“A BEARD! A BEARD!” CRIED CLEVER NICHOLAS

When my wife was in India a couple of months ago I stopped shaving my face.  I’m not sure why. It was not a protest or planned thing. But now that my face is getting kind of fuzzy, its like I suddenly joined a bunch of private clubs. Passing hipsters, rednecks and Muslims, that all would have previously ignored or glared at me, all seem to be giving me happy knowing smiles hello.  If I could find an Arkansas town full of local off-the-grid, vegetarian, Allah-loving / Hasidic, rebel flag-salutin’ organic farmers, I think I could get elected mayor.

I recall an oddly similar thing happening when I shaved my head and when I purchased my first Mini Cooper.  I unknowingly became a member of either a group, gang or cult… not sure which but especially my fellow head-shavers acknowledge me on the street like I was an old baldy brethren.

I do see the irony of having this big beard thing on my face. For the past few years I had been making fun of all the mega huge beards that seem to be growing everywhere. I’ve been calling the trendy guys with long contrived overly-groomed beards ‘Mumfords’, based on the folk/rock/ country twang band Mumford and Son. Mind you, no one in Mumford and Sons currently has a jumbo beard but almost every other similar sounding band has several mondo-bearded musicians, so the name just stuck in my head. So just like how I ended up moving to Texas, a state I frequently made fun of , I too have unwittingly become the very same Mumford I have been mocking.

In reaction to the 1960’s hippie look and the garish 70s fashions, around the time I went to college in the 80s things got very neat, trimmed and preppy. I was not. I had an unkempt beard, shaggy hair and lived in Key West Keno sandals and cut off jeans. The Fraternity muckities stepped over me like a tattered door mat racing to pressure my far better-groomed friend Mike to join. I felt invisible at their parties like I was being shuttled into the side room with the other undesirables Clayton, Sydney, Mohammad, and Jugdish.

A few years later, as my beard got bigger and scragglier, I found my place comfortably among the “GDIs” (god damn independents). During that time I recall showing up with a similarly bearded friend at a professor’s house for a study session, which is what we called an afternoon of beer drinking and theoretical conversation. As we entered, in her thick accent his Iranian wife introduced us to the room as “mountain men’.

After I graduated, I cleaned up my look as I settled in for a few decades of traditional working life. Then a few years ago for the first time in my adult life, I started a job where I did not have to wear suits, pressed shirts or spit shiny shoes. Although I don jeans to the office most days now, old habits are hard to break and I still feel uncomfortable wearing a t-shirt and shorts on casual Fridays. I have not had the same mental block concerning facial hair. Last year I started letting my goatee grow quite a bit longer than business-man Dan ever would.

It was this past April when my wife and I went to London on our epic cheese sandwich quest that I realized my extendo-goatee was getting to be more work than it was worth. I was waking up with wacky bed-beard face and at home, I had no problem rationalizing using a beard brush and ‘product’ to keep the unruly thing in place. But while packing a very small luggage for a short three-day international trip, wasting precious space on beard grooming accouterments seemed mighty vain, self-indulgent and downright silly.

I had all but decided that as soon as I got back to Dallas I would grab the trimmer and hack the bejeebers out of it, but while sitting having high tea at Harrods (okay, I just read what I wrote there… was it just a week ago that I proclaimed I was not “a nose-in-the-air snooty snob bourgeois-zero?” High tea at Harrods?!?!? I might have to re-evaluate things) I saw an older guy in the bald dude club with way cool gray facial hair. It was kind of like a smart-looking anchor shape of gray fuzz on his face. It was not too contrived and did not look like it took much daily maintenance.

With visions of being a Euro Dapper Dan in my head, I attacked my face with sheers and a shaver to recreate the older English gentleman’s beard. Snip here, trim there, shape here, touch up there… I had looked at some beard pics on-line but maybe I should have surreptitiously taken a photo of that actual guy, because once I started mowing the mess on my mug, I looked nothing like the groovis Brit. My face looked more like I dropped one of those magnetic Woolly Bully kids toys on the floor creating a random furry smear on my chin. I’d have had better results recreating a Monet Masterpiece on an Etch-A-Sketch.

Frustrated, I just shaved the whole thing off; a look my wife hates. The only thing she has ever hated more then facial-hairless Dan was the time I gave myself a Hitler mustache. I argued that somebody had to try to bring it back. Charlie Chaplin and Oliver Hardy used to rock that look until Adolf ruined the look for everybody. She insisted it would not be me pioneering that one.

