Tuesday, November 29, 2011

William 4.0: In Beta Testing

Different Truck, Same Loser - The Wreckers (mp3)
Different Girl - Daisy McCrackin (mp3)

In a friendly and traditional debate with my hard-right in-laws over Thanksgiving, my in-law proclaimed that this country had lost its way and that she was soon bound for another land, presumably a more conservative land where King Scalia and Queen Bachmann ruled and no one ever wanted for anything, because everyone in this land took care of themselves and shot only non-human animals and home invaders with machine guns, and no one needed public education or insurance.

She concluded that I was an ideologue. That is, someone whose views are unwavering, unchanging, and stubbornly or stupidly so, apparently based on my belief that tomato paste is not a vegetable because tomatoes are a fruit.

A few weeks back, I got into a fairly heated private debate on Facebook with a former elementary school classmate. (Only on Facebook, right?) We debated education, cost, and ways to best affect change. But mostly it was me calling her out, and her offering the implied comeback that I was a provincial “homer” compared to her worldly and evolved self.

Toward the end of her concluding retort back to me, she wrote, “I am a changed woman,” following it with all the ways she was clearly a different entity than the version I knew when we were kids and then teenagers.

Are my views unchanging? Am I unchanging?

Is change actually evitable?

I look different in photos than I did when I was in seventh grade. Different than when I turned 21. I'm pretty sure the differences went deeper than my epidermis. Maturity, spiritual beliefs, opinions on health insurance, whatever.

Is it even possible for people to stay the same? Do we just get older? Doesn’t that in and of itself count as change? Even the Matthew McConaughey character in Dazed and Confused, he of the wise words about “high school girls, man...” even he’s not the same guy he was in high school, no matter how desperately he wishes he were.

Twelve years ago, in my third year working at this school, I was a little bit restless, settling into the job and the place and grappling with the fact that I would soon be a first-time father. "Settling" was the operative word at the time, mostly in ways that induced a mild internal panic.

On the heels of two very popular talks to the student body and full of that youthful desperation to prove that anything was possible, I decided I wanted to pull the Evel Knievel of public speeches, the high school spoken-word equivalent of attempting to jump the Grand Canyon.

As the students took their seats, Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling” would play over the speakers. Beginning with an exploration of famous pop songs on the subject, I would eventually delve into a wildly humorous discussion of the male need for masturbation.

I got 24 hours away from delivering this speech and was blocked -- some might say cock-blocked -- by several administrators. Despite their calm and amused explanations, I couldn’t understand. We all do it, right? We're not going to pretend guys don't, are we? The whole computer-and-porn thing made things more complicated than ever, right? So why the hell couldn’t I talk about it??

Thinking back on it cracks me up. How confident and certain I was of my daring, of my talent, of my ability to cross the onanistic river Styx unscathed! What the f*#k was I thinking??

So, having pondered on politics and masturbation and time, I return to my elementary school classmate’s proclamation: “I am changed.”

Her words were not a proclamation about herself, but an accusation about me: “I am changed... (and ahem, you are not).” You are still that boy dressed like Samuel Gompers who plays tetherball at recess. You still live in the same town and have resided in the South most of your life. You attend the same church you did when you were six. You are the same.

More troubling, the very need to shout that claim, “I am changed,” is one of needling uncertainty. The chip remains glued on the shoulder and won’t budge. Much like someone who, while walking through the haunted house, keeps saying “I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid.”

Better to avoid such proclamations, such claims of difference or sameness. Instead, I'll go with the less debatable route: I am settled.

For now.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Not One Percent

Roll With the Punches - Lenka (mp3)
B is for Brutus - The Hives (mp3)

This is what happens when you don’t read your email thoroughly enough.

Several weeks back, I received an invitation from my daughter’s school. The invite was for a breakfast. Because the school has been quite intentional and proactive about connecting parents to the complete school experience on any number of occasions, I quickly assumed this was yet one more way for me to connect with my dear daughter within the school environment. And because I love seeing my children in these settings when possible, I swiftly replied to the email with a YES.

The day before, I mentioned my breakfast plans. “I’m looking forward to having breakfast with you tomorrow morning,” I said as I drove my sweet precious to school.

“What are you talking about?” she asked.
“Breakfast. A bunch of girls and their dads or something,” I said.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said.

Because tween girls often enjoy and intentionally attempt to have no idea what their parents are talking about, I dismissed her ignorance as being a lack of attentiveness and moved onto other topics. However, when I saw her that afternoon, she brought it up again.

“Daddy, I don’t think you’re eating breakfast with me tomorrow. None of my classmates know anything about it, and I even asked a few teachers, and they don’t know, either.”

At that point, I sifted through my Gmail trash to reread the original email. And yes, plainly and clearly, the email stated that this particular breakfast was intended as a “brainstorm session” for the school’s annual auction fundraiser.

Well, gently insert a chainsaw into a place intended for intercourse, as the ‘80s saying goes.

So I find myself the next morning at a table with four ridiculously well-off men in their 40s, one of whom I know because he sits on my school’s board of trustees. I was at a table, at a breakfast, surrounded by The One Percent.

I felt like one of those reporters who sneaks undercover to report on the Moonies, or on some abusive slaughterhouse, or on a top-secret tobacco company meeting. Not so much because I was jealous of their wealth or even begrudge it, but rather because I so totally didn’t belong. All of these other men had Stars On Thars.

Hi, my name is Billy, and I'm a plain-bellied Sneetch.

Our first assignment was to discuss, at our tables, those items we might be able to offer as part of the auction.

My school’s trustee, sitting to my right, went first. "We offered up our condo in Aspen last year. We can offer it again this time around."

The man to his right went next. They’d offered their exquisite lake house for a weekend getaway last year, and that offer was good this year as well. Counter-clockwise it continued. The next man had offered his four season tickets to an Alabama game in what was undoubtedly a sublimely awesome section of the stadium, and he’d do so again.

The man to my right was next. “My daughter’s new this year,” he said, “So I don’t know if what I can offer will work or not.” Yes! At last! Someone else who’s in the same boat as myself!!

“I’m a member over at the Honors Course (read: the sweetest and priciest damn golf club in town), so I could host a threesome out there.”

Well, gently insert a chainsaw into a place intended for intercourse.

The Men Of The One Percent all looked to me. I was the last man sitting. Their curious eyes looked past my sweater vest and edu-wonky glasses.

Well, I’m pretty tight with the Skee-ball operator at Lake Winnie. I think he could probably get us 2-for-1 on those tickets? Or maybe I could offer free tandem rides on the back of my scooter?

To their credit, I never got the impression that what had just occurred at the table was a swordfight, some duel of masculine offerings intended to one-up the next dude. Most folks in The One Percent don’t go around with this yearning ache to prove how wealthy they are, despite what some people want you to believe. They just don’t much feel the need to go apologizing for their ability to bathe in sparkling water, either, and they’re sure as hell not going to soft-sell their fiscal comfort just to keep some mid-level school dude from feeling uncomfortable and cemented in the middle class.

No, the issues at that table belonged 99% to me, and 1% to them. The discomfort was mine. The sense of inequality was mine. And they weren't feelings that were imposed upon me; I don't blame anyone in that room for it. It is, as they love to say, what it is. The perceptions and the problems: I owned that deed.

This, ultimately, is the political discomfort I have with my own views. While I sympathize with this mythological 99-percent, and while I lean farther left than right, I look to those I know successful enough to approach or enter into that One Percent, and I don't begrudge them. They're decent folks. The ones I know do (mostly) good things with their torrential downpours of freeflowing cash. And if they own some nice cars and a condo in Aspen, I don't really feel too good throwing stones at them.

Granted, at some point, when millions turn into tens of millions, I simply can't fathom that anyone really works hard enough or is so beyond brilliant as to "deserve" that gap of cash, but most of the One Percent I know aren't quite that high up the ladder and never will be. They're just rich.

