Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Wasting away a day in Evergreen

I've been a bad blogger. A very bad blogger.

The last time I contributed a post to this space, people were talking about Michael Vick and dogfighting, and that was so ... last August.

But I'm ready to blog my heart out once again, and so I wanted to tell you about the Evergreen Music Festival that my wife Gail and I attended on .... uh, I forget. Last summer.

This event is hosted every year by Ken and Bonnie Swanson, and that is precisely the right word. They host.

As barbecue is dished out from a row of long tables on one part of the lawn and kids and dogs chase each other around the Swansons' eight acres, a charmingly eclectic procession of musicians clomps up the wooden steps to a homemade stage.

Like bluegrass musician/singer Heather Berry, who sounds a little like Allison Krause. And Worm Patterson, who fronted his band wearing a white undershirt. And Jump the Tracks, a group of Longwood College students who transformed themselves from a heavy metal band into a bluegrass ensemble. And the house band, Deja Moo -- featuring, of all people, Ken and Bonnie Swanson.

The music went on until sundown. People brought folding chairs or sat on the grass -- except for Cheryl Lynn, one of the Swansons' long-time friends, who reclined in an overstuffed chair that had been dragged out there for her.

Deja Moo played blues, bluegrass, jug band music, country and "Twist and Shout." As evening fell, the surrounding crickets turned into backup singers.

If it hadn't been for the guy collecting money out by the main road through Evergreen, it would have seemed like a private party. But then again, all the money went to charity.

It all reminded me of stories I've heard about the Colonial days in Virginia, when there was nothing much to do on a weekend but gather all the relatives and neighbors at some central place and play music.

So remember this event next year, and give yourself a little time to find Evergreen. Then, once you do, give yourself the rest of the day. As a present.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

More reflections on Michael Vick

I remember seeing a cartoon with a two-part panel.

In the first panel, a young man who has obviously struck it rich is talking to his unkempt parents outside their tiny, falling-down shack in some hillbilly enclave. Now, he tells them with a proud smile, he can buy them the home of their dreams.

The second panel shows him returning, to be confronted with the same falling-down shack, built 100 times bigger.

There's a message in that, and the recent legal problems of Atlanta Falcons' quarterback Michael Vick provides yet another. Both speak to one of the more enduring beliefs in our society, that having lots of money automatically makes you a different (and, theoretically, better) person.

Sure, it happens. Unfortunately, though, most of the evidence is stacked to the contrary. The history of lotteries in this country is full of sad stories about people who won millions, then burned through it in short order.

Athletes provide a particular cautionary tale here in the 21st century. Many of them come from grim inner city neighborhoods or hardscrabble rural areas. Why? Because those settings toughened them, and allowed them to take their natural athletic ability up a notch. Moreover, many come to see their their future as a stark choice between athletic success or poverty.

As a football coach once told me: "The kid from the suburbs would like to make the first team. The kid from the slums has to make the first team."

Again, there are exceptions, but Vick isn't one of them. He grew up in a marginally rough section of Newport News and was defined early on by his athletic ability. He struggled academically at Virginia Tech, and has never come across as a particularly articulate or educated individual. A regular guy, in other words, who happens to possess otherworldly physical talents.

Eventually, those talents earned him multi-millions, but he's still the same person. Is he going to join one of Atlanta's elite social clubs? Is he going to suddenly start hanging around with college presidents and bankers and software savants? Probably not, because he has nothing in common with those people beyond his bank balance, and perhaps their adoration of him.

So who does he choose for friends? The guys he grew up with. Some pro athletes actually transplant their pals from the old neighborhood to wherever they happen to be performing. That's a sweet deal for members of the "entourage," and the party is usually on their old buddy who's made good.

Except that when the jock in question has roots in a rough subculture, that entourage can get out of hand. As in the case of Baltimore Ravens' linebacker Ray Lewis, who nearly spent the rest of his life behind bars after one or more of his "friends" stabbed two men to death outside a nightclub. Or Tennessee Titans' defensive back Adam "Pac Man" Jones, two years removed from West Virginia University, who caught some of the blowback when a bouncer at a Las Vegas strip club was shot and paralyzed by an entourage member.

The rest of us feast on such lurid tales. We love it when an actor or a rock star or a quarterback turns out to have feet of clay and a rap sheet.

What we should be thinking about, though, is our generally skewed perspective on money in general.

We can fantasize, as most of us do, that one day we'll win the lottery or be gifted by a forgotten rich relative or (in the case of many newspaper reporters) write the novel that will become a cash cow.

It's good to dream, but we need to realize that even if our ship does come in, we'll still be who we are. And if we're not ready to properly receive it, our good fortune is apt to fly away.

Especially if that ship turns out to be full of pirates.