Tuesday, October 18, 2011

I Hope You Die and go to....Hmm, I Don't Know.

               It seems to me that there are a fair number of complex questions that people have developed automatic, short-cut responses to.  Here is one of my favorite examples (read the whole question before attempting); shut your eyes tightly.  Now, try and describe what you see.  I mean, literally talk to yourself; explain exactly what it is that you’re seeing.  Most people’s quick response is that they see black.  But if you’re being truthful to yourself and put thought into it, you realize that the “black” you see with your eyes shut isn’t really comparable to the black you see in everyday life.  If this frustrates you and you try again to verbalize what you see with your eyes shut, your next response might be something like “black with little flashes of light going off all of the time.”  Again, although it seems like maybe this is true, if you compare the flashes of light to something like a camera flash, you realize your answer is still off.  The best way to describe what you see with your eyes shut is nothingness, although for us it’s nearly impossible to comprehend what nothingness is.
                The closed eyes question is one I tackle from time to time, but it’s largely irrelevant to my daily life; it’s more just a frustrating conundrum that I’ll probably never figure out.  However, it’s not the only question that people simply answer without thinking.  A much more important question is “what happens when we die?”  Again, most people will give out their quick answers without putting much thought into them.  People of certain religions will tell you that they go to heaven or hell depending on how they’ve practiced their religion.  Other religious types will explain to you that they’re going to be reincarnated as something else in their next life.  Atheists will quickly respond that nothing happens when we die. Agnostics might just shrug their shoulders and say “I have no idea.”  The problem I have with all of these answers is that they all seem to be cop-outs (I realize that this may not be true, but it’s my interpretation of them).  What exactly is heaven or hell? How does reincarnation work? Nothing happens….then what?  Here’s a deeper look inside the simple explanations of the afterlife.
                I would like to preface the following two paragraphs by saying I’m not meaning to ruffle any religious feathers here, so I apologize beforehand if I do.  If you believe that you’re going to heaven or hell after you pass away, that’s completely fine.  My question is, have you ever sat and REALLY contemplated what heaven and hell are?  Boiled down to their purest forms, heaven is simply the best place you could ever imagine, whereas hell is the most dreadful place you could ever imagine.  While this answer may satiate a large amount of people, there are plenty of holes in it.  Let’s start with heaven, the best place imaginable.  The first roadblock here is that perspective is never discussed.  Who envisions the best place imaginable?  Is it what you consider to be the best place or what God considers to be the best place?  If it’s you imagining the best place, how do you know it’s actually the best place?  Numerous studies have been conducted illustrating that human beings don’t necessarily know what will make them happy in the long term (explaining why people don’t instantly become happy after acquiring large amounts of money, i.e. the lottery).  For instance, I may think the best place ever is a cool (though not hipster) bar, with all of my favorite beers on tap, the best whiskeys available, and a seemingly endless supply of gorgeous women.  However, I can’t possibly experience everything life has to offer by the time I kick the bucket, so how would I know what would truly make me happy?  I’m terrified of heights, so I’ll never go skydiving in my lifetime, but at the same time, I’m notorious for enjoying things I previously assumed I’d hate.  Maybe my favorite place would be a reality where I’m in constant skydiving free-fall.  Also, don’t our most enjoyable places/experiences change and evolve over time?  A six year old’s heaven may be some cavernous Chuck E Cheese on steroids, while a 56 year old’s heaven might be Pebble Beach Golf Links.  Taken even further, today I’m really feeling like sitting on the patio chair in my brother’s back lawn is heaven, but tomorrow perhaps heaven will be laying in the comfort of my own bed.  This same argument applies to hell by the way. It’s always described as (taken from the Bible) a fiery pit of doom, but is intense heat really the worst thing?  What if you had hydrochloric acid injected into your eyeball?  I imagine that would be quite a bit more painful.  Perhaps hell is constantly living as though you’re five seconds away from death by suffocation (which I imagine to be terrifying).  The point is, what constitutes as the worst situation, and how does it differ amongst us?  Would hell be having to do a mundane, tiring task over and over again, as in The Myth of Sisyphus (having to constantly roll a boulder uphill)?  Might it be suffering excruciating pain (the acid in the eye example)?  Or could it be enduring a situation that breaks you mentally (imagine having to listen to fingernails drag across a chalkboard for an infinite amount of time)?  Maybe it’s a combination of these three.  Maybe it’s something else entirely.
                Another problem with heaven/hell is the dilemma of other people.  It’s very commonplace to say when someone dies, “He/She has gone to a better place, and we’ll see him/her soon.”  This assumes that once you make it into heaven, it’ll be like a large gathering of all the awesome people in the world.  This automatically disqualifies it from being the best place imaginable though.  How, you ask?  Well, let’s say that my co-worker Jane and I don’t get along.  Both of us are devout Christians and practice our religion every day.  However, we just can’t stand each other, for some reason we’ve never gotten along.  We don’t do outward mean things to each other; we just don’t prefer to be around one another.  One day Jane passes unexpectedly.  One week later, a runaway train plows through my apartment and kills me as well.  I float up (or down, or sideways?) to heaven and who’s the sixth person I see there?  Jane!  No longer can this be heaven though because it’s inhabited by someone that I can’t stand.  What’s the workaround for this?  Some people might say that everyone’s heaven has different people and surroundings in it.  Well, ok, but then let’s say my mom is in my heaven, but not the aforementioned Jane.  My mom though, loved Jane (let’s pretend she died in between Jane and I, sorry Mom), so in her heaven, Jane exists, as well as me.  A conundrum ensues because Mom has to be in my heaven and Jane has to be in her heaven.  Also, I love a good dance club but Mom hates them, she loves beaches.  Since my heaven takes place in a dance club, it can no longer be heaven for her because she hates them.  Our two heavens cannot coexist together.  So now what?  You could maybe say that just because my mom is in my heaven, she can still have her own heaven with completely different people in surroundings.  I don’t buy this because it completely undermines the “I’ll see little Johnny again in heaven,” statement that people use all the time.  If my mother has her own private heaven and I have mine, then we’re both being cheated because she’s not really seeing/talking to me, and I’m not really seeing/talking to her.  We both just have projections (from our subconscious) of each other in our respective heavens, which doesn’t count as the real us.  Regarding hell, the concept of other people is counterintuitive.  If you see people in hell, even if you disliked them in real life, odds are you’ll unite against a common enemy (the devil).  Does this mean that everyone has their own solitary confinement cell in hell coupled with their very own cavernous space to suffer individually?  I think hell also runs into a problem because according the Bible, the devil’s power is limited relative to God’s so he can’t possibly do all the same things, meaning that hell just has to have some flaws, right?  The entire heaven/hell process gets a little mind bending if you think about it enough, and that’s only one explanation of what happens when we die.
