Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Not Lost in the Supermarket

Walking down Ditmars Boulevard this morning, I saw something odd that struck a chord. It was simply three people walking: a mother and her two sons, who appeared to be roughly 10 and 15 years of age. The 10-year-old was skipping and holding his mother’s hand as they walked. Both of them looked over-joyed to be with each other. The 15-year-old walked a few dozen feet in front of them, sullen, wearing his standard-issue goon's hooded zipper sweatshirt, turning around every now and then to make sure they were still there. He looked like he wanted to be anywhere but there.

I should be down on that 15-year-old, but you know something? It made me recall feeling the same way at that age. And one of my more embarrassing teenage memories: making my mother walk apart from me whenever we went to the local mall. It just wasn’t cool to acknowledge that relationship at that age. “Not cool” is an understatement – “the death of cool” would be more accurate.

Of course, this sort of memory conjures up all sorts of “unfair to Mom” memories: berating her for unexpectedly buying me a Phillies t-shirt that I initially loathed but later fell in love with; going apeshit on her when my grandmother threw out my stuffed dog (see picture); giving her a hard time when she was carrying on like a mental patient the few minutes before I was set to drive away to college (not realizing she was far more upset than I was).

Well, even without Dad dying, this is some embarrassing shit to recall. But honest. If there’s one thing I could tell that kid, it would be nothing. Because unless his mother dies unexpectedly in the next few years, he’ll have a few more decades to work through that meaningless “cool” shit in his head and find his way to the other end – the one where you recognize your parents are just decent, flawed people, hopefully like you are. (Apologies to those with parents who weren’t decent – I know you’re out there.)

A few months ago, Mom had a bad scare, spending a few weeks feeling out of sorts physically, before she went to the doctor to find she had a grapefruit-sized tumor next to her kidneys. Thankfully, it wasn’t cancerous and was easily removable with an operation. But even this is an ordeal for a 70+ year-old woman, so it was a few weeks of very bad tension, especially with dad’s passing so fresh in everyone’s mind. She’s appeared to come out of it all right – a little weaker, but not doing that bad at all.

When I go back to visit now, if I’m home when she grocery shops on Wednesdays, I tag along and help out. It’s certainly not asking too much. Sort of freaks me out how she leans forward in the car seat and never wears a seat belt. Makes me wonder how much she must struggle hauling in the groceries by herself. But in the store, she has her agenda, has done this for decades and knows exactly where to find everything. She still wears that nutty sun visor and black windbreaker with my name on the right breast and the logo for the awful outdoor advertising company I worked for back in the early 90s on the left. Classic Mom – been that way for years and I wouldn’t want it any different.

It’s little trips like those that keep me connected in some way – much like Dad and I did with our drives to and from the bus station. Lord only knows how I’d feel about all this if I still lived back there and was around all the time. But the simple reality is I don’t, and if there’s one thing I learned from Dad’s passing is that time will run out on all of us. And when it does, you had better be squared away in some sense with the people who go.

I’m not saying hug your parents or any such shit. Just pay attention and take some time to be around. Recognize that it will all end one day, and you will more than likely carry on afterwards with a strange feeling you’ve never had before, i.e., being parentless. For people who’ve felt that way for decades, sorry. Whether your parents died young, were unforgivable assholes, or you simply never knew them, something went radically wrong there. They should have been around for decades, and you should feel the weight of their passing, as much as it hurts and leaves you reeling when it happens.

Coming back to that kid on the street today, I was amazed at how forgiving I felt towards him. Besides which, some finger-shaking “appreciate your mother while she’s still around, young man” routine would have been met with a snide “fuck you, buddy, mind your own business.” Especially around these parts! Hopefully, he’ll have time to see the error of his ways, and find his way around to that place where he can recognize he played a very bad trick on himself in his younger days. Because reality is one day he’s going to turn around and not see anyone behind him to feel embarrassed over. And those few hard, revelatory moments in life, friends, are when it gets as real as it ever will.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Property Values

I came across an interesting website,, that offers general property values for given land areas, probably based on real-estate agencies submitting houses-for-sale to their website to help generate business.

Let’s just say it was a real eye-opener when I typed in my zip code for Astoria, Queens and found the average price of a house is $715,000. (Most houses in the neighborhood are two-story rectangular row houses – often with separate apartment units on each floor – along with a basement and possibly a small backyard or garage area.)

The site also allows you to check out price variations in the past 10 years. In 1996, the average price for a house in this neighborhood was a little over $100,000. What happened in the interim? Manhattan apartment values went completely insane – you have to be rich or living like an idiot to make it there now. (Being both helps.) As a result, all those college-educated white folk with money, generally fresh out of college, looked for other places white folk could live in reasonable comfort – and Astoria is one of those last few places in the outer boroughs of New York City. Thus, from about 2000 onwards, rents and property values have sky-rocketed in the neighborhood.

I’m not sure what’s going on here. Who can afford to buy a house for $715K? Certainly not the working-class people who have lived there for decades. The first apartment I moved into in Astoria, back in 1997, had recently been bought by a Greek guy named Akis, a mechanic, who moved him and his family (wife and three kids) into the ground floor apartment in the back, rented the front apartment to me, and had two renters in separate upstairs one-bedroom apartments.

(He left the basement open for his own use, although his two teenage girls often got noisy down there, causing me to put some Suicide or Pere Ubu on the stereo and put my speakers face down on the floor. I eventually left the place because of the constant noise, whether it was the girls blasting shitty dance music, or one of their teenage Brandos out front blasting hiphop as his car idled in front of the house, or passionately throwing a garbage can down the alley next to the house as part of some mating ritual.)

But Akis had saved up just enough to put money down on what was then a $100K house, of which he could probably make enough simply by renting out three units to cover his monthly mortgage payments. It was a smart move on his part. Now? He’s sitting on a house that would sell for $700K. Does this make him lucky? You tell me. He could sell the house, but in doing so, where does he move? If he tries to stay in the neighborhood, he gets gouged. If he tries to step up to the suburbs with his new-found wealth, he’ll get hit with a similarly high mortgage, on top of insane property taxes and such – at the end of the day, he’s still a mechanic and making that sort of money. If he got the urge for a more rural way of life, he could do this, although far, far away from New York City.

