Sunday, March 02, 2008

Seeing music

I wish you could see music the way I do.

I got about one and half working eyeballs. One's freakin' great, and the other just kinda tags along for the ride. Most of the time. When I'm tired, it kinda does its own thing. This means that I'm one BB away from a seeing-eye dog and a white cane. Needless to say, I got a pretty raging blindness phobia, and I can't ever watch "Kill Bill Vol 2." again.

But where I got you beat, Eagle-Eye McGee, is how I see music, and very few people seem to know what I'm taking about, so I guess it's fairly rare.

Have you ever heard of a psychological condition known as synesthesia? Now you have, because you know me, and I've got it. It's nothing debilitating like schizophrenia, but it takes some explaining.

This is a condition often associated with savants, those fortunate few who possess a seemingly supernatural skill in one area. (Cool it, Smalls. A savant I ain't.) Often, these savants are referred to as idiot savants, like the Rain Man, who could memorize a whole phone book. The movie Rain Man is based on a real person, Kim Peek, and he can really do those things. Check him out on YouTube if you're bored.

Another example of savantism can be found in Daniel Tammet, a young Englishman whose astonishing skill with numbers allowed him to memorize pi to over 22,500 decimal places. It took him 5 hours of continuous recitation. He can also perform fascinatingly complex numbers in his head and carry them out to greater decimals that a laptop computer can. We're talking at least thirty decimal places here, folks.

I identify with Daniel Tammet because he's a synesthete too, though with him, it's numbers.

Here's how it works. A synesthete, such as Daniel, hears or sees a number on paper, and in his head, that number has color, texture. It is, in part, what allows him to work with numbers so personally. This has been proven clinically. Synesthetes in tests could repeatedly pick singular numbers, like 5's, out of a mishmash of 2's (in a particular typeface, such as the digital font made famous by computers in the 80's, 2 and 5 are mirror images of each other) because the 5's were green while all the 2's were red. They were all printed in black ink, of course, but to the synesthetes, that's how they saw them inside their minds.
It looks like this:


Synesthesia means a mating, a coupling, of one sense to another. For some, a smell might have certain color, or a taste might have a certain sound. For me, I see sounds as colors.

I drive people bonkers because, in the car, I'll slide my 'Blue' disc into the CD player. (Now, on the iPod, I just pull up a like-named playlist.) The 'Blue' disc contains what are, to me, blue songs. Not blues, but blue—songs in the key of D are blue. Songs in the key of G are purple. C is red, and E is golden. F is orange, and A is yellow, B-flat is yellowish-green, and B is St. Patrick's Day.

Do you get it? I hope so, because that's the best way I can think to explain it. This is why song lyrics mean little to nothing to me, and why I can never remember them, but I can play a song nearly flawlessly (on bass, the only instrument I can play worth a crap) after hearing it only a few times. You can give me a song title and I'll tell you what key it's in. I can hear the first few notes of a song and tell you what song it is before the vocals start. And, more importantly, this means that I have (almost) perfect pitch. You can play a note, and, more often then not, I'll tell you what note it is.

Where I'm going with this is what music does to me, inside my head. I catch a lot of flak from people at shows I'm attending, or when listening to stuff at a friend's house, because I listen with my eyes closed and then I get jumped on for falling asleep. It's true I can fall asleep anywhere, but if there's music playing, rest assured I'm wide awake.

I listen to music with my eyes closed because what's being created in my head is a hell of a lot more interesting than what's going on around me. The music paints such wonderful pictures, such vibrant colors, that I am gladly lost inside them. I'm particularly fond of songs in the key of D-flat, because those songs are a deep, deep indigo. Get to a chord change, however, and new colors appear, and the palette broadens. I wish I could show you.

It's not all roses. Songs in a minor key are always gray, which is why I'm lost in telling you what key a minor tune is in.

This is also why most (not all) jazz is lost on me, because there's no sense to it. It's a jangle of bright, clashing colors that don't paint anything I recognize. To me, listening to jazz is a lot like looking at a Jackson Pollack.

But when it works, oh, such beauty. And there are chords in songs that paint such fascinating pictures, or maybe are just such a beautiful blend of colors, that I'm speechless. I'll do my best to show you what I'm talking about.

In a previous post, I tried to show you what I saw in my head when I heard the word splendor. To illustrate this, I showed you this picture, of the ceiling in back of the altar in St. John the Baptist Church. Remember this?


Now, I want you to play "I Believe I can Fly," by R. Kelly. Fast forward it to the second half of the chorus:

I believe I can soar,/
I see me running through that open door/

On "soar," the change is an A-minor 7. But on "open," according to the chart, that chord is an F minor 6 with A-flat in the bass. If you're not a musician, that means nothing to you, but let me tell you that the colors I see in that chord look a lot like the ceiling over that altar, but…moving, shimmering, swimming, blues and golds and…

I'm at a loss for words, as I often am when listening to music. At least, words that would mean anything to you. But I love that song. And most of all, I love that chord. A very similar chord also appears in The Lion King's "The Circle of Life."

'Til we find our place/
On the path unwinding/

And right after "unwinding," there it is. This one's slightly different, because it's an E-flat minor 6 with a G-flat in the bass, but it looks the same. Except where R. Kelly's is blue, this one's green.

I wish you could see it like I do.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Super Bowl commercials

This blog really isn't about Super Bowl commercials.

I thought it prudent to title this one something other than its true objective, because one of my friends saw the title of a previous post ("Fitting in"), though it was gonna be another one of my whine-fests and respectfully declined from pursuing it further. He told me this, so I'm resorting to subterfuge to drag you in.

This one's about being alone. And it's not a whine-fest at all, because I'm alone a great deal of the time, and it's more often than not by choice. I don't have to be.

Being alone's not so bad. It really isn't.

There's some bad stuff associated with solitude, sure. I get into a lot more trouble when I'm alone, that's certain. Today, I'm out bumming around, running errands, going to the library, heading out to Batavia to take a look-see at the old BMW I just purchased (don't get your panties in a bunch. I'm not yuppie material, for one, and besides, this one's gonna need some spit and polish, not to mention a few trips to eBay and perhaps the local boneyard before it's presentable as yuppie-material), dropping a check into State Farm's drop box to cover the insurance on the Mystery Machine. I'm on Rt. 30 (heading due west, giggle) and some yokel in a Volvo XC90 pulls out in front. The speed limit's 50 and he's doing 45, so I pass the guy. As I get back in the lane, he gives me the high beams, which means he's pissed. I give him the finger. Look, man, just go the speed limit, will ya? Of course, though, the light at the next intersection's red, and there's no one in the turn lane next to me, so he pulls up alongside and rolls the window down and starts yelling. I've got the windows up and I'm playing the stereo way too loud, so I can't (nor do I want to) hear what he's saying. I'm a guy, though, and so I have to do the guy things, which is raise my eyebrows and beckon in a "You want some?" gesture. This other schmuck, who's wearing a black beret like Sly in Rambo 9, starts laughing. Not an "oh pshaw" dismissive kind of laugh, but an "are you serious?" type. It's funny, 'cause he's right, and he must have seen that in my face that I can't fight. If I had stepped out of the van, I'm sure the 6 foot 5 and the combat boots might have given him pause, but there's something in my face, my mannerisms, that tells this dude, as it must tell everybody, that I'm a paper tiger and talk the talk but can't, and never will, walk the walk.

Would that have happened if I'd had somebody else in the car? I doubt it, but then I wouldn't have passed the guy for fear of scaring my passenger.

This has happened many times before. I was once beaten unconscious and thrown into the bed of my own pickup truck, back in the day when I was 120 pounds wet and couldn't grow the merest scrap of a beard to camouflage my nanciness. I once had an empty beer bottle thrown at me while on the bike, while on another occasion (also on the bike) I had a guy pull a knife on me. I've had lit firecrackers thrown into my open windows, and been spit on countless times. I doubt any of these would have happened if I'd had a wingman, but then I don't think I would have gotten into these situations in the first place.