I’m not sure how much longer my wife will tolerate this big beard thing, I’m a deep sleeper and she knows where I keep my razors. I get it; she has to look at it more than I do but for now I am finding it amusing. My biggest issue currently is knowing where it ends.  I don’t really know the side-burny spot where the baldness should stop and beard should begin.

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COLLEGE DAY DAN ALL CLEANED UP AND POSED

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NO BOURGEOIS-ZERO HERO

I am not a nose-in-the-air snooty snob bourgeois-zero. I promise, I am not. I know I am no better than my fellow man.  I’m just another everyman shlub on the futile hamster-wheel of life.  Just one of the 7,654,404,129 folks on Earth trying to get through the day.  With that in mind, I still can’t walk into a Wal-Mart without suddenly feeling both better about my stature in this universe and fearful for the future of our species.

I know Wal-Mart is a cheaper place to shop than just about anywhere else. And I am all about saving dollars. Ask my Wife who has to put up with me in the grocery store sifting through my tattered envelope of mostly-expired coupons or having to deal with me stopping for an eternity in the toilet paper aisle with little sad poofs of smoke coming out of my ears as I attempt to figure out the best deal between  12 ‘Mega Plus’ rolls equaling 54 regular versus 30 ‘Double Plus’ rolls equaling 68 regular versus 12 ‘Super Mega’ rolls equaling 72 regular.  Was it that long ago when one roll of TP equaled one roll TP… except when you purchased the Scott brand 1000 sheets of sheer sandpaper.

But even with my thrifty streak, I still find it hard to walk into Wal-Mart. It’s rare I leave that store without feeling depressed. I’m sure if I went frequently, the saved money would just be spent on anti-depressants.  I’m better off buying my Brawndo and such at a place where I do not leave wanting to kill myself or possibly multiple other people. Has anyone checked to see if the one thing modern-day mass-murderers might have in common is that they frequent Wal-Mart?  It might explain a lot.  But did I take my own advice this past week?  Of course not.

It was one of those weeks that by Tuesday had already spiraled way out of control. The type of week that has you looking for the hidden cameras because that kind of repeating metaphorical stepping from one mound of poop into a deeper taller poop pile, feels like it is straight out of a black comedy movie and just cannot be random.

I hate painting myself with the co-dependency brush, but the fact is I function better when my wife is home but she was traveling on business last week. I had visions of being Joe Mega-Super-Husband having all sorts of plans to get things done around the house before she got home. That did not happen.

On Monday a coworker complained about feeling sick. I warned him not to breathe on me but apparently, even though I am his direct manager, my command not to exhale air was ignored.  By Wednesday morning it was obvious his creeping crud had crept too close and my bad previous night had morphed into a miserable ‘today’. All sorts of stuff normally inside my body was desperately trying to get outside it by any route possible. By the end of the day I was in dire need of either a lot more medicine or a handful of various sized corks.

The week was getting away from me and I did not have time to be sick. Before the due date to return them passed, I needed to get some thick black socks to confirm the fit of a pair of insulated winter shoes that I ordered on-line. And before I left on my weekend trip I really needed a double slot phone charger.  The night before’s pasta was still performing an Italian gymnastic routine in my gut, so I also needed to pick up something bland and broth-like for dinner that might have a chance of staying down.

Contorted, cramping and qualmish, I knew I would only be able to handle one stop on my way home from work and there really is only one place that would have everything I needed. Besides, I already felt like death, how much worse could a stroll through Wal-Mart make me feel. Careful not to breath on the other human-like folks in there, I dragged my clammy pasty ass passed the one-toothed greeter  (why do they always put the one person with the worst communication skills right up front) and I headed into the deep bowels of the store.

Aside from a mountain of hard to trace drop-phones, half the shelves in the telephone department were empty. A grown man on his knees was having a whining/yelling match with his Mother/Grandmother about there only being two foot cords in the discount bin but she would have none of that and was demanding he search more. The only plug like the one I wanted was in a package that had already been torn open but I took it anyway because I really needed to get moving outta the store before things started uncontrollably moving outta me.

When I asked an old Asian man to move his cart that was blocking the wall of thick work socks, he reacted like I had asked him to remove his head from his shoulders, which I kinda wanted to after he moved his cart about two inches. I finally just started repeatedly reaching over it get to inspect the various socks. They had dozens of varieties but none like I really wanted. I called it and just grabbed a package that was close because I really needed to keep moving… really  REALLY!  I was not willing to try a Wal-Mart public restroom. I imagined toilet conditions somewhere between an abandoned truck stop, the only functioning porta-potty at an Insane Clown Posse weekend concert and a Flint Michigan campground.

