Wednesday, June 26, 2013

My Song Of The Year...And Yours

Jason Isbell--"Relatively Easy" (mp3)

Because if you are reading this right now, you are of a certain type, a certain standard of living, a certain comfort level. Unless, of course, you're here on some kind of existential quest for free music.  And maybe, even then, this is your song of the year.

Because Jason Isbell has written a song for you, for all of us.  It's a neat trick, that last song on his new CD, Southeastern, coming as it does at the end of a string of songs which, whatever else they accomplish, show us Isbell or his personna coming to terms with streak of substances abuse that he seems to have tentatively under control.  And, because we have seen so many depictions of that lifestyle in song, book, film, and perhaps our own lives or the lives of those we know, we tend to have a pretty good understanding of what a hellish ride that is.  And Isbell goes and undercuts the whole damn thing.

Because "Relatively Easy"--at various turns tender, sympathetic, gently mocking, self-effacing, embracing, distancing, brutally honest, coyly ambiguous--takes the trials and tribulations of our lives and puts them into contexts that show them to be both devastating and, as the title suggests, "relatively easy" to deal with.

The song opens with a friendly acoustic strumming pattern (including a minor chord nod to the chord the Goo Goo Dolls built their entire canon upon) and Isbell's most welcoming voice:

Are you having a long day?
Everyone you meet rubs you the wrong way,

Dirty city streets smell like an ashtray,

Morning bells are ringing in your ear.

Isbell's use of the 2nd person makes it seem, at least at first, that he's speaking to all of us (more on my increasing love for the 2nd person in an upcoming post).  There's a kind of "we've all been there" feel to the scene, a day that went south for any number of small, even petty reasons, so that everything around us adds to the irritation.

But he takes a quick turn toward something more bothersome:

Is your brother on a church kick?

Seems like just a different kind of dope sick.

Quickly, we know that Isbell has moved from a general "you" to someone he knows, someone with a sibling who's gone off the deep end on Christianity, a circumstance Isbell equates with someone needing a fix.  These sharp, bitter lines, which continue in the next couplet of sarcastic religious commentary, bring home the song's opening notion that sometimes people are hard to be around in some core ways.

But immediately Isbell, shifting to the chorus, yanks the rug:

You should know compared 

To people on a global scale
Our kind has had it relatively easy,
And here with you there's always 
Something to look forward to,
My angry heart beats relatively easy.

I love, in particular, the word choice of "our kind."  That's us, boys and girls.  And it plays off the phrase "your kind," which has always had that grouped, dismissive, insulting tone to it.  Here, Isbell seems to say, 'Yeah, things can suck for you, but take a look around.'  And juxtaposed with his little note of love that finishes the chorus with the vague, generalized platitude of "there's always something to look forward to,"  he seems to relish his relationship and to not make too much of it at the same time.  It helps him, but it doesn't, it can't, cure him.

I won't break down the rest of the song, for it has additional lyrical gems and surprises along the way if you've not yet heard it.  It also maintains a consistent ambivalence throughout, as he explores the plights of a friend, himself, a guy he doesn't know walking along the street whose situation he imagines, all of them trying to come to terms with new circumstances and all dealing with those in different ways.

But I would clue you in to a couple of key lines.  I like the ways he pokes fun at the notion of our desire to get away from it all so we can figure things out:

Take a year and make a break,

There aint that much at stake,
The answers could be relatively easy.

And I always appreciate a chronicler who is willing to indict himself, as Isbell does here, when after describing his run-in with the law, he says, "E
verything to blame except my mind."  

"Relatively Easy" is the best kind of song a singer-songwriter can put in front of us.  It's gentle, alluring, and rewarding to sing along with, and while not didactic or dogmatic or political, as the words come out of our own mouths, they still create a kind of unease, they still force us to take stock and may compel us to say, "Oh, yeah, I hadn't quite thought of it that way."

I'm not claiming this will be your favorite song of the year; I have no control over that.  But I do contend that this is your song and mine, whether we will admit that or not.  And, by the way, the entire Southeastern CD is more than worth your time.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Some Assembly Required

Legoland - Ned's Atomic Dustbin (mp3)

Michael Chabon’s 2009 collection of essays, Manhood for Amateurs, is an exploration into manhood and fatherhood at the dawn of the 21st Century, compiled from his essays in Details magazine over several years. The collection offered a breezy read with occasional moments of enlightenment. Plenty enjoyable.

As my son has become a full-blown toddler, Chabon's troubling essay on the devolution of LEGOs has become an ever-menacing shadow in the attic of my parental hangups. In an LA Times interview about that essay, he sums up his troubles with the 21st Century LEGO world well:
Not everything that at first glance seems to be a further illustration of the kind of cultural imperialism I see at work in the adult world over the world of childhood — not everything is necessarily an example of that. Certainly kids retain their love of subversion, and I think it’s just innate to a child’s mind to want to subvert authority. I think it’s unfortunate that the adult world figured out a way to take over that impulse and package it and retail it and sell it back to children, and to their parents.
Last Christmas, as I spent literally half a day assembling the half-dozen high-cost LEGO sets my son asked for and received, I thought constantly of Chabon’s essay. Was I helping create an automaton? Was this Ninjago (TM) 4-headed dragon going to crimp my son’s creativity? Was carefully piecing together that A-Wing Fighter painting my son's imagination into a corner?

Despite my internal struggle, I built the damn things anyway. I can’t say why. Maybe laziness (of parental philosophy, not actual labor, which was a pain in the ass). Maybe a Zen-like trust that things work out. Mostly just because he wanted me too.

As Chabon had suggested, LEGOs had become modern-day models, meant to be constructed and admired, not played with. By mid-January everything I’d so carefully built was in pieces and scattered into several plastic bins in his room. Their utility seems to have died with the first major pieces that fell off. LEGO Leprosy, if you will.

By late February, my 5-year-old began assembling LEGO stuff by himself. His grandmother, an anchor of babysitting reliability, started buying him those $10 smaller models -- Avengers, Star Wars, Ninjago, whatever the boy picked out -- and for that precious $10 she bought herself an hour or more of quiet time. She would read or rest or take care of odd jobs while my son labored intensely and singularly on his building project. Rarely if ever did he need her help. Junior was apparently better at reading the instructions than she.

Several times I have observed him through the process after buying a new box. He’d turn page after page of instruction, working the pieces into place. Five-year-old boys are rarely so quiet or so focused.

One time he missed a piece and got several steps down the line before hitting an impasse. My son has more OCD in him than either of his parents combined, and he’s an extrovert, so it was all yelling and pounding and screaming in anger that the process somehow failed him. After calming him down, I made him pull off several layers and start back on an earlier page -- I hadn’t seen Junior's mistake; I only knew it was how I solved the problem when I was building these damn things, which is to tear it down a little. Two steps forward, one step back.

He calmed down. He started again. He got through it without another hitch.

