Sunday, December 17, 2006

Blue Christmas

Well, it’s coming up two years on Dad’s passing. I wouldn’t say things have gotten better so much as one learns that kids are meant to outlive their parents. It’s one of those levels in life you have to get pushed through, something nobody wants to do. Like getting your ass kicked. Just bad shit that happens to you, and you decide how you’re going to handle it.
Christmas has grown pretty subdued since then, mainly because it's Mom’s wish that everyone lay low for the holiday. And rather than force the issue, it makes more sense to follow her lead. About the one insistence I have, and ditto Brother J, is that we have a full turkey dinner, which both of us are capable of making, but we got Mom back into the groove last year after handling the duties while Dad was in the hospital. Come hell or high water, that turkey dinner is happening. Fuck the presents – that’s the one thing that will always make sense to me.
I guess things are better, because it doesn’t get much worse emotionally than getting slammed with that sort of shit full-on. I had come home a few days early that Christmas, for no other reason than I could. Late summer, Dad had been diagnosed with esophogeal cancer in a later stage of development. All that year, he had been losing weight -- and actually looking great -- but after a few months, it became obvious to Mom that the reason for this was because Dad was having trouble swallowing food, and she finally hounded him into seeing a doctor, when we learned this.
In September, Dad was given the opportunity to have the cancerous tumor attached to where the esophagus meets the stomach removed, but for whatever reason, he listened to the majority opinion of his crack team of asshole physicians, and he decided not to -- which might have saved his life, although who knows what his health would have been like after that operation. I was never that hot on doctors before this; now I despise them and will see one, or go to a hospital, only if absolutely necessary. This is what killed Dad? Well, we all die of something, and I can't help but thinking that when people get old and reach the end of their mortail coil, the name of the game with the medical profession is getting as much money as possible out of the patient. I didn't think this before -- I think it now. In the old days, people just dropped dead. Now, they hang around for years in a state of constant decline, while the medical profession hits them up for a steady stream of income. If you had told me this a few years ago, I'd have called you cynical. Now that I've seen it in action, I believe this completely and accept it as an unfortunate truth that no one in the medical profession would openly admit.
Just before Christmas, Dad had been in the hospital about a week, after having a fitful December. He had been in for a few days, starting Thanksgiving afternoon, got a little better, came back home for about two weeks, then started tailing off as what would eventually be identified as pneumonia was kicking in. I don’t think anyone knew how to gauge the situation – doctors, family members, anyone. Probably a lot of denial going on, too. Next time I know when things get hazy like this, that’s a sign to spend more time back home.
As it was, I got off the bus then got myself to the hospital after some lunch. Court rooms and hospitals: two places I want to spend as little time as possible. Doctors and lawyers: two kinds of people I want to deal with as little as possible. All of them make my skin crawl. The smell of those places, the attitudes, the various levels of tension you can feel oozing from each passing room. Just bad news.
And seeing him was quite a blow. He had lost about 100 lbs. or so, was gaunt and thin in a very bad way, looked like he had aged about 30 years since I last saw him a few weeks earlier. He had on an oxygen mask and was watching the History Channel – about the only normal thing going on. He was coherent, but was clearly so weak that getting out of bed wasn’t a possibility right then. And I can tell you – seeing the man that brought you into the world and raised you in this sort of condition is a knockout punch to your senses. Numbness is the reaction, not sorrow or weeping – you just don’t know what the fuck to make of it. If there's any emotion, it's anger at having to see someone you care about so weakened -- and you don't know who to get angry at.
We talked about the weather, Penn State football, how things were going in New York, etc. The usual stuff. Nothing dramatic. About the only dramatic thing was when I mentioned the bus ride back, he said, “You’ll have to get that ticket that takes you straight by the house. I don’t want your mother driving all the way up to Hazleton to get you.” Which was his way of saying he wasn’t going to be able to do that anymore, which had become a pleasant ritual for both of us over the past few years.
I was there for about an hour and figured I could do this every day while I was back there, assuming this was a bout of pneumonia he was going to beat, and I’d go back to New York two or three days after Christmas. I told Dad I’d be back tomorrow, he said, no, come back the day after, I think Mom and your sister will be here a lot tomorrow, we’ll have more time then. With that, I got up, and when I did, Dad stuck his left hand out and grabbed mine to shake hands.
Right there, he was saying goodbye, because we never shook hands. I gathered that he must have been worried about his situation if he was touching me like that, and it unnerved me, but I didn’t make a huge issue out of it and just left. Not having any experience with a parent who was deathly ill, I had no idea how long he had left, whether or not this was a scenario that would play out dozens of time over the next year, etc. This was all new to me, and I didn’t like it.
Next day passed, and nothing major happened. The following day was one of those strange off-season days in December – in the mid-60s and drizzly. I decided to head down to see Dad that morning, then do some shopping. I got down there mid-morning to find his room dark, with the door halfway closed. Not sure what that meant, but I walked in anyway.
Dad was asleep, naked, with his sheets kicked down around his knees. Again, a bit shocking to see him that thin. I pulled the covers back up over his chest, but made sure not to wake him. His breathing was labored, like a raspy snoring, but I could tell by the rhythm that it was regular, sounded like he was in a deep sleep. At this point, my mind played a very bad trick on me, that I thought Dad’s eyes were open, and they were black slits. What it really was: he had lost so much weight that his eye lashes now looked much bigger than they had when his face was more full. This is what I was seeing, and imaging this horrible vision of him with black eye sockets. I hung around a few minutes, realized there wasn’t much to do there, used his bathroom, took one last look to make sure everything was still cool, then left. No nurses were around – didn’t talk to anybody.
I went shopping at a local Walmart, picked up some DVDs, drove home – about an hour after I had last seen Dad. It was drizzling. As I got out of the car, my sister pulled by in her car with Mom in the passenger seat. Mom rolled down her window and said, “Your father just died. We’re going down there to take care of things.”
And I stood there with a look on my face that must have been something else. I had seen him sleeping about an hour ago. I couldn’t believe it.
“I saw him sleeping about an hour ago,” I said.
“Well, they called fifteen minutes ago. It just happened. Do you want to follow us down?”
“No. I’ll stay here in case anyone calls. Not much I can do anyway.”
“All right. See you later.”
And, so I went inside and chopped potatoes and celery for the turkey stuffing. Had to do something. This was the start of that hazy period of shock between his passing and the wake, lasting from that day, through the day of his wake. Those days floated by in a haze. Had some bad nightmares about the eyes that first night, really horrible dreams. I tried to do as much normal stuff as I could – that night, went out and had drinks with my friend George, who bought me a few free ones when he heard the news. (And knew where I was at as both his parents had already passed on.)
Mom learned that Dad had woken up that morning, told the doctor he was going to die that day, asked if he could get an extra dose of morphine to get some sleep, and told him not to alert the family, because they’d been through enough. He took the back door, which was his way, not to be a burden, or the center of attention in any way. And I can tell everyone weeping about my dad dying alone, bad news, folks, we all die alone, whether that room is packed with loved ones, or you’re all by yourself. Wherever you’re going, nobody’s going with you. I don’t think my life would be any better now if Dad had jolted awake while I was there and told me he was about to die. Gone is gone, and all I can suggest is that you get as squared away as possible with people who you sense are getting anywhere near that awful place. That’s all you can do. You’re not going to jam revelations and finality into those last few minutes – you’ll be dealing with this shit a long time afterwards, whatever does or doesn’t happen.
Like I said, the next few days were a haze. Thank God for our relatives from Virginia, my Dad’s sister and her two sons, who came up early to spend time with us. They always have a very relaxed, open quality to them, and the three of them coming up to comfort my Mom was a tremendous boost, and helped jolt all of us back into the reality that we had to deal with a wake and a funeral in short order.
I should also note here how great everyone was in the neighborhood, although we had to deal with a constantly ringing phone. (Hint: don't call people when someone in their family has just died. They're dealing with a lot of shit, and answering a phone every five minutes is a bad burden.) But all the neighbors came by at one point or another to offer food and condolences. The night of his passing, someone must have walked through our kitchen door, left a case of Yuengling Black & Tan, and left, totally unannounced and uncredited.
(On the other hand, the crack team of asshole physicans who had assembled to save my Dad's life ... not one of them acknowledged his passing in any way. No cards. No follow-up calls. Nothing. I've got nothing worthwhile to say about these people -- they were bad a their jobs, and their callous non-reaction to one of their patients passing on says it all for me. Just assholes making money at the expense of good people going through terrible times. If you are a doctor and reading this, and you do reach out to a family after a patient has passed on, I apologize. Otherwise, you can go fuck yourselves, and use the $100 bills you've stolen from your patients to wipe down. The only person from the medical profession who reached out was our family dentist! The only note we received from the doctors was on the day we buried Dad: a bill from the radiologist. Mom tore it up and refuses to pay it even now.)
I was expecting the wake to be a very bad time. It started off that way. They had Dad done up like The Scarlet Pimpernel – his face had way too much pancake make-up on it, and he just looked deeply unnatural and off. I’ve seen this before at other wakes and funerals, but it’s jarring with a family member, to have his body on open display in a living room while people come by to pray and offer respects. If Dad had been at his own wake, he would have took one look at himself, sighed, and left.
But I have to say, once people started arriving, I felt a sense of purpose I hadn’t in days, that I was glad and relieved to see friends of the family and relatives coming in, even some strangers to me, and that whole process had a very healing quality to it. I felt like a lost kid before that wake, but during that wake, I felt like I was getting some kind of grasp of what it would mean to go on without Dad, that I’d simply have to, and the best thing to do was absorb people’s sympathy and good thoughts, and keep moving forward. Something valuable learned – and that’s not regarding death alone, but everything in life. Seems like a simple thing to understand, but until something that harsh kicks open that door, sometimes it’s hard to see.
The funeral was the exact opposite of the day he died: a bitter cold, windy, sunny day. Everything in stark clarity as opposed to that murky weather in which Dad passed on. The weather suited the purpose of putting a loved one in the ground. So many odd little moments that day. The absolute worst was having Mom and the rest of us kids being the last people in the room at the funeral home to close the casket. Frankly, I wish I could have avoided the situation, but it was tradition. We all stood there looking like we’d been shot, because we had in a sense, and just before closing the casket, Mom let out a sob and touched Dad’s face for the last time. Whatever weird shit I’ve gone through in my life, very few things are going to affect me as much as that moment. This was all horrible shit to go through, but in that hard way death has, it seemed necessary. The priest had earlier said something to the effect of, “Living on after a loved one has passed is like walking alone through the desert” – and I thought, boy, truer words were never spoken. That’s exactly how I felt those few days.
We then drove to the cemetery on the hill in our hometown and went through the ceremony. The last time I had done this for a family member was with our grandmother, back when I was 17, a few days before my birthday in June, and I had no concept of what was really going on, or how adversely affected my father and his siblings must have been. There were so many people hovering around our house those few days, most of whom I didn’t know, that us kids (Grandma had lived with us) kept to the background. I recall sitting with my brothers at the top of the cemetery in our Sunday’s finest, with our shoes and socks off because it was so hot, sitting there as people arrived for the funeral and not wanting to participate. Kids have no concept of what death means, as well they shouldn’t. Afterwards, there were so many strangers around that Brother J and I got in the car, went to the mall, and saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, which helped clear us out a bit. I don’t remember a lot about that day, save that it was strange and disorienting more than sad, as we’d been watching our grandmother slowly fade out over the course of about five years after having a severe stroke.
Dad’s funeral went off without any issues, then we all went to the horrible Dutch Kitchen Diner for the post-funeral dinner. This is a minorly famous diner just off Interstate 81 in Frackville, PA that serves the worst fucking food I’ve ever had. Really, I don’t know who eats there regularly, but the place has been around for decades, so someone is. As with all bad places, I stuck with burger and fries, which were mediocre, at best. Everyone ate, and talked, and then we all parted, a few of the relatives coming by the house to say goodbye. The sense of relief after all this, to clear everyone out of the house on a sunny, cold-as-hell winter's day and have silence, was palpable – it felt good.
I hate to say it, but all these rituals, the wake, the funeral, the dinner, while I thought they were bullshit before this, now made perfect sense to me. They were rituals allowing people, step by step, to put death into some type of context in which one could say goodbye, seek comfort, grasp the finality of seeing someone who in a sense is no longer there, close the lid, and put the box in the ground. A very hard, black-and-white proposition, but when you pass through each step, it guides you in the right direction, that life has just shit on you, as it must, or at least as it should (our parents burying us would be a much worse deal), and that you have to piece together how you feel about this in pretty short order, accept it, pick it up, and keep moving. If you had any doubts about being a grown-up before something like this, this sweeps them all away.
What have I learned since then? Nothing concrete, just that sense of how to live, not to sweat little things, to only have people in your life who genuinely care about you, to value time over money (which I always did anyway). Money’s been tighter since then. About two months after that, my boss at the investment bank I was working at got canned. Things were left in a very vague position, so I pretty much threw in the towel and went back to temp and freelance work. I sure do miss that big money, but the pressure I’d have been under the rest of that year, on top of still feeling very raw over Dad’s passing, would have put me in a dark place emotionally, and I knew well enough not to go there. Life is like that. It’s pretty rare that you find everything you want in one neat little basket. One thing moves forward, another falls back, a few years later, those things reverse themselves, and you learn to roll along and not sweat it. Or at least that’s my take on it. If you want to sweat things, sweat away! But it’s all going to seem pointless when you watch one or both of your parents die. And I can only imagine how empty and senseless so many things are going to seem when it’s our turn to die.
Keep moving. That’s the main thing I took away from Dad’s passing. Take care of yourself physically – work out and eat right – because when you’re health goes, forget it, you’re truly fucked, nothing compares to losing your health. You lose your health, you've lost everything, over money, over love. It’s best to move with time, because that’s reality, it doesn’t stop, and when you try to stop it at important moments, to take it in, you’re not grasping any sort of truth so much as you’re either holding on to a good moment that won’t last, or pitying yourself. There’ll be enough pain and happiness coming up as you move along. Just keep moving the best you can until you stop. This is how I get through Christmas now that this unwanted weight has been added to it. That fucking turkey keeps me sane and alive, and you better believe I’m going to eat my fill.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Music Class

