Saturday, February 28, 2015

Jim Dandy To The Rescue!

The magic number is 12.  Gotta get to 12 posts a month in order to feel like a living, breathing, viable blog.  A small blog, maybe, but if you ain't got the new posts, if you let up, then people stop checking to see if you have anything new.  If you had a storefront, even if you weren't selling anything, if you were just giving out stuff for free, you would still need to have new stuff.  Even the Jehovah's Witnesses coming to your door and always finding you not home (or, more likely, cowering behind the curtains), they've got to have new tracts to let you know that everything you believe is wrong.

And so this blogpost.

Just cleaning up around here at the end of the month, looking through scraps and half-baked thoughts that never turned into anything.  Maybe 8 lost, forgotten, unrealized ideas make up a whole one.  That's what I've got for you, 8 random observations that have little or nothing to do with each other, and maybe nothing t do with anything at all.  Nevertheless, here they are:

1.  The "I will be out of the office, blah, blah, blah" automatic response email is an outmoded idea, if it ever made any sense at all.  So you are gone to a conference and can't be reached by email?  That's B.S.  I've been to conferences; everybody attending spends every spare, polite second (and many impolite ones) checking their messages, texts and emails.  Same with people on vacation.  You maybe physically away from the office, but you are still checking in.  The real message behind the automatic response is "Don't bother me."  Period.

2.  Siracha is jumping the shark.  Like its forefather, chipotle, its time as the "hot, spicy ingredient du jour" is winding down.  Once the bottom feeders like Subway, McDonald's and other fast food joints get ahold of it, there's not much creative left to be done with it.  Which doesn't mean I won't keep adding it to the white sauce I dip my chicken teryaki in.

3.  There are only two ways worth watching a movie: 1) in the theater on the big screen, even if the theater is kind of crappy or second-run, or 2) on a personal device like this one, maybe in the dark, maybe with headphones on.  Any other way undermines the value of the medium.

4.  I had two daughters go to the same all-girls high school.  Now they are alums.  We were parents.  Now we are parents of alums.  The school sends out its alumni magazine several times a year.  To parents, and alums,cand parents of alums.  To all of us.  At the same address.  Each issue comes in identical triplets.  Every time.  There is a better solution here some where.

5. Never tweet your Oscars food spread before the Oscars.  If you do, you might discover that because your cable isn't working, and because you downloaded ABC Go and because you tested it in the afternoon, and because every pre-Oscar show you watch on your iPad or Apple TV ONLY GIVES YOU A "cam," that ABC Go isn't available in your area to watch the Oscars, even though it never told you this when you set it up in the afternoon.  And so, you will never see the Oscars, and all you will have is your food in a disappointed room.

6. The latest in car rental:  enterprise steals a play out of the Valvoline playbook, in other words, they, too, are pushing the hard sell.  An Enterprise agent gets into the car with you, ostensibly to demonstrate the car's features, but really to insinuate himself into your cocoon in order to try to sell you their insurance.  Just like Valvoline's attempts to sell you all kinds of pricey products to go with your oil change, Enterprise has a 4-tiered insurance policy during your rental time period, a number of different ways that they recommend that you spend extra money.  I didn't go for it. But it was unpleasant.

7.  Do you trust fish?  Not everyone does, and for good reason.  Tilapia, they now say, is more dangerous health wise than bacon.  How can that be?  Well, tilapia, in most every restaurant. Is the farm-raised variety, and what those fish eat, including eating each other, makes them a premium health risk.  On top of that, some restaurants have fallen into the practice of tricking consumers into buying a fish that isn't really the fish that they say it is.  It's kind of like Hollywood, using Mexicans for Indians or Mexicans for Arabs.  They know we can't tell the difference.

8.  Lastly, the title of this piece.  Well, historically, it is a reference to a Black Oak Arkansas song from the 70's, a song I heard, didn't especially like, but, more than anything, had no context for.  I didn't know who Jim Dandy was; I knew little of Southern or Ozark Mountains music.  Also, of course, a reference to 12 posts in a month, to keeping this blog alive, to pushing hard during the last days of the month to meet a self-imposed quota.  I guess I'm Jim Dandy, the hero of my own myth making.  The problem now is that I write so much at the end of a month to keep things going that I'm burned out for the first half of the succeeding month.  It's a vicious cycle.

Payday

In my Lenten mood, the concept of payday probably deserves some examination.  Yesterday was ours.

The morning of payday is a glorious morning.  Even though all of those earnings exist electronically somewhere until accessed with an ATM card, I still can't help but feel like I'm strutting around "with my pockets full of green," as a song once described.  It is like I am a car that was running on empty, suddenly has a full tank, nay, more than full, topped off right up to the cap.

It doesn't last long, of course.  Depending on the financial road ahead in my mind, I then act in one of two ways.  If there is no goal or obligation ahead, I spend the first two or three days of a month buying whatever I want.  The Costco cart gets fuller.  The restaurants see more of us.  Something I've been pondering online gets ordered on a whim.  If I know that there is a major expense or a break on the horizon, then I do what I'd did yesterday.  The money has barely registered in my account, and I immediately pay every single bill, the paragon of fiscal responsibility.  In this model, three days into the month, I know exactly how much I've had to pay and, consequently, exactly how much I have left.

Either way, the first half of the month is always better than the second, or so I tell myself.

