North Carolina’s HB 2: Bruce Springsteen and the Philosophy of Progress

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I grew up on Born in the USA. So many songs on that record really worked for me. It may be surprising that my favorite was actually “I’m on Fire” but there were many great songs from which to choose. Even so, I wasn’t a huge fan until I came into the adult years during which I learned to appreciate lyrics from tracks like “Human Touch”, “Jungleland” off the Born to Run record, and the entire Devils and Dust album. I absolutely love the way Springsteen captures and articulates the  human condition and spirit, not to mention the way he champions the common man. It’s a spirit he and I share. I love the way he sees the world and its inhabitants. For that matter, I love the way the more left-leaning of us see the world, too. Their perspective can at times create a much more inspiring place than what reality might otherwise suggest.

And so this brings us to Springsteen’s decision to cancel a recent Greensboro, NC concert as a way to protest the passing of North Carolina House Bill 2. I happen to support legislation like NC’s Public Facilities and Privacy Act not because I’m a conservative curmudgeon that is opposed to specific and inalienable rights as they may be defined, but because this bill would appear to be a corrective move toward recent legislation that has overreached on behalf of one group to encroach upon the rights of another group. In other words, in my opinion HB 2 and similar bills in Georgia and Tennessee represent a reaction to recent overcompensation — overcompensations, to some degree, that have admittedly prompted long overdue conversations over matters of sexuality and gender. But that’s not how such a law is portrayed in a world that runs screaming down the easiest path toward manufactured outrage. Nor in today’s world could it be.

For reference, here are a few pulled quotes from Bruce Springsteen’s official statement about the decision to cancel:

He cites HB 2 as a law that “… dictates which bathrooms transgender people are permitted to use. Just as important, the law also attacks the rights of LGBT citizens to sue when their human rights are violated in the workplace.” His use of the word “attacks” is unnecessarily strong, in my opinion. A proponent of the very same bill may say with integrity that it actually protects the rights of some.

“ …To my mind, it’s an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognizing the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress.” This is the part that grabbed my attention and will drive much of this post. I’ve had trouble truly understanding notions of progress in this context for a while now.

For the sake of context, below are a few questions and answers associated with North Carolina House Bill 2. This bill does not appear to be an attack on anybody. Rather, it returns some level of decision-making to businesses and private facilities on the issue of public restrooms:

Can private businesses, if they choose, continue to allow transgender individuals to use the bathroom, locker room or other facilities of the gender they identify with, or provide other accommodations? Yes. For instance, if a privately owned sporting facility wants to allow attendees of sporting events to use the restroom of their choice, or install unisex bathrooms, they can.

Can businesses and private facilities still offer reasonable accommodations for transgender people, like single occupancy bathrooms for instance? Yes. This bill allows and does nothing to prevent businesses, and public or private facilities, from providing single use bathrooms.

Does the new bill limit or prohibit private sector companies from adopting their own nondiscrimination policies or practices? No.

Does this bill mean transgender people will always have to use the restroom of the sex of their birth, even if they have undergone a sex change? No. This law simply says people must use the bathroom of the sex listed on their birth certificate. Anyone who has undergone a sex change can change their sex on their birth certificate, apparently, which is news to me. What this does do, however, is honor a person’s commitment as opposed to allowing him or her to choose a bathroom based on momentary affinity, desire, or other motivation. Better put, you can be whatever you want, but at some point you’ve got to land the plane. Seems fair to me.

Why did NC pass this law in the first place? The bill was passed after the Charlotte City Council voted to impose a regulation requiring business to allow a man into a woman’s restroom, shower, or locker room if they choose. This ordinance would have eliminated the basic expectations of privacy people have when using the rest room by allowing people to use the restroom of their choice. This local regulation brought up serious privacy concerns by parents, businesses, and others across the state, as well as safety concerns that this new local rule could be used by people who would take advantage of this to do harm to others.

I must say that I’m not bothered at all that Springsteen would cancel his show. And it doesn’t bother me at all that he may take a position contrary to mine. I appreciate diversity, honest dialog, conviction, and passion. I do, however, take issue with the notion of progress as it relates to this topic. Here’s the question that emerges from the Boss’ decision and subsequent statement for me: Is a transgendered person’s right to use the restroom of his or her choice an indication of progress?