Junior was now the LEGO foreman of his own construction company. Give him the blueprints, and he could build it. Still, he was trapped in the very limitations Chabon lamented: Junior had become good at doing what he was told to do, and not by his parents, but by the LEGO Corporation.

Don’t get me wrong; I want an obedient and considerate son, and I can even tolerate his OCD nature even if I don’t completely understand it. But raising a semi-mindless soldier isn’t my idea of parental success.

But in the last few weeks, there’s been another move forward. My son has moved gradually from foreman to architect. He has increasingly become less focused on following the instructions and building pre-planned things and more interested in making new things from all his old pieces. In that LA Times interview, Chabon rained a little on my parade (“Junior is a friggin’ genius!”) by revealing that my son's metamorphosis is common:
In the world of Legos, what I did discover is that my kids were taking these beautiful, gorgeous, incredibly restrictive predetermined Legos Star Wars play sets — and yeah, they really wanted it to be put together just the way the box showed it. I don’t think it occurred to them you’d want to do anything else with it. But inevitably, over time, the things kind of crumble and get destroyed and fall apart and then, once they do, the kids take all those pieces, and they create these bizarre, freak hybrids — of pirates and Indians and Star Wars and Spider-Man. Lego-things all getting mashed up together into this post-modern Lego stew. They figure out a way, despite the best efforts of corporate retail marketing.
Or perhaps Professor Ian Malcolm said it best:
If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh... well, there it is.
Nothing we adults to do try and kill or quash or control the creativity in younger generations will completely succeed. Creativity, like life, finds a way. It just takes time.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Parallel Vigils

Through one of those strange and awful coincidences that life presents, my wife and I spent a week or so simultaneously watching the decline and death of each of our  mentors.  Mine hired me; hers hired her.

They died within 72 hours of each other last week.  Hers fell at the doctor's office and hit his head and developed a brain bleed, was on life support for over a week until his children were finally convinced that he would not come out of it.  Mine fell taking out the trash at night, and how that precipitated his end I don't know exactly, but within 36 hours, he was gone.

While she was monitoring hers, and giving guidance to his children, I actually saw mine one last time.  We met on Monday night, our usual group, for steak and male conversation, him playing host as always, with his baskets of stellar french fries and perfectly-cooked meat, accompanied by the vegetable of choice, always brussel sprouts.  With ice cream and coffee for dessert.

And even though, with his emphysema, he had to choose each moment between breathing and talking, we had a wonderful evening, the usual sharing of stories and the camaraderie that develops when a group of men meets at irregular intervals, all united by the common bond of attending or working at the same private school.

As you might expect with a mentor, both were tortured relationships over 20 and 30 years, respectively, a mix of good and bad, uplifting and disappointment, support and second-guessing.  And, as you might expect, that makes the aftermath more difficult than if the relationships had been smooth.

For my wife, her final meetings with her mentor were at his bedside where he was unresponsive, her presence more for his children than for him, though she would lie awake at night and grieve him privately, reviewing, as her particular mind tends to do, all of their various interactions, the slights and the joys.

And the differences emerged.  Ultimately, she believes her mentor did not choose life.  He did not manage his diabetes, he did not manage his weight, he was found in his house a year or so ago in a coma from that lethal combination.  He cut himself off, pretty much, from those who wanted to bring him out.  His fall was the result of him losing the ability to control his walking.

Mine, she believes, and I agree, chose life.  Though anyone who knew him could argue that he brought the emphysema on with his inability to give up smoking, the fact remains that to his last week, to his last day, he lived a life of engagement, hosting friends and serving others.  His contributions to his AA group are incalculable.  Same with his neighborhood association.

In better health, the next to last time we met, those of us in the steak group took on the duties of cooking.  This last time, he did almost everything himself, though barely able to stand, unwilling to relinquish, finally, his lifelong role as host to the failings of body and time, until that was beyond his control.

Mine died in his sleep; hers died a few hours after they removed all of the various machines of life support.

And yet, hers we celebrated at a moving funeral service two days ago, where lawyers and family members, including my wife, rose to speak of his rich embrace of life, demonstrating amply that he had "sucked the marrow" out of it.  At least until these final years.  There was ample laughter at his antics, sorrow for our loss, a shared celebration of his life.

And my mentor has left specific instructions that there will be no service, no funeral to commemorate his years.  Three days after his death, indeed, not even an obituary.  It appears that whatever remembrance will take place will be left to the whims of men who gathered to eat steak and to celebrate what once was, for a gathering at his home was always about a school and a life that had been.  That was the expectation.  That was always the expectation.

And so, what judgement, you ask?  None from me.  Men who lived and died, who led and retreated, who affirmed and confused, and who leave friends and families to try to figure out the same things that they did.  For now, both of us, and many others I know, are grappling with their conclusions.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Uh....I Think I Quit Answering My Phone

Courtney Jaye--"Say Oh Say" (mp3)

I know when it started.  When the house phone became a pointless, irrelevant noisemaker in our lives, a thing we used to screen the calls that we were never going to answer, which means that we weren't really screening anything because every time the phone rang, it was a foregone conclusion.  Nope, sorry, not talking to you, though by that time it was credit card people, telemarketers, and political robots only.

Because, you, I was talking to you on my cell phone, wasn't I?

Except, now I'm not.  Uh, no offense, but I think I've quit answering my phone.  No, not think, I'm pretty sure I have.  In some cases, I'm practically certain.  In fact, I can look at my phone logs and see the documentation of exactly that.

Not you, though, right?  I'm pretty sure I'm taking your calls.  Even if I'm not taking anyone else's.  

Well, even that isn't true.  I am taking some calls all the time.  My dad because I'm afraid something might be wrong, something may have happened to him.  My daughters because I'm afraid something might be wrong, some crisis where I'm needed.  My wife because, well, my wife needs me to answer the phone and I need her to.  If you need more explanation than that, you aren't married.

My boss, yes, I'm just paranoid enough that I take that call every time.  

And my friends?  Of course, my friends!  I'll take your call through rain or sleet or even snow, especially in a short term situation like when we're in New Orleans and you don't know where I am and I don't know where you are and...well, at least know with absolute certainty, that I'll take your call always.  Maybe not his or hers.

But sometimes, maybe not.  When I'm detoxing on the way home from work, when I'm in the middle of cooking supper, when I'm sitting at the kitchen table chillaxing, when I'm watching a movie that I could pause but don't feel like pausing, most of all, my head is in some completely different place than the potential issues

There's a societal shift here; I don't think it's just me.  The telephone went from the shared experience of a party line where you could listen in on your neighbor's conversations if you wanted while you waited for that all-important call (which your neighbors could listen to) to the mysterious excitement of who could possibly be on the other end of that ringing machine to being the single connection to the outside world for an entire family and, therefore, an essential tool for bored teenagers everywhere.  I remember monopolizing the family phone for hours, not caring one lick for the busy signal some frustrated caller might be getting, saying almost nothing of significance to a friend or girl or girlfriend simply because it was night and we were apart and teenagers want to be together.  The older you got, though, the more that the telephone became about business--solicitors, offers, creditors, winning free cemetery plots in drawing you didn't even know you had entered.