You’ll find this quandary in a lot of places in America. About the only people who make out, aside from evil real-estate bastards who foster these kind of impossible living situations, are the beneficiaries (i.e., kids) of homeowners who are not long for this world. All over Astoria, you will find old working-class Greek men and women living in these $700K houses – houses they most likely paid about $30K for back in the 50s and 60s. They raised their families there, the kids moved out, often to the 'burbs of Long Island, and now these old folks usually live on the first floor of these houses, renting out the second story and basement apartments.

When they pass on, the kids will win the lottery, assuming there’s no feuding going on and they receive the property in the will. My living situation now is inhabiting a basement studio with an aging landlady who lives on the first floor. (She also rents out the top floor apartment to another older woman.) She has two daughters, and it seems that they’re constantly feuding over something, who knows what. I can generally tell when they’re not feuding by the clip-clop thuds of her grandchildren running rampant on the floor of her apartment.

She had a bad health scare about three years ago, some type of stomach problem that required major surgery, and any time she’s not up there (which she usually is 24/7) for a few days at a stretch, I get worried, even if she’s only visiting a relative. My rent is about $300 less per month than the market value in the neighborhood, which is absolutely insane these days. I have a sweet deal, I know it, and I do my best to help her out since her health was hit hard by that operation. I keep her back patio and sidewalks clean, shovel snow in the winter, make sure her gas heater is running properly, do her bills for her (she can't read or write English and trusts me to pay these for her with money orders ... which I do without fail), keep my apartment spotless, etc. Not life-saving stuff, but enough to let her know I appreciate the cheap rent and help out as a result.

When she passes on, or if she gets too ill to live alone, I fully expect her daughters to sell the house. They’d be nuts not to – as noted earlier, in Astoria this is now like winning the lottery. And when that happens, you can assume I’m gone, or will be offered an extortionate rent. Because whoever buys the house will have to rent out the whole thing at market value or greater to keep pace with mortgage payments and property taxes. As for me living in the same neighborhood, when I talk to people living there, I get the vibe that their sweet old landladies are gouging them at market value or greater – thus ensuring a revolving door on each apartment as people get tired of spending $900 for a studio apartment in what’s still a gritty working-class neighborhood. While many of their neighbors, who have lived there for years, are paying $400 a month for the same type of space.

I’d either have to go back to ghetto living a la the Bronx, which wasn’t all that bad in my 20s but doesn’t much appeal to me now, or get the hell out of New York. Or do what I’ve been carping against for a very long time – find some corporate job that pays near or above six figures and bury myself in a way of life I want no part of.

That’s the problem I’m having the world in general: the recognition that we’re all being forced into ways of life that focus mainly on the making of money. I’ve noticed this throughout my entire life. Then again, when you’re a kid, even when you’re in college or directly out of it, money isn’t (or at least shouldn’t) be a major concern. But I can clearly see that my Dad worked a basic factory job and managed to have a house with a yard, and the ability to support a family of six (four kids, wife and a mother) while doing this. As little as 10 years ago, a mechanic like Akis could save up, buy a house in Queens and make a reasonable go of it. (If I had my thinking cap on, I would have bit the corporate bullet for a few years, bought a house in Astoria in 1995, and sold the damn thing now for seven times what I paid for it – then again, I suspect very few people saw this real-estate boom coming.)

If just feels like this obsession with money has made us all less human. I don’t mean that in an evil sense. I mean in the sense of not having the time, mind frame or references to have a simple appreciation of life. I always get a kick out of corporate heads who make a big show of how well they understand life, that they have everything. Without fail, these guys (and sometimes women) are working all the time. One of them told me, “Bill, the secret to life is to realize that it’s all one thing: work, play, family. Your life is one thing, not separate compartments that you have to make time for.”

But he’s not so much wrong as someone I recognized was addicted to work and his resultant wealth. I liked the guy in general, he had a good attitude I respected. But I could see that his family was a distant second to work, and the only way to compensate was to throw big to-do’s, reunions and such at Kennedy-family style compounds, when it was clear to me his wife was alone most of the time and running on automatic pilot, his kids were distant to hostile towards him, and it wouldn’t occur to him that this set-up was in any way wrong. It’s a pretty rare instance in the corporate world where I meet “successful” people who actually spend any real time with their family. They either don’t and pretend they do, or they don’t and regret it. But money goes a long way as a substitute for real happiness -- not an insult so much as recognition of a simple truth.

Sorry if I sound like a hippie, man. You know how much I hate those folks. I think they essentially had the right idea, and most of them were the children of affluent families who wanted to reject those values, or expose the false aspects of those values, as noted in the previous paragraph. (Never mind that many of them later embraced those values in ways that made their gaudy parents look like Oklahoma dirt farmers.) All I want is a sane way of life, in which you don’t need a truckload of money just to function like a normal human being. The older I get, the less I see this happening anywhere in America. Surely not in New York!

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Fearless Freaks

Documentaries on rock bands tend to be hit-or-miss affairs. Look no further than The Stones, who have interesting stuff like Gimme Shelter matched with utter garbage like Sympathy for the Devil and any of their concert movies. I went to see many concert movies in theatres, which was an awful idea. These things are dead on a movie screen, or at least we're trained to respond to movies and rock concerts differently, and everyone just sort of stares at each other in the dark, wondering if they’re supposed to be having more fun.

One that I’ve been watching quite a bit lately is The Fearless Freaks, which chronicles the Flaming Lips from their early-teen years up through their hugely successful Yoshimi album from a few years ago. It’s an interesting watch, including the commentary track, as they managed to include a truckload of Super 8 footage from lead singer Wayne Coyne’s bizarre working-class childhood in 1970s Oklahoma.

(Wayne’s recollection of his father’s passing is also touching. Pretty much like mine. Months of the emotional equivalent of radio static, followed by death’s silence, which is no better. Nothing romantic, sentimental or final about it – just a very bad shit storm we all must go through. Songs like “Waiting for a Superman” and “Do You Realize” make a lot more sense in this context.)

The documentary gets its title from a loose group of Wayne’s older brothers and friends in the early 70s forming an impromptu football team called the Fearless Freaks. All stoners, losers and outsiders, kids who never went out for sports in school, and a big part of their lives was to play neighborhood football games with each other and against other towns and neighborhoods. They even went so far as to design t-shirts with their own logo (see picture to the left).

