Monday, April 30, 2012

Human Touch

Bruce Springsteen--"Human Touch (live)" (mp3)

NOTE:  Having had an extraordinary experience at New Orleans' Jazzfest last weekend, I find myself wanting to draw larger conclusions from that experience.  I plan, for the reader's sake, not to dwell so much on Jazzfest itself as on what it revealed to me about the human condition.

Think for a moment of your day-to-day interactions.  How many people do you see in a day?  How many do you talk to?  How many do you pass by?  How many get close to you, maybe even violate your "personal space"?  Most importantly, for my purposes, how many do you touch?

Is it not amazing that when we ponder the human race on this substantial planet, we base most of our conclusions on the hundred or so people with whom we might have significant contact in a given week? 

Shift gears to a large music festival like Jazzfest.  Probably, even before walking inside the festival gates, we've had encounters with many more people than that--overheard conversations, observations, sizing ups, maybe even a few smells, bumps, or jostles.  All of those people wanting to get to the same place at the same time. 

All of this came to me when I was standing at the edges of a massive Bruce Springsteen concert last Sunday.  My friends had decided to stake their claim on a close spot and therefore to spend their festival day in one place near the front.  I imagine they have their own observations about this topic.  I had been 15 or more places by the time I reached the imminent Bruce concert late in the afternoon, and so I had to try to carve out a kind of last-minute place to stand.  I chose one of the walkways that led into the concert on the right side, and there found a place to stand behind the sea of chairs and blankets in front of me.

"Do you think it's okay if I stand here?" I asked the woman next to me. 
"It's fine with me," she said.  "I'm just looking for my brother and his wife out there."
"Good luck with that," I said, gesturing to the mass of humanity before us.

The place where I quickly established my squatter's right stood at the edge of an informal thoroughfare.  And even though the population density in front of me seemed as if it could handle no more, people streamed behind my left into all of those people.  Sometimes, they side-stepped and maneuvered their way to my right as well, those people who had outposts that they needed to get to despite the tight quarters.

As this continued, most people that passed behind me either bumped me forward or hit my elbow or brushed me with their portable chair or rubbed me leg to leg or tried to take up their own residence.

It does something to you when you get touched that much by that many people.  At one point, I decided I would just count the touches for a minute and extrapolate from there to try to figure out how many people I had come into contact with.  But when I tried to keep that mental count, it broke me quickly, the simultaneous bumping and the attempt to keep count of it.  And then the steady movement inward, followed by the ways people move once the music starts, and then the steady movement back out after three or four songs for those whose expectations were not met for whatever reason, meant that contact never really ended.

But what does it do to you?  I was not angry or irritated; I was not overwhelmed nor was my concert experience undermined.  I didn't even get claustrophobic. I just sort of withdrew inwardly and absorbed the blows like a fighter, not wanting so many body shots to be able to take any kind of toll on me.  I kind of said to myself, as I think back now, yeah, I'm a part of all of this, and much as there might be a temptation to put myself above it, I couldn't.  It was a place I had entered willingly and I could not distance myself from it.  All of us were hot, sweaty, crowded, purposeful. 

Most people I know, myself included, claim to want to avoid crowds, claim to want not to go to the places where the crowds are, but then that same crowd becomes the essential, collective "organism" whose one voice and one sound spurs on a performer or even a movement.  We claim not to want to stand in line to get what we want, but we also know that if the line wasn't there, we probably wouldn't want it, whatever it is.  Who wants to go to a rally for someone/something no one else cares about?  Who wants to eat in a restaurant that no one else thinks is any good? 

Attending a festival is a good lesson in the larger humanity that we avoid on most days.  We meet a larger sample of those fellow citizens whom we don't know.  We remind ourselves that others in a given situation want no more than the same thing we want (a space, a vantage point, a tasty foodstuff), and that is no crime. We discover that most people are polite and mannerly and apologetic if they intrude.  Most of all, we realize that we are a part, not separate.  Most days don't teach us that.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

"Not Racist."

Common People - William Shatner feat. Joe Jackson (mp3)
Tennessee - Arrested Development (mp3)

Some serious bitch of a lady has written a piece on “Hipster Racism” over at Jezebel.com. It’s received some 96,000 Likes on Facebook.

I call her a “bitch” not because I am a sexist ass clown, and not because she’s a bad person, but rather because she, in a single column, opines repeatedly in ways that would lend one no other conclusion than that Lindy West must be a bitch.

Today I’m taking off my PC badge and placing it on the sink. I’m Sergeant Hulka, and it’s time to kick some whiny white opinionated butt.

The very first published sentence I ever wrote was a confession that I was a racist, sexist, homophobic white male. It was true in 1993, and it is true in 2012. I wish it weren’t. Every day I go to bed hoping I am fighting the good fight and being a better person in matters of discrimination and prejudice, but I never wake up the next morning thinking I’m clean or faultless.

Look in the mirror. Are you white? Then as your doctor, I have some bad news for you: You’re racist, too. White men are born like alcoholics and cancer survivors. Racism and sexism courses through us like carbon dioxide.

It’s not a terminal illness, but it’s nothing you can completely cure. The best we can hope for is to be in remission, to be on the wagon.  We can all work, every day, the rest of our lives, to be less racist than we are today, and our children can improve upon our efforts.

Ms. West, a woman about whom I know 0.04% of nothing, is a bitch because she is snarky and over-the-top superior as she compiles the many ways white people are capable of being racist while believing themselves not racist.

Ms. West is incredibly gifted at acknowledging and damning the syrupy ironic sarcasm in others whilst spewing out gallons of it herself. Ms. West thinks she’s the Dexter of hipster racists. Because she’s out there stabbing the really obnoxious ones, she is a more noble kind of serial killer.

Maybe she doesn’t fall into any of the traps she mocks or identifies, but that doesn’t render her some white queen of blameless behavior or thought. She is the KONY2012 of hipster racism, and I just don't think she deserves to be an unscrutinized heroine.

On our last trip to New Orleans, my three middle-aged white cohorts and myself came up with a fun new game. It was inspired by the time-honored tradition of adding the words “in bed” or “between the sheets” at the end of all fortune cookie fortunes.

Somehow -- and I don’t remember the specific moment -- we realized that you could include the words “Not racist” at the end of virtually anything you or someone else ever said and instantly make it seem like a racist comment.

“God I’m starving. When do we eat? Not racist.”
“That is the best gin and tonic I’ve ever had. Not racist.”
“What time did you wake up today? Not racist.”

Is this game some hipster ironic smug version of racism? Frankly, I don’t know or care. It’s funny. It’s especially funny if you play it in an elevator with lots of other uncomfortable white people who don’t know the game.

Seriously, it’s funny. Not racist.

It’s even bolder if you play the game with them and they don’t know it. Except it might get your ass kicked, because white people don’t like being called racists.

Not even redneck mega-racists from mega-racist Mississippi like being called racists. Even their black friends defend them and all of the vomit-inducing things they do for racist amusement. To read this Newsweek report after reading Lindy West’s column just makes me more disgusted with m'lady.

She can argue that my mere reaction -- that I find it more horrifying that punk rednecks in Mississippi are running over black men than the depiction of "slumming" in Lush's "Common People" -- makes me racist. Hell, maybe it does. Maybe Zoey Deschanel really is more dangerous to the future of unity and world peace than violent drunken hate-spewing Southerners.

Ms. West seems to have created her own expertise on What Is Funny and What Is Racist, and she seems comfortable insinuating that she is (a) Totally Funny and (b) Totally Not Racist Like All You Asshole Hipster Racists. All of which seems to be, intentionally or not, pointing to how much more Not Racist she is than her idiot hipster white brothers and sisters.

