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Archive for December, 2010

Flashforward

I sometimes try to remember what I was like in high school. Well, not so much what I was like in high school as how my personality had evolved by the time I was a senior. That was the year I became more active than passive, had actual responsibilities, hit my final growth spurt, and became more social. So I wonder how have I changed since then — how have my attitudes, intelligence, sense of humor, and interests shifted, if at all?

Luckily, I have a yearbook, and it’s a better time capsule than most have, because I was co-editor in chief. It was largely a two-person operation, with help from a few others. If the whole thing failed, only I, my co-editor and our moderator would be blamed. It’s probably too much responsibility to give a high school senior. So much can go wrong, from incorrectly mapping out a page plan, to failure to collect information, to forgetting to mail out pages, to losing battles with Jostens.

Let me put it this way. Many newspaper sports staffs spend the last month or two of summer putting together a special high school football section. It’s really hectic. You need rosters, comprehensive team outlooks, a nice theme, art; it’s a lot to coordinate. The number of the people working on it depends on the size of the staff, but it’s never just two high school seniors with screwball tendencies.

So it wasn’t a matter of if something would go wrong, it was a matter of how much would go wrong — we considered it a success if whole pages weren’t missing or chopped off. What did go wrong? We had a pretty atrocious layout, a bunch of grammar errors, and a confused 9/11 memorial page. One senior wasn’t in the thing at all. Yearbook camp didn’t help, after all.

But other than that, it was a mild success. People can look back and remember their time in high school, and all that good crap. For me, the greatest success was the double-truck about the yearbook itself. It’s kind of a funny concept. The whole yearbook is essentially evidence that the yearbook staff exists. Including pages for drama, the choir, and sports teams have some educational purpose. The purpose of including pages about the yearbook, in a yearbook, could be accomplished with a small section toward the end. Instead, the yearbook pages are a great opportunity for self-aggrandizement, and if anyone will take that bait, high school seniors with their own office will.

The result? A rambling, stream of consciousness write-up. The intro:

This year, as we all know, the yearbook staff had to overcome many obstacles on the path to a memorable yearbook. The first obstacle was partitioning work and responsibility to the incredibly large staff. Many long days and nights were spent discussing how work would be split up between the staff members who knew the pursuits of Pagemaker, but since there were so many disagreeing opinions, little work was actually done. So, this yearbook is the fabrication of a mail order yearbook catalogue.

No, we actually made this book, yes that was bad grammar, and we actually did have real obstacles in the way such as:

And then it’s just a list of several hundred inside jokes. Some of the more baffling ones include:

Chess baseball

Lysol + pictures

that wig we found at the prison

Mr. Big Stuff Meal

roast beef crucifix

Ah, memories. It took me a while to remember the story about the wig at the prison. Roast beef crucifix? Just no idea how that occurred.

It might also be evidence that not every hour, or even most, spent in that office was productive, but that doesn’t matter. We had a chance to secretly make fun of things and people, including ourselves, so of course I took advantage. There are also hints to secrets of the Yearbook Office, and I will never admit them. But I would probably do the same thing with that writeup now, or something more high-concept. It wouldn’t be far off.

Some people look back at their high school yearbooks and think they were so goofy and odd, had bad hair, did dorky things. The embarrassment is a familiar theme. Or they view them as good times gone by, because they’re no longer a star runner or actor or vice-president. My yearbook is like a predictor. It’s not that I can’t believe what I was like then. I can believe that. I just can’t believe that we got away with all we did.

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Look at the time. Look at your watch, your phone, your car’s digital display. Look at the clock, the time board at the subway station, the inaccurate bank sign. Just look.

It’s still the afternoon and it’s dark outside.

These are the darkest days, when you might see the sun starting to rise on your way out the door, but you won’t see it on your way back in. These are the days that keep stealing light until you’re convinced they’re stealing time. These are the shortest days, but the longest.

These days make people sink back inside themselves, under sweaters and blankets and artificial light and occasional sadness. They envelop and plunge.