And then we all got our own phones and I never spoke to your wife or husband or child or whoever answered the phone again and, in the broader sense, that little machine in my pocket told me that I never had to speak to someone accidentally or at an unplanned time again.  Don't recognize the number--don't answer it!  It might be a robot call from Oregon trying to find out if you are a real phone number or not.  Recognize the call--don't answer it!  It might take your evening in a different direction than you want it to go.

Look, text me any time and I'll hit you right back!  Send me an email and you'll get a quick response because I check that shit like 15 times a day.  Heck, ask my blogging partner, Billy, I'll even chat with you on Gmail while I'm at work!

But all of those methods state their business, make their purpose clear immediately.  In the personal worlds we're trying to control for ourselves in 2013, a phone call doesn't do that.  And the person who is still living under the old paradigm of "Hey, I think I'll give so-and-so a call and see what's up" doesn't understand the irritation or trepidation that can cause.  Don't believe me or think I'm just a selfish outlier?  Watch the people near you and watch their reactions when the phone in their pocket or purse starts to buzz or jingle and they look at the name and make a snap judgement not to answer.

How different we've become from the first days of the cell phone when if the damn thing rang, we'd stop whatever we were doing and answer it!

Is it possible, at all, that this might be a good thing, this way that we are controlling our relationships or that relationships are being dictated by technology?  I think the answer might be largely generational and completely unclear.  People my age don't seem to be replacing real human contact with texts so much as they are turning their phones into efficient machines for relaying quick information. And while I may not take your call immediately, I will call you back. Younger generations, well...we can't even generalize.  I rarely hear my daughters talk to their friends on the phone--all interaction is conducted through text, Instagram, SnapChat, and the one I don't know the name of where it seems like a conversation, but it really may be a spoken text from you followed by a spoken text that comes back at a later time from him and on and on. It seems to work for them; they manage a lot of relationships. And, as Billy knows better than I do, even younger generations are using FaceTime or some other face-to-face conversation over Ipads or the like, an idea that's been around since the Jetsons, but which has been left to pre-teens and early teens to figure out in terms of ethics and parameters and acceptable behaviors.

So if I don't take your call right way, no, it's not personal, and, yes, it's totally personal because it's you, but, maybe like you, all I'm trying to do is to manage all of the information coming my way in a way that makes sense to me.  I will hit you back, though.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Despicable Ratio

Movies simply cannot do anti-heroes justice. I watched two movies with anti-hero protagonists of one sort or another recently, “Rampart” and “Shame.”

"Rampart" stars Woody Harrelson as a lifelong LAPD cop whose personal life is almost as wacked-out as his time behind the badge. He’s got two children from two women who just happen to be sisters. If he goes a night without banging something, we don’t see it in the film. Meanwhile he’s under investigation for beating an “innocent” man on camera and making increasingly worse decisions to cover it up.

"Shame" stars Michael Fassbender as a upper-middle-management suit in The Big Apple. He has a sexual hangup or perversion for every centimeter of length and girth between his legs... which is a lot, because he’s hung like a zebra. Something in his childhood has screwed with his airwaves, and his sister, played with superb frailty by Carey Mulligan, exists mostly as a punishment, reminding him of this murky mysterious past.

Both films were, technically speaking, fine and ambitious. Neither were created to provide the viewer warm fuzzies or happy thoughts upon their conclusion, so it’s not a crime that I didn’t “like” them; they weren’t made to be liked.

Since “Paradise Lost” (if not earlier), even despicable protagonists exist to illicit some level of sympathy, connection or understanding from the audience. As both “Rampart” and “Shame” drew toward their conclusions, I found myself aggravated that I couldn’t feel any real connection to these characters. I didn’t want to despise them or feel above them, but they didn’t feel human enough, or maybe interested enough in being decent, for me to sympathize with them.

Vic Mackey, Don Draper, Dexter Morgan, Walter White and Al Swearingen. All of these men own shelf space in my DVD collection because something in their stories pull me into their version of life, a quadruple-espresso shot of hell buffered by a few spoonfuls of flavored half-and-half heaven.

What is it about television series that makes it so much easier to be attracted to, even beguiled by, an anti-hero? I think it’s The Despicable Ratio.

The Despicable Ratio would be the number of times an anti-hero engages in a thoroughly detestable act in comparison to the number of times they seem like decent and likeable human beings. Sometimes, these detestable acts can have undercurrents of something approaching justice, and we are all guided by different moral compasses, so this isn’t a scientifically quantifiable fact of a number, but rather more of a personal impression.

In the case of “Rampart” and “Shame,” we witness two protagonists who pile on several dozen detestable -- or at the very least unsavory or pathetic -- acts in the course of 100 minutes. Or, in other words, roughly one uncomfortably less-than-decent act per 10 minutes. Between the set-up and the delivery of these moments, these movies have very little time remaining to show their decency or goodness or... well, anything that might make us feel sorry enough for them to want to endure their suffering alongside them. I often felt, in both movies, like I was being bludgeoned by their misdeeds.

On TV, the best anti-heroes average one detestable act, sometimes two, in a single episode. The rest of the time they’re wrestling and struggling with normal lives, normal problems, and approaching them with what normal people would like to think are normal and decent if flawed solutions. Movies don’t offer that breadth of time, the manifold slices of life that allow the bad stuff to be stitched in with patience and “white space,” as designers like to call it.

And we need to believe they’re trying to be more decent than not, trying at least a little, even if they’re only trying to fool us or, even better, themselves. It helps us lie to ourselves that they might, deep down, be decent people. Like we think we are. Full of flaws, once in a while despicable, but mostly decent.

Friday, June 14, 2013

"You can't stop the signal, Mal"

Recover - Chvrches (mp3)
Kill the Killjoy - The Disciplines (mp3)

You sit down to dinner with your family. You don't get to do it as much as you'd like, 'cuz families are busy. Athletic practices, music lessons, business conflicts, church obligations, all of these seem to reduce the opportunities for family nights at the dinner table to one or two each week if you're lucky. But here's your chance to savor togetherness. Enjoy this peaceful moment.

BZZZZ! Your phone.

Dinner hasn't started yet, so you pull it out of your pocket and check. It's a text message, but it's not really to you; it's a group text to five people. Three of them are watching a game together (but in different locations, maybe even different states) and have decided to include you in their back-and-forth banter.

One of your children begins to bless the food. God is great. God is BZZZZ! good. Let us thank Him for BZZZZ! our food. By his hands we all are fed. BZZZZ! Give us Lord BZZZZ! our daily BZZZZ! bread.

