Saturday, January 31, 2015

Shave and a Haircut

“I’d rape Emma Watson.”

My barber said those words to me as I sat in his chair, as he sheared away layers of hair from my skull.

For only the second time since I was 7 years old, I was in a barber shop, hearing words I'd never hear at a Great Clips. I'd only met this young man less than 10 minutes prior.

The last time I entered a barber shop, I was 19, in desperate need of a haircut and strapped for cash. So I walked into one of the few barber shops in downtown Chapel Hill and plopped down. Next thing I know, the dude is cutting my hair with a home-made version of a FlowBee. He was cutting my hair not with scissors, or clippers, but with a rudimentary blender attached to the end of a vacuum cleaner.

The result was a haircut my dear friend forever calls "Freddie Forehead." I lost my bangs. The entire Gobi Desert expanse of my frontal lobe was exposed to the world, and I lost a substantial portion of the shot glass worth of self-respect I possessed.

Nevermore, I swore.

I've been sporadically reading The Art of Manliness, a compilation of blog posts from the truly amazing site dedicated to obsessing mindfully over every minute detail of what it should mean to walk around this planet with a penis and a bigger purpose than Navin R. Johnson's "Special Purpose."

If your life doesn't revolve around ways to insert words like "cisgender" into every discussion or debate, and if you believe there is nothing criminal or evil about writing a book that would champion certain long-standing notions of what it is to be noble, and kind, and considerate, specifically as a man in a Western-civilized world, I highly recommend this book.

First off, it is written in a fashion that research says appeals more to boys. Bite-sized chunks of text. The freedom to pick and choose passages or sections in almost any order without the risk of losing a plot or character development. Prescriptive, or instructional, writing that invites the reader to take pauses and experiment in the physical world. And yes, old Playboy jokes aside, pictures, because boys don't just read for the articles.

Secondly, it prescribes ways for young men (or older men, for that matter) to mindfully approach questions of masculine identity, of what kind of man they want to become and/or portray, of what kind of qualities they prioritize for themselves and expect from others. And the fun isn't in agreeing with every detail, with every instruction, but rather in contemplating each and translating it into your own sense of yourself and your ideals.

If this seems like a small thing, I couldn't disagree more. It's huge. Teenage boys are awash in a culture that avoids teaching them those "timeless" values of caring for others, of respecting oneself, of making a first impression, of when to fight and when to retreat.

Inspired by my reading, I took that mindful and intentional approach by putting my hair where my mind was. I would let a barber cut my coiffure.

I had to wait 45 minutes before sitting in the chair. My barber was an amiable bearded chap in his early 20s. Bearded, somewhat portly, a little rough around the sociable edges, the guy who has friends but doesn’t always make the best company for a night on the town.

As he clipped away, we talked about TV shows and movies. Breaking Bad. Walton Goggins’ impressive TV credentials. Zombies and Cylons. Somehow the talk stumbled into This Is The End, the apocalypse comedy with Seth Rogen and James Franco. And he announced, factually, that Emma Watson is the hottest piece of tail that has ever walked the surface of the earth. And I sort of chuckled and said she seemed like a very sweet young lady and was smarter than people might give her credit for.

That’s when he said it.

“I’d rape Emma Watson.”

He continued. “Doing her would be worth spending the rest of my life being someone’s bitch in prison.”

"Whoa.”

That’s all I said. Whoa. As in Whoa Mule.

At that point, he began a series of backtracks. He started by backing away from it, saying he was just joking, that he’s never done anything like that in his life and never would. Then he said it’s awful how men treat women sometimes, and that he only made that joke because a lady like Emma Watson would never give him the time of day. And then he said it was sorta like that “rapey vibe” scene from This Is The End.

Finally, he just said, “I know that’s not a funny joke. I’m sorry man. You know how you say things and you think they’ll be funny when they’re in your brain, but then they come out, and they’re not funny? And you don’t know what to do about it? That’s what this has felt like. But I’m real real sorry.”

First thought: What would the commentariat of the Internet do with a guy like this? They’d hang him. They’d want his picture and name plastered all over creation as an example of The Evil Men Do. Burn him! Burn the witch!!

Second thought: This is exactly the kind of guy who needs a book like The Art of Manliness. He needs more opportunities to engage, intentionally, with what it means to be a good, decent, upstanding man.

Third thought: Have we moved, as a society, beyond letting people stick a foot into their mouth without wanting to castrate or kill them? Are absolutely stupid things to say so unforgivable that people can’t be allowed to take them back?

If I hadn’t sat still and expressed a sort of passive disapproval, he would never have had time to work his way into an apology. And that would be a shame, I think. Because he seemed like a decent if unpolished young guy who crapped out on a tasteless joke.

Young man, drop the joke, put your hands up, and slowly back away.

If we’ve moved to a place where we can’t allow that to happen without shooting the guy down with our unforgiving judgment, how much better are we than George Zimmerman with our thought police neighborhood watch demands?

He screwed up. He knew it. He tried to make amends. Sometimes that's all we can do.

