Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year

The best New Year's Eve I ever had was 1994, when I was best man in my friends' wedding. Happy 15th Mary Alice and Frank (toot toot, Hey David, toot toot).

And Happy New Year to all.

Cliff Jackson & Jellean Delk With The Naturals-Frank This Is It

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

End Of The Year...

Well it's out with the old time of year again. In lieu of rock solid resolutions, every year during the first week of January I start making a list of titles that I hope over the course of the new year will inspire me to write poems, short stories, novellas, trilogies, sit-com treatments, poison pen letters, ballads, punk songs, unrequited love letters, new chapters in my ongoing creative non-fiction autobiography, etc. During the year I assiduously check off the titles I've used, then come the end of December I have a little bonfire ceremony to bid adieu to the unused titles and sort of clear the literary sinuses for a new year. This year, however, due mainly to the fact that I kind of made good on my one resolution of 2009--to be more aware of my carbon footprint--and also to the overwhelming feeling of guilt I felt upon receiving not one but two ice scraper mitts for Christmas (which made me realize I have to be nicer and less naughtier in the coming year), I have made the decision not to burn my leftover titles, but to offer them, gratis, to all you dear readers. Plunder what you will; I ask nothing in return except maybe an effort to use any of the words vouchsafe, desuetude, estivate, or saudade in your writing. A rejoinder, though, no returns--all plunderings final.

Cleaning Out My Unused Title Drawer

Ecce Nomo

Dummies for Dummies

Skittish With Yiddish: Goy Boy Fails to Pass Over With His Jewish Neighbors

Butting In: Civil Disobedience for Smokers

The Pitcher in the Barley

The Armchair Couch Potato

Pleading the Fifth But Getting Only a Pint for My Troubles

Fruit Punches I’ve Ducked

The Vicarious Kama Sutra

The Purpose Driven Wife: Hen-Pecked Men Spouse Grouse

Second-Hand Smut

Putting It All On: Stripping for Dyslexics

Pimp My Pimp: A Hooker’s Tale of the Biz

Baggage Claim: How to Deal Honestly With Your Past

Moby-Hick, or, The Great White Male

An Oprah Book Club Selection

Drawing Stick Figures by Numbers

The Great Gatsby

The Complete Idiots Guide to Dummies Books

Tan Lines I Have Crossed

The Bad Spellers Book for Dyslexic Wiccans

Neutral Milk Hotel-Untitled

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Come On Down

I'm happy to report the madness seems to run in the family: Over the holidays it was revealed that my sister's family, for obviously esoteric reasons, is enamored of the word "vouchsafe." Admittedly, despite always loving the word mainly for its look (admittedly, too, I've always had a tough time pronouncing it, somehow instead of saying it vouch-safe, I tend to garble it as vow-chafe, which I believe is a condition many young aspiring priests suffer from), I had to look the word up to get its full meaning. Basically it means "to condescend," although as the venerable A Dictionary of Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner points out, it is now commonly/erroneously used for "to bestow or grant."

Which all leads to the bigger question: What's so wrong about condescension? I guess here in America where all men (and women) are created equal, and especially here in modern America where if one is perceived to be or acts as if one is above anybody else, there will be hell to pay and then some, the very notion of condescension, especially the act of asking one to condescend, is rather odious. But I believe the word condescend used to have a much less negative connotation/denotation, and I believe there can still be a use for this particular connotation/denotation. So, even if the word condescend has too much negative baggage these days, thankfully we still have the word vouchsafe, and I believe we need to use it more often.

Certainly in prayer (remember that oldie but goodie, folks) it is proper and probably safer to address one's higher power in such language. Oh Powerful One, please vouchsafe to us, You who have such a plethora of more important concerns on Your Hands, and bestow upon us peace, health, sustenance, and a championship for Cleveland. If anyone's going to get his/her knickers in a twist about the Supreme Being condescending to him/her, I advise looking into some flame-retardant duds with an eternal guarantee.

But God isn't the only one we can call upon to vouchsafe to us. We might all be born equal, but in the real world, we aren't. Say what you will about Tiger Woods, but the man can still play golf. If I'm lucky enough to find myself playing in a pro-am with him someday, I believe the proper way to ask him for a pointer or two to help me cure my snap hook would be to say, "Hey Tiger, can you vouchsafe to look at my humble swing and tell me what the hell I'm doing wrong here?"

Barack Obama's got three hundred million people to worry about, and half of them think he's Karl Marx himself, so if I should somehow find myself at a State Dinner (the one I think he's planning for overworked booksellers who love Bob Dylan and bacon, covered in chocolate!), I think it would be appropriate if I said, "Hey Prez, you mind vouchsafing a bit over here near the bacon, covered in chocolate! troughs so I can give you my thoughts on health care and those lousy White Sox?"

If Bob Dylan himself would ever vouchsafe to play his song "Never Say Goodbye"--a song he's never played in public and one of my no arguments brooked all-time favorites--at a concert I am attending (and if God could then simultaneously vouchsafe to beam the late Rick Danko down to the concert stage to re-create his awesome bass lines [with all due respect to Tony Garnier]) I would probably shut up all my vouchsafing pleas for a Cleveland championship for the rest of my life, the thrill would be that great.

Anyway, maybe we should all practice a little vouchsafing by taking a good look at our lives, recognizing the various high horses we ride on, and make the effort to get off them and come on back down to Earth a bit. In other words, as a mere baby step, I don't hate Mark Johnson; I just hate having bad Cleveland winter weather hectored at me.

Thanks for taking a few minutes out of your busy day and vouchsafing to read my babble.

Bob Dylan and The Band-Never Say Goodbye

Monday, December 28, 2009

...And You Certainly Don't Need A TV Weatherman To Tell You It's Snowing

Okay, awhile ago I waxed about the glories of being warmed up after you've been really cold. That doesn't mean I like being cold, though, and I certainly don't like driving in and walking through blowing snow like I seem to have been doing for the last 24 hours. After some teases and (thank God) near misses, winter has definitely arrived here in Cleveland. I hate it.

But what I really hate is one local TV weatherman in particular. This guy:

Mark Johnson of WEWS-TV 5. The guy makes anything above or below a seventy-two degree cloudless, windless day into a catastrophe, and if it's a slow news day, well, Armageddon is on the horizon. A few inches of blowing snow, poor road conditions, and a few truck driver classes canceled stink for us all, granted, and did I mention I hate it, but it's all pretty par for the course in late December in these parts. So, Mr. Johnson, cool your heels a bit, take a Valium, and report, not super-hyperbolize. Please.

On the flip-side, over at WKYC-TV 3 is the anti-Mark Johnson, a cherubic guy named A.J. Colby

who is quickly ascending the ladder to get to the perch where Ted Koppel, the late Peter Jennings, Andrea Mitchell, and my guy Lester Holt reside: TV News Nirvana. A.J. gets it. We in Cleveland are used to this kind of weather hell, so just tell us the facts. A.J. is the calm in Mark Johnson's or anybody else's storm. I don't know why I'm using this metaphor, but for weather in Cleveland in late December it seems apt: A.J. is the undertaker you like and who actually does give you some comfort; Mark is the obsequious one you want to push into the nearest unoccupied casket. I'd happily walk into a tornado with A.J. by my side. If Mark Johnson passed my way on a beautiful June day I'd run helter skelter looking for a tornado.

Which gets me thinking. I offer my services to any major magazine that would like to send me to a TV weather person's convention. All I ask is expenses, and I'll come back with 15,000 words that will inform and entertain. I want to see all these guys gathered somewhere, looking at the latest gizmos available for their hi-tech maps, arguing over whether the gig is tougher in Buffalo or Santa Fe, getting pointers on not standing in the way of the cold front coming in from the west, and hoisting a few cold ones while telling their favorite standing in the middle of the storm stories. What can I say? Some guys get all excited about strip clubs; I just want to be in a large convention hall with scores of TV weather people. And if I see you there, A.J., the first few rounds are on me.

Massive Attack-Weather Storm

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas Wrap-Up

Does The Song Really Go, "Angels We Have Heard Are High"?

Nothing got me in the true Christmas spirit faster than wrapping my first present for a customer Christmas Eve morning: The Marijuana Grower's Bible.

