Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Crock Me Up

The other night my landlord, out of the blue, asked me, "Can I have some of your country crock?" I hesitated, thinking he had mistaken me for some backwoods bumpkin full of bunk. I tried desperately to come up with some pithy yarn, like, "Oh I've been milking pure chocolate milk from my cow Henry for seventeen years now." But then it dawned on me: we share a refrigerator and, speaking of things dairy, he just wanted some of my Country Crock vegetable oil spread (I call it butter, whether or not I believe it is).

Got me thinking about the word crock, though. While I'm sure some of my acquaintances would say I'm completely familiar with the word crock, it isn't a word I use much in everyday speech. Balderdash or the less pedantic bullshit being my preferred nomenclature for something that doesn't smell right. But I have a good friend who's always using the phrase, "that's a crock of baloney," most of the time not directed at me (I can't stand baloney/b-o-l-o-g-n-a, though come to think of it, it might be more tolerable to my taste buds with a healthy Country Crock lathering). Anyway, thanks to her, I have developed a fondness for the word crock.

Until the other night, though, I always thought of crock in very general, certainly not geographic, terms. I have spent precious little time of my life in a country/rural setting, so the chocolate milk cow is the best country crock I can come up with, but I'm a child of and life-long denizen of suburbia, so I think I'm extremely qualified to expound on suburban crock. And so, here are just a few of the more blatant instances of suburban crock I have overheard in my lifetime. See how many you're guilty of.

"I clean my garage once a month."

"George constructed our deck out of the kids' used Popsicle sticks."

"Billy's upstairs doing his homework."

"I've never seen that Little League ump make a bad call."

"We love hosting our book club almost as much as we love reading everyone else's selections."

"These fake-wood-sided station wagons will never go out of style."

"I didn't go near that keg at the block party, dad, I swear."

"My fifty-five minute one-way commute is the perfect time to do some meditating."

"Really? My gosh, I thought it was a real Christmas tree."

"I love what you've done with the yard."

"Our daughter Alicia's terrified of needles. You'll never see a tattoo on her."

"With that Sears pre-fab shed in the backyard, I feel like we're living in the country."

"Country Crock? No, but you can have some of this butter I churned myself down in my workroom."

Joe Cocker-Dear Landlord

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Monday, September 28, 2009

Alpha As In Beta

When he was in his 90s, I heard my grandfather, whose name was Vince, say to someone on the phone, "That's Vince. V as in Vince, i n c e." Still cracks me up. So, taking a cue from the great man, I thought I'd create an alphabet decoding device, so to speak, one that accommodates for the fact that many of our service-related calls these days are answered by people all over the globe, many of whom may not speak English as their first language. Dispensing with strict phonetics, my alphabet decoder relies more on universal principles and archetypes so as to more efficaciously effect clear (i.e., spit out your gum) communication. I suggest printing this list and keeping it handy by your phone. I have done so and used it for some time on various tech-support calls, and it has never caused any misunderstandings or untoward international incidents. And if you're a more visual than auditory learner, check out the early film by David Lynch below, for an equally straight-forward way to get your ABC's across.

A as in aye, that's my pen bastard, give it back
B as in to or not to
C as in concupiscent
D as in dromedary
E as in `e don't live here anymore, the bastard
F as in effin
G as in yeero
H as in bomb
I as in team
J as in jai alai
K as in I'm just going to the store, k?
L as in what the
M as in mnemonic
N as in knapsack
O as in Oorang
P as in psychotherapy
Q as in Bar-B-
R as in art
S as in psoriasis
T as in tsunami
U as in not me
V as in Vince
W as in Texas
X as in alimony
Y as in because
Z as in good night

Maceo Parker-A.B.C.

Bill Haley & His Comets-A.B.C. Boogie

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Paper or Air?

I've always considered myself a rather straight forward, opinionated not wishy-washy guy. With most of the necessary choices offered me, there isn't much musing: I know what I like. Surf or turf? Turf. Wilma or Betty? Betty. Heads or tails? Tails. Beatles or Stones? Stones. Toilet paper unspooling from over the top or from under the bottom? Over the top. Laverne or Shirley? Leather Tuscadero.

So imagine my surprise today while in a public restroom when I turned from the sink and saw both a towel dispenser and a hand blow-dryer on the wall. I would think most places don't offer a selection; you get either one or the other and live with it. And surely I've been in such smorgasbord-offering public loos before, but I've never felt the existential angst that gripped me today, as I stood there with dripping hands and wondered, nay, worried about which method to pick to dry my hands. Is there a correct choice in this matter, as there obviously is with the Beatles/Stones question? Of course the hand blow-dryer industry will have you believe that their product is much more environmentally friendly and healthier, but I take all such boasting with a large grain of skepticism. Certainly paper towels require less time, but really, when you think of it, they also--counter-intuitively--require more work. More work, less time: that's a weird sell.

Mind you, I didn't really consider all this while my hands dripped. I quickly yanked on the handle, tore off a good-sized wad of towel, dried my hands, disposed of the wet towel in the waste basket and went on my way, a way though, that for two hours has been nagging me. Did I do the right thing? The best thing? The more I ponder, the less I'm sure about anything, as if after all these years, a night out with Laverne at Red Lobster with the Beatles on constant repeat suddenly sounds like heaven. I know that using towel dispensers and expending all the required effort can be awfully skeevy at times, but there's something about standing alone in a public restroom rubbing my hands vigorously under a machine forcefully blowing hot air that makes me feel like a skeeve, not just feel skeevy.

Help me out here, I just don't know. Maybe I need to go to Costco and buy a package of a thousand moist towelettes and carry them around with me everywhere I go from now on. Either that or just work on crossing my legs more effectively.

Talking Heads-Air

Talking Heads-Paper

Saturday, September 26, 2009

This Estivation Must Stop

Sounds like one of my made-up words, estivation. If it were, it would probably mean a rough guess as to how high a mountain or a college roommate is. As it is, estivate is an actual word, meaning "to pass the summer in a state of torpor," basically the opposite of hibernate (in my version of Scrabble, estivate would warrant about a million points because not only is it a beautiful word, but its definition contains an equally amazing word, torpor). Now if someone gave me the definition and told me to make up a word, I'd probably go with slummer, or dozummer. Better yet, I'd probably just say, high school English teacher, because having the experience, and not knowing much zoology, I'd put my money on the high school English teacher being the only creature who estivates.

I realize summer ended and autumn began a few days ago, chronologically, at least, but the weather's been nice, and although fall is my favorite time of year, I wasn't ready to bid adieu to summer yet. But this morning it definitely felt like fall: gray, rainy skies, trees blowing aggressively, leaves starting to change color (at least to my color-blind eyes), and a temperature that had no hint of summer in it. So I muttered to myself, that's it, quit the estivating, get to work. I've been cleaning ever since. To be honest, it's probably my spring cleaning, but as I recall, the first day that felt like spring several months ago, I said, that's it, summer's coming, commence estivation.

All I can say is that I've been places in my domicile today that Columbus, Balboa, and even Carl Kolchak couldn't have found. Apparently, dust doesn't estivate, hibernate, or vacate. Procreate, though, for sure.

Unfortunately, my bed right now is too piled up with stuff I've moved to get to such dusty, unmapped places, that starting to autumnate with a nice rain-soothing afternoon nap is out of the question. But I guess it's football season: three piles and a cloud of dust. Back to excavation.

Freakwater-When The Leaves Begin To Fall

Robyn Hitchcock-Autumn Is Your Last Chance

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Great Man Himself

Happy Birthday, Mr. Faulkner, born William Cuthbert Falkner on this day in 1897. The Great Man Himself, as crazy Ralph from Philadephia referred to Faulkner the summer I spent in Mississippi with sixteen other budding Faulkner nuts as we studied five novels and a slew of short stories. That's when my love affair with Faulkner's writing began, a love that continues to this day. I've read all the novels, most of the short stories, and taught several of them, and my appreciation of the complexity, vision, humor, humanity, and sheer fun of it all only deepens.

