Teenagers can be sooo … infuriatingly generic sometimes

On the subject of one-man shows, I had the privilege of covering the “Mr. Mojo” talk at Harrison County High School last Monday.

There was a lot to admire about the anti-bullying message and Travis Brown’s high energy “talk.” The kids weren’t bored. He also made clear that he didn’t expect miracles to happen after his speech. Teenager cliques weren’t suddenly going to stop persecuting the socially awkward, shy and different among them. But after four suicides in a year among the student body in a school of just over 1,500 kids, any message that not only warns kids about being cruel but also their culpability in that cruelty by standing silently on the curb saying nothing, is important.

But I’ll tell you what I loved most about this presentation?  Seeing schools do exactly what I think schools do best. They put every kid in the system into that auditorium to hear Mr. Mojo speak. The “MojoUp” message probably didn’t reach every student. A good portion of them probably thought it was a hokey message, like all “good for you” messages can be. But at the very least, they were required to be in the auditorium to hear that message.

I was reminded of an episode of The Simpsons from one of the earliest seasons – where Marge Simpson led a parental movement against the violence of Itchy and Scratchy only to have the tables turned on her when concerned parents got outraged about Michaelangelo’s David on display at the local art museum.

At the very end, Marge, an art lover, laments that few kids will get to see this special display of the statue. Homer ends the episode by reminding Marge that every Springfield kid will see Michaelangelo’s David. Why? Because of the school field trip.

“They’re forcing them!” Homer exclaims.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the teenage mind. However, from five consecutive years of hosting a different teenager in the EF foreign exchange program, the similarities between American and foreign teenagers amaze and infuriate me.

Teenagers are so … generic.

One thing my wife and I like to do for our exchange students during the year is take trips to places that make Kentucky unique. Every year there is usually weekend trip to Cave City, a day at the races at Keeneland or Churchill Downs — which also involves a visit to the Louisville Slugger museum.
Last week, I bought four tickets and took my hostdaughter Lea and two other exchange students to Meadowgreen Park in Clay City, Kentucky to see the Grascals play a traditional bluegrass show. We’ve also taken them camping at a state park. A major highlight of their year was coming to the heart of Cynthiana, Kentucky for the second largest car show, The Cynthiana Rod Run, last August.
But we understand that the kids want to see more than just the Bluegrass state, so in different years we have taken them on trips to major US cities like Las Vegas, New Orleans, Nashville, Chicago, Orlando and Washington D.C.

The two sides of every city
As adults, we all know that major cities the world over have two sides.
There are those things that make every city unique.

Chicago, for example, has Wrigley Field and the Cubs (sorry, White Sox. You’re just not the same.) It has the Bears, of course, and the ugliest football stadium in the NFL. (Seriously, what’s been done to Soldier Field borders on the criminal.)

I could spend hours wandering around Lincoln Park and there is a perfectly wonderful hole-in-the-wall bourbon bar in the center of town called Delilah’s (I do not take my teenagers to Delilah’s, but they will have sampled a good bourbon before they leave for Europe.) Then there’s the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, The Best Hot Dogs in the entire universe, especially at the Superdawg just south of Niles, and Chicago-style pizza … is okay, I guess. (To those of you who just gasped, I’m sorry. I’m not a deep dish pizza fan.)

Chicago is the birthplace of Second City improv comedy, the Blue Man Group and the Steppenwolf Theater and a whole bunch of other stuff that I don’t have the space to list.

But there is also the generic stuff: the national chains common to every metro area and none of them bearing anything at all distinctive of the city that hosts them, except at the bottom of their marketing signature, which might as well have a dotted line beneath it.

It is consistent with every teenager I have ever hosted. We arrive in New York or Washington DC or Chicago and where do they ask to go first? The FUCKING Hard Rock Cafe or, worse, The Cheesecake Factory that’s not even downtown. It’s out in the suburbs. Michigan Avenue shopping is choked with all these national chain stores whose interiors are exactly the same as when I see them at Kenwood Mall in Cincinnati. I’m sorry. I did not travel the entire, interminable length of Indiana to visit the Kenwood Mall.

But this is how the teenage mind works — it gravitates to the generic because it fears new experiences. It fears the “new,” which goes a long way toward explaining the bullying.

We’ve all experienced the frustration of just convincing a teen to try new foods.

“Can’t I just order chicken fingers?”

It was no different at that age. All I wanted to do is hang out where the big crowds gathered. It was safe and I associated the mass of humanity  — and the 45-minute wait times for a restaurant table — as somehow cool.

I’ve forgotten why. Thank goodness we get older and learn that the really good stuff is where the crowds are thinner. Not where there are no crowds at all, mind you. An empty city street usually means nothing’s there, or worse, you’ve wandered into a dangerous neighborhood.

But, as a hostparent, I sometimes see that my job is to do exactly like the schools do.

I buy tickets to the plays, tours, games and the restaurants and let them know that we’re going to do this stuff. I’ve learned that exposing kids to “this stuff” will not result in a sudden change in attitude. Or, in the case of your own kids, even gratitude. But that’s okay. After they reach their 20s, the brain releases chemicals that cause young people to become adults and the things they appreciate are the unique experiences they had growing up.

