Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Leaning The Wrong Way?

Baby We Were Young - The Dirty Guv'nahs (mp3)

One of the games my girls are loving right now is called “Hardest Game Ever 2.” It’s a series of basic but challenging games that use low-grade humor to keep the amusement factor in play. One of the nastiest involves keeping a sick kid’s gargantuan noggin balanced so that the snot dripping out of his nose doesn’t fall into his food. Like most great games, the outcome is inevitable; eventually the head will tilt, and the snot will fall.

When it comes to the current climate of media and criminal scrutiny -- or lack thereof -- in matters of possibly criminal sex acts between human beings, I often feel like I’m merely tilting the iPad back and forth, trying desperately to keep the snot out of the bowl just a bit longer.

My alma mater (UNC-Chapel Hill) and a slew of other schools are currently in the crosshairs for how they have mishandled accusations of student-on-student sexual harassment and assault. Even as I sympathize with the school administrators and know that these matters are far more complex than reports and protesters seem to think*, what seems undeniable is that there has been too little willingness to investigate, genuinely and intensely -- or at all -- accusations like these.

(* -- News flash: Sometimes being accused and being guilty are not the same. See below.)

To investigate puts a school at the risk of lawsuits from all sides, not to mention matters of bad publicity. But they also are playing the “Hardest Game Ever 2,” trying to balance that kid’s head, yet the snot will inevitably sink into the soup. More often than not these schools are looking out for themselves or the alleged assailant more than the victim. They lean the wrong way.

On the other hand, sometimes the accused are victims, too. There’s the story of Minnesota State at Mankato football coach Todd Hoffner, charged with child pornography for filming his three kids dancing around in his living room after their bath.

At the same time we can count seemingly endless examples of accusations being swept under the rug or hushed into the fog of time, at a time when “Sandusky” and “Horace Mann” have become code for years of predatory abuse by a single person on numerous victims under the conveniently-averted eyes of others, we are witnessing what happens when guilt is pre-determined for the sake of expediency.

Nothing should be more frightening to us, as a society, than our bloodthirsty rush to judge a man** guilty before he has had the chance to defend himself.

(** -- C’mon, it’s almost always men... and a few young blonde women.)

Although Hoffner clearly shouldn’t have recorded this on his work-provided cell phone, it’s also equally clear that what he recorded was not for selling to/sharing with other pervs or for his own jollies. Any parent knows that nekkid kids often make for funny family memories, especially at wedding receptions decades later.

But for recording his kids dancing nekkid post-bath, Hoffner spent a night in jail. He and his family spent untold amounts of money defending him from a ridiculous accusation. A large portion of his town’s citizenry seemed more than eager to condemn him as a monster with little to no information.

Closer to home, a middle school band instructor in Georgia was first fired then criminally charged with child molestation. Unfortunately, North Georgia has developed an almost Salem-like reputation for its ability to find witches in their midst. I cannot speak with certainty to his innocence or guilt, but their prosecutorial axe swings swiftly, wrecklessly and haphazardly. Here’s what I do know, with confidence: untold numbers of coaches in North Georgia have been quietly dismissed from their jobs in the past 20 years for sleeping with their players or other girls at the school. No criminal charges. No revocation of teaching license. Just a hush-hush push out the door and best wishes at the new job, because we won't tell on you, buddy.

In North Georgia, if you possibly touch a middle school kid, your name and face will land on the news, and the system and the hungry-to-judge public will be merciless. Life as you know it will be over. But, if you coach girls and screw them, we shrug and dismiss it as the nature of the intimate but vital player-coach relationship. Kill the (alleged) fondler, quietly move the (known) screwer to the next stop. In the South, band teachers and art teachers and science teachers are all pervs, but coaches are just horny.

I'm not defending fondlers. If they're guilty, let them be eunuchs for all I care. But give them their day in court before parading them around in public. A charge is not a conviction, although I doubt most readers of Just Busted appreciate that nuance.

Can you imagine if Sting had written “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” in North Georgia?! The dude was a scrawny nerdy English teacher! The boys in the pen would've loved them some Gordon Sumner.

The charges against Coach Hoffner were dropped, but the direction of his life, and the life of his innocent family, is forever altered. If the charges are dropped or this North Georgia band teacher is found not guilty, he will never again teach, and his family will forever be paying off a debt merely to earn his freedom, and good luck getting a decent job if anyone does a Google search background check (well, maybe he can get a job in the Rutgers Athletic Office).

The snot keeps dripping in the bowl. Maybe that’s inevitable. Yet it seems, over and over again, to be dripping on the more egregiously awful side. The rain will fall on the just and unjust alike, but I wish it weren’t equally true of the snot.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Waze Craze

The Clash--"Police On My Back" (mp3)

Through a series of synchronous events, I am suddenly a Wazer.  Have been about three days.  Don't know what Waze is?  Well, imagine a social network that was only for people trying to avoid traffic and police (and stuff in the road).  That's Waze.  I'm a Wazer.

Three weeks ago, I'd never heard of Waze, but then, on a plane flight back from New York City, we had the misfortune of sitting in front of a woman who would not shut up, not for the entire trip, and not even through my semi-noise-cancelling headphones.  Anyway, as part of her 2-hour monologue about every aspect of her life, her children, and all that other stuff you tell a complete stranger on a airplane, she had occasion to mention Waze to her seatmate for some reason.  I couldn't really tell what it was, except that it sounded like a more sophisticated kind of Google maps with real-time updates.

Then, during my random Internet reading last week and the week before, I noticed that Facebook was in talks to buy Waze (maybe for like a billion dollars or some drop in the bucket for them).  And then, I saw that Google also was interested in buying Waze.  And I thought a) bidding war! and b) there must be something to it.  So I downloaded it.

One of the things I really like about Waze has to do with my healthy/unhealthy distrust of police as the result of my high school years in the first half of the 70's, driving around in cars doing and carrying things we shouldn't have been, although really it was more cultural than personal, part of the hangover from the 60's when anyone who represented the man was worthy of suspicion.  

So not only do I like seeing cops show up on my phone before I get there and then seeing them actually where Waze said they would be (validating my obsession), but, even more, I like reporting them.  I like to come across a motorcycle speed trap and spread the news to my fellow Wazers and, admittedly, I look hard for police cars, especially the hidden ones, so that I can report them.  It's kind of like being a reverse narc.

ONE CAVEAT:  It's easy to forget that just because there are no police indicated on Waze, that does not mean that they are not there.

Which raises an interesting point: how many Wazers are out there?  Are there enough to make it a viable resource rather than a matter of luck or geography?  I don't know the answer, but I'm not particularly surprised that here in the South, at least, the legions appear to be strong.

But what I really like about Waze is what happened in Georgia last weekend.  My family went down to the outlet mall in Dawsonville, a place which can hold my attention for about a half hour (Williams-Sonoma and the Bass Outlet).  So, with a newly-downloaded Waze app in my pocket, I decided to see if there was a Trader Joe's nearby, since I'll always go to TJ's if I have a chance.  Well, yes, indeed, there was a Trader Joe's 36 miles to the south and not far off of Highway 19/411, the road I was on.  So off I went.

As I moved closer to Atlanta at a pretty good clip, I started to get concerned about 15 miles into the trip, when I noticed the cars coming to a complete standstill heading back where I had just come from.  But I was committed by then.  So I decided that maybe whatever was causing the problem would be gone by the time I headed back in an hour.  Hey, it could happen.  Right?  Right?

After a fruitful Joe's run, I retraced my route and headed back up 19/411.  I entered my destination into Waze.  The funny thing was, about 15 miles from the outlet mall, Waze had me getting off the highway and taking a series of state roads in what seemed like kind of a roundabout way to the mall.  Well, I thought, I'll ride it out and see what happens.  Eight-tenths of a mile before the exit that Waze told me to get off on, traffic slowed to a crawl.

