Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Pessimistic Idealists

Freddy Hall and The Best Intentions--"Hold Love, Keep It In Your Hands" (mp3)

When our country was young, in fact, before it even began, its thinkers and dreamers envisioned what we as a nation collectively, as citizens individually, could become.  Even beyond Declarations and statements of Religious Freedom and Constitutions and the like, the rhetoric of those who were not necessarily our official national architects spoke to our best outcomes, our best selves.

By the time Emerson and Thoreau came along some 40 years after the Constitution, they already knew what they didn't like about what America was becoming--examples include the movement away from agrarianism (which also bothered Jefferson), what they saw as the failures of representative democracy, our attempt to fashion ourselves as a European-style state, the "immoral" uses of our taxes. 

But the interesting thing is that when you read their writings, even with the criticisms, implied or otherwise, their tone and their message is overwhelmingly positive and hopeful.  When Emerson and Thoreau tell us what we are supposed to be--civilly-disobedient and non-conforming, there isn't a sense of mockery or a feeling that we can't get there.  Because they are visionaries, they write very much from an "I'll show you the way" kind of perspective.  Of course most of us can't get there--that's why it's idealism-- but like Browning's comment that "a man's reach must exceed his grasp/ Else what's a heaven for," both men, however learned they might be, speak on a populist level that suggests that the man (or woman) who steps up to that kind of self-actualization could be any one of us, not necessarily, even not likely, one of our political leaders.
 
Today's "idealists," and I use the term guardedly, are the great pessimists. Rather than tell us what we can become, they show us why what we tried didn't work, why who we voted for is bad or worse, why every accomplishment has cynical underpinings, why when we take the measure of a man, no man measures up.   Nothing is good enough, everything is flawed, and things can only get worse.  At least when compared to the ideal.

They thrive on hindsight.  They feast on failure.  They love to take the empty promises of a campaign season and spout those as disappointing doctrine.  They ignore political realities, like if you're going to get a bill through, you're going to have to give something to the senator from Iowa that he can take back home.  They expect that if you are President, that you can tell the Joint Chiefs of Staff what to do without any pushback or compromise.  "No retreat, baby, no surrender" sounds great in a Springsteen song, but it's hard to live out in Washington, DC., not if you want to move on to a new issue that requires a different set of allies tomorrow.

If you wonder who these people, these Pessimistic Idealists are, you can find them trolling on the Internet, not writing news articles or opinion pieces, but adding the comments that follow those posts.  They have snarky names and competing idealisms and they recognize the snarky names of their adversaries and live to do online battle.   The chat rooms of old have been replaced by pithy discussion strands that mimic much of the "Either/Or" mentality of the talking heads on news and sports television.  I'm right, you're wrong, and God help any poor soul who tries to get in a word between us. 

Today's idealists get their wireless erections, their cyber-orgasms from being so right, so crushingly confrontationally right, that they know they have achieved victory when others with similar ideals start piling on as well.  They can easily ignore the fact that other ideals sit uneasily beside their own, getting equal time, because those values are simply jet fuel for their fire.

These people are the reason why you now see in the "Comments" section of many websites, cautions about the increasing vitriol and the need for a civil discourse.  They are why you, if you choose not to join the fray, can flag comments as inappropriate.  Because so many are inappropriate, if not by the literal guidelines of language or discrimination, then by their basic hatred of discussing opposing ideas.

People who were trying out comments on the Internet a few years ago have either abandoned that idea or have sharpened their words to a razor-like edge and sit, waiting.

That is what the Internet has become.  That is what Idealism has become, not human potential but inflexible personal party platforms.

None of this may be surprising, but it is certainly disheartening.  Much as I write in hopes of getting comments on this blog, out in the greater Internet world, I am almost afraid to read the comments that follow any political story, or even any story that focuses on an event in which the government is involved.  I know that I will end up a naive idiot for feeling good about anything, from the Penn State punishment to Obamacare.  And, by the way, many of these idealists know no particular party or loyalty.  They exist to slice and dice.

To be fair, there's no telling what Jefferson and Madison, Emerson or Thoreau would think of this country whose ethos they helped to create.  Perhaps they would have given up hope, too.  I also must admit that I am not immune to the condition I have described.  I have been angered enough by comments to want to respond, often only saved by a need to register on a website in order to leave a comment.  I've done it on this website, convinced of my absolute rightness on some issue that mattered little once I went to bed and got up the next day.

The only difference I can cling to, if it counts for anything, is that I am rarely pessimistic about what is or what will be.  I see a way out, a chance that people will act right and make moral decisions on every level.  Until the second that someone actually flicks the switch on the garbage disposal, I'll go with hope and change any day.  But they don't call that idealism these days.  They call that naivete.


Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Right to Be Forgotten?

Theme from “Cheers” - Gary Portnoy (mp3)
A New Name for Everything - The Weakerthans (mp3)

One of the Big Topics Worth Discussion swimming in the murky but mesmerizing mess that is “The Dark Knight Returns” is the question of whether we have the right to be forgotten. (slight spoiler alert ahead: if you like, skip to "The latest issue of The Atlantic Monthly...")

Selena Kyle, played well -- if too anorexically -- by the charming-when-healthy Anne Hathaway, is an imperfect gal whose albatross, whose reason for continuing a pattern of criminal behavior, is the inability to escape her past. If she could only start fresh, she would fly straight, we are led to believe.

Of course Bruce Wayne has the super-secret computer program that can clean her slate (feel free to insert sexual innuendo here, since if Selena Kyle looked like post-accident Harvey Dent, I highly doubt Batman would have been so keen to help her out). Strangely, in a trilogy filled with moral ambiguity and difficult ethical decisions facing Our Dark Knight, the question of whether it’s right to clean Selena Kyle’s slate isn’t one of them. He hands that sucker over without a second thought.

The latest issue of The Atlantic Monthly, a.k.a. The Greatest Monthly Magazine Going, includes an exploration of this very issue.

Right now, across the globe, courts and judges are determining whether individuals have a right to clean their slate. Think of it as declaring identity bankruptcy. The person you are is so scarred and damaged by the images or information available about you on the Internet that you are simply incapable of escaping them and living free. The nuances and risks of such a notion will only become a bigger part of our cultural conversation in the coming decade.

My gut reaction to reading this article was to support it fully. I’m a big believer in forgiveness, and this kind of “right” seems to potentially offer just that on a massive scale. Not only forgiven, but forgotten. If you did naked keg stands at the dawn of the Facebook generation, or if a friend posted shots of you in bed with your drunken college hook-up, it doesn’t seem remotely fair that this crap must forever lurk in the shadows, a potentially awkward discussion every time you apply for a job or have a particularly nosy girlfriend or in-law.

But then I wondered, what about convicted child molesters? What about someone like Warren Jeffs or David Miscavige, best-known recent or current leaders of the FLDS and Church of Scientology?

