Sunday, December 28, 2014

Dueling Banjos: part 1

We pulled up to the gatehouse to the campground. An older lady greeted us, tried to collect money and get me to sign something, but then I told her I was with the press and there to cover the string band festival.

As usual, nobody had said anything to anybody. Puzzled, she told me to wait right there.

"I'll go check."

Off she went to call somebody.

Five minutes later, she came back, all smiles, and told me, "Sure. You're expected."

We were told we could park and camp just about anywhere we could find a spot. She gave my son a bracelet to wear --proof that he was supposed to be there. I was given a lanyard to wear around my neck with a big, laminated card that said PRESS.

"You have to wear that at all times," she said pointedly, almost as if to challenge me.

I didn't like their damned sign. I'd come to experience the festival, to immerse myself in it. This had been explained. The tag felt heavy handed, unnecessary, and more than a little insulting.

With a camera around my neck, a notepad, and pen in my hand, it seemed pretty obvious who and what I was.

Honestly, they were lucky to have me there. The String Band Festival is a small event -at least compared to other festivals along the same lines, like the Old Time Fiddler's Convention in Virginia. It's out of the way, about an hour and a half along a two-lane road that winds around the side of a couple of mountains.

There's not much near the campgrounds and cell service is limited --particularly if you're a dummy like me who can only afford a cheap phone through Sprint.

Promotion for the festival is poor to very poor --at least on the local level. The division of culture and history sends out email blasts about the string band festival, if they send them at all, which are indistinguishable from their other regular announcements about quilting exhibitions, historical lectures and the like, none of which have anything to do with someone like me who covers arts and entertainment.

At best, their approach is uninspired and lazy. At worst, it's comically inept. 

The Appalachian String Band Festival has been around for right at 25 years and it's still kind of secret to anyone other than the music nerds who play this kind of music.

Even getting to go cover the festival had been a little tricky. Because of deadlines, workflow and even newspaper resources, getting approved for an overnight story was hard. The paper didn't want to pay for anything. My editors wanted the story, but I think they only agreed to paying the mileage because I'd agreed to shoot pictures.

I wanted to go because, two years back, I'd gone to Clifftop with a photographer and spent about an hour chasing over the grounds to get material for what felt like a very superficial take on the festival.

I wanted to dig a little deeper, really look around, and I also wanted a change from what had become my regular routine.

Most of the work I do is on the phone. I am endlessly chatting with actors and musicians to the point that it sometimes feels like I'm chained to my desk. That work has to get done because Brad Paisley or (more likely) the bass player from some 80s rock band that's coming to town isn't going to make a special trip out to meet me for coffee. Likewise, I am not going to be approved for a flight to L.A. or Nashville for a meeting.

Talking on the phone is fine, but it gets old, and it feels like an insufficient use of my abilities.

All throughout 2014, I'd made plans to get away from the newsroom for stories. I'd worked out plans to attend several regional festivals. All of those dried up after a minor car accident drained my bank account.

Free tickets to the show is fine, but you still can't go if you don't have any money to buy food or pay for a motel room --things the newspaper would absolutely not cover.

By the time of the Appalachian String Band Festival, it was the end of July. Half the year had gone by and the only other trip out I'd managed to make happen had been a bus tour to Southwestern Virginia, which was just weird.

So, on a personal level, just being at the festival was important to me --and I was well outside what I considered comfortable. 

I don't even like camping. I hate it. Of the many places you might choose to call it a night, inside a flimsy nylon shell, atop the cold, hard ground is about the worst. I'd rather a good bed in a cheap, chain motel than a sleeping bag in a tent staked next to my car.

But here I was at the gate house. A story had been approved and I had promises to keep. So, I agreed to their terms, put the stupid sign around my neck, and went looking for a place to park and set up camp.

It would be dark soon.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Pattern recognition

You never wish for the things you don't want. You always wish for the things you don't have, the things you need.

I wish Christmas had been merry.

I don't think I'm going to bother with the lights, the tree, the cooking or much of anything else next year. Somehow, I'm doing this wrong. Somehow, I've always done this wrong and I've had enough.

Fuck it.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Ritual de lo Habitual

A lot of the bad that came with 2014, I think, came with habits --or lack of them. I read less than I've read in years in 2014. I checked out plenty of books from the library, but I finished so few. I kept picking things up and then putting them down, picking them up again and then putting them down and eventually discarding them when the failed to hold my interest.

My garden was a mess. I never really worked it, did very little to keep the deer away or the blight and predictably, my crops were very poor. My tomatoes did horribly. There were no peppers to speak of and no lettuce or spinach. I took less than ten small pumpkins at harvest and the only plant that did well was a weird zucchini that crept over everything and required nothing much but to be left alone.

I got behind on my exercise. There were months where I barely made it to the gym and even during the best of times, I was still spotty about doing the work.

There are plenty of excuses to be had: weather, stress, depression, financial struggle and access to endless hours of quality programming through the magic of Netflix.

I think I self-medicate with escapist crap when I'm down and 2014 was a year for downers --personal, professional, ecological.

