Sunday, September 28, 2014

Epiphany #64: It is almost October, and that means....

...that we here at BOTG will be doing our annual Rocktober month once again.  All music, all the time.  Hopefully, all rock, all the time, unless Billy goes too deep into the 80's, which were indeed something, but maybe not rock, at least not all the time.

Long time readers of this blog are wondering, of course, if Bob will finally write his post about the greatest rock band in history, that one named after a dildo in William Burroughs' Naked Lunch.  They also must be wondering what updates to the rock world we will be able to offer in 2014.  Or will we merely wax nostalgic about the past, when rock was young and so were we?  I guess you'll have to read and find out.

Because Rocktober is also the month of Halloween. I suspect we will touch on that pagan subject as well, though I predict that Bob may write about a very sacred subject that will generate a lot of (relatively) mail.  This is the month when he dissed the Stones' work after 1973, a topic which still reverberates around fan sites even today.

Maybe it is also when he shut the Avetts down, too, though that is a less controversial topic these days, since that entity mostly wore itself out with lightweight, overwrought emotional, pseudo-Christian fare.  People who once pledged their eternal love to the Avetts have moved on, as is often the case with eternal lovers.

Rocktober can also be a great tool to discover what might have passed you by.  Music moves fast; unless you have unlimited financial resources or no scruples, it can be difficult to keep up.  Even if you have access to "everything" via Spotify, it can still be impossible to keep up.  More to listen than there is time to listen.

Safe to say that for all of us, there are unknown gems from the six decades of rock that we would be pleased to hear for the first time.  Rocktober is for that.

I also suspect that Billy and I (I'm done referring to myself in the 3rd person) will review a thing or two, despite what Angry Bill or Douchey Bob or whatever that Internet troll's name was and what he had to say about my reviews.  It is a sad world when late-night loners dominate the cyber waves, and those of us with some balance in our lives have to combat that.  And we will.

So even if you aren't crazy about music or aren't interested in keeping up or just plain have moved on to other things, I will promise you this:  we will be entertaining.  Even if you are not particularly interested in our topics, we are good enough to offer a gem of a sentence once in awhile or even an insight that hasn't come to anyone else yet.

We started out writing about music, and it continues to be one of the things that we do best, so hang with us as the air cools and the days shorten and the flavor of pumpkin permeates everything from salsa to beer.  October is a strange month in so many ways, and we are often pretty strange ourselves, so it should be a good fit.

I will finish also with an offer:  Rocktober is a good month to write a guest blog.  If you have some musical insight, we would happily feature your fresh perspective.  The more ears we have attuned to music, the more we learn about it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Epiphany #63: Anger Mismanagement

It is impossible to quantify the impact of anger.  I've spent much of the day trying to do so, but as the hours wind down, all I'm really left with is the fact is that I've spent the better part of a day unable to shake an encounter with anger.

Which wasn't even directed at me.

Still, I stood as part of a conversation this morning that began as a discussion of an idea, a reasonable, if foregone conclusion kind of discussion that pondered and shot down possibilities, but a conversation that, ultimately, became a gun and I pulled the trigger without knowing it by introducing  what I thought was a harmless clarifying detail that nevertheless that led to an explosion of gunpowder and force.

Anger, I suppose, is more like a sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun whose spray scatters quickly to pepper anyone in the vicinity.

Of the three listeners who were blasted by the anger that erupted when I pulled the trigger (I know my metaphor is getting shaky here), one ignored the conversation with stoic silence, one created a false equivalence that gave the owner of that explosive anger an excuse and a way out, and then there was me.

When I was walking my dog this morning, for some reason I thought of those mornings when I had walked unknowingly into a spider web, and how the feeling of that web in my face and hair was almost impossible to shake all day.  It was never quite gone.

That is what anger does.

Anger also makes the witness of that anger feel like a coward, when it is the one who cannot control his or her anger who is the coward, who uses anger as weapon, who creates an environment where the threat of that anger being unleashed is as devastating as the anger itself.  Why should I be a coward for living a daily life where the people I interact with have a decent control of emotions and for expecting that level of human interaction?

I told someone last week, "You know, I find myself really unequipped to deal with people who are professional oars.  That just isn't the world that I live in, and people like that can get the better of me because I am not prepared to deal with them."

The same is true of the angry.  I told a friend today, "You know, if I had any balls, I would tell someone that [this angry person] has hampered all of us for years."  He laughed and said, "You and me go in together?"  "Yeah," I said, "You and me looking for new circumstances together."

It is just like Heart Of Darkness; the person with no restraint, with little self-control, leaves the rest of us at a loss as to how to respond.

When there is chronic anger in a person, it is not deep anger.  It simmers, able to reach a boil in a matter of seconds, or it lurks just below the surface, and no one we know ever knows what will bring it up.  It is a Loch Ness monster-- we don't want to believe that it could exist here and now among civilized people, but when there is a sighting, we must acknowledge that stories of its presence are not mythological or lost in the mists of the past, but that when it surfaces, we are left to ponder a different world than the one we thought we lived in.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Can Find A Better Man

A slightly-altered version of a speech given to the student body on Monday, September 22:

"You boys just get better and better every year."

A longtime teacher said these words. "Yo" said them a lot during his 50-year teaching career. This kind, gentle, loving and wonderful human being liked repeating himself. Even as a student, when "Yo" would say this about me and my classmates, the year after he'd said it about the previous guys and the guys before that, I thought he was, at least a tiny little bit, full of malarkey. Nothing just constantly improves without occasional setbacks, and certainly not entire generations or classes of boys.

