Monday, June 27, 2005

Smile or at Least Smirk

I live on just this side of Como Town where everyday is full of sunshine and sparkles and everybody is clean cut and honest in sporting their sporty Midwestern summer attire.

Everyday is pretty much the same in these parts. Most days I awake after a restless night and usually there is a kitty lying next to me on my futon. It's not always the same kitty but I let the trio work it out between them who gets the special spot. The other two are usually in the vicinity so as I get out of bed I waddle on over and pat them on the head. After I get out of my shower the three cats are waiting for me outside the door and again I pat them all on the head and wish them a hearty "good morning!"

This past Saturday things changed. The auburn haired lass, who has a magnificent green thumb, stopped on by to help me clean up the mess that was my front yard flower garden. She brought over a bevy of plants and we spent the morning cleaning up nine years worth of twigs (that's the spot I threw the yard waste I found lying around my yard), and moving a horde of Hostas to the other side of my front steps and down my sidewalk.

With bags of garden soil (I was supposed to have gotten potting soil which I learned after the fact was much lighter) and mulch we transformed my front yard from a minor eyesore into something that actually looks good. My heart was also a bit transformed by watching her interact with Thompson, the three-legged cat, who seems a bit leery of anybody, and anything, outside the realm of the norm. She seems to be about the only one Thompson will prance on over to without thought, and ask for a belly rub.

All three cats got somewhat worked up as they watched us from my living room window. Whenever I had to come inside the three of them would run around as if all the commotion out front was going to mean something special for them.

The auburn haired gardening expert told me that digging up weeds, dead heading plants, watering her garden often serves as her therapy. As proud as I am of the work we got done I'm not sure I'll ever share in her relaxation technique. I've never been able to distinguish between a weed and a plant, never been able to put the effort into learning about all the great looking plants that could add some beauty to my nearby Como Town abode.

I imagine the closest I come to knowing what she feels when she's done with a night's work in her garden is when I listen to my music. When we finished our day long project I sat down and spun and clicked my iPod's buttons to the "Albums" menu choice and hit Smile. Up came both Brian Wilson's masterpiece and my favorite Jayhawk CD.

The two CDs' songs were intermingled but I was reminded how much I love both. A musically astute married couple bought Wilson's Smile a bit based on my highest recommendation, and they told me they didn't see what its appeal was. I was a bit surprised by this confession because to me it's eclectic song cycle is irresistible in itself. Still I understand how the sheer goofiness of the music might not appeal to all.

The sunny shimmering music of the Jayhawks' CD that shares its name with Wilson's CD may or may not directly acknowledge the connection between the two but the Minnesota group's song cycle includes a song called "Brian Wilson" that is a nice tribute to the wacked out crazy genius. The best song of the set to my ears however is the can't quite ever get this out of my head no matter what mood I may fall into "A Break in the Clouds" that seemed even more perfect on this particular night. "I just want to remember you/The way you're standing there/With that hurry home looks in your eyes/And flowers on the table/Sometimes I see too much/ Sometimes I see too little/Sometimes shadows fall, darken all/And cover up the fable/Every time that I see your face/It's like cool, cool water running down my back..."

Monday, June 20, 2005


"Veronica sits in her favorite chair and she sits very quiet and still/And they call her a name that they never get right and if they don't then nobody else will/But she used to have a carefree mind of her own, with devilish look in her eye/Saying 'You can call me anything you like, but my name is Veronica'"
-Elvis Costello

Just like Veronica Mars, I was on the fringe of popularity in high school. I'm sure most people in my class knew who I was, and my respect level was at a respectable level, but I wasn't about to be chosen homecoming king or "most likely to succeed" any time soon.

And it's not like I like to look back at those days but the other day I ran into a former classmate during a softball game and it was then I realized I don't like to be reminded of past days and I'm not entirely sure I like to reveal where I'm at these days, but still as sad as I often feel now, I'm at a much better place then I was back then.

There are very few things that connect me from the person I was then to the person I am now. Among these is my love of the comic strips that run in the daily newspapers. Ever since my Mom got me reading "Buzz Sawyer" my day doesn't quite seem complete unless I check out my favorite comic strips. My current favorite is "Get Fuzzy" about a frazzled pet owner and his relationship with his ever naive dog Satchel and his wannabe evil cat Bucky. I gotta say that nothing has moved me more than when I had a brunch a few months back with my friend Jennifer and she told me she started reading the strip because of my affection for it.

As Jennifer knows one of the first things I do when I get coherent in the morning is read "Get Fuzzy" to see what trouble Bucky is getting into next. A lot of things irritate me to no end these days and a little levity to start the day can't be a bad thing. Yes, now that I have been diagnosed with a legitimate pain in the neck, I have begun physical therapy to alleviate the numbness in my hand caused by a pinched nerve in my neck.

