Friday, July 31, 2009

Hummer Time!

Sorry to disappoint, but this post concerns ruby throats of the avian variety. Every spring the hummingbirds return to our neighborhood from wherever it is that they spend the winter, and after about a month they disappear again. I'm not sure where they go. My crazy birdwatching friend (come on, you've probably got one, too) says that they go "to the country", whatever that means.

And every year, about this time, they return. From the country, I guess. It starts with one or two, and the population steadily expands until they are ready to make their long flight over the Gulf of Mexico to wherever it is that they spend the winter. By the middle of September we may have a couple of dozen of the impossibly cute and pesky little things fighting over the feeders and buzzing anyone who happens outside. And then one day they are all gone until next year.

Much like the first cool breeze or the ripening of fruit in parts north of here, the hummers returning is a promise of summer's end. We still have at least two months of temperatures in the 90's, and two more before anything resembling cold weather arrives, but the promise is given. The days are growing shorter, the kids are preparing to return to school, and the big clock of the seasons climbs toward another midnight.

Like fall, hummer time inspires melancholy and reflection in me. Autumn is my favorite time of year, but the dark side is part of what gives it the richness that I like so much . Another year is on the downhill slide. The life of summer retreats, and for those with real seasons, falling leaves rattle like bones, the wildlife hunker down or flee to their winter places. It's a time for sweaters, pumpkins, firewood and quiet acknowledgment of winter approaching.

The first hummer came to the window this past weekend, asking to be fed. I had to displace a wasp nest from the goldfinch feeder I never took down last winter*, but after a little drama the little guy and his partner are settled in. I assume his friends will be along shortly.

I have lived too long and my life is too sweet to wish away any of these summer days. So I will enjoy the the 95 degree heat and humidity and afternoon rains as best I can. But I'm still glad to see the hummingbirds return.

* Don't judge. I've been busy.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Readers Anonymous

Okay, I admit it. I'm a reader. And not just blogs or newspapers or magazines. I love to read books. I don't even have to count to know that the wife and I own a thousand or more between us. Most especially I like novels. The thicker the better, unless they are lame, in which case I usually want to kill the author of the fat ones by the time I am finished*. And I will almost always finish. I don't really gravitate to either classics or real trash, though I am capable of enjoying both. I like sci-fi and adventure and quirky stories that are hard to explain.

I doubt very much that you will ever see me in an airplane with my laptop open or playing with my berry. I am always carrying a book, as often as not purchased in the airport, and I will read it from the time I sit down at the gate until I get off the plane at my destination, stopping only to get on the plane, claim the little bag of pretzels (I miss peanuts) and change flights.

I come from a long line of readers. My grandfather was a school teacher in one of those country-ass schoolhouses like in Little House on the Prairie. My father read everything Louis L'Amour and Tom Clancy ever wrote, usually on Sunday afternoons. My mother preferred to read in bed, and probably still does. She always seemed to have the latest thing from the bestseller list. But whether romance or western or suspense, everyone in my house usually had a book.

Being a reader was easy when I was young. Everything was fresh to me, there were new ideas everywhere, and all of my friends and family were always turning me on to a different author or point of view or style of writing. As I got older, it got more difficult. I got more selective, I read up most of the old stuff I knew I was interested in reading, and I learned that most people don't read for pleasure, so it was usually a crap shoot when I went to select a book. I hit the occasional jackpot when a new Tom Robbins novel would appear, or when I discovered and subsequently devoured the Hitchhiker's Trilogy and both Dirk Gently books, or when a friend at work told me about this Harry Potter book that his daughter had been bugging him to read**. But usually I was mildly disappointed.

So as much as I hate to ever encourage data mining or consumer profiling or any of the other creepy big brothery things that people like me figure out how to do to people like us, I have to give props to the Amazon recommender engine thingy. In the last few years it has turned me onto some of the best books I have read in a long time. While I can't remember if Terry Pratchett was Amazon or a lucky grab at the airport, they definitely turned me on to Christopher Moore and Jasper Fforde. Both write books that are intelligent, original, offbeat and funny. Which is right in my wheelhouse.

