Saturday, August 16, 2014

Top 10 ways through hiking changed me

Almost 10 years ago, on September 25, 2004, I, along with Esther and the many friends of our motley crew, Team Stone Monkey, stood at the Canadian border in Manning Provincial Park, at the northern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail. Thus ended my status as a through hiker. It was my second through hike. I'd hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in 2000. And as I said in the last video taken of me on the PCT, I felt so privileged to be able to do it again, knowing full well, even at the time, how rare an opportunity a through hike is.


And now, deeply entrenched in domestic life, paying a mortgage and raising a child, I know even more how lucky I was to be able to hike the long trails and see the best and often most remote natural beauty in the United States. Reminiscing, I wonder, how has being a through hiker changed me? What are the lasting effects of such a profound experience?


The following list is a compendium of my thoughts on the matter. No doubt, more could be added to it, and others have noticed different long term effects, but these are mine.


1. STEALTH SPOTS. Every time I go for a walk or run, I spot stealth camping spots. Maybe it's soft, needle bedding under a group of pines outside the bank or that picnic table in the park next to the water fountain. Trail life hones good camp spotting skills, and I unconsciously use those skills in urban environments. Honestly, I've only stealth camped in urban areas a handful of times, but I see viable spots wherever I go.

2. NO DOPPLER REQUIRED. I can predict, almost to the moment, when the weather will change. I've been outside on sunny, puffy cloud days and said, sure, we can do such and such activity, but it's going to rain in a couple hours. I'm not always right. Nobody's perfect. Weather is fickle. But I'm in tune to the slightest shifts in barometric pressure and the unnoticed-by-mere-mortals (i.e. non-through hikers) changes in wildlife behavior when the weather is going to change.


3. SPATIAL AWARENESS. My current job as a truck driver is easier and safer because I've been a through hiker. On the trail, while one spends an inordinate amount of time looking down a few feet ahead on the trail, one still develops a keen sense of the immediate surroundings and can quickly spot hazards. As a trucker, I use these same skills and take the necessary actions to avoid trouble.


4. MODERN MIRACLES. Although the jaw-dropping sense of wonder has diminished, I still find running water, flush toilets, refrigeration, air conditioning, and most other non-trail amenities to be miraculous luxuries. I can still spend hours in the grocery store, roaming the aisles and marveling at the color, variety, and smells of all the products available.


5. SENSORY OVERLOAD. I am still sensitive to the artificial smells of detergents, deodorants, and perfumes. Elderly folk who lay it on thick and youngsters emanating Axe body spray give me a headache. I can also smell the musk of urban friendly animals, such as raccoons and possums, before I see them and/or evidence of their passing. Wood smoke, body odor, Dr. Bronner's soap, DEET, peanut butter and any Lipton/Knorr rice/pasta dishes make me nostalgic for the trail life.


6. CAMPGROUND ODDITY. Yes, I'm the only guy at the campground using a tarp and bug bivy, and cooking meals using a beer can stove. I'm also the guy who pays for a spot at the campground, but then stealth camps in a spot a short hike away because it's cleaner, quieter, and prettier. And, yes, I'm ashamed to admit it, but I've Yogi'd from other campers ("Wow! That's quite the spread you've got going there!"), not realizing I've done it until halfway through an offered hot dog or hamburger. People tend to be generous to the only guy in the campground using a tarp and bug bivy.


7. FAVORED UTENSILS. Even at home, with a wide variety of utensils at my disposal, I have that one spoon and bowl that I use more frequently than all others. I also tend to squeeze the most out of disposable products, such as toothpaste. And although I rarely buy water or soda, when I get a plastic bottle, I will keep using it until it's moldy or leaks.


8. PREFERRED BEDDING. I still love to sleep outdoors. When I do sleep indoors, I like to have the windows open so I can awaken to bird song. I also prefer the firmest mattress money can buy. When I am a guest, I often prefer to sleep on the floor or outside, if possible and I know my host won't think it's too weird. I can also sleep just about anywhere. Through hiking has made me very adaptable to any situation, whether that be a weekend with the in-laws or being broken down by the side of the highway during a blizzard. I quickly assess my basic survival needs and relax when assured they're met.


9. SOCIAL GRACES. When I see an old friend passing by on the street or at the grocery store, I'm more likely to stop whatever I was doing, lose all sense of time, and devote full attention to their company. As every through hiker knows, serendipitous reunions are precious. You never know when (or if) your paths will cross again. Ice cream may melt, but a chance meeting with a friend is worth the mess.

            Also, I'm keenly aware of fellow wandering spirits. It could be that hippie looking dude with all the National Parks stickers on the back of his Subaru Outback, a sinew-legged bicyclist with the full-on pannier system getting water at the city park, or even a rare backpacker on a city street corner. I will ask them about their journey or past travels and, if appropriate, offer assistance. After all, I have a lot of trail magic to pay forward.


10. PORTION CONTROL. This last item is the rare negative lasting effect of being a through hiker. I've had major fluctuations in my weight for most of my adult life and through hiking only exacerbated this problem. A through hike is a great way to lose weight. You can reduce an entire roasted chicken to a pile of bones in and eat one, two, or even three pints of Ben and Jerry's, all in one sitting, and still lose weight. Hiking 20-30 miles a day with a loaded pack on consumes a lot of calories. Unfortunately, for me at least, that ability to consume mass quantities exists in non-trail life. And, doubly worse, because of the starvation it endured on the trails, my body is super efficient at storing fat away for future burning.

Someday, my son will be grown, the bills paid, and with a nest egg of savings and a fattened 401k, I'll be that wizened old fart out there on the Continental Divide Trail, completing my own personal triple crown. In the mean time, there are National Parks to visit, places to stealth camp, and fellow wayfaring travelers to follow online and trail magic to administer in person.


As I've learned and live with every day, once a through hiker, always a through hiker. The intensity and beauty of the experience shines through in just about every facet of my non-trail life.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Diary of a Performance

I'll be kind. I won't name names. I'll use only aliases, but the aliases will be cruel.

A couple weeks ago I had a strange experience performing at a local historic venue. The organizer, who I'll call Cyrano, or Cy, for short, asked me to perform. I wasn't paid, nor did I expect any compensation.

I've known Cy for a few years. I've seen him many times hanging out at a local cafe where I've played open mics. He organizes shows there and elsewhere under the rubric of a performance group he calls Tin Can Theatre (another alias). He's the only person in town who organizes multi-act shows at various venues using mostly local talent. Most of the shows have a theme, either centering around a band or a movie franchise. The event I performed in was Movie Spy Night.

Cy's a shifty sort. Can't look a fella in the eye for more than a glance. He puts his hands to his mouth often to chew on his nails before he realizes he's in public and then quickly puts them down. He moves his head from side to side and often sits down, only to bound back up again a moment later and walk away. But he's a nice enough guy. He likes progressive rock and one of his favorite albums is Tales of Topographical Oceans by Yes.

He does a good job gathering talent together for his shows. There's a diversity of local talent, from models to singer/songwriter performers, and even a belly dancer or two. More importantly, he organizes venues and times for local talent. No one else in town is doing this. And that's the problem. Cy's got no competition.

I knew Cy was a liar. He's not malicious about it. He's so full of his own crap, his own strange and conflated worldview, that I believe he thinks he's telling the truth. But to a shifty sort like Cy, truth is an elusive commodity. And I'm not talking about Capital 'T' Truth in a philosophical sense. I'm talking about being true to your word. If you say something, you mean it. Possessing that kind of truth is essential to getting along with others and gaining their respect. Cy is so untrustworthy, his word is so worthless, he is so full of crap, that no way, no how, will I ever participate in a Tin Can Theater event.

Let me elucidate.

A few weeks before the event, I asked Cy how long my set would be. He said 20 minutes, and I prepared accordingly, practicing 8 songs, which actually timed out to about 25 minutes. Just before I was set to go on, he said 15 minutes. Fine. I'm willing to adjust.

But then, 12 minutes into my performance, just as I turn away from the microphone to adjust my guitar effects, he took to the stage. I said, "I still have time for one more song." He said, "Can I just make an announcement before you do that?" "No!" I said. (I don't possess an ounce of stage fright). But he continued. I stood to the side, adjusting my guitar effects and glaring at the audience with a dramatic look of boredom and annoyance on my face.

