Friday, November 9, 2012

I'm With the Band

It was a dream opportunity. One of my favorite bands asked me to join them.

Never mind that I was older. Or that I wasn't any kind of a rocker. Although I own some Spandex, I don't look good in it. As much as rock bands strive to have good songs, they ache for a cool name and a great look. I had the kind of look that fathers welcomed when their daughters brought me home.


I was raised on musicians like Paul Simon, James Taylor, Jim Croce and Carole King. It's not that I was destined to play that kind of singer-songwriter music. It's just that I was surrounded by it, much like being an American doesn't make you like hot dogs but you all know how to make one. To teach myself guitar, I brought home songbooks I bought with my bus-boy profits. I'd hole up in my bedroom, put my fingers where the little dots told me to, and learn entire albums.


I'm a solid guitarist with an ear for harmonies, and this band needed both. Their badass, dread-wearing, singing, hip-hopping bass player had been kicked out of the band for punching the lead singer in the face.


It was just a month before their big CD release party, so two of us were brought in to take his place. It was a joy to learn the songs, because I loved every one of them. On the day of the CD release show, I stood on the stage feeling like a father having his photo taken as his daughter's date at the senior prom: proud, but I knew I was not the first choice. Or the tenth.



We played a few random gigs after that. A drippy bar or two. A festival out in the middle of a cornfield, with a stage cobbled from a flatbed trailer. In the humid summer heat we stood waiting while it occurred to the manager that they needed to run an extension cord hundreds of feet to to the stage so we could plug in.

Playing an acoustic guitar outdoors in the summer is like eating an ice cream cone: you have about two good minutes before it wilts miserably. It sounds like it's wearing socks.


The lead guitarist, a wordless fellow so tall and skinny and with a cowboy hat so broad that he looked like the letter T, began making suggestions. "Why don't we hang out, just the two of us, and play some guitar?" He didn't mean, "Let's be buddies!" What he was saying was "Why don't you let me show you how I want you to play."


Soon I found myself out of the band altogether.


Bands don't really fire a member. They usually just morph around him, like in the Ben Folds song:

Citing artistic differences
The band broke up in May
And in June reformed without me
And they got a different name

We stopped having rehearsals. There were no calls, no explanations, no questions. We all knew. The gigs stopped. After a few awkward months, we could see each other and act like nothing happened. Guys are great like that.

The reason so many bands pop up with a remix of members from other bands isn't because the guys are great pals and all hang out together for the love of music. It's because somebody got fired, in the time-honored, passive-aggressive tradition of males.


Guys break up bands like they break up with girls:

We need some time off.
It's not you. We think you're great. We just want to go in a different direction.
We can still hang out.

Last night I was on the bill with a few other solo songwriters, including the former lead singer of that band. We sat in together on a few of his older tunes, and like riding a bicycle the chords and harmonies came back. Older and paunchier, we played stripped-down acoustic versions of those songs on the small, unfussy stage. It felt so much more right.

My songwriter friend Beth once said that a good song was one that worked just as well on an acoustic guitar as it does under a truckload of lights, amps and Spandex. Maybe that's why I was drawn to that band in the first place. I couldn't rock the look, but I sure could rock the song.

Friday, October 26, 2012

In The Real World

I stood in the dark, wet alley behind the movie theater. It was a small-town theater, and the alley, lined with saggy cobblestones, was barely wide enough for the garbage truck to get through. I stood alone, waiting for the actors to come out.

At eight years old, I wasn't old enough to figure out how they projected actors onto the big screen. I figured they put a big, bright lamp behind them, and the light shined hard enough on the silky screen that the audience could see their enlarged images, much as my shadow from the streetlight was longer than I was.

Before the movie had started, a pleasant man in a bow tie had walked out from behind the curtain onto the stage. He mentioned a few upcoming attractions, encouraged us all to buy popcorn during the intermission, and then, after expressing his sincere hope that we would enjoy the film, he slipped behind the curtain into the dark, secret world backstage. I watched for him but he never appeared in the movie. He must have just sat back there, out of the way, his job done.

