Monday, April 29, 2013

On The Road To Rabbits

Square 9 - Frightened Rabbit (mp3)

Unwritten Road Trip Rule #2: Never leave a bag full of empties dangling outside of the back passenger door.

Sure, this sounds like an easy thing to do, an easy rule to follow, but the fates are tricky, and they love to play pranks on middle-aged men who engage in young adult behavior.

I won’t say exactly who dangled the empties or exactly how it happened, but on a three-man road trip to Atlanta to see Frightened Rabbit in concert, one of the two men in the car not named Billy took a plastic non-biodegradable convenience store bag full of empty beer cans and tossed them onto a curb in Little Five Points, Atlanta.

Not-Billy then closed the door, and Billy, the responsible and mature driver, unwittingly pulled away and began to follow his smartphone’s amazing directions toward the concert venue. Several miles down the road at a stop light, a nice hipster man most likely from one of the Romance Language countries in Europe jogged down the sidewalk toward our car, waving at us.

Odd though it was, having a hipster moustachioed fella flagging me down, I rolled down the passenger window to see what he had to say. (I mostly did this because I figured if violence was his intent, he would attack my passenger friend first, leaving me time to drive away. And because hipsters aren’t particularly violent or scary.)

“Hi there!” I said, because I’d had two beers at Vortex Burger (best burgers in ATL) before we’d hopped back into the car for the concert. (This is a crucial fact to the gravitas of the story.)

“Excusa me,” the hipster foreign dude says. “I believa you almost losta this baaag.” And he’s pointing at Not-Billy in the backseat. Except he’s not pointing directly at my friend; he’s pointing more toward the back tire.

Not-Billy opens the door. And the bag of empties is sitting there. A sound not unlike a giant frog’s mating call emerges from Not-Billy as he pulls the bag hurriedly back into the vehicle. Apparently Not-Billy hadn’t tossed them confidently enough to the curb. Apparently he’d nudged the bag out rather than hurling it, so when closing the car door, it snagged the bag handle.

And we’re all laughing because we’ve had beer, and because we were mere minutes or miles from a real Dumb & Dumber moment where Billy gets pulled for a DUI for driving with a bag of empties dangling in the open air like the three stooges in the car had been Just Married.

So what I’m saying is that we’re laughing despite the terrifying gravity of What Could Have Been. Because it was pretty f#*king funny. Especially the guest appearance by Zach Galifianakis as The European Hipster.

I needed that moment of unbearable lightness as prelude to the Frightened Rabbit concert at The Masquerade. The concert itself was everything I’d hoped, and two close friends gave me the gift of their presence for the experience.

The “Frabbits,” tackle modern folk rock with a thick Scottish brogue and a sense of lost souls. The subject matter of their music is often akin to two children alone in the wilderness on a windy night with only a single oil lamp to protect and guide them: things aren’t hopeless, but God help everyone if that precious single trace of light were to die out.

Frightened Rabbit ain't for everyone, that’s for sure. But for me? Sometimes I feel like Scott Hutchison and his band mates are dark magicians who can sneak into my dreams. I think maybe they steal bits of my own soul for their music. Never in my life have I heard a band whose songs, one after the other, feel so utterly tuned in to the way I see life, myself, the world.

Some people might read this and, having heard a few Frabbit songs, think I’m a depressed person, but that’s not true. I just happen to believe that light doesn’t mean much without the darkness surrounding it. It’s seeing the darkness, feeling its tentacles around us, that creates such worshipful respect to the precious dwindling light in that oil lamp.

The Frabbits don’t take the light for granted. They celebrate it by keeping it flickering inside their music. It's one thing to be happy because all you see is sunshine and smiley faces. That's called ignorant bliss, and I envy those who find it and keep it. But I'd like to think there's a courage and a bravery in feeling the darkness, in being all too aware of the monsters and snares all around us, yet smiling in the face of it all, peering out into it with that one little lamp, trusting it won't go out, certain that it will help us get home safely.

Provided you don't have a can of empties tied to your leg.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Calypso In A Housedress

Calypso - Suzanne Vega (mp3)

The magic and misery of endurance, however, is not easily suited to modern music.

The trials and tribulations of a long-term committed relationship has been thoroughly covered in modern literature. No shortage of good books by dozens of contemporary authors can be rattled off that explore the challenge of living with and loving a single person for a lifetime. Lengthy relationships, with their long stretches stuffed with the uneventful passage of time, with their flashes of glory and ecstasy, their stabbing pains of betrayal and disappointment, is a topic better suited to the in-depth exploration of novels. Novels can pile up the many events and encounters necessary to tell such a nuanced tale.

Modern music has a mastery over certain topics, an ease at relaying the intensity of some key life moments. Across the spectrum of quality and genres, one can find artists and bands who have explored First Love, Unrequited Love, Broken Hearts, The Lost Self, Lost Friendships, and the Highs or Lows (sometimes both) of Drinking and Drugs.

Modern music -- its two or three verses, its repetitious chorus -- is a simple form for simple emotions, timeless events, universal moments.

Most marriages survive. Did you realize that? The “half of marriages fail” claim is a cultural myth, an urban legend, but you won’t find much in music that discourages that misconception, because breaking up may be hard to do, but it’s a lot easier to sing about.

Lori McKenna is the exception. She is the queen of 4-minute songs about a deep and muddy kind of human devotion. Fools just call it “love,” which is like calling the Minotaur’s labyrinth “a passageway.” What Lori writes about is the quilt of emotions knitted together over the course of a lifetime, threads of love and agony intertwined with those of ecstasy and elation, anger and hatred, restlessness and satisfaction. And she shrinks it all down into 4-minute sonic microfiche.

It’s natural to want to assume Lori’s songs are all autobiographical, because they’re so damn harsh and real, it’s tough to see how she could’ve scraped this DNA from someone else’s heart.

Her latest is Massachusetts, in which she masterfully chronicles the coal mine of long term relationships once again. Bookended by songs about a breakup (“Salt”) and her son’s graduation from high school (the tear-jerkin’ “Grown Up Now”), the middle of Massachusetts is full of her bread and butter.

