this old pervert.

She knows her “father” will not last much longer, and she knows she needs a replacement. Owen is perfect, and she knows it before she even sits on the monkey bars of the apartment playground with him.

Later, Owen looks through pictures of Abby with her “father” as a boy. They are the same age in sepia-toned images. Instead of a beaten older man, he is a nerd with glasses and that unsightly birthmark swallowing his right cheek, the kind of mark that would render all but the most charismatic soul an outcast. Abby has been down this road many times. She is not new to seduction or to vulnerable outcast nerd boys.

In the Swedish movie, I guess the ending made me oddly, awkwardly happy. The poor boy had at least found love. But in the American version, Owen’s fate felt weighty, tragic, inevitable. He is prey. Period. The only drama is in determining which predator ultimately gains ownership of him.

Any movie that leaves me asking deep questions and troubled is a movie I consider a rare success in today’s bubblegum disposable entertainment world. It will be a while before I work my feeble mind around this one.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

That Guy

Eject, Pilot, Eject--"If You're Listening" (mp3)

In 1979, when the Disco Era was really starting to peak, two friends and I decided to spend our senior year at Penn living in one of the high rise quad apartments on campus. You see the problem, but not the connection. Yet. The three of us--Kenny, Rich, and I--entered the lottery, leaving ourselves open for a mystery fourth guy to fill our quad. That person turned out to be Obie.

Obie was a refugee from the wealthiest frat on campus, and the circumstances concerning why he was living with us for his senior year, instead of in the frat, never became quite clear or else are lost to time. What was clear was that he was a very rich boy who had a closet full of highly-starched monogrammed shirts that he wore to class each day. And khakis and blazers and and a beautiful cashmere long coat and all of that. Of course, that was when his clothes were clean. When they were dirty, he had the largest mound of soiled expensive clothing piled on his floor that I have ever seen. Larger than those African ant hills you used to see in National Geographic. He sent his laundry out.

We, by contrast, wore jeans and flannel shirts to class, t-shirts when it finally got warm in Philadelphia. We listened to rock music. We went to concerts. We hung out. We did our homework casually, and then listened to more music. Obie didn't quite know what to make of us. Even though two of the three of us were Wharton men, we were just guys studying business, while he was pedigreed progeny of the Eastern financial world. His future was mapped out.

Most notably, I remember Obie for having a pair of Kelly green pants that he claimed "had never let him down." At the disco, he meant. For many nights of each week, he and his frat pals would head to The Second Story, Philly's hottest disco at the time. People tend to misremember disco as having a lower class appeal because of John Travola's character in Saturday Night Fever. In fact, disco, at least at the start, was a wealthy, exclusive, gin-and-tonic chugging endeavor where you had to have both luck and influence to get in the door. Though we never saw Obie with a girl, and though he certainly never brought one back to the apartment, we bought into the mystique of the green pants, being as intrigued by his world as he was, at times, by ours.

He was also "that guy."

In college, that guy was the guy who would smoke pot with you, but would never buy any. He would always come to the smoking of pot as an outsider, as if each time was a novel experience that he couldn't quite acknowledge that he was doing, and that he couldn't allow himself to be connected to. It also meant that he never bought any pot, which meant that he was always smoking ours.

Let's be candid: if you're going to smoke pot, if you're going to buy it, then you're going to have to get involved, at least a little bit, with the more sordid parts of life. In college, that meant ultimately that you'd have to enter the realm of one of the drug dealers on campus. Because even if you started out having a friend in the know buy pot for you, eventually, he or she would get tired of that and would put you directly in touch with the source. Why? Well, my theory is that they know that they've gotten their hands dirty and they want you to get your hands dirty, too. Marijuana is illegal, and if you get involved with it, you end up dealing with a criminal. Or yourself.

But, back to Obie. Under the influence of marijuana, which we tended to smoke later at night after our studying was finished, Obie would get very chummy and would question the nature of his existence, would ponder the Wall Street future that was expected of him, would get into the music that we were listening to, would admire our laid-back approach to things, might even admit that he had other interests beyond the network of his frat pals and their family connections. In the light of day, he was back to his old self, preppy and somewhat aloof, with a briefcase and a Wall Street Journal. During that year, he was a pretty active participant in our activities, he never sought to purchase any. You didn't get stoned to go disco-dancing or to hang out at "The Castle," as his fraternity house was called. Not that he ever invited us to join him.

These days, I still know that guy. If you go out to lunch with him, he doesn't order fries or onion rings because they don't fit his healthy outlook, but he's happy to munch on a few of yours. He doesn't bring beer to a gathering, because he doesn't want to get drunk. He only wants one or two. He'll gladly enjoy one of yours, if offered. He acts very differently if his wife or one of his Christian friends is around because he doesn't want to upset the careful demeanor he's established for other compartments of his life. He may come into your office to tell dirty jokes and be one of your best work pals, but you never see him on the weekends.

I'm sorry, my friend, that isn't how life works. You're either all in or you're out. You can't have it both ways. If you dip your toe in the pool, you're wet, and even when your foot dries, it was still once in that pool. My friend Rich, who lived with us in that college quad apartment, never once smoked pot, looked at Kenny and me like the idiots we probably were, but it didn't affect anything. He was him; we were us. There was nothing two-faced about any of it. But old Obie, he wanted it both ways. He knew that if he kept everything separate, no one would ever put the pieces together. It reminds me of that Stephen Crane poem:

I stood upon a high place,
And saw, below, many devils
Running, leaping,
and carousing in sin.
One looked up, grinning,
And said, "Comrade! Brother!"

I don't care that much about it now, except that it reminds me how our attempts to be different selves to different social groups are among the greatest lies we tell ourselves. A person can get lost doing that. Maybe, my old chum Obie, you got away with it, and no one was ever the wiser. Or maybe those of us still living just remember you as a mooch.