Whether I was making $17,000 the first year I had a full-time job, or now, the 27th of each month remains a day I live for, wish for, count the days until, try to make it to, budget and strategize and scrimp or "rob Peter to pay Paul," all to get to that day.

It's a grim way to live.  Now, I know this is a petty little first-world problem.  The living-paycheck-to-paycheck mode that some of us find ourselves in as we've gotten older is artificial.  The "cash flow" problem of each month occurs because we are paying things like mortgages, retirement funds, car payments, tech expenses, and expensive educations for our children.  We short ourselves in the name of luxury, convenience, and security, financial or otherwise.

And being paid is better than not.  Being paid more is, arguably, better than being paid less.  Mostly agree.

No, what I'm grappling with is what has happened to my psyche.  I am a slave to a paycheck.  My "biorhythms" have ordered themselves to a particular day of the month that my employer chose for some unknown reason, long before I started working.  That day has taken control of me, really of my entire family.  We all know the 27th.  For you, it may be a different day, maybe a couple of days a month.

A friend and I proposed a twice-a-month pay plan some ten years ago.  We were told, "Sounds like someone doesn't know how to manage his money."  Surely, you hear the class criticism in that response--the less-educated you are, the more manual-labor type work you do, the more frequently you need to be paid, presumably because if you are going to squander your paycheck in a tavern at the expense of your family, then we'd better pay you again a week later while you are chastened and while your wife threatens you with a rolling pin if those pockets aren't still green when you get home.

No, salaried employees must have greater financial savvy than that, mustn't we?

But what weighs on me today is that I am allowing myself to live for money.  Payday has become self-validation day.  I've done it!  My family has been counting on me and I've delivered! Yay, me! Paycheck, you complete me!  Living for money isn't something I want to do.  I'd like it to never be anything more than a means to an end.

But that is what is in my head when I log on to my bank's website and verify that, yes, I am winding up the money clock once again and it will keep ticking for the next 30 days.  Should the Energizer bunny of my bank account not be "still going" for that stretch of time, then I am less than what I should be.  That ain't no way to live.  Which is why I hope my wife is paying for supper.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

True Notebooks

There's twenty-seven men here,
Mostly black, brown and poor,
Most of 'em are guilty,
Who are you to say for sure?  --Steve Earle


Sometimes you just read the right book at the right time.  For me, that book is True Notebooks by Mark Salzman.  I'm not going to push the issue too much, because I got to experience this book as a one-day read on a snow day, a circumstance that I know some of my colleagues would not have been able to enjoy.

But it is a great book in a modern sense.  Salzman, a bestselling author, is "coerced" into teaching creative writing at a juvenile detention facility in California.  Most of the students are murderers.  All are children who have been tried as adults.

The book is a first person rendering of a year with these kids, as Salzman grows into his role as their teacher and mentor.  Much of the book consists of the inmates' writings, their ruminations on their incarcerated circumstances and how that weighs on their psyches.

It is a brilliant, low-key read.  I claim brilliance because how many books out there give a reader the understanding of what it is like to be young and in prison, probably for life?

How many books make such characters human rather than stereotype, so that their stories rise above the simple American understanding of our minorities consigned to prison?

And that's why True Notebooks is the right book at the right time.  At least for me.  In a month and a year when America is  struggling with understanding why so many of its "minority" citizens are in prison, to read this book and to hear the stories behind why these men are in, well, that is essential, I'd say.

Salzman's book doesn't explain away their crimes, doesn't justify them, certainly doesn't apologize for them.  It just humanizes them.

Most of us don't live in a world where wedding receptions end in violence, where gang obligations dictate our behavior and survival, where we must thoughtlessly engage in self-destructive acts on the "outs" that, when prosecuted, land us in prison.  Because we don't, there is a large segment of our own society that doesn't understand;  Salzman's book forces us to acknowledge that this segment exists.

And while it is difficult to call the young men caught up in that world "victims," the fact remains that these young men both rely on their lack of choice and castigate themselves for the choices that they feel they had and have to make.

But, most of all, the book is about writing.  The young men that Salzman works with all work towards self-actualization through the words that they put on paper.  Through direct description, anecdote, metaphor, and analogy, they attempt to come to terms with their circumstances.  That is difficult, nearly impossible.  Imagine being young and uneducated and still trying put into words what it is like to spend years in prison, to understand those aspects of life that you may never experience again, to come to terms with the confined, restricted life you may live until the end of your days, or at least beyond your vital years.

The book also humanizes the people who work in prisons, their understanding of the limitations of these young men, while they also get caught up in lives and futures of the charges under their care.  To be a juvenile prison guard is to be a mixture of resignation about what is to come (real prison) and a desire to offer these boys a respite from that future, however brief.

Lastly, the book, without preaching, shows us how the criminal justice system lets these men down, with lengthy months until trial, subpar lawyers, and by-the-book judges who ignore the growth that the young men (at least as Salzman's writers) have achieved behind bars.

Maybe that is as it should be.  The book doesn't push you one way or the other.  While you may tend to sympathize with these boys, Salzman has no qualms about reminding you what they have done.  Their plights are a double tragedy-- for their victims and for them.  And that is worth both reading and future consideration.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Best Meal

Have you ever considered that the best idea for a meal might not follow the traditional pattern of entree, salad or side, bread or starch, maybe dessert?