The Super 8 footage of this gang is amazing and takes me straight back to that time in my life. I suspect gangs of kids like the Fearless Freaks existed all over rural America, loose collections of hard-edged stoners who liked sports, but despised the social hierarchy associated with playing the organized version in high school.

You have to realize the time lag that existed between big national trends occurring and how long they took to filter through to acceptability in rural America. I had the shock of my life in an English class in 1980 researching old high-school yearbooks from about 1968 through 1976 for a project. The kids from 1968 through 1972, for the most part, looked like they came out of the 1950s: crew cuts, a few bouffant hair-do’s, etc. There was an occasional hippie, and he would really stand out. It seemed like 1972-74 was ground zero for hippiedom to filter down to rural America – those yearbooks were filled with hippie freaks. Girls picking “Dazed and Confused” as their favorite song. (I’ll always remember with my older brothers’ class, 1978, dozens of kids selecting Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine” as their favorite song.)

Thanks to MTV and cable TV in general, I don’t think that time lag is as radical as it once was. Rest assured, by the mid-70s, all those kids on the tail end of the Baby Boom in my hometown were long-haired and, in many cases, stoned. Our neighborhood was simply swarming with kids between the ages of 10 and 20. A few of the older ones went to ‘Nam, but most were slightly too young for that. We’re talking at least 40 or 50 kids in a town of, what, 200 people? It was a lot of kids for such a small town. If I were my age now back then, I’d have shit my pants. There were at least a dozen kids who were constantly stoned and/or in serious trouble, and more than few of them went on to do stints in jail for various misadventures, most drug or theft related. A few checked out of the planet early.

Me being a kid at the time, it didn’t occur to me to feel threatened, playing baseball with guys who were wired on crank or what have you. Probably because these guys were normally huge assholes anyway and may have been slightly more likeable when they were high. I was slightly younger, 12 years old in 1976, and the older teenagers in that year were a motley assortment of stoners, weirdoes and the occasional “good kid” who wasn’t perpetually wasted.

Despite this, you’d be amazed at how crucial sports was to so many of us growing up in the neighborhood. Plenty of us followed football, baseball and basketball, collecting trading cards and such, but I mean simply playing those sports in the neighborhood when they were in season. Generally, baseball was April through August, football was September through December, and basketball was December through March, although that was more sporadic due to snowfall and colder weather. If there weren’t enough kids around, we’d play touch football and rubber-ball baseball in the schoolyard right next to my house (which is still there, albeit a day-care center now). If we got enough kids, say, eight or nine kids per side, we’d head over to the grass fields of the cemetery or hospital to play hardball or tackle football.

I’d write it all down to sheer boredom that we’d all be out there from five to seven days a week playing these games when they were in season. There simply wasn’t much else to do. If kids weren’t into sports? They were placed a bit on the outside, although this would slowly lose its meaning once a kid hit sixteen, and would be gone by the time he hit eighteen. Once kids could drive, they found other ways to entertain themselves, meaning driving the circuit between all those towns in the northern part of Schuylkill County, listening to heavy metal and rock on the eight track, and doing fun shit like shooting pool at Holiday Lanes or partying in the woods.

But in terms of sports, the most violent, by far, was tackle football. Things got nuts sometimes. I remember kids doing splits, getting broken arms, noses and legs. Fights of all sorts. Blood-stained t-shirts, ripped pants. Kids tend to be pretty flexible and stout in terms of contact sports, but even with that, it was rough stuff. I’ll never forget the one time when I went out for a pass, and Pat S., who was smaller than me but a better athlete, made an amazing interception in front of me. For some reason, this enraged me. I chased him down and laid a hit on his back that was mindblowing. I laid there afterwards, groaning and literally seeing stars. Pat just laid there whimpering and shaking like a dog having a nightmare. Luckily, my hit made him fumble the ball, and my team got it back. Pat stumbled home once he could walk again, and I played on with a weird buzzing sensation in my head. But I think that one hit made me think, “What’s the point of all this?”

By the time I was of age, it was mainly neighborhood kids playing against each other. But my older brother J got hooked into the intra-town rivalries between these Fearless Freak style teams of stoners and unofficial jocks. Basically, kids would pile into their used Novas and station wagons, then drive to some barren, often rocky, desolate field in a town and play tackle football with each other. These games were known for being especially violent, I guess with town pride on the line. Please note there were no spectators for these games. It was just outsider kids playing against each other, with nothing to gain, no social status to achieve through winning. Just the concept of your hard-assed little town beating the shit out of the guys from another hard-assed little town.

What was really strange was that very few of these guys ever played high-school sports – maybe 20%, at most. In The Fearless Freaks documentary, Wayne Coyne puts forth that these guys were just as good as the high-school athletes. But this really wasn’t true, at least for us. A lot of these kids were good athletes, but they weren’t disciplined or talented enough to compete on an organized level. They probably were just as tough as high-school athletes, and certainly had worse/more frightening reputations. I seem to recall a sort of begrudging respect between most high-school athletes and stoners who only played unofficially. But there’s simply no way a reasonably talented kid on a high-school team going through hours of strength/stamina drills a few days a week was going to be less competitive than some natural athlete getting high those same few days and really not doing much of anything physical between these informal games.

Frankly, by the time I hit thirteen or so, I was pretty fucking fed-up with team sports. As noted earlier, our house was right next to the schoolyard, meaning any time any sort of game was imminent, there’d be a knock on our door to see if we’d come out and play. Simply because we were right there, it was automatically assumed we’d play in all the games. And by thirteen or fourteen, shit, I was just as happy sacking out in my spare time with a Stephen King book or something, as I became a voracious reader about that time. I also got into running around then, doing seven- or three-mile runs along the back roads around our town, and tennis, as the sport was huge in America at the time, and there were plenty of public courts around. (Let’s not talk about my teenage golf phase … it’s still too painful.)

And I recall feeling like I wish these guys would just leave me the hell alone. Most of the kids got the message in the next few years, but it took some of us longer than others to ditch the sports habit. Yeah, it was boredom, and the feeling of an impromptu tackle football game that you could be obliterated at any moment, and this was quite a rush. Like those older stoners, I didn't have much of an urge to experience this on a high-school team, lasting only a season or two in basketball before I realized I didn't like the scene. (In some ways, I kick myself for missing out on high-school sports, and in other ways, I don't. My knees can't predict rain, like they can for some guys still suffering from injuries they received back then.)