To notions of progress. I recently stumbled onto I’ll Take My Stand as a part of a personal research project. I’ll Take My Stand is a collection of essays written by the Vanderbilt Agrarians in the late 1930s. Don’t be fooled by its dated-ness. The contributors of this collection included giants like Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate. These contributors and writers were confronted with very similar paradigms for progress as their more familiar agrarian way of life became much less commonplace. This transition necessitated that they, too, examine notions of progress and the appropriate responses to cultural winds. It prompted them to ask, So what is progress?

One of the essays, Lyle Lanier’s “The Philosophy of Progress,” begins by giving us a definition of the word itself. I love the way Lanier positions this for us: “Progress is both a slogan and a philosophy, a device for social control and a belief in the reality of a process of cosmic development toward some far-off divine event.” Thus references to progress and Lanier’s “far-off divine event” can be likened to Marx’s opiate of the people. That is, it pacifies us. It suggests that we give no more consideration to the subject at hand because change is progress and progress is good and who can be against that. By now we’re familiar with presidential hopefuls rallying us with promises of progress. We’re conditioned to understand progress as equal parts “future,” “favorable,” and “change.”

This essay also reminds us that “progress” is not the same as “change.” Just because we may experience the benefits of greater modernity, machinery, and technology, this doesn’t necessarily translate as actual progress. Referencing Wilhelm Windelband, Lanier claims that the problems of progress actually coincide with THE problem of civilization itself, which asks this question: “whether and [to what extent] … the change in human relations of human life has served to further man’s true happiness?” So, yes, there has been change, but the only indication of progress is to what extent we have developed what Windelband calls “true happiness.” Granted, this is a very subjective term. The context of the essay would suggest that “true happiness” is most notably attached to traditional social moorings. This sentiment is very closely associated with discipline and restraint as each relates to the drive for ever-increasing production and consumption and the “generally accelerated tempo of social change served to popularize the doctrine of progress.” Conceding to such a drive for technological and medical advancement may not be the best prescription for true happiness, though it does satisfy our growing need for immediate gratification. And, it must be noted, the accessibility of immediate gratification fits nicely with future favorable change. We’ve grown to expect both “more” and “easier.” Some refer to this as entitlement.

So here is what it comes down to: comfort. We all want to be comfortable. We hold it in the highest esteem. We strive for it. We seek it. We work for it and sacrifice for it. Even though Springsteen’s take on progress is manipulative, he is using a currency we have all bought into — wittingly or not. His definition and use of “progress” allows us to keep doing what we’re doing in the hopes of one day — be it retirement, the next job, the proverbial ship, a relationship, whatever — experiencing Lanier’s divine far-off event. The opposite of comfort, in this case, is to truly wrestle with the weightier matters of identity, purpose, and clemency. This forces us beyond the political conversation with its tidy categories into the messier areas of the soul. And it’s hard. Furthermore, to understand progress as the improvement of man’s material and social welfare, Lanier adds, is to lose a significant aspect of our essence. Life has to be about more than just getting what we want, yet this is the promise of Springsteen’s progress. Lanier puts it this way: “Man henceforth would be concerned not so much with saving his soul as with making himself comfortable.”

In his protest, what is Bruce Springsteen really doing. What is he communicating about his worldview and the potential for humanity to take on the noble struggle of identity and basic rights. Different from championing humanity, I think he has actually cheapened the human condition. For Springsteen this actually is about a concert and North Carolina House Bill 2. He actually believes that the well-being of these “freedom fighters” is at stake in the HB 2 decision and he mistakenly believes that the best thing that can happen is for everyone to get whatever they want. His goal is, in Lanier terms, simple social welfare. The truth is there are far greater things and ideas way beyond the typical understanding of “progress.” There is maturity in the hard “no.” The truth is that there are literal souls at stake.

