Thursday, August 30, 2012

ONBB: Texas Gaslight Cara Maroon

It was very clear our most loyal readers could give a flying shittake about new and unknown music, and I respect that. But praising music is my teeny tiny way of trying to save the world, one beautiful catchy note at a time. I cannot throw away this need, so I only hope our regulars will politely tolerate this.

So here’s a new feature: Old, New, Borrowed and Blew. Or ONBB for short.

I will review, in semi-brief, one “classic” album, one recently-purchased album, something sent to the Bottom of the Glass mailbox, and a song or album or band that blows.

OLD: Texas - White On Blonde (1997)
White On Blonde (mp3)
It blows my mind that an album that has sold almost 2 million copies in the UK barely even cracked a radio across the pond in America. Especially when the band behind that album is named Texas. Especially when lead singer Sharleen Spiteri looks like a delicious mix between Gina Gershon and Natalie Imbruglia. Spiteri’s sultry alto is the punch on a collection of mostly mid-tempo R&B-infused dance numbers.

This album grows on you, and I highly recommend experiencing it as an album. But, if you must know, the biggest hit on the album was “Say What You Want.” Other standouts include “Insane,” “Put Your Arms Around Me,” and “Black-Eyed Boy.”

NEW: The Gaslight Anthem - Handwritten (2012)
It’s been four years since “The ‘59 Sound” rocked my world. The song remains near the top of my list of best rock songs of the 21st Century, and the album was a great mashup of punk riffs with a classic rock heart (that sounded more like Springsteen than I felt like admitting, apparently). Their follow-up, American Slang, failed to hit its mark with me. Too few stellar hooks in a 34-minute collection that felt too redundant. Don’t misunderstand. I still liked it plenty, but it was a downgrade.

Handwritten is what I expected in their follow-up. Much like The ‘59 Sound, the catchiest moments here bookend songs that carry plenty of punch and passion, but the best hooks open and close. Best songs: “Here Comes My Man,” “Mae” and “Handwritten.” (My original list of “best songs” was ⅔ of the album. That's a good sign.)

BORROWED: Cara Mitchell - Passing Sun (mp3)
The opening guitar was enough to keep me listening, maybe because I thought it could have been a cast-off song from Patty Griffin’s Living With Ghosts. And then her voice. Her odd, note-drifty 16-year-old signature ghostly voice, with a tinge of brogue. Her voice would never survive American Idol or The Voice, and thank God for that. It’s real. “Well our past is behind us, but it could always come and find us.”

BLEW: Maroon 5 - One More Night (YouTube)
When Adam is on “The Voice,” I mostly like him. He seems to have a good ear for talent and manages to be both honest and considerate more often than not, which is a tough line to walk. But when the man sings, especially when he sings with Maroon 5, I honestly feel like I’m listening to the music that could compel me to jump off a large building. If I needed that extra musical motivation to work up the nerve (or cowardice, or anger) to off myself, I wouldn’t turn to Judas Priest or Marilyn Manson. I’d play a few Maroon 5 songs. Probably this and “Moves Like Jagger” would do it for me. (NOTE: I only linked to the YouTube video because Minka Kelly is in it. But even she isn’t enough to make me want to listen to the whole song. I muted it 52 seconds in.)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Neil Armstrong

It was the strangest of nights.

I was twelve.

My mother, my brother, and I had traveled north from North Tonawanda a couple of days before with my grandfather in his large white Lincoln-Mercury, crossing the border at Niagra Falls and moving up into Ontario, past Toronto and then Peterborough, to a small family cabin on Podash Lake.

I didn't know the cabin even existed, having not grown up in the childhood of fishing and boating along the river where my grandparents lived. 

And when we pulled into that driveway in Canada, the large lake sat before us, a motorboat and a rowboat waited at the dock, and my aunt and uncle and my two girl cousins and grandmother came from the cabin, surprised to see us step out of the car.

For we had come by way of a vacation in Cape Cod, a summer trip aborted by a fever that struck my brother and I simultaneously and caused us to pack up and head back toward Pittsburgh, with that stop to spend the night in Buffalo.

When we unpacked the trunk of my grandfather's car, he took out, in addition to many cases of Genessee and Carling Black Label beer, a small, black and white television. 

I asked him why.

"For the moon landing," he said.

As I came out of that fever into a place that I had never been before, everything had a bright sunny glare of strange newness--the glistening scales of the first fish I ever caught, the wet blueberries in the sink that we had found growing wild as we hiked a local hill and that my grandmother would make into a pie, the ripples in the water on both sides of the rowboat as my brother and I took turns rowing to a small, uninhabited island out in the middle of the lake.

Everything except the snapping turtles.

The snapping turtles were creatures of the night, and my uncle would try to trap them with fish parts left from the day's expedition that he would place in the shallow water by the dock.

Over and over, after dark, while the adults played card games in the cabin's center room, we children would walk out into the darkness with a flashlight to see if the turtles had taken the bait.

Our light would shine like the moon over the shallow water, which would turn cloudy if the turtles had come, and then we would run to the house yelling "Turtles!" and the adults would stop playing and my uncle would get his large net from the shed and drag it along the sand, wrestling with the weight of the turtle struggling.

He would store the turtles in the shed in a burlap sack, until he took them home to make them into soup.

"Don't ever go near them," he warned us.  "Their jaws will take your finger right off, and even after you've cut their heads off, those heads can still clamp down on you."

But that night, we were not looking for turtles and we were not playing cards and all of the fear of what waited in the shed or out in the lake beyond or in the woods of the mysterious island.

We huddled in the screened-in porch, away from the mosquitos, around that small tv, my grandfather twising the antenna to catch any station, probably as far away as Toronto or Montreal or even Sault St. Marie and on that staticky screen we tried our best to figure out what we were seeing, the steps leading down from that lunar lander, the foot and then the leg and then the body coming down those steps, black and white with the white streaks of a hazy transmission overlayed on the screen.  And hearing the words that followed.

At twelve, I stared long enough that I knew what I was seeing even though I couldn't see it clearly, but it was the turtles that made it real, for with a potent mix of fear and fascination of those reptiles, I walked out of the porch and down by the docked boats to look for them, but I forgot the flashlight, and only when I looked up at the light of the moon did I make the connection for the first time.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Debbin' Out

Ticket to Lie - Texas (YouTube)

Not a picture of the women or the ball in question.
“Promise not to tell if I throw something out there?”

Fourteen young women. Ages 19 and 20. All wearing white evening gowns that could easily be confused for wedding dresses. Escorted by one man, marshalled by another, and chaperoned by a father. And introduced to a snazzily-dressed, heavily-inebriated crowd of several hundred white people*.

This was the Debutante Ball of Anderson, South Carolina. The ball was held in Greenville, S.C. Which, if you think about it and figure out why, is kinda funny. And sad. But mostly funny.

I don’t begrudge most wealthy people their wealth or powerful people their power. However, were I ever to find myself with an overabundance of money or influence, I would hope I’d do better things with it than fork over a few grand to paint my daughter up and present her to the world as a “debutante.”

I'd do better, more humanitarian things like, ohhhh I don’t know, buying a Harley. Or taking a trip across Europe. Or partying with a group of actually cool and fun people whose company I cherish rather than a bunch of people all worming their way to the bar to talk about other people at the party who get on their nerves.

If there was a unifying vibe connecting everyone at this ball, it was this: We Are Only Here Because We Didn’t Think We Could Say No, a.k.a., We Were Afraid Turning Down the Invitation Would Reflect Badly On Our Daughter.

