Monday, June 29, 2015

The Conservative Mind

The recent slate of Supreme Court decisions, which continued today and not necessarily in a way that demonstrates or doesn't that the court has moved to the "left," has brought the difference between the liberals and conservatives to the forefront once again, perhaps more dramatically than ever.  Liberals support Obamacare.  Conservatives decry the ruling in favor of gay marriage.  Liberals are outraged that a controversial lethal injection drug may still be used.  Conservatives are likely bothered that Texans have a bit more access to abortions than what was legislated.

But we are an "issues" people, and we tend to get caught up in those issues without giving too much focus on the philosophies behind those stances on the issues.

And so, I am here to remind everyone about a simple and basic truth about conservatives:  they don't want things to change.  They want to preserve the status quo.  And if their understanding of the status quo has been lost, then they want to return to it.

That is the perspective in a nutshell, and obvious though my comments are, they are worth reminding everyone, conservatives included, what they stand for.  Like I said, we tend to get lost in the issues and to forget the ideology.  SIDEBAR: If some reader wants to go after the liberal mind, I leave that to them.  I am too close to those positions to convey their flaws adequately.

Yes, conservatives want things the way that they were.  And the way that they were tended to focus on a white male-controlled society, so anything that does not jive with that perspective is not going to fit.  So if you are wondering why there is support among conservatives for ideas as disparate as the Confederate flag, a "scorched earth" immigration policy, no increase in the minimum wage or in equalizing women's salaries, or even resistance to global warming, you need only return to the original mantra: conservatives do not want things to change.

People like me often refer to cognitive dissonance in conservatives, that notion that so many conservatives refuse to believe the evidence in front of their faces if it is contrary to their long-held beliefs.  But we are wrong.  There is no dissonance; we just think that there should be.  Conservatives see the world like a Talking Heads song: "Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was."  Nothing more, nothing less.

To try to distinguish or to equivocate between various types of conservatives--social conservatives, religious conservatives, fiscal conservatives--misses the point absolutely.  Conservatives want things to be the way that they were.  Whether it takes limits on social programs, a lack of ideological evolution, a biblical standard, or the monetary policies of the past does not really matter.  All conservatives want to get back to where they once belonged.

That is why the modern conservative, in whatever form or background, feels legitimately persecuted. It is not a pose.  It is a terror.  We/they/someone has taken steps to remove the world that once was and to replace it with the world that can be.  Is there anything more frightening to a conservative?  I don't think so.  Because the world that can be is not the world that is, nor is it necessarily the world that will be.  It is a minefield world where any and everything could blow up at any moment with just the slightest misstep.  Back when they ran things with little challenge to their rule, they were quite comfortable with the world that was.  Why wouldn't they want to get it back?

I suppose that what surprises me the most is the young person who seeks the conservative rewind.  To seek a world that he or she most likely never knew seems counter to the idealism of youth.  But I am misguided again, for what are families, what is society better at than creating fear?  In my own liberal perspective, I love to hear the stories of, for example, my father's past, but I've never had any desire to go there.

What liberals want at any given moment is likely confused and contradictory, even for those of us who carry the torch.  But conservatives?  That's easy.  They want the known world, the child who says "Sir" and "Ma'am," the person who knows his or her place in the established order.  I may have wanted that myself from time to time, but then I laughed at myself, for I knew that it could never be, should never have been.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Song, An Album

We all know the knocks against Spotify; heck, I've leveled some them myself.  But there are pleasures, too.  And some of those pleasures reflect the exact reason that I'm glad to have transitioned to Spotify.  In particular, the chance to go back and experience half-remembered songs and overlooked albums (which they were when they came out), music that isn't affected by Spotify's cheap reimbursement rates, makes the service an almost-daily unexpected pleasure.  What can I think of that I once liked but haven't heard in forever?

Well, today, I have a song and an album on my mind.  The song I listened to all morning as I was driving around.  Then, I found the chords to it online and tried it out as a possible song for the band I am in.  The album I've been listening from the afternoon, coming from Costco, into the evening.  I'm listening to it as I type this.

The song is "The Horses" by Rickie Lee Jones.  The album is Little Stevie Orbit by Steve Forbert.

Jones' song came out in 1989, the opening cut on Flying Cowboys, produced by Walter Becker of Steely Dan.  It's a good record, but "The Horses" is, by far, the standout track, arguably one of the best verse/chorus songs in the history of popular music.  Yes, I'm making that claim.  To hear it, you can imagine a crooner singing it, or you wish Springsteen had dueted on it when he brought Jones out at Jazzfest last year.

The lyric, perhaps aimed at a child, transcends time and place, transcends the rules of the universe.  It embraces all of human imagination, especially for a child who doesn't yet grasp those rules:

We will fly
Way up high
Where the cold wind blows
Or in the sun
Laughing having fun
With the people that she knows
And if the situation
Should keep us separated
You know the world won't fall apart
And you will free the beautiful bird
That's caught inside your heart
Can't you hear her?
Oh she cries so loud
Casts her wild note
Over water and cloud
That's the way it's gonna be, little darlin'
We'll be riding on the horses, yeah
Way up in the sky, little darlin'
And if you fall I'll pick you up, pick you up


The words are beautiful, but the musical transition from verse to chorus is among the most redemptive I've ever heard.  Find it, on Spotify, YouTube, or elsewhere and see if you don't hit replay.  Repeatedly.

