Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Finds, Followers, and Friends

Last night, I thought I'd take the easy way out and whip up a quick post: simply go through our mailbox and post 10 or so of the latest songs that we had received as kind of a representation of what's out there musically these days.

Twenty-four hours later, I've finally come up with 10 songs that interest me.

And, yes, that's a commentary on today's music, but it's just as likely a commentary on the music during any time period. Certainly, there are plenty of people, some people who have made fortunes, who are paid to do what Billy and I do from time to time, which is separate the musical wheat from the chaff.

It is an increasingly difficult endeavor, and I understand why. Bands want to protect their stuff at the same time that they want to get it out there, so they will send us an introductory email, but often to get to the actual music so that we can post it (who's doing a favor for whom?), we have to go through several steps--email back, get a link to a download site, download a .zip file, extract the files, and then listen to what's there to see if we like it.

It can get pretty frustrating, but I think when we get into it, it's because there is always that chance that we will come across something that is really good. It's like that old saying: if you can get the audience to laugh at the start, they will hang around for a good while to see if there might be another laugh. We've found some good songs in our BOTG mailbox, and that makes us willing, from time to time, to look for more.

But it is a rabbit hole that we can't go down every day. Way, way, way too many dead ends. I feel for bands that wait at those dead ends. Someone heard something in them, someone thought they had a chance, but something intangible is missing from their sound. I can't explain it, but I know it when I don't hear it.

Something caught me in the songs that follow, maybe something so idiosyncratic, so personal to me, that the songs won't click with you. But I'm willing to take that chance. Billy and I listen to a lot of music, and if you're here, there's a pretty decent chance that you do, too. I hope that some of these songs do something for you. And, best of luck to the artists. It's crowded out there.

Bern Kelly--"The Last Thing" (mp3)

Atom Smash--"Beautiful Alien" (mp3)

Said The Whale--"Heavy Ceiling" (mp3)

French Wives--"Younger" (mp3)

The Brute Chorus--"My Testament" (mp3)

Elliot Brood--"Northern Air" (mp3)

Dave and Marissa--"Hit Like Waves" (mp3)

Andrew Bird--"So Much Wine" (mp3)

Ghosty--"Sharpening Swords" (mp3)

Dan London--"Little Bit About Me" (mp3)

Get Thee Behind Me, Santorum! (No! Not THAT Close!)

Have a Talk with God - Stevie Wonder (mp3)

I’m on the verge of declaring Rick Santorum to be an evil man.

I’m not there yet, but I’m close.

Disclaimer: By no means am I empowered by my Creator to determine those who are Evil and those who are Good. I am a mere flawed mortal with flawed perspective.

But here’s what I know with certainty: Rick Santorum is using the Bible as a cudgel. He’s using the Bible as a bludgeon wrapped in a blanket of deceptive insincerity.

In other words, the way he is using the Bible is no different than the very way Satan used it, taking the words of Scripture and intentionally manipulating them in the hopes of manipulating and misleading the weak-minded.

Santorum’s latest insincere strategy is to suggest that Obama is a snob because our President dares to think going to college is important. Nevermind what statisics are indicating about those who fail to make it to (and graduate from) some kind of post-secondary education. Nevermind the projections for the future, which suggest college degrees will become even more essential (whether we think this is a good thing is mooooooot).

What does that have to do with Jesus and the abuse of Bible-speak, you ask? It’s on the same train of thought, at the 1:09 mark: “Oh I understand why he (Obama) wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.”

Any church-goer on the planet knows what Santorum is insinuating. That Obama has a God complex, that he dares to do that which only our Creator is permitted. He is setting up a scenario where Obama is guilty of the same crime as so many kings of the Old Testament. Golden idols, fiery furnaces, craven images.

How about this quote: “The president has reached a new low in this country’s history of oppressing religious freedom that we have never seen before.”

If Santorum is a true Christian -- and it deserves to be questioned at this point -- he would never make such a claim when he knows it to be insincere. And you just need to trust me on this: Santorum doesn’t believe Obama is evil, not really.

The President who attended the National Prayer Breakfast and spelled out -- sincerely, I should add -- how his interpretation of the Bible motivates his politics, who voiced what so many left-leaning Christians believe to the letter about our obligations as Christians (to the poor, to the needy, to the elderly, to the imprisoned)? This is the President who wants to push people away from faith? Who wants to destroy organized religion? The same one who’s oh by the way also secretly a rabid Muslim?

Johnny Mac, I need you to gimme a "You cannot be serious!"

As best I can recall, Obama has not once used the Bible to beat an opponent or individual over the head.

I can think of nothing that stirs up my religious zeal more than people who wield the Bible as a sword rather than a shield. It was meant to protect, to offer sanctuary. It was meant to spread love, and peace. Yet these people who claim to know the same words, who claim to worship the same Savior, are attempting to use my religion as a divider between Good and Bad, and Bad means softy lefty African-American secret Muslim terrorist Presidents.

The word “Evil” is so dangerous, so loaded. Worse, I’m a mamby-pamby softy lefty relativist new-wave Christian who thinks we should all love one another and get along and help out those who need it. People like me despise using words like “Evil” because it’s so absolute and uncompromising.

So trust me, I take no joy in my fear that Santorum might be an evil man. But he scares me. His goals are fearmongering, division, scorn, derision. This isn’t the Bible I’ve read. It’s not even the Bibles most Catholics have read. So for him to hold that book and say the things he’s said? I’m just not sure I can find another word that quite fits.

And unlike Rick, I’m not fearmongering, and I’m not terribly worried about him becoming our next POTUS. Honestly, I cannot conceive of a planet on which Rick Santorum can win the Presidency. (A Mormon could win on another planet, because they are gods on many, many planets. At least from what I’ve read and come to understand about their beliefs.)

But Santorum? A man in 2012, who must stop having sex with his wife forever if and when he decides they’ve had enough children (because sex has one and only one purpose), who believes the government has too much control over too many things except for what happens in or around the vagina of every woman in this country, where our government should have greater control... yeah, I just can’t believe he could ever make it into the White House.

If he does, ladies, you’re fucked. And not in the good way.*

* -- yeah okay, that's slight fearmongering.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Adventures In Babysitting

Charles Greene--"Baby, Oh, Baby" (mp3)

In a touching but chilling scene from last year's excellent Winter's Bone, a 17-year-old girl left to care for her much younger brother and sister shows them how to cook and how to fire a gun so that they can feed and protect themselves. Though set in the modern day in the meth-addled back country of Missouri, these scenes play as if they were set on the prairie in 1870, so foreign are they to our current childrearing practices.

I have a friend who often faces the more modern dilemna of finding a decent babysitter. Half teasing, half not, I like to tell him that his older daughter is perfectly capable of taking care of his younger daughter. But is she?

Is today's 12 or 13 year old girl equipped to take on the standard babysitting job? What preparation has she had? Or he (boys babysit, too)? My questions are not in any way a comment on my friend's daughter. She is smart and mature and calm. It is a comment on today's children.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal called "What's Wrong With The Teenage Mind?" examines the latest research and concludes that the "wrongness," such as it is, is the result of children reaching puberty earlier and earlier, which also causes the overactive teenage sense of "reward" to kick in earlier as well. Teenagers, studies show, a) see rewards as being greater rewards than we do and b) are more likely to seek those "rewards," i.e. take risks, to gain peer acceptance. Teens who know better, as part of a rational discussion, are far less likely to act responsibly in real situations.

Add to that the realities that, unlike those children in Winter's Bone, most of our own children know very little about such personal care activities as cooking, cleaning, and washing clothes, let alone treating cuts and bruises or knowing how to manage the many systems involved in running a house.

