There were firings at the local newspaper, The Tennessean, yesterday, or contracts not renewed, depending on how you like your corporate-speak. My Facebook feed filled up with announcements of doom, predictions of the end of watchdog journalism and (visual: Samuel L. Jackson) FURIOUS ANGER in various comments sections.


Meanwhile on Music Row, a buyer will tear down an old studio that’d take a zillion dollars to bring up to code that the owner wants to sell anyway. Horror. They will put in something new, that is profitable, that people will be happy to enter and live and work in.

Dear me.

Speaking of music, well, that’s not going well, either. You know shit ain’t right if weird Al Yankovic or the venerable Tom Petty can have number one records with sales under 150,000 lousy units. As a veteran music biz executive once quipped to me, “I wouldn’t get out of bed for those numbers.” Music sales are declining, except for those crazy kids buying vinyl for the hell of it. Artists and songwriters are getting hoo-doo’d by streaming services. Ask one. Music is a commodity! Those kids! They’re paying money to go hear some DEEJAY in a mouse helmet, but they won’t pay for music. Those Spotify guys are getting rich on our backs!

It’s OVA.

Oh, and the movie industry is tanking, didja know? Steven Spielberg said so. This year’s summer box office is off 20% and would have been even worse if it weren’t for a talking raccoon and a monosyllabic walking tree.

The Internet is where old people go to hone outrage, and it’s full of them saying angry things. Every one of them boils down to: “Things ain’t what they used to be.”

I say, “Hal-le-fucking-lu-jah.”

Fogeyism is becoming a national disease. If I were 25, I would want to put everyone over 50 in a rocket ship and blast them into outer space, and take your Land Rover and stretched-out complexion and diabetes while you’re at it, thanks. You’re bringin’ me down. Even X’ers are getting pallid, flabby and whiny, moaning about the commercialized clickbait Internet. The end of days.


Here’s what I think. Things are better than they’ve ever been, and they’re getting better all the time.

You have any houseplants or live stuff in your flower beds out front? They’re instructive. Here’s how you can tell if plants are doing OK: you look for new growth— shoots of tender green, fresh leaves unfolding, blooms. If you see them, your plants are probably doing great.

Now, look around. Look at the pee-pul, the humanity. Every day you read that the Millennials are taking over. Because they are. They’re the biggest demographic since the Mad Men Boomers, and they’re growing, while the rest get old and die off.

You know what that is, right?

Kids. Gobbling up vapid pop songs and wearing Warby Parker. They’re not the future anymore; they’re the right now. If you think the world is getting shitty, you didn’t hear it from them. They’re too busy re-making it. GenX built the Internet and promptly broke themselves trying to get rich quick; Millennials missed that little frenzy, and now they ARE the Internet. They are not gloomy, they are not unhappy, they don’t hate anyone, they are not, best I can tell, complaining, except when they have to work late in the office when there’s a perfectly productive internet connection at home.

They don’t need Land Rovers, or feel failure for sharing a ride or not wearing Italian. They are consuming more music than ever (yay), making more music than ever (yay), making more entertaining shows (yay), getting together in droves (yay, but please save me a fucking parking space). They are revolutionizing healthcare, human interaction, entertainment, transportation. You may think, “Oh, but global warming, and ISIS.” Well, they’ll figure those out, too. They are figuring them out right now. Some forward-thinking old people are giving them money and help to do it, God bless ‘em: Bill and Elon and Larry and yes, Barack, wise and pragmatic beyond his years. There will be forest fires along the way, a burning out of the old growth. Good. All that wealth that’s been piled up can go to work. They’ll solve a lot of problems with it, and make some of their own, and the band will play on.

I choose to be optimistic. Yes, I hate to hear about people losing their gigs. I hate zealots cutting off people’s heads. I hate the gross inequality of opportunity for personal economic fulfillment and the systematic incarceration of an entire generation of young black men. I hate cat videos and pictures of your dog. And sometimes at night, I worry what’s going to happen, just like you. Yet I cannot believe things are getting worse for very long, because all I have to do is get up, look around, and as far as the eye can see, there they are, great gobs of green: vibrant, smart, horny young people with growing brains and functioning reproductive systems.

New growth. Hallelujah.


March is mad, they say, and it must be true, because I am. Take Tuesday. It began with the editor of a new magazine to which I’d contributed referring to me as “an old person” on social media. I was so unsettled I proceeded to stain my butter-yellow sweater. I went to brush my teeth, and there it was: dried coffee on my cashmere. I tried to blot it out—daub, daub, still there. I gave up and threw it out on the back porch in a fit of pique, er, wool. Does that makes sense,”a fit of wool?” Should I have written, “a wooly wrath?” Never mind. I have far fewer spring transitional pieces than high-class problems, so I was pissed. I had to sit and meditate for five minutes fore leaving for work. Peevishness is not stylish.

Nor is confusion. I’m a bewildered footstep away from un-ironic Tevas if it were not for snow. Wait, the sun’s out. No it isn’t yes it is no it isn’t snow rain wind WHAT THE FUCK?

Let’s go to the inbox. An email from Billy Reid, my favorite designer, announces “The Bleached Denim Workshirt.” I still haven’t washed my $200 selvedge one with the leather buttons. And, “The?” Is “the” a thing? It’s as though the copy was written on an airplane right after leafing through one of those Hammacher-Schlemmer catalogues, you know the ones: The Hip and Knee Oversized Comfort Pillow ($49.95). My J Crew Men’s Style Guide arrived the other day. It was full of them: The Contrast Oxford, The Ludlow Sportcoat, The Vaguely Nautical Striped Soft Washed Tee. Another email, from Everlane: The Slim Fit Poplin. It comes in Sand, Mediterranean, and Pine. Somewhere in a conference room, “the” was decreed with color names only art directors understand. I have been to that meeting. A fake-tanned white guy too old for sneakers and dark frames says, “The verbiage should convey a sense of uniqueness,” no matter that we’re talking a simple button-down with a different-colored pocket. Then he goes and catches a flight to Sedona with his girlfriend.

Bleached denim. Just when you have spent a fortune on more-indigo-than-indigo unsanforized pants and learned your looms all the way from Cone Mills to Kurabo, faded shit is back. Five minutes ago, wearing The Faded Jean made you look poor; now the tricky business is making yourself look prosperous and faded at the same time. And that is nothing on what’s up with denim for ladies, where a new turn is not only acid-washed but high-waisted. Grown women are going to have to figure out how to wear Mom jeans without looking, well, Momish. MILFing is about to be harder’n’a mutherfucka. A Mom in low-waisted jeans at least could make her intentions clear. Now, it’s Millennial middles only.

While I’m thinking about it, it’s probably no party to be a young lady today, either. Body-consciousness and double standards are at an all time high. It used to be that only gay men and Ryan Gosling were expected to have abs. Now females are going after them, too, along with thigh gaps and Bey butts. That’s a high barre. I see 20-something girls in the gym doing core work like there’s no tomorrow, all chasing that Photoshopped look. Of course, feminism always finds tension at the Y, where leaning in happens as much against bosu balls as glass ceilings, but it is enough to make a card-carrying student of the Steinem years sigh. Happy 80th, baby. The good old boys of the boardroom have given way to dudes and bros, yet the Marks still far outnumber the Marissas. We gonna fix that? 

