Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Lawrence of America

Here’s how fake we all know Hollywood to be: We adore when anything they do feels half as real as their movies.

Jennifer Lawrence is the new Sandra Bullock, except a more versatile and talented actress. What I mean is, Jennifer Lawrence reminds the casual viewer that it is possible for a bona fide Hollywood superstarlet to hold on to what makes her a real human being.

For almost a decade, Bullock was the paragon of a persona Hollywood couldn’t assimilate. Or at least that was the image she cultivated with impeccable talent. What I mean is, let’s be fair, great actors are often great because they have long ago created personae even for themselves, so I'm not even sure they remember when they're acting at some point; how are we mere mortals supposed to know?

I don’t know know Sandra, because she turned down my dinner invites and Valentine’s cards. But I always saw her as the Defiantly Stubbornly Normal Superstar. The press often proclaimed her “America’s Sweetheart.” The two are interchangeable for most of us regular folk; we loved her because we believed she was one of us, not Of Hollywood. (I still think she's adorable, assimilation or no.)

The date isn’t exact, but at some point in the last half-decade, Sandra lost that thing. She became Hollywoodized. Her face got tighter. She fell in love with a dude who had been married to a porn star. I think acting normal got too hard. And who can blame her, really? You can only fight the Hollywood Borg for so long if you live amongst them.

So here comes Jennifer Lawrence. Like Sandra, she’s no dainty flower of a princess. She’s a full woman with curves and the healthy glow of having avoided any eating disorders, and her biggest roles all revolve around characters who are strikingly, aggressively uninterested in glamour. Winter’s Bone, The Hunger Games, Mystique in X-Men: First Class and now her Oscar turn as Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook. Mystique grows to abhor our obsession with appearance; the others just have bigger fish to fry.

On the red carpet, they asked Jennifer who she wanted to meet, and she said Al Roker. They thought she was joking, that it was some schtick, but she was serious, and she got annoyed that they wouldn’t believe her.

When she said “You guys are just standing up because you feel bad that I fell” in her Oscar acceptance speech, it was adorable. “And that’s really sweet,” she added. And she meant it.

Backstage in her follow-up interview with reporters, she is stunningly at ease. She’s clever and refreshingly blunt. Her answers aren’t rude; they’re the responses you’d get if you were sitting with her and five other friends at a bar, knocking back a couple of pints. She in fact admits to taking a shot. And she sarcastically claims she fell on purpose. And she doesn’t understand why exactly anyone gives a flip about HOW exactly she got into her dress for the event, as if the details are worth hearing. And then, the best moment, was how perfectly she responded -- without a script!! -- to an idiot reporter’s buffoonish question of whether she thinks she’s peaked too early.

I don’t need to know Jennifer to know that, for now, she’s real. She’s this amazing talent who realizes she revolves around the sun and not the other way around. Even if she gets assimilated by Hollywood, I doubt it will rob her of that talent, because she’s easily the best young actress we’ve seen in at least the last 15 years. Easily. You could steal a chunk of her talent, and she’d still kick ass on screen.

Natalie Portman. Jodie Foster. Sally Field. Elizabeth Taylor. It’s a small group of women whose talent shone brightly at a young age and continued burning strongly for decades. That’s where Jennifer Lawrence is headed.

I just hope, for her sake, and for our need to believe that Hollywood doesn’t have to assimilate everything it touches, that her genuine self survives the ride.

BONUS SECONDARY ASIDE: Ben Affleck's Accidental Honesty

When Ben Affleck, a man who has indeed been assimilated into Hollywoodized, who seems to be George Clooney’s understudy in life (and Clooney is The Hollywood Supermensch), spoke with stuttered breath and racked with emotion upon receiving his Best Picture Oscar, it was a real moment. What made it most real was that he dared to screw up, in front of 40 million people, and suggest that being married is hard work.

Wha?? You mean marriage to Jennifer Garner isn’t the human equivalent of a never-ending Disney Channel TV show?? You mean you’re rich as hell, busy as hell, and can afford anything and anyone you want, but you find some kind of reward in working on your marriage?!?

Affleck’s “mistake of honesty” was my second-favorite moment from a long but very enjoyable Oscars. It was almost enough to forgive the Academy for picking what was really only the third- or fourth-best picture of the year.

Sunday, February 24, 2013


You will think I'm being critical, when I'm really just being fat.

Right now, in homes around me, people are trying to eat the same way that the dinosaurs ate.  Other people are eating a modified version of the Atkins Diet, since that guy died and was discredited.  This time, they have a master list of 100 foods that they are allowed to eat and they may not eat beyond the list.  Which doesn't have carbs.  Hence, the Atkins Diet.  Or they are trying to eat like Diabetics.  Cause they don't want to become diabetics.  Or they are eating all of their food within an 8-hour time block each day, because that's the way that people who used to have only an 8-hour time block to eat used to eat.

