Sunday, November 30, 2014

All She Wants to Do is Dance

“Ban the one-night stand.”

This was the conclusion of one of my friends, half an hour into our discussion on the Rolling Stone expose on the problem of sexual assault on the University of Virginia campus, a piece so scathing and disturbing that the UVA administration is still scrambling to figure out how to properly manage the crisis. It was a piece of old school seismic journalism.

One of the haunting illustrations from the Rolling Stone
longread, "A Rape on Campus," that has left an entire
campus -- and possibly a way of college life -- reeling
for answers.
A critical mass of people (including me) have awakened to realize that whatever problem exists goes well beyond one school or a handful of colleges and most certainly cannot be dismissed as being overblown. Hell, even if the numbers are fudged and the estimates too high, the problem is still bigger than we want to believe. If the estimates are accurate… then God help us if we continue to not care.

This isn't about protecting the sanctity and #Murca-ness of Greek Life, or the right to hook up in dance clubs, or the freedom to heavily pet a relative stranger. It's the cold, shameful, enraging reality of a group of young men violating an unwilling female for shits and giggles. At best it's a Milgram experiment gone wrong. At worst it's the reminder that we continue to believe the Nazis weren't like us.

Three 40-something men, all of us the parents of daughters and sons, none of us fraternity brothers, all of us relatively (but not entirely) chaste in our college years, and the best solution we can think of to the problem of rape and sexual assaults on college campuses is to ban one night stands entirely? Is the only way to get past the problems of male sexual predators on our college campus to transport our mores back to the Victorian era?

Of course such a rule, ludicrous and unenforceable, would not eradicate the problem of rape and sexual assault on college campuses.

Interestingly, would the people who got most upset about such a ban be young men... or women?

Twice during my reunion weekend I found myself in the middle of a jam-packed dance floor, because I freakin' love to dance. I was stunned at how much more aggressive men have become on dance floors. It’s not like dudes in the ‘90s were coy or stand-offish by any means. Dudes in the ‘90s could invite themselves into direct physical contact with girls on the dance floor without hesitation. But lately the guys seem almost angrily aggressive, as if they weren’t so much interested in attracting sexual interest as they were in staking some claim. Territorial. Wolfpackish. Pissing on trees.

There I was, quietly uttering “Sorry” every time my body in any way made contact with a young woman’s, hyper-paranoid that she might take it the wrong way, while young guys, drunk off Fireballs and Red Bulls and their own immortality, would grab girls with their meat hooks and pull them forcefully backwards into their awaiting crotches. On most of these occasions, the girls would shout expletives, or shove them away, or both. Several times two or three girls would do it together. Once it turned into a minor altercation when a girl hit a guy.

The girls didn't look like they were having much fun. It looked like they were whistling past a graveyard.

Yet they kept dancing. The floor remained packed, wall to wall, with gyrating humans willing to ignore or overlook the aggression and the bad apples for the right to keep on dancin’. And trust me, everyone knows there is no dance floor without the dancing femmes.

Are there no rules or laws on a dance floor? If a woman has chosen to place her body amidst a mass of others, does that make her fair game? Is pushing your hips into a woman’s body OK so long as the beat is kickin'? Is grabbing someone and pulling her into you fine so long as you let go if she says no?

When I was in Nashville and enjoyed a Monday night at The 5 Spot, which is like walking into some excerpt from Grease Meets Swingers, what I noticed, apart from the jaw-droppingly mesmerizing dancing, was how everyone politely asked others to dance. They asked. They held out a hand and waited for a hand in return as a sign of acceptance.

The problem isn’t sex on the first (or zero’th) date. And it’s not gropers on the dance floor. It’s about attitudes, entitlement, the horny hunger for power or dominance or relevance. But isn’t it possible that removing the possibility of finding Mr. Goodbar, of manhandling someone just ‘cuz you feel like it, might be important steps toward changing those attitudes?

Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Epiphany #71: Warhol's Grave and other funereal celebrations

"Took my daughter to see Warhol's grave,
To see the rusty rings the soup cans made."

This morning, my father and I were reminiscing about my parents' trip to Europe, and he made the passing comment about the cemeteries in Vienna and how amazing they were, and I just had a thought about visiting cemeteries.

Two of the more memorable photographs in our our family collection involve cemeteries.  In the first one, I am lying prostrate and happy behind Henry David Thoreau's grave marker.  In the other, my daughter, age about three, is caught posing behind Warhol's tombstone in a small, hilly cemetery outside of Pittsburgh.  She is jarringly brightly-colored and effervescent behind the gray stone.   The latter photograph, if you were in the know, as in had a sense of irony, was the Christmas card insert you received that year.

My father was commenting on the many famous musicians he saw in the beautiful cemeteries of Europe (except for Mozart, of course, who is buried in a pauper's grave), and it made me think, what a strange custom when we, as tourists, make it a practice to visit the graves of the famous.

Family tombstones and burial plots I get.  We pay our respects.  We show our children where their grandparents or other ancestors are buried.  In a non-threatening way, I suppose we even suggest that their place will be here one day, too.

But the idea of visiting the famous graves of the world?  Is that not a bit odd?  What is it that we hope to get out of the experience?  Is it a vibe?  Is it a sense of shared interest (I love music; you played it well)?  A cemetery seems like a strange destination for a day of planned tourist activities.  Plus, as already noted, we find meaning in having a photograph to document the visit.

