Thursday, May 29, 2014

"It's Complicated" As Myth

The Queen and The Soldier - Suzanne Vega (mp3)

The First Thought...

Rolling Stone just published a mesmerizing and lengthy interview with George R. R. Martin, the man responsible for the biggest fantasy intrusion into popular culture since the last guy with two middle R’s in his name brought us Middle Earth and hobbitses.

I recently finished A Feast for Crows, the fourth book in the A Song of Fire and Ice series. That’s roughly 3,500 pages. That’s slightly less than The Bible twice over. The fifth book adds another 1,100 pages, and two more are coming out after that.

Only time will tell just where this series falls in the pantheon of fantasy fiction, of literature. I only know that it took less than 80 pages to be taken prisoner by this tale and that I am one of legion who fell prey to the same fate.

In the interview, Martin expresses indirectly but almost perfectly -- which is to say at length -- the many reasons why I cannot pull away from his work, emotionally or intellectually. Martin has, in a way no one did before him (to my knowledge) mythologized imperfection. Imperfect design, not always intelligent. Imperfect rulers, imperfect servants, imperfect plots, imperfect justice. Nothing about A Song of Fire and Ice is about tying up loose ends, or moving chess pieces in patterns on a board. It is about a chaotic world playing out in ways a chaotic world can’t help but play out, which is to say chaotically, which is to say in a way that drives spoiled readers like me crazy.

One friend lamented to me that he couldn’t read it because Martin didn’t believe in God. That’s unfortunate, because Martin’s writing has given me more reason to think deeply and spiritually about my faith and its application to our chaotic world than anything I’ve read in a long time.

There are indeed more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy, and Martin’s calling, it seems to me, is to do everything in his power to remind us of this, to remind us that the world cannot be managed or fully grasped. Too many moving parts moving in ways that mere mortal human hands could not have put into place.

...Leading to the Second Thought

The first Suzanne Vega song I fell in love with was “The Queen and the Soldier.” (Follow along with the lyrics here. Or watch on YouTube.)

I was 14. It should come as no surprise, wimpy cowardly scrawny being though I may have been, that I fancied myself the Soldier in the tale. To me the song was about a noble veteran of war, a man who fought bravely and loyally but had finally seen enough bloodshed. Rather than run, he chose to go directly to authority, tender his resignation and offer his reasoning.

At 14, the soldier was everything great about being a man. He fought. He stood up to authority when necessary. He yearned for the opportunity to live beyond the battlefield, to fall in love and be with someone. His death, I thought, was a sorrowful tragedy and the focal point of the song.

At 41, in no small part due to plowing through the cold comfort of Martin’s magnum opus (and maturation, and the raising of two daughters, and living with four females), the song’s true intent and meaning seems obvious, and my testosterone-centric interpretation from youth laughable.

Vega’s tale is one of chivalrous men who can’t stand taking orders from a “bossy”* woman. From the minute he charges into her world and announces his resignation, to the moment she politely sends him away and has him killed, he treats her like an undeserving leader better-suited to be subjected to his dominance.

(* -- Or “pushy,” or any of those other loaded words that tend to mean men just can’t stand it when women with power behave anything like men with power.)

One could argue that, in his heart, the soldier's intentions are good. He wishes to understand her, to love her. Fine and good. But he does not wish to obey her, or respect her, or fathom the burden of duty and responsibility she must bear as a queen. In no moment of the song could you envision a soldier treating a king like this and surviving the encounter.

At the heart of “The Queen and the Soldier” is a similar frustration and sorrow that’s at the heart of #YesAllWomen.

Men like me, and especially like my younger self, are so busy being defensive about how Not Evil we are, about how our awesomeness for the female species is so tragically outshined by the rotten male apples amongst us, that we can’t quite put the shoe on the other foot and walk a mile in it.

Monday, May 26, 2014

"Wood is Expensive..."

“Wood is expensive. Words are cheap.” -- Kevin Bacon, She’s Having a Baby

Letters strung into words. Words into sentences. Sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs grouped back into letters. An accidental full circle of sorts. This process has pushed our species forward for thousands of years in ways we can only attempt to fathom.

Throughout most of recorded history, letters -- as in written notes addressed from one person to another person -- have been a priceless commodity. They’ve held sentimental and emotional potency, to be sure, but they have also proven priceless for their political and religious power, as well as for their psychological insights.

“If your home and everything you own were to burn to the ground, what would be the one thing you’d run back in to save?”

Only in the last 70 years or so has the answer shifted to be, almost universally, “Photographs.” For most of human history, the answer to that question would have been “letters.” I daresay that even as recently as the 1940s, many people would have had a difficult time choosing between their most beloved letters and their most beloved photographs. While the latter most certainly kept the image of a loved one more fresh in the memory, the former holds more of the writer’s soul (that is, if the letter writer wrote at-all decent letters.)

