Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Creaky Old Man

It's the morning inventory I take now that I've landed halfway between 40 and 50. Which parts of my body are working today? Which ones are sore, or hurting, or just plain uncomfortable? Am I going to have to wear the comfortable, but not so stylish Dad running shoes if I have issues with one ankle and another toe? Will I be able to drink more than one cup of coffee without chasing it with a half-pint of Pepto Bismol? For the love of god, can't I drink even one beer the night before without becoming uncomfortably gassy? Will I be able to contort myself into position where I don't feel that twinge in my back all day?
To be clear, I'm past the point where I wake up and I expect all my moving and non-moving parts and bits to be 100 percent ready to seize the day. At 45, I have an equation of comfort where, if I can hit it, I'm more than happy to roll out of bed and not complain much.
I can accept one mild to moderately severe pain lodged in some part of my body. Or two slight to mild areas of discomfort. That ankle I sprained a few weeks ago? If all I have is some residual swelling or mild pain, I am good to go. But if I double down on the sprained ankle in concert with whatever the hell happened to the big toe on my other foot in the spring, with maybe a little bloating from eating too much fried food the night before, then I've crossed the line.
Those mornings when all I have is that pain in the exact middle of my back, or a knee that seems to exist only of bone grinding on bone, I count those as wins. On the good days, I consider it an Exercise Day. Not that I will necessarily exercise that day. Hell, I know I won't exercise on those days, but I tell myself that if I really wanted to, I could exercise.
There's also a similar inventory that takes place after a night of drinking, where in addition to all the real and imagined pains of living, I have to lay silently in bed, breathing deeply, and try to determine if there is any hangover element that will be added to my day. And this is why I hardly ever drink anymore, because that daily calculus of getting out of bed and feeling healthy doesn't need to be dragged down by the part of me that thinks I'm still 22.

But otherwise, I know its all small stuff and the aches and pains of getting a little bit older, and I'll gladly take a little discomfort in exchange for everything else I've gained as I've traveled through my forties.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

One Good Thing -- First thing's first


I don't mean this to be, nor do I have the cheerful psychological makeup to make this the daily writing exercise equivalent of a Hang in There poster or one of those bright Unicorn fireworks Ghandi-quoting message memes that fly around the social media.

There's plenty of shitty stuff going on in the world. It's okay to point out the shitty stuff. If you don't at least acknowledge the shitty stuff from time to time, chances are you will go insane.

But there's also a lot of good things in the world, at least in my world. The big obvious things like family and partners and friends. The take-it-for granted things that can sometimes suck a little bit but that I'm better for having, like a job and a roof over my head and not having been tossed in debtor's prison yet. The little things, which I imagine mostly include birds, and birds singing, and the places where birds fly to and from, and the birds not pooping on my head.

Simply, there are more than enough good things going on, from big to small to bird-related where it's possible to write about one good thing every (okay, almost every) day.

This is the totally non-binding mission I have given myself. As someone who is told should write more, I will try to write about one good thing every (okay, almost every) day. My friend Bill Woolum, for as long as I have known him, has kept up a good pace of writing about Three Beautiful Things on many days.

We will see how I do with a much more modest self-imposed goal. For today, that I'm willing to give it a shot is a good thing.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Ramones Channel 1990 maybe 1991

Ramones Channel 1990 maybe 1991

Even though
Dee Dee was gone,
making rap albums
and shooting too much
smack, it was still
the Ramones.

Even though
I had seen them
the year before,
and they played too
fast, losing the melody
for the speed, afraid
of losing the hardcore
kids, always afraid
of being passed
by, it was still
the Ramones.

Even though
I wasn't sure if
Greg was going
to make the show,
and Greg made
every show, barreling
down 44 too fast in
his Nissan to the
Living Room or
crawling up 93
in my Cavalier
to a Rat hardcore
matinee, it was still
the Ramones.

