Saturday, March 29, 2014

Epiphany #23: The Million

It is a popular thematic unit during the early years of schooling to have  "100 Day," where all of the students in the class bring in one hundred of something (usually something fun or snackable) in order to drive home the mathematical concept of a large number.  To a young child, until he or she sees it, one hundred is unfathomable, it's gargantuan, it's a ton of something, it's huge, it probably wouldn't fit in a backpack (until it does, of course).

Add a few decades onto a life, and maybe it is a trillion that is hard to imagine, at least until you start breaking it down into a trillion is one thousand million, and a million is one thousand thousand, etc.  Or maybe the latest leap in how many bytes can be stored on the smallest of flash drives is what boggles the mind, the once-staggering idea that someone could print the entire "Lord's Prayer" on the head of a pin taken to the nth degree.

Somewhere in the middle of all of that numerical expansion sits a million.  Now, we all know that a million ain't what it used to be, a point driven home quite humorously in the first Austin Powers movie.  Being a millionaire means being a dime a dozen.  Even a Million-Man March is overrated.

Population explodes, money inflates, technology brings both the infintessimal and the infinite closer to our understanding.

But still, a million.  What if you went back to school and the teacher told you that next Monday would be "One Million Day"?  What would you bring in?

Well, at the risk of speaking for Billy, we would bring in "One Million Pageviews" of this blog, Bottom Of The Glass.  That's right, sometime in the next few days, and hopefully, for symmetry, before the end of March, we will reach the one million plateau.

We started the blog in March, 2008, so it has taken us six years to get here.  In round numbers, that means that we have averaged 456 people checking into our blog every day over those past 72 months.

I'd like to claim that all of those people were here to read our writing.  I'd like to claim that our readership is at an all-time high.  But neither statement is true.  Most certainly, people checked into this site to "borrow" from us when we were in our heyday of posting mp3s to go with the topics of our posts.  These days, our daily readership is about 2/3 of that 6-year daily average.

But maybe it's more pure now, you know?  There was a day or so this month when 153 people checked in on a post from a year ago where I wrote about listening to Paul Westerberg all the way from here to Florida, over 9 hours with the 'mats front man in various settings,  and there no mp3s connected to that post.  Maybe there was something about the topic that got it picked up on somebody's feed.  I'll take that.

One million hits.  Now that we're so very close, it's hard for me to know what that means.  We wanted to reach that milestone, but as a validation or an ending or a new beginning?  Well, I don't know.  Maybe that magic number is what's at the bottom of the glass.  We shall see.  Thanks for reading this far.

Religious Experience

At the end of the day, the closest experience I can relate to an Indigo Girls concert is church camp. Except the best, most awesome kind of church camp that’s over too soon and where you didn’t really get to know anyone but felt like you got to know everyone. The kind where you find yourself drawn closer to a very personal God whose presence and rules are not dictated by some preacher or some charismatic singer, but rather by the swirl of overwhelming feelings generated by positive energy, a sense of one-ness surging through the crowd.

A while back, my co-blogger Bob wrote a harmlessly scathing critique of The Avett Brothers that lamented, among other things, their over-Christianness (my made-up word, not his). His post got so much ceaseless blowback from the nouveau Christian commenterati that he finally pulled it. I didn’t agree entirely with Bob’s argument, but most of it rang painfully true.

The career arc of the Indigo Girls began very much like that of the Avetts. Their early albums wrestle frequently with the collision of religion and everyday life, and it’s done in a way that is neither proselytizing nor urgent. It is the faith of songwriters committed to the marriage of beliefs rather than catching a new wave, of women who know that, for most of us, theology is an Iron Man triatholon, not a sprint. Their frequent use of Biblical imagery and references won the hearts of many young church-goin’ Christians.

While I would love for Amy Ray’s and Emily Saliers’ sexuality not to matter, it unfortunately does. They were “out” before out was cool, and long before their beloved Southland (in the Springtime) was ready to believe people could simultaneously be gay AND bound for glory. (For the historians amongst our readership, the South finally became comfortable with “gay Christians” in 2045.)

There’s no doubt in my mind that the Indigo Girls’ sexuality hindered their path to greater success. They’re better songwriters, lyrically and musically, than the Avett Brothers, but IG’s fan base continues to exist on a different societal fringe than the Avetts. One could argue that the very thing that made them Christian outcasts of a sort also guaranteed that they would maintain their musical integrity.

No matter how desperately some Christians desperately pretend they’re persecuted and despised in 21st Century America, they’re very much in the lap of luxury. When I start getting notices of alumni and friends who killed themselves because they were ashamed of their Christianity, then maybe I’ll begin to believe they’re on the early stages of a path to anywhere near the continent of persecution and separation known all too well by, amongst others, those in the LGBT community. But I digress.