But I'm building up again, starting over with some things. I already have a gardening book out and I'm looking through it for ideas on how to keep the fucking deer at bay so I can potentially have a decent growing season.

I'm also reading more diligently. I'm halfway through "The Bone Clocks" by David Mitchell.

Mitchell wrote the book "Cloud Atlas," which was made into a fair science fiction film, but was (not surprising) a thought-provoking book about identity, time and fate. It really worked for me and seemed to be taking the position that maybe, just maybe, the future can influence the past. 

I'm also trying to write more --that's part of the reason, I guess, the blog has suddenly creaked back to life, though I'm not going out of my way to promote it. There's no money in it, so why bother? I don't even know if people actually read these kinds of blogs anymore.

Still, the hope is if I can find enough energy to write here, maybe I can finish one of my other long-suffering projects, which seem to go on the back burner whenever the least, little thing arises to compete with them.

Anyway, it's a hope. Habits, I'm trying to create some new, good ones.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Vacation 1

I started my vacation today. For the next week and a half, I don't have to go to the newspaper for anything --other than to fill out a time card. I do need to do that, if I want to get paid.

I still have to do radio, though not as much, thanks to ongoing efforts to automate the station.

I'm not a fan of that project. The company bought the equipment last Spring, but has struggled to get it online. I can't say for sure what the hold up is. I've heard that the old system doesn't work with the new, which doesn't make sense to me. I don't see why it's necessary to keep the old system, but who knows? The company has a checkered history with equipment purchases.

I'm not a fan of automation because it threatens to put me out of a job --or at least cut back on the amount of income I take home doing it. The basic gist of what it will do eventually is it will make it easier to run the place with fewer employees --how many less is anyone's guess, but I figure they could drop half of us without blinking.

But who knows? The company seems willing to throw money at some things with questionable value. They do a live webcast of their signature radio show, which involves contracting probably three or four people to direct and shoot video; all to reach less than a hundred people scattered around the globe, most of whom probably won't tune into the radio broadcast later.

I'm not criticizing exactly, but it does beg the question: Why bother?

The situation with the radio leaves me wondering what happens if I lose that job? Probably, I'll have to get another second job or else quit the paper and find something that pays me enough to live on. Some friends have been urging me to do that for quite a while now.

Mostly, I'd kind of like to move on, but that's not exactly a secret. It's not that I've run out of things to write about or that I hate living here. I'd just like to make a living.

Too serious.

It feels good to be on vacation. It feels good to have the opportunity to try and unwind and maybe think about what to do next.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Ginger Brandy

I keep a fair amount of alcohol around the house, but I don't actually drink much. It's not the taste, but the loss of control that comes with it, the loss of inhibitions and filters and things that make me able to be around other people, that keeps me from drinking too much too often.

I can be an awful drunk. I will say things I mean, but never mean to say. I will do things I want to, but should never actually put the will to power. I can make an ass of myself --worse than usual.

On the shelf in the kitchen, I keep a couple of bottles. I have a bottle of Henry McKenna, which was cheap and seemed like a good idea at the time. I bought it to get through the first broadcast of my little radio show. I drank shots every couple of minutes of the broadcast and barely felt them hit me at all.

There's still a couple of swallows left. I've used it for cooking, and I think the kid has been nipping in it.

I have a bottle of Fighting Cock bourbon. I bought it because the name sounds vulgar. It's 104 proof, but is kinder than a more expensive bourbon called Bullitt I tried, which feels like getting hit upside the head with a sock full of nickels.

I like Fighting Cock, but I drink it sparingly.

There's also a bottle of Black Seal rum. I got that a month ago, right before I had some friends over for a post-Thanksgiving meal. I thought it would be something people could mix with their soda, but nobody drank it and I've only had a couple of sips here and there.

I'm not a rum drinker. It seems like something only pirates would drink.

Last, there's a bottle of Joaquin's Ginger brandy, a cordial made in the city of brotherly love and a value buy at around nine bucks.

I have a history with the stuff.

Long, long ago, my friend Tim and I used to buy this stuff back when it was six dollars a bottle. We drank it in college, loved it because it was cheap and the stuff mixed so well with soda. With a healthy dose of Sprite, you didn't know you were hammered until suddenly you were.

We drank it a lot.

I think about Tim when I drink it now. I can't help but think about him.

Tim was a friend, older than me. We met in college, his last semester. We were fast friends, hung out a lot, smoked cigarettes, drank, and watched shitty horror films.

A couple of years after he graduated from college, he put a bullet in his head --entirely accidental, his mother told me.

The story goes:

After a year or so of working at the local Wal-mart, he got a job as a statistician for the state. He moved from Beckley to Charleston, rented an apartment with a couple of childhood friends and everything seemed to be going great. One night, they had a small party, invited some girls over, were drinking and Tim got it in his head to spook one of them. He pulled out a pistol, slammed an empty clip into the butt of it and pointed it at his head.

What happened next was an unfortunate cliche.


But it didn't kill him. He survived, in a manner, though the story of what happened the night he shot himself is one that still knots my stomach.