I still don't know whether I'll go back to the barber shop. He did a decent job on my hair, though.

Friday, January 30, 2015

A Rule To Live By?

I'm currently teaching a novel, The Bird Artist by Howard Norman, where one way that he establishes the "family dynamic" of father, mother, and son is to associate each character with a particular sort of mantra, a kind of go-to saying that seems to get repeated, often at key times in the book.

Here they are:

The Son:  "Every breeze may messenger a storm."

The Mother:  "Get on with it, then."

The Father:  "Well, it's no matter to die for now, is it."

Ponder those just for a moment.  And if I may, I suggest a kind of fatalistic outlook for the son, a general resignation for the mother, and, for the father, either a path-of-least-resistance approach to life or a belief that things could be much worse than they are.

You may read them differently, may read the novel differently than I do.  No matter.  That isn't the point.  Inside the book, one obvious point might be that these three perspectives are likely to clash with one another, to lead characters to make vastly different choices, even in the smallest of circumstances.

But even that isn't my point.  I'm wondering, as a way of drawing you in, if you haven't already left, if you yourself have any kind of terse statement that effectively represents your basic outlook on life.

Here's mine:  "Forewarned is forearmed."  From the Latin saying 'praemonitus, praemunitus'.  From Robert Greene's A Notable Discovery of Coosnage (a.k.a. The Art of Conny-catching), 1592: "forewarned, forearmed: burnt children dread the fire." (Both according to http://www.phrases.org.uk/)

I'm not quite sure when I latched on to that one, but I use it all the time, especially in a teaching setting.  It serves, more often than I'd like, as a reminder to students that I'm telling them what is coming and that they had better be prepared.  Or maybe it isn't even that strong.  Maybe "Forewarned is forearmed" only represents a choice.  If I tell you that something is going to happen, maybe even something as mundane as a quiz, then I have given you a very clear choice as to how to proceed.  Success' best chance is to make preparations.  Doing nothing will leave you defenseless, or scrambling for some help at the last second.

It's an unforgiving outlook.  If I say it to myself, the tone is likely disgust and self-disappointment because the opportunity was there.  If I believe it in a political context, then I have almost no pity for the politician who knew this was coming and could have easily done something about it.  Or, even if not so easily, had time to do the difficult work necessary to rebuff the assault, whatever it might have been.

For me, I think it's no surprise that my rule to live by has military origins.  With a father who was only 12 years out of WWII when I was born, and a grandfather who served in WWI, a great uncle was also in WWII (and brought back "souvenirs") and an uncle who served in Vietnam, my first 12 formative years got a heavy dose of war as both past reality and metaphor for life.

For the characters in The Bird Artist, the fact that they live in a small, isolated town in Newfoundland around the turn of the 20th century most certainly impacts their outlook.  For the boy, the severe weather is the harbinger of bad things.  If the mother is less than excited about her circumstances and the father sees little of import happening around him, well, then "get on with it" and "it's nothing to die for" make perfect sense.

What I wonder, and what I'll be asking my students, even in a matter of minutes, is whether or not they can center on those focusing statements in their own lives, or is it too early for them, or have they not been forced to consider?  Perhaps a particular Bible verse or the line from a song speaks to them in the same way.

I kind of hope so.  I find it very helpful to have that one idea in the back of my mind most of the time, especially since it doesn't leave a whole lot of wiggle room.  Either you pay attention to the signs of whatever is going on around you or you don't.  And then the consequences follow.  Forewarned is forearmed.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sometime You Get The Weekend You Need, Not The Weekend You Want

I cannot call this the best weekend ever.  I knew that going in.  School job responsibilities/obligations necessitated that most of my weekend went to the school-- as in, Friday night at a sporting event until past 9PM, Saturday morning back at school by 9AM to make up a handout for a 10AM admissions event, back on duty by 8PM to chaperone a dance that went until 11PM, plus cleanup and load out.

When I walked in the door at 11:30PM last night, I said to my daughter, "Let the weekend begin!"

But that wasn't really true.  Sometimes you get the weekend you need, instead of the weekend you want.  So, no, it wasnt a "fun" weekend in any way that I can quantify.  But it was the weekend I needed.

Why? Because I'm broke.  Oh, not in any serious, long term way, but in a 1st World kind of way, where I went a little too expansive during Christmas break and found myself basically out of money by the early part of January.

So the weekend I needed was one where I was so booked up with obligations that I wouldn't really have much chance or need to spend what few dollars lingered in my bank account.  Instead of social occasions, I was blessed to have my free time so tied up that I couldn't give in to credit card temptation, even if I wanted to.  And I didn't.  I had already given in too many times during the previous three weeks.

So, in the weirdest way, I am not complaining at all, even though this (Sunday) morning I had a hard time shaking the short night of sleep and convincing myself that I was really awake.

As a result, I argued more with my conservative father than I usually do on a Sunday morning at Panera and I argued with my loving wife on a Sunday night, which almost never happens.  Although I'm willing to blame me, I'm also quite aware that my state of mind after such a restrictive, exhausting weekend might have had a little something to do with it as well.  A weekend with both Friday and Saturday nights taken up by work might not seem like much at whatever your age is, but, trust me, at my age, it makes an impact. A negative one.