Of course you have, because the idea of tapas have slowly insinuated themselves into our culture--the Spanish notion of serving "snacks" of various types for the early evening eating that takes place before the real evening meal, which occurs much later than when we Americans typically eat.  So now we have tapas restaurants in most of our cities.

And in more expensive restaurants, where there is plenty of money to be made from serving "small plates" that have cheap prices, at least until you realize that a bunch of $11 small plates with not that much food on them add up quickly when you share them, we have other offerings that begin to riff on the traditional tapas menu.

But have you ever thought that you could do this at home?  It's pretty easy, because there are no rules.  For my recent Oscar "meal," for example, I served the following:

Broccoli and cauliflower with Curry Dip
Guacamole with tortilla cigars
A cheese plate with New Zealand Cheddar, a blue cheese, a goat chèvre and fig jam
A crab spread with cream cheese,  sweet chili sauce, cilantro, and rice crackers
Pretzels with homemade honey mustard

Not fancy, not complicated, but a meal. A real meal.  You get your veggies, you get you protein, you get your carbs, you get your fat (which is back in vogue).  And you can eat as much or as little as you want of any or all of it.

You don't think kids would love a meal like this?  A meal that looks like a party spread?

It's a pretty cheap meal, too.  Any kind of a grazing menu is bound to downplay the meat, and even if you buy expensive cheeses, you don't put out that much of them.  They'll be there for another version of this.

But what I really like is the variety.  You aren't stuck in Mexican, or Asian, or American--you can put together a whimsical spread of all three, and more.  Offerings like this also lend themselves to a creative use of leftovers.  The meatloaf you served two nights ago returns as meatloaf sliders.  The leftover crab legs your father passed on to you are reimagined as a dip.  The last fourth of a jar of, really, any fruit jam makes a simple cheese and cracker "pop."  Leftover deli ham or turkey finds its way to a toothpick with a grape tomato and a cube of cheese and, yeah.

The other pleaser at work here is the your ability to offer a little bit of a lot of things tends to make bored eaters more excited.  Instead of a meat-and-two concept, all of a sudden, with very little work, you've got five or seven different things worth trying.  It feels like a party, which isn't a bad thing mid-week or on a Sunday night.

And though I'm not a cheap person. I really like the frugality of it.  Because I like to use up what might be forgotten in a freezer.  And so, some frozen rotisserie chicken becomes a quick chicken salad.  A half a box of egg rolls or pierogies suddenly becomes pretty enticing, when all you need is a good sauce to go with them.  The last stalks of celery, the rest of a bag of carrots dip conveniently into a salad dressing that has been forgotten in your refrigerator for a couple of weeks.

Sometimes the best meal allows you and yours to be culinary dilettantes, dabbling here or there, as part of your own, improvised tasting menu.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Treasures Of This Earth

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  (Matthew 6:19)

In an unexceptional string of events, I lost a guitar, got a smashed car, fixed the car, went to Ash Wednesday services, and then, with misplaced faith and pride, probably lost the car for good.  Here's how it happened:

I am lazy.  At least about band practice.  When I lug a guitar over to the practice house and then I have to lug it back, I am not inclined, as soon as I get home, to lug everything into the house ( especially if I am then expected to lug it downstairs to the room where I practice).

And so, each time I practice, I either leave my stuff at the house or leave it in the car.  I have done that for months.  I will admit that the first night I left my 192 purple Stratocaster lying in the backseat, I thought, if anyone sees that, it will look pretty appealing.  But by the next day, I had forgotten that.  And by the next night, or, really, the morning after between 4 and 5AM, it was gone.

A window was busted out of my car.  A window was busted out of my daughter's car.  Which came first, I don't know.  But I suspect it was my car with the guitar.

So then, guitar gone, I had to get the window fixed.  Covered by insurance.  They come to your house, remove the old glass, install the car window, clean everything up and leave.  Meantime, my wife and others and eventually me are hitting the local pawn shops to see if the guitar is there. And, in the other meantime, I decide to do some other repairs on my car, to get it back up to good running condition.  

$900+ later, I have the car back, not completely fixed, but getting there.  I still don't have the guitar.  And then the snows come or don't come.  It doesn't really matter, because we get snow days off either way.  And on one of those days, we hit up the pawn shops again.  Again without luck.

Three days later, after a work dinner on a Friday night, I start to drive the car home, but during the meal, a decent blast of snow, ice, and sleet has come down, and the streets are covered, at least where I work.  So, I try to get home one way, and the hill is blocked.  So, I try to get home the other way, which also involves driving down a steep hill.  With speed bumps.  The latter matters because each time you hit one of those bumps, your car leaves the road and then has to re-engage with it.  In untreated snow/ice, this means that you lose valuable traction.  And so, as I head down that hill and then lose traction, I see my only course as trying to turn 90 degrees onto a street, but I don't make the turn.  Instead, I keep sliding, hitting a curb and pushing my right left wheel into the chassis.  

A few days on, here's where I am--guitar gone, money to repair car gone, car itself likely gone.  Because of its age, I expect the insurance to "total" it, handing me a check and taking the car.

There are two simple realities beneath all of this: 1) I expected to play that guitar as long as I live, and 2) I expected to drive that car for a long, long time.

And that brings me to Ash Wednesday.  That piece is easy, in a way.  My wife promised us good pizza, if we would go to Ash Wednesday services.  So I went.

