Thursday, November 29, 2012


For the past couple of months, I've been playing Bingo online, using an app that I downloaded for the iPad.  Just tonight, I got an "award" for having won 100 Bingos, so you know that I've been playing it for awhile.  The website has Bingo in any number of permutations, based on the season or the cluster of numbers or the speed of the game or the chances of winning.
It isn't for money.  The only thing that I can win is the "chips" to play more games of Bingo.  

The version that I have settled on is a fast-paced game where all 5 numbers drop at once and you have to place your daubs pretty quickly before the next round drops down.  I like the speed and the kind of race against time.  It also means that people can get Bingos pretty quickly.  

Today's game of Bingo, in case you haven't played it in a long time, like most every other "free" game that is coming out for the iPhone and iPad these days, includes any number of power-ups that increase your chances of winning.  So a  combination of filled squares can get you, for example, a couple of squares that contain "Instant Bingo," meaning that if that number comes up, you win automatically, regardless of what other squares you have filled.

My daughter doesn't get it.  She saw me playing one day and remarked, "So there's really no skill involved at all.  It's just luck."  That's right, just a game of chance.  That's what attracts me and that's what says to her that Bingo is pointless.  

A game of chance.  That is a bit of a misnomer.  Better put, Bingo, like a slot machine, like any number of dice games, is a game against chance.  It's an opportunity to beat chance, to outduel fate, to overcome the odds, to defy logic.  

You know, the older you get, the more the odds are against you.  

Maybe that's why this mindless game is so appealing.  Because it isn't just luck.  There's a certain amount of speed involved.  Each game of Bingo on this website allows for a certain number of Bingos to be won, depending on how many people are playing at that time.  So if you win an early Bingo, it's fairly leisurely, but if you are fighting for one of the late Bingos and any number of anonymous contestants from around the world are waiting for the same number you are to go Bingo, then whoever sees the number and punches the square fastest wins.  There's something gratifying in beating those other people out.  Pavlov said it would be like this, right?

There's also a bit of a Bingo community.  You see the same names in the same rooms.  There's a scrolling chat option where people wear out the smiley faces and all of that like nobody's business.  I don't participate in that.  I just play Bingo.

And there's another aspect to the competition--like every other phone/tablet game these days, there's an opportunity to play better/faster/longer if you are willing to spend money.  I'm not.  So part of my challenge is managing the number of games I can buy but not overdoing it so that I can rack up various "freebies" which will give me a chance to play more later.  It's all about timing rewards and delaying gratification and not going all in if I start to lose.  Because it's hard to make up as much by winning as it costs to play.  That's how they get you.  They think that you'll get so into it that you'll run through all of your "chips" and decide to buy more.

Not me.  I can wait.  I can wait for days, if necessary, collecting the free chips that come from signing on each day until I have built up quite a war chest and can manage my games and my power-ups quite effectively so that I have my best chance of winning when I do play.

Of course, it's all silliness, like any game of chance, and if/when I play it in a sustained way, attrition will take its toll and I will lose.  But that is why we play games of chance, right?  To experience those times when there is no logical reason why we should win, but we do anyway, and we win just enough to forget about all of the times that we have lost in between.  That's life, isn't it?  

Bitches, Man

Say Anything "Bitches Man" from AE Chadwick on Vimeo.

Finally. At long last, and despite having to swim against the tides of cultural groupthink, a woman has stood up and shouted Truth from the mountaintop: It’s all women’s fault.

By “it,” I mean all of it, practically everything ailing our contemporary society, and by “the women,” I mean everyone without a penis. If you don’t have a penis, and if you were born without one, then mankind's problems are your fault. 

The decrease in employment rates for men:
Women are better at studying in systems better geared to their strengths, do more of what’s expected of them by their teachers, professors and supervisors, and then have the gall to take jobs that would, were these bitches at home cleaning a damn floor or dusting or something, have gone to slightly less-qualified men.

The dissolution of the traditional family unit:
As Ms. Venker puts it, “Men want to love women, not compete with them. They want to provide for and protect their families – it’s in their DNA. But modern women won’t let them.” Preach it, sister!

Well c’mon. We sure as shit know that white men didn’t win him the office. Obama only won majorities from the idiots in our society who have bought into some nonsense about how their “group” is “oppressed” or whatever. Women, minorities, Episcopal priests, and cat owners.

The rise in our homosexual population:
Not only have women, by becoming better at busting balls than men and better at moving up the corporate ladder, used their cleavagey clout to push the Gay Marriage Agenda in a bunch of states, but their increasingly testosteroney behavior has also forced men to look elsewhere for wimps and pushovers. And with women ever more empowered at our expense, most wimps and pushovers are now men, so of course gayness ensues. What other choice do men have? (And if you say “Man up,” I’m totally gonna cry on your ass.)

If we men have learned anything in the last decade, it is far more effective, when faced with challenges and difficulties, to blame others for the problem.

And who better to blame than chicks like Diane Court, those greedy nerdy do-everything multi-talented valedictorian girls who steal all the awards from dudes, leaving the dudes to sit on the curb at a Gas 'N' Sip on weekend nights. Or Rosie the Riveter, who was called in to be a substitute but then got all uppity and thought the invitation to do man-stuff was long-term rather than a stop-gap measure.

White men looked a lot more impressive when our only competition was one another, when our swordfights were by God SWORDFIGHTS! Then Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda  showed up on the scene and had the audacity to believe they deserved to compete. And we white guys were like, “Hey, who let y’all in here? You didn't even bring swords!"

As Ms. Venker puts it so well:
“Men want to love women, not compete with them. They want to provide for and protect their families – it’s in their DNA.”
Exactly! Anyone with different reproductive organs has absolutely no right to believe they should compete with us for, like, important things. And nothing is more important to the white man than the greenback.

So thank you, Ms. Venker, for having the guts no one else does, to lay blame where it’s long overdue, and to call out that most guilty and responsible of genders, the female. If it was up to me, you’d be allowed to marry as many men as you liked, because you’re doing pretty well for yourself, and more of us could ride on your coattails, coattails you stole so unfairly from us in the first place! Give us back our coattails!

Monday, November 26, 2012

London Called 32 Years Ago. I Just Picked Up The Phone.

Four Horsemen - The Clash (mp3)

The first time I ever heard The Clash’s London Calling was... six days ago.

Seriously, do you know how fucking cool it is to be THAT late to a party?! I’m so late that the dudes who choked on their own vomit have long been buried, and the gals who got knocked up are already nursing babes to their breasts. It’s in moments like these that I feel like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, but, like, in reverse.

When I pushed play on November 20, 2012, I was as close to a Clash virgin as a modern music lover could be regarding an album Rolling Stone claimed as the best album of the ‘80s and the 8th Greatest Album of All Time. Plenty of other critics have expressed similar high praise, yet I remained clueless.

Sure, I knew “Train in Vain” and “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” the Clash songs that entered the sock hop lexicon of my ‘80s youth, but that was the extent of my knowledge. I’d saved up my Clash Chastity for this moment, and I was ready to give myself over to the ecstasy.

Thirty seconds into “London Calling,” the eponymous first song, the sex analogy held. Waiting for stars to fill my eyes, for that muscle-quaking rush, instead I was just kinda looking around and counting the ceiling tiles, wondering what all the fuss was about. I had to readjust my expectations.

What had I expected? Instant and undeniable greatness? An opening riff to knock me through the drywall? The punk rock equivalent of an apple falling on Newton’s noggin, a crunching guitar chord that had me shouting “Aha! Holy shit!” to the musical gods?

While some of the greatest albums have obvious moments of immortality, most are immortal for the forest, not merely a few pretty trees, and London Calling is indeed a Giant Redwood Forest of musical awesomeness that gets more impressive the longer and deeper into it you explore.

My first surprising realization was this: I expected more Sex Pistols and less Replacements.

