Thursday, March 31, 2011

LORD OF THE FLIES (2) & AN UNHAPPY CONCLUSION



I have tried to recount the kinds of injuries at Airsoft Games I’ve organized over the years, only to realize that most injuries were ancillary to the guns themselves. I’ve had students stung by wasps, fall down hills, fall out of trees, hit by go-carts, entangled in briars, jumped by other kids who panicked when cornered, cut by barbed wire, jump into rivers to avoid being caught, nearly run down by horses, dehydrated, sun-stroked, and run over by stampedes in retreats. Most of these injuries could be characterized as accidental, I suppose. The injuries that concerned me most were the ones inflicted by a sadistic minority of boys who enjoyed the discomfort of others under the pretense of having fun.

In Airsoft battles with children, I’ve always abided by a few rules for the overall enjoyment of the students, chief of which was never to take a battle so seriously that I felt the need to use overwhelming force on the opposition. No matter how belligerent or threatening they seemed. They were still kids after all. The combination of my many evasive powers and the kids’ keen evaluation of those strategies worked against me as they got much older and were able to chart my signature strategies (like fleeing when discovered). They employed the equivalent of “carpet bombing” by dividing forces and canvassing the entire field while shooting anywhere a 5’9, 175 lb. man could be hiding. One field mastermind had a scary intuition about my behaviors, as if he had a map of my mind. He understood that if he zeroed in on one of my younger students instead of looking for me, he would find me somewhere close. One time he passed out my phone number, having squads walk the perimeter of the battlefield, calling my cell phone. That time I had hidden in bamboo for forty-five minutes in the cold rain, my cell phone chirruped, and I was shot in my eye which swelled shut for an entire week. My wife learned to anticipate my assortment of injuries, filthy clothes, and hours of sleep that followed, especially when I combined Airsoft with all-night campouts.

The last story found me fleeing deep into the woods with two younger students at my heels in order to allow the sniper in my group to finish a very accurate work of sniping at a rabble-rousing contingent, and increasing their confusion. After retreating about twenty feet or so, we hid again. A few minutes later I heard Luigi retreating as fast as he could in our direction, calling out my name in the loudest whisper he could without outright yelling. Locating us, he told us how more insubordination ensued when we left, and the boys had taken their argument back up to the dollhouse where he believed a coup of some sort was in progress. I looked at my watch. We had about fifteen minutes left in the game, but that was enough time for someone to get hurt at the fast rate of decay happening amongst the enemy. I completely changed tactics.

“OK. We are going to advance on the dollhouse from the west along the grove of evergreen trees. Luigi, you will stay east of the trees. During the last two minutes of the game, I will lead the little ones to open fire. Luigi, make sure you are locked and loaded, because you’re going to back us up. Got it?” Everyone did, so we parted ways. My goal was to give the trembling little ones a taste of the possible fears involved in battle without incurring the injuries. A skirmish for the last two minutes of the game would be a healthy way for them to learn this. I didn’t want them not talking about the battle at school because they hid the entire time. I wanted them to end on a high note where they were the aggressors in a very decisive and successful counterattack (because the opposition would not have time to respond). I calculated that it would take us about ten minutes to get into place, three minutes to evaluate the situation, and about two minutes for the finale. We followed the plan up until the five minute mark. I had to further change my plans.

A large number of boys were outside the dollhouse guarding it while a fight was taking place inside. I heard several voices shouting and then scuffling, and then more shouting and then more scuffling. I didn’t think it conscionable to allow what sounded like punishment to go on for much longer so I open-fired on the guards, rushing at them with the little ones flanking me and unloading their clips into the fray. The guards, taken by surprise, surrendered with joy nonetheless, a few traitors from my own side telling me that the last half hour of the game had been hell. They had been forced to join under pain of being shot and with promises of food. There had eventually been a showdown between the rival leaders who were inside. Leader was with a few henchmen, arguing it out with the Pretender who had been shot at point-blank range in front of us while we were hiding. Things were escalating inside. I told the guards to back me up. 

Luigi had arrived on the scene and was more than eager to do what was needed. With approximately one minute left, I told Luigi that I would open the door and he would repeat fire into the room. But not at anyone in particular. The inside of the dollhouse was plastic and wood, and the bullets would crazily ricochet making everyone inside to hit the floor. We would apprehend them, I would call time, and the game would be over. This was intended to be a mercy mission for the Pretender who was evidently being misused by Leader.

Everything went according to plan, but do you know what happened? My entering the scene to rescue the Pretender backfired on me. Instead of being a hero to Pretender, I was the enemy. As soon as I entered the dollhouse, both rivals turned their guns on me, giving each other instructions and each following the directions of the other. Surprised at this turn of events, I called time (we were a couple of minutes over the game), but neither of them observed me. They decided instead to attack me by taking one of the little ones hostage.

Needless to say, I had to get parents involved. Mothers, that is. The fathers were too busy doing other things. Important things, I think.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

LORD OF THE FLIES & AIRSOFT VIOLENCE



During a four-year streak of playing Airsoft with the boys and girls of my school STONE TABLE, I have seen some aggressively cowardly action on the battlefield. Having Nashville Airsoft attend the battles I organized to peddle automatic M-5s, M-16s, Uzis, Sniper Rifles, Shotguns, and ammunition to the kids I invited and organized to fight ended up being a mistake of mine more than once. As a rule, I made sure my own guns and munitions were inferior so as not to pose a threat to the child with the cheapest gun. After all, I did not bring kids together so I could enjoy a turkey shoot. I brought them together to illustrate the complexity and difficulty of the historical battles we studied in History. 

