Tuesday, June 30, 2009

homes that are no more

When I first moved to Ohio from Florida, I was always astounded at the level of stereotypes some Northerners had about my old home, the South. They treated it like it was a different country, like it was a place of stupidity and ignorance, like it was a waste land in most senses. I chalked a lot of this up to an unwillingness on many of their parts to critically look at their own surroundings...they were quite comfortable deconstructing an "other," but to deconstruct themselves? Many simply could not do it. A prime example came in one of my classes, where a long-forgotten student, talking about his own trip to the South, said "they're racist down there...not like up here." This student then couldn't figure out why I and three students-of-color were all laughing.

There are, admittedly, key differences between the two regions, the most obvious of them being the openness of the South in revealing its idiosyncrasies. People who feel strongly about race, about politics, about anything at all are quite willing to tell you. In spite of (or perhaps because of) this, you are also more apt to see the difference at work. Yes, there is an open level of anti-African American racism in many quarters, but I also see more places where both blacks and whites mix socially. For that matter, I see more mixed race couples than I do up here. Chalk it up to what Patterson Hood calls "the duality of the Southern Thing."

These are some of the dominant things stuck in my mind when I think about my basic faux-reunion trip, because the trip has made me reconsider much about my past, and my relationship to my previous place I called home.

When I first met my friend T, the first words out of his mouth were "I feel so much a liberal, I'm thinking about joining the Communist party." I do know how he feels. Personally, I saw a previously smart person I know espousing views that put him within shouting distance of a Libertarian militia. I saw news broadcasts overrun with stories about police shootings. I heard the terms HUD, apartment complex, blacks, poor, and crime made synonymous.

Now don't get me wrong...much of this, I was expecting. Jacksonville has always been a right wing, conservative enclave. However, my personal distance from all this was thrown, during this trip, into sharp contrast.

And it was not the only time where I felt my differences.

Because of my differences with most of my classmates, I avoided the reunion. I realized that to spend a C note to get into a honkey tonk's VIP room one night and eat at a hotel buffet while listening to 80s music would, in addition to just plain costing too much, be dishonest both to who I was in high school and who I am now. And when I talked to my friends, the ones I did connect with and in fact wanted to see, I realized that they felt similar. One friend, D, upon hearing I would not be going at all, developed a deer-in-the-headlights "I gotta go through this alone?" look of terror.

Instead of the reunion, I decided to stay true to my high school character and went to a heavy metal show with some friends. Some of the bands, however, made me feel way too distanced from my heavy metal past. There was way too much cookie monster singing. Way too much stuff was in dropped-D tuning. Hardly anyone on stage looked like they were having a good time...certainly not the singer in a (no lie) clown mask. I did get to see an awesome band called Glorious Gunner that made me cackle with joy, but it was clear this is an identity I can no longer claim wholesale.

I felt very disconnected with the city. Distances became too long. The environment, littered with an increasing number of gambling parlors and strip clubs, seemed more scummy than anything. The heat was way too oppressive. And the "strip malls and subdivisions" layout of many areas just bored me.

What did I still enjoy? Well, there is the food. Day one, I had great fish. Midwesterners still don't get fish, but then again, they only see 2 week old garbage in the grocery stores. I also had great barbecue, and that alone marks the South as a truly cultured part of the country. And how can a place which has boiled peanuts be entirely bad?

Then there are the people...my family and friends, people with awesome talents, hidden depths, lives both heroic and tragic. I have not told half of whom I've seen or what I did, but if anything could draw me back, it would be them.

In the end, though, it was clearer to me than ever that Jacksonville is not my home, and nor will it ever be. And although I feel sadness for having to leave many people, they are the only thing there to which I'm really attached. We will all have to come to terms with me only, from now on, being a visitor to the place that used to be my home. It's a feeling that I've known for a while, but this trip made it clear. Moreover, I also feel fine knowing that this is how things are.