But, again, all of that is something I'm willing to embrace because it dealt with the larger problem of having no money.  I am limping into tomorrow night's payday, but I am still moving forward.

Sometimes the weekend you (and I) need is one that is busy and messy. One that you think will leave you alone come Sunday, but, because of the events of Friday and Saturday, there is no realistic way that it can.  You can't shake it.  It is going to bubble up.  It is going to color everything.  It can't help but.

So I move out of this weekend with both my energy and my relations a bit wounded, but not in any terminal way, and, in some weird way, the wasted, underwhelming Sunday that finished way below the expectations I felt last night leaves me with just enough of that intangible something to face the week ahead.  Which is just what I needed.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Animated America

One of my least favorite commercials these days involves a woman on a bus who is alone.  Alone except for her bladder, that is.  And her bladder, like a cute, little, needy child, travels with her like a separate pet, one who holds hands with her and tugs at her, trying to get her to go where he wants to go.  Which is the bathroom.  All the time.  Even getting off at the wrong bus stop.  Because she has a bladder control problem.

Maybe the whole thing began with cold pizza, or, better put, the creature who represented the abstract idea that forces were at work to make your pizza cold.  Remember the Noid?

Or was it Mr. Clean, way back when, the personification of a fresh-smelling housecleaning product?  Or soap scum.  Or the soap itself.  Or toilet bowl germs, who emerge as a bunch of misanthropic characters with one eye bigger than the other, but who, nevertheless, cannot shake their irascible cuteness.  You wouldn't say they were evil, just grumpy.  Animation has obviously played a part of advertising for many decades.

I think something changed a few years back.  It started, I think, with mucus.  Who knew that the thick, yellowy stuff that we cough up from our throats is actually just an impish creature who needs the control that comes from chugging some chemicals and drugs?  And mucus as distant cousin to Smurfs and Teletubbies is a far cry from scrubbly bubbles happily cleaning your toilet.  Mucus is gross.  Mucus is tangible and internal, full of taste and smell and repulsion.  Mucus is personal.

Welcome to modern America, where nearly all of our problems, however private or abstract they might be, are represented as lovable, animated creatures.  Now, everything is animated.

How long until a bunch of hemorrhoids are hanging from someone's butt chatting with each other like a bunch of fruits in a Fruit Of The Loom commercial?  Will little fart creatures fly around the room like pesky, stinky sprites?   Will Larry the Cirrhosissed Liver be tugging on the arm of his owner, trying to pull him toward the whiskey shelves in a public service announcement like a little kid that wants candy?

Can cancer become a pesky character?  Can a heart attack be lovable?  Will we think of heart attacks in terms of an Energizer bunny whose batteries have run out?

This movement on Madison Avenue towards portraying everything from illness to debt as animated creatures is a shameless attempt to steer us away from confronting the harsh realities of life.  It treats us as children who cannot accept the brutal situations of adulthood and need to be comforted by a flatscreen version of the stuffed animals that may have gotten us through childhood.

Is the panacea for everything  "Don't worry about it; it's not as bad as you think?"

Well, I'm the unpleasant man here to remind all of us that some things are pretty darn bad and that the only way to confront them is head on with a full awareness of how awful they can look and smell and taste and be.  You want my America to take something like Tamiflu, then make your commercial a tragic tribute to the beautiful, 26 year old woman, newly-married, who died a week or so ago four days after getting the flu, which poisoned her blood.  That will get my attention.  That will remind me that influenza is to be feared more than Ebola and that "I'll go to the doctor if I don't feel better tomorrow" may not cut it.

Save your cuddly, or even demonically-cuddly, creatures for things you want me to buy that I don't need.  For things that matter, a dose of the straight truth will do just fine.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Good Work If You Can Get It

There’s two boys holding stars for wishing
One boy’s sure; one says, “I don’t know”


The mark of a truly great concert experience is to witness a band perform in an element perfectly suited for their talent and sound.

To be sure, the greatest bands and artists transcend location and venue. They can sound great in an arena, a bar, or someone’s living room. Give them the space, and they’ll figure it out. But for most bands, it’s about matching who they are with where you see them, and when you get the opportunity to see a band in those moments, when the planets align, it forever connects you to them, to that moment.

That’s how I think of the BoDeans.

This up-and-coming band, with its major label contract and the sense of breaking into the mainstream, played at my high school in the winter of 1990. They rocked out our high school gym.

I didn’t know anything about the BoDeans when news of their pending performance at our privileged private school was announced to us. I was like, “Bo Diddley? Bo Jackson? Bo Who??” Most of my classmates were clueless as well, but a few knew, and they were intensely excited. I had one of those guys make me a tape of their first album, “Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams,” and I played it a few times in my car as the date of their concert approached.

Their debut is generally considered, by most BoDeans lovers and critics, their strongest outing, but even today I don’t agree with that, and back in 1989 it seemed slow, and country-ish. In 1989 I wanted crunching rock and intensity, or alternative cred, and BoDeans seemed like straight-up sincere roots rock.