The Amazon thing does tend to focus a little much on what I have been doing lately, and I suspect that their own sales goals sneak into the equation somewhere, but it has definitely helped me find the good stuff. And it may even have helped a young author or two find their audience. Who knows?

It seems like my AARP card came with a growing interest in non-fiction, but I've always liked history and biography when it was interesting. I could never read enough about WWII or the great voyages of exploration of the last half millenium. And I enjoy poetry and plays and well-written treatments of technology or science. But when it's going to be a day in the air, or on the couch, give me a big fat novel every time.

* Yes, Herman Melville, I'm talking about you. Be glad you're already dead.
** That's right. I read them all. Multiple times. I will probably read them again. Shut up.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Eagle has Landed

When I started college for the third time at the age of 32 I was required to (re)take a number of introductory courses, despite the 100+ credit hours I had already accumulated in my previous academic wanderings. Which is how I found myself in freshman English Composition with 20 or so people who still thought drinking 'til you puked was sexy. We were introducing ourselves on the first day, and I had just finished a summary of myself which I'm sure was both deep and engaging, when the girl next to me turned and exclaimed, "Wow! You were alive when they landed on the moon!"*

Yes, I was alive when they landed on the moon. In fact, I was nearly six feet tall, my voice was changing, and I was beginning to feel ways about stuff. I watched Apollo 11 take off, I watched them land, and I watched a grainy and semi-transparent Neil Armstrong step off the ladder and speak the words that caused 750 million people to turn to those closest to them, tears in their eyes and ask, "What'd he say?" I can still remember staring up at the moon, trying to wrap my mind around the idea that there were people standing there.

I guess this is one of those events that will forever separate those who remember it from those who don't, like Pearl Harbor, JFK's assassination or the
premier of American Idolfall of the Berlin Wall. Like those other events, the moon landing forever changed how humans viewed themselves and their subsequent experience, and the world was in some way fundamentally different from the way it was the day before.

It is almost impossible to convey the audacity of the act. It had been less than a decade since people had sent the first object of any kind beyond our atmosphere. Most Americans had never flown on an airplane and no one was really sure what the moon's surface was like. There were knowledgeable people who believed the LEM would sink into a powder many feet thick and never been seen again. Less than a year before the landing, humans had never laid eyes on the far side of the moon, or seen the Earth from a distance. If they tried to do this again today, they would never even get the contracts awarded in the time it took to develop the entire Apollo program.

These three men took off on a dangerous adventure in a largely untested craft because -- well, wouldn't you? I know I would have. It was the first time people had ever set foot on any solid surface other than the Earth. It was crossing a boundary that had never been crossed in Earth's three billion year history, and that could never be uncrossed. It is estimated that one fifth of the world's population watched on about one-twentieth of that number of televisions , and it was all anybody talked about. And I don't mean all they could talk about like Michael Jackson. I mean as soon as someone walked in the door of their home or their job or a restaurant they would ask how it was going, or if there was anything new.

I watched every launch of every American spacecraft from Mercury 9 through the first handful of Shuttle launches. I grieved every cancellation of the later Apollo missions, and mourned the subsequent loss of exploratory manned spaceflight. Because let's face it -- what they have done with the Shuttle and the Space Station is certainly important, but it's not exploration.

I still follow the space program pretty closely, and I check on the Mars rovers every now and then. They are still wandering around up there, more than 5 years after their warranty expired, doing important science and taking cool pictures. And I'm sure I will be watching the return to the Moon and/or the first manned trip to Mars, on the off chance that I'm still around by then. But for me, none of it could ever match the feeling I got hearing Armstrong's voice crackle out of the speaker on our big console television, "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

* I think I'm beginning to understand why my first paper in that class was about the best method for committing suicide. I got an A+.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Road Stories

Between the ongoing t-shirt discussion on the old roadies mailing list and This is Spinal Tap showing on Palladia last night, I have old road stories bubbling around in my head, so I might as well tell one or two. Actually, I was going to go another way with this, but let's start with the movie.

