Friday, November 29, 2013

A Handy, Christmas Season Shopping Guide For Women Who Want Their Men To Shop With Them

I like shopping.  I know that many men don't.  But what I do I would call "parallel shopping," where I'm shopping at the same time as my wife and/or children, but for different things, and not with them. Because I like to cook, it isn't difficult for me to kill an hour or more in a fine grocery store or, less enthusiastically, in an upscale cooking store.

This year, I missed "Black Friday" due to circumstances, but it is actually a day I typically enjoy, and I was sad to miss it.  But even on that day, when we drive to an outlet mall, I do my own thing, meet up occasionally, and typically shut the whole endeavor down at that magical point where I've had enough and they are hungry enough.

But women like to shop with their men.  They think it's romantic, that it embodies closeness, and I'm romantic enough myself to accept that, but with some ground rules.  Women, if you want your men to shop with you, not just early in a relationship when they are like bees to the hive, but throughout, then you will have to accept some realities.  Here is my advice for how to keep your man shopping with you:

1. You can never take a man into three stores in a row without buying anything.  Men only go into stores to purchase.  They do not understand "browse."  So if you walk out of that third straight store empty-handed, you have likely lost them.  They are feeling scammed.  They think you are wasting their time.  Even if it's a key ring at the counter, go gaga over it and spend the money, if you want your next outing to be as a couple.  IMPORTANT CORROLARY:  Never try on anything you have no interest in purchasing just to see what it looks like.

2.  There are only two kinds of boutiques on the entire planet--those that have seats for men and those that don't.  You will never get to shop in the latter guilt-free.  My suggestion is, as you are walking out, say to the lonely woman on her computer, "You know, if you had chairs, my husband would have let me look in here for a long time and I probably would have bought something, but now he's hovering over me and rushing me out."  Eventually. That will solve it.

3.  Once a man has walked out of a store you are in, especially to wander further down the mall, he is not coming back in.  He does not want to be called back, he does not want to be asked for his opinion, not only because a) if he's left because he doesn't believe you are buying anything, but also because b)...

4.  It doesn't take a man long to figure out that you don't want his opinion, so stop asking for it.  He's certainly not going to step into the minefield of offering an opinion about clothing that you are trying on.  Stereotypical as that situation may be, we have still all lived it, have entered it naively, been burned by it.  But not continuously.  And the longer it goes on, we have come to realize that it applies to home decorating, to things you are buying for someone else when there are two or more options, or , really, to judgements about colors of anything.

5.  Man is a linear creature.  He does not want to return to a store an hour, a day, or a week later in order to revisit a shopping decision.  Any more than he wants to move furniture inside the house to more than location to "see how it looks."  If you like it, buy it.  Figure out how it will look, and then I'll move it.

6.  Today's man can entertain himself in a variety of ways.  Embrace that. Endorse it.  Supervise it.  Support it.  Don't let your man begin a shopping odyssey without at least a cell phone.  Better yet, with a book or an iPad or anything that a set of headphones will plug into so that he can override the store soundtrack.  Then let him alone.  Don't come up to him with shopping questions or ask for opinions while those headphones are on.  He's probably in the middle of a significant game or something.  And don't blow through the store, ready to go because "it's not my style"or (the more dangerous) "it's too young for me," just as he is settling into a (hopefully) seat and getting ready to enjoy himself.

7. Pay attention to the food.  My wife me to a street of antiques and housewares in Atlanta, and I was stunned to discover that there was no place to eat on the street--no coffee, no snack, no beer, no chance for a football game on TV.  It was only when we went into one antique place where they had a little makeshift cafe in the center that I thought, "Yeah, this place is alright, this place has got it figured out."  Men do not do well in wastelands; they have to know that they can find an outpost ahead, that there may be provisions ahead.

 Trust me.  You ignore this advice at the risk of future shopping trips.  You probably already know that.  Your husband has probably already declared that he's going to clean out that squirrel's nest while you are shopping.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Fight For Your Right Not to Sell Out

It’s rare, and therefore refreshing, to witness a conflict where both sides are likeable and have (mostly) noble aims. That’s what we have in the Goldieblox v. Beastie Boys duel that has begun to heat up in the last week.

You’ve probably seen the Goldieblox commercial, but if you haven’t, you should. Young girls cavort as a pink-themed Rube Goldberg contraption progresses in and around a home. The original received over 8 MILLION views in a short timespan. The video's message is clear and truly liberating. Any parent who wants more for his or her daughter than to merely be someone’s dutiful wife couldn’t help but watch the video and think, “Hell yes” and “About damn time.”

When I first heard the Beastie Boys were suing about the commercial’s use of their cleverly-rewritten song, I was annoyed. They’ve done mighty well in the world, so why be all douchey by getting in the way of a viral Grrl Power sensation, right?

But things are more complicated than that, and the Beastie Boys didn't sue; they got "preemptively sued" by Goldiblox.

First, the Beasties have never permitted their music to be used for commercial marketing, which is rare and downright noble in this day and age. Keeping that promise was in Adam Yauch’s will, according to The Guardian:
Following the death of Adam Yauch in 2012, the Beastie Boys revealed that Yauch's will instructed his estate to prohibit the use of the group's music in advertisements. "Notwithstanding anything to the contrary, in no event may my image or name or any music or any artistic property created by me be used for advertising purposes," the MC wrote. The surviving members of the group subsequently sued Monster Energy Drink for using several of their songs without permission.
Not only are the Beasties fighting on principle, but they're also defending a dead friend and creative partner’s wishes.

And Goldieblox is no charity. It’s a business, albeit one with seemingly equal noble goals and motivations of making our STEM world more appealing to the female sex. At present, this is a real problem with real negative consequences for girls, particularly when it comes to job and salary inequality. But Goldieblox is still in it to make an almighty dollar, and they’ve done it by cleverly reworking a song straight from the modern parent’s sweet spot of musical memory, the ‘80s.