No easy answers in this world, is I guess what I'm saying.

Except for Pakistan, I mean. That's a pretty easy one: they're bad.

Sunday, November 27, 2011


Marvelous Darlings--"I Don't Wanna Go To The Party" (mp3)

As we head into the holiday party season, I've been thinking about partyhoppers. You know who they are--people who are so popular(?) and so overcommitted that the night that you are having your party they have been invited to several others. And they intend to make them all.

So they'll drop in, exchange some pleasantries, probably make it very clear on the front end that they "can't stay" as they turn down or minimize various offerings from their host or hostess of a drink or something to eat or participation in some activity. Even as they say hello, the look in their eyes says leaving soon.

I suppose that this could be seen as a kind of sharing the wealth. If everybody wants you at their parties, then who are you to deny anyone? It could be seen as kind of a way of meeting all of the obligations in one's life, but in a sweeping, unsatisfactory way. Because here is the reality--even if you only partyhop to two parties, you're going to leave one too early and arrive at one too late.

There is no way around that. Maybe that's the way that it has to be now, but I don't think so. Is it really essential that you be everywhere on that one night? Is someone really going to be crushed if you let them know that you have a previous commitment?

Back when there used to be etiquette, there was a very simple rule that one followed: the social engagement that you were invited to first was the one that you went to. Period. Someones got their acts together and planned something far enough in advance that everyone had a chance to keep their calendars clear. And that was that. No need for haggling with your spouse or checking with pals to see where the action might be or coming up with righteous self-justifications for why it would be okay to go to these other places instead. That didn't mean, of course, that you had to accept that original invitation, but if you did, you were committed, regardless of what "better" offers might arise.

That would never work in today's world. We poor social butterflies, trapped between unpleasant invites and last-minute plans would never be able to guarantee ourselves maximum fun. Or maximum social cache. Or the ability to decide which location we absolutely have to go to, for whatever reason, at whatever moment prioritization strikes us.

Of course, if you know me, you know that there is one kind of partyhopper in particular that sticks in my craw. Yep, it's that certain kind of Christian. That Christian partygoer will determine that a Christian social engagement supersedes any other social engagement, even if it was only planned the day before and the other one has been on the books for months. Why? Well, because it's Christian. If I have to explain beyond that, I might as well move out of the South. Which doesn't mean that he or she won't drop in at your place or show up at your dinner party having already eaten, but it will become quickly clear that there is a broader agenda at work. If the people of the Lord summon, the concerns of the world must be set aside.

The other strange, perhaps related, permutation is the separation of husband and wife partygoers. This accomplishes two things: 1) it allows for much greater coverage for that family as social unit, and 2) it allows both partners to go to the place(s) that they really want to go. What it does not accomplish is that indefinable synergy that occurs when the couple is there.

I don't think that, most of the time, when a host invites a "Mr. and Mrs." or whatever, that he or she only wants one of them to show up. Most of the time. There are some spouses that never come, and so we all get used to them not being there, and when they do show, that is its own kind of awkwardness. But most of the time when couples come as a team, they bring a confidence with them that allows them to spread positive energy throughout a party, drawing single people into conversation, supporting the vibe. A person who comes to a party without his or her longtime supporter tends to be a different person.

In the worst case scenario, the person hosting the party has tried to create a careful balance of men and women and finds himself with, for example, a bunch of husbands, as happened to me on Halloween. One wife no-showed, one never comes to anything, one stayed 10 minutes, one was up the street at a high school friend's party, even though she had cornered me in an earlier situation and demanded to know whether I was having a Halloween party because she was inviting herself. She was at my house for about 15 minutes.

There is no doubt that managing a social calendar is a skill, but it has become clear, to me at least, that it is a skill that few people have. As always, I don't exclude myself from that criticism. But I do think that the more parties one actually hosts, the more sensitive he or she is to the unacceptability of having a bunch of part-time or part-couple guests giving lip service to what can be an exhausting and expensive endeavor.

The ultimate solution, dare I say it, is to throw your own party. Then you know exactly where you're supposed to be. At least for one night. And I will be happy to drop in, for a little while, but I've got this other place I need to go. Would it be okay if my dog dropped in for awhile instead?

Not much rocks these days. "I Don't Wanna Go To The Party" does. 'Nuff said.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Shoot The Generals

Sam Spence--"The Equalizer" (mp3)

The Battle of New Orleans is one of the more interesting battles in American history. Beyond the obvious reasons (Andrew Jackson threw together a ragtag army of irregulars, pirates, and Indians, the battle was fought after the war was over due to a delay in communications, the victory made Jackson a presidential shoo-in a few years later, etc.) are the strategical issues. The British approach required them to march through swamps. The British split their forces to attempt a kind of pincer attack.

But most important, and most relevant to my purposes here, is the fact that Jackson's men shot almost all of the British officers as they marched into battle, leaving the soldiers in complete disarray and primed for the routing they received. Remember also that, at the time, these were the finest soldiers in the world. Fresh from the Napoleonic Wars, the British soldiers who marched toward New Orleans were experienced, battle-seasoned, and used to winning.

Such was not the case in Chalmette, outside New Orleans. Which takes me to the current crisis in the NFL.

Now, you may not think that a post about football is your cup of tea, but please realize that a game this large, this central to the American psyche, has things to tell us about who we are. And, if the NFL is any indication, we are an army without generals, or at least not enough good ones.

As I write this, some 19 of the 32 NFL teams have lost their starting quarterbacks for some or all of the season. A solid 50+% of the field generals in what is arguably America's most popular sport (certainly when you consider overall awareness, all sources of revenue, the full extent of television coverage, etc. this is so) are not or have not been on the field for significant parts of the season. While cases like Peyton Manning's are well-document and, I would argue, cast a pall over the entire start of the NFL season, just in the last two weeks, Matt Schaub and Jay Cutler, quarterbacks on two teams with strong reason to think that they could do some damage in the playoff, have gone down to regular season ending injuries. They are the latest, perhaps with the greatest implications.

While we all know that one player does not a team make, these are pretty important members of their respective teams, among the highest paid, if not the highest paid, players on their teams. Or, put differently, they are among the elite players that fans of their respective teams pay a lot of money to spend a Sunday watching. Their highly-skilled coaching staffs determined that these men leading their teams gave their teams their best chance to win.

And now they are not playing. This is not to minimize the rampant injuries at every other position as well. NFL teams in 2011 and for some years have been fighting a war of attrition. Whoever can cobble together the most coherent has the best chance of making it to the end. Yeah, skill's got something to do with it, but if you aren't playing, your skill level doesn't matter all that much.

If I were an NFL owner or part of management, I would be terrified. Because I would look at the game I work for and, arguably, love and not see any immediate solution. I would chart out the rest of the season and see its outcome decided by injury more than skill. I would see an organization's success dependent largely on its staff's ability not to coach the players it has but the fill the gaps created by the ones who are gone.

In the short term, this can be exciting. The unheralded quarterback who seems to come from nowhere to lead his team to victory is one of the great storylines in sports. The player who was cut and is now working selling real estate before getting the phone call out of nowhere that brings him back to the NFL is the second chance that few of us get.

But don't you think that at some point, and probably sooner rather than later, fans are going to start losing enthusiasm for their teams if those teams do not include their favorite players. I've experienced it personally this year, though not at the NFL level. The starting quarterbacks on both my local college team and my "elite" college team went down with multi-game injuries, effectively gutting their teams chances for D-III playoffs or a decent D-I bowl game. It's not that I have to have a super-victorious team to root for, but I do lose interest when my teams go from competitive to inept or one-dimensional overnight.