Have A Curmudgeonly Christmas

Two of my all-time literary heroes--one a Clevelander with international renown as an uber-whiner, the other a local sportswriting legend (in my book)--came in the store on back-to-back days last week doing last minute shopping. Despite having edited both of them years ago (well, you don't really edit these two geniuses, but I tried), they didn't recognize me. One wanted a CD with classical Christmas renditions. "I don't like 'Jingle Bells,'" he said, becoming, for me at least, the first person ever to utter that humbug sentence. I found him a cheap CD and as he inspected the track listings approvingly, he said, "This will work. I'll put it on and get depressed." The other came in and wanted a gift certificate. After taking an almost confrontational minute to explain the concept of gift cards as opposed to the obsolete certificates, he finally forked over the money and I charged up his card. I couldn't help but notice, after I showed him where on the cardboard envelope to write the amount, that he wrote his wife's full name, first and last. Having remembered his patented crankiness a couple years ago when he came in looking for knitting books (incongruous enough) for his spouse, and then having the pleasure of wrapping the knitting books for him ("Which style of wrapping do you like?" "I don't care." "Wanna bow on that? It makes it look more special." "Nah."), I said to him this year, as he tucked the gift card away in his pocket, "The easy way to shop, hunh?" He replied, "Too easy. But it beats having to deal with her opening gifts she doesn't want." So I guess the knitting books hadn't gone over too well.

I Am Not An Animal, I Am A Human Being Warning

I received not one but two ice-scrapers-in-a-mitt, so if you happen to see me in a snowy mall parking lot pawing cars, I am not groping foreigners or attempting to rip off an ever-valuable Cleveland Heights parking sticker. I'm only trying to see clearly my way home.

Priceless Moments Money Can't Buy (Only Facilitate)
  • Watching my ten-year-old nephew react like a TV studio audience member being invited to "Come on down!" upon opening his family's new Play Station 3. You won't see that much glee emanating out of somebody in Cleveland until one of our pro teams wins a championship and then I'll be the one jumping in my nephew's arms and doing a dance with him.
  • As we wound down the gift-unwrappings, my niece texted her boyfriend. Spying this, my mother, in full matriarch mode, decreed that later that night at her house for dinner, all electronic devices would be banned. So, naturally, later that afternoon, as she recounted her girlhood Christmas memories, my cellphone as well as my nieces' and nephews', started chiming simultaneously. Luckily she laughed, so we were spared the ignominy of eating our delicious roast beast in the cold garage.
Priceless Moment Only Great Cooking Could Bring About

After dinner, sitting around the family room, my two brothers-in-law and my oldest nephew all fell soundly asleep until one of them--and not the expected one--hiccupped-snored so loudly that not only did he wake himself up but the other two, all at the same time.

What Have You Sold For Me Lately?, or It's All Over Now Moment

I swear, the first box of newly arrived books I opened on Christmas Eve morning at the store contained some kids' Easter books.

Bobby Womack-It's All Over Now

Saturday, December 26, 2009

R.I.P. Vic Chesnutt

Sad sad news on the doorstep of my computer this morning: Vic Chesnutt has died. With a voice like a wobbly table and the most whimsical, unsparing, and courageous lyrical chops around, Vic, it seems, was an acquired taste--hard to tell by me, though, since I acquired that taste in cravings when I first heard him nearly twenty years ago. He had the greatest, most wide-ranging vocabulary of any songwriter I've ever encountered.

I saw him only once, many years ago, opening for Bob Mould to a large, rather indifferent then nearly hostile crowd. I remember shouting out a request for his song "Danny Carlisle," and he made some remark about there being at least one person in the audience who knew his songs. Later that night I was leaving the men's room when Vic rolled in in his wheelchair. I was a bit jarred. Here was one of my heroes alone, but I also thought, does the guy need help in the bathroom some way? So I lingered, told him what a great performance he gave, and then mentioned how I had once taught the book A Confederacy of Dunces, whose main character Vic sings about in his song "Mr. Reilly." We then had a rather disjointed conversation about John Kennedy Toole's novel in the cramped, ratty bathroom, as Vic managed to get the job done of going about his business.

My life's richer for all the hours I've spent listening to Vic Chesnutt.

Vic Chesnutt-Steve Willoughby

Vic Chesnutt-Wrong Piano

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Merry Christmas

I've been spitting out my gum daily for nearly four months, but now I'm going to load up a big wad of candy cane flavor gum and chew. In other words, I'm taking a few days off for Christmas. Thanks for reading and come back next week, after I've chewed the heck out of that gum and am ready to spit it out again.

And have a very Merry Christmas.

Bob Neuwirth with Butch Hancock-Everybody's Got A Job To Do

Monday, December 21, 2009

Short Day, Short Post

Winter Solstice Haiku

Longest lines here, there
On shortest day of the year
Patience me, Santa


Because it's so short
And I'm a Kerouacked drum
Beat beat beat beat beat

The Byrds-Why

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Parental Discretion Advised (or, Barbarella of the Heart)

Ain't it just like the week of Christmas to turn you nostalgic? This morning, however (it was a long and wacky night), minutes after waking, I was feeling nostalgic not for any cheery Christmas memories but for network TV of the mid-1970s. How I got there, though, is an interesting story in itself. For some reason I woke with the thought of dissecting, comparing/contrasting the phrases "absence makes the heart grow fonder" and "familiarity breeds contempt." Well, in my mind, it's a fairly short jog from such philosophical musings to the pun zone, so before I knew it I was thinking "absence makes the heart grow Fonda," complete with the image of Jane Fonda growing out of one's (the absentee's, I guess) heart. Then, of course, I started thinking about the different kinds of absences that would make the Barbarella Jane sprout rather than the Klute Jane, or the Twelve Angry Men Henry Fonda vs. the, God forbid, Easy Rider Peter Fonda. Thinking about Jane's stylish shag 'do in Klute, though, soon got me thinking, of all things, of Jack Nicholson in a sailor's suit. All of this, mind you, before I even opened my eyes, rolled over, and saw what time it was (anybody intrepid enough to mind meld with me better be wearing a seat belt).

The image of Jack Nicholson in a sailor's suit, as everyone should know, comes from the movie The Last Detail, in my opinion not only a great movie but the quintessential Nicholson performance: lean, angry, disaffected but disciplined Jack. Directed by the late Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude, Coming Home, Being There--all directed by him), with a great supporting cast including Otis Young (whatever happened to him?), a very young Randy Quaid, and bit parts for Carol Kane and Gilda Radner, among others, the story concerns two Navy lifers (Nicholson as "Bad Ass" Buddusky and Young as "Mule" Mulhall) who have to escort the young Quaid to the brig for filching money from the collection basket at the base's church. Read this to get the full story and tidbits about Ashby's inconoclasm, the studio's horror at the profuse profanity in the movie (indeed, wiki prefaces their entry on the film by stating, "The film became known for its frequent use of profanity" and later quotes the screenwriter, the great too Robert "Chinatown" Towne: "This is the way people talk when they're powerless to act; they bitch"), and how Burt Reynolds, Jim Brown, Bud Cort, John Travolta, and even David Cassidy! all almost wound up in the film. Twenty years ago I used to get the itch to see the movie about once a year, so I'd head over to the late great Storytape Video store in Cleveland Heights and ask Tony there if he had it in stock. His reply one year was classic, and tragic: "It's been here since the last time you returned it." How could this great movie sit unrented and unwatched by anyone but me for a whole year?

Anyway, my point. I actually revered The Last Detail for years before I ever saw it, thanks to ABC's great commercials for it that always ended up with, "Saturday night at nine. Parental discretion advised." The tone of the announcer's voice (was it Ernie "Ghoulardi" Anderson as early as 1975?) on that electrically tempting "parental discretion advised," as well as the graphic on the bottom of the screen with the same words, was all I needed to know, at the age of 12, that this was a great movie, along with Klute, The Heartbreak Kid, and The Longest Yard, other staples (though nowhere as great of movies as Detail [in fact, when I finally did get around to seeing Klute, years and years later, I was much more appreciative of the work of the vastly underrated Donald Sutherland than any glimpse of Jane Fonda's bare breasts] of parental discretion advised TV movie fare at the time (likewise, I'd consult the Universe Bulletin--aka The UB--Cleveland's Catholic weekly newspaper that we, of course, um, religiously subscribed to, for its listings of current movies: anything under the most extreme heading, Morally Objectionable, was worth remembering for a somehow future viewing). What made such adolescent cinematic aesthetic appraisals so pertinent, of course, was that back in 1975, as opposed to today, the availability of so much culture was virtually zilch. Before the explosion of cable TV, before even the thought of the ubiquity of VCRs/VHS tapes, and even before the concept of college film societies was known to me (let alone the futuristic world of the Internet and digital technology that now allows you to see, read, or hear just about anything that ever existed), the only way to see non-current movies was on basic TV, always prefaced with that damnable "edited for television" graphic. Now, of course, the thought of watching The Last Detail on network TV is laughable--three quarters of the dialogue is profanity; it must be hysterical in "edited for television" form.