Of course, we do learn from those graveyard trips--Thoreau's grave only reads "Henry," a small marker, along with those of his siblings, that helps to semicircle the large shared tombstone of his parents.  In death, he was not the big deal that he has become for some.  Similarly, Andy Warhol's grave is surrounded by those of his family members, the Warholas, whose name he shortened in his transition to New York, perhaps to downplay his Polish immigrant roots.

But what is there in the graveyard that often calls us to journey far away from other tourist destinations?  The simple answer is that it is a pilgrimage, but a pilgrimage to what?  Why does it matter where famous bones were laid to rest?  Is a pilgrimage to the graves of the famous even a pilgrimage?

Wikipedia reminds us that "pilgrimage is a journey or search of moral or spiritual significance. Typically, it is a journey to a shrine or other location of importance to a person's beliefs and faith."

I would argue, I guess, that one person's pilgrimage is another person's Facebook post (of course, I'm not on Facebook, so can't say for sure) and that the latter may undercut the former.  I might even support that with my experience at a beautiful midnight Christmas Mass at Notre Dame being marred by the incessant camera flashes coming tourists from somewhere farther East.

But even for me, well, I admire a lot of Thoreau's ideas and I've developed an interest in Warhol over the years, but I can hardly call either trip a pilgrimage.

Perhaps the closest I came to an actual pilgrimage in a cemetery was a visit, a couple of summers ago, to Robert Johnson's grave on Money Road in Mississippi.  A few things made this journey different.  First, I had a grant and had spent the summer studying the blues, and the trip to Mississippi was the culmination of that. Those hots days focused on nothing but the blues, and it had, however briefly, become a "religion" (and the appreciation remains).  Second, Johnson's grave was a search.  Legend has suggested three different locations where Johnson was buried, and during the trip, we were relatively close to all of them.  This gravesite, though, had the strongest documentation.

But what took us there was the intentional desire to see the Tallahatchie Bridge made famous in the song "Ode To Billie Joe".  Sitting at lunch in Greenwood, the chance to see both seemed like a worthwhile side trip.  What cemented it was the accidental discovery that the store where Emmitt Till entered history was just around the corner.

Johnson's grave, by a small white church, was easy to find.  Although the tombstone had its own collection of relics, guitar picks and coins and whiskey bottles, we were the only ones there.   A hot, silent wind blew around us, and for several minutes, I had a subject and a life and a surrounding history and a spiritual atmosphere worthy of contemplation.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Epiphany #70: Long May You Run

We drove that car as far as we could, abandoned it out West.  --  Dylan

Every family has unique benchmarks that define it--first owned home, first family member to attend college, maybe citizenship or travel abroad.  And while some of those are supremely important to a family's self-identity, there are smaller accomplishments that can mean almost as much.

This week, our beloved 2001 Subaru Outback notched 200,000 miles.

For some readers, this fact no doubt earns a derisive "Big deal."  For us, though, this is a big deal.  It's the first time any car in our family, or extended family, has lasted this long.

Growing up in the 60's, my family, especially my father, fell prey to mantra of those times: Everyone needs a new car every four years.  The genius of Detroit was either that people bought that notion or that automakers figured out how to make cars that only lasted that long, or both.  Because consumers in that mindset would rarely get more than about 80,000 miles out of a car.

In fact, one of my father's related beliefs was that everything starts to go wrong on a car at around 80,000 miles.  Which is usually when he sold it to us.

The other outcome of those formative automobile-purchasing years is that my father loves to trade cars.  He likes the thrill of the negotiation, the bitter back and forth, the threat of walking away, and, ultimately, the satisfaction of being able to say "They sold me the car for less than it is worth."

He knows all of the tricks--buy at the end of the month, don't mention a trade-in until after the price has been negotiated, pay in cash (if you can).  Most of all, he likes things that are new and unproblematic.

My wife and I, on the other hand, drive cars into the ground.  Living a complex life that seeks to avoid confrontation and to neglect repair and upkeep of everything but our children, it has always been easier for us to let cars deteriorate until they are undriveable, and then to get a new one, than to keep them in prime shape for maximum trade-in value.  Our cars tend to face ignoble ends--left unrepaired at a gas station until the owner hauls it off, left in a parking space at school for months, if actually traded-in, only for little more than scrap value.  One sits in disrepair at an auto dealership right now, as it has for several weeks.

So, the Subaru.  It is something of a miracle.  It has driven to three of the four corners of America--Washington state, Maine, Key West.  It has been the primary car, at one time or another, for each of the members of our family, surviving two teenagers without incident, as well as several near brushes with no longer being our car.  In 2008, when we bought my older daughter a Subaru of her own, we were satisfied with its eight years of service, had let some things go on it, and had accepted $1500 in trade-in cash toward the new car.

But at almost the last second, I thought, wait a minute, this car has never caused us any major expense; it has to be worth more to us than $1500.  So instead of selling the car back to the dealer, I paid them $3500 to fix everything on it that needed fixing, and within four months, it became my younger daughter's car for all of high school and her first year of college.

It needed to last 8 months (of what would have been equivalent car payments) to justify that expense.  It has lasted six years.  And each time it has needed a repair, I've played that same cost/benefit analysis game of fix it costs vs. car payments.  So far, I've guessed right.

While I'm not a car guy, and while I don't place status on what car I'm driving, and while I don't particularly care what the car I'm driving looks like (as long as the stereo and the A/C work), I am admittedly quite attached to and nostalgic about the Subaru.  If it would run forever, then I would drive it forever.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Why Don't I Like You? (Reunion Reflections #2)

Miranda was sweet. She was tender and kind. She was the kind of girl who, if she took a walk in the woods, all of God's creatures would flock to her like Bambi or a Disney princess. When she said mean things about other people, it was never mockery, but disappointed criticism.