So the old assumptions that we may have made about the teen who would babysit our children, or even about our older children watching our younger children may need a deeper investigation. The idea that the near-adult who will manage the house while we are out on the town knows what to do in the types of situations that may arise and will do what needs to be done is simply not a given. In the circumstance where it seems like an even better idea to allow a couple of friends to babysit together or for a boyfriend or girlfriend to come over, even less so. To assume that they know how to give a child a bath, how to make a grilled cheese, or who to call if the power goes out is probably quite a leap.

In a recent meeting of a cooking club at school, I brought a bowl of eggs and milk for the students to dip bread into to make french toast. Before they started dipping, one of them asked me, "What's in that, sir?" Um, eggs and milk, I thought, doesn't everyone know how to make french toast? Now I don't want to make too much of that, and they were, indeed, all boys, but the fact remains that with their own parents likely cooking less, today's teens have little idea about the basics of putting together simple food. I've seen that verified in other cooking projects we've done with the club. And, if they don't know that, what else don't they know?

The situation is not irreversible. The Wall Street Journal article suggests that "apprenticeships" and presenting these children with real-world situations that have a safety net will go a long way towards shoring up their developing brains. While the examples in the article deal with everything from learning how to drive (raising the driving age limit a few years has little effect of driving safety; working into graduated, expanded driving privileges over time does) to learning, in primitive cultures with mentors, to use dangerous tools, it may well be that babysitters need to be trained. Otherwise, we will rely on an increasingly-odd assumption that when a child reaches a certain magical age, he or she is suddenly qualified to provide extended care for children who are very important to us.

Our children may well be "digital natives" (I have yet to be fully convinced of that), but they don't seem any longer to be native natives, as in, they have not been equipped with many of the mundane skills necessary to care for each other or the mindset that gives them the best chance of making that happen.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

"I Just Want Something Beautiful"

Beautiful Girl - Pete Droge & the Sinners (mp3)
“You let her behind the curtain, I know you did. You never let them behind the curtain, Will. You never let them see the little old man behind the curtain working the levers of the great and powerful Oz. They're all sisters, Willie... they aren't allowed back there... they mustn't see.” -- Paul
I’m not a good one for lists. I can’t name my all-time favorite song, or my all-time favorite band, or my all-time favorite much of anything. I’m not even good at making Top 5 or Top 10 lists. I can do it, but the next day I get all pissed off because I’ve left off something that should’ve been on there.

But here’s a question along these lines I could answer without hesitation or regret: What’s your favorite movie most people have never seen or heard of?

“Beautiful Girls.”
“Wrong again, Paul! One comes to a decision based on what one wants, not based on what one doesn't want. Got it?” -- Jan
I’m not gonna lie. The entire movie is a mash-up of worn-out conceits. Ensemble piece. High school reunion. Wayward son returns to the small hometown he left in desperation. Adultery. Uncertain romance. Retarded male friends and the loyal women who love them because it’s a small hometown with few decent alternatives.

But favorites are rarely about pure originality; they’re about taking something familiar and transcending the genres and the assumptions. “Beautiful Girls” does exactly that, first with a script of so many sublime and perfect quotables that I keep having to pause the movie and type them out while I’m writing this, and second with a cast that is, honestly, as perfect as I could possibly imagine.
"No mater how perfect the nipple, how supple the thigh, unless there is some other shit going on in the relationship, besides the physical, it's going to get old, OK? And you guys, as a gender, have got to get a grip. Otherwise, the future of the human race is in jeopardy." -- Gina
Let’s cut to the essence of the movie, the essence of why I love it, and the essence of many of my beliefs about relativism and reality.

About halfway through the movie, Willie (Timothy Hutton), the city-living piano player who is back home for a class reunion, is sitting in a living room with his dudes playing NHL on the trusty Nintendo. It’s as universal a modern adult male gathering moment as you can have.

In the conversation, they agree upon a rating system for girls based on face, body and personality. And then they ask Willie to rate his current girlfriend, a woman they haven’t yet met.
“Tracy? Tracy. Um... Face? Good solid... 7 ½. Body? Good solid... 7 ½. Personality? She’s a... good solid... 7 ½.” -- Willie
And the other guys contemplate these answers and offer their nodding affirmation that he has made an excellent choice.

If Tracy were listening in as Willie described her to his pals, she might take great umbrage at his ratings. Three solid Cs, is basically what he gave her. But Willie loves Tracy. He’s going to eventually settle down with her, or so the movie seems to ultimately hint. And he’s proud of those ratings he’s given.

She’s good. She’s solid. She’s well above average in all aspects.

Willie and his idiot pals must wrestle throughout the movie with their various screwed-up notions of women. They fight their stereotypes, their assumptions, their hang-ups, their cluelessness. Most especially, they struggle to accept the intense beauty of a good solid 7 ½. And the ones that can’t? They end the film unhappy, unchanged.
You know there are fours words I need to hear before I go to sleep. Four little words. ‘Good night sweet girl.’ That's all it takes. -- Andera
At times it seems like we live in a world that expects perfect 10s. Or at least 9.5s. We expect it out of our relationships, out of our jobs, out of our purchases and experiences. When we’re describing these things to others, anything lower than nigh-perfection -- “near-mint” in comic book parlance -- comes across as a disappointment, or as something less than what it could or should be.

Most of the time, that's a darn shame for us, and it's proof our rating system sucks.

This movie deserves a good solid 7 ½, and I mean that as sincere and high praise.

“See these guys? Pete, Rizzo and Sammy B? They work all day and drink all night for 40 fucking years. Two weeks out of the year, they take a vacation and go to the Cape. And what do they do there? They drink all day, they drink all night. If we don't step it up, we're gonna wind up just like them.” (“COOL.”) -- Paul & Kev

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

I Got The News (But You Already Knew It)

Damiem Jurado--"Nothing Is The News" (mp3)

For years, our school's newspaper has struggled, students trying to figure out a place for their stories that fits somewhere between an ever-expanding website hosted by the school's public relations staff and the hard-copy that used to get handed out every few weeks on a Friday. They have yet to find that place, for any number of reasons. But the underlying issue has always been that they lost control of the ability to tell us news.

This is not news.

A school paper has perhaps not had that ability for a good half-century or more. A small staff involved in an after-school or club activity could never hope to be the ones breaking the big story, not with the delays between event and writing of story, and then delays between writing of story and laying out and printing of story.

This is not news.

But in my slow brain, I had not realized for the longest time that a national news magazine, a Time or Newsweek, has to deal with the same problem. I got Time for a few years because of a whim and now I get Newsweek thanks to a gift, but I hadn't really given any thought to the struggles they were going through as I did my ritualistic bathroom reads--start from the back and work forward, perhaps never actually the front of the magazine where the news was.


As I sat with the latest Newsweek last night, with its cover story titled "How Obama Learned To Use His Secret Weapon," I finally, finally, finally understood the war that must be raging internally within these publications. Because I enjoyed the story well enough, but I thought, 'Gee, that's a little bit of an unusual story for a cover story; it must be a slow news week.' And then it was a quick brain leap from that thought to 'There is no such thing as a slow news week. We've got dead pop stars and ever-evolving presidential primaries and financial crises and recoveries and international tensions.' And then, with a slight shift in the meaning of the word "slow" my baby ephiphany was 'Wait, there really isn't ever a slow news week. The news moves so fast every single day that we know about almost everything almost immediately after it happens.' And then, the words "news" and "week" rejoined and I thought, 'How hard it must be for a news weekly that has lost the ability to report the news because every happening that they report on is not "so 43 seconds ago" for those who have 4G, but so so 7 days ago, and in this world now, that is an eternity.'