But oh those days of only six viable (if you're actually counting the local PBS station, which for a twelve-year-old boy was a complete dead zone) TV channels, no videos, and no dubya dubya dubya dots. You were forced to get your knowledge of the deeper, darker, more dangerous world in mere snippets. You'd be upstairs in your parents' bedroom, sprawled on their big bed watching the tiny black and white TV because they were downstairs watching something else (who knows, maybe even the parental discretion advised flick) on the big color set. But you just couldn't resist: after taking in the back-to-back Hogan's Heroes reruns or the dozenth viewing of Journey to the Center of the Earth on channel 43 (WUAB-TV, Channel 43, [UHF, good God, remember UHF/VHF?] serving Lorain and Cleveland [Lorain, Ohio, at the time as exotic and foreign to me as Angkor is to me now]), you'd get up and clunk the channel dial over to channel 8 to watch some Carol Burnett, but instead of turning the dial left, the quicker route to 8, you'd go right, past Channel 61 (the inferior UHF channel in Cleveland, which always seemed to be showing Mighty Joe Young, the movie I have probably seen the most ads for in my life without ever actually watching the movie), then down to 3 (where if you were lucky enough you'd time it perfectly to see the blooming NBC peacock, albeit in un-living B&W) and up to 5, ABC (somewhere stats must show ABC led the league in airing parental discretion advised movies), where you'd linger for a few paranoid, lusty seconds hoping to get a mere nugget of discretion advised knowledge, maybe a snapping Jack Nicholson informing the bartender that he, Jack as Bad Ass, is "the #$#%^%%$$ shore patrol, #$%@@$%@!" Of course you couldn't peek too long in case miraculously your parents beamed themselves upstairs, or, more likely, some secret UB censor on the TV would go off and the house would be filled with flashing red lights and some scary canonical voice booming "You are a sinner! You are a sinner!"

I don't know. I would have eventually found my way to The Last Detail, I'm sure, but without those tempting parental discretion advised tags, without the dearth of opportunities to see it and learn of it and all the other paths that movie or others could lead you down, I'm sure my satisfaction of finally seeing it would have been greatly reduced. Less is more, maybe. With everything available now, maybe the value of it all is diminished. Isn't knowledge more precious the more it is limited, available only to the dogged and only then in drips and drabs, as opposed to now when the world and all its knowledge is at our fingertips? Geez I'm getting old.

Anyway, enjoy a great clip from The Last Detail, and go ahead, wax nostalgic about a time when you could order thirty cents of beer in a bar and when this type of raw language was considered scandalous, not par for the course.

The Minutemen-There Ain't Shit On T.V. Tonight

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Noah's Narc (as told by his great-nephew Marlboro Folger)

The old man sure could build (I can testify, there wasn't one leak on that good ship), but he wasn't the best judge of animal nature (and, being a bit of a Darwinist myself, I'm including humans). You put a pair of every species known in a ship's hold and I don't care what kind of a direct line to God you have, you're going to have problems. Alphabetical order lodging arrangements be damned, you never put hippos anywhere near hyenas; that's like cardinal rule number three or four in animal husbandry. And, holy crap, let's just say that when the storm clouds are gathering and you're still working on the keel, waste management isn't going to be the first thing on your mind.

That's where I come in, unfortunately. I'm half a triplet, if that makes any sense. My two brothers were Siamese twins, although that was long before anybody I know of ever knew anything about Siam, so, conveniently, we just called the two-headed entity that was my brothers, Steve and Bucky, "Stucky." They were joined at the hip pretty literally, though buttocks would be more precise, but since great uncle Noah didn't like that word, we just said they were joined at the hip. Anyway, we were about sixteen at the time of the deluge, so when it came time to address the manure problem, round about Day 3 of the cruise, the old man looked up and down the deck at his assorted saved kin and pointed to me and my brothers. "Let the yo-yos and Slinky take care of it. Shit happens, you know, boys. It'll put hair on your chests." That's what he called us, the yo-yos (Stucky) and Slinky (me, on account of my svelte-ness and capacity to slip into all kinds of mischief).

So it was goodbye promenade deck, hello shovel and beasts. And hello one crash course of an education in, shall we say, animalistic urges and behaviors. I know great-grandpa Adam named all the animals as best as he saw fit, but I might suggest a few more realistic monikers: giraffes=pimps; kangaroos=philanderers; penguins=thieves; and definitely, unicorns=pushers. Thanks to one Jones, the male unicorn, by Day 12 we had a menagerie of addicts on our hands. Seems that Jones, sensing something feral but economically exploitable when he and his mate Sunshine got the call to the Ark, hollowed out his horn and crammed it full of all the best narcotics in the spritely forest whence he dwelt.

Well, before you Just Say No-ers start wagging your fingers, consider for a moment being crammed in a dark ship's bottom with your spouse and couples of every species, setting sail on what was soon obvious would be no three hour cruise, all the while the mother of all deluges is battering you to and fro, bow to stern, and it's a few thousand years before Dramamine would be invented. Trust me, you'd be quickly lining up with the horses and the wombats, the eels and the muskrats, for a "little taste" of what Jones the unicorn was offering.

Stucky, being a bit paranoid (as having eyes on the front and back of your head tends to make you), freaked out about the whole thing, thinking we'd catch hell if the old man found about the literal opium (and what have you) den that was festering below decks. Unfortunately Stucky (how about this for bad luck genes) were also both bipolar, but never in synch, so whenever Steve was all manic and ready to go up on deck and inform great uncle Noah about the situation, Bucky was in a funk and didn't want to move an inch, and vice versa. Meanwhile, I had a little bit of a push-me pull-me thing going on with my conscience at the time: as brotherly loyal to Stucky as I was, I was also getting good boodle, in the form of unmarked c-notes, from Jones, who, smart uni he, knew that I was the nearest thing to a cop in the hold, and let's face it, if a dealer isn't bribing someone he feels as if he's not doing his job properly.

So blame me and my to narc or not to narc dithering on the ensuing carnage. By Day 23, with the sloths constantly on the nod, the entire phylum of apes hopelessly dependent on speedballs, and the gerbils--who would have guessed?--sucking up lines of coke like Studio 54 wannabes, Jones made the announcement that he was running low on dope and that he'd have to start drastically rationing. Such a lot of cackling, howling, screeching, and lowing you've never heard. "Look man," Jones tried to calm everybody, "I thought this was going to be like an 8-day Club Med thing. Everybody knows you never take more than three weeks supply with you in case customs busts you and tries to pin a trafficking rap on you. Now just chill out. I've been holding out on you all just in case of an emergency like this. I've got some really good hash stashed in my mane. Let's all smoke that and mellow out."

Which actually worked for about thirty-six hours until everybody started getting jittery at once. The mammals caucused in one corner, the birds chirped in whispers in another, and the insects buzzed together on the walls. God knows what was going on water-wise outside, but there in the hold the tide was definitely turning against Jones, who was still stoned out of his mind and nuzzling horns with Sunshine. Meanwhile my friends Ben and Willardwina, the rats, were squeaking in my ears, "Go tell on him, go tell on him." So I told Stucky to say a prayer for me and headed up to spill the beans to Noah.

The old man was not amused. At all. First he raised Cain with me for being my usual slinky self, then he turned what latter day scholars would have called Job-like. "Why me, Lord," he pleaded. "I never even liked recreational boating. I'm allergic to anything with four or more legs. Rain makes my joints ache (I silently tittered a bit over his unintended double entendre, still buzzing a tad from the contact high). And now this. I don't know 12-step jargon from my forebear Adam. Who do you think I am, Lord, a Dr. Phil/Dr. Doolittle Stucky yo-yo? Oy!"

It was the sudden rocking and the loud oinks that shook the old man from his lament and got us all moving hastily below. By the time we made it, Jones and Sunshine were being shared by the lip-licking lions and lambs (the first recorded drugland slaying). The male rhino, physically the biggest junkie of them all, was moaning, "Get this monkey off my back!" Indeed, a completely frazzled, detoxing chimp was jumping up and down on the rhino's back, trying to bang its head against the ceiling. Thankfully the female turkey had given birth the day before, because her mate Tom was being eaten, cold, by a pack of frenzied wolves. Stucky were driving themselves dizzy trying to turn away from the myriad scenes of horror all around them. Then suddenly the owls swooped down and placed two large vials into Noah's hands, winked widely, and swooped away again.

