Friday, September 08, 2006

Good Things Come… (Part I)

Worldview Adjustment
Again, this is a story of expectations; worldview; assumptions of how we believe things are “supposed to be.” It’s the way we perceive normalcy; the weight we place on some things over others. It’s about how we gauge happiness, for the most part. It’s how we discriminate — both in good ways and bad. And it’s not necessarily that we think we’re always right, just most of the time — by default, you know — just because.

It’s an interesting thing to witness — the way a husband and wife play off of one another; responding both to the environment they have created together as well as the one that was created by their parents, and the sensibilities their upbringing instilled in them. It’s an especially interesting dynamic when you can see it happening in your own relationship.

How do we respond to our differences in what is “right?” Do we truly acknowledge our partner’s worldview when it differs form our own? Do we not even care about what they think or are we actively sensitive to their individual sense of things?

It’s quite a balancing act, yet it’s an easy thing to ignore, since we naturally have a tendency to assume that everyone thinks like we do — and you know we’re ALL guilty of that sin; it’s human nature. I believe we need to remind ourselves; we need to guard against taking on those assumptions that can crop up, sometimes unconsciously, during the course of our everyday lives, creating division, and sometimes, even resentment.

We need to remind ourselves to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes; try not to judge too harshly if we don’t exactly see eye-to-eye on an issue. And being the expectant types we were born and trained to be, that’s not always an easy self-assessed call to make.

It’s been nearly twenty-eight years for me and I still haven’t figured it out completely, but hopefully I’m getting there.

I’m still learning that there really are two sides to a story; that there’s more than one way to skin a cat; that chunky peanut butter actually is way better than creamy.

Well, maybe not so much on that last point, but anyhow…I’m still learning, and always will be.

Seeing so many examples of this sort of thing in my life lately, I can’t help but think that somebody’s tryin’ to tell me something. And while at times I’ve been buoyed by the growth I’ve seen, I’m still reminded that there’s more than enough of that selfish, assuming, doofus part-of-me to go around than I would like to admit.

The bottom line is, I’m still a work in progress. My body may have stopped growing when I was in 10th grade, but hopefully my stature as a human being will never be stunted. I believe that when you stop learning, you stop living, ‘cuz you’re probably dead at that point. And if you’re not, you might as well be.

This summer I’ve learned some particularly important things about expectations and the inconsistencies that surround them — both in the way I perceive myself and how others perceive me.

Double-dealing Daddy-O
On the approach of my 50th birthday back in July, Michelle was beside herself.

I had let it slip (yeah, right…) several weeks earlier that I might want to actually do something on this particular birthday, seeing as how it was, like, sort of a landmark point in my life. Perhaps more than just our family — maybe something a little more akin to a…oh, you know…an actual party? Some of my friends…some of our friends…people from work…you know…a houseful.

She didn’t say anything at the time, but now here it was, two weeks before the day and she still didn’t know what to do. You see, a birthday party was a notion I’d rarely, if ever, even alluded to before in all the time we’d been together — and I guess it sorta caught her flat-footed. She obviously wasn’t expecting it; in all fairness, it was the last thing she would have expected from of her ole’ birthdays-ain’t-no-thang hubby. No wonder she was freaking.

Finally, she came to me and tried to talk me out of it. She felt terrible, but really, how could she pull it off, she asked. She didn’t know any of my work friends; how could she possibly plan something like this?

And she was right. It’s not like we do this kind of thing often (read: ever). This just wasn’t something that was part of my motis operandi.

As a rule, I’ve never put a lot of stock into these often overblown anniversaries of life — not for myself, and really not much for others either. I’ve really never quite seen the value in making a big deal out of birthdays. A nice card, a quiet evening with family and perhaps a few friends, enjoying dinner at my favorite restaurant or my favorite home-cooked meal — to me, these are the appropriate elements of a birthday celebration — not the extravagant parties, expensive gifts and “look at me” accoutrements that many of my generation seem to place so much emphasis upon. It’s not that I think effusive celebration is so wrong, it’s just not me. I guess it’s all about what you’re used to. Certainly the idea of financial prudence comes into play, and in that regard, I’d have to say that I come by my sensibilities honestly.

I was raised a tightwad.