So when I see Wayne Coyne’s old Super 8 footage of shirtless guys with long-hair and headbands, playing ball in a beat-down looking vacant lot, I recognize the images from my own life, and feel a strange shock of recognition. Wouldn’t call it entirely comfortable, but I know where the guy’s coming from. And as kids these days don't seem to indulge nearly as much in this sort of stuff, I have to wonder how or if they socialize with each other in any real way. Because however tedious and boring this shit got with passing time, these games were how many of us came to know and respect each other. I'm not sure how hanging out with a gamebox and a TV set changes all this, but it surely must.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Redneck Mystique, #2

Well, now’s as good a time as any, as last night I finally caught Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 on the Sundance Channel. It didn’t make me physically ill, but as usual with his work, I sat there shaking my head, completely amazed at the racket he has going. Then again, plenty of right-leaning people are getting just as wealthy with their cherry-picking skills, gross manipulation and lies of omission. (As for seeing this is in a theatre, forget it. I’m not putting money in his pocket, the same way I’m not buying any Ann Coulter books. It’s a racket aimed at taking money from a well-defined audience, not a search for truth.)

A good question regarding the Redneck Mystique: how did so many working-class white people end up voting for Bush? If you recall, the immediate aftermath of the 2004 election was utter disbelief on the left that this had happened. Shock, disgust, rage, the birth of this Red State/Blue State nonsense, accusations of fraud, less-than-vague threats to move to Canada or elsewhere. (Judging by the results of Canada’s last election, people who pulled out that regrettable line might have been better off with an empty promise to go to France.)

I don’t have the answer as to why this happened, although I have a few ideas that may shed some light. It’s not enough to say that people didn’t vote for Kerry so much as they voted for Bush. Kerry wasn’t all that bad a candidate, although I think the Dems would have won with Edwards, who was younger, wasn’t carrying any baggage regarding the military and could have pulled at least some of the southern vote. The only way Kerry looked like a complete idiot was regarding his military career, which is a shame, because the guy served in Vietnam, as opposed to fumbling through the National Guard. Unfortunately, one got the impression that if there was no war going on, he would have went full-on with the image of anti-war protester he established after leaving the army. In other words, circumstances defined his political stance, as opposed to him having a set stance regardless of circumstances. It showed.

I think a lot of working-class white people relate to Bush in terms of how he’s attacked by the left, which is to position him as a total idiot. This is a grave mistake, whether or not he’s a total idiot. Because the way he’s being attacked is fairly synonymous with how working-class white people are openly portrayed in society – as total idiots, white trash, crackers, rednecks, the only acceptable socio-economic targets to openly shoot at and not be accused of bigotry. (I know … I do it myself.) Whether it’s accidental or a ploy, Bush has a way of deflecting these attacks by shrugging and saying, “What am I supposed to do? If you don’t’ like me, I can’t change that, nor do I want to.”

That sort of stubbornness hits a real working-class nerve. And people aren’t wrong to relate to that. What’s interesting is that Bush is a pampered Ivy Leaguer who’s had financial opportunities galore dropped in his lap and has lead a life of privilege, much like John Kerry. (Part of Bill Clinton’s massive appeal was simply that he came out of nowhere and made himself, which is extremely rare in American politics on that level.) Bush’s greatest act of intelligence is his ability to maintain a down-home image of a regular guy, when the truth is far from that. That’s the political equivalent of gold, an extreme act of intelligence and no accident.

I believe that the harder he was attacked, the more working-class white people related to him. This also positioned the Democrats as reactionary, as opposed to having their own agenda, regardless of what Bush and the Republicans were doing. The theme of a movie like Fahrenheit 9/11 can be summed up in one sentence: I have no answers. (Therefore, let me smear my opponent with every trick I have, fair and foul, and see if I can kick his ass in this manner … despite the fact that I have no answers.)

Let’s not forget religion. I’m not even talking about the far right and fundamentalists. Faith seems like a bad joke to plenty of people on the left. If this is a misconception on my part, then folks on the left better throw on the brakes and reconsider their point of view, because if I (as a deeply nonreligious person) notice it, you can rest assure active Christians feel this loathing in their bones. I don’t think the Christian vote, especially with working-class whites, is patently Republican. There’s a reason Democratic politicians aren’t coming out in favor of an issue like gay marriage – because they recognize it could be political death to them if they’ve miscalculated their core constituency. Even if that constituency supports them in their home state, it could still spell death on a national level if they hold presidential aspirations.

I have to believe a huge reason why so many working-class white people sided with Bush was a reactionary stance against the left. Consider the 1972 election, deep in the pit of Vietnam, where Nixon pounded McGovern (this was where the 60s truly ended). The “silent majority” rose up, seemingly out of nowhere, and gave Nixon a landslide. As with 2004 (which was much closer), the left was in utter shock – how could this happen with an unpopular war going on? And I think the answer is there are lot of working-class people stuck in the middle in terms of politics, who could easily be swayed one way or the other, but when you have an extremely vocal/visible far left, these voters will be less offended by the far right (who in reality is just as offensive … but at least shares some of the same core values that affect elections). The left isn’t political poison; it serves a vital purpose in introducing issues that make sense but take time to put over politically. But a simple reality is it is a far harder sell politically than the right, which favors “traditional” values, i.e., time-tested values as opposed to new ideas.

And from what I saw in those months post-election, there were plenty of people on the left who didn’t learn a god-damned thing from Bush’s victory. Their immediate response was to start in with “red state” accusations, threats to leave the country (which were met with “don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out” comments from Americans who'd never dream of leaving under any circumstance), retreaded accusations of voting fraud, etc. Forget about politics -- bitterness is always ugly. In terms of politics, it’s a wet dog rolling in shit. Rather than focusing on regrouping and examining what went wrong, the immediate impulse was to attack those they held accountable for Bush’s victory. I got the vibe their wrath wasn’t so much directed at the far right and the wealthy – as usual, it was the white working-class, who, by all rights, should be overwhelmingly Democratic, but have somehow been co-opted by the Republicans.