"What's this, o wise ones?" Noah inquired as he squinted to read the labels on the vials. "Methadone? Well, let's give it a try."

The next two weeks were pretty subdued. And then we rediscovered land, recovering all the way. I went into the caffeine and nicotine businesses, having perceived those markets would always be strong, and within a year was able to finance Stucky's separation operation. They started making bumper stickers that say "Easy Does It" and "One Day At A Time," married sisters, and now run an AA B&B.

And so, my friends, take it from a primary source: that's what became of the unicorns, and that's why Noah Webster eventually had to create a definition for the word jones.

A.A. Gray & Seven-Foot Dilly-The Old Ark's A'Moving

Friday, December 18, 2009

Just Another Sense Of Wonder

I've heard some good albums and songs this year, seen a few good shows, but my musical "best of" for 2009 consists of a singular experience I've been fortunate enough to take in close to ten times: seeing/hearing Bill Fox play his guitar and sing his own and others' songs. In a year when Bob Dylan has released two new albums (belated review of the Christmas album--A for effort, B for content [though "Must Be Santa" is an instant classic]), that's no small praise from me. You might be tempted to chalk it up to a long anticipation, as I first fell in love with Bill's music in 1997 when he released his Shelter From The Smoke album and, despite his being a native Clevelander, I had never gotten the chance to see him before. It was a long ten years waiting to hear live and in-person the likes of "Over And Away She Goes," "Lonesome Pine," and, from 1998's Transit Byzantium record, "My Baby Crying," but when I finally did, the day after Christmas last year, I was transfixed. Fixed, perhaps, being the operative word, because making the trek west to Cleveland's Happy Dog, where Bill seems to play most often, about once a month, quickly became a sort of drug run for me. And as I was happily re-fixed again just last night, I can tell you I'm not looking to enter rehab for this addiction anytime soon.

You have to start with the voice. Last night I turned to Sean, Happy Dog proprietor, breaking our usual awestruck silence to say, "If I could ever describe Bill's voice accurately, it would be the greatest piece of writing I've ever done." Ineffable and ineluctable are words that come to mind, like trying to describe the breeze. It's high but not really lonesome. Dignified somehow, knowing, respectful, intelligent, and steeped in his experience of life. Metaphors fail: his voice is like the first high-pitched drag on a cigarette, scenery flying by a fast train's window, the breeze you thank God for.

Hardly. It's a voice you have no choice but to listen to when you hear it.

Maybe the best praise I could give Bill is to say that he never seems to perform. You listen to the voice, and the guitar, and take in the songs, and that's all you do, listen because there's no choice or desire to do anything else. And that's probably good enough for Bill, I guess--your listening to his songs and his singing. There's little stage patter from him, maybe a nod to the writer of a song he's just sung that isn't his, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, The Byrds, but that's it. Usually by the time you're finished applauding one song, the next one's started. It's the music that matters, not the performer, it seems. I catch myself watching his feet every once in a while, one--usually the left--tilted back on its heel, toes several inches from the floor. Outside of that, nothing distracts you from the songs.

And the songs, my God. Torrents of words and images, entwined within and around ancient sounding folk melodies, internal rhymes, tales of love and place and character. The term singer-songwriter is way too pedestrian and cloying for these songs. Troubador sounds too pretentious, but there's definitely a sense, to me at least, of something classical, wise, dependable in so many of the songs. And something certainly Romantic (and all that the capital R suggests) in Bill's words and voice and melodies. To say, "this guy's read some classic poetry," might sound horribly precious, but to me it's high praise--the proof is in the cadences, the compact language, the overall informed sensibility of his songs.

Bah. You try expressing what a thing of beauty something is and you end up sounding like an overly educated architecture critic writing greeting cards. Bill's songs and his singing and playing are beautiful, and really, nothing else matters. Why even bother to put the experience of hearing such wonderful music into mere words? Listen for yourself. Shelter From The Smoke and Transit Byzantium both recently have been re-released. Get them. Better yet, catch him at the Happy Dog. It's great music. Merely. Simply. Thankfully.

Bill Fox-Lonesome Pine

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Quick One

Years ago. I'm working the cash register close to closing time. The only customer in the store is an old guy who eventually comes up to buy a Penthouse. I don't really look at him as I ring it up and tell him the total is something like $6.24. He gives me a five and a one then proceeds to haul out one of those vinyl coin things where you have to squeeze the top and bottom to get it to open, a mechanical maneuver I never mastered, thus my disdain for the things. He starts shaking out coins onto the counter top. For my own amusement (and maybe my own--who knows, his too?--comfort, since ringing up nudie mag sales is always a bit awkward) I start counting aloud the change as it worms its way out of the vinyl thing to clink down to the counter: "Ten, fifteen, twenty, one, two, three, and...four," I exclaim in triumph, "six twenty-four, right on the nose!" And just as I say "nose" I look up at the guy for the first time and all I see is nose--the biggest, gnarliest, pockmarkedest, bulbous honker I've ever seen. The olfactory equivalent of a Macy's parade balloon. It was the guy's face. I'm sure if the guy had more coin in that little vinyl venus flytrap of his he would have gladly paid for a nose job the "after" picture of which would have made him look like Jimmy Durante or Karl Malden. I almost swallowed my own non-descript nose in embarrassment. Luckily the guy was old and must have been well used to people looking him in the nose with utter astonishment because he didn't react in any noticeable way. Good thing, too, because if he had flared his nostrils and inhaled even slightly, I'd have been the Jonah of proboscises. But no, he just took the receipt and the bagged mag, smiled and said thank you, and followed his nose out the door. Still, I'd rather have an occasionally accident-prone big mouth than that big nose, any day.

Richard Thompson-Oops!...I Did It Again

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Not Ready For Prom Time?

Bless ye, oh ye of little knowledge of the commercial world. With the mercury dipping, the flakes flying, and all the secular "Happy Holidays" (w)assailing ye, ye think it's the Christmas season? How so last month of ye. We in retail, the nexus of the American Way of "what have you bought from me lately" Life, while still going through the motions of Happy Holidaying and "would you like that gift-wrapped" and listening to Vince Guaraldi's melancholy "Christmas Time Is Here" for like the millionth time, are already diving into a new cycle of "buy this." You see, in addition to wading through deliveries of kids' Valentine's Day books, today I opened up a box of not one but two (of the half dozen to come, probably tomorrow) special edition Prom magazines. I'm expecting the first crop of fantasy baseball `10 mags Friday, graduation trinkets next week, and back-to-school items by the first. Of January.

Before I can even take ten minutes to push back the holiday retail madness and bask in a few seconds of my own `tis the seasonness, I've got stacks of Seventeen Presents Prom! to deal with. On shelves already overloaded with far too many holiday craft and cooking rags, now I've gotta make room for smiling teens in shoulderless gowns while I'm personally wearing about 17 layers of shirts. Buy for today, buy for tomorrow, and while you're at it, buy for six months from now. Like some tired poor parent, whose credit card is already smoking, needs his or her teen daughter whining in the long checkout line, "Mmmmoooooooooommmmmmm, I neeeeeed this magazine!" It's December 16th, folks, springtime! Get with the program.

Enough. It disgusts me. I'm going out to the garage to work on my golf swing.

Fountains of Wayne-Prom Theme

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Family Business

Too much death going around these days.

My first-ever bookstore boss, Joel C. Turner, has died. More than twenty years ago I worked part-time at Joel's Under Cover Books in Shaker Heights. Joel was quirky, but in time I learned the quirky ones are the best booksellers. I've never seen anyone hand sell a book like Joel. He read, obviously, and loved it. And he loved talking about books, sometimes spending thirty minutes to an hour with a customer. It might sound cliched, but Under Cover Books truly was a family business. Joel's parents, Sylvia and Earl, worked there all the time. They were a real treat. Sylvia was about the nicest person I've ever worked with anywhere, and Earl was a sweet curmudgeon; I remember working slow Sunday afternoons with him and talking basketball all day long. They all made you feel like you were helping the family doing something it loved, not just working retail. I made some good friends there, friends I still have and friends who for years would all get together and tell funny stories. I remember a pre-holiday staff meeting at the Turner house which turned out to be about two hours of feasting and fifteen minutes of meeting--a good ratio more businesses should follow. A nice family and a nice bookstore.

