Tuesday, September 30, 2008

On the radio

I was reading over at 5th column about the problems at WVPR/WVPBS. To give a little perspective about how bad things could be, I thought I'd mention the kind of radio I was used to do before I got into the relative calm of WVPR.

My first radio gig was at WWNR in Beckley. The guy who owned it was a crook named Al. Al ran a scam where people were called directly from the phone book and asked to give to some charity. I think it was about flooding. By and by people did this. A driver was dispatched to collect the check and deliver a poorly photocopied certificate of appreciation. Little to no money went to the charity. Most of it went to prop up the failing radio station.

I found this all out after he left the station permanently. You see, I was the driver.

Al wouldn't turn on the furnace. In the middle of winter, the new engineer told him the antique machines being used really couldn't handle the cold. It was bad for the tape reels, too. He wanted to turn on the furnace.

Al's response?

"Turn the heat on for the machines? Hell, I don't turn the heat on for the people."

The station manager was named John. John used to start drinking some mornings around nine, but most mornings he held on to eleven or so. Once, after a particularly difficult meeting with Al, John went into his office, spun the cap off a bottle of booze and proceeded to chug it while the receptionist and I watched. After that, he went on a few sales calls.

I used to drink with John on Sunday nights, after the preacher came and did his show. Part of John's compensation was the use of an unheated, but generally spacious upstairs apartment. He had one of the best record collections I have ever seen and better stereo equipment than we had in the studio.

The building, which Al owned, was mostly vacant. Only the top three floors were used. The bottom two and the parking garage were considered a no-man's land inhabited by junkies, hobos and black bears. Paint huffers used to congregate on the roof under the satellite dish. One night, a grubby looking vagrant attempted to break in through the fire exit. John called the police, who were located across the street. The police declined to come over since the vagrant hadn't actually broken through the door. At that point, John fired two rounds into the door, which attracted the attention of the local cops. They carted off the junkie and collected John's gun.

I remember John telling me it didn't matter. He'd get it back and besides, he had three other guns upstairs in his apartment.

Most of the time, we were all pissed off at Al. He was late with our pay occasionally and he was always trying to scam the rest of us out of something. To get even, all of us took to breaking into his office to steal the key to the soda machine. It was a pretty pathetic rebellion, but we were radio people. None of us knew how to actually do anything else.

Eventually, he sold the station to one of the Capertons who did, at least, turn on the heat. It didn't last. He eventually turned over the radio station to a competitor. He offered to sell it to a group of the employees, but they couldn't put together the money. I don't think they even tried to get a loan. The sales manager had a felony conviction. She didn't think it would help their chances.

Eventually, just about everyone was cut loose.

I thought working in Bluefield would be an improvement. The station appeared to be successful. For the first couple of years, the place was run by a woman named Sandy. Over the course of about two years, she seemed to slowly lose her mind. She became extremely caustic and very clearly sabotaged the careers of her best sales performers.

Instead, she hired her daughter, a waitress at a local restaurant. Her friends at the restaurant called the girl "Crackhead." It was her nickname. Really, she wasn't a bad kid, but she was 21 or 22 and completely unreliable. She also had some very obvious chemical problems. Once, her mother held up the printing of the station log, waiting for her to come back with a contract for some advertising. She called every few minutes to tell us, she was on her way. This went on for a couple of hours until someone called the place she was supposed to have been coming from. If memory serves, they never saw her. The daughter was just too freaked out to admit she'd skipped the sales call.

Sandy scared the fuck out of everyone... and was also sleeping with the owner. The nasty divorce that followed directly led to the station being sold.

Actually, there was a lot of bed hopping going around. Different sales people boned each other or customers. After my first wife and I split, even I got involved in a rather pathetic office romance that lingered like infected poison oak for almost two years. There was no sex. At least, she wasn't sleeping with me. She was busy boning the very much married handyman and managed to hide a pregnancy to term.

It was pretty fucked up.

The guy who replaced Sandy made everyone believe that good times were just around the corner. Really, they weren't. Things got a little better. He had some decent ideas, but he didn't want to pay anybody anything. He referred to radio as a lifestyle, meaning it was okay to starve for the sake of working in radio. Everybody with any sense got out and almost all of us did.

