Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Baseball Diaries, Redux

So, six years ago I wrote this guest blog for BOTG. I was reminded of it when, this morning, one of my colleagues, a young teacher who is my Mentor and also young enough to be my son, came into my room and told me that he had been asked to throw out the first pitch at our Atlanta school’s varsity baseball game this weekend.
            “It’s been years since I’ve thrown a pitch,” he said. And that line reminded me of a time, six years ago, when I had to do the same thing. 
             I know it’s a cheat to repurpose an old piece of writing, but it’s crunch time at work and Donald Trump is marching his way to destroying the party of Lincoln and I just happen to be teaching Death of a Salesman today in a new year, at a different school and it occurs to me that maybe I accepted Chris' invitation after all. 

The Baseball Diaries

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
                                                —Henry David Thoreau

The Woman: “You football or baseball?”
Biff: “Football.”
The Woman: “That’s me too.”
                                                —Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman

 A few weeks ago Chris, the varsity baseball coach at our school, came to me during a faculty meeting. “Hey,” he told me. “I have to talk to you about something.”  I like Chris but we’re not particularly close and the only time we ever have any conversations it’s about swapping a dorm duty. So when he found me later that morning, the last thing I expected him to say was:
            “I want you to throw out the opening pitch at the ballgame on Friday night. We’re celebrating the English department and since you’re the chairman, we want you to throw out the opening pitch.” Chris clearly thought this was an honor I’d relish. Chris clearly doesn’t know me.
            Some context here. I have not thrown a baseball in over 30 years. That’s not hyperbole; I really haven’t. Tennis balls to dogs, check. Nerf footballs to my daughters, check. Ping pong balls after they’ve rolled off the table and onto the ground, check, although it’s usually not really throwing so much as batting.
            Later that day, I found my friend, Hank, a colleague and former varsity baseball coach and asked him if he’d mind going down to the baseball field with me at some remote time of day or night when nobody was likely to be lurking about, and show me how to throw a pitch. Trooper that he is, he agreed. My father, a retired Episcopal priest of the first order was a man of many talents, but teaching his son the nuances of the athletic life was not among them. (He did teach me how to pour the perfect Chivas on the rocks, but that’s for another guest post, perhaps).
Preparing dinner that night for my daughters, I told Alex that this Friday she’d have to come with me to a McCallie baseball game since I had something I had to do.
“You don’t have to play, do you,?” she asked.
“Well, not exactly. I have to throw out the first pitch.”
She cocked her head, raised an eyebrow and, fully the tween, replied, “But Dad, you don’t know how to play. Are you sure you want to do that?”
In truth I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that, but at that point it was a done deal and there was no backing away. “Sure. It’ll be fun.”  She did not look convinced.
“I’m going to have to wear a hoodie and hide under it,” she told me.
“Well, I’m going to wear a T-shirt that says, ‘I’m Alex’s Dad!’”

