Friday, July 31, 2009

Th-Th-That's All Folks!

Sit and Wonder - The Verve (mp3)

"I think a midlife crisis is anytime you're waking up in the middle of the night asking yourself, 'Is this going to be my life?'"
-- my pal Matt

I got to eat lunch with my friend Matt earlier this week. Matt is a doctor in town. We went to undergrad together and were mutual friends of friends who always got along swimmingly, and he somehow found himself completing his residency in Chattanooga of all places.

Matt is a kick-ass pediatrician. If there was some kind of World Series of Pediatric Care, I'd put some money on him because he's the full package: gentle, compassionate, confident, absolutely brilliant, and passionately dedicated. He's passed up some incredible job opportunities (translation: shitloads of money) because he believes so deeply in what he's doing.

He first became a parent four years ago, and now they have two kids. Parenthood hit Matt and his wife like Mike Tyson with brass knuckles. My theory -- we haven't really talked about it THAT much, 'cuz we're, like, guys, and we prefer talking about UNC sports -- is that Matt and his wife were prepared. He's a pediatrician, and she's a nurse who worked in the pediatric ward of a local hospital until recently. They're around kids all the time. He was dispensing advice constantly to parents about how to handle their children. It's our job to know kids, and we love kids, and we're around them all day every day, so raising our own should be pretty easy, is what I think they thought.

I still remember the first time Matt was able to make it out for a night of beer, four or five months after their first child was born, and he looked like a defeated man. "I had no idea" was the general gist of his reaction to parenthood.

He'd seen exhausted parents at the end of their psychological rope hundreds of times. Friends like myself had shared our own tales of the It Ain't All Wine + Roses variety. But when you're brilliant and gentle and caring and passionate and confident, the challenges facing normal humans don't concern you much. It's like expecting Tiger Woods to be worried about a 5-foot putt just 'cuz a lot of duffers miss theirs.

Here are just two things I've learned to believe about parenting:

(1) The smarter and more passionate you are about parenting before you become a parent, the more likely you'll be absolutely miserable and convinced you're a failure once you become one; and
(2) The more of a control freak you are, the more likely children will break your soul (or you theirs) for a while.

(Please note. We're talking likelihoods here, not cold hard absolutes.
)

We were talking about parenting, and life, when Matt spoke the quote atop this page. He wasn't talking about himself when he spoke the words, but both of us ended up acknowledging that, to some extent, we've both struggled with that question more recently than we ever imagined we would.

Personally, I often struggle with the feeling that I'm "circling the runway."

Professionally, I'm in a position where my only options for advancement require that I leave my current job, and probably Chattanooga, and possibly education in general. But I like my job. My job is "a good, solid 7 1/2." It brings me plenty of satisfaction, and I know with certainty that I am appreciated and of value. Secure, satisfactory, static.

Domestically, I'm in a position where my only options for advancement require that I leave my current wife, and probably Chattanooga, and possibly everyone else who ever had any respect for me. But I love my wife. My wife is "a good, solid... um... 10 1/2..." and my family brings me more satisfaction than I could remotely deserve. I also know with certainty that I am appreciated and of value. Secure, satisfactory, static. [This is a clever joke, people. I don't really consider it "advancement" to leave my spouse. Unless Evangeline Lilly really really needs me.]

Parenting, especially in those first three or four years, is so intense that few people have time for the midlife crisis because the crisis is the poopy diaper and the baby screaming so loud your eardrums start bleeding and the baby throwing food all over the floor. When you're waking up in the middle of the night, it's not to ask yourself an existential question, but rather to change your kid's diaper or rock them back to sleep. But once you get a handle on that -- well, as much of a handle as parents can remotely get -- then the static electricity of life can create some challenges.

Your job, as the loathed saying goes, "is what it is." Your family "is what it is." You try and confront the static electricity with a hobby or two. Maybe you start a blog. Maybe you obsess about World of Warcraft or shoe shopping or rec league soccer. Maybe you do some cool philanthropic stuff like joining a board or becoming a Big Sister. All to figure out whether those things are enough to release that static electricity the way reaching out for a metal doorknob would.

All I know is that, for the most part, it seems like almost everyone I know well enough to have this kind of conversation admits to having asked themselves this middle-of-the-night question somewhere between one and a hundred times.

Thankfully, for many of us in that boat, we can get up at 3 a.m., walk to the doorway of our child's bedroom, look at them sleeping peacefully, dreaming of unicorns or tractors or Ronald McDonald, and find some solace. When they awake in the middle of the night, we calm their fears and assure them everything's gonna be OK; gloriously, the reverse can also hold true.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Pizza Town

Mike Bloomfield with Al Kooper--"Man's Temptation" (mp3)


I am living, all too briefly, in Pizza Town.

There are many visions of Paradise. This is one of them.

Most of the best pizza that I've eaten in my life has been cooked for me here in Venice, Florida, the location of my mother-in-law's condominium for the past 25 years, and the place where I've often hibernated for Spring Breaks and summer getaways, for novel writing and grant reading, for spending a few days in a place where it's often possible to keep job thoughts at bay.

Venice, huh? I guess with that name the concentration of great pizza joints shouldn't be all that surprising, should it? Maybe. Maybe not. I don't really know the origins of this small, sleepy Florida city or of its swanky larger neighbor, Naples, about 80 miles down the road. Did Italian immigrants settle these locales and name them after their native cities? Did the names of these Florida cities make them more attractive to Italian immigrants from the North, looking for warmer climes to set up shop in their later years? I'm going with the latter theory. But anyway, a city with an Italian name serving great pizza should be a no-brainer, right? Then try going to Lafayette, Georgia in search of fantastic French cooking; you ain't gonna find much beyond french fries.

Venice, a town the size of Cleveland, Tennesse, has no fewer that 23 non-chain pizza places, to go with numerous chains.

Of course, I've just spent a month in Chicago, considered one of the great pizza cities, but I have to agree with Anthony Bourdain on that city's offerings. Deep dish pizza may be very, very good at some places, but it is more like a casserole, more like a "lasagna made with crust instead of noodles," I think he said. Besides, what kind of pizza is it really when you can't eat more than one piece before you're full? By the second piece, you're miserable.

The pizza palaces of Venice seem to have their origins more in New York City and that area. That means huge, thin crust pizzas. The medium is 14 inches; the large is 16 inches. And not thin crust as in the cracker crust now popular in the frozen food cases. No, this is thin as in tossed and stretched thin yeast crust with enough gluten in it that you can use the back of your fist to pull it farther and farther apart before giving it a twirl in the air. It's crust with character.

The pizzas of Venice come out of the oven with crust so thin you can't believe it's crisp in the center. A bite on the outside is crunchy at first, but then chewy in the center. And the sauce, spread thin, is bound to be some old family recipe. The toppings (the sausage homemade) and the cheese are not skimpy, but are not so plentiful as to overwhelm either the sauce or the crust. Great pizza is about a balance between all of the parts, at least until you get to the edges, and then it's just about the crust. My favorite place here in Venice, Luna Pizza, rubs their crust with olive oil and then sprinkles sesame seeds around the perimeter. It is superb.

If you keep up with food trends, pizza is hot right now. Seems like every restaurant, especially high-end ones, has installed a wood-burning oven to produce gourmet pizzas fired at 1000 degrees or higher. I like those pizzas. When I make them, I cook them on a stone in my oven with the temperature as hot as it will go. You can get a pretty kick ass pizza cooking on a pizza stone in your kitchen at 550 degrees.

But rather than a wood-fired duck pizza, I prefer the kind that come out of a large industrial pizza oven, a guy in a dirty white t-shirt and white apron opening the wide door and using his metal peel to give the pizza a shake every once in a while to make sure it isn't sticking. That's a Venice pizza. And then I'm not in Pizza Town, I'm in Pizza Heaven.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Green" is Sooooo the New "Christian"!

