Monday, May 9, 2016

The Megabus

Megabus between Atlanta and Chattanooga advertises itself as the low cost alternative to services like Groome so when I found myself needing to retrieve a car in Chattanooga recently, I booked a one way $10 ticket on a Wednesday, got a ride to the MARTA station downtown from a colleague, and off I went.

All told, my fare was $17: ten buck base fee, and I figured, what the hell, I’ll go for the five dollar upgrade for a front seat on the upper deck to enjoy the elevated, expansive view of a road I’ve grown so familiar with that it’s like an old frenemy. Add two bucks for “processing fee” and there we go.

Recently Chattanooga nixed the Megabus service, citing unpleasant experiences with its patrons at places like Bones Sports Bar where, it’s claimed, Megabus riders would come and just stand under awnings and not buy drinks or wings and generally just exist without economic purchase. Evidently, the benefits of low cost transportation for the city’s poorest are outweighed by commercial sloth. Nobody can seem to find a suitable place to drop off passengers that won’t create a public nuisance.

I was one of three white people on my Megabus trip. I was also reading, for the first time, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a novel that, as an English teacher, I’ve certainly been familiar with for years, but one that I’ve never had the courage to read or teach. I’ve read other of her works (Jazz stands out as a particularly satisfying and accessible novel), but everything I’d heard about Beloved made me anxious: Faulknerian in its nonlinear plot complexity; brutal in its depictions of the slave experience; ponderous in its stylistic density. In the midst of teaching it to a group of talented seniors, I was only pages ahead of most of them on the syllabus.

Sitting on the front row, top level, of the Megabus, reading Beloved, and realizing that in all probability, most of my fellow riders had never heard of Toni Morrison and that I was further away from the experiences I was reading about than almost every other person on that bus--well, that confluence of circumstances messed with me and has kept me writing-paralyzed for weeks. I remember a scene in what I think was a Spike Lee joint in which two African American men riding a city bus were speculating that the reason that the windows on it were so large was intentional, to humiliate the passengers in front of other (white) people in their cars.

This piece I’m writing is a total wreck, an exercise in first drafting that will never birth itself as a fully formed child. But I’m shamed seeing the same post sitting on the BOTG page every time I log on, hoping or fearing that someone has posted something, anything, as a cure for the reproach staring me in the face for my inaction. Liberal white guilt, a Bernie Sanders awareness of this country’s economic injustice, lamentation for what’s happening in America’s mid sized cities, all have created a writer’s blockade of the first degree. Consider this my attempt to unclog the drain.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

"I Wish I Was Sober"

My love you should know
The best of me left hours ago

“I Wish I Was Sober,” the third song on Frightened Rabbit’s latest album, “Painting of a Panic Attack,” released on April 8, might well end up being my favorite song on what compares very favorably with the Frabbits' best albums, but it’s certainly the most immediately arresting. As is often the case with great artists and third songs.

Shove it right into my mouth and let me smolder
Fallout and the damage done
I can't unsink the things I've sunk
Still not giving up though
I wish that I was sober

If this were a country song on modern country radio, perhaps I wouldn’t give it so much credit, but I’m arrested by this song because it’s not about alcoholism, and it’s not about addiction. It’s just about getting drunk a little too often for your own good. And knowing it. And still doing it some more.

Like a blush of love, it hits me without warning
Long nights of getting lost
I walk beneath the bridge I don't know
I need a black suit for tomorrow, I'm in mourning

I’m halfway through the second season of Marvel’s bravest superhero storyline, “Daredevil” (on Netflix), and one thing has strangely stood out to me. I can’t recall another series that so comfortably shows its characters regularly drinking to excess without there being a secret plotline. As best I can tell, there’s no plan to turn these binge drinking scenes into the “Foggy Becomes an Alcoholic” storyline or “The Night of Matt Murdock’s Scandalous Drunken Hookup.”

