Thursday, December 31, 2009

Christmas Blessings

It wasn't the best Christmas week on record. It included 1400 miles of driving, most of it in weather ranging from bad to "oh my god we're all going to die." Most of the clan (myself included) had trouble finding inspiration for gifts this year,* leaving those who really worked at it feeling somewhat taken advantage of. And the schedule was tight enough that there was only one day in seven that didn't include planned activities, and I was tagged to cook most of that day.

There was also the Christmas Eve Wine-and-Philosophy Slam, which led directly to The Hangover That Ruined Christmas. This was not my hangover, which was impressive in its own right. This particular prize goes to one of my relatives, who was already Christmas cheerful on the 24th when we arrived after an eight hour drive through Noah's flood. After getting me a glass of wine to calm my nerves, he continued to open giant bottles long after anyone with an iota of sense had gone to bed. My brother and I, not wanting to be rude, kept him company. I was the only one in the group that was up both before and after noon.

We spent the day after Christmas at an impromptu family reunion, which was both welcomed and ill-timed. I saw relatives I had not seen in years, and some I had yet to meet. I'm sure it will be the last time I see some of them in person. But it was clear that virtually everyone in the room was exhausted, and we struggled to do much more than smile at each other.

The second half of the week was spent at a combined Christmas and 50th wedding anniversary celebration with the in-law clan. The Wife found a great big house on a lake to rent in hopes that we could all spread out enough that we might not try to kill each other. Her plan was largely successful.

Throughout the week there were the inevitable slights, snubs, snide comments and bruised feelings that are part and parcel of family gatherings. Someone said a couple of weeks ago that our families are hard-wired to get on our nerves,** and this year was more evidence in support of this theory. Each holiday together features incidents or comments that are so bizarre or surreal that I wonder if they really happened at all, and immediately begin convincing myself that I must have misremembered or misinterpreted. These people are so like me in so many ways that normal social conventions and defenses don't work. But they are so different and "other" that sometimes it feels like they (or I) might be from another planet.

We drove home yesterday through light snow and then heavy rain, and The Wife is already showing signs of coming down with something. I won't even talk about the thing with the cat-sitter.*** It is easy at such times to swear never again and try to put the whole thing behind us. But someone way smarter than I am said once that life is too short to live in a way that makes us wish it were shorter, so I try to find some value and enjoyment in every experience.

My late father's best friend, and practically a second father to me, never saw this Christmas, and his wife and children spent the holiday mourning the loss of their patriarch. Another dear and lifelong friend spent most of the week in the hospital after her husband's surprise emergency surgery. They face tremendous challenges this coming year. We took group pictures at the family reunion, and the first shot was of my parents' generation. When my mother looked at the picture she said, "Surely there are more of us left than that."

The end of the year is a time for looking forward, but for me it is also a time to savor the fullness -- and yes, the bitterness -- of life. Every holiday season is an opportunity that will not be repeated, and I will try not to waste a single one. Time I spend with my relatives helps me understand them -- and myself -- better, and somehow makes me feel less alone. I learned things. I played in snow. I beat my brother-in-law at pool. I got an electric wine opener. It's all good.

Happy New Year, everyone. Say goodbye to the twenty-oh's. I predict this next year is going to be interesting.

* Think brightly colored carabiners and LED flashlights.
** I think it was Dr. Drew on GMA. I am very discriminating about where I obtain my medical information.
*** The cats are fine.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

After the Crash

So, we watched A Crude Awakening last night. I probably should have learned my lesson from reading the food book, but I'm trying to anticipate the right moment to convert my 401K to canned goods and ammunition. The film gives a pretty early impression of being a Chicken Little hatchet job by people who hate America,* and that impression never completely one hundred percent goes away. But there's math, and graphs, and this dude that sort of reminds me of Ross Perot, with a cartoon voice and a bunch of graphs, who apparently predicted that America would stop being the world's top oil producer in about 1970.

People thought he was a nut job. Actually, he kind of seemed like a nut job. But he was right. And intercut between some hilarious old films about how great oil is for civilization, a bunch of old guys with chicken necks and pretty good credentials lay out some pretty disturbing facts. The two most disturbing facts are that oil production is very unlikely to ever increase significantly ever again, and that demand will grow by almost an order of magnitude over the next 20 years. Oh, the third disturbing thing is that the old film strips are right -- practically everything in our modern civilization is built on the assumption that oil is plentiful and cheap.

So, great. I'm not convinced that it's time to cash out, but I may start building some shelves for the canned goods.

