Thursday, August 28, 2008

Lack of Generation Gap Backfires

I am lucky in many ways. One way I’m lucky is my children don’t listen to music I hate. Oh, sure, there was a time I was forced to listen to insipid children’s music when we went on car rides to Grandma’s house. There was a Barney tape (remember the purple dinosaur) I would have paid to have ground into barely visible dust by an eighteen wheeler on the turnpike during one trip to Missouri. But since they outgrew that stage it has surprised me what they choose.
A few months ago I saw Emilyjane (the oldest kid) downloading a song from iTunes. As I crept up to look over her shoulder I expected to see a picture of some overly pierced, weird-haired performer who sings about truly depressing things or a large man with his hat on backwards and more jewelry than all the Gabor sisters combined. I was very pleasantly surprised to see a picture of a very wholesome lady in a turtleneck sweater. It was Rosemary Clooney. Yep, the co-star of White Christmas and a hit machine in the 1950’s was going to reside in my 15-year-old daughter’s iPod. I’m sorry, but how cool is that?
Alice (the middle kid) also spends some of her time in the 50’s. She is an Elvis fan. She is not a fanatic with maps of Graceland pasted all over her walls and velvet paintings of the young sexy Elvis in black leather and the older, tubby Elvis in the white leather and sequins adorning her bedroom. She likes his music. She also listens to the Monkees and the Go-Go’s (who were basically the Monkees with estrogen).
George (the youngest) was involved in the high school production last year of “The Music Man” and has developed a liking for musicals. Recently I downloaded Ron Moody singing “Reviewing the Situation” from “Oliver” to share with him.
They all listen to other things which are more hip. I have just shown my un-hip-ness by using the word “hip”. Maybe I should say they listen to musicians who are more “fresh”, “sweet”, “clean”, or whatever other adjective stolen from detergent commercials they are using today to describe modern, popular cra…uh, stuff. Anyway, they do listen to some of today’s music but I don’t think they listen to music I, like so many out of touch generation gap dwellers before me, refer to as devil-worshipping-boom-de-boom music.
As is so often the case for parents, this point of pride has turned to bite me in the wallet. Emilyjane has a wicked crush on Michael Buble. He is a thirtysomething big band, swing singer in the mold of Sinatra or more recently Harry Connick Jr. Well, Buble is going to have a concert in Wichita. This is where the fact she prefers this kind of music backfires on me.
She really wants to go, and I do not have the A #1 arguments to combat her going. I cannot say his music will rot your brain (I do not have any of Buble’s albums but my Frank, Dean and Sammy albums have many of the same songs). Nor can I claim the audience will be full of recidivist sociopaths looking to turn her into just another tattooed wastrel. Ergo, she is going and I am paying.
Since the last concert ticket I purchased was for Billy Joel (in 1978) I had no idea how expensive tickets were. The only feeble counter attack I had to the pretty brown eyes staring up at me asking to go was the cost. I said, thinking this might actually dissuade her, “Those tickets are going to be really expensive. I bet they are as much as $40.” I thought I was exaggerating in order make her realize what a bite it would be. Not only didn’t it work, it made it more depressing for me when I found out how much they really did cost.
That is a story unto itself. The first attempt to buy tickets showed the cheapest ones were $124. At this point I was prepared to tell my daughter that I did not love her enough to sell one of my kidneys in order to afford the ticket and the gas to get to Wichita. After an hour long rant, out loud and via e-mail, about how too many people are just greedy *#&@#^% making it impossible for normal everyday working guys to send their kids to concerts, we found the proper website to buy the tickets. They were just (gulp) $66 dollars a piece.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Going for the Gold...naaahh

