Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Maybe it did. At some point around 7:45, a Port Authority employee came around and announced our bus was delayed “for an hour and a half” due to a traffic accident in a crucial in-bound lane leading to the bus station. I thought, you know what, I’ve been standing here close to an hour, I’m going to go take a long walk (in the 38-degree drizzle that has been our weather most of the day), come back around 8:30, and see what the story is.
I did. The bus line I take shares a gate with other Pennsylvania bus companies, and the ongoing issue with the 7:30 bus is another bus that leaves at 8:00 going to the Harrisburg area. Invariably, there will be maniacs lined up for that bus at 7:00 or earlier, since I’ve gathered that bus line is more crowded. Usually not an issue – we’re talking a line of 20 people, at tops, and when it’s announced to the line of people that the 7:30 bus is leaving, it usually shakes out nicely so that less than 10 people get on my bus. You can always tell the first-time riders, as they're shocked to find they're standing in a single bus line for two different buses, but such is the cheapness of Pennyslvania busing companies that they can't afford their own gates.
But on Christmas Eve. Shit. The line was about 100 people long, easily, I’m certain with about a 60-40 mix of their bus/my bus people. I was about eighth in line and had struck up a conversation with an older guy in line in front of me who was waiting for the 8:00 bus.
When I came back at 8:45, cold and wet but at least more clear-headed, the line was a little longer, he was still there. Man, what’s going on, I asked. He said that in the interim, they’d been told all buses would be on at least a two-hour delay due to this mysterious accident. Which did not make the news (I checked). I looked around, and that whole area of Port Authority, every gate had a huge line of people snaking from it, all in the same boat. Thousands of pissed-off people stuck in a small space on a very serious travel day. I just shook my head, muttered fuck it, got back on the subway train and came back to my apartment. When you’re repeatedly told “an hour and a half or two hours” for all buses, that’s vague bus terminal speak for, “We don’t know what in the hell is going on.”
Back here, I took a nice, long nap, did some laundry rather than taking it back in PA (which I’ll hopefully get to tomorrow morning), and did some key house cleaning, vacuuming and mopping, which always makes my place smell fantastic and puts me in a better mood, especially when I return from a trip a few days later and get that lemony fresh smell. I went to the gym and got some Chinese food afterwards – may as well make use of what’s basically a “free” day instead of grumbling and feeling like a piece of shit.
I could have made some more money and simply gone back to work. But the guy I work for turns into a horse’s ass when he’s in office before a long vacation (which he will go on tomorrow for two weeks). Got a minor dose of that yesterday, which was bad enough to have me thinking, you know what, I’m scheduled to be out today, I know he’s going to be carrying on like a five-year-old, I got plenty of stuff I can do for myself in lieu of making a few dollars more.
Even if my bus had been on time, man, I should have learned my lesson long ago, that traveling the day before any major holiday is a shit trip – and this one had all the warning signs leading up to it. The big one was dealing with the snitty gay guy who goes home once every five years. I state that like a stereotype because I only run into this kind of person during the crowded holiday seasons on the bus, and the snitty gay guy who goes home once every five years is a hallmark. The snitty gay guy who goes home once every five years is never on any bus but one that leaves either the day before Thanksgiving or Christmas.
I guess he’s going home to remind himself why he fled whichever rural area to stay in New York City the rest of his days, and you can tell he has a sort of grim determination about the trip he’s about to make, maybe to deal awkwardly with bad parents, or run the risk of seeing people he knows can’t stand him for being gay, or even worse, running into people who harassed him earlier in life for being gay. I don’t know their stories – all I know is these guys never go home unless they have to, and you never see them on a bus, say, in the third week of April, or at any other time.
He’s always well-dressed, mid-30s or older, wears glasses, and I’m guessing that he works in the fashion (or some other creative) industry. Chatty in a way that suggests if you’re not dropping the names of high-end Manhattan markets and shops, then you’re out of the loop, but he’ll cut you some slack, because he’s going back home to be among vaguely rednecky people like you, so may as well get used to dealing with people who hear the phrase “sun-dried tomato” and think “I wish I could punch you, hard, with impunity.”
I wouldn’t want to be stuck in a broken elevator with the snitty gay guy who goes home once every five years. Take my word for it, being stuck in Port Authority Bus Terminal on Christmas Eve, waiting on a bus that is destined to be hours late, is virtually no different. He’s right next to you, and neither of you can move, lest you lose your place in line. Luckily, this guy only wanted to talk travel, what I knew about traveling along the line, since he picked up that I traveled it a lot and knew it pretty well. All in all, this guy wasn’t so bad. Unlike previous snitty gay guys who pitched fits like spoiled divas over the most minor of inconveniences (shouldn’t there be ropes around here so people could form lines easier, oh god, look at all the luggage that hispanic woman and her two kids have, isn’t it a little hot in here, at least too hot for cashmere, etc.). Still, it felt good to bolt the place and go for a walk, although when I came back, he was still there, rolling his eyes, hand perched on hip, radiating bad vibes like a fluorescent light.
And he surely wasn’t alone. There was the old lady who pretends she doesn’t know there’s a line, and just wanders up to the front of the line in front of dozens people who clearly have been waiting much longer. (I nearly punched a deaf nun in the face who pulled this stunt a few years back. When she started signing me, I gave her the finger. Welcome to New York, sister!) The young hispanic guy in cocked baseball hat putting out the attitude like he’s about to take a prison bus to Rikers – like I tell fat white guys who shave their heads and grow goatees – you’re not intimidating anyone, you insecure little weasel. The clean-cut college girl, as denoted by her Ivy League sweatshirt, with nose piercing and dreads, reading her Andrea Dworkin book, going home to scoff at the capitalists paying for her liberation. The middle-aged white woman who thinks she’s going to direct traffic, but you get the vibe that when the bus rolls in, she’s going to jump line. The worst is the people you know are going to try to jump line – you can see it in their beady eyes, they’re looking for an “in” – that moment of confusion when everyone loads up, so they can hustle themselves in front of 30 people without being noticed. (And there’s always confusion when it’s announced that people are waiting in the same line for two different buses.) Save, you bet your sweet ass, I, like everyone else, notices when someone cuts in line in front of me. And I’ll give the snitty gay guy who only goes home once every five years credit – he’ll be the first one to pitch a fit when he sees cowardly shit like that going down.
This had all the markings of a very bad bus ride. There are two daily buses that travel through my part of rural Pennsylvania on that line – at 7:30 am and 3:30 pm. Could have easily come back later for the 3:30 bus. But you know what? The weather sucks, there’s a mass exodus of people leaving New York City today, traffic that would normally be bad will be at a crawl because of the rain and ice, and I can’t see myself packed like a sardine on a bus filled with these deeply aggravating people whom I never see when I take the bus home about every six weeks throughout the year. On top of which, Pennsylvania is bound to be a sheet of ice tonight, as it was this morning. My mother told me my brother had to do about 5 mph in his pick-up truck all the way home from work, and literally had to get on his ass and slide himself down the sidewalk to get to our front door. Fuckin’ A, it’s supposed to be 40 degrees and sunny tomorrow – I can wait!
Of course, I hate breaking tradition, one of which is opening presents on Christmas Eve. We tend to only get presents for Mom these days – she tends to give each of us a nice little check after Thanksgiving dinner and tells us to have fun. Not a lot of money, but surely enough to buy some cool stuff, or just to bank if necessary. I’m real sour on the concept of giving people presents they may not want, which is exactly what would happen if we tried to get presents for each other. Man, we can buy this shit any time we want as adults – the whole concept of gift giving is more for kids, who obviously should have a blast at Christmas. But as an adult, I get an empty feeling with the rampant materialism of the holidays. I wouldn’t call it depression – just the recognition that it’s only things, shit we buy, and can’t bring myself to attach any more or less value to it. If you care about people, they know it, no matter what time of year it is.
Ho, ho, ho! Where’s my Christmas variety special?
But enough. Time to kick back, watch some TV, go to bed early, and hopefully have better luck on Christmas morning with this shithead bus, which had better be close to empty and on time after all the shit I went through today. If that’s the case, I should be just in time for a full turkey dinner and afterwards one of those amazing 500-calories-per Selma’s Cookies that I bought Mom this year -- at a loss to get anything but food as people in their 70s don’t want anything, save good health and people in their lives, which is pretty much all I want in my 40s, too. And that’s pretty much all that matters for me these days in terms of Christmas. That, and a bus ride that doesn't leave me feeling homicidal.
Friday, December 05, 2008
I wouldn’t know it at the time, but in high school, I was setting up patterns with women that play out to this day. Which is to say getting myself into impossible situations that are often not impossible to begin with, but reveal themselves to be in short order. The first time was trying to win away a very smart, pretty girl from her longstanding boyfriend, who happened to be a badass on our state champion wrestling team. (I’ve noted in an earlier piece how cool both of them, who did get married eventually, were at one of our high-school reunions, for which I’ll be eternally grateful.)
Since then, man, an abridged inventory: a woman who had her heart set on becoming a nun, changed her mind, then became a Born Again Christian, much to my chagrin. A flirty/artsy woman who was a great match for me, but involved sporadically with other (generally older, moneyed) guys while she couldn’t make up her mind with me. A beautiful Japanese woman whom I tutored with her English writing skills while she broke off an engagement, lost touch with, came back a year later to continue our lessons, at which time she was openly flirty, but shut me down like a lawnmower when I had the tiny balls to notice. A lesbian I had been good friends with. Don’t laugh and don’t consider me delusional: when I went through that situation, I found that a handful of guys I know meandered through the exact same scenario, although none of us panned out like the movie Chasing Amy – all any of us got was dick. Our own. In our own hands.