                Reincarnation is defined as (via www.dictionary.com): “ 1.) The belief that the soul, upon death of the body, comes back to earth in another body or form.  2.) Rebirth of the soul in a new body.  3.) A new incarnation or embodiment; as of a person.”  What this means is that your inner essence is bound to come back in another body.  You’ll notice that these definitions do not specify that coming back necessarily means you’ll come back as a human being.  In fact, upon interpretation of the first definition, you very well might come back as a tree, a mushroom, or a piece of coral.  There are two aspects of reincarnation that fascinate me; rebirth based on karma (coming back good if you did good, bad if you did badly), and the idea of connected consciousness (not sure if that’s a made up word sequence or not, I’ll explain later).
                Let’s tackle karma based reincarnation first. Basically, if you lived a good life and followed your specific religion flawlessly, you’re bound to come back reincarnate into a very good life (similar to Bible teachings by the way, the meek shall inherit the earth, or in this case, an awesome round two of life).  If you live your life horribly on the other hand (think Ebenezer Scrooge, pre-Christmas ghosts), your next life is doomed from the beginning.  Unfortunately, this is concept that runs into similar obstructions as the heaven/hell argument.  How is it decided what’s a poor second life and what’s a great second life?  Some people might say coming back as a tree is a crappy second life in comparison with an average human life.  Is it though?  As a tree, you would be a part of the nature cycle, helping provide oxygen to the billions of people on earth.  Also, does a tree really “know” that its life is shitty?  In other words, if you were a tree, how would you know that you’re suffering for things you did in a previous life.  Maybe to suffer as a tree you have to be chopped down at an early age, but then maybe you’d come back as something/someone awesome, but then your life as a tree wouldn’t seem like it was too damning.  I’d make the same argument if you can back as a cockroach.  I don’t think they have the mental capacity to understand that they’re paying the price for all the awful things they’ve done before, they just know to go to dark places, find food, and try to avoid my size 14 shoe coming to squash them.  What about those who get bumped up to an awesome life for their reincarnation?  It can’t last forever, because the world will end one day.  Let’s say I die and earn a great karmic boost for the next life.  Unfortunately, I’m born into a world that’s destined to end in one month (either due to exhaustion of resources and overpopulation or the sun exploding).  How can my new life possibly outdo the old one if I’m just going to die in a month again before I even have a conscious thought?
                The second issue with reincarnation is what I dubbed (about 10 minutes ago) connected consciousness.  I’ve always pondered whether or not (if reincarnation exists) you would come back in your next life with some sort of conscious idea of whom or what you were before.  Sporadically in news or tabloids, you’ll hear or read about people who claim to have been someone famous in another life and have some fragments of memory from that previous life.  Wouldn’t it be something else if you were living out your daily life and suddenly had a flash of yourself as some important historical figure, and you knew that it really happened?  I don’t think connected consciousness has to stop there though.  What if you went through your entire life knowing for certain that in your previous life you had been a bootlegger in the Prohibition era, not just memory fragments, but an entire recollection of that past life?  Or maybe you knew that you were a zebra in Africa.  Of course, you could never reveal any of this because people would think you’re crazy.  I mentioned before that as a tree, you probably wouldn’t know that you’re suffering for wrongs you committed in a previous life.  Well, what if you had connected consciousness and you spent all your years as a tree knowing that you’d previously been a human (I guess I did find a way to make being a tree insufferable)?  Even more mind boggling, what if connected consciousness actually works 180 degrees opposite of what I’ve just explained and you have absolutely no memory of who/what you were before?  This opens the floodgates for a waterfall of possibilities.  Perhaps I’ve been reincarnated 50 times and I don’t even know it.  More interesting is that this tests the limits of reincarnation.  Maybe you can come back as more than one person at the same time.  Perhaps I’m reincarnated as two, three, or four people right now.  Part of my soul could also be inhabiting an alligator in Florida.  What if two reincarnated souls are allowed to reside in the same person, meaning that my boss is actually me combined with someone else also reincarnated.  Doesn’t this idea negate the entire concept of reincarnation though?  If I have no idea of a previous existence, my reincarnation is meaningless because I have no semblance of my previous self in my new self.  This makes me wonder if the actual “me” right now, is even me.  Am I my own self or is my life awesome/average/crappy because I’ve come back after living a life I have no memory of, basically, someone else’s life?  All of this discussion makes my head spin and is the reason I can only seriously think about reincarnation for about 20 minutes at a time, it just gets too frustratingly complicated.  Speaking of which, I’ve currently spent about 20 minutes writing this section, so it’s time to move on to the next one before my brain turns to mush.
                The most terrifying aspect of death to me (by FAR) is that nothing happens.  Nothing happening ties back into my original question at the beginning of this post; what do you see when you shut your eyes?  The fact that it’s impossible to describe seeing anything with your eyes shut is exactly why the nothing-after-death theory scares me.  With heaven/hell and reincarnation, there’s a base on which you can build your thoughts on.  With nothing, you don’t have a pea to stand any idea on.  Have you ever stopped and thought about what it would be like to simply not exist?  When you’re on your deathbed (hopefully at a ripe old age), and you take that last breath, your brain shuts down, your heart stops beating…what happens then?  I imagine it would be similar to having your eyes tightly shut, except you would also be deaf, completely paralyzed, and the nerves in your nose and mouth would be burned away, effectively eliminating each of your senses.  Oh yeah, and you no longer have any brain comprehension.  It’s an odd thing trying to imagine what non-existence is, because, like nothingness, it’s something utterly indescribable.  I think the closest we could come to for a comparison are people who are brain dead.  No function left, only able to just exist.  If we assume that nothing happens after death, things like “how would I pass time” would be irrelevant because there’d just be no you.  Interestingly, I often work this back into reincarnation.  If I reincarnate as a new person with no memory of my former self, wouldn’t that be exactly like nothing happening after dying?  It’s a pretty farfetched theory, but it’s really all I can grasp onto when I think of nothing happening after death. 
                Thinking about death, while morbid, is important.  It’s coming for us all one day.  An acquaintance of mine always used to give me the same piece of advice over and over about religion, and although I can’t recant it word for word, I’ll paraphrase.  “If you blindly follow a faith without questioning it, it’ll mean nothing to you later.  It’s much more important to explore exactly what it is you believe in, and that way, you’ll truly be at peace with yourself throughout your life and at the time of your death.”  I don’t know if truer words have been spoken.  I wrote in the second paragraph that an agnostic might say he/she has no idea what happens when we die.  It’s the same conclusion that I’ve come to and it frightens and comforts me at the same time.  Sure, I may believe I’m going to heaven or that I’m going to be reincarnated, and so might you, but honestly, can you really know?  For those of you screaming at your computers or smartphones that your faith and belief is 100% certain, haven’t you once in your life said to a friend or relative during an argument, “well, I know I’m right, I’m 100% sure of it,” only to find out minutes, hours, or days later that you were actually wrong?  I’m not afraid to admit that I’ve done that countless times, and I think anyone who denies that they have is lying.  So while I’m consoled by my confidence that I don’t know, it also unnerves me.  The greatest fear is fear of the unknown, and death is one of if not the greatest unknown that we’re aware of.  The only thing I can do is keep shutting my eyes tight every so often, hoping that one day I’ll be able to explain something that I can’t possibly comprehend.

