Sunday, September 29, 2013

Life In The Fast Lane Kiffin

Medicine - We Were Promised Jetpacks (mp3)

People everywhere were happy today, but nowhere on earth were people happier about Southern Cal's firing of Lane Kiffin than the collective state of Tennessee.

The people of Tennessee were hardly this happy when Osama Bin Laden got killed.

In a time when you can't go to the bathroom without creating a political divide between neighbors, distaste for Lane Kiffin is nigh-universal. Every single Tennessee citizen. Every man, woman and child. All were a little happier than usual today. Ding Dong the Son of a Witch is Dead.

I don't know the man, and I hardly care for the University of Tennessee or its Volunteers, but I was as giddy as the next chap when news of his firing crossed my Twitter feed this morning. When I arrived at church, old men with canes were clicking their heels like they'd just auditioned for Riverdance. I snuck into a quiet back room just to read articles celebrating his termination and  just giggled my little fanny off.

Why is it that everyone from all walks of life loathe this man? Rich or poor, black white or other, UT fan, SEC fan, even Premier League soccer fans. And just trust me, this sentiment goes to 11 inside the borders of the Volunteer State. And why? Kiffin did nothing substantial as the Vols' head coach other than cheat. So the fact that he "betrayed" them "in the middle of the night" by running to the higher-paying home base of USC should, in hindsight, have been considered Good Frappin' Riddance, and far sooner than they might otherwise have done.

Yet, it's there. UT fans hate Kiffin more than they hate Charles Woodson and the ESPN reporters who plotted to, and succeeded in, robbing Peyton Manning of his rightful Heisman Trophy.

The easy gut answer is that Kiffin is a bad person. That's what we seem to want to believe. He uses people like Paula Deen uses aluminum foil. He eats babies for breakfast. He sacrifices virgin cheerleaders to Azrael, not the cat from Smurfs or the Chris Kataan character, but the demon who gives him magical powers to mesmerize GMs and ADs across the continent.

In truth, we know hardly a thing about him. The only descriptions you ever hear someone say about Lane Kiffin are these, and usually in this order: (1) smug ba$tard, (2) hot wife, (3) riding daddy's coattails. You'd have to be blind or deaf not to get a sense of his ego and his lack of interest in putting others before himself, but in the end, he's just a frappin' football coach, and a highly overrated one at that. He hasn't killed anyone (that we know of), nor does he have a criminal record with the possible exception of a DUI and wreck from his UT days that hardly makes him unique among D1 coaches. Hell, it's practically a rite of passage.

I think the real reason we despise Lane Kiffin is because he's the Silver Spoon story even silver spoon kids hate to see. He's the kid who was born on third base thinking he hit that proverbial triple, who sincerely thought himself a football genius simply because he sat at the dinner table with his father, who probably impressed enough of his frat-jock buddies to win an election and thought he could be POTUS one day. And there’s all these people who rewarded him for believing too highly of himself and being too highly connected.

Lane Kiffin is, simply, the ultimate example of the spoils of being spoiled, the undeserved privileges of being overly privileged. "Deserve" never had anything to do with Lane Kiffin. Ever.

Yet he's already made more money than the average American will see in a lifetime. Worse, despite being almost universally despised and disrespected for both his personality and his coaching abilities, he'll likely find another job in the coming weeks or months that still pays far more than 90% of Americans will earn in a single year.

Six months or a year from now, some reporter will do a moving feature on him, how he is "turning his life around," how he's "rededicated himself to his family and God," how he "got lost in chasing all that glory and forgot who he really was at his core: a devoted husband, a humble man, a student of the game."

The rest of the continent might buy this story when it comes out. The rest of the USA might shed a tear and want to give the poor guy another shot. But rest assured, if you listen closely enough, you'll hear the entire state of Tennessee emit a mocking chuckle of disbelief.

"Have him," Tennessee citizens will say, "But don't come cryin' to us later. We tried to tell ya, but y'all wouldn't listen to a bunch of bumpkins."

"But if you see Layla, tell her she's welcome to visit anytime."

Friday, September 27, 2013

What's At Steak

It seems fitting somehow to follow up Billy's post about working out obsessively with a piece about meat.  Good meat.  Arguably great meat.  And here is where I plan to borrow the syntax of the World's Most Interesting Man by saying:

"I don't eat steak often, but when I do, I eat Ruth's Chris (or something comparable)."

I don't cook a great steak, and there are a number of reasons for that.  First, I've never mastered the cooking of one, torn as I am between grilling, broiling, pan-searing and finishing in the oven.  Second, I'm not willing to pay the money for top-quality beef that I'm going to cook myself (for the reason mentioned above).  Third, I don't eat steak often enough to either master the cooking of it or to justify buying expensive cuts to experiment on.

Red meat is something I try to avoid, however unsuccessfully, and the key to unsuccessful avoidance is that you nibble around the discipline rather than embrace it outright.  Hence, a few crumbles of bacon here, a slice of ham there, maybe a BBQ sandwich or an Oklahoma onion burger with only 2 oz of beef in it.  But the outright splurge of a burger is rare, and even rarer is the flat out, no holds barred, hunk of meat.

Isn't that the wrong approach?  Why should I nickel and dime away my resolve on cheap, fatty meat?  Why shouldn't I enjoy, if I'm going for it, the best I can reasonably get?

The other night, on my first-ever visit to a Ruth's Chris steakhouse, I had the following: fresh bread, a superb Caesar salad, and the Filet Mignon.  It was not cheap--we got out of there for a little over $70/person and that was only because one member of our party not only brought six bottles of wine but also paid the $15 corkage fee for each bottle.  The meal was a perfectly-executed extravagance.

Beyond that, the restaurant itself (which I, of course, pooh-poohed at first for its location attached to a hotel near the mall) established the kind of clubby atmosphere which a steakhouse seems to demand--sprawling, relatively dark, furniture and furnishings designed for comfort rather than beauty, plenty and plenty and plenty of wood, an a la carte menu filled with the classics of the genre--crab and scallop appetizers, generous salads, as entrees a variety of cuts of beef, plus an obligatory chicken dish, a pork chop, and several options from the sea, plus the large sides of creamed spinach, mushrooms, french fries, asparagus, etc.  I'm sure they had dessert; we didn't get that far.

 So here's my theory: why not allow myself to eat steak about twice a year, and why not make that steak the best damn steak I can get, cooked by someone who knows how to do it and who will serve in a setting where it all makes sense to do so?