As I write this, I have Country Music Television (CMT) on in the background. Thankfully, Trick My Truck is not on. (Sidenote: what has happened to mechanics? They used to be bone-thin guys wearing service shirts with “Gus” emblazoned on the left breast pocket, smoking Luckies. Now, they seem to be shaved-head, weightlifting goons in wraparound shades, with soul patches, ugly tribal tattoos and a slovenly taste for cry-baby nĂ¼-metal music.) But it’s instructive to watch country-music videos, as many of them play like right-leaning propaganda – themes of family, home, work, country, religion. All are beautifully filmed, like a dream, aimed at the emotions of the audience. On one hand, I can see right through this stuff and how deeply manipulative/calculated it is, but on the other, it’s brilliant, too. It works in reaching fans on an every-day level, making them stop and think, “Yeah, that’s what my life is like, how did they know?”

I’d recommend CMT as required viewing for any presidential candidate and his advisors. Because however cheesy a lot of these videos and country artists are (and they are … I much prefer Hank Sr. getting fucked up on speed and whiskey, and threatening to jump in a river), they touch a nerve in ways that any politician would pay a fortune to emulate in a campaign. On a national level, any sort of movement is based on stereotypes and cynicism, like it or not – to move people on a mass level, you need to find common denominators and exploit them. I think the Republicans are simply better at this now than the Democrats are. They’re also very good at exploiting fear, real and imagined, and I don’t see that wave dissipating for at least a few more years, something I recognized immediately after 9/11. It's not so much that the Democrats don't have a clue as to how to do this, as they seem too confused to agree on how to do this.

Compare and contrast with this. In many bookstores in Manhattan, generally well displayed, there is what I call The Idiot Table. The Idiot Table is a display of nothing but political-themed books – as noted earlier, each aimed at a well-defined audience who knows what they’re getting when they buy these things, which is false affirmation of their political beliefs. (I’m not sure the readers know or believe they’re false, but that’s the magic of propaganda.) This is a huge market for booksellers, and I tip my cap to them and the writers for recognizing this and exploiting it to its fullest.

One day, I was passing by The Idiot Table, and I noticed a frowning, angry-looking woman turning over the top book on each stack of books. I paused to notice that every book she was turning over was by a right-leaning author – Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, etc. I must have paused too long, because she looked up and noticed me watching her. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but it was to the effect of “just doing my duty as a concerned American.” And I responded something like, “Don’t you realize you draw more attention to those books by turning them face down, that people browsing books are more likely to turn them over to see the cover?”

She called me a nazi, told me to go fuck myself and stormed out of the store (Borders on 57th Street and Park Avenue), hopefully to renew her prescription for whatever was keeping her so bright and cheerful. While that woman represents no one but herself, I also sense that sort of rage and resentment on the left is something the Democrats are going to have to deal with if they want to reclaim portions of the white working-class who have at least temporarily abandoned them. American politics are such these days that you'll find plenty of voters who cross party lines on a regular basis. This fall's congressional elections should be interesting, but if Democrats think Iraq is the main issue they're going to exploit, I suspect they're not going to gain back lost ground in either house.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Acting Like an Adult

Lately, I’ve been pondering what it means to be an adult. Although it may appear the opposite, I’m an extremely responsible person. You don’t need kids, a mortgage and a high-powered job to be a responsible adult. You could slip me into any of those roles, and I’d do fine, regardless of the misery factor associated with each.

I simply hold myself accountable and let people know this. Then again, I was much the same growing up, so I’m not sure that’s the essence of adulthood. Recently, I’ve slipped into the slovenly habit of catching ABC’s Monday night wife-swapping show: where the wives from two disparate families will trade places for two weeks and, predictably, encounter an unfamiliar world of shit compared to their comfy home lives. (This is what happens when a Southern Baptist moves in with a family of holistic bikers on acid.) Why it’s always wives being swapped, I don’t know – save to say it’s pretty bizarre how many households they manage to find where only the husband works. I didn’t know set-ups like this still existed.

The last episode I caught had a young couple with two kids who were street performers. The husband had some strange blue star-shaped tattoos on his cheeks and a metal plate inserted into his head so he could screw in two small metal horns, which poked out just above his closely-cropped hairline. (During the closing-scene roundtable meeting between both couples, he kicked a few chairs over and stormed off the set when his swapped “wife” accused him of being a negligent parent.) Invariably, there is at least one husband on each show like this – a guy who seems like he picked a certain age (14, 18, 22) and stopped growing at that point emotionally, regardless of having kids, a house, a job, etc.

It’s not so much the lame shock value of a guy going around with horns and a tattooed face (next to a swastika-tattooed adam’s apple, an unsubtle way of saying “please don’t employ me”) as it is the reality of a grown man, generally in his 30s or 40s, going through life with a maturity level stalled out in late teens or early adulthood.

I’ve noticed this, too, with concerts. Specifically, older recording artists charging a boat-load of money to see them – and, more unbelievably, the concerts selling out every stop of the tour. My rule of thumb with shows is anywhere over $35 is straight out – most of those big-name older artists are charging anywhere from $80 to upwards of $200 per ticket for their shows. Artists who more than likely charged $10, give or take, back when seeing them live made perfect sense in the 70s and 80s.

If you want to go see Styx and Journey at a fairground, go ahead, but, fuck’s sake, shouldn’t that have been something we all abandoned by, say, 1985? More than anything, I think it’s bored, aging fans who never managed (or wanted) to shift gears or grow musically, and the newer stuff that has come along since isn’t knocking their socks off. (For good reason – most of it sucks and/or is geared towards kids.) I can remember back in the 80s laughing at people attending “oldies” concerts for 50s and 60s artists on package tours – for the life of me, our generation is just as bad, and worse for paying extortionate prices to do so. A 45-year-old man taking his son to a KISS concert? Imagine that in 1976. It just didn’t happen, unless the father was tagging along to make sure his son didn’t get high. Now the son has to tag along to make sure his father doesn’t get too drunk to drive them home.

Walk into a store specializing in comics and sci-fi memorabilia, and most of the customers will be adult males … who missed an important fucking boat a long time ago. I’m trying to picture my father and his three brothers, World War II vets, coming home from that war in their mid-20s and playing with Flash Gordon dolls. It just doesn’t pan out. Granted, a lot of this is simply pop culture becoming a force in the marketplace, but when does it end? Will there be 80-year-old men playing with KISS dolls in retirement homes one day? Paying $500 in 2020 to see Springsteen play “Born to Run” – or would it be “Born to Roll” at that point?