And because I was sick and tired of hearing my students say things like “If I were Charlemagne, I would have …”  There is nothing like having the plight of the Americans in The Battle of the Bulge sink into a child’s bones when you have him and his classmates spread thin in the woods to prevent a larger army of kids from literally forcing them into the Harpeth River. Or there is nothing like getting a kid to empathize with Hrothgar by having him sit around a fire at night in the late Fall eating turkey legs and hearing the story of Beowulf while coyotes are yipping in the distance. My students who have attended these events don’t typically walk around talking about things they don’t know. It’s a form of assimilation I’ve enjoyed for over a decade.

However, in my eagerness to “get kids to learn” I created a world of personal terror for myself during the two and three hour battles where I had foolishly ensured that the odds were stacked against me for the sake of the students. I’ve been chased and funneled by a smarter enemy of  7th & 8th graders into a barbed wire fence where I received two gouges in my left leg being stuck on the fence while being mercilessly shot, poned at point blank range with automatic fire by a foreign contingent who always seemed not to understand English on the battlefield, run down by squads of boys in a hefty go-cart doing drive-bys, sniped in the head from ridiculously far distances by 9th graders, chased downhill and shot to the point of having to dive downhill to avoid elementary and middle school students who routed my encampment, quietly lain in fear and trepidation in the middle of thorn bushes, nettles, deer and coyote poop, and once shot in the eye after hiding in the middle of a bamboo patch in drizzling, 40 degree rain. I have actually prayed for personal safety while crouching in the middle of a wheat field surrounded by students with the biggest guns talking within earshot of me about what they were going to do with me when they found me. It was Lord of the Flies all over. Especially one time.

A young, aggressive boy attended my school. He was from a wealthy family, over-confident in disposition, and snide in communication. He was not liked in the school by any student I can remember, but the battlefield was a different situation altogether. Away from mom and dad and in the company of other young men and girls, a sinister side of him emerged, making many of the younger boys fight each other to be on his side in the game in order not to be shot (or pistol-whipped) by him if caught.

I was in my usual attire, camo and a springloaded Desert Eagle. I had the handicap of a few younger students in my care. It was dark and fifty or so boys were divided into two teams on twenty acres of a Southern plantation that sported a small forest with caves. The eldest child in my squad was a nine-year-old Hebrew with a gas-powered gun. He knew Torah inside and out and had that strange, earthy confidence of many of my Jewish comrades of utilizing actual Old Testament accounts to their everyday advantage. Despite that I was the teacher and had created this reality, I knew that I had no authority until 9:00 p.m. when the game was officially finished and the  alternate reality over. My plan was to evade capture for the next hour. If it came to fighting, Luigi would be our saving grace.

We were hunkered down on the edge of the forest floor, a drop-off and the caves directly behind us. There were four of us, and the two youngest were scared to death. Down the hill towards our left came a platoon of boys, about thirty in number, silhouetted against the moonlight, being led by none other than the brat who was mostly disliked in real-time reality. And what a cheat! He had appropriated several squads and dissidents from my own team into one large mob. They stampeded down the hill after him, and he abruptly stopped no less than fifteen feet from where we were lying prone.

“Shut up!” he ordered. “Where did they go?” A few kids, eager to be in his good graces, offered locations where we definitely were not. He became irate at the contradictions.

“If you are lying, I’m going to shoot you right here.” Nobody protested, but they corporately tried to explain in illogical fashion how we could feasibly be anywhere.

“If you are lying, l'll shoot you.” Then he added “If you find Mr. Grayson, leave him for me.”

The hair on my arms bristled. What did that mean? Leave him for me. He was taking every moment of the game too seriously. I felt the perplexity of Ralph in Lord of the Flies. Like Ralph I had only the best interest of the little ones at heart. Ralph wanted to get them safely off the island. I wanted them to be safe and to have fun while learning. Ralph was appreciated by all present on the island but one: Jack. I was liked by all students present but this one. Jack wanted to stick Ralph like a pig. I knew this kid had a vendetta against me, but I figured it was largely due to his imbalanced mother who doted on him like he was her husband. I also figured that "violence" would only extend to intentionally incomplete homework and cheeky behavior in class. Here was a monster on my hands, and the game needed to get over fast.


One of the three kids in my squad farted, and the other two froze. I laid my arm across the little uns' heads to keep them down. Luigi, tired of keeping down when he had a good shot, open fired, hitting the caustic leader on the skin somewhere and causing confusion amongst the platoon.

“You shot me, idiot!” Leader singled out one of the kids in his group with whom he did not get along at school, and who, to be quite honest, was his spitting character-image. I listened to the showdown between these two love-starved, socially backward, and power-hungry rivals.

“No, I didn’t!”

Blap! Blaaap! Blap! Leader squeezed a few rounds point blank at his foil, and the foil went to his knees and then his side, howling in pain and protesting.

"Damn you!"

“Grab his gun!” Leader yelled. There was a scuffle and the gun was apprehended despite the angry complaints of the injured.

“You shot me, and you know it!” Leader yelled. “You go up to the prison (an oversized dollhouse) and you stay there until we get Mr. Grayson.”

There was that crazy threat again. Luigi shot again, a few bursts. Some of the enemy dispersed and a few of the enemy were able to locate the source of the fire. The next thing I knew, I was hightailing it out of there with the two little ones, leaving that brave, Hebrew Christ-figure to take the heat for us.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

MAPCO: "SAY WHAT YOU MEAN TO SAY"


I ran out of gas yesterday on my way back to school around 2:15 P.M. on Clovercroft Road, a secondary road known for its coyote and bobcat sightings and for its assorted roadkill of heron, king snakes, and cats. My school sits off this road, and today I was just out of reach of it. My hunter green suburban started chugging as I was going downhill, and I was forced to pull over onto the grassy shoulder next to a fence behind which two goats with long, floppy ears chewed grass while staring me down.