I’ve never been thrown a surprise birthday party, and honestly I can’t remember anytime in my life having much more than just my family present when it was time to blow out the candles — from childhood to adulthood. Needless to say, when Michelle, whose family had always considered birthdays a pretty big deal, came into my life, I learned quickly that I was pretty much in the minority.

I learned that most people actually do like to make birthdays a significant event — especially where kids are involved. And so I began to change my opinion — for our kids’ sake anyway — and I’ll have to admit, it was a pretty cool thing to behold. Some of my fondest memories of Shawn and Amy’s early years were the big birthday parties we (or I should say, Michelle) put together for them, with all the neighborhood kids and the church friends’ kids in tow. It was all a frenzy of activity and excitement; squeals and messes; joy and bedlam — kiddie-style.

There were piñata parties for Shawn and big girl dress-up-fashion-runway parties for Amy. They were as major an operation as could possibly be imagined in light of the lean financial circumstances that were our lives back in the 1980s. Michelle was so incredibly resourceful, and we had a lot of gracious friends and family members who pitched in to help. Those parties always seemed to turn out great. I really have to smile when I think about the fun we all had. But then again, those experiences were somewhat bittersweet as well.

To be honest, at times I remember actually feeling a little jealous of my kids, having never experienced even one birthday party as a child, but what the hell; after all, I didn’t exactly have what anyone would consider a normal childhood. At any rate, it didn’t take long for me to snap out of it and remember how lucky I was to have married a woman who cared enough to want as full and rich a childhood experience for our kids as she could possibly provide. Lord knows, had it been left up to me, those parties wouldn’t have happened in a million years.

Yet even in seeing the by-product of it all — the joy so abundantly evident in my children’s eyes — I still couldn’t solve the mystery as to why it was such a big deal — to apparently everyone but me.

Whether it was sour grapes or what, I simply didn’t get it. The way I looked at it, why spend all that extra money? Why take the chance that something could go wrong and everyone end up being disappointed? And what purpose does it serve to set those kinds of expectations in a child anyway? Life is hard. Why encourage the idea that anyone “deserves” an extravagant birthday celebration? Isn’t the “I deserve it” mindset the root of most of our financial ills these days?

Yeah, I know. What a party-pooper. I really do need help.

But I’m just being honest here. I really didn’t see the need, although I had now become well aware that I was the minority party (pun intended) in that regard. As I knew they would, the kids came to expect it, and their Mom never disappointed, so I played along; I adjusted. I learned to do my part to feed the need, regardless of whether or not I felt hungry myself.

But then my one solo effort really made me feel like a hypocrite.

With a great deal of help by one of our friends from church, I pulled off a surprise 30th birthday party for Michelle back in 1986, and to date, it ranks near the top of the list of things I’ve ever done in my life. Michelle was flabbergasted; she had no idea, and she loved it. We had a wonderful time with about 15-20 of our best friends gathered together at our home in Long Beach. It was a weeknight, so nobody could stay too late, but just to realize that most of those people, who had small children as we did and had to arrange babysitters for the evening — on a school night, no less — it just blew me away to see the love and respect they had for us, and the honor they held for Michelle.

That experience may have changed my opinion a little, but I kept it to myself. I officially maintained my poo-poo-on-parties stance, but deep down inside I was hoping like hell that Michelle would return the favor and surprise me someday.

My hypocrisy knew no bounds.

But since my own 30th birthday had already passed, it would have to be another occasion — perhaps the big 4-OH or sometime in between. It wasn’t something we ever talked about, just a secret wish — a totally dumb, selfish, duplicitous wish — but something I hoped for nonetheless.

Next: Conservative Party

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Good Things Come… (Prologue)

…To those who wait
I’d like to think the title of this mini-series is also a statement of fact regarding the post-frequency of my blog, but hey, even I’m not that full of myself. So instead, let’s just say that the title speaks to something much more practical, but perhaps a little decadent as well; something spiritual in one sense yet ultimately tangible in another.

The familiar adage, Good things come to those who wait is a nice, “patience is a virtue” kind of cliché, but for the most part we all know that in today’s reality, it is…well…it’s bullshit. After all, this is the age of instant gratification, right? People want it, and they want it yesterday.

If you stop and think about it, nobody’s life is really all that much better if they’re forced to wait, is it? They may appreciate things a little more if the earning requires time and/or effort, but I mean, really, does anyone want to burn down Burger King? Dismantle their microwaves? Say their goodbyes to the Friendly Skies?