Miranda would say things like, "He's just not very nice," or "Why would a person behave like that?" or "I wish it wasn't darn so cool to be insensitive and indifferent." When she was angry, she would say things like, "Gosh, I'm angry."

When my roommate would drink himself unconscious -- not quite a monthly event, but at least seasonal -- or when he would be in the emotional throes of a breakup or relationship transition -- not quite a monthly event, but at least seasonal -- when his closest friends would not feed him from the spigot of sympathy and pity, he would flee to Miranda. She was always eager and happy to feed him the unquestioning, uncompromising support, love and pity he desperately sought.

And those of us who didn't play dat? We were grateful for Miranda. She took the burden from us. And she took our wallowing friend away from us for a while, until he wallowed a little less.

I couldn't stand Miranda.

Few things are more unsettling to my psyche than being unable to justify my feelings or opinions. Most of the time, if I don't like you, I've got a damned good reason for it. That reason might not make sense or be acceptable to everyone else, or anyone else even, but it makes sense to me. John Wesley Hardin once shot a man for snoring too loudly, but it seemed sufficient justification for him to pull that trigger. My dislike for Miranda, on the other hand, had no legitimate purchase. I could never find an explanation for it that justified the extent of my dislike, which bordered on a sort of seething contempt.

She would go to football and basketball games with us and keep asking Why questions. Even after three years of attending multiple games every year, she didn't get field goals, or charging, or why alley-oops were allowed. She didn't understand offsides, or why exactly some players were called "down" while others were allowed to continue running. She didn't understand the coach's box, or the shot clock, or the free throw lane. Beyond the notion that the team who finishes with the highest score wins, she didn't understand much of anything about sports.

And all of her questions were so sweet, so innocent, so naive. Even the 20th time she asked the same question, it was still so sweet, so innocent, so naive. There was something terrifically Dory-esque about her.

But I knew plenty of people who were clueless about sports, and I liked many of them. I knew plenty of innocent and naive people, sweet and genuine people, and I liked many of them. But not Miranda.

Flash forward to 2014 and my 20th Reunion. A very small portion of our best friends and good buddies returned for the event. Maybe two handfuls of us.

I'm friends with Miranda on Facebook. I've enjoyed occasionally seeing updates on her life, pictures of her family. She looks happy, as always. Until a few years ago, she was an educator, because she's the kind of genuinely, stubbornly optimistic soul who goes into teaching almost as a religion, as a belief in self-sacrifice.

Miranda was one of the few in our circle who came back for the reunion, and I was looking forward to reconnecting, because I felt ashamed for not being a better friend, for not really liking her, in college. This reunion was a chance to mend that psychological fence in my head. She'd grown up. I'd sort of matured. We were adults with big people lives now.

At the gathering, we all finally caught up and circled around, catching everyone up on the details you don't see on Facebook.

Her son is, as they say, "on the autism spectrum," so Miranda stopped working to manage him. And raise him, of course, but as anyone who knows the parent of a kid with special needs, their duties and responsibilities make the job of a normal parent seem like being a ticket-taker. Yet that doesn't get her down. She talks about the difficulties and frustrations the same way your favorite first-grade teacher talks in an upbeat way about challenges that would level most of us. She is busy being, in almost any measurable way, an awesome person.

So it pained me that, as she was giving us these updates, as my heart was moved by what a great mom and wife and person she had become, a person very much in line with the young woman she was in college, I was also thinking to myself, "Holy crikey how soon can I get the hell outta this conversation?"

I still couldn't stand Miranda.

What the hell, Billy? How much do you suck as a human being that you cannot bring yourself to like someone as decent, wonderful, and sweet as Miranda?

Don't worry. I get it, in theory. Sometimes people don't mix. Oil and vinegar. Or toothpaste and orange juice. Or Crocs and... well, anything. Sometimes it's not that one thing is bad so much as the combo just doesn't work.

But it just doesn't sit well.

There's a saying in poker: "There's a fish at every table. Look around, and if you don't see one, you're probably it." Well, in relationships, there's generally an a-hole. And if you don't like someone else, and that person is sweet, and genuine, and nice, and if that person's worst crimes are being naive and a little flighty? Then maybe the a-hole is you.

So then I went and ordered a couple of shots just to bring the point home.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Epiphany #69: Consumers Can Strike Back!

The opportunity presented in this post will likely annoy more readers than it actually empowers.  That's okay.  In fact, it's kind of the point.

So I've been working a new app on my phone recently.  It's called Buycott.  It's a bar code scanner app, but with a twist.  Before you start scanning anything in your local grocery store, Buycott give you the chance to choose any number of "causes" that are important to you.  You can check as many of those as you like, and then when you do scan a grocery item's bar code, you find out if that item connects with your causes in three ways:

1.  It can tell you if the company that produces the product support that same cause(s) you do.
2.  It can tell you if the company that produces the product violates the cause that you believe in.
3.  It can tell you if there are other causes out there, maybe ones that you aren't all that interested in (yet), that have put this product on the radar.