Last night I watched Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. My feelings on the movie will take a while to parse through, but one of the most memorable scenes involves the letters the two main characters send back and forth to one another.

Country musician Kasey Musgraves is a clever songwriter and damn easy on the eyes, but my favorite pictures on her Instagram account are excerpts from her childhood diary… at least, they are once I can get past the fact that “her childhood” and “1997” existed in the same moment.

Something like one-quarter of the entire New Testament is letters.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, set sometime in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, is told through a series of letters written by the protagonist to a semi-anonymous other who never once actually appears in the context of the story.

We are a species that loves to overreact, to be sure. So perhaps it is overreaction to worry that, by making words easier to write (word processing), easier to keep (digital storage), easier to send (the Internets), and easier to spread to a nigh-immeasurable audience (The Twitters), we have unintentionally rendered them, by sheer volume, weaker.

Words now surround us all the time, every day. We drown in words, even as we talk about the younger generations not “reading” enough. (By which we clearly mean books and news, paragraphs and pages.)

It seems like we have gone from experiencing words as drops of rain to experiencing them as a flood in our lives. As a full-circle analogy, we are like the fish in the introduction to David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement address (“This is Water”), an address that uses the power of words strung together to make synapses fire in a way that makes you think, feel, and believe all over again in the power of written expression.

We are so drenched in text messages, Tweets, status updates, news tickers, stream feeds, photo captions and comments, that we have put ourselves at risk of remembering that words are at their most powerful when they are strung together in long form.

For Paradise Lost to have an audience today, it would have to be a haiku. And that's not much of a paradise worth keeping.

I hope we can find a way, as a culture and a species, to rekindle our love and hunger for the creatively-composed word. That is, letters put into words, carefully strung into sentences, artfully structured into paragraphs, and delicately, brilliantly compiled into letters, or pages, or poems, or novels. If we lose our emotional connection to the written word and its transcendent powers, we will have become something other than human. We will have evolved to a point where we’ve lost a part of us that stretches back to the early adolescence of our species.

NOTE: By act of serendipity, I opened up my latest Atlantic Monthly, my “before I fall asleep” reading, and ran across “How the Novel Made the Modern World” only hours after writing this. It seems a more detailed, and better-written companion piece to my concerns.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Epiphany #34: Last Man Standing

It wasn't too many years ago that I would try my best to be the first person in my neighborhood to get his grass cut and then I would post on Facebook that I was putting pressure on everyone else.  I did it for my own amusement, of course, a kind of ironic joke because I really could give crap about my lawn, except that I am really competitive about it.

I'll explain, but first let me say this:  I am the last man standing.

By that, I mean that, as far as I can tell, I am the last person in the neighborhood who cuts his own grass (If you are a woman reading this, please forgive the male gender pronouns throughout, but also agree with me that women cutting grass remains something of a novelty).  I am the last guy who drags his sorry ass out into the heat for the weekly ritual.  I am the last guy who keeps his front lawn trimmed up, but cuts his backyard whenever he feels like it because no one can see it.  I told you I was competitive.

What a strange situation!  If you see my neighborhood email group, the only mention of lawns that you will see is someone looking for a good "yard man."  At this point, are there even enough to go around?

Older than me or younger than me, everyone I know pays someone else to cut their grass.  Depending on who they get, it isn't necessarily a cheap proposition either.  The yards where I live are pretty good sized, and a weekly cutting is going to cost $60 or more, unless they can get some neighborhood kid to do it.

But that has mostly dried up, too.  The people who cut grass in my neighborhood arrive in trucks, pulling flat trailers loaded up with mowers, trimmers, etc.  They aren't kids; they aren't even necessarily the stereotypical Hispanics who once cut the grass of this country from top to bottom.  They are people who have lawn careers, at least during the summer.

Back to my competitiveness:  I don't care much what my lawn looks like as long as it has been cut, but I am not going to be the only uncut yard and I am going to make fun of the "house husband" up the street anytime my grass is cut and his ain't because I have a full time job too and I put meals on the table. So, yes, I enjoy those days when I'm ahead of the hood, when my lawn is level and my sidewalks and curbs have crisp edges.

What I can't quite figure out is why it bothers me that people aren't cutting their grass.  It isn't a "misery loves company" thing.  And I can kind of acknowledge that if they can afford to skip this tedious chore, why not?

But those are their lawns, and if they aren't out tending to them, is there any chance that they are missing some important connection--between owner and property, between man and earth, between civilization and nature?  Is it ridiculous to suggest that a man who does not know his land does not know the land he has?  Does that matter?