(Sidenote: the dramatic “this is why I love you” speech Ben Affleck’s character makes in that movie to Joey Lauren Adams’ lesbian character in their car on a rainy night, the one that convinces her to toss aside her sexuality and give this straight guy a chance … is one of the biggest loads of shit I’ve ever seen perpetuated on screen. Guys who saw that movie and declared “right on” or “I wish I could do that” afterwards have obviously never made that sort of “no bullshit, this is how I feel” speech to a woman. Here’s what really happens when you make that sort of speech, especialy to a heterosexual: the woman sits there, staring straight ahead, with her mind completely blown that you have laid everything bare and are expecting her to immediately accept or reject you in return. She will reject you – maybe not immediately, but you better believe she’ll resent the hell out of you for forcing her emotionally into a corner like that – and that one instance will probably be the first of a series of emotional ultimatums you drop on her like “truth” bombs that demand her equally impassioned, committed response. It’s more a game of emotional control than “baring your soul.” It’s the sort of shit teenagers and inexperienced guys do in their 20s, i.e., director Kevin Smith’s core audience, no matter what age they are. This shit doesn’t work in real life. If you don’t believe me, try it yourself. Jesus. Just watching that youtube clip again has my skin crawling … and I like that movie in general. If you think that scene is cool, you’re my ideological enemy!)
It’s a similar pattern every time: meeting a woman who is great in some sense, hitting it off immediately, then soon discovering her situation is weird/challenging in some way I couldn't have anticipated, accepting the challenge, and eventually losing the challenge. I would swear on a stack of bibles that I don’t search out women like this, but I must have some type of internal bullshit detector: one that draws me into a situation in which bullshit will prevail. The older I get, the less time I spend trying to make things work, based on experience. Where I’d spend months in some hazy area in my youth, I’ll now spend weeks, or days even, or sometimes don’t even go there. I’d call it snakebit, but more than anything, I just try to be honest with myself. If I’m attracted to a woman, I’ll generally go for it in some sense. If it doesn’t pan out, I’ll let it go. How this compared to some guy married for 20 years, I don’t know. You get yourself into one situation that stretches on for decades, you got a different set of problems than mine. And we all got problems!
After that first debacle of going for a girl who was taken, I was understandably gun shy about these matters. Way too gun shy – to say I didn't get laid in high school is a radical under-statement! I would find myself getting into these odd situations where I’d find myself gazing at some girl for weeks or months on end, with her gazing back. Which didn’t necessarily mean the door was open.
Such a case happened with H in my sophomore year, with her a grade ahead. A very pretty girl, smallish, smart. Dating an ape. One of the guys on the football team who was a goofball at best, but if I could go back in a time machine, would recognize him as a deeply-average kid who really wasn’t that big or tough, but had a knack for hanging out with other vaguely “bad” guys who never really did anything all that wrong. High school was all about image as opposed to action, and it worked most of the time. If I had been really smart, actually if a guy any age wants to be smart, he should ask himself why a woman he considers attractive is with a complete jackass, and perhaps draw the unfortunate conclusion that maybe she aint all she’s cracked up to be. And the even worse conclusion: why is he routinely attracted to this type of woman?
I spent months making eyes with this woman, as she did with me. All the while, dating this other guy with no end in sight. One day, an older friend in her class saw me looking at her, asked why I didn’t ask her out, told him the obvious answer, he shrugged, went over to her, told her I liked her and was wondering if she would go out with me. I was incensed at the time, but what the hell – the guy made a great point to me. What was there to lose? Chances are the answer would be no, already taken, thanks anyway, but I’d be no better or worse off than before. And that’s pretty much how this one played out – I do recall later that day, making eye contact with her as my bus pulled away from the school, and she had the saddest look in her eye, I guess acknowledging that there was some quiet bridge between us she wasn’t willing to cross. Fair enough.
How does this relate to Genesis? The whole time this quiet flirtation played out, I was listening to the Genesis album Duke which had come out that spring, and even now, just seeing that album cover makes me think of H and that quiet teenage despair. Nothing happened, but something happened. The album’s vague concept is a character – Duke – guiding a woman to stardom, with her leaving him behind when she becomes a star, leaving him older, wiser and heartbroken. Of course, I wasn’t Duke – this chick was a year older than I was and not a star – but I related to that same sense of heartbroken wisdom. You want a good “romantic failure/feel like an asshole” song to pine over, try “Please Don’t Ask” from this album. I remember playing that song over and over, and thinking, “Christ, what an intelligent song about losing hope. No bitterness. Just the truth..”
Genesis got a bad rap after Peter Gabriel left, the consensus being they were a lesser band because Gabriel was the creative focal point of the band, and probably responsible for most of those interesting stream-of-conscious lyrics. In reality, the band didn’t skip a beat. The band shared writing credits on every song. When Phil Collins took over the lead vocals, his voice sounded almost exactly like Gabriel’s. They lyrics might have changed a little, but they were still good. I guess the bad rap was they were still doing what was basically Prog Rock at a time when it was slowly fading out, while Gabriel was doing more commercial material with great success. (And I still prefer those first two more pop-oriented albums as opposed to his more experimental/world material that followed.)
I bought all those post Gabriel albums, once on vinyl and re-upped on CD: A Trick of the Tail, Wind & Wuthering, And Then There Were Three, Duke, Abacab. That’s where I stopped, as Abacab was the band skulking towards the 80s pop-rock monster they would become through Collins’ far more slick solo albums. I should note that along with Duke that ill-fated spring of 1980, I was dogging two other big Genesis ballads that best represented my teenage state of perpetual blue balls and broken heart: “Ripples” and “Afterglow.” Both songs about leaving and heartbreak, both sung by Phil Collins in that post-Gabriel period. Emotionally accurate songs to play when you’re a screwed-up teenager and think your world is about to come crashing down because the love of your life is unobtainable. A drive to the convenience store to pick up milk for your Mom feels like a windswept journey on a ghost ship in the Azores. Shit like that.
I think there's a much larger story to tell in the fantasy life of 70s teenage rock fans in which their rote American surroundings are in direct contrast with the romantic imagery placed in their imaginations by bands like Genesis, Queen, Led Zeppelin, etc. All I know is there were plenty of guys driving around in Ford Pintos who thought they were on camels in the Sahara when listening to "Kashmir." Of course, drugs may have had something to do with that also. But the same mild self deception came into play with matters of the heart, too, thus we all felt like Fabio on the cover of a romance novel every now and then. Which, I can assure you, is not a good way to go through life!
Monday, November 24, 2008
A few months ago, while reading on the can in the morning, I watched a spider take down an ant in its bouncing web over the course of about 15 minutes. I felt like a National Geographic camera man watching a lion take down a zebra. Should I have intervened? No, it was just nature taking its course, but I did feel odd watching a killing play out. I kill insects routinely in my place, particularly ants, but the occasional roach, too. But spiders, I can’t bring myself to kill. When I clean, I’ll knock down their webs, watch them scurry away, but invariably, weeks or months later, a web will appear again in that general area, I guess the spiders sensing that’s a good killing field for them. Wouldn’t know what to tell someone who saw those webs and assumed I was a slob – just isn’t true, and I note as much being a reformed slob who rarely cleaned.
I noted in a piece awhile back the passing of Randy Pausch, with my thoughts on death being it’s a natural part of life, whatever darkness and negativity we may attribute to it, mostly because we don’t know what happens after we die. The drama of dying violently? I can only imagine how that pans out against dying slowly from a slow-burning disease, but I can gather a few seconds of pain and confusion , and only momentary knowledge of impending mortality, can’t be that bad in comparison. But we’re trained through movies to see this as some horrific finale with entire lifetimes flashing before our eyes. Got to believe if your lights are about to go out, the only thing you’re thinking will be, “My lights are about to go out.” If you’ve ever been in abject pain, the only thing you’re thinking about is abject pain. It tends to erase all other thoughts and emotions.
I should have known I’d have questions regarding pre-conceived notions about death, having been raised in a town where the main features were a hospital on the edge of town, and a Catholic/Protestant cemetery on the hill. As kids, we used to play hide-and-seek in the cemetery all the time, particularly at night. Telling ghost stories there also worked to maximum effect.
Sidenote: I strongly doubt Catholic/Protestant cemeteries exist anymore. The concept with ours was each branch of Christianity had a side of the cemetery, divided by a rickety wooden fence painted white (that we loved to play on, particularly when re-enacting Civil War battles). Unlike a Northern Ireland set-up, one side was no more or less attractive than the other. The fence came down a few years back. Most visitors who didn’t know of the divide saw virtually no difference, and in my mind it wasn’t like the Berlin Wall coming down. Just one of those weird little markers of passing time, what with Catholic schools and churches consolidating or closing due to under-attendance. Progress or tragedy, you decide.
I’m still trying to suss out the teenage attraction to graveyards. You have the famous graves of rock stars, kids hanging around late at night, getting high and such, in honor of the free spirit’s resting place. I don’t think people make pilgrimages to these places to honor the dead. They do it to bolster the same free spirit in themselves, remembering that this person influenced them to be as reckless, and that by hanging out in a graveyard at night imbibing, they somehow share in that radical glory. But, when you get down to it, it’s just a bunch of kids hanging out in a graveyard. This is worth noting though, because I think most people seriously visiting a graveyard in daylight hours are there to remember – the kids at night see themselves as part of some spirit that hasn’t departed and simply carrying on a rebel tradition. They’re not there for anybody but themselves, which is pretty much the M.O. of youth, for better or worse.
