Saturday, September 30, 2006

Spinal Tap and the Ramones

In the 1984 movie "This Is Spinal Tap," there was a running gag-- that all Spinal Tap drummers over the years died.

I'm was wondering if anyone else noticed the irony about the Ramones-- all of the Ramones-- except for the drummers-- died. And all of the Ramones' drummers-- and I cannot name all of them-- Marky and Tommy were two of them--are still alive.

Okay, okay, so it's a slow news day......

Friday, September 29, 2006

Mount Prospect

Back around 1991, I spent a stint working construction. I had been working in the restaurant business, but there was a recession and no job. I got a call from a college friend who had a friend who owned a small construction company-- he needed some help. I jumped on it.

We did mostly asphalt work in the summer-- cutting out and patching parking lots, or constructing them entirely. Looking back, I'm glad I did it. I know that my friends and family thought it was crazy for a guy who had a graduate degree to do that, but I feel like any experience in life can broaden you. Plus, it got me in the best shape of my life.

There were various experiences, funny and not, that I remember. There was one incident that stands out; it became a running joke with a couple of friends for years.

We were patching a parking lot of a Holiday Inn in Mount Prospect, Illinois. The motel was at a big intersection in Mount Prospect, and in fact the parking lot straddled those streets, with entrances on both.

We got there early, put cones and tapes up to mark the area we were working in, and did the cutting. This involves marking off the sections that are damaged and crumbling with chalk lines and cutting them with a carbide-bladed machine. Then you go in with pickaxes and shovels and take out the damaged patches. You generally go down about a foot.

It was when the morning rush hour started that it started: people driving up to the tape, and beeping their horns, shrugging as if to ask "what do I do now?" Turn around and go through the god-damned intersection like you were supposed to!

We suddenly realized that the intersection was perpetually snarled-- backed up a block or more. And the parking lot formed an alternate route around the blocked intersection. And it explained the poor condition of the parking lot-- it was designed for small amounts of slow-moving traffic-- people parking cars, not zooming through it like it was a thoroughfare. The huge amount of extra traffic had quickly torn it up.

We proceeded with the work, which took a few days. We had probably over a hundred people drive up to the cones and tape and give us angry looks. One lady even got out and tried to move the cones. What she was going to do when she got to a foot-deep hole in the pavement, I don't know.

My favorite moment came the second day we were out there. A Mount Prospect police car approached our barricade. The cop inside looked at us irritatedly, and turned around in a huff. It made me think of the Blues Brothers, with their old Mount Prospect police car. Maybe he was on a mission from god.

Now if had happened 5 or 6 times, it would have been amusing. But it happened many dozens of times-- people driving up to the barricades and sitting with a look of utter perplexedness and astonishment. I was left to wonder about the IQ's of the people in the area.

A couple of years later, an old friend, who was then a journalist for a paper that covered Mount Prospect, started relaying stories of a Mount Prospect citizen who made his life a living hell. This guy was constantly calling him with earth-shaking scoops. My favorite was when he ratted on a neighbor whose backyard shed was a few inches larger than city ordinances allowed. Of course, to measure it, he had to have illegally trespassed in the neighbor's yard.

It got worse. This clown managed to get onto the Mount Prospect city council. He was retired, so he had nothing better to do than meddle in other peoples' business and to bother my friend.

My friend, though, had the last laugh. At some point, Citizen Idiot used his Mount Prospect city councilman's id like a police badge to try to get into some place. He was arrested for impersonating a police officer, and ended up wearing an electronic ankle bracelet for a while. He finally stopped hearing from him.

After witnessing or hearing of a few more incidents involving low-IQ and/or spoiled behavior by Mount Prospect residents, I began to wonder about suburban utopias. Mount Prospect is undoubtedly a great place to live. It's got great schools, miniscule amounts of crime and probably mostly nice people. But it seems like if people don't have many real problems, trivial problems get promoted to major problems. It explains a lot-- things like road rage, gated communities and poor treatment of service employees. Every day, here in the city, I see the working poor, waiting in all kinds of weather for buses, going to jobs that pay maybe 6 or 8 bucks an hour, and I think of the people in Mount Prospect whose day was ruined by having to turn their cars around and wait an extra three minutes in traffic to go through an intersection. And I wonder if that's everyone's fate-- to improve their lives, and then slowly lose both their ability to cope with real life, and their appreciation for what they have.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Candyland, and Other Parental Torture Devices

Those of you who are parents know what I'm talking about when I say that I want to send the person or persons who invented Candyland to one of Saddam Hussein's old prisons. It seems like the more inane the game, the more children like it and want to play it again and again and again. Candyland is one of the #1 offenders.