One day when we are old and gray (or bald), David Raymond and I will sit smoking pipes, recounting our scholastic journey together at Stone Table in terms of which years and on which roads he had to pick me up or bring me a container of gas. I don't take pride in running out of gas, but admittedly I also don't mind running on empty for long stretches, allegorical of my life. David kindly picked me up without commentary and dropped me off at my house to pick up my Volvo to take a trip to the gas station.

I typically don't like being accosted anywhere at anytime: that goes for the person on the street corner trying to give me a Gospel tract because he thinks I look like I need conversion, or the cell phone salesmen in the local store or mall trying to get me to switch my cell service or the homeless who beg from me and then preach or curse in return for my attention, positive or negative (respectively). The first and last time I was jumped was by a stranger in Brugge, Belgium. Some functional pothead tried to take my car, angry that it was a Mercedes. That my car trumped his tiny compact, and that I, the driver, was American was enough to set him off. He tried to get in through the back seat, hit me in the side of the face twice, knocking my glasses off, and told me in German to leave Brugge now or not at all (Du gehts jetzt, oder du gehts nicht). All of this in front of the police, mind you. Anyways, suffice it to say, I do not like being accosted by people.

However, yesterday at the gas station I was actually intrigued when a skinhead came up to me with a two-gallon gas container, nervously asking me for some gas. I had just finished filling up my own one-gallon gas container and was about to put the pump up. Looking around, I quickly realized he had bypassed a couple of professional looking people who were eying us out of the corner of their eyes. And he had bee-lined to me. 

"Hey, dude, I really need some ******* help. I'm absolutely broke and I need to get home." I looked at him as I screwed on the lid to my gas container.  He continued talking, moving his head back and forth.

"Dude, I'm not trying to get your money. I just really really need some help now. Today has been the worst ******* day. Seriously. If you could just give me some gas I could get home."

"Where do you live?" I asked, but not to interrogate him. I figured he would feel better about the exchange if I showed some sort of interest in who he was or what his situation was.

"Dude, I live on Trinity. And sometimes in Columbia. Actually, I'm homeless right now. I really live in Nashville but I'm from California." He confusedly admitted, eager to tell me all of the truths no matter how contradictory they sounded. I looked at the tattoos on his head, blue arrows in rows, starting from the base of his neck and converging at the tip of his stubbly hairline above the eyebrows.

"That sucks. How old are you?"

"I just turned thirty."

"Ah, how do you feel about turning thirty?"

"Not too good. I just broke up with my girlfriend I was with for two years. It's not good." He paused, casting around for more credibility. "I work at the Bunganut Pig." He showed me the logo on his shirt. Ah, but I know and love the Bunganut Pig, a hole-in-the-wall pub on a street in my town that serves some amazing casserole. I'm Facebook friends with Bunganut.

"Dude," I said "You guys make some good food! When do you work?" He gave me his hours to the minute. Seven days a week he was working.

"I'm going to come see you at lunch on Wednesday then," I said as I took his gas can. 

He stared at me in disbelief. As I filled it up, he was babbling "Dude, this is the best thing that has happened to me today.... **** man. Dude, this is the best ******* thing that has happened to me!" I screwed on his lid and handed him back the container. He lunged at me and gave me the biggest hug I have ever cared to receive from a stranger. He kept shaking his head and fist bumped me with knuckles tatted in faded, Avatar blue with some slur on it. 

"I'll see you on Wednesday." I told him. 

"******* thanks, man! I'll see you then!"

As I drove away, a part of me was asking myself why I gave him gas and not others who have asked before. I cast around a few reasons. Well, he lived on Trinity Lane which was clearly a reference to the Holy Trinity. That would have been a good reason, haha.

I then thought about the Bunganut Pig, a prestigious little pub in downtown Franklin, known for its cozy atmosphere and delicious lunches. He had a Bunganut t-shirt on. Surely, that was some proof.

Then I thought about how thoroughly he answered my questions. But it was none of these.

You know what it was? It was that his lower lip trembled when he told me that he had a rotten day. It was that quiver that he tried to control, the quiver that slipped beyond his ability to maintain composure. It was the quiver that gave him away, that told me he was telling the truth, and more importantly, that he needed my help. He could have told me he was a born-again skinhead and I would have told him I had no money. But he let the quiver slip, whether or not he meant to do so.

How many broke business men have walked into million dollar meetings in fancy conference rooms dressed up in dark, pinstriped suits, crisply starched shirts, bright power ties, slicked back hair, and spit-shined shoes? As the businessmen are working over their audience, the shakers and movers in the audience are feeling the overwhelming sense that they are not needed, that they are small fish, that they are of no consequence to the speaker.

Look at that guy. Look at his suit. Look at his tie. Look at his confidence! We can't offer him anything he would take. We would offer $250,000 for his services, but he is asking for much more and looks like he wouldn't take less. No, we can't let him know just how disorganized we are. It would be embarrassing.

And those idiots lose the deal because they portended a confidence not their own, a generically enthusiastic business presentation they plagiarized, and an overall disposition that echoed hollow throughout the entire spiel only to take their broke selves back to their dark apartments to eat Ramen in their secondhand Lazy Boys in front of a small television with no more than $100 in the bank left to their names. All because they let pretension get in the way. They let performance sterilize genuine sentiment.

Make that bottom lip quiver. Wet those pants. Give honesty for once and you might find your deepest needs addressed.