As a fairly devoted ‘Mats fan from the mid-80s on, halfway through London Calling, I felt guilty. It was like I’d read The Lord of the Rings trilogy without having first read The Hobbit. Sure, the trilogy still kicks ass, but without Bilbo, there’s never a Frodo! Without Strummer and Jones, there’s no way Westerburg and the Stinsons follow their yellow brick road.

My second surprising realization was how... normal... London Calling sounded. For a cornerstone punk album, it barely sounded punk at all. Sure, the lyrics and the delivery have that punk sheen, an annoyance and anger at the sold-out masses of moronitude, but the song structure and the riffs seemed downright standard fare to my 2012 ears.

In hindsight -- and I’m sorry that most of this will be obvious to Clash fans and others out there -- what was fairly groundbreaking in in 1979 so powerfully influenced the next two decades of rock music, which is to say the music I grew up on, that by 2012 the Clash’s sound hardly stands out. They’ve been assimilated. If the Clash gave the Replacements a guiding light, they served as a buoy for hundreds of other bands who stole their riffs, or their 'tudes, or both.

I feel like Charlton Heston when he saw the Statue of Liberty. But the first time you saw that movie, your surprise was the same as his, and those smart monkeys knew more, and they laughed at you.

Well, you damned dirty apes, I’m catching up... and beware when I do!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

No Great Shakes

Alabama Shakes--"I Ain't The Same (live)" (mp3)

My title is a little bit unfair.  I actually have nothing against Alabama Shakes.  I own their CD, Boys And Girls, have listened to it several times, especially during long car trips, and find it to be a pleasant enough way to pass thirtysome minutes of those long miles.

I also hazard, with supreme confidence, that this first release of theirs will pop up on "Best of" lists  in magazines and on websites and blogs all over the place when it comes to the end-of-year musical reckoning that we all like to do.  In a way, though, that is more of the problem than the Shakes themselves.

Because I would say to you, the collective mass of music writers and observers, that I know exactly what you are doing.  You are looking for the next.  The next what, you ask?  You tell me.

Janis Joplin?  Dusty Springfield? Grace Slick?  Mama Cass Elliott?  Bonnie Raitt?  Maria McKee?  Because it's really about the woman, isn't it? The woman with the big pipes, Brittany Howard, who projects raw power with her rootsy soul like any of those named above.  The one who could be the heir-apparent.  The one who could return southern R+B as a force?

Or am I wrong?  Are you missing the Stax sound?  Are you missing Memphis soul?  Are you looking for that rhythm and groove, where the band establishes a repetitive groove that allows a singer to show off her range?

All I know is that this good little bar band from Alabama has received a lot of press this year, and, frankly, more than they have deserved.  In my opinion.

So where is the hit, the hook, the catchy number?  The songs are good.  It's a good set.  But there is no standout track, no song that separates itself from the pack.  The changes that the songs rely on are standard R+B changes, as are the riffs and the tempo.  Good stuff.  Not great stuff.  Because when it's over, you can start the CD again and feel like you're getting the same solid, undistinguished material that you would enjoy if you were sitting in a club listening to a local club and thinking, "Hey, they're not bad.  I'll have another beer."

Even listening to the CD again as I write this, I can't find the songs that really do it for me.  They're all "fine."

And where is the context?  If this band is to be the Great White/Southern/Soul/Roots/ Hope, then what exactly is it that they are trying to bring back?  Is the singer the new female Otis Redding?  Or are they just a novelty act?  If Janis were alive and kicking, all of these speculations on my part would be a non-issue.  But she isn't, hasn't been, and none of the other women I mention are doing this kind of material, so there's no real competition. Maybe Susan Tedeschi.  Kind of.  That's fine.  I'm all for the newcomer.  But Alabama Shakes strike me as a retro act without a need to go back in that direction.  And I don't see what they've added new to the genre.

And what about the band?  Yes, they can play their instruments, they seem pretty tight, but again, no player stands out.  There is no great solo, maybe no solo at all, on the entire CD, so no one can claim that the band does anything but lay the foundation, set the stage, etc.  Which takes me back to my original point.  Is this just about the woman?  If the band is reliable enough, then she can do whatever she wants to over top of them?

There is an element of music listeners, many women among them, who do not like the ethereal women singers, the "baby-voiced" women singers, the sirens.  They like the strong, assertive woman who knows exactly what she wants and isn't afraid to sing about it in a non-confessional, non-intimate way.  Big, brash, Bessie Smith-type singing.  And they're going to champion a singer like Brittany Howard, a band like Alabama Shakes.

I'm just not sure that this band has enough to justify that.  Usually, Billy and I try to promote new bands and save any skewering for sacred cows.  But I just keep seeing Alabama Shakes name around, showing up on television, on my Ipod, opening for Neil Young, getting mentioned on blogs, and I thought I needed to challenge the hype.

I fully realize what I'm doing, too.  I'm trying to have my cake and eat it, too.  I want there to be great new music, and then when a band like this comes along, I chop them off at the legs and say, in essence, that they can't touch the legends of the past.  But I don't think I do that all the time.  I like a myriad of newer bands for their own, idiosyncratic merits.  This time, I'm just not seeing it, though I promise you, I've tried.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Early Christmas

Funny, isn't it, how the quirks of the yearly calendar can throw off the rhythms of the year?  

Right now, everything is ahead of schedule because the rule that Thanksgiving must be the 3rd Thursday of November pushed that over-stuffed day to its earliest possible date.  And so those of us with the dual threads of history and conspiracy found ourselves "celebrating" (as in, remembering) the 49th anniversary of JFK's assassination at the same time that we were hauling out turkeys and all of the requisite sides as symbols of thanks for the bounty of this great land, for God's place in our founding, even though we are not meant to be an overtly religious nation, even though our festive gatherings carried with them that awful reminder that even as civilized as we think we are, a single bullet can alter what we think we have become.

I started thinking about this when I found a recipe on Pinterest that looked good--a combination of a pecan pie topped with a cheesecake, two desserts that combine remarkably well together.  The woman who posted the recipe is a military wife whose husband was shipping out, and so she had to get Thanksgiving together much earlier than its scheduled date.  We forget those little things about our soldiers.

But from there, everything was out of whack, it seemed.  My little jaunt to see Bruce Springsteen in Kansas City used up a good bit of my monthly salary much earlier in the month than when I'm usually hitting the wall, and so I've spent days budgeting and calculating how I would pay for all of those Thanksgiving groceries and "Black Friday."

That's right.  I'm an outright fan of Black Friday.  I'm the driving force behind whatever members of my family are in town getting up early on Friday morning and driving down to Dawsonville, GA to the mega-outlet mall there to mix and mingle with the crowds of shoppers.  I don't know what it is--I don't have any agenda when I drive down there, and I only went into 4 stores the whole time I was down there.  Some of the time, I just hung out in the car reading a book while the women shopped.  But that wasn't boring.  That was fun.

I like the mass of people on that day.  I like commiserating with the sales people who have been working since midnight.  I like the road trip, the stopping for breakfast along the way and how we travel at least one direction of the trip through Georgia's apple country, stopping at one of the stands for apples and fried pies and a sample of this or that.  I like how it's Christmas at the outlet mall, but it's still autumn in the hilly country of northern Georgia, where that last of the crops of apples, potatoes, squashes, and onions still fill the bins and travelers like us buy the last of it wistfully, even as our cars are loaded with Christmas gifts.

This year, oddly, Black Friday was over before it should have even been Thanksgiving.  That's the kind of year we're in.  Those of us who are school-types will be back teaching before Thanksgiving day even normally occurs.

I know there's not really a way to make Christmas any earlier, but it certainly feels like it's racing towards us anyway.  To some, that may seem counter-intuitive.  In fact, Christmas is farther away than it normally is when we return from these days off, but that reality ignores the overriding reality that Christmas season starts the day after Thanksgiving, and so all of its sights and smells and sounds will overwhelm us all that much earlier.  

