Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Modern Wedding

If I seem focused on weddings, it is because I have attended two the last two weekends, and such a dominant commandeering of one's social life cannot go unnoticed or unremarked upon.  What has been exciting, even inspiring, is how both weddings bucked the traditional in favor of the personal.  Both brides and groom "did it their own way".  A report from the field, if you will:

1.  One space.  The first wedding used the same "event space" for rehearsal dinner, wedding, and reception, the second wedding for wedding and reception.  Presumably, this is a money saver, but it also addresses that dead time between wedding and reception that kills so many weddings.  You know what I'm talking about--everyone standing around, waiting for the wedding party to finish taking pictures, maybe enjoying a drink and apps, maybe not.  There's driving, there's parking.  It's a pain.

2. Rewritten Vows and Meaningful Officiants.  At the first wedding, the gay bartender from the restaurant where both members of the wedding couple had once worked ran the show.  And I only mention "gay" because he gave a shoutout to this past Summer's Supreme Court ruling on marriage as part of his remarks.  It enriched the experience, for me at least.  At the second wedding, the newly-minted Baptist minister cousin of the groom oversaw the procedurals and the groom's father gave the homily. It, too, was very affecting (plus the fact that the Vols were losing dramatically to Florida as vows were exchanged).  In both cases, the couple personalized their vows.  The first couple asked each other if they promised to be each other's "favorite person for life."  In the second wedding, the couple's vows portrayed different versions of their courtship in positive ways and for several pages.

3. Great food.  Instead of going crazy with options, both weddings were sit down dinners that reflected the backgrounds of the couple.  So while people are mingling and having a drink, two or three exception apps make the rounds (pork belly steamed buns or vegetable sushi or chicken teriyaki on a stick or fried green tomatoes with a spicy sauce--delicious!).  For the dinner itself, a very small buffet with 3-5 options but all very high quality and all delicious as well.  People may not remember wedding food or whether it was pricey or not, but they will remember good wedding food.  And. In both cases, this was.

4.  Beer and Wine only.  This is just a smart economic choice and one that reflects the drinking habits of many young people.  Oh, yeah, the first wedding had saki shots, too.  I did not partake.

5.  No band.  Another economic choice, perhaps, but both weddings used DJ's, which meant that people were dancing to the exact songs that the couple wanted them to dance to, not their band playlist.  And given that both weddings had idiosyncratic songs for first bride-and-groom dance ("Is This Love?" By Bob Marley and the Wailers, anyone?) and the father-bride dance, having a DJ with the songs desired was key.  Now, I didn't get "Love Train" at either wedding, but I'm not overly complaining.  Bottom line: people like to dance at a wedding, but they don't care where the music is coming from.

6.  No Cake.  Yeah, the second wedding had a very small cake for the bride and groom, but for those taking part in the celebration, there were killer cupcakes.  The first wedding had killer doughnuts, which you could either eat there or box up for later.  I opted for the latter while my non-drinking wife, who suffers from night blindness, drove us across Chicago.  The doughnuts were a great comfort.  No cake also means comfort and ease and no waiting for ceremony.  And, probably, cheaper.

There were other similarities--scaled down clothing for the wedding party, novel takeaway gifts (Siracha salt, wine glasses filled with chocolate), young people only after parties--but the main takeaway I had was that young people getting married today are taking the stiffness and formality out of weddings.  And this is a good thing.  If a more casual wedding puts the bride and groom at ease (I was never at ease at my wedding), then everyone else picks up on the more comfortable vibe and, consequently, enjoys themselves more.  How nice it is to walk or drive away from a wedding in another city that has involved some expense on your part and be able to say, "Wow, that was a great wedding!"  Well done, you couples just starting out on your journey!  We were happy to be a part of the official beginning.

Monday, September 28, 2015

IronMan Made $180 Million And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

According to a September 11 article in The Guardian, the privately-owned entity known as IRONMAN will make an estimated $180 million this year. The brand is worth an estimated $650 million.

The best quote from the piece is this: “Jianlin (IronMan’s principle owner) knows a thing or two about making money, and a sport with no stadium costs and whose events are largely staffed by volunteers is an appealing business model.”

On Sunday, September 27, as I went about my non-IronMan business of normal life, I had to drive three times into and around areas on the IronMan path. Not once did I get to see any competitors, but I did witness hundreds upon hundreds of volunteers lining the roadways. I watched volunteers on Saturday piling up paddleboards and kayaks, canoes and rafts, so volunteers could be on the water to help ensure the safety of the swimming leg on the Tennessee River.

There were volunteers dressed up in Minions costumes, volunteers in all sorts of neon jackets and vests, volunteers with face paint and picket signs, standing at tables with Hawaiian themes and Arctic themes.

A sport whose events are largely staffed by volunteers is an appealing business model.