And the only sign that there’s still some life left is that pock-marked rock in the sky, cruising around reflecting light.

*****

A lot of people have waxed poetic about the moon. I wouldn’t be the first, and considering that intro, am not the first. It is gravitationally pulled to our planet, but we’re pulled toward it.

We’ve named its features, determined its phases, tried to figure it out. The werewolf legend exists, for crying out loud. We’ve held festivals around the solstice, when days cannot possibly get shorter and nights cannot get longer.

We have sent people to the moon. Or rather, people have volunteered to be strapped to tanks of fuel and shot toward the moon, trusting that all the human inventions around them will continue working for the duration of the trip.

A lot of the wonderment is gone, now, and has been gone. We deal with the depth of winter a lot differently than we did hundreds or thousands of years ago, and really, who thinks about the moon all that much anymore?

Now, sure, we notice it, we know it has a physical function in relation to earth, but to some degree it’s had its moment. Even though we found some interesting stuff there not too long ago, it’s just not a huge priority right now. It doesn’t have the same popular relevance that it did even 40 years ago.

Yes, a lot of the wonderment is gone, but not all.

About eight years ago someone told me I was the moon. It is easily the most distinguished comparison I’ve ever heard. But what can you expect from a poet? I’m not really sure why she said that; maybe she felt I could hear when she spoke to the moon, at least symbolically.

I think more than anything, it was a bit of figurative language that increased significance of a sentiment that could have been said much more plainly and directly.

It was just a momentary expression, and it’s the kind of figurative indulgence people are so good at. We turn something into Something. It’s why a flag becomes freedom incarnate and people start attributing emotions to animals. The Kiss? Not just a picture. You ever wonder why you sometimes see carved or sculpted pineapples outside or around homes? These people are not fruit enthusiasts. They are displaying symbols of hospitality.

The moon was like this, too. During the space race it wasn’t just something to get to. It became a symbol of America’s rivalry with the Soviet Union, and eventually the American flag planted on the moon was a sign of America’s superiority. One giant leap for mankind? Yes, for such a seemingly stationary, passive object, the moon can capture the imagination. Or maybe just reflect it.

*****

It seems cruel for a total lunar eclipse to occur at the winter solstice. Here you are in the longest stretch of night during the year, and the earth goes and hides the moon from the sun. The moon glows some shade of orange; it’s not normal. Can’t you at least let us have the moon?

Of course, it really is normal. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why it occurs, why the moon glows — so reasonable and scientific, in fact, that it can be predicted. So a lot of it is just overwrought metaphor, just as the person-as-moon idea is.

But the eclipse is a reminder, isn’t it? Without it, how many people would just gloss over Monday and Tuesday, anticipating and preparing for Saturday, without realizing we are in the darkest days?

No, instead, you have people realizing that while standing outside in the dark hours past midnight, having stayed up or woken up to see the moon go into hiding. And you have people realizing that it’s lonely at 3 a.m. on a late December evening, and cold, and not a whole lot different than when they got off work. Just less traffic.

And you have people wondering, probably to themselves, just when that might not be true. There’s not a lot of hope in the darkest days, especially when you’re outside confronting them as the cold stings your eyes. There’s only so much comfort a shawl can bring, and these holidays, well, they’re busy, but they don’t always fulfill.

So maybe you find yourself staring at the eclipse looking at the time, knowing it’s only a few more hours before you start the day, which will have disappeared by the time you log off your computer, which will have begun to sink away while you digest lunch.

That same realization brings with it knowledge that this all will shift back. The days will lengthen and beat back the black.

But for now, a sigh leaves you looking up for the moon, only it’s not there. It always used to be. And it will be again.

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On the tip of a bullet

Some days or weeks ago, I was sitting at work in the communal newsroom with one other person, and the local sports station had cued up an update on the Sixers. The sideline reporter, Meredith Marakovits, appeared on screen ready to give the update. And maybe a few sentences into the update, the other person — who I’ll call Jason — made an effort at small talk:

“Heh, this Sixers sideline reporter, who is this? She’s pretty big .”