For example, a friend gave me a box of Mallomars a few weeks ago; they have been sitting in my office.  I just scanned them.  The Nabisco Company, which makes them, is not supporting any of my causes.  To the contrary, a scan of these delicious chocolate-covered, marshmallow cookies tells me that this product is problematic for two of my causes--1) they contain GMOs and 2) they have given $2,000,000 to a campaign to prevent the labeling that would alert us to the existence of GMO's in our food.

GMOs are genetically-modified organisms, or scientists playing with your food.  Are they good?  Are they bad?  Depends on who you talk to.  Corporate giant Monsanto wants us to think that they are "beneficial."  Grocery chains like Whole Foods base much of their existence on the fact that they are a safe haven for non-GMO products.  If there were a battle map drawn in the war for the soul (on non-soul) of our food, GMO vs. non-GMO would be one of the main campaigns.

One simple fact is undeniable: the food giants like Monsanto don't want you to know if there are GMOs in your food.  We are, perhaps, right to be at least suspicious when someone tries to hide something like that.

Other causes that the sweet little cookies bring to my attention on my phone range from calls to boycott companies that advertised in the issue of Rolling Stone magazine that had the Boston Marathon alleged bomber on the cover to calls to boycott Nabisco products because Nabisco was purchased by tobacco giant Philip Morris in 2000 (though the more recent Kraft (who owns Nabisco) split-up is a bit more confusing to follow.  What is certainly as true as the hidden GMOs is the fact that there are many, many, many causes out there.  Perhaps too many to keep up with or to pick battles from.

Is the chocolate in Mallomars produced by child slaves?  Are farmers who produce products used in American foods underpaid?  Should we only buy organic products?  Did Nabisco contribute $2500 to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker's campaign?

All are causes I didn't originally subscribe to and don't know if I will.

The typical American response to all of this is to throw up our hands or shrug our shoulders and say everything is bad, or how can I keep up with all of this, or why does it matter, or I'm going to go eat a cheeseburger in a strange act of bravado.  I get that.  We expect it at this point.  Americans don't care, much of the time, about things like this.

But I guess I would argue that the app works.  When buying almond milk the other day, I scanned to brands in the organic/healthy section of the supermarket.  One contains GMOs and one doesn't.  I bought the one that doesn't.

And, as I have been hammering in various ways for the past 7 years, there is a broader reality--that food producers are messing with your food.  Whether it's GMOs or chemicals and additives to stabilize and extend shelf life or antibiotics given to animals that are raised in awful, sickness-inducing conditions, they are messing with your food.  Whether it's using processes that turn fats cancerous or more dangerous to your heart, they are messing with your food.  And, maybe you do have some issues that you care about.  In either case, a little app that makes the exploration of these issues portable and easy might be worth your time.  But, like a fresh, juicy radish, take it with a grain of salt.  It's better that way.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Livin' the Dream (Reunion Reflections #1)

Ritchie* owns and runs an Irish pub in one of North Carolina’s bigger cities. It’s an adorable two-story bar downtown. The top floor has a long bar, three or four TVs, and a nice-sized outside deck area with a killer view of the surrounding blocks. The bottom floor, rustic and not-too-roomy, has seven or eight booths, but the bar is right there in the middle of everything. The bottom floor is, as she says, “the no damn TVs allowed section.” Same goes for the bottom floor patio, where you apparently have to talk to people if you’re going to enjoy it. Or check your phone a lot.

This is not "Ritchie." Ritchie is a girl. This is not
me, either. It's just a picture I stoled off the
Internets of an Irish pub that looks a lot like hers.
The upstairs gets packed on Saturdays in the fall and for other big NC sporting events during the year, but the downstairs is the soul of the pub, where secrets are told, lifelines are altered, and alcoholics can stare into the void for hours without the distraction of flashing LED lights, only some variety of classic or not-so-classic rock pumping in at medium volume over the speakers.

I met Ritchie in the fall of my freshman year. She was in my intro poetry-writing class at UNC. She has one of those personalities that have a Jupiter-like gravitational pull. She’s exotic and oozes a sexy brand of confidence. It seems doubtless that, when she befriended/mesmerized me, she merely wanted to adopt a new puppy. Clueless boys are much less expensive than puppies.

Her best friend since elementary school, a behemoth of a man who went on to play for almost 15 years in the NFL, has to lie to his wife when he eats lunch at Ritchie’s bar, because his wife doesn’t trust her. (“If I’d really wanted to sleep with my best friend, don’t you think I coulda done so by now?” Ritchie asked, rhetorically. I nodded.)

Now she’s livin’ the dream. She’s running a thriving bar that will live as long as she wants it to. the bar wasn't her dream, at least not originally.

Mere days after her graduation, she took a suitcase and flew to California in search of something Hollywoody. Acting, screenwriting, whatever. Two years later, having pieced together decent-paying jobs (“basically because no one out there knew how to use a f*#king computer”), she ended up in a modest assistant assistant producer role with “Touched By An Angel.”

Her Hollywood war stories, all told from a lower rung on the totem, are non-stop hilarity and a healthy reminder that whatever we think about stars and their personalities is, at best, a 50-50 crap shoot.

While she was crawling up the entertainment production ladder, Ritchie's brothers were set to start a restaurant, but one of them suffered an aneurism. She came back to be there with her family and help get his restaurant off the ground... but she made it a pub. When it became clear he would survive, she promised to stay a year while he recovered. She picked out every detail. All the decor, the name, the menu, the staff. And then she made it very clear she wasn’t about to just hand over her baby to anyone else.