Mother Earth is a Vicious Crowd - Live (mp3)
Green Means Go - The Color Wheels (mp3)

I was driving back from my near-daily coffee run Monday when I saw a billboard that read: "Fairway. Thinking Green." (Fairway is the name of the ad company that owns the billboard.) Then that night I read about Dominos Pizza using "GreenGraffiti" to advertise. They're using pressure washers to etch their ads into nasty grimy sidewalks.

Here's what I worry about.

When "Green" becomes a marketing ploy, when "Green" describes a friggin' billboard, when "Green" becomes an easy adjective that people like me can use to describe themselves simply 'cuz we recycle or ride long distances without our A/C running... then "Green" becomes this whole pathetic color spectrum that includes shit like "teal" and "pear" and "myrtle," all these colors that are desperately trying to be green but aren't quite, like when my younger daughter has to stand on her tip-toes a little in order to cross that You Must Be Taller Than 48" To Ride This Ride line. Yeah, she's taller than that line, but she's fudging, and she knows it, and I know it, and the goober letting her on the ride knows it.

The same thing kinda happened with "Christian" over the last 40 years. Maybe it's been longer, but I've seen it since I've been alive. I mostly blame it on Falwell and his Moral Majority movement, wielding a word intended to embrace and welcome a wide swath of humanity and using it to slice and separate and pare down until by the 21st Century, the word has become divisive and unappealing. "Christian," to most people, now stands for the very things the word should never ever stand for: ignorance, prejudice, selfishness, greed.

Heck, in Chattanooga, you now see businesses that use the little "Christian Fish" or cross on their signs. As if to say, "Jesus shops here!" Far too few people were terribly surprised when a local business that plastered the Jesus Fish all over everything got busted for a variety of shady practices.

For all you Christians out there, if it's news to you that a key descriptor of who you are has been hijacked and now has a meaning that's out of your control and more negative than positive, you'd best sit back and stop being defensive about it. Stop listening to "Onward Christian Soldiers" and stop allowing people who say we're engaged in "a war for Jesus" and who love that country song about how we avenged 9/11 to totally annihilate a word that should stand for better things.

But back to being Green.

You environmentalist types, you'd best take note. Y'all are probably getting the warm fuzzies because everyone's talking "Green" and promoting "Green" and acting like we're just Greening the hell out of our lovely planet, but guess what? Barring a level of change that I am cynically resigned to accept will never happen, our planet is on an irreversibly dire change of climate. Or at least that's what one of the biggest and most knowledgeable expert on the subject seems to think. But what does he know, other than having predicted the future more accurately than Nostra-fucking-damus?

Recycle. Replace your old GE bulbs with compact flourescents. Drive a Prius. None of this matters if China and India are firing up more coal plants than we can count. I'm sorry, but the concept of "Do Your Part" ain't gonna cut it with our environment. The Butterfly Effect ain't gonna fix our atmosphere. But, as poor schlep Jake says to that mesmerizing minx Rhett in The Sun Also Rises, "Wouldn't it be pretty to think so?"

And maybe your response is similar to mine: "If pitching in and doing the little things don't help, then what exactly am I supposed to do about it?"

How about you start with taking just a few minutes to READ THIS... yeah, it's long. Yeah, it's in GQ. Just go read it already.

Maybe G.I. Joe was right, and maybe knowing is half the battle. So maybe we just need to do more to KNOW. And friggin' fast, before we hand over a hot coal of a planet to our grandchildren.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Simplify, simplify, simplify!

Paolo Nutini--"Simple Things" (mp3)

I lived for the last 27 days in a college dorm. Admittedly, it was a very nice dorm--new, high-rise, centrally located in Chicago's Loop, maid service once a week, 4-bedroom quad with full kitchen and common living area. So, this isn't going to be about having to "rough it."

Instead, this is about living simply.

For that month, I had two pairs of shoes, 6 pairs of socks, two pairs of shorts, two pairs of pants, 5 pairs of underwear, 3 t-shirts, 5 polo shirts. I had a computer and an Ipod. I had a shelf of books. I had basic (for me) kitchen utensils and spices and condiments. And that's about it.

I rode the subway, instead of driving my car. Many places, I walked. I bought almost nothing during those 27 days that wasn't for immediate consumption or use.

I watched 1 hour of television during the 4 weeks.

And it was good.

Now, of course, I had a huge metropolis at my fingertips, with its myriad opportunities. Of course, I missed my family. I have no interest in becoming an aesthetic. I'm not advocating living alone as part of this simplicity. And I had roommates.

But what about the stuff? All of those things that fill three stories of a house and clutter a yard in Chattanooga? What about the grass and the grill, the tools and the gadgets, the mountains of laundry and bedding, the many cars in the driveway, the heirlooms and antiques, the books and the stacks of cooking magazines from the last 10 years? I did not miss any of them. What about the "might need" and the "should save," the "just requires a part" or the "hope to refinish one day?" What about the things from earlier lives that might be used for later lives? Nope, not a thought given to them. What about the attic and the utility room, the "junk drawer" and the closet or the other closet or the other closet all stuffed and stuffed with stuff? I felt free of all of it.

Henry David Thoreau is my patron saint of simplicity. He seemed to see everything in the simplest, Platonic terms. Government was clutter, laws were clutter, wars were clutter, and, at least during that stint down at Walden Pond, people and the lives they were leading were cluttered. Sometimes, Thoreau can be kind of annoying because his solutions seem too easy for application in the real world. It is Thoreau who reminds us that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." It is ourselves who pat ourselves on the back and like to think that we are luckily not part of that mass of men.

Back home, I am acutely aware of how much I am living in the world of too much. I have 6 guitars, but I only play one. There are cupboards in the kitchen that contain things that I have purchased, but they have been hidden from my view for so long that I have forgotten about them and even forgotten my plan for them. Having lived for several weeks on so few clothes, I stare into my closet at the rest of them and wonder what use I have for them.

Of course, all of this will change. A good Sunday at Target with the family and some new clothes for the school year and a book I might read and an electrical gadget that will allow me to plug even more things into the wall than I already do, and I'll be back to normal.

But, at present, there is still that nagging feeling that I've got it wrong, and, yes, that we've got it wrong, and that, in the simplistic spirit of Thoreau's Transcendentalist notions, it really wouldn't be very difficult to change at all.

Paolo Nutini is available at Itunes.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Rock and Roll Ghosts

Jerry Lee Lewis--"As Long As I Live" (mp3)
Carl Perkins--"Look At That Moon" (mp3)


Last Wednesday, Jeff and I attended one of the rockingest shows that I, at least, have seen in a long, long time. High, high energy from start to finish. Great, classic songs. Skilled musicianship. An audience that was totally into it.

The only problem: I felt like I was on a cruise ship.

From the light of the stage, there was a grayish glow on the heads of the audience. Ghosts, I thought. Not me.

Million Dollar Quartet, the long-running show at the Apollo Theater in Chicago, is the fictional retelling of the legendary night when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis all got together at Sam Phillip's Sun Studios in Memphis for an impromptu jam session. In addition to sharing many of the incredible songs from those performers and that session, the show develops several subplots: 1) how and why Presley, Cash, and Perkins left Sun for larger record labels, 2) the tension between up-and-coming whippersnapper Lewis and the three established artists, and 3) the first hints of how Presley's career was being mismanaged by a Colonel Tom Parker who did not believe that rock and roll would last, and so was steering Presley into bad movies and Las Vegas venues. As played in this performance, Elvis is the least charismatic of the four, as if the life is already being sucked out of him.

As far as I could tell, Jeff was probably the youngest person in the audience. There's a good chance I was the second youngest (at 52). Jeff's mom had warned him that these matinees were packed with people "coming off of buses from the assisted-living centers." And, while she was undoubtedly right, I also think she is wrong. It's not just the matinees; people in their sixties, seventies, and eighties are the ones who are most likely making up the bulk of the audience for all of the shows.

