My Greatest Fear

In September I took my two older children to the HorrorHound Convention in Indianapolis. It was a lot of fun, but at the end, crossing a busy street, my younger daughter–heedless, as is her way–ran out into oncoming traffic as we were crossing a busy intersection. My sister–surprisingly spry–put on a full Usain-Bolt-Level burst of speed and grabbed my daughter by the back of the shirt just as a Toyota Camry whizzed by. It was a close call, the kind of thing you laugh off at the time but wake up thinking about. It is not, however, what I fear the most.

I’m not afraid of monsters, I don’t think, having yet to see one. I imagine that if I woke up and found Bigfoot eating out of my pantry I would crap my pants and scream, but it’s not something I dwell on. Ghosts, well, ghosts don’t really do it for me either. I’m haunted enough by my own issues, so I don’t think Casper’s going to contribute all so much to an already healthy amount of torment. Serial killers are frightening, I suppose, but mercifully and objectively rare, no matter that shows like Hannibal and Criminal Minds make it seem like there are thousands of wackos (wackoes?) running around.

Sick kids or spouse, money issues, personal health–check, check, check. They register, but tension and general unease are not the same as fear.

Halloween day, I started thinking about what I truly fear, the kind of fear that puts the metal in your mouth, the balls in your stomach. I ran through all the above and more besides, and finally hit on it. And when I realized that this–this–was what I truly feared, it made me ashamed and not a little embarrassed.

I am afraid that if I have a particularly aggressive sneeze when I am peeing, that I will force too much urine out at once and blow out the end of my wiener.


I am fairly certain this is a physical impossibility. After a quick Google search, I could find nothing that confirmed or denied my worst fears (“Will my wiener blow up if I sneeze when I pee?” resulted in “0” hits, which is actually pretty impressive. I thought about changing the word “wiener” to something more scientific, but was pretty tired of researching by then so I let it stand.) I am sure I have sneezed while I was peeing, perhaps as a child, with no ill effects, but since the idea lodged in my fear centers I have made sure that sneezing and peeing are completely exclusive endeavours, even if I have to squeeze off in midstream or use every bit of self-control to staunch the sneeze before it starts.

I know where this fear began. Warner Bros. cartoons, specifically the scene where Bugs Bunny sticks his finger in the barrel of Elmer Fudd’s rifle and the gun goes off in Elmer Fudd’s face. Once again, not scientific, and the fact that I’m basing my greatest fear on a cartoon full of anthropomorphic, maniacal animals is troubling to say the least.

Am I terrible person that this completely fictional fear trumps the fear I should have for my children’s safety? What if a situation comes up where I have to choose–my family’s safety or sneezing while I pee? How will I react? In what godforsaken world would such a devil’s wager come to be? I’m overthinking, I suppose. We all have irrational fears, it’s just that mine isn’t on Google.

But there it is. My greatest fear.

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Digging a Deeper Hole

As a caveat to my previous post, which upon re-reading seems pretty thin and basically an excuse to talk about Billy Joel (weird), I do think there are ways of judging, critically, an artist’s overall worth over and above the visceral, first-time-emotional kick (hell, even the cheap emotional kick upon repeated listenings). Thematic heft, complicated, unexpected musical arrangement, even the juxtaposition of of a light thematic motif mixed with heavier musical accomponiment can be proof of a more seriuos intent.

Also, there is the body of work an artist presents. Smokey Robinson is a more profound artist than, say, El Debarge largely due to the volume of good songs produced, even though a toe-to-toe rumble between “Rhythm of the Night” and “Tears of a Clown” may yield a surprising decision. Smokey remained within a certain musical and lyrical tradition, but mined that tradition for all it’s worth, borrowing and achieving a depth that comes through in the songs themselves.

Of course, such considerations can lead a magazine like Rolling Stone to rank verifiable turds like last year’s Springsteen and U2 albums as the top two albums of the year. The flip side, that cooler-than-you pose can make claims just as dubious (TV on the Radio? Animal Collective? Shit, Radiohead since OK Computer?)