It is exactly the kind of bar that survives several decades. It’s not chasing a fad, and it’s not seeking the Next New Gimmick that will pull in a young crowd. It just provides a healthy selection of beer, a choice of well-lit and poorly-lit seating options, and some absolutely delicious pub food.

“I decided early on that, if I’m gonna have to eat two or three meals a day here, then the food will have to be good. I’m not gonna subsist on s*#t,” she said.

Ritchie has honed her once-meager potty mouth. Apparently, raising four children while running a bar risks passing along that gene. Two summers ago, her youngest girl walked into the bar and said, “Whassup mah bishes?” because she’d heard one of the bartenders say it a lot. She was five at the time, so now she’s a mythical goddess in pub land.

“I was so proud of the fact that my other three kids were good about it, didn’t cuss like me. And now my youngest one’s making up for all of ‘em.”

Running a bar is way cooler as a fantasy. She only allows herself to drink one night every year at her bar: St. Patty’s Day. The other 364 days are straight sober. “I learned early on that if you allow yourself to drink at your own bar, then it’s a decision you have to make every single day. And you have too many decisions to make every day to let that one take up your time.”

She’s as much of a therapist as a manager, with a staff full of the kinds of back stories that could form a whole new Lifetime-esque cable channel.

In the early years, as her husband worked as an officer, her kids would play up in the office area and sleep in dog beds she bought for them. She would either crash on a couch (that's still up there, and that had a server sleeping on it when she toured me) for the night or carry them down, one at a time, to her car well after midnight to tuck them in at home.

What I liked about her, from those early days until I saw her again for the first time in over 20 years, was how damned determined she was to squeeze out some happiness, for herself, for others, and especially for those who seemed to need some, sometimes desperately so. 

Few people I know are forces of nature quite like her, people who seem to bend surroundings to her will by stubbornly -- maybe even angrily -- refusing to stop smiling. Cheerful and determined, with some strange invisible chip on her shoulder. Sounds like the perfect woman to run a kickass Irish pub.

* -- (That’s not really her name.)

Monday, November 17, 2014

Epiphany #68: A Long Day Is A Good Day

People like to say, "What a long day" or "Man, it's been a long week."  I've had some long days. I've had some work days that started before 8AM and were still going after 10PM or midnight or later.  My friends who work in dormitories know much longer days much more regularly.  So, yes, there are days with long, long, long working hours.

But here is the new paradigm: a long day is the best day.

How can that be?  None of us wants to work ourselves into the ground, least of all me.  None of us wants to have that grueling day that will not end because of one obligation after another.

But imagine a different kind of long day.  Imagine a day, maybe a Sunday like yesterday or last week, where you wake up a bit earlier than you need to in order to drive your wife to church, which gets you to meet your father earlier than you normally do, and which then leaves you with absolute freedom early in the morning.

Imagine a day where you have been to the grocery, returned home, eaten lunch, then driven downtown to pick up your wife to come back home, all by about a little after noon.  This leaves an early afternoon to do a bunch of grading and to walk outside where the lawnmower waits and to "mulch" all of the fallen leaves in your yard and still by about 3 o'clock, to call upstairs to your napping wife and to say, "let's go out on the town."

Of course, that means little more than a bit of shopping out at the mall, but even when that is finished, and you are driving away from the mall, that leaves you time to say, "Hey, let's go to Bar Louie and get an app and a beer and watch a little football."

And even when that is over, you still get home early in the evening, early enough to have 5 or 6 hours left to do whatever you want to do.  The last hour of NFL Red Zone.  An hour of guitar practice.  Some time in front of the stove preparing meals for the week ahead.  A talk with a child about something that is going on.  Maybe a chance to chip away at a book or a Netflix show or a blog post like this.  A load of laundry and a favorite CD.

On an especially wonderful version of this kind of day, you get into bed by about 10 o'clock, your body tired out, but your mind still active, and you may lie side by side knowing that, maybe for two hours, anything could happen in no particular order, separately or together, all options on the table, all options pleasantly satisfactory.  Because, for once, you don't feel time pushing you.  Not for many minutes.

There are days out there, waiting for us.  They are days wide open enough that they give us the time to do everything that we have to do and then time still to do everything that we want to.  There is time if we look for it.

Maybe that day is not an amazing day, but it is the kind of long day that I am talking about.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Girl Who Cried Wolf, Part II

Recap of Part I:
  • Wolf-whistlers suck, but they’re not criminals.
  • The “Affirmative consent” movement in colleges is complicated and compelling.
  • It is a reasonable overreaction by men to feel the affirmative consent movement puts them in a delicate situation. It is also reasonable for students to feel that an honor code puts them in a delicate situation, but most students are proud to have attended schools with honor codes.
KEY PARAGRAPH: It’s amazing what happens when you research these issues. Answers stop being so binary, so easy or obvious. Details stop being so clear-cut. What I crave, being an extrovert, is a chance to talk through these matters, to discuss and debate, preferably with those who can bring a different perspective to the matter, who can offer me insights I cannot achieve on my own. I cannot learn much in an echo chamber.
Unfortunately, in our current culture, few people are impassioned enough to be informed without becoming almost zealot-like. We seem incapable of caring about something and, simultaneously, tolerating someone who doesn’t agree with us. Not if the issue Really Matters To Us.

Unfortunately, far too many feminists are, in attitude and approach, similar to guns rights extremists in the NRA.

Only a guns rights zealot would tell me that I deserve to get killed, that my family deserves to get killed, by an intruder because I don’t own a firearm. “Your deaths will be on your own hands,” he said calmly, politely, when we discussed the issue, “because you could have chosen to arm yourself.” (This conversation really happened.)