I don't have a solution. I don't necessarily blame the players who get fined from time to time for high-profile hits. If anything, I blame the size and speed of the game. Men that large and able to hit that hard should probably not be able to run that fast. It's a deadly combination. But it's what the game has become and I'm not aware of anyone putting limits on size or working too hard to find out how players are getting that big and strong and fast.

No, I'm afraid we love it too much to push too hard to call those issues into question. But maybe it's time. Being a participant of Fantasy Football for many years, I've been all too aware of the number of injuries and how they can undermine one's "team." But this year feels different. Maybe it's because Peyton is gone. Maybe it's because one night last weekend I sat with my brother and his wife and cheered for the Bears and for a quarterback who was maybe finally coming into his own. Until he broke his thumb and was finished for the season. Maybe it's because any fan who enjoys seeing his or her team develop a rhythm sees that rhythm shot to hell with a crucial injury.

Somebody's going to win this thing, and they're going to feel good about it. But I fear that it will be a pyrrhic victory, especially if the last man standing is someone nobody particularly likes or some team whose Super Bowl victory doesn't feel deserved. If Aaron Rogers goes down and his perfect season is ruined by an injury, it will hurt the game. Maybe people will wonder a little more about the game they love. Or maybe not. Maybe they'll just move on to the next quarterback du jour.

I do know that if Andrew Jackson were around and some team hired him as a defensive coordinator, this would be his strategy for team defense: shoot the generals. But then, he was trying to win the battle. The war was already over.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Down The Rabbit Hole, Part 2

You demanded it, we delivered. For months, fans of this blog have been asking for Part 2 of my seminal "Down The Rabbit Hole" commentary on the Kennedy assassination and other relevant conspiracies. Finally, like the McRib sandwich, it's here.

Lee Roy Abernathy--"John F. Kennedy, The Greatest Of All" (mp3)

Three days ago, my wife said, "I'll bet you don't know what tomorrow is." And she was right, I didn't know, but I tried to stall for time anyway with a wrong guess. Stereotypically, such a statement from a woman to her man suggests that the man is about to forget some key (or not so key) milestone in their relationship. And so why I was being mildly chastised, I went through my mental calendar and there it was: November 22nd.

"Of course I know what it is. In fact, I just downloaded a book on my Kindle on the subject."

"Oh, yeah," she said, with mild weariness, "What's the angle this time?"

"It's the girl on the stairs. She left the Book Depository with a friend and went down the same back stairs that Oswald supposedly took at the same time, but she didn't see anybody."

What happened to her, of course, is that, primarily, you've never heard of her. And neither had I until I started reading The Girl On The Stairs by Barry Ernest. And that makes us skeptical. But without cause. Our skepticism, as always, should be pointed elsewhere. Oh, yeah, the Warren Commission talked to her after months of government agents following her and showing up at her doorstep demanding that she go over her story again. Oh, yeah, the Warren Commission discredited her. Even though she begged them to conduct time tests and to interview the other woman who was with her and who, she thought, could corroborate her story.

But that wasn't what the Commission was after. They were interested in creating a narrative that would make sense to the American people, and so anything that challenged that narrative became inconvenient. And so Victoria Elizabeth Adams became inconvenient. And they scared enough that she went into hiding. And perhaps the most amazing part of the story, whether or not you're into conspiracies, is that the author Barry Ernest spent 35 years looking for her. And found her. And told her story.

You probably think he's a lunatic. Who would spend that many years on something so futile, right? Well, if you start reading the book, he sure doesn't sound like a lunatic. He sounds like a young man who started out believing the Warren Commission report lock, stock, and barrel until his position as a college student at Kent State University gave him access to the pages and pages of transcripts and documents that were behind the Warren Commission report (92% of which have since been made available to the public, though redacted; the other 8% will not be released for another 27 years. National security? Right) and he began to doubt and doubt and become fascinated with Victoria Elizabeth Adams. Until he found her and she told her story and he published it, though by the time he did, she had died.

So I'm back to the same place I always am. And, most likely, you are too. This little story intrigues me. This little story either makes you yawn or shake your head sadly. At me.

Here's another way to look at it: aren't we really all the Warren Commission? Aren't we theorists at heart? Don't we invite others who share our theories to join our ranks? Don't we spend our days sifting through the evidence and rejecting any and all of it that stands in the face of whatever theory we are currently working on? Don't we do our best to discredit the "witnesses" who do not corroborate our version of events? If we're disgruntled about our jobs or stations, we certainly aren't interested in hanging out with the gruntled, people we would deem to be naive or, worse, playing along with the powers that be for their own advancement.

Or, wait a second, maybe we're not Warren Commissioners at all. Maybe we're all conspiracy theorists looking for the hidden truths that lie behind the party line. Either way, that is our luxury. We get to play those games.

Our government doesn't. Subsequent studies of the Warren Commission tend to conclude, regardless of whether they support the Commission's findings or not, that the Warren Commission did not do enough to examine and to rule out possible conspiracies. The investigation by the House of Representatives in 1978 concluded yes to Oswald and yes to a likely conspiracy. And stopped there. Of course, the pressure was on and the money had dried up by that point.

So you have to at least wonder, don't you, what other evidence they ignored? And that's all any conspiracy theorist really wants--the acknowledgement that if you don't realize that your government is lying to you, regardless of political party, has always been lying to you, then you haven't been paying attention. But you should.

See you next year at this time. The year after that will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination. That will likely cast it under the microscope once more. Plus, party at my house. Come dressed as a character related to the assassination. I'll be the one holding the open umbrella.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Take These Lies

Fantasy - George Michael (mp3)

Cindy Crawford. Nude. In a bathtub. Sensuously fondling her upper half and literally rubbing in that all we can do is watch.

Hanging out inside Linda Evangelista’s sweater with her.

Christy Turlington, crawling across the floor ala Madonna in “Express Yourself”... but, like, in a more shadowy way.

And a bunch of George Michael’s cheesiest shit blowing up.

To claim that George Michael’s “Freedom 90” is the greatest video in the history of music videos would be slight hyperbole. But to claim it’s one of the best videos ever, directed by the greatest music video director ever, and for a song that has far more depth and nuance than anyone had reason to expect... that’s not exaggeration. It’s nigh-indisputable.

But let’s start with something simple. When this video debuted on MTV, I was a senior in high school. It’s quite possible I watched this video a few thousand times. I recorded it on my Betamax player (no, seriously), on my Great Videos tape. It landed at the end of the Golden Age of models, when everyone who had ever opened a Sports Illustrated knew names like “Cindy” and “Christy” and “Tatjana” and “Tyra.” No last names necessary.

My original obsession with this video was pure lust. I could have listened to nails on a chalkboard for hours so long as my reward for enduring it was watching Ms. Crawford in that tub. I didn’t really like George Michael or anything he stood for at the time, so I intentionally concentrated on not liking or even paying attention to the song.

Nor did I realize at the time that the mastermind of the video was David Fincher, easily one of my favorite two or three directors. Fincher fanatics know, but most normal people have no idea just how influential and omnipresent the man has been in the world of memorable, eye-candy-friendly music videos and movies.

Fincher made Paula Abdul. Think “Madonna video,” and I dare you not to think first and foremost of Fincher (both “Express Yourself” and “Vogue”). Fincher is the one who made “Cradle of Love” rock. He depicted The Rolling Stones as the size they occupy in our culture in “Love is Strong.” He captured Nine Inch Nails in six-inch desktop pin art in “Once.”

Everything lush, tightly-controlled, world-creating. Fincher. There simply isn't another director who would have me this excited about seeing the Americanized version of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" when I so thoroughly enjoyed the Danish version. But Fincher? Yeah, I bet it's gonna be incredible.

But back to his George Michael video without George Michael, who was at the height of his success mostly on the back of his ass and looks. Sure, they more than made up for the lack of George eye candy with the incorporation of eight of the hottest supermodels on the planet, but it was still a gutsy call.

