30 October 2014

Don't Be a Menace to Women While Shopping for Groceries in the Hood

Street harassment has been a social scourge for ages, and recently it's finally starting to become the subject of discussion that it should have already been. Invariably, when women summon the fortitude to speak up about wanting men to stop ambushing them as they're trying to go about their day, there's some indignant guy who says something like what was posted in response to this Buzzfeed post:

I love it when "feminists" get all up in arms over what they feel are rude comments. Not our fault you chose to feel hurt, but something gives me the feeling they were never catcalled in life due to their physical appearance. Basically have a thick skin when that happens and find a way to "grow a set".
These guys want everyone to believe - you, me, and even themselves - that they're entirely benign guys just trying to be polite and they take the most serious umbrage at being castigated for it. So let me share with you an anecdote, Dear Reader, about a time when this entirely benign guy knew better than to be polite.

In case for some reason you're new to my blog, I have Crohn's disease. I try to do my grocery shopping later at night, because it's a lot less crowded then so if I need to abruptly find a restroom, I don't have to worry about being stuck behind nine slowly moving people in a crowded aisle. One night a couple of years ago, I was grabbing a few things and I went to buy a pack of Oreos. Pretty innocuous, you know. So I'm walking around the store in my own little world, just thinking about Oreos and whatever else I was going to buy, and when I round the corner into that aisle, there's a woman standing near the Oreos.

I can't really describe what she looked like. She was a few inches shorter than me (I think), thin (maybe), and anywhere from ten years younger than me to ten years older. Let's put it this way: if we were playing a game of Guess Who? the only thing I would feel confident asking is, "Is your person a woman?" But her reaction to me stepping into that aisle where she was is etched in my mind forever.

Neither of us had any idea of the other; I didn't see her until I had stepped into the aisle, and she had no way of seeing me approaching until I was there. She was standing near the Oreos. I reached for a pack, and as I did, I saw her become defensive. She didn't gasp or shriek or anything quite so dramatic. But I could sense her tense up and become paralyzed instantly. If anyone had passed by us, they may not have even noticed her reaction; I have no idea how subtle it would have appeared from a distance. But standing there just a few feet from her, I could feel the air around us change and that's not an exaggeration. There was a clear heat caused by the friction. Even recalling the moment now to write about it, my shoulders and my neck have warmed.

Some guys in that situation might have tried to talk to her, to reassure her in some way. They would have been clumsy and just made it worse for her. Still other guys, though, would have used her being caught off-guard to pressure her into talking to them. They would have followed her around the store, maybe all the way out into the parking lot. God knows what they might try to say or do along the way.

Knowing as much as I do about these kinds of things, I grabbed the Oreos and just got the hell away from her as quickly as I could. That's what she needed from me: a return of her safe space; not a sales pitch about what a nice, non-threatening guy I really am.

I'll never forget the wave of fear that washed over her in that split-second. It was unavoidable; if she'd been able to see me coming, she may not have been startled at all. If I'd seen her in the aisle by herself, I would have gone on and gotten something else and come back for the Oreos. But it happened the way it did, and to this day I still feel awful over it. I keep that incident in my mind whenever I go out anywhere.

One thing I've made a point to do ever since then is to take my iPod with me whenever I go grocery shopping. My hope was that if I'm ever in that same situation, she'll see the iPod and feel less threatened by my suddenness and attribute it to me being self-absorbed and distracted by the music. I know of women who wear earphones without even listening to anything at all. They hope that the sight of the earphones will discourage street harassers, but they're too afraid of not hearing what's being said around them to actually play anything through their earphones.

So to try to alleviate concerns that my earphones are also just a prop to aid me in being a predator, I have my iPod shuffle my entire library rather than go through a playlist. This way, I'm almost certain to want to skip something every few minutes, and I'll actually be engaged by the device. Sure, someone could just fake that, too, but this is the best I've come up with so far to try to send a visual cue that I'm doing my own thing and not about to interrupt someone else doing hers.

If we ever run into one another in public, Dear Reader, I promise to say nothing to you and get away from you as quickly as I can. I really just want some Oreos, same as you.

22 October 2014

Don't Call Me the "B" Word

Over the course of my years on this Earth, Dear Reader, I've been called a lot of things. Some flattering, some not. I'm okay with most of what I've been called. Things like "candid" ring true, and I take great pleasure in being called "funny", for instance. "Moody" is certainly applicable, though people newer to my circles will find it hard to believe I've actually evened out quite a bit over the last several years. Recently, though, I've been called something new and I've fixated on it:


I've shared some rather personal things publicly here in this blog over the years, particularly my experiences with depression and anxiety. Crohn's disease, I tend to discuss more in terms of the affects on my daily life and emotional status than the physical aspects of living with it. I sometimes share other personal matters, too. And sometimes, as I did a couple of months ago, I share things privately with only my inner circle. One reason for that private sharing is not wishing to publicly make reference to someone else (a self-imposed rule of mine, that I protect the anonymity of people who didn't know when we shared our experiences that I would one day have a blog under my actual name). Other times I don't share things here simply because I'm not ready to let go of them and hand them over to the rest of the world.