Compared to any of that, WVPR is a sane, happy place. It's the happy hunting grounds for dead DJs. It's a little dull, but the pay is decent and there are benefits. The managers might not be incredibly dynamic, but no one needs a trip to rehab or should be doing time.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


I started swimming again this week. It's long overdue. I needed something to help me clear my head and also rehab my lousy body. There are substitutes for happiness. I tend to go for food. It doesn't even have to be good food. It's a feeling of hollowness, not hunger, that drives me to go for another late-night sandwich, another bowl of cereal, another whatever.

The swimming is my way of skirting the larger problem. I'm dealing with the symptoms, not the disease. There is no cure for the disease. It just is.

So it goes.

Swimming is great because you can hide in the water. You're isolated from sound. You don't have to listen to anyone. You're not required to talk. It also moves your attention from the laundry list of day-to-day concerns and aggravations to a very short list of unavoidable, easy-to-understand obligations. You need to remember to breathe. You have to keep from drowning. Everything else is secondary.

The downside, at least this week, is that I'm horribly out of shape. I'm in the worst shape of my life and it shows. 20 laps in a short pool at lunch equals me feeling like death warmed over for a couple of hours. It will get a little easier. I'm only committing myself to three times a week with the hopes of increasing my swim to about 40 laps per session. Beyond that, who knows? Maybe I'll lift some weights or do some kind of roadwork.

I'm trying not to get too complicated. I've got plenty of that already.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Races with Eyore #1

So, this thing about the Jefferson Jackson Dinner...

Um... yes, the Democrats are ignoring West Virginia.

Obama's camp said they would. Call it one campaign promise they're doing their best to keep.

Wanna know why? Because if Obama were to come here, what would every article say within the first two paragraphs? What would every national newscaster say inside the first 30 seconds?

That he lost the primary here by 41 points to Hillary Clinton. The articles and reporters might mention issues of race or they bring up some lingering difficulty connecting with rural, white working class voters. Both are true. Others, like me, would mention that he didn't bother to campaign here, which is also true. Stepping inside the state picks a bunch of scabs and emphasizes problems the Obama campaign really hasn't overcome or really tried to.

So, yes, the Democrats are ignoring West Virginia... big time. Sure, they're spending money on campaign offices and staffers. It really isn't the same thing or even a reasonable substitute for a couple of speeches delivered in the coal fields. The money is the equivalent of a ten foot pole.

All of this doesn't change how I feel about Palin. I'm still voting against her.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Ever green

This morning was cool and crisp, kind of a hint of the season coming from down the block. It was a long, hot summer. We ran the air conditioning at my house, something that would have seemed like blasphemy a few years ago.

I grew up thinking of air conditioning as being a treat, not a necessity. I don't think it was actually something we even used in the car. It was something to be savored while on vacation, in a motel room. It was something to be enjoyed while at my grandmother's house in Michigan, along with jelly donuts and barbecued ribs, but it was a luxury and luxuries are unnecessary.

I loved the old house my mother still lives in, but in the summers it was blistering hot. We opened all the windows around the first of June and only closed them, briefly, when it rained. My mother put huge, steel shop fans in the windows. I don't know where she got them, but they were twenty years old when we propped them up in our windows.

On high speed, the inside of the house sounded like an airstrip. On low speed, the inside of the house sounded like a smaller airstrip.

One side of the fan was covered with a welded iron mesh. The other side, naked blades spun, drew in bugs who flew too close to our home and converted them into bug cutlets. I hated the fans. I was a little afraid of them.

Mostly, I was content to sweat. Summer then wasn't all that bad. I stayed up as late as I could and slept as close to noon as I could get away with.

This was a hard summer. At my house, we got by, working like ants, but saving like grasshoppers. There was no rest. There was no peace. The highpoint of the summer was the visit from my Dad, brother and stepmother and a chaotic dinner with his grandsons that was over too soon. There were a lot of low points.

There were good things. I learned I have a strange, but (not at all imaginary) support system. We're all a little damaged, a little awkward, but we're sort of a community. I got to know a few people from the old, old days. I still feel pretty good about not going to the reunion. I read some decent books. My youngest made me laugh. He prodded and poked the cat until the dumb old fleabag nipped at him gently. My son told the cat not to eat him. He's almost three. The cat is four.

I learned my weird luck is still holding firm. I was the beneficiary of strange gifts, including a bunch of canned food, dried beans and pasta from a friend who was leaving town. It helped when the money ran out, though meals got creative for a week or so. You can do a lot with chickpeas, really.