For some strange reason, I’ve been thinking about the music classes we had in grade school. Do schools even have music classes anymore? Music teachers? I imagine private schools do, but I’m not really sure if such a thing is still a priority with public schools. They must, if they want to have marching bands in their high schools. I don’t picture many kids learning the piccolo or tuba of their own free volition.

Another of those rare things I’ll bust my parents on is that they should have made us all learn an instrument. Jesus, I was practically begging for a piano or keyboard of some sort when I was a kid. We had a play-by-number organ in my dad’s room that I learned. After I mastered the play-by-number book, I would take the sheet music from my sister’s flute charts (she played that in the marching band) and transpose the notes to numbers. “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” is burned in my mind as a result. Unfortunately, I think the coolest song they did was “Love Is Alive” by Gary Wright, which sounded fucking insane on a play-by-number organ. If I would have had one of those “samba beat” functions, I could have pulled it off.

That’s about as far as I got. Older brother M bought a shitty used acoustic guitar somewhere, and we all tried and failed at learning it, not even sure how to tune the damn thing. All we had was some instructional manual featuring a cowboy on the front – I’m sure those familiar with rudimentary guitar probably remember the book and/or title, which I’ve forgotten. Without a teacher, it was a waste of time. It seemed like most “musical” kids came from families where their parents or older siblings played instruments, too, and the kids would just pick it up as they went along.

The music classes we took as part of the curriculum in grade school were something else entirely. I recall them lasting up through the 8th grade and being an excuse for most kids to laze around. Music teachers tended to be a pretty weird lot. The weirdest was Mr. M in our 5th and 6th grade classes, a very small guy who looked like a skinny eskimo and was very prissy. I remember the time a bunch of bigger kids saw him on the sidewalk in front of the school wearing a gigantic parka, and the kids surrounded him, poking fun at his choice in outerwear. All he did was stomp his foot and say, “Are you done with this infantile tom foolery? This type of cavalier behavior is unacceptable.”

The kids didn’t get into trouble. Your average male teacher would have beat the shit out of them, which wasn’t a capital crime back then and probably changed the course of a few rowdy kids who really needed that sort of ass-kicking.

By the same token, the 7th and 8th grade music teacher, Bruce M, who had Bruce Dern’s psychotic demeanor, yet was about 5’ 2”, never had any sort of respect issues with kids. I once saw him make Rick G, the toughest kid in our grade, openly weep after getting him in a headlock. Rick was probably about four inches taller and 50 lbs. heavier than him at the time. Mr. M was a bad ass who eventually was asked to retire early because he was still throttling misbehaving kids. (From what I see of kids, he was probably right 99% of the time. But with how litigious society has become, and the “enlightened” new rule that teachers can’t lay a finger on kids, it was probably for the best that he left early.) Bruce M was a pretty good guy if he liked you, and he liked most kids. He was in a band in the 60s that nearly broke the Top 40, but never quite made it. Thus, he gigged around with his band in the area, making good money in the process, and he could make all the girls cry by playing “Nadia’s Theme” on the piano. We got along like gangbusters.

Music class started out being fun, because when you’re seven years old, it’s a kick to sing out loud with a group of other kids. We’d have a ball singing “Senor Delgato,” “Where Have You Gone, Billy Boy” and “My Hat It Has Three Corners.” People not raised in the 70s may listen to that Langley Music Project CD and think all kids in the 70s were singing “Desperado” and “Space Oddity” in their music classes. Guess again. Those kids in that Canadian school had a hippy music teacher who has pushing the envelope. Contemporary music was looked at as being barbaric and inferior. I also couldn’t see us grooving to “Satisfaction” and “Stairway to Heaven” – hard group sing-a-longs and strange lyrics for kids to be singing. I once recall we had a mandatory talent contest in the second grade, which amounted to nearly every kid doing an acapella version of “Joy to the World.” I’m picturing myself in my skintight plaid red bellbottoms, doing my Brady Bunch dance moves and fearfully warbling “Jeremiah was a bullfrog/Was a good friend of mine” in front of 20 other equally scared shitless kids waiting their turn to be publicly humiliated.