So Newsweek has been trying to adjust. And now I understand the continuing design changes and editorial redirections that I have been noticing in both magazines for the past several years. Time magazine had finally left me pissed me off because, reading from the back as I do, all of their little pop culture-based featurettes in the back pages seemed to change every few months. (I like Newsweek's current back page feature, "My Favorite Mistake," which asks a famous person to choose something major that they did wrong in their lives but which seems to have turned out okay-I plan to steal this as the concept for a later personal blog post). But now I realize the depths of the magazine's attempts to find its way.

The adjustments these magazines are having to make may seem minor, a mere shift away from any hard news to feature stories and analysis and opinion, but I would argue that these changes are gargantuan, the equivalent of a restaurant that once served pretty basic meat and potatoes comfort food having to serve up gourmet fare that will attract a much more discerning diner.

Frankly, I'm not sure what they should do or if they can survive. The Obama and the Navy Seals story was fairly interesting and I'm not sorry I read it, but if I were hurrying through an airport looking for something to read, I'm not sure that's what would grab me or what I would grab. I'm not even sure I will ever visit another newstand in my life, in an airport or elsewhere. Wouldn't I just sit down with my laptop or phone and read some online blog on one of those?

I'm not even sure I will stay with Newsweek when the gift subscription runs out. The current news magazine has the ability, I suppose, to give me a depth of knowledge that I don't have on a variety of topics (from the latest issue, the background life of Vladmir Putin, the science of feelings, the fall and rise of Harvey Weinstein, etc.) but I didn't choose those topics and I wonder how much of a hit-or-miss proposition it is for these publications to hook somebody like me. If I want depth, I go to the Internet, probably even to the once-maligned Wikipedia.

If I am Newsweek, who is my competition these days? Is it even other news magazines? In the magazine world, is it The Atlantic Monthly? If so, it loses. The Obama/Navy Seals barely covers four pages, so I learn some things I don't know, but not that much. Nothing like the depth I can get from The Atlantic or The New Yorker. Online, is it The Huffington Post or some similar megablog? If so, it loses. Huffington can link to so much more news, analysis, even titillation, without even breaking a sweat. Is it CNN? Fox News? The Daily Show? Colbert? What chance does Newsweek have against news with humor, with personalities, or with, in the case of Fox, the lack of a need to try to be impartial?

The cultural icons are falling. Stores, corporations, people who once seemed important, so many of these givens of our society will be gone within 5 years, maybe less. They will no longer serve a function that is needed; they will no longer be able to keep up with the speed of change. I guess I hadn't thought about how much the news as I have known it, newspapers and magazines to be folded back and left lying around, torn out and dog-eared, read and recycled, would be one of these victims. But, really, I've had that news for a long time. I just wasn't fully paying attention.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Homey Does Play Dat

All Through The Night - US Elevator (mp3)
Black Crow - Greylag (mp3)

We’re on the cusp of turning our public schools into a buffet line at the K&W.

Thanks to Tim Tebow -- yes, one more thing we can blame on the guy -- lawmakers in Virginia are about to move forward on a measure that’s been heavily debated in Tennessee, Indiana, and other states. The law will allow home-schooled kids to participate in public school activities and sports.

Don't kid yourself; mostly this is about football. And then mostly about sports in general. But it also covers debate, mock trial, orchestra, chorus... anything that’s an afternoon activity, basically.

Unfortunately, because we know the world of politics and obsession revolve solely around sports, and because we know Tim Tebow is the fluffy endangered white seal pup of conservative activists, you can be damn sure lawmakers haven’t actually thought about the actual or potential long-term ramifications of their law. They just want to save other baby seal pup quarterbacks from dying of neglect out in the frozen home school tundra.

Unintended Consequence #1: Classes
If a home-schooled student has the right to try out for and participate on a public school’s athletic team, what kind of sensible legal line will prevent these kids from cherry-picking specific academic courses? Perhaps the parents have concerns about the English curriculum but have heard great things about the chemistry and calculus classes. If the kid can play football and join the drama club, why not just show up for 4th Period Math and 7th Period Science?

This won’t happen right away. But once you put a crack in this dam and let home-school families treat parts of the public school experience like a buffet line, it seems inevitable.

Unintended Consequence #2: Private School Kids?
Is there a legal difference between the rights of a home-schooled kid and a private-schooled kid? I’m not sure there is. Both families pay taxes, supposedly, and both have the same rights to a public education, and both have chosen a different route. But if the home-schooled kid can now participate in sports, why not a private-schooled kid?

If this law passes, it will only be a matter of time before a kid attending a small private parochial school with limited athletic offerings petitions to join a public school football team or some other squad that his own school can’t field. And once that barrier breaks down, a lot of budget-crunched private schools will start contemplating whether they could survive just as well by removing athletics from their offerings and just busing interested students to their respective zoned schools in the afternoons.

Unintended Consequence #3: Cost
The Virginia bill acknowledges that opening this door will have unexpected costs for public schools, and it attempts to address this problem by charging fees to students who wish to participate. This will be the first big leap into making standard what has already become de rigeur in a number of public schools: charging add-on fees for “add-on” activities like music, arts, and athletics. If you think the bake sales for the marching band are bad, wait until each student on a public school team has to start paying several hundred dollars, maybe even into the four-figure amounts, in order to cover transportation, pay for coaches, and contribute to the upkeep of fields and courts.

Unintended Consequence #4: Big Loophole
Ever heard of a student who became ineligible to play a sport because he or she was failing out of school? Well, you won’t be hearing about that much longer after this law passes. If a student is failing out of school because he or she doesn’t do any work, or can’t read, or is just plain incapable, instead of failing, they’ll become home-schoolers!

If we’ve learned anything about schools and sports, it’s that more than a few coaches are willing to bend and break any rule possible if it gives them a competitive advantage. What better way to keep Bubba and Calvin playing than to keep them out of actual classes and just call them “home-schooled”? They can stay at home all day and master their skills at Call of Duty and Madden 13 and “Deadliest Catch,” and all they have to do is show up in the afternoons in pads and keep playing for you. This, my friends, is a dirty coach’s dream.

And if they’re out of zone? One nice big apartment should comfortably house at least a half-dozen boys and an XBox. Problem solved. Hell, this part happens now, but at least they have to sit in classes and pretend to give a shit... until this law passes.

Unintended Consequence #5: Education Revolution
The sky is not falling. I’m not playing the part of Chicken Little here.

In the nerdy circles of educational philosophy and revolution, the #edchat types who wonder when schools are at long last going to finally rethink how they operate and what purpose they serve, the Tebow Law will create a hole in the once-immovable brick wall. Once a school becomes a buffet line, the entire system must inevitably adjust to the new realities.

If parents and students become empowered to choose their activities (and, by connection, their teachers/coaches/advisors), then suddenly a democratization has entered into the teacher evaluation concept. If your students become free agents, your job becomes about finding ways to prove your value to them. Same with coaches.

The system would have to change. Adaptation would require seismic shifts.

Granted, this part is a stretch, and we’re talking a decade or more down the road, if ever. But if World War I can begin with the assassination of an arch-duke no one gave a shit about, then a national educational reinvention can start with something as poorly-considered and pathetically-motivated as The Tebow Law.

