Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Shadow Knows

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.

We want justice to be easy. We want it to be obvious.

From Jesus to The Shadow to the never-wrong investigators of modern cop dramas, we idolize those who seem to have magical powers to see into the hearts of men. They see beyond all the distractions; they separate the evidential wheat from the chaff; they know guilt before they weigh a single shred of proof. They Know Truth.

For those who Know Truth, doubt and uncertainty are cancers, eating away at justice from the inside.

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest essay in The New Yorker explores the dark world of child molesters in our midst.
The pedophile is often imagined as the dishevelled old man baldly offering candy to preschoolers. But the truth is that most of the time we have no clue what we are dealing with. A fellow-teacher at Mr. Clay’s school, whose son was one of those who complained of being fondled, went directly to Clay after she heard the allegations. “I didn’t do anything to those little boys,” Clay responded. “I’m innocent. . . . Would you and your husband stand beside me if it goes to court?” Of course, they said. People didn’t believe that Clay was a pedophile because people liked Clay—without realizing that Clay was in the business of being likable.
Unlike serial killers, pedophiles are most often expert grifters whose long con is not for your money, but for your children.

Some readers, including a writer at Deadspin, have translated Gladwell’s piece as an apologia of Penn State’s administrators rather than an earnest attempt to explore how pedophiles can fool so many people so utterly.

Daily Beast correspondant Megan McArdle hits closer to a reasoned reaction with her piece, “The Cost of Costly Punishment.”
I am sure all of this is true, but I would like to point out one other thing: our natural resistance to believing the worst of someone. And "child molester" is the worst. It is literally the most horrible thing you can do in our society; morally, the child molester sits above only the child molester/serial killer who rapes and kills children. That makes an accusation of child molesting an extraordinary claim. And as the saying goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
McArdle’s conclusion is also more than reasonable:
I don't really see any way around this. Some crimes should be viewed as so morally horrific that they cut one off from decent society. But society also needs to be careful about who it cuts off. It is very terrible to let a child molester keep working on new victims. But it is also very terrible to destroy the life of an innocent adult--to brand him with a label that will probably keep him from ever associating with decent people again.
None of this is an attempt to excuse Graham Spanier or Joe Paterno, nor is it an attempt to justify their persecution. It is about how we as a culture attempt to handle matters of trust, justice, and fairness. Believing such vague but vital concepts to be simple and easy is every bit as dangerous and destructive as those who live to circumvent them for criminal and immoral deeds.

The need for quick and simple truth and justice results in a man shooting his own son, thinking he’s a burglar. “Shoot first, ask questions later,” right? Isn’t that the Code of the Brave Republican?

Gladwell’s report isn’t about Jerry Sandusky. It’s about Greg Austin and the unknown thousands of (mostly) men like him, plotting and making connections with young and teenage kids. It’s about how these men get away with the unthinkable. It’s about how difficult it is for us mere humans to Know Truth, even when it’s staring us in the face, especially when the truth is so damn dark.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Passion (is the) Pit(s)

Passion Pit’s album Gossamer is a critical and alternative darling. I can’t for the life of me figure out why.

First off, I bought Gossamer on eMusic. Although I buy lots of music, rare is the album purchased without conviction and confidence. Reviews are researched. Samples are digested. The urge for instant gratification is almost always delayed. Second, the human who spends money on something merely to take a dump on it is a twisted, sick human. I’ve got better things to do with my somewhat limited financial resources than use it to be mean to someone.

But Gossamer just ain’t that good.

The Onion’s A/V Club, the news satire’s serious media critique offshoot, gave the album a gushing A-. In it, they describe Passion Pit’s sound this way: “the musical equivalent of staring straight at the sun for 45 minutes.” Best I can tell, they mean this to be a compliment, as if humanity could achieve true and pure happiness if only they could stare into the sun for the length of an entire album.

Well, Gossamer is the musical equivalent of staring straight at the sun for 45 minutes. The only way to do accomplish said feat is to have gone friggin’ blind 10 minutes into the experience. It’s like shotgunning a case of 5-Hour Energy drinks or being locked in a room and forced to eat 1,000 Sour Straws in 45 minutes.

I’m the first to admit I was drawn to the story of Michael Angelakos, Passion Pit’s soul. Between his debut and Gossamer, Angelakos attempted suicide and, thankfully, survived. He said in a Pitchfork interview, “I’ve told people that I don’t see myself living very long. That really upsets them, but I’m just being honest.”

I hesitated writing this review, because who wants to take a dump on a guy who, between a continuing drug addiction and mental issues, could be one crappy review away from leaping off a bridge? But then I scrolled to the end of his Metacritic reviews, and plenty of respectable music outlets have offered up harsh opinions.

Further, in small doses -- say, 30-second samples or, if I’m feeling generous, three-quarters of a given song -- Passion Pit is almost digestible. If I were 13 and lived on a diet of Cheerwine and Fun Dip, I could probably swallow this music. But I’m all grownsed up now. I buy my sodas in 8oz cans or bottles and rarely eat candy unless I’m road tripping.

His voice often sounds like a poor version of Prince falsetto, and he’s singing over some post-modern version of the Pet Shop Boys. While those are decent idols for a musician, the result is just not good.

And hell, I’ve tried and tried. Even as I type this, I’ve listened to the entire album again (I’m currently finishing “Hideaway,” which might well be the best song on the album), desperate to find a reason not to be so mean.

Maybe, with a little more time to get past the disappointment and “WTF is the big deal” reaction to this album, I might throw a Passion Pit song on a few mix CDs to see what others think of a single song, isolated and removed from the sugary avalanche of the entire album. Perhaps surrounded by other sounds, other styles, it could be a nice and refreshing break.

But as an album, Gossamer isn’t very good. Unless you’re the kind of person who longs to stare into the sun for 45 minutes.

The video for "I'll Be Alright" is delightfully freaky, though. Almost makes the song palatable.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


The latest trend in socializing is splitting up, covering all the bases, killing two birds with one stone, serving two gods, pleasing both parties, expanding coverage, taking turns, following individual muses, each doing his/her own thing, your friends/my friends, you go know and I'll come later, one is better than none, or just a plain 'ol 'I'm not going to do what I don't feel like doing.'

In other words, the whole idea of inviting a bunch of couples to a social event and then having those couples actually show up as couples is out the window.

We all do it.  It starts maybe with a bunch of guys who hang out together, and when they marry, they bring their wives into the mix, but sometimes their wives aren't all that into it.  Or vice-versa.  Or it starts when one wants to stay late, and one wants to leave early, so they start taking separate cars, and then that separate car pattern expands to where one wants to get there on time and one wants to arrive late.  Or not at all.  Or it starts when the children are young--couples take turns doing what each one really wants to do, using a babysitting trade-off with their spouses so that each one gets the best option.  Or it starts aesthetically--the wife wants to go to the concert but the husband doesn't.  Or it starts with tiredness--the weariness of the same kind of social event with the same people once again.  Or one goes to church and one doesn't.

Whatever the reasons for this growing social pattern, it is safe to say that 50, 40, or even 30 years ago, it would not have happened.  A husband let loose to roam a party with all kinds of couples?  A wife goes to a party without the security of her husband?  (Yes, I'm playing off stereotypes here)

Last weekend, I attended a birthday party where there were three couples, one husband, one wife, another husband, and a divorced guy.  Not great odds for the marital unit, eh?  But it's reached a point where no one was too curious as to where the spouses were.  It was just a series of givens--one was too tired to come, one was helping the kids do homework, one's missingness I didn't catch. 