Sorry, I just swirled right into feminist commentary, didn’t I? It must be the wind. It’s like Kansas or Chicago out there. It’s hard to think clearly chasing your hat down Church Street. When it is windy in Nashville, a certain bleakness shows. The trash twenty-somethings toss from their Beemers swirls down North 11th and healthcare hipsters on 65 weave even more wildly, texting all the way to Williamson County. Accident rates go up, and apartment building roofers actually clip their safety harnesses. The randomness of it is reflected by my own little dementia in the morning closet: boots with a t-shirt? A sweatshirt with a nylon jacket? Is “light sweater” an oxymoron? I had one, where is it? Oh, duh: I threw it out after ruining it with French roast.

I’m off the reservation. Perhaps my mind will settle in April. Meantime, maybe I should enjoy some hoops or go back and re-watch The Grand Budapest Hotel with Katie, catch all the Easter eggs I missed the first time. I’m one bounce pass from becoming The Mad Hatter and The March Hare at the same time. Garçon! Send more coffee, and help me stuff The Linen Napkin back into my collar. And bring a cannoli!



I started writing this on my birthday in November. I am over-late completing it, so I’ve decided to adapt it into a New Year’s missive. It is not a retrospective as much as a reflection on a few things I’m learning. It is also an experiment: I will attempt to avoid the use of the second person pronoun or the urge to offer recommendations. By the end, a reader should feel no need to cope with moving cheese, feel younger this year, or be inspired to onerous resolutions. Self-help writings are a double misnomer. On one hand, the reader takes in the experience of another, so he’s not alone anyway. On the other, the chance of actually changing for the better without in-person guidance of real people in real life is, in my experience, nil.

I turned 57. It did not have the feel of a great crossing the way 30, 40, and 50 are advertised. As a longtime adman, my brain naturally looked for a way to ascribe a significance to the number. I freely admit that I sometimes spend time thinking about my age. Mainly on days of the week ending in the letter “Y.” Sometimes in the morning. And the afternoon, yes. Oh, and at night, if it’s dark.

I wonder if other people who are aging think about it as much as I. It’s scary. I have been told that it is impossible for me to actually really remove my own fears; I must ask a higher power to lift them. This lends credence to a conceit of the immature, that spirituality and higher powers are a crutch for older people as they contemplate mortality. Yes, well. I have to ask to not be terrified every time I put my keys in the microwave.

The number 57 is halfway between 55 and 59. Here is a picture to help see a point:


Visual readers will readily see that on the big ski slope of maturity, it’s now a downhill run to the big 6-0.  That sounds like as good a reason to fiddle with the notion of spirituality as any. I can no longer say I’m in my “mid-50’s” with an earnest, crinkled face. It’s late 50’s. I am getting used to chewing on that with my high-fiber cereal, trying not to get milk on my chin. I am now three years removed from the broad advertising demographic of 25-54 year-olds, the group of Americans said to be in the full flower of robust consumerism. On web forms asking my age group, my demo is now next-to-last, before “65+.” Everyone on TV looks young and annoying. I receive AARP direct mail and newsprint coupon circulars. Market research says I shop at LL Bean, WinterSilks, and wear rag socks with Merrell sandals. When I walk into Posh, clerks assume I’m looking for clothes for offspring and ignore me, or address me with a curious vocal inflection of upspeak and condescension.

I have decided that people over 50 who say they don’t think much about their age are lying, or they have achieved a level of serenity reserved for monks and Hindi. Me, if I drop my keys while walking across a parking lot, my first thought isn’t “Pick up your keys” as much as, “Shit, is this how it starts?” Meanwhile, I have begun to realize how precious sex is. I hasten to add that I am quite hale, and my lady friend is happy with my performance. (Hmmm. See how I felt a need to say that?) Still, I cannot pretend to be unaware of being at a place where younger people are uncomfortable with the thought of me getting blowjobs or going down on Ms. GF. They now shudder and follow it with interjection. “Ewwww!” Young people think they invented sex.

I can go on and on. Writing age jokes is as easy as tipping wheelchairs or ordering gutter guards, but as I said, I have more important fish to fry. Despite a cordial dislike of advice columns, I am going to share some stuff. This is the other thing that happens at a certain age: a compulsive need to explain things that everyone is going to have to learn the hard way. My burgeoning wisdom, like my bladder, requires an outlet.

Here are five things. Shit. After all that, I’m doing a list blogpost.

It’s not what I think.

What I think doesn’t matter one whit to my happiness. I am regularly shocked by this, that my big brain cannot divine the answers I need to chill the fuck out. As a society, we are often told that happiness will come from a better mental attitude. Clearer thinking and better knowledge will win the day. There’s another part: a better mental attitude comes from doing rather than thinking. Just being the best thinker is a cartload of poo. This is ironic, since I am a partner in a company called, with typical modern entrepreneurial whimsy, a “thinkery.”

In school, I went out of my way to be the smartest person in the room, and I will still go there in a New York minute. I show my ass every time. Then I think more knowledge will help avoid looking bad, so I read and read and read. I go see a shrink. I meditate. The clouds whoosh by. I wind up back in the middle of vague discontent. Know why? I’m not doing right.

A friend put it this way: “They don’t put people in an asylum because they’re crazy. They put ‘em there for acting crazy.”

I have to do the hard shit.

Easy never works. Sooner or later, every easy satisfaction turns to sugar and gives me a spiritual toothache. I am wired for candy, too. I like sitting and thinking, with occasional standing and a mouth full of chocolate trail mix. I am less wired to go to visit my mom, run five miles, write in my journal, or respond thoughtfully to my girlfriend when she tells about her day and I’m tired. In a meeting, I am perfectly content to sit and listen and think critical shit instead of offering a positive suggestion. I’d much rather tell everyone what a dumbass thing so-and-so just said.

I don’t know why doing the hard thing never gets easier. I am miffed by that, sometimes. Take running. The idea that running will get easier as I do it more is poppycock. It’s running. I get out of breath, and I want to quit EVERY TIME. My shrink says, “Your people didn’t raise you right.” That seems a little like a blame shift, but hey, he’s the shrink. He’s telling me I don’t naturally default to doing the difficult, right thing. He’s right. On the rowboat of life, my most reliable channel markers are feelings of avoidance. The shoals and stumps are plain to see. They have the words “fear” and “resistance” on them in dayglo spray paint.

I never understood what “being tired” really meant until I realized this never ends. I have to keep rowing. This reminds me of another thing my shrink says: “White people don’t get to be tired.”

People can change.

This is my favorite thing. It means hope. It means I can, in fact, rewire, that my hard-coding need not be permanent. To anyone who believes, “People never change,” I offer my middle finger and my awesome 57-year-old abs.

There are plenty of people working very hard to justify their own inertia, so “people don’t change” makes them feel better. Surprise: inertia changes them, too. I’m going to be mean a second: when I go to a reunion, I wonder how everyone got to be so tubby, jowly and conservative. They didn’t all start out that way. They changed. The hardest thing about attending my last reunion wasn’t wondering why the kids I once thought were cool are now watching Fox News. It was wondering if I’ve changed as much to them as they have to me. Answer: yes. Here’s my brain while attending a reunion: “Hi, Toby. You look like hell, but I fucking look great, and I still hate guns. Hi, Cheryl. Wanna see my abs?”

