Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Missing kitty



I was gone all afternoon on Tuesday, May 24, but before I left I was sure my cat, Springer, was in my room. When I returned later, after a thunderstorm, she was gone. I was baffled as to how she disappeared, but when I talked to a neighbor, he said she was scratching at the screen when he was out on the back deck with friends. A check of the screen showed that it was loose and could be pushed out far enough to free Springer.

She is an outdoor cat and often meows at the door to be let out. Because I live in an urban environment, I was concerned for her safety, but she continually demonstrated a healthy fear of cars and never wandered away from the back lot. Whenever she wanted back in she would come to the window and meow. It was a nice arrangement, and I hadn't the heart to keep her indoors permanently, even though it was safer.

I also chose to not get her spayed. When the previous cat I had, Gato, was fixed, her personality changed and her belly got soft and flabby and swayed when she walked. Although I did no clinical research, anecdotal evidence from talking with others suggested that this was a common phenomena. Female cats get fat and lazy when they're fixed. I didn't want that to happen to Springer. I also didn't mind if she gave birth to a litter. Yes, cat overpopulation is a problem, but I thought it would be neat for my son to see the birthing process and help find new homes for the kittens.

Its been a week and Springer has not returned. Maybe she is on an adventure. Maybe she got picked up by a stranger. I have alerted the local Humane Society (TAILS), Animal Control, and the DeKalb County Animal Shelter. I didn't know there were so many places to take strays. Jonny and I also posted flyers around the neighborhood with contact information.

Springer is a very resourceful cat. I'm not surprised she escaped. She is a real gamer. I don't worry about her ability to survive in the world. I just miss her and her absence makes my studio a lot less homey. I feel silly for being so sentimental about a cat, but I am. The only upside is I don't have to deal with logistics for her care when I am on the road truck driving. But I would gladly deal with them for the safe return of my cat.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The trucking life

Last week I officially registered for a CDL training class through Kishwaukee Community College. Class starts June 6. I've thought about trucking since finishing the Pacific Crest Trail in 2004. One of my best friends from childhood went through truck driver training and drove a rig for awhile. Also, while on that hike, I rode in a the cab of a 18-wheeler to Ashland, Ore. (click here to link to the journal entry from that day)

I have grown continually disheartened at the grim prospects for public school teaching. And when I learned that truck drivers earn an average wage commensurate with what I would earn as a teacher, I jumped at the idea. I've got a good driving record and a long time ago had a CDL to drive a school bus. Strange thing: In 1997 I got three traffic violations within months of beginning work as a school bus driver, and I lost my job. I haven't had so much as a parking ticket since then. I also do not have any felonies and am not addicted to drugs or alcohol. Hey, that makes me a good candidate for being a truck driver.

I hope long haul trucking is a good source of income until the economy improves and public school teaching jobs become more widely available to one with limited experience (one year) like me. I still dream of teaching a middle school language arts program, and think I have a lot to offer students. In the meantime, I am pursuing many writing goals and thankful, at least, that teaching isn't diverting my creative energies elsewhere. I thought about teaching community college part-time, but the travel involved and lack of benefits negates that option. Plus, even after I get back into teaching, having a CDL could provide me with a source of income during summer breaks and holidays. I am determined to make good on this training investment.

I love to travel and see the country. The only downside is being away from friends and family for extended periods of time. Being a good truck driver involves not only good driving skills, but time management, navigational skills, the ability to manage and organize paperwork, and a temperament suited to long days. The only thing I'm worried about is staying in shape. I've made so many improvements to my diet and overall health, and I don't want to backslide into eating junk food and not exercising. It will take discipline to avoid the fattening temptation of truck stop fare.

I love the nomadic aspects of truck driving, the idea of waking up each day in a different place. While seeing the USA from the interstate is a lot less interesting than seeing it from a trail, I am resourceful with pack and map, and will no doubt figure out some way to integrate adventure into my travels.

But first things first. I've got four weeks of training ahead, then the homework of finding a good company to work for that will hire a newbie driver.

I've already done a fair amount of Internet research, but as any prospective driver knows, there is a glut of information out there. The only thing I'm sure of is that there are many, many jobs available for qualified drivers. This seems to be a recession-proof occupation.

One of my favorite sites so far is: www.lifeasatrucker.com While the multiple typographical errors are annoying, this site, created by a long-haul trucker, has a wealth of information and gives a realistic portrayal of the trucking life.

The best video series I've found so far on YouTube is Trucker's Life. Driver Vince puts the viewer in the cab, on the loading dock, and at the truck stop, and along the way touches on every aspect of the truck driving life. Here's the first of about 20 videos he created. I've watched them all, and while some of my romantic notions of the trucking life have been dispelled (it seems as if truckers have no free time), I also came away from viewing them confident that I can do and enjoy this job.

Another running narrative



For the second time in six days, I ran a competitive race. After running a the Magellan Development 10K race in Chicago on a cold, rainy, blustery May 15, I ran the Sunrise Rotary 8K race, starting at Potawatomi Woods Forest Preserve near Kirkland, IL, on a warm, rainy, blustery May 21.

In the Chicago race, I had more "in the tank" at the end, and chided myself for holding back too long. Although running is a simple sport, a race can involve a lot of strategy, most of it personal to the runner. I went into the Magellan Development race with the game plan of taking it easy the first three miles and then building up speed all the way to the end. In retrospect, given how good I felt at the end, I should have started my big push sooner. So, the strategy for the Sunrise Rotary 8K was to start out strong and then try to hold on until the end.

This strategy improved my average pace per mile by almost a minute, from a 9:09 average to 8:14. My goal was to finish in under 40 minutes. I fell just short, finishing in 40:57. Considering that I felt under the weather, fighting mild flu symptoms, I am very happy with the results of Saturday's race. The only downside is I did not get the psychological pleasure of passing scores of runners like I did in the Chicago race.

In addition to being shorter, the Sunrise Rotary race had a much smaller field, 82 runners, compared to the 700 runners in Chicago. This meant that registering was a lot easier and I didn't need to adjust my pace at all to avoid running into other runners. I also didn't have a chip on my bib and there were no digital timers every mile. Instead, volunteers called out the time as runners passed. The Sunrise Rotary race took place on country roads and passed through the town of Kirkland, passing by a disc golf course I've frequented countless times with my friend Todd.

I finished the first mile in 7:45 and eventually slowed from that best time. I didn't pass anybody after the second mile and nobody passed me after mile 3. I put on the afterburners at the 4-mile mark, but was not fast enough to catch the next runner in front of me. I closed the gap, but she finished 10 seconds ahead of me. I could hear the labored breathing and footsteps of the runner behind me as we approached mile 4, but then he faded out of earshot.

My next race is a 10K at Sycamore Speedway June 25. I may race a 5K in DeKalb June 4. It's only $20 and would help me reach my goal of running at least 12 races in 2011. It's also a different distance, involving a different strategy. My goal is to improve on my average per mile. The bar is set at 8:14. Not bad, considering that when I resumed running last November and 25 pounds ago, my initial goal was to run a mile on a treadmill in less than 11 minutes.

I talked with my mom Sunday and she asked me if running these races is my latest "thing." I guess it is, though I can't say I'm obsessive about running yet. I just like to do it and the races give me mini-goals to shoot for and keep me on task.

Click HERE for the overall results of the 2011 Sunrise Rotary 8K. I finished 27th out of 82 runners and 6th out of 12 in my age group (35-44). It is humbling to note that the top three finishers in the men's 55-64 age group all finished ahead of me. Of course, they've probably been running a lot longer than I have.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Homeless Mustard

I've found a new hero and his name is Homeless Mustard.