Where to begin to express to you the joys of Yoknapatawpha County? Maybe Luster's remark in The Sound and the Fury, when asked where he got that quarter: "Got it at the getting place." Or Ned William McCaslin Jefferson Missippi, dealer of the funniest fart in literary history in The Reivers. Or the mighty Flem Snopes, whose rise and fall, along with various stories of his many kinfolk (including one Montgomery Ward Snopes), is chronicled in the trilogy (The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion). Or Anse Bundren, who just wants some new teeth, aside from burying his wife among her people in As I Lay Dying. So many amazing stories overflowing with unforgettable characters: Dewey Dell and Dilsey, the two Quentin Compsons (one male, one female, a generation apart, though even an astute reader, unaided, can be forgiven for not realizing all this until 200 or so pages into The Sound and the Fury), Ike McCaslin, on and on. But I can only froth at the mouth. A good starting place is here.

I celebrated by re-reading the story "Was," the first story in Go Down, Moses. One of the funniest stories I know of (though like all of GDM, incredibly insightful about race), "Was" concerns the trials of confirmed bachelor brothers Uncle Buck (Theophilus) and Uncle Buddy (Amodeus) McCaslin as they endeavor to retrieve their runaway slave (and half-nephew, don't ask) Tomey's Turl, who's run away again to the Beauchamp plantation (aka Warwick) to see his lover, Tennie. Unfortunately for Uncle Buck, waiting at the Beauchamp place is Sophonsiba, the sister of another confirmed bachlelor, Mr. Hubert. Sophonsiba (she of the roan tooth and the very personal way of sweetening a toddy) wants nothing more than to marry Uncle Buck. Much amusement ensues, capped off by a great game of five card stud between Mr. Hubert and Uncle Buddy, with the lives of Buck, Sophonsiba, Tomey's Turl, and Tennie hanging in the balance of whether or not Buddy's hole card is the last three in the deck. I can't recommend the story, or just about any Faulkner you want to dive into, highly enough.

And to wish The Great Man Himself a most happy birthday, and to give "Brother Bill his great thrill," I provide you a snippet of his favorite TV show: Car 54, Where Are You? Yes sir, the Nobel laureate had a thing for Fred Gwynne and clan.

Mississippi John Hurt-Ain't No Tellin'

Mississippi Fred McDowell-You Got To Move

Bob Dylan-Mississippi

Bob Dylan-Tombstone Blues

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Tonight: Follow The Music

Tonight: Follow the music. That's how my horoscope concluded today. Well...all right. Outside of bagpipes, which I tend to go in the opposite direction of, and anyone walking out of the 1980s with a boombox and an "awesome" Dead tape he wants to play for me, I'll come following the music, any jingle jangle time of day or night (especially if you've got an "E" harmonica, Any-body).

About a year or so ago I had a great idea for a poem bringing together some of the many magical, mystical, mythical places in popular songs. Coupled with one of my favorite lines from Melville's Moby-Dick, the poem had epic written all over it. Well, this ain't no epic. I never really liked how this came out, but it's a start, maybe. If nothing more, all you musical trainspotters can tally up all the allusions and direct references; best answer/comment will receive a musical gift from yours truly. Anyway, you could do a lot worse than following the music.

How to Get to the Truest Places in Popular Song Without a Map

It’s not on any map; the truest places never are.
Herman Melville

Put your cat clothes on
And ride the summer wind west
On Thunder Road out of town
But don’t count the cars on
The New Jersey turnpike
Catch the number 12 bus
In the parking lot of the tree museum and
Fall asleep in Brooklyn
And don’t wake until you reach
The Tecumseh Valley between
The Sugar and Big Rock Candy Mountains.
Once there, wade across Cripple Creek
To the banks of the Ohio
Walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes
Then hop the Friendship Train
Riding the blinds past Folsom Prison
Parchman Farm, Maggie’s Farm, Tupelo, Ipanema
Through the eternal echoes of whippoorwills
And steel hammers
Chat with the three admirable men
Until you reach the coast
Then ride a pony onto a yacht
And Sail Away all the way to Ta hi ti
Where you’ll catch a wave to Caledonia.
Refresh yourself at the Dew Drop Inn
Before mounting a white bicycle
Acoustic variety,
And peddle your way past all
The fat-bottomed girls
Till you reach Fujiyama
(though do call ahead to tell
your Big Mama you’ll be rollin’ in).
After tossin’ and turnin’ and
Rockin’ and rollin’
On her big brass bed
Slip away at dawn
And in the early morning rain
Leave on a jet plane
Bound to some rain grey town
Where, upon disembarking,
Dis Harry in his taxi
And settle into a long black limousine and
Tell the driver the name of the place is
I Like It Like That
Adding that if he combs his hair right
And wears tighter pants, he could be a star.
Once in da club doff your hat
To the gin-soaked barroom queen
And imbibe your Coca-Cola flavored champagne
And when you eventually get bounced like a red rubber ball
Run up the nearest hill and flag a ride
On a magic carpet to the sea
Where you’ll take the plunge
Way down below the ocean
And come out the other side stomping wet in Bron-Yr-Aur.
Now you’re making progress.
Across the Village Green and just over Muswell Hill
You’ll spy a cathouse:
Put on some new blue jeans and hi-heel sneakers
And knock three times and ask for
Madam Roux.
She’ll tell you to take a hike
Down country roads to the crossroads
Just past the hedgerow with a bustle
Take a left (not a right, you don’t want to
Go to Chelsea) a left on Highway 61
And start crawling past the mansion on the hill
And the chicken shack with the pink Cadillacs out back
And the shotgun shack and the house of blue lights and
The Surf Ballroom, Belzoni’s sawmill,
The Piss Factory, Lodi, Hammersmith Palais,
The charred pyre at Joshua Tree,
Trenchtown and Rockaway Beach.
When you can finally see the Las Vegas Hilton
In the misty mountain fog,
Take the next right onto Cyprus Avenue
Where, at the dark end of the street,
`Neath the lone apple suckling tree,
You’ll find me lazing,
Waiting for you,
My I-Pod on random eternally.

Ken Boothe-Mr. Tambourine Man

Rolf Ableiter & Band-Shelter From The Storm

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Does Anybody Remember Laughter?

Rough day, I guess. Seems like just about everybody I ran into today was having a rather unamusing day. Then I was lamenting with my mother about how there don't seem to be any great comedians anymore. So here's a couple steps back into time all in search of a nonsense laugh or two. Chuckle away.

Marmalade-Laughing Man

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Sound Of One Man Yawping

My career as a performer started inauspiciously with a speaking part in a first grade play. Well, not really speaking, whispering actually. I played Mr. Bear and I got to whisper the secret to the girl who had the only real speaking part. I was a good bear, though. After that triumph, I moved into my latency period, not appearing on stage until the age of 21 when I performed some warped stand-up as an opening act for the infamous J. Alan Throbbing Zero Hour performance art shows 1984-85. The next year I reprised the humorous shtick opening up for the great Meat Puppets at an exclusive club gig in Chicago (or was it my fraternity's living room?). In the meantime I had started really performing--five gigs daily, hawking literature and grammar to adolescents. With such a fearless grounding in the theater of the absurd, I gave my greatest performance ever in a crowded bar in Cleveland's Warehouse District. On a hot August night, I won the bar's treasured lip synch contest by lip synching to an instrumental. That's correct, I stood pretty motionless for a good couple minutes as the theme song from "Mission Impossible" played and the crowd went nuts. My confidence buoyed by that stroke of thespian genius, I was soon performing poetry all over, or basically wherever there was a howling espresso machine to drown out my more poignant lines. I did make it all the way to the National Poetry Slam Finals in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1994, where our team shoulda won, but they changed the rules on us, kind of, and we wound up fourth, I believe.

But now, well, the fans have spoken, TMZ is camped out in front of my house, and Phil Spector's trying to bust out of jail to produce me. Here, then, for the asking, is a freebie: "Big Cat Blues" one of the songs my songwriting partner Ben and I wrote and recorded under the name The Whim. Yes, that is your not-so-humble blogger belting out the vocals (though I think I would feel prouder if I were the one playing that great guitar; I'm not, Rob Muzick is). Enjoy, if you will.

The Whim-Big Cat Blues

Lalo Schifrin-Mission Impossible Theme

Monday, September 21, 2009

My Car, My Soul

Having just gotten off work (a sweat-heavy day, at that) this afternoon, I was doing my usual: sitting on a bench, trying to mind my own business for the first time all day, recollecting my purpose in life, centering, attempting to gather in my chakras, and working up the energy to walk the fifty feet to my car so I could battle my way through my five minute commute and make it to my bed for my afternoon nap, when what do I see but a car whiz past me with a big "Vegan" sticker on the back windshield and a vanity license plate blatantly advertising that the owner/driver of said car is a nerd (to protect the innocent, I won't reveal the actual plate, but it left nothing to the imagination--owner/driver=nerd; I assume he/she made it home in time to feed the cats).

