Wednesday, November 28, 2012

My (involuntary) vow of silence, or "I Am Joe's Larynx"

The tiny demon who apparently lives in my larynx.
Did you hear the one about the nun who joins a very strict convent and is only allowed to utter two words every ten years? Well, our nun survives ten difficult years there and then reports to the Mother Superior's office to say her two precious words. "Food bad," she says before quietly returning to her cell. Ten more miserable years pass, and the nun says, "Bed hard." After ten more grueling years, the nun can take no more. She says to the Mother Superior, "I quit." And the Mother Superior replies, "Well, no wonder! You've been here thirty years, and all you've done is bitch, bitch, bitch."

I can relate to the nun in that story because I, too, have to ration my spoken words sometimes. I'm one of those people who get sore throats very frequently, on average of once a month. I've been to various doctors about it, and there's never been much they can do. My sinuses drain into my throat or something, I've been told. Don't worry. The problem is well under control. I can always feel when these flare-ups are coming, and there are steps I can take to treat the symptoms and shorten their duration. It's not fun, exactly, but I'm managing very nicely.

No talking, please. PLEASE!
This condition has been a part of my life for about 20 years now, and one thing I have learned is that the less I talk, the better. Even when I am healthy and feeling great, my voice gives out very easily. You can see how something like this could have affected my past careers as a teacher and as a customer service rep. One of the great features of my current job is that there is very little talking involved. Oh, sure, there's the usual banter and chit chat, and there are certain occasions when actual conversation is more efficient than e-mail. But there are also long stretches of each day when I don't have to say a solitary word.  These sore throats generally last three to five days. I can always tell when the flare-up is "peaking," and on such days, I try not to talk at all and communicate solely through e-mail and handwritten notes. This is not unusual for our department, since one of my coworkers is a deaf-mute and does most of her communicating this way.

The only problem is that, at heart, I am a know-it-all and smart-aleck who has to resist the urge to chime in with an opinion about any given topic. If you've ever discussed something with me online, you know that I am capable of burying you in paragraphs upon paragraphs of rhetoric. Under the right circumstances, I can be like that in person, too. I have to suppress that part of my personality on "sore throat" days. But sometimes, that's not an option. Today, for instance, was my weekly therapy session. It was the only talking I'm going to do today, but it was an hour of almost nonstop wear and tear on my vocal cords. Right now, my voice is absolutely shredded, but it was still worth it since I need my weekly opportunity to vent.

Random childhood memory: For a few months when I was in junior high, my friends and I became obsessed with a very low-budget commercial for one of those cheesy "golden oldies" compilation albums called Fun Rock. The ad seemed to be in nonstop rotation on local TV until we'd memorized it like members of a cult reciting from some sacred scripture. Almost a quarter of a century later, I can still remember the announcer's hysterical opening spiel: "Remember when rock had no message, no meaning, no nothing but PURE FUN?!?!?" One kid down the street, Andy, went so far as to get his parents to actually order the album for him. It took up, as the ad proclaimed, "three giant cassettes," and I was able to strong-arm Andy into making me copies of two of them on the absolute cheapest, worst-quality blank tapes I could find. Somewhere amid the collected debris of my life, I think I still have one of those tapes. Anyway, YouTube actually has the ad:

In retrospect, this collection of songs probably had a seismic impact on my musical tastes. Here's a song from Fun Rock which I dedicate humbly to myself on this day of self-imposed silence:

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A day (vicariously) spent with Tom Lehrer

Tom Lehrer: Mathematician turned singer-songwriter turned mathematician again.

"One man deserves the credit. One man deserves the blame."
-Tom Lehrer

Tom Lehrer would scoff at the idea of being anyone's hero. This is part of the reason why he's one of mine.

A native New Yorker born way back in 1928 (one shudders to do the grim calculations here), Lehrer was a child prodigy who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard at the age of 19. Since that time, he has spent most of his career either teaching or lecturing about mathematics at some of America's finest academic institutions, including MIT and the University of California at Santa Cruz. He formally retired in 2001, but he's still listed at the Rate My Professors website with a student review as recent as 2005.

Latter-day Lehrer
What sets Tom Lehrer apart from other mathematicians, apart from his claim of inventing the Jell-O shot, is that he devoted much of his time in the 1950s and 1960s to writing and performing some of the darkest, funniest songs I've ever heard -- deceptively joyous musical theater-type ditties with droll, sardonic lyrics about such topics as sex ("I Got It From Agnes"), drugs ("The Old Dope Peddler"), violence ("The Masochism Tango"), religion ("The Vatican Rag"), death ("I Hold Your Hand in Mine") and war ("So Long, Mom") with a candor which set him far apart from both the singers and the comedians of that era. Today, comedians can joke openly about pornography, incest, cannibalism, bestiality, and necrophilia on prime time network television, but this wasn't true 60 years ago when Tom's records couldn't even be played on the radio during respectable hours.

As with much of the music that now clutters up my brain, the bizarre and sometimes brutal song stylings of Tom Lehrer first entered my life through The Dr. Demento Show. This was back in the 1990s, before the internet was any damned good, and it was difficult to come by information about Tom's life or career back then. I couldn't even find a picture of the guy! I knew instinctively, though, that he wore glasses. Somehow, that was obvious to me. His myopia was audible

Despite the apparent rudeness of his lyrics, Mr. Lehrer conducted himself with the utmost decorum onstage, using impeccable Ivy League diction, eclectic and impressive vocabulary, and carefully-curated grammar. On his records, he comes across as man far too smart to take life the least bit seriously. Lerher's musical career occurred during the Cold War when it seemed ever-more-likely that mankind would annihilate itself with increasingly-deadly weapons. This looming apocalypse is the topic of several Lehrer songs, and he treats it the way he treats all other subjects: with an air of detached amusement at the absurdity of it all.

Tom Lehrer's 1953 debut
Today, almost two decades after I first heard "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park," (the song that made me a fan) I spent some quality time listening to virtually every Tom Lehrer recording available to the public. That's not a great investment of time, honestly. There are roughly three hours of Lehrer audio in total, nearly all of it consisting of Tom singing solo and accompanying himself on piano. 

His musical output boils down to two brief studio albums (Songs by Tom Lehrer and More of Tom Lehrer), three live albums (Revisited [a.k.a. Tom Lehrer in Concert], An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer, and That Was the Week That Was), plus a handful of miscellaneous recordings. He recorded a handful of his most famous songs with a full orchestra, for instance, plus he did a few well-remembered educational songs (like "Silent E") for a PBS children's program called The Electric Company. There are a few good CD compilations out there of Lehrer's work, but buyers should know in advance that the same exact songs from the two studio albums are heard on his first two live LPs as well. And I mean, they're note-for-note the same. If you buy the boxed set with his "complete" recordings, be prepared to sit through the same songs two or even three times.