Few who know me know that I've been homeless a couple times, both on purpose and not due to usual ills of destitution or drug abuse. The last time was in August 2009 when I moved back to DeKalb. I roamed the streets and slept in city parks for 22 days because I didn't want to commit to a lease unless I got a job or the prospect of another teaching job dried up. I put all of my stuff in storage, took showers Anderson Hall on the campus of Northern Illinois University, hung out at the library a lot, and partied with a lot of townies. During that time, I did a lot of reading about the vagabond life, Hobos, and the homeless. This was the time I also began dumpster diving, a practice I engage in to this day. (albeit only at Aldi's, where I never fail to get all the fruits and vegetables I need).

Also, since then, I have read a lot about stealth camping and homelessness. After my son becomes an adult I plan to roam this land again and live the vagabond life. The wandering is in my blood and I will answer it again someday.

Somebody on Facebook posted a link to a video by Daniel "Homeless" Mustard, a street performer discovered by a Sirius satellite radio show, the Andy and Opie show. I've never heard the show, but the YouTube videos of "Homeless" are amazing. He's got a great, gravelly voice, and does some soulful covers and original music. He gives hope to all of musicians striving to be heard or just singing out our hearts to anyone who will listen.

Here's Homeless Mustard's most famous video. His web site is: www.thehomelessmustard.comThis is the true essence of music. No glamour or record sales. Just heart and soul, bar chords and worn out guitar. Homeless Mustard shows how it's done. I hope he finds a roof over his head someday, but continues to perform. Go to his web site and give the guy a few bucks.

WARNING: HE SWEARS IN THIS VIDEO. VIRGIN EARS BEWARE!!!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Some new music

My friend Jim Nerstheimer and I got together Wednesday night and played at the church where he is employed as a pipe organist, Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran in DeKalb, IL.

The acoustics are great. I brought my electric guitar, as past performances with my acoustic were drowned out by the mighty pipe organ. The balance between the instruments tilted too far in my favor this time. We'll get it right soon. We recorded 80 minutes of our jam session. We used no sheet music or had ever played any of the riffs before. It was pure improvisation. I sat near Jim's console. I've learned visual cues are important in improvisation. Seeing his fingers move gives me a sense of rhythm and where they are located on the keyboard lets me know the notes. His console has three ranks of keys, so it was an interesting lesson in following along.

I culled the best moments from our jam session. While no great virtuosity is on display, there are some nice little moments. And this music is different from the stuff I usually record. Symphonic instead of poppy, with a very open structure. I may take some of these ideas and flesh songs out of them, but they are fairly enjoyable as they are. Below are the Soundcloud files of the songs. As you will see, I had fun making up titles.

Pointillism by stoom

Apologies to Andrew Lloyd Webber by stoom

Say what? by stoom

Bertha's Sandwich by stoom

Shamwow by stoom

My Italian heritage


Tonight is pizza night. At least once a week for the past year I've made homemade pizza from scratch. At first I followed a recipe, but like anything done repeatedly, the process has gotten more byzantine over time. My sister gave me a pizza stone in January, which dramatically improved the quality of the crust and made preparation all the easier. Now I don't have to cook the crust separately before putting on the toppings.

In addition to making pizza, I also make really good meatballs. For these, I follow my mother's recipe. She's not Italian. These feats of culinary greatness are about as Italian as I get. Unlike my father, who grew up with Italian-speaking parents in a largely Italian neighborhood, as a third-generation American, most of my Italian heritage and folkways have been lost. Sure, my father has done extensive geneaology work. I know where I come from, Piana Degli Albanese, a village in the mountains above Palermo, Sicily, but I cannot point to any specific family tradition that hails from the old country. My mother's side of the family has been in the United States since the 1850s, so any trace of ethnicity is lost there as well.

Italian-Americans get a bad rap. The first three entries in a Google search of my last name reveals a pizza joint and two New York area mobsters. My father, Frank, shares the same name as the Gambino Family consigliere, Frank "Franky Loc" Locascio. Most other Locascio surnames are spelled LoCascio or Lo Cascio. The name has many meanings. It could mean "Of the Cascio." Cascio is a type of cheese. In southern Italy, Locascio is a derivation of Lo Castro, which means of the walled city. A Castro is a Roman walled fortification.



Apparently, the village in Sicily, Piana Degli Albanese, where my great-grandparents emigrated to the United States from in the early 1900s is largely populated by the Arbëreshë, an Albanian minority community living in southern Italy since as early as the 15th century. I guess I am more Albanian than Italian. I like to embrace this idea because being Albanian would explain my love of mountains. Italy is mountainous too, but more in the north. My roots are far more southern.

I'd like to embrace my ethnic roots a little more closely, but since I wasn't raised within any specific traditions, it would be affected, an approximation, with no legitimate family claims. Or, I could seek out extended family on my father's side -- most of whom I haven't seen in years, and appropriate their uniquely Italian traditions. That's an idea. I'd better do it soon, as my father's generation is passing away and so few of them, my father included, have maintained many of the old ways.

At least I've learned to make a really good pizza from scratch. It's a start.

Flash fiction: The Spinner (part 1)

Ever had a recurring dream that came true? I have, a few times. One was mundane, involving a unique kind of light, but when it came true it was a profound moment of recognition, and I never had the dream again. The other recurring dream that came true changed the very nature of reality, not just for me, but for everybody. It is a challenge to the laws of physics. This is super hero stuff we're talking about here, the stuff of fantasy, and like anything crazy that happens to a normal guy like myself, my puny mind is still grasping at the implications, even though, as super powers go, it is fairly useless.

But before I get into all that... here's the other dream that came true and never came back. Somehow, it connects to my unique power, but I'm still trying to figure all that out.

Ever since I was a child, I had this dream of an aquarium with white rocks, crushed limestone, I believe, and potted plants inside it. In my dream I walk up to this aquarium and just look inside. Nothing else happens. It is lit from within by a fluorescent light, or so I thought, and surrounding me is the gray glow of pre-dawn, but just a little brighter, unlike any kind of natural light I've known. For some reason, I can't figure out, light is important to all this.

I had this dream from age 7 or 8 until I was 19, about 11 years. And each time I remembered it I was filled with peace and thought it was a memory of my grandparent's basement. Grandma raised orchids and kept them in aquariums, lit up with a fluorescent light. I don't remember any white rocks. Close enough. But I was wrong.

It was the first time I'd drank Carlsburg beer. I was in Denmark in June of 1992. I was visiting Braun-wen, an exchange student from high school who I'd been pen pals with ever since. I had a Eurail pass and had been bumming around Europe for most of a month. I'd looked forward to seeing Braun-Wen. I admit to romantic desires, but I never pursued them. Maybe it was a language barrier, or that I was too regular of a guy (she criticized my brown leather jacket right when I got off the train). Although we connected in letters, in person we got along awkwardly. I was left to the company of her two older brothers and extended family of cousins. Danes are easygoing.

They let me stay in the attic, which was my home for five nights. It had a skylight and, I noted almost immediately, an aquarium with a potted hosta plant and white rocks. It looked immediately familiar. My last night there, Braun-Wen once again abandoned me to party with her friends. I could hear a cheesy live band playing out of tune and out of time renditions of Nirvana songs. Feeling sad, rejected, and missing family back in the states, I went for a long walk and stumbled upon a hedgehog. It curled up into a ball. I moved it with my foot. It left quills in my shoe. I went to sleep around 11, but it was still light out, the sun hanging like a gray ball on the edge of the horizon.

