Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Computer Still Wears Tennis Shoes

Just returned from a mid-summer trip to Pennsylvania, which was bracketed by two strange sightings. A few years back, I wrote a story about a well-meaning nut who was roaming the earth as a Christ-like figure to spread The Word, and how that particularly related to the Coal Region where I was raised and he was spending some real time. You can find the story here, still on the Leisuresuit.net website. In that story I mention Buddy, the odd local still roaming the back roads and highways of the same area, and the strange, sometimes violent circumstances of his life.

Well, this trip, I saw Christ and Buddy. I don’t think this was whatsyourname. But the day I came back, the bus was driving through Tamaqua around 7:30 on a late June evening, that “golden sunset” time where everything glows. A guy dressed like Christ was on the street – thin, early 30s, long dirty blonde hair, beard, white robe, sandals, throwing his arms out wide and laughing as a crowd of senior citizens applauded. The bus driver gave me a “what the fuck” look, and I explained what I knew of the previous Christ imitator – like I said, this didn’t look like him. But I guess the concept must have caught on, and frankly, if you’re going to imitate someone, why not Christ. Or a guy who thinks he's Christ.

Buddy, I saw this time just outside of Tamaqua on the Sunday morning bus heading back to New York. Naturally, he was thumbing it, with that big shock of red hair, a goofy grin on his face. He made that honking motion with his right arm to get the bus driver to blow his horn, and the driver obliged, causing Buddy to clap his hands. Buddy looked like he had put on a few pounds since I last remember seeing him about eight years ago, but god damn, if he still isn’t out there thumbing it every day. Some things never change back there.

Sandwiched between all that, the madness of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett dying on the same day. Fawcett, I found out about early afternoon, but Jackson, I had gone out to have dinner with an old friend, and the restaurant was ablaze with the news that the King of Pop had expired. It’s been a landslide of Jackson news ever since, really disturbing, too. I guess my issue with Jackson, beyond the weirdness which is irrelevant, is that most of his music just doesn’t hold up to legendary status. Sure, the hype and image do, the methodical creation of style over substance he worked to an art form back in the 80s. The guy was a tremendous showman, no way around that. I recall the hype and self aggrandizement he generated being beyond belief and truly sickening at the time. Once a musician dies, and the hype wears off, only the music remains.

And the music just wasn’t that good after awhile. His best stuff, far and away, was with the Jackson 5, when he was a kid and had very little control over his creative choices. I can always go back to these songs and find unassuming greatness. But as he went along as an adult, he kept growing more slick as an artist, to the point where the music was meaningless, just a backdrop for him to dance to onstage and in videos, which occurred simultaneously with the advent of MTV. Welcome to the new age … because that became the formula for so much of soul/urban music from the 80s onward. Jackson, and surely Madonna as well, were the first to usher in that sense of style over substance. And it's been all downhill ever since: they were the best of the bunch, and their music was, and is, mediocre for the most part. The music industry started dying for real when this shift was made in popular music in the 1980s.

The guy worshipped James Brown, who brought the whole package, like a monkey wrench upside your head. I’ve been listening to a lot of James Brown lately, especially his live material, and he made a great case for style and substance. Even the way he screamed and grunted made some type of profound sense. But I’m hearing a lot of Michael Jackson on VH-1 and the radio and such, and the songs just aren’t there. “Billie Jean” and “Black and White” are about the only songs I can hack from his adult life – there are a whole slew of others that aren’t bad … but just aren’t that good either. (And there's stuff like "Man in the Mirror" and "We Are the World" that are utter shite.) I’d feel a lot better about this Elvis-like mania surrounding his death if he actually had the musical chops to back it up. I just aint hearing it! Somebody like Prince passing on would hit me harder. Granted, the guy hasn’t put out anything great in decades, but he has put out enough challenging music to register as a musical force above and beyond any style issues. (August Darnell, of Kid Creole & the Coconuts fame, put out as much great music as Prince and Jackson combined ... but no one gives a shit about this guy these days!)