Those of us who believe, but whose belief allows us to recognize our blessings as well as the dangers of the Christian Bully Pulpit, can still cling to these Girls. A young Episcopal minister friend of mine wrote me the other day, talking about how important the Indigo Girls were to her teens and twenties, spiritually. “Lately I’m hearing everything on IG albums anew, including Kid Fears. And Prince of Darkness,” she texted me the day after I attended the Indigo Girls concert in town.

The church camp vibe, when it works, creates an ecstatic feeling of fleeting imperviousness. It’s the feel of being shielded from the dangers and risks of a wild and volatile world, if only for a short while. It’s the feeling that an entire group of people standing together and singing contain the spiritual wattage of a lighthouse. Such has been, in my experience, the power of an Indigo Girls concert.

No offense to Trent, but the Indigo Girls get me closer to God.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Epiphany #22: Casual Discrimination

If you think that discrimination is pretty much over with or being dealt with when it rears it dramatic, ugly head, think again.  Here's a little story for you:

There was a knocking at the front door of my house, and when I stood from the bed, I couldn't find my glasses.  The knocking continued.  I looked in the bathroom, on the ledge between the bookcases, in the laundry room. Still. No luck.  Still the knocking.  I don't know why I didn't just go upstairs, but I think it was because I didn't recognize the knock.  I went to all the locations again, and then stood at the foot of the bed in exasperation. I took one step and felt a crunch under my foot.

Which was, of course, the glasses.  One lense had popped out, one stem was off and the other bent, and the frame surrounding the missing lense was twisted, too.

In this case, who was at the door doesn't really matter.  It was my father bearing a gift, one that I accepted grudgingly because in my mind, had he not been knocking on the door my glasses wouldn't be broken.

I quickly announced that I had to leave, had to get to LensCrafters, because I couldn't go to New York the next day without glasses.  He agreed.  I thanked him. We parted, and I took the fuzzy drive to the mall.

The young woman in LensCrafters was helpful.  She said my only choice was to put the lenses into the exact same Brooks Brothers frames and she thought they had them.  After a fruitless search, she offered to call around to the other local stores to see if they might have the frames.  So we stood on opposite sides of the phone station as she waited for the person at each successive store to put the phone down and go look.

While we were waiting, a young man came in and said to the other young female associate, "I understand that you are hiring.  May I pick up an application?"

"Sure," she said and left to get one for him from the back.

I was mostly focused on waiting to hear if there were frames for me anywhere in this city, but I also watched her return and hand him an application, which he took, asked her a few questions I couldn't hear, and then said, "Thanks so much," and left.

Once he was gone, the woman waiting on me kept trying to make eye contact with the sales assistant who gave him the application.  She had a big smile on her face.  Then the male sales assistant came over to the register, too, and all three of them began talking about the applicant and laughing quietly.

The young man who had come in to apply was dressed relatively normally but had large piercings in his ears that protruded backwards as if he had golf tees sticking through his ears.

The woman who handed him the application told the others, "I put a squiggly line in ink on his application so we would know that it was him when we looked at them."

Clearly, he would not be getting the job.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Epiphany #21: Street Life

Each year when I return from any trip to New Orleans, my father will inevitably ask me, "What'd you do down there."  And I will inevitably respond, "Oh, mostly just walked around."

And that's the truth, both all of it and not enough of it.

See, that really is the best part.  With friends or alone, I walked N. Peter's, Decatur, Chartres, Royal, a bit of Bourbon (he justified), all in the Quarter, as well as large portions of Magazine and Tchoupitoulas Streets outside of it.  We circled Jackson Square numerous times and went up and down Pirate's Alley.  I went from here to there and back to our French Quarter hotel over and over again.  One day, our goal was just to walk the French Quarter. It's a walking city.  That's what you do.  Maybe it's what you have to do if you are going to eat New Orleans food for several days.

But that misses the point, just as if you don't walk a city (and some cities, sadly, are not set up so that you can walk them), you miss knowing that city.  To my father, who cannot understand the lure of New Orleans, I say we "walked around" as if it were nothing, when, in fact, it was everything.

Here are some of the encounters that would not have happened without those random explorations:

--my first New Orleans street wedding, where after the ceremony a horn bands leads the bride and groom through the streets of the Quarter, with the wedding party trailing behind, all twirling white handkerchiefs, and the whole entourage stopping at various points along the way so that the bride and the groom and whomever else among the party or the onlookers can join in.

