Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Rocking Dead

Each year, a few of the better-known musicals and singers who die get a day or two in the press, maybe a few rememberances if they were influential, their catalog featured on iTunes if they were popular.  Some just slip on by, unless you read the paper every day, which I don't.  And so, it was with some surprise that, while flipping through a local rag down here in Florida, I came across a presumably-full list of the musicians who died in 2014.

It hit me powerfully, and I've been thinking about it ever since, for it contained some I hadn't known died, some I hadn't thought about for years, some who are moving on without even my awareness of their contribution, and I am reasonably aware.

Surely the Seegers and the Cockers have gotten their due.  my thoughts today are with those I lost this year, those who with a note, a riff, a song helped to shape my own musical landscape:

Rest in peace, Dick Wagner, who along with fellow guitarist Steve Hunter played some of the most beautiful guitar interplay I've ever heard on "Intro/Sweet Jane," the opening cut on Lou Reed's Rock 'N Roll Animal.

Goodbye, Bobby Keys, whose sax improvisation in the second part of the Stones' "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'" is crucial to one of rock's finest moments.

Adios, Rick Rosas, whose bass anchored most of Neil Young's non-Crazy Horse projects.

Farewell, Mr. Ackerman Bilk, a clarinetist whose early 60's records my father played at top volume on the large console in our living.  I'm convinced that commercial instrumental music like this opened up the potential for my jazz appreciation.

MaƱana, Paul Craft, a songwriter I never heard sing, but whose song, "Keep Me From Blowin' Away" was crucial to my love of both The Seldom Scene and Linda Rondstadt.

Ride on, Paul Revere, who helped to lead the American response to the British Invasion and, with the Raiders, was one of the early rock and rollers I watched on television in the afternoon.  A goofy guy.

Auf Wiedersehen, Maria Von Trapp, the last member of the original siblings of the "Sound Of Music" family.  I knew the songs from that movie well.

Taps for Joe Lala, a percussionist who no doubt had many gigs, but who I know best as part of all of the Joe Walsh solo albums I owned.

Rock on, Johnny Winter, frenetic blues guitarist and Edgar's brother, who didn't write "Rock and Roll Hootchie Coo," but if you've ever heard his live version on Edgar Winter's White Trash, you know he owned it.

Peace at last, Phil Everly and the iconic harmonies that go with you.  Apparently, the Everly Brothers ended up hating each other, but they helped Warren Zevon along and that matters.

Blow no more, Raphael Ravenscroft, whose name I never knew until today, but whose sax part on Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street" is indelibly etched into millions and millions of personal, internal soundtracks.

Onward, Tommy Ramone, and with you The Ramones.  I'll never forget the first time I heard you; I just didn't get it.  Punk took me a long time to figure out, but you remind me that I often mock first what I end up loving.

Thump no more, Glenn Cornick, whose bass lines for Jethro Tull on tracks like "Bouree" come so easily to mind sitting here in a noisy Panera some 20 years since I last heard them.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"The Killing" and the Lost Boys (and Girls)

Thesis idea: The Killing was actually a show about the many ways children get lost and discarded in our modern world by parents who are intentionally or unintentionally awful at the most important responsibility in their lives.

"Why are you doing this to yourself?"

Those are the words of an unhealthy addiction. Those are the words I asked myself, aloud after midnight, four separate times in the past two weeks as I wound my way through the final two seasons of The Killing.

If you tried watching The Killing and stopped in the middle of, or at the end of, its first season, no one would really blame you. While those first two seasons provided many of the elements of a first-rate TV drama -- compelling and flawed characters wrestling with murky issues and mysteries -- it worried so much about the plot, full of red herrings and misdirections that were more annoying that exciting, that its flaws arguably overshadowed its brilliance.

But.

If you stuck with it, or if you return to it and give seasons 3 and 4 a chance... well, I can only speak for myself, but a few things seem certain to occur.

First, you'll be depressed about the human condition. We, as a species, suck. We have small granules of beauty and love buried inside mounds and mountains of manure. Even the people you want to like, want to love, are so annoyingly, agonizingly flawed, that you want to pull your hair out and jump into a cold, cold river.

Second, you'll never allow anyone you know and care about become a police officer. The absolute only acceptable reason to allow this to occur is if their other choice was to become a prison guard. There might be nothing more horrifying in all of life than to be a prison guard. This isn't a judgment of the men and women who do these jobs. Rather, it is a judgment of the job itself.

Further, you’ll be reminded that calling the American justice system “the best of bad options” is sad, true, and frightening.

Third, you think of the children.

If there was a single never-ceasing undertow coursing through The Killing, from start to finish, it is the plight of neglected, discarded and abused teenagers.

Rosie Moody, the murder victim at the heart of the first two seasons, is a girl desperate to escape the bonds of her highly dysfunctional family. To make matters sadder, the Moodys aren't dysfunctional in some over-the-top way. They're just flawed at the core, on a daily level, arguably due to a past from which the parents cannot ever fully recover. Watching Rosie's mom utterly abandon her kids to go find herself hurts to watch because it's real even if it makes no sense to some of us.

Rosie's friends are all equally screwed-up, no matter what socioeconomic layer of earth their parents occupy. Rich kid, poor kid, middle-class kid, it matters not.

At several points in the first two seasons, I wondered if the Peanuts gang might have inspired the author. Instead of being amused at the absence and meaninglessness of adults, maybe the Peanuts gang were doomed to become lost adolescents swimming almost aimlessly, but desperately, in the flow hurt and confusion.

Seasons 3 and 4 go deeper into the world of lost teens, and the creators hold the lens of blame ever more tightly on the adults around them who fail them from birth until their very last breaths -- either the last breaths of the teens or the adults... 'cuz odds are they ain't all surviving the show, if any of them do.

The collection of homeless, abandoned or runaway teens are products of parents who either had no idea how to raise children or hardly ever tried. The mother at the heart of Season 3 is the stuff of nightmares not because she is violent or evil in some Dateline NBC way, but rather because the abuse she doles out is brutally aggressive indifference and bitterness, blaming her daughter for a life that turned sour.

The parents of the privileged boys in Season 4 substitute money and therapy for any meaningful connection with their children. One of the most damning scenes in the entire series -- and the series is chock full of damning scenes -- is in the final season when Linden and Holder visit the home of one of the more sociopathic-seeming boys at the military academy. His bedroom walls are plastered with pictures of models whose faces have been scratched out or defaced. It is Serial Killer Misogyny 101, but the mother stubbornly insists it's just a phase, because that's what the therapist says.

Linden's son turns out OK not because of her parenting skills, but in spite of them. Arguably he has found enough additional caring adults in his life to piece together something like a decent sense of growing up. Or maybe he just got lucky and fought through the odds. Linden, a product of the foster system who (somewhat understandably) has the parenting instincts of a can of cat food, never really had much after which to model herself, and the first two seasons are often agonizing to watch for her defiant lack of nurturing instinct.

Perfectly, the series concludes by wrestling with the question of whether Detective Holder can become a decent and responsible father. From the first episode, Holder is the only occasional glimmer of hope for the rehabilitation of adults in the entire series. Yet the odds still seem stacked against him. Is the responsibility and frustrating joy of fatherhood enough to keep a tweaker who still struggles not to relapse on the straight and narrow path?

I didn't wake up the day after finishing the series being thankful for what a great father I am. I felt, and continue to feel, this gnawing pressure to be better at it. And I feel haunted that I do not know how to fill in holes for more teens desperate for meaningful relationships with healthy adults. More importantly, I'm not sure if I am even capable. How many starfish can one person save?

Mother Teresa famously said when asked what we could do to promote world peace, "Go home and love your family." The Killing aims to remind us that her words might just be spot on.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Billy's Hit List 2014

Because no one demanded it, here's the list of best albums and songs from 2014, as told by Billy at the Bottom of the Glass:

Five albums stood out above the rest in 2014, although the choices speak more to how much I yearn, and desperately so, for an era of rock and roll that might never come back to us. An era of rock that was about, well, yearning desperately, sometimes angrily. It was rock because it had crunchy guitars and human beings who played actual instruments with strings, wires, skins. It was rock because, with or without ProTools, it took a talent that reaches beyond a game on the PS4.

We've lost some of the anger in music. Occasionally you'll get an angry pop song, but it's nothing like the anger in a Stones song from the early '70s.

TOP FIVE ALBUMS OF 2014 (In No Particular Order):

Augustines: Augstines
I wrote about 'em a few months back. This album has been playing on and off with devoted regularity since I purchased it 10 months ago.  No need rehashing my love with new words strung together in familiar ways. It's a stunning album full of pain and hope.

Try these: Walkabouts, Don't You Look Back, Kid You're On Your Own

Ryan Adams: Ryan Adams
Ryan Adams' 2014 eponymous effort is the album for all moods, all times, all company. If you're feeling happy or sad, mellow or agitated, this album might not be the perfect fit, but it's like that fleece vest you can wear for the mid-60s or the low 40s and still be comfortable. All-weather music, if you will.