Stranger things have happened. Just ask Tim.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Vicarious Mardi Gras

Southwind--"New Orleans (Mardi Gras)" (mp3)

For all of my trips to New Orleans, I've only gotten close to Mardi Gras one time. A high school calendar and Mardi Gras simply do not mix, though I once had a student over 20 years ago who was from New Orleans and went home the weekend before Mardi Gras, called a day or two later to say that his mother had run over his leg and returned sometime later in the week with a slight limp that seemed to get better quickly. He worked the calendar quite effectively.

Just a couple of years ago, our winter break synced pretty closely with Fat Tuesday, and four of us headed down to try to capture some of the spirit and energy of that great holiday.

What were we thinking? Mardi Gras is largely for the young. It is is not for men who are middle-aged or approaching it. How do I know that? Well, I'd say simply karma. It isn't that we didn't have a good time--we did--but all of the issues that face a family man manifested themselves.

It happened quickly. One of our ranks, you see, used to teach here with us, but he has since moved on to two, now three, other schools, and he usually flies in from New Jersey at the start of each Spring Break to join us for an all-guy trip. The year in question, though, was a strange year where our two school's calendars didn't sync, and so we arranged to meet earlier in February, during the weekend before Mardi Gras.

The thing that he didn't tell us, in his intense desire to join us in the Crescent City, was that all of the rest of his family was back home with a virulent stomach virus. Even as he landed at Louis Armstrong Airport, his four boys were in various stages of puking, either just getting over it or just getting started. His wife was just getting started.

But we found out.

It is our tradition on the first night of our New Orleans gatherings to eat at the Acme Oyster House, a touristy but reliable French Quarter dive that makes pretty good everything--chargrilled oysters, red beans and rice, shrimp po-boys. But there's always a wait. So we stood in line outside, waiting for the perfect fit of table available and number in our party. A minute or two into the wait, he said, "You know what, guys? I'm going to head back to the hotel. I'm not feeling too good. My stomach's kind of queasy."

That was just about the last we saw of him for two days. He camped out in our hotel room and experienced every possible way and place to throw up.

And the beautiful thing about this particular stomach virus was that not only did it include incessant projectile vomiting, it also incubated very, very quickly, spreading from person to person within a 24-48 hour time period. And so, while we talked to him on the phone while we ate (guardedly) at Acme and learned of the condition of the rest of his family, we started retracing our steps with him since our arrival. One thing I knew for sure: I had sipped his drink when they had gotten confused and before we swapped back.

It was that kind of virus that parents get because their immune systems haven't encountered it since they were young, like my friend's children. Suddenly, like the characters in the movie D.O.A. who has ingested a time-release poison and has only hours to live and try to figure out who poisoned him, we were marked men. And the clock was ticking.

My pal Chet made a crucial executive decision: there was no way we were going to stay in the "puke room." Regardless of what it cost, we would get a separate room from him and see if we could avoid getting the virus.

But our luggage was still in that room. We entered it like a scene from Contagion, not wanting to inhale any airborne pathogen from the heavy, sour air that had taken over the room and bathroom. If we could have worn plastic suits we would have. As it was, we repacked our luggage as quickly as possible, made lame gestures of sympathy to the thing in the bed, and got the hell out of there.

The rest of the trip is kind of a blur. Yes, we went to parades, yes, we ate at Commander's Palace, yes, we got out in the car and traveled all over the city, but the illness had cast a pall on the trip, not only because we lived in constant fear of getting sick (which we didn't), but mainly because when a comrade goes down like that, it's hard to experience total enjoyment knowing that he is lying in agony in a hotel room.

No, I'm afraid that Mardi Gras is for the young, with their iron stomachs and "run over leg" stories. For those of us with family obligations and the trials that come with family, Mardi Gras is probably a bad idea.

This year, I'm kind of content to enjoy it vicariously from far away. I'll be having a few friends over. I'll be making chicken and adouille gumbo, shrimp and crawfish etoufee, the best approximation of muffalettas I can construct in this city, and bread pudding and I'll have some New Orleans tunes and some beads if I can scare some up and we'll be nice and safe here at my house.

That doesn't mean that my favorite city won't be calling to me and that I wouldn't rather be down there, but some concessions need to be made--to job, to family, to time. Give me a month, though, and I'll be back, New Orleans. See you at Spring Break!

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Birds 2: Lethal Tweet

The Black Bird, The Dark Slope - Los Campesinos! (mp3)
Your Ass Ain't Laughing Now - American Steel (mp3)

Every true film lover has to go through a Hitchcock Phase, a stretch of years where Alfred Hitchcock’s movies are not only viewed but savored, like expensive wines or the finest cuts of Kobe beef.

“The Birds” is one of those where the outdated special effects and the sheer audacity of the concept can make it a tough pill for younger viewers to swallow, but many critics believe it remains one of Hitchcock’s finest works.

At the heart of this Rorschach Test of a film is the conceit that our an entire avian population chooses to attack humanity, seemingly out of nowhere. The film offers little in the way of explaining it. The birds simply attack an entire coastal town en masse.

Because we’re used to a single bird perched on a fence, or at the feeder, or groups of birds perched far away from us on power lines or across rooftops, it’s difficult for us to perceive them as dangerous, predatory, bloodlusty. We’ve been too conditioned to see them as harmless, save for the occasional poop bomb dropping from above on our car windshields or shoulders.

Nobody's afraid of a single plain ol' bird. But once you see the sheer numbers, the unrelenting wave of wings, it gets scary.

Enter Twitter.

At my school, since the beginning of the school year, our students have slowly been flocking to Twitter. The interest seemed to come from nowhere. At first the numbers were small and the conversations off the adult radar. But as their comfort level grew, as their willingness to push buttons and boundaries evolved, it drew in more students.

At the same time our Twitter students were multiplying, the “#_____Problems” meme blew up. All students attending an institution, be it a college or a high school, were creating school-specific hashtags for their classmates. The independent school godfather of this concept is known as @PrepSchoolProbs, with 8,500-plus loyal followers.

Because of my own familiarity with the Twitter environment -- over 200 followers, yo! -- I discovered this trend at our school in its infancy and informed the proper administrative authorities. It seemed mostly harmless, teenagers attempting to be funny or snarky or rebellious with 140-character statements. We left it alone with the understanding that I would provide the Deciders regular updates.

Then Christmas. Then January. Now February. Our school’s "Problem" account has almost 500 followers, and the "#_____Problems" hashtag has grown from sprouting one or two Tweets each week to generating a handful each day. (Cold comfort: The rival school's Problems account has almost 700. Their problems are worse than our problems! Yay!)

The birds have grown in number. The power line is beginning to sag with their weight.

And then, this week, our administration suspended a student for his Tweet. The first such social media suspension at our school, as best I recall. The Tweet was grossly inappropriate and blessed out a specific teacher who had confiscated his phone earlier in the day. This suspension has riled the student collective. The school is attacking their freedoms and rights, or so they Tweet.

Worse, students are beginning to deny that accounts in their names, with their likenesses as avatars, are them. And because all the activity is on their smart phones, our school has no easy way to prove things, to link a kid with a Twitter account beyond a reasonable litigious doubt.

And the birds are angry. Angry -- possibly-semi-anonymous, possibly-not -- Birds.

They’re all hanging out on the jungle gym. Waiting for the school bell to ring. Waiting for us to walk outside the walls of institutional protection.

They haven’t attacked yet. In fact, most of the adults on our campus aren’t even aware there’s anything potentially sinister or dangerous going on.

But I know. I see the birds gathering. I sense a line being drawn, an Us Versus Them line. They don’t realize we’re on their side, that we’re trying to protect them from themselves. They think Twitter is some private locker room or some late-night dorm room kibbitz when it's actually downtown graffiti and public urination.