Studies indicate strongly that it’s psychologically unhealthy to tell children or teens that you’re smart, or you’re beautiful or attractive, or you’re wonderful. Telling you these things, in fact, can be counterproductive. It tends to limit the chances and risks you take, you restrict your own instincts and potential. You go for the easier challenge so that you don’t let down those who think so highly of you, because you worry that failing at something might damage what we think of you.

We adults have worried a lot in the past two decades about your self-esteem. We often act like you are fragile delicate flowers who can’t handle tough things, and we’ve worried so much about your fragility that we’ve failed to let you fail, to fall, to learn how to pick yourselves back up.

I’m not big on superlatives. Something’s the best, or the worst, the least or the most. The song "Best Song Ever" is not. The best song. Ever. Whatever song the five goobers from One Direction danced to all night is also not the Best Song Ever, I can promise you that much. Superlatives are dangerous and overrated, in general, but especially so in the hands of 1D.

Instead of superlatives, let’s focus on what you are not, as a generation of youth:

You’re not the smartest generation, or the best looking, or the most physically fit, or the hardest working. You're just not.

On the other hand, you’re not the teenage generation doing the most drugs, or having the most amounts of inappropriate sexual activity, or having the most unwanted pregnancies.You’re not the biggest bullies, or the biggest jerks. You're just not.

Here’s what you are.

You are the most scrutinized, supervised, scheduled, managed, tested and watched generation, I daresay in the history of humankind. My generation has done everything we can to shield, shelter, sterilize and spoonfeed you. At times I wonder why we don't insist on kids wearing diapers until you’re 12, or remaining in rear-facing seats until you are 18.

I spent a significant portion of my childhood -- I’m not kidding -- stretched out in the space between the rear windshield and the back seat, and another portion playing with Star Wars figures in the rear floorboard. I don’t think I ever put on a seatbelt until I was 15.

Here was my standard weekend as a kid. Wake up. Watch cartoons. Eat cereal. Leave the house. Play with friends. Terrorize the neighborhood. Watch HBO at a friend's house or bike 10 miles to the East Ridge movie theater where no adult once refused to let us buy tickets to an R-rated movie.

The only rule my parents had for Saturdays was this: Be home for dinner or call if you won’t. That was it. My parents would wake up on Saturday morning, and unless I’d been assigned chores, they didn’t know where I was. And here’s the even more important fact: They didn’t know, and they didn’t care. This isn’t a criticism of my parents. It’s a statement about how our culture has shifted so dramatically in just 30 years. Even as teenagers, if your parents can’t know where you are, to the decimal point of longitude and latitude, in a window of 5 minutes, they worry that you might be kidnapped or shot, that you may have driven off a cliff into the ocean… and we don’t even have an ocean anywhere near here, but it doesn’t matter. None of this is about being logical.

Some parents are so worried about you drinking or making bad choices that they decide to let you drink and make bad choices in their homes, under their supervision! As if letting you do these things under their watchful and worldy eye will guarantee that you won’t do it at other times or in other places. Puhleeze.

Ironically, one of the biggest reasons you are so constantly supervised and watched is because you are so constantly taking pictures of yourselves and announcing your location to friends and family through apps, texts, and social media.

And yet, in spite of all that - I sort of refuse to believe its because of it - you are astonishingly optimistic, hopeful, helpful, generous. You’re genuine. (I love that word, genuine. Real.)

You'll hear adults and older people weep for you and tell you how awful kids these days are. Forgive them. They conveniently remember only the times they were angels and heroes and forget the burning crosses, the campus shootings and riots, the homegrown terrorist bombings from wackos all over the political spectrum, the separate drinking fountains, the abused or neglected spouses and children. They forget when they were bad. And they - we - adults - we're bad a lot. And frequently. We still are. We have the capacity to be good or bad, just like all of you. Except we're older and supposed to know better.

Regardless of adult opinions - and for better or worse, good or ill - you will soon be men. You’ll be on the other side of that fence. Many of you think you already are, and to that I say bravo and good luck. There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so, Shakespeare says. Attitude is everything, in other words. I reckon manhood is like that as well.

If you're wondering what being a man entails, or what you must do, or sharpen, or learn, or develop in order to truly become a man, then obviously, look at me. I’m sort of the expert on it.

But let me share what I spent my whole weekend reading. The October 2014 issue of Esquire magazine. The issue theme is HOW TO BUILD A MAN. Great read. Several really powerful features on the topic, and it's pushing the notion of mentoring in big-time ways.

No matter how controlled or supervised you are right now, and no matter how little control you may or may not have over the day or precise moment you become a truly independent person, a Man with a capital M, know that the day is coming, and know that you can dread it, anxiously await it, prepare for it, or deny it. There is nothing about becoming a man but thinking makes it so.

What kind of man do you want to be? What kind of man does the world need to make it a better place than what we adults have wrought?

If you care, and if you want to begin or continue the process of taking the steering wheel of your fate, putting your foot on the brake, accelerator and clutch of your own growth to becoming a man, I recommend taking opportunities, when they present themselves, to be mindful of this. Read a magazine about it. Follow The Art of Manliness on Twitter. Put some of your brain and skin into the game of becoming the man you dream for yourself.

Most important, listen to one another when you’re on this big, intimidating stage, and listen to what you value, to what’s important to you, when you have this mike. When your classmate stood up here a week ago… I mean wow. He opened his heart and soul up to his brothers. Not for sympathy or pity, and not to be a hero. He did it because he hopes hearing his words might give some of you in this room a moment to pause and possibly redirect your lives. His words were uniquely his, but the power of his talk was just one in a chorus of brave guys standing here and sharing something priceless.

I’ve witnessed over 20 years’ worth of talks in this Chapel. Y’all dread them; I love them. The bad ones just serve to remind me of how often they’re good. The adult ones, like mine, just remind me of how powerful a 17- or 18-year-old boy’s words or songs can be when you have the courage to take this stage, the courage to lay your heart and beliefs out there for your brothers to witness and learn.