I woke a few hours later, maybe at 3, and looked over from my bed to the aquarium. It was then that the overwhelming sense of deja vu hit me. This was the recurring dream. I looked up out of the skylight and saw the strange permanent dusk of sunlight, a light I'd never seen before because I'd never been this far north on the summer solstice. While profound, I noted the connection to the dream and went back to sleep. I wonder even now if that wasn't a dream. But I never had the dream again. The aquarium with the white rocks lives on only in living memory.

Years later, I began having this dream of spinning. In the dream, I am startled by something, and it's always something different, a barking dog, a car suddenly appearing from around a corner, or a piano falling from an upper story window. And like dreams, other fantastical elements come into play. There's a return of that alpen glow light, except I only see it when I jump away. It is as if a filter is suddenly put over my vision and everything pales in this other light. And as I leap away, I spin, and keep on spinning, suspended in the air, more revolutions than I can count, and it feels like I'm on a merry-go-round, except I look down and I'm off the ground. Sometimes I stay in one place. Other times I move back and forth in a low, swooping sway, all the while spinning, spinning. Also, I never feel dizzy. And when I wake up I'm perfectly fine, lying in the same place as I went to sleep. No external motion causes me to feel this spinning sensation in my dream. I've had this dream at least 10 times.

Now here's where it gets weird, and I hesitate to even mention it because I don't want to be found out and probed and explored by scientists, or put in prison as a dangerous element. Yeah, I've read too many comic books and listened to too much alarmist AM radio, but I wouldn't put it past the federal government to take away my freedoms and lock me up for good. Never forget that the purpose of our government is to maintain the common good. Anything odd or unexplainable has a way of disappearing.

About two months ago, I was stepping out of the shower and the towel I stepped on slipped out from under me. I spun to regain my balance, but as soon as I did the strange light came over me, again, as if someone slipped special glasses over me, and I turned, suspended in mid-air at a 45-degree angle. I panicked and reached out for the shower curtain. It tore off the bar, violently, the hooks snapping as the curtain ripped away from them. And there I was, enshrouded in my own shower curtain, spinning.

How did I stop myself? At first, I stuck my hands out, but I just banged my knuckles on the edge of the tub. This changed the angle of my body a little, but did nothing to slow the rate of spinning. It's a little hard to explain, but as I spun, I became aware of a lack of vertigo, and I didn't need to focus on one spot to avoid motion sickness. Something inside of me, I realized, and I imagined it in my upper gut, just below the solar plexus, the very center of my body, seemed to be the source of motion. And, although I didn't know what I was doing, I just thought, and told myself, concentrating on that spot, "Stop spinning." As I kept thinking this, the alpen glow faded, fading in waves in tune with my heartbeat, and the spinning slowed, then stopped, and, as normal light returned, I fell with a thud, bruising my ribs on the side of the tub.

Did this really happen? I wondered this all day at work. And when I got home I took my shirt off, pinched myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming, though I'm not sure why this classic test of dream versus reality is very effective. This entire experience has me questioning all reality, not just my own. The metaphysical questions this raises, even to an average, boring admissions officer like myself who took only one philosophy course in community college, are many and profound. I took off my shirt and looked in the mirror. There it was, the dark bruise on my ribs. But that could have happened any way. Not just from spinning. I could have dreamed I was in the shower, was spinning, and fell out of bed instead. There was only one way to test whether or not the spinning was real. I had to try and do it again... (To be continued)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Cloud busting

My hippie freak pseudo-mystic neighbor Daryl told me about cloud busting, the ability to make clouds disappear by looking at them and concentrating. He said he's seen somebody do this and, "Hey, man. It makes sense. What are we made out of? Dust and water. What are clouds made out of? Bingo."

This from the same guy who claims he can heal me by waving his hands around in my aura.

Daryl says cloud busting is a fairly easy trick. There's even a book about it, Cloud Busting Secrets: Make Clouds Vanish, Appear and More by Devin Knight and Jerome Finley, and it is featured in a movie, The Men Who Stare at Goats. Here's a pseudo-scientific explanation and video demonstration of the phenomena. I am skeptical of it, but it would be a fun thing to try on a lazy summer afternoon.

Just think if most people caught on to this phenomena. No more floods or rain delays at baseball games. Everybody just needs to focus their energies!

The quickening



Ever since I got my 3G phone a month ago, I have not read a book cover to cover. I usually read at least a book a week, but with easy access to Facebook and my Twitter feed, with a constant barrage of articles and videos directly related to my interests, the time I usually set aside for reading is devoted to these other things. I have also been spending an inordinate amount of time looking for work and focusing more on my music. It's funny how busy I've been, considering my unemployed state. Who has time for work?!

It is fitting, then, that the first book to engage me is a critique of the fast-paced culture we live in, Ad Nauseum: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture, edited by Carrie McLaren and Jason Torchinsky. Last night, while playing with my son, listening to the Cubs-Reds game/debacle, and compulsively checking Facebook, I read the following, in an article entitled "A Slow Creeping Brain Death:"

"... [P]eople are more likely to be mindless when constantly barraged with meaningless messages designed to exploit their attention. In other words, they are more likely to be mindless in a media-and-marketing-saturated culture."

The article says that the more experiences one has, the more likely one is to classify and stereotype. For example, a person is more likely to daydream and take shortcuts to complete a task at work because the familiar environment encourages this type of act-first, think-later-if-at-all mentality. But your mind works more acutely on a vacation, hence this feeling of being more alive and in the moment, because the unfamiliarity of the environment prevents your brain from taking mental shortcuts.

Like a workplace environment, being constantly barraged by media forces the brain to filter out the meaningful from the meaningless. It's a survival mechanism. There's no way to absorb all the information that is coming in.

"As soon as humans are able to grasp the concept of advertising, they learn to discount certain messages and, eventually, to ignore them. In children this starts around second or third grade. By the time kids reach adulthood, they've mastered the art of tuning out."

This necessity to filter out a constant stream of information is changing the way we think and speak. It is dumbing us down. The article says that MTV cannot show a three and a half minute long video. It's too long. Television and newspaper news stories are getting shorter and shorter. And never being away from a media outlet makes most people feel naked and alone when they are absent.

I love music and sports as much as the next guy, but I make a daily, conscientious effort to break away from the slipstream. It's a little easier for me. I don't have cable television and only have Internet access through my phone. When I am walking outside, I never listen to headphones. I have an MP3 player that I haven't used in years. I would rather listen to bird song and other environmental sounds (like oncoming traffic).




I feel the tug of opposite urges. One side of me, the journalist/academic/consumer, craves information. My mind moves quickly and I love to take it all in and mull over facts and data. When I go to baseball games, I keep score and now, when listening to the Cubs, I follow the statistics on an espn.com gamecast. I'm a Twitter and Facebook addict fan. I love keeping up with my friends through their photos and updates, and the Twitter users I follow are aligned with topics I like, so I get lots of links to stories, web sites, apps, and, yes, advertising, that I'm interested in.

But unlike, say, the average high school student, I have a ceiling. When I've had enough, my body tells me. I get a headache. I feel a quickening of my thoughts, akin to the physical feeling I get when I fly. I don't know if anybody else ever feels this, but every time I fly, for a few moments, sometimes minutes, I get a feeling of how fast I am going, as if my body is telling me, "Hey! You're hurtling through the air at incredible speeds right now!!!"

When this non-flight quickening feeling comes on, I turn off the radio, close the laptop, shut off the phone, and close the magazine. I've been known to sit in the dark and just stare out into space, doing nothing. In these moments, I think of my childhood neighbor's dad, a Vietnam War battle-scarred veteran, who would sit almost nightly, for hours at a time, in the dark, quietly, on his front porch drinking beer.