Now don't get me wrong-- as an educator, I understand the benefits of children playing even the most excruciatingly boring (to an adult) games. Children learn tons of things through games-- how to count, "consecutiveness"-- even the beginnings of addition and subtraction. I have seen the results of this NOT happening-- kids who grew up without what most of us take for granted. I remember my first year as a teacher 15 years ago, working as a sub in Cabrini-Green. One memory that stands out is trying to teach a kindergartener to count to five. He hadn't the foggiest notion of the idea of one thing following another-- "consecutiveness" as I call it. My child went to kindergarten able to count to 100, knew his alphabet, shapes, colors and about a thousand other things. A lot of it had to do with playing games.

But to play a half hour of Candyland, or its evil cousin Chutes and Ladders was parent hell. The game was terrifyingly simple. Yet three and four year olds find it fascinating. My son would have played it like a 24 hour Las Vegas poker marathon if he could have found an adult who would not rather have had dental work done than played that game for an hour.

So I guess it stands as a tribute to our dedication as parents that we keep playing these games. And besides, the games get more interesting. Oh, and longer, too. Sigh.

My son is 12 now, and has passed through Crazy 8's, checkers, chess, Stratego and now is in his Yahtzee/ Monopoly/ Risk phase. Having grown up in a family with two brothers who were near my age (1 and 2 years younger) and lots of friends my age, we could always get a Monopoly game going. I loved Monopoly. As a teenager I loved Yahtzee, and Risk, but back then I wasn't 45 and working two jobs. Three hours of Monopoly is like sitting through an Ingmar Bergman Film Festival.

My son was, until my marriage last year, an only child. For some reason, his mother, my ex-girlfriend, has never, ever played board games with him. Therefore, when he is at my house, he is downright ravenous to play board games. I have, until this year, borne the sole brunt of Candyland. I alone have known the heartbreak of being near the end of the game-- one of us about to win, either one of us, I didn't care-- only to have the one who was nearing the finish line draw "Princess Lolly" and go skidding back to the beginning. I alone bore the brunt, except when we were visiting my parents, of Crazy 8's, checkers and the others.

At least I like the games we play now. But I sometimes think of the time I've spent playing board games as penance for not putting up with his mother for a while longer and having another child or two (she was not a fun person to live with). With my marriage last year, there are two other people to play board games with. I that think my son is as greatful for his stepsister as I am for providing him a sibling and, nearly as importantly, someone to play the Ninendo Wheel of Fortune with.

This summer, I taught my son to play Blackjack. He not only picked it up instantly, he quickly got very good at it. It was quite a kick to see him play against my father, who is also very good at it (and had taught me to play around the time I was 12). Maybe this time the result of my teaching him a game will be a retirement plan rather than torture.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Mission Impossible and Other Improbablities

Let me first cop to being a Grade A unabashed DVD Nerd. I was absolutely a child of the tv. Of course, I grew up with tv that was great, even when it was bad: Get Smart, Hogan's Heroes, The Time Tunnel, and a million "Movie of the Week" treasures. And a butt-load more.

A couple of years ago, I started a list of movies and tv series that I couldn't just Netflix-- I had to own when they came out on DVD. I've tried to be judicious. "From the Earth to the Moon" I needed to own. "UFO", the wonderfully cheesy early 70's sci-fi series, I could Netflix.

Sometimes, there is something that you really didn't think would ever come out on DVD that surprises you, and does. "Kolchak: The Night Stalker," a series that lasted a season and a half, a show my brothers and I never missed, and were devastated at when it was cancelled, came out on DVD last year. I bought it the day it was released. It's as good as I remembered it.