Only feminist extremists would tell a male walking into a speaking engagement, and the police officer protecting his right to do so, that the mere act of showing up makes them likely to rape “your sisters and the women in your life.” As if an army of rapists were being educated on how to better rape and violate women, stormtrooper-like, in a single campus speaker event. (Watch the video in the link. It's quite disturbing.)

In matters of guns and sexual assault, there is no middle. There is no compromising. There is no discussing. You agree with a zealot, or you are A Terrible (or Stupid) Person. Period.

This cultural phenomenon goes well beyond two issues. Ask George Will or Bill Maher, who have been protested as campus speakers because they say offensive or disagreeable things. Ironically, Maher was invited to honor the anniversary of Free Speech Day.

Check out #GamerGate, where any penis-wielding video gamer is made to feel they should bear the responsibility for the trolls and jerkwads in their midst. Can you imagine blaming all black men for their incarcerated minority*? It makes me angry, and I don’t even play video games that have more than two buttons. (* - if you said, "We do, and it's called Stop & Frisk," I say to you touche!) 

On the other hand, when I read about Felicia Day expressing an opinion and quickly getting drowned in hate, I want someone’s scrotum to burn. Key word: "someone's," not "all f*#king gamer dudes'." When it feels like someone is pointing the finger at me simply because I have a dick and like Donkey Kong, it's very difficult to want to Red Rover over to their side of the debate.

For anyone who values discussion, or debate, or learning, or the right to adjust or correct an opinion or belief, for anyone who values carefully and mindfully working through one’s own issues of (possible) ignorance, good luck working through issues on gun rights or women’s rights or the dangers of extreme religion of any genre in this horrifying time. To express uncertainty, much less disagreement, is to be A Bad Person, to be a “rape apologist” or a “hater of freedom” or a “racist.”

A country that cannot debate, that cannot disagree, is an endangered country. Or, if you prefer Noam Chomsky’s version: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum....”

The Female Rights Revolution -- or whatever we should call what is happening right now -- could be the single-most important issue in American culture in 2014. More important than Obamacare. More important than Ebola. More important than the iPhone 6. It’s a very, very big deal, and it’s going to change the way my children’s children deal with one another interpersonally, romantically, sexually. Unless it slips into the world of Google+, failing to build up a following but not because it lacked promise, not because it didn't deserve to be that important.

Meanwhile, as we discuss and lament "street harassment," an amendment passed in Tennessee that will allow yet one more Republican-dominated state government to restrict, if not outright ban, abortion rights. We're gagging at gnats while the camels run down our throats.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Girl Who Cried Wolf, Part I

A woman walks the streets of New York City. She is wolf-whistled and catcalled in uninvited ways by men whose paths she crossed over and over and over again. The video was a successful marketing attempt by a group seeking to combat “street harassment.” It went viral, and quickly.

Men kinda suck, was my inevitable and initial reaction. Why do we do this crap? Why do we, as a species, suck? What personal fulfillment does this kind of behavior give a man?

Easily the most disturbing part of the video is when one guy sallies up alongside the woman and walks with her for five minutes. Uninvited. Unwanted. With absolutely no chance of Romeoing his way into a relationship of any kind or length. But walking with her anyway. What kind of crime is it, exactly? I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. The eyeball test says what he’s doing is wrong, and that she shouldn’t have to tolerate it.

Upon repeated viewings, however, it gets more difficult to take offense at the flippant, shouted grunts and compliments-called-harassment by random dudes up and down the street. Are these comments uninvited, unwanted, offensive? Perhaps. Then again, so are the comments people make to one another from inside their cars. And so are the things we say to referees or players on an opposing team. If we criminalize these “assaulting” behaviors, the Cameron Crazies will end up on death row, right? Perhaps I should continue reading, discussing, considering...

A few decades from now, we’ll realize 2014 was a critical moment in the cultural struggle for feminism and women’s rights. I worry we’ll realize that too many feminists spent too much time fighting the wrong fights for the wrong reasons, alienated too many men by making all of them feel culpable for the actions of the few, and set many of their causes back in the process.

#YesMeansYes, #GamerGate, #YesAllWomen, Street Harassment. These are just a handful of the salient 2014 topics around issues of women, women’s rights, and our (changing… or unchanging) notions of equality and equal rights.

To follow these kinds of issues in the media and not snap to judgment is practically impossible. Too many moronic sideline commentators, too many journalists and opinionators paid to react, to judge as quickly and extremely as possible, before expending even 20 of their brain cells genuinely contemplating the matter at hand. Why actually learn about an issue when farting out a reactionary opinion is so simple?

It’s amazing what happens when you research these issues. Answers stop being so binary, so easy or obvious. Details stop being so clear-cut. What I crave, being an extrovert, is a chance to talk through these matters, to discuss and debate, preferably with those who can bring a different perspective to the matter, who can offer me insights I cannot achieve on my own. I cannot learn much in an echo chamber.

Take, for example, the #YesMeansYes slash Affirmative Consent movement in colleges. The general idea is that advancing sexually without clear and explicit consent from your partner can be judged as sexual assault by the educational institution. Said institution can suspend or expel you for doing so.

The immediate reaction to this rule, for even many (if not most) reasonable and sensitive males, is apoplexy. It seems to be counter to our entire notion of a healthy justice system. Men* can be found guilty with minimal chance of defending themselves, of being presumed innocent. (* - c’mon. This is gonna mostly be about men.)