And yes, on the surface, the song is about George Michael’s desire for liberation from his oppressive Sony recording contract, which became a serious lawsuit in 1993. He’s prisoner to the image he helped create, and he’s promising the listener: let me start over; the quality won’t suffer, and I’ll be a lot happier. I won’t let you down.

With the benefit of hindsight, however, we all can see a second story coming into play in this song, as George Michael begins to accept that the only way he can really be happy as a celebrity and as an artist is to stop lying to his fans (and possibly himself) about his sexuality.

When the go-go was supposed to wake him up, he was gay.

When he was the father figure, when he whispered carelessly, he was gay.

When sex was natural and sex was 1-on-1, he was gay, and he was enjoying "random anonymous sex" on frequent occasions.

I don’t know a single gay man who awoke to his homosexuality in his 30s, but George was 34 when he came out. He was gay long before, and he knew it, and he hid it moderately well enough, and if he hadn’t, none of us would likely know who the hell that talented guy was, because the British-Gay-Men-Named-George market was already well-covered in the ‘80s by Boy George.

I now hear the song as a plea. The video is a statement about models, about celebrities, about Platinum musicians, about how much we think we know and how little we want the truth.

George Michael could have churned out four more albums just like Faith and made millions upon millions of dollars. But he didn’t. He asked -- begged, almost desperately -- his listeners to help him create something closer to the truth.

I don’t have to like his music all that much or be a fan of his to continue to admire that moment of his career.

"Fantasy" was the B-side to the CD single of "Freedom '90." As B-sides go, it ain't damn bad.

Dead Sharks?

The Pixies--"Where Is My Mind?" (mp3)

I've seen two concerts this month, which means it was a pretty good month. I saw the Pixies in Knoxville and Los Lobos (or just the songwriters with bass and drums) in Chicago. I've become a pretty tough concert critic, so as you read the remarks that follow, remind yourself, first and foremost, how much I enjoyed the two shows.

Both concerts were, in a sense, career retrospectives. The Pixies played their classic album, Doolittle, as well as a before-and-after of obscure B-sides. Los Lobos (actually David Hidalgio and Louis Perez) talked about their songwriting and played a number of their well-known songs as well a number of "newly-discovered" songs that they had written about 20 years ago and that have recently been released as a CD.

I'm sure you see the pattern. In effect, the "fresh" material was that which had rarely, if ever, been heard before, and certainly not live, though it was in no way new material. It's a technique that older rockers are starting to use more and more in various contexts. Neil Young has done it with his Archives, Dylan with his Bootleg Series, Springsteen with his recent release of Darkness On The Edge Of Town plus unreleased songs from those recording sessions.

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with the practice. It helps older artists stay on the radar in an increasingly-competitive musical environment and fans like me continue to clamor for songs from those days, so much so that I spent the better part of an afternoon a week or so ago converting old Springsteen performances from YouTube to mp3. I cherish those performances.

The problem comes, I think, when that is all that a band or an artist is doing. Dylan, Springsteen, and Young continue to record and release new material, and, regardless what you may think of some of those particulars, all are managing the twilight or near-twilight of their careers with grace, creativity, and energy. While I can't claim that any of their most recent releases blew me away, all three contained at least several songs that are worth repeated listenings and, in some cases, are top-notch.

The Pixies, however, don't have any new material. Since they reformed and began re-touring to fan and critical acclaim, they have not recorded and released new songs that give us a sense of where they are today. We only know that they can still play with tightness and skill, can still recreate their signature sound with what appear to be the same chops they had decades ago. Los Lobos I can't speak of with the same definitiveness. One of my favorite bands for decades, I lost track of them several CDs ago. Kiko was such a masterpiece to me, such a peak of their career, that I haven't checked in with them much since. What I do know is that their new material is old.

Woody Allen's script in Annie Hall talked of relationships as compared to sharks. As Allen's character tells Diane Keaton's character (Annie Hall),“A relationship is like a shark–it has to move forward or it dies. What we've got here is a dead shark.”

Is a band that doesn't have new material and doesn't seem to intend to ever have any a dead shark? Yes, I think it is. It is not moving forward.

I'm taking the liberty of bringing in two friend perspectives against their will. One friend acknowledges that the Pixies' tours over the past several years are a blatant, overt money grab, and he defends the idea based on the notion that the band never made any money the first time around and that they deserve to. The other friend, who sees every concert through the lense of a Bruce Springsteen show, thought that the Pixies played their show without joy. Though he postulated several theories for this, including a kind of 90's anti-rock concert concert ethic that the Pixies were undoubtedly a part of, he could not get past what he perceived as the band's indifference to their show and audience except on a proficient, workmanlike level (a charge he was unwilling to level at Dylan, who did the same thing).

I don't know who's right, and I must also mention that Los Lobos was the exact opposite: they went out of their way to engage their audience and the debt that the band owes the city of Chicago for over 30 years of continued support. They worked the crowd, paced the show beautifully, left us satisfied and grateful to have seen such a good show. Not unlike the Pixies.

So I return instead to a different fact, that neither band gave us anything new or recent. They worked nostalgia, they worked the past. And when I got home, something annoying about that surfaced.

Much ado about nothing? I mean, both bands played excellent shows that confirmed both their personal prowess and the strength of their best songs?

All I know is this. In 1974, I saw the Beach Boys do a reunion concert. Yes, in 1974, they were already in retrospective mode. The odd thing about the Boys was that they were still recording at that point, had lost Brian Wilson and perhaps another Wilson or two at that point, but they had new albums that they were still releasing full of new songs that they had written. In fact, one of their comeback hits, "Kokomo," wouldn't come out for several more years. The problem was, even though they were still alive in one sense, on stage they were pretending to be the band that had once been, not the band that was. It was an odd dichotomy. It was disconcerting, at least to me. It was weird enough that I can't really name any reunion shows that I've seen since then. Except the Pixies. And they were a new experience for me, since they didn't come on my radar until Frank Black's solo career.

I guess I'm with Woody on this one; I want that shark moving forward. Otherwise, what's the point?

NOTE: as this post was going to press, this writer discovered two interesting facts: 1) that the Pixies may indeed record new material and 2) that the Pixies have sold the above song to a commercial, its own kind of money grab.

Monday, November 21, 2011


Poised and Ready - Brendan Benson

A colleague’s school in Atlanta hands out something called INPs to students.

INP stands for “I’m Not Prepared.”

These INPs go on a student’s record. They are tracked, and garnering certain numbers of INPs result in a variety of disciplinary actions and parent meetings.

At this point, I told her to stop explaining this to me, because I wanted to imagine the Rest of the Story on my own. I didn’t want reality to get in the way of my fantasy, because I think the INP concept is FB (Friggin Brilliant).

INPs should be considered WTF (Worse Than F’s), because one cannot be properly graded if one has not properly prepared oneself for one’s obligations. In the sheltered bubble of school, few things if any are more counterproductive to learning than a lack of preparation.

An INP is like the John the Baptist of grades. No wait. It’s more like the Jeremiah of grades, the prophet who crashes your party and smashes a clay jar into a bajillion pieces on the floor and says, “See that jar? That’s you. That’s the grade you will earn if you don’t prepare yourself for what’s coming.”

With an idea this brilliant, I only wonder why it must stop with children and students. Why can’t INPs be a part of our daily professional lives?

We have a “calendar team” at my school, and we sit for two hours twice annually, paging through the upcoming year’s events. Members are given several warnings and told to enter all their known events into the system, but inevitably, the meeting rolls around, and several people have failed to enter key events, or they’ve been entered so shoddily and haphazardly that errors abound.