The back door opened, startling me. A man walked out with two dripping garbage bags filled with wet popcorn and sticky paper cups. I tried to steal a glimpse through the door before it closed, hoping for a peek at the movie set, the characters lounging around smoking with their feet up. Maybe they'd see me, wave me in. But it was dark inside. I couldn't see anything, and the door shut.

I walked slowly the three blocks home. I do my best thinking when I walk. I sat down cross-legged beside our black-and-white TV, it's skinny legs touching mine. I stared at its cross-section. There was clearly not enough room for anyone to be inside. I didn't know how they pulled it off, but that's when I realized I had waited in the alley for nothing. For no one.

The TV that sat in a place of honor in our crowded living room was a big liar.

I had my suspicions, but TV was filled with such trustworthy characters: Andy Griffith, Captain Kangaroo, Family Affair's Uncle Bill and the nice father of Chip, Robbie and Ernie on My Three Sons, who seemed to be the dad to half the families on The Wonderful World of Disney every Sunday night. I guess that should have been another clue.

"Move back from the TV – you'll ruin your eyes, " my mom warned. But every day I sat within touching distance of the bulging green glass, pixels big as my finger, and she didn't bother to repeat herself.

Each afternoon included a half-hour Bingo show. Mom would set me up with a few Bingo cards and a jar of dried beans. I listened dutifully to the voice on the TV as he read, "I…12. G…26." I don't think I liked playing Bingo as much as I was compelled to organize beans perfectly centered in each square. I was satisfied to create order. If I completed a row, I knew to say bingo! but at that time of day I was alone in the living room, and the TV game continued as if I hadn't said anything.

I had a crush on Miss Linda, the pretty teacher on Romper Room, who cared for a tiny class of children I hadn't seen in town. She looked like Carol Burnett with black hair, her big toothy smile filled with kindness. At the end of each show she raised her Magic Mirror and looked deeply into it. After a few disorienting moments of swirling special effects, she could see right through the mirror, right through the TV and out into the world. "I see Bobby," she said. "I see Jane, and there's Debbie, and Tim."

I waited, staring, unblinking.

"…Rachel, and Kent, Eric and Susie…"

I shyly waved hello.

"…Abdul, LaTravia, Pedro, Ingrid…"

She went through every conceivable name, looking right at me, right through me, with that insipid smile even as she ignored me.

"It's Mickey!" I called. "I'm RIGHT HERE."

The show ended. I turned off the set, watching the image implode into a tiny star that dimmed until it vanished altogether. I sat more alone than before.

Not long after, and with great effort, I starting going by my given name, Michael. My parents tried to be respectful of my wishes. To this day my siblings still call me Mickey.

I've learned that every fifth person shares my name. When I hear someone call "Mike!" my chemistry jumps a little but I don't turn around. They're usually calling for some other Mike, and I hate to be embarrassed by my anticipation.

Maybe when Miss Linda said "…and I see Billy," Billy wasn't sure she meant him Billy. But he could imagine it. He could continue to feel assured that Miss Linda was real, and with her acknowledgment, that he was too.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Blow Me Away

The first time I witnessed a real breakthrough in the culinary arts was when a fistful of Pop Rocks exploded in my mouth. Not as in, "exploding with flavor!" As in, blew up.

"Taste the Explosion!" the packaging exclaimed. I knew what an explosion tasted like. A firecracker once went off in my mouth. Perhaps I'll tell that story in July.

Because I did not learn a thing from that episode, I opened my mouth and tossed in a handful of the jewel-red Pop Rocks. Like every other kid trying Pop Rocks for the first time, I screamed and spit out the crackling carnage, choking at the sight of my foaming, blood-red spit. Then like every other kid I exclaimed, "Cool!"

Cereal makers lead the creative food charge for kids, turning honeycombs, s'mores and doughnuts into  corn-based, primary-colored breakfast that goes down like a spoonful of sugar. But finding more ways to eat sugar isn’t exactly a breakthrough. 