And you read the initial Ezra Klein piece about it where he damns the idea with faint praise. And you read as the Internets gang tackles Klein and labels him 80 different kinds of idiot.

And you read the open letter from Harvard Law professors decrying and denouncing such an unjust law.

I instinctively feel aggravated. I imagine scenarios where I could have, as a naive 19-year-old, found myself being accused of awful things despite being one of the most non-aggressive, non-assertive lusty heterosexual males to have ever attended college. I wouldn't even dance in direct contact with a girl on the most crowded of dance floors unless she practically wrote the invitation on her forehead, but that doesn't keep a male from imagining all of the land mines, all of the nightmarish pitfalls of being wrongfully accused.

But then I read Ezra Klein’s response to all his detractors. Students get kicked out of college all the time without a jury trial, without any real judge rendering any real legal judgment. They’re called cheaters, usually, or they’re breaking some other aspect of a school’s honor code.

And that’s been happening in schools for a long time. And no one has been angry about it. In fact, most people are proud, mega-proud, for having graduated from an institution with a strict and tightly-enforced honor code that kicks possibly-innocent people out on occasion.

And I realize that my initial anger is -- and this is almost always true -- misguided. So I try to readjust my mindset and approach to the subject and seek out more information. Because that's what lifelong learners should do.

To Be Continued...

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Epiphany #67: Vegan Meatloaf

A week on, the "Vegan Initiative" has struggled some, has taken some hits, but I know that you all would appreciate an update anyway, so let me get you up to speed.

The first two days were a breeze--Apple, banana, and kale smoothie for breakfast, avocado toast for lunch, whole grain pancakes with honey, almonds, coconut, and fruit salad for supper the first day, English muffin with peanut butter for breakfast the second day, followed by tomato soup with avocado and sales for lunch, and a wonderful dinner at P.F. Chang's (a vegan's best friend) consisting of vegetable spring rolls, Ma Po Tofu with broccoli, and Vegetarian Fried Rice.

Man, we were cruising.  And then it happened.  And it happened after a vegan lunch of teriyaki tofu at Kumo for lunch.  Put simply, my daughter got a job.  After nearly six months of searching, my daughter got a job in her field, a good job with good benefits.  And my family tends to celebrate such occasions with food.

So off we went to an upscale Italian place we like, a great place...until you look at it through vegan eyes.  Basically, everything on the menu, except for one salad and maybe a couple of sides had meat or cheese as part of it, and usually both.  At that point we were off the chain.  I had s charred romain salad with some kind of Italian bacon even I'd (a food snob) never heard of of.  The pizza I followed it with had a different salty, cured meat, as well as an unpronounceable cheese, and that was kind of how the evening went.

By the next morning, I was eating half of a sausage biscuit with my advisees, and the whole initiative was in serious jeopardy.  By evening, though, a patron saint had intervened, a New York Times food writer named Mark Bittman, who has articulated various versions of the same eating plan, one of which I grasped as a life raft to get me back on board.  My other patron saint of eating, Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, offers a similar vision.

In short, here's what these guys say:  eat real food, not processed food, and eat mostly vegetables.  And don't eat too much.  Bittman even offered a few years ago, a fairly specific way to approach this.  He recommended  being "vegan before 6PM."

And that is what got me back on track.  See, if I can eat two of three meals each day inside a fairly rigid structure like veganism, and then have the flexibility to branch out for the third, well, I can work with that.  And have.  Since.

By Friday, I was drinking an apple smoothie for breakfast and a falafel rider at Ankar's for lunch.  At night, both Thursday and Friday ( and Saturday) I was eating more expansively, but even then, meat and cheese were embellishments, not the main focus.  That is what happens when you look at what you're eating, which is the main epiphany here.  Look at what you are eating, and you may stop eating some things.

And don't miss the message here:  while it may be easy to dismiss veganism as too extreme (something I do myself), the larger message remains.  If you are eating Pop-Tarts, Cheez-Its, frozen processed entrees or "fresh" foods that are loaded with chemicals and preservatives, you are killing yourself in ways that you don't need to, in ways that don't enhance what you put in your mouth in any way except convenience.  Alcohol,tobacco, a great burger, whatever, may hold great pleasures that I will not deny; processed food kills you secretly while adding no joy.

Today, I made fresh tomato sauce, soaked the insecticides off of grapes in a water/vinegar solution, made a carrot/ginger/curry/coconut soup, put together a vegan "tuna" salad of chickpeas, walnuts, lemon juice, etc. In preparation for a week of eating.  Vegan eating can taste good.  And tonight, it doesn't matter.  I think I'll make a fish sandwich from the fresh cod at The Fresh Market.

Because, as Meatloaf once said so eloquently, "Two out of three ain't bad."  And a week in, that's where I am.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Epiphany #66: Underheard

A few days ago, late in the afternoon, I was sitting in the bathroom at work.  The bathroom in question is a large, public one with three stalls, eight urinals, and four sinks.  Given the size, it's possible I went unnoticed.  It's also possible that I was overly quiet, having brought this very iPad in with me to play a favorite soccer game while I sat.

In any event, as I sat there for more than few minutes, three different men came in.  This was, again, in the late afternoon when there is usually no one around and when someone in a service business like me can get a little "down time."  So I was surprised to have so many visitors to my humble abode.  But I was even more surprised by what they did in common.

All of them talked to themselves.