The only times I can recall having fun in music class were when we’d break out the percussion instruments and, with the teacher’s encouragement, get some sort of tribal rhythm thing going, sometimes to the tune of “Simon Says” by the 1910 Fruitgum Company, although that was our “play time” song where we’d rock out before taking naps on wrestling mats set up in the coat room. (Why can’t work be like this?) There’d be 20 kids banging away on tambourines, jawbones, bongos, cymbals, woodblocks, maracas, snare drums, and sometimes each other for the more forward youths. The teacher would have to flash the lights off and on and raise her voice to let us know we were going too apeshit.

Later, with Bruce M, he somehow got the school to buy him a Moog Synthesizer. This was about 1978, and synthesizers were still a fairly new instrument on the music scene. He had a few classes where he tried to teach us how to use it that ended with everyone making the synthesizer blast out a farting sound, thus reducing all of us to tears of laughter. We loved playing with that thing, and I understand there were a few talented older kids in Mr M's homeroom who actually knew how to play thing and were doing Moog versions of “Nights in White Satin” and “Iron Man.” He should have had a class focused solely on playing that synthesizer, but that would have been a pretty radical departure for a rural high school in the 70s.

There were some kids who took a real shine to music class and singing in public. My old friend Rod W in particular. We called him “Hot Rod” because he was a bit nerdy – the kind of guy who sported a peach-fuzz mustache at 15 and had this odd weezing laugh. He used to beat me with a tree branch during recess at the grade school next to my house, then would whine like a lost dog when I avoided him for weeks afterwards. A strange kid who eventually got around that sort of stuff.

Hot Rod could sing like a bird. If we wanted to piss him off, we’d call him Songbird, the insinuation that this made him somehow more effeminate. It didn't help that Hot Rod wasn't too coordinated and didn't like sports. In music class from the first grade onward, while other kids, including me, would cower in front of the class and warble something like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” when we had to sing for the music teacher, Rod would be leaning over the teacher’s desk, shot glass of gin in hand, wearing a leopard-skin cravat, and crooning away like Dean Martin, sometimes shouting “come on, everybody sing” before the chorus. He really loved singing in public and knew how to project a presence while he sang.

Guys like Hot Rod ended up in the glee club … dressed in blazers and striped clip-on ties, singing shit like “Sunrise/Sunset” and “What I Did for Love” … sometimes in period costume … dressed like peasants and Hawaiian natives … zoot-suited street hoods in a back alley. You’d get the more industrious/smarter athletes doing this stuff, too, although they weren’t anywhere near as talented as guys like Rod who lived for this. Glee Club was the gayest shit going around in high school, yet you had a few guys in it who could most likely kick your ass. I can still recall quarterback Dave M, in a monk’s robe along with all the other Glee Club guys, squatting onstage and singing that “Always Thought That I’d Be an Apostle” song from Jesus Christ Superstar. Dave looked a little too into it, like he was having a religious conversion.

But most glee-club stuff had that strange barbershop quartet/middle-aged people singing 'round the piano in the parlor vibe to it. They should have just given the guys Rob Roys and let them unloosen their clip-ons, so that they could really tear into “Blue Velvet” and “Fly Me to the Moon.” I actually like that sort of 1940s-60s pop stuff now, but hated it with a passion back then. Still, I’m thinking now, what were they supposed to do? The kids doing rock songs would have freaked out the parents and would have been even more gay presented in that sort of stilted/sterilized environment. Still, it would have been nice to see the choir take a stab at “Bohemian Rhapsody” instead of “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

A strange thing that I developed such a strong passion for music in my adult life, when I took so few of those small avenues open to kids to develop an appreciation. I’m not sure if things would have been any different if music departments geared their lessons towards music kids actually listen to. Or throw more money into music programs.

There’s a big deal made in urban areas about declining music programs, and how this has tied in with the birth of hiphop – yo, because the kids are creative and doing their own thang. Which is utter bullshit. Are you picturing a teenage 50 Cent playing a trombone in the marching band? Snoop Dog in a blazer and clip-on clicking his fingers while crooning, “Good Morning, Starshine”? Jay Z. manhandling a contra-bassoon? These guys were dealing crack at that age. They were probably beating up kids in the marching band and stealing their instruments. I suspect it’s much cheaper to buy a starter guitar at Walmart than it is to buy a beatbox and a PA system. And if a kid doesn’t have the inclination and discipline to learn either, doesn’t matter how much money his school district does or doesn’t have.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Sympathy for Scrooge/George Bailey, You Should Have Jumped Again

It’s that time of year for various versions of A Christmas Carol to blanket the TV schedule, and I’ve gotten in the habit of missing each one, much like I tend to miss It’s a Wonderful Life. Both are deeply problematic for me.

I may have touched on these issues before with each story line, but it’s good to compare and contrast. Charles Dickens is one of the greatest writers the world has known. I can recall reading A Tale of Two Cities in a factory lunch room during summer break at college, getting choked up at the end and pretending I had to sneeze. Even now, that particular story line rings true to me.

But I have trouble with A Christmas Carol. In short, I don’t believe Scrooge, who is positioned as a lost soul in need of spiritual redemption, needs to be redeemed. Sure, he’s a prick. He’s going to bust Bob Cratchit’s balls by making him work on Christmas. I guess Scrooge is some type of loan shark, and we get to see his progression from an unloved child, to relatively cheerful young man working for a really cheerful older man, to a guy in his 20s who chooses money over a chick, and then somehow about 40 years are magically skipped, and we’re left with Scrooge as a bitter, angry, money-grubbing bastard. Not since Jesus has such a meaningful, decades-long time gap existed in an otherwise coherent story. I guess Dickens, had he detailed the lost years, would have had Scrooge spanking his monkey on a regular basis over that chick he left behind while he worked his way up to owning his two-man loan company. And who knows – that might have been for the best. Maybe if he’d chosen love over money, he’d be miserable and abusive to his wife, and felt trapped by his kids.

It’s my contention that I’ve worked for and with dozens of people who make Scrooge look like a pussy. There was no traceable downward trajectory into prickdom for these people: they always were about the money. Started out in life that way, raised by greedy parents who nurtured this way of seeing of the world, valued money over love, and saw it all the way through to their monied lifestyle. Oh, they had families and such. But they still valued money over love. A lot of them can’t stop working because they feel empty and lacking in any sort of power or identity without a high-powered job. Affairs. Backstabbing coworkers and leaving footprints on their backs. Business practices that would land them in jail if they weren’t white collar. Scrooge? You got a rich old bastard who needs to ease up on his lone employee a little around the holidays. He’s nasty to kids on the street? I got news for you. Kids on the streets of major cities have always been jerks. Hats off to Scrooge for getting the drop on them.

I don’t buy his redemption either: fuck Tiny Tim. Whether Bob Cratchit is a bachelor or has 20 kids shouldn’t be any of Scrooge’s concern or business. What the fuck is Bob Cratchit doing with a gigantic family when Scrooge is paying him shit? I gather this was Victorian England and things were pretty rough all over. But it seems to me that poverty was part of the landscape; Scrooge’s place looked like a dump, too.

I don’t get the Ghost of Christmas Future, pointing at Scrooge’s tombstone and having that send the final redemptive blow into Scrooge’s soul. Shit, man, we all die. We’ll all have tombstones. People will talk good and ill of us afterwards. Scrooge is an old man. Of course, he’s going to die soon.

Here’s what happened to Scrooge after he was redeemed. He made Bob Cratchit a partner in his loan-shark firm, taking in Tiny Tim as an intern. As the years went on, Scrooge kept seeming to make less and less money, but he didn’t really care, as he now knew the meaning of life was love. Tiny Tim’s legs got better, to the point where he grew into a fine young man. At that point, Cratchit let Scrooge knew that he had spent the last decade shaving shillings off every pound the firm brought in and now held a majority interest. Tiny Tim had also become an expert forger and signed over the deed of the company to him and his father: Cratchit & Son. Both of them then beat Scrooge to death with a hot poker and ate his corpse over the next few days. Cratchit & Son went on to became the most ruthless loan-sharking operation in all of London at the turn of the 20th century. Before Bob Cratchit passed on in 1910, Scrooge’s spirit visited him in hopes of scaring him into redemption, but Bob said he would be perfectly comfortable ruling in hell and sent him on his way.

I like the concept to a It’s a Wonderful Life, too: a suicidal man on a bridge, on the verge of losing his business, feels his life has been wasted by remaining in his hometown, jumps into the river and is saved by an angel, who then shows him what the world would have been like if he had never lived. Naturally, it would be a much worse place, and this knowledge gave the man, George Bailey, the will to live, and he runs back to his family and town, is accepted by all with open arms, all of them raining money on him so he can keep that musty old savings and loan running.