Or maybe it's the H. G. Wells in me.  In The Time Machine, the Eloi become such a leisure class that the worker class, the Morlocks, kidnap them and take them down into the Earth and eat them.  The Eloi are like carefree, innocent children.  And I'm not stoking the fear of some class warfare here;  I'm just suggesting that there is something about doing the work that keeps us whole, that keeps a part of us from atrophying.  How hard is it, really, to push a lawnmower, what special skills, exactly, are required to cut grass?  Maybe it's worth it to be able to hold onto that piece.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Adolescent Posturing

Eighth-grade “graduations” are, much like middle schools and middle schoolers, kinda cute but mostly awkward.

The events are crammed full of a grade’s worth of early teenagers in that transitional phase between Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, where they’re not quite the mild-mannered David Banner of their childhood nor quite the all-out insane Hulk of their older teen years. (Or is it the other way? Are they Hulks as children and David Banners as teens? Tawk amungst yuhselfs.)

Never once in my entire life, a life invested in education and surrounded by kids and conversations about the good ol’ days, have I ever heard anyone say, “If I could do one stretch of my life all over again, it would definitely be middle school/junior high.” Never. It would be like saying, “If I could relive one day, it would be when I had that root canal with Dr. Green.”

We recently attended the eighth-grade graduation of a girl we’ve known since her birth, and with whom my daughters attended school through fifth grade. Celebrating 43 kids moving to ninth grade took 18 more minutes than it took my school to honor the graduation of 156 high school students. Still, to be fair, the experience could have been worse and/or more painful.

The sweetest part of the evening came at the beginning. After a brief welcome, the students walked one at a time down the center aisle as an audio recording of that student's voice played over the speaker system. It was the first time I’d seen this done, with the exception of those Miss America-type pageants where you hear the Miss Virginia’s voice-over about how she hopes to cure world hunger or throat cancer as she struts the stage in a bikini and 9-inch heels.

The kids were given a surprising bit of leeway in what they were allowed to say, and in how long it could go. Some were too long. One was so short the boy had to literally sprint down the aisle. One boy's speech was: “I’d like to thank everyone I’ve ever known, except that one guy in Target who yelled at me for getting in his way because he was in a hurry or something. He was very rude.” That was his whole “speech.” That kid’s gonna be a big mess or a big success one day.

A handful of kids, however, gave me pause and left me wondering: how much can we know about a kid by merely watching them walk down an aisle as their voice cascades over the audience with a message they wrote on this auspicious occasion?

Three of the boys and one girl slouched as they walked. The girl and one of the boys in particular slouched so badly they were almost hunchbacked. It was as if the weight of their middle school lives -- the pestilence of puberty, the squeakified voice-change, the emotional monsoon season, the mob of adults and peers who, like objects in the rearview mirror, appear closer than they feel -- had pulled their bodies down.

They looked defeated. Or, at least they lacked any confidence that they could win anything even if they tried, which they wouldn’t, for fear of being humiliated, or for fear of having to put themselves “out there.”

I couldn’t help but close my eyes. Looking at those kids, the paragons of the worst parts of young teen life, was too painful, like staring at the sun, or staring at that huge zit on the end of your nose that persists week after week. Their walk of shame was a haiku version of everything about middle school that could be made into a horror film.

“Please let them recover.” This was the prayer I muttered quietly to myself.

NPR recently ran a story about the human ability to make snap judgments. By merely hearing someone we can’t see say a single word -- in this experiment, "Hello” -- a majority of us can draw remarkably similar conclusions about the person speaking.

Is the same true for posture? Does the fact that we might collectively make comparable judgments mislead us from realizing that we might not be judging accurately?

Surely their uphill climb is steeper than the kids who walk tall, who look forward instead of down. Surely their challenge on finding something like happiness as adults will be greater than the girl who walked, head up and back straight, smiling and appearing confident. Not impossible. Just more difficult.

As a semi-wizened, semi-wiser educator, I’ve seen how wrong our conclusions of adolescents and teens can be. My futuristic predictions about students have been proven wrong so many times it can make my head spin. I’ve seen the punkiest kid grow up to be a banker or a lawyer, the snobbiest or most self-centered kid mature into a community activist, the quietest kid turn into a recording artist. We think we can see how they’ll turn out, but as the play-by-play guys like to say, “That’s why they play the game.”

In the meantime, I salute those middle school teachers and employees who can ignore those instinctive snap judgments that paint kids into corners and offer a benefit of the doubt, offer an optimistic belief that, if just one or two adults can inject hope or faith into that kid’s soul, just create the tiniest of sparks, things might turn around.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Epiphany #33: App'd Out

All right, very quickly without thinking too long, tell me the last NEW app you downloaded for your phone that you have used the crap out of.