It was just a weird few days for me this time of year, that particular death pushing me back to an early 70s time frame … and then stumbling upon some cool Disney movies at the local Walmart, in particular, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and The Strongest Man in the World, both starring a very young Ken Russell. Both staples of my early 70s childhood film experiences, seeing them at the then-decrepit Roxy Theater in Ashland, which was on its last legs and felt like it. For some reason, I distinctly remember seeing The Legend of the Boggy Creek Monster, The Jungle Book and Song of the South there – the latter two because they had the audience singing along and clapping, and the first because it scared the shit out of me. I still suspect if I had to spend any time near Texarkana, I’d be on the lookout for that furry manbeast creature.

In regards to the Russell flicks, I had already made a copy of The World’s Greatest Athlete (starring Jan Michael Vincent) from my cable system in New York, and thus was already in that mind frame to appreciate that early 70s Disney vibe. And it’s a good one. I find all these movies fun to watch – they’ve held up well despite being incredibly dated. Although I have to wonder what college campus Russell was on in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes … every kid in that movie has a reasonable haircut and seems more like a wholesome 50s teenager than an early 70s college student. Remember, this was the age of Kent State, hippies, drugs, Woodstock and such. But I’m sure Walt Disney himself stiff-armed any such concepts appearing in his movies, which makes sense. Besides which, I somehow suspect that if I could get in a time capsule and go back to 1971 or so on a college campus, the environment would probably be a bit more sedate and button-downed than the radical hippie utopia I have built up in my mind. I’m always meeting people in NYC office work who were college students around that time and were decidedly NOT hippies in any overwhelming sense.

About all I didn’t do back there this visit was find old video footage of Karen Valentine in Room 222 and Julie Newmar as Catwoman in the Batman TV series to masturbate over. I can just about guarantee you, the first few hundred erections I had in my life could be attributed to those two: those “roll over and cover my crotch with a pillow, because I’m pitching a mean tent in my footed pajamas” sort of woodies you can only get when you’re eight or nine and not really sure why that’s happening, but know you have to hide it.

I don’t know why, but deep summer is that one time of year I can go back to that part of Pennsylvania and have a more clear connection with the past. I’d guess this is because nostalgia ties in with focusing on good memories, and most kids have good memories of summer, even if that only means not being in school. Thus, adults relate more good memories to summer than the season truly deserves. It also underlines to me how oddly disconnected you become from your past when you move to another place and live there a long time. For me, it’s a blast to drive down all those all roads and re-connect myself to where I’m from. If you still live there, have always lived there and never left? I’d imagine it’s a much less romantic view of the place. I wouldn’t even call my view romantic. But when I go off on a long morning run on a back road through woods and farmlands, it’s a night-and-day experience from where I’d been only 24 hours earlier, i.e., dodging packs of annoying tourists on Broadway and fully immersed in that much quicker/more alert city life.

City life is good in that way: keeps you on your toes. Best to have your head on straight, lest you enjoy being taken advantage of. Gets tiresome sometimes, especially when you’ve run across more than your fair share of wolves and assholes, so it’s always good to get away to a place where they’re less plentiful. I’ve seen urban dwellers put forth about how great the city is in terms of setting yourself free in some sense, but from what I’m gathering about life, if you don’t have balls enough to be yourself anywhere, in any circumstance, that stance is pretty much bullshit, and will go on being such until you learn to be yourself at all times. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve underlined that basic tenet of life, but it’s not so easy to follow at times. I guess I’m veering off in this direction because I came across a website that had a few gay guys carrying on about the Gay Pride Parade this past weekend in New York, and that seemed like a basic thread in their musings. Man, there’s always someone who’s going to hate you for no good reason, whoever you are, wherever you go. You’re not living for those people, if you’re smart. The idea that “homophobic rednecks” are keeping you from being yourself is utter bullshit – only one person can keep you from being yourself. (And if you know city life like I do, you’re just as likely to run across packs of homophobic jackasses who will throw a scare into gay folks as hard as any rednecks in a rural bar would.)

The lines are more blurred now between here and there, although I can still clearly and easily feel the difference in that long bus ride, from one place to another. But I find that coming and going aren’t as shocking as they once were, there’s not that sense of letting my breath out when I get back to the country, or tightening my game when I get back here. I guess I’m just “on” all the time in the sense of being aware of other people and how they act, maybe because I’ve noticed more boorish, trashy assholes walking around back home in the past few years, and had just as many unexpectedly nice experiences in the city that are as genuine as anything you’d find in a small town. I can tell when I’m around good people, and when I’m around shitheads, and I avoid shitheads, no matter where I’m at. Are you writing all this down? Words to live by here!