Although I'm not well-acquainted with Jackson Browne's CV, I can't get past how very Jackson Browne this album feels, how very 1978-1983 it feels, how very Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Breakfast Club it feels. It is smooth, expertly-crafted mid-tempo AOR with the timeless themes of classic rock, and it goes down like that first beer after a grueling workout or after a Lent without it.

Try these: Feels Like Fire, Gimme Something Good, Tired of Giving Up

Wussy: Attica
The album has all the vitamins and minerals a college kid from the '90s would need. Reverb. Mumbly lyrics. A hint of shoegazing. A backpack full of bitterness and lamentation. It's got Seattle and Athens, Georgia, and a dash of DBT.

As an added bonus, the only way you would likely know of this band is if you were anti-establishment, anti-radio, and too cool for school. In other words, you probably haven't ever heard of this band or this album, but if you want to seem really cool with your music-loving friends, drop this band's name and say something like, "Wussy's homage to The Who is flat-out epic, don't you think?" Either they know the album, and you're cool, or they don't know the album, and you're cool.

Try these: Teenage Wasteland, North Sea Girls

Sleeper Agent: About Last Night
By far the poppiest of this list, Sleeper Agent is the band I would have followed fanatically as a college sophomore. They're fun. They have fun with rock. The music they churn out makes me want to go all Night at the Roxbury with my head bobs. They sing about lusty urges in the middle of the night, things a guy should never tell a girl if he wants to get laid and still be respected. They sing about all the fun you can have until you wake up and realize you're either an alcoholic, a narcissist, or just a lost puppy. Maybe all three.

Try these: Bad News, Good Job, Be Brave

Royal Blood: Royal Blood
Just listen to the first 30 seconds of this album, and you'll know. Either that off-kilter opening drum lick will wake your soul or annoy the crap out of you. I saw one critic call them "The Blacker Keys." People describe them using words like "muscular" and "lean." The words "to the bone" come to mind. It's hard, testosterone-fueled angst rock, and it's fun in 2014 because it's hard to find, like gem mining for emeralds in a Gatlinburg tourist trap.

Try these: Out of the Black, Loose Change, Figure It Out

Noteworthy Others:
The War on Drugs, Jack White, Foo Fighters, Broods, Jenny Lewis, The New Pornographers, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, The Hold Steady, U2
__________________________________

THE BEST SONGS OF 2014 (in no particular order):

27 - Passenger: When artists stuck in the rut of critically-beloved obscurity write songs about how much it pisses them off to be hailed as talented and under-appreciated, how much it sucks to be good at something that makes no money, how much a troubadour's life revolves around alcohol, nicotine and failed relationships, it's usually awesome, and it's usually their best shot at expanding their fan base. Hopefully he succeeded. There are a number of good songs on his album.

1,000 Years - Gaslight Anthem: A somewhat conventional but terrifically catchy song about divorce.

Lazaretto - Jack White: A freakishly unconventional confessional that, I suspect, reveals more of the true soul of the enigmatic creature that is Jack White than perhaps any other song he's written. Or maybe it says nothing about him at all.

Chandelier - Sia: The best song sung joyously and cluelessly by drunken 20-something women about the depressing vacuum of emptiness and meaninglessness they're afraid their lives might be. Nothing is as awesome as the dramatic irony of a song insulting the very people most likely to love it.

Spinners - The Hold Steady: "Chandelier" written by a great rock band. So obv 20-something women don't love it. So obv few people ever heard it.

Transgender Dysphoria Blues - Against Me!: A potent window into the soul of someone very much not like you.

Out of the Woods - Taylor Swift: I wrote about it here. It's quite amazing for a simple pop song.

In The Clear - Foo Fighters: Some critics thought the Foo's latest album was a poorly-executed gimmick. To me it was a brilliant experiment. You write songs vaguely inspired by various cities central to the American Music ethos. You record them in one of that city's most revered studios. You pull in someone wicked cool and indigenous to that city to guest play on that song. Their homage to New Orleans, with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, gives me Rock & Creole butterflies.

The War - Bob Mould: The songs on Bob Mould albums tend to blur together into a big crunchy stew of similarity, but this one -- another great breakup/divorce song -- stood out for me on his latest strong outing, Beauty & Ruin.

L.A.F. - Broods: Funky beat by this New Zealand version of Chvrches (which is intended as a compliment). The initials supposedly stand for "loose as f*#k" and is about the camaraderie of a small band of friends experiencing the nightlife scene together. Whatevs, yo. I just dig that kickin' beat.

The Best That I Can Give - Emerson Hart: This dude has made a career out of being depressed and broken up. This song might be the best he could give this genre of songs, which is full of some quality tear-jerkers.

The Devil is All Around - Shovels & Rope: A semi-religious song about unraveling. You can bet your bottom dollar that a little-known duo few have heard of that can sell out the Ryman more than two months in advance puts on a legendary live show. This song captures most of what mesmerizes me about their sound.

Marching Orders - The New Pornographers: I have absolutely no clue what this song is about. None. I just know I love Neko Case's voice leading the creative efforts of this stellar pop band even better than I like her voice on her solo efforts. She never loses her voice on these albums.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Bob's Favorite Music Of 2014


I am long past the point of musical relevancy.  If I didn't already know that, it was confirmed yesterday when, driving down to Florida with my daughter, I asked her to play some music, anything to pass the the time.  What followed was a pleasant mix of artists, none of whom I recognized, most all of whom I enjoyed hearing.  I asked, from time to time, who was who, and was informed that I was hearing Dr. Dog, among others.

So let me start with a pronouncement (that doesn't need to be pronounced), followed by a clarification (which probably is needed, at least for this blogpost).  My pronouncement: popular music is alive and well, and those who have abandoned it and those who simply can't keep up can rest assured that the fresh, the creative, and the inventive is out there like it always was.  And that the good old days were just as full of crap as these days are now.  So let's not pretend that they weren't.

My clarification for my "best of" list that follows is threefold:

1. It comes from the mind of a 57 year old man, albeit one who has been collecting music for 50 years.
2.  I wouldn't list a CD if I didn't own it.
3.  I wouldn't list a CD if I didn't think it merited repeated listenings (and possible ownership) by you.   I have passed the point where I want to celebrate something that is "important," even though I never want to listen to it.
4.  Ranking is pointless.  All of these CDs are good; all of them sound better at different times or when I am in different moods.  So, no ranking, no order.

The Robert Cray Band--In My Soul.  Cray is one of the few consistent blues torchbearers who keep the genre fresh and relevant.  Of course, his guitar playing is unparalleled--every riff, every solo is precise and interesting.  But his skills as a songwriter and, especially, as a singer allow him to merge "traditional blues" with the Memphis R+B sound effortlessly.  The distinction was always artificial anyway.  Why shouldn't Albert King and Steve Cropper be mentioned in the same conversation?  A stunningly-good effort from Cray.

Roseanne Cash--The River And The Thread.  Mostly a rumination on the state of Mississippi and its past--both tortured and musical--, The River And The Thread is a superb song collection that shows off the full talents of Cash.  Call it heresy, if you like--she is the best songwriter in the family.  From the mid-tempo rocker "Modern Blue" to the ghostly "Money Road" that closes the CD, each song demands the listener's full attention. As a bonus, this is probably the most perfectly-produced CD of the year, both in terms of the musical parts played and the crystal clear reproduction.

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers--Hypnotic Eye.  Call me old fashioned, but a good, straight ahead rock and roll record with crisp guitars and catchy choruses doesn't need much explanation or justification.  And "Fault Lines" is a clever metaphor for an aging California rocker.  Half the songs you'll love; the other half you won't be sorry you listened to.

The War On Drugs--Lost In The Dream.  By all accounts, I shouldn't like The War On Drugs--heavily-synthed, electronically-built songs with religious backbeats and lyrics that I can't always hear or understand.  But it's like the band channelled the melodic lines of The Cure and morphed those with vocals that draw from Petty, Springsteen and other anthemic singers, and the songs build on layers of guitars and coalesce into something powerful.  This one will stir you and you might not know why.  "Red Eyes" is probably the most immediate choice, but this hour-long CD might be best heard on a hallucinogenic car trip.

Broken Bells--After The Disco.  The second outing for Danger Mouse and the lead singer of The Shins' side project is just as engaging, if not as propulsive as the first CD.  The songs are often slower and quieter here, but no less enjoyable.  This is one for the car, not a party, though "Holding On For Life" would be just fine in the disco, not after it.  Danger Mouse's production, with its clean low-end, orchestral swells, and open space for every instrument only enhances the pleasures of this CD.

Bruce Springsteen--High Hopes.  First rate versions of leftover songs from the indefatigable Springsteen.  A very listenable, surprisingly coherent CD whose songs (naturally) come even more alive in concert.  And "American Skin (41 Shots)" is sadly as timely a dirge as it was 15 years ago.  Many artists have made careers from Bruce's leftovers.  This is a less monumental reminder of the man's prodigious talent.