I wanted to do like what Pete Townsend did to Abbie Hoffman at Woodstock and throw Cy away from the mic, but my parents and in-laws were there, and I didn't want to risk jail or lawsuits, so I glared.

A couple days before the performance, I asked Cy when I would be going on. He said I'd be the second one to go on and gave me a 15 minute time window. I needed to do this because my parents and in-laws were coming down to see me, and I didn't want my conservative Christian relatives to risk eternal damnation watching a belly dancer!

But Cy failed me once again. I ended up being the fourth performer, about an hour after he told me I would go on. There was no explanation for the change. I just had to roll with it.

Cy talks all the time about his being a performer, a director, and actually writing scripts for these shows. I've been to a bunch of these Tin Can Theater productions and never seen any evidence of writing. And why is there Theater in the production group's name. There are no skits enacted, no dramatic readings, no role players, and more importantly, no evidence of organization of any sort.

Don't call yourself a writer if you don't write. Don't give yourself credit for that which you don't do.

After the performance, one of the other performers complimented me and thanked me for standing up to Cy when he interrupted my show. "He does that all the time. It's annoying."

A few tips for Cy: You're doing a good thing. Keep bringing the shows. But work on your organization. If you're going to have fashion models, describe the apparel. Tell the audience a little something about the acts. Tell some jokes. Write some skits.


Peace out!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The sad sordid saga of truck 21392

When I went on vacation in March, the truck I was driving, a trusty 2012 Freightliner Cascadia that hadn't given me a lick of trouble in a year of driving, was given to another driver because, well, the company can't have a truck in the fleet idle for 10 days. Unfortunately, I didn't know this was going to happen until I was on vacation, and all of my stuff in the truck was packed in boxes and stored at the company terminal.

Upon my return, I was reunited with most of my stuff, sans the $150 bluetooth headset, which somehow got "lost" in the transition. And the truck I was assigned, a 2012 Peterbilt, the now infamous 21392, entered my life.

This upset me right off the bat. In addition to losing my headset, the Pete was previously driven by a smoker, and the ash tray still contained residue and evidence of this filthy habit. The entire cab also reeked of it. An insert in the shifter knob was missing, so the spot where I would rest my palm when shifting was a sharp divot. The entire time I drove this truck, I had to shift holding on to the sides of the knob. And one of the two small storage lockers had a door that was off its hinges, which meant I couldn't store anything in it that would slide out. It was essentially useless. But I am a regional driver. I am home every weekend. So I don't keep a lot of stuff in my truck. This was the least of my concerns.

I drove this truck first on the night of March 31. The next morning, as I stopped at a shipper to pick up my return load to Illinois, the truck wouldn't start. I was at the gate to the shipper. This meant that every couple minutes, a truck would turn to go into the gate, honk their horn for me to move on, get out and angrily approach the vehicle, and I would help them back out onto the road so they could go in through the out gate. I tried standing by the back of the trailer to ward drivers off, but it was brutally cold that day, with temps in the teens, and I didn't have a hat, so I had to return to the truck.

Within a couple hours, help arrived, and the mechanic got me started. "Don't turn off the engine. It won't start again if you do. Go directly to a shop. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200."

I spent a pleasant evening in De Pere, WI, and got rolling again the next day with a new starter.

Truck 21392 rolled steadily along for a few weeks, but then developed problems the first couple weeks in May. I noticed a steel on steel grinding noise when I backed up or rolled over uneven ground, kind of like the sound railroad wheels make. Oh, well, I thought, no biggie. I'll mention that the next time its up for preventive maintenance and an oil change. A week later, the truck stopped burning diesel exhaust fluid (DEF), what truckers call Cow Piss because it is made out of urea and puts out an ammonia-like smell. All newer trucks are equipped with DEF because it cuts out particulates in exhaust. No smoke comes out. Just carbon dioxide. Again, I figured. I'm due for an oil change real soon, so I'll wait...

The next day a fuse went out and the trailer clearance and license plate lights wouldn't light. This was a stopper. A cop could see this and pull me over. This put me out of Department of Transportation (DOT) compliance and I would be cited and ticketed on a roadside safety inspection. It was finally time to put the truck in the shop.

The DEF issue and blown fuse were easy fixes, but the grinding noise I'd heard was the engine block rubbing against the axle. The motor had slipped from its mounting and needed a new motor mount, which is a major job. The truck, still under warranty, was sent to a dealership, and I drove a day cab (semi without a sleeper berth) for two weeks, getting a hotel voucher each day to sleep. Even though the day cab leaked coolant and DEF, requiring daily refillings, I liked the hotel vouchers and stocked up on soap, shampoo, and stationary. A hotel room is a much nicer accomodation than the sleeper berth of a truck.

When I got truck 21392 back after two weeks, the first thing I noticed is that the windows wouldn't go down. And when I pressed the buttons to make the windows go down, the mirror defrost lit up on my dash. Also, I couldn't cut out all the power in the truck using the master switch. Usually, if there's a problem with the onboard computer or electrical systems in the semi, shutting everything down and starting it back up resolves the issue. I didn't have this option. Somehow, during the motor mount repair, wires got crossed. The electrical system was all messed.

But this wasn't a stopper. The air conditioning worked. I could open the passenger side window from the passenger side. I could live with these problems.

The first morning after getting the truck back, just as I pulled onto the highway, laden heavy with a 20 ton load, all my emergency bells and whistles went off, and I had to immediately pull over. All of my coolant had spilled onto the roadway. The same mechanic who'd got me started at the shipper gate April 1 came back and reattached the radiator hose which had a broken clamp and had come undone.

Then the phantom starter debacle began. When I first had a problem with it, it wouldn't stop at the company terminal. When I put in the repair order, the mechanic came out and the truck started right up. I felt foolish. But the next day at a shipper, the starter gave out again and I couldn't restart it. Roadside assistance came out and the mechanic got the truck started by simply boosting the battery voltage.

Thus began a two-week saga of trying to convince the shop there was something wrong with my truck. I wouldn't be able to get the truck started. I would take it to the shop, put in a repair order. They'd get it started right away, do nothing, and declare it fixed. I'd get it back, go out on the road, and get stranded again when the starter gave out.

This happened four times.

A shop tech accused me of making up the problem to get out of work. I said, no, I really need the money. I'd rather be driving.

Finally, I said, I refuse to drive this truck unless an actual repair is done. I then said I thought it was an electrical issue, maybe somehow connected to the issue with the windows (which they'd fixed). Frustrated, a shop tech called me and said they'd been starting the truck all weekend, indoors and out, and had used every diagnostic tool they had, but couldn't find anything wrong.

I said, just put a light on in the cab for a few minutes with engine off and try to start it. I was running on a hunch, thinking this was what I'd done every time the truck wouldn't start.

VOILA! They couldn't get the truck started. This helped them figure out the problem was a bad alternator signal cable, which connects between the alternator and starter. I said to the shop tech, "See. I'm not crazy after all." He said, "You were right. There was something wrong with your truck. But the verdict's still out on your sanity." Funny guy.

I drove six days in a row without any problems. Finally, as I was leaving a shipper last Thursday morning, the stop engine light went on and I couldn't drive faster than 5 MPH. I limped to a truck stop and put in a request for roadside assistance. The culprit this time was a faulty emissions sensor, a microchip device used to make sure my emissions met EPA standards.

Finally.... Enough was enough. I shared a rental vehicle with another driver and sent down to Mississippi to pick up a new truck, a brand new 2015 Freightliner Cascadia. Hopefully, if the trucking gods will it, I can put the last couple months of breakdown issues behind me and roll smoothly for awhile.

The worst thing about this whole debacle is I after I awhile I mistrusted my equipment and approached each night of driving with a dreaded sense of apprehension. That is no fun. Neither is being broke down by the side of the road.

Patience has paid off, though, and may my new truck, dubbed Red Sonja Redux, be a boon companion for many a mile.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Wireless Wrong: My Verizon Debacle

Last Sunday, my Droid DNA phone would not charge and ran out of power. I took it to my local Verizon store in Sycamore, IL, and asked what I could do to either get another phone or get my current one fixed. The clerk there told me that, because I was six months short of my contract renewal period, a new phone would cost full retail value, and that none of the smart phones in the store were less than $400. He said I could add an additional line to my current account, which would cost $40 a month, and I could get a new phone at a discount.