The whole DVD-release thing is strange and inconsistent. Sometimes acquiring the song rights is difficult or prohibitively expensive. The mergers and acquisitions in the media business in the last 15 years or so, have made it so that ownership and rights to some movies and tv series are unclear. Some shows, like "Frank's Place," may never come out because their audiences were so small to begin with. Others, like "The Starlost," will probably never come out because vital people involved (Harlan Ellison, in this case) are embarassed by it and refuse to give it their blessing. And some wildly popular things, like the highly improbable, but enormously entertaining series "Mission: Impossible" haven't come out for reasons unknown.

Until now.

The first season of Mission: Impossible comes out on December 5th of this year. I didn't even start watching it until it's 4th or 5th season, but my brothers and I were hooked on it, like we were on Kolchak: The Night Stalker during its short run.

From the opening sequence-- the burning fuse, with the kickass theme song-- which was rivalled only by the song/visual sequence opening to Hawaii 5-0. And the way the writers, director and actors always took the same ridiculous formula and made it ridiculously entertaining-- it's a DVD set-- from first to last season-- that I'll have to have.

The bonus is that I never got to see the early seasons, with Martin Landau and his then-wife Barbara Bain (they were later teamed up again in the painfully unentertaining Space: 1999). Martin Landau is one of those actors who can enhance or even fix nearly everything. His take as Bela Lugosi took Tim Burton's "Ed Wood" from being a very good to a great movie. His portrayal of a US President trying to defuse a nuclear war made the schlocky "By the Dawn's Early Light" pretty entertaining.

I"m definitely looking forward to rewatching the later seasons as well. It also got me to thinking about some other series I'd love to see that probably will never see the light of day. The aforementioned "Frank's Place," with WKRP's "Venus Flytrap" Tim Reid as a successful lawyer whose late father owned a fabled New Orleans restaurant. Frank comes down from Boston to sell the restaurant. When he meets the people who work there and frequent the place, he decides to stay and keep it open.

Another one is Micheal Mann's series Vega$ (yes, with a dollar sign instead of the "s"), with Robert Ulrich, who seemed to be the kiss of death to every series he was ever involved with, was terrific as Dan Tanna, who drove a '65 Ford Mustang and lived in the back of a seedy Vegas motel. Big plus: The wonderful Gregory Morris, "Barney" from Mission: Impossible, played his best friend, police Lt. David Nelson. I have hopes for this one-- Micheal Mann was able to get both seasons of his underwatched, underappreciated "Crime Story" series released.

Okay, I tag Phil and Dirty Laundry to come up with television shows and movies they are waiting for on DVD.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Back in my barfly days, one of my good drinking buddies was Graham Elvis, bass player and singer for the Elvis Brothers. The Elvis Brothers had been hugely popular in Champaign-Urbana (the University of Illinois), and when their college audience graduated and moved back mostly to Chicago, they moved up here too.

One night, Graham and I were tipping back a couple of drinks and chatting at our hangout, the Gingerman, when he told me about playing at Cynthia Plastercaster's benefit.

For those of you who don't know, the Plastercasters of Chicago were groupies-- the ultimate groupies. Not only did they "do" the rockers, but they immortalized the event with statues of the schlongs made from castings they took-- they actually used dental molds, rather than plaster. The documentary "Plastercaster" is about Cynthia Plastercaster, who is indeed from Chicago. I suggest you Netflix it sometime.

Cynthia lived life on the road for years, living the groupie's life. At some point in the early 90's, she decided to leave that life behind and settle back home in Chicago. Since she was on the road for years, she left her casts with a guy she thought was a friend. When she asked for them back, he refused. She ended up having to sue him to get them back. I'd have loved to sat in on that trial.

Frank Santiago from Big Black, who'd become a lawyer by then, helped her out, but in the end, she incurred some legal fees in getting her cock molds back. In order to help her out, some of Chicago's rock royalty had a benefit for her, including 11th Dream Day and of course, the Elvis Brothers.

Graham told me about playing and then hanging out with everybody at a party afterward. When it was his turn to chat up Cynthia, he asked the question most people would ask: "Who was the biggest?"

Well who was, I asked?

"You're not going to believe me," he replied.

Come on-- Hendrix? One of the guys in Led Zeppelin? The MC5?

"You're not going to believe me," he warned again.

Come on- I can't stand it-- tell me.....

"Huey Lewis."

I sat, stunned. "Huey Lewis?"

"Huey Lewis."

"I Want a New Drug, Hip to Be Square, Heart and Soul Huey Lewis?"