Allo Darlin'--We Come From The Same Place.  I bought their previous CD on a whim, used it as a favored summer choice a couple of years ago, and it was an easy decision to add this tasty new one to my collection.  Allo Darlin' fills the void left when Frente disappeared, that breezy, heavily-accented, female-led band whose angst is never too serious and whose delivery is infectious.  This time the band gets to show off a bit more, especially on the guitar-extended title track.

Greensky Bluegrass--If Sorrow Swims.  It's a neat trick and it's new to me, but not to Greensky, that of using bluegrass styles, structures, and instruments to sing modern songs of angst that have nothing to do with bluegrass.  The effect is a jarring parlor trick at first, until you realize that these guys are not joking.  Why not use an old form to tell post-modern versions of what have always been the same problems anyway?

Jenny Lewis--The Voyager.  There are plenty of confessional songwriters out there, but the ones     who are tuneful pop craftspeople as well are few and far between.  Put Lewis somewhere near the very top of that category.  It's hard to pick a favorite here.  The Voyager is a short CD, and each song is a distinct gem.  Maybe the bookends, "Head Underwater" and the the title track, shine brightest.

Ryan Adams--Ryan Adams.  Ryan Adams is always good; sometimes he's great.  For those of us who miss his prolificness, we gulped this CD like thirsty pilgrims, not caring if it is his finest vintage or not.  He stacks the best songs early on, and mid-tempo rockers like "Gimme Something Good," "Kim," and "Stay With Me" juxtapose nicely with "My Wrecking Ball" and other slower, acoustic fare.

Benmont Tench--You Should Be So Lucky.  Where Heartbreakers' keyboardist Tench proves himself a masterful songwriter and a serviceable singer with a batch of songs in the Randy Newman romantic vein and a couple of covers.  Mature, well-crafted, and durable.  "Why Don't You Quit Leaving Me Alone" feels like a classic ballad.

Leftovers:  some of The Augustines, Lucnda Williams' latest if she'd kept it to a single CD, Chrissie Hynde's "Down The Wrong Way" w/ Neil Young on guitar.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"Simply Be My Child"

What kind of parent do I want to be?

I don't know about you, but I ask myself that a lot. When I'm second-guessing myself, decisions I've made as a parent, I ask it in bed at night, and it keeps me awake. When I'm feeling like I'm doing OK, I ask it in the morning, and it energizes me.

Lately I've been listening a lot to "Joseph's Lullaby," an original Christmas-inspired song by the contemporary Christian band MercyMe. If you're not religious, please just stick with me on this one for a minute, because I'm not trying to proselytize or preach here.

The song is a fictional lullaby sung by Joseph to his adopted son. And as he's rocking this tiny baby to sleep, his only prayer is that this child can have a moment, maybe a night, of normalcy. He's praying for as much normalcy for his child as he can beseech of its true Father.

This lullaby is counter to everything we do in modern parenting.

Modern Parents have no idea whether their children are bound for greatness. We can't know where our children will go, what marks they will leave, what talents or abilities they will develop into professions or causes or missions. But we don't let that lack of knowledge impede our certainty that Greatness is the only acceptable outcome for our children.

We're testing them in organized sports and activities practically as soon as they can walk. We're having them do weights and conditioning before they can do long division or diagram a sentence. We're demanding perfection on that piano or violin solo before they know how to boil water. Because when we pray -- to the deity we worship or into the void of our own psyches -- what we pray for is Greatness for our child.

Greatness, we seem to think, would be a confirmation of everything we have done as parents. Everything we have "sacrificed" by taxiing them to a practice or rehearsal or lesson every dang night of the week. Everything we have "sacrificed" in paying those coaches and instructors and tutors. Everything we have "sacrificed" by giving this little creature our energy, our love, our time and attention.

If they can be Great when they grow up, then that investment was worth it. If they're just, y'know, Normal -- you know, middle-class, menial, average, vanilla -- well, then we wasted a lot of time and energy for such a pitiful outcome when we could've been in Vegas partying like it was 1999, right?

For Joseph, at least in this song, he sees his duty as the polar opposite. Nodding off in his arms is the Flash Gordon-esque Savior Of The Universe who stands for every one of us, saves with a mighty hand, every man every woman every child in the land. This baby is destined for greatness, and no amount of screwing up or making mistakes will interfere with that destiny.

So Joseph prays for what he worries the child may never have: a childhood. Innocence. Dreams of his own. An unburdened heart. A chance to enjoy the journey rather obsess over the destination.

I ask that he, for just this moment, simply be my child.

How often do we as parents ask for such simple things of our deities for our children?

Parents of children with difficulties -- diseases or illnesses, challenges or imbalances -- tend to initially yearn for "normal." They sometimes can't help but wince when hearing parents of healthy if dysfunctional kids complain about the universal struggles and battles of family life. Messy rooms. Bad attitudes. Social struggles. Backtalk.

But so many of these parents reach this amazing and beautiful zen state of acceptance, and they learn to love their children for whatever they are, whatever they can become, for however long those kids are alive. If you know a parent in these situations, it's likely you admire the hell out of them. You and everyone else say, "I don't know how they do it." Because they have this calm acceptance about them. It's not that they can't have bad days or hair-pulling moments, but more often than not it's like they see something deeper that we can't.

But we can. We can, if we just open our eyes and make a simple request, to God and to ourselves, every day:

Simply be my child.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Making Lemonade


My eldest daughter is having one heckuva time adjusting to life as a ninth-grader. Her classes are harder. Her body is crueler. Her emotions are wilder. Like the speakers in Spinal Tap, everything goes to 11.

Each passing week seems to offer some sort of Christopher Columbus experience for her, uncharted territory fraught with danger and excitement that she seems to think only she, on the entire planet, has discovered. Because that's how teenage brains work.

Last weekend, she attended her first Real High School Dance. Not one of those after-the-game deals, mind you, but a “faincey” one, where everyone dresses up. She and a male friend not-boyfriend somehow backed their way into going together. Her anticipation of this pending adventure was something like the first time the Ghostbusters turned on their proton packs, where the power was difficult to measure on the outside, but you could hear that low, constant thrum of energy pulsing.

Our family dress shopping ritual follows a likely familiar pattern, known to middle-class families across the universe. The parental insistence that she already has several great dresses from which to choose. The predictable capitulation by a mother or grandmother that she really should get a new dress, being such a good girl and all. The intense negotiations over how much is too much to pay for a dress she’ll only wear once or twice, but probably only once. The inevitable victory of a new acquisition, some modestly-affordable and adorable piece of cloth without quite enough cloth to satisfy her father. The grumbling of a father, who claims he will not fight this battle so that he may win the greater war, but who knows full well he lost the war when he had children. Because if you had children so you could win wars with them, you’re probably a crappy parent. Good parents lose all the wars; they just lose them slowly, like trench warfare in WWI.

That she was going to this dance with a male friend not-boyfriend provided several adults who should know better the opportunity to make romance jokes at their expense. Adults joked that maybe more than friendship was in the mix. I didn't do that. First, because that’s exactly what awkward and uncertain learning-to-be-teenagers really need, is assistance feeling more awkward about what was already uncertain. Second, because I was generally that male friend not-boyfriend who actually did long for something more than friendship who would break out in flopsweat every time some amused adult would make that joke. Ha ha, clever adult. You're a riot. You're even funnier with this fork jabbed up your nostrils.

Fortunately, this friend couple enjoyed a nice dinner away from adult eyes and ears prior to the dance. They got to talk in whatever way young teen friends not-romantically talk to one another when we aren’t listening. Whether it was awkward or not only mattered to two people, and I know they appreciated a moment when they were the only two people privy to it. No pictures. No backseat driving or chaperoning. A port in the storm. A break in the tension.

And then the dance.

As I drove her date-not-date home, I asked them how it was. They both said it was frustrating. Everyone was grinding, and they didn’t really want to grind, so they felt like fish out of water. But was it fun? It was OK I guess, they both agreed.

After I dropped him off, I asked her again whether she had a good time. Not nearly as much of a good time as she thought she was going to have, she said.

What did she expect that didn’t happen? I asked. She didn’t know exactly. Couldn't put it into words, but she didn’t think she would feel so separate from everyone, she said.

I think she thought it was going to be some Unforgettable Moment in her life, where she suddenly felt like she was a part of this large high school collective or something. Some Disney Princess Meets John Hughes moment. Instead, there was a bunch of dancing that was too personal for her, by kids who were in many ways too old for her. She was a freshman at a dance never intended for freshmen.

But she told me something that gave me hope for my child.

“About 20 minutes into it, I realized it was all a let-down, and it wasn’t just magically going to get any better,” she told me. “So I kind of had a moment where I said to myself, ‘You’re stuck here until this thing is over, so you might as well try to squeeze as much fun as you can out of it. And I have to say, after that, the dance went from, like, a 3 out of 10 to more like a 5 or 6. It still wasn’t anything like I was hoping, but it would have been so much worse if I hadn’t made up my mind to try and enjoy it a little.”

Maybe I shouldn’t have responded to her the way I did. But this is what I said:

“Sweetie, if you can bottle up that one lesson you taught yourself, your entire life will be the happier for it.”

