Friday, January 31, 2014

It Shouldn't Take a Village to Shoosh Your Kid

When exactly did a screaming baby in a public place become a debatable topic? When my parents were children, there were four rules for children in the presence of adult not in the immediate family:

1. Shut.
2. The.
3. F*#k.
4. Up.

OK, there were five. The fifth, in tiny font and parentheses, was:

“... (unless spoken to)...”
By the time my generation was born and journeyed through our schooling years, the rules had relaxed a bit. Kids could talk, but only if they were saying something stupid or funny enough to keep adults entertained, and even then, it better not last longer than a standard YouTube commercial.

Once upon a time, interrupting a chatty kid wasn’t rude. In fact, it was an accepted part of life, because that generation of parents was raised with the aforementioned 4 ½ rules; they considered themselves wildly benevolent to even allow kids to talk at all, ever.

At some point between then and now, we decided kids had rights or something. We decided that whatever the hell comes out of kids’ mouths merits the same value and consideration as that of any other adult at the dinner party. I don’t know when that was. Maybe it was around the same time meth came into vogue, which would make sense.

In the mid-90s, my wife and I had just moved to Chattanooga, and we were church hunting. We visited an Episcopal church in town, because we were good friends with a huge number of Episcopalians -- or Anglicans, or whatever they liberal ones are calling themselves these days. The service was a bit too “by the book” for us, but that’s not what chased us away. It was the kids. The middle aisle of that church might as well have been the daycare room. Kids ages 2 - 8 were running up and down the aisles during the service. Not, like, during the “children’s moment,” mind you, but just as general practice. We looked around, wondering where the parents were, and none of the other parishioners seemed bothered. They were just smiling and facing the front. We couldn’t concentrate on the sermon -- or homily, or whatever Episcopanglicans call it -- for the kids, or for the unfazed adults apparently numbed to it.

What we didn’t know is that this church was merely ahead of the cultural curve.

In the past 20 years or so, the Emboldened Child Syndrome has exploded. And what I mean by Emboldened Child Syndrome is “Crappy Parents.” Their kids run up to your booth at a restaurant and say something clever or nonsensical and, if you are lucky, spill your beer by flying a Lego airplane over it. And the parents sit, giddy and unapologetic at their table, and wave at you and wink because they want you to share in the joy of their child’s adorable precociousness.

Because we’re generally nice and decent people, we keep our mouths shut. But we quietly promise one another never to be those parents, never to expect other adults to babysit our children for free, or to tolerate what we find cutesy and adorable unless they signed up for it by entering our house or some other locale where children can be expected, like Chuck E Cheese.

And most of us, I truly believe, have held to these vows. Most of us don’t expect everyone else to adore our sweet angels unconditionally and under all circumstances.

The Chattanooga paper recently tried to suggest that there might be some “controversy” surrounding whether parents should be allowed to bring small screamy children to expensive restaurants.

It is not a controversy. It is simply selfish. Period.

Anyone should be allowed to bring any kid anywhere, with one simple provision: when your child’s volume disturbs or might remotely disturb others and cannot be managed, remove said child from the premises. Take the child outside, or to the bathroom, or to the top of a mountain, anywhere so long as it’s away from everyone who is entitled not to have to give a flip about you or your child.

Here’s the flip-side rule for those who have no children in the restaurant: have a heart. A grain of sympathy for parents -- even incompetent or selfish ones -- isn’t asking too much. Most of us do this. But even parents have breaking points; it's perfectly reasonable for a stranger's patience to be sliced much thinner.

The Golden Rule is, I fear, misunderstood. If you think The Golden Rule is about you… then for the sake of everyone else’s dining enjoyment, please just stay at home.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Epiphany #9

The "classicalizing" of popular music is a neat trick, one that is new to me and, I would argue, best experienced live.  Oh, I've known for a long time that there are classical and strings versions of pop songs, just like there are entire CDs of bluegrass instrumental versions of the Beatles and everyone else.  No, I'm talking about something a little bit different.

Last night, I saw Sybarite 5 in concert, a classical quintet consisting of five good-looking (sorry, it mattered), casually-dressed (it mattered), young (it mattered), supremely-skilled (it really mattered) classically-trained musicians who played everything from Mozart to Radiohead, Piazzolla to Turkish folk songs, friends of the band who are composers to Led Zeppelin.

The appeals of the performance are almost too many to list--continual "what will they play next" anticipation, superb musical execution, skilled playfulness and complete dedication to the music, band interplay, satisfying arrangements, among others.

But what I realized most dramatically was how their approach pulled all of music into a continuum.  Last night, there were no musical categories other than the Sybarite 5 setlist, what was in and what was out.  And even then, I felt like the possibilities for what could have been there were limitless.

Take music from any time, any place, any culture and play it on the same set of instruments,  and very quickly it all feels part of an expansive whole.  I know, of course, of many bands that draw from a variety of influences.  This was a more dramatic mix.

I knew going in that Radiohead was a particular favorite of theirs to interpret, and when I heard "Paranoid Android" I understood why.  That song,  like others they took on, has intriguing bass, percussion, guitar, and vocal parts, as well as different sections and time changes, that an arranger could recreate to great effect on violins, viola, cello, and bass, using percussive bows, plucked strings, and other techniques.  The "melody" of the song is complex and meandering, at times discordant, at times beautiful, and although it is not the easiest song to listen to, there is always something interesting going on.  And, take the voice and rock instruments away and it becomes something else.

The Zeppelin they played, "Heartbreaker," also pushes the boundaries of pop music's song structures--key changes, multiple sections, the Jimmy Page solo in the middle with nothing (recreated note for note on violin), different speeds with loud and quiet sections.

But I'm not a particularly classical guy and the tangos of Piazzolla (they played three) were no less satisfying.

In short, what they did was to take staid, respectful classical music and drag it into the modern world, while, in the same set, they took accomplished modern songwriters and gave their rhythms and melodies arrangements that linked them explicitly with that music that has stood the test time.  If you think that Sybarite 5 was slumming it when they played Radiohead or Zeppelin, then you give neither Page/Plant nor Thomas Yorke (or Sybarite 5's arranger) enough credit.

I walked out with that often-realized, often-forgotten understanding that all music connects to all music.  Who knows how long it will last this time, but I do hope that someday it will take for good.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Cancer Email

One of the founders of Facebook has apparently declared the imminent death of email. To no one’s surprise, his death proclamation involves the chance to make money on “something better.”

In truth, rarely in our world does a communication medium die. When it does die utterly -- 8-tracks, Betamax -- it does so only because there is a newer medium that does everything that medium could accomplish and then some. That is, they only die when they get devoured by a bigger fish.

As my life of communication has increasingly taken on more avenues and alleys, as Instagram has become a legitimate way for me to communicate with my own daughters, email has become that cute aunt you grew up admiring but whose constant smoking and drinking has aged her drastically. She still wants to be cute and fun, but she’s getting all wrinkly and raspy-voiced, and you kind of wonder if she’ll grow up in time to live to see her AARP membership card.

Recently, I’ve been reminded why email is an undervalued vehicle for communication, and this reminder has come attached to cancer.

One of my childhood friend’s sisters was diagnosed with breast cancer in the early fall. One of my coworkers was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in November. One of my in-laws was diagnosed with prostate cancer in December.

