Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Epiphany #51: Man Turns Subaru Into Man Truck

It doesn't seem possible, but I did it--took a beaten down, pussy-whipped 2001 Subaru Outback, white for God's sakes, and turned it into a man truck.  Or at least the station wagon version of such.  Here's how I did it.

First, I cleaned the heck out of it, top to bottom, front to back, outside to in, for a man' truck is his most prized possession, and I wanted my Sube to get that same feeling of love.  (I've just cone back from Florida, living the condo life, and the guy two spaces down from me washed his truck twice a week so that it looked brand new--whether he ever let his wife ride in it, I couldn't really tell.)

I started with a scorched Earth clearing out of everything that accumulated in the car during the last three years, including judiciously throwing most of the moldy food away.  I removed history books and Cormac McCarthy novels, cookbooks and canning supplies.  You know, guy stuff.  The bike rack that I never could attach right and which required me to stop every 30 miles on a drive to Florida a couple of years ago when the bikes started disappearing from view.  Nine crumpled ties.  Five copies of the same music and lyrics.  Scattered chocolate almonds my dad had given me last year that through heat and time had swelled up to look like truffles.

Next, I got rid of all the girl stuff.  That meant getting all of the hair bands stored on the turn signal bar and the polka dot phone cases and any fleece accoutrements stored in various crevices, as well any lingering, potentially embarrassing CDs.

A large black trash bag got filled.  Books intended for somewhere else returned to the basement.  Clothes, pieces of plastic that looked important for some years, a portable vacuum cleaner that miraculously still held a charge, all gone.

Then I sprung for the $10 car wash down the road so I could use their super-suction vacuum.  The poor guy in the stall next to me got there after me, so he had to pretend to wipe down the outside of his car with a cloth while he waited for my thirty-minute suck job.  I stuck that powerful nozzle anywhere it would go and was way beyond caring whether what it was sucking up was valuable or not.  I just thrilled to hearing that each sticky coin, leaf, receipt, piece of dirt or almond was gone forever.

Back home, and armed with Armor-All spray and wipes, I wiped down every surface inside the car, getting it clean(er) and shiny, with that good Armor-All smell.  Until I got tired of doing it because there places--historical stains--where I just had to give up.

With the car finally clean inside and out, it was time to man it up.  There were three things I knew I needed for sure--change, tools, and a cooler.

A man has to have change in his vehicle.  He's got to have a place to keep that change, because he needs to have change in case he ever might need it, especially when another man is riding with him and the need for change comes up.  "I've got it," a man says as he reaches for his idiosyncratic change holder with pleasure and satisfaction.  His male passenger would have expected nothing less.  Give a woman a change holder and she'll rip through scrounging for Diet Coke money

I knew right away that I needed a place to store my tools, so I went down into the basement and "borrowed" an antique wooden box of my wife's.  It's pretty.  I put my wrenches and pliers in there, the ones I found under the front seat from times I tried to get the cables off of a rusted dead battery.  I put my jumper cables in there.  And a socket set my neighbor gave me when he saw I couldn't get the cables off the rusted battery.  And my cleaning supplies, paper towels and Armor-All products, in case I ever clean the car again.

The cooler came from the basement, where I have a closet full of them, since I buy a new one every time I forget to bring one.  You never know when a man might take a drive down to Trader Joe's.

As I gave the Sub-Man-"Truck" a final once over, I discovered that I had paid no attention to storage pouches on the backs of the driver's seat and the front passenger seat.  Each one contained a romance novel.  But as I reached for them in the final act of purgation, I thought, 'Maybe I need them books in here to remind me of romance once in awhile.'  After all, a man who's proud of his ride wants to take his woman out in it and show it off and show her off.  At least in the driveway.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Walk Softly and Carry a Big Metaphor

When was the last time you saw a sci-fi dystopian action-tinted special-effects bonanza sitting on Rotten Tomatoes with a 94% rating? And for reasons that neither matter to normal people nor are worth getting into, it's available for rent via Amazon or iTunes even as it plays in select theaters around the country. And I desperately needed a 2-hour escape. So I rented Snowpiercer.

Starring Chris Evans, aka Steve Austin, aka Captain America, Snowpiercer is set in a future where humanity, in an attempt at preventing global warming, has sent the planet into a second chemically-induced ice age. The last humans are all on a single special train on a special track that traverses the earth over the course of each year. New Year's Day is celebrated every year as the train crosses a particular bridge.

Everyone is on a train. The train goes around the world once every year. It is powered by a magic eternally-sustaining engine. Water is collected when the train goes through some unknown number of super-frozen areas where the train must pierce through in order to remain on course. Hence, duh, the movie's name.

The collected metaphor of this movie are about as subtle as a hand grenade in a barrel of oatmeal, as Foghorn Leghorn would say.

(Nothing worth being spoiled will be exposed here. There are plenty of moments that deserve to be enjoyed without knowing what to expect or what is coming.)

We are all in that train. We are all headed in circles, accepting our fates, crossing our fingers that our miserable and unfair existences can survive with us doing absolutely nothing but mouthbreathing and cashing in our meager paychecks. A precious minority -- let's just say one percent -- enjoy a life the rest of us can only imagine but never get the chance to experience or even witness.

