Wednesday, 31 August 2011
Dial - School of Seven Bells (mp3)
The title of the first story I remember writing was called "100 Leprechauns." I think it was first grade. This group of 100 leprechauns took count of their group before they left the house in the morning, and they took count again before they went home at night. One day, they only counted 99. The group searched and searched only to find out they had counted incorrectly.
I stole from church. The story of the lost sheep. I mixed in a little bit of my love of Lucky Charms, and for my dramatic climax, I took a lesson I'd learned from my dad about checking your work, something I'd continue to struggle with for at least the next 35 years.
Pretty much every bit of the story was cribbed in one way or another, but it was mildly amusing, and for my age it was quite a snappy piece of writing. So it got an A+ and was posted on the wall outside the classroom door, all by itself, for a whole entire week.
That's all it took, really, for me to keep writing the rest of my life. Who knows how our lives might diverge with the slightest of changes? If she had given me an F on that paper, would I have kept writing? Maybe. Probably. Who knows?
My whole life, the only genre of creative writing where I feel I have failed, consistently and repeatedly, is in writing fiction. Short fiction ends up lacking bite or confidence. Long fiction never quite gets finished and rarely even gets remotely close to even a halfway point. Part of me panics, as if every day I wake up means one more day of potential kick-ass fiction writing gone.
But y'know what? Raymond Chandler was over 50 when he published The Big Sleep. Richard Adams gave birth to Watership Down when he was 52. Annie Proulx was 57 when Postcards hit the stage. Laura Ingalls Wilder didn't even start her damn Little House series until she was over 60. I find just enough comfort in this not to panic.
This blog was, for me, in many ways, borne to maintain and hopefully improve my writing chops while building up my consistency, an ability to write and keep writing week after week, even when the ideas dipped or faded.
But lately we haven't had many comments. Some of our once-loyal readers have become too busy and burdened with life to stop by and read as often, and I totally understand. Feelings aren't hurt, but it's always a little sad to go week after week with a mere handful of comments.
So, I'm taking advantage of this commentary dip to flex my emaciated fiction muscles. I'm going to work on the I Don't Know If This Is A Short Story Or A Novella Or Something Even Bigger project I started last year. I'm going to go all Dickens on it and post a chunk of it at a time. I can't promise it will end with any kind of finality at all. It probably won't. But something about this particular project continues to swim around my head and haunt me, so it's time I give it a little of my attention.
Feel free to offer advice, suggestions or even harsh critiques if you feel so moved. Otherwise, I'll return with something goofy or opinionated to say in October.
Monday, 29 August 2011
Ordinary Average Guy - Joe Walsh (mp3)
I was going to write about my daughter’s new friend who stayed the night on Saturday, and about how her mother is Japanese, and how she went to church with us on Sunday and never once mentioned to my wife or I that she was Buddhist, and never once looked anything but comfortable and normal in the middle of an hour-long church service.
I was going to write about my love of Ninja Warrior marathons when I’m hung over from Brewfest, about how the Japanese culture glorifies strength not as some beefcakey statement, but as one part of many valued physical qualities including endurance and balance. I was going to say I love that game show because it’s a very Eastern notion of competition where all competitors are against the obstacle course rather than one another. Only in Japan could a game show end several seasons without a winner, with the winner being the obstacle course itself, because no one could manage to conquer it.
But I’m not going to write about any of that.
Instead, I’m going to write about Studface.
Her face made her look like some first-run experiment by Skynet before they figured out how to perfect the human flesh and metallic interior. Her name could have been Bride of Pinhead.
In addition to one big honkin’ nose stud and some kind of bull ring in her septum, she had no fewer than -- and I’m not exaggerating -- 20 silver studs poking out of all corners of her face. She had so much metal on her facade that, had she been walking down the street on a sunny day, the reflection from her could have caused innumerable wrecks.
Everything we do, as human beings, is about communication. I believe this to my core. You don’t have to speak Sanskrit to know precisely what this woman was communicating to her human environment: F*** Conformity and F*** Normality.
I might not be the president of the conformity club, but I’m a member, and I pay my dues. I have the 2.4 children, the salaried job at an esteemed educational institution, the loyal devoted wife, the dogs, the long driveway, and the 2.9 Bibles on bookshelves throughout my house. Any attempts I make, with blogs and the like, to seem less than conformist are feeble and middling at best.
I don’t generally stare at people. It’s rude. No matter if it’s a gorgeous woman or a circus freak, I try my best not to be so blatant with my observations, especially when sober. So I sheepishly shrugged my shoulders and held up the “oops! no offense!” hands of defense while quickly heading inside.
As I got inside and sat down, the insta-guilt faded and I got annoyed.
What, exactly, about my reaction surprised this freakish museum piece? Her face, a face that could be robbed and sold at high cost for parts, was for all intents and purposes flipping me off. Her face was built to offend, to disturb, to bother. My indifference would surely be far more insulting than my disgust.
And that’s the disconnect I mull. I gave her precisely the reaction she should have wanted, the kind of response that should have made her smile, her having successfully penetrated the delicate sensibilities of a lemming. But instead she was offended.
I can't figure it. But I bet a Japanese person would have handled it better.
Sunday, 28 August 2011
I guess I needed a movie. I guess I had to see it.
For the last ten days I have gone beefless--no hamburgers, no spaghetti sauce, no roast beef sub at Ankars, no reuben sandwich, no Chicago hot dog, no steak or brisket. Last night at the Southern Brewers Festival, as my friend stopped at the "authentic" Philadelphia cheesesteak booth, I kept going and bought a piece of cheese pizza instead. When he cut off a piece of his cheesesteak and put it on my plate, I told him I'd eaten a late lunch and gave it back to him.