Neither of these options would work for me. I asked if there was anything else they could do. Could I get another phone and pay for it over a period of time? No. He said if I had an old phone, I could activate it and use it, but that wasn't an option as I traded my old phone in when I got the Droid. He then warned me that if I switched carriers, Verizon would keep my old phone number. This turned out to be wrong.

I was forced to switch carriers and went over to T-Mobile because they will pay my early termination fees from Verizon. A new phone was included in this plan, which I will pay for over the life of the plan. Unfortunately, because my old phone didn't work, they couldn't transfer over my contacts. I knew I'd saved my contacts to the Verizon Cloud, so I figured I could get them from there.

But I was wrong. Verizon immediately deleted everything I had stored on their Cloud system when I switched over to T-mobile. I lost all my photos, videos, and contacts.

First, if I had been given more serviceable options, such as a payment plan for a new phone, or the chance to buy a used phone, or a loaner phone until my Droid could be fixed, I would have stayed with Verizon. Until this point, the service quality and network coverage Verizon provides left me a very satisfied customer.

Second, Verizon shouldn't immediately eliminate someone's personal data from the Cloud. This seems like rude and vindictive behavior. Even former customers should have access to data stored there and given a grace period -- even as little as a day or two -- to retrieve their data from the Cloud.

Because of these actions, I have lost family photos and videos that can never be retrieved. I was lucky enough to post many of the photos online, but almost all the videos are lost. This is a cruel disservice to someone who was a loyal customer for years. Verizon should realize that former customers could be returning customers again in the future. After all, I was once a T-Mobile customer, and now I'm back with them again. But I will never, ever, go back to Verizon. They stole precious memories away from me.

I came away from this experience with a hard-learned lesson. I will keep a paper copy of all my contacts name and phone numbers. The contacts I lost were accumulated over 10 years, and I was able to transfer the numbers every time I switched phones because my old phones always worked at the time I switched. Some of those numbers will never be recovered.

I will also immediately post my pictures online and may even, if possible, set it up so that this happens automatically.

So many friends and family members have been screwed over by wireless phone service companies. They offer a dizzying array of options and plans, and obfuscate everything with legalese. It's an industry that serves a basic need, and has thus become corrupted by the profit motive. It would be nice to have a phone service that is simple, affordable, allows you to keep your number, and offers all the service options and coverage that big, evil Verizon offers.

Also, the phones should be made more durable and fixable. The Droid DNA wouldn't even allow me to remove the battery. And when one component went wrong, the whole phone needed to be scrapped. It would be great to have a set up where the central processing core -- which holds all the essential data that you don't want lost or, even worse, stolen by a third party -- could be transferred from phone to phone with each upgrade.

But there's no profit motive for such an innovation, so it will never happen.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Fiction in a flash

I've got exactly 30 minutes left on the library computer and the goal is to write some fiction. No stopping. No editing. Just let it roll and see what happens. Now....

Jack Valentine was his name. And he got shit for that from the trailer park boys when he was a kid. And all the ladies thought he'd be something special. And old ladies compared him to a dead movie star from the 20s. But it was just a last name. And it was a holiday he dismissed as a vacuous economic commodity designed for the benefit of retail. As for family history, he didn't give much thought to that. Life hadn't slowed down enough for the reflective insights of geneaology.

He was in his late 20s. Hair getting thin, a slight paunch beginning to grow in his midsection, but otherwise fit, strong, and hale as any other late 20th century American male. And Jack was handsome enough, "swarthy," the word he liked to use, and still naive enough in his youth to take a turndown from a lady as a missed opportunity for them, not a crushing defeat nor an affront to his manhood.

An easygoing manner was Jack's best and worst asset. Past girlfriends praised at how well he got along with friends, brothers, and parents, and how willing he was to commit to whatever activities they planned. But time and circumstances inevitably revealed the flip side of that equation, and more than one past lover accused him of laziness, being non-committal, unmotivated, unoriginal. Or, in the words of the pink-haired art major, Deidre Winnemaker, who was quoting someone else, "There's no there there."

Which is not the worst fault to have. Many a man has been able to coast through life with a take-charge woman who wants an easygoing man, as long as he pays the bills and doesn't fool around. Soulfulness, ambition, and spirit have their downsides too. But unfortunately for Jack, his long hair and swarthiness didn't attract women looking for "safe." His easygoing manner was often misconstrued for seduction, and the safe-seeking women were never drawn in to Jack's web.

It was a late spring day, a day for love and falling in love, for fresh beginnings, during wedding and graduation season, birds aflutter with nesting and feeding their young, the newness of the green prescient in the minds of North Americans who endured a harsh and clinging winter, when Jack felt stirrings of passion, anger, and a call to action heretofore quite novel to his usually laconic manner. It started with a text message received from his on and off girlfriend, Mindy Russo, who he had spent the previous weekend with at her brother Mark's graduation party. She lived over an 1 1./2 away in the south Chicago suburbs, moving there recently after finishing graduate school.

Jack didn't know if he loved Mindy, but he could tell the symptoms of losing her, of the same game of boredom and uncomfortable silence he'd seen through most of his 20s. And he knew her graduation and the recent move, which separated them, not by an insurmountable distance, but would certainly take a bit more effort to maintain, threatened their relationship. They'd been dating almost 6 months, and again, Jack knew, this was what he called a threshold time.

He was planning to come out and see her this weekend. They were going to go out on a boat with her brother and some of their friends. One of those big boats that has a lot of room, a canopy, and lots of cooler space. Drinking and swimming would be on the bill. But then Mindy texted him.

"Change of plans. Don't come out this weekend."

"What?!" he replied.

"Not enough room on the boat. But Mark rlly wnats me ther."

"Why not do something after."

"This weekend is just stacked, ok. I hope you understand."

"I don't (frowny emoticon)."

Jack tried to call her, but she didn't answer the phone.

And that's when Jack's mind went through a flurry of emotions. Anger, rejection, resignation. But what could he do? Was he losing her? No doubt there'd be other guys on the boat. Single guys. Maybe she already had her eyes on one. Maybe it was too late...""


Friday, June 13, 2014

Back in the studio

The cursed truck I've been driving the past couple months broke down twice this week. The starter keeps going out. Shop keeps saying it is fixed. Then I take it out again and need roadside assistance to get going again. Luckily, the powers that be in company behemoth got wise and I am slated to be assigned a new truck by early next week.

I've used the down time to take my recording equipment out of mothballs and set up in our dining room. And after a few initial technical problems with set up, I got all the specifications to my liking and began recording, "When You Coming Home?" last night. I finished it this morning. It's a good re-introduction to recording because it's a 12-bar blues and its simple construction makes for easy construction and mixing.

I've always played this song solo, only once playing with an ensemble (and DeKalb's best lap steel guitar great D K Kolars) at The House Cafe. "When You Coming Home?" is one of the first songs I wrote. I don't know why I took this long to record it.

My studio set up is quite simple.

I use an M-Audio interface with my laptop, which has a few pre-mix dials to help get the right levels. But the real mixing occurs on my Cubase 1.01 software, which has a few bugs and is eight years old. No doubt there is better mixing software, some of it available for free online. But it took me a long time and much frustration to master Cubase, and I'm sticking with it until forced to use something else.

Despite its age and limitations, its effects and 24 tracks give me more recording options than the Beatles ever had, so I need never blame the equipment for any problems with my sound. In addition to the audio interface and mixing software, I have a suspended condenser vocal microphone and a smaller handheld microphone. The audio interface has two inputs, each accepting microphone and 6.3mm guitar jacks.

The keyboard in the above photo belongs to my friend Todd (of Tallheaded Woody fame) and he's since reclaimed it. I'd like to get another keyboard and use it to add piano and other parts. Although experience shows that keyboards add a certain artificial nature to the sound. That's something I'm trying to get away from. The less I modify my sound, the more authentic it will be.

I have a bunch of original songs, some old, some written this year, that I need to record. Expect a slew of new recordings over the summer. And although they may be just a drop in the Sargasso Sea of available songs out there, and the quality and talent may be questionable, I enjoy the creative process and and am not going to worry about the audience (or lack thereof).