I don't mind being hit over the head with a metaphor. Even if it falls apart a little, the boldness and audacity of the attempt are enough to keep that train a'rollin'. The plot isn't bristling with originality, but neither is it so predictable or trite as to ruin the experience. Further, the metaphor and the details within the delivery - a massive fight scene inside a pitch-black tunnel, the mockery of modern education, the ways we so quickly explain away our souls in order to survive - consistently takes you aback or asks you to think in a way few movies lately seem inclined to do.

Sure, it's derivative. What ain't? It was almost fun rattling off all the sci-fi, or dystopian, or prison, or satires that have a moment or an idea stolen from them over the course of the movie, and never once did it really detract from its enjoyability.

Three in particular are worth mentioning, however. Two because they're worth recommending, and the third because it's absolutely not.

First, Snowpiercer is everything, more or less, I'd hoped to find in Southland Tales, the follow-up film from Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly. Quirky, unpredictable, and an unsubtle and cynical metaphor with tiny firefly glimmers of optimism.

Second, many moments reminded me of the science fiction book Wool (Omnibus) by Hugh Howey. Although I've only read the first in the trilogy, similar themes thread across both dystopian settings and mankind's seemingly-dwindling place in it. Issues of trust, of "out there" and "in here," and knowing your place in the pecking order permeate both. That these kinds of questions keep stubbornly sprouting like dandelions in the cracks of our modern fiction seems no accident. They've always been around, back to Alice in Wonderland and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and well before those, arguably to the Bible. Perhaps we're on the verge of another spiritual crisis and just don't know it yet.

Finally, Snowpiercer reminded me of the Wim Wenders cult film Until the End of the World starring William Hurt. It, too, is a movie whose flaws are mostly the consequence of ambition rather than incompetence. It begins as a road movie, of girl chasing mysterious handsome stranger, and ends as something entirely different, a dystopian metaphor that explores issues of memory, dreams, technology, addiction and the ways we flee, intentionally or accidentally, from relationships. The film not only introduced me to one of my favorite songs of all time, "Calling All Angels" by Jane Siberry with k.d. lang, but it was one of only a handful of college-era moviegoing experiences where I left the theater feeling profoundly challenged.

I can't say Snowpiercer left me feeling "profoundly challenged," but at least it wanted to be more than a superhero flick, more than a converted YA novel, more than just a popcorn movie.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Epiphany #50: Health Care Coincidence

Okay, here's an odd coincidence:  at the same time, my father and my cat experienced the same health care crisis.

On almost the same day, my father and my cat received puncture wounds from a cat.  For my father, it was his house cat, Billy, who got a little to frisky while they were playing and got his teeth into my dad's paper-thin, 88-year-old skin.

For my cat, Gus, he is mostly an indoor cat, but he goes out once or twice a day, and at some point, he got into a fight with another neighborhood cat.

The outcome was the same.  Sometime after the event, my dad's hand swelled up from the infection inside the bite puncture.  And, my cat holed up in the house, nursing his wounds to his paw that had swollen up after the cat fight.

Now, when I found out about my dad, he was in the emergency room.  They gave him a tetanus shot and an antibiotic to treat both the immediate danger and the infection.  He called me from the hospital, upbeat and well cared for.  He has great health care, Medicare plus a supplement, which allows him to go to a doctor or hospital any time he feels like it to get checked out for whatever is bothering him in the slightest, for which he pays a nominal fee.

My cat, on the other hand, when it became clear that his paw was not going to get better, had to be taken to the vet.  For his short and long term treatments, plus updates on various shots, heart worms, cat leukemia, etc., it cost over $400.  That's right.  $400.

And there's the issue right there.  A) I don't know anyone who can drop an unplanned $400 out of nowhere that easily and B) I don't know anyone who understands, let alone has invested in, whatever kind of pet health insurance is out there.

If you really want to talk about "death panels" beyond the idiocy of Sarah Palin or conservative people of her ilk, then you are talking about pets, not elderly.  And you are talking about your pets.  And you are the death panel.  For in modern America, it is health for your own pet and the tough choices that you will have to make, that will make you cringe.

Pets are awesome, until you have to take them to the vet, and then you start to sweat the money that you may have to spend and the choices that you will have to make.  Let's be realistic: the best pet that you could possibly have isn't going to live more than about 15 years, and you are going to make decisions based on two things.  First, will be that relatively short life span.  Second will be the cost/benefit analysis of that short life and what it will cost to extend it.  Plus, if you decide to end your pet's life, no one will judge you, at least not for very long.  Certainly not Sarah Palin.

We do not have good options for pets in this country.  We can't help feeling like when we enter the vet's office that we must grapple with the pet version of Valvoline, where we feel like we are being offered services that we don't really need.  We just can't tell.  We might go for some of them out of guilt.  We might decide that we can hold off until the next tune-up.  We might have to make a purely financial decision.