Forbert's album came out in 1980.  It is a perfect, but lost, companion to Springsteen's The River, matching that double album song for song with exuberance, whimsy, and frenetic production.  From the charging opening number, "Get Well Soon, " a mixed message love letter to a Paris Hilton-style heiress to the last song, "A Visitor," Little Stevie Orbit rocks and pops with a relentless menu of tuneful, commercially-friendly songs with sharp melodies and witty, sometimes distempered, lyrics. 

 Forbert's view of our world tends to be more bemused than jaundiced, but he can do the misanthropic put-down song as well as just about anybody.  "Laughter Lou" and "If You Gotta Ask, You'll Never Know" fill the bill nicely here, especially with the latter's "You're just too fucking slow" to know what is happening around you.  "Cellophane City" effectively captures the everybody-knows-everything-about-everyone nature of modern life.

But it is Forbert's paeans of love that distinguish this record.  The similarly-named "Song For Carmelita" and "Song For Katrina", the latter a concert favorite when I've seen him, fulfill the sweet, commercial promise of his biggest hit, "Romeo's Tune."  The man can write a love song.  

Forbert is the "folksinger" who figured out early on that his songs play better with pacing, powerful bass, and assertive drumming, and this record demonstrates that from beginning to end, except when he gets a bit cosmic ( in ways that I enjoy) on "One More Glass Of Beer" and the last song.  Little Stevie Orbit plays well in a party setting or a contemplative solo late night from beginning to end.  It yielded no hit single and so it is forgotten, but if you give it a listen, you will hear many songs that could have been.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Too Many Hands

Do you wash your hands a lot?  Like after (and maybe before) you go to the bathroom?  After you shake a bunch of hands over a brief amount of time?  When you know there is something going around?  How about when you are working in the kitchen, especially after handling meat or chicken?  Are you obsessive about washing your hands like that one character in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest?

I kind of hope so.

Because these days, everywhere you look, on every menu in every restaurant (of a certain caliber, I realize), in so many areas of a grocery store, and on the labels of the products contained therein, there are hands at work.  Too many hands, I'd say.

Hand pies.  Hand-helds.  Hand-pulled.  Hand-dipped.  Hand-harvested.  Hand-peeled. Hand-choked (kidding).

You get the picture.  It's like every utensil and modern convenience of food preparation has become so gauche, so inessential that we need little more than the 10 digits God blessed us with.

Part of it is just pure, annoying pretension.  Hand pies, which are appearing on all kinds of menus and in cooking magazines, used to be called "fry pies" or "fried pies."  Hand helds, I'm pretty sure, were known back in the unenlightened world as things like "sandwiches" or "tacos."  On the Bonefish Grill menu, for example, there is an entire section devoted to "Hand Helds," which includes everything from a burger to a taco to a fish sandwich to fish and chips (which you might want to hand hold if they've just come out of the fryer!).

So what's it all about?  A use of wording, I suppose, to suggest that foods are more rustic, more casual, more comfortable, and, often, more natural.  For the food that eschews modern appliances for the simple, human tools of the past must be more authentic, right?

It's just that hands are kind of gross.  Take 15 minutes and watch what someone does with their hands during that time--scratching, sniffing, rumaging through a purse, touching doorknobs, rubbing, licking, exploring, handling money, picking up things off the ground, picking.  And how are those fingernails?  Clean?  Neatly-trimmed?

You know, I've "hand-pulled" my fair share of pork barbecue, and it isn't all that fun.  And I didn't wear gloves.  What I did do was to get rid of all of the excess fat I could find before I served it to my guests, but that doesn't mean that my hands didn't bathe in those warm shreds and slick oils in doing so.

Hand-dipped?  Well, you usually see that term with ricotta cheese or some such thing these days.  Hand-dipped? What does that even mean?  Did someone press three fingers together to form a kind of spoon and scoop the cheese out with that before it came to you?  Why?  Why not "spooned, but held by a hand, ricotta"?

Once in New Orleans, where restaurant bathrooms can be in the strangest places, I came out of the bathroom, which happened to be right by the waiters' station, to observe a waitress pressing her finger into a piece of microwaved bread pudding, presumably to see if it had been heated enough.

What is next?  Finger-tested?  Finger-stirred?  Is the finger perhaps the best tool to gauge both the temperature of, say, a soup, and then it can double as a taster when lifted into the mouth?

I know people cook with their hands.  I do.  Kneading dough, stretching it for pizza, spreading the ingredients over the cheese--these are all necessary, pleasurable activities, activities that will culminate in that pie going into a 515 degree oven.

But I don't brag about it.  I don't feature it in conversation when I serve the food.  "I just want you all to know that for quality control, my fingers have been on every inch of this pizza" or "How is that salad?  I tore each of the leaves by hand."  Some things are better left unsaid, and I hope that I washed my hands first.


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Two Nashville Nights

A week ago, I witnessed the Rolling Stones own a stadium for two hours. Twenty-four hours later, I watched three bands play their hearts out for a crowd smaller than the line for one of LP Field's bathrooms during the Stones show.

