Category Archives: Shaking My Head

Post #56: Out of Step, Out of Time

By now you’ve no doubt heard that the Boy Scouts of America, after a supposedly exhaustive conversation and study, has decided to uphold its policy of not allowing openly gay youth to serve as Scouts or openly gay adults to be affiliated with Scouting, either in a professional or mentor capacity.  In a free society, freedom also means the right to discriminate and the Boy Scouts have chosen to continue to do so.  This in spite of rapidly declining membership and the fact that organizations from 4-H to the Boys and Girls Club to the United States Armed Forces have changed their own policies to be more inclusive and tolerant and better reflect the modern world in which we find ourselves.  When you’re behind the US Military on inclusion, brother, you are behind.

There’s many things about this I don’t get.  Here’s one of them.  What sort of research exists that demonstrates that gay people aren’t equipped to be good mentors?  I mean, if they’re saying that “open and avowed homosexuals” can’t be affiliated with Scouts, what reason would exist other than them being suspect?  What other reason would exist other than the unsubstantiated belief that gays are pedophiles who can’t be trusted either around children or in conjunction with children’s growth and well being? Further, what research exists that says that gay children are more likely to be lewd or inappropriate or can’t be trusted around heterosexual children?  By disavowing them publicly and not allowing them to be part of their organization, Scout officials are telling us that the Boy Scouts stand for values outside of or out of step with those held by gay people. Even as these officials live in a country where there are openly gay public officials, teachers, and civic leaders.  Their children are taught math and science by gay people.  Their children read and analyze stories and poems by gay people.  These officials rock out in the car to music written by gays.  Watch television shows created by and starring gays.  Almost certainly have friends and relatives who are gay.  Trust gays with their money at banks.  Buy produce and foodstuffs from gays.  Cheer on gay athletes.  See action films by gay superstars.  They may not know it, but they do because one in ten people is gay.  You do the math.

To which the Boy Scouts reply by saying that they’re a private organization and can do what they want.  They’ll also argue that sexuality is not a part of scouting. They’ll tell you that the conversation isn’t relevant to the conversations being had in Boy Scouts.  They’ll tell you that their members are mostly under 12 and aren’t thinking about sexuality.  Except that they are.  Here’s what they’re thinking: gay people can’t be trusted and aren’t welcome in the environment where I am the fullest and most honorable expression of myself.  That’s what scouting is about.  Actualizing.  Becoming the person you want to be.  The Boy Scouts mission is “to prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes.”   It’s about citizenship and loyalty and bravery and thrift.  I want my sons to be loyal and brave and thrifty.  Unfortunately, they’ll have to learn these values from somewhere else, because unless the Boy Scouts have a sudden and humble policy shift, I’d never allow my sons to be scouts.  And probably not even then.  This is a bit sad to me.  But I’ll get over it.  We’ll just have to learn to tie knots on our own.

By the way, none of this is to imply that all scouts, or all those associated with scouting, are cruel homophobes.  Certainly not.  In fact, it’s a downer that all currently serving scouts and den leaders have to be burdened by and affiliated with all this.  Doubtless many scouts and den leaders don’t share the organization’s views on this issue, but feel compelled to be part of The Boy Scouts anyway.  Doubtless many of them don’t think about it much.  They just want to go camping and wear a lot of beige while learning how to build a four hour campfire.

In an op-ed piece in the NY Times right after this decision, Bob Mazzuca and Wayne Perry (respectively the chief scout executive and national president of the organization) wrote “our role is to equip young people with life skills so one day, they can make their own decisions…we teach our members to treat those with different opinions with courtesy and respect at all times and to adamantly oppose the mistreatment of others based on any perceived difference.”  What a relief it was for me to learn that open discrimination against gays doesn’t qualify as “mistreatment.”  And that one can discriminate while also adamantly opposing “mistreatment.”  This is sad double speak that deserves a smack down.  Allow me.

It’s naive and weak to pretend that you can be respectful and courteous to those you openly revile.  It’s the same as me smiling at my gay neighbor and loaning him a cup of sugar when he asks, then calling him a fag when I go back inside my house.  And then telling my children not to trust fags.  And then going back outside and smiling and waving again as my gay neighbor mows his lawn.  What?  I was courteous.  I was respectful.  I loaned the guy a cup of sugar!