We debate over the injustices of minimum wage. We argue about a college athletic system where schools make tens of millions off the “sweat labor” of athletes who don’t have time for (and often don’t care about their) education. What doesn’t bother any of us a lick, apparently, is volunteering our own time and effort -- at no cost whatsoever -- so that some wealthy investors can walk away with a dizzying amount of profit with far less overhead thanks to those really sweet folks from Chattanooga and elsewhere.

Isn't that, at the very least, just a little odd?

Of course the volunteers aren’t putting out that effort and enthusiasm for the IronMan brand. Of course not. Most if not all of them are doing it for the amazing athletes who have, according to the same Guardian article, invested some $4-5,000 each in training, preparation, entry fees and accommodations.

The athletes have to pay. We volunteer to support the impressive paying athletes. And the people behind the scenes happily cash checks that make the Tennessee Lottery look kinda skimpy.

The “Chattanooga economy” is expected to see some $11 million due to the IronMan’s event this weekend. Maybe the volunteers are all about that. Maybe they are completely OK that their uncompensated time and effort helps keep the economic engine of their town running strong mostly for a lot of other people. And if that's the case, viva freedom of choice!

Bottom line, none of this is exactly charity work. None of it is for a Great Cause anymore noble than me volunteering to spot people at CrossFit or at a Reebok-sponsored Spartan Race. It’s not a food kitchen. It’s not supporting a homeless shelter or for cancer research. It’s volunteering time, energy and enthusiasm to help hand an economic windfall over to a small collection of people who aren't in the race, most of whom will continue to lobby for and support minimum wage remaining exactly where it is, most of whom are in favor of a system where our wealthiest continue to distance themselves in profits from the least of their employees.

I guess when it comes to volunteering, if it feels good, Just Do It (TM).

Friday, September 25, 2015

Modern Family

Leave it to a wedding to put it all together.  So, you've probably seen the show, but I haven't.  I have seen the cast, though, and I know the setup.  Modern Family, I think, gets it right, based on anecdotal evidence.

I was at a family wedding last week, and in doing so, I got to see the whole crew together, probably for the first and last time.

At the core, and I admit I'm bragging here, were my wife and I married 32 years with two children.  Core, I say, because we have the longest-lasting marriage and the inherent stability that goes with that.  And it really isn't fair because we were nothing but guests at the wedding, not in it in any way.

I have one sibling, an older brother, who has now been married twice, the second time seems destined to last.  His first wife was Japanese; his second wife is Jewish.  Because of this, he has two biracial children, and another, younger one with his second wife who is Jewish because that societal trait is said to pass through the mother.  So his first wife's family was there, including a sister who had flown in from Japan.  His second wife's family was there in full force, being a close-knit, social Jewish family who support each other regularly.

My father was not there and my brother and I are the only direct representatives of his people.

My mother is deceased, but her sister, my aunt, was there, along with my two cousins.  One cousin has a son by an African-American man whom she did not marry.  My other cousin is gay and lives with her partner.

And having delineated that, I present to you the typical American family--without extending very far, it includes more than one gender, more than one sexual orientation.  I can't help but saying that this gives me great comfort.  I grew up in more than one well-to-do all-white suburb, and to gain that kind of diversity without even trying is, to me, an easy connection for me to the rest of the world.  That I could gain such an amazing family with such a multitude of backgrounds from simple beginnings in Ohioview, PA and North Tonawanda, NY, from grandparents with any number of limitations is nothing short of wonderful.

My grandfather on my father's side came here as an immigrant from Hungary at the age of 14, when he went off on his own.  He met a girl in France during WWI and brought her home, and they lived a small, disciplined life in western Pennsylvania where they tried to downplay their ethnicity and became so "American" that they refused to have anything to do with my brother when he married a Japanese woman.

My grandparents on my mother's side were more social, but still lived isolated lives near Buffalo, NY.  Most likely, they would have been equally troubled to have a great-grandson who was half black.  One memorable comment from my grandmother as she watched the Today Show way back when and looked at Bryant Gumbel was, "My, isn't he a handsome Negro."

And so to have natural human inclinations give me the extended family I now have feels just that--natural.

We live in a country now where there are any number of attempts to thwart the natural inclinations of good people because of politics, religion, narrow-mindedness, bigotry, hatred, misunderstanding, and any number of other reasons.  But I gaze at my clan and I think, alas, you are fighting a battle that is already so far behind you.  With each passing day, we all become more and more one people and I don't think that anyone can do anything moral to prevent that natural course of events.  I hope not.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Convenience of Acknowledging Sexism

Use your power to stop the execution of Kelly Gissendaner by insisting that her sentence be commuted to life in prison without parole. She is a woman who has been profoundly transformed while in prison. Kelly is a mother, a theologian, and a pastoral figure to many. Do not let this travesty of justice happen on your watch. Do not squander the opportunity to extend mercy.
A very dear friend of mine linked to Kelly’s petition on her Facebook page. I’m mostly opposed to the death penalty. I believe in the value of forgiveness and grace. I couldn’t figure out why this summary, this "travesty of justice," bothered me at first.