Spinal Tap is undoubtedly the best movie ever made about the rock monsters of the sixties and seventies. Besides being funny enough to make things shoot out of one's nose, it is a more accurate depiction of the people and the life than most documentaries* I have seen. Every stupid thing that happens in that movie reminds me of a (more or less) true story from the day, and every slimy or bitchy or otherwise ridiculous person in there brings to mind someone that I knew. And don't even get me started on the hair.

I remember a night, I think with Rufus (with special guest Chaka Khan!) and the Brothers Johnson in Kiel Auditorium (may it rest in piece) in St. Louis, where the promoter kept running back and forth to the ticket office to get enough money to pay us enough that we would turn on the lights and the show would go on. I'm pretty sure that was also the show where they served Manischewitz Cream Red and Cream White to the band to satisfy the contract requirement for red and white wine in the dressing room. Chaka Khan didn't show up. But she was like seven months pregnant, so that happened a lot.

REO Speedwagon trashed their dressing room one time because they didn't have the right color M&M's. The Kiss roadies stuck a girl to the wall of the Pontiac Sheraton with gaffers tape** a few days before we came through. Speaking of REO, they didn't exactly have lighted electric uteri to walk out of, but they did have the worst opening effect I've ever seen in person. Bob "Flash" Gordon, their lighting designer, thought it would be really cool if they started the show by walking through a curtain of dry ice fog. It wasn't actually a terrible idea. CO2 fog is considerably heavier than air, so if you can get enough of it way up in the air somehow it will fall rapidly and run over the front of the stage. The problem is getting the fog 20 feet up in the air and getting it to come out in any sort of even curtain, given that it is heavier than air and the fog machines weren't pressurized***. The only good solution would have been to put the fog machines on the lighting rig, but since they weighed almost 500 lbs. each, pulled enough power to light a small house, and had to be loaded with dry ice right before the show, that was a non-starter. I won't bother you with the details, but it usually ended up looking like five or six randomly placed fire extinguishers shooting at the stage. The band threw a fit about it almost every night. You would have thought that after thirty shows or so they would have figured out it was never going to work, but they were pretty much impervious to learning.

Image from here

Flash Gordon was also responsible for the worst day of my life -- at least until my first marriage -- but that's a another story. Oh, good. One of the elder alumni just stopped the t-shirt conversation with a 36-point typeface rant. It had been going on for over a week and was really starting to get on my nerves. So, any good concert memories out there?
* Or "rockumentaries", if you will.
** Think of black, extra-sticky duct tape. Show business runs on it.
*** Our fog machines were custom built and famous for the time. Two of them could produce enough fog to asphyxiate Lionel Ritchie at the piano, though I am not at liberty to say how I know that.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Concert Season

There has been a veritable flurry of activity from the old roadie community lately. I have several e-mail chains that are at least 10 messages long, with a couple hundred recipients. So far I have resisted the urge to reply, "Unsubscribe!", which is usually my oh-so-subtle way of pointing out to people that "Reply all" is not the only option. Anyway, it started with some semi-coincidental commemorations, both happy and sad. Several couples are celebrating high numbered wedding anniversaries, and there have been a couple of weddings, finally legitimizing relationships lasting 30 years or so. I try not to consider the possibility that these are related to some of the sadder events, and I secretly hope that no one has been driven to the altar by thought of being cut out of an inheritance that they helped to build because they do not enjoy the legal status of a spouse.

On the other side, we have commemorations of old friends gone to that great gig in the sky. Old friends with names like Poodle, Dirty Mike, Goat, BJ, CD, Lunar and too many others have fallen to causes accidental and self-inflicted, and with each one there are stories. Lunar was queen of the electronics shop, and for years she was the only one anyone trusted to solder snakes. These were the 99-pin monster cables (not to be confused with Monster cables) that ran from the control boards out in the house to the lighting and sound systems backstage. The 99 wires were color coded with little stripes, and all had to be soldered to the right pin on a plug only about three inches across. Someone asked Lunar one time how she dealt with all of those itty bitty pins and wires, and she said, "I just smoke a joint or two and they get bigger*." I guess Steve Martin had something with that "getting small" thing, after all.