Nah…we’re all way too spoiled for that. Can’t un-ring that technology bell, now, can we?

And why is that, anyway?

It’s all about expectations, boys and girls.

Pavlov’s Blog
We humans are a predictable lot. Doctor Pavlov conducted his famous study on a pooch, but it may just as well have been you or me in that cage, salivating at the ringing of the bell. You see, we humans love routine too. We like knowing what’s coming next. We thrive on expectation, whether you’re talking about the comforts and conveniences of modern technology or the security and warm fuzzies of a personal relationship.

We love knowing what we’re getting, as well as what we’re getting into. Oh we like surprises too, but just the good kind. We don’t care for curveballs. We love living in a manner to which we’ve grown accustomed.

And what does all this rhetoric have to do with patience? Oh, quite a lot, actually. Our entire lives are built upon a foundation of expectation, from the cradle to the grave. This is particularly true in marriage. Expectations are a reasonable part of any long-term relationship, but can be a double-edged sword as well.

We greatly value a person with whom we have grown to know and love, based on a level of comfort and dependability. However sometimes there is a fine line between dependability and predictability; between sameness and staleness. We talk about “keeping things fresh,” which means for the most part, thinking outside the box with regard to our partner; purposefully changing our usual tendencies for something better; something new.

Successful relationships require time and effort if folks are really serious about making them work. That effort requires balance — it can’t be one-sided, although women are usually way ahead of their male counterparts on that particular score. It almost needs to be a sort of competition; a game to see who can surprise the other with some new show of thoughtfulness and respect.

Maturity (both emotional and financial), learning the kind of things your partner really responds to — these are things that take time to develop in most people (particularly we guys).

That’s where the patience comes in.

Expectation, reciprocation, mind control, sound of soul
Let’s just get one thing straight. No one that I know of — whose name isn’t Jesus or Mother Theresa — is truly selfless. We all want something, especially out of our spouses and partners. A relationship is an investment, not a charity; if you put something in, you expect to get a return.

Oh yeah, I forgot — you still think you love your sweetie unconditionally. Well, hopefully you’ll grow up snap and out of that delusion eventually.

Every person alive has some expectation that the love they express to others will be reciprocated in some form or another; it’s how we’re built; it’s a large part of what makes relationships tick.

And that particular expectation is quiiite the sticky wicket in modern society. How much; how little; who makes the first move? And it’s no longer the man only whose needs must be met. It must be a level playing field for both partners if a relationship is to succeed long-term.

But once again that fine line develops. When does reasonable expectation become entitlement? At what point can we say with true justification, “I deserve this?” And how does that differ from, “You owe me?”

This is a story of my history, subsequent struggles and ultimate reconciliation (such as it is) with the concept of self-entitlement. It’s not a blueprint for happiness, nor is it a cautionary tale; it is what it is… because I am who I am, and Michelle and I are who we are, together.

It’s about the present Michelle gave me for my 50th birthday — versus the one she didn’t give me.

Next: Worldview adjustment

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Stupid Things That Make Me Crazy (Vol. 1, No. 1)

Note: This is the first of a number of concert posts I plan to share over the next several months. I’ve been savin’ ‘em up, so some are already pretty old. Nevertheless for one reason or another they’re all pretty memorable for me, as is this one — for all the wrong reasons…

David Gray Concert: Thursday March 2, 2006:
Fair warning — I'm gonna go off on a bit of a rant here. I’m also going to commit what could be considered sacrilege here in Music City. I’m calling out one of the most hallowed places in the history of American Pop Music, The World Famous Ryman Auditorium, as also being one of the most frustrating venues to take in a concert that I know of.

I’ve had experiences there before that weren’t the best, but nothing like my last visit, which may change forever my willingness to brave anything but the most prime of vantage points in the house for events I’d be inclined to attend there in the future.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s a special place, and there are hundreds of good seats from which the concert experience is unparalleled. However the conditions that could turn and sour that experience from most any one of those remaining 1,800 seats are so fragile, I just don’t know if I’m willing to take the chance anymore.

Am I getting cranky in my old age? Oh yeah.

