Thursday, May 31, 2012

"The Bride's Mother Enters Last"

I Slept With All Your Mothers - Harriet (mp3)
Cruel to Be Kind - Letters to Cleo (mp3)

“I’m not exactly sure when I knew I’d never like my mom,” she said casually from the passenger seat. “Everyone thinks it’s when I was a teenager, but it was way before that. I was 6 or 7.”

I attended a fascinating wedding last weekend in the Colorado mountains, some 8,500 feet above sea level. The cast of characters was small, the nuptials simple, the setting rustic, and the officiant a music blogger with no divinity and barely a degree: me.

Christina, the bride-to-be, had one of those picture-perfect smiles. An pixie-adorable brunette firecracker and barely 30, she had managed to ratchet up a burgeoning career as a physician assistant. In her spare time, she was an outdoor enthusiast and an exercising freak. Her latest obsession, marathons, ran her directly into my nephew, Braden. (Yeah, I changed their names.)

I’ve always adored my nephew, but we’ve never been that close. A few visits each year until he graduated college, and then he was jaunting hither and thither in the Air Force. Alaska, Germany, then the Gulf, and finally Warren AFB in Wyoming, a mere hop from Ft. Collins. He asked me to officiate their wedding because Colorado is wacky like that, and I was more practiced at public speaking than most of the adults he knew.

My mother and I flew over together while my wife and kids remained in Chattanooga. (Flying a family of five is fucking expensive, yo.) As best I can recall, it’s the longest trip the two of us took together alone in my life.

Following a fun 36 hours in Fort Collins (perhaps the subject of a future blog), we wound our way up past Estes Park for the rehearsal. I had been warned by my sister -- a wacky lady who, like myself, can quickly wear down the patience of those who value quiet and decorum -- that Christina’s mom was “quite a handful,” but how can one prepare for a person you don’t really need to care about?

Hildegard was a medium-build 5’3” lady in her 60s with a perma-scowl, the lines on her face pulled down by gravity and constant disapproval over some untold number of decades. She was a concert violinist in the Northeast and had the social grace and EQ of a Quisinart.

We’re all sitting in the lobby of this place, this very simple and elegant place in the mountains that books some 200 weddings each year. Our wedding coordinator, an adorable woman named Dana, was asking me if I’d ever done anything like this before and trying to explain how things would work, when Hildegard barrels through the door headed straight for Dana.

“I need to see the plans,” she says. Not “Hi.” Not “Excuse me.” Nothing. Dana excuses herself and turns to Hildy, handing her a printout.

“No no this won’t do,” Hildy says, loudly. “This has me going in first, but the bride’s mother enters last. Change it. Change it now. Who wrote this out? Did Christina do this? On purpose or just because she doesn’t know any better?”

If Hildegard was a character in a sitcom, I would have found her hilarious. In real life, she just seemed an inconsiderate and cranky bitch.

A sampling of her later comments throughout the weekend:
  • “So Billy, how come you never asked who gives away this woman?” (Because it was intentionally left out of the script, ma’am.)
  • “So Billy, how come you never asked if anyone... how do they put it?” (Has any reason why these -- ) “Yes yes reason these two shouldn’t be married? Why didn’t you ask that?” Then to my sister: “Maybe I would have had a few things to say. Oh honey I’m just kidding. I mean not really but kind of. Any thoughts like that I’d keep to myself of course.”
  • “Are you coming to the brunch tomorrow?” (We aren’t sur--) “Well I’ve reserved this place for 40 people, so there’s really no excuse for not coming. It would be quite inconsiderate, really.” (Well, we certainly intend to--) “Intentions are a waste of my time. Say you’ll be there or not, because I’ll need to change plans if everyone starts backing out.”
Christina, Braden and I had to linger after the others had journeyed to the rehearsal dinner site. They didn’t want anyone to hear the vows they had written for themselves until the actual wedding, and we needed to practice teaching their dog -- the ringbearer -- run down the center to the proper location with minimal wreckage.

As the three of us -- four if you must count a dog as a person -- headed to dinner, I couldn’t help but ask. “Christina, I know it’s none of my business, but I get the impression you and your mom aren’t exactly close.”

And she spilled parts of her story with the cool remove of a physician assistant explaining a fungal infection, with no hesitation or apparent discomfort. Her explanation ended with this kicker: “Everything I’ve done with my life has pretty much been an attempt to be absolutely nothing like my mother.”

As I cherished this weekend with my own mother -- a woman so treasured in my heart that having her live downstairs in our shared home wasn’t remotely a hard decision -- I felt a slight pity for Christina, but I’m not sure why. She’s well off financially and clearly whip-smart. She’s in amazing shape and so competitive she regularly beats my stud nephew in marathons. She seems truly happy in most ways and lives two time zones from this woman she’s disliked since her toddler years.

Perhaps, without that friction with her mom, Christina never reaches these places in her own life. Perhaps the price of her happiness was, ultimately, the sacrifice of a connection with her mother. Perhaps this was a cost beyond her control, a price of the Fates.

I’m only grateful I was never asked to pay such a toll.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Shoulda Been A Cubs Fan

Caitlin Cary (feat. Ryan Adams)--"The Battle" (mp3) The recent flap at our school over our soccer team not making it past the semifinals in the state tournament confirms that I have some weird wiring as a sports fan.  I just don't care about winning all that much.

Specifically, I probably should have been a Cubs fan, given the penchant so many of them have for continuous losing seasons long into the future.  In fact, when I sent an article to my Cubs friend a week or so ago that suggested the tearing down of Wrigley Field was the only was to break the curse, snap the losing, his only quick response was that he liked for them to be losing.  That losing streak is legendary, of course, spanning well over a century.  Although, to be fair, it isn't really a losing streak; it's a non-winning streak, as in, the Cubs have not made it to the World Series or, obviously, won it during that time.

Our soccer team is somewhat different--highly successful in terms of won/loss record, fielding a quality team every year, but they didn't win the finals the year that they got there, and many years, their hopes are thwarted by our crosstown, archrival's soccer team, even in the years when our team is better than theirs.

Not unlike what our football team used to do to their team during the infamous "streak" that ended three or four years ago.  Now they do it to us.

When that happens repeatedly, it begins to mess with the psyche of a fan base, or in this case, a school, where an increasing sense of desperation prevades everything.  There has to be a relatively simple solution.  Parents start complaining.  Teachers start talking.  Maybe students, maybe members of the team.  All is focused on the coach.  No matter how successful a coach is, if he doesn't "win it all" often enough, according to some unspoken timetable, his program is a failure.  If he doesn't win it enough years in a row, then not losing it becomes a "pattern."