There are so many diets going on simultaneously that I don't suppose that I should eat anything but grass.  Except that this young woman always takes her big dog through our yard and our next-door-neighbor's "electric fence" doesn't work and so her dog is always over here shitting too, and so I'm afraid to eat the grass.

What is left?

I mean, all of the diets are canceling each other out.  People on the 8-hour plan don't want their eating day to end at 3PM, so they are delaying the start of their eating until 10AM.  But that means they are missing breakfast.  Which is the most important meal of the day, according to other eating plans which say that a healthy metabolism depends on a good breakfast within 30 minutes of waking up.

I know a guy who put all of his calories into lunch.  Yep, lost a bunch of weight that way, eating only one meal a day. Another used a "liquid diet" to shed years of unhappiness.  My dad is into blenders.

A documentary my daughter made me watch says that eating fat doesn't make you fat; eating sugar makes you fat.  And all carbs convert to sugar.  Grab a stick of butter for breakfast and you're good to go. Grab a bowl of Sugar Frosted Flakes and you're fucked.  Red meat is okay, says one, unless you're eating red meat, says another.

In my house, among others, we've tried vegan, vegetarian, a vegetable soup diet (I can still remember the "hunger strike" feeling of that one), and, for at least one of our members, a diet that consisted only of offerings at the restaurant O'Charley's, a restaurant we had previously considered as being at the bottom of the fern bar chain.  That one lasted two days.

I don't know how to eat anymore.  The fried chicken I ate at lunch yesterday is bad for me.  The turkey burger I ate for supper is not as good for me as I think.  The bagel/pastry I didn't get at Panera this morning is as bad for me (see: need for breakfast) as if I had eaten one of their fat-laden cinnamon rolls.  The French lunch of salad, croissants, and mushroom- broccoli crepes that I made today had too much of something, I'm sure.  We won't even mention the pork butt I smoked all night or the Baked Lays (aka future fat) that I'm eating as I type this.

All I know is that I have constructed a diet that I know will work, though perhaps it will only work for me.  If I would do it.  Nevertheless, feel free to borrow it at any time.  There are only 10 rules, as follows:


1.  Don't drink so much beer (insert your personal vice of choice).
2.  Get off your ass.
3. Don't drink so much beer.
4. Get off your ass.
5. Don't drink so much beer.
6. Get off your ass.
7. Don't drink so much beer.
8. Get off your ass.
9. Don't drink so much beer.
10. Get off your ass.

I know, I'm kind of a genius.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Not Jaded, But...

When I visit a very large city like New York, I have to change my approach to the public interactions that don't require much thought in the small city where I live.  The reasons are very obvious:  it isn't that I have moved out of my "comfort zone" so much as it is that a large city requires behaviors that I don't normally engage in.

Here, we don't even have a subway. There is no underground world to traverse.  I never ride the bus; I am barely aware that they even exist, except when I get stuck behind one driving when I am in a hurry.  I also don't walk, at least not in the same way.  Here, I walk a lot in all kinds of places, but I never walk from Point A to Point B, as in from one part of town to another.

And so, there is always an adjustment to be made in a large city, and I either make it slowly, or something happens that forces an immediate awareness.

Imagine that you are sitting in a subway car.  The last two people who slip in before the door closes and the train starts moving are a young couple with a baby, maybe Hispanic, maybe Slavic.  (You can already tell I am unpracticed).  He has an accordian; she wears the baby in front of her with its face against her chest.  He is pressing tentative notes on the accordion, while talking with her, like they are planning something.  And they are.  All of a sudden she announces to the entire car that they are sorry to disturb us, and then he launches into a loud, uptempo accordion tune.  The train is now moving; there is nowhere to go.  She moves ahead of him with a hat, forcing donations from the people they pass.  My wife is convinced the baby isn't real.

If you are practiced, you can look down, try to engage in pretend conversation, hang a "Do Not Disturb" sign on yourself.  If you are really practiced, you have headphones on anyway, and you can lower your head to the essential task of finding the perfect song on your phone for the moment.  If you are us, you just hope they don't come near.

But if you are us, you have already dropped off coins here and dollar bills there to various people there.  My daughter, now a New York veteran, will not.  But she has a different agenda:  studying to become a social worker, she is aware and knows that they are aware of all of the social services that are available to people in this large city.  She sees the begging as people avoiding those programs that can really help them.