May the intrepid music seeker enjoy "When You Coming Home?" I wrote the bass part as I recorded it, and also added some vocal percussion, shaker, and spoons to the mix. The challenge in this song is making sure all the disparate rhythmic elements work well together. It took many takes and much wrangling, but the song is tight and I'm quite proud of the results.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Musical extravaganza

In the last few weeks, I've had a couple videos posted on You Tube. One, I posted of myself jamming with friend Jim Nerstheimer at Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church in DeKalb, IL, where he is the organist. I came in with a few riffs and he improvised off it. And then I improvised. Then we improvised off of each other. Then I came up with another riff, and so forth.

My talent on guitar is marginal. I can't bust out killer solos or move with great dexterity. But I have a decent enough sense of rhythm and melody, and enough chord knowledge to get by. Great music often is only derived from hours of practice. My musical involvement is purely amateur. I do it for fun. Not profit. It's a great way to hang out with friends. For those patient enough to put up with the inherent shortcomings of these videos, there are little moments of audio gold.

The other video is a cover of George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord." I practiced a couple of the chord transitions beforehand, but otherwise it is a dry run. It was recorded this past Sunday morning in my living room. We also did Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky," but failed to record it. Todd Stanley is on drums. When I perform publicly at The House Cafe and other venues, I do so under the stage name Stoom.

But when Todd and I get together, we are Tallheaded Woody, in reference to Woody Woodpecker. Fans of the cartoon know that the early incarnation of the smarmy, beloved character was taller, skinnier, and more coarse and violent than the later one. Because of his attitude, we favor the earlier version and name our collaboration after him.

Here is that video:

Todd always records our jam sessions on audio cassettes, and has been doing so since the early 2000s. He is the keeper of the archive, but when we get together he will bring an older tape for listening. What surprises me is how often these very crude jams have been the seeds of creativity for many original songs.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Winnipeg, the Dummies, and a place of the mind

I first heard about the Crash Test Dummies through a friend from drum and bugle corps days, Andy, who let me borrow a copy of their bestselling sophomore album God Shuffled His Feet, which has their only major hit song,  "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm". I heard this some time in early 1998, a good five years after the release of this album. I always associate my interest in the Dummies to my time spent in Antigo, WI, from 1998-2000, and my growing interest in hiking and backpacking.

A song from that album, "In the Days of the Caveman," even mentions camping.

"When you go on camping trips you're stuck right out in nature"

Often, in the many nights camping in the rain, I sing a later stanza from the same song:

"Sometimes when I lie awake I hear the rainfall on my tent fly
I think of all the insects that are sleeping
And wonder if the animals are dreaming"

God Shuffled His Feet deals with issues of mortality, humanity's connection to nature, the artistic journey, childhood memory, and is full of quirky lines and characters. There is a mix of offbeat humor and wistfulness. Every time I listen to the album in its entirety I am transported in my mind to a sparse room in the piney north woods, and it is a rainy and timeless sort of day in midsummer. There is a buzz of bugs outside and the threat of the unknown somewhere out there in the deep and seemingly never ending woods.

According to the AllMusic, the album's Moods are:

I particularly agree with Reflective, Sad, Searching, and Autumnal. Damn the Internet for so neatly pinning down such a personal experience.

My interest in the Crash Test Dummies has inspired me to someday take a trip to Winnipeg, Manitoba, from which they came. A few years ago I met a fellow English teacher at Elgin High School who lived in Winnipeg during the Dummies' heyday and said he actually partied with members of the band in the early 90s.

The Winnipeg connection also got me interested in the comic book, Alpha Flight, published by Marvel Comics and featuring, in its first 28 issues, the art work of John Byrne, one of my favorite comic artists. His work on the X-Men in the 70s and The Fantastic Four in the 80s are considered some of the best eras for those venerable series. The expense of the back issues is a testament to their popularity. Alas, Alpha Flight never quite achieved that level of acclaim, even though the fictional superheroes hailed from Winnipeg.

Another Winnipeg connection involves the films of auteur filmmaker Guy Maddin, including his 2007 documentary of his hometown,  My Winnipeg. When I watched this film, a lot of the same emotions evoked by God Shuffled His Feet came back, including a sense of loneliness, the great north woods, catharsis, and memory. Director Maddin explores Winnipeg through the lens of childhood memory, and often recreates scenes from his childhood. It is a quirky film, but definitely worth the effort. It is not as fact-centered as one would expect from a documentary. It is done in the style of films from the silent era, even though there is voiceover dialogue.

Read some Alpha Flight, listen to God Shuffled His Feet, and then watch My Winnipeg. Wrap yourself in a blanket and prepare to be transported to a cool, harsh landscape.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Gone fishing

Jonny and I have gone fishing the last two weekends, and he's really taken a liking to it. He wants to catch a big catfish, but we've got to work out some fundamentals before he takes on a monster fish. It took him almost an hour to tie his first hook. I showed him how to do it a bunch of times as he worked on his hook. And then he got it, putting the end of his line through the loop near the eye of the hook. High fives all around for Jonny's first clinch knot.

I'm proud of Jonny. He stuck to it, even after he got frustrated, and showed a lot of maturity for a boy his age. When it comes to fishing, to truly catch a fish, he must tie his own line and handle all tackle himself, bait, cast, hook, net, and land the fish himself. Each task has a certain learning curve and, because much of fishing deals with sharp things - hooks, knives, fins, teeth - the penalty for failure can be quite high. We've spent a lot of time talking and practicing safety.

Last Sunday, we arrived at Lake Sule in Rochelle, IL, about half an hour before dawn. We had four poles, two closed cast reels for Jonny, and two open cast for me. One pole each was baited with chicken liver dough catfish balls and weighted with split shot, the others worm bait and bobbers. We fished off the dock near the parking lot and didn't get nary a nibble. Neither did a couple old timers fishing nearby on the shore. But Jonny said he had a great time. He's so caught up in the novelty and adventure of the experience, and his enthusiasm is infectious.

Ive been a fisherman since about age 9, but never serious, never treating it more than a passing fancy, a chance to hang out outside, never too sporting about it. Though I've had many great catches and fished many waters, fishing has and will always be a means to an end, whether that be eating fresh panfish or spending a beautiful day in nature. But when I was a little older than Jonny, I spent a lot of time fishing at Pierce Lake in Rock Cut State Park, a bike ride from my Loves Park home. Despite the heavily urbanized environment, there are many lakes and rivers in greater Chicagoland, many of them stocked with game fish. And, of course, there's Lake Michigan. I've never been on a charter trip. That's on the father son to-do list.

Last night at dusk we fished the Kishwaukee River on a roadside pullout off Hwy 64 just west of Sycamore. We each had just one pole. Jonny his treasured Spiderman and me with an open cast. It was a warmer evening and the fish kept us busy. Jonny landed his first fish, a small carp, but the biggest of the five we caught. Jonny also caught a small striped bass. He handled each fish himself. I extracted the hooks this time. I caught a striped bass, catfish, and bullhead. We released them all. They were too small. We'll save the gore of cleaning for another day.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Ostentatious oddity

In my continuing effort to chronicle the roadside attractions I see on a daily basis in my trucking route from Romeoville, IL to Appleton, WI, one of the more obvious, and, to my surprise, publicly available ones is the Golden Pyramid House in Wadsworth, IL. If you look to east on mile marker five (what us truckers call lollipops), you'll see the Sphinx statue and, off beyond that, the pyramid house.

It's just a few miles away from Great America in Gurnee, IL, and would be worth a side trip to visit on a day's outing to that theme park. I found a web site for the house and discovered the house is open for public tours on Sundays, June through the end of October. It costs $15 per person. The house was built by the unfortunately-named Onan family in 1977 and served as a private residence for many years. The pyramid houses 17,000 square feet of floor space and is now used for banquets, meetings, and private parties.

I watched the following video that tours inside the house and was amused to see the official web site describe the interior as "ostentatious." At least they own up to their tackiness. But tacky kitsch is a desirable element of roadside attractions, and this place certainly fits the bill.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Happy Record Store Day

Back in January, my son Jonny celebrated his birthday with a party for friends at our house. It was a gleeful sort of chaos to have nine boys running around, playing games, and generally being loud and obnoxious. One room is totally devoted to music. I call it the conservatory, which is a little uppity, but that's what it is. We've got the upright piano, my guitars and ukelele, an amplifier, a tom tom and snare drum (albeit lacking stands), and, organized in alphabetical and chronological order, my record collection.

Without a doubt, the most mysterious item to these kids, other than the bar soap in the bathroom, were these records. They were even more mystified by the cassette tapes and a few didn't even know what a CD was for. This is truly the digital age of music storage, where entire collections are kept on portable hard drives and MP3 players. This is a sad state of affairs.