See, here's my problem. Music, for me, exists in a kind of continual present. Except for occasional conversations with students, I don't often reflect on the fact that it's been 36 years since I saw Led Zeppelin or 46 years since my brother and I and some friends snuck under the Music Tent in Cherry Hill, New Jersey and saw the Dave Clark Five. I have cd's that I still think of as new, but when I look at their booklets, I realize that they came out 8 or 1o years ago. When I went to put together my "Best of" list at the end of 2008, many of the songs I had in mind had come out one or two years earlier.

And so, it did not dawn on me, until I was sitting in that darkened theater that, wait a second, the year this story is taking place is the year I was born. And, wait a second, the reason all of these old(er) people are sitting in this audience is because they were teenagers when this music first came out. I think of my dad and his love of Glenn Miller, and I think that the elderly still want to swing, that World War II is the reference point, but, no, that generation has about moved on.

So the blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll. And rock and roll became just rock. And maybe now rock is beginning to wear out or fall by the wayside. Either I can't tell or maybe I'm just hoping against hope. I don't know, but give me about 20 years and maybe I'll be sitting in the audience of a delicious musical about how David Bowie, Lou Reed and other glitter rockers made the decision to promote their careers with androgyny. Walk On The Wild Side, they'll call it.

After it's over, maybe one of you will load me on a bus and let them take me to the land of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and peas. "That David Bowie," I'll say to my neighbor, "He sure was a corker!"

My apologies to those of you who are looking for the great Replacements song that inspired the title of this post. I'm in Chicago, and the cd is in Tennessee.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Waterlogged (The Dramatic Conclusion)

Ain't That Unusual - Goo Goo Dolls (mp3)
Drums of Death - Noel Gallagher (w/UNKLE + Mike D) (mp3)

Continued from Tuesday, my additional thoughts about swim meets, fueled by sun, sand, and plentiful suds...

YOU AIN'T GOT NO ALIBI

I am not a complete looks snob. When one looks like me, one cannot afford to be a complete looks snob.

That said, I enjoy eye candy as much as the next walking penis, and one of the ways I entertain myself (no... not like that) in any setting is to scope around and locate all potential eye candy in a given environment. It works very much like the Terminator as he's walking through that bar looking for Sarah Connor. I have a little red cross-hair that lands on particular people, and then a database pulls up their estimated measurements, age, marital status, and general emotional stability levels. Granted, my database and cross-hair works only slightly better than Ron Weasley's broken wand, so it's not "dead-on balls accurate," but at this point I'm just trying to cram as many different movie references into this paragraph as I can.

My point is, eye candy at swim meets is painfully, terribly disappointingly awful.

Chattanooga brags about all of its outdoorsy and exercise-y opportunities, but we're apparently quite awful at taking advantage of them, having recently been dubbed the Least Fit City in America. Sure, these kinds of rankings aren't worth too much, but it's tough to argue that we're a paragon of low body fat and cardiovascular conditioning at whose cracked and crumbling waterfront the rest of America should worship.

Still, in a land of the least fit and more obese, you'd think that cougars and lionesses would be at their best and most promising in the area of kid sports (PLEASE NOTE: Once in a while I'll acknowledge an attractive male in the name of equality). You'd think that kids who are involved in physical activity at a high level of competition would have parents who were most attentive to being physically conditioned and looking their best. Unfortunately, when it comes to swimming, this does not hold true. Soccer and baseball fall much closer to expectation in this area, although it's still not nearly as rewarding as it should be.

I recently made this observation to a friend who's always been fairly active in the sports realm, and he offered this theory: "Swimming is one of the few sports where parents can't participate in helping their kid improve."

Basically, his point was, soccer parents and softball parents and football parents tend to go outside with their kids and play with them. They practice with them. The kind of parent/kid activity that burns calories. Swimming parents? Not so much. Swimming parents grab the fold-out chair, the latest Jackie Collins novel and a Ding Dong and sit back while their kids swim laps. This does not bode well for the physique of a swimming parent. Thus, the horrific dearth of anyone worth a double-take at swim meets.

BUT I'M A PEOPLE PERSON

According to every psychological test I've ever taken, I'm an extrovert. And not just barely. I'm, like, a ragin' extrovert to the point that I'm sure the DSM II has several diagnoses for the deep-seeded and underlying problems that would explain my extremism.

Yet, at my daughters' swim meets, I'm nothing short of hermit-like. When I'm not dealing directly with the girls or cheering them on for the five minutes out of three hours they're actually competing, I plop into my chair and read on my book or magazine. Or I annoy friends with text messages. When other nice parents attempt to engage me in friendly banter, I'm sure I come across as seeming polite but not terribly interested, the kind of conversation where I'm not really asking any questions or doing anything to extend the conversation. Inevitably they withdraw and do not attempt to rekindle said conversation at the next meet.

Because my behavior in this realm seems particularly contradictory, I've tried to figure out why. Here's my best guess: I'm at my weakest, socially speaking, when my primary role in said environment is that of The Parent. If I'm The Husband, or The Educator, or The Immature Party Guy, I can mostly loosen up and find someone or several someones with whom to converse, and the conversations can be plenty enjoyable. But if I'm The Parent, I don't generally enjoy where those conversations will go.

I don't generally enjoy talking at length about my children. I don't generally enjoy listening to other people talk at length about their children. Conversations about my children, about how smart they are, or about their interests, or about their cutesy little habits or foibles, especially around other people who are engaging in a sort of quid pro quo "anything your child can do my child can do better" dialogue, just feels forced and depressing.

I would like to think that the very last measure of any significance in being a parent is how much said parent waxes glowing about their children. In fact, I tend to believe there's an inverse correlation. The more someone talks and talks and talks about the awesomeness or adorable-ness of their kids, the less awesome and adorable those kids probably are. Or, maybe more importantly, the less anyone with ears and a brain wants to talk to those parents.

Maybe that's just me. Maybe that's a misguided and warped way to see parental pride. But at least it helps make sense of why I tend to crawl into my own little hole at a swim meet. Well, this and the fact that they're pretty damned unattractive.

Ha.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Warriors

Magic Wands--"Warrior (Defend Moscow remix)" (mp3)

I saw The Hurt Locker over the weekend. It offered a powerful punch of realism that I needed on a lazy summer day. I didn't want fantasy or romance or even bromance; all I wanted, frankly, was some kind of truth that would stay in my head for awhile and not leave me with any easy solutions. Yeah, sometimes I'm like that.

The movie may not make much money; it certainly wasn't particularly crowded on a Saturday afternoon. Many people seem to need some lag time after a war before they are ready to confront it cinematically. For some reason, I am not that way. I plugged in right away to the short-lived HBO series, Over There, hung with the nothing's happening anxiety of the documentary Gunner's Palace, even watched the extras with the real soldiers that the excellent miniseries Generation Kill was based on.

Like The Hurt Locker, these are not films about the politics of the war. Instead, they focus on the lives of the men and women involved in a modern warfare that, until you actually see images, real or fictionalized, doesn't fit your conception of how a war is fought. It is difficult to picture the heat, the emptiness, the miscommunication, the daily grind of having to to battle the enemy's traps and bombs, rather than (most of the time), the enemy himself. What I hadn't understood in particular was the power of those roadside bombs.

Since The Hurt Locker focuses on a unit that defuses roadside bombs, one of its most powerful, lingering images is of the Iraqi citizens watching from the windows and rooftops as the American men try to undo massive charges. Like spectators at a NASCAR event, they wait as much, perhaps more, for the spectacular failure of these men and their dangerous missions. And, in some cases, they try to cause that failure. They are like the Native Americans Lewis and Clark encountered when they tried to navigate the Columbia River on their way to the Pacific Oceans. The natives would stand on the cliffs and watch them, waiting for their rafts to crash against the walls of the river canyon. Except that those people only wanted the leftover supplies from the river disaster; the menace of some of the spectators in The Hurt Locker is more palpable.