The three central characters in Daredevil treat drinking much like most TV shows treated smoking for most of the 20th Century: as something normal adults do, perhaps a little too often, and even though they know it’s not always that great of an idea, because it’s kinda fun... until it’s not... and even then it's still kinda fun.

Maybe in 30 years we’ll look back at how cavalierly the protagonists in "Daredevil" imbibed in the way we now see those '50s smoking dads, blowing tar and chemicals into the faces of their young children or colleagues, filling whole rooms with their cancerous smog.

But I doubt it. Because it’s real. People drink too much all the time without destroying their lives, succumbing to addiction, crashing their cars or sleeping around on their loved ones.

Drinking most often hurts us in increments we can’t quite measure or appreciate, in measurements we forget before we wake up the next morning. Fiberglass cuts into our memory, our hearts, a primitive attempt at bloodletting as a source of healing.

My love you should know
The best of me left hours ago

I'm mesmerized by the yin and yang in those lines. The first reaction when you hear it or read it is that it's melancholy and sad. The best of you left hours ago. But, for many of the world’s casual drinkers, there’s something desperately necessary in pushing the best of ourselves away for a while.

Most of us spend our days -- and, with the increase of smartphone texts, emails, social media -- our evenings and weekends -- curating and polishing the best image of ourselves for the world around us. Most of us are desperate to get some distance from that polystyrene bastard, from that pathetic creature that swallows all those comments it wants to say but doesn’t because honesty has long been deemed a value best kept framed and mounted on a wall rather than wielded like a noble knight’s sword at the gate of the kingdom.

There are days when I come home from work and yank off my tie as if it were a noose, as if I had just spent a majority of my day slowly trying to hang myself. Do I drink myself into oblivion every night, or even once a week? Nope. Because that would be Wrong.

But do I yearn, on regular occasion, for that fourth or fifth beer, or that third stiff drink, to get me to a point where I don’t mind my mask falling off, hitting the floor with a thud, leaving me vulnerable and naked with my imperfect self? Hell yes. Because the best of me needs a break. He needs to get to sleep early, but the rest of me wants some of the night to itself.

Forgive me I can't speak straight
Forgive me I can't
Forgive me it's far too late

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The High Price of Choosing Life

In the past year, my wife and I are a single degree of separation from three young women who have found themselves with what many like to call “unwanted pregnancy.”

If my wife had a mutant power, it’s the power to draw those in dire straits and high-stress life circumstances to her like moths to a flame. Having trouble nursing a newborn (it’s often a lot harder than you’d think if you’ve never had to do it)? She spent years driving to friends’ and acquaintances’ houses at all hours to help a new mom, in tears. Going through a divorce, or dealing with any number of dysfunctional household problems like alcohol or infidelity? She’s on speed dial for people in these circumstances.

And in the case of young women we know who find themselves staring at a pregnancy stick and fearing the repercussions from parents, society, crappy unreliable lovers, or God, she’s often the first or second call. In two of the three recent situations, these girls -- none of them old enough to drink legally -- called my wife before they told their parent(s) or the boys responsible.

These three recent events have all gone different ways. One chose to keep the baby. One chose to abort. One is in the middle of the very complicated process of arranging for an adoption. If you think these stories are so simple as to think my wife celebrated the two who went to term and mourned for the lost baby, or if you think it's as simple as the opposite, you probably don't care to know, or understand, the complexities of the actual situations. Abusive boyfriends. Absentee fathers. Promising careers at the end of college. Unemployment. That particularly odd kind of Christian upbringing that feeds shame and dishonesty. Each girl has her own messy, complicated world to manage, and each girl is completely unprepared to manage yet one more life in that mix.

Here’s where I’m about to get political.

Adoption is ridiculously expensive. In fact, adopting through the standard American process is so expensive (and the process so burdensome) that a vast majority of the families I know who has adopted have gone overseas to do so.

