Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Rocking Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

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

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

"Why are you doing this to yourself?"

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

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


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

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

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

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

Third, you think of the children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 29, 2014

Billy's Hit List 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Try these: Teenage Wasteland, North Sea Girls

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

Try these: Bad News, Good Job, Be Brave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Bob's Favorite Music Of 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"Simply Be My Child"

What kind of parent do I want to be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simply be my child.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Making Lemonade

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then the dance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Epiphany #75: COLD beer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 12, 2014

Epiphany #74: Dances With Strangers, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Looking for an Accomplice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Epiphany #73: Dances With Strangers, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Chant Sublime

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

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

Their old familiar carols play

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

And wild and sweet the words repeat

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

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

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

And in despair, I bowed my head

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

There is no peace on earth, I said

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

For hate is strong and mocks the song

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

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

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

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep

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

God is not dead nor does He sleep

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

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

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

With peace on earth, good will to men

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

A voice, a chime, a chant sublime

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

Of peace on earth, good will to men

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Epiphany #72: Entropy and Christmas Ornaments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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