Though I've never served in the military, I've been a part of other bureaucracies, and so there are some aspects of it that I do understand. I understand the "hurry up and wait" aspect, the drudgery. I understand the need to blow off steam after a grueling experience. I understand having to deal with the out-of-touch commander who shows up after the fact and wants a piece of the glory, proclaiming, as he does in The Hurt Locker, "This is some hot shit. Hot shit." I understand the feeling of wanting to do what you have to do for as long as you have to do it, and then to be left alone. We have all received and had to carry out orders that were not our own.

What is hard for me to understand, because I have no context, is the character of a person who lives for war, who thrives in it. While he may seem like a foolish risk-taker who will act thoughtlessly with no regard for his own life, he is not someone who wants to die. He is just someone who knows that in a given dangerous situation, he is the one for the job--his hand will not tremble, his gaze will not falter, his emotions will not take over. As Emerson once said, "The hero is no braver than any ordinary man, he is braver five minutes longer."

Sergeant James, in The Hurt Locker, is such a person. When he comes into the unit, his methods seem foolish and dangerous, to the extent that he makes those around him fear for their own lives. Even as we marvel at his skills, we think, "Oh shit, this guy could get us killed." At times, the danger amuses him. At times, it earns his respect for his adversaries. At times, it becomes personal. But unless you are inside the Bomb Suit with him, you have no way of knowing what his motivation might be. There are several scenes where he is in that bomb suit, and while it may serve to protect him, it also serves to isolate him from the rest of us, with our base desires and fears and needs for self-preservation.

There is one brief, poignant scene where another soldier asks James if he thinks that other soldier is ready to get in the Bomb Suit. James simply says, "No." It isn't personal, it isn't a put down (completely); instead, it's as if James realizes that he is not of the world of men, not programmed in the same way, that he must wear the suit, regardless of how it might impact fellow soldiers or his family. It's who he is.

The Hurt Locker shows us that there are people who are made for war, made for combat, completely calm amidst the greatest dangers. These are not people that we encounter in our daily lives. They're the ones who are returning for two, three, four tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. But I have no doubt that they are there. Since I'm also reading The Great Santini as one of the books for my Summer Reading group, I've experienced two distinct portraits of this kind of man (not that it couldn't be a woman). What The Hurt Locker does so well is to show us what it's like for such a man to be in (and out of) his element.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Waterlogged (Part One)

Slow Dog - Belly (mp3)
Pretty Deep - Tanya Donnelly (mp3)

My two daughters just concluded their third summer of competitive swimming. I love my daughters. I do not love swim meets.

Good modern-age parenting requires that parents choose at least two or three regular child-centered activities where the parent's sole responsibility is to transport said children to and from said activity. During said activity, the supreme modern parent attentively views their child's participation; the modestly decent parent fills time with book-reading or phone-talking; and the subpar parent just drops 'em off and picks 'em up.

The line of demarcation has changed significantly in the last 30 years. When I was in elementary school, playing baseball and taking piano lessons, my parents were considered on the higher end merely for paying the fees and driving me. In my seven years of actually playing baseball (as opposed to sitting on the bench and pinch hitting once the game was decided), my parents might have watched two dozen games. And by "my parents" I mean one of them. One year my team (the Reds) made the finals of the playoffs and both of them showed up. That was almost an aligning of the planets kind of event. I won the game with one of those miracle catches that can only be made by someone who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown and whose skills are very much in question. That is to say, I took a routine fly ball and turned it into a miracle basket catch that found me falling backward and basically flipping over.

On the one hand, you'd think maybe a parent would witness this and say, "Holy shit. I've been missing some incredible drama!" But on the other hand, if you were my parents, you'd say, "Holy shit. There's 99 ways Billy could have screwed that up, and we witnessed the one time he managed to find success. Maybe we should quit while we're ahead."

Not that I'm bitter. In fact, I'm totally jealous. I'm trapped in a generation where parents are more obligated to care, to function as an engaged part of the audience. Hence, my attendance at all but two of this year's swim meets, the two I missed due to obligations to my teensy infant boy who doesn't like water, crowds, heat, or anything else about a swim meet. (Yes, that's called Good Evolutionary Instinct.)

Below, and on Thursday, I will offer some random thoughts and observations inspired by yet another season of swimming, organized in subheads for your simpler reading pleasure. [I'm technically on vacation this week, drinking massive amounts of alcohol while also totally being responsible with the supervision of my children. So if anything below or on Thursday fails to make sense, I blame it on all of that.]

BAD MATH: SWIMMING'S MISERABLE TIME "R.O.I."


When it comes to being great athletic supporters for their kids, several of my closest friends are, in this particular portion of the Standardized Parental Aptitude Test, supreme. They score in the high 700s on this part. Granted, all three I'm thinking of are baseball parents to boys. But I work with and am friends with a man who scores a full-on 790 or 800 on this portion no matter what sports his daughter or son play. Soccer, baseball, swimming, running, whatever.

This area is not my strong suit. I'm fighting to keep my score at around 590, which is good enough to get me into your standard SEC level of parenting, but it blows my shot at the Ivy Leagues. As should be obvious from above, I blame my parents. More specifically, I blame growing up thinking that it shouldn't be considered crucial that my parents were there to watch for me to find happiness and enjoyment in an activity.

But I gotta buck up and accept a change in the culture. So. When it comes to supporting your child's sporting adventures, attitude is about 70% of the battle. Knowing enough to be useful and advisory (but not knowing too much, which can be detrimental) is another 10%. And the environment -- the coach, the other parents, the other kids -- is the 20% you can't control.

But dammit, I'm so much better as a soccer parent or as a basketball parent. With those events, even if your kid isn't a starter, their performance and play relates quite directly to what those other kids are doing on the field/court. And if your kid is playing, then you can totally train your focus on your kid. But with swimming? Or wrestling? Or gymnastics? With individual sports like this, you're investing three or four hours of your life to watch your child perform a grand total of maybe two or three minutes. The rest of the time, you sit around trying to act like you give one rat's ass about the other kids who are swimming, including that 17-year-old boy who's wearing swim briefs so small you think he might have stolen them from your 7-year-old daughter.

Thus the Great Paradox of Sports Support #1: I will be vigilant about making sure my daughters know that participation in team sports is not all about them. The team does not revolve around them, but rather vice-versa. However, when it comes to observing your child's team sport, it's totally OK to be all about your own kid. It's a paradox, but I don't believe it's hypocrisy. 

To be continued on Thursday...

Tanya Donnelly was the lead singer of Belly before venturing off on her own. The first is from the album Star, and the second from Lovesongs for Hangovers. Both can be found at iTunes or Amazon.com.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Just Say No?

Explosions In The Sky--"A Poor Man's Memory" (mp3)
Bark, Hide, and Horn--"Change It" (mp3)


The crowd walks briskly in both directions on Wabash Avenue. One man has found a corner, where he can also catch the foot traffic coming up Van Buren. He dances a little, he shakes a plastic cup with some change in it. He holds up a sign: "I'm not gonna lie; it's for beer."

Rewind: the crowd walks briskly in both directions on Wabash Avenue. One man has found a corner, where he can also catch the foot traffic coming up Van Buren. He dances a little, he shakes a plastic cup with some change in it. He holds up a sign: "Please help me take my daughter to see Harry Potter."

Rewind: the crowd walks briskly in both directions on Wabash Avenue. One man has found a corner, where he can also catch the foot traffic coming up Van Buren. He dances a little, he shakes a plastic cup with some change in it. He holds up a sign: "Sorry, folks, but spare change just isn't gonna do it. I need bills, preferably at least a $5."

Fast Forward: later that same day, I was on the "L," riding back toward town from my brother's and a guy comes through the car, an ex-Marine, asking for money. The well-dressed guy next to me mutters, "Yesterday, he was in the Army."