All I know is that my cat's care is far more expensive than my father's, and that it doesn't matter whether you factor in health insurance or not.  The choices that I have to make for my cat or dog are based on money; the ones that my father makes, or that I will eventually make for him, are not, for the most part.   That doesn't seem right.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Epiphany #49: Sweatin' The Oldies

Yes, Key West is a cool place to be, well, actually no, it isn't, it's almost unbearably hot when the temperature is mixed in with the oppressive humidity, but still, it's another world down here and a good one to visit for a few days, but, really, must they play those godawful oldies everywhere?

I am sick of oldies, done with oldies, wishing I was the dictator of a small tropical country where I could put an imperial ban on oldies.  And, no, I'm not talking about the elderly among us.  I'm talking about the songs of the 60's and 70's. The now-designated hit songs.

Why do so many places establish as their vibe while you eat or shop the hits of the 50's, 60's and early 70's?

Way back in 1967, when I was 10 years old, I can remember being awakened sometimes on Saturday mornings by my dad blasting Glenn Miller records from the RCA console in the living room.  That music, which I have come to enjoy, sounded so ancient to me, like it had come from another lifetime.

And indeed, I suppose it had, for those songs, like "Moonlight Serenade," were at least 27 years old by that time.  But what made them seem so alien was that they weren't playing on the radio.  We didn't have to listen to them in the car.  The only time I ever heard them was when my father would get into one of his nostalgic moods and blast them throughout the house, using his old record albums.

That same year, 1967, Van Morrison released "Brown Eyed Girl."  It has now been playing on the radio for 47 years.  You hear it in bar and restaurants, you hear versions from cover bands, you hear it in supermarkets.

That should not be.  I, for one, am absolutely sick of it, of it and its brethren. It should have been shelved by now, in favor of some 50 or more other great songs that Van Morrison has written. I am also sick of  "Stand By Me."  I am sick of "The Wanderer."  I am disgusted by any number of Creedence songs that I should love, because they are great songs, but cannot, because they have been played into the ground.

What has been done to oldies-- the wildly-overplayed single hits, the reduction of artists and bands to a few key hits or maybe just one, the calcification of the music of a generation or two--is an absolute abomination of art.  Commercialism has taken control of my musical past, and maybe yours, reducing the songs that were meaningful to us to a relatively select few, and thereby "branding" those years for us into particular songs, has stolen what we once cherished.

I was in a bar tonight, a very touristy Key West bar called Sloppy Joe's, and there was a band playing.  As you might expect, that band worked hard to appeal to a diverse audience with recognizable music. Did they tap into the nationally-agreed-upon playlist of oldies?  Not a bit.  We heard songs by Cream, Coldplay, Nickel Creek, Jimi Hendrix, Joan Jett, as well as bluegrass tunes and other varied offerings.  That's the way it should be.

The 60's were a half century ago.  To keep mining the same songs from that era gives all of us some comfort, some familiarity perhaps, but it does nothing to enrich our understanding or remembrance of the past.  Even worse, to keep using that decade as the foundation of what "oldies" are, even as the population ages and moves forward, is insulting to both the old and the young.

But even worse is the reality that billboard companies like Clear Channel and other conglomerates that own radio stations are dictating musical taste to 7 or more generations by now.  And most people, being artistically passive, as they are, just accept the corporate playlist that runs their lives.  So all of you, individuals and corporate tastemakers, own this problem.  Me, if I've heard something so much that it sickens me, I shut it out or move on.  I have no trouble determining my own favorites from the last 50 years of my life.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Epiphany #48: Road Food

Most people have their favorite road snacks, don't they?  I'm talking about those strange food that we would never buy to eat in our homes, but, for some reason, they always call to us when we are on the road.

And these are no gourmet snacks to be sure.  These are cheap, processed foods, likely disgusting to at least one person if you are traveling with a group.

I've got a couple of old favorites and a new one:

Orange Slices--these jellyish, gelatinous pre-shaped, dyed orange, and rolled-in-sugar treats usually come in a bag for a dollar or less.  If you see a package of these with the words "contains real fruit juice," don't be tricked.  These are not the droids you're looking for.  Anything natural only ruins them.  They are best if you can get them a bit old, a bit stale, because then they have more tug and substance.  They don't need to be gooey at all.

Circus Peanuts--certainly one of the strangest candies around, Circus Peanuts are indeed shaped like a peanut, also dyed orange, and yet are bursting with fake banana flavor.  They are light, a bit sea foamy, and also IMHO best served stale. How shape, color, and taste were meant to complement each other, I cannot fathom.  Get a bag of these super cheapies and offer one to someone else and they are likely to recoil.  But if you are in the club, ripping open a bag of these and inhaling that chemical banana aroma lets you know that you are in highway heaven.

Corn Nuts--I am new to Corn Nuts, only a couple of years in.  Another "shaped" snack, these look like enlarged, toasted corn kernels, which is pretty much what they taste like too, a kind of break-your-tooth cousin to Fritos.  I'd like to be able to call these savory, but really, they are just salty.  When you start on a bag,you are tempted to suck the salt off and spit them out.  But once they work their saline magic on you, you want to crunch them.  You may not want to eat them, exactly, but you do want to crunch them.  Rarely does a bag of Corn Nuts lie unfinished in the upholder between two travelers.  I imagine they do for a driver what sunflower seeds do for a baseball player.