It's almost like a bad prank, like Candid Camera is watching you as you try to ignore the mini-vibrator in your pocket.*

A week later, you're stuck in an early afternoon meeting on Friday, the cruelest of work-based pranks. BZZZZ! You subtly check your phone below the table -- it could be your wife, or your kid, or a reminder from your calendar, who knows? Several college friends have gone away for an early golf weekend. They've texted a pic of themselves on the 13th hole to 15 of their pals, including you. It's a funny pic, no doubt. One of the guys looks like he's humping the hole, and another is slapping him on the ass while the third looks like he's cheering them on. You chuckle but try to redirect your focus on this stupid meeting, and you put the phone back in your pocket and look back at the yapper.

As you can see on Chart 4b on page 12, BZZZZ! ("That's awesome!!!"), blah blah blah... BZZZZ! ("LOL!") ... BZZZZ! ("Wish I was there!") ... BZZZZ! ("Have fun guys! You suck!!") ... BZZZZ! ("I hate y'all! I'll tell you what I'd like to do with that putter!")

Your gaddam phone buzzes so much that the “muted” vibrating becomes its own distinct noise, a sort of human dog whistle. One of the higher-ranking ladies at the table gives that look of someone trying to not look annoyed but also trying to get across the impression that they could start looking annoyed very very soon.

BZZZZ! BZZZZ! BZZZZ! The conversation continues. There’s more than a dozen of your friends having a blast in a never-ending ever-available chat room, and you have no way of excusing yourself from their party other than turning your phone completely off and shutting out not only them but the rest of the phone-accessible world. You are involuntarily opted in, and you cannot opt out.

And they’re not intentionally being rude. They have no way of knowing what they might be interrupting.

Or this.

Your daughter can’t make the weekend soccer tourney, but you get BZZZZ! all the group texts alllllll weekend -- 20, sometimes 50 in a matter of hours -- telling you where BZZZZ! they’re eating dinner, when to be at the fields, which BZZZZ! jersey to wear, what movie they BZZZZ! might or might not try to go see BZZZZ! as a group.

When You Can't Be Where You Wish You Were, group texts are (arguably) a nice salve. But in a world that makes it ever more difficult to "Be Where You Are," group texts are the black flies swarming into the moment.

This would be my Number One Smartphone Request for the next level of upgrade: Let people opt out of group text “conversations.” I am not so foolish as to believe I’m solely a victim of this feature. Many times I’m either the genesis or an active participant in a large-group text moment, and surely someone or many someones in that group is cursing me for it. I wish they could choose to escape me, too.

We're an ever-distracted people; we don't need one more insignificant thing we can't ignore. Just let us opt out. Even Mr. Universe would approve.

* -- And that doesn't even count the Phantom Buzz problem.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

"We Don't Cheat"

Margin Call is a star-studded acting tour de force of a film that explores the tipping point of the Great Recession. For the life of me I can't comprehend why I didn't hear much about it when it was in theaters or why it didn't generate greater at least a little Oscar buzz.

The opening foray of scenes in Margin Call toys intentionally with our movie formula assumptions. Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is fired but has a dangerous secret. Will (Paul Bettany), Dale's superior, shares what little sympathy he can muster, but they’ve all seen too many casualties to get too bent out of shape. Dale's young understudies feel the loss most. Is Will the villain, the insensitive prick who secretly worked to have Dale canned?

The scene shifts abruptly to introduce us to Sam Rogers, played amazingly -- and even with a fake face tan -- by Kevin Spacey, one of the best actors of the last 20 years. (Minor spoiler alert.) He sits, looking out from his office window into the heart of the Big Apple, and he weeps. Will enters and sits, witnesses Rogers’ fragile state and assumes what the viewer would, that Rogers is upset at the necessary but awful nature of “letting people go.” But Rogers is not crying for these people, but rather for his dying dog.

The moment is a gut punch. Lives are being forever altered, possibly ruined, by these masters of the universe, yet his heart is with his damn dog. Aha! I assumed this was our formal introduction to “the villain” of the story.

Later, in a gripping scene, CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) owns the board room emergency meeting and ticks off his three ways to make a living in financials: Be first. Be smarter. Or cheat.

“And we don’t cheat,” Tuld says.

When the CEO of a major investment firm up to its eyeballs in trouble makes that statement, it’s usually the stuff of mockery. Is he being funny? Is it a dramatic irony kind of humor? Is he trying to get us to despise this man even more than we already want to? No. He’s showing us a man who made it to the top. And, the way Wall Street has evolved, he’s even being honest, to a degree. Wall Street culture has managed to provide so many loopholes and caveats to whatever rules were allowed to exist in the first place that they don’t even know what constitutes “cheating.”

I wanted so badly to jump into the movie and ask that question: “What would be cheating?” Because I suspect Tuld couldn’t come up with a specific answer.

He must be, I figured, “the villain,” and not Spacey's character, and not Bettany's character. This was the supreme bad guy.

One of art’s most important duties is to break us through our preconceived notions. Margin Call is an important film because it refuses to pander to an angry mob or spiteful victims, which is to say most of us watching the film. Almost all of us have reasons to loathe Wall Street and every $7,000 suit-clad worm who aided or abetted that system in the fleecing of our admittedly-tenuous financial security.

Wall Street is chock full of villains. Believing this makes things easier for me, as I watch my 401k too-slowly rehab its way back from a near-fatal crash, likely never to regain full use of its limbs the way it lived before 2007. I need to know that some Ming the Merciless was up there on the highest floors of a skyscraper, pushing buttons to ruin my life. It drives me nuts that one scandal after another affects all of us yet offers us no heads on a platter. “You mean after all that destruction, no one has to pay for it? No one’s going to jail or losing their job?” we say time and again. “That’s inexcusable!”

Unfortunately, sometimes the biggest bad is done by lots of halfway decent people. Sometimes there's no Darth Vader or Lex Luthor; there's just us.

I came away from Margin Call still believing that Wall Street is the pulsing embodiment of 1 Timothy 6:10, but that the stormtroopers and generals who populate and operate this gold-plated garbage compactor are every bit as human and humane as police officers, dentists, janitors, teachers.

In a tender scene later in the film, Tucci’s character fondly recalls his work as an engineer on a bridge in West Virginia. He rattles off, with accountant-like genius and zeal, the calculable impact of his good work. Zachary Quinto's character Peter also shunned life as a rocket scientist for Wall Street and admits it all came down to following the money. In an interview on the DVD, Quinto makes the potent observation (I'm paraphrasing), "The only real choice these characters had was whether to work on Wall Street in the first place. The rest was mostly beyond their control."

Which is why I'm hopeful that the latest news about Ivy League grads being less interested in Wall Street is the beginning of a long trend rather than a blip. I'm hopeful this young generation that often gets so much flack might be the first to wake up and actually believe there is greater good to be done in their world with their talents and intelligence than manipulating numbers on a global roulette wheel.

That might be the only choice they can make about Wall Street that does us any good.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Summer Cruisin' 2013

Most years since the 1980's, I have made a cassette mixtape or CD mix for a particular friend of mine.  The mix was always called Summer Cruisin', with the appropriate year added.  It was an homage to a series of record compilations (I'm assuming of 50's and early 60's music) that I remember from my teenage years.