AUTHOR’S NOTE #1: While going through this article with my editor, we launched into a debate regarding the “everyone has their own heaven” point I make near the end of the 4th paragraph.  My editor insists that everyone having their own heaven would work out and even there are different versions of people you know in your heaven, it wouldn’t be being cheated. I disagree in two parts.  You’ll recall the triangle of me and fictional Jane disliking each other, but my mom liking Jane, and all three of us going to heaven.  If a different version of me exists in Mom’s heaven, one of two outcomes must happen.  Either I’m a me that still dislikes Jane or I’m a me that likes Jane.  If I dislike Jane, that should technically be considered Sin, which can’t exist in heaven so logically, that me cannot exist either.  Second point, if I’m a me that likes Jane, I would argue that my mom is now even more cheated because the me in her heaven is now definitely not the real me, ergo, she is not seeing me in heaven.  That taken further, my heaven’s authenticity is predicated upon the fact the people I see there are the same as they were in my former life.  This means that my friends have to continue to dislike openly or inwardly those they disliked in real life.  Again, a conundrum ensues, as this would also be Sin.  If God created a heaven for me where these tensions didn’t exist, I would argue that His choice of giving us free will is a farce, creating even more contradiction.  Just something to think about.
AUTHOR’S NOTE #2:  I failed to mention (no I didn’t forget, I just considered later how much people would hammer me for omitting it) that the Book of Revelation makes mention of what heaven and hell will include.  My response to this; I could write a book about what heaven and hell will be like and shoot it to the moon.  If in 250 years (when people obviously begin to live on the moon) some colonist finds this book and reads it, that doesn’t make it true.  I should note that it doesn’t mean it’s wrong either (Book of Revelation may be spot on for all I know).  Again, for those of you cursing me that the Bible is 100% accurate, you’ve never been wrong about anything you were absolutely sure of?  Really?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

