Monday, December 29, 2008

Gone fishing

I'm pretty much on break this week. Be back after the first of the year, hopefully, with new tales to tell and things to say.

Thanks for 2008.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Emo McSourpuss

I'm going to move 2008 into the win category. Where I failed, I'm disappointed. It would have been nice to have a vacation that didn't feel like a short trip to the 5th circle of Hell. I made far more trips to the local Chinese restaurant than I ever did to the gym. I didn't keep in touch with the people I should have, including my grandmother, my parents or anyone except a few friends from high school, who mostly kept in touch with me. I've gotten skittish about dragging the people I care about into what amounts to my serial misadventures. I unload some on the blog, but the truth is it's hard to burden others with more clouds when they have enough gray in their skies.

I save that for you people. Some of you love watching me twist in the breeze. It's okay. I like writing about it. It's gallows humor among friends.

But... there were some high points. I finished my book. I sent it off to agents. There is a wall of rejection notes (some of them pretty funny in their callousness) to prove it. I started another and I'll be damned if I won't finish it. I managed to read a bunch of good books. I'm now a fan of Cormac McCarthy and Haruki Murakami.

I did a reasonable job as a father and a husband. I did the right thing more times than not. I worked fewer nights than ever before and spent more time with my family. I opened my home and gave refuge when it was needed. I was and am proud of my wife for taking night classes and proud of my daughter for trying to join the band. I let myself be amazed by the wonder and innocence of a three-year old. I also accepted the inevitability of the milestones that have to happen as you get older.

I played video games unapologetically, read comic books and never, ever felt cheated when I gave a man a dollar on the street. I flew. Sure, it was to Cleveland, but it was an experience long overdue. I opened a savings account. I wrote a couple of good articles for the paper. I grew a beard (but hated it). I had a couple of really good cheeseburgers and one decent steak.

I lived a little and learned a lot.

I finish this year grateful to a number of people. In the magical fun house world of blogs, thanks to Donutbuzz and The Film Geek, to Reverand Elvis Drinkmo and to Moneytastesbad. Thanks to Buzzardbilly and Barbiegirl. Thanks also to HippieKiller, RagingRed and to Jay (damn you, Jay. Damn you to hell). Some of you, I know your secret identities... some of you I don't. It doesn't matter either way. Thanks to my old friend, Jody, who looks more and more like a serial killer every year and to my almost old friend, Corey, who hasn't changed at all. Thanks to Amy, in the desk behind me, who puts up with my silly shit and for my buddy Amy in North Carolina who keeps me company with her endless supply of e-mail quizzes. Thanks also to Melanie, who has my back and would probably knee cap somebody if I asked her to. Thanks to my family, especially the ones I haven't mentioned.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah or whatever whacked out religion you tend to follow. Thanks for 2008.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

1999- Xmas

Nobody really came dressed up for the Christmas party. To be honest, it wasn't going to be much of a party. In years past, the radio station had hired out a restaurant, served a nice buffet and opened up the bar. There had been music, a little dancing and some jokes. It was a pretty good time.

1999 was different. The manager of the station was having an affair with the owner. A pair of nasty divorces were on the horizon. One of those divorces would precipitate the selling of the radio business, but not yet.

To avoid a hassle and a headache of being in public (as well as the potential, it was believed, of one or more of the jilted spouses putting in an appearance), Sandy, the manager, decided we would have our little Christmas party at the radio station. This was billed as the company holiday luncheon. It was a wildly unpopular idea, but mandatory and not open to discussion. You did not say no to Sandy. Once she had some idiot notion in her head (which was often enough), you did what she wanted or your ass got canned.

Food and booze was brought in. It wasn't great food and it wasn't great booze. There was a little ham, a little turkey and some shrimp. There was probably greasy chicken in a box. All the beer was by Budweiser. Most of the supplies came from Wal-mart or the Kroger deli. It was pretty sorry compared to the toasted Bree, crab puffs and Canadian lagers available at the last decent Christmas party the station funded.