I walked into that concert expecting it to suck. But it was still a Real Band, and they were playing in our freakin’ high school gym, so going wasn’t an option, because it felt like a unique and cool opportunity. It was a Must See Event.

They blew my mind. They sang with heart, and they played with heart, and while they seemed amused to be playing to a bunch of kids who couldn’t (legally) drink, they never condescended or acted above the moment. They proved themselves to us, and we loved them for it.

I bought every album of theirs on the day it was released from that point, up until their first lengthy hiatus following Blend in 1996. Seven albums, and I loved every stinkin’ one of ‘em. They became staples on my mixtape gifts, and every new album took me back to that sweaty sardine-packed high school moment of under 1,000 students pushing into that stage, the rest of our gym empty and cavernous, because we all wanted to be crammed into the moment.

Remember when E.T. makes physical contact with Elliott, and they become a synergized entity? They touch, and a piece of E.T. is inside Elliott, and a piece of Elliott is inside E.T.? That’s how the concert in that gym felt. It felt like the BoDeans gave us a piece of their souls, and they took a piece of our souls with them, and we owed it to one another to stay loyal.

That concert kicked off what would become an annual tradition at our little private school. After I graduated, an impressive list of mostly mid-range or up-and-coming alternative or college rock acts played, one band each year, for over a decade.

By the 21st Century, though, the students no longer thought it was a Must See Event. It was no longer a big deal that Real Bands played in our gym. If you didn’t know their music, you probably didn’t go. You’d rather play video games or see a movie downtown. With a few exceptions, ticket sales kept dropping (and, admittedly, the bands seemed to get cheesier).

But just like Bogey and Bacall will always have Paris, the BoDeans and Billy will always have our high school gym. That memory will continue to burn brightly every time I play one of their songs. They never had to be the Best Band Ever, because we shared an indelible moment, and in music, sometimes that's everything.

TOP 11 BoDEANS SONGS:
  1. Good Things
  2. The Understanding
  3. Idaho
  4. You Don’t Get Much
  5. Hurt By Love
  6. Say About Love
  7. Tied Down and Chained
  8. The Ballad of Jennie Rae
  9. She’s a Runaway
  10. Feed the Fire
  11. Paradise

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Hard Truth

My nephew is 32 years old. He will spend the remainder of his days on this earth confined to a hospital bed. In a matter of weeks or months, perhaps a year, he will die.

My nephew does not have cancer or any untold number of illnesses which evoke pity or sympathy, a disease around which non-profit and charity organizations raise millions of dollars for research to find cures. He will die because he has led a life full of foolish, stupid decisions. The stupid decision at the peak of his stupid decisions is an addiction to drugs.

To be fair, I don't know if my nephew -- let's call him Bo -- consciously made a decision to become a drug addict. I don't know any remotely sane person who actively chooses to addict him- or herself to much of anything.

Bo has all but murdered his kidney. He has been on regular and intensive dialysis for the better part of a decade, and now not even dialysis can help him. Several other vital organs are not far behind. The clock ticks. If I understand correctly, Bo is in almost chronic renal failure, and eventually his body will poison itself to death.

Bo never graduated high school. He never was the sharpest knife in the drawer, a curse he inherited from two parents who struggled to exhibit any sort of intelligence, ever. His father -- my step-brother -- spent much of Bo's childhood in jail. The second time he went into the klink for theft, Bo's mom divorced him and moved with the two boys back to Tennessee from Florida.

She quickly remarried, and they quickly had themselves a little princess. She was in beauty pageants before she was 3. My two nephews, but especially Bo, became a burdensome afterthought, the parenting mistake they couldn't erase, the incurable irritation. Perhaps they simply didn't know what to do, especially with Bo, but from my view, they stopped trying when they had that daughter.

Much like his father, Bo's sins were not violent or inspired by uncontrolled aggression. He didn't hit people. He didn't start fights. He was an amiable boy with a sweet smile and wanted to be liked. He just didn't seem to grasp the notion of "ownership" as a sacred American value. He liked taking things. We call it "stealing." He called it "taking."

When he would get in trouble at our house, my father would spank him. Bo would say, "That didn't hurt." Even if a tear was rolling down, my nephew would insist it didn't hurt. One night after the two boys got picked up, Dad told Mom in the kitchen, "I'm scared for that boy." As my mom would say years later, "You couldn't love it out of him, and you couldn't punish it out of him."

My mom believes that some people are just born evil. Evil to the core. Maybe she's right, but I fight her on it regardless. With Bo, she doesn't so much believe he was born evil as born cursed. Cursed with a low IQ, with low parents, with low ideas.

Bo has spent time in and out of jail. One felony mixed in with the many crimes and misdemeanors, a felony more about the company he kept than the actions he took.

His dialysis program was entirely paid for by the government. He has never held down a job for more than half a year, a problem made more difficult with his criminal record, his drug habits, his intellectual shortcomings, his struggle for motivation. Bo is exactly the kind of person many amongst us believe had far too many chances and blew all of them.