These kids will never know the concept of a concept album, a collection of songs that must be listened to together to be appreciated as a thematic whole. They will never sit on the floor and read liner notes or be mesmerized by trippy album art as they listen to their tunes. Songs and artists are throwaway commodities today. The ease and access of information is unprecedented, yet the quality and depth of the music has suffered. Quick, quick, quick. On to the next thing.

And because of data compression, the aural quality of music has suffered. MP3s sound tinny and flat to even an untrained ear like mine. I've compared a vinyl recording to the CD on the same sound system and there is a noticable difference in sound quality. To use beer as a metaphor, an MP3 is a macro brew American Adjunct Lager. A vinyl LP is a craft brew Belgian Ale. Both are beers. But, man, what a world of difference.

After I post this blog, I'm heading up to Rockford to go to Toad Hall to celebrate Record Store Day. There will be live music, sales on used vinyl and new releases by modern artists that are released just for this day. For those who still cling to the ease and portability of MP3 technology, almost all new vinyl releases have a card with a web site and access code so you can download the album you just bought in that format as well. This allows you to compare for yourself and discover the superiority of vinyl.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Study Natural Law

I have had a regular trucking route from Romeoville, IL, to Appleton, WI for more than two years now, and although I can do the route in my sleep, I try to keep on the lookout for interesting sights along the way.

To the southbound traveler on Interstate 94, just a few miles north of the Illinois/Wisconsin border is a barn with the words "Study Natural Law" posted on its roof. I Googled the phrase and was introduced to the quirky, All-American story of Alfred Lawson, an early proponent of commercial air travel who supposedly invented the word "Airline" and developed his own cult-like following around a self-styled life philosophy, Lawsonomy.

Lawson was born in the United Kingdom in 1869 and moved to the United States before he was four. He played minor league baseball and even tried to start the first racially integrated professional baseball league, the Union Professional League, in 1908, but it folded after a month.

Instead of regurgitating Lawson's history from Wikipedia, here's a link to an informative article about the man and the University of Lawsonomy, which never quite saw fruition on that bit of land near the interstate in Racine, WI.

There is also an official web site dedicated to Lawsonomy which contains many of Lawson's writings, including his utopian novel, "Born Again." The site looks like it  hasn't been updated in a while. The Lawsonomy Students Reunion links to an event that happened in 2002. Check out that link here:

Explore the site and learn all about Zig Zag and Swirl, Equaverpoise, and Penetrability. I find it amazing that he supposedly drew large crowds at speaking engagements in the 1930s expounding this drivel.

An excerpt:

"Thus Zig-Zag-and-Swirl continues without direction or end. The Earth, man and germ alike are pushed, and pulled, and swirled about in Space in countless directions simultaneously and at varying and unthinkable speeds, changing positions each instant by distances of trillions of miles. And this is caused by Penetrability with its conflicting currents of different density moving along the lines of least resistance as an effect of Suction and Pressure of different proportions."

When I first Googled "Study Natural Law," I thought I would get some information about a farmer who supports Darwin's Theory of Evolution or maybe a Thoreau scholar. Instead, I was drawn into the wacky, quintessentially American story of Alfred William Lawson.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Family vacation synopsis

Today is Star Wars day at the public library. It's kind of hard to concentrate on this blog post when a guy dressed in a Darth Maul costume lurks just over my left shoulder. Kids are making foam lightsabers, participating in trivia contests, a Chewbacca yell contest, and bouncing around in the trash compactor. Nerd Central is right here. Of course, nerdiness is so mainstream that its lost its cachet as a means to outsider status.

It's hard to believe its been almost two weeks since we returned from our first family vacation, a trip to Texas to visit my sister and three national parks: Big Bend, Guadalupe Mountains, and Carlsbad Caverns. This vacation was a good mix of relaxation and busy-ness. We did a lot of hiking and sightseeing, but still had time to relax in camp at the end of the day. Southwest Texas was blessedly free of snow, but a constant wind and perpetual dustiness started to grate on me after awhile. Every night in camp was a tent-flapping affair.

Quick highlights of the trip include:

A trip to the Houston Rodeo and ag show. We didn't see the rodeo, but the birthing station was a hit, where we got to see wobbly-legged newborn calves and shiny, pink little piglets stomping around their indifferent sow mother.

A hike to a hot springs at Big Bend National Park, where we enjoyed 104-degree natural mineral springs on the shore of the Rio Grande River, just feet away from Mexico. That night, in camp at the Rio Grande Village, I awoke to the sound of gently tinkling bells and the braying of donkeys. Illegal traffic? I didn't investigate to find out.

The hallmark feature of Big Bend National Park is Santa Elena Canyon. It is a majestic site, with walls rising 1,500+ feet above the banks of the Rio Grande. Just as we pulled into the lot, we saw a rattlesnake coiled in the middle of the road. A couple other tourists were snapping photos and I joined them. The rattler was not too pleased by the attention.

Jonny enjoyed hearing his voice echo off the canyon walls. Here, he pauses in his favorite prospector pose near the turnaround point of the hike.

We spent two days at Big Bend and then drove a few hours north to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. We planned to hike to Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas, on Thursday, but paid a visit to nearby Carlsbad Caverns National Park instead because all of us were less than energized by a stomach bug. Somehow, the caving experience revived us. Jonny motivated us to take the natural entrance back out because he hoped to see a few bats. He successfully saw a few flit on by. We didn't stay until sunset because the winds assured the bats wouldn't be making a mass flight out of the cave that night.

After stopping in Carlsbad to enjoy the public library and art museum, we headed back to our windswept camp site at Guadalupe Mountains. The next day, although still quite windy, was a good day to attain the summit. Jonny led on the 3,000 foot climb and kept a decent enough pace, not once complaining about the wind and steep cliffs. It took us six hours to reach the summit and back, a hike of almost 8.5 miles. It was the first state high point for Jonny and the 16th for Esther and I.

On the way home, we stopped by President Bill Clinton's boyhood home in Hope, AR, and made it home on a Sunday night around 10 p.m. The next day it was back to work.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

The evocative power of an enduring logo

I was driving down highway 41 the other day, a beautiful early spring day in Wisconsin, when I saw a truck bearing the Muller Pinehurst Dairy logo,.

And instantly, upon spying the cursive lettering and smiling sun, I was transported back to my childhood, when I saw this very same label, unchanged from what I see today. Seeing this image really threw me back. I could envision the gymnasium / lunch room at Rock Cut Elementary School and, even weirder, my shorter perspective seeing the world as bigger and more mysterious, and, weirder yet, my smaller hands grasping my half pint of Muller Pinehurst chocolate milk. Nowadays, they differentiate between whole milk and 2 percent and skim, even with the half pints, but back then it was white or chocolate or orange. I never had the white. And I only drank the orange every once in a while. It wasn't orange juice. Not even close. But, like the milk, it had the smiling sun.

Muller Pinehurst has spent zero dollars in my lifetime on a new logo. It is comforting to see a brand like that endure. I think the reason why it hasn't changed is because it is a regional / local brand, based in the Rockford area. I've been to the actual dairy once, located in the south side of Rockford, to pick up dry ice for a Halloween party.

I have this theory that local brand logos are reluctant to change because there is a stability in the customer base, and with this stability, there is a reluctance to rock the boat and change things around. A couple brand logos, all local, haven't changed in my lifetime. Centrella has the same cursive writing as Muller Pinehurst. They are based out of Franklin Park, IL.

The other one Mrs. Fishers Chips, also based out of Rockford, has the creepiest logo of the bunch, but hasn't changed. The dancing potato looks so sinister and has worn this same menacing look my entire life. Even the dress of the children looks anachronistic, reminding me of the bygone Dick and Jane primers. And just what does "Vita Seald" mean? Why is "seald" spelled like that? Must be some patent thing. All I know is that the chips are awesome and one of the most famous  products produced by a Rockford company. I've heard of people moving away from the area who have friends buy the chips and ship them.

The reason, I think, that national brand names don't keep the same logos is because they probably have huge marketing departments that need to justify their salaries and don't benefit from as stable a customer base as local brands. The only national brand I can think of that hasn't changed their logo is Krispy Kreme donuts, which I didn't find out about until after the millenium when, for a while, they were all the rage and sold out within minutes of being stocked on store shelves. According to the company web site, they patented their "bow tie" logo in 1955, but have been using it longer.