And if one came to mind immediately, then I have a clarifying challenge: you can't choose one that is a different version of an app that already exists.  In other words, if you downloaded a new photo editor, that does not count, because it's not a NEW app; it's just a modification of ideas that already exist.

Why does that matter?  Because I think we may be app'd out, or at least in an app lull. Think in terms of categories:

1. what's the last game you added that is different from the games you've already played?
2. what's the last travel app that added anything new to your ability to work a city?
3. what's the last "productivity" app that you assimilated into your daily habits?

Is it possible that with so many apps out there and even with new ones continuing to appear that we have hit a creative wall?  That there aren't radical new things that our phones and tablets can do?  Instead, we seem to be in a tweak phase, where everybody is either upgrading their own apps or trying to improve on what someone else has done or bringing back nostalgic programs from generations-ago technology.  It kind of reminds me of Hollywood.

If I'm right, I wonder what it means.  Is this the normal pattern of technology?  Is this the cycle of all things that were once new?  Or am I the one in the rut and all of the exciting new apps are happening beyond my cognizance?

It feels like we've hit a holding pattern with our ability to listen to music, map our travel, make rows or columns of three matching objects disappear for points.  Sure, more and more of what we think we need to do can be done on our phones and tablets, and their place is even more cemented in our lives, but that feels like a kind of filling in rather than a pushing forward.

Again, this is all just based on feel, but even the gadgets themselves are variations on a theme we know well by now.  When TV ads show us the nuances of individual machines, I think we all think whatever it can do that the others can't is kind of cool, but we think that at the same time we're yawning.  Me, I don't care much about what yours can do that mine can't, or vice-versa.  I'm interested in the next machine.

Yeah, I guess I've got the technology blues, or maybe malaise is a better word.  Because I'm not wowed by much of anything right now.  And like most humans, I tend to think that if I don't know about it, then it probably unsay happening.

Or maybe I'm wrong and there are new, dynamite apps I don't know about.  If so, please me about them.  Either I'm right or I'm wrong.  Either way, I win.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Warm-Up Act

On a warm May evening in 2014, two blondes with bobs from the ‘500s walked onto the stage, wearing dresses out of the ‘60s, stood under a spotlight and in front what looked like a radio microphone from the ‘40s.

“Pardon me boys, is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo?” were the first words that came from their mouths, in harmony and synchrony. They sounded like they had been time-warped into modern times just for that song.

Introducing yourself to a young Chattanooga audience by singing the staple Chattanooga song is no sure thing. Even the mega-charismatic JFK spoke a few minutes in English before daring to claim himself “ein Berliner” to the German people.

Hello, Lucius. Nice to meet you.

Only a handful of the hundreds in the audience had ever seen or heard of this band, or these two women. Frankly, I don’t much care for the song, but I loved the statement they made when they walked up to that mike and tore into it in a way that might well have impressed the Andrews Sisters.

We know where we are.
We know who you came to see.
We are going to make the extra effort to prove ourselves to you.
You do not know us right now, but you will want to by the time we’re done with you.
We will earn your interest by working for it.
We believe in our music.

That’s the mission statement of every successful opening act I’ve ever seen.

The mission of successful headlining acts are somewhat different. Tegan & Sara, the headliners for Lucius, could rely on the crowd knowing their lyrics, singing along. Headliners are tasked with taking built-in enthusiasm of the crowd and either maintaining or elevating it. Headliners build the audience based on a past relationship. Opening acts build from scratch. It’s flash dating.

Lucius presented themselves impeccably. The whole group was packed in tight. The three men in a semicircle, all wearing what I think were deep blue retro suit jackets. The two women took center and faced one another with platinum blonde hair, matching red dresses, matching lavender hose. Every member had at least one percussion instrument within reach, usually two or three.

Their sound, to me, is a mix of the retro-rock of The Royalty with less crunch and more of the alternative tinge of fun. Every minute they spent on stage was focused on simple goals. Impress strangers. Play tight. Have fun. Believe the music.

When Metric, a band I really like, recently opened for Paramore, another band I really like, they failed as an opening act. I’m certain that as a headliner, Metric ups their game. But opening, they didn’t connect enough of the mentality of the Paramore crowd. Sure, I enjoyed their show, because I knew the songs. But the crowd seemed confused and lost. It’s unlikely Metric blew up their fan base.

Lucius, on the other hand, had people lined up to buy their merch after their concert, and the line re-formed for them after Tegan & Sara’s set ended. They were friendly. They posed for pics. They signed records and CDs. They did everything an opening act has to do.