Nobody was worried that the couples were fighting and that was the reason for the solo appearance.  There was a time when that would have been the only likely explanation.

My favorite example of all time is when my friend and his then-wife were invited over to another couple's place for dinner, but for whatever reason, she didn't come.  They were the only ones invited, so instead of four, there were three.  And when the husband was ready to head home, he had to ask if his hosts could put together a "to-go" plate for his wife who didn't show.

The one that happened to me that makes me laugh involves Halloween.  We like to have a little gathering after trick-or-treating, a kind of wind down, a kind of debrief since our neighborhood is especially hard hit by trick-or-treaters.  One of the guys who really pushes for this party doesn't live in our neighborhood, but he likes the tradition.  So does his wife.  In fact, last year, she really pressed me to put on the party, since I was wavering, it being a midweek Halloween.  So, yeah, I revved it up and we put on the party with some pretty good food.  What did they do?  She went to the home of a high school classmate up the street; her husband came here.  She was here for about 10 minutes.

But, like I say, we all do it, and, therefore, I can't be entirely opposed to it.  There's something to be said about the flexibility of this trend and the way that a couple can meet the needs of both spouses by allowing them to split up sometimes. But it can also feel like a guest in a home is more "crossing the T's and dotting the I's" than actually wanting to be there.  There's a something about a couple, an established social unit, that brings a different kind of energy to a party, a different level of confidence and interaction that the stray who can need special coddling and attention from everyone else.
And, if you are the one putting on the party, you have to deal with what Forrest Gump once said about a box of chocolates, "You never know what you're going to get."

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Story of Brad

Hi, I’m Brad. Bradley William Frederick II, actually. My college buddies call me Billy or “The Deuce,” but mostly now I just go by Brad.

I’m in computer animation. You know those turtles in “Finding Nemo”? “Duuuuude”?Yeah, I was involved in a creating a lot of the scenes with the dad in it.

Pixar? Yeah, that means I worked for Pixar. For four years, actually. It was a pretty amazing time, actually. Opened a lot of doors for me. It was a lot of hard, grueling work, but the people there are amazing, and there’s a part of me that wishes I could go back there.

No, I’m not married.

Oh, the ring? Yeah, well, I was married. My wife died. Back in 2005.

No no, it’s OK. I mean, thanks, that’s sweet. It’s been a long time, right? That's what you're thinking? And I know the ring seems like a freaky thing, like maybe I’m holding on a little too much or too long, but it’s not like that. I mean, it messed me up pretty bad for a while, and I don’t think I’ll ever know a darkness like the place I was in after that.

In fact, that’s how I met those two guys over there.

Yeah, that’s Rusty. He’s a data systems analyst in Atlanta. And that tall dude next to him is Palmer. That’s his last name, but we’ve just always called him that. Anyway, I met them both in a widower support group down in Atlanta. We all showed up within three weeks of each other and helped one another through the dark times.

Oh yeah, and we all have kids around the same age, so we connected that way, too.

Palmer lives in Chattanooga now. He moved up here in, like, 2009 or something. We’re up here visiting him for the weekend. Rusty and I come up here once in a while. It’s so much more laid back and cheaper than Atlanta. We don’t have to constantly feel like we’re well-off single guys hunting for women, y’know? We can just relax and enjoy ourselves. The single scene in Atlanta is too intense. Not our style, you know?

Palmer works from his home. He works for the government. He does research for... well, he won’t talk about it much, but we think he does a lot of classified background research for counter-terrorism projects in the CIA. He knows, like, five or six Middle Eastern dialects and languages. I don’t really understand it all, but I just know not to ask too many questions about it. He just came back from Islamabad a few months ago. Had to be there for a couple weeks I think. But like I said, he doesn’t talk about it.

You know, if I ever got serious about someone, I’d probably take the ring off. But until then, I don’t see what the problem is. If it means some women don’t want to talk to me when we’re out at bars or whatever, that’s fine. I get it. But I’m not gonna take off the ring just so I can get laid, y’know?

No no, enough about me. I’m just a boring former Pixar guy who now does most of the computer animation for the Geico lizard. I mean, yeah, I guess that makes me one of the better computer animators in the country, but really I’m just working hard and raising my 7-year-old daughter alone in a 4-bedroom house in Buckhead.

So what’s your story, you hot thing you?


Last weekend, I reunited with two college roommates in downtown Chattanooga. We are 20 years older, married with children, and saddled with boring grown-up problems and responsibilities. We wouldn’t trade our lives, but men don’t generally like talking about their grown-up problems and responsibilities in our time together. We see our time as a releasing of the familial pressure valve.

As we sat at Mellow Mushroom on Saturday night, waiting the requisite three hours for our meals to arrive, we had fun inventing new personae for ourselves. If we were the kinds of guys who went out to bars and made up names and jobs for themselves and then hit on women under these new aliases, who would we pretend to be?

If we actually did this, if we were remotely capable of pulling such a thing off, maybe it wouldn’t have been so funny working up the stories. But we spent two hours eating dinner and laughing so hard we wheezed and cried as we fine-tuned these fictional characters, knowing they would never step foot outside that restaurant.

Sometimes, it’s best and healthiest to work through our problems. Talk ‘em out. Talk ‘em to death. But sometimes, it’s just nice to push the eject button and talk yourself into another existence, into someone else’s imaginary life of trial and triumph, to laugh at their foibles and lament their invented tragedies.

We left Mellow Mushroom to watch a concert by Departure, a band that makes its living pretending to be Journey.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


Until we come to terms with all of the information available to us, we will never have another great president, maybe not a great statesman of any kind.  And by "great," I mean someone who commands so much respect that he or she can lead us and accomplish so much without being compromised by his or her past so that small victories are the only victories we can collectively celebrate.

There is simply too much out there, and no one has the ability, except through lying or denial, to repeal anything that he or she has ever said or done.  Certainly, there are people who can withstand that kind of exposure, but not, I would argue, without accruing deep political wounds that will severely undermine our assessment of the candidate.  Most cannot withstand it, and their bids for top spots in government end quickly and in embarassment or retreat.

No flaw can be hidden anymore.  Were they to be presidential candidates in 2012, John Fitzgerald Kennedy would not be able to cover up his sexual indiscretions, Franklin Delano Roosevelt would not be able to create the illusion that he could stand and walk, and the evidence, if not the doctor's records, of Abraham Lincoln's treatment for depression (as he certainly would have been diagnosed and treated in this day and age) would emerge one way or another.  These men would likely be declared unfit for office.

No word that was ever uttered in a public setting can disappear.  It's somewhere on a camera, in a .wav file, on a tape recorder, in an archive. 

Whatever that candidate may have once done, it's pretty likely that someone was there who remembers it.  Maybe many someones.

Davy Crockett's stories of having killed a bear when he was only three wouldn't hold up.  Nor would Teddy Roosevelt's exploits while charging up San Juan Hill. 