Perhaps a few other connections about these "foods."  One, they are all corn-based, which is not surprising given how corn has insinuated itself into most everything we put in our mouths.  Two, you can't always find them in a "real" food store.  They survive in the least common dominator shelves of seedy, off -brand foodstuffs in convenience stores and gas stations.

But here's the funny thing: foul though these comestibles may be, if you get hooked on them, you start to judge places based on whether or not they stock these empty calories.  "I can't believe they don't have Corn Nuts!" is a common utterance in my family as we gather in a road store after our various trips to the bathroom.

We hit pay dirt yesterday in a convenience store outside of Naples, Florida--four different kinds of Corn Nuts, including Original, Ranch, BBQ (as featured in the film, Heathers) and some kind of caliente aka HOT version.  Being he traditionalist, I grabbed a bag of the original flavor aka SALT.  I also dropped another $.50 on some Circus Peanuts, but even among my offspring, I could find no takers.

What is your favorite road junk?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Epiphany #47: Oh, To Be A Child

A family came down to the condominium tonight. We got to indulge in the simple pleasures.  Have you forgotten what those are?

Here's a quick list:

 Excessive heat and humidity that is only tolerable because you are at a swimming pool with friends.
Boys screaming, jumping, competing, yelling, diving, ball throwing.
 Pool games, like water basketball.
 Pool snacks, like nachos, guacamole, chips and salsa, a cooler full of root beer and other drinks.
Water noodles and a giant blow-up Shamu, the killer whale.
Driving to get great pizza to eat poolside.
Boys fighting over the last ginger ale.
'Smores, 's'mores, s'mores.

That gives you an idea of the evening.  Classic summer.  Total family. The ultimate if-you-weren't-there-you-wish-you-were experience.

How often do we get to get to relive that kind of "simple pleasures" experience?  Well, if you have children, you get it with your own children a few times.  Then, if you're lucky, you get to do it with a friend's children or two.  Then, maybe you get to do it as a grandparent.

When you add days like this up, there really aren't very many.  There can't be, not with a limited number of circumstances during a limited number of summers.  And so, when they happen, you celebrate.

How many nights with the sky so perfect when there was a 40% chance of rain?  How many summer evenings when the pool is pretty empty and a group of boys can have the run of the place?  How many towns wher the pizza just up the road is top-notch NY style?  How often do four boys, ages 5 to 13, end up on the same page (not start that way), where they all have great time in the water?

Or, look at it differently, how often do we, as adults, get to re-engage in the youthful activities that were so meaningful to us back then?

Some of the pleasures of a vacation for me are riding a bicycle, getting into a pool, throwing a ball, pumping up tires or a ball, playing games or puzzles, eating ice cream, roasting marshmallows, walking into the ocean, watching a sunset.

But those things are mostly only any fun if there are children with us.  Children allow us to re-enter, however briefly, the worlds of all of those things that we once enjoyed, way back when.

Here's to those moments when we are able to reclaim decades and decades of experiences that aren't normally accessible to us.  Children, being the children that they are, have no idea that the child-centric experiences that we plan for them serve us at least as much as they are served.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Epiphany #46: A Book A Day...

One of the luxuries of being in Florida, one of the strange habits I often develop, is reading an entire book each day.  Not every day, of course, but there was a streak there of three or four days going.  Now, this is not some brag, some showing off on my part.  I'm not a slow reader, but I'm not the fastest reader either.  Like I said, this is pure luxury.

It can't be a long book.  I'm not looking to spend all day in a tropical climate with sun and wind and waves not far away sitting in a chair.  No, the books I'm talking about tend to be 300 pages or less.

Yeah, I read a lot in Florida because, as I've mentioned before, there is an incredible public library system here.  So I may well have other books going in addition to this little one-a-day habit.  (Imagine, if you will, the person who will read a biography of Stephen Crane.  That person is me.  And that book is much slower going than the ones I'm talking about here.)

So far, here's what I've knocked off:

Sous Chef--24 hours in the life of a sous chef in an upscale New York restaurant.
The Headmaster's Wife--a mystery that starts with a elderly headmaster stripping naked in Central Park.
Monster's Chef--a novel about a down-on-his-lunch chef who is hired to work for a Michael Jackson-ish figure and the dark secrets of working in that compound
Dark Lies The Island--12 short stories from a highly-regarded contemporary Irish writer

The best part of reading a book a day is reading a book in one sitting.  I don't know if you have ever indulged in that practice.  Poe said that his short stories were meant to be read in a single sitting in order to achieve their "effect," and to this day, I think that observation has dictated the nature and length of most short stories.

It's a bit harder to achieve with a novel or a novella or a non-fiction book.  But if you're on vacation and if there is that certain down time in the middle of a vacation day when you come back to regroup from the activities of the morning and before the evening begins and if you have a large and comfortable leather chair that you can stretch across sideways and if you have the quietude where you can fall asleep for a little while if you get drowsy and then pick right back up again and, most of all, if a book gets its hooks in you to where you can't stop turning the pages, then, yes, a book can read in one sitting.

I remember the first time, as an adult, that I ever read a book in one sitting.  The book was Word Of Honor by Nelson DeMille.  It was early in my marriage and career and my wife was out of town and it was a Saturday morning and someone had handed this book to me and I started it in the morning and basically sat in a chair all day reading it.