Twice in the last month, I’ve arranged meeting times where I could train someone on software. In both cases, I asked the other person to compile sample information prepared for use, because I’ve learned that the best way to learn is to watch your work have an actual and practical outcome, to see the training actually result in something useful. In both cases (and in numerous previous encounters as well), the person “was too busy” to prepare for the training sesson. Just didn’t have the time.

INP. Not to mention they’ve made a clear statement about what they think of MY time.

Herman Cain sitting for an interview without knowing how to find Libya on a map. Rick Perry, proposing cuts to departments he can’t even remember. (Hell, at least Reagan forgot stuff AFTER he did it rather than before.)

INP. Which could also stand for “I’m Not President.”

I realize that we all have times in our week, in our personal and professional lives, when we walk in less prepared than we oughtta be. All of us would earn occasional INPs in our weekly and monthly lives. We know it; we shrug it; we move on.

But how many INPs should a good and dedicated employee earn before they’re, well, neither good nor dedicated? How unprepared must one be to earn an INP -- grossly unprepared... or is being merely less prepared than necessary , or “noticeably unprepared” sufficient to earn one?

Four INPs a month? Is that a reasonable over/under? Should we expect even better of ourselves and our coworkers and demand no more than two INPs?

Employee compensation and raises should be tied directly to INPs. A lot of people at my school who regularly earn INPs are overstretched on responsibilities, juggling three or four large jobs, and they’re generally getting paid extra amounts of money to juggle those extra responsibilities. But you can only fit so many clowns in the Time Car, in your Mind Car.

They’re overstretched, but they keep getting rewarded for overstretching, despite the fact that their being overstretched results in less-than-quality performance.

It’s like this in most workplaces, I suspect, but especially true in private schools. I’ve met numerous heads and associate heads of school who teach one or two classes and coach teams. As if running an entire school is only a part-time job.

Hell, maybe it is. Bob isn’t even sure if I do anything all day, so what would I know about what it takes to run an entire complex organization? Maybe not nearly as much as I think.

But it sure would be nice to see just how often, how egregiously, how frequently with one obligation over another, we found ourselves walking in unprepared. A precious few brilliant mutants can wing it every day and get by, but most of us, our INPs cause damage and waste other people’s time. We should at least have to own up to it when we do it.

If you would like more information, contact Billy at INP Consultants, Inc. I’d give you my per diem charges, but I haven’t gotten around to writing them up yet.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Beating The Bushes

Justin Martin & Claude VonStroke--"Beat That Bird" (mp3)

Sometimes people ask me what I do. I'm sure you've been in the same position. Regardless of our professions, there are always people who, while they may have heard our job titles before, have no idea what the actual job is behind that title.

Case in point: my blogging partner Billy is the Director of Communications here. He has held that position for seven or more years, I'd guess. He was the assistant director before that. And yet, day to day, hour to hour, I have no idea what he does. Not a criticism, just a mystery.

If you work with students, as I do, you discover that their questions are often clumsy and graceless. You usually get used to it. For example, they'll ask me things like, "What do you do all day?" or "Is this what you do all day?" or, as one of our most-entitled, least-aware seniors said to me a couple of weeks ago after camping out in my office for the better part of an hour, after eating my pretzels, after talking to me and to other students who were hanging out in here, too, and after most of all, meditating on my 12-string guitar, "I can't believe you get paid to do this!"

Do what? I pondered. Care for you? Tolerate you? Provide you a safe haven? Give you unconditional acceptance and a listening ear? Dad you?

Anyway, the circumstance lends itself to a variety of smartass answers to questions of what I do. "I run the school," I tell them sometimes. Or "I oversee every aspect of your school life" or "I'm responsible for everything that happens around you." They, of course, snort and shake their heads in disbelief. As they should. Sort of.

But I have another glib answer that offers its own kind of truth: I beat the bushes.

According to the Free Dictionary, the etymology of the expression is based "on the practice in hunting of having someone hit bushes with a stick in order to force birds hiding in them to fly up into the air to be shot." Though the practice is designed to enhance killing, it does make sense as a metaphor, not for the potential killing, but for the making birds fly against their will, at least initially.

Not to be confused with "beating around the bush," which can be a more roundabout way of exposing someone to danger.

Put the fact is that most people are initially reluctant to get involved in something. And these days we are also so nice that those of us who need help are equally reluctant to inconvenience others.

School life requires the lowest form of recruitment, which involves getting people to do things that they aren't necessarily inclined to do, things like planting trees on a Saturday morning or agreeing to serve on committees or leading summer reading groups or buy toys for poor children. There's nothing special to it. You just have to ask and ask and ask and ask.

You have to remind continually. You have to guilt. One of my favorite tactics is to send out my current partial list of people who are helping out, asking people to make sure that I have them listed. It forces others to look through the list, and, when they see who else is involved, that ol' guilt can kick in. One teacher sees that his friend is doing it. One team sees that another has gotten involved. The assistant sees that the head, or vice-versa, is represented and thinks it strategic that he also be part of it.

I'm not so cynical that I believe the people volunteer and help out for the basest of reasons. I have seen too much evidence to the contrary over the years. But if that's what it takes to get as many on board as I think we'll need, I'll use whatever manipulation necessary. Beating the bushes is a shameless occupation, and I'm good at it. I gaze with humor upon my "nicer" colleagues who can't close the deal because they not willing to be enough of a pain in the ass to get all up in people's grills and not give up.

It ain't like I'm trying to sell them cars. I just want them to help out.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Get Some Counseling!

10,000 Maniacs--"Don't Talk" (mp3)

Some opening thoughts, snippets from three different conversations, one of them internal:

ME TO A FRIEND: I agree, I think you need to get some counseling about...

A FRIEND TO ME: I think every marriage should attend a marriage seminar every single year. Every kind of marriage.

ME TO ME: I don't really do counseling.

The fact that in the past two days I have found myself both recommending counseling and maintaining no interest in a marriage tune-up myself does not surprise me. After all, like the rest of you, I am, as Kris Kristofferson wrote, "a walking contradiction, partly fact and partly fiction."

If I see a friend about to plunge once again into a pattern that keeps getting repeated, then, yeah, I support the idea of counseling. Otherwise, I'm pretty iffy about it.

I am willing to concede that there have been a few times during my 29-year marriage that likely would have benefitted from some counseling, but the more general pattern of people seeking counseling for everything that ails them makes me very nervous. And not only personally-nervous (since I tend to be a pretty private person), but also societally-nervous, because I see the counseling boom as another potential crutch, like the plethora of prescription drugs that plague our society. Yes, they are a plague.

To complicate matters, my older daughter is headed for a graduate program to become a counselor. I think she will make a very good one; I think that she will do a lot of good. But she will become a counselor in the context of social work, where it is most definitely needed.

No, my concern is about the kind of "I'm depressed so I think I need to go see someone or take something" mentality that pervades our daily lives and mental patterns. Again, I am well-aware of the clinical diagnosis of "depression" and the profound ways that it can take over a person's life. What I'm talking about is surviving day-to-day ups-and-downs in outlook, in marriage, in motivation, in hope for the future, in worries about children, in sex drive, in faith, in the what-the-hell-am-I-doing questions that sometimes hit us in the morning shower. To me, those are things that you work through on your own, or with your spouse or partner, or with your children or your parents or your friends. Period.

I am sorry when someone loses a parent; I lost my mother. But that isn't a circumstance that requires medication. We should be depressed when that happens, we should feel like the rug has been pulled out from beneath us, we should feel forced to reexamine all aspects of life. Our bodies and minds are reacting to a massive physical, emotional, and mental void. We should have to learn how to reinvent joy. Over time. Not artificially produce it.

And I guess I look at marriage the same way. Marriages have rough spots. They're supposed to. They're supposed to because two people are never going to be perfectly in sync. They're supposed to because humans are probably not monogamous beings by nature, and to battle with our natures to try to find our better selves. And so, the idea of a marriage seminar, a marriage billboard, a marriage website doesn't do all that much for me either.