People don't like when you give up things that they like to eat or drink, that you have shared together, so I've kept silent. This is my coming out.
And, yes, it took a movie. The movie is called Home. You can watch it on YouTube:
The movie is pretty basic, and both beautiful and terrifying in its simplicity. Using only aerial photography and a usually-understated Glenn Close-voiced narrative, the movie shows the world and man's impact on it. It makes a compelling case for the interconnectedness of all aspects of nature from the beginning of the Earth and then begins to document the ways that our habits and behaviors have disrupted that balance, particularly in the last 50 years or so. If you are not already disgusted by the concept of Dubai, it will make you so.
Much of the film deals with energy and how much energy is now required to accomplish certain accepted practices like raising massive amounts of grain-fed cattle to provide beef for the world. And that's where you see forests, rainforests to be specific, being cleared out so that soybeans and grains can be planted to fatten cows quickly and in ways that are counter to cows' natural diets. When I finally focused on how much energy, how much water, how much fossil fuel, how much space is consumed, I got it.
I guess you never know what will shut you down. The "killing animals for food is wrong" argument hasn't ever touched me all that much, at least not yet. Our species is carnivorous by tradition, and probably by nature. Or at least, like Lewis and Clark, we eat what is available at the time and in the place, so maybe more omnivorous. I also know that my family having four cars for four people is excessive and extravagant, but that's one I expect we will figure out soon. But participating in the overt destruction of the world in order to get a cheap, easily available hamburger, well, that shut me down. When I saw the images, I realized that I just don't need it.
NOTE: the "Out" (there's always an Out) is grass-fed beef. Rainforests are not being compromised to raise these cows.
Most days when I drive around this city, I am hyper-conscious of the dwindling resources we are consuming anyway. Maybe it's because we spent our summer of construction dumping all kinds of waste in a dumpster without really knowing or caring where it went. Maybe it's because I see my neighbors and my school watering grass when I know that water in the world is running out. Maybe it's because sometimes a grocery store feels like the silliest place in the world with its myriad of choice and the incredible amount of waste from spoiled, unpurchased goods that is factored into its existence. Maybe it's because the air conditioning doesn't work in my car, and so I sit in lines of vehicles putting out massive heat while I swelter in my own, and I realize what an incredible luxury cold air is.
We are, of course, part, the main part, of that 20% of the world's population that consumes 80% of the world's resources. And while I'm not the type to be consumed with guilt about this, I have fully begun to expect the reckoning(s) that have to come. So I suppose this small "sacrifice" of giving up beef has been coming. Is it a first step? I don't know. Where it will lead, I'm not sure.
But please understand that I'm not preaching, not yet, and I'm not judging. I'm just telling you about a baby, baby, baby step that I've taken and how it came about in a privileged, wireless access kind of way that most people in the world don't have the opportunity to experience. I'm not glorying in it; in fact, I feel kind of silly even talking about it.
But do watch the movie and see what you think.
Thursday, 25 August 2011
Four Years of Fear - LaSalle (mp3)
We just bought a new car. It's a fancier version of the minivan we bought in 2002 for $15,000. This one, used, cost us over $25,000.
In 1985, a Toyota Corolla cost roughly $8,500. By 2011, that cost ballooned to $18,000 for a mostly-loaded Corolla.
I could mention the cost of a Toyota Corolla or a Chevy Traverse in conversations 20 times a day every day for a month, and I guarantee you I couldn’t raise the ire of many people. But I dare you to ask anyone what they think of paying $20k for a private school education without getting a lot of eyebrow-raising and foot-stomping.
“Yes,” you say, “but there’s a free option with schools, and there’s not a free option with cars.”
In Chattanooga, we call the free transportation option "CARTA." It’s not free, but then, public schools aren’t really free, either. There are more surprise fees and add-on costs at our public school than I can count.
But let's come back to that.
Part Two: Ocelots
I am a human ocelot. My children are ocelots. We are an endangered species.
Unlike our wise and crafty Star Wars buddies, I worry that we aren’t sharp enough to escape unharmed.
The middle class in America is shrinking faster than Dark Helmet’s Schwartz in cold water. If you have a spare hour, you should read the disturbing but fair-minded and fascinating Atlantic Monthly article, Can the Middle Class Be Saved? It's wicked long and covers "career academies" and tax rates and federal investment in burgeoning enterprise and ways to address poverty and low wages, and it's all mesmerizing.
But at the end of the day, the Middle Class is shrinking, and the shrinkage is gonna stick long-term. And most reasonable minds should find that a disturbing reality of the New Normal.
Part Three: Spoiled
Several Facebook discussions of late have covered the belief by alumni and alumnae of Chattanooga private schools that tuition has jumped the shark, that it’s vastly too expensive and overpriced to buy in 2011 what was much more reasonable and affordable in 1985.
It’s true. But I can’t help but also believe my generation might have been fooled by the magic financial bubble into believing they deserve more than they have, that stuff should be easier and less costly to acquire, that they deserve more stuff.
Between my seventh-grade year and my graduating college, my parents took exactly four vacations. Only one was overseas, and it was also the only one that went longer than five days. In my final 13 years of living under my parents’ roof, they purchased four cars, three of them used. We lived in a 4-bedroom house on ¾ of an acre, and nothing we owned reeked of extravagance. The closest thing to it was the fact that I had a TV, with cable, in my bedroom. We were as shamelessly and clearly Middle Class (or possibly even slightly Upper Middle Class) as it got.