My friend’s sister -- she’s a friend of mine in her own right -- is barely 37. My coworker just turned 44. My in-law relative is in his early 50s. Just as it does with everyone whose path it crosses, cancer has rocked their worlds and challenged everything they knew about priorities, values, health, boredom, love and friendship.

When you’re sitting with them, even if you’re talking about some inane topic like "Duck Dynasty," you can see it in their eyes. They have no desire to talk endlessly about their own health, the challenge their mortality faces, but it still stabs into their conscience like a rude drunk dinner guest, and they try blinking it away. They don’t want everything to be about Their Cancer. But there it is, and it won’t leave, and it’s eating them out of house and home. And everyone brings it up or is thinking about it even when they don't.

Two of these three people have created an email list of friends and concerned acquaintances. They are writing regular updates on how they are doing. In the case of the relative, he isn’t sending out emails, but his wife is. Although I’d never considered any of these people to be “Writers,” I’ve been blown away and deeply moved by the level of detail they provide, the small non-sentimental window they open into their experience.

Their emails are not pleas for sympathy or pity. They are information. Here’s how I’m doing. Here’s what it feels like. I didn’t know my neck would hurt this much. Food has begun to taste like metal. My hair is clumping in the drain, and I have to admit it’s freaking me out, no matter how much everyone tried to prepare me for it.

Cancer updates on Facebook just don’t have the same gravitas. It reeks a bit of oversharing, or of seeking too much sympathy from too many people, a sort of self-promoting of one’s illness. On the flip side, it’s almost cruel to ask someone to repeat their Adventures in Treatment and Vomit for the 33rd time on the phone or over coffee.

Rather than having to tell all of this, over and over, time and again, in one on one settings with all those people who -- yes, they’re genuinely concerned and love you -- won’t let you enjoy a dang minute of thinking and talking about anything BUT this nightmare that has taken over their lives, these bulk emails must be liberating.

One story. One version. Sent to any and all eyes who fall into that second circle of close friends and family and coworkers. Brief conversational follow-ups that take on a new dimension, with people who know the basics from the email updates!

Meanwhile, people like me who are (probably overly) emotional but try not to wear it too blatantly on their sleeves can read these updates, weep quietly in the comfort of my office or home or car, and then gather myself for the rest of the world.

If email dies, and nothing sprouts up to allow me to get my cancer updates (or, heaven forbid, to one day allow me to email my friends and loved ones updates on my own potentially terminal condition), then we will have truly killed something special and powerful.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Epiphany #8

Each time we meet at Panera, my father orders a mug of steamed, skim milk.  "In the biggest mug you have," he'll command sometimes.  "No foam," he'll remind them at other times.  Most of the people who work there, at least the ones who have been there awhile, know him and his order.  And he knows them, but still, sometimes he's gruff and inflexible, sometimes has the whole thing redone done if they accidentally steam 2% milk instead of skim.

Me, I try to tease with them.  "I'll bet he's the only one who orders that," I'll say confidentially when he has moved away.  Or, "It's us again."  Or, "Thanks for accommodating him."

Why does he do it?  Because instead of hot chocolate, he likes to bring his own vial of Ovaltine to make his own hot drink for our chats.  Hot chocolate is too sweet, too full of fat.  It is not what he wants.  And he knows what he wants.

Why do I do it?  Because he embarrasses me.  There, I said it.  Sometimes out in public, my beloved father embarrasses me.  He embarrasses me because he does not compromise on the simple details of everyday life, and something that strikes me as a minor irritation becomes a major issue.  And unpleasantness.

Anyone who takes an elderly person out on the town probably knows what I'm talking about.  And we probably need to get over that.  But our real problem, at least mine, isn't embarrassment.   What bothers me about my interactions with my father and other people is the conspiracy that develops between all of us except him.  Between tone of voice, looks and rolls of the eyes, and secret words, we all collude to manage the elderly.

I noticed it again the other day at the hospital.  The doctor came in, talked to my dad some, but then started talking to me as if my father were not there.  We engaged in a kind of "he won't understand so I'm telling you" conversation about his release and follow-up, and I'm embarrassed to say that I went along with it.  I always do, even though my father is very mentally sharp and rarely confused.  And I think when we do it I can feel him retreating, backing away from his own situation because he senses that something is passing him by or that we are just enough out of earshot that he must place himself at our mercy.

I need to fix this.  It might be great to think of myself as the conciliatory communicator who can smooth over a situation by shrugging and winking and tacitly implying that we (I and the other younger person) both know that older people are difficult and need some coddling and need to have some decision-making taken out of their hands.  It might be easier to act in a way that says "just let me get him situated and I'll handle it from there."  But that is unfair.

Not only does he deserve the dignity of being heard and included, but he is also very often right.  Why should he back down from being part a generation with more exacting standards than what we have now?

My daughter got a meal at a restaurant the other day that wasn't quite what she ordered, but she kept it anyway.  "It looks good," she told the waitress, and everyone was happy.  My father would never have done that.  At the hospital, he did not think the care he got was as careful as what he had received in the past.  And he was upset about it.  And he wanted someone to know. 

I think too often that our chugging, charging, technological world has passed the elderly by, that their attitudes and values are passe, while their habits and behaviors annoy rather than instruct, especially when my father's actions make like more difficult for me.  But all he really wants, in addition to a little earned dignity, are services rendered for payment he has made.  I'm not sure that is so old-fashioned and am not sure why I settle for less.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Lost Gems: "Kiss of Death" (1995)

The unfortunate reality of popular culture is that we often forget about the minor or hidden gems. The box office smashes and the Oscar winners occupy most of our memories when it comes to movie history.

Movies like “Kiss of Death,” the ensemble 1995 remake (re)written by novelist Richard Price, which received mostly positive critic reviews but tanked in theaters, faded into the ether despite numerous great qualities.

For those who don’t know or never saw (which must’ve been quite a lot of you), “Kiss of Death” follows the story of Jimmy Kilmartin, a down-on-his-luck ex-con. Kilmartin is played by David Caruso, who pissed off the entire universe by leaving the bold and groundbreaking “NYPD Blue” after a single year, basically flipping off the very vehicle that shot him into the troposphere of stardom.

I always enjoyed Caruso’s acting. He had that bitter smoulder thing working... although after a while it’s clear he’s got the emotional expression range of Kristin Stewart. But his Jimmy Kilmartin brings it just fine. And he’s surrounded by some actors doing their best (or most fun) work.

There’s Michael Rapaport, playing his screw-up skeezy boyhood pal who pulls Jimmy back into the mire, gets him thrown back in jail, stiffs Jimmy’s poor wife and then takes the betrayal to another level of ick. I won’t say Rapaport is a great actor, but I love him in movies, and I’m thrilled he’s going to be a part of season 5 of “Justified.” He’s almost so dopey that he’s mesmerizing. I watch him like Chris stares at C.D.’s nose in “Roxanne.” I can’t help it.

There’s Stanley Tucci, who plays the DA. Some critics call him sleazy, but I just call him one of the most accurate representations of a politician/lawyer in film. He’s cruel and insensitive and practical and could care less about lying to anyone. But what makes his role so delicious is the sparkle in Tucci’s eye as he works it. This is a real person. And it’s probably the most enjoyable and memorable role in the movie. (His “chickpeas” line is cinematic gold, delivered supremely.)