Protests and petitions about the death penalty and its horrors are nothing new. The Innocence Project and its siblings are arguably some of the most admirable movements happening in America right now. So, at first, the petition for Kelly Gissendaner might not seem all that unusual… yet… it is.

It’s unusual because no one is questioning her guilt. She’s guilty. Totally. She helped to plot the murder of her husband. She and her lover, Greg Owen, murdered. For love. Or something.

Yet at present there is a petition with more than 87,000 signatures because Kelly turned her life around. She found God, and she’s important to a lot of people, and her children don’t want to lose both of their parents for something awful that happened almost 20 years ago.

And oh yeah, mostly because Kelly Gissendaner is a woman.

We simply don’t like killing women. Killing men doesn't much phase us. We're numb to it. That Execute Men ship sailed long ago. Since 1976, only 15 women have been executed in the United States. In that same time, 1,414 men have been executed. That means barely more than 1 out of every 100 people executed in premeditated fashion by the government in this country have been female.

How many times can you recall 87,000-plus signatures on a single petition for a man who has admitted responsibility for a crime worthy of the death penalty?

Surely, over the years, there have been men like Kelly. Men who did horrific stuff, sat in jail for years awaiting their fate, yet redeemed themselves on some level in the eyes of God if not humankind. But we don’t garner 87,000 signatures for them. Not unless we believe they didn’t do it. Like in Serial, where we can convince ourselves that we’re lobbying for a (maybe, fingers crossed) wrongfully-convicted innocent. Some will defend men they believe are innocent. But the guilty but repentant ones? Ha.

No sane person would dare argue that women are less violent, less horrible. As genders and crime go, women are way way better human beings than men. They just are. And it’s not sexist to say that, because there’s not a statistic on the planet that would refute it. About the only place where we’re equally pathetic, criminally speaking, is in shoplifting. Beyond that, men basically own the criminal landscape. Because we suck.

But… how many male Kelly Gissendaners are there out there right now? How many have there been since 1976? Statistically speaking, surely there are at least 30-40 men on death row who have repented. Who do good deeds. Who are sincerely remorseful… yet where are their defenders and protectors?

If Justice is indeed blind, why does she seem to pity one gender so much more than the other? Isn’t this sexism? Isn’t it because we have always been comfortable believing men deserve awful consequences, while women deserve a second chance? Aren’t we comfortable believing women simply can’t be Evil in quite the same awful despicable way that men are Evil?

Kelly Geissendaner would be the 16th woman formally executed by our government. That’s 16 too many, to be sure. But how much of anyone’s sympathy and effort has she earned in comparison to the more than 1,400 men who have befallen the same fate, the unknown hundreds who turned their lives around?

If she was a man, she’d be dead already, and few if any beyond friends and loved ones would have batted an eye. Is that Justice? Is that the American Way? Dunno, but it is the Truth.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

We Do What We're Told

We do what we’re told.

Early in September, social media exploded as video spread, indeed like a virus, of two Texas high school football players targeting a referee with vicious and intentional hits.

In our Era of Instant Outrage, the flipside of the coin to our Culture of Victimhood, it’s easy to forget one outrage because we can’t hold onto them too long lest we miss the chance to ride the next outrage bandwagon, certain to be coming right round the bend.

We do what we’re told.

What’s particularly fascinating about this event, these two boys engaging in an inexcusable and quite frightening act of physical cruelty, is how the story is evolving as more details emerge.

We will likely never know, with any certainty, the events and words leading up to that gasp-inducing moment when the ref’s head snaps back as he’s leveled from behind. Everyone and their grandmother has lawyered up at this point, from the boys to the coaches, from the ref to the school district.

But we now know what the boys are claiming: one of their coaches instructed them to target the ref. They are also claiming that the target of their aggression was making some racist comments during the game.

We do what we’re told. Told to do.

In my heart of hearts, as an educator and a parent, I hoped this moment of coordinated violence and cruelty was the whim of two conniving teenaged malcontents whose amygdalas were too influential in their decision-making to caution them of the damned foolishness and awfulness of their idea. I wanted to believe they acted alone.

But, in my heart of hearts, as an educator and a parent, I feared this moment involved two boys eagerly feeding their urge for revenge because an adult gave them permission to do it, or just flat-out told them to.

Teenagers do stupid things. All the time. But very rarely do they do something this stupid, in front of this many potential witnesses, within the confines of such a controlled environment, without an adult being involved.

We do what we’re told.

Throughout recorded time, teenagers deviate from The Acceptable in one of two ways: they’re either too rebellious or too compliant. The majority of adults always fret over the rebellious part -- they’re the Galactic Empire fighting to eradicate the Rebel Alliance. But a growing cadre of adults are, now more than any point in my lifetime, worried that our future will be run by lemmings who have been so coddled and scheduled and micromanaged that they don’t know how to handle power and responsibility when they finally chew off that umbilical cord at age 18 or 23 or 34.

Today’s teenagers are, as a collective, as kind-hearted, respectful, law-abiding, responsible, and generous a group as anyone could wish. Crime stats are down. Pregnancies are down. Illegal drug use is down. In almost any measureable category, Kids These Days are Better Than We Were.