When people talk about "those kinds of people" who do not contribute to society, whose entire existence is about sucking away resources that taxpayers and citizens provide, you're talking about Bo. When people say, with disdain or disgust, "What a waste of a human being," you're talking about Bo. My nephew is the kind of person people say would have been better off dead, or better off never born.

I talk like that sometimes. I think that about people sometimes. I wonder that about Bo sometimes.

Would this once-cute child, who craved affection, who could express love so well, who still loves his grandmother more than perhaps any other person he's known (it's worth noting that Bo never once stole from his grandparents (that they know of)), who was heartbroken at being discarded by both parents, who was dumber than wood, have been better off skipping this life?

Was Bo a waste of life?

For almost everyone I know, almost everyone I've ever met, the answer is obvious, and the question is insulting. When I ask it about Bo, it just hurts, and a low-boiling rage builds up somewhere in me. I just don't know at whom to aim it. His dad? His mom? His culture? God? Myself?

There is no Clarence for Bo. There is no Wonderful Life or Happy Ending.

I only know I will weep when he finally rests in peace. I can think of no place that won't be a better place than this life for Bo.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Hollywood Is Burning

At some point, I hope that Hollywood's historical irresponsibility bites it in the ass.  I hope that good citizens like you will stop going to films that are "based on a true story" or, even worse, that pretend, without clarification, to create a visual representation of historical fact.

Put bluntly, if Schindler's List, Argo, The Blind Side, Lincoln, and American Sniper play with the facts, they not only don't deserve Best Picture consideration, their participants should also not be eligible for awards.  What's the reasoning:  "It was a beautifully-rendered, visually stunning false recreation?"

Concerning a true event, it either happened or it didn't.  And if it didn't happen, it has no business being in a movie.  Real life does not exist to create dramatic fodder for creative filmmakers.  Of course, you know that the impetus for this discussion is Selma.  Now, I never had any interest in seeing the movie in the first place, having seen the trailer.  It struck me as a typical biopic, artificial and cheesy.  But now that the film is garnering praise and buzz, I side with those historians who are outraged that the fulcrum of the film is an inaccurate (as in, flat out historically wrong) portrayal of LBJ's role in the Civil Rights Movement.

If a movie is to be nothing but entertainment, I understand that.  If that entertainment is to be based on a false historical record, I find that absolutely unethical.  One of the most moving movie experiences I ever had was The Killing Fields.  Imagine how, when I read The Death And Life Of Dith Pran, I felt violated.  Only the outlines of the story were true.  The climactic scenes in the movie that supposedly happened to real people in real situations never happened at all.

I don't know about you, but I find real life endlessly fascinating.  My friends and I, in work or social situations, can parse the small statement, gesture, or nuance into the highest drama.  A comment or a rumor can fuel life for days.  An ethical violation of the absolute smallest caliber can tell us everything we need to know about a person.

At the same time, I love fiction.  I subscribe to the notion that great fiction can be more real than actual truth.  A movie like Apocalypse Now proves this every time I watch it.  There may never have been a surf-obsessed officer like Robert Duvall's character in that entire war, but he and his actions feel entirely true as he tries and succeeds in making a large-scale war an opportunity to serve his personal needs.  He tells me about that war as much as real footage.  In fact, when I see real footage, I think, 'This looks just like Apocalypse Now.'

Apocalypse Now has never pretended to be a real rendering of events, so there is no confusion.  It just carries that kind of authority.

But let's acknowledge, even if you don't know me, that I'm a fairly sophisticated viewer of film.  But what about our countrymen?  It is not practical to assume that the same is true.  You tell most of our American citizens that what they are about to see is a historical record, or worse, you don't tell them that it isn't, and they are going to think that they are viewing historical fact.  Maybe that shouldn't be so, but it is so.

And that isn't to say that I can't be and haven't been fooled.  Certainly I have.  The people behind the cameras during my lifetime have become increasingly skilled, and I have been tricked into accepting both products and political perspectives.  Maybe if I worked a little harder...

Which is why it is essential that a movie about something that supposedly really happened has a responsibility to do its best to convey the events as they happened.  People go to movies for a complex set of reasons.  If you go, for example, to see Selma on this 2015 Martin Luther King birthday, you are most likely not going just to be "entertained."  You want a reminder or a clarification of what actually happened.  And a misrepresentation of that offends not only President Johnson's legacy, but also Dr. King's.

 Certainly there have been times in our history when people needed heroes who were larger than life.  But one of the messages on Martin Luther King's birthday is that an ordinary man could find it within himself to lead a movement that would change a country and would do so with "grit, spit, and Mother wit," and would do it with all of his human failings and with support from unlikely places.  The story is compelling the way it happened.  It needs no alteration of the facts.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Must We Dance To Lousy Music?

I went to an interesting wedding a few weeks ago.  It took place in a small church on the North Side.  The church itself was hardly decorated, as if the celebrants were taking advantage of the Christmas decorations, and the members of the wedding, while dressed in semi-formal garb, were hardly unified in their outfits, though the bride did have a traditional dress.