"Yes, that Huey Lewis."

I needed another drink. All my life's preconcieved notions shattered, I've staggered through life since then, realizing that anything could happen, that even my most closely held beliefs and values can be challenged.

Huey Lewis.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Guns, Germs and Steel, Loss and Healing

As I've mentioned a few times in this blog, one of my closest friends, Mark, was murdered in June. He was a 42 year old web designer. He was one of the smartest, gentlest, most creative people I've ever known. He was taken from his home by gang-bangers whom the son of one of his old tenants (he owned a two-flat) had gotten entangled with; they were taking him at gunpoint to an ATM. Knowing they certainly planned on murdering him (he could identify one of them) he resisted and they shot him to death.

The son of the old tenant was murdered a month later-- probably by the guys he ran with, who feared he'd "roll" on them if the cops figured out who did it. The cops figured it out anyway. One guy is up for murder one, and the cops know who the other two are, and are getting a case together on them.

In any event, I'd wanted to read Jared Diamond's book "Guns, Germs and Steel" for a long time. It came out in 1997. What the hell does this have to do with Mark?

In 1997, I was in the middle of a brutal custody fight with an old girlfriend. Mark helped get me a very well-paying job at a locally based software company, working on their website (I had no training and minimal skill, but got the job anyway, largely on Mark's recommendation). Partly as a result of the expensive lawyer time that job bought me, I was able to retain joint custody of my son. Mark always came through for people like that.

A few months later, when the woman I was married to decided that she didn't want to be inconvenienced with the drama wrought by that very same custody fight, and asked for a divorce, it was Mark's house I stayed at.

When I had trouble in another marriage, which failed ultimately, I stayed at "Mark's Home for Wayward Boys", as he had by now dubbed it.

When he was killed in June, literally dozens of his friends emerged from the woodworks to help his family clear his house. It was in some ways helpful-- we shared our grief-- but was ultimately a draining experience for me; a house filled with so many of the things that reminded you of a friend of more than twenty years, a friendship that ran not only long, but deep-- I felt gutted.

His parents told us to take any of his personal items that had sentimental value. One of the things I took was this funny black skull ashtray Mark had made either in high school or college (where we'd met). I remember him always having it. There were a couple of other little things; I took his copy of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Mark had helped me keep custody of my son, and that album is my son's favorite album. I took it for my son, who is happy to have it; I will explain the significance of it some day.

I also grabbed "Guns, Germs and Steel." I'd read the reviews of it, discussed it with people, had it on my list of books to get, but had never gotten it.

I have been reading it, finally, this past few weeks. As I approach the end of the book, I have but one regret: I'll never get to discuss it with Mark. It was everything I thought it would be. Mark was one of the few people I know who would not only want to discuss it, but would have both praise and criticism.

Tom Robbins pointed out that objects have the magic we give to them. The book is one of millions of copies of the book printed, but that copy has sentimental value to me because it was the copy read by Mark (and reread repeatedly, given the condition of the book). I know that like him, I'll refer back to the book often.

The week that Mark was killed was already a painful one for me. It was the last week of a teaching job I'd loved. I came to loggerheads with an administrator-- the principal. After a two-year struggle, she was able to force me out. It was crushing. She was the Nurse Rachet of the education field. And the day before the start of my final week, Mark was murdered. It was probably the longest week of my life. I felt like my soul was being flushed with Drano.

I spent the summer in an emotional tailspin. The job market for teachers, I knew, was terrible this year. Every district had laid people off. I didn't have the emotional or psychic energy for a really vigorous job search. I managed the energy to put out some applications, but knew it was pretty futile. Friends who put out 50, 75 and 100 applications got no results.

I made plans to leave the field, and still plan to leave it, but I felt I still had unfinished business.

Near the end of the summer, I got a call from an old colleague, from when I taught on the west side of Chicago. What was I doing this school year, she asked? It turned out that the school she'd taught at the last couple of years needed a teacher. I went there, interviewed and was offered a job on the spot. I accepted.

It was, it turned out, an "alternative" high school in the Chicago Public School system. It was for kids 17 to 21 years old who'd left high school and wanted to come back and finish.