If you are not used to the city, you will not be used to the rushing, the cramming, the swaying and trying to keep your balance of public transportation.  You won't be prepared for the black man who wants to entire car to know that he is not their "n _ _ _ _ r."  You won't know what to do when a woman with a backpack impatiently tells the people in front of her to move forward so that she can get on the train, without considering what that backpack will hit when she swings around, so that she is going to get lectured about it by someone around her, having been trapped by her own rudeness, but it won't seem to end, and so you don't know if it will play out, or if it will escalate into something more.  In very close quarters.

It isn't that people who live in a large city are jaded.  I'm pretty convinced of that.  Instead, in a different context, they have learned, to quote T.S. Eliot, "to prepare a face to meet the faces that [they] meet."  When a person doesn't always go from here to there within the safe enclosure of his or her own bubble of a vehicle,  that person learns to be ready.  For almost anything that one can prepare in advance for.

You have to, I suppose.  Large cities present a larger slice of humanity, a broader range means greater extremes.  Those of us who "drop in" from time to time, may wonder a little where the friendliness is of our little towns and cities, but if we spend enough time, it's there.  We just aren't as likely to encounter it walking down the street or riding on the subway.

When you ride that subway enough, you aren't surprised at all to hear that when famous violinist Joshua Bell performed in the station of the D.C. Metro, nobody paid much attention to him, just routinely dropped a dollar in his case.  Or didn't.

But whatever that experiment was supposed to prove, it didn't.  People are hurrying?  People care most about getting from Point A to Point B?  People don't stop and smell the roses?  People don't distinguish between a world-class violinist and the usual (quite good) musical talent performing underground in large cities?  So what.  That's nothing but a set-up, not an awareness of how people have to live their lives in order to successfully navigate a large city.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

I Dream of Lena

Girls - Beastie Boys (mp3)

Last Monday, I visited Lena Dunham. She was a graduate student at an Ivy League school that may or may not have been Columbia.

We met because I walked in on a meeting of girls on her dormitory hall. Most of the girls were Indian, Chinese and Korean. At one point, I muttered something completely inappropriate about how attractive they all were, and Lena Dunham walks over and sweetly chastises me. “You really can’t afford to be that pathetic,” she says. So I nod and follow her around like a puppy dog. Pathetically.

She leads me by the hand to a stretch limo. Inside are Lena, myself and two hot Indian gals in their 20s wearing the kinds of high-class dresses one would wear to an awards ceremony. Lena Dunham is wearing more casual clothing. A white blouse or something, and maybe a medium-length skirt; I can't recall exactly. And I’m finding myself irresistibly attracted to her, but I don’t know why, because I never really found her appealing in GIRLS. But she seems so cute, and surprisingly upbeat and happy.

The limo pulls to the curb, and Mark Wahlberg enters. He’s apparently going wherever we’re going. He’s wearing what looks to be a brown leather jacket with sportscoat-like lapels and a black turtleneck and black denim pants. Very Steve McQueenish, I think, and then get bitter because apparently Mark Wahlberg can pull off any look.

“Hey Dirk -- I mean Mark.” I say when we’re shaking hands, and it’s an honest mistake, and I feel instantly stupid.

Wahlberg’s eyes widen and he extends a palm-forward hand between us, creating a blockade of space. “You’re not gay, are you?”

“Not that I’m aware of, no. I’m pretty sure I’m straight.”

He relaxes a little bit, so I keep talking. “I saw you perform with the Funky Bunch in Panama City in 1992, but even you couldn’t get me laid*,” I joke, but I admit to him that I didn’t really like his music or his Funky Bunch and that I’m glad he got past the music crap because he’s made some kickass movies.

Apparently because I insult him in a nice way, he gets comfortable with me, and we’re suddenly pals.

Lena gets a bit annoyed that I’m straight yet oogling Wahlberg instead of her, so she asks me to rub her feet. I oblige. I can definitely feel the sexual tension building up, and I’m feeling awkward and guilty, but I don’t know why, because in my dream I don’t think I’m married. Maybe I’m afraid I’m just attracted to her celebrity. Or maybe I’m afraid it’s the other way, that she’s just using me. Either way, something's not right with it.

Wahlberg and I then talk about Boogie Nights because I think it’s such a damned brilliant movie, and Mark explains that Dirk Diggler’s supersized dick is the film’s antagonist, and I insist he’s wrong. “Your dick isn’t the enemy,” I say, and even though it’s a dream, I’m so proud of the seeming depth of this clever line that I’m telling myself to write it down later.

Wahlberg says they loaded his prosthetic extended dick with concrete. “It weighed, like, seven pounds,” he says. “Because PT (Anderson) wanted me in every scene to feel the burden of this ginormous cock.”