Why, then, do I choose to be alone so much?

There's a few reasons that I think would satisfy the curious. Not dating anybody, not playing out as much as I'd like, and all (not most, but all) of my friends live at least a half an hour away. I proudly hold my outpost out here on the Southern Border, after which you run pretty much into cornfields until Springfield. But that's not really the reason. I've got a car, and it gets pretty good gas mileage when it runs (right now, it doesn't, and while the Mystery Machine is more than willing, I tire of watching the gas gauge plummet with every brush of the loud pedal). Let's see if we can put the situation into better perspective. (Ponder, ponder…ah, there it is.) Read further if you're so inclined.

Would you like to come with me to check out the ruins of the foundation of a turn-of-the-last-century church in Alton? It's a long drive, and while I'm there I'd like to stand next to the life-size statue of the world's tallest man, Robert Wadlow. On the way back I'd like to check out the world's largest ball of tin foil in Ballwin, Missouri, or Topeka, Kansas. Or, want to come with me to a pine forest in Michigan, where we can get out of the car and just listen to the trees talk? I'd also like to check out Muddy Waters' gravesite, and on the way back visit his house, and on the way there I'd like to drive through what's left of the Robert Taylor homes. Want to go with me to two levels beneath Wacker Drive? Down there there's a neat little brick-paved courtyard that has a spectacular view of the top floor of the John Hancock building, so you can be in the lowest spot in the city, literally and figuratively, and looking at one of the highest, in both capacities. You gotta dodge some homeless people, though, and be prepared to give a buck or two to the ones you can't avoid. While we're down there I'll take you to a place where you park your car and your front bumper is literally hanging over the Chicago River. Hope the parking brake works! On the way home, I'll take you to the Billy Goat Tavern and toss a burger down your throat, but I hope you like cheeps, because no fries.

Sometimes I just want to get on the road to be on the road, and I have a hard time finding people who want to come. Sure, you say you want to come now, but will you be as sure 5 hours from now? How about 10? That's the spooky part. I'd rather go by myself than go with someone who's friendly as we're leaving my driveway but wants to kill me 200 miles down the road. No thanks. Alone's better.

I like to see a ghostly two-track through the cornfields and stop, sometimes locking up all four (or the rear, if it's Moose we're talking about) and turn down it. You usually have someplace you want to go.

I like to stop along the expressway and park underneath an overpass and listen to the traffic pound past overhead. You're usually nervous.

I like to drive to the top floor of the Hollywood Casino parking garage in A-town and get out and fantasize about what's going on behind the lit windows of the tall building just to the southeast, or contemplate what a bitch it would be to have to change light bulbs in the large shooting star they keep lit up there all year round. You're usually cold and want to get back in the car.

I like to go to Reckless Records downtown and buy up all their used Disney movies, digging the hell out of the looks on the faces of the counter clerk at this mutant-tall biker dude with a skid-lid covered with stickers slapping down Bambi and 101 Dalmatians. You're usually pissed 'cause they have 7-inches of the Pink Lincolns and The Subhumans, but they don't have any Dave.

I like to stake out the Biograph Theater on Clark St. to see if I can catch a glimpse of the ghost of John Dillinger. You'd rather go into the Red Lion Pub across the street for an ale.

Even if you're not really thinking these things, I get nervous that you are and pull the plug. When I'm alone, I can take my time and not worry about what the person I'm with is thinking.

Other drawbacks of being alone a lot, however, are:

You start talking to yourself. If you do this only sporadically, as I do, often the sound of your own voice can scare you. "Who's there? Oh, it's just me." A cycle like this can often make you question your own sanity.

You think a lot. This can be good, for most people, but if you have some self-esteem issues, this can do more harm than good.

You feel lazy, as though there were something more productive you could be doing than just bumming around checking things out.

Oh well. Sometimes it's just fun. Or, if it isn't fun, it's at least comforting. I drive around doing things and listening to my iPod, with a playlist entitled "Alone." These aren't sad songs. They're alone songs. Tunes like "I Believe I can Fly." "Constant Craving" by k.d. lang. "Hey You" by Floyd. "At Seventeen" by Janice Ian. "Stairway to Heaven." "Mother Nature's Son." "Mercy Street." Instrumentals by William Coulter, Mark Knopfler and Andy McKee. Classical pieces like The Moldau by Smetena.

There's lots of people I enjoy being with, true enough. And I think (hope) there's people who enjoy being with me. But a good friend of mine once said (and here I'm paraphrasing), "Always leave 'em wanting more." What he meant, I think, was that it was better to appear somewhat rarely rather than have people become sick of him (us). I took that ball and am running for the end zone with it. The end zone's somewhere beyond that far hill. See it? You gotta look.

I'm a weird, quirky enough guy that I fear people will tire of me. It happens. I've been on long road trips during and after which I feared this greatly. Tell me it's all in my head, but I'm a believer. People get snappy and I take according measures. I'll just catch you on the flipside and you can tell me how it all ended over an ale.

This isn't to say that I enjoy being alone all the time. Truthfully, I enjoy your company, and if you've got something good going on, the chances are high that I'll be glad to join you. But if you're busy, have fun and don't worry about me—I'll find ways to divert myself.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Fitting in

I never really have fit in anywhere, and for a good portion of my life, I have felt…different. I was sure of this even at a young age. I'd look at the things I did and compare them to the things "real" people did. I remember being three or four, and riding in the backseat with my next-door neighbor, Bonnie. Her mom and my mom were in the front seat. I noticed how, when Bonnie looked around, her eyes, large, blue, and unblinking as most small childrens' are, didn't move in smooth arcs, like I thought mine did, but seemed to snap quickly from sight to sight. I learned over time that everybody's eyes move like that, but like I said, I didn't think mine moved that way, and so I tried doing that—snap, I'm looking out the windshield. Snap, now I'm looking at something on the floor. Snap, now I'm looking at Bonnie. She looked at me like she thought I was crazy and started to cry.

I have that effect on a lot of people.

This feeling still haunts me. "Hmm…not many bass players use Yorkville amplifiers, so that must be why my gear sounds weird. Gee, I see a lot of real bass players using SWR amps, so I'll go with that. And golly, I sure don't see a lot of bassists playing out using Washburn basses. Is that why my sound is a little off? It sure sounds off to me. Well, there's a power of Fender basses out there—guess I'll get me one of those. Maybe then I'll be a real bass player."

Stuff like that. And even after the two SWR amps and the Fender Jazz V, I'll look at other bassists using Modulus or Alembic basses, running them through Gallien & Krueger heads and Bag End bottoms, and think I should be using that. Just, you know, because it sounds realer.

I never have liked ketchup or mustard on my hot dog, and McDonald's just grosses me out. But real kids always liked that stuff. Why am I different? Is it because I'm not a real person?

Disney movies? Love 'em. Most of the people I know think they're gay.

All the bikers I know are into Harleys or crotch rockets. (Well, not all, but most). Very few have heard of the Magna v65, even after I show them my taillight and give 'em a righteous snootful of my exhaust. Most of them think it sounds goofy, though I think it's sexy as hell and sounds like an aria. (Well, after you get it above 6,000 rpm. Below that it sounds like a garbage disposal with a spoon stuck in it.)

I once drove across the country to see a burned-out mining town in Pennsylvania. I was gone for three days, and when I got back, people asked me what I went there to see. When I told them, they nodded, wide-eyed, and began to back away slowly. The same thing happened when I drove to Champaign one afternoon to see a statue in the middle of a garden on U of I's campus, and when I drove to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and back the same day to see an exhibit at the library.