There’s Samuel Jackson in one of his most subdued roles, as a good cop with a grudge against Kilmartin. There’s Philip Baker Hall as the ailing mob boss. There’s Helen Hunt as Kilmartin’s stranded wife.

And then there’s Nicholas Cage as “Little Junior.” Critics ate Cage’s portrayal up. He’s not my favorite part, but he’s got some great moments and some even greater lines, and he is well-portrayed as both streetwise and book stupid. It can be difficult for some actors to pull off both at the same time, to look stupid without being foolish.

An early story arc for Boyd Crowder on the super-awesome TV show “Justified” involves him trying desperately to clean up and be good. Unfortunately, episode after episode, no one believes his aim is genuine, and everyone keeps trying to pull him back into his evil ways. He can only keep the faith in his own goodness for so long until he caves to what the world expects of him and goes back to crookin’.

Kilmartin, on the other hand, genuinely wants to reform himself. He wants to be a dad, to live on the outside of a cell, to leave alone and be left alone. And his motive, his goal never changes in the film.

It’s strange, but this makes Kilmartin an unusual modern protagonist. In a time when main characters in TV and movie are caught in webs similar to Kilmartin, they’re all actively wrestling with their dark sides, and they’re usually losing, and the fun is that the writers are screwing with the viewers, getting us to root for people who don’t really deserve to be rooted for.

Kilmartin, on the other hand, never wavers from his mission of reforming himself even while those around him use him like a rag doll. A con man who only gets his hands dirty in order to get them clean, even as no one trusts him, likes him, or believes whether he really wants to fly right.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Epiphany #7

I've been working on my basement, just getting to it more than two years after house renovations were finished, and one of the gargantuan tasks has been putting the CDs back into some semblance of order.

They were scattered everywhere, cases broken, discs in piles covered with crumbled drywall and work dust, in one room or the other room.  Some had gotten wet when the pipes leaked.  Some had broken.

So to get them sorted, wiped off, returned to cases, alphabetized, and located more efficiently onto shelves probably brought me a greater sense of accomplishment than I deserve.  But over the last two days, I can't stop looking at them, can't stop admiring their order and accessibility.

But, now, what am I going to do with them?

And that's when it hit me.  If I could make the event happen, I would call it "Come Over And Poke Holes In My CD" collection.  Because I have a lot of CDs, but they are now of an era, all purchased between the late 80's and the mid-1st-decade-of-this-century.

Here's what I would do:  you all would come over and we would have drinks and snacks and we would hang out in the other basement room while, one at a time, someone would go to the CD "stacks" and pick out a song to play.  From a collection that is not your own where you might not find what you are looking for, but where you might find something you didn't expect.  Or where you might value some song more than the music's "owner" does, and so bring new songs to light.

Two friends and I did this once before, spontaneously, in the way that anything becomes "spontaneous" when a bottle of Jagermeister is involved. We just started going to my CD closet at the time and picking songs, one after the other, over and over, playing them louder and louder.  It was revelatory and so much fun, a social event where the focus was listening to random, unexpected music.  The forgotten gained prominence, the cherished either held up or failed, the taken-for-granted surprised.  The thing I remember saying that night to one friend was "How did you know this song rocked so much?"  Because it had slipped past me.  Selecting music on the spot is an odd but fruitful way of saying who you are, but without the attention being on you.  And since one of those friends is dead now, it remains an important memory for me.

That was more than a decade before the invention of "iPod Wars," a kind of who can play the best song, and with none of its competitiveness.

So, how about it?  Do friends ever get together to listen to music anymore?  In college or in high school, many of us can remember entire evenings devoted to just such activities, with our big stereos in small dorm rooms and the imperfections on our albums nothing more than signs of repeated, devoted listenings.

Now, music is always relegated to the background, it seems, any time people get together or ride together.  Could music be the focus for just one night?  Could I find some purpose for a wall of unlistened-to music in my basement?  Let me know.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Ignorant And The Damned

There's a new album by a not-new punk rock band with a new lead singer. The album is getting early raves and significant attention.

OK, the lead singer isn't new. It's the same lead singer... except before, the lead singer was known in the public mind as a man, and now he's a gal named Laura Jane Grace. The album is called Transgender Dysphoria Blues. It is, not subtly, a musical window into the soul of a transgendered punk rocker.

If there were a PC Olympics, created to challenge the average writer or critic to avoid all pitfalls for offending a hyper-sensitive liberal, it would include the obstacle course of having to review this album. Getting through it flawlessly would be like winning Gold in an equestrian jumping competition while riding a Shetland Pony.

When NPR posted this album on their "First Listen," I saw @unbornwhiskey's promotion of it and went to check it out. It was his positive review that got me to listen. It's powerful and compelling music on a topic about which I am admittedly quite ignorant and, as a by-product, somewhat uncomfortable.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to me when @unbornwhiskey commenced unloading on one writer after another for what were, basically, positive reviews about the album:
Here's the beginning of a conversation @unbornwhiskey started with a writer at Grantland (I encourage you to read the whole back-and-forth):
If you follow the second “conversation” to its conclusion, it's clear Steve Hyden isn’t The Enemy of Transgendered People. Maybe Mr. Nelson thinks he's defending the honor of this woman, Laura Jane Grace. Maybe he thinks he's sticking up for the admittedly-maligned T part of the LGBT community. Hell, maybe he is. I wouldn't know because there's not a single person in my first degree of separation who even can speak with authority on transgendered issues. But I know what my reaction is to his Tweets: He's not helping anyone.

I’m have little interest in being excoriated simply because I’m completely clueless about The Transgendered Existence. I don’t hate it or them. I don’t think it or they are evil. “Transgendered” as a concept makes me admittedly uncomfortable, but so does “climbing Everest,” and “skinning a gator,” because I have very little genuine knowledge or understanding of any of these concepts.

My writing inaccurately about The Transgendered would be of no more malicious intent than my writing inaccurately about albinos, people born with perfect recall, or women post-mastectomy.

Reading his voracious judgmental comments and that of others in the Boat of Outrage with him, mostly it comes across as a leftist equivalent of Westboro Baptists, extremism that cannot be reasoned with.

In my region of the country, politicians lobby for bills to force these people to go to the restroom of their birth gender, and more than half my fellow citizens believe gay people are hellspawn. I’m not even sure 3/4 of Tennessee could properly tell you what the “BT” in “LGBT” stands for.

Jack Bauer can dismantle nuclear time bombs more easily than writing something like this without some smug person yearning to feel superior finding a reason to criticize.

I’ve listened to Transgendered Dysphoria Blues three times now. It's pissed off and frustrated and powerfully compelling power pop-laced punk. TDB seems to want to open a door of conversation between the transgendered and the clueless, people like me -- uncomfortable and ignorant, who want to understand better but just don’t (yet.... maybe never can or will...). What better, more perfect venue for an angry and frustrated conversation than punk?

No one deserves congratulations or sympathy for failing to understand the transgendered experience or for not knowing how to write about it properly. I can even live with a certain degree of disappointment and judgment for my ignorance. But I’m guessing Laura Jane Grace doesn't hate me and isn’t demanding self-flagellation. I’m hoping she just wants me to listen to Against Me!, appreciate and enjoy how frikkin' hard they rock, and hopefully, just maybe, expand my mind and understanding a little bit along the way.