Even though
I drove through
the worst fog I'd
ever seen on the
Expressway, so
thick my 45 mph
with the highbeams
on put me about
even with everyone
else on the highway,
for a change, still
the Ramones.

Even though
I ended up at
the show, alone,
standing near the
back with all
the old guys, old
like I am now,
nursing their
Buds and nodding
their heads to
the Cretin Hop
and Rockaway
Beach, still
the Ramones.

Even though
later Greg told
me he was there
up near the stage,
away from the old
guys old like
I'm old now, bobbing
their heads like
I do now, still
the Ramones.

Even though,
still played
too fast through
the fog
and the years
and no Dee Dee
and the old men
like I'm old now,
there was never
a time to say
no to
the Ramones.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Piano Man, AntiChrist

It's tough to pinpoint the exact moment Billy Joel became my personal antichrist. It's an attitude that hardened over the decades to the point where hearing Uptown Girl while shopping at the Market Basket would send me clutching for my blood pressure medication that my doctor had never prescribed for me for just those kind of sudden onslaughts of unprepared Joelness.

I don't deny my own culpability in all this and I won't back down from my many well-earned layers of musical snobbery. But overall, I have softened over the years. Look through my record collection! You'll see a goodly number of (early) Jackson Browne and Elton John records. I no longer wage a losing war against the entire soft-rock industrial complex. There are even days when I can listen to an Eagles song, an entire Eagles song (as long as it's not Hotel California) with something approaching, if not enjoyment, at least an attitude of live and let charge $500 for concert tickets towards Mr. Henley and Company. I enjoy the music of Spoon, which, if I were forced to honestly describe it, sounds much like Billy Joel without actual Joel-like components.

There was even a time, way back in the days of eight-track tapes, when I enjoyed the songs of Billy Joel. My parents had copies of 52nd Street and Shattered Glass. I would singalong to Big Shot. I was seven, and I also enjoyed the Village People's YMCA unironically. My musical tastes were far from fully formed.

I know there are many good, kind, loving people in the world, some of them are even my friends and family, who enjoy the musical stylings of Mr. Joel and I don't hold that against them. God bless each and every one of them. At this point, though, most people who know me expect me to turn red in the face and get the shakes whenever a Billy Joel song comes on the radio and would check for my pulse if I didn't.

But when it comes to the root of all Billy Joel evil, Piano Man gets at least 90 percent of the blame. Even thinking about the song, catching a whiff of the insipid singsong melody in my head makes it hard for me to focus on rationally explaining how much I hate that song.

Breathing. I'm breathing ... 

If there is a hell below, it is filled not with fire and brimstone, but with endless badly balanced stereos blaring the Satanic strains of Piano Man for 23-1/2 hours per day, broken up only by just enough of a daily dose of We Didn't Start the Fire just so I can be faced with the mindracking contemplation that there is the possibility that Billy Joel may have written a song that was even worse than Piano Man.

The damned sing-songy swaying tempo, the interminable length of the thing in the neverending American Pie vein, those awful lyrics that sound like there were written by John Updike's four-year-old grandson on a sugar high after eating a carton of Cocoa Crispies and then trying to translate a bad Bruce Springsteen song into Latin then to Russian and then back into English. The fact that no one ever sings along to the song in public. No, no, no ... every half-drunk moron who hears it come on the jukebox at the bar has to shout along to this fetid piece of musical kryptonite.

Where's my inhaler?

Joel's intrinsic need to prove that he is both a tough-guy ROCKER as well as a serious ARTIST only makes it worse. It would be easier to buy if you didn't make us try to sit through all 13 minutes of Scenes From an Italian Restaurant aka as the really long Billy Joel song that isn't Piano Man whose only saving grace is that it doesn't get played on the radio is much and if it is played in public no one really knows the words.