Once that pattern is identified, mentioned, there is nothing that a coach/team can do it.  A fluke goal, a ball that rolls between Billy Buckner's legs, the absence of an injured star player, an extra time out called--all of those things are forgotten in the face of the pattern.  Because the pattern says that something is wrong and that something must be fixed.  And that someone must be blamed for that pattern.  And that person is most likely the coach.

I just don't get it, even as I have fallen prey to it.  When the Tennessee Volunteers won the NCAA Div. 1 Football BCS Championship in 1999, I remember turning to my friend Steve and saying, "You know, Steve, I never thought they would win won of these.  Anything that happens from here on out is pure gravy."  And, not that much has happened since, but I'm still a hopeful Vol fan each year. 

In fact, now I'm in a weirder sports place even--I like the integrity of the Vols coach, Derek Dooley, more than I care about the team winning.  How's that attitude supposed to fly in 2012?  Me, a guy who feels sorry for the San Diego Padres coach because he's friends with my brother-in-law, who supports the Vols coach simply because he respects him, who stands up for the soccer coach because he's a friend?

Tell a student or someone caught up in the whole winning thing today that you are a Vols fan and they will say something along the lines of "Why?  They suck."  And the answer is because I have been a Vol fan for over 30 years and I will continue to be one indefinitely.  It isn't the winning, and it wouldn't have mattered if they had never won.  Tell it to some of my fellow faculty members who tore down our soccer program and coaching for the entire bus ride home from the state tournament.  They know how to fix everything.  It's pretty simple, really, just as matter of x, y, and z.

Now, it's true that I got to enjoy the glory years of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Pittsburgh Penguins and that I'll throw around that "City of Champions" label from time to time if I need to pull out a "sports brag" for some reason, and maybe that's created in me a kind of fan's sense that 'I've won enough, Pittsburgh has won enough, let another city, like Seattle or Atlanta, win something, anything.'  See?  I can't even help the dig, much as I'm trying to take the high road.  Is it possible, though, that there's a difference between wanting to win or needing to win?  Between glad to have won and should have won?

Vince Lombardi once famously said, "Winning isn't everything.  It's the only thing."  As part of a motivational speech to players or fans, it probably got people fired up, but as a mantra for life, even in the most aspirational of ways, it's a recipe for failure.  We all know, those of us who watch sports and those of us who can do math, that, ultimately, very, very, very few teams win.  In the sports most Americans care about across college and professional levels, about 6 teams total, out of hundreds, actually win.  7 with Nascar.

That leaves most of us, fans or players or coaches, pondering whether our team had a "good season" or a "bad season."  To me, a soccer team that went 17-3 had a pretty darn good season, even if they didn't win the state.  That doesn't mean that coaches won't evaluate, re-evaluate, that players won't commit to off-season activities, etc.  But even a good, even a great season will likely still contain some bitterness, bitterness that will make the sweet sweeter.  If it ever comes.  And if it never comes, well, I'll always feel like these teams were fun to watch and to cheer for.  That's weird, I guess.



Sunday, May 27, 2012

Another Climb

Elliott Brood--"Lindsay" (mp3)


"Free Bird!" yelled someone from the audience.
"Someone has asked for 'Free Bird," said the guitarist.  "We don't play that one.  But we will play some covers at the end."
"We write our own songs," added the drummer, without a hint of irritation and not getting the joke.

Such is the earnestness of an up-and-coming Canadian band playing in Chattanooga, and likely the South, for the first time, treating the ubiquitous request for the Skynyrd song as something to be dealt with seriously.  It did stop any other songs from being shouted out though.  But then, chances are very good that no one in the audience knew any of their songs, except me.  No brag; just fact.

It is pure coincidence that within two nights of each other, Billy and I found ourselves, separately, standing in from of bands that we have promoted on this blog--The Royalty and Elliott Brood.  His, as you have read, played practically for themselves in a small club in Knoxville, while mine found themselves in front of an enthusiastic crowd of thousands of people at Nightfall who, let's be fair, probably care that much about their music, but cared a lot that an uptempo trio of alt-rockers was filling the hot summer night with alt-rocking music.

"We didn't expect this," said the banjo player at the end of the night, looking out over the large crowd, after the band had delivered their covers as promised--Neil Young's "Powderfinger" and Johnny Cash's "Ring Of Fire"--and he reminded the crowd how lucky they were to have a free summer concert series..  Which we certainly are.

But for a band trying to broaden their audience, I don't know if an event like Nightfall helps them or not.  They probably sell a few cds, but for the most part, they are probably not unlike a wedding band who get their cache from playing at the wedding.  Because a wedding is such a wonderful moment, they get to share in that moment.  The similar reality is that people come to Nightfall for Nightfall; only on rare occasions, do they come to hear the band.  They come for the bikes and the beer and the Korean bbq tacos and the chance of seeing and being seen and the vibe.  Some of them never get near the stage at all and hear the songs played there as pleasant, distant background noise.  Those who come for music come for categories, blues or rock or zydeco, not for the specific band playing it.

Not that a band has to know that.  All they need to know is that they killed.  People cheered loudly and danced up front and demanded the encores that meant that the night and that precious vibe would go on for a few minutes longer.

Which in no way minimizes Elliott Brood's performance.  They were terrific.  Like a more rocking version of the Avett Brothers, they built a big sound with drums, a guitar, a banjo and some tight harmonies.  They worked the crowd right away with a series of faster, older numbers that I didn't know, but that went over well, making it clear right away that they were going to do with a set of drums (and simple, propulsive drumming)  and two acoustic instruments what a lot of bands can't do with much more--that is rock and fill the gaps of multi-layered studio recordings with just a few pieces.

Because "Northern Air" is the song that introduced me to Elliott Brood, a song posted on this blog and a song that made some friends far and wide sit up and say 'Wow,' I thought the show really started to take off when they played it.  I had a spot up front between a post and the wall of speakers, and it gave me a good perch to see how much they were getting into it (and how hot they were--unused to Chattanooga in May, they asked for and received a set of fans to help cool them down).  Other songs from their most recent CD, Days Into Years, including "If I Get Old" and "Hold You," absolutely exploded live, the first with its powerful lyrics and the repeated phrase "youthful heart" and the second with its Edge-like reverbed lead guitar. 

But it is the absolutely stunning "Lindsay" that made the show for me.  I was yelling into the ears of some students who had returned from college, and who were taking turns yelling into my ears, when "Lindsay" came on, and I turned away from them, saying, "Sorry, this is my song."  With its R.E.M.-like impressionistic lyrics and its staccato rhythm, it is a song that demands one pay attention to it:

Can I sleep for a while
18 wheelers shake the wall 
and the mortar's coming out 
the city says they'll tear it down
We grew up right here
doorframes marked with heights and years 
our lives in crooked frame
kitchen table coffee stain
I had that doorframe in my kitchen; last summer, it was painted over.