As you can surmise, questions arose, scattering my chakras and totally skewing (and screwing) any centering that was commencing. First of all, is there such a thing as an anti-vanity license plate? Makes me want to gas up grandpa's Olds and drive south in search of "OBESE" and "HOMELY" and "ILLITR8" and "IMSORRY" and "STOLEIT" and "RUBE" and whatever other self-castigating 8-character letter/number combinations people can nightmare up.

Second of all, while I would never equate vegans and nerds (I know a few vegans, and some of them are actually mildly cool; likewise, of the many nerds I come in contact with, I know several who put ketchup on their steaks), it makes me wonder if indeed there might be some statistical correlation between the two. Are vegans more apt to be nerdy than their red-meat salivating counterparts? Any 4.0 stats majors out there with a penchant for tofu who'd like to take a stab, uh, swipe(?), at that one?

The whole thing reminded me of a short story idea I've had for years about a woman who gets picked up for a blind date by a guy who has one of those "Starfleet Academy" stickers on his back windshield. Needless to say, the date goes rapidly downhill from there.

And needless to say, my nap was shot, what with my mind reeling with sociological bumper sticker/license plate musings. But really, it's all so boring, isn't it? Self-expression. One blogs, the other forks over a hundred bucks for a specialty license plate, ho hum.

But then I thought, wait a minute, cars are so under-used, not so much as self-expression, uh, vehicles, but as diversionary amusement objects. Why not have hubcaps that are mini-roulette wheels, so that in heavy traffic your road neighbors can have a little fun wagering while they stop and start? Why not give others with a taller perspective (helicopter pilots, kids who hang out on bridge overpasses spitting or trying to get truckers to honk, stray giraffe, the inevitable flying car jockeys) a chuckle or an ad pitch with large-scale, car roof stickers? "If you can read this, I'll duck." Think of the extra revenue crooks could make by selling their rooftops as ad space, just in case they wind up all over CNN in a high-speed, helicopter-pursued, car chase. Imagine the fun if O.J.'s white Bronco had a big sticker on the top that read, "I'm Hooked On Herb's Bait'n'Tackle Shop."

The mind is fertile, folks, fertile and rife. You all keep surfing your web; I'm calling Ronco and a patent attorney. Gonna give that vegan nerd 10%, too.

Tex Rubinowitz-Hot Rod Man

Kenny-The Bump

Sunday, September 20, 2009

One For The Kids

For a long time I've admired the poetry of native Ohioan David Wagoner, especially his poem "Walking in a Swamp." In direct language the poem gives what seems like very sound advice about what to do if you find yourself stuck and sinking in a swamp. But the poem also functions on a more metaphoric, symbolic level as well. Wagoner has several poems in this vein.

Anyway, I loved the poem so much, I ripped it off for an entire summer a few years ago. I wrote a whole series of quasi-instructional poems for children. Here's one of my favorites:

If You Swallow A Watermelon Seed . . .

If you swallow a watermelon seed,
Don’t panic.
Don’t cough a thunderstorm,
Don’t squeeze your tummy up your throat,
Don’t even call a plumber.
You won’t grow a watermelon tree inside of you.
It’ll pass.
If you’re the adventurous sort,
The kind of kid who walks backwards in the dark
And hops on one foot for an hour
Just to make your little sister angry,
Well then, maybe you might want
To grow a watermelon tree inside you.
If so,
Eat a plate of cholocately graham cracker pie crust immediately;
Your tummy’ll need some good soil for the seed to root in.
Drink nine glasses of water every day
To irrigate your baby watermelon tree properly.
Once a week, fertilize it with some Gummy Bears
To give your watermelons that sweet flavor.
Stand on your head once a month for three minutes
To encourage rapid growth
And sing songs to your tree regularly, but remember to sing them
With your mouth closed so the song goes down into your tummy.
Make sure you clean your ears every night, because
That’s where the watermelons come out when they’re ripe
And ready to eat.
But be patient.
Watermelons are large and oh so good
So they take a long time to grow.
You’ll be an old person of thirty or forty
By the time you have watermelons growing out of your ears,
But that’s okay because
When you’re grown up is when you really need the pleasure
Of having watermelons growing out of your ears.
And besides, you’ll have a reason to eat Gummy Bears
For years and years and years.

Greg Brown-Mighty Sweet Watermelon

Mongo Santamaria-Watermelon Man

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Touchdown King

Call me Uncle Proud. Third down in the red zone. The slot receiver goes in motion, takes a hand-off from the QB and sweeps left, makes a deft cutback and bulls over the goal line: paydirt. Touchdown. No. 10, my ten-year-old nephew, conveniently named Danny. Thirty-three years after I suffered a crushing loss to the arch-rival Sabres while wearing the Bulldog Blue and Gold, Danny started the payback early with his first quarter TD, and the Bulldogs never looked back. Revenge, even a third of a century later, is oh so sweet, especially when it's a blood thing. Look out Cleveland Heights, bragging rights are mine.

Also saw a great movie, today, Cold Souls. Go see it.

Meat Puppets-Touchdown King

Elvis Presley-Danny

Friday, September 18, 2009

Got A Good Hour To Contemplate A New York Minute?

Time was, I could easily be impressed by a simple bathroom sink that suddenly transformed itself into a shower stall. But there'll be a time for that story later on. First and foremost, how weird is the phrase, "time was"? Time only is, is it not? Time was seems to imply that time is no more, it is dead, a thing of the past. But I neither have the time nor the inclination, nor really, the scientific/metaphysical chops, to get all philosophical about time (though isn't about 62% of one's lifespan, i.e. one's time alive--before one isn't anymore though time certainly continues its is-ness--spent in the throes of some kind of time/inclination conundrum, unless one is the protagonist of Harry Chapin's [time was he--Harry--was is, but no more, Mr. Chapin, he dead, though the protagonist of said song, which, time permitting, I will get to, lives on forever thanks to the magic of recording devices and oldies radio] uber-hit "Cat's In The Cradle" in which case one will spend eternity [time is-ness to the nth degree, which begs the question, what is the nth degree in Celsius? The fth degree?] trapped in a Sisyphean time/inclination conundrum hell).

Anyway, all of this started with me musing all day long for some reason on the phrase "New York minute." I think I heard it on the radio this morning in between startled jabbings of my snooze alarm (time was I lived carefree, without the need for alarm clocks; then, just as my inclination to sleep more began to increase, so did the demands on my morning time, hence the need for an alarm clock, until, in due time and thanks to Darwin's hot-wiring my body to adapt to dog-eat-dog conditions, time became and still is, the time to employ a back-up time/wake up device to effectively do the job to disconnect me, if not disincline me, from sleep and into a somewhat conscious state in time for me to get to where I have to be at this particular time: ergo, a clock radio that comes on a good hour before the time I need to arise, and a secondary, nuisance-clock, i.e. snooze alarm variety, that bleats starting a good half-hour ['good' idiomatically speaking only, an hour or a half hour spent half-awake to news radio and every five minutes cardiac arresting myself to arrest the little clock's mocking little bleats--such an hour or half hour cannot possibly ever--time is or time was--be actually 'good'].

So all day long I've been thinking about the phrase New York minute, and beyond my admittedly provincial bias that big deal, time can fly pretty rapidly during the time of one's day, but why should New York get all the credit (I mean New York already claims a great strip steak, which I ain't no gustatory aficionado, but I'll bet my rump steak that that steak didn't originate in New York, and what, any fastest, biggest, best thing ever has to be a New York thing? So a sneeze that would really blow your eyes out if you kept them open is a "New York Sneeze"? Or after having to hold it in a long time, you take a "New York Leak"? For some reason, a "Chicago Leak" seems more appropriate in that case), I started thinking about what other "_________ Minutes" would feel like.

