Monday, August 28, 2000

I Wanna Be a Survivor (or Sedated)

I recently was at the mansion on the hill, at my favorite reporter's house off Summit Avenue attending a book reading by the author, Rafael Alvarez whose new novel, "Orlo and Leini" captures the arc of a love affair (and the taste and smells of living in Baltimore). I was quite enjoying Mr. Alvarez's reading when part of the story quoted a line from a somewhat obscure Brian Wilson song, "Baby Let Your Hair Grow Long." Immediately I felt a connection to the writer.

Back in 1988 after I had just started working for Cheapo, I was in the midst (mist?) of my somewhat infamous first blue period. I was living in a duplex with a couple of guys, one being the guy who got me connected to this company, the affable Johnny Baynes. One night Johnny came home from a late shift at Cheapo West with a copy of Brian Wilson's new (and long awaited) first solo album (the album that includes "Baby Let Your Hair Grow Long.") There was a buzz around the release from the reclusive ex-Beach Boy, with all his well chronicled emotional struggles and the controversial role his therapist (and guru) Eugene Landy played in producing the LP. Johnny kindly gave me the LP. I put it on the stereo and immediately felt something I hadn't been able to feel (having been quite numb for a while)- INSPIRED. Here was an artist (some would say a genius) who had been all but given up for as dead, coming out with well crafted music. The opening track "Love and Mercy" is as nakedly (and admirably) confessional as it is compelling. The song "Melt Away" blew me away. "The world isn't waiting just for me. The world don't care what I can be..." Shortly after playing the LP over and over for days upon weeks I decided it was time to break through my emotional anguish and crippling writer's block and begin work on my life's ambition- a novel. Wilson's LP played throughout my writing of the well meaning but ultimate failure that finished in a 265 page mess of a story.

It has occurred to me over the years that my favorite artists share a common trait- they are all survivors. Along with Wilson there of course is Bob Dylan who has been written off many times over the years only to release a work of art that inevitably gets labeled "his best since Blood on the Tracks." There too is Francis Albert Sinatra who pulled off the greatest comeback of any singer after he had been deemed finished. I so admire people who overcome the odds (placenta previa babies for instance) and succeed by their sheer determination.

When I first heard about the CBS show "Survivor" I was almost as indifferent as I was critical. The whole idea of the show- stranding 16 people on an island to survive the elements and ultimately whittle the group down to one who would win a million bucks- sounded as stupid as it has turned out to be. And this whole trend of "reality" TV ranging from "The Real World" to "Jerry Springer" has been as tawdry as it has been annoying. The idea of "Survivor" seemed to take this trend to another plateau. Yet the day one of the guys in my office came in and asked us all if we had seen the premier episode and said it had been the darndest thing he'd ever seen- I knew I had to watch the scheduled repeat a few days later.

Watching that repeat I became immediately hooked. The show's hokeyness ("the tribe has spoken... "Fire represents life...") sets the nearly impossible perfect tone. It has been a fascinating look at group dynamics. It is hardly a coincidence that the show's four finalists were the four most conniving of the entire group. The ultimate lesson of the show has been that in a corporate culture sometimes it is inevitable to get ahead one has to be more than a little self serving.

So this past week I had a wonderful conversation/lunch with the person who succeeded me (in all the meanings of that word) at my last job. Unfortunately her experience ended much the same as mine- questioning the ethics of the person we reported to. She had endured (much as I tried) in a culture of dysfunctionality and survival. For me it was an enlightening message about how standing up for personal principles is as hard to do as it is worthwhile.

It was a valuable reminder of the importance of remaining committed and curious as to what is next. For some inevitably their existence on this shared journey (listen to Wilson' wonderful and achingly heartbreaking song "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times") is tragically cut far too short. For others is the admirable ability to outlast and endure their seemingly destined fate. The lesson of the show "Survivor" as cynical as it has been (one must be as indifferent, as manipulative as possible to get ahead) notwithstanding- those who are to be admired are those that are as aware and as sensitive enough to comprehend that in the end what we are here for is to serve someone other than our own self interest- is to learn how rewarding life can be.