People complained about the party for weeks. Even, Carol, the bitchy old lady who acted as Sandy's spy hated the implied obligation. Nobody wanted to be there. Nobody could get out of it. Everyone resented it. If given our choice, we'd have all been happier taking the five or ten bucks a head the party represented as a half-assed Christmas bonus. It would have beat the staff shirts and office supplies they gave us. Instead, we were all stuck with having to smile and pretend like this was all cool, like this was just what we needed.

Right at noon, like some twisted version of "A Christmas Carol," we were all herded into the conference room, wished a Merry Christmas by the boss. This was all for us, we were told. This was our thanks for a good year and a job well done. Thank you, she said. Nobody believed it. It was such an abysmal gesture of good will. I watched people roll their eyes as she winged her way through her holiday notes. It all sounded like another one of her sales meetings and a not particularly inspired one. We were encouraged to eat, drink and be merry --but not too merry, because we all had to drive home.

Sandy, by the way, could only stay for a few minutes. She had to split. There was a flight to catch or another, more pressing party to attend. Each of us had our own opinions as to where she needed to be and what it was the owner was going to have her do when she got there. I sort of imagined her wearing reindeer antlers and a harness.

We waited about as long as it took for her to leave, then the place cleared out like someone had thrown a hand grenade into the room. Everyone grabbed their coats and went home --except me. I went to the car and grabbed my Tupperware. While everyone else was getting the hell out of dodge, I collected a couple of pounds of ham and turkey. I filled a container with shrimp, another with meatballs and tied up the bagged bread. I took cookies and brownies and loaded up on the beer, which was cheap domestic swill, but better than nothing.

I didn't take everything. Even I had misjudged how much would be left over, but I took a lot. I packed it in the trunk of my car and like a reverse Santa eventually sped off for my empty house. I drank, ate shrimp and probably watched whatever porn my room-mates left in the VCR. It wasn't much of a Christmas party, but the leftovers were pretty good.

Friday, December 19, 2008


One of the books I read every year is George Orwell's 1984. It's an important book because it takes a large idea and crushes it down to a human level. The book's concept of history as being flexible is remarkable because Orwell isn't showing us a new idea. He's basically just holding up a mirror. Our possible pasts have always existed. We choose to remember what we want. On a national level, we remember George Washington as a patriot, as the father of our country and not a guerrilla, a terrorist and a rebel who fought against his country. We remember how the pioneers settled the west and fought hostile Indians. We kind of forget the lands were inhabited, the pioneers were heavily armed, occasionally religious fanatics and/or criminals. Because the indigenous people had a different standard for property, we played games with semantics to say even they thought they didn't own it.

On a personal level, we gloss over our own histories. Our pasts are tweaked in one direction or another. We usually had either a great childhood or a troubled one. The truth is many of us had both. We remember relationships (old girlfriends, boyfriends, etc) as either tending toward the negative or the positive. It changes as we repeat the story to suit the situation or our current psychological makeup.

A couple of years ago, I knew a woman who used to talk about a very wealthy, old man she worked with. At some point, he gave her a pair of tickets to a country music concert. What is interesting is how the relationship evolved through the retelling of the story. In the beginning, he was a fatherly type, she was fond of. He was old, nice, but a bit thick-headed. As the story evolved, he became a lascivious kind of flirt not above using his wealth to bed a young woman --not that she ever succumbed to his checkbook charms.

Everybody does this. Maybe they don't turn sad old pudding heads into pimps, but we all change the characters we create from the people we meet to make the story fit our own personal narratives. Truth is hard. We lie to ourselves first.

The difference in 1984 is the state takes control of every one's story. Everyone becomes a minor character in their own life. That's the danger of letting someone have control of your narrative, the danger of censorship. You become who they want you to be.

The book has a bleak ending. Inevitably, the main characters follow a prescribed path of rebellion from society. It is the one laid out for them by their society with a specific end: sooner or later, they'll be caught, forced to confess and recant. They will be reeducated, then eventually executed. Orwell shows us this. What I've found interesting is they might have escaped. They might have regained control of their lives. The mistake was doing what was expected of them.

