Monday, August 22, 2016

Pitchforking Pitchfork’s Best Songs of the 1970’s


I get what Pitchfork is doing with its Best of the 70’s listing of key songs from that decade.  They’re encouraging healthy debate and, much like their usual M.O. with reviews, disdain.  They’re hoping most people don’t get it, crying out, “No Steve Miller or BTO?  Man, fuck these clowns!”
I do like the inventiveness of a lot of their selections.  They’re way off base with so much reggae stuff, and it’s revisionist history to place African artists in this higher context.  If you were into African music in the 70’s, you were way ahead of some major curves that would become more prominent in the 80’s.  Rest assured, your average Pitchfork editor in 1978 wouldn’t have given a shit about Fela Kuti.  As with most critics, he would have name dropped Fela in a Talking Heads review and not known what he was writing about.  But it’s always nice to imagine yourself as prescient.
What I’ll do here is offer my take on some of the issues I noticed in the list.  Odd omissions and such, things they purposely didn’t get right because they want to rewrite history.  I can’t blame them: all dictators want to revise history to conform to their take on it.  Most music critics are wannabe dictators, although their domain is taste as opposed to political power.  I can’t blame them for trying.  But it will never change the fact that Captain & Tennille ruled 1975.
*
There’s plenty of disco and 70’s R&B, most of it unbelievably asinine and questionable, but not one song by The Bee Gees, KC & the Sunshine Band, Barry White, or massive hits like “Rock Your Baby” by George McCrae or “Rock the Boat” by The Hues Corporation.  For that matter, there’s no Village People.  It would seem that in the context of revising the 70’s, a gay-themed band dominating the charts via subterfuge and silliness would have been right up their alley.  But apparently not.  “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” by Rod Stewart?  They include one of the songs he ripped off (“Taj Mahal” by Jorge Ben, although Stewart stole the synth line in his hit from the string arrangement on Bobby Womack’s “If You Want My Love Put Something Down On It”).  I’m surprised they recognize The Rolling Stones with “Miss You.”  (Keep in mind, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street came out in the 70’s … recognizing numerous tracks from these albums would be un-hip.  Not sure why they gave a nod to “Wild Horses” save for the Gram Parsons connection.)
“I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor was a crucial disco song, not to mention perfectly constructed and executed.  It reached across racial and sexual barriers, and now across generations.  But it wasn’t one of the best 200 songs of the 70’s?  Not even “Native New Yorker” by Odyssey which set a perfect tone for that city’s involvement with the disco movement.  August Darnell, frozen out completely, although that album by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band was ingenious in terms of crossing genres (in this case, Big Band, jazz, pop and disco) … “Cherchez La Femme” a monster hit that sounds timeless now.  They’ll include an obscure track like “Kiss Me Again” by Dinosaur, which reeks of hipster revisionism.  There are dozens of underground disco tracks from that time period just as worthy (and just as irrelevant … ask your fiftysomething, disco-loving relative if he remembers “Kiss Me Again” … unless said relative was frequenting gay NYC dance clubs, probably not).
I’m glad they got Chic, but you knew they would.  “Heart of Glass” by Blondie deserved to be in the Top 10: a perfect pop song that turned the world upside down and crossed barriers between new wave and disco that were nearly as impassable as those between rock and disco. I grasp the importance of "I Feel Love" by Donna Summer ... but why not "Funky Town" by Lipps Inc.? It was a major hit in 1979 and took the electronic/dance formula even further.  It makes no sense why one song is on the list, but not the other.
Prog Rock did not exist in Pitchfork’s world.  Another instance of Pitchfork writers showing their asses.  I get it … it’s uncool to champion prog, even now.  But there are plenty of great 70’s Prog Rock tracks that still resonate.  No solo Peter Gabriel for that matter, too.  Trust me, Pitchfork writers too young to grasp this or do your research, Peter Gabriel was hot stuff with critics in the 70’s.  Pink Floyd?  Not hardcore prog, more pop prog, if you ask me.  I love “Wish You Were Here” but the entire Pitchfork staff should throw on Animals and see where it takes them.  Supertramp would make just as much sense in this context in terms of popularity and influence, but good luck running those gentle hippies through the hipster litmus test.  (And, no, fucking Can or Neu doesn’t count here!  I’m surprised these assholes didn’t throw in Van Der Graaf Generator and Hawkwind for good measure.)
Hard rock (hesitant to call it heavy metal as it wasn’t called that yet) is under-represented, and only by obvious choices (Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy and the one Blue Oyster Cult track appearing in numerous horror movies over the decades).  “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple was a song known by every struggling garage rock band in America at the time.  AC/DC was what real punks in America in the 70’s listened to and used to fuel their sense of rebellion.  It wasn’t punks, per se, mohawks and safety pins in noses.  Punks in America in the 70’s were an anomaly and a bit of a joke, thanks to the over-hype of The Sex Pistols' arrival in America.  If you were a white American teenager in high school in the late 70’s, and in trouble with the authorities, AC/DC was your band, among a host of other hard-rock bands.  That’s the kind of things critics never pick up on long after the fact (because it doesn’t serve their purpose or suit their taste).
No Philip Glass or Steve Reich.  Brian Eno was pretty much it for experimental composers in the 70’s.  Not true, but what the hell, he works for lazy bastard critics.  I barely have my feet wet in this genre and know what utter nonsense it is to champion Eno in this company.
I’m wondering how on earth they came up with “The Immigrant Song” and “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin.  I gather it’s consensus, people voting for favorite tracks … but how in the hell do these two tracks get chosen over “Stairway to Heaven” or “Kashmir” or a handful of other more famous, more worthy tracks?  I seem to recall Jeff Buckley covering Levee, but no idea how Immigrant penetrates this melee of hipster critics.
No singer songwriters (barring Judee Sill and maybe Elton John).  Karen Dalton was virtually unknown in the 70’s, so I’m not even going to get into that.  I understand wanting to take a dump on James Taylor: many of us have been doing it since coming across that white-faced Greatest Hits album in dorm rooms one time too many.)  I guess the concept of taking someone like Cat Stevens or Carole King seriously doesn’t register with people like this.  Not sure why Nick Drake does other than car commercials?  Jackson Browne?  Solo Paul Simon?  I know, I'm wasting my time.  But if you think both those artists don't have a dozen songs a piece that would make sense on any 70's Best of list, you're just being standoffish, not cool.
The only Folk music that mattered in the 70’s was Nick Drake.  Even though about 36 people knew who he was at the time.  Never mind that there was a resurgence in British Folk and Celtic music throughout the decade.  Don’t you know this was the dreadful music punk “saved” us from in 1977?  Johnny Rotten, thank you for saving us from Sandy Denny!  If only you had killed Richard Thompson with your bare hands at the same time!  American counterparts?  Forget it, whether it was the poppy stuff like Jim Croce or Harry Chapin, or more lasting artists like Loudon Wainwright III, who along with Leonard Cohen was writing songs of such adult emotional depth and honesty they've yet to be rivaled.  Joni Mitchell gets a nod, and I'm assuming in doing so gets all the folk and California references that people like Pitchfork writers are willing to dole out.  And a major shout-out to Joan Armatrading!  Wait a minute, she's not on the list either.
“Street Hassle” by Lou Reed?  “Walk on the Wild Side” is a painfully obvious choice, as is “Perfect Day.”  I’m glad to see they included “Rock and Roll” and “Sweet Jane” by The Velvet Underground.  A lot of what Lou Reed did in the 70’s was mediocre, but when he got it right, he got it very right, and that started happening more as the 70’s wore on.  The song “Street Hassle” is a tour de force, a gritty street poem backed by a string quartet.  (Is there any precedent for this?)  On a similar note, “Wild in the Streets” by Garland Jeffreys surely deserves a nod, too, but most critics take that express bus right by his work.
No Mott the Hoople/Ian Hunter.  Ask Mick Jones of The Clash how important “All the Young Dudes” was to him.  It was just as important to American rock fans, and a deeply influential track.  On a similar note, how does a track like “Metal Guru” get selected for T. Rex in the presence of “Get It On (Bang a Gong)”?  It doesn’t make sense.  It would be like selecting “On Top of the World” for Cheap Trick instead of “Surrender.”
No New York Dolls.  Unbelievable that “Personality Crisis” didn’t make the list.  Hugely influential.  Punk in the United Kingdom would not have existed without this band to serve as a sonic template for The Sex Pistols.  Punk in the U.K. would not have existed without what happened in the East Village in the early 70’s.  To give Richard Hell his due (which he surely deserves for that one song) makes sense, and Television, and The Ramones, and Patti Smith.  I’m amazed they only granted The Talking Heads two tracks.