So the jury deserves to remain out on whether our overprotecting and helicoptering has hurt them or in fact built better people. I don’t necessarily want to believe it, but I also see the product, and it’s mostly good… if, perhaps, depressingly benign and bland. (Billy Joel said it better.)

We do what we're told.

It can’t be coincidence that movies are now out that explore the (admittedly flawed) Stanford Prison Experiment and Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority experiments. These experiments are coming back into the spotlight because I believe we are beginning to worry about just how obedient, how pliant, how worshipful of power and authority, this rising generation has become.

I think, secretly, while we’re outwardly demonize rebellion and disobedience, we’re more worried that we’re raising a generation of the wrong kind of prison guards. The ones who will go all the way up the voltage meter if the right authority grants them permission or orders them to.

As all of Texas (and the US) convenes to pass judgment on two boys, boys who deserve some reasonable level of consequence regardless of orders given or excuses offered, we should pause to wonder what to do about the adults, sitting calmly in the corner of the room, instructing our kids to do awful, scary things with the words, "You have no other choice, you must go on."

We do what we're told. Told to do.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Tears at the Wheel

Is she crying...?

The last couple of miles on my way to work is a single road, practically gunbarrel straight, through downtown. Lots of lights and slow speeds. As the days get shorter, the sun rises later and later in the morning. At present, it's in full bloom and enlightening me for most of the drive, and for most of the first mile or so, there's a sort of art to keeping an eye on stoplights that involve using the blinds and staring at the small space between the right edge and the rearview mirror. But mostly what you do is try not to look ahead, so you sort of attempt to look around in other directions and guess when it might be the right time to check.

This morning, I was looking around so to avoid staring into the sunlight, and my gaze found the car parallel to mine at the light, specifically the 30-something woman behind the wheel. Her hand was over her mouth. Her shoulders were convulsing mildly. Her eyes were shut tight.

Some people can't help but stare into the sun; I can't help but stare at the expression of palpable emotion, those moments when the body is so fully possessed by feeling that it is beyond the brain's control. It's mesmerizing, truly.

Her hands went to her eyes, where she pushed away the moisture, and then she ran one through her wavy blonde bob as she took one of those massive centering breaths. She was looking straight ahead, and I'm almost certain she said the words "It's gonna be okay" to herself, maybe aloud, maybe whispered.

And then she felt my stare on her. Because that's one of those weird, half-supernatural things about humans. We can often feel gazes, as if actual photons were firing out of someone's eyeballs and hitting our flesh in some measureable fashion.

She turned and looked at me, and I immediately offered the voyeur coward's defense. My eyebrows raised in surprise, and I looked back at the light, because cowards always look away. But it was still red, so I glanced back at her. And she was looking at me. Or beyond me somewhere. And her look wasn't one of anger so much as a second kind of sadness, the sadness that her shot at a solitary moment of emotional purging in her car wasn't all that solitary. It was being shared with someone who wasn't invited.

On Monday, as I was driving my daughters to school, I looked into the rearview to see my younger daughter fighting back tears, staring out the window.

"What's wrong, honey?" I asked. "I hope it wasn't what I said at the house, 'cuz I wasn't that upset."

No reply. Just the continued distant stare. "Honey? Do I need to apologize? I don't think I do, but..."

"No," she muttered. She mutters a lot when she's upset. At microdecibel levels. So, because I'm that guy, I kept at it.

"DAD. JUST LET ME CRY AND LEAVE ME ALONE!" And then she offered an additional bit about, you know, that whole phase of the moon stuff. The ultimate "you wouldn't understand, stupid male" dis.

That afternoon, when I picked her up and asked her how her day went, she said, "The day would've gone a whole lot worse if I hadn't had a few minutes to cry in the car first. A whole. Lot. Worse."

And, because I'm that guy, I asked why. "Just because, dad. Because sometimes I just need to cry."

What my daughters didn't know is that, after I dropped them off Monday, I found one of my favorite songs of celebration and mourning on the ol' trusty iPod and played it. It's the song I play anytime someone close to me dies, a song that goes back to the early 2000s, a song I play far more often than I'd like. And someone close to me died on Sunday. And it was a moment deserving both celebration and mourning. And I had myself a good sing-a-long cry where I'm half singing, half staggering for breath and blinking a lot.

I don't know if anyone noticed me, that guy in the car next to them at the light, singing to some unknown song, sneaking a finger up to smudge away the moisture, exorcising those pent-up emotions with the windows rolled up and the engine properly revved. I never felt a gaze, but I never do in those moments.

Crying in cars is a thing. We've all done it, I reckon. Some of us think it's a private moment, and some of us just don't give a good gosh dern who sees it 'cuz it's none of their gosh dern business, gosh dern them.