My parents pulled down more annual income in 1990 than my wife and I pull down now -- and I’m not talking comparative; I’m talking actual dollars -- yet they lived with far fewer extravagances and fancy things. But they sent me to the best private school in town. That was their extravagance.
Compared to averages from my generation, my wife and I are damned responsible with money. No debt beyond our house. Few vacations. Modestly impressive savings for our age and overhead. But compared to my parents and previous generations, we’re wild and careless.
U.S. Savings Rate over the past 60 years if you don't think we're crazy, culturally speaking, when it comes to our money.
I don’t hear a lot of intense conversations from my generation about how golly dang overpriced cars have become. And I don’t hear complaints about how much Disney World costs. And I don’t hear anyone bark and yell about the cost of a nice diamond necklace. But ask them about school tuition increases, and you’ll get an earful.
Cars have a lot more parts, and a lot more technology, and a lot more computerized junk in them now than they did in 1985. Guess what? So do schools. Schools are many multiples more complex than they were then. We have learning centers, and full-time counselors, and college counselors, and twice the number of sports, and more student organizations, and community service coordinators, and writing counselors. And we have lots more computerized junk, too.
You know why? Because when parents pay for cars, they get to drive them. When parents pay for soccer, they get to watch games. When parents pay for Disney World, they get to enjoy the trip. When parents pay for school, they have to wait a long, long, long time to get the reward, and they might never know for sure.
And that... is worth griping about.
Tuesday, 23 August 2011
Okay, the car does go a little bit in reverse, if we park at an angle where the nose of the car is higher than its rear. There's also a chance that if we park on a flat surface that the car might go kind of in reverse.
If we're caught at a downward angle, however, you will hear whichever one of us is driving gunning that engine, trying to get enough power or something to get that damn car to go backwards. Or you will see me in front of the car, feet perched on the parking barrier, trying to gather enough strength to push the car backwards. Actually, you probably won't see me, since we usually try to wait until there is no one around before we try to push the car out of a space. We have never gotten stuck. Close, though.
What it says about us is that we have adapted. Or that we can't get around to fixing anything.
The same way that we are adapting to the car that has only one remaining door handle on the inside. When that one goes, we will have to adapt that car out of our lives. You've got to have a way out of a car if the power fails.
The same way that we adapted to the stove that only had one working burner and we still put on dinner parties with the same frequency. The same way we stuck with a dishwasher whose upper rack only cleaned dishes that we had pretty much already cleaned. It's something about us.
When your car does not go in reverse, you have to plan your life differently. There are parking lots and spaces in parking lots that you cannot park in. Cars traveling down the row behind you will wonder why you passed up a perfectly good spot in favor of one up the next row that's farther away and looks to be slightly uphill. You get very, very good at gauging the uphillness of a potential parking space.
Turning around is not a given. Not if you're driving uphill and want to go in the other direction. Sure you could probably find a driveway with an uphill angle to turn around in, but how are you going to back up that hill? Getting out of a convenience store is not a given. Neither is your work parking lot.
And people are going to look at you funny. One time, my wife did get stuck in her office parking lot. It was on a Saturday, when the lot was being used by attendees of a dance event at the auditorium across the street. When I got there, to push her out, there was a ballet family, or a couple of families, parked next to us. They were clustered around the back of their van, doing what I don't know. But as each second passed, I got more and more irritated at their presence. When you have to gun the engine, you don't want a bunch of people near who might get hurt or scared if the transmission actually catches. Plus, embarassment. You don't feel your best when you're pushing your car out of a parking space. And you such don't want help. So, we waited them out. That was our strategy. We waited until they were gone. I'm sure they wondered what we were doing as much as we wondered about them.
But is it a bad thing to have to strategize? Is it a bad thing to have your entire family weigh in on the feasibility of a parking space? Is it a bad thing to feel enough confidence in your own strength to be able to say, "Go ahead and park there. I'll get you out if I have to?" Or to have to learn subtle tricks with the steering wheel or the angle of the tires or the rocking motion of shifting between forward and reverse to gather enough momentum to get out of a space? Is it such a bad thing to know that the only way that you can park in your driveway is to back in? Only if you approach it from uphill, of course.
Sure, there are simpler ways to do things. We could just fix the transmission and be done with it. We could probably afford it at most times during a given month. Or trade the car in, parking it at an upward angle, of course, and hoping that the adjustor who takes it for a test drive only goes in reverse that one time.
Monday, 22 August 2011
One for the Mockingbird - Cutting Crew (mp3)
I can fix NCAA football.
It has a sickness that only seems to make it stronger, like that virus that turns people into lightning-fast zombies with razor-sharp teeth. It probably doesn't want to be healed, but I can fix it.
The problems we’ve read about at Miami, Ohio State, UNC, Tennessee, Southern Cal, and approximately 56 other NCAA FBS teams in the past half-decade, can be all but solved with one teensy new rule (or maybe 1.5).
The Albatross Rule is simple. Any coach of any FBS team cited with even the slightest bit of knowledge or shoulda-oughtta-known ignorance must carry the same penalty as the school to any job for the duration of said penalty.
The Albatross Rule would have serious shark teeth if a coach’s contract could be rendered null and void if the NCAA judged that coach guilty or negligent. Because I’ll never understand why a school should have to buy out a dirty contract, and why future players at a university suffer more than the scuzzbag who got busted in the first place.