So what chance does an inveterate, narcissistic liar like Paul Ryan have, with his incessant need to exaggerate his own physicality?  Or a candidate like Mitt Romney who has to be so many different selves, and different from himself, in order to appeal to his own party?  Or even Barack Obama, who undoubtedly explored more radical politics and pulpits in the past?  What chance does a typical person with, even during a life well-lived, all of the misstatements, misunderstood ironies, bad choices, or reversals of course have?

Now, as someone who is in favor of complete transparency in government, I'm not complaining about this state of affairs.  I like knowing who people really are and I like knowing how things works. I even take a certain perverse joy in seeing politicians try to defend the undefendable. But it does seem to keep surprising them, doesn't it?  It's like they still believe that they can know that they have said or done something but can still deny that it was said or done and get away with it.  Not hardly.  And even if the repeated utterance of a proven lie still carries some punch in the political arena, for how much longer will that be true?

In fact, that reality surprises all of us.  We know, but we can't quite get our heads around the fact that our lives are no less of an open book than theirs, should anyone want to open that book. 

So, no, I'm not complaining.  But I also know that oratory is an essential part of politics, and that bluster and bluff are an essential part of oratory, at least in politics.  We want our leaders, somehow, to still be larger than life, to represent the best qualities of all of us, to convince us that they can do more than we think they can, without some fact-checker on his iPad in his den waiting to debunk everything we think we believe in.  Pure policy makers and numbers crunchers will hardly inspire us to make that trek to the polling station.

Maybe, somewhere out there as I write this, there is someone who is ahead of the curve, who is self-editing and whitewashing him or herself from a very young age in preparation for a political career based on a flawless background--a not-false, just carefully-constructed biography of deep spirituality, vast community service, superb grades, and fully monogamous intent.  If so, that person terrifies me.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Was this the first blog I ever wrote? Found in a drawer from 1983.

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”--Gandhi

Back before we were married, I almost sent my future wife through the windshield while trying to avoid hitting a possum.

"What did you do that for?" she screamed.  "You almost killed us, you idiot."

I had never seen a possum before, being from a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania suburb.  All I saw were two bright eyes in my headlights and something white running across the road, so I naturally braked.  What I found out as we drove along and the adrenalin receded was that people in that part of Kentucky never brake for possum, in fact, try to hit them because they are vicious little creatures that serve no good.  When I saw one up close one time, with sharp little teeth like a weasel, I almost sided with my wife and her neighbors.

One thing you find out as you get older and drive more and more places is how many animals end up by the side of the road each year.  We as a nation kill millions of them on our highways and roads, and not mainly possum, I'd guess, but more dogs and cats and, of course, the occasional (by comparison) deer that takes its own revenge on cars.

What bothers me is how many people never stop to see what they've hit.  It must have something to do with our fast-paced lifestyle.  So often we're in a hurry to get somewhere.  The night before I saw my first possum, I'd driven 70 mph for six hours down from Chicago, no stops, just to have an extra hour of time with my fiance that weekend, and I consider it sheer luck that nothing happened during that rainy trip.

But I also think these animals pile up as a result of our national cruelty toward animals.  I'm not talking about Rob Spelar, who was best known in the sixth grade for burying kittens up to their heads and running them over with a lawn mower.  I'm talking about a subtle cruelty, perhaps an unconscious one.  How many of us never stop to think that an animal has little chance of adapting to the pace of our technology, and therefore make no provision for it?  A deer can evolve forever; it's never going to be able to gauge the unnatual speed of a car.

Part of this is ignorance.  I'm reminded of the poet Kenneth Rexroth who said, "I'm sick and tired of all these bastards who claim they like poetry and never buy a book."  This can be applied to animals as well.  Everyone seems to enjoy playing with a puppy or a kitten, but who's willing to clean up after it or train it or try to stop its howling in the middle of the night?  We want the fun part, but not the rest.  We enjoy our cats having kittens, but accept no responsibility when no one wants them, and we either turn them over to the Humane Society or they wander off on their own.

When my dog died my senior year in college, and I was upset about it, my friends who had pets understood; the ones who didn't couldn't get it.  One even coined the phrase "dead doggie grief."

Perhaps those who have an interest in cats or dogs need not accept any responsibility for the strays that roam our country.  But do they have the right to run them over and keep driving without an attempt to swerve or honk?  Yes, one can rationalize it away.  The dog should have been kept in his yard.  The cat shouldn't be allowed to roam.  But animals, like children, do get out and go where they shouldn't, risk things they can't achieve.

In 1980, when I was living in Hatfield, Pa on a farm with a rock band, trying to write a novel, I ran over a dog and killed,  I was changing the radio station and looked up at the last minute to see it leap and disappear under the car.  I stopped.  I walked back to where it lay and a man fixing a roof told me whose dog it was.  I had to go up to the house and tell the woman what I'd done and apologize (have you ever had to apologize for killing anything?) and get an old coat from her and pick the dog up and put it in her yard.

Back at the farm, one of the guys tried to cheer me up.  "Listen," he said.  "One time a bunch of us were driving in a car and this cat ran in front of us and we ran right over it.  Everybody in the car went silent.  Then, all at once, we all burst out laughing.  It was hilarious."

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Pop Goes The Stereotype

“Before you came into my life, I missed you so bad.” - Carly Rae Jespin, “Call Me Maybe”
“And it feels like I am just too close to love you.” - Alex Clare, “Too Close”

I own these two songs. I like both of them, although “Call Me Maybe” has been so admittedly played out that I can no longer tolerate it well. They’re both catchy as hell, and I’m not too cool or too old to ride the wave of a great pop song.

The one thing that unites the two, sound-wise, is how dependent their choruses are on a memorable and unusual hook. For Carly Rae, it’s a pseudo-orchestral punch, and for Clare it’s a deep syntho-whomp. Both are marketing genius, from the extent that they provide these songs a sound that is truly unlike anything else in on their pop timeline.

The best pop songs do the expected, with a few unexpected twists. These two pop songs are different thanks to their sound, but their lyrics, while perhaps clever, anchor firmly to our gender stereotypes.

You have Carly Rae, whose heart has been claimed by a dude before she even knew him, and I don’t think she means “knew” in the Biblical sense. I think it’s the very girly act of knowing your heart belongs to someone, and a girl’s mission is to find out who possesses this mythical key. She’s ready to fall the second he calls her.

It’s an adorable, young girl view of love and boys. While it naturally drew in my daughters and millions of preteen kids, there was something so syrupy and sincere -- if you could find the sincerity in its nonsensical clever lyrics -- that even guarded adults found themselves softened to it.

“Call Me Maybe” is the ingenue’s answer to “Tik Tok.” While Ke$ha was overtly slutty and world-weary, Carly Rae is just waiting to be swept off her feet. You can almost imagine any girl in the world, caught in a sexual/ethical moment of crisis, with miniaturized versions of these two ladies standing atop each shoulder, whispering both sides of the argument into her ears.

For the men, we have “Too Close.” Alex Clare’s song, which like any male pop song found popularity through a commercial (wouldn’t Romney be proud), is the breakup song every man has used, considered using, or fantasized of using:

We’re just too close. We’re such great friends. I just can’t risk that friendship by continuing to have wild sex with you. Because, like, you’re so awesome. (And because I probably want to have sex with somewhere between 1-23 women I’ve already identified and, possibly, already slept with. But this is just a parenthetical. The real reason we have to break up is because, um, we're besties.)

