Friday, March 30, 2012


Alice Cooper--"I'm Eighteen" (mp3)

We carry all kinds of numbers around in our heads--Social Security, passwords, birthdates, anniversaries, account numbers, numbers that have any kind of personal meaning. And thousands of other numbers.

I have an additional number: 18.

Each month, regardless of the number of days that it contains, I have a very particular goal: 18.

Eighteen, to me, is the minimum number of blogposts that Billy and I need to write each month in order to remain viable. I don't really know where the number came from, but if for some reason you are so inclined as to go back and check, you will discover that ever since a month maybe two or three years ago, we always have at least that many posts in every single month.

Eighteen blogposts a month means that, at a minimum, we will put up 216 different pieces of writing each year. For those of you following along on the math, that means that 59% of the days each year you can click on this blog and find something new that we have written. Again, I don't know why that is the benchmark. In other areas, grades, for example, 59% reprsents a pretty resounding failure. You ain't going to college on 59%.

Here's another way to look at it: 18 posts means that, in a typical month, Billy and I will both have written 2 posts each week and a little something extra, either a couple of pieces for the partial week of a 31 day month or the occasional extra inspiration that strikes us on a weekend or at some other random time. Two posts a week is the comfortable alliance that we have fallen into.

And, as you can probably tell, I'm struggling a bit right here to hit that ol' magic number for this month. And the days are running out. I'm sure there's probably little more boring than reading someone blogging about blogging and getting caught up in the trials of trying to keep something going that you check in on casually from time to time. Still, here we are together, right? Maybe? At least you like hearing the Alice Cooper song you haven't heard for a long time, right? Anyone? Bueller?

Want to know something even duller? One time, I counted the paragraphs in one of Billy's posts and I think he clocked in at 14 paragraphs. Now, he's a little bit more long-winded than I am (not a bad thing) so I concluded that I probably need to try to hit 12 paragraphs for the average length of my posts. So that's what that was based on and that's what I do. Sometimes I can get away with 10 if they're long, but I feel like I'm cheating a bit.

Yes, these are the kinds of mind games that you play when you are trying to keep something going, maybe especially in a month where days were lost to Spring Break, where days were lost to flu, where days were lost to anticipation of Spring Break and days were lost to the depressing realization that I had lost much of Spring Break to the flu. Such is life.

A writer of a daily column or a weekly column or even something as casual as this blog will tell you that the writing owns you, and not vice-versa. That's why I have that 18 in my head all the time. I've got a place that I have to get to, whether I feel any particular inspiration or not. Perhaps better put, I have at least 9 places I need to get to each month, and if sometimes those places are no more illuminating than this one, well, that's okay.

Perhaps even more, more boring to you, we are just about at a fuzzy milestone for this blog--1000 posts. I say fuzzy because right now we stand somewhere just short of that number or just beyond. The combination of posts that record companies have had us take down, that has taken down unilaterally, that I have taken down myself due to various panics and second-thoughts and my one super-clever ironic post which was still drawing a racist comment or two several time as year and all the posts that are still available for your reading pleasure puts us over 1000 by one count and short of that number by another count. I thought it would feel like more of a milestone.

Now, keeping going feels like more of a milestone to shoot for. If you ever want to buy us a beer, though, to celebrate the benchmark, Billy and I are game. And that, my friends, is 12 paragraphs. Done and done.

Thursday, March 29, 2012


Perish - Curve (mp3)
Fait Accompli - Curve (mp3)

Two years ago, our family celebrated the arrival of spring by stopping by Renaissance Park and sliding down those trademark hills on cardboard. We brought our newly-acquired Nikon SLR and took some of our most cherished family pictures. The slant of green hill against undisturbed blue skyline, isolating one child or all of them against a background of simple and almost pure colors, made it easier to feel like a professional photographer.

My son is now four. He is a nuclear reactor of excitable atoms eager to explode on the world around him at all times, which is to say he’s no different than most toddler boys.

This week, we decided to return to the scene of our great outing of two years ago, camera and cardboard in tow.

The minute he saw me sled down that hill, he wanted to be a part of it, so we trudged back up the hill together. I plopped him my lap, mostly ignored or downplayed his last-second misgivings about the stunt, and pushed us toward the pull of gravity.

Everything was great for the first 15 feet. Good acceleration; not too fast. But we began drifting toward a bald patch in the grass, and I knew we wouldn’t avoid it. The cardboard stuck on the dirt, but we continued our forward momentum. With so much momentum and not wanting to fall on my dear son, I picked him up in the crook of my left arm and attempted to slow myself by standing, but the additional weight in my arms carried me too strongly forward, and I knew we were doomed to fall.

By some mixture of luck and instinct, I was able to fall so that my shoulder and knee hit, and we rolled so that my son never actually hit the ground. When we came to a stop, he was screaming and crying, but the only damage done was a small bump on his forehead where my chin hit on one of the rolls.

He was back up and sledding down with his sisters mere minutes later.

I was left to lick my own paternal wounds -- the skinned knee and the bruised ego -- and I began mentally tallying up my moments of good fortune.

How much worse could that tumble have been?

What about the time, playing with my daughter, when I raised my head up from the ground and the back of my head slammed into the bridge of her nose? We had to go to the ER for that one.

What about when she, a newly-crawling infant, slipped through the cracked door to the basement and began tumbling toward me, step over step, as I was walking up with a load of laundry? I dropped the basket and caught her onesie as she fell off the side of the steps, some seven feet above the hard concrete basement floor.

Each daughter in her infancy fell in the pool dozens of yards away from me, yet I was somehow able to get to them quickly enough.

What about the untold number of moments I can’t even remember anymore, moments where the health of my children were at serious risk? Hell, how many brushes with death and calamity have passed by me and my children without us even knowing it, shooting stars we didn't look up to notice?

So lucky. So very lucky we’ve been. Life can turn on any dime, any random unfortunate happenstance can end it or alter it, yet we’re here.

Tumbles. Falls. Collisions.

Yet Healthy. Alive. Unscarred.

God? Luck? Destiny? Instincts and timing?

I do not know and never will. I only know sometimes I feel like we’ve gotten away with something.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Comments on Half-Baked Bread

Drive-By Truckers--"Everybody Needs Love" (mp3)
"How's it looking in there?"
"It's rising."
"Think it will get done?"
"If you'd quit opening the oven door."
"When can we eat it?"
"When it's done."
"When will that be?"
"There's no way of knowing. I know from the recipe when it's
supposed to be done, but you never know about the oven, they're all different, and I don't know how well we mixed it or if we let it rise long enough or if the yeast is strong and active."

This weekend, we, the teachers at my school, will engage in the semi-annual task of writing comments about all of our students. We will write about grades and homework and missed assignments and class participation and potential and disappointment and coasting and sliding and peaking at the right time and all of the good or bad things that students do.

It is thought to be an important task. The parents expect it. I guess we all expect. Once we--the collective adult world-- have those slips of paper with check boxes and terse paragraphs in our collective hands, we have some documentation that allows us to gauge the merits of the students we teach. We can use that info to take away cars or we can use it to give someone a chance in an AP class. We can quote those words in a student's letter of recommendation; we can use them to humiliate a boy at the dinner table. They can confirm what we think we know, if we think we need to know it. The words are ammunition. It is rarely known in advance what the gun will be used for.

I've been writing the comments, in one form or another, for 29 years. I have friends at other schools who have to write them more frequently than we do and in great depth. Clearly, it is thought to be an important task.

Here's what I'm thinking: once I get into the comment card writing zone this weekend, how's about I write a comment for each one of you who is in my life in some way? I'll do ratings of my wife, my children, my father, my brother, my friends, my bosses, my neighbors. Don't worry about the criteria: I'm more than capable of coming up with those unilaterally.