I had already mentally crossed the soup off my list and took a short cut passed the bins of children’s shoes and shelves full of giant paint can sized buckets of Lard towards the pharmacy. I walked in repeated circles near the aisles and aisles of weight loss items, which made no sense since no one in there was obviously taking them, till I finally found the stomach meds hidden on the lower shelf below some bulking whey powder and Soylent Green. There was no time to analyze the best priced package. I grabbed one and headed to the check-out.

The main cashier lanes looked like a war-torn third world country’s government customs lines crowded full of tattered refugees pushing carts of their various carry-able possessions attempting to get exit visas. While I created a new shuffling dance move called ‘keeping it inside me’, the gate keeper at the self check out lanes was doing a great job ignoring the three people in need of her assistance. Even though I had already taken a step towards the first open machine, she did give me a pleasant grunt when it was finally my turn.

Ah, just another miserable Wal-Mart experience. I did make home before I exploded and was in bed by 8:30. The next day I was not much better and frankly, a week later I still am not at 100%, but next time, no matter how sick, I need to skip the Wal-Mart.

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OKTOBER-BUST

With the same bravado as Donald Trump, when I was in my early twenties, I used to braggadouciously proclaim “I will never have any regrets”.  Ummmm yeah… and dancing angels were going to cradle me in a happy bubble of joy protecting me from poor decisions… yup… and my poop would always smell like roses too.

I was young, naive and sometimes said foolish things. Of course, I have regrets. I gotta list of ‘shoulda, woulda, couldas that’s as long as my freakishly gangly monkey arms. And every year around now there is one particular regret, about when and how I left college, that makes me want to find a mental cookbook of recipes for serving up those words to eat.

The minute I had enough credits to graduate, I bailed outta’ Tallahassee faster than a sneeze through a screen door. It was the end of the summer session and I had run out of savings, my personal life was a mess, I was anxious to get on with finding a career but mostly I was feeling incredibly guilty about the prospect of taking out a loan or hitting up my folks for money to stay in school any longer than 100% necessary.  I skipped my formal graduation cap and gown affair, opting to unceremoniously receive my diploma in the mail. It’s still in a drawer somewhere in the same cardboard lined envelope it arrived in.

But that’s not the big regret.

A few days after I left school, my entire advertising department went for a rare semester abroad to Florida State’s sister university in Florence Italy. If I could have scraped together a few bucks, for the price of taking three credits and living in a cheap dorm, I could have gone as a Teacher’s Assistant, co-taught one meaningless class and had the experience of a lifetime hanging in Europe for three months with minimal responsibilities. To make it worse, if I would have passed that one class with a C or better, it would have been enough to raise my GPA the one-tenth of a point I needed to graduate with higher honors.

But noooooooo, I shortsightedly had to leave school right then and there.  Oh yeah, and since I had no job, prospects or direction, a couple of weeks after dumping my stuff at my folk’s new house in an unfamiliar city, I headed up to Gainesville where I crashed on my pal Allyson’s sofa for a month of doing absolutely nothing before eventually taking a job out of state that barely covered my living expenses as I trained to be a consultant.

Now I’ve done some pretty stupid things, so that is most certainly not my biggest regret, but it is the one I am the most reminded of.

That little doozy pops in my head around this time every year because while I was wallowing in my misery that September, some classmates that did go to Italy sent me a ‘wish you were here’ postcard from the big Oktoberfest in Germany where they road tripped for a long weekend.  Since then any Oktoberfest always makes me think of that trip I passed up. I’ve still never been to that real Oktoberfest in Germany but I do remember the first time I went to ‘an’ Oktoberfest.

I grew up in a predominantly German neighborhood in Queens and when I was around 12 my friend John and I snuck through a break in the fence surrounding the grounds of the rinky-dinky local Oktoberfest fair.  Paranoid we were going to get caught by Gestapo-like Oktoberfest Police, we cautiously walked around. I played a ring toss game and won a completely useless long twisted tall blown glass bottle of Pepsi with some creepy unidentifiable red liquid in it that likely cost less than the tickets I purchased to play the game.  It languished on a shelf in my room till my folks tossed it when they were packing to move.

Inside the big Beer Tent, I was fascinated by the thumping ommpah accordion-driven music and dancing crowds in traditional garb. At that time, my only knowledge of German culture was the cursing of the local old men, my family discussing the Holocaust and what i saw on Hogan’s Heroes.