I rarely make it through the night without waking up at some point between 3:12 and 4:42, but that night the usual suspects of anxiety—money, kids, the future—gave way to visions of me with a baseball. Ditto for the next three nights. One friend, Bob, emailed my department with news that he’d be bringing a speed gun to clock my throw; another colleague announced that he was bringing an iFlip so he could post the moment on YouTube. Students in the hall began greeting me during the day, patting me on the back and telling me that they couldn’t wait to see me pitch. Bob introducing me to a young man I’ve seen around campus but have never taught: “This is Nolan, he’s one of the most important people in your life right now. He’s your catcher.”
Meanwhile, Hank gave me an early morning pitching lesson on Wednesday. My throws went all over the place, only a few times crossing the plate. Into both dugouts, hopping the dirt, occasionally reaching within Hank’s general proximity so that he didn’t have to sprint to catch the ball. But only occasionally. Throughout it he assured me that I was doing just fine and I have never appreciated a lie more.
Friday afternoon. Alex and I are throwing the baseball in the empty lot behind the house. I notice that she has a really good throw—straight, hard, infinitely better than her Dad’s. She notices this, too.
“Gee, Dad, you’re not very good at this. I think you might get embarrassed out there. Do you want me to do it for you?”  She’s being kind, I think, in offering to spare me the indignity, but she’s also trying to spare herself. When I tell her no, that I want to do this, she seems amazed. I try to explain to her that I know I’m bad at this but that I’m good at lots of other things—cooking, gardening, teaching, being a friend and a dad—and that I don’t need to be good at everything.
“Besides, some of my students are excited that I’m going to do this and if it makes them laugh, that’ll be fun.” She doesn’t seem to understand.
Later that evening, I throw out the pitch. It hops in front of home plate, but comes closer than in my dreams I’d imagined it would. Alex didn’t even have to hide under a hoodie. The next week, several people will tell me that at least it was better than Obama’s. One of them is the pitcher but that’s because he hates the President and is happy to find reason to make a dig at him. The other is a colleague who, like me, likes the President, and sees her remarks as a way of offering solidarity and encouragement. 
When you’re ten, one of your main goals in life is to not look foolish in front of your peers, to avoid being caught being bad at something. Working with teenagers for the past 24 years, I think it’s true of them, as well. They’re not really children, they’re not really adults and in that paradoxical space in between, they are at once, self-conscious and guarded, self-forgetful and open. Alex’s words reminded me that this was the first time in the longest time that I could recall trying something that I wasn’t fairly certain I would succeed at. It surprised me a little and disappointed me more than that. Maybe it’s true of adults as well. That’s not how I want to spend the next thirty years of my life on Planet Earth and, thanks to Chris’ invitation, there’s the chance that I won’t. 
I don’t know if that’s what Thoreau means by “quiet desperation” but it’s in the ballpark.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Freedom of Choice? Or Fearful Oppression?

My two daughters looked at me like I had grown a rainbow horn in the middle of my forehead. Like I was an absolute, utter moron.

What had I said to them? This: “You would both be wise to seriously consider a college and career focus in science, math or engineering.” And they looked at me with annoyed disgust.

My words were a new take on the exact advice my father offered me when I was in high school and college (his focused on business and economics). I believe I condescendingly guffawed. My father shrugged and passively resigned himself as I spent his tuition money on majors in English and psychology -- (and not even a B.S., dammit!) -- instead of a willingness to give his suggestion even half of my college study time.

Why the hell would I study business or economics, the two things that seemed as if they made the world a less happy, less friendly, less decent place? Why would I dedicate my life to those things when I just learned how to write a sestina and learned about Milgram and Piaget?? He was looking at the check book, and I was looking into the SOUL!

There’s a storyline percolating out there that would suggest my daughters are the victims of an oppressive, patriarchal family or society that beats down their confidence, that makes them question their own abilities and potential in the STEM world, that pushes women away from such fields. Sorry, I’m not buying it. Not entirely, anyway.

Our girls attend an academically intense all-girls school that has recently worked its tail off to bring matters like entrepreneurialism and STEM areas into the spotlight. Their parents are reasonable center-left liberals who are in support of raising eventually-independent thinkers and doers. They have long been told that matters involving their bodies and their minds are ultimately choices they must make for themselves, not things a parent can dictate or control.

Surely they are no more oppressed in their STEM disgust than their father, whose reaction to a similar question about a similar matter was so very similar to their own, even as I enjoyed the benefits of growing up white and male and privileged (enough).

In my daughters and their friends, I see a lot of gifted and hardworking young women who simply aren’t interested in jumping on that bandwagon. Not all of them, but most. Do they know choosing STEM practically guarantees them financial security for the rest of their lives? Yeah, they’ve been told so a hundred times.

They also know kale is really, really healthy and good for you, but they don’t seem motivated to incorporate that into their regular diet. They like chicken nuggets too much.

Let’s flip the script. My honors poetry writing class had four males and eight females. My higher-up child development courses, and my favorite psych class ever, “Interpersonal Relationships,” was easily 75% female, probably more. The same was true with my wife’s education courses. Is this wrong? Have men been scared away from professions that require certain kinds of creativity, or from professions that involve feelings or human connections? Is there a secret Reverse Prejudice at play?

Or do we like what we like, some wild interplay of genetics, nurture within a family unit, and the expectations and pressures of the greater society around us?

My eldest daughter is keenly interested in psychology. My younger girl is interested in teaching… although as a courtesy to me she’s keeping physical therapy on her radar, because that’s sort of like a sciencey thing, and she’s a pleaser at heart. The elder is interested in what makes people tick, and the younger is interested in directly helping people, particularly children. They are interested, precisely, in the kinds of professions their parents were.