Today, vital organs can be transplanted and removed, entire body parts replaced or substituted. From hysterectomies and mastectomies to sexual reassignment to cleft palettes and massive surgeries on small children with birth defects. People can have face transplants! We are slowly entering a world where the physical body is less and less capable of defining us, but we're not there quite yet.

“We want to be subversive like that, especially knowing that a good portion of our audience aren’t trans or haven’t ever been exposed to those issues, or it might make them uncomfortable,” Grace explains to Grantland's lambasted Steve Hyden. And seriously, if you are like me, if you are remotely capable of opening up to the possibility of accepting and loving people along the LGBT spectrum, and if you love music, I couldn't more heartily recommend reading Hyden's interview with Laura Jane Grace.

It is human nature for alien matters to create discomfort. It is the better part of human nature to seek to bridge these gaps whenever possible. And it's annoying that those who are already in the club and "get it" are so intolerant when intolerance is exactly what they so smugly claim to stand against.

Their response?
Touche, and have a nice smug life for yourself.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Epiphany #6

And we ain't got no brains, And we ain't got no hearts,
It's just the wild, old wind
That tears us all apart,
We're the scarecrow people,
And we got lots in common with you.
--XTC

I realized this morning that one of my best friends is made of straw.  He is the dubious friend of any writer who wants to make an argument.  I even think my other friend Billy used him the other day to further his discussion of women in rock.  My friend is The Straw Man.

According to nizor.org, which offers my favorite definition, "The Straw Man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person's actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position."

I use him all of the time.  I use him to argue global warming, partisan politics, gridlock, Obamacare, women's rights, immigration, foreign policy, etc., etc., etc.  Yep, he's pretty much with me all of the time.

It's that word "fallacy," though, that keeps sticking in my craw.  Fallacy implies that either I'm doing something wrong, in my argument, or that I don't know what I'm doing at all, since all my opponent need do is to point out its fallaciousness.

Instead, I would argue that we none of us are very good at arguing anymore and that, as a result, my straw-filled friend is more effective than ever.  Because we tend toward the broad, the general, the grandiose, all my straw friend need do is to pluck one, single sharp dried piece of fieldgrass to puncture the balloon of most arguments.

For example, you may be the most generous, open-minded person you know, but if I can find one, just one, maybe a joke or a careless utterance, or an overdeveloped use of irony, but just that one occasion of your bigotry, I can exaggerate who you are and you are finished.

Look around!  This is happening everywhere.  We are all painted into corners--of liberalism, conservatism, greed, intolerance--and we repay the favor by trying to paint our opponents into even tighter spots.

Am I part of the solution?  Sadly, not so far.  Sadly, I tend to rely on the tools available to me because, like the rest of our culture, it seems more important to me to be right, however narrowly, than to acknowledge a position that might move things forward.  To be wrong is to be weak and dismissed.  To acknowledge that small glimmer that the other side might have something pretty good is to be pounced upon and repudiated.

So, no, I'm not part of the solution, but I'm not happy about that.  Maybe self-awareness is the first step.  You?  Oh, forget about it.  You don't care about anything beyond yourself.  At least that's what my straw guy says.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Dangerous Illusion of Danger


We are raising a generation of children afraid of the mall.

Last week I found myself in an odd dilemma, the kind faced chronically by busy working parents of multiple children. I had a drama rehearsal after work until almost 6 p.m., needed to meet some coworkers for an after-work meal to show support for an ailing friend, and had to get my daughter to her year-end soccer banquet at 7 p.m. She was expected to bring a “white elephant” gift that she had not yet purchased to this banquet. (My wife was left to manage the other two kids’ schedules.)

To kill so many birds with so few stones, I needed to drop my daughter off at the mall across from the restaurant where I was meeting my coworkers.

“You’re gonna drop me off? You’re gonna leave me at the mall... by myself?!?” she asked with near-panic in her eyes. Yes honey. You’ll be fine.

“But… it’s dangerous! Something bad could happen!” she said. “Why can’t you go in with me?” Because I’ll only have a short while to visit with everyone, sweetie. If I’m in here 15 minutes with you, I might as well not even stop by over there.

“But… I could be kidnapped!” Much laughter from an insensitive father.

I spent a significant portion of my childhood alone in a mall. I walked or rode my bike (one mall was more than 15 miles away) almost every weekend and sometimes during the week. Never once did I find myself in any kind of trouble. When I was six, my mother would hand me two dollars and send me to the arcade -- they had these places in the mall where it was just a collection of video games, and the games only cost a quarter -- and tell me to meet her back at a certain spot at a certain time. No cell phones, just a wristwatch and a set time.

A few times, I had to ask someone at the information booth to page my mom. I remember one time being very scared because she was late… but I never got abducted to the best of my knowledge.

Stories from my past were not a comfort to my daughter. I shrugged, I gave her some money and told her it would be a therapeutic and healthy experience to learn that the mall was not a monster that devours solitary children, nor were kidnappers lurking around every store corner.

When we arrived at the soccer banquet, I relayed this conversation and experience to the other parents. They were horrified at I would drop my child off -- ("strand her!") -- at the mall for an hour. I honestly thought some of them might call DFACS on me. “Different times!” ... “More dangerous now!” ...
"What if something awful happened???"

If you get annoyed when people use facts to counter irrational fears, then stop reading.

An estimated 100-130 kids are kidnapped by strangers every year. Less than 7 percent of those are abducted in stores or malls. That’s nine mall(ish) kidnappings a year. In the whole country. Nine kids taken from roughly 48,000 shopping and strip malls every 365 days.

Your child is many times more likely to be stolen from her own bedroom. (By someone you already know.) Kids die from pool drains at three times the rate they are kidnapped. And don’t get me started on handing a 16-year-old keys to the car. Our normal lives are much more dangerous than we want to believe, so we focus our fears into places we pretend we can control. The mall. The ocean. The amusement park.

We allow our fears to be dictated completely by peer pressure.

When exactly did every minute of a child’s life become a ripe opportunity for the scene from “Pet Semetary” or “Silence of the Lambs”? When did we begin defining good parenting by how many utterly irrational fears we can instill in our children, “for their own good” or “for their safety”?

I have a dark theory. I believe we teach our children to fear other people to make ourselves more important. I believe we want to believe we are surrounded by dangerous people to feel better about the kind and decent people we are.

"Trust is bad, my child. You can't trust people. Just trust me on this."

We wonder why so many modern parents hover. It’s because we’ve as a culture convinced ourselves that, beyond our eyes or earshot, our children must be regularly knocking on death’s door. All that talk about the value of grit, resilience, overcoming failure, learning self-reliance... none of that is worth a dead child!!

If you are a parent fighting these fears, worried that you can control the fate of your child by merely stopping them from swimming in oceans or shopping in malls, make an appointment with a therapist and, in the meantime, read this article about growing up unsupervised. Then watch this great TED video about “Five Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kid Do.”

And remember what William Wallace (and Walt Whitman) said: "Every man dies, but not every man truly lives!" What kind of life are we going to allow our children to live?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Epiphany #5

I have bad news for all of us.  Our dreams and nightmares are not interesting to other people.  It hurts to discover that, I know, but I know that it is true because other people's dreams and nightmares are not interesting to me.  So I'm saying what others won't, even as they commit to the tedium of hearing your rebelling of your sleep's highlight.