These songs are so alluring and catchy because, unfortunately, some niggling gender stereotypes aren’t going away anytime soon. More importantly, some gender stereotypes are based in a healthy chunk of reality.

Scads of preteen girls and young women continue to long for their One True Love, their Prince, although we are starting to see this myth/goal lose its grip. On the other side, millions of men have grown up believing that a woman simply cannot be a great friend and great lover at the same time to a singular dude, and it’s truly a tragedy for my gender and for the relationships they can’t seem to have or hold onto.

Well geez. That’s a depressing ending note. I think I’ll cheer myself up by watching two men beat the shit out of one another with Kendo Shinai bamboo swords.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Keep The Home Fires Burning

The noble, resilient, resourceful, and, most of all, faithful Penelope waited 20 years for Odysseus' return.  During that time, in a patriarchal society, she managed her husband's palace and simultaneously hosted and rebuffed a slew (pun on the fact that they all get slain! he-he) of suitors, all of whom are vying for her hand in marriage, while eating and drinking her out of house and home.

It took an unbelieveable woman to accomplish all of this, while still maintaining both her beauty and her honor, so a reader of The Odyssey is not surprised that Penelope does all of this.  After all, she is an unbelieveable person, a larger-than-life woman, an "epic" wife who is granted both courage and a few divinely-initiated facelifts from the deities on Mount Olympus.

But there's another nagging little issue at the back of all this:  if Penelope had been unfaithful and Odysseus had come home and found out about it, he would have killed her.  Immediately.

Even after 20 years, when the assumption that he was dead (instead of having sex with various goddesses, higher beings , and royalty, among other adventures) was more like a certainty.  Heck, how long was Tom Hanks on that island in Castaway?  When he returned home, his girlfriend had moved on, almost without apology.

Such is one of the conflicts at the core of emotionally-complex Homeland, now available to those of us who don't have Showtime. (NOTE TO READERS:  There is no spoiler alert necessary.  Everything I will discuss is revealed in the first 10 minutes of the series).  A husband goes to serve in the Iraq War, disappears during that conflict, and is declared dead, officially, as in a Marine coming to the wife's door and telling her that her husband is dead.  After 8 years, he is discovered as a prisoner in a camp by some U.S. soldiers, and when he is brought Germany and able to reorient himself, the first thing he wants to do is to call his wife.  When she answers the phone, she is in bed with another man.


Or is it an oops?  Having been told that her husband was dead, she still waited for him for 6 years.  When they have a conversation about it, she tells her husband that she waited for those 6 years and then she "screwed up."  But did she?  What are the social conventions for waiting?

There's an interesting unspoken standard here, and not just because of, in Penelope's case, Odysseus' extra-curricular activities.  No, the real issue is that it is the warrior who goes off to fight, while the warrior wife remains to keep the home fires burning, and keep those fires burning she must, or she risks moral judgement and disgrace.  At best.

Homeland, being edgy television, amps the situation up by making the lover in question the husband's best friend and by making the wife an exotic, beautiful woman whom every other man in the unit apparently desires as well.  But those are extraneous details to the main concern.

The faithful wife, expected to be as faithful to the memory as to the man himself, is an archtype that really doesn't play as well in the modern world, where that wife is likely a woman with an independent career and a set of interests that may be seperate from, even though complementary to, her husband. 

What is hard for any character in any of these situations to articulate is how many ways people change in those 8 years, especially because for the wife to detail the changes in her is a bold admission of all of the ways that she had to adapt to her husband's absence.  She had situations she had to figure out on her own.  She had ways that she needed help.  She may have moved from housewife to employee, from dependent to independent or differently dependent.  However happy she may be to see her husband alive, she doesn't "need" him in the same way that she once did, and she never will again.

The Odyssey, of course, doesn't deal with these issues at all.  Penelope and Odysseus are both expected to pick up where they left off, their bodies made young and beautiful by the gods.  Only Tennyson's poem, "Ulysses," with its characterization of that hero as

an idle king,By this still hearth, among these barren crags,Matched with an ag├Ęd wife
confronts the realities of the long-gone warrior come home.

But Homeland, it understands. For these are real characters trying to reunite, and the sex is awkward and out-of-sync, the husband seeks someone who gets what he's been through, the wife misses her lover in ways that don't cancel out the effort she's making with her returned husband, and all of the other disconnections, about the children she's raised alone and about the years that have passed, get in the way of everything.

No, this isn't the central issue in the show, but all of the rest of it would seem cheap and sensational without the anchor of family. And I mean that both in terms of stability and weight. As is said of another character on the show, his family is his "Achilles' heel," and that seems to be true of all, warrior and, especially, wife, who thanklessly kept the "homeland" all together for those long, lonely years. 

My Football Boycott

“It appears my hypocrisy knows no bounds.” - Doc Holliday

I’m not exactly sure when the moment came when the thought of supporting football with my enthusiasm and energy began to nauseate me.

The seed of bitterness was planted long ago, growing up in a culture where the most celebrated and adored and popular boys were those capable of the most amazing football feats.

Fairly or un- (but mostly fairly), movies have long shown the best football players to be assholes and bullies. They rule the high school land like infantile royalty. The adults most capable of addressing the problem sit back and permit it, either for fear of losing their game-winning talent or from a cluelessness of teenage social dynamics.

But this has been the world of football since I was a wee young’un, and never once did it singularly destroy my love of the sport.

In the last year, the levees have broken and flooded the field, and I’m left wondering why we as a culture aren’t looking for higher ground.

In October 2011, Taylor Branch wrote his game-changing article for The Atlantic. What had previously seemed untouchably powerful had been dealt a serious blow, and many of the accusations continue to feel valid. The NCAA is a joke focused more on money and protecting school power than looking out for the rights or needs of “student-athletes.”

At the same time, the word “concussion” has become a sort of Stage One cancer in football. The New York Times even has a running “Head Injuries in Football” mashup of articles and research.

“Penn State.” Aren’t those two words more than enough to make anyone ponder the priorities of our culture?

Lastly, it got personal. UNC’s coach was fired, and the team and school continue to earn scrutiny. Here’s the Scandal timeline. More than one writer has written of an “erosion of academic values at UNC.” I always loved and enjoyed cheering on the Tar Heels, but I also sat smugly back, knowing we were playing the game fairly and as an elite public university. Except maybe we weren’t.

I’m three weeks into my attempted football boycott, fully aware of how much America’s pasttime is truly like a drug.

Exceptions keep having to be made, as well. Exceptions that reveal hypocrisy and inconsistency. First, I still watch high school football. No logical argument excuses this exception. Second, lest you enter a solitary confinement cell, shutting out all visual evidence of the sport is all but impossible. Bars, restaurants, a friend’s house, all are virtually guaranteed to have a pigskin on the screen, and no longer just Saturday and Sunday. The only days of the week mostly free from football are Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and that’s it. Third, I still watch SportsCenter. 'Nuff said.

So, it’s a deeply symbolic, highly-flawed boycott, and at the end of the season, it will have accomplished less than the referee’s strike. Yet my boycott has concluded its third week, and it still feels necessary.

