Saturday, August 26, 2006

Things I Like Vol. 34

Ten People/Places/Things That Rock My World:
(ok, this week it's 11...)

1) Quiz Show - dir. by Robert Redford. Television has irrevocably altered our world both by devaluing books and learning and by disengaging people, especially families, from each other. This is one of several films produced or directed by Barry Levinson that show us just how much of ourselves we have lost.

2) Special Topics in Calamity Physics - Marisha Pessl. I wanted to dislike this book. I really did. And it is not without flaws. That being said, however, it is by far the most engaging novel by a new writer I have read in years.

3) Blue Monday: Fats Domino And the Lost Dawn of Rock 'n' Roll - Rick Coleman. Highly readable book that makes the case for Fats as one of the true fathers of rock'n'roll, and an excellent history of New Orleans to boot.

4) The River in Reverse - Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint. A true giant receives recognition from a new generation of music lovers. Too bad it took the Katrina disaster to do it.

5) New York Dolls live at South Street Seaport, 8/18/06 - Ok, so the new record isn't a masterpiece and there are only two original members left. Go see the live show. Now.

6) Little Miss Sunshine - dir. by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris. There is no substitute for a good chase scene.

7) Nanci Griffith - One of the truest, most powerful voices in music, period. She's got a new song about Vietnam that is just staggerlingly lovely. Can't wait for the record.

8) Harry & Tonto - dir. by Paul Mazursky. A time capsule of the '70s and a brilliant, heartbreaking performance by the incomparable Art Carney.

9) When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts - dir. by Spike Lee. Though there are several other major docs in the works (including one by Jonathan Demme), this is the work that will stand as the definitive portrait of the horrors of last fall. Not to be missed.

10) Michael Eric Dyson. A brilliant mind unafraid to ask the tough questions and dig deep for the answers. All his books should be required reading. See Come Hell or High Water and Is Bill Cosby Right?.

11) Douglas Brinkley. Ditto. See The Great Deluge.

Hero of the Week (3-way tie): Spike Lee, Michael Eric Dyson and Doug Brinkley for speaking truth to power. Oh yeah, and that guy in Mississippi who told Dick Cheney to fuck off. He rules.

Villain of the Week: There are so many. Pretty much every Bush administration official in Lee's film: Condi, Cheney, Brownie, Chertoff, and of course, the man himself. May they all rot in hell for all the suffering and death they have caused.

Special recognition to the citizens of New Orleans for fighting to keep their beloved city alive when some would rather see it bulldozed and gentrified--their unquenchable spirit is truly remarkable. And props also to the Gulf region just for keepin' on. God knows you won't get any help from anybody in this administration.


I have a lot more to say about the ongoing debacle in the Crescent City, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Katrina Plus One

A million thoughts crowd my head. I have recently viewed a documentary on the catastrophe in New Orleans—it has been almost a year already—and still cannot wrap my mind around all that has occurred and continues to occur in that once beautiful region. (How does one comprehend the incomprehensible?) Sadly, in August 2006, we have moved on. Last year at this time, Americans viewed the disaster transpiring in the Gulf with fascination, then horror, then anger, then despair. And because we could do nothing—or felt we could do nothing—or because we had our own lives to deal with, we let go, we forgot. The suffering of thousands of our fellow countrymen drifted from our thoughts, and we moved on. But those people are still there; the destruction and the madness are still there. They have not vanished because we have left them behind; they have merely taken refuge in the shadows, in the darkness, just out of sight. There is a hungry wolf at America’s doorstep, and he will bide his time, watching, waiting until we are too weak to stop him.

This unspeakable devastation in the Gulf region will not let us be. It is a part of us; we have all suffered because of it, and will continue to suffer, though we may not recognize it. For though we have looked, we have chosen not to see, and so the deep harm we do to ourselves as a people continues. There is poverty and hopelessness and despair in this country though most do not ever come in contact with it. Most of us live our lives carefully shielded from the poor and the desperate. Hunger and homelessness and racism do not exist, so we do not have to deal with them. And so, on it continues unabated. But this comfortable myopia will not protect us; the wolf is there yet, and the day of reckoning will come.

The Italians and the Dutch have built levees to protect their great cities. We have not, I believe, because Americans lack the reverence for the past Europeans seem to possess in abundance. Though every bit as greedy, selfish and materialistic, the people of Italy and Holland have not forgotten from whence they came. As citizens of their countries, they have a shared history that is an important part of who they are. And so they do what it takes to preserve this past, and to protect the people who guarantee its future. As individualistic Americans, it seems we lack the will to even comprehend such notions.