I never owned any of them, so I don't really know what was on them.  But for many of us with busy, cluttered lives these days, that chance to drive with the top down or the windows down or the top up and the a/c on is one of the few opportunities we have to crank up some tunes and to get inside the spaces of some song.  Or, maybe, one of the few chances to do some sustained music listening, like for 20 whole minutes while we drive somewhere.

Recently, I have the added bonus of my wife not liking the way I drive and so wanting to drive everywhere, which my manhood fought at first, until I realized that when I wasn't driving, there was a whole lot of other fun stuff that I could do in a car--listen to music through headphones, play games, read, screw around on a phone, Waze, sleep, etc.

So in the spirit of all of that, I offer my 2013 installment of the Summer Cruisin' series.  As is typical, it's a blend of recent and less so, kind of well-known and preciously-obscure, grabby and stuff that only I might like.  But I've done my best to try to sync it with summer weather, summer sensibilities, carefree living, and, most of all, pleasurable miles on an open road.  Enjoy!

"Summertime" by Gershwin (solo guitar)" (mp3)

"Age Of Ice"--Thao and the Get Down Stay Down (mp3)

"Like Lovers Do"--Lloyd and Will Cole (mp3)

"Fall In"--Cloud Nothings (mp3)

"Drink The Water"--Eisley (mp3)

"Helicopter"--Branches (mp3)

"Hearts and Minds"--Son Volt (mp3)

"San Francisco"--Foxygen (mp3)

"European Me"--Johnny Marr (mp3)

"Fenway"--Griffin House (mp3)

"As It Comes"--Cheyenne Marie Mize (mp3)

"Dreamin'"--Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison (mp3)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

KICK: A Masterpiece, Signifying Nothing

Guns in the Sky - INXS (mp3)

If life via pop music is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” then there is no better bombastic yet meaningless expression Shakespearean philosophy from the 1980s than KICK by INXS.

KICK is, simply, a pop masterpiece, an album as mesmerizing to hear as it is vapid to contemplate.

Unlike many of the ‘80s biggest-sellers, KICK is not trapped by its decade even as its timestamp is clear. Although it enjoys its synthysized moments, it’s not imprisoned by them and is more eager in celebrating guitar hooks, occasionally intense if uncomplicated drums, and the orchestration of The Hook.

Michael Hutchence is, in this Shakespearean analogy, the idiot in the truest Tragic sense. Here is a man who exuded such a knee-knocking vibe of sexuality that he could have seduced about any woman or man he targeted. Hell, I doubt there were many mammals who could have turned him down. So how flabbergastingly ironic that a man who could have slept with anyone and anything found his demise attempting to pleasure himself in solitude?*

INXS was always gifted with the ability to craft a killer pop song. From their arrival on the big scene in 1982 to their forgettable departure in 1997**, only one album failed to offer an earworm gem. From their first video, when “The One Thing” concludes a fruit-eating bacchanalia with a woman “eating out” a fruit and leaving the remnants on the table like a discarded pudendum, it was clear they would be a band more often interested in the carnal than the romantic. (Not that you can’t have both, but that was rarely the INXS mission.)

For sheer pop sonic pleasure, I’d happily put up the best 10 INXS songs (list included below) against any band’s. They might lose a handful of competitions, but no more than that. They’d lose fewer if you don’t expect any lyrical depth.

Amusing Side Note: I frequently visit to read the mostly-erroneous interpretations of songs, but you’ll find few errors -- and few comments in general -- on the INXS song listings.

All other INXS albums are like Krystal burgers - a lot of bread filler existing only to make a tiny patty of meat look bigger. Even X, their second-best effort and a damn fine album, has more than a couple of useless and forgettable songs. But not KICK. Kick is strong from start to finish, and it perfectly balances a diversity of sound with the establishment of a musical identity.

Don’t just take it from me. Take it from Beck, one of the more eccentric musical minds of the last 20 years who likes dipping his toe into the pop mainstream on occasion. Beck grabbed a group of musicians and started Record Club, recreating five entire albums -- each in a single day from first rehearsal to final recording, and KICK is clearly chosen out of great respect for its wire-to-wire potency (Watch their YouTube video of the entire process, or read the NPR article on it).

* -- To be fair, Hutchence probably died of suicide, not accidental autoerotic asphyxiation. Which would be tragic but not Shakespearean Tragic. And we can debate whether either is Shakespearean Tragic, but what fun is that? Just roll with it!

** -- INXS post-Hutchence is even more irrelevant than R.E.M. post-Berry. I own “Switch,” so I’m entitled to claim this.

Billy’s Top 10 INXS Songs (in no order):

Good Times (feat. Jimmy Barnes) - about partying and sex
The Stairs - it might be their deepest song... which is barely a compliment
Don’t Change - entire meaning contained in title
What You Need - is sex
Disappear - what happens to the world during good sex
Taste It - the kind of sex that gave Michael Douglas cancer
New Sensation - in praise new and different sex
Not Enough Time - to have as much sex as Michael wants/needs
Devil Inside - what makes us hunger for massive amounts of sex
By My Side - in bed, before, during and after sex

Friday, June 7, 2013

Shocked By The Shock

"We're extremely fortunate
not to know precisely
the kind of world we live in."
--Wislawa Szymborska

While I don't pretend that I'm not usettled by the revelations that the NSA can, will, and has amassed the phone records of Americans (not by name or content), I am certainly not surprised.  At the very least, in a country obsessed with a terrorist attack on its mainland, the notion has often been in the back of my mind.  And if it wasn't in the back of yours, too, then really you haven't been paying much attention.

My school has cameras everywhere.  The cameras were put up for everyone's protection, especially the students and their property.  When something bad happens, like a theft, then someone starts looking through the video to see if he can identity the circumstances of the crime and to identify the perpetrator.  But guess what?  If you walk past one of those many cameras, as those of us who work there do many times every day, then you are going to be caught on film, too.  And, guess what?  If the video reveals that you are doing something unsavory while the viewer is researching the other crime, your actions are going to be dealt with.  Guess what?  It isn't going to take a court order to allow the school to deal "legalistically" with the consequences of your actions.

Do you really think that this situation is specific to my school?  Or to your government and your Verizon phone account?  Really?  When cameras monitor your driving speed and your desire to make it through a yellow light?  When cameras high on telephone poles keep watch over ghettos and other urban areas?  Did you not watch 24, where Chloe could tap into every integrated system in a building or city to help out Jack Bauer?  Did you not watch The Wire?  Do you think that stuff is made up?

Are you really so shocked that your government would gather information on citizen telephone behavior?  You thought that only happened in grocery stores that track your purchases and spit out coupons based on what they know you are most likely to buy?  Or online, where book and music sites suggest new offerings to you based on what they know that you like?