His friends called for help and then called his parents, who met Tim at the hospital.

In the E.R. the nurse kept trying to convince his parents to sign over his organs, though he was clearly still breathing and even moving on the stretcher. His parents refused. His mother, indignant and upset, screamed, "He's still alive! He's alive!"

The nurse told her to calm down. She was upsetting Tim.

That still makes me feel ill.

My friend spent over a month in a coma, when he came to, only about 2/3 of him made it back. He'd been a mathematician, a statistician for some unremembered state agency. He was a lot less than that after and on some level, he knew it.

That was the real horror. He was sometimes aware of what he'd become.

After I heard about what happened, I visited him a couple of times. I saw him in the hospital, a couple of months after his accident, and the visit haunted me for years. I dreamed of him as a zombie, crawling up the foot of my bed.

The nightmares kept me away for three years.

I went to visit him again, when he was in a daycare/rehab, where he sat with thirty others in a room that stank of piss.He had a wild beard then and he was pale as corpse. His teeth looked mossy and yellow and his eyes looked frightened, dazed and stupid.

It was hard to look at him.

I'd loved the man, been impressed by him. Tim had been crazy smart and we'd bonded over bad movies, Pink Floyd and Mexican food. We'd read some of the same books and had philosophical debates that went on for weeks.

He was also the only man I knew who'd actually had sex with two women at once. In college, somehow, he'd conned two women at the same time to have sex with him in his dorm room and no one understood how he'd managed that --because he was a nerd, because he was a geek, because he was a scrawny, little weirdo --but he'd somehow, pulled it off.

There were actual witnesses (of a sort) and for that alone, Tim had earned a certain amount of respect. Hell, the fucking quarterback for the damned football team hadn't pulled that off and by even my rough assessment, he should have been able to.

He's also managed to have sex with a smoking hot redhead who was clearly out of his league.

No one understood that either --including the redhead in question, who later seemed embarrassed by the fact that it had happened. 

That first visit after the hospital (and after my first divorce) was hard. I remember I pushed him in his wheelchair, along Mercer Street in Princeton, past the pawn shop and the dusty, evacuated storefronts. I don't remember what we'd talked about, but it made me hurt all the way down to my bones.

I didn't see him again for at least a year.

The guilt of his condition gnawed at me. He was my friend.

Finally, somehow, he got my phone number and started calling me. We talked on the phone. The conversations were non-sensical. We had nothing to talk about. His days were spent creeping through shopping malls, harassing young mothers with children, eating sweets and haunting his mother.

I started going up every other weekend. I took him out to the mall, to the movies, to a local stable where we could watch the horses. The people at the mall knew him. They'd seen him a thousand times already, but the manager of the theater pulled me aside.

He said, "Hey, I don't know if you can, but you need to keep him on a leash. If you can't, you're going to have to leave."

Tim adored children. In the hospital, he'd tried to put my girl friend's fingers in his mouth. He'd talked about how they'd had sex, though she laughed it off, denied it ever happened.

He told me they'd cut him, taken away his ability to have children. I don't know what they did exactly, but his libido was gone. What was left was just a horrible craving for fatherhood, for family, that he'd never be able to satisfy.

He stopped women with small children to tell them they had beautiful babies, they had handsome sons and lovely daughters. He told the women they themselves were beautiful. He wanted to shake everyone's hand.

He frightened everyone. They assumed he was a pervert.

His mother was glad to see me. We only spent a couple of hours together every other Saturday or so --usually on weekends when I didn't see me kids. Back then, I didn't have much of a life. Going to see Tim wasn't something I looked forward to, but it gave me someplace to be.

I stopped going to visit, shortly after I changed jobs, got involved with a woman whose daughter was autistic, and eventually moved away. I disappeared out of his life and in well over last ten years have never gone back. I've scarcely looked back.

But tonight I started drinking. I'm pretty God damned drunk at the moment and I picked up that bottle of ginger brandy. It was a comfort when I felt alone or abandoned and I feel that way tonight, and I've had just enough to make me wonder what became of Tim, what has become of him and whether I should seek him out one more time.

I can't fix him, but everybody deserves at least one person who won't leave them. Maybe I can try again to be that person or maybe I'm just drunk and lonesome.

Friday, December 19, 2014


Chestnuts roasting on an open fire and nobody likes the damned office holiday party. These days, we don't even call it a holiday party. Parties suggest music and fun and good cheer. We don't have that. We barely refer to the holiday party as a holiday feast.

The spread declines a little every year. Usually, the company provides some meat, a little bread and some drinks. We were encouraged to bring side dishes and desserts.

Some years, what everyone else brought was the best part and while we tended to sit at our desks, we clustered together socially.

Most of the people who liked to cook and liked to bring their cooking to things like an office luncheon either retired, quit or stopped giving a damn.

I would be in the latter category.

I used to bring an apple walnut cake I made from scratch. I used to bring a lot of apple walnut cakes, but this was back when I had free and easy access to black walnuts, back when the expense of a few Granny Smith apples and a little bit of flour seemed like a nice way to give back to the people I worked for and with.

