Sunday, September 30, 2007

My Left Ear [sic]

Ever since I gave up the hearing in my left ear (the 2005 price of curing an inner ear disorder that produced debilitating attacks of vertigo), I've heard music differently. It's not just that I'm no longer stereo, a hearing difference I don't really perceive. Some music sounds flatter than I recall, and lyrics are harder for me to make out, but the fact that all sound now comes to me from the right is a fact I have to take in intellectually, not one I actually experience.

The real difference is that when I listen to music in my car I now hear the harmony rather than the melody. This has something to do, I presume, with how the speakers in my car work. The difference is especially pronounced when I'm in the passenger seat. On our recent trip to Arizona, a few times I couldn't tell what song we were listening to until we got to the chorus - even when the songs were ones I've known by heart since I was in college.

I love to sing; I was a singer in high school and I'm an alto. This hearing anomaly would have come in mighty handy back then as I, along with all the other altos, struggled to sing harmony while high-pitched sopranos shrieked well-known melodies in our ears. Now, in my car, I happily belt the harmony, almost undistracted by the melody when I'm driving and completely undistracted by it when I'm in the front passenger seat. It's wonderful. Harmonies are so interesting and unexpected; they have a minor-key sort of mystery to them that I've always enjoyed, but never found easy to hear and follow the way I do now.

Could I have taught myself to hear this selectively before it was my only option? I suppose so. Had I continued to take voice lessons or tried to sing professionally in some way, I would have had to become a more reliable alto - not one who, like many, occasionally and furtively slipped into singing the melody. But tuning out the melody and singing a harmonious, but different tune is hard, especially when the melody is one you know and like. Literally and metaphorically speaking. How cool that a so-called disability has given me an ability I lacked. Makes me wonder what other skills I could develop by experiencing things differently.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Dining with Children

I've been in a couple restaurants lately that featured uncontrolled children in addition to the standard menu items. In Scottsdale a couple weeks ago, a toddler toddled around a very high end breakfast place; her father was standing near her empty high chair keeping his eye on her, while her seated mother happily and apparently obliviously chowed down. We waited behind the hostess who was trying to seat us as she waited for the toddler to get out of the path to our table. This morning, a gaggle of the under-5 set engaged in various under-5 set behaviors, including shrieking, throwing food, squealing and whining in that annoying "you're not paying enough attention to me" way. Since I left Chicago, I've spent very little time tolerating kids in restaurants. Vegas isn't really a kid place and I rarely go out to anything but dinner, which we eat late. The obvious lesson from the recent experiences is that I should stop going out to breakfast altogether.

But it seems to me there's another lesson, too. The me-first entitlement mentality that seems to pervade our culture more with every passing year could, I think, be one of the long-term effects of children who are not taught socially acceptable behaviors early. I'm all for letting children's creativity develop, but I don't think budding creativity is so fragile that it can't coexist with courtesy and consideration for other people. Pointing out to a child, even a toddler, that grown-ups don't run around in restaurants and that they use their inside voices (most of the time, anyway) isn't likely to stifle the child in any important way. It is far more likely to help the child learn to become an adult that other people can stand to be around.

So much of adult life is a matter of figuring out how to manage your natural instincts and reactions within the context of other people's rules and how to change the behaviors that aren't getting you what you want - at work, in relationships, even in all your little daily interactions with strangers at the grocery store or on the expressway. If you aren't expected to manage yourself appropriately in a restaurant (or, presumably, anywhere else) as a toddler, how are you ever going to do so effectively as you grow up?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Personal Responsibility, Anyone?

I read an article yesterday about a guy in China who collapsed and died, apparently of exhaustion, after playing online games in an internet cafe for three days straight. Sad and bizarre, I thought. I can certainly understand getting obsessed with an internet game - I used to be something of a Tetris addict and my rehab after knee surgery consisted mainly of conquering Super Mario Brothers 1, 2 and 3 (to the delight of my children and their friends). But three days straight? That must have been one compelling game.