What is a marriage seminar but mass counseling? It's a place where two people with a very idiosyncratic relationship have to hold that relationship up to a) a created ideal and b) every other marriage in the room around them. Yeah, I might go for that once some time. Or maybe I should have already. But every year? Good God, no!

I suppose the idea is, at least in this specific case, some kind of Christian version of "the unexamined life is not worth living." While I agree with that idea on the surface as it applies to marriage, I would also amend it in two ways. First, I am certain that Aristotle meant that as an demand for self-reflection, not as a dictum suggesting that couples work through a workbook or listen to a series of CDs together. Someone somewhere with some other agenda created those tools for, dare I say, a capitalistic purpose. Second, examination requires time and action in between. To take on a yearly marriage check-up doesn't leave enough time for a marriage to actually live. It's like training for sprints, not marathons.

And while I'm mixing metaphors, I'll add this. Marriages are sometimes like wounds. They are raw and open and they need a chance to scab over and heal. A yearly seminar, at least to my thinking, does nothing more than rip the scabs off, the scabs of imperfection. I have no interest in that; in fact, I think it's unhealthy, likely to cause infections. May even potentially be fatal.

But beyond that, a marriage seminar, or any seminar, for that matter, is built on the idea that somewhere out there lies THE ANSWER and that maybe, just maybe, these latest folks pulling into town are holding that answer and will reveal sometime late Saturday night, or even early Sunday for a reasonable individual or group fee. If they gave it out any earlier, everybody would leave. So they've got to stretch it out, tease everyone, and then finally reveal that the answer lies within. Or without with Jesus. Things that people already knew, if they'd been paying attention at all during the previous seminars.

I realize that these notions put me outside the current norms of treatment and drug therapy (unless you count beer) and that you probably think that inside I am a mess of unresolved issues and unfulfilled desires. That may well be true. But if it's something that you think I need to work on, let's meet over a beer or a trip to New Orleans or a game of catch in my front yard. I'd rather talk it out that way. My wife will probably join us. We'll probably want to get something to eat, too.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sideline Judges

Sooner or Later - N.E.R.D. (mp3)
Truth Be Told - Chris Cubeta (mp3)

“Please don’t. Please please please.”
My ear was flush against the wooden door, and I couldn't move, almost as if it had been glued there...

Nothing is easier than judging from the sideline. When you have no skin in the game, when you have no actual responsibilities, when you can create a fictional, hypothetical and heroic version of yourself, insert them into your own imagined version of real events, and play out every detail however you like, it’s easy to judge real people in their real moments.

He should’ve done that differently. How dare she allow that to happen. How can they go on with their daily lives and ignore that. And so on.

The story is long stale, I guess, but I’m still haunted by Penn State, by an alleged child molester, by the chain reaction of choices and reportage that fell short of sufficient, and by the flood of opinions from all over the country about how easy and simple all of this would have been if only they had been in the center of the hurricane rather than these power-hungry jock egotists at Penn State.

Having been a teenage victim myself, how could I let this story quickly die? I have great hope that this story is the beginning of a national wake-up call, that we might finally be at a place, as an entire society, where talking openly about male-on-male sexual abuse is pulled into the light.

I’ve had these conversations. With real people. It’s easier to talk about, to write about, to debate and discuss Two Girls & A Cup than it is to talk about being molested by an older man.

Think about that, please: adults are more comfortable talking openly about having watched a video where two women make out by orally swapping one another’s fecal matter while naked than they are about boys being raped or molested by other men.

The sooner we can talk about it, collectively, with greater comfort than we talk about decapitation or the N-Word, the sooner we'll reduce the number of victims and minimize the recidivism of predators.

Another reason this story moves me is because I’ve also been the coward.

My first semester in college, I was in my dorm the final night of exams. Because I had to bum a ride from someone else headed back to Tennessee, I was there on a night when at least 90% of campus had gone home, and what remained was a random skeleton crew of students and adults. Four of us from my dorm ended up playing some drinking game and getting shitfaced in one girl’s room, and then I walked the girl I liked -- don’t worry, she was just a friend -- back to her room. On the way back down to my own room, some 20 minutes later, I walked past the room where we’d been playing and drinking, so I was going to poke my head in and say goodnight, but the door was locked.

I knocked. Nothing. I put my ear to the door and heard low mumbling.

The two were making out, and they clearly hadn’t even heard me knock. As I began to walk away, I heard her say something about how they had to stop, how it she couldn’t do this. (She had been dating one guy since she’d been a sophomore in high school, and we all knew it.)

I walked back inside the suite and put my ear against the door. You’d be amazed how thin those doors were. Her voice was scared, yet it also sounded like they were still making out, like she was OK with kissing him, but just not OK that he wanted more.

I felt like such a voyeur. Would they think I had been out here the whole time? Had anything really wrong happened yet? How long could I wait until it was really a serious problem? OhGodOhGodOhGod whatamIsupposedtodo???

It was a cowardly moment for me. No way around it. My "I've been molested" defense felt thin and still does. All my comic book worship and superhero study couldn’t excuse me from sitting out there in the hallway, frozen and horrified. To this day, I still refuse to believe my inaction was a crime. Cowardly, pathetic, perhaps even inexcusable. But criminal?

I can tell you things worked out. I can tell you they stopped, and he didn't rape her. I can tell you I had two future events in college that allowed me to make things right, karmically, to prove I'd learned my lesson. I can tell you lots of stuff, but in that moment, I was frozen, and useless, and utterly uncertain about everything. Most days, I think that feeling of fearful pathetic paralysis was even worse than being the victim. It's certainly haunted me more over time.

To Mike McQueary: I’m sorry fate put you in that spot. I’m sorry you didn’t act, but I won’t judge you. I believe you sincerely tried to do the right thing, even if we can all look back and proclaim it “wasn’t enough.”

To everyone who thinks this is about football or power, I think you haven’t been paying attention. This is about a culture afraid to acknowledge predators, afraid of stirring up uncomfortable situations. It’s about a 28-year-old at the bottom of the totem pole in a country where, I’m sorry, the police would probably have done nothing once he reported it.

Let’s pretend he reports it. You think it’s some magic open-and-shut case, where the police arrest the former assistant coach, the leader of a popular non-profit group, where they lock his ass away forever based on one witness and a simple trial? I hope you’re all that naive as you pass judgment.

He could have reported it. The police could have investigated and arrested. They could have chosen not to press charges. McQueary could have lost his job for not going through the proper channels before making such a dangerous accusation. He would have been unhirable. The charges could have been dropped, and Sandusky could be right where he is at this very moment, just now facing justice for the same increasing and disgusting illness.

But it’s easier to not think. It’s easier to keep things simple, to throw that stone, to use words like “enabling” and “cowardly.”

It’s easier to tell ourselves, as we go to sleep as night, that we’re better people.

Sleep tight, better people. One day, your test will arrive, and I hope you have your Number Two pencil ready.

Me? I pray every night God is grading on one seriously generous curve.

The Big Food Lie

Little Milton--"Grits Ain't Groceries" (mp3)

The book currently at the top of my "Personal Unwritten Bestsellers" list is called The Big Food Lie.

Here's the premise: the media regularly links obsesity and poverty, claiming that to eat well is too expensive for the poor, but I believe that the complete opposite is true. I believe that anyone can eat a very healthy, hearty, varied diet while being very frugal.

Case in point: buy a chicken. Not an uncooked chicken, but one of the ubiquitous rotisserie chickens that are available in most every grocery store in America. These, of course, vary in price and quality. At an exclusive grocery store, they are likely to cost as much as $7.99 for one; in the Wal-Mart or the Costco, you can get one for $4.99 (the Costco version has the added benefit of not being pumped full of the various chemical crap that taints its Wal-Mart counterpart).