GILGAMESH & MALE BONDING




Yesterday my eldest daughter and I were talking about social differences between girls and guys, how they handle their relational problems. I told her that it was my opinion that girls would get along better if they could punch each other in the face once in a while. Of course, that wouldn’t work because girls are not generally wired that way. But it works for guys. Some of my best friendships were with guys I had punched in the face, shoved against the wall, tripped onto their backs, or half-drowned in the pool over some perceived insult, some bluff called, or some threat I preempted. It worked the other way. I’ve been poned more than once.

What is actually strange (to women or mothers of boys at least) is that these little violences were more than often the portal to friendships. There was Aaron in Germany, John (now deceased) and Ronnie in England, Steve and Jeff in college, one of my bosses post-college in his kitchen, a school superintendent at a picnic, and a financial advisor at the same picnic (Yeah, financial "advisors" need their butts kicked). Fighting or wrestling or otherwise expending physical energy in feats of strength seems to help boys and men draw very tight boundaries around each other. So tight sometimes they make you inseparable. I recommend it every once in a while.

This past year I’ve been reading a series of books with a young man who almost offed his brother out of defense. Besides Sun Tsu's ART OF WAR and Stephen Pressfield's GATES OF FIRE which we read later, I thought we would start off with THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH, a very old Babylonian text so old the patriarch Abraham probably was familiar with it (seriously). I have been aware of the book for about thirty years, being exposed to it in elementary school, but I didn’t pick it up until twelve years ago and I’ve been teaching it for ten. The book reads clunky, probably because the culture gap between the Babylonians and Williamson County, Tennessee is so wide, hahaha. However, there has been much of the book that I, as a man, have intuitively understood more than the “pagan” or religious parts. The parts I understand are the healthy, masculine parts like Gilgamesh’ kicking Enkidu’s butt and breaking things in the process.

So when Gilgamesh (the half-god) and Enkidu the (half-man) first meet, Gilgamesh is on his way to make out with someone else’s wife (on their wedding night of all times). Enkidu is disgusted and outraged. He won’t let it happen, so he stops Gilgamesh at the city gate, blocking his way. Gilgamesh, being god, thinks he can do anything he wants. So he tries to cross the threshold and is surprised to find the shorter, squattier opponent taking him on. A phenomenal fight breaks out, and they are all over the place, breaking the gate posts, knocking into the walls and shaking them, grunting and snotting over each other as they go back and forth. With one definitive move (clearly illustrating a popular Babylonian grappling technique) Gilgamesh throws Enkidu onto his back. It's the ancient Babylonian pinning of the shoulders and the fight is over. But an interesting thing happens: Enkidu in the moral right actually admits defeat. That strategic and mature move abates Gilgamesh’ anger, and, get this, THEY BECOME BEST FRIENDS. 

As old as this story is, the psychology of this behavior is not hard to cipher. When men fight, they fight in order to dominate each other until a winner and a loser emerge. The loser cedes to the winner. Always. End of the discussion. So, say, as has happened in my school before, two boys are fighting over, I don't know, Pokemon: one thinks the Diamond Version is better than the Pearl Version. They exhaust verbal debate, one insults the other, and a heated exchange takes place. A fight ensues and one boy bests the other. It is understood that the bested boy gives in. The besting determines (at least amongst the two boys) that the Diamond Version is now the preferred version even if statistics prove the Pearl Version to be better. End of the story. 

In an encounter like this, you have all the elements of a relational disagreement: it’s just that the best punch to the face wins. And guess what? Both boys are fine with it, provided it was a fair fight. It is unfair for one boy to hit the other over the head with a skateboard when the other kid has no skateboard whereby he can defend himself. The outcome will not be agreed upon if no agreement on the mode of fighting has been agreed upon (Duels were only fair when both men agreed to the duel). What is important is that when a concession is made from the loser to the winner, it actually strengthens the bond between men. It creates tight boundaries, thereby drawing men in closer.

The U.S. military is perhaps the best example of this. Bootcamp serves to create and to strengthen this bond: shared physical labor, shared humiliation, shared responsibility, shared property, shared pride. In the end it somehow transforms a boy into a soldier or a marine or an airman or a sailor or whatever. In the case of military defense, it actually does the same for women. It is not by being relational through talking that this occurs. It is by being relational through physicality that this is best achieved. 

It is interesting that when Gilgamesh and Enkidu become best friends, Gilgamesh is apparently thwarted from being a butt and bothering the young brides (Yes, even the winner makes concessions). What beautifully happens is that they combine arms to do greater feats of strength, like dethroning the gods. Oh, I forgot to mention that point. There is some hubris involved in the masculine psychology of feats of strength.

Monday, March 28, 2011

EMOLICIOUS: ON CHRISTIAN MASOCHISM



After my second year of having founded STONE TABLE, I decided to explain to my elementary students the lyrics to Martin Luther’s FROM DEPTHS OF WOE which I had them routinely singing for over a year, the first verse of which begins “From depths of woe I raise to Thee the voice of lamentation….” As I began to explain the line, a third grader from South Africa, screwed up her face and corrected me.

"Wool" she said.

"Excuse me?"

"Wool" she said again. I paused to let her words compute.

“Wool what?"

“Wool. You mean ‘From Depths of Wool.’"

I paused. Then it dawned on me, paralyzing my train of thought. After a year of subjecting students to a song I thought they understood, I realized I had ingrained in them (by the looks on some of the other children’s faces) the correlation between praying and suffocation. I can’t tell you how aghast I was and even more aghast as the third-grader tried to explain her logic.

"No, it's like you are under all of these blankets and Jesus hears you crying. Like a little kitten. Which is cute."

I strongly objected, even laughing a little to ease the concern of the other students who seemed relieved that someone was finally explaining some of the archaic terminology I enjoyed using in my elementary classes. But it was no use. She did not understand spiritual abstractions save in one area: spiritual abstractions have a unique logic that does not often lend to rational deduction. That is not the fault of the spiritual abstraction itself. It is, rather, a communication problem. From that point on I began to doubt my communication skills with my students or even with my own children who have had nightmares more than once because of my "miscommunication."