“My Love Follows You Where You Go” speaks of just that kind of bulldogish devotion to another. “Susanna” laments the passing of a wife with the chorus intro, “Well you’ll never come back from a love like this.” After a brief break to lament the slow demise of The American Town (“Smaller and Smaller), we go fully into her bread and butter.

“Make Every Word Hurt” is the sound of commitment approaching a cliff’s edge. “How Romantic is That” offers the mirror counterpoint, reminding us normal folks of how little we really need from our spouses to feel loved, to be secure in a relationship. One of the albums best lines is the eyebrow-raising, “When you get home tonight, there’ll be someone else sleeping beside me.” The narrator is not singing of infidelity, but of a child who has crept into the bed. “Shouting” swims in the waters of marital discord, and “Better With Time” praises how much stronger we can be if we can survive the shouting. “Take Me With You When You Go” and “Love Can Put it Back Together” cover exactly the territory you’d think.

Her entire career is not about making mountains out of molehills; it's about painting molehills so damn beautiful and real that they compete with the mountains on their own account.

The crux of Massachusetts, and my favorite on the album, is “Shake,” in which Lori uses her whole bag of tricks in a single song. Her catchy chorus revels in parallels:
Time does not waste itself
A dream cannot wake itself
The truth cannot disgrace itself
An unwritten prayer cannot save a lost soul
Arms cannot embrace themselves
A heart cannot break itself
And I cannot shake myself of you
That final chorus line, and another uppercut to end the song, remind me of Margaret Atwood’s poem “You Fit Into Me”:
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye 
a fish hook
an open eye
Lori McKenna is Calypso in a housedress. Even as she sings and weaves these tapestries of domesticated complexity, I find myself wanting to stay on her island rather than go home.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Open (Semi-Anonymous) Letter to Sen. Corker (R-TN)

Dear Sen. Corker,

Unless you reconsider, your choice to stand in the way of reasonable gun reform will cost you many future votes, mine included. You’ll still win, because Tennessee is more predictable in its voting preferences than episodes of “Dora the Explorer,” but your future victories will come more from having divided rather than uniting the people of this state.

I have had the pleasure of meeting you on a number of occasions, including several times at Tremont Tavern and once with Leadership Chattanooga when you served as our mayor. Although my politics lean generally left, you have earned my vote in both elections through your approach and management of the office even though I have not always agreed with your policy stances. You have frequently been an example of attempting to bridge differences rather than resting on dogmatic haunches, but with the gun bill that died on the Senate floor last week, you chose hardline dogma for reasons I cannot fathom.

This decision ought to cost you. I’d like to think you are ashamed, but I haven’t met many politicians who know such a feeling until they get caught in scandals.

Since you’re safe in D.C. behind security guards and metal detectors, protected from the consequences of your own decisions, I can only pray my loved ones do not pay the price for your decision.

Did the writers of our Second Amendment draw a magic line of danger between guns and bombs or tanks, between semi-automatic muskets and automatic ones? The line we have drawn between legal and illegal in the Second Amendment, as we’ve translated it over time and through the many unforeseen evolutions of martial technology, feels at best arbitrary and at worst drawn almost completely by a single self-serving organization known as the NRA.

We have laws requiring seat belts. We have laws regulating the sale of Sudafed. From booster seats to helmets, from DUI to mandatory reporters, we have no shortage of laws restricting our freedom in the name of safety and protection of ourselves and others. Yet, when it comes to two simple gun control measures that have the support of a mind-boggling percentage of Americans -- universal background checks and decreased/limited magazine capacity -- you have apparently elected to side with extremists better able to support your campaigns than with the interests of protecting innocent lives.

Are you acting out of self-preservation, or do you sincerely believe that universal background checks are more of a threat to our collective liberty than Sudafed and seat belts? While the Bill of Rights ignores pharmaceuticals and automobiles, it also fails to offer details on shrapnel, “cop-killer” bullets, high-capacity magazines or the government’s right to regulate and track the sale and transfer of deadly weapons.

In Boston, two young men terrorized a city with two bombs that killed three and injured almost 200. Do you realize -- do you appreciate -- that had those two men been armed with high-capacity semi-automatic weapons rather than pressure cookers, the death toll would have been many times higher? The bombs might have injured more people, but the bullets would have killed.

In some form, I support the Second Amendment. However, I own no firearms, because I would like to believe, perhaps naively, that my safety and the security of my family should not require my owning one. The cost of my belief: every day feels like a roulette wheel where I might one day be forced to wonder whether firearms in my home might have protected us or ended an innocent life unnecessarily. Did the writers of our Second Amendment intend to make those of us who choose not to arm ourselves feel weak, or inferior, or endangered?

The Right seems so confident in what our Founding Fathers believed, you’d think the ghosts of these men had all come over for a covered dish lunch after church last month. Neither you nor anyone on the Right knew our Founding Fathers any better or more personally than Lib’ruls. You cannot hide behind dead men when blocking bills about weapons and weaponry that were never dreamt of in their philosophy.

Who are you protecting? Are you concerned for those, like myself and like children and teens throughout this country, who choose not to (or cannot legally or financially) arm ourselves or our homes? Is your only answer that we should all be obligated to bear arms, that this “right” is actually a hidden requirement of our American citizenship?

This is the society the Right romanticizes. Everyone armed. Everyone confident and ready to defend at a moment’s provocation. Everyone keeping to their own. Everyone’s trust guarded -- or endangered -- by the knowledge of that deadly weapon as a “last resort.” Everyone earning respect via the end of a muzzle rather than with their heads and their hearts.

Registered Voter

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers

Thoughts on a fucked-up week:

People don't think that people like me, ultra-liberal and questioning and doubting and often cynical, care about this country, but we end up being the sensitive ones who hang on every twist and turn of a terrorist event like the one in Boston, not because we're screaming for vengeance, but because we are the ones who feel the psychic damage from this kind of complex pain.  Not the only ones.  I know that.  But the ones who aren't out in the streets waving flags because all of our trauma is internalized.