Okay, so 5 bucks for the Costco one I bought last night. It must have weighed about 6 pounds, at least 5 pounds. I pulled all of the white meat off of it and put it on a platter, an ample display of copious breast meat, along with two wings, two thighs, two legs. I made a bowl of mashed potatoes from two large russets, and steamed some green beans, and heated some leftover bread from the freezer.

All four of us ate our fill, and when we were finished, there was still about a pound of white meat, plus all of the dark meat. Meal #1 complete.

Anytime I buy or cook a chicken, I immediately strip the meat, save all of the bones, toss them in a pot with an onion, a carrot, a couple of stalks of celery, two garlic cloves, a teaspoon of peppercorns and enough water to cover all of it. After I bring that to a boil, I let it simmer for about an hour and, unless I forget it and it really boils down, I usually end up with about 3 quarts of incredible chicken stock.

Last night, while I was making that, I was also making white chicken chili. From a mix. You know those overpriced soup mixes; you see them all over the place. Add a packet of spices to some dried beans and you can charge several dollars for them instead of a buck. This one was $2.99 for some white cannelini beans and an "all-natural" spice packet. But even for that price, I was making supper for my daughter's sleepover tonight by using those beans, that spice packet, 7 cups of water, and the white meat from my purchased chicken. When it was all done 90 minutes, I had Meal #2 complete. All it would need would be some tortilla chips and cheese and sour cream and whatever else was around (tomatoes, chopped onions, etc.) to make the white chili a complete meal.

In addition to the chili that I left in the pot for my daughter and her friend, I also froze two quarts of the chili. That's a couple more meals frozen, ready, and waiting.

There are a lot of uses for chicken stock and you may want to freeze some for another use, but when mine was finished, I strained it, added the dark meat from my purchased chicken, chopped up the celery and carrots that had gone into the making of stock, added about 1/2 cup of dried pasta from my cupboard, let all of that simmer for awhile, seasoned it, and then I had two quarts of homemade chicken noodle soup (and without all of the crazy amounts of sodium that are in the canned versions). That's Meal #3 and more.

I also froze a quart of the chicken stock. It will come in handy when I'm making shrimp and oyster dressing at Christmas.

How much did I spend in total? I don't really know, since I have a pretty well-stocked house, but in addition to that $4.99 chicken and that $2.99 chili kit, I didn't use much besides a couple of potatoes, part of a bag of carrots, part of a bag of celery, an onion, a little garlic, and a bunch of stuff (like cheese and chips) that most people always have around their houses. So, what, maybe 20 bucks? How does that compare with taking your family of four to even the cheapest restaurant in the country?

I served three meals for sure, with the potential for perhaps four more waiting in my refrigerator and freezer. Nothing was time consuming. Nothing was complicated. Nothing called for exotic ingredients or special skills.

And, of course, anyone could do any of this perhaps even more cheaply and naturally by doing all of the steps themselves, roasting their own chicken, etc. But I wanted to combine ease with economy to make my point.

There are a myriad of other foods, other ingredients, that would allow for this kind of meal creation and dollar stretching--a bag of black beans, a jar of pasta sauce, a head of cabbage, a carton of eggs. To pretend that eating well is somehow a privilege of the wealthy is the big food lie. I think it's a lie that we, as a society, are content with because it allows us to pretend that nothing can be done about obesity or malnutrition, that our poor are doomed to live on processed, salty starches, even though tackling obesity and malnutrition would be stepping stones to shoring up education and then reaping all of the benefits that would result from that. That's the biggest tragedy we accept.

Friday, November 11, 2011


Hardliners - Holcombe Waller (mp3)

Let's imagine you and your family just crawled out of your nuclear shelter, having hunkered down in that space since the Cuban Missile Crisis. That's about the only way you could live in America and not know the name Joe Paterno.

What unfolded at Penn State University this past week -- over the past decade, actually -- has created a level of debate and discussion that football fanatics, detractors, or apathetic sideliners can jump in with both feet. The drama involves the destroyed innocence of children, the abuse of power, a well-known sports figure, and the world ending because of a whimper rather than a bang.

The perceived male mentor turned predator of boys -- unspeakable.

The downward-trending descriptions as the event went up the chain of command, from "rape" to "inappropriate contact" to "horseplay" -- uncanny.

The image of thousands of intelligent college students in a mild riot not because of children being victimized, but because of hero worship -- unthinkable.

But what's worth remembering this morning is that, alongside this quiet and slow-developing horror story is a another old as Whoville and the Grinch: the tale of what happens to a community when bad shit lands on the doorstep.

On Saturday, roughly 107,000 people -- a record crowd -- crammed into Beaver Stadium and locked arms. Every player, coach and staffer from both Penn State and Nebraska huddled in the middle of the field to pray. The level and potency of the collective grief was stunning to view, even from a living room in Tennessee.

The cynic could complain that everything was too carefully choreographed, that the entire scene was arranged by propagandists and marketing teams hired to improve a rock bottom opinion of all things Nittany Lion while also warming the confused and hurting hearts of its students, fans and alumni.

Maybe so. Maybe most modern pop music and everything my children encounter on TeenDisney or TeenNick is scientifically crafted by entire groups of songwriters to elicit specific emotional responses. But sometimes an event deserves and requires us to move a step beyond our cynicism.

Watching people of all ages mourning a flood of different issues was powerful regardless of whether the scenario was manufactured. The end of an era, the loss of innocence, the confusion and frustration that a string of events with only one clearcut no good terribly awful person could bring down a legend and possibly a program. But at least everyone in that stadium were in the same place, feeling the same things, in a communal way.

From national events like September 11 to local events like the tragic death of a student. Aftermath is a powerful, magnetic force. That it pulls us together doesn't make it a good thing, but in dark times, we reach and hunger for the tiniest bits of light we can muster.

For all the heavy judgment and debates going on like a hurricane around and inside the Penn State campus, and when the light is hard to come by, at least huddling together in the darkness provides some warmth.

Everyone deserves a little of that.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

When a "B+" Becomes an "A" (Evaluations, part two)

The Dogs--"A Decent Warning" (mp3)

I'm a B+ guy, maybe better than that in some areas, certainly worse in others. And I'm not talking about grades; I'm talking about the kinds of ratings, real or imagined, that come up in everyday life--marriage, friendship, work, etc.

For example, I'm pretty good at my job. B+ good. I might even be the best person at this moment to do my particular job, but I doubt it. And even if true, I'm still a B+. But I get told (in any number of ways that have nothing to do with salary) that I'm A good. You know, really, really, good. Indispensable. Vital cog in the machine and all that.

It isn't true. It's just what's convenient.

Certainly, I have enough self-awareness to be able to do a basic self-assessment. No false modesty necessary. I work at at B+ school full of B+ people. I'm one of those. I have more ideas than most, but not brilliant ideas, just seat-of-the-pants clever ideas. I can create something pretty workable at the last minute under pressure. I can rev up enough personality most days to make the school day more pleasant for our students. But that's it. I'm certainly not shaping pedagogy on a national scale or in a way that anyone should follow.

For whatever reason, we're none of us at the absolute top of our game. It may be institutional. A conservative, Southern school is simply not likely to be on the cutting edge of anything, and we're not. We're good, in some ways very good, but not great. That is no dis. Or it may be that for similar reasons, our school does not attract the absolute top candidates that are out there. It really doesn't matter, we make it work, and what I'm really after is for you to buy my basic point about the B+=A phenomenom that is going on, not my casual critique of where I work.

Are you really an A? Or are you a B+ like me? Are you super Dad or pretty good Dad? Are you great at your job or is it simply that whoever evaluates your performance doesn't want to get into the areas where you could stand to improve and that this lulls you into a sense of unsubstantiated self-satisfaction? To do otherwise is hard work, difficult work, threatening work. And that's my point: nobody wants to do that anymore.