My daughter told us today that everyone she knew already had their Christmas trees up and that they knew how to keep their trees alive until Christmas.  Well, sorry, honey, but we've still got almost a week of November left, and I know damn well that I can't keep a tree "alive" that long.  So we'll wait another week to get a tree.  

At the same time, though, in my semi-ironic attempt to embrace Christmas down in my "man cave" (where I write this), I have already decked out the place as the "Room of Misfit Christmas Decorations," where the unwanted ornaments, candles, school projects, candies, and unofficially-unsanctioned Christmas CDs reside, creating a kitschy, but nostalgic and satisfying homage to any year's greatest intersection of the sacred and the profane.  This is, by far, the earliest we've ever had a Christmas decoration up in our house.

Thanksgiving may be for overstuffing with food, but brains can be overstuffed, too.  The last seven days, for me, are so full of Springsteen, turkey, JFK, Led Zeppelin, James Bond, money, shopping, the stuffed and the starving, the many people who get ill around holidays, and the need to be ready--for Thanksgiving, for Christmas, for visitors, for eventualities, whatever--that I get the feeling that moving everything up, as the calendar has, is only making for a longer, faster race.  

Friday, November 23, 2012

Extended Play

Songs removed due to copyright infringement. 
Home From War - Frightened Rabbit
Sometimes He Does - Lori McKenna
Faded Heart - School of Seven Bells

We are on the precipice of the Era of Extended Play.

If you’re not a big music listener, you might not even know what an EP is. The simplified Musical Length Heirarchy goes something like this:
In many instances, “EP” has come to many any release of music that is more than a single and less than a full length LP. The generally-accepted standard has been that an EP will contain 4-6 songs and run between 20-30 minutes in length. Best I can tell, none of this is subject to rules, regulations or standards, so “EP” is truly in the eye of the beholder.

Growing up, I hated EPs. In my experience, they were collections intended to punish true fans, because they cost more, dollar for dollar and song for song, than the LPs and rarely had the same level of consistent quality. Charge the real fans more for afterthoughts solely for the purpose of feeling somehow more knowledgeable than "casual" fans. Yeah, no thanks.

In the past year, I’ve purchased and acquired more EPs than the last 20 years combined. The only EP I ever truly loved before this year was Beaster, Sugar’s 30-minute maglev train to the deepest pits of the angry human heart.

EPs are coming out of the woodwork lately, and it makes total sense in our short-attention span MP3 era of $1 singles and ever-shrinking album sales. An artist with 15 songs could release a single album with the now-expected “bonus tracks” for $10 or less (often $6-7 on eMusic), or they could release three EPs for $4-5 each. The latter option especially makes sense for those with a reliable stable of followers or those aiming to sign a big recording contract. Think of it this way: If you need to hit a bullseye, would you rather have one dart or three?

My pal Bob suggested a similar sentiment this summer when he proclaimed the glory of LPs “Under 40” minutes in length. However, Bob has also admitted several times that he rarely even buys entire albums anymore and generally samples 3-4 songs instead. All too often, even 40 minutes is too long.

The reality of our new world is that we rarely have even half an hour of uninterrupted time in our daily lives. When I bought Rush’s Clockwork Angels last summer, it took me three days to get through the 66-minute concept album. It took me several more listens -- we’re talking weeks now -- to start appreciating (and, OK, mocking... just a little) the storyline underneath the songs. It was exhausting, which is not generally how I derive joy from music.

By contrast, the new EP by School of Seven Bells, Put Your Sad Down, is the perfect introduction to that band’s sound for novices to the band or the genre. Because I’m not obsessed with goth-pop-electronica, it’s the perfect background music for feeling creative and productive, and it’s the perfect length to match my work stretches. It would also have made one helluva supplementary soundtrack for Tron!

Heart Shaped Bullet Hole by Lori McKenna and State Hospital by Frightened Rabbit are both 5-song, perfect-length half-hour journeys, one down a country road with a stubbornly faithful married couple, the other through a small Scottish town with a bipolar tour guide. Both have such raw and naked emotional peaks that stretching the experience out another 30 minutes would almost be too much to bear, which is the way I often feel when listening to Lorraine, McKenna’s 2010 LP. It’s emotionally healthier to get through that thing in a few separate sittings.

Taylor Swift’s latest album -- which I like, mind you -- is 16 songs. One cannot help but seek out the easy-skips of a 16-song set, a way to pare down the experience to a more digestible experience. For my purposes moving forward, Red is an 11-song experience with five castoffs.

When the musical plate before you is five songs, there’s no pressure to find the detritus or cut the bait. It’s a musical experience even the harried and the hectic can enjoy. It’s a sonic coffee or smoke break rather than a full meal.

In the music world, there’s something exhilarating about leaving a meal still hungry for more, a feeling that’s all too rare. I get the feeling we’re going to start seeing more of the EP in the coming years. It’s the right length for our times.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Random Thanks

People around this wondrous globe wait a full 365 days each year to find out what I am thankful for.  I imagine a frustrated bunch, starting to look last midnight, or even yesterday, for my list.

Admittedly, it is a young and random tradition.  I think I did it last year, didn't I?  I hope so, because it's on my mind again, and I'd hate to be pursuing a tradition that didn't exist.  If I remember correctly, last year, my "thanks" were more of a pre- than a post-.  This year, with Thanksgiving 2012 winding down, I'm doing a bit more of a "looking back," factoring in and including some of the events of the day itself into my thanks for the past year.

Either way, there is plenty to be thankful about.  Like anyone who makes a list, I fear the omissions.  Believe me, if you aren't on the list, it's nothing personal.  It's just what's in my brain at 10PM on Thanksgiving night.  Plus, this is the larger-than-the-people-I-know edition of thanks.

1.  I am thankful for Daniel Craig, and how his revival of the James Bond movies has given them greater gravitas and less silliness than previous incarnations.  These films, Skyfall in particular is on my mind, are films that will hold up for years.  What novel concepts--to make a James Bond who is human, a Q who is fallible, an M who is in the line of fire, no particular "Bond girl," save the "gives-as-good-as-she-gets" new version of Moneypenny, a villain who was in the exact same position as Bond at the start of the movie, but without the same loyalty or devotion to a cause larger than himself.  

2.  I am thankful for whoever is behind the idea of "spatchcocking" a turkey, an idea I found online at  Take out the backbone, spread the bird out, put it on a rack above some aromatics at 450 degrees and it's done in 80 minutes.  So much for the all-day, overcooked turkey.

3.  I am thankful for Led Zeppelin, whose 2005 one-off revival concert just released in a variety of formats does indeed give rock and roll a shot in the arm.  Yeah, some of the old warhorses ("Dazed and Confused") don't do it for me any more than they ever did, but fresh takes on "Good Times, Bad Times," "Ramble On," "Nobody's Fault But Mine," "For Your Love," "Kashmir," and "In My Time Of Dying" make me want to rediscover the band all over again.  

4.  I am grateful for the re-election of President Obama.  I've been in a number of places since Election Day.  There are a lot of people who hate him.  Irrationally, I would say.  While I know that Mr. Obama was the right choice, I am equally worried about the role that media plays in our country.  Hatred in America starts on the television and on the radio (and the Internet, but not as much, yet).  I don't tend to pray for our nation's leaders, but I do pray for Mr. Obama and his ability to lead us forward.  Times being what they are.

5.  I am thankful for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Certainly, there have been other teams that have faced adversity.  But I admire how the Steelers keep losing players at all kinds of positions, including, obviously, the skill positions, but they never try to use that as an excuse and they never give up.  If they are able to win on Sunday, it is likely that two players who had a major hand in that weren't even in the organization 5 days ago.  

6.  I am thankful for the Grateful Gobbler walk that has become a Chattanooga tradition.  More people involved each year.  This year, even me.  That 3000 people could get out on a Thanksgiving morning and raise $100,000 for homeless people to live and eat is pretty cool.