In an interesting twist, Goldieblox has since made their YouTube video “private.” While they originally came out “preemptively” swinging on the litigious front by suing the Beasties before the Beasties even lawyered up, the fact their video has been pulled suggests a couple of possibilities:
  1. Their video, a finalist in the competition of independent businesses vying for a spot in the Super Bowl, was pulled as part of an agreement because they won, or
  2. Godlieblox’s defense of the song as “parody” suddenly got thin because advertisements (things made expressly for the purpose of profiteering) aren't as free to use the "free use of parody" defense, and also because Goldieblox was name-dropping the Beastie Boys left and right in a way that implied some kind of permission or consent, which they most decidedly never requested nor received.
In a perfect world, considering the noble aims of both sides in this fight, things will end amicably. Goldieblox has already put itself on the marketing map with its grand slam viral video. They should celebrate their victory and preemptively pull it. Doing so doesn’t erase their victory; and it offers an olive branch to a band trying to honor their deceased friend’s wishes. Meanwhile, emboldened with more fans and more financial support, Goldiblox can work on their next brilliant video. I'm betting the Super Bowl committee would be willing to consider it, especially given the positivity it would generate during the Most Masculine-Obsessed Event of The Year.

Surely empowering Girls Can Love STEM videos isn’t a one-trick pony. My generation of parents are starving to see more, so feed us more, and we'll eat 'em up. And in the meantime, MCA can rest in peace.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Selfie Salvation... for Girls

We seem to be, culturally speaking, in a marathon race to the lowest common denominator. We go however low we must to win fans, be it in pop culture, politics or journalism. It’s as true of religion as anywhere. I was reminded of this when watching the video my daughters watched during a special "optional" event at their school last week.

In the video, a young fella with a carefully-sculpted ‘do steps out onto the stage of an empty auditorium. He’s wearing a beefy T and jeans, and he begins to recite all of the things girls might be.

This message isn’t intended to convert, but rather to empower the already-converted and to further embolden the already-empowered. This is the message of a Christian cheerleader on the sidelines of the game, waving his pom-poms, doing some tumbling, and shouting “GO JESUS! whilst waving his spirit fingers toward the crowd.

It’s an alluring message for young Christian girls. Most of them eat it up like cotton candy.

There’s a fine line between evangelizing and marketing Christianity. In light of Chattanooga’s latest most famous “Christian,” Angela Cummings, also known as “Westboro Baptist 2.0,” also known as a woman who travels the country panhandling in the name of Jesus after having failed utterly as a mother. But being an abject failure as a parent shouldn’t prevent someone from damning the rest of humanity as sinners, right?

Angela Cummings is neither evangelizing nor marketing Christianity. She is shaming it, and she reinforces every negative stereotype real Christians struggle to fight every day. She is, whether she knows it or not, doing the devil’s work.

The “You Are Awesome” guy is troubling on a much less problematic level. He is marketing Christianity rather than evangelizing. That is, he’s trying to make Christianity match his audience. He’s an Oxy Clean infomercial for Jesus.

It would be a fun gender studies assignment to compare and contrast Jon Jorgenson’s messages to boys and girls.

For girls, the message is, "You are beautiful, you are wonderful, and you are loved. Those who make you doubt being loved are evil."

For boys, the message is, "You are strong, you have ability, and you can become something really awesome. In fact, the world needs you to become awesome."

It’s subtle, but there’s a disturbing difference between the messages. The boys have a responsibility to become men and lead. The girls just need to remember they’re loved. Boys have power. Girls are cherished.

In other words, little ladies, here’s the message:
  • Just feel pretty and special. That's the most important thing for a girl.
  • Let the men drive. Don’t give us directions, and don’t ask for the wheel, because that’s not your place. We’ll change the world; your job is to smile by our side while we do it.
  • I’m a cute guy in a beefy T with gelled hair, so my words should mean more than if Sandra Day O'Connor said them.
I’m being overly harsh, I know. History is full of Christians and churches who shuck and jive people into their fold, and this “You Are Awesome” stuff is perfectly crafted for the Selfie Generation, for girls whose notion of introspection requires staring at themselves on their iPad screen.

To the boy: It's a commanding, spittle-busting huffed-up presence. You are "treasured, entrusted and loved."

To the girl: You are "cherished, loved and adored," and I'll conclude by begging you softly, "Please... don't you forget it."

Are they reaching genders where the genders are, crafting their messages in a way that packs more gender punch? Or are they sending messages about where they want genders to be?

As the father to daughters, and as a man who sees more and more women tasked with being the sole parent and sole breadwinner to their boys and girls, I'm not sure I want women pigeonholed. As someone who sees more men than women fail their families, betray all notions of work ethics, lead our country askance in all walks of life, I'd like to think men should earn their power rather than have it by hobbling the other half.

I don't think genders are the same, but I believe they're a helluvalot more equal than they seem in these two videos.

Angela Cummings' version of Christianity is so deviant it's not worth debate, but these "I Am Awesome" videos are (I want to believe) well-done and well-intended. I only question the hoped-for outcome. It's the healthy kind if introspection in which all people of faith should engage. Preferably without the iPad camera pointing at themselves.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Winning the Lottery

How many times have you found yourself trapped or engaged in the hypothetical game of "If I Won the Lottery..."?

In my whole life, I've purchased lottery tickets twice, but I've found myself in the "If I Won the Lottery" game dozens upon dozens of times. Sometimes it goes by the name "If I Won the World Series of Poker," or "If A Mystery Uncle Died and Made Me Sole Inheritor," or whatever. Point is, you don't have to play the lottery to play the If I Won game.

Even for those who aren't obsessed with money, it's an appealing game to play, because magic imaginary influxes of great wealth aren't as often about the money as they are about the freedom that comes from money no longer being a barrier to anything.