Rick Danko-Book Faded Brown   

Monday, December 14, 2009

Happy Hanukkah

Weird thing happened to me today. I said "Merry Christmas" to someone and I felt guilty. And the more I think about it, I think I was right. To feel guilty, that is. At our store we're supposed to answer the phone these days by saying, "Happy Holidays." Well, it was kind of crazy today, and the additional phone greeting hasn't yet become rote to me, so before I knew it I said "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays." As soon as I said it I kind of braced myself for what the person on the other end of the line might say back, but he didn't say a thing.

Got me thinking, though. At lunch I read in Time magazine about the supposed "war on Christmas" and how some people are boycotting stores that say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." I also read about how in Uganda homosexuality is now illegal and that if you go for an HIV test and test positive you are sentenced to death.

The mind reels.

First of all, as a retail worker, I don't owe you anything but my politeness and my best effort to help you find what you're looking for. Since there are several different holidays this time of year, it seems like a nice gesture to wish you happy ones. Whichever ones you may want to celebrate. It seems a little presumptuous of me to assume/guess which holidays those may be. I don't size you up when you're walking up to the information counter, assume what kinds of books you're going to be looking for, and address you accordingly--"You must be looking for a divorce kit, right?" or, "I bet you want to see the new edition of The Joy of Gay Sex we just got in," or, "Looks like you need Crohn's Disease For Dummies." I'd probably get a slap in the face, at least, if I said something like that, and rightly so (just as I'd rightly get a slap in the face if I made any judgmental comment when people do, yes they do, ask for those--or whatever-- items). So why must I assume you're Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, or whatever? It makes no common, rational, humane sense.

The store where I work is truly diverse, and I realize that word makes some people's skin crawl, but it's true. Today, it's true, I mailed a copy of The Koran to a customer, helped a woman look for a Gospel CD and helped a couple track down two hard-to-find Jewish prayer books. And that was all before my first cigarette break. The world today, not just THE WORLD, but the world we Americans (and, speaking for myself, we Christian Americans) live in is extremely diverse. Shouldn't we bask in that and thank God, Allah, Yahweh, Vishnu, Buddah, Tom, Dick, Harriet, Mammon, or whatever is your higher power, that we don't live in a country like Uganda?

I wish all those Happy Holidays boycotters would spend half the energy they spend on trying to make people they don't even know say "Merry Christmas" to them on trying a little harder to be the light of their own little worlds, you know, "in the true Christmas spirit."

Hanukkah started last Friday and continues all week. Why shouldn't I answer the phone "Happy Hanukkah" this week? Well, because not all of our customers are Jewish, that's why. That's why I shouldn't be answering the phone "Merry Christmas" twelve days before Christmas. Got it?

Something tells me we all would have happier holidays--all of them--if we'd all just chill out a little. Including me. Descending from my soapbox now. Good day.

Woody Guthrie-Hanukkah Dance

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Kill Or Be Killed, For These Guys?

Did you see this story? A Scottish woman was sentenced to six years in prison for killing her husband. They had had a rather nasty fight (or row, to be more precisely Scottish), he pulled her to the ground, and she reached for a knife and stabbed him once, fatally. The authorities said alcohol was involved (no haggis, Sherlock). Apparently, though, what didn't come out in the trial but was reported is that the fight started over an argument about what music to listen to--Kenny Rogers or Bob Dylan (an argument for shuffle play on your music system if there ever was one). To me, though, the key aspect of this tragedy that isn't clear at all is which spouse--killed or killer--wanted which singer. Although the woman did get a relatively light sentence for manslaughter, not murder, I'm thinking, as a juror, the difference between Kenny and Bob is huge. But then again, I'm sure a good lawyer would have discovered my maximum Bob bias and had me tossed from the jury pool faster than a sane person punches the radio buttons upon hearing the first notes of Kenny's version of "Lady."

I don't mean to make a farce of this domestic tragedy, but it does raise some interesting questions to me. As great as my love for Bob is, I don't believe I would ever kill for that love or put myself in a position to be killed for that love, but still...

It would be sexist of me to assume the woman wanted Kenny while the man wanted Bob; I know too many intense Bob fans who are women to make that mistake. How do you think the man felt when his dying thoughts were, "I just lost my life because of my unstinting love of Kenny Rogers"? Or the woman, upon hearing her MacMiranda rights being read, thinking, "I just killed my husband and am probably looking at serious jail time for my unstinting love of Kenny Rogers"? Questions which, naturally, seem more surrealistic to me than if you substituted Bob's name in them. Would your fellow prisoners look at you and treat you differently knowing that you had killed someone over Kenny Rogers as opposed to Bob Dylan? Would a more creative judge had shortened the sentence to three years of listening to nothing but Kenny/Bob, whichever the woman couldn't stand?

(Paragraph for Bob freaks only): How sad would it be if the woman had wanted to listen to Knocked Out Loaded or Down In The Groove? How sadder if the guy had wanted to? Losing your life over Bob I can almost comprehend, especially if we're talking Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde, Blood On The Tracks--the great ones--but to lose it over Bob's mid-80s nadir would be an irony that would kill me, even if the knife didn't.

(And speaking of Bob freaks, I recall a man in Australia, nearly twenty years ago, who killed his mother because she objected to his constantly playing "One More Cup Of Coffee" [a good song, but not a great one, and certainly no excuse for the crime of matricide]. A few years later the guy was in the news again when he requested a furlough in order to see Bob in concert [knowing those crazy Aussies, he probably got front row ducats and a satin touring jacket]. Which all leads me to remember that back in the Sixties the folks at Columbia Records had a big advertising campaign for a Bob album, the first Greatest Hits, I believe, with the tag line: "Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan." True enough, but I'm thinking those aesthetically-challenged Bob haters out there might get some mileage out of culling all these Bob-related homicides [as in Tiger, they gotta be thinking, where there's two, there's bound to be more] and launching a "Nobody Kills Like Dylan" campaign.)

But I think in the Scottish tragedy I have found a possible calling in my life: musical mediator. My credentials for marriage counselor are zilch, but I could sure step in and save the day in a domestic situation like the one those Scots experienced. Like a walking, talking, healing Venn Diagram, I--with my years of musical love and thousands of songs on my hard drive--could easily pacify any such situation. You want Kenny, and you want Bob? No problem, try some Willie Nelson, or Jerry Jeff Walker's Vera Terlingua! You want Madonna, and you want Van Halen? Try some New Order. You want Elvis, and you want Patti Smith? Try some Ike and Tina Turner (ironic, isn't it, that Ike and Tina could help quell domestic disturbances?). You want Susan Boyle, and you want Death Cab For Cutie? Listen, pal, open your mind, get a life, and just listen to Susan sing the Stones' "Wild Horses," you'll weep at the beauty. (Seriously.) You want Josh Groban, and you want Captain Beefheart? Who the hell allowed you two to get married? Opposites do not attract, got it? Now listen to Metal Machine Music for your sins and leave me the hell out of it. You want Michael Buble, and you want Michael Bolton? Good God, you take a crash course in Kenny Rogers, and you listen to nothing but Bob Dylan, and the both of you move to Scotland and start drinking, you scare the hell out of me.

No song today, this space reserved for a moment of silence.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Stocking Stuffer Alert

It could have been/should have been the archetypal American success story: Diminutive Gustav "Skip" Bixby (an immigrant from Bohemia via Qatar, and the eventual great uncle of erstwhile TV personality Bill Bixby) started out as a shoeshine boy in a Camden, New Jersey, train station at the age of eleven in the early 1900s. Although he eventually moved on to hardware, marrying the boss's daughter (Olabelle Simone Huxtable), something about polish always attracted him. After taking a correspondence course in chemistry in the 1920s, and tinkering away at the cellar sink for a couple years, Gustav perfected the concoction that for a while would make him rich: a shoe polish he half-named after his adoring wife, Shinola.

Through some clever advertising and the downright quality of his product, Shinola sales rose gradually through the 1930s, providing Gustav, Ollabelle, and their ever-expanding brood a quite comfortable life, despite the woes of the Great Depression. And then Gustav got his big break, which, cruelly, also became his tragic downfall--World War II. The Shinola-Bixby Corp. won the exclusive contract to provide the Armed Forces of the United States of America with boot polish. Gustav went to sleep proudly every night during the long conflict, knowing that his pride and joy was being carried in every G.I.'s kit. "Oh just wait," he'd proclaim to Olabelle in bed, "when those soldiers finally capture Hitler, he'll be made to look down and see his defeated image reflected in each of their boots!"

