Saturday, May 31, 2008


Everyone suffers from a certain fear of exposure.

We've all had that dream - the one where we are standing in front of a group of peers or superiors wearing less than we should be wearing. Some are standing at the front of their fifth grade class in their underwear; others are naked in church. Still others are simply wearing the wrong tie at a board meeting. Everyone's fear is unique. Everyone's fear is the same.

And we all wake up, trembling and shaken, realizing that we are alone in our own bed and our horrible secret - that we are average, and not as special as we pretend - is still locked up safe inside.

When Andy broke the surface of the day, and swam out of his dream, he was buoyed by that relief that comes from knowing that whatever you just escaped was a dream. This one had been full of strange events, unlikely situations, magic; things he knew couldn't happen had been happening, and even though he had been sure throughout that it was just a dream, it had shaken him.

He sat rubbing his face, chuckling to himself as the last remnants faded from his memory. Running naked from the castle; the clash of swords; huge, hulking beasts, chasing him; escaping through the hedges; flashes of light (magic!) bursting around him.

"Juvenile crap," he said out loud. He climbed out of bed and made his way to the shower, barely glancing in the mirror on the medicine cabinet. Even had he been looking for them, he would have missed the fragments of charred leaves in his hair.

They were gone when he stepped out and wrapped himself in his towel a few minutes later.

Today was an up day. That meant a longer commute, but he looked forward to it, as usual. He strolled out of his apartment, and through the common areas toward the upward ramp. He nodded at the kids tending the gardens along the paths; they did half-hearted work, but it earned them points on their community service requirements, and kept them busy during the hours they were locked out of the network.

Andy took some coffee from a kiosk on the way to his lift, and thanked the operator. The man seemed to know Andy, but Andy couldn't remember his name or his face. He faked it as best as he could and headed on his way, but it made him uneasy. He picked up a screen viewer and pressed a thumbprint on the pad to bring up his homepage. Scanning through his feeds and messages calmed him a bit, and he marveled that only a few years before people had still been tied to "personally owned devices" for this sort of service.

The lift was only half-full when he arrived, so he took a window seat. There was nothing to see while it was at rest, but when the lift merged with the rest of the traffic on the elevator's column, he could expect to catch a glimpse of the terminator receding off to the west as the sun swung up and out of view above. The space elevator was anchored in the Western Sahara, but he never tired of the sight of the Atlantic turning from black into deeper blues and on into that turquoise that he loved so much.

Even as his heart seemed to swell at the thought of that color, another part of him thought it was odd and unreal that he could be on the verge of euphoric over something so trivial as a sunrise. He ran his palm up from his forehead, sweeping his hair back, and rubbing the back of his neck in an attempt to sooth the sudden tension there. All of it - the apartment, the neighborhood, the space elevator - seemed at once completely unreal and outlandish, and completely mundane.

He tried to stifle the sense of panic that rose up, but the other seats on the lift were filling now, and the growing crowd only made him claustrophobic. Tossing away his screen, he pushed his way back off the lift, and tried to walk quickly back to his rooms.

People reached for him, calling his name, but he didn't know any of them. He thought he should, but their faces all blurred together. Their voices - their voice - dragged at him, pulling him back, pushing him forward... tearing him apart. "You're dreaming, Andy," the voice said.

He tried to shout, but couldn't breathe; tried to breathe, but couldn't open his mouth. His nose felt stuffed with cotton...

Andy startled awake with a yelp, pushing himself up from his pillow. He had been on his face, mouth open, and he could still feel the cloth on his tongue and see the dark stain of his saliva on the pillow.

He rocked back on his knees, gasping, and almost cried out again when a hand brushed his leg: his wife. She murmured something - "You're dreaming, Andy" - something he thought was meant to be soothing. She rolled back into her own sleep. But her presence seemed to ground him. It gave him a sense of place, something to hold on to.