You thought that even though Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was very public about his desire to do away with privacy as we know it that what you did or posted online on his site or elsewhere wouldn't matter?  That all of those websites or apps that you changed your privacy settings for or allowed access to this or that or linked your Twitter account with you Instagram account and gave them or someone else access to all of the photographs on your phone or to your contacts had no implications of a societal shift?

Just how LINKED-IN are you?

And did you misunderstand Mr. Obama that badly?  Or did this side of him not fit your liberal vision?  My brother, who lives in Chicago and who has followed him for a long time has always contended that Obama has never been anything more than a centrist?  Are you still hanging your hat on campaign promises issued in 2007?

 Did you never watch Robert Redford's The Candidate?  You don't know what happens to people when they get elected?  Some call it the corruption of power.  Maybe.  Just as often, though, and in Mr. Obama's case, I call it finding out the realities of the job.  Uh, Mr. Truman, there's something we need to tell you and it's about a really big bomb and a lot of time and money has gone into it and it can save American lives and, oh yeah, we want to see what it can do.

I wish the Obama administration was as transparent as promised.  In the modern world, in the digital Information Age that we live in, transparency will get you second-guessed in the short term and crucified in the long-term.  I wish that weren't so.  I don't offer that as an Obama excuse.  He could have given it a shot.

But I also know Republicans have tried time and again to brand him as "soft on terrorism."  Well, that's out the window, folks.  You've got a better chance of proving his mother was a monkey.  Republicans have gone after him about leaks coming from within his administration.  I don't think we'll be hearing much of that one, either.

Did you forget about Obama's "ground game," how he won his two elections?  His organization had intimate voter information about each district and the people within that district and so they knew exactly who to focus on and how for Election Day.

Oh, yeah.  And let me go historical on your ass for a second.   Have you never heard of the "Alien and Sedition Acts?"  If not, go all the way back to 1798 and John Adams, our second president, who used those acts to deals with some of his enemies, and then how Thomas Jefferson, our third president, condemned them and did some pardoning, but then used the acts for his own purposes.  Ad speaking of Mr. Jefferson, he must be chuckling at his own wisdom right now, for it was he who said,  "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance."

Well, we haven't been very vigilant, have we?  What's never been dealt with is that we are the "stupid" in James Carville's famous note-to-self: "It's the economy, stupid."  We are the ones who, if we are reasonably, economically comfortable (and just us, not our fellow citizens), then we will give most everything else a pass.

The world has gotten very complicated, my friends, and ignorance or stupidity is no longer going to cut it.  A black and white outlook is not going to cut it, either.  There are too many hard choices with complicated consequences.  Our president does not give a crap what we are texting to our friends, but he also neither wants to appear to be weak nor to give his political opponents ammunition.  While he seems to have done so anyway, the fact that you and I were not in the conversation to decide whether safety or personal liberty is more important is our fault.  And no one else's.  Shocking, I know.

President Thorbama

Sweater Weather - The Neighbourhood (mp3)
The Wind - Peasant (mp3)

The Weather

On Monday night, my family was taking a leisurely stroll around our neighborhood in what will likely become a regular summertime ritual on nice evenings. On this particular evening, we ran across a man and his son -- "neighbors" from some unknown location near us --walking the other direction. His boy and our boy were doing the young boy equivalent of what dogs do. They weren't sniffing one another's butts, but they were sizing one another up as potential play pals, so the adults were forced to engage in small talk.

Barely three minutes into the small talk, this man we only just met goes off on President Obama in a monologue of offenses that concludes with his statement -- as fact, not opinion or theory -- that our President has been manipulating the weather patterns in the United States. Obama is, apparently and literally, a rainmaker.

"You've seen those strange-looking planes flying around over the city, right?* They're up there injecting chemicals into the atmosphere. Obama is using the weather to attack the states who oppose him. Like Tennessee and Oklahoma." (He was referring to the V-22 Osprey, one or more of which have indeed been flying around Chattanooga.)

To keep from laughing, I did what any immature male would do: I went and played with the two boys. Meanwhile my wife and mother both did their best to nod and be polite before moving us down the road as quickly as possible.

The Takeover

On Tuesday afternoon while sitting and working in Starbucks, I was subjected to a neighboring table's conversation. It was one of those 8-seat tables where several people can sit and work or chill without having had to know one another first, and in this case it was a black guy in his 40s and a bald white fella in his late 50s or early 60s with a military green shirt and the saying, "Liberty or Death."

"Nobody wants to acknowledge what really happened up in Boston," the white guy was saying. The black guy kind of "uh-huh" and nodded while tapping away on his laptop, so the white guy continued. "That was a trial run, my friend. Obama had those FBI people going door to door, violating everyone's rights, supposedly searching for this terr'ist, but it was never about that terr'ist. What Obama was really doing was training his thugs for control and getting citizens numb to the idea of having no freedom."

The black dude stopped "uh-huh"ing and looked over at him and said, "Well I don't know about all that."

"Oh just wait. Obama's moving us closer and closer to Stalin every day. That election in 2012 is the last Presidential election we'll ever have."

The Snooping

On Wednesday night in my favorite local watering hole, I sat next to two men who were convinced that every single one of their phone conversations -- of every American's phone conversations -- were being recorded and tracked by our government.

"They hear every word you say. Every damn word, swear to God," one said. "Obama isn't just going after them Tea Party groups. He's looking for individuals, anybody really, who thinks they have the right to a gun or who believe our government is fucked up. If someone don't stop him, he'll round us all up and execute us. Or maybe he'll just jail us all on some bullshit charges. But he's comin' to get us, swear to God."


The last few months have not been good for our President. Even if ObamaCare proves to be every bit the miraculous fix-all to what ails our healthcare system -- and let's be honest, the odds aren't good -- it increasingly looks like history will be vanilla at best, harsh at worst, to Obama's two terms in office. He won't be viewed quite as harshly as Dubya, but he won't ever reach Clinton or Reagan heights, even with the benefit of rose-colored glasses.

I'm happy to criticize the man. He deserves to be criticized and questioned.

But in less than 72 hours I encountered three different white men who are so far removed from Planet Earth that they actually believe Obama possesses powers not unlike some mash-up between Thor and Loki. (Hey! Maybe Obama isn't Muslim... maybe he's a Norse god!)

I was comfortable being "slightly liberal" in matters concerning health care, gun rights, our use of military force, taxation and government spending, gay rights, immigration and the like. These were topics worthy of political discourse, and I valued opinions counter to mine. Do I have to be some pro-Obama Kool-Aid drinker to walk around with the silly notion that our government didn't destroy Oklahoma with tornadoes, isn't planning a hostile takeover of any state in our nation, isn't worried about a barfly in Chattanooga's drunk-dialing habits at 2 a.m.?

Obama is about to create a massive electrical storm to take out all our power, send in his troops, take over our country, and execute anyone who has spoken a critical word of the man on a telephone. Really, people? We have an entire universe of information at our fingertips, and this is what we believe?