Monday, August 21, 2000

91 Going on 4

I spent Sunday evening, sore as a boar, trying to teach Mr. Max how to bobble his head. Yes indeed I was very tired but it was a good kind of tired. I am one of the fortunate few to have gotten all four bobblehead dolls that the Twins gave away this year. It literally was the promotion of the century- what else (with the possible exception of having all the members from the show "Survivor" appear on the field) could possibly get 25,000 fans to watch the 40th year version of the Twins? Could people be any more indifferent to this team?

Yup, as Max and I watched our Harmon and Tony, Herbie and Kirby bobbin' their noggins, we felt very giddy indeed. {Bobbling report- Harmon bobbles the best followed by Tony O and Kirby. Tony bobbles freer than Kirby but Kirby's head is tilted slightly higher allowing him to bobble longer. Hrbek is as wooden as Al Gore (which seems odd because he's made out of ceramic), barely bobbling because his chin is too square or something (maybe it's Y2K). Harmon is a masterpiece, the epitome of what a bobblehead should be.} I figured the Puckett doll would be the most difficult to get, and it was. He after all is a state icon, right up there with the official new state butterfly (the monarch) and the official state muffin (blueberry). I bet for 70 percent of the kids in the state born after the year 1987 their very first words were, "Kurbeeeeeeee Puckettttttttttttt!"

After having gotten the first three dolls I felt a little greedy. I just had to get the fourth doll to finish off the collection. I read a discouraging item written by Gordon Wittenmyer in Sunday's Pioneer Press (the real newspaper of the Twin Cities) as I was getting ready to go to the dome:

"The final bobblehead doll promotion of the season, before today's 1:05 p.m. game against the Toronto Blue Jays, is expected to be the most popular of the four. If early indications mean anything, it already might be too late to get your Kirby Puckett edition of the ceramic collectible -- unless you're reading this while in line. Lines began forming outside the Metrodome late Saturday. 'Clearly, these things have taken on a life of their own,' said Dave St. Peter, the Twins' senior vice president of business affairs."

We had figured getting their at 8 a.m. (gates opened at 11, game started at 1) would probably give us a good shot what with people going to church and the Saturday night party goers sleeping in a bit. But the lady in front of us in line gave an early warning sign when she said, "I'm skipping mass this morning for this." A few minutes later a couple of nuns walked by to get in line. Yes there were quite a few people mingling around the dome at that hour of the morning.

Actually I was lucky to have been able to get out of bed at all that morning. The day before I participated in a softball tournament. Our team played seven games between 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. In game number six (the game that got us into the championship) I was going back on a fly ball hit over my head when the calf muscles in both my legs cramped up. I felt like somebody had shot me (and I wasn't even stealing a bottle of liquor). After that my legs just ached. It didn't help matters that I had slid into second on a play leaving about as much skin on my leg as Kevin Bacon has in his new movie, "Hollow Man." In game seven I pretty much lost the championship for us single handedly as the opposing team hit every thing my way and I couldn't really move to get to the ball. (Not that my limited skills would have guaranteed success even when healthy).

By the time I got home I was in pretty rough shape. I was walking funny (or funnier) with all the speed of a semi-healthy 90 year-old-man. My father felt so bad for me Saturday night watching me hobble home that he asked if there was anything he could do for me. I almost asked him to drive downtown and sleep over night at the dome to save us a place in line.

On Sunday making the trek from our parking spot to the dome was painful enough. Sitting on the pavement for three hours was slightly uncomfortable. I was the kind of stiff you can't even get from Viagra. But it was all gonna be worth it if we got the Puck doll. As the line scrunched together and the gates opened our chances looked fairly good. We were in about the same spot as we were when we got our Harmon Killebrew dolls (of which there were only 5,000 handed out opposed to the 10,000 Puckett dolls). As we were just a few people from the gate word came back that we should be fine- that they had five boxes of Kirby's left. I walked through the turnstile and they stopped me. The ticket taker reached back and pulled out a mangled looking box. It was the last doll they had in that stash. I stood there waiting for my authentication card (they gave away those cards with each doll to prove that you had a legitimate bobblehead) and my friend stood behind me on the other side of the turnstile. They brought over a few more dolls from the other two turnstiles. So we were one of the last to get dolls at our gate.