There's an easy correlation to make with war and the modern information age. While it is not fair to compare the horror and trauma of war with advertising, the body's response to both is similar. In war, soldier's learn to shut out the horror as a coping mechanism. We do the same with advertising.

Balance is key to keeping your wits and being informed, aware, and alive in these times. I have a love of nature and exercise, and time spent running, hiking, or even just playing with my son, frees my mind to think critically and to stretch my imagination. And these media free times are an everyday component of my life. I spend at least two hours a day completely unplugged, unlike most people, who are plugged in ALL THE TIME! They are doing damage to their brains and, in my opinion, missing out on all that life has to offer. Woe to those who walk around staring at their cell phones all the time. Put your phone away and look at the world, the REAL WORLD (not the fake MTV show). Nothing is so important that it can't wait.

I need to take my own advice. That shiny new toy -- my 3G phone -- a devil-in-disguise --has contributed to my month-long absence from the involving, mind-expanding, archaic practice of reading literature. And now I'm blogging about it, the ultimate hypocrisy, throwing another pebble in the slipstream. But if you're reading this sentence, you're attention span is doing just fine. The ones who need to heed my advice, even if they started reading this, have most likely moved on to something else.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Nathan K.: Northern lyricism



I felt a bit nauseous last night and didn't feel like going to The House Cafe for the open mic, which is a Monday night tradition for me. But after awhile the nausea passed, in spite of listening to the Cubs lose a heartbreaker to the Reds, 7-4. Around 11:30 I checked Facebook on my phone. Jolly Baba, a.k.a. Matt Clark, the emcee at The House Cafe, posted a link to http://www.blogger.com/www.fanstaging.com, which is a live Internet feed. I clicked on it and, kismet of kismets, heard him introduce my ukelele-player friend Jim Magnuson, a.k.a. Stan Stills.

As Stan Stills began his set with a uke-version of "Pomp and Circumstance," dedicated to recent NIU graduates, I rushed to put on my shoes and walk the couple blocks to The House, I kept the live feed on my phone as I walked down Lincoln Highway as Stan Stills worked through a blistering solo on Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," and arrived in time to hear his encore song, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

It was a good thing I came, because one of my favorite headline acts from last fall, Nathan K., had performed earlier in the evening. And after midnight, when a comedian, Diesel, ran out of steam, Nathan K. did a 4-song encore. I bought his CD, Newspapers and Prayers, after the show.

Nathan K.'s style is alternative folk. I like it because the lyrics and music put me in a certain melancholy state of mind. As I told his girlfriend/manager after the show, I think Nathan K. has a northern sound. I imagine a misunderstood misanthrope in a small northern town writing about the heartache and loneliness of the life up there. Here's a snippet of lyrics from track 3, "The Leper and the Saint,": "The leper and the saint met on the corner of State and Liberty / when the leper stretched his hands out full of hope / The saint replied / I'm sorry sir, I cannot heal just anyone / you must have me confused with someone else."

These lyrics suggest a geographical specificity, "State and Liberty," with two title characters that are icons of loneliness and isolation. A saint stands out alone, sought company, to be sure, but isolated in his or her unique vision. And a leper is symbolic of someone shunned. Two other characters mentioned later in the song, a poet and a widow, are also symbolic of isolation, loneliness, and the distinction of being an "other," overlooked by the mainstream.

Most of the original music I've seen at The House Cafe since regularly attending the open mic sessions last September displays musicianship, or at least passes tuneful muster. Rare is the artist who writes meaningful lyrics to go along with the music. In all vanity, I think of my own songs as more lyrically strong than musically. This is because, in my self image as an artist, I am a writer first and musician second. I suspect most musicians see it the other way around. Lyrics are an afterthought to the music, and it shows in the often poor quality and mundane subject matter of most song lyrics.

But Nathan K. is different. His lyrics are poetry. And his songs take me places. He's also an independent musician and I'm learning a little about marketing and songcraft from watching his example. In this regard, I owe him a creative debt.

Check out his stuff all over the World Wide Webbies:

facebook.com/nathankmusic
twitter.com/nathankmusic
myspace.com/nathankmusic

youtube.com/nathankofficial
nathankmusic.tumblr.com
nathank.bandcamp.com

E-mail: dearnathank@gmail.com

A running narrative



I had a good time last weekend in Chicago, despite the bad weather. On Sunday morning I ran in the Magellan Development 10K race along the shores of Lake Michigan. My goal was to finish in under an hour, which I did, timing in at 56:45. I placed 176th out of 700 runners, 122nd out of 284 men, and 20th out of 46 in my age group. (click here for results) While I set no speed records, or even a personal best, it was a solid re-introduction to racing. The last race I ran was the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 10, 2005. Since then, I stopped running for a few years, gained 50 pounds, went through some difficult life trials and made some bad choices.

Reality gave me a hard check last November as I looked in the mirror at my bulging belly (replete with stretch marks) and realized, knowing my body type and comparing it to family and extended family with the same body type, that if I didn't make a conscious effort to maintain my health, obesity and all its attendant ills would be my fate. I was also tired of being tired, and sick of waking up with lower back pain every day. My body and spirit were crying out for change.

When I joined a local gym and stepped on the scale in the locker room, I weighed 240 pounds, the heaviest I have ever weighed. I remember that first day so vividly, the self-consciousness of being flabby and overweight in a fitness club full of fit people. Getting back in shape requires such willpower to change one's self-image, then habits, and to overcome nagging doubts. Seeing that number, 240, made me sigh in resignation. But then a familiar feeling, one that has carried me through mountain ranges and thousands of miles, overcame my being - DETERMINATION. Unlike previous attempts to establish a fitness and diet regimen in daily life, I had to make this latest effort stick. To fail would be to fall into a pit of self-loathing and ill health. I'd been wallowing in that place for most of 2010 and desperately wanted out. That old stubborn feeling came back into my life, revived me, even as the harsh assessment of the scale tried to drive me back down.

Six months later and 26 pounds lighter (I weighed myself on the same scale at the gym yesterday and am 214 pounds), I stood in the lobby of an upscale apartment building near the starting line of Sunday's race, self-conscious not due to weight, but because I was the only runner in the room with socks that went up to my mid-calf. My significant other chided me for lowering my socks.

"I've never known you to care about conforming," she said. "It's kind of cute seeing you try to fit in."

Indeed, I don't fit in. My shorts are a little long, more basketball than Bill Clinton. I don't listen to music on headphones or wear a watch that monitors my heart rate and blood/oxygen levels. Although my shoes are New Balance, I wear them all the time instead of just for running. I don't do interval training and until recently thought fartleks referred to a strange fetish involving flatulence. I don't have an elaborate stretching routine. I wear cotton t-shirts. None of my clothing has bright colors or is reflective. I don't wear a waistbelt with water bottles or eat shots of Gu. I like running because it's simple, and am dismissive of all the foofaraw other runners bring to the sport. And there was a lot of foofaraw to scoff at Sunday.

Many of the runners are high strung, impatient sorts. That makes sense, given the kinetic nature of the sport. They seem so wide-eyed and urgent. I had to walk through a narrow opening in steel fencing to get to the apartment lobby. A man and woman wearing matching outfits nearly shoved me out of the way to get in front of me. I yelled after them, "Hurry! Hurry! Go! Go! Go!"

As 7:30 a.m. neared, I stepped from the lobby and followed the herd to the starting line, getting there just in time to hear an unseen announcer say there was a minute left until the race starts. "For those of you who registered for the half-marathon and chose to run the 10K instead," he said. "Smart move!" And then we were off. Although it was crowded, no one jostled me, and I settled into a good pace right away, only having to alter it a few times to pass other runners.