In all instances, the live versions are superior to their (crude) studio counterparts. For one thing, Tom tends to put a little more oomph into his singing and playing when he's onstage, hamming it up for the benefit of the crowd. He was supposedly uncomfortable with live performances and had trouble remembering the words of his own songs, but you'd never guess that from these recordings.

Better yet, Tom's between-song monologues are little masterpieces of deadpan, spoken-word comedy. He does long, elaborate intros to his tunes, often going off on absurd tangents which have little to nothing to do with the songs. These little digressions are the source of many of Lehrer's best one-liners and bon mots. A particular favorite, from his description of a fictitious doctor: "His educational career began interestingly enough in agricultural school where he majored in animal husbandry... until they caught him at it one day." The audience roars at that joke, and the reaction of the crowd is another reason why Tom's best records are his live ones. There's palpable tension as the audience members decide how far they're willing to let Mr. Lehrer go in his pursuit of tasteful bad taste. You can practically hear them wince, for instance, when Tom gets to this couplet from "Bright College Days":
Oh, soon we'll be out amid the cold world's strife.
Soon we'll be sliding down the razor blade of life.

I'll leave this little discussion of Tom Lehrer's brilliant career with one of the nastiest, truest, and most cynical songs ever written. It first appeared on his 1953 debut album, and when he reprised it on his first live LP, he dedicated to those in the audience who were still in love. If you are in love, I now dedicate this song to you:

HEALTH NEWS AND NOTES: I haven't done one of these updates in a while because, frankly, there's been nothing much to report. Taking meds and attending therapy sessions no longer feel like digressions from my life anymore. They're simply part of my life, as regular as a job. Speaking of which, my job remains simultaneously stressful and dull.

Make no mistake: I am fortunate to be employed at all by anyone in any capacity, so I am very grateful to my corporate paymasters. I cannot forget that the insurance I have through my job is what's financing my treatment. Homer Simpson once memorably referred to alcohol as "the cause of and solution to all of life's problems." That's kind of how I feel about my job. It makes me miserable, but I'd be lost without it. 

My anxiety and depression have tapered off quite nicely over the last month, and the severe gastrointestinal problems that were once a huge part of my life have now disappeared utterly. I'm still isolating myself from the world, and I'm always in danger of disappearing into a sinkhole of solipsism or narcissism. I can spend entire weekends pondering the subjective nature of "truth" and "reality" rather than, you know, talking to other human beings or getting fresh air and exercise. Gotta work on that.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Haven't done a new ZOMBY in a while, so here's one of those.

Strangers on a Train: My many Amtrak adventures

Hitchcock playfully reminds us that a mere letter separates "strangers" from "stranglers."

The very idea of a well-organized, efficient, and commonly-used mass transit system is, I am convinced, antithetical to the entire American way of life.

After all, this is the land of Rugged Individualism, John Wayne, and Not in My Backyard politics. We're Americans, dammit, and when we want to get from one place to another, we do so the way God intended: with each person in his or her own gas-guzzling vehicle. If we simply must gather with our fellow Americans for transportation purposes, we want to at least use a method which burns up as much fuel as possible, i.e. airplanes. While Europeans and Asians may be satisfied with their versatile and convenient railroad systems, we Americans believe that trains are best used for carrying coal, sheet metal, and hapless schmucks. That last group includes me, I'm sorry to report.

As the only one in my family living in Illinois, I am expected to travel to Indiana every time a major holiday rolls around. Since I despise driving and all but refuse to embark upon any car trip longer than 40 minutes, my only real option is to take an Amtrak train to a town somewhat near the one where my sister resides. I've been doing this several times a year for about ten years now, which gets me wondering how much of my life I've spent aboard trains. After all, my job requires me to take a commuter train to and from Chicago every morning, so at least 1-2 hours of every working day is spent on the rails.

But there's a vast difference, at least in my mind, between the Metra Union Pacific Northwest Line train which takes me to and from my job and the Amtrak Capital Limited which hauls me to Indiana a few times every year. Let me explain. Do you remember those "All Aboard America" Amtrak commercials from the 1980s?

Yeah, Amtrak is nothing like that.

While my daily commuter train runs according a strictly-timed schedule and is used mainly by quiet, well-behaved business people, thus allowing me ample opportunity to catch up on my reading, the typical Amtrak train operates according to a vague, mysterious itinerary and is used frequently by social outcasts and twitchy psychotics, thus allowing me ample opportunity to ponder the futility of existence. 

Anyone who tells you that "life is short" has never ridden on one of these passenger trains, I assure you.
Amtrak is where time goes to die a horrible death. Delays, disruptions, and malfunctions are frequent, and you will frequently find yourself spending many hours in fairly cramped quarters with some bizarre, ornery, and unpleasant folks. (If you're lucky, this applies only to your fellow passengers and not the crew members.) 

Bagge's bluntly-titled comic

Cartoonist Peter Bagge wrote a very funny and true comic about his railroad experience a few years ago, and I strongly encourage you to read it. For my part, though, I'd like to share some of my more... uh, colorful anecdotes from a decade of experience with Amtrak.

First and foremost, I have to tell you about Mitch, a burly and heavily intoxicated man in his mid-40s.  If you're trying to picture him, imagine Popeye as a washed-up alcoholic. His real name was Michael, you see, but everyone called him "Mitch." I knew that because Mitch himself told me -- without being asked -- within the first 30 seconds of sitting down next to me. He also told me of his unheralded one-man heroics in the US invasion of Granada and informed me that, if you knew anything whatsoever about boxing, you could tell that the fight choreography in Rocky II was in no way realistic.

Mitch talked of these and many other topics during my trip, all without any prompting from me whatsoever, and was convinced that his inspirational life story would make a great book -- a book he thought I should write. I politely demurred and made my way toward the exit, suitcase in hand, well before the train reached my stop. The last I saw Mitch, he was trying to pick a fistfight with some Mennonite passengers who were seated behind us. They were debating whose carpentry skills were superior. Naturally, Mitch felt he could raise a barn better than any Mennonite and was willing to "prove" this assertion with his fists if need be.

"Hello, complete stranger!"
Oh, and then there's the Pilgrim, a rather bland-looking middle-aged man notable only for the fact that he travels in a homemade "pilgrim" costume complete with a lidless construction-paper "hat." I've seen the Pilgrim on a few Amtrak journeys, both coming and going, and I can report that he wears the costume for the entire round trip. His crude, improvised get-up resembles the kind a child might wear for a school pageant, only sized for an adult's frame.

What makes the Pilgrim especially notable is that he lectures his fellow passengers about the First Thanksgiving, reading from what appear to be printouts of Wikipedia entries. He limits these performances to the train's "observation car," which serves as a combination lounge and snack bar. His audiences, chosen at random, are usually bewildered into silence by his unique "act," but occasionally some nervy teenagers will applaud when he finishes.