While crammed into the bar and waiting the requisite 15 minutes for two drinks, one guy looked at me, laughed, and said, “Have you ever seen so many snobby assholes crammed into a single room?” Two ladies on the other side of me spent their wait judging the other women in the room. The number of times Mrs. X or Y has been divorced and who Mrs. Z has slept with. The fact that Mrs. T had to go back to work because her husband was in real estate and went bankrupt. “They had to take out a loan just to pay for tonight!”

Once the ceremony started, a man in his 50s standing behind my wife and I leaned between us and not-so-whispered, “Promise not to tell if I throw something out there?” Several people next to us chuckled.

If these comments and encounters seem so stereotypical as to be hard to believe, I understand. If I weren’t there, listening, I’d probably think I made it all up, too.

Why are we here? Grin and bear it. Just get through this. These are not the slogans of a joyous event unless it's Christmas at the Griswolds.

When we have these big debates in our country about The One Percent, or about wealth and taxes and fairness, I think about this Debutante Ball. I think of these families, most of them very well off, barely able to tolerate one another’s company. Is this what we aspire to? Is this the spoils of success?

A relative of mine was involved in this charade. And I love her and her folks. This very dilemma might one day knock on my door a few years from now, and may lightning strike if I am fool enough to believe there will be an easy way out of this.

Since we were there to be supportive, our group did our best to make the event amazing. And we’re all gifted at making stuff fun, so it was fun. But if you listened, if you looked, if you dialed into the vibe behind the make-up and enhanced smiles... it wasn't genuine fun. It was manufactured, superficial fun.

I worry about The One Percent because Lloyd Dobbler would worry about them. More specifically, he would fear taking any steps that sucked the marrow out of his soul:

“I don’t want to spend my time nurturing fake relationships with fake people in order to achieve fake success at a fake career. I just don’t want to do that with my life.”

Are all rich or powerful people unhappy? Of course not. But a ton of them sure work hard trying to convince the rest of us that this is the case.

* -- And one very cute black girl in an emerald green dress. She was the date of one of the young crowd members, likely a brother to one of the debutantes. To be fair, I witnessed no one do or say anything untoward about this woman’s presence and can hope that few if any present even noticed or cared about it in a particularly negative way.

(P.S. This particular ball occurred several years ago, and I have gone back to my journal entry on the experience.)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Lime

These are the last two limes in my home.
It is likely that lime is the greatest taste on the planet.  And perhaps its most versatile.  Sweet, sour, bitter and still friendly with salt, the lime complements the entire palate of humanity, including umami, the elusive fifth savory taste that Americans are slowly becoming familiar with. 

I had limes twice today--added to my iced tea at lunch and squeezed over my guacamole at supper.

But consider also, what but a lime would you squeeze over your grilled fajitas at a Mexican place or add to fish sauce and sugar when you are making pad thai?  Would your gin and tonic work without the lime to pull those two tastes together?  Could a lemon stand in?  Would your salsa acknowledge the tomato's place as a fruit without lime? 

Limes would work as an aftershave.  Lemons are best left to Susan Sarandon standing over the sink in Atlantic City, the ultimate complement to the restoration of her sweet femininity trapped in a small coastal town, but not to the global unease.

Unlike lemon, the flavor of limes cannot be overwhelmed by sugar.  Dump enough sugar into a lemon dessert, and eventually the lemon gives in, content to be a flavoring for the sweetness.  Its tartness can be tamed; its bite can be mellowed.  In fact, lemon is often used as a flavor enhancer--a spash of lemon juice added to strawberries makes them taste more like strawberries. 

Not the lime.  When lime is in a dish, you can always taste the lime.  Add limes to a cherry drink, for example, and the limes refuse to take a back seat to the sweeter cherries. Lemonade is for the masses; limeade is for the sophisticate.


The taste of lime is far more complex than the other popular citrus fruits (though the grapefruit is also one of life's more interesting flavors), so much so that, tasted alone, the essence of lime also contains hints of coconut.  Think about it; study it on your tongue.  Put the lime in the coconut and drink it all up, by all means, but even without the coconut, you would still get the coconut.  But have the coconut alone, and you would be pining for lime, for its clean ability to cut through the coconut's sweetness.

I remember that transcendent moment in 1987 when I went to a conference in San Antonio, Texas, and at the locals bars, everyone was drinking a beer in clear bottle that arrived at the table with a wedge of lime standing in the mouth of the bottle.  I remember how we pushed the lime down into the bottle, and how that lime taste changed forever how beer tasted, how beer went with things.  I remember how we went back to Tennessee and waited and waited for that beer to make its way to us so that we could slice our limes and stick them in the bottles and feel better about life.  Now, of course, there are all kinds of fruits in beer--lemons, oranges, blueberries, apricots, but back then, crossing the border from Mexico, there were only limes.  And nothing has ever tasted better.

Limes make me happy.  Yesterday, at Wal-Mart, I saw small Mexican limes, not much more than an inch long, fatter than kumquats and faded green, and I picked them up and fumbled them through my hands, having no idea what I would do with them, but knowing that their limeness, like all other limes, was contained within.  For I smelled them and their nod to either rum or onions was intact.

To think that one might start a meal with a lime in a drink, eat a simple salad of lettuce and tomatoes tossed with lime, olive oil, salt, and pepper, followed by grilled meat's smokiness mellowed by lime, and finished with a Key Lime pie is testament to the fruit's range. 

And what meets chocolate so well?  Take a wedge of that same pie and freeze and then dip it in some melted chocolate.  Freeze the whole thing again, if you like, with a popsicle stick at the base, and you will take yourself to a street in Key West, where they know that the lime is central to being.

It's funny, isn't it?  To think about a certain taste and how it can encompass all of life?  Cilantro is that way, present in every culture around the world, and so is lime.  And, not surprisingly, the two go together well, but even more so where where the temperatures are hotter.  There is something reassuring about knowing that there are flavors that work anywhere in the world.  As if such a small thing can bring people together, to nod in mutual happiness over a shared taste, to pass the bowl of lime wedges from one person to another.  At this point, I'm not sure how else we'll get there.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Don't Know Much About History (or, "...won't hurt me," Part II)

There is a fact about Mitt Romney that could turn this election.  But it won't.  Want to know why?  Because Americans don't know anything about their own history.

I'm sorry for keeping after this, having posted on the same issue last week, but our own ignorance is a national tragedy and its implications are entangled everywhere.

We like when Jay Leno interviews people on the street and gets laughs from how fucking stupid Americans are.  We laugh with him.  Don't know who the vice-president of our country is?  So what.  Ha-ha-ha.  Don't know our national geography?  That's hilarious.  Don't know much of anything about documents like the Constitution?  That's rich.  Think Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11?  That's good stuff.  Think our current president was born somewhere else?  It's a great punchline, and a harmless one at that.

We are a country of fucking idiots.  And it has been getting worse.  No one likes to admit it.  Even those who are pretty informed have a plethora of excuses for why they aren't more informed.

But back to that fact: when Romney was amassing his original investment for Bain Capital, a third of the money he raised came from El Salvodoran families who were also behind funding the right-wing "Death Squads" that terrorized that country in the late 80's. 

That's right, his investors were the worst upper class scum that country had to offer.  To me, that's akin to taking money from Nazi Party members, but this isn't about me and there are a number of problems:

1)  most Americans don't know where El Salvador is.
2) most Americans don't know what happened there in the 1980's, let alone what a "Death Squad" is.
3) most Americans don't know much of anything at all about the Reagan years, including the fact that his "men" created a shadow government outside the government to engage in some shady practices and that they got away with it.