At best, Ms. West, you’re better by a teensy matter of degrees. So long as you’ve got a melanin level on par with mine, and so long as you grew up in a family of white people, you’ve got it, honey. You’re racist, too. So get down here and help dig us out of this mess, or shut your smug ass up.

Not racist.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Sport

David Bowie--"Big Brother" (mp3)

 
I've pretty much convinced myself that Mel Kiper is Big Brother, the face of the government.  That may seem excessive for America's #1 expert on how the NFL draft will play out each year.  But think about it. His looming, pseudo-benevolent visage on the television almost anywhere we go, his sudden appearance and then instant credibility, his forecasts and prognostications, our inability to remember what he might have said in previous years and whether any of that turned out to be true, the sheer security of his pronouncements, how his hair is styled so that it tends neither to the right or to the left in these times of divisiveness--all of these things speak to a carefully-crafted persona.  Plus, if he'd bleach his hair, he kind of looks like Max Headroom. 
Mel Kiper keeps us calm.  He knows more than we know.  We must listen to him.  And nod.  Because he cares about us.  He wants us know know how the draft will go, and how crucially important that is to all of us.  And then we care.

Or maybe, as I've suggested in other contexts, we are indeed living in Brave New World, that government-controlled "utopia" where citizens are distracted from any real concerns by mood-altering substances and sports.  That's right, sports.  And the more expensive those sports are the better.  These days, sports take every kind of entertainment dollar there is from us and much of our time--television, film, Internet, phone apps, video games, clothing, beer, poster art, books, magazines, spectating, concessions, underwear.


Sports are heroin.

Actually, it was Billy who put me on to this kind of thinking a couple of weeks ago.  He was lamenting that, even though he would still participate in Fantasy Football next season, he was otherwise weary of all things Pro Football.  His blasphemy shocked me, until I realized that I agreed with him.  And, I fear, my malaise has spread even beyond his. 

For I am tired of sport, period.  You say sports. I say sport.  Football, basketball, hockey, baseball, soccer, golf, tennis--they all feel like part of One Giant Sport.

There used to be sports seasons, just like there used to be winter.  Baseball into Football, Football into Basketball and Hockey.  Oh, yeah, a bit of overlap, but the only interest was about the actual season.  There wasn't so much information about the post-season or the pre-season.  If someone got traded, there was always a day or two of surprise, a sense of loss if a player you liked was traded away from your team.  But that was it.  Only serious sports geeks subscribed to The Sporting News and knew anything more than that.

This past season, the NFL never really ended.  No sooner had we wrapped up the Super Bowl than the Peyton Manning situation started getting analyzed and parsed 24/7 on television and on sports pages and on the Internet, and its drawn-out resolution led into Saints-gate, the "hits for pay" headhunting plan that landed them in the crapper, and then the NFL Draft.  And, actually, all of those stories overlapped each other, vying for the hundreds of talking heads' attention and insight.  Even Charles Barkley weighed in on Saintsgate.  We have so many "experts" now that their expertise knows no bounds.  They will opinionate about anything.  And while they do that, they also continuously break down what has already happened and what is happening.  We can watch players work out with Jon Gruden.  That's legitimate TV.  Hell, we can watch quarterbacks watch film with Jon Gruden!  That's totally legit.

Have you noticed how all of the scandals just flow together? There's the hit on Hossa in the NHL, the Saints headhunting program in the NFL, the "inadvertent elbow" of World Peace in the NBA, violence, violence, and more violence.  And we like violence in our sports, but I think we like controlled violence, don't we?  The "big hit" and the "hard slide" and the "good check," not Elle taking out Tiger with a 4 iron or the cheap shot after the play.  But even when the sports news strays away from the field of play, we still stay tuned in.  From Tiger's texts to Brett's penis to Petrino's young lady, we've seen it all, we take it in stride, boys will be boys, it's a rough game, he'll land on his feet, he never did any of that when he worked for me.

I'm with Billy.  I'm getting a little sick of it.  But I'm not entirely sure what to do.  If you drop sports, go through the shakes and the other symptons of withdrawal, you may feel a little better, but you'll be left out of the conversation, out of many conversations, since sports, even the criticism of sports (which still requires the knowledge of it to have any credibility) is the language of America.

Obama's not a bad player, but he can't make NCAA picks for shit.  Boehner is a better golfer than he is.  There are jokes that suggest Nick Saban is bigger than the president.  The goal of any self-respecting multi-millionaire is to own a sports team.  All of the sports are like strands of a cable, spun and twisted together until they are so strong that they can bear the weight of anything.

You can't walk away from all of it.  You can't put all of your expertise into European sports.  That's side meat.

And Mel Kiper?  He's made himself a paragon of prediction, so integral to the last six weeks of our lives that we actually find ourselves quoting him to each other.  I've had at least three friends do that very thing.  Once in a while, when he's not too busy listening to his own hype, he's got to be shaking his head and laughing and thinking, 'Who ever thought that a guy like me would get three months of concentrated airtime every year to talk about a draft consisting of players, very few of whom will have an immediate impact, some who might break out in a few years, many of whom will never play substantially?   And all I have to do is to create a little doubt, a little controversy about team's choices while being absolutely certain about mine.  Even though I don't play or coach  Maybe tomorrow, just for the damn heck of it, I'll suggest that RGIII has done some things in the last week that have raised his star just a bit higher than Andrew Luck's."

Unless, of course, Mel Kiper isn't real, which is entirely possible.  A sexy guy like that, why isn't he dating a supermodel?  Why isn't he golfing with Mario Batali?  Why hasn't he had any decent scandals?  What if he's just an actor who puts on that hair and starts pontificating, saying whatever it is that the government wants him to say that will both reassure us and keep us oddly off balance?  Mitt Romney could do a whole lot worse than picking Mel as his running mate.  I'd probably vote for him.  It's not a huge leap to suggest that a man who can nail down the NFL draft can likely fix the economy as well, or at least show us all how to make a killing on Wall Street.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Doppelganger Trilogy

You Lost Me - Sleigh Bells (mp3)
Meltdown - Ash (mp3)

Who are we?
Whom do we trust and why?
Where do we turn in a crisis?
Do we know our own core essence? Do we even have a core essence?

Over the course of six years, director John Carpenter made one of the most thought-provoking B-movie trilogies of modern cinema: The Doppelganger Trilogy.

Few people know this because I just made it up. It wasn’t an official trilogy. And B-movies are, by general definition, rarely thought-provoking.

If the name John Carpenter seems familiar, yet you can’t quite place it, here’s some of his directorial efforts: Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China, Christine, The Fog.

The Doppelganger Trilogy began in 1982 with The Thing, consider by many to be his most underrated movie. Starman came in 1984 and, while a critical darling, fell on a deaf audience. The trilogy was completed with They Live in 1988.

The Thing is the closest of the three to a traditional horror film, and also the most bleak. Set on a remote Antarctic outpost, the film celebrates our human ability to struggle and fight even in the most fatalistic scenarios.

Starman is the most optimistic of the three. An alien civilization accepts our invitation, comes to visit, takes the form of Jeff Bridges, and learns the many ways humans are quirky, fun, and occasionally ball-jarringly violent*.

Finally, you get Rowdy Roddy Piper and They Live. That Carpenter picked a professional wrestler as his lead, as a character named “Nada,” sets the tone quite nicely. Mr. Nada faces off against a population of super-intelligent robot-aliens who have infiltrated and overtaken most of our upper crust and now control our media and corporations. They manipulate and hoarde while we humans, naive lemmings of the universe, buy and spend and work without the slightest hint of thought or introspection.

In the first, no one survives. (Sorta probably.)
In the second, everyone survives; some are even resurrected; and a new life will come soon.
In the third, They Live.
Which is to say, we don't, 'cuz we’re wasting our lives and might as well be dead.