7.  I am thankful for Pinterest.  To find this "social" website at a time when I fled Facebook because of politics has been a godsend.  Especially because of that recipe that I made on Wednesday night that put a cheesecake on top of a pecan pie.  From a wife whose husband was shipping out and so she had to put put on a Thanksgiving early.  And she posted the recipe.  And I was one of the many benefactors of that.  Isn't that what the Internet should be?

8.  And, yes, bizarrely, I am thankful for "Black Friday."  Tomorrow, I head down, with wife, daughter, and daughter's friends, to an outlet outpost in central Georgia.  It doesn't have that much of a larger meaning for me, isn't the kick-off to the Christmas shopping season, or any of that.  It's just a fun trip with family.  I may not spend a dime, may not buy a present.  But I will enjoy being among so many people in their casual, but frenetic, motion towards something that seems important.

Off to watch more episodes of Archer.  Yeah, I'm thankful for that, too.  You expected something more profound?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Lost Chores

If the Saturdays of my childhood were a television show -- Billy Saturday -- my parents would have barely earned cameo roles. Their names would show up in the “Also Starring...” section of the credits, and you’d see runs of two and three episodes where they don’t even have a line of dialogue.

In my recollection, my parents’ Saturdays could be wrapped up in a single word: chores.

To them, that’s what Saturdays were for. Weekdays were built for earning a salary; Sundays were spent honoring God and family (which meant we all ate dinner together either in front of the TV set or around the kitchen counter); Saturdays were for domestic maintenance.

My mom’s Saturdays had a definite routine. She would enjoy a quick breakfast and then slink downstairs in her housegown to take care of laundry and ironing. The ping pong table piled up with the folded clothes and towels. She would then go about changing all the sheets on all the beds. She washed windows and mopped and vacuumed. It was an unpaid part-time job that regularly took eight or more hours.

My father was similar, although his duties were more spread out and intermittent. He’d come home from work every night and tend to his garden for an hour or so. On weekends, he would engage in yard work -- landscaping, gardening, hammering away on something or other -- but would frequently take breaks to watch an Auburn football game or a round of the latest PGA tournament, his pipe smoke creating this layered fog that stretched from inches above my head to the den’s ceiling.

Never was I a more independent and free-roaming spirit than on Saturdays.

I woke up and watched cartoons. I made myself breakfast, lunch and, on occasion, dinner. The only factor they played in was in assigning chores. If I had to rake or mow, clean or wash, or paint or till, they would give me the assignment fairly early, and I was not allowed to make plans until their assignment was completed.

In my pre-teen and teen years, I believed any chore was too much to ask of a hard-working college-bound student. In spite of knowing how good I had it, I whined and moaned at even the thought that I should be expected to mow a lawn weekly, much less anything more taxing. What I thought of as “asking too much of me” amounted to one or two chores three out of every four Saturdays, chores that rarely took more than a couple of hours from my day. If I could go back in time, I’d bitchslap myself right good.

Rarely if ever did my chores involve working with or assisting my parents. They would merely come along at some point and ensure that I was doing what was expected with some degree of quality, and that was that.

Here’s my point: I don’t recall feeling neglected by my parents.

Sure, at times I wished my dad would throw the baseball with me a little more, or play a game of ping pong or shoot pool with me. But these were fleeting and vague, wistful complaints. They’re a question of fractions of a degree, problems “easily within the margin of error,” as the pundits love saying. Most of my childhood and teen years were so immersed in activities with friends -- from sleepovers to movies, role-playing games to bike-riding adventures -- that the thought of relying on my parents to entertain or even occupy my free time was laughable.

Whenever my house here in 2012 passes the Mess Tipping Point-- the level of mess where I’m compelled to invest 30-60 minutes of “doing what I can” to pull and pile the mess and my stress back down to acceptable levels -- I inevitably drift back to memories of my own childhood. You see, my wife and I are mid-level slobs.

“Slob” doesn’t mean “hoarder” or “call DFACS” or “rats breeding under the beds” or any such degree of disrepair. It merely means that anyone obsessed with high-level tidiness -- OK, or even B-level tidiness -- will turn their nose up at the general state of our house.

I often say to myself that we have chosen to prioritize active parenting involvement over the upkeep of our home and the more passive parenting of my own folks. This is my defense of our slobbery, yet I can’t help but wonder if this defense holds no water, if it’s just a convenient excuse for me being a slob.

It’s an awkward pickle, because I never grew up eager to one day need to tidy things; I did grow up eager to be a parent. But maybe the part of being a parent where I need the most work is in modeling the value of tidying things.

Ah, such a vicious circle we weave. And for that, awkward as it may seem, I give thanks.

Monday, November 19, 2012

On The Road Again

I blame John Steinbeck.  And Kerouac.  And Ken Kesey.  And Lewis and Clark.  And all of the pioneers who headed west via the Oregon Trail or elsewhere.  I blame Bruce Springsteen and my friend Trout.  I blame Barack Obama.  And my own restless spirit.  And America.  And my students.

There is a simple fact of my life:  given the chance to go on the road, I will most likely go on the road.

The confluence of events this time was too perfect.  Teaching Steinbeck's Travels With Charley to my students again, trying to connect them to the idea of traveling this country with maps and destinations and memories, while spending the last year America-obsessed because of the election, with an electoral focus on states I never think about, all while the Springsteen tour continued and I made Trout a simple deal--if Obama wins the election, I will go to Kansas City.  

I had to walk the walk, even if not searching for the "authentic" America or the original America like my fellow teacher who crossed the country last summer with his young family, using unpaved roads, dirt paths, river beds, and the mere rumor of what used to be a road.

My goals were not so lofty.  I was after great barbecue and an even better concert.  I got both.

Having documented Springsteen shows before, I need only say that this one was the very best, and that I am now a person who has seen him four times on this tour, starting last April, and that is not a person I thought I would become.  Having documented road trips before, I will not remind you of any of my particular idiosyncracies or slight epiphanies.  Or maybe I will.

As any of those historic travelers above would sagely tell you, you don't go for what you wanted; you go for what you didn't expect to get.

So, here's what I got:

--first, I figured out something practical, which I'll pass on to you, since I think have solved the problem of "drowsy driving" once and for all.  Buy a large drink in a plastic cup and fill it as full of ice as possible.  Drink the drink soon.   But have the cup of ice at your side.  It will melt slowly.  If you start to get sleepy, starting sucking on or eating ice.  I promise, it will keep you awake and alert.

--I got a future trip to Kansas City with my wife.  I had only been there once, briefly, over 20 years ago.  It is a beautiful, alive, vibrant city with stunning architecture, plenty to do, and a sensible blend of tourist offerings amidst a solid grounding in its own history.  I can't wait to go back.

--Anytime I think the local version of regional food is not worth the effort, I am wrong.  Case in point:  you can get a Blizzard at any Dairy Queen in the country, but they clearly got the idea from the "concrete" at Ted Drewes in St. Louis, and going 20 miles out of the way to find out how good real frozen custard can be was a worthy excursion to open my eyes to that truth.

--I gained an appreciation for President Harry S. Truman after spending an afternoon at his very balanced presidential library.  It is hard now to imagine that after less than three months as vice-president, during which time he had no contact with FDR, he suddenly became president and immediately had to make some of the momentous decisions in our history--the Potsdam Conference, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, the division of Germany, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift.

--Nothing tastes better than breakfast on the road, a full breakfast of eggs, toast, coffee, potatoes, some kind of pork.  It's funny that if you take a long trip, you will eat all your meals either on the road or at new places, but it is breakfast that captures the essence of the road.

--The ultimate road companion must be one who embraces the music, because music is the ultimate road companion.

But I knew that already.