What about Karen Klein, the older bus monitor who was famously harassed by middle school students and who was given more than $300,000 in Internet donations afterward? She regularly noted in interviews that she didn’t believe she deserved to be a celebrity, and that all the attention was unwarranted. Does she have the right to be forgotten? Even if it means that a potentially watershed moment in the bullying conversation -- groups of kids can even bully adults -- gets forgotten with her?

What about Emily Dickinson? It's debated, but many believe she did not want her poems to be published at all.

I hope our country’s and world’s lawmakers and judges truly measure and take in the complexity of this challenge. Perhaps we don’t have an inalienable right to be forgotten. We certainly don’t have an inalienable right to second chances or forgiveness, not in this life.


Maybe there's a clean slate waiting for us after we die, but it would be nice to see us try to make a right like this work here on earth.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Lowbrow, but Fancy, Summer Fare

Joe Louis Walker--"I Got What You Need" (mp3)

The garlic bread cooks in the oven while the shrimp grills.
Dear Bob: Often when I am at the beach or at a vacation condo, I want to make something that is spectacular but easy. Basically, I just want to use my grill and a few other things and as few ingredients as possible. But I want people to go "Wow," when they take their first bite and to rave similarly about the rest of the meal. By the way, this is, of course, during summer that I am talking about. Thanks.

Sincerely,
Befuddled At The Beach



Dear Befuddled: This is a common problem. People at vacation homes go there to live the simple life, but they tire quickly of eating out, especially as they begin to add up the money they're spending and they think, 'Can't I put on a better meal at home?". So, take heart. You are not alone. Here's an easy solution that will wow your guests but keep it simple.

SHOPPING LIST (for 8 people)
3-pack of romaine lettuce hearts
2 tomatoes (you should be able to get great ones in season)
1 bottle Paul Newman's Family Italian Dressing
4 sub rolls
Garlic
Butter
2 lbs fresh shrimp
1 store-bought pound cake loaf
4 peaches
1 can whipped cream
Sugar
Bamboo skewers

Grilling pound cake deepens its flavor.
 That's right, Befuddled. A complete meal  only 11 ingredients and some sticks. Are you ready? Here we go:

1. Peel peaches and slice into bowl. Sprinkle with sugar. Set aside.
2. Peel shrimp and place in bowl. Pour 1/2 bottle of Italian dressing over top, toss, and place in refrig to marinate.
3. Slice or tear lettuce into bite-size pieces in a bowl, rinse under water, drain thoroughly and set aside.
4. Slice tomatoes into bite-size pieces and add to lettuce.
5. Slice each sub roll in half lengthwise.
6. Microwave 8 oz. of butter and 1-2 chopped cloves of garlic for 1 minute or until melted and fragrant.
7. Brush garlic butter evenly over sliced sub rolls. If you prefer mor butter, add to garlic and microwave again until melted.
8. Slice pound cake into 8 equal pieces.
9. Get your grill ready for medium to high heat. Simultaneously, heat oven to 300 degrees.
10. Put the garlic bread in the oven while it heats.
11. Thread the shrimp on the skewers (I use two skewers for each row of shrimp so they are easier to turn) and grill them 4-5 minutes per side, turning once.  The cooking time will depend on the heat of your grill.
12. Meanwhile, toss the lettuce and tomatoes with the remaining dressing.
13. When the shrimp are done, the garlic bread should be done, too, and you can serve both immediately, with the salad.
14. Cover your grill and keep it as hot as you can.  Whenever you are ready for dessert, grill the slices of pound cake on each side until toasted and serve with the peaches and whipped cream.

If you are totally into grilling, you could actually grill every part of this meal.  The tomatoes and lettuce, halved and brush with olive oil on their cut sides could be grilled briefly and lightly charred, before cutting them up for the salad.  And, obviously, the garlic bread could easily be grilled, too.

There you have it.  Quick, classy, great tasting food.  Even if you're staying in a place that has no staples and you have to buy the entire meal, it shouldn't cost you more than $45 (plus wine?).  Not bad, eh?

Sincerely,
Bob

P.S.  If you don't like shrimp or are looking for an even cheaper option, make the exact same meal the same way, but use boneless chicken breasts cut up for kabobs.  You might want to marinate them a little longer.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Everyday Realities of Straw Dogs

Robert Lockwood, Jr.--"Little Boy Blues" (mp3)


NOTE: This post contains significant plot details and "spoilers," mostly since this story has been around for  at least 40 years.
Perhaps the most difficult movie to watch for a male of a certain type is Straw Dogs, in either of its incarnations. I have seen both versions, having recently watched last year's update, which relocates the story from Scotland, I think, to the Deep South. While the remake increases the B-movie quality of the original (does anyone even admit that there are B movies anymore?), it basically cops the original script and feel, so a viewer feels closer to that scene-by-scene reshoot of Pyscho from a few years ago than you might think.

If you don't know the story, it would appear to be the ultimate male fantasy--in a way. Physically-unimposing guy returns with new, hot wife to her hometown and, through a series of conflicts, defends his home, in a life or death situation, against a group of local thugs out for blood. They mean to kill. He must overcome five of them. He succeeds. Sorry if you didn't know. And the couple pays a brutal price to get to that point.

The male of the type mentioned in my opening line, is, of course, a guy like me, that kind of man who has grown up more in the world of books and ideas, the world of intellectual problem-solving instead of brute force. In high school, I played sports with a moderate amount of success, fit in easily, but ended up hanging out more with the yearbook staff than the basketball team.

I wasn't bullied or intimidated by the jocks; I just didn't know very much about their world. And that's what makes the movie so uncomfortable to watch. The amped-up violence is a Hollywood convention, but the social confusion is not.

But it isn't just the rules of high school that the protagonist (a mathematician in the original, a writer in the update) doesn't understand, he flat out doesn't grasp "how things are done around here," meaning his wife's hometown. And anyone who has ever returned with a girlfriend, boyfriend, or spouse to his or her hometown or city knows some version of what this is like. Joining someone in his or her childhood home means trying to understand a "code," with a confusing, inconsistent set of rules, a point Straw Dogs drives home in spades.

In the recent movie, that means that he undervalues the importance of relgion and football (he walks out on a service that essentially is a blessing of the high school football team), the connection between drinking and violence, the history of lifelong relationships. The last one, in particular, is difficult for him to factor. He knows his wife dated the leader of the work crew repairing his roof, but underestimates the man's continuing obsession with her. And he clearly misses the history of the conflicts created by a mentally-limited Benjy/Lenny type character whose combination of interest in pretty girls and unawareness of his own physical strength foreshadows doom.

But, most importantly, the protagonist doesn't know how to handle an easily-physical, imposing group of men. And his wife expects him to. Yes, he is smarter than them, he is wealthier than them, and he "got the girl," but he is also naive. It is hard to watch as they mock-respect him and take advantage of his easy-going acceptance and generosity. It is hard to watch them walk into his house from working on the barn to grab beers out of his refrigerator, an action that doesn't concern his wife at all, since everybody shares everything in town and they don't even bother to lock their doors. Even though that lack of boundaries leads to trouble. It is agonizing to see him try to hold them to a work schedule,to courtesy, to respect for their clients. It is brutal to watch them lure him to join a hunting trip while their leader goes back to his house to visit his wife.