We can try to teach you. We can tell you things, fill you with advice and our words of wisdom until your ears bleed. But you know what I believe? I believe you already know what a good man needs to be, what it takes to become a good man, even at 8 years old we know.

The only question, and it's an important, lifelong one: Are we willing to do what it takes, what we can, to become the men we want to be?

I believe the answer, for most of you in this room, is Yes. "Yo" was right. He really was. You boys just get better and better every year. And I can’t wait to see what kind of men you become. The world needs more good men.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Epiphany #62: A Mother's Revenge

Were she still alive, my mother and father would have celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary last week.  Instead, I suppose each of my family members had his own quiet reflection, but the occasion got me to thinking about the past, especially when we were very young.

My brother and I got the better of my mother one time.  It involved our allowances.  I don't know if parents even dole out allowances anymore, but ours tended to be based on our completion of an amorphous, loosely-supervised series of "chores" that we were expected to complete each week, things like cleaning out the garage or the basement, maybe taking out the trash or raking leaves, and some other mix of ways to help out sometimes.

And then there were our beds.  Neither one of us liked to make our beds, and we did so only very reluctantly.  So, in order to encourage us, one day my mother informed us that she was going to dock our allowances a quarter every time we didn't make our beds and pick up our rooms (it does need to be clarified that a quarter was a decent amount of money back then; in fact, it was the exact cost of a full-size candy bar at the drugstore uptown where we would stop after school most days).

A quarter deducted from our allowances also had something of an impact.  It was not insubstantial.  But, here was the problem for my mother: both of us decided that it was worth it to lose $1.75 each week and never make our beds or straighten our rooms.  Who knew that pre-teenage boys knew how to do a cost/benefit analysis of such sophistication?  For several weeks, in her clear handwriting, she would include a sheet to go with our cash allowances that clearly showed what had been deducted.  We accepted the money with a couple of shrugs, maybe even a smug comment or two.  Maybe we even began learning how to budget.

Eventually, as parents do when they are beaten, she ordered us to make our beds, but that was never accomplished with any regularity for the rest of our childhoods.

Tonight, I spent the evening cleaning up a room in my basement, a room that some, including me, might call a "man cave," although the various women in my family spend plenty of time here, too.  I ran the dishwasher twice, took out the recycling and the trash, scrubbed the countertops, vacuumed the floor, wiped away cobwebs, arranged the contents of cabinets, scraped off a table, put dishes away, sharpened knives and organized pots and pans.

It is all of the things that I do when I've done a lot of cooking at once and the space gets away from me, when I've been using any flat surface as a workspace, and when I need to take control of the room again.

To spend an evening engaging in these mundane activities has become an incredible pleasure of my later life.  To have a place that I can get cleaned and organized and set up the way I want it so that, when someone else comes in, the space is accessible and inviting, is a rewarding use of time.

What is worse is that the physical act of cleaning, the evening with no goal greater than making a space tidy that will only become untidy again, not unlike a made bed which will only become unmade within a few, short hours, is its own, definable joy.

Who knew that my mother's revenge would be so complete?  Now I realize that the unmade bed, the uncut grass, the untrimmed hedges, the unwashed clothes, the dirty dishes, the peeling paint, the cluttered car are all acceptable only to the carefree laziness of youth, and I no longer have that.  No, now, anything that brings a certain order to a chaotic world seems both desirable and worthy of the time and effort.  And though she might once have paid me for it, now I gladly do it for free.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Bottom of this Swamp

Like any good (or bad) teacher, I'd like to stop class for a few moments to watch some video clips. For the good of our education. First, a scene from Monty Python's classic film:

Let us now watch the trailer for the 1998 film version of Arthur Miller's greatest* moment, "The Crucible":

It's not a subtle theme or lesson, I admit, but right for the present day.

This is going to anger a lot of you, dear readers, and for that I apologize. But someone reasonable needs to write it, or say it: we are Witch Hunting two men in the NFL.

If you think this means I'm defending Ray Rice or Adrian Peterson, then I would politely wish a pox on your house, because this isn't about defending them as decent or good people. It is about fairness, selective justice, and bloodlust, and in these regards, we as a culture should be ashamed of ourselves, except we’re too busy judging others to remove the planks from our eyes. We are the lynch mob. We are The Ox-Bow Incident writ large.

Ray Rice was caught on camera hitting his wife, and we want to string him up, beat on him like a pinata, and preferably let him rot in some jail cell. At the end of the day, he didn't do a single thing some untold number -- can we just agree upon "hundreds"? -- of NFL players have done over the last 20 years. The only thing he did differently is be drunk or stupid enough to hit her in a casino elevator in the TMZ era. Burn the witch!

Wanna hang him? Fine. He did a horrible thing. But we’re acting like he's Patient Zero in an epidemic, like if we can just make enough of an example of this one guy, the disease will be cured.

Even more disturbing, we have expressed outrage that Roger Goodell didn't respond in measure with our own judgment until he saw the video of The Punch. And why are we outraged now, all of a sudden and out of nowhere, when the incident was first reported months ago? Because -- shocker -- we saw the video of The Punch. We are angry that Roger Goodell has reacted exactly the way our entire culture reacted: once seen, it cannot be downplayed or excused away.

And then there's Adrian Peterson, exacting a deranged and grotesque version of punishment some 75% of everyone over the age of 40 received at some point in their childhood, and we want him banned from the NFL forever and ever and ever. Or put to death. Burn the witch!

These are not exaggerations, by the way. There's people all over Twitter and Facebook with reactions about Peterson’s child abuse charge that make my description of “deranged and grotesque” read like excerpts from a 1952 Disney cartoon.