The reality of their interests and opportunities reflect what Christina Hoff Sommers has claimed is really happening with women in careers right now, and it’s just not as simple as sexism and oppression.

Is there sexism in the workplace? Absolutely. I’ve seen it, and I’ve had too many conversations with women who ran into it head-on. But when we strive to oversimplify what is in fact highly complex and nuanced -- say, a lack of women pursuing careers in STEM -- it’s like conducting heart surgery with a sledgehammer.

And that’s not the kind of scientific solution anyone should recommend.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Memories of Country Music Past

If Bob formed my musical tastes, and he certainly did, during my twenties and thirties and into my forties, I have to give a shout out to Billy for introducing me to power pop and pop country in my early forties. I pity the fool who has never benefitted from a Billy or a Bob mixed cd. You’ll discover one-off songs you’d never have even known existed, thematic strands that take you to new paths of auditory pleasure. On those rare occasions when my attempts at reciprocity were met with a props delayed text message, I took momentary pride.

So there was this Billy cd, made as a joint venture for a road trip. And one track with a really cool hook and, at that moment in my life, a relevant one in ways that, should you listen to the song, are not biographical, was this song called Red Light by David Nail. I played the hound out of that song, mostly when I was alone and in the car. But couldn’t find it with any Google search. Finally, I gave up and resigned myself to understanding that it was one of Billy’s random finds.

But I persisted. David Nail. Sometimes when that song came up on a playlist, I would search for him and for about a year, to no effect. But finally, either he scored a major record deal, or my Google searches improved, because I found that song and, surprisingly, a few of his cds that predated the one with the song that had captured my ear. I can’t remember the music site that we all subscribed to back in the day that gave us access to reasonably priced and wider range of mp3s than we could have found at the local Best Buy, but I downloaded, imperfectly, a bunch of his stuff.

I think that Billy had forgotten about that song, which is really no surprise; Billy is the musical equivalent of one those reality TV show West Virginia Hummel hoarders who gathers singers and bands with a ferocity that no mortal can keep up with. But I found the David Nail cd and bought it. More bluesy and jazzy than I had expected but still mostly mainstream country. When I met the woman who would become my wife, David Nail was a staple in my car’s cd player. Both accessible and worthy of multiple listens, his music ran under the radar of the radio and, therefore, made me feel less a country sellout than had I been listening to Keith Urban.

About a year later, I got tickets to the David Nail concert and what mostly struck me was how little the crowd actually moved. There were hundreds of people there, all standing in front of the stage, and almost nobody was dancing or even swaying. They were drinking and watching the stage, but it resembled the sort of audience you’d see watching one of those late night infomercials for some appliance that you might buy in installments of $19.95 over 4 months. And David Nail was doing a decent job of trying to engage the audience. The crowd just wasn’t, for whatever reason, all that engaged. A week earlier, Jason Isbell had played to entirely different effect.

I know that mainstream country has gotten a, deservedly, rotten rap on this blog and in the more discerning halls of musical criticism. Too many songs about drinking with friends, or getting your girl for a ride in your truck where you’ll go to some muddy road and drink, or forgetting that girl by drinking with another girl, or remembering one of your friends who died in Iraq while you’re lifting a toast with your friends who are still alive, all the while wishing that fallen soldier were still here. But tonight when a David Nail song crossed my Pandora list, it took me back, not unlike a taste of a Proustian cookie, to that moment half a decade ago when a friend’s playlist included a song that went on to bring me to this moment.

Monday, February 8, 2016

"You Don't Understand How Stories Get Written"

The highlight of my week last week was getting the surreal privilege of watching my 10-minute play, titled “Dia de los Muertos,” performed by actual people, in front of an actual audience.

The play was loosely inspired by my son coming home and insisting that we celebrate the Mexican holiday and remember my father in the process, and the humor and chaos that ensued from our awkward attempts at fulfilling that assignment.

Here are my three big discoveries from that expereince:

(1) It feels god-like, in a humorous rodentine kind of way, to write words that then dictate the actions and voices of a collection of free-thinking human beings who have chosen to follow your script. I wrote the words. They spoke them. They moved where they were instructed to move. They made gestures I described. There was this strange, uncomfortable feeling of power and control that flowed through me as I watched it play out.