If "being hustled" means being asked for money, then I was "hustled" many times yesterday on the streets and trains of Chicago. Beer, bus fare, a man walking with a little girl who just wanted money for some food. And, no, I'm not some saint with deep pockets who doles out cash to all comers. Sometimes I gave, sometimes I didn't.

But I do think the basic situation here needs some reconsideration. When it comes to sharing what we have and need or don't need with strangers we have so many voices in our heads and we probably have no system for deciding which one we listen to at any given time. Start with the classic "He's just going to use it for alcohol or drugs." Support or counter it with Biblical passages that either advocate sharing with others or that acknowledge that the poor will always be with us. Add little scrutiny of your own behaviors--do you short the tab when it's a group check and not worry about it? do you bum a cigarette from a stranger but never give a handout to one? What about your upbringing? Did your mom caution you never to talk to strangers? Never to pick up hitchhikers? Do you wonder if that guy by the interstate really is a vet who has lost his way and whose country owes him something? Have you given food to the supposedly hungry, only to find out that they took your food and threw it in the trash because they really wanted your money, not your food? Or, did you give your unwanted canned goods to the Food Bank? Does that put a check beside your giving box?

I guess, most important of all, do we have one or two extreme situations from the past that we use to chart our actions in all future encounters? I mean, yes, I've been hassled, I've been lied to, I've been scared. Do I base my actions on the past?

Times are different, and they are hard. I see that more in a large city like Chicago. This isn't the Thirties. Somebody can't just hop a train to get around, they can't hitchhike, they have no hope of knocking on a stranger's door and being invited in for a warm meal. And change isn't a spare as it used to be, and you can't buy a damn thing for a quarter anyway. Often, I don't carry money at all--instead I'm laden with credit cards, gift cards, passes for public transportation. I know I could walk up to an ATM and take out money for somebody, but that's usually farther than I'm willing to go. Once, only once, did I go that far.

And what about the other person's shoes? Have any of us ever had to beg for money? Do we have any idea what that feels like? I don't. But I have had to stand on the side of a busy Santa Cruz road at morning rush hour and literally beg for a ride to a bus station where a friend had taken my car en route to a potentially-suicidal act. It is not fun, it is not uplifting to have to beg for a stranger's assistance.

I have no solution for what to do when a man or a woman stops me on the street and asks for money. I'm inclined to give it if I have it; I've long since stopped worrying about what that person is going to do with it. Probably take their daughter to see Harry Potter. But I do think that we, as a society, need to do some reconsideration, maybe some recalibration, about how we behave towards those who are having to do without. Right now, in a city with 4 million workers, 400,000 of them don't have jobs.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Still, Small Voice is Gone

Silent House - Dixie Chicks (mp3)
Hey Kind Friend - Indigo Girls (mp3)

Charlie Samuel might as well have been 85 when I first met him. I was in second grade when he walked into my Sunday School class and introduced himself as our teacher for the next two years. To a second-grader, anyone over 25 is placed into a singular category of age in our mind: old. Mr. Samuel was Old. Really Old.

I'm fairly certain most of us are born with a Spider Sense, an ability to instinctively feel when someone is a threat to us or if they are a good person, a person we should heed and observe intensely. It might not be 100% accurate -- in all honesty, which of our senses are? -- but it works more often than not, and when my classmates and I first encountered Mr. Samuel, we knew immediately he was a man worthy of our hard-to-focus attention. He wasn't entertaining, necessarily. He didn't put on costumes or sing or flail his arms around when he talked like I'd do if I had to teach young elementary students about the Bible. He just oozed Wisdom. It emanated out of his pores like garlic. His calm and soft-spoken manner simply helped affirm this sense.

Older people tend to think children and teenagers don't appreciate wisdom, don't respect the wisdom of their elders, but I happen to think that's a misguided accusation. Like most people I know, teenagers and kids respect wisdom plenty, we just don't always understand it. And sometimes the wisdom of our elders risks getting in the way of our own experiences. We want to find out for ourselves whether that stove eye is really hot. That's what makes us human. That's what makes us need to go to Sunday School.

I can't exactly claim I remember any of his specific lessons. I can't even say I remember many of the oodles of Bible verses he asked our class to memorize. I was so good at it that he started giving me extra ones to memorize, but I've long forgotten the word-for-word versions and have to rely on my ad-libbed versions and hope I can find a Bible around to verify the general gist of it for me.

While I don't remember the lessons, I remember Mr. Samuel. Even then I knew he was a good man, and maybe even a great man, at least in the limited scope of my interactions with him, which was limited to church.

Once I'd left his class I moved on to other teachers, younger teachers and youth leaders more inclined to entertain, or sing, or flail their arms about when talking. But Mr. Samuel was not done with us. He continued to keep track of us. Like an owl, he would watch me proudly -- and maybe with just a hint of concern -- as I evolved and aged in the halls and sanctuary of our church.

Years later I had finished college, eventually returned to Chattanooga, and found myself back at First Cumberland, where I began to learn more about Mr. Samuel. (When you're a second-grader, you don't realize that people have lives outside your presence. You kinda figure they pop out of thin air to teach your Sunday School class and then, once you leave, they go back in their box until next Sunday. All kids think they live in something akin to The Truman Show.)

I learned he served in World War II. I learned he was a husband and a father. I learned he was respected and endeared as much by the adults at our church as he was by me and all those kids he taught. He was, as best I could tell, that rarest of men whose missteps were few and whose enemies existed only on other dimensions. Not only did everyone in our church admire and respect him, but he also played down his successes and achievements with tremendous humility. It would have been easier to remove molars from his mouth with a spoon than to have him discuss his life's accomplishments.

The first day I dared step into a Sunday School classroom as a teacher myself -- some 17 years after I first encountered him -- Mr. Samuel solidified his place as one of my few true heroes. I knew at that moment I could only hope to be a shadow of the teacher, the man, the imparter of Wisdom he was, a man whose successes were measured in people, not things or awards, whose power was measured in quiet confidence and tenderness, not prominence or news stories.

Four years ago, our church learned Mr. Samuel had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and the news both frightened and saddened me. We live in a time where it seems if death hasn't found you by a certain age, cancer or Alzheimer's will. Time, it would seem, is not really on our side after all. Not in this life, at least. His struggle was difficult to witness, and the challenges such an illness puts on the family of a victim are impossible to grasp. I know Mrs. Samuel struggled with it, with him, and on several occasions I found myself overcome with emotion and racing for solitude after talking with her about it. Even the most courageous souls can be frightened and panicked when confronting an illness that slowly erases the mind, the gradual human impersonation of a chicken with its head cut off.

Still, whenever his body and health could manage it, he was in church. He, too, might have forgotten many of the Bible verses he used to have memorized, but I don't think he could ever forget God and his relationship with Jesus Christ.

In the late fall of 2007, columnist Rosa Brooks lamented how carelessly Americans today sling around the title of "hero." She regretted that giving such a noble title to so many for doing so little sullied the very power of the word, and I agree with her. We've lowered the standards on most things lately, and those whom we call "heroes" is on that list.

Charlie Samuel might very well deserve to be considered a hero by anyone who knew him, but he might not. From my perspective, it really doesn't matter whether he earned that specific title. What Charlie Samuel was -- for his church and beyond -- was a living, breathing example of someone whose actions, words, and deeds proclaimed the glory of Jesus Christ. He was a man who embodied that so-true quote from St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words."

Lifelong role model. Priceless teacher. Honorable and humble man. Thank you thank you thank you God for your servant, Charlie.

Charlie Samuel died Wednesday, July 15. He was 82.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

How To "Rig" Your Life

Stephen Delopoulos--"She Held My Hand" (mp3)
Billy Bragg--"I Keep Faith" (mp3)


We like to make fun of the previous owner of our house (now 16 years gone from there). He was a classic do-it-yourselfer, and being the jejeune home purchasers that we were back then, we were more enthralled by all of the new things he had done, from playroom in the basement to huge new deck in back, than we were in carefully examining his craftsmanship.