My plan of action was to run at a conversational pace. As the trail curved to go around Shedd's Aquarium, I turned to look at the famous Chicago skyline. Most of the skyscrapers were enveloped in clouds. A stiff wind blew in from the lake, the water an ominous, white-capped verdancy. One wave shot over the breaker wall so hard a group of runners in front of me were soaked.

At the 3-mile turnaround, I upped my pace, still feeling good and strong. But now the wind was in my face. Many runners had their caps blown off their heads. Every once in a while a bicyclist would come through, yelling "runners to the right" as they helped a faster half-marathoner get through the crush of 10Kers. At the 5-mile mark I put on the afterburners, breathing heavily, conscientiously maintaining form (shoulders back, lengthening stride), but surprisingly feeling strong. In hindsight, I could have kicked in this pace at mile 3 and maintained it the rest of the way. As I approached the steel fencing before the turn under Lakeshore Drive, I went into a sprint all the way to the finish line, my face no doubt red and huffing.

I love the photo my significant other took as I approached the finish line. My hair is back and stride long. I felt a slight wave of nausea as I crossed the finish line and huffed to catch my breath. The announcer, to my astonishment, pronounced my last name correctly. I grabbed my finisher medal, shouldered my luggage, and after a bathroom stop, began the mile and a half walk back to the Ogilvie Transportation Center.

Thanks again to my significant other (at her request, she shall ever remain nameless) for her companionship and support. We enjoyed a romantic dinner at Oodles of Noodles near Clark and Fullerton the night before. Thanks also to my brother Ken for letting us stay at his place. He's somewhere in Europe or Thailand as of this writing, so he wasn't around.

Despite the bad weather, I felt great the entire run and, in retrospect, could have pushed a bit harder for a better time. But it was a lot of fun and I can't wait to race again. I've already signed up for a 10K run June 25 that starts at Sycamore Speedway and goes along the Great Western Trail. I may also, funds willing, run an 8K race in Kirkland on Saturday. My t-shirt wardrobe expands as my waistline shrinks. It's been a long, arduous trek from last November to Sunday's finish line, but a triumphant one. Further successes and many finish lines await.

Snarky twee wonk post



I came across "twee" the other day in the back pages of a Reader's Digest, a magazine that tries to be hip and current, yet still appeal to its geriatric subscribers. My maternal grandparents were regular subscribers and they bought subscriptions for their children. After they passed on, for many years my mother bought a subscription for my family. But its been a few years since I've owned a copy. I still read them at the public library, and last week checked out a few copies for nostalgia's sake.

On the back pages of one recent issue is a photo essay highlighting whimsical elements in interior design photographs. Such details as putting two soda bottles on a settee, as if lounging in bliss, or a Buddha statue reaching for a bowl of apples, are called "twee." I imagine some editor at Reader's Digest thought they were clever and hip using "twee" because of its morphological connection to "Tweet" and that most modern web phenomenon, Twitter. (http://twitter.com/greglocascio, or see sidebar right). "Twee" is a fairly modern word, but is older than my grandparents and fell out of popular usage long ago. Reader's Digest is going through a mid-life crisis, trying to be hip and relevant, but never quite able to shed its fuddy duddy conservative milquetoast populism. I kind of like that the world's most popular magazine is a dorky kid trying to be cool.

Twee means "tiny, dainty, miniature" according to dictionary.com. It's origin is British, from 1905, and is derived from a childish pronunciation of "sweet." (I taut I taw a putty tat!) It's initial meaning was more cutesy, but as its swirled forward through the cotton candy machine of time, the word's become sweeter and sweeter. According to Webster's, "twee" means "affectedly or excessively dainty, delicate, cute or quaint." It is now cloyingly sweet, enough to make your teeth hurt after one bite.

Some Twee examples: Cabbage Patch Kids, any photos of baby animals or cats and dogs getting along with each other, The Osmonds (and most other Mormons), and Justin Bieber. Oops, Bieber's a 'Tween.




Another word with 20th century origins that has only come into popular usage in the last 20 years and now suffers from overuse is "wonk." According to etymonline.com, "wonk" is an American slang word coined at Harvard University and was first written in a Time magazine article in 1954. There are three classifications of students, jocks, preppies, and wonks. "Wonk" is synonymous with "nerd," but with more expert connotations than the latter. It came into cultural zeitgeist in the Clinton administration, which had many "policy wonks." Anyone who is obsessive about a particular subject, often to the exclusion of polity, would be considered a "wonk." Presentation of an arcane detail or niggling over fine points in a conversation would be considered "wonky."

When I think about it, Willy Wonka is wonky about confections, most of which is twee.




Another word with origins in the early 20th century (1906) is "snarky." (Microsoft Works doesn't recognize this word. It keeps changing it to "snaky"). Its original meaning is "irritable, short-tempered" and is derived from "snark," which mean to snort. Don't be piggish and act snarky.

But like "twee," as "snarky" has come into modern usage, its meaning has evolved. It now means, according to Merriam-Webster, "sarcastic, impertinent, or irreverent in tone or manner." Anything that's "in your face" or even ironic is called "snarky" these days. I would argue that the latest generation of teenagers would all bear the "snarky" label. Maybe not. To sneer or snort or have attitude takes too much effort. Aloofness is the defining mood of today's kids. "Whatevs, old man."

When I first read "snarky," in the context of a movie review, I thought it meant "with attitude," which is close to the actual definition. "Snarky" is just a little more snide than attitude, but retains a similar confrontational puffery. I also think something or someone that is "snarky" is affected, tongue-in-cheek, and overly self-conscious. Snarkiness is almost always intentional, a ploy.

There is a chronology to the three words I've focused on today. "Twee" could describe a cute child, "snarky" a sneering teen, and "wonk" a careerist adult.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Flash fiction

Thanks to Twitter for exposing me to a new writing genre, Flash fiction. Otherwise known as a short, short story, Flash fiction is usually less than a page long. Web sites and other publications devoted to the genre even place word restrictions on their stories.

I am going to try my hand at flash fiction today. I haven't been writing much fiction lately, but have posted many poem tweets online, which in the brevity of its medium forces concision and multiple layers of meaning that good poetry contains.

I've got 35 minutes left at the library and don't know what I'm going to write about. Here goes...

It was hot and humid that May morning. And when Valdus and his son, Ragnar, took off for the disc golf course near their middle-class Midwest home, puffy anvil head clouds were billowing in on the southern horizon.

Ragnar was five and he couldn't throw the heavy discs nearly as far as his father, who, a technical writer and pseudo-Zen mysticist, exemplified the antipodal urges of concentration and impatience raging through his fragile psyche through his style of play on the disc golf course. He breathed deep, unconsciously twirled the disc in hand, took a grip and stepped into his throw. He had an unorthodox sidewinder windup that seemed hurky jerky until the whiplash release. He finished his motion and watched in awe as the disc sailed through the air. A moment of grace. But then, obvlious to Ragnar's turn and his short legs, Valdus walked in a fast pace towards his disc.

"Wait for me, Daddy." Ragnar said. Ragnar wanted to follow the rules and throw from the spot where the disc dropped, but since he could only throw the disc about 20 feet, he knew this was impossible because no way would Valdus wait for the five or six throws Ragnar would need to take to catch up to Valdus' initial throw. So he threw just once, ran to get his disc and caught up to Valdus just in time to watch his father make another throw. This throw sailed between the limbs of two trees and landed three feet outside the basket.

"Good throw, Dad." Ragnar said.