Except that isn’t courtesy.  That isn’t respect.  It’s two faced hypocrisy masquerading as courtesy and respect.  What’s in your heart matters and the Boy Scouts have clearly shown us what is in theirs.  Gays are suspect.  They are bad.  They are not welcome in our character building operation because they have no character.

The Boy Scouts are a private organization.  They can do what they want.  And clearly they don’t care what anyone on the other side of this thinks.  Which will serve them well as they fade and become ever less relevant to modern children growing up in a world where tolerance is something to stand for, not against.

Post #55: Home Ownership Vs. Braveheart

Last night I was safely ensconced in my air conditioned bedroom, cold beer in hand, recently started epic action on the tube (Braveheart) when the heavy rain started.  I cursed it.  I’d started the long movie early on purpose so I’d have time to watch it all.  The storm began with distant thunder, then elbows of sudden lightning through the window, then the inevitable deluge.  I happen to live in an old house, which means my basement frequently takes on water in heavy rain or rapid thaw.  Not up to your knees or anything, just a nice soppy gloss.  I’ve tried in my own male I-can-do-anything kind of way to solve this problem.  Just give me some sandbags and a forty pound bag of Quick-Rete and I can do anything.  Or not.

See, my backyard patio slopes in a bit and creates a nice place for water to pool.  When it rains really hard, you could turn the left half of my slate patio into a coy pond for about an hour.   If you’re water, you don’t want to be contained by some sucker’s back yard.  You want to go places.  So you look for the nearest outlet, which in this case happens to be under the bulkhead door, down a short hallway, and into my basement.

Upstairs in the air conditioning, I paused Braveheart, muttering woe-is-me curses under my breath, then tiptoed into the basement, quite certain what I would find.  Only it was worse.  Water was cascading into the basement from underneath the bulkhead door at an alarming rate.  Just ripping through in small angry tides, breaching every available opening in tiny white caps.  Mice could have windsurfed on this shit.  There was so much water I kept imagining that there was a lake or dam on the other side and that if I opened the door to see where the water was coming in, I, my sleeping children, and the whole house would be washed away like so many Lincoln Logs.  I briefly thought of my beer upstairs.  Of the epic Scottish ass-kickers about to do battle with those oppressive English fucks, thinking, man, you have to be some kind of bad ass to fight in a kilt.  Then I started furiously bailing water from my basement floor into a tall plastic brew bucket, then lugging the full bucket up the stairs and dumping it into the sink.  I did this until my back literally grew a mouth and told me to stop it before I hurt myself.

If you’ve ever done this, and you probably have, you can summon emotional links to my helplessness.  The feeling of scooping up water at a far slower rate than it’s arriving.  There’s nothing quite so sad as a man fighting nature alone and losing badly.  But as Hemingway instructed, a middle aged homeowner can be destroyed, but not defeated.

Eventually, I realized I was doing absolutely no good bailing.  My only chance was to stem the tide from outside.  From the source.  So I ventured out into the pouring rain and hauled some sandbags out of the garage and pinned them where the patio meets the bulkhead.  I was shirtless by this point; there was a flashlight pinned under my arm.  It was pretty bad ass, actually, and though I wasn’t quite Mel Gibson, in my own mind the whole thing was heroic and cinematic.  Even better, the sandbags did the trick.  Then I spent an hour back in the basement mopping up the rest and reveling in the hidden glories and hard won victories of home ownership, having long stopped thinking I was going to get back to Braveheart, thinking, William Wallace was a pussy.

 

Post #53: Pre-Order Purgatory

I have to vent for a minute about the sudden (or so it seems to me) availability to pre-order forthcoming whatever.  Books, music, movies.  You can buy anything in advance these days.  Let’s say you do some searching to see what’s new out there.  Whatever purveyor you’ve searched (iTunes, Amazon, etc…) will tell you not only what is available, but they’ll show you what’s not available, or what you can pre-order.  And sometimes they won’t even delineate between the two in any obvious way.  This annoys me.  Now, I like knowing what will be available, this gives me something to look forward to, but do I need to know six months in advance?  And it begs the question, why would you buy something that you can’t even have?  I’m a Coldplay fan and I remember that for months before their new album Mylo Xyloto came out, it dominated the iTunes charts.  Was far outselling the bestselling available album of the moment.  This is weird to me.  I mean, there’s no limited supply.  They’re not going to run out of downloads, are they?  Not to mention, if you’re enough of a Coldplay fan to even consider pre-ordering, you’re not going to forget that they have an album coming out, so why not just buy it when you can actually listen to it?