But if you listen carefully to an Ash Wednesday service, at least the Episcopalian version, then you know that one of the essential messages of that service is that we have come from dust and that we will return to dust.  And, in the interim, we are not to focus on storing up the treasures of this earth.

I believe all of that, believe it or not.  One of the most meaningful poems I have ever read is Anne Bradstreet's "Upon The Burning Of My House," which makes a similar argument.  I knew the role that my failures had played in the loss of the car.  I knew that I had come to believe that my Subaru would always conquer the snow.  Does that mean that I was speeding down the hill?  No, but it does mean that I never expected to be sliding into a curb.  Ultimately, an ineffectively-treated road can undermine the best vehicle.

Still, that does not mean that both the guitar and the car had not achieved the status of "friends." Though inanimate, both had personalities and idiosyncrasies.  Both had stories that, if able, they could have told.  Both had lives that seemed to have no immediate ending, at least in connection with me.  And now, both are gone.  Yes, I try my best not to store up these treasures.  But I am also not ready yet to admit to my own dustness.  So that makes it hard.  Someday, I will lose other friends, or they will lose me, but that time has not yet come, and until it does, I am not ready to acknowledge the truth that awaits me.  Sorry.  

I think this is a Lenten post, even a sermon.  But that's just me.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

We Don't Need No Stinking Snow!

Weather forecasting has fallen victim to the same problem that plagues healthcare. Experts cannot afford to undersell risk because our society will not tolerate such errors. Better to predict the sky is falling even if there's only a 10% chance.

They'll mock you for overreacting, but they'll practically crucify you for downplaying it if the fit hits the shan.
Olaf, enjoying a school-canceled snow day in Chattanooga

WEATHER + SCHOOL ADMINS

In the world of education, public schools in the South are canceling school sometimes more than 24 hours in advance, and with nary a flake on the ground or a degree below freezing. The mere legitimate possibility of inclement weather is now a more than legitimate reason to call the whole thing off.

This is due, in part, to a greater faith in the slightly more accurate "science" of predicting the future in regards to weather. (I wrote that to try and make it as absurd a concept as it, in fact, is.)

From an administrative point of view, in 2015 the only unforgivable mistake is to not cancel school. That decision risks both parent and student animosity and the risk of litigation. Why would anyone want to battle that three-headed hydra?

WEATHER + PARENTS

Parents, even at independent schools, even those with high tuition, are vastly more likely to be happy about school being canceled than upset. Why? Because school getting canceled means happy, cheering children.

Because modern parents are far more obsessed with their children being happy than they are with them being educated.

If this blanket statement seems harsh, look around. Hop on Facebook or read parenting blogs. If you ask parents whether they value their child's happiness over their child's education, you might get close to a 50/50 split. But it's in their actions where we see the priorities come to life. Parents might philosophically know that happiness is a by-product, but they treat it like a manufacturable commodity.

"And really," they say, "what's one day of school? What does it matter if you miss a day or two?" Or even better, they say, "You don't need school to learn things." Which is absolutely, undeniably true, of course. Except that when your kids fail out of college, few parents seem interested in accepting the blame and are conveniently quick to point to their school as the problem. We only need school to learn things so we can blame school when we don't or won't.

WEATHER + TEACHERS

Here's a minor annoyance: educators who over-celebrate getting a day off even when they know they shouldn't really have a day off but get one because of the weird place we are in with weather in the 21st Century.

In pictures, I wish teachers celebrated more like this:



... and less like this:


First, these teachers and educators are feeding into the very stereotype they complain about being given: that they chose a profession for the vacation days and not for the joy and duty of educating The Next Generation of American Citizens. They celebrate their chance to be snowed in (even when there's no snow) while 80% of the rest of the adult world drives dutifully into their places of work, from Starbucks to downtown law offices, from hospitals to stores in the mall.

A barista can make it into work, because by God the world needs them. But a teacher? Mmmm not so much, not in a crunch. We don't need education right this minute like we need that cup of Starbucks.

Second, and this goes specifically to this moment in time, in Chattanooga: the way teachers react to these comical days off risks revealing what they might actually feel about their job. When you are celebrating a Get Out of Jail Free card with excess gusto, it suggests you are Getting Out of Jail. And if that's what you think of your profession, of the livelihood you have (in theory) chosen, isn't it fair for those of us who believe in education as a calling and a commitment to be a bit annoyed, a bit angry?

Unfortunately, when teachers barely get paid more than baristas, and when society treats them with less respect than baristas, then why the heck shouldn't teachers be in it for the vacations? It's gotta be hard to cling to a sense of duty that no one else seems to respect you for having in the first place.

No one, and I mean no one on this planet, would accuse me of being a workaholic. I don't put in 70 hours a week (unless being a parent counts, but I'm not going there right now). I don't spend night after night at home answering work emails or wrapping up work projects. I come in. I do my work, diligently, with intensity and focus when possible. I clock out and become a father and a friend.

But I have trouble celebrating vacation days that are neither deserved nor merited. If I can't get out of my driveway from snow (or a fallen tree), so be it. I'm stuck, and that's that. Let's go sledding and drink hot cocoa 'til it comes out of our nostrils. Yay.

But not working one day, for most of the modern employed world, merely means falling behind on all the crap that needs doing. It's only a fleeting joy, a trade-off whose payback is often hell, like leaving a clogged toilet unplunged.

