Thursday, February 27, 2014

Going Steady

The Hold Steady's Separation Sunday cuffed my ears shortly after it came out in 2005. Take “This Poem Sucks” from Mike Myers’ So I Married An Axe Murderer, and replace his jazz trio musicians with a hard rock band capable of reproducing E-Street-esque jams, and you’ve got the Hold Steady.

Separation Sunday blew my mind. It was everything in music I thought shouldn’t appeal to me, and I couldn’t stop listening to it. Each album could almost come with a map -- Penetration Park, the Party Pit -- as if he were writing about a modern urban Westeros. Lines fall out of Craig Finn’s mouth as if he has swallowed 49 hard-boiled eggs before having to bend over and force every last ounce back out.

The words are a cold army shower. The lyrics are harsh and piercing, but neither smug nor unfairly judgmental. Finn regularly celebrates the idea that the very things that imprison us or destroy us oftentimes are things that at some point set us free and quite possibly might again. Yeah, drugs are bad. Except when they’re not. And sluts are bad. Except when they’re not. And insensitive prick boyfriends are bad, and the same party for the 20th weekend, and going to see that movie one more time because there’s nothing better to do, and so on and so on. The Hold Steady pays homage to circling the drain, because for some people, and at some times in life, the only choices are to circle it or give in altogether, and if you’re just circling the drain, there’s still a hair’s breadth of chance you might get out alive.

Most importantly, what The Hold Steady do for me is force me to appreciate what happens behind the words. Unlike many of my favorite artists and bands, I can’t get caught up in the sing-a-long experience, even when I know every word, which admittedly isn’t often.

Their last album, Heaven is Forever, didn’t blow me away like their previous albums, but I respected the effort. Craig Finn tried to sing, sorta. And the band tried to sound a little less like a 70s rock band and a little more like a 90s rock band trying to pay homage to 70s rock bands. So it wasn’t as good, but I couldn’t hate ‘em for taking a chance.

Last year, jonesing badly for them and worrying they might never get back together, I went back and bought their debut, Almost Killed Me. I can see why many claim it’s their best album, but for me “Boys and Girls in America” get the top spot over the first two by a hair.

The Hold Steady has a new album coming out in March. The first single from Teeth Dreams is “Spinners,” and it is a thing of Hold Steady beauty.

She goes out almost every night
She dresses up and she spins around
The same guy buys another round
To let her know he’s interested
The nights go around forever now
But the morning comes so quick

The song crunches. It’s muscular as hell. It’s about -- shocker -- the fact that for some people, and at some times in life, the only choices are to circle the drain or give in altogether. Oh yes, Teeth Dreams is gonna be worth savoring.

Finn’s recent albums are the same stories and the same poetic turns of biting phrase as their early work, but it’s now being written by a 43-year-old instead of a 33-year-old. And trust me, it’s different. The hangovers are different. The friends are different. Most of your favorite 20-year-old memories now have a mutated mix of emotional ingredients, and there’s more sadness to them because they’re way the hell gone, and recreating them would either ravage your body beyond repair or prove you were far more depraved than you can recall sitting in your kitchen, sipping your G&T and flipping through that photo album.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Epiphany #14

No spoilers, I promise.  If you haven't seen Season 2 of House Of Cards, you may read on without worry.

Given that my wife was one of the 2% of Netflix viewers who "binged" by watching House Of Cards, Season 2 straight through, and given that even I, who seemingly eschews all trendy behaviors, find myself having finished that second season a mere 10 days after its release (13 episodes in 10 days), I've been pondering what it all means.

The pleasures of watching House Of Cards, it seems to me, are threefold.  At least.

First, House Of Cards has those Shakespearean overtones that give a work these days instant credibility.  Frank and Claire Underwood  are, in essence, Iago married to Lady Macbeth, though which one is more truly evil and which one is more cravenly ambitious might make for an interesting discussion over multiple beers sometime.  If anything, Season 2 plays with classical Shakespearean dramatic elements even more, taunting the audience with Frank's asides, driving us to the edge with the rampant use of dramatic irony, watching all of the seeds planted in Season 1 bear fruit.  House Of Cards truly is "a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing," except to remind us that we all have that ambitious part of us, at least from time to time, that can command all of our other aspects into its service.

Second, the series seems to give us that inside look at our government that we all think we want.  It is government as NASCAR, with plenty of wrecks that are hard to look away from, no matter how we might cringe.  Even from its "reductive" perspective (just as on other shows like 24 or The West Wing, top national leaders seem to have only two or three people on their staffs, seem to have only a very, very few people whom they confide in, have just a few underlings who have far more individual authority and flexibility on a whole range of issues from economic to geopolitical), the show gives us the reassurance that this is, indeed, what the corridors of power look like.  We see the backroom dealing, the quid pro quo, the strong-arming and blackmailing, the wheedling and cajoling for sure, but we also see the agendas of Frank and Claire in particular when they are at home, alone, sharing a cigarette, and plotting the fate of the free world purely for their own advancement.  We see how the private drive the public, how the sexual determines the political, how what happens off the clock and away from those very powerful corridors is where the real action is.  House of Cards is about how, why, and where the plots are hatched more than it is about the outcomes, which almost become a kind of predestination by the time they reach fruition.