Happy New Year!
* This group includes liberals, environmentalists, vegetarians, anyone who wears sandals, democrats, socialists, gays, muslims, people from New England and the poor.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

It's beginning to look smell a lot like Christmas

I walked into a major department store the other day and immediately noticed that the melange of perfumes typical of such establishments had blended with the holiday scents of candles and other items to produce the aroma of ... well ... vomit. It was more than a little disgusting, though faint, and the smell faded as I walked through the store. I had just begun to convince myself that I had imagined it, or that some poor unfortunate customer or employee had been having a worse day than me, when I walked into another store and was greeted by exactly the same scent. Actually it was worse, possibly because I was entering next to the cosmetics area.

You would think that someone would have noticed this unfortunate combination of scents, but maybe it's one of those things to which people quickly grow accustomed, in the same way that you can't smell the bar on your clothes until the next morning. And even if they notice, I'm not sure what can be done. I choose to think of it as a preview of New Year's Eve.

Oh, well. 'Tis the season, I suppose. Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Free Spirit!

I've been fascinated by the Mars rovers ever since the Number Five-looking things made it through Martian Civil Defense and landed on the red planet. I know the word "hero" gets tossed around a lot these days, but if these little robots aren't heroes then neither is the person who calls 911 when they see someone in danger.

The nerds at JPL couldn't be any happier than I am that the rovers have lasted this long, or more worried about little Spirit getting stuck. So I've been following the effort to free the little guy for the last couple of months, keeping up with the rovers on Twitter, and generally irritating the crap out of my wife by telling her how much the right front wheel rotated on the last test, or making her look at pictures of what look like random areas of New Mexico or Utah.

So, does she ignore me, or tell me to grow up or get aggravated because I spend so much of my attention focused literally millions of miles away? Well, maybe a little. Can you blame her? But mostly she listens patiently, and looks at the stupid pictures, and then buys me this for Christmas.

So boys and girls, my Christmas wish for you is that you have (or find) someone who will give you things that make you happy, even when they know that they will have to look at (if not step on) the little pieces all over the house for months afterward. That's a real hero. Did I mention that she bought me a telescope as an engagement present to reciprocate for her ring? To be fair, I think my ex-wife gave me potholders or something the last Christmas we were together, and I gave her an emerald ring. I guess things average out.

Merry Christmas to me! Oh, and to the rest of you too, I guess.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Road Stories 3: Band of Brothers (and a Few Sisters)

If you have ever been part of a (good) team under stress, you have experienced some of the bonding (designated by Corporate weinies everywhere as "team-building") that can happen as a consequence of the experience. The ultimate case of this seems to be soldiers in combat, who will literally give up their lives for their buddies. The roadie experience was nowhere near as dangerous or intense as combat, but it beat the hell out of playing in a golf scramble or climbing a wall for building trust and mutual respect.

If you want to teach people to get along at work, jam between eight and fourteen of them into a van or bus, deprive them of sleep and basic comforts, and put them to work supervising a different set of strangers* every day from the crack of dawn to the wee hours. Keep it up for a couple of months, and then repeat the exercise with a different -- but probably overlapping -- group. And make sure it's an endeavor that cannot fail on any single day without potentially catastrophic financial impact and possible loss of life.**

The CliffsNotes version of this experience is to stick two people in a crew van and make them drive it across the country. This was often done when tours started on one coast or the other, and allowed management to avoid paying a whole crew to sit and do nothing but ride for two days or so. The speed limit was 55 mph in those days, and for several reasons which we will not discuss at this point we chose not to speed. Also, that was about as fast as the vans would go.

Enter Kenny. He and I were assigned to drive a crew van from Dallas to San Francisco. It is hard to imagine someone more different from me, who is still enough like me that we would expect to be able to relate. After all, we were two white American kids who loved rock and roll. How different could we be?

I was born and raised in Arkansas. Kenny was from New York City (I forget which borough). Before going on the road, his understanding of American geography was New York, then Pennsylvania, Ohio, some other stuff and then California. I thought the most relaxing thing in the world was taking off to the woods alone with a backpack. Kenny thought Central Park was a waste of space, and he was afraid of squirrels. He saw them as rats with furry tails.

My favorite music was Joe Cocker, James Taylor, Little Feat and Clapton. Kenny listened to the Kinks, Ramones and some Sabbath when he felt "poppy." His Facebook profile picture right now is a shot of him with Glenn Beck. My politics are somewhat unconventional, but suffice it to say I have no use for Glenn Beck, except possibly as some sort of filler material. In short, I thought Kenny was an asshole of epic proportions, and he thought less of me. So the prospect of being locked in a van with him for the better part of two days did not exactly set me all atwitter.