The idea of abortion is horrifying and nauseating. I loathe it. It turns my stomach to the point where thinking, much less typing the word, leaves me weaker. But I don’t know many people -- I can’t think of a single person, myself included -- who is “pro choice” because they love abortions, or because they think they are a beautiful and welcome part of our natural world.

A lot of adoption experts and bloggers will tell you the high cost of adoption is an important and vital part of the deal. The cost and lengthy process weeds out the scumbags and is hardly any different, cost-wise, than having a child the “natural” way.

But if I were a Republican, if I were a conservative who believed abortion was one of the greatest evils the world could ever serve up…. Why wouldn’t I spend more of my time, energy and political capital trying to make the Best Available Abortion Alternative, adoption, a more efficient, affordable, accessible process?

Unfortunately, conservative anti-abortion citizens are, nine times out of 10, far more interested in stopping a perceived evil at all cost rather than working night and day to create and support as many viable -- and less “evil” -- alternatives as possible.

This is true with abortion, with drugs, with prostitution, with almost any of the proclaimed societal and moral ills in our midst.

Instead of drug treatment, incarceration. Instead of regulation and supervision, heightened penalties. Instead of education on options and choices, an insistence on abstinence and promise rings.

One Answer Fits All. Zero Tolerance. No Mercy.

You’ll find multitudes more energy and enthusiasm for laws making it harder and harder to get an abortion than you’ll ever find for making it easier to adopt, for making it easier to carry a baby to term and transfer it to someone more willing and capable of caring for it. How often have you ever heard a politician take a stance about making adoption more affordable, or easier?

To be fair, there are some churches and Christian ministries built around making it more possible for a woman with an unwanted pregnancy to be able to carry the baby to term, but these kinds of efforts should be the centerpiece of the “moral” stance, not the afterthought or side show.

We all know, and there’s not a doubt, that there are too many people having too many babies they either don’t want or aren’t really capable of raising well. If you get pregnant in Lubbock, Texas, you’re more than 300 miles from the nearest abortion clinic. There’s only one in the entire state of Kansas. Because of laws, and politicians, and years of hard, careful, holier-than-thou work.

Where’s that energy for making adoptions easier, and cheaper, and more efficient? The consequences of these “morality” laws is that more people who never wanted a child, who live lifestyles unfitting for children, have no choice but to have children, often with little to no support postpartum for raising (or affording) the child.

But nobody scores political points anymore for making something easier. Only for uncompromising values, quashing opponents, building walls, differentiating and obliterating enemies.

Monday, March 28, 2016

When the Crowes Flew Away

It would seem the Black Crowes have flown away and won’t be coming back. They’ve broken up before. They’ve reunited before. But I suspect they’re done for good this time.

I begrudgingly saw The Black Crowes in concert one time and one time only, around 2000, as they were touring with their By Your Side album. “Begrudgingly” because it’s tough to attend a concert for a band you really love when you know you’re not going to love the live version nearly as much as the studio versions that are captured and frozen in musical ember.

The Black Crowes are notorious for being a rock jam band in a rock pop band’s clothing, sneaking into the ears and hearts and consciences of innocent pop rock people like myself, hiding their love for meandering, ever-wandering concert performances with often tight and infectious songs that show great respect for ‘70s southern rock while carrying that brash torch of independence and cockiness into their own kind of sound.

Their concert wasn’t bad because they fell victim to the classic concert blunders -- out of tune, or wasted to the point of sloppiness, or revealed to be hack musicians protected by the careful janitorial work of studio production -- but because what they do in concert is, as all jam bands are, counter to what I enjoy in a good concert.

PLease understand, jam band aficionados, I am not mocking you or your preferences. We all like what we like. But for me, a jam band concert is that moment in Back to the Future where Marty McFly takes what is a rollicking good time on “Johnny B Goode” and turns it into some kind of freak performance where everyone in the audience stands paralyzed, mouths agape, unsure what they’re witnessing or why they’re supposed to like it.