The Olympics are starting to wind down. We have all witnessed fast people (runners and swimmers), strong people (shot putters and weightlifters), all-around athletes (basketball players and gymnasts), and people with amazing endurance (marathon runners and those who watch Bob Costas for hours on end). The dedication shown by these athletes as they set aside all else to reach the very pinnacle of their chosen sport is unbelievable. The entire Olympiad is a testament to the over-arching ambition present in the human race. Something I completely do not have.
I realize the Olympics are populated by individuals from all over the world, but I think this drive to be the best at something is taken to the greatest extreme in the United States. I am not just saying this because it was American Michael Phelps who won so much gold it caused him to keep looking over his shoulder in fear of a bowler hat wearing oriental assassin. The preceding sentence was not some racist dig, but rather an overly obtuse reference to the 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger. Remember Oddjob trying to knock over Fort Knox? Anyway, everywhere you look in America things are only seen to be truly valuable if they are the best.
At the end of every calendar year newspapers and magazines are awash in Ten Best Lists: the Ten Best Movies, the Ten Best Television Shows, the Ten Best Books, even the Ten Best Weird Band Names (my new favorite is Lady Chatterley’s Hamster). What’s next The Ten Best Entrees Made Mostly out of Vegetables Which Can Grow Larger than Your Head? (Hey, that might be a good name for a band.)
I have no problem if Usain Bolt wants to push himself to run 100 meters like he is being chased by rabid cheetahs on meth. (Digression: The only name better than Usain Bolt for a sprinter might be Usain Spastic Colon.) My concern is this continuing drive to be the best will lead to more people doing things which are dangerous and/or stupid to get there.
The use of steroids is the top example of the perversion of becoming the best. Some guys want to hit a baseball farther than anybody else, which means somebody named Steinbrenner is willing to give them more money than oil company executives spend on campaign contributions. It doesn’t matter that taking steroids not only causes leather wrapped spheroids to fly out of ballparks, but also causes one’s left ventricle to thicken leading to cardiac arrhythmia, one’s liver to malfunction, and even a wicked case of acne, as long as they can whack that ball.
In the kinder gentler days of the fifties if a guy wanted to be the best baseball player he didn’t ingest fake testosterone. He just sold his soul to the devil who looked a lot like My Favorite Martian. The chief side effect of that was Gwen Verdon in silk stockings danced around you. Compare the side effects and it’s no contest. (For the people in the audience who are completely confused put Damn Yankees on your Netflix queue.)
This preoccupation with the idea of the “best” can have other drawbacks. This is most obvious to me in regards to technology. Think about the world before cell phones. In order to have people call you you had to be near a fixed point phone. Now the technology is such a device, not any bigger than a deck of cards, can be strapped to your belt making it possible for your boss to get in touch with you in the car, in the park, in the bathroom to ask you a question about that big presentation which you did not finish because you spent the last three hours at the office playing internet Scrabble.
This land of ours was built on a precept of individual achievement. We are supposed to be the place where anybody can grow up to be president. (Unfortunately, that has been proven true on more than one occasion.) Constantly striving to be the best drove the actions of many famous Americans. What I would like to point out is the Constitution also says the “pursuit of happiness” is important to us. Well, the first synonym of “happy” my computer volunteers is “content”. Content can mean satisfied with things as they are. I think there are times we should pursue leaving things as they are in order to make things the best.
What is my proof? Anne Murray’s recording of The Monkees song Daydream Believer.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

My Brain Hurts

I have been having frequent headaches the last month or so. I don’t know what the reason might be. It could be stress from my job. It could be the fact I have cut down my caffeine intake precipitously. It could be I need new glasses. It could be the little man sitting between my ears running all the different communication systems to the rest of my body is pursuing a musical career which has him using my skull as a steel drum playing the entire Jimmy Cliff oeuvre.
I went to the eye doctor to see if my glasses needed to be adjusted. As many people have found after passing a certain age looking at small things becomes more and more difficult. It started with the tiny print on medicine bottles. Then the print in regular books became blurry. Then faces in photographs were hard to identify. Then my youngest child started to appear fuzzy.
Glasses became part of my daily life several years ago. I have upped the power more than once and the previous visit to the optometrist moved me into the wonderful world of trifocals. All of us with trifocals know the most dangerous thing in the world is no longer taunting Dick Cheney, but rather walking quickly down stairs whilst wearing trifocals. Coordinating the distance between your foot and the next step takes more algorithms and geometric theorems than NASA uses figuring the exact launch place and time so its space probe will pass the dejected former planet, Pluto.
Anyway, I decided to go to the eye doctor. I peered into a number of little machines. One of them has little fluttery blobs which indicate how good my peripheral vision is. Peripheral vision is not as important as it used to be. No longer do men have to be able to perceive as wide a field of vision in order to avoid predators. No we just use it to peer at attractive women without making it obvious to our wives we are doing so (or so I’ve heard).
If the eyes truly are the window to a man’s soul those machines have mapped out my soul pretty well. I wonder if the eye doctor sits in his office after hours and giggles at the fact the deepest essence of my being spends a lot of time contemplating whether life is truly better with an afternoon nap or a trip to Dairy Queen.
The outcome of my trip was making each sector of my trifocals more powerful. The good doctor used a poster on the wall showing the interior of a human eye to explain what was happening. He pointed to one particular place and said it was becoming thicker and less flexible as I grew older. If there was one spot I thought might be able to avoid the thickening and becoming less flexible which has struck most every place else on my body, it would be the inside of my eyeball. What’s next? A fat and creaky uvula?
Being healthy for everyone is not as easy as it used to be. When I was a kid people were always encouraged to spend time in the great outdoors. Fresh air and sunshine are just what the doctor ordered. Well, now going out in the sunshine requires SPF 37 (also known as a sweater) and the air in some parts of the world has to be chewed before it can make its way down to the lungs.
Recent reports of a scientific study on diet now calls into question a food which was previously thought to be healthy. The report stated the consumption of tofu could lead to dementia. Here, I always thought it was the other way around.
One of my best friends is a very serious vegetarian. He makes fabulous vegetarian meals. However, there was one time he served tofu hot dogs. In an attempt to be polite I tried to eat it. Then in an attempt to be polite I tried to hide it. The family dog was no help. Even he realized this meat imposter was about as enticing as cauliflower stuffed with lima beans.
Another scientific study shows spinach, even though it is a great source of Riboflavin, can lead to elephantine forearms which may be wonderful for showing off large anchor tattoos, but make it nearly impossible to find shirts which fit.
Okay, that last study about spinach. I made it up. I know it is irresponsible journalism. I hope I didn’t frighten anyone. I apologize but, I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam. Nyah, nyah, nyah.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The alchemy and science of words