Perhaps cars were our social media before we had Facebook and Twitter. Those places where we have convinced ourselves that random expressions of rage or sorrow have a privacy meter that we control, that we can choose when someone sees our flipped bird or our stray tear, our air guitar or our glances at that phone, that we can choose when someone hears the expletive we've shouted at a loved one or when we sing the wrong lyrics off key (but with gusto!).

But everytime I cry in my car, I feel a little better after.

And everytime I see someone else doing it, I feel so disconnected after, as if I've witnessed someone drown but unable to reach a hand out to pull them out of the water.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Take a Picture It'll Last Longer

Are you over 25? If so, close your eyes and try to recall pictures from your childhood and youth.

Baby pictures of yourself. Pictures from elementary school, or from high school. Pictures of beloved family members. Pictures of family members who weren’t all that beloved. Funny pictures. Embarrassing pictures. Can you see them in your mind?

If you’re like me, if you have the chance to concentrate, you can remember dozens of pictures in impressive detail. You might even have a sense of which photo album the picture is in, and then you can begin to imagine flipping through the pages, remembering other pictures on the pages fore and aft.

I spent hours of my teenage years and young 20s assembling a handful of photo albums, For someone who wasn’t all that popular, whose life wasn’t all that interesting, I probably had an unhealthy obsession with capturing photos of my life. I honestly think I was horrified at the thought of forgetting my own life. The friends who kept me smiling. The girls who were friends but on whom I secretly crushed. Sometimes randomly-captured moments that I hoped would help me remember what otherwise might fade away from the eternal onslaught of new information.

In the years -- decades -- since, I have gone back time after time to enjoy those albums. The last photo album we own is from 2003. One daughter is still in diapers, and the other is barely out of them. My son does not exist in a physical photo album.

Who even looks at albums anymore, dozens of pictures compiled carefully into a book-like creation?

The smartphone and its now-ubiquitous HD camera, combined with social media, has become an omnipresent photo album, with video capability to boot. It’s arguably the most unsung but significant cultural revolution of my lifetime, because it has begun to change what we would run back into the house for in case of a fire. At present and forever in the past, photos were, for most people, the one irreplaceable possession (other than human beings). Now we don’t worry about fires destroying our memories.

We worry about computer memories failing, wiping our pictures out, and thus destroying our memories as well.

Now, close your eyes, and recall some pictures from three or four years ago. Are they clear in your head? As clear as those photos, printed on Kodak paper, sheathed in transparent goodness, from another era of your life? If you can recall them as well, how long would it take you to find them? Do you know where they are? If you’re like me, you can’t remember as many pictures as clearly and specifically, nor would you know exactly where to start looking.

Since January of this year -- little more than a scant eight months -- my family has added over 2,600 photos to our iPhoto album.


I have two selfie-obsessed, smartphone-owning teenage daughters. Add to that my wife’s occasional shots and my love of Instagram and shutterbugging, and the number of pics obviously explodes.

If you’re old enough, you remember when talk of photos meant talk of “rolls of 24” (usually), and talk of 100, 200 or 400 “film.” These phrases are so nonsensical and obsolete now that I laughed as I wrote them. Photographic film is the “taxi” of 2005.

The roll of 24 would run you $3 or so. Getting that roll developed usually ran $6-10 for standard prints. As a teenager, this meant every roll of film cost me a good meal, or half a dozen comic books, or a new album/CD/cassette. I took every roll, every picture, seriously, because I could feel it costing me money when I took it.

We won’t know for sure what this has done to us for another decade or two. And whether it’s all for the better doesn’t matter, because it’s all for the convenience.

What’s a picture worth now?

Monday, September 7, 2015

Treat Every Holiday As If It Is A Holiday

Billy and I have trafficked in a lot of of opinions during our years here.  This, though, is a simple fact:

If you don't treat a holiday like it is a holiday, then it isn't.

Take Labor Day.  Kind of a bland, take the day off kind of a day, but that doesn't make it a holiday.  That makes it a day off.  What makes it a holiday is doing something special to celebrate it, like:

1.  Cook special food.
2. Have people over.
3. Talk to people for whom the holiday was designed.
4. Plan and execute events.
5. Reminisce about previous incarnations of the holiday.

That's a partial list.  So think about holidays on your own for a minute.  They are a combination of religious holidays, patriotic holidays, government-designated holidays, traditional holidays from other cultures that have carried over to this country.  Some of them you may not acknowledge.  Some of them you may not get excited about.  That is on you.  A holiday is an opportunity, and it is up to you to make something out of it.

If you are a parent, how you treat holidays is something that your children are watching.  Can't rev it up for cooking some steaks and maybe even talking about the purpose of Labor Day or your family's connection to it?  That is on you.  One of the duties of parenthood is teaching children how they are supposed to navigate life with their own families.  If special times aren't special, then they begin to fade away for future generations.