Let me give some positive examples. Churches and nonprofits and AA meetings and schools and kickball teams and chess clubs are chocked full of people who have changed. They used to be assholes, misers, drunks, ignoramuses, poor kickers and shitty chess players. Now, they aren’t. Guess how that happened? They surrounded themselves with helpful people, began to act differently, and changed.

Change happens. It is a combination of action, circumstances, and environment. There also has to be some sort of grace involved. I know I’ve benefitted from a ton of it.

Many people who behave badly and appear to stay that way are in shitty circumstances surrounded by others who don’t know how to change for the better. Their grace is gone. Who knows why? It reminds me of the scene in Pulp Fiction when Samuel L. Jackson says, about the overweight Samoan: “He got a weight problem, what’s a brother gonna do, except eat some mo’?”  This makes me think of jails. I will soapbox a minute. Jails are full of people changing for the worse. It is not society’s best, when we put people who have grown up in poor, terrible environments into even uglier places full of other people who also make a lot of mistakes, take away their freedoms, then act hateful to them. Aside from those with serious mental problems, almost no one in jail was born a lawbreaker or social miscreant. What happened? They changed. Their circumstances were usually so terrible that everyone assumed they’d start misbehaving, and when they did, they got put in the pokey. People said, “See?” and talked about “making poor choices.” Only people in pretty good circumstances talk about folks having choices. People in jail who get better are very rare, and they do because of relationships with compassionate, kind people. Grace again. Folks who work with incarcerated people are very high on my list. They help people change for the better.

When someone says, “People never change,” I think what they ought to say is “People won’t change for the better if their circumstances are so bad that they don’t have any help, or if they don’t know how to start. They need some grace.” I see lots of people staying with devils they know. I know I did for a long time.

Fear is not necessarily the root of sin.

This may sound religious and off-putting for some. It was for me. Words like “sin” were a switch that turned my brain off to all sorts of good ideas. I had to substitute “being an asshole,” “doing bad things,” or “character defects” to understand. Most self aware people realize that when they do bad things, fear is at the root of it: “I took his money because I’m terrified of not having any.” Well and good, but that’s not all of it. It works in the other direction, too. Pride, lust, envy, sloth, and general assholery don’t require fear to become operative. They’re there for me all the time, and easy as pie to activate.

Here are two reliable ways I can turn them on. One is to be idle and alone. I can decide I have nothing to do and take a stroll in the bad neighborhood that’s my lonely mind. Pretty soon, I’ll have a big idea. Next thing, I’ll do something stupid with a dire result, and the cycle is off and running.

The other way is to just act bad. (That sounds obvious, but I like to imagine complexity where my own spirituality is concerned.) Take greed. Sometimes I buy footwear and clothing I don’t need for the hell of it, all while feeling perfectly secure. I just want some more. Or laziness: I can blow off writing and screw around on Facebook, full of confidence in my dazzling wordcraft. Trouble is, I don’t write anything but headlines.

Inevitably, fear follows. What if I can’t buy any more shoes? What if my company fails? What If I lose my house? How will I keep the other homeless people from taking my Cole Haans? Why am I so guilty I didn’t write today? I have so many good ideas. What if I forget how to write? My life will pass and I’ll never have written anything but stupid blogposts. My granddaughter will never know how cool I was after I die. Fuck! A sleeve of Oreos is just what I need. I don’t want to have experiences today. God, cancel my experiences, I just want to go home. What’s that sound? Is that my phone? I don’t feel like talking. Is that policeman following me? He better not pull me over. I’ll have something to say to his ass.

When I act like a doo-doo it triggers fear, just as much fear triggers me acting like a doo doo. They are two sides of the same toilet seat.

Exercise is great.

This is the last thing I’m going to share. No one likes a happy gym person except other happy gym people, but I am one. Mark Twain said of exercise, “Whenever I feel the urge to exercise I lie down until it goes away.” I love that quote, because I said it for years to justify my own lollygagging. I could never see how all that sweating and grunting could possibly improve my favorite pastime, which is thinking about me. I believed that most of what was making me unhappy was in my head, not my muscle tissue. Turns out they are related.

Of course, I knew I was supposed to exercise. I tried all manner of things. I thought if I found a “fun” exercise, I wouldn’t notice how hard it is or want to go lie down. That’s an empty sweatshirt.

I biked for about three years. I did it my way, with predictable results. I started with a sensible, inexpensive bicycle. Next, I started thinking that the hills were steep because the bike was cheap, and I needed better gear. I bought some spandex, even though I swore I wouldn’t (you know, for the seat pads in the shorts). I worked on getting used to how dumb I looked. I think this is why cyclists ride in groups, to help with that. In my case, I didn’t want to be seen with a crowd of yellow geeks, so I rode solo.

Things got expensive. I bought pedals, shoes, and a new helmet. Bike socks. Of course there are bike socks. Then another bicycle. And a third one, custom built. The bike shop guy said, “This bike has a carbon fork so you’ll save .00002 of an ounce. The difference is huge.” He only started being friendly after I’d already bought a bunch of other shit. Bike shops guys are like that. They mostly employ snobs who pretend they only drink Campari and ride Campagnolo.

Finally, I had two beautiful bicycles and one ugly one, like a strip club proprietor. I gave away the ugly one, and I now have two gorgeous urban sculptures hanging on a wall of my garage. One was custom built by a descendant of Richard Schwinn in a shop in Wisconsin. Mark Twain said another thing: “Get yourself a bicycle. You will not regret it if you live.” Biking is exercise, which means it is vigorous, or you’re not doing it right.

That’s where it gets tricky for me, exercising alone: the word “vigorous.” My brain translates this as “to exhaustion, every single time.” One, cold New Year’s Day, I almost passed out riding Radnor Lake. Exercise trainers have a less encouraging name for this physical state, which they write on their clipboards: “failure.” They cross their arms and misuse first person plural, saying, “We are going to do pushups to failure.” I have learned it is unwise to correct them. They just add more repetitions until I beg for mercy.

I know all this about trainers because my shrink made me hire one, four and a half years ago, when I was so nuts he called me a horse’s ass right there in his office. Sometimes it takes a personal bottom. Taking his advice was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Training in a gym beats biking hands down, and it disposes of the notion that I am having fun. It’s just me vs. failure. Lunges? Squats? Deadlifts? You think those are fun? OK! My guy asks, “Do you think you can do 15?” after some demonstration of a strong thing. I say, “One of two things is fixin’ to happen. Either I’ll be able to do it, or I won’t.” Fixin’. Then I try not to throw up. Four and a half years later, it’s still one set at a time. My lungs burn and my brain tells me to stop, my muscles invent phantom pain, and my head gets little circles of stars whirling around like in an old Warner Brothers cartoon.

I would never have stuck with any kind of a routine without the help of a real person. I see guys in the gym all the time going it alone. Good for them. Me, I’d have destroyed my body or my will long ago. Now I can run six miles, do a Turkish Get-Up with a 44 pound kettlebell, and deadlift my weight.

Being 57 is all right.

The Internet Sucks

Admit it. The Internet sucks. It is a big, steaming pile of poo.