Sad, isn't it?  Because what is more meaningful to us than our dreams, especially soon after we dredge ourselves awake, still half-drunk on those dreams?  But they were so real, we say.  But only to us.

Told to someone on the outside, who cannot generate the palpable emotions of having lived the dream in one's unconsciousness, dreams are tedious and improbable.

How does that differ from any other fiction, you ask?  Well, imagine this.  In dreams that we are told by others, we know the characters involved, and we know that those people can't possibly do what the dream says that they did.  In fiction, we are in the writer's world, and when he or she holds the reins, we are far less skeptical about where the story goes.

But what about prophetic dreams, you ask?  Prophetic dreams, like all dreams, have lost their urgency, once Carl Jung and other dream-masters who put so much stock in dreams were replaced by the current understanding of dreams as common sense physiological reactions to the brain's attempts to process the stimuli of the day's events and information.

Though I would add to that, when is the last time that someone told you a prophetic dream ahead of time?  I don't mean to suggest by that that I don't trust prophecy after the fact.  But anytime some tells me that he or she had a dream about something that then happened, it is always after the event. I wonder if a more general dream becomes more specific in the rebelling when it is connected to an actual event that took place.

There are two exceptions to my "disinterest in other's dreams" theory.  The first is if your dream is funny/outrageous/sexual.  I mean, sure, if it makes for a good anecdote over a beer or if it is just so crazy that it needs to be told, then, sure, I'm all in, unless you start trying to make it mean something.

The second, of course, is if I am in your dream, then I very much want to hear about it.  I always want to know what I am doing, wherever I might be, and I doubt that you are much different.  That I have surfaced in your underground thoughts only makes me richer, and as long as there is the slightest chance that I will come up in your dream again, then I will hear the whole damn thing.

The only dream that ever meant much to me was, I think, one that the comedian Henny Youngman had.  He said, "I keep having this same dream.  It's about hot dogs chasing doughnuts in the Lincoln Tunnel."  Now, that's my kind of dream!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Geese And Ganders

For the last year or so, I've read enough articles at Harvard Business Review that I finally splurged and ordered a comprehensive online subscription. The articles are most certainly focused around more traditional notions of business rather than education. Having read plenty of thought leaders in both fields, however, I'm astonished at how similar the two have become, and not in a bad way.

Many HBR articles are about leadership and management, and while these might not always have clear relevance to your average middle or high school teacher, the advice would (and probably, for some, does) most certainly benefit people in the middle and upper ranks of administration.

But the similarities don't stop at leadership and management. It goes deeper. Here are just a few examples from the current HBR "front page" of my iPad app:

From HBR: "Reward Efforts, Not Just Outcomes"
From NYTimes' Education Issue: "What if the Secret to Success is Failure?"

From HBR: "Build a 'Quick and Nimble' Culture"
From The Chronicle of Higher Education: "Adapt or Die"

From HBR: "The Link Between Anxiety and Performance"
From Huffington Post Education: "Anxiety: The Hidden Disability..."
and "6 Healthy Habits to Teach Kids Who Worry Too Much"

Businesses are trying to adapt to a new generation of college graduates just as schools constantly discuss adjusting to new generations of students. Businesses are intensely interested in innovation, teaching old dogs new tricks, filling in knowledge gaps to make workers more adaptable. Nothing about these concepts and catch phrases are new to those of us who read Education Week or follow education news outlets on Twitter.

But here's what I find funny.

In 2014, at the highest levels of public education, leaders are fighting and pushing and legislating for schools and education to follow the very kinds of business models that Harvard Business Review and business thought-leaders are decrying as outmoded and dangerous to long-term sustainability.

Businesses are banking left and re-calibrating to a changing world, and education is getting caught in the jet wash of outmoded ideas. Politicians and big-time education attention-grabbers are talking about parachute pants and grunge as the next big thing while the real thought-leaders in both fields are trying to figure out how to engineer a Delorean to go back in time and drag these people into the 21st Century.

Nothing is ever simple, so of course you couldn't reform a failing school based on a 1-year subscription of HBR overnight, or possibly ever. Further, I can understand why educational institutions might lag a bit behind businesses in matters of innovation and adaptation. The fight for money is far more vicious and motivational in the for-profit world, whereas schools must be ever mindful that too many risks and failures will lose ever more of the already-tenuous faith the general public has in them.

But I can't help but wonder why so many of us are currently so comfortable with matters of assessment as some magic elixir in school systems when most successful business leaders have regularly decried so many forms of assessment as superficial and counterproductive.

Not all schools should jump aggressively to the newest, biggest and flashiest fads, but some schools in lots of places should be making lots of jumps in lots of different directions. Already we're seeing substantial blowback on things that were championed as educational game-changers just a year or two ago: "iPad schools," "MOOCs that would render the schoolhouse obsolete," "homework-free schools" and "schools without grades."

None of these can universally succeed in all settings, because what's true in schools is true in the business world described by Adam Bryant in the HBR article about business culture:
Managers focus on results, but I think culture drives results.
And, regarding the biggest problem in how companies build culture:
It’s the creation of silos. As one CEO put it to me, “Silos are what topple great companies.” As human beings, we like to operate in small tribes. If there’s not someone creating and communicating an overarching, simple plan for the larger organization and getting everyone to pitch in, people start breaking down into small tribes and pursuing their own goals and agendas.
Business and Education are not identical, nor are they night and day. They are inextricably tied and closely related and capable of learning from one another. What the biggest thinkers in both fields look to when they want meaningful and lasting change isn't a new gadget or a new schedule, but rather changes in personnel structure, adjustments to culture, improvements to interpersonal relationships.

The important changes must always happen in and between people. Improve that, and the assessment problem practically solves itself. In any field.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Epiphany #4

I'm stealing one from my daughter.  It isn't the first time.

So we're walking out of Ender's Game, the film version of Orson Scott Card's sci-fi classic about our civilization, having been nearly destroyed by an alien invasion, turning to brilliant children as the ones who can best strategize the ways to beat the aliens next time around (see current commercials with the tag line, "So Easy An Adult Can Do It" for verification of this thinking in relation to technology), and my daughter says, "Ok, Dad, but what's the basic flaw in this movie, like so many other science fiction movies?"

I think about it and come up with nothing.  "I don't know.  What?"

"Think about it.  The aliens want to leave their planet and inhabit ours.  Why would anybody want to do that?  This idea that our planet in the condition it's in is so desirable is ridiculous."

Well, okay, there are a number of ways to think about that.  First, her comment about this theme in science fiction is certainly true.  From The War Of The Worlds to The Man Who Fell To Earth, the alien desire to invade Earth for conquest, destruction, or, particularly, natural resources is a prevalent one, so much so that, at least in the back of our minds, we as a species carry a fear that someone or something out there may want what we have, or want us.

At the same time, our speculative writers offer the exact opposite idea: that our planet will become so crowded or polluted or just plain used up that we need to find other places to continue our existence.  In works as diverse as Wall-e and Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, not only is mankind on the move, but also, it is only the unfortunate, leftovers from the technological Rapture who are still stuck here.