When I think of Labor Day, I start by thinking of my grandfather who came over here from Hungary at age 14 or younger, didn't feel comfortable in his father's home with a new stepmother, and so left western Pennsylvania for Akron, Ohio to work in the tire factories there.  At age 14.  I think of my other grandfather, less ambitious, who was minimally motivated as an insurance salesman until his father won the Irish Sweepstakes and used the winnings to buy a lumber company in North Tonawanda, New York.  My family influences go farther back, but the paths of those two men and the wives who stayed home and raised the children for them largely dictate the paths of my parents and, consequently, my family as well.  Labor Day is a day for thinking about generations, past and future, and about our own work journeys.

And though having a cookout has no particular connection to any of that, our country has developed it's own traditions for holidays.  If a cookout became standard practice because of the meat industry, so what?  The fact is that when you cook a lot of outside foods and sides to go with them, you want to share the bounty with others.

For much of the country, Labor Day marks the end of summer, and that, too, is worth observing.  There is something rewarding about having the tomatoes and jalapeƱos in a salsa appetizer, the tomatoes in a salad, the chives sprinkled over a dip, all there to remind you that what you have worked hard growing for the last 5+ months is winding down.  There is something special about the inclusion of the tail end of those crops feeding people.

My table tonight included the very elderly, the retired, the currently working, the out of college and looking for a job--those work generations nurture each other when they gather for a communal meal when the sun doesn't know it won't stay this hot much longer, when bright flowers already have brown leaves landing in their midst, when fruits that have yet to ripen may not, when grass has begun to slow and die.

A holiday, any holiday, is a gift handed to you.  To ignore that gift, to refuse to enjoy a heightened sense of the day, is to squander the joy of life, both in its rhythms and in the breaks in its routines.  Happy Labor Day to all, and if today wasn't meaningful, you will make it so next year or the year after.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Sherman Channel

Tonight I am waxing nostalgic about a strange science teacher from the 1980s.

Mr. Sherman arrived sometime during that decade, the next in a revolving door of Quantitative Physical Science teachers that the school couldn't seem to hang onto for more than a couple of years. Mr. Sherman came from M.I.T., I think, (back then we used to hire teachers from schools of that caliber) and settled, as a batchelor, in the dorm that consisted of juniors.

Mr. Sherman was a tall man, unusually tall, with a mop of sometimes-clean hair and a pair of shaded glasses that were either the nerdiest glasses ever or kin to the ones Peter Fonda wore in Easy Rider.  Evidence pointed toward the former.

Possessed of almost no social skills, Mr. Sherman quickly found himself at home on a boy's school campus, where students have little understanding of a teacher's life outside of school and so embrace everyone's campus role.  Mr. Sherman was weird, but he was cool-weird.  He knew stuff, and he could apply it.

In the dorm, during the era of the Apple IIe and the MacIntosh, Mr. Sherman knew how to link his computer to others in the dorm.  And so, he created "The Sherman Channel," a primitive network that allowed him to post announcements, like what VHS movie he would be showing when he was on dorm duty.

At campus dances, he would bring his laser and project lines, circles, and squiggles on the wall that moved in time with the music.

At the faculty golf tournament, he tested the theory that the only club anyone needs is a driver, and though this theory didn't bear weight, we all took great befuddled joy in his attempt to master the course with a single club.  Perhaps if he actually knew how to play golf, he might have been onto something.

Where Mr. Sherman went, I have no idea.  He was not easy to talk to, and I was not close with him.  Everything that he encountered was a laboratory to him, a chance to try out some experiment, and that probably isn't a recipe for making friends or putting down roots.  As I said, QPS was a revolving door at that time, and so no one was surprised when Sherman was gone.

But this year, we have installed video monitors all over campus--there may be some 38 of them before we are all done.  They show photographs and the weather and announcements and offer a high-tech way to try to connect the people at our school with shared information.

Back then, with nothing much in the way of technology, Mr. Sherman found a way to link computers in his dorm in a way that was fun for boys, that made them feel like they had a special connection during a difficult year.  When I walk around now and see the monitors and their almost-overwhelming presence, I think of Mr. Sherman, and I think, he knew.  He knew.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Lost Adults of "Palo Alto"

Palo Alto is a movie you don’t want to see. No one should want to see it. But if you’re a parent, or a teacher, or anyone who plays or should play a meaningful role in the lives of teenagers, you probably should see it.

Based on a series of short stories written by Hollywood enigma James Franco, and following the lives of a handful of lost teenagers (or are they just teenagers? Discuss!), the movie is haunting for how it approaches the old hat teen subject matter, for the statements it makes and the accusations it insinuates.

Teens say “I love you” a surprising number of times in the movie. They say it to one another, and they say it to adults. And every time, the viewer is left wondering if anyone has the slightest clue what it means to love someone. In the movie, these words are a teen's initial effort to simply connect with someone -- maybe anyone -- else beyond their own tortured soul. Like a "poke" on Facebook.

Parents say “I love you” in Palo Alto. Teachers say “I love you,” too. And every time, the viewer is left wondering not what the adult feels, but rather, what the adult wants. When the teacher (James Franco) says it, what lever is he trying to pull? With the parents, have they lost the myriad ways to actually show love and are thus fall back on mere words to express what we’ve lost the ability (or motivation) to indicate other ways? Do the parents just want to efficiently dispense with their responsibilities?