My football boycott is not disconnected from my attitude towards national politics. I might feel powerless and insignificant in either case. The issues are beyond my vote, beyond my ability to create or support Super PACs, beyond my ability to influence in any way, but I cannot afford to give up my thread of hope that I can change some teensy little thing, either in me or out there in the world.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Skeleton Crew

My favorite waitress, JoJo, who works the non-smoking section at the sports bar we go to every Thursday night, works alone.  It does not matter whether there is only one booth with two people in it or an entire room full of long tables celebrating birthday parties with all of the side booths full, she still works alone.  This seems to work okay for her; she knows she'll make a lot of tips when the room is full and she doesnt mind it too much when she isn't so busy.

But if you are a customer, trying to get even a beer on one of those nights when things are packed can be a frustrating experience.  The sports bar doesn't seem to care.  They know you're captive.

Welcome to modern American life, the life of skeleton crews and understaffed operations.

Wal-Mart probably figured it out first.  Those super-low prices come at a cost (Well, many costs, if you research their operation), and that cost is your time.  For you can find the cheapest produce in town at a Wal-Mart, but you're going to pay for it with your time.  If time is in money, then I'm not sure what kind of a bargain we get when we wait in endless lines at a store that must have at least 30 checkout lines, but only 4 of them open, and one of those a self-checkout lane with spotty success.

But it isn't just Wal-Mart anymore.  Target,  the so-called "premium" version of the same kind of store, which used to have many checkout lanes open, and sales associates standing in front of you beckoning for you to come to his or her aisle, has gone more the way of Wal-Mart, with fewer open aisles and longer lines.

Even Chili's, which is becoming more a bottom-feeder itself, will have half of its restaurant closed during a lunch rush and its hostesses will ask if you would like to sit in the bar area where, of course, the bartender manages all of the tables.

Does it seem like there are fewer people in the parking lots or walking down the aisles of these establishments?  Maybe a little sometimes, and sometimes definitely no.  But outposts like these don't have work forces set up to adjust to different circumstances.  No, they are content to offer staffing more toward the minimum and to let the consumer adjust his or her time and expectations.  Grocery stores, TJMaxx, Barnes and Noble, everyone has cash registers that sit unused even at the busiest times.

Who knew that customer service was a luxury?  Who knew that speed and convenience were the trappings of a cash-bloated economy and a public confidence that things would continue as they were indefinitely?

I'm not smart enough to understand everything there is to know about economics and job creation (except to know that most of it is wrong), but I do know one thing:  these jobs ain't likely comin' back.  People and politicians like to talk about lost jobs like they vanished into thin air, as if the places that offered those jobs no longer exist, as if in a sleepy Southern city like ours all of the retail storefronts are emptier than they were four or eight years ago.

That is simply not true.  There are new places opening here all the time--restaurants, stores, and other commercial endeavors. 

What is true is that places that already existed or places that are new are simply making do with less.  Sure, there are places that can afford the extravagance of doing it or overdoing it, but most places you see few people doing a lot more, the owner or franchisee pitching in a lot more than he or she used to.  Employers who had to "trim the fat" to maximize the bottom line aren't like to revert to a more bloated staff, regardless of the state of the economy, aren't likely to reestablish people or positions that have proven to be non-essential.

I'm not so sure that this is a bad thing and I'm not sure that it isn't, but it does require some adjustments.  The worker who lost work will need to find something else to do, or someplace else to do it, perhaps with more work or less pay.  The customer is going to have to develop some patience that he or she might not have had.  Both of these are hard lessons, bitter pills to swallow, since we have come to recognize how valuable our time is to us and we have come to value our own ability to do good work.  And, all of a sudden, we don't have as much control over our time or our employment as we once did.

That's what I think about when I'm standing in line or sitting, waiting more than I once did.  When I see those fewer people doing more, though, I don't feel grateful for what I have, I feel sorrow for the ghosts of those who used to be there and what they brought with them when they were there.  Some will argue that austerity is necessary, but is it more civilized?  I don't know that you will convince me of that.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Value of Equal Ineptitude

On a beautiful fall Sunday, our school’s outdoor programs guru sacrificed of his personal free time, his expertise, and the use of expensive school equipment and invited employees an opportunity to explore the fine art of paddleboarding.

The five of us who took him up on his offer were a mixed breed with a wide range of age and life experience: one married man in his late 50s, my wife and I at the crux of our supposed midlife, and two single women on the bookends of their 20s. My wife and I are about as at home in the wild outdoors as Toy Poodles, but the others in the group had experience with a variety of outdoorsy activities, from biking to hiking to climbing to rowing.

None of us, however, had ever paddleboarded.

If that’s what the past-tense verb of “paddleboard” is. If there’s even a verb for “paddleboard.”

I’d fallen twice in the first five minutes. The oldest guy in the group couldn’t quite figure out how to get to a standing position at all. Although all three of the ladies had less difficulty standing and balancing, two struggled to power themselves forward in the water with their oar.

We were, collectively, a sitcom pilot or a humorous reality TV show waiting to happen. Thirty minutes after we’d entered the water, we’d gone a combined distance of 50 yards. Maybe. We were a disgrace to the serene experience that is supposed to be paddleboarding... yet we were OK with it. We were in it cluelessly together.

If our outdoor programs director had invited me to join his paddleboarding club for a speedy jaunt down the river, I would have politely but quickly declined. What adult wants to go out and be the clueless inept loser in a pack of studs?

As I lay on the couch that evening, reflecting on my experience, I thought of my daily environment of work and school.

New teachers in our environment, often young and with little exprience, walk into our faculty meetings, into our dining hall. Often they sit together, at least two or three of them huddled as a unit. Could there be anything more intimidating and less welcoming to someone worried about their own ineptitude or green-ness than sitting amidst veterans whose complaints involve needy parents or lazy students while the newbie worries whether his lesson will go the entire class and whether he can remember the damn password to get onto the PC connected to the smartboard?

Many new teachers have no classroom experience and no education major. Their first weeks in an independent school classroom are painfully raw. No dress rehearsals. No preseason. The kids -- the proverbial inmates -- know more about asylum than the teacher.

Or what about veteran teachers who started their careers on mimeograph machines and typewritten memos but must sit in a professional development workshop on technology next to a gang of youngsters who were practically breastfed through an Ethernet cable? Those tech-savvy teachers make jokes about idiots who couldn’t program a VCR, and that veteran teacher remembers that night, 25 years ago, spending 30 minutes reading the manual to learn how to program his God-forsaken VCR.

Students curious about swimming or guitar ensemble, lacrosse or debate, anything that’s new to them but old hat to others in his potential group, must overcome the fear of being unequally inept, a fear with far more gravitas than the monster under your bed.

The value of equal ineptitude is often overlooked or forgotten by people my age, even those of us who truly consider ourselves lifelong learners, who are eager to experience and try and master new things.

If we can be cognizant of this value in those moments when we are the experts or the comfortable ones, and if we can make a conscious effort to minimize the feelings or fears of inequality or outsider-ness, we could no doubt make a significant improvement in the learning experience.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Keep Believing in Mould

Four notes of a sample into Bob Mould’s newest album, and I had already clicked “BUY.”

You see, there are two kinds of Bob Mould albums: the ones I love, and the other ones I've forgotten. Finding ways to segregate them more definitively becomes a challenge, but I know it when I hear it, and it doesn't take more than a few notes.