Would a Tuscaloosa Minute be the time it would take for a bead of sweat to roll rapidly down your forehead into your eye and causing you to cuss madly until you can rub the sting out? Would a Detroit Minute be the time it would take for a mob of octopi-wielding drunks to set your car on fire? Would a Dallas Minute be the time it would take you to realize, while soaking in a hot shower, that everything that seemed to happen in your life the last year was all just a dream? Would an Atlanta Minute be the time it would take you to get hopelessly lost on the freeway and find yourself in the exit only lane to the Highway to Hell? Would a Paris Minute be the time it would take you to nibble cheese and a baguette while sipping cheap red wine, fall hopelessly and painfully in and out of love, buy a stick of butter, and end up spending the rest of your life dressing in black and muttering c'est la vie through Gauloises smoke rings? Would a Cleveland Minute be the time it would take for your favorite sports team to crush your heart while you hit a massive pothole trying to avoid an orange barrel and the temperature plummets from a sticky 89 (degrees Fahrenheit) to a frigid minus 17 (wind chill) and another county politician's office gets raided by the FBI?

Anyway, time is I tell you the story that time was I started writing to tell you about (diagram that New York Syntax of a sentence, class). In a Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, bed and breakfast bedroom once, while I and my traveling partner lay sprawled on beds exhausted from four weeks of UK bus and train and foot trekking, a Limey Martha Stewart on Benzedrine displayed her family jewels--a new-fangled device that with a press of this wee button here transformed an innocuous though very appealing bathroom sink into, Bloody Hell Did You See That!, a full-size shower stall, complete with flowery curtain and for the first time in four weeks some good old New York Water Pressure. Well Jane Jetson my Cleveland Ass, I said, suddenly more awake than any time was or time is Poughkeepsie Snooze Alarm could would or better ever wake me, it's time to hit the showers.


Cato Salsa Experience-Time To Freak Out!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Not Quitting My Day Job Yet

Busy day today. After work I'm going into the studio to record some vocals for a song I wrote with my songwriting partner, Ben (music him, lyrics me). We've written dozens of songs and recorded a few of them. Go here to hear them.

The eels-I Write The B-Sides

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Austen/Lincoln Conspiracy?

They say everybody's got at least one book in him/her. From my vantage point on the front lines of the book business, I'm beginning to believe that there are only two books that can wind up being in you: a biography of Abe Lincoln or a sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

I swear to Gutenberg there is at least one of these two types of books published every week. Granted, both Lincoln and Austen's novel are extremely praiseworthy entities and deserve to be studied, revisited, and even revered, but really, haven't we had enough? I've read a few Lincoln bios and read and re-read P&P and taught it to teenage girls (a real pleasure) for several years, but this madness has to end. Unless you can prove to me that Lincoln loved Austen and wrote gushing letters about P&P & S&S & MP etc. to his friend Joshua Speed, I don't need another rehash of his life. And unless Darcy ditches Lizzie, sails to America, holes up in Kentucky, and fathers a kid named Abraham, let it be.

I'm sorry, I just had to vent a little. Now I can resume work on my opus: a post-modern novel about Gerald R. Ford's attempt--during his brief reign as Vice President, when he thought he'd have a lot of time on his hands--to write a sequel to Wuthering Heights in Esperanto.

Howard Tate-Stop

P.S. Just saw that Mary Travers, the Mary of Peter, Paul &, died today. The very first of thousands of all-time favorite songs in my life was "Puff The Magic Dragon."

Peter, Paul and Mary-Puff The Magic Dragon

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Deputy Dan

Years ago I worked in a mall bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina ("the Paris of the South," as some natives called it). It wasn't quite the Deep South, but it was south, all right. One of the young women who worked with me was very funny. I'll call her Angie. One day she came up to me and said (imagine a twangy accent): "Dan, I gotta ask you a stupid question. And you know it's stupid coming from me if I'm telling you it's stupid." Having just spent eight years teaching, I resisted the urge to say, "There are no stupid questions, Angie..." Maybe I had a hunch about what was coming.

"Who won the Civil War?" Maybe there are stupid questions. "I'm reading this romance book and it's all about the Civil War, and I was just wondering."

"The North won, Angie."

"Oh yeah, WE got trounced."

But Angie was a great and very diligent co-worker. It was another co-worker, though, Amanda, who bestowed on me the nickname Deputy Dan. Or as she would pretty much howl when I got to work (imagine a really good southern accent): "DEP-uteee Daaaannnnnn!"

It was a Saturday afternoon during the holiday season. The mall bustled and people were crowding the very narrow store. At the front, across a small aisle and a couple stacks of books from the cash register, stood our magazine rack. In the far right upper corner was our modest smut (nice oxymoron there, students) section, which consisted of Playboy, Penthouse, and Playgirl.

Well, all of a sudden a noise of about six teenagers (14 or 15, three boys and three girls) explodes into the store. My teacher instincts perked right up. The boys were up to no good, I could feel it in my bones. I took a circuitous route from the cash register over toward the magazine rack, where the young thugs were naturally gathered. Keeping my steely eyes on the soon-to-be-perps, I slithered my way between law-abiding customers and stacks of bargain Civil War coffee table books (a perennial bestseller in those parts, albeit books Angie obviously never glanced at). And then, just as the cleanest cut, most innocent lad of the gang blindly reached behind him up to the smut to undoubtedly impress/shock/titillate his friends, I made my move.

"You're not old enough to be reading that!" I bellowed and moved quickly toward the startled young man. And just in case you think I can't bellow, move quickly, and assess the crime scene at the same time, I noticed the boy had grabbed a Playgirl instead of the Playboy or Penthouse he had intended to grab. "And besides," I said, snatching the shrink-wrapped smut from the wide-eyed boy's mitts and flashing it at his cohorts, "you took the wrong one!"

Instant amusement among the throng of innocent shoppers, shrieks of embarrassment and glee from the girls, as they rushed out of the store behind their high-tailing male counterparts. I assume the offender has stopped turning red lo these sixteen years later.

Well, in Amanda's eyes, who witnessed the whole incident with much delight, I was now the walking embodiment of a Rhett Butler-Buford Pusser merging. And so, the legend of DEP-uteee Daaaaannnn was born.

Joe Tex-I Gotcha

Junior Murvin-Police & Thieves

Monday, September 14, 2009


No, it's not some new anti-depressant to take after you encounter me. It's merely a list of words I've coined but as of yet have not earned me any coin. I guess The Washington Post has some new word contest every year, which people have sent me, but I've never figured out to enter the thing. I'd like to think that my real inspiration comes from the comedian Rich Hall and his "sniglets"--words that aren't in any dictionary but should be.

You'd think that with the thousands and thousands of words in the English language, we writers and speakers would be satisfied, but there are just some situations, some people, some things, that scream out for their own word. Here are a few. Feel free to make rampant use of them in your various verbal activities. DISCLAIMER: I thought up all of these on my own, though some seem so obvious to me, it wouldn't surprise me if someone else has come up with them too. So I claim originality, if not the out and out invention.

Urinag—the guy next to you in a public restroom who tries to strike up a conversation

Juru—a Hasidic sage

Emailciate—to delete all the unwanted e-mail in your in-box

Harmalade—preserves left in the refrigerator long past the expiration date

Curmidgeon—a cantankerous gnatlike fly

Reggaelic—a genre of music enjoyed by Jamaican-Irish

Sexpulsion—the effect of one partner’s headache upon the other

Handicarp—to complain about inadequate wheelchair-accessibility

Margrinal—a hint of a smile

Bigrate—to drift away from one’s assumed sexual preference

Slavatory—a public restroom in Belgrade

Punsy—a wimp who likes word jokes

Parashut—certain death

Philostophy—all that cool stuff you learned in an intro to philosophy course, which you now can’t remember

Laborastory—a tedious, tall tale about white rats and Bunsen burners

Bigloo—an Eskimo king’s bathroom

Transvestithe—to make regular payments to the local cross-dresser

Portfoldio—your stocks, after the market crashes/d

Merlout—a sophisticated wino

Sloquacious—what you call a stutterer who won’t shut up

Smutiny—a rebellion on the porno set

Marianne Faithfull-Broken English

R.I.P. Jim Carroll

Jim Carroll-Tiny Tortures

Sunday, September 13, 2009

17 Lists

Santa Claus, given today's omni-neurotic climate, must be a pretty laid-back guy. Anybody who makes a list and checks it only twice obviously has his psychic baggage neatly arranged.

The world is filled with listmakers and their lists. Go into any bookstore, read any kind of magazine, check any website, or, God forbid, wade through scores of blogs, and you'll be bombarded with lists of what to do before you die (I believe Oprah's next book club book is going to be paranormal guru's [is there a feminine form of guru? guruette? galru?] Sylvia Brown's scintillating 1,001 Astral Planes to Visit After You 'Cross Over'), what to listen to now, what to eat, drink, avoid, pray to, complain about.