Sometimes the kids would vandalize tombstones – happened a few times in our graveyard, and they were invariably caught, because who in the hell is hanging out in a graveyard after dark? Unless you’re very quiet and careful about it, you’ll probably get nailed. Kids would go there to get laid, too. I still recall one of my high-school friends sheepishly knocking on our door at 10:00 one cold winter’s night in the middle of the week, his girlfriend skulking in the shadows behind him, asking, uh, er, uh, if we could, uh, help him get his car started, it was, uh, er, um, up in the cemetery. I don’t think kids screwing in cars in graveyards have death on their minds – they’re simply trying to find a quiet place to fuck, a randy 17-year-old’s quandary. But probably not a good idea to use a graveyard. Again, your car is there after dark, anyone passing by is thinking, what’s a car doing in the graveyard at night and is more likely to report that to the local cops.
Kids don’t have a clue about death, which is the way it should be. I can still remember the first time someone my age died, a friend and fellow classmate in high school killing himself a year after we graduated, apparently despondent over a failed relationship. The most shocking thing I remember about the whole incident was seeing him in his coffin at the wake, how odd and unreal he looked in death, his peach-fuzz mustache still growing, or much more pronounced than I had remembered it. Afterwards, a few of us drove around listening to heavy metal tapes, our minds blown by seeing one of our own in that lifeless state, and of course, the only option at that point was to build some sort of shrine to the person, emotionally, because it is a relatively odd, special experience when someone that young passes on for whatever reason.
At our 10th high school reunion, I had a blast, despite not being Mr. Popularity in high school. That didn’t seem to matter anymore, and we were all looking at each other as young adults (28 years old) moving on from our former selves, but glad to come back for a night and take inventory, in my case realizing most of these people were fine and just trying to get through life the same way I was.
One table was set aside “for those classmates who couldn’t make it” – with a candle for each person who had died in our class. (Never mind that there were a shitload of living people who couldn’t make it – gay kids, kids who got picked on, adults who just had no urge to see anyone again from their old high school, etc.) I think there were four candles – two suicides, one girl who had a congenital heart disease, and a guy who was in an automobile accident. It seemed cheesy, but even at that age, the shrine of four candles was intimidating, a dead zone most people avoided. Rather than someone wisely saying “fuck this,” blowing out the candles and sitting at the table, that table sat there undisturbed and, I guess, when people weren’t having a blast and caught a quiet moment, looked over and thought, goodbye __________, sorry you’re not here. Nearing the end of the reunion, which felt like a high-school dance with alcohol, most of us were pretty hammered, the DJ, who had been doing pretty well all night, stopped and announced, “And now, one more song, this one goes out the classmates who couldn’t be here tonight” – and he read off the names of the four dead classmates.
And then he played “Stairway to Heaven.” There was nearly a riot. Couples stormed off the dance floor chanting “fuck this” and “you’ve got to be kidding.” It put a real damper on the evening. It was as if he had played "Highway to Hell" instead in tribute. I had a beer in each hand – last call had come minutes earlier – and all I could think was … if you grew up in the 70s, EVERY high school dance ended with two songs, in no particular order: “Freebird” and “Stairway to Heaven.” This went on well into the 80s, too. If the DJ had just foregone the dedication, he’d have ended the reunion in grand fashion. But something about tying that rock-and-roll chestnut into the passing of these four young people, must have struck plenty of classmates as offensive. (A year later, another of our classmates, who was there that night, a kid nick-named Squirrelly because he was a little guy always getting into trouble, took his life. I’m guessing at least another five or six classmates must have died since then, too.)
Man, you get older, people just start dying. Nothing grandiose about it, no great mystery about the process. When it’s happening, you know it. If you experience it enough, you can look someone in the eye who’s going down that shit road with a loved one and know how it feels to watch someone fade away. It blows, if you haven’t already surmised this. But there’s no easy way out. We tend to have these wonderful visions of ourselves quietly passing away in our sleep some time in our 80s, still sane and self-supportive, sort of kissing the world goodbye in a sweet dream, but, man, from what I’ve seen, you get ridden out of this world on a rail. The door hits your ass on the way out. Hard.
I’ll be back in Pennsylvania this time tomorrow, plenty of opportunities to go up and visit Dad’s grave, but it’s a pretty rare occasion when I do. I know Mom rarely goes up there, too, as stirring up those sort of emotions will always be too raw. It’s not so raw for me, but I don’t need a physical visit to the gravesite to hold onto that sense of passing. I’ve also noted earlier that when someone passes, they follow you the rest of your days like a shadow, the memory always there, sometimes as clear as if the person was still there, others hardly there at all. It’s a strange thing to have that sense of life carrying on with vestiges of those no longer living. A huge draw for me as a writer originally was to have my name “live on” after I die, to have people remember what I wrote years later.
But I’ve become much more a “here and now” person since and am more than content to leave behind a bag of bones and sundry items for people mentioned in my will. (Whoever gets my music collection is going to feel all right.) I know I’ve left some things behind, some words, many more actions, memories people are going to carry long after I’m gone, hopefully in a good way. Whether 50 people, or five, or five million are tapped into that, what does it matter. Legacies are for assholes, people looking to amplify their meaning in the world, to extend their power beyond their lives, and that feels meaningless to me now. It seems like you get busy living, it’s better to let other people decide what you mean to them than try to place your stamp on them. Like those kids screwing in the graveyard and blowing out the battery, with the heater on all night, listening to Journey and Styx. They surely still remember that night, and I do, too. Better than most things I've read in history books!
Sunday, November 16, 2008
Pfffttttt. The last few weeks have provided many awkward social moments with people going off on their extreme political points of view, truly cringe-worthy stuff. I’d rather not attempt to hash out whatever goes through their minds. And I’d rather not damn them with some superior attitude, because I’m surely not above anyone. If anything, I’m choosing to disregard levels and degrees here, and just toss the whole shitpot into the sewer. If you vote, I tip my cap. I don’t vote because I can’t stand our political system and recognize the real power now lies with corporations and money, that politics are just a fancy sort of window dressing for people to pick over regarding more personal issues, like gay marriage and abortion. Have at it! I realized a long time ago, probably as a kid in the 70s, that my life went on much the same no matter who was in office. Bad shit comes your way no matter who’s president. Good things happen to you, too. If you’re going to place your mood and overall sense of personal happiness in the context of whoever holds political power, I’m more than happy to call you a bullshit artist of the highest degree.
What would get me politically motivated? I didn’t write “again” at the end of the previous sentence, because I don’t believe I’ve ever been politically motivated, despite some stern attempts at liberalism in college and shortly thereafter. Lord knows, I tried, but one too many poetry readings in stalwart “socialist” bookstores and coffee shops where I could grasp that about 70% of the people in the room were batshit crazy and as offensive as any Republican I’ve ever met, I just had to let it go. I could picture the faces of guys I grew up with in rural America, living lives that were the embodiment of socialism and the “every man” ethic, and they’d be doing this: making googley eyes and mouthing, “Let’s get the fuck out of here!”
I’m going to present a list of a few things I’d love to hear politicians say, and by doing so, hope to illustrate what I see wrong with politics, and why I’m so put off with this nonsense. Obviously, there have been times in America when political activism was essential – Revolutionary War, Civil War, etc. But I’d have to think, even if I was a Rebel soldier, I’d be sitting around a campfire with my friends in the woods outside of Gettysburg at night and thinking, later for this shit, I can’t wait to get back home to my tenant farm, assuming I don’t get a cannonball straight through my head. This is how I am. If our political system were to crumble because of people like me, I’d consider that a pretty good thing. Realistically, of course, this won’t happen for a long time, if ever, and I’m indulging the luxury of a lot of people giving a shit about something I don’t give a single shit about. Suffice to say, storming the Bastille would be one of those historical events I’d love to visit in a time machine. But without further adieu:
I don’t believe in god. Any politician who stated this would have my vote. Profess atheism. State directly that politics and religion should remain as separate as possible. Get religion out of it. Have it in your life if you need it, and I surely recognize that millions of people need it, but get it out of politics. I have nothing against religion – in fact, I’ve seen more than a few people I respect lead good lives with total faith in their given religion. But I also don’t see them at work forcing their religious beliefs into their workplace decisions – they understand religion is the core fiber of their being, simply something they are, and it carries them through life. I’m fine with that – I just don’t believe it should have anything to do directly with what people do, be it politics or whatever. Politics, by nature is a dirty business. Religion … well, it shouldn’t be, but go figure, sometimes people get some funny ideas in their head when they try to figure out what god wants, which is usually pig latin for what they want. It’s a bad mix, if you ask me.
I don’t want to get married/I like having sex with numerous partners. Bill Clinton was a pussy man. So was JFK. I suspect a lot of politicians are. Like rock and roll stars, some politicians are in it for the pussy. On a very base level, I can respect that. On a deeper level, why get married to one person if that’s the case? You love to get laid, with numerous partners. This is great! I tip my cap to you for this pursuit of horniness. But we have this insane, misleading political image that a politician must be happily married, preferably with children. If Clinton had just divorced Hilary after getting elected and stated, “I love my wife, but I love having sex with numerous partners more, and I feel like I’m in a cage. I need to get a divorce and pursue this more. Just the way I am, and I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone.” Wouldn’t life be easier with that sort of unbridled honesty? Pussy men should not get married, ever, or wait until their gun barrels cool down a bit by their mid-50s or so, like Warren Beatty.
