Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Simple parenting advice: Keep em Close

From up in the stands, they all look virtually identical.

I was at my daughter’s swim meet last Saturday, looking down at the masses of girls around the pool. A bunch of blue swimsuits here, a bunch of red ones over there. Every head covered in a black swim cap. You might be able to pick your kid out by the specific way she walks or by that thing she does with her hands. Or, if you squint, you can maybe make out your last name printed on her swim cap. But otherwise, really, it’s hard to tell one from another.

Up close everything is different. The girls sit beside their parents. They talk about their races, ask for snack money. S. sits down next to me chewing a soft pretzel. Here I can see her full face: her freckled nose, her bright eyes that animate as she talks. From this short distance, I can also hear her sweet, musical voice through the crowd’s murmur; it has a lightness and bounce that still defies the weight of everything.

Looking around, each of these girls appears as she truly is: a precious, one-of-a-kind being. And each unique girl you can see is illuminated by the arcane light of her parents — a fire that burns with the blind raging faith that your child is unlike any that’s even been, like any who ever will be. And, more importantly, that your child is a rare, special being who will — somehow, in some way yet to be realized — shine in this world, and be showered with recognition and praise for simply being the wonderful thing that she already is.

The girls finish their snacks and head back down to the pool. There, they fall back in with each other — slipping seamlessly into uniformed herds, indiscernable throngs. From this long-view, you can see their real future. Cars in traffic. Bodies in cubicles. Shoppers in line. Gravestones in rows.

Keep her close, I tell myself. Try to remember to keep her close.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Consumerism in America

I caught this lecture the other night at the TED x Phoenixville event. Author and social critic James Kunstler goes off on how uninspired architecture and half-assed city and suburban planning have blighted our culture.


Kunstler delivers an impassioned plea here. But he also raises a powerful question about consumerism in America, if only slightly indirectly: Have the words “consumer” and “person” become synonymous in our culture?


When Saturday morning comes and you pour that first cup of coffee and start thinking about “what to do” with your day, are you really wondering “what to buy”? Think beyond just straight-up shopping; consider any activity where spending money is integral (e.g., browsing at Ikea, going to the movies, stopping off at Panera for a bite, etc.). How much of your leisure activity is truly purchase-free? A friend recently half-joked that he probably spends more time shopping in book stores than he does actually reading. But there’s an uncomfortable, expansive truth in that statement.

For many of us, a lot of the time, “doing” and “buying” are one and the same. We exist in a culture where consuming goods is just what we do — an automated behavior that we don’t even question because it comes so naturally. If this is indeed the case, what does it imply about this culture of ours? And, by extension, what does that imply about us as people?

In what do we truly find meaning?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Deep Cuts, Vol. 3

When we comb our memories to recall the great bands of the ‘90s, why don’t the Cranberries (a-hem)...linger?


Their debut album was tremendous. Their second album — which could have been ironically called “Everybody Else Is Doing Grunge, So Why Can’t We?” — was spotty, but had some moments. And then their third album produced a wealth of great tunes, including this one here: an alt ‘60s doo-wop tune with an Irish yodel and an evo twist. Two-and-a-half great albums released during one of the most explosive eras of killer music P.E. (Post-Elvis)? That’s more than Counting Crows can say.

Granted, looking back through the prism of prescribed history, just about everything you need to know about ‘90s music falls into one of four categories: Grunge, Hip-Hop, Alanis Morissette and Radiohead. But there were a handful of artists outside those buckets who mattered. R.E.M. Pavement. Tori Amos. Dave Matthews (I know, I know). Weezer (yeah, yeah). Beck, for Chrissake. PJ Fucking Harvey. And, yes, the Cranberries.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Deep Cuts, Vol. 2

I read somewhere — but I have no idea where, so take it with a grain — that Radiohead was commissioned to write this song for the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack (Leo DiCaprio version). “Exit Music” wound up being so different than anything they’re done before that it shifted the very direction and tone for what would become their next album: the incomparable OK Computer.