I went to my first therapy session (of the physical kind) this past week. Essentially the therapist spent the time having me lie down on a table and pulling my head away from my body. The first thought I had about this was I didn't like having my head touched. The next thing I thought was maybe I would leave the building a little bit taller. The final thing I thought about was one of my favorite "Peanuts" strips of all time where Linus has written a short story and gives it to Snoopy for a critique.

Linus' story is about a girl with terrible headaches that the doctors can't cure. Finally the girl's brother suggests loosening her ears and when they do, her headaches disappear. Manually manipulating my neck out seemed somewhat a similar process but I like Chad my therapist so I figure he knows what he is doing. I've endured this tingling in my shoulder and left side for years so it's not like I'm expecting any miracles any time soon.

One of the other things tying the old me to the current me is my need for music. I'm always looking for a song that will inspire me and the latest is Ryan Adams' "Let it Ride."

I've never quite been an Adams fan. I know all the critics rave about him and he is prolific as hell, but none of his songs have been the kind that gets stuck inside my heart and soul and won't let go. His spat with Paul Westerberg left me with no doubt who I should side with (kind of like the Tom Cruise/Brooke Shields exchange where Tom questioned Brooke's post maternity depression and Brook came back with harsh words about Tom's devotion to Scientology and a bash about the age difference between him and Katie Holmes).

"Let it Ride" however is such a relentlessly great song. It's got a mesmerizing guitar riff and absorbing lyrics. "Moving like the fog on the Cumberland River/I was leaving on the Delta Queen/And I wasn't ready to go/I'm never ready to go/27 years of nothing but failures and promises that I couldn't keep/Oh lord, I wasn't ready to go..." It's the type of song that just makes you want to get on your scooter and go someplace far far away. The way Adams sardonically yet energetically spits out his vocals makes "Let it Ride" my all-time favorite traveling aphrodisiac.

Close to second on my personal playlist is Shelby Lynne's "Where Am I Now." Lynne is another artist who is a critical darling even though her work has been highly uneven. Yet the gal deserves a break, as she witnessed the murder/suicide of her parents so that gives her a renewable artistic license. "Where Am I Now" is Lynne at her best. It's weary and it's wise and it's quite wonderful. When she sings, "Oh anytime you break and turn the cycles change/Water starts pouring down your face again/You find yourself falling in the safety net you used to call home.." not only do I believe her but I'm thankful that somebody somewhere has gotten it down on paper. I used to think I could get all the news I need on the weather report, but this song makes me think otherwise. You just got to keep on listening.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Killing Another Mockingbird

My life has never been as unhappy as it was at the end of 2004. Overworked, underappreciated, my social life in shambles, my friendships adrift, I flew past my expiration date left with the question, "now what?"

And although I know there are some people who will disagree, I've never been one who has been reluctant to make a change when I feel stuck- a change in jobs, a change in living situations, a change in a relationship, a change in my approach, I've done it all over and back again.

I found myself spontaneously making two significant changes this spring without giving either one much thought. First I added a third cat into the home front mixture for no apparent reason. Maybe it was a subconscious acknowledgment that after spending 40 years on this planet that at this point I almost prefer the company of a feline friend, because I'm learning more from them, as much as I do the human kind. Yet I'd like to think that it's more about there is no more noble reason to live than to try to make someone else's life just a little bit better. And I've come to the conclusion that the effort might be better appreciated by the four-legged species (or three-legged as the case may be) than the two legged kind I've recently run across.

The other change was the purchase of a scooter which has ended up changing not only my overall view of transportation, but has also given me a greater appreciation of the world around me. When you're not isolated in the cocoon of a heap of metal and glass you can't hide behind air conditioned or heated comfort. When you are constantly exposed to the elements not to mention the potentially fatal implications of trying to deal with people around you who may not be paying much attention, you find yourself hyper-aware of the things going on around you and in my case I have found I appreciate the sights and smells and sounds of things just a little bit more.

The other day I was scooting all over town on one of the few sunny days we've seen around these parts in over a month. I was nearby a Cost Cutters and my hair, now the length of Chewbacca's, was really bothering me so I stopped in and got it cut. No sooner was I hopping back on my scooter when out of nowhere it started to rain even though the sun was still beaming through the few clouds in the sky. It continued to rain all the way home and by the time I parked my scooter in my garage I was rather drenched. Just as I was entering my house the rain stopped and the sun's bright beams that shone the rest of the afternoon seemingly mocked my very existence.