The group returns to Chattanooga on July 18 for a free concert at Nightfall. Those wise enough to show up at Miller Plaza and lend them an ear will be able to talk, years from now, about how they knew Lucius back when they were still up and coming through the ranks.

Below is their NPR Tiny Desk concert. It offers a stripped-down version of their sound but shows their style, their charm, their sound, and their strength as a unit.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Epiphany #32: The Marital Moment

I saw a young married couple today.  They were very attractive--thin, athletic, out walking their baby.  I drove past and waved.  Whether they knew me or not, I don't know.  But they were clearly very comfortable in their young marriage, and I felt good about them for that.

I knew their parents some time ago.  We saw them in Maine; we knew them in Chattanooga.  But mostly I am thinking of them when I saw them at a wedding.

At the wedding, the wife had suffered some kind of injury.  Knowing them, it was a sports-related injury.  Maybe a stress fracture or some such.  At the wedding, and this was late in the reception, they arrived with the wife on crutches and the husband in full health.  It was a large, raucous wedding, with great food and drink and a kick-ass band that had been hired from somewhere deeper south, maybe even down along the coast.  People were dancing.  The "Love Train" had taken place.

As the evening wore on, the husband had danced with a number of women, family friends and acquaintances and whatnot.  I watched them from time to time.  He had not been aggressive in seeking out the dances.  The dances were not overtly flirtatious in nature.

Still, as the evening wore on, things reached a point where the wife gathered herself, rose to her feet, and hobbled out onto the dance floor to dance with her husband.  It is a marital moment that I have never forgotten, though it has now probably been six or more years since it happened.

What I wondered, what I still wonder, is this:  why did she raise up and make her way out to the dance floor?  Was she jealous? Was she being protective?  Did she simply want to be with her husband?  Did she only want to dance?  Did she need to assert herself?

The answer, I suspect, is the dreaded answer on any multiple-choice test: All of the above.  Isn't, in fact, the ultimate marital moment when a spouse asserts himself or herself into a situation, not because he or she is particularly worried, but only because everyone in the world outside of the marriage needs an even gentle reminder that there is, indeed, a marriage at work?  There isn't much more at stake at that moment, but there potentially could be at some later moment in the evening.

And so, in this case, she walks on crutches out to the dance floor only to say, that is my man.  And, perhaps, by then she is only saying it to herself.  That doesn't really matter.  It is still a social reminder.

That's why this is so interesting to me.  That's why I've never forgotten it, why I remembered it today when I saw their child.  Because marriages, both the best and the worst, are fueled by a kind of unease where no matter how settled things seem to be, the slightest situation could make them unsettled again, and could require both parties to recalibrate, to "up their game," to no longer take for granted what they have.

Some might see that as a bad thing, as an indictment, an affirmation of the fragility of marriage.  I don't.

That wife hobbling out onto that floor takes me back to the Knicks vs. Lakers in about 1973, to Willis Reed, badly injured, steeling himself up to start Game 7 even though he could barely walk, to him hitting his first two jumpers in the game and then being too hurt to do much else the rest of the way, but having done enough to provide a rallying point for his team, who "upped their game" the rest of the way.

Marriage, it seems to me, is that very moment, one when one of the two spouses reaches a quick realization that he or she has to make a dramatic move to propel things forward, regardless of how he or she is feeling at the time, regardless of how trivial the moment might seem.  It is likely that the moment will never be discussed, but both know that it needed to happen.  And, by the way, the smaller the circumstance, the better.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Epiphany #31: Pretenders (to the throne)

Bob went shopping a couple of weeks ago.  On  I got my usual monthly allotment of about 17 bucks, and actually ending up spending a little more (booster pack!).

April's edition, it would seem, is The Month Of The Women, at least in Bob's world.  Not all-female bands, mind you, but groups where a woman is one of the featured vocalists, perhaps the only featured vocalist.  It was easy shopping, quick and dirty.  And after 10 or so minutes of clicking and downloading, I had my new songs, as follows:

The Both (Aimee Mann and Ted Leo)--The Both
Nickel Creek--A Dotted Line
MS MR--Secondhand Rapture

I can't say too much about the first or the third because I only sampled them before purchasing.  Aimee Mann is a favorite of mine, but I think it's fair to say that her songs for the past several CDs, have been stuck in a kind of slow-to-mid-tempo groove, so I'm happy to hear, in snippets, that Leo's presence has given her songs a bit of a punch.

MS MR is one of those oh-well-it's-not-my-money-because-I-pre-spent-it-months-ago kind of risk purchases that you take when you get in the emusic mindset after many years.  It's kind of like Groupon before I gave that up: "We can order something expensive because we've got $50 "free" dollars to spend."  But I digress.