Few people think of this song first when they think of Computer — what, with the sonic awesomeness of “Paranoid Android,” “Airbag,” “Let Down,” “Karma Police” and so forth — but the tune is just outstanding. Unassuming at first, the languid progression creeps along with a dark, hypnotic energy, before launching into an explosive the final quarter. (I’ve heard this song approximately 1,237 times, yet the ting-ting of Phil’s ride cymbal, in the seconds before he goes full into it, still sends cold adrenaline down my back.)

But beyond its importance to Computer — arguably one of the greatest albums of all time — this song doubles as an almost ideal theme song for Romeo + Juliet. Shakespeare’s masterpiece, after all, is not a love story; rather, it’s a story of two kids rebelling against their own fast-approaching adulthood. They want no parts of the world their parents represent, and their attraction, and immediate bond, is driven by that shared (unspoken) existential woe. They rather die than become their parents, and they wind up doing just that. “We hope your rules and wisdom choke you” sounds like it coulda come from a modern-day diary of Romeo’s or Juliet’s.

I imagine Billy Shakes would agree.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Deep Cuts, Vol. 1

I’m trying a new thing here. Basically, any time I dust off an old CD and run into a song that kicks ass -- but got lost in history as an unrecognized, un-talked-about “deep cut” -- I’m gonna post it here for fun.

Maybe you’ll find something great you never knew existed. Or maybe you’ll be reminded of something long-gone and have one of those, “Oh, right, I forgot all about that tune -- awesome!” moments. Either way.

As Eddie Murphy’s Buckwheat used to say: “Take a whisten.”

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

On Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk will be selling and signing his new novel, Damned, at the Free Library of Philadelphia (Central Branch) on October 29th at 2:00 pm.

Some authors may take you to dark places with a delicate and sympathetic hand. Other authors drag you there and shove your face in their perceived, juvenile sense of “truth.” Chuck Palahniuk is the latter type.

First rule of Chuck Palahniuk: do yourself a favor and skip reading Chuck Palahniuk.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Dee Howard

In the narrow hallway behind the chapel, someone had set out coffee and pastries. After the service, we gathered there, in small circles mostly, and started talking about Dee.

After a while, the sad talk gave way to remembrance of some of the funny things Dee had said or done. M. and I remembered/laughed at how appalled she was to find out that the CEO of WHYY/PBS makes $500K a year. “But that’s a fraction of what the average CEO makes,” I’d said. “And he’s running a major affiliate in a top-five market.” No matter. Dee was pissed.

Thinking back on who Dee was, that reaction really wasn’t funny at all. It made complete sense. Her thinking probably went something like this (and forgive me, Dee, for presuming to speak for you; but what choice do I have?): “Bringing important, enlightening information to people — without the taint of commercialism — is a reward in itself. PBS shouldn’t need half-a-million dollars to get an eager, capable person to do it.”

Of all the Dee stories I could be telling, I’m not sure this is the right one. But it taps into a big part of who Dee was. She had an unwavering sense of Justice, which is hard to find in this world. (Not “justice” as most of us conceive it — e.g., a guy breaks into your house, a judge punishes him — a desperate attempt to bring balance to, and control over, the universe’s inherent chaos.) Dee’s sense of Justice was about more than mere fairness; it was an extension of a pure vision, however nebulous, of what the world should be.

As I left the church Saturday morning and drove off, I thought about the difference between rare people like Dee and everyone else. I would always tell Dee to stop obsessing over her political blogs, to stop worrying so much. “What can you do?” I’d say. When something unjust happens, you endure a moment of sadness and then quickly let it go. What can you do? The world is what it is. But no, Dee wouldn’t have it. Wouldn’t have a world that insisted on showing itself as different — worse — that it should be, than it could be.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Dee was unreasonable. Her frustration and anger were unreasonable. But if it weren’t for people like her, the world would be weighed down with nothing but ineffectual dopes like me who just accept things as they are. Dee Howard, in her not-so-small way, pushed the human race forward. She pushed the world closer to the way it should be.

Jesus Christ on toast points, I’m gonna miss that gal.


P.S. It’s worth mentioning that Dee detested Shaw. She once wrote: “With everything [he] writes, you can hear him congratulating himself. The minute I didn’t have to read any more of his plays for a survey course, I cheered.” Now that’s funny.