The simple act of me accusing the media and social media commenterati of hysteria risks making me appear as an apologist for a man who assaulted his 4-year-old child and called it “discipline.” That I take such a risk by writing anything shy of full condemnation of the man speaks -- screams -- to how binary our intellectual discourse has become. Someone must either Good (Adrian Peterson before these charges) or Evil (Adrian Peterson after these charges). Anyone who dares question these extremes in judgment, these absolutes and non-negotiables, is labeled Part of the Problem.

We’re picking and choosing our demons not with rational contemplation, but rather on the whims of the latest video or Facebook thread. We want to hang these two football players for acts of person-on-person violence while the Minnesota Vikings’ owner carries on about his business, while the Cleveland Browns’ owner carries on about his business of making more millions.

Hit a child? Burn the witch!
Embezzle or steal or defraud millions of dollars from people? Nothing to see here! Carry on! White collar crime!

Because it’s just not fun to watch TMZ video of someone defrauding people. It doesn’t feed our need to feel superior.

People might not like it, but Charles Barkley was right in his comments. Cris Carter was even more right in his, and Carter deserves the attention and praise for the level of emotion and righteous anger he expresses about the Peterson incident. (There’s an almost-reasonable breakdown of both here, including some insightful statistics and charts.)

But here’s the question Cris doesn’t answer when he talks so emotionally about his own upbringing: did his mother deserve to go to jail for her use of corporal punishment? What would the effect of such a consequence have been on him and his siblings had she been criminally charged for what she did?

I’ve spanked my children. Many close friends would disagree entirely with this choice.

I once grabbed my daughter’s arm so tightly in anger and frustration that I left the slight bruise mark from my thumb. When I was a kid, my friend Lance came to school bruised because he told his dad “That didn’t hurt” after the first round of a spanking.

At our dinner table as we discussed this topic, my eldest daughter said, “I’d rather you hit me than yell at me. I can still remember almost every time you yelled at me, but I don’t remember but one time you ever spanked me.”

And then: “Most physical wounds heal, but emotional ones don’t.”

To be sure, these are the comments of a daughter who hasn’t been permanently scarred with switches, or had her mouth stuffed with leaves, or been concussively knocked in the head for disobedience. These are the comments of a mostly well-treated daughter, physically (and, I’d like to think, emotionally) speaking.

But what if her words are still true? What if the anger and the yelling we express as parents do as much damage as those spankings? Will we as a society seek to criminalize anger? Or yelling? Will I find myself in jail one day because I shout something critical at my child? (Alec Baldwin is still making good money, to be sure, and I’m not sure how much higher up on the Decent Human Being Ladder I’d place him than Peterson or Rice.)

Is this really where we want to go with our judgments? Are we getting too comfortable with our own bloodlust in the guise of thinking we're good people calling for the guillotine?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

False Alarm, Don't Look Up


The fire alarms in our house have gone off almost two dozen times in the four years we have lived there.

Not once was there a fire. On one occasion, there was smoke. The rest of the times, nothing.

To make matters worse, the alarms prefer waiting until everyone in our house is asleep. At least three-quarters of these false alarms have occurred between 1 - 5:30 a.m.

We have trained ourselves, through no fault of our own, to believe our fire alarm means nothing. It is an electronically-implemented Boy Who Cries Wolf, wired into our living space. We are now Pavlov’s dogs, and if God forbid a fire is ever creeping its way into our home, we’re so trained for false alarms we’ll be doomed.

In a twist of bitter irony, the single greatest threat to our surviving a house fire is our screwed-up fire alarm system.

Well, and me, the dad who keeps saying he oughtta do something about that but instead just writes about it.


"Don't look up," I heard her say.

I'd stopped in a Walgreens to pick up a few sundries on the way to a social gathering. Generally, the faster I can get in and out of drug stores in Chattanooga, the happier I am.

Unlike, say, Target, where it's easy to let your feet and eyes wander into purchasing considerations that can delay even the most urgent traveler, most of the drug stores here are Xeroxes of one another. They somehow manage to seem, simultaneously, sterile and seedy.

When I heard this woman's voice, I instinctively looked over and saw her at one of those photo monitors where you pick the prints you want printed from a CD or flash drive. Two small children, in the 5-7 range, sat one on each side of her, on the ground.

"I told you look down," the mom said, loudly. "Don't make me tell you again."

Of course it wasn't my business, but I couldn't help but look. Those two kids looked so sad. Forced to sit next to their mother but not allowed, apparently, to do anything other than state at a boring tiled drug store floor.

I made eye contact with the little girl and winked at her. My unofficial translation of the response her eyes gave me was this: "Strange man, you cannot help me. And this scene you're witnessing is nothing. I will get in more trouble before this day is done; the only questions are when and how."

Walking past them on the way to check out I couldn't help but notice the screen. On it were pictures of this woman, their mom I'm assuming, in a variety of poses on a bed, clad in various states of undress, but mostly in black lingerie. Bra, panties, some kind of hose and garters. There must have been dozens of pics, perhaps hundreds.

Once back in the privacy of my car, I just sat quietly, pondering in park while the A/C hissed. Unfortunately, we don’t always have to read the whole book because we really do know how the story goes.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What Joan Rivers Should Mean to My Daughters

Dear Daughters,

Joan Rivers died. She was a comedienne. She was often funny. She helped blaze an important trail for female comedians. For this she should be recognized and, at least on some level, appreciated.

If you're wondering why I expressed such sorrow at the death of Robin Williams but struggle to mourn the loss of a female in his line of work, you need to understand that it's not entirely sexist. Perhaps it is a little; I'm not the best one to judge it, I guess.