I'll be evaluating how I thought you did in New Orleans over the break, how much I thought you gave to the group timewise, how many drinks you bought me vs. how many you received from me. Quantitative stuff. Documented.
I'll be evaluating how well you took care of me while I had the flu or how you measure up to 5 society-derived standards for a good marriage.
I'll be evaluating, percentage-wise, how you're doing with meeting my hidden, unstated parental expectations.
I'll be evaluating the 5 biggest ways I think you screwed me up when I was a kid.
I'll be sending you clear messages about all of the ways you're not doing your job the way I think you should.
I'll be letting you know my insights on why we're not closer.

And when I'm finished, you can do the same for me!

It takes that kind of pushing to the extreme to see the barbarity of the act, doesn't it? Comment cards are, potentially, a brutal snapshot of a work-in-progress. Like marriage or friendship or any other lifelong journey. And comment cards are perhaps more whimsical, driven as they are by a deadline that always seems to come at the wrong time.

One time, a friend and I decided to write our comments directly to our students. Instead of "Jeff has a real problem completing assignments on time," we were writing things like "You haven't turned in a paper on time so far. Why don't you come by and let's talk about your strategies for breaking a writing assignment down into manageable parts." The comments were personal, open-ended, hanging in the air like the start of a conversation. And, they were wrong.

Comments, you see, are not for the students. They are not written for the children who sit in our classes and interact with us each day. No, they are for the parents. They are to give the parents clear indicators of how their children are doing. They show that the school is interested in communication and partnership. But, no matter how aware a student is of how poorly he is doing in my class, the negative comment card always seems to blindside him. Cheery and chummy in class, we then "tell it like it is" to his parents. And then try to resume the social contract in class. It's an odd disconnect.

So, it isn't really the drudgery of writing comments that bothers me, believe it or not. It's what I know about how they're often used and what I know about the person who is writing them. Which is me. And I know that the demands of time and of trying to say something different about each student can lead me to some strange remarks, remarks that I would have written differently had the student's last name fallen elsewhere in the alphabet or if I didn't have Mad Men calling me from another room.

Me, I'm in favor of a one-on-one conversation with each student. In a better world, I think we would write that comment together, since there would probably have to be one. Not sure how that would fit timewise into a school day because they couldn't all be done in a class period and some would need extended time to work some things out and there's material to be covered and all of that. But I do have hazy memories of, way back in grade school, sitting down with a teacher and being handed a report card and having her say some things to me about that report card and then being the one who handed that report card to my parents, armed and prepared with some knowledge of what it meant.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Drawn In Quarter II & III

This is the second and third in a series of observations about the kind of odd and random relationship glimpses one can get over just a single weekend hanging out in The French Quarter. Like snowflakes, these particular encounters are unique, yet the snowflakes manage to fall just the same with every trip... (Encounter #1 is here.) 

Encounter #2: The Hand In The Bar
I've Got a Flair - Fountains of Wayne (mp3)

One of our obligatory activities in New Orleans is to play a stupid golf game called Golden Tee while watching basketball in my favorite sports-themed bar.

As we play our silly game, there’s a group of five older guys and one seriously cute gal in her 20s. The dudes are clad in tuxes, and she’s wearing a black-and-white cottony spaghetti strap dress. While we’ve been playing, the guys have held a mock wedding between her and her much older boyfriend, and they’ve fashioned a wedding ring out of gold Mardi Gras beads. They even wrote up a marriage contract on a napkin while I was ordering up another round at the bar. I was asked to sign as a witness. It was all cute and amusing.

Here was another May-December situation where what I originally assumed was in jest turned out to be for real. They really were a couple, this cute gal who looked like Cat from “Mystic Pizza” and a curly-haired version of Kramer. “Bully for them,” I thought.

Next I see, they’re making out at the bar, a mere 10 feet from us. The other guys in their group have gone. She punctuates their kiss by taking his bottom lip in her teeth and pulling it. And then she’s biting into it. And then he’s yelping. She broke the skin. He’s got a bar napkin on his lip, and she’s laughing her ass off.

We finish another hole, and I look back over, and they’re making out some more, except now he’s got his arm entirely under her dress, and he’s doing things for her that just don’t seem appropriate within spitting distance of two dudes spending their evening playing a nerdy golf video game.

Yes, I realize it doesn’t exactly speak to my sterling spotless character that I had trouble looking away, but I rubberneck at car wrecks, too. Twenty minutes later, we’re done with our golf game, and they’re still at the bar, and I’m wondering why they’re not heading somewhere better.

But I know the answer. As the saying goes, drunk sex is like trying to pick a lock with a marshmallow.

Encounter #3: The Four Hurricanes
The Wind - Peasant (mp3)

My pals were headed for some fried chicken, and I was charged with meeting them, but first I had to stop and get us some Hurricanes. It had been a while since we’d partaken in this particularly nasty and toxic French Quarter delicacy, and it was time we punished ourselves by splitting a few of them between us.

As I walked into the first bar area, a comely young lady overburdened with four of the lovely red drinks was bumbling out the exit.

Much like Kool-Aid, Hurricanes are full of the kind of red dye that will forever tattoo and destroy most wardrobes. This poor gal was doomed. Wherever she was going with these four drinks, she was gonna arrive awash in red stains. I wasn’t in any hurry, so I asked her if she needed help.

“It’s OK. I’m just going next door with them.”

“That’s a long way. I really don’t mind.”

She thanked me and handed me two of the drinks. I followed her, and we quickly arrived at the Preservation Hall. I followed her through the packed crowd, where her friend and their two boyfriends awaited their drinks. When this young lady’s boyfriend saw me, he reacted in precisely the way you would expect an attractive young lady’s goopy-groomed boyfriend to react: “Who the fuck are you?”

“Well, I offered to help your girlfriend bring these drinks over here if she would do incredibly pornographic things with me in the bathroom first, and she agreed.”

I didn’t say that. But I thought it. I just handed him the two drinks and smiled politely and said sternly, “You’re welcome.”

The girl told her boyfriend to shut up and looked at me sweetly and thanked me.

I’m not sure what was the greater motivation for helping her: the desire to do something small and kind and unselfish for a cute young lady, or the hope that I’d be delivering the drinks to a couple of self-esteem-challenged beefcakes who view every male as a swordfight waiting to happen.

As I walked back to Pat O’Brien’s, I prayed my contribution to her life was to give her that one additional straw on the camel's back that would help convince her to move on and find someone decent. Prayers in the Quarter rarely fall on sympathetic ears, but it couldn’t have hurt.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Not-So-Young Adult Fiction

Ceremony--"Adult" (mp3)

There's a tangible shift that has occurred in the genre known as "Young Adult Literature," or YAL. It isn't that the literature itself has changed so much (more on that in a minute), but that the concept of "young adult" has changed, at least in terms of readership. High school students and college students and, yikes, even real live adults are reading YAL these days! What gives?

If you think about it, the label was always wrong to begin with. Young adult literature aimed at precocious 12-year olds and socially-savvy younger teens? I understand the target group, but not the label. Those are not young adults. They are "pre-adults," in some cases, "pre-teens." Now, I don't know much, if anything, about the book industry, so I can only speculate that the original thought was create a category that could titillate younger readers with more adult themes.

Maybe it doesn't even matter. But I was, indeed, a young adult reader once myself. I can remember people around me in middle school (which we called "junior high" back then), people I would term "pre-hippies," just to add another label, reading Go Ask Alice, that anonymous memoir of debilitating drug use that we could never figure out whether it was supposed to be cautionary or cool. I'm guessing both. I can remember us carrying around copies of The Outsiders with similar confusion. After all, our upscale suburb made us the "Socs" in the context of that book; the gritty heroes from broken homes in that book would have had to come from the working class area one town closer to the city.