A couple months ago I was looking at Michael Chabon titles on Amazon because I’m a loser and its what I do for fun and my eyes popped out of their sockets when I saw the colorful icon for his new novel Telegraph Avenue.  Breathless, wetting myself (not really), I clicked on the icon, which gave no indication that this title might not be available for purchase right his very second, then waited to click “Buy Now” only to find out that “this title is available for pre-order and will be released on September 11, 2012.” And this was a couple months ago, which means they were advertising this book for pre-order six months before it comes out.  What the hell?  Why do I need to know this far in advance?  Why torture me?  It’s not like they’re offering me the first five chapters for pre-ordering or something, so there’s basically zero incentive.  Occasionally with album pre-orders, you get the single ahead of time or the album will automatically download when it’s finally available, so that’s pretty cool I guess.  Or not.  We’re already the most advanced buying culture the world has ever seen, and now we don’t just buy what we want, we buy what we are going to want as well.  And it works.  If pre-orders didn’t get people to buy more, Amazon and iTunes wouldn’t offer so many of them.  It’s fairly simple.  It’s like, want better TV shows?  Stop watching shitty ones.  Want a less gossipy culture?  Stop reading Yahoo OMG and TMZ.

It’s like those tantalizing previews for the juicy looking upcoming blockbuster, a preview for which just started and you now can’t wait to see, only at the end of the preview you find out that its release date is a year and a half away.  So far away that you could be dead by the time it hits theaters.  When this happens, I don’t feel excited.  I feel deflated.  I feel like Ralphie from A Christmas Story.  You know the part, when he finally solves the Little Orphan Annie Decoder Ring mystery and he’s so stoked, only that instead of finding out a worthwhile secret to justify his time and effort and live up to the anticipation, it’s just a reminder to drink his stupid Ovaltine.

His response?  Say it with me…

Son of a bitch.

Post #37: Heavy Hearted

Heavy hearted this week.

A teacher from St. Johnsbury, Vermont named Melissa Jenkins was lured from her house last Sunday night when the guy who used to snow plow her driveway called her out of the blue and said he and his wife were having car trouble just down the street.  He asked for her help.  Melissa felt suspicious enough to call a friend and tell him where she and her two year old son were going, and left the snow plower’s business card on her kitchen counter.  Shortly after she arrived to help, the snow plower strangled her to death.  Her two year old saw everything and later gave information to the police saying he heard his mother scream and saw a man pull on her neck.  The couple put Jenkins’s body in the back of their car and drove it to their trailer where they stripped her, poured bleach on her, then bound her and dumped her body in a river, weighed down by rocks and covered by brush.   Condoms and wrappers were found nearby but the police have not yet said whether or not Melissa was sexually assaulted.  Fortunately, the murderers have been caught.

I’ve felt amazingly rattled by this.  It’s given me nightmares.  Left me sick to my stomach and shaking my head as I try to break the images free but can’t.  Like me and my wife, Melissa was a teacher and had a young son.  She was about our age.  I have a friend who knew her pretty well and used to car pool with her to a summer class.  Like my friend, Melissa was a single mom.

The world asks us to understand things we can’t possibly understand.

And then there’s the on-going Trayvon Martin tragedy from Florida and the constant revelations and double talk accompanying the debate about what happened the day he crossed through a gated community with a bag of Skittles wearing a hoodie and somehow ended up shot to death by an over zealous neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman, who we are now learning had a history of violence and aggression, even as we learn also that Martin had his own troubles and had thrice been suspended from school, both their images becoming obscured and distorted and manipulated in ways we don’t fully comprehend or understand.  Because of Florida’s controversial self-defense laws, Zimmerman still hasn’t been arrested, even as the local chief of police has stepped down in disgrace.