We left Dallas a little after lunch, so that we would be sure to hit El Paso when the Tony Lama factory outlet store was open. (I think Kenny bought a pair of ostrich boots. I didn't find anything I liked.) The first half day or so passed fairly quietly, with one of us driving and the other trying to sleep. As the desert unwound before us and the music choices got more aggressive, we started to talk. I couldn't really tell you what the conversation was about, just that it progressed like most arguments. Sniping gives way to bitching, bitching turns to accusation, the exchange grows more heated, and somewhere in there, if you're lucky and there is no way to escape, someone starts listening and some sort of understanding is reached.

By the time we were pulled over by Immigration south of Los Angeles, we were friends. I mean, it's not like I'm going to gay marry Kenny. In fact, I haven't really talked to him in many years. But I did learn to respect him as a full blown actual person with as much right to listen to crappy music and have stupid opinions as I have. I am confident that if we ever worked together again we would be respectful and effective, driving results, doing more with less, making it happen, etc.

I learned important lessons and acquired an impressive set of enduring skills during my three years on the road. For example, I can coil an extension cord better than you. Seriously, I can. Deal with it. But none have been more useful to me in my personal and professional life than learning how to understand and respect the people with whom I work, while encouraging them to do their best. After you've slept fourteen in a bus, sharing an office is really not that hard.

* The traveling crew usually formed about one-fourth or less of the labor required to set up a show. The rest were local stagehands, employed for the day, who had probably never seen this equipment before. They ranged from college freshman who were way too excited to be there to crusty and belligerent old union hands who were looking for maximum pay for minimum work. Most were hard-working, semi-professional*** people who did their very best to help and follow our instructions.

** While it wasn't combat or crab-fishing dangerous, people died doing this, either from falling or being crushed, or more indirect causes. We also took the risks to the audience very seriously, both from technical failures and the deaths that occurred more than once from poor crowd control.

** Not that they were at all unprofessional. It's just that this is not a full time job for most of the people who do it. They are usually cops or carpenters or wannabe somethings who work for extra cash.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Passing Away

There has been a fair amount of upheaval in my adult life, but my childhood was bedrock stable. I lived in the same house, went to the same church and lived next door to the same neighbors from the time I was born. And my parents kept one circle of friends the whole time.

The closest people in that social circle were E.B. and his family. He was my father's best friend. His wife was -- and is still -- a member of my mother's tight, inner circle of ladies who speak most every day, travel and shop together, and support each other in endeavors large and small. They had kids around my age. We went to the same church. Our families took several vacations together, and we spent countless weekends camping together, or at their cabin on the lake, or hanging by the pool. I was well past grown before I realized that it is not typical for two families of unrelated people to be this close.

E.B. was more like an uncle than a family friend. He and my father had an ever-escalating competition over who would pick up the check at dinner. He taught me how to pitch a tent, build a campfire, and how to tell a good ghost story.* With almost infinite patience, he taught me to waterski, refusing to surrender to my almost total lack of balance and grace. He pulled me around Lake Hamilton countless times, two skis or one, boogie board or barefoot, always bringing me in at just the right angle and speed to glide in to knee-deep water and step to the shore. He grilled a million hamburgers, and as many hot dogs for countless kids.

In recent years, his wife had not been well, and he spent increasing amounts of time and attention caring for her. He started a business with his son, and I think it took more of his time than he probably anticipated. He was working harder than an eighty-something year old man should, but he never complained. In fact, E.B. was the anti-complainer. It seemed the more lemons life tried to give him, the more cheerful he was determined to be. At a certain age we start to recognize this artifice in this approach, but it was as natural to him as breathing, and it worked for him. As Kurt Vonnegut said, we become who we pretend to be, and E.B. was quite simply the nicest and most beneficent man I have ever known. He was notoriously generous with his money, his time and his love.

Yesterday E.B. suffered a major stroke, and he is right now lying in the hospital on life support, waiting for the last of his children to arrive and say goodbye. Not surprisingly, he never let anyone know if he was feeling unwell, and this all happened without warning.

There is no way to describe how I feel right now. Hell, I don't even know how I feel right now. All I know is that the world is a poorer place tonight. My wife said, "I only met him a couple of times, and I love him." I am trying not to think of how hard this is, and is going to be, for his widow, and his children, and my mother and all of the other people who maybe never really knew how much he enriched their lives.