The book was probably about 700 pages long, but was such an engrossing military courtroom thriller that I had to know what was going to happen.  I suppose, in a way, it was not much different from people today who binge on a television series like House Of Cards.  Sometimes fiction (sorry, non-fiction, but I don't think that you can pull this off), whether written or performed, can pull me so deeply into its world that I'm not interested, for a certain stretch of time, in re-entering my own.

So I will say to you indeed, that should you have the luxury of being able to enter a book so deeply that you can read it cover to cover, then by all means, do so.

Isn't that what vacations are for?  That and riding bicycles.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Epiphany #45: Five Answers, Five Questions

Bob's Just-Made-Up Rule #17:  When you come across two lists with the same number of items on them, juxtapose them to see if they reveal anything.

Recently, at a Boys' School conference, one of the keynote speakers asked the question, "What Makes A Good Man?"  In this context, one of teaching (and parenting, for you readers with growing children, not just boys, of course), the word "make" implies school (or parental) decisions to instill these traits in their charges.  The speaker offered five traits that, if accomplished, would go a long way toward ensuring positive manhood.  He called them "The Five Wells":

1.  Well-read.
2.  Well-spoken.
3.  Well-dressed.
4.  Well-traveled.
5.  Well-balanced.

To me, it was one of those lists that seems obvious when you first hear it, but when you ponder some of its implications, it becomes more interesting to try to make happen.  For example, the idea of being well-spoken, when broken down, means not just being successful in public speaking, it also means knowing how and when to "code switch" between how a child (or adult) might talk with his teacher, his family, or his friend group.  Those of us who teach know plenty of bright students who don't know how to do this.

Well-read does not necessarily mean being able to check off a "canon" of great books; rather it refers to a student who has become a discerning reader who can judge tone, veracity, reliability as a source, etc.

Well-traveled obviously does not mean the wealthy student lucky enough to ski with his family in a different location each Christmas vacation.

I believe the concept of "The Five Wells" originally comes from the president of Morehouse College, but you may want to extrapolate their possibilities further on your own.  There might be some "Wells" of your own that you might add?


The other day, I took my father to hospice.  While his health is currently sound, being the organized and in control man that he is, he wants to make sure that everything is in order for the end of his life, whenever that may come.  It's actually a very smart idea, one that is reinforced when you meet with a hospice nurse and she hands you a packet with five questions about End-Of-Life decisions:

1.  What kind of medical treatment that might be undertaken to extend your life do you want or not want?
2.  Who do you want to make health care decisions for you when you can't make them?
3.  Do your family and loved ones know what your wishes are?
4.  How comfortable do you want to be in your final days, in terms of food, water, pain-killing drugs?
5.  Who, or better put, where do you want to be treated, as in, primarily, at home or in a hospital?

My father, of course, has absolute answers for all of these questions.  But when I ran them by a couple of friends and myself, none of had thought about it much, if at all, and we didn't really have answers.  He was counseled to have copies of his wishes in a number of places, including on his person, because if you don't, someone else, likely with professional obligations, will make them for you.

I know this isn't something that most of us are inclined to want to think about very often, but maybe figure it out one time and get it written down and put it away someplace safe.

The way that a good man or woman finishes up is just as important as how he or she begins the journey.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Epiphany #44: The Dream

The thing you hate about bloggers is that they will freely upend every rule or belief they have in order to write a story.  Take me.  I am virulently anti-dreams, see no meaning in them, and often say that I am bored by others' dreams, and yet, here I am about to tell you about one of my dreams.

My reasons seem justified, though (of course they are, because I'm the one justifying them, right?):

1.  The dream I had two nights ago was far more vivid and memorable that my typical dream.
2.  Merle Haggard.

That's right.  Merle Haggard appeared to me in a dream.  Now, Merle and I don't have any particular history.  I have three or four of his songs, and am pleased with their quality when I hear them, but I don't think about him often, probably hadn't thought about him for at least three weeks.

But here he was.  In fact, I was standing outside of a Merle Haggard concert, waiting for it to start.  My wife was with me.  And so was Merle.

I didn't recognize him at first.  He was standing off to the side, and he was singing spirituals somewhat quietly to himself, holding some kind of a music player that provided instrumental accompaniment.

When we realized that it was him, we walked up to him and said hello.  He was kind, and indulged our intrusion, and so I asked if we could take pictures with him.  He said yes.

Now, here's the strange thing, in my book.  I couldn't get that darn camera to work.  It was my smart phone camera, and no matter what I did, I couldn't get the proper apps to open or to close to take the picture.  He waited very patiently, sometimes going back to softly singing his gospel songs.  I handed the phone to my wife, but she had no better luck, and it was getting closer and closer to concert time, and there were other people wanting to speak to him as well.  But we never could get the camera to load.

So it was an anxiety dream after all.  We all have them.  Mine tend to be school-related: it is the end of the semester and I haven't done any work for the exam I am about to take, it is the first day of school and I find out I'm teaching a class I don't know anything about, I am sitting in class with no clothes on.  You know the drill.  But a Merle Haggard anxiety dream?  Where did that come from?  And why?