Americans have enjoyed 200-plus years of wealth and prosperity, and we have yet to acknowledge the horrific pain and suffering we have inflicted in order to achieve our standing in the world. Many hundreds of thousands have died—directly or indirectly—because of this failure to come to terms with our bloody past. America is and always has been a forward-looking nation. That is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness, for until we understand our history and value it—both the good and the bad—for the lessons we can learn from it, we will not respect the culture we have spent these 200 years building.

No nation can survive if it does not value its past or its people. As Americans, we have allowed terrible damage to be done to our national consciousness by the many acts of callousness, greed and neglect displayed in the hours, days and months following Katrina. We have allowed our fellow Americans—citizens of this country—to be treated like cattle while we looked the other way, pretended we did not see. Our souls have been corrupted by the promise of the future, and we have forgotten to live with and love each other in the present. It will take years—perhaps a lifetime—to repair the damage done to New Orleans. But buildings can be rebuilt; they are just material things. I wonder if, as a people, we will ever possess the will to repair the gaping wounds we have inflicted upon our Spirit.


The people still need help--desperately. To contribute, please visit Network For Good for a list of charities assisting Katrina victims.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Leave 'Em Home

I know it’s not their fault—most of the time—but dammit, I really don’t like kids. I know it’s politically incorrect. I know they are the future (or so the song goes), and as a society, we need to do the best we can to bring them up properly so that our culture and species can continue to thrive. And some of them—the exceptions, I call them—are actually kind of cool. But in general—and I know I am not alone in this—I just don’t like them.

I work in a bookstore, where shelf upon shelf of books about parenting confront me every day. Earlier in my life, when the parenthood choice still loomed, I remember looking for books that would help me make the decision easier. I had never had a natural affinity for kids, never felt the parenthood instinct, and so I looked for books that would confirm that I was not alone. There weren’t more than one or two amongst the literally hundreds that crammed the shelves. I wondered what was “wrong” with me, why the gut instinct I had that children would be wrong for me was not something more people felt. I remember feeling even more desperate and alone than I had before. Was I really that much out of the mainstream?

Well a few years have gone by, and my decision to remain childfree proved to be the correct one for me. With my personality, inclination towards solitude and quiet, and with the odd trajectories my life has sometimes taken, there is no way that I could have been a proper parent. Some people are just not cut out for it, some people do more harm than good in rearing their children, and I just don’t want to be one of them. I have since found a couple books that confirm what I thought—that there are more than a few people out there who feel as I do about children and parenthood, that I am not alone in my revulsion toward the little humans. Indeed, the vast majority of my friends do not have children, and I often wonder why it is that we have mysteriously gravitated toward each other over the years. We never talk about it, but it’s definitely a part of why we are friends.

I also wonder about why it is that human society continues to celebrate parenthood to such a degree when there are so many overwhelming reasons not to procreate. The globe is heating up at an alarming rate; there is trash everywhere, and pollution and greed continue to destroy what’s left of our bounteous landscape. Where will these children go, I wonder, to enjoy the carefree aloneness that I felt growing up? Mankind has a lot of catching up to do in the procreation department. There is no reason to keep spitting out the puppies, and yet we still do. There are powerful forces that create the cultural zeitgeist, that control the advertising with which we are inundated on a daily basis, and they make money by reinforcing cultural norms, and more importantly, by creating new consumers. Yes, that is what we are, and that is why our earth is so much trouble. The sad truth is that the huge multinational corporations that dominate our world on both a personal and global basis make too much damned money from people’s procreation, and it is not until it becomes an enormous burden upon most people that things will begin to change.

The truth is that people have children for many reasons, and many of them aren’t any good at it. Parenting is as much instinctual as it is a skill, and like any other human trait, some of us are better at it than others. That’s just the way it is. It’s so easy to mess up childrearing—a fact that always terrified me back when I was still thinking about doing it—that I wish more people would think a little bit harder about what their real priorities are in becoming parents. (You can really mess up your kids, and while some may still thrive, some may never recover. Do you really want that hanging over your head your whole life? I don’t.) Do the parents out there feel a natural affinity for kids, or are they just doing it because “everyone else” is? Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. And you know what, I refuse to be made to feel inadequate, like less of person, because I have made the (very wise) decision not to be a parent. It’s not “greedy” or “selfish” to not want kids. On the contrary, I think it is both those things to recognize how messed up our planet already is, and to go ahead and bring children into this overpopulated, overburdened world in order to be one of the Joneses so one can “fit in” at the office, at the club, at the supermarket, is just plain asinine. If I want to look after someone else’s wishes beside my own—an argument people always use to slander the childfree is that we are too self-absorbed—I can go volunteer in a hospital, a nursing home, a school, a community center. I don’t need to bring a new life into the world in order to become less obsessed with mine.