There just seems to be some strange cultural inertia that encourages men in our society not to grow up – not too dissimilar from my earlier post about men being encouraged to be as feminine as possible. I think part of that is the aging of baby boomers, and their refusal to let go of the cultural limelight, which will always be tied in with the 60s. But turn on a TV, or open a magazine, and you’ll be presented with childish men who position themselves as errant little boys who need to be spanked or coddled, or some professional wrestling take on the world, where the volume is turned up to 11 and life is one big beer commercial.

I’m hardly above it all either. I don’t have a wife or kids, which makes alarms go off with people who think they have gadar (but don’t, unless spotting gay guys who are practically carrying around flashing pink neon signs stating "I'm Gay!" counts for anything). I’m not gay – if I was, I sure as hell would have acted on it by now in one of the few places on earth where it’s openly encouraged. I just think marriage is a huge step to take, and judging from what I’ve seen from friends who’ve made it, and just as often ended up in messy, painful divorces and separations, I’m in no hurry. Over half of all marriages go down in flames these days, and from what I’ve seen, a lot of people stay married because throwing in the towel would create such enormous problems, be it with kids, finances or simply comfort levels, that it just wouldn’t be worth the trouble. (My apologies to those who are happily married, whose quiet response would be, “Well, ‘happily' is debatable, but we’re still here …”)

As for owning a home, buddy, in New York City, forget it. It just aint happening here, and I do envy people in other parts of the country who can reasonably afford a home with a piece of land – the one thing that I would like to do some time in my life. But unless I start robbing banks, it just won’t happen in this insane city.

Simply stated, adulthood is accountability. I often meet people younger than I am who are clearly acting like adults. Meaning they’ve adopted stances, often based on seniority in a workplace, or possibly having kids, where they see themselves as authority figures and act accordingly. And that always feels clammy and wrong to me, like they’ve bought a forfeit version of adulthood based solely on appearance. I didn’t like adults who acted this way when I was a kid, and I don’t like fellow adults who act like this now. I could take that attitude alone, but often that will be accompanied by pity bordering on contempt for anyone not choosing to live like they do, which is just unforgivably wrong and indicative of someone living life in outline format.

By the same token, I can’t fault these people for trying to move forward with their lives, instead of maintaining some ironic distance established in their early 20s. New York is filled with folks like this, who might have come here because anonimity is preferable to everyone knowing what irredeemable douche bags they really are. I find myself growing more tired of that stance as I go along. My point? I don’t know how to act like an adult, although I know how to be one. I don't know how to act like anything, save an asshole, and I'm not sure how much of that is acting.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Play Ball!

With baseball season starting this week, I’ll post a picture of my 1975 Little League team, the Ashland Phillies.

Back in the 90s, I wrote a pretty solid piece about my Little League days for Leisure Suit webzine. I also wrote a more comprehensive article on a passage from that piece regarding our coach, Barry, getting a line shot in the balls for the NYPress. (Let me know if you’d like PDF copies of either.)

I’d like to write a short paragraph about each player in order, and other things I can see in this decrepit-looking picture. It appeared only two years ago in the local paper back home, in one of those “Remember When” sections, but the actual photo in the paper pretty much was this old-looking. Then again, 1975 was 31 years ago, so I better wrap my mind around pictures like this being from 1945 to my 1975 mind -- you know, '45, when we beat Hitler?

Gene Fertig: a great pitcher, had a hell of an arm. The kind of kid who was very emotional, too, cried and kicked over shit in the dug out when he was taken out of the game. This stuff was kind of embarrassing in one sense, but there was no doubting how much the kid cared about the game.

Jim Stavinski: Jimbo. A small-but-tough guy, the catcher. Had buck teeth. I remember him getting absolutely wiped out by much larger guys while he was guarding home plate, and he always got up afterwards.

Brian Chikotas: Our shortstop, another small kid, but a good athlete. We called him Chico, because of his last name and the popular TV show Chico and the Man. He looks Asian, and his name sounds vaguely Hispanic, but I don't know what he was ethnically.

Bob Hepler: He wasn’t too coordinated and got stuck in right field a lot. Like most kids who weren’t that good, Bob was very smart, probably a genius. It was always good to have kids like this on the team – they were like kid philosophers, never getting too hung up on the game itself, always keeping an eye on reality.

George Bilder: The only kid on the team from my hometown and whom I still know now. George played left field and was pretty good at it. In this picture, he bears a startling resemblance to the Timmy Lupus character from the original Bad News Bears. Please note how he’s separated himself ever so slightly from the rest of team – even back then, he’d had enough.

Mark Kaufman: For the life of me, I can’t remember a thing about this kid! He looks like a normal kid, doesn’t he?

Rodney Shivelhood: The team bad boy. Rodney was a troubled youth. He “played” right field, which just as often meant him sitting out there with his shoes off, tossing his glove in the air and catching it. He just didn’t seem to give a shit about anything. I’d be curious to see how he’s doing now, because he was also in trouble in high school, and I lost track of him after that.

Me: Do I look obese in that uniform? Granted, I look a little chunky, but I recall my mother having to sew in an extra piece of elastic on those pants because they were too small, and it was the “biggest” pants they could find. I considered myself a fat kid (until the age of 14, when I became extremely thin), but when I see pictures like this, I don’t know. But I played first base – a great fielder and an average hitter.

John Reilly: Another very smart kid who wasn’t that good a player. John liked The Beatles as much as I did, and I remember discussing the Red and Blue greatest hits albums with him all the time.

Coach Jim Stavinski: Jimbo’s Dad – a pretty good guy. Most likely held down some type of factory job. In this picture, he sort of looks like a hippie from an R. Crumb cartoon – one of those guys leaning back in an easy chair with a giant joint while a wide-bottomed hippie chick gives him fellatio. Of course, this didn’t occur to me back then!

George Charlock: Our resident power hitter and centerfielder. He could really kill the ball. I look at this picture now, and he looks so frail, but with a huge head. Make no mistake, George was a powerful kid. He’d go on to letter in a few sports in high school.

Bill Kaufman: I can’t remember where he played, but he was a gangly kid with a friendly face. I still remember Coach Barry letting him try a pinch of his Elephant Butts chewing tobacco at one of our practices, and Bill projectile vomiting against a tree.