The giant tent pulsated like a beating heart with the jolly music, loud laughing  and repeated clinking of the overflowing glass steins of frothy beer. “Zicke, zacke, zicke, zacke, hoi, hoi, hoi!” On the big wood plank dance floor, old men in green feathered hats smiled through their time-hardened gruff faces while spinning laughing women in flowing dirdls; I could have watched for hours. But Johnny grew up with that stuff, with his Dad sometimes wearing lederhosen around the house. He was bored so we moved on to see what other trouble we could get in. 

We debated trying to get someone to buy us a beer but on my end it was all talk. I had tried beer a few months before at Boy Scout camp and didn’t like it. The older kids gave me a can of Shlitz. I pretended to drink it while they were chugging through their massive secret stash, but when no one was looking I poured most of mine out by my feet while trying to surreptitiously cover the puddle with fresh dirt.

After missing our local Dallas Oktoberfest the last few years, I badgered my wife about going this past Saturday. Unfortunately, when we got there we discovered the flooding rains the night before had caused the event to be postponed.  Since she is not really fond of beer, loud noises, big crowds, screeching children and polka music, I don’t think my wife was quite as crestfallen as I was, but she did prove to be the tolerant trooper when she agreed to go the next day.  It was less crowded than usual but I did not care. After walking around the muddy grounds, we settled in on an uncomfortable wooden bench in the beer tent.  My wife humored that inner child in me as I sat immersed in the celebration, smiling like a goofball with a big serving of brats, sausages, sauerkraut and beer in front of me. 

As I took it all in, I wondered if I would ever make it to the real Oktoberfest in Germany, which of course triggered my brain to thinking about regrets. Maybe if I attended that semester in Italy it would have caused a long chain of events in my life to have proceeded differently, leading me down other paths where I might not have ever met my wife. I looked at her sitting next to me and thought she really is a very sweet, patient woman. Maybe I was sorta right all those years ago; If the course of my life led me right here to this exact spot, in this exact moment, maybe I really do have nothing in life to regret?

Well… there was the time I yelled way-too loudly at the little kid aimlessly riding his bike in the middle of the road… but that’s a regret story for another day.

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UNPLANNED PLANS

I hear a lot of people my age talk about the ‘good old days’ when they were kids before computers, gaming systems and unlimited TV options complicated the world. Back when instead of being addicted to glowing screens, hoards of unsupervised children played outside together helmetlessly riding bikes, climbing atop metal mazed monkey bars above unpadded concrete and playing ball in the middle of busy streets. Ah, the jolly days before excessive child safety when little kids could have parental-free fun and multiple concussions.

When i was very young I did my share of stupidly dangerous stuff but I think the only time I knocked my noggin senseless I was actually just a few feet away from my preoccupied family. We were staying at a cheesy motel in Maine visiting family friends. Mom was teaching me how to dive head first into the pool and, although she repeatedly said not to in the shallow end, when she was not looking I got disoriented and leaped in ramming my head on the bottom, floated up wooogy and dizzy (or at least more wooogy and dizzy than usual). Not wanting to get in trouble for disobeying, I did not tell anyone, only saying I was not feeling well. The next few days I quietly walked around with a wonky headache and lump on my skull but I’m sure my family did not question anything presumably enjoying the fact I was a bit quieter and less whiny than usual.

I did not get into too much bodily damaging trouble but that was mostly because I was more of an inside little kid. Mom was a crossing guard, so I got home from school a little before she did. This gave me time to load up on some Drakes cakes junk food like Yodels or Ring Dings and watch Kimba the White Lion, the Little Rascals or whatever kid’s show happened to be on one of the seven television channels. When Mom got home she’d switch the set over to Match Game and reruns of It Takes A Thief as background noise while she prepared dinner.

Back in those days of roof antennas and set-top rabbit ears, it made sense with only a handful of stations, that you’d frequently complain there was nothing decent to watch. But today with a satellite dish slapped on my roof receiving 300 stations plus endless streaming movies, Netflicker, Hulu-de-do and YouTuber, the fact that the wife and I can look at each other and say there is nothing on is really sort of astounding. Progress and near infinite choices has led me back to the same old ‘there’s nuttin’ on TV’ whine I had when I was 10 years old.

I can’t say anything though, since it’s my fault we have all that stuff. When I barreled into my wife’s life 18 years ago she only had a heavily played VCR and coiled strands of rolled aluminum foil crawling up her walls to clearly receive the local television stations. I was the one that said, if I want to watch something, I want to at least have the choice of something decent. But even with near unlimited options, sometimes decent is still hard to find.