Although I would admittedly feel better about everything if I could just get good barbecue up here.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

faux reunion post 4

Things I learned over the past few days:

  • Although he's had some systematic changes in his life, my friend from CA is still a blast to hang with...and blindingly obscene.
  • There's a music store in town that's owned by Mennonites that have an apocalyptic theology...and Apocalyptic Mennonite Cult would be a great band name.
  • Reverend guitars are awesome, and I want one.
  • Similarly, Orange amps are great.
  • Remember how I wasn't able to make it for my friend's funeral? Well, he either was never buried, or I have no idea where he is. I really wanted to sing Motorhead at his grave.
  • When a car has a weak air conditioner, Florida really becomes unbearable.
  • Shopping malls are less cool in your late 30s than in your late teens.
  • I am not the only one who gets bored with metal that uses cookie monster vocals and drop-D tuning repeatedly.
  • I've been away from lovely spousal unit way too much, and the trip isn't over yet....sigh.

I'm sure there will be more blinding insights still to come.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

faux reunion post 3

The last two days were supposed to be when I would be at the class reunion. Ultimately, however, I decided against going. Why?

  • Most people I wanted to see either were not going, graduated before me, or graduated after me.
  • I don't really remember much about high school--I was working 35+ hours a week--so most of the evening would've been spent pretending that I remembered who many people were and how I knew them.
  • It cost $100...and I'm cheap. I mean, c'mon, that's a lot of PBR.
  • There was a dress code...and I refuse to dress up more for recreation than I do for work.
  • Day one party was at a honkey tonk. Enough said.
  • Day two party included a dj playing eighties music...and I hated that stuff enough when it was current.

So, it was clearly time for alternate plans.

Friday night, I went to day one of a heavy metal festival of local bands at a San Marco bar/sweat box with my friends K and M (hey, by using just initials, I feel just like a 19th century Russian novelist!). First, it was great to hang with the K-M duo...I had a blast. I also learned many things...like M was actually in my 10th grade English class. Why didn't I know this? I blame my own stupidity, bad memory, and the fact that I was in one of the most ridiculous and long suffering unrequited infatuations of my life. Mostly, though, I was just stupid.

I don't remember any of the band names, but the evening went like this: first up was an "old school" metal group...old school meaning that the singer was in his late 39s at least. They were pretty good, but not without weirdness. The bass player was the son of the guitar player. The bass player had the "let's twirl the hair in time with the music" bit down pat. The singer was this huge guy who parked himself at the center of the stage. The guitar player was shaved head with the requisite pointed goatee. Later in the set, the guitar player's wife flashed her breasts at the band...which included her son. Just be thankful I'm not describing the phallic nature of the band's tee shirt design.

Band two was...not great. The singer alternated between low growls and high squeals. Their songs were similarly not great...they included the random insertions of jazz segments before going back to noodley over-playing, and the only way you could tell the song ended was the guitar player assuming the "Rio statue of Jesus" pose.

Band 3 was a pretty tight metal band from Gainesville with a singer who was only 2'4".

Band 4 was actually my favorite...the guys looked like they were having real fun, they sounded like a cross between Judas Priest and Ozzy Black Sabbath, and they even did a cover of "The Trooper." I wanted to see if they had cds, but they left after their set and never came back.

Band 5 was called Carnivorous Carnival. Yeah, I know. The band consisted of a drummer, no bass player, and two guitarists. As opposed to the other two guys, who dressed more or less like normal people, the singer wore a clown mask and talked about how "this next song is for everyone who feels like a freak"...well, maybe you. They drove 85% of the crowd out the door.

We sat through one more mediocre band before leaving. Overall, it was fun, but the 122 degree temperature (Kelvin) inside the club did distract from the evening. When I got back to my parents' place, all of my clothes were soaked through. The next day, there was a salt evaporation line on my shirt.