"Thanks. At least I'll make par."

And so it went for two more "holes."

Ragnar, breathless trying to keep up, asked questions to his father, who muttered to himself about his shots.

"That wasn't nearly as close to the pin as I wanted," Valdus said.

"What's the pin?"

"The basket."

"Is the basket the same as the hole?"

"Yes."

"Why do they call it a hole?"

"Because disc golf is derived from regular golf, and some of terms, even though they don't make sense, have transferred over."

Ragnar didn't understand "derived" or "transferred," and didn't know anything about regular golf, and so, confused on a multitude of fronts, he just nodded his head and looked at his father slack-jawed. Valdus interpreted this look as a sign his son wasn't listening, and in the back of his mind worried the boy may have some type of popularly diagnosed neurological condition, Attention Deficit Disorder or something like it. "Nature and exercise can only do him good," he thought, oblivious to the notion that Ragnar, like his father, had an eye for detail and a dogged persistence to figure things out. Ragnar had no idea he looked like a drooling idiot when he was concentrating.

By the fifth tee, the one where the basket was right next to the river, Ragnar noticed an ominous darkness as the sun quickly turned to shade and a breeze kicked in towards the impending storm.

"Is it going to rain, Daddy?"

Valdus just then noticed the impending storm. "It looks like it might."

"We're not going to get struck by lightning, are we?"

"I doubt it. But let's not walk in the middle of the field. We don't want to tempt fate."

"Why not?"

"Trust me on this one, okay son?" Valdus debated whether to end the game now or continue through past the 9th tee. They were almost half a mile away from home and had no umbrella. But he was feeling "on" today and had already made a birdie. He wanted to see if he could get enough on his throw to make it to the dogleg turn on the ninth.

But by the time they got there, the wind was whipping fast, the newly-budded maple leaves showing their silvery undersides, and fear edged Ragnar's voice.

"Let's go, Daddy." He said.

"After this hole."

Valdus let loose his throw from the 9th tee. Wind-aided, the disc landed clear of the tree line. He had a direct line on the tee/pin/hole.

Ragnar felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck. He looked up to see his father, standing in the middle of an open field, get surrounded by a blue light, a funny smelling haze filled the air. Then Valdus collapsed, his disc still in hand, melted and warped.

Friday, May 13, 2011

He's so "trail"

There's this term for someone who seems laid back, able to go with flow, and has a connection with nature. I call it "trail." Being "trail" is the opposite of most of the people in America, who bear no connection to the natural world and dismiss those who move to Mother Nature's rhythms as pie-in-the-sky hippie dips. Not seeking out wealth or fame, material goods, or pre-packaged experiences is a rather un-American way to live.

A few weekends ago, I was watching through some YouTube videos and came across a viral video from last July. It features an unseen narrator, Paul "Bear" Vasquez, marvelling, awestruck at the sight of a double rainbow outside his trailer. Comedian Jimmy Kimmel tweeted this video and helped spread its popularity. Vasquez even appeared on Kimmel's show. Here's the video:



Vasquez owns land outside of Yosemite National Park. After watching a few more videos, I discovered he breeds dogs and grows his own fruits and vegetables on the farm.

The popularity of the "double rainbow" video is due to Paul's over the top awe at the sight of the rainbow. To the majority of viewers who do not live as connected to nature as Vasquez, this near-orgasmic awe is derided. I agree that it is a bit much, but I respect and instantly connect to his reaction. It truly is a beautiful sight.

As I learned more about Vasquez, the more I liked him. His children are healthy and happy, and enjoy a close relationship with him. He hosts visitors to his farm year round, was once a cage fighter, a long haul truck driver, and when he was young worked as a firefighter in Los Angeles County. He's lived a full life and is surrounded by loving friends and family.

Vasquez also chose not to make any profits from the popularity of his video. He has figured out how to live, simply and happily, in tune with nature and in loving harmony with those around him. He is the embodiment of "trail," and I've seen many enlightened souls like him in my travels and can only aspire to attain the peace and joy he exhibits in his double rainbow and other videos.

He also has an awesome view from his backyard, even without a double rainbow.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

No hype


When I read about the free dental care offered by the DeKalb Dental Group, I had my doubts about what they meant by "free" and thought they might just do a free check up and try to get me to sign on for dental work -- the old bait and switch tactic.

The announcement in the paper said free dental care would be offered to the first 100 people who showed up. I didn't get there until 9 a.m., and there was a long line out the door, but I didn't have to worry. I was asked if I wanted to see the dentist or the dental hygienist, given a ticket, and waited some more. Staff offered bottles of water out of a cooler. A pleasant breeze and partly cloudy skies kept everybody in a good mood. I met a woman who I'd attended graduate school with at NIU, and I caught up a little bit on what's been going on in hallowed Reavis Hall.

After I made it inside, I had to fill out a couple forms and sign a waiver. They asked for my social security number, but when I politely declined, they said it wasn't a big deal. While waiting inside, I read a Rolling Stone magazine interview with Howard Stern. By the time I was done reading it, my number was called and I was led to a dentist's chair.

The kind staff at DeKalb Dental Group made me feel welcome, and while busy, none of the staff seemed frazzled or bothered by it all. They took x-rays, shot my cheek with novocaine, and after a while the dentist came in, did his drilling, filling the air with that acrid, though pleasant to me (weird, I know) spray of water and ground up tooth. I felt no pain and the entire procedure lasted all of 15 minutes. A missing filling was replaced.

Not once during the entire process was I given a sales pitch or asked to sign up for more dental work. Sure, there was advertising for all sorts of teeth whitening procedures, but no one said anything to me about them. I left in disbelief, thinking how rare it is for a private business to offer a free service without any hype, sales pitch, or any kind of catch. The DeKalb Dental Group performed a selfless act of community service, and did it with style and efficiency.

They will no doubt benefit from word of mouth (I couldn't help myself) endorsements. And if I get dental insurance or enough discretionary income to afford more work, I will seek out their services in the future. Community service acts like this do more to bring in new business than any of the usual sales techniques. If you live in the DeKalb/Sycamore area, I would recommend you bring your dental needs to this group.

Here's their web site: http://www.dekalbdentalgroup.com/
Here's where I found out about the free service: http://www.midweeknews.com/articles/2011/05/10/12670083/index.xml

Modern immortality

Someone I didn't know well, but Facebook keeps suggesting as a friend because we went to high school together and have 46 mutual friends, was stabbed to death last weekend in Rockford, in an apparent robbery attempt. I Googled his name (but won't use it in this blog) and discovered he was wanted by Rockford Crime Stoppers back in January for drug violations.

After reading other Facebook friends' messages about the guy, I returned home from the library to look him up in my yearbooks. I started with senior year and worked backwards. There's only one photo of the guy, from the 1986-87 Harlem Junior High Yearbook. He had the look of a mid-80s stoner, feathered hair, dazed look in the eye, and black t-shirt. As I looked at this photo of someone I didn't know, but a web site sidebar on a social networking site insisted I did know, I wondered about this stranger's path, and how the glowing details in his obituary differ from the less-flattering details given by the Crime Stoppers report.

About 1/3 of my current Facebook friends are people I went to high school with and haven't seen since. For me, the secondary school years are ones best forgotten. I was an outsider. I ate lunch alone everyday. What few friends I did have didn't attend my high school. I never attended a prom or homecoming. I never dated a girl at my high school or walked the halls holding hands. After I graduated, I went back a couple times to see an English teacher who had a positive influence on me, but didn't maintain contact with any of my classmates.