First, of course, I reported the slowdown like a good Waze citizen, even though other already had.  My information at least confirmed what had been true 30 or 45 minutes ago.  But then, I took the exit.  There were a few others taking it, too.  Whether they were fellow Wazers or just human  beings with common sense, I have no way of knowing.

What I do know is that fairly quickly, I was sailing down nearly-empty roads at about 60 miles an hour, following the path Waze had designed for me through rundown, rural houses and stores juxtaposed with the creeping, upscale subdivisions of Atlantan sprawl, complete with newly-bricked rotaries.  And in no time, I was eating lunch with my family in a tasty little French place near the outlets.  Thanks, Waze!

Pause for one second, though:  if everyone had Waze, would everyone have gotten off of the highway when I did?  And then what?  That is a future determination, I suppose.

The one downside I've noticed (well, two) is that Waze chews phone battery power like nobody's business. If you don't have a phone charger in your car, Waze's charms may seduce you and then leave you hanging.  The other downside ( my own fault) is that if you stare at the Waze map from the backseat while your wife takes the car through the winding roads of North Georgia, you are going to get very, very nauseous.

My family is very amused by my Waze craze.  They know about my policeophobia.  They know of my tendency to go "all in" until I get bored.  They have heard me say, "Uh-oh, there's a trash bag in the road up there, I'd better report it" or "Slow down, I don't want to get too far away from that parked police car before I post my alert, I want people to know exactly where it is."

For now, though, Waze has done me a good deed.  What I've given away in return has yet to be figured out.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Southern Space Monkeys Sell the Sky

R.E.M. weren’t the first space monkeys of indie rock born in the South, but they most certainly were the first ones to land on the moon. Love ‘em or hate ‘em -- and there’s plenty of justifiable reasons for either -- Michael Stipe & Co. changed what was possible for Southern rock music more dramatically than any other band of their era. Before R.E.M., the South was Skynyrd and Nashville. After R.E.M., all was possible.

I hereby follow Bob's Favorite 10 R.E.M. songs from yesterday with 10 of my own. These are in order from 10 down to Number One With A Bullet, but were I to compile this week three years ago or hence, it most decidedly would change.

"7 Chinese Bros." - This one's thick with meaning. The primary inspiration is this children's book or the original Chinese fable. The secondary inspiration, if rumors (and Spin Magazine interviews) speak true, is Michael Stipe's involvement in a love triangle where he broke up the couple in question and then managed to romantically involve himself with each separately. R.E.M. songs never tried making sense in the early days, so it's fun trying to suss out all of this drama apparently going on inside the song.

"So Fast So Numb" - Is this about River Phoenix? I'd like to think so. This is the kind of anger an overdosed friend -- and maybe lover -- deserves. Any true friend of such a personal tragedy should struggle with guilt and rage. Some prefer ballads like Sarah Maclachlan's "Angel" when lamenting an OD'd friend, but this feels more my speed.

"Be Mine" - This is a love song. This is a scary love song. It's "Every Breath You Take" in a minor chord. It is about an all-consuming relationship, about owning another person, about seeing no reason for connection with anyone other than a single other human being. If you're 15 and have never dated anyone, this sounds romantic. If you're over 30 and have seen enough possessive relationships eat away at friends like alien acid blood, this sounds horrifying.

"These Days" - Anyone who heard this in concert between 1986-1990 knows why this is on the list. Three things, to be exact. (1) We are young. (2) We are concerned. (3) We are hope. And when you're sitting in a large venue with thousands or tens of thousands of young adults and teens, it's an empowering moment. Here's a band that isn't worried about our love life or our homework stress. They push us to bigger thoughts and insist we can do something about them. Cynically, I'm not sure my generation has lived up to the promise of this song, but we still have some days left.

"The Wrong Child" - When Green was unleashed upon the world 25 years ago, many of my acquaintances -- not quite friends, definitely not enemies -- were Goth types and Modies. They swam in dark sounds, mumbled lyrics marinated in despair and bitterness. I, on the other hand, and most of the people I hung out with, were outsiders not because we rejected society, but rather because we just didn't quite get it. We didn't understand the gears and knobs of the social contract, of winning friends and influencing people. It was all Greek to us. "The Wrong Child" is the outsider as yearning rather than bitter, as lonely rather than solitary. It's not so much a desire to fit in as to find acceptance. It's for those of us who aren't supposed to be like this... (but it's OK).

"Orange Crush" - Vietnam, Agent Orange, misery, panic and the smell of death or napalm or both in the air. Precisely because this doesn't sound like the themes and subjects of a catchy pop song, this is on my list.

"Radio Free Europe" - Sock hops. This is the first song that gave me, an awkward kid with zero confidence, the freedom to walk out on a middle school dance floor and dance in the presence of other kids. It was a song our entire school (or so it seemed) wanted to enjoy by way of ‘80s group dance, dancing simultaneously with no one and everyone, much like Michael Stipe's entire life story. This song is here due to its place in my own biographical soundtrack more than for any other quality it possesses, although it’s still arguably their finest pop song.

"Finest Worksong" (Mutual Drum Horn Mix) - Dammit I’ve always loved good production. The version of “Finest Worksong” that found its way onto Eponymous is a cleaner and more carefully-crafted musical creation. Most rock fans likely therefore find it less enjoyable. Rock lovers love mess and muddle. Is the song a cry to the zombied masses of employed miserable souls to rise up, or is it a call for all of us to find the purpose and meaning in what can often feel repetitive and numbing? Can it be both? Is it even more?

"Me In Honey"Out of Time gets a lot of flack, unfairly I think. It’s not their best, but it’s neither a sell-out or a mailed-in effort. It's just glossed with a bit of corporate sheen, a crisper production than most R.E.M. fans appreciate. “Me In Honey” concludes the album and redeems Kate Pierson's participation in "Shiny Happy People" (which really deserves to be considered the most evil earworm R.E.M. ever recorded). There simply aren’t many better or mature songs by any band about the power and pain of truly immersive love than "...Honey." To truly give yourself over to love, to another person, to the experience of a relationship, is both rapturous and horrifying (see: "Be Mine"). You are the icky yucky fly sinking into the luxurious balm of honey, and it seems like a peachy-keen idea until you can’t get back out, until you’re lost in it. This song could arguably be the singular inspiration for all three of Richard Linklater’s Before... movies.

"Leave" - Musically, it’s an iceberg in the path of the luxury liner that had become R.E.M. An acoustic guitar, playing a simple repetitive single-note tune over the backdrop of a synth for an entire minute. Then a pause followed by the bombardment of a siren-sound that persists the duration of the song. Stipe’s first word (“Nothing”) comes 90 seconds in. Whether it was intended as such, it is Bill Berry's swan song and, contains, arguably, all of his reasons for leaving and not wanting to. All R.E.M. fans will agree that his departure crippled the band in ways few of us could have predicted. Like most R.E.M. songs, however, this one is a wonderful Rorschach test from which we take whatever we need and translate however we see fit. To me it is a song of intense yearning, of someone in crisis mode. It is a song of panic, of uncertainty, of living, of passage, of survival. It is long and beautiful and perfect, and it is the last great song they ever made together.

Final comments ala Bob: Although Life's Rich Pageant only has one song in this list, it's my favorite album, and six more songs (including the ones Bob ranked) show up in my Top 25. Neither of us could find a Top 10 song released post-1996, the final third of their career.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Did They Burn Out Or Fade Away?

It's funny, isn't it?  The Beatles broke up when they couldn't take it anymore.  But R.E.M.? I think they retired.  Ponder the difference, for a second, if there is one.  One group couldn't stand each other and the other one just ran out of gas?  That's basically how I read it.  Could be wrong.  Been wrong before.

Anyway, this might not make much sense until you read Billy's post which will follow.  I just got to Saturday night and sitting around late and felt like writing this down and so I'm kind of going out of turn.  But, hell, it's a blog, so what's the difference?  What are we going to do--fire each other?  