It was tough all over and the heat made it feel worse. Driving home one night, I passed a line of topless bar, happened to glance over and saw three women, in barely more than their underwear, sitting outside in folding chairs, smoking cigarettes. They looked weary and bored. The parking lot, obviously, was empty, and there was no money to be made.

That's a tougher summer than mine.

This morning reminded me summer was just about over. The days are getting shorter and the holidays are in my thoughts already. I hate the time is gone, but I'm glad I don't have to spend the minutes again.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

More on Palin

Here's something the NY Times has. They don't mention the rape kits, but they do give a pretty reasonable profile of how she operates.
Jay, by the way, was nice enough to include a link to more data about the rape kits in his response to my Admiral Ackbar post. Check it out if you are so inclined. I don't know how much of it will stick. There's still probably wiggle room to get out from under it, but it seems damning to me.

From the Times article and other sources, Palin comes off as a kind of thug with decidedly Nixonian tendencies (yes, I can see enemies lists as something she could have). I think she's every bit the pit bull she says she is, with or without the lipstick. Pit bulls aren't just strong, tenacious fighters. They're animals that have been known to maul when they slip their leash.

I don't make any bones about not being in the bag for Obama. I don't think he has much of an interest in the things that trouble people in my neck of the woods. He's written us off very publicly and this will continue if he's elected. He's a pretty face for change, but I don't know how much change he represents. I don't see him as a real reformer, which is what the country needs desperately.

Palin is a real reformer. She's change you should be afraid of.

Friday, September 12, 2008

A thought about Governor Palin

I've watched some of my favorite bloggers completely lose their shit over Sarah Palin. Admittedly, some of these people are a little high strung to start with, but they're coughing up every wild, half-baked scenario that comes along: Palin cut money for special needs kids (nope), Palin's daughter had the kid with Down syndrome, not Palin (nope), Palin banned books (nope), Palin was a member of an Alaskan separatist group (nope).

Even the recent rape kit outrage sounds a little weak once you get past the anger. The story is incomplete. The information is lacking and very clearly being spun. It could very easily turn around very suddenly, just like the other controversies over the last two weeks have.

At this point, anything leaked about Sarah Palin has to be considered suspicious. It's been more bullshit than truth so far. This is how it was probably intended.

To quote the good Admiral... It's a trap.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A simple prayer

Dear Lord, if ever I become even somewhat famous, please let me agree to do interviews with the newspapers in the towns whose citizens buy my crap. Please let me at least try to do this every time I go any place with the intent purpose of collecting a check for doing not much more than showing up. Let me make myself accessible because that's a lot nicer than being a millionaire douche bag who is too damned self-important to communicate with the people who make my way of life possible.

Let me remember that doing only six interviews in a calendar year when you're a touring artist doesn't make you mysterious. It makes you an asshole, even if you're Willie Nelson. It makes you even more of an asshole if you're only Kenny Chesney or John freakin Popper.

Oh lord, let me not drive the local entertainment writer up the God damned wall with what amount to certifiably retarded excuses about being busy. Let me remember that I can spare ten minutes on a fucking telephone. Never let me forget that a tour is 75 percent sitting on your ass riding somewhere and another ten percent sitting around going nowhere. Five percent is the show and ten percent is just jerking off. It isn't that hard to work in a conversation on a phone when you're on a bus, waiting for a plane or simply staring at the sweaty cement walls of your basement dressing room.

Let me not go out of my way to insult that little writer's intelligence by saying otherwise. I am sure he gets enough of that at home as it is.

Oh, lord let me also do my best to give that unknown writer my time while I am not having a big bowl of nachos, freebasing cocaine or having a particularly gratifying bowel movement. Let me be nice about it. He didn't call to hear me eat, get high or unleash my stool. He's trying to both help me and give his readers something they want. It's not about the money. If it was for the money, he wouldn't bother with talking. He'd simply wait near the bus with a photographer for that inevitable moment when I do something stupid and probably illegal.

And for this small act of cooperation, this giving of a little time, let me be well-remembered in the future by that writer and the people his article will reach. Let them continue to buy my crap, encourage their friends to buy my crap and do so with joy in their hearts.


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Rule of law

The first rule of pre-mediation is you do not talk about pre-mediation.