(2) Writing a play inspired by a real event in your life exposes your soul a little bit. It’s like your soul walks out on that stage in a trenchcoat and flashes all the people sitting there in the audience, and those people wince and gasp and recoil or laugh or cry from being exposed to a nakedness they weren’t quite prepared to see before them. This wasn’t all bad, or all good. At moments it felt like a confessional. At others it felt like I’d shouted “Fire!” in the theater of my own mind with others sitting and watching me do it. But above everything else, it felt honest. Honest in dangerous ways.

(3) Plays based on truth become truth.

My play was strongly inspired by my son’s assignment. Yet it was still fiction. I removed key characters from the events. I wrote words no one ever said, or never said quite like I wrote them. I altered truths of the interactions, of people’s histories. I added other details where I thought they might make the scene funnier or more awkward or more efficiently truthful.

Yet, when it was over, my daughters noted how “scary” it was that I’d written something “so close to the truth” of what “actually” happened in our home.

And, just like that, the switch has already begun to flip. Just like that, our memories begin to adjust to create room for details not in our memories, but from the play. We begin to knit those additional fictions into the fabric of what happened. Suddenly, my mother is Archie Buniker. Suddenly, my father was far successful at expressing deep love through a single turn of phrase. Suddenly, we’re all clever or sincere in ways we don’t tend to be in real moments, not really.

It was upon realizing this that, what briefly felt god-like in a tiny way, began to feel like something else, too. Something almost a little bit like evil.

(Don’t worry. That feeling, too, has mostly passed.)


“It’s an absolute, absurd misunderstanding of how things get made to single out any particular story and say, ‘Why aren’t there this, that, or the other thing?’ It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how stories are written. So you have to start there and say, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ You don’t sit down and write a story and say, ‘I’m going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews, and a dog,’—right? That’s not how stories get written. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand anything about how stories get written and you don’t realize that the question you’re asking is idiotic.” -- Joel Coen

What little I know about the Coen Brothers, I love. I don’t know them in any deep or personal way, and I don’t always love their movies, but they seem to be, by most Hollywood standards, the kind of chaps who think at a different level, whose reality is based on something beyond the chase for a blockbuster or an Oscar. They’re weird. They have very particular visions, many of which I find engrossing, some of which I find unredemptively odd.

That their latest movie arrived at the perfect time to catch flack for the Academy’s current issues around race seems more like bad timing than anything else.

Yes, “Hail, Caesar” is very white. And… so the frick what?

Why should I dare apologize to anyone for my play not being “inclusive”? Why didn’t I write about the eccentricities and oddities of a minority family instead of the insensitivities of my own white background?

None of those questions are how stories get written.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Puppy Monkey Baby Night of Super Bowl Commercial Meh-ness

Admittedly, I've been spoiled.

As a lifelong Seattle Seahawks fan, the last two years lulled me into thinking that playing in the Super Bowl was somehow a right. Sports memories are short-lived and I would be wise to recall that before 2014, only once before did my team appear in the Big Game. Last year, the Seahawks' final, ill-fated play precipitated a rapid run for the door from all my friends even before the final seconds ticked off the clock.

This year I have, as they say, no real skin in the game. Sure, I would love to see Peyton conclude a storied career with a second championship victory. Wouldn't mind to see Cam humbled. But this year I think I'll finally pay closer attention to the ads which have most recently been an afterthought and one that I frequently missed on my way to a bathroom or snack or drink run. So tonight I'm going to focus on the ads: Here are my immediate impressions, unedited, as the game progresses..

CarFinder: Kevin Hart is funny. My daughter will, this week, be 16. I don't have a new car but I would like to own a helicopter. Her boyfriend is a nice LDS young man so I'm not so concerned. That's about it.

Mich Ultra: Lots of heavy breathing. Was it even an ad?

Snickers: Willem Defoe/Marilyn Monroe. Clever play on words.  I saw him in a wine shop once in SoHo. Willem, not Marilyn. He's short. Shorter than me. And wiry. Reminded me of Caitlin Jenner. In the commercial, not in my memory of the wine store.

Avocados from Mexico: I guess we're piggybacking on Star Wars but this one didn't make me want to make guac. And I made guac.