The dichotomy, and those two very different days of musical performances, was one of the coolest dadgum things I've had the pleasure of experiencing in a while.

The Stones are one of only a few bands that have the right to be in the debate of Best Rock Band Ever. They're my mom's age, yet they strutted, plucked, played and sweated (a lot) for the crowd gathered in the middle of Nashville, and the sticky heat couldn't kill the awe of the audience.

Several people around us and in following days claimed it was the best concert they'd ever seen. Respectfully, they haven't seen enough concerts. I can only claim it was the best concert I've ever seen put on by people whose first hit came out more than half a century ago. But when you're witnessing a group of people do what they are best known for, even if they're only doing it at 60 percent of their prime abilities, you're still witnessing a moment of history. Even if you only saw Michael Jordan playing with the Wizards at the end of his career, you'll never forget it.

We in that audience joined a club whose membership will not continue to grow much longer. More than a few people including myself used the words "bucket list moment" to describe their experience.

The next night, I held up a wall, with the help of a 25oz Yuengling draft, and let the unknown music from Lightning 100's "Music On Tap" event at midtown's Tin Roof wash over my ears.

Blue Mother Tupelo, a husband and wife duo that could be fairly described as "raucous Americana," opened up the evening. After their set, Ricky and Micol Davis were friendly as could be. When I told Micol their sound reminded me of Shovels & Rope, she thanked me but added, "We've been doing this a couple decades more'n them." You could feel the tiny bit of frustration behind her words, and having now listened to their most recent CD, Only Sunshine, I don't blame her. Their sound is, song for song, every bit as compelling and potent as Shovels & Rope. There are times on their CD when I'd swear Patty Griffin has made a guest appearance, but it's Micol. The lady can belt 'em out.

Who knows why one band sticks and another keeps seeking that upsurge? I'm just grateful they're still out there hammering away at it after 20 years.

They were followed by McNary, another not-easily-categorized musician whose voice carries no small amount of '90s indie rock vibe. While his set was decidedly less bombastic than Blue Mother Tupelo, it carried a different kind of intensity. He, too, was super cool and polite in conversation after his set. When I spoke of my interest in seeing more acts like him and fewer acts that had the glossy sheen of the well-handled aspiring modern country music star, he was kind enough to write down places I should check out. His 7-song EP, While We Are Waking, is riveting.

My 2-hour Friday car ride gave me a chance to plow through both CDs twice over. I'm listening to them again as I write this, and every listen reaffirms my initial impressions.

Neither of these acts (or the third) will be the next Rolling Stones. They're never gonna be the main event at LP Field. I didn't get the impression such an endpoint is what they have in mind. In fact, what made my Thursday night experience the perfect denouement to the Stones was seeing the Street Fighting Men (and Women) of the Digital Music Era.

Some might believe it's a stretch to call music a calling, but I don't know why. It continues to be the most effective and efficient way to connect people to one another. They're in it for something decidedly different than simple fame or glory. Part of me believes they're in the music biz only because they can't not be, their hearts and minds won't let them escape. Imprisoned and or liberated by their drive to make music.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Hospital Time

Living on Tulsa Time.
Living on Tulsa Time.
Gonna set my watch back to it
'Cause you know that I've been through it.
Living on Tulsa Time.  --J.J. Cale


Lately, I've been living on hospital time.  We've all been there, right?  Someone we know is in the hospital and if we have care of them or just if we care for them, then we spend a lot of time in the hospital ourselves, getting used to its rhythms and idiosyncracies.

Things started out perfectly.  We had to be there at 10AM.  We did paperwork for the first hour.  At 11, it was "nurse time," as they got my father situated with his gown, his bed, his vital signs, and what I would do with his belongings.  Like clockwork, at 12 on the dot, another nurse came in and rolled him away for surgery prep, since the 1/2 hour surgery was at 1PM.  All of this went as predicted.

But then "hospital time" began the long unwinding on its clock.  Surgery scheduled for 1PM didn't happen until after 2:30; the doctor called to say the surgery had been successful and that he would be in a recovery room about 20 minutes later.  I don't know if that happened.  All I know is that sometime after 4:30, we saw my father in his ICU room.

And since patients have any number of issues and difficulties after a surgery, a variety of doctors come by and put in orders--orders for medications or procedures or tests.  When you are new to "hospital time," you think that those orders mean that those pills and tests are going to happen in the next half hour or hour.  You think this because, for example, if your loved one has high blood pressure and the pill will bring his blood pressure down, you think that this is a matter of some urgency.

That is when you are new; a veteran learns that nothing is a matter of urgency (with a few flatlining exceptions, of course).  Everything is a matter of when the person who is to bring it or do it, whatever it might be, can get here.  That's "hospital time."

Of course, having a loved one in a hospital means that your time is scheduled, too.  The visiting times to see my father in Neurosurgical ICU were 10-10:30AM, 4-4:30PM, and 8:30-9PM each day.  That can pretty much plan your day, if those were the actual times.  Like everything else in the hospital, the doors to visitation opened when the nurses were ready for us, not when the times were printed on the door.  Always at least 15 minutes later, often much more.