And finally, the Netflix series offers a wise, if cynical, view of humanity.  However improbable the plot lines might become, however much the way things play out might push the boundaries of possibility (not too far, not too far), the writers' understanding of human nature is unwaveringly accurate.  For those of us who think ourselves decent human beings, the show confirms that we are sheep, easily led sheep.  We do not want to know, as Szymboska said, "precisely the kind of world that we live in."  We refuse to believe that evil could be that evil, that one human being would so carelessly destroy the life of another, figuratively or literally.  For those of us who are schemers in our own rights, the show lays bare our methods and ploys.  But, lest we worry that this exposure somehow undermines our future plans, we need only remind ourselves of the vast herds of sheep moving around us.  All we need worry about are those few other wolves, and how we must defeat them.

So, beware:  a bingeing on House Of Cards has its consequences.  One cannot view episodes late into the night and expect that Frank and Claire will not haunt one's dreams.  Indeed, and much scarier than waking from one of those dreams, one cannot walk through the corridors of one's own workplace, watching the small, barely political machinations of a business or an institution, without the Underwoods' manipulations coloring the lenses of every interaction.  House Of Cards will make you look behind the motive of every decision whose process never sees the light of day, and then it will make you wonder why the decision-maker allowed you to see as much as you saw.

Maybe, after this examination, "pleasure" is the wrong word to describe how you might feel about what you just watched.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Mount Rushmania

In the world of journalism and trolling, it wasn't enough to have Top 10 lists, or Top 5 lists. Such an approach failed to generate enough anger and vitriol in the blogosphere, so we have found a new way to get people's dander up, and we've used our National Parks and our Dead Presidents (not money) in our attempts to create more comment fodder and bigger pissing contests over nonsense.

We now use Mount Rushmore as an excuse to create a Best Four of anything. Want to piss off Bill Russell? Ask Lebron James about his Mount Rushmore of the NBA. Want to piss off your college athletic conference? Ask someone to name a decade-by-decade Mount Rushmore of Big10 hoops stars.

There's a Mount Rushmore of acting, a Mount Rushmore of Big 12 football players, a Mount Rushmore of NFL quarterbacks, and even a Mount Rushmore of high school basketball players. (You'd think I was making that last one up, but no, some idiot made one.)

And just in case you needed someone to tell you, not a one of these mean anything. They're just the random decisions of a person or small group of people eager to annoy others by inevitably leaving someone deserving off.

It's never about whom you include; it's about whom you neglect. Always has been, and always will be. Mount Rushmore, while beautiful, was really just an excuse to piss off Millard Fillmore (those Whigs were always a testy bunch).

So I want in on this. I want to piss people off just by compiling lists of four greats in a category. Below are some random Mount Rushmores of my own devising. They are genuine. They are compiled with sincerity and thought. And they are without question going to run into strong disagreement from someone. The only question is who is so offended that they are compelled to write a comment about it.

The Mount Rushmore of Superheroes:
Wolverine, Spider-Man, Batman, Superman

The Mount Rushmore of Poets:
Dante, Homer, e.e. cummings, William Butler Yeats

The Mount Rushmore of Professional Sports Teams:
Manchester United, Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees, LA Lakers

The Mount Rushmore of Romantic Comedies:
When Harry Met Sally, Jerry Maguire, The Graduate, The Princess Bride

The Mount Rushmore of March 2014 Album Releases:
The Hold Steady, The Belle Brigade, Sleeper Agent, Nickel Creek
(I cheated on Nickel Creek; it's due April 1, but it'll be streaming sooner!)

The Mount Rushmore of Deadwood:
Seth Bullock, Calamity Jane, Doc, Al Swearingen

The Mount Rushmore of Dook Football Greats:

The Mount Rushmore of Arnold Schwarzenegger Movies:
Conan the Barbarian, Predator, The Terminator, True Lies

The Mount Rushmore of A Song of Fire and Ice:
Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, Davos Seaworth, Daenerys Targaryen

The Mount Rushmore of Rush Songs:
Tom Sawyer, The Spirit of Radio, Closer to the Heart, The Big Money

The Mount Rushmore of TV Comedies:
Seinfeld, I Love Lucy, The Simpsons, The Cosby Show

The Mount Rushmore of College Basketball Coaches:
Bobby Knight, Dean Smith, John Wooden... (and, under protest from my soul) Coach K

The Mount Rushmore of Beatles:
George Harrison, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Stu Sutcliffe

The Mount Rushmore of '80s Hair Rock Bands:

The Mount Rushmore of Shakespeare Plays:
Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet

The Mount Rushmore of Characters in Rushmore:
Max Fischer, Herman Blume, Rosemary Cross, Dr. Nelson Guggenheim

C'mon! Get in on the action! You don't need to know anything about anything! Just think of a category, eat a Twizzler, and type down four of the first five things in that category you think of! No one can question you, because none of it means jack squat!