I don’t have or want children. Much like the “happy marriage” trope – having kids seems to be a hallmark of politicians. You’re deeply suspect if you don’t have them. What’s wrong with you … you don’t like kids? I’d love to hear a politician say, “I can’t stand kids!” It’s OK! I think you get some women in politics who get so wrapped up in their jobs that they probably “forget” to have kids and are shit out of luck when they start having weeping fits at 46. But, hell, if having one takes you out of the game for at least 3-4 months, what are you supposed to do? A guy can have a kid and not skip a beat with his job. Politicians tend to use their kids as props to a nonsensical “I’m really a family guy” image that’s about as far from the truth as you can get for someone who works 14 hours a day, every day. If you’re a politician, your family is not your first priority, and that’s cool, just admit it. Plenty of people in the business suffer the same fallacy.
I don’t like working-class people. It seems like every major election comes down to this pained focus on red state/blue state nonsense, i.e., white working-class voters. Who, as we’ve seen, can be influenced to lean either way, usually depending on the economy. Your average white liberal will sit around all day bemoaning white trash, trailer-park trash, crackers, etc. … yet never once make similar statements regarding black and hispanic working-class people, because they’ve been carefully trained to never appear in any way racist, and making those kind of statements would surely brand them as such. You better believe working-class white people are acutely aware of this, no matter how dumb so many people assume they are. I propose just being honest: if you don’t like working-class people, regardless of color, just say it. Hell, I have severe problems with white upper-middle-class people and perceive their lives to be just as junky and empty as anything you’ll find in Appalachia. Save there’s a lot of emptiness you can hide with money that’s glaringly clear in a shotgun shack. But politicians have this built-in BS factor to fawn over working-class people in speeches, when reality is these people are cannon fodder, at best, or butts of jokes for supposedly sophisticated people most of the time otherwise. If a politician said, “I hate working-class people, but I need your vote, so tell me what I can do for you, and if it’s within reason, I’ll make it happen” – he’d surely have my vote.
I’m a gay/black Republican. A black co-worker, the day before this last election, was carrying on over her uncle, who was a black Republican. The general consensus seemed to be that he was completely nuts, although no one could quite say why, save a lot of people seem to believe the Democrats are wondrously open, giving, non-racist people … which I think is well-meaning bullshit more than anything else. I think of a black Republican, or a gay Republican, and think one thing: progress. For one thing, it’s a gutsy move to break out of tradition like that; for another, if you strip the parties down to their core essentials, the Republican belief in self determination should be just as appealing a message to black people as any core belief the Democrats could put forth. Of course, the Republican party has become so fouled with right-wing religious bullshit and wealth that this is sometimes hard for people to see (of course, the Democrats are just as fouled with wealth). It’s sort of alarming that so many black people are focused in on the concept that they can only be Democrats when the Democrats offer nothing more to them than Republicans do. You want to see real progress, real change, that’s going to come with black folks branching out in the Republican party and putting their own stamp on it in terms of that previously mentioned self determination. (On a more base, realistic level, this will probably also symbolize them having more money/status in society, which will be a good thing.) I can see gay people having severe problems with Republicans based purely on the stifling religious bullshit, but again, strip it down to core beliefs, and there’s something there for them if they can handle the kooks. Which, admittedly, is a pretty tall order. How religion got to be such an overt force with the Republican party, I don't know -- this wasn't always the case, and it tends to be an all-or-nothing proposition with a lot of voters, which will be putting less asses in congressional seats as time goes on.
The two-party system is reductive and unrealistic for sane people, but I can’t function as a politician without their financial backing. I can’t stand what this country has become politically. And I don’t think we’re “divided.” I think people who over-indulge in politics are clearly divided, but the greater reality here is that the assholes in America are divided, as they always were and always will be. The sane people just go on living, like the fucking Joad family in their jalopy and bunkhouses. Whether they’re poor or rich, white or black, whatever they are. I always enjoy meeting people who either are or appear to be apolitical because, surprise, you can actually talk to them like human beings and get the overwhelming sense that they’re not trying to get over on you or “feel out” where you stand on certain issues. I’m not going to hold your political convictions against you unless you create an aura around yourself that’s so stifling that the only sane option is to reject you. And this seems to be a pretty common theme with a lot of “committed” people these days. Their goal is to divide, and then discard.
I can see that the only chance an effective third party, much less a fourth of fifth, has in America is to have billionaires like Ross Perot float the money out there and run their agenda up the flagpole. In effect, they’re already dirty because the sole reason for their existence on a mass level is a staggeringly huge amount of money. There’s not much hope on a national level for a multi-party political spectrum, candidates who cross so many lines politically that you end up voting for them simply because you respect their honesty, whether or not you’re always on the same page. As it is, I feel like our political system has come down to whether you want to shop at Walmart or K Mart. And both places are selling the same shit, mostly Made in China, for varying prices that will cause you to shop at one place or the other for given bargains that strike your fancy. That’s pretty much how politics in America feel to me now. And I'm a "used on Amazon" sort of guy these days.
I’m not quite grasping what cataclysmic political changes people perceive to be on the horizon, unless they’re anticipating a full-blown Depression and the social unrest that will result. Even if Obama fails miserably, and I suspect he won’t, he’ll still be perceived as a good president. He’d have to screw the pooch royally, in ways that make Bush like Thomas Jefferson, to have history portray him in a negative light. Again, I think he’ll do fine, given the horrible economic shitstorm he’s walking into. But I’m not kidding myself about real change. Save money. Live better. Keep waiting on that blue-light special.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
The other day at work, I was dealing with a coworker, explaining why a certain situation wasn’t working, when the guy blurted out, “Bill, do you have to be so negative?” I explained I wasn’t being negative, just honest. “Yeah, but, Bill, the situation isn’t that negative.” Yes, it is, I replied – it’s not getting done, which is why you’re talking to me about it, and I’m telling you why it isn’t getting done. If you want me to lie to you and paint a pretty picture, I said, just let me know and I’ll shift gears right now to make you feel better. (It didn’t help that this guy’s sense of office optimism comes and goes like the wind, along with his unpredicatble mood swings.) The situation I was detailing for him would have been like describing the Titanic thusly: “Well, we just grazed a little ice berg, but everything’s going to be just fine, and, hey, the band on the main deck just started playing a pretty waltz, let’s dance!”
I’ve always had problems with relentless optimism: the cheerleader mentality. Appropriate for teenage girls, but not so cool with adults. When I’m around someone so effusively cheery, I feel like I’m in the presence of someone who’s shit her pants, only instead of shit, it’s ice cream, and it bears the overwhelming, generic aroma of a can of cheap air freshener sprayed in the room. I used a female adjective in the previous sentence because it’s more often women gushing this sort of saccharine vibe, but occasionally men, too.
I remember once at one of my advertising jobs, I was sitting at my desk, first day, reading an employee manual or something, when this woman burst around the corner and blurted out, “Welcome to _______, Mr. Repsher, we’re so happy to have you with our team!” I didn’t know who she was. No, “Hi, Mr. Repsher, I’m ___________, and I’ll be working with you in our department.” It was more like being introduced on Wheel of Fortune. She had a personality that was a surly mix of game-show host, stewardess and rodeo clown. (I’d later add serial killer to the mix.) I didn’t like her on sight, just sort of quietly said hello, and that set the tenor for our working relationship: me feeling like I was dealing with a berserk bullshit artist (I was right), and she probably feeling like she was dealing with a dullard (an image I was more than happy to perpetrate in her presence). Frankly, you come on to people like that, you’re demanding that they accept or reject you. I rejected her – wasn’t a question of choice, I felt an impulse to reject her based on previous negative experiences with people this over-the-top. Luckily, I didn’t work directly for her, but she was in my department. And to be fair, she was about a 6 on a scale of 10 in terms of work-place psychosis, and never really did give me any trouble on the job, so I don’t want to portray her in too negative a light, despite our radical personality clash.
Another job, everyone had to deal with the CEO’s daughter, who was relentlessly positive, which I guess I would be, too, if my dad had tens of millions of dollars and I’d been raised in the lap of luxury. (I’d imagine that circumstance produces children who are either extremely positive or morose.) Her old man was a maverick, I think already born into wealth, but he took it to a much higher level in his lifetime – I liked him a lot, one of the few top executives whom I enjoyed working for, because the guy recognized and rewarded intelligence.
His daughter wasn’t a maverick. She was taking advantage of his status and hanging around his company for years – which is fine. If I busted through on that level and had kids, I’d gladly give them spots in the company … with the idea that they’d go out and do their own thing, sooner or later. (A perfect scenario: the kids would say, screw you, dad, I’m going to make my own way in the world and don’t want your help.)
On top of all this, this woman was the relentless optimist. If you didn’t jog along at a similar cheery pace, you could see the wheels turning in her mind: This guy is not a team player, I feel sorry for him. And you got the vibe this sort of skewed, immature take on you was informally making its way back to dad. There’s a perverse sort of fascism with optimists: they demand you feel the same way they do. Not quite realizing most adults are realists, have enough negative experiences in their lives, enough stress, enough responsibilities, that after a certain point, very few people go through life with a permanent smile plastered on their faces. It’s not negativity. It’s called being a fucking adult, and we should all be more concerned with people who deny that reality and pretend life is one big summer-camp singalong when they know better.