I don’t know that we’ll ever know the full truth about what happened that day.  The only credible witness so far is Zimmerman himself and he’s already lied his ass off, first saying Martin attacked him and bashed his head into the sidewalk and spilt his lip, information which the original police reports corroborated.  Then, a few days ago, a police surveillance camera from that night shows Zimmerman looking unharmed, free of the injuries he claimed he got in his “scuffle” with Martin.  Zimmerman lied and it would appear the police helped him.

A young black man wearing a hoodie.  A hoodie which has now become synonymous with the kind of racial profiling people of color have been enduring for hundreds of years.

I don’t want to oversimplify this.  I think it’s likely Martin’s death was racially motivated, but so far we don’t know that for sure.  What we do know is he was a young black man in a hoodie and that Zimmerman told 911 he looked “suspicious” and that he was going to follow him, even as 911 told him not to.   Martin was gearing up to watch the NBA All Star Game and had walked to a convenience store to buy a bag of Skittles to mark the occasion.  He was on the phone with his girlfriend at the time his encounter with Zimmerman began.

Skittles.  Girlfriend.  NBA All Star Game.  Sounds like this kid was really looking for trouble.

And yet, as angry as I feel about this, and ashamed, and terribly saddened, I’m equally terrified of over simplifying this and making decisions without knowing all the information.  Isn’t that why we have courts of law?  After all, Zimmerman himself was of mixed heritage and his friends and relatives all say he wasn’t racist.  Does their word mean nothing?  I don’t know.  Zimmerman, for his part, has already been caught in his own lies.  He’s already guilty in our hearts, guilty enough that what “actually” happened that day matters less and less, even if it eventually goes to court, which of course it absolutely needs to.  Has to.

I don’t know what to make of all this.  My gut speaks.  I listen.  I know what I’ve  heard and seen and feel.  Mostly what I feel.  I see the looks on the faces of my black students when the subject is brought up.  I see my black friend’s suppressed anger, the choked desire to do something.  I hear a tiny and unpopular chorus coming to Zimmerman’s defense, urging people to respect due process.  I hear Geraldo saying that anyone of color wearing a hoodie is looking for trouble and that they should know better.  I feel myself reacting, thinking did he really just fucking say that?

Man.

All we really know for sure is that Travon Martin is dead.

And like the death of Melissa Jenkins, the fact is a heavy burden.

Post #32: Why We Watch (The Jeremy Lin Show)

There’s often good cause to question our culture’s obsession with sports.  Large chunks of it are dedicated to discussing, debating, observing, coddling, and paying for games while there are vastly more important issues (you know, like, say, poverty) who receive so much less face time relevant to their actual importance in our country that it’s downright embarrassing.  111.3 million people tuned in for the Superbowl this year, yet one in every two Americans doesn’t exercise his right to vote.  We’ve been at war in Afghanistan and hardly anybody talks about it.  The achievement gap between rich and poor students has widened recently, yet education funding is stagnant and we’re mired in a defeatist testing culture that prizes equality over equity and ignores the needs of individuals.  Many of us know this–we do, and not just sort of, we really know it–and continue to obsess over something more trivial like professional athletics.  Why?

It’s complicated.  Entertainment, one.  The simple pleasure of watching great athletes, two.  A break from lives that are legitimately busy and near overwhelming in their demands, three.  In the context of this post, none of these reasons seems all that impressive.  Sorry poor students, I’d rather watch Rajon Rondo and the Celtics than think about you anymore today.  Not quite, but kind of, right?

But the recent ascendency of Knick’s point guard Jeremy Lin provides an unexpected answer that, while it may not totally satisfy, is well worth considering.

Jeremy Lin–the story of Lin, I mean–argues for the relevance and necessity for sports in our culture.  Granted, the way the culture has rallied around and uplifted Lin in the past two weeks is frightening in scale and one can’t help but begin looking down to see how far the fall is going to be, but regardless of whether Lin continues performing magic, defying skeptics, and winning basketball games, his story, and what his story makes us think about, is important.