“Huh?”

“Well, she’s a little husky. Look at her.”

“What? So?”

“I dunno, I just mean…”

That’s a fair reflection of how the exchange went. And ok, maybe you read that and you decide that it’s not all that salacious — mean, sure, but not something to get riled up about. But I do. This is not a dead issue, it is not one that’s been recognized and resolved.

What you have to consider when you hear something like that is the way someone says something like that. In this case, Jason saw the sideline reporter for a matter of seconds, determined her appearance was outside the parameters of what he deemed acceptably beautiful, and decided to voice that opinion with a joke.

But more, he tried to get me in on it, as though it was some kind of male bonding activity, to denigrate a woman who is there to do a job, and that job is certainly not to meet Jason’s approval. I don’t know what kind of sideline reporter she is; I haven’t watched enough Sixers games this year to tell. It’s not fair for me to comment on her talent other than to say I give her the same benefit of the doubt that I would give any other broadcaster.

These sorts of comments are far more damaging than I think people realize, precisely because they’re not so bold. They are allowed to float into the collective consciousness, mostly unchallenged, but they can shape how men think about women. And these are the sorts of comments I point to when I try to explain just how unevenly society treats men and women.

But, you say, women surely comment on the appearance of men all the time. Don’t think this is a one-sided thing, you say. And that’s true. But I’d add that you have to understand how one-sided the power is. Institutions have used appearance and standards of beauty to control women for a long time, in ways that men are not. This mindset is reflected in the tone Jason used to make his comments, which implied that she needed his approval in order to be on TV at all. Or more directly, her appearance needed his approval in order for him to watch. Just about every woman in sports TV is evaluated this way.

Modeling aside, men are typically not asked to pass a beauty screening test before they get a job, and are not made the subjects of continual evaluation. When people make fun of New Jersey governor Chris Christie for being fat, it’s terrible, but it is not directly related to his job performance. This is a crucial difference. People should not make fun of Chris Christie for being fat, but no one says that because he is fat he cannot function as New Jersey’s governor. People say he cannot function as New Jersey’s governor because he is Republican, or he is trying to screw teachers, or his policies are all wrong.

Now, perhaps the television employment world and politics world are not directly related, even if there’s a lot of overlap. But Hillary Clinton has been the subject of comments, as have Sarah Palin and Kristi Noem. Kirstin Gillibrand’s weight loss was celebrated as though it was the only right thing to do. The point is, a woman’s appearance is almost always an issue, a topic of conversation. Referring to Joe Lieberman as Droopy Dog doesn’t compare.

And it’s so common in sports and pop culture, you have to train yourself to hear it. For those who make the comments, the words always exit so quickly, so suddenly, as if on a bullet’s tip, and trying to keep them from escaping is like trying to stuff the round back down the barrel. It’s out, and it’s out to tear some flesh.

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Apples and Oranges

Here’s one thing I’ve never seen: a person in a grocery store, holding a Braeburn and a navel, one in each hand, muttering, “I can’t. I just…I just can’t. It just can’t be done.” Of course, that’s taking the idiom too literally.

I get the point, even if it also seems a little silly that this saying exists at all. If the idea is that you can’t validly assess Item A and Item B by the same criteria, you’d think the person who thought it up might choose the apple, then turn around and find a vegetable or legume or something. After all, it’s even more ridiculous to compare an apple to celery or walnuts, unless you’re making a Waldorf Salad. [/FawltyTowersnerd]

But then, it’s really pretty easy to dump on the orange, isn’t it?

You can’t simply eat an orange. Unlike pretty much every other standard fruit, you can’t just pick it up and be set. You have to peel it, which can take anywhere from 10 minutes to 10 years. You have to be able to wash your hands. And even after all that, there’s no guarantee you’ll have a tasty, juicy piece of fruit.

You’re on the go? Congrats, now you look like a jackass because you have nowhere to go with your peel shards, and everything you touch is sticky and smells like citrus.