Would the exclusion of Frank Zappa be indicative of the contributors having little to no knowledge of comedy-leaning artists and comedians, or simply that they came of age in a time where Frank Zappa albums were harder to find due to estate issues and the availability of his catalog?  Or maybe they just don't consider anything he did in the Top 200 of the decade?  Zappa was a huge presence in the 70's, but I guess now he's being penalized for his catalog having so many issues over the years.  (Ditto, Bob Seger, although I wouldn't expect anyone at Pitchfork to acknowledge his presence.) Comedy albums were huge in the 70's, but I guess it would be hard to narrow down to track choice, but you better believe people like Richard Pryor and George Carlin had a very large influence on rock audiences and the overall culture.
No Southern Rock.  A glaring omission that pretty much tells you where Pitchfork writers are at.  You mean to tell me The Allman Brothers didn’t have one track that merits inclusion in this list?  That’s foolish.  Never mind Lynyrd Skynyrd: I can understand critics blowing off a band that deeply southern (although they’d be just as wrong to do so).  I can’t see why they include a track by The Grateful Dead (admittedly, a pretty boring choice that makes no sense given a surplus of great early 70’s tracks).  Jam bands would not exist without these two bands hitting their stride in the early 70’s.  You think it would be a better world without jam bands?  Possibly so.  But the world would be just as well off without EDM, so let's deep six Joy Division and Giorgio Moroder while we're at it.  The things that fill stadiums now … were done much better and much more subtly in the 70’s.  And that’s hard to believe given how unsubtle most of the 70’s were!
Very little country, more accurately, only critically-approved country.  While the Pitchfork editors are busy deep mining reggae and African music, they skim over country.  I can understand skimming over Blues, Jazz and Classical from the 70’s (although, again, it’s a mistake born of critical miseducation), but I gather most of these critics have never been culturally predisposed to understanding or even liking country music, save for token gestures to “outlaw” country and female artists who hung around a few decades, the sort of shit people with far too many tats and a studied penchant for Pabst Blue Ribbon will punch up on a jukebox in a faux redneck bar.  Give it a break … put on a Johnny Cash album from the 70’s.  If you can handle that, then we’ll talk!  (To be honest, I can’t handle that, just making a point.  There’s a reason “One Piece at a Time” is the only 70’s Cash songs that resonates with me.)
Let me put it this way with jazz: I’d take even an average Keith Jarrett track over anything Gil Scott Heron did.  I grasp the hipster quotient (in light of hiphop years later).  But if you’re going that route, I’d skip the jazz angle and go with The Last Poets.
Nothing happened in New Orleans in the 70’s according to Pitchfork.
No Carpenters.  Huge mistake indicative of critics who just weren’t around then and don’t have a clue.  While The Carpenters didn’t invent “soft rock” their chart dominance at the time, and the quality of their production, songwriting and Karen Carpenter’s voice, created core production values for early 70’s pop, for better or worse.  I understand that Pitchfork wants to disregard certain chart-topping genres, but they don’t seem to grasp that there were quality/sustainable artists working in those genres.  I’m far from the only one to recognize this!
Aside from Elvis Costello, no major English new wave artists, namely Graham Parker and Joe Jackson.  Squeezing Out Sparks was one of the best albums of the 70’s, and you could pick any number of Parker songs for this list (I’d have gone with “Don’t Ask Me Questions.”).  Joe Jackson simply for his minor hit, “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” which made new wave seem so much more palatable to American kids raised on AOR radio.  Granted, Jackson would hit his stride straddling the 70’s into the early 80’s, but that song is important.  I wouldn’t expect Pitchfork to champion Rockpile or solo Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds (despite more than a few worthy tracks), but skipping Parker and Jackson makes no sense.
There’s way too much late 70’s punkish/new wave shit on their list that just didn’t register then and still doesn’t now.  The Slits were a bit of a goof at the time … Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders don’t exist on this list, but they were cusp of the 70's) was a much better role model, and that first album was hugely influential.  The Raincoats?  O.K., I get it, but Top 200 songs of an entire decade?  Not quite.  I suspect if you spoke candidly with all those 90's Riot Grrrls, you'd hear more about Pat Benatar, Joan Jett and Debbie Harry than The Raincoats.
No NRBQ.  You can tell how old most Pitchfork writers are: not old enough to have been around for the 80’s deification of NRBQ as America’s great lost 70’s rock band.  And they were.  “Riding in My Car” would make the Top 20 of any worthwhile 70’s song list.
Big Star but not The Raspberries.  The Raspberries were what Big Star wanted to be.  “Overnight Sensation” is as worthy as any song in the Big Star canon.  Again, critical revisionism at work here, although plenty of people have given The Raspberries their due in the interim.  I am glad to see Big Star tracks included in the list.
I can understand why Van Halen wasn’t on the list, but their first album rejuvenated a genre that was in dire need of a swift kick in the ass, bringing it back to shorter songs and a sense of fun.  Again, if you were a punk in America at the time, a real punk having severe issues with authority figures, chances are you were listening to Van Halen … not The Slits, for crying out loud.
The Eagles vs. Gram Parsons.  You have to give them credit: aside from one Grateful Dead track and a smattering of Neil Young, they completely ignored country rock and Gram Parsons in particular … which is a travesty to most critics.  But I tend to agree with them.  Parsons was riding that 60’s wave of country rock bands with The Flying Burrito Brothers.  His solo albums were good with a few great tracks.  And he only made two.  He hated The Eagles?  I’m sure his logic was “I’m more authentic than they are” … but the reality was “they had a far better pop sense, a great vocalist and harmony/background singers, and were good songwriters, too.”  Hotel California was an important album and song; that album is more fully realized than anything Gram Parsons ever did.  I know, acknowledging as much for your average Pitchfork editor would be like voting for Trump.
There’s no DEVO on a list like this?  It’s senseless in the context of their hipness.  In terms of American bands getting that out there in terms of song structure and image, they were way out in front of everybody.  I’m also surprised not to see Pere Ubu.  It makes me doubt the veracity of Pitchfork critics.  Are they really that young that they just don’t have any cultural reference points for bands like this?  They need to have this spoon-fed to them by older critics and movie/TV show references?  Silly shit like The Slits make it while Pere Ubu doesn’t? 