Lin received no athletic scholarships to college. Went un-drafted out of Harvard.  After being cut by the Golden State Warriors earlier this year, Lin was picked up by the Knicks, played a whopping five minutes during pre-season, before being sent down to play for the D League’s Erie Bay Hawks. The D League people.  You ever seen a D League basketball game?  I didn’t think so.  It’s where basketball players go to die.  After putting up a triple double with the Bay Hawks, Lin was quickly recalled by the Knicks, who must have realized their mistake.  Even still, he was the Knicks third string point guard.  A notch above the water boy.  Lin said he was “competing for a backup spot, and people see me as the 12th to 15th guy on the roster. It’s a numbers game.”

At this point we’d assume that the Knicks saw something incredibly special in Lin and made him their point guard to show his stuff.  Wrong.  Lin only got the chance to play at all because all the other point guards were either injured or setting new standards for shitty play at the point guard position.  Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni even admitted “He got lucky because we were playing so bad.”

Lin made the most of that chance, then the next one, then the next one, and the one after that, putting up silly numbers and displaying late game heroics that have sports writers digging out their thesaurus.  People have been wondering how Lin will co-exist with Knicks star Carmelo Anthony when he comes back from injury.  Two weeks into the saga of Jeremy Lin, a reporter asked D’Antoni who would take the big shots at the end of games, Lin or Anthony.  D’Antoni said he honestly didn’t know.   This is the equivalent of asking the Giants coach who would be leading the Giants up field at the end of the Super Bowl with the game on the line, Eli Manning or back-up David Carr and the coach having to wait a long as beat before responding.

Meaning, it’s unlikely to the point of laughable.

But it’s happening.

After Lin lit up the Lakers for 38 points and outplayed Kobe Bryant (probably the fourth or fifth greatest player of all time), Bryant was complimentary and deferential, “players playing that well don’t usually come out of nowhere,” he said.  “It seems like they come out of nowhere, but if you can go back and take a look, his skill level was probably there from the beginning. It probably just went unnoticed.”  It’s a great quote because it speaks to something valuable to consider when considering Lin.  The role timing, opportunity, and effort play in relation to raw ability.

Lin’s raw ability is obviously sufficient to warrant an NBA contract, which means he’s a very, very good basketball player; however, his raw talent was no where near sufficient enough to earn him an athletic scholarship out of high school or an entry into the NBA draft, let alone a starting point guard position.

And by the way, what kept this kid going when everything around him wasn’t supporting his decision to be a pro basketball player?

So if this guy isn’t that great, how did he end up being so great?  The story is young and who knows what the rest of the season holds for Lin and the Knicks, but for me, the coolest thing that Lin’s story offers and why I think it argues for the relevance of sports is that it’s been Lin’s effort, timing, and confidence that we should be inspired by, not his raw talent.  Kobe’s right…this guy was good all along, but for whatever reason was denied the chance to show it, or didn’t show it when he was given the chance.  The basketball apparatus told this guy to stop.  Didn’t give him money.  Didn’t draft him.  He played anyway.  I don’t exactly know why.

But I do know that as a writer whose been at it a long time and is still waiting to break through, I take heart in the way Lin just seemed to say, fuck it, I’m playing basketball and when the time comes, I’ll be ready.

Why?  Because it’s what I do.  It’s who I am.

Rock on, Jeremy Lin.

Post #28: Completion Issues

So I used to be the kind of person who labored through whatever he was reading, determined to reach the end.  Finishing was important to me then.

Cue the cute girl who changed my point of view merely by suggesting an alternative.  Cute girls are good at changing lives without really meaning to.  Let’s call her…oh, I don’t know, Amelia.  A fellow bibliophile, she suggested that she had no trouble putting down a book she wasn’t enjoying and declared with a whip of her radiant blonde hair, “life’s too fucking short, man.”

And dammit, I agreed.

It wasn’t just because she was cute.  Or that I was drinking wine.  I genuinely agreed with what she was saying.  And still do.  She was right.  After all, wasn’t life too short to labor through a book that was annoying or boring you or not going anywhere?  So I started putting books down when I stopped liking them.   Not all the time.  Just once in a while.  And for years this practice served me well.  I spared myself the stinkers and racked up far more winners than I otherwise would have.

But now I can’t stop…stopping.  I have a problem.