And if you don’t feel like peeling it, you’re left with slicing it into wedges, making the purchase basically fraudulent. It’s like biting into a water balloon — splash! All over your mouth. Trying to grab a napkin before the orange juice runs from the chin all the way down to your neck is a fun race. You might as well bite into the side of a juicebox.

How about PR? What are oranges good for? Preventing scurvy? Sounds appealing! And anyway, green peppers can do the trick just as well. Oranges certainly sell, but mostly as juice, for Chinese restaurant chicken, and as wedges.  It’s a multiple-step fruit. At least bananas have the good sense to perforate their peels and make for useful practical joke props — no, this really does work, as an unfortunate soul learned walking across the dining hall floor during my freshman year in college.

How about the fact that nothing in the OED rhymes with orange? Hundreds and thousands of words…and not a goddamned one. At least purple turned into a people eater as revenge for creating a word that can’t easily fit in a couplet.

And then we’re back at the idiom — It’s like comparing apples to oranges.

It’s like comparing apples…

…of which there are eight million varieties of varying crispness, sweetness and tartness

….which you can eat whole, slice up, don’t have to peel, can turn into sauce or juice.

….which even have a patron saint, Johnny.

It’s like comparing apples, the mighty apple, to…

oranges.

And who would want one of those?

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We should be so lucky

I often listen to live music and radio shows, which are somewhat live. The aspect of a knowledgeable DJ putting together a good set adds excitement. Live music is exciting. It’s not just a song heard, it’s a performance experience. It’s a chance to see an artist be an artist, and I don’t particularly care if that artist messes up a little or embellishes. Departing from the predictable adds charm.

That’s getting away from my point, which is an artist being an artist, and that brings me to Joni Mitchell. Every so often, a video of a performance will affect me in a halting way and narrow the world to that small display. Scads of hip-hop, Nina Simone, James Brown, Q-Tip, Tori Amos, the artists vary. But this is one of those songs and videos:

It’s Joni Mitchell playing the song “For Free,” just her and a piano and a mic. And it’s a pretty spartan video — no great production values, no big surprises. The song starts out with a simple intro as she gets into the story.

Still…

You notice during the first line she smiles just a little as she closes her eyes, and you know this song is something real to her. And then she rocks her shoulders briefly. This isn’t a simple song, this is a feeling in musical form.

This is a performance, surely, and at times she looks the audience’s way, making sure they know the story. There is a point in the second verse where she says, “quick lunch stand,” more than sings it. It’s out of lyrical rhythm and tone. But it adds a spoken-word touch to let you know what you’re hearing is absolutely a tale and not just a pretty melody. It’s one of those nice variations during a live performance that might not be heard on a slick LP.

But you also get the sense this is slightly invasive, asking her to perform like this. She’s exposed, on the stage by herself with her piano. And she’s playing a song filled with notes she didn’t merely slap together. They mean something. This isn’t saying anything revolutionary about a genius who invented dozens of tunings because they worked better. But the notes are a perfect fit for the point of the story, which deals with fame — specifically, how fame can distort your intentions and approach, and how the most humanly worthwhile things in life aren’t necessarily the most heralded.

That’s a theme nearly as old as money, but the way it’s layered into the song is melancholy and beautiful and not easy for the listener to fit into a mental compartment. It’s not easy to imagine the scenes, listen to the notes and go, “eh.” If that’s your reaction, you’re not really listening.

And because of the notion that she’s exposing her emotions, sections of the song send chills down my spine. I’m no sonic expert. I have vague ideas about why certain sounds make people feel certain emotions.  Yet I can’t help think that she designed some note progressions to make stop what you’re doing and cry.

In the first verse she sings, “let out from the schools,” and whatever note she hits at ‘schools’ penetrates. It’s almost a setup for later in the verse during, “waiting for the walking green.” In the second, it’s “escorting me to the halls” before “or if you’re a friend to me.” In the third verse, “they passed his music by” before “maybe put on some kind of harmony.”