One problem I have, and I hate to say this, but if you could magically show some people what the world would be like if they’d never lived, the world would be a better place without them. And the angel would be doing a better thing to push them into the river. Jeffrey Dahmer? Hitler? Those are extreme examples. But you will find “every-day people” who sexually or physically abuse their children, have committed murder, rape and other horrible crimes against others, in short, spent their lives making the lives of people around them worse. I always thought it would be a wonderful idea to remake It’s a Wonderful Life with the old banker in a wheelchair deciding to commit suicide, wheeling himself off the bridge, and an angel shows him how the world would have been without him (i.e., virtually no different). After seeing it, the old coot moans “fuck it” and still wheels himself off the bridge, clutching the angel as he plummets over the railing in hopes that they both drown. Merry Christmas!

My real issue with It's a Wonderful Life is the stereotypes of happiness and sadness the director Frank Capra places in the movie. The one that really grates on me is his wife, who is portrayed as the happy, strong-willed mother who bears George’s children and has a full, wonderful life with him, whether or not the old savings and loan goes under. The version of his wife without George: a pathetic old spinster/librarian who stalks the streets of their doomed little town at night like some dark specter of loneliness and dreams deferred.

How many older single women watching that movie thought, “What the fuck … that’s me they’re showing up there! Is my life that bad?” The gist is unless you reproduce and have a big, happy, wonderful family, you’re somehow not living right. Ditto the “floozy” girl George helps out with his savings and loan who, without him around, turns into a prostitute. What I don’t get is that the town of Bedford Falls, without George, is portrayed as a den of sleaze, sin and greed. Wouldn’t a prostitute stand to make a lot more money in a town like that than in the “clean” version of town created by George’s existence? Would making the jump from town pump to working prostitute be that much of a stretch? If I remember, the woman was having some kind of money issues that George helped with her. If she’s out screwing dozens of guys for money, she’s probably making better money than when she was just screwing guys for kicks. For however harder Bedford Falls would have become without George around to "save" it, one thing is clear: there'd be a lot more money going around.

Even the local bartender, who has Joe Palooka written all over him in both versions of the town, is made to be a somehow darker, badder guy for throwing the disgraced pharmacist, the now-unknown George and the angel out of his bar. I suspect the bartender, even in the real town, probably gave the bum rush in the exact same way to belligerent drunks, bums and people acting no more or less strange than George is in this alternate world.

Ultimately, I think the problem is that I was just never all that nuts about Jimmy Stewart as an actor. From all accounts he was a genuinely kind, decent man, which is far from the norm in Hollywood, and obviously one of the greats who appeared in dozens of classic movies. But I just don’t like the “aw shucks, mac” spin he put on most of his “everyman” characters, the same way I don’t like Jack Lemmon, another great actor, sputtering like a mental patient in most of his roles. (I think Glengary Glenn Ross was the best thing he ever did, where he portrayed a desperate real-estate agent about to lose his job in a cut-throat agency.)

I don’t dispute the theme of It’s a Wonderful Life – it’s a good concept to show a virtuous human in crisis that his life matters. What I dispute is that everything around him appears to turn to shit in that fantasy world where he never existed, and it’s my take that this world could be just as good without him, and this wouldn’t in any way detract from his existence. Instead, we get this ham-fisted version where Bedford Falls and everyone in it has gone to hell. I aint buying it. One of the other kids probably would have pulled George’s brother from the pond when the ice broke. His wife might have met someone better. Or met a butch girl named Spike, moved to Key West and lived happily ever after? The old pharmacist might not have put the rat poison in the wrong bottle. Someone might have shot the banker for being such a bastard. I have a hard time believing an entire town’s morality is going to hinge on one guy and his small savings and loan company, that it will turn into Babylon without him. A lot more shit would have to go on with that town than the lost presence of one person who played a small-but-vital role in the town’s well being.

And ultimately the problem with both A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life: Christmas is not a redemptive time. We like to think it is, because we give each other presents. Oh, and it’s Christ’s birthday. But it’s my experience that pricks go back to being pricks after Christmas, and even when they’re not being pricks during the holiday season, you get the vibe that the feeling is very forced and unnatural for the person. I think that’s why people get depressed over the holidays – they feel this façade growing in the weeks leading up to Christmas and reject it out of hand, not quite understanding you should just accept kindness in whatever form it comes. Just a nice gesture that should be appreciated, and hopefully returned. Not redemption. A huge difference. Have you ever met anyone redeemed by the Christmas spirit?

MP3 of the Week #3

Simply stated, this is the best song I've heard about masturbation: "Cowboy Song" by Dan Reeder.

A disclaimer: if the artist, record company or any other entity associated with a song has a legal issue with any MP3 appearing on this site, I will remove the link immediately. Not looking to pirate music here – just looking to spread the word.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

On the Bus

If you had asked me in 1987, upon first moving to New York, if I’d still be taking a bus to make the NYC/PA trip in 20 years, I’d have laughed. “Surely, I’ll have a car at that point. Or something.”

Well, here we are, and no car. It’s funny how in your 20s, you project all these things onto your future: marriage, kids, houses, money, fame, cars, etc. And you get in your 40s and recognize the world is nothing like how you thought it was going to be. I’m not married – nothing against it, just haven’t placed myself in that situation yet, after a few close calls in my 20s. (Believe me, after seeing what various friends have gone through, aint nobody going to lecture me on the wonders of marriage. Hats off to you if you’ve made it work!) No kids that I know of. A house in New York? I’d have to rob a few banks to pull that one off. Fame? Not much, a smidgen within the city, and from what I’ve seen, it’s worthless without the money. I can guarantee you, if I had all these things, it would still be nothing like I had imagined it.

Cars? To have one in New York is a huge hassle. Insane insurance rates. Basic maintenance. Gas prices. Finding parking spaces. Changing sides of the street every day. Having it messed with by teenage goons and thieves. Only using it on weekends. And then having to deal with NYC traffic, which would age me in dog years. Sure, it would come in handy for trips back to PA or simply getting away certain weekends. But when I weigh all these things out, I can live without a car. Having a car in New York is much more of a luxury than it would be in the suburbs or country, where a car is a necessity. Here, most people really don’t need one. Once upon a time, that would have seemed like a very abnormal set-up to me, but you live long enough inside the insanity of New York, cars stop making sense.

Leaving the bus to get me back to Pennsylvania about once every six weeks. Normally, the bus is entirely doable, as I avoid traveling on major holidays. Plenty of room to spread out, traffic usually not so bad, and aside from getting one old coot driver who’s purposely late (and apparently unfireable), no hassles on the trip, which takes about four hours and drops me off literally down the street from Mom’s house. Used to take under three, but that implied taking an express bus directly to Hazleton, PA and Dad picking me up at the station for the half-hour ride back home. With Dad gone, it just aint happening anymore, so I have to take the milk run bus that hits all those small Coal Region towns.

One of my least favorite things to do is to take a bus any time around a major holiday, which invariably happens every Thanksgiving and Christmas. If I can swing a few days around each, I do so, mostly to avoid all the assholes, agoraphobics and skanks who tend to pile on the bus at these times of the year. You’d figure riding a bus wouldn’t take any sort of special ability, that anyone could do it. But you learn fast after a few holiday runs that there are uh, problematic people, who, let’s look at the big picture, have problems doing anything, and riding a bus is a subset of that unfortunate whole.

This time, there were a few people to file in the “special memories” folder. On the way from New York, there was some girl in the back blabbing on her cellphone. This alone is not a punishable crime – people do this all day long everywhere. Just another person with bad manners, talking way too loud, personal conversation, obviously could wait, I don’t understand how cellphone people have these useless conversations when they know everyone within a 50-foot radius can hear what they’re saying.

The real issue was the neurotic middle-aged woman in the seat in front of me. You know the kind. She’s reading the Book Review section of The Sunday New York Times, but she’d be just as happy wrapping and unwrapping a ball of tin foil. Or scratching at her window. Or bouncing a ball off a brick wall for hours. Like all of these neurotic harpies, she has all her shit spread out over the seat next to her. I guess that’s her survival kit of an Ayn Rand novel, the latest “hate Bush” book, bottles of anti-depressants and tofu sandwiches on 12-grain bread. Normally, I don’t care about that, but when the holiday buses get crowded, this really annoys me, as they guarantee people (like me) with manners are going to get hit up for that open seat.

Anyway, when cellphone girl started her navel-gazing monologue, this harpy went nuts. It was like a dog hearing a high-pitched whistle. She started squirming in her seat. Then turning around, full face, which really grated on me. Finally, she started commenting. “Oh, my god, is nobody going to stop that woman? Is this allowable? Are we supposed to put up with this sort of behavior?”

And all I could think was, what if I was having a conversation with the person in the seat next to me. Would that be any different? Would she still be writhing in agony? Finally, I just said, “Look, I don’t like that sort of stuff either, but there are no rules against talking on a bus.”

She looked at me as if I had just told her Santa Claus wasn’t real.

“I know that, but it’s the manners more than anything.”

Like spreading all your shit over two seats to ensure no one sits next to you is kosher. Or repeatedly turning around full-face on someone and grimacing.

“If you’re really that annoyed, go back and tell her to stop.”

She just stared at me. It was that simple. I think this woman was simply looking for the people around her to agree with her. Which I did in principal, but if assholic behavior was against the law, we’d all be in jail at one time or another, some of us on death row the rest of our days. At that point, I put my headphones back on and ignored her the best I could. I think she climbed a tree when we stopped in Lehighton, PA and started throwing whole-wheat pretzel bites at people on the street.