The other night after spending 10 minutes of watching the Channel Guide station and dredging through the scraps at the bottom of the DVR, the wife and I finally decided our best options was to just shut off the glowing thought vacuum. We did not plan on sitting for hours talking late into the night but we fell into one of those ‘solve the problems of the universe conversations’ that organically spring up when you least expect it. You can’t plan those. It started off as a catch up on coordinating some appointments and somehow turned into a discussion of the history of us, where we are and where we are going.
Eventually, we waded out of the deep end of our discussion and drifted into a significantly lighter talk about a small vacation we are planning early next year. Next Year! This is a relatively new thing for me. Planning stuff for next year. For decades I was uncomfortable planning what I was going to do next week much less next year. I was always a non-commital hop in the car that morning and see where it takes me kind of guy.

Like the first time my buddy Mike tried to talk me into going to Las Vegas, I was not sure I would like the place. At the time it still had that schmaltzy 1960’s dated rat pack stench to it that appealed to my parent’s generation. Mike had never steered me wrong before but I was not convinced. I did not know how to, nor did I have the money, to gamble. Worse yet, I imagined a grubby city full of the worst of my folk’s crass, overweight pompous New York neighborhood acquaintances from back in the early 70s all crowded into dated dark wood smokey dinner-clubs with stained red velour curved booths wrapped around small uncomfortable tables covered with overpriced, watered down umbrella-filled cocktails and overflowing ash trays listening to B-list crooners like Jerry Vale or Ed Ames.

The only way I agreed to go, was if we purchased one-way tickets that morning and traveled only with the shirts on our back. I said ‘if I like the place we could find a hotel and I’d invest in a change of clothes and toothbrush.’ If I didn’t like it, I made him promise we would head right back to the airport, even if its an hour after we got there. Knowing I would fall in love with the utter excess and sheer insanity that is Vegas, Mike agreed to all my demands. Of course he was right.

But my point is, that is how I approached everything. Last minute, no plans, choose what direction to go based on my gut feeling that minute. Those days I had a consulting job with lots of down time, the catch was I never knew when, if, or for how long I would be off. I was always ‘on call’ so it made it near impossible to make plans. What I do not know is which came first. Did the job make me a man with a nomadic non-commitment lifestyle unable to plan farther than the next day or was I always that way and chose a job of isolation and unpredictable extensive travel to give me an indisputable excuse for my untethered dis attached life?

After years of running away from reality with no real consistency or commitments, I still marvel, at the seismic shift to a stable consistent life that occurred the day I met my Wife. Though I admit, it still feels really odd to fill my calendar with appointments, events and trips months and months beforehand. Worse yet, I’m planning day trips and dinners for those months away vacations. Where did the ‘get there and wing it’ guy go?
I wonder if, like so many other changes I’ve gone through, it is connected to getting older? Time feels more precious now. Like I can’t waste it. When I was younger time did not feel like it was at a premium. I would just go to places like New York or Chicago and crash on a friend’s sofa till they tired of me or I felt it was time to move on. With little or no game-plan in mind, I’d see where the day took me. Maybe a museum, park, movie, play, pub… whatever my whim was. If the office called I went back to work, if they didn’t I just head somewhere else to play.
The heart always longs for what it does not have. Back then I was lonely and craved settling down with a normal life but I refused to unless I met the perfect partner. Which I did. And I immediately stopped traveling. Now all these years later, though I really enjoy my settled-down life, I occasionally miss the free time. But I think it is age that has stolen that footloose freedom and I have my doubts I can get that back. They are in the past like those carefree semi-dangerous childhood days. But that’s all a topic for a different late-night conversation when the TV options are slim but our minds are open wide.

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YOU ARE GOING TO GET WET ANYWAY

Many many years ago my friend Madeline and I took a day trip to Venice. No not THAT Venice with the gondoliers, Sardines In Saor and a bunch of stuff named after some saintly guy Mark. I’m talking about Venice Beach.  Okay… well no… not THE groovy hip funky Venice Beach in (oh) So Cal. We went to the stodgy old-people Venice Beach on the sleepy west coast of Florida where the only young hip-ness around was the replaced ones inside the geriatric locals.