I think since the (untimely?) demise of R.E.M. a couple of years ago, Billy and I have been mourning in our own ways, trying to come to terms with it.  They just didn't have anything anymore and everyone seemed to know it.  Maybe we even knew it before they did.  Almost at the moment R.E.M. signed a big contract with Sony, they were finished.  I don't know that the two events were connected or that they weren't.  All I know is that troubles and an apparent lack of inspiration seemed to follow.

Well, here's what we agreed on at a concert the other night: we would each explain 10 great R.E.M. songs, not in competition with each other, but just as parallel homages.  I haven't listened to R.E.M. in some time, so my list is organic and without order.  Whatever comes into my head as a fav song I am going to go with, without much rethinking or editing.  Again, no order, just 10 great songs.  If you've got others, I'm sure we'd love to hear what they are.

"Bad Day"--this was the last great song, in my opinion, one that was older but unreleased until a compilation. Great lyrics, great riff, and it is my chance to say that bands don't always seem to know their own best material.  How you leave this off of a CD is beyond me.  Like "New Test Leper," it seems like one of those occasions when Michael Stipe is willing to step out from behind the mask and bare his soul, unadorned.  

"Shaking Through"--R.E.M.'s first album is one of the sonic marvels of the modern age--the energy of a young band meets the found sounds in Mitch Easter's studio.  It would not be until three or four records later that the band would find such a sympathetic producer again.  This song establishes the kind of R.E.M. jangling guitar sound that would serve them well for three more albums during the peak of their creativity.  I love to sing along with this one.  I have no idea what it means.

"Begin The Begin" is one of the great this-is-who-we-are anthems that any band has ever opened a record with.  Political, rocking, and nonsensical all at once, this is the band raising their game in recognition of seeking a larger audience, but without compromise.  There is no other band in history that could get away with "Let's begin again/ Like Martin Luther Zen" and have all of us nodding our heads like it is wisdom, which it might be.  Life's Rich Pageant redefined our country like few other popular CDs have since Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? and this manifesto sets the tone both for R.E.M.'s emergence as a band with something to say and for Document, which finished the mission.

"(Don't Go Back To) Rockville"--Back when all of the band's songs referenced locales and people in Georgia, this one had the best feeling as a homegrown, should-be single.  Some bands don't write a song this tuneful with such a hummable chorus during their entire careers.  This was merely the catchiest of a terrific batch of songs on Reckoning.  I wish they had a better producer for these songs.

"Driver 8"--I've played this one too often on my own guitar not to mention it.  The ultimate example of R.E.M.'s neo-gothic Southern vision.  After this one finishes rocking, if you needed a chaser or an after-dinner drink, you could wind down thematically with "Swan Swan H."

"Disturbance At The Heron House"-perhaps the best use of Michael Stipe's cyclical, repetitive lyrical style where the same phrases move in and out of a song in different places and ways.  The song seemed to be some kind of political allegory, but even without that, the title and events capture a societal upheaval against the backdrop of a stark,powerful guitar riff and an economical Peter Buck guitar solo.  R.E.M. at its most muscular, one of the traits it lost after drummer Bill Berry's brain aneurysm.

"I Believe" ("in coyotes and time as an abstract"), another unusual belief statement from Life's Rich Pageant that defines a band full of confidence, vim and vigor finally willing to 
put the lyrics up front in all of their mysterious, quasi-intellectual glory.  "I Believe" also captures another of the band's patterns, that of acknowledging the folk music of the South (with its into of old-timely banjo), not unlike the beautiful "Wendell Gee" or even the introduction of folk mandolin on "Losing My Religion."  Plus, the song just rocks at a tempo few other of the band's songs reach.

"Green Grow The Rushes"--With its titular reference to Robert Browning, "Green Grow The Rushes" captures that back roads Georgia agrarian sensibility probably better than any of their other songs, but what really drives the song for me is the beginning-to-end, inventive guitar accompaniment of Peter Buck.  Underrated because he seems to have learned his instrument by playing in this band, he nevertheless uses alternate tunings to create the iconic guitar sounds of the Athens music scene in the 80's.  Partial chords and two or three string phrasings helped to define a music getting away from blaring power chords, and bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam would learn from him.

"The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight"--the perfect pop song, with its strong vocals, its reference to a previous song, its punchy guitar chords.  In that way, it reminds me of The Pretenders' "Back On The Chain Gang," deferential to but somehow better than the somewhat-silly trappings of the original song.

"What's The Frequency, Kenneth?"--Even though I tired of Monster and its approach pretty quickly, I've always held affection for this opener.  I like the power of the song.  I think it uses the amped-up guitar sounds most effectively, and I love the snippets of lyrics like "you said that irony was the shackles of youth" that the song spits out.

Two things:1) I learn from this exercise how many, many many more songs I could have included and 2) even though I didn't mention a single song from New Adventures In Hi-Fi or Out Of Time, I admire how both of those CDs offer quality songs from beginning to end and work best as a collection without singling out individual songs.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Impression Management

Hollow - Better Than Ezra (mp3)

"You know, people are in a constant state of impression management. They've got their true self and the self that they want to project to the world. And we know that the body displays things that sometimes people try to keep contained.” -- Arthur “Skip” Rizzo, psychologist, USC Center for Creative Technologies, from an interview on NPR

For a four-week stretch this spring, I didn’t derive much joy from anything. I would disappear in a decent book or TV series, or engage in some spirited competition with friends, or sit at lunch with friends or dinner with family, or play outside or on the Wii with my kids, or walk with my wife, and in medias res it felt OK. In the moment, there was this sense of almost-joy not dissimilar to the sense of Paris one gets from looking at a postcard of Paris. Once the event passed, however, and my mind was no longer engaged in that event, I found myself again feeling this gnawing emptiness. What I’d hoped was a full meal had come and gone faster than a Taco Bell burrito.

In that hollow aftermath, I’d try to suss through why I couldn’t sustain any sense of satisfaction or contentment. I’d get angry with myself for being ungrateful, for being a sourpuss, for being weak. I had no excuses to feel down or empty, I’d tell myself with an interior monologue of some bitter football coach whose veins pop through his beet-red neck. My life and virtually everything about it is, simply, blessed. Shame shame on me for that emptiness, the inner coach would yell. Yet that empty feeling persisted.

I put on a good face through it, though. Other than a few passing comments to a friend or my wife acknowledging being “a bit down,” I mostly acted like I was expected to act around others. I clung to my daily and weekly routine like a life vest, hoping that no matter how banal it seemed, it would keep me afloat until the sun came back out.

Now, being free from these “doldrums” and looking back, I mostly think my routines and givens -- work, friends, familiy, love, hobbies -- are precisely what kept me from sinking deeper, from despairing more. While I failed to derive the level of enjoyment I was accustomed to from these givens, I had an equally strong sense that losing those experiences would not fix what ailed me.

And I listened to “Hollow” by Better Than Ezra about twice a day. It’s not a perfect song, to be sure, but that chorus was a balm, my friends.
All my rage sits inside
And even the finest things leave you hollow
All my days left behind
And even the finest things are leaving you hollow
It sounds cliche to say a single flawed song can help heal our wounds, but I know of no single better salve for my wayward mind than the right song at the right moment. The lives they made. Life is richer in a minor key.

I kept listening, and I kept acting, and I got better.

“Impression Management” sounds like a bad thing. It is, by its very definition, disingenuous and inevitably deceptive. It's Anti-Dr. Phil. Yet I’m pretty sure it saves more people than it destroys.

When married couples are struggling, they often go out and play the part of Mostly Happy People. Even if others at the party or gathering know the truth, that everything is in crumbles or on the verge of falling off the cliff and into the ocean, they engage in Impression Management. Some couples split anyway, but some don’t. In fact, many stay together.

Isn’t part of Impression Management the belief that, if we can create and maintain a certain version of ourself, if we can aim for some idealized version of Who We Are long enough and with enough accuracy, that we might just become what began as a pretend identity? Or at least get close enough to be a better or improved version of our crappier selves?

In The Messenger, Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is engaged in a deeply internal struggle, fighting a post-Iraq war despair bordering on outrage while desperately clinging to some form of Impression Management, holding onto his identity in public as a strong, brave, reliable and loyal solder, trying desperately to be a decent human being.