How can I be a real person? All of the people I know are very real, and they all
seem to think the stuff I do is strange, so that must make me less of a person.

Of course that thinking's bullshit, but sometimes it's hard to keep the voices quiet.

So I'm used to not fitting in, and I'm used to hiding the things I enjoy to keep the derision from my peers to a minimum, and that's fine with me, because as I've said in a previous post, I'd rather keep the things I enjoy hidden from view than catch a load of crap from someone who couldn't see things the same way I do even if they wanted to, and feel like an asshole for my pains of trying to describe it.

But I did some screwing around this week while back at an old job, and the screwing around turned into quite an experiment, and the results of that experiment were, to say the least, worthy of some consideration.

This may require some background, and I'll fill the canvas in by saying that I wasn't always a teacher, and I wasn't always a musician. Before both, I was a truck driver, and I delivered printed forms (stuff like printer paper in triplicate—white, canary, and pink and little holes along the side for the big-ass industrial pin-feed printers a lot of business used back in the 90's; cartons of copy paper in numerous colors, as well as a shitload of white; invoices; packing slips; snap-out and offset forms) for a company owned by the family of my best friend Adam. I delivered most of these things in a large white cargo van that was surprisingly fast and agile for its size, and I got a lot of stuff delivered very quickly and had a good time doing it. That was, of course, before the company had the name and number printed on the side of the truck, and afterwards, a few phone calls to the boss from fellow motorists I'd pissed off slowed things down considerably, though it was still a lot of fun. You've never seen looks of outright terror on people's faces like those I generated while all kinds of stupid redneck crossed-up sideways, drifting a deep left-hander through an intersection while in the throes of glorious, bellowing-V8 power oversteer in three tons of not-my-van.

I did this with the ink rapidly drying on a bachelor's degree in Biology, and I quit after a year to go off to grad school. Of course, grad school's where I learned to become a teacher as well as sequence DNA, and it was during my tenure at Northern Illinois's Plant Molecular Biology Centre that I became a die-hard rock star, working on my thesis during the day and rehearsing with the boys at night, climbing into our rickety 1976 Dodge van and playing gigs in shithole bars in Rockford, Rochelle, Belvidere and Loves Park. That band came and went, as did others. But by and by, I graduated, landed a job at a local high school and began the teacher-by-day-rock-star-by-night lifestyle that endures to this day. There are times, however, especially when I've had a crappy day in the trenches of higher learning, that I yearn for the days of bombing down the expressways at 90 carrying 30 cartons of Hammermill 8 ½ by 11, bound for the Chalet Nursery in North Chicago.

Well, it's Christmas Break, and I've nothing constructive to do, so when the driver who replaced me announced his retirement last week, Adam called me up and jingled the keys over the phone. "We'll find a replacement in a couple of weeks, old son," he crooned, "but if you could help us out a bit, it'd take some of the pressure off until we do."

Hell yeah. Back the saddle, baby, and that old white van is just as big and as fast and as ass-happy through corners as ever.

Okay, so that's enough background. So today, I had four or five stops, in Addison, Elk Grove Village, Lincolnshire, and finally Chicago's west side. And as I'm pulling up to the first, I get this wacky idea.

I like to do different accents, right? And my friends are always saying how good they are, right? I'm only back for two weeks, and it's been eleven years since I've been to any of these places and nobody knows who I am and they'll more than likely never see me again after this, so…why not be from a different country at each stop? When you're waiting your turn in line at the many different loading docks around the Chicagoland area, you get a pretty good handle on the fact that a good many people who make a living driving stuff around in this country are not actually from this country. I could have some fun with this.

It take a little courage to step up to the plate, though, so at my first stop I pick an easy one. I'm from England.

I walk up to the receiving door at my first stop and ring the bell. The intercom crackles and a woman's voice answers. "May I help you?"

"'Allo, love," I say cheerily, and swing into my pitch. Instantly all the 'a' sounds become 'ah' sounds, and "Classic" becomes "Clahssic." (It's a bit more complicated than that, as I'm not shooting for the guy in the Geico commercials but something a bit more Northerly. Watch the movie "Snatch" sometime and you'll get the idea.) The door to the receiving dock rattles upward and I back down the ramp. Once all the cartons are unloaded, I shove my clipboard beneath the dock manager's nose. "Anywhere on the bottom, please it," I say, and all the consonants have disappeared. "Bottom" becomes "Boh-om" and "it" becomes "ih."

He signs and hands the clipboard back to me. "Right then, 'ere you are," I say, snapping out the middle copy and whipping it out to the guy. "Fank yew, guv," and off I go. The guy has a quizzical look on his face, and I'm tempted to bust out something like the finest Chicago police officer and really turn the guy's mind inside out, but I'm careful not to break the illusion.

At the next stop, I'm an Irish guy. A little tall and dark-haired for a guy from the auld sod, but then there's a Scottish racing driver named Dario Franchitti, so it's not out of the question. This one's harder to maintain, but "Bright" becomes "broight" and so the game goes on. Nobody asks me where I'm from or how I came to this country.

At the next, I go for broke and grab a handful of my roots. I'm Russian, and on top of that, my English sucks.

I walk into the office. This is a lumberyard, and it's full of big sausage-eating Chicago hard-ballers. Am I really going to go through with this? The guy behind the counter leans over, and, around his toothpick, mumbles, "Help ya?"

Oh God, I'm really going to do it…

"Eh, yes. I am from (here I deliberately bungle the name of the company.) I have twelve cartons of paper. For (just to be consistent, I mangle the name of the destination)."

The guy blinks. "Who'd you say you were from?"

I try again. "Is…name on truck. Over there."

The toothpick guy looks out the window, then back at me. "And what are you dropping off?"

"Is paper. For printer."

The guy looks at me, utterly dumbfounded, then says, "Hang on a sec. I'll get Lou." He picks up the phone.

"Thank," I say.

I wait for a while. There are other guys in the office, and the atmosphere is noticeably tense. Finally, Lou walks in and approaches the counter guy.

Toothpick says, "This tall guy here is delivering something, but I can't understand what he's saying. Talk to him, will ya?"

If I drop the ruse now, I'll get my ass roundly kicked, so when Lou looks at me, I say, "Am delivering paper," and thrust my clipboard at him. He looks at me, then down at the bill of lading.

"Oh, I got ya," he says. He looks over his shoulder at Toothpick. "He's got our invoices and five cartons of copy paper."

"Yes, copy paper," I say.

"Where's your truck?"

"Is in parking lot, over there."

Lou grabs his coat. "I'll help you," he says. "How big are the boxes?"

Would a Russian guy with shitty English know how to say, "About one and a half by one and a half by three feet?" I'm guessing not, so I wordlessly frame the approximate size with my hands. Lou nods and asks, "You got a dolly?"

I don't think a Russian guy with shitty English would know that word, so I shake my head and stammer, "Am sorry. A…?" I open my eyes wide, lower my head and turn it slightly to the side, and look at the guy. I might be taking this too far.

Lou mumbles something under his breath. It sounds like, "Fucking foreigners," but I'm not sure, and anyway, would a Russian guy with shitty English catch that? I doubt it, and anyway I'm not a foreigner, so I ignore it. Lou goes into the back room and comes out with a dolly of his own, and follows me out to the truck in silence. We load the cartons onto the dolly, then I hand him my clipboard. "Please, for sign," I say. "On bottom."

He signs and I give him his copy. He takes it and turns away, and I yell, "Please to have for Happy New Year!" all Balki Bartakomous on the guy. He waves in return, and he was pretty nice and helpful too, so I refrain from yelling "Yeah, ya sausage-eatin' pile o' rat shit!" after him. The temptation is indeed great, yet surmountable.

I climb back into the truck. That was pretty stupid, I acknowledge, but as I drive away and contemplate what country I will be from on the next and final stop, I realize a valuable lesson has been learned.