Of course the Twins rewarded the larger than normal crowd by playing a horrible game losing 13-3. I think even my softball team could have hit Brad Radke this game.

The question from the entire weekend of course is: How old am I?

Wednesday, August 16, 2000

Simon Sez: Keep Listening

One of my warmest early memories is laying in the late afternoon sun, looking through my baseball card collection studying all the important statistics, listening to my sisters practice piano. Often times after the Beethoven, Bartok, or Mendelssohn pieces they would play a Simon and Garfunkel song. I quite enjoyed those tunes, growing up listening to home versions of "Sound of Silence," "Homeward Bound," "Bridge Over Troubled Water." I remember looking at the faces of the two solemn young men on the covers of those piano books and the words and notes inside and was awakened to the possibilities of music and songs. I read the lyrics and they seemed so deep and profound- for the first time I saw that there seemed to be a lot of social injustice going on outside the baseball diamonds.

So I've always had a certain sentimental fondness and admiration for Paul Simon. Here was a short little guy like me, introspective with a lot to say and a limited voice to say it all with (all shoes I wore). In junior high I knew I knew something the others didn't simply because I seemingly understood the lyrics to "Overs," "Cloudy," and "Baby Driver" (having now played them on the piano myself countless times). As misunderstood as I felt somehow the music not only could express my own feelings, it demonstrated others could possibly emphasize.

In high school I discovered Simon's wonderful first solo self titled LP, and was dazzled by the quirky little songs that spoke of freedom, of melancholy, of wanderlust (songs about stolen Chow Fon and Detroit hockey). I was impressed that this new direction in his career sounded so different from the serious folk of his previous work and was in its own way, far more moving. In college his overlooked LP Hearts and Bones spoke volumes to me. The LP pondered many an insightful question- When is something a feeling and when is something a thought and when do the two meet and can they ever intertwine?

The follow-up, Graceland, with its similar themes to Hearts and Bones but much more joyous sound, rejuvenated my heart. It was remarkable that as a pop writer, Simon seemed to be among the few getting better and better. I continued to faithfully buy each new Simon release. I thought Rhythm of the Saints was quite good but the music to the failed Broadway play, The Capeman didn't strike a chord in me. Still I was quite happy to hear that Simon was coming out with a new CD, and looked forward to hearing what he had to say.

That new CD, You're the One, in a word, blows. The music is listless and uninspired. The influence of the African and Brazilian sounds used on his previous musical excursions remains- but the soft light jazz sound of all the songs becomes tedious and irritating. This is nothing but muzak for yuppies, undoubtedly Paul's remaining audience. As a sympathetic listener it was a chore making it all the way through the 11 songs. The only interesting song on the whole disc is "Pigs, Sheep, and Wolves" sort of an update of "At the Zoo." The song is a rant against capital punishment sung in a half slurred rap whine.

What makes the music even more ponderous and pointless are some of the most trite, humdrum and uninspired lyrics of Simon's career. In the past Simon would have found a way to make a song like "Darling Lorraine" with its detail on the arc of a disintegrating relationship ("What- you don't love me anymore?/What- you're walking out the door?/Hey let me tell you/You're not the woman that I wed/You say you're depressed but you're not/You just like to stay in bed") witty and not tedious. Not here. The equally hackneyed "Old" doesn't even seem like the artist is trying very hard anymore. ("When all these numbers tumble into your imagination/Consider that the Lord was there before creation/God is old/We're not old/God is old/He made the mold")

In a recent interview with the LA Times Simon says he is living in a state of marital tranquility. He and wife Edie Brickell recently celebrated the birth of their third child. When asked if he his art suffers when he himself isn't suffering Simon does little to dispel the notion a good artist must be perpetually bothered. "I don't think it matters if you are happy or tortured. What I've observed about the creative process is that periodically I'll make up things, and then I'll have a period where I don't make up things and I start to wonder if I'm finished making up ideas. I'll have no ideas. Then, they'll start coming again and you act on it."It's an insight that also disproves with age comes either wisdom or bitterness (or both).