One year, I gave out over a dozen at the job. I wrapped them in aluminum foil, stacked the loafs like bricks and carried them into the building inside of a heavy cardboard box.

I handed them out to people I liked and even to people I barely spoke to. 

I started cutting back last year. This year, I haven't baked a single cake yet and so I brought nothing to the meal. Nobody else brought much either. The receptionist did some baking. Someone baked a pie and maybe someone else bought a couple of boxes of cookies.

It was a tiny contribution from the ranks. 

We made our plates and I went back to my desk. Everyone else seemed to be doing the same thing. We ate while staring at Facebook or while finishing up the dregs of one more story.

When I first joined the paper, I felt so lonesome there. I didn't know anyone, didn't think anyone took me seriously and felt so out of place.

It felt the same way again.

I finished my plate, then gathered my things and went home unhappy and unsatisfied. The company ham and turkey sank to the bottom of my stomach like a discarded hubcap.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Two socks

The girl nodded perfunctorily as I passed, but she didn't smile. We both had large baskets of laundry in our arms. She was being polite, acknowledging that our paths were crossing, that we shared a similar struggle, but nothing more.

She wore a yellow flannel shirt and the lower third of her jeans disappeared under the seem of heavy, black boots. A cigarette was tucked behind her ear.

Her face was plain: no lipstick, no powder and no earrings. She'd clipped her hair short and it was growing back unevenly --a home job. She'd probably done it herself in front of a bathroom mirror with a pair of twelve dollar clippers.

Almost every man I know has tried that same look one time or another. You argue that a pair of clippers from the drugstore, the big box chain store, the little box chain store costs the same as a haircut from the mall and you don't have to pay for parking or tip anybody.

How hard can it be to cut hair, especially if you're not going for anything fancy? Just take your time, keep your hand steady, start with the larger combs and work your way down. No problem.

The math is easy. After one haircut, the clippers pay for themselves, but unless you've got some kind of skill at cutting hair or are particularly desperate, by the sixth or seventh cut, you get tired of looking like an ex-con or a prisoner of war. You find a new barber, lie and blame your hair on the last guy or slink back to the salon at the mall.

If they don't ask any questions about what you've done to your head, you tip them better than they deserve. If they do, you still tip, but you never come back.

I wonder what it's like with women?

With 40 minutes to kill and only a book to keep me company, I watched the woman with the bad haircut and the work boots. She wasn't alone. Another woman was with her and the two of them shuffled wet clothes into the dryers, talked in short, awkward bursts, but never laughed.

The other woman was older, but blond and pretty. She wore officially licensed college football team sweats. They were clean and, like most sweats meant for lounging or doing mild chores, made her look vaguely shapeless.

I more or less had on the same outfit, though my sweats had seen better days. Most of my clothes have seen better days.

Still, there was a contrast here. Where the one woman seemed to have ditched the fashion magazine ideal of femininity, the other wore makeup to come to the grubby laundromat. She'd put some work into her hair --something I could not also cop to. A baseball cap covered the grubby nest of frayed wire on my head. I looked like someone who worked parking lots to be paid in spare change.

For the briefest of moments I thought they might be lovers, but then I watched the older, prettier woman fold a pair of boxer shorts. She looked up from her work, looked across the room, through the glass door to the parking lot.

The cigarette had been plucked from behind the younger woman's ear and she stood outside, watching traffic and smoking.

The older woman scowled, but went on folding cheap, sleeveless cotton undershirts, bleached the color of bones; white, athletic socks with red stripes; old t-shirts and a rainbow of flannel, work shirts.

All of it looked just shy of new, but well-kept, and she resented having to put her hands on it.

When the girl with the bad haircut came back, the laundry was folded and neatly stacked in plastic baskets. She grabbed the largest and led the way to their car.

We nodded again, as they passed. We all had our hands full. I tried to smile at her mother, too, a sympathetic gesture, but she didn't look up.  

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


I started at the newspaper almost eight years ago, though I'd been writing for them for a couple of years before that. The story is kind of well-known. I lied my way into the gig and then kept at it until it more or less became the truth.

This blog was started because another blog the Gazette paid me to write for wasn't any good, didn't have any readers and the paper wanted real value for their measly $35 a month. I lost my slot on the company blog roster to Hippie Killer and Raging Red, who'd been brought on to write about food. Through the early creation of their blog, that was how I learned their real names --back when any of us believed in anonymity.

I failed at one blog, but wasn't ready to quit blogging and started this one. The title was created around the idea that it would be subjects I wanted to write about, but would either get me in trouble or was considered too personal for the paper.

Also I could say fuck as much as I wanted and be as mercilessly honest as I could stand without weeping.

The newspaper job came later. I got it because I was writing one or two stories a week for the entertainment section and one or two a month for the Sunday section. They had an opening. I seemed like someone the editors thought they could bring along and train up, even though I lacked a journalism degree and hadn't attended even a respected state college.