It brought about a concern I had only remotely felt until then, and that is that much of the masochism expressed in Christian culture is less a proper doctrinal view or legitimate judgment of God and more an area in which Christian culture delights. Consider that each of our lives are punctuated with disappointment, heartbreak, unrealized expectations, fears, social or psychological loneliness, injustice, and much of it without our input. And we get to end it all by dying, each of us going through the Valley of the Shadow of Death alone with no other person than the God of the Universe at our side. 

A few months ago I had a nightmare (actually, it was a daymare). I dreamed I was some oily sludge going down the inside of a sink, fast approaching the drain. It was happening slowly, but there was no way that I, sludge, could grip the sides of the sink. I was being pulled down largely because of the contour of the bowl and largely because of the momentum of my own weight. I hit the drain then slowly and dramatically slipped through to the other side. 

I literally jumped myself awake, trying to grab onto something and my heart beating ferociously. It dawned on me with a nascent wonder that everyone has to go through that event and they have to go through it alone. Is that not terrifying? And at that moment I felt both a love and an admiration for every human being alive, good or bad. I didn’t tell my wife or my children or my friends, because I felt it would dampen their day (and their life). I walked around the house looking at everything in a new light: Judge Judy was yelling at someone, the kids had left the refrigerator door open, music was blaring downstairs, and I'm going in my head “Surely, death can’t be that ugly. Or final.” 

What is interesting is that such realities do not seem to be enough for the Christian. In many cases he must add his own severe rules and regulations that hamper enjoyment and restrict healthy function on top of the grief we must all suffer. So he cannot laugh except to repent at the end of his laughter because he should have been thinking about all of the unfortunate people. Or he cannot take a vacation because that money should go towards the same unfortunate people. Or he cannot have a nice television because the money could go to the starving. Or he cannot have a nice meal or he cannot take time to have a long walk for walking's sake, or he cannot have a streak of continuous enjoyment with his spouse. Somewhere along the way he is always there sabotaging the little joys of life. He imposes grief upon himself because he does not think the grief of the world to be enough. He thinks that if he keeps his head down, then God will not hear him laughing and go Shame on you. You are not taking this life seriously. I think a stroke will cure you. Oh, and I will also have you lose your job. Yeah, and your wife will cheat on you. No, your wife will leave you. You lose your wallet. You get pulled over by the cops. That should do the trick.

As much as the Evangelical Christian talks about the differences between himself and the Roman Catholic or the Muslim or any other group that seems to routinely employ severe acts of penitence or remuneration, he subjects himself to lashings and sufferings of his own design, and happily so. That's the sick part. That's the part that makes me throw up. He will ugly his beautiful Nissan Altima with evangelism bumper stickers. She will hide her lovely frame in some oversized burlap sack. He will let the mugger slug him and rob him in front of his family instead of showcasing his God-given strength on the offender's face. And he will carry such burdens and grievances inside the inner, hidden part of himself, crippling himself with the lascivious delight he gets from making himself that much more a vulnerable target for ridicule and oppression.

Emolicious is a term I used to describe the fascination my last-year students had with other people’s demise. They would eagerly share Youtube vids of people in potentially fatal situations only to laugh when that person fell on his head, was scared out of his wits, or otherwise realized she was succumbing to a life altering event. And all of it caught on tape to replay over and over again.

I’ve been to enough funerals and will go to more. I've had enough heartache and will have more. I've wrestled with loneliness on more fronts than I can think and will probably wrestle with more unknown fronts. But I don’t have an interest in contributing to my burden as a human. I don't have an interest in adding to grief's glut. I am not sure if people have considered that of all sentient creatures, humans actually spend time thinking about these horrors, another impediment to human enjoyment and function. 

It is as if we think For years and years we can think about what we think the next poor turn of events will be for us. What kind of shoe will drop next. What kind of disappointment I will suffer next. All for the glory of God. What a life! What a God! Yippee!

Suffocation is a great name for this kind of behavior.



Friday, March 25, 2011

ARTIST FEATURE, DERRICK CLIFTON "FORENSIC PORTRAIT ARTIST"



Derrick Clifton has crammed a lot into forty, short years. He’s worked security for celebrity actors, celebrity music stars, celebrity politicians, celebrity social activists, corporations. He’s driven church buses, school buses, limos, party buses. He’s taught public school, private school, alternative school, four state custody programs for troubled youth. He’s worked at an auto parts store, at a retail chain, at numerous construction businesses. He’s owned a restaurant, landscaping company, art business. 37 distinctly different jobs in 40 years, never having been fired or laid off.

 

His eclectic work background makes Derrick quite the kaleidoscope. My business partner at Stone Table, THEPOMOSCHOOL, in Franklin, Tennessee, even I have a hard time defining him. Turn Derrick “this” way, and he’s the eloquent art teacher explaining a concept of shading or a theory of proportions. Turn Derrick “that” way, and he’s a literature teacher giving a dull paragraph meaning by multifarious analogies drawn from personal experience. Turn Derrick another way, and he’s the counselor advising a student step-by-step on how she can avoid a potentially ugly situation, or he’s the disciplinarian telling a student exactly what he is going to do if he wants to remain in the classroom. Turn him yet another way and he is the entertaining storyteller. And here we find the forensic quality behind the artist: encounters with actual people.