His wife sometimes helps him to navigate this confusing social environment, except when it comes to these man issues, when she expects him to know what stand to take against this group of bullies whom she is ostensibily friends with, putting him in a strange position of having to walk out to the barn to reach accomodation with them and then having to walk back in to her to see if he measures up to her expectations. Which he doesn't.

It is that situation that everyone who has ever been in a relationship has been in. Through either an overt comment or silence, I feel pressure to "do something." Do I act or do I hold back? Is this any of my business or is this issue beyond my comprehension or responsibility? And, worst of all, if I decide to take a stand, what stand do I take? Do I accuse someone of something that I know is true but can't prove? Is discretion truly the better part of valor? Do I really gain respect by turning the other cheek? Am I supposed to fight?

When we don't know how we're supposed to act, we rarely guess right, tending instead to hesitate or to overreact badly.

And so, despite the ominous social tensions in Straw Dogs, the accumulating choices which are defining the marriage are the center of the movie. Though the wife in the movie defends her husband's manhood, her disillusionment in him proceeds unabated with each social failure. In fact, she has lost such confidence in him that she withholds a crucial piece of information from him for the last 30 minutes of the film. Whether that is because she thinks he won't act or thinks that he will is unclear, but reveals the destruction of trust either way. And when she declares that she wants to leave, he reads the situation as indicative of his failure and makes the line-in-the-sand decision to stay.

Even though Straw Dogs would seem to glory in the protagonist's physical victory, his stand against the violent, his protection of his castle, it also wisely ends abruptly, leaving the the viewer to survey the damage mentally, acutely conscious of how little there is to celebrate. As someone who can empathize with his incessant confusion, that is very difficult to watch.


NOTE: My focus on the protagonist is in no way intended to minimize what happens to the woman in this movie.  I would love to see a companion piece or a feminist essay written on Straw Dogs.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Whip It

Physical - Nine Inch Nails (mp3)

“My secret sexual fantasy involves beating the shit out of you.”

Apparently, were I single and over 30, the best way to find a woman would be to walk up to a hot young thang in a bar and confess this to her. Sure, you couldn't say it right away. It would need to be after a few drinks, or maybe on a second date. But eventually, a confession that you'd like to welt her with a riding crop should seal the deal.

But this isn't about physical abuse in some cruel Zed v. Marcellus redneck way. No, I would beat a woman in a loving, tender way. I’d hold her after and tell them how special she was as she winced from the searing pain on her flesh. I would only bruise her in places they could hide under their career outfits. We would call these bruise locations “our special secret places.”

Yes, I'm kidding. No, I don't find it very funny.

50 Shades of Gray remains glued atop the bestseller list, and roughly three-quarters of the women I know have read, are reading, or plan to read this book and/or the whole damn trilogy. I haven’t read it, but at least four women I know have willingly shared their interpretations of it, and every single one of them say the following things:
  1. It’s terribly-written with a shabby plot.
  2. It’s soft-core porn.
  3. They read it in less than a day/a week, definitely quicker than they usually read stuff.
  4. The girl protagonist is sorta pathetic.
  5. But the sex scenes are kinda hot.
  6. But not, like, you know, something they would personally do.
In short, the whole book is kinda stupid and goofy, but golly gee it went by fast, and is it getting hot in here or what?

The success of this book disturbs on two fronts: the guy side, and by the gal side. The idea that other people could do this, and that people could enjoy it being done, leaves me truly befuddled. I’m of course kidding having some “beat the shit out of women” fantasy. If there’s untapped orgasmic pleasure to be derived from my inflicting pain on a sexual partner, then I’m fine not knowing about it. I can sleep soundly with my ignorance and have for a long time.

I’m not saying it’s wrong for men to get sexual pleasure from inflicting pain, but... no, actually, I AM saying I think it’s very very wrong.

My personal sexual peccadilloes aside, and my bias against men who enjoy giving beatings aside, the 50 Shades avalanche reveals a long-extant gender hypocrisy.

Women have always whined and bitched about the male obsession with the “Angel/Whore complex.” They complain that men claim to seek out the Angel -- the sweet, charming, pretty, Alice In Wonderland-lookin’ gal -- but really prefer the Whore -- a.k.a. Mila Kunis.

But here’s this book, and all the women are reading it, and the same hypocrisy rears its head. Women claim to want the sensitive, caring, cuddling, eat ice cream on the couch while watching “The Notebook” guy who would make a great father, but they devour a book about a supreme douchebag. They claim to want lace, but they squeal for leather.

The Mickey Rourkes of the world get laid a lot more than the Paul Rudds, and I can't help but believe this says more about women than it does about men. A disquieting proportion of the female population have, throughout history, found the Bad Boy to be a more thigh-warming notion.

Again, I haven’t read this book. It’s possible I’m being grossly unfair to this hero, Christian, and the world of safe words and riding crops.

If someone's got some explanations to enlighten me on this stuff, I'm game. Maybe you can beat some sense into me. Hell, maybe I’d even like it.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Bob watches a DVD

Muddy Waters--"I Can't Be Satisfied" (mp3)

In a shocking reversal, avowed futurist Bob _______ has watched a DVD, several of them, in fact.  It's quite a list--Bad Teacher, Somewhere, Mercury Rising, some movie where Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd end up in a commune.  Apparently, there are a bunch more stacked on top of a television that is at least 15 years old.

"I'm as surprised as anyone," he said, when reached by telephone while on vacation in Florida.  "Embarrassed, really.  I had a couple of them that had come from Netflix back in early April, when I was still in transition, and I remember thinking at the time, 'What am I supposed to do with these?' before crawling into bed to watch Veep on my phone.  I brought the DVDs along with me, intending to stick them in the mail and send them back because I knew it would never happen back home."

_____ had been living in the clouds, courtesy of his iPhone, iPad, Netflix app, HBO Go app, PBS app, Xfinity app, and his remaining lifelong dreams.  He had pronounced in late May that he was finished with DVDs.

"I didn't want to come back down to Earth," he said.

"It's a definite step backwards.  If Neil Armstrong had done something like this, I doubt we would have the expansive moon program that we enjoy today.  But then, Neil Armstrong probably had better reception than what I'm getting down here in Florida.  Their statewide 3G crawls about as fast as a three-legged alligator, and since my mother-in-law only comes down here occasionally, we don't have WiFi.  I've got to pray that "JimmyandDiane" turn their WiFi on.  I have no idea who Jimmy and Diane are.  But God bless them for not knowing how to secure their Wifi in 2012."

"The only other choice for Internet-viewing is the library, and I'm not watching Game Of Thrones in a Florida Public Library.  Wink, wink," he chuckled.

The retro move may be only temporary, but _____ seems to be making the best of it.

"Actually, it's quite charming.  I've been having flashbacks to about 2003 or whatever year it was that we actually thought it was a good idea to buy DVDs and own them and put them on shelves like books.  They really snookered us with that one, didn't they?   Got us in the habit of buying them and and started putting out so many that there wasn't any way to watch them all and the new ones kept (and keep) coming."