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

I'll Raise Ya

This year, I got a pretty good raise for where I work, something approaching 3%.  Or did I?  Did I get a raise?  Was it that high?  (Already, some people reading this, who work where I do, are going, you got a 3% raise?  That's way more than I got.  Some people who don't work where I work are going, a 3% raise is a good raise where you work?  That's pathetic!)

Welcome to the concept of "the raise" in 2013.  Because of the massive income inequality we live under, a raise like mine is either manna from heaven or an indication that an employer thinks that the raisee should look for a different line of work.

Back to my situation.  The reason I raise the question 'Did I get a raise?' at all is because I don't think I did, even though I was told I did and because my paycheck next year will say that I did.  The reality, though, is something different.  In fact, I have taken on an additional duty next year and it is one that I am being compensated for, so I don't really think it's a raise.  It's just another job.

Where I work, you get paid for everything that you do.  So, up to a point, the more that you do, the more that you get paid.  Which is fair, I suppose, but it isn't a raise.

Really, what is a raise?  Is it a reward for past work?  Is it a promise on the part of the person who receives it for more work or better work, a higher level of work?  Does a person get a raise for longevity or for skill?

Beyond that, on a national level, is a raise a raise if it doesn't give the person who receives it more money to spend?  In other words, even if you get more money, if inflation or the cost of living where you are increases more than the percentage you get, is that a raise?

Is a raise a raise if it isn't actually money, or at least not a permanent increase in pay?  Is it a raise if it is a perk, if everyone gets it equally or if it only applies to certain people in certain situations?  

Arguably, and I'm speaking nationally, not where I work, the worst thing that has happened economically in recent years is that our expectations for a raise have diminished so much that a) we are grateful if we get a larger-than-average raise, even if it is small or b) we are resentful of another's pitiful raise if it is less pitiful than our own or c) we begrudge union employees the contracts that their unions negotiated for them, citing the need for employers to make more money as somehow serving the greater good or else granting employers the right to decide that wages are where the necessary cuts must come from or d) we treat top management's raises with disgruntlement but, ultimately, acceptance.

There was a phenomenon Frederick Douglass noted in his autobiography that if you were a slave, you at least wanted to be able to boast that you master was wealthier than the master of the slaves at a different plantation.  Those were bragging rights.

So we scrap and scramble, demean and gossip, judge and jury if we think someone else who works for who we work for is making more than he or she should.  As if he or she were at fault, in a capitalistic society, for finding a way to get a little extra for his or her family, maybe at the expense of us, more likely as an affront to us because we didn't or wouldn't do the same thing out of principle or pride.  Would we really feel better if they didn't have that money either?

What I don't like about a raise ( though I've never turned one down!) is that, most of the time, unless it's a huge sum, it isn't real recognition of good work.  It's just a payment for services to be rendered.  And in that conception of a raise, the ceiling is pretty low because any of us can only do so much.   It's either playing catch-up or assuaging someone's guilt.  It's someone telling me how he or she fought for me to get the raise and my having to thank him or her when he or she doesn't want to be thanked because, above all, a raise is not a gift, prize, or present, but sometimes we have to act like it is and none of us on either side of the raise want to have to witness that spectacle.

Truth be told,  give me a bonus instead of a raise any day of the week.  Not a blanket, everyone-gets-one bonus, but a you've-made-this-place-more-viable kind of bonus, a substantial and tangible recognition of a job well done.  Today's typical raise doesn't do that.  I can't think of the last raise I've received where I noticed a substantial difference on my paycheck each month.  You give me $80 more a month?  Well, I can tell you, the government is taking at least a quarter of that.  Beyond that we're talking about one trip to the grocery or, depending, one tank or so of gas.  And I was going to get those anyway.  And health care went up more than that, too.  So, what?

A Virtue Once But No More

Wait - Matthew Sweet (mp3)
Hurry Up and Wait - Stereophonics (mp3)

“Good things come to those who wait.” Right? The tortoise wins the race, right?

Do we believe that? Do we, in our words and actions, teach this to our children? Do we expect this of others? Do we model this behavior in our daily lives? How could we? Most of us don’t really believe it.

Correction: We believe that good things come to those who wait... but very, very few things are worth waiting for. 

TIME may call the new crop “The Me Me Me Generation,” but I call them “The Now Now Now Generation.” They’re no more self-involved or self-obsessed, but they’re a lot more impatient. If you want to know why TIME also referred to them as "The Most Stressed-Out Generation" (not even six months ago), you really need go no further than the fact that they expected to be fully-realized human beings in half the time it took the rest of us.

A recent Washington Post blog about increasing impatience wisely observes that “kids these days” aren’t so much incapable of patience or remaining focused as they are unaccustomed to choosing boredom: "Students today have so many options that being mildly bored can be successfully avoided most of the time." 

This generationally-declining ability to remain focused in the face of boredom, to stick with a mind-numbing task, to wait for the reward, cannot possibly be as old as the hills, but it’s at least true since the Industrial Revolution. (At some point in our past, 50 years wasn’t sufficient to change the game enough, right? Jacob and Esau didn’t have a different world of options and entertainment than Isaac. I doubt Plato was offered a vastly wider buffet of distractions than Socrates.)

The decline in patience is a product of technology, and patience is increasingly a sign of weakness or ignorance. Why drive to the library, search through the Dewey Decimal system and eventually flip through thousands of pages for information that can be found in five minutes via Google? My wife and I just bought a 96-count box of K-cups online at great discount. We searched five sites and ordered at the lowest price in minutes. To be economically judicious for such an item 20 years ago would have required hours of drive time or, at the least, half a dozen calls to annoyed customer reps expected to hoof it down the aisles to find their prices.

We consistently prefer speed even at the expense of quality (see: The News Media, 5 Hour Energy). Our modern motto: Slow Kills.

Aren’t we losing something when we lose our ability to wait, to drudge through, to hold a seemingly-dull course?
And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land...
Is the Millennial Generation capable of a Moses or a Martin Luther King, leaders who spent their entire lifetimes fighting for and seeking a finish line that neither saw fully realized, yet without whom the goal could never be reached? Perhaps, but I fear not. Who wants to risk a whole life without the trophy when dudes have started three or four businesses by the time they’re 30?

Teachers might be the rare bird who must be patient to see the genuine fruits of their labor. Sure, you see them pass or fail your class and move them on, but the real reward comes years, sometimes decades, later, when a former student acknowledges what she could not at the time; that the teacher played a pivotal role in shaping the direction of her life. Even then, I’m not sure the longview reward is the reason teachers do what they do.

I’ve used it before, but the John Adams quote feels so very relevant and so easily overlooked.
I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.
Is the newest crop of up-and-coming adults going to be capable of such far-sightedness? I’m not even sure my generation has much patience in us, yet as impatient as we can be, the current crop of 20-somethings far less so. But they're still young. Maybe they’ll grow up. Maybe patience will develop in them with time and wisdom.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Billy Loves Him Some Billy

In my circle of music aficionados, liking Billy Joel is frowned upon. At best he’s overrated, a Springsteen wannabe lyricist with Elton John wannabe piano chops. At worst he’s an alcoholic dysfunctional clusterschmuck. No wait, at worst he's "The Worst Pop Singer Ever," according to Ron Rosenbaum.