Words are magic. I am not just talking about Abracadabra, Open Sesame, or Expelliarmus. Words have magic in them. Creating words by calling out one letter at a time is called s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g, spelling. Which sounds remarkably like what witches of the west, and any other direction, have been doing for years: casting a spell.
Stephen Pinker is a Harvard professor and the author of books about language and how people approach it. In his book “The Stuff of Thought” Mr. Pinker says “… one of the foundations of linguistics is that the pairing between a sound and a meaning is arbitrary, most humans intuitively believe otherwise.” People tend to think words contain some of the essence of what they represent. This idea contributes to the world of dirty words. (And why nobody is supposed to say “Voldemort” in the Harry Potter books.)
When you think of words you shouldn’t say in the presence of your grandmother many of them pertain to…how shall I put this…bodily by-products. It turns out there is a very understandable reason why so many of these words cause discomfort. If a word contains some of the essence of what it represents it follows people want to avoid such terms. The actual “waste” is a likely place for germs and pathogens so people have been hard-wired by evolution to avoid contact with the actual “product”. So, just the words can cause a similar visceral reaction.
There is an organ in the brain which helps with this reaction. The amygdala invests memories with emotion. These little almond shaped do-hickeys light up big time when we peak at people’s brains as they are exposed to emotionally unpleasant images, even words, especially taboo words.
This is part of the brain I, as the father of teenaged girls, need to harness. I would like to make other words push those little amygdala buttons causing a sense of revulsion. Here are a few words I would put on the list: allowance, texting, mini-skirt, backseat, and Victoria’s Secret. I suppose I shouldn’t leave out my ten year old boy. His list of words would include: allowance, Wii, rap music, and more pets.
Mr. Pinker describes how maledicta (fancy Harvard term for curse words) do have a place in our vocabulary. Using them can be cathartic. Walking to the bathroom at two in the morning one invariably finds the missing lego blocks with one’s bare feet. Saying “I do so wish young Ronald would put his toys away properly” does nothing to ease the pain. Whereas, saying words which are easily recognized by stevedores, sailors and stand-up comics truly helps deal with the throbbing.
So, the next time you find an Indonesian mountain weasel has attached himself to your earlobe using only his incisors and your wife chastises you for letting loose with a stream of maledicta in front of the children, you need to elucidate upon the “rage circuit theory”, which explains the emotional release accomplished by utilizing taboo words (loudly) helps deal with sudden unpleasantness.
Here is another new word I learned: dysphemism. I had heard of euphemism, a word used in place of another more offensive word. People do this all the time. An example would be saying “pig fertilizer” instead of the less socially acceptable “works of Corey Feldman.” Anyway, a dysphemism is a word which is less acceptable purposely used to play up the negative aspects.
There are times it makes no sense to sugar coat something. It is important the audience understands the gravity of the situation. An example of this would be when there is an impending happening of cataclysmic proportions. It would not be right to simply tell possible victims there might be an uncomfortable situation in the offing if in fact they are going to be forced to watch a twelve hour marathon of “Three’s Company” episodes, especially if they are from the Mr. Furley years.
Words have power while sounds do not. Your brain is an amazing contraption. It has instant reactions to sounds which are connected to ideas and pretty much ignores sounds that do not. I can shout “purdel” from the roof tops and even though it sounds like a word it will illicit no other reaction than mild puzzlement from people hearing me. But on the other hand, if I go to the roof and yell “melon baller” I will illicit major puzzlement from people wondering why I am teetering on the edge of a building crying out the name of a handy kitchen implement.