The reason the movie is so emotionally gripping is because Montgomery manages, mostly, to heal himself. Awash in panic while alone in the darkness of his bare apartment, he rehabilitates himself out in the open by working stubbornly at being better than he feels.

Maybe the reason The Greatest Generation seems so much better at managing personal crises, in hindsight, isn’t due to their repressed emotions, but rather simply because they were better at Impression Management. They knew that being genuine and honest wasn’t always the best way to survive and advance. They knew that enduring doldrums, depression or despair requires an amazing ability to act like the person we want or need to be until we can remember how to genuinely be that character once again.

The best actors endure and continue to hone their craft, and the worst crumble and dissolve.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

An English Teacher Watches Gatsby

A English teacher with a decent number of years on him or her is going to have read The Great Gatsby so many times that we can dispense quickly with the obvious: the current Baz Luhrmann version cannot measure up to the Platonic Conception of the book that we have in our collective heads.  It simply cannot happen and won't.  So we can quit worrying about that.

But is it still possible that a film version can do things that are true enough to the book (even if not rendered in the same way), can do things that are different enough to be interesting, and, most of all, can do things that will enhance future discussions of the book?

Just as an entrepreneur or a developer might look at a vacant lot, a retail space for rent, a part of town fallen into disuse and see the possibilities for a successful future business venture, so the English teacher looks at the trappings and renderings of popular culture to see how those might be used fruitfully in a classroom.  The advantage for the teacher is that a cultural failure can be just as valuable as one of its pinnacles.

And so, while I might not look at the current version of Gatsby through the same lense that you might, at least you know now where I'm coming from.  By my criteria, the movie succeeds tremendously even though it isn't a tremendous movie.  I know that a statement like that makes some of you right-answer-seekers recall your own English class experiences and shudder.

Allow me one more crack at this notion before I delve into a few specifics.  Will the movie generate discussion?  Will it lead students to evaluate the decisions it makes?  Will it make them see aspects of the novel that might have been downplayed but that get a larger treatment in the filmmaker's vision?

The most dramatic addition to the novel's vision that Luhrmann undertakes is the much-maligned narrative frame of Nick Carraway telling the story from a sanitarium where he is drying out from alcoholism.  Admittedly, this is half thought out in the film, but it raises some interesting issues.  We know from the novel that Nick returned to Minneapolis with his tail between his legs after the events of the novel and that he tells his story from there.  Why not add the alcohol treatment?  It is an homage both to Catcher In The Rye (where Holden tells his story from a mental hospital) and to F. Scott Fitzgerald's own battles with the bottle.  While most readers may be tempted to see Nick's stance in the novel as strength through rejection, the fact remains that he failed and gave up, that his view of these events is but one possibility.

It is certainly true that Nick is more of a wide-eyed observer in this movie. But even in the book, you'd think that a Yale grad like Carraway would have been a little more aware of what he was getting into.  The choice of Toby Maguire to play Nick can't help but make us confront his frail hypersensitivity.  His relationship with Jordan Baker, for example, barely exists.  There is zero physical interaction or chemistry.  He never connects with the "rotten crowd" in any significant way.  The movie, probably mistakenly, never treats his role in WWI.

The other highly-analyzed aspect of the film involves Luhrmann's inclusion of contemporary rap and hip-hop music as a way of illuminating the time period.  I think this works beautifully.  I'm not sure  that there has been a genre of music that has illuminated the predatory nature of money seekers better than rap.  What the movie achieves brilliantly, I think, is to use the modern music as a connector for a modern viewer while in no way pandering to his or her tastes.  The use of rap is seamless, using snippets to highlight particular moments (like the wealthy blacks with the white chauffeur Nick sees on the bridge) or to blend into a soundtrack flow that uses Jay-Z and Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue" as a perfect juxtaposition.

Whereas the earlier film version of Gatsby seemed to see its purpose as recreating the book as drawing room melodrama, this version aims for greater universality, especially when our age has, arguably, an even greater disparity between rich and poor than existed back then.  Luhrmann's movie does a better job of conveying its story within the context of broad social patterns.

Indeed, this film is at its best when characterizing that income inequality--its Valley of Ashes scenes are brilliant, giving viewers our first full rendering of that wasteland in between the excesses of Long Island and New York City, better than the previous film or the book itself.  That slag heap of despair, fully-rendered with a variety of downtrodden races and ethnicities, sits in direct contrast to a Wall Street on overdrive, another context this movie recreates better than the book.  When Tom Buchanan issues his pronouncements of racial superiority, he does so with mute black servants in the room.  When characters venture into the city, their cars race carelessly, weaving between working class people without regard for their safety, so that Myrtle Wilson's death, when it comes, is an inevitability.  The emphasis on cars reminds us what playtoys of the rich they must have been in the Roaring Twenties, unregulated speed machines on barely-monitored open roads.

I've hardly mentioned the actors.  Perhaps that is because they play their parts so adequately.  These aren't Academy Award winning roles; Fitzgerald's stylized dialogue does not allow for that.  But each part's casting seems so right that you never challenge the choices.  DiCaprio gets Gatsby right, Daisy is more alluring than beautiful, Tom garners a bit of sympathy for his cloddish approach to life.

I liked how this version gave us English teachers a different vision, one that knocks a bit against our collective but idiosyncratic expectations.  We will never agree on its strengths and weaknesses and we will pass that controversy on to our students for them to make their own judgements.  While some will no doubt compare this movie to Gatsby's "incoherent failure of a house," I would argue that enough of the pieces of it work, if not always in tandem. So, yes, this Gatsby is great enough.  At least for our purposes.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Thinking Music

“You don’t have time to think up there. You think, you’re dead.”

Oh Maverick, your wisdom rings through the ages. Pete Mitchell might not have realized it as “Take My Breath Away” began to play in the background, but he was not only philosophizing about dogfighting, but also about music.

The new Vampire Weekend release, Modern Vampires Of The City, is a fascinating and at times hypnotic intellectual exploration of music. To be appreciated at its highest level, it must be heard through high-quality earphones or in a location with minimal sonic interruption, like a car or a small room with kickass speakers. There is so much sonic experimentation crammed into these 12 songs that it at times boggles the mind. “Diane Young,” the first video from the album, does its Girl Talk best to mash up as many experiments into a single hook-laden pop song as it can, but it doesn’t own the monopoly on ear-catching splendor.

Vampire Weekend is, and has been since their arrival on the national scene in 2007, impossible to ignore but difficult to love. Listening to them is like being permitted to sit in on a MENSA meeting, where every second is a reminder that no one in the room thinks you’re as smart as they are. And meanwhile I think to myself, “Maybe being as smart as you isn’t all that grand.”

Or, as Maverick might say, they think too damn much.

Radiohead gives me a similar vibe nowadays. They’re less fun than Iceman. Thom Yorke and Co. got bored making catchy anthems because, apparently, it wasn’t intellectually fulfilling enough. They now serve only to remind normal people that IQ and musical artistry have almost nothing to do with one another. As Radiohead got smarter and smarter, their music got shittier.

They remind me of when Gary Kasparov finally lost his match to Deep Blue. In that moment, the computer mastered the human. Pablo Honey and The Bends are Kasparov; OK Computer is that paradigm-shifting final battle; everything after that is the sound of the computer having won.

By contrast, I appreciate Vampire Weekend. Perhaps they’re too smart for their own good (and/or I’m too dumb for mine), but at least they’re still working on our planet, inside a musical framework most of us can sense and grasp. The three-song combo of “Finger Back,” “Worship You” and “Ya Hey” is the strongest daisy chain of songs that acknowledge the value of a hook without sacrificing their freakish approach to sonic detail.

In the meantime, Modern Vampires of the City leaves me ever more appreciative of Emotional Intelligence in music. The best musicians, in my opinion, are masters of EQ, not IQ. They can make your heart beat faster or rip it right out of your chest with a few chords and the turn of a single phrase. Lately, that seems to be why country and folk music are on heavier rotation for me, why women are more frequently the creative cornerstones.