For example, Derrick, hailing from Tennessee, decided to attend American Baptist College, an all-Black seminary, in Nashville. Being one of the only white men in the school, he bore up under harassment rather well: anywhere from face-to-face confrontations with unfriendly students to notes left on his car windshield insisting he did not belong. Once Derrick volunteered with several men from the college to help with relief in Miami after Hurricane Andrew. Stopping over en route in Atlanta at the Civil Rights Museum, they found Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King there for the day. Rosa Parks, intuitively singling Derrick out as the only minority whispered to him “How’s everybody treating you?” Country-boy honest, Derrick replied “OK." Then he added "But they made me ride in the back of the van all the way down here.” Rosa looked at him. She grinned. She broke into a smile. Then she burst out into laughter. “I know just how feel!”


Dozens of anecdotal stories like these either from personal experience or special, secondary sources provide Derrick special insight into the subjects of his charcoal portraits. Stone Table is his studio. Time and again I have had the distinct pleasure of coming to school early in the morning only to find Elvis, Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Ray, or Janis Joplin breaking out of the canvas, further developed, further along than the day before. And Derrick does them the kind of justice I haven’t seen in an artist. I have seen him roll back hours of work by chalking over if he felt he was not portraying the artist well. It is only with a high level of satisfaction that Derrick can finish a piece of art, calling it "friend."



What is interesting is that Derrick realized his knack for art "late" in life, not drawing his first portrait until age 35! Amongst the highest of his accomplishments is a portrait of a friend's daughter that hung in Smithsonian, and he has a Johnny Cash pending for the Ryman. What I like about Derrick is that he is open to business for EVERYONE. Find him on FACEBOOK at his page DERRICK CLIFTON ART. Also, keep a lookout for his web page derrickclifton.com. He might just chalk you in a light you never before considered.



Thursday, March 24, 2011

ARTIST FEATURE, "BRETT MANNING, LOVE JUSTICE"


Heartbroken. Homesick. Lost. Lovesick.  When Dante started his journey, he was standing in the shards of his shattered life, half the sands of his hourglass scattered in the wind, wondering how to put the pieces back together, how to get home. Mount Paradise (which at one point seemed doable) towered menacingly above him, posing its own sinister obstacles. Then he heard a familiar voice full of experience and empathy saying "Come with me. I've been through hell and back, and I can show you the way." To scale the peak, Dante is guided by the phantom spirit Virgil to witness unspeakable horrors in the circles of hell, to experience the purifying fires of purgatory, and to attain, as it were, new life.


When you listen to LOVE JUSTICE, Brett Manning's debut album, you hear that voice calling to you, the voice that belongs to your friend who has come to show you the way home. Truly. Brett's lyrics are an inventive roadmap through broken relationships, lost hopes, and unrequited loyalty from a guy who's found his way again and found himself stronger than before. And his voice, pure and true in every note, sends those lyrics straight to your heart. With twenty years of experience in music (most recently with his wildly successful vocal training company Singing Success and his product Mastering Mix), Brett guides his fellow musicians on LOVE JUSTICE with consummate artistry and skill. Personal vocal coach to Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, and Paramore's Hayley Williams, Brett Manning is a brilliant artist in his own right who at long last is taking centerstage.


And at centerstage Brett is right at home. His authentic talent shines in acoustic settings without the embellishment of production magic. Brett is one of those rare musicians who can make each member of a crowd of thousands feel like he's singing to that one alone. Whether he's wailing a power ballad or crooning a love song, Brett's honest, hard won skill and natural-born talent shine.


I have spent countless days at the Sound Stage with Brett between the hours of 9:00 P.M. and 3:00 A.M. during the recording of LOVE JUSTICE and dozens of hours outside the studio, getting a grasp on the many aspects of Brett's life and the singular, tragic story from which LOVE JUSTICE was born. LOVE JUSTICE traces for listeners a psychological journey, acquainting each hearer with the various, torturous stages of loss. Several tracks on the album are among my favorites. Here is a short synopsis:


LISTEN covers the initial response to unjust accusation (which is disbelief and the subsequent desire to self-defense). Vindication seems entirely to hinge upon the accuser’s willingness to hear Brett out.


WHAT I NEED is the characteristic period of confusion in which Brett feels out of touch with ordinary desires and processes of life. Formerly dependent behavior is exchanged for a time-orientation hyper-focused solely upon the present. Future concern escalates into an unbearable anxiety resulting in sleepless nights.


ANGER considers the chronic stress of unresolved tension in which Brett graduates to the raw emotion of anger. Anger and resentment, common, kindred emotions of the wronged and bereaved, express themselves as a protest against a cruel and unfair fate.


ALREADY MINE relents the former, dominating emotion of anger, only to express deep devotion to the offending party. Though at this point in the conflict it would seem easier to jettison the relationship altogether, Brett rallies himself to his original commitment to fidelity.


CONFLICTED is the relationship at a standstill: emotional limbo. Neither of the parties are content to move the "death" of the relationship forward, content to indefinitely speculate whether or not reconciliation is possible.


BEAUTIFUL US underscores the incompatibility of the relationship with the image both had for each other at the very beginning. Shame, guilt, and regret, often found to be intertwined and overlapping realities, are abated by the possibility of recovery.


ILLUSION. Brett attempts to master stress by gathering a great deal of knowledge and information about different aspects of his loss. Applying the most intricate, forensic processes, he analyzes his misfortune.


Many more musical experiences punctuate the album like Brett’s heartfelt cover of Collective Soul’s “Heaven Let Your Light Shine Down, syncopated with the percussion of Memphis-based drummer Taylor Carroll, interlaced with the stringed expertise of Ten-Finger Orchestra guitarist Paul Allen, and graced with the vocals of the legendary Wendy Moten.