With passengers like Mitch and the Pilgrim, there is an element of tragedy lurking beneath the surreal-yet-entertaining exterior. But with other passengers, the tragedy is front and center, impossible to ignore or avoid. Such is the case with an elderly gentleman I encountered on Amtrak several years ago. This particular train had already been delayed by several hours before it even left Chicago due to some nebulously-described "mechanical problems," and somewhere in the middle of an Indiana cornfield, the train came to a dead stop for quite a long while. The passengers speculated over this new delay, and eventually, the story began to take shape. We should have seen it coming. One particular passenger, a haggard and wild-eyed older fellow, had been creating a tense atmosphere since we'd boarded in Chicago by wandering around the waiting area, babbling to himself, and glaring with menace at the other passengers.

Unlike airports, Amtrak stations have very few security checks for its passengers, so this obviously-deranged man was allowed to board. Once the train got underway, he stalked the aisles, mumbling and jabbering as the rest of us avoided his gaze. The crew members tried without apparent success to subdue him and convince him to return to his seat. When we looked out the window of the now-stopped train, we saw a whole assortment of emergency vehicles: police cruisers, a fire truck, and an ambulance. They were physically restraining this man and transporting him to the nearest hospital. (Judging by the terrain, there could not have been a hospital within an hour's drive of that locale.)

Later, once the train was again underway, a few of the conductors were all-too-willing to share the man's eerie history: he'd been a psychologist once and was under the mistaken, deluded impression that he was on his way to visit a newly-opened clinic on the East Coast. Amtrak managed to contact a relative, the man's brother, who said that the man had retired decades ago and that there was no such clinic. Apparently, this man had purchased a train ticket and boarded the Capital Limited without informing anyone. In case you're wondering, I got to my stop at four in the morning -- six hours late for what should have been a three-hour ride. That was one of the longest nights of my life.

"Vare iss ze food?"
Not all the bad/bizarre behavior I've seen aboard Amtrak trains (both by passengers and by crew members) is as severe as what I've just described. Most of it would best be described as "eccentric rudeness" by people who have no perspective whatsoever on themselves. And I mean none. Perhaps these people don't realize that they can be seen and heard by others. Maybe they don't care.

Take the case of a passenger I encountered on my most recent trip, just a few days ago. Clad in all black and totally bald, this 50-ish man was a blustery German tourist who curiously reminded me of Donald Pleasence as Blofeld in You Only Live Twice, except with a Teutonic accent and the temper of Yosemite Sam. It was like you took an old-school James Bond villain and put him through the indignities of waiting in line at a grungy train station and being cooped up with a bunch of common tourists. A guy like this really belongs in a secret fortress inside a volcano, with an army of jumpsuit-wearing henchmen at his disposal.

I knew he was going to be trouble even before the train left the station. Instead of taking a crew member aside and quietly asking a question, the way a normal person might do, he stood in the middle of the aisle, blocking traffic in both directions, and loudly said to a conductor (and here I make an attempt to convey his pronunciation): "My schtop iss at four in zee morning. Venn ve get dare and I am shleeping, you vill vake me, yes?" After the conductor assured him that, yes, he would be properly woken for his 4:00am stop ("That's our job!"), he returned grandly to his seat.

A while later, I made my usual journey over to the observation/cafe car to pick up an overpriced bag of Skittles and a can of room-temperature ginger ale and consume them while I stared at the burned-out factories, past-their-prime strip malls, and empty fields which constitute the typical "view" along this particular line.

Just as I was about to pay the crew member on duty, our German friend burst into the room and demanded to know, "Vare iss ze food?" When the crew member limply pointed to the choices on offer -- prepackaged snacks and a few microwaveable items in a freezer case -- the would-be Bond nemesis blew a gasket.

"All ziss is frozen! Ziss is SHIT! Vare is food?!"

The crew member tried to explain that there was also a dining car aboard the train where he could purchase some fancier entrees (which ranged from $16 to $25), but this answer did not satisfy him.

"I pay! I pay!" he demanded. "Vare iss ze food?! Not ziss shit! I pay!"

A hippie-looking dude with a baby strapped to his chest said at this point, "Hey, bro, there are kids here, man. You can't cuss like that." This, I'm afraid, provoked only a further torrent of obscenity from the German traveler (even though the man's English might have been shaky, he was well-schooled in profanity), but he eventually did abandon the cafe car in a huff.

I saw him a few minutes later being forcibly but politely ejected from the dining car as he explained his gastronomic grievances to a new set of crew members, who were trying to convince him to return to the cafe car from whence he'd just come."You go first! You go first!" he told them, as they stared at him in total confusion. Eventually, the psuedo-Blofeld realized that he was not going to get his way, but before he returned to his seat, he turned and gave the crew members an ominous-sounding order: "You vill vake me!"

That's Amtrak, people. You can't make this stuff up. All aboard!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Larry Hagman: Farewell to my Friday night babysitter

Now that's sophistication: A musical J.R. Ewing whiskey decanter

J.R. makes MAD's cover
If you're an American born during a certain stretch of the 20th Century, there's a good chance that Larry Hagman was part of your life. He certainly was part of mine. 

Oh, sure, I Dream of Jeannie was one of those syndication staples I'd watch whenever I was home sick (or "sick") from school, but I preferred The Beverly Hillbillies, The Munsters, Gilligan's Island, and Mr. Ed. Even in the "normal guy with magic wife" category, Jeannie was second to Bewitched. As true TV junkies know, the real Hagman action occurred on Friday nights. My parents used to go out to eat pretty much every Friday night and leave me and my sister at home with a babysitter until we were old enough to look after ourselves for a few hours. 

Either way, in the early-to-mid 1980s, our television set -- like those of many Americans -- was tuned to CBS at that time every week. That was when the Tiffany Network aired its one-two punch of The Dukes of Hazard and Dallas, those totally-accurate-I'm-sure depictions of Southern life. Dukes was definitely pitched at a child's level. I may not have understood what "marijuana" or "moonshine" were when I was a kid, but I knew it was bad if Roscoe or Boss Hogg would plant either one of those items in the General Lee. And, besides, good old Waylon Jennings was always there to explain everything that was happening, had happened, and was about to happen in each episode. 

Dallas, on the other hand, was all but entirely beyond my ken. What did I know about power struggles in the cutthroat oil industry, let alone infidelity or alcoholism? Not too damned much, that's what. But I tuned in every week anyway. Maybe it was Jerrold Immel's majestic theme song or all those shots of shiny, mirror-like skyscrapers in the opening credits which drew me in. 

But what kept me watching, more than any other factor, was Larry Hagman's performance as that grinning, glad-handing rascal, J.R. Ewing. Hagman's character was obviously having a ball being as greedy and selfish as he possibly could be, and that's something even a kid could understand. Come to think of it, I probably liked Boss Hogg every bit as well as, if not more than, those pesky Duke boys.