Unbeknownst to Gustav at the time, though, those same U.S. soldiers had taken quite a shine to Shinola for reasons beyond the nice glean it gave their tired, liberating feet. It seems that one grunt in particular, a rather slow-witted (or as the wikkans call it, someone of "low acuity") Kilroy by the name of Lawrence "Lunk" Pinch, stationed in a barracks in Dartford, England, serving as nothing more than a valet for one General Sheldon "Shelly" Winters, proceeded to shine his boots one night (without the aid of any booze, Sgt. Maurice Amsterdam always claimed) not with his handy tin of Shinola but with a pile of manure the barracks pet chocolate lab Grable had unfortunately left near Pinch's bunk.

Even in those halcyon pre-Internet, Twitter, and cell phone days, the legend of Pinch's inability to distinguish shit from Shinola spread like, in Sgt. Amsterdam's patois, "the clap in a Memphis cathouse." Seemingly overnight even Japanese prisoners on obscure Allied-occupied atolls in the Deep South Pacific were accusing each other and their captors of not knowing the difference between "cacca cacca and Joe DiMaggio's Shinola."

Two days after V-J Day, Gustav and Ollabelle and their seven would-be Shinola heirs and heiresses moved into a luxurious mansion on the outskirts of Bedminster Township, New Jersey. Five years later, as the crude idioms of those victorious G.I.'s permeated everyday American speech, the Bixby's, reeling from the plummeting sales of Shinola, quietly moved to a modest colonial in Newark, where within months Gustav took to his bed and never donned a newly shined pair of shoes for the remaining six years of his life. His eldest son, Dexter, somehow kept the company afloat into the sixties, but the damage was irreversible. "It's a crude truth," he said upon shutting the business down on June 16, 1965, "when your nemesis is shit, you don't have shit."

And so, as much as you may want to, you can't run down to the corner store these days and buy some Shinola. But thank God for the World Wide Web. In case you need to find that extra special gift for a significant other, heroic veteran, or that dim-witted co-worker of yours, e-Bay has all your Shinola needs right here, no shit.

Bare Jr.-Shine

Friday, December 11, 2009

Even A Blind Squirrel Can Find A Needle In A Haystack

The 1-11 Cleveland Browns beat the defending Super Bowl Champs Pittsburgh Steelers last night, 13-6, on the frozen tundra.

Josh Cribbs for Cuyahoga County Executive.

Now, next on my list, dear Santa...

Frank Black-I'm Not Dead (I'm In Pittsburgh)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Mea Maxima Culpa, Mel

Time was (back when I was a know-it-all and didn't need to shave, as opposed to now when the breadth of my ignorance grows daily along with my disdain for shaving) when my sister and I could elicit peals of laughter from each other by simply uttering three measly syllables: Mel Torme. This was back in the 1970s, at the end of the great TV variety show era and when Merv Griffin ruled the afternoon airwaves, so even with only about six channels to work with, Mel Torme viewings were rather plentiful. If at the time I had been familiar with the word schlock, that's the word I would have used to describe the ever ebullient jack-o-lantern with his hokey (to my inchoate sensibilities) scat singing and inevitable interjection of some showbiz wink ("Love ya, Merv") into perfectly decent if unhip songs. In short, he seemed to be everything a kid would fear about growing old uncooly. Three measly syllables, Mel Torme, were the ultimate shorthand for my sister and me, representing all the horrors of the aging process and one's perpetual battle with cool.

Well, I did grow up some since those days, gradually. As I learned more about music I realized Mel, "The Velvet Fog," had some standing in the big band jazz singer mode that, while it never did much for me, I could respect. So over time, I guess Mel for me went from schlock to schmaltz, no little difference there. Somewhere along the way I picked up the knowledge that he had written (co-written, actually, with a guy named Bob Wells) "The Christmas Song" (aka "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire..."), which upped Mel's reputation in my regard another notch or two: a schmaltzy, effervescent guy with some creative talent. That's where Mel remained for me for a long time, up to and long after his death in 1999.

Then last year, an epiphany. After hours and hours, years and years, of working retail during the holiday season, one becomes hardened to the charms of "holiday music." The first phase is sheer hatred of the music, then, as time goes by, the second phase kicks in: deafness. You don't even hear it. But for some reason, amidst all the various renditions of all the old standards, Nat King Cole's version of "The Christmas Song" made it through the fog of indifference; that, I remember deciding definitively, is the greatest Christmas song of all-time, secular division. Well, considering that just about every day of my life I'm designating one song or another, one album or another, as the greatest whatever song/album in history, my pronouncement regarding Mel's ditty probably didn't hold much lasting currency. However, today I must have heard the song three or four times, not only Nat's version but assorted other ones, and a year later the verdict not only still stands, but is here and now being set in the stone that is the world wide web. No arguments will be accepted.

What a song! I'm always drawn primarily to lyrics, and upon hundreds of repeated listens, I must say, the lyrics hold up. No schmaltz whatsoever, just genuine sentiment, and there's nothing wrong with that. But my God, that melody. Sort of like watching a lone beautiful skater on a rink work her way up to some brilliant move, and then kind of slowly recover to do it all over again. Or like the surf coming in and going out again. I'm convinced that no one could screw this song up without really trying. It's the equivalent of a cool drink of water on a hot day: timeless, unimpeachable, classic.

Ironically, a little research reveals that the song was written on a very hot day, when Torme saw some lines Wells had written--only to make him feel less hot, supposedly. Mel took over and said he wrote all the music and some of the rest of the words; in an hour the song was complete. Here's the kicker, to me, though: at the time he was 19! My God, even my god Bob Dylan didn't write a song worth anybody ever covering until he was nearly 21. One hour of work when he was nineteen--imagine how much money those sixty minutes have earned. Amazing.

So Mel, I'm here to tell you today I'm sorry for making you the butt of so many jokes over the years. I was lost but now I am found. For your sole contribution of "The Christmas Song" (I hereby suggest the title officially be tweaked to "The Christmas Song"), to popular music, Christmas music, the Christmas experience in general, you have earned my deepest respect and highest regards. Love ya, Mel.

Mel Torme-The Christmas Song

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Suitable, Or Healthy, This Thing?

So in the midst of this mother of all wind storms we're currently having, I'm doing a load of laundry. Just as I'm stuffing all the wet clothes into the dryer, my mind--as it so often does--turns philosophical. I start wondering if, two minutes into the dry cycle, the power goes out and stays out indefinitely, how long, if ever, would it take for that pile of clothes (we're talking a few pairs of jeans, t-shirts, socks, hankies, and some unmentionables) to dry on its own, stuffed into the dryer? I'm at a loss. Does anyone know an old Nova episode you can refer me to? But then I look up at the glaring light on the ceiling of my "utility" room and shrug off such nonsense and happily say, "Nah, my electricity's fit as a fiddle."

And then I thought (luckily just as I was pressing the on button of the dryer, otherwise I just might have found out how long, given the enormity of this thought), what's so damned fit about a fiddle? Ever seen one drop and give you ten? Sink a couple treys? Do a double axel? Tear a phone book in half? Me either. In fact, isn't a fiddle just a Mayberry RFD way to say violin (ooohhh, I guess not; the experts say a fiddle loosely refers to a whole bunch of string instruments, including, but not exclusively, the violin; which of course begs the question what's the difference between a fiddle and a violin? well, wiki has that covered too, listing a half dozen cliched jokes ala "about $1000"; "you buy a fiddle but sell a violin" ad nauseam--though not one involving tattoos, which seems to me to be at the root of the division)? Ever been around anyone who has a violin? You'd think they were in simultaneous possession of the Holy Grail, Osama Bin Laden, and Bob Dylan's new unlisted phone number. I've seen newborn babies treated with less delicacy than a violin. Fit? Seems a bit more like feeble to me.