They Live is the cheesy, full-length sci-fi translation of the famous line from Shawshank Redemption: “Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.”

In all three movies, the plot revolves around alien lifeforms who take human form. The alien can mimick us -- our appearance, our behavior, our language. In all three movies, it becomes clear that we have no easy way of identifying Us and Them.

Yet, this simple concept spawns three very different chains of events in the films and helps chart a compelling philosophical journey. It’s a plot device older than Shakespeare and one of the Bard’s favorites, but it's so much cooler when it involves aliens 'n' shit.

The Doppelganger Trilogy is not so much about the deceivers as about how we react to being deceived. By watching all three films, you are comforted that there are no simple unifying answers, no easy solutions, no clear binary choices or scenarios. The only true sin is choosing to ignore the deception altogether.

Lying to yourself to preserve your own comfort or deny your responsibilities is the unifying sin.

Ambition modestly executed lives longer for me than perfectly-concocted vanilla. John Carpenter will never be accused of having James Cameron’s marketing savvy and meticulousness, or having the genius eye of Scorsese, but this Carpenter was no hack, either. His best moments were B-movie bold and A-movie ambitious.

* -- (Side Note: The alien gets to hang out with Karen Allen, whom I find to be one of the most intensely attractive actresses of the ‘80s. She’s not traditionally model-hot, but the way she carries herself, and the power in those huge eyes... not all the feathered-back locks and hairspray in the world can create whatever sexy engine runs Karen Allen.)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Man Work

Joe Jackson--"Real Men (live)" (mp3)


I used four different tools today--branch cutter, super-extended branch cutter, saw, and a kind of pick.  I'm not even sure what it's called.  Yeah, it was a real man day.  I cut, pulled, raked, dragged, mowed, wheelbarrowed, unloaded, spread, planted and cut down the biggest tree limb I have ever tackled in my life.

"A man who cannot use tools is not a man," says Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman.  And he was right. 

I should know.  I used the crap out of them today.  And, guess what, I didn't use any pansy power tools.  I used man tools.

See, real men who know how to use modern tools and who know what the right tool for the job is are wimps.  They get out chainsaws to take down trees, which, to my thinking, is kind of like fishing with hand grenades.  When they want to cut a small limb that is 14 feet up and their super-extended branch cutter has a red line that you are not supposed to extend beyond, they don't extend beyond.  I do.  Why?  Because I simply don't know any better.  Check that.  Because I think that I know better.

Men like me who only venture out into big-boy world when we have to, when our property demands it, tend to fashion themselves "lawn care MacGyvers."  That's right, we use things not for what they are really for, but for how we think we can use them.  I don't know if that's because we don't really know what they are for, and some kid in an Ace Hardware shamed us into buying them because all of the men were, or if it's because we really are some kind of super-evolved beings who can look at a yard situation, know what we have in our arsenal, and put the two together in ways that none of the other billions of people on this planet have ever thought of.

Obviously, I hope it's the latter.  But, beyond hope, I can make the following ample boasts:
1.  I have cut down a limb with a 7-inch diameter with an 8-inch saw.
2.  I have sawed upside down.  (No, I wasn't upside down, the saw was.  Try it, sawing upward against gravity is not for the timid)
3. I have used a saw to free a saw that got trapped in a tree while sawing.

I suppose the latter needs some explanation.  When you don't know what you're doing and you tackle a large limb, you start sawing from the top, knowing with certainty that if you can saw deep enough, gravity will take care of the rest.  And that's what happened.  But at that point, the limb splits as deeply as you have sawed and the rest stays attached to the tree.  And logic told me that I could saw through the remainder with no problem.  But physics told the tree that as I sawed deeper, the weight of the limb would settle and close the cut I was sawing into, trapping the saw. 

So how to free the saw trapped by sawing?  I tried sawing a thinnner part.  That worked a little.  I tried sawing upside down.  That worked a little.  I got the branch cutters and tried to cut through the very thinnest part of remaining attached limb.  That worked a very, very little.  So I got the pickaxe and tried to pummel through the remaining connection.  That worked some.  What really worked was doing all of those things over and over repetitively, making miniscule progress from each technique so that eventually the weight of the limb had to pull itself down. 

Yeah, I was proud.  Yeah, the trapped saw came free.  Yeah, I sawed off the excess, trimmed up the tree.

And now I have a huge limb lying in my backyard and I have no tool on my Bat-belt that will deal with it.  Except that one I've already mentioned, the chipping away at a big thing using a number of small techniques.  Not MacGyver, really.  More like The Count Of Monte Christo in prison digging out a few handfuls at a time.  Oh, I have another ally, too.  Time.  Eventually, the thing will simply rot away.  I don't know, though, that my wife will give me those 10 years to spend.  We'll see.

Chances are that in the weeks ahead I'll tackle other problems just as stupidly--try to lift something I can't lift, try to break something with my foot that won't break, stand on something to try to get at something that I can't quite get at even on my tiptoes, cut at a limb that's bigger than the cutter, try to saw down part of a tree from the top rung of a ladder.

Given the infrequency with which I purchase lottery tickets, coupled with the odds of winning, it is unlikely that I will ever strike it rich by scratching silver panels off of a card or by choosing a series of numbers.  But my chances of winning a Darwin Award?  Very, very good.  But if I go out, I'll go out a man.

Sorry, I know I've posted this song before, but it fits so well.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Walking Dead, a.k.a. Dick Clark

If I Get Old - Elliott Brood (mp3)
Man Who Sold the World - David Bowie (mp3)

Dick Clark didn't die this week. He died a while back but no one had the courage to tell him.

I know this to be fact because, for the last seven years -- he suffered a stroke in December 2004 -- Dick Clark's talking corpse has been showing up on his annual New Year's Eve special on ABC. In-between his annual appearance in Times Square, I've pictured him being housed in some barn like they did the zombies on the farm on season 2 of "The Walking Dead."

Am I being too harsh? Am I being disrespectful? Unfair?

For seven long, grimace-bearing years, Dick Clark has been one of the biggest post-NYE water cooler topics in the country. For seven years, you run into someone after the holidays, and you are almost guaranteed to ask the following questions to one another:

(1) What did y'all do?
(2) How drunk did you get?
(3) Did you see Dick Clark?!?

It's quite macabre that the third most-popular question surrounding the ringing in of a New Year is the embarrassing and sad state of an old man whose ego couldn't handle going gently into that good night. But this was the choice of Dick Clark. He was the circus freak who didn't seem to know it. Or, even sadder, whose "handlers" and wife couldn't work up the nerve to tell him.

Dick no longer has to live with that choice, but I am stuck with those memories, memories of a zombie ringing in the New Year, and those memories are Dick Clark's fault.

By no means does this render meaningless the long and awesome history of Dick Clark. The man was a pop culture planet all to himself. American Bandstand was still going strong during my childhood, but it was the $10,000 Pyramid (and eventually the $25k & $100k versions) where I grew to love the man. I loved that show and still to this day watch it every time I come across it on GSN.

Some even take umbrage of how Clark made his money off the backs and creative efforts of the musicians who performed on "American Bandstand," but I'm not sure he's any more awful for doing this than the precious few and superpowered record companies that used similar greedy tactics.

Please don't misinterpret: I never wished Dick Clark dead. I only wished and hoped and prayed he'd stay the hell off all TV screens.

Didn't Johnny Carson teach us anything? What an amazing exit that guy had. The way I remember it, the minute that cat lost just the teensiest part of his grip, he decided to call it quits. And when he left, he left. He was done. No guest appearances. No Very Special Episodes. No annual appearance on some program he owned and controlled. He just said good night and enjoyed a little something we normal people call "privacy."