One more thing.  Even as our encounter with Merle Haggard was about to be chalked up as a failure because we just couldn't get the camera to work, I managed to say to him what I've often wanted to say, which was, "Mr. Haggard, I just wanted you to know that I think the production on your records all the way back to the 60s and 70s is stellar.  Everything is crisp and clear and there is total separation between the instruments.  Most records that old don't hold up like that."  And maybe I was dreaming, but he seemed appreciative.

So there.

If some of you have good interpretations of all this, let me hear them, dreamweavers!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Epiphany #43: A Bad Business Decision

This is absolutely the smallest thing to think about, but Cracker Barrel is no longer serving pure maple syrup.  No, they are now offering a 55% maple syrup/ 45% cane syrup blend with all of their pancakes.  It matters, though.  It matters to me.

Why?  Because one of the signatures of the Cracker Barrel chain was the real maple syrup that came with their pancakes.  To move away from that is a business decision that I'm sure involved a lot of discussion and exploration of options.  Unfortunately, they made the wrong decision.

WEAK BUT FUNNY ANALOGY:  "Sir, I just wanted to let you know that in order to keep our costs down, the beer I'm serving is actually 55% Monkey Balls Quadruple IPA and 45% Miller High Life."  Can you imagine?

PERSONAL ASIDE: "Dad, you know, if you didn't always ask for the second bottle of maple syrup that you take home, then maybe they wouldn't have had to do this."

But really, there are two kinds of restaurants in the world: those that use real butter and those that use butter spread.  Those that pride themselves on using top-notch ingredients and those that don't.  It's a given that at some places generic rolls, institutional ketchup  pancake syrup that could have come from an IV bag are the norm.  It's just that Cracker Barrel didn't used to be one of those places.  They even use Dickinson jams, one of the more expensive national brands.  Or did.  Who knows?

So this compromise makes a pretty big statement.  It says, we no longer choose to be the kind of restaurant that we were when we first opened our doors.

Why not raise prices a little bit?  I realize that might not make sense to the chain when their billboards are pushing cheaper menu options.

Okay, so, why not tell customers like my father that he will have to pay a little extra for that second bottle of maple syrup?

I buy maple syrup fairly regularly.  I track it's cost.  It has not, to my knowledge, experienced a recent spike in price.  A few years ago, yes, but then the price stabilized.

Or, how about offering two prices for pancakes, one if you want real maple syrup and one if you want Aunt Jemima's oddly-thickened corn syrup?

I don't know if you've ever had a submarine sandwich made for you in a Publix (they're pretty darn good!), but when you order, you have the option of choosing Publix cold cuts or, for a bit more money, the premium Boar's Head brand.  People know the system and, when you're in line, you'll find that people order both ways.  I've gone both ways myself, depending on the current state of my personal finances.

See, there are two clienteles out there--those who love real maple syrup and those who could care less what they are dumping on their pancakes (plus, clientele #3, those who have grown up with a certain syrup like Aunt Jemima's and actually prefer it).  For Cracker Barrel to shift to a compromise syrup satisfies no one.  To get sort of the real thing is not what a purist is after.

I fear this cut in quality from Cracker Barrel will lead to further cuts.  It usually happens that way.  Maybe it's already happening and I don't know it.  All know I know it that this usually-reliable road chain when I'm on the road feels like a different place now.  Bring back the real maple!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Epiphany #42: Alphabet Songs

There is most certainly something about the long drive to Florida each summer that brings out the OCD in me.

This year's version:  listening to songs on the iPod, choosing by artist, and realizing after the third artist that everyone that I've listened to starts with "B."  (Reminder: in iPod world, everything is alphabetized by the first word it encounters, whether that is the first or last name of a band or musician.). And so, on the spot, I decided that I could listen to nothing but "B" bands and artists the whole way down.  Which is just as illogical and random as iPod shuffle, just in a different way.

So here's what I heard with a bit of commentary (listed alphabetically, not in the order I listened):

B.B. King--I listened to him live at the Cook County Jail.  I wonder if maybe the man has always been overrated.  Sure, the guitar work is often stunning, but the stage show seems to me to always have been a bit lacking. Many of the blues sound the same.  The call and response seems tiresome.  His approach is very positive, but his review of his early hits reminds us that maybe he was never really a blues man, but as a black man with guitar virtuosity, who was maybe pigeonholed that way.

Badfinger--Apple Records may have been a financial failure, but there is no doubt that the Beatles had good taste--Mary Hopkins, James Taylor, and, most of all, Badfinger.  The farther I get from those times,the less Badfinger sounds like a Beatles knock-off.  Pete Ham was a quality songwriter, and only his suicide derailed the potential of this band.  Listen to "Perfection."

Bash and Pop--When the Replacements broke up, all eyes went toward Paul Westerberg.  I get it.  Great songwriter.  But this record shows how much Tommy Stinson was also responsible for the 'Mats vibe.  He offers the same blend of Faces-style rockers and pretty ballads that Westerberg does.  The only problem is the first song, "Never Aim To Please," is so strong that I never gave the rest a chance until today.  Usually I just play it over and over.