In 2012, there is no way to know if there is a place for a band from north of the border with tight Everly Brothers/Byrds/Jayhawks harmonies and a seriousness of purpose, with lyrics informed by both experience and history.  But to these ears, which hear a lot of music and which try to find new music that seems like it will have a lasting quality, I haven't heard anything better in a long while.  To know now that they can deliver live as well is even more satisfying. 

Maybe I'm wrong.  Maybe all of my fellow citizens of this city were paying attention, were flat-out blown away by Elliott Brood and their powerful batch of songs, and it wasn't just the sounds of rocking vocals, guitars, and drums that had them on their feet.  I hope so.  This band is worthy of that kind of praise.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Climb

Saint Bowie - The Royalty (mp3)

Outside looking in The LongBranch Saloon
in Knoxville, Tennessee
How many nights did the Beatles play to an audience so thin or inattentive that their notes bounced off the walls, numbers so sparse that their own shadows were added to the attendance totals?

David Bowie's first years as an aspiring musician were a mix between depressing and comical, the kind of performance art that begs mockery.

Jon Bon Jovi’s first-ever recorded singing gig? “R2-D2 We Wish You A Merry Christmas.”

The first chapters of music success are littered with stories of barely making it. A band grinds out one performance after another for a handful of listeners. They get back in their van, travel hours to the next locale, and do it again. Applause comes in smatterings, not waves. The questions gets mumbled or pondered internally: What the f*#k are we doing? Is this going to work out for us?

Most times, the answers to those haunting questions don’t include Disney endings. Many more music failures than successes begin with this chapter and usually end there as well.

Jesus Apodaca sat on a balcony overlooking Knoxville’s Cumberland Avenue. In four months, even with UT’s shitty football team, the road will be flooded with human bodies and cars. Tailgating season will be in full tilt, and orange will be everywhere. At the moment, however, the UTK campus is between spring semester and summer sessions. A dead zone. The streets are bare, dappled with puddles from an earlier rain, and too quiet.

Jesus is lead guitarist for The Royalty, a band whose album Lovers I gave high praise recently. They also got high praise (and a honkin’ big color picture) in The New York Times, the cherry on top of a growing pile of critical accolades for these up-and-comers. “One of the year's most unexpected and enjoyable rock records.”

They arrived in Knoxville around 7:30 p.m. via an 11-hour van ride from Philly. Two days ago they were in NYC. Norfolk was their next stop. And then back home to El Paso before driving out west for another stage of the tour.

THREE OF THE ROYALTY:
Keyboardist Daniel Marin, lead singer
Nicole Boudreau, and guitarist Jesus Apodaca
For those with a GoogleMaps fetish, that five-day east coast jaunt adds up to over 3,200 miles. Some 50+ hours of driving. In five stops, they will be lucky to have notched one fan for every 20 miles they’ve journeyed.

We teacher-types get lots of sympathy, most of it deserved. Our profession is a “calling,” they say. The world is lucky to have us, because we’re willing to sacrifice personal glory and riches to educate and mentor the next generations, they say. But you know what? We’re salaried. So long as a teacher doesn’t do something expressly illegal or grossly immoral, we know there’s a regular paycheck coming in. It might not be a lot, but it’s a paycheck, and we can schedule our lives around it.

Most starting (starving) artists have no such luxury. They hit the road and hope for the best. Some nights might offer a guaranteed measly fee, others a rake of the gate and whatever schwag/merch they can shill. Top Ramen risks becoming a luxury.

Conservative types tend to claim that profit is the biggest motive, that without a financial incentive for greatness, greatness cannot be attained. This, dear reader, is bullshit. It’s dangerous, venomous bullshit that poisons the soul.

The greatness in us comes out because it wants to, because it needs to, because we can’t keep it in, like that alien in the doc’s chest. The Royalty might one day be millionaires, but that’s not what has them performing for a smattering of fans in the deadness of downtown Knoxville.

You don’t pick up a guitar to be a millionaire or a platinum-seller. You pick up a guitar because there’s something inside you, and you can’t help but think maybe this strange long-necked instrument might extract it.

Jesus Apodaca spoke of his love of Weezer. He spoke of his fear that “South By” (a.k.a. SXSW a.k.a. South By Southwest) has become something beyond its original intent and something more disillusioning and Disneyfied. He spoke of the band recording their first album at a studio in Juarez. And he spoke of what he most looks forward to.

“I’m just waiting for that first negative review from a legit source,” he said, although I’m probably paraphrasing just a bit. “When you’re out there enough that someone is willing to knock you down... that’s when we’ll know we’ve hit another level.”

Dance like no one's watching,
Sing like no one's listening,
Perform like it's not an option but a compulsion
One day the nation's second-largest paper is gushing for them; the next they're playing to crickets. Welcome to The Climb.

The Royalty puts on one helluva show even if just for a handful who know every song. The odds are against them filling arenas anytime soon, but that’s what they said about the Millennium Falcon successfully navigating an asteroid field, and we all know how that turned out.

If they can weather the tough, heartbreaking, confidence-shattering parts of this mostly thankless passion they must pursue, chasing their dreams in an old white van across the entire stretch of the U.S., they just might one day get that negative review.

No matter what happens, I know this: The Royalty would make Bowie proud.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

M-M-M-My Persona

The Knack--"My Sharona" (mp3)

Here's a tricky one.  I have a friend for whom his "persona" seems to have become him.  And I have become weary of that.  And I don't really like the persona, for one simple reason:  I don't believe it.

I watch him stand in front of a group and I see the bluster, I see the mock-not caring, I see the pretend-angry, and I think, this has gotten so old, the only reason that you can continue to pull this off is because of the regular turnover of your audience.  I also think that one of the reasons that it doesn't work for me is that because beneath the mock-anger there is a real anger that, like a time bomb, can be ignited at any time, for any reason, by any comment that challenges the personal, that will immediately create defensiveness.  So the fake is not amusing, and the real is even less so.

How I will proceed in this post from here is somewhat tenuous.  For one thing, I'm not sure that we can all agree on what a "persona" is.  For me, it means that someone is assuming what is essentially a false or exaggerated mask in order to craft one's impact on a particular situation.  Yes, Merriman-Webster, yes, Wikipedia, you may borrow my definition.  As long as you give me credit.

I see that persona circumstance most often when I see adults dealing with children.  Some adults seem to think that they must become some variation of themselves in order to communicate most effectively with children--the "tough love" variation, the "accept me, I'm cool" variation, the "I've got to teach you independence before you're ready" variation, the "I suffered, so you will too" or its counterpart, the "I suffered, so I will be totally permissive with you" variation.  Lord knows, there are countless others.

Some would challenge me by saying that we are all of us always presenting a persona, so that the shift from one to the other is not that big of a deal.  That is hard to argue against.  In fact, I have challenged individual students or young teachers on more than one occasion to discard their persona so that I can see who they really are.