It isn’t cool to say the Internet sucks. People will call you a Luddite. If the Internet worked, they wouldn’t do that, because they’d be able to look on Wikipedia and learn that Luddites were 19th century textile artisans who didn’t like modern machinery. You know, like Imogene and Willie. I wear selvedge. I’m supposed to say the Internet is great. I was having lunch with a friend the other day and we were saying that very thing. We made lofty pronouncements about how we’re living in the largest paradigm shift since the industrial revolution. We used the word “paradigm” and kept on talking like nothing had just happened.

But the fact is, we’re living with technology that doesn’t work very well. If your plumbing worked like the Internet, you’d have toilets backing up all the time. Going to the bathroom would be a real crapshoot, not a virtual one. If your car stopped working as often as the Internet, or was as non-intuitive and complicated, you’d walk to work. Let me elaborate. I can come up with some examples without really even trying.

Yesterday, Facebook did not work for a while. You know what it said? “Oops, something went wrong.” That’s it. My car says “Fuel low,” and “Change oil.” On the Internet, it’s “Something went wrong.” Did Zuck forget to flush? Is it my Macbook, screwing up because it’s trying to back up on Time Machine, which may or not be working on my wireless network, which may be congested by a 12 year-old wireless telephone handset at my neighbor’s house across the street? Think of that. My computer, phone, and TV may not work because Linda is on a telephone or using her microwave. That’s like my washing machine not working because she’s ironing a blouse.

Maybe the “oopsie” was Comcast. Comcast is great for mysterious slowdowns and outages. No one likes them. I was in a consultation the other day with a client, and we were trying to explain to them they weren’t very transparent. You know what word we used? “Comcast.” They understood immediately. I’d call Comcast about my oopsie here, but I can’t find my iPhone, and I was supposed to turn on Find My iPhone. Who knew you have to turn on Find Your iPhone? They don’t want me to find it? What would I use to find it, anyway? My dryer?

You know that rat’s nest of wires and dust bunnies behind your television that you can make neither head nor tail of? The Internet is really just a big version of that. Go outside and look up at the utility poles in the neighborhood. You ever really look up there? It’s the exact same thing as behind your Christmas tree, just with different connectors. Some real-estate investors will build a 300-unit apartment complex up the street, and Comcast or AT&T will send a guy who barely made it out of high school with a truck and a ladder. He climbs up the pole, splices another wire on there and runs it over like a really big extension cord. They drill a hole into the basement and put 300 splitters on it.

I am supposed to be watching TV on the internet. It says so on every tech blog, the ones I used to read on Google Reader, which stopped working. That made me have to switch to a thing called Feedly, which is sometimes overloaded and can’t serve the news. I could watch the news on YouTube on Apple TV or Chromecast, if I could figure out the YouTube UX, which was engineered by engineers. I didn’t need the Chromecast anyway, but it was only $35 on Amazon, which also runs the servers for a zillion other websites, like this blog on WordPress, which is slower than death, even though Amazon server “instances” are supposed to be, well, you know, instant.

Where was I? Oh. Watching TV. I can’t stand the thought of not being digitally hip, which is the equivalent of not knowing what “farm to fork” means. I cut the cable, which is not really cutting the cable, because the TV cable IS the internet cable, the one out there, connected to a connector on my townhouse that’s connected to a connector on a pole that sometimes gets wet and acts up or that squirrels chew on. The net effect is that Netflix freezes just as Kevin Spacey is about to bang Kate Mara on House of Cards. Buffering hits just as he starts to take nudie pics of her with his iPhone. Apparently they were still on iOS6, or he’d have lost valuable screen time looking for the buttons and squinting at text.

Imagine aircraft being dependent on the Internet. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Captain. I’m going to ask you to return to your seats. I have an ooops light. We had communication with a control tower over Peoria, but iOS7 keeps crashing every time I try and check the weather. I’ll try and keep the crashes limited to my phone. That’s a pilot joke; laugh. Welcome to Southwest. Meanwhile, those of you on the left side of the plane look out and you’ll see an actual cloud. I’m navigating from that, because Apple maps is buggy and I can’t remember my login for Google Apps to use theirs. Am I boring you? Oh, and I’ll have to cut GoGo Inflight. I hope that Powerpoint you’ve been trying to download for the last hour has finished. Ta ta.”

The Internet was not invented for this. Originally, it was a bunch of scientists sending math and text and stuff to each other at 2:00 in the morning. I bet it worked fine, then. If they’d envisioned Snapchat teen porn and the “internet of things,” I’m sure they’d have put some better planning into it. Google has giant server farms that look beautiful in pictures, but in the end, they’re all connected to this just before the Internet gets to you:

Coffee shops. Ever wonder about coffee shops? They’re more proof the Internet is big poo. How can you have a room full of people drinking highly caffeinated and heavily sugared Venti beverages, all looking so glazed over? You guessed it. They’re waiting for shit to download or to connect to a free wifi network. Every coffee shop in America has one that’s slower than your aunt in Kroger. They all have cryptic passwords for no apparent reason. Don’t ask the guy behind the counter, he’s making an ethically sourced Himalayan. Then there are airports. Airports are one place where wifi and the Internet working should be a priority, since the only purpose of an airport is to have a place to wait out of the weather. Because the Internet sucks, we have people waiting for connectivity while they’re waiting for the plane lost near Peoria, when they’re not waiting for a power outlet, so they can wait to download a spreadsheet. Let’s go get some coffee.

Then there’s Apple and the Internet, who are kind of like Microsoft and the Internet, only sexier and more expensive. You know what Apple is? A girl you met years ago and married because she was hot, fit, smart, and great in bed. Who knew she would become an alcoholic after her dad died, and you’d both become co-dependent? Owning Apple shit is like having a crazy, hot, middle-aged wife who keeps going in for cosmetic surgery, but has unpredictable mood swings. Since iOS7, an iPhone is like a European car on Molly. It looks colorful and happy and is next to useless. (Stick around, I’ll mix some more metaphors in a minute. I’m on a roll.) The buttons are gone, replaced by text so thin that if you are not 100% stationary, you’ll never see it. You have to swipe and fondle the screen to discover hidden menus and buttons, like a puzzle. iOS7 is middle aged sex with a crazy person.

Apple has iCloud, too, which is their brand name for the Internet. I am supposed to be able to access my music anywhere, on any device, as long as it’s Apple’s, I pay a fee, and it’s not “grayed out” and mysteriously inaccessible. Apple is worse than your ex about admitting fault. If you go next door and borrow your neighbor’s landline to call Applecare, they’ll tell you they don’t know anything about an outage, even while their support discussions are full of people saying shit ain’t right. They even have a webpage with status lights which stay green all the time. This is to make you think it’s all your fault somehow, and maybe you should schedule an appointment with a Genius at the Apple Store, a store so modern that they don’t have checkouts, just people wandering around ignoring you and looking dreamy and happy because their internet connections work.

One more. Tech conferences. The irony of ironies is that every single tech conference has bad Internet. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a hotel or some fancy meeting space, or who has been hired to bring in “the pipe.” A partner at my company is in Silicon Valley at a conference being held by Google as I write this. Yesterday, on my Facebook wall, he posted, “Kidd Redd, the Internet sucks here, too!” This is the center of technological innovation for the entire planet, yet just like at a local Starbucks, people are having a hard time checking their email.