Watching her sing those sections seems almost like watching a person pleading with the audience to be more human, or at least make listeners understand how important it is to be kind and loving. When she sings, “they passed his music by,” she sings “by” almost without voice. It’s lovely, and that’s fitting, because this is a love song.

And I think Joni masterminded all of this. Notice as she finishes the final verse, the side of her mouth curls up a little, just before throwing in a high note for good measure. Maybe she’s enunciating. Maybe she’s smiling because she had a clean performance. But I like to think she smirked a little, knowing that everyone in the audience gets it. I wasn’t even alive then, and I do.

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Bananas are, without a doubt, one of the most inexpensive fruits you can buy. Perhaps for pure caloric content, peanut butter is a better bargain among foods, but bananas are pretty frugal. You can buy a medium-sized banana for, like, 15 cents, and even at places like Wawa, where prices are fixed and raised for convenience, one costs something like 35 cents.

So you’d think bananas would be a pretty good thing. But no. What you save in money you pay for in time, because they spoil quickly. Based on my personal experience, people only eat two, maybe three, out of five bananas purchased.

They’re easily bruised when ripe. Nothing ruins a good banana like that brown, mushy patch. Yes, you can cut it out, but then you’re left with mutilated fruit. If I’d known I’d have to carve, I’d just get a pumpkin.

And even after you actually eat the damn thing, that peel is a curse. Big Banana markets the product like a highly convenient snack, perfect for folks on the go, like cyclists, who can stick one in the jersey pocket. But you eat one in the car…then what the hell to do with that peel? You could throw it out the window, but you could also inadvertently throw it in front of a cop, or worse, into someone else’s window. You can stash it in a trash bag, but then you forget about it, it decomposes in secret, and one day you open the car door only to be socked in the face by peel stench.

Now, all that’s pretty facetious. But you’ll have to excuse me for being slightly anti-banana, for the fruit is the source of one of the most mysterious episodes of my youth. For reasons listed above, bananas are popular for school lunches. My mom used to pack me bananas, and for good reason: it’s hard to mess up eating a banana, even as a grade-schooler. That’s from the parental perspective.

From the kid perspective, I suppose bananas suck, and all kids want for lunch are Doritos, Ssssssippsss, fruit snacks and overly salted pretzel rods. And the only thing kids like better at lunch periods than kid foods is the recess. It’s always an interesting waiting game, particularly in a lunch room like the one at my grade school, which had huge glass windows and doors — the playground, basketball court and grass fields teased us during lunch, in full view.

And so I suppose one particular day it might have been nicer than usual, we were friskier than usual, I can’t really remember. All I remember was a banana without an owner…

…and one kid at our table tossing it to another

…that kid tossing it to someone else

…that kid tossing it back, and another tossing it longways down the table

…one kid tossing it to a girl, who wanted no parts of the banana toss

…more and more kids tossing it back and forth, back and forth, until the yellow, starchy boomerang flashed in the corner of a teacher’s eye.

And that was the end of the toss, but the beginning of so much more. Who touched it? Had I? Was there proof? Who could claim innocence while keeping a straight face? Why was the one girl crying, pleading her innocence?

We were certainly not equipped to deal with the multi-layered issues presented before us. First, we were not equipped to extrapolate who had actually brought the banana, which seemed to be a priority piece of knowledge for the teacher. Some pointed at me, but I distinctly remembered not having a banana. A classmate provided me with an alibi. Several other banana-bringers were fingered, but no one admitted having it.

Secondly, we were not equipped with the value of blame-taking. We certainly did not want to rat out anyone, name names, become a social pariah at the socially impressionable age of…nine?

Finally, we were not equipped with the reasoning necessary to determine why it was wrong to toss this fruit around. We only knew it was wrong to do, and our knowledge was confirmed when the teacher made all the boys in the class sit outside in a circle for recess, with the banana in the middle, in order to determine who brought it and who made the first toss.

No one sang.