* -- just kidding about the Hair Bands. The obvious answer is:
Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, KISS, Guns 'n' Roses

Saturday, February 22, 2014

POW! BLAM!: Superheroes and Judgement at the Speed of the Flash

I recently discovered a new superpower. I have an uncanny knack for giving people, in most situations, the benefit of the doubt. It’s apparently a rare gift, especially online but also on our roads, in our churches, and in our superhero movies.

Call me: Slow Judge. I’m sketching out what my costume should look like. The world needs me now more than ever. For the non-Comic Book Nerd out there, here’s the latest reason I had to go change in a phone booth to protect the world from the Legion of Snap Snarks.

Talented young actor with a sculpted bod Michael B. Jordan has been announced to portray The Human Torch in the upcoming reboot of Marvel’s Fantastic Four. Comic fanboys across seven star systems have raised a stink about it because Jordan is African-American, but Johnny Storm has been portrayed as a honkey since Fantastic Four #1 back in 1961.

Next thing you know, every perturbed fanboy has been deemed a Racist. With the capital R.

If the original storyline is followed, Johnny Storm and Sue Storm are siblings. Sue Storm in the movie will be portrayed by Kate Mara, a beautiful if pasty white girl. The apoplectic and judgemental mob, buttressed by pop culture “journalists” like Noah Berlatsky at The Atlantic have decided that anyone who has even a moment’s pause that Michael B. Jordan and Kata Mara might be bloodkin should be reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center and placed on a watch list.

Johnny Storm was white for 53 years. Isn’t it even a teensy bit reasonable for a person to need more than 53 seconds to adjust to his getting a new skin color?

When Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves were cast as half-brothers in Kenneth Branagh’s version of Much Ado About Nothing, I confess to having an initial guffaw. It seemed a bit odd. But there was no Twitter account through which I could instantly share this reaction. So instead, I just watched the dang film, and five minutes after my first guffaw, I was past it and onto just laughing at how the frick Keanu Reeves got cast in this AND Dangerous Liasons while sounding like he’d just hung ten on a wicked killer wave off the coast of Hawaii. (I hope that doesn’t make me Surfist.)

When Long Duck Dong stays with the Baker family, I'm apparently a Racist if I don't instantly assume he's blood-kin.

Yes, given a few minutes and a reasonably open mind, most rational people can work through casting that doesn’t match up with their preconceptions of a character. If Bob can do this with Tom Cruise and Jack Reacher, anything is possible.

But what if Wonder Woman was played by Johnny Weir?
Or Anna Kendrick was cast to play Spider-Man?
What if Denzel Washington was cast to play Bruce Lee?
Or Rush Limbaugh hired to portray Queen Latifah?

If Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger can be Twins, and if Edward Norton and Brad Pitt can be the same person, and if Cate Blanchett can be Bob Dylan, then surely there are more things in Hollywood and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. Zack Snyder obsessed to make Watchmen an almost frame-for-frame homage to the comic and created a lesser product for it, so I get how fanboys miss the point... a lot.

Hollywood is about make-believe and suspension of all kinds of disbelief. But can’t we have a minute to adjust to the unexpected? Does needing a moment to think of Michael B. Jordan and Kata Mara as having emerged from the same womb make someone Racist?

I would initially blanch if Matt Damon were cast to play The Falcon, or if Willie Robertson were cast as The Black Panther. I’d get over it, but it would take me a few sips of water first. Can’t I be a little bit flummoxed, for a tiny slice of time, without being a Racist?

The real moral of the story here is two-fold: (a) Ninety-plus percent of Twitter stream-of-consciousness rants are incredibly foolish and can boomerang on the ranter with unpredictable consequences, and (b) people who use the insta-rants of a few handfuls of goobers on Twitter as some sign of dangerous cultural opinion -- or as anything at all, really -- are desperate to remind themselves how superior they are to mere mortals.

And no superhero in the world is fast enough to protect you from either of these evil forces.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Slow Venom of "Do What You Only Love Once" (DWYOLO)

At the school where I’ve worked for the past (almost) 20 years, seniors are encouraged to give speeches to the student body. The talks can cover a gamut of topics or themes, from celebrations of friendship to tributes to family, from sharing their religious convictions to sharing rules or lessons they’ve learned from their wisdom-generating 18-years of life.

Inevitably, a class of seniors finds their talks flowing into a thematic current, where a strong majority of them end up covering similar territory. Because part of my job is to try to see the forest more than the trees, I can’t help but make these connections. Thankfully, I’ve learned that it is dangerous and foolish to draw too many conclusions about a graduating class or even a generation of kids by what they stand up and say to their peers in five to 10 minutes.

Still, it's fun to jump to conclusions anyway.