Historically speaking, in anecdote and in literature, maybe even psychological journals, the person who talks to himself or herself is considered to be bit of a loony.  Talking to oneself is a mark of someone who has lost it, as in touch with reality, with one's surroundings, with one's sense of dignity even.  The classic example is Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman, who lives an entire internal world of the past where he either relives or recreates once-important conversations.  When Iago finally tips the balance in Othello's mind, Othello is seen talking to himself.  Ahab mutters to himself.

I'm not willing to make the same judgement about the men who were in the bathroom.  I couldn't hear a whole lot of what they were talking about.  I heard one talking about "four more" of something.  Nothing else was that distinguishable.

Often, especially before a big trial or hearing, I would hear my wife talking in the shower while I was ironing a shirt.

Here's my suspicion: a lot of people are talking to themselves these days.  Our brains are so crammed with things we have to do that the internal conversation is one way that our brains work out problems-- things we plan to say or things that we wish we had said in a battle recently passed.  While I know that the research now says that it is actually impossible to multitask, that does not keep the brain from trying.

And so, a man in a bathroom in front of a urinal letting it all out as a kind of relief is not surprisingly letting go of some other things as well.  That he thinks he is alone and cannot be heard only adds to the freedom of sorting through a problem.

I have found myself talking to myself sometimes, usually in a car, always after the fact, realizing that what I thought I was thinking I have actually been saying out loud.  And I know that when I am cutting grass, safely inside a cloud of noise and noxious fumes, I am rehearsing entire conversations I would like to have but never will.  My anger comes out behind a lawnmower, as do my imaginary retributions.

I don't want to sound an alarm, but it is surprising, is it not, that three men would walk into a bathroom where each thought he was alone and start talking to himself?  Sure it's statistically unfair to extrapolate too far from that small sample, but this nothing more than an amateurish blog, and so I will do so freely.

We have to talk things out with ourselves.  Out loud.  Verbal.  We need to hear what we say, even if we don't know that we hear it.  Man to man or woman to woman.  Self to self.  Life has gotten too complicated.  We are trying to do too many things at once.  We are juggling jobs with too many bosses and demands, as well as families and bills and services required, people and deadlines we have to meet, outside obligations of churches and civic duties, and all of the little demands of keeping a life running

That's something that I thought I underheard once in a bathroom.




Sunday, November 2, 2014

She Is Beyoncé, I Am Jay-Z

I know, I know, Rocktober is over, and our legions of readers who disappear when we get obsessed with music are ready come back and read about our puny opinions on topics that matter, like elections and Ebola.  (Note: I'm for elections; I think everyone in America should vote. I could easily live with those results.  And I'm against Ebola.  So those topics are covered.). Anyway, my reference in the title to Mr. And Mrs. King and Queen of Rap and All Things Hip-Hop has nothing to with music.  It is about food.

The first Vegan meal--mashed avocado toast
on wholegrain bread, carrots, tortilla chips, with
 apple cider.
See, apparently, Beyoncé and Mr. Z took a 22-day Vegan challenge or something.  I say "apparently" because everything about their lives, including their marriage, appears to be an embellishment or fabrication, according to many Internet sources and rival hip-hop songs.  But the Vegan thing, well, maybe that's real, or, at least it's real enough that my spouse and I are all in.

Apparently Jay-Z and Beyonce liked it.

Chalk it up that I'd do anything for my vegetarian wife who has eaten chicken fingers, breakfast sausage, chicken kabobs, pepperoni pizza, and bbq this weekend.  Clearly, something has derailed.  Meat--it's what vegetarians eat when they cheat!  Right now, she's finishing my daughter's cheeseburger that I made for her "last meal."

That's right: tonight is that last meat meal for the bulk of November, and I will be eating my last hamburger and last cheese for some time.

So basically, for the next three weeks between Halloween and Thanksgiving, we are "going Vegan."  It is a circumstance that I have mocked many, many times, but, then, I mocked Pumpkin Season and yet found myself quaffing a variety of pumpkin ales, so I guess my mockery has no legs.

Luckily, the stores are filled with "vegan" beers.

Luckily, I can cook.  If you can't/won't cook, I don't see any way that Veganism is manageable, practical, or ethical.  If the world has to cook your Vegan for you, you are already doing something wrong.  See?  I haven't even started yet and I've already gotten judgmental, exclusive and preachy.  So don't tell the real Vegans that I ain't giving up honey, despite the obvious exploitation of the bees.

Here's a way to look at this that might be helpful:  if you're thinking of inviting us to supper in the next three weeks, you'd better be serving mushroom and barely soup, though we would appreciate it if you would replace the barley with a more nutritious farro.  If you're going to Bud's with me, expect me to order the chips and salsa and a house salad without the bacon bits and cheese.  If I'm going to Big River with you, I'll eat the pretzel sticks but not the jalapeño cheese dip that comes with it.  At Kumo, it might be teriyaki tofu or avocado rolls, miso soup.

If you have Oreos, which are oddly vegan, I might break into your office.

At the same time, feel free to take advantage of the situation.  "Hey, Bob, all that cheese in your fridge? Would you mind if I took that off your hands before it goes bad?  You got any steaks in the freezer you're not using?  Bacon and eggs?  Hand 'em over."

What Beyoncé doesn't tell us in "Drunk In Love" is that when you're living off kale chips, mini-peppers, and Tofurky, a gin and tonic can really take the edge off.  Which may explain Jay-Z's pointless middle 8 rap in the song as well.  Maybe the guy just wanted a slice of pizza.