An Education on Weddings

     As October hits its midway point, I find myself getting ready to suit up for my fourth wedding in five months.  For one of these weddings, I was an invite, for one, I will be an usher (upcoming), and for two, I was the best man.  Before this summer, weddings were simply an event that allowed me to wear a nice shirt and tie, buy a generic $20 gift, drink adult beverages, and party at a reception with the hopes of meeting that perfect woman.  After this summer, my understanding and appreciation of weddings in nearly all facets is deeper than ever before.  This is going to run a lot like a “what I’ve learned” list, so forgive me for the cheesy bullet point format, but like many wedding day itinerary schedules I’ve received this summer, it only seems appropriate.
  • Bachelor parties are so tedious yet so simple at the same time.  While the perception is that they must be planned out perfectly to a T and there often pressure to do so, is there really much more a groom needs than a day or weekend with his best friends, shooting the breeze and enjoying life? I’ve been on a houseboat, attended baseball game, and stayed at a lake cabin up north this summer, and each case, while the surroundings have been enjoyable, it’s the pleasurable company that makes the weekend.
  • Gift shopping is difficult and is made easier and harder at the same time with gift registries.  When your close friends are getting married, there is a strong urge to get them a unique gift that stands out alone above the rest.  However, with that seven page registry sitting under your nose, it’s hard to not succumb to laziness (as I did, every time) and grab something nice from the list.  It’s a double edged sword in a way; yeah, you cheaped out and bought a gift that required no thought, but on the other hand, you have given the newlyweds a gift that they obviously wished for so you’re in the clear.
  • Weddings in the summer months are completely overrated. I’ve always thought this, but now it’s been affirmed.  I imagine the logic behind summer weddings goes something like “we need to do this in nice weather so let’s have it in June or July!”  This is so backwards it’s insane. If you have your wedding in June or July, this is what you’re guaranteeing yourself: it’s either going to be ridiculously hot or it’s going to rain/storm. No middle ground. I take more issue with the heat because the wedding party will inevitably be stuck outside for a lengthy period of time taking pictures and sweating like pigs. Also, being stuck in a church with a large amount of people is simply inhumane in 100 degree heat. I nearly fainted in one wedding I was in this summer; sweat was dripping from my brow all over the floor just feet away from the groom and nearly tipped over backwards.  As for the rain, in another wedding this summer, a storm rolled through the town the morning of the ceremony and cut power to many buildings. It also knocked down numerous trees throughout the city. If that storm comes through five hours later, we would have had a disaster on our hands. C’mon couples, use some more sense, shoot for a spring or fall date.  Odds are the temperature will be more favorable, and the general mood will be more enjoyable as well. In the spring, everyone is pepped up because nature is turning green again, and in the fall, people will be in awe of the beautiful autumn colors.  There’s a reason the phrase “dog days of summer” exists. It’s because things stagnate in those hellishly hot summer months.
  • Rehearsals are a crap shoot.  Good luck with this one newlyweds!  One rehearsal I was in this summer was loose and free flowing, but there was never enough order where we simply walked through the entire ceremony fully one time. The other was so strict that the pastor made us start an entire section over because two girls in the crowd were whispering back and forth.  I have to assume some rehearsals find a middle ground, but I would also assume that those are far and few between.  Each rehearsal will have its own identity and you can only hope it will prepare you enough to feel confident going into the actual ceremony.
  • On the subject of rehearsals, I’ve found they contain the biggest hidden enjoyable part of the wedding process.  The rehearsal is the first official time the bride and groom stand in front of the presider and hold their hands/recite their vows. The pure joy and excitement is truly something awe inspiring.  I was lucky enough to be mere feet away from two of these moments, and I can tell you that I saw expressions and mannerisms of happiness that I had never seen from a few of my best friends.
  • Rehearsal dinners are a strange tradition. The aspect of these that surprises me most is that there’s not really a general format to them. One I went to, the groom spoke, in one, he didn’t. One served only appetizers with an open wine/beer bar, one had a pasta and salad bar.  One was formatted such that the groomsman and bridesmaids opened their gifts in front of everyone at the dinner, one did not. Both were great, but both were completely different.  There simply appears to be no rules at these dinners other than some type of food and beverage is served. 
  • Decorating the marriage car is a job that simply should not fall upon the maid of honor and the best man.  These two have planned bachelor/bachelorette parties, agonized about speeches, and comforted/consoled/calmed their bride or groom. Make someone else do this job.
  • Marriage compatibility classes are a sham and everyone knows it.  A lot of couples will probably try to justify them somehow, but everybody knows that it gives you a discount on your marriage license if you take them.  To me, this is just the church capitalizing on young (or old) couples trying to save a few bucks.  If I ever get married, I can assure that my thinking won’t be “boy, just to make sure I’m ready to be married, I better have someone who knows nothing about my relationship evaluate it.”  This is also a cheap out for priests/pastors to use the weeks of classes as a part of their sermon.  Here’s an easy line “I’ve been doing these classes for years and I’ve never seen a couple score as high as Johnny and Jane.” Another favorite is the, “there’s a question that asks, ‘what would you change about your partner,’ and guess what Jimmy said about Jane?” Develop a real sermon for a change.  I don’t mind if the couple meets with the presider a few times before the ceremony, but leave the evaluating to yourselves, your friends, and your parents.
  • Speaking of sermons, ladies, if you’re at a Catholic wedding, quit crying that the sermon preached that the man should be the breadwinner and the woman should be the homemaker. It’s the Catholic Church and they’re conservative. If you’re expecting a progressive sermon at a Catholic wedding, you need to reevaluate your thought process.  That would be like expecting the new Transformers movie to have an intricate, in-depth plot, and stunning character development with exquisite dialogue. Not gonna happen.
  • Not yet finished with sermons, I really wish there was some more creativity in their creation. Here are the 3 sermons you’ll hear at a wedding. If it’s Catholic, it’ll be about the beautiful union of a man and woman, that the man should provide and the woman should be pretty and take care of the man. If it’s not Catholic, you’ll hear about Agape love, the highest level of companionship.  And lastly, I guess this isn’t a third sermon, but you’ll hear various generic anecdotes that the priest/pastor sprays at the crowd regarding his time spent with the couple during marriage classes.  I keep hoping now to attend a wedding with a fresh outlook on the union of two people.
  • One of the most important aspects of the ceremony if you’re planning it is to MAKE SURE that the wedding party gets to sit down sometime during the ceremony.  This is especially true during summer weddings. The combination of heat and pressure to stand stock still is enough to defeat any man or woman. Please, do your wedding parties a favor, let them take a break and sit every so often.
  • The duty of holding the wedding rings was something I was very interested to take part in this summer, mostly because I had never really thought about what the protocol is for it. As with rehearsal dinners, I found that there isn’t a very uniform set of rules. One wedding set me with both rings in my pocket, which led to extreme amounts of paranoia and me constantly checking to make sure they didn’t fall out.  Another had me wear the bride’s ring on my right pinky. This was comical because her ring had to be custom made due to her hands being abnormally small. Being that my fingers resemble the thickness of sausage links served at your favorite breakfast restaurant, the wearing of that ring led to my right pinky going numb about 15 minutes into the ceremony and not knowing if I couldn’t feel anything because of numbness or because the ring had fallen off (fortunately in both cases, final ring delivery went smoothly).
  • The big question at the end of weddings, will there be a receiving line or will the bride and groom usher everyone out pew by pew? I have to admit, I’m a receiving line guy. I firmly believe they are faster than the usher method, but the usher approach seems to be catching on. Here’s my basis, in a receiving line, you only have to greet people once. If you do the usher method, then all the guests are left milling around the lobby of the church waiting for the bride and groom to exit. This can lead to second chance opportunities for guests to glad-hand the bride and groom, ergo making the wait to leave longer.
  • The signing of the marriage certificate continues to be a mystery.  I understand the purpose of the actual signing, but what I don’t get is why it’s imperative that there is photographic evidence of it. I can’t imagine a scenario where a couple hurriedly rushes to their wedding mementos looking for the picture of the maid of honor signing the marriage certificate to make sure their union isn’t a farce.
  • Distance matters. Having the reception hall and hotel where everyone is staying close to the church is such a huge bonus to any wedding weekend.  Having to travel 35+ minutes from any destination begins to affect the planning of how people will get from here to there.  It also sucks up valuable time in between events.
  • That being said, plan for two hours of fluff time on your wedding day.  If I were the wedding czar, I would make it a point that the first dance of every reception begin at 8pm.  It’s good to have a schedule on wedding day, but I would advise that you plan out plenty of time in between the ceremony and reception. Odds are the day will quickly start running late and this can be made up by giving yourself a nice cushion in between the ceremony and reception.
  • Reception food is interesting for two reasons. 1.) it’s incredibly expensive to feed everyone and 2.) the food, although delicious, is almost always unmemorable.   I don’t even remember what I ate at the weddings I was in this year, but I can probably guess it was a pork, chicken, or beef cut with some sort of gravy, potatoes, and a veggie, coupled with an appetizer salad and rolls.  I would suggest if you really want people to remember the food at a reception, make it something new and fresh. Ribs, pulled pork sandwiches, meatballs, loaded baked potatoes, etc. Anything unique that people haven’t seen before.
  • Reception cake follows along the same lines. It’s usually really tasty but often forgotten.  I’d blow the whole thing up and serve pie instead.
  • Regarding speeches, I only ask for one thing, don’t read from paper. I don’t care how touching or how funny it is, if you don’t want to look at least mildly silly, get it memorized. If you take the actual time to write out a speech, then you usually have at least a year to write it and memorize it.  Giving a speech without a piece of paper allows you to engage the audience more, gesticulate, and be more vibrant.   I actually like to take speech giving a step further. Don’t write a speech at all. In both weddings where I was best man, I wrote no speech, and the main boost that it gave me was that I was able to incorporate images I had seen and emotions I had felt from the wedding weekend into the speech, and those were some of the best words I said.  You should have some sort of idea of what you’re going to say for a speech (will it be heartfelt, funny, profound, etc.), but I’m a huge proponent of using some of the weekend’s events in it.  I understand that a large amount of people are very uncomfortable without having anything written, so here’s what I would suggest, draw up a general outline of what you’re going to say. Have a main idea, and three key points you want to touch on, but from there, let your speech be spontaneous with the moment.
  • The old “clink the glasses and watch the newlyweds kiss” is a great concept that’s been getting ruined.  A.) now couples are adding quirks to it which have been putting the kissing onus on the audience instead of them and B.) Audiences are simply abusing the glass clinking privilege. My solution: only one session of glass clinking per half hour for the first two hours of reception (4 times total). From then on, only one glass clinking session every hour.  Like golf fans at the US Open, don’t take your enthusiasm and make it annoying, respect the couple!
  • One of the best ideas I witnessed this summer was the concept of the bride and groom saying hi to everyone during the course of dinner instead of waiting for the DJ/band to begin. Dinner always takes forever to get everyone served and then for everyone to eat and there’s a ton of down time.   I applaud any couple that chooses to use this time to get their meet and greets out of the way.
  • Band or DJ? DJ or Band?  Hard to say.  With a DJ you’re virtually guaranteed to hear music that you’ve specifically chosen and like, but I’ve also heard some pretty horrific stories about DJ’s that have taken their microphone skills a bit too far, with one saying that the current wedding he was at wasn’t as good as one he previously DJ’d (he was being serious). With a band, you’re paying a bigger price, but live music is awesome. On the flipside though, even with talented bands, they may not play well to the crowd attending the wedding, giving people an opportunity to criticize them. This debate is a wash, you just need to be lucky.
  • Dollar dances are outdated. Get rid of them and come up with something new.
  • Bouquet tosses are WAY overrated.  I missed both of the ones I was at. Neither one ruined my night.  And for those of you saying “but it’s a HUGE event for all the women there!”  I say this; how many married couples do you know that tell the story of their marriage “well, we had been dating for awhile and then Sheila caught the bouquet at a wedding so we HAD to get married as soon as possible.”  Virtually none.
  • Party favors are underrated.  While most people will have a great time, some may not and others may not be able to stay long enough to enjoy themselves. Having a unique party favor that’s well thought out always gives these people something to hold on to as time passes. It’s something they can use or look at and say “yeah, I remember that wedding, it was excellent.”
  • Booze at receptions is always tricky, and I’ve seen a lot of configurations as to how it’s set up.  The best I’ve seen thus far is complete open bar for the first two hours and then open tap beer and cheap wine until they run out.  This way you don’t get nailed with super expensive drinks, and the people who want to drink a decent amount probably won’t care about the quality of whatever they’re drinking, win-win.
  • On that note, champagne should always be served with dinner; it’s the drink of celebration. Not wine, not whiskey, not rum, not tequila. Champagne.
  • It’s really incredible how the wedding experience changes when you’re a part of the party compared to just being a guest. As a guest, ceremonies may drag, receptions may be too short, DJ’s may suck. As a member of the wedding party, the ceremony comes and goes before it starts, receptions cap an extremely long day, and pictures surprisingly don’t take as long as you’d think.
I have one more wedding to go this year, and this time I’ll have the opportunity of escorting men and women young and old up the aisle to their preferred seat.  I hope to learn even more about these ceremonies from the perfect vantage point. Being an usher is like being in the backseat of your parents’ car taking a 500 mile drive. You’re not right in the middle of the action but you’re able to observe all the nuances.  I would say the most important thing I’ve learned about weddings is this. They’re often described as “the perfect day.”  I would have to say that the events of the day go far from perfectly. Props are forgotten, dresses and tuxes are the wrong size, and simple events go overtime. However, at the end of the night, regardless of all the things gone wrong, everyone is feeling perfect, and that’s what counts.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Trading Adrian Peterson