And while we adults have no need to fear one or two birds, what happens if we face an onslaught of hundreds? Are schools about to see their own versions of the Arab Spring?

Tweet tweet, tweedily deet.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

When Was The Last Time You Did Something Really Well?

Ben Taylor--"Nothing I Can Do" (mp3)

Not pretty well. Not better than most other people could do. Not better than average. Not competently. Not good enough. Not as good as time allowed. Not acceptable for someone else's standard (or your own slipping one).

When was the last time you went all out? The last time you went above and beyond? The last time you left it all on the field?

That's what I thought. Me, neither.

And that's what came to me today in a random moment: I'm not sure that I have ever done my absolute best. On anything. I'm not talking about perfection or something that is unattainable. I'm talking about a time when I had done enough training or other advanced work, when I gathered everything that I would need, when I got myself into a proper frame of mind, when I prepared my body to be able to sustain an all-out effort, when I sought out the guidance or help that I would need, when I practiced over and over and over, when I had as complete a focus as I could have, when I shook off self-doubt, when I abandoned my original approach and conceived a new, better one, when I said no to something else that was a distraction, when I kept going back to something that wasn't working until it finally worked, when I followed all the way through, when I evaluated my progress and tweaked it, when I both came up with my best final "product" and cleaned up the work space. Because that's what it takes.

I have never:

--mastered a song.
--perfected a recipe.
--rewritten something until I was convinced that it was as good as I could make it.
--put every single thing I had into a relationship.
--prepared as fully for a class as I should have.
--truly listened.
--read the Bible thoroughly. Just completely.
--pushed myself as hard as I could running around a track.
--studied the masters (of anything).

And now I don't think I could do that if I wanted to. I have satisfied myself with less for too long. For example, I will put this little piece of writing to bed long before I should, because I will want to have it done, because it will feel like I have invested enough time into it for the purpose it may serve, because I have imposed a deadline on it. There's no real reason I couldn't set it aside, sleep on it, and ponder a better approach tomorrow. It doesn't have to come out tonight. But it will. Because it will be decent, good enough.

And, let's be honest, the world, or at least my little world, doesn't really want my best. This world, at least as I have set myself up in it, wants varying levels of decency from me at varying times. I have filled my days with enough jobs, and duties, and obligations that to have one distinct area where I am seeking near-perfection at the expense of everything else simply would not work. For one thing, it would require a different kind of mind than what I have right now.

I have the mind of a manager. And that's not just because Management was my college major. It's because I have embraced (or accepted?) a lifestyle where I juggle responsibilities. That's what I do. You, too, right? No litany of the roles that we play in a day will follow--that will sound like some kind of justification for what I have not been able to do. That's not what I'm after.

Today's moment, today's epiphany, is that reminder of why I will never be an artist. The singularity of focus, the constant refinement of vision, the sheer hours required are not part of who I am anymore, if they ever were. To do one thing really, really well means that I would only do that one thing. And I don't have either the desire or the self-discipline. Or, I suppose, the ability. That's what I'm really saying.

Still, part of me thinks that I would like to know what that is like. It is not necessarily rewarding to have various events, projects, milestones, roles over, done with, completed and to know that I could have done better. Day to day, it can really wear me down, knowing that I've got to get something finished and to be satisfied with the way it is because I have to move on to something else. But, despite my apparent resignation, the beauty of life is that push for our best always seems possible, doesn't it?

Busby Marou

Biding My Time - Busby Marou (mp3)

Fifteen seconds. That’s how long it took to know I was going to enjoy Busby Marou.

But first, a back story. I recently confessed to Bob in conversation that 2012 was beginning with a serious New Music Drought, with nothing even worth getting excited about on the horizon, save for a late February release date for fun.’s “Some Nights” and an upcoming album by Sleigh Bells which might or might not be awesome.

When Bob mentioned my confession in his recent post, I realized it had been half a year since I’d attempted sifting through our Bottom of the Glass in box, now full of more than 4,000 requests for us to play or share a band’s songs or videos or remixes.

And I decided that, dammit, no better time to sift through the haystack than when good needles were in short supply, so I’ve spent the past few late evenings sifting through submissions, and what I’ve found has been exciting and energizing.

So, rather than begin my posts with some topic about which I can rant and preach and then finding music to match the mood, I’m working in reverse, and I’m using these awesome submissions to inspire my rants.

Today, it’s Busby Marou’s eponymous debut album.

“Havoc & Wolverine” was a bold but poorly-written experiment in the late 80s comic book world. They assigned a single story to two creative teams, with one team writing and drawing a plot for Wolverine and the other writing and drawing for Havoc.

The Wolverine portion, painted by Kent Williams, was earthy, messier, at times a bit grotesque. Fitting for the primal character at the center. The Havoc section was watercolored by Jon J. Muth, an airy and cleaner creation.

In my youth, and even to this day, the cleaner stuff appeals first. Muddy and earthy require more concentration, more consideration. When art is light, airy, clean, the beauty is more easily recognized. What’s true in paint holds true in music as well.

When I hear Busby Marou’s clean, double-acoustic folk-pop, I think of Jon J. Muth's watercolor art. (Kent Williams' is more of the My Bloody Valentine variety.) Busby's instrumentation is easily accessible and breezy. The vocals and the harmonies are light and smooth like blonde coffee.

The duo throw in enough flourishes -- a steel guitar here (“Underlying Message”), a harmonica and banjo there (“Banjo”) -- to avoid the Folk Monotony that sometimes brings down first-time attempts (see: The Civil Wars’ debut, which while amazing does tend to blend a bit too much once you get past their three most sublime songs).

Their debut also dodges another common problem: second-half fade. In fact, save for the experiment-that-does-nothing-for-me “Not Fire Not Ice,” there’s nary a song in the latter half that fails to hold the attention.

I can’t claim they’re carving out unexplored territory, and I doubt their sound could convert those who prefer the lands of Death Metal or Hip-Hop, but if some simple acoustic guitars and two overlapping voices pull on your musical heartstrings, then their debut is worth some of your time.

Nothing bombastic, or melodramatic. No gradual ramping-up of sonic power. Just smooth baby smooth, and fine baby fine.

Tasty Samples:
Dancing On The Moon
Underlying Message

Monday, February 13, 2012

What To Make Of A Diminished Thing

The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
--Robert Frost

When a musician or musical group sets a playlist for a concert, there are really only two possible paths to take:

1. perform some or all of the past.
2. perform some or all of the future.

Random facts and observations:
--I saw the Who in '75 put on a great show of great hits.
--I did not see Neil Young perform Greendale in its entirety to a befuddled audience, though I enjoyed watching a DVD of the same thing.
--If you are now playing the casino circuit or reunion shows, it's pretty clear that your audience wants a healthy dose of your most popular work.
--If you have a reputation as a songwriter, maybe people like to know that you're still writing new songs, still growing.

So I make no strong judgement about those two paths, circumstances being different depending on outlook and the musician's location on his or her career arc. My clear preference, though, as a concertgoer, is for some blend of past hits, rarities, selections from the most recent CD, and a new song or two that no one has heard. I like to be both rewarded for being a knowledgeable fan and surprised (pleasantly, I hope) by the future.

There's a quirky thing that happens, though, when I hear songs in concert first. I have no interest in hearing any eventual studio version. Hearing a live version of a song first is akin to the genie escaping the bottle. Good luck getting him back in. Why even try when he's so full of magic? When I hear a new song live, especially if it's a very good song, the experience is so transcendent that it can never be equalled. Having first experienced songs like Neil Young's "Powderfinger" and "Out Of The Blue" live or Springsteen's "Point Blank" or Steve Forbert's achingly-beautiful "Oh, To Be Back With You," I didn't crave polished studio versions in the days and months that followed when I couldn't get the memories of those songs out of my head.