Hyundai: The bears. Just saw a matinee of The Revenant. Talking bears aren't funny to me. At all. Anymore. Used to be when I watched Yogi Bear on Saturday mornings.  Which I didn't much. Jeff Goldblum. I alway think of The Fly when I see him and never the Jurassic Park movies. Why did this ad strike me as really racist?

Mobile Strike: Arnold was a governor of the same state as Reagan. Trump is the leading candidate for the Republican nomination in New Hampshire. The world doesn't make sense to me.

Doritos: The first ad to make me laugh. Would have worked better for me if it were the Sweet Chili Doritos that baby was projectile birthing for. Those things are frapping addictive.

The Jungle Book trailer: Again? Another talking bear? They've not seen The Revenant, either.

Audi: The first pandering to a recently dead rock star. How long we have to wait for the Glenn Fry Zaxby ad?

Mountain Dew: Puppy Monkey Baby. What the hell? The flying monkeys from Wizard of Oz were cuddly little cocker spaniel puppies compared to those freaks of nature. I don't want to go to sleep tonight. Or ever.

Taco Bell: Tataki. Now we've had Star Wars and Star Trek. When will there be an homage to Guardians of the Galaxy?

Marmot: Meh. We used to have a ground hog, a member of the marmot family, living in our back yard. They're also known as Whistle Pigs or Land Beavers. I think that both of those names are more interesting marketing possibilities than Marmot, but what do I know. They looked like a cute couple, though. Happiness to their sheets.

Squarespace: Key and Peele have been instrumental to my satire unit the past few weeks so I'm willing to give them a pass, but this wasn't all that funny. Except that it reminded me of their Teacher Draft sketch.
And Key looked like Marshawn Lynch. Who is retiring. And who should have gotten the ball last year.

Buick: Football meets bridesmaids. I've never seen one of those convertible Buicks on the road. Guess that speaks to to the efficacy of that ad campaign.

Advil. Nuff said.

Acura: Made me realize that not every ad that runs during the Super Bowl is a Super Bowl Ad. I'm going to be more selective in my assessment. There are chicken nachos to attend to.

Skittles: Not sure I get Steven Tyler or ever have. He has a high, shrill voice and thick lips like Mick Jagger. But not like Othello. Second Othello reference. This ad should feature Marshawn. But Beast Mode never really talks so that could be an awkward campaign. Plus, I hear he's retiring. Marshawn, not Steven. Steven doesn't want want to retire because he doesn't want to miss a thing.

T-Mobile: Steve Harvey. Ok we get it, the whole pageant mistake. Miss Colombia. Seems too obvious. And why is Steve Harvey even a thing?

OIC: All across America there are Super Bowl parties filled with people who are eating lots of Mexican food and drinking beer and who have been looking forward to watching the funny funny ads and they get a black and white serious ad about a middle aged guy who has bowel issues and there's no irony attached. And no bears. I guarantee that constipation issue ads aren't going to result in a spike in that product, especially since so many viewers are eating beans. Plus, if you google OIC, you'll get the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. So that's confusing.

Prius: I don't want one. Now, less than ever.

Half Time: Seems to me there are more non-Super Bowl-Ad ads than usual. Has the marketing economic tipping point of the corporate 1% been exposed by a Bernie candidacy? I think not. Seems like there's just less originality. I miss that Darth Vader VW kid. Of course, the Volkswagen advertising budget probably isn't what it once was. 

Amazon Echo : I didn't really see all of it, but the Baldwin/Marino throw down was funny. Jason Schwartz has long hair. I don't know if that ad makes me want to buy that product, but I felt that this star-studded ad was one of the first real attempts at being a "Super Bowl" ad of the night.

Doritos: Ok, I loves me some dogs. I have had many of them. Have fostered dozens, maybe hundreds. Have been cited for running an illegal kennel. My first one was a Keeshond named Zack. Bob has one of my former impulse adoptions and has given him the best home of any dog in the history of dogs. But the lack of creativity about using dogs in these ads is appalling. There's no sentiment, not one moment that made me tear up. Where was the Marley and Me moment? The Where the Red Fern Grows moment?  Old Yeller?  It was not to be found and it should have been. These were some cute, but not adorably so, dogs. It's like none of these companies are going for the jugular. Like that bear in The Revenant. She went for the jugular. And the human back. And the neck. And every other human body part that has a vein in close proximity. But not a cute dog that inspires both sentiment and commerce at all.