It’s just wrong, but it helps me understand how this process works  Most critics aren't historians; they just follow the easy path placed in front of them via older critics, savvy film makers using cool, lesser-known music in movies and TV shows, the occasional hiphop sample and apparently recent deaths.  (That's the only way I can explain "Life on Mars" being their top pick and any Prince song from the 1970's being anywhere on the list, much less in the Top 10.  It would have been gauche to acknowledge Glenn Frey's passing, even though The Eagles clearly had a massive influence on what mainstream country would become two decades down the road.) If a band like Pere Ubu doesn't fall under those auspices, someone not alive at that time and following indie music most likely isn't going to grasp their meaning as they haven't been hyped by the usual suspects.  What dissuaded me from really getting into music criticism?  The realization that most music critics were even worse than sports writers in terms of their mediocrity.
The plus sides of their list?  I can’t believe they went with “Lola” by The Kinks.  Then again, the song plays into currently popular gender themes (for the record, listed as my favorite song in my high-school yearbook).  I can’t believe “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen placed so high on their list (#15).  The lame critical take on what the song “really meant” is complete and utter horseshit, but I’m glad hipsters now can recognize how mind-blowing the song was.  Glad to see “I’m Not in Love” by 10CC make the cut: deserves it for production values alone.  While The Roches scared me when I first saw them on Saturday Night Live, I must admit, they were way out in front of a few things that would come later.  “What a Fool Believes” by The Doobie Brothers?  OK, I’ll go along.  Is this some odd type of yacht rock vote?  I’m sure the guys in Steely Dan are wondering what sort of ass-backwards universe Pitchfork critics are living in to have their legacy be roughly no more or less than The Doobie Brothers.
And I have to respect weirdness like that although, again, what I learn from a list like this: if you weren’t alive at the time, you really don’t know what in the hell you’re writing about.  It pains me to recognize the same about myself with decades earlier than the 70’s, but it’s true.  There’s clearly little to no context for a lot of these songs selections; it’s just crazy shit that somehow got a foothold with X number of critics decades after the fact.  It would be like me falling in love with obscure Frank Sinatra album tracks from his albums from the 1940’s and 1950’s, going up to someone who was alive at the time and a huge fan, and describing to him what my favorite tracks are.  Sure, he’d know the songs that I was talking about, but he’d be thinking, “This guy doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground when it comes to Sinatra.”
I think Pitchfork prides itself on not knowing its ass from a hole in the ground.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Pokemon Go Observations

I suspect the Pokemon Go trend is going to be one of those things that screams “2016 only” in future nostalgia-based TV shows.  It won’t move forward; it’s not some revolutionary new fad.  I should be angry with these people, but really, this is nothing more than smartphone obsession reaching its logical conclusion: adults acting like children.  You need not wonder what all those people engrossed with their smartphones are doing.  They’re playing games, as they have been since 2007, whether something as obvious as Pokemon Go or solitaire, or more sophisticated games like Facebook and Twitter.
Something odd has been happening the past few days: our corner here in Astoria seems to be one of those places where players congregate to collect points, or whatever.  (Don’t explain the rules to me, unless you can verify that you’re under 12 years of age.)  Thus far, I’ve seen about a dozen people at random times while coming and going from the house.  Always guys.  Guys in their 20’s.  Clearly nerds.  For the most part, mild, unassuming guys, not friendly, but in no way threatening, engrossed in their smartphones.  It’s driven home to me how relatively inoffensive this game and trend is.  Then again, today there was a guy who had a scowl on his face, seemed a bit mangy, and I made it a point of stopping with my groceries after opening the gate and staring at him.  He got the picture and left.
I know what this is … but my 80+ year-old landlord upstairs?  Who sits in her front room all day watching people pass the front of her house?  She hasn’t said anything yet, but I’m waiting for her to call down the stairs, “Ah-Billy, who-ah are these-ah crazy people in-ah front of the house?”  She doesn’t know what Pokemon Go is.  She barely knows what smartphones are.  I suspect she feels vaguely threatened by the strange number of guys in their 20’s sauntering in front of her house for a few minutes with their phones.
So long as they stand around doing their silly thing, I don’t care.  I’m hoping not to see anyone make the mistake of sitting on her front steps.  I’ll draw the line there with the stock NYC “get the fuck out of here” speech.  I gather there are a fair number of imbeciles playing the game who could be graceless enough to conduct themselves this way.
(Sidenote: it occurs to me now that the old trope, "Hey you kids, get off my lawn" applies here.  Save the subtext of that message implies that the kids on the lawn are somehow "cool" while the person yelling this has grown old and "uncool."  Trust me ... grown-ups playing video games will never be cool.  They may as well be standing around out there with the waistbands of their Fruit of the Looms around their necks.)
What do I find troubling about this trend?  The simple fact that if you’re a guy in his 20’s, you should be trying to get laid.  Above and beyond all else.  Or going out for drinks.  Or going to the gym.  The library.  The museum.  The movies.  A band.  Shopping.  Going to church even, if thus inclined.  Not wandering aimlessly on sidewalks playing a videogame meant for children.  Augmented reality?  The future?  When I read shit like this … the future sounds like a very wrong turn.  Unless you’re looking for ways to make money off prepubescent and adolescent males, you should not be concerned with augmented reality.  You should be concerned with reality.  Or trying to escape it in more interesting ways.
I can’t explain it fully, but the past few years, I’ve felt so disengaged from the overall culture in America.  Surely, I always have, but lately it feels like that percentage I have in common with what’s presented to me as “normal” seems to be heading towards single-digit territory in terms of movies, music, literature, art, pop culture, etc.  The political climate hasn’t helped, which has taken on vestiges or professional wrestling in terms of how it’s presented to us.  Topped off with terrorists hitting their prime in urban areas all over the world, racial bullshit going on in all directions, people carrying semi-automatic weapons at public rallies, etc.
Then again, I’ve described the conditions of how I grew up in the 1970’s: all the negative shit going on at the time in the adult world … while I was having a much more enjoyable time as a kid.  Surely at the time, I pretended things were much more rough and complicated in my childhood.  It’s the nature of any good writer to look back and recall the reality of a situation as opposed to the nostalgia.  But I can look back and see I was a relatively untroubled kid, raised in a reasonable/non-abusive family, made to feel important and intelligent, etc.  Nothing special?  Maybe not, but I’ve seen the other side of the coin with kids, now adults, who dealt with all sorts of horrible, negative shit as children and how it’s affected them as adults.  (And not always negatively: some adults with horrible childhoods take those years as profound instruction as how not to live and what to avoid later in life.)
Maybe it’s just the nature of the world for adults, particularly in their middle age, to feel completely disengaged from society.  Which is odd, as that was the vibe I was shooting for as a dislocated young guy in college/in his 20’s/out of college/living in a major city.  The vibe exactly: on the outside of all the bullshit.  Well, I got news for my younger self: it’s a strange feeling when you find yourself in that position.  Advertisers aren’t targeting you.  Movies aren’t trying to appeal to you.  Popular music is geared to make people feel dead by 30.  Nothing’s aimed at you.  Save for relentless TV ads for pills to make your dick hard or lower your cholesterol and/or mortgage payments.
I guess the point I’m trying to make to myself here is that it’s pointless to grovel in the overall culture.  Because it’s mostly fucked, has little of lasting value, or moral, emotional or spiritual well being to offer.  Mostly strange shadows of childhood and that level of self absorption we all felt as the objects of so many things, personal and otherwise.  It’s important to look for real things in all that mess.  Not virtual reality.  Not “augmented” reality via a hand-held device.  And if you’re looking to escape reality, do it well.  The near-daily aroma of stink-weed I get walking the streets of Manhattan over the past few years … is not doing it well.  I don’t take these things as signs of the apocalypse … much more signs of people crawling too far up their own asses.  (Which is a nice place to hide, but you have to come out some time.)
Often I’ll go back to my parents when comparing lifestyles, especially the older I get and easily recalling how they were in their 40’s and later in life.  In their 20’s?  Before 25?  Lived through the Depression, which was poverty of the likes I’ve never known, but plenty of people have, before and since.  A ragged, hard way to grow up with little hope.  Immediately followed by a world war that had a generation war and poverty hardened by the age of 25.
I try to imagine your average 25-year-old war vet in 1945 playing Pokemon Go … and, boy, am I coming up blank!  Something like this would have made zero sense in his context, and I’m sure my similar, feigned lack of understanding is my tribute to their well-earned hardness.  The truth is from the 60’s onward, every generation has been trained to worship youth at the expense of aging, gracefully or not.  We can’t truthfully bitch at this sort of Pokemon Go and smartphone nonsense without recognizing a similar level of self absorption in ourselves.  Do I think it’s worse now?  Yes, obviously, much worse, and not getting better.  But we had that same problem, or at least I know I did, well through my 20’s.  I think getting heavy in my 30’s (no thanks to that undiagnosed hypothyroid issue that took years to correct) drove that home for me, that sense of invisibility you grasp when you get overweight in our society.  As any homeless person could tell you, there’s comfort in invisibility, until you realize you’re so invisible you could drop dead, and people are going to walk right over you.
I’ve got that Mekons documentary on in the background while I write this.  And I guess that’s something good to note, that this band did their own thing and are still doing it, despite never quite making it on that exalted level of say, R.E.M.  At one point an interviewer asks them to what they attribute their success, and the band all snicker at each other, knowing that their "success" has been due to their lack of success.  Or at least success on the level where they’d be destined to burn out after a few years or tie themselves to a time period that permanently identifies them as such.  They’ve succeeded just enough that most people don’t have a clue who they are, but enough so that they can eke out a small existence indefinitely, even if it means most of the band dayjobbing it between tours and recording.
That’s not the romantic rock star lifestyle of yore … but god damn it, they’re still doing it.  And I take that to heart.  The simple ability to do things that matter to you, and by extension to other people who think like you, like the things you do, have the same interests.  That’s what it’s always been about, whatever level you can make it work on.  It’s a warm feeling, not invisible, connected on a level far more real than a video game or Twitter feed.  That’s the odd thing I’ve noticed about the guys on the sidewalk playing Pokemon: they’re not talking to each other even though they’re feet apart, gathered for the same reason.  You would figure that would be a cool starting point to meet like-minded individuals.  It seems more like a slightly-less isolated place than the usual complete isolation they experience walking around totally absorbed in their smartphones. An age thing?  Buddy, if it's an age thing, as screwed up as I've been at various points in my life, I don't ever recall being so screwed up that I would be this oddly dislocated from a fellow human being two feet away from me engaging in behavior that should be creating a bond between us.
I’m not sure there’s any way you can communicate that to some 27-year-old guy playing Pokemon Go on the sidewalk in front of your house.  Then again, it’s a message that won’t make sense to him for another two decades or so.