I doubt the Albatross Rule is legal. That would be too easy.
What kind of “punishment” is it that allows a coach to have several years of his contract bought out for six or seven figures, and the coach takes maybe a season off before getting hired for another absurd sum by some other school?
What kind of “punishment” is it for a school to hire a dirty coach almost specifically because they want the win-loss record that came with the dirt? If you as a school want to stick your hand down the toilet bowl to pull out a dirty coach, then you gotta live with the poop that comes back up the pipeline with him.
If the coach’s contract is bought out (probably for some absurd amount), and the coach flies off to Tahiti for six years, if he’s hired in that seventh year, the team that hires him must still serve the entirety of his punishment.
If there was an Albatross Rule, I suspect you’d have longer tenures for coaches. The coaching carousel would slow down, because the coaches busted for rules violations would become like lepers, leaving the well of available coaches less deep.
I get that policing something as ginormous as a football team is almost impossible. But it’s not like they’re earning min wage. If NBA players can afford an accountant, then an NCAA FBS coach can afford to hire someone to help them babysit, and they would if their ass were on the line. They could think of these folks as bodyguards. Or bank guards.
Nick Saban could hire a small town of assistants on his own dime and still pull down some $4M each year in salary and benefits for himself. Even Derek Dooley could invest a few hundred grand for personal assistants and still pull down a cool 1.5 mil. DEREK FRIGGIN’ DOOLEY! The man hasn’t even DONE anything except get born to some dude named Vince, and he’s pulling down $1.8M a year!
All I know is, those guys would have to be a lot more careful with that cash if their contracts risked going null with an NCAA violation, and if the punishment stayed with them like bacon strips in their underwear.
Don’t fix the children; fix the parents.
Don’t fix the teachers; fix the administration.
Don’t fix the players or the pissant assistants; fix the head coach.
The poop rolls downhill, but the burden is supposed to stay at the top.
Sunday, 21 August 2011
But I am old
And you are young,
And I speak a barbarous tongue. -- Yeats
You have three basic choices in the afterlife of retirement:
1. You settle into your present home, or at least your present city.
2. You move to a retirement community in a warmer place like Florida or Arizona.
3. You split your time between the two.
Any other option is a spin-off of these choices. Maybe you have more than two places to live. Lucky you. Maybe you plan to spend your time and money traveling all over the place. Luckier you. But what do you do on the average days of retirement?
1. The lures of staying at home, in a home you probably own, in your home city are perhaps obvious. This choice is practical, comfortable, viable. You know the city, you know the neighborhood. You have friends here. You have doctors and hospitals you know. Retired living is a continuation of the life you had been living, without the work.
My friend who has chosen this option has plenty of time to pursue his hobbies, but also seems to spend an inordinate amount of time working in his yard. I cannot tell whether he takes joy in that or not. I get to see him fairly often. Because I still work and he doesn't, we work more carefully to schedule our friendship, trying to keep Thursday night each week sacred.
He is able to maintain a greater number of friendships with more depth.
He also does a lot of volunteering; he is asked to a lot of volunteering. Note the difference. The causes he enjoys bring him deep satisfaction, and he regularly devotes both time and money. But it also needs to be said that people take advantage of him, especially during that first year after he quit working. People assume that because you are retired you automatically have plenty of free time which they can freely draw upon. It's kind of like you just won the lottery, but with time instead of money, and everyone was just a little of that time, not much, you will hardly even miss it. This situation is compounded if you stay in the city you worked in. And maybe it's what you want. You still feel vital. Maybe it's right that you are now asked to do for free what you were once paid to do.
2. Each morning, the old men gather outside the Panera at one of the tables with an umbrella that does little to block the early sun. It is a bull session, I can tell as I walk past. Every morning it is a bull session. Whether it carries over from day to day, I can't tell. But what is clear is that, at this coffee and danish outpost situated in a strip mall among the retirement communities of Venice, Florida, is that the same pecking orders of middle school or high school continue once again when a bunch of men of similar age and background gather to debrief on their life of leisure.
There are the same blustering blowhards, the same once-athletes with stories of what once was. There is the same worry, should you choose to join this community: will I fit in? The common denominators are age, of course, plus a geographical background in either the Northeast or the Midwest, and a similar socio-economic status. After all, the condominiums of Venice are moderately priced. You can spend as much as you want, but you can settle quite comfortably for not too much over $100,000.
And, for me, at least, as I ponder my eventual option, there is an existential question: what happens down here if you don't play golf?
The social life is as all-encompassing as you want it to be: poolside chatting, organized events with pot-luck food and music from "back in your day," golf outings, day trips, meals in homes or at restaurants with friends, commisserating with your pal while your wives are at the beauty parlor, Spring Break visits from children and grandchildren, book groups.
And life is simple. In a condo, you aren't burdened with either the maintenance of a yard or a large home. You have a only a few rooms; you are comfortable, but overladen with possessions. The kitchen is small, so meals are simple. The fish and produce are fresh. A meat or fish cooked on the community grill with a salad and some bread just about does it.
There are dark sides to this dream. Not all of the elderly, not by a longshot, in places like Florida live in condos in restricted retirement communities. Many of them have to continue working, and so you see an unusual number of elderly working in Panera, in the grocery stores. Though you may be at the laundromat because your condo is under construction, there are plenty who do their weekly laundry there. Also, even if you live in a condo or town home with all of the organized social life and amenities, you still must grapple with the fact that the social mix changes year to year. Some people never come back, aren't physically able to. Come in as a young retiree and you will be shocked at the community turnover during a 10-year period, after which you won't be a young retiree anymore.