On the way back, two notable incidents. In Shenandoah, PA, two wiggers got on the bus, looking for round-trip tickets to Philadelphia, same day. They were wearing these puffy white hoodies that looked like berserk pajama tops for five-year-old boys – the matching sweat pants to their hoodies probably had built-in feet. They’d look like idiots anywhere, much less a small town in rural Pennsylvania. Of course, they start in with the phony standard-issue accent all these kids have had since 1988 (but magically lose when they become adults). People bust on me for how much I despise wiggers (is Bill really a racist masking his true feelings in his contempt for wiggers?), but these kids make hippies look cool. They’re insincere, false and usually idiotic. They’re what’s wrong with a lot of white people.

They had to buy their tickets on the bus, which is a sign of people who never ride the bus. I took one look at them and thought only one thing: call the DEA and alert them to stop the return trip from Philly that night, because these kids had “drug mule” written all over them. What kind of person takes a round trip to Philly that will drop them off around noon, and have them get back on the bus around 3:30 pm? You’d have to be an idiot to run drugs on a public bus. These kids were idiots. They spent the whole way to Lehighton (where the Philadelphia people get off), doing their little “yo, nigga, yo, for real, word” lines on each other. And left me wondering what new trend is bound to come along in the next few years that will make me nostalgic for the subtlety of wiggers. I promise you, this will happen!

Later in the trip, we pull into Easton, PA. I don’t like Easton. It doesn’t seem like a bad town, it’s just that people will often get on the bus at Easton to go to Somerville or Newark. If the driver doesn’t get anyone going to either location, he can bypass them and head straight to NYC, thus shaving about half an hour off the trip. This rarely happens, and it’s usually one of those Easton people who causes it.

By the time we got there, every person had his own seat, and there were probably about eight completely open double-seats. Five people got on. I wasn’t dozing, but I was pretty relaxed, as I always seem to get that way around Easton. Just then, I felt this whoosh of air then immediately felt a large weight pressing down against me. What the fuck, I thought, there are plenty of seats open, what’s going on here.

It turned out to be a very large, mildly-retarded girl. Is that the way to state this these days? I never went for that “god’s children” shit, and saying “Downs Syndrome” sounds too clinical. Special person? I can go with that. This very large special person plopped down next to me. Hard.

I'm not a huge guy, but I can guarantee there were people smaller than me with open seats, along with a few completely open double seats. For someone to sit next to me in that kind of scenario was really unnerving. Her girth was oppressive -- that's the feeling I get sitting next to really large people. You can feel their weight on you and understand how oppressive it must feel to be that heavy. A physical force against your skin. She starts waving out the window and going "buh-bye" to I guess what was some kind of relative.

And all I could think was, "Lord, I don’t ask You for much, but could You make one of these people get off at Somerville so this very large special person could get the fuck off me?" (This is the exact antithesis of my usual feelings towards Somerville.) I didn't have much to say to her -- I was incensed. I couldn’t move. And she kept moving her arms -- I could feel the muscles in her arms – she felt as strong as an ox. I pictured her throwing me over the edge of a cliff just to see if I could fly. If this was a normal human being, I would have considered this totally obnoxious, but this girl was special, so I understood she didn’t mean any disrespect or rudeness, and I rolled with it.

I later found out why she sat next to me -- she was jonesing for the front seat. At Somerville, a woman and her kid who had been in the front seat got off, and she bolted over there and clutched on the rail, ramrod straight and sat that way the rest of the trip. Really strange that a retarded girl would go off on her own to NYC unsupervised. But I was just relieved as hell that she was off me.

Once again, normally I get on these buses to Pennsylvania and have a relaxing four hours to listen to music, gather my thoughts and gaze out the window at the passing countryside, feeling myself getting closer to home with each passing farm field and patch of woods. All that shit goes out the window around the holidays. And I’m not even getting into that one Christmas trip when the woman next to me on a packed bus smuggled on her pet fox terrier, who kept leaving weird garlic-smelling farts all trip long.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Falling Tower

Well, a weird few days here. For possibly the first time ever, I angrily blurted “fuck you” at a woman on the street. Believe me, not my style, and I had a minor crisis of conscience afterwards that worked itself out nicely on the heavy bag in the gym.

While it was nasty, I don’t really regret it. I was walking east on 38th Street, approaching Broadway, in a hurry to get to my boxing class at about 5:15 pm. The West 30s in Manhattan is rotten with Times Square tourists, 34th Street shoppers and other assorted flotsam who make walking around there extremely uncomfortable. Often times, I’ll find myself walking out into the street simply to get around a herd of people moving slower than a 15-year-old chihuaha in a Notre Dame sweater.

Whether this woman was a tourist, or just some random assclown who thinks everyone else’s world revolves around hers, I couldn’t tell. All I know is I was walking briskly in a straight line, like I always do, going with the light. This woman was heading north on Broadway, approaching a “Don’t Walk” light, her head turned from me, blabbing to her friend, when she bumped into me. Actually, I made an effort not to bump into her, putting out my arms and basically brushing against her as I eased my body away – purely in a defensive mode, not looking to cop any sort of feel. This woman looked like a Potato Bomb (Pennsylvania Coal Region slang for a woman of Irish/Easter European descent who puts on a ton of weight after bearing her first child).

We brushed against each other – a little too close for comfort – but no blood, no foul. Not even a jostle. Just me noticing this inattentive woman heading toward me, making an effort not to run her over (which would have been easy), and both of us going in our own direction. Well, at least I was, as I was in a hurry. But as I moved away, I heard in an indignant voice: “Hey, don’t you know how to say excuse me?” Without breaking stride, and turning around to shoot her a look that let her know I was willing to come back and get strange, I blurted “Fuck you!” The look on her face … moral indignation, as if a girl scout had just plunged a dagger into her kidney. It was the right call, and she didn’t respond. Had she responded, I would have kept walking. As noted, I was in a hurry to get to my boxing class, not engage in a meaningless confrontation with an anonymous putz.

It’s been that kind of fall. And speaking of fall, I’ve made it to both Tower Records locations in Manhattan recently to take part in their Everything Must Go demise sale, which appears to be shooting for a closing date some time in December. At 40% off, most everything worthwhile is filtering out of the stores, and I think I made my last trip Friday after work. It’s too depressing. Granted, I haven’t been buying much from stores like Tower over the past five years. MP3s and better deals with used discs on Amazon and Half tend to keep me out of these places, unless I want to make an impulse purchase or get something new by a major-label artist on sale for under $10. Otherwise, it’s Emusic, friends forwarding bounteous MP3 discs, or the occasional spelunk onto torrent sites for mostly import stuff I aint paying $30 a disc for.

It’s depressing because I remember Tower’s prime, the late 80s through the mid-90s, and going there on a Friday after work with $40 to burn was a great feeling, with me walking out with 2-3 CDs a week, minimum. The place would be buzzing with activity, all the snotty floor people (save for the heavily-outnumbered good employees like Erik B. and his friend Chuck) laying on heaping doses of the Tower “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. I can still have that retail experience by heading down to J&R Music World, but even there you can sense that depressing “kids are downloading everything these days” vibe in the sparsely-populated aisles. In short, I feel weird buying CDs in retail stores these days.

I feel weird knowing a totem of this way of buying music is biting the dust, and it’s people like me, who once propped them up mightily, who are a large part of the reason. Not with any sense of guilt – more like someone noticing how much quicker a Model T is than my horse and buggy.

The permutations of retail music I’ve seen come and go in my lifetime: vinyl records (in colors, picture discs, RCA flexi-discs, virgin vinyl, etc.), eight-track tapes, reel-to-reel tapes, cassette tapes, the demise of vinyl singles (a dark day which I was hoping MP3s would revive, but haven’t), cassette singles (terrible concept), those horrible contraptions that made mix cassettes in-store in the late 80s, CDs, CDs in long boxes (I always thought there’d be some special treat in the other end of the box, only to find more cardboard), box sets (which I love for their overkill and rarities), DAT tape (which should have taken off, but didn’t due to pricing issues), SACD and DVD Audio (the cost of the players to support these things, more than anything, killed them off, and the SACD discs sound great even on average equipment), and, of course, the approaching murderer of physical product, the MP3 file. I’ve probably missed a few – like cardboard singles of The Archies I used to get on the back of cereal boxes – but that pretty much covers it.

And to walk through Tower now feels like the retail music equivalent of the fall of Saigon. Just a weird scene as customers paw through piles of mostly bad and remaindered CDs, whiffs of Black Friday in an "Everything for $1.00" store. I’d imagine there are a few hidden gems in there, but I don’t have the patience to slog through it. You can feel a pall settling over the stores, like we’re all saying goodbye to something once great, but now having a hard time justifying its existence. Like running into an old lover on the street and realizing you no longer give a shit in any real sense. A liberating feeling with a tinge of emptiness.