So I can picture the Obama re-election team getting ahold of this information and going, "Shit, we can't use this.  People won't have any idea what we're talking about.  To try to explain it would be far too complicated, and most of those "Independents" don't give a crap about El Salvador.  All they see are potential Hispanic illegal immigrants."

When it comes to American History, if you know something about what the American government engaged in that is negative and you promulgate it, you yourself are considered unAmerican.  That's the white-washed country we live in now.  Unless, of course, it's something that Obama did.  That's totally fair game, since he isn't really American anyway, even if he is American, and certainly if he isn't.

We, as a country, are spending untold amounts of time and energy apologizing for ourselves, covering ourselves, romanticizing ourselves, and, yes, whitewashing ourselves.

And yet, we have a presidential candidate who has a fair amount of money stashed in offshore accounts and (some) people want to know why and now we know why: because that's where you hide money when it comes from unsavory sources.  But we also know ourselves enough to know that there's not a damn thing we can do about it.  Because we too stupid.  Because we don't want to know.  Because we don't care.  If we did, we would spread the word.  But we don't.  Because we don't care.  Not because we can't care, but because we don't have time to care.

Because we are so overwhelmed with our lives and our television schedules (and because, Godammit, we need some down time from those difficult lives we're living), that we can't take the responsibility for either what is happening in our country or in our world.  We can't get outside ourselves; there are too many movies and television series that we want to keep up with to actually do some research or introspective thinking or writing or protesting or caring.

And that allows us to think that two men, two parties, are not that different, and though we might prefer one over the other, it isn't that significant a distinction and we can probably live with either one and not get too energized or worked up about it.  After all, most of what goes on in America is beyond our control;  we don't even think our vote really matters.  We've bought into all of the cynicism, all of the powerlessness.

Which is why we retreat into fantasy.  If only things were like the way they are on television and in the movies.  If Harrison Ford from Air Force One were our president, then we'd have a kickass president, or Kevin Kline from Dave, or Bill Pullman from Independence Day or Michael Douglass or.....

Reality sucks; history sucks; intellectualism sucks; awareness sucks.  Those are more than we can do.  All that really matters are the distractions that we don't see as distractions.  Because their manufactured outcomes offer us hope.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Life Needs A Better Screenwriter

Aaron Sorkin has a problem with his screenwriting. He doesn't know it, because he's too busy being all brilliant and stuff, but he has a real problem.

I am 13 years late for his journey to the White House known as "The West Wing" and now wrapping up the first season of this brilliant show. With each passing episode, I get angrier and angrier at Aaron Sorkin and his annoyingly intelligent and emotionally well-balanced characters.

You see, the real world doesn't work like his fiction, and at times I hate him for it.

Maybe your real world works like a Sorkin screenplay. I don't live in your real world, so I couldn't say for sure. But mine? Mine works more like the screenplay to "Cheers” or maybe “Modern Family." It's modestly intelligent and occasionally amusing, but it's all kinds of dysfunctional, passive aggressive, and full of unspoken or misspoken sentiments.

In "The West Wing," brilliant, confident people are arguing matters of national and international import. The heated debates have a level of gravitas the likes of which are Jupiter to my Ceres. Veins pop in their necks. Voices get raised. C.J. gets in Sam’s face. Toby verbally undresses Josh. Leo and POTUS boil with intensity in even calm moments.

The arguments in “The West Wing” are often heated, always intense. Yet rarely do the participants make it personal. When they do, both sides generally sense and acknowledge that the line has been crossed, and they pull back a moment before going back after one another’s throats.

These characters seem to get the most insulted when someone else insults their intellect. Very rarely do they hold onto their anger. Often, the air is cleared before two people leave a room; if not, someone goes in and apologizes before the end of the episode.

And I despise them for all their civility, their frankness, their mutual respect.

If this comes across as some damnation of my workplace, it’s only a damnation of my workplace not having Aaron Sorkin writing our dialogue.

No one I know works in Aaron Sorkin screenplay worlds, either. In the world of me and my many friends -- who work in law offices, banks, insurance companies, restaurants and schools -- the biggest arguments, the most important debates, happen only between two people on the same side of things, usually people who feel they have no direct potential to improve a troubling situation.

I wonder how much Aaron Sorkin would charge as a consultant. He could quietly observe a workforce environment for, say, a single week, and then he could write his screenplay version of that week. The staff could have a Platonic ideal of themselves to which they might aspire. Arguments would have a purpose and razor-like focus. Opinions would be well-expressed and sincerely heard. Feelings wouldn’t be baby-bottom sensitive. People would have the courage and confidence to express their concerns without fear of life-altering consequences, and those on the receiving end would welcome such moments and thrive in them, often adroitly parrying and calming the concerns, sometimes conceding a flaw and seeking best ways to right the ship.

If this comes across as some self-superior critique of others, it is not. My own behavior often miserably fails the Sorkin test. I would never make it far up Sorkin’s character ladder. I would get his shows canceled.

But maybe, if I keep asking myself in tight spots, "What would Sorkin have me say?"... I can work at it and eventually earn a recurring guest slot like Joey Lucas.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

An Obscure Body in the SK System

Queen - The Hero (YouTube link)

Just a man, with a man’s courage...

Back in a simpler time, when parents released their children on the world on weekends and didn’t give one flip where they were or what they were doing so long as they were home by dinner, my friends and I frequently arrived at the noon matinee, hid under the seats during the credits, and popped right back up for a second showing before getting home for a late dinner at dusk.

My neighborhood friends were two and three years older, so my mom assumed I was safe with them.

In two weekends, I watched Flash Gordon five times. When it came on HBO, my friend recorded it on VHS, and we watched it and rewatched it at a rate that boggles my mind.

Horrifying as the thought might be to me now, the movie was close to flawless in my pre-teen eyes. It had an action hero, a couple of sex-starved women fighting over him, and scenes that scared the ever-lovin’ shit out of me and my pals.

The minute Flash began throwing Faberge Eggs like footballs into the chests of Ming’s gay OompaLoompa stormtroopers, I was sold. OK, actually, I was sold before that, when Ming began having some kind of Mongo cybersex with Dale in front of everyone.

Nowadays, I hear parents, myself included, wringing their hands over exposing their children to inappropriate material. We wonder whether our pre-teens can handle The Hunger Games, with its intense fight scenes and kid-murders. Oh how easily we forget the things we did in our youth, the things which caused us no obvious lasting damage:

  • Clytus’ face melting into fleshy ooze on the spikes after a vicious whipfight!
  • The Tree Stump Contest to the Death, where opposing sides reach their hands into a stump until one is stung by the freaky stump creature!
  • The oozy green swamp monster with spider tentacles that devours humans in some perverse Cinemax Naked Lunch kind of way!
  • Bore worms! (We always debated whether the worms worked by boring people to death, or by boring into them.)
  • Princess Aura riding Flash like he was a rocket cycle!

More than a few scenes haunted my vulnerable child mind, most especially the sight of Flash in black leather underwear.

In most movies, a love triangle between the hero and two women tends to involve one slut and one angel. But in Flash Gordon, he’s forced to choose between an alien slut and an American slut! How perfect is that?! Of course the American slut will eventually win, because even Lenny Kravitz remakes songs about American sluts. American sluts don’t have secret pleasure moons, but they can knock down entire fifths of green liquid from the Galaxy of Pleasure and still win a catfight while s*#tfaced.

The soundtrack by Queen is perfect. Much like the rest of the band’s work and this movie, you can’t ever be sure how seriously they’re taking themselves.