So which is it?  Is our world a prize or fool's gold?  And why does a bright young adult lean towards the latter--our planet as a place of future desolation?  When did the "unthinkable" become not an alien invasion, but instead the idea that any advanced species would waste their time on such a spent sphere?

I suspect that our children, who are likely seen as the most consuming, immediate gratification-demanding generation to come along, understand full well that their world of new toys and pretty things cannot last much longer.  Certainly global issues like population, poverty, disease, pollution, genocide, warming, extremism, and scarcity of resources are too ubiquitous to feign ignorance.  

Their reaction to those circumstances (fault them, if you must), seems to be to enjoy what they have while they can.  I hear our leaders sometimes telling them that it will be their responsibility to try to fix the things that we screwed up.  Has it been human nature to this point for them to say, oh, okay, we'll forego the pleasures you had so that we can serve the greater good?  Not in a capitalistic society anyway.

The key to Ender's Game is that the desperate adult world, to get compliance, taps into what children enjoy most--group play toward a goal with a chance to win prizes and admiration.  When it comes to this tired planet, our young people, on the other hand, may not initially see a game that they can win, or even worse, may believe that the game is already over.


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Grit Must Be Overrated

“How much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black.” -- Nigel Tufnel

The debate surrounding schools today focuses on how little we expect or demand from the students, from the teachers, from the parents. Everything is about accountability, if you buy into the debate.

The problems with education go well beyond such simplistic notions, of course. But more troubling how wimpified, risk-averse, and overprotective our culture has become and what it says about us.

On Sunday, January 5, in Green Bay, Wis., two NFL football teams took Lambeau Field in temperatures that dipped to -15 degrees with the wind chill. The game was sold out. Prior to the game, film crews were walking around to show all the crazy Cheese Heads out tailgating prior to kickoff.

On Monday, January 6, in southeast Tennessee., every educational establishment was closed or delayed due to the threat of possible coldness and wetness. Closings were determined as early as noon on Sunday -- before the 49ers had even taken the field for warm-ups in Green Bay -- based on dire predictions at a time when the weather around town was a nigh-comfortable 45 degrees.

My school had originally scheduled an in-service day for faculty but canceled it. Not only were the risks of snow and ice too treacherous for children, but it was too dangerous for adults, and certainly not worth the risks for something as petty and silly as an in-service day.

As is standard operating procedure in the urban southeast, the weather conditions underwhelmed the hype and hysteria. Temps dipped into the teens, but nary a road in the tri-county area iced over.

The message is clear: a playoff football game is worth hypothermia and frostbite, but a day of education isn’t even worth mild discomfort.

To be fair, at least part of this can be attributed to a culture where Fear of Lawsuits handcuffs common sense and blindfolds reason. Requiring attendance in poor conditions is different than attendance being voluntary… especially because it makes those in charge liable for anything unfortunate that might happen. Further, for schools where busing large numbers of children from low-income households is a factor, temps in the teens is a legitimate concern. Many poor Southern kids do not have the proper clothing to wait out in the cold for a bus for too long.

But private schools where 90-percent of students drive or are dropped off by parents? Teachers and employees who surely must be better drivers than Mister Magoo and able to dress themselves accordingly for cold weather? C’mon, people. Our bar cannot get much lower.

I took my kids bowling on their day off from school. It was too dangerous to learn, too cold for school, but not too dangerous to bowl, not too cold to host a small party for the BCS Championship, not too dangerous to go to the grocery store or grab a morning coffee.

You can’t turn a page in parenting or educational journals without reading about the importance of grit and toughness on raising healthy children, yet we can’t even stomach the threat of cold without calling the whole thing off, lest the experience be uncomfortable.

Two generations from now, when we look back and wonder why America fell from its perch atop the world, it won’t be difficult to pinpoint one of the key reasons: it got too cold, so we stayed inside under the illusory comfort of our blankets while the rest of the world went to work, completely unharmed, getting tougher while we got softer.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Don't Knock the Rock Mortician


Jeff Lynne has to be one of the most under-appreciated guys in the rock history books.

The founder and creative soul of Electric Light Orchestra, the reviver producer of both Roy Orbison and George Harrison’s ‘80s comebacks, the driving force behind The Traveling Wilburys, and the co-writer and producer of one of the best pop rock albums (Petty’s “Full Moon Fever”) since the birth of Cliff Huxtable, Lynne and his music landscape are frequently the subjects of dismissal.

The knock on Lynne, from many music critics, is that his production style is hyper-clean, all of the character is polished right off. One friend referred to Jeff Lynne as The Rock Mortician, because he drained musicians of their blood and replaced it with embalming fluids and thought his sonic corpses were prettier than living beings. Ouch, right?

I wrote about my love of ELO back in 2008, but in the past month I’ve rekindled my love of the band and, in particular, the man behind the band. I stumbled across “Xanadu” on TV and remembered just how comically awful the movie is. But even in its worst moments, I still love ELO's contributions to that soundtrack. That encounter began a sort of internal debate on Lynne’s value.

So with my eMusic account full and the end of my monthly account fast approaching, I bought two Lynne-centric albums. The first was "Full Moon Fever," an album I never owned and actively tried not liking back when it soared into pop culture history. There I was in 1989 trying to be an angsty teen on the verge of manhood, and "Full Moon Fever" felt like the opposite side of the Replacements river I was sailing at the time.

I also bought “Zoom,” the ELO comeback album from 2001 so obscure that I’d never even heard of it when I originally wrote about them five years ago. (Side note: If you have a comeback album that someone who genuinely likes your music never even heard of, that's a colossal marketing failure. Hell, I knew about Devo's comeback album and didn't like that band a fraction of how much I adore ELO.)

While I’ve been repeatedly disappointed with comeback albums by bands that should have long ago accepted their fate, “Zoom” is the kind that keeps you from totally giving up on the idea. It’s almost everything an ELO fan would want from a comeback, an album that rediscovers some of the ‘70s focus on Beatle-inspired hooks, continues to infuse some of the classic ELO space-agey sounds, and holds onto some of what made Lynne’s production work in that stretch of the ‘80s so commercially potent.

“Zoom” is not the least bit interested in breaking new ground, because that’s not really what most fans want in a comeback album. What most fans want is for the band to remember why people fell in love with them in the first place.

Only one song on the 14-song collection passes the four-minute mark, and most hover between 3-3:30. Likewise, half the songs on “Full Moon Fever” fail to hit three minutes. For the most part, the best pop music is the kind that goes away before you’ve had a chance to get sick of it.

While Lynne might be a bit OCD on cleanliness, at least he prefers to live in a one-bedroom loft rather than a sprawling ranch house mansion, musically speaking. Neat freak in an itty-bitty living space. It's a nice place to visit.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Epiphany #3

Lost among the end-of-year lists, photo montages, and Google commercials about famous people who died and their impact on humanity or Hollywood is the death of Linda Ronstadt's voice.  Because of Parkinson's Disease affecting her throat muscles, that voice left us forever in 2013.  When I am reminded of that, as I am tonight, I am disconsolate.