I know this must sound like an impossibly, annoyingly privileged proposition. It is. Part of that I can do nothing about, the part about being able to plan and splurge for this kind of thing.  But the other part of me is a cheap eater, even in nice restaurants.  Spending a lot of money, ordering one of the more expensive items on a menu, those are things I simply do not do.  It makes me uncomfortable.  I'd much rather eat at a cheap place, or, at an expensive Italian place to get a pizza and a salad.  I don't like to spend big money on meals.

So even to consider a meal like this a couple of times a year is outside my usual range of behaviors. What's intriguing about it for me, though, is not just the two filets with all of the trappings, it's also the modifications that could take place around it--no cheap, greasy meat, no subpar or middle of the road approximation of this Platonic conception of steak, no trolling at a buffet, maybe no hamburger.  Unless, of course, it was a really good one, maybe Kobe beef, that was, you know, like one of the $14 burgers or something, expensive, but not too expensive.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

CrossFit in the CrossHairs

My Body - Young the Giant (mp3)

"CrossFit is a cult." I say that a lot, with the jokey ha ha that usually accompanies comments intended to contain a grain of truth.

Well, only so many could abuse the joke, the joke could only go on so long before someone turned it into a screed, and only so long before a screed went viral. That time is now.

A physical therapist has written a blog being passed all over Facebook where "Uncle Radhbo," the cutesy mascot name for a serious and debilitating problem, is "exposed." The condition's real name is Rhabdomyolysis, and the information provided on it in the blog is valid and important.

In our predictable social media whirlwind, where you find one viral reaction, you will find a swift counter-reaction. The "Uncle Radhbo" Conspiracy/CrossFit Is Dangerous!! meme kicked into high gear this weekend, and the other side revved up by Monday to post a new link about how awesome CrossFit is. The one I'm seeing most is titled "CrossFitters Eat Their Young." It's the kind of thing meant to defend CrossFitters but accidentally makes you like them less.

All mouth-breathers must now pick a side in the digital fight over whether intense Type A exercise maniacs can be trusted to make decisions for themselves and their health.

Disclosure Time: The author is utterly out of shape and enjoys his state of being, thankyouverymuch. The author is not a CrossFit Stud, or a CrossFit Newb, nor has he ever even been inside a CrossFit facility. He does, however, know a dozen or so CrossFit-obsessed humans and mocks them regularly.

To all those who mock or too eagerly attack the CrossFit movement, I offer a quote lifted from the mouth of Al Pacino in Heat: "You can get killed walking your doggie." Those who believe CrossFit does more bad than good for its "disciples" are just being goofy.

We are in the midst of a pronounced cultural shift in our attitude and approach toward fitness that excites even me, as I sit languishing on my couch or in front of my computer screen, typing away at blog posts and calling it "mental exercise via digital exertion." After The Big '80s and The 'Roidier '90s and the LiveStrong Doping '00s, we seem to be moving away from fetishizing the superhuman and instead romanticizing what has always been possible for the fitness-obsessed human. The 70s and 80s gave us Lou Ferrigno and Schwartzenegger and an army of chemically-altered pro wrestlers whose veins coursed with unnatural substances. The 90s gave us Maguire and Bonds and Sammy, whose heads got bigger but knew enough to cover their sci-fi bulk in jerseys, a lesson the NFL learned long ago. Lance Armstrong rang in the new century by reminding us that we can't just be suspicious of hulking meatheads, but also those who display superhuman endurance or, well, superhuman anything. Because duh, if it's superhuman, it was prolly obtained in unnatural fashion (Yes, I'm looking at you, Usain Bolt...).

Lately, though, we're making room for a new breed. "American Ninja Warrior" celebrates a different physique, a well-rounded, well-conditioned body that is not overly top-heavy and does not sacrifice balance or agility for strength. And CrossFit seeks a similar goal, to build all comers into a condition that is adaptable to (almost) all situations or environments. If you are a CrossFit stud, you can swim a mean mile, climb Everest with some air left in the lungs, play an intense 90-minute soccer match or even survive a zombie apocalypse by out-running most of them and nimbly braining a few that get too close with a single swing of the bat or crowbar. And you can do it all while saying "I CRUSHED it!" way too much.

Are there risks from pushing yourself too far beyond your physical limits? Of course. Does CrossFit culture peer pressure its members into doing this in unhealthy ways? Perhaps. Are there a bajillion bigger concerns, in the world of fitness and conditioning (or the lack thereof) in our midst where our worries and energies would be better spent? Gimme 50 reps of Hell Yeah!

The attack on CrossFit is from people like me who are annoyed at how much fun these grind-it-out rah-rah Type A overachievers are having in the CrossFit culture. We who cannot motivate ourselves to exercise see these people -- most of them looking ever more attractive the longer they do it, I might add -- having a blast, blisters on their fingers, wraps on their wrists or ankles. No one likes watching too many people have too much fun and being too intense about it and rubbing it all in our faces. So when we see the opportunity, we light an online bag of poop on the CrossFit porch and run and hope it goes viral.

So, feel free to sit back and watch CrossFit squirm under scrutiny from your La-Z-Boy, but know you’re not really doing anyone much good by enjoying the scene. (And P.S., smoking or over-intense TV-watching will kill you a lot sooner than CrossFit.)

Monday, September 23, 2013

Fatherhood Is For Moments Like This

Be My Monster - Sleeper Agent (mp3)

The scream flooded through the mesh screen into our living room. We heard our son's terror before we knew its origin. In those moments, a parent cannot help but feel that primal protective surge.

Our five-year-old whirling dervish of a boy, which is to say a "normal" Kindergartener, had been alone on our deck, forced to the timeless family consequence of sitting at the table, after everyone else has left, until he ate "enough" of his dinner, which is to say more than three frappin' bites.

We milled around inside, cleaning dishes and preparing for the TV to welcome professional football into our evening's plans while he sat imprisoned by his food but living in the boundless universe of childhood imagination where distraction is not an option but a necessity, a place even adults with photographic memory have long lost without the use of hallucinogens. My son is -- and I'm not doting here, rather merely observing -- constantly in imaginary fight or flight. His daydreams, fueled admittedly by occasional forays into the LEGO versions of Batman or Star Wars, involve light sabers and mortal enemies but also teamwork and kickass modes of transportation.

His emotions fly at the same lightspeed as his Lego spaceships. The slightest injury, suffered in the comfort of home and hearth, can inspire such shrieks as to shatter windows and leave Lou Diamond Phillips' Young Guns overacting in the dust. The corniest Daddy joke, the kind for which not even Ed McMahon could guffaw, can leave my son in stitches, crumpled to the floor in genuine amusement. It's funny even after the 25th repetition.