I made sure my last purchases felt some type of resonance:

The DVD of Doug Sahm and the Sir Douglas Quintet Live from Austin City Limits (circa early 80s). Doug Sahm is one of those artists I felt a need to go completist on, and that wasn’t easy. Only recently did I track down a torrent file containing his hard-to-find Scandinavian discs from the mid-80s. They’re hard to find for a reason: they kind of suck (but have their moments). This guy had the greatest voice in rock and roll – he could sing anything, in any style. And his voice was perfectly suited to that surly mix of tex-mex, country, rock and roller-rink organ. This is a pretty standard TV show performance, but worth having as there is no other DVD material on him. He was too strange to be a huge star, and that’s fine by me. The original redneck hippie; Willie Nelson "borrowed" his schtick.

The Ramones' Rock and Roll High School DVD. Man, did this movie suck. It should be viewed on a double bill with Get Crazy: two early 80s flicks still trying to present rock/new wave in a “beware parents, your teenagers are going wild with this crazy new music” manner. There was nothing particularly wild about The Ramones. They just rocked. It’s worth it to see them acting very poorly on film. They were meant to star in a B-Movie, and this is it.

Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane's Rough Mix CD. This is a British reissue of that classic 70s album I already have. Bought it on a lark because it was remastered and had bonus tracks. And glad I did – it sounds phenomenal now, ah, the warmth of remastered CDs, which we'll one day rhapsodize over like weirdoes are doing for shitty vinyl now. Like Doug Sahm, Ronnie Lane is one of those people I will talk your ear off all night long if you get me going on unheralded recording artists. He was great with The Small Faces and The Faces, but he became someone else entirely with his solo albums, laying out that acoustic rock terrain Faces lead singer Rod Stewart hinted at in “Gasoline Alley” and “Mandolin Wind” (which Ronnie claimed Rod “borrowed” from him). Also recently picked up a documentary on Ronnie Lane that’s well worth owning. I wish I'd known Ronnie Lane, and that's a feeling I don't have towards many musicians I respect.

Buying that album was probably the best way to say goodbye to Tower. Ronnie’s dead, so is Doug Sahm, and three of The Ramones. So shall Tower be shortly. So shall we all one day. Let the shoppers rummage our bargain bins and find something worthwhile at 40% off one fine day.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Christmas List

It’s that time of the year to put together my Christmas mailing list: a fretful undertaking. Doing this thing every year is a reminder of those who’ve fallen along the way, i.e., people who, for one reason or another, aren’t going to be on the list. I’d say the main reason is usually lack of contact – and I mean being out of touch for years, not months. Whatever the reason, it’s a reminder that our worlds tend to settle back on those who matter in our lives, rather than expand to some glorious horizon where we constantly acquire new friends like blossom on the wind.

I never liked the idea of Christmas cards, so I don’t do them. What I do like is making music compilations, so back in the early 90s, I figured rather than sending cards, I’d send people cassette tape compilations of whatever I was listening to that year as a compromise between a Christmas card and an actual present – complete with home-made art-work.

For those uninitiated or too young to remember tape mixes, making these was quite an ordeal. At that time in the early 90s, my music collection was half records/half CDs. So it was a matter of collecting the songs I wanted on X number of discs, putting them in a pile, taking a few days to wade through and decide on some sort of song order, then do the dirty work. This involved assiduously notating the times for each song, and adding them up to see how well they’d fill out a side of a cassette tape.

I favored TDK SA 110s. SA being some designation for a slightly higher grade of tape than their bargain stuff, and 110 meaning 55 minutes per side. But the reason I liked TDKs was that they usually had about two minutes extra time on each side – an informal gift to those of us looking to pack as much music as possible onto a tape. November would find me with stacks of CDs and records sitting on a table, me at the table, with a writing pad and calculator, making sure to note the crucial difference in adding seconds, that the roll-over was 60 and not 100.

Putting together the compilation would be great fun. It may be too early to say I missed my calling as one of those people who compile songs for soundtracks. If there’s anyone out there who’d want a top-notch compiler, I’m the one. That would be one job where I’d skip to work most days and have a ball. But in terms of the tape compilation, I’d have to sit down one night, after the push-pull of deciding the best song orders, and make the master tape. With the advent of CD burners, especially now that they can burn an entire CD in under five minutes, this seems like the “walking five miles in the snow to borrow a book” Abe Lincoln analogy. Real time recording. We’re talking about three hours when you count in breaks and monkeying with the recording level so the sound would balance. God forbid I botched the times, which did happen … and would entail me fading out the last track, or stopping it at a pause in a song. I still remember one of my friends saying, “Asshole, ‘Rockaway Beach’ doesn’t end at that first break – what did you do with the rest of the song?”

Once the master is done, then the drudgery of dubbing X number of tapes – in my case, that was around 40 tapes, give or take. Man, tapes sucked. I know from knowing musicians that professional recording tape is excellent and amazing to listen to on studio monitors. But the stuff made available to consumers was just dogshit, and it kills me that we’d sit around debating which brand/type was better, when all of it hissed and was nowhere near the quality you’d get from an average CD, forget about a well-remastered one.

The home-made CDs I put out now every year sound as good as anything you’d find in a store and leagues beyond any cassette tape. And chances are rare you’d find an officially-released collection getting anywhere near the variety of shit I do regularly. I think the first tape I did was a basic 70s Cheese collection, then disco, then bizarre Christmas songs, etc. A particularly memorable one was a muted collection of country/folk for Christmas 2001 called White People’s Soul Music – inadvertently coincided with the prolonged 9/11 malaise everyone was suffering from.

After dubbing came purchasing of mailers, stamps, and the mailing. It really is a lot of work. I’ve gotten in the habit of pulling together whatever mix I’m going to do in the spring of a given year, letting it sit for a long time, then dubbing the discs in November. I’ll also try to do the cover art in the spring, so that wherever I’m working throughout the year, chances are I’ll be able to nail down a color copier between then and Christmas. Didn’t happen this year – first time ever! But I eventually found this year’s offering looks better with a B&W cover anyway.

After mailing, some folks respond in kind with their own recordings, others with a card, others call, but honestly, there’s some silence, too. I tend to find that the folks who fall silent, year after year, tend to be the kind who fall and stay out of touch. A gradual process, and the Christmas tape dilemma is usually the icing on the cake. It’s the last baited line being thrown out on my part before I decide to stop throwing out the line. And these folks have not done anything in return for years, not offered any indication that they want to be a part of my life, even tangentially. Life doesn’t work like that. At least mine doesn’t.

Used to take that sort of shit personally, but now? If you want to fade out, I’ll let you go and won’t be calling at 2:30 some morning asking what the hell’s going on. What are you going to do with people? I never quite grasped the concept of fading out. I’ll gladly throw you out of my life if you’ve done something that I find unacceptable or wrong. But this fading bullshit is for the birds. So while I don’t lose sleep at night over this stuff, it does annoy me, more in the act of waffling than anything else.

Again, with Dad’s passing, probably one of the greatest teachers in life, death. If people aren’t in your life, it’s a waste of time to pretend that they are. Because when they’re gone for good, and I mean no longer walking the earth, the weight of that lands on you like a Cadillac falling from the sky. I used to really pump up that Christmas list – I think at its height a few years ago, we’re talking 50 people I’d be burning a disc for every year. But I was bullshitting myself and padding it out with people I knew I wasn’t all that close to in any sense. The real number, now, is right around 30, which seems like a good number of people to give a shit about. (There are probably a handful more whom I don’t mail to, simply because I know they’re not interested or too old to get into whatever music I’m going to put on a disc in a given year.) It's a weird feeling to look at that list and know that's it -- however big the world is, these are the people you are in some type of regular contact with.

Ho, fucking, ho. It’s a time for giving – and recognizing there are some folks you got to throw overboard from the creaky boat of your life. So they can row their creaky boat wherever the hell people like that row their weird boats. Where you apparently don't do shit for anybody, and nobody does shit for you. Happy holidays!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

MP3 of the Week #2

This week’s MP3 has never been officially released, and I only recently became aware of its availability on the artist’s website: “Pennsylvania Turnpike” by Fred Wilhelm is a keynote song from the indie cult flick Scotland, PA that came out in 2001.

That movie blew my mind when I saw it the theater, mainly because it so unabashedly featured the music of Bad Company, a band that until that point, had escaped any of my 70s nostalgia binges. I liked Bad Company back then but never felt the urge to follow up. The songs were used expertly in this movie – as backing music for bar scenes and the subject of “rock blocks” on the radio (when the radio station played three songs by the same artist in a row). Something about the context of the songs in the movie, and the sound of them blasting from movie-house speakers, made the clouds part for me, and I immediately went out and nailed down that sweet two-disc Bad Company anthology. Which was overkill – I spent the next week calling every woman I met “mama” and encouraging her to “mellow down easy.” But the anthology contains all the great stuff by the band and reminded me of how hard this band kicked ass in its prime.

I gather Fred Wilhelm sat down for this movie and, when asked to come up with a song for one of the teenage kids to play in his garage band, forged “Pennsylvania Turnpike” from the molten lava of his hard-rock 70s childhood. There’s just a nice feel to this song, a good rock song, and one of the few songs I can find anywhere about Pennsylvania – there aren’t a lot. Billy Joel’s “Allentown” doesn’t count – besides which, that would be a rumba these days sung in Spanish.