And so, at this house today, we are depressed.  There might be a kind of relief, a sense of closure, but neither of those feelings can mitigate the overwhelming sense of sadness and loss.  We can't shake the last week, no matter how we try.

How could you not when four people are dead, a beautiful boy with an ice cream and young women and a young man who wanted nothing more than to be a police officer, when hundreds are injured, when a sacred event now will always have this history, when some combination of influences has turned a promising 19-year-old boy into a cold-blooded killer?

The 26-year-old I don't feel much for, really.  He was old enough to know.  But a 19-year-old boy, for someone who teaches boys ages 17-19, is tragic.  I'm sorry if that doesn't sit well with the out-for-blood crowd, and I don't mean to minimize his crimes or to suggest any lessening of his punishment.  I only know, from 30 years of being around boys that age on an almost daily basis, that they are often unformed things, human beings who don't know what they are, creatures whose brains aren't finished forming, children who can be easily, easily led.  They can do the stupidest things and they are to be held accountable for those things, but that does not make this any less tragic.

There's something of the TV show 24 about the last week--the randomness, the gun violence in the streets, the use of an extensive camera system, the race against the clock, .  It will be difficult, probably impossible, for me to watch that show again.  It has become prescient in ways that I never wanted it to be.  Particularly in its portrayal of Muslim sleeper cells.

Though, even more, now, there is something of the 1950's Communist-fearing feature, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.  For now, with both citizen paranoia and government urging, we are going to become obsessed with the notion that the Muslim-next-door is actually a terrorist waiting for the right moment to activate, a concept that 24 also used to great effect.

I wish, first of all, that Republicans wouldn't already be trying to politicize the situation by alluding to intelligence failures that they can lay at Obama's feet, but, beyond that, and really more importantly, I wish that they hadn't declared a need for Muslim surveillance, for that will feed the notion of "citizen observer" that Billy wrote about in his last post to the extreme.  We may have benefited from amateur photographs and videos, but we do not need amateur detectives trying to root out the citizen terrorists that may or may not be among us.  George Zimmerman will seem like a neophyte.

We're going to have to retool our popular culture.  There is no longer anything intriguing, for example, about The Americans, that kind-of-engaging imagining of Soviet agents posing as Americans on FX.  Too soon, too soon.  Even if they were before Boston.  I predict the show's doom imminently.

As for me, readers of this blog know that I have been indulging an increasing fascination with canning and preserving over the past few years.  To the extent that last year I bought a pressure cooker as a way of expanding my repertoire (some foods are only safely canned under extreme pressure).  As the pressure cooker sits in this room while I write, it looks like nothing more than a bomb.  I have had that feeling dozens of times this weekend, like every time that I see it.  I will not be expanding my repertoire.  I will not be pressure cooking.  It has become something other than what it was.  It will leave this house.

I was thinking yesterday about the Dropkick Murphys' song "Shipping Up To Boston" yesterday.  Will they play it again?  Will I hear it the same way again?  It used to be weirdly fun to shout out "I lost my leg" while getting pumped up by that song.  Now it doesn't.  Its future as a jacked-up drinking song on a jukebox seems in jeopardy.

People like to think that an event up in the Northeast has no impact on those of us who live in the Southeast. They could not be more wrong.  It isn't, as some media critics have suggested, that television coverage has given the terrorists the platform that they were hoping for.  That's a short-lived pleasure at best.  And it isn't that what happened in Boston has created any particular fear in those of us who live at some distance.  We change not even one behavior out of a thought of safety.  But did it get in our heads?  Absolutely.  Did it take some simple American pleasures away from us?  Most certainly.

And are we who we were before all of this happened?  I say absolutely not.  Despite all of the talk about the character of the city of Boston, the American resolve, and all of that, we find ourselves profoundly changed.  For me, at least, that is a given.  We gained back some innocence during all of the years since 9/11; we gave some things away.  The events in Boston can't help but force us to rethink our society and its boundaries once again.  Now we have to find out if we like who we are, if the Americans who inhabit us going forward are worthy of the accolades we heap on ourselves in times of crisis.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Big Brother Is Us

When No One's Watching - Craig Finn (mp3)

One of the many picture breakdowns posted
and discussed on 4chan and Reddit.
The bombing of the Boston Marathon is the first American tragedy filmed by a million cell phones and iPads, dozens of security cameras, and untold numbers of videographers and photojournalists. It is, in ways never before seen, a Prime Time Disaster.

In the minutes before, during and after the two explosions that rocked a city and sent a country into 9/11 Flashback Mode, nothing escaped the eyes of untold dozens, maybe hundreds, of cameras.

The FBI and police requested that citizens send them their photos and videos, and people quickly and happily obliged, as we are (almost) all on the same page in wanting to find the fucker(s) who did this.

But what wasn’t quite expected was that the investigation itself would be crowdsourced. Not officially. Not legitimately or with approval. But just because we now can, because we now have that power.

Big Brother isn’t the government. Big Brother isn’t completely, contrary to Bob’s recent observations, a parental unit. Big Brother is us. All of us. And like most things, there’s some bad and some good in it.

Some sites and writers are intrigued by this empowerment, while others are horrified. Writes Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic:
“But they are not real cops. They are well-meaning people who have not considered the moral weight of what they're doing.* This is vigilantism, and it's only the illusion that what we do online is not as significant as what we do offline that allows this to go on.This is not how civil society works. There is a reason that police have procedures around investigations and evidence. Due process is important.”
While Madrigal’s points -- much like Bob’s points about parental (over)hovering -- should be considered and respected, they are also misguided.

Are 4chan and Reddit's photo crowdsourced
photo investigators a new CyberPosse?
Or something far more useful and far less dangerous?
Is it “vigilantism” that a Masters viewer called an official to rat out Tiger Woods’ illegal ball drop (no pun intended), costing the Vegas favorite a 2-stroke penalty? Are Amber Alerts encouraging vigilantism when our phones buzz us to be on the lookout for a certain make or model of car, or a vague description of adults and children?