Monday, July 04, 2016

One Shot


To honor the passing of Michael Cimino, I’ve been having a small film festival today, with two of my favorite movies: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and The Deer Hunter.  I’m not quite getting the “damning with faint praise” Cimino’s passing is receiving on the internet.  I’d be more than honored to come up with something as direct, honest and lasting as The Deer Hunter.

But that’s how the world is now.  Grave pissing is the order of the day, people with no heart, soul or mind imagine themselves on a higher level than those who’ve created something far beyond their reach.  This is the imaginary world where we’re all equal.  Not the real one where people will watch The Deer Hunter decades from now and still feel something profound.  You don’t make a critical analysis of someone’s work at his funeral … unless you’re a complete asshole.

When people ask me where I’m from, I can say “northeast Pennsylvania,” but I’ll just as often say “the first half of The Deer Hunter.”  When I first saw the movie on HBO in the late 70’s, I didn’t get it.  How could I, as a teenager?  I didn’t give a shit about where I was from – if anything, I looked down on it.  I was far more drawn to the intense, flashy Vietnam sequences (which really make no sense without the first half to show you this trio of young men going through hell in war). 

I can’t remember when it dawned on me that the first half of The Deer Hunter truly captured what it felt like to live in most parts of Pennsylvania in the 1960’s and 70’s.  The movie’s setting may have been Pittsburgh, guys making steel, working-class Russian/Ukranian background, but it could just as easily have been Scranton, guys on the tail end of the hard coal industry, working-class Irish background.  Northeast Pennsylvania was and is heavily Irish and Polish/Ukranian.  Every town has a domed church of the kind you’ll find in any town in east Europe.

The Deer Hunter perfectly captures three young men on the eve of abandoning that way of life, by force, in their case joining the army to fight in Vietnam: Mike (Robert DeNiro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (Jon Savage).  It’s the little things that ring true: the rotund Russian mother pulling her son, Steven out of the local bar on his wedding day, bitching at him for hanging out with low lifes when she’s really upset that she’s “losing” her son to marriage.  The wedding is like more than a few I’ve been to, although the ones I’ve attended back there featured pop songs and not Ukranian (or Irish) folk tunes.  Still, everything else was note perfect.

Mike and Nick discuss the concept of “one shot”: the art of taking down a deer when hunting with one rifle shot.  Two is bullshit, indicative of an unskilled hunter.  Both recognize the rest of their friends are goofballs, two-shot guys at best.  But they understand one shot.  While talking about this in Nick’s trailer after their last day of work before leaving for the army, Nick makes Mike promise he won’t leave him over there in Vietnam.  He senses Mike may be a little nuts, but he’s hard as nails and understands the world is the same way.  As you could imagine, with DeNiro and Walken, it’s an intense, quiet scene.

Sure enough, shit happens in Vietnam.  Harrowing, ugly stuff that damages all three of the men in every way possible.  In short, Mike doesn’t keep his promise: he loses track of Nick on the streets of Saigon after all three friends escape a doomed situation in a prison camp, and he comes back to Pennsylvania to find that while Steven is there (permanently damaged and living away from home out of shame), Nick is missing in action.  Steve informs him that he's receiving thousands of dollars at his veteran's hospital every week from an undisclosed source in Vietnam.  Mike knows this is Nick, hooked into the grim Russian Roulette gambling scene where they last lost sight of each other. He decides to head back to Vietnam and keep his promise.

This is where I’ve learned a lot about the movie in the past decade or two: one shot.  That concept of staying true, in some sense.  To a sense of home, or a time and place, or an ideal.  Life gets weird when people start dying.  Or things stop working.  The buoyancy of youth gives way to the realities of aging and passing time.  “One shot” still seems like a good idea, a code to live by, but it becomes harder to live by.

And it becomes something else.  Mike does find Nick, days before the fall of Saigon, hooked on heroin, making a fortune for some shady backstreet impresario staging profession Russian Roulette contests in backrooms and warehouses as the city falls.  “One shot” already got turned on its head when Mike and Nick where held prisoner, both made to play Russian Roulette in the prison camp, with Nick nearly cracking and Mike using the concept to kill their captors and helping all three to escape.

I keep saying “the first half of The Deer Hunter” in reference to movie, but there are really three parts: the innocent beginning in Pennsylvania, the horrifying war story in Vietnam, and the aftermath of war upon returning to Pennsylvania.  I find myself just as intensely interested with the last third of the movie now as I have for years with the first, as it captures something of how life goes on after it’s kicked your ass a few times.

Life doesn’t break most people.  Or at least that hasn’t been my experience.  But I’ve learned, you hang around long enough, you go through experiences that have virtually nothing to do with youth and innocence, and in fact are introductions to the hardness of life, which become more commonplace over time.  Most of us are lucky enough not to deal with war.  But we’ll get disease, death, betrayal, misunderstanding, victimization of various sorts, failing health, etc.  The bad stuff.  The net effect is to make us harder, sometimes crazy.  We don’t stay as pure as the driven snow, or the hang-loose, fun people we were as kids or teenagers.  Shit happens.  The challenge becomes to hold on to your humanity, your humor, your sanity, your empathy.

And that’s where The Deer Hunter goes in Act III, what makes it a truly great movie.  Mike does find Nick in the slums of Saigon: vacant, lost, stoned, another person, a seemingly impenetrable being who appears to have no recall or memory as to the person he was before.  This is on the way into one of Nick’s Russian Roulette appearances, in his white shirt and red headband, the uniform men wear to play the game.

Mike bribes his way into a game of Russian Roulette with Nick, the crowd cheering over two Americans playing the game, and they revisit the concept of “one shot.”  It’s how Mike gets through to Nick: you can see it in Nick’s face.  He remembers.  Being from Pennsylvania.  Mike, his tough, smart, older brother in so many ways.  His girl back home, waiting to marry him when he gets back.  And in his mind, he decides, there’s no going back to that place, he’s too far gone, too damaged, something’s broken inside of him, and “one shot” goes another way.