"But now the library has them and the system is easier to use than I'd remembered.  You just push the button to open the door, put the DVD in the tray, reload the tray, wait for it to engage, sit through a bunch of previews for movies that have already come out, and then get to your main screen, which, if you get distracted and start doing something else, will play forever, repeating the same scenes from the movie and same snatch of music over and over and over.   It becomes kind of a mantra.  Then you start the movie until it hits one of its smudges or scratches, so you take it out and do your best to wipe it off and hope for the best.   And they've got all of these great bonus feautures that I've never watched on any DVD I've ever owned, so I can't say too much about them except that they probably really enhance and illuminate the entire viewing experience."

_____ is philosophical about the experience.  "Life is simpler now.  That's obvious.  Take a trip like this to Florida.  You just pack up your laptop, your iPod, your iPad, your iPhone, and your Kindle and head out of town.  But some of those old complications and inconveniences are still around and it will take a while for us to eradicate them so that everyone can be as technologically streamlined as I am."

_____ has regressed in another way, too; he's been checking books out of the library.  "Hefty things, really.  Quite bulky and unsuitable for transport.  If one spends time in the library, one tends to amass quite a pile of them that look interesting, but then one realizes one doesn't want to actually have to hold them up to read them.  I choose the ones that look like I want to read them and then go buy them on my Kindle."

 Much as he is enjoying his time in Florida, Bob _____ looks forward to returning to more technologically-advanced climes.  "Most days back home, I'm a 5G guy in what is, at best, a 3-4G world.  But it will catch up.  It will."

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Safety of Public Places

Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears--"Livin' In The Jungle" (mp3)

I'm not a movie theater owner.  Nor do I play one on TV.  But the recent mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado is tangible enough that I can easily imagine the fear that a movie theater owner must feel. 

No, it's not that there might be a similar event at my movie theater.  The odds are very much against that, though I'd guess in the near future there may be an attempt at a copycat situation or two or three or five.  My fear is what they will want to do "my" movie theater.

Already, there is talk of installing metal detectors and doing other kinds of screenings.  There is talk of security guards and controlling the movements of people.  The shooter came in through a side door, maybe an exit door, something I've never much worried about.  Sure, kids have been able to sneak friends in through those doors from time to time, but that wasn't anything I worried much about.  I don't make money from ticket sales anyway.  People sneak food and popcorn into movies, too.  That's what costs me money.  But now, that talk of searching purses and backpacks and using scanners and who knows what else.

And, depending on which state my movie house sits in there, there is talk by people who will never come unarmed to a movie again.  And by those who say they won't come at all.

I can only imagine the additional costs, especially in terms of employees.  Up until now, I've had a dream situation.  My whole operation is simple enough that I can run it with very few employees, whom I'm paying minimum wage, or a bit more if they stay on long enough and move up to assistant manager or manager.  The whole thing works like a dream--the movies practically show themselves, the counting system of bags and cups in the concession area makes it practically impossible for the kids who work for me to give free food away to their friends. 

During slow times, I only need two employees in the theaters, one to sell tickets and concessions, one to make sure the movies are running properly and to check the bathrooms and that kind of thing.  On a Tuesday night, say, I don't need anybody else.

My movie theater depends on the best from people, and most of the time, that's what I get.  That may seem amazing to you; that's a standard expectation for me.  Most people know how to manage their cell phones, know to clean up their area at the end of the movie, know to be quiet in movies where that is appropriate.  But let's face, one of the pleasures of coming out to a movie is seeing it with other people, people who can amp up the laughter when it's funny, who will scream when it's scary.  And when people can't quite behave in a way that makes the movie enjoyable for everyone, all it ever took was an appearance by one of my (usually young) men or women in an usher's uniform to take care of the problem, even to lead someone out if need be.  Trouble did not come to the movies very often.

So is it possible, is it just at all possible, that there is nothing wrong with my movie theater the way it is currently run?  Shouldn't it be allowed to continue to run as a kind of mindless, sleepy establishment that only exists to provide fun for people?  When there is a shooting in a Target on the day after Thanksgiving or a community swimming pool or a free outdoor concert or an Easter church service or any where else that gathers a large group of people in close proximity, will our first response be to look at the logistics of the event and to focus on how it could have or should have been made safer?

Is it possible that this is where we draw the line and say, "We will continue to be a free and open society and will not react to violence by becoming an increasingly protected and closed society?"  Is it time to take a hard look at those aspects of our society that are causing us to need protection, to say that an incessant desire for self-protection is the problem and not the solution?  Is it really so few of us who can create the simple mind simulation of what it would have been like in that theater if every family, ever person of a certain age in that audience, offered an armed response to the gunman once he opened fire?  Does a dad need to dress his kids in body armor in order to take them Madagascar 3?

Those are not questions for the gunman.  For him, four legally-procured weapons and over 6,000 rounds of ammunition purchased on places like the Internet provided the means to the end he wanted.  Those are questions for the rest of us, both those who obsessively seek the right to bear arms and those who think they can't do anything about that obsession. 

See you at the movies.


Friday, July 20, 2012

The Next John Hughes


Like some sad deviant version of Samuel Beckett's Vladimir, I’ve been waiting for -- eagerly anticipating the arrival of -- John Hughes. Not the one who died, God rest his soul, but The Next John Hughes, the person whose raison d'ĂȘtre is to pick up Hughes’ brilliant torch and pay it forward.

One filmmaker after another has aspired to be like Hughes, much like Mars Blackmon wanted to Be Like Mike (TM), but Mars was no Mike, and these filmmakers aren’t John Hughes.

Hughes wasn’t a directorial visionary. His plots were, as often as not, quite unimpressive. But he knew teenagers. He understood them on a deeper level. He saw what they were, what they thought they were, how clever they want to be, how smart they can’t help but be. Better, Hughes saw how dismissive adults can be, even when they’re trying to be attentive and respectful.

This week I realized I’ve been looking for John Hughes in the wrong places, because Hughes wasn’t first and foremost a filmmaker, but rather a writer. The Crown Prince of Hughesville is North Carolina-born, award-winning young adult author John Green.

I first encountered the 35-year-old author’s brilliance when I picked his debut, Looking for Alaska, as one of my two summer reading books back in my 30s. One of my advisees then introduced me that fall to his second book, An Abundance of Katherines. Years later, I have returned and am halfway through his fourth novel, The Fault In Our Stars, where his focus is attuned to the world of Teens With Cancer (if you read it, you’ll grow to appreciate Unnecessary Proper Nouns).

Whether the plots in Green’s books are all that great is up for healthy debate. What is not debatable, however, is how attuned and gifted Green is at capturing the essence of precocious, smarter-than-your-average-bear teenagers. He gets how they think. He gets how they think they think. And yes, there’s a difference, and it’s a vital difference if you are going to write kickass YA fiction, because you have to know how to incorporate both into your work.