Every musician in the world wants to play The Ryman because of the musical significance of this venerable shrine of a concert hall. It’s the birthplace of the Grand Ole Opry, and while that may not mean much to non-Country Music fans, you may be surprised to know how important it is to musicians of all genres. Given the immortal names that have graced The Ryman’s stage in its Opry heyday, it's not a difficult thing to understand. However, despite its appeal as a rite-of-passage for modern artists wishing to mingle with ghosts of Williams, Cash, Adkins, Orbison and other greats who’ve performed on it’s hallowed stage, The Ryman might well lose a bit of its luster as a must-play venue if they ever make it a prerequisite for those wishing to play a concert there to first have to sit in the audience and watch one — stuck behind a pole.

The Ryman — and FYI, that is what the place is called by us locals (simply referring to it as, “Ryman Auditorium,” instantly exposes oneself as a know-nothing-outta-towner/Music City wannabe...just thought you'd like to know) — is renowned for it's exquisite acoustics, and by all means, that reputation is well deserved. But in my humble opinion, there are factors well beyond mere acoustics that make just as much a difference to the level of enjoyment of the concert experience.

Things like sight lines, poles, and other obstructions (such as temporary spotlight fixtures affixed to balcony railings that aren't even being used for the show (more on that later).

Then there are the pews; those wonderful seats that are easily as famous as the building itself but which are also uncomfortable beyond belief. You see, the Ryman was originally a church; hence it’s moniker, The Mother Church of Country Music. A bank of wonderful stained-glass windows line the top of the back wall of the auditorium, bathing the stage in warm colors on summer evenings prior to showtime, before the evening’s bright spotlights are first engaged. Yet as surreal and picturesque as this grand old hall may be, little else can make up for the literal pain-in-the-ass that those pews are sure to deliver — not at first, necessarily — but certainly within an hour or so into the evening.

Another aspect of The Ryman’s pews, aside from their abject dearth of ergonomics, is the dynamic created by such a seating arrangement. The only barrier of separation along these 15-20 foot-long benches is a low-rising arm-like septum, repeated every six designated seat spaces (which are approximately 25" in width) as indicated by the small metal plate with the engraved seat number at the head of each space. There is no accounting for people of the large persuasion whose girth might, oh, exceed twenty-five inches, which can create a very cozy circumstance within any row sporting a bubba quotient above a three or four.

Combine this wonderful reality with the sloping floor that makes it virtually impossible to keep anything you unwittingly set at your feet (like an empty or partially-filled beverage cup) to remain upright, which also means there's a good possibility you might find your shoes suddenly transformed into islands in a stream of alcoholic liquids flowing downhill at any given time.

But that’s not the worst downfall of the pew-seating arrangement — at least not for me. The larger problem for someone of diminished stature like myself is dealing with the greatest of all sight-line obstructions: the tall guy or big-haired gal sitting in the row directly in front of you.

Now granted, the balcony seats are situated at a fairly steep, downhill angle towards the stage, so that the line-of-sight for most everyone is clear. That being said, the fact remains; not everyone is of the same height, width and coiffeur and it doesn’t take much to create a mismatch. This is less of a problem with individual stadium-style seats, as you’ll find in most other concert venues. At least with that type of seat, the occupant stays put and lateral movement is minimized.

But this is no average auditorium, it’s The Ryman; a veritable museum amongst concert venues. The pews are part of its charm and a huge part of its history. There will likely be no “upgrade” to stadium seating anytime soon. The pews are there for the long haul, so you deal. You deal with numb-butt syndrome that is surely coming later, you deal with the sticky floor that may come later, and you pray to God that you won’t have to strain to see around the person sitting in the row front of you.

But on this particular evening I encountered a new wrinkle in the Ryman obstruction dynamic; something I had yet to deal with in all my years of concert experience within this revered house of music; my obstruction decided to become a moving target.

Enter Ursula and Monkey Boy.

Mister Peepers lives.
It was the classic good news/bad news situation. The good news was that I was even able to get tickets; the show sold out in less than 30 minutes and I ordering online via, I had but one shot to get seats that appeared to be pretty decent balcony seats. Main floor was out of the question.

The bad news was that they were on the severe left-hand side; in other words, our sight angle was the closest to being parallel to the front of the stage that it could have been. My seat was on the aisle, so mine was the most severe angle of all.

More good news: our seats were forth row balcony, which meant we wouldn’t have to contend with those dreaded poles that might have come into play had we’d been seated on the main floor.