               It’s a beautiful fall Sunday afternoon.  Minnesota Vikings fans everywhere are glued to their couches watching the day’s battle on the gridiron.  The second quarter is a back and forth battle when all of the sudden, running back Adrian Peterson (AP) takes a handoff wide left, performs a deft spin move avoiding a would-be tackler, runs completely over the oncoming linebacker, and explodes into the secondary.  The other team’s last defender has a good angle on Peterson, but as he closes in, Peterson unleashes a devastating stiff arm that plants the defender’s face into the ground.  Boom, 76 yard touchdown run; Vikings fans are going nuts in their living rooms, all asking each other, “Did you  SEE that!?”  In Minnesota, we’ve almost all experienced this moment or something like it, and believe me, it’s exhilarating as hell, but in honestly I would not trade experiencing this moment for the Vikings winning a Super Bowl.  For that reason, I have the unfortunate obligation of explaining to you why the Vikings need to trade away Adrian Peterson.
                Adrian Peterson is an absolute beast; by most accounts he is the best running back in the game.  He was drafted back in 2007, which means he’s entering his fifth season in the NFL at only 26 years old, the prime of his career.  So why would the Minnesota Vikings want to trade away such a valuable piece of the team?  As a rookie, he took the league by storm, even though he wasn’t a starter.  He quickly gained fame for his blazing speed and punishing run style; he could take a pitch out wide and scamper past defenders, or run up the middle of the field and absolutely bulldoze anyone who attempted to bring him down.  Week after week was an AP highlight reel.  However, this punishing style has its drawbacks.  Generally, running backs in the NFL have a short shelf life relative to players at other positions.  They are consistently taking the most physical abuse. If a running back is a bruising or aggressive runner that loves to seek out contact, the damage dealt to his body is multiplied.  Bruising tailbacks such as All-Pros Eddie George and Jamal Lewis often see a dramatic decrease in their skills and production on the field within a few years of obtaining star status.  Currently, the Vikings are in the process of rebuilding their team, meaning they probably won’t be contenders for a Super Bowl for at least two years.  That being said, by the time they finally are ready to contend, AP may be at the point in his career where he will no longer be as effective as he is today.  In order to get top value for him, the Vikes need to pull the trigger on a trade now before age and physical wear and tear take their toll on his body.
                In addition, there is a more pressing reason outlining why Minnesota needs to unload AP now (before he has a new contract negotiated).  The NFL has been an evolving league ever since its creation.  This evolution has made it imperative that league front offices change the way they evaluate and build their teams.  In the olden days, different mantras held true for the entire league, such as, “Defense wins championships,” “You gotta be able to run the football,” or “You have to be able to stop the run.”  These philosophies used to be golden in the NFL, but nowadays they’re not so effective.  In the past 10 years or so, the NFL has transformed itself from a league that used to be about overpowering and outmuscling the other team with the running game and defense, to a league that emphasizes the passing attack and lightning fast defenses.
                In this new league, it has become apparent that there are two crucial cogs to a championship team, a fast and effective team defense and an outstanding quarterback.  Looking at running backs however, you’ll see that premier players at the position haven’t been centerpieces to recent Super Bowl champions.  In fact, if you look at the past 11 victors of the Super Bowl, you’ll notice that there is only one top five running back in the group, Jamal Lewis for the Baltimore Ravens in 2000-2001.  However, that team is an outlier because Lewis was a rookie that year and that Ravens squad is widely considered to have the best defense since the 1985 Chicago Bears (regarded as the best defense of all time).  The last great running back to win a Super Bowl before Lewis was Marshall Faulk, but he was noted much less for his running ability as he was for his receiving ability; he could have started at wide receiver for just about any NFL team. Before Faulk, Terrell Davis was the last big time running back to win a title, but since those three, no top backs have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.  Corey Dillon (he won one late in his career when he was no longer a top five running back), Fred Taylor, Maurice Jones-Drew, LaDainian Tomlinson, Edgerrin James, Adrian Peterson, Jerome Bettis (also won late in his career when he split time with Willie Parker), Priest Holmes, Larry Johnson, Curtis Martin,  Deuce McAllister, Brian Westbrook, Frank Gore, DeAngelo Williams, Ricky Williams, Shaun Alexander, Stephen Jackson, Chris Johnson,  and Ray Rice either are now or were at one point elite tailbacks that have not won a Super Bowl in their prime.  The list is quite impressive, but a more impressive list is this one: Tom Brady (3 times), Ben Roethlisberger (2 times), Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rogers.  All of these quarterbacks are top tier players that have won at least one Super Bowl this decade.  If you count, you’ll see that only accounts for 8 of 11 championships, so what about the other 3 teams?  In 2002-03, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won with Brad Johnson at the helm at QB, but also had an absolutely wicked defense.  2007-08 saw Eli Manning and the New York Giants beat the previously undefeated Patriots, but they too had a stellar defense and hung on by an extremely lucky play; a desperation ball-to-helmet fourth down reception.  And as previously mentioned, there were the 2000-01 Ravens and their phenomenal defense. 
                In contrast, let’s look at the starting running backs from the champions of the past decade: Jamal Lewis, Antowain Smith (2 times), Michael Pittman, an aged Corey Dillon, Willie Parker (2 times), Joseph Addai, Pierre Thomas, Brandon Jacobs, and James Starks.  This is not exactly your Hall of Fame crop of running backs (minus Lewis).  Clearly these players were not the cornerstones of their respective teams, nor were they the focus of their opponents’ game plans. 
                One of the immediate worries for me concerning the Vikings is Peterson’s upcoming contract negotiation.  Obviously, with his stellar career thus far, AP is due to receive a massive payday.  He is a top flight back and deserves to be paid like one.  However, should the Vikings decide to hand him a new contract, it will suck too much money from their allotment and sink it into a player who, while outstanding, would appear to not have an impact on whether or not they’ll win the Super Bowl.  In fact, I would argue that star running backs actually hurt a team’s chances to win a title specifically because they tie up so much salary cap money.  As I write this article, the Tennessee Titans signed their All-Pro running back Chris Johnson (mentioned above) to a reported six year, 54.5 million dollar deal, 30 million of which is guaranteed money.  Kiss Tennessee’s Super Bowl chances goodbye; because the recent history shows support that Johnson (the best or second best back in the league) will not lead his team to a championship.  This is exactly what I don’t want to happen with AP.  Instead of giving him that large sum of money, I’d rather the team go out and spend on a big time quarterback or key defensive personnel.
                Honestly, I love AP. I love that he plays for Minnesota, and I love that he demolishes defenses on a weekly basis.  As a fan of the Vikings though, I have to be objective with my opinions about the team.  I can’t let my attachment to a player or players cloud my judgment about what’s right for the team.  The evidence against star running backs in the newly evolved NFL is clear; they are a thing of the past.  His highlights are amazing, but I’ve lived through seven years and 90 spectacular touchdowns of Randy Moss and 4 seasons of bone crushing runs by Adrian Peterson.  Both players’ highlight reels are otherworldly, but the reality is that neither of those two players are building blocks for a championship team, and I want a title to come to Minnesota.  Highlights can be viewed daily on ESPN, but Super Bowl title is an accomplishment that is rarely achieved.  If the Minnesota Vikings are serious about achieving the glory of the Lombardi Trophy, they need to do the right thing and send AP to a new team.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Day Country Music Died