I hadn't gone to even WVU and, honestly, had only been to Morgantown three times since I'd come to West Virginia, but it hardly mattered. They didn't want me to do anything important, just write little stories that seemed to be more about occupying space than telling anyone THE TRUTH. I could do that and talk to whatever stray musicians happened to amble into town.   

For weeks, maybe months, I was out of my depth in the newsroom. I didn't write nearly enough and everyone seemed to know so much more about everything than I did. As little good as it did me, I took a copy of Strunk and White's "Elements of Style" with me when I went to the bathroom. I tried to read the work of the writers in the room everyone talked about and had no clue what made one better than the other.

I sucked. I was awful. I knew I was awful, and any second they were going to pack my things up in a box and tell me to go. 

I hung in there. The people in my little corner of the second floor basement were kind. I got good advice from the old, Jewish guy who wore gardening gloves to type sometimes. The two ladies with grown or almost grown children listened to my fears. They encouraged me.

I was lucky. My editors were good ones. They were patient. They were teachers. I learned to write for them. They taught me to focus more, write responsibly, and I learned to tell different kinds of stories than I thought I ever could.

I felt like a kid there for a long time. I relished that. I loved it. It felt like I'd somehow slept very late the night after I'd graduated from college, woke up, and ten years had passed like an unsettling dream. The paper was a new start, a new beginning, a new life, and I have never regretted going into work. I never dreaded having to be there or wished Monday morning was suddenly Friday at five.

People left from time to time. At first, I didn't think much of it. Some of the newer reporters, out of school for a year or two, they moved on, which was sad sometimes, but understandable. They weren't from Charleston or West Virginia and never meant to stay in the first place. They took better jobs in bigger cities and I wished them well when they left.

A few people retired. They put in 20 or 30 or however many years and decided they'd had enough. We had a cake or else met at somebody's house, drank wine and ate cheese and then said good-bye.

One guy left because he was a raging drunk. To this day, he's the only person I've ever witnessed being fired in that newsroom.

A few years ago, things started getting darker or maybe I just began to notice it. People began to leave, not necessarily because they'd found a better job, but because they were fed up. They felt poorly used, underpaid and over-stressed for what they'd signed on for.

A little over a year ago, I stopped being the kid. As unlikely as it seemed to me, I became the veteran, sharing space with others who were wide-eyed and hopeful. I've tried to help them as others helped me and tried to be encouraging as others encouraged me.

It has never been enough and all of the people who came to replace the people who were my friends have been replaced by other people and are now, themselves, in the process of packing up and moving on.

Others will come.

But now, I feel very alone. Soon, the last person connecting me to my first days at the paper will be gone, the victim of people who maybe should have been a little more curious as to why she was so angry all the time.

And now, I have hard days, too. I still don't come in on Monday and dream of Friday, but I often wonder why I feel like I am treated so shabbily. I wonder what it is the people I work for think of me and consider that they must think very little indeed. My pay, which has scarcely changed in eight years, does not encourage me to believe otherwise.

Sometimes, I wonder if I've stayed too long. Other times I wonder if I've stayed too long to leave.

Monday, December 8, 2014


For a while there, I used to post a list of resolutions for the new year. Most of the time, the usual ideas were listed in some shape of form: lose weight/get in shape, get a better job/get published, travel, etc...

Most of the time, I failed and then 12 months came crawling back, making a new list. Call it misplaced optimism or lunacy, but either way I gave up and stopped making lists or following lists a while back.

So, this year I went in with no goals and got pretty much what I asked for.

This last year was pretty miserable --just one bad thing after another. Take your pick: there were personal disappointments and setbacks. My garden failed, my workload increased dramatically, and I didn't get a pay raise. There was no vacation, no cool music festivals and I was sick when my dad came to visit.

Professionally, I was at a standstill. The one bright spot was the radio show. After too many years of hammering away, occasionally begging for a chance to do something on the air, I was given it --and then promptly ignored by management.

I have no idea who really listens. I have no clue.

The weather was against me (and everyone else). Winter arrived early, stayed too long and took a dump on the front porch just because.

There was a water crisis and living in the little town of Pinch or in the great state of West Virginia just sort of sucked in general. Crime, politics or anxiety brought on by criminal politicians. It was a hard year. Almost nobody was happy. Nobody wanted to be happy either. We all just wanted to leave.

But the year is coming over and it feels like the bad voodoo, bad vibes and bad luck is kind of flickering and guttering out like the last inch of a cheap, pillar candle. Change is coming. I can feel it in my bones and the next year, this next year, is going to be a good one, maybe a great one.

Call it misplaced optimism, but here I am blogging here again (which has become so uncool that it's kind of cool) --and I'm thinking about what I want 2015 to be.

So, we start with another list and this isn't necessarily a collection of action items. The things I want to do never change: travel, get in shape, sell a novel, do better work, be a better boyfriend, friend, father, brother and son. Read good books. Make more money. See cool things and grow happier and wiser.

No, it's more of a statement of intent, a mantra to reflect and meditate upon. It is the needle pointing north for when I invariably lose my way.

1-Don't quit.
The most important thing to remember. Just keep trying. Don't give up.