Reunion day two was also with K&M. Their nephew was playing in a battle of the bands competition for teenage musicians. His band was good, but the bit I will never get out of my head was the wanna-be 13 year old musicians playing Eric Clapton's "Cocaine." Went to European Street for lunch and ran into J and his lovely spouse (whose initial is escaping me). After hanging out at the awesome K/M casa (I love high ceilings) and scaring the hell out of their 6 cats, we went to see the Jacksonville Suns play because nothing says sanity like sitting outside in 95 degree weather...but at least it was cooler than the metal festival.

After getting something to eat (which should not be as involved as it was...why do so many restaurants close before 10?), we went to the former "Monty's" for some beers. As a pleasant surprise, there was an R&B band playing...wearing matching red shirts and playing Booker T & the MG-esque toons. All in all, a good way to end the night, and K&M made the weekend more fun than I would've ever had at the reunion.

And I am still not getting any work done, by the way.

Friday, June 19, 2009

faux reunion post 2

Last two days in Florida have been very quiet...hanging with family all day Wednesday, reading several Robert Parker novels, now onto Tom Clancy...who is a good read yet really, really annoys me for lotsa reasons. Last night, went to hang with several friends...talked, caught up, played micro bits of guitar. Low key, but very fun...so low key, can't write sentence with noun.

Anyway, tonight is supposed to be the first night of the class reunion. So what am I gonna do? A friend who graduated a year after me is coming to pick me up later. We are going to eat burritos. After that, we are going to a bar to see a heavy metal show. Really, this is much more in tune with what I want to remember about high school than the $100 "listen to 80s music (why? I hated it back then) and talk to people who never talked to you" reunion.

I had, of course, grandiose plans to do writing while I'm down here--Krom knows I need to do the work--but thus far, laziness has overtaken. I'm just being very sedentary while talking, reading, and missing my dear spousal unit.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

faux reunion post 1

Yesterday was marked by the beautiful spousal unit crawling out of slumber at an ungodly hour so that she could taxi me to the Detroit airport. A few years ago, for reasons that I have never been able to fathom, it was cheaper to fly Toledo-Detroit-Jacksonville than Detroit-Jacksonville. Now, all of a sudden, logic has been restored, so we had to make the commute into Michigan...which means a longer rider, getting up stupidly early. Actually, I prefer illogic.

After beautiful spousal unit dropped me off, I went inside to check my bags...and couldn't find the Northwest counter. Went outside, only saw Delta. This is when I assumed that there had been a merger or something...but really, as I have frequent flier miles and a booked trip, it is puzzling that I had to make a guess on this one.

It was 7:30 am, and the airport was exceptionally dead and empty. I shuffled off to my gate, found it, and then went to stake out the airport bar for the obligatory pre-flight bloody mary. The bars were, however, deserted. Now, I know that 7:30 am is not normally considered prime drinking time, but c'mon, it must've been 9 pm according to some traveler's internal clock. But no, nobody was drinking. Now, this says something about me: I had utterly no qualms about a bloody mary at that time of the day, but I also didn't want to be the only person sitting at the bar drinking at that time of the day. Damnit, as much as I really want to say "I don't care what anyone thinks," that ain't apparently the case just yet. I'm such a wimp.

The plane was delayed 20 minutes. Apparently, they found condensation inside the cabin and had to repair a leak. It's obviously not the kind of thing you want to hear before flying, but it could be worse...they could be attacking the engine with a roll of duct tape and a piece of panty hose.

Flight was uneventful. I have the normal trick for keeping chatty passengers from talking to me: I get a book with the heaviest sounding title I can find to read on the plane. This time? The Second Industrial Divided, an economics book. No one talked. I think I might've even scared one baby from crying.

Parental units picked me up from the airport. We ate lunch at Harpoon Louie's, and I had my regular blackened grouper sammich...awesome. I also had a Yuengling, sipped it, and pondered the inequities of life, in that such a fine brew is still not available where I live.