The second rule of pre-mediation is you do not talk about pre-mediation.

The third rule is it is absolutely okay to have a sandwich after pre-mediation. In fact, it's recommended because you're appetite tends to return. I suggest the Country Club sandwich at Jimmy John's. It's not very good, but it hits the spot after a little too much coffee for breakfast.

Monday, September 8, 2008


I've been reading a lot lately and the books have been helpful. Some people know I'm a Buddhist. I'm not a great Buddhist. I'm not an overly observant Buddhist, but I am a Buddhist (who celebrates Christmas because I like to give gifts, eat baked goods, spend time with my kids and watch Christmas specials). Most of my "practice" involves meditating, trying to behave myself and reading about Buddhism. I practice a Western form, which is closer to the kind Christmas Humphrey's practiced in England back at the turn of the 20th century.

The same time I picked up Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" and "No Country for Old Men," I also checked out "Start Where You Are" by Pema Chodron. She's a Buddhist nun and writer. I'm not a fan of her Tonglen practice, which in my mind, is opening the softer part of your mind to the harder parts of the world. You try to take on the pain of the world and give back your joy and success. You do it without getting anything back, not even the smug satisfaction of doing the right thing. It's about building compassion and reducing attachment. This is spiritual heavy lifting and it scares the hell out of me.

The main thing I got out of the book was an awareness of those little bullshit conversations that go on inside our heads. It's easy to replay scenes back and add new dialog. Everybody sounds cooler when they've got time to script the tell-off, but it's not helpful. It's draining. You're not venting. You're not achieving anything other than maintaining the hostility.

All of this is fine and good, but so fucking what, right?

Well, the day I finished the book, was also the day I found out a pre-mediation session regarding my most favorite legal problem has been scheduled for Tuesday of this week. I found it out Thursday night (then again on Friday, when I got a second updated and amended version). Just another right book at the right time.

I could be flipping out and fretting, but I'm not. She'll have her say (in a legal sense of the word). I might get mine (so I've been told), but it doesn't happen the day before. It doesn't happen the day after. It just happens then and until then, I shouldn't have that conversation. Pretty good advice, don't you think?

Now, if I could just pick up the book that will tell me how to sell my book and make a few bucks, I'd really be getting somewhere.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Rumors of a demise

I got word Graffiti is over. The editor has been removed. The staff has been reassigned and it's going to be refitted into some kind of bullshit insert filled with free news, probably drawn from the internet. Essentially, this is what I suggested to them personally, after they ran their silly non-interview piece on The Shins. Specifically, I think, I suggested they download and reprint porn.

It's the beginning of the end, the real end of West Virginia's "indie" paper.

As it has been mentioned, I used to write for Graffiti. That's where I got my break into writing again. It was a good time, except when it wasn't. Say what you want about Michael Lipton. At its worst, it was a better paper under him than it was at it's best under the stream of editors and publishers who never got what the paper was about. They tried to turn it into a product they were familiar with. They never seemed to get what made it work -at least as a publication. As a business, nobody seemed to figure how to make it profitable.

I regret what it became and could barely stand to look at it for years. I had some of my best ideas while writing for them. I loved Graffiti and hated it. It's a shame if this is the way they have to go.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


After the fireworks on Sunday, we were all a little tired. I just wanted to get to bed. I had to be up in another few hours to fill in at the radio station. A friend of mine asked me how I do that? How I stay up late at night, then get up in the morning?

Pretty easy. There's rent to pay.

The kids in the back seat wound down. Flappy was scarcely heard. Even imaginary friends get tired, I suppose.

After the turn, leading down to our home in the slums of South Hills, my daughter suddenly asked, "What's a pariah?"

I looked back. Huh? Where'd you hear that?

"In the world," she said, meaning she wasn't going to tell me.

Concerned, I took a deep breath and told her what I knew. The word means untouchable. It relates to the caste system in India and a group of people considered the lowest of the low and unclean.

"In her terms," my wife suggested.

"It means outcast." I said. "Somebody to stay away from."

She didn't say anything. School started last week: middle school. When you read and listen to people refer to children like yours as a "mouth-breather" you maybe wonder what kind of things get told to her face.

"You're not a pariah," I said. "You're not an outcast."

She didn't say anything for a while, then asked, "What's a celebrity?"

I wasn't sure how to explain it. For a second, in my mind, the end result seemed the same.