Maybe this is where my marketing background gets the best of me, knowing it's just unsightly to be so brazenly happy to not have to work when others must trudge through the snow (or non-snow), uphill both ways, to work.

I believe it goes deeper than that, however. I worry that it speaks to our modern notions of duty and responsibility, that it speaks to how many of us are bitter about what our employer doesn't do for us while overvaluing what we do for our employer, that we deserve more days off than we get, and Mother Nature is the dispenser of this correcting justice.

And, to be fair, sometimes teachers seem so maligned and under-valued that I can't blame them for cheering their unnecessary days off.

WEATHER + STUDENTS

As is has been, so it always shall be. Nothing has changed here. Kids love snow days. Teens love snow days. They love them when it really snows, and they love them when it doesn't. They only stop loving them when it risks eating into their summers through extended days.

Well, there's one difference lately. In the '70s and '80s, no kid expected to know anything about Tomorrow until either (a) the 11:00 news, or (b) the morning news or radio. We weren't itching for an answer before we ate dinner. And we didn't get angry about having to wake up that morning to find out, because being out of school was always an awesome surprise, no matter when we found out.

So maybe kids today are more impatient about it, but that's totally understandable given the nature of our technology. And I don't recall feeling quite so entitled to snow days. But that might just be the kids I'm around. Like my own.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

On Seeing My Play Performed

Like all of my writing projects, this one has no implications for the national literary scene.  My novel sits in a drawer, literally, like a tired cliche.  My writing text, once handed out to an entire faculty, likely resides these days in a single school office--mine.  My cookbook, a party favor from about eight years ago, is falling apart in many homes, from use or lack of use, no one quite now.  Poems once published on websites that no longer exist, will never completely disappear from the Internet, so I'm told, but neither is anyone looking for them.

But now, a play.

A play is a different beast, even a small, 10-minute play written for a high school contest.  Because the play was performed, performed for 100 or more people.  It was brought to life by 5 actors.  It had a life, however brief, of its own.

And I do write intentionally in the passive voice in that last paragraph because I had no role in those occurrences, except to watch a couple of rehearsals and make a few, vague, uninformed comments about the staging and acting.  No doubt, a real playwright would have exacting concerns to help the production match his original vision.  Not me.  I just sat in amazement that people were sitting at a table on a stage speaking words that I had written some months earlier.

To see that play come to life was like nothing I've ever experienced.  I can see the allure of writing for the stage, if one is able to do it.  It is like watching life, a life that you yourself imagined, but lived through the perceptions of other people.

For me, it was a down-on-its-luck rock band who had just played a lousy concert in a lounge unsuited to rock music outside of Philadelphia, a place full of whiskey-drinking businessmen with their backs to the band, watching hockey.  That was the backdrop for band turmoil, accusations, competing visions, and an inconclusive break-up.

I lived the experience, sort of.  In 1980, I was living on a farm in Lansdale, PA, with three guys who were in the band.  I was writing a novel (not the one that made it as far as the drawer).  The drummer worked in a pizza store on the side.  The songwriter/guitarist and I were busboys at a huge restaurant nearby.  My other friend simply grew pot.

And they did play that gig at the Person-To-Person Lounge at a Holiday Inn (I think) in King Of Prussia, PA.  The venue wanted a quieter show, so the drummer and I sat at a table and drank White Russians, the only fans for the two guitarists/ vocalists.

I'm always amazed at how writing works.  Not by anything I've written, of course, but by the process and how the brain works and how that insignificant incident in the short life of a band came back to me 35 years later as the setting for a fictional band's conflicts, how the brain takes tiny portions of the band I play in now and inserts them, not as central issues, just as little details of verisimilitude.

But what really amazed me was the performance.  Because colleagues of mine were cast into the roles, suddenly, this post-college band became a much older, and, frankly, more poignant, group of men who seemed to be trying to hold onto the dream for many years after most would have stopped.  Their plight became real, not a bunch of post-Ivy League guys paying rent with their parents' money before moving onto grad school and careers.

So I had a personal, historical setting which I channeled into a current musical project, but when the actors got ahold of it, it became theirs.  My bass-playing character, who had booked the ill-fated gig, could call upon his own disappointments with being under appreciated in his current job.  The other men, now in their 40s and 50s, had disappointments and compromises of their own to draw upon.

And that is the beauty of drama and why I am writing this.  I think that I already knew everything that I have said here, but I never really intuited it before.  Whereas other writing, at any given moment, has what the writer envisioned and what the reader interprets, the play, even when written by a novice like me, adds so many more layers.

Monday, February 16, 2015

White Guilt Cinema?

Dear White People, the recent movie taking our confused 21st Century notions of race, racism and equality to task, is engineered to generate discomfort and mixed reviews.

Any number of comments and critiques of DWP accuse it, or debase it, as a film created for, or because of, or to celebrate, White Guilt. Being painfully white and having spent most of my life trying to figure out how the heck I'm supposed to handle, accept, or fight my own White Guilt -- (Disclosure: I'm still not sure which I'm actually supposed to do, but I also know that asking someone of color a question like this is only doomed to frustrate or anger them for needing to make any of this About Me in the first place) -- I find myself wishing more movies so openly swam in the pond.

My adolescence and young adult years were spent exposed to a decent array of black-directed pictures and something close to "honest" depictions of The African-American Experience. mostly made me long for my lost youth and Robert Townsend, writer and director of Hollywood Shuffle. Sure, Hollywood Shuffle is the most salient, perhaps because it's whole raison d'être is more about shining a light and exposing the hypocrisies of even our most liberal white populace. But it's one among many.