In terms of music, not only were the songs themselves a bit different (I recognized "O, Fount Of Every Blessing"), the performers were young, acoustic musicians--two guitars and a mandolin.  The bride did not process in to any of the usual songs.  The song that everyone left the wedding to was a joyful 3-chord strum.

Later, at the reception, when it was time for the new bride and groom to dance their first dance together, that same acoustic band played a slower version of Talking Heads' "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)."

And then later on, when the "real" dancing started, the Djs started playing the same old crap.

I was telling a friend about this.  He said, "Let me guess.  'Brick House?' 'Love Shack?'"

Exactly.  And "Happy."  Not the Keith Richards' song.  The Frozen one.

My questions are these:  why the huge disconnect between good music and dance music?  Why the need to play the same tired songs over and over again any time there is dancing?  Why the standardization?  Why the safety?

I know I show my age, but it was not always so.  Or maybe it was.  I guess I cling to the model of the 60's, when, as shown in the movie Quadrophenia, the kids are dancing to "Green Onions" by Booker T. and The MGs, or the television shows like Hullabaloo or American Bandstand, where the audience dancers are dancing to whatever is new, whatever the band is playing, whether it's a hit or an up and coming song.

Most likely, I'm just reinforcing my own shattered myth that popular music was better back then, that there was a way to dance to most any Beatles song, that it was way cooler to dance under a black light to "Inna Gadda Da Vida" than it is to do the "Love Train."

But, really, I think that there is something more insidious going on.  And I'm sure I've spoken of it before.  It's the need to play "Seven Nation Army" at a sporting event.  It's the need to have certain go-to songs at weddings and dances.  If you chaperone high school dances like I do, then you know that Usher's "Yeah" is going to be played.  And I could name others.

The insidiousness I refer to falls on no one but us.  Modern society is more branded, more brand conscious, than at any time in history, I think.  Music, in particular, has entered a stage where the golden age of rock (by my reckoning, 1960 to 1990) is something that we all fall back on for safe, nostalgic reasons.  That's in our commercials, our social events, our cultural references and everyday lives, so it isn't a shock that the same old stuff would be played at weddings everywhere.  It's just a disappointment.  People all over the country's weddings really have joined in on a love train.

Because even if the song is by a groundbreaking artist like The Beatles, the wedding reception song is going to be "Twist And Shout," not "Come Together."  The Rolling Stones' song at a football game is going to be "Start Me Up," not "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'" (which would be really cool when a football team gets inside the red zone, if you think about it."

Eddie Murphy used to mock white people for listening to lyrics of dance songs.  If he is right, and it really is just about the beat, then people should be able to dance to anything with an acceptable rhythm, not just the narrow playlist of large-gathering America.  But they won't.  Because, really, every dance these days is just a safety dance.

Friday, January 9, 2015

That Damn Emerson

Sometimes, the little events in daily life remind us who we are.

Case in point:  a little neighborhood restaurant has re-opened in East Ridge, TN after being closed for the better part of a year.  New ownership.  A sign outside that reads, if you drive by today, "Chef's Special.  NY Steak Sandwich.  $7.99.  Open 7AM."

Not a big deal, right?

Except that I could have, relatively easily, been that new ownership.  At its nadir, the selling price, as far as I know, got down to around $50,000.  Nothing to sneeze at, of course, but also not a figure I look at and say, "That's beyond the range of possibility."

No, I could have taken out a 401k loan.  I could have asked borrow the money from my father.  I could have tried to piece together a series of investors from among the friends I know, especially those who frequented the restaurant with me from time to time.  But I didn't.

A friend of mine went and looked at the restaurant, talked with the broker.  He shared the info.  I got excited, he was excited.  Any number of other friends of mine were excited.  We all talked about the possibilities of the place.

I got scared away.  I'd like to be able to say that happened because of a comment I heard about the place: "I understand the floor and foundation have a lot of problems."  But I can't blame it on that.  I don't even remember who said it, but I'm certain it was someone I didn't even know and someone who is not in the restaurant business.  Just idle gossip, even if true.

I'd like to be able to say that I sat down and did a serious cost/benefit analysis of the project--figured out how much other money I would need to start the place running, insurance costs, size of staff I would have to hire, what kind of menu I could reasonably create, given my amateur status as a cook.  Etc.  After all, I do have a brother in the restaurant business.  Free, expert advice.  Many mistakes already made.  But I didn't.

No, fear moved in before rational decision-making, so much so that it felt like rational decision-making to do no exploration.  As in, the most realistic decision is to do nothing.  After all, who would run the place?  How hard would it be to try to open when I already have a full-time job?  Would I need permission from my employer to do it?  Could the place open just as a bar with snacks to give time to develop a menu?  Do I even know enough about restaurants to even try something like this?

It was Ralph Emerson who wrote, "A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages.  Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his.  In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty."

Yes, Mr. Emerson, tragically, you are right.  I can see that very truth in the lighted billboard of a little neighborhood tavern a few miles from my house.  When presented with an enticing combination of possibility and risk, of passion and common sense, of dream and safety, I turned away.  I took the safe path, the conventional one.  I took no chance.  I know who I am, kid.