Not that all of life is a collection of events that you thought would be a 9 that ended up a 3. Not all of the 3's we encounter can be improved upon by sheer force of will and manufactured enthusiasm. A handful of experiences and milestones really do live up to the hype we give them in anticipation. But boy howdy, far more of life follows that course -- expecting a 9, getting a 3 -- than most of us ever dare tell our kids.

I can't tell you how many nights in those early years of parenting I felt like I'd been ripped off. Some nights of marriage can feel like that, too. Or the endless tales of woe about the professional lives of people who thought they were "doing what they loved," not to mention those who never even had that luxury. And don't even get me started on golf.

Work. Family. Hobbies. Any of it, all of it, can be so much worse if we can't make up our minds to try and make the best of things when it lets us down.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Epiphany #75: COLD beer

I guess I'm feeling nostalgic tonight, but in a very strange way.  I'm feeling nostalgic for my teenage years, particularly those foolish weekend activities.  Maybe it's because I chaperoned a high dance last night.  That is probably part of it.

But the other part has nothing to do with being a teenager.  It has everything to do with Christmas.  Tonight, in a mad rush to get our house decorated before an influx of out of town visitors and a more immediate deadline of Luminaria ( if you aren't in the know, it means that your entire neighborhood puts candles inside of white paper bags and sets them out along the curb of each property, creating an oddly-beautiful, unified Christmas look for you and your neighbors), I did some outdoor decorating, in the dark decorating.

We have a Dogwood in our front yard to the left side of the house with an interesting array of branches, and I tried to give some of it definition, using strands of white lights.  Compared to the decorated streets around us, it is abstract art, or at least Impressionism, with on.y the blurred outlines of reality.

To accomplish this meant running an extension cord from the back of the house, lugging all of the carefully-boxed white lights from Christmases past (we've gone retro colored lights on the tree this year), and dragging a ladder from inside the house out for the higher branches.

At the start time of the project, it was fully dark and 36 degrees.  And, for whatever reason, I brought a beer with me to assist me in my labors.  That beer, a Yeungling Light in a can became, for me, like the Madeleine cookie in Proust's Remembrances Of Things Past.  From the first sip, it took me back to those teenaged years.

In case you've forgotten, when you drank beer as a teenager, there was a pretty good chance you were drinking it outside in ridiculously cold weather, weather where the temperature outside was colder than the beer itself.

Let's see:  maybe (to draw from my own misspent times) you were drinking in the woods a case of Schlitz that your friends had stolen off of a beer truck.  Maybe you were drinking up at a picnic table in the local park named for the lone boy in your wealthy suburb who was killed in Vietnam.  Maybe you were drinking in a cold car at the fringe of a new subdivision before a party you were going to.  Maybe you were chugging beers on a side street before getting on a trolley to go downtown to a concert.

In each case, if you grew up in the North like me, you were outside and it was cold and you were cold and the beer was cold, and the way that cold beer hit your cold lips and the back of your frosted throat is a feeling you haven't experienced since, because who would drink a beer that way as a sane adult?

But tonight, well, as I paused in my work, underdressed for the cold, I inadvertently captured that same taste and feeling.  And when that happens, all of the years fall away, and all of a sudden, I am in a car with a girl, not drinking, but talking tentatively, kissing tentatively, trying to figure everything out tentatively in either small sips or huge chugs of being a teenager.

An adult lives his or her waking hours where it makes sense; a teenager lives wherever is available at any given time, and that beer, that icy beer made icier, serves as a reminder that woods and cars and dark streets and parking lots and parks and other places where others have either vacated or wouldn't think to go, those are the places where the teenage life is lived, especially when it is dark, especially when it is cold, especially when you are doing things that are rehearsals of these tamer adult years.

One small sip of cheap beer is all it takes, and 40 years fall away.  The promise of that young time does not, unfortunately, come back as easily.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Epiphany #74: Dances With Strangers, Part 2

A continuation of the previous post, wherein shy, introverted Bob is subjected to a variety of very public situations.

The woman in front of me turned around.  She asked me if I wanted to go to the front and dance. She looked like Terry Gross from NPR; I said yes.  Actually, as the song began, and as it turned out, only three "couples" bought into the idea of turning the bar into a honky tonk.  And we were one of those.  And then one of the other couples, maybe both, it gets hazy, left the dance floor, leaving the two of us dancing badly.  It was unclear which one of us was the worse dancer.  The simple instruction of "two steps up, one step back" proved too much for us during many of our trips around the dance floor.

There was little to say as we walked back to our respective stools, except to say that we had done it. Neither of us could have been very excited about the dance, and Nora Jane didn't say anything from her microphone after it was over.  It was like going up to the board in a math class to work a problem, and getting it wrong and having to take that long walk back to your seat.  Only with a partner.  I told her that I clearly needed some practice before my daughter's weddings.  She asked me how old they were, and that was it.

Nora Jane did do one other thing.  By the time the night was nearly over, she basically acknowledged that the crowd was spares, that no one else was coming, and that we all might as well make the best of it.  So she asked us to leave our perches and come down front (some 20 feet away) and "crowd" the area in front of the stage.  So we all did.  And so, once again, we all put ourselves on public display, because when there are only twelve of you, you can't go down front and just stand there; you have to get into it.  So I did.

But I also knew that by then, I'd had enough.  An individualized visit to a school.  The polar opposite of Dancing With The Stars.  And now pretending to be part of a "throng."  Enough.  As soon as the show ended, I was out the door.

The music club was far enough away from my hotel that I had to drive there.  And drive back.  It was late.  If you didn't want to valet park, and I didn't, you had to park in the garage across the street.  And because you weren't exactly a paying customer (I was paying the hotel), you weren't allowed to park anywhere on the first four floors.

And so I spiraled upwards in the garage, around and around, kind of speeding up because it was so late and there was no one else around, until I rounded one curve and there stood two black women in front of what I thought was their car.  They waved at me wildly, so I slowed and rolled down my window.

"We mean you no harm," they shouted.  "We mean you no harm."

Well, I had kind of gathered that, given that they were a couple of elderly women.

"We can't find our car.  Would you be kind enough to drive us to it?"

I said that I would, and I had to move some things around so thath they could get into the seat next to me and the seat behind it.

"We think it's up on Five," the woman next to me said, so we continued driving up.  They told me the make of the car.  They told me where they thought they had parked.  They told me that they had been to a Christmas concert nearby.  They told me that it was silver.

 It no silver car that I pointed out was theirs.  "I don't think we came up this high," the woman next to me said.

"Seems to me I saw a sign for the walkway to the hotel right near where we parked," the woman in the back seat said.

"The hotel is across the street," I said.

"Would you mind driving us back down?" The woman next to me asked.  "I'm sure we didn't come up this far.

And so we danced our dance.  We went down several floors; we came back up.  But we never saw the car. We tried a little higher.  We tried a little lower.

Finally, the woman behind me said, "I'm sure I saw the sign to the hotel when we were parking."

"The hotel is across the street," I said.  "I'm staying there.  This is where they have me park.  This garage wouldn't have that sign."

"Then this is not the right garage," said the woman next to me.  "Would you mind driving us down to the 'Exit' booth?  I'm sure they can tell us where the other garages are around here."

"Not at all."When I dropped them down by the entrance, they thanked me and I told them to be safe.  And we parted.  I parked very close to where I had first encountered them, walked to the elevator, descended and crossed the street to my hotel.

I did not speak to anyone in the lobbying, hurrying to the safety of my room, where the hours left to use the solitude to prepare myself for the first day of a conference where i would know no one were rapidly diminishing.  Plus,  I was hungry, and I had a Jimmy John's sub in the mini-fridge that I had purchased for supper, so i wouldn't have to go into a restaurant alone.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Looking for an Accomplice

"I'm looking for, like, an accomplice. We have to first get out of this bar, then the hotel, then the city, and then the country. Are you in or you out?"
The best movies are those which give middle-aged adults a reason to keep re-watching them.

Lost in Translation is one of those kinds of movies. It’s a classic, or it will be one day.

I mean no disrespect to the young by saying that middle-aged adults are better judges of cinematic greatness, because I miss being The Young, especially when it comes to movies. I miss having so much free time that I could sit in a movie theater and watch the same movie twice in a row. I miss going to Blockbuster on a Friday afternoon, renting five movies “for the weekend” and watching all of them before dinnertime on Saturday. I miss waiting for the Oscar nominations knowing that I would have seen every single one of the Best Picture candidates as well as most of the ones in the running for the other big awards.

When I was young I could watch even shitty movies over and over. My friends and I would watch movies just to make fun of them. The fact that I’ve seen Weekend At Bernie’s II more than once, and Halloween III more than once, and Runaway with Tom Selleck more than once, is only proof that I was once young and wild and free and stupid.

Nowadays, I’m lucky to see two movies that will be Oscar contenders before they can be rented. And after they can be rented, I’m lucky to see two more. My annual theater visits have become agonizingly predictable and limited, and it has for years broken down like this: two superhero movies, one suspense/thriller, one non-superhero summer blockbuster, one eventual Oscar candidate, and a handful of movies with my kids.