More bad news: there was a small, unused temporary spotlight fixture attached to the balcony railing almost directly in front of me. It wasn’t tall enough to completely block my line of sight, but was more than enough of a visual nuisance to crank up my distraction level a notch or two. But all in all, I seemed to have a pretty good vantage point to see the show.

And just when I was thinking it was my lucky night after all…

During the two opening acts (one guy whose name I never did catch, followed by a very cool British band called Aqualung), the end seats in two of the three rows in front of us were empty, affording me the opportunity to lean a bit more to the right and see around the spotlight fixture. It was great. I could see clearly ahead of me, and even though I still couldn’t see the entire stage, I would have a clear view of man I’d paid my hard-earned money to see: British Pop Star, David Gray.

But noooo

Halfway through Gray’s opening song, in came the fashionably late Ursula and her boyfriend, heretofore ever to be remembered as Mister Peepers. Seems the couple wasn’t fortunate enough to acquire adjoining seats for the sold-out show, so they had to settle for single seats in different rows — you guessed it — in the two rows directly in front of yours truly.

Of course this wouldn’t have been as much a problem if they’d just stayed put. However the kind gentleman occupying the second seat in the row directly in front of ours quickly offered to trade his seat for the one Mr. Peepers was getting ready to settle into, one spot down from his. The guy would get to be a little closer to the action and Ursula would get to enjoy the concert snuggled up next to her Monkey Boy. It was a win-win situation for them — but certainly not for Michelle and me.

Remember the moving target phenomenon I mentioned earlier? Well there’s more than one reason I dubbed my next-row neighbor, Mr. Peepers.

If you recall the character of the same name made famous by Saturday Night Live’s Chris Kattan then you already understand what I mean when I say, the dude would not sit still. One big difference though — Kattan was acting.

And lest you think I’m being overly harsh, let me ‘splain it to you. It’s not that I begrudge anyone his or her freedom to move around a bit while enjoying a show, but this guy was unbelievable. He was bobbin’ and weavin’ like a prizefighter ducking punches; constantly moving from side to side, leaning over to retrieve a sports-type water bottle, which I’m inclined to believe contained something other than water; craning his body one direction, then the other, peering through the miniature binoculars he wore around his neck to study someone either onstage or in the crowd below; turning to whisper something into Ursula’s ear, then slip in a five-to-ten second tonsil-hockey smooch.

The pointing, the whispering, the laughing, the drinking, the moving back and forth. Oy vey, can somebody get me a freaking Dramamine?

I mean, really, can we have a little common courtesy here? It never ceases to amaze me how people seem to believe that the price of admission includes carte blanche to do and act any way they damn well please in a public auditorium. Am I being too anal here? Maybe I am, but nonetheless, I for one always try to be aware of whether I’m being a distraction to people around me. It’s just common courtesy.

The good news was, Mr. Peepers didn’t completely ruin my evening. The concert was great, and though the distractions I had to deal with were just that, I will always have a positive memory of the showmanship and dynamism that is a live David Gray show. The man just knows how to perform. He did every song in his catalogue that I’ve ever liked. It was fabulous.

I still kick myself to think that I had the opportunity to see Gray perform in an intimate setting at 3rd & Lindsley back in 2000, soon after the release of his landmark White Ladder CD, but before his career really caught fire here in the States. I decided not to go at the last minute for some reason. I figured he’d come back, but what I didn’t figure was that it’d be impossible to get a decent ticket to see him when he did.

But bad seats or not, it was a great show. Michelle still talks about how good a time she had that night, despite all the distractions of the folks in front of us. I guess she’s just not as easily bugged about those things as I am. She actually found Mr. Peepers to be rather amusing.

I guess the moral of the story for me is to learn when it’s time to just bite the bullet. I’ve enjoyed some of my greatest concert experiences ever at The Ryman — but I’ve also endured some of my most disappointing. And the single determining factor in either case has always been seating. I just can’t stand it when I can’t see, so I’ll have to accept the fact that unless I can get really good seats, I just can’t go. That may sound a bit shallow, but it’s an important reality for me. It’ll be a tough policy to stick to, but in the long run at least I know I’ll get the most out of my experience. And I don’t know about anyone else, but to me, the experience is everything.

But again, maybe I am getting cranky…