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Jan-Febs of Music

At my place of work, we have a phrase that's become a sort of Voldemort of bad vibes, a phrase we don't utter and don't like others uttering because we believe it becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy:

"The Jan-Febs."

The Jan-Febs means those miserable winter days, cold, often wet, dark from before dinner until well after breakfast. It means feeling trapped in your house, or just indoors. It means the death of football season, which in the South is the death of all sports, basically. It means no vacations and no great holidays (unless you count Valentine's Day, and no one but engaged couples or the newly-dating much likes it).

The world of music also has a Jan-Febs, and it just so happens to arrive in January and leave in late February. It's the time of year where new music trickles out like a leaky faucet rather than gushing.
As proof of this music drought, go check out Metacritic. They list more reviewed albums for November 4 than for all of December and this first week of January.

So all those happy teens and adults with all those happy iTunes gift cards from Christmas are forced to look back, back, back over the months and years in order to spend their presents, or they must wait patiently for Thumper and Bambi to show up in the slowly-greening back yard. The Jan-Febs becomes "catch-up" time. Time to get that stuff you'd postponed, or stuff from decades past that you realized you needed to round out your collection.

Having cancelled my eMusic subscription, a.k.a. "Billy's financial guarantee of spending $13/month on music," 2015 seems destined to be the year I purchased less music than anytime since the birth of Bottom of the Glass back in 2008.

The Jan-Febs come after you acknowledge what was great about last year's music, so you can't help but go up further, beyond a single year, to think about the trajectory of music. Some of my 20,000-foot thoughts, in no particular order:
  • Rock is not dead. It will not die. It is simply no longer mainstream. It will never again be mainstream. People will increasingly talk about rock like we now talk about blues and jazz, as an artform that some still enjoy and engage in, but ultimately a relic of a previous age and a building block for current popular music.
  • Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 is a pretty darn ambitious and excellent pop album and reminds me that she was in many ways more ambitious than, if not ultimately as talented as, her brother.
  • The '90s might ultimately become The Forgotten Decade in the annals of music history. It might have contained plenty of great albums and bands, but if you really pay attention to what the kids today listen to, to what the radio stations play, to what you hear in public settings, or on commercials, music from the '90s is nowhere near as frequently played as '70s or '80s music. It makes me sad, 'cuz I loves me some '90s music, but that doesn't make it less true.
  • I miss rap. Not as a main act, but as that third ring of the circus that was always a nice and fun distraction while they were setting things up for the tigers or the elephants. I miss rap with sampled rock riffs and beats. I miss Adam Yauch. I miss Public Enemy. I miss someone reminding me, musically, why there's plenty to be angry about in our messed-up world. Not just bothered, mind you, but ragin' pissed off. And not like no dern Charlton Heston, neither.
  • The Commitments soundtrack is probably my favorite single collection of cover songs, ever.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Triple Vanilla Chunk

"What we want, and what we need, has been confused." - R.E.M.

Vanilla Chunk #1:

A friend and I were catching up over beers and found ourselves getting into a conversational rhythm. Our talk would inevitably lead one of us to complain about some particular aspect of our lives, and then we would acknowledge that the problems in question were most decidedly “First World Problems.” And then we would shrug and continue to complain, but it was like we were complaining with an asterisk, or inside brackets. Is it better or healthier to complain with such acknowledgments of how well we have it, relatively speaking? Or is it just a depressing reminder that we’re just bitchy bitchin’ and mopey mopin’?

Vanilla Chunk #2:

I shacked up for free with a friend at our college reunion in November. He’d already booked the room and told me I could stay with him for free, because he knows our barely-impressive family budget is stretched pretty thin. He, meanwhile, is single in D.C., owns a boat, a summer condo in Florida, and season tickets to the Capitals. He travels to Italy and Vegas annually and usually goes a few other places for kicks.

When I asked him to let me pay for part of the room, he said, “Billy, take your girls out to lunch and tell them it was on me. Do that, and we’re even.” (“But the room was over $200 a night, and I didn’t pay you anything.”) “Billy, I pay more than that for a nice meal practically every week. Paying for that room doesn’t dent my budget, but I know it dents yours.”

My former college roommate makes more in annual bonus than I make in annual salary. So I thanked him and moved on.

A family friend received a piece of eye-popping jewelry as a Christmas present. She guessed it was worth “at least $4,000, probably more." She's been dating the guy who gave it to her for a couple of months. This was after he gave her a $900 purse a few weeks earlier. Meanwhile, my wife and I promised to limit our Christmas spending on one another to $50… and then we secretly splurged and spent close to $100 each!

Most days this phases me not a mite. I made career and life choices that were not about money, and I can usually live very happily with those choices. But some days, when our savings depletes to replace car tires, and we open up another credit card to pay tuition, it gets to me.

My wife and I earn more than probably 90% of the world. But it sure would be swell if we could go, like, skiing without taking out a second mortgage. It’s a First World Problem, to be sure.