The many decades that passed between my time and my daughters' time in that demographic don't seem to have altered the genre that much. Superstars like Judy Blume and Gary Paulsen and Robert Cormier added their own classics, but their books were read (and taught) by most youngers readers in their 6th-9th grade years. My daughters read some of those writers on their own and were required to read some of the socially/historically-conscious ones in their schools--Out Of The Dust and The Watsons Go To Birmingham, 1963 come to mind. And that should have been it, except......

Except that they haven't left it, and they're now 19 and 22. Except that I have high school senior boys saying to me, "Sorry, sir, I didn't read last night. I picked The Hunger Games and read it cover to cover. I couldn't put it down." An 18-year-old boy at an all-boys school admitting that he'd spent the night reading a book by a female author with a female main character? Clearly, something has changed.

In fact, I bought my older, recently-graduated-from-college daughter a YAL book for her Christmas stocking. I can't remember the name of it--it was the first in a series of books about immortals or undead immortals or immortal vampires or wizards or magicians that span the centuries or something. I'm not being dismissive; just commenting that this new series was clearly playing off of the successes of the Harry Potter books and the Twilight books and everything else that they have already spawned in both young adult and adult fiction.

The funny thing about the YAL book I bought my daughter last Christmas: one of the blurbs on the cover described it as "sexy."

I suppose that's the shift right there, eh? There's nothing "sexy" about Mathilda or Holes or My Side Of The Mountain or Holocaust stories or Civil Rights movement stories, or stories about gangs fighting or drug stories. But once that little angle was inserted the first time, whenever that was, then the whole thing changed. Or else it was a reaction, a realization that the readership was skewing older and that it was okay to go in that direction.

I have no idea when it started; I'm guessing somewhere around the emergence of Lois Duncan's book. Or, at least, her books as movies. Her books, like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Killing Mr. Griffin had coed groups of teens grappling with situations that, while relatively dangerous and non-sexual, (basic plot: groups of teens accidentally kill someone and must deal with the fallout) still provided the shell plots of movies that were far more graphic and focused on violence and allowed Hollywood to introduce beautiful young stars.

That may not be where it started, but it does capture the basic cause and effect. In effect, young adult books spawned not-so-young adult film versions of themselves which, in turn, paved the way for young adult novel writers writing books with an eye toward having their books turned into those not-so-young adult films. Like the Twilight series. Or the Hunger Games series.

At the younger end of the age spectrum, I talked with 6th graders in front of my house tonight who are faithful readers and who evaluate the movies like an English teacher--how faithful was it to the book? That's what they wanted. Faithfulness. But at the other end, I heard true young adults a couple of nights ago worried that the movie wouldn't be able to capture the true violence contained in the pages of The Hunger Games; they seek a different kind of verisimilitude, the kind that age and pop culture experience brings where they want the story to be true to its realistic implications. If the story is going to be about a battle to the death, regardless of who it's aimed at, let's see that carried out on the screen.

And behind all of that now are the Hollywood subplots. Will Jennifer Lawrence become the next "IT" girl? Will R Pat and Kristen ever marry? Daniel Radcliffe? Emma Watson? Will they have careers?

What happens is that the movie culture overwhelms the book culture, except, perhaps, for the youngest readers. But the young readers also want to see the movies, because the movies get all the hype, but they can only see the movies if an adult takes them and the movie is going to have to be rewarding for the adult, as well. And suddenly, the adults begin weighing in on the movies as well, have their own expectations of what the movies should be, respond to the sexual tensions of the movies (or at least to the physical beauty of the actors) in ways their younger children do not and cannot, get reeled into reading the books or seeing the next movies maybe, eventually, without their children, working off of some mixed fantasy of movie actors and book characters. And we end up with this very strange cultural phenomenon where everybody can get what they want out of it, book------>movie, and none of us quite know where we are, but we have a sense, don't we, those of us who are not young adults, that the whole thing probably feeds an aspect of our society that isn't healthy. While writers dream and try to conceive the next series that can draw in children first, eventually draw in all of us, and make them ungodly rich.

I don't know. The whole thing just makes me kind of uneasy.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Standing My Ground

Angel with a Shotgun - The Cab (mp3)
Overkill - Jump, Little Children (mp3)

You walk past my car. It’s dusk, right about the time when people are up to no good.

You keep looking at the houses, with their lights on, with the innocent people living peacefully inside. They don’t deserve your glances; they deserve to be left alone.

I’m sitting in my car because I keep this neighborhood safe. I protect it from people like you. It’s my job, except I don’t get paid for it. I do it because I’m dedicated, because I value safety, because these people deserve a guardian.

Oh yeah, and I keep a gun handy. Just in case. Damn straight.

So when you kept scouting our houses and talking on your cell phone, what was I supposed to think? That you were just talking to your girlfriend? Fuck no. It’s perfectly reasonable for me to assume you were calling your gangter pals and telling them the addresses and descriptions of the homes you thought best-suited for a late-night smash-and-grab.

You’re black, right? Since when do black kids with hoods walk through my neighborhood without some kind of nefarious motive? I sit out here all the time on the lookout, and I don’t ever see black kids.

So I call 911, like a good citizen. But I’ve got that gun in my lap, and I’m stroking it like a beloved housecat. It wants to be warm. This is the moment I’ve trained for. This is why I’m sitting in my car night after night.

The emergency operator tells me the cops are coming, but you and I both know that’s a load of shit. Even Flava Flav knows 911 is a Joke. “Call a cab ‘cause a cab’ll come quicker,” Flav says, and he’s right. By the time a cop arrives, your joker ass is back in the hood with your hooded brothers. Next thing we know, you’re back with numbers, and you’re causing chaos in my neighborhood.

Now you’re checking me out. You’re walking through our neighborhood -- our collective backyard, our collective property -- and looking at me like I’m the suspicious one. How dare you, you little piece of shit. I’m just sitting in my car, motherfucker. What you gonna do about it? I’m ready for your gangsta ass.

Shit. You’re walking away. One more bad guy about to get away. I can see the headlines now, and the story is the same as always: “We coulda stopped these crimes, but everyone ignored the Neighborhood Watch guy’s warnings. If the cops had arrived post-haste, this criminal would have been arrested. Instead, lives and property have been lost because good men did nothing.”

That’s not gonna be my story.

So hell yeah, I get out of my car. You’re not getting out of my sights. No one’s getting away with anything tonight. Justice will be served, motherfucker.

The 911 operator tells me not to pursue. Yeah thanks. Your lawyers make you tell me that stuff? So that you’re protected? Don’t worry. I won’t sue the city if something bad happens. I’ve got a gun, and I’m not scared of a punk. But thanks for the warning. Hope you feel better, sitting there behind your terminal.

You keep looking back at me, punk. Yeah that’s right motherfucker, I’m on your ass. You’re not getting away with jack shit tonight. I’m gonna have you up against a wall and waiting patiently for the cops when they show up in God knows how long.

Your pace picks up. You know I know, and you’re scared. I patiently maintain my distance, but my heartbeat is kicking in like a bitch. I’m so nervous and excited that I’m licking the beads of sweat from my upper lip, and the salt tastes like blood.

Suddenly you cut into a backyard. Fuck yeah it’s on now. I’ve got you panicked. This is it.

When I come around the corner, you’re waiting. I hear you saying something on the phone before you hang it up. Something about how you’re not gonna run. That’s right. Don’t run, you little shit. You’re not getting away anyway, so might as well get what’s coming to ya.

“Why you following me?” your dumb ass asks. Yeah, nice try. Don’t turn this shit on me. I’m the good guy. And I’m not afraid of your black ass.

The words escalate. You come at me. You know the only way you’re avoiding prison is to attack me. I yell “HELP!” But I know I’ve got my help right here with me.

Scuffle. Gun. Shot. Dead bad guy. Hero stands.

Thank God for the Florida law that protects the heroes, the Pale Riders of the Florida sage. I stood my ground. I protected myself. He got what he deserved.