“Yeah, but just 'cuz it's a burden doesn’t make your dick the bad guy.” I then tell him I thought “Boogie Nights” was similar to “Dazed & Confused” in that neither had a traditional antagonist, that the villains in both were non-corporeal, more of a societal pressure kind of thing. And we get into a fun discussion about it, because he loves “Dazed & Confused,” too.

Then I notice that Lena’s foot has been sliding further up and inside my thigh, and I look over at her, and there’s this really intense thing happening between us, and I’m wondering where this is gonna go, and then a car horn blares at us, and the car jolts to a halt.

It’s my alarm.

I gently tap my snooze button, hoping to go back, to see where it was all going, but to no avail. The Stargate had closed.

Questions I find myself grappling in the aftermath:
  • Does this mean I am attracted to Lena Dunham and just won’t admit it?
  • Did they really put concrete in Dirk Diggler’s fake dick? Why did my subconscious make this up?
  • If I’m not attracted to Lena Dunham, why did I want to go back to a dream where naughty things were about to (maybe) happen?
  • Is it an erotic dream if nothing expressly erotic happens?
  • Is the foot massage some dream-like reference to Pulp Fiction?
  • Why do I remember what Mark Wahlberg was wearing far better than I remember what the attractive women were wearing?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Two Cookies Stacked Against The Empire

The "Chocolate Chunk" cookie from Bouchon Bakery.
This is both absolutely preposterous and completely justified.

It is 5:07PM in New York City, and I am standing in the front foyer of The Shops Of Columbus Circle, a three-story upscale mall not unlike the Water Tower in Chicago.  On the third floor of the mall, there are a number of restaurants and eateries, included among them Bouchon Bakery (with cafe) and Per Se (which might have been a floor higher--I never did see it).  

These restaurants may not mean anything to you.  Both are outposts of the Thomas Keller empire, Keller being, perhaps, the most highly-regarded chef in America right now.  Kelley's methods and innovations are legendary, his standards exacting.  His original restaurant, The French Laundry in Yountville, California, would likely be the most amazing dining experience most of us could imagine in this country, could we get there, get a seat, and afford it.

I had not encountered one of Keller's restaurants before, and I may not again, since I am rarely in New York City or Northern California, so I decided that this was my chance to find out what the man can do.  I decided to test his skill by purchasing two cookies.

That's right: America's greatest contemporary chef would judged by two cookies--an oatmeal raisin and a chocolate chip.

My thinking?  If you are that good, then the humblest of your offerings had better be that good, or else, why are you offering them under your name?  

If you are Thomas Keller and your signature dish is something called "Oysters and Pearls," what one diner described as "warm oysters, smooth tapioca, a rich eggy custard and a good scoop of caviar," and if a table of two is going to drop over $1000 for a 14-course meal that will last four hours at a restaurant that has menu save a chef's inspiration, the your cookies should be more than pretty good, right?  Stellar?  Exceptional?  One-of-a-kind?

You think, dear reader, that I'm setting him up to fail, don't you?

The cookies cost $2.95/each.  The cookies were sold cooled off, so I decided to test them cooled off.  I asked two people to taste them with me, and I tried to rely on their observations more than my own.  

We tried the oatmeal raisin first.  The tasters thought it was "weighty" and didn't question the price.  They noted the "high quality cinnamon" as the dominant taste, also finding it "buttery" and "chewy with some crispness."  But they wondered if "you can blow someone away" with an oatmeal raisin cookie, since "it's a homely cookie."  They thought it was really good, though not necessarily the best they had had.

Of course, there wasn't anything left of either cookie.
The chocolate chip did not fare as well.  Though butter was the "first taste," they said that " nothing else rises to the surface" and that the "dough is lacking".  Oddly, though the cashier corrected me when I asked for chocolate chip ("One chocolate chunk coming right up"), there was little mention of the chocolate in the cookies, despite Keller's penchant for top-notch ingredients.  It didn't matter. My tasters  wondered if the cookie needed more salt or more vanilla, and though it was considered "good," they called it "no better than homemade" and one said "I've made made better."  

And indeed she has, as I know from experience, having tasted a laborious multi-day recipe she baked last spring.  Kind of like the work-intensive recipes a chef like Keller is known for.  And maybe that's the point.  Maybe instead of trying to put their brand on everything, including things we do pretty well, they should stick to their stellar culinary inventions we don't have the imaginations to fathom or the skill to carry out.  Do I really need Wolfgang Puck's sandwiches at a kiosk in the airport or Emeril Lagasse's chicken broth in the supermarket when those items are pricier but virtually indistinguishable from other brands?

Maybe instead of building empires based on comfort foods and home-like cooking for masses and a diluted all-reaching vision, a chef like Mr. Keller could put his time into his more superhuman creations that we mere mortals can only dream about and aspire to.  Basic cookies?  We've got those covered.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

I am making the finest pizza in this city. Or close to it. And so can you.