The Gothic font on the White Castle logo has remained unchanged in the restaurant's history. I don't know how long the current logo has been used, but I know, from looking at old photos, that the font is the same.
Here is a photo from 1929, the first White Castle restaurant to open in Chicago.

Logos are designed to be evocative, to subconsciously imprint the brand into one's consciousness and spur retail purchases. It is too bad that more brands don't realize the value of endurance and that the older logos are often the most deeply cherished.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Hamster habits

For most of my adult life, I have struggled against the almighty gut. I am like most people who struggle with their weight. I have gained and lost weight more times than I can count.

Ten years ago, when I returned from a 2,655 mile walk from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail, I weighed about 180 pounds. I was skinny, no love handles, nothing extra. For the next two years, I kept my weight around 200 pounds with a regular regimen of running and being careful to watch my diet. Then, in the midst of early parenthood, graduate school, and some stupid life choices, my weight gradually kicked up, and up.

By the time I earned my master's degree in 2008, I was in the 230s. I wasn't running or engaging in any regular exercise routine. In fact, I was quite sedentary, as the nature of my work as a teacher required ample time for reading and writing. During my year-and-a-half of unemployment, my weight ballooned into the 240s. In early 2011, after experiencing some serious back pain, I decided to join a gym and begin a regular running regime. By the end of the year I was back down to the 210s -- not quite ideal -- but very manageable. The chronic back pain was gone, I felt fit, and was enjoying the regular running. In the latter days of the that year, I was driving a semi over the road and enjoyed going on runs every time I stopped at a truck stop, eventually doing road runs all over the country. That really augmented the travel experience and drew me away from the garbage and combustion of the truck stop.

In 2012, I ran 10 races, including six 5Ks and four 10Ks. But by the end of the year, I was getting lazy. Also, for the first time in years, I had extra money, so I ate out more. It didn't take long to show on my waistline. By the spring of 2013, I was in the 250s, heavier than ever! Ugh. And that is where I've stayed.

Finally, I'm doing something about it, and hope to have the discipline to stick to it for the long run because fitness feels so good. My goal is to exercise at least an hour a day, EVERY DAY, ad infinitum. I'm making it a priority and a habit. This week I ran on a treadmill six days and boosted my hourly mileage from 4.65 to 5.35 miles an hour. And yesterday I walked three miles playing disc golf and geocaching on the first springlike day of 2014.

I don't like diets. Calorie counting isn't my thing. And I'm not giving up beer. But some foods are forbidden to me now, including potato chips or other fatty snacks like them (cheetos, corn chips, etc.), fast food, chicken skins, ice cream, donuts, and most other sugary snacks. Meat consumption will be limited. Fresh fruits and vegetables will be eaten in abundance. I will take care to watch my portions.

And I will continue to run. Running gives me joy, allows me, in warmer, less snowy, times, to enjoy fresh air and scenery. And I know from past experience that when I run I feel better, my mood is better, and I'm more mentally alert.

Sam Adams Utopias: A Pinnacle Experience

A couple weeks ago I visited my friend Darrell, who lives above the old Fargo Theatre in downtown DeKalb. I know he is a fan of good beer, and in my quest to try and review at least 100 different beers this year, I decided to visit him to get the skinny on any good brews that may have missed my notice. I brought a bottle of Three Philosophers Belgian Style Blend, Quadrupel, a heady ale that has just a touch (less than 2 percent) of cherry kriek to give it a nice, fruity little lift in the back palate.

Darrell was very appreciative of my offering and asked if I'd ever had any Sam Adams Utopias. I remembered the beer. Back in 2010, when I lived in the same building as Darrell, I drove him to a local liquor store, where he paid more than $200 for one bottle of Utopias. "That's beer?" I asked. He nodded. "And you paid that much for that one bottle?" He broke into a wide grin and nodded again, then said, "And it's worth every penny."

Of course, the 2010 vintage he bought has long been consumed, but on this night two weeks ago, he brought out a black lacquered clay bottle and a shot glass, and poured me a shot of the 2012 Utopias.

Yes, it is a beer. But at 29% ABV it is considered an American Strong Ale, brewed with caramel and four noble hops. It is meant to be sipped slowly and savored. I spread my shot's worth over four swallows, and each tiny libation was a trip through beer nirvana. I don't drink hard liquor often, so the strength of the Utopias was a bit of shock, as was, pleasantly, the onslaught and complexity of the flavor.

Very smoky, with plum and woodsy tannins. The most unique aspect occurred after I swallowed. Emanating waves of flavorful alcoholic vapors rose up across my entire palate, rising up, up, through my nose, enveloping the front of my face in a veritable aura of well-crafted flavor. It is somewhat a disservice that so early in my 2014 beer drinking Odyssey, I should enjoy some Sam Adams Utopias. Every other beer will pale in comparison to this.

Next in my quest: I am continuing to track down all available Authentic Trappist Products (ATP) beers available in the United States I haven't tried yet, including Achel, La Trappe, Westmalle, Gregorius, and Orval. The only ATP beers available locally are Chimay and Trappistes Rochefort. A beer cannot be designated with the ATP symbol unless it is brewed entirely within the walls of a monastery by monks. The elusive one that requires a trip to the St. Sixtus Abbey in Belgium (except on rare occasions) is Westvleteren. I recently had a St. Bernardus Tripel Belgian Abbey Ale, which is located near the St. Sixtus and uses the same hops and yeast.

Many of the ATP beers are available at Monk's Pub in Chicago. A road trip is forthcoming.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Connections: Huck Finn, Norman Rockwell, Edward Hopper, and diners

These blog posts are a Saturday exercise. On Saturdays, my family and I go to the DeKalb Public Library, where we check out an overflowing tote bag's worth of materials, mostly Pokemon, Ninjago, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Lego related titles by my son. I get my requisite three audiobooks to keep me company on my overnight truck rides, DVDs, and yes, occasionally, a book.

We don't have Internet at home. The smart phone is enough of an intrusion. So, my only chance to access the Internet in a non-mobile, large-screen format is my weekly visit to the library. And I use my 90 minutes on these blog posts. I go into the writing session with a general idea. For example, today I reminiscing about my childhood fascination with Huckleberry Finn and how that has shaped the trajectory of my life.

Or something like that.

I leave it open to whatever sparks my interest. We'll see where whim and fancy takes us. So, without further ado...

The only thing controversial about Huck Finn to me when I was a kid was how the book influenced my actions. Inspired by the color illustrations in my edition of the classic Mark Twain novel, I used a hollowed out a section of corn cob and the plastic handle of a push up pop to create my own corn cob pipe. I then absconded one of my mother's Bel/Air 100 cigarettes, broke it apart, and put the tobacco in my pipe. I almost threw up from inhaling an acrid mixture of menthol tobacco and melting plastic.

I didn't know about the N-word and its many social implications, nor did I realize the revolutionary idea expounded in Huck Finn that a black man could be equal and in many ways morally superior to a white man. I enjoyed the tale's comic tone, the constant sense of adventure and, oh, what a life it would be, floating down the river, letting the world, the Midwest world familiar to me, a world only a couple hundred miles and a 100+ years at a remove from the world I knew, just float on by. Huckleberry Finn sparked the first inclinations of wanderlust -- not just for travel, but for a style of travel that puts me into Thoreauvian contact (Contact!) with the world at large. And while I just had a childlike inkling of what that world meant, Huckleberry Finn sparked a desire in me to see it.

And Huckleberry Finn  introduced me to the illustrations of Norman Rockwell, who never had a gallery exhibit in his own life and was rejected by all "serious" artists as a square. And yet his work endures. His illustrations, which graced the covers of The Saturday Evening Post, a now-defunct magazine that once was the largest circulating magazine in America, showcase not only the idealized notion of what it is to be an American, but especially, in his later works, reflect the turmoils and shifting values that America endured in the sixties, which was late in
Rockwell's career.