When a third child screams in terror, the first few milliseconds possess us with an instinctive need to protect, defend, rescue, because that is our first and foremost calling as parents. But then we remember he is a third child, that he is five, that he -- no, that we -- can be prone to overreaction.

In response to his terror-shriek, I got down on one knee, hands gently taking him by the shoulders (because that's what all great parenting books say!), and asked him to calm down. Are you hurt? Nuh-uh. Are you scared? Yuh-huh. Of what?

"A monster! (sniff breath sniff snort breath) A monster attacked me!" Out there? On the deck? Yuh-huh. Like, just now, right out there? Yuh-huh.

I took him into my arms and walked toward the doors, and he screamed in bloody panic, as if I were about to thrust him back into the television set with Carol Anne. I paused and asked him to breathe for me.

Do you think I would hurt you? Nuh-uh. Do you think I can protect you? (pause) Yuh-huh. Will you go out with me and protect me too? (longer pause) Please? Can we go out together? (pause) Yuh-huh.

Sniffling, he clung to my neck, and we stepped into the open air. He shrieked a bit and pointed to the corner of our deck, where a cicada clung to our wall. I told him what it was called. I said it didn't bite. It can't hurt us.

As if on cue, and drawn by our skepticism, the monster flew at us. Well, it flew in our direction and slammed into the doorway and then bounced off and flew into my shoulder, where it buzzed and flapped. In a rare moment of self-control, and realizing the parenting lesson at stake, I bit halfway through my cheek and kept my calm.

See, son? We're fine.

Then the cicada flew off me and directly into a corner spiderweb. It was barely even caught, but it just stopped. I'm pretty sure it was dying, basically flying drunk and ready to give up, and I told my son all of this. I tapped it with my finger, and it easily broke free and flew away. The lesson required rescuing the monster to prove the point, even if only to let it die somewhere else in mere minutes.

This event did not create a fearless child, nor is it a moment of fatherly bravery. It was a slowpitch softball in the strike zone, and I hit it. As parents, we don't get many of these easy winners, when we can teach a lesson, calm an irrational and primal fear, simultaneously instruct and soothe. It's taken me three children to appreciate how rarely we are given these opportunities.

Then he asked if he could keep one as a pet. And I said no. And he started crying again.

My work here is done. For today...

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Christmas, 1965--a home movie in words

I call this my Timothy McVeigh Christmas.  I was eight.  In all of the other Christmas home movies my father shot, my mother shows her penchant for dressing my brother and I in matching or coordinated outfits—reindeer sweaters, matching bathrobes, red button down shirts.  Although I don’t actually remember, I still feel a distant mental rumbling every time I imagine waking up on Christmas morning and having to get dressed in some kind of outfit in order to look good for the posterity of the camera.

Not in 1965.  That Christmas, I burst onto the scene wearing full camo.  That wouldn’t have been an easy thing to find in those days, and I’m certain my father tracked it down.  Mine was not hunting clothing; I had a camouflaged Marine uniform, complete with a Gunny sergeant’s cap.  Did I wear it to bed, visions of sugar plums and weapons in my head?  Did I get up and put it on first thing?  Was it the first present that I opened and then I went upstairs immediately and changed?

In the movie, the first present I open is a rifle, a carbine, and I immediately pick it up, aim it at the camera and fire.  Not a real gun, it is one of the dozens of realistic-looking weapons that crowded the toy shelves in those days.  Every boy that I knew had guns, maybe some girls, too.  And despite the fact that our activities in Vietnam were beginning to increase, the gear and weaponry associated with that escalation had nothing to do with the toys we held.  No, World War II still supplied the weapons of choice, and if not those, the guns and rifles of the old West cowboys.  When we were running through the neighborhood killing each other (for what else do you do, even with a toy gun?), the guns all mixed together.

The other present you would see me open, if pressed into watching, is an airplane.  It is a WWII fighter plane of some sort, maybe a Thunderbolt, a classic battery-operated toy that when activated, makes the sounds of the engine, plus the flashing lights and staccato bursts of the wing-installed machine guns.  With this baby, I can strafe pretty much anyone I want to.  All it requires from me is to fly it around the sky.  Which I do.  For the camera.

But the real gift, the main gift, which you won’t actually see me open is a massive set of plastic soldiers, trucks, tanks, and cannons.  I mean, a massive set.  Half of them are green, the color of the American troops; half of the are gray, immediately identifying them as the dreaded Wermacht, the German army.  And this, this menagerie of cheap plastic is the greatest toy of my childhood, the most sustained source of solitary play, the development of my imagination.  I am certain of it.

Who knows how the mind of a child nurtures its own interior life?

For me, it was the pitting of green plastic against gray, with complete control over the outcome, and with a sense of the underdog, for in the scenario I played out over and over, the green American troops would either initially be overwhelmed by the Germans and have to use resourcefulness to persevere when they were outgunned, or they would start out as a small group taking on a much-larger force.  After all, I was watching The Rat Patrol on television—two-man jeeps with machine guns taking on the entire Afrika Korps.
What is embarrassing is that I allowed my father to film me putting on one of these battles, recreating the whole assault with explosions and destruction and my new airplane attacking from above.  I’d like to hope that he filmed it secretly, but the movie camera was too obtrusive for that to be possible.  I doubt that I had much choice in the matter.  Instead, while the Germans invaded, the camera invaded, too.

None of us can use ourselves as proof of a larger anything, but this Christmas and my larger all-consuming obsession with guns, soldiers, war movies, and my father having served in the war, and even the “violent toy” culture that surrounded me and that later parents and consumer watchdog groups and psychologists condemned and dismantled, certainly had little impact on my adult politics or positions on guns, war, or violence.  For me, it was, indeed, child’s play, and that was all.

Looking back at these movies, I’m also jarred by the larger context.  It is 1965.  I am dressing as a soldier and playing imaginary games.  But my brother and I are just as likely to be putting a Beatles album on our portable record player and listening to it over and over, internalizing songs about love and love lost that should mean nothing to boys wrapped up in Little League and playing in half-built houses in the subdivision going up around us.   But, year by year, the guns and the bats will end up in dusty piles in the garage until my mother throws them out, and the Beatles will lead us onward.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Expertise is in the Eye of the Beholder

I’m not an expert. At anything, really.

I don’t feel like an expert. I don’t act like an expert. I don’t carry myself in the way I imagine experts would carry themselves, would think of themselves.