Unfortunately, the Joan Rivers you knew from cable channels was the Joan Rivers who spent most of her time insulting how other people looked. Her insults were aggressively insensitive and often flat-out cruel. The core of her humor was, as one of the mothers who used to carpool me to school would say, "hateful." Many comedians are vulgar and say cruel things, but few of them spend such a huge portion of their time and make their name by demeaning others as Ms. Rivers did.

Ms. Rivers was as critical of her own appearance as she was of others', as the reported 700+ plastic surgery procedures she underwent in her life attest. Others will claim that this excuses her cruelty. I, on the other hand, don't believe "scorched earth" is a good excuse for much of anything. Burning the town because you torched your own home still makes you an arsonist. Insulting everyone else's appearance because you believe you are ugly makes you pitiful, but it doesn't excuse you. It wasn't a good philosophy in "War Games," and if Dabney Coleman can learn it, so can you.

You are growing up in a culture that cannot seem to reduce its love affair with fame. Fame no longer even requires talent so much as being in the right place at the right time on the right social media outlet. You are also growing up in a time when the Selfie has become the single most common form of creative expression for girls and young women.

With the Selfie comes a culture as obsessed with appearance as any in my lifetime, probably ever. Nauseatingly misguided concepts like "thigh gap" have been injected into your lexicon. The siren song desire to simply be known, for anything, for whatever it takes to get attention, is almost impossible to ignore.

What I need you to see is that Joan Rivers, like so many celebrities and stars, was a tragic figure. She sold her soul, at some point somehow, for the chance to continue beaming her increasingly-altered facade into our living room. None of the stuff she chased made her any happier with the way she looked.

One day in the next few years, I hope you'll read a novel by Oscar Wilde called "The Picture of Dorian Gray." In short, it's a fable about vanity and how much of ourselves we are willing to sacrifice to maintain our surface allure.

As a father who loves you very much and who knows that my gender has done more harm than good in matters of women, self-esteem and obsession with superficial notions of beauty, I promise you few things -- maybe nothing -- worries me quite as much as how easy it can be for a teenage girl to be paralyzed by, drugged by, a reflection.

If the fable of Joan Rivers teaches you anything, know that hers is the story of someone who could never find happiness in her reflection because she never knew what she should have been looking for.

You are beautiful to me, daughters, but I’d love you if you were the color of a baboon’s ass. I'd love you even if you deformed your appearance over 700 times because you could never manage to see what I can see. I'll love you no matter what, but I cannot control how you think of yourself, or how you treat others.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Epiphany #61: Is Anybody Sleeping Anymore?

A typical morning conversation these days seems to go like this:

Person #1:  "Man, I didn't sleep well last night."

Person #2:  "Me, neither.  I was up at 3:15 and I couldn't go back to sleep."

And then what follows usually is a discussion of how each of the struggling sleepers dealt with their situations.  There's the get up and watch a movie guy.  There's the read all night on her phone woman.  There's the meditative, take advantage of quiet time person.  There's the need to pee prostate guy.  There's me, who refuses to get up or do anything other than lie in the dark, rationalizing that even light rest is better than nothing.

But if you were awake in the middle of the night last night chances are many of the people you know were awake as well, all of them, all of us, in separate, lonely places where we felt like we were the only ones awake.  We weren't.

A couple of weeks ago, when I woke up around 4:30AM, I picked up my phone and looked to see what time it was, and there, facing me was a text from a friend sent around 9AM.  So I responded to his question.  Within a minute or two, my phone buzzed with the question, "What are you doing up?"

"Woke up," I said.  "Couldn't go back to sleep.  What about you?"

"Getting ready to go for a bike ride," he responded.

There wasn't even any reason to challenge his plan.  I thought, okay, the roads are probably clear and it makes sense.  As if night, or early morning, is becoming the new day.  As if there are all kinds of things that are better accomplished at night when much of the world around us is shut down.

I wonder if there is a greater adaptation going on around us, where, yeah, sleep, a full night's sleep, a straight through eight hours, would be pretty cool, but that it might also be a worthy sacrifice when there are so many things we could get done.

It isn't healthy, of course.  Any number of recent studies have shown us that the brain can't get rid of its toxins if we don't get enough sleep, but I'm also pretty sure that most of us can't even tell that our brain has toxins.  We just know that by 3PM we are hitting a wall, ready to crash.  And we figure that maybe we can catch a quick "power" nap before the evening cranks up.

Then there are teens, who are "vamping," using late night hours for all of their social media activities, even though they need the sleep even more than we do.  Many of their lives have become so busy that David Brook's notion of "The Organization Kid" has become pervasive, teens who are  impassive schedulers of everything because that is the only way they can fit it all in.

What is pretty certain is that many of us are up when we are not supposed to be.  Ask around.  For some of us age and worry are the reasons we don't get through the night.  For others, there is simply too much.  Of everything.

From a personal perspective, I feel all of those reasons and more colliding at once, and the bad thing is that I'm getting used to it.  Or, maybe even worse, I think I am.  But it's also possible, as I sometimes wonder, that I am moving through the days in a more laconic kind of stupor, being "on" when I need to be and feel resentful when I want to be "off."

Just realize that when you are lying awake, staring at the bleakness or listening for the first birds, I am probably there, too.  It is that strange journey outside of normal time that too many of us are on.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Epiphany #60: The 2nd and 3rd Listens

Tom Petty's excellent new CD didn't catch me at first, but that is my fault.  As often happens with me, the first listen didn't grab me, but, in this case, the cards were stacked even more against my enjoyment.  Although I tend to be liberal in most every way possible, it is as a music listener that my more conservative side comes out.

Thinking more broadly, though, I think we are all of us a bit more skeptical of the latter-day output of our favorite rock stars, expecting to be disappointed, and then overwhelmingly pleased when we aren't.