He pressed his hands to his mouth until the panic was gone, and as he sat there staring around the dark room, his mind ticked off a checklist of familiar things; the clock on the dresser, the light on the telephone. He reached down and felt his slippers where he had left them when he had come in to lie down.

There were no space elevators; no lifts with a view of Africa. No magicians or mythical beasts. Just his wife in his bed, and his kids in the other room. But he could still feel the need to flee, to get away. He slipped out of the bed, and went into the bathroom.

He bent to the tap, and drank for a long time. When he had his fill, he splashed a handful on his face, and then turned to use the toilet. He lifted the window and watched the moon for a while before heading back to bed. A shadow passed across it - a cloud? - and he shivered. The sensation that something had been chasing him passed, but he still felt unreal and disconnected.

Andy pulled the mirrored door of the medicine cabinet out, and angled it so he could see his eyes in the moonlight. They shone with a black depth that he found reassuring. He breathed deeply, staring hard into those eyes. He pushed away the dreams.

He moved quietly back to the bedroom and as he climbed back into bed, a small plastic screen tumbled out of the bed onto the floor. On it were the words, "You're dreaming, Andy."

Andy sat bolt upright in his bed. He was alone, in a messy, familiar room full of sunshine. He moaned, and climbed out of bed, as exhausted as he had been when he fell into it the night before.

"Too many active dreams," he groused.

Andy went to the kitchen and made some coffee. He wasn't certain that this wasn't a dream, but he was beginning not to care.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Lb4Lb#3: Kiko, the Pistol, and the Heart

La Bamba is one of those utterly ubiquitous songs; I've heard it played a million times in a million places by a million different bands. From Hawaiian dancers at the Arizona State Fair to a pair of Spanish guitarists in a cafe in St. Petersburg, Russia, it seems like everyone has taken a crack at it.

It's always a fun song to hear, but my favorite version of La Bamba has always been the version that Los Lobos played on the La Bamba film soundtrack (1987). Not only do they manage to capture the sound of Ritchie Valens, but the last few seconds of the song feature the band playing something that sounds more traditionally Mexican. It was this traditional sound that I loved more than anything else about the song.

I was fascinated enough to seek out the band's other albums; they came out with The Neighborhood, and then the awesome Kiko. Kiko was a mind-blowing breakthrough for a number of reasons. I loved the dark innocence of Kiko and the Lavendar Moon, and the wistfully mellow beauty of the Dream In BluePeace is still one of the tracks I give people when I want them to discover this band, because it showcases David Hidalgo's fantastic voice and intricate guitar skills so well.

But as much as I enjoyed these songs, I kept going back to the last few seconds of La Bamba, and wishing they'd do more songs with traditional instruments. It reminded me of the restaurant we used to go to with my grandparents on the occasional Sunday afternoon; it made my skin remember the feeling of the Phoenix sun, and I could recall that sensation of being full of exotic food, surrounded by people who loved me and the clean and nourishing smells of tortilla and dust hovering in the dry air.

This was in the days before I had internet, of course, or I would have found La Pistola y el Corazón a lot sooner than I did.

I was cruising through the stacks at the public library, and I was looking for something new. I'd heard about this new Buena Vista Social Club CD, and had wandered into the Spanish-language section to check it out, and there it was: this Los Lobos album full of traditional ballads, corridosson, and... okay, I'll be honest: I don't know or care what you call them. These are just good songs, and a strong argument against ignoring music in other languages (how much sooner would I have found this gem if it had been sorted with the rest of Los Lobos' albums?)

The album only clocks in at 25 minutes, but it's 25 minutes of pure genius. This is a band that knows how to make beautiful sounds stick to a recording medium, and they are playing the songs that they loved when they were growing up. It's that love that comes through.

I ended up buying a copy - and that's saying something; I'm notoriously cheap. I took it with me to England when we were stationed there in 1998, and when the grey gloom got me down, I would put this album on in my E-reg Mini Cooper, and blast through the tiny villages, fields of rapeseed and rabbits, and across abandoned train tracks with golden sunshine in my heart and badly mispronounced Spanish pouring from my lips.