Teachers are frequent witnesses to this phenomena.

Let me suggest a good way to start. Get tickets to a local live show – doesn’t matter what – this weekend and tell your teenagers that “we’re all going to go.”

It doesn’t have to be all the time. But in the name of Homer and Marge Simpson, I suggest that once in frequent while you “force’em.”

Extra stuff

I was going to upload video of the Grascals playing at Meadowview at the show I took my hostdaughter to see, but I somehow managed to record video on my I-Phone without sound. So I’ll just link to a Grascals You Tube video that works.


Also, continuing with the theme from my last column, I am linking to “The Beer Poem” from the IndieFeed Performance Poetry podcast. What can be a better subject for a poem than BEER!


Last Night I Experienced Something New……


“There are times when a journalist truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the ‘new.’ The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new….” – Screenwriter Brad Bird, Ratatouille  

I have taken a slight liberty with the above quote which is from an animated feature film by Pixar. Though the quote addresses critics specifically, I think it has a profound application to my work as a journalist.  

There is very little that I don’t love about this work, but the opportunity to experience and convey the “new” to readers is high on my list of professional perks.  

However, in context to this column, I am applying a flexible definition to the word “new.”   

Confession time: I had no idea that James Baker Hall was a Harrison County resident until I learned of his induction into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame last week. He and his wife, Mary Ann Taylor-Hall, as many local people know, lived on the Harrison side of Dividing Ridge Road for over 35 years.   

Taylor-Hall still lives there, in fact. It’s a lovely home and she was a very accommodating host, taking considerable time to introduce me to her husband’s work and showed me a number of rare, handcrafted poetry collections from a wonderful little place called Larkspur Press in Monterey, Kentucky.  

This unique publishing company in rural Owen County has been in operation since 1973. In my lifetime, I have traveled through the town of Monterey hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of times. I didn’t know a thing about Larkspur until last week.  

I don’t know if the average resident appreciates just how rich is the literary heritage of north central Kentucky.  Mind that I am casting a wider net than Harrison County when I say that. I include myself among the “average residents” by the way. Most writers in this area I know more by name than by a familiarity with their works.   

There was a time when I would be uncomfortable with this admission, but I’ve grown old enough, I guess, to realize that its just flat impossible to be familiar with everything. Besides, despite what the young and immature may say, even the old can be new. Especially to those who are receptive to it.  

Therefore, it has been a gift to read Hall’s poetry for the first time and I sincerely appreciate his wife sharing a small piece of his legacy with me.  

It is an irony that when I embarked on my research into Hall that I was more familiar with his wife’s novels. I have long been a fan her novel Come and Go, Molly Snow because I love bluegrass music and because I am a woefully amateur fiddle bower. (Note, please, that I didn’t say “player.”)   

I have long been an avid reader. Novels, short works, essays, articles — I am not inclined to favor one form over the other. But it has not been the same with me toward poetry. I have no explanation, rational or irrational, to justify why it should be … it certainly has not been for lack of exposure. My parents are long-time fans of Wendell Berry’s poetry and I remember listening to the works of Robert Frost being read aloud at home.  

But my past appreciation, and interest, in poetry can be best described as lukewarm. And really, that is no way to be toward anything, particularly to things that I consider to be an essential part of the spirit.   

Define that however you wish.  

Pertinent to the general subject of this column though, just as Hall said in a 2001 interview that “he had his eyes opened” by T.S. Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, I have had my enthusiasm for poetry sparked by something “new,” relatively speaking.   

I cannot recall the circumstances that led me to the IndieFeed: Performance Poetry podcast on I-tunes, but I have never once regretted subscribing to it.  

The oral tradition in poetry goes back centuries. Contemporary “Spoken Word” or “Performance Poetry”  has its primary roots in the groundbreaking work of the Beat poets of the late 1950s and 60s.  

It’s nothing really new.  

But it feels very new. A branch of contemporary poets are using web-based media to reach a huge audience of listeners.It is a new frontier and I believe that IndieFeed is the leading internet resource to showcase the work of these new and established poets.

Three times a week, the site features a broad sample of poets from around the globe.  

Some merely read their works before a live audience. Others utilize music to enhance their performance. But the web is inspiring them to craft a new branch of poetry and its reviving interest in poetry among a large audience, but it is a form of verse that relies as much on the sound studio and the performer as it does the page.  

Recently, I was entranced by a piece from an African poet, M. Ayodele Heath, entitled Of Ash and Dust.  

It is an elegy to the astronauts killed in the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle disasters. Heath uses every tool of the written word and the sound board to create an emotionally affecting listening experience. 

Below are links to four podcasts from the IndieFeed: Performance Poetry website

These four contain nothing offensive, but that is not true of every poem on the website. And, as is true of all things, none of the poems on the podcast will appeal to all tastes. But I invite you to listen to these and other works that appear there and on other sites, if you choose to explore this genre further.  

 Let me know if you find them as new and fresh as I did the words of our own late poet laureate who has only now become new to me.