Basia Bulat--it's a shame in a way that I'm working alphabetically, because songstress Bulat captures all of the power and desolation of the North that Bon Iver hasn't figured out.  Just because things suck doesn't mean you can't still rock.  Basalt knows this.  Strong songs.

Bill Morrissey--It won't be long now, if it hasn't happened already, until a terrific songwriter named Bill Morrissey will be completely forgotten.  He died a couple of years ago.  By turns put-a-gun-to-your-head depressing and whimsical, Morrissey may be the best pure songwriter I've heard in the last 20years.  Emily Dickinson once said, "Tell all the truth/ but tell it slant."  Morrissey prefers straight on with both barrels.  If there's a better adulterous dissolution of a relationship song than "The Last Day Of The Last Furlough," then I haven't heard it.

Blind Faith--I don't know why this supergroup failed after one album.  A re-listen to "Had To Cry Today" or "Presence Of The Lord" or "Can't Find My Way Home" is a reminder of how easily this band clicked.  Great stuff, all involved seemed happy with their roles, but I guess that wasn't true.

Blitzen Trapper--I have only 4 songs by these guys from four different sources, but I've never listened to those songs together.  I'm blown away by the energy and range of this band.  Every song sounds different from the others, but all are engaging and poppy and quirky.  I must investigate further.

Bob Mould--when word came out that Mould had done a synths, electronic CD called Modulate, most people fled.  Too bad.  Despite some ponderous interludes, the CD contains the same quality songs Mould always writes.  Songs like "Slay/Sway" and "The Receipt" are guitar driven, if a bit more awash in effects, while "Trade" is a pure, confident synth-pop ballad.

Bob Weir--Everything great and awful about Bob Weir is contained on his first solo album (essentially him and the Dead, plus horns).  In addition to penning future Dead classics like "Playing In The Band" and "One More Saturday Night," he also offers a set that ranges from the godawful "Looks Like Rain" to the sublime "Casady."  Every good song Bob Weir ever wrote had come out by 1974, and most of them are here, as well as the seeds of his crappy stuff.

Bobby Bare, Jr.--I have one great song by this guy ("I'll Be Around"), plus a Texas roadhouse (not the restaurant) version of the Smith's "What Difference Does It Make".  Based on that small sampling, I'd say he's got talent and taste and I'd like to hear more.

Bon Iver--Kind of sucks, at least as road music.  Downbeat and plodding.

Broken Bells--One of my favorite working bands.  The songs are crisp,layered masterpieces.  The production, by Danger Mouse, is, of course, superb.  I know this is a side project, but I hope it keeps going beyond the two CDs that exist.  "The Mall And Misery" is a modern classic.

Bruce Hornsby--I started my trip with guy.  Not sure why.  I know some people think he's a lightweight.  But every time I tap into his double-CD Spirit Trail, I find a wealth of great songs.  Try "Swan Song," with the "Song D" intro.

Buckingham Nicks--unofficially, this is the first modern Fleetwood Mac album. It remains, inexplicably, unavailable on CD, as far as I know.  "Races Are Run," "Don't Let Me Down Again," and "Long Distance Winner" are all prototypes of the later hit sound.  A gem.

Buddy and Julie Miller--I confirmed again today that there are several kinds of songs one or both of this duo typically write that I don't really like,especially anything built around the alligator swamp guitar sound Miller sometimes uses.  Too fast or too slow and I can lose interest.  Buddy and Julie hit their sweet spot at mid-tempo.  And then a song like "Chalk" comes on, probably one of the most beautiful lyric/melody combos in years.  Why everyone in Nashville isn't recording this one tells you everything that is wrong with modern country music.

Built To Spill--"Girl" is a refreshingly, busy, low-fi ditty.  It's the only song of theirs I have.

Of course, for you musicologists, it might be more interesting to see all of the choices I skipped over.  I have over 160 artists whose names start with "B," including some big names, but the odd little list above is what was calling to me on the road.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Epiphany #41: The Storytelling Arc

A viewing last night of World War Z (unrated) reminds me that the storytelling craft must be relearned time and time again.  I have not read the book, so I don't know if my critique is aimed just toward the film or also toward the source material, but it should not matter either way.  I use WWZ only as an example.  I mostly enjoyed watching it...for awhile.

But what if someone told a story where all of the action, all of the complications, all of the hard choices occurred in the first half of a film, and the second half arrived at a fairly bland discovery and solution and then the film didn't really even end at all?  That, my friends, would be WWZ.

I'm sure you know there is a zombie apocalypse.  Well, there are a few interesting twists to this one, primarily that a person, once bitten, will turn into a zombie in 12 seconds.  This means, of course, that one zombie who bites a living person on an urban street will create 32 zombies every minute, and that is the conservative estimate, assuming that each zombie only bites one other person during that minute, which they don't, and that there is only one zombie on the street at the start, which there isn't.  The zombie wave goes from 0 to 60.  It is quite scary to observe.

The problem is that all of this is discovered while Brad Pitt and his family are in a car in downtown Philadelphia, and the challenge is to get them to safety on an uninfected aircraft carrier off the coast.  The first 45 minutes of the movie are tense, visually-stunning, awe-inspiring.