As a fan of Simon it's nice to hear that he is doing well personally. Professionally You're the One is insipid and flaccid in its suffocating soulless bliss. There surely is plenty left for Simon to say, but what these songs say is sterile and impersonal (or is it too personal?). Sometimes it's OK just to hear a familiar voice, sometimes a bit more effort is needed. If you're not even going to try to matter, why should the rest of us bother to listen? It all sounds like an afterthought product, middle aged noodling. There are those still crazy after all these years, and disregarding the rules of the children's game it is time to move on, permission or not.

Monday, August 14, 2000

August 12

My mother would have been 75 today. It's not could, or even should, it's would have been. But the world couldn't have lost a kinder soul nor should the world have lost that gentle smile. But one thing I've learned about death and loss this past year is that fairness really isn't part of the equation.

This is by its nature one of the "big" days. Because of what it marks it is one of the "difficult" days. It's up there with the day she died, or the day that would have been her wedding anniversary with dad or all the other anniversaries marked so clearly now in my mind. The day she was diagnosed with terminal cancer... The day of the funeral... Holidays that won't be shared with her anymore. In a way the big days have been unbearable but in their own way the "little" days stab even deeper. Last fall I got my dream job, a job that took me a lot of sweat and blood and years and courage to attain- and when I got it, and when I did my best at it- it made me sad that my mom couldn't share in it. This year following her death has been made that much harder by losing another close friend. Two years in a row losing a dear friend. And it wasn't exactly as if I was "properly" equipped to handle either one. Made even more distressing because I can't turn to my mom to get a smile.

My mom loved to do crossword puzzles. She had books of word puzzles, and faithfully finished the puzzles in both our daily newspapers. Maybe it was her love and appreciation for words that inspired me to want to be a writer (and my sister too). I remember a revelation she had for me shortly after I finished college. She told me she always knew that I'd end up in journalism because it ran in our family- her brothers had worked on a newspaper.

For the past eight years I've written this weekly column for the newsletter. I know it's questionable how much work I put into this back page and I'd be the first to admit it varies. Some weeks the words flow out from somewhere else and all I have to do is make sure I stay out of the way. Other weeks it's like pulling teeth- what I want to say isn't any more clear than how I should say it. About a year into the newsletter I began bringing a copy home to my parents. They both faithfully read it although I'm not sure how much of my writing they actually understood. My mom rarely said anything or reacted to anything I wrote. But she did save each and every newsletter. My dad was much more responsive, asking questions and telling me when he thought I'd written something good. I miss sharing these words with my mom. The occasional week that I get it right, when I laugh and cry at what has come out of me- I wish so much I could still share that with her.

Her remains lie in a "wall" in a cemetery within biking distance from my house. My dad goes there nearly every day and makes sure that the little plastic holder attached to her square in the wall holds fresh flowers. When she was dying and we picked out her burial arrangements I pictured myself out there every day telling her about my day. It hasn't been that way. For a long time I couldn't bring myself to visit. I didn't know exactly why. My friend surprised me by telling me she wanted to come out with me. So one day we visited mom together. It later dawned on me why visiting was so hard. I'm a person haunted by association. When I'm in a place the past memories and ghosts are vivid. There are places I refuse to visit because they strongly remind me of something painful or happiness left behind. The cemetery isn't a place I have any memories of mom. The only time we were there together were when my grandparents and aunt were buried there. So to go there isn't to associate anything related to mom besides the aftermath of her death.

The anniversary marking her death we had a family get together at the cemetery. A few days before my friend was kind enough to go out there again with me to ease the associations. Since then I've visited much more often. Tonight I brought out a bouquet of flowers. I never can stay long but I'm glad I'm going out there more and more. It never feels like mom is there, or with me, and it's not like she didn't know that I would think about her often no matter where I was at, but it's still a way to symbolically acknowledge how much a part of my life she'll play until the day I die.