Because I grew close to a Teen With Cancer and witnessed his world quake and erupt, and because I saw the impact his Noble Lost Fight With Cancer had on his family, his friends and myself, I knew reading this book would be difficult. I’m just past halfway, and I’ve bawled or aggressively sniffled no fewer than five times. But just sad tears; not despair tears.

Green gets teens. In fact, I fantasize about having the chance to meet him and ask him, ala the publishing company assistant from As Good As It Gets, “How do you write teens so well?” And I fantasize this would be Green’s answer:
I think of an adult. And then I remove the lump of coal from their ass and give them vibrant emotions instead of ones dulled from too much time in the sunlight.
Except Green’s real response would be, like, 20 times more clever and less wordy.

If you haven’t ever heard of Green and want to see the man behind the books (and his brother), check out their vlog correspondance, aka VlogBrothers. “Hitler and Sex” is just the tip of the iceberg, people.



John and Henry are also captains of a Ning called Nerdfighters. If you don't know what a Ning is, then you're probably not enough of a nerd to be interested in Nerdfighters. Then again, I didn't know until two years ago. Pretty sure I was a nerd prior to 2010.

John Green also has Crash Course, a brilliant combo of actual lessons with witty banter and South Park-y animation. No seriously, he is foolish enough to think learning could simultaneously be entertaining.

It took me a while, but I’m now full force 100% mega-enthusiastic about the nature in which John Green is attacking the universe with his education-friendly snark.

Superawesome, supernerdy. The new and improved and social-media-friendly John Hughes v2.0.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Random List of Pet Peeves

In the light, non-philosophical months, there are still any number of things that irritate me most of the time.  And since I've traveled to Florida, I'm especially sensitive to road rules, to billboards, to habits of the locals.  So, without further ado, here's today's list, remembering full well that it could all be different tomorrow:

1. Hush puppies.  Hush puppies annoy me because they are one of those foods that people rave about as being something special at a particular restaurant when the reality is that the difference between an average hush puppy and a "great" one is almost indistinguishable.  The one you get at Captain D's is just fine; it tastes just like the one at the place that is known for their hushpuppies.

2. Bumper stickers.  Now that I'm rid of the car that I put bumper stickers on, I've come to realize that all bumper stickers are stupid.  They are simplistic and cowardly.  They make some sweeping, clever remark, but when you drive past the person who would put such a thing on their car, they will never look you in the eye.  They want to pretend it isn't their car. Or they want to pretend that the stickers capture who they are.  I sure am glad my car doesn't have them anymore.


3. Slide Shows.  The trend on websites to cover a lot of ground in an easy way by creating a "slide show" pisses me off to no end.  I wish this technology did not even exist.  They take forever to load, they require you to scroll around to find your spot on the page, and they rarely turn out to be worth the time.  Give me a simple one-web-page list any day of the week.

4.  Maceration and other cooking words.  I learned from my mother when I was a child that if you cut up strawberries and sprinkle them with sugar and let them sit, they will create a delicious syrup.  Now, that is not good enough.  Now, you have to "macerate" your berries.  Which means that you sprinkle them with sugar and let them sit so that they create a delicious syrup.

5.  Memory Care.  Here in Florida at the "Assisted Living" centers, they also advertise that they offer "memory care."  This is only the latest euphemism (see "assisted living") that attempts to hide from us the realities of life, especially the realities of growing old.  Why can't these places just say they take patients with demential or Alzheimer's?

6. Drivers who get mad at you for doing what they just did.  So you're driving behind a slow truck in the right lane and in order to get around it, you drift into the fast lane, into a space between cars that isn't even large enough for your car to fit, but the two cars accommodate you, and then when, a few minutes later, in order to deal with a slowdown, I pass you on the right and then cut in front of you with plenty of room to spare, you go apeshit?

7.  Passwords.  Why is it that the websites that are the least likely to be hacked into require the most complicated passwords?  To a pay a bill, I've got to have a password of so many letters, upper and lowercase, plus at least one number or a symbol.  And because it's complicated, I can never remember it.  Really, are there hackers out there who are breaking into utility websites and paying the bills for other people?

8.  Restaurants that make their employees greet you loudly when you walk in the door.  As if all of the employees shouting at you in unison and scaring the shit out of you as soon as you walk in a door is going to endear that restaurant to you.  The worst is CiCi's, who also tries to do it on the way out when you're finished and leaves people like me planning my departure when their backs are all turned.


9.  Artistic endeavors that lose their nerve. Like Cyrus.  Great set-up: fully-grown, odd son who is really attached to his single mom gets in the way of her relationship with a decent guy.  But for all of his quirks and creepy behavior, Cyrus ultimately doesn't deliver.  Why? Because the script and/or director chicken out.  You encounter a scene where Cyrus has all of the man's information and tax records on his computer, but he never does anything with it.  You have a scene where the man can see Cyrus but his mom can't and Cyrus is making signs that say "You're going down."  But Cyrus, who is as smart as he is off-kilter, never does anything.  They wrestle a little bit at a wedding and then they make up.  End of movie.  You lost me much earlier.



10.  Work zones that aren't. On the interstate, they start warning you miles ahead.  They make you slow down.  You caution you about what will happen if you speed when workers are present.  They countdown by miles, then half miles, then quarter miles, then yards when the work zone is going to start and then you get there and there is nothing there.  And then you get mad and you want to start speeding and maybe you get a ticket for going too fast.  But there is no ticket you can give in return for having to waste your time for miles by going too slow.

11. Me, myself, I.  It astounds me every time I come to Florida that I can revel in exercise--walking, biking, swimming--everytime I come down here, morning or evening, outside doing stuff, but that I can't rouse myself to do much of anything physical while I'm in "work mode" back in Chattanooga.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

"In This State of Disrepair"

Come Talk to Me - Bon Iver (mp3)
Secret World - Peter Gabriel (mp3)

When Us arrived in the fall of 1992, it was a beautiful downer.

Peter Gabriel’s follow-up to the commercial pinnacle of his career, a.k.a. So, was overgloomy, overproduced, and overwhelming. Not the kind of CD that earns spins in parties where kegs sit in the corner. And, in my junior year apartment, where we played TecmoBowl endlessly and cranked the more intense rock of the Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, little room was permitted for Us.

But in my room, as I would lie in bed unable to sleep, it would play endlessly through my Discman. Anywhere I needed to sink into my own personal and miserable fantasy of wishing I could find a girlfriend who might break up with me and inspire me to write anything half as amazing as Us, I played it.

On my most brilliant mixtape of all time, I introduced each song with audio clips from some of my favorite movies. Back in ‘92, this took weeks. And careful planning. I had to rent many of the videos or check them out from the library. I had to time it perfectly between my VCR and tape player. It was a painstaking art the likes of which shall never be again necessary. Today, a CD of that kind would only take a few hours of consideration and an hour or so of labor. And therefore, because it would come so much easier, it would be loved less. So I haven’t tried recreating it.