In its way, 1984 is a manual for how to resist having your narrative changed by someone else.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Monday, December 15, 2008

Due dilligence

Along into the last quarter of the show, the happy couple found their seats. The pair of them were clearly overdressed for the occasion. He had on a black suit, complete with white linen shirt and tie, shoes polished to a gleam. His head was freshly shaved and still pink from the razor. She was in a designer skirt, boots that crept up to her knees and a blouse that revealed the shape of her cleavage without actually showing the goods.

I was a little taken with her, not because she was beautiful, which she was, but because of the obvious effort and expense put into making her this gorgeous. Few people go to the trouble for something as casual as a concert. Her nails were freshly cut, shaped and polished. The woman's blond hair was one-hour-away-from-the-stylist perfect. Her makeup was perfect. She practically shimmered.

The pair of them sat down and laughed along for about a minute, which was just enough time for whatever they'd been taking to sink in. Like they were watching a 3-D movie, the two of them each put on a pair of sunglasses. The tall, bald man in the black suit stumbled off. Walking was a challenge. The woman, his companion, slowly turned to stone.

She crossed her long legs then propped herself up on the arm rest. Her angle was not unlike that of a crushed soda can. On stage, Seinfeld told his jokes. People laughed. They roared. She didn't move, except to breathe.

Over the next fifteen minutes, her date came back twice. He sat, tried to hold her hand and watched the show. Always, something attracted his attention and he shambled off, moving like a man wading in a creek. I kept an eye on her and guessed which drug had been her choice this evening. My best guess is they were snorting heroin.

By the end of the show, the man hadn't returned, but the woman was still there, still locked in the same slack position, just shy of being asleep. The crowd around us filtered out. The folks in the other aisles went past her like a viewing at a wake. I stood next to her, not sure what to do.

"Miss," I said. "I need to get out."

She scooted her legs back just an inch or two and I slipped past. I looked at her from the edge of the aisle. She hadn't moved, except that tiny bit to let me out. I stared at her, saying nothing, doing less. The theater was nearly empty. I looked around for the man in the black suit, saw him sitting in the back row. I decided to leave it to him. I had an errand and a deadline to deal with. She was fine. He was fine. They were both just very, very high. I walked to my car, but it was a little too easy to rationalize doing nothing.

I'm not really kicking myself over leaving. It's just an acknowledgment of the truth of my own character. It's who I am now, but I want to be the guy who doesn't walk away: not a hero, just human.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Learn to be still.

I remember the end of Autumn, two years ago. I called the landlord about a leaky pipe in the basement. At the time I was working two jobs full-time, as well as plugging in stories as a freelancer wherever I could. It was a pretty black time. I was never home and not a lot of help with taking care of the kids. The baby was still a baby and the neighbors didn't like us.

We aren't quiet people. We'd like to be, but we're not. We're loud. We're disturbing. We're weird.

But on the day the landlord stopped by, we were worse. We were messy. The house was a wreck and we had two cats. It was a violation of our lease. No pets, even though the neighbors on both sides of us had dogs. I tried to talk our way out of it. I tried to explain the house wasn't usually that big of mess, but it had gotten out of hand recently. I hadn't been home. We'd had a baby. It was right before the holidays. He'd just caught us on a really off day.

He didn't want to hear it. He spewed out some kind of verbal assault I couldn't make heads or tails of. Really, it didn't matter what either of us said. He just wanted us gone.

I remember being furious, but heart-broken.

"I'd never want to stay any place where we're not wanted," I told him. "I'll have us out as soon as I can."

We moved.

Pretty naturally, I don't like to trouble our new landlord. I'd just as soon not bother him when something little goes wrong. I'd rather just work on it myself. I don't want him poking around. I don't want him thinking about us, except when he cashes the rent check. I want him to think nothing but happy thoughts involving rainbows and unicorns.

Last night the furnace went out. It was 40 degrees in my living room when I got up. This morning, with dread, I called the landlord, explained the situation. He said he'd be right out to take a look. He went to my place while I was at work, while the only ones at the house were the two cats. He called me back.