For Petty, Hypnotic Eye represents (allegedly) a return to a more rock-based sound, a critical commentary on his most recent previous releases--Mojo, Highway Companion, and The Last DJ.  While the former was supposedly a blues album, the solo effort a self-conscious autobiographical CD, and the latter a concept album, to these ears all three were classic, rocking, if somewhat underrated Petty material.

So when I put on Hypnotic Eye, I guess I was expecting Damn The Torpedoes or some such, and this band, good as they are, ain't doin' that at this stage of life.  One of the problems with rockers is that we keep hoping, I think, for young men's albums when neither we nor the band are any longer young.

But that wasn't even the problem, or problems, really.  When I first heard the new CD, I had my phone on "Shuffle," without realizing it, and so the songs came at me in whatever order they felt like. You think that doesn't matter?  I'm here to tell you that it does.  When I first heard the disc sequenced as intended, the 1-2-3 punch of "American Dream Plan B," "Fault Lines," and "Red River" revealed the CD's true rock intent.  And on my phone, there is no break between songs, so these guitar-driven songs blasted at me one after another.

The other problem was that I'd didn't listen to it loud enough.  Even many of my most rock-devoted friends seem not to understand, or have forgotten, that rock is meant to be played loud.  Good rock is not background music.  It does not live below the conversation.  Good rock is better than conversation.  There I said it.  And Petty is good rock.

A song like "Fault Lines", with its insistent beat, not only has a lyric ("I've got a few of my own fault lines running under my life") that demands our attention, but it also has music interludes, like Mike Campbell's bare guitar,  that mirror those lyrics.

For me, the emotional core of Hypnotic Eye is "Red River," an apparent rewrite of McGuinn's "Lover Of The Bayou," that adds a romantic element to the mythic Cajun woman depiction.  The song is both vintage Petty and current Petty, with a rock-bottom bass and a vocal that sounds like the years haven't happened.

And I know this because for the third listen, I put on a pair of headphones.  I have alluded before to the fact that the modern world gives us increasingly-few opportunities to listen to music without distraction.  Often, only headphones, in whatever location we are willing to shut out the world (which doesn't want to be shut out), allow us to hear music as it was meant to be heard.

One of the joys of this CD is the consistent quality of the songs.  I have plenty of Petty offerings where he seems to have gotten bored somewhere 2/3 to 3/4 of the way in.  Not here.  Every song distinguishes itself sonically from the others, even as he adopts rhythms and riffs from times past.  I don't know of the song here that doesn't work; that doesn't mean that all of them are favorites, but by now I have certain Petty moves that I hope for in songs, and when I get those, I like the song even better.

Still, the highlights of the CD continue top to bottom.  Later songs like "Forgotten Man," "Sins Of My Youth," and "Shadow People" all stand out as either economical or expansive rockers that put at least the slightest twist on the standard rock song.

There was a time when I considered Tom Petty kind of a 2nd-tier talent.  His lyrics seemed simplistic compared to the giants in the game.  But now is now, and I suspect that Petty is the premiere chronicler of American life among the older generation of American rockers. While Dylan enjoys the private jokes in his head and Springsteen is a bit locked into the working man ethos, Petty feels like like a man who has been a lot of places and has built songs around his observations.

Certainly, "Shadow People," his study of the paranoid gun culture riding in the car next to you, has no parallel in modern music. It is creepy and unsettling, but it also makes you realize that you already knew what he is telling.  He just makes you confront it.  And anyone who can do that not only remains vital, but, words and music considered together, I'm not sure I've heard anything better this year.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

"The Merciful, The Compassionate"

"In the name of God, The Merciful, The Compassionate."

These are your welcoming introductory words to ISIS beheading videos, according to several reports. Their compassionate, merciful God is apparently cool with His loving people decapitating other human beings.

Last week on Facebook, I posted an intriguing, if flawed, article that appeared in Time online entitled, “5 Reasons Christians are Rejecting the Notion of Hell.” One of my Facebook friends kind enough to reply to my post offered some quotes from Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, from an interview in the New York Times:
“I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something,” he said between chews. “I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen,” he went on. “My girlfriend says this great thing that’s become my philosophy as well. ‘I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.’ ”
George C. Scott’s character in The Exorcist III (an underrated film, to be sure), has an even better way of putting it:

When I proclaim, with quivering voice and an aura of uncertainty, that I do not believe in hell, it is not an evangelical call for like minds. Opinions and beliefs don’t change much nowadays -- like we're afraid God would not tolerate doubt or uncertainty -- so a blog that usually focuses on pop culture nonsense is no venue to sway anyone.

The Bible is relatively clear on the afterlife. There is a heaven, and there is another place that’s eternally crappy. Call it whatever you will. Hell. Hades. Sheol. Lake of Fire. Whatevs. Jesus talks about it, about the punishment of not believing.

Jesus also talks about how you can’t follow him unless you hate your family, but even the most strident Christian loves to explain that one away. In fact, right after they will tell you that you can’t pick and choose the verses you like, and you can’t explain away all the ugly stuff you don’t like in the Bible, they’ll explain away why Jesus told you to hate your parents.

Because that’s what we all do to the Bible if we care at all about it. We interpret it. We work to make sense of it. Except for the ones who think they’ve got it all figured out perfectly. And I just call those people zealots, or crazy. Tomato tomahto.

Hell could very well exist. But here is what I believe to the core of my soul: it is my responsibility and duty as a Christian to hope it doesn’t, to pray it doesn’t. And if it does exist, it is my duty to pray that God changes his mind (which, by the way, has Biblical precedent as well) and offers parole for the eternally damned.