The concluding song on this historically famous mixtape was “Secret World.” The movie introduction came from Broadcast News, the scene where Aaron (Albert Brooks) has flopped miserably as an anchor and is drunk waiting on Jane to come home. She arrives, and they sit together on the front steps, and the talk concludes with these lines:
Aaron: "And in the middle of all this, I started to think about the one thing that makes me feel really good and makes immediate sense ... and it's you.”
Jane: "Oh, Bubba."
Aaron: "I'm going to stop right now. Except that I would give anything if you were two people, so that I could call up the one who's my friend and tell her about the one that I like sooo much.”
Those lines felt like the perfect compliment in emotional tone and context to “Secret World.”

Peter Gabriel isn’t the greatest songwriter in the world. His songwriting, while not a tragic flaw, gets weaker the more you inspect it, but he covers this slight weakness brilliantly. He surrounds himself with artists and encourages their involvement, understands the value and import of the theatrical, and appreciates and absorbs what gets lumped as “world music.” He and David Byrne could have been twins separated at birth. Byrne got a tad bit more brain matter, and Gabriel more heart.

No song, and no moment in Gabriel’s fascinating career brings all of his gifts and loves together like his live performance of “Come Talk To Me.” You get the world music influence. You get the dramatic staging. You get some of his better turns of phrase as well as the intense personal sincerity. When he wraps himself in the phone cord, I get short of breath. When it begins pulling him back, I can’t help but cry a little. Every single time.

I used to think Us was about Gabriel’s break-up with Rosanna Arquette. Now, with the benefit of experience, I realize it’s an exploration of why the break-up was inevitable. Us is Gabriel’s public apology to Arquette. That is, it was very much about them together and the many ways Gabriel screwed it up and failed to get past his own demons and ego.

While Us fails to receive the critical acclaim of Gabriel’s earlier work, it is his most intensely personal and therefore the one that, as a whole, can feel the most like real life, which is why it means the most to me even 20 years later.

For a few more BOTG takes on Peter Gabriel, read Bob’s take on “Solisbury Hill” or Billy's take on the disappointment of Up.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Thirty-Three Shots

White Tooth Man - Iron & Wine (mp3)

WEINBERG: "I strenuously object". Is that how it works?
"Overruled!" "No, I strenuously object!"
Oh, then I'll reconsider!

GALLOWAY: I got it on the record.

WEINBERG: You object once, so we can say he's not a criminologist.
If you keep after it, it looks like a bunch of fancy lawyer tricks.
It's the difference between paper law and trial law!
The judge called him an expert!

KAFFEE: Sam, she made a mistake.
-- A FEW GOOD MEN

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
-- ALBERT EINSTEIN

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has voted 33 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act. According to a little bit of fuzzy math, CBS has reported that the combined costs for these votes and the prior floor debates is roughly $48,000,000 and has occupied roughly two weeks of Congress’ time over just the past two years.

The math is fuzzy, but the greater point should not be lost: Republicans are textbook Albert Einstein-approved insane. And let me remind you, Einstein often forgot to go to the bathroom, so if he’s calling something crazy, it’s super-mega-wack.

“You know who the real bad guy in A Few Good Men is?” a friend asked me once, many years ago when we stumbled on it on cable one night over beer.

“It’s not Jack Nicholson?”

“Hell no. It’s Demi Moore.” I laughed, of course. “No, I’m serious. You think about her character. Not once does she actually make the right decision. Her role in the plot is to keep fucking up Tom Cruise’s job.”

And he broke it down. She forces herself into the defense team by getting Aunt Jenny to sign off on her. She fails to adequately prepare her client Loudon Downey for cross-examination and never catches the fact that he’s lying about hearing the Red Code being ordered. She “strenuously objects” and does other moronic things during trial.

And then the coup de grace. Galloway suggests (because she’s “galactically stupid”) that Kaffee should risk a court-martial by accusing a highly-decorated Marine colonel, on the stand, of a capital crime. Then, when Cruise is stupid enough to agree to do it, she reminds him that he could get in big trouble if he actually follows through with what was originally her idea.

The Republicans are Demi Moore.

The Right invented the individual mandate. They were the first to propose the legislation. They were the first, behind their current candidate for POTUS, to put it into actual practice. And then, when Kaffee (or Obama) agreed to the idea, they turned around and remind him what a dangerous and bad idea it is.

All the while, Galloway is the highest-ranking officer on the team and keeps allowing the two guys to treat her like crap. Which is the only part of her character that sounds more like a Democrat.

Republicans have wasted some $30-40M in taxpayer-funded time hitting the repeat button on “Call Me Maybe” more than 30 times.

Hey, I just lobbied you
And this is crazy
But here’s ObamaCare
Appeal it maybe


There may be no bigger single example of what is wrong about the conservative side of the political spectrum circa 2012 than this. Whine about the wasteful and irresponsible ways of the left while taking up literal weeks of time on an issue they know is going nowhere, solely for some supposed symbolic effect.

They are the little old ant. ObamaCare is the rubber tree plant. The song still sucks and would suck even if covered as a duet between Ted Nugent and Lauren Alaina.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Billy's Got A Throbbing, Swollen Head and other tales of a beer-drenched summer

I thought Billy would post today.  He didn't.  So, here's a little something from me, songs I've been sifting out of the BOTG mailbox for the past few days. 

The various people who send these songs to us always want to know what we think of them.  Billy is good about analyzing the songs, comparing them to songs by established bands, etc.  I'm not. 

My message to the promo people and to you is simple:  if there wasn't something about each song that I liked, I wouldn't have posted it. I think that you will find several songs here that you like, too.

And ain't that what musical taste is all about? Nothing more complicated than that. I will reiterate, as always, that there is a lot of not-so-great music out there that comes our way, so it is always a pleasure to come across songs like these. My best to these bands.






Black Cadillacs--"Choke" (mp3)

The Mighty Quinn--"Fear" (mp3)

Buttonhead--"Champion Bread" (mp3)

Mr. Fogg--"A Little Letting Go (choral version)" (mp3)

Matt Singer--"Red Lights" (mp3)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Hotels, Motels, and No-tells

Strolling Scones--"A House Is Not A Hotel" (mp3)

There exists a class of people who do not enjoy staying in a hotel or a motel.  Or, at the risk of stereotyping, let me clarify that.  There exists a class of people who are unwilling to shell out a hundred bucks or more for the place where one can sleep, shower, and watch TV, among other things.  Yes, the issue is money.  No matter where these people go in the world, they are determined not to spend the money on such accommodations, choosing instead to depend on family, acquaintances close or otherwise, and sleeping bags.

That, of course, leads to a convoluted life of travel, as one can only go where one knows someone to stay with, and probably needs to plot out a meandering zig-zag on a long trip so that one can hit up any number of acquaintances in states somewhere near the direct path between Point A and Point B.  Camping certainly provides an easier alternative, since there are places to camp almost anywhere.  Including my back yard.

It should be clear by now from my use of the third person and my snotty tone that I am not of this class.  The desire fueling this non-motel life is a desire not to spend money on a hotel, and I think a moderate amount of money spent on a decent place to sleep enhances travel around this great country and world.  Maybe I'm spoiled.  But I'm not cheap.