3. Arguably, a blend of Option #1 and #2 seems ideal. But think about the financial situation you'd have to be in, not only to own two homes, but also to have that portion of your retirement tied up in extremely unliquid real estate. If one of the two dwellings were not passed on to you, you'd have to have quite a chunk of change.
If you think that I have figured out my own plans, you're wrong. It's something that I've grappled with more and more each year, as I head to Florida for a getaway at a free, mother-in-law-owned condo in a retirement community where I get closer and closer to fitting in quite naturally. Florida is a fun place to go--sea, sun, sand, fish, wonderful produce, casual living, a recurring newness with each visit. But I've never been there for longer than two weeks, and usually during the summer when the town is less crowded because most retirees return north for the summer.
Retirement seems like a dream to many, but nothing could be more dependent on practical considerations. That you don't really want to think about.
Wednesday, 17 August 2011
You Get What You Give - New Radicals (mp3)
You want new ideas? Be ready to create a new job title. You can’t make new things happen without new employees or big promotions. That’s my takeaway from this summer.
Our entire floor of administrators spent the summer visiting select schools to conversate and collect ways to build on and improve what we do. At the same time, committees of faculty and staff members met and set out action plans for the accreditation process our school must undergo this fall, a process that expects schools to evolve and adapt over time.
I’m a hopey changey kind of guy, and this kind of stuff excites the hell out of me.
All those trips, and all those committees, and all those fresh new ideas, and they all had one uniting common bond: A New Position. And I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout sex.
You want something more done? You want to ramp something up or revamp it? Create a new job description. Or appoint someone with a new title with mo’ money. Otherwise, it will never happen. That’s the universal innuendo of every task force and committee I’ve seen recently.
When someone has an idea, and that idea points to more responsibility on our plate, our instantaneous reaction is, “Sorry. I’m busy.” We can’t help it. Because we are. Busy. Or we believe we are. At least when it’s our idea, we can sometimes squeeze in time for it... but only when we own the idea. Otherwise, fuhgiddaboutit.
Ironically, as a faculty and staff, we can’t figure out why our salaries aren’t going up. And we can’t figure out how tuition can keep rising, and student numbers can hold steady, yet there’s no income around for us to make mo’ money. (HINT: Maybe it’s because we keep identifying all these things that need to be done and insisting that new people have to be hired to do them. Our raises are going to add people to our ranks!**)
There’s no magic solution here. Few folks want more responsibility without more money or more power. That’s the way we are.
However, for us to implement even half of the ideas we as a school generated this summer, we’d apparently need to hire three to five more full-time people, who would require a budgetary investment of... what, at least $150-200,000, right? After the cost of benefits and other perks, even if the average salary was technically only $35-40,000?
Was it always like this?
Did cavemen sit in cavemen conferences and decide someone needed to tackle the velociraptor problem, and the only way to do it was to create a “Velociraptor Czar” job position and post the job on Monster.com?
I don’t think so. I think they took a look at what they were all doing. And if velociraptors deserved more energy, they figured out what deserved less, and they took from that. Cavemen probably had to conclude that some of the jobs they were doing weren’t nearly as important as “Velociraptor Czar.”
We as a society have increasingly lost the ability to give things up.
We’re hoarders. We hold onto things far beyond the point where it’s worth doing or keeping. And this is true with jobs as much as anything. If we as a school were completely honest, there are several positions in our ranks that are outdated concepts from an earlier era. Or jobs that used to take someone 40 hours a week now shouldn’t take more than 20, but that dude or lady ain’t about to admit she’s doing half a job for full-time wage.
But we can’t have our cake and eat it too. We can’t demand more salary for ourselves, demand new people to fill new perceived needs, and also demand that the family all stay together and no one breaks up the band. But hell, even the Beatles eventually had to cut Stu Sutcliffe.
New positions. Raises. Keeping the family in tact. Tuition that has already out-priced the market. Not even in America can all of these things remain comfortably crammed in the clown car. Something's gotta give.
* -- Well, it’s also going to support pension plans for retirees who have vastly outlived their expected expiration date, to health care plans that shoot up faster than Courtney Love, and to the ever-increasing costs of campus and building maintenance. But those aren’t as central to my point.
Among the many ironies concerning retirement, perhaps the greatest is that even though people will talk about wishing they "could retire right now" all the time, retirement is really something that they don't want to think about.
Count me as being no different. When I ponder retirement, and, at the end of a summer when part of me really doesn't want to go back to work, I'm not really talking about actual retirement, I'm talking about being much younger than retirement age and not having to work. The immediate attractiveness of the concept of retirement is the notion of not having to work while still at an age where you can take full advantage of life and (potentially) the entire world. But I'm talking about a pipe dream.
The reality is that you don't just decide that you are retiring one day and then stop working the next. You have to rehearse it. You have to think it through in your head. Otherwise, it will be nothing at all like you want it to be.
My father retired at age 58. And even at that point, he had left the corporate world a few years before in order to pursue his dream of owning his own business, in his case, a racquetball/fitness club in Pittsburgh with tennis courts and Nautilus machines and a bar and a "healthy" restaurant, with an outdoor pool and snack bar to boost the summer months. He ran the club for a few years, bought out unproductive partners, and then sold the whole thing for a nice profit before the bottom dropped out of the racquetball craze of the lat 70's.