--an invitation to a free concert inside an art gallery with drinks and snacks with a very skilled roots/Americana band a la the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

--a discovery of a good, new late-night restaurant only because it is called St. Lawrence and we walked toward it wondering what kind of store it might be, only to discover that it was a restaurant and that St. Lawrence is the Patron Saint Of Cooks, supposedly because he made a joke about asking to be turned over while being roasted alive.

--a discussion with a street artist about how he finds his "frames" first--from old windows, cupboard doors, wood panels, etc.--and let's the colors in the fading paint and variegated wood dictate his palette and, to some extent, his subject matter.  I especially admired his painting of four small, faceless, African-American children dressed for and walking to church.

--all of the pleasant and unpleasant trappings of tourism--the free bite of praline here, the "Also comes in SOBER" T-shirt there, the "gutter Goths" who hope to benefit from tourist presence, the bride-to-be out with her bridesmaids and wearing "penis horns" on her head, the woman you ask to take a photo of your group who assumes that you want her to be in the photo and suddenly you do, the crazy, oversize drinks, the crowds of the young who remind you that Bourbon Street is not for you.

--the comfortable smells of garlic, trash, frying, horse droppings, coffee, cigarettes, seafood cooking, blossoming flowers, sweat, construction, and redolent spices, an olfactory "gumbo".

--the many reminders of time--beads hanging in trees from years of Mardi Gras, the trash of last night's revelries, the architecture of four centuries, the venerable restaurant and the latest try in a location that has a new business every time you come, the morning drunk who teeters in place with her can of Bud Ice, the plaque commemorating the Pope's visit 20 years ago, and all around the revitalization and abandonment that continues since the hurricane.

--a stunning reminder of how good New Orleans street musicians can be when I happened upon a female violinist accompanied by a male acoustic guitarist and heard some of the most skilled, soaring violin I've ever heard anywhere.

All to be had for free in simple walks around a multi-layered city.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Rubbernecking Human Beings

“We become whole, healthy, harmonized, only when we acknowledge our innate addiction to the macabre.” -- Salon, “The Science of Rubbernecking”

I’m watching someone spiral out of control on social media.

I’m rubbernecking a human life.

She’s my age. We went to school to
gether, more or less. I didn’t know her very well in high school, but I knew the crowd she hung with. The words “troubled,” “wild,” “out of control” were often used by those of us who were “more boring,” or “gutless,” or “wiser,” or whatever we were that they weren’t. They were doing drugs in high school that I never even saw with my own eyes until late into my college life. If you added up all the illicit substances I’ve seen with my own eyes, it wouldn’t add up to a single fun weekend for these folks.

I met her when she came back to town five or six years ago for her high school reunion, but we only interacted because we were sort of catching up with the same people. When she asked to “friend” me on Facebook, I thought nothing of it and accepted. Little did I realize I had accepted her invitation to witness the drug-addled soap opera that is her libidinous and indiscreet lifestyle.

When she wasn’t showing up in my “stream” with a selfie in some unusually bare state of dress, she was writing posts crying for help about how suicidal she might or might not be in any given minute.

I really ought to have unfriended her. I know I should have. Of course I should have. But. For some reason, I pictured myself receiving notice, sometime down the timeline, that she’d killed herself, and I pictured myself feeling as if by unfriending her on FB, I had contributed to a lethal dose of social media apathy from her “friends” and acquaintances. Of course this excuse is illogical, because if she were to have killed herself while I was watching happen on FB, I would arguably be more culpable. (And yes, I’m also painfully aware of how self-absorbed my thinking on all of this is.)

Inevitably, her Facebook account got suspended. Then suspended again. And finally she was booted off Facebook altogether. To the surprise of exactly no one. Because Facebook isn’t really interested in people who post pictures of sex acts and drug use if anyone complains about it.

Soon after, she started following me on Instagram, which became her new hangout once untethered from Facebook. I chose to “follow her back.” My choice. I have elected to watch someone I barely know quite possibly dissolve into nothingness. I have chosen to witness the train wreck of her life play out, one square picture at a time, until the pictures simply stop showing up.

In some 70 pictures over the course of the last two months, most of her pictures cover one of the following topics:
  • selfies in a state of undress,
  • harsh and blurry pictures of nature,
  • still-lifes of drugs (sometimes prescription-based) and drinks, 
  • pics with friends,
  • vids or pics of her shooting semi-automatic weaponry or throwing knives in her basement,
  • pics of her while in the midst of erotic strangulation with her partner.
Nothing about her nudity excites or appeals to me. Every picture is like a scene from a Nine Inch Nails video, the opening credits to a horror film.