I don't know a damn thing about the detailed personal lives of Johnny Carson or Dick Clark, but I know which one I think more fondly of. The way we choose to go out says a lot about us. And, in my opinion, Dick Clark chose a way that dragged us down with him, unnecessarily. While I'll always respect his place in popular culture, I'm not quick to forgive him for the way he went out.

May he rest in peace. May it not be televised.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

It Was a Good Day

Straight Outta Compton - N.W.A. (mp3)
Endangered Species (Tales from the Darkside) - Ice Cube (feat. Chuck D (mp3)

O’Shea Jackson is America. O’Shea Jackson is the American Dream.

O’Shea Jackson is the story of success and self-loathing, of a culture that values transcendence but also mocks it.

O’Shea Jackson is the story of our eternal wrestling match with hypocrisy.

You might know O’Shea by another name: Ice Cube.

When David Wooderson stands against the outside wall of the pool hall in “Dazed & Confused,” smiling as the hotties walk by, he offers this now-immortal observation: “High school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.”

David Wooderson is stuck. He’s not adapting. He’s not growing or changing. He’s in his 20s, barely getting by, and escapes his misery by chasing 17-year-old girls. We like laughing at him, not with him.

Cube went from Straight Outta Compton and AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted to Laugh Now, Cry Later.

Cube went from Boyz In The Hood and Friday to Are We There Yet? and... a TV version of Are We There Yet?

Cube went from selling St. Ides in 1993 to pitching Coors Light in 2011. Coors f*#king Light!!

Ice Cube entered the American cultural stream as the scary black man from the hood who’s pissed off and might well cap us in our sleep. His message: We’ve stolen from him, not the other way around. He made a bunch of money bringing that message.
I got six and I’m aimin’ ‘em
Will I shoot or keep you guessin’?
Cause fuck you and that shit you stressin’
His Doughboy was the secret heart of Boyz. Many people don’t know he wrote the screenplay for Friday. The reason I was always mesmerized by Ice Cube is because you could see the soft and sensitive human being underneath the scars and scabs, beneath the armor and anger and defensive distrust.

The flytrap of gangsta rap is success. Once you start raking in cash, making a name for yourself, you can’t really stay a gangsta, can you? If you insist on keeping it real, on living the gangsta life, they have a name for you: dead. More than a few rappers died of heart disease or AIDS or drug overdose well before they hit the big 40 (and I don’t mean another bottle of St. Ides), but death by disease is better than by slug or scattershot.

So instead you wear nicer clothes, maybe even start a clothing line. You start acting. You prove that you have more sides to your character, that you're 20 times as complex and diverse and creative as Matthew McConaughey. Because to stay in the gang is to be David Wooderson or to die.

O’Shea Jackson has been married to the same woman since 1992. They have four children of their own, and he had one from a previous relationship.

Ice Cube is the American success story of a man’s progression from an angry and neglected young black man in the heart of one of the toughest cities on the face of our continent, to a cultural and financial success.

And people despise him for it. We say he sold out.

We long for his previous characters. We wish he still brought the Doughboy cred. We wish he still had the stones to say F*#k tha Police. We wish he was still smoking fat blunts on the front porch with Chris Tucker. Instead, he’s producing a bad Cosby-meets-Brady knockoff TV show on TBS and shilling the whitest beer on the planet, a beer founded by some dude named Adolf.

Ice Cube survived. Ice Cube thrived. But we call it "selling out."

We do not approve of this. We do not like it, Sam I Am.

How long can a black millionaire remain outraged? Can a man living in a mansion legitimately rap about being pissed off, being disrespected, being in a gang in South Central, cocked and ready to confront the injustice of the people who spit in his face?

My Ice Cube music collection stopped after 1993, and I haven’t seen a movie of his since Three Kings. But I’m glad he’s still out there, and I’m glad he’s not still rapping lines like
steady mobbin’ is not just the name of this jam but a way of life
bound together by motherfuckers that’s known
to break ‘em off somethin’
'cuz that would be weird, coming from the mouth of a 43-year-old millionaire writer/actor/producer.
Ice Cube decided he’d rather be judged by 12 than carried by six. Can't we just be happy for him?

Pardon me while I go kick back and crank out "It Was a Good Day" and celebrate one of the best rappers the world will ever know. And I'll raise a cold mug of Coors Light in his honor.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Strange Evening

Rameses B--"Game Of Thrones" (mp3)

Last night, I read the whole night through.
It wasn't what I'd planned to do.
I don't know how it came about.
The strangest night without a doubt.

I guess when my wife has a trial,
I am a clock without a dial.
A child at work, a child at college
Left me to seek my own knowledge.
And time to do just as I please,
At that, I think, will nothing sneeze.

I read first from an actual book,
And shifted over to a Nook,
Not really, I just need that rhyme;
It was a Kindle that took my time.

I read while my wife studied law,
I read while my dog licked his paw.
I read while sitting on the pot,
I read while cooking something hot.
I also flipped a magazine
While eating from a soup tureen.

Oh, no, I didn't drink a beer,
Or I'd have gone to sleep, I fear.

I might have watched some brief TV
But that doesn't fit this story
So I'll let it be, except to say,
Game Of Thrones, Season 2, Episode 3.

I read about the delta blues,
Made me want to put on my walkin' shoes
And travel with Muddy and Sonny Boy
Whose Chicago licks turned blues to joy.

And, yes, I even read the news,
Or Newsweek, as the case may be,
A story about LBJ's presidency.

I also read A Feast For Crows,
The fourth installment some say blows,
But I enjoyed it nonetheless,
That game of thrones remains endless.
Some readers want all excitement;
Me, I'll take the character development.

When I set down that hefty tome
Made lighter in its digital form,
The front door opened, my girl was home,
And evening resumed its gentle norm.

By then I'd had enough of books,
The trial long prepared,
The supper long cooked,
So I said goodnight and headed to sleep
But not without a Kindle to keep
Me company for a little longer
Until the need to sleep was stronger.

A boring tale, some of you may say,
But only, I suspect, those sans children in their heyday.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Will My Children Get Married?

Little Talks - Of Monsters and Men (mp3)
Suspicious Minds - Dwight Yoakam (mp3)

My children might never get married.

This thought stirs a fear that flits around in my head like a dirty moth.

My instinctive recoil risks making me the stodgy grandpa, so stuck in his own history that he can’t adapt. Statistically, I need to accept that at least one child likely won’t marry, and at least one child will likely get divorced. Only one-fourth of 20-somethings are married today.

My skittishness for their not marrying is actually a fear twice removed: that their children, my grandchildren, might be born and raised in a single-parent household. (The odds of a cohabitating couple living together the entirety of a child’s growth to adulthood is less than a married couple.)

There has to be a reason, Darwinistically speaking, that babies are formed from two people. I’m not trying to sneak in The God + Adam + Eve Argument here. To me, we have reached a time where gender roles are more malleable; two women or two men can raise a child (at least debatably) on par with a heterosexual couple.*

This isn’t a religious thing to me, though. It’s about numbers.

The only acceptable reason to be a single parent in this country is because you have no choice in the matter. Divorce, or death, or a crippling illness or incurable mental infirmity, and any number of life events can render a home with one parent, or with parents divided. Shit happens. People adapt.

But... to choose singularity? To consciously choose to have a child without the clear and present support of a second loving adult?

The one thing I wanted in life -- more than anything else, so much that it wasn’t even a stated objective so much as an assumption -- was to have a family. I wanted to be a husband and a father. I wanted a wife and children. Growing up, no matter what the future held for me, I could not envision scenarios where I would be unattached from family yet also happy, satisfied.

If this seems like a soap box about the Priceless Institute of Marriage, puhhleeeze. To naively dream of heaven via domestication is fodder for endless sitcoms and tragic modern lit, and no one knows this more than those who dared such dreams. Some would mock me and my domestic dreams, and rightly so. I often mock myself.