The precioussssss.....
One further J.R. Ewing memory: every Christmas Eve, my father would take me around to various delis and bakeries in the Flint area to pick up supplies for our traditional holiday meal. He'd always stop by the comic book store and let me pick out a few oldies from the racks. 

Being a budding "comedy nerd," I immediately headed for the back issues of MAD from the 1970s and 1980s so I could fawn over the artwork of Mort Drucker, Sergio Aragones, Angelo Torres, Sam Viviano and more. On one of those trips, I picked up MAD #223 (June '81) with a Viviano caricature of Hagman on the cover and a five-page, Drucker-illustrated Dallas parody called "Dull-Us" inside. I still have that issue today. 

On another one of those Christmas Eves, my dad and I stopped at a deli which was selling a particular trinket whose very existence boggled my still-developing mind: a J.R. Ewing whiskey decanter which played the Dallas theme song from its base. A quick Google search reveals that this particular decanter, the only officially-sanctioned Dallas product of its type, remains a popular Ebay item. If you haven't decided what to get me for Christmas 2012 and you have an extra $120 laying around, you could do worse.

The Shaggs: The only true "teenage" music I've ever heard

The Shaggs: (from l to r) Betty, Helen, and Dot Wiggin

One of the great ironies/injustices of popular culture is that the music specifically marketed to teenagers is getting progressively more polished and "perfect" with each advance in technology, while the teenagers themselves remain -- as always -- bumpy, lurching, and awkward. There's an odd disconnect between the relentlessly smoothed-out, robotic, studio-crafted pop being released by a group like One Direction and the messy, utterly human vulnerability of that group's fans. Teenage music bears no resemblance whatsoever to teenage life. A yawning chasm exists between the two.

Mick: Handsomely un-handsome
This gap is nothing new, exactly. Past teen idols, like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley,  must have seemed superhuman to their fans, too. But Frank and Elvis both exuded a raw, quite human sexuality that largely eludes today's teen pop stars, who are "sexy" only in quotation marks and present a only a sanitized abstraction of carnal appeal to their fans, without any of that messy fluid exchange ruining it.

It's interesting that, during the 1960s, the British Invasion allowed a new type of entertainer to capture the teenage imagination. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were not conventionally handsome in the Sinatra/Presley tradition. They had big noses, big lips, bad teeth, and cheekbones that jutted in at odd angles. I was just watching a documentary about the Stones last night called Crossfire Hurricane, and it was fascinating to see the Stones in their 1960s prime via newsreel footage. They looked sort of gawky and malformed, with carelessly floppy hair and sallow complexions, and yet they were driving their female fans into a state of erotic frenzy. At last, the weirdos had won! 

But it didn't last. The 1970s brought a new generation of generically handsome, neutered teenage idols (David Cassidy, Bobby Sherman, Donny Osmond) who set the precedent for those to come. And now, I guess, we have Justin Bieber, the platonic ideal of the safe, boring, utterly harmless pop star, a kind of life-sized Ken doll for the girls of Young America to play with for a few years. Kind of a pity.

All of this brings me back to the topic of the Shaggs.

I couldn't possibly tell you the entire saga of this astonishing all-female 1960s singing group composed of sisters from a working class New Hampshire family. You'll have to rely on this quirky but affectionate New Yorker article by Susan Orlean for the details. Here's an overview: in 1968, a Fremont, NH mill worker named Austin Wiggin decided to fulfill the deathbed prophecy of his mother, who proclaimed that Austin's then-teenage daughters would be famous. Austin pulled the girls out of school and forced them to become a rock band, even though the girls had no musical inclination whatsoever and definitely did not want to become performers.

Only one of the daughters, Dot, had any enthusiasm whatsoever for her dad's dream, so she was elected to be lead singer and songwriter of the resulting group, dubbed The Shaggs in honor of the Wiggin sisters' shaggy hairdos (and supposedly, the shagginess of the family dog). Despite their total lack of aptitude and success, The Shaggs soldiered on for 7 years, playing local gigs for audiences who either tolerated them politely or heckled them outright. The band finally ended in 1975 when Austin died, and the Wiggin girls -- no longer kids by then -- went on to lead very ordinary, non-musical lives.
The Shaggs' lone, infamous LP
Before the group's sad, drawn-out death, however, The Shaggs recorded and (barely) released one extraordinary album: 1969's Philosophy of the World. Though only a handful of copies were originally pressed, the utterly strange LP went on to become a cult favorite with avant garde rock musicians (including Frank Zappa and NRBQ) and influential critics who discovered it years after it was recorded. The album has been reprinted several times over the years and has also been released on CD and MP3.

For completists, there's even a collection of Shaggs rarities, live recordings, and outtakes called The Shaggs Own Thing, plus a hip indie-label tribute album called Better Than the Beatles. Even better, the strange, vaguely sad story of the Shaggs was the basis for a charming off-Broadway show, The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, which I have seen and enjoyed. The musical tours quite a bit, and I was fortunate to catch it at Chicago's Lookinglass Theater a few years back.

But what about the original music itself? What's it like to listen to The Shaggs? Many listeners find it torturous, verging on unlistenable. For three demure New Hampshire girls, The Shaggs make a powerful racket, clanging away at their out-of-tune instruments with abandon. In particular, drummer Helen Wiggin seems to be in a world all her own. Throughout the album, there are lots of what music teachers would call "wrong notes," and the three ladies cannot seem to agree on a collective tempo, key, or time signature. Susan Orlean was right when she described their melodies as "squashed and bent." The album sounds like it was left out in the sun on a hot day and melted.

If Philosophy of the World weren't from 1969, you'd guess it to be some kind of primitive punk music, but the rawness of the music is at odds with the sweet simplicity of the lyrics. The Shaggs sing about looking for a lost cat ("My Pal Foot Foot"), the importance of obeying one's parents ("Who Are Parents?"), praising Jesus ("We Have a Savior"), and how nice it is to have a radio ("My Companion"). Austin Wiggin seems like he was a dictatorial parent who did everything in his power to keep the world away from his girls and vice-versa, so maybe the transistor radio was one of Dot Wiggin's few links to the outside world. Another recurring theme on the album is the foolishness of straying too far from one's home. "Little Sports Car" ends with Dot and her sisters singing, "I learned my lesson never to roam, never to roam, never to roam."

The late, great Crow's Nest in Crest Hill, IL
The main appeal of Philosophy of the World, to me, is that it provides a rare glimpse into the brain of a genuine teenager, without the interference of grown-up producers or executives. It's like an adolescent's diary brought to musical life, and for once the lurching, awkward bumpiness of the music matches the emotions of the singer. Nowhere is this more true than on the album's title cut, which is the first Shaggs song I ever heard.