I’m not credentialed like an expert. I have neither a doctorate in my area(s?) of expertise, nor even a master’s degree. I have experience, and years of it, as an engaged parent and as a professional in the field, but what does that matter if I don’t have those precious three letters, “PhD” in my name?

Were I to fly into the heart of the Ivy Leagues, or to New York City, or maybe even to the intensely-competitive private school world of Atlanta, you could easily find people who out-experted me. I can name at least three or four people in my very small professional field, in Atlanta alone, who can run circles around me, people I have sought often and from whom I have learned much.

Perhaps more importantly, and definitely more telling, I’m not comfortable considering myself an expert.

There’s all this education-focused literature out there now -- and I read a ton of it, which is the blue-collar way to educate yourself when you can’t or won’t disappear to graduate school for a year or for several nights a month -- that talks about the importance of grit and resilience, the value of hard work, and the detrimental consequence of viewing intelligence as a fixed notion.

The smartest people are those who never consider themselves expert enough, is the way I’ve begun to see it. The minute Nick Saban considers himself an expert enough coach is the minute he begins to see other coaches pass him by. The minute Toyota is satisfied with its place atop the automotive food chain is the minute the wheels get wobbly.

So I worry that thinking of myself that way, as an expert, as someone who knows enough about a given field or subject, is the best way to stop learning more, stop improving, stop getting more experty, or expertier. (Yeah, I know it’s not a word; I’m not yet an expert in English composition, either. Even though some people say I write real good.)

Earlier this week, I stood in front of a modestly-sized group of fathers, parents of middle and high school kids. I spent several hours attempting to hone down a useful overview of parenting in the digital age, a mix of Social Media 101 plus What Parents Should/Can Do. It had to be informative but not jargony, encouraging but not preachy. They needed to leave feeling they knew a little more and knowing there were realistic action steps.

I made a Prezi. I kept my talk in the perfect TED window of 15-18 minutes. I kept things light yet spoke with confidence about the topic, having read and reread a superb book and a dozen or so articles I’d favorited in Twitter over the last year. Nobody likes it when a meeting runs long. Especially when it’s during work hours. High-income high-fallootin’ successful dads tend to like it even less. I would not disrespect them by going over my allotted time. (And I didn't! Do you have any idea how hard that is for me?!?!)

Yet, as the bell tolled on the end of our time, no one left. The Q&A portion had started more than 10 minutes ago, and they were all still engaged, asking questions, wanting to know more. More than half the dads remained after I forced the thing to a close to talk more, to ask more questions.

This is bragging, which tends to be annoying and obnoxious, but what happened in that room was exhilarating, that moment when you get to savor that your relatively vast knowledge of a topic, something your audience knows so much less about, has value, that moment when years and years of experience and reading offers 15 minutes of people giving you their attention and positive energy.

Although I could never teach as a career, I can see where the great teachers -- or maybe even the not-so-great ones -- could go week after week, working for those brief and glorious highs when their words and knowledge creates a sort of mental or emotional adrenaline rush in their students.

For 25 minutes this week, to the 30 people in that room, I was an expert. And it felt really, really good.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Home Movies, Part 1

Recently, my father had the family home movies from the late 1950's/early 1960's converted from decaying reels of 8mm film to digital.  Until December 8th, they sit in YesVideo's cloud, where we can all access them with an email and a password. There are seven of them, each running about 25 minutes, and even though they are not really connected by anything except their occurrence during the same year or couple of years, they do capture a partial childhood.

I don't know that the phenomenon of home movies is understood these days.  Video recorders were not the same--they were relatively unobtrusive and had such long filming that the fanatic could film anything and everything so incessantly that everyone quit paying attention.  Digital recorders eventually fit in pockets and now have become phones.  The fact that now anything can and is recorded at any time changes our attitudes toward being filmed.

But at the time, oh boy, when that camera was out, it was everywhere.  And it wasn't some sleek thing that fit in your pocket.  It was a large, bulky thing, like a lunchbox, if you've ever used one of those, and heavy and with a blinding light attached to it that was its own presence in the room.  And we were supposed to pretend that light and camera weren't there, were supposed to go about our normal business of being children while this voracious intruder recorded everything.  And it wanted smiling, lots of smiling, and waving.  "Wave at the camera," we would hear over and over, acknowledging that it had its own demands.

I suppose the topics were no different then than they are now--birthdays, holidays, trips and vacations, benchmarks of daily life like a new dog or a Little League game or a lazy Saturday afternoon.

There is probably nothing more mind-numbingly boring than watching someone else's home movies.  But that was the trend at the time, especially if the family had been on a special vacation somewhere, maybe even out of the country.  They would invite the neighbors and all of us would sit in a darkened living room with a rackety projector spewing out the starts and stops, the bad lighting and too much panorama, the endless pictures of children swimming, walking, climbing, eating, waving, touring, riding and just being filmed.

I knew, but I had forgotten, that these movies have no sound.  That meant that if we were at someone's house, we heard a slapdash narrative of little more than names of places and descriptions of events that we could see taking place.  "Now, here we are....." or "This is _____(insert child's name)____ ..." peppered the storytelling, clarifying the obvious.

Now, with no sound, I see my family and myself doing our special or everyday activities, but almost can't help but to include my own voiceover.  Without it, the people I'm watching seem like strangers I once knew but can no longer connect with.  It's dreamlike in that way. It's like seeing the Ghosts of Childhood Past. But if I talk, then memories start to come back and I think that I understand myself again.

My first steps as a baby are captured on one of these reels.  At first, this seemed frightfully important.  My first on earth and Neil Armstrong's first on the moon held equal sway in my mind.   I had always known from family lore that those steps had been recorded during a family vacation to New England in 1958.  Indeed, there was something pleasurable about seeing myself teetering and tottering probably toward the beckoning arms of my mother, but it didn't change me like I, for some reason, thought it might.

That doesn't mean we haven't all been watching them endlessly, searching in our own ways for what they show us of our lives then.  We have.  But the moments that seem to matter (I speak only for myself) are the ones that validate who I have become in more abstract ways.  After all, I walk everyday; it had to start somewhere.

It's quite possible, in spite of what I've said about other people's home movies, that next time I will subject you to one of mine, but I'll do it with words instead of pictures, and you will not be held captive.  You can turn it off and leave whenever you want.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Surrounded in Sound

Surround - American Hi-Fi (mp3)

We have lost a man whose influence on our entertainment is almost beyond comprehension and completely within our ears. We have lost a man none of us knew, whose achievements are taken for granted, who altered the sonic universe.