Friday, November 16, 2012

"I Aim To Misbehave"

When The Avengers took the world by storm last summer, it felt to a certain segment of the nerd population like a reckoning. We were a bitter group of nerds, feeling that our leader's genius and talents were undervalued. And by "certain segment of the nerd population," I mean Browncoats.

I am a Browncoat. Not, like, a captain or a general, mind you. I'm more like a Sergeant Major or a Warrant Officer. Middle of the pack. Joss Whedon is our commander in chief.

Which part of the Firefly mystique is the secret sauce that inspires such devotion even 10 years after its all-too-brief 14-episode run concluded? Is it, as they put it in Browncoats Unite, the notion that this shell of a man had found a crew whose best traits filled the chasms in his own soul? Is it that Whedon was inspired by Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon? Whedon wanted to explore the potentially wild back story that would, eventually, build up to a space smuggler/"scoundrel" finding that nugget of decency and duty, a reversal that would help turn the tides of a universe-wide civil war.

I think what pulls in so many fans is the American obsession with rebellion. Our country was borne of rebellion, and our greatest historical events involve clashes and rebellions, with renegade leaders inspiring some increasingly large mass of followers.

We love rebels when we don't fear or despise them. Sometimes we love them even more when they do scoundrely or scary things (See: Guevara, Che).

"I aim to misbehave." - Mal Reynolds

We all love flipping off The Man; it's usually a question of which Men we flip off. The left currently loves flipping off the Wall Street Man, the CEO, the Womb Barons, the DEA, the INS, and often the po-po. The right extends its ring-clad middle finger for The Gub'ment, The Leeches and The Muslim World.

Do far right types watch Captain Mal Reynolds and think of their own causes? Do they see in Mal a symbolic hero of their cause? Honestly, in both his behavior and his decisions, Mal feels more like a right-leaning kind of rebel. He served dutifully in the army. He's a clean-cut white guy. He completely distrusts The Gub'ment and is all about exercising his own self-determined freedoms. And he's definitely Pro Gun.

And the way the right talks of Benghazi, it sounds as if they're romanticizing the tale of Miranda from the movie Serenity, as if the deaths of four Americans is a far more ghastly event than we regular citizens can grasp from our country's controlled information sources. The right seems to believe that, if all the information about what happened in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, came to light, there would be some kind of Great Awakening not unlike the conclusion to Serenity:

"You can't stop the signal." - Mr. Universe

Frankly -- and this should come as no surprise to those who've seen my reaction to other conspiracy theories -- I just don't see what the big deal here is. Four American deaths are indeed tragic, but they seem to pale compared to the 4,488 American military casualties in Iraq since 2003, the 4,300+ since "Mission Accomplished," and the 3,800 since we "handed over responsibility" in June of 2004.

Republicans are demanding a “Watergate-style hearing” to investigate a possible cover-up in an event that led to four deaths, yet we still to this day haven’t had anyone answer for a lack of WMD in Iraq that has cost us some $800B, 4,400 lives and tens of thousands of casualties. Best I can figure, this is the ultimate instance of gagging at gnats and swallowing camels.

Mal Reynolds would find a different battleground and would take on a different opponent. He would not waste his precious and limited resources on this particular gnat. When it comes to The Secret Conspiracies Behind Benghazi, maybe Jayne Cobb said it best:

“What’re we expectin’ to find here that equals the worth of a turd?”

Or, if you prefer, let’s quote someone more in the spirit of this comedic inquisition:

“Ain’t you got nuthin’ better ta do?” -- Bugs Bunny

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Too Many?

The Who--"Too Much Of Anything" (mp3)
Before it became a joke on Seinfeld, the J. Peterman catalog (with its fictional namesake) was one of the cooler things that came unsolicited in the mail.  Working a kind of Hemingway vibe of a world traveler from the 1930's who had been everywhere from Africa to Europe and indulged in a lifestyle of rugged clothing, manly activities, and feminine, but not fragile, women.  The items in the catalog, mostly clothing and accessories, reflected this lifestyle, and the reader of the catalog was invited to immerse him or herself in this nostalgic world via the little vignettes or scene-setters that accompanied each product in the catalog.  There were no photographs of those products, only colored drawings of them.

And it worked, or at least it did for me.  Among other things, I purchased a long-billed Hemingway fishing hat (that I still have) and crisp white cotton nightgown for my wife, made out of dress shirt material.

But then Warehouse Row came to Chattanooga, that cool-concept-but-never-quite-successful-enough "outlet mall" housed in a couple of stylish, rehabbed buildings downtown, designed to attract the upscale shopper who liked a bargain.  And as part of the complex, across the street, actually, we got a J. Peterman outlet, the only one in existence that I know of.

Of course, we had a certain amount of excitement in anticipation of our first visit.  But as soon as I stepped inside the door, that feeling dissipated.  For in that well-stocked store were dozens and dozens of the same item, some nicely lined up or stacked, some piled into bins.  And that was the end of the J. Peterman mystique.

In the catalog, each item was special, unique, and capable of being rendered only by an artist's palette of inks.  In the store, those same things became just a bunch of mass-produced stuff on sale.  Too much stuff.

The same thing has happened to me over and over, and not just in outlet stores.  My first walk into Anthropologie, where the mix of nice things, overpriced things, and cheap crap sat baldly, without the fairy dust of the impossibly-French models in the catalogs to mesmerize me, was equally disillusioning.

I experienced the same feelings again in New York City a few weeks ago, as I followed my daughter and wife to the flagship locations of international women's merchandise--Zara, Forever 21, Madewell.  Which is certainly not a knock on going shopping in New York City.  The people-watching was exceptional.

But here's a different look at the same issue.  In the many wonderful grocery stores, produce markets, and farmer's markets held in various squares, I saw the same kinds of stacked, lined up, and piled into bins products.  Only this time, they were fruits, vegetables, herbs.  Only this time, they were beautiful.

How is that thirty of the same t-shirt looks repulsive, but red, shining peppers stacked to the ceiling capture the world in all its geometric beauty?  How is that a store packed with shoppers who can barely find a way around each other to the dressing room makes me yearn for the front door, but a market with just as many shoppers stocking up on fruit and other things they won't have to cook in anticipation of a hurricane seems like a beautiful gathering of humanity?

Though that, even, isn't always true.  If I am in a Costco or a large grocery with so many of some perishable foodstuffs or types of produce that I get to thinking that the store can't possibly sell all of it and it will go to waste, I get that same sense of anxiety.  It is joyful to know that there is an abundance of nature's bounty, but not if it will not have the chance to serve its purpose.

Better that it runs out and we have to buy something else?  Better that thousands of people don't own the same thing?  Better that what won't sell is re-purposed long before it goes bad?  Better that a job isn't based on a supply that is not justified by demand?

I realize that those are not questions we are yet willing to answer.  But it is coming.  It is coming.  

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


Skyfall was a well-made action-drama with an appreciation for character depth and some breathtaking visuals. It had the requisite tense and frenetic opening scene, the insane and frightening and slightly gay evil mastermind, and several nail-biting moments along the way.

The 50th Anniversary of Bond films was recognized almost aggressively during the course of the movie, with a handful of references, icons and characters from past films. They were made in ways that winked to the knowledge of those in the know without confusing or losing relative newbies to the Bond brand.

Skyfall earned a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an overwhelming number of critics gushing about the film.

So why did I walk out of the theater feeling disappointed? First I was disappointed, and then I was mad at myself for being so damn picky.

Same thing happened in The Dark Knight Rises. I’d built up the (mostly justifiable) belief that Christopher Nolan could do no wrong, was as close to infallible as a modern-era director has ever been, taking each uptick in budget and scope and never seeming to bat an eye at the challenge.

Such is the natural course of things, the unfair road of time and experience. At no point in the journey can we go backward. Worse, there comes a point in that road where the reward for honing one’s tastes and opinions feels vastly more like a punishment, like an overexposure.