While I have respect for police and federal investigators, their training and commitment to duty while earning jack shit for a salary, they’re not superpowered Will Grahams or Sherlocks capable of deducing all crimes in an hour, commercials included. Anyone who sat through “The Central Park Five” this week would know that cops are neither perfect at solving crimes or above cheating to save face.

In fact, if there’s a race between 10 police detectives and 1,000 nerds on the Internet, and the 1,000 nerds are given just 70% of the information those dicks have, I’m putting my money on the nerds.

Although the book WORM involves people a bit more sophisticated in their expertise than your garden-variety Internet nerd, the point gets across that many of the world’s greatest experts in certain fields are most decidedly not government employees. Further, the notion of crowdsourcing is consistently proving to have power in a wide array of fields, from uncovering evidence of rape in small towns to mapping brainwave paths for MIT.

We’re becoming an entire population of Internet narcs, maids, and Nancy Drews. The world is becoming one super-sized gratis Internet intern factory. And mostly it’s pretty cool.

The potential good of it almost makes up for all the stupid Nigerian email scams. But if Anonymous really wants to impress me, they’ll shut those freaking mofos down next... They’d be true immortal heroes if they could put a few bananas up that tailpipe!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Big Mother (and Father) Is Watching

Disclaimer:  my children are in college and grad school and are beyond the social media situations that apparently plague today's parents of middle and high school aged children.  Which, of course, doesn't keep me from challenging those parents.

In the Stephen Spielberg movie, Minority Report, the basic conceit, as you will recall, was that police in that modernistic society could find out about a crime before the perpetrator actually committed it and could then stop the crime.

Parents in our modern society may have done those "intent police" one better--they are looking for crimes where there may be no crimes, no thought of crimes.  They are policing their own families, particularly their own children.

The latest craze in parenting is to monitor the telephones and iPads of their impressionable children, demanding to know the passwords of accounts on those devices so that they may see what their children may be up to and to prevent them from getting into problematic situations.  Or to punish them if they have?  I assume that this runs the gamut for the daily check-up to the occasional spot check.  And I get it.  There is no doubt that social media is fraught with peril, perhaps with serious consequences.  And today's parents, like the police in Minority Report, want to nip those potential situations in the bud.  They also come from a perspective where their children's time has been managed by them or by someone else since pre-K or before, so the idea of being a part of every aspect and every nook and cranny of their children's lives is standard practice.

You need to know where I'm coming from.  I'm opposed to the increasing vigilance in our society, the cameras on our streets and the drones in our skies.  I'm opposed to corporations and organizations monitoring their employees' computer in the name of productivity. I'm opposed to students in schools having to pass a drug test before they can qualify for leadership positions.  And now, to see parents borrow from a governmental playbook is something I find quite depressing, no matter how scary the world may be out there.

The prevailing mindset is one of fear.  I can't count how many times I have heard teachers and parents express the technological fear that "I don't know what they're doing on there" in reference to children on work stations, laptops, iPads, smart phones in the back of the classroom or in a part of the house where an adult cannot monitor.  "They can say that they're doing their homework, but they could be doing anything," says the conventional wisdom.  And it is correct, they could be doing anything.  Just like any school child in the history of education who heads to his or her room after supper and closes the door.

The fear, of course, focuses on all of the potential connections to the outside world that a child can reach on an iPad or a phone--Facebook, Twitter, Instragram, Snapchat, and a plethora of others just coming to the forefront.  All are opportunities for children to go too far, in every possible way that that can mean.

When I was in high school, functioning as a sometimes dating, sometimes drinking, sometimes staying out too late, sometimes hanging out with less-than-savory friends, sometimes being extremely stupid in ways that could have life or legal implications, straight-A student, I talked on the telephone most nights, often for hours or more at a time.  It's hard to process those times--one phone number for, in my case, a family of four, and maybe two phones in the entire house as the only satellites to reach anyone who lived at my address.  If someone needed the phone, my mother or father or brother would get on the phone and ask if I could get off.  My parents, who were not particularly permissive, never got on to find out who I was talking to or to suggest that I needed to get off and get busy on my homework.

They trusted me.  When I violated that trust, which I did on one occasion that they knew about, they had to recalibrate and so did I.  I thought that's what families did.  That's what I did with my own.

You, as a modern reader, may be tempted to suggest that those were simpler, safer times, that childhood of mine.  I can't agree.  Drug use was far more prevalent.  Cars were not as safe.  Civil unrest was not unheard of.  Neither were racial confrontations.  The latter two didn't affect us in the suburbs much, but what did affect us, as you ponder the previous paragraph, was the parental inability to know what we, as children, were doing.  If your child didn't call you to tell you about a problem, a change of plans, a dangerous situation, a risk, a heartbreak, a new acquaintance, you couldn't possibly know.

If you can know, should you know?  Should you invade every situation on the off chance that somewhere there is an enemy?  I suppose that is the heart of the matter.  Today's parents have trackers on their children's phones because they can and because that is probably smart.  But it also speaks to a mindset, doesn't it?

There are three things I know to be true, whether they are or not:

1.  Children develop private lives.  They begin to develop them in middle school.  And they need to be allowed to develop them.  It is okay if they choose a friend rather than a parent as a confidant or if they try to figure out a difficult situation by themselves, even if their choices result in failure.  Easier said than done perhaps.
2.  Parents are very good at making other parents feel inadequate.  When word gets out, as I'm sure it does, that other parents are taking Draconian measures to keep track of their children's comings and goings in cyberspace, it is difficult, as a parent, not to endorse and follow those practices.  But be aware that there is a price.  If your child is sullen or resentful, you may have added a reason why that is so beyond the typical teenage outlook.
3. Parents of different generations may trade one worry for another, but the amount of worrying that they do is likely the same (barring wartime or catastrophe, of course).  Which is my way of saying that the social media situation is a threat for sure, but I'm not sure that it is a threat that requires that the trust relationship between parents and children be undermined so overtly to the extent that the communications that result from #1 are no longer private.  By the time a child hits the age of 12 or 14 or whatever is relevant to this conversation, a parent should know what level of trust is appropriate and should not violate that.  Which is the same thing that has been true for centuries of parenting, isn't it?