I wanted copies of live performances, preferably the one I had seen, but if not, another one from the same tour. Young figured this out: his "album versions" of those songs are, from what I've heard and as far as I can tell, live versions with the crowd edited out. He knew the magic was in the live.

This phenomenon can happen in other ways, too. By chance, I heard the live version of "Midnight Rambler" before I heard the studio version, courtesy of a friend's copy of Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out. Why in the world would I ever want to go back to the Let It Bleed version, which sounds so restrained and tepid? So boxed-in. The pleasures of the song, from where I sit, are Jagger's interactions with audience and the extended jam.

Bruce Springsteen's new CD, Wrecking Ball, due in about three weeks, will contain three songs (including the title track) that he has played regularly in concert, one of which I heard him sing in Nashville. He opened the show with it. I was blown away. I wondered where the song had come from and why I had never heard it before. I wanted the song. The live version, of course. I've heard the other two songs, too, and can't imagine why I want studio versions of them.

At some time in the past, this might have played out differently. I might have been one of the lucky people who got to hear him live or I might have heard the song on a bootleg. But that would have been before YouTube, before the Internet. I went looking for "Wrecking Ball" on YouTube. Not only did I find it, but I also found the official Springsteen-released video of the song. Huh? You released the song a few years ago, but now you're recording it? And when it was written to commemorate the demolition of the Meadowlands Stadium?

Even stranger is the inclusion of "Land Of Hope And Dreams" on the upcoming CD. This song, in its live version, was released on a popular live CD about 13 years ago during Bruce's reunion tour with the E-Street Band. One wonders what there is about the song that needs revisiting so many years later since the first version was pretty much kick ass, expansive in the way only a live song can be.

It's a curious strategy from Springsteen, though he is certainly not the first one to do it. But it kind of makes me feel like he's treading water. I may be proven wrong; I often am. But the odds are with me, given the power of live music and how difficult it is to capture that same kind of energy in a studio without a live audience to feed off of. Especially given that few performers thrive on that audience energy more than Springsteen.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Another Music Tragedy

Thoughts on Whitney Houston written before and during the Grammy Awards program.

Whitney Houston was the first American Idol.

To be sure, she wasn’t the first vocalist to ride an onslaught of success based purely on vocal talent. She wasn’t the first platinum artist to have almost no creative control over her career. She was, however, the first singer in history to have seven consecutive #1 singles, and she landed on a nascent MTV with a look of mostly-innocence that served as the Yin to Madonna’s Yang. If there were other American Idols before Whitney, she took it to a previously unknown level.

You just get the feeling, watching the energy in the crowd, that the ratings for this show will be through the roof compared to the past few years. People like me, who have long given up on popular music and awards shows, will feel drawn to this show because we will remember Whitney’s performance of “I Will Always Love You” (UPDATE: They just played a highlight from that performance, of course), and we will remember her country-affirming rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner at the 1991 Super Bowl.

And many of us will feel this nostalgia for shared musical moments, and we will know that our only best chance to experience that again is to sit in front of the TV and watch the Grammys.

Any comparisons between Whitney and Michael Jackson, or between Whitney and Amy Winehouse, are terribly flawed. She wasn’t the musical genius like Michael, and she wasn’t the insta-train wreck like Winehouse, whose producers and handlers couldn’t even slow her descent enough to get her through half a decade of success.

Perhaps the most depressing and inevitable comparison will be between Whitney and Tina Turner. We all want to believe that Bobby Brown corrupted Cinderella, that he fed her the poison fruit of alcohol and drugs and dragged her down the rabbit hole of addiction. We want that because we’re familiar with the tale.

We don’t want to believe the more likely but less dramatic tale, that Whitney was well on her way to -- or well past -- addiction before she ever met Bobby. We don’t want to believe that Whitney’s family life probably looked more like a scene from “Mommie Dearest” than a scene from “Good Times.”

It’s in those comparisons to Tina that the tragedy of Whitney seem most poignant. According to our limited and re-written and fabelized versions, Tina’s tale is one of overcoming a variety of adversities and adversaries. “Overcoming” being the key word.

Whitney, best I can tell, never managed to overcome a single one. Her first four albums averaged 10 million apiece just in America, but one could argue that without Dolly Parton, her descent into the forgettable began after only her second album. (I mean, Whitney’s part of The Bodyguard soundtrack, which was her biggest seller, is the equivalent of an EP. She’s only in six songs, and one of them is a cover of... “Jesus Loves Me.”)

Yet her importance and her impact on music cannot be doubted, and her ghost is there at the Grammys. I even felt it in the standing ovation for Taylor Swift (applause for the path Taylor might not be taking), for Dave Grohl’s sermon on what’s important in music that got cut off (applause for what Whitney might have lost), and especially for The Beach Boys and Glen Campbell (applause for surviving the business).

L.L. Cool J opened the 2012 Grammy Awards with a prayer. The dude who once needed an Around The Way Girl and drove lyrics that would make you call the cops made a blatant religious statement and asked a crowd of Californians to bow their heads. I mean, holy shit, y’all!

Unfortunately, it was still the Grammys. Nikki Minaj just miserably failed at trying to one-up Madonna and Lady GaGa and instead just looked stupid. Nothing about that performance made me think of Whitney.

Whitney, you could have been so much more. Which, considering the kind of success you had, is one helluva compliment and an even bigger and sadder tragedy.

But you got a prayer on the Grammys, and that’s something.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

7 Random Observations Just To Get That Damn Rash Off The Top Of This Page

Dana Buoy--"Call To Be" (mp3)

Frankly, staring at that thing has been giving me writer's block. Feeling intense pressure to come up with something just to move the rash lower down, I've been coming up empty. Here follows a variety of largely-unrelated observations about anything and everything. I figured that if I could come up with at least seven of them, throw in a few pictures and a song or two, and stretch out this introduction, I could get that inflamed region out of sight and mind for anyone coming to our site. At least, it won't be the first impression anymore, and newcomers will no longer be tempted to scroll down to find out whether or not they have stumbled onto some kind of physical maladies and oddities website.

1. In less than 9 months, we will have finished another presidential election. It will no doubt be a contentious affair. I don't worry that much about the Republicans, who have already beat each other up pretty good, but I'm sure that our president who has been under siege since before he was elected has more attacks coming his way, fueled and funded by the Super PACs that Chief Justice John Roberts and his Supreme Court majority have perpetrated on this country. This may go down as the most destructive ruling the high court has handed down since Plessy vs. Ferguson. You may remember that Obama scolded the court for this ruling at his first State of the Union, though he has since embraced his own Super PACs for the upcoming election. Hypocrisy or fighting fire with fire?

2. In the three weeks since I saw the Food Network show "The Big Waste," it has never been far from my mind. If you haven't seen the show, it's another of the competition show--Bobby Flay and another chef vs. a couple of female chefs, preparing a meal for 100 people--but with a twist: they have to use food that restaurants, grocery stores, farms, and food purveyors have thrown out or are planning to because they can't sell the food. The enormity of the waste, just on the show, is stunning. The expansiveness of the waste, when our entire country is factored in, is flat-out immoral. And it isn't restaurants, etc. that need to shoulder the blame. It's all of us. We have to change.