2-Make plans.
Spur of the moment is great. Improvisation is great. Improvise from the plan. It's ok to have a plan B and do something else, but have a plan A first.

3-Follow through.
Just get it done.

4-Take it easy on yourself.
Easy to say. Hard to do.

That's my list. Not really all that impressive, but it's easy to remember.

So, here we go again...

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

ghosts of Christmas past

One of my co-workers turns 30 next month. I can't tell if she's fretting over the age or not. Thirty isn't the milestone it used to be (if it ever was), but she joked about having a month to get to Africa and run a marathon. She was looking for an adventure.

I offered to take her shoplifting. 

Across the aisle, another of  my co-workers, who is a good five years from 30, said she could get the 29-year-old to Africa for about three grand. All she had to do was harvest some of the eggs from her ovaries.

That sounded good, except, of course, it sucked. There's pain, weirdness, loss of eggs...

The 25-year-old told the 29-year-old she could sell plasma.

"It's a waste of time," I said. "I did that."


"Yeah," I said and then spent five minutes fielding questions about the process, explaining what was done, showing the scar in the crook of my arm and fending off disinterest and disbelief.

"I could never do that then," the 25-year-old said. "I've been to Africa."

I nodded and pressed down the sad envy boiling through my guts.

I tried to tell her that didn't really matter. There were rules. You couldn't use drugs, show up drunk, have a criminal record or be a gay man (lesbians, however, were apparently welcome), but nobody was really checking. I'd see plenty of guys come in who were either clearly drunk, high or were sporting the kind of tattoos you only get from a guy who gets paid in candy bars and postage stamps.

Plasma donation is on the honor system, which is absolutely nuts.

I told her they'd take her as long as she could prove she had an official residence. They don't let you "donate" if you're homeless.

In the end, she wasn't all that interested in the subject and I was maybe a little too interested. I don't know why I wanted to talk about it, why I wanted to prove that I had done this --maybe because she said she'd been to Africa, maybe because my girlfriend has been to Germany, and I've only been to Ohio a few times.

Finally, I sort of shrugged and said it was something I could write about next year. Maybe.

I don't want to go back there again. I still dream about the plasma center sometimes: the needle in my arm, the clinical, contemptuous way some of the drones looked at me as they harvested my dark, red blood to make rich, golden plasma.

Sometimes, I think about what I did with the money I made there. I converted it into gas for the car, spent it on cat food, bought Christmas presents nobody gave two shits about, and paid phone bills, water bills, gas bills, daycare.

Just remembering makes me feel so cold and alone all over again.   

I don't know what to give the 29-year-old for her birthday, to acknowledge this milestone that may or may not signify anything, but it ain't going to be much.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


It was just a couple of bored cub scout dads sitting off in a corner while their kids played some game only amusing to children under 10 or drunks on their fourth or fifth double.

Nobody was paying attention, though the scoutmaster was all smiles, encouraging the kids to try harder, work together or some such.

To be truthful, I don't recall the game. It didn't hold my attention, but that's nothing new. Most nights in that church basement, I find myself compulsively looking to my phone, hoping for a message from just about anyone and willing to invent one of my own to send to someone else, if it comes to that.

My best friend in Virginia believes my son's cub scout troop is populated by the children of strippers, meth addicts, and circus freaks, and he believes this because I have described it that way in loving detail.

These are all mostly tall tales --mostly.

The fathers in the corner, talking in low voices, had my attention. I couldn't turn away or tune them out.

"They said the whole building was full of ATVS," one of them said. "It was an Quonset hut. I'd like to know how they even got that thing up there."

Nobody seemed to know who "They" were, but they had a vague idea of who owned the property --some woman who owned the land, maybe even had a house somewhere on it, but lived in Florida and never came around. Whoever owned the hut never bothered to buy or rent the land, but had counted on the lingering absence of people with enough sense to move away, but not enough luck to sell what they had. 

The ATVs were, of course, all stolen, but they didn't know by who or even who the ATVs belonged to.

One of the other fathers talked about the rash of break-ins in the area.

"I spoke to a deputy," he said. "He told me 200 houses had been broken into over the summer."

Aghast, I wondered how many houses there were in my little corner of the county. Two hundred sounded like a lot. Two hundred sounded like maybe a third of the houses that could be found.

A third man had heard about the break-ins. He knew someone who'd been hit.

"They went in, took the gun safe and then went into the bedroom and found the box where he kept the serial numbers for his guns." He looked around and like he was giving away great secrets, said, "That was an inside job."

"They're looking for guns, I hear."

Who, I wanted to know, who?

"If this keeps up, somebody is gonna get hurt," the second man said. "They're gonna come up on somebody who ain't supposed to be there."

Bullets would fly.

While the kids played on, they talked about meth labs in the trailer park --I didn't know we had a trailer park --and shadowy figures seen at night, up to God knows what.

Everybody knew something, but nobody really knew anything. It all seemed like chatter.