If you claim to be a Christian, and if you ever find yourself hoping and praying that someone, or some group of people, or some portion of humanity, will “burn in Hell” or “rot in Hell for all eternity,” then I am absolutely certain that you weren’t reading the Gospels very closely. I just know those are not Christian wishes or words. To desire justice on Earth is human, is reasonable, is understandable. To desire that someone, anyone, should suffer forever and ever amen is bloodlust, and it is decidedly unChristian.

ISIS beheads “intruders” to honor their God, “the merciful, the compassionate.” We want to “bring ISIS idiots to justice” (read: bomb them into tiny puddles of hair gel and blood) because we believe our merciful and compassionate God would champion our sense of right and wrong.

God becomes nothing so much as the centerpiece for a vicious cycle of come-uppance in our desperate thirst for what different books and faiths perceive as “justice.” God becomes our excuse to sink ever further into unGodly behavior, violence and revenge as retribution and holiness.

I hope for no Hell, but I leave it to God. I hope for justice, but I leave it to God. I know my sins make me an unworthy and undeserving soul, but I’m not worried about myself or my fate. I worry about those beyond Earthly reach or reason, beyond human hope. If His Grace is big enough to overcome any obstacle -- and it is -- I will hope it’s big enough to reach even the most lost of souls guilty of the most rotten of wrongs. And, because I know He could if He chose to, I will hope He does.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Epiphany #59: I don't listen to music; I just ask my friends who the good bands are

The following remarks were delivered to the student body today:

Summer, which I guess officially ended two days ago with Labor Day, always makes me think of reading.  Not only do we all invest, in varying degrees, in our annual summer reading program, but summer is also a time when I get to do a lot of reading that I don't get to do during the school year when I am too busy. 

This may not seem like a dream vacation to you, but each summer I go to a condominium in Venice, FL for a couple of weeks.  Sometimes there are other family members there, but my wife is an attorney and the summer  for whatever reason, is her busiest season, so some of the time I am alone. 

During those alone times, I do a lot of reading.  Venice has an incredible public library system (actually its libraries are where the idea for your current learning center originally came from) and I go in several times a week to see what they've got.  This summer, for example, I checked out and read 8 books while down there.  It was a varied list-- a nonfiction book about being a sous chef, three recently released modern novels, three flat-out page-turning thrillers, and a biography.  Along with the Sherlock Holmes book and my East Of Eden book group, it was a good reading summer.  I wish I would read like that the rest of the year.

Each semester, as a final project in my "English For The Rest Of Your Life" course, I ask seniors to write about their reading experiences in high school.  They can approach the essay pretty much however they'd like, but there is one trait that tends to distinguish the essays as a whole: honesty.  Unflinching, soul-crushing (if you’re an English teacher) honesty.

Seniors at the end of a course, or at the end of their high school careers, will tell you anything, in this case, about their reading.  And here are some of the things they have said in years past:

"First, I would like to apologize for not reading more."

"I still want to read ____________ from Mr. ________'s class,  but the other books didn't interest me much."

"Prior to junior year, I had not dug deep into the true art of literature due to my lack of interest in English."

"My reading career is not something I'm particularly proud of."

"I hardly ever read, probably didn't even read a whole book. I began to realize that I may be able to BS my way through my school work, which may or may not have been a very good thing to realize."

"When I say that I didn't read a single book that whole semester, that is no exaggeration."

So let's talk about that little Mccallie secret for a few minutes--the fact that many of us don't read as much as we say or, put differently, that we read as little as possibly can and still do well.  It's true, isn't it?  We are a good school.  You are talented students.  You go to college and beyond and do well.  But the reading?  Well, we don't read as much as we pretend we do.  At least many of us don't.  We skim, we check with a pal to find out what the reading was about, we use a lifeline to Wikipedia, we walk into a class with brazen confidence that we can talk about the reading without having read it.

So let me be clear about one thing.  This is not about guilt.  I'm not really into guilt, and I'm certainly not going to try to guilt you into reading.  I'm not trying to shame you or to make you feel bad.  But the lack of reading?  It is, quite simply, more of a reality than I think it should be.  So let's talk about why we don't.  I've got 9 reasons that came to mind pretty quickly:

1. You are busy.  I am busy.  We are all busy.  When we are busy, when we are tired, it is hard to find the energy to read.

2.    We prioritize, and our priority is what is going to be graded.  And if we figure out that our reading isn't going to be graded, we try to get by without doing it.  It’s an academic gamble.  Sometimes we win.

3.  Reading is very difficult for some of us, and very boring for others.

4.  we have convinced ourselves that we know what we like to read and we don't want to read anything else.

5.  We have figured out that our teachers go over the reading in class any way, so we think there is no need to read.

6.  There are any number of shortcuts available to us that will help us to get by.

7.  There are so many distractions, so many other forms of entertainment, so many other ways to pass the time, so many other ways to get information.

8.  The process of reading, as done in school is strange.  Read x number of pages a night?  Who reads like that on his or her own?  More likely, if we get into a book, we will sit and read it for hours.  And if we dont, well....

9.  We no longer consider reading a natural act.  Neither do our friends.  Neither does society.  It has even been said that because of our lifestyle of brief bursts of technology, our brains are finding it nearly impossible for us to tackle and finish long books.  But given the numbers of you who worked through Game Of Thrones, East Of Eden, Lonesome Dove, Prince Of Tides, and a bunch of other really long books this summer, I know that when the desire and interest is there, that theory is simply not true.

At the same time, I know that I cannot stand up here and argue that reading is its own reward.  Not when the contexts of reading in the past, like the simple joy of sitting down with a good book, are disappearing.  Not when I cram much of the non-school reading I do into the summer.