Talk about feeling like an outsider! And I was faking it the whole time! What must it really be like to work as a foreigner at a job in another country, knowing you came here because it was better that what was available at home, but being unfamiliar with the streets, the people, and not knowing even if you could understand or make yourself understood? Not knowing if the contemptuous looks and not-so-well-hidden sniggers of laugher were directed at you?

As I pull up to the day's last stop, I decide to be the Russian guy again. I'm considering being Mexican, 'cause enough people have told me that I look like a Mexican that I'm pretty sure I can pull it off, and besides that, my Mexican accent is frigging awesome. However, too many people around here speak Spanish and I don't speak a word of it, so it'd be too easy to get caught out. I know of only a few people who speak Russian, so I'm pretty sure I'm safe; nevertheless, I'm nervous, because I know I'm gonna do it again and, once you start, you can't stop--at least, you can't if you have any pride in your game. And I'm thinking to myself, these people here are going to see the nervousness on my face and know that I'm faking it. But really, if you really were a foreigner, and you really were going into a place full of people who knew the language while you were just stumbling around, wouldn't you be nervous too? I think, though the language barrier isn't genuine, the nervousness is and that's the final bit of polish that sells the product. I try it one more time getting gas on the way home.

"Please, twenty dollars," I say, handing the lady behind the counter, a dour-looking fatty with her hair viciously cranked back in a tangerine-colored hair tie and about five pounds of eye shadow on, a picture of Andrew Jackson.

"Which pump is it?" she asks, and she's not nearly as mean-sounding as she looked.

"Is Honda Civic," I say, pointing and pronouncing it Cee-veek.

"Sure thing, hon," she says. "Have a happy new year."

"Happy to you," I say, with a big dorky smile. She returns it. Gosh, she sure was pleasant. Would she have been as nice if I had sounded like I looked—a hulking dude in beat-up yellow work boots and an equally beat-up, grease-stained Caterpillar ball cap, black leather jacket, leather work gloves; black shades, a goatee and one motherfucker of a five-o'-clock shadow? I'm sure she expected me to sound like Jack Nicholson on amyl nitrates.

I think I'll be a little nicer henceforth to people for whom English is not the native tongue. And maybe I won't feel like so much of an outsider now. Or if I am, I will at least thank God, that, when I'm misunderstood by the people around me, it's not because of the language barrier.

Friday, December 14, 2007


You know, it’s been a while. Been a while for a lot of things, but mainly, it’s been a while since I’ve had anything I thought worth saying.

Been a while since I’ve spoken to a number of my friends, and that’s no one’s fault but my own. Of course they’re concerned, I guess, and I thank them for that. I certainly do miss them and maybe I will get coal in my stocking for hiding and I wish I could come out of this but it just won’t leave. Maybe it will someday soon.

Been a while since I’ve taken a ride on the Moose, and I feel that part of me atrophying as it does every year about this time. That’s something that time will fix, but I’m still loath to take out the battery and put it to bed for the year. There’s snow on the ground and it’s twenty degrees outside, and I know I won’t fire it up again until March at the earliest, but I’m still in shock as to how quickly riding season seemed to be over, even with that blessed respite October seemed to give us.

Been a while since I’ve seen my beloved Lois, and nothing will ever fix that. I’m still trying to get used to the idea, and I can still remember everything about her, how she looked, how she sounded, how she felt. I can’t seem to remember anything about how frustrating and heartbreaking it can be to have to deal with a very old dog on her terms, and I can’t remember how I used to freeze with dread and shock every time she had a seizure, simultaneously wishing it would stop and hoping that this would finally be it and it would all be over so we could get to grieving, and it’s a blessing that I can’t remember that. I can still remember how she used to smile when she saw me (yes, some dogs really can smile, and if you’ve ever seen it I hope you feel as blessed as I do) and I can still remember how she used to love bananas and how she used to sleep with her head on my chest and I can still remember the looks in the eyes of the lovely Polish cleaning ladies when they asked “Where dog?” and I had to tell them.

Been a little while since I’ve played a gig. A few weeks, at least, of this writing. It’s funny that the whole SST thing is all over and it seems to be, in part at least, because of my hectic schedule and now that we’re done, I’m sitting here on a Friday night writing this, and contemplating finishing it tomorrow night because I’ll most likely be sitting here again. This is tough on me, and I’ll sometimes find myself taking my basses off the wall and just holding one of them. Even the ones I don’t play anymore, the retired ones, just so I don’t forget what it feels like. Of course gigs will come as they always do, but when you’re insecure like me and time between draws out like this, your mind plays games with you and you wonder.

Been a while since I’ve seen my grandmother. I’m an evil dick for not visiting, but she doesn’t know who I am anymore and I can’t handle that, this wonderful woman who made me racing-car-shaped birthday cakes when I was a kid, as well as the best French toast I ever ate and, up to as little as five years ago, marveled at our dog who loved broccoli and oranges; up to four years ago and knitted a crib blanket for my newborn nephew; up to three years ago and who still knew my name.

Been a while since I’ve seen my grandpa, and all I can remember about him is how he used to sound when he’d call our dog, in his wonderful accent that was equal parts Russian and South Side hitman—“Allo dere, baby.”

It had been a while since I’ve played a Mass, up until last weekend when I played a double-header, one near Kankakee and one right here in the Plain. It wasn’t as much fun as I remembered it being.

Been a while.

So, in all this in-between time, there’s lots of time to think, and to go to bed early and online-Christmas-shop and grade papers and write finals. And there’s lots of time to aimlessly surf the net, and that’s where I guess the inspiration to write this came from.

I found a website linked off of one of my favorites, Gorillamask, and spent some time digging around on it— I’m not knocking the guys who put this site together, and if you’re into that kind of stuff then please be my guest. But there’s well over 700 pages of videos to check out and it left me, after checking out a small fraction of the first half, feeling raw.

This is where you go if you want to see senseless beatings of old people—by muggers, by so-called caretakers, by sons and daughters. This is where you go if you want to see executions of people in other countries, for crimes such as being homosexual, for renouncing the nationally recognized religion, for being a woman. If you want to see a guy beating his dog to death with an axe handle, go here. If you want to see cops shooting unarmed people who came out of the house or car with their clearly empty hands held way way up, go here. If you’re interested in checking out gang fights, muggings on buses, two thugs in an impromptu for-real boxing match outside the school at 3:30, you’re all set. One more drunk celebrity pulling a sneaky-pete coke hit out of a vial stashed in her hair and snorting a line on stage while on camera? Check. Aftermath footage of a car crash in which six people were killed? Check. Two girls pulling each others’ hair out on the dance floor because one looked at the other’s boyfriend-of-the-month? Check. One young punk clocking another over the head with a skateboard, resulting in convulsions? Check. Soldiers, over and over again, being incinerated by IED’s? Check.

I watched a few of these because I had nothing else to do. I wish I hadn’t, because I came away feeling hopeless for our species and the planet we inhabit. How can any group of people ever hope to make the world any better when our priorities are so far out of whack? Is this really what we’re meant for, why we’re full of the urge to go forth and multiply? Can’t we do better than this? God, I’m so ashamed of us.

That was last night.

Tonight, I found another, Manicworld, and it kindled a small spark of what might be hope. Maybe, I’m thinking. Maybe there are some things we can stand up and be proud of, some things that might be regarded with approval by whatever other intelligence is watching us and, I’m sure, shaking its collective head in disgust.

Go there and you’ll see some unsavory stuff. But you’ll see some neat stuff too.

A guy who makes the most wonderful shadow puppets I’ve ever seen, and if you doubt that shadow puppets can make a thirty-four-year-old man reach for the Kleenex, watch this guy and then come talk to me.

A guy on “America’s Got Talent” who looks like any other club-swinging hoon on that other site but who comes on stage and sings some of the best reggae I’ve ever heard. His wife and newborn daughter are hoping he wins. I am too.