Over the years, I've maintained friendships with a few people I went to high school with, but none of them are in my current circle of regular friends. I have had the pleasure of getting to know and really liking a couple of them through their Facebook posts, and I would like to reunite with them again, but I haven't pursued it because I fear a face to face encounter would just be awkward and strange.

I find when I make a new Facebook friend from high school days, I go home to look at those yearbooks to try and remember who they were. More often than not, no specific memories can be attached to these "friends."

Indeed, Facebook "friends" are different from real "friends."

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

5 tips for prospective thru-hikers

I am an avid reader and poster on Trailjournals, and look on with a bit of wistfulness each spring as the next crop of thru-hikers begin their adventures on the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, Continental Divide and other trails. As a successful thru-hiker who has never sustained a serious injury in over 7,000 miles of backpacking and two traverses of the length of the United States, I think I have a few nuggets of sage advice to pass along to the current crop of thru-hikers or those considering taking a long-distance backpacking trip themselves.

1. Walk light. I'm not going to invite debate about go-lite philosophy, as I am somewhere in the middle. My pack, with food and water, usually weighs between 30 and 50 pounds, depending on the season. But what I mean by "walk light" is to take steps that put minimum impact on your feet and joints. I do this by stepping on the balls of my feet and walking with my knees slightly bent. On downhills, I put my hiking stick down before me to absorb some of the impact of the descent. Also, if your muscles and joints get sore, simply walk in a different way to take stress off those sore areas. I have seen countless hikers have their thru-hikes derailed by feet and muscle problems. Some of these problems could have been avoided by simply varying their hiking style. It's counter-intuitive. Who is conscientious about the way they walk? Thru-hikers should be. Pretend you are sneaking down the trail. This will instantly make you aware of your gait.

2. Your most important piece of gear is between your ears. I've seen this before at trail crossings. A hiker sitting next to their pack, head between their knees, utterly beat and ready to quit. Don't be fooled. Injury is not the number one reason for failure to complete a thru-hike: mental and emotional reasons are. IF you just broke up with a girlfriend, got a divorce, or lost a spouse, maybe a thru-hike isn't the best idea right now. If you don't love the outdoors and embrace the lifestyle and sacrifices in comfort that come with a thru-hike, you will not make it. If you came to the trail to escape your problems, guess what? They are still with you. One of the best and worst things about a thru-hike is that you get a lot of time to think about things. If you have a good imagination and internal voice, this can be a joy. Most of the songs I've recorded come from riffs I sang in the backcountry. But if you have lingering, unresolved issues, those worries will eat away at your mind like a cancer. Before you begin, you must make your peace with the people in your life and have your finances in order. You do not want to bring money and relationship problems to the trail. They will only curtail your efforts and make you lose focus.

3. Embrace the brutality. You have to be a little bit of a masochist to enjoy thru-hiking. Aches and pains are a daily reality for even the most seasoned backpacker. If you are a wuss about blisters and sprains, you will not succeed. The best way, I've discovered, to deal with it is to be prepared, don't over-medicate, and don't overdo it. If blisters or a nagging injury are slowing you down, then SLOW DOWN! Listen to what your body is telling you. Don't be a silly fool slave to an itinerary or try to keep up with the pack of hikers you've been with for the past couple weeks. Recognize that discomfort comes with the territory and be especially attuned to what your body is telling you. But don't overthink it or dwell on your woes. Don't make an abcess out of a blister or a fracture out of a sprain. Do what you can to tend to yourself and move on.

4. Stay curious. In addition to good genetics (I was born with super tough feet and strong legs), I also have an insatiable curiosity and love of travel. I can honestly say not once, ever, did I contemplate ending a thru-hike early. Why? Because I wanted to know what was around the next bend and looked in awestruck wonder at new flora and fauna. In short, I retained a childlike curiosity for the world around me, and each day in Mother Nature's kingdom was a new adventure. I also did a lot of research before each hike and pored over maps and guidebooks. I couldn't wait to see these places I'd read about.

5. Find comfort in your gear. As I wrote earlier, pain and discomfort are inevitable in a thru-hike. One way I deal with this is to give some totemic power to a piece of gear. For me, it was my bandanna and camp clothes. During a two-week stretch of rain on the PCT, I found comfort in knowing that at the end of the day I had dry clothes in a ziploc bag in the bottom of my pack. Even though my tent was still sopping wet (and about two pounds heavier) from the night before, at day's end, I could sop up the floor with my bandanna, change into those dry clothes and get into a warm, albeit clammy sleeping bag. Other times, a special treat, like a King Size Snickers bar, gave me a little lift. Build these "treat" times into your daily routine. Another thing I would do is pick beauty spots to take breaks at. There's nothing like laying on the ground, feet up on the pack, and looking out across a wonderful vista. This is what all the hard work is for. Relish the moments. Recognize how different this life is from the life you've led before. Know that this time in your life is fleeting. Recognize all the hard work and sacrifice it took to even get here. And, most important, keep on hiking!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Toiling in anonymity

This past weekend I was at my parent's house. On Sunday morning, my Dad played his harmonica and sang a hymn he will be performing in an upcoming church service. I listened intently and gave positive feedback, surprised at the improvement in tone and the rich baritone of my father's voice.

Later on in the afternoon, my brother, Mom and Dad, were all sitting in the kitchen and I got out my phone to show them the new song, "Technorati," I wrote and recorded last week. I am still getting a kick out of being able to play original home studio recordings on my phone. And I'm quite proud of "Technorati." I believe it is a well-written, tuneful, a new kind of sound for me, stretching the bounds of musical possibility. But instead of listening intently, as I'd hoped, after about 5 seconds they resumed their conversation and gave no feedback.

I understand the song does not fit the musical tastes of my parents or brother, but neither did my father's hymn that morning. I still felt compelled, out of respect, and as a fellow musician, to give a thoughtful listen. Performers put their heart and soul into their work, and when they're ignored, especially by family, it hurts.

Well, being Sicilian, and a verbose, overly-dramatic one at that, I went on an angry rant expressing my disappointment over their non-interest. Everyone in my family knows I play open mic performances regularly, yet no one living near has ever inquired about coming down to see me. Again, I know it is on Monday nights, an inconvenient time, but would it hurt to ask about recent performances, watch the YouTube videos, or listen to my original recordings on Soundcloud and give me feedback?

I've been in counseling for about six months now, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Its been EXTREMELY beneficial to work through issues that have plagued my conscious and subconscious life for most of my life. I feel like working through these issues has helped make me a better father, son, and partner. I like to think of it as "soul maintenance," and it's been worth the small economic sacrifices to make it happen.

One thing I've realized is that I don't write or create music for my family or the adulation of the audience. I do it simply because it's fun and the creative process gives me purpose. I don't expect family or friends to like what I do or give me feedback. If I were seeking that out, I'd push my stuff on them even more.

But it stiil hurts to have something I've put so much work into be mildly dismissed by loved ones. They have no idea what my art is about. And its to their own detriment that they don't.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Teachable moments

My son is going through this wonderful phase where he asks lots of questions, mostly about things I take for granted. A few examples: "Why do you like to play music? Where do cats come from? How did you get to be so big?"

He also asks me to tell stories. "Tell me a funny story about when you were a kid?" Or, "Tell me a scary story?" I usually mix facts with fiction, and he's old enough to be skeptical of the more fantastic elements of my tales. For example, he loves these plastic little action figures, Gogo's Crazy Bones, and each one has a round disc on the back. He asked me what that was and I told him the disc is a microchip the makers put into them, so that when you're not looking they will run away and hide. He replied with a long, drawn out, "Really? Are you telling the truth, Daddy?"

I answer back, because I haven't the heart to support the lie, "What do you think?"