But even with my limited time, when a single movie can require two or three evenings, portioned in micro-doses between the time after the kids and wife go to bed and the time when I can no longer keep my lids peeled, I’ve seen Lost in Translation five or six times, and it remains a sublime experience.

It is at once a fairy tale and all too real, a fantasy and a statement of harsh realities. Every viewing changes my mind about whether it’s a movie that taps into a man’s deepest yearnings or a woman’s. Or neither.

Here are things I noticed or thought for the first time when I watched it last week:
  • When Bob sits in the hospital waiting for Charlotte, having a non-conversation with a babbling old Japanese lady, two women sitting in the waiting room with them cannot stop cracking up. It's like an SNL skit that's funny on its own but funnier because those ladies are caught in a Giggle Loop.
  • Several scenes of Charlotte moping in her hotel room reveal, in the window reflection, others in the room.
  • The vibe between this and “Before Sunrise” is dazzlingly similar, except LiT has a May-December thing going on.
  • Bob sleeps with the lounge singer because he loves Charlotte enough not to sleep with her. Perhaps you think that is pathetic and inexcusable reasoning, but that doesn’t make Bob's motives for himself untrue. (Notice how the first time he is propositioned, he does everything he can to politely but confidently reject the offers. Notice how the first time folks try to make small talk with him in the bar, he dismisses them. And then, suddenly, he sleeps with the cheesy lounge singer.)
  • Does Charlotte’s husband love her, or does he just love the idea of her, like I love the idea of sitting by a fire much more than I actually love sitting by fires? Am I supposed to dislike the guy as much as I do? Because I wanna punch that dude. Twice.
  • Is falling instantly in love with someone else something that happens because of personal turmoil or because it just sometimes happens?
  • Scarlett Johansson really is all that and a bag of adorable, smoldering BBQ chips, and I can’t stop looking at her every second she exists on that screen, but she has very few opportunities in this movie to really push her acting talent.
The ultimate question, however, is which character is the central figure? Whose fantasy is the more central fantasy? Because, ultimately, the course of true love never did run smooth, and stories of doomed romance never break 50/50.

On the last viewing, I decided it’s really Bob’s story. The opening scene -- of Charlotte’s back in repose on her hotel bed, pink sheer panties daring you not to look at her butt -- is about the male fantasy. The closing scene is of Bob walking away, having proven his adoration via his self-control, a flawed but noble attempt at expressing a more complicated sort of affection than mere lust or romantic curiosity.

But I’ll watch it again in a year or two. I’ll catch more stuff I hadn’t noticed before. And I’ll keep asking questions for which there is no clear answer. Because that’s what the best movies do to us, and for us.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Epiphany #73: Dances With Strangers, Part 1

While I know that all of the cool kids want to be introverts these days, there are still some of us who actually are introverts.  And ridiculously shy in new situations, which together can be a lethal combo.  It means that you spend significant time introspecting about your shyness.

Send such a person to a conference alone, and he is going to engage in any number of strange behaviors.  Like hanging out in his hotel room and watching an Arnold Swartzenegger movie.  Like getting carryout from P.F. Chang instead of eating in the restaurant.  Like not walking up to a group of strangers at the conference and saying, "Hey, I'm Bob.  I'm from Tennessee.  What's going on?"

But, I also can't go to a large city with hundreds of thousands of people and withdraw from the human race.  Simple, everyday life forces human engagement, and in unexpected ways.  Which makes each day a challenge, a risk, a new adventure.

My first event in Indianapolis was a school visit.  When you registered for the conference, you had the option of going to spend time at a local school the day before.  I signed up.  I'm interested in schools that have a January mini-semester where students do something different.  But I wouldn't be able to get there in time to ride the bus from the hotel with the others, so I drove directly to the school.  And sat dutifully in the parking lot until the minute the visit was supposed to start so I could go in and link up with the others with little time for fanfare.

No one else showed up.  So when I walked in the door, the head and assistant head immediately swooped in on me, it being a school where you have to sign in, and that place being at the administrative offices.  Instead of being an anonymous straggler at the back of a school tour, I became the main attraction.  What aspects of the school was I interested in?  What did I want to see?  Had I heard about their _________?  Did I want some coffee?  Would I be able to meet with Mrs. ____ when her class was finished?  How long could I stay?

I met the challenge.  I was friendly, convivial, asked questions, became interested, rose to the occasion.  All of the above.  Thrust into the position of a couple of one-on-one hours with a proud, interesting headmaster, I became a one-man counter school to the school I was visiting.  We circled his one building school as partners, around and around as he led me through the classrooms and programs and events that he was so proud of.

That night I went to a concert alone.  It was someone I wanted to see--Nora Jane Struthers--and I had first planned to see her when I had hoped a friend might come along on the trip.  Now, going alone was a badge of honor, a must do.  I arrived early and sat in the car in a dark parking space until about 15 minutes after the doors opened.  I didn't want to be first; I didn't want to walk into a vibe already established.

I found a stool along a wall about 30 feet from the stage and staked out my turf.  I got the first of several beers.  I played with my phone.  But the place never filled up--there were about 20 people max--and most had come to see a local duo, not the opener.  I was in my own cocoon of personal space, but a group of young lesbians started camping out in front of me, hugging and flirting and putting their hands in each others' back pockets.  I watched them, I looked past them.  After the opening act, the safe, alone guy from out of town who was nursing his beer on a stool against the wall was asked to take a bunch of group photos for them.  So I did.

For Nora Jane Struthers, the main act, they left for other climes.  A woman took the stool in front of me.  It was a good show--strong, countryside songs played with exuberance to a very small crowd, audience interaction, good fun.  Eventually Nora Jane, who is a bit of a pistol, a cute young songwriter, declared that she was turning the bar into a honky Tonk and that everyone should come down in front of the stage and do the Tennessee Two-Step.

Oh no, I thought, as I looked around, we were down to about 12 people in the audience.

To be continued...............


Monday, December 8, 2014

A Chant Sublime

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

For most of my life, I’ve believed in God because I believe in love as a transcendent notion, within our vision but beyond our comprehension, like a light in the distance from a boat in the ocean. Love cannot be dissected or broken down into chemicals or syllables. In truth, all emotions seem like magical and miraculous entities to me, which is probably why I majored in psychology in college: I was sleuthing out what seemed one of life’s bigger mysteries.

Their old familiar carols play

For most of my life, I’ve believed in (an admittedly-skewed notion of) Heaven because it seemed like the ultimate expression of love, a place where all are welcome, where all are together, where all are happy in a way our earthly bodies and minds cannot ever be. Whatever love we know or have known, now matter how it may have buckled our knees and boggled our minds, most of us get the feeling that it’s still an emotion filtered through a glass, darkly. Most of us feel like our attempts at love are inevitably flawed. A perfect thing imperfectly carried out. We have some sense of what a better love would be, but most of us never quite seem to know how to get there and stay there.

And wild and sweet the words repeat

But for all that gushy talk, the punches to the gut keep coming. The bad news, the anger, the injustice, the misanthropy aimed at one or another segment of our brothers and sisters. Even as I sit conveniently on the sidelines, rarely if ever the real target for this tsunami of animus, these endless waves that keep crashing into our shores and leaving destruction in its wake. We try numbing ourselves to it. Many of us succeed. The rest of us wrestle with despair.

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Interwoven in my mind with the names that have become part of the recent injustice zeitgeist -- Michael Brown, Jackie the UVA student, Eric Garner -- is a video I saw posted last weekend on Facebook. A congregant at a black church filmed a group of women doing a sort of lip-sync dance routine to Beverly Crawford’s “He’s Done Enough.”

And in despair, I bowed my head

The song is simple enough, really -- If the Lord never does another thing for me, He’s done enough -- but listening to that song, loving that song, inspired me to do a little research on the “negro spirituals” with which I’ve become familiar in my life. It’s not a long list, really, but it’s four or five dozen songs, and so many of them dig from that same well of gratitude, of knowing there’s something better coming, of believing that there’s a great gettin’ up morning somewhere over the horizon.

There is no peace on earth, I said

I’ve always said I believe in God because I believe in love. But maybe, as all the spirituals hint so well (when they don’t say it outright), I’m desperately hopeful that justice will have its day.

For hate is strong and mocks the song

Our world is so unfair, so unjust. Hell, we don’t even know if and when an injustice has occurred or to whom half the time. Has the world been unjust to the UVA members of Phi Kappa Psi? Has it been unjust to Jackie, whose story might be inaccurate in detail but true in every point that really matters, whose life is now under a microscope only because she took what seems to have been a leap of courage and not some grab for attention?

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Michael Brown and Eric Garner never found justice, so we are left to hope they get another shot at it in another life, in a better place. As a race, African-Americans have spent a majority of their existence forced to believe there’s something else, an afterworld, a chance at never-ending happiness, where you can always see the sun… day, or night. (Sorry. I went Prince.)

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep

I want for them, and countless millions of others, a second chance at reparation. For them I want not love so much as justice. Not justice in the form of burning all the bad people in some eternal hellish punishment, but justice in the form of not being treated so horribly, so unjustly on this earth.