A large brown dog protecting a toddler from a drawerful of sharp knifes by closing it with his nose every time the tot, squealing with laughter, pulls it open.

A pit bull who’s adopted a small clutch of fuzzy yellow chicks.

A montage on some of the more remarkable pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, that extend farther into deep space than humans have ever seen before and show that there are countless (literally, countless) galaxies, each with millions upon millions of stars, out on the farthest reaches of the universe, 78 billion light years away.

Oh God, this planet is so sorely fucked, and we are such a messed up group of people. We wantonly hurt each other for our own miniscule and momentary material gain, and go out and do it again and again. We’ve so squandered so many blessings and gifts.

And yet, watching a neat collage of the greatest moments in sports, I realized that we don’t have to be fucked. We choose to be fucked, a great number of us. But there is such potential for greatness! Such potential! Not greatness on a game-winning-grand-slam-in-the-bottom-of-the-ninth-at-the-World-Series greatness, but the greatness that comes from taking what we have and, somehow, making it into something more.

I’d like to think that I’m in there somewhere, that one of my exploits might someday land on a website like this and some poor hopeless wretch is sitting at home on a Friday night after the usual frozen pizza for dinner and watching, feeling just as hopeless as I sometimes do. I’d like to hope that, maybe someday, some chump just like me is watching travesty after travesty and feeling lower and lower, until, maybe, something I do pops up and brings a smile to the guy’s face.

I’d like to think that I could be one of those people on the side opposite of the turmoil, blood-and-guts world that I see while fighting to squeeze my little car, the most fuel-efficient one I can afford, into a quickly-shrinking space of asphalt between two lumbering SUV’s in the freezing rain on the commute to work some dreary, cold early-winter morning, when the washer fluid is just barely cutting through the road phlegm coughed up by the traffic onto my windshield.

I’d like to think that I could be someone who, smallest of cogs that I am in the biggest of machines, instead of firewalling my engine just to get next to that fruitcake in the TrailBlazer so I can give him the finger, would just let the guy in with a cheerful flash of my highbeams.

I’d like to think I could be the small cog that somehow makes things run a little smoother instead of gumming things up just to lay claim to my little piece of the here-and-now.

I’d have to start, however, by getting back on the axle and reengaging my teeth, chipped and worn as they may be, back into the machine. I need to do that soon, because it’s been a while.

That machine scares me.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Who made me?

Who made me?

I don’t mean who designed me, or what forces collaborated in August of 1972 or thereabouts to spit me out in the bosom of spring, 1973. We all know the answers to those questions about ourselves, or at least we think we do, or at least we hope we do.

But I’m convinced that if you took a newborn Jay and popped him in a gray-lined institution and fed him three squares a day and educated him only with a single tutor, Prince Caspian style, and released him unsuspecting onto the world damn near 34 years later, you’d have quite a different animal.

I’d still be 6’5” and still have dark hair and one reasonably-working eye and size-11 feet, but if you asked me what my favorite song was, or who my favorite author was, or how to put new strings on a bass guitar, or how to extract DNA, or how to calculate the Ideal Gas Constant from the pressure, volume, temperature, and molar content of a gas, or the lyrics to the Canadian National Anthem, or how to change a timing belt, or how to adjust valves on an overhead-cam V-four, would I know?

I’ve been trying to answer that question lately, and what inspired it, I guess, is a conversation I had with a good friend not so long ago. The answers, I’m finding, aren’t so cut and dry, but they’re there, if you look.

And one has to consider, as well, that a person is not a product of a mold, a bas-relief image spit out whole and functioning from one pressing session. We’re continually impressionable, I’m finding, and of course the degree to which we are impressed upon, and the duration of that impression, is directly proportional to the detail and depth of the person, or thing, that is impressing upon us. A one-dimensional kind of person isn’t gonna change me much, but be vibrant, alive, forthwith, interesting, and you will change me, as you will change anybody with whom you come in contact, despite my or their efforts to the contrary.

Of course the majority of shaping comes from our folks. I have friends whose parents weren’t around much, or if they were, they were a negative influence at best. I also have friends whose parents were much too protective and coddling, and these friends suffer, I feel, though I don’t think they know it, for these influences. (Think about that one for a little while—your parents wrap you in this protective shell all the time. Not only does it preclude being shaped by the world around you, but also, it seems to me, prevents you from the necessary interactions with your folks and immediate family that is a large part of who we are. What fun can you have with Silly Putty if you leave it in the little egg-shaped case all the time?)

From my folks, I learned how to give, and I learned to hold money, and all it represents, in contempt. (It’s interesting that, while my brother and I were well-raised by the same two wonderful people, I learned to hate money and he learned something entirely different. We’re not better or worse, my brother and I, just different. If you’ve met us both, no doubt you’re nodding emphatically.)

From my folks, I learned how to appreciate art and music, and they encouraged me to make my own from an early age. I learned to appreciate life and preserved it whenever I could, but I also learned when to make the distinction between preservation and survival. I once watched my mother cry when her Thunderbird hit a rabbit, but I also learned that a good regimen of nutrients for a good ol’ Midwestern boy included meat and potatoes, despite the fact that my mother is a vegetarian.

I learned not to question God but simply appreciate Him.

I learned that walking away from a fight was often the bravest thing you could do, if you knew you couldn’t fight. (I didn’t learn how to fight from my folks, by the way. I learned from my brother. And I didn’t learn how to fight so much as learn how to get my ass kicked and keep on smiling. I also learned that, if you want to be a good friend, start with your siblings. My brother did that, too.)

I learned how to work on cars. My brother learned how to work on houses. Today our knowledge is still mutually exclusive, as I just changed the fuel pump in his Chrysler (a nasty, nasty job), in exchange for him helping me build a deck this summer.

I learned how to work hard and not blame anybody else when I failed. I also learned, though they didn’t come out and tell me this, that if they were footing the bill for my tuition, there wasn’t a single excuse for me to not get straight A’s. This also taught me that, if you paid for something, get your money’s worth out of it. This explains why my house is old, my car is old, my basses are old (and when I say old, I don’t mean the years; I mean the mileage. Look at my Washburn bass sometime and tell me I’m lying.)

There’s a lot more where that came from, and I don’t really think I’ve scratched the surface, because if you hang out with me and my dad at the same time, you’ll notice a lot of similarities. That’s great, in my opinion, because there’s no one on the planet I’d rather be more like than my dad, but it also indicates that he, and my mother, have had a lot more to do with the person I became, and am becoming, than anyone else.

But they’re not the end of the story.

We’ll play a little game here. I won’t name any names, but if you’re reading this, and if you know me, perhaps you’ll pick out a little bit of yourself, or someone you know, in these next few passages.

I learned that there are people who can drink well and people who can’t. This doesn’t just mean people who can drink a lot, though I know people like that and I like to think I’ve learned from them, too. People who drink well know when they’ve had enough, and people don’t, don’t. That’s an admirable quality, and I’m learning this more and more as I get older.

I learned how to work hard and study to earn a spot in some really good bands, and from many, many musicians with whom I’ve played, I learned that, once you get on stage, there’s no such thing as a safety net. You’re only as good as the time you put in, and if you haven’t put in enough, while the people in the audience might not have noticed, the people on stage with you certainly have. I also learned that a band is only as good as its shittiest member.

I learned that nothing is insurmountable if you can just keep on smiling. I know people who have used this knowledge well. These are the people to whom I look up, and the people whom I respect, most of all. I also know people who knew this but couldn’t—or wouldn’t. Either I don’t respect them or they’re already dead, or amounts to the same. I also learned that there I times when I can do this, and times when I can’t. My self-image fluctuates accordingly.