But no one is able to factor that in.  Decide for yourself that there's no point in arriving until 10:15 and then have that be the day they would have let you in on time?  With such a short window?  That's a major guilt sandwich waiting to be eaten right there.  But you also know in that back of your mind that they aren't going to make you leave at the printed time either.  That, too, is left to whim.  That, too, is "hospital time."

And so, each time I would visit my father, I would ask, "Hey, did they do that swallow test?"  "No," he would say.  "But that was ordered two days ago!"  And then he would have another choking incident that night.  Or, "Have they had you stand up yet?"  "No."  And I would ask the nurse, because that, too, was a long-standing order.  "I think they were really busy today," she would say, "Because they haven't made it up here yet."

There are two ways I use to understand "hospital time."  The first is a time about four years ago when we had some major renovations done on our house.  We hired the contractor; he hired the subcontractors.  The theory behind that, other than ease for working people like us, is that a contractor will be able to coordinate the work of all of specific people--painters, countertop guys, floor refinishers, electricians, etc--to happen in the order that it needs to happen.  Well, it didn't work for us or for anyone else I know.  Our hardwood floors, which should have been the last thing, were finished while any number of workmen were traipsing through our house in dirt-covered boots.  And parts of the floor had to be redone as the result.  Workers would knock on the door at 7:30AM to do a job we either didn't know was happening at all or weren't expecting for days.  Other workers who were making incredible progress on, say, cabinets, would suddenly disappear for a week.  That's what a hospital runs like.  Except that the house, in this case, is someone's body.

If a hospital were a restaurant, the dessert would come before the entree, the appetizer would arrive at 2AM, the chef would tell you what was on the menu, but then another chef would stop by your table and suggest a completely different cuisine.  That ketchup that you needed for your french fries?  Well, it's never coming at all, even though someone has gone to get it.  You might get served your salad three straight times before you ever get your main meal.  You might be force fed a menu choice you didn't even expect.  A hospital is the restaurant where someone else does all of the ordering for you, and, if you're not careful, you might not ever get to leave the table.

Which is not just a larger metaphor.  My father, who paintakingly poured over the menu choices and circled what he wanted and turned the sheet in dutifully to the nurses never once got the food that he ordered the entire time that he was in the hospital.  But it was always on time.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Seriously, Weather Channel. Why Are You?

I will put it very, very bluntly: The Weather Channel has lost whatever purpose it once had, at least in Chattanooga, but, I suspect, all over the country.

It was a novel idea once.  A channel devoted strictly to weather.  And if you have elderly parents or grandparents, then you know that its original, slavish followers were that older set who make decisions for their entire extended families based on the weather.

This generation, and the succeeding generations who have aged themselves into it, suddenly had a way to see weather crises all over the country all at once, so that they could warn children not to come for Christmas or call up out of the blue with sage advice about possible tornadoes.  It is because of The Weather Channel that we all found it necessary to learn the difference between a "tornado watch" and a "tornado warning."  It was so we could fend off these WC acolytes.

But that was then.  Last Tuesday night, in what was probably the 50th such instance this year, I sat at a Rolling Stones concert in Atlanta, unable to get get into the pre-concert excitement because I was so worried about the weather.  The Weather Channel-based app on my phone told me that there was an 80-90% chance of thunderstorms during the show, and we were sitting, uncovered, exposed, high up in the Georgia Tech stadium, our umbrella having been confiscated at the entrance.  While others were watching the roadies getting the stage ready or the incessant crowd moving up and down the stairs in front of us, I could look only at the sky.  Which was darkening.

But it was darkening because it was nearly 9 o'clock at night, and whatever thunderstorms might have been coming were no longer in the picture.  When I checked my phone, it told me the same thing.  Storms that had held steady on my phone app all day, even for a day or so before, had suddenly disappeared from the app.  All of a sudden, skies would be clear for the entire show.

I took great comfort in this, but I don't really know why.  Because the app said so?  Because the network said so?

Days later, again for about the 50th time this year, the secretary in the office next to mine walked in and said, "I'd been wondering what that noise was.  Well, look, it's rain!"

"Rain," I said, "It isn't supposed to rain."  And I pulled out my phone to confirm that, yes, there was 0% chance of rain in Chattanooga as the two of us stood and watched a torrential downpour.

Now, I know Chattanooga is a difficult city in which to predict the weather.  It always has been, because of the mountains.  As a teacher, I have enjoyed any number of snow days when it never snowed.

But something has changed.  Really.  Sure, it has always been hard to predict whether a snow/rain front coming this way will be cold enough for snow and how much.  But something else has changed.  If you sit somewhere with your Weather Channel-based phone app and just watch it for awhile, it will alter before your eyes.  Days of rain are suddenly gone, temperatures are of by not just a few degrees, surprise storms sneak in.

This is not to criticize the channel.  I think it still meets its goal of scaring the shit out of the elderly with overhyped, potentially-terrifying weather events.  But if it does indeed have a secondary goal of giving people in the different parts of the country an indication of what will be happening in their area on any given day, then I think it fails miserably.

And I don't blame the channel.  Now, I know some of you cannot admit to global warming for political reasons or the simple need to save face, but, dude, things is different than they used to be.  They simply are.  And much as we all might like to embrace the conservative ethic and return to things as they once were, that ain't happens', at least not with the weather.