I guess I just want to try to figure out how to justify the candy-coated calories. Perhaps the secret lies in basic self-delusion. When Billy Joel comes on, I will tell myself it’s Bruce Springsteen. When I hear Ed Sheeran, it’s now Bruno Mars. Train is still Train; not sure how to deal with that…how about James Bay? James Blunt is now Linda Ronstadt.

Here’s the joke–it all sounds the same. Do what you have to do. I don’t believe that because music moves me too much and too much effort is put into making it move people like me. So I’ll do what I have to so can listen to as much as possible.

Shhh. It sounds the same though…

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I Wish Ed Sheeran was Someone Else, So I could Like his Music (a few words on shallowness)

Let’s start this post with two (or three) marginally unrelated stories.

In 2014 Nick Paumgarten profiled Billy Joel in The New Yorker. It’s a great piece, whether or not you like Billy Joel. It’s a much better piece, if you like Joel however, because if you do not like Billy Joel, odds are you freaking HATE Billy Joel. The piece does a good job of explaining why you might hate him, I think, in that even now he seems so insecure, so aggressive in his insistence on laid back cool, if that makes sense, in projecting the louche old rock star ethos, all the while disputing the claims of alcoholism, the bad behavior. He seems like nothing so much as junior high poseur that tells you all about bagging chicks during spring break (spring break with his folks, of course, because it’s junior high…) but who refuses to take off his underwear when he has to shower in gym class. He’s the rebel who still worries what his mother thinks of him.

He wants to be Neil Young, but is more like Neil Sedaka. He is most of us, in other words.

But most of us do not have thirty-three number one songs. Songs that have led Bruce Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau to call him “one of the most musically astute composers of that era.” Songs Bruce Springsteen himself says are “built like the Rock of Gibraltar. Until you play them, you don’t realize how well they play.”

I don’t really know if Billy Joel wants to be Bruce Springsteen. I am sure, based on the comments’ inherent patronizing tone, that Bruce is happy being the Boss. Perhaps Billy Joel’s fans see them as equivocal. But they are not.

Yesterday I was in the car with my daughter. There was a slow-burn R&B ballad on our local Top 40 station. It sounded good. Good for Top 40. Hell, good for music. Had to be Bruno Mars. Maybe he wrote some bullshit cash-grab love groove for the new Insurgent movie or something. (I hate those movies. I’ve only seen 1/2 of the first. I hate them both. This information is relevant, I promise).

“This is pretty good,” I said.

My daughter was in the passenger seat. “It’s Ed Sheeran.”

We found something else to listen to.

This is a personal problem, I am aware. Billy Joel cannot not be Billy Joel. As much as he really, really wants to (Seriously, has any other major recording artist seemed so uncomfortable with being who he is? Maybe Garth Brooks. It almost feels like there is some sort of Quantum Leap thing going on and it’s actually Scott Bakula’s character inside Billy Joel’s body for most of the clips I’ve seen him in. He seems to always be asserting about how he’s a badass, but his hangdog expression…I can’t…I have to stop…this is another essay).

Ed Sheeran can’t not be Ed Sheeran.

Remember when you first heard “Blurred Lines”? Before the litigation? Before you got the creeps when you realized what it was about? Most importantly, before you realized it was by Robin Fucking Thicke? Don’t you wish you could have that back?

Of course, the enlightened thing to do would be to enjoy the song for what it is, give credit to the creator, and move on with my life. It’s three minutes, right? I often tell my students that life’s too short to feel guilty for what you read and watch. “Guilty Pleasure” is a bullshit dodge designed by hipper-than-thou’s to justify liking Train. It’s the musical equivalent of “hate-watching.” Own it, right?

“Guilty Pleasure” should be a term we apply to child pornography and dealing methamphetamine. It should not be something we apply to something as innocuous as a three-minute song on the radio.