Now, the Florida Venice Beach might not have the Cally hipsters, muscle-heads and bronzed beauties cruising the winding seaside path next to lively bars, colorful shops and dazing pot dispensaries but it does have a wide assortment of friendly wrinkly retirees, quiet calm beautiful beaches (when there is no red tide stench of dead fish) and is famously known as the ‘fossilized shark’s tooth capital’ of the US.  That last point of notoriety might pale in excitement to other self-proclaimed capitals like Castroville California’s claim of being the Artichoke capital, Scottsboro Alabama’s fame for being the ‘lost luggage’ capital or even the Seashell Capitol just down the road on Sanibel Island, but it is ‘a’ claim to fame and it is ‘the’ cheesy excuse we used for driving past two dozen other beaches to go to Venice for the day.

Sure enough, as soon as we got a few feet deep into the warm Gulf Of Mexico we spotted our first few sharks teeth through the clear water wedged in the sand below our feet. We had barely started our collection when the winds blew in a heavy summer rainstorm which stirred up the surf and made our hunt fairly impossible. There was no lightning, so we stayed out in the ocean laughing while hunkering low in the water so only our bobbing heads got pelted by the much colder rainwater.

We quickly realized that the small weekday afternoon crowd of golden-aged geezers and moms with their young children had disappeared leaving just us two goofballs on the beach in the pouring rain. I had never been alone on a beach… in the water… during a rainstorm before. It was a totally wacky and wonderful experience that is etched deeply in my memory and that day stands out as one of the few highlights from a relatively unhappy directionless period of my life.

As with most humans, the story of Dan has a lot of twists and turns but I’ve always tried to dwell on the better stuff.  Unfortunately, left on its own my brain has a tendency to stray off the intended path meandering recklessly through my memories. Sometimes it makes a wrong turn getting lost in the back alleys and dead ends of my less pleasant times until I forcibly drag it out of the bad memory minefields.

Back here in Dallas, several bands of heavy rainstorms blew through this past Saturday.  The hypnotic pounding rain on the roof lulled my wife into a nap on the sofa while I stared sadly at the heavy raindrops splashing down in our backyard pool. Already knee-deep into September I knew my warm weather weekends were waning. Watching the sheets of rain splash down, I had a crystal clear memory jump to the front of my skull of when I was a little boy in New York staring out the window during a particularly nasty storm. My older sister was standing next to me telling me that if I look closely, as the raindrops hit the ground they look like little spinning ballerinas.

Sitting there hoping the sky would clear up, I thought, ‘all these decades later I still don’t see dancers in the splashing raindrops.’ When I’ve previously complained to my Wife about the rain stopping me from swimming, she’s always replied ‘you’re going to get wet anyway’. It suddenly hit me, as usual, she was right.

I quickly slipped on my bathing suit, walked through the driving rain and cannonballed into the pool. Coming up for air I felt the chilly rain beating on my bald head and my brain took off again traveling way back to that day in Venice Beach. I closed my eyes and leaned back in the water deciding it might be nice to hang with that memory for just a little while longer.

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COMPANY CHAOS & THE CACOPHONY OF CLEANING

We have company coming this weekend. That’s a good thing!  The Wife and I try to keep the place somewhat guest friendly. We have an animal-free guest room, which is hard to pull off in our wayward animal shelter petting zoo of a house.  The guest sheets are soft though a little wrinkly (with a hospital corner type Mother the wife does not believe in folding sheets), the guest towels are infinitely softer than the sandpapery ones found in most mid-priced hotels and, although the bed is not perfect, its way better than those painful fold-em-out sofas with a spine-crushing undodgeable metal bar.

Maybe I lack the perspective to judge, but I like to think my place is warm and inviting with a clean but lived-in feeling. I have some friends whose home is a sterile showplace that looks like a staged section of a high-end furniture store.  Homes like that make me feel like an uncomfortable little kid dragged into some hoity toity place I do not belong in. They give me flashbacks of my Mom’s disciplinarian toned voice passively threatening ” do not touch a thing!” as I squish and stick attempting to slide to the middle of some anal retentive neighbor’s plastic-covered sofa, to the farthest spot away from their pristine end table antiques.

I’ve also been in plenty of other homes that have a bit more Oscar Madison-esque sty feel with stacks of miscellaneous crap on every flat surface. Although for different reasons, in those places I tend to have an equally strong feeling of not wanting to touch anything. As with so much in my life, I strive to live in the grey area between the two.