Mike kept his promise.  The movie ends back home in Pennsylvania, a funeral ceremony replacing the wedding that began the movie, in the same bar, the same people, but in a much different place.  It makes sense to me, and I’ve felt my life grow into this movie, never quite grasping the Vietnam sequence (although appreciating it, surely), but now fully understanding the “one shot” concept taking on two different meanings, based on nothing more than personal experience.

In a far less dramatic and destructive way, anyone who’s left a small town to live in a big city relates to Nick’s character in The Deer Hunter.  After decades of doing this, of being around people always angling for something, always hustling, always pushing their agenda … it can’t help but rub off!  Oddly enough, I don’t think living here has made me that much harder, just more suspect of people, more aware of their motives, for better and worse.  If you live here long enough, and you’re smart, you learn how to read people, if only by the way they walk or hold their bodies.  Actions become much more honest than words.  What’s made me harder?  Watching both my parents pass on, pure and simple, same as it’s always been, no matter where you choose to live.  Very few things in life are that much harder to grasp and then live with.

But there surely are!  And they're headed our way.  Ironically, while The Deer Hunter plays up the American angle of Vietnam, there are countless stories Vietnamese people that are even more harrowing, and in some cases uplifting in ways are as profound as any story focusing on American heroes.  And I guess that’s also how The Deer Hunter ends, with that awkward sense of community of people who have just had a series of very negative experiences, taking solace in each other’s company.  The movie begins and ends in the same place, but everything has changed.  That’s not easy to do from a writing point of view, and Cimino did it well.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Colonoscopy: Wet Dog in a Rusty Drainpipe

I’m not sure why this is, but leading into any type of medical procedure, rarely has anyone in my life who’s had the procedure adequately describe it to me.  I’ll get rolling eyes, and “you have no idea” and “the pain was excruciating” … which is helpful, but rarely a detailed description.  I think I did a reasonably good job of describing what it’s like to experience a hernia and then have it operated on.  So I’ll do the same with a colonoscopy, which I had earlier this week.


This is a bridge that most of us will cross.  I imagine there are a few folks who will refuse their doctors when they insist on a routine colonoscopy, whether out of financial concern or disdain for the medical profession.  But most of us will undergo this procedure, probably more than once.  My brother told me that when he had his done a few years ago, the doctor sighed and asked, “Why are you here?”  As if this was some passage from Waiting for Godot.  My doctor sent me, said it was standard procedure for someone my age.  Is there anything wrong with you?  No.  Nothing going on with your bowel movements or digestion?  No.  Trust me, then, if there was something wrong with your colon, you would know it.

I’m not sure where the doctor was going with that.  He was getting paid to perform a routine procedure he had done thousands of times and picked this one time to get existential?  I understand the purpose of a colonoscopy: to determine if you have any minor/malignant polyps or warning signs of cancer.  If there’s nothing wrong with you, you wonder what all the fuss is about.  Then again, have you seen someone suffering from colon cancer?  It’s a ragged way to exit the earth, so I’m all for any procedure that would eradicate that living hell.

The family doctor had been suggesting I get this done for awhile now, kept putting it off, but the time finally came in March.  Made an appointment for the gastroenterology office a few blocks away and went.  Another terrible medical office.  Three doctors working out of it, waiting room filled with worried people, fidgety kids, people acting like their time was infinitely more important than everyone else’s, etc.

There must be a small fortune to be made in being a competent, capable medical assistant … because a majority of workers I encounter in doctors’ front offices tend to put off very negative, troubling vibes, as if every patient is a pain in their ass, nothing is going right, and we’re here for them, as opposed to the other way around.  (This is what makes the family doctor’s office so nice: just him and his wife handling the front desk, so I walk in there with a good head and leave with one.)

Long story short, I wait 30 minutes, get in there, doctor takes my blood pressure, quick checklist of basic medical questions, hernia check, and I’m out of there.  Five minutes, tops.  I think the bill was $290.00.  I know because the medical insurance pinged me at work to say they’d received the bill and I’d eventually be charged $90.00 … despite the deductible being waived and the procedure being completely covered according to my company’s and their literature. 

Don’t get me started.  I’m writing this now, before receiving whatever invoices apply to the actual colonoscopy a few days ago, and I’m dreading that they’re going to try to gouge me again for something that should be completely free.  The only reason the insurance company said I would be charged was because the invoice they received was coded incorrectly (a medically necessary procedure as opposed to a routine check-up), and all the office had to do was re-code.  I don’t know if they have.  Or will.  This is the kind of irritating, needless horseshit you encounter any time you set foot in a medical office … again, a seasoned, intelligent medical assistant must be gold in this environment.

So, an appointment for the procedure is made for mid-May, a long ways off.  I gather colonoscopies are money in the bank for gastroenterologists, a revolving door of patients being forwarded by their family doctors.  Nothing wrong with that.  I arrange to have a neighborhood friend accompany me that day as part of the procedure is being put out cold while the doctor loops a cable/camera through my colon to see if anything is amiss.  Time marches on, mid-May rolls around.

I forgot to mention that the medical office issued me a prescription for the drugs to take the day before the colonoscopy – to purge my digestive system.  The instruction sheet they gave me that day as I left was very strict: procedure Monday at 12:30 pm.  No food after 8:00 am Sunday.  Take two stool softeners at 2:00 pm.  Start drinking formula at 4:00 pm.

I didn’t quite get the “formula” part until I picked up the prescription.  Normally, you go to a drug store counter for a prescription, you’re presented with a small paper bag with your vial of pills.  This time, they pulled out a small shopping bag strangely similar to what my Thai food take-out comes in.  What the hell is in that bag, I thought.  It turned out to be a three-liter plastic jug lined with an inch or two of white powder that was the magic potion.  Can’t even recall the name, but the object was add water to the three-liter line the morning of the big purge, shake, then refrigerate until drinking at 4:00 pm, eight ounces every 10-15 minutes until the jug was empty.

A sure sign that this would be a rough day: that Sunday when I add water to the jug and start shaking, this concoction fizzes up like Alka Seltzer.  Highly carbonated, like a witch’s cauldron bubbling.  Downing a glass of that?  Whatever.  A three-liter jug.  Oh, man.

I could drink liquids after 8:00 am, but I figure if I’ll be downing three liters of that fluid, no need to drink all that much before or after.  As usual, I go to boxing that morning, have a good class, make it back before 2:00, then pop the stool-softener pills.

Nothing.  After about an hour, I feel a bit bloated, but nothing terrible.  4:00 rolls around, and it’s time to start downing the contents of the jug.  By this time, any sign of carbonation has dissipated so the jug is filled with a clear liquid that smells vaguely of Gatorade.  It isn’t that hard going down, like a bland-tasting sports drink.  Doing the math, I realize I’ll be doing this four times an hour until about 7:00.

I think there might be something wrong with me as I’m not dumping by 6:00.  Just a slow-build feeling of bloat.  I didn’t eat much the night before, and only a banana in the morning, figuring it was all going to come out in a very bad way later in the day.

Boy, was I right.  The first movement at 6:30 is explosive diarrhea.  Projectile?  Maybe.  Hard to tell when you’re sitting down.  It blows out hard and fast.  This first time is mostly food-based, standard colored, the kind of thing that would happen if you were ill with a case of the runs.

The next one 20 minutes later is another story.  I had pushed out the food-based contents of my stomach and am now working on that concoction I’d been slow-motion chugging all afternoon.  What comes out now is an orange liquid that feels like hot coffee and has zero solidity, just pure fluid, literally like urinating from my anus.  “Squirting” doesn’t do it justice.  Picture a super soaker as opposed to a squirt gun.

And the smell.  Not like fecal matter at all.  More like a wet dog stranded in a rusty sewage treatment pipe.