I looked forward to working again with one of my favorite old friends. It was not to be. My friend, who had been gotten a Divinity Degree, and had been looking to leave the education field for the ministry, was offered a job in her new field and left. There was, though, a silver lining, as I shall tell shortly.

As we started this week, I was nervous about it all. These were not, I knew, easy kids. And we started a couple of weeks late. That turned out all right, though, because my wounds and nerves were still raw.

Today I finally started teaching. I realized, by the end of the day, that I was doing exactly what I needed to be doing.

I realized how much I had to offer these kids. And how much they had to offer me. They needed someone who knew what they'd gone through in life, but knew that if he didn't demand a lot of them, they were going to go through worse.

These kids are the same age and background of the guys who murdered my friend. I realized that in this, my last year as a teacher, I needed to be here. I realized that if I can get one or a couple of kids off of a bad path, I can leave the profession in good conscience.

I realized that things worked out as they did for reasons that will be revealed to me a long time from now. But this I know: my friend who gotten me the job stayed in the profession just long enough to get me a badly needed job, doing something that is helping me heal from a shattering experience. On top of that, her departure allowed me to help get another old friend, who'd had a very tough life, a job in the education field, a job she's dreamt and worked for for years-- and a job in which she'll be helping kids in for decades just like my other friend did.

I realized, by the end of today, that I'm doing exactly what I need to be doing, as I wind down a career and get ready to prepare for another.

As I finish Guns, Germs and Steel, in the context of what went on this summer, I am both sad and uplifted. It's my connection to my lost friend, and I hate for it to end. But as life moves on, he is and always will be part of me. I know that I, like he did, will refer back to the book and think of what he would have said about it. The things he gave to me-- the way he never settled for the easy answers-- will continue to enrich me to my dying day, and those things will help me give a lot to my children, both the ones in my family and the ones I am teaching now. The time that he and I had together will bring me up, not down. I will miss him every day of my of my life, but I feel his spirit driving me on to the wonderful things ahead of me in life. I owe it to him to live, love, teach and create.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Blowhards, Butt Gravy and Other Brushes With Fame

A few weeks ago, my wife was watching that program with the Malibu real estate agents, Million Dollar Listing. I realized that I knew one of the agents. I couldn't place where I knew him until I googled him. It was Scotty Brown, who was a barfly at the Gingerman, in Chicago, around the same time I was. We both knew people in the punk rock scene in Chicago, and so our paths crossed once in a while. I remembered that he was a big, obnoxious blowhard, who always had to top everything everyone said. I watched the program for a few minutes and realized that nothing had changed-- he's still a big obnoxious blowhard.

I was thinking about celebrity encounters I've had. Since I spent a lot of my twenties and thirties working in restaurants and hanging in clubs, I had a few of these. I discovered that Ed, one of my drinking buddies at the Hopleaf, was Ed Holstein, who with his brother Fred owned Holstein's and Somebody Else's Troubles, a couple of great folk clubs in the 70's and 80's. Very nice guy. I waited on Bill Kurtis-- a very nice guy. I waited on Tom Thayer of the 1985 Superbowl Bears-- he's an enormous guy, and also very nice. Television personality Bill Campbell, a great guy, and Sportcaster Jim Rose, who is a big fucking prick. More on that later.

I was in Martyr's for Ulele's last show and saw a couple knew I recognized but couldn't place until later. It was Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz. He is tiny, and she is even smaller.

But of all the celebrity encounters I've had, my favorite was with Butt Gravy.

Back in the early nineties, Spin magazine had a contest for the worst band in America. The band Butt Gravy came in second place. At the time, I was working at Nida's (or N.N. Smokehouse, if the owner was fighting with his wife that week) a popular rib place on the north side of Chicago that was not far from the Metro, where all the "college radio" type bands played back then. I was waiting on a table of scruffy slacker-types, and noticed one was wearing a "Butt Gravy" t-shirt. "Second worst band in America!" I said, pointing to the shirt. "Where did you get the shirt?"

"We ARE Butt Gravy!"

"Cool!" I replied. "Second worst band in America!"

"Yeah, you should come see us!"

"Um, yeah....."

My worst series of celebrity encounters was with Chicago sportscaster Jim Rose. His tv persona is very polished. In person, he's a rude moron. Twenty years ago, I was working at a horrible chain restaurant on Michigan Avenue (hint-- it's the one Micheal Jordan met his wife at) and Rose would come in frequently-- and always end up in my section. It became a running joke among the waiters and hosts. And of course, he was, every single time, a jagoff.