Studies are now clarifying the value of married couples raising kids. To no one’s real surprise, a marriage only helps if the marriage is healthy, if the couple with the tied knot are mostly sane, mostly together, mostly capable. Rings alone don’t make great parents.

So we come full circle to the “slow death of marriage” statistics. My gut reaction: Maybe people are finally starting to figure out just what marriage means.

Fewer are getting hitched? Is that, like, a problem? Isn’t that exactly what someone with a respect for marriage should want? Let’s be honest. It ain’t all wine and roses, a walk in the park, a fairy tale with Happily Ever After. It ain’t Ozzie and Harriet. Hell, it ain’t even Ralph and Alice or Edith and Archie.

Many of us WASP-types grow up longing for marriage and parenthood, and we’re sold Disney-polished myths when maybe a few Grimm Fairy tales might have better-prepared us. Marriage is not the evolutionary necessity that childbirth is. Acceptable alternatives to marriage can and will thrive in the future.

What I cannot believe, however, is that our culture can evolve to the point where a single parent is consistently better than or consistently as effective as two. The value of two parents, two loving and capable adults over the value of just one is not judgmental poppycock; it’s basic math.

* -- You wanna put fundies in a tizzy? Ask them which is a better environment for children to grow up: unwed and unattached single mothers or a gay couple. They feel absoultely obligated to first say that both are very very bad. Very bad indeed. Bad bad bad. But if you keep pushing them, you find that the ones who think first of the child tend to choose the gay couple, and the ones who think first of immovable doctrine tend to choose the single mom.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

How To Prepare For A National Election

Sufjan Stevens--"Too Much (live)" (mp3)


No, no, no, this is not about politics! Wait! Come back! I know you don't read political stuff. We've learned that over the years on this blog. I promise, this is not about politics. I promise. This is about America.

Regardless of which way your preferences tend, there is one thing that you will have to concede: the candidates know your country a lot better than you do. All of them. For months, even years, they have been to the major cities, the small towns, the unknown corners of states we may know only by name.

Most of us don't have that luxury. It's not an easy thing to mobilize and venture out to inhale great gasps of miles in one or more directions. Even harder now, I suppose, with gas prices, though I would argue that adulthood and responsibility are the real deterrents.

Me, I haven't taken the great cross-country trek for 11 years. In the summer of 2001, I spent about 6 weeks studying Lewis and Clark in Spokane, Washington. Before that, I took the trip with wife and baby daughter in June of 1990, at least as far as Colorado and New Mexico. Even earlier, in 1980 I traveled from Philadelphia to Santa Cruz, literally coast to coast. And the first time, in 1978, I drove with college roommates to visit a college friend who lived out in Colorado.

So here's what I'm suggesting, times being what they are: take the great American trip, but take it with John Steinbeck.

In the summer of 1960, John Steinbeck and his poodle, Charley, undertook the great journey, a travelogue captured in his wonderful little book, Travels With Charley (In Search Of America). They took a northern route across, through Maine and South Dakota and Washington, and came back along southern roads, through Texas and Louisiana, among others.

In his words, "Thus I discovered that I did not know my own country...I knew the changes only from books and newspapers...So it was that I determined to look again, to try to rediscover this monster land. Otherwise, in writing, I could not tell the small diagnostic truths which are the foundations of the larger truth."

I found many pleasures in the book, chief among them, perhaps, the realization that so many problems that we, with our short memories, feel are utterly contemporary--waste, nuclear threats, the plethora of tasteless fast food, military spending, the anonymity of interstates, urban decay, guns, illegal immigrants, our basic cowardice, the blandness of religion, racial confrontations--were issues that Steinbeck encountered on his casual journey. There was some comfort in this for me. I know that seems strange. But the reality that our current morasses were neither recently created nor ever solved with any finality says to me not that we are a hopeless case, but that we are still a work-in-progress and that we have as much chance of finding some solutions as those before us. I never went in for that "Greatest Generation" bullshit anyway.

But that's maybe getting too political. The day-to-day joy of reading the book came from Steinbeck's (and Charley's) meetings and conversations with random citizens and with each other--the savory and unsavory characters that we are bound to meet when we leave the comfort of our familiar paths and interactions. Each one of those characters, those encounters, the observations that followed served to instill in me that feeling of what it's like to be on a long trip which may or may not have a destination, the reminder that even if we know where we're going, we have little control over what happens in between the departure and the destination.

And I felt in touch with America again. Yes, it was the America of my youth and the book stirred some nostalgia in me, but these days we tend to focus on how different everyone is, due to outlook, religion, race, or geography, but Steinbeck's trip succeeds in capturing the things that we have in common. I won't elaborate on those; I suspect what you see will be different from what I saw.

Yes, take the trip with Steinbeck, if you can, but also realize that he left wife at home, child in private school, and every other responsibility that holds us back, to confront something that he thought was important. And he's not even sure that he succeeded in his mission. That's risk. He concludes like this: "I do know this--the big and mysterious America is bigger than I thought. And more mysterious."

What better preparation for what will doubtless be a divisive national election than making our country too big to swallow instead of the small, digestible bites of what we think matters that our media feeds us each day? It takes a writer to show us what we do and don't know, without neat packages and easy answers, and John Steinbeck is that writer. There's something about this book that makes me say, the heck with "the issues," what about the country? Who are we? What do we share? I wish I could explain it better. Read it. Maybe you can.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Push THIS!

Push It - Garbage (mp3)
The Proposal - Hard Drugs (mp3)

You remember back in the ‘80s when AIDS took over the collective conscience of our country? The way I remember it, a crack team of CDC scientists were searching desperately for Patient Zero and the mythical monkey who transmitted the HIV virus.

The idea is, by tracing the problem to its origin, you can more efficiently eliminate the contagion.

Well, I’m starting a new mission, and I need a few smart and motivated people on my team. Our mission: To find the person who invented the notion of Push Presents and quarantine his/her ass for eternity.

Don’t know what a PUSH PRESENT is?? Well, let’s go to Wikipedia!
The term "push present" first appeared in a publication in 1992. There is, however, no conclusive evidence that the present was invented by the jewelry industry to sell more goods, and until recently it was passed on largely by word of mouth or peer pressure among both mothers and fathers. According to Linda Murray, the executive editor of BabyCenter.com, "It’s more and more an expectation of moms these days that they deserve something for bearing the burden for nine months, getting sick, ruining their body. The guilt really gets piled on."
According to a BabyCenter.com survey, more than a third of new mothers received a Push Present, and more than half of pregnant women expected one.

What. The. &#$%?!?

We are now living in a time and a culture where the birth of a child -- emerging from the womb of a female, cradled mewling and wiggling in the exhausted mother’s arms, considered by most to be one of the biggest everyday miracles on our planet -- is no longer sufficient reward for suffering through 40 weeks of gestation.

"Ohmahgawd honey, you were amazing. Are you ready to hold the baby?"

“Yeah whatever. I guess so. But first, what the hell did you buy me for all that hard work I just completed?”

Ladies, if you want to kick back and say that I’m just an insensitive male who fails to appreciate the misery of pregnancy and the pain of childbirth, go ahead. You’re wrong, but go ahead. I’ve witnessed three children born naturally, without any pain relief, and I’ve been present for practically every day of those 120 weeks of pregnancy.

While I wouldn’t dare suggest I know what it’s like, I sure as hell have a sense of things, and it ain’t a damn walk in the park. Nor is it supposed to be. The misery has a purpose, and it's one of the biggest reasons that men are regularly, frequently, much shittier parents than women.

To repeat: The baby is the reward. The baby is the gift. This is that unusual yet real moment where the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow exists and is worth every step of the journey.