Admittedly, once again, this is an issue I don't have to deal with.  I know that for these parents, something feels very different.  I do remember, however, the ten straight years when one of both children entered the home each night with both a backpack and a laptop, both loaded with the potential of the entire outside world, and not feeling the need to look into either one of them.  Maybe I should have.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Empty Sandals

Why - Rascal Flatts (YouTube)

My daughters wanted his sandals.

The three of us stood in the long line that snaked out of the visitation room and down the hallway of the funeral home. After half an hour, we had finally made our way into the room but still had several dozen folks in front of us, patiently waiting to offer their respects to the family.

The memorabilia and pictures in the room seemed organized by category, as if his life were a series of chapters and segments, separate from one another. Perhaps they were. Around one table were pictures and keepsakes from his two years at UTK. A picture of him outside his fraternity house. A pair of cowboy boots. A fifth of Jack Daniels with some kind of scarf draped around it. Another table flashed back on his home life. A Christmas picture of him and his sister at the tree. Trinkets and toys from his childhood and youth.

But the table the girls stared at reflected his years as a lifeguard at their pool. They had seen him almost every day of every summer for the past four years. Every day, he wore the same pair of sandals. The sandals were infamous at the pool, because he would just leave them wherever he’d been sitting or standing when his time to hop back on the chair arrived. It drove my wife, who runs most everything around there, nuts, but the kids loved it.

No, the kids didn’t love it. They didn’t love the sandals. They loved him.

Nothing can or should prepare a parent for the day when their children first encounter suicide in a real way, when they witness the conclusion of a real and meaningful person in their lives.

My eldest daughter, approaching 13, you could practically see her brain trying to grasp the event intellectually. His suicide didn’t make sense, because she knew him, because he seemed happy all the time when he was at the pool, because his life was still in the beginning stages, and his body was healthy, because she saw in him the promise of growing up, and what could be better than that?

My second girl is 15 months younger but more empathetic, more emotionally raw. She cried all the way home when she found out, and then she went into her room and cried more in her room. “Why didn’t anyone help him?” was her concern. She lamented that she should have found more ways to make him feel important. “Did he know what we thought of him?” she asked.

The girls couldn’t decide whether to attend his funeral. They half-wanted to, but they were scared, and their fear was why I knew they needed to go.

We cannot shield our children from Death. We cannot protect them from her icy hot fingers. Death will walk amongst them, as it has and does amongst adults, and we cannot pretend her away. It seemed wrong to let their understandable fear be the only thing they remembered of this lost but beloved young man. His death was far more complicated than a single emotion or a single moment of overwhelming despair, and his life meant something to them, to so many others.

When we walked in and saw the line, I knew it was the right decision. When the funeral home chapel overflowed and we were placed standing in the back of a second side room, it felt right.

On the way home, and several times over the next week, the girls asked questions. Many were the kinds of questions you don’t want them to ask... but they do, you see. They’re asking those questions whether they ask YOU or whether they ask someone else or, worst of all, whether they just don’t ask them to anyone.

“Despair” is the absence of hope. I can’t help but wonder if despair begins with someone drowning under the weight of questions left unasked, with more water from misguided or cruel hope-starving answers rising above them until they can’t breathe or think clearly. The panic of drowning in one’s own despair must truly be horrifying, worse than water, even.

That’s what I wanted them knowing. We are loved by more people than we can know, by a higher power beyond our comprehension, by the ones closest to us who sometimes fail to express it sufficiently, or clearly.

In life and after we’re gone, no matter how our time comes to an end or what we do while we’re here, we are loved.

You are loved. No matter what.

"Why?" by Rascal Flatts was played at the beginning of the service as the casket was rolled into the room.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Accidental TouRacist

Different Forces - AM & Shawn Lee (mp3)

Let’s just get this out of the way: The new Brad Paisley song sucks, sonically speaking. It’s forgettable and overlong and combines a canned vanilla (not racist) country sound with LL Cool J in a mash-up that would make Girl Talk vomit like an Exorcist baby.*

* -- NOTE: LL Cool J, for those of you under 30, was a rapper before he was an actor. For those of you under 30, “rap” is what guys used to do to sampled music and is as mostly dead a genre as the Dread Pirate Roberts on Miracle Max’s operating table. 

Brad Paisley was apparently so bored with writing vanilla (not racist) country music, so bored with raking in millions of dollars for forgettable music, that he decided to make a theme song for the movie “Higher Learning” as written by Lynyrd Skynyrd. And he called this song “Accidental Racist.”

Ursula the octopussy sorceress could not have more successfully transformed Paisley from a multiplatinum country star into an entire school of goldfish in a small wooden cask than the man did to himself. And the Internet masses and trolls love nothing more than shooting fish in a barrel. Paisley offered himself up as the Ultimate Easy Target, and everyone can feel better about ourselves by mocking that one guy.

If you think we as a culture will ever move beyond bullying, just read the comments section of Ta-Nahisi Coates’ post in The Atlantic blasting the song. Many of the comments make good points, but the points are often scathing, and they reek of a level of superiority and self-righteousness that begs me to wonder what these people’s daily lives might look like under an ethical microscope.

Bullying is in our nature, and we justify it by saying Paisley asked for it, that he’s rich and successful, therefore it’s not bullying. Let’s go beat Paisley over the head for being an idiot on our way to protesting the inhumane treatment of stray animals. ("People can be sooooo cruel to dogs!")