Which is not to say that I don’t respect the choice to be a parent. I am in total awe of those of my friends who have chosen to make this leap. It’s a huge responsibility, and an irrevocable decision. And even those who didn’t do it by choice always say that they don’t regret a thing. But I know that sometimes people do, and that there are powerful social norms that keep them from ever saying anything. I know there are people out there who just should not have had children, who were forced into it by carelessness, by their parents and relatives (who, by the way, are not the ones who have to assume the physical, psychological and financial burdens of childrearing), and who often wish they had not become parents.

So modern society lies to us with all those books on the shelf. I know that there are people out there like me who are afraid to stand up and be counted on this issue. But I know that I am not alone, and I am not afraid. I have worked too long and too hard to discover who I am, to piece together the person I have become. And I know deep within myself that kids are not for me, and that this does not make me less of a person (though those who are secretly jealous of my childfree status constantly try to make me feel otherwise). And I will not apologize, and I will not explain. I don’t like kids, and I don’t want to be a parent.

So when I am out enjoying myself at an adult event in the adult world, I do not want kids around. You guys made the decision to have children, and it comes with a price—your freedom of choice and flexibility are gone. You have to plan, you have to hire a babysitter, you have to spend money to leave them behind. And that’s not my problem. If you can’t afford a babysitter, if it’s inconvenient, well that’s too bad. That’s the decision you made. I made mine, and I’m comfortable with it. You guys seem to be really good at making me feel selfish for being childfree. Well I think you’re selfish for dragging your kids every damn place where they don’t belong and obviously don’t want to be. One of the things about parenthood that so turned me off was the idea that you always have to put someone else’s needs ahead of your own. (This never seemed fair to me. I mean, you work hard all your life to get somewhere, to become who you are, and then suddenly this person you’ve become takes a back seat to the whiny little entity who wants to dump sand down his sister's shirt in the playground.) But that’s the choice you made. When you get up in the morning, and as you go through your day, that’s the priority you chose. So you know what, live with it. You can’t have it both ways. Children don’t belong in expensive restaurants, in bars, at loud rock shows. They don’t belong in R-rated movies, in strip clubs, or in casinos. That’s life. I mean, I made the choice to not have kids—don’t really like them—and yet they’re all around me. I don’t have a choice about that. But I do have a choice to sometimes go where children are not wanted, where they are not expected. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to be happy about finding a five-year-old running around underfoot whilst I’m trying to get my drink on. Life gives us more than enough crap to deal with—do we have to raise your children for you too?

Human society doesn’t have to be a war between the parents and the childfree (not childless—there is a difference). We really need to take better care of each other, and that only comes from—surprise, surprise—thinking about someone besides yourself. So you parents out there, hey, I know you’re desperate sometimes and you just want to have a little fun adult-style. Well guess what, so do I. As Bruce Springsteen often says, life is the series of choices you make and how you live with them. I’m living with mine, so please, you live with yours, ok? Leave ‘em home.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Bring the Rock

I had planned on trekking into the city last Saturday night to check out Walter Lure’s Waldos at the Continental in the East Village. Sometimes you just need that fix. But to paraphrase David Jo & Co., something happened on the way to Manhattan…

It was very hot and humid last Saturday afternoon—the kind of heat that makes you stick to the furniture. The kind where no matter how many beverages you drink, all your energy is consumed in just being. It’s hot like that, and we are sitting outside in the middle of downtown Long Branch, N.J. in a parking lot. This part of town is heavily Mexican; small groceries and taquerias line the street. For this afternoon gig outside the Shore Institute for Contemporary Arts (S.I.C.A.), an asphalt lot outside a converted warehouse has been transformed into a music venue, and as they run their Saturday afternoon errands, the locals wander by and pause to listen as various bands make their glorious noise. For many, this is probably the only live music they can afford. The sight of a band standing in the middle of a parking lot is even enough to lure the occasional car to pull over and listen. Live music just doesn’t happen in this part of town very often.