In case you aren't paying attention, our weather patterns are changing rapidly in ways that even professionals don't seem to be able to keep up with.  You don't believe me?  All you have to do isto check your phone and to watch predicted reality change itself many, many, many times each day.  And don't plan on planning anything.

If I'm wrong, it doesn't matter.  The Weather Channel still isn't doing you right, if you want to know how to plan your day.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Stings That Linger

I dab the Neosporin gingerly onto my bicep. Eight days after my initial encounter with our backyard Tracker Jackers, the five hornet stings are long gone, as is the shortness of breath, the hives, all the consequences of my clash with the insect world remain only in words and memories, the fodder for amusing stories at parties.

In fact, everything the hornets did to me was gone less than a day later. Given the right drugs, medical attention, and rest, even a moderately allergic body can recover from a losing battle with venom, and with surprising efficiency. The poison entered, and it ran its course, and it was gone.

The lesser scrape and burn area on my left forearm, while sensitive and red and in the itchy phase of healing, will soon be gone from sight. My bicep, on the other hand, might scar.

That bicep is the “ooh/ew what happened” conversation starter. Whether I have it covered by a large bandage or leave it to air out, it catches the eye of friends and acquaintances. I joke that it’s my trial run at a cool tattoo. (And seriously, that wound makes my muscles look totes bigger!)

It will heal slowly. The injury is in a sensitive spot, right where a T-shirt or short sleeves can rub against it. The pus has left ick-inducing stains on several shirts that I’m optimistic will wash off.

Stuck more than 20 feet in the air and under assault, that secondary injury is the result of my escape plan. It was, in the heat of the moment, my best of many bad options. Had I jumped, I might have sprained or broken something, possibly worse. Had I descended more carefully, more stings were certain.

The primary crisis, the Attack of the Hornets, is the centerpiece of the story. But it is the secondary injury, the wounds stemming from my escape efforts, that will linger and, if scarring comes, be a permanent part of my bodily record. The unintended consequences of trying to get away from the initial problem has become the bigger pain.

To be sure, I could have avoided all of the pain had I been more mindful of that tree house in the first place. Had I approached the structure more warily, more thoughtfully, neither the primary nor secondary injuries occur. But I had this fun idea in my head, and I didn’t much think that nature would dare interfere with my vision of how things ought to play out.

Once in the middle of a mess, there’s no easy way out. Any escape will include pain, or injury, or both. And it’s those injuries, not the primary stings and venoms, that will hurt worse, heal more slowly, and, quite possibly, scar us.

In most great science fiction and thriller films, the attention often goes to the supernatural creatures, the freaks of nature. The alien or the zombie. The invasion of some species or the threat of extinction. But the real antagonist, in the best films, is not the external threat but the human one. It’s our brother or sister. Our friend or colleague. Or the person looking back at us in a mirror.

The hornets didn’t do this to me.

You do it to yourself, it's true
and that's what really hurts.

Monday, June 8, 2015

A Social Experiment

Threw a party last Friday night for a couple who are leaving, and tried something a little different for me.  I didn't drink.  For the entire party that I hosted, cooked for, performed at, I had not one sip of alcohol.

That may not be a big deal for you, but I like to drink at parties, especially ones that I am hosting where I know I'm not going anywhere.  But, more than that, by the time the party rolls around, I am usually so exhausted that I need a few beers as a pick-me-up to get me through.

But you can't just not drink, and neither could I.  That's the first thing I learned..  I went into my cupboard and found one of the ceramic mugs my parents received as a wedding present and put nothing but water in it.  I was able to walk around for a good amount of time, when, finally, a friend cornered me and said, "What are you drinking?"

"Water," I said.  And he gave me a confused look.

"I'm taking a break," I said.  And my wife came to my rescue and said, "He has so much to do with the food and the band and everything that he didn't feel like it."

This was a friend who decides what he is drinking at a party based on what everyone else is drinking. Once he saw I wasn't, he didn't.

The other time I got busted was when I was holding my chihuahua and sitting in a chair talking to one of my colleague's wife, and my dog leaned in and started drinking from my mug.  "And he didn't even ask permission," I said.

"What's in there?" She asked.

"Water," I said.  She, too seemed shocked.

My wife, who really doesn't drink but for the occasional beer or a Mint Julep during the Derby, says that when you don't drink at a party you are hosting, you find yourself serving and waiting on other people the whole night.  And, yes, that is kind of it, but not in a bad way, not like when we volunteered to serve at a school fundraiser and were treated like "the help," strangely invisible.

But my epiphany was a little different.  Or epiphanies, or, better put, the smallest of insights.  First, I had no moment during the evening when I wanted a beer, even when our band started to play, which has often been a source of some anxiety and requiring of some "liquid courage."  I also didn't play very well.  Related?  Who knows?

By that point, I wasn't even pretending to drink out of a mug.  I just filled up a glass with water whenever I felt like it.  Was that because once you get behind there is no point in trying to catch up?  I don't know. But it was an easy goal to accomplish, that of not drinking.  But I also couldn't gauge the flow of the party at all.  I couldn't tell who had been drinking what.  It was like I was onside looking in.  When what you are doing is collecting bottles and cleaning up, the party looks different.  Some conversations are impenetrable and you don't try.