Or is it that you are better than the people around you and that you are elevated beyond where you should be because of that knowledge? Are you a big fish in a small pond? Or do you have the power to keep anyone from really giving you a hard look? Either way, same result.

I'm deeply disturbed by this. This is another of those indicators, for me, of the decline of our country. How can we reform something as important as education when we can't take a hard look at what isn't working and when we can't have frank talks with each other about what we can do to get better? It's much easier to focus on logistics and pressing problems than it is to try to sweep an entire institution or country into major reform.

Because it isn't just education. We don't want to have to do the dirty work of evaluation anywhere. Politicians don't read bills. Citizens don't read politicians. We cede the argument, and therefore the evaluation, to whomever grabs the conch, to whomever gets control of the spin, to whomever owns the message. We listen to B+ music, celebrate B+ products, live B+ lives. If we can admit that even.

We have become so blunt as a society that the only kind of "evaluation" that we understand is winning and losing. We have reduced to a national language where things are either "awesome" or they "suck." The nuanced middle (my own brilliant analysis of "kinda suck" aside) is of little interest to anyone except a few remaining thoughtful journalists and the hosts of comedy news shows. And their voices are easily minimized or ignored.

And so, we want to believe that we are an "A" country when we are really a "B+." If we can win in whatever specific ways are currently important--wars, diplomacy, atomic dominance, technology, Christianity--then we can demonstrate, if only to ourselves, that we're still on top. God forbid that one of our politicians should suggest that we are not. That's not unAmerican, by the way. I'm certainly not claiming that there's a different "A" country out there. I'm just saying that we're no longer it.

Has there been in history anything that has been more dangerous than convincing a group of people, or even one person, that they are something that they are not?

I think there's a different kind of danger now. That a country, our country, that the world needs to play a powerful, positive role can no longer play that role because it is a diminished version of its former self, but it doesn't know it. I guarantee that if we are in that situation now, everyone else will figure it out before we do. We will be the last ones to see it. And rather than acknowledge it, we will look amongst ourselves to find out who we can blame. And because we think we are ''A"s, we won't be able to see our "B+"ness, will have to pin it all on those someone elses who didn't make the grade.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Way to go, Billy, OR How To Ruin A Perfectly-Good "No Comment November"

K. Flay--"Less Than Zero" (mp3)

Thanks, Billy. Thanks a lot.

I thought we had agreed that after "ROcktober" we were shooting for a "No Comment November," that we would try our best to write pieces and to post music that would receive no response whatsover, that we would numb our readers with mindless dithering about stupid topics like books that we like and global politics and the inability to get a good night's sleep.

Just had to do it, didn't you?

I thought we had agreed that people, known or anonymous, and their little remarks, insights, and observations about the issues that we raised were no longer important to us. That like true writers, we would put our stuff out there into the void, letting it stand on its own merits without us begging for scraps of recognition from readers.

But, you, you just couldn't hold back. You had to go and comment on my post about sleeping and now the perfect record of zero comments is shot for the month.

What's the point now? Why even write anything for the rest of November? Even if we can get back on our games and write stuff that no one, INCLUDING OURSELVES, will respond to, even if we can create a string of perfect "0 comments" for the next 26 days, we still have to look back at your blemish, your digital zit on the otherwise clear face of our "No Comment November."

You were feeling sorry for me, weren't you? You didn't think that I could go for two straight posts without a comment. Well, save your pity for another blog. Me, I'm all about the "0 comments."

I mean, what does your comment even say? That you've had your own issues with lack of sleep? That the reasons for those have changed as the stages of your life have changed? That you liked my post? Big. Fucking. Deal. Do you really believe that your personal connections to my piece are important? That anyone cares what you thought about it? That risking the chance that either of those were so was worth destroying an otherwise-perfect streak of "0 comments"?

If we're to continue this thing, I'd only ask that you think a little bit more before you actually ruin something so completely. I mean, I could delete your comment, but if someone clicked on the comments to check, they'd still discover that there was a comment and that the "blog administrator" intervened. Your digital footprint cannot be erased. It's permanent, pal. And it's stomped through the fresh white snow of an otherwise un-walked-upon field.

C'mon, Billy. Don't be that guy. Okay? I'm despondent.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Murther of Sleep

Amber Wilson--"Sleep" (mp3)

Me thought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more!
Macbeth doth Murder sleep”—the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleave of care,
The death of each day's life, sore labor's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,(50)
Chief nourisher in life's feast—

*I have a friend who can't sleep because of money.
*I have a friend who can't sleep because he's dissatisfied with where his life is heading.
*I have a friend who, like me, may potentially sleep in more than one location in a given night.
*I have a friend who leaves his house every morning by 5:30AM.
*I have a friend who responds to emails or Words With Friends in the middle of the night.
*I have a friend who takes a pill, or part of a pill, to help him sleep.

Talk to anyone over 35 or so, and they will tell you that their sleeping patterns have changed either drastically or gradually since the years that he or she used to go to bed, fall asleep, and remain in one of the various levels of sleep until it was time to get up.

I can't tell you when I last slept through the night.

That sounds like something that someone would say about a baby. "We can't wait until he starts sleeping through the night." Well, keep waiting, baby, 'cause it ain't happening anytime soon.

Last night, through no fault of her own (okay, well...some fault, from my perspective), my wife kept me pretty much awake from 1AM or so until it was time to get up. Actually earlier. I don't sleep until my alarm goes off; I wake up anywhere from an hour before to a few minutes before.

My wife is a cell phone junkie. If The New York Times sends her an update in the middle of the night, she'll pick up the phone and read the story. She thinks I can't tell. Like a child with a comic book and a flashlight, she thinks the lighted tent next to me can't be seen from the outside. But it can. But it usually doesn't keep me awake.

She's also an attorney, and attorneys seem doomed to abnormal sleep--the dark hours are the time to untangle arguments and to plan strategies and work out logic. So, she may well sigh or groan in her sleep, may even talk to herself (though more likely in the shower).

But that isn't really the problem. Just because something wakes you up doesn't mean, necessarily, that you can blame the rest of sleepless night on it. What I've figured out is that I have a limited number of "wake-ups" to use during a given night before I'm pretty certain I'm never going back to a satisfactory sleep. I can't tell you. I just get the feeling in my half-awake brain, like a kind of anxiety, when I've been awakened too many times and I know I'm done.

On a good night, I will wake up a number of times, maybe even check the clock and fall back asleep with the knowledge that I have several hours before I have to get up. I don't come fully awake; I just kind of readjust.

If it is not a good night, as in I have what feels like a big obligation or hurdle that I need to get past the next day, then I will go to bed a bit earlier, sleep soundly until some time in the middle of the night, and then, when I wake up, I know that I am up. At that point, my mind will focus on the task ahead and I know that I am not going back to sleep. But I do not get up. I will lie there and rest as best I can.

I have read somewhere that the best approach to sleeplessness is the counter-intuitive idea that I should try to stay awake and that this will make me fall asleep. That might well work, but I am afraid to try it, afraid that whatever activity I might engage in during this effort--reading, television, a game on my phone--will overstimulate my brain and doom me yet again.

It is ironic, I suppose, that as we get older and more tired, sleep flees from us more easily. But isn't that because our minds are clinging to consciousness more desperately? Or is it because our bodies just don't settle as easily, don't remain comfortable in the same position for as long? Is it because, as my friends and I like to joke, we've got "sin in our lives," a long-ago condemnation issued toward one of our ranks? I suppose it doesn't matter. Like an old, lonely person who suddenly finds a lover, we are simply grateful for sleep when it does come. Nor do we condemn it much when it takes its seductions elsewhere. What other choice do we have?