Think about it: my parents retired when Ronald Reagan was President. My father is in his seventh presidential term of retirement. Those are a lot of unencumbered years.
I can't help but to reflect on that as I creep ever closer to that magical age. Retiring then has allowed him, so far, 27 years of retirement, including 17 with my mother before she succumbed to ovarian cancer. It is hard to look at his decision and not to celebrate it, to realize, once and for all, that retirement is a decision about time, not money. Some of us don't see a way to separate the two.
I also realize full well what a luxury that is. But, and here is the point, it is a luxury that he planned for. My father never made a tremendous amount of money, nor did he inherit all that much from his parents, a steelworker and his immigrant wife. But he always had the goal, and when he was able to step away from it all, he didn't hesitate.
I contrast that with friends of mine who won't even look at their 401K balances, who won't take an active role in fine-tuning the maximization of their own money.
Maybe it's teachers and the way our profession seems to shelter us from the real world, but I really think it's America right now. We feel like there are too many things beyond our control or at least there are just enough of those things that lead us to shut down and to give in to the abstract forces that we think have complete control of our lives.
Nothing could be further from the truth. If we don't take control, it isn't ultimately money that we are giving away--it's time. It's the time that money can buy. Yeah, the Beatles were undoubtedly right that money cannot buy love, but money can buy time in any number of significant ways. Whether you are buying years of freedom or years of health, you have the discretion, if you work at it, and yes, if you sacrifice, to step away on your own terms.
Because retirement is the last stage of life, it isn't something that we want to ponder in realistic ways. It's too easy to see the Hollywood version or to want to jump into the billboards we see on the drive down to Florida. Having made that drive many, many times over the past 26 years, I know what is behind those billboards.
NEXT TIME: What I Learned In Florida And How I Learned It
Monday, 15 August 2011
What Do You Want Me To Say? - The Dismemberment Plan (mp3)
A plague o' both your houses! -- Mercutio
We think sacrifice is having to delay our retirement.
We think sacrifice is having to pay more for our own health insurance,
or to pay higher taxes,
or to get less welfare,
or to have your pension plan reduced,
or to lose a few million in a stock nosedive,
or to avoid maxing out another credit card.
Sacrifice used to mean something.
It used to mean a devoted man placing his young son on an altar and preparing to slaughter him merely because his deity demanded it of him. Or dropping everything -- every single thing -- to follow some wild-eyed long-haired Nazarene.
Only 11 years before I was born, an American President actually had the gall, the unmitigated gall, to tell his people they should ask not what their country could do for them, but rather, what they could do for their country. That poor man would never get elected today. He wouldn’t even get past Iowa straw polls.
Sacrifice as a real thing, as something with actual weight and import, is dead in America, and I’m not sure it can be revived.
Not to say all of us have lost it. Latino men who sneak across the border, who work for below-standard wages, who live in ramshackle hotels with three other men so that they can send a large portion of their meager earnings back to wives, children, families. These men know sacrifice. Naturally, we don’t as a society approve of them being here. They piss us off.
The more politically engaged and opinionated you are, the more likely you’ve forgotten the meaning of sacrifice. Because I haven’t heard one politician talk about it. They can’t. They won’t get elected.
Sure, they might say the word, “sacrifice,” in stump speeches about taxes and entitlement programs and unemployment and crap. But they use “sacrifice” in the same way we use “annihilation” when we talk about football games that are 28-0.
When George Bush had the world’s sympathy and the country’s desperate ear, he could have warned us, begged us to prepare for sacrifice in light of 9/11, but instead he told us to go shopping.
Obama’s first approach to our frightening recession was to ask no one to sacrifice anything, but merely to generate higher spending levels so that everyone, rich and poor, could be numbed, so any chance of having to sacrifice anything substantial might be avoided at all costs.
I don't blame them. These men avoided making us sacrifice anything because we won’t dare allow them4. We would hate them forever. We might even do them harm.
It’s not just Presidents. Our Congressmen and -women, our Senators, they only talk about sacrifice when it’s about the people not voting for them. Democrats demand that the rich step up and make sacrifices good for the country by paying higher taxes. Republicans demand that the poor stop expecting freebies and sacrifice these “entitlements” as notions that we can no longer afford.
No one tells the people in their tents to sacrifice a damn thing. It’s all about what that other guy isn’t sacrificing that holds us all back.
We have become a nation of coddled, spoiled brats.
And I’m one of them. You need only see my reaction when my iPod freezes up a second time in a day, or when my chance to see the Foo Fighters in concert gets waylaid by professional obligations. I’m as pathetic as the rest of you. We suck, and we do it as one big whiny collective.
This has already begun, in small ways, during this recession, but it’s only going to get worse. If we can’t right our own ship, we’re going to get annihilated in ways that will make us wish we were still sitting around making fun of the Detroit Lions.
And hey, Ayn Rand, if you’re somewhere reading this, go screw yourself. Preferably not in any way you would remotely enjoy.
This is where the summer ends,
In a cloud of pure destruction,
No one wins.
There is no more confusing time of year than the "end of summer." When is it? Or, better put, when is it for you?
It is a different date for almost everyone. In terms of calendar, summer hangs on until September 21st. On the traditional school calendar, it's Labor Day that marks the end. At the other end, for those involved with football, especially camp, the "summer," such as it is, may end as early as late July/early August. After that date, they're back at it. And in between are all of the different start-up dates for schools, colleges, year-round schools.
For those not involved in education, summer may indeed end after the requisite two-week vacation, whenever that is.