Sunday, June 21, 2009


Yesterday at the gym, I experimented with the concept of not using my iPod while hitting the weights circuit. I always feel like I’m missing out on something in the gym by wearing headphones, as I well know from my boxing class, where people interact and get to know each other. Well, nothing really happened. Like most people, I’m there to work out above all else, not to meet people. Weightlifting, like the cardio machines, is not a group exercise: you’re on your own.

But what really struck me, as I’m also well aware of via the too-loud PA system in the locker room, was how god awful their music is. I’d gather that as a gym chain, they’re using some prescribed service aimed at their marketing demo (which I’m assuming is 25 to 40, although with an emphasis on 25 as people want to feel “younger” when they work out). Their version of classic rock is No Doubt, Creed and The Goo-Goo Dolls. But a vast majority of what they play is Top 40 pop music, leaning towards club/dance music, erased of hiphop to avoid bad words. It really sucks – the music isn’t awful, per se. It’s just bland, limp, totally devoid of creativity or substance. Top 40 now is worse than ever, and from the 70s onwards, it’s been pretty bad in general.

Soul-less. That’s the quality occurred to me most. I always thought it would be a great idea for gyms to allow the membership to upload MP3 files into their sound system, like a jukebox for people as they work out, chosen by the people. But I gather doing so would be a licensing nightmare and nigh on impossible. Take my word for it – the ear buds are going back in next time I hit the weight circuit! If I make eye contact with some hottie on the seated bench press machine, just write it down to a nice moment while I listen to The Beatles, or Hank Williams, or Chuck Berry, or Supertramp, or The Ramones.

Or any number of other great artists who will never be on the gym P.A. system. Like Otis Redding. I’ve been on a bit of an Otis kick the past few days, tracking down missing songs from his canon that I have mostly covered with a Rhino four-disc box set. It’s got me thinking I need to re-vamp my abbreviated 60s Soul output on the iPod, as I had originally played it very close to the vest when uploading tracks on my more space-limited Nomad player.

I think it would also make a nice read to describe how I got into soul music in the first place, since I wasn’t raised with that appreciation, to say the least. White kids in rural America in the 70s were pretty much into pop and rock music, and nothing else. Soul music was around us, but I remember that being more of a Top 40 singles thing as opposed to a deep, abiding appreciation. Stevie Wonder stands out in my mind. You couldn’t avoid hearing multiple songs from Songs in the Key of Life when it first came out, and for two years after. I somehow willed myself not to like it (while later realizing the guy was a genius, and this was his crowning moment). That horn-section intro to “Sir Duke” … you play that now, and I think summer 70s.

Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Barry White … all these artists were going full gun in the first half of the 70s. Including Wonder, the only physical product I had at the time from any of them was the 45 of “Got to Give It Up (Pt. 1)” by Gaye, and White grumbling the romantic intro to “Kiss and Say Goodbye” by The Manhattans. White artists like The Bee Gees registered with songs like “Jive Talkin” and “Nights on Broadway.” It’s important to mention them, because with the dawn of disco, unfortunately for dumb kids with zero sense of history, that sense of soul music being tied in with that format sort of killed the idea of appreciating soul music in any form for a LONG time afterwards.

Which was a shame, but I think that’s a fair assessment, and not entirely racist. Disco got to be pretty disgusting, pretty fast. Not so much the music itself, more so the sense of lifestyle and party-guy emptiness tied in with it. Its presence was smothering. And all these great soul artists had a choice – veer in that direction or fade away. So disco, in effect, did co-opt soul music, roundabout the mid-70s. (You can argue that Barry White always was disco, but I’d put him more in category of very tasteful, inventive disco, like a lot of it was before it became such a massive cultural phenomenon.) You can see the same culturally stifling shift with hiphop, which has decimated other strains of “black” music in terms of popularity in an extremely negative, empty way. My age-old gripe, of course, was disco lasted less than a handful of years while hiphop has had a stranglehold for close to two decades. To someone who was raised with the concept of pop music culture shifting every few years, this sort of creative stasis is mystifying, and depressing. (I gave up on all this shit by 1995, when it became obvious major record companies were pile-driving hiphop and not looking for any new growth areas, save shitty boy bands and pop idols. We’ve been in that same grotesque mid-90s doldrums ever since.)