The thing is, I kinda like Billy Joel, but I don’t have any snooty music aficionado justification for it, so I just don’t talk about him much in my circle. “Just ‘cuz” isn’t that great a defense, and I don't care enough about the man to fight that hard for him.

The first Joel song I remember vaguely is “Just the Way You Are” and specifically is “Pressure.” The latter shook my young world as a video in the early ’80s of MTV. (I was 10, so cut me some slack.) Riffed scenes from A Clockwork Orange and rock stars being eaten by a shag carpet can spook a pre-adolescent, OK?

Like most Gen Xers, it was An Innocent Man that carved Joel a lasting spot on my radar, yet I didn’t buy an album until Storm Front. While not a stellar cassette, it only contained two songs worth getting up and fast-forwarding, and the first side was flawlessly decent up until Garth Brooks stole “Shameless,” rendering it a much less tolerable ditty.

The real reason I like Billy Joel, however, is because Erin liked Billy Joel. Erin was my first female college buddy, a transplant from Long Island to my college dormitory in Chapel Hill. Her relatives knew Joel’s relatives on the Island or some such, so she was a huge Billy fan. She introduced me to his earlier stuff, but “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” became a chronic occurrence, our number one with a bullet as they say.

Dismiss me as blinded by phil-eros, some strange confusing mix of friendship and love, but I insist “Scenes...” is a damn fine epic... something. I don’t know if it’s pop or rock, but it’s epic and a whole lot of fun. We had a mix tape where an entire 45-minute side consisted solely of:
  • “Scenes...”
  • “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights”
  • “American Pie”
  • “Purple Rain” and
  • “Bela Lugosi is Dead”
We thought those five songs proved without a doubt that we appreciated a wide range of music, even though we didn’t really care for “Bela...” and often stopped and rewound it after “Purple Rain.” We did a lot of studying to that side of the tape.

But enough about me and back to the other Billy.

If you love Billy Joel, you’ve probably already read his awesome New York Times interview published May 24. But if you find Joel to be somewhere between "Meh" and "Crap," I highly recommend you go and read it. I virtually guarantee you’ll finish holding the man in higher regard, perhaps not as a human being but certainly as a musician with passion and something approaching integrity. If you've paid attention to the last 40 years of music, integrity isn't a regular bedfellow to modern music, when there's always more money to be made.

Besides, Billy Joel is the centerpiece of a lover's quarrel over music in St. Elmo's Fire between Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson. If he's good enough for a woman who looks like Ally Sheedy, who wears pearls while having sex in a shower, then by God he's good enough for me.

* -- Hey Ron Rosenbaum, not only have you never given me a moment of enjoyment in life, which puts you behind Joel, but you paint the singer as a contemptible ass by making yourself seem like a really contemptible ass with less to show for it. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

Off Stage

By this morning, much of the talk around water coolers (a convenient stereotype of the working world that likely doesn't exist--try this, much of the talk around the Keurig...) is about the shocking events of last night's episode of Game Of Thrones, Season Three.  As has become the norm on television shows these days, major characters who seemed like they were mainstays of the ongoing story have been killed.

I'm not going to issue any spoiler alerts.  I'm not going to give anything away, except to say that no matter how often central characters die in shows and movies now, the response from viewers still ranges from stunned to outraged each time it happens.

Unless you've read the book.  And for those who have, last night was the "Red Wedding" scene from A Storm Of Swords.  Anyone who has read the books knows the scene.  It's one of those scenes that makes you put the book down and get your bearings and evaluate your senses.

At our house, there were three of us watching together.  My daughter and I had read the books; her friend hadn't.  By episode's end, he could barely stand up because of what he'd seen, and he left pretty quickly without saying much.  Mere minutes earlier, we had been teasing about how good looking one of the male actors is and he had asked for my confirmation, and, knowing what was coming, I had answered, "Sorry, I can't answer that.  I'm filled with too much dread."

The moment for those who were readers and viewers was particularly poignant, I think.  It isn't just that we saw on screen had previously only been imagined from words on the page; it's that even as described in the book, much of it happened off stage.

Due to the conventions and restrictions of their dramas, the early Greeks had most things happen off stage.  Jocasta runs out of sight and hangs herself when she realizes Oedipus is her son.  Oedipus blinds himself out of sight of the audience as well.  Even a fair number of the Shakespearean deaths (though not the principals) happen offstage, and even when they happen onstage, there is little doubt that the original performances of Macbeth did not include his head bouncing down the stairs after MacDuff kills him, as happens in the Roman Polanski version.

The question is: Is it more powerful to actually see death (or see it on the page) or to hear about it as summarized by another character who was there or even as tossed off by some lowlife who only heard about it and mentions it callously?

Think about it.  Gastby dies offstage.  Kurtz, in Heart Of Darkness, dies offstage.  Josh Brolin's lawman character in No Country For Old Men, the apparent center of the film, dies offstage.  We have no idea what kind of a fight he was able to put up.  John Proctor in The Crucible is hanged offstage.  Frederic Henry doesn't return to see Catherine Barkley at the end of A Farewell To Arms until after she has died.  Willy Loman offstage.  The daughter in 'night, Mother offstage.

It is, perhaps, the most interesting choice a novelist, a playwright, a film director has to make.  And even if onscreen or onstage, an additional range of nuanced choices.  Must we see the blade hit the neck?  Must we see the severity of the character's wounds?  Must we see him bleed out in agonizing close-ups?

I wouldn't dare to suggest a right or wrong answer.  And I'm not naive enough to ignore the fact that our hyper-realistic society demands more and more.  In HBO's Game Of Thrones, for example, there are two fully-naked women shown from the front in the episode before this one (though, just to the acknowledge the ongoing double standard, the penis they fondle and which is apparently castrated later on, is not shown), so to expect anything less than a full rendering of the scene last night would "cheat" the viewer, wouldn't it?

Even that, though, doesn't get to the heart of this discussion.  It's the impact, on the viewer or the reader, depending on whether awful events are seen or not seen.  Saving Private Ryan was so graphic in its depiction of battle that I walked out of it and said to my father, "I never want to see that again."  (Though I have been drawn back to it a number of times, usually in pieces, instead of a full, beginning-to-end viewing)  But, as my daughter wondered last night when we were debriefing Game Of Thrones, isn't it even more unsettling to not quite know what happened or how, to have the details emerge slowly, sometimes in pieces exaggerated or untrustworthy, so that the full horror of an event is ingested slowly, unevenly, circuitously?

The image, once seen, may be indelible, like seeing those jetliners hit the Twin Towers, but it is what happened inside those buildings afterward that we never saw, that once I read about them--objectively, after the fact--I have never gotten over.