Monday, December 31, 2007

In October

A couple of years ago, someone I miss very much asked me to describe autumn in Arizona. I tried to do what he asked, and this is what came out. (All of my original musical references have been linked; with my apologies and appreciation to all of the artists.)
Legal warning: all persons, living or dead, are purely coincidental.

In October

There was a band in the late 1980's who took their name from a US spy plane, and they put out a spare, black & white album with spare, black & white songs full of dust and spindly trees. The sky I'm looking at is a full color version of the album cover, minus the pale, blurred Irish faces. The only blurred face within miles is mine.

I'm getting into a white Datsun hatchback with automatic transmission, which I'm not far from discovering it wasn't meant to have. I'm going off to school, and the music of that Irish band is pouring from my speakers. I'm trying to sing along - I am, after all, a vocal major - but I can't duplicate the delicate pain in that voice. It galls me, because I feel so superior to the androgynous man-boy singing the words. I am so certain I could write that song myself! The jealousy burns in me, and it will be years before I can deal with the fact that it is jealousy. I will never write a song like that. I will barely manage to sing it without my voice cracking.

But I will understand it.

After school, I will head to her house. She is still in high school, but now I am not, which means our relationship is now barely legal. I doubt her parents would tolerate me chasing after their daughter if I hadn't been there almost every day for almost four years. Everyone pretends that we are not lovers. Everyone knows we are.

But this time it's not the same. There has been someone else, and I'm enough of a fool - an honest and honorable one, I think - to tell her. I haven't "done the deed", but at our age, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter that she herself was only the third or fourth female to show me any kind of romantic interest, or that I am vulnerable to the very idea that a fifth would come along. How do you explain that, when you are too young to understand it yourself?

So we sit in the Arizona room - a screened in patio area with lurid green astro-turf and wicker furniture - and she smokes cigarettes in defiance of her parents. Her mother sits stoically on the other side of the glass door, watching Oprah, and her father flits about through the kitchen, occasionally pulling out a show tune from the bench of the piano and playing it. He will play a song - "Stranger in Paradise" or "Lara's Theme" - once, and then put it away and go out to his car and leave. Two years later, she will be away at college when her sister finds what is hidden inside the piano.

We don't say much, because we know said sister is listening from her bedroom. She sits behind the screen quietly, with her stereo playing a bizarre mixture of 80's power ballads and this new kind of gritty metal music coming from Seattle. We don't want to corrupt her.

After stilted conversations about schoolwork and making half-hearted plans for the weekend, we get into my car. I have a predictable selection: Paul Simon's "Graceland",Peter Gabriel's "So" and "Us", Harry Connick, Jr.'s "When Harry Met Sally…" soundtrack, and "The Phantom of the Opera". There may be a leftover from summer, like the B-52's, and some Billy Joel, but she's gotten sick of those from driving around with me.

We drive to the new park they built in the canal. It only floods in late August and early September, if it floods at all. It is now October, and everyone feels pretty safe at the playground and on the volleyball court. It is, however, a little chilled, since the sun is blocked early down in the bottom of the canal. People are wearing sweat pants instead of shorts, and the cyclists are wearing thin windbreakers. The usual twenty to thirty degree drop in temperature at this time of year has given all of the children runny noses, and they play listlessly on the shiny new monkey bars, swings, slides, and merry-go-rounds.

We sit on the decorative river rocks that line the steep sides of the canal above the bike path. We are just under the bridge, and the traffic roaring by keeps anyone from eavesdropping. As though anyone would want to hear such whining and pleading. She doesn't. I take her to her house, and take a circuitous route home.

I end up at the park north of where they're going to build the new freeway. It will circle the whole city, they say. I don't believe it. By the time they finish it, the city will have grown around it like the belly of a fat man spilling out of his belt. I've even read articles asking for another loop even further out. You see the pattern, even if you're only a community college music student with no future.