Xifan: What the faxin?! That scary little red bastard love child of the Muppets and a mop ad is yet another acknowledgment that the audience that this show attracts has a demographic that needs bowel movement attention in ways that trouble me. So many bowel ads. I just joined AARP. Damn.

Heinz: FINALLY!  The Heinz ad!!!! WEINER DOGS running in the Montana Plains!  Now this is a repudiation of my previous dog post. Those dachshunds are both plentiful and athletic. I would have loved to have been in pre-production, putting on those little hot dog bun costumes on them. Most joyful ad of the night.

Honda: Again, those talking animals. Ugh. This time, sheep. It's like Babe, Pig in the City. Queen and sheep. Trying to really want to gear up to buy a new car. My 99 Camry is on its last leg. But not sure that the singing sheep are making me want to give up a 17 year old automobile in favor of a new Honda. Maybe I need to find a way to total my car by running into an elk and have insurance reward me. Then I'll do my happy dance. Not likely.

Budweiser and a couple of other brands that didn't make me stop and take notice. Ugh.

Jublia?!!: Toe nail fungus? Again? During the Super Bowl? That ad plays all the effing time! I get that athletes need this product, but do I really have to be faced with that creepy smiling big toe infected emoji? We're going down a long, slow rabbit hole of not so fun advertising-talking-around-the-water-cooler-the-next-day-vibe.

Kia Optima: Christopher Walken and his beige socks ad might just have redeemed the night for me. Advertising wise. He's just creepy enough and his voice, so distinctive, that I woke up from my commercial wasteland.

Budweiser: Helen Miren. I am putting away any snarky comments. Genius commercial. Although some of the British slang is likely to be lost on the Americans who drink Budweiser, the gravitas and ironic humor of that ad caught my attention. Bravo, Helen Miren. Bravo.

So. Fun evening. Peyton goes out with a win, which makes me happy. The guy needs to gin up for a run for the governor of Tennessee or at least the GM of the Titans, soon. On the other hand, the ads. Meh.

Next year, no ad blogging. Seahawks, baby.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Back With My Younger Self

An introductory piece by John, our new writer from Atlanta!

It’s pretty rare for me to go out on a weeknight anymore, but last night my wife and I went to see Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes in concert at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta. It felt sort of decadent, but when I mentioned to her on Sunday that he was playing the Variety, she got really animated. “It’s been over 20 years since I’ve seen him in New Hampshire!” She bought our tickets the next day.

I’ve always been a casual fan, always liked Southside Johnny when I heard him at a friend’s house or, quite a bit more rarely, on the radio. My introduction to him came, perhaps not surprisingly, through BoTG blogger, Bob. It was 1988 and I was in the midst of a pretty horrific breakup. About a week after I came home from work to discover an almost empty apartment (she and her father had come while I wasn’t there to clean the place out of our shared purchases) and a note that simply read, “Thanks for making all this as easy as possible”, Bob showed up with a six pack and a cassette entitled, The Catharsis Tape.

Southside Johnny’s “I Played the Fool” was on the B-side, I’m pretty sure, and an early track. These were the days when making a mixed tape was laborious work that forced you to dig through your vinyl collection and, at least when guys would make them for guy friends, gave the creator a chance to show off his musical tastes, originality, and versatility. (When guys would make them for girls, a whole other set of rules applied). Bob’s mixed tapes were notorious for showcasing up-tempo music, even when being designed for situations as lugubrious as a broken engagement.  Derek and the Dominos’ “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad” followed soon after.

But it was Little Steven’s “Forever,” another song on The Catharsis Tape, that came back to me last night in all its raucous glory. After opening up with “Angel Eyes”, Southside Johnny covered that song with an energy that no 68 year-old I know, besides a friend named Steve, possesses. Johnny owned that song and strutted across the stage like the slightly out of shape bastard love child of Joe Cocker and Mick Jagger. 

I mention his energy because it served as a sort of funhouse mirror to the crowd he performed for at the Variety—about 800 people, overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly between the ages of 47-70, and overwhelmingly white. It’s the first time since moving here that I’ve seen this sort of demographic anywhere else in Atlanta. The irony of the venue name was not lost on me. 