Not to beat a dead stereotype, but the trio of Lori McKenna, Patty Griffin and Holly Williams have more EQ in a single song than either Radiohead or Vampire care to exhibit in an hour of music. Those two bands like it that way. It's intentional. They're each making a Statement. I'm fairly certain that Vampire Weekend's entire sound is centered around their namesake, as if they were making music for bloodthirsty undead immortals who, for a single weekend, yearned to be something closer to human. Because just making good music would be so... boring.

Although my heart rarely beats much faster when listening to Vampire Weekend, they certainly get my synapses firing, especially when my earphones are pushing their sonic somersaults straight into my skull. Maybe one day they’ll hit the breaks and let the others just fly by, in Top-Gun-ese, letting their instincts and gut drive a little more and throwing their cerebellum in the navigator’s seat for a few hops. I’d like them to prove that Vampires can have beating hearts after all, rather than just being smarter and better than the rest of us humans.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Tragedy Paper

Regret - New Order (mp3)
These Are The Fables - The New Pornographers (mp3)

There was a time when novels set in high school centered around virgins, in plots where seeking to lose their virginity wasn’t the prime mover of the book. Or kids who rode their bikes around small towns investigating the strange mysteries required to Come Of Age. Those books are gone. They’re relics.

As a vanilla kid with a vanilla childhood whose virginity endured far longer than he might have wished at times, who rode his bike everywhere, whose vanilla limbs all worked properly if unimpressively, whose vanilla parents raised him to be “decent” (the most vanilla of words), whose dad actually hid his meager stash of Playboys and whose mom only cussed a few times each year, I enjoyed aplenty books that took me out of my comfort zone and showed me a world beyond my own comprehension. From Tolkien’s books to Blume’s girls to “The Red Badge of Courage” or “...Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” escaping the confines of my vanilla male prison is one of the reasons fiction will never die.

But there was something vital for me in books like A Separate Peace and The Chocolate War, books about Boys A Lot Like Me, and those books seem increasingly going the way of the dinosaur. I’m being selfish, and I don’t deny it, but I miss YA books that didn’t involve child molestation or abusive parents, that didn’t center around some diagnosed physical or psychological limitation, where the protagonist or one of the protagonist’s besties wasn’t gay or representing some maligned racial or cultural minority.

Or, to put it another way, the reason Freaks & Geeks has become one of the biggest cult TV classics of the last 30 years is because it’s a story about millions of people amalgamated into the bodies of a few precious pasty-lookin’ characters whose biggest dramas include hosting a keg party and skipping a school math competition.

Take a look at the best and most successful young adult novels of the last 15 years, and you’ll invariably conclude that teenagers who live vanilla lives must have it pretty good. Protagonists can no longer be merely Freaks or Geeks. They must be Uncontrollably Obviously Different.

If you’re heterosexual and pasty-colored, have a couple of reliable friends, and wake up every morning in the same bed and with the same two adults in the house, there can’t possibly be any conflict or plot challenge in your life so compelling as to fill a gripping novel.

And perhaps that’s true. Perhaps normal lives and normal people are incapable of extraordinary experiences worthy of 21st Century YA fiction. But it sure as shit doesn’t feel true if you’re a vanilla teenager. From the moment your alarm clock goes off too early in the morning to the moment time seems to move faster, and you’re staring up at the ceiling in your dark room with earphones on, wondering when in the name of holy deities, shit feels important. Everything in-between pretty much feels colossal, too.

The Tragedy Paper is the closest thing to a throwback YA novel I’ve read in a while. Granted, the protagonist is an albino, a teen devoid of melanin who suffers from a number of physical and emotional side-effects related to the disorder. But the way the plot unfolds, the book isn’t so much interested in being About The Struggles Of Living With Albinism; the condition is just a modernized way to create the Instafreak. Rather than have a lengthy back story about why some kid doesn’t fit in, leaves his former school, has no real friends, you just make him an albino and Voila! Instant loner and loser!

The other key male protagonist and the one who frames the narrative is Duncan, a year younger who is living out his senior year at The Irving School, the boarding school where something tragic and involving Tim occurred the previous year. Duncan inherits Tim’s room and a collection of recorded CDs (similar to Thirteen Reasons Why) on which Tim shares his story.

Duncan is the vanilla kid. He’s got girl problems and isn’t sure where he fits in school. And he’s often more interested in listening to Tim’s story than living.

I’m being very harsh, and this is intended as a compliment.

The Tragedy Paper is a very good, easily readable throwback book about outcasts, popular kids, the confusion of teen love, and stupid teenage decisions. The albino thing wasn’t so bad. Mostly what I wanted was more. Some more description. Some more about Duncan’s dazed and confused senior year when he wasn’t in his room or holding hands with his maybe-girlfriend. I wanted a bit more about life at a boarding school that wasn’t in the woods or in a tiny dorm room.

If what you want out of a book is more, it can’t be that bad of a book. And the world could use a few more teenage books where not everyone is getting laid, where just a really long smooch could make a kid’s head spin, books where there are no roving gangs of bullies so much as just mean, selfish kids.

The most memorable scene for me is when the main antagonist, Patrick, is leading Tim and a group of seniors through the snowy woods for reasons known only to him. The scene is fraught with the sense of a set-up. What are they going to do to Tim?? The only other kid who’s been nice to Tim even gets sick and has to stop to puke before Tim convinces him to keep going. Oh the irony! Tim is dragging this guy with him for something awful!

This was Elizabeth LaBan’s first novel. It’s good, but not great. It’s got the right kinds of ambition and approach and heart, and all that counts for something. I hope she’s not going anywhere, because she’ll get better her next time out. Maybe she'll even try and make something delicious out of vanilla next time rather than pure white.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The End-of-Things Guy

Last Thursday night, I was part of a trivia team at at local bar.  We finished 4th that night.  It was kind of fun.  

The week before I had pronounced "Trivia Night" dead.  It came late in the 2nd part of the competition, when the double-point question involved a) what main character on a sitcom's Halloween episode was obsessed with the "slutty pumpkin" and b) what network was the show on.  At that point, I knew not just that we didn't know the answer but that we had no business being part of the competition.  It was not aimed for people like us.  I do not say that critically.

For years, I have been teased because I declared probably ten or more years ago that our fantasy football league was, well, dead as well.  I'm still in the league

Concerning this blog, I have called it deceased any number of times, including last night, when I texted my blog partner and told him. "Just because I am still posting blogs doesn't mean that I don't think the blog is dead."  He got .ost in the double negative, as well he should.  I have even written a post that ran for a few minutes a couple of months ago before my blog partner convinced me that it wasn't fair to him that I declare this blog dead unilaterally.  It sits in our blog "workshop" as a draft.

I told a friend that Springsteen's live shows could not equal what he had once done.  And then I proceeded to go see the man in concert as far away as Chicago and Kansas City.

I am the end-of-things guy.

I don't apologize for that, if for no other reason than that in our modern world, no one apologizes for anything.  Beyond that, though, I don't apologize because I think I'm right (which, again, doesn't do much to differentiate me from the rest of humanity).

But I will, to this day, argue that, sadly, I was indeed ahead of the curve and that our fantasy football league has never since been as fun--team owners have not been as involved in the camaraderie or the shared messaging or the commitment to the league that the owners had in those early days.  The caliber of the owners and the league events is not the same.   That we continue on is for motives I don't always understand. Perhaps it is the quandary Robert Frost found himself  in "The Oven Bird," when he wondered "what to make of a diminished thing."

Similarly, both this blog and that trivia league had some glory days of major participation and involvement that is not happening now.  The reasons for that probably don't need elaboration.

Actually, I do understand why things like leagues and blogs and Thursday evenings continue on--it is because of friendship.  Isn't it?