Few of life’s pleasures -- and fewer still of its vices -- are immune from this effect. We either need more of it to give us the same level of pleasure, or we get pickier about the quality. From Keystone Light to high-end craft porters and stouts. From Franzia (preferably not up the butt) to aged merlot.

As a kid, I thought The Cat From Outer Space was a funny movie. Hilarious, in fact. I recorded and watched the Gawd-awful Runaway starring Tom Selleck and Gene Simmons and Looker with Albert Finney (Albert &#@*^ FINNEY!!) over until my eyes practically bled. Far more than half the movies I thought deserved immortality back when I was a kid and a teenager feel beyond torpid to me now. I’d be ashamed of my tastes if I didn’t have a semi-fair sense of my childhood and younger tastes.

When I was 23 and living alone, pinching pennies in a small town, I bided time reading and renting movies from a place that offered “3 for $1.” The selection wasn’t dreamy, but I didn’t care if it ate time while I munched on ham sandwiches or angel hair pasta. Even the crappy movies were tolerable (I’m talking to you, Cutthroat Island!).

Lately, it’s getting tougher to predict my own pop culture tastes, although they’re certainly getting more refined. The sheen of major network TV is getting tougher to enjoy, and the various series feel like the TV equivalent of Britney Spears or One Direction. Once in a while, I’ll give something from the major networks a try and quickly overdose on the sugar rush and the ridiculous level of predictability.

While I can’t trumpet The Walking Dead for it’s plot or acting quality (because both often suck), there’s something deliciously gritty and rebellious about it, the TV version of The White Stripes or Sebadoh. While I can’t dare claim Pandorum was as good a flick as Skyfall, it mined a particularly appealing topic for me -- sci-fi post-apocalyptic zombie mutant movies with lesser-known actors I love (Ben Foster)!! -- and therefore gives me a different kind of joy.

So, dear reader, is it just me? Have you found your tastes mutating or getting pickier as you age? Or do you still love a good episode of Beavis and Butthead?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Why I Love Conservatives

People who know me or who read this blog regularly will read the title above and think that they are being set up.  Here comes the irony, the sucker punch, the trick.  Not this time.  I'm shooting straight, still working on getting this election out of my system.  A lot of people I know seem to be behaving the same way--too many months of time, energy, emotion (and money) to let it all go without processing it.  I've tried to keep my processing positive, without too much gloating or baiting.

So here goes.

I really do love conservatives.  And I'm a liberal to the left of Obama.  How do I know that I love them?  Because I teach them, have been teaching them for 30 years.

I live in one of the "Reddest" states.  Both senators and the governor are Republican.  Even that candidate who ran against the senator up for re-election was another right-wing conservative in disguise.  Despite the national victories for Democrats, in my state, Republicans solidified their numbers and their power in the state legislature more than ever.  My state even voted in the sleazy guy who made national news for being a Pro-Life candidate but who convinced his mistress to get an abortion, prescribed drugs for another of his women while on a date.  So, yeah, I'm among conservatives.

And those conservatives have children.  And they pay good money, plenty of money, to send them to the school where I work and teach.  And teaching conservative students has been one of the great blessings of my life.  I mean that.

I'd guess that in any given year, approximately 80% of the students here are conservative Republicans, though a Libertarian candidate like Ron Paul can capture their imagination.  It is too easy, I think, to claim that they are conservative simply because their parents are.  That would ignore the influence that the South, this city, their churches, their friendships, their relationships have on them.  For these are well-connected students, socially, and the impact of their youth group, their neighbors, their jobs and their volunteer work all factor in.  As does their school, which despite its many liberal teachers, retains its conservative foundation.

But these children are not exclusive.  Quite the contrary.  Sure, many of them have plenty of money that they'd like to hold onto, but they help their school, their teachers, each other, the larger community, other countries.  They pitch in, donate, show up, can usually be counted on.  They don't mind being servants to lead.  They brush off racial problems older people can't get past; they are not as intolerant of gays as you might think.  They may not yet have come to terms with America's growing Hispanic population, but what they have come to terms with that they didn't 30 years ago is pretty amazing.

They don't draw lines based on beliefs.  They cross the aisle, if they are even aware that there is an aisle.  They naturally accept the idea that the best way to solve a specific problem is to build an ad hoc team of the best people to solve it, regardless of what beliefs they might hold that are irrelevant to the situation.

In class, they willing grapple with new ideas.  They do not shut down.  They do not retreat to parental beliefs.  They do not limit their reading.  They give me great hope.  Not all of them, of course.  But most.

Any of my fellow Liberal teachers will tell you the same thing.  They love these kids, not in spite of their conservatism, but because it is one of the things that make them who they are.  The Southern, conservative aspect is deeply woven into their personal fabric.  And it's usually a good thing.  So, while I might disparage the old white men who wield too much influence over the national Republican party, I have nothing but respect for these children who can take the conversation in a better direction.

So while I might engage in non-stop Facebook battle with my age-appropriate Republican counterparts, when I encounter most of my former students in a social media setting, I am encouraging of most any direction that they are headed.  Not only do we as a country need them without the baggage that they don't carry and the potential and the possibility that they do, but I enjoy and love them simply as friends.  I guess that's because I knew them as people first, as students, and I saw all of the amazing things that they could accomplish.  So I hope that they will, even conservatively, step up.

It is one of the things that keeps me going.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Scorpion's Dilemma

If James Carville has made his pundit career from four simple words, then someone in the Republican Party could extend their public life by tattooing these precious words on their metaphorical forehead: Adapt Or Die.

The easy joke, of course, is that they need to adopt the mantra EVOLVE Or Die, but Clint Eastwood praised the vital nature of adaptation in Heartbreak Ridge, and Republicans love them some Clint Eastwood*, so if “adapt” offends them less than “evolve,” it still does the trick.

* -- Republicans hated Clint before they loved him, of course. Before he insulted an invisible sitting President, he was giving one helluva halftime pep talk that the right translated as a pro-Obama ad.

Political candidates should reward those of us who actually want to do more with our vote than look for the little letters inside the parentheses. As a “moderate left” citizen, I sincerely hope Republicans can learn to evolve. I believe to my core that our country needs (at least) two viable and thriving parties, and I believe the most important progress we make as a country has always been when people with differing philosophies and ideals manage to sit at a table and hammer out compromises.

Unfortunately, we’ve had very little of that with our last two Presidents. Bush finagled the right to enact warfare without specific permissions and bull rushed more than a few laws past a vulnerable Democrat Party afraid of looking mealy-mouthed after 9/11. Obama, stymied by a long line of Republicans, their bodies covering the railroad tracks, chose to circumvent laws and etiquette to get things done. The only reason Obama hasn’t been tried for his crimes is because no rational person can blame him for playing dirty pool against the political equivalent of Jackie Gleason.

On election night, I Tweeted that Obama’s first note of appreciation should go to the Tea Party, without whom he could never have been won. Everyone recognizes the Rain-On-Parade power of Ross Perot and Ralph Nader in past elections, but the Tea Party and its far-right cousins have been every bit as destructive in these last two elections?

Like a pack of coyotes, the Tea Party marked their territory and threatens to eat anything that dares cross their line without kowtowing to their strict standards. The Republican Party has become a victim of bullying, but because they despise the word “victim,” and because they’ve downplayed rape and bullying as excuses for abortion and "retards" (thank you, Ann Coulter), they can’t see it. The Tea Party has given the rest of that group a huge Golden Shower, and yet Republicans just can’t figure out why we think they smell funny.

It's no coincidence that Protestant churches are bleeding record numbers. These churches are too often full of the same uncompromising hypocritical rhetoric and vanilla demographics that plague the entire Republican Party.

I’m trying to make this amusing because if I don’t joke, I get really angry. I’m sick of feeling like I have no choice in the ballot box. Everytime someone pops up to give me hope that someone on the Right is capable of respecting Political Moderation -- John McCain in 2000, Mitt Romney as governor, Chris Christie at the moment -- the far right assimilates them.