And to be fair to her, she was on the young side, twentysomething, so I’m sure she’ll grow out of some of that vibe. I liked her in general – a basically good person. But again, there was that strange sort of condescension she carried around with her, which I’d bet she wasn’t fully aware of, that was born of a fortunate upbringing most of us don’t have. You want a sure-fire method of pissing off people older than you? Condescend to them, especially based on your wealth, whether you’re aware of it or not. Always works – at least with me! After awhile, I found myself avoiding this woman as much as possible, just because I picked up on the sense that her takes on co-workers would quietly filter back to the old man, and that struck me as being mildly off-kilter, although I’m not sure how much weight this held with the old man. You couldn’t even talk shit about the company – a very healthy, positive way for workers to blow off real steam provided they don’t grovel in it – for fear that it would get back to the upper echelon of the company. (She also tried to set-up one of her girl friends with one of the bigger sociopaths I’ve ever met in an office, sort of an American Psycho in training … thus confirming my take on her limited world view. You mirrored her bubbly personality, and that was a sign to her that you were a good person. She would have thought the world of Ted Bundy. I was a little too old for that shit by 1990, much less when I was in that company years later.)
And she remind me of another woman in another company, hired because her father was a key client. Again, relentless optimist, perky, vivacious, already fairly wealthy, but looking to strike out “on her own.” A humanitarian. I remember her quietly telling me in her office that she planned on ditching all this corporate stuff real soon and doing charity work in Central America, because she really cared, and this was her dream in life. Yeah, well, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. She got married to a guy who looked like Dilbert, moved into a mansion her father bought them and dived straight into the wealthy suburban lifestyle from whence she came. Which is fine! I’d probably do the same damn thing in her circumstances and accept the same incredible gift from my father.
But I don’t think people like this realize how galling it is to those of us from the lower classes to hear this sort of well-intentioned concern about others “less fortunate” and understand that this person just isn’t geared for that hard, humble way of life. Don’t say it aloud, repeatedly, if you’re not going to follow through, take that huge leap of faith, and do it. This woman and I got along vaguely, but I was always butting up against that rich-girl optimism and her inability to see herself as she truly was. Maybe she did, I don’t know. And who she was seemed fine to me: a basically good person who was taking full advantage of opportunities thrown her way in life. But if there’s one thing you can give non-wealthy people, i.e., most of us, it’s that we tend to see ourselves clearly, warts and all, and be able to go on with life without dealing with some sort of mild, self-delusional psychosis that quietly seeps out of optimists when they think no one is looking.
What do I consider genuine optimism, if I find these other surface varieties so shallow and open to derision? Simply-stated and paraphrasing that old biblical quote: let the tree be known by its fruits. If you’re an optimist, you do optimistic things. In my case, like working out routinely, or even writing this right now, or being helpful to coworkers, making effort to be nice to genuine pricks on the streets and on trains and buses, trying to see the good in people, etc. Your actions speak far louder than words, and I’m also used to dealing with overly optimistic people on various mood-enhancing prescription medications, which is a given in New York City offices. Christ, people, just crack the nut of being reasonably honest with yourself, a majority of your various mental problems will melt away.
I’ve met enough people in life who aren’t making it in some sense, who are having a very hard time, or even failing in some sense, to know what real optimism is, and that there are people out there genuinely lacking even a morsel of it. Forgive me for routinely noting the ersatz variety often associated with wealth – but it seems like that perky can-do attitude I routinely run into like a brick wall is a certain by-product of the American Way, I gather you don’t find that attitude so much in other countries (they probably laugh at it in Europe), and you sure as hell don’t find it so much in poor people.
So, even at this late date, I’m never sure how to handle people who are eternally happy and upbeat. I think part of it might just be the way I smile. I have a smaller mouth, not a big one, filled with gleaming teeth. I’ve noticed when people with larger mouths let out a huge guffaw or crack a big smile, it’s more of a Broadway production than my off-Broadway grin. I just look like a maniac when I do a big, full-mouth smile, like I’m getting ready to bite someone – it’s just having a small mouth more than anything! And I think sometimes people take that, and an acerbic sense of humor, and a general quiet demeanor, to mean someone who must be dark-minded and pessimistic. That’s not me at all, never was, never will be. Of course, I’ve been knocked around enough by life to have any sort of breakaway optimism tempered by caution and experience. If I’m too careful in life, I can sure as hell live with that.
Holy cow. I have today off, am typing this in my apartment before heading out for boxing class later this afternoon, and there’s a car parked out on the street, blasting a song from its stereo. Hiphop? No. Crappy Top 40 dance high-school musical nonsense? No. Awful Greek pop? No. “Five to One” by The Doors! Man, I’ll take that as a positive sign. How often do you overhear a good song being blasted from a car stereo on the street? (Of course, I’m glossing over hearing “Shake Your Booty” by K.C. and the Sunshine Band blasting from another car stereo when I was out raking leaves earlier, but you get the picture.)
Sunday, October 26, 2008
But I have the sound turned down, partially because I can’t stand the blathering of game commentators Joe Buck and Tim McCarver. When I hit the mute button, I popped open the iTunes library, did a search for The Kinks, and I’ve been sitting here listening to various songs from their great catalog, only to realize …
My life has become one big Kinks song! I never thought this would happen. I don’t think this is a bad thing. I just never thought it would happen. What I’m going to do here is list some of the lyrics that are grabbing me from the songs I’m listening to and draw parallels to my own life. This may not work – it may come off half-assed. But it’s worth a shot. I’ll list the song after each set of lyrics, of course. If you don’t know them, feel free to youtube, LastFM, or google these songs to find a sound clip: you won’t be sorry.
Cause he gets up in the morning,
And he goes to work at nine,
And he comes back home at five-thirty,
Gets the same train every time.
Cause his world is built around punctuality,
It never fails.
And he's oh, so good,
And he's oh, so fine,
And he's oh, so healthy,
In his body and his mind.
He's a well respected man about town,
Doing the best things so conservatively.
“A Well Respected Man.” This is how my life feels most week days. Work in the office, work-out after work. I am reasonably healthy in my body and mind. People respect me (for the most part). I’m punctual as hell. Question: should I feel like the pompous dick as was Ray Davies intent for the character of this song? Ray Davies, what in the fuck am I supposed to do?
Breeze blows leaves of a musty-colored yellow,
So I sweep them in my sack.
Yes, yes, yes, it's my autumn almanac
I like my football on a Saturday,
Roast beef on Sundays, all right.
“Autumn Almanac.” This song is my life right now, the way the leaves are coming down. As noted numerous times before, I spend a good bit of time each Saturday morning sweeping out my landlord’s property, sidewalks and back patio. A good bit of work, generally takes about two hours: dirty, sweaty and afterwards I feel like I’ve accomplished something, especially when I stand and look at what I’ve done, nice clean walks that were leaf and/or garbage-covered before. It’s a good feeling. Makes me feel like I’m watching after nature, sweeping up after her, taking part in the seasons. The leaves are going to be coming down like snow the next few weeks, and I love it. I think in this song, Ray commiserates with the little man keeping his property in order, so I guess I should take a thumbs up from this one. I like watching Penn State football on Saturdays and making chili on Sundays. All right.
But all I want to do is make some money,
And bring you home some wine.
“Get Back in Line.” A poignant song about a man standing in a welfare line (in the UK, receiving money on the dole), reasoning why he wants to make money. Doesn’t want to get rich. Wants to bring home some small personal comfort to the people he cares about. It’s that simple. Should be that simple. Is that simple for me. I love this song for that reason. It’s hard to get across this concept to many New Yorkers, who have no identity without money and status. It’s where I’m from in Pennsylvania and who I’ll always be in many respects. Not some "in your face" faux humility -- you want to get rich and do what that requires, go right ahead. I just want some minor creature comforts (music, movies, books), a roof over my head and some money in the bank. Saving money will always be important to me, thanks to Dad's stern Depression-era stories. But that's enough for me.
All life we work but work is bore,
If life's for livin' what's livin' for?
“Oklahoma USA.” Another beautiful Davies ballad, about a woman living in a run-down house in Oklahoma who imagines her life as the more romantic musical Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain. There aint shit sweeping down this woman’s plain. I know the feeling, and I guess we all do at one time or another. I’m not sure what the above couplet means, save that it conveys a sense of emptiness that’s part of life on bad days. Hopefully, not something you’re feeling every day! I don't know what's livin' for.
I've gotta start facing up to what I really am.
I've got to realize l'm just an ordinary man.
I think that I'll just settle down.
And take my place in the crowd.
I don’t want to lie to myself anymore.
“A Face in the Crowd.” From one of The Kinks' horrible concept albums of the mid-70s, but a great song about a rock star choosing anonymity over his high-profile lifestyle. When I listened to this song as a teenager, I’d imagine that I was the rock star making the same humble choice … never quite realizing I already was that face in the crowd, and would go on being that face in the crowd the rest of my days. I think Ray was a little full of shit here – then again, he was just playing a character in a rock opera. Dare I say it now, Ray Davies could probably walk down any street in America and go unrecognized by a vast majority of people. He got his wish. But having had minor brushes with fame along my way, I can see that anonymity has its benefits. Things get strange when people who don’t know you act like they know you.
Go to my office, sit at my desk,
Predictably just like all of the rest.