The loss remains enormous and the lessons learned exist in a vacuum as vivid as the lack of smiles that have existed since her death. As the words ring more and more hollow there is something I have absorbed about the loss: the most important thing my mom tried to teach me was to give it my best and to be as decent to others as I expected them to be to me. And as long as I can do that I will succeed on my own terms. Even if no one else sees that in quite the same way as she did.

Trying to Be Like Charles Atlas

What makes a guy line up five hours before a Twins game on an August Sunday morning in the year 2000? Kirby Puckett Bobblehead Day that's what. I was never that big a Kirby fan when he was our star player (I liked our other rotund player from that era, Mr. Hrbek, better). But having fought my way for the first three bobbleheads this year (and prominently featuring them in my living room I might add) I had no choice but try and get the most sought after doll- Mr. Puckett to complete my collection.

It's not as though I don't appreciate Kirby's contribution to the Twins' history. I liked the way Kirby played the game with so much enthusiasm, competitive spirit, and fun. I liked how well he played the game with his unusually shaped rotund body. I always vowed that I would one day mold myself into the same shape. Now after a winter of inactivity and a summer of the same I find myself tipping the scales heavier than ever before. And the extra weight indeed seems to be settling in the same area that Kirby expanded in. My pants seem awfully tight these days.

Lo and behold after watching my heroes on Survivor wither away to skin and bones (with the noticeable exception of the naked Richard) I decided it time to get off my arse and get myself back to myself. So after a week of Nordic Tracking and eating much less, I lost five pounds. Call it the Dave diet. If I can keep this up for another 27 weeks I'll thankfully be completely gone.

To celebrate this loss I went out on Saturday night and purchased a CD burner (which I couldn't really afford on my airtight budget). But in my efforts to be more of an American I've learned the wonders of having a credit card. Besides I figured it would be my little treat for the summer. We all gotta treat ourselves sometimes right? So I spent the evening making CDs. Dylan CDs. Compilation CDs. Party CDs.

The next day still feeling more than a little guilty over my extravagant purchase I came home after finishing up another solid issue of the newsletter and pulled my car up to my garage. As I was opening the door the roller on the right side popped out of its track- a recurring problem. Try as I might, I couldn't get the door back on track. I spent the next half an hour pounding away at the roller and the track using my old softball bat with enough volume and force to give the dog next door a most curious (not quite frightened, too startled to be concerned) look on his face.

Alas, I pounded too hard and the roller flew off. Now I was left holding the door above my head. As I tried to maneuver it in a way to be stable enough where I could reach down and pick up the roller, the roller on the other side popped out of its track. Now the only thing holding that door afloat were two springs and my Olive Oil like arms. The wooden door only felt like it weighed five hundred pounds.

I figured if I let go I'd be squashed like the bug I've become. I figured if I tossed it forward it would fly loose of the springs and the glass windows would shatter everywhere. Quickly weakening I did a combination of both. I flipped it up and behind me. The springs held and only one pane of glass shattered. The door bounced into an upside down, inside out position leaving me just enough room to get out of the garage, or just enough room for thieves to come along and take my lawn mower at their leisure.

I looked down past my grease covered hands to my chest covered with a T-shirt of a cartoon cat slowly sliding down the middle of my shirt with its claw marks left behind. I noticed a small blood stain amongst my sweat. I pulled my shirt up and looked for a cut. There was no break in my skin anywhere in sight. It reminded me of my least favorite movie of all time, "The Natural," where the hero suffering with a bleeding ulcer steps up to the plate and knocks one into the lights. I used to think it quite an affront that we were to believe that his ulcer was so bad that it was actually bleeding through his clothing. Now I know better.

The cost of repairing all this damage made the decision to splurge on the CD burner seem even more unwise. And not even the bobbin head to the flow of music nor the taste of the first tomato from my garden this summer could take that away.