I blame the perfect storm (16th on my list of cringe-worthy phrases) that's been brewing for years now whose elements include cable tv, High Fidelity (book by Nick Hornby, movie starring John Cusack), the internet (don't you look askance at people who call it "the web"?), David Letterman, self-importance, not enough unstructured play time for our children, restless leg syndrome, fewer smokers, Obama's nebulous but most certainly something-ist health care reform plans, the death of print journalism, Glenn Beck, and academia's cruel neglect of Totie Fields.

I've already read enough Best of 2009 lists to short-circuit me and it isn't even October. To be honest, the only public lists that really matter are these. But, because the fourth item on my life-coach's agenda (a list is a list, pal) for my self-renewal is "go with the flow, less obstreperously," I'll submit and give you all a glance (premium followers of this site get the Full Danny) at my own frenzied list-making.

Herewith, then, excerpts from some of my most recent and thought-provoking lists. (In honor of my father, whose go-to number was always some variation on 17, as in, "There must be 17,000 parenthetical asides in this post," I'll provide the 17th item from 17 lists.)

Favorite Sunsets (Week of June 15-21)

17. Wednesday, June 17--"the hues have a quasi-Basil Rathbone-ish feel to them"

Places I Want To Revisist Today, March 13

17. Waffle House, Exit 48, .3 miles >, I-77 North, North Carolina

Favorite Last Names

17. Wallechinsky

Least Favorite City's Tap Water

17. Tacoma

Most Overrated Underrated Beatles Tune

17. "Kom, Gib Mir Deine Hand"--German-language version of "I Want To Hold Your Hand"

Favorite Dead Comedians

17. tie: Carrot Top; Totie Fields

Favorite Big Ten Teams

17. n/a

Blog Post Ideas

17. Who Would Name Their Kid Totie?

Least Favorite Digit

17. tie: 21; left ring finger

Colors I Have No Idea What They Look Like

17. puce

1,001 Recordings I'll Die Before I Listen To

17. Jim Nabors Covers Johnny Mathis

Words To Work Into My Everyday Chit-Chat More Often

17. rube

Shopping List, August 4

17. post-its (generic brand)

May 14: This Rash On My Arm Might Be

17. ague

Sexiest Use of Pen and Pad Witnessed, Ever

17. Waitress, Waffle House, Exit 48, .3 miles >, I-77 North, North Carolina

Top 20 Mediocre Bruce Springsteen Songs

17. "Ramrod"

To Don't List, April, 2009

17. power nap at the DMV

Ian Dury & The Blockheads-Reasons to Be Cheerful (Pt.3)

And check out this fabulous list: Doug Hall's "These Are The Rules"

Saturday, September 12, 2009

David Foster Wallace

A year ago today David Foster Wallace died. Read the particulars here. All I want to say is very few, if any, writers have excited me the way Wallace has/does. His name on a magazine cover or in its table of contents was all I needed to know to buy.

I never had more fun reading a book, or experiencing, imbibing, what have you, any "work of art" than I did reading Infinite Jest in the fall of 1996. All 1,000 crazy pages of it, including all the funky endnotes. The short stories of Brief Interviews With Hideous Men still make me itch. And the breadth of his non-fiction writing, humorous and enlightening and so congenial, made whatever he was writing about--state fairs, junior tennis, grammar textbooks--the only thing you cared about.

Bob Mould, a fairly great guitarist himself, once said of seeing Richard Thompson in concert something like this: "I looked at my hands and thought I either have to practice a helluva lot more or give up the guitar completely." A writer could think the same thing about writing while reading Wallace.

I used to read to my classes an excerpt from his state fair essay in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. They laughed. I found this clip of him reading a different excerpt from the same essay.

A professor I once had, remarking about the people who criticized the poet Anne Sexton for killing herself, said something like this: "They never give her credit for all the days she woke up and lived." Thank you for living and writing, David Foster Wallace.

Pylon-Read A Book

Friday, September 11, 2009

More Absurdity: 9/11

Yesterday I wrote about nonsense absurdity in life. Today's absurdity is much more complex. Without going into all the difficult details, on September 11, 2001, amid all the horror of that day, I experienced undoubtedly the most emotionally happy moment of my life, when I learned that someone I knew, who was in the World Trade Center when the planes hit, was safe.

It was so strange to be so elated, giddy really, while so much tragedy was occurring. I certainly can't feel guilty about my reaction, but when I think about the day I'm always struck by how gnarled life and life's experiences can be. Absurdity to the nth degree.

So it goes, I guess. My prayers for all those who lost loved ones that day.

Aimee Mann and Michael Penn-Reason To Believe

Bob Dylan-Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Of Nader, Hawaii, and Wally Cox

You never have to look far to find proof of rampant absurdity in our world. Today at the bookstore, I was shelving a new novel written by Ralph Nader. Yes, that one. See what I mean? This struggling scribe certainly doesn't want to plug that book, so no title, but it is very thick and sports a brightly garish cover. What really is absurd, though, it ended up being shelved right next to Nabokov's Lolita. Say what you will about politics, but literature (real or alleged) makes for some really bent bedfellows. Reminds me of the fact that early in their careers, Marlon Brando and Wally Cox were roommates.

No wonder this life-long Cleveland boy is thinking about Hawaii tonight. I've never been there, probably never will go there, and to be honest, I don't really have much desire to go there. Any place that seems perpetually sunny gives me, a pale redhead (there's some redundancy for you) the fantods. Something tells me I'd be allergic to a lei, too. I don't think I've ever watched an entire episode of Hawaii Five-O, either, but I've sure heard "Book 'em, Danno" enough for one lifetime.

Two months ago I was at a party and started making small talk with a European woman who had just moved to Cleveland after about twenty years of living in Hawaii. On this particular night she was cold. In July! I was waxing poetic about the wonderfully unique four seasons we experience every year in Cleveland, she was waxing nostalgic about how every day in Hawaii it's 84 degrees. I asked her if Hawaii had any kind of a discernible winter. "Yes," she said. "It only gets to 82." Well, that's been about the funniest retort I've heard in months.

Anyway, I can't explain why I love these three songs, other than the fact that life is absurd, and so are these three songs. The singing, from Brian Wilson's heavenly falsetto, to Warren Zevon's simpering, voice-breaking loser, to Bruno Wolfe's (who he?) side-of-the-mouth world-weary leering, is a three-course absurdist's delight.

Two months from now I could be shovelling snow and reading Ralph Nader's novel for my book club while throwing a ukulele at the TV set during a Browns game and in the process somehow switching the channel permanently to the Hawaii Five-O channel. Who do you think cleaned the bathroom, Marlon or Wally?

The Beach Boys-Hawaii

Warren Zevon-The Hula Hula Boys

Jim Kweskin & The Jug Band-Ukelele Lady

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Toward Heaven

I'm sitting on the back porch this beautiful late summer evening, watching and listening to the big trees blow in the breeze, and I wonder, does anybody climb trees anymore? Not the hobbyists and "professionals" with all kinds of ropes and gear, whose pictures I kept coming across while looking for a nice picture, but everyday folks, kids especially.

I can't claim that I was ever an avid or expert tree-climber in my youth, but thinking back, I have a lot of good memories of hanging about in trees. We had a very small cherry tree in our backyard (I swear I did not cut it down) and I remember one day, I couldn't have been more than seven, getting a big plastic garbage bag, scaling the tree and jumping out. Well, the drop couldn't have been more than five feet, and I couldn't have weighed more than 45 pounds, so the anticipated parachute effect, sadly, never occurred.

A friend of mine from way back then, Michael, was an expert--read, fearless--climber of trees. There was a huge maple tree a couple houses down from ours that he loved to climb. Just to get up to the first branch required Michael to stand on the seat of his propped-up ten-speed. One day after school, probably around sixth or seventh grade, Michael apparently had grown bored of merely climbing the tree; he wanted to make some money out of it.

Sure enough, who comes walking down the street but Ricky, a nice kid but sort of a loud mouth. Michael bets him five bucks he can climb the maple tree all the way to the top. "That tree?" Ricky said. "No way." ("No way" of course were fighting words among 12-year-old boys.)

"Watch me," Michael said, and before Ricky could back out of the deal, Michael was up on the bike seat, up to the first branch, and halfway up the tree.