Many of BOTG’s readers are female, and to you ladies, I can only apologize for the entirety of today’s post. I don’t know two women who find even a minute of this movie tolerable. Mostly, when women witness men glued to this movie, they react as if we were watching animal pornography.

And then there’s the true hero of “Flash Gordon”: Voltan. Part Wolverine, part Hawkman, and part Gerard Butler from “300,” only Voltan is capable of being a kickass leader while also laughing while delivering his own lines.

Even as I write this, I have some dozen movies sitting and begging to be watched. Movies I want to watch. Yet I’m trapped in Mongo with Max Von Sydow, and the only way out is through.

I’d wrap this up, but Ming is offering Flash his own kingdom, and I just have to know whether maybe, just maybe, this time Flash will choose to rule over our obscure body in the SK System.

Watching this makes me feel... nine again.

Watch the entire film via YouTube!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

...can't hurt me.

"Don't tell me the details," my friend said to my other friend.  "I don't want to know the sordid details that seal the deal against him."

He wasn't talking to me, but he was looking at me.  "What I don't know can't hurt me," he said.

Oh, it was just a gossipy little situation, further evidence against someone against whom a convincing case had already been made, and in the context of not wanting to hear even more negative stuff, I guess I can understand that whole idea of not wanting to hear more that would sully him because it would also sully the listener.  But I'm just saying that.  I don't really believe it.

I'm for knowing everything.

But this isn't about gossip or the petty injuries of daily life.  This is about the big stuff.  People, I find, for the most part don't want to know the big stuff. 

I was thinking the other day about 401ks.  I was thinking about how many people I know who don't pay any attention to their 401ks.  They don't want to know.  They don't keep up.  It's too complicated.  They don't understand.  As if somehow, in some magical way, if they ignore the quality and the trends of their investments, those same investments will take it upon themselves to sustain those people through the last 20 years of their lives.  As if simply dumping money every month, every year will be enough in a world where financial institutions either want that money for their own use or don't care what happens to it because they make their own money anyway or have larger goals in manipulating the market.

I am thinking every day about politics.  About how many people I know who don't want to know about politics. It's too dirty.  They're all crooks.  It doesn't matter. I just tell my friends I'll move to another country is such-and-such happens or so-and-so is elected.  As if that other country is out there.  As if some politician out there is looking out for their best interests even though there is no evidence in history to support that.  As if there weren't people and forces out there who want nothing more than for us to say it doesn't matter and they're all crooks so that our cynical view of everything keeps us from acting or caring very much.  Or voting.

If they can just get us to fall back onto blanket statements of cynicism or hopelessness or ignorance, then they can have their way with our politicians in unfettered ways.  And they will.  And if we don't know about them, we may never be any the wiser.

I am thinking about billboards.  About men.  Men like me.  Especially me.  Men who will, according to those billboards, die in drove this year because of stubbornness.  Stubbornness about medical tests, because we men neglect to get the physicals, cancer tests, skin check-ups, colonoscopies, etc. at a much greater rate than women.  Toughness, I guess, plus stupidity, plus fear, plus really not wanting to know. 

My neighbor showed me a spot on his elbow, or tried to because he couldn't really find it, where he had been diagnosed with skin cancer a year ago but he hadn't done anything about it year.  And he laughed about it. 

I've got to conclude that no one really wants to know much of anything.  We would rather avoid all of it, any sort of unpleasantness or danger or fear or risk that might stand in the way of our phones or movies or sports or, most of all, our meals.  We don't want to know what's in our food.  We don't know to know who has a gun in the restaurant.  Maybe we feel safer thinking that someone does.  We don't want to know who is in a certain mile radius and doesn't have enough to eat.  We don't want to know where the food we didn't eat goes or the containers it came in.  We don't want to know if the people serving the food are part of a cult.  We won't ponder, except in ironic ways, how that food is either killing us or the planet.

And we certainly don't want some asshole on the Internet taking us to task for what we don't want to know.  He is lucky that we take the time to check in on his writing from time to time and let him have his say and maybe say something nice about it.  We take it or leave it, but if it starts to make us uncomfortable, there are plenty of other places we can go on our Ipads.  We don't need him, and we don't need him telling us that ignorance is not bliss.  That we do not need.   I don't blame us.

Monday, August 20, 2012

May the Tour Be Ever In Your Favor

Camouflage exercise at the Hunger Games Fan Tour.
Peeta would have been sooooo proud.
This weekend, I accompanied five pre-teen girls and two adult women into the woods of Western North Carolina for a Hunger Games Fan Tour.

The very day we found out in the late spring that such a thing existed, and that it existed less than 30 minutes from where my in-laws lived, both girls instantly requested the tour as their birthday present.

So on this Saturday in early August, the two girls, three of their friends, my wife, and another mom (who also loves the series) met a group of some 20 other kids and parents in the middle of DuPont State Forest to partake in this surreal fan tour in the middle of nowhere.

Two of the five girls proclaimed Saturday “one of the best days of my life” and “the coolest tour ever.” This in spite of roughly three miles’ worth of hiking being required for the experience.

The cost -- $50 per person -- covered seven hours of "adventure," including a Hunger Games-themed lunch, lessons on archery and slingshots, and a camouflage lesson using molding clay where the girls got to keep their final product as a souvenir.

Of the 15 or so kids on the tour, only two were boys. Only one of them had read the book; the other had only seen the movie. Of the baker’s dozen of girls, all had read the book, and most had read it more than once, including three girls who had read it at least three times. In other words, it was pretty much a perfect statistical representation of the reading challenge we have with American boys in the 21st Century.

While The Hunger Games appeals to a broad group, the resonance is clearly strongest amongst pre-teen and teen girls. Boys and adults might like it... but the girls can devour an entire day in the woods to witness where particular scenes were filmed and constantly look like they’re walking on sunshine.

This tour was, to me, the heart of what’s amazing about our country. Two women organizers and planners can ride a cultural wave and, for six or seven months, generate a nice side income stream just by spending their weekends entertaining people obsessed with a specific film. Sure, it could have been poorly done, so these ladies weren't just shooting fish in a barrel. Taking advantage of the opportunity is only half the battle.

The tour can’t live forever, certainly not at sold-out levels. And it’s not enough of a cash cow that they could abandon whatever they do professionally to put food on the table.  But they do it anyway. They make decent money, and they get to make a ton of parents and eager kids (ok, girls) giddy along the way.

Was the tour perfect? Of course not. Far from it, especially if you’re a 40-year-old dad. Yet, not once during the experience did I feel taken advantage of as a consumer. I never felt like our tour guides' were with us in the flesh, but with our money in spirit.

Thanks mostly to luck, we also got to eat dinner and watch The Hunger Games that very same night, released that same day on DVD. Mere hours after touring sites where scenes were filmed, we got to see it in the movie! The experience was simultaneously more meaningful and more... fake!

Five pre-teen girls, completely removed from iPads and Instagram and TV for almost all of their daylight Saturday hours, had “one of the best days ever.” The nighttime movie was practically a denouement, an after-dinner mint on the hotel pillow.

Few parents can witness their kids in moments like these and not, by osmosis, also have one of the best days ever.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Speeding Up

There are few people who are not my age or older for whom the name Charles Whitman brings immediate recognition.  And yet, in 1966, when I was 9 years old, there would have been few Americans above a certain age who did not know his name, in spite of more primitive media outlets of television, radio, and newspaper.