In short, Gene (his real name) rigged everything.

A definition: in our family lexicon, the verb "to rig" means that one has found some partially-thought-out shortcut for making something work. And, implicit in that definition is the idea that if you "rig" things, you also make do with things that no longer work.

What Gene knew is that when you do things yourself, you don't have to bring out a County Inspector to make sure that your work is up to Code. He also knew, which we didn't, that it might be worth it to put a shitload of work into a house in order to be able to sell it. Once long gone, it doesn't matter anymore if the basement is going to flood several times each winter, if the huge deck is going to trap moisture against the back of the house and cause it to rot, if the homemade drainage system for the washing machine flows upward rather than downward.

Almost all of the money we've had to put into our house, or plan to, is because of the results of Gene's rigging.

But the fact is that I, too, am a rigger. Not every modern man is a home improvement specialist, so if you don't know how to fix things, you at least have to figure out how to get by, do without, or rig a temporary solution.

Though I fancy myself a pretty good cook, I may be even more proud of the fact that I cook all of those meals on a stove where only one and a half of the 4 burners work (one works part of the time if you really slam it into the socket). Though I don't know how to create drainage system, I can dig a ditch and create a wall so that most of the laundry water drainage won't run back into the house. I can put a bucket under a leak. I can make a toilet whose innards are falling apart keep flushing with a rusty safety pin. I can paint over anything without conscience.

But to paraphrase someone who might have once said something famous: "He who lives by the rig, dies by the rig."

And so, two weeks ago, I found myself on an interstate past Louisville, Kentucky in a Toyota Camry whose basic systems had been compromised, even though it was still running. Drive up mountains and it will overheat. Drive too fast and it will overheat. Drive in the hot temperatures of that day with the air conditioner on too long and it will overheat. But I had figured out those parameters pretty quickly, and so, through constant negotiations between speed and heat and altitude, I had made it over 300 miles and was feeling pretty good about my chances of making it another 180 miles before stopping for the night. I was driving 65 miles per hour and feeling socially responsible that I was getting 35 mpg, something I'd never done before. Yep, I had it licked. A little hot and sweaty, but the music was blaring and I was feeling good.

That was when I hit the dead stop of all lanes on the interstate. I'd just had my brakes done, so I coasted to a smooth stop and prepared to wait it out, windows down, a/c off. Yeah, I sat for awhile and it was hot, but the car didn't overheat while idling and I had a cup of ice left over from a Panera drink and I was alone, so I was as patient as I can get when traffic stops. Soon enough, traffic started to pull forward, so in preparation, I put up the windows, switched the a/c back on and prepared to resume my course. When the car in front of me started to move, I, too, put my foot on the gas. The car clicked and died.

Now, there are two things that I've yet to tell you about. First, that there is a problem with the battery in the Camry, that postive post on the battery has worn down and the cable cannot be tightened enough to keep the charge flowing solidly, so that if it gets jarred too much, the car loses power. Now, I once had that thing rigged, with a piece of string that pulled that cable to the right and kept tension on it and kept electricity, flowing, but, in between then and now, the car has been in the shop and they have derigged my rigging. Second, that over time, since it's a 1996, both handles on the front doors have broken off and you have to put the window down and open the door from the outside. Which you can't do when the battery connection has slipped. So, I'm sitting in a dead Camry in the middle of the interstate and cars are beginning to honk behind me and not only can I not start the car, I can't even get out.

It is the Perfect Storm of the "rigging" lifestyle.

The only solution is to slither between the seats to the back and to slide out the back door on the passenger side hands first, walk around to the driver's door, open it from the outside, reach inside, release the hood, open the hood, pull the left battery cable as far to the right as possible to try to get a connection, close the hood, get back inside and try to start the car. By that time, cars are passing me on both sides of that left lane of the interstate, shouting derisively and raising their hands like "What the f*#k?" and no one offering any help because I am the last impediment to their getting back up to interstate speed. But, yes, the car starts, and, yes, I start driving again.

At some point, in 10 days or so, I will have to drive back home. I will have to negotiate altitude and speed and heat. But, most of all, I will have to confront once again the consequences of being a "rigger." And though I probably will make it home, the process may not be pretty.

Happy birthday to my wife on her birthday, she who "held my hand" and "keeps the faith" as I rig us through the days.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Rinking 2: Electric Boogaloo

Rollin' - Limp Bizkit (mp3)
Magic (Archangel Knight's Inline Sk8 128 BPM Remix) - Olivia Newton-John (mp3)

Sunday after lunch, I took my two girls and a 9-year-old boy/friend of the family to the local rollerskating rink for an afternoon of hard knocks.

Most children of the '70s and '80s are likely to have etched-in-stone memories of rollerskating rinks. The birthday parties. The really cool and cute elementary school girls who could skate backwards. The supercool ones who could skate backwards AND shake their hips to the music. The games of Red Light Green Light. Reverse skates. The back corner on the side opposite the main entrance, where the 4-foot-high wall around the rink melded into the wall, where the really cool kids would sneak over and kiss or do other Truth Or Dare kinds of things that were the stuff of elementary school legend. And all the dance-friendly pop music you could ever stomach.

Close your eyes and think back to some of your memories of being in a rollerskating rink 20, 30, even 40 years ago.

Now open them inside Hamilton Place Skate World.

Holy shit!! Nothing's changed!!

Dear readers, I kid you not. Jim Croce DID manage to save time in a bottle, except the bottle is also called "skating rinks," and Jim Croce is strapped to his electric chair in hell having to listen to The Macarena and The Electric Slide over and over while people of varying ages roll and bob and stumble and fall on a flat surface while strobe lights waft over them. The entire cast from The Rocky Horror Picture Show sang "Time Warp" in my ears as I entered that rink for the first time.

To the best of my recollection, here are the only things that have changed since 1983:
  • No more 4-foot handrail around the rink. Now it's just a step;
  • You can rent in-line skates for twice the amount or stick with the tried-and-true 4-wheelers;
  • People of different racial make-up skate in the same place!

A few other random thoughts about my three-hour experience:

THE DIVA -- One 11-year-old girl was mind-bogglingly good. Although perhaps a teensy bit overweight, she was agile and technically impressive and was downright entertaining to watch as she circled the floor. Two other girls about her age were basically her rollerskating version of Crabbe and Goyle, following and mimicking her as best they could. More than Slytherins, they reminded me of a too-young version of Heathers. Except, like, down a couple of notches on the income level. I never want to take my girls to the rink frequently enough that they could join that group. Being Queen of the Roller Rink in 2010... might as well buy some poodle skirts and teach 'em to do the Hand Jive with Danny and Rizzo.

THE PERV -- Most of the parental (and grandparental) chaperones sat on the tables next to the snack bar, reading books. A few big-time dorks like myself were out there proving that shitty coordination does not discriminate on the basis of age. But one man in his 50s, who reminded me of Napoleon Dynomite's Uncle Rico, was, like, the Superman of Roller Skating. He wore a white button-down with jorts, and tube socks that stopped just below his calves. He had a 'stache and close-cropped salt-n-pepa hair with a dollop of hair gel. One would have to be an absolute nin-cow-poop to see this guy and not have some serious Chester the Molester bells ringing to 11 in your ears.

He stayed out on the floor almost the entire time we were there. And all the regular kids knew him. It was clear he had taught many of them how to skate, and I saw him giving 10-15 minute mini-lessons to two different kids while I was there, trying to show them how to skate backwards. (Hell, I almost asked for help.) He was like the Pied Skater of Hamilton or something.

Because I am a firm believer in the ideal that everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt*, I must acknowledge that maybe the guy wasn't so much a predator as a nice socially awkward dude who just looks exactly like a predator.