"Yeah, I'm just going to replace the nasty thing," he said. "I'll get you a couple of heaters to get you through the weekend."

We're pretty much the same people, living the same way. I don't work as many long hours as I used to. At least, there's not so many long hours away from the house. The baby is now three and makes more of a mess than he ever did, but the neighbors have been decent. They get, I think, that we're just trying to get along.

How nice just to get to stay.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Agony for a good cause.

The polar plunge is back Saturday, February 7. This is the opportunity to dive into icy waters for the Special Olympics and feel about ten minutes after your last breath. It is that kind of fun.

I'm doing it. This makes year two.

Some of you expressed an interest in coming along for the ride. If so, you've got a couple of weeks to think about it. Officially, I'll start with the donation thing after January 1 and start looking into costume options.

If you're interested, check it out here.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Cancer man

For a while there, the American Cancer Society had me driving for them. I'm still registered as a driver. They just haven't needed me. Nobody calls. I guess there are plenty of drivers, just not enough people out there who know about the program.

One of my patients was a guy named Bob. Bob was in his 80s. He was an engineer, worked at one of the chemical companies and is one of the few met who were involved with World War II. Bob had an uncomfortable to talk about kind of cancer. I learned all kinds of things about my penis, my prostate, and why I should never stop having sex of some kind. According to Bob and his doctor, having lots of orgasms prevents the oh-so-ugly loss of your prostate.

Use it or lose it, he said, which sounded pretty creepy coming from a guy in his 80s.

He, evidently, had followed his own advice. All things considered, he was doing pretty well. He was in his 80s, and his cancer wasn't unbeatable. At least, nothing was going to be removed. Nope. There was just some radiation involved, followed by a long bout of diarrhea.

No matter how often I've tried to block it out. I still think about what the old guy told me about the plumbing of old people. I have come to the conclusion that one way or another, the future is going to suck. It is unavoidable.

I kept in touch loosely with the man for a little while. We had a couple of lunches together. We talked on the phone a couple of times. It was really a kind of friendship that was struggling to light. The last time I heard from him was in June. He was going to go visit his grand kids. He might be gone for a couple of weeks. I was going to call him when he got back, but then I didn't. Every week, I remembered him, but never found time to give the old guy a call.

He died last week. I spotted his name and picture in the obits the other day. Like me, he's donated his body. I didn't know that. We didn't talk about it. Mostly, we bitched about how lousy the service was at Los Agaves, talked about cancer, and tried to find common ground about music. We never quite made it, but he listened to me. I listened to him. We were nearly friends. I'll miss the guy.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Screw it

I decided to go ahead and do a list or resolutions for next year. 2008 was a banner year. I didn't even get half of what I hoped done, but as I promised, I'm not going to get too upset about it.

Next year, I thought I'd go in a different direction. I'm not asking for any radical changes. I think the list speaks for where I am. This list isn't about self-mortification or rejecting who I am in favor of a new, improved me. The main thing is to be a little happier. Everybody could use that, right?

Looking back, I did some things right in 2008. I spent more time with my family. I was home more often than I've been in years. I fought for my kids. That may not be apparent to everyone, but it's what I did. I kept food on the table. Nobody went hungry in my house this year, unless they wanted to.

I never did lose the weight, didn't get in shape, but I took less shit. So far, I'm not dead. All of these are pluses.

I haven't been published yet, but I'm trying. I've also started another book. I'm at the squirmy end of it right now and will be fixing the whole damned thing for months to come. I'm a writer. Of that, there is no doubt in my mind. I'm just not published. I'm not an author.

So, I have a new list and I'm still adding to it. Jaded, but ever hopeful, I'm looking forward to a new year.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Meeting Odetta

I guess it was about four years ago when I met Odetta. She was one of the guests for a winter show for Mountain Stage. I was recording interviews for their Black History Month program, and I was should absolutely try to get her. A typical child of the 80s, I had no idea who she was, had no idea about anything other then the big, brush strokes of the civil rights era that filtered through television dramas. God knows they didn't teach that stuff much in class. I graduated from a high school where the class president was the only black kid and history was never more than partly cloudy.