In many ways, the party was much the same not drinking as it was drinking.  Fun and tiring. I told this to a friend.  "Not for me," he said.  "Just the opposite."

I do know that, for the first time, I was ready for the party to end before my guests were.  Usually, I like to sit in the dark and revisit the evening.  On Friday night, I just wanted to go to bed.  Which I did as soon as the stragglers were gone.

Why did I really do it?  Well, I guess I'm not saying.  As Iris Dement once sang, I'll just "let the mystery be."  Or, as Emerson once wrote, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."  I guess I can keep the, guessing for a night.  Maybe it was just for the writing of this post.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Maria's Justice

It is entirely possible, by my reckoning, that the best band to come out of the 80's was Lone Justice.  A California band that, like my beloved Jason and The Scorchers, straddled the line between rock and country long before words like "alt-country" or "Americana" had been invented, Lone Justice was hardly a band at all.  Lead singer Maria McKee and her guitarist were the core, and by the second major label album, even he was gone.

From time to time, I work my "10 Song Theory," wherein a band is judged by nothing more than its ten best songs.  When I sit here tonight and test my theory on Lone Justice, the results are pretty amazing--"East Of Eden," "I Found Love," "Shelter," "Dixie Storms," "You Are The Light," "Don't Toss Us Away," "Wheels," a scorching cover of "Working Man Blues," and the classics singles "Ways To Be Wicked" and "Sweet, Sweet Baby Mine."

The success of the songs rest, of course, on Maria McKee's voice.  Part country twang, part Mazzy Star reverb, part Janis Joplin, McKee's voice is high without being baby doll and strong enough to rip through the electric guitars backing her.

It also doesn't hurt to have friends in high places.  Lone Justice got to tour with U2; McKee acted as the sultry Southern siren on the video for Robbie Robertson's "Somewhere Down That Crazy River." To have Tom Petty toss "Ways To Be Wicked" their way is the kind of instant credibility that Stevie Nicks got with "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around."  It said, girl, you have the pipes to rock this.  Go from here.

Perhaps ironically, though, it is Steve Van Zandt, second guitarist from the E Street Band and the producer/songwriter who gave Southside Johnny a sustained career, who serves best as McKee's muse.  Moving from East Coast to West Coast by way of the Deep South, he pairs with McKee as her best songwriting partner and producer of the second album (which went criminally unnoticed).

Lone Justice's best song, for my ears, is "Sweet, Sweet Baby Mine," on which Van Zandt shares writing credits with McKee and the Heartbreaker's Benmont Tench, but it is Van Zandt's paws that are all over it both musically and lyrically, including the lead guitar wailing in the background.  His song allows McKee to explore that part of country that flirts with R+B.  The song could easily have New Jersey horns and a funny-looking Jersey guy singing it, but McKee owns the song, her syrupy Southern drawl pulling the song closer to Memphis or Muscle Shoals.

Van Zandt also co-wrote "I Found Love," from the second album, which should have been a hit and "Shelter," which was the band's highest-charting single.

But back to my assertion that Lone Justice was a great, perhaps the greatest, 80's band.  I wouldn't have said that then, probably, but I am saying it now.  And that despite the fact that McKee didn't pan out as a solo artist, either.  And that Lone Justice hardly registered, even in their prime.  So many musical supporters tried to will their success into being, but couldn't.

But the voice, when on a strange Sunday the idea of Lone Justice enters your head, has lost nothing to the 30 years since you first heard it.  It could have been iconic.  It could have been one of the central American voices had things been different--strong yet vulnerable, regional yet transcendent.  But it wasn't.

Except that the songs are still there.  And the songs, in the way that the best songs often do, have a timeless quality to them.  But for brief flourishes of instrumentation on a few of them, they have no connection to the 80's at all.  They sound like a girl in a small bar trying to make her way to a big stage and, even when getting there briefly, still singing for that intimate setting.  Lone Justice recorded Dylan, Haggard, Petty, Van Zandt, even traditional tunes, but they all sound like they were conceived and born by Maria McKee.  She's the one who does them justice.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Uncompromising and Aggressive Impatience

“It’s kind of like everyone complimenting Jenner while offline calling him a f**knut… why can’t we just be honest if we think he’s a f**knut?”

Caitlyn Jenner bum rushed our collective show with the public relations force of ten tsunamis.

A conservative-leaning friend sent this text in the days after the hype invaded America’s pop culture and news fronts. We had a brief text debate about her (and the coverage of her), with a kind of frankness that friends can express privately but cannot, in 2015, express openly.

Let me be very, very clear on my own personal opinion of Caitlyn Jenner: I mean her no harm. I wish her health, psychologically and otherwise. I do not pretend to fully understand her situation, but I want very much not to judge her for her struggle with identity. (NOTE: italic emphasis here is supremely important.)

On Facebook, and in the media, I (and others) felt this wave of aggressive, borderline pugilistic support of Caitlyn. The message, loud and clear and on heavy repeat, was this: “Support her, be OK with her, consider her a hero, or you are an evil caveman.”

This aggression was instant and unflinching. It started happening the minute the Vanity Fair cover began to make the rounds. It was sort of a continuation of the aggression that arrived with Jenner’s earlier TV interviews. Accept her, you closed-minded stupid backwater Americans. And if you have to think twice about it, or if you dare express a sliver of doubt or uncertainty, you are scum.