In the end LOVE JUSTICE is a field guide for the heartbroken, for the bereaved, for the accused, for the cheated upon, for the used. Brett leaves us with a sober lesson: that it takes almost superhuman effort to persuade another human against his will and that falling in love with Justice is a far better love affair. Experienced. Honest. Authentic. Empathetic. Brett's voice will lead you through an artistic, soul-searching that you will want to revisit again and again.


You can contact Brett Manning through singingsuccess.com. Here is a clip of ILLUSION from LOVE JUSTICE.



Wednesday, March 23, 2011

GRIEFLING (2): PLATONIC & ARISTOTELIAN BEREAVEMENT



6:49 A.M. and I'm still in bed trying to work things out in my brain like why I should get up when I own my own school and no one can make me go to school if I don't want to go or why I shouldn't just lie here a little longer thinking about the Lord and the Bible and my sins and how gay it is not to be Christian or how regretful I am that my two pairs of skinny jeans are in the hamper when my legs really need a denim hug today. Looking around my room, it is obvious that I've been preoccupied like this the past few mornings. I don't want to describe the bathroom, but for the sake of honesty I will: it is a mosaic of towels in opposing states of wet and dry, large and small, flat and crumpled, cornered and exposed, clean and unclean, rich and poor, saved and unsaved. A container of cleaning supplies precariously sits upon the "him" sink in our luxury bathroom, though the "her" sink is equally covered with everything from lotion to hairbands to brushes to photographs to washcloths. A container of baby formula lies with its expensive, vanilla powder spilled on the floor like someone was in a rush to give the baby her last fix.

A Sonic strawberry shake sits next to an unfinished can of Mountain Dew on my bookshelf next to a cedar box full of juvenile treasures upon which sits a Goliath-fist chunk of the foundation of the World Trade Center next to my college dictionary on which rests a pile of books, that, quite honestly, look good there without my needing to read them. To my right my long-sleeved, blue, thermal shirt is sprawled on the floor next to the bed along with a Dell laptop and my mini-Hackintosh and their attendant umbilical cords which are intertwined and plugged into two different sets of outlets though the Hackintosh is blinking orange. Plush, infant children's toys are scattered all over the sides and foot of my bed along with unused diapers from the ransacked diaper bag which is lying on its side in the position it fell asleep in last night. Dotted here and there is laundry lying in little, meaningless piles upon the floor, and the piles don't make sense: one group is a towel, one sock and my underwear while another pile consists of bed sheets, a pillow case and a baby bottle. Little children's dirty socks pock-mark the low-grade white carpet, and none of them match which irritates me and makes me think that if all of my children were one-legged then all of the socks would disappear. The carpet sports its own problems with remnants of chocolate, caramel and various assortments of cookies ground together and aged with that same unattractive, gummy goo, matting it in little twists and swirls. 

On the floor lie two other people in idiotic repose, company I did not realize. A Ken doll wearing no pants but one shoe and a Kanye West kerchief lies with arms stiffly outstretched, gesturing towards me, intimating a warm embrace. Near him lies African-American Barbie with her bikini bottoms on quite modestly but her bikini top on backwards shamelessly exposing her boobs. One leg sticks straight up towards the ceiling like a steeple and the other one juts out by her right ear, the foot of which looks like it was chewed. I do a double-take, and they are still smiling. It's not a smirk either or a grimace: it is pure salvation joy. It is a bona fide "Jesus-is-the-reason-for-the-season" smile or an "aren't-we-having-so-much-fun smile or an "I'm-so-happy-and-here's-the-reason-why" smile. Despite their contortions, which by all means seem rather agreeable to them, they are joyful like I want to be.

Bereaved though I am for the loss of life of a student I loved and invested in, I have laughed raucously this past week. I've watched too many movies. I've stuffed my face with sweets. I've kissed my wife way too many times (and not because I was sad). Stone Table students and others graced my house on Sunday afternoon and relayed the most holy and profane stories about our Chris that I laughed so hard I almost farted. Stone Table School graduates came by school yesterday, interrupting our school schedule, piling on the maroon furniture in the foyer, and telling stories that bordered on questionable and ridiculous but that I soaked up with juvenile excitement because they were putting skin and bones back onto the memory of Chris. I could not help but notice the fluctuations in my grief. 

On the one hand was my Platonic grief. Plato's World of Forms elevates the Ideal over the Actual: the ideal job over the part-time one, the ideal husband over the absent-minded one, the ideal worship experience over the put-me-to-sleep-and-out-of-my-misery sermon, the ideal family reunion over the one where the family schizo or man-whore actually shows up despite the fact you did not send him an invitation. The Ideal Chris over the Actual Chris. Platonic bereavement demands we freeze-frame the video clip and extract the one slide that exhibits that one transcendent trait for which we think Chris should be remembered. It demands that we edit his poetry of all scatological and vulgar elements, swapping the use of one-to-one ratios: "crying" for "praying", "falling" for "calling" and "doubt" for "faith." Platonic bereavement converts into Super Chris.

Aristotle did not agree with his teacher Plato like Chris did not always agree with Mr. Raymond or Mr. Clifton, or (definitely not) Mr. Li or me. Aristotle thought it pretentious to elevate the World of Forms when that world is not the one with which we immediately deal. I mean, would you rather eat a steak that is overcooked or the IDEA of a steak? Would you rather live life with asthma or a VIRTUAL life? Would you rather make $8.00 an hour or spend time THINKING about making $8,000 an hour? Ok, sure, one might think it nice if all of our wives looked like Jessica Simpson (in some respects), but if you had Jessica Simpson (in some respects) you would eventually bore of her and wish you had, I don't know, Meryl Streep (in some respects). And if you chose Jessica Simpson, you can't have Nicole Kidman: not at the same time in the same way. Nature does not give you Simpson and Streep at the same time SO CHOOSE ONE OVER THE OTHER FOR CRYING OUT LOUD.