God is not dead nor does He sleep

Revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold. Too many humans want justice served the same way, with righteous anger, with venom. Too many see justice simply as "someone must pay for this." It's such a myopic way to think of justice. Crippling, really.

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

What I want when I look to the sky for a higher power is justice in the hands of a being who knows far more than what we are capable of knowing, who metes out justice through an unfiltered capacity to love and forgive, who seeks first and above all else to heal what is hurting us.

With peace on earth, good will to men

Sing for peace on earth, good will to men. Not because we believe it can happen, but because the song needs to continue despite what we know about ourselves, because we must rage, rage against the dying of the light. Call it justice, or call it love. There’s a God out there who’s going to give us another shot to do this whole Love One Another thing better. The best do-over ever.

A voice, a chime, a chant sublime

I’ll keep singing and listening to the songs of others. I’ll work to savor the beauty and kindness around me. The right will prevail. Not my right, or your right. A right that surpasses our understanding, that is more than is dreamt in our philosophy. A right so right that the darkness shall not overcome it.

Of peace on earth, good will to men

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Epiphany #72: Entropy and Christmas Ornaments

There is no greater proof of The 2nd Law Of Thermodynamics than Christmas ornaments.  The law states, in layman' terms, according to the Google definition, and I'm paraphrasing, that things tend towards disorder and randomness.

Each year, in January, we pack up the ornaments after the holiday season, the lights and bulbs and mementos and mugs and tabletop decorations.  We wrap them carefully, according to established routines, putting them away almost exactly the way that we did the year before.  Christmas ornaments tend to carry a lot of nostalgic weight, and, as a result, no one wants the guilt of having broken a special one or even having treated it carelessly.

From there, the ornaments are carefully placed in standard locations--the attic or the laundry room or a closet here or a drawer there.

And yet, each December, when we unpack boxes and unwind lights and remind ourselves of what we have to commemorate the season, things are not quite the same.  Strings of light which worked perfectly when rolled up eleven months earlier do not light up.  Items that we thought we knew where they were are not in those locations.

Most mysterious, though, are the bulbs and other decorations that hang on the tree.  Left in one place for nearly a year, they will have, without fail, unwrangled themselves in some strange way.  If they were put up with the wire hangers dangling from them, some of those will have disconnected.  One or two will be broken, in spite of their stillness.  The paint will have chipped or peeled.  The glue will have let go.

In one way, this is not unusual.  Many of the ornaments go to an attic which is not protected from summer heat, and so it may not be surprising that they have deteriorated in the hot box of the attic.  But this does not explain everything.  Even those that sit in an air-conditioned basement all those months exhibit the same nudge toward disorder.

And that is why they are fascinating.  They represent the general disorder of things, the way that even the most carefully protected and preserved items, those that we cherish and lavish over, are not quite the same as they were a year earlier.  Like us.

It's just that Christmas decorations, given that they only return after long intervals of time, show us that reality in more obvious ways.  Complete care and protection is anything but; it cannot stop the insidious reality that time wears down all things.

What a strange feeling it is at the start of each December to open those boxes and to know what they contain but still not to know what to expect!  But, in a more positive light, what better way to capture the essence of a holiday season that nourishes our sense of loss?  Few of us with any age on us can make it through this month without some sense of sadness, the holidays tending to accentuate the best or most memorable aspects of those we loved and lost, and to discover those emotions reflected inside a box full of fragile yet colorful trinkets only adds to the poignancy, at least for me.

Christmas has melancholy underpinnings.  We can never be children again.  We cannot bring back those who are gone.  We can't capture the innocent magic that once drove the season.  To open those boxes of our pasts, and to come to terms with what remains, which in one way or another is less each year, gives the imminent birth and the cycle of the years a meaning stronger than physical law.


Sunday, November 30, 2014

All She Wants to Do is Dance

“Ban the one-night stand.”

This was the conclusion of one of my friends, half an hour into our discussion on the Rolling Stone expose on the problem of sexual assault on the University of Virginia campus, a piece so scathing and disturbing that the UVA administration is still scrambling to figure out how to properly manage the crisis. It was a piece of old school seismic journalism.

One of the haunting illustrations from the Rolling Stone
longread, "A Rape on Campus," that has left an entire
campus -- and possibly a way of college life -- reeling
for answers.
A critical mass of people (including me) have awakened to realize that whatever problem exists goes well beyond one school or a handful of colleges and most certainly cannot be dismissed as being overblown. Hell, even if the numbers are fudged and the estimates too high, the problem is still bigger than we want to believe. If the estimates are accurate… then God help us if we continue to not care.

This isn't about protecting the sanctity and #Murca-ness of Greek Life, or the right to hook up in dance clubs, or the freedom to heavily pet a relative stranger. It's the cold, shameful, enraging reality of a group of young men violating an unwilling female for shits and giggles. At best it's a Milgram experiment gone wrong. At worst it's the reminder that we continue to believe the Nazis weren't like us.

Three 40-something men, all of us the parents of daughters and sons, none of us fraternity brothers, all of us relatively (but not entirely) chaste in our college years, and the best solution we can think of to the problem of rape and sexual assaults on college campuses is to ban one night stands entirely? Is the only way to get past the problems of male sexual predators on our college campus to transport our mores back to the Victorian era?

Of course such a rule, ludicrous and unenforceable, would not eradicate the problem of rape and sexual assault on college campuses.

Interestingly, would the people who got most upset about such a ban be young men... or women?

Twice during my reunion weekend I found myself in the middle of a jam-packed dance floor, because I freakin' love to dance. I was stunned at how much more aggressive men have become on dance floors. It’s not like dudes in the ‘90s were coy or stand-offish by any means. Dudes in the ‘90s could invite themselves into direct physical contact with girls on the dance floor without hesitation. But lately the guys seem almost angrily aggressive, as if they weren’t so much interested in attracting sexual interest as they were in staking some claim. Territorial. Wolfpackish. Pissing on trees.

There I was, quietly uttering “Sorry” every time my body in any way made contact with a young woman’s, hyper-paranoid that she might take it the wrong way, while young guys, drunk off Fireballs and Red Bulls and their own immortality, would grab girls with their meat hooks and pull them forcefully backwards into their awaiting crotches. On most of these occasions, the girls would shout expletives, or shove them away, or both. Several times two or three girls would do it together. Once it turned into a minor altercation when a girl hit a guy.

The girls didn't look like they were having much fun. It looked like they were whistling past a graveyard.

Yet they kept dancing. The floor remained packed, wall to wall, with gyrating humans willing to ignore or overlook the aggression and the bad apples for the right to keep on dancin’. And trust me, everyone knows there is no dance floor without the dancing femmes.

Are there no rules or laws on a dance floor? If a woman has chosen to place her body amidst a mass of others, does that make her fair game? Is pushing your hips into a woman’s body OK so long as the beat is kickin'? Is grabbing someone and pulling her into you fine so long as you let go if she says no?

When I was in Nashville and enjoyed a Monday night at The 5 Spot, which is like walking into some excerpt from Grease Meets Swingers, what I noticed, apart from the jaw-droppingly mesmerizing dancing, was how everyone politely asked others to dance. They asked. They held out a hand and waited for a hand in return as a sign of acceptance.

The problem isn’t sex on the first (or zero’th) date. And it’s not gropers on the dance floor. It’s about attitudes, entitlement, the horny hunger for power or dominance or relevance. But isn’t it possible that removing the possibility of finding Mr. Goodbar, of manhandling someone just ‘cuz you feel like it, might be important steps toward changing those attitudes?

Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Epiphany #71: Warhol's Grave and other funereal celebrations

"Took my daughter to see Warhol's grave,
To see the rusty rings the soup cans made."

This morning, my father and I were reminiscing about my parents' trip to Europe, and he made the passing comment about the cemeteries in Vienna and how amazing they were, and I just had a thought about visiting cemeteries.

Two of the more memorable photographs in our our family collection involve cemeteries.  In the first one, I am lying prostrate and happy behind Henry David Thoreau's grave marker.  In the other, my daughter, age about three, is caught posing behind Warhol's tombstone in a small, hilly cemetery outside of Pittsburgh.  She is jarringly brightly-colored and effervescent behind the gray stone.   The latter photograph, if you were in the know, as in had a sense of irony, was the Christmas card insert you received that year.

My father was commenting on the many famous musicians he saw in the beautiful cemeteries of Europe (except for Mozart, of course, who is buried in a pauper's grave), and it made me think, what a strange custom when we, as tourists, make it a practice to visit the graves of the famous.

Family tombstones and burial plots I get.  We pay our respects.  We show our children where their grandparents or other ancestors are buried.  In a non-threatening way, I suppose we even suggest that their place will be here one day, too.

But the idea of visiting the famous graves of the world?  Is that not a bit odd?  What is it that we hope to get out of the experience?  Is it a vibe?  Is it a sense of shared interest (I love music; you played it well)?  A cemetery seems like a strange destination for a day of planned tourist activities.  Plus, as already noted, we find meaning in having a photograph to document the visit.