I sit and I dream about far away places,
Away from the people with frowns on their faces.
“Predictable” – from one of those great early-80s Kinks albums where Ray got his groove back. Again, this is a pretty typical work day. Actually, that’s a good day. A bad day is encountering any variety of bullshit and head games that make high school seem like a gathering of Greek philosophers on Mount Olympus. I gather Ray Davies never worked in an office, probably never held a job outside of being a rock star. I think he loathes the idea of sitting behind a desk … without ever having sat behind a desk. Which, I have to admit, is not as bad as he makes it out to be – it surely gets worse. Springsteen did the same thing with working-class jobs: imagined how the world was without actually living it for real. As a result, I sometimes think both miss the boat and shoot a little broad in their characterizations. Still, I give Ray a huge edge for empathizing much more clearly with his characters, seeing himself in them more than doing third-person character studies. I imagine being a rock star is pretty dull when you’re not on stage or creating music. I suspect Ray just transferred that boredom into an office and figured he had it nailed … and he did, in small ways.
Somehow you feel that the world's been passin' you by.
Can't help thinkin' somehow they're living a lie.
Now I'm asking questions, I never thought I'd ask them before,
Like "why" or "how" or "what am I doing it for?"
Will I reach my destination,
Or will I get off along the way?
“Return to Waterloo.” From Ray’s mid-80s solo album based on the kind-of-dull movie he made at the time about a guy with serious family problems going off to a typical work day in London from his town in the suburbs. The theme is one he’s tackled many times over in his songs: world is passing you by, and you’re not moving with it, living a lie of sorts. I think we all feel like we’re living lies to some small extent – maybe even a larger one if you really hate what you do. I made peace with office work once I realized I was good at it. Doesn’t necessarily mean I like it, although I thrive on staying busy and feeling productive. Fuckin’ A, I like to work: it’s that simple. I don’t LOVE to work. And I like to work eight hours a day – not 10, or 12, or more, like many fiends do in New York. It’s work. You’re not necessarily supposed to like it. But if you’re smart, you learn to love that act of working as opposed to whatever you’re actually doing. If it makes you feel empty, find a cure for cancer already, or go save a whale. Find a cure for cancerous whales. When you're not busy getting hammered.
What I also remember about this song, actually the album: I bought it the first day upon returning to campus in last August for my senior year at Penn State. Knew it was coming out that day, busted down to the small indie store and snagged it. Warm sunny late summer day. Walked back to Headquarters, where the gang was sure to be gathering, a few blocks away on the main drag. Sure enough, Justin was there, warm greetings, welcome back, what's that you got there, why it's the new Ray Davies solo album, Return to Waterloo, break it out, let's have a listen. Title track was the first song, and it floored us. Both being young iconoclastic bullshit artistes, we marveled at how well Ray had nailed the middle-class hypocrasy again and that feeling of dread 'neath the suburban hedges ... again, not quite realizing, we never forsook or in any way escaped similar existences, save to say we went away to college and got drunk a lot in that insular little hipster world of English majors. We were dicks, of course. But tasteful dicks. Now Justin has 15 kids and lives in a shoe in central California. We weren't fooling anybody!
Put on your slippers and sit by the fire
You've reached your top and you just can't get any higher
You're in your place and you know where you are
In your Shangri-la
Sit back in your old rocking chair
You need not worry, you need not care
You can't go anywhere
Shangri-la, Shangri-la, Shangri-la.
“Shangri-La.” Could be Ray Davies best song, from the Arthur album, based on a brooding British melodrama about the desperate suburbanite (which I’ve never seen, although I’ll bet it’s ham-fisted and over-wrought). This song perfectly nails the concept of ev’ry man a king, in his own little domain. Am I being shallow to admit I love the concept and see the beauty in it? I gather Ray was laying on the sarcasm heavily in this song. Sometimes he’d have an entirely sympathetic take on the working/middle class (like “Autumn Almanac”), other times, he’d launch a subtle attack, like in this song. Man, when I get home from work, I do want to sit back in my old rocking chair, and not worry or care. Is this wrong? Hell, no. I don’t have slippers, or a fireplace, but motherfuckers, if I did, I would put on my slippers and sit by the fire. I wouldn’t call it reaching my top and not being able to get any higher. I’d call it taking it easy after a hard day at work. Shoot me!
"Shangri-La" also has the lines: "Here is your reward for working so hard/Gone are the lavatories in the back yard." Again, the song is all thinly-veiled sarcasm over a "little man" taking comfort in the creature comforts and safety of his home. I got news for you: there's a radical, positive difference between using a toilet in a home and a lavatory. Before Dad built an extension to our house in the early 70s (something that would have thrilled Ray Davies, when he wasn't too busy scoffing at the concept), we had a lavatory to handle the overload of seven people in one house with one toilet. We called it the out-house: an outdoor shithouse. It was just a small wooden shack at the very end of our backyard, with a wooden bench inside with a hole in the middle, through which you pissed an shat, then hopefully wiped with paper, unless you made the grave error of not taking note before sitting down.
I don't know how deep the out-house hole was -- it didn't seem very, i.e., you could peer inside and see the murky sewage just a few feet away. Allow me to summarize: IT SUCKED! Try dumping in your pajamas in winter snow, with splinters in your ass. Indoor plumbing and toilets were a HUGE reward! Then again, I suspect most of Ray's adult existence was spent in the relative luxury of upper middle classdom, as opposed to the lavatory-ridden existence of freshly post World War II London, which had been bombed into oblivion. If he wanted to get sassy about a topic like this, he could have easily had his indoor plumbing removed, erect an out-house in his backyard and go there. I suspect he was a thousand times more pampered than the "little men" he often wrote about, and possibly his mild loathing expressed so often in the songs was really self loathing because he recognized how spoiled he was in comparison to those spartan days of picking through bombed buildings and vacant lots as a child.
If my friends could see me now, driving round just like a film star,
In a chauffeur driven jam jar, they would laugh.
They would all be saying that it's not really me,
They would all be asking who I'm trying to be.
“Sitting in My Hotel.” A big ballad from the early 70s, in which Ray’s pitying himself while looking out a luxury hotel window on tour and thinking the world is going by without him. He remembers his working-class friends as a child, and thinks they’d be laughing at and with him – glad that he made it in some sense, but wondering where he’s going with all this poofy rock-star stuff. Again, as a teenager, I’d play a song like this, and imagine I was a self-pitying rock star. Now? It makes me think of my friends back in Pennsylvania and the minor dislocation between them and that world and the one I’m living in here in New York. Where everything is glitter to the outside … but is really just as mundane as anywhere else. You get used to it, believe me. It has its good and bad points. And sooner or later, you get tired of running around in your spare time and just settle down, the same way you would in a small town. I may have detailed this once before, but I made a brief stab at living on the west coast, just after college, in Venice, California, and one day seeing a lost dog on the beach, cowering in the shadows as scores of people milled around on the beach on a Saturday. I saw myself in that dog, and felt an unbearable sorrow that presaged me getting my ass out of there a few weeks later. That was surely a “Sitting in My Hotel” moment in my life. Just because you leave home doesn’t mean home leaves you. A feeling that fills some people with dread, but makes me feel all right.
I was riding in the car with my mum and dad,
He was drivin' the car, the kids were drivin' him mad.
Dad looked at us, then he looked at his wife,
He must have wondered where we all came from.
And then mum said, "Dad, you know it won't last for long,
Before you know it, Summer's gone."
“Summer’s Gone.” Another great 80s Kinks song, a period well-worth checking out for anyone who hasn’t. What a beautiful scene he sets – parents in a car full of squabbling kids, and the mother looking at the father and saying, “You know it won’t last for long” – in a sad way, not in a “shut the fuck up, kids” sort of way. And, boy, does this song nail that vibe. Dad’s gone in my life, Mom’s getting on in years, and every time I get in a car with her, I think, this won’t last forever, sooner or later, it’s going to be just me in that car wondering where both of them went and truly grasping what it means to no longer have them in my life. I’m obviously in the “autumn of my years” – and I like it. But it’s like being perched between two worlds. I still feel young, but I can see death coming, can feel it and sense it in little ways that I couldn’t have in my 20s or 30s. I remember a lot of those little moments with my parents when I was a kid or a teenager, and being a total asshole with them, like the time I made Mom cry when she bought me a Philadelphia Phillies t-shirt that I claimed to hate on sight (but later loved and wore to shreds). God, I wish I could take moments like that back. But what can you do. We’re still here, and she’s still my mother. I’ll take it.
I wish my eyes could only see
Everything, exactly as it used to be
It's too late, so late
Young and innocent days
I see the lines across your face
Time has gone and nothing ever can replace
Those great, so great
Young and innocent days
“Young and Innocent Days.” Again, from the Arthur album, one of my favorite Kinks song, cascading harpsichord lines and wonderful background vocals from brother Dave Davies. A good song about growing old. Only I don’t subscribe to getting all misty-eyed over lost youth. You move with time, you get lines on your face, sure, time marches on, but you can’t overly concern yourself with this stuff. Those young and innocent days weren’t always so great. Sort of like how I don’t really like the message of the song “Imagine” by John Lennon (I don’t like being told to imagine having no possessions by a multi-millionaire), I don’t like the message of this song … but the melody and everything else about the song is so incredibly good, that I forgive the message. Ray wrote a song about the same time called “Days” that’s simply the best song about the death of a friend that I've heard. I like it so much I won’t quote it here and draw parallel lines, but I’ll give you a copy if you want. Next to “Lola” (my favorite song choice in my high-school yearbook … which I’ll still stick by), the best Kinks song.