                It’s no secret that I’ve generally disliked country music for a long time.  It’s not that I won’t listen to it if it comes on the radio; I’ll just do everything in my power to not listen to it if it does. I’m a firm believer that no music is inherently bad as long as the notes are being played correctly. Everyone has different tastes, and what invigorates me musically may make you want to gouge your eyes out.  However, I do believe that country music is doomed to fail; actually I’m certain that country music already has failed.  If I could play a guitar and sing, I’m sure I could write my very own hit country song. The lyrics go something like this, “Woke up, and grabbed a beer. Need to make last night disappear. Grabbed my fishin pole and hopped in my truck, headin to the pond let’s see if I have some luck. Now I’m drivin down that old dirt road, what do my eyes see? They see a nice cute honey, can’t take her eyes of meeeeeeeeee,” (continue to corny chorus about country living and good times).  Guaranteed, number one on the charts, and I just thought of that in only two minutes.
                The failure of country music has been inevitable. To truly understand it, you must understand country music pre-1994.  Back then, you had legends like George Jones, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, etc.  These lyricists brilliantly crafted stories about life in the backwoods areas of the country; stories about strange characters, women who hurt them, drinking escapades, all the things that cowboys or rednecks were accustomed to.  The problem is that as the United States progresses technologically, these places and occurrences happen less and less. It’s imperative not to forget that country music used to be dubbed country western music, as in the Wild West. The Wild West is dead, and along with it should go country music. 
                I generally break music down into 3 main groups. Rock/alternative, pop/hip-hop, and country (yes, this discounts other genres like jazz, classical, and polka, but none of those are mainstream).  Rock music can never die simply because it’s based on musical creativity. No matter how poorly lyrics are sung by a wild-haired rock star, each song can throw a face-melting guitar solo or an ear pounding drum segment at you. Pop/hip-hop can’t fail because it constantly updates itself with the times. At its birth, rappers talked about how they make danceable beats, in the early 90’s it was the gang wars and East vs. West, present day is about making lots of money and obtaining material success. Country music is faced with an impossible paradox. It’s a music genre that can’t give you guitar solos or really any musical creativity. It’s completely lyric-based, but as the years move on, country music cannot lyrically update itself with the times. Dierks Bentley can’t croon about using his iPad on the rocking chair out on the front porch of his lakeside cabin. It would similarly seem strange if Trace Adkins belted out a verse detailing him watching his new car automatically parallel park itself in front of the new Super Target in town. Unfortunately for country, this means that there is a set limit of subject matter it can cover; much like the finite amount of subject matter western movies could cover.  If you hadn’t noticed, there isn’t an increasing influx of western movies, and the same should happen with country music, if only we could be so lucky.
                What continues to be the lure of country music then? The answer to this question is simple. As our nation has become more urbanized, the thought of being able to “get away” and out of the big city for the weekend or for a vacation has become this utopian idea for many children, adolescents, and adults. However, getting away to the woods or country now is not what the country truly is. People who take vacations to their getaways are doing so in lavish cabins with cable TV and Internet. They drive luxurious speedboats and fast cars. This is what country has become in 2011. What people don’t realize is that individuals and families who already inhabit the country don’t view it as a getaway, but a way of life.  These singers from the country were telling stories about their true lives, not vacations out on the lake.  The detachment from what country really is has led to the new generation of pseudo-country pop; artists singing about pop themes while on vacation in the country.
                I will forever and always blame Tim McGraw as being the catalyst for the genesis of pop-country. Growing up, my parents were very fond of blasting country western music on the radio in our home. I genuinely was a fan of the artists that I heard back then. McGraw was probably the first hugely popular country singer that I absolutely could not stand. To me, he was a fraud; someone who walked around with a fake cowboy hat and a big belt buckle and pretended he was a country bumpkin. It disgusted me that he even thought of himself as a cowboy.  Once he entered into the picture, it opened the floodgates for the army of imposters. Ever since, country music has spiraled into a cesspool of people who sing the same songs, about the same events, in the same way, with the same twangy guitar chords. I can think of no better example that signaled the free fall of country music than Craig Morgan’s song, “Redneck Yacht Club,” which was released in 2005.  This tune, with stunning lyrics talking about party barges, houseboats, and tiki torches, basically signifies everything that country music is not.  So much so that it actually made my blood boil. Now whenever I see Taylor Swift trot out in a dress and cowboy boots, or am forced to hear Rascal Flatts’s lead singer whine in his crybaby voice about girl problems that we’ve all heard a million times over, I want to jump into a fire pit. 
                Country music has run its course. Honestly, I don’t care if the new genre that’s been created still exists; I just can’t accept that it still calls itself country, because it’s not. It not only hurts what country originally was, but also prevents young music listeners from discovering what true country is.  Disco died and it moved on; no other genre took it in a completely different direction and called itself disco. Country is also dead and it’s time for it to finally move on as well.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Last year in November, an album that I had been waiting for since 2009 came out. That album was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West. I am a music connoisseur, so after months of listening and evaluating, I devised the ratings of each track on the album in individual categories as well as a final comprehensive category.  I’ve also provided links to each song in the final rankings.

Lyric-Based Track Rankings - Probably not my strongest ratings, I am not a lyrics guy by default (choruses and bridges NOT included)

11.) Hell of a Life - Really not much here as far as lyrics are concerned, therefore a non-factor on this disc.
10.) Lost in the World/Who Will Survive in America - This is unfair. There are not many lyrics in this song so it can't contend with some of the heavy hitters. Also the preaching at the end loses it some points.
9.  Runaway - This, along with ”All Of The Lights”, was incredibly hard to rate lyrics-wise. The courses are dynamite, and the songs are both moving and emotional. However, both tunes power comes from the chorus, not the overall lyrics, which deals damage to both.
8.) Dark Fantasy - Another song that’s strength is in the production value, but I won't discount Kanye for presenting us with some nice lyrical wordplay to open his album.
7.) All of the Lights - Tough rating. Nikki Minaj ALMOST pushes this into sixth place with a hard verse, but, honestly, the beauty of this song is production, production, production. I feel decent giving this seventh best pure lyrics.
6.) Blame Game - Interesting tune lyrics wise. You could argue that with more POW it would have moved up a few spots lyrically, but I would contend that altering it in that way would destroy the song as a whole. This is right where it belongs.
5.) Devil in a New Dress - The heavy hitters start here.  Lyrically infused, snappy, it does the job. However, not enough to land itself any higher. The last 4 are just too good.  Kudos to Rick Ross swooping in after the long bridge though and nearly stealing the show
4.) Gorgeous – Kanye really gets after it in this song. As the second track of the CD, it really sets the table after the introduction track. This song really lets us know that he has departed from the college/school based theme of his first 3 albums. It begins a beautiful change for Kanye.
3.) So Appalled - Probably the toughest choice here in the lyrics section. In the end, while West drops a nice verse and Jay-Z drops his best verse by FAR on the album, the other two lyricists in the song don’t do a whole lot for me.  Also, it took a few listens back and forth to realize that my real love of this song is in the production value...that beat, amazing.
2.) Monster - I would debate all day that Kanye raps maybe his best verse (in a song with other artists featured) here. Also, I am very near calling it undeniable that Nikki Minaj drops the best verse of the album on this track. The one glaring negative is that Jay-Z’s verse just doesn’t carry any weight for me. It just seems so weak. I'll describe this song like this; I hated it when I first heard it, but the lyrics have made it one of my favorites on the album.
1.) Power - Was there ever any doubt? NO, there wasn't. It seems like every word violently spewed here is classic. This song is destructive lyrically. You really couldn't have picked a better opening single from the album. A year's hiatus, and Kanye drops this? Basically he's saying, "I’M BAAAAAAACK!"  and an eff you to boot.

