Thursday, May 25, 2006

I Didn't Win the Vanity Fair Essay Contest, But Here's What I Sent In

Back to the Clouds
When I was seventeen, my head was in the right place: in the clouds.

In between classes, homework, chores and hanging out with friends, I would take every chance I could to let my mind wander. That downtime was frustratingly brief and invariably rare, but I seized it. I daydreamed furiously until the grating alarm clock of real life pulled me from the floating world.

I still visit that place quite often, but not as much as I’d like to, not as much as I once did. When I do, though, the place feels abandoned, neglected.

You don’t find very many young people with their heads in the clouds these days. Instead, their ears are glued to cell phones, their thumbs to video game controllers and their eyes to computer displays.

What’s on the minds of America’s youth? I’d say too much, yet too little.

In the universe of the mind where daydreams are vast, unexplored space, electronic media is anti-matter. It crackles along as vacuous white noise, consuming stars of possibility. It is ubiquitous, painless and instant.

It’s eating away at the daydream time – and fertile minds – of today’s youth. They have too much empty information and entertainment at their fingertips and spend too little time thinking beyond a barrage of text messages and rapid-fire images.

Virtuosity used to refer to rare mastery of artistic pursuits such as music. Today, it’s just as likely to reference the electronic ether of the Internet and all things “virtual.” Millions of people – youth and older folks alike – are leading half-lives trapped in the aptly named Web. They come here for convenience or entertainment, and end up staying too long, sometimes confusing, changing or sacrificing their identities during their sojourn.

Adolescence is perplexing enough without the ability to change at a whim behind the shield that the Internet offers.

Then there are the video game virtuosi that step off the school bus, walk through their doors and are transported smack-dab into the middle of a virtual city’s mean streets – fast cars, easy drugs, big guns and all. Their great struggle is against digitized gangsters. Their master symphony is “A-B-A-B-Fire” on a game controller.

Today’s youth form the first wholly instant-gratification generation – and it shows. There’s so much to do, but so little to show for it at the end of each day.

Two words define nearly every day of my summers as a child: “go outside.” My parents insisted on getting me out of the house to wander and explore both my surroundings and my fertile mind. There weren’t always other kids to play with, but I always found something to do. Hollowed-out stumps became spaceships. Streams gurgling down drainage ditches were rivers coursing off to lands far away. Rocks and other found objects became treasures of unimaginable worth.

Sometimes I’d just lay on my back in the grass and daydream.

While I was growing up, I did have video games and television to pass some time. I wasted hours watching the same Godzilla movies over and over. My friends joined me for three-minute matches of plinkety-plink battle tanks on my Atari. By and large, though, these things weren’t all consuming. Rectangles shooting tiny squares at other rectangles held only so much appeal. Our cable television had about seventeen channels, five of which were airing Bonanza re-runs at any given time.

If I sat in front of the television for too long and started looking glazy, I’d inevitably hear two words from my mom: “go outside.”

Youth in other parts of the world are heeding this advice – taking time to wander, explore and daydream – and it shows.

In my job as a writer for an international humanitarian organization, I have the opportunity to travel to some of the world’s most under-developed places and speak to children and young adults. They’re fascinated to hear about the world I come from and what I’ve seen, and are equally eager too share their own experiences and thoughts with me. They’re never shy about asking questions, however simple.

After coming back from some of these trips, I’ve sometimes spoken at schools or in front of youth groups. Invariably, there’s silence. It’s very rare that anyone asks a question. They usually sit, staring, an unsettling glazy look on their faces.

What’s the difference between American youth and young people in other countries? I’d say it comes down to what’s on their minds. In the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, a village might have one television set powered by a fussy car battery. Children have to find other things to do.

They have time to think, to daydream. They have the magical opportunity to visit the floating world and spend some time there. They come back with ideas – and are eager to return there whenever possible.

I believe that a quiet mind, given time to daydream, will dawdle in wonderful places and discover amazing things. They’ll roam the same hallowed grounds where poets and scientists and musicians and other great men and women drew inspiration.

There’s too much on the mind of America’s youth today. There are too many distractions. They must learn to unplug, quiet their minds and daydream. When they do, they’ll carry fantastic things back for all of us.