When I mentioned push presents to my wife tonight, she told me that I actually gave her gifts after two of the three births. That’s great. I gave her gifts because I felt moved to do so, not because there was some add-on invented cultural expectation with a name that pressured me into it. In general, expectations suck, and no one should know this better than a pregnant woman.

I’ve decided that Cersei Lannister, the queen beeyotch of Game of Thrones, is the perfect character for determining wrong v. right. Ask “What Would Cersei Do?” and know with complete confidence that the exact opposite is the right and good and moral thing to do.

Cersei Lannister would expect a push present.

Therefore, in conclusion, expecting a push present is evil, to be placed right there alongside Sweet 16 birthday megaparties and Bridezilla-friendly weddings, both of which Cersei would also love.

So who's with me? We need to hunt down the originator of this nonsense and get medieval on his or her ass, and we need to do it stat.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Get Up, Stand Up

R.E.M--"Stand" (mp3)

The social commentator A.J. Jacobs synchronistically wrote a backpage piece in Parade magazine last Sunday in which he took on the issue of standing up. It is a topic that has been on my mind for the last half year or so. Not as in politically or for a cause or for what is right or any of that. Just the act of staying on his feet.

Jacobs, who is kind of like Joel Stein, though not quite as funny and far more inclined to take an idea to the extreme--among other feats, he has already read the entire encyclopedia and "lived Biblically" for a year--spent an entire week standing, more or less.

The reasons why are not sheer silliness. As he notes in his Parade piece, "If you're chairbound for more than 23 hours a week, you can be 64 percent more likely to develop heart disease. Sitting may raise blood pressure and blood sugar levels. And it places you at risk for various cancers."

These are not random statistics. This kind of cautionary information emerged last year from one or more medical studies. And the facts spoke to me because the particular job that I took 7 years ago has lent itself to far more sitting at a desk than my previous incarnation as a full-time teacher. I was not the teacher type who likes to sit down while he teaches; I liked to use the board and to gain some classroom control by constantly moving around the room.

So, today I took the plunge. I had asked last year if I could swap out my current traditional desk for a standing desk, but that had gotten caught up in a bit of red tape--approval from my "division head" needed. And I had thought that with the upcoming office renovations I would have no trouble transitioning to a standing desk then. Until the money for those renovations dried up.

But then my "division head" got interested in the idea himself during a late-afternoon conversation we had several weeks ago, and he built a makeshift standing desk for his computer and has school carpenters building him a more permanent structure.

So even though I was the one pushing the idea, he actually beat me to the punch. But today, I figured it out. I measured where a standard desk touches my body, then stood up and took the same measurement. And then I started looking around my office and there sat the solution--a coffee table with books and pottery and school schwag on it that stood at the same exact height as the apparatus that I would need. After an afternoon of throwing out, creating new piles, having students help me with electrical cords, and a bit of scrubbing, I now have a makeshift standing desk. I am nothing if not the Macgyver of office solutions.

So I will be the poster boy, the pioneer, after all. His office is tucked away, while the windows in my office open my space broadly to everyone passing through the main thoroughfare of the school. I will be the one who gets the questions, the raised eyebrows, the chuckles, the endorsements, the doubters and the cheerleaders. Tomorrow will be tough, and I don't mean because of the onlookers, as will the days to follow. Jacobs equates the experience to feeling "like [he has] to safe-deposit boxes attached to [his] legs."

My wife has a law partner who has done it. "It takes a long time to adjust to it," my wife said. "She has had to change the kind of shoes that she wears and everything."

Clearly, as I learned today just from the few hours of getting the whole thing set up, the pseudo-boat shoes I've been wearing, with no cushioning and little support, are not going to do the trick. Maybe the current industrial carpet in my office won't do either. I may need to look into one of those Gel-Mats that you can get for your kitchen that cushion from leg and lower back pain.

I've known this feeling before anyway. Anyone who cooks, and who cooks for a large or special event knows what it is like to stand for an ungodly number of hours over a series of days, when a "good night's sleep" does nothing to rejuvenate that deadness in one's legs. I experienced that just this weekend, so maybe I'm ready to make that a chronic condition.

Maybe, when necessary, I'll just remind myself that, as Jacobs says, all of that sitting is "smoking-unfiltered-menthols-while-eating-cheese-fries bad" for you and maybe that will keep me on my feet. As for the questions, I picture myself making a sign about the health benefits of standing (or, rather, the health detriments of sitting) that I can just point to after awhile when I get tired of answering queries. And there are some things I can't imagine doing standing up, like reading. I'm sure you can imagine others.

But who knows? Hemingway always wrote standing up. Stonewall Jackson ate standing up. Daniel Day-Lewis takes Madeleine Stowe standing up in The Last Of The Mohicans. So there must be something to it. One thing I've already learned is that if I am standing when people come into my office, they remain standing, too, so perhaps I'll be spreading health benefits to all. Not students, of course. They're still at the age of invincibility. They'll be plopped in my many unused chairs.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Paragon: When Others Win More (Xtranormal)


Episode 4 of my intermittent and random Xtranormal series, "The Paragon," is now up and running.

When Others Win More

Horn Dog and LionWolf discuss the direction and future of their supergroup, The Paragon. Lately, another group in town, The Super Defenders, have been doing a better job of protecting the city, and Horn Dog thinks it's time for leadership change.

Cast of Characters:
  • Muffy -- Team Captain and S&M freak
    (Seen in Episode 2: "Horn Dog: Technidiot" and Episode 3: "Superteam iPad Program")
  • Horn Dog -- Longtime member whose son, Horn Puppy, attends an expensive private school
    (Seen in Episode 1: "Horn Dog & Crew Cuts" and Episode 2: "Horn Dog: Technidiot")
  • LionWolf -- Loyal hero with super strength but girlish voice
    (Introduced in Episode 4 above)
  • Bowie -- British member of The Paragon. He's the smooth bachelor of the group and frequently gets booty calls from Muffy
    (Seen in Episode 1: "Horn Dog & Crew Cuts" and Episode 3: "Superteam iPad Program")
  • The Russian Robot Brigade -- Unfrozen after two decades in suspended animation, the Russian Robot Brigade still fights to protect the USSR from capitalist pigs. Russia has revoked their citizenship, so they must remain in America
    (Never appeared, but a constant source of agitation)
  • Big Red -- The baddest mofo in the Russian Robot Brigade
    (Never appeared; first mentioned in Episode 4 above)

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Every Little Soul Must Shine

Paul Westerberg--"Mr. Rabbit" (mp3)

Even those of us who find ways to avoid going to church have our own little private Easter celebrations. I've been planning mine for a couple of days--after several days of cooking and entertaining my daughter and her friends, while they're all gone to church, I'll take a cup of coffee down to my basement, I'll open the large basement door out onto the world where the day is slowly heating, the flies are buzzing against my screen, and the squirrels on my roof cleaning out my gutters for me, and I'll put on "Mr. Rabbit."

As performed by Paul Westerberg. Yes, I'll indulge my naive spirituality in this children's song with its tenuous Easter connections:

mr rabbit, mr rabbit
your coat is mighty grey
yes, bless God it's made that way
every little soul must shine
every little soul must shine

mr rabbit, mr rabbit
your ears are mighty long
yes by God they're put on wrong
every little soul must shine
every little soul must shine

mr rabbit, mr rabbit
your ears are mighty thin
yes bless God, they're splitting the wind
every little soul must shine
every little soul must shine
every little soul must shine
every little soul must shine

mr rabbit, mr rabbit
your eyes are mighty red
yes bless God i'm almost dead
every little soul must shine
every little soul must shine

The beauty of Westerberg's version is that he knows it's a children's song, probably even recorded it for his son at the time, but he sings it with no condescension, somehow elevating it to the much more than a child's ditty that it always was. It's a neat trick. I don't know how he does it. Maybe simply with the age and authority of his voice.