Coming home, for the hundredth time I counted the "For Sale" signs in the yards until it became too depressing and drove past the "For Rent" sign that's been in the same place now for six  months. I wondered why I hadn't heard from my realtor in a while.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Fear and Loathing in Abingdon --part three.

From the little brick reststop, we rode along toward Bedford, Virginia. They put a movie in about the town that described the why of what we would be seeing when we got there. About half of the flat screens worked. A few of the others flickered and struggled, but couldn’t keep a picture. One screen had been peeled off the plaque like an old bandage to reveal a shiny, plastic scar.

It was a moderately moving documentary about the D-Day invasion and the terrible losses of Bedford, Virginia, a town that had lost more men per capita to the invasion than any other town in America.

They lost 19 just on that day.

Bedford had a local reserve unit stationed in town. A lot of the farm boys, all poor as church mice, had enlisted in the years leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor to make a few extra bucks one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer. When the war came, they were called up. When the allies invaded Normandy, they were part of it and many of them were killed.

Only a scant handful made it back after the war and not all of them saw the loss of their brothers and school friends as a noble sacrifice. One of them very pointedly said they’d died in vain.

Among the children of the Greatest Generation sitting on that bus, people gasped and complained that the makers of the documentary shouldn’t have let that guy speak, that he wasn’t patriotic.

Jan, with her military son, was the most vocal about it, but all of us, I think, had been raised on the notion that World War II was the last good war. There were very clear bad guys: the Nazis with their death camps and pulp fiction experiments; Imperial Japan with their sneak attacks, kamikaze pilots and death marches; Fascist Italy and their… well, Mussolini was a dick.

I think we can all agree on that. Benito Mussoline might have been less of a monster than Hitler or Hirohito (or Stalin, for that matter, who was on our side for most of the war, but a murderer of incredible proportions), but he was still a giant, Italian dick that nobody really misses.

Over the years, I've come to take the hero worship of the previous generations with a grain of salt. The Greatest Generation was just the first generation to have really good publicity. History these days isn't written just by the victors, but by assholes with marketing degrees who work for advertising firms and political think tanks.

Still, it was a little refreshing to hear someone honestly say that the rest of the world (or about half of it anyway) could go to hell, if they could just have their friends, their family and maybe their innocence back. 

In Bedford, before we got to the D-Day Monument, they herded us into another rest stop, this one more modern with lots of glass, a little gift shop with crap to buy and a meeting room where they fed us quarters of chicken and a nice selection of starches.

The peach cobbler was thoroughly disappointing --like something served in a middle school cafeteria. I felt tainted for putting it in my mouth.

Funny thing, I ran into the brother of my high school government teacher. He managed the restaurant that provided the catering. We didn't talk about the food, just how his brother, my former government teacher had at the age of about 45 had gone back to school and gotten his law degree. 

Running well behind schedule (because we needed to see the walls of pamphlets and visit the gift shop before the actual attraction) we only got about 30 minutes at the actual memorial, which was pretty amazing.

Opened in 2001, the memorial is a solemn and moving tribute to the sacrifices made in the name of freedom that spans over 88 acres, represents every country involved with the invasion and the property includes a garden, sculpture and space for reflection.

Visitors can wander the grounds at their own speed or take one of the guided tours. According to tour coordinator, Jim, the full tour can take up to two hours.

Jim was full of stories and in his half hour made the morning drive almost worth it, but we only got the 30 minutes and then they wanted to get us on the bus. We needed to get to Wytheville in time for dinner.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Fear and Loathing in Abingdon --part two.

Just about everyone on the tour was retired, semi-retired or planning to retire in a year or two. Only a few of them did travel as a full-time gig. Most of them were from the Midwest.

Bob from Minnesota (now living in Florida) put in 30 years with the 3M Corporation before he and his wife 
Mary started working for a tour company that specialized in group trips for seniors.

They were a nice couple who'd met in a bar over 40 years ago. Bob had kind of been a schmuck back then. He didn't call, but they still found each other. 

It was his second marriage; her first and Mary said that had been a terrible scandal at the time. She was raised Catholic and he had kids, too. 

"My mom didn't like it one bit," she said.

But circumstances changed her mind. She wanted to see her little girl married and after a terminal cancer diagnosis, Mary's mother made peace with her daughter's choice. 

Forty-plus years and a daughter together, it looked like it had worked out OK.

They liked to go on cruises. Bus tours were ok, but it wasn't as much fun for them. 

Jan from Chicago spent years teaching art before starting a website based business through Expedia. She was almost 70, had a daughter older than me and a son in his 20s who'd just gotten out of the military. 

Jan dressed like a cheerleader for Aerosmith, wore black nail polish and a black, leather trench coat. Her hair was a suspiciously authentic-looking dirty blond and she spent the first two hours on the bus talking almost nonstop about her nice house, her Porsche, her husband's former fantastic job and how he was going to pull some strings to get her son a job in Chicago.

She just wouldn't shut up. Nerves, I guess, but after the first hour, I sort of wanted to stow her with the luggage.

She was semi-retired and was on the substitute teacher roll for the Chicago school system. The travel business was a sideline. She got most of her bookings from online, but also helped arrange trips for the teachers she encountered in her day-to-day.