If the Road to Hell is indeed paved with good intentions, Paisley’s thrust him in the fast lane in a Ferrari. I remember feeling similarly let down by Spike Lee's "Bamboozled," a film that wanted so desperately to Mean Something but got stuck in a muck almost from the opening credits and only made sense in its mashup of other scenes from other movies near the end. Paisley's misstep is thankfully shorter and more formulaic, but it feels more clueless, and hardly apologetic. ("If I'm racist, it's accidental. Oops sorry! So... what's for lunch?")

In the firelight of the Internet Mob, wild-eyed and marching to the jailhouse to hang poor Brad as the townsfolk cringed and cowered in their storefronts, peeking out of the corners of their windows, up stepped Eric Deggans, who did his best Wyatt Earp impersonation to quell the crowd.

Deggans is a kickass columnist and prolific writer whose book “Race Baiter” attempts to address problems with how the mass news media mis-handle issues of race. He’s as capable of writing an authoritative review of “The Voice” or “The Walking Dead” as he is addressing issues of race or class.

Deggans’ column was titled, “Why we shouldn’t give Brad Paisley too much grief over the misguided song ‘Accidental Racist.’” He then proceeds to give the man and the song grief... but not too much grief. Just enough to make the point -- a point all of us love making -- that the song kinda sucks, and the lyrics kinda suck.

But Deggans recognizes the intentions, and he is more aware than most Internettzi that millions of white people will hear this song and be moved by it's "honesty" and identify with the "see? I'm not racist either! (Except maybe accidentally!)" message. More importantly, he recognizes that many of us in this country feel incapable of uttering a word about race without someone stepping up to remind us how terribly we said it, how ignorant, how mistaken or inaccurate, how racist we are.

I love and devotedly read both Coates’ and Deggans’ columns regularly. They’re both gifted and compelling writers. But it seems to me that where race issues are concerned, Deggans works harder at building something, at patiently bridging understanding, while Coates is more interested in being angry and, if necessary, divisive. Think Professor X and Magneto (who were in turn inspired by MLK and Malcolm X). In this case, when the mob is easy to rouse and the target has gills and is stuck in a small enclosed space, Deggans is a far more valuable and appreciated voice.

Will Paisley's song help start A Real Conversation About Race and Racism? I hope so, but I doubt it. If Invisible Man and Do the Right Thing can't jump us over that hurdle, this crappy little ditty doesn't stand much chance.

Another fascinating and nuanced look into "the history of white southern musical identity" is on NPR.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Evil Of Having An Evil Whose Name Cannot Be Spoken (except by a select few)

There is no doubt that it is an abhorent word.  Whether loaded with historical context or tossed out in a Quentin Tarantino movie or shouted in a rap song or still used with absolute ignorance by some racist asshole looking for a convenient, angry label, the word makes most of us cringe.

My own stance, though, remains in a constant state of flux--not about the repulsiveness of the word, about its usage.  When I was a young teacher in the 80's, it seemed okay and was a pretty standard practice for us to read it aloud if we were studying The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or some other work where we understood that the word was providing authenticity to the literature of a time period, or where we were so obsessed at demonstrating the moral change in Huck who "humble[d] himself to a nigger" to a bunch of Southern boys who, back then, weren't so sure they themselves were willing to do such a thing.

At the same time, it made me wonder about Twain, and it confirmed something about Hemingway when his objective, third-person narrator in "The Battler" used the word.  It seemed valuable when teaching Faulkner to be able to point out how a supposedly-ignorant black man could get the better of the white folks he worked for in The Reivers or how Joe Christmas, a tortured black man in Light In August, was actually a Christ figure.  Those were the 80's.

Sometime after that, over the next 10 years, using the word in a literary discussion moved from voluntary to a flat-out "No."  We did not say the word.  The "N-word" was born.  And it seemed to make sense.  And I was even more pleased that outside of class, students had figured it out and seemed to have stopped using the word altogther and, therefore (if this makes sense), not even seeing other people in those terms.

Today, I'm conflicted again.  The word itself is no less despicable, but the landscape is, arguably, more peppered with mines that ever.  My simple stance:  the word should not ever be used.  The more complex issue:  the word should not ever be used.  The reason that the latter statement is more complex is because the word is used.  Within some sub-groups of black culture, the word is perfectly acceptable, but if and only if, it is being said by one black person to another black person (probably male).

Let's take a little detour.  A bunch of women who work in an office together and are very close and feel free to say whatever they want to to each other take to calling each other "cunts."  As in, "Hey, cunt, when are you gonna bring me that report you were supposed to have finished yesterday?"  It is understood that all of these women are comfortable with the shared use of that term, however derisive, of affection.  

But enter male boss who overhears the daily back and forth and who, in the spirit of the moment (or not, maybe just out of misogynistic spite), says, "You cunts need to get back to work."  Said in jest, said in seriousness.  Who knows?  It doesn't matter, because he has crossed a line that he cannot retreat from.  He is going to be accused of anything from sexual harrasment to creating a hostile work environment.  He is probably going to lose his job.  And should.  Most of us don't call women "cunts," and certainly not in a work environment.  It is a combative, nasty word.  And the fact that the women use it in no way justifies the man using it.  Still.

Back to the problem at hand.  The N-word functions under two simultaneous dictums: 1) the word is foul and belittling and no one should say it and 2) the right people can say it to the right people in the right way at the right time.

Uh-uh.  I just don't see it working that way.  First, the nuances of that, and I'm good at nuance and not headed for any kind of personal issue here, are too complex for our culture.  Not every one of our citizens has the capability to understand "I can say it, but you can't."  If the word is bad, so bad that it is never uttered in polite complany or even, hopefully, these days in jest, then it is a word that needs to be shut down altogether with no nuance for its use at all.  It needs to be smallpox, it needs to be AIDS, it needs to be eradicated.  Completely and permanently.

Second, add to that the fact that if the wrong person says the word to the wrong person, the situation accelerates from 0 to 60 in about 1 second.  Of course, I'm right back to where no person should say it, but if he does, he then enters a world where violence is on the table and rationality is off of it.  The word is such that no matter what happened before, no matter what might be said to ameliorate the situation after, the line has been crossed.  Many and most reactions to the saying of the word will likely be justified, even if the person reacting to hearing it just said it himself.    