Rockwell did a series of illustrations for an edition of Huckleberry Finn, and I read this edition in elementary school and remember, as I've experienced many times since, how initial knowledge of a thing brings about recurring instances of exposure, like a hidden clue popping up around every corner. I noticed the infamous Thanksgiving print in my grandparent's living room, the Four Freedoms on a back wall at a public library, and a jigsaw puzzle of a Rockwell illustration (some backwoods home, if I remember right, with junk all over the yard). Looking at Rockwell's illustrations most likely gave me a skewed, middle-class, white, commercialized, and patriotic view of American life. But in spite of being kitschy, idealized, broadly popular, and not worth any regard by those cool enough and with refined and educated tastes, Rockwell's illustrations, because his art was realistic, showcase the style and fashions of more than 50 years of American history. And that is not to be discounted or easily dismissed.

Later, as a teenager, I read a comic book that didn't feature any supervillains, explosions, or fighting of any sort. Kind of strange and subversive. It was an issue of Dazzler, and despite a most cursory Internet search, I can't find the issue number. It was in 1980s, 85 or 86, or maybe 87. At the time, I'd never been out late, never paid for my own meal in a sit down restaurant, and had no idea who Sarte, Kant, or any of the other philosophers mentioned in the issue were. The comic featured a scene of young know-it-alls, ready to conquer all the worlds problems, or at least smugly assume they held the keys to the kingdom, over an endless carafe of coffee at a diner.

A few years later, 1992 or 93, the age of grunge, I was 20, a smoker (but not of Bel/Airs), I used to hang out at a Perkins restaurant in Rockford with my community college friends. And one night a serious young lady with black-painted nails, talked with me in all earnestness about the bleak existential angst of Franz Kafka's The Castle and how all human endeavors are useless and doomed to failure and decay. And I could only reflect, at the time, how this moment was like that Dazzler comic book. And somehow, I thought, I'd arrived at a turning point.

Not too much later the bleakness of Kafka's last work, with hints of Rockwell's The Soda Jerk (some connection with paper hats), came to fruition when I saw Edward Hopper's Nighthawks. Of course, not too later, I saw the similar version with Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart. But here was what the Goth girl was talking about -- loneliness, isolation amidst the masses, and coffee. And a diner.

Diners and roadhouses hold a particular place in my idealized mindset. As most people know, diners are the original fast food, established to serve food quick and cheap to factory workers on their lunch breaks. They are inspired by the diners featured on Pullman railroad cars. In fact, many roadside diners are converted rail cars. They are non-pretentious. And for a guy careening, ever philosophically through his 20s, a good diner is a great place to be after the bars close, your ears are still ringing, and you got the munchies and a desire to get some ideas off your chest.

And I guess I'm wistful now because, like most American icons, diners are commoditized, like Ed Debevic's, an affected caricature of what a diner should be. The iconic imagery of a diner has imploded on itself. Besides, I don't smoke anymore. And I don't close bars anymore either. I still read. And philosophize. But all my friends are too busy with careers and child rearing to attend to such trivial matters as urban isolation and the futility of ambition.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Lifelogging, singularity, and immortality

Flesh fades. We all know this. We are given our allotted three score and then some, and that's it. Who we were - our experiences, faults, failures, hopes and dreams, secret wishes and brightest hopes - Pfftt! Just like that. Gone.

Which is why we have religion, to give hope of an afterlife, to give meaning and poignancy to our current life, and to explain that existential and elusive question, "Why are we here?"

I blog, journal and write, and, partly, became a parent, in my own futile grab at immortality. Because I know, once the curtain falls, all this talk of heaven and God and an afterlife, is pure speculation. I'm living today as if it all I've got. For that may be true.

I am a monotheist and church member not because I have abiding faith in eternal salvation. Nah! Truth be told, I'm just as unsure about the afterlife as an agnostic. My main reason for attending church is: Belief in something greater (or, at least perceived to be greater) than oneself is a good thing; I like being held morally accountable to a greater good, and that I don't have the strength or will to proclaim absolute right or wrong, so I subscribe and hold fast to moral tenets that have worked in western civilization for a couple thousand years; Jesus is cool, humble and exalted, yet a bad boy, iconoclast, table flipper, a questioner of authority (God in human form? I don't know. But I'd follow him anywhere); and I come from a tradition of faith. My heritage is tied to it and I respect the faith of my forebears.

Making peace with one's mortality helps make embracing the now all that much easier. It brings the miracle of existence to the forefront. And life truly is a miracle. There is more life visually evident in a square foot of land right outside your window than in all the vast reaches of the cosmos. Statistically, given the billions and billions (don your turtlenecks and insert Carl Sagan voice here) of galaxies, life on other planets does exist. But we just don't know. We don't have conclusive evidence.


Now, more than ever, we have the ability to record our lives in ever more meaningful and complex ways. I use my smart phone to take pictures, record distance, time, and a map location of running, do Facebook and Twitter updates, and to get on the Internet to look up meaningful topics.

These types of activities are called Lifelogs. And with the advent of Google glass and other App-based technologies, lifelogging is reaching more and more activity-centered niches. I imagine that within the next 10 to 20 years, data storage capabilities and our understanding of how the brain operates, along with nano-technology that will allow us to ingest and integrate robotics into our lives, every small bit of data about our lives will be recorded. I hope to live long enough to download my brain into a more permanent hardware system. I've even written a couple story treatments about reverse discrimination, wherein this type of technology takes over and robot bodies, in all their perfection, discriminate against "organics."

Any sci-fi and futurist thinker know about the singularity event, that consequential tilt in time when artificial intelligence supersedes human intelligence. This will have either utopian and/or dystopian consequences, and in many ways is already profoundly influencing human thoughts and behavior. The pace and efficiency of our world economy is dependent on computers. But think about it on a personal level. Ten years ago I used to have all of my friends and family member's phone numbers memorized. Now I depend on my phone's database for those numbers. Rarely do I ever dial a number. The term "dial" is an anachronism, a reference to an outmoded technology as alien to today's generation as party lines are to mine.

Check out the works of Ray Kurzweil, Google's director of engineering. He's written many books about humanity's relationship to technology, most popularly, The Singularity is Near. Huge technology companies will influence and profit from these profound new technologies, but I believe the technologies themselves will be the greatest bringers of change in the years to come.

And to think, all of this will happen (is happening! Now!) in my lifetime. How we adapt and relate to these new technologies will define what we are as a species and will forever change what it means to be a human. And, as predicted in Star Wars, as the lines between human and machine become blurred, it will be as important as ever to get in touch with a spiritual center that is uncorrupted by the machine.

For now, I'm just trying to solve level 139 on Candy Crush Saga. Each affirmative "Divine!" goads me on to higher achievements. It validates and vindicates my very 21st century existence. Someday the quest will be complete. And then what. Candy Crush Heaven? That will be the ultimate singularity event!

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Appetites, habits, and nostalgia

Appetites, needs, compulsions, habits. The ways of the flesh. We are all caught up in the game. Some of us are less wise managers. The addicts, the lotus eaters waylaid from their voyage by the cravings of a singular desire. Their brains are rewired to serve a deeply channelled rut. Obsessive compulsive disorders work along similar synaptical channels.

Habits are just socially acceptable forms of compulsion. I am certainly a creature of habit. A habitué of home and hearth. A returner along well-laid paths. Return, again and again, to the same little plot of land. Drink my caffeine every day for fear of headache reprisal. Have to do my Midweek crossword puzzle every week to bolster the ego and stave off dementia. Habits of movement, reading, listening, playing with my son, sleeping with wife.

The only thing that differentiates me from the hustler is I don't wear my habits, my desires, on my sleeve. I'm a "responsible adult." I accept acceptable faiths, am prudent with finances, balanced of diet, non-smoker, moderate drinker. The things I crave are well within the realms of "normal." And maybe I'm all the more boring for my bland tastes. I can accept bland and boring. Leave me alone with my thoughts, my music, my writing, the simple pleasures of hearth and home. I had my excitement and am glad to have moved on. Never was a down on the luck Bukowski. Not likely to ever be one. That poetry eludes me.

Think of the séance, the sitting sessions, from Latin, sedere, to sit. Hands are laid on Ouija boards (another interesting etymology, "Ouija" is a combination of the French and German words for "Yes") to connect with lost loved ones and spirits who can seemingly foresee the future. The past and future. The wistful and the wishful.

Just think of the implications of ghosts. A confirmed, verified supernatural entity would validate that life, or at least consciousness, exists after death. Famed magician and escape artist Harry Houdini made a promise to return as a ghost. After he died, every Halloween since 1927 a séance has been performed to try and conjure Houdini's ghost, to no avail. His wife Bess died without ever re-connecting with her lost love. They had a secret code. He would share it if he could reach her.