But I think that is a different issue.  There is no doubt that all of us "prepare a face/to meet the faces that we meet," as T.S. Eliot once captured so eloquently.  The persona, though, is something on top of that, it seems to me.  If we're one person in most situations, the persona is a different part of us that we haul out when we think we need to. 

I suppose that if I have a persona with students, it is the "I'll treat you like adults, even if you aren't" persona, because that is all I know how to do.  Another way to look at it is as the "I'll have no trouble meeting you where you are because I never grew up all that much either" persona.  That, too, seems to characterize my daily interactions with students or adults.  I tend either to make myself too young or them too old.  And, quite frankly, it doesn't always work, but I have to work within my own limitations.  And, I like to believe, it's me.

My other persona is the jester.  Get too close to my emotional core and you're going to get a joke that will hopefully distract you from trying to probe further.  Try to make me the center of attention and I'll position myself on the sideline, tossing out one-liners.

It's when a person I know willfully shifts from the person I think I know into some caricature of himself or herself that I really have trouble.  For then, I have to readjust from the person I know to the less sophisticated version.  I have to pretend like I know that persona and that it is valid and that I can speak to it adult to adult, when inside I'm thinking just the opposite.  Because that's the dirty secret of a persona--it's simplistic, it exaggerates a few characteristics, it's easily imitatable.  The reasons that personas aren't real is because they are too simple to be real.

Having experienced this enough, I know that the kind of mask I'm talking about is hard to take off once it takes hold.  However easy that is to see from a distance, from the outside, it may be impossible to confront if it's your mask.  I don't know.  Maybe someone will tell me.  Because we all know, without delving too deep, why personas exist.  They cover doubts, insecurities, failures.  They hide anything that we want to hide, more specifically anything we have to hide.  And the great irony is that we can all see what others wear, but not what we wear.

Maybe the bigger irony is that while it's easy to tell someone younger that you know they're faking it, try doing the same to a friend, a colleague, a boss, etc.   Because chances are, they know exactly what they're doing and they think it's good to do.  It's a conscious choice, a strategy, the best way to deliver the message, from where they sit or stand.  It's how they deliver their daily TED Talk.  So then, you're not only pointing out the persona, you're also criticizing its use.  And, to make matters worse, since the message is undoubtedly wrapped up in the persona, you are challenging that, too.

In these thin-skinned times, my friend, that isn't going to get you or me anywhere.  Better to pretend that I'm on board.  Do it enough, and I'll come to believe it, and then it can become a part of me.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

#MTProbs: The Invitation

Since there's not a soul on the planet who gives a shit about American Ninja Warrior other than myself, I'm taking this self-generated lull to ask for some audience participation.

In honor of the popular Twitter trend among private schools throughout the country of creating cheeky comments under a hashtag, #_____Problems (example: #UNCProblems), and inspired by an alcohol-assisted conversation over my own school's graduation weekend, I would like to create a fictional list of cheeky #Problems from the perspective of the teachers.

We're calling the hashtag #MTProbs only because they're "empty," as in meaningless and fictitious (or, um, not), and because it's mostly intended to be a fun and liberating way to vent some steam.

So, we'll take any #MTProbs you'd like to submit either by including them in the comments section or by emailing bottomoftheglass@gmail.com. We will keep all submissions mostly (first name or nickname of your choosing) or completely anonymous. I'll post the collection on Friday. Unless I run into some unexpected real-life #MTProbs.

Example 1: When five of your students draw dicks on your whiteboard, and you can identify each artist by the handwriting. #MTProbs

Example 2: How can a single adult human being leave the hall bathroom door unlocked more than two dozen times every year? #MTProbs #ShitYouCantErase

The Ultimates

Titus Andronicus Forever - Titus Andronicus (mp3)
Hawthorne - Scout (mp3)

Last August, I wrote the following:
I was going to write about my love of Ninja Warrior marathons when I’m hung over from Brewfest, about how the Japanese culture glorifies strength not as some beefcakey statement, but as one part of many valued physical qualities including endurance and balance. I was going to say I love that game show because it’s a very Eastern notion of competition where all competitors are against the obstacle course rather than one another. Only in Japan could a game show end several seasons without a winner, with the winner being the obstacle course itself, because no one could manage to conquer it.
I spend a long weekend once every year totally immersed in Ninja Warrior (and Women of Ninja Warrior) on G4. I OD on it, and then I avoid it for as long as I possibly can. This past weekend, I OD'd on the next-closest thing I've seen to it: the Reebok CrossFit Games.

These shows are for people like me, who get our exercise by watching studly ripped exer-freaks brutally punish their bodies for minimal fiscal reward and TV exposure on a non-major network.

On Monday night, NBC debuted American Ninja Warrior. There has been an American version on G4 for a few years, but the purpose of those was to send America's best to Japan to compete with the original challenge.

This year's version is American-made, cradle to grave. And you know it from the get-go.

In the original Japanese version, the course is set up in four stages. Only a handful of the 40 starting competitors ever make it past Stage 1. On more than a few seasons, no one makes it past Stage 2. If you don't finish the stage, you don't move on. Simple as that.

I don't know how long a "season" of Ninja Warrior is. Neither do the Japanese. The players and the course determine a season's length.

Naturally, that shit won't fly in America. We gotta have a fixed length. We gotta have a predictable schedule.

Even more hilarious, in America, we grade on a curve, even in our damn game shows. We are such weak sauce.

In American Ninja Warrior, the top 15 advance to the next stage. No matter what. So long as the 15th dude beats the 16th dude in time and distance on the course, he advances. Seriously, is there anything more depressingly American than this?

But I will still watch. Because these competitors are studs.

The CrossFit Games can get away with this because they score their game like NASCAR. A series of heats everyone runs, with finish times earning a "place" and a prescribed number of points. Winner of the overall games is the person who accumulates the highest number of best finishes.

Watching these competitions only serves to remind me why I'm so tired of the more popular sports. The NFL looks to concuss, to play dirty, to 'roid up. College sports increasingly look to squeeze everything they can out of players -- er, "student-athletes" -- for a cheap tuition and for maximum profit. College basketball increasingly feels sleazy, perhaps because I never can get past John Calipari's oily hair and Don Corleone-esque aura. Every year I try and remember which season of The Sopranos he guest-starred. I'm sorely tired of the phrase "one and done."

In soccer it's excessive flopping. In the NBA it's excessive whining. In the NHL it's an excessively meaningless regular season.

CrossFit and Ninja Warrior competitors are conditioned in the most impressive, most adaptable, most valuable way possible. It's not about throwing an oblong ball or launching oneself into others with the pseudo-security of protective armor. It's about pure fitness, a careful combination of strength, balance, agility and guts.