"You got five bucks on you?" I said to Ricky in my best carny barker voice, figuring I had to have some role in this epic event. Ricky was speechless as he watched Michael climb farther and farther up the tree. Even after years of witnessing Michael's amazing climbing, I became a bit awestruck and then fearful as he reached heights in that tree I had never seen before. The branches were more like twigs up where he was now still climbing.

"There," Michael shouted down from no more than two feet from the highest maple leaf.

"That's not the top. You can't touch that leaf up there." Obviously Ricky didn't have five bucks on him, or he had it and wasn't going to part with it.

"Come on, man," I said to Ricky. "If he moves any higher, he's going to fall. That's pretty much the top of the tree."

"So." Another great kid comeback.

By this time Michael was half-way down the tree. I thought I'd soon be switching hats from carny barker to fight referee.

"Don't go anywhere," Michael said as he jumped from the first branch and immediately saddled his bicycle. "I'll be right back."

Small talk interlude between Ricky and me, something along the lines of, "I'm not paying." "You better. You don't want to make him mad."

Two minutes later Michael rides back, holding a small hacksaw. "Throw this up to me," he tells me, giving me the hacksaw, propping his bike against the tree, and hoisting himself up to the first branch again.

"Nuh unh. That's not fair." Five bucks or no five bucks, Ricky should have stayed around simply to see Michael not only climb, for the second time in about ten minutes, the highest tree any of us had ever climbed, but this time while holding a hacksaw. Maybe by the time he got to his previous top spot and started hacking off the foot or two of the contested leafy twig, Michael from his vantage point could still see Ricky somewhere way up the street, but my eyes were glued on my fearless friend, madly determined, propped against swaying, thin branches, sawing away at a tiny twig.

In case you're reading Ricky, Michael eventually cut through that branch/twig, angrily let the now-dead branch fall, and put his hand on top of the newly shorn, new top of the tree.

A singular, if vicarious, moment in my childhood.

I haven't climbed a tree in years, but I know that somewhere in Frenchville, PA, there's a nice-sized tree that's been waiting more than twenty years for me to return.

Robert Frost-Birches

Kyle Andrews-Tree Hugger

postscript to my Beatles' post of last week: the fun folks at Rock Town Hall have a great debate going on about the most underrated Beatles' song of all time. I offered "Long, Long, Long" (White Album) and got a few backers. Some of the songs being mentioned are "And Your Bird Can Sing" (Revolver), "Hey Bulldog" and "It's All Too Much" (Yellow Submarine) and "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" (Abbey Road)--all great songs. So if you're hankering for some Beatles amid all the recent hype, dust off these non-hits and be happily surprised.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

What's Wrong With This Picture? What's Wrong With This Word?

Well, there's really nothing wrong with this picture. It's the fact that this picture is used to advertise Cialis, a drug used to correct ED (poor Mr. Ed, no wonder he talked so much). I mean, what screams ED more loudly (and the ineffectiveness of anything trying to rectify ED) than a couple separated by porcelain, each alone in his and her one-seater bathtub? But you know all this.

Rather, I use this picture to call a bit of attention to my new purpose in life--saving the use of the word desuetude: [des-wi-tood, -tyood]--the state of being no longer used or practiced (source:

I first encountered this wonderful word in a vocabulary textbook I was using when teaching high school English years ago. It was a splendid book, which I discovered years later (still years ago, but not that many years ago) had sadly fallen out of print--that's correct, it had reached the state of being no longer used. Desuetude.

I next encountered the word, well, nowhere, unless it was in one of those passages of Joyce's Ulysses I kind of skimmed through. How ironic: nobody seems to use the word desuetude anymore. (Don't even try to suggest nobody ever used the word; Jane Austen was a fiend about the word. "Manners, desuetude! Marriageable men with money, desuetude!" Desuetude, desuetude, desuetude, all day long with her.)

And so, tragically, it appears desuetude becomes desuetude. How sad. I mean if a guy buys and ingests Cialis and spends the rest of his life mired in a uni-tub, more fool him. But to allow the word desuetude to lapse into desuetude is shameful. This must not stand! Meaning need not be destiny.

Do you know how dire the situation is? For research purposes I looked up the word desuetude at some highbrow sites and this is what I found: "desuetude was not found in the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary." The Oxford English Dictionary (yeah, that one, on-line version, albeit) replied: "There are no results for your search. Please try again or contact us." Oxford and Cambridge! Now maybe those Brits are still fighting a few hundred years of wars, seeing that desuetude has some French origins, but criminy, desuetude's in trouble folks.

So dear readers (plural--I know the word "desuetude" does not apply to the writing or reading of this blog) it is up to us to save the word desuetude. Pull it out of the dusty storage bin of your lexicon and strew the word desuetude throughout your daily chattering. Mom, next time you see me, say, "Rescue your razor from desuetude, my son." Ladies, next time a man fails to open a door for you, say, "Desuetude got the best of your chivalry, dude?" Men, upon entering your physician's office, proudly declare, "Desuetude no more, gimme a scrip for Cialis, doc."

Thinking globally and acting locally has not fallen into desuetude. Inundate your congressman/woman with telegrams (might as well rescue that communication mode while we're at it) stating: "Action yes, desuetude no! Health care reform now!"

Please, it's such a pretty word. Never mind how it looks, listen to how it speaks, nay sings--des-wi-tood. Three gorgeous and totally different syllables merging into one unified overwhelmingly beautiful whole like cheese, bread, tomatoes=pizza. Or Scranton, Wilkes, and Barre. Desuetude sounds like a lone branch blowing in a midnight breeze. A come-hither from an oasis. A "next" in the line at the BMV.

Enough, if I had all the bandwidth in the world, I could fill it up with paeans to this phenomenal word. But words aren't enough, we must act. Become a certified desue-dude now: go forth and speak it.

Bill Withers-Use Me

Monday, September 7, 2009

Monk Is The Word

More than twenty years ago, I had the privilege of visiting a couple of monasteries, abbeys, actually. Quite an amazing experience. Over the years, I think of the brothers going about their daily routine of work and prayer, unchanging as the world outside continually changes.

Today I felt a tinge of monkishness, having to work while just about the whole country "celebrated" Labor Day by not working. I did my best. But it got me thinking about something I wrote a few years go, trying to provide a pick-me-up for someone who seemed to need one. I had picked up a copy of The Collected Short Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman because he was always one of those writers I wanted to learn more about (check him out here). A review I read called the story "The Mission" one of the funniest stories in American literature. So I got the book and turned right to the story. I start reading and reading, and I'm not laughing. I read more, and don't laugh. I get to end of the six-page story, think a minute, and I laugh hysterically.

Basically, without spoiling anything, the story allowed me permission to take a good joke and turn it into a short story. Which I did with what follows. Hope you laugh.


So I know this guy named Dean. Known him since he moved to Cleveland from Tulsa in the seventh grade. He didn't fit in real well at our close-knit Catholic school, probably because he was a real Catholic, ultra. While the rest of us boys could recite up-to-the minute batting averages of our favorite baseball players and children's phone line numbers of our favorite girls at the drop of a hat, he was into saints. Hit him up in the lunch line or on the playground with some random date, and he'd tell you whose feast it was: September 1st: Saint Fiacre. While we all snuck gulps of church wine after serving mass at eight in the morning, he'd stand in the corner (keeping watch for the priest and those old ladies who are sort of church/priest groupies, always hanging around the sacristy--at least he was sort of a team player) and mumble the Apostle's Creed.

Anyway, Dean was all right after a while. He could take a joke and he was as sweet as anyone, and even we in our worst seventh grade boy moments could respect totally unmalicious, unpolitical sweetness. In high school he sang in the men's chorus and acted in the plays and went to all the dances, always with a different girl, but they all looked the same, like they'd just stepped out of some twisted, mail-order would-be nun catalog. He went to Notre Dame, of course, and even succumbed to getting drunk every once in a while there, and graduated magna cum laude with a degree in theology and a minor in African-American Studies. He taught religion at an inner-city elementary school for a few years, but got burned pretty badly by the mother of one his students, a sweetly malicious woman named Melinda who was one of the world's first crack addicts. She played him for a fool and ended up bilking him out of about ten thousand dollars and much innocence and self-possession.