Would you... quit your job? start a business or a charity? give money to some Big Cause? take all of your friends on some cruise around the world, or to Vegas, or to some tropical isle?

Would you... buy your mom that house? hire an investment advisor immediately? store money into separate untouchable accounts for your parents or spouse or children? endow your own job?

C'mon. You've played the game. We all have. It's OK if you are thinking that you never liked the game, that you only play along because you don't want to be the spoilsport.

An acquaintance of mine won the lottery last week for real. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Only 1.5% of the population will get pancreatic cancer. Women are less likely. Women under 50 are much less likely. Smoking -- shocker -- doesn't help your chances.

Why are we all so experienced with playing "If I Won the Lottery..." but so completely inexperienced with "If I Won the Death Lottery..."? What if, instead of fantasizing about how we would spend that $20 Million we won thanks to some magic ticket, we fantasized about how we would handle being told we wouldn't live to see Valentine's Day, or July 2014? What if we played the game where we had to approach this coming Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday as the last time we might ever experience them?

Once you get bored with that game, you can mix it up by playing "If _(friend/loved one)_ Won The Death Lottery"! How would you manage finding out your spouse had a year to live? What if your child developed inoperable cancer? A parent? Your boss? Someone you supervise? Your former best friend who has drifted away from you for reasons significant or petty?

This game has endless variations! Endless outcomes!

"If I Won The Death Lottery" and "If _________ Won the Death Lottery" aren't a barrel of laughs, I grant you. Few stable people want to sit around at a party escaping the tedious nature of life by discussing the what ifs of a finite existence while swigging from a red Solo cup. Yet these are the games we should be playing. These are the games that can prepare us for what isn't a lottery, isn't a question of chance or luck, but rather for what is all but inevitable.

We're such a worry-wart culture. We worry and fret and stress about everything. Yet when it comes to the one thing in life that is truly a guarantee, we do everything we can to avoid thinking about it, planning for it, preparing ourselves to handle it. We won't allow ourselves to think about our own mortality until the fuse is officially lit, and we most certainly can't allow ourselves to consider it for loved ones.

In conversations following the revelation of our friend’s cancer, talk inevitably centers around her having never been married, having no children. Is it worse to face this uphill battle with only older parents and a few friends to support you? Or is it worse to face the thought of putting a spouse or children through the struggle, through the likely outcome?

Perhaps nothing we do, no games we play, can truly prepare us for that knock on our door. But as sure as we breathe, we know that’s the one guest we must eventually welcome in. We oughtta be a little bit more open to wondering if and how we might prepare to be a good host.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Strangulation By Triangulation

Everybody triangulates these days.  Maybe they always have.

If you don't have a clear picture of what triangulation is, here goes:  One person attempts to argue his or her case about a second person in front of a third person, or, similarly, one person attempts to convince a third person to take his or her side against a second person.  You get it, right?  You've been there, right, and on all three side of it, right?

It is democracy at its finest, the chance to build a majority opinion.  Two against one.

Which, of course, doesn't preclude the possibility of quadrangulation, pentrangulation, or, best of all, trial in the court of public opinion of those who happen to be present, like when one of the "student lawyers" (my term for students who argue for a student situation they don't have a personal interest in, except that they gain credibility) keeps pushing a point to get most or all of his or fellow students to disagree with a teacher.  In any case, it's strangulation.

There is also, given the intrusiveness of modern life, the possibility that said third person will willingly insert himself or herself into the mix and take on the issues willingly with all kinds of opinions and challenges and questions of his or her own, either to heighten an embarrassing joke or to push a personal-but-related agenda or, heck, just because he or she likes one side, as in person, better than the other.

So, yeah, triangulation.  As far as I'm concerned, it strangles just about everything--and by everything, I mean a meaningful exchange between persons one and two, as in, him and her, you and me.

I'm not denying my own participation in this, but I am calling it the ultimate in passive-aggressiveness.  It is enlisting someone(s) else to help us fight our battles.  But I probably enough of an introvert to know when I'm doing it and to cringe a little, at least inside.

Two examples in the vaguest of terms.  Right now, I know a boss who is being triangulated between his two bosses, both of whom are triangulating with their boss as well.  Sound messy?  Absolutely.  But it is that situation's way of dealing with the awkwardness of itself, and if the triangulatee(s) can stand it long enough, it may move things along to where they need to go.  And it happened the other at a dinner party I attended.  A wife detailing her husband's flaws or weaknesses in such a way that another couple started to jump on board.  Of course they would, when doing so would deflect from their own circumstances.

But I think that a spouse who comes back to his or her own house after an evening of triangulation is not going to be looking to resolve issues, instead is going to be resentful enough, be bitter enough as to shut down rather than to engage.  Because triangulation leaves scars that may be hard to get rid of.

It is the airing of dirty laundry, it is a private conversation gone public, it is a pecking party, it is an un level playing field, it is a stacked deck, it is unanonymous polling, it is the surprise press conference with you standing in front of the cameras.

Do I sound burned?  Well, no more than anyone else.  Triangulation is simply a form of social interaction that thrives in our gotcha culture where the upper hand is essential and any way to discredit a different perspective is deemed worth it.  But at some point things turn private again and allies have to go home and witty jibes don't mean much and there is a different triangulation that must go on-- the two people and whatever the issue is.

Me, I like to make things hot for people, all in fun, of course, so I'll take that third spot when it is offered or available, but, you know, there can come that point where the only person enjoying your overdeveloped sense of irony is you.  If you are the only one in on the joke, I must confess, then the joke is on you.  Triangulation is strangulation.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Front Page

I'm not going to show you the front page of my local newspaper.  I wish I could, but that would only compound the crime of it.  Let me see if I can describe it instead.