But I am a hypocrite and I not only need to enjoy a song, I need to feel cool while I do it. And Billy Joel, Ed Sheeran, Train, Collective Soul, and James Blunt ( to name a few completely random examples I’ve totally never screamed along with in my car) do not make me feel cool. My wife justifiably accuses me of listening to essentially unlistenable shit as long as it’s by someone deemed artistically important, which is why I will subject myself to a full-length LP of Tom Waits throwing live chickens into a wood chipper before I’ll admit that I cranked “Jesse James” by Cher to full blast in my Kia minivan.

Novelist and Essayist Leslie Jamison wrote a piece on sentimentality: on spotting it, hating it, and avoiding it. Except, in her honest-to-a-fault fashion, she admitted that she could not really discern the manipulation. She did not understand how others, who apparently have a finer and more nuanced emotional instrument, were capable of dismissing some art as meritricious shit and lauding others as an honest emotional investment. Is it irony? Grit? Psychological complexity? What’s the fucking recipe?

And why are we (I) so invested in this idea of artistic authenticity, especially when most of the criticism is just short-sighted, self-deluding, goggled justifications for trying to feel cool? Why con’t I just listen and like?

Because I am pretentious and want to feel better than other people. I want to feel informed. And I’m insecure on how to do that so I swipe great big armloads of hip, critic-flavored rhetorical jabs (multi-influenced, emotionally searing, swagger, Big Star affiliated,etc.) and use them like ninja throwing stars.

And let’s not even get into the fact that the only artists I’ve mentioned (with the possible exception of Cher) are male. So Sad.

And so we return to music. I’m cutting out a lot of the reasons people dismiss musicians, of course: charges of selling out, over-popularity, media saturation, creative switchbacks and ox-bows, general R.-Kelly-Level-whackadoo extracurriculars. I want to focus on the fact that if a song sounds good to my ear holes, and makes me happy, why do I need to vet it like it’s running for office?

Who is this? Who? One Direction? Turn that shit off. (Except, of course, when I’m by myself. Story of my Life.)


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Phineas Gage, Gauging Time

Fun exploration of common phenomenon!

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“Girls”, “Last Man on Earth”, and the Art of Being Unlikeable

When I was thirteen, I was in love with this girl named (hmm…let’s call her) Jenny. Jenny had no idea who I was, and if she did, she was keeping it way on the down-low. One day, I saw her talking to a boy named Tristan, whom I knew to be a student with special needs (we did not call them that then…).

I saw Tristan as my “in”, and if I could establish some rapport with Tristan, establish some bonafides with Jenny (I’m nice, I talk to “special” kids), then establish that Tristan could go away, I might be able to finagle the situation into something resembling a come-on.


Except, Jenny really had no idea who I was, and when I approached, asked Tristan if I was his “little friend.” Forget that she was patronizing: that’s what cool, pretty, popular junior high school girls did, as far as my thirteen-year-old brain could tell. Hell, the only boys with the stones to approach them without some hare-brained scheme were the kids blessed with lowered faculties for manipulation, abuse, and exploitation (This is, of course, not necessarily true; I’m sure those with different, perhaps even objectively diminished mental faculties are just as capable of manipulation as Mensa-grade diplomats in war-torn Darfur, but it did not seem that way to my thirteen-year-old brain. I chose Tristan because I saw him not as a person but as an opportunity). Anyway, I took her comment as an affront and more importantly a wedge in my genius plan, so I back-pedaled, informed everyone who would listen that Tristan was not my friend because I was not in the same classes as him, because I was not retarded.

Yep. Retarded. Said it at least three times, once in that junior high voice that signified to assholes everywhere the idea of “retarded.”

Jenny and I are Facebook friends now. That’s the extent of our romance. I do not remember one conversation we had after that afternoon that did not begin with “Do you have a pencil?” and end with “Yes/No.” It never occurred to me to apologize to Tristan, which is shameful. He is, as far as I can tell, not on Facebook.