For one day in 1966, Charles Whitman, age 25, killed his wife and mother in Austin, Texas, and then entered the Tower at the University of Texas, where he attended, killed three people inside, and then from the observation deck of the tower, shot and killed 11 more people and wounded 32 others. 

It was the first mass shooting, outside the arena of World War II, that I ever knew anything about. 

When the next mass shooting occurred in the United States, I can't tell you.  But it feels to me now like it was decades later and I'm pretty sure it took place at a McDonald's, maybe in the 80's.  It is more important to me, for this post, that I go with what I remember rather than with any kind of official research.  For I am part of this great American society, and I want you to know what it feels like to me.
Since then, we have had, of course, countless shootings, in the North, in the South, in the West, in the Midwest.  In post offices, in government buildings, at political rallies, on army bases, in schools.  In movie theaters.  And in more schools.  Columbine, Virginia Tech, where else?  Where is next?

If you are a fan of the show, Criminal Minds, which I occasionally watch, then you know two things.  First, if you follow the show week to week, you know that there are an unlimited supply of serial killers in this country, those whom we've had run-ins with and those who operate more anonymously until they do something that calls them to the attention of the criminal specialists on the show.  And that is where the second thing you know comes in:  that a serial killer, over time, "speeds up."

Speeding up is the concept that over time a serial killer's kills come closer and closer together, that although he may have started out slowly, spreading out those first, tentative kills over a number of years (or decades), eventually as he reaches frution (and I'm using the male pronoun because serial killers tend to be male), he must kill more and more frequently in order to get the same feeling of power and control and superiority.  And that underlying desire to be caught.

Imagine now that the United States, and its mass of people in particular, are actually one giant organism, that individual people, like cells, may come and go, but the American body, the American being, goes lumbering forward into the present and future, containing all that was and all that will be.  And look at the pattern of our shooters who step into a public space and kill.  We, as a society, are speeding up, aren't we? 

Our mass shootings have reached the point to where, if the circumstances are not egregious, as in small children killed in a movie theater or students in a school, we give the whole mass shooting phenomenon a "ho-hum."  I mean, how many mass shootings that either occurred or were thwarted have taken place since The Dark Knight Rises holocaust in Colorado?  You don't even know, do you?  Neither, for the purposes of this piece, do I.  A rough estimate on my part would include a school shooting, a Sikh shooting, and a prevented shooting in another movie theater.  Everybody from the religiously-intolerant to the copycats are planning days or nights out with guns.

The causes for that are myriad, far too complicated for any study to encompass.  We are inclined to blame, over time, everything from Saturday morning cartoons to video games to the disintegration of the family unit to our increasing number of mental disorders to the media and entertainment industries to personal glitches to rage and frustration.

The beauty of Criminal Minds is that there is some reassurance in knowing that a special unit that is out there tracking this thing, highly-trained individuals with plenty of experience who can put the pieces together quickly enough to resolve everything in about 48 minutes.  But that is television, and even if it were real, such a unit is not zeroed in on a society.  It's hard enough for them to figure out the motivations of that one, anti-social individual.  And it wreaks havoc on them personally. 

Who is out there to say that our country, taken as a whole, is dispensing with groups of its citizens with an increasingly-frenetic regularity with means that are all too accessible for reasons that we cannot understand and with a pervasive randomness that, should it become any more pervasive, will cease to be random?  How many more times will we mourn the victims of some "senseless tragedy"?  Who can handle that assault on their psyches?  Not us.  We cope by pretending that it isn't happening.

The serial killer thrives on the game that incidents seem isolated unless there are enough clues to allow the slow-witted police to begin to connect the dots.  He teases and taunts.  Who will say publicly what we are becoming, maybe what we have become?  Who will acknowledge that those of us who live our normal lives nevertheless know enough to understand what is out there on the other side?  We see that dark side of ourselves, our society, don't we, in our interactions and in our stores, in our cars and during our drives?

I know we do, but what do we do?  When everything is speeding up, we miss everything that is speeding up.  It becomes the norm and we move on.  But the pace of our killing and our attempted killing, that can never be the norm, can it?  Or is it?  Can we protect ourselves from ourselves?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Growing Pains

If you have noticed that things on Bottom Of The Glass are a bit erratic, a bit spotty recently, I thought I'd take a few moments and explain why.  It isn't that we've gotten lazy or disinterested or even that we're wrapped up in our jobs at the moment, even though we are wrapped up.  That has never stopped us before.

At different times, and in different ways, Billy and I have outgrown this blog, or more specifically, our original conception of this blog.  I don't know that we necessarily agree on the hows of that, but I'm not sure that we have to.  At the start, we wanted to write about music and whatever else we've wanted to, to have the music drive the writing or vice-versa.  And while that may seem wide open, rather than limiting, the fact is that when you put a lot of time into writing on the Internet, you can't help but want people to read what you've written, probably can't help wanting a wider audience.

Roughly speaking, we've had about 700,000 hits to BOTG for something over 1000 posts.  Simple division would suggest "Wow."  But simple division would not tell the actual story.  Our two most popular posts of all time are Billy's "But I Don't Like You Like You" and my "The Bitter End."  Now, I haven't investigated Billy's stats all that much, but I did look into mine during the months when "The Bitter End" was really racking up hits.  The fact is, there is a club in New York City called The Bitter End, and any number of the hits I was getting were mistaken assumptions that my post was about that club.  They were probably on our site for one second or less.  There is no doubt about that.

There is also no doubt that a significant (maybe more than significant) portion of our readership visits us to steal music.  Though both Billy and I continue to be inveterate music purchasers (I'll say 90% of what we have, respectively), our readers and perhaps most people are not.  Our preference for posting songs in the form of mp3s as connections, enhancements, or inspirations for our blog posts means that people come to us for the songs, right click on them, download them, and go on their merry ways.

At the same time, I can't help but believe that our writing is often quite strong.  Not always, but then neither is Maureen Dowd's or Thomas Friedman's.  There are those topics, like Billy's recent post on The Ox-Bow Incident, which bring out our best--our most insightful, our most satirical, our most connected, our most thought-provoking.  There have been plenty of times where our perspectives on national or social issues have predated the predominant thinking in the national discussion.  There have been times when I thought our outlooks were more illuminating than what others were saying.

And so, yes, we are outgrowing our current approach.  Probably the music undermines us; certainly the appropriating of photos and images does.   We've enjoyed a kind of free-for-all where all of the web was at our disposal, it seemed, and we could cherrypick whatever we wanted to go with our writing.  Also, frankly, writing about our jobs, though it obviously connects with a certain portion of our readership, probably doesn't do much more than allow us to blow off steam and leave us with a sense of unease.

So I think we're going to change.  But how?  I'm not sure.  We've only talked in the most general terms. What will we become?  Here are some possibilities:

--less "anonymous"

--more commercial

--more national

--less musical, in terms of actual songs

--more professional

--more Avett-Brothers hating  (kidding, kidding, but seriously, The Lumineers=The Avetts + Edwin Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, but much better than either one!)

--less visual

I really don't know.  It's been a rewarding and enjoyable journey for us so far.  I hope that you will stay with us.  We're not going anywhere........................that you won't know about.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Ox-Bow Incidents

Violet Hill - The Kooks (mp3)

So I’ve already expressed my still-strong fascination with Westerns. This summer, I conquered another Western, considered by many critics to be one of the Top Ten in the genre: The Ox-Bow Incident.

The 1940 novel, acclaimed almost instantly, was made into a Henry Ford movie three years later. Although not that lengthy at under 300 pages, Ox-Bow can be a bit challenging to read for a modern audience.