I learned that, when things are at their shittiest, sometimes it helps just to go somewhere and laugh. You can’t do this all by yourself, however, because then things are shitty and you feel like a nut. (Yes, I’ve tried this.) You need someone to laugh with, someone to make you laugh, someone for you to make laugh. A friend with whom you can reliably do this is undoubtedly your best friend.

I learned that, when you’re angry, expressing your anger with a big dirty churlish burnout down the street is not always the best way to go about things. It doesn’t help the situation and it just means you’ll need to buy tires sooner. Plus, it attracts the cops.

I learned what what other people think about you matters a whole hell of a lot more than what you think about yourself. Convincing yourself of this is another matter entirely.

I learned that being a good drummer does not start with having the best gear. In the same vein, I learned that a good musician can make any instrument sound good, while a shitty musician can make the best gear sound like ass. I also learned that, while modulation of meter can be interesting when executed well, sticking a five-beat fill into the middle of a 4/4 song just confuses people.

I learned that, when you’re working on a car and it’s giving you problems, sometimes it helps to find a really big hammer and just lean it up against the fender or the door, just so the car knows it’s there. “You feel that? You want me to use it? Then cooperate, dammit.”

I learned who Jaco Pastorius was. I had no idea who he was ten years ago, and now I’m intimidated as hell by him and love him all the same for it. He also taught me that there are harmonics on both the 4th and 5th frets of a bass. He taught me all this despite being dead. I wouldn’t have heard of him, however, if someone hadn’t introduced me to him. Vicariously, that same person introduced me to Stanley Clarke and Victor Wooten (via Béla Fleck). Another person introduced me to Donald “Duck” Dunn and Johnny B Gayden. Has it influenced my playing? You tell me.

I learned from another person that, when you’re angry, sometimes a big dirty churlish burnout down the street is just the ticket.

That’s stuff I’ve learned, stuff on the inside, and really, in the interest of avoiding boredom in you, O Honored Reader, I’ve curtailed my list quite a bit. But that says nothing about the things on the outside, the things you can see about me; the CD’s in my rack, the stuff on my iSlap, the books on my shelf. There’s bits and pieces of all of you in there. There’s a big chunk of someone in East of Eden, and there’s a big chunk in O. Henry and Moacyr Scliar, too. There’s Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Adams and Jack London and Joseph Conrad, and there’s Timothy Zahn, too. There’s only me in Peter S. Beagle, though, and Paul Kidd. There’s a lot of my folks in Stephen King, because I got into trouble at age seven when the librarian at Winfield Public Library caught me sneaking Christine out of the adult fiction section.

And what of the larger things? Who’s to say that the clothes I wear, the car I drive, the house I bought, are all offshoots of something you said or did seven years ago? If I didn’t know you, my life would have turned out differently, I’m sure. Maybe this bottle opener on the pillar of my basement is because of you, and that inspired a lot of other people to go out and get one. Maybe this tattoo is because of you, but maybe it was inspired by someone I haven’t seen for five years or more. Maybe these little notes that I write myself and keep in my wallet to remind me of things are because of me, but maybe there’s one that you wrote me a while ago that I keep in there too, and that reminds me of something else. Maybe it was something I watched you do to your cat that made me go home and hug mine a little tighter, or maybe it was something you did for your dog that made me go home and do the same thing for mine.

Little things, big things. Miles and milestones.

Well, know that if you know me, you’re in here with me somewhere, for good or evil. And know that, as I go on down the road and meet new people and experience new things, there’s nothing that can replace you in here, because no one could have changed me in the way that you did, and I keep that in here too.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

A post in the spirit of the season...


I guess it’s about time for another motorhead post.

Wait! Wait! I meant, another post about, uh, Care Bears! C’mon, please, sit down. I didn’t mean to scare you off. Here, would you like some lemonade? How ‘bout a scone? Finger sandwich? Bite-size burrito? There ya go…it’ll be okay. Comfy?

So these two Care Bears were having this drag race and…

HA! While you were selecting your burrito (damn fine, if I do say so myself), I handcuffed your ass to the chair, so y’all just sit right back down and stay put whilst I wax all gearhead and greasy on ya. You ain’t goin’ nowhere. That is, of course, unless you click the ‘Back’ button. Please don’t.

It won’t be entirely bad, though. In fact, you might find it to your liking, as it seems appropriate for the holiday season.

Ahem. Now then…

My dad’s a gearhead, and that means that my brother and I are both gearheads. Not so much any more, you understand—for him, it’s the two-kids-and-the-minivan dealie. For me, it’s ‘cause I’m broke. But there was a time when we were as gearhead as possible.

We both learned a lot of tricks from our father. We learned to match revs on downshifts, which is kinda hard to orchestrate as, while you’re hard on the brakes with one foot and stomping the clutch pedal in with the other, you have to blip the throttle to catch the engine with the transmission. This a) allows the engine to help in slowing the car down, and any help that allows you to wait a little longer before you start braking for a corner means you go in just a little hotter than the other guy; b) is just that much smoother, as not blipping the throttle and just abruptly letting out the clutch could cause the wheels to lock momentarily as the engine drags on them, possibly sending you into a nasty spin; and c) sounds really cool. Regardless, it means that you have to slide your brake-foot over to the right a little bit and blip the throttle with your instep. The professionals call it ‘heel-and-toeing,’ but it’s really toe-and-instep. This takes a lot of practice, but by now it’s a habit.

We learned that a little wheelspin is a good thing on a launch, because it keeps the engine from bogging. You don’t want too much, however, as you make a lot of smoke and noise and teenage kids think you’re a hero while the other guy is showing you taillights.

We learned that when the going is slick and taking a corner really fast can be treacherous, the handbrake is your friend. We learned, also, that you can use the foot-actuated parking brake in most American cars if you hold the release lever out with your left hand while you steer with your right.

We learned that power oversteer (what the young’uns call drifting) is one of the most beautiful things to behold on this planet, when done well.

We also learned that, in the glory days of muscle cars and the SCCA and Speed Racer and Carroll Shelby and the Corvette Grand Sport and the Cobra 427 and Woodward Avenue, that you could set up a drag race with any guy you got next to at a red light with a simple ritual that worked flawlessly.

You’d pull up to a red light, and either the other guy would already be there, or he’d slide up next to you. If you wanted to race the guy, the ritual went like this:

1). You’d blip your throttle once. Just once. If the guy was at least open to negotiation, he’d answer. Just once.

2). You’d look the other way as though you were not interested. More than likely, the other guy was doing the same thing.

3). You’d kind of roll your head on your shoulders toward the other car and look at the guy from underneath your eyebrows. If he was looking back at you, you’d perform the fourth and final step that aimed to seal the deal.

4). You’d make a pistol out of the thumb and forefinger of the hand closest to the other guy. You’d lift it all lazily and, with a snap of the wrist, point down the street toward the next intersection. If the guy was a taker, he’d answer with the same gesture, and the race was on—that is, if the light hadn’t changed back to green while all this was going on. If you had time and you wanted to seem especially bad-ass, you’d light a cigarette—but only if you knew you had time. You didn’t want to appear rushed.

5). If you won, you wouldn’t look at the guy at the next stoplight. He was beneath you by now and was no longer worth your consideration. Hopefully, while you were beating his ass and making him snork up your exhaust fumes like a demon, he got a chance to look at your license-plate frame that said only “A.M.F.”

(Oh, God, Jay, please tell us what A.M.F. stands for! Does it mean “Association of Mindless Fruitcakes?” Does it mean “Amigos Muy Fraternanza?” Does it mean “Actually, Mine’s Fucked?” Please, please tell us!

Nope. Gotta wait til the end.)

6). If you lost, you’d turn right at the next intersection so you wouldn’t have to look at the guy. Or, if you were stupid, you could try it again—but if he beat you once, he’d probably get you twice and you couldn’t have that.