Sure, all you smart people with your perfect hindsight, go ahead and judge me. Question why I got out of the car and followed him after being told not to. Question why I carry a gun when Neighborhood Watch instructs against it. Question why I suspected evil from a squeaky-clean 17-year-old boy holding Skittles and a soda. Question whatever the hell you like. Easy for you. But I’ve got the law and the NRA on my side. I’ll sleep well tonight, and I'll be armed.

Black boy shoulda kept running. Or better yet, he shoulda stayed the fuck out of my neighborhood. Then he’d still be alive, and I wouldn’t have to stay in hiding from all these lefty softies in the media who think I'm the bad guy.

It’s all his fault.

Author’s Note: The above is fiction. Anyone under the impression that the author sympathizes with the shooter in this story needs to reread it or wake up.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Led Zeppelin--"Sick Again" (mp3)

I tried my damnedest not to get sick for Spring Break. It didn't work. I'd already been sick all of winter break and came off of last year's winter break with pneumonia, so I was paranoid and determined. My combination of strategies:

1. I built up my immune system with Emergen-C, this daily multi-vitamin/mineral dosage that dissolved in a glass of water each breakfast and felt like I was drinking a shield.
2. I became a handwashing fiend, especially knowing that there were a variety of illnesses going around school, some pretty nasty plus the late-arriving flu.
3. Most amazingly, I eschewed all public food. The pretzel jar in my office, no thanks. The snacks I brought for advisees on Thursdays, no, you all go ahead.
4. And, I didn't overdo it. I went into winter break exhausted; I had worked through all exhaustion with a good week and a half or so before this break. No stress. No crises. No big challenges. The slowest time period since before Christmas. And well-rested.

What I didn't count on was myself.

No one knows where we pick up something like the flu, but we certainly all like to speculate. We like to be able to zero in on the exact person who gave it to us, maybe to tack on a little blame, but more likely to give some logic to why we find ourselves sick. As if it were that easy, that preventable.

As the sick person who has been infecting the rest of the world for the past five days, not with any intention or malice, I am here to tell you that it is nothing more than luck that keeps you from getting sick, unless your personal habits are so fastidious as to have people recommending you for a side role in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest or your immune system is stoked as high as my dad's because you eat the way he eats. And other things. Which I doubt.

Because otherwise you cannot account for the invisible me who has come and gone before you and whom you consequently don't think about, except in rare establishments that remind you. I am the guy with the high fever and, therefore, highly contagious flu who used the pen before you at the motel desk, who handed change to the cheerful woman at Chick-Fil-A's drive-thru, who used the gas nozzle before you or the door to the water and juice in the convenience store. I am the guy who was in the bathroom, the guy who screwed and unscrewed the Heinz ketchup bottle in the restaurant, whose fingers may or may not have touched the lemons sitting there for iced tea, the guy who coughed or sneezed, held the same door for you that you held for someone else on the way out. I touched potatoes, squeezed avocados looking for ripe ones (it took awhile), searched through the pork chops, moved the orange juice to find the one in the back with the latest expiration date. And when I had it all, I checked out myself, pushing buttons on screens and touching scanners all over the place.

In my own house, I can't even keep track, though I've tried my best, using tongs, and towels and whatnot. But with everyone working, who's going to load and unload the dishwasher? One has had the flu shot; one hasn't. So we're playing a game of chance. But, trust me, no one wants this flu.

Oddly, I've also been reading Worm by Mark Bowden, as a potential summer reading book for next fall. Finished it today. It's the story of the informally-bound group of men who worked together to try to stop the "Conficker" Worm about three years ago.

Though filled with technical language, it's a pretty thrilling story of the race against time to stop the third unleashing of the worm, Conficker C, with both the behind the scenes and public responses to that crisis.

As cautionary as cautionary tales get, it also opens up a world that most of us could conjure up only vaguely, maybe with the ability to still name one virus and the thought that a worm and a virus are the same thing and the thought that our computers are protected from malware, which is only an annoyance anyway,right? and the thought that our government must be way on top of cyber-security (though Obama is light years ahead of his predecessor--big surprise). Even those of us who think we are somewhat techno-savvy don't really know or want to know how the whole Internet or internal computer thing works.

It's kind of like the flu. If you get it, sucks for you. If you don't, you and I like to believe that it's something we did, ran some Ad-Ware or Symantec program that saved us or updated when our tech people told us to update that saved us. We think that identity theft is carelessness, or, perhaps more reassuringly, randomness. Maybe so, but the odds are increasingly not working in our favor.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Drawn In Quarter I: Krystal Love

Love the Way You Walk Away - Blitzen Trapper (mp3)

This is the first in a series of observations about the kind of odd and random relationship glimpses one can get over just a single weekend hanging out in The French Quarter. Like snowflakes, these particular encounters are unique, yet the snowflakes manage to fall just the same with every trip...

I stood in the line for a 2 a.m. Krystal at the end of Bourbon Street. Because I’m a little bit heavier than I would like, I was determined to be responsible in my drunken cravings and only order two. Because I’m principled like that, yo.

In line to my aft were two women and a man spanning several decades, and a group of fratters behind them. Lines at the Bourbon Street Krystal are like a box of chocolates: you never know what disposition you’re going to get... you only know it will be pickled.

The bottle blonde woman in a flower dress too short for her age or shape was approaching 50, maybe even slightly over, but she seemed cheerful enough. The brunette was younger, maybe even in her early 30s, and behind them stood a man who hovered around 60 with slicked back mostly salted hair.

The brunette was pretty cute, and the fratters immediately radar locked on her. After a few brief exchanges, the lead fratter with Timberlakey curls said, “So is it fun coming to Bourbon Street with your parents?”

“Fu** you motherfu***r,” was her swift reply.

Now, I’m not one to defend a fratter. In general, guys who earn the immediate moniker of “fratter” are guys whose aggressive assholishness begs spite. Their syrupy smugness, the way they siphon joy by demeaning and belittling everyone who didn’t pledge with them, is the reason God made me mousy and lanky, because if I were a bigger guy more inclined to vigilantism, I’d be in jail or dead.

But in this brief moment, this Fratter's comment was sans spite. In fact, I had assumed the same thing. Who wouldn't? He was easily 20+ years older!

Between foul words, the brunette explains that this old man is her husband. The blonde is his ex-wife. And no motherfu***r she’s not kidding, and yes you sumbish he’s 20 times the man of all you motherfu***rs.

The blonde was just starting to realize they thought she was this potty-mouthed gal’s mother instead of her former or current competition, so her dander was getting up, too. The old guy, on Bourbon with his child bride and his significantly-younger ex-wife, just stood there shaking his head, because surely he’d heard all this before, and if he hadn’t, he knew it was coming eventually.

Then the fratter remembered he was a fratter, so he spoke Asshole: “That sh*t’s fu**ed up, sister. You got daddy issues ‘n’ sh*t.”

It got louder. Opposing noses got closer together. Language got even saltier.

The poor Krystal employees long ago stopped paying attention to it. The security guard at the door never even batted an eye.

I confess, however, that all this conflict made those two Krystals taste better.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Pilgrimage (pronounced the R.E.M. way, "pil-grim-ahje")

Enda Gallery--"Once I Go" (mp3)

Yep, it's that time of year again, when boys will be boys and men will not exist, except in their physical forms, their bodies inhabited by boys. Because the boys will be going back to New Orleans one more time.

How many years has it been? I really have no idea. Maybe 9 or 10. Maybe fewer. This could also be the last time. Our friend from out-of-town has taken a new job with new duties and new vacations, and he won't be able to make this Spring Break pilgrimage any more. He'll want to go at a different time of year, but I fear that it won't be the same at a different time of year. Our bodies are tuned for a brief, muggy respite in the middle of March. The one time we messed with this schedule, said friend paid for it by puking in a hotel room the whole time. I guess you just don't mess with the Gods of Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler. You stick with what works.