Meanwhile, I’m wondering who voted Caitlyn Jenner the queen of this cause. Who decided she was the best person to speak for, or represent, the transgender community, its struggles, its realities?

Why not, just for random example, Laura Jane Grace?

Can we be honest here? Can we admit that Bruce/Caitlyn has lived a life that is chock full of problems, many of which we know about only because this family has invited all curious bystanders to watch them as if they were zoo animals on an international stage?

Can we admit s/he has been a horrendous parent, horrendous with relationships in general? Can we be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that maybe her gender struggles explain some of it, but maybe that doesn’t explain all of it, and maybe it shouldn’t excuse all of her wrongs?

My fear -- and it’s grounded in history -- is that pop culture and the media is in a hurry to proclaim her a hero and an icon so that we can enjoy watching her fall off that pedestal in the not-too-distant future. There is nothing easier to predict, knowing what we know, than the inevitable collision of Caitlyn Jenner with a Really Bad Decision or Event. So now we just sit back and wait for it, drooling and ready to recalibrate our uncompromising and aggressive judgment.

Can we admit that her decision to become the focal point of yet another reality TV show deserves a moment’s pause? Is this the decision of a sane person? Is this decision about wanting to be a hero, in a selfless and healthy way, a Public Icon for the Struggle? Or is it the choice of an unstable narcissist who has managed to raise or be related to an entire culture of narcissists, whose family is practically synonymous with the modern American definition of narcissism? Is it simple greed with no concern about exploitation?

Or must any questioning of her or her decisions be passive-aggressive, cowardly ways of masking prejudice and hate? Increasingly it feels like this, that pausing over something socially controversial, to hold off on pronouncing one’s support or condemnation, to actively try not rushing to judgment, is being judged by our culture as a sign of small-mindedness or things unhealthy for our society.

We are so hungry to be Publicly Supportive and to Take A Stand (on social media and the Internets, mostly) that anyone who won’t rush there with us, with the same passion and volume as us, makes us feel challenged, or weak, or cowardly. And that makes us angry.

In a column by David Brooks about the troubling environment on college campuses, he writes, “Today’s campus activists are not only going after actual acts of discrimination — which is admirable. They are also going after incorrect thought — impiety and blasphemy.”

Is this exclusive to “(college) campus activists”? Or has it become far more endemic to our entire Wi-Fi-connected society? I fear the latter.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Tracker Jackers

I’m on a survivor’s high.

One minute I’m in the passenger seat, racing to the emergency room as I sink into some degree of anaphylactic shock, and the next I’m high on an IV of Benadryl and giddy at the blessing of being in pain but alive, in love with the old wrinkly nurse and doctor who are calmly injecting my body with various mystery substances and draping my out-of-body body with a blanket and asking if I’d like to change the channel on the TV I can’t focus on up on the wall.

I’m in pain, and trapped in the frailty of my human form, and overwhelmed with the strangest feeling of glee that I’m alive.

It all started with the Tracker Jackers.

My uncle, a generous handyman, surprised my son with the tree house last summer. He built it while the family was away at the beach. Some 20 feet up in a tree on the edge of our wooded backyard, if the design had a flaw, it’s in the steps. Steep. Narrow. In that dangerous nether-region between being steps and being a ladder, but looking too much like steps. For the feet of toddlers, this is no problem, but it can get tricky for teens and adults, who must descent backward to be safe.

On an overcast Sunday afternoon, I found myself hungry for a change of routine and perspective, so I decided to take my daughter’s Eno up into my son’s tree house and read The Boys in the Boat under the tarp as a storm dropped around us. And maybe I’d nap, too.

Eno around my neck like a shawl, I reached back to begin setting it up when I felt the first sting on the top of my skull. Instinctively, I reached up with my left hand and quickly felt the second sting on my knuckle. Then, another on my right forearm.

At that point, the world began to move in Matrix-esque bullet time. I knew I couldn’t jump safely, but I worried equally about the risk of too many additional stings. So I chose the third bad option of scurrying down the steps, quickly stumbling and sliding down the wooden handrail with my arm draped around it at the elbow, skin scraping off along the way.

For some reason, at the bottom, I stopped to chuckle.

Something about it all caught me funny. The idiocy of not thinking maybe there were might be a nest up in a mostly-unused tree house. The random urge to do something out of routine and thinking it wouldn’t have consequences.

And I thought of Tracker Jackers. I was up in a tree like Katniss in the first book. That's when they got her, too. It struck me as funny.

And then I casually sauntered back to the house to stir my wife, to inform her of my awkward situation -- four or five stings, hornets or wasps, maybe some splinters to boot -- and watched, woozily amused as she went into crisis management mode. Take this Benadryl. Sit down. Ice here here here and here. Where else is hurting? Can you breathe?

All the while, I’m thinking, “What an unexpected turn of events this all is,” and pondering matters such as karma and justice. And fairness.

Fifteen minutes later, as I continued insisting an ER trip was unnecessary, I noticed hives had exploded on every limb, on my neck, on my chest. Sorry honey, you’re right, we probably need to go to the ER.