My brother and I did this a lot fucking around on the streets of our neighborhood—me in my rattletrap Cavalier station wagon (with a 5-speed, don’t forget) and him in his piece-of-shit Chevy Monza, or me in my Mazda pickup truck and him in his rust-bucket 1982 Honda Accord. Regardless of what we were driving, he usually won.

So let’s fast forward from the late 60’s to 1998. I was in my third year of grad school, and I was home for the holidays. I had loaded up my 1988 Acura Integra LS (by this time, my altercation with a large-ish full-size Chevrolet pickup had long since occurred and the poor thing bore a large scar all down the driver’s side) and driven home a few days before, and now it was Christmas Eve. Our tradition worked like this: I would get out of the church after playing two Christmas Eve masses in a row and meet my brother, who had come from his then-girlfriend’s house, and my parents at our long-time family friends, the Beliches. We’s stay until midnight or so, drinking warm grog and snacking on cookies, then drive home, all in separate cars, to wait for Santa.

We usually left at the same time, but this night, my brother and I pulled out of the Beliches’ driveway while my folks were still saying their goodbyes. My brother and I had a good time playing tag on the deserted streets on the way from Winfield to our house in Naperville. I did a lot of handbrake-yanking in my four-cylinder front-driver, while my brother got all ass-happy in his 1989 Thunderbird SC (the ‘SC’ bit stood for ‘Super Coupe,’ a play on the ‘Turbo Coupe’ of the previous-generation Thunderbirds, and also stood for ‘supercharger,’ which nestled comfortably between the cylinder banks of the 3.8-liter V6 and spun that bad boy up to about 235 horsepower). His car was rarer, and slightly faster, than most SC Thunderbirds because it was a 5-speed, too. A fast car indeed, that.

We pulled up to the red light at the intersection of Naperville Rd and Ogden Avenue. At 12:30 in the morning of Christmas Day, the place was a tomb.

I heard a throttle blip from the lane next to me. Just one. I answered.

I rolled my head toward my brother. He was looking at me from underneath his eyebrows.

He made a pistol with one hand and pointed down the empty street. I followed suit.

(Let’s pause right here and say that I knew I was gonna get killed. 116 horsepower versus 235? Yeah, I know, but let’s just let the story tell itself, because the ending’s not what you think.)

Another trick my dad taught us is that, if you pay attention to the traffic signals on the cross street, you can often get an idea when the light on your street’s gonna go green, so you’re not caught entirely off-guard. I leaned forward in my seat and watch the cross light change from green to yellow. Out of the corner of my eye I could see my brother doing the same thing. I dialed up about 4,000 rpm and held it there.

When the light went green I dumped everything and put my foot to the floor. Because of the lighter weight and shorter gearing of my car, I actually beat my brother’s Thunderbird across the intersection, but then I heard a growing whine behind me as the supercharger spooled up and he was past me and gone before I even got second gear.

Too into the moment to lift, I kept my foot down and chased my brother’s taillights around the first bend, the lovely whoop of my engine echoing my own. I think I touched eighty or so, my brother easily twenty car lengths ahead, and that’s when I noticed the flashing red-and-blues in my rearview mirror. Apparently the cop had been sitting in the gas station across the street from us and had watched the whole thing.

“Oh, shheeeyiiit,” I breathed, even as the cop shot past me and bore down on my brother. My relief quickly switched back to dismay at the thought of two minutes worth of fucking about landing my brother—not me—in the cooler on a reckless driving charge.

My brother had already slowed down considerably and was drifting toward the shoulder. I attempted to go around and had plans to immediately pull over and plead my brother’s case, seeming as though the cop had no interest in me, slow and battered as my car was. But when I tried to pass on the left, the cop swerved and cut me off. His arm shot out of the window and motioned us both to the shoulder. We complied sheepishly. I pulled in behind my brother, my shaking hands on the wheel.

The cop’s PA system crackled. “GET OUT OF THE GODDAMN CAR, BOTH OF YOU!”

We both got out, still dressed in our traditional holiday garb—a jacket and tie covered by a long black overcoat. At least we matched, somewhat.


My brother walked back towards my car, and we both stood there, squinting in the cruiser’s glaring lights, our hands held high.


We walked slowly as though to the gallows.

The cop’s window was still down and we could hear him jabbering a lot of cop-speak into the radio. He sounded excited. The radio answered back. He got out and stalked over to us.

“All righty, boys. Do I cuff you, or are you gonna cooperate?”

We both answered for the latter at the same time.

“Good. Now get those licenses out and hand them over to me. Wait right there and keep your hands up.”

We did as we were told. Neither of us spoke. We both knew we were fucked. My deepest fear was that my brother would be doubly fucked simply for the fact that he had been winning.

All of a sudden, we heard the cop exclaim. “Now what the hell is this?!”

He got back out of the car and ambled over to us, not hurrying. “Do you mean to tell me that you two assholes are brothers?”

“Y-Y-Y-Yes, s-s-sir,” I stammered, trying desperately not to stammer.

“Well, what the fuck are you two doing, drag racing on Christmas Eve?”

“We haven’t done anything like this in a long time, Officer,” said my brother. “It really was more of an ‘old-time’s-sake’ thing than anything else.”

“I guess it must’ve been,” said the cop, not nastily. “I ain’t never seen a more mismatched drag race than that.” He gestured to our cars idling at the curb. The glare from his door-mounted spotlight made the bashed-in contours of my car’s driver’s side stand out in stark relief.

Another car pulled in behind the cruiser, and my brother and I looked at each other. Backup? The headlights, however, looked like those from no cruiser I had ever seen. Nor were they; they were the lights on my mother’s Lincoln Continental. Both she and my father got out. My mother made as if to brace the police officer, but my father stilled her with a hand on her arm. Slowly, they approached the cruiser.

“Now, who the fuck is this?” the cop demanded.

“Uh, sir?” I managed. “Begging your permission, sir, those are our parents.”

The cop leaned back against his cruiser and started to laugh. “I don’t believe this.”

He told our folks about the entire escapade. They engaged in a brief conversation, punctuated with, thankfully, laughter on the parts of both the cop and our parents. The cop gave us back our licenses with one final admonition, then got back into his cruiser, still laughing. He turned around in the road and drove off the way he had come, turning the red-and-blues off as he went.

My mother wouldn’t talk to us. She stormed back to her Lincoln and got in on the passenger side, apparently too pissed off to drive. My dad, head down in laughter, came over to us.

“You two are some of the luckiest assholes I ever saw,” he said. “No one would believe this if I told ‘em. I’d say this was just about the best Christmas present I ever saw anyone get.”

“Yeah,” said my brother. “If it hadn’t been Christmas Eve, if we hadn’t been related…”

“…if your mom and dad hadn’t shown up to fuck up the entire deal,” my dad added. “Get in your cars and let’s go home, and if I see either of you do anything stupid on the way there, I’ll kill you myself.”

We went home.

Now I drive an even-slower 1992 Civic. My brother has a Chrysler 300M, and even with the automatic, it’d still kill me. The two child seats in the back remind us both, however, that such shenanigans these days would be highly frowned upon. But, in the summertime, when we get the bikes out…well, I’ll let you fill in the details on that one all by yourself. Although these days, I usually win.

And that’s the end! Merry Christmas, and may the coming new year bring you all happinesses.

By the way…

“A.M.F” stands for “Adios, Mother”…well, you get the idea.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

On inabilities...

You know what’s really frustrating?

Have you ever…man, this is gonna be tougher than I thought.

Have you ever felt some way about something…some piece of music, a movie you saw, a painting, a friend, a pet, an object, where you just knew that this thing—this person, this whatever-it-was—was made just for you, and you were so happy you’d found this—so blessed—that you wanted to climb onto your roof and shout about it…but everyone you tried to tell about it just…didn’t get it?