Ray Dolby died Thursday, September 12, in San Francisco. If ever there was a billionaire whose influence and value in popular culture deserved raking in the money, it’s Ray Dolby, whose love for movies and music directed his engineering prowess and knowledge.

Born in 1972, I take for granted the idea that our theaters play sound in stereo. Most kids today think 5.1-channel stereo is sub-standard, and the highest-end home audio systems work at nine channels. But the biggest and most substantial leap, by far, in the transformation of the cinema sound experience, was that vital leap from mono and stereo to Left, Right, Center and Surround. And Dolby made that process easier by leaps and bounds.

The Dolby name is so synonymous with movies and with home audio that it is truly taken for granted. I remember when Dolby Pro Logic became de rigeur. After that, I stopped noticing whether the Dolby logo was on stereo equipment I might purchase because it just always was.

When I heard the news of Dolby's death on NPR Friday morning, I was at first unfazed by the announcement. And then I began to contemplate just how omnipresent an influence Dolby’s work has been in my pop-culture immersed life. And then I did a little Googling. (Which is to say my "knowledge" here is neither expertise nor original.)

When we are told, as teenagers, and when we tell teenagers now to “find a profession you love,” to “pursue your passions,” I fear the charge is commonly misunderstood. Too often, we confuse passion with happiness. Too often we confuse loving a job with a constant, never-ceasing enjoyment. We often end up with kids who grow up following that advice in a misunderstood or naive way, and the disillusionment can be crippling.

In Dolby’s career, his engineering brilliance has left fingerprints on everywhere. He was instrumental in the creation of the first audiotape recorder and later the prototype of a machine we would later know as VHS.

Ray Dolby then achieved the seemingly impossible by engineering a process to reduce the hiss in recording instruments. To claim that Dolby NR revolutionized the sound editing process is understatement. I’m making an uneducated leap here: without Dolby NR, vocal dubbing would have continued to be standard operating procedure for movies.

Dolby’s contributions didn’t stop there. Perhaps his most well-known influence came in the work on stereo sound and the creation of “surround sound.”

Industrial Light and Magic was created, in large part, because of the special effects needs on the set of Star Wars. It was born out of specific need and became the quiet MVP of the whole movie. But without Dolby’s 4-channel stereo sound, which just as vitally changed the game for movie theaters, Star Wars would never have been praised for “blowing you out of the theater” with its lasers, explosions, and light saber clashes.

Perhaps it’s a stretch to claim we’d never have a Lucas or Spielberg without a Dolby, but would we think of these men or the best modern directors who followed in the same way without that sound, that revolutionary power to make the two dimensions on a screen feel like it was whizzing past our heads and circling around behind us? And while in today’s times we might be more familiar with the lovely THX logo that entertainingly welcomes in a huge chunk of our movies, that cool THX moment ain’t worth squat without the Dolby backbone providing it.

How much do we lovers of music and movie owe Ray Dolby? I don’t know, but his work constantly surrounds us.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Doing Tragedy Well

Let's face it.  We Americans do not do tragedy well.  Today, of course, I am making this statement in the context of 9/11 since it is September 11th, but let's assume that my comments extend beyond that to the tragedy of your (or my choice).

There are a number of reasons for this:

1.  We only understand tragedy within our own national context.  In other words, a tragic occurrence elsewhere in the world with greater devastation, greater loss of life, greater long-term impact, is likely to have little resonance here in the States.  Tsunamis and earthquakes (unless they are in California) are simply too far away for us to keep up with after the initial event.  Nuclear meltdowns and other problems that occur in countries we deem our enemies touch us not.  And, Africa, well, Africa, to us, is Africa.

2.  We have such little collective memory.  We are a forgetful people, a quick to put things behind us people.  This can be a blessing in some cases, but not where tragedy is concerned.  A student of mine, just the other day, realized that the whole dividing line of his life so far was 9/11.  But he didn't know anything about the day to speak, some planes hit some buildings, that's about it.  And, to be fair, he is young, but how many of our fellow citizens living in the various stages of adulthood can offer much more than that assessment?  No the whys or the hows or the befores or the afters.  Those things don't really matter now.  What matters is that a speeding ticket in another state can hold up the renewal of one's driver's license.  What matters is all of the rigamarole one must go through to get on an airplane these days.  That damn 9/11!

3.  We don't tolerate the maudlin, the false, the superficial.  Oh, we tolerate those things quite well thank you very much, but not where tragedy is concerned.  Once-a-year Tweets and Facebook posts hold questionable sincerity for many of us.  Moments of silence work, but once too many words start coming out, we start shaking our heads, looking at each other knowingly and handing ourselves over to our cynicism.  A tragedy, once passed and destined to be brought up again, is seen as a political opportunity, a chance to feel good about how much we care, or a jump onto a bandwagon for a quick ride into town.

4.   We don't do tragedy well because we don't do victims well.  Or victims' families.  Or first responders, second responders, third responders.  We like for our tragedies to be clean and immediate, without years of lawsuits or congressional committee hearings about reparations or benefits.  Those make us weary, like war makes us weary after the initial sheen has worn off and we have to deal with wounds, PTSD, jobs for veterans, and the impact on our psyche that ongoing reminders can bring on us.  We don't like it when people who help to clean up start developing patterns of cancer or when families of victims start asking uncomfortable questions.  Like we love our soldiers, much more than we love our veterans.  Veterans, like victims, take too long, and really, we only have a couple of weeks to give.

5.  We can't process the counter-narrative.  We like our tragedies simple and blameless or easily explained away.  Certainly, we don't want to ponder who might have had a role in it or what might have gone systemically wrong or which lives were lost needlessly due to outdated equipment or budget cuts.  And we really, really, really don't like conspiracies.  We have worked long and hard to make "conspiracy theory" if not a bad word, then at least the province of kooks and delusional paranoids.

6.  We are controlled by our sardonic national sense of humor.  We are quite proficient at laughing at the awful, so much so that our apologies for doing so are as insincere as the other emotions we condemn, but we don't fault our false apologies because they are part of the fun.  "Too soon," we say, "Too soon," but that is coded language for "It's kinda cool that you had the balls to say that even though I probably wouldn't have because I'm not that heartless, at least until I repeat it later in the day."

Oddly, ironically, tragically, whatever you want to call it, today's mock Subway promo from The Onion was the only fresh aspect to 9/11, version 12.0.  Somehow, at least for me, in mocking our capitalism, it honored our human loss.

Contrast all of this, though, with how well we do patriotism.  Before the first Gulf War (an undertaking which, in retrospect, is no less sketchy in terms of its motivations than the second Gulf War or the current discussion about bombing Syria).  Back then, we citizens gathered on the overpasses of the interstates, waving yellow ribbons and cheering for our country and waving at the troops as they passed in convoys beneath us, headed for deployment.  Onward, Christian soldiers.  We'll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home.