As I type this, my eleven month-old son, Asa, is sitting on the floor and holding a plastic toy cell phone to his ear. “Ba-ba,” he tells no one in particular. “BA-BA!” It sounds serious, like a stock deal or a Mafia hit.

In seventeen years or so, if I catch him doing this same thing, this is what I’ll say to him:

“Son, is your head in the clouds? No? Well, put down that phone and get up there!”

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Undeniable Truth of Bus 17

You're traveling on Bus 17 through the streets of Portland, Oregon. The bus is completely full except for four seats, one of which is next to you. The bus stops. Four people get on: three hot women and one sketchy, stinky old man. You watch their progress with great interest.

One by one, the hot women sit down - none of them next to you. And then, the inevitable comes: the stinky old man smiles and slides into the seat next to you.

This truism of Bus 17 is possibly surer than death or taxes.

Monday, May 15, 2006

If "King Kong" Happened During the Bush Administration

I was just watching Peter Jackson's revisioning of "King Kong" this weekend, and something struck me at the end after Kong had fallen from the Empire State Building, leaving Ann Darrow standing there before Jack Driscoll rushes to the apex to embrace her. In our era, of course Kong still would have been shot from the building with shock and awe.

Oh, but it wouldn't stop there.

Ann Darrow and Jack Driscoll would have been indicted and sent to Guantanamo Bay as terrorist co-consipirators. And, as Carl Denham stood beside Kong's lifeless body on the streets of Manhattan, our President would sidle up beside him and confidently utter, "Heckuva job, Denham."

And that's how the Bush Administration tinges everything for me.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Stinkiness as a Lifestyle Choice

Before you French folks get your culottes in a wad, please let me say I'm not talking about you here.

I'm talking specifically about people on Bus 17 in Portland, Oregon. And you know who you are.

You're the often young, faux bohemians (or Portland chic-sters) who insist on not only not bathing with any regularity, but also subjecting your fellow mass-transit commuters to your "hip" hygiene habits. You know what? It doesn't make you cool. It makes you stink.

For the love of all that's holy, please take a bath. I'll give you a head start here, a couple clues to help you along:

1. Armpits
2. Crotch

That's all I ask. I can see by your multiple piercings that you value your individuality. I don't have to smell your rebellion as well.

And I know you can take a bath, Mr. Greasy Head. You have an iPod. That immediately lets me know that you're not homeless. So, I must assume, you have a home. I don't know the exact statistics, but I'm pretty sure that at least 99% of homes in Portland have bathtubs. Why, then, do you choose not to use it?

Take the 99 cents you'd planned on using to download that song you like and buy a bar of soap instead. Our bus passes by a couple drug stores on the way home. Hop out and make a little investment for everyone's sake.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Damn, People Have a Lot of Money (Comma Optional)

So, my wife, son and I are moving again in the near future. It's time for us to move from our apartment of two years into a house with a yard. You know, more space for a growing family, a washer and dryer of our own, no more noisy neighbors and the like.

We will be renting a house because there's no possible way in the world we can afford a halfway-decent house in Portland. The average price for a house here has shot up to somewhere in the high $200,000s. For what we're looking for - a clean, well-maintained house with three bedrooms and two bathrooms that's not in Methville or Crack Alley - we would have to pay upwards of $300,000.

My question to you: who can afford that? I mean, that's over $2,000 a month before property taxes, home insurance, mortgage insurance and other costs. I figure that probably ends up being around $2,500 a month for a house payment. That's 77% of my take-home pay right there, not counting utilities and upkeep. I mean, I know my salary is modest, but damn.

Again, I ask you: who can afford that?

It's very frustrating to live in a place where the majority of folks obviously have much more money than we do. Not only is the housing market still booming even as prices skyrocket, but boutique supermarkets like Whole Foods are so crowded on weekends that you can barely even squeeze through the door. There's even a posh-kids magazine called Cookie that claims to offer "all the best" and "must haves" for your conspicuous-consumer-to-be.

Wow, I have to think about whether or not it's economically feasible for me to buy a Coke at lunchtime, while many folks in my age group are purchasing premium beef tenderloin-flavored water for their dog.