The wife and I really do love the rare occasions when someone drops in for a few days. We like to socialize and it forces us out of our routines. It does not happen often enough though, I mean, well… we live in Dallas. Not that living in North Texas is bad; I’ve been at it for 18 years, but it is a test to see who your real friends are. If someone comes to visit you in Dallas, you know they are coming to visit YOU. It’s not like living near Disney, beaches or a big old city where folks might use your place to crash while they are in town for other reasons. It’s not really a vacation hot spot.  To find a Dallas destination trip, you have to dig pretty far and deep on those travel websites down near the vacation packages entitled “Terrifically Tepid Topeka”, “O’mazingly Ordinary Omaha” or Cleveland where the best slogan they can muster is “We’re Not Detroit.”

Of course, now that I think about it, forget all that; Our company IS coming down for a business thingie! They are planning to stay a few extra days because of us. I guess that kinda counts. We take what we can get down in these parts… y’all.

This sounds bad, but one of the things I like about when company comes is that it forces us to straighten up some of our clutter. We try to keep the house clean and relatively straightened but in some spots ‘orderly’ sometimes gets to be a challenge. At least if we had kids we could blame the patches of disarray on them.

When we know someone is coming to visit, we like to take a few hours to straighten things up more than we would normally. We are always self-satisfied and happy when we really get things put away instead of just shoved in a closed drawer or locked closet, yet we just don’t take the time or have the energy to do it for ourselves. So never feel guilty if you come over and see we just tidied up, simply think of yourself as a welcomed  ‘excuse’.

The downside of doing a company cleaning on this past long three day Labor Day weekend was it made procrastination very easy. Saturday morning I was all crazy gung-ho about going through the paperwork stacked on my desk.  But my computer was there and I can’t sit without turning it on to see what’s happening in the rest of the more exciting non-Dallas universe.

Two hours of Baby Shark Challenge videos later, not only was I no closer to having a clean desk but that god-forsaken hideous song was wedged deep in my skull like an ice pick shoved into my forehead.  Afterwards, I tried listening to Louie Louie, Who Let The Dogs Out, 500 Miles and a half dozen other hook laden catchy tunes to chase out that infectious awful earworm.  It worked and I got rid of the Shark song from my brain but it chewed up the rest of the morning.

At that point I did not want to waste the last days of summer so I spent the afternoon by the pool, then we went out for dinner, when we got home I got involved in a movie and well, by the time we went out for Sunday brunch late the next morning, I had not really gotten much done.

Even though holiday weekends tend to fly by faster than a tortoise racing hare in a rocket ship , by Monday night the stacks of crap were wrangled and tamed. The counters open and the floors extra scrubbed. By Wednesday night the house was extra-tidy, the spare bed was made and new stinky air fresheners strategically placed behind the furniture. So needless to say, it was around then I learned our company’s plans changed and they were postponing the visit. Now how do I keep the place like this for three weeks?

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LABOR DAY LOLLYGAGGING

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MAVIS AND THE LONG HALLWAY TO OBLIVIOUSNESS

Recently turning 79, Mavis Staples was already a gospel, folk and soul music sensation with her family the Staple Singers back when I was born in the early 1960s.  During that era’s tumultuous civil rights movement, her booming voice shined like a beacon of hope in their protest anthems and classic soul records.  At the time, I was 1000% completely oblivious to all this. The only oppression this little jerky Jewish white kid chanted about overcoming was Mom forcing me to eat brussel sprouts.

As a little child, I was shielded and fairly unaware of the race riots, assassinations, Viet Nam debacle, counterculture protests and all the other tumultuous current events of the day. Instead, I was concerned with matters like losing half my Silly Putty’s egg-shaped container,  the tear in my stuffed alligator’s leg caused by my older brother and sister abusing it during a rousing game of Keep-Away and not having enough blocks to make overpasses with my wooden train track set to re-create the nearby pretzel of highways at the confluence of the Interborough, Van Wyck and Grand Central Parkways.

Even while being a bit sheltered from the real world realities I was still not raised to see differences, so I had no clue I was being progressive when my best friend for three years of elementary school was African American. He was just Kevin to me; way cooler than I was (which was not saying much) but still just another kid that did not seem to fit in.

My music tastes in those days were reflective of my older family members around me and were yet another example of the stark differences between me and all the other kids I knew. My Mom’s love of Big Band Crooners, Dad’s bombastic Beethoven records, my oldest brother Sam’s affection for the Beatles, Beach Boys, Four Seasons, Herb Alpert and anything else with a trumpet on it. Neil’s affinity for folk music, Ellen’s pop 45’s and early 70’s heavy album rock. Even Arthur’s very small handful of novelty records all contributed to my oddly eclectic musical leanings (although later his wife Laura was instrumental in getting me hooked on The Shaggs, to which I will forever be eternally grateful and everyone else around me will never forgive her for).