Pat Reilly: Again, for the life of me, I don’t remember a thing about this kid. I’d gather that like the other Kaufman, he was a brother of the other same-surnamed player on the team. But I’m just blanking here.

Manager Barry Clews: note the Elephant Butts bulge in Barry’s cheek. Barry was, most likely still is, a redneck, and I mean that as a compliment. Factory worker, had a few sons of his own, and he got into coaching to be ready for when they were old enough to play. Famous for taking a screaming line shot in the balls (off George Charlock’s bat) in batting practice one day, nearly shitting his pants, collapsing on the mound, and having to be taken away by ambulance. Still managed to show up to watch us play later that afternoon. A tough guy, and a good coach.

The Clubhouse: note the edifice behind us. This was the clubhouse behind home plate – the field was only a few yards to the right in the picture. But the clubhouse was where all the equipment (bases, catcher’s gear, line chalk, rakes, etc.) was stored on the first floor, with a wooden announcer’s booth on the second. My fondest memories of Little League baseball are of taking batting practice before games, the announcer turning an AM radio to a Top 40 station, and letting it play over the rickety PA system. Had many fine swings and catches to the tune of McCartney, ELO, Queen, Elton John, Bad Company, Leo Sayer, The Bee Gees, etc. I hope that relaxed sense of coolness still prevails today at all Little League pre-games.

The Terrain: the geography behind us looks like we’re playing in a fucking desert. This was rural Pennsylvania, coal region, and the Little League fields were simply dug from asection of woods at the top of Ashland, which is situated on one big hill (about five miles from Centralia, PA). There were two fields, for Little League and Farm teams, and on the other side, a small pond before a large patch of woods. I remember catching tadpoles in that pond before or after games. With the fields, there was simply a small set of bleachers set up on the right field line, a small concession stand selling fried food, candy and soda, and that was about it

Every now and then when I’m back home, I’ll take a drive up by the Little League field, which is still there, and maybe slightly upgraded with an electronic scoreboard and such, but it seems virtually unchanged. And the real shock to me is how small it looks now – unbelievable that we’d once stand behind home plate and think the centerfield fence was impossibly far away.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Men's (Mental) Health

Over the weekend, I received an email from an old college chum who’s now doing part-time editing for a men’s magazine. She noted how truly awful, insipid and beyond repair the writing was, mainly in terms of subject matter – men’s magazines are like women’s magazines in terms of attempting to get their male readership to feel as bad and weird as possible about their minds and bodies, to keep them coming back to slowly unravel the mysteries of life one obtains from having six-pack abs. Or just reading about them.

I told her the truth about men’s magazines – that any straight guy reading them is in bad need of an attitude adjustment, and any gay guy doing the same at least has good spank material for the bathroom. I recently had the displeasure of having to go through dozens of women’s and gossip magazines on a work assignment, and reading them was pure torture. Invariably, there’d be a picture of a skeletal Nicole Richie on one page, making fun of her, and on the next would be a picture of a model in a fashion spread who made Nicole look like a circus fat lady. Followed by an article about the wonders of chocolate. And then an advice column on how to handle a penis (as if it were a flute of fine champagne … be careful when popping the cork). And all around this, bit and pieces insinuating that if you weren’t spending a fortune on meaningless style accessories, from jewelry to homes, then you weren’t living right.

It made me want to cut my wrists, and I’m a man; women must go totally apeshit after reading this depressing junk. Then again, plenty of readers must be lapping up this soul-destroying nonsense, because these magazines are a raging success. But the men’s magazines simply underline an ongoing, strange war in our society to make men as feminine as possible. I don’t quite know who’s waging it or for what reason. I’d gather it’s simply women who want to control men, and men who recognize some financial gain from this occurring.

All I know is they aint getting me! I’ll have friends joke with me about this, but I’m hardly a macho man – “regular guy” would be more my territory. I don’t beat people up (as much as I’d like to on occasion). When I go to a bar, I don’t launch tirades against whatever racial/ethnic group must surely be the root of all our problems. I treat women like human beings. If you meet me, you’re not going to get the vibe that I’m trying to get over on you in any sense – because I’m not. In terms of male bonding, I’m leery of any guy who lays that stuff on too thick.

By the same token, I’m a guy’s guy. If you hug me, you better be picking my pocket; either way, we’re going to have some immediate issues. I like sports – Penn State football is the only one I live-and-die for, but I have no problem spending a few hours watching football or baseball. I’m not worried about my body. I work out just as much for my mental health, which I recognize as being tied into my physical health. I like hanging out with other guys who recognize that being a guy has its merits, and it’s cool to relax and cut loose in that atmosphere. Don’t care if they’re gap-toothed rednecks or prissy metrosexuals – if they understand that guys having a few beers and getting shit off our chests is healthy, then we’re good to go. We don’t need Iron John drum circles and shrinks to figure this shit out.

Then again, some guys obviously do. And I think that’s because they’ve grown so distant from any vestige of manhood that they simply don’t know how to act, or don’t understand that being a guy is acceptable. Like I said earlier, not quite sure how this happened. I blame a lot of it on political correctness in the 80s (and still going strong today), which served a necessary purpose at the time, but quickly became more fascistic and smothering than whatever societal issues it was hoping to influence.

Having worked with investment bankers and such, in financial environments where the presence of women is rare, I can say there’s one strange quality I noticed about many of these guys. And it was that they seemed to be a lot more open-minded and freewheeling than anyone gives them credit for. I could do without the rank greed. But their general attitude seemed to be: “I don’t care who you are, how you do this or what you believe in – if you can help us make money, we'll get along fine.”

Whereas I’ve worked in many places that weren’t male-dominated, and it was nonstop head games, preachy rules and constant bickering all day long. I’ll never forget doing work for a university and having a sit-down meeting with the Dean because I wrote “Merry Christmas” in an email to someone who was a Christian, three days before Christmas. She turned me in … to the fucking Dean. Who proceeded to lecture me about the importance of cultural respect, which still makes no sense to me as I was more than willing to wish a Moslem “Happy Ramadan” or a Jew “Happy Chanukah.” (Their policy was geared more towards quashing reference to any religion, instead of allowing references to all religions – which would seem a better policy to me in terms of encouraging diversity and freedom of speech?) It wasn’t so much the Dean, who was just doing his duty however misguided it was, as the woman who viewed a simple, heart-felt greeting as a moral affront – what did she gain from all this? (P.S. I had a turd wrapped in a blue bow ready for her if I had gotten her in the Office Santa … oh, wait, can’t have Office Santa in this environment, lest we offend those who don’t believe in Santa, i.e., that awful white male authority figure.)