But getting back to soul music, I had very little knowledge of it as a kid. Again, as noted, singles. “The Bertha Butt Boogie” by The Jimmy Castor Bunch. “Jungle Boogie” by Kool and the Gang. Even early disco like “Doctors Orders” by Carol Douglas. Stuff like that registered, but 60s soul? I think Motown was the most prevalent at the time, but that was pretty much played only on Oldies stations, despite being only a decade (or less) old. I think my first stirrings with soul came with buying a huge Motown singles box set in my freshman year of college, which would be 1982. The one Motown song that would always slay me when I heard it on the radio was “I Can’t Help Myself” by The Four Tops – eventually realized that I just had to have it. I recall that box set being incredibly cheap for what it offered – dozens of Motown hits.

It was cheap for a reason: all the songs were ruined by “historical” spoken-word intros by DJs and the artists that spilled into the first minute of each song. It was fucking terrible … but I could still recognize how great the music was. In my mind, I used that box set as a bookmark, figuring that one day I’d buy this stuff again without those shitty introductions (and I surely did … a few times over on vinyl and CD). When I went to Penn State’s main campus for my junior year, the used bins at the time had those incredible two-album Motown artist retrospectives, and that’s where I got the full blast of Motown, picking up sets by The Four Tops, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross & the Supremes, etc. I bought those things like candy, and they were great.

This might be embarrassing to admit, but my real immersion into soul music came with a John Hughes movie: Pretty in Pink. If you recall, there was a scene where Ducky, the nerd played by Jon Cryer, dances around a record store to the tune of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.” I was floored … not by Cryer, but by the song. I had no idea it was a classic covered by many artists from the Big Band era on. (And I can only imagine how revolutionary Otis’ version must have sounded at the time.) I rushed down to the nearest record store, which was the shitty National Record Mart chain on the main drag, and stumbled upon a greatest hits package for Otis in the shit bin for $3.00. I spent the rest of that week burning that song in particular into my brain.

That kicked open the doors to that great Atlantic Rhythm & Blues series that came out in two-album volumes covering the entire 60s. I’ve found the series was released just before this time period for me (late 1985/early 1986), but now that I was aware of what I was missing out on, I jumped in head first, spending all my money on nothing but them and various Motown compilations. It’s safe to say that the first half of 1986, I listened to nothing but soul music, and most of it was revelatory, stuff I had never heard before that simply blew my doors off.

It was my habit to buy one of those Atlantic sets a week, record the whole thing to cassette, and if I was driving back home that week (a two-hour drive on a Friday night), blast that as I barreled through the woods lining Route 80 all the way. I don’t know if that’s the best way to appreciate soul music, but it worked wonders for me, with a 7-11 Cherry Coke Big Gulp between my legs and the wind whipping through the windows. I drove a yellow AMC Hornet station wagon: badass.

Can’t say too many people shared my enthusiasm! Most of my college friends were headlong into indie music, which was a huge college thing at the time (still is, I’m sure). My old friend PG from the paper did have a pretty solid soul collection, but mainly because she was older and actually bought those records when she was a teenager in the late 60s. Back home? Man, forget it. I think Brother J developed an appreciation for the harder-edge soul songs like “Soul Man” and “Mustang Sally,” but most of it didn’t register with anyone back there.

The oddest connection I made with soul music came one New Years Eve in the late 80s, I’m thinking 12/31/86. Having recently returned from Venice, CA with my tail between my legs, an aborted attempt to strike out on my own, but things just didn’t go well out there, staying with recent college friends on the verge of dumping each other. I was surely at loose ends that winter, the employment situation being awful in rural PA. It wouldn’t be until that fall that I’d move to NYC and get a new start – that period when college ends and your adult life really hasn’t begun can be a genuinely spooky time, or at least was for me.

I had no plans for New Years Eve (which I’ve since realized is the best plan), so neighbor JB put forth that we head out to the Millman’s house out the road, as he’d been invited to a small get-together there. I knew Mr. Millman’s kids, a guy a year behind me at school who was a nice kid, and his two daughters who were slightly older than I was, both hot. I knew Mr. Millman himself from my Little League days, as he coached his son’s team and seemed like a good guy in general, one of the more rational, friendly coaches.