When he turned thirty he went to Europe for a year to do nothing but tour great cathedrals, but once again he was led into precarious straits by a Czech woman and her half-brother; let's just say that when they need to, American Embassies can pull a lot of weight. Fully chastened and feeling aimless for the first time in his life, Dean returned to America, made a half-hearted attempt to get a doctorate in philosophy, fell in with some guerrilla-style renegade priests who'd descend upon unwitting highway rest stops and perform three-hour Latin masses to road-weary travelers. In a turn of events no one has ever believed so I'll spare you the fascinating details and the story about the circus performer, he finally decided to enter an obscure monastery located high in the Rockies near Butte.

When he first arrived (and this story was related to me via three-D crucifixion postcards over several months in `95), he decided to shed all his worldly cynicism and force himself to look at the world through those same unscarred eyes with which he arrived in Cleveland in August `75. On his first day, he had a private meeting with the head monk, Brother Nunzio. Now Brother Nunzio, I guess, was revered as a Buddha-like figure; he didn't say much to his religious charges, but he was the most pious, self-effacing, self-denying man any of the two-and-a-half score monks who lived at the monastery (no devout slouches themselves) had ever encountered. Brother Nunzio didn't usually get close with the new monks (and he considered any monk who had been a monk less than twenty years a new monk: "Rome wasn't built in a day," he used to say, "nor is a worthy soul tilled in less than 10,000 days"), but for whatever reason, at lunch on Dean's first day (grilled cheese sandwiches, tomato soup, and Acts 12:1-45, read aloud as the brothers ate in silence) Brother Nunzio took a shine to good-hearted Dean and took him by the arm after the meal and led him to his cell. There they chatted in whispers about Dean's calling, the rigors of the monastic life, eternal penance, and Brother Nunzio's odd fascination with "this new kind of music I have heard about, what they call, hip-hop, yes?" After their hour-long colloquy, Brother Nunzio told Dean that instead of floors, his work detail from the start would be copying the great texts. Dean, naturally, was ecstatic ("he didn't even ask to see my penmanship!") and went to work immediately in the dusty old library, and began apprenticing under the stern tutelage of Brother Stoudt, who was never known to make one erroneous ink-smudge in more than forty years of copying the great religious texts of the monastery. Dean was obviously intimidated by Brother Stoudt, but he soon took to his chores with relish, poring over the great pious writings and copying their ornate letters into newer leather-bound books.

After two weeks at the job, though (and after a mini-crisis when his wrist seemed to go dead for three days before snapping back to life stronger than ever--a common malady known to all monk-scribes everywhere as Resurrection Wrist), an odd, nagging question kept assaulting Dean throughout his long days and nights of transcribing, praying, eating, and not speaking. At first he chalked this doubt up to being a newbie, and with the kibosh put on much social interaction, Dean didn't feel comfortable approaching any of his new brethren about it, and he certainly would never say anything to Brother Stoudt; "He'd probably bust me back down to floors for a decade or three," Dean wrote.

But during his third week, after a dinner of fish sticks, soda crackers and peanut butter, and Leviticus 11:36-112, Brother Nunzio once again tugged at his cloak and led him down the dark hallways to his cell. Brother Nunzio pulled a bottle of contraband Swiss Cream Soda, warm, out of his austere bureau, poured Dean and himself small paper cups, and asked him, "So how's the life, young brother?"

Dean whispered his joy at living the contemplative life, his fondness for the example of his wiser brothers, and his grateful privilege at being allowed to work with the sacred texts day after day. Brother Nunzio nodded in shared glee, it seemed to Dean, but then he asked, "But what are your complaints, young brother?" Dean thought this was a test, so of course he said he had no complaints. Brother Nunzio persisted, though, and finally Dean did manage to whisper that his mattress was a bit old and severe. Nunzio drank deep his Swiss Cream Soda, suppressed a minor burp, and said, "You're a monk, what do you expect? But what are your real complaints?" The voice was more emotional, more football-coach-like than wise old monk, and in a moment of divine inspiration, Dean thought to himself, well, if this guy wants the dope on hip-hop, I guess I can spill the beans.

"Well, Brother Nunzio, there is just one thing."

"Ah, speak, young brother," oozed Brother Nunzio, closing his eyes and sort of rocking back in anticipated empathy.

"Well, it's been bugging me for a few days now," Dean began. "I work all day copying the great texts, but I know that the texts I'm copying from aren't the original texts."

Brother Nunzio was a bit taken aback, not expecting this complaint. "Well, obviously, young brother, the original texts are too sacred and too fragile to be handled every day, by humble men like you and me; they are stored in the vault in the attic."

"I understand that, Brother Nunzio," Dean said, feeling that under the influence of the cream soda he might as well go for broke, "but I worry that maybe years ago, centuries ago, somebody might have made an honest mistake in transcribing the texts, and unbeknownst to generations of monks, the mistake has been replicated hundreds of times."

Now Brother Nunzio did burp. He looked like somebody would look at the onset of a cardiac arrest. "Good God, son," Nunzio whispered; his cup of cream soda visually trembled, "such a thought never occurred to me." He gulped down the rest of the cream soda and looked for a long minute at the crucifix that faced him across the small room, then said, "But I will investigate. Rest assured, young Brother Dean. I will go immediately to the vault and look at the original sacred texts and make sure no mistake has been made. Now," he said, rising with much force and tossling Brother Dean's new tonsure, "trouble yourself no more about this matter. It is in my hands. Sleep peacefully." With that he walked out of his cell, but not before blindly dropping the empty paper cup to the wicker wastebasket that sat near the door. The cup hit the rim of the basket, though, and fell to the floor. Brother Nunzio didn't seem to notice; he just kept walking in the direction of the vaulted sacred texts.

Dean did sleep deeply that night, dreaming of singing nuns and vodka martinis in a post-communist Prague sidewalk cafe. At breakfast (oatmeal, unbuttered toast, grapefruit juice, and Exodus 6:13-82) there was some quiet scurrying about by some of the middle-management monks before finally Brother Cletus, a no-nonsense former FBI agent/CYO soccer coach, interrupted the silence by announcing that Brother Nunzio was missing. They had checked his cell, but he wasn't there, and his bed appeared not to have been slept in the previous night. The tables of monks turned into a pack of high school girls, though lower in volume, spreading rumors and theories amongst themselves. But quickly Dean got up from his table, walked up to Brother Cletus, and told him that they should look in the attic, that Brother Nunzio had gone there last night to consult the sacred texts. Brother Cletus nodded his head, told Brother Dean to resume eating, and motioned to brothers Floyd and Lowell, twins who used to work as longshoremen in Brooklyn, and the three of them bustled out of the dining room.

Dean said the rest of the story is clouded in legend, hearsay, and third-hand accounts (not helped by the fact that Brother Nunzio, soon after being discovered, packed his bag and fled in dazed silence), but from what he could piece together from the most reliable sources he could find is this: brothers Cletus, Floyd, and Lowell entered the attic, shyly calling out Brother Nunzio's name, more than a little scared of what they might find. The attic was dank, dark, and overstuffed, but eventually they heard soft sobs coming from a far corner. With great care the three tough monks approached the delicate old monk, who sat on an old wooden chair, unshaven, unkempt, distraught, and sobbing a long sob.

"Brother Nunzio," asked Lowell, the "soft" but more pious twin monk, "what's wrong?"

Minutes seemed to pass as the three tough monks watched in fascinated uneasiness as Brother Nunzio tried to speak but could only manage weak hand gestures that bespoke helplessness. Finally, after a heavy sag, he managed to whisper in a voice most despairing and empty, "Celebrate. The word is cele-BRATE."

Kool and The Gang-Celebration

Jill Scott-Celibacy Blues

The Monks-Complication

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Skinny Little Boy From Cleveland, Ohio

Yeah, once upon a time, that was me. But today I had the good fortune to do a little time-traveling back to those carefree days. By a series of strange coincidences, I recently re-connected with an old, old friend, Geoff. We were great pals back around the time we were seven or so, but hadn't seen or spoken to each other in about thirty-five years. I guess that's a nice thing about aging, you can say to someone, "I haven't seen you in thirty-five years," and it feels great.

Anyway, this morning Geoff and I had a nice re-acquainting round of golf at the course where way back when we used to go swimming and pick blackberries. Well, Geoff had a nice round--his best of the year; mine was rather erratic, but I'll chalk that up to all the good memories spinning through my head and messing with my swing thoughts.