Although there is seating at The Variety--the red velvet kind ubiquitous to stand alone mid century movie houses, there’s also some space down front where about 150 people can stand comfortably. Looking around, I counted 8 women in that crowd in front of the stage and they were far and away the most animated dancers. The rest of us were middle-aged white guys and almost in unison (except that our rhythm was off) we did the one-leg-tapping-dance with the occasional fist pumping in the air at recognizable stanzas. It was in this moment that I had an uncomfortable confirmation of a truth mailed to me last week. I am officially getting old. Or older. It hardly matters.  

Too many of my routines include MSNBC and in the morning, in between watching an increasingly unlikeable Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinksi fawn over Donald Trump, there are the ads. I guess I’m the targeted demographic—middle age, middle class, mostly white male—because a significant percentage of the ad buys are for Cialis, Activia,, and Osphina.  Scanning the audience last night, I knew that I had found my people and it troubled me.  Last week I got an invitation from the AARP to join. I’m not sure how exactly they knew of my eligibility but it would appear that at 51, I’m a potential member of the club. And now, having sent in my $16 a year, I’m an actual member of the club. Although I’m skeptical that the portable insulated travel bag will ever arrive on my doorstep.

I live now in a professional world that tilts decidedly female. After having had only two departmental female colleagues in nearly three decades of teaching at my previous school, this year I have thirteen. I am one of 4 men.  I enjoy my colleagues a great deal and am learning from them different ways to run a classroom, other forms of assessment. But the world of women is a world that often feels foreign to me. I used to joke that I lived a schizophrenic life, spending all my days with boys and the evenings with all girls—two young daughters and two female dogs. Now my life is more blended.

 Last night, dancing to the music with my much more naturally rhythmic wife swaying to the band, I was back with my tribe and back with my younger self, back in the world of men. And for the first time in a long time, I felt at home. 

More Endings Than Beginnings

I broke up with fantasy football in 2015.

Such a silly thing, fantasy football. Why call it a "break-up"? Why not phrase it a new way: "I rediscovered huge swaths of time I had been bleeding out in daily and weekly chunks to a meaningless competitive endeavor amongst coworkers"?

Because it felt like a break-up is why.

There were colleagues I don't see often -- even though we work mere dozens of yards from one another daily, even though we regularly share the same lunch room -- whose relevance to my life was suddenly cut, the tether between us frayed. When I broke up with fantasy football, I broke up with half of these people, too.

I didn't break up with playing poker in 2015, but we're sort of seeing other people. We meet once a month or so to catch up on one another's life, see how things are panning out, but we're not as close as we used to be.

I used to stay up late nights with poker. We'd ring in the midnight hour, secretly, quietly in my computer room, hoping the sounds of chips clinking on the screen wouldn't wake the sleeping beings in my home. I'd visit poker once or twice a year in various casinos in Tunica, New Orleans, or even the mountains of North Carolina. I wouldn't leave her side for 10, 14, 17 hours at a stretch except to scarf down a quick meal or take a potty break.

It's not over, but I wonder if I can ever quite grow to love her like I once did, with a sort of ecstatic enthusiasm that comes from the cashier handing over hundreds of dollars more than you originally brought to the table, be it a real table or an online one.

I didn't break up with Bottom of the Glass in 2015, but I found myself increasingly asking where we're going with our relationship. Does anyone know we're even seeing one another, or care? Has watching our readers dwindle to a quarter of what it was in our peak crippled my drive? Do good writers allow such a petty thing to hinder them?

Finally, I broke up with Patty Griffin in 2015. Her latest, "Servant of Love," is the first album Patty has recorded, since I was handed the gift of her debut, "Living With Ghosts," that I didn't buy within days of its release.

Holy crap if you knew how hot our love sizzled for a decade, Patty and me, you'd appreciate what this breakup means, the kind of cold hole in the earth of my gut where once a small sun's worth of molten lava burned. When I'd get one of her albums, the day of its release, I would have the look of Ralphie ripping open his long-awaited Red Rider BB gun, my tongue licking all over my lips in excitement and lust, as if I could devour the notes as they emerged from my speakers.