Still. People grow. People soften. Insufferable new music comes along to make the insufferable old music seem not so bad, or at least create an aura of misty-eyed nostalgia around it. I've seen the Youtube videos of Billy Joel approaching a level of human sincerity and pulling fans onstage to sing with him, much to the delight of the people who enjoy the music that Billy Joel plays. I approach something close to a level of appreciation for that. I mean, the video being on mute helps, but I can begin to feel seem melting of my Joelgrinch heart.

And then yesterday. I'm in Bull Moose Records in Salem and I overhear a conversation between two of the young, presumably hip record store cashiers. They are talking about how they had to shut off the music they were playing because it made one of the customers uncontrollably angry, angry, they said, like they have never seen anyone angry about a song before. I'm assuming they were playing some industrial/screech/gangsta rap/goth shit that sounds like a powerdrill mutilating cattle while yelling various forms of the words fuck and bitch over and over.

I'm just about to chime in with "shoot, the only music that makes me that angry is Billy Joel ... hahahaha" when the purple-haired cashier girl hits play on the CD player again. I hear

It's nine o'clock on a Saturday, the regular crowd shuffles in ...

Damn you, William Martin Joel. If there's a hell below.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The things we (temporarily) leave behind

I've got a little buddha amulet. I wear it around my neck, most days.

Not that I'm a buddhist, except maybe a little bit, or as much as anything else, anyway. More it's a totem I can hold on to, feel it's weight in my hand when there is the need. A reminder to slow down, take another breath. Maybe two or three.

It's a good thing to have around, most days.

It's except on the days when there are no good things to have around.

Goddamn, it's one of those moods again! And there might be a reason for it, and there might not be, and it's stupid, stupid either way and I've got nothing to say and I should say I have nothing to say but then that would mean I have something to say. At least deep down, I know it goes away quicker, whatever stupid reason set me off, and tomorrow will be better and tomorrow was not always better, so it's more of a little peak over the edge more than a long-time descent.

But it's still a day, or two, to ride out. Black, black, black and I'm a fraud and if I said anything at all it's that I'm a fraud and there is no buddha, nothing around my neck reminding me to breath two three four and its just a further proof that its all bullshit anyway and who did I think I was fooling?

But goddamn if the next day the little guy isn't around my neck again and I'm breathing two three four and even talking, talking about that little black hole that gets a little smaller and easier to cross every year.

It's almost like I know, now, that the sun

will come out

.... well, you know. And the things I left behind, if even for a day, they are still there.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Book List 2014

It's time for my first annual best books of the year list of books that were mostly not published in 2014. I set myself what ended up being a modest goal of reading 50 books this year, and ended up finishing somewhere around 80.

Thanks to the easy magic of Goodreads, I was able to look back on those titles and come up with an honest-to-goodness this is the best of what I read this year list. One or two were by authors I have read before, but most were by writers I've been meaning to read for years, or caught me by surprise.

10. Among the Thugs - Bill Buford

By far the best book I've ever read about soccer hooligans, doughy English men punching people, lighting things on fire, and running away from the authorities. Buford inserts himself into a you-are-the immediacy of bad behavior and social class, but he never lets himself overshadow the story.

9. Hiroshima Nagasaki - Paul Ham 

There were a couple of popular history books I could have slid into this spot,. but none of them offered as clear and moving overview of the big picture alongside the immediacy of everyday life for those living in Japan at the end of World War II.

8. Stephen King - It/The Stand 

Last year, I started reading Stephen King again for the first time in decades. This year I backtracked to two of his longest, most popular, and most critically acclaimed novels. I've come to terms that King is not always as scary as you think he's going to be, 90 percent of the characters sound like the talk exactly like Stephen King would and have no concept of popular culture outside the baby boom generation, and after a 1,000 pages, the endings can be a little anti-climatic. But, I've also come to appreciate that King creates worlds filled with a wonderful sense of dread and humanity.
If only he had stuck to the creepy clown and not the giant cosmic spider at the end of It.