What's the final monetary prize for these competitions? Get this: No one cares.

While Lebron and Mickelson and Aaron Rodgers rake in ungodly dollars, these true athletes are merely finding an entertaining outlet for what was already a lifestyle choice. Their bodies were chiseled, from day one, for deeper (arguably more frightening) reasons than fame or fortune.

When my conservative friends and family debate me on matters of economics, and they insist that someone has to have a chance to make shit-tons of money for the effort and mission to be worthwhile, I laugh at them. This fairy tale that people won't work hard unless they can be rewarded with power or money is patently untrue. It's the lie that rich people tell you to justify their multi-million-dollar bonuses.

Tell that to Julie Foucher*, who's a med student in Michigan and one helluva blogger. Tell that to Levi Meeuwenburg, who was happy just getting a free plane ride with room and board to Japan. Tell them they're in it for the millions. To their face. I dare you.

* -- Yes, it's true, I'm sort of in love. Even if she could crush bones in my body merely by looking at me.  And yes, I complimented her blog mostly because I'm just trying to kiss her granite-hard butt.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Gay Way

The Tom Robinson Band--"Glad To Be Gay" (mp3)


The attempt to paint President Obama's decision to come out in support of gay marriage as a political move is very fair.  And, therefore, completely irrevelant.  For to accuse a politician of being political is akin to postulating that a sex addict is only in it for the sex.  Politicians act politically. 

The reason such an attack is irrelevant, however, is not just because it attacks a politician's core for being his core: it's because the attack carries the implication that Obama has supported something that he really doesn't believe.  Well, even though I'd be shocked, given Mr. Obama's own background, if this wasn't true to his beliefs, though it may or may not have been politically expedient to say so, whether or not Mr. Obama "believes" in gay marriage or not is also completely irrelevant.

The only thing that matters is that he has come out in favor of it.  The only thing. 

It's kind of like when George Bush the elder came out against broccoli, only this time it's positve and important.  And what comes of the Obama announcement is the following:

1. Suddenly, the cause has legitimacy that it didn't have.
2. Pollsters immediately want to know if the people back the president, and the polls suggest, however tenuously, that a majority of Americans do.
3. Pollsters want to know if it will affect the election, because for the media, a major quality-of-life issue, a civil rights issue, is really only fodder for the big story.
4. Presidents can't retreat from the gay issue now, not until it is resolved in some way.

One need have only a superficial understanding of American History (would that more people had even that) to know that some of the greatest moments in our history, moments that I am most proud of, have come about even though the President at the time might have had no particular interest in the cause in question.

Lincoln's comment pre-and-post Emancipation Proclamation have been parsed repeatedly and more intelligently than I could do.  All I need do is to remind you that Lincoln was no great advocate, either morally or intellectually, of correcting the state of slaves.  He merely saw the chance to use them as the means to an end--namely, the preservation of the Union.  Similarly, when LBJ picked up the torch of JFK's social programs, he was no great champion of civil rights.  But he did enjoy power, and manipulation, and bending people to his will, and if he could use the ghost of the dead president to push an agenda, well, that was what he did.  An entire minority gained, and not because he loved them.

And that's why Obama's measured support matters so much.  Call him calculating, challenge his manhood, demonstrate that he didn't get much of a "bump" from doing it, say he didn't go far enough, prove that it isn't going to make much an impact on the election.  None of that matters now. It doesn't even matter which side of the issue you are on.  When a president weighs in, even if he's a president you malign or despise, his embrace of the issue carries so much clout that it would take a cataclysmic societal shift (think: the Taliban taking over Afghanistan) to push the issue off the table.

The fact is that civil rights need a helping hand from government.  I'm not being patriarchal.  The laws and legislation that follow from governmental interest are crucial to changing the minds of a society, to forcing a change through fine and sentence and punishment, if necessary.  And those have to come from federal government, not state.  I understand the arguments against "big government" and the threat of intrusions into our lives, but I also know that part of these arguments are coded--thinly-veiled advocacy for states and individuals being able to inforce their misguided, narrowly-defined, religiously-based inhibitions of others' practices.  It isn't that they're opposed to big government; they just want to be the biggest part of it when it suits them.

But that cannot stand for civil rights.  Our tendency as a society is to ignore the fact that those who are suffering, are hiding, are pretending to be something they aren't still matter when they aren't part of a crucial political debate.  So even now, a week or two later, the gay marriage issue is off of the front page and is, apparently, not the "single issue" that will sway voters in either direction.  Obama may not have to say much more about it; Romney made his opinion known back when he was at boarding school.  Probably, the courts will decide the matter in their own good time.

Unless we become a theocracy, the prejudice against gay rights cannot stand.  And I'm not saying that with a tone of outrage.  I'm saying that, legally, as a matter of social equality, the issue will eventually be solved dispassionately and on a national level.  States should not determine gay marriage law any more than they should determine immigration law, any more than they should have been allowed to maintain "separate but equal." 

And that's when we'll be reminded again of the presidential leadership that we have just witnessed, that seemed to matter for about a week, until some latest conflict took its place.  And no one will have any memory of why he did it, if they ever knew.  And it won't matter, because now it's out of the closet.


Thursday, May 17, 2012

Storytellers & Poets

Tournament of Hearts - The Weakerthans (mp3)
Sax Roehmer #1 - The Mountain Goats (mp3)

My college poetry professor gave
me fair warning.
Two hours of it, to be exact.
Only an Appalachian with a penchant
for moonshine and a time beyond us
Could coax a commission
From the honcho of an iron skillet corporation,
Gas food lodging verses and some beers to boot,
on tap and on tab.

He was in town and needed Lookouts.
Up to the task, I grabbed two beers
from the pockmarked malcontent
beside the red slushies
before saddling up to his seat
behind the visitor dugouts,
just outside the safety net.

Our banter lives in a past
closer to Nirvana than homemade
cornbread straight from granny’s black stove.
Sweet as cotton candy from any state fair,
our flash-in-the-skillet reunion evaporates quickly,
a new memory rising in that kitchen of days gone by.
______________

Michael is a poet. Like, for real. Published eight times over.

Everytime I see Michael reminds me of parts of me that mostly drowned on my swim to the other side of adulthood. Twenty years ago, as I spent three semesters and much of my heart in his poetry classes, the turn of phrase and the turn of a line tickled my fancy more than any Faulknerian run-on sentence or clever socio-cultural slam.

He was clever and sincere. His criticisms were always honest, often biting, and rarely wrong.

In my youth I trained at an economy of words I’ve long since forgotten, riding the easier ecstasy of rants and 800-word blog posts. Poetry isn’t communication to the masses. It’s words strung together like a ladder, demanding a reader climb instead of walk.