"Philosophy of the World" was included on a 2000 compilation of so-called "outsider music" I purchased at a great, now-defunct record store called the Crow's Nest near my home in Joliet, IL. As I drove home from the Crow's Nest, I popped the disc into my car's CD player, and that song came blaring out of the speakers. I was entranced. I was hooked. I knew I had to get every last bit of Shaggs music out there. Fortunately or unfortunately, there's not much. Once you own Philosophy of the World and The Shaggs Own Thing (both of which have been combined onto a single CD simply called The Shaggs), there's not much to get, other than the tribute album. Although many people would struggle to get through even a single Shaggs song, I've listened to their entire catalog many times -- and none more so than this track:

P.S. - The rarities compilation is well worth checking out, too. It contains some later studio recordings by the group, some of which demonstrate that the Wiggins had been indeed practicing their instruments at least a little. One song in particular I love is "You're Something Special to Me," which contains a lyric that summarizes my own mindset: "Please don't speak unkind words to me. That would make me unhappy." Very simple, of course, but very true as well. If "Philosophy" was too much for you, maybe this will be more your speed.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Camaro memories

A car much like the one I describe in the story.

My mom's last car was a fire-engine-red Chevy Camaro.

It was the early 1990s, and she used it mainly to commute back and forth to her job teaching at a local community college. This is remarkable because she was far from the typical Camaro driver, i.e. a brash, mullet-wearing young male with a lead foot and a hot temper. Instead, she was a kind-faced woman in her mid-40s, short in stature, soft-spoken and gentle in demeanor, and she wore a pair of over-sized glasses which gave her sort of an owl-like appearance. You'd probably have guessed her to be a librarian, but she drove a car beloved by hormonal teenage boys.

It was the unlikeliness of my mother driving a Camaro which led her to buy it in the first place. She needed a new car for work, and the whole family went to the auto dealership to watch as she picked one out. Of course, she and my father mostly concentrated on the sensible, dependable cars that parents usually choose in such a situation. But that Camaro stood out from everything else on the lot, almost beckoning us to it. My sister and I joked about how hilarious it would be for my mother -- this sweet, small woman -- to be behind the wheel of this monstrous muscle car. But the salesman who'd been tailing us could see that she was genuinely intrigued by the prospect of owning such a machine. My mother was in no way a rash or irresponsible person, but she decided on the spot to buy that Camaro.

She genuinely loved that vehicle. She'd tell me how the engine would surge at the merest pressure applied to the gas pedal and how the car would growl impatiently at red lights. It was a surprising side to my mother's personality, and it was good to see. She dropped me off at school a few times in that car, and instead of being mortified by being seen in the presence of my mother in front of my fellow students, I enjoyed the respect that car always got from the other boys. If it had been practical or possible, I would have been taken to school every day in that vehicle.

Cars play a big part of the folklore of many families, I think, because you wind up spending so much time in them together. There are certainly some memorable ones in the history of the Blevins clan, like the seemingly invincible black Vega we called "The Jelly Bean" or the hideously ugly station wagon whose vinyl upholstery would heat up on summer days and scald our legs. But that Camaro was probably the most eccentric of all our vehicles. We sold it not long after my mom died, but I kind of wish we'd held onto it. I'd love to take it for a spin now.

My mother definitely would not have approved of the following song, but I am dedicating it to her anyway. Maybe she would have laughed at it privately.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

"Is he really going to do a post about laundry day?" (sigh) Yes.

Welcome to my Sunday.

There's a special kind of existential despair which sets in on laundry day, isn't there? Despite such optimistic product names as Fab and Cheer, there is very little merriment in this regularly-occurring ritual. There you are, alone, with your own wardrobe for a few long hours. Your clothes are a big part of how you present yourself to the world, so in a sense, they define you. And now, a big part of your identity is gurgling and struggling in a dense, squat machine while you sit helplessly by and observe the vaguely shameful rite. It isn't even about you. It's a battle between the machine and your clothes. You are there simply to witness the event.

You can't put cheer in a box.
I'm an apartment dweller and there are no laundromats or dry cleaners within a manageable distance, so I rely on the communal laundry room in the basement of my complex. It is an almost unimaginably grim locale -- dimly-lit, musty, and seemingly haunted by the ghosts of those long passed. While you wait for the machine to finish doing whatever it needs to do to your clothes, you can explore the various corridors down there, dark passageways which lead to boilers and storage lockers, but this is not recommended. When you're in this basement, you get the definite sense that this is a place where people have suffered. "Terrible things have occurred here," you think to yourself. It's a laundry room, of course, so there are the occasional discarded or forgotten items of clothing -- usually leftover socks. Today, I noticed that someone had draped a pair of child's underpants over a rusty pipe. That seems like a detail from an avant garde art installation by a relapsing heroin junkie, but it's actually just a routine part of my day every time the hamper is full and the sock drawer is empty.

The washers and dryers in the basement are the completely opaque, windowless kind, so I don't even have the satisfaction of watching my clothes tumble around in there. I am told that some people find this soothing. Perhaps I can glean some kind of vicarious comfort from this YouTube video:

Eh, it's not the same.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

That is a bummer, man: Depression is very un-Dude

A potential role model: Jeff Bridges as The Dude in The Big Lebowski (1998)

"Oh, man, my thinking about this case had become very uptight." - Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski

I like to tell people I'm in a Jeff Bridges movie. It's only technically true. He's in the movie, and I'm in the movie, but our scenes were filmed at different times in different locations. In reality, Mr. Bridges and I are both interviewees in Eddie Chung's The Achievers: The Story of the Lebowski Fans, a 2009 documentary about the fan culture surrounding the Coen Brothers' 1998 comedy, The Big Lebowski, and the phenomenon of Lebowski Fest, an annual, multi-city series of celebrations in the film's honor. Fans of the film call themselves "Achievers," a reference to the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers, a fictional charity which figures into the film's plot. These Achievers gather regularly at various theaters and bowling alleys to socialize, bowl, drink White Russians, and participate in costume and trivia contests. To date, I have attended one such event -- the first-ever Chicago Fest in early 2008. I happened to win the trivia contest on the Fest's second and final night, which led to my being interviewed by the film's director. I've gotten a bit of mileage out of my first and likely only screen appearance. I managed to wrangle an IMDb entry out of it, for instance, and look what happens when you Google the movie's title:

Even Google says I'm in a Jeff Bridges movie.

I had a lot of fun at that Lebowski Fest in 2008 and met some very nice people there, including Liz and Ben, the hosts of The Lebowski Podcast, a show whose sixteenth episode features your humble blogger as a special guest. Achievers tend to be funny, friendly, laid-back people, and virtually everyone I encountered at the Fest made me feel welcome. But I have not attended any subsequent Fests, and a lot of that is due to my depression and anxiety. (If you are new to this blog and don't know what's been happening in my life, this post will get you up to speed.)