But I also know that reading is a routine.  And like weightlifting or drum practice or shooting free throws, the more we do it, the better we get at it.

I’ll focus on just two reasons why reading is absolutely essential.  Both are equally important and they work different parts of the brain.

 The first may seem obvious, but I'm not sure there is anything more important:  if you don't read for yourself, you are at the mercy of someone else to interpret what the world means.  And that could mean your knowledge of art, politics, religion, science, literature, health, the food you eat, the pills you take, the air you breathe, the climate you live in, the problems that need to be solved first, all would be beyond your control.  Given what you know about the divisive nature of our world, about any number of groups and ideologies who want to keep us polarized and in the dark, for whatever reasons, do you really want to leave your understanding in the hands of someone else? 

What becomes increasingly important today, probably even crucial, is your ability to understand both what is being said and how it is being said.  It has to be both.  If you don't know how to figure out a writer or speaker' tone, then you can't possibly know what he or she is saying.  And if you don't work through the words on the page, you can't learn to do that.  If you can't learn to figure out whether a source of information is reliable or not, then you have nothing to base any of your opinions on.  And if you don't grapple with the words on the page, you can't check statements and sources, assertions or representations.  Lastly, if all you have is someone else's summary, you miss out on the beauty of ideas.  So somebody told you that The Great Gatsby is about the corruption of the American Dream.  So what?  That doesn't even begin to capture the complexity of our country's values and hoped as represented in that book.  And that is as true in a science class as it is in history.

2.  The second reason for reading may be a tough one to accept, especially given how often we as men are told that we aren’t in touch with our feelings:  reading makes you more empathetic.  What is empathy?  Most of you probably know, but in case you don't, Merriam-Webster defines empathy as "the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else's feelings."  In other words, the ability to walk a mile in someone else's shoes.  Scientific studies have shown that reading novels, for example, "make you kinder, cleverer, more productive, and a whole lot more open to the experience of others."  I have no doubt that this is true of other types of writing as well.

Do you think that a bunch of boys in a boys school have any interest in empathy?  No?  Well, consider this--year after year, when my seniors write about their favorite books, novels like The Kite Runner and Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close bubble to the top, books that allow guys like you to experience situations that are foreign to our experience, but that resonate with your own experiences of friendship, betrayal, and loss.  Even McCallie's current favorite book, The Great Gatsby, I would argue, clicks with those of you who read it because, more than ever, the conflict between seeking wealth and finding happiness is something you want to understand.

And so, I leave you with a challenge. For all of us.  Let's buck the national trends of a decline in reading, the same way we do with our code of honor, with our sense of community.  Let's acknowledge a) that reading makes us better people and b) that we want to better people; otherwise, why are we here.  And let's read what we are asked to read so that we can become increasingly better at figuring out what we want to do with what we have read.  But the burden for that is not entirely on you.  As one of my seniors wrote last year, “When I was in middle school, I read everything I could get my hands on.”  That same senior didn’t read much in high school.  So something changed, and it is the responsibility of all of us to make reading a want-to, have-to, and can’t-live-without experience.  But it will require your buying into it.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Epiphany #58: Your Back Windshield

Think of us as weird, if you must, maybe even a little creepy.  I don't care.  The drive was very, very long, and I offer no apologies.

So, we are driving through Indiana, just past Terre Haute, heading south, one of the most Godawful boring states in the union, full of farms and cornfields, broken up by a few "plantings" of wind turbines generating electricity for excitement, and my wife is at the wheel.  When you go down long stretches of straight roads, you encounter the same few cars, you passing them or them passing you.

A truck passes us.  We have seen it before.  We recognize it because on the back in one of those "In Memoriam" stickers, with the lost loved one's birth and death dates.  This one has a cross in between the two dates.  Behind the cross, two automatic rifles form an "X."

We look at it for a few moments.  Again.  Neither of us says anything.  Then my wife says, "Seventeen years.  I can hardly stand to look at that."

Indeed, the boy named on the back windshield lived a mere 17 years, it seems.

We look at it some more, taking in the tragedy of a life cut short, like most parents would do.  Then my wife says, "Look it up."  And though we have traveled thousands and thousands of miles together and have never done this before, I know exactly what she wants.

So I get out my phone and put in the boy's name, plus the word "obituary," and hit the search button.  Despite the poor cellular service, it comes up quickly.

"He's from around here," I begin.  "He was born in Terre Haute."

"He was actually only 16 when he died."

"What did he die of?"  I am wondering, because of the assault rifles, if he died in the military, having enlisted early, or in a school shooting, or in some kind of a gun accident.

"It doesn't say," I say.  "He died in a local hospital."  We are quiet.  There doesn't seem to be much more to say.  But I have nothing to do. So I keep looking.  "According to the obituary, his father died five years earlier."

I keep digging, hoping to find out, was it a disease or a drug overdose or what.  But there is nothing except more hits with the same name.  But I have nothing to do, so I keep looking.

"Wait a second," I say.  "His stepbrother died in West Virginia just a couple of months after him."  Now, something strange hangs in the air, the feeling that we have walked into a family and its tragedies and a series of dates too close together, for what?

" That poor mother, " my wife says.  "She must be suicidal."

But we have nothing left besides speculation.  A bit of Internet research leads to nothing but greater mystery, which we cannot solve.  Heredity? Bad luck? Coincidence?  We can't know.

And then the truck gets into the turning lane and we shoot past.  "Sullivan," I say.  "That's where they're from."

"Probably the father," my wife says.

"He's dead, remember."

"Stepfather, then."

And that's how it ends.  A predilection among certain Americans to turn the backs of their cars into tombstones and our incursion into their lives, sharing the deepening darkness a truck otherwise never reveals, until that truck turns and we look out onto the road ahead and move on.