It might be easy to dismiss or to forget about Ronstadt.  You haven't heard from her in years, and neither have I.  You may know some of her hits, may hum or sing along when they come on the radio--"Different Drum," "Silver Threads and Golden Needles," "You're No Good," and a wealth of others, but I'll wager you don't own a single one of her CDs (and neither do I), unless you were into those torch songs of her later prominence.  She wasn't a songwriter, relying instead on remaking hits or catching-on songwriters like Karla Bonoff or Warren Zevon before they became better known.

She got plenty of FM airplay in the 70s and 80s; she rocked the arenas.  I saw her once in 1974, sandwiched in a triple bill between America and James Taylor.  She kicked out a good set of country-inflected hits.  Because of the way she worked, redoing other people's hits or cherry picking from songwriters, I liked her or dismissed her, based on the song she was singing.

But I really liked her because of her other career--adding her voice to other recordings.  She sings on Neil Young classics like "Heart Of Gold" and "Old Man," on all of Harvest Moon and the raunch-country side of American Stars And Bars.  She is the voice harmonizing with Paul Simon on "Under African Skies" and with Emmylou Harris on "Western Wall."

It is rare for me to love and to celebrate a voice, partial as I am to songwriters over singers.  But Linda Ronstadt was different.  Like Emmylou Harris, whom I have previously celebrated on these pages, she made other people sound better.  And she took risks with her voice.  One of my favorite moments in her canon is "How Do I Make You?" from Mad Love in 1980, when she took on the New Wave that was ushering in the decade ahead.  On that song (which rocks), her voice reaches for notes and cracks, a direct contrast to the careful instrument it is on her slick records.

I am realizing all of this tonight because I heard 29 seconds of Linda Ronstadt singing, and it made me want to cry that her voice is gone.  The record is Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School by Warren Zevon.  The song is "Empty-Handed Heart."  Down in the basement, I put the iPod on "shuffle" for all of Zevon's songs, and, about five songs in came "Empty-Hearted Heart."  Zevon writes ballads of lost love well, and this is one of his best.  About two-thirds of the way through, he starts repeating "And I've thrown down diamonds in the sand" over and over.

Over top of that, Ronstadt sings the descant, a counter melody:

Remember when we used to watch the sun set in the sea
You said you'd always be in love with me
All through the night we danced and sang
Made love in the mornings while the church bells rang



In all of my listening to music for over fifty years, it is one of the most beautiful and beautifully-sung melodies I've heard.  Every time I hear it, I play it again.

Yes, people die, and we justly mourn and celebrate them.  Zevon himself is, of course, gone. But sometimes an essential part of a person's being dies with equal tragedy.  The loss of Ms. Ronstadt's voice invites a reconsideration of that voice and of all of the beauty it contained.


Saturday, January 4, 2014

Save the Rock Ta-Tas!

HAIM
I tend to fraternize with a fairly homogenous species of music fan. Male. College educated. White. At or above the economic Mendoza line. Their musical preferences lean towards the classic rock era but with tolerance and sometimes appreciation for modern folk or alternative acts.

The more ardent and confidently opinionated their musical tastes, the more likely they consider themselves liberals. For reasons I can't easily explain, conservative types aren't usually as musically snotty.

After almost six years of writing this blog, often about music, often requiring intense listening and occasional researching, and after countless hours of debates and discussions about music, I’ve come to one certainty about the species of music fan with whom I tend to fraternize: they are rock sexists.

Not all of them, mind you, and not always aggressively, but most certainly in the aggregate.

If you were to take a good hard look this particular Dude Collective's favorites and best ofs, what you see is the musical equivalent of stodgy university professors and their Important Books. It’s the Dead White Guys of Rock and Roll list. (Except in rock and roll it’s more like Not-Quite-Dead White Guys.)

In general, their tastes are not far off from the statistics seen at Coachella, where female acts and women-fronted bands are lucky to get 10% of the lineup. Women might be making advances in most of our society, but we’re still holding them at bay in rock music.

Ask them why their picture of rock is the equivalent of the graffiti in Superbad*, and this Dude Collective will offer explanations. Some of them are even valid. They’ll name-drop a few women in their list the same way white people say “Some of my best friends are black.” But mostly amongst this set, they are comfortable liking -- and only liking -- their male-dominated musical scene. Besides, the more classic the rock, the better it must be, and the more classic it is, the more testicles are involved, statistically speaking.

They -- this subset of white male music lovers -- are rarely apologetic about their views. When it comes to every other part of life, they’re more than willing to acknowledge our culture should do a better job of welcoming and accepting a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds, but when it comes to “art” -- most particularly what is considered “good modern (rock) music” -- the mind closes off. The ears clamp shut. The minute they hear a female voice, their interest is shot.

It’s a comfortable kind of sexism because no one seems to eager to judge, because our tastes are our tastes, right? And who’s to judge, as the Pope might say. Well, except them. They are to judge. And usually quite harshly.

When I came out with my “Favorites” music list for the year, one friend’s reaction was, “When did Billy turn into a girl?” This isn’t even the 12th time a male friend has said I’m “a bit girly” with my musical tastes. That’s a music snob’s way of saying my tastes aren’t very hip. Or masculine, I guess, although I’m frankly still trying to figure out what makes for Quality Masculine Music. I've never had a female friend or acquaintance make that kind of comment.

Looking at my list of favorites, it’s difficult to see how their jibes could be anything but a reaction to the fact that roughly half of my favorite songs and albums are by women or include women in key roles (Note: The Pixies hardly counts). Far more than half of my favorites list showed up on critics lists like A.V. Club, Paste and PopMatters, among others, so it’s not like I'm a trailblazer or a radical.

These guys, for the most part, seem comfortable with their prejudice. They like men making their music. Simple as that. In rock, it seems, women are best seen and not heard. Or maybe it’s OK for them to be the appetizer or dessert, but not the main course.

Their objections and prejudices aren’t unlike the many guys I know who openly and aggressively mock women’s sports as an inferior product. Many of these guys are or were athletes themselves, and some are coaches, and they regularly cite the quality of play and the superior physical ability of the highest-level men in a given sport.

Ironically, while more often this sort of sports chauvinist is perceived as sexist, there is far more justification for acknowledging the physical differences between genders than can justify prejudice along creative lines in writing, the arts, music. It's easier to argue why women can't play football or play a less impressive game of basketball than it is to explain why you just don't like the sound of a woman singing rock and roll or playing a group of instruments.

How white and male is your musical collection? How OK are you with that?

Friday, January 3, 2014

Epiphany #2

Two days ago:  Among the guests at our house, there is a young, teenage girl whom I am teasing about her jeans.  "You know," I tell her, "my wife has denim patches.  She could fix all of those holes in your jeans."  The girl has on stylish, probably new for Christmas jeans with carefully-chosen threadbare spots all over the pant legs.

Yesterday:  As we head out to lunch, I am reaching for a coat in the closet and hear a slight tear from behind.  I reach back to my butt and remember that these are the jeans with the tear in the ass.  They are old, worn out, very light blue in color.  

"Is that tear in the back noticeable?" I ask my daughter.  
"Yes, Dad.  You're not wearing those.  Go change."  
I ask, "What if I pull my shirt down lower?"  
"Dad!"  
I've shortened the back and forth of the conversation.  I change.

Yesterday, I was wearing blue boxers with a sailboat on them.  Quite friendly, actually.  Not obscene at all.  Some jean tears are fashionable; some are unacceptable.  Age? gender? Tear placement?  Sailboat boxers?  Such a confusing world!