Half a decade ago, I was worried about "kids these days." For three straight years, speech after speech fell along these lines:
  • “The most important thing in life is to have fun.”
  • “Find something that makes you happy, and make that your life.”
  • “Do what you love.”
  • “Live for the now.”
  • “You can’t love anything or anyone else until you love yourself.”
In the last few years, the themes have gradually changed in a way that makes me feel more confident in the next generation. The themes of late are things like:
  • “You find yourself when you are a part of something bigger than you.”
  • “Find a calling, and make that your life.”
  • “Nothing comes easy, but dedication pays off.”
  • “If your life is only about finding your own happiness, you will never find it.”
Please understand that not every kid in these stretches spoke only of these topics. Rather, it’s more like the way North Carolina was a blue state in 2008 and a red state in 2012, with a preponderance of the talks leaning one way then the other.

Ironically, at the same time the seniors at my school seem to be moving away from “happiness” and “fun” as end-all be-alls and moving toward “selflessness” and “belonging,” the youth culture writ large has embraced YOLO and DWYL as acronymic mantras.

Will these younger kids, who seem to have a firmer grasp on what creates true and more lasting happiness, turn out to be psychologically healthier adults? They are a more devout collective, mostly Christian, but even those of other faiths seem more deeply connected to a spirituality than the previous bunch. Are they merely spouting off what their cool youth group leaders have drilled into them in endless small groups and through incessant Super-Hip DVD-based Bible Study programs, or have they discovered in their own struggles a deeper and more personal and, hopefully, more durable conviction? Who's to say? Time will tell, right?

I only know this. When I would hear that first group talk of personal happiness, of self-satisfaction, of YOLO or DWYL, I was quietly praying they would find some experiences that shook them out of their more shallow mindsets. I was hoping they would come to realize that their notions of “love” were doomed to crack and shatter like that thin layer of ice on a frozen puddle.

This is the most misleading and dangerous quote
a teenager could ever love. Other than, perhaps,
"You can only find God through snake-handling."
They seemed to believe if you did something you loved, you could wake up every day and, in every moment, be bursting with excitement and energy in your life.

Real Love is hard, and frustrating, and full of potholes. It’s full of agony and disappointment and sorrow. It’s true in relationships, in careers, in hobbies.

I’ve always preferred saying “calling” and “passion” over “doing what I love.” The latter sounds too much like fairy tale fortune cookie wisdom.

I love many people, and I love my job. I love my life. Not every minute of every day. Hell, some days, not even a minute. But that’s how I know it’s all real. And I know all of it takes commitment and focus, sweat and tears to maintain. And that’s why I can wake up most days feeling grateful and, yes, happy. I wish the same every year, not just for the students I get to know, but for young adults everywhere.

Kids these days, I think, get this. They don't want to overdose on pessimism or harsh realism, but they respect adults who speak frankly, who don't condescend, who don't work too hard to sugar-coat matters. The less they actually buy into DWYL and YOLO as guideposts, the better off they will be.

Read more:
Slate column about DWYL
ABC News feature on YOLO

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Epiphany #13

Here's my idea for the new American double-feature.  If you don't know double features at the movies, at least you've heard of them, right?  Back when Americans had greater attention spans, movie houses used to show two movies instead of just one.  Or maybe it wasn't attention span; maybe  sheer greed has taken over since.  Either way.

Here's my idea for the new American double-feature: once you watch your mainstream Hollywood feature, you also get to see another film which shows you another side.  What side that is would depend.

But here's a case in point.  Go see Lone Survivor.  Revel in its jingoistic tragedy, in the ultimate redemption of the story, at least for one man.   Take it all in and go the way that the filmmaker wants you to go.  As one friend of mine said, "When it was over, I wanted to kill every Taliban out there."  I get that.  I understand that reaction.

But also ponder my father's reaction.  He is a conservative man, usually susceptible to right-wing causes and viewpoints.  But he also served in WWII, and his response to the movie was simple: "I don't trust stories when there is only one person left to tell them." I get that, too.  But that's not really what I'm after.

See, my second feature at my theater would be Dirty Wars, a documentary currently available for viewing on Netflix.  Its purpose is to reveal the sordid actions that the American military is involved in in other countries.  It focuses on the activities of JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command), a clandestine branch of the military that goes where it wants to and does what it wants to with impugnity.  The filmmaker reveals that this group has, rightly or wrongly, shown up at weddings and other occasions in countries in the Middle East and Africa and has slaughtered men, women, and children in the name of hunting terrorists and Taliban.  Obama has given them freer reign than Bush did.  They have little oversight.  The actions that the movie exposes are not up for debate.  They happened.

What I want at my movie theater is, if not a balance exactly, a chance for one movie to undercut the other.  If I'm going to show Roger Moore's stuff, I'm going to find something to counterbalance it.  Why?  Because we live on a country where 1/4 of our citizens think that the sun revolves around the Earth.