The sun goes down slowly when you sit on top of a mountain. Even a worn and stooped hill like the one I'm on towers over the valley. If I was facing south, I could see all the way to South Mountain, where all of the radio and TV towers are. Facing east, I could see Camelback Mountain, sticking up from where it is pinched between extravagant wealth in Scottsdale and hopeless poverty in Sunnyslope. Driving around that one sorry hill is like driving from "Dallas" to "Sanford & Son" with a commercial break in between.

I am facing west, though. That's the direction I want to go. There is nothing out there, once you get past my house and the city where only the elderly live. Who named it "Youngtown", anyway? I hear that Irish band singing in my head again, and my mouth fills with a gust of dusty wind. Only two weeks ago it would have burned from baking in the harsh sun all day, but now it is slightly damp, and full of spores and pollen. No one could blame me for having to wipe my eyes and nose, and hurrying back to my car.

At home I call my friend, to see what he's up to. He's bored, and wants to go somewhere - how does west sound tonight? I am ready to agree even before he offers gas money, and I grab some supplies on the way out the door. Supplies are two sodas, and a few of mom's cookies.

We head west from his place, taking Bell Road through Sun City - which is Youngtown with a different mayor. We follow it until it becomes a dirt lined track, and then a dead end. We turn south until we find another major road. We are blaring Queen through the town of Buckeye, and stopping at the Circle K for more snacks for us and the car. We decide to head for Wickenburg, in the other direction. We've switched to Pogues, and we spit and curse along with the singer for twenty miles before the tape runs out. In the silence I tell him about her, and what I've done.

"Stop," he says, and I stop. He gets out of the car, in the dark, with the wind whipping across the flat land by the quiet road. He walks back up the road the way we came, and I get out, too. "Stay there," he orders, and I do. The car is off the road on the side, with the lights off, and I walk around it, looking up at the stars through the streaming wind-tears. I find Orion, and the Big Dipper, before I give up on keeping warm in a denim jacket and get back in the car.

When he comes back, I have James Taylor's Greatest Hits in. We ride in melancholy to Wickenburg, which is dark and empty with the hour and the wind. We feel empty, which could be some kind of hunger, and we turn around again, heading home. He wishes for the hundredth time that we were old enough to buy, and I agree. It won't be long.

I drop him off, and head back to my parent's house. It is too late, and there are words when I come in. It starts cordially - no one wants to offend anyone else. But, the words can all mean something else, and all three of us are wondering what I'm going to do, and how I'm going to do it. I can't stay a child forever. But I'm not a child. Which is why I should… But how can I when… I can feel my eyes glazing over, and I have a vision of squares talking in parallel about circles. I laugh. It is misconstrued, and I go off to bed.

I lie staring at the ceiling. The wind is still gusting, but tomorrow there will be more of the endless, cold sun. It loses some of its color along with the heat. The cold is only relative, but I think I can feel it, even though I've never lived through what some would call a "real" winter. Forty degrees is cold enough for me, and that's at least two months and twenty degrees away.

I think about something my friend said, while Shane Macgowan sang about whiskey and gutters. He marveled at my relationship. He said it gave him hope, and he hoped we would last forever. I tried not to tell him, but he could tell from my face. It broke his heart more than it did mine. It was why he had made me stop.

Years go by, with or without those you love. After a while, the songs are all that make sense. Their words aren't forgotten, though your own are. All you have left are images and temperatures, smells and sounds. They mingle with the memories, and the soundtracks take over the dialogue until you almost forget who did what to whom.

At least no matter how cold it gets, there is the sunshine, and the temptation to stay inside and pretend that it's warm.


Since I never mentioned U2's Joshua Tree album by name in the text, I thought I should do here. I resisted linking the line Under the Bridge in the text. You're welcome.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Underrated: A Jeff Lynne Fiesta

29 Dec 2007, 17:14 (edit | delete)
Some call it the "walkin' beat" - that easy, metronomic quality to a song that makes it the perfect soundtrack for a long hike. It is faster than a ballad, but not too fast; it is not flashy, but is steady, and strong. To me, that is the essence of Jeff Lynne. He's got the walkin' beat, and he'll bring it to everything he does.