So, we drove out there, and Mr. Millman greeted us at the door … in a prison guard uniform. I had no idea the guy worked at the local federal prison that had just opened up. His being a Little League coach, and a respectable one at that, had conditioned me to seeing him as a staunch authority figure. Which I’ve since learned isn’t a hard number to run on kids. If you are an adult, and you act like one, kids will treat you as one. But … the dude was a prison guard? Man, it made no sense. On top of which, I had a mental image of prison guards being large, nasty guys with attitudes. Mr. Millman was one of the nicest guys you could ever meet, and well under six feet and trim. I’d have expected him to be a guidance counselor, or insurance agent, or something like that.

“Yeah, got double shift at the prison starting at midnight, come on in, guys,” he said with a smile. I should have guessed Mr. Millman wasn’t some executive type just by his house, which was your average small two-story place that must have felt cramped with five people in it. We came in, and his two daughters were there with their boyfriends, along with a few other guys I knew from high school, but wasn’t really friends with. It wasn’t an awkward night, although it was strange to learn that a kid who had positioned himself as a bad boy in school made a batch of toll house cookies that was pretty good. With their father there, the girls were on good behavior. Alcohol consumption was reduced to a few beers, a few glasses of wine. I’ve surely had worse New Years – this one was sedate and pleasant in an odd way.

The night was moving right along when Mr. Millman excused himself and went into the next room. The whole time, he was in his prison guard’s uniform, not sure why he got dressed hours before his shift started. I heard the telltale ker-chunk of an eight track tape being popped into a player. Believe me, that’s a sound I haven’t heard in years, but must have heard thousands of times in the early 80s. Seconds later, it was Otis Redding singing “I Can’t Turn You Loose.” Jesus Christ, that was the last thing I had expected visiting a prison guard in rural Pennsylvania. Then I thought about it. Mr. Millman must have been in his early 20s in the late 60s, so this could have easily been “his music” from that time.

The girls looked at each, than ran off into the other room. I looked in. These two hot girls, a few years out of high school, were dancing with their father in his prison guard uniform, to Otis Redding. And I mean cutting loose, doing all those 60s dances: the Mashed Potato, Hully Gully, The Bird, The Pony, etc. They knew them all. And I could see they had their moves down, i.e., Mr. Millman must have raised his kids teaching them these dances and giving them an appreciation for 60s soul music. And that’s pretty damn interesting, for a guy whose lot in life was to be a prison guard, in a place where, I can guess fairly accurately, there must have been times he popped in that eight track and got, “Get that nigger music off the stereo” in reply.

It was a cool little moment that’s stuck with me years later. I remember him waving me over to dance, and I blew it off, mainly because I didn’t know how, and I didn’t want either of the boyfriends, both former badasses, getting uptight about me. But those three stayed in that room the rest of the night, winding it out to Otis, and I guess that’s a pretty good way to ring in any new year. Of course, Mr. Millman would later put on his tie, grab his hat, and drive through the snowy night to the federal prison to pull his shifts. But such was his spirit that you could meet him after the shifts, and he’d no doubt be just as friendly and open as he always was.

I’ve since realized that there wasn’t a lot of difference between soul and country back in the 60s. Sure, the fast/dancing songs were different, but when you listen to the ballads, the types of music are very similar, in ways that I find encouraging. And in ways that no longer seem to exist, once hiphop flooded over everything and demanded a sharp turn towards all things black as opposed to sharing any kind of common ground with more white musical influences. A real shame, but that’s how the times went, even when disco rolled around. I recall reading a passage in a book where the few white musicians in the Stax/Volt studios in Memphis tried to walk around the neighborhood after Martin Luther King was assassinated, they could feel something was way off, and their presence was no longer welcome there. So maybe it goes back even that far, to the death of the 60s in some sense with cataclysmic events like that. A real shame, but as I learned that New Year’s Eve back in the mid-80s, and in my own life as I grew to love 60s soul, all was not lost.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Phillies T-Shirt

I don’t have kids, and that’s a real mixed bag. I can plainly see people having a blast with their kids and can recall many cool moments from my own childhood. But once you get into teenage years, it seems like every kid is a dice roll, and you’ll often find snake eyes and seven in the same family, sometimes the same kid over the span of a few years. It’s occurred to me more recently that one of the ulterior motives in having kids could be having someone to take care of (or at the least watch out for) you in your old age. But from what I’m seeing, that’s far from a given, and you run equal chances of being shunted off to a nursing home, with the requisite awkward quarterly visits, or simply resented for not batting a thousand with your kids.