What really smacked me, from the very first powerfully-acoustic chord of "Rest Of My Life," the opening song on A Dotted Line, were two simultaneous thoughts:  1) how much I had missed Nickel Creek without realizing it and 2) what had spawned from Nickel Creek's musical seed in their absence.  And how inferior it is to what Nickel Creek was.

It seems that without Nickel Creek, we wouldn't these quasi-bluegrassy, pseudo-mountain music bands like The Avett Brothers and their British counterpart, Mumford and Sons.  The bands mine the same acoustic-based traditional gold mine that Nickel Creek first (re)discovered, but they don't have the chops to pull off much more than a modern update of the Kingston Trio.

I'll make it simple:  those bands can't play, not like Nickel Creek can play.  They display a rudimentary control of their instruments, but they simply do not have the virtuosity of "The Creek."  Nickel Creek can pull off a completely-original instrumental where each member plays a shimmering lead part, then segue into a cover of a band from a totally-different genre, like Pavement or Mother Mother, and then slip into the flat-picking genius of a Norman Blake or Tony Rice, all without breaking a sweat.  They can go as traditional Christion or as folky or as experimental as they want to.

Admittedly, this is perhaps to their detriment.  There is no single great Nickel Creek CD out there.  They are too prolific in too many styles with too many singers to put together a coherent set where every track is brilliant.  But to hear them together again is to be reminded of what pleasurable musical dilettantes they are, with both depth and precision.  To hear the Avetts or Mumford, by comparison, is to hear Salieri instead of Mozart (at least as characterized in the film Amadeus).  In other words, just the bare bones of it.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Swimming In A Fishbowl

Eleanor & Park is a young adult novel about two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl.

The book is syrupy, melancholy, angsty. I can imagine many people hating this book. It is about the awkward, square peg variety of the teenager species. You either were in the same boat with these kids and have no interest in being reminded, thankyouverymuch, or you were weren’t in the same boat with these kids, and they annoyed you, disgusted you, or drove you crazy.

It took me three chapters to know that I would finish the book. I’m now more than ⅔ of the way through, which is the perfect time to write some thoughts I’ve had while reading Eleanor & Park. I can’t really spoil much, since I haven’t read the ending. Although I do know from enough GoodReads reviews that the ending is either going to piss me off or break my heart several more times over.

(1) The nature of friendship is not as much about chemistry as I used to think.
It’s about where you sit on the school bus. Or which kid lives four houses away from you rather than 15 houses away. It’s about the coworker in your department rather than the one who works two floors down. It’s about how well your children seem to get along. It’s about what time you like going to get that afternoon coffee. It’s about getting reprimanded by that same boss neither of you can stand.

It’s about one kid who listens to cool music, or reads cool books (or comic books), or plays fun games, and another kid hungry to discover a hobby, any new thing. It’s about two kids getting bikes at Christmas and learning to ride together. It’s about two shy girls stuck together with wild girls on a soccer team.

Did my childhood friends and I begin by having things in common? Or did we create things in common to explain or strengthen this blooming thing that felt like a friendship? It’s so obvious to me now that the latter happened so much more than the former.

(2) No one should forget the first time they held hands with someone. If you have forgotten the exact moment, never forget what it felt like.
(3) Adult men have the most potential for unspeakable awful with the least effort.

All people are capable of doing bad things, awful or evil or wrong things. We can all deceive, betray, hurt someone else. But some breeds of adult men seem more capable of doing so with a kind of effortlessness, a flippant instinctive force, to degrees that women and children don’t.

But men backhand their kids. Men drink and allow venom to spew from their mouths in the form of words and sentences. Men punch walls, and women they claim to love. Men can punish anything nice and sweet for the world being less than they want it to be.

Women can do this, too. But not as many. Not as easily. Maybe women can be more connivingly evil. Maybe they scheme better. I mean, if we’re searching for ways women can be more evil or more awful than men, I’m sure there are ways. But men can really really suck, and when they do, my own mind has to fight against words like “retribution,” “vengeance,” “eye for an eye.” Awful men beget those urges even in noble people. They are viruses.

(4) Nothing is as hard to read about, or as painful to remember, as those times when someone feels unworthy of being loved.

(5) It is possible to rescue someone, but the story must go on.

One of my low moments as a teenager involved breaking up with a sweet and wonderful human being and falling in love with a train wreck of another, not necessarily in that order. In hindsight, I realize how drawn I was to the swirl of melodrama in which this girl lived. Her hair was wild, her eyes were wild, and her passions were wild. Here I was, dating this girl who had deep and genuine feelings for me, and I felt like I was in the Tortoise Cage at the zoo, looking enviously into the cave with rattlesnakes.