The movie itself is great fun – crossing all sorts of weird lines, indulging in Shakespeare’s Macbeth story line, examining the birth of fast-food restaurants (I do remember life before them, vaguely), capturing that goofy 70s vibe perfectly and also acknowledging its darker side. It gets a bit morbid as it goes along, but there’s a nice feel to the movie and is somehow true to rural Pennsylvania (despite it being filmed in Canada, I think?). Of special note is great character actor Kevin Corrigan as a stoned, befuddled fast-food worker who gets sucked into the evil vortex of his friend and coworker’s greed. There’s always something pleasantly baked about that guy’s demeanor, and it works in all kinds of roles.

So, enjoy “Pennsylvania Turnpike.” For years, I couldn’t find the song anywhere, watched the DVD recently again, got curious, googled Fred Wilhelm’s site, lo and behold, someone had coaxed him into putting an MP3 of the song up there – and I, for one, am grateful he did.

A disclaimer: if the artist, record company or any other entity associated with a song has a legal issue with any MP3 appearing on this site, I will remove the link immediately. Not looking to pirate music here – just looking to spread the word.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

MP3 of the Week #1

This is an experiment that will hopefully work. As many readers know, music has been a huge part of my life for decades, and my collection is enormous, spanning all sort of genres. Generally speaking, I know what I’m talking about … unless you get into rap, polka, classical, jazz, many kinds of world music, marching bands, most latino genres of music, pop since the 90s, post 70s heavy metal, etc. I know enough to know there’s a ton of stuff I don’t know. Nor have much of an urge to know. It’s a struggle just to keep up with stuff I like.

So, what I want to do here is post a song a week from my collection, hopefully something you haven’t heard, and do a little write-up about the song and how it relates to my life. Let me know if this works, referring more to the process of accessing this SendSpace site. The way I figure it, there won’t be thousands of people popping in here, so it shouldn’t be any big strain on their system. And I suspect you’ll get one or two pop-up windows if you download – that’s how these sites work. All I know is I’m not shelling out more money every month to have an extra storage site for this sort of thing.

This week’s MP3 is an interesting cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” by a band called Toda Costa I came across on the web. A hard song to cover to say the least, and my main criteria with covers is that they should take the song in a new, unexpected direction and have the same spirit/sense of excitement I got listening to the song in the first place by the original band. That’s not easy to do – most artists do rote cover versions of songs that are always dull to my ear. And just taking the song in a different direction doesn’t necessarily win me over – sometimes the new arrangements are just awful or boring.

As for the original, that song blew my 11-year-old mind when I first heard it on the AM radio of my mother’s station wagon while waiting for her in the parking lot of Citizen’s National Bank in Gordon, PA one summer day. At first, I thought it was a barbershop quartet. Then a quasi-classical 70s piano ballad. Then some bizarre opera. Then a blazing metal song. All wrapped into one. I knew of Queen from the single “Killer Queen,” but this was something else. If there was one song from my youth with that sort of galvanizing “what the fuck is that” effect upon first hearing it, it was surely “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I became a huge Queen fan – in tandem with my love for the Electric Light Orchestra – which guaranteed I would not get laid thereafter for a very long time, since I was a total nerd, my only saving grace being that I wasn’t also into science fiction or soccer.

So, download if so inclined, let me know if it works. If it does, I’ll make this MP3 thing a weekly feature. And as a disclaimer, if the artist, record company or any other entity associated with a song has a legal issue with any MP3 appearing on this site, I will remove the link immediately. Not looking to pirate music here – just looking to spread the word.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Working for Dick

One thing leads to another, and maybe I’m chain-smoking memories here, but that closing recollection I had in the previous entry, working briefly for that rural weekly newspaper back home before it folded, brought back some strange stuff, certainly worth noting here.

Those first few years out of college tend to be pretty disorienting, unless you’re already focused like a torpedo to shoot your way through life, as a some kids are at that age, especially the ones keen on being wealthy. In 1986, after graduating in May, I took the summer off to bum around campus, something I’d never done before, then came back home and immediately found work teaching remedial/tutorial English at the Penn State branch campus. Looking back, that might not have been a bad road to stay on, but I was restless to get out of my home county. After Christmas, I moved out to stay with my college friend CB and his fiancé, who were living in a one-bedroom apartment in Venice, CA.

Mistake. Nothing against CB, who was simply trying to help a friend at a strange time in our lives. But he and his fiancé were fighting like cats and dogs, all the time, which really wasn’t that much of a departure from what they had been doing in college. I’d hesitate to say she was nuts, but she had been a Vegas show dancer before college and was pretty high strung. You might recall her father Vinny from an earlier story, the crazy middle-aged guy who showed up at our college graduation and threatened to beat everyone up. Their apartment would have been great for one person. For two people, even two who got along, it was a bit cramped. For two people who didn’t get along and an old college friend trying to feel his way around, it was awful.

Much of Venice back then was run-down, and it was a disorienting experience to walk down streets I sensed were ghetto, but there were palm trees on them and all that sunshine. It was a weird neighborhood, and their apartment was two blocks from the beach. During the week, especially at night, there were homeless people everywhere, as they tended to congregate on the beach around trashcan bonfires. Also, the main thing I’ll remember about Venice was the creepy outdoor weightlifting gym on the beach, all those muscle heads doing their thing while gaggles of horny women and gay guys checked them out. There were also some gymnastic equipment set up near-by, so you had guys doing intricate moves on rings and pommel horses – it was like a fucking circus, and I wasn’t too crazy about it. Throw in kids clearly in gangs and tons of tourists on the weekends swarming all over the neighborhood, and I felt really disconnected there.

On top of CB and his fiancé going at each other like arch enemies. I had no car, and you need some type of vehicle to get around Los Angeles, which was spread over an area much larger than my home county. Getting any kind of work or trying to go on job interviews was difficult. I didn’t last but a few weeks there before heading home. Every time I hear The Eurythmics song “Thorn in My Side,” it makes me think of taking that plane back east, feeling utterly defeated and directionless, not sure what to do, and that song seemed to play every five minutes on the headphones. Just as I recalled hearing U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” blasting through a PA system on the beach one of those crazy days when the Santa Anna winds were blasting, and thinking, “I got to get out here.” Strange thing was, I had just picked up a copy of Musician magazine that had an article (my only story for them) of mine in it, and it was a rush to pick up a publication on the other side of the country and see my work. A strange mix of elation and disorientation.

Got back to Pennsylvania on the tail end of winter and was at loose ends for a month or two before seeing an ad in the local paper for writers/editors for a weekly newspaper that was just starting. Sent in my resume, which had only my college writing experience, and sure enough, this guy named Dick called back within a day or two. I should have known then that something was up – only very strange white businessmen call themselves Dick when their names are Richard, or Rick, or Rich. I think the only possible female equivalent would be a woman named Constance calling herself Cunt. It just didn’t make sense and designated a real lack of self awareness. Hi, my name is Dick! It just wasn’t right.

Well, Dick thought I was the cat’s meow and hired me over the phone. I went down to his office the next day. He wasn’t there. Nobody appeared to be there. Except this haggardly middle-aged woman, reminded me of Broom Hilda, pounding on the door and screaming things like, “Dick, you bastard, where’s my money, and how dare you change the locks, you son of a bitch. I’m going to kill you!”

This was my first exposure to one of the many vendors Dick owed hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars to. Printers, landlords, computer sales people, etc. The office was located in a weird, very small building just north of Pottsville on Route 61, next to a used-car dealership, the sort of place that rents out to insurance agents and such. Right off the bat, I felt trepidation. I went home. A half hour later, Dick calls, profusely apologizing, and asks if I could come down later that day. As it was, Dick was canny in that he somehow always knew when a creditor was going to pop in to his office to yell threats and abuse at him, and he’d get out of there in a hurry, telling the three girls in the office to turn off the lights and hide underneath their desks.

Dick owned a chain of pennysaver publications – those free papers you see at convenience stores and such advertising used cars, containing coupons for local vendors, or classified ads, etc. Laugh if you want, but there are plenty of people who have made a nice living or gotten rich putting those things out. One of the last deals I worked on at the investment bank was a pennysaver company that had been bought out by a larger firm, and the two guys who had started their paper for pocket money while in college are now multi-millionaires.

Unfortunately, Dick’s pennysavers seemed to be tanking. He had at least three, and his existence appeared to be simply driving around in his car and getting advertising for these things, on top of managing a staff of three women who simply took phone orders and handled very minor layout issues. Only Dick knew how to use a computer – at that point in history, 1987, I barely knew how to use one myself. All Dick had was one of those scrawny Mac II’s with a screen the size of my palm, but back then, this was cutting edge. I think it was Dick’s idea to start a weekly newspaper with which he had a ready-made advertising base via his pennysavers, and he could use the newspaper to raise visibility on the pennysavers. All he’d have to do would be hire one editor (me) and pay writers nominal freelance fees for enough stories to fill out about 10 pages every week.