So long, old friend. I miss you already.
* His signature story was, "I want my tail." I heard him tell about a dozen versions of the stupid thing, probably fifty times or more, and he still managed to scare the piss out of me every single time.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Michael Moore Part 2

I have gotten mixed feedback for calling Michael Moore a douchebag earlier, both in this blog and in conversations with friends and colleagues. I have to confess that this was a bit of a social experiment. My point was supposed to be that propaganda and the people who create it are the enemies of the type of critical thinking and reasonable discourse on which democracies thrive, and frankly I thought I might get a more reasonable response if I started by picking on Michael Moore than if I titled the post something like, "Fox News is Satan".

I was mostly right about the feedback. While I have gotten some agreement from those who tend to disagree with Moore's positions, most people have responded with gentle reminders that the situation may not be quite as simple as perhaps I painted it.

Michael Moore represents to me the worst of what can happen when someone lets their agenda overtake their integrity. But he also brings several things to the table that many of his detractors lack. First, he is an indisputably talented filmmaker. Roger and Me was brilliant, especially for a first time writer/director with very little training. It also exhibited Moore's tendency to push the envelope of documentary film-making convention to maximize emotional effect. His films routinely break viewing records -- set by his earlier films -- for documentaries. My own film credentials include a seven minute vampire movie I made in high school, so I feel entirely qualified to criticize this guy.

Michael Moore also tells stories that need to be told. In what has become essentially a one-party political system*, he dares to question the ultimate supremacy of economic growth as the single driver of our society. (That's a topic for another post.) And what Michael Moore does for a living requires a lot more talent, vision and planning than sitting around calling people names, which seems to be all that the most popular opposition figures seem to have the talent to do.

In the end, I guess it is more fair and balanced for both sides to be telling lies and half-truths, and for us to try to listen to all of them, than to continue to fight fear-mongering with reasoning. But I still don't think it's good for us, and it really aggravates me. I definitely have to stop watching the news.
* The Capitalist party. The two sides are more or less aligned with those who lend money (capitalists) and those who borrow it from them (industry and consumers).

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Blow me down -- I may owe Martha Connor an apology

I love to read. I don't read a lot compared to some of my more literary friends, or my wife, but I get the sense that it's a lot for general purpose 21st century America. Between all the Harry Potter and crazy food books and whatever else I stumble across, I try to read a classic every year or two. It helps me feel cultured and refined while I'm scratching my bits and grazing on old M&M's I find in the couch cushions.

The last one I read was The Count of Monte Cristo, which was really cheating, because even though it's like a thousand pages, with about as many characters, it's been one of my favorite books since I saw the Mr. Magoo version on television as a kid. It has perhaps the most skillfully constructed plot of anything I have ever read, making even A Prayer for Owen Meany seem simple by comparison. Plus, if you've ever felt like you wanted revenge on pretty much everyone you know, The Count of Monte Cristo is the book for you. Also, excellent sandwich.

This time I decided to take on the leviathan. That's right, I'm reading Moby Dick. It's not my first attempt at the Great White Novel. I tried it back in high school, but I crashed early against the waves of irrelevant exposition and pointless descriptions of items of furniture, road signs and the buttons on the clothes of transient characters. I don't think I made fifty pages, and like the story's protagonist, it's a result I cannot abide. Many of the classic books simply lost my interest, or weren't my style, but I have always felt defeated by Moby Dick. So I strapped on my peg leg and took another shot.

It has not exactly been smooth sailing. I wasn't sure I was going to make it through the pages and pages of random cetacean-related quotations that open the book, but I persevered*, and before I knew it I was paddling along through a quirky -- if somewhat dull -- story of budding man-love between a grumpy sailor and his heavily inked heathen boy toy. It wasn't exactly a thrilling read, but a bit like canoeing a sluggish river. You wish there were a following current to lessen the effort required, but at least the water is deep enough, and it's more or less downstream.

Then I got to Chapter 9, "The Sermon." This chapter was not only seven pages of some of the best prose I have read**, but if I had ever heard a sermon like this one in person, I might still go to church. Melville manages to gracefully blend the fire and brimstone of old time religion with Age of Reason thinking to make the most compelling case for religion that I can recall hearing. And while a little heavily allegorical in both setting and tone, it's a compelling read. A gem like "The Sermon" will make the effort required to get through rest of the book worth it for me. The chapter seems somewhat fitted into the story, in that it doesn't really advance the plot to any significant degree, and none of our continuing characters speak a word. I suspect it was something Melville knew was too good not to work in somewhere.