THE HITS -- Many moons ago, I wrote a post about my belief that the number of universally-known pop songs was diminishing over time as tastes branched out and radio died and MTV died. If you go to skating rinks once every week or so, you will probably stay up-to-date on all the best Chris Brown and Taylor Swift songs. You probably won't suffer to the degree of most people. Those regular kids -- the followers of the Pied Skater -- knew every song, every word, every bit. But their knowledge is due to something totally Old School, which is to say going to a friggin' roller rink.

Anyway, point is, I think we're going again in three weeks. Should be groovy.

Monday, July 13, 2009

How Blogging Saved My Life (musically, at least)

The Fiery Furnaces--"The End Is Near" (mp3)
The Fiery Furnaces--"Charmaine Champagne" (mp3)


Here's what blogging has done for me:

1. Much as I love music, I tend to keep getting set in my ways, being dismissive of new bands and trends and falling back on the quality stuff from the past.

2. One Christmas Day, a few years back, I start wondering what some people considered to be the best songs/CDs of the year. I was getting Entertainment Weekly at the time, and their choices were always kind of interesting. So I did the Google search and there were all kinds of lists from places great and small. And that was how I discovered music blogs. Before that, I didn't know, really, what a blog was, except for the political blogs like http://www.truthout.org/.

And people I didn't know were writing compelling arguments for the best songs of the year by bands I had never even heard of. In particular, there was a song called "Rubies" by Destroyer that a blog listed as the best song of the year. Intrigued, I downloaded it and quickly fell under the spell of this sprawling, sloppy, free-association 8-minute opus. Yes, folks, I had an epiphany and realized (to paraphrase Shakespeare), "There is more to modern music than is dreamt of in your philosophy, Bob."

3. So Billy and I come back from our annual trip to New Orleans and decide to start a music and writing blog. Now we're over 350 posts in. And when I'm putting up 2-3 posts a week, I can't just go back to the CD collection over and over, nor do I want to. So I listen to what is on the other blogs and get informed about what's out there. And slowly, slowly, slowly I begin to grasp the the larger musical landscape. That Destroyer, for example, is a spin-off of the New Pornographers, just like A.C. Newman and Neko Case.

4. Which takes me a huge leap forward to Chicago, now, and someone in my seminar saying, "Hey, the Fiery Furnaces are playing, do you know them?" and me thinking/saying, "Yes, I think I have a couple of their songs and I know a little bit about them." And that's enough for me to go. That's enough for me to buy tickets to the Pitchfork Music festival where, again, I scan the list of performers and realize, 'I know this band and that band, not well, but they seem pretty good.'

5. So, armed with that little bit of knowledge, how can I turn down a Fiery Furnaces concert being put on for free in Millenium Park, just a couple of blocks from where I'm staying? Answer: I can't.
And, live, the Furnaces are a revelation. While the occasional track I've heard here and there seem to have some pretensions towards art rock, when you see them live, they are the real deal, the stripped down, singer-guitar-bass-drums. Live, they are the young Pretenders, vocalist Eleanor Friedberger half-singing, half-talking her way through the songs (without the sneer!), kneeling to take herself out of the picture while the band jams. Brother Matt is a superb guitarist who apparently can do anything he wants on the instrument whenever he wants to, but most of the time he holds back, playing jarring rhythms and odd little inserts between vocals or toying with vocals. And the drummer just kicks ass. He drives the songs through all their twists and turns, allowing the rest of the band to explore. This is a band that needs no keyboards or synthetic noodles; the songs come alive best with just the basics.
Great show. Glad I went. Maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Hey, Baby, It's Summer! Everything Is Ripe And Full And Bursting With Flavor!

Oh No Oh My--"Summer Days" (mp3)
Seals and Crofts--"Summer Breeze" (mp3)
Tower of Foil--"The Comedy Of Summer Rain" (mp3)


I was cruising around Chicago yesterday, after a trip to the South Side to get a breaded steak sandwich at Ricobene's, I took a different exit to get out of the stalled traffic on I-90/94. That's the beauty of the GPS. You can turn wherever you want and, as long as you've got that destination programmed in, that cool, calm, and collected voice will get you back to where you need to go.

After a detour on Division, I ended up on a street I'd never heard of, driving past a place called Stanley's Fruit Market, which had a packed parking lot and people standing out front shucking corn under a sign that read "Fresh Corn, 10 for $1.00."

I knew I had to investigate. What I walked into was the most amazing place I've ever seen. Wall-to-wall produce at unbelievable prices. Tons of it. Examples: I bought a cauliflower for 83 cents. I bought 4 ears of fresh corn for 40 cents. I bought a red bell pepper for 55 cents. I bought a massive bag of those baby lettuces they make salads with in restaurants. For $2.98. The produce was ripe, and fresh, and top quality. And people were everywhere, buying it like crazy.

Oh, Harry's may have the exotic and Whole Foods may have more organics, but this was incredible stuff at prices people could afford.

What a pleasure it is to walk into of Nature's bounty in the middle of the summer. It set my mind to working: 'OK, I'm in a city not my own, I don't have all that much gear to cook with, I don't have a bunch of extra spices and niche items and I don't want to buy any, so what can I make?'

The answer was gazpacho. What says summer more than a bunch of vegetables at their peak, with tomatoes at the center, blended together and allowed to mingle for a while with lime and fresh cilantro and jalapeno to perk things up.


If you are so inclined, here's the recipe from my 50th birthday cookbook:



GAZPACHO

Gazpacho is one of the great pleasures of the summer. There’s little point in making this cool soup if you don’t have the freshest tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. Mine is adapted from something Martha Stewart once made; her addition of cilantro and lime gives this version a Mexican flair. She also uses very little oil, another plus. The recipe is all prep work. Once you’ve done all of the chopping and dicing, the soup comes together practically in seconds.

1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 medium jalapeno pepper, seeded and ribbed and diced
1 small red onion, diced
1 lb fresh ripe tomatoes, diced
1 seedless cucumber unpeeled, but diced
3 Tbl chopped cilantro
2 Tbl olive oil
1 Tbl red wine vinegar
2 Tbl fresh lime juice
1 tsp salt
freshly ground pepper to taste

Set aside 1/3 cup red pepper, 1 tsp jalapeno, 1/3 cup onion, 1/3 cup tomato, 1/3 cup cucumber, and 1 Tbl cilantro. Put remaining vegetable in food processor with oil, vinegar, lime juice, salt and pepper. Process until smooth. Add reserved vegetables and process briefly—leave slightly chunky. Chill gazpacho for at least 4 hours or overnight to allow flavors to blend.

Friday, July 10, 2009

DJ for an Hour... Relive the Action! The Drama! The Monotone!


(I removed my name to protect my family.)

Most readers already knew about and/or suffered through the "DJ for an Hour" I enjoyed with our local NPR affiliate, but I had a couple -- yes, two -- people who read this blog say they were unable to listen and would love to be able to hear it.

So above is the full hour. The slider allows you to fast-forward through the music, or through my random commentary, or all of it. It's like TiVo or something!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

"If you go there, you are preparing to die."

We Share Our Mother's Health - The Knife (mp3)
Doctor! Doctor! - The Thompson Twins (mp3)

My view of health care is a little skewed.

As we drove through Nairobi on our way out of the city in the summer of 2007, I found myself mesmerized by the easy comparisons and contrasts between what I was seeing and my Traditional American Notion of a city.

Heavily-trafficked streets that aren't streets so much as bumpy surfaces similar to the surface of the moon, except brown. Rows of one-story shack-like buildings painted a variety of over-bright colors dimmed by mud and time that serve as their own version of shopping plazas. Nice hotels where security guards armed with automatic weaponry use long poles with mirrors to ensure there is no bomb strapped under your car before allowing you into the entryway.

One of the more telling moments about just how far out of Kansas we really were occurred when we passed one of Nairobi's hospitals. (For all I know, it was the ONLY hospital.) The building was a maroonish color and went up at least six or seven stories, and it looked more like a large prison complex than my notion of a hospital. When our driver pointed it out, I said something to that effect, and his response was, "It is a bad place."