Let's make it simple.  What we really like about tragedies (and wars) are heroes.  Give us a few heroes that we can hang our national hats on and we are good to go moving forward and content revisiting those bad things that happened in the past.  And what would be really great is if those heroes would do something worth making a movie out of because tragic movies, we love tragic movies, especially when the good guys triumph.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

To Be Completely Honest, I'm Not Gonna Lie

To be honest, of late I’m having issues with people insisting on how honest they’re being.

I’m not gonna lie. We’ve seen a noticeable uptick in our vernacular use of phrases regarding our truthfulness. Although I’m quick to point out when others around me fall victim to this habit, even I get caught up in it from time to time.

Honestly, it’s aggravating as hell how dang frank we apparently are.

To be completely honest, are people who say things like this over and over, time and again, accidentally revealing something about themselves?

If you introduce every fifth or sixth sentence in a dialogue with an introductory or closing phrase intended to remind the listener that you are, in that moment and in that sentence, being truthful or candid, what exactly does it suggest about the other four or five sentences that come without such caveats?

And what exactly is “complete honesty,” anyway? Is there some gap between regular honesty and complete honesty, the same kind of difference between regular unleaded gas and premium unleaded gas? Maybe our conscience operates at acceptable levels on Regular Honesty, but it kicks into another gear completely and keeps our soul engines running longer on Premium Honesty.

Dan Ariely is something of a (dis)honesty expert. He’s got a book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, waiting in my “To Read” shelf. The only person I’ve watched more on TED/RSA Talks is Sir Ken Robinson.

In short, his specialty is telling us what we know but pretend we don’t, which is that (1) all of us lie, (2) few of us lie sociopathically, and (3) most of us think of ourselves as “completely honest” when we in fact wouldn’t live up to government standards for “Regular Honest.”

Let’s be clear (another of my favorites, #thanksObama), if we are generationally different than our predecessors, it’s a question of mere degrees and not full turns. We are, generationally less honest than previous generations, but only because we are confronted with many more opportunities to be dishonest. Percentage-wise, I’d reckon we’re every bit as honest if not moreso. We’re also, as Ariely puts so well, generally and increasingly distanced from the objects and victims of our deceptions.

I’m not gonna lie. My wife knows I can’t stand these little annoying clarifiers. She thinks we use them because they’re attempts at softening a harsh comment. A sort of nouveau Bless Your Heart.

To be honest, I disagree. Just as we are offered more opportunities to lie or deceive, we are also vastly more aware of this capacity in others. We are, that is, more Deception Literate. And I think these clarifiers are our contemporary way of acknowledging this unfortunate reality:

“I know you could lie. And you know I could lie. And we both know this could happen with any and every sentence that comes out of our conversation, to one degree or another. So I’m going to, once in a while, inject a harmless reminder into my speech that will serve to remind you that I treat you with respect, and that I could lie but choose not to.”

But again, to be completely honest, I think even that’s bullcrap. I think we say it because deep down, we’re all too aware of how deceptive and misleading even our most basic daily conversations have become, how much of our lives is spun, how much of our environment is spinning.

I’m not gonna lie, we don’t like it, but honestly, we seem resigned to lie -- lay? -- in the more connected, more dishonest bed we’ve made.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

It's The Time Of The Season

I know it's still hot as you-know-what out there, but still, could it have been any more of a Fall weekend than what it was?

Cases in point:

1) I read in the paper yesterday that it is not too late to put in a fall garden.  Not too late?  It's still summer!  And yet, if you want to have crops that will be ready for harvest before the first frost, when so many things die that are not already dead, you have to plant now.  It is almost already too late.  And so, today I headed to the nursery (how strange that we use the same word for where we raise our children and our plants) and came home with lettuce, spinach, kale, broccoli, mustard greens, kohlrabi.  I spruced up the basil.  I checked the green onions that I didn't pick in the spring that will likely make a go of it again now.  I watered the herbs that have been thirsting for water for a week now that it has finally stopped raining.  I pulled up the tomato plants that are spent; there are a few small fruit hanging on dead vines still waiting to ripen.  And, most of all, at dusk, I went out at dusk, fighting excessive humidity and mosquitoes, to plant all that I had purchased, to renew the hope I had in spring that what I put in the ground will yield usable produce.

Indeed, nature has moved on.

2) Today, I made my yearly pilgrimage, the first of many before Christmas, up to Signal Mountain to purchase what has to be the finest apple cider in the world.  At least in my experience, having spent cider seasons in New England, the Midwest, the Northeast, and, for the 30+ years, the Southeast, I have never tasted anything that compares. For four months, sometimes longer, the orchard on that mountain blends its many apple types into an ever-changing, masterful mix of flavors?  Where else, except in human beauty, does perfection offer so many varieties?  

Apple cider is too much for some, too concentrated, too much a presentation of pure apple.  Me, I can drink it like water.  If i could only have one drink for the remainder of my days, I would choose this apple cider.

3). Last night, with my daughter home and home with other friends from college, I set up a fire outside, a grill to prepare the ultimate outdoor meal--grilled paella.  Sausage first, chicken second, then with those removed, onions, peppers, garlic and spice added, then rice then broth then all of it recombined to cook together, peas and shrimp added at the last.  That the fire wouldn't catch, that I ended up cooking a huge outdoor pan in an improvised way on a gas stove did not matter.  What mattered is that I invited a friend from across the street over, and when he arrived, he said, "Are you having a fire outside on one of the hottest days of the year?"  Because, by then, the fire had caught.  But he had been tricked.  Hot September days meant hot September nights to him, but no, when the sun went down, the air had cooled enough for fire, the heat of the day would not hold without the sun.

4). And football.  Finally, football on Friday night, football all day Saturday, football on Sunday.  I was in our school assembly last Friday. And a female teacher walked past me on her way out.  "I'm sorry," she said, "I can't take the football."  I suppose I understood that on some intellectual level, but the fact remains that we teach boys and this is football season and Friday nights our students are going to be gathered in a stadium and if we are not there we miss it, and so I think, if you must, you swallow that and you go to the game.

We don't decide what autumn is; it is decided for us.  The ground and the fruit and the air and the noises of the evening all tell us that regardless what we might want to hang onto or what we might not want to accept, the season has changed and all that comes with it has changed, and, willingly or not, we must change, too.  For me, that's an easy choice.