I think I felt heroic. The girl I was dating didn’t need me. She was going to be an amazing and incredible person no matter what I did. But this other girl? She needed someone like me. Someone with a good heart and the best intentions (Yes, this section is connected to #2).

And I did. I totally rescued that train wreck. And the feeling it gave me, the shivers it pushed into my body, was almost like a drug. I felt like Dudley Do Right, embracing the damsel, ropes frayed and dangling over her grateful body, as the train rushed past us only inches away. I felt like the hero even as I heard the ex-girlfriend crying and desperate to understand why I would break up with her. “Ma’am, you’ll be fine. Just sit there and recover. Duty calls!”

(6) It is possible to love a book so much that the ending can’t possibly destroy it. I knew that about The Fault In Our Stars, and I know it about Eleanor & Park.

It’s a book about my own life. But not really. It’s a book about my life’s longest friend. But not really. It’s about love I think I remember, loves I think I’ve known, friendships I’ve seen pass before me, some enduring and some long faded. But it’s not about me at all.

It’s about a depth of pain and panic, of a million inexplicable feelings good and bad, that surge through an adolescent in ways adults forget or pretend away. It’s about memories of growing up that are so awkward, so miserable, that only crazy people would enjoy reading a book chock full of them.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

How Many Straws?

Cliven Bundy makes his comments reminiscing about the good ol’ days when black people were happy slaves.

NBA team owner Donald Stirling’s comments about his girlfriend and those dangerous sketchy non-white people are released to the public.

Certain conservative pundits come out defending Bundy, a man clearly in violation of the law. These same people regularly come out in support of “Stop and Frisk,” the policy where (mostly minority) citizens’ right to the presumption of innocence are regularly sacrificed in the same of The Greater Good.

The gut-punch of “12 Years A Slave,” rented as a sort of white guilt penance for the ear poison of Bundy and Stirling. The sadness I feel knowing that the only hearts likely to be moved by the film are already in the right general vicinity, hearts already aware of just how deep the racial scars of our country’s history go, how much of the surface of the flesh they cover.

The soul-crushing feel of reading The Atlantic’s lengthy look into the resegregation of public schools across the country. The gut-punch of having to ask myself if working in a “high-caliber, high cost” independent school like the one I’m in is doing more harm than good and believing, with dented conviction, that the alternative -- all students in public education -- wouldn’t be a magic solution.

The conversation held in semi-private outside the one-person restroom in a hallway inside my church, where two older white men go back and forth about how that Cliven Bundy fella probably shouldn’t have gone and said what he said, ‘cuz he ought to have known better about the lib’rul media. But between you and me and bein' completely honest with ya, some of what he said is true, ‘cuz them blacks are slaves to welfare and drugs, and they abandon their children left and right, and they stopped having to earn their keep with hard work, and it's destroying their whole dern race.

The gut-punch of “Fruitvale Station,” rented as more white guilt penance for the conversation overheard outside that church restroom by men too white and too old to fight their own prejudices, but also too old to pretend that segregation and racism is some bygone fantasy of some medieval era. The feeling that, were these older men to watch this film, they would actively and intensely work to find all the ways they could justify a young and (in the moment) innocent black man being shot to death at a subway station. The feeling that these older white men aren’t the only ones who are eager to work as hard as possible to prove that young men like Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant got what was coming to them, or at least “weren’t completely innocent,” whatever the hell that phrase is supposed to mean in our fallen world.

The amount of pressure and work it took for the abduction of 270 Nigerian schoolgirls to get a teensy fraction of the attention given to the disappearance of a single airplane carrying 227 passengers. Reporters and multiple countries surged to assist in the search for debris faster than most people can spell Nigeria.

How many straws? Do people “change sides” anymore? Why aren’t the old men in my church hallway blinded by a light on the road to Damascus? Why can’t we admit that race in America, and in the world, might well be better than it was in 1940, but it’s still far from OK, that we’re still far from equal, that discrimination and prejudice are alive and thriving on the ingredients of our souls? How many people need to wake up before we spend more time fighting over whether there’s even a problem than working together to attempt genuine solutions?

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Four Eyes... With Style!

For all the talk of hipsters being the cause of my latest problem, I mostly blame LeBron.

When that man, one of the world's greatest athletes and a man who will go down in history as one of the 10 best hoops players of all time, walked into a press conference wearing thick black plastic-rimmed glasses as a fashion statement, my immediate reaction was, "Well &@$# me gently with a horn rim."

I've worn prescription glasses off and on since high school. In those miserable adolescent years, and even into college, I fought it. Glasses were what my father would have, in his old-fashioned way, called “character building,” because there was nothing about them that aided or abetted an adolescent in identity crisis.