Eventually, one bold classmate, sensing that a confession would mean we’d get the rest of recess to play, copped to it. Only he wasn’t a banana-bringer. The teacher immediately picked up on his (probably poor) bluff, made him sit down and told us to provide a real answer.

No answer came forth. And so we spent the entire recess period in that circle staring at a banana. What a waste of a recess.

Even in that episode, the banana retained its economy. It probably cost 10 cents, but it provided us with a lunch-time supplement, a makeshift sports projectile and an hour’s worth of drama. And I could be satisfied with bananas if the list ended there. But without even peeling the damn thing, it gave us a lifetime of mystery, and that doesn’t decompose no matter where you toss it.

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I recently left a pair of shoes outside in a gym parking lot, and while that is both unfortunate and dumb, it reminds me of one of my foundational childhood events.

Every child seems to have several dozen of these stories, stories that could only apply to that particular person. They are either so outlandish or imaginative, the person commits the moment to memory out of force. For instance, I sure don’t remember what kind of flower I gave my parents at a graduation ceremony, but I sure do remember booting a glass-framed picture three feet across the room at the same shindig.
Anyway, the shoe. Early grade school, field trip day. Field Trip. Who doesn’t like field trips? Every time a group of adults goes somewhere out of routine, it is pronounced as a field trip. There is implied fun.
But, at eight years old or whatever, I did not know this, and I dearly did not want to go on a big yellow bus to The Franklin Institute, a museum in Philadelphia. This place is now called The Franklin, which makes it seem like a goofy, dance like The Charleston…or a seedy motel.
I had been driven to my school by my mom, who I am sure was not pleased when I voiced, certainly with no mature argument, my opinion about this trip. There was probably some whining, a lot of resistance at being forced to the bus door and those steps that are way too high for kids to climb without a pair of moon shoes and a bottle of Jolt.  After insistence from both sides — myself and my teacher — my pea-sized idiot child brain somehow comprehended I could not win. So I relented, and got on the bus.
At least, that’s what I wanted my foolish teacher to think, because as soon as I got one foot up the bus stairs, I ducked under her arm and bolted back to my mom’s car. Who’s clever now, teach? It was a hot day, so this is probably why I was left behind and the rest of the boys and girls had a fabulous time romping around The Franklin. They wanted to get going.
I did feel guilty though, as my embarrassed mom was now forced to put me in the back seat and drive me home, looking at my stupid face the whole way back in the rearview mirror. Who the hell was I to pull that stunt? And almost worse, I couldn’t even comprehend what I was doing — couldn’t comprehend the hassle I caused to my class, couldn’t comprehend the embarrassment I caused myself and my mom, couldn’t comprehend that in a few minutes I had turned the entire day into a total waste of time.

And the parent, my mom, has to live with full knowledge of that. She’s probably wondering just what the Christ is wrong with me. All you can do is shake your head in that moment. You can’t yell or smack, especially in front of a bus full of young students and their teacher.

Unless an opportunity presents itself.

Just moments after she buckled me in and the bus had left, a Boys size 5 loafer raked my face. Somehow, in the process of buckling in, my shoe had slipped off my foot, and suddenly I felt it slip across my cheek. Well, that seemed like an overreaction, but who was I to argue?
Little did I know that, being a warm, humid day, there were a billion bees flying around, including one in the back seat of the car. I’m not sure when I ever picked up that piece of information, but it wasn’t on that day. I have no idea if she ever killed the bee. In one swipe she did kill my sense that I could get away with any more childish chicanery.

So, I cried, the cries imploring, ‘Why? Why, mom, did you smack me with my own shoe?’ And she hustled me home as fast as possible, a day completely ruined…

…but not before she left the shoe in the parking lot and — being a warm, humid day — the atmosphere relented into a downpour, saturating the leather, pooling inside the toe box, further weakening the creases worn in time, soaking the stitches. I never saw that shoe again. It was gone the next day, with the bee, the bus, most of the redness on my face, and the opportunity for me to resemble a normal human child.

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