And yet, for those of us in teaching, the date is clear, obvious, perhaps even circled on the calendar. It is not the first day of school. That is for students. They have their own dreaded day. No, for us, it is the date when school duties clearly and officially overwhelm free time, when afternoon departures from work and free evenings are a thing of the past.
For me, that date was last night. A casual dinner for new faculty at the headmaster's home, free drinks, delicious food, good conversation. By all accounts, a nice time. And yet, I dreaded it all day yesterday, not for what it was, but for what it represented. The end of summer.
I know full well that for any number of reasons, pedalogical or otherwise, our current school calendar is "wrong." Originally built around farm work and harvests, it now seems to create a scenario where students forget everything they've learned over the long summer months, and so they return each year as empty vessels that must be refilled again. But it is also a chance for them to do different things--travel, work jobs, engage in different kinds of learning.
I'm also selfish. I love summer. The extended vacation is so much a part of the rhythm of my life that the thought of breaking it up to create a more efficient school year is something that I know I should embrace but that I hope doesn't happen until after I retire. Even though I've been "working" for a good bit of the summer, I still carried that vacation mentality to and from the job each day.
Simply put, the days are longer in the summer and the days are longer in the summer. Not only does the increased sunlight add a special lustre to each day, culminating in a late sunset, but we also work shorter hours, which means more of the day left for other things. Leaving work at 4PM is a joy; a minimum of a 7-8 hour days remains to do whatever we want--tinker in the garden, enjoy a leisurely meal, take a walk just for the heck of it, gather with friends. We're not racing to get food on the table. There are usually no particular obligations in the evenings, except those that aren't obligations, just things we want to do.
Ah, bliss. All of that has ended now.
As if nature somehow knew, the air has been cooler the past two mornings, the daily highs a few degrees lower than what we've struggled with all summer long. Whether due to drought or heat or simply being worn out, the grass has started to slow its growth.
But what about us? Those of us who live the school year circle of life have got to find the inspiration, have got to rev it up, have got to find our focus once again. The cruelest lesson in all of life is that summer is over. The greatest gift is that, like our students, we get to unlearn that lesson each year for nearly three months before we face it anew. Again.
Thursday, 11 August 2011
Chains - Gatekeeper (mp3
Let’s just be clear. “Sunglasses at Night” is a stupid song.
If you want to go following your ex-girlfriend under cover of darkness, you don’t wear sunglasses. That’s a shitty disguise. You know why? Because it makes following your ex-girlfriend harder. Not to mention that, if your ex-girlfriend ever paid any attention to you at all, she is probably capable of recognizing you in a pair of friggin’ sunglasses.
I need to rewrite the song.
I wear my sunglasses at nightToday marks two weeks without glasses. I wore them into the ocean. The ocean punished me, as it should have.
So I can so I can
See the people on the TV set
I wear sunglasses at night
So I can so I can
Keep track of stop signs on the street
Well, she looks blurry to me
She taps my insecurity
Is she holding a drink or a key?
I turn to her and say,
“I can’t read a damn thing without these oh no.
It’s real dark but at least I can see, oh no.
I can’t believe that
You think I’d wear these things by choice, oh no.
I lied and said they were broken Transitions oh no.”
My two options, in the absence of my beloved glasses, have been simple: Velma or Corey Hart. I can either walk around whiny and say shit like “My glasses! My glasses! I can’t see anything without my glasses!” Or I can experience all things after dusk with several degrees less of light information than my fellow sight-enabled humans.
When driving down a dark road after midnight while wearing sunglasses, one can’t help but get philosophical.
Several times I’ve thought of the scene when Obi-Wan Kenobi is training Luke while they’re on the Millennium Falcon, and the wise geezer drops the blast shields down on Luke’s helmet.
“But... with the blast shields down, I can’t even see! How am I supposed to fight (or, in my case, drive).” And I hear Obi-Wan tell me that I shouldn’t trust my eyes because they can deceive me. That I must drive by stretching out my feelings.
And suddenly, I’m in my driveway! I’m safe and home! The Force is strong with this one.
When you see the Monet’s Water Lillies, you see what his brain processed, how light actually entered and worked in his dying eyes. (Most things I’ve read believe his eyesight was quite healthy when he painted the Rouen Cathedral, which looks just as beautifully smudged and blurry as the water lillies, so I probably give his poor eyesight too much credit and his amazing talents too little.)
Seeing the world blurry is so... analog!!
We live in such a digital, high definition world, and I fetishize that existence as much as most anyone I know. But, once in a while, seeing the world the way nature intended me to see it at this stage in my life... it’s one more reminder of our technological marvels, but it’s also a reminder that sometimes seeing things unclearly creates its own beauty.
Blurred can be beautiful. Briefly.
The realist favors the candidate who seems like the best man or woman for the job, or maybe even the least bad, the one that he thinks will do the least damage.
The idealist sees the candidate that he wants to see, often ignoring clues that the candidate may actually not be that person.
The realist shrugs his shoulders in the knowledge that candidates will often adopt positions and say things and make promises in order to get elected.
When their candidate leads in the polls, the idealist sees that as a unifying mandate, a country coming together for a common cause to make their country better. The realist wonders what deals have been made with which constituencies and interest group to build such a base of support.
When their candidate wins the election, the realist becomes the idealist, at least briefly; the idealist becomes the zealot.
The idealist has dreams of amazing, principled people filling his candidate's cabinet or staff.
The realist watches as people important to the campaign are rewarded for their service with cabinet positions.