3. I ate at Paula Deen's restaurant a couple of nights ago. Let me put it simply: if your mother is a good cook, a Southern cook, a country cook, she's probably better than Paula Deen. Paula's offerings were solid, but not distinguished. It was like eating through the greatest hits of the South, as performed by a group of session musicians, who are extremely skilled, but who play anything with that skill, if not passion, and who don't write any of their own material. The beauty, the glory of home-cooking is that it has the idiosyncracies of a home cook. Paula Deen is trying to be everybody's home cook all at once, all while masquerading as a chef.

4. My daughter is in Florida with her grandmother for a month; I took my father to Tunica this week. Both are reminders, to me at least, that whatever we can do with or for elderly people needs to be done as often as possible. An elderly person living alone in a house or an apartment gets depressed. They can't help it. People who live alone in that profound way miss much of the significant human contact, including physical contact, that we enjoy each day, and all of the phone calls, emails, or even cats that we might provide such a person can in no way replace our physical presence. I have been surprised yet again by how much a little trip or a long trek with a granddaughter can lift the spirits of elderly parents and grandparents.

5. Both Billy and I have yet to be "wowed" by new music in 2012. I know we're only a month or so into the year, but that does not bode well. Billy has mentioned this year as a year to fill in some of the gaps from the past in his music collection. That's what I did last year, which is why I didn't post any kind of "best of" lists. I got onto hypem.com last night for several hours, trying to get a sense of what people were posting that I might be interested in. A couple of those appear above, at the start of this post, but I couldn't find much that engaged me. Here's hoping that will change, but I am not optimistic. I can't even conceptualize right now what fresh approach to popular, or even not-so-popular, music might inspire me to get excited.

6. Whitney Houston's death tonight is sad, tragic, but certainly not shocking. Ever since her marriage to Bobby Brown, her career trajectory and life trajectory have both been decidedly downward. It's the kind of thing that leaves an average joe like me feeling pretty helpless. Whitney had almost completely disappeared from public view, but every time she did surface, it was painfully obvious that drugs had taken control of her. Did she always have the prediliction for them, but was largely shielded from them until she met Brown? Or did they become her best companion when her career disappeared and she needed something to make her feel good? I don't know. But anyone who still sees Brown's song, "My Perogative," as any kind of valid manifesto can only do so by ignoring the negative impact it had on those around him.

7. In less than 9 months, we will have finished another presidential election. I have travelled quite a few miles in several different directions in the past few months. I also drive around this city regularly. I like to drive; I put in a lot of miles. And here's what I've noticed: nothing. That's right, as I've passed cars on the streets and highways of the southeast, I haven't seen any political stickers on the cars. Some Obama stuff to be sure, as well as some anti-Obama stuff, regrettably. But of the many Republican candidates who have vyed for the top spot during the past several months of debates and primaries, I have seen no signs. Our primary in Tennessee is a little over three weeks away, but nada. I don't if this means anything or not, but it does seem like in other years, there were primary candidate favorites that people were willing to display on their cars.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Rash

Angry Chair - Alice in Chains (mp3)
Little by Little - Oasis (mp3)

“Honestly, you’re the angriest man I’ve ever known.” -- Winona, to Raylan Givens, on Justified

I’ve got this rash. It started as just a little red dot on the outside edge of my right eye socket. At first I thought it was a zit, and I tried popping it during my semi-occasional facial grooming sessions, when I tweeze hairs from my ears and remove blackheads the same way cavemen probably did millions of years ago: with clumsy brute digital force.

I’m no doctor, but trying to pop a rash is generally a bad idea. So here I am, four weeks later, with a rash big enough on the side of my face that everyone is asking me about it. And it’s like they all noticed at the same time.

“Ooh. What’s going on there?” they ask, one after the other.

“Rash, I think.”

“You think? You think you might oughtta check that out? Like, with a doctor?” they say.

“Yeah. Probably. If it doesn’t go away in the next few days.”

“How long it been there already?” they ask.

“I dunno. Maybe a couple of weeks?”

“You oughtta let a doctor check that out.”

“Hmm. Thanks.”

And then they walk on and go about their business.

And I sit there wondering, Didn’t they notice it sooner? It was practically the same size yesterday, and practically the same size the day before and the day before. What was it about today that suddenly brought the rash to light?

And then I realize, it was several weeks before I even acknowledged to myself, and then another week before I accepted that it was a full-on rash, and I still haven’t quite come to accept that whatever this slightly itchy red patch on my face might be, it could use the eyeballs of a doctor. Maybe that happens when it doesn’t go away next week. Maybe.

My face is the story of my anger.

Today, I am an angrier person than I was six months ago. This doesn’t make me an angry person. By all accounts, I’m 4.7% angrier now than I was back in November. My anger quotient risen only a fraction of a percentage each day, not even a full percentage point in a week. It’s so subtle I didn’t even notice it myself for several weeks.

But now others are noticing. And they’re looking at me and wondering what’s going on, what’s wrong, what untold mystery would explain this increased anger...

Meanwhile, it’s grown enough that I can no longer dismiss it or ignore it, but I continue insisting, Just wait a few more days... it’ll go away on its own... you treat it the wrong way and the damn thing will just get inflamed...

But the doubt is there, in the back of my mind. Is it serious? Is it something worse than I’m willing to admit? Is it mere temporal annoyance or the sign of a Problem, a Situation?

Now I’m looking in the mirror every morning when I wake up, and every late evening when I’m going to bed, and I’m studying that rash, wondering whether it will continue spreading, remain fixed in its current state, or slowly begin to fade into the paleness of my flesh.

And I think of the older, grouchier, more miserable people I encounter daily, people beaten down and worn down and brought down by time and life, and I can't help but wonder if I've taken my first irreversible steps into some kind of transformation into an entirely different sort of person.

All the while, unable to know exactly when and how the rash began.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Ronald McDonald Is Laughing At You

Meat Puppets--"Damn Thing" (mp3)

He should be crying. He really should. After all, he's lost his latest chum, Pink Slime, supposedly and supposedly for good. Things should be really sad in McDonaldland, but I'm pretty certain that Ronald is still happy, still drawing rainbows in the air, still enjoying taking children and adults on trips to that magical place.

British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's recent expose of McDonald's use of massive quantities of ammonia to detoxify their "ground beef" made from multi-national scraps and beef waste has caused the fast food giant to back off from this practice. McDonald's says that this turn of events has nothing to do with Oliver's expose, but we're not stupid enough to believe that, are we?

So why is Ronald laughing? Well, a couple of things. Maybe a bunch of things. First, the use of ammonia to kill all of the bacteria in beef and chicken parts is something that the FDA does not require food producers to include in their labeling. McDonald's could use the ammonia to scrub their floors and then assume the chemical mix still had enough potency left to kill anything living and use that cloudy, grey mix to wash their beef. And they wouldn't have to tell you. Even if they said that they had stopped doing it, but didn't.

Second, McDonald's is the industry leader, and where they leadeth, others are following, so if McDonald's had been doing it, you can bet a bunch of others are doing the same thing and are still getting away with it, with no spotlight shining on them. Did you ever taste a ground beef patty from a fast food place with nothing else on it? What did it taste like? I'll tell you--it tastes like dead meat, nothing more. No taste. I'll bet McDonald's is getting a good chuckle out of that and out of all of the other practices that they are engaged in that Jamie Oliver didn't expose.