Just as I throwing my hands up to give up once and for all, the third cat, young Thelonious as he is wont to do, came and played ignoring the anti-social nature the others, Thompson and Diego-san have tried to teach him is the cool thing to do when I'm in such an agitated state. It wasn't long before Theo got out his favorite crinkly ball and we were endlessly playing fetch. As he scampered after the ball, retrieving and dropping it at my feet anxious for its next flight, the other two Boyz made sure to stay out of Theo's path, and at the same time made indications that they were thinking about (ever so deeply as cats constantly seem to do) what the implications, end result, and timing of such a decision would ultimately be.

All this reminded me of a moment with a boss, Jenny Engh, I'll always have the utmost respect for, where and when she turned the corner and ran into me and for no apparent reason said, "I've discovered the meaning of life. It's to always remain curious and to keep learning." I'll never be sure why Jenny said this to me at that moment but I'm finally beginning to understand and appreciate what she meant. You begin to get old the moment you stop trying to learn about new things as difficult and painful as the learning process often is.

I recently found myself at a Twins game munching down a brat and being an involuntary captive audience to the discussion of the two men behind me. It often amazes me that people will talk about things and not care one hoot about who hears them. The two men obviously weren't much fans of baseball as they kept talking about how if they didn't use softballs in batting practice, the Yankee hitters would be peppering every batting practice pitch into the Metrodome's upper deck. I almost turned around then and burst their illusion that those were actually baseballs being hit, but I didn't. It was then the older sounding man asked the other, "What's the park that they can actually hit the ball into the ocean?" To which the younger man (and to give him the benefit of the doubt I'll have to admit he sounded teenage-ish) replied, "Um, I think it's Chicago..."

At this point I have to admit I am an absolute baseball snob. It is my one bias I can purely identify though I'm sure others exist. I don't care what other character flaws may exist but if a person truly understands and appreciates the beauty of the game of baseball (and there are seemingly few who do) I can forgive them most of their other transgressions.

Having such biases seems to be part of our human nature. (It may even go beyond that- I've noticed that Thompson, like Mr. Max before him- is much more likely to be trusting of our female visitors than he is of any male who steps into the house.) And after having seen the movie Crash this past week I have to say the topic of personal bias weighs heavy on my mind this very moment. The movie has its flaws but it isn't one that you can watch and not think about afterwards. I was so glad when my friend who came along said to me (even though she still isn't sure she liked the movie), "Everyone should see it."

The only truly great movie I've ever seen dealing with the subject of racism is Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.

Usually racism in movies is handled in a black and white manner. The racists are cartoonishly evil and their victims are on the short list of who will be the next Pope. A good example of this was the 1996 Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock movie A Time to Kill. That movie argued that some race based murders may very well be justified, especially when you're murdering some buffoonish evil pickup truck drivers. It's easy to approve of killing when the people you are killing have no redeeming qualities.

What Lee did so powerfully in Do the Right Thing was create a situation that explodes in racial tension and the viewer can clearly understand why all the characters acted in the way they did. Sure we might not have agreed that they did the right thing, but you can clearly see why they thought they were living up to the title of the movie.

Paul Haggis' Crash comes close to Do the Right Thing in its unblinking look at racism. It's easy to agree to dislike a racist if that person has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. It's another thing to have to balance a person's good qualities with that which brings out the ugliest side of many of us. There's a scene early in Crash where a white woman makes a defensive gesture when she and her husband are approaching two young black men. It's not an unusual or broad gesture and yet one of the two young men is quick to pick up on it and some of his anger and jaded life view seem suddenly a bit justified.

Crash tells several interlocking stories about people of all color and place in life. There's the rich black couple that get pulled over by a racist cop who molests the wife and leaves the two arguing whether the other is black enough. There's the district attorney and his wife who are carjacked by two black men leading to the wife (Bullock) ranting about not wanting a Hispanic locksmith changing the locks on their home. (He's tattooed, got a shaved head and is sure to give his "homies" a copy of the house key.) There's the Iranian shopkeeper who tries to buy a gun from a man who calls him an Arab even though the man is Persian. There's the crime scene investigator who doesn't bother to differentiate the nationality of the woman he's sleeping with to his mother who thinks he has sold out his own race and brother.

If nothing else Crash makes an effective point that the root of racism may not be so much hatred as it is anger. Scene after scene the anger seeps from the encounters between the film's characters. This is an angry society we live in and that anger often leads to misunderstanding and ignorance. It often hurt me growing up when I'd come across those who would slant their eyes with their fingers and call me a "Chink." I got by that by telling myself that I wished that if they were going to be such bigots that at least they could make the effort to get it right. The slur was meant for Chinese and if they wanted to accurately label me the least they could do was call me the "Jap" I was and am.