7. Ross MacDonald - The Lew Archer novels 

About 75 percent of the time I spend at the library is in the mystery stacks looking for the proper mix of literary, hardboiled noir. This year, I finally took the dive into the Ross MacDonald Lew Archer novels. It's pretty much the perfect mix of post-war California detective fiction with good, tight, smart writing.

6. John Connolly - The Gates

Do you miss Harry Potter? Do you wish Harry Potter had more lovably cranky weiner dogs and bad dwarves who steal ice cream trucks, all while the minions of the dark side try to invade a small English town? Of course you do! John Connolly's Samuel Johnson series has been my go-to recommendation for anyone looking for outstanding new young adult fiction.

5. Daniel Woodrell - Winter's Bone

I guess they made this into a movie with JLaw. I haven't seen it. Maybe some day I will. If it is a fraction as tough and moving as the book, it will be worth it. But you should read the book instead. Or also. Just read the damn book if you haven't already.
I also read several of Woodrell's earlier, more explicitly crime/noir novels this year. You should also read those.

4. Vladimir Nabokov - Lolita 

I should have read more classics this year. Maybe next year. I got about half-way through Bleak House, which was still a good 400 pages, and I do love me some Dickens, but the timing just didn't feel right.

I also read the Great Gatsby again. By my totally arbitrary rules, I didn't consider that for my list of best books I read this year because I've read it before. That rule could easily change next year.

Which leaves me with Lolita, which may well be a better novel than Gatsby anyway. English wasn't even Nabokov's first language, and still, there are maybe a dozen writers who have ever lived who are more accomplished in their first language than Nabokov was in his second.

3. Donald Hall - Essays after Eighty 

Simple and profound. Nothing else I read this year came close to this small volume essays when it came to writing about life, loss, simple pleasures, struggles, and about writing itself. There are a hell of a lot of writing guides and manuals out there that offer far less practical information about what it is to live and write than can be found across a page or two of Hall's latest.

2. Andre Dubus - Selected Stories

I reread some Raymond Carver short stories this year. I may never be sure of what I really think about Carver. I feel like I should love him or hate him, but he just sits there, capable, workmanlike, touching on themes I should care about more.

Instead of reading Carver again, I will read more Andre Dubus. His stories are in the Carver territory, but much more human, mystical, and touching. It doesn't hurt that many of his stories take place within a mile or two outside my door. But these stories would be about real people with real lives and struggles regardless of the geography.

1. Peter Matthiessen - Shadow Country  

As soon as I finished reading Shadow Country this summer, it was all I could do not to turn back to page one and start reading it again immediately. If that isn't a sign of a novel that stays with you, I don't know what is.

Matthiessen hits on all the big themes of the big American novel, the violence, the expansion of the country, what it means to be an American, what is truth, but never lets the excitement of the underlying story get away from him. I also read The Snow Leopard and At Play in the Fields of the Lord this year, and both of those could easily have made my ten best list, if it were not for my arbitrary rules. But Shadow Country was the one novel that lived and stayed inside my head this year more than any other.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Nobel Prize for being me

I'd be lying if I said I didn't still want to be a famous writer, or at least known by people beyond my friends some day. I'm realistic enough to know the clock is ticking on that. And that I don't work hard enough most days to make that close to a reality.

But the older I get and the less likely it is to ever happen for me, the more I am accepting of it. Because it is the age of niche content and narrowcasting. And I have found my niche. All I care about (well, mostly care about, a check for doing what I love would still be nice) is that there is one person who thinks I am the funniest, most talented guy in the world.

She is likely delusional in this thought.

But that there is even one person whom I have touched in this way makes everything worth it. If there is never a second person who thinks (or may have thought) that I was the funniest, most talented person in the history of ever it won't have mattered.

We all spend so much time on this little blue ball wondering if anything we did ever mattered that much. In truth, all you have to do is touch one person deeply and it will all have mattered. I'll take that over all the bestseller lists and literary statue things there are (not that I would reject them if they were thrust upon me).