Zero Dark Thirty: Drawing Lines Between Leadership and Influence

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There is quite a bit written about leadership. Books, blogs, articles plus conferences, banquets, seminars. There are people that have careers predicated on teaching about leadership, cultivating leaders, and leadership theory. It’s funny when you get to the point in life when you pick up that business book and read the first few chapters only to realize, “Wait a minute. I’ve read this before.” There’s only so much that can be said about leadership and each generation probably has a new expression and a new voice. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

So recently when I was watching Zero Dark Thirty for what must be the 100th time I noticed something: a distinction can be made between “leadership” and something I will call “influence.” For starters, leadership is generally assigned. It doesn’t mean this person doesn’t have influence, but the influence tends to be more embodied in the seat of the position instead of within the man or woman’s personhood — that is, who they are. One of my favorite writers talks about bringing the full “weight” of who you are. That’s influence. Watching Zero Dark Thirty we see that the principal character, Maya, and the person who drives close to 100% of the plot has no positional authority. She can’t tell others what to do even when it becomes clear that there are some plausible next steps. She can’t just snap an order or directive to make things happen. Is this right? I don’t know, but it happens every day in our firms, factories, and churches. Maya has to tap into something deeper. Something beyond job titles. She has to cultivate influence. Here are a few examples with some descriptions. I think there are some lessons for all of us here.

Give me the team I need.
Influence is passion. In fact, it’s 9 parts passion and 1 part everything else. In this scene Maya passionately lays the truth out on the table and in this scene we are left with no other conclusion beyond this: truth is a powerful tool. I’ve said before that a leader is only effective to the extent that she, or he, is afraid of losing her job. I love how Maya tells the station chief here that he can turn her loose to the job she’s been effectively “called” to do … or send her home. You might call this “selling out” to your mission, but in my life I’ve found that people respond to this kind of passion. In fact, we can’t help ourselves: we cannot be indifferent to passion at the highest levels. Ralph Waldo Emerson purportedly said that nothing great is ever done without enthusiasm. Passion is the first standard deviation of influence. Note: There may be offensive language in the clip below.

Count the Days
There’s a great line in Elizabethtown by Kirsten Dunst’s character Claire Colburn: “All forward motion is progress.” In Zero Dark Thirty, once Maya’s quest has found its end and next steps lay beyond her immediate control, she finds a way to exert influence through persistence. We’re led to believe that, every single morning, Maya writes the number of days that have passed without action in dry erase on the office window of the director. She will not be ignored. She is a constant reminder of both the stakes and the real story. Influence isn’t given. And it may not even be earned. More often than not, influence results from steadiness and advancing a given movement, idea, or project. Influence at times is only realized through brute force and will. That is, you stay on point. Maya literally moves a government with a dry erase marker. If all forward motion is progress, then every minute of every day matters.

Two Narratives
Tell your story, believe it, and keep telling it. More than ever, stories have become the language of our culture. We’re pre-wired to understand stories, understand the implication, and if they resonate with something within us, accept them as a part of our own personal narrative. Although she has no real positional authority, Maya becomes an influential force by never, ever turning away from an opportunity to tell her story. In this case it’s not only reminding people that Osama bin Laden is the objective, but how she’s going to get him. Most of us have two problems in this area: we don’t tell our stories enough or we don’t know our story well enough. To generate organizational influence you must know your story. Know your numbers. Know the facts. Know the narrative. Know the research. Connect the dots. A friend told me one time, “Want to know how you know when you’ve changed culture? You’ve changed culture when your values and objectives become a passing joke at the water fountain, that’s when you know.” Note: There may be offensive language in the clip below.

Know Your Objective
Influence and leadership tend to convene here to a degree. William of Ockam gave us what has come to be known as Ockam’s Razor. That is, we “cut” all the superfluous information that clouds our ability to see the essence of the problem or challenge. Of course, leaders must keep the objective in mind. It’s crucial to moving an organization. Quite different from keeping the objective in sight, however, influencers must obsess over the objective. An influencer lives and breathes the objective until it becomes who he is. You may call this “singleness of vision” or something like that. Influencers are not simply managers or delegators, they are engines. Engines need a direction or destination on which to exert their force. Storytelling is the vehicle of influence, but the objective is the fuel.