See? This is like shooting fish in a barrel. I have been saying for years that we’re living in the bad old days of the Internet. You can probably come up with 10 things where the Internet has fucked with you by lunch today, whether you’re Mac or PC, AT&T or Verizon, Comcast or Charter, iPhone or Android. Soon, they’re going to have what’s called Beacon, which will supposedly be able to help me find the raisins in Whole Foods, provided everything works. Think of that. And I used Fandango the other day to breeze right into a movie. It was great: the ticket taker used her iPhone to scan the code on my iPhone and I went into a movie about satellites breaking up in space and the shrapnel trying to kill Sandra Bullock. All I could think of was the poor people below on Earth, furiously trying to get their Instagrams to post, fidgeting, and wondering if they should call tech support.



There is a group of rich, white people who become afraid when poor, black folks start getting any kind of real power without their say-so.

Fear makes them behave irrationally. They do not like having a black President. They do not like poor, black folks getting food stamps, decent legal representation, or healthcare on their dime. They are afraid because the government they have influenced with wealth suddenly seems beyond their control.

So now we have fearful people messing with minority voter registration. They attempt to defund duly passed legislation and place arcane and capricious restrictions on things which give voice and assistance to unfortunate people.  They have righteous justifications for their actions. They repeat them aloud among themselves and to all who will listen until they believe them.

I am supposed to love these people despite this. I, too, do crazy shit when I am afraid.

The tragedy of all morally reprehensible behavior is that it makes it easier for people who are trying to be good to be bad. It seems it is easier to hoard with hatred than be generous with love.  May higher powers help us. Let us pray.

The Jeans Problem

I am feeling high-minded, full of vim and change-the-world vigor. I am going to do something that stylists, fashion mavens, and Presidents have been unable to do for over a century. I am going to solve the jeans problem.

The problem isn’t how your ass looks. No one but you and your trainer can tackle that. Nor is the problem how much they cost. A person who buys $300 jeans is right fucking on in my book. Prosperity is always stylish.

It’s not whether or how to wash your jeans. It’s not whether you should hang them on a hook. It’s not figuring out what cut is cool, or how can you tell if they’re made of Carolina Cone Mills denim. Excuse me. Those jeans made on a shuttle loom? Should I grow a beard? Is it “selvedge” or “selvage?”

It’s none of those things. Your fade is fine, Miss Lady and Mr. Man. Take a bow. Your dungarees are about to be set free, ‘cause Stylerant loves your ass. Now close your eyes.

Poof! There is no jeans problem.

Whoa. See how I did that? Of course you didn’t. Your eyes were closed. And your existentialism is in arrears. You think there are “in” jeans and “out” jeans. You remember JNCOs. You sneer at denim with sparkly pocket embroidery. You disdain designers. Your weft is true. You announce, “I know a pair of Mom jeans when I see them, and I’m not gonna do it. And them girls showing they ass cheeks in Daisy Dukes are disgusting.” I love it when you talk urban. Yet you live in fear.

There are no Mom jeans or Dad jeans, just Mom asses and Dad bellies. As my peeps often say, “It’s not them. It’s you.”

No article in the wardrobe is responsible for more personal angst, tempts more derision, or inspires more bad pop music than jeans. They are the great interpretive garment. They are to clothes what jazz and the blues are to rock and roll. No matter how crazy they get, three things are certain: you will come back to them, you will wear them, and you will say you will never wear them like that again. You may be laughing at the acid-washed 80’s today, Dear Lover, and you may be cocksure you’ll never have to sing the bell-bottom blues in your natural lifetime, but announcing your intentions is a good way to hear God laugh.

From James Dean to Jay Z, jeans are also the great American garment, even when they come from a collapsing sweatshop in Bangladesh. When I was a kid, my Dad told me that Levi Strauss made the first ones from the canvas of Conestoga wagons, like the ones on TV westerns where frontier women gave birth and Sioux lined the ridges against a desert sky. He made that shit up. There was no Google to bust Daddy’s urban myth back then, just afternoon TV.

Today, you can get the real skinny with a Wikipedia visit: denim was originated by the French. Take that, Imogene! They were originally called serge de Nimes, which is French for “pinchy crotch.”

The best history I’ve found is 2007’s A Short History of Denim by Lynn Downey, Levi Strauss and Company’s company historian. Jeans as we know them were “invented” by a tailor in Reno named Jacob Davis who’d been adding rivets to the pockets of work clothes so they wouldn’t rip. He sent a letter to Levi Strauss in San Francisco, looking for an investor. Old Levi put up the money and, like a true capitalist, named the company after his own bad self. Little is revealed of what happened to Mr. Davis. One thing is certain, no one calls his pants “Jacobs,” though the idea of “pulling on your Jakes” would have had a certain ring.

I’ve also been searching the interwebs for one of those fancy animated timelines of jeans styles to get a more linear sense of their history. Again, the Levi’s site has one of the best, even if they’re carefully crafted recreations Photoshopped nine ways from Sunday. But for a real taste of the awesomeness of denim over time, look at this. I am digging 15-year-old Brooke Shields for Calvin and Farrah-Fawcett in flares on a skateboard.

But back to existentialism, that unstitched state of disorientation in a modern, absurd world. Surely that’s what Sartre meant when he asked, “My ass look OK in these?” Recently, the NYT ran a piece heralding the return of Dad jeans via Kanye for APC. Fashionista cried absurdity and posted a rebuttal. Meanwhile, here in Nashville, even a few guys from Williamson County are beginning to look for the red-threaded edge inside the bottom hem and drop names like “Cone Mills.” The NYT piece, rushing to be more blue jaded than blue jeaned, says the super-blue Faux-Americana selvedge thing is fatiguing. I agree, but as part of my personal crazy, I nurse grandiose visions of authenticity: selvedge is higher quality, it fades better, I write a style blog. The fading thing is ironic, for in this moment, one should never let his denim fade, nor his skin wrinkle. You will look either poor or old. In style, the meek inherit a shopping cart at TJ Maxx, and little else.

All things considered, it’s almost disingenuous to make fun of the current seriousness surrounding $300 jeans. They are no more or less awesome than my 70’s faded flares or the 80’s Girbauds I proudly bought from Casual Male in Hickory Hollow. Nor is that soaking-in-a-tub thing new. When I was in junior high in the big city of Madisonville, Kentucky, a thing was to go downtown, get some Levi’s at the Tack Shop on the town square—if you don’t know what a tack shop is, shame on you, city boy—and commence the fitting process by easing your adolescent ass into a bathtub full of hot water with the jeans still on. You wore them until they dried. The results were a blue bathtub ring and whitey-tighties the color of Johnson’s blue baby powder. There was also bleaching, if you wanted to speed up the fading process, but if your Mama caught you hastening the wear on your school clothes, she would not be amused, and you’d wind up grounded for a week.

Today, it’s just the opposite. You buy raw denim, and purveyors like Imogene and Willie tell you to get them so tight you cannot get them buttoned without writhing on the floor and inverting your third chakra. The theory is, raw denim, being both unwashed and unrinsed, will stretch. Of course, it will also shrink, which is one of the reasons you’re not supposed to wash them. The other reason is so the wrinkling and whiskering that happens during the first 100 or so wearings will “tell your pants’ own unique story.” If pain is the touchstone of all spiritual growth, then modern denim is the new chi. All it takes is a few Benjamins and the willingness to submit to a stitchery greater than thyself.