If the first round of post-election reaction from Republicans is any indication, they don’t want to adapt or evolve. They want to make excuses. They want to blame external supernatural forces. Basically, they want to engage in the kind of bitchy irrational whining that they usually claim is ruining the country.

They don’t want to adapt; they expect the country to adapt to them. They don’t want to evolve; they want to hop in Doc Brown’s Delorean and go back in time so they can share a latte and bagel at the Baptist Church where all the Founding Fathers got baptized.

Even if they wanted to adapt and evolve, I’m not sure they’re capable.

Rachel Maddow can sometimes be overbearing, but her words about the pile of insanity piled upon us by the right is brilliant and perfectly explains why they must adapt before I can seriously consider them in positions of meaningful leadership (click to watch the video):
Ohio really did go to President Obama last night. And he really did win. And he really was born in Hawaii. And he really is legitimately President of the United States. Again. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics did not make up a fake unemployment rate last month. And the Congressional Research Service really can find no evidence that cutting taxes on rich people grows the economy. And the polls were not skewed to oversample Democrats. And Nate Silver was not making up fake projections about the election to make conservatives feel bad. Nate Silver was doing math. And climate change is real. And rape really does cause pregnancy sometimes. And evolution is a thing! And Benghazi was an attack ON us, it was not a scandal BY us. And nobody is taking away anyone's guns. And taxes have not gone up. And the deficit is dropping, actually. And Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction. And the moon landing was real. And FEMA is not building concentration camps. And UN election observers are not taking over Texas. And moderate reforms of the regulations on the insurance industry and the financial services industry in this country are not the same thing as Communism
... if the Republican party, and the conservative movement, and the conservative media is stuck in a vacuum sealed, door locked, spin cycle of telling each other what makes them feel good, and denying the factual, lived truth of the world, then we are all deprived, as a nation, of the constructive debate between competing, feasible ideas about real problems.
Amen, Rachel. Let's hope the Republican Party is an elephant, not a scorpion.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Non-Partisan Political Triumph

Forgot who won.  That's for other people to dissect.  And, sure, I was happy with last night's election results and that may have an impact on how positive I'm feeling as I write this.  But I don't think so.  Because I'm thinking beyond political parties.

Last night was one of the most satisfying nights of my life for a different reason:  because the good guys won. No, no, no, I'm not talking about the Democrats.  I'm talking about you, whoever you are.  And me.  We get to be the good guys on this by the simple virtue of being ordinary, average citizens.

If you waffle, as I do, between the inherent goodness in people and the evils that drive our desires, or between the power of an individual to make a difference, especially in face of large, overwhelming forces and the pointlessness of trying, then let us both celebrate.

Because last night the people, the individuals won.  And they beat money.  I didn't think it could happen.

Forget who won.  Think about who didn't--wealthy people and groups with the legal authority to use unchecked amounts of money to influence elections.

When the Supreme Court issued its Citizens United ruling in late 2009, which led to the rise of the Super-PACs, I could not have been more discouraged, convinced as I was that it was a terrible decision that would change the political landscape forever for the worse.  It was the decision that led fairly-new President Obama to scold the Justices sitting in front of him as he delivered his first State of the Union address.  It was the evil he tried to avoid until, as political thinking dictates, the other side was doing it so he had to as well, but he entered the Super-PAC arena late, so he was both financially outgunned and ethically compromised.  And it seemed like he might not be able to recover from that.

Forget who won.  If you want to think better about your country and your fellow citizens, remind yourself of this:  that average citizens became part of a "ground game" that overwhelmed the Super-PAC ads that ran one after another after another after another in the swing states.

I entered the fray briefly.  The night before the election, I got a text from the Obama campaign asking me to make one phone call to a person in a swing state, reminding him to vote and seeing if he had any questions as to where his voting station was, etc.  All I had to do was to text "CALL" back to the same number.  So I did.  And I waited.  And waited.  I texted again.  And again.  I was convinced that there was something wrong with the plan.  About an hour later, I finally got texted back with the phone number for "Angel" in Florida.  I called, but quickly found out that the number had been disconnected.  But having made the one call, I had the chance to make another one, if I wanted to.  So I texted "CALL" again.  And waited and waited.  While I was waiting around and doing something else, I finally had the epiphany:  the system was not broken; instead it was working perfectly, in fact, so perfectly that I was having to wait so long to get a name to call because so many other volunteers were calling.  That was when I got the first inkling that Obama might win.

What I didn't realize until Election Night was how effective that "ground game" was.  A ground game is little more than people like me and you.  And people like us did some amazing things.  When the Super-PACS swallowed their morals and decided that it was more important to get a sleazy Republican like Todd Akin elected than to allow a Democrat to win, they began pouring money into his campaign, even though Missouri state Republicans had distanced themselves from Akin, perhaps for their own political survival.  But it didn't work, any more than it did in the presidential race.

The Super-PACs bought the television time with their millions and millions and millions, but that couldn't overcome regular people looking past those ads and making their own decisions and helping each other get to polling stations and supporting each other once they got there.

People like us got so pissed off by efforts to suppress their ability to vote that they stood in lines for hour after hour.  Forget who won.  Just know that despite the larger forces aligned against them, people would not be denied one of their basic rights.  Stay in line, and you get to fulfill that right, even if it takes far into the night, long after the polls have closed.

This is a non-partisan political discussion.  One side or the other doesn't have a corner on the market of dirty election tricks or excessive campaign spending.  Just know that this time, none of those tactics or dollars could overwhelm the American people's desire to be proactive in demonstrating their citizenship.  Citizens united indeed.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Man Kills Dog

A dead dog is not front-page news unless you're trapped inside a PD Eastman children's book.

You’d think this would be an obvious no-brainer kind of statement. Except apparently the Chattanooga Times Free Press didn’t get the memo, as an accidentally-euthanized dog swallowed siginificant column inches right below on Saturday, November 3.

Way back when journalism school mattered, when being real journalists mattered, when newspapers mattered and weren’t bleeding profits and quality like gutted pigs on meathooks, the words “Man Bites Dog” were shorthand for what determines newsworthiness. That is, what makes news is not the usual, but rather the highly unusual.

But we’re in a different culture now, and newspapers are in a different financial situation. Now, titillation and emotion-tugging are of vastly higher value than intelligence or citizenship.

We have human beings among us who honestly, sincerely believe that (some arbitrary portion of) other living creatures have every bit of right to life and the pursuit of happiness as homo sapiens. I’m friends with these people (or was until they read this). I’m related to at least half a dozen of these people.

If insanity is a dart board, then placing doggie death anywhere on the radar in comparison to human death -- in degree of tragedy OR newsworthiness -- is closer to the numbers on the perimeter than the Double Bullseye, but it still scores points. The people who believe a dead dog is front page material are, in most instances, on the same scale of crazy as far-end Tea Party members, the same people who believe carrying a firearm into church is somehow a part of God’s plan.

Many of my animal rights wacko friends and relatives have repeatedly claimed that Michael Vick should have been put to death for what he did with and to pit bulls. This belief placed them on the same Spot Of Insanity as Tucker Carlson. It also suggests that Michael Vick is a more evil human being than the mother of Jesse Mathews and every bit as evil as Mathews himself. If you can read this feature on Kathleen Mathews and justify this to me, please do so.

My neice once told me, “I’m not for the death penalty, but I’d make an exception for Vick.” She even offered to “pull the lever” herself. That people have ascribed such a level of evil to Vick would be laughable if it weren’t so frightening to me.

But I digress. This isn’t about Michael Vick. This is about a dog, accidentally euthanized, showing up on the front page of a newspaper. The dog snapped at, possibly bit, a pizza delivery guy. The dog had no collar, no tag. Mistakes happen. I’m certain that the animal center that screwed up was immediately looking into what might be done to make admittedly-symbolic reparations for the error, and I’m sure they would have done this without a front-page story. Were they not willing to negotiate reparation, THAT would be news. Maybe.