For the uninitiated and those uninterested in reading a “classic” and slow-paced Western, here’s the basic premise: cattle stolen by unknown parties in a small rancher town. During the theft, a rancher is shot. The men in town hear of it and round themselves up a lynch mob that they justify as a posse and chase down the suspects. They catch up to the suspects at a place in the mountains called “The Ox-Bow.” They debate justice and hang the suspects. Upon returning to the town, they discover the men they hung were innocent. Different men handle this news and their part in the events differently.

Although reading it took a bit of persistence, as I fell deeper and deeper under the spell of The Ox-Bow Incident, it came to me that endless numbers of our civilization’s tragedies are explored by this book.

The reason Ox-Bow can plod at times is because the entire plot is devised as an excuse for the author to host mano-e-mano Lincoln Douglas-like debates on the nature of man, justice, judgment, rage, evil, friendship, groupthink, and other cobwebbed corners of human psychology.

No decent book should be enjoyed without the reader seeking connections between the fictional world in which they immerse themselves and the real world in which they breathe. I constantly found myself enraptured at how a tale set in 1885, and written in 1940, could so perfectly describe men (yes, mostly men) and mentalities that plague us everywhere in this Brand New Super-Duper Century.

Can a lynch mob be stopped by a lone scrawny annoying dissenter? Can the mealy-mouthed voices of uncertainty ever overcome the confident and stentorious alpha male? Who is more haunted by acts of injustice, those who rushed to judgment, those who mindlessly capitulated, or those who knew it was wrong but failed to stop it? Are The Deciders amongst us just bullies in clothing our society deems acceptable or even preferable?

A novel about an 1885 lynch mob becomes a powerful jumping-off point for any number of our modern problems. Penn State. George W. Bush and “WMD.” A husband accused of pouring Barium into his wife’s coffee. Every day, in ways big and small, we’re surrounded by accusations that invite us to rush our judgments, and every day we hear of obvious wrongs that unknown numbers knew and allowed to occur without having the courage to stand against it.

Sometimes -- and this is where reading the novel gets difficult -- we’re forced to recall times we were stuck in the middle of these matters. Did we stand aside? Did we go along? Did we object, but not enough, or not successfully? It’s so easy for us to sit back and confidently proclaim how others should act in a crisis because we can so quickly dismiss our own experiences. We’ll give others an inch of error, but we’ll happily take a mile for ourselves.

It’s about action and inaction, crimes of omission and comission. The Ox-Bow Incident is one moment in time that has and will continue to repeat itself so long as civilization thrives. I’d love to say there’s a way to take this novel to heart and learn from it, adapt to its lesson... but my voice for change would be mealy-mouthed, scrawny, annoying, and ignored.

Or such is my fear.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Crisis of Competence

Hide It Away - Retribution Gospel Choir (mp3)
Empty Handed - Michelle Branch (mp3)

The Peter Principle is this: Everyone is promoted to his or her level of incompetence.

Or, to put it in greater detail, if you do a job very well, you tend to earn a promotion. So long as you continue performing at high levels, you will continue moving up... until you get promoted into a job you don't do well, at which point you will be stuck in that job.

The Peter Principle is the sad tragedy of how many large companies work. In schools, it can be less invasive because there is simply less upward movement available. (Also therefore, what can hurt schools is a stillness of professional water that leads to the breeding of mosquitoes and/or laziness and/or accepting one’s place.)

I recently had the opportunity to sit at a table with eight others in my profession, where we discussed our variety of options for professional development. Is it better to go to a general conference? A conference covering a more specific topic or area? Or to take a class or course on improving one's skills with a specific software program? Or with a skill like photography?

Until this meeting, I’d never heard of The Crisis of Competence. Here’s how one man at the table explained his situation (I gave up journalism long ago, so this is only at least 80% accurate):
I learned a long time ago it is counterproductive for me to learn new things. Have you ever heard of The Crisis of Competence? You get good at something, and everyone suddenly expects you to be the expert at it, and suddenly everyone is pulling you this way and that way and getting angry at you if you don’t have the time for them. Because, let’s be honest, you’re just one person, but nobody has any patience for that when they’re the ones being told “no.” So I drew a line in the sand and said, “That’s it. I’m done being everyone’s expert.”
Everyone with experience at the table nodded in sympathy. We’ve all been there. We take pictures, therefore everyone thinks we’re Annie Leibovitz, and somehow we can make that “grip ‘n’ grin” into a Rolling Stone cover. We can shoot video, so suddenly we’re Scorsese, as if pointing a camera and pushing that little red button requires a master’s degree, as if it’s a difficult skill to learn.

Maybe it’s because we’ve been stuck in a recession. Maybe it’s because I know we’re all replaceable. Most likely it’s because fearing The Crisis of Competence goes against everything in me that years, strives, hopes, and dreams. I’m supposed to stop improving because I don’t want to tell someone “No”? I’m supposed to stop acquiring new skills because too much might be asked of me?

Yeah, I saw something like that in Spider-Man once...

Of all places, succumbing to a fear of The Crisis of Competence is most heretical in the education world, where we spend every minute and every day expecting and demanding teenagers to learn new and annoying things, to stop leaning on their parents and teachers for the expertise and to forge their own learning path. Why the hell should 16-year-olds believe our "subjects" are important if many of the adults around them can’t even bother with smart boards or Google Docs or flipped classrooms or... well, anything adult educators find as stupid as kids find school?

The Crisis of Competence is just one of those many excuses we use to keep from improving, to protect ourselves from the risk of failure, to still the waters and render ourselves motionless.

I’d rather just have to tell people “no” once in a while.
Or, better yet: “I want to help... but not at the moment.”
Or better yet, “It’s never too late to learn something new for yourself! Just push that red button!”

Monday, August 13, 2012

My One Crack At The Guiness Book Of World Records

Talking Heads--"Road To Nowhere" (mp3)

Presumably, when you read this, I will be mid-competition, doing my very best to enter the Guiness Book Of World Records and a place in the immortal canon of heroic deeds.  Presumably, years of training, the focus and the repetition of the years, will have paid off and I will be in that bold place where no man...

Each to his own Olympics, eh?

There does come a moment in every person's life, I am convinced, when he or she, or he and she together (with or without children, or he and he, or she and she or Chick-Fil-A) has the chance to do something that no one else has done, in spite of the population growth and the billions and billions of people on this planet and how difficult it is to become an individual who matters.  Or, if other people have done it, they haven't done it as well.

The trick is to identify it.

 That's where most people mess up.  They don't see the low-hanging fruit in front of their eyes.  They can't see the golden apple for the tree.  The opportunity has passed them by, not out of neglect or indifference, but simply because they didn't realize that it was the opportunity.

I am not making that mistake.

This morning (Sunday, if you are reading on the day it was posted) at exactly 5AM Eastern Standard Time, three members of my clan will have begun our attempt to set the land speed record for a round-trip road trip from Chattanooga, Tennessee to New York City, New York and back.  The official distance has been measured by MapQuest as 1626 miles.  We plan to be back in Chattanooga by 11PM Monday night.

Hmmmmm......I can hear your little calculator minds going.  But, Bob, you say, that is a total of 43 hours.  You will only be averaging 38 miles per hour!  What kind of a speed record is that?

Okay, okay, but I'm not going to be on the road the whole time!  While we're on the road, we'll be averaging 68 miles per hour, which is no mean feat if you recall what happenes to the speed limits once you cross the Mason-Dixon Line.  And don't expect me to text from the road up there either, 'cause it's against the law or something. 