Production Value - This is my baby, you better believe I'm taking it seriously (choruses and bridges considered)
11.) Hell of a Life - Wow, I was hoping this song would make it further down the list, because I enjoy the beat. However, that's just how good Kanye is, this song couldn't make it beyond 11.
10.) Devil in a New Dress - Tough call between this one and number 9. Such a clever beat, but no chorus hurts it (though not in overall ranking) and it gets a little too repetitive.
9.) Gorgeous – Not too high up on the list for production value, but honestly, this song was made to be a stunner lyrics-wise and that’s where it delivers. The nice simple beat and chorus are good compliments to it.
8.) Blame Game - Song that really grew on me in the late stages. Nice beat as a change of pace song. Also, John Legend crooning the chorus is excellent. How did they come up with a song like this? Oh yeah, "Yeezy (Kanye) taught me" (I'm counting that towards production value).
7.) Monster - I feel extremely comfortable putting this song here. The beat is nice, but not spectacular, however, that's ok; this song is lyrics and lyrics only. Can I bob my head while I rap to Kanye during this song? Yes I can. After that, I don't care.
6.) So Appalled - Tough call here, but this is sort of the end of the songs where Yeezy doesn't try to make the perfect beat. The chorus here is great; it's f’ing ridiculous.
5.) Runaway. Tough, tough, tough, tough, tough decision. In the end, I had to remind myself that this section is based STRICTLY on production. I know what my top 3 are, so this and number 4 have flip flopped 100 times. This track just doesn't quite top number 4.
4.) Dark Fantasy - The song that has arguably the best intro of any Kanye album belongs here. I'll be honest, the vast majority of production value here lies in the "Can we get much higher?" segments. To me, that makes it almost more impressive that he's hitting me with the same thing over and over and yet I love every one of them and they're all different from one another. Masterful.
3.) Power - On any other album, this is number 1 hands down. The choir, the drums, the chorus, everything is seamless and obliterating here. The only separating quality from this song and the top two is that this lacks anything super wild (which would have destroyed the song, so kudos to West).
2.) Lost in the World/Who Will Survive - Of all categories and all songs, this is the most difficult decision. If you had asked me this question the first month I had the album, I vote this song number 1. Again, I have to remind myself that this is strictly based on production value. A snarky critic would complain repetitiveness here (I most definitely would not and will not, but that's the only separating flaw).
1.) All of the Lights – This is really a no brainer when you think about it. The best beat, hands down, always catching you off guard. The interlude comes into play here as well, setting up the song nicely. The chorus is dominating and empowering, superb.

What you've been waiting for, overall final ratings
A short preamble here. Sloppy readers would try to take my previous two categories and try to mathematically determine the final rankings. I'm adding a third criterion variable here though; how much emotion does this song evoke? In other words, how much am I feeling this song and how much is it reaching out and moving me? This adds the intangible element that is crucial in determining final song order.  So, without further ado.....

11.) Hell of a Life - Things get difficult already. I like this song, I really do. There are just too many good songs on the album and this song doesn't really do anything emotionally. Listen here
10.) Devil in a New Dress - Probably my most subjective rating. I just don't feel this song so much, and I know a lot of people do. I know the verses are great, but as a non-verse guy, that doesn't affect me as much, and in no way does this song move me. Listen here
9.) Dark Fantasy - You really start to see now it's not because the song is bad, but that the other songs are so good. This is a great song, yet it can only crack top 9 on this album. Listen here
8.) So Appalled - By FAR the most shocking turn in the rankings. At one time, this was my second or third favorite song on the album. This ranking for this song is astonishing because the lyrics are still outstanding and the beat is still fresh, but the other songs just aged like a fine wine. Listen here
7.) Blame Game - Like the above song, this has made the biggest jump up in the ratings. The first month that I had this album, I had it rated as my least favorite at the time. You could say this song has gone the opposite path of “Devil in a New Dress”; it has clearly benefited the most from the "feeling it' criterion. Listen here
6.) Gorgeous - Funny thing is, if you would have asked me 6 months ago, this probably would have made number 11. I've since realized just how emphatically West raps on this song. It’s not the best song lyrically, definitely not the best production-wise, but it’s the second track, and it lets us know that Kanye is here to stay. Listen here
5.) Monster - Hot verses; ridiculously hot verses. At the end of the day (to borrow from Rick Bucher) though, this song just doesn’t have the “it” factor production-wise to rise any higher. Listen Here
4.) Runaway - A lot of people probably disagree with this since this was the breakout track of the album, but even so, I had this at number 5 for the longest time. At the end though, this song is off the charts for the emotional scale. He thought this through, looked himself in the mirror, disliked what he saw, and wrote a song about it. It’s difficult to not sympathize with Kanye here; the most heartfelt song of the album. Listen here
3.) Lost in the World/Who Will Survive – Until about 4 months ago, this was my favorite song on the album.  I’m not exactly sure what happened. If I had to put my finger on it, this track ultimately fails in the emotion department. If this is number 3, what does that say about the top 2 tracks? Listen here
2.) Power -  Listen here. This song has flip-flopped a million times between number 1 and number 2. It could very well be the most remembered song off the album. It's truly an anthem. It is the announcement of West’s return that shall not go lightly. However, if the world was about to end and I had a couple minutes left, I would press the fast forward button to get to.....
1.) All of the Lights – BOOM! This track hits you like a grandiose explosion of sound and feeling. Although I initially wasn’t too high on this song, with time I realized it has the perfect blend of heartfelt lyrics and incredible production value, and found it was the only logical choice for number one. Simply, it’s one of the best, if not the best produced song I’ve ever heard; and on top of that it has a lyrical value that can move the soul. This song not only is the best of the album, but also may very well be the best of 2010. Listen here

Thus endeth the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Family song rankings. It's been a long time coming, and I hope it was worth it. I strongly encourage you to give this album a listen, as it truly is the best album of 2010.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Not-So-Secretly Unwatchable Life of the American Teenager