There is a new pizza joint open in town, only it isn't a "joint," it's an upscale offering from a restaurant group that has already brought us upscale Americanized Mexican cooking and upscale hamburgers and baloney.  There's quite a bit of excitement about this new pizza place, and I suspect that we will all be visiting and dropping more money on a pizza than we are used to spending.  We may be wowed by this turn of events, convinced that it's worth it to spend that kind of money.  It may well turn out to be the greatest pizza that this city has produced.

But I doubt it.

Trust me, friends, making pizza isn't rocket science.  It can be, of course, for those professionals who are perfecting the perfect pie which they will then repeat over and over for great profit.  But for the rest of us, the  casual pizza lovers who simply want a damn good pizza, it's really pretty easy.

You only need six ingredients:

crushed tomatoes
(whatever you add beyond that is up to you, but really, to me, the mark of a great pizza is how how it tastes in its simplest form)

You need three pieces of equipment:

a pizza stone (there's a way around this if you don't have it)
a pizza peel (that cool-looking piece of wood with a handle that you use to side that pie in and out of the over)
a pizza wheel (to cut your finished pizza)

As an investment, the ingredients will cost you about $13 for the ability to make more than one batch of pizzas (you might have to buy more cheese, depending on your proclivities).  The larger, long-term investment is for the three items that will turn your oven into a pizza oven.  Together, these will probably cost you about $35 and will give you the means to make and serve homemade pizza indefinitely.

Perhaps not coincidentally, that same $48 will get you a couple of individual pizzas and a couple of drinks at the new place, at least according to an online review I read.

The hardest part about making pizza, and it ain't that hard, is making that crust so that it will stretch out and not tear or clump up like a hockey puck.  Now, there's no-knead pizza dough, and it's easier than anything and doesn't require any equipment other than a large bowl.  The recipe is everywhere; here's one version.  All you do is stir flour, yeast, salt, and water a little bit, then cover it and let it rise for a long long time.  Then you put it in the refrigerator, and you have dough for days.  And, yes, of course, you could cut the recipe in half.

You put your pizza stone on the bottom rack of your over and put the temperature as high as it will go (500 degrees in most ovens) and let that stone heat for a good 30 minutes.

Get your wooden pizza peel, dust it thoroughly with some flour, put an orange-size piece of dough on there and slowly flatten it and stretch it and then a little more until you've got a disk that you can get your knuckles under and gently work underneath it and stretch it around and around the center and edges until you've got a thin dough that you can set on your floury peel, cover with some crushed tomatoes and grated mozzarella cheese (or slice fresh mozz) and slide it into the oven.  At that temperature, it will bake for 10 minutes or less before it's done.

Ah, bliss.

And what a hero you will be to whomever else is in the house when you pull that pie out of the oven.  And what is more gratifying than being able to make your own pizza and to realize that what you've made is as good as or better than most any other pizza in your city, certainly way, way, way better than the ones in the freezer case or that are mass-produced by the pizza chains.  And, much cheaper.  I'm not kidding.

Sure, practice makes perfect, and your first one may not be exactly the way you want it, but even the first time, maybe with a few "imperfections," I'm sure you will be able to fashion a serviceable pizza, or better.  Like most things, it's mostly a matter of not being afraid of what you are doing and not trying to do it too quickly (usually a result of that fear).

Monday, February 11, 2013

Billy Don't Be A Hero

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is an amazing book, a stunning work, a near-masterpiece of you-can’t-handle-the-truth fiction, a Dorian Gray-like look into the vapid heart of contemporary American culture.

Or, at least, I’m assuming it is. I haven’t finished yet.

Writing in praise of a kickass book is frustrating when you’re a slow reader. Know why? Because the height of my passion for a good book somewhere right past the halfway mark. For a slow reader like me, this means days and often weeks between when I have reached the zenith of my enthusiasm and the completion of said book.

In this way, movies and TV shows are easier to “review.” You sit for two hours, and what remains salient earns top billing. Although it’s been two months since I saw Lincoln, I can think of over a dozen powerful and memorable scenes from that film, certain characters pop up more vividly and immediately than others.

So, back to Billy Lynn. I’m 70-percent finished. It will be another week before I’m done, but my excitement is NOW!