I found myself listening to "Servant of Love" on Spotify several times, and telling Patty as it played, as I failed to work up my excitement, "It's not you, Patty my love. It's me. Something here doesn't work for me anymore."

The critics still love her. I still love what she has meant to me. And I respect, completely, that she doesn't owe me one more pleasing note the rest of her life. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people still love her with some slight one-off imitation of the love I had for her. I'm glad she's still making brilliant music. I'm sad it isn't making my heart melt like it once did. I know it's not her fault.

That's why it's a break-up. Because when something ends, but it doesn't end quite smoothly enough, things feel broken inside us.

And when things don't quite end, but they don't quite have the fire they once did, you keep looking around, hoping someone else will tell you when it's over, hoping the cardio device will show a flatline so the doctor can call the time and declare time of death and begin to mourn what is, at last, utterly and irretrievably lost.

What scares me about where I am in my life, in my middle age, is that I now spend more time watching things end than watching them begin. This isn't a Glass Half Empty observation. It's just reality.

More hobbies and pastimes and interests are falling by the wayside than I have time to replace with new ones.

More friends and loved ones are dying. Others move on to new locations, new jobs.

The core of my existence is still strong. The engine that moves me -- my family, my faith, my close friends -- continues to rev strong and shows no real sign of slowing. But what seems to be missing are those frilly fancy accouterments that make the walk of life a little more fun, a little prettier to behold, a little more unpredictable and capable of unexpected delight.

I'm hoping 2016 might offer me fewer break-ups and let-downs. I'm hoping I can find the drive in myself, the Indiana Jones inside me, willing to attack the adventure, to do whatever necessary to find a few more beginnings than the endings that inevitably find me.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Can't Get Me Out Of My Head

The rise of Donald Trump and his megalomania has also given rise to the term "narcissist" being tossed around liberally, casually, and carelessly.  While I have no doubt that Trump qualifies by any diagnosis or clinical definition, this is not about that.

What about the narcissists in our own lives?  There is no doubt that they are rampant among us.  (And there is no doubt, for those keeping score, that I am excluding myself by virtue of writing this post.).  The modern world, where no one wants to take responsibility for anything, can give rise to the notion that we are all narcissists, but that won't work.  Sure, there is a continuum, and we are all on it, but most of us not to the extreme that creates the label.

So how do you tell?  Well, I have one way of making that identification, and it may take a couple of stories to clarify it.

A friend of mine tells the story of a former boss who was leaving the office for the weekend.  My friend called out to him, "Have a great weekend."

His boss responded, "I will."

This past weekend, a coworker who I am not close to have a medical emergency incident that caused a lot of concern on a lot of people's parts.  I didn't get involved; I had other obligations to fulfill in that public setting, but he was taken off and, presumably, checked out, and, as I saw when I arrived at my car afterward, was driven home.

End of story, maybe, except that the next day, I thought I should check up on him, even though I do not know him well.  He was in crisis, we work together, and it seemed like the right hing to so.

So I sent him an email.  And I said, "________, I hope you are feeling better today."  And signed my name.

Here was his response, which came later in the day: "I am doing better. Honestly, I felt fine last night. I think it was just dehydration. I'm going to get checked tomorrow, and if possible.". 

Now, you may not see anything there.  You may think that is an appropriate response.  But it isn't.    A normal person would thank the person (me) for inquiring, especially given the lack of closeness between us.  And please be clear here: I did not need that response for some ego reason; I am simply pointing out what an average person would do.  Thanks for asking, Bob.

So if you look at the two stories, you see that neither person could get beyond himself and his own circumstances.  That's how you know that you are dealing with a narcissist.  There is no give and take.  There is no social contract.  It is simply. For that person, what is going on with me.

Back in the public arena, I hope it isn't difficult to see the same pattern in Trump. Validate me always.  That is expected.  And if you don't, I will bring a flamethrower to a knife fight.

What shall we do, you ask?  I'm sorry, but there is nothing that you can do.  The person in question is not going to change.  He or she cannot get out of his or her own head.  Ever.  So what we are really talking about is arming ourselves with awareness, that these seemingly-small behaviors are indicative of a large problem, one that if you try to engage in. Will lead to your banging your head against a wall incessantly.  So don't.  Acknowledge what you know, and move on.