I was just starting to formulate my own tastes in the early 70’s when the Staple Singer’s song ‘Respect Yourself’ was in very heavy rotation on the cheesy ‘pop hits of the day’ AM radio stations I listened to.  At the time I paid no attention to the song’s deeper societal message, I was just amused by Pops Staples deep bass voice and the goofy catchy lines “Ain’t nobody gonna give a good cahoot” and  “put your hand on your mouth when you cough, that’ll help the solution”  At the time it was just another different sounding song hook that caught my ear, like my other favorites songs that year: My Ding-A-Ling, Popcorn and The Troglodyte.

Always seemingly out of step with everyone else, a few years later I fell in love with 1950’s rhythm and blues. In High School when most everyone I knew was either listening to Donna Summer/KC & the Sunshine Band Disco or Zeppelin/Floyd/Meat Loaf rock, I was hunting down records by Little Willie John, Hank Ballard, Frankie Lymon, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, the Coasters… Luckily by then I could share my finds with my buddy Mike who I frequently made bad cassette mix tapes for.

I guess how you get there is not really the point, but embarrassingly enough, it was a combination of the Belushi/Ackroyd Blues Brothers album and oddball radio DJ Dr. Demento, that got me digging even deeper into obscure 1940s / 50s R&B and the 60s/70s Stax /Atlantic soul records.  That’s when I started appreciating things like the bluesy/gospel voice of Mavis Staples. Another eye-opening experience for me was just after I started college when I visited my folks in Memphis They booked a tour of the town which included dinner at a Beale Street Blues club. I don’t think they enjoyed it in the slightest, but I felt at home. By the time I got out of college, I was constantly seeking out bars with the same vibe as that place.

So last week I saw Mavis Staples, the only surviving member of the Staple Singers, was performing in the ballroom of a recently gentrified old downtown hotel.  My wife was a bit occupied elsewhere, sitting on a plane from India to Dubai, so I decided to take myself to the show. I got there early enough to make new ‘concert best friends’ for the night with the people around me.

The older heavy-set couple wedged uncomfortably into the folding chairs to my left, had driven up from Red Oak, a small town about 25 miles south. He was overtly excited about seeing Mavis but his wife was more concerned with the opening act, Sarah Jaffe, since years earlier she had been the artist’s 6th-grade teacher. In between teasing his wife about going backstage to see if Sarah would still recognize her, the gentleman took to testing my music trivia knowledge about the pre-show 1960s songs playing.

When the older man on my other side was not chatting and taking selfies with his wife and early-teen (grand?) daughter, he too joined in our 1960s musical memory lane conversations. I had nothing to prove so even though I knew a lot more details about the songs they were reminiscing about, I did not correct their mistakes and let them lead the conversation one-upping ‘the young guy’.  Although maybe I let them slide simply because I liked being the ‘young guy’ for a change.

Despite Mavis’s magnetic stage presence and gospel-like frenzied singing style that repeatedly had the audience on its feet, I noticed the daughter of the guy next to me looked completely bored. She reminded me of those girls when I was in school that gave me those distant ennui incredulous looks when I tried to share whatever music I was in to.  Back then I wrongly assumed everyone would like what I listened to if they just gave it a chance.  But more often than not people like what they are told to like and even with understanding that we all have differences, I still wondered how she could just sit there stone-faced in her own little world while all this joyous hootin’ and hollering was enveloping her?

Imagining what my wife would warn, I was careful not to be creepy and overly stare but I kept glancing at the girl’s disengaged far-away eyes hoping to see a change. Is that the way I would look at a Drake or Ariana Grande concert?  Could those artists help to inspire a generation to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge? Or again, am I still the oddball? Was the relatively small gathering of folks in the ballroom the exception and the giant arena down the street full of adoring masses turning out for JayZ and Beyonce the normal? Is an icon in the eye of the beholder?

I loved hearing Mavis belt out her songs of strength, love and freedom. After saying goodbye to my new ‘for-never’ friends, I walked alone out into the warm night air with my head spinning about the sullen-faced teenager and how people really are all the same but dwell so much on the differences. No one is looking for common ground in the current extreme polarization of our society. As I walked to my car I thought about how if we respected not only ourselves but each other, a lot of the differences would seem pretty unimportant.  “Put your hand on your mouth when you cough, that’ll help the solution.”

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