While I believe that the word should no longer exist, I also believe that no word should have that much power.  No word should be allowed to have that power.  Even though we can be the grossest of creatures with the basest of desires and actions, a mere word should not be able to send us into a blind rage and our own actions that we can't retreat from.

That's why I don't even want the word in play.  That's why my stance remains in a constant state of flux.  I don't go much for evils that may not be spoken.  I think evils should be named.  I fear that kind of banishment gives people curiosity, makes them want to try it out, gives the word itself more power than it had when it was casually spoken.  Or does it?  It's hard to say.  

But if using a word becomes a kind of game where only a relative few can join in and play, I'm pretty sure that others on the outside will be looking for justifications to crash the party.   That's why, despite my best intentions and my self-proclaimed ability to handle nuance, I remain confused.  Because the word can't just be disappeared in any realistic way, and it seems we don't have a Plan B.  

"You can say it but I can't?"  Deal, but not entirely.  Please understand that I don't tend to say it and I don't expect to think it and I don't want to navigate my life these days in terms of race.  In some ways, we've come too far.  But when you say it, it sure does undermine how bad it really is, doesn't it?  I don't want you to say it either, and I don't see how it empowers you or helps the situation if you do.  That's the only way it goes away.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Wonders of the Invisible World

This morning, I picked up trash.  Not major trash, not like hauling out plastic bag after plastic bag of the leftovers of a workweek or any thing like that.  Not sludge or slime or any kind of putrification.  Just ordinary, everyday trash.  The kind that you don't see.  The kind that I don't see.

A couple of times each year, I take a group of boys looking to work off detentions downtown to help out with a citywide beautification project.  It isn't always difficult work.  It usually ends up being a pretty good deal for the boys--they get a t-shirt, a water bottle, some other shwag, maybe some breakfast or a drink, and fewer hours than whatever their detention was, all in exchange for a little community service.  So this isn't about some grand sacrifice on their part or mine.  It's just about the stuff that is on the ground and that, briefly, isn't there right now.

When you spend your morning with a pair of plastic gloves, a plastic trash bag, and an area that you are supposed to improve, you can't help but wandering off on your own, doing your own trash thing and trying to make the experience as private and as relaxed as possible.  You want to work at your own pace.  You don't want someone else looking over your shoulder or telling you what to do.  And you certainly don't want to share the hate that you feel.

Boys are different.  Boys are competitive.  They are all about who can fill up the bag with the most trash.  They accept the trash that has become part of an American city of any size as a matter of fact.  Boys don't hate.

But I do.  I hate the personal and the abstract, the specific item and the concept behind it, the things that I reach for and the ones that I figure aren't worth it.  As part of a citywide clean-up program, I got praise from strangers, thanks for the organizers, tacit approval from other people at the school where I work for involving boys in something meaningful on the weekend.  But no one addresses the reality of the event--that we live in a country where people throw stuff out of their car windows when they are finished, that people don't really care whether a cigarette butt biodegrades or not, that, on some level, it's okay to toss what we don't want for someone else to pick up.  Or not.

I've done my share.  I'm not claiming the high ground here.

But most days, none of us notice any of the things that I picked up today.  If we lived in Canada, we might, but not here.  Even one of the boys I had with me, no idea where he's from, remarked, "This is a clean city." Of course, he said that after we collected 7 decently-filled trash bags of stuff and handed them off to the organizers of the event.  All things are relative, I know.

You probably think I hate people.  Nah, not in this case.  People are people.  They are going to do, most of them, what is presented to them, what is the path of least resistance.  So I'll grant them a pass in this case, noting that if I understand this trait, so do the giant corporations that run our lives.

And so,

I hate cellophane.
I hate styrofoam.
I hate filters on cigarettes.
I hate to-go boxes from restaurants.
I hate lids that go on drinks.
I hate plastic in most any form that you can imagine.

The insidiousness of these items is that if they can get a little bit dirty, if they can get inside a bush or shrub, if they are just too small to register, if they go over the side of a highway or an interstate into a poor area, then they are accepted and no one really cares that they are accepted.  I hate that somewhere someone probably has a job determining what is an acceptable amount of trash with a particular company's name on it.  I hate that if I were that corporation, I probably wouldn't know or think of how much non-recycled trash I had generated.

We accept the insects that get inside our homes and businesses that we can't stop.  But those are the natural invaders that we must accept, regardless of how much we try to sanitize our modern world. Isn't it funny, though, that as much as we try to keep nature out of our lives--insects, viruses, allergens, heat or cold, epidemics and invisible carcinogens--we pay so little attention to the man-made intrusions to our controlled, urban landscapes?  Note that.  It doesn't make much sense.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The False Equivalency

Among the many trends ruining our country, the increasing reliance on "false equivalency" must certainly sit near the top of the list.  You know what this is, even if you don't know my terminology.  It's when, in an effort to be fair or in order to minimize bad behavior, we accept the concept that both sides of an issue are guilty of the same thing, even though they rarely are.

There is no doubt that we are a divided nation.  I don't contest that.  What I contest is that we have a broken government, broken system, broken society because both sides are doing the same thing.

But one lie is not the same as twenty lies.  (Well, okay, maybe in Hell.)
One side passing a bill is not the same as the other side spending huge amounts of their legislative capital trying to abolish the bill that passed, putting the abolishment bill to a vote dozens and dozens of times.
Both sides are not being equally obstructionist when two leaders come to an agreement, which one side's underlings talk him out of once he leaves the bargaining table.
A lobbyist who does not like global warming but has no scientific background is not that same as a scientist who studies global warming.
The managers of two political campaigns who both think their candidate won the debate are not engaging in the same "spin."  One of their candidates actually won.
MSNBC is not the equivalent of FOX News.  Sorry, it just isn't.  One pretends to be news; one doesn't.
The tragedy of the rapist is not as tragic as the tragedy of the raped.
As weapons, guns and cars are not equally dangerous.
Bush's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is not the same as Obama's.  One had questionable motives for getting in; one has struggled with a timetable for getting out.
Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken were never mirror opposites; Rachel Maddow is not the liberal Sean Hannity, even as she steals his audience.