I am tiptoeing like a ballerina on hot coals to distance myself from that disgusting little thirteen-year-old bastard. Except, I still am that disgusting little bastard, in my heart. Insecure, sneaky, manipulative, and consciously striving to approach others with honesty and integrity and without prejudice, especially when I have the opportunity to make someone I perceive as “less-than-I” look dumber, weaker, angrier, or meaner, therefore making me look smarter, stronger, happier, and kinder to someone I want to impress. Especially if I think it’s funny.

I mention this not as some mea culpa (25 years late…) but because the season finale of “Girls” and a particularly gnarly pair of episodes of “Last Man on Earth” aired on Sunday (3/22). The shows could not be more different, except that both have a particularly interesting knack for making the protaganist(s) artfully, if bludgeoningly, unlikeable.

The lack of likeable characters is a knock that’s dogged “Girls” since its premiere–spoiled, entitled, manipulative, bafflingly overconfident (to the point of psychosis–Marnie makes “Eastbound and Down’s” Kenny Powers look almost Buddhist)–and perhaps most damningly “hip to the point of insufferable triviality.” And yet the show leans into these criticisms, which leaves room for grace notes that seem earned. When Jessa surprises herself by taking control of the gonzo water-birth of Adam’s sister, it’s affecting, undercut by her decision later in the episode to become a therapist (she lacks the skill, education, empathy, and rigor to train a pet, let alone become a licensed therapist for other human beings). And yet you pull for her, just as you pull for Hannah and Adam and Ray–whether they’re trying or not, their weaknesses are the same weaknesses I see in myself (pretension, deflection, projection, self-pity, etc.).  Marnie and Desi suck, suck, suck, though.

Sunday’s “The Last Man on Earth” was surprising in its cruelty, even if it knew exactly what it was doing. Phil Miller’s (Will Forte) treatment of the new “last man” is so transparently immature and shitty (he talks of “the Fats” as if they are a racial subset) that it becomes a parody of insecure Alpha-male posturing (and done so ineptly as to be a kind of performance art). I actually think these two episodes could skew viewership, as Phil has become so unsavory, needy, and unlikeable that it transcends satire. It is only pathetic; there is no meta-agenda. I personally think it’s brave–it’s the most daringly awful a purportedly “comedic” show has consciously allowed its main character to act since Ricky Gervais’s David Brent in the British “Office”.

Many people like shows with “likeable” protaganists. What are these shows, objectively speaking? “The Big Bang Theory”? “Friends”? “Mike and Molly”? I’m cherry-picking, of course, and bashing on traditional, laughtrack-based shows of a certain ilk, and yet these shows have terrible human beings at their center. Whiny, unrealistic, grabby, awful people. Chandler Bing is such a profound homophobe he hates his own transgender dad and uses her as a point of ridicule. Ross’s codependency is borderline sociopathic. Rachel is a callow, materialistic man-eater. Joey is a stupid, amoral, gluttonous, womanizing douchebag. Take away the laugh track and it becomes an Andrew Jarecki documentary. The only reason we do not see that is because the conflicts and co-stars are even worse. We root for the protagonists because even though they are ethical monsters, the people they have to deal with and challenges they have to overcome are beyond the pale. The unlikeable is masked by the overall misanthropy of the writers and creators.

I enjoy “Girls” and “Last Man…” because they don’t just needle, they explore. We are asked not just to laugh at the characters, but come to terms with them. It’s the difference between “this is humanity” and “that is humanity”–one points in, the other out. The comedy pricks because the unsavory behavior is rooted in what we (OK…I) feel is endemic to our (my) insecurity, our (my) shitty behavior, our (…my) inept attempts to act like a human being. Which probably makes it that much more human.

Random Recommendation: “Headhunters” (Netflix), Morten Tyldum’s debut, is crazy and fun and risky. Basically everything his solid but staid second film “The Imitation Game” is not. At one point there is a chase involving a forklift, a dead dog, and a very, very dirty outhouse.