Man, the Phillies are kicking ass in the 5th inning! This is looking good tonight. But this game is surely far from over. Just like your average Kinks song where nothing ever works out the way you though it would, but you get somewhere worthwhile anyway. Shit, man, I’ll be going to bed tonight at 12:30 and only getting six hours of sleep. Can’t have this if I’m going to be a productive worker in the office tomorrow. Can’t have this at all!
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Via MP3s, I’ve realized the Inner Tape-Mix Nerd never really dies, even after the death of mix tapes (save for a hearty few who miss the warmth of cassette hiss and chewed-up tapes). I’m now winding down on a Celtic Music project, where I’ve incorporated anything Celtic-sounding in my collection, a few things from stalwart, now-celtic-rock-band member P.J., but mostly a huge chunk of tracks from Emusic, which has this genre covered with its myriad collection of small indie labels.
Right now, I have about 560 tracks! So, that Inner Tape-Mix Nerd has morphed into a monster who now collects hundreds of songs pertaining to a music theme as opposed to tastefully sifting through x number of CD’s and pulling 2-3 dozen tracks to narrow down to one tape. Every now and then I’ll employ the creative legwork of making a mix CD, like my upcoming Christmas offering, but even that’s starting to feel like an archaic function. Doing so makes me feel like I’m riding one of those turn of the 20th century tricycles with a four-foot high front wheel.
Last time I was back in PA, my brother had just bought a used pick-up truck, a 2004, and the odd thing about it was that even with a sell date only four years past, the pick-up had a cassette deck! This is like seeing a Model-T’s front hand crank on a 57 Chevy … just unbelievable that the auto industry was putting out vehicles in 2004 with these archaic devices. I also recall seeing a few mix tapes stacked on a shelf in my old bedroom back there, ones I had made back in the mid-90s, before CD-Rs came into vogue. So I made sure to break a few out when we went for rides that week, mostly the 70s Pop ones I made that are painfully accurate renderings of the Top 40 junk kids were listening to circa 1975. I don’t know how kosher it is for two grown-ass man to be driving around in a pick-up trick with “The Night Chicago Died” by Paper Lace blasting away on the tape deck, but I enjoyed myself.
(A recurring fantasy I have: a few years ago, a guy at work was raving about a new Peter Frampton album, how it was a return to his mid-70s glory days and worth picking up. I sampled it, and while it wasn’t bad, in all honesty, I was never a huge Peter Frampton fan to begin with. I was one of the five kids in America who didn’t own the Frampton Comes Alive album or eight track. But it got me thinking of this concept of grown men listening to music they grew up with, which is not at all unusual and in fact far more normal than grown men listening to new music. I thought it would be a cool idea if me and a few of the fortysomething guys from work got greatest hits CDs for Journey, or Styx, or Frampton, got a 76 Nova with tailpipes, got sleeveless concert shirts for the aforementioned artists, drove down to a suburban high school at 3:00 pm, hung out in front of it, and posed like tough guys on the Nova while blasting songs like “Don’t Stop Believin” and “Blue Collar Man.” I know – we’d get shunned like the plague or arrested – but for some odd reason, I can’t escape the urge to try this.)
I should stop kidding myself that I still subscribe to any pre-designated rules of taste with music, because with MP3 files and these gigantic collections I’ve amassed over the past few years, I fully intend to go on listening to everything I’ve ever listened to in my life, and expanding outwards with blues, country, celtic, etc. whenever it grabs my ear. That concept of barriers in music has fallen away, which is liberating. I knew this before when I was buying CDs, that wave of 90s reissues of previously-considered lame 70s acts (think ABBA and such), but with MP3s, forget it, I’ve amassed collections that match and supersede any musical phase or experience I’ve experienced before.
It’s odd when I piece together these gigantic collections – in my quiet life, it’s a monumental event. I’m literally forming large groups of music that I will listen to the rest of my days. The same way I bought building block albums in my youth by the Beatles, Stones, Bowie, etc., I’m now either documenting those days or forming new tastes with a wild abandon that wasn’t possible in the old days of albums and cassettes. It’s a big thing to me … that means virtually nothing to just about everyone else! I’ll usually pass off copies of these collections to various friends whom I know will “get it” in some sense. And that’s often a strange experience. When someone give you a DVD with 500 songs on it, what the fuck is a normal response. What do you do with this? I’ve learned the best thing to do is let it sit for a week or two, then slowly digest it, like a boa constrictor eating a very large chicken. Because it’s impossible to absorb that much music all at once.
It’s not a fantasy world to me – this is real music, I have it and am listening to it – but it feels like a fantasy world in terms of what it means to anyone else. I’m assuming that if I was married with kids, this is the sort of shit I would do in my “den.” Like on The Brady Bunch – Mike had that huge room on the ground floor to himself where he’d presumably be working on his architectural projects, but was more than likely watching porn on Betamax, when not listening to old Dion & the Belmonts albums and wondering how he’d become such a stuffy, old asshole. (I never gathered whether Mike and Carol were divorced or widowed. Nearly every divorcee I’ve met has dealt with a minor, or major, world of shit with the ex, and this never seemed to be an issue on the show.)
Guys need this. Hell, everyone needs this, but grown men, in particular, seem to need that one thing in their life, that one burning interest or hobby, that they can go off and do on their own, and it’s their thing. That’s surely music in my life, but I also think it’s a shame that so many adults let their taste in music fall by the wayside as they age. We’ve been brainwashed into thinking music is a “kid” thing, a phase you go through in your teen years, and the best you’re going to do afterwards is buy copies of albums in different formats from that time to remind yourself how much fun you had back then (as opposed to having none now). As far as I’m concerned, musical appreciation is one of those cognitive abilities we should never lose, much like working out, which also falls by the wayside for most adults, thus the onset of any number of health issues as the years pass.
I sometimes get the feeling music is just a back-drop to my life – aural wallpaper of a sort – but then again, what was it when I was a teenager? If anything, music at that time is used as the running theme for kids in their little teenage worlds. The gist is supposedly that they’re feeling the music more intensely at the time, that it’s in perfect synch with their thoughts and emotions. But that wasn’t true. It was wallpaper for most kids – something to listen to because all the other kids were, and their parents weren’t. Forget about buying new music as adults, or even doubling back and buying that great old stuff in a newer format: most people seem to stop buying music all together after a certain point in their early adulthood because in some odd way, it's no longer expected of them.
Why? I have no idea, save the previous assumption that we’re brainwashed into thinking this is kid’s stuff. Shit, I’m listening to celtic music that in some cases is centuries old, played and recorded very well by people who were raised with and trained to play this kind of music. When I listen to music, that’s what I’m appreciating – the effort and artistry involved in making it. What does that have to do with rock and roll, or hiphop? Very little, or any trend that's come and gone since most music has been foisted off on society as kid stuff. It’s a shame we’ve attached the constraints of passing time and phases in our own lives with something like music, which exists apart from time, which moves with time or in some cases, like the celtic stuff I’m listening to now, stands for centuries for the simple reason that it defines a certain culture, and people go on sharing in that culture years after the fact much as they would a religion.
And I'm not even getting into the simple mystery of why music is so pleasurable, why it calms people down, or makes them dance, or sparks certain emotions. I can't stand meeting adults, especially when they're younger than I am, and they've seemed to talk themsleves into being stereotypically stern adults who've totally abandoned any concerns but money and responsibility. I thought people like this were fuckheads when I was a kid, and that goes much more so now. Whatever spark of humanity someone felt talking with me openly when I was eight, or thirteen, or twenty-two, I'd rather hold onto that basic humanity for the rest of my days than forfeit it for some stiff routine of adulthood. Music plays a large role in that basic humanity I want to maintain. Think it's childish? Look at the world of shit we're in now thanks to the responsible, stalwart leaders of our financial sectors who more than likely possess that false "adult" quality in spades. I can't help but think that useless, false sense of faux maturity so many adults espouse is the sort of thing that takes root when that closet full of albums goes for pennies on the dollar at a garage sale.
In my head right now, I’m hearing the opening guitar riff from “Fly Like an Eagle” by Steve Miller. I’ll be listening to this celtic stuff later when I hit the gym. I’ll go home tonight and download a few dozen tracks of new music, most alt rock and country, that I’ve had ear-marked on Emusic while I’ve been nailing down the celtic material. I feel like hearing “Do You Realize” by the Flaming Lips. I heard “The Rover” by Led Zeppelin blasting out of a car stereo the other day and had my mind blown that someone was still playing that shit loud in public.
Where does it end? It doesn’t for me. This stuff is always swirling around in my head. The Steve Miller thing comes from a coworker talking to someone named Steve Miller on the phone. Not the “real” Steve Miller. If I had speakers on my computer, I’d blast the opening riff to “Fly Like an Eagle” right now as a goof. And would wonder if Steve Miller heard it in the background and thought, “Fuck. I’ve been dealing with this shit since high school. Like the guy I met in the last business meeting who blurted, ‘Keep on rockin’ me, baby!’ when we shook hands. I guess I should be glad my name isn’t Leo Sayer.”
And now I want to hear a Leo Sayer song. With the trusty iPod nearby, these are always options. If you had told me I’d have these sort of limitless musical options when I was a kid in 1978, with my motley collection of albums and eight tracks, I’d have thought this was some sort of musical heaven. And I’m smart enough now to recognize that it is.