Because, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."  Except that I don't think Fitzgerald is quite right.  I don't think that territory is reserved for "first rate" brains; anyone can learn to do that, however unwillingly.

My movie house must exist because our media will not do that job.  They continue to chase Chris Christie stories, ignoring the Jim Crow laws against gays that Kansas has passed.

In my example, here's what want.  I want you to watch both films, the great, touching war movie and the blunt war documentary, and I want you to feel empathy for our highly-trained soldiers and the sacrifices they make, but also to realize that they have little idea what agendas they are serving in their unflinching devotion to duty.

That's where ordinary citizens like you and me come in.  See you at the movies!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Epiphany #12

There is no bigger waste of time than waiting for something to come, especially when it doesn't.  But even when it does.  Because the more you want it, the more it consumes you to the exclusion of everything else.

I wasted three days of a winter break, not trying to get to New York City to see my daughter, but waiting to see if I would be able to try to go to see my daughter.  The experience was absolute agony. I never did leave, and it wasn't until half of yesterday was over that I finally reached some peace about that.

First, I hesitated.  Either from wisdom or fear, I started watching the Weather Channel, and they were bouncing around the Southeast, casting doom and gloom scenarios in every city where they had a person stationed.   Had I left immediately, I might have made it, but then the first snows came.  Paltry snows.  That morning, I turned on the Weather Channel again, this time laughing at them, dubbing them "The Fear Channel" and laughing at the cities where they had forecast 1inch of ice and there was only 1/4 inch and they were praising the shift to sleet.  I thought I saw a window during which I could get up there ahead of the storm, but as I took care of various business here, I saw that I couldn't outrun the storm, which took over Virginia.  Then we went to the mall out of boredom and I made fun of the stores closing early when the roads were clear.  Then the second snow came, all 8 wet, heavy inches of it.  Then the power went out.

As I now managed my travel war on two fronts, I bounced between what was going on in New York, on the roads between, and back here in Tennessee where electricity eluded us.  My wife told me to go.  I was resolute that I would not leave until the power came back on.

I spent the entire next day doing almost nothing but waiting for the power to come on.  Any minute, I thought.  The sound of any heavy truck rumbling nearby meant rescue.  It never did.  We escaped to a bar for supper then slept in a 53- degree house.

Or didn't sleep.  Each night I lay awake, waiting for what I wanted, which was, essentially, for the stars to align in my favor.  I was certain it would happen.

The head games became enormous, ridiculous.  I had it in my mind that cosmic forces, for reasons indecipherable to me, did not want me to go to New York City.  I fumed, I raged, I cursed, I blamed.  When really, a complex encounter between high and low pressure systems didn't have me in mind at all.

My practical, weather-watching elderly father could have told me days ago that I would not be making the trip or that to do so would be the epitome of foolishness.

Meanwhile, time passed.  Wasted, bitter, futile time.  I enjoyed nothing in the moment, none of the obvious pleasures of free days from work.

It is easy now, in my latent contentment, to verify my folly and to judge myself for what the rational mind knows is impractical.  But I know myself.  I know that I live on hope, on plans, on what has been, however random, an often-favorable ordering of circumstances, and so, I know that I will be in this place again, maybe soon, waiting for what could be at the expense of what is.

Friday, February 14, 2014

There Is No Try

"No. Try not! Do, or do not. There is no try." -- Yoda

Yoda’s instructions to Luke from The Empire Strikes Back are words several generations of nerds, including myself, have aspired to live by. And by “aspired,” I mean “tried.” Thus begins the pseudo-philosophical sticky wicket.

Over the last month, I've had a number of opportunities to take pride in my daughters by way of performance. One daughter sang in a talent show. The other has begun another season of select soccer. Recently, both daughters danced in an event for parents and the student body. An intimidating number of kind friends and acquaintances have gushed to me about how amazing my daughters are, how proud I must be, how much potential they have. They are, in the best way, being kind.

Witnessing my daughters on a stage, in the spotlight, on a playing field, creates an entirely different set of reactions inside me, physiologically and psychologically, than when I am the one performing. That annoying paternal protective instinct is so powerful, everything in you wants to stand up and shield your child from any criticism or failure, yet we just sit there and try to enjoy the experience and focus on all the positives instead of the negatives.

We pretend we don't fear for them. It's funny to watch parents trying not to act scared. The pain of personal failure holds no candle to the fear of the failure of your child.

Realistically, neither of my daughters has much future as a professional dancer, but one has a much greater chance than the other. She has more fluidity, more grace in her moves. Her body is a unified creation while dancing, while the other jerks, stops and starts, misses the occasional beat. One daughter feels the music, and the other daughter tries to follow the moves.

The amount of pride I felt in the more awkwardly dancing daughter cannot be adequately described. Likewise, as proud as everyone (including myself) was when the other daughter won a prize in the talent show, it paled in comparison to how I felt watching her audition to earn that chance two weeks earlier.

It is in their trying that my daughters win my greatest admiration. Which brings us back to Yoda. Because doesn't he condemn "try"?