But then Pitt and family are safely situated on the aircraft carrier and Pitt, in order to keep their position on the ship, has to go out on a mission to help a doctor try to figure out the virus.  (Insert pin into the balloon of the plot, because all of the air goes out of the movie).

For the rest of the screen time, Pitt is racing around the globe, assisted at times by a series of nameless, faceless military and medical people, while his family gets little screen time and faces minimal crises on the ship.  Even when they are removed from the ship, we don't see where they go and we don't see them in any danger.  The daughter with asthma?  Forgotten.  The Hispanic boy they pick up whose family was slaughtered in front of his eyes? No lines.  The wife (from The Killing) who is completely helpless?  She coos.  That's it.

What?  Who plotted this thing?  The Walking Dead must be in its 5th or 6th season by now.  Didn't you watch any of it?

Like the old question about whether the train track operator saves his son who is playing on the track or all of the people on the runaway train, a story thrives on characters having to make difficult choices, not on removing all the distractions of family so that a man can just go off and fight zombies.  But that is exactly what happens to Pitt.

A character who isn't trying to balance what's best for society with what's best for himself usually ceases to be a very interesting character.

Then there is the problem of self-preservation.  Certainly, in the past several years, there has been a lot of pro and con talk about the use of zombies as foils for humans.  WWZ reveals their central weakness in that regard: they have no interest in surviving.  They aren't scheming, they aren't clever, and they'll jump off a building to try to reach a helicopter and not give a crap that they're falling 20 stories instead.  Even vampires balance choices and evaluate risks and want to continue their undead lives.  So a viewer has little interest in them either.

The great ironies of World War Z are twofold: 1) that a story that encompasses all of humanity loses its sense of humanity by removing the challenges and conflicts that actual humans face in crisis, and 2) as a result, what starts out as a terror-inducing-because-we're-not-prepared-for-the-pace-of-this-pandemic thrill ride becomes rote and boring.  (And by the way, a decision of whether or not to inject yourself with an unknown drug is not gripping when you are trapped in a room and there is no other way out)

Ultimately, that has less to do with zombies or Brad Pitt and more to do with a simple failure of storytelling.  If we don't care and we can't share (what would we do in those circumstances?), then Pitt becomes just a mega-movie star fighting computer-generated monsters.  Put the best scenes in the first half of the movie, and we'll probably stick with it to see if there are any more of those, but we'll be yawning and checking the time bar at the bottom of the screen to see how much longer this thing is going on until we can go to bed.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Epiphany #40: We Boldly Went

Some two weeks ago, Billy posted "To Boldly Go."  And then nothing happened, or, maybe better put, everything happened.  The past two weeks may be the longest that we have ever gone without posting something new on this blog in its 6 or so years of existence.

Billy went off to work on a graduate degree.  I kept dragging in and out of work, day after day, coming in early so I could leave earlier, gardening, cooking up a storm, and all of the other life stuff.  You know how it goes.

Then one friend leaves town for the summer.

Another friend goes in and out.

I lost focus.

The other blog I work for packed up its tents.

I went to a conference in Nashville.

Friends came in for the 4th of July weekend.

In other words, life.

But like those fireworks that keep going off in and around my neighborhood, look for an explosion--of words.  Because Bob is headed to Florida, and Bob writes a lot in Florida.

Just to keep you going, however, here is a list of meaningless, mini-epiphanies that have been banging around my head in between everything else.

1.  The Lego Movie is terrific.  Go see it if you haven't, even if you don't have kids.

2.  I got detoured from Nightfall for the first six weeks or so, but now I've been the last two and can say definitively for the 1000th time--"It is always worth it to make the effort to go see live music."  Best show this summer:  The Slide Brothers.

3.  If you want good, delicious, safe food, you are going to have to pay for it.  I paid $4/lb for some heirloom tomatoes.  Outrageous, I know, but no other tomatoes I've tasted so far this season have even come close.

4.  First World Problems:  I had a day where the air conditioning was out in my house, in my office, and in my car.  I thought I was miserable and wouldn't be able to tolerate it, but then I thought about the rest of the world.  Of course, it's fixed now (well, not in the car).

5.  I love the World Cup.  After the U.S. loss, I still love it, but I have to admit it is more of an academic exercise, a kind of "keeping up," than the same joy I felt when we had a chance.

6.  Too much television.  No, I'm not watching too much; there is simply too much to keep up with.  And so, any number of potentially-great series are getting an episode or two out of me before I get overwhelmed--Rectify, The Leftovers (but, oh, it's dark and I pray, pray, pray there aren't high school parties like that in this city), Covert Affairs, Luther (season 3), Silicon Valley.  I am faithful to Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, though.

7.  Favorite quotation I heard at the recent conference I attended:  "We are responsible for more than our intentions."

8.  Life is reductive.  We hope for the grand extravaganzas and live for the small events.

9.  You know you are a serious cook when people rave about your food, but you don't think it was nearly as good as it could have been, without any false humility.

10.  Although it seems to be getting more difficult to start a long book and stay with it, do it.  I was ho-hum about Steinbeck's East of Eden after 50 pages.  After two hundred pages, I can't wait to get back to it.  For how much longer will we be willing to give something that kind of chance to develop?