We go. I’m amused as she drives our SUV like Hardcastle in that cheesy ‘80s show, touched that she honestly believes my life is at risk when I’m pretty sure it’s not but not sure enough to get too upset with her. And I’m wondering if the calm I feel is actually an acute panic attack or just my need to feel in control, because I know down deep, with certainty, that everything is going to be OK.

In fact, I said to her at one point, “I might eventually die in some random moronic way, but this won’t be it, not today.” Later I realized those would be really funny last words.

My wife knows how to get attention, so I was escorted to a room shortly after our arrival. I had fun feeling calm and polite with the nurse, thanking her as she worked the IV into my hand, as she informed me of the water, then the steroid, then the Benadryl, then some third thing I don’t remember because the Benadryl began making me really loopy.

I kept thinking of all those movies where the protagonist tells the injured person in distress not to fall asleep, not to close your eyes, so I sort of felt this urgency to stay awake and drunkenly alert.

But mostly I felt this deep wash of gratefulness.

Gratefulness for a wife, for that wife, for my wife, for the way she loves me and has given so much of herself to me.

Gratefulness for medicine, and medical professionals, who must save dozens or hundreds of people from anaphylactic shock and God-only-knows what else every day as I stress out over some update to a web site and as I agonizingly wordsmith some mass email to people.

Gratefulness to my uncle for that damn tree house.

Gratefulness to my urge to go up there and read, for an urge that allowed fate to sting me with those angry damn hornets instead of one of my three children, the ones far more likely to find themselves climbing up those tiny stirs on any given summer day.

I asked my wife to chronicle my Benadryl high. I wanted the moment captured, but she wasn’t amused. She found none of it funny. And she thought I was just being a jerk.

She took a single picture to shut me up. I woozily posted it on Facebook with a comment about being attacked by Tracker Jackers and the odds not being in my favor. It’s damn near the most popular thing I’ve ever posted. I don’t even want to think too hard about why, but it’s pretty funny regardless.

Five hours later, I was back home. I slept over 10 hours straight and woke up Monday feeling sore and woozy, but the gratefulness grew in strength.

I have no idea how long a survivor’s high lasts. I have no idea whether it’s some sign of a midlife crisis, or an overcorrection to a stretch of stress and panic from being surrounded by a seemingly endless torrent of tragedies, illnesses and trevails to friends and acquaintances.

All I know is I wish I felt so grateful all the time, that life would be somehow easier if I could cling to that gratitude, to the certainty of my appreciation for all those little and big blessings in our lives.

Monday, June 1, 2015

S.T.F.U.

We were having dinner with another couple the other night, and the wife was telling a story, a story that her husband probably didn't want her to tell.  She would start to tell part of it and then he would insert something, and she would look at him with some frustration and on it would go.  Eventually, he started to interrupt her again, but she talked over and, during a pause, leaned in to him and whispered, "S.T.F.U."

As in, "Shut the f%&k up!" if you don't travel in those linguistic circles.  I was the only one who heard it.

I was taken a little aback, not because I'm all that prudish, but because it surprised me coming from her.  Although I don't know her all that well, she has the reputation of a conservative, church-going, strait-laced, FOX-watching woman, and so, I didn't expect that to be a part of her vocabulary.

But I was more shocked that she said it all.  "Shut the f#*k up."  Quietly, mercilessly.  As an outside observer, I didn't think that he had done anything to merit that, but I don't know everything of the history of their day, or, that much, their marriage.

I just don't think that is something that one person in a cohabiting relationship of any kind says.  For the record, and I'm not trying trying to seize moral high ground here, I'm just letting you know where I'm coming from, I have never said that to my wife, never said, "f&^k you," never have called her a "bitch" or the more notorious "c-word."

That doesn't mean that I haven't thought it or that I have a pure mouth (those who know me know that I don't) or that I haven't said far more hurtful things.  But it does mean that I think we should draw a line.  It means I think we have an obligation to our spouse or significant other to show some restraint with the magic words that can cause things to escalate quickly and irrationally.

The things that we say that are intended to hurt and dismiss do not, in my experience, ever go away.  Instead, they chip away at the protections and civilities that we establish between us in order to carry on the difficult, never-the-same-day-twice work of a long term relationship.  Once we have told someone to "shut the f@$k up," there's a crack there that can't be repaired.

You can't tell someone to "S.T.F.U." and then retreat to a position of "Oh, I didn't really mean that" or "I don't know why I said that."  You said because that is exactly what you wanted to happen.  Stop interrupting, stop giving input, stop thinking that we're teasing here, stop thinking that I am at all interested in anything that you have to say.

And in public.  I'm sure she doesn't know that I heard it.  He didn't wince.  She said it in a level tone that implied that she found it perfectly acceptable to say.  As I recall, she even achieved the desired effect.  He didn't look at me to see if I'd heard, so we could make knowing eye contact.  No, everything just went on.  The story got told.  He was the "bad guy" in it.  Etc.

Maybe the problem is nothing to do with their relationship at all.  Maybe it is my perception.  Because I'm the one who can't shake it.  I'm the one who has that as the main memory of them now--of a man a little less strong than I thought he was, of a woman who is a little less nice.  And maybe I needed to be rocked a bit in my gender understanding of those two preconceptions.  But I am convinced that he would never have said it to her.