To illustrate, I just spent five minutes walking around my house and making a list of the all the books currently in various stages of completion:

1. Giving Good Weight 

2. It 

3. Moby Dick

4. The United States of Arugula

5. One Hundred Years of Solitude

6. Falconer

7. The Ugliest House in the World

8. Game of Thrones

9. The Pale King

10. Mad Men and Philosophy

11. Crazy for the Storm

12. Service Included

13. Man in the Dark

14. The Passage

15. When the Killing’s Done 

16. Pillars of the Earth

17. Infinite Jest

You’re probably sitting there wondering what the hell is wrong with me.  There’s a lot of books on that list.  And some great ones.

What’s changed over the years, I think, is that it used to be that I stopped reading books when I stopped liking them.  And that’s certainly the case of some of the victims listed above.  But a good deal of the books on the list (Man in the Dark, When the Killing’s Done, Game of Thrones–just to name three) I was enjoying quite a bit and stopped reading anyway because something else caught my eye.  One of the them (It), I was no less than six hundred pages into and was wholly enthralled by and it was totally owning me and I can’t even remember why I stopped reading it.  It’s just sitting there on the bookshelf staring at me sadly, wondering what it did wrong and how it might re-gain my affection.

A more disturbing trend emerges when I look even closer.  There’s a lot of long books on my didn’t finish list.  Infinite Jest, Pillars of the Earth, It, Game of Thrones, The Passage, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Moby Dick are all of substantial length.  A few are over eight hundred pages.   And don’t think I can’t read long books.  You’re looking at a guy who’s read some door stops.  Hell, I just read Stephen King’s new book, which tops out at a cool 850 pages, in about ten days and didn’t balk at the length even once.  Okay, I balked once.

So what the hell gives here?  Is it my iphone?  My abuse of Facebook?  Having little kids?  Is it this wacky, crazy fast paced world we all live in that makes it hard just to take a deep breath let alone focus long enough to finish a long book?  Or is there something more sad and sinister at work?

Have I lost the will to stay the course?

That hasn’t proven true in my writing life.  I regularly start and finish pieces I’m working on.  Recently I wrote a 50,000 novel in a month for the hell of it.

Here’s a thought.

I hate going to sleep.  Hate it.  I feel like the last third of the day taunts me with a flash of thigh all day long and then when I get to it, it whizzes by in a hazy blur.  The minutes are precious and deserved to be soaked up but my sponge is often full by the time I tuck in my three year old and clean up the toys.  I’ve always been a guy who tries to make the most of his time.  I’ve always been pretty good at that.  But maybe that’s working against me here in a way I hadn’t considered.  Maybe I’m sitting there two thirds of the way through One Hundred Years of Solitude for the third time and though I’m enjoying it, can’t stop entertaining the thought that there’s some slightly more fulfilling experience to be found in another book and isn’t that what I need to be reading?  And not later.  Oh no.  Right.  Fucking.  Now.   I need the bliss now.  Much more, apparently, than I need to finish what I start.  So I put it down and pick up something else and maybe I get through that and maybe I don’t.

Here’s another thought.

Maybe if looked at differently, completion in reading is overrated compared with other aspects of the practice, say, quantity, or reading with great care and attention, or reading a wide variety of texts.   If one is reading widely, actively, and diversely, why is completion necessary?  Or even a virtue?  After all, reading is for pleasure.  I’m not answering to anyone but myself.  And, I feel guilt about having not finished the books, but it’s guilt that stays mostly in the abstract, and is not so much because I don’t know how the story ends.  I seem to be fine with that.  I’m glad to have read two thirds of Infinite Jest.  I hope to finish it someday.  But it doesn’t feel all that pressing.  Not having finished doesn’t negate my two thirds.

Of course, I could just be trying to make myself feel better.  If I was fine with all this, the post you’re reading wouldn’t exist.

Am I alone in all this?

Post #26: “IF A GREAT MUSICIAN PLAYS GREAT MUSIC BUT NO ONE HEARS . . . WAS HE REALLY ANY GOOD?”

As someone who’s many times been walking through a subway station, been briefly inspired to pause at the quality of the busking musician I just walked past, wondering, how the hell could someone this good be playing for change?, this article was a revelatory gem.  It’s about the violin virtuoso Joshua Bell.  And I don’t only share it because Bell is from Bloomington, Indiana, where I went to college, but because it’s got some juicy food for thought about the nature of musicianship and when and where we choose to celebrate it.  But it’s also about beauty and whether we stop to appreciate it when we see it.