(Corollary #1: never tell a cheap person that he or she is cheap.  You will hurt feelings.  Cheap people will boast of their cheapness, given the chance, but if anyone else dares to call them on it, you'd think you told them their parents were Norweigans.)
Friends are great and camping is cool, but as natural parts of a journey. Of course if I've been invited to come and visit you, I'm going to stay with you. Gladly. But I won't invite myself.  And I won't sit down with my wife and strategize, "Now, who do we know in _______ that we can...."  I also know, having family members who live in a great city, that when we go to visit, we kind of have to make a choice between family and city.  Not entirely, but enough that the one time we stayed for a few days in a hotel downtown (I had a grant going on down there), we hurt their feelings.

(Corollary #2: unless your hosts are fairly new to a city themselves, by the time you stay with them, they're tired of the basic, touristy things that you wanted to do in their city, and they will steer you elsewhere.)
At the same time, much as I have enjoyed my limited camping experiences for what they were--which was full immersion into primitive activities and food because there was nothing else around, I think going to a place like Charleston, South Carolina and camping makes about as much sense as sitting in an air-conditioned car at the beach.  The pleasures of many places center more on walking the streets and seeing what opens up before you and talking to who you run into and hearing their stories and finding out what they like and dropping a little cash on it than on sitting around a campfire grilling an inexpensive meal and nodding to each other about how you've really kept it under budget.  And you can be sure there ain't no locals out there camping with you.

Me, I unashamedly, unabashedly, unapologetically love the hotel and the motel, maybe the motel even a bit more because I like the idea of driving up to the door after I get my key without having to go through a lobby everytime I come or go.  I like the newness, the cleanliness, the corporateness, the anonymity of sharing a few words and a few cards with a stranger in exchange for a freshly-cleaned where we can lie on the bed in our underwear and watch TV for as long as we like, get up and drive somewhere to pick up a pizza (with clothes on), come back and return to that horizontal position and watch stupid channels for the rest of the night that no one has to apologize for. 

I like the complimentary breakfast in the morning and the sleepy children shuffling around between the cereal and the juice and the woman named Velvis who introduces herself as our "breakfast host."

I love the swimming pool, the drink and snack machines, the way the towels smell, the quiet hallways with dozens of doors holding mystery behind them, and the way children run into their room as soon as the door is opened for the first time and jump on the bed.  I love how, if it's just my wife and me, we relax in the knowledge that this is a place totally uncomplicated where we need do nothing but unwind.

And I love just as much the small, local, non-chain motel, maybe with fewer facilities but more personal pride because the owner has been there for years and the beds are clean and tightly-made though the bedspreads are worn and the TV's aren't flat screen and you drive down the road to get pancakes.

Me, I feel like a motel is a reward at the end of a long day--of driving, of working, of walking and touring, of celebrating or mourning, of downtime after any of the reasons why we travel.   And when the circumstances fall your way, the sex is certainly better than in a tent or somebody's guest room.  Just ask the anonymous people staying in the room next to you whose room service trays you keep walking past.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Mourning In Mayberry

Long Hot Summer Days - Sara Watkins (mp3)
Delia’s Gone - Johnny Cash (mp3)

When Andy Griffith died last week, it was a punch to the solar plexus. We’ve lost a distressing number of cultural icons in the past few years, but this one seemed different. It felt like Mayberry went up in smoke.

Mayberry was brilliant because it was a safe Rorshach test for the soul.

If you were a conservative-leaning person interested in morals and values, Mayberry had it. Sheriff Andy Taylor was a responsible man, an involved father, and a leader of his community, equipped with a sense of both justice and mercy, of kindness and fairness. And everyone went to church. Mayberry also looked a lot like 21st Century RNC conventions, which is to say almost completely male and white, with a sweet white-haired lady who cooks all the meals.

If you leaned left, you appreciated that wealthy people weren’t thought too highly of, and poor people weren’t mocked. Ernest T. Bass wasn’t mocked or the butt of jokes because he was poor or chemically unbalanced. In fact, very little of the humor in Mayberry was at someone’s expense other than Barney Fife.

In Mayberry, money didn't determine happiness, nor did it singularly secure you a place of distinction in the eyes of the townsfolk. Nor did wealth create bad or cruel people, necessarily, although the perception of social class distance often created tensions or misunderstandings within the plot.

I grew up watching the reruns, and a few years ago, I helped lead one of many series that links episodes of the show to Biblical teachings. But I’m no fanatic or walking encyclopedia of Mayberry lore.

I only know we’ve lost something we’re not going to get back. It's usually a waste of emotion and time to mourn such things, but this one deserves an exception.

A string of recent articles all feel loosely interrelated to the death of Andy Griffith:

In short, the current generation of parents and teachers suck despite or because of their best (if ultimately selfish) intentions, and Andy could have helped. The higher up the monetary ladder you climb, the less humane you become. And, ultimately, the philosophical pursuits that spawned good things (e.g. civil rights, women’s lib) carried with it the yang of obsessive selfishness.

The reads are depressing, but important. Fortunately, there’s a beautiful silver thread weaving through all of these brilliant, somewhat depressing pieces, a sliver of hope amidst numerous downer observations: we know something has gone terribly wrong. And, as G.I. Joe so wisely acknowledges, Knowing Is Half The Battle (TM).


Culturally speaking, we are waking up to the damage that our collective self-interest and inward focus has done to our society as a whole. In the movies, the Body Snatchers keep winning, but you can’t fight them if you don’t even realize they’re amongst us.

Much like Delia from Johnny Cash’s song, maybe Andy Taylor is gone because we killed him. Sure, we didn’t kill him with our bare hands. We just left him in the car to overheat while we went into the office to check a few emails. We drove right past Mayberry on the way to Harrah’s Cherokee. The town itself and the many wonderful ideals it stood for was the beaten traveler, and we were too busy to stop and see it dying. Andy was TV’s Good Samaritan, the only one willing to rescue it, and now he’s gone, and Mayberry with him.

This is the exact moment -- the moment of despair combined with an understanding of just how serious a problem we face -- when new leaders can emerge and create new towns, new hopes, new ideals.

Can't we give ourselves one more chance?
This is our last dance.
This is ourselves.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Blues Are Alive

T-Model Ford--"So She Asked Me So I Told Her" (mp3)

So she asked me.
So I told her.
That is why I am here.
--T-Model Ford, "So She Asked Me So I Told Her"


Yep, that's the whole song.  Give it a listen while you read.  Two chords.  Thirteen words.  The blues are alive and well, thanks in part to Mississippi "Hill Country" bluesman 90+ year old Mr. T-Model Ford.

What if you had to write an entire song in 13 words?  Would it be as good as the one I've quoted above?  What if you only had that many words to tell a story?  Could you do it?