The Dude and Walter
The film itself may contain a role model -- or "roll" model, if you will -- for my recovery. Set in 1991, the convoluted plot of The Big Lebowski revolves around Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski (played by Jeff Bridges), an aging, pot-smoking ex-1960s radical who now lives a slothful but contented life in Venice, CA. Because he shares his name with that of a wheelchair-bound millionaire, The Dude is improbably drawn into a Raymond Chandler-like mystery story which requires the THC-impaired slacker to act as a sort of detective. Together with his best friend, a volatile Vietnam veteran named Walter (John Goodman), The Dude must investigate the possible kidnapping of the millionaire's young porn star wife, Bunny (Tara Reid). His adventures put him in contact with a variety of eccentric Southern California characters, including the millionaire's avant garde artist daughter, Maude (Julianne Moore), a Hugh Hefner-like pornographer named Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara), and a trio of German nihilists (whose leader is portrayed by Peter Stormare) who once had a techno band but are now trying to extort money from the millionaire. Meanwhile (this is a complicated film), The Dude, Walter, and a third companion, Donny (Steve Buscemi), are participating in a bowling tournament which puts them at direct odds with the film's most infamous character, a preening, profane pederast named Jesus Quintana (Jon Turturro at his creepiest) whose bowling skills are almost supernatural. All of these events are observed by a mysterious cowboy known only as "The Stranger" (Sam Elliott), who narrates the film, addresses the audience directly, and occasionally talks in a casual but reassuring way to The Dude.

Throughout all of this, The Dude maintains an admirable equanimity -- some of it attributable to his intake of marijuana and alcohol but much of it owing to his extremely casual, low-pressure approach to life. His credo, after all, is "The Dude abides" (a beloved slogan among Achievers), meaning that he simply accepts life as it comes to him. It should be noted, however, that The Dude does not always live up to this personal philosophy. Quite often throughout the film, he shows moments of stress and anxiety, and at the film's midpoint, he even has a bout of depression as he begins to take a pessimistic view of his current situation. This attitude briefly alienates him from Walter and Donny, at which point The Stranger sidles up to him at a bar to give him sort of a low-wattage halftime pep talk:

Despite his easygoing nature, The Dude also deals with some anger issues in the film. As the Coen Brothers themselves point out in a featurette on the DVD, The Dude will often lose his cool throughout the story. Usually, these episodes are triggered by Walter, whose blustery exterior masks a deep insecurity and whose unpredictable behavior only exacerbates The Dude's existing problems. The friendship between The Dude and Walter is the heart of The Big Lebowski. These men are opposites, both temperamentally and politically -- one a dove, the other a hawk -- yet they seem to have struck a balance which has lasted for years. Much of this is due to The Dude's eternal elasticity. It is true that he has negative episodes, as we all do, but he always returns to his genial, accepting nature before long. It is no wonder that The Dude has inspired his own religion, Dudeism. In our most stressful and troubling moments, wouldn't we all like to be as peaceful as he seems to be?

Poor Brandt
Frankly, I am not much like The Dude, though I am trying to be. I have much more in common with one of the film's supporting characters, Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the millionaire's nervous, glad-handing assistant. He is the one character in the film with whose life I can personally identify, perhaps because he is the only person whose job remotely resembles mine. The Dude is chronically unemployed, while Walter runs his own security business out of a seedy-looking strip mall, but Brandt is the one who dresses up for work every day and spends his time trying to please his boss. This must be difficult, as the millionaire Lebowski is a cantankerous, disagreeable man prone to shouting and insults. Brandt spends his days pretending to smile as he does his boss' dirty work, and the beleaguered assistant must deal with some serious denial issues as he labors to put the best possible spin on the situation at hand. He chuckles jovially, for instance, as Bunny makes a crude sexual remark about him to The Dude. If this scene weren't so funny, it would be heartbreaking. Think of poor Brandt, having to deal with this humiliation as a routine part of his job.

The road to recovery is a long one, marked by "strikes and gutters, ups and downs," as The Dude succinctly puts it in the film's final scene. Perhaps through therapy and medication, I can learn to be a little less Brandt and a little more Dude.

Metal Machine Music: Why I sorta like one of rock's most infamous albums

Lou Reed on the cover of his notorious Metal Machine Music album

"Anyone who gets to Side 4 is dumber than I am." Lou Reed

Metal Machine Music is the one Lou Reed album in my collection. No, I'm not kidding.

Released in 1975, this widely-reviled double LP, pretentiously subtitled An Electronic Instrumental Composition: The Amine β Ring, consists of only four tracks ("Metal Machine Music, Part 1," "Part 2," "Part 3" and "Part 4"), each about 15-16 minutes in length. The "songs," each of which originally took up an entire side of a vinyl LP, are roughly indistinguishable from one another. They consist of nothing but screeching guitar feedback -- actually, layers upon layers of guitar feedback which combine to make a prolonged wailing racket.

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention tried something similar first, with the ear-punishing title track of their 1970 album, Weasels Ripped My Flesh, but Lou Reed sticks with this very limited concept for an entire hour. Take a listen and see how much you can tolerate. One minute? Two? I will testify in court that I have listened to Metal Machine Music in its entirety more than once. Why? How?

Is this the worst LP ever?
Well, it all goes back to two adolescent obsessions: "infamous" art and The Guinness Book of World Records. I was kind of a precocious kid, and I started reading music and movie reviews from a fairly early age. Whenever I'd go into a bookstore (remember those?), I'd make a beeline for the "Entertainment" section and start browsing through the thick album and video guides. For whatever reason, I'd seek out the titles which received especially poor reviews. I was excited by the idea that you could somehow create a work of art so unpleasant that it could drive the critic a little crazy. In retrospect, this is what led me to the films of John Waters, Russ Meyer,  Ed Wood, and many others. Their movies just tended to set critics off, and I was curious to find out why.

Meanwhile, in the music review guides, I kept noticing the scathing notices attracted by Metal Machine Music. In a 1991 book entitled The Worst Rock and Roll Records of All Time, the album ranked at #2, "bested" only by Elvis Presley's "talking only" LP, Having Fun with Elvis on Stage (1974), which contains no real songs, only between-song stage patter from the King's live concerts. Having Fun has also become a favorite of mine, though it's not the only Presley album in my collection. In a way, it's Elvis' equivalent of Metal Machine Music: a fascinatingly impenetrable wall of non-music. Elvis just blathers on for minutes at a time, only occasionally making sense, as when he discusses the arc of his career and forsaking music for the movies. The rest is drug-addled nonsense. (His opening line: "Here we go again, man. Looks like my horse just left.") As with Lou Reed's album, the listener struggles to get a foothold here but soon finds it is hopeless.

It was also intriguing to me that both the Elvis album and the Lou Reed album were difficult to track down in the 1990s. This was before Google, so you were kind of on your own. I just had to rely on the critical reviews of these LPs. I wouldn't actually hear either of them until many years later.