My unhealthy and immersive love of music is tied to my love of poetry. My exposure to quatrains and sonnets, villanelles and near-rhymes may ebb and flow, but the songs remain the same. When I’m not enjoying the regular and guilty pleasure of pop tripe like “Call Me Maybe,” and when I’m not listening merely for the musical bombast (Sleigh Bells), I’m listening for the poetry and the storytelling.

Take The Weakerthans, or the band I like to call The Mountain Goats Go To Canada. Their song “Tournament of Hearts” is the best kind of musical poetry. It’s clever and heartfelt. It captures a moment in time (and out of time), and it reveals the people in all of their humor and beauty. I always enjoyed this song, but only recently did I find out it was an homage to curling, a.k.a. The Winter Olympic Sport Everyone Mocks. Now I’m listening to it all the time. The damn thing is amazing. It compares the difficulty of expressing and communicating in a romantic relationship with the sport of curling, and if it ain’t poetry, I don’t know what is.

Bob is much more consistent with his love of song-poets and song-storytellers. The candy of pop music is too alluring. Pop music is the Sour Patch Kids of my life, and I know the acid is destroying my already fragile teeth, and I know there’s not an ounce of vitamins or good minerals in there, but I just keep eating them, mindlessly, as the movie of my life rattles on.

But it’s the poets and storytellers who keep me in the mix.

Thank God for them,
and the poetry professors,
and the English teachers,
and all the others out there
who have found the meaning
of life in a turn of phrase and a break
in the line and passed
that vision and love down
the generations.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

To You (and me), Love Me

The Capitols--"Cool Jerk" (mp3)
You're probably going to call me a bastard.  That's okay.  I've been called it before.  I'll be called it again.  I've deserved it before.  No doubt, I will deserve it again.  But sometimes it's worth it.

Last Sunday, of course, was Mother's Day, so, of course, I bought a gift for the mother of my children.  Mother's Day is an interesting holiday.  It's not really a romantic holiday, even though without sex there would be no purpose to the day, but I suppose that is true of birthdays, as well as a number of other things.  So the right gift is key.  It isn't easy, like Father's Day, where all you have to buy is a tie or a shovel and good ol' dad is probably set. 

And, of course, Mother's Day comes first so you can't buy a "reactive" gift; you have to set the tone, even knowing full well that by the time June rolls around and it's time for Dad, everybody's kind of tired of the celebrating thing.  It's no accident that Mother's Day is the biggest restaurant day of the year; Father's Day is a chance for Dad to try out those new grilling utensils he received as a gift by cooking for the family on his day.  Go figure. 

But I digress.  So, the Mother's Day gift has to be special, but not too romantic, something that kind of feels like it's from Hubby, but represents the children somehow, too.  A worshipful family gift, if you will.

On the Friday night before, I bought her a Nightfall t-shirt (our free, downtown summer concert series), which is all she claimed she wanted, but that really doesn't meet any of the criteria just mentioned (as in, not the least bit romantic and not really from the family).  And even though I spent two days cooking a special meal for her (while she was gone visiting her mother), I knew I had to represent.

So I bought her Spotify.

Spotify, you say?  The music-access site/app?  Yep, that's the one.  The one that gives you the ability to play almost any song or band that you can think of.  Except for the Beatles and Jimmy Buffet, so far.  And, yes, I know it's free if you want to wade through the commericials, but I didn't want her to (plus it wouldn't have been much of a gift).

Now, here's what else played into my thinking.  My wife can use it whenever she wants.  But I can use it, too.  And so can my daughter. So there's the family part, though you're probably thinking, he bought that gift for himself, the bastard.  I'll take the Fifth on that.

Because here's the funny thing:  Spotify is a very romantic gift, at least for the right person in the circumstances.  We tend to forget that there is nothing more romantic than nostalgia.  Suddenly, at our command, sitting at the kitchen table, was any song from any time period that ever meant anything to us, either together or individually.

So she played "Show and Tell" by Al Wilson and "Love The One You're With" by Stephen Stills and "We Are Family" by Sister Sledge.  She went on a Guess Who tear and added "No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature" and "American Woman."  I countered with some 60's favorites of my own--"Midnight Confessions" by the Grassroots and "Groovy Situation" by Gene Chandler, a little other soul, "Cool Jerk."  We heard Archie Bell and the Drells.  Some songs didn't work: "Me and You and A Dog Named Blue" didn't hold up.  Creedence makes my wife sad.  Like the Doors do.  She went late Elvis with "Kentucky Rain" and I played her some of Let It Bleed, which she had never heard.

My children ultimately left in frustration.  Their mother's over-the-top approach to music is something they have railed against for years.  She gets to singing and dancing and everything.  The last thing they expected was that I would join in. But I did. We were both lost in a musical world that began over 45 years ago, had existed at least 22 years before them, and that they had no context for, even if they knew the songs. They had nothing to counter the power of the past.

And that is the power of Spotify.  Much as I've struggled with the shift from "owning" music to storing music or "leasing" music, a circumstance I still can't quite come to terms with, the ability to sit at a table and to think of most any song that had ever meant anything (as I write this, I'm listening to Yessongs, the live Yes 3-album set from 1973)and then to be able to call it up seems like conjuring, like alchemy of the highest order.  Who wants gold when he or she can restore the soundtrack of his or her youth by typing a few keys?

I realize that this is but one aspect of Spotify, the default postion we went to immediately.  Later, my wife realized that she now had access to the greatest operatic performances in recorded history, another side to her musical passions.  I'm so overwhelmed, I can't play with it with any kind of coherence at all.  So far, I've gone from Norah Jones' very, very recent CD to the off-tracks I've always wanted to hear from The Essential Bruce Springsteen to the aforementioned Yes, the cornerstone of my prog-rock years.  But there will be much more.  After all, time is money, er...music.

And, for the record, my wife pronounced that it was the greatest gift ever.  But then, she is like that.


Monday, May 14, 2012

Are We Doomed?

Beautiful World - Dierks Bently (feat. Patty Griffin)

Who wants to live forever?

When Freddy Mercury asked that question in song -- for the immortal Highlander, no less! -- he did so poignantly, as he himself teetered on the edge of life's abyss.

But seriously, who does want to live forever? If our news and our fictional best-sellers are any indication, the world is going to hell in a handbasket at high velocity, so why would anyone want to be around to see it keep getting worse?

The future will be a time when an evil dictator uses a televised gladiator competition to keep the unhappy hungry masses in line. The future will be controlled by the corrupt mock-religious priests who will control all that we ingest through head or mouth. Computers will overtake us and use our bodies as batteries. Children will be trained on video games to determine their skill piloting weapons of mass destruction. Few women will be fertile, and they will be highly valued as commodities, not people. Water -- or perhaps oil -- will be scarce, and humans will savagely destroy one another for it.

Who wants to live for that shit?