Her existence, in almost every way possible, is the polar opposite of my life and lifestyle. Hers is an alternate universe where people search for orgasms via pain, seek euphoria inside plastic bottles or white powders, or find pleasure in fantasies involving deadly weapons. Hers seems to be a Bizarro world where “family” is a nightmare word, where “children” are casualties to be avoided, where loneliness is a darkness so pitch and constant that one can only find respite by lighting violent and fast-burning matches.

What I can’t decide is whether my judgment of her life is based on my own confined existence. Do I assume she’s bound to overdose or kill herself in the very near future simply because I can’t imagine being happy living how she’s living… or because she’s all but said it herself? Does she claim to be suicidal because that’s one more of her erotic fixations and psychological obsessions -- like firing off machine guns, doing cocaine, and reaching orgasm while choking -- or because she regularly sees no point to life?

And the only real conclusion I can reach is: I don’t know.

I have three choices. Two if we’re being really honest, because confronting someone I barely know but who is most decidedly in a different place psychologically would be akin to trying to diffuse a nuclear bomb just because I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

I can watch the train as it barrels down the track, or I can turn away and forget it exists until or unless it wrecks into something or someone I know or falls off a broken-down bridge. Neither choice is necessarily more right or wrong; they are only Rorschach tests into our own minds.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Epiphany #20

No spoilers here of either True Detective or The Killing, just a bizarre defense of both, perhaps.

It is entirely possible that this is nothing more than a justification for sloppy plotting and writing.  I acknowledge that.  But please consider that it is also possible that a kind of literary shift is staring us in the face and we have yet to mark it or to ponder the reasons why.

So I'll start here:  Cold Case.  Remember Cold Case?   Or maybe it's still on.  I don't know because I've never watched it.  What I'm interested in is the concept behind the show--not that a good-looking female detective is solving old cases, but that the very name of the show confirms how many dead ends and unsolved cases are out there, in both fiction and reality, so many that the more interesting ones have become fodder for television.

In the real world of police work, the number of cases that are never followed up on, let alone that go unsolved, is staggering.  Just this week from various news sources, we get word that "rape kits" in the thousands all over the country have gone unprocessed for months or longer.

And so on to The Killing And True Detective.   Both shows have come under criticism for their use of false leads, apparently important details that prove not to be, and polarizing endings, either to a season or a series.  Both are not linear in their storytelling and do not tie up into neat packages.  Both have been called unsatisfying...

Unsatisfying?  There's a word worth examining.  In the hyper-realistic world of modern crime, we have expectations of police procedural that must be met in order for us to be satisfied?  The killer isn't interesting enough?  The conspiracy isn't vast enough?  The game of cat-and-mouse drags out either too long or not enough?

At what point does blunt, brutish killing make a comeback?  Or is it here and now?  I mean, there's nothing sophisticated about a pack of zombies.  At what point does the killer no longer need to be so clever that he or she is always a step ahead of plodding but intelligent police officers?  What if the killing is merely escalating and fearless?

Or maybe I'm not writing about detective shows at all.  Who is ever going to be smarter than the killers in The Following or The Fall or Luther anyway?

Maybe what I'm really suggesting is broader than that.  A literary movement?  If fiction is going to get as real as real can get, it must parallel our lives, both anonymous ones and those played out on reality television, and then the whole notion of plotting must change, arguably has changed.  Maybe the model for True Detective isn't the writing masters of the past, like Poe, who argued for a story having a single "effect," or Hemingway, who knew when at his best all kinds of details he could leave out of a story and still have them impact the narrative, or the others who planned their fictions in various way so that nothing was extraneous and everything fit or didn't belong.

Maybe the model for True Detective is................Pawn Stars.  Humor me for a few sentences.  The show is supposedly about closing the deal on potentially valuable merchandise, right?  After all, the pawnshop guys are a family who is very good at what they do.  And yet, the arc of each episode doesn't depend on whether they make a huge buy or not.  The show is just as interesting when a rare find turns out to be fake or worthless.  The show is just as meaningful when we see the "procedures" they use to arrive at their offer to the customer.  The show is just as "satisfying" when one of the main characters messes up as when he exceeds expectations.  Maybe even more so, because then we see how unrehearsed tensions can remind us that the stakes are financial and real.