Certain elements are essential for Mould to be optimized for my ears:
  • Bob must rock.
  • Bob must rock at many BPM.
  • Bob must growl.
  • Bob must seethe.
  • Guitars must wail.
Like any man who has managed to hit his 50s without killing himself or someone else, Bob Mould cannot spend every waking minute of his life -- or his creative life -- seething and rocking and wailing at high-level BPM. Bob has slowed it down, experimented with different sounds, tried different angles on expressing the alien monsters growing inside his heart.

I do not blame him for this. In fact, I celebrate it. Lots of great artists get pigeonholed, and it’s understandable that they long to break out and beyond. But I don’t like listening to Bob breaking out of his, if you'll pardon me, Mould. I like him in his pigeonhole of frothy angry aggressive muck.

Husker Du was a nice appetizer, and Sugar was my main course. Copper Blue was a shock to my system, and Beaster, their follow-up EP, turned the anger up to 11. It’s easily the angriest and most raucous (and flawed) collection of songs I’ve ever loved. The end of the Sugar trilogy, File Under: Easy Listening, was my least-beloved of the three, but time has softened my take on it; it deserves to be considered a great power pop album by a higher-echelon power pop band.

Mould's solo career has mostly been, for me, moments of brilliance couched in swaths of Alzheimer’s, which is to say easily forgotten. Let me repeat: this is very much about me pigeonholing a talented artist. If Mould had released 10 slight variations of Copper Blue, he'd be irrelevant and forgotten by now.

Five seconds into the first song off Silver Age, I knew the Bob I love was back.

Was it his autobiography, the writing of it, the exploration of his own past? Perhaps. But I’m more inclined to believe recording with and touring with the Foo Fighters (yes, I'm biased) untethered him from his fears. He might have feared and hated, for understandable reasons, those of us who yearned for him to return to his raucous roots. Paying too much attention to what fans want or expect is deadly. It either kills your creativity, or your soul, or both.

But he saw the Foo Fighters having fun. He saw how free they felt, playing angry-ish music they love and not giving a shit how far or how often it strays from their well-established range of sound. (It's not like he was touring with Nickelback, fer Chrissakes.)

I think that experience liberated him and let him look back musically and let him be proud of what he’s created. To me, Silver Age is the sound of a rock god looking back upon his works. There were bands, and there were solo albums, and he saw that it was good.

Bob, your anger and intensity is like sunshine on my shoulder. Both make me very happy.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Anatomy Of A Show

Note to non-fans:  It is my goal to make this an enjoyable read whether you know these songs or not.  These are some of the thoughts that went through my head as I experienced the show, thoughts about people, about age, about music, about epiphanies that probably should have happened sooner.

Bruce Springsteen's Setlist at Wrigley Field, 9/8/2012:

"The Promised Land"--He is out in the crowd, fifty yards away from the stage with nothing but a wireless mike and a harmonica, no security, no protection, except the confidence that the crowd itself will protect him.  This is not reaching over the edge of the stage to slap a few hands or to accept some flowers.  This is the message that we will all share this night together. 

"The Ties That Bind"--My first reminder of the age of these guys.  I remember how this song burst out of my speakers the first time I put The River on my turntable.  It's a great song, but even Bruce and band can no longer convey that original sense of urgency.

"No Surrender"--I hear this song with new ears because the casual band I play in rehearsed and performed this song last spring, so I hear it as a player, remembering that we played it faster and that we gave it a false ending and that we made it our own.  When you know a song from the inside out, you can't help but to know it very differently.

"Hungry Heart"--We have been singing every word of every song since the first verse of "The Promised Land," but this, of course, is the one that the crowd sings.  Bruce demands that the crowd sing the entire first verse and every chorus of "Hungry Heart," and the crowd delivers. 

"We Take Care of Our Own"--Another song that our band played, and so every time that I pick up my ukelele, it is this riff that my fingers revert to.  And hearing it live, I remind myself how, when it was played at the Democratic Convention, the song was carefully edited to make the sentiment entirely positive, when Bruce reminds us that sometimes "the calvalry stayed at home."

"Wrecking Ball"--I finally figure out that this song is about Bruce himself as much as the Meadowlands, that as he rages against age and energy, his entire concert is a dare to the cosmic forces and the young pretenders to "take [their] best shot" him.

"Death to My Hometown" (with Tom Morello)--This song, I realize, with its peppy Irish sensibility and its angry lyrics has become the new CD's "go-to" song.  I realized it after hearing it played during Trivia in a dumpy bar both times I've been there.  Worth owning, if you don't.

"My City of Ruins"--During this song, Bruce talks about the ghosts that are in Wrigley, that are in the band, that we all carry and that are with us tonight, and he does something that few others could pull off.  He asks us to let those ghosts stand next to us for a few minutes.  And I did.  It felt good.

"E Street Shuffle"--This has become another song about age, not because of the peppy lyrics, but because it's a classic deep cut from The Wild, The Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle, which means that most of the crowd, who don't go back that far, don't recognize it and don't rock to it, even though it rocks.

"Pay Me My Money Down"--Hootenanny.  I hate hootenanny.  Just ask the Avetts.

"This Depression" (with Tom Morello)--The kind of song that makes live music essential, because you don't pay that much attention to it on the CD, and then you hear it live and you say, "Holy Crap!  That is a great song."  I think sometimes that I go to concerts to hear songs that I didn't know I wanted to hear.

"My Hometown" (with Eddie Vedder)--Plenty of people don't like Eddie Vedder and/or Pearl Jam.  But he is the male Emmylou Harris, the ultimate singer to sing a duet with.  His voice as counterpart to anyone else's is simply a beautiful thing.

"Darkness on the Edge of Town" (with Eddie Vedder)--Ditto.  And Bruce must agree, because he had Eddie sing the climactic verse of the song.  "For wanting things that can only be found in the darkness on the edge of town."

"Because the Night"--On this night, there were as many as 6 different guitarists on stage, many of them very skilled.  But Nils Lofgren stepped out here and played a solo that blew everything else away, as if the lyrics were "Because the night/belongs to Nils."  The most under-utilized guitarist in any band anywhere.

"Working on the Highway"--He walks far out into the crowd again, this time with just an acoustic guitar, strumming chords that sound both familiar and unrecognizable until he starts to sing.  It's "Working On The Highway," the throwaway song from Born In The U.S.A., but like "This Depression," it works, especially the way the band is so tight behind him, even though he is so far away and even though he usually maintains tight control over the band.  A fresh, professional rendering of a song that now means more than it used to.

"Shackled and Drawn"--I remember leaving to go to the bathroom.  I remember coming back and it starting to rain.

"Waitin' on a Sunny Day"--The song we love to hate, now offered as Bruce's Woodstock moment.  At Woodstock, the man at the mic shouted, "Maybe if we try real hard we can stop this rain."  Bruce used this song the same way, with the same results, and even though everyone is tired of it, we all sang it together anyway.  With feeling.

"Who'll Stop the Rain" (solo acoustic)-- You can't plan for this.  You can't hope for it, because it means that you'll be standing in the rain.  And then when he sings it and you're standing in the rain, you don't care that it's raining.

"The Ghost of Tom Joad" (with Tom Morello)--Why the critics said this CD, and by extension this song, didn't have any melodies, I'll never understand.  Whether you've read the Steinbeck or not, a real treat.