My sporadic contacts phases have been regularly curtailed by a (an?) astigmatism. For a few adolescent years, I mostly went out without any corrective vision assistance, but by college I learned that Beer Goggles + Bad Vision = Danger Will Robinson, so I wore glasses a lot.

A few weeks ago, I arrived early at the current higher-scale hipster bar of choice to meet a friend out for drinks.

I got there early but stole a stray seat at the bar and waited. Feeling a bit muddled, I ordered an Old Fashioned and took measure of my surroundings. The crowd was very young. Most of them were in their 20s. The women were dressed nicely in a wide variety of styles and colors; the men were mostly in untucked button-downs with a checkered or plaid design and mostly jeans with a few slacks.

The dudes were all wearing glasses. “All” is an exaggeration. But because I was alone and bored, I decided to count. Of the first 40 gentlemen within easy view of my barstool, 28 of them were wearing glasses. Almost 75% of them.

What. The. Hell.

Up to a few years ago, when you wore glasses, you just accepted what it meant in regards to your appearance. Glasses were function, not form and fashion. Big lenses or small, square or oval, you didn’t wear them by choice.

This is the life of First Worlders. We fret over what brand and style of tiny plastic or metal frames we put on our face. We pay hundreds of dollars for titanium glasses. We hem and haw about which color of Beats headphones look best. The number of choices we’ve added to our repertoire, as a culture, that mean nothing in substance but apparently much in self-esteem, or identity, or whatever they’re calling it tomorrow, is depressing and mindboggling.

Meanwhile, the discount glasses store where I was able to purchase prescription glasses for $35 and prescription sunglasses for $50, went out of business last year. The next time I get glasses, I’ll have to sift through The New World of Important Frames.

No one ever asked me what brand I was wearing. I’ve never asked anyone else what brand of glasses they were wearing -- although the big DG on the side saves the effort at times. But thanks to Lebron, Steve Jobs and hipsters everywhere, I’ll have to pay thrice as much as I used to for an item no one will ever see and say, “Wow! Those frames are amazing!”

Monday, May 5, 2014

Epiphany #30: The Curse Of "Talent"

NOTE 1:  Sorry, there is no Epiphany #29 because there were two #23s.
NOTE 2:  I am intentionally packing the piece below with an overuse of adverbs; I'm not just going off the adverbial deep end.  

I saw an absolutely fantastic guitarist at Jazzfest last weekend.  And I thought he sucked.

We walked over to the main stage to see him.  We arrived mid-song.  During the 4-5 minutes of his performance, he tossed out maybe one line of a lyric, and seemed to have a pretty good voice.  Mostly, though, he played the guitar very, very, very well.  And oh so badly.

Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers posits that rather than raw talent, rather than child prodigies, rather than the naturally-gifted, people who get really good at something get there because they work hard at it, put in "10,000 hours," if you will.  What Gladwell didn't discover or didn't want to acknowledge is that just because someone completely masters techniques, that does not mean that he or she will become a worthy talent.

He might just be highly-skilled.  And empty.

Realizing how anti-achievement  it is to say that mastery may not always be a good thing, I still believe that mastery without restraint may be the ultimate musical sin.  Put differently, skill without soul equals unlistenable (in my book).

The guitarist that I watched and listened to at Jazzfest can play any lick on the guitar that has ever been conceived.  I am convinced and confident of that, because in that 4-5 minutes, I saw virtually all of them.  He strutted out into the front of the crowd to let them drool over his licks.  He put the guitar behind his head and continued soloing frenetically without missing a note.  He showed off his Eddie Van Halen finger-tapping prowess.  He could play everything with amazing technical proficiency, perhaps even better than the creators had.  But I didn't care, and my sense was that, besides being bludgeoned with a blitzkrieg of notes, the rest of the audience was fairly indifferent, too.

"Dude can sure play.  Yawn.  Wonder what time Trombone Shorty will come on?"

As soon as the song was over, he busted out an impromptu "Star-Spangled Banner" a la Hendrix.  But he played it way too fast, lost it in a blaze of pyrotechnics that said not "I am using my guitar and this song to make a political statement and to change your perception of it forever," no, instead he seemed to be saying, "this melody is but a ditty to me and I will play circles around it."  But to no end.

Maybe this guitarist will get there.  Stevie Ray Vaughn certainly did.  But as a young gunslinger, he was packing in every note he could at dazzling speed.  It was jaw-dropping, but exhausting to listen to, and not in a good way.

Unfortunately,  with the mantle of SRV still unclaimed (as journey as treacherous as Jason and the Argonauts' quest for the Golden Fleece), the succeeding generations of blues players keep emulating that younger Vaughn before he realized that notes had meaning beyond just becoming smaller and smaller mathematical fractions of notes.