My contrarianism helped me avoid this route until recently. I cheated a couple of ways. One was the purchase of some perfectly fine, already-washed I&W’s from a consignment shop. I suspect that the previous owner either failed in his resolve on the break-in period, or needed rent. (This reminds me of a young entrepreneur I recently met. He was introduced as a scrappy, startup guy living on ramen noodles in a crackerbox apartment. He made his pitch in $300 pants, which confounded his myth.)

The second way I’ve avoided the hard spiritual work of raw denim is to buy shrink-to-fit Levi’s that are two inches too big in the waist and four inches too long, then wash the bejesus out of them in hot water and immediately put them in the dryer. Wash, dry, repeat. I can hear the purists in 12 South howling. I personally thought of it as efficiency. Also, hygienic: call me old fashioned, but I like clean clothes. I fart in my britches, sit on stuff where other people’s butts have sat, sweat, and leave my pants on the floor at night where I can find them in the dark, in case of a fire, the burglar alarm, or Ambien-walks. I want to be wearing nominally clean pants when the sirens come or they find me wandering around the ghetto Kroger in my Haflinger slippers.

Yet one can avoid the hard work of style for only so long before self-awareness demands sacrifice. Sooner or later, you gotta get off that sidewalk, walk in, and smell the congregation. I discovered a startup jeans company called Gustin on Kickstarter. Their big entrpreneurial idea is to take orders (and your money) until they get enough cash to start a production run, then they make all the microinvestors their own jeans from select raw denim for just $75, which is super cheap. Ramen costs extra. I signed up.

It was kind of cool at first. I selected my fabric and my cut. The Cone Mills USA run was already sold out, so I chose Japanese selvedge (a now-debunked denim myth: Japan is where all the original shuttle-looms went after American companies developed faster, cheaper machinery). Not being wholly ready to submit, I fudged a little, and bought a size up to allow for machine laundering, knowing I’d never make it to 100 wearings before my aversion to odor kicked in. I Amexed my $75, and the updates on progress of my production run started hitting my inbox.

I think this was around Christmastime. The updates continued, rather too frequently to maintain my interest. The minutiae became as annoying as “look what I’m eating” photos on Facebook. “We got the fabric off a really big boat today and put it on a truck.” “We started the pockets today. It’s really complicated. Let us tell you about pocket fabrics.” I unsubscribed. Winter ended. I started buying spring linen shirts at UAL. My company moved. I learned to play guitar. (OK, I made that part up.)

Finally, I received the email that my selvedge Gustins were shipped! Have you ever noticed that in online commerce, the word “shipped” is always followed by an exclamation point? I guess it would be too droll to simply say: “Your pants shipped.” Then again, if being a mini-mogul of a sartorial startup doesn’t merit chirpy punctuation, what does?

The big day came. The UPS man left the pants on the porch, along with my week’s other somnambulant purchases. I put them on.

They were stiff.

They are still stiff. I wear them about once a week. At this rate, they will take two years and be infused with enough butt bacteria for a biology experiment before they stretch and whisker enough to tell their story, which will be one of poor circulation to the nether regions. This strikes me as a demonstration of faith, like marriage, or hitchiking to California. “It’s the journey,” and all that.

I am going to start an urban myth about selvedge right now, so we can all go back to buying clothes that fit. It begins thus: tight, raw denim makes you impotent, just like bicycle seats without grooves in the middle do. (Not me, mind you—everyone else.) Let me tell you what really happens during that break-in process: the double seams bisect your balls each time you sit, then cinch. Testosterone levels drop to zero, and anyone who says otherwise (again, except me) is a lying sack of serge. The dye also seeps through your underwear, leading to a slow chemical reaction with your pubes, causing them to prematurely grey. This is the real reason early 30-something metrosexuals are shaving their scrotums. By 34, satisfying sex is a memory. By 40, you die lonely in your mid-century flat, a post-modern monk, and your West Elm sofa winds up on Craigslist. Your last wish is that you’d been born in an era of faded stovepipes, going commando, and letting a little air in there. Dad jeans mean you can, you know, actually Dad. Hashtag: #selvedgekills.

I am glad my own youthful experiments with Levi’s in the bathtub did not have a lasting result on my sperm count. (Are my denials clear enough yet?) This brings me to another example of why all jeans must be awesome: in one of my previous marriages, when denim was in a gentler phase, I once enjoyed sex in a Dillard’s change room. Yup, right there beside Big & Tall under the florescent fixtures, behind the beige curtains. I strongly recommend shrink-to-fit Levi’s 501’s. They’re stiff at first, then they shrink. (Sorry: that joke was just sitting there and I had to use it. I’m not as funny as Fashionista.) My point is, I am convinced this would not have happened if I’d been trying on khakis and a Polo golf shirt; she’d have been yawning in a chair near the mirrors.

Here, I should probably acknowledge that my adventures with my new raw jeans are nothing on what women endure. Men have it easy. And in Nashville, despite all the Barista Parlorians and 12 South Burger Uppers, I still see many male 20-somethings without a clue, showing up to take their ladies to dinner wearing faded Luckys and flip flops. This is disrespectful. A gentleman should acknowledge the fear and fatigue his date has endured, at least until they rent a flat together and start taking one another for granted. Aside from platform heels and that whole giving birth thing, few things demonstrate the fortitude of the fairer sex as well as the quest for the perfect pair of jeans. You’d think some would say, “Fuck this noise, I am not a jeans person,” and just wear a muu muu. Where art thou, Betty Freidan? There’s something powerful about a garment that can cause even a glass-ceiling shattering, ballbusting CEO to try on 27 different brands, cuts and sizes, then pay as much for them as for a Hugo Boss suit just to enjoy dinner at Rolf and Daughters. While all jeans are awesome, it can be argued that denim has not been kind to feminism.

Finally, my research has also taken me to the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor™. The latest report on jeans is informative, if puzzling. For instance, the average person owns seven pairs of jeans. By 2018, the global jeans market will be a $56 billion industry. The study reveals that “more than 8 of 10 consumers (84%) say fit is very important to their jean purchases, followed by comfort (76%), and ‘makes me look good’ (64%).” If I read this correctly, this means that 84% of people are “lying their asses off”, 76% are “telling a damn lie,” and 64% of jeans wearers have a modicum of self-awareness. The study also says that “on average, consumers say they spend approximately $35 on a pair of jeans, slightly higher than last year ($33).” Clearly, no one was surveyed in Fido.

Excuse me: my reader radar is beeping. I bet you didn’t know that, that I have reader radar. It’s embedded in my amygdala. Lord. Its analytics are signaling that you remain unconvinced that all jeans are cool. I’m also rambling and I have to pee, which means I’ll have to re-button afterward, which is another reason I go to the gym. So there’s nothing left for it than for me to rub your thighs in it, and direct your attention to the back of your chest of drawers or closet. See those? Mmmmmhmmmm. You bought them, Sugar. One could negatively interpret your stack of defunct denimes in a couple of ways: either you were not cool when you put down your $35, or you were never cool to begin with. I have more faith in you than that, because you read Stylerant. (It is, after all, all about me.) So resist the urge to purge your closet or to delete the photos of your Guessed and Calvined backside from Facebook. Remember that one day you will not regret the past, nor wish to shut the closet door on it.