The three girls in the office were pretty much assholes. Whether they got that way through dealing with Dick or, more likely, always were assholes, I’m not sure. Two of them were in their late 20s, aging tough girls from high school, the kind who had feathered roach clips on their belts and big hair. They were about as friendly as anal warts. The younger one, about my age in her early 20s, wasn’t that sharp, but was at least friendly. The idea was they’d go on doing production in the main office, whereas Dick had leased out another office in the building just down the hall for me to sit in, the editorial office. It was just another bad sign that his office had a surly undertone thanks to these two older women being in a foul mood with everyone. The only time I went over to the production office was to input stories on the Mac.

Dick used all the applications people had sent in to gather a stable of freelance writers. Some of whom were just fine – reasonably talented people who, like me, were at loose ends and wanted to write. He turned up one real loo-loo, this woman I’ll call Martha, who lived in a notoriously bad housing project on the edge of Pottsville. God, she might have been the homeliest woman I’ve ever seen. Balding, patchy graying hair, moles on her face, big ugly glasses, body like a lump and, worst of all, an attitude to match. I’m surprised she didn’t wheeze. She apparently had some experience on newspapers, but Dick wisely realized any sane person would reject working for her. And she knew I was wet behind the ears as an editor, thus speaking down to me most of the time, which I ignored. Whatever had gone wrong in her life, it had deposited her in a shitty housing project in a financially-depressed town in the Coal Region, and as far as I was concerned, this woman wasn’t going to tell me anything about life, unless it involved how to fuck it up.

We had our first editorial meeting, and it went well, people putting forth ideas that they wanted to write on, most of them the typical small-town stuff that made sense: proposed highway bypasses, rising crime rates in a given town, retired pro football player running for public office, etc. It dawned on me that all I had to do was put out an editorial every week, keep track of other writers with their stories, edit their stories, and get it all into the Mac, which already had the layout in place from Dick selling his ads, so all I had to do was fill the spaces around the ads. Sounds frighteningly simple, but I suspect if any newspaper editor was honest, that would be his M.O. in a nutshell, and spare us the bullshit about integrity, vision and fighting the good fight.

We took two weeks to put together the first issue. In that time, I saw the usual, almost-daily scene: Dick making a beeline for his car, miraculously just moments before some raging creditor was banging on the door. I’d say about 25% of my day was spent talking to these people – or more accurately, listening to them carry on about how much money Dick owed them, and what a bastard he was. I think they realized there was nothing I could do to help them, but they still wanted someone to hear them rage on. Seeing as how I was just 22 or 23 at the time, I put up with it, whereas now I’d tell them to fuck off and leave me alone. Dick was walking on a tightrope, he knew it, and he paid creditors when it became absolutely necessary, i.e., when they reached the point of no longer providing their services to keep his pennysavers going every week.

Another 25% was working on my own stuff, which really didn’t take that long. Some of it was fun, getting in a car to go interview someone, and I liked that sense of freedom to go out and do this stuff in the middle of the day. Another 25% was learning how to use the Mac and dealing with the three girls, who seemed to resent the hell out of me for having a college education. Was I getting paid more than them? I don’t know. But that tends to be the case for production staff and actual editors/writers. I avoided them as much as possible. Beside which, they didn’t think I was doing anything.

And 25% of the time, they were right. That included lunch, but there was also a serious load of down time for me to deal with daily. I still recall buying Dave Marsh’s second biography about Bruce Springsteen, reading it on my long lunch breaks there, and realizing what a horrible load of self-aggrandizing shit the book was. The worst was Marsh phonetically spelling out the passion he thought Bruce was exuding in the song “Born in the USA”: “I WUZ, BAAWWN IN DUH YEW ESS AYYY! BAAWWN IN DUH YEW ESS AYYY!”

Since Dick had a deadlock on laying out the ads, something he was very good at and didn’t want me doing, there wasn’t much I could do in terms of design or layout for the paper. He was the lone salesman, too, so that aspect of running a paper was out of my hands. Every now and then, one of the freelancers would drive up to the building and drop off his or her typed-up story, which was always a relief, as they were nice, intelligent and not hostile. Save for Martha. Who didn’t have a car, would take public transportation to the near-by mall, walk a few hundred yards down from there, drop off her story, carry on about what a big wheel she had been at such-and-such a paper in Boston, then cajole me into giving her a ride back to her housing project. Which I did, although, again, now that I’m older an wiser, I’d have driven by the project, sped up, latched open her door and pushed her out like a sack of garbage.

The first issue came out, and there were rumblings that there was finally another paper on the horizon to compete with the two county papers. Who knows, it might have grown into that, but at first, that wasn’t obvious. The two county papers weren’t that hot – now there’s one, but still the same story. Every few years, the paper seems to get an editor-in-chief who knows nothing about the county, isn’t a native, and has some cookie-cutter approach to how small-town newspapers are going to be. It’s dull – always has been, always will be. It would help if the new editor didn’t always reek of sanctimony. On top of which, the paper from the next county over will often have more in-depth reporting, especially on crucial political issues, the gist being that the home county paper is in some local politician’s back pocket for not reporting this stuff in the first place. I’m sure this happens with papers of all sorts all over the country. And I’ll never forget after college graduation, sending out dozens of resumes with some of my college clips and getting a few positive responses from national publications, but not even so much as a rejection slip from the home county paper.

But getting back to Dick, he was elated that he got one issue out. Thing was, this also represented him bottoming out financially. Whatever it cost to put that issue to press, it didn’t just bleed him dry, it seriously affected his already-damaged credit. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but late in the week after that first issue came out, I went to work and found the doors padlocked. By whom, I had no idea. The three fun girls weren’t around. Dick wasn’t around. Not even his howling creditors were around. So I went home. Later that night, Dick called to tell me this was just a minor inconvenience, he’d take care of it, just sleep tight, come in tomorrow, and all would be well.

Went in the next day, and the padlock was still there. Was this a bank? The landlord? Whoever it was, he wasn’t budging. Things got hazy at this point. I had been paid for two weeks work, but Dick owed me a week’s pay – at that time, must have been about $300 or so, which wasn’t bad for back there. I’m sure he owed the girls their pay, too. I had his home phone number, but had no idea where he lived. No one did. Should I make like the creditors, find out where he lived, go to his house, start banging on his door and threatening to bring doomsday down on his skull? What would it matter? I knew Dick wasn’t going to pay me for doing that.

The days went on, and after a week or two, it became obvious that not just the paper, but Dick’s pennysaver empire had crumbled. I don’t think it was the weekly newspaper that killed it, but starting one when he was clearly in financial desperation wasn’t such a smart idea. Within a month, he stopped returning my calls. I basically liked Dick – he was devious as hell, that much was clear, but he also had good manners and was clearly intelligent. I’ve met much worse people in New York, people who should be in prison or at least shunned by every sane person in their lives. Speaking of which, I spent the next few months at odd jobs – helping neighbor JB at his telephone pole-treating job, which was a total failure, after I caught serious poison ivy about a week into it, on top of asking myself why the hell I was doing this sort of stuff with a college degree. The last straw was doing a temporary janitorial job at a window factory in Mount Carmel, PA, and realizing one of the guys I was sweeping up after was one of the bigger druggies in my high school, and even he was asking me what the fuck I was doing there.

So, that fall, I made the move to New York, and it’s been shit and giggles ever since. What a strange fall that was. I remember one night, lying in bed, listening to Tom Wait’s Frank’s Wild Years cassette on my Walkman, particularly the song, “I’ll Take Manhattan.” For some reason, listening to that song filled me with an energizing hope, I’m talking a sort of “falling in love” burst, and I can only describe it as being possessed by the spirit of New York. Which, of course, was utter bullshit, but that’s how I felt at the time. It was enough incentive to get me out of these wacky jobs, realize there wasn’t much going on for me in the home county, and to take a big chance by moving to New York.

A strange thing happened a few years later. CB had come back from California, like me, utterly defeated, this time after he and his fiancé split up. (This was great news for him and everyone in his life, although it didn’t registers as such at the time.) He lived in West Chester, PA, and it became a habit for me in the late 80s and early 90s to visit him and his family down there, which was always a fun trip to take via Amtrak. We were still in full-on party mode and would go out Friday and Saturday nights, basking in that prolonged youth that the mid-to-late 20s have become.

One time, we went to a country pub to meet one of CB’s friends, and when we walked into the bar, I heard the bartender refer to a guy at the bar as “Dick.” I didn’t make much of it, until I went to the bar to order drinks, and looking in the mirror, I could swear that I was looking at my Dick – not my penis, the guy who had owned the weekly newspaper. Who still owed me $300. Dick made eye contact with me in the mirror. It was dark in the bar, so I couldn’t be certain, but I could swear it was him. I took the drinks back to the table, and when I came back to the bar, Dick was gone. It most likely had been him, and he had fled once we made eye contact. Understand that West Chester, PA is a good 80 miles south of where I’m from – to run into Dick by chance in a pub there was odd. I guess he thought I was going to kick his ass? No, I would have bought him a drink and let the $300 go, lesson learned from a guy who would have been tarred and feathered at least once if he had been born 100 years earlier. Besides which, I strongly doubt he would have had the money.