Who are these people? And, more importantly, where are they getting their money?

I know that all of the folks buying houses in Portland aren't doctors, lawyers, executives or trust-fund babies. I know they didn't all get wealthy from the dot-com boom. And I know they don't all have cash on hand as a result of a windfall from a previous home sale.

So where is all that money coming from? I wish someone could tell me because, you know, in spite of everything, it's really getting me down.

If you can wait until I get paid Friday, I'll buy you a Coke and we can sit down and talk about this.

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Manifestation of Color

I saw the word manky the other day, which means "rotten, dirty, decrepit" and a few other things. Great word. After seeing the word, I almost immediately thought of the word stanky. Then I thought of the ever-amusing word dookie.

And dookie, well, that took me right back to third grade.

Dookie was one of the most excellent words for boys in my third grade class - especially when combined with the ubiquitous pantheon of Yo Momma chants. One of my favorites, just for nostalgia:

"Yo Momma, yo Daddy, yo dookie-stinkin' Grandpappy..."

Those were purer times, more carefree and brutally honest. My best friend back then was named Mike Ingram. We were inseparable during our first few years at Welborn Elementary School in the inner city of Kansas City, Kansas. We roamed the playground together, talked in the halls and even found time to meet up during summer vacation. He was more than a friend to me; he was nearly a brother.

Something that never occurred to me at all was that Mike was African-American while I was white. Our school was very diverse, with nearly-equal representations of African-American, Hispanic and white students. I never thought about my classmates in terms of their color; to me, they were simply friend, foe or indifferent.

Somewhere between third and fourth grade, something seemed to change. I didn't really see Mike at all over the summer of 1979. Then, during recess of our first day of fourth grade, I walked up to Mike on the playground. He was hanging out with a couple of African-American students from fifth and sixth grades. I asked him if he wanted to go play catch, and he turned me down. I said "maybe later" and he somewhat sheepishly remained silent.

I walked away, and, as I did, heard one of the guys he was hanging out with call out "honky." Then, to my surprise, all three of them laughed.

And that was how color unfortunately entered my world.

Things were never the same between Mike and me. I started to hang out with friends that had once been secondary. Recess seemed more segregated - packs formed and never mixed.

Finally, near the end of fourth grade, my family moved to another part of town and a more affluent, homogeneous school district. There were no African-American students at my grade school, and only a couple Hispanic students. It was weird. Even with my recent experiences at Welborn, it seemed claustrophobic.

I missed Welborn and my old neighborhood for years. I still think about them fondly.

Mostly, I wonder what ever happened to Mike Ingram. I wish I could ask him what happened over the summer of 1979. I still look for answers that will never come to me.

I still miss my friend.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Throw the Bastards Out

Take a look at the word "representative." What do you see there? Maybe a lot of things, but one of those is sure to be "represent."

As an American today, do you feel that your elected national representatives actually do that for you - have the best interests of you, your family and your community at heart? I don't. I believe that U.S. Representatives are more insulated and estranged than ever before from common folks like you and me.

There was a time in our nation's history when our national representatives were common folks like you and me. They were teachers, brewers, shopowners, crafstmen, soldiers and lawyers. They came from communities where they talked to people and actually listened to what they had to say. They took those concerns to Washington, DC and represented their constituency in the halls of Congress.

When was the last time you spent time with or spoke to your representative? You probably never have (although this isn't entirely their fault - more on that later). That's because most representatives don't meet with common folks any more, unless it's a carefully-staged photo opportunity.

We live in an age of career politicians whose every move is scripted and who answers to business, special interest, political action committees and lobbyists. Why? That's where the money is - and money doesn't only talk, it shouts. Those shouts are drowning out your voice and mine, while lining the pockets and campaign war chests of those we elect to represent us.

Politics for money is a dangerous prospect and, unfortunately, one that rules the United States today. No one should ever run for office to accumulate personal wealth. It clouds the mind, compromises integrity and bastardizes the purpose of legislators. It serves to separate and insulate the representative from those s/he's supposed to be representing.

At the same time, I firmly believe that not enough people write, phone or request meetings with their elected representatives. If you don't speak up, they don't have to listen. Try to get their ear. Be persistent. Don't go away. Be heard. That's your role in the legislative process, and one that most of us have shirked for way too long.