                When I first developed the idea to begin a blog, I figured a large part of it would be my commentary on things I listen to, watch on TV, or see in my daily comings and goings.  A big challenge for myself, I decided, was going to be whether or not I would be able to stick an event out, even if it was truly terrible, and be able to write about it fully on this blog. My test for this was watching a TV show that I’d seen small snippets of and absolutely despised for its premise, production, and acting.  That show is The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Created by Brenda Hampton and airing weekly on the ABC family channel, this show was produced to give all of American a glimpse into what really goes on with students during one of their most trying times, high school.  It was a monumental task to tackle all 73 episodes available on my Netflix Instant Queue, but tackle them I did, and regret it, even with how pitifully awful the program is, I did not.
                As with any powerhouse TV production, ensemble casts are becoming more and more popular (think Lost or Mad Men). Fittingly, Secret Life chose to incorporate one as well. That being said, a little introduction into the main characters in the show is necessary.
·         Amy Juergens – The poor 15 year old girl who gets pregnant during a summer band camp. She’s the America’s Sweetheart of the of series, and the show vaguely centers around her struggle as a teen mother.
·         Ricky Underwood – The older student (by a couple years) who impregnates Amy. He is the resident bad boy around school, and doesn’t hesitate to sleep around with various women or belittle men who are less masculine than him.
·         Ben Boykewich (BOY-ka-Vich) – The hopeless romantic. Son of a Sausage King, Ben has grown up with a silver spoon, which has turned into a silver room. He is what you would call the anti-tough guy.
·         Adrian Lee – With no better way to put it, she is girl who is not afraid to experiment, meaning she gets around a lot. Secretly though, she only wants to be with Ricky. She’s also a straight A student.
·         Grace Bowman – The “crazy Christian” (show’s quote, not mine).  She is the gorgeous (although unobtainable) devout Christian who initially is into saving herself for marriage, even though she is portrayed to be the prize of every guy at school.
·         Ashley Juergens – Amy’s annoying know-it-all younger sister (by two years).  Even though she’s mature for her age, somehow she magically is included in all of her sister and her sister’s friends' day to day problems.
·         George Juergens – Amy’s dad and my favorite character. Though a bumbling imbecile most of the time, easily the most humorous person on the show and generally tries to do the right thing.
·         Anne Juergens – Portrayed by Molly Ringwald. Amy’s mother and somehow has the right advice and keen sixth sense at critical moments, even though she comes off as a dimwit 99% of the time.
·         Leo Boykewich – Ben’s father. He owns a sausage empire and is wealthy. However, he prides himself on work ethic and tries to instill the same attitude in his son at every turn.
These central cast members along with several other important figures make Secret Life what it is, a poorly acted and wildly unrealistic depiction of America’s teens.
                As Secret Life begins, we learn that 15 year old Amy Juergens is nervous that she is pregnant after a trip to summer band camp. As the early moments of Secret Life progress, it becomes clear that she is carrying child. What transpires after that is Brenda Hampton’s interpretation of what today’s American teenagers go through in high school. I’m not sure what experience Hampton draws from to create her world, but it’s one that takes the aspects of adolescence and blows them so wildly out of proportion, that what evolves is a grotesque depiction of teenage life. What exactly does Hampton get wrong? Pretty much everything, but I’ll go through only the biggest 3 atrocities for length’s sake.
1.)    In Secret Life, it seems that the students of Ulysses S. Grant High School have all the time in the world to stand by their lockers or out in the middle of the hallway and discuss their life issues/plans.  What type of school system is this? Most schools allow around 5 minutes for kids to get to their lockers, put their previous period’s books away, grab their next period’s books, and hustle to their next room.   Secret Life never has a scene that is filmed inside of an actual classroom.   Maybe that’s part of being “secret,” but I remember that many significant conversations took place inside the classroom; hushed whispers that had to fool the teacher into thinking we were paying attention and remain private from other students.
2.)    Regarding students’ conversations, the content in Secret Life is unlike anything I remember. I would predict that nearly 95% of conversations covered between teens in Secret Life, revolve around some kind of sex, be it oral or otherwise.  I can tell you with complete assurance, talk of sex does not dominate actual high school conversation.   So many conversations in high school dealt with a myriad of topics, ranging from classwork to sports.  It seems in Secret Life, that EVERY interaction between students, parents, or students/parents, centers around or involves sex in some way.  I know that California is progressive, but honestly, I think Hampton is pushing the issue a little too hard.
3.)    Not only is the conversation content misrepresented, but the people involved also do not follow the prototypical high schooler’s experience. The Secret Life’s parents are remarkably ubiquitous in all the sex talk between not only their own children, but other students as well. The shocking aspect is the general nonchalance with which adolescent and parent speak about sex. The actual high school teenager is generally afraid to broach such subjects with his or her parents; and telling someone else’s parents? You’ve got to be kidding me.
All of these factors contribute to the overall dilemma with Secret Life. It wants to emphasize the trials and tribulations that America’s youths go through in today’s day and age, but in doing so, it over exaggerates  these hardships while trying to coach the views on what to do. While parents and their kids may have a sex talk every once in awhile, it’s not every day, and definitely not with children other than their own.  Students do not spend every conversation with their friends talking about sex. Other topics (friends, work, cars, projects), also have their place in the day to day dealings of these kids.  While love and marriage are sometimes brought up in students’ pipe dreams, it is not a centerpiece of everyday discussion.  
All of this over-embellishment actually provides the one saving grace of Secret Life, comedic value. On the unintentional comedy scale 1-10, it scores a definitive 10.  I kept roughly 35 pages of quotations and notes that amused me thoroughly for the first 2 and one third seasons of Secret.  I created a page that has all the quotes I noted , but right here I can present a few gems to show you the high comedic value of the dialogue.
Grace: “I had sex and now Dad is dead. And, he had a horrible death because I had incredible sex. Just the way life works, and death. I did this. I did it. And if I hadn’t done it, if I hadn’t had sex, and if I hadn’t enjoyed having sex so much then Dad would still be alive, you know it Mom.”

Anne: “George can you do this, can you really deliver the baby with one hand?”
George: “I can do this with both hands tied behind my back” (he’s not a doctor of any sort, and yes, he delivered the baby successfully).
Such is the depth of content in Secret Life. To compound matters, the actors are awful and give pitiful performances. Molly Ringwald fully shows why she has never been seen for years and years after a string of successful childhood movies. The rest of the cast, while fitting the bill of young, pretty, and handsome faces, gives a collective performances equal to that of a group of nine and ten year olds putting on a play for their hometown. It’s as if every line is delivered with the same inflections, never really pulling us into the gravity of a dramatic scene taking place or the glee of a humorous or joyful event.  If you’re looking for a night of laughter, just tune in and watch how the unrealistic story mixes terribly with the robotic acting to form a truly hideous cocktail of television.  All of this brings us to…
                ...Secret Life’s ultimate failure to accomplish its goal. I’ll be the first to readily admit, there probably is a secret life that most American teens do not want their parents to find out about. Even more, I believe that a properly produced TV program depicting that life would perhaps have a positive impact on families across the nation. Coincidentally, like many sex education videos show to adolescent teens throughout America, this is just another form of media that can be criticized and ridiculed for completely missing the mark instead of praised for presenting us with hard-hitting truths.  To put one final topper on the abysmal Secret Life cake, as I watched the final episode (that was on my Netflix), I found myself actually being drawn in by the story. Another teen girl (Adrian, this time) had become pregnant and married the father (Ben). What riveted me was that near the end of the episode, the baby was coming, but it ended up being stillborn, something that totally caught me off guard. For once, the actors and actresses were putting on a believable show of being completely crushed by such an awful event, and thought to myself “wow, this would be a great cliffhanger to end a season on.”  But did Secret Life do such a thing? No, of course they didn’t. Instead of ending it at that obvious spot, they chose to drag it along to a scene with Ricky and Amy at Ricky’s apartment. The episode ended with the two of them embracing in Ricky’s bed with Amy finally declaring she was ready to have sex with Ricky (the back and forth between them had been a focus of the season).  As the two of them cuddled while the screen faded to black, I couldn’t help but just smile at the ineptitude of Secret Life, for once again, the producers botched up a chance at relevant TV and ditched it for a fantasy world unknown to me.  Secret Life does its best to show us what really goes on with today’s youths, but trust me, if you’re ever thinking about attempting to watch this show yourself, do yourself a favor and let the lives of the teens portrayed in this show remain a secret to you.