In the third season of thirtysomething, a zeitgeist show very much set in the late ‘80s, uberwife Hope Steadman makes the panicked and forlorn cry, “The world is falling apart around us!” She’s worried about the miserable world we’re leaving for her daughter’s generation, the future wasteland we are cultivating.

I love Hope, but I couldn’t help but chuckle.

No offense, but 25 years later, we’re lookin’ pretty darn OK. The Wasteland ain’t farther away, but it ain’t that much closer to the present, either. It’s right where it always seems to be: right there, just over the horizon, lurking.

What is it about our current time that we’re so insistent on things going downhill? Are we any more doom-obsessed now than we were 20 years ago, or 50 years ago? It really seems like we are. But maybe it’s more of a pendulum swing than a sea change.

Pardon me a rare moment when I’m not the voice of doom and negativity, but something about being inundated with dystopia has forced me to look for the rays of light.

Assuming our entire Internet isn’t taken down by a botnet worm, and assuming we’re not engulfed in nuclear war, and assuming we don’t run out of clean water, and assuming we don’t all become infertile or become decimated by some unforeseen disease, the future looks very bright.

Hope was worried about her daughter’s world. Janie Steadman would be 26 or so now, and the world would likely be her oyster. This world is far from perfect, but I’m pretty sure she’d laugh at her mom’s concerns for the future with a quarter-century of hindsight.

Even as we wrangle over whether gay people are people, even as I must repeatedly tell my old relatives that Obama is not a Muslim secret agent planted to destroy our country, even as we watch the superwealthy get more super while the rest of us swim around in our lukewarm baby pools, I feel as optimistic as I do frightened.

In another quarter-century, will we mock Katniss, or will we be hoping she swoops in to save us? Will we be protecting our children from cannibals or zombies, or will we just be watching that shit on higher-def, bigger screens? Will we still have energy, an atmosphere, freedom? Yeah, I believe so. It won’t always be pretty, but I believe our best days are still ahead. As a country and as a planet.

Pass the Kool-Aid. I’m still drinkin’ it, even if it occasionally tastes more like Popcorn Sutton's moonshine.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

I Guess I Am

Steve Earle--"Amerika V. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)" (mp3)


Walking into the Bi-Lo to get a few things, I encountered a man standing at a table half blocking the entrance to the store.  I could tell he was trying to sign people up for newspaper subscriptions to the Chattanoga Times-Free Press.  "Excuse me, sir," he said.

"I already subscribe," I said and started to push my cart past him.

"That's good," he said, "But this is something different.  We're partnering with Bi-Lo to give away a gift card worth $250.  It only takes about a minute to sign up."

"Okay," I said, and I reversed course back to his table and began filling out the form.

He made a comment on my t-shirt, and I explained to him that I had participated in a city clean-up and that they had given us these shirts. "Chattanooga's a clean city," he said, "Except for our minds."  And he winked at me.  His next comment struck me as even more odd, but I thought maybe he still thought he had to plug the newspaper subscription to me.  "You politically active?" he asked.

I paused.  "I guess not.  Not really."

"Me either.  I just decided to stay out of it."  Then he quoted Aristotle, a quotation I don't remember.

"I mean, I try to keep up with what's going on," I said, "But I'm not camping out at the Courthouse."

"That Occupy movement was co-opted from the get go," he said, and I agreed, having had the same discussion in a heady fashion at a dinner for the president of the American Bar Association earlier this week.

"Well, they did one good thing," I said.  "They caught a hit-and-run driver."

"That so," he said, and nodded.  "Well, good."  And then he shifted gears.  "You know, I'm no Marxist or Socialist..."he started, and I got distracted for a moment by the grocery store that waited in front of me, but then I tuned back into him and he was saying, "And Obama's campaign slogans have been used by Socialist organizations all over the world.  He's send them and us the clear message of his Socialist agenda."

I couldn't process that quickly.  That wasn't where he thought I was going.  He thought he had lost me, that I was so clueless that I couldn't even follow him.  So he said, "Have a nice day, sir."

And I walked on, to my limes and ground turkey and tortilla chips and whatever else I was buying.  But the more I walked, the more he bothered me.  I started to wonder if he was giving that spiel to every customer that he could corral on their way into the store.  And I started to get mad.  Does the paper know, does the grocery store know that he is pushing his personal politics in a low-toned way on people who stop to sign up for a gift card raffle? 

As I was leaving the self-checkout, I thought I might go over and speak to him, but when I looked that way, he was talking to a large African-American woman seated in one of those motorized shopping carts, and I thought, forgive the stereotype, if he's telling her that Obama is a Socialist, he's really pushing it.  So I left.

But I couldn't let it go.  He had gotten to me.  It's a blatant question in a lot of ways, that "Are you politically active?"  The negative response is not an easy one, or shouldn't be.  Or at least it wasn't for me.  And remind me again, I asked myself, you're not politically active why?  You have what good reason for not working toward the fulfillment of laws and consciousness-raising?  I had sat, two night before, two seats down from the wife of the president of the American Bar Association, who had argued passionately that the underfunding of our courts was undermining our justice system.  They were spreading that message at every stop during his 330 days of travel in his year as ABA president.  They had a cause.

When I got home, ready to start making a cheesecake, I almost had the immediate amnesia that follows such an encounter, that kind of "oh, well, I've got better things to do" rationalization.  But still, I couldn't let it go.

So I did what any non-confrontational, marginally-engaged citizen would do.  I got on the Chattanooga Times Free Press website; I got on the Bi-Lo grocery store chain website.  And on both websites, I wrote a version of the following message: The gentleman who is running your in-store gift card promotion for the newspaper and the grocery store is telling the people who stop that Obama is a Socialist.  If I ever encounter this again, I will cancel the paper immediately and find a different grocery store.  Not kidding.  Then I added "Sincerely," and my name.  I told them I expected a response.

Finally, I believe, in timid ways, I think that I have reached the age where if I say it, I mean it, and I will follow through.  Advocating with my wallet may not mean much, but I've learned that if I decide to do it, I can stick with it. 

Politically active, sir?  Yeah, I guess I am.  A little.  A very, very little.  Thanks to you.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Sexy Baby

Addicted to Love - Florence + The Machine (mp3)
Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands - Phoenix (mp3)

“There is this celebration of the average—that you can become a celebrity by just doing extreme things.” -- Ronna Gradus, co-director, Sexy Baby

I believe we’re on the verge of something amazing. And by we, I mean women. But by women, I mean us. Something good. Something better.

Mostly I’m just hoping for a continuation of the women’s equality movement that has been slowly -- too slowly -- gaining ground year after year, decade after decade. We’ve generally been a two-steps-forward, one-step-back culture when it comes to matters of social and civil justice. Progress never occurs quickly enough for those in need of it, and far too fast for those standing in its way.