The last scene in Zero Dark Thirty is interesting in this respect. Once the objective is realized and the pursuit is over, what does an influencer do? For most of us, we move on. For Maya it’s not quite that simple. What’s overwhelmingly evident in this scene, though, is that she won. She put herself in motion and harnessed all the influence at her disposal to accomplish the task before her.

5 Hitchcock Movies in 5 Weeks

ImageAn acquaintance of mine who is also a movie buff is a huge Alfred Hitchcock guy. Apparently there’s a box-set collection of every one of his movies and this friend has it. Having only watched a few Hitchcock movies I asked for recommendations, put them in the Netflix queue, and have watched several over the last few months. My youngest daughter actually watched Vertigo with me, she and my wife both fell asleep during The Man Who Knew Too Much, and they were both in and out of the other options. (But it’s still pretty cool that my 16-year-old daughter watched Vertigo with me.)

Now that my season with Hitchcock is coming to a close now is as good a time as any to document some of my reactions to these movies for the proverbial “record.” Ultimately my rating is a combination of my own opinion and what I’ll just call  “Family Score.” These are not in any particular order:

hitchcock_torn_curtainTorn Curtain (1966)
Torn Curtain stars Paul Newman as an American scientist that publicly defects to East Germany. I’m OK with Paul Newman and I love Julie Andrews. What I’m not OK with is Newman and Andrews waking up together in the same bed in the very first scene — with all its implications. I mean, that’s Mary Poppins! It’s Maria! That being said, I do think Torn Curtain is actually a pretty good movie. Family Score: Unfortunately, I never got over the first scene and for the most part spent my time with Torn Curtain disoriented and in shock. Julie Andrews-as-not-Mary-Poppins-but-also-not-Maria creeped the whole family out and that’s just not right. 3 out of 5 stars.


ManWhoKnewTooMuchThe Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
I liked this movie. There were some location shots that were reminiscent of Hitchcock’s work in North By Northwest as well as some comedic moments that worked in a way contemporary dramas work today. Even though I’m not a big James Stewart fan, he and Doris Day do a great job as a vacationing family that stumble on to an assassination plot in Morocco. There’s a famous orchestra scene that might go on a little too long, but you get a lot of things that make Hitchcock Hitchcock in this movie. Family Score: It couldn’t keep my wife awake. Daughter never gave it a chance. By no means is this a viable recommendations for a Saturday at home. 31/2 out of 5 stars.


Rope2Rope (1948)
James Stewart is the only actor I recognized in this feature and he doesn’t walk into the frame until the 28-minute mark. Rope is Stewart’s least favorite collaboration with Hitchcock. The entire movie takes place in a single apartment in only 10 takes. Because of that it’s fun to try to find the places where the director cut the scenes. It’s an amazing piece of filmmaking and maybe the most “Hitchcockian” of the movies I’ve watched. The premise is diabolical and strikes the chords you would expect of a psychological thriller. If you read the back story of Rope you will better appreciate its technical achievement. Family Score: Both daughters and my wife passed after repeated invitations to watch Rope (probably because of the title). The DVD sat by the television for weeks. Only for the most artsy. 4 out of 5 stars.

north-by-northwestNorth by Northwest (1959)
This feels like the most commercially driven and commercially successful movie out of the ones I watched. It’s also the one that “beats” like a contemporary thriller. In some ways it’s the opposite of Vertigo, which is much more quiet and introspective. I like Cary Grant in the lead role but it’s one my favorites, Eva Marie Saint, that really makes North by Northwest pop in my opinion. She is flawless. This is the also the movie in the Hitchcockian canon that I’m most likely to watch again. Family Score: By the time I made it to this point I had completely lost my family. But it’s my fault for not beginning the series with something more familiar. I watched North by Northwest alone one Saturday morning. 31/2 out of 5 stars.


vertigoVertigo (1958)
If there was ever a movie that didn’t need a plot to be great it is Vertigo. If asked I could probably remember what it is about but that’s not what’s most important to me about this film. Vertigo is without a doubt a frame-by-frame masterpiece. There is one seen during which Kim Novak’s character is looking at a painting in a museum. The scene itself may be less than a minute, but Hitchcock spent a week filming it in order to get the light exactly the way he wanted it. It’s that attention to detail that makes art. You watch Vertigo in the same way you would stare at a Van Gogh or Rembrandt. You take it in. You allow it to work the way its creator intended it to work. Family Score: Not only did my youngest daughter watch it with me, but she watched with me twice.  5 out of 5 stars.