I love the give-and-take of the song, the way the unnamed questioner is always looking at the rabbit with a critical eye, challenging his condition, and how the rabbit always says something that counters the challenge, but with a kind of deterioration. I play a kind of game with myself each time. I don't allow myself to remember what will come in the next verse, so I can be surprised by the rabbit's response. As I work through the verses, a consuming pleasure each time I listen to the song, I am reminded each time how the rabbit's "defense" of his condition lessens with each verse.

The challenger who starts each verse is ungenerous. He's the person we've all known, that we've all been, who points out the obvious as weakness, who identifies those parts of ourselves that we can do nothing about and expects us to respond. The rabbit counters him with self-effacement, with stoic resignation, and, more than anything, with grace. "Every little soul must shine," he concludes each time, repeating himself each time for emphasis. What more beautiful statement is there? What does anyone say to that? To challenge that statement is beyond inhuman.

I've not heard the Burl Ives version of the song, and though I continue to admire his narration and singing on the "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer" Christmas special, I am certain that his version doesn't have the layered sophistication of Westerberg's treatment. Paul Westerberg, in the midst of a casual double album full of false starts and where he releases a song where his son turns off the recorder in the middle, where he does whatever he wants, gives special care to this song, particularly taking all of the reverb off of the lyrics "Yes, bless God, I'm almost dead" near the end for emphasis.

The staccato guitar signature that drives the song, constantly interrupting itself at the start of each verse, also hammers home the point that the various parts of the song lyrics work against each other--attack, response, redemption larger than any of us.

Because the song, for me, serves Easter and serves it well. This is a good day, a day that, on the one hand, is lost in the memories of youth, when it stood for suprise, search, and reward, and, on the other hand, as we get older, stands for rebirth and hope, but also loss and time. If we have lost those we love, we miss them the most today. That is the bittersweet gift of Easter. And so a song that speaks to both God's grace and to our increasing mortality feels like the perfect way to meditate on all of these dualities.

Thank you, Mr. Westerberg. You nailed it.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

21 Instagrams

Nothing Is Real - Goo Goo Dolls (mp3)

Myth has it that the soul weighs 21 Instagrams.

The evolution of digital photography has forever changed the art of family memory. Like all major changes, the yin and yang are quickly identified.

yin: Less expensive, more pictures, and with smartphones, the camera is always within reach.
yang: More pictures, fewer prints, and the camera is always within reach, even when it would be best left untouched.

It's not in my nature to envy many things in this fleeting life. Dust to dust, right? As a Droid user, I rarely begrudge my cool iPhone friends their market-savvier, slicker devices. Why do I give much of a shit about one app or the other when my phone's core value is in the calendar, the email, the weather, and the occasional photo?

All the fancy apps are, ultimately, the smart phone version of spoilers, hood ornaments and rear wings. Yeah yeah, the leather interior is nice, but all I want is four wheels that get me there, and that attitude usually applies to my phone as well.

But Instagram was different. I'd see Instagram photos show up in my Facebook stream.

What I mean is, I always noticed Instagram shots. They always caught my eye. They were like little Polaroids in digital form, and they seemed to invite the kind of creative outlook from a camera eye that had gotten lost somewhere in our digital photography evolution.

They weren't just pictures of faces and standard family shots, they were artsy. Faux artsy? Maybe.

Are Instagrams : art photography :: Goo Goo Dolls : Replacements?

Maybe, but dammit, the Goo Goo Dolls have some pretty catchy ditties even if they're a bit sold out and plastic. Even Bob thinks so, and unlike me he has respectable musical standards.

On Wednesday, I found out Instagram was available for the Droid, and I went apeshit. I've posted eight pictures in just over three days, and I've taken a couple dozen more. On Friday I downloaded this cool Photogrid app that allows you to combine several less-stellar pics into a single Instagram.

Although I'm still working on some of the details of my style and vision, my Instagram mission for now is capturing a few key aspects of my environment:

  • The school campus where I work.
  • My semi-suburban domesticated existence.
  • The omnipresence of Christianity in the South.

The last one promises to be the most fun, to be the one that requires my eyes to be a little more open and attuned to the world around me. Instead of just driving or walking from point A to B, I've found myself looking for iconography and images that speak to the South's connection to Jesus. Sometimes that connection is faulty, suspect, misguided, comical. Often it's touching and powerful. Either way, it feels important to me.

And Instagram offers me this perfect way to journal, visually, my own struggles and fascination. It just might feed the same corner of my soul that poetry nourished in my youth.

A picture is only worth 1,000 words if someone cares to look, if someone cares to read the picture. I've filled a half-dozen journals full of thousands of words no one will ever read, and now I've found some way to feed part of that hunger through pictures, to capture it all and bookmark my screwed-up mind.

Friday, April 6, 2012

"Affect the Head"

Be Aggressive - Faith No More (mp3)
(I Don't Need You To) Set Me Free - Grinderman (mp3)

Every year, the first Tuesday of April is a day filled with mixed emotions. It is my annual day of liberation.

The Monday night before is the finals of the NCAA Tournament for basketball. Somewhere around midnight, a college national champion is crowned, a song plays (“The ball is tipped...”), and when the TV is turned off, I am unceremoniously released from the bondage of my sports loyalties.

Sure, there’s the Masters and the occasional grand slam moment in tennis, but these are voluntary, whimsical sports experiences in comparison to the fervor with which I devour football and college basketball.

When you read enough about great coaches, a common theme emerges: at the end of the season, they think about hanging it up. Always. Most of the young ones, and definitely the veterans. I’m just a B+ fan, someone who is loyal and intense but not obsessive, and with every passing year I feel increasingly exhausted, worn down, tired. Just from rooting. So I cannot even imagine what coaches must feel.

“We’ve got to do everything in the world to make sure we kill Frank Gore’s head.”

“Every single one of you, before you get off the pile, affect the head. Continue, touch and hit the head.”

“He becomes human when we fucking take out that outside ACL.”


The last thing I need, as an exhausted fan excited about the freedom of my next 4-5 months, is to have the curtain pulled back too far on my favorite sports. I don’t need John Calipari to be caught paying off his players, no matter how much I despise Kentucky. And I don’t need some beefcake NFL coach bragging about generating medical trauma, no matter how lowly I already regard egotistical beefcake football coaches.

Hearing comments like the ones above that Gregg Williams was recorded saying, and knowing that these comments are mere icing on the 5-layer cake of horrible and horrifying things coaches tell their players in locker rooms -- middle school, high school, college, pro, whatever -- leaves me cold. More accurately, it makes me seethe. But exhaustedly.

Is Gregg Williams the lone devil on the shoulders of athletes? Is he part of some precious minority, a secret fraternity of coaches? Increasingly, it feels like the good apples are the exceptions rather than the rule.

I wonder why I allow something that repays such attitudes and "instructions" with money and fame to occupy any corner of my heart. Right now, in this exhausted moment, I’m ashamed that I contribute in any way to these sports Ponzi schemes.

The last two soccer tournaments my daughter’s team has entered, we’ve had two games that were tight -- we’re up a goal, or it’s tied -- and someone on our team gets mauled. This is U11 soccer. Fifth- and sixth-graders. In one, our goalie got kicked in the face several seconds after she covered up the ball and was spitting up blood. In one, our defender fell and had her leg stomped “accidentally” by an opponent. In both cases, the opposing coach and the opposing team parents behaved in ways that were beyond embarrassing.

“It’s not your fault!” they yelled to their sweet flower of a player. “Be sure to add injury time!” they yelled to the ref, as if the bleeding goalie were stalling. “It’s OK sweetie! Some kids just need to get tougher!” they yelled... to everyone, really.

If you think this is just two isolated moments during a long season of uneventful games, you are sadly mistaken.