For grown-ups, behold the booze asmooch… the amused douche… [pause while I look it up]… the amuse-bouche, a one-bite treat brought to your table by the chef in frillier restaurants. This delicacy is his calling card, meant to sum up his entire culinary philosophy in a single wad of raw salmon or blob of mint foam. The amuse-bouche is technically not an appetizer because it comes before the appetizers and you didn't order it. It's more a thing to admire than a thing to eat. But you eat it anyway. The last one I had tasted like Thanksgiving dinner and dessert at the same time. If anyone is watching, you roll your eyes around thoughtfully as you ponder its slimy, slippery texture. How bold! Bravo! If nobody's watching you, you slide it off your tongue into your napkin.

The urge for creativity has invaded coffee, starting with cheap powdered styrofoam that looks quite like you actually paid $5 for a cappuccino. No more plain powdered non-diary creamer. [Another pause: if it's not dairy and not liquid, why do we still call it cream?] Now you can enjoy additives like Coffee-mate Belgian Chocolate Toffee, Parisian Almond Crème (you know it's really French because it has the accent), or Crème Brûlée (three accents! And no, I'm not making these up). How about Tiramisu Cheesecake? (Okay, I made that one up. Pretty good, huh? Hire me, Coffee-mate!) These powdered miracles are for people who don’t like coffee but drink it anyway.

The real food breakthroughs of the last decade are in food packaging. To make a no-drip ketchup bottle, Heinz developed a tiny sphincter spout that doesn’t leak at all until you squeeze the bottle hard enough until it blows like a zit across your hot dog, over the table and up the mink coat of the woman at the next booth, which is what she deserves if she’s wearing a mink coat in a place that serves ketchup. (If that seems like an odd example, know that it actually happened to me.) Heinz needs to solve the squeeze bottle's tendency to sound like a fart, which inevitably happens within earshot of 8-year-old boys who giggle and repeat that sound for the rest of the day until you send them to bed early.
Frito-Lay has perfected an exploding potato chip bag, which opens everywhere except along the top seam labeled "Open here."

Nature's Harvest reduces waste by putting only 3 ounces of granola in their 16-ounce box, cradled in a little biodegradable plastic bag surrounded by a box of, I presume, fresh, 100% organic country air.
The age-old wax-and-cardboard milk carton now has a plastic spout on top. Convenient! Just 1) unscrew the lid, then 2) dig out the “freshness seal” underneath by pulling the attached ring which 3) breaks off, then 4) dig out the damn thing by stabbing it with a butter knife. This innovation takes three times longer and drips twice as much as the original fold-open spout, which is still part of the carton.

Food trend-setters: if you are short of inspiration, here are three suggestions:
1. create cling wrap that does
2. biscotti-flavored coffee cups
3. make tomatoes out of tomato

Meanwhile, I could go for some more exploding food.

Reprinted from Food & Spirits Magazine, Fall 2012

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Underground

I grew up in a big house in a small town. A third of that house was basement, the Midwestern kind with a cellar door angled nearly flat to the ground. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, you bent down to open it, and yes, you usually had to kick it a time or two to break it loose of the dirt and spiderwebs sealing it shut.

It opened with a horror movie squeak to reveal dark cinderblock walls and a plank stairway. As a boy I was certain that somehow I would fall or be dragged by my skinny legs through the open spaces between every step. I often descended sitting down, sliding gingerly down each splintery plank to the underworld.

At the bottom was a strong wooden door with heavy beams. The dark, unfinished oak was rock hard, with a "None shall pass" feel, secured with a sliding bolt on the inside. We were warned from birth to keep it locked, lest someone – or something – get in.

One had to open that door with care, for on the reverse side hung a dartboard. The inside face of the door was pocked with a thousand dart scars, evidence that we were a family of lousy shots. Had we been been hunters, we would have starved.

A skeleton had been spray-painted in silver across the door, a murky memory of the single Halloween party we hosted. The unfinished basement, draped in cobwebs and dark beams, hardly needed decorating. Yet in rare abandon, my father sprayed graffiti ghouls across the west wall, across the cellar door, down the south wall. I was aghast. I was thrilled.