It must be like anything else in life: not what you expected, in good and bad ways. I have two friends now going through stressful situations with their almost-grown sons, which I will not get into to avoid embarrassing them, suffice to say it’s all shit no one planned on and a load to deal with for each. Hard stuff that represents a sharp, hazardous turn in their lives they’re going to have to take to move forward, and no one knows where that new road is going.

There’s one thing I’ve gleaned from their problems: kids, more specifically teenagers, tend to be fucking idiots. There, I said it. Makes me crotchety and old? So be it. When I’m made aware of the arrogance and stupidity that some kids walk around with, the kind that would get me killed or shunned like the plague as an adult, I just shake my head and hope it’s a maturity issue that will be out-grown one day. I know it’s not an “old age” issue, because I can clearly remember my friends and I being just as idiotic and immature.

We’ve constructed this shrine to youth in our culture, which has to be about the most empty thing we’ve done in my lifetime: empty because the building of it has entailed painting the act of aging as a crime, when most sane cultures throughout history recognize it as a good thing, at a minimum. I’ve recognized it in my own life. I wouldn’t call it getting better. But I’ve found that if I keep my eyes open and try to make sense of the things going on around me, generally based on experience, there’s a sense of reason I never had as a kid, or well into my 20s, that makes me feel self assured and hopeful. Aging and moving with time are blessings, not crimes of nature for which we must feel like imbeciles because the bulk of pop culture is aimed at making kids feel like temporary gods. Like many lies in life, it’s a shallow money grab once you peel away the layers.

I can recall one particular instance with my Mom where I did something that may not strike you as horrific, but still cuts me to the core because I sensed how hurt she was. I’ve been a Philadelphia Phillies fan since the early 70s. I’m from northeast Pennsylvania: Philadelphia was the nearest big town, thus I’ll always be a Philly fan in all sports. I grew up with this and could never abandon it; I’ll never trust sports fans who aren’t tied to a team by childhood geography, unless they have a very good reason. Usually that comes down to kids glomming onto winning teams. Not me. The Phillies sucked donkey balls for years when I started following them, as did the Eagles in football.

This must have been 1978 or so, my mid-teen years. Early summer, probably right about now season-wise. The Phillies were just starting to get good as a team, with guys like Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt hitting their professional stride. Mom knew how much I loved the Phillies, and while she was out shopping one day, came across a Phillies t-shirt that she thought I would love. A basic white t-shirt, with that big fat 70s Phillies “P” in the middle, with the word Philadelphia on top in red letters, and Phillies on the bottom. A very basic look, which she thought would suit me fine.

She brought it home for me, apropos of nothing. Not my birthday, hadn’t done anything to merit her surprising me with a gift. Just the kind of thing a good mother would do for her son because that’s what good mothers do. She comes through the door, and I’m lazing on the couch, watching TV. I got a surprise for you, she says, and pulls out the t-shirt, smiling. I take one look at the shirt and blurt out, I hate it, I’m never going to wear it.

I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking. But I can still remember my verbatim response to this day, and the look on her face, which went from a warm smile to a look that implied I just shot her through the heart. It wasn’t just hurt. It was hurt and pissed off. That she took the time and money to think about me, and like the spoiled kid I could be at times, it just didn’t register. On top of the lack of manners to not just graciously accept the gift. I remember she dropped the shirt on the floor, shook her head, tears welling up in her eyes, and walked away.

The thing was, when I picked up the shirt a few minutes later, after pretending it wasn’t even there, it suddenly occurred to me that I liked it. I really liked it. Sure enough, I’d go on to wear that shirt constantly, until I out-grew it a few years later. And I never apologized to her for the way I acted. Put it in context. Slightly too young to drive, so that meant I had to tag along with Mom when she went to the mall. Kids at that age tend to be resentful that they’re still that dependent on their parents. I’d make sure when we were in the mall that we weren’t walking together, lest one of my equally emotionally-stunted friends saw us walking together, and what would they think of me walking with my Mom. I was willing my parents NOT to exist because doing so acknowledged that I was still a kid.