Fingernail extremist Shridhar Chillal
Meanwhile, all throughout my childhood and adolescence, I would accompany my mother to the supermarket each and every Saturday. It became a treasured ritual with us. To this day, I like being in supermarkets. I live (more or less) next door to one now, and I'll occasionally stroll over there and just browse through the merchandise. (More often than not, I'll pick up a bag of dollar candy.)

Anyway, the supermarket that my mother and I visited -- the long-gone Hamady's in Flushing, MI -- had a small selection of paperbacks, and each week I would pause to look through the Guinness Book. Eventually, my mother just bought me the damned thing. I still have the 1988 edition. I didn't care at all about the financial or sports-related records. I was more interested by the human oddities, like the woman whose hair was so long she could stand on a second-story balcony, drape her brunette locks over the railing, and almost touch the floor at ground level with them.

What really got me intrigued, though, were the records people had set by choosing an incredibly-narrow feat and pursuing it to the point of insanity. It takes a certain mindset to build the world's largest house of cards or amass more license plates than anyone else on the planet. And then there were those who used their own body to achieve such records, like the man whose fingernails on one hand were so long that they became wavy and curled. He'd grown those nails out strictly for the "fame," but the renown came with a physical toll. The hand with the long nails was more or less unusable, and he had to be careful not to break his precious commodity every night when he slept and thus could only do so in short shifts.

What kind of person would do such a thing? The same kind who would release an hour of guitar feedback and call it a double album, that's who. It's the perseverance, the sheer stubbornness of the work, which attracted me to Metal Machine Music. Like the record-holders from the book, Lou Reed had pursued a very specific idea to a ridiculous extreme when he made this album. I still like the purity of that act.

The album on 8-track
But do I actually listen to the darned thing? Yes, occasionally. Both solo and with the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed has an important and influential body of work, but it's this weird, one-of-a-kind record which got through to me. As a chronically-depressed person, I find that Metal Machine Music actually does convey my mood at times. If you listen for a while, you can almost make something out of the din. I played a few seconds once for a co-worker (who moonlights as a singer), and she said it sounded like dinosaurs roaring, which I guess it does at that.

At low volumes, the album can be almost soothing. Something about my brain likes the constant droning sound. I can't sleep if my room is absolutely silent. That's why I keep an electric fan going every night, even during the winter. I need the reassuring, constant hum. If nothing else, Metal Machine Music certainly comes in handy on the train, as it helps to drown out the sound of other passengers' cell phone conversations.

P.S. My obsession with musical infamy does not end with Lou Reed and Elvis Presley. The only Neil Young album I own is his universally-hated 1983 rockabilly tribute, Everybody's Rockin'. I honestly don't understand the ire directed toward this one. It sounds great to me. Listen:

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Big Meh

The clearest visual representation I can give you of my life at the moment.

I am at once a skeptic and a soft touch.
It's all fake.

I am a skeptic in that it is very, very difficult to truly convince me of something. I am deeply wary of virtually everything -- every person I meet, every philosophy I encounter, every emotion I experience. When faced with a new concept or ideology, I'm always suspicious there's a catch to it or that the whole thing is merely a false front, like those sets built for movies or plays. From the front, a structure may look like an authentic Old West saloon. But if you simply walk around to the back, you see it's just a two-dimensional facade being propped up by wooden beams. That's how I approach life -- always looking for the seams along the edges, always scanning for the fine print. So there is very little in which I truly believe. I have the information relayed to me by my senses, and I have no guarantee that this information is truly accurate. It is only "meaningful" if I choose to assign it meaning.

On the other hand, I am a soft touch, an easy mark, a pushover. I fear and dread confrontation, and I long for the approval of others. Because of these tendencies, I am usually complacent and compliant. I am almost always the first to surrender. I am accommodating past the point of all reason. I will go out of my way to do something for someone else, but I will feel awful about doing it. I am far too nice, and I let other people take advantage of that fact. I find myself frequently apologizing to others, even when there is no need to do so. Sometimes, I feel I was put on this earth to absorb the negativity of my fellow human beings. I figure, all that negative energy has to go somewhere, right? Why not into me? Let me take one for the team, humanity!

Even though I am on "happy pills" now and attending therapy weekly, I am far from sold on the inherent worth of human existence. I am not angry, nor am I particularly sad. Currently, there is little in my life to anger or sadden me. My days tend to be gray and interchangeable, marked by dull routine and dominated by trivia. I suppose most people's days are like this... if they're lucky. We must never forget that many people live in absolute misery (due to illness, poverty, or political injustice) and do not even have the luxury of leading a boring, repetitive life like mine. They might well envy my monotony. What right do I have to yearn for more when others have less than nothing?

A metaphor approved by the ADA
Today, readers, was not a great day. Nor was it a particularly bad one. It was a day. Oh, I suppose work went fine, though I had to make more of an effort than usual to cope with the stress and to suppress the anger and resentment which I often feel inside when haggling with coworkers over topics which ultimately do not matter. Sometimes, when I am especially weary, I feel like a tube of toothpaste which has been flattened and spindled to the point that it has nothing left within it. But somehow, through a combination of stubbornness and medication, I am functioning and functional. Is that enough? I don't know. I sometimes feel like life is one great big exhibit at a museum. There comes a point at which the spectator has seen all he or she cares to see. Why can't I simply say that I am finished, that my curiosity has run its natural course? What is immoral about that?

This has not been a very inspiring post, and I am fine with that. Who says that the narrative of my recovery has to be an infinite incline or a never-ending crescendo? There are bound to be plateaus along the way. Today was one of them. That's all.

Goddamnit, I just want to go out and have a little fun. Maybe that's all I need. But I don't know how to do that. I'm 37 years old, and I don't know how to have fun. I don't know what fun even is. I don't have a concept for fun. Maybe I should get out to a public place. But I'd have to do so alone, and there is no experience quite so lonely as being unaccompanied in a crowd of strangers.

Right now, there is an episode of Glee in my DVR, waiting to be watched and reviewed. Based on past experience, I am fairly certain it will be mediocre-to-terrible, like most recent episodes of that ironically-named series. In all likelihood, my Friday night will consist of watching that episode, composing some e-mail feedback about it, and then going to bed. I have been awake for a long, long time now.

Tomorrow, I will rise again and confront the Big Meh. Wish me luck. Or don't. I don't believe in luck. The confrontation will happen tomorrow -- and every subsequent day of my life -- no matter what.

I don't have a cell phone. Here's why.

Saved by the Bell: Zack Morris was more technologically advanced than I am

It's not what you're thinking.

I'm not one of "those people" -- some pretentious, snobby contrarian or weird anti-technology Luddite. Hey, I love technology. I have two laptops, a really nice flat-screen TV (with a BluRay player!), an 80GB iPod which I rely on daily, a Facebook account, at least three Twitter accounts, and a blog which I update more than is probably healthy. Heck, I've been posting stuff to the Internet before Google, Facebook, or Ebay even existed. (Seriously, check out that last link. It takes you to a bit of fan fiction I wrote almost 20 years ago. You can even see my old AOL address! And there's a much longer, more elaborate version here.)