The door shut with a chunk. And there I was, in the silent unfinished basement. There were a few toys and games down there, the destructive kind like darts that weren't allowed in the rest of the house. My Hot Wheels, which benefited from all that smooth concrete and unobstructed floor space. But usually I crept across the stairs to the Holiest of Holies: my father's workshop.

I would walk reverently with my little Keds deck shoes, shy to disturb anything, as one tours a funeral home. The room always had a slight powdery sheen of wood dust, and the floor was a scrapbook of paint drips and varnish. My dad had been generous letting me watch him work, a single bead of sweat always hanging from the tip of his nose as he patiently explained how to use each tool. He warned me of the dangers of the ominous radial arm saw, relating stories of skilled craftsmen who were missing a finger or lost a whole hand in a single lapse of attention.

I took a wide arc around the Saw of Death to the Wall of Tools, each designed for a small, specific task. Dad bought tools he thought he might need, like the tiny mirror with a curved handle that let you see into awkward spaces to find the ring you dropped down the heating grate. Or the long spindly grabber with a syringe-type plunger on one end and a little claw on the other, to reach deep and retrieve that ring. Most of his tools were never called upon. Once you had a tool to retrieve a lost ring, you never dropped a ring. But hey, you never know.

The cardinal sin against my father was failure to return a tool to its rightful spot. He traced each tool's shape with a marker on the pegboard wall. A missing tool stood out accusingly like a homicide outline on the sidewalk.

I would pass the double-wheel grinder, an irresistible tool perfect for sharping knives and darts. I also sharpened Matchbox cars and Barbie dolls. It spit radiant sparks with a screech I think of every time I'm in a subway. It's the kind of tool that makes you look for things to sharpen.

At the end was the Wood Room, or the Shack of Dreams. Dad never threw away a scrap of wood larger than a quarter. He stacked everything neatly: small slivers here, large planks there, old window frames and boxes in neat files that made sense only to him. I would stand in the middle of it all, as if I could summon the pieces to swirl up into a living whole. I was certain that with the right wood and the right tools I could build myself a bicycle. I would select a single dusty plank, pick out a screw from Dad's library of spare hardware, and twist it into the wood. Then I'd back out the screw and put it away again.

After my dad died, my older brother who lived nearby appropriated most of Dad's tools, but I got some of the leftovers for my own tool room: a few C-clamps, a set of tiny craft screwdrivers, an old Dremel tool. I discovered Dad's original plans for building a scow sailboat, which he had torn out of a Popular Mechanics magazine. In the corner was a photo of how the boat would look finished, skippered by a proud sailor with a pipe. In my scrapbook I have an identical photo of my own dad with his own pipe on his own sailboat built in his own basement.

I never built my bicycle.

Yesterday I went to the hardware store to get a new lawn sprinkler. Like Dad, I detoured through the tool isle. In the middle of all the screwdrivers and saw blades and drill bits, I spied a shiny Combination Depth Gauge with Inside / Outside Calipers. (That's it in the picture.) With this caliper one can measure (to a millimeter, thanks to its clever Vernier gauge) the width of a shaft, or the hole it hopes to go into. In my thirty years as a handy adult I've never used such a caliper. Never needed one.

I bought it anyway. You never know.

Friday, May 25, 2012

You Say You Want an Evolution

So the president's opinion on gay marriage is evolving. I know better to jump into that discussion, so…

[ jump! ]

He chooses his words carefully. Evolving is not the same as changing. To evolve is to develop new characteristics ever so slowly, so slowly you can't even see it happen, but eventually you're distinctly different. You change your mind. You evolve a new head.

So probably he didn't change his mind. Probably he's trying hard to make baby steps because everyone around him asks him to. He has to evolve. But we'll never know, will we?

Evolution is like that. We never know. For all the arguments about the science of species evolution [ jump! ] there really isn't any evidence of it. Darwin had no "theory of evolution." He proposed only that better-adapted animals were more likely to breed, which explains why Andy Warhol didn't have kids. There's plenty of evidence for birds changing colors or dogs breeding floppier skin, but there's no evidence of birds becoming dogs. The familiar illustration of hunchy little monkeys growing taller and straighter until they suddenly become a guy in a pinstripe suit looks viable enough, but no one has any evidence of it.