Come to think of it, that smell is a good metaphor for how I feel: like a lost, forlorn dog hiding from the rain in an abandoned sewage treatment pipe.  This exercise goes on from about 6:45 until 9:30, every 20 minutes with diminishing, but no less tedious, results.  When you dump like that for hours on end, it sucks the life out of you.  Wiping isn’t a problem: there’s nothing to wipe.  Only remnants of warm, brackish orange fluid.  How the clear fluid turns orange in my system, I don’t want to know.

Are you getting all this down?  Because in the entire colonoscopy process, this is the low point, the night before, after you’ve blown out all the horrible contents from your digestive system.  You’re empty inside.  I didn’t weight myself then, but next morning, I had lost five pounds.  I knew from my weight-loss odyssey that this was an illusion, my system completely void of waste material, which is not a natural condition.  In reality, that was about a two-pound loss with extenuating circumstances.  (Sure enough, a few days later I weigh three pounds heavier.)

After 10:00 that night, I give the toilet a few more shots, but only wind is coming out.  Strangely odorless, too, but no less noisy.  My landlord upstairs must have been hearing and vaguely whiffing snatches of this onslaught through the floorboards and thinking, “Ah, poor Billy, he’s not doing so well today.”  She wouldn’t have thought I was dumping; she’d have thought I was harboring a wet dog and tormenting him with a vuvuzela.

The next morning, I have a few more windy but uneventful episodes in the bathroom.  There is nothing in my system, a strange feeling.  More than hungry, I’m thirsty, but the instructions state, no intake of any sort after midnight and before the procedure.  I thought I was going to get a ton of stuff done with all this down time, but I didn’t factor in the complete lack of energy that comes with not eating for a day and suffering from mild dehydration.  All I want to do is putz around on the internet, doze and get this thing over with at 12:30.

As instructed, I get over to the office 15 minutes early for paperwork.  My friend is already there, prepared with Kindle and smartphone.  I stand at the front desk for 10 minutes, alone, before anyone deigns to help me.  Just looking at these folks, making eye contact with them: nothing, like I’m not even there.  I know if I sit down, they’re going to miss me completely.  This is bad.

Finally, one of them talks to me, ascertains that I’m there for a 12:30 appointment and gives me a clipboard with three sheets.  Top sheet is a waiver stating that I grant them to right to charge me any necessary amount up to my deductible ($3,000.00 in this case) for medical services not covered by insurance.  Uh, no.  According to my insurance, the deductible is completely waived for this procedure, and I’m not supposed to spend one dime.  I can’t sign this paper.

And I say as much.  It doesn’t devolve into a street fight.  Frankly, it isn’t even that unpleasant.  I just courteously inform them that I can’t sign that sheet because my insurance is completely covering this process, produce an email from my insurance company stating as much, let them peruse it for a few minutes and bicker amongst themselves, make a copy, and have one of them tell me, OK, you don’t have to sign this sheet.

That’s one thing.  This whole time, there’s a guy standing next to me who has just come in, and he’s at a low boil.  Surely around my age, working guy in jeans and windbreaker with his company name, baseball hat, probably on his lunch hour.  Not angry because I’m in front of him, but because he’s there to pay a $1,000.00 anesthesiologist invoice that he didn’t see coming.  He’s pissed, and predicting bad tidings for me.  “Just you wait and see, buddy,” he barks, “they’re going to tag you the same way they tagged me.”

Son of a bitch.  I’m a patient, minutes away from a medical procedure where I’ll be out cold with a cable shoved up my ass … and I’m being made to feel uncomfortable and paranoid by staff and fellow patients?  What is it with this place?  The waiting room should be a comfort zone where you’re acknowledged and made to feel reassured that all will go well.  I’m seconds from bolting out the door! 

Just then another medical assistant pops through the door, “William Rep-suh-her?”  The cherry on top: my name being mis-pronounced!  But at least my presence is being acknowledged.  “William, where have you been?  We’re waiting for you!”

Like I have any other choice but to hassle with your front-desk staff over signing away my rights to dispute any costly clerical errors they’re sure to make!

I’ll say this after experiencing it a few times: the front desk experience is one thing, but usually when you meet the medical staff, all goes well.  This is what happens.  The woman takes me to a small room with a toilet, hands me paper booties, paper chest covering with arm holes, and the kicker, a paper skirt that looks like something from a grade-school hula dance party.  I guess it gives the doctor the option of rolling it up or just ripping it off my naked body.  She leaves me be, tells me the other door leads to the operating room and to go through when I’m ready.  It feels odd to be naked and only covered with tear-away clothes … my paper kilt.

I get these on and walk through the door.  A chipper guy in his 40’s greets me, Polynesian, putting out a vibe where I’m thinking he might be gay, or a vaguely effeminate straight guy.  It’s him and a woman manning an EKG machine.  I know the doctor’s name is Greek, so I’m assuming he’s the anesthesiologist.  Seconds later he has me on my back on the twin-size bed in the room.  This is much more sparse and low-key than the operating room experience with the hernia.  Gets the needle in the back of my left hand for the anesthesia to follow.   I glance at the EKG machine and see my blood pressure is 110 over 70 … amazing with all the shit going on.

As he’s about to administer the anesthesia, he says, “You have such nice eyes.  What color is your hair?”

Man.  I’m about to be knocked out with my ass exposed … and this guy might be flirting with me?!  I gather he’s just being friendly by keeping up the light banter, but my mind is willing to twist everything around to a negative after the typically bad front-office experience.

I wake up the next room over.  Roughly half an hour has passed.  Much like the hernia, the actual procedure is still a mystery to me.  In this case, I’m perfectly happy not to be conscious for an anal probe!  The strange thing for me this time is dreaming, although I can’t remember the dream.  I suspect it involved me being chased by an anaconda through a tunnel.  But I recall my mind racing through some fantastical situation, whereas the hernia surgery, my sleep was deep and blank.

The assistant does the usual things, asks me to sit up when I feel together enough to do so, and asks me questions to see how present I am.  I’m there.  My ass feels fine, which I had been told by numerous people, you don’t limp out of there as if surviving some prison shower rape scenario.  This is pretty lightweight compared to surgery.  I  stand up and leave to get dressed moments later.

I didn’t want to break wind in front of this woman, although she told me it would be perfectly OK to do so.  Apparently when they thread the camera through your colon, it’s easier to pump the colon with air to lightly expand the walls and allow for easier movement.  Thus you’re left with a gassy feeling … wouldn’t be surprised if I had cracked a few rats while I was out cold.  (I suspect the “flatulence humor” angle wears thin after you’ve had a few hundred bare-assed patients break wind in your face!)

But when I get into the room with the toilet, I make sure to sit down and let go with a few particularly loud ones.  Have to!  As per usual, nothing comes out, no foul odor.  I had been worried that there might still be “stuff” up there, but by the same token, it would have been nothing but liquid and easy to discern from substance.  The assistant hasn’t told me anything positive or negative about the results.

So I get dressed and move out to another small examination office to wait for the doctor.  He turns out to be a friendly Greek guy around my age, not dressed like a doctor at all, in jeans and a black polo shirt, maybe I was his last patient before lunch.  But thankfully, he tells me all is well, asks me a small battery of questions about diet and bowel movements, all checked off positively, didn’t find any polyps.  For all the minor fretting I’d done over the past few weeks, it’s all for naught.  As usual, my advice is to trust your body, although I’ve learned as we get older, bad shit is going to creep up on all of us, and I can’t fault doctors for wanting to intercept one particularly awful possibility in terms of colon cancer.