But, no matter. At some point, this has to end anyway, for one reason or another. Whatever that reason is, it will not be good. Count on it. Just don't speculate about it. And don't dwell on it.

In a way, though, that's the whole point, isn't it? Three days where caution goes to the wind, and along with it goes time and age and responsibility and obligation and conflict and disappointment. Three days where memories are all good and friendships resolidify the second that two hands shake, two men hug.

What's on the agenda? Well, pretty much the usual--Commander's Palace, NCAA basketball, The Chart Room, Bourbon Street, Acme Oyster House, a killer po-boy or muffuletta somewhere, a late-night gut bomb somewhere else, a St. Patrick's Day parade or two, a meandering trip in the car so we can claim we were outside the Quarter. A lot of walking down the same streets we always walk. A lot of the same kinds of jokes, the same hacking, the same banter that we always engage in. In a way, though, that's the whole point, isn't it? When we only have 3 days, we aren't likely to do a whole lot of branching out; we know what we like, what works for us, what makes us happy, what is rife with memories, and we're going to go back to those places.

And the money adds up. New Orleans is one of those cities where you start out a night with so much money in your pocket, and when you take stock the next day, you really don't have a clear idea of where most of it might have gone. Oh, you have a pretty good idea, but you have no way to nail down the particulars. Chances are it went to something you never intended to do in the first place when you set out for the evening, and it was spent in an establishment you never thought you would enter. New Orleans is that kind of "Oh, what the heck, let's try absinthe" city. It's a "Mexican food? Here in the Quarter? That's so weird. Let's get some" city. Or a "Who cares if it's a gay bar? We're only going in for a beer" city.

Yeah. So.

Adam Gopnick, in his book, The Table Comes First, says that the first thing a man does when he comes into a new city is to figure out where he's going to eat. New Orleans is that in spades. There/here (as you're reading this, I fully expect to be walking these beloved streets) the biggest challenge is not where to eat, it's how to eat at all of the places that you want to eat at. You love the places that you've been, and so you want to go back, but in between this trip and your last trip, everybody and his brother has told you about a whole new list of places where you should eat, and so you spend your brief New Orleans days in a kind of panic between want and should.

Funny thing about New Orleans: before Hurrican Katrina, it had 800+ restaurants. Then it lost a good percentage of its native population. But it kept adding restaurants anyway. Now, with a significantly smaller population, New Orleans has 1200+ restaurants. Go figure. Or come down and it won't be hard to figure at all.

One of the phrases I hate most in the English language is "to die for." Except for the Nicole Kidman movie of that name which is pretty damn good. People will change the intonation of their voice when they use that phrase, using all of these weird emphases, as in, "That dessert is to die for." Yeah, well, no, it isn't. It's just a piece of gooey chocolate.

And, friend, all I will say is this: that ain't New Orleans. Above all else, New Orleans is to live for. It is that one place within reach that justifies a yearly longing that starts about October and just gets worse and worse, the closer we get to March and Spring Break. Usually, I go after Christmas. This year, I didn't. I have been miserable.

We talk from time to time of going other places, but why would we? Charleston and Savannah are wonderful cities in their own rights, but if you know New Orleans and then you go to them, you will quickly see that they draw heavily from their Louisiana counterpart and not vice-versa. Plus, they're too damn tidy. New Orleans is sloppy and casual and just plain slack. It can piss you off when you're trying to take care of hotel business; it can seem like a miracle when you just grab a drink and start walking. These are lifestyle decisions, not tourism ones. Las Vegas may well be more decadent than New Orleans, but it's manufactured and all of its great eating is imported from places like New Orleans or L.A.

I heard a person today say that New Orleans was the "most un-American American city," and I knew what he meant and he meant it positively, but, really, it's just the opposite. It's the city that saves America. From itself. It's the city that won't let you bring your hang-ups and your preconceptions to it, because it really doesn't care about those. It's the city that transcends America. And when you're here, you only care about one thing--that you're in New Orleans.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Battle of the Network Inner Termoil

Cars - Gary Numan (mp3)
One Small Year - Shawn Colvin (mp3)

We sat on the couch in the darkness of our living room, the glow of the TV flickering over us, and we were happy.

On the TV, in glorious low-def technicolor, was an episode of Battle of the Network Stars from May of 1982. The unforgettable Howard Cosell called the shots, women wore few undergarments, and men made unflinchingly sexist comments. And we were happy.

We watched all 90 minutes, not daring to change the channel during commercials lest that soothing Nyquil rush of nostalgia be ruined by a 24-hour news network or, even worse, one of the channels that have become better at making nighttime programs than the networks.

Catherine Bach (aka Daisy Duke) taught Joan Collins (aka Dynasty's queen bitch) how to throw a ball for the dunking contest. Douglas Barr and Mark Harmon are considered high-quality hunks and have almost no muscle definition in their pecs or abs. Heather Thomas of "The Fall Guy," donning a headband, looked exactly like Bret Michaels from Poison... but was still hot as ever-lovin’ hell. Nancy McKeon -- “Jo” from “Facts of Life” -- was 16 and catching passes in a 3-on-3 game of touch football.

Simpler times.

I’m not a doomsayer or a Debbie Downer, so I don’t believe times get harder, or meaner, or tougher, necessarily, but they sure as hell get more complicated. Not only does technology continue to send explosions of change like an Independence Day fireworks spectacular across our timelines, but it happens at the same time that we, with each aging year, become less adaptable, less swift of mind. Slower.

If we’re truly on the Information superhighway, then the speed limit is always increasing. If it was in the 30s at the start of my lifetime, we're in the 90mph range now. Meanwhile, I’m getting closer to that age where I have to start putting a pillow on the driver’s seat just to be comfortable because of my achy back and hemorrhoids, and I hunch over the steering wheel and struggle to even approach the speed limit as all those careless damn whipper-snappers roar past me.

Things move ever faster; we get slower; the problem compounds.

But the loss goes deeper. We’ve lost so much of our common language about pop culture, and it dwindles bit by bit every year.

In 1981, DALLAS averaged a 28.4 rating. That was down from “I Love Lucy’s 67.3 average in 1952, down from “All in the Family” in the low 30s during the early ‘70s. But it’s miles ahead of the highest ratings of the 21st Century, where “American Idol” is the best we can do, and it barely breaks a 17. (Have fun playing this game:

In other words, with each generation, the common language of pop culture gets cut in half.

Even if you didn’t watch “The Dukes of Hazzard,” you by God knew who Daisy Duke was, or else you were Amish. But now? You could line up 10 actresses, and most of us couldn’t even name which network they were on, much less which specific show, and the men are hardly any different.

It's not that 1981 was better, but we have lost something precious. We probably traded it for something superior, ultimately. But knowing that my Chevy Traverse is by far the best car we’ve ever owned doesn’t prevent me from missing my first car, that ratty ‘82 Corolla hatchback. Likewise, knowing 2012 is mostly better than 1981 doesn’t keep me from missing that simpler time.

More choices, fewer commonalities. One more reminder of The Paradox of Choice. We have more channels, more really great TV shows, and more ability to record and preserve and watch what we wish, yet something about the simplicity of three channels, three choices, and knowing that if you missed it, you missed it.

In a strange and confusing twist, its awkward to find yourself too heavily immersed in past television, yet it’s completely normal and acceptable -- often cool -- to sink obsessively, even exclusively, into old music.

Gotta go. The Tug of War finale is coming up after the break! And then I've gotta catch up on Laff-A-Lympics...

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Meal

Given the dearth of recent comments, I feel liberated to indulge the frustrated food blogger inside of me once again:

Book Club--"Meal Of Dreams" (mp3)

Sunday lunch. Something strange happened. Maybe something revelatory. My daughter was the one who noticed it.