If, like me, you took your dog out for a walk on this misty Sunday morning and then picked the paper from your yard on your way back in, you might have thought you were picking up the latest issue of Just Busted, a local rag sold in drugstores that makes its money from providing photographs of all of the recent arrests in the city.

For on that front page, right above the fold, are thirty-two photographs of people who have been arrested above the headline, "The Goal Is Simple: Break Crack's Back."

All of the people in the photographs are men.  All of them are black.  All of them are between the ages of 19 and 37.

The article itself presents a pretty interesting balance of perspectives--a bit of backstory about how wire taps led to the arrests, about the nature of the men arrested in terms of their collective arrest records, as well quoted comments from the youngest of the arrestees, from one of the defense attorneys, and from a former gang member who is now working to get men out of gangs.

But the photographs?  Whatever the intention of the decision to create a massive Hollywood Squares of young African-American criminals, I would suggest that it has accidentally accomplished at least all of the following:

1.  It reinforces a stereotype of young, black men being worthy of our fear, since these men have been designated as the 32 "most dangerous" men in Chattanooga and the surrounding area.

2.  It parades an entire race out for public denigration.  When is the last time 32 African-Americans appeared in the entire first section, in the entire first two sections of this newspaper?  I don't include the third section, because by the time we reach the sports, we will likely see some African-Americans.

3. It shows us the mirror of our public shame, for this is our city and these our citizens, and whatever these men have done, they certainly did not enter this life with the goal of becoming crack dealers.

What's the big deal?  Is it the sheer number of criminals, you ask?  Is it their monochromatic nature?  Is it the appeal to our prurient interests in order to sell newspapers?  Is it the stark reminder that, as someone said today, nothing has really changed since 1865 in cities like this all over the country, North and South?  Is it what is (or isn't) in those 64 eyes that stare at us from the page, eyes of resignation, hate, indifference, and emptiness?

Hammer at my liberal sensibilities all you like--that does not let any of us off the hook.  We have not done what we could.  And, agree or not, the photographs prove it.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War

As I walked through the ruins of Fort Sumter off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, it was clear just how much of my sense of history relies completely on the crutch of popular culture. And nowhere is my dependence on pop culture more obvious than in matters of war.

Name a war, and my mind works thusly: what movies? What books? What soundtracks? What songs?

Even as I walked through the ruins of Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie, I found myself trying to connect it to thoughts of The Last of the Mohicans and Glory. As we walked the streets of The Battery, sifting through houses that felt as true to their history as any place in the midst of a city could manage.

This is true even though I work every day on the same ground were Union and Confederate soldiers died 150 years ago.

I’d like to think this instinct to connect our history with the shallowness of popular culture is unique to me, but I don’t think so. We hardly know what life was like before GPS systems and wireless internet. We think back to cassette tapes and rotary phones as if they were leftovers from the Industrial Revolution. So how else, truly, could we be expected to place ourselves in a time of our great-great-great-great-GREAT grandfathers without the mental assistance of Matthew Broderick or Stephen Crane, James Horner or Ang Lee?

Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War is a 2-disc collection of songs from a rogue’s gallery of names from country and folk. There’s Dolly and Loretta, Ralph Stanley and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. There’s Steve Earle and Vince Gill. There’s a dozen names most casual music fans and many folk fans couldn’t pick out of a lineup.

For someone like me, who needs a crutch in the present to push the mind 150 years back, this collection is wonderful. It’s far from perfect -- what 2 CD compilations are? -- but even the imperfections or less-desirable renditions lend the project a greater heft and legitimacy. Divided & United isn't aiming to top the Billboard charts, nor is it an attempt to drag the music of 150 years ago kicking and screaming into The Now at all costs.

In one sense, it’s an album of covers. But can someone “cover” a Psalm, or a (Negro) Spiritual, or a Beethoven piano concerto? Can you “cover” a song that didn’t have an original recording artist?

Many of the songs have a modernized tinge, or are too stylized, to feign authenticity, but the spirit of the project holds everything together. The album is an impressive and creative exploration into a sort of alternate universe version of the Civil War.

Vince Gill’s “Dear Old Flag” is the most syrupy song in the bunch, but with that delicious mandolin leading the way, and a choir of backup vocals to offer it depth, it’s impossible to ignore. Gill’s smooth product is perfectly counterbalanced by the next song, “Just Before the Battle, Mother,” by Steve Earle and Dirk Powell. Their grungy and raw vocals grate across a sonic floor of fiddle and accordion. One song laments the passing of a young drummer boy, and the next laments the fleeing of a cowardly soldier.

Then Charleston’s own Shovels & Rope concludes the best hat trick of the collection with “The Fall of Charleston,” a rowdy rip appropos of a song glorifying Sherman’s march to the sea, a sort of twisted celebration and rude exclamation point to the previous dirges.

Although the second CD contains a number of very familiar tracks, including a slowed-down and forlorn “Dixie” and “Beautiful Dreamer,” it’s the tougher CD to get through without a break. No matter. When adults buy over two hours’ worth of music, they rarely expect to get many opportunities to hear it uninterrupted and with total focus.

You want to pay homage to our War Between the States? You want to get a sense of things in a way the screen can’t capture, in places a book can’t quite reach with mere words? Cover your ears with some high-quality product and play this collection. As you’re imagining the devastation and horror of a fight whose outcome of which we should all be proud and relieved, remember that, on both sides of the conflice, up and down the coast and all the way to the Mighty Mississip’, the war was full of boy soldiers and young men who missed their moms, wished to find true love, and above all desperately wanted to survive.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Go To The Funeral

The NPR piece is actually about eight years old.  A father offers his daughter some advice:  always go to the funeral.  Well, really, it's more than advice, since he makes her go to one, one for her teacher who has died.

In recent weeks, the piece has resurfaced, I think because the commentator's father has recently died and the whole topic has taken on new poignancy.

It is one of hardest things I have ever had to learn, and I try to unlearn it every chance I get.  My father didn't teach it to me; my wife did.