In fact, at the end of a recent dramatic semifinal game where we edged the opposing team, I went over and thanked the other parents and told them it was the cleanest quality display of soccer I’d seen in far too long, and they replied that it was nice to end a game without injuries and without being disappointed in how the other team and other parents behaved.

We knew we had witnessed the exception, not the rule. And we had to savor that moment.

Is it really all going to just keep getting worse, more shameful, less decent? Is there any point in fighting it from within, or are the only options to bail out altogether or numb ourselves into accepting the realities of it all?

Mission accomplished, Gregg Williams. You have affected my head. I'm not sure I want to recover.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Simple.

Steve Earle--"What's A Simple Man To Do" (mp3)

When things begin to grow from the ground, life gets simpler. Not necessarily easier and not necessarily less busy, but simpler. When the earth comes back, we have to deal with it--lawns, weeds, flowers, buds and leaves all require both thought and action as we seek to contain the uncontainable and make look how we want it to look, however briefly. To do so is to engage in simple, repetitive tasks of cutting, pruning, pulling, hauling. Not easy tasks, necessarily, but simple ones.

Simple ones and good ones. Nothing feels better than simple, honest earth work done by day and then that step outside as the sun begins to set to gaze upon one's accomplishment, even knowing full well that within a week, it will all need to be taken on again.

Add in Easter and its spiritual rebirth and the shift to a more focused life is complete. Those of us who took on Lenten vows (I didn't) and engaged in six weeks of reflection and either denial or additional responsibility can only be more prepared for the less complicated months ahead.

But it isn't all work. Pleasure, too, is simpler. During the months when things grow from the ground, our food requires less preparation. Why complicate something that has just achieved ripeness when it is that ripeness, that sun-fed infusion that we want to taste?

Any entrenched Southerner, from a gnarled-fingered old woman cooking her own food to the most accomplished chef, will tell you that one of the greatest pleasures of summer's peak is the tomato and mayonaise sandwich--slices of warm, ripe fruit on soft white bread spread with mayo, seasoned with salt and pepper. So simple, so good.

I want to suggest or to remind (depending on your background) that there is a spring version of this glorious sandwich. And it may be even better. I'm talking about the radish sandwich.

For most people, radishes are barely on their food radars. Maybe you were scared away from them as a child because they were the hottest food that a child's mouth is often exposed to. Maybe they don't look that appealing in a grocery store, either old and dull in sealed plastic bags or intimidating in fresh bunches that will, no doubt, require cleaning and trimming and throwing away.

But to the enlightened adult palate, radishes are a great, maybe the great, spring pleasure--sweet, hot, a little bitter. They have a clean taste that doesn't really suggest, as a potato does, that they have been pulled from the ground. There's something more ethereal, more exotic about them. And they provide the basis for a delicious, inexpensive, transcendent sandwich.

The Radish Sandwich
2 slices soft white bread
3-4 thinly-sliced radishes
butter, at room temperature
salt and pepper to taste

Spread the butter on one or both slices of bread. Using a hand-held mandoline or a sharp knife, slice radishes thinly. Spread radish slices over the bottom slice of bread. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Close sandwich and slice on the diagonal.

For whatever reason, like tomatoes, the radishes benefit from fat. Tomatoes are enhanced by a light spread of mayo; radish flavor increases when paired with butter. The inclusion of butter on the sandwich is not optional. It is essential. It need not be a lot of butter. The thinnest layer possible will make the sandwich better.

It is no accident that the Germans feature the radish so prominently during Oktoberfest. This cheap, neglected tuber pairs well with a crisp beer. Bowls of prepared radishes and plates of fresh rye bread are a perfect match. But even a bowl of radishes, washed and still lightly wet, with a salt shaker is a wonderful snack.

I am ready to walk into the simple months. When I walk into a produce stand and I see a basket of radishes, I know that the simple months have come.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Accommodate Me

Princess - Matt Nathanson (mp3)
Holding You Is Like Keeping Water In My Hands - God Love You For A Liar (mp3)
I Won't Wait - Albany Down (mp3)


If you know any introverts on Facebook, you’ve probably seen this graphical Internet Meme. Introverts share this, bless their hearts. It annoys me something fierce.

The message of this graphic? Hi, I’m an introvert, and you’re the problem, asshole.

We’re living in a time when we increasingly expect society to adapt to the individual. We’ve gone Bizarro Darwin.

Are you an introvert? Do you have mild dyslexia? Are you left-handed? Are you red-headed and fair-skinned? Do you have a dairy or nut allergy? No matter what your challenge, weakness, disability, it has increasingly become not your problem, but our problem. The burden of responsibility falls on everyone else.

Maybe QVC is to blame. All those mattresses and pillows -- now with memory foam! It conforms to your specific head and body shape! -- have fooled us into believing life should be like memory foam, that all we should have to do is stand there while the world revolves around us.

I’m guilty of this nonsense, too. My daughter has a dairy allergy. For a long time it was pure torture watching her suffer through birthday parties, sleepovers, special school events. Everything at birthday parties and kid events has milk. The pizza (it’s always pizza). Cake. Ice cream. Cookies. Everything. And there’s our daughter, pulling out her Ziploc bags of PB&J and her Oreo cookies -- thank God for Oreo cookies, one of the few tasty desserts my daughter can enjoy -- while the drooling mob attacks Little Caesar.

She often cried -- not about milk and cheese, but at the injustice of being an outsider. And as parents, we bristled when people seemed callous or indifferent to our daughter’s plight. Why would they have eight boxes of ice cream yet nothing dairy-free? How dare they!

Now she’s 10, and it hardly phases her. Plus, she’s healthy. She eats more salads and vegetables than almost any kid her age. While her mother and I agonized and whined, she adapted. Because kids are resilient. Adaptation is what they were built to do.

Adaptability is one of humanity’s most amazing gifts, yet it is increasingly devalued in our society.

In the horrifying and hypnotic world of Game of Thrones, humans seem capable of adapting to just about anything. At least, the ones who survive more than a few hundred pages. The ones who cannot adapt or adjust -- regardless of how “good” or “bad” they might be -- die or suffer. You need not read or watch too long to realize how very much we have in common with Westeros.

By no means am I knocking introverts. As this article in Wired posits so well, introverts are the quiet backbone of our country’s successes, and I frequently envy them their ability to disappear utterly into their work or passion, their talent to drown out the social noise. Meanwhile I, the extrovert, often feel like the cat compelled to paw at each and every ball of string flying past me. I swear to myself that it’s unhealthy, that I have to stop... and then that next beautiful yarnball whizzes past... and I just have to swipe it. I HAVE TO HAVE TO HAVE TO!!!!

But an introvert who looks out and blames everyone else hardly helping anyone. They're just setting up a useful excuse for later. Introverts who cannot converse socially, who cannot tolerate being interrupted, who cannot adapt to unexpected change, will suffer. There’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it, either. Because this stuff just happens. Life is messy like that.

Poignantly, one defensive extrovert offered this link, on How To Care For Extroverts. It's every bit as valid and every bit as annoying.

Read both lists. Side by side if it helps.

Now, I damn dare you to sit in a room with one extrovert and one introvert and prove you "care" equally about both of them. Hell, it’s impossible. What shows love for one slaps the other in the face. The only guaranteed act of kindness is to "not insult either of them publicly," and I’m friggin’ dying to know which personality type, other than a masochist, gets off on public scoldings.

So instead of graphics that show us how we should tiptoe around each other’s frailties and quirks, why not share graphics that turn the tables?

"Things Introverts Should Practice to Occasionally Enjoy Emerging From Their Rabbit Holes."

"Things Extroverts Should Practice to Help Prevent Annoying the Shit Out of Everyone."

Better yet, just listen to the wisdom of my pal Mahatma: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”