The following is a link to a Houdini  séance  broadcast in 1936.


Rituals, habits, sittings sessions, are all attempts to reclaim some past glory, like the feeling I get singing an old hymn. Who, in generations long past, wearing fashions long forgotten, sang these same hymns? In some way, all of these hungers, nostalgia, and addictions are vain and fruitless attempts to connect with the timeless past, that first high, the hungerless umbilical connectivity of the womb.

Which is why desire is tinged with sadness and impermanency. It's all in vain. Nostalgia is regret. The ghost is unable to change in an ever-changing world. It is fixed.

I heard this radio piece about a man who died, but before he died, he wrote hundreds of letters to friends and family, and left them in the care of his slightly addled son, to be sent every year on the anniversary of his death.

At first, the recipients of these letters were surprised and pleased to receive these letters, but as time wore on, year after year, the letters got annoying. The dead man wrote about things no longer relevant to their lives. One person said they even stopped reading the letters. They had moved on. Let the dead keep their dead. The past belongs there. Regret is a waste of the present, which is all that matters.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

My take on Duck Dynasty controversy

Long before Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame made controversial comments about gays and minorities in a recent GQ profile, I placed a reserve for Duck Dynasty Season One DVD at the public library. And because Duck Dynasty is the most popular show in cable television history, it took months before my turn came to watch the episodes, which I did last week. Having never seen the show before, I wanted to know: Why is it so popular? What do people see in these bearded rednecks?

I enjoyed the show. Of course it is scripted. Of course all their hillbilly antics are probably fake. But Duck Dynasty appeals strongly to the 'Murica element of society, simple, God-fearing, hard-working folk who are a bit put-off and bewildered by modern day life. Life with the Robertson clan is wholesome family fun, semi-rural, agrarian, back-to-the-land, frog-catching, beehive dropping, Kennedy clan football playing. A potent mix of the Andy Griffith Show, the Waltons, and Little House on the Prairie. It also throws religion in with family prayer around a dinner table and a wholesome message, a morality-tinged voiceover, to recap each episode. There's crazy uncle Si, Phil, the even-keeled, often-barefoot, patriarch, Kay, who cooks and does community outreach service projects, the rival brothers Jep and Will who concoct odd schemes and competitions, and the visual candy, the smoking hot wives who married in to the family. Plus, they're rich! And funny! This is the American Dream condensed into 21 minutes of madcap hilarity.

But.... As the GQ profile reveals, there's an underbelly to all this wholesomeness. When Phil rails against "citified yuppies," he's referring to another class of people that bear no connection to his worldview or ways of life. The world of Duck Dynasty and the rest of redneck 'Murica has no room or tolerance for gays, minorities, sissies, gun control advocates, or, worst of all, Liberals!!!

What I don't understand is the public's surprise about Phil Robertson's views on gays and minorities. Most rednecks have enough common sense to keep their more controversial views under wraps because they are aware that mainstream society doesn't share their opinion. In fact, the redneck identity hinges on this separation, this "otherness," the bad boy outsider status that distinguishes them from the mainstream. Additionally, Robertson fancies himself a preacher, a modern day prophet, who preaches from the pulpit both at home in Monroe, LA, and in guest appearances at churches around the country.

And the views he expressed in the GQ article are preached by hundreds and thousands of conservative religious folk from hundreds of thousands of pulpits every Sunday. It's old news. It's kind of sad and bewildering to me, but it is what I expect from someone of Robertson's mien. This is country. This is redneck.

I like this video because its impassioned narrator rightly concludes that the entire "controversy" may be contrived to boost sales of Duck Dynasty merchandise and that it will only benefit the family.

What's interesting is that A&E, the cable network that airs Duck Dynasty, is in a bit of a bind. They don't want to alienate their viewers, but also don't want to cancel their cash cow franchise. They instead did a half-ass effort, first suspending Phil from the show, but then reinstating him when the rest of the family balked. It on;y proves that progressive values are all well and good as long as they don't affect the bottom line.

Yes, we have an African-American in the White House. Gay Marriage laws are being passed around the country. You can smoke weed legally in two states and the war on drugs is being seen as the money-making farce it really is. But, as Duck Dynasty, and its continued popularity reminds us, there is a vast population in this country that sees gay rights, minority rights, alternative lifestyles, and anything "citified" as an effrontery to their way of life. They may not have the numbers, but they've got the guns, and the money, to wield a powerful influence over unsuspecting 'Murica.

Let the culture wars continue....

Saturday, January 11, 2014

2013: The Year in books

In all of 2013, and on and on, etcetera, I kept a list of the books I read. For some reason, I thought I read more books. But I shouldn't feel bad for only reading 23. According to a recent Huffington Post survey, of 1,000 respondents, 28 percent hadn't read a book in the past year. I'm in a minority, one of 20 percent who read between 11 and 50 books in a year.

No doubt, my reading numbers would go way up if I included books I didn't finish. I went through a pile of books researching the home-buying process, but included none of them on this list because it only includes books I read in their entirety.

The favorite book I read in 2013 is William Least Heat Moon's Prairyerth: A Deep Map, which also, at 624 pages, is the longest book I read. Least Heat Moon explores Chase County, KS, township by township and does so by connecting deep into the landscape, its history, geography, and particular issues; and also the social history of the people who've settled there. This county, population 3,000, is one of the most unassuming locales in America, and Least Heat Moon lives up the challenge of making "flyover country" interesting.

Check out this video in which the author explains what he means by "deep map."

In 2013, I also discovered the works of a quirky relic of the 60s, Richard Brautigan. I started with what I could find in the fiction stacks at the DeKalb Public Library, and read a book published posthumously, An Unfortunate Woman: a Journey. This is very loosely defined as fiction, but is actually the author's journal. In it, he briefly chronicles a trip to DeKalb. I found out that Brautigan did indeed come to DeKalb for 10 days in February 1982, which is outlined in a chronology of his life here.

An excerpt:
Thursday, 18 February 1982
Brautigan flew to Chicago, Illinois, where he was met by Dennis Lynch and driven to DeKalb, Illinois, about 50 miles to the west. Lynch and Brautigan met in 1979, when Brautigan participated in a panel discussion entitled "Zen and Contemporary Poetry" at the 94th annual meeting of the Modern Language Association of America (MLA), 29 December, in San Francisco, California. Lynch organized and chaired the panel. Lynch was an instructor in the English Department at Northern Illinois University and had arranged for Brautigan to visit, teach his class, and give a public reading. Brautigan stayed with Lynch, at his one-bedroom apartment on campus for ten days. Brautigan describes the trip in his novel An Unfortunate Woman (59-64).
Here is the list of books I read in 2013, including the date of completion, title, author, and number of pages.

1/28, Timeline - Michael Crichton (474 pages)
2/10, Manhattan Transfer - John Dos Passos (371)
2/18,  A Year in the Maine Woods - Bernd Heinrich (258)
3/3, Hiking Through: One Man's Journey to Peace and Freedom on the Appalachian Trail - Paul Stutzman (332)
3/13, Summers with the Bears: Six Seasons in the North Woods - Jack Becklund (178)
3/17, The Search: The Continuing Story of the Tracker - Tom Brown, Jr. with William Owen (219)
5/28, Mountain Adventure: Exploring the Appalachian Trail - Ron Fisher (200)
6/20, An Unfortunate Woman: A Journey - Richard Brautigan (110)
6/24, The Old Ball Game - Frank Deford (240)
7/20, Prairyerth: A Deep Map - William Least Heat Moon (624)
8/3, House of Sand and Fog - Andre Dubus III (365)
8/18, The Final Solution: A Story of Detection - Michael Chabon (131)
8/27. The Killer Inside Me - Jim Thompson (244)
9/6, Uncommon Carriers - John McPhee (248)
9/29, Without a Hero: And Other Stories - T. Coraghessan Boyle (238)
10/8, Trout Fishing in America - Richard Brautigan (112)
10/15, The Pill Versus The Springhill Mine Disaster - Richard Brautigan (108)
11/8, The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years - Greil Marcus (210)
In Watermelon Sugar - Richard Brautigan (138)
11/13, A Cook's Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisine - Anthony Bourdain (288)
12/8, Heart Songs and Other Stories - E. Annie Proulx (224)
12/15. A Canticle for Liebowitz - Walter M. Miller Jr. (334)
12/30, The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins (374)