Of course, we do learn from those graveyard trips--Thoreau's grave only reads "Henry," a small marker, along with those of his siblings, that helps to semicircle the large shared tombstone of his parents.  In death, he was not the big deal that he has become for some.  Similarly, Andy Warhol's grave is surrounded by those of his family members, the Warholas, whose name he shortened in his transition to New York, perhaps to downplay his Polish immigrant roots.

But what is there in the graveyard that often calls us to journey far away from other tourist destinations?  The simple answer is that it is a pilgrimage, but a pilgrimage to what?  Why does it matter where famous bones were laid to rest?  Is a pilgrimage to the graves of the famous even a pilgrimage?

Wikipedia reminds us that "pilgrimage is a journey or search of moral or spiritual significance. Typically, it is a journey to a shrine or other location of importance to a person's beliefs and faith."

I would argue, I guess, that one person's pilgrimage is another person's Facebook post (of course, I'm not on Facebook, so can't say for sure) and that the latter may undercut the former.  I might even support that with my experience at a beautiful midnight Christmas Mass at Notre Dame being marred by the incessant camera flashes coming tourists from somewhere farther East.

But even for me, well, I admire a lot of Thoreau's ideas and I've developed an interest in Warhol over the years, but I can hardly call either trip a pilgrimage.

Perhaps the closest I came to an actual pilgrimage in a cemetery was a visit, a couple of summers ago, to Robert Johnson's grave on Money Road in Mississippi.  A few things made this journey different.  First, I had a grant and had spent the summer studying the blues, and the trip to Mississippi was the culmination of that. Those hots days focused on nothing but the blues, and it had, however briefly, become a "religion" (and the appreciation remains).  Second, Johnson's grave was a search.  Legend has suggested three different locations where Johnson was buried, and during the trip, we were relatively close to all of them.  This gravesite, though, had the strongest documentation.

But what took us there was the intentional desire to see the Tallahatchie Bridge made famous in the song "Ode To Billie Joe".  Sitting at lunch in Greenwood, the chance to see both seemed like a worthwhile side trip.  What cemented it was the accidental discovery that the store where Emmitt Till entered history was just around the corner.

Johnson's grave, by a small white church, was easy to find.  Although the tombstone had its own collection of relics, guitar picks and coins and whiskey bottles, we were the only ones there.   A hot, silent wind blew around us, and for several minutes, I had a subject and a life and a surrounding history and a spiritual atmosphere worthy of contemplation.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Epiphany #70: Long May You Run

We drove that car as far as we could, abandoned it out West.  --  Dylan

Every family has unique benchmarks that define it--first owned home, first family member to attend college, maybe citizenship or travel abroad.  And while some of those are supremely important to a family's self-identity, there are smaller accomplishments that can mean almost as much.

This week, our beloved 2001 Subaru Outback notched 200,000 miles.

For some readers, this fact no doubt earns a derisive "Big deal."  For us, though, this is a big deal.  It's the first time any car in our family, or extended family, has lasted this long.

Growing up in the 60's, my family, especially my father, fell prey to mantra of those times: Everyone needs a new car every four years.  The genius of Detroit was either that people bought that notion or that automakers figured out how to make cars that only lasted that long, or both.  Because consumers in that mindset would rarely get more than about 80,000 miles out of a car.

In fact, one of my father's related beliefs was that everything starts to go wrong on a car at around 80,000 miles.  Which is usually when he sold it to us.

The other outcome of those formative automobile-purchasing years is that my father loves to trade cars.  He likes the thrill of the negotiation, the bitter back and forth, the threat of walking away, and, ultimately, the satisfaction of being able to say "They sold me the car for less than it is worth."

He knows all of the tricks--buy at the end of the month, don't mention a trade-in until after the price has been negotiated, pay in cash (if you can).  Most of all, he likes things that are new and unproblematic.

My wife and I, on the other hand, drive cars into the ground.  Living a complex life that seeks to avoid confrontation and to neglect repair and upkeep of everything but our children, it has always been easier for us to let cars deteriorate until they are undriveable, and then to get a new one, than to keep them in prime shape for maximum trade-in value.  Our cars tend to face ignoble ends--left unrepaired at a gas station until the owner hauls it off, left in a parking space at school for months, if actually traded-in, only for little more than scrap value.  One sits in disrepair at an auto dealership right now, as it has for several weeks.

So, the Subaru.  It is something of a miracle.  It has driven to three of the four corners of America--Washington state, Maine, Key West.  It has been the primary car, at one time or another, for each of the members of our family, surviving two teenagers without incident, as well as several near brushes with no longer being our car.  In 2008, when we bought my older daughter a Subaru of her own, we were satisfied with its eight years of service, had let some things go on it, and had accepted $1500 in trade-in cash toward the new car.

But at almost the last second, I thought, wait a minute, this car has never caused us any major expense; it has to be worth more to us than $1500.  So instead of selling the car back to the dealer, I paid them $3500 to fix everything on it that needed fixing, and within four months, it became my younger daughter's car for all of high school and her first year of college.

It needed to last 8 months (of what would have been equivalent car payments) to justify that expense.  It has lasted six years.  And each time it has needed a repair, I've played that same cost/benefit analysis game of fix it costs vs. car payments.  So far, I've guessed right.

While I'm not a car guy, and while I don't place status on what car I'm driving, and while I don't particularly care what the car I'm driving looks like (as long as the stereo and the A/C work), I am admittedly quite attached to and nostalgic about the Subaru.  If it would run forever, then I would drive it forever.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Why Don't I Like You? (Reunion Reflections #2)

Miranda was sweet. She was tender and kind. She was the kind of girl who, if she took a walk in the woods, all of God's creatures would flock to her like Bambi or a Disney princess. When she said mean things about other people, it was never mockery, but disappointed criticism.

Miranda would say things like, "He's just not very nice," or "Why would a person behave like that?" or "I wish it wasn't darn so cool to be insensitive and indifferent." When she was angry, she would say things like, "Gosh, I'm angry."

When my roommate would drink himself unconscious -- not quite a monthly event, but at least seasonal -- or when he would be in the emotional throes of a breakup or relationship transition -- not quite a monthly event, but at least seasonal -- when his closest friends would not feed him from the spigot of sympathy and pity, he would flee to Miranda. She was always eager and happy to feed him the unquestioning, uncompromising support, love and pity he desperately sought.

And those of us who didn't play dat? We were grateful for Miranda. She took the burden from us. And she took our wallowing friend away from us for a while, until he wallowed a little less.

I couldn't stand Miranda.

Few things are more unsettling to my psyche than being unable to justify my feelings or opinions. Most of the time, if I don't like you, I've got a damned good reason for it. That reason might not make sense or be acceptable to everyone else, or anyone else even, but it makes sense to me. John Wesley Hardin once shot a man for snoring too loudly, but it seemed sufficient justification for him to pull that trigger. My dislike for Miranda, on the other hand, had no legitimate purchase. I could never find an explanation for it that justified the extent of my dislike, which bordered on a sort of seething contempt.

She would go to football and basketball games with us and keep asking Why questions. Even after three years of attending multiple games every year, she didn't get field goals, or charging, or why alley-oops were allowed. She didn't understand offsides, or why exactly some players were called "down" while others were allowed to continue running. She didn't understand the coach's box, or the shot clock, or the free throw lane. Beyond the notion that the team who finishes with the highest score wins, she didn't understand much of anything about sports.

And all of her questions were so sweet, so innocent, so naive. Even the 20th time she asked the same question, it was still so sweet, so innocent, so naive. There was something terrifically Dory-esque about her.

But I knew plenty of people who were clueless about sports, and I liked many of them. I knew plenty of innocent and naive people, sweet and genuine people, and I liked many of them. But not Miranda.

Flash forward to 2014 and my 20th Reunion. A very small portion of our best friends and good buddies returned for the event. Maybe two handfuls of us.

I'm friends with Miranda on Facebook. I've enjoyed occasionally seeing updates on her life, pictures of her family. She looks happy, as always. Until a few years ago, she was an educator, because she's the kind of genuinely, stubbornly optimistic soul who goes into teaching almost as a religion, as a belief in self-sacrifice.

Miranda was one of the few in our circle who came back for the reunion, and I was looking forward to reconnecting, because I felt ashamed for not being a better friend, for not really liking her, in college. This reunion was a chance to mend that psychological fence in my head. She'd grown up. I'd sort of matured. We were adults with big people lives now.

At the gathering, we all finally caught up and circled around, catching everyone up on the details you don't see on Facebook.

Her son is, as they say, "on the autism spectrum," so Miranda stopped working to manage him. And raise him, of course, but as anyone who knows the parent of a kid with special needs, their duties and responsibilities make the job of a normal parent seem like being a ticket-taker. Yet that doesn't get her down. She talks about the difficulties and frustrations the same way your favorite first-grade teacher talks in an upbeat way about challenges that would level most of us. She is busy being, in almost any measurable way, an awesome person.

So it pained me that, as she was giving us these updates, as my heart was moved by what a great mom and wife and person she had become, a person very much in line with the young woman she was in college, I was also thinking to myself, "Holy crikey how soon can I get the hell outta this conversation?"