One time in particular was even more memorable. He came in with a guy who I'm guessing was an athelete. The guy he was having dinner with was African-American and was, unlike him, a gentleman. They both ordered steaks. His friend ordered his steak medium rare, which I took note of-- most African Americans, and in fact most people of southern ancestry, white or black, tend to have steaks and burgers well done.

Well, it got busy, and of course the cooks neglected to put the "temp sticks" in-- the little plastic sticks that indicate how the steak was cooked. I tried to guess which one was his (he and his friend had gotten the same side dish, so that didn't help me) and I guessed wrong.

Rose cut into the steak and saw red, literally and metaphorically. He grabbed his plate and went back into the kitchen and started screaming at the cooks. It was ugly.

What he didn't know was that Rich, the the big black broil cook who'd cooked his steak, was on parole for manslaughter. He'd killed someone. And here was this Buppie was screaming at him.

In the meantime, the restaurant had gone silent with everybody observing this ugly scene. If he'd have told me when I went back a moment later to check on them, it would have gotten taken care of quickly and quietly. Now, here he was, standing there looking like the asshole that he was.

A manager quickly swooped in and took care of it. He comped the meal. I felt bad for one reason: his friend quietly ate the overcooked steak that was meant for Rose. I myself consider medium rare overcooked, and well done is inedible. Not only did he have to be seen with this major-league dickhead, but he had to eat the shitty steak meant for Jim Rose.

The next time Jim Rose came in, they made sure not to seat him in my section.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Rumors of their demise were greatly exaggerated...

I bought my first computer when my son was still a baby (he's 12 now). I heeded the advice of my friends and got a Mac. I've never regretted that decision. This post is being made with an ibook.

I went into a Radio Shack one day for a cable I needed-- this must have been around 1995. The clerk told me that they didn't carry any Mac cables, and besides, Apple was on it's way out.


Cleaning out my basement today, I came across an issue of Wired from 1997. It had an article entitled "101 Ways to Save Apple." There were various suggestions-- some serious, some tongue in cheek-- about how to save Apple. One of them, presciently, was "Switch to Intel Chips." Conspicuously missing was "Invent the Ipod," the thing that was one of the keys to saving Apple.

I've worked using PC's and Macs, and there's no contest. Macs are, in the words of my friend Ron, the computers that don't suck.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Refuge of the Roads... Small Pleasures

Back in May, my car got broken into, right in front of my house. It was part of a weird little wave of crime that rolled through my generally very safe neighborhood in Chicago before the cops got a handle on it. I think it had to do with the huge wave of gentrification that has roared through the area; gang-bangers got bumped from houses in which they had lived with their parents until the parents sold and moved to Bensenville or Rolling Meadows or wherever, and the dumbass gangbangers pooled their petty theft and drug money and got apartments in the area. The cops and landlords got right on it and they were gone within weeks, but not before a bunch of cars and garages got broken into-- and a few murders, including that of an old friend, occurred.

In any event, a couple of years ago, I was financially confident enough, after years of inhabiting the ranks of the working poor, to buy a few cd's-- used cd's mostly, but cd's-- to add to the collection of downloaded music. Some cd's you want the whole package. A few examples of this for me are "Talking to the Taxman About Poetry," by Billy Bragg, "London Calling," by the Clash, "Exile on Main Street," by the Rolling Stones, and "Reckoning" by REM. So when my car got broken into, I thought Hejira was taken-- I thought it had it had been in the storage thing under the car stereo.

For some reason, I never bothered to check my damned cd rack. Just a little while ago, I checked it, and there it was.

I felt a really strange sense of relief-- the album had a lot of sentimental value; I still have my vinyl copy of the album that I bought when I was in high school. To buy the cd was really indulgent. It's such a beautifully written and performed album-- she had Jaco Pastorius and other jazz guys playing on the record-- and I don't even like jazz. It was a record waiting for the cd to be invented. I just loved the sound, her voice, and mostly the lyrics. From the first song, "Coyote:"

"We saw a farmhouse burning down/In the middle of nowhere/In the middle of the night/And we rolled right past that tragedy/Till we turned into some road house lights/Where a local band was playing/Locals were kicking and shaking on the floor...."