This one is for those friends of mine who are like me or worse.  Go to the funeral.  You have to go.  And the older you get, the more and more you will have to go.  People will expect to see you.  They will need you.  And they will wonder why you are not there, but that won't be an issue because you will be there because you will listen to her advice, and my wife's, and mine: go to the funeral.

Last week, I fought it.  My wife's uncle died inconveniently on a Wednesday.  I don't say that callously.  We all know that death is inconvenient because whenever it happens, we are too busy too confront it, even if we aren't.

Her uncle was a good man, straightforward and quick to be friendly, a trait I always appreciated when I was working my way into her family.  He was one of those WWII vets who saw frontline combat in the Battle of the Bulge and elsewhere, saw and experienced horrors you can only barely understand if you've watched Band Of Brothers, and who came home and never said a word about it and started an automotive business and became a civic leader out of a gas station and auto parts store and who raised a family and continued on for 93 years, only the last handful of which began to slip away from him.

So I had reasons not to go. My job always makes me feel like I need to be there.  I didn't want to disrupt that.  Plus, the funeral was going to push into the weekend.  I had a band practice I wanted to attend, and an evening of trivia that I was looking forward to.  Selfish things, petty things, but, let's face it, real things.

My wife was leaving on Thursday afternoon and I said no.  Too much disruption.  But I was also feeling the pull.  I wanted to be with her, wanted to support her family, wanted to honor her uncle.  He was known as "Unc," was known by me to make a mean hamburger, to put on a great 4th of July and an equally great post-funeral gathering for his own mother.  And he had come to some things that mattered to me.

So I planned to go.  It was my boss who cemented it.  He is a family man, extended family, ailing father, family suffering family first kind of guy, and when I told him the circumstances, he said, "you need to go."  I had known that, but I had needed to hear it.

So I got my affairs in order, classes and meetings and obligations, did everything that I wanted to do, however selfishly, and set out for west Tennessee at 4am with a suit on and a dog in the passenger seat.

I didn't tell my wife or anyone else except my children that I was going.  It was a brutal drive, and I arrived at the funeral home early, walked my dog, and went inside hoping to see some family member I knew.  Without success.  I stood inside, watching people sign the guest book while playing with my phone and looking out the window.  Sometimes I would step outside to see if that would prompt someone's arrival.  My wife was in a motel some miles away, so I knew I would see her when I saw her.  And I waited, uncomfortably, as is my habit.

The first person I saw was my brother-in-law, who had flown in from California, who almost no one knew was coming.  Then I saw my wife's niece and nephew who had driven from the East like me, and I knew I was in the right place.  Eventually, I saw my wife from across the room, her look saying it all, that I had come when she thought I wasn't coming.  But it wasn't about that.

A funeral for a 93-year-old man is a different experience, I know.  Grief is not so much muted as understood.  You share his loss while looking at all the ways his life continues to play out behind him.  It becomes about family, about fractures that all families have that can heal over a family moment behind the curtain with the body or over a beer or a plate of food back at someone's house.  And all of that serves as nothing more than a reminder that I needed to be there, that I needed to be part of that healing experience.

It is a lesson that must be learned over and over.  Go to the funeral.  Don't do it for yourself.  Don't avoid it for yourself.  Do it for them.  And they will do it for you.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

MacroHorror and MicroHorror

Home is Where the Heart Breaks - Will Hoge (mp3)

Ever notice how gosh-darn thankful people are in November? Sift through your Facebook stream, and you’ll be bombarded with expressions of thankfulness from others. For one month every year, most people turn into Mister Rogers and acknowledge the value and significance of auto repairman, squirrels, and pretty sunsets. And they are thankful, dammit. Very, very thankful!

Bright and cheery Thankful status updates tend to bring out the Scrooge in me, but I have found two stories recently that have left me feeling overwhelmed with thankfulness.

Although estimates are down, the SuperTyphoon that crushed the Philippines last week will ultimately claim some 2,500 casualties, billions of dollars in destruction, and immeasurable impact on an entire country’s way of life for the next decade, possibly longer. In mere hours, with one meteorological “act of God” event, lives are forever altered.

Twelve years ago in Texas, a little girl was rescued from an unimaginable horror after more than six years of captivity and abuse. At 18 months old, she weighed 23 pounds. When they extracted her from her mother and step-father’s mobile home, she was eight and weighed 25 pounds. Over the course of years, through thousands of acts of cruelty and viciousness carried out by two human beings, a single girl’s life was forever altered.

Here are two stories of horror on both ends of the spectrum, one instantaneous and affecting tens of thousands, the other over more than half a decade and affecting one child. One will get thousands of pages of coverage over the coming days and weeks as reporters uncover story after story of tragedy, devastation, and survival. The other got an in-depth 8-part feature in the Dallas Morning News, of a young woman now 20 who will forever bear the weight of her past, who is unsure she will ever know what it is, or what it feels like, to love someone else.

I posted a link to the series on Lauren Kavanaugh’s ordeal on Facebook -- my perverted response to all my Thankful Friends -- and had more than half a dozen friends message me or tell me in person they could not bring themselves to read it. It was too dark, too painful, too horrible.

We love our reality TV, but we don't love our reality.

MicroHorror, it seems, is more difficult for us to stomach. At least in American culture. MacroHorror, like The Tsunami or The SuperTyphoon or The Nuclear Disaster, bigger than a person or a family or even a neighborhood, is so vast and unstoppable we seem to tolerate it. We watch Weather Channel specials and endless camera sweeps of the devastation. “S**t Happens” horror also seems easier to digest than horror at the hands of a sentient human being.

At our emotional core, Buffalo Bill will always scare us worse than Sharknado.

Moved by these news reports, my thankfulness isn’t for the great or the wonderful; it’s for the stuff that could be so much worse.