In short, I'm not this guy:

In that sketch from the classic Mr. Show with Bob and David, David Cross' character (who shows up at the 1:10 mark) is a pompous, judgmental twerp who disdains all modern technology and carries a mini-Victrola around with him. That's not me.

But, no, I don't own a cell phone. Yes, I know how odd that is in 2012. But I have my reasons, and here they are.
  1. As I've mentioned before, I'm sort of a cheapskate. This has more to do with neurosis and personal insecurity than it does with money. I'm not rich by any means, but I could afford a cell phone. Still, the thought of one more monthly expense makes me queasy. Especially since.... 
  2. I hate talking on the phone. It's just an activity I do not and have never enjoyed. If you've spoken to me on the phone in the last five years, in fact, there's a good chance that I was playing Tetris the whole time and only partially listening to you. I apologize. But I just can't rationalize paying extra money to do something I hate. That's the way I am with driving, and I resent every last penny I have to spend on my car, which is why a recent $209 auto repair bill sent me into a mini-meltdown on Facebook last weekend. (Sorry, sis. Didn't mean to scare you.) But the real reason I don't own a cell phone is...
  3. I like the idea of being unavailable and unreachable sometimes. I realize that, as a depressed person, I've probably spent too much time isolating myself from the world. But you should know that, very often, I find great comfort and solace in solitude. I cherish my alone time. It's part of the reason why it's a blessing that I am not married and do not have children. As much as I sometimes long for human contact, I just can't tolerate being around people 24 hours a day. I don't even understand how people cope with having roommates, let alone family members, sharing their domiciles. That's why the holidays can be such a challenge for me. Look, I love my family. I just don't want to hang out with them non-stop for days on end. Not having a cell phone gives me the illusion that I can somehow "escape" the world or sidestep reality for a while. (I know that cell phones can be turned off or silenced, of course. But I'd still know it was there.) In short, I really identify with this song that British comedy legend Peter Cook performed in the 1967 movie Bedazzled.

"But, Joe," you might be thinking, "what if you get stranded or lost someplace and can't get to a phone?"

Believe me, it's happened. And it sucks. But I've obviously survived thus far. In some version of the future, I probably will break down and get a cell phone, likely one of those no-frills, pre-paid ones referred to slangily as "burners."

But for now, don't force the issue on me. Please. Thanks. In the meantime, check out this Beatles song. It was the first of George Harrison's compositions to actually wind up on one of the group's LPs, in this case their sophomore effort, With the Beatles.

P.S. While I'm in the mood for making confessions, here is a by-no-means complete list of pop culture phenomena with which I've failed (or not even tried) to keep up. Go easy on me, I beg you.
  • Harry Potter
  • The Sopranos
  • The Wire
  • Mad Men
  • Oz
  • Breaking Bad
  • Game of Thrones
  • The Walking Dead
  • Star Trek (all versions)
  • Mad Men
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • The Hunger Games
  • Superhero comics since the 1980s
  • Japanese animation
  • Radiohead
I know, I know. I'm going to Pop Culture Hell when I die.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Of Mice and Tigers: Conversations with my father

Deadmau5: The man in the mouse-head mask

So my uncle died this morning.

No condolences are necessary, at least not for me. I barely knew the man. He seemed nice, but  I only met him on a handful of occasions -- weddings, family reunions, etc. I don't really think of him as an uncle. I think of him as my father's brother. In fact, this man's death affects me only insofar as it affects my father.

A topic of conversation.
Since moving out of his house in 2001, I have remained in very frequent contact with my father. In fact, I telephone him every single day, usually the moment I get home from work, and we chat for 10-20 minutes, depending on his mood. This is not always easy. After all these decades, my father remains inscrutable. He's a tough guy to read. I never really know what he's thinking or feeling. I try to engage him about topics of interest to him -- politics, movies, sports, etc. I only know or care about sports to get through telephone conversations with my father. That's the extent of my interest. This fall, of course, the Detroit Tigers were a frequent topic of conversation. My father closely monitored the team's progress through the playoffs, and I did my best to keep up with him. I was genuinely disappointed when the team lost the World Series in four straight games, largely because their success had been something my dad and I could enjoy together. But our daily conversations have continued, of course. He generally leads these talks, often describing the events of his day in thorough, semi-excruciating detail. My job is to listen patiently. I do the best I can, but sometimes my patience wears thin.

It's difficult to gauge how my uncle's death is affecting my dad. He comes from a large family and is the second-to-youngest sibling, so he's been through this before. Shamefully, I do not know how many aunts and uncles on my father's side of the family remain alive. I do not care much for my father's extended family, to be honest, and I try to avoid them as much as possible. They are a gossipy, feuding bunch, and I am happy to live far away from them. This particular uncle,  however, seemed to be one of the nicer ones. Again, I didn't know him. I'm not sure how to talk to my father in the meantime. I'm not exactly a natural grief counselor, and this really isn't an ideal time for me to help anyone else through a crisis. Today, I spoke with my father for about 40 minutes, which is longer than usual. We talked about the specifics of my uncle's funeral (I cannot attend and am not expected to), but I also chatted with him about the current Petraeus scandal and about Oliver Stone's new miniseries which presents an alternative American history. My father taught history for 30 years, so I figured that he could discuss these matters intelligently. And he could. But I felt badly about avoiding the real issue.

So why the picture of Deadmau5 at the top of this article? I guess I've been thinking about this performer's odd career lately. He's a DJ who performs while wearing a giant mouse-shaped mask which covers his entire head. I'm not terribly interested in his music, but the mask concept fascinates me. How does this man feel when he puts on that mask? He's famous, but when his "face" appears on magazine covers (such as Rolling Stone), it's not really his face. It's that grinning mouse mask with the giant smile and the whited-out or x-shaped pupils. Is this limiting or emboldening? Will there come a point at which he says, "This is stupid. I'm not doing this anymore?" Maybe I'm so interested in Deadmau5 because I wish I had one of those mouse masks to hide my own face.

Or maybe I'm already wearing one, and it's just invisible.

HEALTH NEWS & NOTES: The side effects from Celexa have disappeared now that I've switched to Wellbutrin, and my libido and appetite are both restored. They don't rule my thoughts as much as they once did, which I guess is healthy. It's like the volume has been turned down on them. I only had one "storm" of depression within the last week, and that occurred on Saturday when my auto repair bill was more than I had anticipated. I had a mini-meltdown on Facebook over it, but the feeling of hopelessness didn't last. Other than that, I'm feeling pretty good. I have another session with my therapist tomorrow. I had a whole slate of issues I wanted to discuss, but my uncle's death will likely take top priority now. Work remains stressful, but I'm managing the stress. An office environment, sadly, can bring out the worst in people sometimes. That's just part of my life for the time being. Keep rooting for me.