Spike Lee, John Singleton, the Hughes Brothers. Eddie Murphy's late '80s and early '90s not-trilogy of Coming to America, Harlem Nights and Boomerang. As I wrestled with identity in college, I had no shortage of movies -- many wrestling with their own imperfections -- eager to expose me to the gripes and frustrations of "my black brothers and sisters."

I couldn't fix anything, and I couldn't repair anything, but I could try to better understand it. And oftentimes, the movies provided me plenty to laugh at as well.

Perhaps these kinds of movies never really stopped being made so much as I stopped having the free time necessary to appreciate them. All I know is, watching DWP was to Higher Learning and PCU what “Uptown Funk” is to Morris Day and the Time: entirely beholden to them but plenty enjoyable on its own merits.

Dear White People is, if nothing else, shot with agonizing cinematographic care in ways Spike Lee's "joints" almost aggressively avoided. Many scenes reminded me of better moments from Vince Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad” or the equally visually-captivating “Better Call Saul,” where every character is carefully placed into the frame, given their own real estate, in a way that demands that the viewer appreciate it. Lighting and spacing are so intentional as to beg to be appreciated.

Its message is a more complicated issue, and as I’ve grown up it’s become easier to accept that these films won’t allow the lack of a clear "right answer" or solution hinder them from being pissed off. As Spike Lee said half a century ago, the point of Do The Right Thing was not to offer a solution, but to “provoke awareness.” What a great phrase. To agitate or discomfort a viewer enough to make them reflective is a noble goal, especially given that most viewers would rather watch Jigsaw disembowel someone than suffer through two characters talking awkwardly about race.

What is cool, and dare I say authentic, about DWP is that the characters are in-your-face flawed. The movie understands the college mindset: be convicted and passionate in your opinions, and ignore the fact that you may wake up tomorrow believing something entirely different, learning something that clashes with your stance.

If you’re an eccentric gay black guy, will anyone claim you in their clique, or are you like Caine from Kung Fu or David Banner from the Hulk TV show, fated to walk the earth alone?

If you’re a Black Power-talking black woman who is sleeping with her white classmate, are you a hypocrite or merely enjoying and celebrating your freedom to live how you want to live?

Must all children of administrators attend their parent’s college or university? Must all children of school administrators be depicted as spoiled brats? (ARE they all spoiled brats??)

Must personal ambition always, or eventually, trump your sense of acting for the greater good? Is that what it means to become an adult?

What percentage of white people really do obsess with trying to touch black people’s hair?

What is The Right Thing for a white guilt viewer to Do after the movie ends?

If you can’t stomach sitting through 90 minutes of wrestling with your own white guilt -- or if you simply have no interest in doing so because white guilt is stupid or a waste of time -- I’d at least recommend their hilarious spoofs on the NBC “public service” announcements, “The More You Know (About Black People).” My favorite is probably the one about “black on black” crime, as it cuts to the heart of one of the most commonly-used arguments about… well, anything involving race and politics amongst a certain crowd. As the guy says, “Our violence is segregated… just like your neighborhood!”

Friday, February 13, 2015

Liam Nesia

What in the world is Liamnesia?  Well, if you combine Irish actor Liam Neeson with his recent penchant for becoming an action hero, then it turns out that I can't really remember what he was like before.  Hence, the amnesia part.

Recently, I watched him in the utterly-forgettable Non-Stop, a rote thriller with a bad title and a good, wasted cast.  Neeson plays a down on his luck Air Marshall who gets entangled on a "hijacked" flight from the U.S. To Europe.  Included on the plane are the oldest sister from Downton Abbey, the state politician Kevin Spacey murders on House Of Cards, and, of all people, Julianne Moore.  All are quality actors in disposable parts.

But most disposable of all Liam Neeson himself.  The unlikeliest of action heroes in this buff age, Neeson does not project the super-strong, in shape hero.  He doesn't show muscles.  He doesn't ever remove bulky clothing.  He's tortured and alcoholic and cliched. And this role is but a spin off of his reluctant father with a special set of skills from the Taken franchise.

The problem is that this is what he has become, and when an actor retreats into these branded, bland action roles, his or her previous body of work dissipates.  It is as if a serious literary figure started writing drivel.  It's pretty hard to come back that.

Schindler's List is a hazy memory.  Love, Actually feels like it was mailed in.  And, honestly, without checking IMDB, I can't remember else about the man's roles.

The same thing happened with Nicholas Cage.  When he won the Academy Award for Leaving Las Vegas, he had some interesting parts on his resume--Birdy, Moonstruck, among others.  Since that award, now years and years ago, he ain't done shit; in fact, he's done a whole lot worse than shit.

Tom Cruise, too.  I know the man has his detractors for his personal life, and I share the disdain for Scientology and false marriages, but the fact remains that the man has a great screen presence.  But if all he does is action, even if it is pretty good stuff like Edge Of Tomorrow. He can never again become the emotionally-vulnerable man who was Jerry MacGuire.

Critics like to point out, with full justification, that Hollywood is a graveyard of roles for older women who were once romantic leads.  But what of the men?  Perhaps they, too, are relegated to playing secondary roles to the special effects waiting to be added to the blue screen.  Action hero or bust, eh?  At least for many of them.