I’m thankful my dad was a “high-functioning” alcoholic.

I’m thankful for a house with plumbing problems, roofing problems, sewage and drainage concerns, and God only knows what else.

I’m thankful for a healthcare plan that just shot up almost 10% in costs to me even though we have to pay somewhere between $6,000 - $10,000 out of pocket before the plan makes one lick of difference in our lives.

I’m thankful for milk allergies, egg allergies, and grass and pollen allergies.

I’m thankful for the out-of-nowhere incendiary emotional roller coaster ride of early teen and tween daughters.

I’m thankful for a young son who chronically fantasizes of shooting and lightsabering every imaginary thing in his path.

I’m thankful for crisis situations at work that threaten to tarnish the reputation and image of a great and important organization.

I’m thankful none of my life screw-ups have landed me in prison, in the newspaper, or in the crosshairs of mafioso or other nefarious kingpin types.

I’m thankful my darkest thoughts and temptations are the stuff of Richard Russo novels.

I'm thankful for those police officers, therapists, pediatricians, nurses, Red Cross workers and volunteers, all those who must witness unthinkable and unspeakable horrors and focus on their jobs, and get up the next day and do it again.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Be All My Sins Remembered, And Retrofitted

In 1982, I shot a bulldog in the butt with a BB gun. On two separate occasions prior to that, I kicked the dog multiple times.

In 1982, no one really cared much about this kind of thing. And I was 10. Today, if a 10-year-old boy were to shoot a dog in the butt with a BB gun or be seen repeatedly kicking the dog, that boy would likely be arrested and charged with animal cruelty as a juvenile.

Were my past dragged into the present, my life might be entirely different. My entire neighborhood, the adults at my school, and everyone at my church would probably find out about my act. Hell, it would probably show up on the local newspaper’s Facebook page, full of idiot commenters who can’t spel gud but who are more than happy to say that the proper punishment is that all dog lovers should be allowed to kick my 10-year-old stupid self until I repented. Some might not care and might go with the “kids will be kids” response, but others would never look at me the same way again.

Nowadays, few things will get so many in such a high dander as insensitive cruelty to animals. And nobody much uses the “they’re just kids” excuse to minimize the matter.

In 2013, Michael Vick remains the least popular player in the NFL. It’s been six years since his dog fighting past caught up with him and landed him in prison for two years. One of my relatives insists Vick deserved the death penalty. He is more hated for his treatment of dogs than players who have committed violence against spouses, girlfriends, children, strangers in bars.

“Dog Killer” > “Wife Beater” > “Racist Texter.” But I digress.

Even now, even though I was just a kid, and even though times were very different 30 years ago, some people will read of my dog kicking and have an intense and nigh-instinctively angry reaction to it. Even if they know me in real life and know me to be quite the pacifistic fella, they won’t be able to help themselves from judging my actions harshly.

Conveniently, and to make a point, I’ve left out some details from my past with that bulldog.

You see, that bulldog -- “Gaylord” -- was a menace in our neighborhood. Unleashed, it regularly chased us when we played or rode our bikes, and it scared the ever-lovin’ hell out of us. Because we were 10.

This is how the bulldog looks to a
10-year-old after it has chased you
and your friends repeatedly and
knocked you off your bike.
The first time I kicked Gaylord, it had chased a friend down and bitten at his back wheel, causing him to wreck. I kicked Gaylord because we were afraid it was going to attack my downed friend. The second time, Gaylord did the same thing to me, wrecking me from my bike. The dog charged me, and I kicked at him from nigh-mortal fear.

There were two bullies in my neighborhood as a child, and one of them, the more frightening of the two, was that damn dog. When I went to my father after several weeks of being terrorized, my dad responded the way dads did back before helicopter parenting and the need of adults to constantly rescue their children. He said, “Son, dogs only know one thing. They know pecking order. That dog will terrorize you until you show it who’s boss. Once it knows you’re the alpha dog, it’ll leave you alone.” And then he kept drinking his whiskey and soda or whatever and watching the Auburn football game.

Now. Was my father’s advice accurate? Not entirely. But my point was, he expected me and my friends to solve our own problem. So we did. After Gaylord knocked me off my bike, and after I kicked him, I went home and grabbed my father's BB gun, and we plotted a situation where he would chase my friend, and I shot that dog. And it felt good. It felt like we were protecting ourselves.

Am I some hero? Of course not. I was 10, and I was hurt and scared and angry. It's hard for me to look back on this string of incidents with much regret. Dog deserved it, is the way I recall things.

We are a far more judgmental society today than any time in my memory. Technology and social media have accelerated all communications, and few of us any longer take a few moments before reacting to information and rendering judgment. We react to limited amounts of information by filling in “the rest of the story” with assumptions and prejudicial guesswork, and we judge quickly and move onto the next item, as if it’s one more thing off the daily agenda.

Our lust and rush to judge is not limited to current events, nor is it limited to our own thread in history. It certainly isn’t limited to animal cruelty. Give us a story, be it from 400 B.C. or 2013 A.D., and give us just a few tidbits, and we’ll take care of the jury and executioner.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

No Money

My apologies to the woman ringing the Salvation Army bell outside of the grocery store.

My apologies to the earnest young woman in the mall who has dedicated her life to Christ and is looking for financial support to out and spread the word.

My apologies to the woman hollering me down as I finish pumping gas.

I know that it may sound like I'm anti-charity or just a damned cheapskate, but that isn't the issue.  I don't know the last time I actually carried money.

The answer does not come easily to me.  I know that I took some out of an ATM when I was in New Orleans in the middle of October, because that tends to be a "cash city," except that it really wasn't.  There are still some places that will only take cash, but they have their own ATM machines, so the city doesn't require the kind of carrying around money that it once did.  And because we stayed out in Metairie in a hotel without parking valets, I didn't even need the supply of one dollar bills that grease that kind of operation.