Much like that simile, my own reaction might prove me an old fuddy duddy, or someone who fails to properly appreciate the kind of musical talent that lets a rock musician carry on for stretches in an homage to our jazz music heritage where none of us know exactly where we’re going yet the true musicians can figure out a way to get there anyway. Jam bands are Hansel and Gretel in the woods without bread crumbs, so confident and assured in their talent that they never feel lost.

As for me, I like my paths. I like directional signs. I often prefer pavement or at least some gravel that indicates a human has previously plotted a wise course.

When I think of The Black Crowes, I think of John Bender’s line to Claire Standish in The Breakfast Club, when he tells her that Claire is a fat girl’s name. “I’m not fat,” she says, rightly.

“Not at present, but I can really see you pushing maximum density. See I'm not sure if you know this, but there are two kinds of fat people: there's fat people that were born to be fat, and there's fat people that were once thin but became fat... so when you look at 'em you can sorta see that thin person inside.”

Jam bands are the fat Claire, substituting extra notes, longer licks, and endless ramblings for calories. And I feel far worse about people being prejudiced about weight than I do about live performances that feel and sound bloated. [SIDE NOTE: I imagine this is not unlike many music lovers I know who detest the “wall of sound” approach to production begun by Phil Spector that spawned band explosions from The Beach Boys and the Beatles to My Bloody Valentine and the entire (mostly forgettable) shoegazing era of alt-rock in the ‘90s.]

At their best on their records, the Black Crowes are making Ronda Rousey music, Ashley Graham music, stuff that has strength and heft but isn’t ashamed of it nor should it be. But it still has a beautiful form to be admired, respected and, in certain circumstances, feared.

For a great collection of “The 10 Best Black Crowes songs,” Ryan Leas at Stereogum got 7 out of 10 right on the nose and does a much better job than I could ever do of writing about them.

Rock -- true, great, electric guitar bass and drums-driven rock ‘n’ roll -- is the California of the United States of Modern Music, and we’re watching as the earthquakes of our taste have split this beautiful creature off, and it’s now beginning to drift away from us. The future of rock, ever iffy at best, looks more and more threatened with each legend’s death and each band’s break-up. It was probably, like all of our deaths, an inevitable thing. But more than any single human, more than even myself, the inevitability of its demise scares me beyond reason.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Siri, Why Aren't You A Better Person?

Siri is a terrible person. Just ask Sara Wachter-Boettcher, because Sara has hopped on the Outrage Train and aimed herself right at the heart of Siri and Apple and Tech. If you’ll permit me mansplaining for her, I’ll sum up her outrage (or, click the link above to read her words directly):
If you ask Siri for help in matters of sexual harassment, assault, or rape, Siri is going to prove herself a very bad friend, assistant and advisor. And that, people, is criminally unforgivable and a sign of how evil Tech Companies are.
Two very real concerns that I don’t believe are expressed in her very not-even-handed complaint here.

First, I would imagine that Apple and companies in similar circumstance put themselves at far greater risk of lawsuit — not to mention more harsh criticism — by attempting to do what is being demanded here. Can you imagine the outrage of Siri if Apple were to claim, or allow others to proclaim, that she can be used in moments of crisis or emergency yet failed to live up to that new level of expectation? Anything less than a 99.99% success rate on that feature is a failure. How long do you think it takes between Siri being designed for this kind of interaction and the class action lawsuit for every. single. time the device somehow fails to deliver acceptably on that promise? If you know anything about this country and lawsuits, you know the answer is “less time than it took you to ask Siri where the nearest gas station is.”

Second, I predict the list of “real life” scenarios Siri is not at present ready to respond to is mind-numbingly large and endless. And all of these are matters where some nuanced and delicate — to the point of being almost impossible — handling is absolutely, positively essential.