Clearly, there is good money in it.  And longevity, in relative terms.  But, my God, is there any satisfaction in pretending that you care about thin roles where your character makes dubious decisions to serve the action of the film, where the resolution depends on actions you really couldn't pull off at your age?

Cynics will say, that's the movies.  That's what every single one of them does.  Me, I'm not a cynic, at least not where appreciating people's best work is concerned.  And so, I am saddened when I see someone whom I admire reduced to a money grab.  Not that it doesn't happen everywhere every day.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Championships Weren't the Titles He Sought

Those who love the sport of basketball spent Sunday mourning and/or celebrating the legacy of Dean Smith, the longtime UNC basketball coach and legend for whom an arena was named. It must have been surreal and awkward for a man, who by all accounts was deeply humble, to coach his final 11 years in a building the basketball world called “The Dean Dome.”

Most of Tar Heel Nation mourned the loss of Coach Smith twice before Sunday: the day he retired as a coach, and the day we discovered he had been diagnosed with, and battling for a while, Alzheimer's Disease. On Sunday, most of us felt far more grateful than sad, as we can hope Dean Smith has been reunited with that brilliant mind and wit and generous spirit, things he had slowly but surely been losing over the last years of his life.

Skip a few paragraphs if you’ve already heard my Brush With Greatness story… Lord knows I've told it plenty.

As a freshman who was only just beginning to learn why a town, a state, and a nationwide community so loved this nasal-voiced, white-haired man, I was camping out with friends at the Dean Dome for tickets. You see, in the good ol’ days, before fear of litigation steered every decision in academia, students would camp around the Dean Dome for bottom-level tickets to games. At 7 a.m. on Saturday, they’d hand out a number based on your place in the camp-out line. You’d go back later with that number to get your tickets. The better the number, the better the chance at sweet sweet tickets.

Late into the fall evening, probably 11 p.m. three friends and I are huddled around a chess table, drinking somewhat responsibly, when Dean E. Smith himself walks out of his office and up the narrow pathway towards his car. He says hello to everyone he passes, and he says “Thank you for supporting us” and things like that.

Coach Smith does the same for us and walks on, but then he stops, turns around and steps over to us.

“Playing chess, I see,” he says. And we nod, cowed, and say “Yes sir,” and my buddy Teflon says something about it passes the time and sharpens the mind.

And then Dean says, “I just love chess. Second-greatest game ever invented.” And he nods and stands there silently for a few seconds. Maybe he was hoping the two guys would go back to playing so he could watch. But we were too stunned, so we just stared back at him. And nobody wants to be stared at too long. So he again thanked us for supporting the team, wished us a good night and told us to stay warm, and then he turned and walked to his car, pleasantly greeting each camper he passed.

The list of innovations this one man brought to the game of basketball are staggering. Many consider him the single greatest innovative architect in the sport’s history. Most teams now measure their success by the metric he first made a cornerstone: offensive efficiency by way of Points Per Possession.

For Dean Smith, basketball was a game. A great game full of opportunities to think strategically. The greatest game, if his clever comment was to be drawn to its inferred conclusion. But, ultimately, still only a game.

The more you read about Coach Smith, the easier to believe that he always kept that fact in perspective: basketball -- the thing that provided his lifestyle, the thing for which he was loved, admired, worshipped, loathed -- was only a game. And if his gift for understanding that game did not allow him to make waves in the real world, in real life, in the lives of real people beyond the hardwood and the hoops, he would have given it up long before he did.

All the articles, all the reports, speak of Coach Smith’s politeness. His civility. His genuine and gentle spirit. But when you read about those moments when he altered the course of bigger events -- when he integrated Chapel Hill’s downtown eateries with a single act of a polite dare, when he integrated the ACC with a scholarship for Charlie Scott, when he pointed to each individual in the NC state legistature, and then to himself, and called everyone murderers for having a death penalty. He lobbied actively in the political sphere, but he chose his battles sparingly, and still he often lost them, because not even a legend can change the nature of politics.

I admire Dean Smith because he taught me to truly love, and truly respect, a sport as a spectator. But far more importantly, I admire Dean Smith because he never allowed me or others to believe basketball trumped the other stuff. Winning a basketball game, or a national championship, was not his end game. Being a real father-figure, a real teacher, a real mentor to the players who chose UNC. Taking a vocal and active stand against injustice. Living a life he hoped would please the God in whom he believed.

Best I can tell, he believed prioritizing those other things would eventually lead to winning and titles. And he was right.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Legacies and Buried Treasure

Book lovers from the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters felt an instantly glorious feeling overwhelm them on Tuesday morning when the news broke that Harper Lee had written a second book that would be published this summer.

I retweeted the news the instant I saw it in my stream, along with the simple comment: WHOA. Because what better way to show respect for Harper Lee than to quote Keanu Reeves?

Who in their literate right mind doesn't want to read a second book by one of the most beloved authors of the 20th Century?

Less than a day later, the tide had already begun to turn. Suspicion supplanted euphoria as literati and those better in the know began to place this announcement on the timeline. Six months after Ms. Lee's sister -- her closest confidante, her protector, her attorney ("Atticus in a dress") -- died, this book is "discovered." Six months after the death of the one person whom Harper Lee trusted to make decisions in her best interests, Harper Lee makes a public announcement about how thrilled she is with this exciting change in plans. And, apparently, Harper Lee is excited even though most information suggests she's all but clueless to the world.