Yes, power corrupts, but are all corrupted equally?  Despite the axioms to the contrary, the answer has to be no.

I turned off CNN in the final weeks of the presidential election.  "Because it was too impartial?" asked my brother, who has tired of my liberal tendencies.  No, because it became obsessed with false equivalencies.  In the interest of presenting both sides of the issues, CNN, like so many other news outlets, would do whatever it could to offer equal time, even if that time was nothing about the issues but just a chance for an opposing party to spew scattershot vitriol.  Even the polling seemed designed to make the two candidates seem like they were neck-and-neck and that the whole thing was going to/needed to come down to the wire.

I remember back in the 80's when I first started teaching and my Southern students hadn't figured out that n----r was not an acceptable term.  I would call them on it.  "Well, they call us 'honkies," a student would say, having been coached by a parent or a society.  When Spike Lee's movie about Malcolm X came out, a series of t-shirt showed up around here with Confederate flags on the front of them and a slogan on the back that read something like "You wear your 'X' and I'll wear mine."  Sorry, folks, just not the same.

With the lessons of Easter not completely faded yet, is it worth it to remind ourselves that though we are all flawed, perhaps fallen, creatures, that we still get to work out our place on the continuum of sin, that some of us only dip our toes in the pool of evil, that some of us go all Greg Louganis Olympic-live dive into that same water?  That, fire and brimstone and Jonathan Edwards aside, those are not the same thing?  And that's not to get us out of any detentions or other punishments, but only to remind us that lumping all of us into one big pile does no one any good (or at least does no one with any shred of goodness any good), not when one at least hopes to do better and the other doesn't give a shit, when one ponders the complicated problem of the poor and the other kowtows to the rich, when one sees the problem as something we all have to solve together while the other indulges in self-interest?

The problem with false equivalency is that it lets every single one of us off the hook.  It's like that frustrated point that any of us reach at some point during a political discussion when we conclude that "the whole government is corrupt."  And we nod our heads collectively, happy to reach that common ground. 

Well, actually, no, it isn't all corrupt.  At least not in that absolute way.  There are different visions, different motives, different constituencies, different motivations, different perspectives.  There are politicians and policy wonks and, yes, even lobbyists, at differing stages in their careers where they have different levels of idealism.  If we let ourselves believe that all around us functions with the same base cynicism, we lose everything.

Monday, April 1, 2013

One In Ten And Rising

Born to Win Part One - Hurray for the Riff Raff (mp3)

“Those are astronomical numbers. I’m floored.” -- Dr. William Graf, pediatric neurologist and professor at Yale School of Medicine

The latest statistics on ADHD in America are out, and they should leave you floored. One in five boys aged 14-17 are diagnosed. Fifteen percent of all boys are being diagnosed, and 11% of all U.S. children.

Although estimates of actual occurrance of ADHD in children have run in the 3-7% range, we’re easily doubling that number, and the American Psychiatric Association is on the verge of loosening its definition to allow, potentially, even more diagnoses to be made, even more prescriptions to be written.

Here’s perhaps my favorite quote from the article:
“There’s no way that one in five high-school boys has A.D.H.D.,” said James Swanson, a professor of psychiatry at Florida International University and one of the primary A.D.H.D. researchers in the last 20 years.
If one is to believe in ADHD at all -- and I do -- then at least a third of all kids being diagnosed actually do suffer from this disorder. Perhaps as many as half. I have friends and relatives aplenty whose children (almost all of them boys) have been diagnosed with ADHD. For some, medication has helped tremendously. For others, it’s been a washout. For almost all of them, it has been an agonizing process for the parents, wrestling with complicated issues of guilt and uncertainty.

None of the parents I know personally sought out an ADHD diagnosis without being egged on by friends, relatives and often teachers, and none of them did it specifically to improve test scores or academic performance. I do not mock their struggle or their frustrations with raising their children. Yet, to riff Garrison Keillor, if half are accurately diagnosed, another half are being sucked into the void for the sake of expediency, laziness or profit.

We’re talking about a diagnosis that spurs $9 BILLION a year in stimulant sales, a profit that has more than doubled in five years. When one reads that the APA is about to open the floodgates even wider, thus allowing that amount to go up several more billion in the coming years, we should be suspicious. The Spidey-Sense should tingle.

While Scientology goes too far in excoriating the psychiatric industry for its “crimes against humanity,” it is also unquestionably true that Modern America has become far too trusting of prescription medications to cure everything that ails us. One in three of us take a scrip. More than 1 in 10 Americans take three or more prescription drugs regularly. I couldn’t find an estimate for the number of people who encounter unexpected but serious medical problems because of a “bad reaction” between medications they’re prescribed.

Psychology, while flawed, has tremendous power for doing wonders. Mental disorders are not something invented by Glaxo. But in fields like medicine and science, there is no pendulum swing. We will not likely arrive at some magic point when the DSM gets smaller, where fewer docs write scrips. If that day were to come, they’d just broaden the symptoms like they’re doing now with ADHD to pull more people under the umbrella.

What I fear is that the cart has begun to lead the horse, that profitability has become more important than healing. What I fear is that it’s been like this for far longer than I’m willing to admit. Maybe if I’d been given something to clear my head, I might have noticed before now.

Too many of our children, 20 or 30 years from now, will look back on their youth with anger and a sense of betrayal, horrified that we too often, for far too many, prioritized medicated passivity and group-think. They will wonder what might have happened had they not been calmed into a mild stupor for half their adolescent life.

They will wonder why we were so quick to note, almost with a wisp of sadness, just how many great thinkers and artists likely had ADHD, before pulling that child-proof bottle out of the medicine cabinet one more time to quash that potential in our kid.