And here now, three of the celtic tracks I've pulled down recently for your edification:
Thursday, October 09, 2008
When we were kids, we used to harass kids from Ringtown by taking the melody for Glenn Campbell’s hit song “Rhinestone Cowboy” and instead sing, “Like a Ringtown farmer …” There are a lot of farming communities in Pennsylvania. Within our school district, there were other farming-based towns: Gordon and Lavelle. You drive between Gordon and Lavelle, and you can catch the overwhelming aroma of cow manure in summer time.
While it would be lost on outsiders and city slickers, all these little rural towns have their own vibe, which you’ll often see unexpurgated in the kids of the town. With farm towns like Gordon and Lavelle, the kids were always physical, probably due to their proximity to farm animals and the need to interact with them. I know that sounds weird – I don’t mean to imply bovine bestiality – but when you work on a farm, you’re herding and feeding goats, pigs, cows, etc. You get into it with them sometimes, holding them down for shots or brands – rare farms would even have horses.
As a result, a lot of these kids were physical. Our high-school championship wrestling teams of the 70s and 80s were stocked with Ringtown kids: big, physical kids who liked to grapple. Even now, farming high schools like Tri-Valley, despite being very small population wise, will often field state-finalist caliber wrestling teams. It’s a weird thing with farm kids.
I don’t think Robin and Tony come from farming families, but both probably did enough work on farms as kids, and lived around plenty of other farmers, that they had the same rollicking, physical vibe. They were always administering “titty twisters” on guys in their peer group: grabbing a guys chest as hard as possible, pinching down and twisting. I’d imagine this would be much more painful for a full-breasted woman, but it hurt like hell, too, when done on a guy. Robin was strong as an ox – if he caught you in a titty twister, the pain could be excruciating. Followed by him braying out his horse-like laugh.
Another odd thing we did in that Butthead phase of life. Any time we disagreed with what one of us was saying, provided no teachers were around, rather than say something witty like "you're full of shit," we'd ball up one of our hands into a fist, place it directly underneath the chin of the kid making the questionable statement, and then make a "pwt-pwt-pwt" sound with our lips to imitate the sound of an oil can squirting oil. What we were really doing was pretending our outstretched arm and fist was a penis, and we were ejacualting on the offending party's face as a sign of disrespect. I'm not sure why ejaculting on someone's face would represent the epitome of humiliation, but there it was. And that oil-can sound ... I've never heard my penis make a sound in any state of being. But I guess when you're 14 years old and learning how to use the thing in different ways, the first time you see it in action in that fashion, you imagine it making that oil-can sound.
Those Ringtown kids were always grabbing each other: headlocks, full nelsons, hammerlocks. When I say they seemed gay, I don’t mean “effeminate” gay, I mean “prison shower sex” gay – guys who were always grabbing each other in deeply physical ways that were rude. Granted, most boys did this – rough-housing – in varying degrees, but with Ringtown kids, it was an art form and a constant. It was nothing to pass by a study hall or gym class in repose and see two Ringtown guys, red-faced and gasping, locked up with each other in some physical challenge. Arm wrestling was big, too. Girls would be sitting at the surrounding desks doing homework, while two Ringtown guys would be busting neck veins and sweating profusely in an arm-wrestling death match. (I kept waiting for one of them to lean over and gently kiss the other on the cheek.)
You’d think I wouldn’t get along with guys like this, but one other thing about Ringtown kids, a lot of them were pretty good-natured and friendly. Sure, as time went along, I got tired of the endless arm wrestling matches and silly physical crap that seemed like a misguided mating ritual. But the kids I knew from Ringtown tended to be friendly, regardless of social status.
I should mention social status, because that was the strange (but good) thing about Robin. This is a guy who spent the first two decades of his life doing everything possible to go off the rails (drugs, dropping out, rampant teen sex, going AWOL in the Navy and eventually getting discharged, etc.), yet is now a plant manager (not sure what kind of plant), making great money and living in a quiet rural/suburban town with a few kids from two marriages. You can take issue with the marriages, but by all rites, I had figured this guy to be a corpse long before 30.
How did he get there? A reversal of fortune? I don’t know. I gather from what he told me that he’s just as perplexed that he’s made it this far and is, in fact, somehow excelling in life. When I implied that something must have happened to make him shift gears, he said, no, I’ve always known I was a good worker, I just didn’t like school and had more of a wild side when I was a kid.
Which was an understatement! He had Tony and me in tears with some of his stories. The time he and Tony watched a notoriously gamey kid in our school take a dump in the locker-room shower after gym class. Or when he screwed a girl in the vestibule of the auditorium during a presentation. (I vaguely remember this as I was in the auditorium that day and the rumor had spread like wild fire … thought it was a joke at the time … but he verified that they actually did this.) Or routinely driving his motorcycle at over 100 mph down a long pot-holed hill leading into Ringtown. Or having one of his naval officers hit on him in a hotel room while on R&R in Connecticut (basically hopping naked into bed with Robin, throwing his bare leg over his waist and whispering “roll over” into Robin’s ear … which he did, punching the officer square in the face, then taking off with nothing but his pants on and catching a taxi back to base … no wonder the guy went AWOL twice.)
The guy’s a repository of these sort of wild stories, his favorites being all the times he’s been caught having sex with various girlfriends and then wives in public or while visiting relatives. It’s as if he planned these events, but I gather he delighted in taking these calculated risks – yanking up his wife’s dress while her parents were on the porch and trying to bang out a quick one on the living-room sofa. He detailed getting caught once, bare-assed and pumping full-gun in a guest room, and his mother-in-law, opening the door without knocking, letting out a shriek that made him lose his erection instantly. I can only imagine the parents’ horror to witness this red-haired monster romping porn-star style on their little princess, who was probably moaning like an alley cat. The following breakfast or dinner must have been quite an ordeal for everyone.
Robin used to wear leather pants, sometimes with a matching vest, which had to be the gayest thing I recall anyone in our high-school wearing. Understand that he was a Judas Priest fan, and like millions of other Judas Priest fans, Robin had no idea Rob Halford was gay and into hard-core S&M, thus the leather outfit he wore into metal’s rough legend, with all these aggressively heterosexual kids none the wiser. There was little worry about mistaking Robin for being gay – the guy was like a modern-day centaur galloping through the countryside in a permanent rutting season, leaving hoof marks and stains on many family-car seat covers.
Just before he joined the navy, after dropping out of high school in the ninth grade (he may have flunked a grade or two), he worked with brother J at a gas station on night shift, which apparently only gave him more time to rut, as he outlined a few instances of comely customers taking up his offers to come back at his break time and get the van rocking. Pumping gas on night shift is a rough job – shady characters, drunken kids and adults, a lot of down time as the night wears on, and the gas freezes on your hands when it gets colder. J recalled the weird conversations he and Robin would have early in the morning, reminiscent of a perverted Waiting for Godot:
Robin: What would happen if you crazy-glued your dick to someone’s forehead?
J: I imagine you’d have your dick crazy-glued to someone’s forehead.
Robin: I know, I know. But, what would you do?
J: You’d probably stand there thinking, “I have my dick crazy-glued to this person’s forehead.” And that person would think, “This guy’s dick is crazy-glued to my forehead.”
Robin: I know, I know. But how would you get out of it?
J: I think a better question might be how did you get into it.
With Robin, the possibility of crazy-gluing his dick to a woman’s forehead was very real. Just to see what would happen. I couldn’t help but think when I heard him recount these many bizarre stories what an odd life he had leading into his adulthood – which is why I was so pleasantly surprised to find out how stable and successful he is now. The last time I saw him in our youth, I didn’t know it, but he was AWOL from the Navy for the first time, riding around on his motorcycle, and with what would be come his first wife (not sure if she was pregnant at the time or shortly thereafter). When I heard he’d gone AWOL and then been caught and thrown in the brig for 90 days, I thought, here we go. Apparently, he did the same thing again a year later, only this time, the Navy threw him out after this stint in the brig. All this transpired before he was 21 years old.
What I’m not seeing with him is all those years in between, much like no one knows what happened to Jesus between the ages of 12 and 33. I know the basic story line: drummed out of the service, feeling low, gets a job driving trucks with one of his brothers, which grows into these various managerial spots resulting in plant manager years along, all the while married and having kids, so he has these things to anchor him. As opposed to the footloose and fancy-free kid I knew who nearly blew out his candle before legally becoming an adult. I still remember the time he and our friend John, while out driving drunk, sheared off a telephone pole in Pottsville and somehow got out of the situation with Robin’s mother blaming John for the incident (although he was not driving and nearly got his head caved in when the pole crashed down on the car).
Robin said he hardly even drinks anymore, much less do drugs, so I’m sure that’s also another huge factor in his turnaround. He asked me if I knew the whereabouts of many of the infamous, fellow drug-addled kids from our class, the ones who got high in the wooded area on the north side of the school before lumbering back to doze in meaningless classes. And I told him they were all living on Mars with Jesus Christ. Because I have no idea what happened to a lot of the kids, save I suspect they’ve probably had a rough time unless they, like him, somehow snapped out of that teenage drug lethargy and allowed themselves to grow up.
All I know I was literally laughing myself to tears over his stories, part nostalgia, and part getting caught up in that wild energy that sometimes erupts when you get old friends together who haven’t seen each other in awhile, and vivid memories of embarrassing and odd situations come flooding out, like some bizarre form of group therapy. Haven't laughed that hard in a long time.