Everything smells fishy because it's probably fishy. Harper Lee is probably beyond reason. This release is probably opposed to her wishes at a time when her faculties were with her. This book might never have seen the light of day for dozens of reasons we'll never know.

"Go Set a Watchman" is being released without her of-sound-mind approval. We really should respect the wishes of those we love or respect (or, if we're being honest, those we don't love and don't respect).

Except we have a long and cherished history of not respecting our beloved artists and writers. Libraries across the world preserve letters written from great writers and leaders. Personal letters that, in 98 percent of circumstances were meant to be read by a single pair of eyes on the planet, are dissected by graduate students and researchers ad nauseam.

Should Harper Lee's buried treasure of a novel be any different just because she is still alive, albeit with questionable faculties? If she doesn't really get what is happening, what is the harm in it happening when we've done this with other greats over the centuries?

This book will not, cannot possibly, destroy the legacy of "To Kill a Mockingbird." 

This book will either elevate Harper Lee to a higher status, or it will merely remind us of the lightning she caught in a bottle, this shimmering brilliance of words and story that surged through her for a short time, the electricity of which continues to power cities' worth of young and old minds.

Barring the kinds of bad reviews that sank Battlefield Earth, I will buy her "second but really first" book, and I will read it. Even if Harper Lee never wanted me to, I will feel compelled to do so, because it's an historic moment for a book lover. And it can't possibly be worse than Jar Jar Binks and Little Orphan Ani from The Phantom Menace.

The only concern that remains, for me, is where the money will go. Will it go merely to the publisher, or to some greedy lawyer or distant relative? Or will the money go to a greater good? The townsfolk of her birth, or a cause or organization Ms. Lee would celebrate? Hopefully the coming months will allow reporters to investigate this important detail, because rest assured, we're looking at a book certain to break any sales records from the last year, possibly the last decade.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Ranking Is A Young Man's Game

It is youth which can afford the luxury of ranking the good and less good of life.  That isn't that hard to figure out, once you think about it.  After all, if we all make it to some certain point in our days, the most meaningful days may well be the last 10 that we woke up, got out of bed, and dragged a comb across our head.  Period.

I work with that youth.  And so they want to know:  who's my favorite band of all time?  What is my favorite restaurant?  What, as if it were possible to choose, is my favorite song?

But, really, don't you get to a certain age, and, were someone to be so forward as to say, 'Hey, what were your best 5 sexual experiences of all time?'  Wouldn't you say the last 5?

A friend of mine sent me tonight a ranking of the 9 Steely Dan albums from worst to best. And, if you don't know, I am a self-proclaimed aficianado of the Dan.  But it could have been any band.  It could have been your favorite.  In fact, for my purposes, it would be better if it was.

Because what are you supposed to do with the ranking?  Are you supposed to order your listening, to only listen to CDs or songs that someone else says are the best?  Are you supposed to stack your playlist with only the best regarded songs and albums?

A couple of cases in point.  I like Freedy Johnson, or at least liked him pretty well for a few years after he broke out.  But one of my favorite songs of his is his hardest rocker, "On The Way Out."  I never listen to the rest of the CD.  Am I to ignore that because nothing else on that particular CD speaks to me?

Similarly, although the writer for Stereogum ranks Everything Must Go as the worst Steely Dan CD, does that mean a) that it is a bad CD, and b) that because it sits at the bottom of his heap that there is nothing there I'd want to listen to?  Because, actually, I find moments of this maligned CD as beautiful as anything Steely Dan had ever done.  While they have always given license to their musicians ( band members or session people) to take over a song with a stellar solo, it is on "Pixeleen" where a female background singer first steps out from that role and actually duets with Donald Fagen to great effect.

The other reality, at least in music, is that the new can revitalize the old.  So when a band releases a CD after a long wait, even if it isn't their greatest work, its mere presence and some of the better tracks can send a listener back to older stuff with a new understanding and appreciation.

And, yes, I think even the years work this way.  A person is lucky to get, what, 80 to 85 Christmases? As such, that magical season has a precious, transient quality each time it comes around.  Well, this particular Christmas wasn't among our best.

If I had to rank it, I wouldn't put it in our top 20 as a family--we were slow and late to get our decorations up, my wife and I were both sick, the main gift I bought both of my children is still, to this day, back ordered, work schedules didn't allow us as many carefree days as other years, my father was depressed.  Still, it was Christmas, and, therefore, pretty darn good.  And did it inspire us to reflect on other Christmases, to do our best to work for a fuller experience next year?  Yes, it did.

Back to music, often when I think of what is best, what ranks most highly, it is what bubbles to the surface, what stands out on the iPod, what calls to me for reasons unknown when I want to sit in solitude and listen on that occasional, free Saturday night that feels like it is best or favorite at that moment.

There is no rhyme or reason at that moment, no best of or greatest hits.  I do not think, "I want to listen to Bruce Springsteen's top-ranked album right now."  No, it is the song, the artist, the playlist that fits my day at that moment, the song, long forgotten that suddenly calls to me, the singer or guitarist who feels right for the mood, month, or year that is going to reach the top.

Should I ever have occasion to end up on a desert island with nothing but, miraculously, the means to play recorded music and a library of it to choose from, then I guess I will look at it differently.