Is it just possible that in a world where everyone can be a "detective" on the Internet but where little of what is discovered is universally believed, since someone else can probably find the opposite, that the sleuthing rather than the solving is what is really important?  Both The Killing and True Detective are particularly good at showing us how hardcore police work mutates and destroys lives and families and partnerships, and the shows reveal how that obsessiveness becomes a self-fulfilling, all-consuming world of false leads, dead ends, innocent bystanders who are in the wrong place at the wrong time, which usually turns out to be anywhere near those cops when on or off duty.  I don't know if that is satisfying, if it gives us the resolution we want, but it sure feels real.  Things don't tend to solve completely or tie up easily for us either.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Epiphany #19

"Because you're too old to rock and roll, but too young to die."--Ian Anderson

I am here to confirm that truer words were never spoken.  Gathered a group of people to go to a Jason Isbell show on Saturday night--age mates, if you will, or at least only 1 generation in front of or behind me--with fairly disasterous results.

Don't get me wrong.  The show itself was fantastic--packed to the ceiling, hard-rocking, Isbell clearly into it, audience knew all the words, great little venue.  Those of us who made it through weren't sorry, I'm sure.  In fact, I now have a household of 4 committed Isbell fans, so that's a win.

But along the sides, it was a strange evening.  Here's why:

--one couple showed very late and left very early, stayed for a whole of 45 minutes max.

--another couple never came at all because the wife's driver's license had expired, and since they didn't feel like going all the way home and come all the way back (which I get), they went to an upscale restaurant and had wine and appetizers instead.

--another friend went to the bathroom and never came back, said he was weary, that he liked parts of the show, but that the crowd annoyed him.

--another friend sold a ticket to another friend who then turned around and bought two more tickets and then decided he didn't need the ticket he'd bought from the first friend and so stuck him with it until another friend made it clear to him that it was a douche move.

--another couple never even got to the ticket-buying stage because it was a standing show and his back would not tolerate that amount of standing (I told him there are always seats along the side, but anyway...)

NOTE:  These are observations, not criticisms.  These are observations, not criticisms.  These are observations, not criticisms.

My realization from this small sampling is that even as rock continues on, whether those be venerable ones like Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young or The Rolling Stones, or newer ones like Jason Isbell, many of the people who grew up with rock, who grew up rocking, no longer find themselves suited to experiencing live the music that once defined them.

The rockers may not want to give up, but their listening peers often do--too tired, too crowded, too inconvenient, too plebian.  They say that you never forget how to ride a bicycle, but I am here to say that, apparently, you do forget how to rock.

I'm weird; I know it.  When my friend Jeff finally got me back to a Springsteen show, my shock was how old the audience was, not how young, how easy it was to get a beer rather than have to sneak a mixture of boozes from a parent's liquor cabinet in a shampoo bottle hidden in a sock.

I must concede that we skewed far older than most of the Isbell crowd, that our collective group that made it to the show was far less able to sing along, that quarters were tight and that young, exuberant (and drunk) fans are not what we are necessarily used to.

But I've said it before and I will say it again:  live music is always worth the effort.  Saturday night confirmed that again.  But, as folk-rocker-that-I've-grown-up-with Steve Forbert has been known to sing, "You cannot win if you do not play."  And if you are too old to play, then what do you have?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Uncanny & Unlimited

This is a backstory slash origin issue. The story of how I teamed up with an amazing app.

I first discovered comic books at Briar and Tobac. My father, a man of religious devotion to the magical wonders of pipe smoking, would plop me in his car for his every-other-Saturday trip to this tobacconist, where he would chat a spell with the owner, peruse the endless variations of pipe designs, and purchase another bag or two of pipe tobacco (and a pack of pipe cleaners).

(You see, kids, there was a time when "pipe cleaners" were not merely tools for making stick figures and stick animals.)

The owner, being a smart enough fella, kept a small collection of used comic books in a string of single-row magazine racks that spanned an entire wall of his store. I would sit Indian-style (you kids now call it "criss-cross applesauce" because somehow sitting like this is insulting to Native Americans), basking in the odor of dozens of different brands of tobacco, squinting at the page through a mild fog of smoke, and sift through the collection.

It took me a few trips before I got remotely selective. Early on, I didn't care if it was Hot Stuff or Spidey Super Stories or Weird War Tales. I only cared that I had discovered some new world that spoke directly to me. The feeling must have been similar to walking into a church where people are speaking in tongues, but you understand every word. Gradually, my interests gravitated to superheroes.

I especially remember being drawn to Captain America & The Falcon, although I don't recall why. Maybe I thought it was cool that these guys were strong and kicked butt but still brought along a non-super-powered bird of prey just for kicks. It certainly wasn't the Kirby art that won me over.

My addiction was accelerated when my parents bought for me my first "Book and Record Set," a comic you read while playing a 45 single, with dramatic interpretations of the characters and a melodramatic narrator who made William Shatner seem dull and muted by comparison. It was Greek theater for the prepubescent.