He said, "No. That can't be true."

Later, when he couldn't find a couple of them (they are pretty small), I raised my eyebrows and said, "See? Why do you think they're called Gogo's? The company that makes them hopes they get lost so kids like you will make their parents buy more. It's simple economics."

"What's economics?" ...

The stories I tell him about my childhood made me realize that I did not have very good experiences with authority figures and I there were multiple instances where I was falsely accused of things I did not do or say. This imbued in me a healthy distrust of authority and authority figures in general. No wonder I did not connect with the principal at my last teaching job and sometimes thought of myself as an imposter in the profession. I had become that which I dreaded most.

Here are a few examples, some of them so egregious the adults involved should have faced discipline or charged with a crime. But I grew up, thank goodness, in a less litigious age.

Fifth grade, during a rainy recess stuck indoors, I was minding my own business reading a book when my teacher appeared before me, a wild, angry look on her face.

"What did you say?" She asked.

"I didn't say anything. I was just reading."

"No you weren't. Get down to the principal's office this instant!"

"What do you think I said?"

"You know what you said."

And here's where the proceedings get criminal. She left the entire class and alternately shoved me down the hall and grabbed me by the scruff of my shirt so hard I choked. Shove, then grab. Shove again, and so forth. Of course, the principal didn't believe my claims of innocence and I received three paddles on the butt with a paddle that had holes drilled in it so it made a whooshing noise every time it was swung.

Whoosh whoosh smack.
Whoosh whoosh smack.
Whoosh whoosh smack.

I never did figure out what I said that was so bad. The same teacher, Mrs. Phillips, kept me from getting a perfect attendance certificate that year by giving me one tardy. She really had it in for me. I can take solace that she was probably a miserable, spiteful soul, which is its own punishment.

There are at least four more instances I can remember of being accused of something I didn't do, and this was just in elementary school. I was a bit of a handful, seeking out attention, and moving about in a whirl of restless energy. I can see why I got blamed for so much. But it doesn't make it right. And corporal punishment is unconscionable.

This is why, as a teacher, I am very slow and deliberate in handing out blame. Unless I see the wrongdoing, I don't mete out judgment. And I have a soft spot for the misunderstood and delinquent. Public education needs more people like me, curious seekers more interested in sharing a love of learning than maintaining ego and control. The control freak personality is so dominant in education. Yes, being a good teacher requires organization and attention to detail. But so many teachers lack creativity and joy in their work. It makes me mad to be unemployed, knowing I have the ability to be one of those teachers who can make a positive difference, when so many mediocre, bitter, and just plain bad teachers stay on the public dole.

I have never struck my child in anger. I will never falsely accuse him or others of wrongdoing. That is a positive outcome of some very negative experiences.

Instant coffee review

A couple weeks ago, on a rainy day with my son, we were at the evil clown palace, a.k.a. McDonald's, so Jonny could enjoy the playland. While I was sitting there messing around on my phone, a guy at a nearby table with an Ipad asked me if I drank coffee. Of course, I said yes, which started him on his spiel.

Fred is a sales Rep for Organo Gold coffee, an instant. I am skeptical of instants, being a French press user who uses a grinder and unchlorinated water. I would call myself a coffee aficionado, but won't go that far. Let's just say I know how to make a good cup of Joe and recognize most people make or settle for swill.

But as an avid backpacker, I do like the ease and portability of instant coffee. I have tried the Starbucks Vie and find the Organo Gold to be comparable. Both are weak approximations of real coffee. Not as good, but good on the trail. The Organo Gold latte I tried stirred to a nice, creamy head. And its got ganoderma extract, a fungus purported to have healing/detoxification properties. I notice a warm flush, akin to the increase in metabolism I feel after a run. Organo Gold doesn't give me an "edgy" feeling.

But I will still go with the Vie on my next backpacking trip. Why? It's lighter. I need the "edge" out there. It gives me more whoop whoop (how's that for thoughtful analysis?). And it's available at the supermarket.

Good luck to Fred. I imagine Organo Gold is marketed in the pseudo-pyramid scheme that Amway is, because he said I could be an associate if I like. That's tough work and takes a lot of hustle. At least he's marketing a fairly decent product, as far as instant coffees go.

Help Fred out. Give him a call at 815-786-7243 or email Fred@healthycoffeebus.com

I googled the coffee, and there are a lot of sites calling its marketing a "scam." I don't care, as I do not intend to sell it and was not paid for this review. Fred just gave me some free samples to try and I promised I would give my honest opinion in a blog post.

Friday, May 06, 2011

A musical interlude

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I like to make music. Last Monday I spent the entire afternoon and evening composing a new song. I have a 24-track digital recording and mixing studio on my laptop, and while the quality is demo at best, it allows me the freedom to flesh out musical ideas.

I went into Monday's songwriting with a specific goal: To create a song that included influences of Kraftwerk and Rage Against the Machine. The result is "Technorati," which also is my first foray into the rap genre.

Here's a link to the song: http://soundcloud.com/stoom/technorati
I could probably find some nifty widget to display the song, but I'm on my phone and don't want to mess around with it. The song was a lot of fun to compose and perform. I have a newfound respect for rappers and the difficult performances they do. I found that I had to adapt my lyrics to the tempo because some words could not be sung or spoken that fast.

I am most proud of the bridge because it incorporates a three part guitar harmony and was composed and recorded in less than an hour. There are some really subtle rhythmic interplays and I am still hearing new textures upon re-listening.

Music is so ephemeral, and I expect this song will only be enjoyed by a select few. For me, the moment has passed. Or as the great Thelonious Monk said, (of course, I'm paraphrasing) "The first take is where the magic is. Every one after is chasing after a dream."

Sunday, May 01, 2011

dang.. it's been awhile


I haven't done a blog post in awhile. It's not for lack of activity or writing. I have just been focusing my energies on Twitter and Facebook. My original love, this blog, which is in its 9th year, has been neglected. No more! Every day this month I will post at least a blog a day...

Now what to write about... On the way to the library, I found a robins egg on the ground, still warm, and I could see the doomed struggling little bird inside the egg. I looked up in the tree for a nest, but could not find it. DeKalb is such a windy place. Not the best place to build a nest, but robins are creatures of nature, as we all are, I guess. I looked at this doomed bird, a little wistful about the fragility of life, a little there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I, and continued on my way. I probably would forget about this small moment, but now that little bird is immortalized in the backwoods bayou of the "Intranets" that is this blog.

I've got 10 minutes left here at the library and am listening to Pandora, "Cemetery Row," by the Minus 5. It features Colin Meloy, the lead singer of The Decemberists, the ultimate English major nerd college rock band I fell in love with a few years ago. They are a good band to glom onto. Their indie prolificity knows no bounds. After my ten minutes are up, I will check out a couple Men's Health magazines, take them home, then head over to DeGroovia Guitars on N. 3rd St., in DeKalb, for some live music by my fellow local musicians, many of whom I've jammed with. Tonight's plans include composing and recording an electronic song on my laptop. It's a windy, tempestuous day. I'll have to kick the cat out when I do the vocal parts. She loves to meow along.

Life has been good lately, full of growth, self-improvement, positivity and goodwill towards all. As much as I want to be a moody artist, my default mode is sunny, anything-is-possibly-nay-probable optimism. Life has tried to beat this out of me, but only in the depths of winter does it ever go away.

Yesterday morning I took a series of self portraits, including some with my shirt off. Why? Because, to put it simply, I'm more ripped than I've ever been. And with only four minutes left, I'm going to find one of those photos, post it here, write some tags, and be on my way. Thanks for reading.