"Badlands" (with Tom Morello)--Back in 1978 when this came out, these, along with "Prove It All Night," were the most important lyrics in my repertoire.  I still get this one.  I still dig it, especially later in the set like this instead of as a concert opener when I'm not quite ready for it yet.

"Thunder Road"--I'm worn out on "Born To Run;"  I'll never be tired of "Thunder Road."

* * *

"Rocky Ground"
"Born to Run"
"Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)"
"Dancing in the Dark"
"Tenth Avenue Freeze-out"
"American Land" (with Morello and Vedder) --Unless encores provide the unexpected, they are more utilitarian than they are worth revisitng the next day. I get that.  For the band, this is about winding down, even while the audience wants to keep winding up, and so familiarity and songs that rock, even though they can play them in their sleep (not to suggest these performances were mailed in--they weren't).  Bruce's line-up of "extra" songs is one that I heard before, in New Orleans, and though it builds to a frenzy and had us all dancing and shouting out lyrics and celebrating Clarence at the appropriate time, this was not my favorite part of the show.  It rocked and it was fun, but 4 of the songs are real warhorses and "American Land" is not as Irishly-engaging as "Death To My Hometown."  Oddly, it is the first one, the quiet one, that sticks with me, that I hum into the night and for days after.  "Rocky Ground."  Great show.  It left me wanting more.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Long Game

Last week, the illegal immigrant my mother regularly hires to do odd jobs around her house was struck by a car. He was riding his bike on the side of the road in Cleveland, Tenn., and someone sideswiped him and kept going. (Why stop for a Mexican who shouldn’t be here in the first place, right?)

The hospital up there wouldn’t take him, so my mother drove up and took him to a local hospital here and filled out his forms. He had a separated shoulder, some ligament damage, bruised ribs and a concussion. A friend of my mom is letting him recover in her guest bedroom.

These two women are not, by any stretch of the imagination, wacky liberals. My mother still worries, just a little, that Obama might be a Muslim mole, for crying out loud. Her prejudices are almost always of those things and people beyond her direct understanding. "Love the person, fear the group," the saying goes of traditional Southern prejudices, and she constantly fights this tendency, but it's embedded in her upbringing.

Before a friend of hers referred "Juan" to my mom five years ago, she was staunchly anti-immigration. Mexicans were lazy, were breaking the law, and should work to make their own country a better place rather than jumping the fence to suck off our collective teat. Five years later, she just wishes it was easier for illegal immigrants to do things the right way, and she doesn't bad-mouth Mexicans anymore. She regularly defends them, in fact.

Make no mistake: even with her personal collection of ignorant fears and prejudices, she is still exponentially a better, kinder and more loving soul than I could ever hope to be. All of my open-mindedness doesn't instantly make me a grand  human being or philanthropist, and alas, I'm neither.

This man has seen his wife and two daughters a handful of times in a decade. Juan is in his early 50s but has the physique of an NCAA free safety. He lives in a tiny apartment with three other men in similar circumstances. At least 3/4 of every dollar he earns goes back across the border for his family. He has paid their way into college. He still lives here only because his second daughter is now attending graduate school.

Almost the only way his daughters know him is through the money he sends. His wife has memories of a time long ago, and that's about it. More than anything else, this is the reality of his life that hits me the hardest. It is the sacrifice I cannot fathom.

Juan despised having to call my mother. He doesn’t want anyone’s charity, and he works his ass off for less-than-standard wages without complaint. Whenever I see him working in the yard or in her house, he has this deep inner peace and outer happiness that baffles and humbles me.

Juan is the walking embodiment of John Adams’ memorable words: “I must study politics and war, that my sons (or daughters) may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, natural history and naval architecture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, tapestry and porcelain.”

Juan is playing the long game. He fights and sweats and toils not for himself, not even for his children, but for his grandchildren. We get impatient when our Netflix movie won’t download quickly enough, and Juan risks his life for a future he’ll never even get to witness with his own eyes.

Juan better-exemplifies The American Dream than most Americans. Maybe that's why so many of my fellow countrymen despise him, demonize him, and fear him rather than work harder to find ways to let him be a real part of what we're doing here.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Wrong Questions

Two men, relative giants in their respective parties, have framed the political discourse for the better part of the last 30 years, each with one line that continues to resonate throughout the strategies of every election.  Both men were wrong.

The two men are Ronald Reagan and James Carville.

The two lines are:

REAGAN:  Are you better off than you were four years ago?

CARVILLE: It's the economy, Stupid!

Lest my essay structure lead you to believe that the lines were originally somehow related, let me remind/inform that then-Republican nominee Reagan's question was asked to the American people during a debate with Jimmy Carter in 1980, while Clinton stragegist Carville's comment was a note written to himself to keep himself focused on how to win the election for Clinton in 1992.

Both lines had some hand in their candidate's victory.  But both ask wrong questions, or imply them.

Reagan's question is meant to heap all of the negatives of America at the time onto an incumbent president.  And while I certainly wouldn't try to argue that a president is not responsible for what happens during his watch or that what were once someone else's problems eventually become his, the reality is that, for any of us willing to reflect a little, life does not progress or regress in neat little 4-year packages.  Am I better off than I was 4 years ago?  Absolutely!  I have one child through college and into grad school, another thriving in the college of her choice, my wife has moved to a different job and is considerably happier than she was in her old one, and my house has been renovated to a far more liveable condition than it was in early 2009.  Does President Obama get the credit for any of those changes?  Not in any tangible way that I can think of.

At the same time, my health care is more expensive, my raises have been sporadic, my 401K equally up and down.  Does Obama get the blame for that?  Not really.  Or maybe some.  It's hard for me to say.

But the fact that there is national health care, better consumer protection, reduced rates for college loans, a winding down of foreign wars, and someone in the White House who has become willing to battle for the rights of women and gay people, those are plusses that point directly to Pennsylvania Avenue.

And, if you went back to the original context, Reagan was talking specifically to voters about their personal finances.  Has this president made you richer, more comfortable?  If not, vote for me. 

Which leads to the second point.  Carville's Post-It note implies this question:  "Is there anything that voters give a damn about except the economy?"  And the implied answer is no, or in some bastardized version of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, the answer is yes, but not until they're satisfied with the economy.

I hope, I pray that is not true, for it is even more short-sighted than a 4-year window of satisfaction?  Consider two things, please.  First, that while we so often counsel children to become part of something larger than themselves, this mode of thinking is the exact opposite, as if the particular economic state of an individual in Little Rock, Arkansas should be that individual's determination of who should lead our country.  Talk about an entitlement!  Spread that thinking over 300+ million people, 2/3 of which have the right to vote, and you can see the complete lack of coherence.  Add to that the idea that the question is only asked to the poor to middling.  The rich do quite well regardless of who is president, thank you very much.

The other way to look at this is the economy itself and what it represents.  The relative strength or weakness of our economy continues to depend on consumers like you and me and how much crap that we don't really need we are willing to buy.  We are urged to consume and consume until there is nothing left to consume.  George W. Bush's first plea to Americans after 9/11 was for us to go shopping.  To focus an election on the economy alone is to ignore all of the other measures of a quality of life.  If you don't have a job, obviously that colors your perspective, but if you think that the actions of a president took that job away, you'd better be pretty sure about that, if that is the only factor in how you vote.

Put Reagan and Carville together and you get:  If elected, we promise to get you more money than the last guy got you so that you can spend more money because that's what keeps America strong.