Now, I'll grant that it isn't for everyone. I'm sure some readers will disagree - violently - I am just saying this is part of what I like about the body of work Jeff Lynne has put together over the last few decades. His meticulous sense of rhythm, the signature backing vocals, and his ability to bring out the best in those he works with; this is the Jeff Lynne I've discovered.

For me it started with The Beatles. My mom had their early albums, up to Rubber Soul - when John Lennon made his infamous "Bigger than Jesus" comment - so I grew up listening to that stuff. My high school girlfriend got me into Paul McCartney's Pipes Of Peace and Flowers In The Dirt (which I loved for the work Elvis Costello added; they also worked together on Costello's Spike and Mighty Like a Rose).

Some of my marching band amigos got me into this other band, Electric Light Orchestra, and I especially adored Out Of The Blue. I read enough about them to know who Jeff Lynne was, and that he had been a huge Beatles' fan as a kid, but at the time, that was the only connection he had to them.

Then I began to discover a string of albums that I really liked: George Harrison's Cloud NineTom Petty's Full Moon FeverRoy Orbison's Mystery Girl (featuring the hit You Got It, and a duet with U2's Bono called She's A Mystery To Me)... all capped off with a little record called Traveling Wilburys, Volume 1. This prompted me to go out and find his solo album, Armchair Theatre, which was subsequently worn out in my car stereo that year.

Jeff's work after that heyday has included the controversial, but generally popularly accepted, Beatles' Anthology singles Free as a Bird and Real Love, and Flaming Pie, an album that almost redeemed my opinion of Paul McCartney. (One friend of mine proposed a theory that the Beatles are dying in order of the quality of their work, and predicted that based on this theory, Sir Paul will be immortal. We don't let that friend drink so much any more.)

As an interesting side note, Bob Dylan is the only Wilbury alum Lynne hasn't produced an album for, and he is the only Wilbury alum who never "sent me". Don't get me wrong... I appreciate Dylan, but aside from Tangled Up In Blue, and some of his more famous early songs, I never felt the magic that so many Dylan fans seem to feel. Who knows; maybe that will change one day.

Most fans were probably already aware of these connections, but if you are a fan of any of the albums I mentioned, I urge you to check out the others. Perhaps your best bet would be to load up your player, and head for a long walk.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Chicken Poop for Your Soul

Monday morning, 0643; formation between the wings.

Every Monday morning, on the strip of blacktop between wings of the long, U-shaped barracks, several hundred young airman would form up into straight lines for a quick formality: roll call, announcements, and maybe a little motivation.

0644 - Airman First Class, or A1C, Charles Pierce III (aka, Chuck the Turd) stood facing about half of his flight with a clipboard and an exasperated expression on his face. Formation officially started at 0700, when the entire squadron would be brought to attention for the commander. A1C Pierce had been warned several weeks prior that members of his flight had been spotted showing up late, sneaking into the formation by mingling with the trickle of Army, Navy, and Marine students who flowed by the group on their way to the only entrance to the Chow Hall.

0645 - A1C Pierce had announced two weeks ago that anyone showing up after 0655 would be counted as late, which had not deterred a hard-core group of dissenters from arriving at precisely 0656. He had then announced that the following week - this week - anyone arriving after 0645 would be late... and would be "dealt with". He fingered his red rope, sign of his authority as the flight commander, and checked his watch.

0646 - "Tench-HUT!" Pierce cried. About half of his flight was there, and they shuffled haphazardly to attention. "What is wrong with you people, " he yelped. "I said to be here at 0645 today for attendance."

"Go bend a pipe," someone muttered from the back (it might have been me).

"We ARE here, Turd Chucker," someone else pointed out. "Take your fuggin' attendance."

"Look, you bastards, I'm the Flight Commander, and I have the authority to drag you all out here as early as I need to to make sure you're on time for the commander. Don't make me form you up at 0600 for an 0700 formation, 'cause I'll do it!"

He began to call names and check them off his list as they answered. He was almost finished when he realized that even though he was missing nearly a third of his people, he had marked off everyone as Present. "Hey, you're not answering for people who aren't here, are you? DAMMIT, I...."