With this discovery, I mutated from Budding Comic Enthusiast to Novice Collector and never looked back.

Roughly ten years and six comic boxes full of treasure passed before my hobby began to slip on my priority list. The ritual weekly trips to the independent comic store, carried out with patience most years by one of three mothers who must have sympathized with their socially awkard and nerdy sons' plights to find meaning in a world without girls, began to fade as I learned how expensive dating, or even attempting to try and get dates, could be. I also began spending more on music, which became an incresingly-powerful elixir as I got deeper into poetry and hormonal angst.

My comic book hobby died completely while I was in college, although I fought a while to deny it. Between music, food, alcohol and girls, comics were a luxury I could no longer afford. As my friends continued to follow the trevails of the Justice League, Spider-Man, Sandman, Hellblazer, the X-Force and whatever new projects Alan Moore or Frank Miller were working on, I would just sit and nod during their conversations.

I felt like the Mormon who continued sitting in the church pew during services but no longer believed a word of what was being said. Do we remain uncomfortably in that pew from fear, from shame, from denial? Or do we, even as our faith seems irretrievable, yearn for that devoted innocence of our faithful days? Do we hope for an internal resurrection?

My days as a Collector are now long gone and will not be resurrected, not for comic books. Over the years, I've bought a dozen or so trade paperbacks, storylines that received unusually high critical praise or strong buzz. I have become a tourist.

I'm a tourist because being a collector is expensive. Every issue runs around $2. I can read a $2 issue faster than I can drink a $1 Mountain Dew. These costs add up quickly, and I simply can't afford that kind of hobby at this point in my life.

Enter, with dramatic flair, MARVEL UNLIMITED.

Marvel Unlimited is to comics what Netflix is to TV and movies, what Spotify is to music. You pay a monthly fee for access to over 15,000 issues from the Marvel Comics library. For $9.99 a month, or $69 for the annual subscription (which I will be doing after my discounted first month), you can read as many available issues as your little heart desires, as many as your little eyes can strain to handle.

Newer issues (< 6 mos) are not available, generally. Considering that leaves me with only 25+ years of unread comics from which to choose, I’m thinking that particular restriction won’t be a problem.

Since signing on a mere 24 hours ago, I have read eight issues of the Joss Wheedon-scripted series The Astonishing X-Men, and every minute of the experience has been heavenly. If and when I tire of the series (or catch up to the limit at #67), I’ll move to the modern Hawkeye series. Other series being considered are the reboots of Captain America, the Avengers, Uncanny X-Force and X-Men Legacy. I also plan to dive back into the mid-'90s and catch up on earlier X-Men and Spider-Man storylines, among others. For those nerdy enough to admit knowing a word of that which I’ve been writing, I welcome suggestions and recommendations.

It’s almost like I’ve been transported back to Briar and Tobac, the hazy scented air wafting around me, as I hungrily scan the long row of possibilities, knowing (at least for a while) that whatever I pick is going to be fun. And all I need for that feeling now is WiFi. No smoking required.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Epiphany #18

Thanks for the cards and letters--Billy is fine; he is just wrapped up in the grad school application process.  Of course, after that, we're going to New Orleans, and if you think you're going to get a blogpost from him from down there, you don't know Billy.

I was out at Costco the other night, wandering around looking for celery and other types of roughage to support my current eating regimen, when I looked into a refrigerator case and saw package after package of corned beef.  And then I knew immediately that it was time for me to make corned beef, what with St. Patrick's Day less than a week away.

There's nothing Irish about me.

But I do love holidays, and so I have a fairly-standard St. Patrick's Day tradition of simmering a corned beef for several hours until tender, then smearing a mustard-apricot sauce on it, and baking it until that outside gets a bit carmelized and crisp at the edges.  Then I buy some good rye bread, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, Russian dressing, and invite a bunch of people over to make Reuben sandwiches.  I honor the holiday, but I make it my own, because I do love holidays and traditions.

I'm not a whiskey drinker--we currently have three gift bottles sitting on our bar largely unused.  But I do like the idea, the concept, the experience of sipping a Mint Julep during or around the Kentucky Derby, especially since my wife has a set of silver metal Derby glasses, and the drink is so much better in one of those, as the ice in the drink condenses and freezes on the outside of the cup as well.

You see where I'm headed.

Some people might claim, given the good/evil-fire/ice-yin/yang-Heaven/Hell-and-unending-other--necessary-dichotomies theory of life, that if we had more holidays, holidays would lose their meaning and they would all seem the same.