The Twitter summary of the book -- "War & football & our lusty self-superior worship of both from luxury boxes & cheap seats! -- doesn’t even begin to get at the potency of this novel. Yeah, war and football have a lot in common. Yeah, rich and poor alike are gung ho for sending our boys overseas to fight and die but don't really care what happens to them after they leave the service. We love our soldiers the same way we love teachers and cops and sewer line maintenance workers, except more, because they’re, like, Reel Amurkun Heerohs. Or, as the book puts it so baldly:
“They’re all gnashing for a piece of a barely grown grunt making $14,800 a year. For these adult, affluent people he is mere petty cash in their personal accounting, yet they lose it when they enter his personal space. They tremble... because here, finally, up close and personal, is the war made flesh, an actual point of contact after all the months and years of reading about the war.”
The book does a bang-up job of damning just about any American of any stripe in regards to how we handle our “support” or criticism of the war, of soldiers, or of patriotism. As if anyone anymore is allowed to criticize soldiers. We cannot criticize them, yet we can't give more than lip service, either. The heroes of Billy Lynn are traipsed around the country like the Honey Boo Boo of the Armed Forces.

In other words, Billy Lynn gives lib’ruls like myself hundreds of opportunities to mock and sneer at the neocon Cheney worshipping warmongers who drool at the thought of the War on Terrrrrur and “Dubya Em Dees” (as the book calls ‘em a couple of times), but it also shines that harsh light of truth into the left's own inconsistencies and flaws. No adult in America is free from culpability in the plight of our soldiers and in the nightmares of our veterans.

One need not finish Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk to know the power of the book. The book is great beyond plot, beyond climax, and beyond denouement. The book is great because it scolds us, the greatest country on a planet of shitty countries. It throws uppercuts and body blows from the first pages and occasionally pats us on the back to remind us that this damnation we're feeling hurts the author as much as it hurts us.

If you prefer something less fictitious but hammering at some of the same problems, the hypocrisies of our culture, I highly recommend “The Man Who Shot Osama Bin Laden” in the March ‘13 Esquire. It’s one seriously long read, but you can sum up the gut-punch of the story in one sentence:
But the Shooter will discover soon enough that when he leaves after sixteen years in the Navy, his body filled with scar tissue, arthritis, tendonitis, eye damage, and blown disks, here is what he gets from his employer and a grateful nation: Nothing. No pension, no health care, and no protection for himself or his family.
Yes, we Americans sure know how to show our gratitude for the soldiers we so uniformly claim to respect. But don't worry; a couple of times a year, we have trouble sleeping at night from the guilt.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Death and Ribs

When people die and the funeral is in Knoxville, I travel with my wife up there, and when we have finished with our time at the funeral home, she buys me ribs.  We go to Calhoun's, the restaurant with the self-proclaimed "Best Ribs In America."  Here's the thing:  I think they're right.  People's opinions about ribs are vast and varied and based on idiosyncratic traits--smoked or not smoked or charcoaled, fall-off-the-bone or with a bit of chew, wet or dry, baby back or St. Louis style.  Me, I like Calhoun's ribs better than any others.  

So it isn't that hard to get me to take that long trip to Knoxville, even in the middle of the week, even if I didn't know the person or the family that well.  That's pathetic, I know.

I know that I should be talking about the funeral, about the person who died.  In this case, he was a 97-year-old man, a Steeler fan.  I never met him.  But his son works with my wife, and his daughter-in-law taught both of my children, and I taught his grandson.  So there are many connections, and I celebrated them all.  We spent significant time at the funeral home, talking with those we knew and meeting those we didn't and getting praised for having made the drive from Chattanooga and all of that.  But no big deal; we were happy to do it.  And then we went and got ribs.  Even my wife who tries her best to be vegetarian most days of the year got ribs.  

I think she needed them.  I know I did.  

At this stage in my own life, I don't ever get ribs.  They're too dangerous, too high fat, too much of everything.  Most times, at a barbecue place, I get chicken, in some misguided belief that chicken is healthy.  But in Knoxville, when there has been a death, I get ribs.  

That is life.  After I have grieved and mourned, I have to find something that confirms in a dramatic, over-the-top way that I am still alive, that life will go on.  In Knoxville, ribs are that thing. 

While we were eating ribs, we got a phone call, a curious call where a friend tried to determine if, indeed, another friend had died.  Or was it his son?  The email he received was cryptic.  I said that I would try to find out.  So I called a friend whom I knew could find out and he promised to call me back when he knew something.

I also asked him if he wanted some ribs.  He said yes.  He knew these ribs were special.  We had had a special time with these ribs when he reached a coaching milestone in Knoxville more than 10 years ago.  The players and the parents all went to bed in the hotel that night, and we went out and had ribs.  It is the first memory I have every time that I walk into Calhoun's.

Last night, when we were finally home, when we were back from Knoxville, when we had confirmed that my friend, who has had a very difficult year, now has a son who has died, too, and, after we had dropped off a full rack of ribs with beans and slaw to my other friend, my wife called out to me and said, "Have we reached that stage in our lives when this shit is going to happen all the time?"