0700 - Pierce snapped to, and dropped his clipboard. Snickers rippled through the flight, which was now nearly completely present. (Turns out some of the members had been hiding in the next flight over.) And now the commander, Lt. Col. Janet, came striding out to face to the squadron.

"Good morning, squadron," she warbled happily. "I have a special treat for you today. I know some people have been complaining about the new rules in place. Just remember they are there for your safety. If none of you drinks, smokes, or has sex, then nothing bad can happen to you, am I right? RIGHT!" She beamed out at us, basking in our relief at finally being safe from our vices.

"But I am told that morale is slipping, so I have been reading from the book 'Chicken Soup for the Soul'. Let me tell you, it gives you a great outlook on life. Think of your life as if you were in prison, and you begin to value each ray of sunshine that manages to find its way through the bars of your window!"

"Great scott, she's going to put bars on the windows!" someone stage whispered. The commanders eyes narrowed, but she pressed on.

"Just remember the inspiring story of Abraham Lincoln, everyone. He was born in a log cabin that he built with his own hands, and despite his poverty, he grew up to lead us as president through the most horrific war imaginable. He was constantly depressed, and his wife was insane, and just before he died, he found out his son was taking bribes in his name... but he didn't let that stop him! He would have kept on going, if he hadn't been so tragically killed.

"Now, keep all that in mind today as you go to your classes. Some of you will be taking your final language tests this week, so study hard. Especially you Arabic students! Remember, if little retarded Arab children can learn Arabic, then SO CAN YOU!"

And with that, the group was called to attention, the commander marched briskly back to her office, and everyone was released to their flight commander. Pierce turned around, stooped, and picked up his clipboard.

"So now we're retarded inmates in a prison run by a nut who thinks she's Abraham Lincoln?" someone asked snidely.

"What time you want us next week, Turd? 0500?"

Pierce looked around at them, fingering his rope. "Just don't be late. 0700."

And with the Army, Navy, and Marines streaming by - and trying not to laugh outright at the speech they had just heard - the airmen scattered to their various cells to look for sunshine.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Dog Blog: The "P" in Correspondence

For those who might have noticed, I haven´t been writing lately. That´s because I decided to take a Canine Correspondence Creative Writing course. It was pretty intense, but I think it was worth it. Check this out:

¨It was a dark and stormy night. The air was as heavy as the Rottweiler that always craps on the corner of Park and Canterbury. Speaking of whom, there he loomed, dripping with evil plans and brutal actions.¨

Pretty great, huh? Of course, I have to translate from dog writing, and conveying all of the nuance and texture of urine scent into English is a bit tricky. But if you could smell it... wow!

And did you catch my correct usage of "whom"? Grammar is a female cat in any language.

As for all my time offline, it happened to coincide with the mom lady starting a new job. With her being gone half the week in the early mornings, and the Hairy Guy slacking off on his days, I have been cut down from two good walks a day to just one. The weather hasn't helped any. So this class has been about the only thing keeping me entertained.

At least it snowed. Wow, that was fun! I´m half husky, after all, so I had a blast chasing snowballs in the backyard with the kids. The TV told us it was supposed to snow at the end of November, but the Mom Lady kept saying it would snow on the Fifth of December. It is really spooky how she is right all the time.

The snow helped me finish my correspondence course, too. Being a dog college, we do all of our classwork by p-mail, and sometimes it can be hard to sort out new assignments from old homework. Rain can ruin a whole week, but snow... that has layers. Makes everything easy to read.

My final assignment was a doozy; I had to describe something that really drives me berserk. That´s hard, because there are only a few things that make me lose my mind, and they are usually around when I´m trying to post my answers. Squirrels, rabbits, other dogs, and cats that hide places and jump out at me. I wrote about other dogs, risking a lowered grade for having a bad attitude, but the instructor liked my approach.