Or the next song, Amelia, where she mourns an old lover who's left:

"I wish her were here tonight/It's so hard to obey/His sad, strange request of me to kindly stay away/So this is how I hide the hurt/As the road leads cursed and charmed/I tell Amelia, it was just a false alarm."

The album is a journal and a travelogue, her on the road, licking her wounds, considering her mistakes and then, in the end, getting ready for more adventures, and another romance. At the end of the album, she waxes philosophical and irreverent, sitting in a gas station, looking at a calender. The doomed*, bi-polar Jaco Pastorius plays a brilliant bass while she sings, in "Refuge of the Roads":

"In a highway service station/Over the month of June/Was a photograph of the Earth/Taken coming back from the moon/And you couldn't see a city/On that marbled bowling ball/Or a forest or a highway/Or me here least of all/You couldn't see these coldwater restrooms/Or these baggage overloads/Westward and rolling taking refuge in the roads."

To buy this record, with its music and even its cover-- beautiful, arty and indulgent-- its not about the things I think about all day. I worry about things like "how can I be a better parent/husband/teacher/friend, a better human being-- can I save someone from starving today, or give some guy a sandwich or tell whether that guy really did run out of gas and needs help." It's silly, but I feel like spending ten bucks to purchase something simply because I find it beautiful, feels horribly indulgent.

But there is a place for beauty in this world, however flawed, however indulgent that beautiful thing may be. I am confident-- I have faith-- ironic, since I'm an athiest-- that we will solve our problems. That there will be a day in which no one goes to bed hungry; that no one feels compelled to take from another person, because they will already have enough; that we will learn to control our inner and outer demons and have a less violent world. And as we work toward that, we have those little reminders of that future: watching your kid play little league; a bike ride with the stepdaughter; seeing the pleasure the wife takes in getting flowers; watching a Jim Jarmusch movie; a lava lamp; cooking a paella; watching some dumb old favorite movie for the eighteenth time; hearing an old favorite song come up on the radio; an email or call from an old friend; and of course, finding that you didn't lose Hejira after all.

* Pastorius was beaten to death by a bouncer in 1987 after drunkenly trying to force his way into a pre-comeback Santana's club gig in LA

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Tagged by Phil

I got tagged by Phil about books. I in turn pass the tag on to The Goddess of Chaos.

A Book That Has Changed Your Life: The Great Shark Hunt, by Hunter S. Thompson. In late August, 1981, I finally managed to go away to college, something that I hadn’t been able to do for the two years since I’d graduated high school (I lived at home and went to school for a year and lived out of state and worked for a year). I went to the reading room at my state college’s library, a beautiful room, to journal, and sitting on the table I had chosen to sit at was The Great Shark Hunt. It’s actually a compilation of Thompson’s writing. It blew me away. First, even knowing the hyberbole and exaggeration Thompson was prone to, if he got away with half the shit he said he did, I knew I needed to make my life more fun. It dawned on me as I read this whopper of a book cover to cover in a couple of days that life was only going to be as fun as I made it.

A Book That I've Read More Than Once: Still Life With Woodpecker, by Tom Robbins. It’s an exquisitely written book—funny, philosophical and sweet. It’s theme is about how to mix the desire to make the world a better place with the need for romantic love.

A Book That Makes You Laugh: Still Life With Woodpecker, as mentioned. Also, The Official Slacker Handbook, by Sara Dunn.

A Book That Makes You Cry: To Sleep With the Angels: The Story of a Fire, by David Cowan and John Kuenster. It was about the 1958 “Our Lady of Angels School” fire—a parochial school on Chicago's West Side that burned, killing 90 students and 3 teachers. It’s well-researched, with a lot of personal accounts that are heartbreaking. One in particular, when a mother is sitting with her eight-year-old son as he dies from his injuries from the fire—I defy anyone, particularly a parent, to read it and and not have to put the book down for a while and weep.

Book You Wish You Had Written: Deathwatch, by Robb White. You remember this one that we all read in seventh or eighth grade? About the psychotic executive/hunter who kills a prospector and when the college kid who is working as his guide refuses to not report it, the hunter sets him out nearly naked in the desert to die. It’s an incredibly well-written book—riveting, well-developed characters and a great ending.