Maleficent: Story of Healing … or Corrective

Maleficent_live_actionIn terms of review, Maleficent is a good—not great — movie. Jolie’s performance in particular is worth noting and I thought the special effects were actually utilized with some measure of restraint—a welcome respite these days. Although the story at times is disjointed, the overall impact is still somewhat powerful. Performances outside of Jolie are unable to match her intensity but I think the biggest downside to Maleficent is how it departs from the original 1959 version of Sleeping Beauty. The differences were noticeable and even jarring at times, but surprisingly I didn’t have a hard time getting past it.

I’ve been in several exchanges in which the general impression of Maleficent was underwhelming. I get that. It’s by no means a kid’s movie and it departs rather radically from what most consider “Disney.” But that’s actually what makes this movie work for me. For one thing, fairy tales are usually dark and it doesn’t require much to realize that many of Disney’s films include a villain that represents the worst kind of evil in the world. Scar is a murderer. Cruella De Ville is a puppy killer. (What can be worse than that?). Jafar is willing to leave Aladdin in an underground cavern to die a slow death. So Maleficent, in that respect, is true to the genre.

As the movie unfolds, however, a couple of surprising narrative threads come to light. First is the unexpected healing, redemptive journey that Maleficent is on. Her story begins in the Eden-like land of the Moors before heartbreak and betrayal of the highest order put her on a path toward the Maleficent we know from the original Disney feature. The revisionist twist here is that the title character is a victim. Moreover, she is a victim betrayed by love —specifically “true love’s kiss”— in an intense scene charged with sexual violation. Instead of giving in to the resulting pain that could easily usher in the well-worn path of destruction, this story offers an alternative redemption that progresses at a very believable pace. This a matter of identity. Trauma—particularly the trauma experienced by Maleficent— has the potential to send us spiraling into a false identity. We see Maleficent, however, recover her identity throughout the movie’s narrative. In short, it’s a story of healing and recovering something of what’s truer of about herself than what she has become. Maleficent’s path to healing and redemption became the primary story driver for me. That is, when I wasn’t wondering internally, “How are they going to pull this off?”

Second, and perhaps even more interesting, is Maleficent as a corrective heroine relative to the traditional Disney princess. Disney heroines have traditionally been portrayed a certain way. That is, she is beautiful but deprived; she possesses inner strength and resolve but needs help; her dreams require a rescuer; yes her dreams are realized but it requires a little ingenuity and a lot of patience. Beginning with 2009’s The Princess and the Frog this prototype began to change. Tiana has her own dreams and ambition. She doesn’t really need a prince. And she’s not only willing to do the work to create a desired outcome for herself but has already started the process when we are introduced to her.

Maleficent —while not a princess, still close as the apparent sovereign of the Moors — continues this course correction and probably turns it up a notch.  Not only is romantic love not at the heart of her transformation, but the prince, now king, is actually the antagonist. In the signature scene of the movie it is Stefan, the king, that is on his knees in complete deference to the female lead. But this Maleficent is is acting out of the trauma of betrayal, not the character she will become through her relationship with Aurora. The victim through the first third of the movie, Maleficent finds her heart and identity through relationship apart from romance —in defiance of romance in fact. This film, as others like it, show us that romantic love may not be the ultimate human experience—or at least not the most redemptive one. Suffice it to say, very different from my expectations going into this movie, Maleficent is very human.

I like the traditional Disney princess and all the happy endings. But I’m also not opposed to a bit of revision like what we’ve seen in the last 5-6 years. Cinderella and Belle are great but Maleficent and Tiana are even more complete characters and they also require a little more of us.

Email: A Postmodern Drag

wastedFor a few years now I’ve been wondering what happened to my relationship with email. There was a time when I really enjoyed it. At work it was a way to communicate easily and effectively. I could draw on my favorite means of communication—the written word—to articulate ideas and concepts using the keyboard to tap it out fast. During this Golden Age of Email in my life I loved getting email at home, too. There were days when  a single conversation with friends around the nation—friends I wouldn’t have any meaningful, real contact with were there no email—for days. In that day I was able to protect my email account from spammers so there was rarely, if ever, the nonsensical marketing message or the unwanted update from anywhere or anybody.