Look, if we have to use musical instruments as pillars of physical fitness (marching band members the world over high-step in glee over that clause), I think we can come up with several more apt examples than the fiddle. I mean, even if you want to stick to the whole alliteration thing (and let's face it, as far as literary devices go, alliteration is a vastly second fiddle) why not go with the flugelhorn? That's got a nice ring to it, no? "Nah, you dasn't arm wrestle that old dame. Granny's as fit as a flugelhorn." Don't call me weird or anything, but I've always kind of admired the sleekness of the oboe. Kind of looks like a debutante in a black cocktail dress and a smile that coos, "maybe, just maybe." That's it, from now on, when anybody challenges my stamina or strength, I'm saying, "Hell yes I can. I'm fit as an oboe." (Mental note to self: write a treatment for a screenplay called Oboe Cop, about a flatfoot who solves crimes with the aid of his trusty wind instrument [and if it's really a reed instrument, get off my back, Serena!]. Is Don Knotts still alive? Maybe Steve Carell could do it.).

But really, to me, if you want the ideal musical instrument to convey the notion of ultimate fitness, I believe you must go beyond the orchestra and into the garage for this baby:

Yes, the nimble Fender Stratocaster. Fit and sexy, the Kelly Ripa of axes. I mean, talk about taking a licking and keep on ticking. Jimi Hendrix, Monterey. Say no more. Come on folks, help me kick this old tired cliche into the 21st Century. Start using the phrase, "fit as a Fender Strat," in your everyday conversation. It's time the hoi polloi take over from the hoity toity.

And speaking of the hoi vs. hoity war, I did some research on the fit as a fiddle phrase, where once again I was met with choruses of "no one really knows where the expression comes from..." Interestingly enough, though, the site, which is quickly becoming my most trusted source for phrase info (maybe it's that .uk thing that makes it seem so superior to any old entity), is the only one I found which points out that when the phrase seems to have originated, back around 1600, the word "fit" generally meant not physically healthy but something more like "suitable" (which, in a narrow sense, I can understand those old Elizabethans thinking a fiddle might be the model for suitableness, though, still, suitable for a knife fight, a harvest, an orgy? I guess, though, if one is inclined to use the rather drab word suitable, one would probably prefer a fiddle to a Fender Strat). A definite second fiddle site to the Stradivarius that is, while singing the praises of fit as a fiddle's alliterative qualities, provided this gem of a typo while trying to make sense of the phrase: "if a fiddle's strings aren't taunt (sic) enough, it doesn't sound too good." As if fiddle strings can taunt: "Hey flutes, you're a buncha wimps"; "Yo tubas, arpeggio this!"

In conclusion, fit as fiddle is not quite suitable to me as a phrase. So I trumpet my own fit as an oboe and/or fit as a Fender Strat, and I plead with you all to drum up support for their use and pull any strings at your disposal so we can conduct a coup. Finis.

The Holy Modal Rounders-Give The Fiddler A Dram

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

His Name Was Leon, Or Barlow

The mind moves in weird ways. One minute I was thinking about how I'm getting old, based on the evidence that the most spam I get is from the AARP and that today, unironically, I actually used the phrase, "the proof is in the pudding." Next thing I know my mind is all over the movie Big Bad Love. Didn't see it? Most people didn't, I'm afraid, but it's wonderful. Right now it's my favorite movie of the decade, and seeing that I'm not in the mood to join the blog horde and start listing my favorite movies, CDs, books, etc. of the decade, this spontaneous shout-out to the great Arliss Howard (writer, director, star) will have to suffice for my decade's summing up of the movie scene. In an hour, I might remember another gem I enjoyed as much as this one, but right now I'm sticking with this. It's surreal, dark, funny, twisted--but most of all, pretty genuine. But you'll have to watch it for yourself to decide; the proof is in the viewing.

R.L. Burnside-Everything Is Broken

Monday, December 7, 2009

True Confession

Chas had a heavy conscience, something he couldn't shake, so he stopped in his boyhood church, where he hadn't been for years. He wandered around, then got up the courage and entered the confessional. "My God," he thought, "it's been a long time." Instead of the dark closet with a kneeler and a small screen, he now saw, in wonder, a large room with a huge flat screen TV, a mini-fridge, which upon further inspection was stocked with Goebel beer, a laptop with wi-fi capability, and next to that same small screen, a comfy recliner. He sat down, thinking, "Who knew? I gotta try this confession thing more often." Just then he heard the screen open on the other side.

"Yes?" In just one syllable, it all came back to him, the resonant voice of Fr. McGillicuddy, the man who had baptized Chas, gave him his first communion, heard his first several dozen confessions, confirmed him, married him, baptized his kids, and--unless he watched his cholesterol more carefully, thought Chas--might end up burying him.

"Bless me Father, for I have sinned. From the looks of things," Chas looked around the spacious, well-equipped confessional "box" once more, "it's been a very long time since my last confession."

"You're on the wrong side, my son, but I forgive you. What's on your mind?"

Irish bastard, Chas thought to himself, then remembered where he was and why he was there. "Father, I live a pretty good life, but yesterday I lost all control and swore up a storm. Really took the Lord's name in vain. I'm sorry."

"Tell me about it, my son." Admittedly, Chas hadn't seen or talked to Fr. McGillicuddy in a few years, but he could swear the old priest's brogue was thicker now than ever.

"Well, I was playing golf, and I was going along great, probably the best round in my life. I come to the 18th hole, needing just a par to break 75. It's a long par four, woods on the left, water on the right and in front of the green. I stand over the ball on the tee, visualize a great shot, keep my tempo, and murder the ball. High and long, right down the middle of the fairway, 280, maybe even 300 yards. And it comes down right on a sprkinkler head and bounces dead left right toward the woods."

"So that's when you swore, eh?"

"No, I kept my calm. Just watched the ball rolling towards the woods when out of nowhere a squirrel appears and puts the ball right in its mouth and starts running back toward the tee, like he was a dog playing fetch."

"Ah, so that's when you swore, right son?"

"No, because right then a huge hawk swooped down out of nowhere and grabbed the squirrel and flew off with him, the ball still in the squirrel's mouth."

"Now of course, that's when you swore, didn't you?"

"No, it was so majestic, and unbelievable. The hawk actually started flying back up the fairway, hugging the right side, like a draw shot that's not quite drawing. And then close to the green, suddenly he drops the squirrel right over the water, like his mission all along had been to drown the squirrel."

"No doubt about it, hunh? You swore then."

"No, I was kind of feeling sorry for the squirrel at that moment, watching him fall out of the sky right over the water. But just before he hit the water, the ball flies out of his mouth."

"Say no more, my son. That's when you swore, for sure. You're only human."

"No, amazingly, the ball hits a rock sticking up from the water--it's a very well-manicured, aesthetically pleasing course--and the ball, Titleist Pro-V 3, if that matters, ricochets out of the water right onto the green and stops two feet from the hole."

There was a long silence. Chas rocked a bit in the recliner, still amazed by the whole thing. Then he thought maybe the old priest had fallen asleep or something worse, the silence was so long and, well, quiet. Then slowly, from through the screen, Chas heard a slow exhalation of breath.

"Ah, sonabitch, you shithead. You missed the goddamned putt, didn't you?"

Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez-Confessions

Sunday, December 6, 2009

13 Ways of Considering an Irreverent e-mail Attachment

  1. After the holiday rush, Santa Claus promises to sit down with his physician and have a frank discussion about Flomax.
  2. "Dad, I swear, we had those yellow lights arranged in a beautiful star. It must have been the wind. Either that or those Jewish kids down the street, you know, the Zinnamon's?"
  3. "Carrots and warm milk. All they ever leave me is carrots and warm milk. Well I'll show them."
  4. "Honey, after you're finished with the lights and sawing down the tree, won't you lend me a hand canning all these fruitcakes for the bazaar?"
  5. A statement from the PR firm of Schwartz, Patel, and Abdul: "Just like Tiger Woods and half the United States Congress, our client, Mr. Claus, as magnanimous and jolly as he is, after all is only human. He's not perfect, and he makes mistakes. He regrets any offense he may have caused and looks forward to moving on from this unfortunate incident."
  6. The following year, Mrs. Claus added Depends to her list.
  7. "Damn that Christmas Ale!"
  8. Thirty-seven years later, Phil was still angry over not getting that electric football set he so desperately wanted in 1972.
  9. "There goes Santa Claus, there goes Santa Claus..."
  10. After the Joneses next door got their 50 foot inflatable snowman, Gus Tobin was no longer so keen on keeping up.
  11. "Who's going to know if I've been a little naughty? The Easter Bunny? As if."
  12. Christmas in Kohler, Wisconsin.
  13. "Relax, Blitzen. You're not being replaced. Santa just has to go see a man about a horse for a second."
Keith Richards-Run Rudolph Run

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Hot or Cold?