But Aristotelian bereavement has its exclusive problems, too. Chris' life meant so much more than the merely empirical interaction he had with other humans. Chris' contributions are so much more than the school papers he turned in, the dishes he washed, the cigarettes he smoked, the girl he loved. Straight-up nature gives you no way out of the mechanistic loop it philosophically demands. Mechanistic world-views will always subject transcendence to condescencence, vision to number, meaning to description. If a transcendent God informs the world He created, then He informs it in transcendent ways. Even though we want to know what led to the last few minutes of Chris' life even to the extent of what his very last breath was like, and even though many of us won't be able to sleep or receive comfort or be settled until we do, we will never be comforted on the totality of that information alone, because Chris is more than the sum of his DNA. Chris was more than "a young Black man with issues."

Platonic bereavement can never replace Aristotelian bereavement else we are talking about ideals so loosely related to reality that we might as well be having a conversation about Chris in a looney bin. In kind, Aristotelian bereavement can never replace Platonic bereavement else we are talking about such a small portion of the universe apart from its relation to the larger context that when we talk about Chris we might as well be having a conversation about Chris in mathematical formulae. It is my contention that Plato and Aristotle were essentially saying the same thing. They merely drove a wedge between Zen, subordinating one "portion" to the other, respectively.

Ken and African-American Barbie look absolutely happy despite their contortions. Someone should invent a mood-change switch that compliments facial emotion to the level of pain those perverse dolls must be experiencing. I find it unnerving to see the two factors at such odds with each other. When will I be happy again? I am happy. Should I be sad? I am sad. When will I get over it? I am getting over it. When will it hit me? It is hitting me. Why don't I talk in classical antithesis and make it easier for everyone to understand me? Because I think it is about time that Plato and Aristotle retire.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR: REST IN PEACE!


Elizabeth Taylor. Silver Screen Legend. Died this morning. March 23, 2011. Ouch. That date sounds so...banal. So inappropriate. So odd. So unplanned. For a Hollywood matriarch. For a Hollywood beauty. For Liz Taylor.

They said it was congestive heart failure and that a good number of the American elderly die of the same disease. Further, they say that she was in the hospital for at least six weeks trying to overcome the effects of the illness. Evidently, her heart was too weak and too underconditioned at 79 to recover. She had previously wrestled with a brain tumor, skin cancer, a broken back, at least three hip replacements, pneumonia, and, of all illnesses, tuberculosis. In addition, she survived 8 failed marriages and had a bout with alcoholism. The lady was a champ, taking on more than her share of the abnormalities of the human condition in her full, eight decades. If wealth and popularity were her yin, then illness was the yang that struck a balance between the extremes of hedonism and morbid depression.

Who doesn’t remember Lassie Come Home? If you were in daycare like I was in the 1970’s, you saw it on the old movie film projector in the common room near the rows of toddler cribs after washing down an Oreo or Nutter Butter with tangy red Kool Aid. We watched it amongst the disinfecting smell of bleach and the faint smell of dirty kid bodies, right after Race to Witch Mountain or Bambi, depending on the rotation and which film reel was cooperative. Lassie was my hero like Sponge Bob is my son’s. For an intelligent sentient, you couldn’t beat man’s best friend. The dog actually knew when someone was in trouble, and he could communicate himself as clearly as if he were speaking English. Elizabeth starred in Lassie when she was 10. In addition to over 50 other movies, she starred in shows like General Hospital, North and South, and the Simpsons, actually being the only person ever to give Maggie, the baby Simpson, a voice.

And who doesn’t remember Cleopatra for which Taylor made $1,000,000, grossly trumping, as one journalist noted, the exorbitant  $150,000 Kennedy made each year as president? In 1963! In 1999 I taught Egyptian history to second graders for two years at a classical school and made the mistake of letting students watch Cleopatra. Being shot in the early ‘60’s, how was I to know that Taylor’s hotness uncomfortably transcended several decades actually generating guilt pangs within me for exposing children to that “classic” movie only to turn it off for conscious’ sake less than halfway through the portion I wanted to show them. I had to fast forward the movie to the “appropriate parts’ because Elizabeth Taylor was just too hot for the little boys, showing way too much perfectly white-washed skin, showcasing too many sultry glances that suggested more than motherly concern, elongating too much seductive dialogue, and reposing in too right of a position that amplified too many of her best curves. The little boys found her so captivating even though they found most of the movie was boring. What a beauty she was.

But most importantly to me, who can forget the sweet, mentoring relationship she had with the late Michael Jackson: Michael Jackson, the fatherless King of Pop, so thoroughly immersed in the music industry he could not recall a time in his life he was not in a studio? The Michael Jackson who was trumped by his older in age and privilege but who trumped the lot of them in his rise to fame. In his autobiography Moonwalk, Michael pays tribute to Elizabeth Taylor. Aside from Diana Ross who filled the functional role of mother, Elizabeth played the role of fairy godmother, advising Jackson on how to maintain his equilibrium in a cutthroat world where your family was deliberate in using you, where your fan base was fickle in allegiance, and the media was eager to take that photo, get a snippet of a story, and find you in that pose that would ingratiate the world to them at your expense. Liz Taylor was a refuge for the young Jackson and did not waver, even at his unfortunate, untimely death.

Her third and second to last tweet said of giving "Don't do it for yourself, because then it becomes selfish... Because then it becomes about yourself...which is wrong. Giving is to give to God. Helping is to help others" and "Every breath you take today should be with someone else in mind. I love you.” Ah, Elizabeth Taylor will be remembered for so much, but family, in the end, was the most important. Her children were with her when she passed! Who could ask for anything more?