“Siri, why do some men like pictures of naked children?”
“Siri, what if I’m actually a woman in a man’s body?”
“Siri, should I get an abortion?”
“Siri, is someone in the hotel room next to me recording me?”
“Siri, my mommy hits me real hard. What should I do?”
"Siri, can I kill my boss/neighbor/wife without getting caught?"

Are we really going to judge Siri's effectiveness or importance on these examples? I’m not being glib or clever here. In fact, this is all very, very serious. Which is precisely why I don’t believe the answer is to go down the road of expecting a smartphone app with very limited artificial intelligence to provide any sort of meaningful balm or solution.

It’s a f*#king computer. It reigns supreme on retrieving granules of data from a beach of data. You need to find the nearest McDonald’s? You want to know what the #1 song in 1986 was? You want to know what times that new Cloverfield movie are showing? No problem. You wanna call a rape or suicide or child abuse hotline? No problem.

But it ain’t a therapist, or a consultant, or a friend. You want comfort? Support? Encouragement? That’s human. That requires a human. Or, at the least (for you anthropomorphizer pet lovers out there), a living organism. To allow yourself outrage about what Siri won’t do in moments of rape crisis is like being upset that Lassie wouldn’t know to help Timmy if he were being molested by his father. Lassie isn’t being a terrible dog; Lassie is just being a dog.

Except in this case, if Siri tries to help, Apple likely risks massive lawsuits if Siri fails to prove helpful enough in all circumstances at all times.

Welcome to humanity, Siri. You’re damned if you don’t, and likely double-damned if you try but don’t succeed. Trust me: you’re better of staying a collection of code in that phone. You're a terrible person. Enjoy not having to actually feel emotions based on their outrage when you let them down and don't even mean to.

Thursday, March 10, 2016


In about a week, I will be out from under paying both mortgage and rent for the first time since moving to Atlanta last July. To say that the economic stress has challenged the confidence that I initially had about making such a drastic life move would be putting it lightly. But here we are and while I don’t want to jinx things before the closing, it seems like all systems are go. Finally, in the words of Linda Loman, “it’s changing, Willy. I can feel it.”

The sale of our 1922 house will be a net loss for us; I bought the house when the market was hot and prices favored the seller and over a decade later, I’m selling it for not nearly enough much more than that, especially given the work it’s had. Cosmetically and structurally it’s vastly improved; the costs of the facelift and surgery didn’t come cheap, though, so we’ll pass it along to a new family and wish them and our former home well.

Today I live in a neighborhood, a bona fide neighborhood, for the first time in many years; it’s agreeable enough, our current landing spot. But Missionary Ridge, where our soon to be former home is located, was not a neighborhood, despite its having a neighborhood association. It’s a several mile long winding road with lovely vistas on both east and western sides, spotted with placards and canons commemorating a 150 year old Civil War battle that happened on its grounds.

But before I lived on Missionary Ridge, a non-neighborhood with the single worst neighbor in the history of neighbors—and the topic of a future blog—before then, I lived on a boarding school campus and had the single best next-door neighbor that I’m likely to ever know.

Troutking is one of BOTG’s longest readers, most frequent commenters, and part of the glue that keeps not only this online community but other communities thriving and happy. For years I lived next door to him in a campus house, a long, low slung tan rancher, with my two young daughters. And through the magic of the internets and my wife’s much more involved participation in them, I learned today that tomorrow is Trout’s birthday.

Here, then, in no particular order are my Top Ten Reasons That Trout Was The Best-Ever-To-Live-Next-Door-Neighbor.

10. For the season of my life when Wednesday Church at my house was a thing, he worshipped with astonishing regularity.

9. When one of my rescue dogs ate his trout fishing boots, he handled the situation with calm and grace, even though at that point I was simply his across the yard and not next-door neighbor, by leaving me a note alerting me that I might want to reign in the mutt.

8. My daughters came to know him as a surrogate Uncle.

7. Bruce. Getting into the Pit with Trout in Atlanta will go down as one of the transcendent moments of my life, musical or otherwise.