There wasn't that much on the table--soup, three open-faced sandwichs, a bowl of cut-up strawberries, three glasses of water. My daughter said, "This is the way people are supposed to eat."

I didn't know immediately what she meant. I expected a plea for a complete transition to vegetarianism, maybe a push for a weight-loss diet. "How do you mean?" I asked, tentatively.

"Look at all this. We know what every single thing that we're putting in our mouths is, where it came from."

I realized that she was right. The meal was unusual in that regard. Short of milling the flour for the bread and refining the sugar on the strawberries, I had pretty much made everything. It kind of gave me chills, like centuries had suddenly dropped away and I was stuck out on a farm or prairie somewhere making everything from scratch. But it kind of felt good, too. But that really isn't the point. The point, as always, is that anyone can do the same thing.

The soup was a carrot soup, literally nothing but carrots and water with a good bit of onion and some ginger, curry, salt and pepper. It was supposed to have cilantro oil or something like that to drizzle over it, but I didn't get to it and it didn't need it.

The sandwich was, admittedly, several steps, but none of them difficult:

The bread was wheat flour, white flour, buttermilk, a little butter, a little sugar, salt, and yeast mixed in a bread machine and allowed to rise and baked.

Atop the bread was homemade ricotta cheese, nothing more than whole milk brought to a temperature of 190 degrees, then removed from heat and 3 Tablespoons of lemon juice added per quart of milk. It's allowed to rest for 5 minutes, then strained for an hour or so.

Atop the ricotta was pesto, pesto from last summer that I had put into an ice cube tray and frozen into handy pieces. This pesto was nothing more than basil I had grown, garlic, olive oil, parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. Not even nuts.

Layered on the pesto were strips of roasted red pepper. Nothing easier/tastier in the world. You simply cut the peppers in half, put them on a baking sheet under a broiler until they're black, then get some tongs and toss them in a plastic bag for 20-30 minutes, after which the skins pull off pretty easily. Then slice them up, toss them with a little olive oil, salt, pepper, maybe lemon and that's it.

Yes, there is something very satisfying about making everything that there is to be made. And, yes, then you do know everything that you're putting into your body. The other good news is that when you make any of the things I've mentioned above, you can't help but make more than you're going to use, so you've likely made enough to do it all again or, maybe better, to have some ingredients for some other dishes: ricotta for lasgne. Me, I cut up the rest of those roasted red peppers, sauteed them in olive oil with some garlic and green onion (which grew again from last year's garden) and pureed them in a blender with some of the leftover ricotta cheese for a delicious, different tasting pasta sauce.

If only I could distill my urine into drinking water, I'd be totally set, eh?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Click v. Act

A Change Is Gonna Come - Ben Sollee (mp3)
With My Own Two Hands - Jack Johnson feat. Ben Harper (mp3)

“Your mouth runs faster than your mind.”

The relatives of mine who said this often aimed it at me in my adolescence. It was their way of trying, often in vain, to get me to think and process before allowing words to emerge from betwixt my impulsive lips.

We now live in a culture that has all but given up trying to slow things down or mull things over. The immediacy of our world does not allow us to value contemplation. To mull things is to fall behind.

This new reality played out once again last week when, in the course of just three days, a video called “Kony 2012” surpassed 40 million views. The speed of its virality, thanks to Facebook, was unprecedented, certainly for something that aimed to send an activist-type message.

Invisible Children is a demigod of modern activism. Begun in the fires of the Internet 2.0, they knew that internet video combined with Facebook and a small troupe of young travelers could quickly enlarge their support group, mostly with young WASPs destined to fight one another for a spot in The One Percent.

They sell DVDs and bracelets and superkewl varieties of schwag, all aimed at getting your money while giving you the simultaneous feeling of having bought something cool yet also being an Aware Global Citizen.

Nothing is more promising to a group like Invisible Children than a white college sophomore sitting at his computer playing WoW and thinking, ever so briefly, “Geez, I sure wish there was something I could do to fix all the problems in the world.” In steps Invisible Children to say “Well, there is! And you don’t even have to stop playing WoW for too long! Just watch this video, buy a bracelet, and you’ve done your part!”

IC has visited the school where I work on at least three separate occasions in the past few years. The first time they came, I was blown away by them. Their video was a perfect combination of homemade and masterfully produced and edited, a sort of Blair Witch Charity Project where overhead shots pan down on piles of children sleeping on top of one another in crowded rooms.

By the third time, things were getting a little fishy, or careless, or something. The main presenter looked like he had just finished a 10-year stint as a doped-out Deadhead, and what used to feel like clever attempts at fundraising felt like bad Super Bowl commercials filtered through a megachurch. And it wasn’t just me who felt it. The students did, too. It seemed clear to many of us that they had somehow overgrown their original hopes and become so big as to prioritize the success of their own brand over their causes for Africa.

To be fair, my cynicism is a tad bit unfairly harsh, although the magnifying glass is about to get a lot warmer for them. Both The Atlantic Wire and FastCoExist -- and untold dozens of other media outlets -- have offered fascinating and fairly even-handed explorations of the heat and light surrounding Invisible Children and KONY 2012, and reasonable minds seem only able to conclude that there’s room for skepticism but also room to believe IC is genuinely trying to and succeeding at running one amazingly successful awareness campaign after another.

We are a culture born to be cynical of quick success. Winning lotteries, marrying celebrities and going viral on YouTube all tend to evoke cultural backlash as the jackals sniff for blood and injury, for weaknesses to scavenge. So it was with the blowback on Invisible Children.

Not to brag, but I work for a school where we do activism and community service far more right than we do wrong. We do not require student participation, but we do require those who participate to take ownership and responsibility. Inevitably at times, teachers and adults have to help more than we claim, with planning, phone calls, scheduling. But plenty of times the teens are invested and passionate enough to do much of it themselves.

And then they show up and give their time and get their proverbial hands dirty. Building. Tutoring. Playing. Praying. Walking or running. Washing or clothing. Often in town, but also numerous times each year in other states and other countries.

I can’t prove it, but in my heart I know that the teens who take part in our programs gain a much richer sense of the challenges and struggles of the less fortunate than they could ever get by clicking trivia questions to send grains of rice.

If we’re not careful, clicktivism risks crippling activism, with the key base words being “Click” overtaking “Act.” I’m no technophobe or luddite, but I’ll never be convinced that the humans in WALL-E could make as much of a positive difference in the world of the needy and suffering as people who get out of their houses, roll up their sleeves, and work with, for, alongside those in need.

Taking the human touch out of activism does more harm than good.

Food Ain't Racist

Henry + The Invisibles--"Soul Shaker" (mp3)

Interesting situation at our school a couple of weeks ago: a lunch menu at the end of Black History Month chosen by our African-American organization included the following: barbecued chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, black-eyed peas, sweet cornbread, sweet potato pie and peach cobbler. And Kool-Aid. Left off the menu due to expense and the need to limit the menu: ribs, yams, extra-greasy fried chicken.

The dining hall asked me to send the menu around. They have had bad experiences in the past when they mess with the normal expectations. So I did. I had the menu sent out. I gave the boys credit for it.

And then the questions started coming. "Have you seen that menu?" "Who picked that menu?" "Why did they send that menu out? It's so racist."

Well, I may be in the minority now and I may still be at the end of this post, but I am here to tell you that food isn't racist. Food is neutral. Food is sustenance. I imagine that those statements make me naive. Which is not to say that food cannot be stereotypical or that food doesn't come with history. Or that food doesn't cause shame. I get that. If you had to eat hog intestines or Hamburger Helper without the hamburger or rice sandwiches, then, yes, I understand that you might be embarassed.

But our boys were requesting foods that they were really excited about eating. Were until their menu put them under the scrutiny of their classmates and teachers. Then they backed away from the menu quickly, pretended like they had nothing to do with it. Sending around the menu was a bad idea, I suppose. A naive idea certainly.