But mostly, Ronald is laughing at you because he thinks you're fucking stupid. No, not thinks. Knows. He knows that you're a fucking idiot. He knows that deep down you don't really care what you eat. You're an American, aren't you? He knows the millions of ways you find to trick your brain into eating food that Oliver says is not fit for a dog. You're in a hurry. You've always done it. You like the way it tastes. You don't know any better (or didn't). You want to save money. You want to stretch a meal. You've such a jones for ground beef that you think that if you buy it ground in a grocery store and cook it yourself that you're practicing safer and healthier habits than if you took your family to McDonald's (did you read the third paragraph?). Or that you heard something vague about the ground beef so you wisely get the chicken instead.

You're an American, right? Where it's cool to make fun of the French because they can't win wars (which ones have we won in the last 50 years?)? Well, the French have McDonald's, too, which they call "McDo's." But guess what? Their McDonald's serve cafe au lait and freshly-made baguettes. The ground beef in a McDonald's hamburger in France comes from single-source, grass-fed beef.

Pretty funny, eh? McDonald's meets the food standards of the country its stores are located in. For France, it's grass-fed beef, which is what cows are supposed to eat. For us, it's ammonia-drenched dog food. What France demands vs. what we will accept. There's more than one kind of war, mate.

And who's coming to the rescue? Not us. We're not saving ourselves. It's the British who are so repulsed by what they see happening here that one of them takes on a behomoth, multi-national corporation that completely has its way with our Food and Drug Administration. One of them uses his celebrity chef status to get on a bit of a soapbox for a food crisis that isn't even happening in his own country.

Meanwhile, we just shrug our shoulders. I show the Jamie Oliver video to my students; they aren't outraged. They're unmoved. They say things like "I like my ground beef, I don't care what's in it." After all, they're Americans. They'll eat it in open defiance just to show that they can do whatever they want to and damn the consequences.

And it goes way beyond unmoved. Already, after a decade or more of one food crisis after another, we have accepted the dangers in our food supply as a part of life that we can't do anything about. Some are even thinking, 'A decade of food crises? What is he talking about?'

So, yeah, I think Ronald is having a good chuckle, because he knows that he can absorb the loss of any little battle, the brief attention of any little do-gooder food crusader who writes a book or makes a movie or airs a foreign television show, and still do pretty much whatever he wants to. Fry his fries in beef tallow for years and sell those fries to unsuspecting vegetarians? Yeah, he can do that. Shape fatty pork pieces into the shape of a rack of ribs, drown it in bbq sauce, and put it on a bun? Yeah, we'll buy that. Because he knows that, ultimately, he's an American company and we're an American people and, more than anything, we will find comfort in his American brand and celebrate the iconic shit food he's served us for 60 years like it's a symbol of American pride. And he's more than happy to use that against us.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Party Crashers

Unsafe At Any Speed - Nina Gordon (mp3)

You’re at this party. You’re knocking back a few drinks. The music is good. Conversation is at the perfect pitch, a healthy combination of friendly debate, life-sharing, and pop culture referencing. Everything about the night and the company hits the right notes.

And then he shows up.

Suddenly the party becomes about trying to avoid him. But you can’t, because he is the kind of guy who knows just how to screw up a good party.

Right as you’re backing away from a great conversation with a coworker’s spouse, he’s standing there, looking at you, his nose half a foot from your own. And he’s smiling and tipsy. And you try to return the friendly smile even though you’re cussing like a Tarantino movie inside.

“Don’t you think he could’ve picked out a better beer?” he asks. “I mean, Yuengling? Fat Tire is a much better beer for a party. This just makes him look cheap.”

“I didn’t even notice,” you say.

“And was anyone under the age of 35 even invited? Jesus, my church is younger than this crowd.”

You start looking around and counting the number of younger couples and wondering what he’s talking about.

“This party I was at last night? It kicked the shit out of this party,” he says. “I mean, every step you took, there was another hot girl standing right there. And they were horny, too, dude. I almost asked one of them to rub me a quick one right there in the hallway.”

“Um, you’re married, dude,” you say.

“Oh, c’mon, I’m totally kidding,” he says, elbowing you in the shoulder 20 times. “Well mostly kidding. Well mostly not. OK totally not... Just kidding!! Geez, you’ve totally lost your sense of humor.”

You try to casually insert yourself into some other conversation, but now this guy is like herpes, and he’s going wherever you go. And even if you sneak into the bathroom with the lame “I gotta pee” excuse, he’s hovering mere feet away from the door so you can’t sneak past.

We all know this guy. We all secretly suffer nightmares where we realize we are that guy, and we wake up in a cold sweat and praying to God to let us at least have enough self-awareness and social sense not to be that guy.


I just described the conservative movement in America circa 2012. I just described why I lean left.

The Clint Eastwood “Halftime in America” commercial was just about the only pitch I enjoyed on Sunday night, and it hit every note perfectly. It had grit, and it didn’t try to call piss rain, and it had the kind of stubborn pissed-off chip-on-the-shoulder version of hope that made Rocky Balboa run through Philly, the kind of hope that made Rudy play football for Notre Dame, the kind of hope that made Gene Hackman move to the middle of nowhere and coach the Hickory Huskers to a state championship.

Not for one minute, not a single minute, did I read politics into that ad.

Not, that is, until Monday morning. That’s when the party crasher showed up. Karl Rove and the Conservative Blabber Machine took to all forms of media (even CNN!) to announce that the ad was just a veiled Obama ad.

Are you shitting me??

Here I am enjoying a nice party, having a cool conversation with Clint fucking Eastwood, a lifelong Republican, about how this country is far from finished, about how the only way our country wins the game is to put our heads together in that gaddam locker room and work as a TEAM rather than an I or a ME. And man, I’m pumped. I’m psyched.

And then the party crasher shows up and tells me that liking that ad means I want to fellate Obama.

Well guess what, turdbreath? You’re wrong. My love of that ad has nothing, absolutely nothing, with being a Democrat. I didn’t support the Detroit bailout. I didn’t support the Wall Street bailout. I abhor the words “Too Big To Fail.”

But whether I supported it, whether Obama or Dubya set it in motion, whether it was the right thing to do, Detroit has made one helluva rebound.

I didn’t even think the ad was a way of saying “Thanks for the Bailout!” The ad’s not about the bailout. It’s about a comeback from the verge of death. The crux of the ad is here:
“All that matters now is what’s ahead. How do we come from behind? How do we come together? And how do we win? Detroit’s showing us it can be done...”
Countries the world over are burning in flames. Political leaders are shooting their own citizens by the hundreds and thousands. Europe is being dragged into a fiscal pit because of a few stubborn and clueless countries. And we can’t even agree that it’s OK to want American car companies to rebound? Is that where we are now? Is that how we forge ahead?

I disagreed with the Iraq war. I believed it was a terrible and rushed decision. But I promise you that never once did I wish death or failure on our soldiers or the plans. I was angry every step of the way about Make-Believe WMD, but once you’re in the damn thing, you gotta get out, and I was cheering for us to get out safely and securely.

But conservatives? Do they hate that America’s own damn car companies are making profit? They’re accusing the lifelong Republican and immortal asskicker known as Clint Eastwood of shilling for Obama! Are Amigos falling from the sky??

You wanna know why I lean left? Because I want to be with people who believe in a party instead of spending all their time griping about how much it sucks.

The Republican Talking Heads are the most humorless, stiff, unfun, annoying, unsociable and despicable kinds of party crashers.

Maybe one day the idiots in D.C. -- idiots of both political persuasions, mind you -- will figure out that few of us really care whether they’re an elephant or a donkey. We want them to be kickass bald motherfucking eagles, and we want them to fly in formation and make us a country instead of some mess of red and blue.

Clint -- here’s to you, buddy. You’re the kind of conservative I cheer for. You're a bald motherfucking eagle. I can’t wait 'til there are more of you.