The way she talked about it was like she was a pot dealer.

Fae was a former social worker and somehow worked in dentistry before coming to work at her father-in-law’s business in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

A small, round woman with short, curly hair, she laughed easily and seemed like she might have been a fairy godmother in a previous life. She had no idea how she'd wound up doing this sort of job. It wasn't what she wanted to do, but she liked it well enough --maybe because some of the places she took her clients were far, far away from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

She really loved the west coast, northern California and, I think, Oregon. The scenery was beautiful and the people seemed very nice to her.

The three-day Post-Fam tour of scenic, rural Virginia (during the desiccated, dead of winter) was just an extra 50 bucks a head after they’d paid their fees for the convention in Charleston. It included motel accommodations, a couple of shows, a few attractions and practically all meals –plus a seemingly never-ending line of people ready, willing and practically begging for the chance to kiss your ass.

As far as getaways go, if you weren’t too particular, it was pretty decent deal.

There were plenty of stories on the bus about much better deals and insider only trips, but generally, the gravy days of travel were all over for these people.

Donna, an agent from got a deal to go to Singapore for two-weeks because she knew somebody in another office who was just looking for warm bodies. She had to pay $500 for that one, but it included airfare, accommodations, meals and who knows what else.

“It was too good to turn down,” she said.

Nobody was getting those kinds of deals now, though sometimes if they booked a certain number of clients onto a cruise somewhere, they got a free ticket.

They shared their horror stories. A couple of them had spent nights in hospital rooms, sitting with clients who'd taken a vacation only a couple of weeks after a heart attack or major surgery. A few of them had seen people die.

All of them seemed to be struggling to keep on doing their jobs and living their lives. Competition was fierce. Nobody thought much of a tour company called Diamond.

A guy named Tim, who knew more dirty jokes than any man alive, called them the K-mart of the touring business.

"They get the cheapest rooms, use the cheapest buses and the customer gets dick."

Just across the Virginia border, the bus stopped at a welcome center manned by a couple of grandmothers who'd brought cookies and cake to welcome us to the middle of nowhere. It was supposed to be a scenic rest stop, but it looked like the sort of place bored, middle-class homosexuals might stop for anonymous sex in the bushes with other bored, middle-class homosexuals.

There were also vending machines if someone wanted to grab a diet coke or maybe some skittles afterwards.

It was a clean, if sort of non-descript location. Inside, dull-as-shit travel pamphlets, brochures and maps papered the walls. I found myself wondering, who in the fuck would stumble in here and be inspired to drive from here to Monticello, to see how the third President of the United States might have lived --you know, if you took away all the slaves and replaced them with poorly-payed state employees in polo shirts with name tags?

I pretended to look at the pamphlets then bolted for the bus after the stop was concluded. I left the cookies, which were a little bland, and grabbed a spare bottle of water out of reflex.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Fear and Loathing in Abingdon -part 1

The snow started falling in the gray, early hours before dawn and continued to call to fall even as the bus pulled away from Charleston’s newly remodeled Sheraton.

It was a little after seven o’clock in the morning. Tour South’s three-day convention had finished in the city and there I was sitting in the back of the bus with about 20 travel agents and tour planners from 12 different states, on route to Southwestern Virginia for what was called a “Post-Fam” tour.

"Post" meant after the event. "Fam" meant familiar. Someone had to explain that to me.

The convention had been a big deal for Charleston. Travel planners had come to meet with convention bureaus from dozens of cities and counties from all over the south –places, like Charleston, that wanted tourism dollars.

Charleston had hosted and done its best to put on its best face –not an easy task with a chemical spill in the water supply still very much on everyone’s minds.

How that all went, I have no idea. Everybody was very polite about Charleston, but nobody openly admitted they'd be bringing busloads of tourists to take in the dubious scenic beauty of a place usually referred to as "chemical valley." 

I was not invited to attend that part of the show --or the pre-fam tour which wandered around parts unknown. 

The Post Fam tour was something else. The bus headed to Southwestern Virginia, to Wytheville, Abingdon and Bristol with a few stops in between.

Tour South asked if The Gazette wanted to send someone along –and I jumped at it like a dog begging for bacon. It hardly mattered that I’d been to Abingdon, Wytheville and Bristol; had practically grown up there. Winter had been horrible in Charleston, what with the bad weather, potholes and whatever weird shit was in the water.

Slumped down toward the back, crowded in a narrow seat with a backpack stuffed with an aging laptop, two cameras of suspect quality, plus an assortment of pens, pencils and notebooks, I tried to blend, but I stood out. I didn’t have a badge with a travel company’s name on it. My clothes were all wrong: no cruise ship or airline logo. My bag was a generic. Everyone else had one tagged by a leisure company, resort destination or mid-range city nobody thinks about seeing.   

Also, virtually everyone on the bus was at least 65 --discounting the driver and the two people from the convention bureau. A couple of people were around 80, but most hovered somewhere in the low 70s.

I'm 43 and had never felt so young in my entire life.