I can’t point to a single moment when it happened, but that day is gone. The Golden Age of Email is no more.

Now my personal email is almost exclusively junk mail. (Why did I change my position on providing my email to retailers? Did they just wear me down or was the transformation more sinister?) And even though I’ll check my personal email on my phone throughout the day, typically when I log on to my desktop computer there will be hundreds of emails downloading and not a single one of them from one of the guys about UK basketball, football, what’s so wrong with millennials, or something funny from the high school days.

And work email, for crying out loud. That’s just completely out of hand. I work with people that actually send emails between 12:00 am and 6:00 am. That’s not even human. And how about getting an email from the guy in the office one door down from me. (Is email actually faster than yelling?) I told a friend today, “When you can spend a day doing nothing but responding to email there has got to be something wrong.” Right or wrong, my mind has developed its own filter for prioritizing work email. Here’s my system: (1) Who is the sender (2) What is the subject. If neither registers I will probably wait for the phone call. Not negligent or rude, for me it’s become the simple matter of survival. It’s overwhelming. Here are a couple of thoughts on that:

Boss for the Day! Email has allowed anybody with access to my calendar (read as “everybody”) to put something on it. It’s true that I have the right to decline. (But that’s  not really true.) This gives everybody with an internal email account the capacity to be my boss. Which leads to …
Tyranny of the Urgent. Email has conditioned us, along with other versions of technology, to expect answers real time. Whereas in the days prior to the Golden Age of Email colleagues realized there might be a delay in responding or [gasp] solve the problem themselves, now a “stay of responsibility” is only a click away. So why not? Who could blame a guy for that. Which leads me to …
Problem Forwarding. I don’t know if this is good or bad, but there’s a chance that email has removed a great deal of initiative from the workplace. On the one hand, this technology has allowed us to essentially multiply our communications way beyond the old in-house memo. On the other hand, the temptation to forward a question, problem, or responsibility is just too great. In fact it’s irresistible. And I’m not saying I haven’t done it because I have. I’ve never done crack, but my guess is that problem-forwarding is something like that. I can see my future: “My name is Agonistes and I am a problem-forwarding addict.”

This post is actually a lament. I realize that technology will continue to propel us into different situations that require different skill sets, organization, and time management. But there was a day when people absolutely relied on human contact and interaction to advance the conversation. Of course email has its merit and it’s ultimately a very helpful tool so much of this is of course exaggeration. And frankly the world moves too fast for the old approach to production to work anyway. Still, for me at least, there’s the sense of something lost in the sound and fury. But by all means feel free to send me anything about UK basketball, college football, movies, Disney, or 1930-1950 Hollywood.

Wrestling with Van Halen and a Different Kind of Truth

I was scanning the headlines of my new favorite website Grantland when I landed on a review of Van Halen’s new album. Just seeing “new” and “Van Halen” in the same sentence has tremendous stopping power for [people of a certain age.] My relationship with the band has been quite a journey. Not long after I became a fan of the original Van Halen in the mid 1980s they broke up to become “Van Hagar.” Even though I didn’t immediately like this new edition it was OK because I could listen to all the original band’s releases from 1984 and before over and over again on my JVC car stereo. (It was one of those after-market deals. And it actually did go to 11. It was so loud one night that it caused a passenger to vomit. I did feel bad, but that was epic.)

And not long after I bought in to the new version and Sammy Hagar as a wonderful extension of Eddie’s lead guitar, they started naming their albums with clever mixes of letters and numbers—which always seemed so un-heavy metal like to me. There were other un-heavy metal things going on as well. Eddie was playing keyboards. There was a video in which he played his guitar with a drill. (Really?) Sammy looked close to 50. The whole thing was just getting too confusing so I let Van Halen go.