I had a dream, once. My dreams are weird in that they are full of details that words are insufficient to describe, but I’ll try, if you’re interested.

In this dream, I was an older man. Mid 50’s, maybe. And I lived in New York, and I was in the Mafia. And I turned informer, and they relocated me and my wife. We had no children.

I remember the apartment we lived in—a nice two-flat brownstone in Buffalo. I remember my wife. Her name was Darla. And I remember the photographs on the little table sitting in the corner, in little ornate oval or rectangular frames, arranged neatly on the doily that draped elegantly over the table’s edges. And I remember each of the people in those photographs, because each of those people were people I knew. I can’t tell you their names now, but I probably could’ve after I woke up.

There were songs on the radio that no one walking on this earth has heard. That’s because they were songs my brain made up, in the dream, but I knew each one, and I sang along just like you do when you hear “Sweet Home Alabama.”

I had a car… a big old black thing, something 70’s. Probably a Chevrolet Impala or a Plymouth Gran Fury, something nondescript. That part’s cloudy, I guess because in the dream I took the bus a lot.

And I remember the way I looked. I was shorter, with a bit of a paunch, and I had iron-gray hair that was peppered with the black my hair had once been. I didn’t wear glasses or facial hair.

There’s more, but I’m probably losing you, so I’ll just continue. In the three months that this dream seemed to take, we moved, set up our new house, and were just getting used to the way things were going to be when the Mafia found us.

I remember getting thrown into the trunk of a car and taken to some warehouse after dark. They dragged me out and took me, my arms and legs still bound in duct tape, into what appeared to be some smaller room, all the furniture, the file cabinets, covered with months of dust. They knocked a couple of wooden slat-back chairs out of the way and threw me on the table. In the direction I happened to be facing, I could see my wife, whom they’d tied to a chair. Her face, liberally streaked with tears, her lovely auburn hair, dyed but beautiful nonetheless, a wreck. Her blouse was torn. One shoe was missing. A large-ish thug kept a .45 trained on her temple.

They hadn’t taped my mouth shut, and so I began bellowing. I don’t remember what I said, but I stopped when another large fellow jumped up on the table and straddled me. He had a trenching spade in his hand. If you’ve never seen one of these, allow me to describe it briefly—the blade’s about eighteen inches long (all the better leverage, my dears) and about five inches wide at the top, tapering to about three at the business end. They can be curved but aren’t necessarily.

I remember saying, “What, you’re gonna stand over me like that and make me watch while you kill my wife in front of me?”

The big guy straddling me on the table said, “Nope. We’re gonna make her watch while we kill you.”

With that he held the spade in front of him, lifted it over his head and brought the blade down deep into the soft part of my rib cage. It hurt like a sonofabitch, but it went to new levels when he put his foot on the blade just as you’d do with any shovel. He pushed down with all his considerable weight and then pried backward. The pain turned bright white in my vision, and then all went black, and then I woke up.

I have tried many times to describe this dream to others. But no amout of explaining could ever express the years that took place; the love I felt for the people in the photographs, those people that were my family, whom I had known for decades and decades; the love I felt for my wife; the helpless hatred I felt for those Mafioso bastards who were taking it all away. (Hey, I’m just trying to describe it from the dream’s perspective; I don’t have any animosity toward the Mafia, if you’re reading this.)

How could I explain that to you in a way that would make you understand? Apparently I can’t, as the looks on the faces of the legions of people I’ve told seems to suggest.

I feel that way all the time.

I wrote a song once. I write songs all the time—and in my head they’re fully finished, fully produced, all the lyrics written, all the parts charted—but I can never get them out in time before they’re…well, let me put it this way. Yes, I wrote one song. Got it recorded, too, and I was really happy with it. You’ve never heard it, though (well, maybe a few of you have, if you know me) and the reason has nothing to do with publishing rights or band breakups or any of that stuff. A copy of that song is sitting on my desk. I could put it in and play it if I wanted to, right now. I could make thousands of copies and throw them out the windows at people as I drove down the street. I wouldn’t, though.

You know why? I think that song—that one song—was the closest I ever got to being able to put things into words they way I wanted them to sound—for the first time, I beat myself. But would others get it? You can’t win if you don’t bet, they say, but I’d rather not bet and take the loss. It’s easier. I know what I meant when I wrote that song. And for once, just once, everything clicked. For me, that is. The lyrics were what I meant. The music was what I meant. The stops were what I meant. The way the guitar sounded was what I meant. I’ve never been able to do that again, and to expose this one time, this one successful snapshot, and risk it being misconstrued…well, I think I’ll just hold this one close to me and keep it that way. If you’ve heard it, I thank you for the very least for your time. But even if it were worth selling, don’t expect to see it in any music stores.

(You’re a good and talented person, kt, and if this is what you go through everytime you give us something new to work with, I stand up and applaud you with revered awe.)

I’m writing this whole thing because of a movie I just watched. I won’t tell you the name. But I want to stand on the street corner and yell, as loud as I can, You all need to see this movie! This is the best movie I’ve ever seen! Sure, it’s only 22 minutes long, but you have to see it! You have to! It really could make the world a better place!

I won’t do that. You know why? Because you’d go watch this movie and thing, God, this thing sucks! What’s he yelling about? He must be some kind of freak!

I did tell someone about this movie, and this evening this person was at my house, and he saw the DVD jacket on my shelf, and he said something like, “Is this the movie you were talking about?” He slid the DVD off the shelf and looked at the cover, and every molecule in me was screaming. He said, “It’s animé.” I said, “No, it isn’t.” He read the title out loud, and in his tone of voice I could hear him dismissing it. I struggled to keep my voice neutral and said, “Hey, don’t knock it.” All jovial-like. He said, “Okay,” dismissively and harmlessly, and slid the DVD back into its spot on the shelf. I was tempted to say “Hey, you already got it down off the shelf; let’s throw that sucker in. You got 22 minutes?” I couldn’t bring myself to say the words, though, because I knew the guy would never see in it what I saw, and I would have to try to explain.

And having that happen would kill me, because I wouldn’t have been able to explain why this movie touched me the way that it did. Even if you didn’t like it, I would want at the least to be able at least to explain to you why I liked it, and more and more I find that I…can’t explain why.

I can’t explain why my favorite song in the world is “The Voice of Eujena” by Brother Cane.

I can’t explain why I think the coolest bike ever built is the Honda Magna v65.

I can’t explain why I think raised-white-letter tires make any car look bad-ass.

I can’t explain how much I love my dog. This one’s the worst.

I can’t explain why I dig The Blues Brothers,
or music from Stax, or Donald “Duck” Dunn’s bass playing so much.
I can’t explain what it is about Disney movies, or why they get me so bad, or why I can only watch ‘em in the summertime.

I can’t explain why I think four-string basses look stupid but five-string basses look awesome.

I can’t explain why I deeply dig groups like Foreigner, Journey, Kansas, Survivor, Boston, or Styx, but Yes, King Crimson, Cream, Rush, and Emerson, Lake, and Powell make no sense. (Jethro Tull’s the shit, though.)

I can’t explain why I love blues. I know I’m white and I’m not supposed to enjoy blues, but I love it. I also can’t explain why I hate most (not all) jazz.

I can’t explain why I love Bob Dylan’s voice while Neil Young’s voice drives me batshit.

I can’t explain these things. I wish to God that I could, because for some reason, these things that I can’t explain seem to invite scorn or derision. I’m baffled, because I know all of us have different tastes, and you like “Mapletown Friends” or “C.S.I” or “The Maury Povich Show” or KMFDM or Motley Crüe or The Atlanic Star Vocal Band or Cabbage Patch Kids or Almond Joys or extra mustard on your hot dog or pai gow poker or your pet iguana. I don’t share these likes, but I swear to God you’ll never have to explain them to me.