Jeans are life, and as such are like your music collection: every song is awesome, except when it’s on “shuffle.” Denim is a love that’s love, not fade away.

Wait. Didn’t Buddy Holly wear a black suit?


Just so you know,
late at night when your spoons
are in the dishwashing machine
it is possible to eat ice cream with a fork.
When it gets soft enough
to drip through the tines
and leave a soft spot on your sock feet
your ruminations may be far from feeling complete.
You may be turning a page on a sunlit beach
or running from a madman up a hill,
gasping raggedly.
It may be a click of the AC
that snaps you out of your reverie,
or a street sweeper, a siren, or subwoofers thumping by,
before your eye will catch the clock
for a long, suspended second
and you remember to put away the carton for the night.

The Hearing Test

I was talking with my shrink, explaining I had recently enjoyed a nice dinner date. He asked where. Sometimes an hour with my shrink is a conversation about restaurants and Armani. I never know if he’s a foodie or just a guy who likes to be seen out wearing Italian. I replied that we’d dined at Mad Platter near my home. He made a mild face. “You ain’t gettin’ your hip card stamped in there.

I forgave him for the card metaphor, and I did what you’re supposed to do to make your shrink feel needed. I got defensive. I explained I do not care for the stylish joints as much as I once did.

For one thing, hip restaurants have people hipper than me in them. How can I enjoy a meal with an inferiority complex going on? I’d rather go to Midtown, where a decent pair of jeans makes you look like you’re a edgy entrepreneur, or, as I said, Mad Platter, where I can actually carry on a conversation. The stylish restaurants are reverberatingly loud. I had always taken that as proof I am not the half-deaf post my father was, because the buzzy places have the noise level of a high school basketball game to me, only with marrow bones and quinoa instead of hot dogs and soda. The waiter explains the day’s specials above the din, always in great detail, including where the ingredients were “curated,” the wagon in which they arrived and the happy horses and so forth, but I never hear a word he’s saying for all the hubbub.

It shouldn’t have shocked me when, a few days later, a colleague had the cheek to announce in a partner meeting, “You need to have your hearing tested.” I was very annoyed, but I also made the appointment. “PLOP…” I harkened to the echo of another droplet in the bucket of indignities which accompany maturity.

On its subsequent ripple, my memory floated to a segment I’d recently heard on the radio. An audiologist was talking about Q-Tips. She said, “Never, ever, EVA put them into your ear.” I turned up the volume. When the host asked, “Well, how do I clean them?” she explained that the skin in your ear canal actually migrates outward, carrying the earwax with it. Nice. I decided this may explain why your ears also get bigger as you get older. I had just come upon an old head shot from my radio days, and my ears were one of the first things I noticed, along with my fabulous Alexander Julian striped shirt: “Fuck, look at them! They’re tiny. I should be able to hear like a radio telescope.”

The doc was a cheery, businesslike woman who put me into a little booth that felt like the scene in 2001 when the astronaut spins off into the void. It wasn’t just silent; it felt like all vibration in the world was being sucked out by some grand, universal force. I’ve heard that some like to meditate in isolation chambers, but if this is a taste, I’ll stick to a mat at the Y. Twenty-seven years of working as broadcaster conditioned me to think of dead air as something terrible to be filled with the sound of something, anything, quickly. To this day, when I hear the dead space between segments on NPR, I think of a sarcastic expression we’d use around the radio station, where dead air was anathema: “Hey. You know we can sell that air time, right?”

There were headphones, and a window through which I could see Ms. Audio operate a few controls. I put the headphones on. The quiet got even quieter. Then, her mic popped on, her voice crisp against the roar of the room on her side of the glass.

“Can you hear me?”

Smartass coulda-shoulda: it would have been funny if I’d ignored her. Or if I’d said, “Open the pod bay doors, Hal.” Only thing was, my funny was out there in the world of ambient noise. When you are at the hearing aid doctor, as my grandparents called them, you are so terrified you’re turning into a person whose tufted elephant flaps aren’t enough to catch the reprimand of your girlfriend (Are you hard of hearing, or do you just not give a shit what I’m saying?) that your wit and guile desert you. A life of orthopedic shoes, Cialis, and naps in a La-Z-Boy with the Weather Channel is all you can think of.

My brain went into hyperdrive. I think the temporal lobe started growing new cells on the spot.

“Yes, I can hear you.”

She explained that she would send some tones into my right and left ears, and I should raise the corresponding hand when I heard them. Easy enough. The first thing I thought of was cheating. I’m sure audiologists are hip to that, just like the dental hygienist knows you’re lying when she asks, “Are we flossing?”

The whole test took about five minutes. Beep, right hand. Boooop, left. Biiiiiip, left. Buuuuup, right. And so on. I was sure I was hearing everything she pumped into the cans, which was a relief, since another thing about my radio career is that I wore headphones at airliner volume for a couple of decades. I also always ran the studio monitors at decibel levels that would cause shirt-sleeves to flap. It was my way of keeping people out of the studio. Someone would walk in, and I’d crank ’em up to 11, and glare. Only the bravest would walk all the way in and let the studio door close. If I was having a bad show, I’d occasionally throw an LP or tape cartridge just to keep my aim sharp. I was always heavily caffeinated in those days, when I wasn’t drunk, and I never drank on the air. So I’d be wired as hell when you walked in there.

Finally, she cut her mic on and announced, “OK, we’re finished,” and invited me back into the ambient world. Lo! I had super ears. I could hear the HVAC system and the receptionist rescheduling an appointment in the next room. Even my feet on the carpet sounded like subsonic effects in a movie soundtrack. Have you seen Flight with Denzel Washington? There’s a quiet scene before his inevitable alcoholic relapse where he hears the compressor in a hotel room bar fridge kick on in the dead of night. The audio producers nailed that sound effect perfectly. That’s what everything sounded like as I sat down to be told my results. I was sure I could hear the saliva in her voice clicking against her front teeth. I KNEW I was in the clear.

And so I was. Yet I was caught off guard when she showed me a graph of my hearing curve and said, “Oh, you don’t need hearing assistance now, but it’s only a matter of time.” She explained the frequency range of human speech and where I’d missed certain frequencies, right in the mid-range where voices live. In effect, the chart said I can hear Salemtown subwoofers 5 blocks away from my north Nashville porch and the mating call of a cricket across the river in East Nashville, but the sound of Katie explaining a court case in a moving car was beginning a long, slow fade, like the final piano note of the Sgt. Pepper album.

“Oh, it probably won’t be anytime soon,” the doc said, reassuringly. “It happens to all of us. And they have so much better devices now. No one will ever know you’re wearing a hearing aid.”

At least, I think that’s what she said. I wasn’t listening. In my mind, I was already at lunch at Marche, the waiter explaining the day’s ethically sourced local preserves, the Benton’s belly ham, the greens from a pasture near Sewanee, and eggs from a happy chicken tended by solemn Mennonites. It was going to be an exceptional day, and I planned to savor every word.

Corn Maze

The air is cool tonight.

A promise was made to me: one day, you will not regret the past. At times, I get good, long stretches of that sort of peace. Others, they are intermittent as an old AM radio signal in an October thunderstorm. In the static, I am reminded that it takes work to get into a position to receive such grace—scary, uncomfortable, soul-squirming, vulnerable work, the kind that makes you afraid you’ll lose your self esteem and wind up lost in the moonlit corn-maze of your mind.