I’ve realized I slightly misinterpreted his wisdom. Proverbs and the like have a history with this problem. I used to misinterpret Yoda’s words as this: “Succeed, or fail. There is no try.” Shame on me.

Yoda is worries not about outcome. Worry about attitude and belief does he. All of the best and most important battles are fought from within. Yoda isn’t against trying new things, and he isn’t opposed to failure. His disgust with Luke is about Luke’s attitude. When Luke says, when preparing to use his burgeoning abilities to lift the X-Wing from the swamp, “I’ll try,” what he actually means is, “There’s no way in hell this is going to happen. Whatever efforts I put forth are futile in the face of this challenge, but I’ll do it just to shut you up, Little Green Grover.”

In Luke’s case, he has conceded an outcome before he tried.

When my children “try,” and I find myself moved by their efforts, I am not failing to heed Yoda’s words. I don’t have to believe they will be The Best at something, that they will become professionals. When they are “trying,” they are in fact “doing.”

When I think back to my own adolescence, the potential of failure sat on my shoulder like a pirate’s parrot, my own supernatural familiar. Even today, that Luke fatalistic attitude lingers with me as often as not. It can indeed be crippling.

I’m pleased with my kids because, at least so far, they have not allowed thoughts of the negative to hinder their efforts, to stop them from trying and doing so wholeheartedly. Their sincere effort defines success, not in the quality of the outcome. The more untethered their efforts are from thoughts of failure, because they put their hearts into their performances.

I’m no fan of the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality of competition or achievement, but last place, if achieved with the utmost effort and heart, is measured a victory. A trophy should be irrelevant. Screw the trophy.

I’ve felt this belief and pride in the audience and in the stands as a parent, and I’ve felt it for other parents as I watched their children give their all. Seeing them get some kind of symbolic honor or undeserved token of achievement would kill the feeling. That feeling is worth more than 50 trophies.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Judge Me By My Style, Do You?

Let’s play a game. I’m going to show you a picture of several ski jumpers, and you tell me which one has the best style.

So, which is it? 1, 2, 3 or 4? The answer is obvious to anyone who is uninitiated in or ignorant of the world of professional ski jumping.

The correct answer is: Who the F*#& Cares?

Ski Jumping judges care. That’s who. In the world of professional ski jumping, only half of your total points is determined by distance. The other half is determined by “style.” It is possible to jump a larger distance with “bad” style and lose a ski jumping competition.

Tennis tournaments now have technology to measure where a ball lands. The margin of error is insanely small. We’re talking millimeters, maybe less. Surely we can adapt such technology to ski jumping. Surely we could measure, to the millimeter, the distance a flying human travels when they all land on the same strip of snow. Surely it should not matter if someone flaps his wings, or poses like Christopher Reeve’s Superman, or places her skis in a V shape or an H shape, or does some snowboarder-esque 520 in the air, so long as said skiier lands the farthest from launch and does so without crashing.

We all know the reason “style” plays into this. Because “style” translates as “a necessary means to corrupt a competitive outcome for political or financial purposes.” Want Shawn White to win everything he does? Put him in front of judges!

In the women’s ice skating “short round” (which is an ironical name for a competition betwixt skinny lithe humans), the woman from Japan fell on her butt on a completely failed triple something or other and still finished in second place ahead of other competitors who did not land on their butts. Apparently, she performed with such grace, when she wasn’t skidding on her butt, that she still was the second-best performer on the ice.

Or maybe, just maybe, the judges all know who she is -- she’s quite the celebrity in Japan -- and they were giving her a benefit of the doubt based on her cache rather than her performance.

I love Moneyball as a movie because it lifts the curtain on the absurdity of our faith in human judges. Crappy judgment isn’t merely in baseball. Take Kendall Marshall, a guy who disappeared from two NBA teams before finding a spotlight in Los Angeles. His numbers scream out what no scout or coach seemed to want to understand: he makes a team measurably better when he’s on the court. Look at how many McDonald’s All-Americans play and ride pine for the UNC and Duke. Either those two coaches are vastly overrated on how they manage ungodly talent, or the talent scouts who deemed them “All-Americans” in the first place made some errors in judgment. I’ll go with the latter.

I don’t like judges. I don’t trust judges. They are, at best, a necessary evil, and anytime dependence upon them can be avoided, it should be. And I’m not just talking about Olympic judges or baseball scouts. I mean judges in general, anyone or tiny group of people whose fallible judgement is given weight sufficient enough to sway history.

One of the more interesting parts of the latest round of Woody Allen debates is how many defenders of Allen lean all of their weight on the criminal justice system. He was investigated, and charges were never filed, therefore he must be innocent, they say.

I wonder what Medgar Evers would have to say about that particularly odd brand of logic. I wonder just how many sexual harassment accusations never find their way into any courtroom, therefore “proving” the accusations and their alleged victims all baseless.