Among the various either/or philosophical quandaries that have vexed me for a lifetime--among them, plain or peanut, Betty or Wilma, burrito or enchilada, Scranton or Wilkes-Barre--one just might have been solved this morning. The way I consider it, the question is a complex one: based on how good achieving the opposite sensation--thus, relief--feels, would you prefer (I'm talking literally here, no figurative shadings of meaning) being cold or hot? Simply put, does it feel better to be warmed up after being very cold, or cooled off after being overly hot? I'm also talking domestically; I'd rather not mull over the grim prospects of being stranded in deserts or blizzards. In everyday life, what's your preference?

Now I realize that for someone who lives where I do, Cleveland, Ohio, I should consider this question only on either May 15th or September 15th, to be free of all environmental bias. That said, this morning, as I loitered in bed wrapped in a thick blanket, with, as far as I could tell, only my pert proboscis protruding into the cold air, visions of heaven coursed through my cozy sinews. One mere extremity spasm, which would have resulted in a blanket flap rending my cocoon and exposing my entire corporeality to a true draught that would have instantly brought the horrible word ague to my mind, was all that lay between bliss and bedevilment; I hunkered still as I could, even trying to perfect the art of breathing in and out of one nostril to minimize movement.

While the body lay luxuriously dormant, though, the mind reeled. I remembered a long ago hot August night, stuffed in a tiny Manhattan apartment, when I slithered out of the hideaway bed and stood in front of an opened refrigerator door until the milk started to turn; I remembered the initial splash of boyhood plunges in bodies of water; I remembered air-conditioned 19th holes after six-hours of duffing; I remembered escaping into the walk-in fridge, ostensibly to get more potato salad, but really just to cool off from shaking out five large pots of steaming green beans; I remembered countless mini-ecstasies that merely turning the pillow over in the middle of the night brought about. But un-unh, nothing, not one hot-to-cool memory, as great as they are, could match the wondrous feeling of how I felt at that moment, warm, snug, stupendously static, when brazen, burring cold was only a motion away. So gleeful was I that soon I even voluntarily rolled over, just to experience once more the cold-to-warmth sensation that the necessary blanket rearranging would cause.

So it's done with. Case settled. I'm a cold-to-warmth kind of guy. Now it's on to other questions, such as, if I had to make a choice, would I rather be blind or deaf? But before that, I've got some plumbing to do--gonna install those separate taps so I can hold my hands under the cold one for several minutes then shift them over to the hot. What are your weekend plans?

Richard Thompson-Cold Feet

Thursday, December 3, 2009


Because Pastor Baggins ubskonded with the choir money to buy a twopay
Which then the choir had to hold a raffle to git money to buy new gownds
Which Aunt Conestoga won the deep fryer at
Which made Granny Lick lick her gums
Which made Granpa Lick say it was her nugget lick
Which made daddy Uncle Evelyn intrust me with the hatch-it
Which made me nervee
Which made me lose my grip on Ethel the Plumper
Which made her run with her head on still
Which made Ruffer chase her
Which made BLT squeal oink squeal
Which woke up In-Law Thaddeus
Which made him yell hellfire from his hamuck
Which made me chase em the wrong way
Which is not only how I nearly got roadkilled by Horace Goode's Camaro
But which is why Rayleen whupped me
Why we fryed up Ethel the Not-So Plump
Why Granny Lick is still a-smiling
And to answer your question sir, why the chicken crossed the road.

The Meters-Chicken Strut

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

15% Of One, 60% Of The Other

Well, looks like I'm back to bashing the numbers guys. The estimable Times of London recently came out with its lists of the best and worst books of the decade. Considering myself a pretty literate guy, of course I perused the lists, abacus by my side, to tote up just how up-to-date well-read I've been the last ten years. I mean really, one does not read such lists to be inspired but to gloat, doesn't one? The one or two sentence descriptions of each book aren't enough to persuade me to pick up a book I've already chosen not to spend my time on, but the mere mention of a book I've read feels like another notch on my garish intellectual belt. Naturally I'm sure you agree with me that one of the top three or four reasons to read is to up one's snob quotient (you're reading spitoutyourgum, aren't you?). So imagine my disdain when I discovered that while I had read fully 15% (respectably snobby, I think, without going overboard into the realm of the pedant) of the decade's best books (per The Times snobs), I had also read a whopping 60% of the worst books. Egads.

But hold on, keep that cursor right here. The 'best" list contains 100 books, the "worst" merely 5. So in real numbers, my best to worst ratio is 15 to 3. What's even crazier is that one book, The DaVinci Code, made both lists! So, throwing that fluke out, I stand at 14-2. Beat that, I say. Come to think of it, as I remember reading Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code, I kept mumbling to myself, "Good God, what awful writing," as I kept turning the pages. The man might write like crap, but he sure can write the shit out of the crap, to coin a phrase. So I guess a spot on both lists is warranted.

All arrogance aside, though, I was delighted to see David Mitchell's epic Cloud Atlas on the best list. Without a doubt the most fun I had reading a book in the last ten years was when I read this large, inter-connected, funny, moving, thought-provoking, intricate, inventive, narrative juggling act. Make it through the first 25 pages or so, which can be slow, but in retrospect are great, then buckle your seat belts for a helluva ride. Among a plethora of great scenes, the book contains undoubtedly the greatest escape from an old folks home scene ever.

So there's my Santa's helper gift to you all: looking for a great book to give to someone who likes a little challenge in his or her reading? Cloud Atlas.

Talking Heads-The Book I Read

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Hard As Nails, Dummy

Mandolin Lessons

Now I know that clutter of stasis:
Papers and mail and unneeded gifts and junk
Piled like fecund undergrowth on tables and chairs and floor.
Movement and presence marked solely by the absence of dust.
The house nothing more than shelter
A mausoleum alive only with memory and loss.

Now I know the depressed machinations
Of that old man, Eck Cullen or some such name:
The fogged un-affect and monosyllabic labored replies.

But at the time, fall 1987, I was only twenty-four
With maybe just one heartbreak on my resume,
And overwhelmed by the utter sadness of person and place.
This was upper Appalachia
Thirty miles northeast of Clearfield, Pennsylvania.
Young People Who Care missions had sent me, Campus Minister,
And student Brad, sixteen and as plain and quiet
And enigmatic as his name, to Eck’s house
To do some cleaning for him.
I’m sure Eck hadn’t asked for the help
But was probably too polite or apathetic to refuse.
The only thing that looked possibly half-alive in the house
Was a mandolin hanging from a nail on a wall.
Eck couldn’t care less that we couldn’t move
A stubborn piece of furniture
To wash the wall behind it.
His wife had died two years before, we had been told,
And obviously not much had moved in that house since.

As Brad and I ate our peanut butter and jelly and water lunch
Eck just sat there, probably out of some ingrained notion
Of hospitality, but he didn’t say anything.
I can’t say he even endured our presence; he wasn’t that active.
I guess out of a feeling to model some vague idea
Of compassionate, ersatz Christ-like adulthood for Brad,
I finally asked Eck if he played that mandolin.
“Not for a long time,” he said, never looking at me.
“I love to hear a mandolin,” I said, which was true,
Having recently discovered the Byrds’
Sweetheart of the Rodeo album
And dipped my toes into some bluegrass.
“I’d love to hear you play.”

I’m sure there was a shrug of some sort I missed
And then Eck got up and took the mandolin off the wall.
He blew some dust off, plucked a couple strings,
Turned a knob or two
And then started to play.
Clunky at first, somewhat sour and hesitant,
Then a tune emerged. Rudimentary.

Twenty years later I might be able to name the tune,
But at the time I was too mesmerized to think.
Mesmerized not by any artistry
Or by witnessing any kind of momentary resurrection
In the old man’s demeanor, life.
Mesmerized instead, I now believe,
By what I thought was my power to infuse life.

For weeks after, I pictured the old man
More and more often pulling the mandolin down off the wall
And gradually reclaiming whatever mastery of the instrument
He’d once possessed,
Gradually coming out of the fog for a few minutes at a time.

Now, I doubt all that.
He barely acknowledged whatever praise or applause
I and maybe even Brad paid him.
He never smiled the hint of a smile
I thought I had earned.
He just put the mandolin back on the nail on the wall
And I think I know now he never touched it again.

Compassion, doing the Lord’s work, if you will,
Is not a voyeur’s pleasure.
It’s hard, unrewarding labor
Like life is too often hard and unrewarding.

Hard as nails, dummy, I say to myself now.

Joe Maphis-Fire On The Strings