It was really cathartic to write about it, too. I know it drives my humans a little crazy, because they have to bodily drag me away from any dog that comes near me. I still can´t explain it, but I just become overwhelmed with an urge to get at them, and teach them a lesson. I mean, how can they just assume that it´s okay for them to walk around anywhere near where I am? I don´t care WHOSE house he thinks it is, I AM WALKING HERE!!!

Whew... I´m getting a little overheated just thinking about it. But I passed with flying colors. Yellow, mostly. The instructor was impressed with my emotional range. I only lack a bit of control over my spilling. (That´s like the dog equivalent of spelling.)

Next I´m going to try to get into an accounting class. I´m not sure if I´ll be able to produce on the homework, though....

Monday, December 3, 2007

Are Christians Right? (Or Vice Versa?)

This one was written Monday, December 03, 2007, as the 2008 Presidential campaign was beginning to ramp up. I had barely heard of that young senator from Illinois at that point, and figured the race would be between Senator Clinton and one of these Republicans; my concern was, how bad would the GOP candidate be, and would we be stuck with her?

Let's recap some recent events, just so we're all on the same wave:

*My mom sent me a hoax chain email about atheists trying to ban Christian broadcasting. Here's a link to one site with several religious-themed urban legends. Here's the Snopes take on the tale.

*MA Governor Mitt Romney, tired of facing concerns about his fitness for U.S. President, plans to give a speech defending his Mormon faith to the nation some time this week, as AR Governor Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, has emerged as a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination..

*A British teacher in Sudan is convicted of insulting Islam because she allowed her students to name a class teddy bear Muhammad.
Nov 30 - story from (note the Muslim organizations speaking out)
Dec 3 story of her pardon (note the Muslim organizations speaking out)

Now, listen: there are number of conclusions about me that people draw when they hear me talk about Christianity in a political context. The first misconception is that I either have something against all Christians, or that I will automatically oppose anything a Christian supports. In reality, I admire much about the various Christian faiths and the many good things they have done over the last 2,000 years. And the vast majority of my family belong to what many would define as "fundamentalist Christian" churches. I may disagree strongly with some of the conclusions they draw from their scriptures and the world around them, but I still love them.

Sadly, many people who identify themselves as Christian - especially in the realm of politics - misrepresent Jesus Christ and the teachings he left behind. Whatever you believe about his divinity (and I refuse to take a position on that publicly) you have to admit that he essentially advocated the Golden Rule and extremely liberal attitudes towards tolerance and forgiveness.

The second misconception is that I know nothing about Christians or their varied beliefs. Bear in mind that until I was 17, I was a Southern Baptist, and a rabidly devout one at that. Not devout enough to ignore the questions that eventually led me to abandon any kind of public faith, but devout enough to enjoy regular Bible study and Christian radio from early in my childhood. Dr. Dobson, in fact, used to be one of my favorite speakers, and I was a regular listener to his "Focus on the Family" program. To this day, I still recommend much of his advice for parents on maintaining fair and consistent discipline.

The problem I have is not with the faith of the people who are lumped together and called the "Christian Right". Rather, it is with the parties that cynically pull on their political puppet strings, turning their deep feelings over complicated issues like abortion into hot-buttons on a huge Voter Vending machine. That distress is expressed better in this Essay by Garrison Keillor. (You can also preview 4 chapters of his book, Homegrown Democrat here.) However, unlike Mr. Keillor, I feel that the Democrats are just as guilty of fueling that fire and pushing those same buttons; and I feel it is just as wrong for them to do so as it is for the Republicans to do it.

I am also deeply offended by the consistent equation of the Christian Right with something called "moral values" - a phrase purposely calculated to imply that anyone daring to disagree with their collective political positions must be "immoral". (Ann Coulter has made a career out of stressing this concept.) Maybe I don't know what the compromise solution is when it comes to issues like abortion, but I do know that solution will not be achieved by declaring anyone who varies from the party line to be a murderer. Nor will it be accomplished by insisting that one persons' rights are superior to another person - however many cells that person may have.