But tonight, the air is nice, blowing in my upstair windows. It reminds me that such a promise can come true. I am self-centered enough to wonder, yeah, is it because I exercised so hard yesterday, prayed last night, and did not become a rambling paranoiac in the office today? I am glad to remember the good parts of autumns, and days when the maple leaves would not stop falling from the three big trees in our yard. They were messy and crunchy underfoot. They would get soggy and smother the browning bermuda grass, and I would mulch them up.

We had fall parties with luminaries lining the drive, and chili. We were the noisy neighbors. Cars parked up and down the two streets of our corner lot, driver’s sides in the ditches, roofs slanted toward the lawns in the hazy streetlight. There was Chex mix hot from the oven, and the teens rolling their eyes and laughing while the grownups were drunk and sang the Mamas and the Papas around the table at midnight: “all the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray.”

The Key Is on the Porch

Whenever I attend Christian funerals, I get a little pissed. I was pissed at my Dad’s funeral, and at my ex’s stepdad’s send-off, too. Here’s why: the good minister always says a few comforting words, but I know he’s going to get around to The Pitch, and sure enough, he always does. He says that because the dead person has accepted a Savior, he or she gets to go to a better place, and infers I should, too, or it’s the bad place for me.

This is less than generous on my part, this being pissed. The fact is, I go to a funeral already keyed up and in my own head. Funerals, celebrations of life, wakes, or whatever you want to call them make me think of mortality. I don’t want to think about mortality. I want to think about me. As a mentor of mine says, “I’m not much, but I’m all I ever think about.” I’m scared to death of death. You are, too.

Back to the good minister. I am feeling a little more generous toward him today. That’s a tough gig. See, he has to talk about someone he doesn’t know all that well. He meets with the family and gets some details: “He liked blue, derided what he called phony art, painted, and loved his wife.” Next are words of comfort for the rest of us squirming in our pews in our ignorance (or smug faith) of the Great Beyond. Then, what? He just doesn’t have a lot of material to work with. So, The Pitch. He’s a minister, for crying out loud. What else would he do?

When Sloane called Monday and said, “Kate O said she’d appreciate it if you could write something for Karsten,” my first thought was not at all honorable. It was selfish as hell. I thought, “I didn’t know him all that well. What will I write? What if it isn’t any good? Why didn’t I know him better? We were at parties together. Karsten would engage anyone in conversation. Why didn’t I talk to him more?” And so on. In other words, I went right up in my own head. I am ashamed about that, but it would be less than honest if I didn’t say so up front. I’m pretty sure that as an artist, Karsten would take a dim view of me faking it, as dim a view as I take of The Pitch.

I read a thing my friend Lora posted yesterday, something to the effect of, “I’ve been pulling weeds all day and composing random sentences in my head.” That’s what I’ve been doing, except for the weeds part. Only trouble is, none of the sentences is all that great, and they aren’t really forming a narrative.

It all seems so wrong. This isn’t the right way to go about getting to know a neighbor. You’re supposed to get to know your neighbors when they’re still, you know, your neighbors, not after they’ve hitched up the van and moved to Portland. “Hey, did you know Karsten?”

“Yes, he was awesome. He liked blue, hated phony art, painted, and loved Kate O.”

The last couple of days, I’ve been reading some great stuff by folks who did know Karsten better than I. That helps. Facebook is full of photos. Karsten is fabulously good-looking, virile and mysterious in all of them. Somewhere in my head is this idea that he liked erotica. In the classical sense. The human body can be so beautiful. Look at Kate.

I sat and talked to a couple of other writer types who are squirming in their own upstairs pews, trying to come to terms with all of it. I also have been reviewing the times I was around Karsten.

I don’t have much. He deserves more. I am going to pray that a great many people surround Kate, and share more than this, and make her feel better. I’ll be damned if I know what I’d do if I was confronted with her loss. I usually just get mad at everyone.

Karsten was an artist.

He was drop-dead funny, in the way that people who are really aware are funny. I was at a party once. Justin Seiter had this hideous, cheap, UT-orange-looking six-pack cooler with some beers in it. Karsten looked at it, then at Justin, and said, “That says every fucking thing I need to know about you, right there.” I almost spit up, laughing.

I wrote this in my notebook Monday night, before I’d talked to anyone much about the news: “If you showed a vulnerability, he could find a way to make you laugh at yourself about it.” I don’t really know if that’s true or not. I bet it is.

On blue: Lora told me they’d talked once about his love of it, and Karsten told her that at one time in history, the bright blue hue was a very difficult and special color to produce. I don’t understand that, but since he was an artist, I’ll take his word for it. I could Google more information about indigo, but I prefer to leave it at that for now. I am going to wear blue shoes to his celebration on Friday.

Karsten experimented with a lot of media and different ideas in his art. His studio got hammered in the Great “We Are Nashville” Flood of ’10. It was filled with paintings, and collages, and ideas in progress. It must have been devastating to have all your creative work soaked and ruined. He rolled up his sleeves and went to work putting it all back together. He came to borrow the truck a few times. I always just left the key out. I missed an opportunity, there.

Lucas told me that during a personal bottom last year, Karsten talked him out the abyss late one night. This brings to mind an old AA joke. A guy is walking down the street and falls into a really deep hole. The walls are too steep for him to scramble out. A priest walks by. The guy shouts up, “Help! I need a rope!” The priest throws him a rosary instead, and keeps walking. A doctor happens by and again he says, “Help! I can’t climb out!” The doctor says, “Try this,” and tosses down a prescription from his notepad. The guy in the hole says, “Fuck!”

Then another person comes walking by. Once again, the guy in the hole calls for help. The passerby stops and looks down, then jumps down in the hole and stands beside him. They are looking at each other eye-to-eye, deep in the hole.

“What the hell’d you do THAT for? Now, we’re BOTH stuck down here!”

The second guy says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know how to get out.”

Everyone I’ve talked with about Karsten says how open he was, and mentions his sense of wonder. He asked straightforward questions, the kind that dull people might consider impolite, or politically incorrect. Everyone agrees this was more from his sense of genuine curiosity than a need to jostle the applecart for the hell of it. I suspect there was some of that, though. Artists are always exploring how people react emotionally to this or that situation. My sense is that he probably did enjoy seeing some folks squirm a bit, but never in a mean way. Nobody who’s really comfortable creates much of anything.

Sometimes I would see Karsten riding his bike around dusk in the neighborhood. “Hey, Karsten!”

“Hello, Mr. Redd, how are you?” He was unfailingly polite.

At parties, I would think Karsten seemed like he was in on a joke you were just now getting. He had no sense of superiority about it. He was just a few oar-strokes ahead, moving with the stream. He always looked like he was having a damn good time.

Life is precious, and a gift. I am dangerously close to The Pitch, now. I don’t care. I am going to ask this: how well do you know your neighbor? It’s a hell of a thing to try to get to know a person after he’s moved on. You can get together with the other neighbors and share memories, and that’s a fine and good thing, but it’s not as good as jumping in the hole.

We’re all the time saying we’re busier than shit, aren’t we? Maybe once in a while, we shouldn’t leave the key on the porch. We should hand it over in person, instead.