Friday, September 6, 2013

My First All Ages Show

My Sister - Juliana Hatfield (mp3)

Her elbow barely made it over the metal bar, the dividing gate the separated us from the talent, as they say. Her heels were just a smidgen off the ground. She had to be on her tippy-toes, but just enough to be annoying, as if begging God to just let her grow another half inch right now already.

Track29 is a standing-only kind of place. Old school. You can’t go to a standing-only concert and not get a little bit more excited, more into it. You have to, as they say now, Lean In.

Although maybe six feet from the corner of the stage, my girls were just barely tall enough and unobstructed by others enough to be able to enjoy what was happening on stage. An hour or so in, one of the women in front of us looked at my younger, shorter daughter and offered her a spot at the barrier. She was handed prime real estate.

She’s her mother’s daughter, however, so not even an unobstructed view of a platinum-selling pop star at the top of her game could distract her from the fact that (a) she was sweating hot and (b) it was almost 10 p.m.

“Is it going to be hot?” my younger daughter had asked on our way there.
“I don’t know. Probably. Probably it’ll get a little warm.”
“Warm, or hot?”
“Well, not hot like it gets out on the soccer field,” I said. “But it could get a little stuffy in there if there’s a big enough crowd.”
“How loud is it gonna be?” she asked.
“I dunno,” I said. “Concert loud. But not, like, Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’ loud.”
“Neverm-- it just won’t be that loud as concerts go.”

I’d taken her and her older sister to a couple of concerts before, but they were much larger venues, places with seat numbers. This would be their first All Ages show, the kind of event exclusive to smaller venues like the now-Big Deal Track29 in Chattanooga.

By the time the adorable and sassy-as-hell Sara Bareilles took the stage, my second child had given me many dagger-edged looks and yelled into my ears several times that yes, it was hot, and yes, it was loud. Which is to say, her father had lied twice. I just shrugged and said, “But I love you!”

When we first arrived, I took a picture of the two of them and posted it on Facebook, excited about our father-daughter adventure. All these friends commented things like, “You’re such a cool dad!” But the truth that my real-life friends know is that I didn’t really do it for them. I did it for me, desperately hoping they would enjoy it enough so they might think I did it for all of us.

Between the ages of 12-17, I don’t recall a single trip I took with my father, not a trip where it was just him and me, doing something fun. Or something that was supposed to be fun. Not fishing, or hunting, or an Atlanta Braves game, or a college or pro football game, or even a hike or a camping trip. Nothing.

This isn’t a statement of bitterness, because I don’t often recall, during my teenager years, feeling that there was some gaping chasm of loss created from this situation. Father-son trips weren’t his thing, and had he tried it, the whole experience would have had that sheen of requirement and expectation rather than desire.

My dad never really knew me.

Not in the way that none of of never really know anyone, maybe not even ourselves, but in the way many kids from my and previous generations grew up with fathers who, while living in the same house, saw little of us and did almost nothing with us outside of dinners and watching TV shows.

I’m not bitter. Really, I’m not. I loved my dad a ton, but the moat of what we didn’t know or understand about one another was definitely a part of our relationship. If I’m being honest with myself, maybe it’s the other way around, and I mostly wish I’d known my father better.

Maybe moments like these will also shrink the moat that most certainly grows between sisters. But my real motive is wanting my soon-to-be teenage girls to know me better than I knew him. So, like I said. I’m not some cool, hip dad. I’m just being selfish. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Bull Market

Rumble and Sway - Jamie N Commons

Let's talk the 401k of Love and Life.
Investments in joy have varying lengths of payout. When you invest in family joy, you're in the bonds market. You're putting heart and soul money into a long-term investment. The risk may well vary based on the nature of the bond family, but you're not really going to pull your money out of there too early without paying serious penalties and probably losing money.

This can be compounded when the investment in marriage produces dividends, which is to say children. If you cash out your marriage bonds before their time, not only do you pay a penalty, but the dividends tend to suffer unless the investment was so toxic that it was merely a matter of cutting your losses.

Family is bond, and friendship is stock.

Friend joy is all over the place. Some friendships are low interest and long-term. Some are short-term with incredibly high yield. Basically they're all over the place.

The average person diversifies their friendship investments to achieve a nice and healthy balance. You spread the risk out. If you're younger, you're able to take greater risks with your friendship investments, but as you age, your investments need greater dependability and sturdiness. Sure, you still want to dabble some, maybe a little in the international markets or in the small business sector, but you really want most of your stock in the friendships that have little chance of folding at the first hint of a recession or scandal.

My ideal social situation is not unlike the ideal 401k for someone my age. Give me a big party, somewhere between 50-200 people.

I want at least 15-25% of the crowd to be friends in the long-term investment category. They're the kind of friends who, no matter how much time I spend with them, no matter where the conversations go or how much I've had to drink, will be there the next day and be -- barring some catastrophic collapse of the friendship market -- have exactly the same Friendship Value they did the day before. 

Another 25-35% of the crowd should be Intermediate Friends. They're the ones I'm trying to figure out just how much more of my heart and soul I care to invest in their futures market. Are they reliable investments? What kind of dividends might they pay out in 5, 10, 30 years? What's their projected yield in the next six months?

The other half should be potential investments, some with whom I should be well-acquainted and well-versed, and some which are new to my market and need serious evaluation before determining what the risks and rewards might be.

At this party, the fun is in going around and gauging how the various stocks are handling the party market. With my long-term friends, it hardly matters if they have an off night, or even several of them, because my money's not going anywhere with them. But they're like my anchors. I treat them much like the toddler treats a parent, as the safety valves and home bases from which I can reach out to explore.

The second-best way to enjoy my friendship investments is in a group of somewhere between three and a dozen friends. At this size, so long as several are long-term and several others are intermediate, everything else is gravy. This kind of social engagement tends to be more of a "state of the friendship union" experience, and I find myself feeling tested as an investor every bit as much as I am testing my investments. Moreso, really.

Last night we held our fantasy football league's annual draft. We've more or less had the same members for a decade. It's one of my favorite nights of the year, even though it's chaotic, and even though we hardly have time to actually converse because we're (and I mean me) so focused on the competitive task. It's a time I get to just sit back and celebrate my friendship investments and enjoy a small portion of the dividends they pay me on an almost daily basis.

I'm a pretty obnoxious investor, as friends go. I'm loud and unwieldy, and tolerating these qualities requires tremendous patience and understanding. I should've been bought out forcefully many times more than I have.

No, friendship stock ain't family. Sure, I kind of consider my friends like family, but if the Chairlift Game comes down to a friend or my child, the friend has a long leap of air in their future, and they know it.