And since I always seem to hear them mentioned in the same breath, I have to say that the close association between abortion and the other hot-button "moral values" issue, gay marriage, is positively un-Christian. I don't care how grossed out you might be by the thought of two men on their honeymoon or raising children together, it has nowhere near the same "moral weight" as the debate over whether removing a first trimester fetus is murder. It is more accurate to compare homosexuality with another Biblical sin that called for death by stoning: the consumption of shellfish. The near constant association of homosexuals with a variety of grotesque sins is uncivil, unfair, and is the opposite of what Jesus taught. You remember that silly old line of his... "love your neighbor as yourself"? One thing about Jesus, he usually put it pretty plainly.

So what does any of this have to do with email hoaxes, Republican presidential candidates or Muslims in the Sudan? Well, it's all about the idea of tolerance.

Republicans in particular have fought hard to introduce intolerance as a guiding principle of our society over the last twenty years. They've lobbied to make "multi-culturalism" seem like the next communism. They've yanked hard on the previously mentioned puppet strings of the Christian Right, and they've used their media platforms to push the buttons sure to cause outrage in otherwise non-political middle-Americans. "You good Christian people are under attack from people who are different from you," is the consistent message.

The "atheists are trying to ban Christian broadcasting" bit is not just an old hoax, it is also easily disproven by a quick Google search (which brings up the link above, and can also turn up the the official FCC denial). And yet, the hoax persists, because people are primed to believe that "others" are trying to steal their rights. Growing up, we used to hear similar claims that Christianity was under attack all the time; from Communists, from atheists, from Catholics... and from Mormons.

And now Mitt Romney wants to ask for the tolerance of the Christian Right as he tries to set himself up as the defender of their conservative values. I almost find it funny; except that the only way to prove himself is to "out-conservative" the other candidates. Which brings us to Huckabee; as a Baptist minister, he has a wordless counter-argument working in his favor among that segment of the base. He doesn't have to pay more than lip service to the puppet strings and push buttons, thus risking total alienation if he faces the Democrat nominee later on. He only has to stand up and not be Mormon.

And I have the distinct displeasure of having to face my own biases now, because he is the only candidate stumping for the one real solution I see to many of our long-standing economic and political problems: the FairTax. Do I overlook all of the positions on which I might disagree with him? Do I assume that his lip service is just that; or do I risk supporting a candidate that will really try to enact ruinous policies in the name of his religious beliefs... like Bush has? I have been asked already: how can you seriously consider supporting a Republican after the last six years? I don't have an answer for that; how much tolerance do I show to people who believe things that I don't? Where is the line between sound judgment and reactionary bias?

Which brings me to the Muslims in the Sudan. Here we are in the midst of a quandary about how much tolerance we can muster for the religious beliefs of our leaders, and the Sudanese give us yet another object lesson on the dangers of intolerance. Certainly, with "Mohammed" being the single most common given name for human males, the offending Teddy Bear couldn't possibly be named after anyone other than the Prophet; and for such tenuous "crimes" there were strident calls in the country for the execution of a foreigner who was there with the intention to help.

Fortunately for Ms. Gibbons, President Bashar saw reason - after two Muslim Members of Parliament traveled from the UK to plead her case. Muslim groups in America and England spent that tense week expressing outrage at the violent reaction, and condemning the conviction publicly. The result was a small victory of reason over fanaticism, and illustrated the point that Muslim groups have been trying to make since 9/11: that a small percentage of Muslims acting badly have given the other billion an unfairly blighted image. Much the way self-proclaimed Christians behaving badly in 15th century Spain, Nazi Germany, and the antebellum South give the other billion a bad reputation.

That's a long way to travel to get to the title question, and I thank you for wallowing through this far. So what am I asking? You tell me. How far do we go when we claim to be tolerant of different points of view? Do we tolerate even intolerance for fear of looking hypocritical?

The whole circus makes me wonder, too, how real these alleged demographics are, anyway. We've been told about the Christian Right being "owned" by the Republican party for so long, I think Christians need to ask themselves: do you really belong in that box? Do the values demonstrated by the right reflect the values taught by Jesus? Do you really know?

I think about it a lot, and I haven't got a good answer. But I think it's a great question.