"Yes," I said.  Yes, darling.  Yes, honey.  Yes, dear.  Because I knew and she knew that we would be grappling with "this shit" together for as long as we can, and that, yes, we have reached that stage.

That is why there are wives.  That is why there are friends.  That is why there is beer.  That is why there are rolls, and slaw, and salad, and baked potatoes, and sweet tea.  That is why there are ribs.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

How May I Help You?

Her body language told the whole story. From her posture to how she used her hands. From her mouth to her eyebrows. And here’s what her body said: “You must help me, you piece of shit, because somehow this is all your fault.”

This woman, a stranger to me, stood not five feet to my left at Mac Authority. She was rude. She was livid. She treated the 20-something man attempting to help her as if he were the fourth footman of Downton Abbey.

A blonde woman in her 40s sat on the other side of this lady. We were both waiting for our computers to download and update, download and update, in the hopes we could walk out with healed machines. We weren’t happy to be stuck, but we accepted our fates, we knew this was the best of all bad options.

As this lady betwixt us, pissed off at the world and especially the young employee for Mac Authority, got more annoying, we began to look at one another. We rolled our eyes. We chuckled at her, hoping our shared amusement, firing over and around her like low-frequency radiation, might shame her. But people like this lady, who think the world exists to fix their problems, are oblivious to others; we couldn’t do anything for her, ergo we did not exist.

After this bitch left -- yeah, I said it -- we two smug and patient customers attempted to bait this young service rep. We’re on your side, buddy. We can’t believe you remained so calm and patient, even as it became obvious that the only flaw in her device was that she could no longer steal her ex-boyfriend’s Netflix. We’re better customers! Yay us! He never took the bait. He just graciously accepted our compliments on his behavior and moved onto the next assignment.

This experience occurred on the heels of news of the Rebellious Applebee’s Waitress who got fired for posting a receipt to the Internet. The receipt, signed by a female pastor, protested having to pay an 18% tip when she only gave God 10%. The public’s reaction has been merciless and, understandably, in support of the poor lady who got canned.

What kind of logic runs through someone’s head when they think God needs their money more than a waitress who earns jack shit for salary? What kind of Christian doesn’t see a deeper purpose in tips -- for beer, for a haircut, for shitty Applebee’s food -- especially when that person, a pastor, makes a living solely from the generosity of others in the name of a (supposedly) loving God?

What kind of society are we running where a woman, stormcloud over her head like some newfangled football helmet, can treat someone trying to help her at no cost -- they did not charge her anything for the help they attempted to render! -- as if he were not worthy to exist on even the soles of her cheap shoes? No “thank you.” No “please.” Just expectation, impatience and barely-bridled disgust.

Are we more inconsiderate now than we used to be or has it always been thus? Have we become so attuned to the fiscal nature of all relationships that we forget to be human, to be humane?

Have we given ourselves permission to loathe anyone paid by an entity whose product displeases us, as if the service rep for Mac Authority or Comcast or Applebee's is somehow burdened with the responsibility for corporation-wide quality control?

Are we losing the ability to respect one another on the most basic of terms? Is the notion that "We're all in this together" increasingly a mockable myth rather than a desirable aspiration?

Surely we can do better.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Groundhog Day. Chattanooga, Tennessee. 2013.

"There's no way he could have seen his shadow."

"I know.  It's been cloudy like this all day."

"You know, he's up in Pennsylvania somewhere, though, don't you?  The weather could be different up there, you know."

"I heard there's another groundhog down here that they bring out for the southern states."

"Well, I think it's all in the Lord's hands.  He'll decide whether or not we have 6 more weeks of winter."

Welcome to the Costco in North Georgia, where in addition to get great buys on bulk items, people debate the merits of a groundhog-based weather prediction with more seriousness and depth than, perhaps, other areas are able to rustle up.  It's the first time, in my experience, that the little rodent has had to go toe-to-toe with the Big Guy Upstairs for supremacy in the futures markets.

Had I not finished checking out and headed for the exit, I'm sure that I'd have heard that the groundhog is satanic.

We had snow today, the first and only snow of this year, though it's threatened a few times and we've had a light sheet of ice on the vehicles a week or so ago.  But, today, on Groundhog Day, people around here are definitely in a wintry frame of mind with the skies overcast and, though the original snow all melted within 30 minutes, flurries continuing to come down, even as the temperature nears 40 degrees.  There was more in the mountains, and there was some concern that some events would be cancelled.

Tennessee is a state where legislation was introduced this month that would require school teachers or counselors to inform parents if a child had a discussion with them about being gay.  Once, at our school, we had a boy who "came out of the closet," at least until his parents hired a Christian counselor and made him go back into that closet.