The sun blazing above them, the last band of the afternoon sets up in the lot by a brick wall. Outdoor shows are a unique challenge for any music outfit; you never know what the conditions are until you get there and start setting up. Today, this particular band is met with a performing space where the ground slopes slightly, and the drum kit keeps sliding towards the street. The smallish sound system is just barely enough. Undaunted, they have the soundman crank it as high as it will go, and they’re off. “Can’t Hardly Wait” opens the set. This song means everything to me, and I am fairly particular about where and when I hear it. I have heard plenty of bands cover the Westerberg classic, including two of my favorite bands ever, the BoDeans and Marah. It gives me goosebumps every time I hear it, and often brings tears, too. It’s just one of those songs. Today, instead of closing the set with it as bands so often do, Jersey Shore stalwarts maybe pete choose to open with it. An unusual choice, but it works.

Most bands work up to peak intensity level by the end of their set; maybe pete has it -- on a 90 plus degree-day -- from the beginning. This is professional show business, kids, and not for the faint of heart. Strap yourself in. And on and on they go, driving through one song after another, their faces flushed with heat. Amongst the original material is a rocking cover of Abba’s “Dancing Queen,” which I have also heard other bands do, and which I don’t recognize until Frankie, the lead singer, opens his mouth. This is a band that will try anything, knowing that their audience, which is seated somewhat incongruously across from them at white picnic tables, is always right there with them.

Cars continue to pull over to take in the proceedings. Folks stroll by in small groups; moms and babies, fathers and sons, groups of young men wandering aimlessly. They stop to listen, talking amongst themselves. They can't quite seem to figure out why this particular brand of entertainment has come to their neighborhood, why it is that today, they can hear this stuff for free. The music of maybe pete, which is loud even for a parking lot, is a deft mixture of Joey Ramone power and Jersey Shore passion. It draws a small, devoted following down here on the Shore, but Long Branch is a bit off the beaten path; usually to hear this music you have to drive down the road apiece. It is an odd audience for this show, the devoted fans and the casual observers, but somehow, it is exactly what is required.

After about 40 minutes, the set ends, and after a brief pause, it’s time for an encore. They play “Exit 140A,” a driving song about disappointment and survival. The beat picks up, and the song reaches its apex with a furious guitar duel between (husband and wife) guitarists Frankie and Kelly. The latter walks out into the parking lot towards the paying customers, while her husband edges closer and closer to the low wooden fence that borders the parking lot to his left. He is eyeing the fence—no, he is stepping up on it while he continues to wail on his guitar like a madman. He stands there, precariously balanced atop the fence, completely in the moment. We all hold our collective breath, convinced he is going to fall. He is tall and thin and ungainly, and does not appear to have the physical coordination to survive this foray unscathed. But in the blink of an eye, he is down off his perch on the fencepost and onto the sidewalk outside the parking lot, where a startled group of passers by stands transfixed. He is standing inches from a small boy, motioning to him to strum the strings of his guitar. The boy doesn’t quite get the message, but Frankie doesn’t care; he continues to wail away on his Fender before the startled throng. He walks back into the parking lot, and turns to face the band, feedback raining down around him as he puts his guitar down on the ground at center stage. Kelly has had enough; she hands him her guitar and walks off to the snack bar to get a well-deserved drink of water. Her husband increases the cacophony by adding her guitar to the mix before, at last, turning again to signal the song’s end to his band mates, leaping in the air and collapsing in a heap. Sweaty and red-faced, the remaining band members slowly walk off in search of liquid relief. Frankie finds his way to a chair and sinks down, shaky and drained.

Some days you just need the music. You need someone to bring the rock, to lift you up and out of the mundane. I had been anticipating this feeling all week, waiting for Saturday night so I could go into the city and rock it with Walter and his Waldos, waiting to come to life once again after another week of drudgery at work. But even on their best nights, Walter and the Continental represent a bygone era. They are figures from the past, their best days behind them. When I got home Saturday evening, I thought about whether I had the energy and the inclination to make the one hour-plus trip into Manhattan. It didn’t take me long. After that hot afternoon on the Jersey Shore, resurrecting the past no longer seemed necessary. The rock had been brought to the people, right there on the street--where it started, where it belongs. The spirit of Johnny Thunders and his Heartbreakers was alive and well in the present in a parking lot in Long Branch, N.J.

I’m sure Walter was great; he always is. But I never did make it into the city last Saturday night. I didn’t need to.