But it also likely stands as true among the many dividing lines of humanity that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who know when something is finished and those who don't.  I'm willing to say that I think I am the former, but I really have no way of knowing.  I only think I know when something is played out.  In social situations, for example, I usually think it is time to leave before my wife does.  I accuse her of not being able to extricate herself.  That discussion does not always go so well.

Which probably makes me, in some eyes, a naysayer, a person who is willing to let go earlier than others.  Prescience or character flaw?  I'm not really sure.  I know what I think, of course, but based on comments I get from others, I can't say that I'm right, just pretty consistent.

I wish that things like what I've mentioned were as great as they've always been, but they aren't.  They are hollow versions.  Of that, I am certain.  Ah, you big silly life, you always make us choose between what we think is true and what we do for love!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Get Back To The Country

Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison--"9,999,999 Tears" (mp3)
Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison--"No Kinda Dancer" (mp3)

When was the last time you owned a CD that had stellar songs top to bottom?  When was the last time you had a CD whose songs got better and better with each listen?  When was the last time you burned a CD for a friend, who also fell in love with the CD?  And when you asked him which was his favorite song, he responded that it was impossible to name a favorite song?  When was the last time you cared about country?  And I don't mean radio country; I mean real country.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the new CD by Kelly Willis and her husband, Bruce Robison, Cheater's Game.  Now, if you know the kind of music snob I am, then you know that I care nothing for radio country. I consider it to be one of this country's great abominations, a collective attempt to create a world of false rurality (my word) as a way of evoking a false nostalgia for what never was.  It is safe, it is overproduced, it is not country, at least as I once knew it.  

Willis and Robeson want none of this, even though she possesses the achingly-beautiful country voice and he has written hits for the stars.  No, their sound and scope are smaller--these arrangements do not translate to arenas and festivals, these songs reach no farther than the trials and tribulations of love, a thing that seems to be usually lost.  Going back to what country once was is what makes this such an intimate, brilliant CD.

All the musical trappings of real country are here--banjo, mandolin, dobro, fiddle, pedal steel, acoustic guitar, harmonica, haunting solo vocals and and natural harmonies.  But unless I've missed it, I don't hear an electric guitar or a baritone guitar ripping pseudo-rock runs and solos. Well, maybe once, on "9,999,999 Tears," which is the very catchy song that would be a hit single in a different universe. But you aren't going to jump up and down or clap along with any of these songs.

What you will do is play this CD over and over and over, singing along with the catchy choruses, tearing up at the real emotions, reflecting on your own life after hearing about these lives.

I've owned a couple of Kelly Willis CDs over the years; I've always like her voice, her arrangements, and her song choices.  But I also found her sound a little bit sterile, something that I admired rather than induldged in.  Now I realize that what was missing was her husband, Bruce Robison.  The combination of the two of them, taking turns taking lead vocals, trading verses, sharing choruses, allowing each other to own entire songs, makes each song a surprise.  Their voices and sensibilities blend beautifully, but, just as much, it is the way they use their voices for different purposes from song to song that makes this CD so rich.  Sometimes one or the other will only sing part of a verse in the other's song.

What makes this work so well is that Willis is not unlike Emmylou Harris--much as I love to hear her voice alone, I enjoy it just as much as a harmony instrument.

Every song on Cheater's Game is a highlight.  Willis sings the opener, the title track, a slow ballad that sets the tone for the CD with its characterization of heartache and the cost of love.  Then Robeson takes over on "Border Radio," an uptempo two-step of a woman remembering a lover gone and hoping he is listening to the same song piping in from Mexico.  But the third song, "We're All The Way," really showcases the couple's talents--they sing it mostly as a duet, Robison a little higher in the mix, but Willis' harmonies, especially when stating the title line, confirm the sentiment of the song.

A personal favorite is "No Kinda Dancer," that kind of sentimental song that gets me with its tender portrayal of a relationship moment and with its gorgeous chorus.  What man is not moved by one of those moments when a woman shows him that he can do something that he didn't think that he could do?

A listener would be hard-pressed to find a song that doesn't have a great chorus.  That's where the two voices always meet.  But Robeson also has considerable chops as a songwriter, and the caliber of his songs (the kind that a Tim McGraw wouldn't be interested in), as well as their choice of older tunes to cover,  rely as much on the words as the music:

She used to curl up 
Like the steam from a train 
I can still her see her but she's gone just the same 
Pulls her hand from mine 
So damn hard to find you, find you, find you.

Cheater's Game is, for me, the surprise of the year, the what-the-heck CD I got off of eMusic when I couldn't find anything else, the return to a country sensibility that I haven't indulged in in some time, the record from that strange year 2013 that sticks in my head and that I return to over and over and over again.  No one could have predicted that, least of all me.  A CD this durable, this emotionally-resonant, is a wonderful discovery indeed.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

"Decency": A Synonym for "Slut Shaming"?

Last month, a New Jersey middle school banned girls from wearing strapless dresses to prom. Administrators claimed that the dresses were “distracting” — though they refused to specify exactly how or why.
These options are not available to boys.
Boys wear pants. Boys who don't
would quickly be dismissed from most proms.
Thus begins a screed on ThinkProgress about the chauvanistic practice of “slut shaming.”

Apparently, if this logic of ThinkProgress is followed, if one believes that a 13-year-old female shouldn’t wear clothing that reveals too much of her body, one therefore believes that females who dress provocatively or in a sexualized way “deserve” to be raped.

(Side Note: Apparently, middle schools now have proms now? WTF? Is this like my son “graduating” from pre-school?? Can we f*#king stop with this rush to give young kids experiences that are supposed to be special and unique to a later moment in their lives?)

As someone whose penis makes him a sexist pig regardless, I find this if-then debate somewhat troubling. Men are regularly accused of generating and encouraging a hypersexualized environment. Girls under 18 are most decidedly off-limits. Yet if adults get in a tizzy when girls under 18 wear revealing, potentially sexualizing outfits, then we’re “slut shaming.”

If we approve of these outfits, then we’re pervs or bad parents. If we disapprove, we’re rape apologists. I feel like WOPR: “The only way to win is not to play.” But how can any parent or educator avoid playing this game?

These shorts are distracting.
Am I "slut shaming" The Great
White Hope??
Meanwhile, no one seems to suggest that the reason girls are singled out for these conversations a bajillion times more than boys is because boys mostly wear clothing that covers their junk. Boys at prom tend to have slightly more flesh exposed than Muslim women in strict countries. Outside of gay pride parades, boys stopped wearing junk-hugging short shorts once Larry Bird retired from the NBA.

When your barely-adolescent daughter arrives at the damn Middle School prom, she really should wear panties and enough textile material to cover the lower curve of her bottom even when sitting down.

This is not because I think of a 13-year-old girl as a sexual creature; It’s because SHE thinks of herself as a sexual creature. One in five teenage girls have sent a sexually-suggestive or nude picture of themselves to someone else via phone. More than one in three have sent sexually suggestive messages.

So isn’t the bigger problem here that we’ve created (particularly in girls) a young generation so hyperaware of their own sexuality, yet so incapable of wielding that power with maturity or responsibility, that they and their parents think they should be attending middle school dances in clothing barely suitable for Lady GaGa?

I’m not arguing for an Amish dress code, although a part of me would be fine with that. But I do believe that whatever fashion choices can be defined as “respectful of others” and “decent,” we’ve gone several standard deviations beyond that, and it sure would be nice if we let the pendulum swing back a bit.

At what age are girls no longer free to choose, on their own,
what constitutes "inappropriate" or "distracting"?
Do 11-year-old girls own the right to express themselves
and their bodies however they see fit?
Is that freedom and equality?
Part of me worries that Girls Gone Wild didn’t die because it was scummy and disgusting, but rather because our culture found ways for girls to go wild without needing some greasy pervy video collection to do so.

Again, none of this is excusing or defending male assclowns who mistreat, abuse, or attack women. That someone could jump to that conclusion is what pisses me off in the first place.