Needless to say, I've been happy with their more recent stuff; This Time was timeless, and I had a blast hearing favorites like Tom WaitsElvis Costello, and Richard Thompson cover Los Lobos tracks on The RideCesar Rosas's Soul Disguise was another favorite while I was in the UK.

All good stuff; but when I want to hear Los Lobos, it is La Pistola y el Corazon I reach for every time.


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Lb4Lb #2: The Rhythm of the Saints

Some stories are magical, meant to be sung
Song from the mouth of the river
When the world was young
And all of these spirit voices rule the night
-Spirit Voices
It is hard for me to be moved by poetry. I'm just a little too cynical, and a little too leery of pretty words and images. I find beauty in the broken and the deformed things (see the first Lb4Lb review for proof of that), and tend not to be easily impressed by the flowery or the openly sentimental.

So when I tell you that an album is unapologetically beautiful, deeply moving, and still complex and fascinating after nearly twenty years on my "play often" list, you have to know it is full of powerful stuff.

Soon our fortunes will be made, my darling
And we will leave this loathsome little town
I discovered Paul Simon's world famous Graceland album near the end of my high school days, and literally wore my first cassette copy out in my car stereo before I graduated.

There was some controversy at the time about the U.S. embargo against apartheid, but it was Graceland that got me heavily into African music about then. I was so in love with the music on that album, I went and sought out every artist related to it I could find: Los LobosLadysmith Black MambazoC.J. ChenierBakithi Kumalo (who played that wicked 2-measure bass solo on You Can Call Me Al), and eventually the classic compilation, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto - Volume One.

When I found out about the The Rhythm Of The Saints, I couldn't wait to hear it. I scoured the used record shops for a copy, because there was no way I could afford it new, and finally, about a year after it came out, I did hear it... and went back to Graceland.

She says ''Maybe these emotions are
As near to love as love will ever be''
So I agree...
She Moves On
Okay, so it wasn't an immediate "hit" with me. I liked the rat-a-tat-tat of The Obvious Child and the frenetic guitar work of Proof enough to play it on occasion, and even got to know some of the words well enough to sing along. My best friend loved the soaring Portugese vocals Naná Vasconcelos provided on Spirit Voices enough to go root out his album, Rain Dance, but at the time, I only thought it was a pretty song.

I was immune to the poetry.

Who says: Hard times?
I'm used to them
The speeding planet burns
I'm used to that
My life's so common it disappears
And sometimes even music
Cannot substitute for tears
The Cool, Cool River
It was only after a period of about ten years that I began to realize how often I was turning to this album when I had hard times. That line about my life being so common, and music substituting for tears... that captured me. Pretty words mean nothing, but THAT - that struck me to the core of my being.

We had a lot of fun
We had a lot of money
We had a little son and we thought we'd call him Sonny
Sonny gets married and moves away
Sonny has a baby and bills to pay
Sonny gets sunnier
Day by day by day by day
The Obvious Child
The ton-of-bricks moment, the moment I realized how deeply this album had hooked me, was when I found myself paging through my yearbook, telling my daughter about the people under the funny haircuts. My god, some of them have died! Some have fled from themselves... and I have certainly struggled from there to get here. And these songs somehow knew before I did, how my life would play out.

That is the work of genius.

These pretty songs, with the flowing rhythms, the lush arrangements, sweet vocals, and the slippery, dancing lyrics; they are not just beautiful: they are beauty. There is no "off note", no track that is not worth plumbing for every word and note. If you are caught singing along to this album while stopped at a traffic light, there is no line that will cause you to feel embarrassed; it is that good.

These stories are magical, indeed, and were meant to be sung again and again. Aloud. In front of strangers.