Situations like that have risen occasionally over the years in places I’ve worked. The only places where I’ve never encountered this creepiness? Any sort of high-powered financial institution. These places are hardly a picnic, but it seems like the confrontations there are more direct. And that’s simply because it’s mostly guys, with very large egos, and they’re going to lock horns like rams instead of making an end run via archaic policies and loopholes. Plenty of women “get” this, too, in corporate America – and I like working with them, probably better than I do with guys. But plenty of women, and now men, see some greater merit in manipulating whatever mini-institution they’re part of to take out their hostilities on each other.

Thanks, but no thanks. You have a confrontation with me, you won’t have to flail your arms, trying in vain to reach the knife firmly implanted in your back. I’ll take it straight to you, and there will be no gray areas. Because this is what guys do!

Another thing I’ve noticed recently, thanks to the success of Brokeback Mountain, is the discourse on men and their emotions – namely the “problem” Heath Ledger’s character had with expressing them. I recall Andrew Sullivan commenting on this, to the effect of how “tragic” it was that Heath’s character was like this.

Tragic? God bless that gay, stoic shepherd! That’s a true guy, and I tip my cap to him. It’s perfectly all right for guys to be this way. Don’t like it? Then find guys who are “in touch” with their emotions, whatever that means, although I’ll take it for shorthand as “guys who cry.”

I don’t cry. Or more accurately, I cry on the installment plan. Every now and then, I’ll come across a hard emotion, like my father’s recent passing, and I’ll get choked up. My eyes get watery, but tears don’t fall. A really hard attack, I’ll have to wipe my eyes. But generally, a few minutes later, it’s gone. This often happens on the subway, when I’m listening to music on my MP3 player, and some song will strike a chord like that. I’ve been like this for years. Last time I can remember crying was when I was 12, and my dog Butch:

Died, coughing to death on the kitchen rug early one morning as Mom and Dad tried to save him. (It was his time – he was very old and had been in bad health for a few months.) I recall running up to Mom, grabbing on to her arm and just weeping uncontrollably. Didn’t feel any better afterwards. There was no sense of release. Butch was the best dog I ever had. Mom found him, abandoned, beaten and left to die in a cardboard box in a supermarket parking lot, one winter night in 1971. We took him in, and he was simply the most gentle, even-mannered being I’ve known.

And since then, it’s been hundreds of those choked-up moments. I feel fine. And I get plenty of emotional releases all the time – through moments like that, through boxing, through music, through writing. These things come out, one way or another. And I have nothing against guys who cry – if that’s how they’re wired, so be it. But this asinine idea that men who take more control over the emotions need to change to fit in to some nonexistent, more palatable portrait of how “real” men now are is just so misguided. Even more misguided than whatever John Wayne-inspired notion that men who cry are a bunch of pussies.

The last time I talked to Dad, I had no idea it was the last time – two days before he died in his hospital bed. Looking back, I should have known by the verbal hints he was dropping, all of which had an air of finality about them. He looked awful – he had dropped at least 100 lbs. from his regular weight, was wearing an oxygen mask and was so weak he couldn't get out of bed. I immediately recognized he was on the ropes, but also had a mind that maybe he could beat this bout of pneumonia and hang in there.

(He had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer in the late summer and had contracted pneumonia from his radiation treatments in late October. Thanksgiving, he was living at home and a bit weak, but we had to take him to the hospital that afternoon after a severe coughing spell. That’s probably where his death spiral began, although he wasn’t fully admitted again until mid-December.)

If you haven’t gone through seeing one of your parents, especially your father, that physically wasted, it’s a fucking terrible experience. But given that, we had a normal conversation: Penn State football, the weather, stuff around the house. Nothing earth-shattering. I was there about an hour. At the end, I said, “Well, Dad, I’m home for the week (this was December 21st), you want me to come by tomorrow?” He said, no, you don’t have to, come by the day after if you want, that would be fine. As I got up to leave, he reached up and grabbed my hand, shook it.

And that should have been my sign that he was saying goodbye, because he never did that. I don’t think I’d ever shaken his hand before that. Riding down in the elevator, I thought it was odd. It was an emotional moment, too, although I guess in its own quiet way, so overwhelming that I didn’t want to admit that Dad had just said goodbye to me. Sure enough, he was gone two days later, and I’m certain he had reached a point in his mind where he knew he wasn’t coming back, and he willed himself to leave. (The nurse on duty that morning later told us he had gotten up the morning of the 23rd, told her he was going to die later that day. She asked if he wanted her to contact us. He said no, they’ve been through enough, so have I, just give me an extra dose of morphine and let me go back to sleep.)

Back when he was healthy, basically the first 77-1/2 years of his 78-year life, he had gotten in the habit of taking me to and from the bus station when I came back to visit every six weeks or so. This was good, because all we’d do is bullshit about whatever was going on back home, which we really hadn’t done much of when I was growing up. Those last five years or so, we grew a good bit closer based on these car rides alone. And the same thing would happen every time I’d leave. He’d watch me get on the bus, take my seat, and I’d make sure to sit where he could see me, and as the bus would pull out, we’d look at each other and wave. No tears or grand farewells – just a simple wave.

And I guess that’s how I felt leaving him in the hospital room, feeling in some sense that our situations were reversed, save he was taking a ride that wouldn’t bring him back, and one day, I’d take the same ride. Weepy goodbyes? Men getting in touch with their emotions? Sorry. For either of us to indulge in that would have been so far out of character, so strange, that both of us would have thought, “What the fuck, I wish he’d get a hold of himself. This is embarrassing.”

The best way to note the after effect of a parent’s death would be to watch a green field on a windy, partly sunny day in March. Notice how the cloud shadows sweep over the field. Picture those shadows as memories, and feel them sweep over you. Sunny one minute, cloudy the next, but neither for too long. They come and go. Am I in touch with my emotions, regardless of whether I cry or not? It’s such a stupid question that I don’t even have to ask it, much less answer it.

But doesn’t it seem like a good topic for a men’s magazine article?

Saturday, April 01, 2006