The challenge of growing up female in America will never be anything but daunting, anything less than a challenge, but I increasingly believe that my daughters will raise daughters in a better society. Will our culture still be image-obsessed and hypersexual? Will women be their own most venomous critics? Maybe. But it feels less inevitable than it used to.

First, Ashley Judd gets all righteously pissed off about her puffy face. And no matter what people think of Ashley Judd, her observations are bold, confident and generally beyond opinion. You don’t get the feeling, when she denies plastic surgery and hormone work, that she’s the Mark Maguire or Roger Clemens of female celebrities. Her anger feels real, and justified. And the people she targets deserve to feel ashamed... even if they don't.

Then, I see the trailer and read a great interview with the two filmmakers for Sexy Baby, a new documentary that explores the hypersexualized culture of today and three women caught in its vortex.

Then I read a really cool interview with Shirley Manson, lead singer of Garbage, in SPIN online, in which this Q&A catches my eye:
Garbage was always synonymous with a certain kind of sexy. Is that something you came to embrace over the years? 
No, I find it laughable. I was 28 when Garbage broke, so I was old enough to understand the danger in tying your worth to sex appeal. It's a trap for women because it's something they can't hold on to. To me, who you are is the most important thing. What you do says more about your value in the world than how you look. I really believe that, and those are the strengths you can rely on when things get tough, because they inevitably do. That line of thinking stops women from believing in themselves as artists, from being curious and brave. Instead, we wind up with girls that sound ten a penny, who are coming off tour and having their songs handed to them. We're not hearing authentic experiences from women.
Brilliant. And this from a confessed incurable cutter. You don't have to be completely stable to see the insanity of our image-obsessions.

I’m not a “Darkling,” as Shirley calls her Garbage fanatics. I never particularly obsessed over Shirley the way I have over... well, Ashley Judd comes to mind... but I always thought she exuded a kind of hypnotic sexuality. Far more importantly, I always liked their music. Garbage is just a better-packaged and less freaky version of Curve, but that's mostly a compliment.

But what I’m loving about these women is how comfortable they seem to be getting with the ridiculousness of it all. They have the age and experience to know better. Yes, they’ve both earned plenty of greenbacks by milking their sexuality, so some might dismiss their comments as hypocrisy. But they’ve never been merely about sexuality. Their sexuality has been part of a gestalt. Asking them to remove that portion of themselves isn’t particularly fair; and neither woman has oversold it in comparison to most sex objects in similar positions.

The danger of our culture will not go away. Girls and young women will always be the most vulnerable, the most desperate to please, the most willing to take foolish chances for what they perceive as fame or love or glory. They’re also the ones most likely to fall for someone else’s bullshit explanations for baring themselves.

But the more women -- especially strong, grown, adult women -- who fight this, both publicly and in their own homes with their daughters, the better our chances to improve in this area.

And I believe we will, I really do.






Then again, I’ve watched the Kate Upton “Cat Daddy” video three times in the last week. So maybe I’m just kidding myself. But I hope not.

You can hear Garbage's entire new album streaming live from SPIN.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Summer Calendar

Seals and Crofts--"Summer Breeze" (mp3)


It is telling, I think, that I don't keep a calendar for the working months.  Oh, I try from time to time, write down key events and all of that, but the fact is that work is so all-consuming that it really just becomes a matter of showing up when neccessary. 
Work months tend to operate on the premise that there is probably something going on that I am supposed to attend, so those events rarely sneak up on me.  Most afternoons and evenings, I'm flexible, able to add a function without any trouble.  I just tell my family and they adjust.  We eat later, eat out, whatever.  I do my part or I stay for awhile or as long as necessary, and then I leave to go on to a different event or to go home.  That's the post-school day life.

But I don't even keep a calendar of meetings.  If I'm supposed to be at one, someone will call me on the phone and ask me if I'm coming.  Since most meetings don't require any preparation, it's simply a matter of picking up a pen, a piece of paper, and a coffee mug and walking next door.  If the meeting is in my office, well, there I am already and come on in and let's get started!

This only backfired on me one time this year that I can remember.  I was just about to dig into a barbecue-stuffed potato for lunch at Rib and Loin with my wife and daughter when I got a text saying, "Hey, are you coming to this scholarship meeting?"

Then, I panicked, wolfed down a few bites, and raced back to school about 15 minutes late for the meeting.  And no one cared.  But that was clearly the exception.  Most days, I'm just around, working on my stuff, and if I have to interrupt thatto do something else, well, so be it.

But the summer.  Oh, how different the summer is.

The summer is like a military campaign, or maybe several of them.  The summer requires "strategery" and planning, the gathering of resources, the disbursement of troops.  The summer demands that those troops be properly provisioned and settled into manageable accomodations. Those troops must know what they are working toward. The summer is about R + R, shore leave, 2-day passes.  The summer expects proper uniforms and gear to suit the weather.  Most of all, the summer depends upon scheduling, knowing who will be where and when.

So I'm late getting to it this year, but what I really want more than anything is a great big calendar, one that I can spread out on my kitchen table and use to plot out the precious two months or so that summer has been reduced to. See, the ever-shorter summer creates the need for more planning, not less. How else to fit in the festivals, the weddings, the holidays, the grants, the weekend trips, the full-fledged vacations?  How else to balance the work schedules, the meetings, the trials and the "must be there" days with the need to get out of town, the need to get away, the requirement of removing any work thoughts from our minds, however briefly?

How else to figure out how to do enough of something that we can earn some do-nothing time?

Summer is both a making up and a storing up.  I missed most of winter break and spring break being sick, so whatever psychic benefits I expected to gain from those breaks feels lost to me.  At the same time, I operate with the strong expectation that the summer will somehow "recharge my batteries."  So I want more from those brief days than I can possibly hope to get, but the attempt is still worth the effort.  There is no shorter summer than the one spent at home with no plans, each day bleeding into the next.  That summer feels like it's almost over before it begins.

Summer is free time, lost time, found time, precious time.  There are those few days, if you're lucky a week or even two, when the return feels so distant that you can wake up for several mornings in a row without feeling like you have to get back to anywhere, when your life, wherever you are, exists just for itself and isn't burdened by work or home or obligation. 

Those are the finest days of the summer.  But they don't just happen. And that's why, regardless of whatever else is going on in the present, in my mind, I am working on my summer calendar.

My job is fun, but my job is sad.  Every year at this time, people that I have come to love leave, rarely, if ever, to return, and never to return as they were when they were here.  It is a definite, yearly ending that most people in most jobs don't face.  And it makes the summer all the more important.  Let me go wherever I need to go to wash my mind and my emotions clean so that, next year, I can do it all again.  That is my wish for the summer.  And I can't believe that, whatever you do and wherever you live, you don't need the same thing.  Let's just make sure we make time for that, put it on our calendars.