My family makes fun of me for wearing jeans that are "almost white."  They bought me a pair of very dark ones, which I suppose I will wear only until they are not dark enough.

Back in the 70's, I came by my jeans honestly.  My friend Adam and I would walk down to Kaufman's department store to buy our brand new bell bottom jeans.  They were Levi's.  When brand new, they were blue as night and stiff as a plaster cast.  They wouldn't be worth anything for weeks.  We had to wear them and wear them and wear them, and have our mothers wash them and wash them, and sometimes we'd put them on wet out of the washer so that they would dry to our skin.  

It would be months or more before we had them the way we wanted them--faded, comfortable and soft, worn on the bottom cuffs from dragging on the ground.  The "sweet spot" for jeans came when they were well-worn, but not yet beginning to split at the knee or fray on the thigh.  But jeans also lived an entire life, and we loved them throughout that life--from the new store smell to the begging our suburban mothers not to toss them in the trash when they were all but falling apart.

I can't shake that mentality.  And the older I get, the more it seems to apply to everything--my 13 and 1/2 year old car, an iron skillet that I dropped and the handle broke off of, a favorite pullover fleece I wear most every day of every fall or winter weekend or holiday, all the stuff I live with.  If I get something new, I want to be able to use it for a long, long time, which is why I'm nursing an "old" phone and an older iPod.

Seems to me that if you don't live the full life of things alongside your own life, you lose the reminders of what they once were when new, what they went through, how they survived to get here now.  I am not interested in getting a pair of jeans or anything else in their most desirable state, which they will quickly pass out of and then be cast aside.  I want to live with them, age with them.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

What Would Lloyd Dobbler Do?

For the last few years, I’ve mulled over an idea I've titled “The Four Acts of Humanity." The name totally sucks, and the idea is the stuff of bad self-help motivational novels, but I can't shake it. The four acts all start with the same letter, which is crucial for best-sellers: Connect, Create, Construct and Consume.

(I thought of calling it "The Four Ways of C'ing," but that's even worse.)

I wanted to claim that all of modern human existence breaks down into those four categories. Each category was a little bit more permissive than the word might suggest. Maintenance like mowing the lawn and doing laundry would be part of Constructing. Anything that might help improve an ability or a level of competence would count as Creating, even tennis lessons. A single event or activity could easily count under more than one category.

Last week, as I sat playing Skylanders with my young son, my mind wandered back to this Four Acts idea. Throughout the day and week, I began to assess my Christmas vacation by measuring my time spent engaged in The Four Acts of Humanity.

I connected. With family, with friends, in a variety of settings, mostly with vigor, engagement and joy. Grade: B+

I constructed. Did laundry and ironed a lot of shirts, installed a new lock on our door, cleared gutters, repaired a side view mirror on the car, and so forth. It was a productive holiday for constructing even if my abilities in this area are generally unimpressive. Grade: B

I did not create much. I made a mix CD for a few friends as part of their Christmas presents. I performed in a goofy dance at work. I spent a smidgen of time preparing for my drama performance later this month. I put together a “Year In Review” photo book for the family. I wrote a few blog posts. But it often seemed like these were done in stolen moments and late nights, and it was regularly difficult to give this work my full attention or much effort. Grade: C

I consumed like a mofo. I ate many multiples of what I needed to sustain life. I drank an unhealthy amount of sodas and alcoholic beverages. I played Candy Crush into the high 90s. I watched House of Cards and another TV series and six or seven movies alone, and another 10 or so hours of shows and movies with my daughters. I watched a nauseating amount of sporting events. I read two books, and I had music playing almost every minute the TV wasn’t getting my attention. Grade: A+

Consuming is, to be sure, an essential part of our lives. More importantly, at reasonable levels, it’s perfectly healthy and adds to the enjoyment of life. But most of us frequently sacrifice an unhealthy level of our opportunities to connect, create or construct in order to consume, and we tend to consume well past the point of reasonable satiation.

One of the saddest moments in Presidential proclamations in my adult life was when George W. Bush, as we reeled in shock from the events of September 11, reminded us that our true purpose in society was to consume. Our gluttony, he suggests, is what makes America great. Perhaps that's true. Which makes his words twice as depressing.

I’m a consumer. I consume. That’s what I do. That’s what I’m good at. When authors and artists suggest that humans are a large-scale virus, they are not entirely wrong.

While I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, my goal for the coming year is a simple and modest one: to consume a little less and create a little more. It's not about reducing footprints or creating legacies. It's about being more judicious in how I invest my most valued commodity of time.

When my consumption helps with the other Three Acts -- connecting, constructing, creating -- then all the better. When it is mere consumption for consumption’s sake, the feeding of the lazy eye or bored ear or not-yet-growling stomach, the more I can actively seek to redirect that urge to devour into more positive actions, the better off my 2014 will be.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Epiphany #1

If you are expecting big things here, you will be disappointed.  If you see life in the small details, welcome aboard.

I'm in an upscale hamburger place, a concept that, ten years ago, didn't exist.  But now it does, and its burgers come from locally-sourced beef or else they are turkey burgers or else they are veggie burgers or else they are vegan burgers.  You get the idea.

I'm splurging; I'm having the beef.  Of the times I've been here, this may be the first time I've actually had the hamburger as beef.  Turkey, yes.  Appetizers only, yes.  But this time, I'm having the beef, so I skip the egg, the guacamole, the roasted New Mexico chile, the pastrami, the mushrooms, the BBQ, and all of the other things I could have on one of their specialty burgers.  I'm just having the cheeseburger.

ME:  I'll have the All-American Burger (or whatever the basic cheeseburger is called).

WAITRESS:  How would you like that cooked?

ME:  Medium.

WAITRESS:  What kind of cheese would you like?

ME:  Cheddar.

I have to interject here.  I know from the menu that there are four kinds of cheese I can pick from--Swiss (I think), white cheddar, yellow cheddar, and pimento cheese.  

WAITRESS:  Which kind--white or yellow?

ME:  I don't care.

I have to interject here.  I really don't care.

WAITRESS:  silence.

ME:  You decide.  It doesn't matter to me.

WAITRESS:  silence.

ME:  Okay, then yellow.

WAITRESS:  So, an All-American Burger cooked medium with yellow cheddar.

I nod; she leaves.  And I realize that our society is one where it has become necessary to offer two different colors of cheddar cheese that taste exactly the same.  Not everywhere, of course, but here.  Whether that is because customers demand the choice or a because a restaurant can gain credibility for such a distinction, I don't know.  

And not only in cheeses.  Our opportunities to distinguish who we are based on colors and shades expand everyday.  Everything is an accessory to the fashionable us.

Do you know how yellow cheddar gets yellow or orange?  Seeds from the Achiote tree are used to make a dye called Achiote or annato (I know this because I once made a Peruvian fish stew that called for the coloring, available in Latin American groceries).  It is natural.  I assume it is harmless, unless you are allergic to Achiote.  But I'm sure you know that white and yellow cheddar taste the same.  It is a cosmetic coloring, for uniformity.

I am careless.  I know that.  I often choose the easiest path.  Please do not make me agonize over which color of cheese is the right color.  I don't want to be the person who feels that preference is important, or the person who develops a preferential prejudice.