We shake hands, and I go through the operating area door to the front office.  At this point I don’t want to deal with the front desk, as I’m sure any mistakes in billing are going to be made weeks from now.  My friend sees me, says that was fast, I say, let’s get out of here, now.  And so we do.  I stop to say “thank you” to the most beleaguered point-person at the front desk, mostly because I’m in such a good mood that I have a clean bill of health.  She pauses for a moment, clearly not used to patients thanking her, and says, you’re welcome, with a nice smile.  I figure leave a positive thought in their heads, maybe that and the email from my insurance company will encourage them not to gouge me on the billing.  Then again, I suspect my gesture will be a small, forgettable ray of sunshine before the next hurricane of misunderstanding blows through their work area.

There’s a high-end burger place just up the block, so we go there and feast.  Bison burger, large basket of sweet-potato fries and a chocolate milkshake.  I’m not worried about calories and really need an All-American blowout.  It goes down like a death-row inmate’s last request: man, one of the best meals I’ve ever had.  And we talk about Game of Thrones, the crazy family dog who attacks all visitors, what went on behind the curtain, etc.  I’m glad I took a few minutes to break wind back at the office, otherwise I would have added a horn section to the classic rock songs blasting from their sound system.  Not sure how I held it in while eating, but later in the day I’ll break wind intermittently until I go to bed, about the only bad side effect of the whole procedure.  I make sure not to pig out when I get home and only have some yogurt and cherries later in the evening.

The next day at work, I learn that one of my coworkers has fallen from the roof of his house while working on it, breaking his left wrist and sustaining a concussion/nasty gash on his head requiring stitches.  Out for at least a week. He done stole my ass thunder.

That just about describes the process.  In and of itself, not that big a deal (provided nothing is amiss), the real issues are the mind-bending day before, which might best be described as high anal drama, and the firm belief that my inaccurate billing worries are not over.  I’ll be pleasantly surprised if I’m proven wrong.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Powerball Logic


One of my “Mom” memories was her routine insistence on playing some form of the Pennsylvania lottery every day.  Just writing the words “Pennsylvania lottery” – I can hear the little jingle that used those words as the tag line.  I thought the lottery was ludicrous and poked fun at her for playing it, but she was only thinking, “What if I’m one of those people who lock in, and I can provide for my kids in ways beyond my wildest dreams?”

Well, the worm turns, and I find myself playing Powerball once a week.  Every Friday after work, usually after my long walk back to Queens, I’ll hit a corner bodega and pick up one ticket.  Doesn’t make sense to buy 10.  Or pick numbers that bear some personal significance (as Mom did).  The odds against winning are so astronomically high that it makes more sense to me to be purely random.  But people do win: normal people.  When you read their life stories in brief newspaper articles, people just like anyone, working hard, barely getting by, not going to go crazy with the money, get the kids through college in style, maybe buy a new house and car, then take it from there.

It doesn’t make sense to go berserk and start acting like a celebrity.  For one thing, if you’re working or middle class, you’ll be inserting yourself into a socio-economic class that bears little to no resemblance to your world.  You won’t like these folks, and they’ll look down on you.  Think about that should you decide to take your winnings and buy a mansion in one of the pricier zip codes in the country.  Whether it’s old money or people who are insane about making money, all of them will consider you a buffoon who stumbled into tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.  Their lives are predicated on a profound love of money, which controls every aspect of their lives: yours is never having all that much and getting lucky once.  Your wealth is almost an after-thought: their wealth is the reason to live.

All I’ve just written in encapsulated in the 60’s TV series, The Beverly Hillbillies.

Why do I play?  Simply for the infinitesimal possibility of escaping this lousy system we have in place.  That’s probably why I made fun of Mom all those years ago: I was much younger and didn’t quite grasp how foul our socio-economic system is.  Not quite a caste system, but pretty damn near.  And there’s nothing wrong with going about your life, whatever your station may be, and riding it out.  But I’m looking down the road, even with very healthy savings, and realizing that large sum of money, which I couldn’t have imagined myself having when I was 25, would last me maybe five years the way I’m living now, let’s say 10 years if I really clamped down on expenses.  It’s frightening to ponder … thus the concept of stumbling into tens of millions of dollars just for having a slip of paper in my pocket that I bought for $2.00 at the corner bodega doesn’t seem like such a bad concept.  Highly unlikely … but people win all the time.

I’ve heard people expound on the good they could do with that kind of money: the charitable organizations, the socially-responsible business opportunities, etc.  Nice, but I don’t dwell on those concepts at all.  I dwell on ensuring that immediate family members and myself could live well for the rest of our days.  And I could throw a few hundred grand towards friends who deserve and could use that sort of financial boost.  I’m not playing Powerball for the benefit of the world: I’m playing for the potential benefit of my world.  Not in a greedy way either.  In a way that would allow me a better residence, the ability to, say, have a real apartment in New York City instead of living here by the seat of my pants, the ability to travel and rent nice locations for weeks or months in other countries … all sorts of things that people with a lot of money most likely take for granted, or think is perfectly normal.  I’d imagine we all think we’re “normal” based on whatever socio-economic world we dwell in, and there are plenty of people around us to justify that belief.  It would be nice to live in a world with that sort of freedom rich folks have, without doing some of the heinous, soul-destroying, time-consuming people do to obtain that much money.  Or to live on the assumption of continuous, assured wealth the way people living off old money do.

The ironic thing is that I’ve never been overly concerned with money, based on my working-class upbringing, not pining for things I don’t necessarily want or need.  But living in New York now, coming up on 30 years, all I’ve seen here is the cost of living sky-rocket while wages remain flat, and it’s both spooking and bugging the shit out of me.  It’s a genuinely disturbing experience to live through gentrification, to want no part of it, and to have no understanding of why people would want to live so foolishly, dumping a majority of their pay into their rent, or living like college kids in a dorm just so they could surround themselves with what they perceive as a veneer of coolness.  There have been articles recently about the disappearance of the middle class from cities, and I see it happening every day.  I see it happening to myself, the push to make more money simply to live here.  It seems like a slow-moving but never-ending upward spiral.  I can’t stand it but can see it shows no signs of letting up, at least around here.  Move?  I’ve seen what happens in places where this isn’t happening.  The cost of living is considerably lower, but the shitty cost of living vs. wages ratio is just as debilitating as it is here.

So, with all that in mind, it seems like more of a WTF moment to buy a lottery ticket these days.  It’s not the same world Mom was living in when she was making sure she got the TV set on WNEP TV 16 every week night, right before Wheel of Fortune at 7:00, to see if tonight was her night.  (It was never her night, although I think she once won $100 or so with a scratch-off ticket.)  I usually check the Powerball numbers the next morning, no rush.  Even if by some obscene chance I won, I’d spend the next week contacting the handful of people I know who know or are financial planners and map out a path for me to enter this fray and make immediate sense of the winnings.  The concept would be constructing an annual spending grid for the next 30 years after carving out a few large lump sums up front (new house, a car or two, taxes and health insurance going forward, various funding projects to distribute wealth among friends and families).  Figure out ways to make interest on large savings accounts provide for cost-of-living expenses.  All sorts of things that wouldn’t have occurred to me years ago!  If there’s one thing I’ve learned in offices, it’s that you’re not going anywhere without a sound business plan.  And pulling down an eight or nine-digit lottery winning would entail a large, detailed business plan.

It’s fun to imagine this, but in some strange way, it also helps solidify my reality, which isn’t all that bad.  Although, again, I do fret over retirement, about another 20 years from now, and have seen that Social Security in and of itself is pocket money, and that we’ll all need substantial savings to last for two decades, if we’re lucky.  I guess the lottery, ultimately, is a game of mortality, recognizing that it would be wonderful to at least have the knowledge that financial concerns would not be an issue to fear with the aging process.  I can understand why people want to be rich, but suspect their concerns are far more immediate and grandiose.  If anything, I’d try to make myself less visible with that kind of money.  I’ve seen people with a lot of money, and the smart ones ease themselves into background, let the celebrities and business success stories have the limelight.  The real money, that vague 1% we’re all so acutely aware of, most of those people, we don’t have a clue who or where they are.