One need not be paranoid or in love with conspiracy theories to distrust judges or any system that relies on them. Judges, being human, screw up. Not only are they fallible by their very nature, but far too many -- we’ll never know the numbers -- are easily corruptible for the purposes of politics, power, or money... or God only knows what other kinds of influences can skew a person’s sense of justice or fairness.

Maybe judges would score better if I started judging them on style points.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Epiphany #11

It is so difficult to know what is going on these days, isn't it?  I mean, from celebrity situations to government scandals, there is just so much information out there, and so much seems to be conflicting.

Did Woody do it? Did the I.R.S.?  Is Edward Snowden a hero for our times?  Can we really trust the government unemployment reports?  Is beef safe?

I have a fairly simple solution, America:  get off your collective asses and do some personal research.  Stop being so passive about everything, and especially about the news coming to you.  If you really think that Wolf Blitzer or Shephard Smith are going to give you "the true gen," then you are absolutely wasting your country's time.  And mine.

No, there isn't a great mystery to Woody Allen's sexual abuse of his daughter if you are willing to look into it.  If you don't care, that's fine.  If you base your entire life on legal rulings, that's fine, too.  I guess. But this idea that it's some kind of he-said/she-said and both sides have some merit is simply a crock.  If you're willing to do the work.  And maybe you aren't, but, if so, walk away from it instead of thinking that you're being reasonable when you are being shallow.

Stop trying to act like you are being fair-minded, when you are simply being lazy!

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that everything in the Allen situation or anything else is cut and dried, but for God's sakes, people!  There's certainly enough out there for you to form an opinion and to go with it, instead of having that fence digging ever deeper into your crack!

I mean, crap, I'm a liberal!  I've been nuancing the gray areas between black and white for years, but that doesn't mean I still can't tell right from wrong.  That doesn't mean I still can't put something to the smell test and decide whether it stinks or not.  Can you?  Or are you dealing with the partisanship in Washington by being "fair-minded" and slow to judge.

Well. You know what, America?  I'm calling that bluff.  If you can't tell after 8 months that some shithead named Issa who has been searching to find a scandal that he can stick to Obama doesn't have a damn thing, then you are a fool.  At the same time, if you haven't paid attention to documentaries like Dirty Wars which show how much Obama has taken us deeper  into covert operations that are killing innocent people, then you have blinders on.

I'm sorry that the world has gotten too complicated for you.  I'm sorry that you need to take sides on issues that don't affect you personally.  I'm sorry that passive glances at headlines or information that your idiot friend gave you are having to count as being informed in your little world.  I sympathize.  I really do.

Because, what?  You've been too busy?  Doing what?  Remind me.  Shit, some of this stuff is even on Netflix, for Chissakes!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Epiphany #10

Insight + Irritation = Beware Of Self-Righteousness On My Part

Yeah, I'm a bit bothered right now, bothered by the modern world and the deterioration of some conventions.  Please know, however, that I fully realize that the thing about lost conventions is that we are only bothered by the ones we miss, not the ones we don't.

Here's the one that has chapped me for awhile.  Imagine that you are invited to a birthday party for someone you maybe don't know all that well, maybe don't like all that well, maybe someone who isn't at the top of the social ladder.  But you accept the invitation and plan to attend and the birthday person expects you to attend.  Then, say a few days later, you get invited to a second party, maybe birthday, maybe not.  It doesn't really matter.  What does matter is that the second invitation is the more desirable one.

In the traditional world of manners, the first invitation is the one you go to.

In the current world, many of us hem-and-haw, jockey, and try to find a scenario and justification for attending the second party instead.

In the traditional world, you suck it up, prepare yourself, and try to help that person have the best birthday possible.

In the current world, we go to the second party because it is more socially-advantageous and will be more fun.  We may feel the slightest tinge of guilt but that is rationalized away with relative ease.

Tonight, I have strong admiration for a friend whose long-standing promise to his son is taking precedence over a convivial social occasion with adults.  At the same time, I hold a fair amount of disdain for a different friend who regularly picks and chooses his way through social obligations, using real or fake conflicts, playing the "family card" when needed, doing social cost/benefit analyses of what he will gain or lose if he isn't in attendance, turning gatherings into politics.

Social life is complicated; manners are simple.  If, to the exclusion of every other consideration, we returned to the convention that the first social obligation we commit to is the one we stay committed to, then everything else would be resolved with a simple "Sorry, I'd love to, but I've already told ____________ that I would ____________ ."  Done.

I know it's not quite that simple.  I know that you can cleverly create some "What If" where that will not work.  But it should, and if that returned to being the basis of social behavior, we would be a better society.

Once, during college, I was spending a winter vacation night at home, with my family and a longtime girl friend who had never been a girlfriend.  Out of the blue, and I mean really out of the blue, as in like hadn't heard from her in 4 years, I got a phone call from an old girlfriend who wanted to get together that night, could only do it that night, and spend the evening with me.  She was an alluring girl, and I always knew that I never made as much of the relationship as I could have, and so I said, yes, I'll come meet you, basically leaving my friend alone at my house with my mother who watched in slackjawed amazement at my decision.  I am unable to revisit that experience without absolute horror at my behavior.