And no, small-group gatherings don't bring me the same kind of giddiness of being in a large unwieldy group of people, but it provides comfort in the place of glee, a quiet and peaceful sauna-esque joy rather than the feeling of living on a roulette wheel. It's like having insomnia but slinking off to that favorite couch, putting on your favorite old TV show on DVD, and letting the glow of its action lull you back into that comforting place of rest and safety.

Not to brag, but I've invested well. I could've retired years ago, quite frankly. When it comes to friendships, both long-term and otherwise, I am a wealthy man who has done almost nothing to deserve this wealth save for invest a tiny little bit here and there. I am lucky, and I am grateful. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Hacked Off

I am already so tired of the word "hack" as it keeps appearing in common usage, even though it has not yet reached the saturation point. But it's close.  Everywhere I read, it seems somebody is offering some kind of hack--technology hacks, food hacks, life hacks, probably sex hacks and religious hacks I don't even know about.

I understand why.  The word is cool, it's hip, it's now.  It puts a behavior, even a fairly mundane behavior,  into a modern, technological context to make it sound like it is so cutting edge that either the person doing the hacking is a genius or we are all idiots for not thinking of the same kind of hacks on our own.

But let's remind ourselves of the word's primary definition.  Hackers, of course, were/are people who break into other people's computer activities illegally.  They either do it in order to get possession of private, supposedly-secure information or they do it just to prove that they can do it.  Or they do it to take governments or large multinational entities down a notch or two.

In its secondary, now main, meaning, the word means taking some technological device, say a smart phone, and modifying it by breaking through various codes so that it will do things that it was not originally intended to do.  The connection to the first definition is obvious, but the issues of legality have softened.

And I get all of that.  This isn't a discussion about morality; it's a discussion about the appropriation of a word so that it is stretched beyond sensibility.

My first encounter with the word in its expanded context came earlier in the summer when I saw a post online about "8 Ways To Hack A Bud Light Lime-a-Rita."  While I suppose that the suggestions are in keeping with that secondary definition, we are talking about an alcoholic drink.  And we are talking about doing very non-technological things to it like adding more lime or putting it in a blender with some ice to make a frozen drink or maybe adding some ginger.

Since then, I've seen kitchen hacks and mind hacks and there is a website devoted to a new hack everyday.

Which might mean that it's time to bring in yet a third definition of "hack."  For a long time now, it has also been a noun to mean someone who is not very good at something, something like writing.  A hack might well be someone who copies the techniques and conventions of better writers, but with less success.

How ironic, then, that to use the word "hack" might end up making someone into a hack, since the word has now, whether or not it has yet worn out its welcome, has certainly outlived its usefulness, and if you are spending your time talking about hacks, you are trying to sound like you are on top of the latest language when, in fact, the future has moved behind you.

I'm all about modifications, improvements, upgrades, adjustments, tweaks.  I love knowing how to make things better.  I spend my time at work, at home while cooking, maybe even sometimes in relationships trying to do exactly that.  But I also love words and their strengths and quirks and when a word is played out, then it becomes time to use it only in the most ironic ways.

 "Hack" has not caught up to that kind of thinking yet.  It doesn't know that its time has already come and gone, even while it seems to be enjoying its Pyrrhic popularity.  It's kind of like cupcakes in that way.  Cupcakes two years ago, before the crash.

So if you are thinking of creating your own hack niche, then I would caution you: that wordship has sailed.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Irony In Red

Each year on this day, I like to share online my annual chapel talk that I give to the students.  Since the subject matter this year is pretty school-specific, I thought I might comment on the circumstances of giving a talk instead:

A few years ago during a visit to a dermatologist, I was diagnosed with Rosacea, that facial condition that can make a person's face redder than normal.  Though doctors don't really know what causes some people to contract it, they are pretty settled on what the popular "triggers" are that can cause flare-ups--coffee, alcohol, hot foods, spicy foods.  In other words, to quote the song, "these are a few of my favorite things," things that, unfortunately, cause the blood to rush to the surface.

Oh yeah, and blushing.

And that's when I just had to laugh out loud, especially when the article I was reading said that I should try to avoid work situations that would make me blush.  That's funny.

I have spent my entire life blushing.  I blush easily and I blush often.  Though I promise you that I have made it one of the main missions of my life to do whatever is necessary to avoid embarassments, to avoid blushing, that has not gone so well.  Short of living in complete isolation, I don't know how I could prevent my face turning some shade of red in an instant, and even then, I know full well that I can even blush in private when I recall some shame or gaffe or failed verbal risk or joke that died on the vine.  That's just me.

As a child in school, I was one of those who were absolutely mortified by having to give a speech or an oral report.  I remember, in particular, a project I did on the Gal├ípagos Islands in the 4th or 5th grade that included a ten-minute oral presentation.  Because of time constraints, I spent one entire day in a light red glow because I thought I had to give the talk, but didn't, and then I feverishly worried all night because the next day had become a certainty.  With shaking hands and a dry mouth, I stumbled through the presentation.  My face was on fire.  When I sat down, the kid next to me said, "Hey, your face is really red."  Which, of course, only made it redder.

So how do life's ironies work?  Let me remind you.  The person who is terrified to speak in front of people chooses a profession that puts him in front of groups, speaking to them each and every work day.

It would be nice to say that after three decades I have gotten used to it, and to some extent that is true.  Armed with wit, sarcasm, a wealth of popular culture, and a cup of coffee, I can joke and divert and tease and challenge my way through class after class, only turning red when things go badly wrong, as they sometimes do.

But stepping onto a chapel stage in front of hundreds is still a more challenging proposition.  I'd be surprised if even the most seasoned, extroverted "performer" doesn't grapple with at least minor bouts of self-doubt and panic before heading out into an arena, a stadium, a New York City stage, or even a high school auditorium.  If you don't give those kinds of talks, then you probably think that trying to get the audience to laugh is to draw that audience in.  Maybe, but not for me.  I try to do it to put myself at ease.

Reining in the blushing, though? Not a chance.  And that's why I laugh, now that the additional layer of irony is upon me that I supposedly must do all in my power to keep the blood from rushing to my face.  I'm doing really well with avoiding the intense exercise that might exacerbate it.  I quit coffee for a few days, but then I thought, what the heck, I like coffee and I'm going to drink it.

But avoiding situations that cause me to blush?  I've spent a lifetime trying to do that and now I have doctors suggesting that I remove myself from those occasions as easily as one might cross the street? If that isn't funny, then I don't know what is.