But we've still got to have a little down time.  I mean, crap, don't I get to eat and to get a good night's sleep?  I know I'm going for a record and all, but after 12 hours in a car, we're going to want to stretch out on some hotel beds.  We're going to want to chow down. We'll be staying in beautiful Hoboken, New Jersey, just across the river from our destination of Columbia University, where we'll drop off my daughter's apartment essentials at a pre-designated time (10 AM, Monday morn, the earliest available time, I promise), and if we can get it all unloaded in an hour, we'll be back on the road home by 11AM.  Not likely.

You see, there's this pizza place named Grimaldi's that is supposed to have exceptional coal-fired pizza, and wouldn't one be remiss to be in the New York City area and not give it a try?  And Momofuku Noodle Bar?  It's listed in the current Newsweek as one of the 101 best restaurants in the world. Like to drop in there on Sunday night. And  the shopping?  The sights?  The traffic?

I guess what I'm saying is we're not actually trying to set the Guiness World Record, we're trying to place.  In the top one hundred.  Or so.  Or at least get back in time to go to work on Tuesday. 

Immortality undermined by a pizza.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Partying To The Oldies

Annie and The Beekeepers--"Light At The End" (mp3)

I went to a bi-monthly social event the other night--steak night with the guys.  Usually in attendance are a mix of retirees from my school, students they used to teach who are now middle-aged men, and me.

I drove my friend, who retired about 5-6 years ago.  He had injured himself trying to work on a sailboat last week, and so he was, as we say in the South, "down in the back."  He had a tough time getting in and out of the car and only decided to come along because he had copped a couple of his wife's muscle relaxers.  We agreed, circumstances being what they were, that we would only go for a little while, that we would get his steak wrapped up and he could take it home.  I don't eat red meat.  Mostly.

When I walked in the front door (I had gone on ahead because my friend was edging gingerly down the sidewalk at a snail's pace), the first thing I noticed, other than the air thick with the smell of french fry oil, was that our host, a man who had retired about 7 years ago, stood at the fryer with an oxygen hose under his nostrils and around his neck and trailing down to the kitchen floor, then across the living room/dining room and into his sun porch some 40 feet away.

He had never worn this apparatus before, but I didn't want to make too big of a deal about it, so I just said, "You'd better not stand too close to that fryer or we'll all blow up."  Then I gave him a hug.

"The oxygen in it isn't that strong," he said evenly.

"How long do you have to wear it?" I asked.

"I've got emphysema," he said, lifting the basket of fries so they stopped bubbling so much.  "I'll be wearing this forever.  It isn't going to get better."

By that time, my friend had made it into the house, where he walked slightly crouched across the slate floor, already answering the litany of questions about his condition.

I suppose this is what partying is, to the oldies.  Before the night was over, as we sat watching Olympians with superb body control and fitness while gorging on thick-cut fries and much thicker steaks, we talked about, in addition to the emphysema and the numerous jokes about each of us stepping on the air hose, and in addition to the sorry condition of my friend's back, about the procedures and biopsies of another attendee (all negative) and other health issues.  Just that afternoon, I had missed my yearly skin cancer inspection.

When our host, the one with the emphysema, fired up a cigarette at the fryer, I nearly dove under the table.  We didn't stay much longer before we hobbled out to the car and headed home.

There is something about the summer that brings out the old in me, that leads me to project what my later years will be like.  Of course, I know exactly what causes those thoughts--my yearly jaunt down to a free condo in a Florida retirement community.  At least it is free except for the nearly daily confrontation with my own mortality and, as I've mentioned previously, my realization each year that I fit in just a little bit better than I did the year before.

This year, I was especially sensitive to the social nature of the lives of old people.  I had two "epiphanies" that will undermine our time down there, should my wife and I decide to spend several months in Florida each year when we are older.  The first is that I don't play golf.  Of course, I didn't just discover that; I knew that even when I was going around the course hitting the little white ball.  No, I connected that fact to how many men spend their average days in Florida on a golf course and wondered what the men do who don't golf.  The other epiphany is that my wife doesn't like doing many of the things that groups of women do together.  This is because she has always worked as a professional and so those afternoon social gatherings are foreign to her and seem trivial.

Have we, because of our current life patterns, patterned ourselves out of retired living activities?  Or will we arrive with a new generation of "oldies" who are more likely to be interested in the kinds of things we are?  I just don't know.  Given the nature of our current friendships, I wonder if we can be happy during Florida months if we don't import some of our friends from up here down there with us.  And how that would work, I don't know either.  You can't just say, hey, you need to buy a condo in Venice, Florida so you can hang out with us.

What I do know is that, without a doubt, social gatherings will change, that a birthday party or a meal out will likely involve caring for someone that we used to drink beer with.  And becoming the one who is cared for.  I just hope you'll put some beer in a cup for me and stick a straw in it.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

"In a Van Down by the River"

The Privateers - Andrew Bird (mp3)
Voices Inside My Head - The Police (mp3)

More often than not, it’s foolish to let a musical artist’s eccentricities interfere with your appreciation for the music. Because, let’s be honest, on the Bell Curve of human behavior, artists (and aspiring ones) are on that far end of the Freakin’ Weirdo spectrum. Some of them make Cousin Eddie’s Christmas Vacation comments about rubber sheets and gerbils sound like something from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

Seriously, name me a platinum-selling artist who has managed to shuffle off this mortal coil without enough moral blemishes to his or her name to look like chicken pox, and I’ll accuse you of not looking closely enough.*

Elton John, David Bowie, Queen... this is practically a murderer’s row of unpublished Letters to Penthouse (or whatever the gay equivalent might be... back when people wrote letters and got their porn from magazines). The Beatles and the Stones were probably peripherally responsible for the eventual power of Mexican cartels. Springsteen, Dylan and countless others have managed to keep their public fiascos more cliched than their song lyrics, but the wackiness is still there.

And Michael Jackson? ‘Nuff said.

So why is it that I just can’t get past how weird The Beach Boys are? And really, when we say “The Beach Boys,” what we all know I mean is Brian Wilson.

So he’s weird. So what?

If someone told me that Brian Wilson was the leader of that cult who dressed in Converse sneakers and attempted to hitchhike on a spaceship passing by Earth at Warp Five, I wouldn’t bat an eye. He’s not even on the Island of Misfit Musicians; rather, he is the god whom the island’s residents worship.

Yet in my eMusic “Saved for Later” account, the two most-frequently worshipped Brian Wilson creations -- Pet Sounds and SMILE -- have lingered longer than Bret Michaels at a reality TV show interview. They’ve been there for at least 18 months now, yet I never can convince myself they’re worth the purchase.

On one level, I know they’re worth it. C’mon, they’re classics! But...

But... I just can’t get past wacky, crazy, batshit nuts entity that is Brian Wilson. And then I think about The Beach Boys’ performance at the 2102 Grammys, where the dude looked like a late-stage Alzheimer’s grandparent**, and I just can’t bring myself to buy his albums.

When I watch Chris Farley -- and maybe this is why I don’t watch much comedy anymore -- funny as he is, I can’t help but be a little haunted by his reality. The unfunniness of it. The sadness. So yes, I laugh at his “in a van down by the river” skit, but I also wish Farley hadn’t been such a train wreck. And if the cost of his mental health was not being a superstar, I’d wish he hadn’t been a superstar.

That’s where I am with Brian Wilson. His problems seem to go deeper than cliched Rock Problems. They’re not moral or sexual problems; they’re serious, deep mental ones. And somehow that’s more difficult for me to ignore.

One day, I hope I can get over it. Because I’m sure I’ll enjoy the hell out of those two albums.