In other words, in the world of adults communicating with teens, are they all saying words -- be it “I love you” or much anything else -- to avoid having to do anything that takes real effort? Articles and blogs all over decry how disconnected and distant Kids These Days are with their Devices, their heads buried in them. But time and again, it's the adults who seem to avoid trying to connect.

Another pleasant surprise -- sort of spoiler alerts ahead -- is how honestly the movie tries to be about teenage danger. The dangers are real, and some bad things do happen in the movie. But what you see time and again is how much time and energy adults waste on overrated dangers while ignoring (or pretending away) the real dangers teens face.

In one scene, the most manic character, Fred, drives down the road with his pal Teddy. Fred is stoned off his gourd and whipping around a butcher knife like it’s a slap bracelet. The scene is brilliant because it’s fraught with risk, and it sets every Parenting Panic alarm on full blast. You can practically hear a death knell tolling for them in the background of the film, and you’re mostly just wondering how they’re gonna die -- by stabbing, by wrecking, by some other yet-unseen force like Jason Voorhees?

But they don’t die. Nobody gets stabbed. Nobody wrecks. They all live. At least to the end of the film.

Because that’s what happens 97% of the time in real life. Teens do stupid, risky, dangerous things, and they get away with it. Or at least they survive.

Meanwhile, parents don’t blink about high schooler April (Emma Roberts in a wonderfully understated role) babysitting for her soccer coach, a single dad, apparently at all sorts of hours. Parents don’t blink about high schooler Zoe bringing Fred into her bedroom or walking out of the house behind the hedges, 30 yards from the kitchen where her mom fixes dinner, so she can blow him.

The message of Palo Alto is painful and simple and true. Most teenagers -- especially middle and upper middle class white ones -- will move past their difficult and confusing years of anguish and euphoria. Most of them won’t succumb to addiction. Most of them will get slaps on the wrist from judges for their stupid decisions and defiant attitudes. Most of them will have regrettable sexual experiences with crappy people and grow to live a normal-ish life.

Meanwhile, they will get far too little help, support, understanding or investment from the adults they’re supposed to believe they can depend on. The parents who are supposed to care enough to give time rather than a few spare words. The teachers who are supposed to be role models or at least dedicated educators rather than predatory narcissists or ruthless distant judges of misbehavior.

When James Franco’s Mr. B finally gets April on his couch, her clothes coming off as they descend “willingly” into the inevitable criminal act of statutory rape, they pause for a moment while April acknowledges that it’s not Thursday, even though she’s wearing Thursday underwear. White cotton, agonizingly childish days-of-the-week panties with a teddy bear on the front. If you wondered whether Emma Roberts was being sexualized in some beer commercial kind of way, those thoughts get perished swiftly and with prejudice. She’s a f*#king kid. This guy is a f*&king scumbag. End of discussion.

The rest of the scene treats the sex scene as it deserves to be treated. No confusion about what’s going on or how we ought to judge matters (think of the “gray area” of Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” rape scene). Frankly, it’s the kind of horrible -- yet non-violent, non-melodramatic, yet plenty squirm-worthy -- framing of a sexual encounter we don’t have to watch nearly often enough.

Kids will be kids. And far too many adults just suck.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Empty Country Throne

If there’s a throne atop the land that is Country Music, I’m not sure many people want it. Recently, the land of Country Music feels barren and sad. The land is overcrowded with jesters who sing of liquor and bars and disconnected sex as if these were the heights of existence rather than signs of ignored problems and frailties. The land is overcrowded with magicians who divine the magic beats-per-minute to skyrocket a song, who stir four and five songwriters into a cauldron and feed the elixir to their Allure covergirls and hunky good-ol-boys.

What the land seems to lack are maverick leaders. (Can you have a maverick leader? Is that an oxymoron?) You know, those supernova personalities whose brilliance overcomes the shadows, who continue shining while the rain nourishes the starved earth, rainbows filling the sky to the delight of the huddled and underserved villagers, whose hope had all but dwindled away but long to believe in something real again.

I spent dozens of hours last summer in Robert’s Western World, the last great haven for what would be considered “classic” country music, the tunes and topics before Garth Brooks and Shania Twain (who, with all due respect ‘cuz I like both of them a little, saw the beginning of moving 80s and 90s lite (or white) rock and AAA into the Land of Country Music, where it lives to this day.

To be sure, there is no singular king or queen of country anymore than there is a singular king of England, but lately country music is more interested in short-term congressmen or parliamentarians than they are in crowning rulers. Yet might the once and future king and queen of country be already in their midst, waiting for the opportunity to pull a banjo from the stone, or for the Dolly of the Lake to throw them a fiddle?

Jason Isbell and Kacey Musgraves may be the best chance for country music to hold onto its historical roots while forging a meaningful future. They are the Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton of this generation.