That is just wrong-headed in so many ways, and moreso in 2012 when we can no longer pretend that our resources are unlimited.

Okay, it isn't really fair to say the Reagan and Carville were wrong.  In terms of the cynical strategies of seeking election, both men are spot on and zero in directly on a predecessor's "weakness."  But what were once campaign strategies are now philosophical benchmarks that people parrot and take seriously completely outside of election language, and because of that, they have done us a great disservice.  That's what their words have reduced us too and, even worse, we've allowed that to happen.

Am I better off than I was four years ago?  Hell, no.  I'm four years closer to death.  What are you going to do about that, Mr. Nominee?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Leaving Facebook

Last Saturday night, I got off of Facebook.  It wasn't Facebook's fault; it was mine, though by the end of this, I may equivocate just enough to implicate Facebook a slight bit.

Here's what has been happening:

I'm not really a Facebook regular.  If I'm bored, I'll get on every few days just to see what's there, maybe update my status if I think I have something that's kind of funny.  I'll click on the "News Feed" and sometimes ride it pretty far, commenting here or there, "liking" when people seem like they need a "Like."  Or "liking" when people expect a "Like," as some people do.

But as I have become more and more deeply entrenched in this political campaign, that has changed.  If you saw what I posted in the last several months, you know how that is true.  More and more links to articles that exposed Romney as the shallow, insincere, and untruthful candidate that I believe he is.  Snotty little comments, when there weren't articles.  Moral outrage.

It only got worse when Paul Ryan came on board as the vice-presidential nominee.  His inability to be honest about anything, it seemed, just set me off from the start.  Yes, I am well-aware that all politicians struggle with the truth, at the very least manipulating statistics to mean whatever they want.

But there was something about Ryan that punched every button I had.  Last weekend's "marathan scandal" only exacerbated the situation.  Though I've never run a marathon, my wife has run several, and so I've lived with them.  I know the training, the sacrifice, the discipline, the toll that they take.  I know the pride that marathon runners take in their times, regardless of those times, because it is the finishing of the race that is the first badge of honor.  Everything beyond that is gravy.

And I also know that no runner that I know doesn't know his or her times absolutely.  From the last workout yesterday to the third marathon 4 years ago, a runner always knows his or her times.  So for Ryan to confuse his time with his brother's faster time was not only a bald-face lie told for no purpose, to me, it also spoke to the character of the man, and it did not speak well.  I knew everything I needed to know about him right then.

But, back to Facebook.  And so, as I went through my routine of scrolling through the "News Feed," I became more like a guerilla than a passive reader.  If there was an attack on gays or Obama or women or or an untruth being stated, I could not let it go untouched.  I had to weigh in on all of them.  Which was not good.  While I felt superior when writing my sentences, I felt bad as soon as they posted.  After all, they were people whom I had friended or who had friended me.

I clicked on one guy's page who "Likes" Paul Ryan and went after Ryan, particularly for the marathon/character thing.

A little while later, I got a message back telling me that what I had done was "inappropriate" and that was "not what Facebook was for."  I was irate.  I fired back, "Oh, yeah?  Well, what is Facebook for then?" and launched into another political diatribe.  I got a longer answer in return that really dressed me down in some detail and with brutal honesty.

And he was right.  I knew as soon as I read it that he was right.  I immediately quit Facebook, realizing what I had become, went to bed, woke up a few hours later, reactivated my account, wrote him an apology, and then quit Facebook again.  And that's where I am now.

Am I secretly advocating that you should leave Facebook?  Not at all.  For some people, it is the best part of their day and it has opened paths of life for them that did not exist.

But I will say this:  Facebook brought out the worst in me, and while that worst has always been there and continues to be there, I have no doubt that Facebook makes it easier for that worst part of me to surface.  And I see it in what others write on there, too.  Facebook does not lead us to be our best selves; it allows us to manufacture a self, if we want.  It allows us to pry, innocently or otherwise.  It encourages us, by its very nature of creating an avatar using only a list of friends (but not too many or too few friends), some photographs (but not too many) and some random comments or references to where a person is at that moment, to pass judgement on each other.  Some are strong enough for that; I don't think I was.

But it also isn't really something you can quit.  Even if you disable your account, as I have done, you are only an email address and a password away from picking up right where you left off.  It's like a dormant volcano.  I guess I am, too.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

You've Got A Friend In Me

An article in Sunday’s Boston Globe was like sunshine on a rainy day. The topic was, perhaps, vanilla enough -- “How Kids Make Friends: And Why It Matters” -- but isn’t vanilla a wonderful thing when we’re so regularly fed a diet of Sour Patch Kids?

In a culture where we all hungrily flock to the next news report about bullies and sexual predators, how wonderful and inspiring to know that experts are out there investigating something positive, something that inspires hope and focuses on the positive and possible!

Let’s get the important details out of the way first:
One of the most significant findings to come out of this growing field is that making friends isn’t the same as being popular: The ability to initiate and maintain close relationships is different from simply being liked and accepted by the group. To make friends, it turns out, children need to be able to carry out sophisticated social maneuvers, screening potential pals for certain positive qualities and making careful assessments about how much common ground they share.
Here’s the other key paragraph:
When you’re little, most people enter your orbit through circumstances outside your control. Your parents, your baby-sitter, your siblings—all are chosen for you. Friendships, in contrast, are almost entirely voluntary: Even if you’re encouraged to play with certain kids, no one can really force you to be buddies with them. Maybe this is why the friends we make when we’re very young later occupy such a special place in our memory: They represent some of our first meaningful choices as autonomous beings.
To sum up, Friendship: A genuine expression of our earliest human freedoms.

When I think back to my childhood friendships, two of which remain strong to this day, the rate of return on happiness is close to 100%. Even if I think hard and try to remember the bad stuff, the betrayals or cruelties, I still think back on them with this warmth and love that is difficult to explain logically.

Truth is, I remember the first friend who felt like my choice. I remember being with all the neighborhood kids, and I was five, and lots of them seemed like my friends, but only, ultimately, neighborhood friends.

And this one kid, he was three years older, and he didn’t look quite like the rest of us pasty white kids. Straight ebony hair in a bowl cut. Big honkin’ glasses. Olive skin. It’s been 35 years, and I still can feel that deep, strange yearning in my child’s heart to know that kid better. Over the next few years, as some of the neighborhood kids moved away, he and I spent more time together. He was the older brother I never quite had, someone just older enough to admire and study and emulate, someone who had time for me. To this day, the importance of his presence in my young life is so overwhelmingly cherished in my memory that I’m typing this through blurry eyes.

Were there occasionally hurt feelings? Hell yeah. And unwise, unfriendly, or confusing moments. There was even a time when I went to bed crying, certain we weren’t goint to be friends anymore and feeling like I had no idea who I was without him.

He is no longer my “best” friend, but I can’t help but think he might be my most important friend. He, more than any other person (excepting my parents), shepherded me safely and thrillingly through my elementary school years and junior high. Even as he left for college up North and I entered my sophomore year, he was this distant anchor for me and our other friend, a constant reminder for us that we would survive the miserable confusion of high school and be OK and go to college and love it.

Childhood friendships. Perhaps if we did spend more time and energy investigating these amazing dynamics, we might find ourselves solving some of the very problems that occupy so much of our attention.