But then Sammy left. Like many fans of the original band, I was captivated by the rumors of the brothers Van Halen hooking back up with David Lee Roth. “Could life and the universal order be so kind as to allow us a second round with the original Van Halen?” I thought. The answer was “no.”
But now. Now all indications are that Van Halen is giving it another go and that’s what Chuck Klosterman over at is currently wrestling with. That is, he is wrestling with his own reaction to this event: the return of Van Halen and their new album A Different Kind of Truth. Even though it shouldn’t, we are always surprised when we are forced to face the fact that we don’t really love the things we thought we loved; that the things that made us feel so alive at one point in our lives don’t have the same effect now. I love the way he ends his review—a good one, by the way, that you can read by clicking here—posted below.

I’ll be as straightforward as I possibly can: I don’t know what I’m trying to express here. My feelings are mixed to the point of being meshed. Going into A Different Kind of Truth, I unconsciously suspected my takeaway would be, “This is a bad album, but I love it nonetheless.” My actual sentiment is closer to, “This is a good album, but I just don’t like it, no matter how much I try.” And I’m disappointed in myself for feeling that way, somehow, which only proves that the things I understand most will always confuse me forever.

There is something very familiar between and behind the letters and words of Chuck’s review. There’s an acquaintance of a sort. There’s a pathos. It goes beyond how the music shapes us and more into how the music continues to inform us through what it is, but also what it isn’t, not only about who we are, but also who we are becoming and who we once were. It reveals profound things to us, that is, if we’ll pay attention. Although certainly a different kind, truth in this case emerges when Van Halen attempts to become what it no longer is while we at the same time ask it to be what it can no longer be. It’s in these places where we truly discover heart, or what most people mean when they use the word “me.” And maybe even truth at some level.

American Treasures: 10 for the Ages

Audrey Hepburn, 1929-1993

The idea of the “American Treasure” has been a part of our vernacular for a long time. Traditionally, these treasures have been expressed through places like Yellowstone and the Smithsonian. There are those who would conclude that television shows like “M.A.S.H.” and “Leave It To Beaver” are on the list of American Treasures as well as a movie like Gone With The Wind. Alec Baldwin, in a recent “SNL” episode, even labeled himself an American Treasure. (Maybe some day. He’s actually closer than you’d think.)

The idea of the American Treasure is best described as someone who embodies some aspect of the American spirit in terms inventiveness, inspiration, or sheer magnitude or cultural force. For the sake of this post, we’re dealing only with individuals who, perhaps for a generation or maybe longer, defined something about us collectively. An American Treasure, taken in this way, comes to  represent something closer to our collective heart as a culture while at the same time explaining things about ourselves through their existence that we could not have otherwise articulated.

On the way to dinner last week I threw out this question to my family: Who would be your top 10 American Treasures? It got fun real quick. My daughters started texting friends so we had to establish some ground rules shortly thereafter. We tried to keep influential political figures off the list. If the Founding Fathers were fair game, after all, the list would fill up very quickly. I lost Teddy Roosevelt in this ruling and the family lost JFK. The most painful result of this decision was omitting the genius of Abraham Lincoln. We also realized that we had to make some kind of distinction between “iconic” and “treasure.” Even though the line between these two ideas is admittedly blurry, we decided that a lasting image does not a treasure make. This put Marilyn Monroe’s place on the list in jeopardy. Also, after some debate, we concluded that even though the people on our list of American Treasures do not necessarily have to be born in America, they must be quintessentially American. And so, Julie Andrews, please accept my sincerest apologies. (That one is a heartbreaker.)

And so in no particular order … here is our list. Let the debate begin:

Walt Disney – No one left a larger footprint on the Twentieth Century and no single individual outside of our Founding Fathers and a handful of other leaders has had a greater impact on how we understand ourselves as Americans. Whether that’s good or bad is another debate. Apart from the movies, technology advances, theme parks, and television shows, Disney’s place in this pantheon results most from the frontier spirit that emerges from practically everything he did. He both re-invented and re-imagined the pioneer mentality for multiple generations of Americans. Walt then and now coaxes the deepest dreams out of all of us. You could call it fantasy but that wouldn’t make it any less real. If I were ranking this list I think both MLK and Walt would contend for the top choice.