Vanilla Chunk #3:

This was the first New Year’s Eve I recall where so many of my friends and acquaintances were proudly doing very little or nothing. My own family holed up in our home, played some family games, and rang in 2015 cuddled across the master bed with tiny glasses of sparkling apple juice.

In recognition of the New Year, I had begun to write a post about resolutions. I began to list a bunch of my own personal hopes and goals for the year. And then I began to offer all the explanations why most of them wouldn’t be met, but why I would probably be OK with that.

But the entire list and my explanations fell into a theme:
  • Resolution: Specific, action- or event-oriented. Fulfilling some imaginary quota of interests, or meeting some perceived or acknowledged personal or professional weakness.
  • Reaction: The gnawing sense that my specific goals and hopes don’t really matter to me so much as the overall feelings, values and priorities I want to believe I have, or aim to have. We resolve specifics, but we really want big intangibles. Peace. Love. Happiness. Nick Lowe.
In several recent books and articles, the phrase “eulogy virtues” (or something similar) has come up. It rang especially true in a great David Brooks speech given last year, a speech I’ve re-read several times, a shorter version of which is here. He asks whether we are living for our resume or our eulogy.

When I looked at my New Year’s Resolutions, I saw, to one extent or another, resume values. If I got through my whole year without checking off a single item on my list, I would be fine so long as I felt like I was better off on the “eulogy virtues” of whether my existence was bettering my children, my family, my friends, my community.

Triple Vanilla Chunk Conclusion

My life has been carefully and lovingly crafted to be… vanilla. High-quality, cost-efficient, delicious vanilla. It’s a good, tasty life. But it's natural to wonder -- just a little, just occasionally -- if I’ve missed out on adding some of those really cool toppings, like sprinkles or chocolate chips, or M&Ms. ... right? It's also wise to know that many of those toppings can totally screw up what was a really good dessert to begin with.

First World Probs, yo. First World Probs.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Fogelberg: An Appreciation

Take a moment to assess your aging youth, most of you, and to admit that you know little or nothing about Dan Fogelberg.  A popular musician who died in ______, Mr. Fogelberg, like so many of his era, are remembered by a relatively few songs, those that were most popular, and, therefore (at least in his case, those that were among his worst.

Rightly or wrongly, in later career, Mr. Fogelberg tended towards what would now be called AOR, the scourge of older rockers like me.  To keep things going, he took a more and more commercial approach.  I may have faulted him for this at one time (if you know me, you know I did), but I don't fault him now.  I have no interest right now in speaking ill of the dead, especially the dead that once rocked.

Oh, make no mistake, he was always a romantic, but he was also a shredder.

That's right, he of "Longer Than" and "met my old lover in a grocery store..." and "The Leader Of The Band" and "Run For The Roses," could also play the shit out of the guitar.

I saw Mr. Fogelberg one time.  He did what most of the greats could do--wow you in the acoustic set with pretty, finger picked songs and then blow you away with his electric stuff.

Here are my "Top 10 Dan Fogelberg Songs" (in no particular order):

"Aspen/ These Days"
"Old Tennessee"
"Like A Phoenix"
"Part Of The Plan"
"The Last Nail"
"Lost In The Sun"
"Tell Me To My Face" (Hollies cover with Tim Weisburg)
"There's A Place In The World For A Gambler"
"Comes And Goes"
"As The Raven Flies"

Admittedly, I have to cherry pick my favorites, and, admittedly, there isn't much past the early 80's that holds any interest for me whatsoever.  And, admittedly, I am generous with Mr. Fogelberg, who died so young.  The full scope of his career is pretty much crap.

But when he was young, and when rock (not rock and roll, but rock, the FM staple) was young, he had great songs and great performances on record to go with them.  While I would neve claim that Mr. Fogelberg berg was s great lyricist, his romantic vision was welcome in the post-hippie mid 70s, when rock rock was continuing to make its way westward, where the Eagles were King, and where a Joe Walsh-influenced Rockies rock left Mr. Fogelberg a place for his fluid, melodic leads and and tales of love lost and found.  The songs layer guitar after guitar like Firefall that would follow and all of the more commercial rip offs, too.  But Mr. Fogelberg had the advantage that, like Jimmy Page in a different setting, he was playing all of those guitar parts, and compellingly so.

If there is a better example of the effectively-maudlin 70s autobiographical journey than his "The Last Nail," I have yet to hear it.  Built around a compelling acoustic progression, the song not only makes the case for the narrator who "started listening to the wind and rain," in honor of Dylan as wandering troubadour, but also leaves the woman in question ("I hear you've taken on a husband and child/ And live somewhere in Pennsylvania") with the offer that, despite everything, he could return, if needed, at anytime.

These kinds of songs are not written today.  That may be a good thing.  But is it a better thing than knowing that forty years ago there were songs as romantic as the wind and rain, songs of love painted on the Western landscape with soaring guitars, songs that sprawled like America's promise, and, most of all, that there were listeners who could still be enchanted by those grandiose concerns?

I miss you, Dan Fogelberg, or at least one version of you.