But that naivete, if true, comes from my honoring food. I pride myself on my ability to cook from all cultures, to respect those cultures by respecting their food, by wanting to gain some understanding of their food. I have friends who are the same way. I "barbecue" chicken all the time. Don't you? I have friends who seek the perfect mac 'n cheese. I served collard greens at my Christmas meal. I have a no-fail recipe for black-eyed peas, zipper peas, pink lady peas, crowder peas. Every summer when they come in fresh at Linda's Produce, I buy many different varieties and freeze them. My cornbread sucks and I know it. I'm always trying to make it lowfat. Peach cobbler, well, in my book, that depends completely on the peaches.

Last Saturday night, after picking up a random food magazine from last year while in the bathroom, I became entranced with Russian cooking. I knew nothing about it, was surprised to find cilantro (the universal herb) and walnuts in almost every dish. By 8:30PM I had 6 different Russian dishes on my table to accomodate both my vegetarian wife and my daughter and I. The recipes were excellent; I will make them again for a summer party. Welcome, Russia.

I also know that if some of those students and teachers who were "shocked" by the menu mentioned above had accompanied me to Tunica over Winter Break and had eaten with me at Paula Dean's buffet in the Harrah's casino, they would have embraced every one of those dishes mentioned above and not given them a second thought. The exact same plate of food sitting in front of a diner in two different locations--one plate is "stereotypical" and "racist," the other represents the range of the "grand dame" of Southern cooking.

Part of the problem is that people confuse stereotypes and racism. There is some legitimacy to that confusion. Although as one of my enlightened students said last week, "Not all stereotypes are harmful, like the one that says that black people are good at sports." Um. Anyway. The problem for the confused is that the problem lies with them. When Fuzzy Zoeller asked if Tiger Woods was going to serve "fried chicken and collard greens" at the Masters luncheon, there was nothing wrong with the crunchy chicken or the nutritious greens. The problem was with Fuzzy. He tried to turn geographical comfort foods into a demeaning meal without realizing that Tiger Wood's skin color had nothing to do his affinity or lack thereof for Southern food. I think the reactions to our school menu suffer from the same problem. It's like we, none of us, are allowed to admit what we really like for fear that it will get made fun of.

One of my colleagues almost got it right. "The menu you sent around," he told me, "is not black cooking. It's Southern cooking." Maybe. Probably, at this point. But he told me that to let me know that the foods listed meant nothing to him as a black man who had grown up in California. Be that as it may, the fact is that our students wanted the food that they knew, being from the South. They wanted everyone else to get to eat those dishes, too. They didn't expect to have to be embarassed for things that they liked and that they figured most others would like, too. I fear that they were taught that their menu was somehow wrong, and so they fled from it.

But that's what happened. And I share the blame for that as much everyone else. But there is going to come a time when we all figure all of this out. Our students think that we're already there. Those of us who are older teachers are still trying to come to terms with ghosts. Neither perspective is entire accurate or productive. Not now. Not when there is neither as much enlightenment nor as much baggage as we collectively believe.

But let's leave the food out of it. Food, if it is not just food, usually carries with it the best of connotations, not the worst. Food says, as it always has, whether in Odysseus' home or at Jesus' table or in my basement, says come join in and share and eat. Maybe nothing more. Certainly nothing less.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Is It Your Songs Or My Ears?

Two Cow Garage--"Brothers In Arms" (mp3)

Among the many things that one is likely to learn when one spends time in the men's room at Champy's Fried Chicken is the history of a band called Steppenwolf. You know them, no doubt. You've heard "Born To Be Wild" plenty of times in plenty of contexts, and, most likely, "Magic Carpet Ride" a good bit as well. But what else do you know of their catalog? Ever heard "The Pusher" or "Hey, Lawdy Mama?" A very slim maybe, unless you're as old as I am. And, the most ironic aspect of your album-cover-wall-staring-as-you-urinate experience is that the album you're staring at is Steppenwolf's Their Great Hits.

So, chances are, 7 of the 11 songs on the album are songs you've never heard and, if I may speculate negatively, never want to hear because they're just not that good.

That's what I've been wondering about lately. Is it the songs or is it my ears that has me wondering if most CDs I'm listening to just don't have that many good songs on them. Steppenwolf is an extreme example; theirs is a greatest hits CD.

But what about that new CD I've just bought? I texted a recommendation to a friend the other night--Kevin Gordon's new CD, Gloryland. I raved about it, pointing out particularly good songs even after just a couple of listenings. But I was listening to it as I was recommending it and though I had heard several of the songs several times, I hadn't heard it all the way through. By the time I got to the end, I realized that the last 3 or 4 songs did absolutely nothing for me, didn't hook me in any way.

Was that the songs or my ears? Had I just gotten tired of Kevin Gordon's approach and voice or had he run out of steam?

I'd like to be able to blame it the frenetic pace and short attention span of our current lifestyles. But I don't think that would be fair. While it's probably true that it is harder than ever to get a song heard, for a song to break through, I don't think the ability to identify and take notice of a good song has been undermined at all. In fact, as a fan of putting my Ipod with its rididculous number of songs on "shuffle" and allowing random technological choices to choose my "vibe" for me, I know that almost everytime I do that, there comes a moment where I dash towards the Ipod with one thought in my head: What song was that? It is the glorious moment that all of us music lovers live for.

The great song, the good song, the catchy song can still bust out of the pack in any situation, I think, and that's whether it's an unknown song that has made its way onto my Ipod, a song that's playing at a party at your house, the soundtrack in a restaurant, or even the last song on a long CD of songs by the same person.

And, by the way, I am offering not the slightest criticism of Mr. Gordon. I happen to know him, have followed his career for some time, seen him perform live several time. I privately celebrate any of his successes when I come across them. I have written him and told him that I thought the CD was superb. And it is stellar. "Don't Stop Me This Time" is one of the top two or three songs I've heard this year--catchy and evocative and, I am certain, autobiographical. "Colfax," the 10-minute centerpiece of the CD that tells the story of a high school marching band's encounter with the Klan. There are 7-8 really strong songs.

But that does not negate the fact that the songs near the end don't engage me. And it has me wondering, as does Springsteen's Wrecking Ball and Tom Petty's Mojo and Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues and Lana Del Ray and M. Ward and the Drive-By Truckers and so many others if the concept of an album, especially a CD album, in most cases simply calls for too many songs and makes it an almost unattainable goal that all of them be good.

Certainly, there are exceptions. Elvis Costello's 20-song explosion, Get Happy!, is one. As are Revolver and Rubber Soul (though I'm not sure any other Beatle albums qualify), some early Joni Mitchell albums, a couple of DB's albums, the Grateful Dead's American Beauty, Guided By Voices' Isolation Drills, and a host of others that you are wedded to. All I ask is that we agree that these are the exceptions rather than the rule.

And though I'm not sure I can support this, it does seem that the creation of the CD concept all those twenty-something years ago pushed artists and music labels farther in the direction of filling out their products with less-interesting offerings at the end, almost as if they knew that few people were going to go that far into the CD before changing it.

Here's that catch: put out an EP of your absolute best stuff and you will not be taken quite seriously, until you prove yourself with a full CD's worth (which is often the EP plus lesser material. Put out a short, 8-song CD of your best songs at the moment and listeners and critics will start adding up the minutes to determine whether or not your CD is "worth it" or unacceptably brief. Or, toss in everything--your best songs, outtakes, live versions, acoustic versions, leftovers of one sort or another, and just see what sticks.

I don't know the answer. But I do know one thing about my ears. They can tell a good song from a song that is mediocre or poor, admittedly to my standards. So I have to think that an artist is the same way--he or she can tell the good ones. Maybe not the ones that might be hits, but certainly the ones that he or she is satisfied with. And I'm not sure why anybody would want to put out anything else. Or pretend to have greatest hits that weren't. Because who is going to listen to them willingly?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Ever Dance With The Devil In The Pale Moonlight?