Book You Wish Had Never Been Written: The Turner Diaries.

Book You Are Currently Reading: Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond. I’d been meaning to read it for a long time—I looked forward talking to my friend Mark about it. When he was shot to death in a robbery this June, I was among a group of friends who helped his parents clean his house out. They told us to grab whatever personal stuff of his we wanted. I took this book.

The author’s contention is that there were reasons relating to geography, availability of large mammals, pathogens and a few other things that led some peoples to thrive and even to dominate other peoples. It’s a fascininating book. I’m an atheist, but a part of me hopes that I’m wrong, so that Mark and I get the chance to talk about it.

Book You've Been Meaning To Read: Citizen Soldier and Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany 1944-45 by Stephen Ambrose.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Welcome to Wisconsin and old punk rockers

My wife and I drove through Wisconsin a week and a half ago on the way to visiting her family in Minnesota. We stopped on the way to snap a photo of this legendary sign. I had seen it years ago, on a trip to Madison, I think, with my friend Mark. It had acquired legendary status in the midwest.

When we went to Minneapolis, my wife showed me around her old stomping grounds, including the legendary First Avenue, in Minneapolis.. We had a great time-- ended up seeing some bands, but it was weird being the oldest people by far in the club (I'm 45).

This weekend the Hideout hosted an anniversary party for Touch and Go records. Three bands I saw one night twenty years ago played. At Crosscurrents, a place near Belmont and Clark, we saw three bands for five bucks. The guys from Naked Raygun were hanging with us-- this was March of 1986, right before they became big. That night Big Black, Scratch Acid and Killdozer played. The guitar player for Killdozer was wearing a Motorhead t-shirt-- for pants. It was a great night. I was just out of college and working two jobs, and could finally buy drinks for all the people who'd kept me in beer since I graduated. Scratch Acid was just the shit that night. All the bands were great. Steve Albini, of Big Black went on to be the Grand Kahuna of Chicago punk. Naked Raygun hit it big. Most of the people I was with that night are still friends.

It's weird getting older-- I still love the same things I loved. I still love cranking up an old New York Dolls song or singing along with my kids to a Ramones song. I still love all the people I hung around with back then-- Tim, Dan, etc. And I sure miss Mark.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

What's On My Mind

Okay, the thing on my mind, on the mind of anyone who’s thinking—the war.

The people in that region think of us—meaning the West, but particularly the U.S.-- as meddling bastards—primarily because we have been. Good book to read—“A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922,” by David Fromkin. It describes how the West carved up the mideast at the end of World War I for political expedients of the time—oil was not even a consideration at the time. The divisions were in such a way that it guaranteed future conflicts. The discovery of oil and the creation of Israel only added fuel to an existing fire. They have viewed the West as outsiders and barbarians from way back.

So in a region where there’s a fair amount of well-justified resentment toward us, we went in and took out a government. It wasn’t a good government, but that’s not the way people see it. Look at our own history. People in the South still defend the Confederacy—a government that was based on perpetuation of massive human rights violations. So even if Saddam’s regime was horrendous, it was still Iraq’s. Invading that country stirred up a hornet’s nest. It has fueled the imbecilic fundamentalist aspirations in the region. It was a bad, bad chess move.

The other day, I noticed one of my neighbors had a bumper sticker that said “If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention.” It made me think back to when I was a kid and the Vietnam War was going on. I remember how everything centered on it. Even in my grade school, kids talked about it. The entire 1968 election was focused on it. Why aren’t there riots in the streets over this war, which is very clearly a disaster? Because only a relative handful of long-term military professionals, with the help of an army made up mostly of America’s poor, are involved.

My father pointed out long ago that the shit didn’t hit the fan during the Vietnam War until white middle class kids started getting drafted. Maybe that’s what we need to get people outraged.

It’s funny, though—this whole rightward shift in the United States started with the humiliation we felt when we left Vietnam tail between our legs. It’s risen up, with sabre-rattling freaks like Reagan, Cheney and Rumsfeld running the show. Supporting terrorists in Nicaragua, intervening in more places than I can name. It all ends up with this war. I cannot conceive of another ending to this fiasco except for us once again leaving tail between our legs. Thirty some years later, the cycle completes.