So I think I may owe my twelfth grade English teacher an apology, even though she was kind of a bitch to me most of the time. I think she thought she was pushing me to excellence, but she was really just pissing me off. Oops, this is probably not how the best apologies start, but she's not going to read this anyway. Okay, here goes. Miss Connor, I'm sorry you were a bitch I told you that Moby Dick was the most tedious piece of crap I have ever had the misfortune to attempt to read. That honor now reverts to Silas Marner.

I'm not apologizing to Melville. At least not yet. First off, he's dead. Second, the jury is still out on this book. So far we have ten percent brilliant writing balanced against ninety percent fishy-smelling tedium. Sort of like three weeks at a bed and breakfast in an old seaside village, watching someone inventory the whole town's possessions with their new video camera.

So now I'm back to the long search for the next sign of life. Melville just spent almost a page telling us that we can really only feel warm when a part of us is cold, while Ishmael shares pillow talk and wrestles with his new boyfriend***. Hopefully I will be able to endure. Who knows? If I get through Moby Dick, maybe I will take another shot at A Tale of Two Cities.
* I skimmed.
** At least old school eighteenth century type prose. I don't know that I would read Melville's blog if he had one.
*** Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Now I really can't go home again

I got an e-mail from my mother a few weeks ago informing me that my childhood home had been demolished. This wasn't completely unexpected, but still came as somewhat of a surprise. My parents sold the house in the mid-1980's to an attorney who had plans for it that apparently fell through, and it has sat empty most of the time since, slowly decaying. It had become both an eyesore and a hazard, and reminded me a bit of Miss Haversham's place in Great Expectations. While I was considering writing this post I realized that I don't have a single picture of the house or property. I'm sure I lost a few just being a young man who moved a lot, and the rest left with my ex-wife.

Unlike most Americans of my generation, I lived in the same house from the time I was born until I left home. And it was no ordinary tract home in a subdivision, though it was certainly not a McMansion, or any other sort of mansion. The house was a modern* split-level on a wooded two and a half acre lot that was essentially given to my parents by the man for whom the street is named. He owned a very large tract of land and "just wanted good neighbors." We had only two other houses within a half mile of us. It was practically wilderness when I was a child, surrounded on three sides by woods, with a small creek running across the property. By the time I graduated from high school, the street was four lanes, there were subdivisions on all sides and I could see McDonald's from the driveway.

The house was very unassuming from the front, but from the back it was two thousand square feet of glass overlooking a large brick patio and a small hillside. My father designed and built the house in three stages, using a combination of subcontractors and child labor. By the time he was finished we had five bedrooms, three baths, two fireplaces, a living room and dining room, den and game room with a pool table, poker table, seating area and a wet bar. He had also put in a large swimming pool with an outdoor kitchen, gazebo and dressing rooms. A friend told me one time that it was the sort of place that should have a name.

Our house was not only the center of our lives, but a frequent stop for a number of overlapping social circles. Between casual gatherings, band rehearsals, poker parties, pool parties, church socials and a ridiculously large all day Independence Day party every year, our house was known by people I didn't even know I knew. To this day, when I meet people from my hometown -- many of whom I may be meeting for the first time -- they are much more likely to ask about that house than about members of my family. In fact, just last week a friend I haven't really seen since high school mentioned the house in the first e-mail message we exchanged after being out of touch for almost twenty years.

It broke my mother's heart to sell the place and move, and I know she suffered watching it erode and finally fall. She raised all of her children there, and poured her own hopes and aspirations and pride into making it a showplace. For my father, I think the loss was balanced by the opportunity to build a better house and avoid some of the mistakes he made with the first. I feel it more than I thought I would, but it's a tragedy of much less than human proportions. After all, it's been twenty-five years since I've seen the inside of the house, and the memories are still with me, even if the building is no longer there.

There is a sort of diffuse, low grade sadness in knowing the place is really gone, sort of like hearing that an old classmate or neighbor has passed away, even if they were never that close and you haven't spoken since childhood. I guess it's just another reminder that time and entropy make fools of us all. Still, when I'm home for the holidays I think I'm going to have to drive by and see the hole. Maybe I will find that G.I. Joe I lost behind the wall.
* Modern in the 1950's architectural sense, with a flat roof, clean lines, natural materials and lots of glass. My father was a huge fan of Frank Lloyd Wright.