Audrey Hepburn – This is the reason we made the “American born” rule. We forget that Hepburn walked away from Hollywood, for the most part, in her prime. In her post-Hollywood life she devoted herself to many social causes and left an impact in whatever she did. Even though she never weighed more than 103 pounds, her “weight” was off the charts. She dominates every scene she’s ever been in. Fragile, yet somehow the possessor of an indelible strength, I think Hepburn reminds us that beauty is always worth fighting for. But she also reminds us that her kind of beauty will always maintain its own address.

Elvis Presley – This was a tough call in the icon vs. treasure debate and I’m not sure we got it right. But, really, can you NOT have Elvis Presley on this list? He hasn’t needed a last name in more than 50 years, he is perhaps the single greatest contributor to American popular culture, and he defined “cool” for an entire generation and more. And, just like the others listed here, his impact continues to reverberate through time long after his passing. And then there’s the mythology and the music and that 1968 “comeback special.”

Ernest Hemingway – We threw around Steinbeck and Fitzgerald as our literary representative and both are American Treasures for sure. We went with Hemingway because the man is so much more than the product. Epics like Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls along with the short story collection, his African adventures, contributions to global affairs, and the Paris years make “Papa” an easy choice. A boxer, athlete, and writer, this guy remains a tour de force of American passion, sensitivity, and brute force.

Steven Spielberg – Movies has always been a big part of our culture and a significant contributor to how we see ourselves. But the maker or E.T. beat out other movie makers like George Lucas because he has entered so much more in the ledger of Americana. Forces like Walt Disney and Steven Spielberg remind us how magical it is to believe.

Martin Luther King, Jr. – The idea of being free is so uniquely American to me and no one embodied the tension in and the fight for freedom more than MLK. “I Have a Dream” and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” are absolutely inspiring. People like King come along once … once. And then they belong to the ages. MLK endures as a reminder of the power of the human heart as an engine for change.

Superman – The family wasn’t all that fond of this one so I had to use one of my bullets as the actual writer of the post to keep Superman on this “first ballot” list. Superman represents everything Americans want to believe about themselves. That he comes out of the comic books and movies means that he never gets old, he never changes, and he never stops fighting for truth, justice, and the American way. Even today Superman—perhaps more the idea than the persona— is the single greatest influence on American masculine culture. And when (or if) we lose this we will be in big trouble. That you can’t have Superman without Krytonite will always be both a powerful and provocative truth.

John Wayne – A latecomer to the conversation. I’ve never been a huge fan of his movies, but we felt like we had to have a male actor. Gable, Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and even Tom Hanks were mentioned … but c’mon. This one is easy. John Wayne almost always played the guy you wanted to be. If size matters then John Wayne is the biggest of the big. He speaks plainly. He comes close to being an allegorical representation of American values. He is western. He even played football at USC for crying out loud. He is throw-back. And he is in every way an American Man. And it all started the minute he got on that stagecoach. Thank God for Superman and John Wayne.

Muhammad Ali – Probably the one I would fight the least for, not only does Ali teeter on the icon vs treasure line but he was also a draft dodger. We left him on our list because of his brashness. What’s more American than telling everyone what you’re going to do and then going into the ring and doing it. With your fists. And I’ve got to add that watching him suffer from Parkinson’s and that magical moment at the 96 Olympics goes a long, long way toward his place on our list. Ali’s “last third” of life attests to the fact that Ali continues to fight—continues to fight battles more epic even than Manila.

Billy Graham – There are the great photographs of Graham in counsel with American presidents going as far back as Eisenhower. There are the crusades that led to thousands if not millions of conversions. There’s Graham the statesman and Graham the human being and Graham the husband and father and humanitarian. But he finds his way onto this list due to one singular fact: No one has kept our nation in adherence to our “one nation, under God” pledge more than he has. Across the generations and the wars and the adversities, no one has played a more significant role in maintaining our moral compass more than he has.

By no means is this complete and I even have some reservations myself. Missing are any artists like maybe Georgia O’Keeffe or musicians like Springsteen and maybe Mellencamp. With nine men and one woman I’ve got to think we could have done a better job with balance, but we really didn’t run our vetting through any of these filters. Instead we just relied on the overall impact on our own ways of thinking, living, and believing.