When I read these odd news stories, I try to avoid looking at the commentary people post underneath them. The posts are always depressingly ungrammatical and mean-spirited; often, they're horribly racist and/or misogynistic, too. But sometimes I can't resist. When I glanced at the commentary under the dead player story, I was appalled to find that the common theme was that the internet cafe "should have" kicked the guy out or made him take breaks every couple hours or imposed some other fail-safe mechanism to have prevented his death. Huh? Is no one personally responsible for anything any more?

It's beyond my ability to comprehend how anyone but player-guy could have borne any responsibility whatsoever for monitoring the amount of time he spent playing internet games. If he'd been a child, his parents should have been paying attention to him, but, as an adult, he's on his own. In fact, I bet those selfsame self-righteous commenters would be the first to have a fit if "someone" monitored the way they spent their time. So why are they always looking for ways to make someone else responsible for their catastrophes, minor and major? Too careless to secure your hot coffee before you drive away? No problem - sue McDonald's when you stupidly spill it all over yourself. Can't be bothered to keep a calendar for your commitments? No problem - just make it necessary for meeting and event organizers to send you (and everyone else) inbox-clogging reminders. Can't afford the stuff you want? No problem - max out your credit cards and buy it all anyway, then complain about crushing credit card debt when you can't pay.

Seems to me that freedom is highly desirable. Self-direction, too. As adults, we should be free to do as we please with our lives and our time. But the price for freedom and self-direction is personal responsibility. It isn't anyone else's fault or responsibility when the actions we take have negative consequences - and it's childish (not to mention disgusting) to look around for someone to blame.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Perfect Day

Yesterday was a perfect day. We drove back from Scottsdale, where we'd gone on Friday. Why would someone who lives in Las Vegas go to Scottsdale? For a haircut - there is now a Ouidad salon in Scottsdale, which saves me the trouble of going all the way to Florida to get my hair cut. (If you have curly hair, and maybe even if you don't, you understand the critical importance of a good haircut.) Driving trips are easy and fun, and it continues to amaze us that a 4-5-hour drive now takes us to Phoenix or the Grand Canyon or L.A. or Salt Lake City rather than to Ann Arbor or Door County or Minneapolis.

You can drive from Las Vegas to Phoenix and back via Hoover Dam, which really is a modern marvel, or you can avoid the Dam traffic by heading west to Bullhead City, which takes you parallel to the California border and features some of the best high desert landscapes and mountain vistas imaginable.
The drive is incredible pretty much all the way - no cities, very little in the way of signs of human habitation, kind of what the moon might look like if it were warm and red instead of cold and silver. There are mountain ranges of varying sizes and shapes everywhere, including a stretch of weird and beautiful mountains-in-formation (I'm guessing) composed of what look like stuck-together piles of huge rocks, some of their boulder-y edges cantilevered improbably in seeming defiance of gravity. These look as if they couldn't possibly be natural, as if instead some crazed giant child stacked them up for his or our amusement. They cluster around the southern Mojave County line, about 75 miles south of Kingman, AZ. They're also warmly lunar, but very strange; you wouldn't be surprised if they suddenly stood up and started lumbering in a science-fiction rock monster sort of way.

The drive is also full of lush desert landscapes. I used to think the desert in bloom was too subtle to call lush, but two and a half years of living in a desert have evidently trained my eye to see differently. Forests in the desert are nothing like forests in Alaska or the Midwest. Here, there is plenty of space between trees, all of which are in a constant battle for their share of what little water there is. And everything is dwarfed by the surrounding mountains and enormous sky; desert forests don't even begin to block out the sunlight. Their density is a whole different thing. But along the Joshua Forest Parkway, there are thousands of Joshua trees, their shape stunted, even tortured, but still arching and graceful, their bursts of whitish leaves looking like a frost of flowers on the tips of their many crooked branches. Further south, there are forests of saguaro cacti - surely the coolest plant in the world. Some just stalks, others with multiple arms, all pinstriped with prickles, the saguaro stand like beacons waving hello or goodbye as we drive by. I love knowing that they swell up when it rains, hoarding the water for months to come and slowly deflating as they use it up. Unlike our part of Nevada, where the mountains are mostly bare rock, Arizona's mountains and hills are covered in shrubs and cacti and flowering clumps of plants. This looks messy to me after the peaceful, pristine rock that I love, but it's also beautiful and it puts me in mind of how weird plant life is: plants accomplish nothing but survival and growth. Beauty, too, I suppose, but that's of no import to them.