I could not disagree more.  I am fully in favor of finding more holidays and celebrating them more fully!  Sure, I love all of the big ones, but I try to get Mardi Gras in each year, as well as St. Patty's.  I have traditions for the 4th of July, Halloween, Memorial Day, and Labor Day.  I've made playlists for Black History Month and have made dumplings for Chinese New Year.  I like how, in my world, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day have become two separate holidays.   I wish I were actively involved in more.  So downplay holidays?  Have holidays that you declare that you "don't really like"?  Well, I just don't get that at all.

One need only look to New Orleans to disprove this outlook easily.  There is a city where you would be hard-pressed to look at a local calendar and not find a week without some kind of festival, probably several, going on.  And if you've been there, you know that the overabundance of festivities diminishes none of the enthusiasm that locals have for all of the smaller "fests" that go on--French Quarter festival, Oak St. Po-Boy festival, Voodoofest to name just a few.

As you can already see, I also open up the idea of "holiday" to include most any kind of celebration.  Yearly-repeated traditions are like holidays, whether they make it onto Hallmark calendars or not.  And so, National Taco Day or Read-A-Book Week or whatever hold a lot of appeal for me, if I could keep up with them.

But that isn't the point.  The point is a simple one, and one that is often forgotten or, as I've suggested above, simply not believed.  And that is that life needs more celebrations, more commemorations, more festive traditions, more made-up holidays, more gatherings.  More raises one's outlook on things, I believe; it doesn't make one wish for more balance between celebration and its opposites.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Epiphany #17

Ever wonder what in most every movie, film, play, sequential televison series, sitcom and even in many sketch comedy pieces the favorite dramatic technique is?  I say it's "The Walk Away."

You know how it works:  two people get into a conversation where there's a conflict, and one of them, usually the one who feels wronged, perhaps unfairly wronged gets off a doozy of a last line that leaves the other person speechless...and the person who delivers that line turns and walks away.

This wonderful device has numerous effects:

1.  It leaves that great last line hanging in the air for the audience to mull over.
2.  It allows the the production to cut away--to a commercial in some cases, to a new scene either.
3.  It allows a character to seize the "high ground," whether that is moral, intellectual, or just plain witty.
4.  In whatever way, it allows one character to "win" the argument.

There's only one problem.  You can't do it in real life.

No, in real life, the walk away means nothing but trouble.  Try, just try, walking away, whether you've fired off a great line or not and see where refusing to engage, especially by leaving for commercial, will get you.  No, you'd better be there when the show resumes, or else you run the greater risk of the whole situation escalating into something much larger during that time-out.

For another thing, when was the last time someone you were in conflict with was left speechless by something brilliant that you said?  And, oh, I know that you have said many brilliant things.  No, on our planet, it's all about getting the last word in, and that means that a verbal showdown will continue on long after the last effective remark, becoming the argument equivalent of John Woo's movie, Face-Off, which simply would not end.

No, real-life verbal sparring depends on keeping the talking going most of the time until you can reach a place of uneasy agreement and concession.  Because you know what?  No one ever wins.  No one ever wins an argument.  Witticisms do not carry the day.  Ultimate, irrefutable evidence of your opponent's failings, even with witnesses and other documented support, carry no weight whatsoever in a relationship court of law where both sides play both attorney and judge simultaneously.

So, admire that drama.  Admire that playwright's use of pithy dialogue and impeccable timing.  Repeat the killer line to your friends the next day when you are recalling an incredible episode in general or an incredible put down in particular.

Just remember that his or her characters are saying their lines at least as much for your benefit as they are for the other characters on the stage.  They are in hyper-reality, not reality, where emotions are both amplified and condensed and where hero and villain can go out and get a beer after the show.

Much as we as a society seem to have an increasing admiration for verisimilitude in our dramatic arts, this one writer's trick keeps those arts from ever getting fully there.  Do not take it to heart.  It will burn you.  You will not win.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Epiphany #16

That would be scanned.--Iago, in Othello

So, my close friend issues a Lenten challenge to me: to give up sarcasm for the entire Lenten season. Now, you may know me, or you may know my writing here, so you gauge a couple of things about this challenge:

1. The incredible difficulty of it.
2.  The fact that someone would zero in on this as the thing that I need to work on.

I think of myself as having a highly-developed sense of irony.  I am amused, far more than I should be, I suppose, by the cosmic jokes that surround us day to day.  I look regularly at relationships, politics, finances, disappointments, the general unfairness of life with a sense of wanting to shake my head and laugh far more often than I'm likely to get all that mad about it.  It is a defense mechanism, of course.