I recall a family band in the NY Subway, maybe five years ago.  I’m not even kidding, they were as good as the Jackson Five, if the parents had been in the Jackson Five.  Dad was on bass.  Mom on keys.  Sis was banging the tambourine and singing harmony.  Older brother was ripping guitar licks on a Gibson semi-hollow.  Younger brother was out front singing and dancing, doing knee drops, slamming falsettos, a veritable Michael Jackson, if Michael Jackson had been trying to sound like James Brown.  For their efforts, a guitar case was open, CDs were for sale, and they’d made what looked like a good stash for the day, by busking in the subway standards.  But, still, it was a whole family.

Appreciate great music, wherever you find it.  And for God’s sake, throw a buck in the kitty.

Post #22: So Much Gray

There’s been some interesting debate in the wake of Amazon.com’s strange decision to urge its customers to scan items in brick and mortar stores and then receive a discount from Amazon if they buy said item through the website, rather than in the store, whether it be a Best Buy or an independent music store.  Essentially, perhaps fearful that their murder of all things local was going more slowly than originally planned, they were paying customers not to shop locally and to mock the local stores in the process by pretending they were going to.  Richard Russo wrote an impassioned critique of Amazon’s decision.  One can read it here.

I’m a writer and believe strongly in a local arts community and believe that a local bookseller is part of the central nervous system of that community, so I wasn’t surprised to feel as if Russo had read my mail before putting finger to keypad.  I thumped fist to chest and said, “right the fuck on.”

And then came this odd rebuttal on Slate.com.  Read it below, then come back.

Okay, so I’m not certain they make scales big enough to measure the extent to which this guy is  jackass.  Am I right?  Of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, he writes, “you should thank him for crushing that precious indie on the corner.”  The idea that local bookstores offer nothing to a community that values the arts is asinine, shortsighted, and the kind of bitten-off-more-than-your-argument-can-support thinking that got Amazon in trouble in the first place.  I mean, Manjoo begins his article by describing what a “boneheaded thing” Amazon had just done.  Talk about short sighted.

And yet, I feel like a hypocrite for raising the battle cry against Manjoo, as I’ve been about to do.   Here’s why.  I have two children still in diapers and they go through vast quantities of them.  Each and every one gets shipped to my house care of Amazon.com.  Why?  Because they’re so much cheaper than buying them local it’s not even funny.  The math is pretty simple.  Diapers are expensive.  Kids use a lot of them.  Young parents are generally strapped for cash and therefore need to save money wherever possible.  All this is true.  And yet, why do I feel less guilty for buying my diapers through Amazon than I do about buying my books through Amazon?  And I don’t mind admitting guilt about the latter isn’t very strong.

The easy answer is because I value books more than diapers.  Not on a surface level, of course (you ever tried letting an infant go diaper-less for any length of time?) but metaphysically, I mean.  At this point someone might argue that buying diapers locally is potentially less substantial to community than buying local books or music.  And they’d be right.  But not majorly right.  Only kind of right.  My local K-Mart sells diapers and though I won’t feel that bad if my local K-Mart closes, they need my business to stay afloat too.

It seems to me that in criticizing Majoo, there’s the danger of using convenient logic to do so.  The likes of which might have a person railing against child labor whilst wearing a pair of Nikes and a Gap t-shirt.  The likes of which might have a person railing against Wall Street whilst banking with a major bank whose mortgages are owned by large corporations who make up Wall Street.  Nothing is ever all one thing.  We pounce when we see black and white moments, but the harder we beat them, the more gray they tend to become.

My soul knows what it prefers and so finds this still a very one sided argument and landslide victory in Russo’s favor.  I just hope that in criticizing the opposition, I’m able to keep my emotions in check long enough to let my brain do a little work.

I leave you with this anecdote.

The great jazz musician Thelonious Monk was good at looking at things in new ways, kind of like how fish are good at swimming.  Legend has it that he nailed a clock to his apartment wall, though tilted it sideways before doing so, to remind himself and his family to look at it differently.  And not only because they should.  Because they had to.  Sage advice.

Post #21: Where My Boys At?