The Tragic Tale of Zion The Dog is indeed a sad one. But -- and you can disagree with me, but you’re wrong -- it’s not news. Not now, not yesterday, not tomorrow. That we are in a place, culturally, where this could be discussed or debated by rational adults suggests to me just how far off the beaten path of valid priorities we have drifted.

Today is Election Day. It’s time to get our heads right, America. Let’s -- all of us -- return closer to The Middle, a vital, crucial, underpopulated place in our culture where human life is valued, where human problems are a neverending Niagra Falls of water crashing down upon us, where Obama isn’t a Muslim Manchurian Candidate, where Democrats aren’t Stalinists and Republicans aren’t Nazis, and where dogs are just one of the many species whose existence is vastly improved thanks to human beings.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

On Being Wrong

One of our greatest quirks as human beings is our general response to being wrong.  Point out an error that we have made and our reaction is likely to be anything but a clear acknowledgement that, yes, indeed, we acted, spoke, behaved in a way that we shouldn't have.

Quickly, and at first, we might actually blush, might feel a bit of shame or embarrassment, but those feelings quickly pass and are replaced by some kind of defensiveness.  Perhaps even approaching resentment or anger.

It is possible that we are somehow wired this way; certainly, at least in this culture, we are socialized for it. And I'm not even talking about indiscretions or scandals that we might get caught up in.  Just think about doing a less than perfect job.  Imagine a president, for example, who tells the country that he mishandled a crisis in some way.  He would be crucified.  He would be pecked to pieces.  The assault on him would be relentless.  No, he must always project strength, and strength means never having to admit that you are wrong.

It is even possible to see this as a trait necessary to our survival, that genetic code I mentioned.  In the wild, weakness can mean death or captivity.  Neither those we are trying to protect nor those that we are trying to protect them from have any respect for or confidence in someone who has made a glaring, perhaps fatal, mistake.  Show your throat and someone or something will gladly gash it for you.

So what do we do?  We respond to criticism with criticism.  We fight fire with fire, or, to mix the metaphor, if the analysis of our wrongdoing is illuminated and analyzed for too long, we bring a gun to that knife fight and escalate the proportions of our mistake.  Or, like the good personal spin-doctors we are, we act proactively and try to cover up the error before it ever comes to light.  That last tendency, of course, is a one-sentence history of modern politics, the mistake that compounds the original mistake.

"Say it wasn't you" says the hip-hop song.  "Deny, deny, deny," says the political handler.

But, if denial of wrongdoing is either an instinct or a cultural necessity, what a mixed blessing that is.  For in trying to save ourselves, we instead doom ourselves to defensiveness.  And defensiveness leads to blindness.  It is far too easy for us to convince ourselves that the original mistake wasn't all that significant, or even, over time, that it didn't really happen, that those criticisms that we've conjured up to counter our accuser become the real problem, the replacement truth.  And then we're off the hook.

Still, I like to think that at the cores of our beings, we know when we have been wrong.  Maybe only when we're alone, in the dark or on a long car trip, do we take one of those wrongs out and examine it and press it like a bruise to see if it still hurts and then put it back in its hiding place securely.  And, yes, I like to think that there is still a slight soreness there, a reminder to try not to be that way again.

But I'm not sure.  The outside forces in life are very powerful.

Personally, I'll take it even one step further.  For I have a personal quirk.  It involves those times when I get accused of doing something wrong that I did not do.  Talk about your righteous indignation!  I tell myself that I am honest enough with myself that I know when I've done wrong and know the feelings of shame and embarrassment that come with that.  But charge me with crimes I didn't commit, and I'll capture the moral high ground faster than you can blink.  At least in my mind.

And then I'll shut down.  I'll retreat.  I'll avoid and move away and move on. I will no longer engage.  We will not debate the matter.  You will not have your say.  It's a rare chance in this life to say no more.  There are other people, other places.

Our modern world obsesses about trying to find out who made the mistakes whenever things don't turn out perfectly in a world that is in no way perfect.  I don't find that particularly amusing, even in an ironic way.  For example, Billy has mentioned how he has cooled towards football.  I, too, have cooled toward sports, mostly because a Saturday afternoon of watching football turns into a compiling of mistakes and things that went wrong and who is to blame for that.  And Saturday evening television and Sunday's newspapers and sports television for the rest of the week until the next game can't shake its focus from what went wrong.

And given the randomness of life, I believe there is not always a reason, at least not one that can be reduced to a particular person and what he or she should or shouldn't have done.  Maybe sometimes heads shouldn't have to roll.  Maybe sometimes the greatest fault is in being the fault-finder.

Thursday, November 1, 2012


Nothing Is Real - Goo Goo Dolls (mp3)

Sharks swim through the New Jersey streets... but not really.

Soldiers stand firm against the torrential downpour to protect the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier... back in September.

Scuba divers swim through the New York Subway system... thanks to computer editing.

Hurricane Sandy has become a real-time experiment intermingling the real, the inaccurate, and the false into a single narrative that even news outlets fail to accurately fact-check.

Pop music has become equally surreal. It is possible for a human being to record a hit song without once playing an actual musical instrument, without one shred of his or her real voice actually making it to the recording. Is what you hear in that song her voice? Are those real drums? Is that a guitar or a computer program? Had Milli Vanilli come to the scene in 2012, they could have "sung" their own songs thanks to autotune.

For seven years, the Tour de France has no winner. The original victor, along with most of his competitors, were performing in a competition based on bionics and biochemistry. Half of our sports records seem to deserve some kind of asterisk.

Politics, too, has become Photoshopped. Mitt Romney is nothing but an empty vessel into which each of us inject our own hopes or fears. He stands for nothing that can't be dry-erased and edited in a matter of minutes with a new presser in the hopes that enough people will superimpose onto him just enough of the qualities they seek for him to win the necessary 270 electoral votes.

In fact, if Romney wins the election, his first moment alone will be to look into a mirror and wonder exactly who got elected. Not even Romney knows what Romney will stand for as President; he only knows what he has to say to this crowd, that group, the next fundraising party, the Tea Party rally after that.

Barack Obama is hardly better. Just ask the boatloads of Americans who voted for him in 2008 only to feel like he betrayed their expectations of his leadership. Many of these embittered "NObama" voters are merely transferring their loyalty from one empty vessel to another, having no clue where their new USS Romney will take them or what they might encounter on the journey, only knowing it will be a different one than their current four-year Obama Cruise.

Even our news and information is Photoshopped. Fox News and MSNBC are nothing more than news organizations with an airbrush, morphing current events them into something more palatable to their target audiences. Our news has become barely distinguishable in its ethics than fashion magazines that long ago gave up verisimilitude to feed us the beauty we -- or the editors -- wish to see.

We are in The Age of Misinformation, an era where we're still getting duped even when we're not busy trying to fool ourselves, an era where the mission is to control the information not for any loyalty to notions of "truth," but for the ability to manipulate people.

If this seems unfairly dark, I beg someone to cite a single modern-day news source implicitly trusted by even half of Americans, a politician trusted by half of us. If you're thinking the name "Jon Stewart" to yourself, haven't you confirmed my fears?

In The Matrix, their fake world is an entirely separate construct inside a computer program. In reality, The Matrix is an airbrushed sheen covering our everyday real lives, constantly leaving us fooled or uncertain, wondering who really shoots our Presidents, who really blew up our buildings, who really decides elections, who really has their phones tapped by our government.

But at least we have each other, right? Real, normal people? In the flesh? That's real. That's true.

Isn't it?

UPDATE (8:40 a.m., 11/1): Media critic Eric Deggans has a new book, Race-Baiter aimed at some of these media challenges, specifically, it would seem, as it pertains to race.