If it happened now, maybe I would explain it away.  Maybe someone would help me, instead of calling me on it.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Skyline Drive

I grew up in a house located on the top of a hill, on a street named for my father. My father wasn’t some city bigshot; he just built the first residence on this new road, so the town council let him pick the street’s name.

Skyline Drive, separated from ours by a single residence, was right down the hill. It earned its name, I reckon, from the fact that it took a straight path along what was the top of a minor ridge. Skyline Drive stretched roughly a mile and a half and was, for the neighborhood kids, the hub from which all activity deviated.

At its northern-most point, in 1983, Skyline Drive overlooked a deep expanse of woods that would eventually be leveled to become the largest mall in Tennessee in the '90s. The home on the left at the dead end was owned by the man who, for more than two decades, served as principal of the local elementary school. He was a beloved and soft-spoken man. Rumor had it that behind closed doors his wrath was downright frightening.

Two houses and half a block down, on the other side of the street, a gray house sat half-hidden in trees, brush and overgrowth. The father worked off and on at part-time jobs. The children were a few years younger than me and most of the kids in the neighborhood, and they often wore tattered or ragged clothing. We, being almost-tweens and clueless, would regularly remark how weird the family was. “Wonder if they are allowed to bathe?” we’d joke. We weren’t cruel to them, but they were different, and we didn’t understand them, so we generally avoided them. And they, us.

Across that first block from this family, right across the perfect sledding road known as Jarnagin, was my first neighborhood friend, Dirk, and his family. I lusted after his older sister before I knew what lust was. We played his wicked cool Intellivision. His parents ran a store in North Georgia that sold satellite dishes and rented movies and games to early VHS owners. We played Ghost in the Graveyard in his huge backyard. Once we dropped his cat from his deck just to prove that cats land on their feet. It did.

Next door to them were two more teachers and their children, an older daughter who was mousy but patient with neighborhood spastics like myself, and a younger boy who tried to keep up with us until he realized we weren’t that interesting. Across from them was my second neighborhood friend, Lance, and his family. His father was a pharmaceutical rep with the coolest sports car in the world. Even if I don’t recall exactly what it was, I know it was canary yellow, could travel at light speed, and was the coolest solely because it was in my friend Lance’s garage. His parents held parties in their basement den, with its marble-topped bar and fuzzy carpet. We weren’t allowed to go down there then they were partying. We had to stay and play in Lance’s room. We didn’t have iPads. I don’t know what the hell we did to entertain ourselves, but I’m sure it involved Star Wars figures.

Next door to him was the meanest old man in the neighborhood. He hated kids and loved his lawn. He’d retired from government work years ago and spent his time manicuring his property and scowling at us.

One house down on the other side, at the end of the block was the kid who would become my best friend. Andy’s father was an anesthesiologist, his mother a general practitioner. They had a VHS player (two, actually), the first in our neighborhood, and we'd have parties in his basement just to watch movies. Andy had the first of several video game consoles, the first of several kinds of computers, and had enough allowance to buy doubles of every comic I loved plus more, and he never had to do chores to earn the money. They had a pool in their back yard, the awesomeness of which eventually eclipsed my love of Lance’s dad’s canary sportscar.

Eric was four years older than me and the neighborhood kid king. He lived half a block down from Andy on the right. His parents were divorced. Eric smoked a lot. He was cool. He wore a leather jacket with a chain on it and combat boots and cussed. I’m pretty sure Eric’s older brother smoked pot. They listened to a lot of heavy metal, which nowadays sounds depressingly similar to “adult alternative” and doesn’t really seem all that heavy. He loved KISS. He would have us all grab wooden tennis rackets to be the band, but he always had to be Gene Simmons.

Another half block down on the right was Brent, a year older than me but bigger and stronger. He loved dirt bike racing. His parents kept the thermostat in their house at 65 even in the dead heat of August. I didn’t know what his dad did, but they had lots of money.

Two more blocks down the road, at the lowest dip in Skyline Drive, lived a handful of friends who would eventually join me as students at one of the town’s three most prestigious (and expensive) private schools. Roughly half of my neighborhood friends would end up attending these schools, while the other half would end up at Tyner, the nearby public school.

Skyline Drive was a road where two-doctor households live a block away from unemployed parents whose underbathed kids wear ratty clothing, where a wealthy couple live across the street from a divorced mom barely getting by, where crotchety old bastards lived next to obnoxious overcrowded ranch home families, where the kids of modest means play kickball or ride dirt bikes alongside the kids of the top five percent of the city, where none of the kids really noticed or cared how much or how little everyone’s parents had or made. Cats and dogs, living together.

I'm pretty sure Skyline Drive died, and it's not coming back. Did a secret ingredient vital to American success die with it?