These are the kind of things I think about when I lay out that money every Friday for the Powerball ticket.  I never put down exactly $2.00.  Usually $5.00.  I want to have singles so I can tip whichever girl is working the counter at the bubble-tea place I frequent before picking up my usual Thai food after the seven-mile walk to Queens.  I think it says something that I’m just as concerned with having tip money as getting that ticket.  Nothing particularly good or bad about my character, just an indication of how I’ve always handled money.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Passing Prince


Well, another rock star done gone last week, Prince, shocking the hell out of everyone, as was his wont.  One of my more enjoyable wastes of time is MSN’s “Health and Fitness” web page as it touches on so many exercise and dietary issues that register with me after the big weight loss.  This week they got into “why celebrity deaths feel so personal.”  Prince’s passing has been like Bowie’s: a monumental outpouring of print, TV and online grief.

Of course, Merle Haggard goes, and most people sort of shrug … or worse, pretend they were fans.  (“Okie from Muskogee” is one of the best protest songs of the 60’s going in the other direction, for which I’ll always worship Haggard.  But if I’m being honest, most of what I got can fit onto a succinct one-disc greatest hits collection.  I didn’t live with Haggard’s music the same way I did Williams Sr. and Cash at various points.)

The “Comments” section of that MSN article is pretty much the “adult” reaction: my reaction when I roll my eyes and think, “Christ, get over it, you didn’t know the dude, and if you did, he’d probably freak you out.”  Much as with Elvis, Howard Hughes and Michael Jackson, it seems like a real bad idea to build your own Xanadu and rule as king of this private domain where strange shit is never questioned.  But that’s a reaction, not any gauge of how I handle someone like Prince passing. 

(I’m a fan.  Not huge.  Really tailed off after the 80’s, but kept track.  More interested in the mysterious “vault” material we’ve read so much about, but haven’t heard.  Always seemed odd to me how he continually put out average material but was supposedly sitting on a vault stocked with hundreds of superior quality tracks.  I downloaded just such a collection a few years back, must have been about 5-6 discs’ worth of material, arranged chronologically.  Surely pulled about two dozen gems mostly from the mid-80’s heyday, albeit with shitty/bootleg sound, but a majority of the material wasn’t anything special.  I was assured by a fan at the time that what I downloaded was only the tip of the ice berg.  Come on, now.)

Let me tell you what I understand about death, after going through the passing of both parents, various friends and acquaintances and elderly immediate relatives over the past decade or so.  I don’t understand shit about death.  That’s what being so close to it tells me about it.

But I do know about living through and with the deaths of loved ones.  It’s not like grieving Prince or Bowie.  Genuine grieving takes time and evolves like a dark flower, in the shadows, when you don’t sense or expect it, sometimes the shadow not leaving for days.  When it first happens, weeks or months.  It doesn’t express itself in heartfelt posts on social media.  Or a good playlist.  It’s mind numbing.  It’s shocking in a brutal, silent way.  It’s a reality shift, a slow-turning, your hard evolution from one type of person to another.  One who doesn’t have to imagine “what’s it like” when people close to you start dying, thus making you sense death inching closer to you.  It’s a shit sandwich.

The simple act of people making big displays about Prince’s passing delineates the difference between that kind of death, a celebrity death, and the kind all of us have or will experience of loved ones on that much deeper level.  A celebrity death feels like a ceremonial passing: a tribal gathering.  Sending the chief off in his flaming raft down the river of no return.  You don’t do that with your parents.  You bury them.  Or get them cremated.  And then you dwell on them in good and bad ways for the rest of your days.  You feel their presence in ways that are so much more powerful than any song, because you need a song to inspire that memory of a musician.  Parents?  You don’t need anything; they’re always with you in some sense.  Very often in the mirror, small details you pick up on as you age that weren’t so obvious before.

I don’t dwell on Prince.  Or Bowie.  Or Lou Reed.  I’ve listened to their music for decades.  Will go on listening.  Truth be told, their passings, while shocking, are relatively easy as their work I most strongly identify with occurred mostly decades ago.  Believe me, if Bowie had died in’77 after putting out “Heroes” that would have been a different story!  I like his last album, quite a bit.  But there’s that, and then there’s the stuff from the 70’s that part of my core being.  I recently got into Lou Reed’s “Junior Dad” in a nice way, from his shat-upon last album with Metallica.  Good song.  But it aint no “Street Hassle”!

There might be big displays around a loved one’s death: falling apart at the funeral, nervous breakdown at work, prolonged depression, tributes of varying sorts.  But I’ve found death to be the hardest, most private wall.  It messes with your head forever, in subtle ways that no one else is going to grasp.  Sure, it lets up, you go on living, in many respects with a much deeper understanding of life now that you’ve sensed what permanent loss really means.  But it shades everything thereafter with that knowledge.  It’s the hardest wisdom I’ve ever grasped.  Not a sage, kindly wisdom.  The kind that scares the shit out of you sometimes.

Nobody got online after Dad passed on and went, “Bill’s Dad ruled!” Or gave him a thousand “likes” on Facebook or whatever.  (Of course, that was an older generation who, like me, has nothing to do with Facebook … mainly over the lack of sincerity which would really not work for me in a situation like this.  It’s not a “how does this VCR thingy work.”  I know how it works and want no part of it.)  Frankly, I would have been offended by such a public display for someone who put even less stock in that than I do.

But I have to realize, celebrity is a whole different animal that reaches into our own little worlds and adds some meaning to it.  I guess the question is, how much value do you put on that meaning?  The whole issue with social media is that it encourages people to see themselves as celebrities in their own lives.  People want to see themselves as being important to dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of people.  Strangers, welcome!  In fact, strangers even better.  I realized early on with my writing that part of that driving force was this burning desire to be loved and respected by total strangers, after I died, to be remembered forever as this sentient being who touched so many lives outside his own small circle.

Yeah, well, I don’t know what happened to that desire!  I surely saw what was required to push to a higher level in terms of writing: the hustling, the connections, the tireless self promotion.  But it came at a time when I started falling out of love with the whole shebang, that mental shrine I built for myself as a writer over the course of years, that it had to be a certain way.  And even in a best-case scenario, there’d be a load of shit to deal with that had nothing to do with writing.  Sure, I could see doing it, even to this day, but I don’t kid myself about all the extraneous bullshit that would need to occur for this to happen.

And maybe it’s because I have a slight grasp of that machinery, all that it takes to construct a legend, that I find myself emotionally distanced from celebrity death, even for those celebrities whose work I genuinely love.  I can only imagine the magnitude of self obsession that goes with succeeding on that level, which I mean as both compliment and insult.  You need to believe in your own legend, to push it, to make other people believe in it, and hopefully get a large corporation to market what you do to a mass audience over the course of years.  That’s how celebrity works, so it only makes sense that when a celebrity passes on, this ceremonial hand-wringing and out-pouring of emotion are perfectly acceptable responses.  Death wasn’t part of the marketing plan … but it is what it isn’t.

There’s no marketing plan when someone in your family dies.  No legend, save whatever ones you create, and everyone does.  When I was younger, I used to imagine my own passing, after a heroically-lived life in some unspecified sense, hundreds of people turning up, city and country folk alike, all colors, people who knew me in grade school, high school, college, New York, bagpipes playing, everyone I knew thinking deep, positive thoughts about my legacy.

Christ, what a load of self-aggrandizing bullshit all that was.  Don’t know what I was thinking.  Now that I’ve stood uncomfortably through a few genuinely painful funerals, that sort of grandiose gesture seems so false to me now.  Funerals present a temporary finality to the last few days of horrible mind and soul numbing inertia everyone has just struggled through.  Close the casket, lower it into the ground.  That part is done.  And then the act of real grieving begins, the kind we carry the rest of our days.  Whatever I feel for Prince and his music, I’d rather put it in that sort of context.  And honestly feel pretty good about some of the things he created in his life and has left behind.