The idealist swoons at the speeches.
The realist is indifferent to the rhetoric.
The idealist is shaken by the changes in legislation from what he knows his leader values.
The realist acknowledges the art of the compromise.
The idealist turns bitter when the person he helped to elect either does not fulfill a campaign promise or even takes a counter position.
The realist reverts back to his cynical, perhaps jaundiced, view of politics.
The idealist sees his leader getting weaker.
The realist thinks that his leader was never particularly strong.
The idealist starts using labels that portray the leader in a negative light, branding him with the name of the other party, or comparing him to a previous failed leader, or worse.
The realist notes that the pressures of the next election all too soon.
The idealist withdraws his support.
The realist visualizes what will have to happen for the leader to get re-elected.
The idealist visualizes what should have happened, all of the wrong decisions and capitulations. The idealist becomes the realist.
The realist holds onto some, tenuous hope that enough good can still happen to outweigh the bad.
The idealist hears of a new candidate, someone who can really change the way things are. He begins to get excited, sees a new direction for his country, and hope for his children's future.
In a comfortable chair, the realist settles in with his books of Emerson and Thoreau, those idealists, reads until sleepy, then, armed with the reminder that only what is local matters, heads off to bed.
Monday, 8 August 2011
Blame It On the Rain - Milli Vanilli (mp3)
[WARNING: I couldn't help but get a little loosw with the bad words on this one. Read no further if you don't appreciate a few healthy F-words in your eyes.]
In 1987, Aerosmith released Permanent Vacation, the album that would bring the dawn of their second birth. When the band appeared with Run D.M.C. in 1986 for the remake of “Walk This Way,” my friends and I thought they were punchlines to some joke. I wasn’t familiar with Aerosmith, and Steven Tyler looked like some science project where some kid mated an anaconda with a hairless lemur.
My friends and I mocked “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” mercilessly. But... but it was kinda catchy. Then the super-ballad “Angel” came out, and we kept making fun of them. Then “Rag Doll” came out, and we totally mocked that song every time it came on. But we never seemed to turn the channel when the video played. We watched.
By PUMP, we were genuine fans sans irony. "Janie's Got a Gun" was the song that finally convinced me to buy the CD, and video auteur David Fincher deserves some of the credit.
Yet even as I grew to like them, I never quite grasped Aerosmith's place in '70s rock history until they reproduced and released the naughty “Sweet Emotion” video and their Pandora’s Box set in 1991. A classmate made a "Best of Aerosmith" mixtape for me, and it got heavy, healthy rotation.
I remained intensely loyal to their CDs through Nine Lives, an overlong album with a handful of songs I still love. Hell, I’ll even admit to being somewhat fond of the damn Armageddon song until Lauren Alaina drove me to despise it.
Mull on that fact for a minute. Swish it around in your mind.
Aerosmith. Fucking Aerosmith, man! They had one single Number One hit. And it was the cheesy-ass ballad for a cheesy-ass action movie.
What does it mean, that the only way these guys hit the very top was by singing a song written by the same woman who wrote for Laura Branigan and Starship?
Diane Warren wrote hit songs for Toni Braxton, Celine Dion, Leann Rimes, Michael Bolton, Milli Vanilli... and Aerosmith.
Don’tcha think that just has to bug the shit out of a self-respecting band?
A band that was no stranger to top 10 hits, sold-out arenas, and all the fame and trappings of success, yet they get their first chart-topper by falling in line with Celine fucking Dion and Milli fucking Vanilli?!?
Truly, the gods are cruel. For a group who had seen just about every rock soap opera storyline imaginable, would they ever have envisioned a scenario where their band was finally destroyed by a Number One hit?
Yet here we are in 2011, and Aerosmith has only had one legitimate album of new work in the 21st Century, and it was a full 10 years ago. Their latest has been stuck in suspended animation alongside Chinese Democracy and Duke Nukem, neither of which were one-bajillionth worthy of the wait or the hype surrounding them.
How miserable that must have been, to sign on the devil's dotted line, to accept selling out completely, and to be rewarded with that last extra notch of fame and money.
It was, aptly, Aerosmith's Armageddon. With that song, Aerosmith became rock’s Thulsa Doom, and their head’s been rolling down the stairs ever since. Bands just don’t really come back from that kind of beheading very often.
I’m cheering for them, though.
Anyone who saw Steven Tyler perform during American Idol should at least have the temerity to admit that what makes for great rock music has only a smidgen to do with operatic vocal talents and everything to do with charisma and conviction. Steven Tyler, even a wrinkly sold-out version of him, is a bajillion times the performer Lauren or Scotty will ever, ever, ever, ever be. Ever.
Meanwhile, I can’t help but wonder... If that song from Armageddon had never become a hit, if it just muddled past us, mostly ignored, would they have survived? Did a hit they didn’t deserve push them off the cliff? Or were they already headed that way at high speed, having already sold off most of their soul, and I’m just too in love with an easy-come pop hook to accept it?
Some would claim they died after Rocks and never really came back, that it was a ghost-like imitation of the band that enjoyed revived fame in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Not me, but maybe that’s just because I fell in love with their ghost first, and when I fell for them, I never cared much about who wrote the shit so long as it sounded good.
Regardless, if you have even modest appreciation for ‘70s hard rock and haven’t heard or owned Rocks, you’re missing out. I can’t wait ‘til Joe and Steven sit down and listen to their first five albums and work up the voodoo energy for one more album. I hope they start from scratch. No one needs another Chinese Democracy.
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