The rest of the day consisted just of hanging with the parental units, fixing their computer (installing Avira, Firefox), scumbag brother and nephew coming over for dinner, exposing my family to the joy and pleasure that is Maytag Blue, and arguments about politics and beer. Overall, a fine day one.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

process (of avoidance)

Once again, I am in the midst of a summer with entirely too much to do in terms of scholarship. I gotta write, write, write. However, in spite (or maybe because) of having way too many projects on the go, very little actual writing has taken place so far.

Until today, that is. Lunch is still in the oven, and I have already busted out a pretty good draft of an introduction to a paper I wasn't even considering writing yet will eventually be both very important to my branding as an academic not to mention a pretty cool and sexy vita line. I'm actually pretty confident about my argument (it's notable, important, and doesn't seem to have been made yet...an academic sweet spot) and my ability to get it done. And as optimism isn't a regular feature of my writing, I'm doing my best to enjoy the sensation.

However, as nice as it is to be producing again, I have been noting the things that come along with the drafting process:

  • My choice of beverage seems to take on massive levels of importance. Moreover, the art of getting a refill becomes a major event, much like I imagined the planning of the invasion of Normandy to be.
  • Cleaning also becomes important. While I'm making more tea, I might as well do a load of dishes as the water boils. And then clean the countertop. And then the cabinet doors. And then reorganize my kitchen.
  • I tend to get into major projects unrelated to writing. Yesterday, for instance, I steam cleaned the carpets instead of starting the draft.
  • I am very much a fan of the "pile stuff around your chair" method of organizing my research...which, incidentally, makes all those trips for more beverage all the more taxing and precarious.
  • For reasons I cannot really fathom, Tetris has become vital to my writing process. I must play a game before I start, whenever I get stuck, and after finishing each paragraph. And when I play poorly, I write poorly.
  • I am a night person, but for some reason, I am always more productive in the morning, when I am half asleep, unkempt, and drooling.
  • Just as I Twitter more often when I grade, I also do more tweets while writing.
  • Every paper I tend to write takes on a life of its own. I'm either exploring whole new areas of knowledge in which I really don't have all that much experience, or I'm trying to do vast, overarching, game-changing scholarship. In other words, it's never easy.
  • When I'm not currently involved in a writing project, there's never anything on television worth watching. When I do write, I get hooked into complex, intricate shows. Do I really need three hours of The West Wing a day when I'm trying to do a paper? Even the Television Gods are against me.
  • The older I get and the longer I write, the more I gravitate towards incorporating stream of consciousness blasts into my process...which totally goes against my normally super-anal procedures.

It is, of course, always interesting to learn more about myself. I also find many wonderful, unique insights into the writing process. However, most of them are simply bad habits, so I really can't share them with my class. Besides, how many students nowadays need to be told ways to avoid the writing process?

Monday, June 01, 2009


As a society, we are often prone to discount full strata of experience. This is particularly the case when it comes to our popular culture. For whatever reason, ordinarily sane people feel perfectly comfortable and justified trashing media or genres of culture for no logical reason, based only on their (often wrong) presumptions.

Of course, as someone who teaches, studies, and writes about popular culture, I admit that I am firmly prickly about such matters. However, I notice it a lot. Even people who know what I do feel insistent on telling me such lovelies as "No, I would never play video games," or "that's just a kids program"...and I have heard more than one academic (who should otherwise be a smart person) brag about either never watching or not even owning a television. Being the smartass that I am, I'm always forced to wonder how they would respond if I came back with "Oh, I don't read...I'm proud not to read."

Unfortunately, this is something that is not confined to the freaks who will actually associate with me. I think it is widespread. Rather than take chances on new media experiences, many people are all too ready to just follow their blind prejudices or simply do what they've always done. This leads to narrow mindsets. Moreover, it leads to people thinking of entire realms of experience as being "no thought zones." And is there really any good that can come of us just deciding not to think of something?