Can’t wait for: “Bitch Planet” by Kelly Sue DeConnick. Graphic novel that explores feminism and patriarchy through a combination of sci-fi and women-in-prison exploitation films of the 1970’s. Basically the weird bastard child of Betty Friedan and Russ Meyer.


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Twenty-One 2014 Moments (10 Weeks Late)

I wanted to work up lists for television, film, music and books. But I also wanted to blog this year, and with coaching baseball and moving that didn’t happen, so completing those lists would’ve just cemented how disconnected I was for most of the year. Instead, here are the twenty-one most profound things I’ve seen, heard, or read this year, in no particular order:

1. Ida

2. “Heal” by Strand of Oaks

3. Madison Bumgarner in the MLB Playoffs and World Series

4. Lego Movie

5. “Lost in a Dream” by The War on Drugs

6. Olive Kitteridge on HBO

7. Station Eleven by Hilary St. John Mantel

8. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

9. “The Outsiders” by Eric Church

10. Broadchurch on Netflix

11. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

12. The first hour and forty-five minutes of Django Unchained

13. The Magic Flute by Mozart

14. Jason Isbell

15. Serial and Pop Culture Happy Hour Podcasts

16. Stories of Stefan Zweig

17. Doris Lessing (Specifically The Fifth Child)

18. The Prophet by Michael Koryda

19. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

20. Grandmaster Clash by Seth Stevenson from Slate Magazine

21. Frank Rich’s conversation with Chris Rock

One nice thing about putting this out so late, is I can look at all the award winners and feel unjustifiably pissed-off and maybe a little insecure in my choices. I did not like Foxcatcher, for example. I really, really did not like Birdman, and feel like it is an empty stunt (Mike Myers once said haggis was invented on a dare–Birdman is the haggis of movies). Not sure about the new D’Angelo album.

In 2014, there were a lot of naked emperors. Loads of naked people, as far as I can tell (Boyhood is, at best, Donald-Ducking it).

I have every intention of blogging again. Two or three a week, I hope. I am going to try and keep it focused on something I’ve read, seen, or heard. I might throw in something personal every now and again…

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F Word

My son plays Scribblenauts, this game where you write a word and the cartoon equivalent appears on the screen.  He can battle dragons and zombies, etc.  The game has a remarkable and terrifying vocabulary server, so you type things like “serial killer” or “pedophile” and they appear onscreen, ready to wreak havoc.  Tonight he made a trash can and then trash to throw in it.  He’s prosaic.  I helped him type “paper” and ” tin can” but he wanted “fish skeleton”‘, which pleased me, because it’s nice to know that cartoons still stick to the requisite trash can contents they did when I was a kid. No one has actually seen a fish skeleton in a trashcan, just like we’ve never seen someone carrying a bag of groceries from the market that has a baguette and a head of romaine sticking out the top, even though that’s what everyone in the movies buys, only and always.  Scribblenauts, impossibly, does not have a fish skeleton within its matrix, so it dumped a human skeleton on the screen.  My son threw it in the trash and felt it was a reasonable substitute.

Anyway, I got cussed out at work today in the best way possible.  I don’t normally talk about work, because I don’t want to be unemployed, but today was fun, so I’ll hope for the best.  I was checking my mail during first period and a student walked by, looked at me, and as calmly as she’d be if she was checking the weather said ” I hate the people in the fucking office.”

I said that was too bad because that was where we were going.

She disagreed.

“I’m not fucking going there.”

Twice, so she so was.

“You can’t just say that and go.  Come one.”

And it began.  She looked at me and said “Fuckety-fuck-de-fuckety-fuck-fuck-fuck.”

Earlier in the week, I’d overheard this kid tell another student that it was “Noon-forty,” so I wasn’t really sure what I was dealing with (fun fact, it was actually 10:30 at that point…).  She was walking away.

“What’s your name?” I asked, and I prayed she would say it, knew she would say it.

“My name’s Fuckety Fuck.”


Never did catch her, but she cussed out her first period teacher and he brought her in.

Apparently this is a regular thing.  I never caught her name, but at least I know what she likes to be called.


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