6. Chocolate Babka. And the fact that he let me bring cold cauliflower soup to one of his parties and didn’t totally hack on me.

5. Once he caught me peeing off the back deck in the middle of the night and didn’t make a thing about it.

4, In 2008, we watched Barack win the election in my den through tears and laughter and beers and a level of democratic enthusiasm that I wonder if I will ever experience again.

3. His music themed parties drew the largest crowds and from the most disparate demographics, bringing together the entire Land of Misfit Toys. He still throws them and has even added his own keyboard skills to the mix of what used to be single artist homages and trivia contest ragers.

2. Pants. Optional.

1. And once upon a time, when kittens were running rampant around our shared property, he played Kervorkian to my failed act of mercy. And then for years afterwards, replayed the story, enlarging it like just so many fish tales, but with a narrative precision that would make any detective investigating a decades old murder, proud.

Happy Birthday, pal. Rock on.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Whose Money Is It Anyway?

Anytime you visit a city with a good-sized population and, perhaps, even better weather, you are likely to also encounter a swelling homeless population.

My first night in San Francisco, I bought a copy of a homeless newspaper, got another guy a pack of cigarettes, and withdrew a small sum of cash for a third.  When I mentioned it to my colleagues the next day, they didn't really respond.  When I observed the locals walking from place to place the next day, they ignored the homeless all around them.

I am, I suppose, a sucker, an easy mark.

What if, I wonder, your money wasn't really yours?  What if you didn't actually "earn" most of it?  What if, instead, most of the paycheck that came your way each month was more the result of the good fortune of your upbringing coupled with the good fortune of your education in conjunction with solid nutrition and the good fortune of the myriad unknown circumstances that have contributed to your well-being, your personal growth mindset, and your stability?

What if most of the salary that came your way was the result of this comprehensive background rather than your performance on the job?  Would you, would we, be willing to ponder the plight of the homeless more deeply, to give more deeply?

I am well aware of the many arguments against this:

"They're just going to spend it on alcohol."
"There are plenty of places that they can go to get a free meal."
"There are all kinds of services in this city for them."
"I gave them some food once and they just threw it away."
"I'm tired of being hustled."

All may be true, who knows?  If someone asks us for money, does the giving of that money really hinge on our ability to discern what said money will be spent on?  Or, worse, should it hinge on our assessment of how much they actually "need" what we think they are going to spend it on?  

I like the way my brother-in-law handles this.  When he lived in San Diego, another obvious haven for the homeless, he makes it a point to carry around a stack of $1 bills so that he can easily support the multitude of requests for money that he gets and not be overwhelmed.  Yes, there is more he could do, but this does allow him to carry on an ongoing social relationship where both sides feel okay about the transaction.

I like the way my neighbor handles this.  Each Friday morning, he is part of a program at the Salvation Army where he and some other men provide biscuits, drinks, and Christian music for a regular crowd.  After the performance, he helps various "regulars" with some of their problems in navigating the complex system of services somewhat available to them.

Of course, what I'd really like to do, and yet do nothing about, are the long-term plight of the over 600,000 homeless that travel the United States each year in varying conditions of stability, health, and sanity.  It seems like a solvable problem, but I'm not seeking the solution.  I'm offering bandaids for deep wounds, perhaps fatal ones.

Like you, unless you have some hard and fast rule of refusal that you live by, I continue to dole out money sporadically, based on whatever whim or convenience of the moment--if I have change, I probably give it unless I need it, same with smaller bills, not as generous with larger ones.  I might stop for a person standing at an interstate exit ramp, but I might, just as likely, be frustrated by something completely unrelated and not want to be bothered.  

I think what keeps us from doing more for the homeless is that when we look in their eyes we see that we are not as good as we think we are.  Our dollar bills are buyouts for the conversations we seek to avoid.