Last weekend, I was in Atlanta.  I never used anything but a debit card.  Yesterday, I drove to west Tennessee and back for a funeral. Again, nothing but swiping that card for whatever I needed--gas, drive-thru food, etc.

Where has all the money gone?

I know I'm not alone.  I know that you are the same, though some of you can't quite break the habit of feeling like you need some cash in your wallet "for emergencies."  Most likely, you don't.  If you have no cash and you need some, there are a number of ways to get it easily.  But you probably don't even need it.

What does this mean for people who rely on money, who can't necessarily download an app and add a little swiping device to their iPads to conduct business?  That is, of course, the lower class, the underclass, the desperate, the man standing at the stoplight by the freeway exit with a sign.  It is the fish fry on the corner and the Mexican family that can't spell "chicken" right set up in the parking lot.

The old dodge of "I'm sorry, but I don't any money on me" has become truth.

While having no cash may make me feel urbane and modern, in front of a national trend and able to offer ironic commentary on popular culture, the fact is that all kinds of commerce depends on the money that I don't have unless I plan for it--tips, handouts, lemonade stands, spontaneous yard work, door-to-door sales.  Any chance for anyone to make a quick buck has been undermined by the technology of electronic money.

Certainly, that makes things easier for me.  I can't be hustled.  I can't be hit up for a donation.  I have the easiest time saying "no" or "sorry" because even if I would, I can't.

But that is the problem.  While electronic money was expressly designed to make things easier for me, and to make a bunch of electronic money for someone else, it is also a simple, small, but pervasive way that the have-nots can't get even a little.  It allows us to tell one of the big lies:  saying we don't have any money on us doesn't mean that we don't have any money.  It just means that we can't be bothered to get it.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Hating Lance Armstrong

I hate Lance Armstrong.

"'Hate” is a bad word, I've always told my children. “I never want to hear you say you hate another person,” I say. You can hate cauliflower, I will say, or dirty snow, or whatever objects you wish, but hating a person is wrong.

Therefore, when I claim to hate Lance Armstrong, it’s a thoroughly-contemplated act.

To the best of my knowledge, Lance Armstrong is none of these things:
  • a murderer,
  • a pederast,
  • a rapist,
  • a slave owner,
  • a slave smuggler,
  • an eater of planets.
I don’t know if I hate murderers. Or rapists. Or the other kinds of people listed (or similarly awful but unlisted). Never once in my life have I fantasized about these acts. I’ve never envisioned a scenario where I was tempted to murder, or molest, or rape, or to own another human being. There’s more likelihood I’d fantasize about sodomizing a giraffe.

It’s hard for me to hate people whose brain wiring is deviant, who are capable of acts I cannot fathom. Why hate them when clearly something about them is off, is wrong, is FUBAR.

I hate Lance Armstrong because he embodies the worst of what is in all of us.

We all fantasize being great at something, dream of being the best. We all dream of being adored and admired for our greatness. We dream of teams of people working for the sole purpose of maintaining The Brand that is our human identity, an identity so powerful it builds massive do-gooding charities while you sleep with rock stars in the 14th guest bedroom of your still-expanding mansion.

Not only did Armstrong trade his soul for glory and fame, money and adulation, but he also toppled the lives of others in the process. His friends weren’t friends unless they were accomplices. When you become Lance Armstrong, people serve purposes or they are meaningless. It is this part, his aggressive and blatant use of others to perpetuate his image and success, which brings my bile to the surface.

NPR recently interviewed the two authors of a new book, “Wheelmen,” that looks into Armstrong and his scandal. Every word they spoke about it made me angrier.

Lance Armstrong did almost everything in his power, and in the power of those around him, to build a golden idol of himself. He is Tiger Woods, Barry Bonds, Pete Rose and Tanya Harding all rolled into a single despicable human being. (No seriously. Look at the guy’s story arc, and he covers all these bases quite handily.)

Armstrong created an entire employment pool of people whose job was to Build The Armstrong Brand, and what I mean by that is Help Him Cheat. He not only created co-conspirators, and aiders and abetters, but he created disciples.

How many times did I go on Facebook or Twitter to see friends of mine, over the years, aggressively defending Armstrong. He’s an American Hero. The French are just jealous. Those who would tear him down or try to scandalize him are evil. The passion of their defense of this man they never knew, the vitriol of their anger that any would doubt him… I place all of their energy and passion at the feet of that scumbag. He created the illusory monster they worshipped.

Did he do some good things with his success? Sure. So did Frank Lucas. So what. Gangsters and drug kingpins and robber barons and all kinds in-between have found nice things to do with money and fame they achieved by getting their hands dirty. Pardon me if that doesn’t excuse their deeds.

Lance Armstrong fought testicular cancer and thought he won. What he didn’t realize is the cancer had merely metastasized to places in him beyond the reach of medicines or radiation.

"Haters gonna hate," so many of his loyal defenders would say.

Yes. Yes indeed.

Saturday, November 2, 2013


It is November 2nd.  I am sitting in Panera, listening to "Silent Night."  Two very small tables over, three Atlantan women are gossiping and exchanging stories, having a wonderful time between friends.  I have no idea what they are talking about because between the Christmas carol, the chatter from other tables, and the general mall noise around us, it's difficult to follow the conversation.

Now it's "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer."  I do some of my best writing at Panera, best not in the critical sense, but in the productive one.  After years of vacationing in a Florida town where it is the only place with reliable Internet, I am quite comfortable writing here with all of the activity around.

And listening.  I've heard a lot at Panera over the years because it is a place designed for conversation, albeit in close quarters.  Sometimes when my father and I get into it politically on a Panera Sunday morning, I wish the tables were farther apart.  Sometimes his positions embarrass me; sometimes my anger does.

NSA scandal aside, we are a culture who are comfortable listening in and, presumably, comfortable being overheard.