Many don’t realize, but Dolly only had three albums go Platinum. Four if you include Trio with Emmylou and Linda. She has sold 100 million albums the hard way. Same for The Man in Black, two of whose three Platinum albums were live recordings. Estimates have his total sales at 90 million, just behind Dolly. They are what the pinnacle of what country music used to be because in any genre’s best days, commercial success is not the priority but rather the side-effect of bigger aims and visions.

Likewise, albeit with a 21st Century spin, Isbell and Musgraves have bigger fish to fry than mere sales. You know this when Isbell sells out show after show but barely dents the sales charts (although his latest, which my colleague Bob calls “not even his second-best effort,” did top both the US Country and US Rock charts… which only means no one knows what to consider his music). You know this when Musgraves debuts her traditional-sounding country pop sound in a gay bar with drag queens, all but flipping a Johnny Cash-esque middle finger to the conservative roots of the standard country music listener.

Isbell has Cash’s understanding of the commoner, and of the people many of us perceive as lower than common. He gives voice and story to the people we overlook because we’re too busy searching for drinking songs or following the trevails of Kardashians and Duggars. He’s not particularly interested in writing songs that scream out our hypocrisies and flaws. Rather, he writes songs that dare us to listen hard enough to see that for ourselves.

Musgraves has Dolly’s music business savvy and a penchant for “advice songs.” She understands, like Dolly, the way her well-put-together body* and hairdo choices can hypnotize an audience while she slight-of-hands her way into your heart and ear. She projects the image that she can balance the impossible dual personality of commanding a stage with glitz and glamour one minute and sitting comfortably, genuinely, next to you on the front porch or in the kitchen the next, holding your hand and actually listening to your woes. (* - Although Kacey puts her legs and booty front and center while Dolly put her chest uber alles.)

They lack some key qualities, to be fair. Isbell doesn't have Cash's aggression. His is at best a quiet rage, where Cash's was frequently more in your face. Musgraves hasn't managed to be as personal or as tender as some of Dolly's finest moments. Where's her "Jolene" or her "I Will Always Love You" (mock that song if you like, but if you know the back story it's pretty dang amazing)? Where's the moment she reveals something deep and painful about herself?

But successors to thrones rarely seem worthy in the early stages. The shoes they must fill seem too big. Frequently, however, the odds get defied, hearts get won over, and kingdoms continue to thrive.

Time always tells.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

I'll Verb You

If you know me long enough, I will verb you.  As in, I will turn your name into a verb that reflects one of your tendencies.  And, candidly speaking, that tendency might not necessarily be positive.  That's just how I roll.

For example (and all names have been changed):

A couple of weeks ago, I reminded our tech office that some of our former employees were still on our email list and needed to be removed.

"Why would you do that?" a friend asked me.
"He was Todding me," I said.  Todd used to work here, too.
"How so?"
"He was taking an unnatural interest in things that happen here that don't matter to him anymore."
"Oh," that friend said, and then he knew what Todding is.

Or take my father.  As an elderly driver, his reflexes are not what they once were, and so he tends to drive more slowly on the interstate than the other cars.  But not always in the rightshand lane.  And so, I've noticed that when I'm in the passenger seat, cars will blast past us on both sides, nearly simultaneously.  It can scare the crap out of me.  I call it getting Dadded.

So when my wife is driving, and she gets passed on both sides, I say, "You just got Dadded."  She never seems to appreciate it when I point that out.

So now you know the game.  If you bring beers to a party at my house and take the leftovers home, I have a verb for your name. If you take days off of work to work at home on things that you could probably accomplish at work, you are a verb in my brain.  If you show up at one of our shows at my friend's house and cook up all of the remaining food and then sit out on the back deck, not even listening to the band, you might end up in the next edition of Merriam-Webster.

If you cannot keep from playing up all of your accomplishments, how hard you work, and what an impact you make, there is a great chance that there is an action verb labeling you somewhere.

Am I proud of this trait?  Not really.  Am I likely to stop?  Even less likely.  For as I come to believe more and more, people, most people if not exactly all people, do.....not......change.  Even football coaches.  And so to ascribe a verb to an ongoing pattern of behaviors may be offensive, but that does not make it untrue.

The flaw is this: if you are the first person who displays a trait, it is going to be named after you.  And so, a couple that brings some "expensive" cookies to a party at my house and then wants to take the remainders home is going to have the verb associated with the person who always takes his leftover beer.  Fair?  No. Petty? Yes.  But does anyone have any idea how much more expensive it is to put on a party than it is to buy a few stylish cookies?

You think I'm proud of this?  I'm not proud.  I am my own verb.  To "Bob" someone is to assign them an unflattering characteristic, I'd guess.  Or to dwell on people's lesser qualities instead of seeing them at their best.  Both are damning.  So, no, I'm not proud.

But those verbs do come into my head with very little effort, and it is difficult to keep them submerged.  I'm trying to work on it; I really am.  But I am also living among, with a discerning eye.

Of course, you can verb me right back with a meaning of your own.  That's fair play.  And who can stop you?