Once I gave a presentation at an English conference that used Elie Wiesel's Night as the text for "Using Irony To Combat Despair."  I saw how that Holocaust memoir relied so heavily on understatement, jarring juxtaposition, and even the grimmest of "jokes" (cosmic, of course) that I thought Wiesel was probably protecting himself as well.  How else does one come to terms with the senseless?  It seemed pretty sophisticated to me.

But I cannot escape the basic reality that much of my irony is sarcasm and nothing more.  What most definitions of sarcasm miss in their variations of "saying that opposite of what you mean" is that that opposite that I am saying is negative--I am damning with faint praise, saying more when I mean less, appearing to be positive when I mean to be negative, undercutting accomplishments, skewering, tossing blame around, etc.

In defense of the sarcastic, I would claim that we say what others only think or are afraid to say.  To join in against the sarcastic and what can't be defended, it is entirely possible that a) other people don't actually focus on folly the way we sarcastics do, and b) who are we to show others their flaws anyway? And, finally, c) who is to say that what we jibe about actually needs to be said?

And so, the challenge has me thinking, which it was designed to do.  What good is Lent if the giving up or taking on has no self-reflection piece?

INSIGHT #1:  I rarely lead with sarcasm.  Instead, it is a retreat, a rearguard action.  If you're getting a sarcastic comment, chances are it's a comeback, not the first salvo.  Unless somebody is flat-out looking for a fight.

INSIGHT#2:  I only use sarcasm with people whom I know well (and, perversely, probably like).  Weird, isn't it?  But this special gift doesn't deliver well with a context and without some knowledge of the delivery man.  It's a good way to get one's ass kicked or to be wildly misunderstood or to burn a bridge.  Yeah, sarcasm's kind of a cowardly disease.

INSIGHT #3:  I don't mean anything by it.  Which isn't to say that sarcasm doesn't/can't hurt.  I know it does.  But the whole "people put you down to make themselves feel better" doesn't really work with me.  Whatever makes me feel better is usually internal, and certainly not based on your weakness or foolishness.  I don't get off on that.

The only solution I can see to curing my sarcasm is for me to shut the Hell up.  The problem is that you can see my eyes.  You know I'm thinking it.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Epiphany #15

For all the years of Mardi Gras, it seems to have taken Mr. Steve Earle to figure out that there is a song in the day after Mardi Gras.

There’s so much I need to do

Before I get over you
But I can’t bother with it all
Until after Mardi Gras
All that music in the air
Happy people everywhere
Make it hard to sing the blues
Until Mardi Gras is through

His, of course, is a love song, or an end of love song, but either way, the lyrics and especially the music and his vocal, capture the sense of loss that I feel when Mardi Gras is over.  I can feel that song right now, and I still have 90 minutes of Fat Tuesday to stretch out to the bitter end.

So I've built a fire and I'm sitting in front of it in the dark, my wife asleep on the couch, and I'm waiting for the inevitable letdown.

Tomorrow is Lent.   Tomorrow is reality.  Tonight is Mardi Gras.  Tonight is relief.  Tomorrow is a giving up or the guilt for not having done so.  Tonight is not-that-wild abandon.

For even in this sleepy Southern city, an evening of putting on the beads, listening to untold versions of "Jambalaya," and enjoying rich, satisfying food among friends is a chance to set everything else aside.  But the feeling of melancholy hangs over the evening as well, because this weird, forced, mid-week reprieve is such a small window of unfettered joy.

Tomorrow, like most every other day of the year, the music that still rings in my ears will have a false ring to it.  Cajun dance tunes, Preservation Hall, "When The Saints Go Marching In"--none of these are tunes I reach for or long to hear in a normal day.  Only on this day do their melodies serve as a beckoning call to a city I don't fully understand but want to be in, to a tradition I came to late, but work every year to keep alive in this city.

For those of removed from New Orleans, we don't really get a context for Mardi Gras, and we certainly don't get to enjoy the buildup.  So the event, a meal really, seems all too brief and the time of Lenten discipline far too long.

Me, I've been working my ass off for two months (as the Walter Brennan character on the 1970s TV western used to say, "no brag.  just fact.") and so have most of the people I know, so this whole idea of setting aside some weakness or living a more considered life or practicing spiritual discipline doesn't quite fit.  Not yet.

No, I could use a bit more of the ol' Mardi Gras right now and a bit less of the Lent.  It's been a tough winter, the weather has been a drag, and usual joys of living have been relatively few, so if it's all the same to the set-in-stone religious calendar, I'd like to let the good times roll on a bit more.  Sorry, God.