You know that person with the petition you pass on the street? Take a few minutes to hear them out. Have you heard about an upcoming town hall or "meet and greet"? Go and take back part of the political process. Your job doesn't end on Election Day.

However, when Election Day comes, ask yourself a few questions:

1. Does my representative actually represent my interests? (You have to check into these things; be informed.)
2. What has my representative done for my community, my district, my state during the last term?
3. Has my representative been involved in any shady dealings or scandals during his/her career?
4. Who is my representative taking campaign contributions or other financial support from? (You can find out a lot of this information at www.opensecrets.org.)
5. When was the last time your representative held a town hall or other open forum in your community? Was it truly an open forum or simply a photo opportunity?

If the answers to those questions don't satisfy you, then VOTE THE BASTARD out. Our country's history shows that it's better to have committed, conscientious amateurs in office than entrenched, aloof career politicans who never listen to you - and don't truly represent your interests.

It's your move, America.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

No Artificial Flavors

Hello. Welcome to my Blog.

My wife is a vegetarian. I am not. My years growing up in the Midwest amongst the great steakhouses and barbeque shacks have made me an irredeemable carnivore.

However, there is a cause I have taken as my own: I am a food naturalist. When at the grocery store, I make it a point to look for two glaring words on everything I pick up: “artificial flavor.” If they’re on the package, then it goes back on the shelf.

Why the stance? Simply put, artificial flavors piss me off. In a world replete with all kinds of fruits, spices and other natural edibles, why go to such lengths to create a chemical substance that simulates a taste that already exists? It seems both lazy and redundant.

At the same time, though, I feel that using the word “lazy” is a bit wrong, because, after all, someone has put much time and effort into poring over chemicals to find the combination that tastes most like what it’s supposed to. This boggles my mind, realizing that there are thousands of people out there whose sole purpose is to concoct imitations of things nature has provided. I think of all the money flying around out there because of artificiality. I marvel at the houses and cars that folks must have purchased with the proceeds from fake fruit flavors.

I refuse to support this confederate society that’s funded by fabrication.

I suppose my opposition to artificiality began at a small ice cream shop in Lome, Togo. I frequented this place when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in that country. Its name was “Au Bon Coin de Goût” but, because it was run by two rather portly sisters, I came to call it “Fat Lady Ice Cream”. It was a great establishment, with all the ice cream made right there on the premises. The flavor assortment was impressive, with offerings such as nutmeg, peppermint, coffee and rum. There was even an ice cream made from the local palm-sap moonshine, sodabi. Fat Lady Ice Cream was an oasis in the stifling heat of West Africa. No wrong could be done there.

Until I tried the banana ice cream.

Upon my first bite, I knew there was something amiss. It tasted far too sugary. It didn’t have the familiar sweetness of tree-ripened bananas, but suggested something far more cloying and sinister. In addition, the ice cream had a strange yellowish tinge to it. I asked one of the sisters about it, and she confirmed my suspicion: they flavored their banana ice cream with syrup.

Why, oh why, I lamented. In this tropical land of plentiful and exotic fruit, why use something non-natural, especially when all the other ice creams there were so thoroughly genuine? How can someone distill the essence of moonshine into a dessert, yet relent and use artificially-flavored syrup in banana ice cream? It was too much to take. I put down my spoon, paid my bill and rose to leave. Something behind me grazed my ear. What was it?

The leaf of a banana tree, laden with ripening bananas. I was flabbergasted.

Since then, I have struggled to understand why artificial flavors are used when natural ones are so readily available. All I have to do is to walk through the produce section of any grocery store to see the bounty. How odd is it that one can find artificially-flavored orange gelatin directly across from crates of fresh Florida citrus? I find it more than odd; I find it utterly maddening and incredibly confusing.

Folks can talk all they want about the moral-weakening forces on television or how sport-utility vehicles support terrorism, but to my mind there’s one force infinitely more destructive than either of those: the abundance of artificial flavors. The more they infect our food, the less natural we become.

I urge you to come join me in my outrage. I’ll be the one scowling in the Kool-Aid aisle.