Electric Chair - Prince (mp3)
Strange Relationship - Prince (mp3)

A sampling of the Oddest Celebrity Marriages of My Lifetime: Liz Taylor and Larry Fortensky. Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley. Lyle Lovett and Julia Roberts.

Perhaps no celebrity marriage has had as significant an impact on my life, however, as the first gay marriage I ever supported: Prince and Batman.

The year was 1989. When news of this marriage reached me, I was 17 and apoplectic. What the shit was some scrawny screechy sex addict doing writing not just one, not just two, but the entire freakin’ soundtrack to the most anticipated movie of my teenage life?!?

Not since Olivia Newton-John danced romantically with Gene Kelly in Xanadu had life been so confusing.

But that was May/December confusing. Prince was ambisexually confusing. Rumors were that he slept with practically every hot woman on the planet. But then all my elementary school classmates insisted Prince was “Queer.” And when my uneducated eyes witnessed him slink across the floor in “When Doves Cry,” he certainly looked queer. Prince made no sense as a comprehensible storyline, other than the undeniable fact that he was a hyper-sexual entity that had lots and lots of sex with... some unknown portion of humanity and possibly even animals.

In my clueless and safe adolescence, I dealt with my uncertainty about Prince by simply avoiding his music whenever possible.

Batman forced my hand. I was so hopelessly and helplessly weak-kneed with excitement for Batman, I was forced to reconsider Prince. In hindsight, what so fascinates me about that soundtrack is how one of his crappier albums managed to convert me into an actual fan of his music.

Seriously, Prince’s Batman isn’t that good. Nary a review -- glowing or damning -- suggests that Prince spent more than few weeks putting it together. He literally cranked it out in his sleep. He added some cutesy marketing decisions (this song is sung by The Joker! this one’s sung by Vicki Vale!), and threw in some songs sitting in his endless closet of unused material.

Then he mashed up all of it with some movie quotes and the old theme song and made a number one hit out of it. Before “Batdance” earwormed its way into heavy airplay on the local radio station, I had managed to keep Prince outside my musical fence line. Prince has more pop music genius in his farts than most artists could get even by selling their souls to the devil.

In the fall of 1989, inspired by my new appreciation, I went back and purchased Sign O’ The Times, which had been released a year prior.

The best thing about being introduced to an artist at a mediocre point in their career is that it provides the proper foundation from which to truly admire their masterpieces. To awaken to the Rolling Stones through Steel Wheels, or Cheap Trick with Standing on the Edge, or Prince through Batman... In all three cases, this offered me the perfect vantage point from which to appreciate their best albums.

Sign O’ The Times is, at the very least, a borderline masterpiece. If a masterpiece requires that each and every song approach or reach musical perfection, then I guess it’s not that kind of masterpiece. But if, from start to finish, a masterpiece opens a wormhole to a kind of sound and a way of seeing that feels utterly distinct, then Sign is just that and a bag of starfish. Sign is the Lebron James of ‘80s albums, imperfect yet so uniquely brilliant as to have no peer.

For me, the best little-known Prince song is also the hidden cornerstone of Sign: “Strange Relationship” is the song I’ve always imagined Prince accidentally forgot to remove. Knowing almost nothing about Prince, this is pure speculation, but I often feel like this is Prince at his most honest and introspective. His Bizarro version of “Man in the Mirror” where he is sadly resigned to being an abusive ass with women.

From there, I went both backward and forward with Prince, buying the next three albums after Batman and going backwards to 1999. Once I acquired and played to death The Album Where Prince Changed His Name To A Big Funky Symbol, my interest hit a sort of immovable object. I eventually bought his 2-disc greatest hits and sold off most of his albums... a decision I sorely regret.

“I just want to know, are we gonna try to love each other?”
It's not too late. Give Prince a chance. He can't stand to see you happy, but more than that, he hates to see you sad.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

We Collect Dust

Collecting You - Indigo Girls (mp3)
Broken Things - Julie Miller (mp3)

Elvis Presley was stuck awkwardly in a mangle of tree limbs. Waylon lay cracked on the asphalt. Jon Bon Jovi remained whole, but scratched all to hell.

For the second time in as many years, a close family member of mine has found their home directly in the line of a tornado, most of their possessions scattered or destroyed in the process.

In their late 50s, married for more almost 40 years, and paragons of a grind-it-out lower-middle-class lifestyle that demanded penny-pinching and finding joy in the little things, my sister and brother-in-law raised three children who will all be better off financially than they were. In other words, they’ve raised kids who are beating the 21st Century odds.

Because retirement as most of us dream it wasn’t going to be a part of their lives, they only planned to grow old and eventually die in their home, working until they became infirm or collapsed, whichever came first. They saved up for improvements, first by expanding a master bathroom, then adding on a dining room.

My brother-in-law’s pride and joy was his garage. Rod was born an auto mechanic. Gears and electronics have always come natural to him, and he’s been earning a living at it since he was 15.

His garage was a testosterony shrine to his various obsessions and collections. He collected vinyl albums and singles and even bought a beat-up broken-down jukebox for $40 a few years back. He repaired it both mechanically and cosmetically and set about filling it with his favorite old (and not-so-) 45s. He even bought jukebox labels.

Rod collected record players. He’d find them discarded but in good shape, fix the motor and store it away. He had a rare and classic bar-sized pool table with a slate top. Damn thing weighs 800 pounds. Five feet away from it stood a classic early ‘70s pinball machine he bought broken-down and beat-up for $150. He fixed it up and could’ve sold it for a healthy profit.

He collected old bicycles. When he would find one discarded by the side of the road, he’d pull over, investigate the condition of the frame, and often bring it home. He’d fix them up and hang them up on the ceiling of his garage.

Although he’d stopped doing it quite so obsessively, his biggest and most beloved hobby was finding beat-up broken-down VW Beetles and restoring them. He’d get ‘em cheap, pour his elbow grease and heart into them, and then sell them. Because where the hell would he keep ‘em? And what kind of immoral crime would it be to fix them and them keep them imprisoned?

That garage was Rod’s own personal museum of lifelong hobbies. Finding beat-up broken-down mechanical items, giving them a little bit of love and attention, and restoring their vitality.

While my sister walked in a daze around the property, searching desperately for her five cats, all missing in the storm, I found myself looking down at the vinyl littering the driveway. Hundreds, maybe more than a thousand, singles and albums cracked and shattered. The pinball machine was in at least three distinct parts. The bikes and the record players were strewn wildly.

And I had to just close my eyes and breathe in order to keep from crying.

“Your sister wasn’t here and is unhurt and alive. The rest of this just doesn’t matter that much.”

He’s right. And he wasn’t just spouting out words. He meant it. My siblings were both safe. Four of the five cats were found in that first day. All their picture albums and most of their important and expensive belongings were recoverable. In other words, the stuff everyone talks about being the most vital in moments like this survived.

I seemed more upset about Rod’s losses than he did. Which was both odd and not so.

What is it about our humanity that so many of us collect things? Humans are collectors by nature, and most of what we collect and obsess over, when destroyed or scattered by disaster, can be sacrificed without much pain. It’s just stuff, ultimately, right?

So... why? Why do we do it? Why do I buy used DVDs and stack my shelves full of them? Why do I refuse to whittle my book collection or CD collection down when, were a tornado or fire to hit my house tomorrow, these things would be the last of my concerns? Why do I still have four boxes of comic books in my garage when I gave up that hobby more than 20 years ago?

What do you collect that, when the fit hits the shan, means little to nothing? Can you explain it? Can you defend it? I can’t. Yet I will continue to collect. Even when my current collections peter out, I’m almost certain to find something equally important and simultaneously dismissible to take their place.

Collection and foolishness. Welcome to humanity.