An aspect of my NANOWRIMO experience not yet chronicled here is the amazing group of students at the high school where I teach who also took on the 50,000.  A few reached their goal.  Many came along for the ride and produced a substantial amount of writing.  They thrilled and amazed me throughout the month, with their passion and zany enthusiasm, and pushed my own work to dizzying production heights.

Their awesomeness is without question.  I salute them.  Though I was struck during November and continue to be in reflection by the fact that there was not a single male among them.  One boy came to our first meeting, though never re-emerged.  A colleague of mine brought NANOWRIMO to her classroom in which there are guys, but as far as I could tell, no male students took the plunge independently.  And if they did, they weren’t coming to our meetings or must have escaped my notice.

I won’t pretend I was completely surprised.   And yet even that lack of surprise is surprising.  Why, I wonder, did it make so much sense to me that only girls would take such a thing on by choice?  Even among the four colleagues of mine who embarked on the journey, I was the only male.  Did it say anything about my own assumptions about gender, and if it did, did the evidence before me not bear it out in some revealing way?

The “I’m a writer!” pronouncement that comes with doing NANOWRIOMO is a bold one, nakedly artistic and daring, even if one has never written a word in her life up to then.  It’s the kind of gesture to which teenage males, in my experience, are particularly averse.   Once you claim to be doing something like Nanowriomo, you are branded in a way.  True, it’s not more of a brand than joining the soccer team or accepting a part in the musical, but a brand all the same.  And in a brand conscious culture, teenagers are the most impressionable of all.  And while the brand of “artist” in the world at large may be admirable in most circles, in high school, it’s not so clear cut.  By the way, this is not to imply that boys are not artistic or that they don’t write or don’t want to write.  I believe quite the opposite is true.  But how that urge gets expressed, and how public that expression is, well, that’s a different thing entirely.

I noticed something similiar last year when I was the coordinator for Poetry Out Loud, a recitation program in which students memorize, then master the reading of a poem.  Though our school champion, and the national champion, were male, only 18 of the 52 state champions in D.C. were male and of the ten students who participated in our own school competition only 2 or 3 (I can’t recall exactly) were male.

Admittedly, these are small data sets, but I’m done thinking any of this is a coincidence.

When it comes to the arts, are we encouraging boys the same way we’re encouraging girls?  Confidence is at play here, as is maturity–teenage girls have more of both–but so is the overall perception of the arts, which is largely a function of how the arts have been framed, or I might even say, “sold,” to the person in question.  Our culture sells.  Better than anything, it sells.  Am I selling my own sons soccer and trucks and guns more than I’m selling them writing and drawing and acting?  Are my neighbors?  My students’ parents?

What sorts of boys and girls does our culture nurture and create?  In a culture in which youth are being marketed to from the minute they get up in the morning until they sign off Facebook around two A.M. and come to school on five hours of sleep, they are being sold to.  Urged toward thoughts and positions and identities.  I think here of video games.  I think here of sports.  Girls play video games.  Girls play sports.  But when I consider how these things are presented in the culture, it’s hard not to see a male filter at work.  Can that filter be so strong?  So persuasive?

Post #19: Best of Lists and Middle Class White Guys

Here’s a couple of articles I found thought provoking.  The first, by Roxane Gay, examines the “Best of…” lists that have become such a part of what establishes literary “excellence.”  Gay makes a compelling case regarding their legitimacy and usefulness.

http://therumpus.net/2011/12/toward-a-more-complete-measure-of-excellence/

The second is by Benjamin Hale, a writer who I was at Bread Loaf with, though never really got to know.  Mostly I saw him across the barn, or at the salad bar.  But his essay from Fortnight is edgy and though I have some issues (at times) with his tone in this piece, which tackles issues of authenticity and diversity, he’s a talented writer and shedding light on a question that I relate to whether I like it or not: do middle class white guys have anything to say in their writing?  A (mostly) closeted fear of mine has been that I’ve lived far too good and steady a life to offer anything significant to the literary sphere.   Perhaps this comes from actual insecurity about a serious issue, or perhaps it’s more a response to cultural mythology, much of which proves to be majorly suspect when you really start looking.

http://fortnightjournal.com/benjamin-hale/227-a-bourgeois-writer-in-america.html

Enough out of me.  Read.