If I remember correctly, we spoke right after the show. I was told not to keep her long, but she didn't mind. She seemed glad to talk, even though I was clearly ignorant. My questions, quite frankly, sucked and were just shy of being of the "What's your favorite pizza topping?" variety. After plodding through a quick five minutes of nothing, I asked her what she thought of the politics of now. She shook her head and told me we were in a lot of trouble.

"But you can't let the bastards win," she said.

At the time, I was amused by a frail, 74 year-old woman casually swearing, but I've remembered what she meant as much as the strange jolt of her words. The bastards weren't just the Bush administration, though yes, she believed they were bastards. The bastards were the oppressors, the people who manipulate, connive and threaten to make the rest of us do as they say.

Not every lesson is a new lesson. I've certainly heard the phrase, "You can't let the bastards win" a hundred times. Her telling of it was the one that made it stick for me.

Odetta died yesterday. I got to spend a few minutes with her. It was a good few minutes.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Back in black.

The food sucked. Of that nothing more needed to be said and we all agreed on this point. The turkey was the culinary equivalent of particle board: pressed, packed and glued together, then sliced in uniform khaki colored slabs. Festively, someone had thought to drench it with translucent slime, which when warmed assumed the proximity of gravy, but still resembled 30 eight oil. It was quite a spread. There were several meats: Turkey, chicken and what had once been some kind of fish. There was a variety of tinned then reheated vegetables. The freshest and best flavored was the vanilla pudding.

I take no responsibility for Thanksgiving dinner at Shoney's. To be honest, I sort of looked forward to it: no cooking, no clean-up, no having to get the house in reasonable order. Driving around Charleston, I'd seen a sign up at the restaurant in Kanawha City. They promised oysters and seafood. That sounded pretty good to me, but of course, we weren't eating in Charleston. No, much maligned Charleston wasn't good enough for everybody. We had to eat in the culinary center of the state: Summersville.

There were reasons. There are always reasons to do something as monumentally stupid as eat at the equivalent of a rural truck stop during a high feast day. I'm sure each and every reason was explained to me, but I only have fuzzy remembrances of them now. Some of it was the reasonable excuses about hating preparation and clean-up of the meal. Part of it had to do with a grandmother, who doesn't like to travel. Another part had to do with a sister-in-law who might or might not be bringing her sort-of transgendered girlfriend, who simultaneously amuses and annoys me. They were traveling a great distance, but didn't make it in time, which was really a pity. I was keenly looking forward to seeing them.

Everyone took it well. We chewed through and managed a second plate a piece. My daughter, who has an aversion to any food containing water, thought the food was great. That she would rave about the food made perfect sense. She had multiple plates of syrup-boiled ham and pineapples, loaded up on the cottage cheese and even ate a slice of the restaurant's very own extra-special pumpkin pie.

I had a great time.

I got to watch people. I watched the gay men with their shaved heads and perfectly shaped mustaches eat dinner and gaze lovingly into each other's eyes. I watched middle-aged and likely divorced hunters, still wearing patterned greens, glare at their food and eat sullenly. There were a few families like ours. The smart ones ordered off the menu and skipped the steaming shit being served at the bar. The dumb ones, like ours, circled the serving area like frustrated flies and looked to the door and their wrist watches.

I watched an old lady watch my daughter. There's always one. She was working up the nerve to say something, but never did. She might have noticed I was looking right at her. Yes, I was aware my daughter was flailing and making strange noises in a public place. No, we don't need an exorcist. Have a nice Thanksgiving. I saw a mother and son, possibly the ghost of some possible future. The boy was pushing fifty. His mother had to be seventy by my math. They were both wearing new holiday sweaters, the kind that usually have reindeer or trees on them. He was ruining his by refusing to swallow the things that went in his mouth didn't agree with this tongue.
At long last, the meal was over. We collected our jackets and muscled our way to the door. The waitress reminded us they were open for dinner today, too, and not just lunch. I couldn't speak for anyone else, but I was already calculating the quality of the sandwich I could make just as soon as I got home. It turns out I could make a pretty good sandwich.