* -- Of course this could be said of most everyone on our planet, but still, for artists, it goes to 11.

** -- Not mocking Alzheimer’s. This isn’t intended to be a humorous insult. Rather, at moments it really seemed to me like Brian Wilson had no clue who he was, why he was on that stage, or that he was once the leader of a highly successful pop band.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Where Is The Hero Of The Story?

Tina Turner--"We Don't Need Another Hero" (mp3)

Wherein I try to tell a story, without telling the story...
It is human nature, I suppose, to want to be the hero of your own story.  I'm sure it happens for many of us all the time in small ways--solving some logistical problem, killing two birds with one stone, going above and beyond in some daily family way, blah, blah, blah. 

I'm not so sure it's easy to pull off in big ways.  My family, for example, has adopted the phrase, "the big hero" from a friend of mine, and we use it when when one of us goes out of his or her way to make something happen that benefits others.  Something like picking up a pizza and showing up at home when everyone else is starving and getting to say, "Who's the big hero now?"

But in big ways, we just don't have that many opportunities to shine.  I suppose I could call myself a hero for scaring two intruders out of my house a couple of years ago, but the fact is that I was yelling in total fear, and the fact that because of my scream they ran instead of killing me or at least hurting me is evidence of their own ineptness or amateurness, not my bravery.  Even when I got to the top the stairs and stood between them and my family locked in a bedroom, I had nothing, and had they come, I could have done nothing to stop them.  Some hero.

But the real problem comes when there are many narrators to a story, and each one wants to be the hero.  That is what I am grappling with tonight.

It would be fine to try to write a novel or a story where that is going on, where each successive narrator comes to the plate and ends up getting the game-winning hit in the same game.  It would be a fascinating study in unreliability and would leave the reader wondering which of the many versions is the right one.  Of course, this has been done before, this idea of multiple versions of the same events, but I think it ups the ante when each narrator wants to win the reader over to his or her particular success.  I'm not aware that has been written.  That's really pushing it.

Back to the problem, though.  The problem comes when it's real life, not a story, and I am not reading it, I'm listening to one version and then my wife hears another and my child hears something tangential from a friend of hers who works at a place downtown, and all of us could get together and try to figure it out.  But we don't.  At least not initially.

Because when the narrators, the heroes of the stories, are real people, we all have our own human tendency, which is to take sides.  Because I'm comfortable with the version I've heard, and my wife has her own source with whom she shares the same certainty, and my daughter's friend knows enough to sway a little one way or another, but not enough to nail it, we none of us know quite what to think, or else we sit in our own certainty, equal certain that each of the rest of us are wrong.

Such is life in a small city where everyone knows something of everything. 

I know you want particulars.  I know it is my job as a writer to provide them.  But not always.  And this time I'm not giving them.  But I promise you, it doesn't matter.  This is as old as the Old Testament, where Adam and Eve's stories don't match up, where Cain and Abel's don't (granted, Abel doesn't get a speaking part), where Jacob and Esau's don't.  This is adulthood.  This is the longer you know someone, the more you have doubt, rather than certainty.  And when it is someones, not someone, you take a jaundiced view towards all of it.

As my daughter and I discussed on the way to Costco today:

HER:  Isn't there a saying like, 'The truth lies somewhere in the middle?'
ME:  Yes, something like that.  There certainly aren't any heroes in this story.

Suffice it to say that what we're talking about here is not really "heroism," it's the moral high ground, which everyone wants to claim, every storyteller.  I guess that is its own kind of heroism.  Each storyteller wants to convince us that they are right, are proactive, are reasonable, are saviors. But ultimately, as happened today, when a several people hear several versions of the same set of circumstances, they don't end up choosing sides.  Instead, when they do compare notes, they conclude that, looking at it from the outside, all of the participants have deep flaws, which is unfortunate because all of the attempts to set the record straight have done little besides making the record seem childish.

I apologize.  I know that this is very obtuse.  But sometimes that's either all you know or all you can say, especially when it's either a family matter, people you know, or litigation my wife is working on.  I'm comfortable, though, believing that all of you have been in this same situation, listening to a story where there are no heroes, despite all urging to the contrary.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Musical Price Point

Arrested While Driving Blind - ZZ Top (mp3)
Gimme All Your Lovin' - ZZ Top (mp3)

Like most unattractive redneck men, ZZ Top's schtick
was about suggesting that unattractive redneck men
could somehow pull in legs like these.
ZZ Top = Meh.

The bearded banditos never disgusted me or left me cold, but I never recall sitting somewhere and thinking to myself, “Boy, I sure could use some ZZ Top right about now.”

“Tush.” “La Grange.” These deserve consideration in the extended list of classic rock greats. And to this day I suspect their video for “Legs” assisted me in my long-overdue leap to puberty. But beyond that, nothing much sticks.

If all this is true, why would I have recently purchased Rancho Texicano: The Very Best of ZZ Top on Amazon?

The 2 CD set of 36 songs and two remixes (dance remixes?? oh hell to the yes!) was on sale for $2.99 at Amazon. The math was pretty compelling, obviously. Each song would cost me roughly $0.12. If I was just purchasing the three songs I enjoy and appreciate for the standard $0.99 each, the other 33 would be free.

This is how our buy-happy minds rationalize things, you see.

So why spend $3 on 38 songs I’ll likely never love, only a half-dozen or so I’ll ever even remember are in my collection? Is $3 my ZZ Top Price Point? Do I feel I’ve made a wise fiscal decision?

If you’re reading this, and you’re not a die-hard ZZ Top fan, how many songs can you casually list off the top of your noggin that you like? Five? If you can name more than eight ZZ Top songs, you’re probably a fan. (To be fair, the same could be said of Rush.) Assuming you don’t believe in stealing music -- which is a big assumption in 2012 -- are your musical tastes dictated by price points, by the radio, by the stubborn insistence that “newer music” isn’t worth your time? What fuels your musical engine?

Because I’m still stuck in the philosophical land of wanting to “own” music, the mythical Price Point concept is a central driving notion. Hell, two years ago, I bought Katrina & The Waves’ greatest hits (25 songs!) because I could get it for $3. Katrina and the mutherf*#kin' Waves! A band with one recognizable song, and I bought their Greatest Hits. (And don't it feel good! Hey!)

The Nice Price was a clueless adolescent's way of identifying
those albums which, while of questionable value, were less
costly were the purchase choice to be an inexcusable mistake.
If you are old enough, you remember record stores used to have bins where albums and/or cassettes had The Nice Price stickers. I’ve always been a sucker for those damn stickers. That bin is how I fell in love with Cheap Trick (“Dream Police” and “Standing on the Edge” both on deep discount!). It’s how I convinced myself to buy my first Night Ranger and first Def Leppart albums. Without The Nice Price, I would not have owned Yaz. These are not small matters, dear reader.

Alas, record stores are like pit bulls at the Vick estate, and Nice Price Stickers are relegated to Google Images. Nowadays, I frequently take the freebies offered by iTunes and stay sharply attuned to the sales and specials in Amazon.com’s mp3 store. The $5 offers are nice, but you don’t get my full attention until I see that precious, illogically-seductive $2.99 offer.

And that’s where I am. Mixing in 38 songs from ZZ Top into my current and modern rotation of The Gaslight Anthem, The Shins, Metric, Rush, and Grace Potter. It adds a little bit of good ol’ days to the mix.

So, dear reader, do you have some musical Kryptonite? Something that leads to illogical impulse purchases of music you might live to regret owning? ‘Fess up. No one’s reading anyway!