The Lord has interceded in other ways around here--once person I know went to work at a bank because of Him, another was called to another school in another city to a higher-paying job, that is, until things didn't go as well as planned and The Lord called him back.

There are 134 minutes left in February 2, 2013, and I realize that I have no idea whether or not Punxatawney Phil, the world's most famous groundhog, has seen his shadow or not.  It doesn't seem to have mattered much; I took my dog for a walk just now and the sky was clearing and the night was cold.  The first flowers are bowed to the cold, unsure whether they will burst into yellow or freeze and wither.

Other coldnesses here, too.  We are a state that skews toward guns, toward prescription drug use.

A recent study revealed that our particular city is the 3rd most Bible-minded city in the entire United States.  Which is to suggest that our citizens are far more versed in the Bible than most, that we have more Christian ministries and Christian-based schools than cities of a similar size.

On Monday night, my wife spent the night at her church with a couple of homeless families, passing the long night with them in a place inconvenient for her, a place of safety, comfort, and food for them.  In the morning, she went to her job; they went to jobs and colleges that may give them hope, but not yet enough for them or their children to live on.  She told some friends about it at another church and they had never heard of such a thing, couldn't believe her "sacrifice."

Groundhog Day is a day that reminds us that things just don't add up.  We exist amongst a blend of tradition, superstition, fear, intolerance, misguidedness, cold, isolation, where gestures are meaningful but perhaps not impactful, where even in the smallest ways, like looking for a way out of the darkness and the cold, we grasp at whatever theory seems to make the most sense at the moment, where we may be well-read spiritually, but where that may or may not translate into anything at all.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Holy Crap! Is January Over???????

And, if so, where the hell did it go?  I just innocently looked at the weather page on my Ipad and saw some chilly temps for Feb. 1 and thought, hmmm, it's going to be cold in a few days, but I wonder what things are like now.  And, after a little clicking and jostling, I knew.

It's February.

Where did January go?  Well, now that it's gone, I know exactly where it went--down the shitter.  Pardon my French, but I have to say it was pretty much a waste of a month.  It started with a funeral--of my daughter's friend from a car accident--and that most awful circumstance of parents having to mourn their child.  That set the tone for the month.

I've spent the last three weeks of it either getting sick, being sick, or hoping against hope that I could stop being sick.  And I take that nagging cough into February with me.  I spent that same amount of time and more swirling in the maelstrom of a time of year when those of us at this school go into overdrive in order to provide a rich slate of activities for boys whom we don't want to become homesick and miserable.  And though I think we did a pretty good job with that, it has taken its toll as well (See: sickness, above).  I was talking to someone this past Wednesday night about something I had been doing this past Monday night, but I couldn't remember what it was.  I literally could not recall where I had been that night; I only knew that I had somewhere that I had to be and that I had been there.  Eventually, it came to me, but only as part of that swirl of wrestling, admissions, basketball, dances, special days and extra nights, meetings and planning sessions, speakers and special days.

Oh, yeah, and stuff that didn't happen.  Like snow, like ice, like tornadoes (thank God!).  We had an abortive afternoon where nothing happened, an abortive day off where nothing happened, and a very cautious school day where we expected to hear warnings and sirens, where we thought it would be too dangerous to go out to lunch.  Oh, how it must suck to forecast the weather in this city.  School administrators must hate you and even teachers and students don't feel much relief when their reprieves carry the guilt of being undeserved.

And the things that did--like the monsoon for three days that flooded my basement and gave my misery a specific smell that hit me as soon as I walked in the door at night until everything finally dried out.

The other things that didn't happen were the things that I avoided because I felt like I was doing too much work and trying not to get sicker.  That's where the month went--in an endless cycle of work, eat, and go to bed early, work, eat, go to be early.  That'll clip the edges off your calendar.

And so I didn't go to band practice, didn't got to a supper club, skipped a night out here, tried to put off a dinner there.  Work, eat, go to bed early.

Of course, you all know that I didn't blog much either, couldn't bring myself to do it, preferred to wallow under blankets with mindless movies on an Ipad.  Not even books, in a month that I'd planned to write about reading.  And didn't.

I play in a trivia league; we have had three terrible outings in a row and we crawl into the playoffs with little confidence.  When I watched sports, my teams lost.

Will the groundhog see his shadow tomorrow?  Who cares?  Certainly not me.  I've been seeing my own shadow for the past month.  You probably think that I'm moping.  Au contraire.  For about one second, I was shocked and saddened that January was over, but, as you can tell, there wasn't much to miss.

Bring on February.  Bring on Winter Break.  Bring on Valentine's Day.   Bring on Spring.  Bring on Spring Break.  Bring on Summer.