And … I … was … such … a … fucking … idiot. That incident shames me to this day. You have to understand, my mother is a saint. I don’t mean that in a corny mother-son way. I mean that whenever she goes, hopefully not for a long while, a lot of people are going to come up to me and tell me she was a saint – and mean it. Always a kind word for everyone she meets. Friendly to everyone. Everyone who has ever met her has later told me they couldn’t believe how kind she was … and I could tell my friends were impressed that I had such a good person as a mother. There have been many stray dogs and cats who lived much longer than expected because she pulled them off the streets and fed them for awhile. I can guarantee you that the times in my life where I stumble upon or make genuine efforts at random acts of compassion, that’s simply me trying to be more like Mom. Because I know she got that right in life, and things go a lot easier when you show people kindness. (Women seem to grasp this concept a lot more readily than men do. But I’m trying!)

I can still recall those warped years where every ounce of common sense I now have regarding parents and kids was turned on its head, and I acted like a complete asshole more than a few times. When I think that sort of baseless cultural shame of acknowleding your parents’ authority has been woven into teen culture over the past few decades, it makes me sick. Forget about out-growing it – it should be something you never experience, unless you're unfortunate enough to have bad parents. I had plenty of time as a teenager to develop my own identity – much more time than kids are allowed to do so today, what with cellphones serving as dog leashes, and parents monitoring their kids’ whereabouts and actions as if they were on parole. We were set free like wild animals in the 70s, in comparison. I had much more time and freedom to get into shit if I so desired. Much more time on my own or with my friends to get into whatever questionable behavior. To think I couldn’t cut my Mom some slack and walk with her for 15 minutes in a shopping mall is a tribute to the arrogance of my youth.

I have a lot more respect for cultures of the past, or even other cultures in the world now, where there are no artificial dividing lines purposely drawn between generations. We should all realize this junk is mostly the product of post-World War II American popular culture which has surely imparted some very cool things on the world, but this unfortunate stance aint one of them. I think I’d be a lot more prone to having kids if I knew I could raise them to disregard this cancerous crap, to live like a family where we’re going to have each other’s backs, no matter what age we are, or what little gripes and personal scrapes come up along the way. From what I’m seeing these days, again, it seems like so much in the world conspires against that basic foundation. And from what I’m seeing, too, if you’re going through life without that sort of foundation, it’s often by the seat of your pants and getting the shit knocked out of you routinely.

This is small beans, I know, in terms of mistreatment and bad memories. Plenty of people out there with angrily divorced parents, missing and errant parents, sometimes horribly abusive, etc. It gets a lot worse than a grown man remembering an incident decades earlier where he treated his Mom like an asshole. I guess that’s about as bad as I got, or at least I don’t recall giving Mom or Dad worse grief than that as a kid. Either way you cut it, if you’re smart, you make up lost ground in your adulthood, and make amends with these people, or at least see them as just people that you can hopefully befriend in some sense. They’re always your parents, but it helps if you can see them as people, too, and recognize they didn’t pitch a perfect game. I’d imagine if you have kids, it must make even more sense to come to this place, because you’re seeing what an ordeal raising kids can be.

As for my friends, I wish them luck. I can see both of them sailing into this uncharted territory, and it doesn’t look like any fun for anybody. As an outsider, I can offer impartial advice and such (which I’m good at), but the reality is I don’t have to live with any hard decisions the way they will. It does help to see these things happen, though, because there it is, life itself in all its thorniness, as opposed to some paint-by-numbers picture of happiness. I wouldn’t even say I distrust that. When people try to portray their lives to me like that, I just roll along with it. Because that’s what they want me to see, whether it’s reality or a wish on their part. It’s probably a good bit of both, and there are worse things to wish for. I never ask people, “How are you?” – not because of bad manners. It’s because if they’re being honest, the answer will take about five minutes and have no easy response. I’d rather just accept the fact that if you’re conscious and walking upright, something’s going right in your life, despite having problems, as we all do.