Even worse is when this happens within the culture industry itself. I've always said that there can be, for instance, magnificent children's entertainment. Roald Dahl works (James and the Giant Peach and the Willie Wonka stories are great examples of kids stories which are smart, witty, and never talk down to their audience. Harry Potter is the same way. As a result, these are magnificent experiences for kids and adults alike.

Unfortunately, most of the children's entertainment out there does not have respect for their audience, and this is a prime reason many disdain children's culture. As a man with two nephews and a niece, I've seem my share of awful bilge pumped out in the name of Children's Entertainment. Parents have undoubtedly seen more examples of this than they would care to recall. All I have to do is even think of the trailer for Hotel for Dogs or see an ad for some Hannah Montana crap, and I'm ready to discount anything written for anyone under 18.

This would be a real shame, though, because I would lose Pixar films.

I liked Toy Story a lot, but I never really thought too much about the studio behind it. Then the spousal unit and I saw Wall-E and were blown away...I still think it should've not only received a nomination but should've won last year's Best Picture Oscar. Then we saw Ratatouille and The Incredibles. These brilliant movies all convinced me to give Pixar a free pass. If they make it, I will see it.

This faith was rewarded this weekend when the spousal unit and I saw Up.

Up, plot-wise, follows an elderly balloon salesman named Carl Fredricksen on his quest to finally escape his life and enter into a world of adventure. He does this by tying a gaggle of helium balloons to his house and flying to South America.

However, this (or any other plot description) does not really do justice to the movie. Rather than being plot-centric, Up is a character piece about loss, closure, and life. While there is a definite action theme central to the movie--after all, it focuses on a man who's dreamed of adventure his whole life--this movie is about emotion.

The first scenes show Carl as a little kid, watching a movie theater newsreel about a daring adventurer named Charles F. Muntz, who Carl idolizes. The next day, he meets a young girl named Ellie who's similarly obsessed with Muntz, and the two become friends.

However, the next sequence is utterly devastating. In a montage spanning 70 years of Carl's life, we see Carl and Ellie growing close, falling in love, marrying, building a house together (while still wearing their wedding clothes), working together, promising to each other to go on a grand South America adventure some day, planning for children, being told by doctor they will never have kids, having life (in the form of car repairs, house repairs, and such) get in the way of their planned adventure, growing old, and Carl finally being able to buy plane tickets for the two of the to finally visit Paradise Falls in South America...just as Ellie gets sick and dies.

It's a haunting sequence, slamming the viewer from highs to lows, making you first get interested in these two characters, then start liking them, then become intimately involved in their life together which never quite reaches their dreams. If I were not so strong of a man, my emotions would've gotten the better of me.

(okay, damnit, I choked up and cried)

From then on, the "adventure" phase of the movie starts. However, even in the most adventure-ridden scenes, there's such a strong current of emotion that underlies the plot. There are big events. There are funny jokes. The talking dogs (constantly obsessed with and distracted by squirrels) are amazing. But while every other element of the movie is great--the visuals alone are stunning--the movie makes sure you never forget that it is a ride of emotions, first off.

While flying to South America in his balloon-lifted house, Carl discovers Russell (a Wilderness Explorer--basically, a Cub Scout) has accidentally stowed away. This of course leads to some good "old guy versus young kid" humor, but the relationship between the two gets much deeper, and the movie never lets the viewer forget it. While resting for the night, Carl asks Russell about the kid's father, and Russell tells him his parents are divorced. While Russell doesn't see his dad that much, he does enjoy sitting with him and eating ice cream while counting cars. Speaking about his dad, Russell tells Carl "It's funny...it's the little things about being with him I miss most."

That is the joy of Up. While there are big visuals, big action, big jokes, the movie really excels when it drives home the point that the little things are, in the end, more important, more noteworthy.

And it would be a shame if anyone missed this message simply because it came in a "kid's movie."