Among a few near-miss opportunities over the years--turns out I used to work with his step-sister--we discovered we attended the same Alex Bevan concert at University School back in 1977. Well, if you're from around Cleveland, mention of the name Alex Bevan immediately makes you start singing, "I'm a skinny little boy from Cleveland, Ohio, come to chase your women and drink your beer..." And that's just what we did--sing, not chase and drink. A fine song. And an especially apt one for time-traveling. Couldn't find the original version (who's got a CD or mp3 of it?), so these latter-day live versions will have to do.

Anyway, great time. So my Sunday piece of advice is, pick up the phone, or better yet, a pen and some paper, and re-connect. The gray hairs and beer guts won't get in the way much.

Alex Bevan-Skinny (Live)

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Spit Out Your Gum

"Did you just spit?"

"Yeah, I love to spit."

She was the most beautiful tomboy I've ever known, and she had just expectorated a rather throaty gob on the sidewalk right next to the main doors of the venerable all-girls private school where I taught and she learned. Hundreds of girls in requisite plaid skirts were jamming the narrow entrance-way after a routine fire drill when I first heard then saw the spit.

It truly was "the spit" of my time at that school. After years of teaching at a similarly venerable all-boys school where there was "a spit" about every 90 seconds (so much so that the head maintenance guy would inform faculty meetings about the astronomical costs of spit removal around campus), including the rite of passage attempt to spit down six flights of steps and hit bottom rather than a banister (oh the demerits meted out for such salivary, phlegmatic infractions), my time at the girls school was happily spit-free, until that glorious moment when that particular girl let go.

Her spit shocked me, but her response delighted me. Instead of some blatant quick lie, "No, I didn't just spit," or some long-winded excuse about asthma, bronchitis, or accidentally inhaling a mosquito, the girl's no-shame, matter-of-fact, nearly proud declaration or her love of spitting just made me chuckle, and maybe shake my head a bit (no demerit was issued).

Shaking not in any "kids these days" impotent dismissal, but shaking in an almost awed respect for her honesty and, most important, her wisdom. Because really, who doesn't love to spit? I had thought it was just a guy thing, but as in so many other ways at that school, the girls--in this case, the girl--taught me a thing or two about the ways of the world. Yes, hopefully we all do move on from the twelve-year-old boy "I spit, therefore I am" ethos, but still, a good spit when needed, or in the right situation, just for the hell of it, is wholly satisfying.

But yes, gum. The girls might not have spit spit, but they sure chewed a helluva lot of gum, which under my vigilant watch entailed a lot of spitting out of gum. I'm sure by the time I taught girls, the boys had taught me the conniving trick of walking to the wastebasket and very demonstratively pulling out a long string of gum, snapping it off, then loudly dropping the gum into the trash--all the better to distract the teacher from the fact that there was still a good-sized hunk of gum in the offender's mouth. "All of it, Sara or Maya or Sarah or Eva or Marcella or whoever."

Some of them were armed with statistics about chewing gum and burning calories, others pleaded the age-old girls-school lament about being "so stressed out." Others just smiled, disposed of the gum, and I'm sure were chewing a fresh piece thirty seconds later.

When chaperoning a dance, it was easy to tell the kids you had to keep an eye on: the ones sloppily chewing a wad of gum.

One of my childhood friends, Tom, and I developed a ritual around the age of ten, when bubblegum chewing was a quasi-religious experience. After an hour or two of gnashing gum and replenishing the wad with fresh pieces every so often, one of us would pull out the well-masticated slab of whitened gunk and announce proudly, "Man, I chewed the HECK out of that gum." To this day, I can't get rid of a piece of gum without looking at it and saying softly, "Man, I chewed the HECK out of that gum."

But mainly for the great line in Bob (Uncle Bob) Dylan's "4th Time Around," his devastating parody of John Lennon's "Norwegian Wood." "Your words are not clear/You better spit out your gum."

Bob Dylan-4th Time Around

Robyn Hitchcock-4th Time Around

Chris Whitley-4th Time Around

Friday, September 4, 2009

If I Were 64 (The Beatles and Me)

If I were 64, then maybe I could have truly reacted to the Beatles. As it is, I was not yet one when the Fab Four made their Ed Sullivan debut. I was always--we're talking just about all of my conscious life--somehow aware of the Beatles, as some kind of cultural entities, but I can't say I really started listening to their music until I was about 12 or 13. One of my first exposures to their actual music was singing "Let It Be" at so-called hippie masses in the early 70s. The upshot of it is, after all these years, that I guess you can love, admire, etc. a museum piece, but you can't really live it.

If I were 64, then the Beatles would have hit when I was about twenty, significantly I believe, roughly the same age I was when the bands that have meant the most to me over the years--Husker Du, The Replacements, R.E.M., The Meat Puppets, and Elvis Costello (a few years earlier)--were starting to make their marks. I lived those bands: waiting impatiently for a new release, absorbing it when it came out and constantly adjusting my judgment upon further listenings, seeing all their shows over the years (in R.E.M.'s case, from a small club--with the Replacements opening up, by the way--to a couple of huge "hockey arena" venues). Those bands and others were indeed my life (Minutemen, too, naturally).

A guy I knew in college, a couple years younger than I, even, worshipped the Beatles and went to crazy ends to exhibit his worship. I remember being in the same room with him as he read the Rolling Stone review of The Replacements' Let It Be album. "How can someone have the audacity," he proclaimed like some constipated Luther, "to name an album Let It Be?" Cooly, as, um, always, I replied, "Because it's a much better album than The Beatles'" Well, if I were Mark David Chapman, I don't think I would have received a more despicable look. Anyway, that night, after some fun, I took my genuine Apple label copy of The Beatles' Let It Be LP(which could probably fetch me a few quid these days) and Frisbeed the whole thing--disc and sleeve and fold-out cover--against my dorm room wall a few times. When such activity resulted in a sleeve-full of vinyl crumbs, I took the album down the hall and shoved it under the guy's door. A bit cruel, perhaps, but I'll go to my grave defending the intent.

I love the Beatles. I own all the music, have read all the pertinent books, know all the stories and arcana, still hunt down alternate takes and demos. But they've never really come down for me from the pedestal they've been cemented on MY whole life. I never knew the crazy mind games listening to Revolver or Sgt. Peppers for the first time, in real time, must have been. The first Beatles album I ever bought was the blue greatest hits one (though I never bought the red one--I started accumulating the actual albums instead--I'm sure now I'd prefer that one, though at the time, the long-hairs on the blue one looked a lot more fun than the squarish ones on the red album; see, I'm too young to even think the mop-top `dos were anything special).

I never had to honestly react to the Beatles. They were always great; I was supposed to like them, and upon hearing them I did. I knew the lore and mystique of The White Album before I ever bought it or heard it. How do you react to seeing the Mona Lisa--you've known it your whole life. I remember a friend of mine asking me how I liked the Rolling Stones' Some Girls album a couple weeks after its release (the first new Stones album since I started listening to/buying music). I said I liked it, he said he thought it was a bit of a bullshit album (he had older brothers, or maybe his reaction was wholly his own; we were both right, I think--it is BS, but thirty years later it still sounds good). To me, the only significant "Beatle" issue of new music in my listening lifetime (1976 on) was Lennon-Ono's Double Fantasy, and by the time the John is Back hype started to die down a little, he died, and thus it instantly became another museum piece. Whenever you see one of those roped-off chairs in a museum, don't you just want to hop on it and fart into the big cushion? You can't fart at the Beatles, because once you do, some Beatlemaniac gets all offended (fine) and starts lecturing (not fine). The Stones, the Replacements--music you can fart to, no problem.

Anyway, the point of all this bunk is that with all the new Beatles hype happening presently, with re-issues and video games (the last video game I played was Pac-Man in a bar around 1987), I can't get excited. It's just another re-packaging job on music that's been re-packaged in Teflon (albeit great Teflon) since I can remember. I love the Beatles, but it's always just a history field trip when I hear them, never a visceral, this matters to me moment. And what else is music fanaticism about than "this matters to me"?

That's why my favorite Beatles' songs are the ones that don't really hang in the museum's main hall: "And Your Bird Can Sing," "Dr. Robert," "Long, Long, Long," "Bad Boy," "If I Needed Someone." Those ones I discovered myself, in a way.

That's why my answer to the standard, Who's your favorite Beatle question, is Brian Epstein: the first meaningful fan, the one whose visceral reaction made it possible for millions to react. Without him...

That's why, when it comes to the Beatles, I wish I were 64.

The Del McCoury Band-When I'm 64