In any event, it was in the course of discussing one such personal matter recently with my inner circle that a few of my closest friends called me the "b" word. It didn't feel right to me. At first, of course, my resistance was treated as false modesty but that wasn't it. Nor was it actual modesty.

After much deliberation, I've come to understand that I reject the label because all I've done is adapt to experiences over which I had no control. Bravery, I feel, requires an element of choice. Diving into the water to help a drowning person is an act of bravery because the rescuer elects to assume personal risk. But suppose the person in the water was pushed (it can even be a swimming pool; doesn't have to be the Atlantic Ocean). Is that person brave for being in dire straits, or for doing whatever possible to stay alive?

I don't think so. I think simply coping with an experience is outside the realm of bravery. Plus, there's the flip side - the implication of the reverse, that those who have struggled to cope with their experiences lack bravery. I don't believe that's true at all. Life is often overwhelming, and in different ways for each of us. We all have areas of vulnerability, from inexplicable phobias to traumatic experiences. It would be terribly callous to pass judgment on those who haven't coped with their respective issues as lacking bravery. Coping is a process. Sometimes, it's a never-ending process, depending on the issue and the way that it affects the individual.

On rare occasion, I think a case could be made that I've displayed bravery. Nothing terribly impressive or dramatic, mind you, but bravery just the same. Coping with my life experiences, though? What else was I supposed to do, or for that matter, even going to do? There was an action; I gave a reaction. That's Physics 101, not the litmus test for a medal.

If I ever do something noteworthy that involves bravery, you can be sure I'll crow about it in this blog. Take it from me: I haven't. And no, I don't consider sharing with others what I've dealt with an act of bravery, either, though I can certainly understand how for many people in various circumstances that would be such an act. Allow me to offer two entirely off-the-cuff examples from subjects that have been on my mind recently. I don't intend to equate or conflate these two examples, but rather to illustrate a range of experiences in which I believe that sharing does constitute an act of bravery.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai speaking out against the Taliban, for instance, and then telling the whole world what they did to her, surely required incredible courage. The women in the video game world being targeted and threatened by #GamerGate who continue to try to do their jobs knowing their home addresses may be doxxed within the hour, have certainly displayed fortitude that I both admire and lack. But again, these examples involve a certain element of choice. Yousafzai and the #GamerGate targets risk placing themselves in greater peril each time they've called attention to the respective injustices they're combating.

For those who have also been called "brave" for enduring some kind of experience, I don't mean to undermine whatever sense of self you've built around accepting the compliment. If feeling brave is how you've carried on, then by God, carry on being brave. I'm certainly not qualified to tell anyone how to process their own experiences.

But for those of you who are still trying to sift through things, and who hear the praise heaped on others who have made it farther along in the coping process than you have, take heart. The discrepancy between your progress and theirs may be due to myriad factors, but bravery is not one of them. (This is also a good time to remind you how unhelpful and unfair it is for you to measure your experiences against someone else's.)

06 October 2014

Is This Garth Brooks?

After all this time, Garth Brooks is finally back - and just in the nick of time, because George Strait's final tour ended in June. (I don't even want to talk about the engineering debacle that is the live CD from that last show.) I abandoned mainstream country music and radio years ago. Or maybe, as Ronald Reagan would put it, mainstream country music abandoned me years ago. In any event, it's a thrill for me to know that the G-Man is back. Sure, I want radio to embrace his comeback but since I won't be tuning in to hear whether they play his new stuff or not, I'd be lying if I said it made much difference to me outside of the effect being snubbed would have on his commitment to remaining active.

I say all this because I'm more or less representative of the audience Garth is counting on to be there for him in 2014 as we were a quarter century ago (yes, his eponymous album came out in 1989). The general consensus is that whatever music you listen to from your teens through early/mid-20's more or less defines your musical spectrum for life. A lot of people bail on mainstream music at that point for various reasons; some, because they find themselves too caught up in the demands of adulthood to stay caught up on album releases and concerts. Some, like me, simply reach a point where there's a noticeable paradigm shift and it just doesn't engage us like "the old stuff" did.

I'm not saying that music should stay the same; that would be ridiculous. There were listeners older than me who bailed when - and because - Garth Brooks came along, after all, just as there are younger listeners today who will one day check out of mainstream country music when their favorite bro country artist's heyday comes to an end. Circle of life. Hakuna matata.

The Cowboy rode away...and The Entertainer rode back in.
I gotta be honest, though. This comeback seems shaky so far. I don't quite understand the piecemeal approach to revealing each tour city instead of the whole itinerary. It sends the message to me that it's all being improvised as he goes along, hoping that each city draws enough of a crowd that he can more confidently start booking the large arenas he used to fill. I can understand, after the international embarrassment of the Croke Park shows falling apart, why he might be reluctant to commit himself openly to large venues ahead of time and risk finding out that the crowds aren't showing up. If we don't know he's planning to be in, say, Louisville, then we can't be disappointed if he backs out of coming here if he's disappointed by the turnout in Lexington.