Do those three sentences tell a story?  I think they do, but if you really pressed me to clarify the story that they tell, I'm not sure that I could do it.  Maybe something about how she wanted to know the truth--as generic as the Geico commercial where Mrs. Lincoln asks Honest Abe if the dress makes her fat or as dmaning as what he might have done with another woman, this being the blues.  The point is, he told her the truth.  "So I told her" doesn't leave any doubt about that.  And, for better or for worse, that is why he is a) in this bar, b) standing in front us on stage telling his tale, c) beyond space and time. 

We just don't know.  But, this again being the blues, we suspect.  And we suspect he is being punished, that he has been cast out, that he is in the dog house, or, at least, that he has come to sing or drink his troubles away.

Or, better yet, what if you didn't have to write a song in 13 words?  What if you just wanted to because those words told the whole story?

I have written a fair amount of poetry in my life, with a fair amount of success, and by success, I mean, I felt equipped to write it and it pretty much said what I wanted it to say.  But I'll be damned if I can write a decent verse of the Delta blues.  Even if you don't know, you do know how a verse of the Delta blues goes:  A, A, B.  As in, first line makes a statement, second line repeats that statement, maybe with slight modification, and the third line somehow embellishes or illuminates.

For example:

Well, I got up this morning, looked around for my shoes,
Up this morning, looked around for my shoes,
I had them ol' walkin' blues.

--Robert Johnson, "Walkin' Blues"

Sound pretty easy, doesn't it?  The lines can be as short or as long as you want.  The way you sing it allows you to either stretch out just a few words or cram in a whole bunch.  The verse is rhythmically very forgiving.  And you don't have to be very creative since two of the lines are the same. 

But that's maybe the problem.  The blues are not a creative writing class.  I shouldn't be trying to write poetry.  Or should I?  There's a lot of clever word play in the blues, a lot of rich sensory language, skillful uses of understatement (see T-Model's song above) and outrageous exaggeration (try Muddy Water's "Hoochie Coochie Man"), irony, and humor.  There's also a lot of "borrowing."  The lines attributed to Robert Johnson above appear in any number of songs before and after him.  It's one of the stock verses out there for the taking if you're tapping into that well.

But I'm not.  I don't have that well to tap into.  I don't necessarily want to have that well to tap into--there's pain and disenfranchisement and poverty and discrimination and lean years.  Things I just haven't experienced.  But what does that leave me with? 

I find modern attempts at blues lyrics to be pretty silly.  A suburban raised guy like me?  Or you?  Do we complain about taxes?  The abstract economy?  Do I have the "private school blues" because my students won't do their homework?  Is there a more central vein that I can tap into, something like this:

Power's out, what am I gonna do?
Power's out, oh, what am I gonna do?
I got thirty people coming to dinner and an electric barbecue.
Barbecue Bob, "Power's Out"

Half-kidding, but I do often find modern blues lyrics to be a bit inauthentic, especially when written by people without the background circumstances to write them. 

Nevertheless, I am here to say that the blues are alive and well.  I have been studying the blues this summer on a school grant, have been reading and listening and traveling and playing.  Mississippi in general, and the Delta in particular, is alive with the blues, enhancing its heritage and celebrating its future.  Are the blues what they once were?  No, but what is?  This summer, I've heard them played at a festival, on a street, in a club, at a juke joint, in hotel rooms and in my car over hundreds of miles.  People say they're in rap, in country, in blues, obviously in rock.  Yeah, they're out there in ways as complex as this great world, but maybe in no way better than in the ultimate simplicity of "so she asked me, so I told her, that is why I am here."  We've all felt that one.

And, yes, I keep trying to write that blues verse.

Too many friends too many years dead,
I got too many friends too many years dead,
Never makes me wonder why it wasn't me instead. 
(Or, Makes me wonder why it wasn't me instead.) 
(Or, Wonder why it never makes me wonder why it wasn't me instead.)

Barbecue Bob, "Too Many"

ENDNOTE:  Mr. Ford recently suffered a stroke and, sadly, it may be that his performing days are over.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

This Is Ourselves

Under Pressure - Keane (mp3)

“Oom boom bah beh.”

If I had a gun to my head, and I was forced to name an all-time favorite song, “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie* would receive serious consideration.

* -- This cover version by Keane pales in comparison, but I mostly assumed that posting Queen’s version would get the DMCA monsters all up in my grill.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, I taught Sunday School to high school kids. I made a mix CD with 20 songs that blatantly or subtly addressed issues of faith or religion, and I gave a copy to each of the kids. (Yes, every act under Heaven can and should be considered an excuse to make a mixtape, mix CD, or playlist.) Each Sunday we would discuss one of the songs and its connection (or lack thereof) to religion.

The capstone of the series was “Under Pressure.” More than any other song I know, it captures my personal theology, my belief in a higher power, in duty, in what goes on inside despairing hearts desperate for something to cling to.

The first verse covers the problems of life, the burdens we all carry, the calamities we all cause or suffer.

The second verse covers the personal reaction. Terror. Screaming. We’re pushed to the edge. We see a friend we trust and rely upon giving up, possibly considering suicide. Their surrender adds to our doubts. We pray tomorrow gets us out of this Princess Bride-like Pit of Despair.

We’re being kicked and tripped (or chipped). Our brains are jelly. Inside and out, it’s going from bad to worse.

Yes, I realize at this point my theology and outlook seems quite grim, but as my seventh-grade history teacher was so fond of reminding us, “You’ll never find an atheist in a foxhole.” We’re most keenly aware of and insistent upon a higher power when the shit hits the fan. We believe best when we need the most.

Then the bridge:
We try turning away from our responsibilities to one another, but it fails.
We try “sitting on a fence,” to keep from taking a side, but it fails.
We keep trying to figure out this crazy little thing called love, but what the outcome seems slashed, torn, imperfect.

All this failure drives us a little nuts.
But what choices do we have? Give it another shot or give up. That’s all we have.
And then the line worth repeating 10 times: Give Love.
Don’t worry about taking love, or about receiving love. Give love, and the rest falls into place.

And it seems so simple, so pathetically simple. So, why can’t we a better job of it? Is it outdated, a useless concept for a less enlightened time? We often tell ourselves this when we’ve given up on it.

Giving love “dares us to care” -- not demands, not orders, but dares -- for the people on the edge of the light (or night), to the people outside our circle. Tougher yet, it dares us to change how we think of and care for ourselves.

We get one shot. This is our last, our only, dance.

Almost every line in this song has a connection to Biblical teachings, especially the stuff that used to show up in red letters. Do I believe Bowie and Queen intended to write a religious song, much less a Christian one? Not remotely. But out of the mouths of babes, right? Or, as Freddie might put it...

Oom bah bah beh.
Eee day dah.
That’s OK.

__________________________

Other songs on my “Sunday’sCool” CD included:

  • the annoyingly-misunderstood “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan,
  • Jane Siberry’s “Calling All Angels,”
  • “Rachel” by Buddy & Julie Miller,
  • “Poor Man’s House” by Patty Griffin,
  • “Stay On” by the BoDeans
  • “Into the Fire” by Bruce Springsteen
  • “With God on Our Side” by Bob Dylan (or Buddy Miller)