"The hospital? Is a bad place?" I asked.

"If you must go to the hospital, you are preparing to die."

Being dim, I needed clarification. "Are you saying that you don't go to the hospital if you're just, sort of, sick?"

"No no. If you go to the hospital, you are close to death. You don't go there unless you have no other hope."

When it comes to health care, this experience is the health care equivalent of your mother's "There are starving children in Africa" speech. I've seen starving children in Africa, and I've seen hospitals in Africa. More importantly, I've seen the public opinion of hospitals and health care in Africa, and it ain't pretty.

Amongst my in-laws, I'm pretty much the lone voice of liberal dissent. My politically vociferous in-laws range from Ann Coulter and Neil Boortz to Sean Hannity and John Stossel (That's the one who's a Libertarian in Republican's clothing). There might be an albino Walter E. Williams in there as well. But there's nothing so reasonable as a David Brooks or George Will amongst them.

Anyway, because everyone needs a common enemy, I'm constantly CC'd on their email exchanges regarding politics, and once in a while I take the bait and engage in smart-assed or sincere disagreement with them. Lately, every day seems to include a handful of email exchanges from these Righties about health care. Being Righties, they insist that Obama's plan will obliterate all private insurance companies and leave us with a system even more incompetent than that stupid wacky Canadian system.

Disclosure: I know jack and shit about health care. (And, as Ash from the Evil Dead series would say, "Jack just left town.")

I've read plenty, but I don't really know anything beyond personal experience. But here's two things I know with absolute certainty: (1) The rising cost of insurance has virtually obliterated every penny of my salary increase for the past eight years; (2) Ain't nothing about health care in 2009, when compared to 2001, has gotten better where me and my family are involved, at least not nearly enough to explain sucking away virtually every cent of my pay raises.*

* -- Note to rich people: I'm in education. Three percent of shit is a mere teensy dingleberry, cash-wise. So the fact that my insurance increases leapfrogs my pay probably means little to you in your fancy mansions on the hills.




I don't know whether Obama's plan will do any good. It's entirely possible it could have the scare-mongering effect conservatives claim, although I doubt it. But all this conservative talk about how free markets correct themselves and would lower costs and be more efficient... well, that clearly ain't happening in the world of health care. And all the spinning in the world ain't gonna make it so.

And compared to Kenya, I know we're lucky to have the system we have, flaws and all.

But I believe deeply that what we're getting for what we're paying is, in no uncertain terms, a racket. It's a sham. A complicated Ponzi Scheme of payments going to lawyers and insurance companies and drug reps and God-only-knows who else. I believe, without equivocation, that health care and insurance shouldn't have to be this expensive. I believe the system has proven itself incapable of fixing its own problems. I believe our government, unfortunately, is the last option at trying to force those wheels to set in motion.

Until powers from the Right -- or some insurance companies -- prove they can make wheels turn in a different direction with promising results, then I'm forced to back the only cards I see getting played. Inaction seems to have proven a failed option.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Concert Flashback

Jethro Tull--"To Cry You A Song" (mp3)
Jethro Tull--"Bouree" (mp3)


Here's how the stars lined up this week: getting dragged onto Facebook which leads, of course, to getting in touch immediately with high school friends (because that's what you do on Facebook, isn't it, even though you had previously made no other effort to get in touch with them?) and then walking down the street to the "L" and hearing Jethro Tull come out of nowhere on my Ipod, all of these things have me reminiscing about one of those classic concert experiences that could only happen once. Because, sometimes, we're only that stupid once.

The band was Jethro Tull. The year was 1974. If you lived in Pittsburgh as a teenager at that time, Tull (that's all anybody ever called them) was one of the four cornerstones of your album collection. I'll leave the other three to your imagination or debate. By 1974, they were at their commercial peak since the album they were touring behind included radio hits "Bungle In The Jungle" and "Skating Away On The Thin Ice Of A New Day." But you know how it goes. Young males like me and my friends were going for the classic hits they had been spawning since about 1970: "Locomotive Breath," "Aqualung," "Teacher," portions of Thick as a Brick, etc.

Seven or eight of us decided to get tickets on a school night junior year. It was a big deal. I didn't start going to concerts until 10th grade, and this one was the first large scale, everybody's going kind of event. Deep Purple had been a good warm-up the year before, but this one was the social event. So we wanted to do it right.

I don't know who came up with the idea of shampoo bottles. To the teenage mind, it was pure genius. Everyone empty out one of their family's shampoo bottles, which they will wash out thoroughly and then fill with some kind of liquor stolen from their family's liquor supply. The shampoo bottle full of alcohol would then be smuggled into the concert in one of our socks underneath our bellbottom blue jeans. Brilliant, right?

For those with sharp tastebuds among our readership, I will add this slight negative: you can rinse and rinse and rinse a shampoo bottle over and over, but you will still not get the complete taste or smell of shampoo out of the bottle.

I will say this: in the long history of concerts that I've seen, the Jethro Tull concert was one of the very best. What I remember of it. A highly-skilled band, Tull still had a very obvious imbalance of power, as frontman Ian Anderson commanded the stage in ways that few others ever have. His combination of singing, acoustic guitar prowess, flute playing, and energetic gymnastics was so unique, so demanding of the eye, that there is no one even 35 years later that I can compare him to. Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips has some of the gimmicks and physicality, but not the musicianship. And the band behind him, especially Martin Barre on guitar, recreated the songs perfectly, but not quite the same as on the albums.

As time has not been kind to Jethro Tull (their music would seem to have almost no relevance today), it is perhaps hard to understand how Tull could draw from any part of their catalog, any excerpt of their concept albums, and still the audience knew what they were playing and was right with them. Of rock bands at that time, only Led Zeppelin could equal their ability to blend electric and acoustic offerings without affecting the pacing of the show. "Wond'ring Aloud" brought the same hyper-enthusiastic response as "Cross-Eyed Mary."

But at some point, we were beyond that, a result of the secret liquor that we were dumping into Cokes with abandon. Halfway through the concert we were completely blitzed, and keeping a fuzzy eye on each other was as much an activity as rocking to the incredible setlist. Ian Anderson had brought out a beach ball and was playing a trained seal during "Bungle In The Jungle," but I was wondering where my friend Bob was, he who always took things a bit farther than the rest of us.

The Civic Arena in Pittsburgh, where the concert was held, was a friend to us. We had been there many, many times for Penguins' hockey games, shelling out $2 for general admission seats. We had seen several concerts there by then as well, with more to follow--Traffic, Yes, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and a myriad of others--so I was covering familiar ground when I went looking for Bob. I found him slouched on the ground on the causway below the higher seats. Some of the concert officials were coming to check him out, so I picked him up by wrapping my arms around his abdomen and hauling him upwards. This caused all of the contents of his stomach to spew out, and I had a bit of job convincing the ushers that he was okay and that I could get him back to our seats.

First encore: "Thick As A Brick, edit 1" as it came to be called, which means the opening to the album, the appropriate beginning lines, "Really don't mind if you sit this one out...." Stunning. The acoustic guitar, the sonic highs and lows, the audience knowing every word, the Mt. Lebanon gang about played out at that point. Followed by the closer, "Locomotive Breath," built around one of the great rock riffs. At concert's end, with the lights up, we were all splayed in our seats, almost unable to move but knowing we had to find the trolley and ride it home back to our suburb.

And then, the smartass usher walks up to us, looks at the ground below us, and asks, "All right, who's been drinking all the shampoo?"

Ah, 1974. The memory of the Jethro Tull show is bittersweet because Bob is no longer with us, but I like to recall the bravado back then that would never allow us to believe that such a thing could be.

Jethro Tull is available at Itunes. Note: to our summer readers, we sure appreciate you being here with our regular readers on vacation.