As we drove, it was easy to avoid any preview of what was happening in the Michigan game being TiVo'd at home. The chances of running into a TV along the way were virtually nil and I'd warned the kids that I wanted no relevant texts. Our eyes full of nature's beauty and my hair springing in perfectly cut curls around my face, we arrived home unsullied by any news, football or other. I had a good feeling about the game - the day was so perfect it just didn't seem that old Blue would ruin it. Sure enough, the Wolverines came through.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

It Must Be So Because It's Always Been So

So apparently preseason football rankings are kind of like figure skating seeding - the judges decide who's going to win and then do just about everything in their power to make their predictions come true. All a devoted Michigan fan can say today is that it's too bad football outcomes aren't as subjective as figure skating outcomes. To win a game, we obviously need the same kind of help that robbed figure skater Paul Wylie of his much deserved gold medal a decade or so ago (the last time I paid much attention to figure skating).

The real question isn't how a Division 1-A powerhouse could have lost to Appalachian State last week (a team, by the way, I don't want to take anything away from; I love it when underdogs win so long as it's not Michigan they're beating). The real question is how this particular Division 1-A powerhouse could ever have been ranked #5 in the nation. Was the defense that's been completely absent in the last 5 games (don't forget that Ball State game we nearly lost just before the OSU game last year) somehow in evidence during the practices viewed by the rankings voters? Or, more likely, did they put the hapless Wolverines up top in the preseason poll because that's where they always reside preseason?

No wonder change is so hard to come by. Here's yet another example of "let's ignore the facts and go with the status quo" thinking. Michigan must be a powerhouse because it's always a powerhouse, right? Well, these "stunning losses" are going to prove pretty hard to ignore - or are they? If there's one thing I've learned from my years in the business world and as a sports fan, it's that the status quo wields inexplicable and virtually (but, fortunately, not totally) unstoppable power.

Sunday, September 2, 2007


I love football. It's full of intricacy and athleticism, strategy and spirit. It's beautiful. Most of the time, the difference between winning and losing is wholly a matter of executing well against a well-conceived game plan. Too bad all outcomes aren't as appropriate and straightforward.

But along with the good comes what sometimes seems like more bad than is bearable. Who knew there were as-yet-unplumbed depths of humiliation available to us Michigan fans? Who could even imagine? Wasn't it enough to fall short year after year despite consistently being touted as great pre-season? To have "the best recruiting classes in college football," but somehow continually play stodgy, unimaginative offense (then, bizarrely, have one of your stodgiest and least imaginative quarterbacks transform into the Tom Brady who plays for the Patriots)? To outsize nearly every opponent, but still fail to blow anybody out - ever? Did we really have to add being on the wrong end of the worst upset in college football history? Was it necessary to prove so spectacularly that we haven't mastered one of football's fundamental rules: that the whole point of scheduling a cream-puff on opening day is to kick the crap out of them? Sigh. Another season shot to hell. With any luck, this go-round will at least have a silver lining; this latest disaster should at long last drive the final nail into the coffin of Lloyd Carr's once luminous coaching career.

And that's not all. It looks as if we're off to another season of refereeing miscalls - nice way to hand the game to Auburn, refs. And in both college and the NFL, the head coaching ranks work like corporate America's executive suites. For the most part, we recycle tired old white guys.
(I didn't know Norv Turner was even still alive. Glad he is, but it's a mystery how a great team that for some reason decided Marty Schottenheimer couldn't do the trick came to the conclusion that Norv Turner can.) Unsuccessful with one team/company (or more)? No problem - we'd love to have you come head up our shop! It's as if having once achieved the exec suite is the only prerequisite for achieving it again - regardless of how you did there. And, of course, when the new bigshot is brought in from outside, the highly talented offensive and defensive coordinators who didn't get the job leave the team altogether and go to work for competitors. Sound familiar, corporate executive suite watchers?

Another sigh. But I'm still awfully happy that it's September and we're underway. The only thing more difficult than football season is the off season.