There's a small moment in Crash that made me appreciate Sandra Bullock the actress even if I didn't appreciate Sandra Bullock's character in the movie. It was when after a painful day she reaches out to the nearest person (who happened to be of an ethnicity she recently revealed a hatred for) and reveals that the person (her maid) is ironically her best friend. She wrings out the complexity of the moment with such emotion that it is hard to watch. The movie clearly demonstrates we all have our ugly judgmental sides that if logically analyzed would sour like the contents of a long expired carton of milk.

Yes we are all crashing into each others in total lack of understanding but as bleak as the movie is, there is a slight uplifting thread about how the actions of one person to conteract this unending cycle may actually be able to start to make a change, as small as it may seem. And that ripple, maybe just maybe, just be enough.

Monday, June 6, 2005

Mary and Aimee

I'm sure I'm not the first to say this but I think I'm in love with Mary Lucia. It would probably be enough that everybody's favorite local radio personality is a sheepish owner of three cats but there was a moment on a recent show that made me laugh harder than I've laughed in many a year.

Ms. Lucia was interviewing the songwriter of a local band (I forget which band) and asked him a great, though somewhat Barbara Waltersesque question, "Are there any songs out there that you wish you had written?"

The local artist thought for a moment and then said, "Yes. I wish I had written Burt Bacharach's 'Trains and Boats and Planes.'" Ms. Lucia then replied, "Hmmm. Do you also wish you had married Dionne Warwick?" The chiding, lyrical, playful tone to her voice was pitch perfect and the band and the songwriter chuckled at the spontaneous question and I nearly had to pull my car over I was laughing so hard.

Yet the only complaint I have so far about Ms. Lucia's station 89.3 (THE CURRENT!) is there has been far too much Aimee Mann. Judging by the amount of air time Aimee has gotten, man the DJ's seem to adore her music.

Not that I dislike Aimee Mann's music. I always kind of thought Til Tuesday was head and shoulders above other like bands from the same time who got far more acclaim (Crowded House for one) and Mann's solo work has been consistently rewarding. Her contributions to the Magnolia soundtrack are equal parts soul searching, soul saving, and soulfully devastating.

Aimee will also always occupy a soft spot in my heart for her appearance on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the episode her band was playing at the Bronze when a vampire fell from the rafters above and landed with a splat, disintegrating into dust. The band stops playing. and then picks up the song exactly where they left off. Later as they are leaving the bar Aimee deadpans, "That's why I hate playing vampire towns."

My complaint is more based on I haven't heard all that much Liz Phair or Lucinda Williams on 89.3, everyone's favorite public radio music station, and there are a slew of mostly overlooked artists who for me far outshine Aimee Mann.

No Aimee isn't one of those artists whose each and every new release I make an effort to rush out to hear. And when I read several lukewarm reviews to her new CD, The Forgotten Arm, I wasn't exactly inclined to go seek out the new music.

I read that Forgotten Arm was a "theme CD" that told a story of a down and out boxer. Seeing that my most favorite recent movie was Million Dollar Baby and my favorite TV show from the past season was The Contender one would almost think that I have somehow become a boxing fanatic and that Mann's CD would be something I'd automatically want to hear. But beat me up with a padded glove and add to my misery, I really didn't see any need to complete the obvious triangle that lay down before me.

I was wrong. I wish I hadn't waited so long in buying The Forgotten Arm. Mann's writing is its usually sharp self and her sad sardonic vocals add to the story but the overall impact of the blows struck surprised me. This isn't kid's stuff and it's probably my favorite story based CD since Frank Sinatra's Watertown. It surely kicks Lou Reed's similar attempts like Songs for Drella and Magic and Loss all over the musical mat.

The CD packs a subtly powerful punch. The thread of the story details the disintegration of a couple. The boxer is a boozer. He's taken one too many hits, lost one too many fights and there's substance abuse that leads to emotional abuse and the couple's love has long since ceased to mean much at all to either participant. The couple is trying to figure out where to go, what to do even if it's long past time, way too far down the road where things can possibly work out ever again.

Though the CD is more than a bit of a downer, line after line, song after song build a picture and one begins to understand why this is a story the artist wanted to tell. "Life just kind of empties out, less a deluge than a drought, less a giant mushroom cloud than an unexploded shell..." and "Tell you I'm sorry that I made you a witness to my moral decay..." and "We stayed in our Calvins, and we swore we'd be best friends. And I looked through the zoom lens, and thought you were beautiful. Sometimes it hurts me to feel so much tenderness..."

The packaging of the CD is great. It's laid out to look like a pulp fiction novel and the hand drawn pencil sketches that accompany each song's (chapter's) lyrics skillfully match the mood of Mann's voice. The songs might be able to stand on their own but repeated listening reveals that each piece adds to the whole like fine china stacked neatly in its nearly empty wooden cupboard.