What concerns me, though, is that it seems Garth doesn't just have an escape hatch; he's got one foot in it. He can nix shows and cities left and right behind the scenes without repeating the public embarrassment of Croke Park, but the cost is that it's simply too conspicuous that the guy who once told the entire world when and where to be is now trying to pull off a series of faux surprise parties.

As much as I would love to be at one of the Lexington shows, I just can't be spending $69 on a non-refundable ticket for a show my health may not even let me attend an hour away from where I live. I spent the first three weeks of September more or less bedridden because of an infection my worthless immune system can't fight, and I can only guess how ugly things are going to get as the weather turns and more bugs start going around. Plus, there's the anxiety issue I've developed over large crowds now that I worry about being able to get to a bathroom abruptly and quickly.

I took a gander at what songs he'd played at the first shows of this tour in Chicago on Setlist.fm, to get an idea what this iteration looks like. I discovered that "special guest" Trisha Yearwood isn't performing a traditional opening act. Rather, she's coming on-stage in the middle of the show to duet with him on "In Another's Eyes"...and then performing a five-song set of her own before relinquishing the show back to Garth. Nope. Not feeling it. And I have to figure somewhere out there, Steve Wariner is sadly staring at his phone, just waiting to get the call to come out on the road.

I've heard the lead single from the new album, "People Loving People". I don't hate it. The tune is catchy enough, but the lyrics feel like they're a few drafts away from being the "We Shall Be Free" redux that it's obviously meant to be. I do like the idea of a big picture social message song being his comeback single, though, because that was the one thing that always set Garth apart from everyone else. While his contemporaries were singing hokum about the mythical small towns of America, Garth was trying to build bridges across the entire world with the audiences who flocked to his shows on two international tours (1993-1994 and 1996-1998). Garth wasn't just singing about a dreamy idea of humanity; he'd actually left the comfort of the country music State Fair touring circuit and went across the Atlantic and Pacific alike. He was like Bono, but without the infomercial guilt.

Aside from the Garth & Trisha Show aspect, what I found most curious was the absence of both "American Honky-Tonk Bar Association" and "We Shall Be Free". I've never really cared for AHBA, and in truth I like the idea of the latter more than I really like the song itself, but these are two of the songs that really elevated the Garth Brooks show from a concert experience to being a sort of secular church service. "People Loving People" is clearly meant to tap into the legacy of those songs and evoke the same feelings of universal camaraderie, but their absence in the set list means the new, half-baked single is tasked with carrying that load on its own.

I've got all ten previous editions of Double Live - eleven, if you account for the fact I have it on cassette, too - so I was thrilled when it was announced that a new edition, including five new live recordings, was to be released on 30 September. I was stunned, though, to discover that I could not find a single copy at my local Walmart. Not because they'd already sold out, but because they didn't receive any. Maybe Walmart is being all passive-aggressive about his stuff no longer being sold exclusively through them. Maybe Sony/RCA Legacy dropped the ball somehow. I don't know. I just know that anything remotely "new" from Garth Brooks, including a re-issue, should be easily found at a Walmart and when it isn't, that's troubling.

Lastly, we come to the recent reveal of the new album's title and cover. Man Against Machine is an okay title, and I get the old dog/underdog angle he's trying to play up with it. But that cover? Oh, boy. It is outright ridiculous. My first thought was that it looks like a Chris Gaines project from the mid-00's. I just can't take it seriously.

The closest I can think of offhand was the laughable cover to Brooks & Dunn's Hillbilly Deluxe from 2005. If he's trying to appear hip, someone should have reminded him that he's, you know, Garth Brooks. No need to try so hard. George Strait's two most recent covers are terrific: last year's Love Is Everything and last month's The Cowboy Rides Away: Live from AT&T Stadium (even though the engineering on the latter is an absolute debacle). Rosanne Cash's The River and the Thread cover, like the album itself, is pretty much perfect. They look like albums made by, and for, grownups. This Man Against Machine cover, though? I can't tell if he's trolling bro country or embarrassingly trying to fit into it.

He had some of the most noticeable album covers of the 90's. Even No Fences went from what could have been a very dull, perfunctory artist-sitting-still cover to something truly striking just by adding that green tint and the low-profile typography. That's one of the easiest album covers to take for granted, but it really is perfect. I used to look at it and think, "For a guy whose stage show is so lively, this is an awfully static cover." But when I started to dissect it for what it was instead of what it wasn't, I realized how perfect it is. There's nothing you can add to that cover to improve it. It asks you to come to it. Man Against Machine looks far less confident. It looks like an album that isn't even sure who's going to listen to it, and so it doesn't know how to present itself.

Let me tell you, Garth. I'm going to listen to it, just like I've listened to everything you've ever released. Seriously, on your way to or from Lexington, stop by. I'll show you I've still got your Garth Brooks music video compilation on VHS and the cystic fibrosis charity single "One Heart at a Time" you recorded with half a dozen other artists in 1998. My brother, who wasn't so enthusiastic that he had to have those things, is still eager to hear your new stuff. Our younger cousins, though, are going to be a harder sell. I don't even know if you can win them over, but I know this much: if you can, it's going to have to be by the same way you won me over: be Garth Brooks.