I still couldn't stand Miranda.

What the hell, Billy? How much do you suck as a human being that you cannot bring yourself to like someone as decent, wonderful, and sweet as Miranda?

Don't worry. I get it, in theory. Sometimes people don't mix. Oil and vinegar. Or toothpaste and orange juice. Or Crocs and... well, anything. Sometimes it's not that one thing is bad so much as the combo just doesn't work.

But it just doesn't sit well.

There's a saying in poker: "There's a fish at every table. Look around, and if you don't see one, you're probably it." Well, in relationships, there's generally an a-hole. And if you don't like someone else, and that person is sweet, and genuine, and nice, and if that person's worst crimes are being naive and a little flighty? Then maybe the a-hole is you.

So then I went and ordered a couple of shots just to bring the point home.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Epiphany #69: Consumers Can Strike Back!

The opportunity presented in this post will likely annoy more readers than it actually empowers.  That's okay.  In fact, it's kind of the point.

So I've been working a new app on my phone recently.  It's called Buycott.  It's a bar code scanner app, but with a twist.  Before you start scanning anything in your local grocery store, Buycott give you the chance to choose any number of "causes" that are important to you.  You can check as many of those as you like, and then when you do scan a grocery item's bar code, you find out if that item connects with your causes in three ways:

1.  It can tell you if the company that produces the product support that same cause(s) you do.
2.  It can tell you if the company that produces the product violates the cause that you believe in.
3.  It can tell you if there are other causes out there, maybe ones that you aren't all that interested in (yet), that have put this product on the radar.

For example, a friend gave me a box of Mallomars a few weeks ago; they have been sitting in my office.  I just scanned them.  The Nabisco Company, which makes them, is not supporting any of my causes.  To the contrary, a scan of these delicious chocolate-covered, marshmallow cookies tells me that this product is problematic for two of my causes--1) they contain GMOs and 2) they have given $2,000,000 to a campaign to prevent the labeling that would alert us to the existence of GMO's in our food.

GMOs are genetically-modified organisms, or scientists playing with your food.  Are they good?  Are they bad?  Depends on who you talk to.  Corporate giant Monsanto wants us to think that they are "beneficial."  Grocery chains like Whole Foods base much of their existence on the fact that they are a safe haven for non-GMO products.  If there were a battle map drawn in the war for the soul (on non-soul) of our food, GMO vs. non-GMO would be one of the main campaigns.

One simple fact is undeniable: the food giants like Monsanto don't want you to know if there are GMOs in your food.  We are, perhaps, right to be at least suspicious when someone tries to hide something like that.

Other causes that the sweet little cookies bring to my attention on my phone range from calls to boycott companies that advertised in the issue of Rolling Stone magazine that had the Boston Marathon alleged bomber on the cover to calls to boycott Nabisco products because Nabisco was purchased by tobacco giant Philip Morris in 2000 (though the more recent Kraft (who owns Nabisco) split-up is a bit more confusing to follow.  What is certainly as true as the hidden GMOs is the fact that there are many, many, many causes out there.  Perhaps too many to keep up with or to pick battles from.

Is the chocolate in Mallomars produced by child slaves?  Are farmers who produce products used in American foods underpaid?  Should we only buy organic products?  Did Nabisco contribute $2500 to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker's campaign?

All are causes I didn't originally subscribe to and don't know if I will.

The typical American response to all of this is to throw up our hands or shrug our shoulders and say everything is bad, or how can I keep up with all of this, or why does it matter, or I'm going to go eat a cheeseburger in a strange act of bravado.  I get that.  We expect it at this point.  Americans don't care, much of the time, about things like this.

But I guess I would argue that the app works.  When buying almond milk the other day, I scanned to brands in the organic/healthy section of the supermarket.  One contains GMOs and one doesn't.  I bought the one that doesn't.

And, as I have been hammering in various ways for the past 7 years, there is a broader reality--that food producers are messing with your food.  Whether it's GMOs or chemicals and additives to stabilize and extend shelf life or antibiotics given to animals that are raised in awful, sickness-inducing conditions, they are messing with your food.  Whether it's using processes that turn fats cancerous or more dangerous to your heart, they are messing with your food.  And, maybe you do have some issues that you care about.  In either case, a little app that makes the exploration of these issues portable and easy might be worth your time.  But, like a fresh, juicy radish, take it with a grain of salt.  It's better that way.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Livin' the Dream (Reunion Reflections #1)

Ritchie* owns and runs an Irish pub in one of North Carolina’s bigger cities. It’s an adorable two-story bar downtown. The top floor has a long bar, three or four TVs, and a nice-sized outside deck area with a killer view of the surrounding blocks. The bottom floor, rustic and not-too-roomy, has seven or eight booths, but the bar is right there in the middle of everything. The bottom floor is, as she says, “the no damn TVs allowed section.” Same goes for the bottom floor patio, where you apparently have to talk to people if you’re going to enjoy it. Or check your phone a lot.

This is not "Ritchie." Ritchie is a girl. This is not
me, either. It's just a picture I stoled off the
Internets of an Irish pub that looks a lot like hers.
The upstairs gets packed on Saturdays in the fall and for other big NC sporting events during the year, but the downstairs is the soul of the pub, where secrets are told, lifelines are altered, and alcoholics can stare into the void for hours without the distraction of flashing LED lights, only some variety of classic or not-so-classic rock pumping in at medium volume over the speakers.

I met Ritchie in the fall of my freshman year. She was in my intro poetry-writing class at UNC. She has one of those personalities that have a Jupiter-like gravitational pull. She’s exotic and oozes a sexy brand of confidence. It seems doubtless that, when she befriended/mesmerized me, she merely wanted to adopt a new puppy. Clueless boys are much less expensive than puppies.

Her best friend since elementary school, a behemoth of a man who went on to play for almost 15 years in the NFL, has to lie to his wife when he eats lunch at Ritchie’s bar, because his wife doesn’t trust her. (“If I’d really wanted to sleep with my best friend, don’t you think I coulda done so by now?” Ritchie asked, rhetorically. I nodded.)

Now she’s livin’ the dream. She’s running a thriving bar that will live as long as she wants it to. the bar wasn't her dream, at least not originally.

Mere days after her graduation, she took a suitcase and flew to California in search of something Hollywoody. Acting, screenwriting, whatever. Two years later, having pieced together decent-paying jobs (“basically because no one out there knew how to use a f*#king computer”), she ended up in a modest assistant assistant producer role with “Touched By An Angel.”

Her Hollywood war stories, all told from a lower rung on the totem, are non-stop hilarity and a healthy reminder that whatever we think about stars and their personalities is, at best, a 50-50 crap shoot.

While she was crawling up the entertainment production ladder, Ritchie's brothers were set to start a restaurant, but one of them suffered an aneurism. She came back to be there with her family and help get his restaurant off the ground... but she made it a pub. When it became clear he would survive, she promised to stay a year while he recovered. She picked out every detail. All the decor, the name, the menu, the staff. And then she made it very clear she wasn’t about to just hand over her baby to anyone else.

It is exactly the kind of bar that survives several decades. It’s not chasing a fad, and it’s not seeking the Next New Gimmick that will pull in a young crowd. It just provides a healthy selection of beer, a choice of well-lit and poorly-lit seating options, and some absolutely delicious pub food.

“I decided early on that, if I’m gonna have to eat two or three meals a day here, then the food will have to be good. I’m not gonna subsist on s*#t,” she said.

Ritchie has honed her once-meager potty mouth. Apparently, raising four children while running a bar risks passing along that gene. Two summers ago, her youngest girl walked into the bar and said, “Whassup mah bishes?” because she’d heard one of the bartenders say it a lot. She was five at the time, so now she’s a mythical goddess in pub land.

“I was so proud of the fact that my other three kids were good about it, didn’t cuss like me. And now my youngest one’s making up for all of ‘em.”

Running a bar is way cooler as a fantasy. She only allows herself to drink one night every year at her bar: St. Patty’s Day. The other 364 days are straight sober. “I learned early on that if you allow yourself to drink at your own bar, then it’s a decision you have to make every single day. And you have too many decisions to make every day to let that one take up your time.”

She’s as much of a therapist as a manager, with a staff full of the kinds of back stories that could form a whole new Lifetime-esque cable channel.

In the early years, as her husband worked as an officer, her kids would play up in the office area and sleep in dog beds she bought for them. She would either crash on a couch (that's still up there, and that had a server sleeping on it when she toured me) for the night or carry them down, one at a time, to her car well after midnight to tuck them in at home.

What I liked about her, from those early days until I saw her again for the first time in over 20 years, was how damned determined she was to squeeze out some happiness, for herself, for others, and especially for those who seemed to need some, sometimes desperately so. 

Few people I know are forces of nature quite like her, people who seem to bend surroundings to her will by stubbornly -- maybe even angrily -- refusing to stop smiling. Cheerful and determined, with some strange invisible chip on her shoulder. Sounds like the perfect woman to run a kickass Irish pub.

* -- (That’s not really her name.)