CASE IN POINT:  Yesterday, I ate lunch alone in a random, not-particularly good, not-particularly bad spot in a usually-overlooked area of a road with a number of nondescript restaurants. I had my iPad with me, as I do when I want a little downtime.  And that's what started to happen while I was waiting for my food, until the two women at the booth in front of mine started to talk about people that I know.  Hear the name of a couple you know, and you immediately zero in on the conversation.  That's what happened to me.  I was blind to whatever I looked at on the iPad, while all information entered through my ears.  I heard about how one of the women had grown up with the wife, before she met the husband, about one of the husband's failures, about their assessment of that failure, about their health, about a recent encounter, and on and on.

It seems worse as I write it, (perhaps I intend that) since the actual conversation was fairly benign.  These were women who like the couple in question, but who predictably fell into assessment.

There is a simple reality of life easily verified by any lunch or supper any of us have ever eaten with another person:  eventually, the talk is going to turn toward the discussion of some third, possibly fourth, possibly fifth, party and some judgement, evaluation, or clarification of that person or persons is going to follow.  It is going to happen.

And, in this case,  the three of us, the two conversationalists and the eavesdropper, live in a smallish city.  As much as I encounter people I know when I am in public places, it should not be a surprise to any of us that people around us whom we don't know are going to know people that we know, even if they don't know us.  But it does surprise us.  If people are not staring at us as we talk, the conversation feels insular.

But the other thing I wondered, as I sat there, was what I would do if the conversation about two of my friends had turned particularly brutal.  Did I have an obligation to say something?  To ask them to stop?  Would that be an invasion of their privacy?  Was there an ethical stand I needed to take?

Not sure if this is right, but I decided that if it got to that, I would take my food and move to a different table and not say anything to them or even make eye contact with them.  If that got their attention, fine.  If they never noticed, fine.  It does make me think that I will be a little more cautious, but that will likely pass soon, won't it?

The mall soundtrack is on "Winter Wonderland."  The women next to me are talking about how one them got kissed by a man whose wife wasn't present at their high school reunion.  Life goes on, and, when I return to work on Monday, those who know me and read this will want to know which couple that we all know was being talked about.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The First Rule of Spring Break Is You Do Not Talk About Spring Break

"Wild Things on acid.” That's how I would elevator-pitch the audio-visual mind-f**k that is Spring Breakers.

No excuse I can offer for why I chose to watch Spring Breakers, the indie-ish movie about hedonism and lost (or aimless) youth now out on DVD, will prevent most from having their own sneaky suspicions regarding my motives, so let's get those on the table.

Yes, it stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgins, two former Teen TV Divas I watched grow up out of the corner of my eye thanks to my daughters' viewing habits. Yes, they're now very much Of Age yet soooo different. Gomez looks simultaneously 22 and 12, the kind of young woman whose unwavering girlishness is why Nickelodeon loved/loves her. Hudgins emits a frightening and voracious -- possibly vacuous -- kind of sexuality.

Hudgins best scene in the movie involves her lying on the bed of gangster/rapper/idiot "Alien" (James Franco channeling Gary Oldman from True Romance). Clad only in bra and panties, she and her naughty college gal pal are playing with Alien's extensive collection of illegal firearms. She holds the weapons much as she wields her body: carelessly, wrecklessly, and defiantly daring you to challenge her on whether she knows how to use them.

The movie is a hot mess, and intentionally so. Lines and scenes are regularly played over and over. For example, one post-coital scene is played as if the director loved all four takes of Alien and his two bisexual "soul mates" talking while naked at his pool so much she couldn't cut any of them. Another has Alien running through what has to have been a totally impromptu rap experiment from Franco.

Very little about the film is intended to be all that believable, plot-wise. Scene changes are these non-sequitur interruptive shots of various extreme Spring Break bacchanals, with more exposed breasts and aggressive (yet encouraged by the girls) misogyny I've seen since Girls Gone Wild tanked.

The girl protagonists are a hot mess. Relatively poor and predictably bored college kids desperate to enjoy what other kids get - a wild escape - they do what any of us would do, right? They rob a diner and it's late-night patrons with some water guns and mallets. And squeal with girlish glee.

James Franco might be the hottest mess in the flick. If you’ve never seen True Romance and therefore don’t get the Gary Oldman reference, then by God stop reading this and go watch that amazing and unsettling film. Franco channels Oldman’s Drexel as a younger and dumber Floridian. Spring Breakers might well have more to say about lost and listless souls, but it’s not half the pure thrill rush that is True Romance.

Gomez is the closest thing the entire movie has to a conscience, and when you see how her role plays out, you’ll realize just how little conscience we’re talking, as her “conscience” borders on hazy cluelessness, with a decent heart and a half-hearted connection to Christianity.

The message of Spring Breakers is closer to a feminized version of Fight Club. It demands the viewers look at what so many college-age kids identify as the end-all be-all of their existence -- a desperate need to get away and unleash every molecule of id in their system -- and wonder why this should be perceived as “normal” or "OK."

For all the misogyny inherent in most of what we define as “fun” in the Spring Break scenes in the movie, the biggest relief in the film is that it never once tries to tackle roofies, or date rape, or drunken gang rape. Any sexual assault in the film, if there is any (I'll let the feminists argue this one), happens with as much consent as girls could possibly offer.

In one particularly tense scene, one of the four girls is left alone at a party with a group of nigh-naked beefcakey guys. They practically drown her in liquor and beer, but even at her most incoherent, the men still never take that next step. This stretch in the movie is powerfully tense because it’s the first time I can recall a movie where lots of guys with a single young and vulnerable drunk and flirtatious girl doesn’t end with a violation.

This movie isn't about women as victims, or as passive participants in a man's world. This is not so much a movie about bad men as it is about the badness in women, and the badness women tolerate.

It's a hot mess, but it's an unusually deep hot mess.