Several other old comrades are celebrating the anniversary of their first show, which is less of a coincidence than it might seem. Summer was outdoor show and big festival season, and everybody who was anybody was packing up all the equipment they could scrounge and heading out for Red Rocks or Pine Knob or the Meriweather Post Pavilion, where they would play for a few thousand of their closest friends. Wineskins and blankets were everywhere, and the SHOWCO shop was usually empty save some old curtains, a few bubble machines (don't ask) and the Who's giant spotlights. Of course, for every Genesis show at Wembley Stadium, there were too many like the Bee Gees at the Pontiac Silverdome, REO Speedwagon at the Rockford Jam. or KC and the Sunshine Band at a drive-in theater in Buffalo (all stories for another time). As August rolled towards September we would hit the state fair circuit in the upper midwest and Canada. All the gigs were at racetracks or rodeo arenas or just out in a random field, and the roadies had to drag all the equipment through the mud and string miles of extra cable and make it all work somehow each and every day. We didn't really care for State Fair season, though I'm still a sucker for a corn dog and some cotton candy.

Summer was the time to get hired if you wanted to be a roadie, and more than one was picked up at a show and learning the trade on the road a few days later. It wasn't always pleasant, it was never easy, but it was more than any other time of year the reason we were all there. And it definitely broke the monotony of 100 more or less identical hockey/basketball/multipurpose arenas in a row.

The conversation has moved on to t-shirts, some of which are now worth $1000 or more. So if I ever gave you a shirt, you should be ashamed of yourself because I know what you probably did for it. But you should also see if you can find it, because all of mine are long gone. There is actually talk of trying to find the old silk screens and making some new ones. If it happens, I expect you all to buy some.
* Just say no, kids.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Fun with numbers

Tomorrow is 07-08-09. At least if you're in the U.S. Otherwise, I think it's next month. I'm still confused by the metric calendar.

Anyway, be sure to set your alarm for 4:05 AM and note when 04:05:06 07-08-09 rolls by. Maybe blow one of those party horns or something.

Let me know how it was. I stayed up for 01:01:01 01-01-01 and I expect it will be pretty much the same.


So I'm up at two-o'frakking-clock in the frakking morning (sorry, Rassles brought up Cylons earlier) with a case of insomnia, mostly induced by middle age interacting with overindulgence in cheap and plentiful Mexican food, but probably enhanced by a rapidly approaching paper submission deadline, in the midst of writing what is undoubtedly the longest sentence I have ever constructed for a blog post, and one which is almost certainly too long for the medium and definitely too long for the taste of most grammar checkers, and I'm wondering what to do next. I've been up for a couple of hours, and the feeling of being an overstuffed burrito (we are what we eat, you know) has mostly passed. I could probably lie down and might even sleep eventually, but I am not the least bit sleepy.

While I'm weighing the relative merits of trying to get back to bed or powering through the night until the inevitable crash at about the time I'm supposed to get up, I hear the coffeemaker signal that it is finished brewing. This is a suprise to me, as I have not (intentionally) made any coffee. See, what had happened was our power went out during one of the storms today and we have one of those coffeemakers that comes on automatically because neither the wife nor I are to be trusted with dangerous and complex tasks like measuring and pouring when we first get up in the morning. So the clock on the coffeemaker never got reset, the countdown began, and voila! Mmmm, coffee. Decision made. This is going to cost me later today.

I guess I will see what's on TV. I can probably learn how to make a fortune, rid myself of acne and enhance that certain part of a man's body all before the sun comes up.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Summer on the Bayou

When I woke up this morning it was 78 degrees (F) with calm winds and 95% humidity. It has rained several times today -- street-flooding downpours that drop a half an inch or more in 10-20 minutes. When I walked outside just now it was 87 degrees and the air was so muggy I swear it takes extra effort just to walk through it. After the 100 degree sauna of the last few weeks my first thought was, "Wow, this is nice."

I have definitely lived here too long.