I’ve included, for anyone bored or wishing they could continue the debate, the Facebook discussion I jumped into on an acquaintance's page. I welcome anyone who wishes to jump into this with me, as I don’t pretend to have all the answers on matters of slut shaming and rape apologia:
MOM/FB Friend’s Original Status Post: The behavior of these school administrators makes me so %$# angry. "Rape culture is . . .evident in the attitudes that lead school administrators to treat young girls’ bodies as inherently 'distracting' to the boys who simply can’t control themselves."
TEEN DAUGHTER: Furthermore, I, as a teenage girl, am able to control myself when I see a boy in a loose tank top (which oftentimes slide, revealing nipple) and tight jeans and/or shorts, and can remain undistracted. However, because I'm a girl, this "control" is expected of me. Using the excuse that "boys will be boys" not only lends preference to them, but it teaches them that it's acceptable for them to have no control-- which feeds into rape culture, and the objectification and subjugation of women.
MOM/FB Friend: Double like, [daughter].
ME: By this logic, females should be allowed to go outdoors topless wherever they wish? I'm just trying to figure out the parameters, the conclusion of this logic before I decide whether I agree...
FB Friend I’ve Never Met: Billy, I'm curious to know what you think would happen if women went outdoors topless wherever they wish?
ME: Ma’am, I couldn't say anymore than I can say whether licensed hunters would shoot unicorns if they existed. I'm curious why you seem to judge my attitude based on what seems to me a reasonable question. Is it reasonable for me to conclude you are Pro Nude Prom? If so, hurray for you, but I'm not ready for that world yet.
FB Friend I’ve Never Met: Yep, I'm the chairwoman of the Pro Nude Prom advocacy group.
ME: OK, so if it's reasonable for lines to be drawn -- clothing at Prom, for example -- then ultimately someone must be an arbiter of taste and "appropriate." Someone must draw the line somewhere, and that place will invite disagreement. While the line in this particular NJ instance seems dubious, it also seems unfair to conclude it's therefore obviously "slut shaming." That is, unless anything short of Nude Proms is also "slut shaming."
MOM/FB Friend: My point is that any office, restaurant, school etc can determine what is appropriate attire but we wouldn't tell boys and men that not wearing a coat and tie is "distracting".
Teen Daughter: First of all, women going topless is almost the same as a fat man going topless. If it's extra breast tissue that invites such strong reactions, some men should have to wear bikini tops. The anatomy is the same, it's merely the fact that women are objectified and degraded more than men. The use of breasts isn't sexual enjoyment. I'm all for "females going outdoors topless whenever they wish". It's slut shaming because it's apparently acceptable to demand a kindergarten girl change her skirt--the female body is hypersexualized even at that age. Also, I bring up the double standard again. Men may be aroused by breasts, but what if I'm aroused by abs? They wouldn't be asked to change. Furthermore, I find the fact that you seem to believe that women have no sense of propriety to the point that they would attend prom, an event that in many cases is based solely on attire, naked incredibly offensive. Women aren't scheming to constantly show as much skin possible.
Teen Daughter: Also, this arbiter of what is "appropriate" seems to only target girls for their "distracting" clothing. Interesting. Wouldn't want the boys getting distracted from their studies by those wily females. If the girls are distracted, too bad.
Teen Daughter: Please pardon me if I come off as rude.
Teen Daughter: It's just that this issue is so important to me because it tells me that my body, whether or not I want it to be, even if I just want to be comfortable during the eight plus hours I'm away from my home, is a sexual object.
Mom/FB Friend: You don't come off as rude you come off as incredibly smart, nuanced in your thinking, and able to make your point strongly without being rude.
Me: [Name], bravo to you for your eloquence and confidence. As the father of two beautiful girls on the verge of adolescence, this is not an issue to be taken lightly. Perhaps let's consider both sides of this gender issue. Young men (at least at the proms I know of) are required to wear pants. This isn't due to slut shaming, nor it is because we're worried about male junk flopping around in front of everyone (although isn't that a reasonable concern?). Am I prudish if I don't want boys wearing their wrestling singlets to the prom? Even if so, I can promise that just because it would be "distracting" doesn't mean it is in any way sexually appealing to me.
Teen Daughter: I understand what you're saying, but it's difficult to examine both sides when both genders are treated so differently. If a boy wore his wrestling singlet, would he be ogled and objectified, possibly even grabbed and pinched? From what I've seen in my time, his attire would be viewed as "classic schoolboy antics" and might even be laughed at. Males in small amounts of clothing may be "distracting" but it probably wouldn't be filed under something of a sexual nature. However, a girl in such a small amount of clothing would not be laughed at. It would not be "cute". Even if it was a joke, it would be interpreted sexually. The issue I'm trying to get at is that everything a woman puts on her body ends up having sexual connotations, no matter its purpose. When the "distracting" label is applied to women, it almost automatically means that they are dressed too sexually, which not only reinforces this dehumanizing mindset, it also contributes to shaming women about their sexuality in all aspects of life.
Teen Daughter: I also think that the pants rule seems a bit restrictive, but then again I am a hippie.
Me: If I as an adult male find both a 17-year-old girl's over-exposed backside or a boy's junk-hugging attire "distracting," it is possible for both observations to have nothing to do with whether I'm a horny sexual creature. It seems there's a rush to accuse me (or "male society" and me guilty by semi-involuntary association) of sexualizing, as an adult male, in situations where that accusation might be unjustified ... That said, I thank [Mom/FB Friend] for tolerating me totally hogging her post and you [Teen Daughter] for engaging me in an enjoyable discussion. My goal for my own daughters is not for them to grow up agreeing with me, but for them to grow up capable of thinking deeply, learning to justify their beliefs, and also being willing and open to consider (and sometimes adjust to) the counterpoints of others. I'm betting you can handle all those and untold other challenges sublimely.

Monday, May 6, 2013

How To Ignore Writer's Block Through Movies

Moonlight Mile - Lee Fields & the Expressions (mp3)

I own over 300 movies some 50 seasons of TV on DVD. How very 1997 of me.

In early April, I was collecting rejected movies, music, books and games for a triannual trip to the local used movie/book/game shop, I counted my movies and then took note of how many I’d watched in the past year. Excluding the kid movies (we own another 80 of those), the answer was four.

Roughly 296 of the movies I saw fit to purchase and store along a wall-length bookshelf sat an entire year collecting dust.

So I made a pact. One of my owned movies per week.

So far I’m ahead of pace, which is easy enough to do when you’re struggling with writer’s block/apathy and desperate for a mission to keep you from having to stare any longer at an empty page on a computer screen (or worse, a non-empty page that is an embarassment to writing).

Hell, I’m averaging 2.5 of my movies each week, because my old movies are far more entertaining than staring at a collection of words on my laptop screen and thinking to myself, over and over, “this shit makes absolutely no sense.”

Here are three quick movie reviews/recommendations if you’re looking for a serious drama film.

Moonlight Mile (2002)This film was clearly Brad Siberling’s baby. Brilliantly framed and lit by director of cinematography Phedon Papamichael ("Sideways," "The Descendants"), the movie centers around Jake Gyllenhaal in his first big role following the mojo of “October Sky” and “Donnie Darko.” He is Joe. His fiancee is dead, and he is recovering in the home of mourning parents Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon.

All three main roles are played well. The script comes off a bit wooden in a couple of places, but the way it’s filmed and several of the key themes/devices are so lovely that this minor sin can be forgiven. Especially awesome is Ellen Pompeo (“Gray’s Anatomy”) in a role that earned her the kind of move in the ranks she got. She is a scene-stealer because it comes naturally and is almost believable, the kind of adorable fantasy encounter necessary to salve the broken heart of a mourning young lad.

The plot has a couple of nice twists, and the movie is very quietly set in the early ‘70s. It’s the rare timepiece film that doesn’t try too hard to place itself. Some timepiece movies get so distracted with creating the right time they forget about telling the right story. This isn’t one. It’s adorable and moving and everything a drama with a heart and sense of humor should be.