I know the reason I
Feel so blessed
My heart still splashes
Inside my chest...
She Moves On
Pretty words can betray you, mere skill amounts to cleverness, and cleverness wears thin. But these songs are a constant, brilliant reminder of the magical ingredient that keeps this heart splashing: joy. "The cross is in the ballpark", he sings, but it means nothing without that joy. And that really should be Obvious, child.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Doots III: The Suspense

The dog brought her head up when she heard the snap, and she thought then that it was all over.

It was not.

Over the next few days, as she roamed the house, she thought she could smell the sweet, clinging odor of decay, but she couldn't localize it. It could have been in the kitchen; could have been in the bathroom. It might even have been behind a wall somewhere. Or it could have just been something in the kitchen trash. One never really knows where bad smells come from when there are children in the home.

It had been weeks since the Mouse Man had come, laying his snap traps and glue strips throughout the house. And since Doots had vanished down the hole under the bathroom sink, she had not seen or heard a whisper from him. The traps had remained empty, though. So the Mouse Man returned, bearing his poisoned grains, and hid those throughout the house, too.

The family had begun speaking of "the mice" rather than "the mouse", though. That had been the only realy change in the great standoff. The Mouse Man had uncovered two corners in the house - both in forgotten spaces in the backs of closets - where the "Mouse" had built nests. Nests: plural. More than one. Thus, "mice" and not "mouse".

And the dog mourned her friend, though she sensed he was not gone.

Winter dragged on, finally giving way to spring. In fact, it tried to leap over spring and directly into summer, but missed by the smallest fraction of an inch, and the weather scrabbled back and forth between blistering humidity and near-freezing rain for a few days.

When the roulette wheel came to a stop, and the little, steel ball finally clicked into "spring", the trees exuded their fine, yellow spunk in one great, universal arboreal orgasm. Everyone developed breathing problems and red, streaming eyes; the dog began shedding her magnificent winter coat; and the windows raised and lowered in accordance with the predicted pollen count each day.

The dog sat locked in her kennel one morning, enjoying the air from the open window next to the box. She was not thinking about lonliness or despair; she was not missing her little friend, or their huddled winter conversations. That was when the voice returned.

"Hey, kibble breath! What's shaking?"

"Doots?" she gasped, and she looked around, trying to locate the source of the voice.

"Sure, I guess you can call me that," said the voice. "We're all one big family."

The voice peeked out from the corner of the kennel. It was not Doots. This was a smaller, younger mouse. But it carried itself the same way, and spoke in the same manner. She finally had to ask it to be sure.

"Strictly speaking, Doots is dead," said the new mouse. "Though, we never really die. Doots got 'reabsorbed' is all." The new, little mouse licked her lips at the memory. "We're a collective; we share everything, even our bodies and our mind. We are all 'Doots', really. You can think of me as a 'Dootlet' if you want to!" And she giggled a high, squeaky mouse giggle.

The dog was not amused.

Dogs, by their nature, are not great philosophers. Some do enjoy a bit of meditation, but most prefer to nap when they aren't being active. Cats are the thinkers; dogs prefer straightforward action, physical contact, and a clear, stable day to day universe. This whole "mouse collective consciousness" thing was lost on a dog.

And this dog had been suffering. Her friendship with Doots had brought an unfamiliar shame into her relationship with the humans. She had agonized over where her loyalties lay, and had put up with their accusations and their mockery. She had been hurt, and here was a stranger asking her to accept a substitute for that friendship.

She barked. Being part beagle, it was the peculiar baying yelp that said she was on the trail of prey. And the Dootlet - as far as a mouse is able to do so - blanched with terror, and dove under the cushion of the kennel. The dog writhed and tore at the inside of her box, trying to get at the fleeing mouse.

It was a grand ruckus, and it ended with a terror-bleached mouse flinging herself out into the open for a moment, only to dart back under the baseboards.

"Screw you, pup!" the angry little voice shouted. "We coulda been friends!"

"I have friends," said the dog. And she curled up to await the return of her humans.

But she kept one eye on the baseboards. Because now, she knew that the game was on, and which side she was playing for.