Monday, August 7, 2000

Behind the Muse-Ick

Over the years we've filled these pages with all my personal triumphs and successes so I figure it's time to reveal the flipside- my biggest disappointment. And believe it or not this moment has nothing to do with the morning I discovered that Burger King's "hash browns" are nothing but a glorified tater tot or one big potato cake depending on your perspective. So we begin this week's yarn.

I think it safe to say with CBS's "Survivor," the Food Channel's "Iron Chef," game show, and A&E repeating "Murder One," TV viewers have never had as much must see fast food TV as we do this summer. It's almost as if the TV executives are tempting us to neglect our social lives, forget about leaving the house, and spend as much time as we can absorbing those absorbing electrons from our TV screens into the neurons of the gray stuff up above.

Last Sunday night as I was doing my nightly flipping, I was finding it unusually difficult to come across a show that captured my attention for longer than twenty seconds at a time. Sunday Night Baseball featured an intriguing matchup- the mighty Chicago White Sox against the Disney friendly Anaheim Angels, but for some reason the game didn't have much appeal to me. I was just about resigned to giving up and having to read a book when luckily I came across a new episode of VH-1's "Behind the Music."

Every episode of the show I've seen has basically been the same story no matter the group or individual featured. Each story begins with a happy and sad childhood dreaming of being a famous musician; moves to the struggles of finding a musical identity; tells of the adventures of getting booked into the right venues. From there we learn of the "big break" and ensuing first time on the radio- where the featured band/star tells of the excitement of the moment, of pulling the car over and barfing. From there is a meteoric rise to fame when music fans can't seem to get enough of the band/star's music or time. We learn of ominous signs of the impending fall- either into drugs or some other personal tragedy, then we see the fall. Just when it seems all is lost we learn of the recovery and the slow turn on to the comeback trail.

What made me stop my channel flippin' and actually watch this entire episode was the band featured- the Bangles. To see the band's "story" pigeonholed into the series' format was a bit disconcerting. They told of how the Peterson sisters met up with Susanna. They told of how throughout their career the band struggled with being taken seriously as musicians as opposed to being looked at as just a girl group. Attention was paid to Prince's infatuation with Susanna and his giving them the band's first one number song, the sublime "Manic Monday." They told of the disintegration of the band caused in large part by Susanna's growing popularity and her subsequent desire to be a solo artist. The show ended (of course) with glimpses of the band's reunion as they attempt to record another CD and tour together again.

For those of us who knew the band the show seemed a tad shallow on the way things actually were. But behind Behind the Music was the music- those glorious Bangle harmonies, those lovely jangly Bangle guitars, that familiar look (the shift of the eyes, the sideward glance) from Susanna (sigh)- how could anyone turn away? It felt like 1986 all over again before we all knew the difference between a right and left mouse button.

Of course I was a tad disappointed there was no mention whatsoever of my role in the Bangles' history. It was never easy being the only boy in an all girl band. What made it even harder was the instrument I played- the whiskey jar, which in my care was both a percussive instrument- with my big toe poppin' out of the top, and also melodious instrument with that same toe rubbing around the ridge creating a flute like sound. Early on I was dubbed the "fifth Bangle" but anyone who was around knows I put the bang in the Bangles.

I wrote many of the early songs- many of which were unlike anything anyone had ever heard- about albino squirrels, love songs to Tom Snyder, and vodka collins. When we were looking for the next big sound I molded us into the in-line skating band forming those soon to be famous harmonies. My unrequited love for Susanna probably got me kicked out of the band although the girls all expressed concern when I made the decision to stop touring and focus on the songwriting. Those wild rumors of me blacktopping my living room so I could have an in-line skating track around my piano to inspire me- were not entirely accurate.

Susanna thought by getting rid of me there'd be no more songs written about her. But she was wrong. She broke my heart and that was ALL I could write about for a long long time. Of course she returned the favor- I remain convinced to this day that "Eternal Flame" was directed at me. I was told the decision to kick me out was that they didn't want to be seen as a gimmick band- which is ironic because they always fought the unfair label of a "girl group." I was saddened by the decision, especially since they told me right on the brink of our first recording session with Columbia. But I can tell you this, had I remained there never would have been that "Walk Like an Egyptian" fiasco.