The Messenger (2009)How this wasn’t a nominee for Best Picture I’ll never understand. Ben Foster is a fascinating talent from all the way back in his “Freaks & Geeks” days, and this is his finest hour. Fortunately, Woody Harrelson, who can occasionally possess more acting chops than often credited, is up to the task of going toe-to-toe with Foster’s great performance.

The scenes of these men, charged with informing next-of-kin at home of the demise of their soldier sons and daughters, husbands and wives, are gut-wrenching and believable. In a decade filled with movies about soldiers struggling to survive wars in the desert, few if any are better than this one.

Crash (2004)I’m not sure which gets less respect as a Best Picture winner, “Crash” or “Shakespeare In Love.” In truth, both are good and enjoyable films, but both are also flawed. They both deserve skepticism on whether they won on merit or on marketing.

Still, there are some well-written and moving scenes worth savoring. The highly underrated Michael Pena (“End of Watch”) passing on an invisible cape to his daughter. Don Cheadle in pretty much every scene he’s in. The riveting scene with Terrence Howard, Thandie Newton and Matt Dillon that earned much of the attention earned its attention. It didn’t deserve Best Picture anymore than Carmelo Anthony deserved a vote for NBA MVP, but it’s still a very good movie.

Sunday, May 5, 2013



(with a backspace that
obliterates like a street-legal semi-
automatic set on automatic) ,

I've already deleted more poems than you've
Ever written, all in favor of this of questionable
Merit (my usual half-effort that gets me through) ,

I'll always have that one over
You though, the brilliance of those deletions.
They were stunning work--
Images for the ages and words

No one dreamed should combine
And  insights men could lust over.
(you must take my word for it
and because you think I'm your friend
you probably will)

I spent all of last week trying
To figure out something else about life,
Maybe a poem's worth or a story's or a novel's,
But that entire week, I only learned one thing--
About one person in one situation on one day

From one action and nothing
That was ever said.  (it was like finally troubling
To pick a rock and do what it took
 to see it)  Inside that study I saw this:
We don't trust the people that we trust.

It shouldn't make any sense,
Should invite a derisive chuckle,
But once said aloud,
( in second person not first plural )
I couldn't delete the trouble it will cause,
And only that is why this is a poem.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Poor Sports

I'd Be Lying - Greg Laswell (mp3)
Any Other Heart - Go Radio (mp3)

“Daddy! Hey Daddy!” my 5-year-old son shouted.

“Yeah son?”

“Cobras live in China!”

“That’s right, pal! Pay attention, buddy!” I shouted back from the bleachers to my 5-year-old son as I stifled my amusement.

This was one of several random and non-baseball conversations my son instigated while standing somewhere in the vicinity of center field, one of seven outfielders. The outfield had almost as many humans as blades of grass, yet somehow a decently-struck ball would certainly pass by all of them.

A few of the other parents in the bleachers looked at me with what could have been amusement but felt like annoyance. Two of the moms were definitely looking away and shaking their head. One mom yelled at another: “Don’t you dare encourage my son after something like that!” (No, seriously.)

For most of these moms and dads and for our coaches, there is nothing funny about the Single A Division. There is nothing funny about 5- and 6-year-olds picking grass and kicking up dirt and shouting Random Cobra Facts in the middle of the game. There is nothing funny about kids running to third base after a hit, or running from second to home, or running right past first base and toward the right field fence.

Four of these moms who aren’t laughing are barely into their 20s. One is older than me. Two kids are regularly brought by their grandparents, and I’m not sure if the grandparents are the active guardians or just consistently doing this favor for their son or daughter. Our head coach has at least six tattoos, but at least two other head coaches have him beat on ink acreage.

What I’m saying is, I’ve never felt quite so classist and snobbish as I have as a first-year parent in the Dixie Youth League.

Although I cannot find any studies on the topic, it’s become increasingly clear from anecdotal experience that child sports are an amazingly reliable indicator of class and income. Little league baseball is a poor sport, at least 'round these here parts. A majority of the kids’ parents are divorced or don’t even have a dad in the picture. The parents are not, for the most part, college graduates. Tats and freaky piercings are rampant.

Swimming and soccer are, amongst the white population, the stuff of middle- and upper-middle-class families. Under half the families are divorced. Several dads and moms show up at games in the business attire of ties or female power suits. Tats are the exception to the flesh.

Golf and tennis are the stuff of upper crust. Both require intense one-on-one teaching, and the equipment and fees ain’t cheap, either. Caddys and other high-end SUVs mark the parking lots. The parents tend to be older, their skin tighter and tanner.

All of this is vague generality. These observations risk indicting me as a snob. As a “moderate slash liberal,” I believe in taking stances politically that value the contributions of all people to our country and that seek to protect and assist those at or near the bottom of the heap, and I believe that they are not always there by choice or sheer laziness.

But my Dixie Youth experience is proof of a complexity we don't like to acknowledge in discussions about equality, fairness and class in our culture: the attitudes and choices of a great many people in lower-income brackets are, simply, unsavory. Children before 20. Divorce before 22 if they ever got married. Treating 5-year-old baseball as more important than education or... well hell, just about anything else in life is more important than 5-year-old frappin' baseball.

What makes me uncomfortable sitting in those Dixie Youth stands has nothing directly to do with how much money sits in their bank accounts or 401k and everything to do with how they treat their children, how they talk of their ex-spouses or baby daddies, how they comport themselves.*

Is this hypocrisy?

Can we not believe public schools are too screwed up to entrust with our children’s futures while also fighting to make public schools better? Can we not believe many poor and low-income parents are often royally screwed up while believing they (and their kids) deserve a legitimate and fighting chance at something better? And that, no matter how annoying they can be, that they live in a country that won't let them drown if we can help them?

Would it be less troubling if I were discussing my distaste of “characters” from Duck Dynasty or Honey Boo Boo rather than people at my son’s ball games?

* -- Super-rich parents and people would probably annoy me almost equally, but they're safely behind gates that my Old Navy Visa simply can't pass, so they rarely have to sit in the presence of my judgmental observations.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Dear Mr. Deadline


 noun \-ˌlīn\
1: a line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot
Dear Mr. Deadline,

I am lost without you.  The way that you drift in and out of my life is simply not acceptable, at least not if you expect anything from me.  And, frankly, if you're not going to be around, it isn't fair for you to expect anything from me.  Nor are you likely to get anything.

See, I am probably your biggest fan, your biggest follower. Anytime you drop in, you have me at "date due." I'd rather get a calendar with you on it than one of those free ones from a Chinese restaurant, and those have geishas on them, or whatever the Chinese equivalent of a geisha is.  Maybe they are just representative Chinese women.  Anyway.

If you were a cult, I would drink the Kool-Aid.

You are my guiding light, my raison d'etre, the way I work, how I get things done, what keeps me out of trouble, the line in the sand, and, really, the only way that I can manage multiple obligations.

At the times I have been your perfect acolyte, at those times, you have inspired me to internalize your message, so much so that I would begin creating icons of you myself.  My worship was so fervent that I didn't need you right there so long as I knew that you were there to give me guidance and succor.  Even if you don't reveal yourself to me every day, I still need to know that you are there.

But the world is dark.  And sometimes it feels like you are not there at all, or that you used to be there, that you used to care, but that now you have gone somewhere else.  

Mr. Deadline, you used to be a part of this blog.  You were insistent, but not Draconian in your measures, for you allowed me to establish in my mind that 18 or so blogposts a month from us was sufficient and that as long as we fit those somewhere into the 4 weeks, give or take, of each month, you would not take us to task.

You used to perch high above me like a hungry condor. You were not friendly, but you kept your distance, only shifting the positions of your talons from time to time to remind me that you were up there.  You waited, but in your waiting, you made me never keep you waiting very long.

But now you are gone, flown who knows where, and I am like the indifferent child who has forgotten his catechism.  Without the nourishment you once provided my soul,  the near-daily devotions I would offer in return, I drift across the barren lands of television and computer games and other mindless distractions.

And I am afraid, condor.  I fear that you will come back, but not to oversee production of this blog, instead to feast on its rotting carcass.