Then, of course, if monkeys evolved into humans, why are there still monkeys around? They live without destroying their environment, engaging in an endlessly sustainable existence. If anything, humans ought to be evolving into chimps.

Only God knows, and as y'all are quick to point out, I am not a god. But if I were, if I could steer evolution, I'd do a few things differently.

I think eyeballs would be better mounted on the end of fingers. That way you could look over high shelves, spy over fences, see where your keys fell under the grate, and get a better look at your bald spot. Hammering a nail would require a little extra courage, but in return the head would be one solid bony helmet, protecting our precious brain.

Our nose would be better served on fingers too, so we can figure out where that stink is coming from without all the stooping. Ears too. So I guess my future human would be just a bunch of sense organs at the end of spindly appendages. Sort of a radar array anemone.

Testicles front and center, bouncing in a thin sack like two kids conking heads in the back seat of a car on a bumpy road — whose idea was that? If balls are so important, shouldn't they be tucked safely inside? Like inside the brain? Where they wouldn't be a bulls-eye target for every baseball? Where we wouldn't have to see them? Eyeballs are surrounded by protective bone, yet our future dangles fragile as eggs.

Scientists marvel  that testicles rise and fall like a yo-yo (okay, two yo-yos), to coddle our temperature-sensitive sperm. Isn't' that genius?  Hey — humans can control the temperature of an office tower with a twist of a thermostat. Women managed to keep their goodies tucked safely inside. Maybe women are just more evolved.

Fauna is full of variety: gills, feathers, fingers, spines. But there's also a curious consistency: almost all animals have a nose. Two eyes. Not one, not three. Appendages in pairs, even though a tripod would be far more stable — just ask a kangaroo. Did God restrict himself to a palette of building blocks much like Legos, from which he could build anything, but everything would look like he built it?

Did a giraffe get a long neck so he could eat leaves high on a tree, or does he eat leaves high on a tree because he always had a long neck? Maybe Adam and Eve were plopped onto this Earth as two beautifully, fully-formed adults, tender feet nestled in soft green grass. Maybe the only thing evolving is opinions. For that reason alone, maybe I should respect them more.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Cleaning Up

It's getting harder to buy soap. Maybe it's a guy thing, but once I find a laundry soap that works, I stop comparing. I go to the store and buy my brand, ignoring all the blinky, shiny, orchid-scented, double-concentrated, softener-added products surrounding it.

I made my preference randomly in the first place. My daughter did a little research project in high school and found that one brand of laundry soap actually cleaned a little better, and since I didn't have an opinion of my own, I bought that one and have used it ever since.

Luckily my options are narrow. Because I use a front-loading machine, I have to use "high-efficiency" detergent. Apparently regular-efficiency soap will bubble up into a cumulonimbus cloud of foam. Maybe "high-efficiency" is badly named, since it bubbles less. But the bottom line is that there are only a handful of H.E. choices. I like my choice: it's just soap.

But yesterday it was gone, replaced with "For Sensitive Skin, No Perfumes or Dyes!" My first thought was "why you gotta change everything?" My second thought was "So what – you were poisoning me this whole time?" My third: "Those chemicals that irritate sensitive skin (and apparently not my leathery ass) are probably the same chemicals I trust to get the mustard stains off my shirt.

I bought it anyway. What could I do? Already I feel like a sensitive-skin sissy.

I respect that some machines require "high-efficiency" soap because I leaned the lesson from my dishwasher, on a day I ran out of dishwasher soap.

I was on my way out the door, leaving the country (willingly), and I didn't want the dirty dishes in my dishwasher to evolve into a thriving, self-governing community before my return. I had some regular dish soap. "How different can that be?" I squirted it into the little door cup of the dishwasher and hit "Go."

As I grabbed my last suitcase and headed for the door, something caught my eye, something much like the oozing protagonist in The Blob, only white. Before my eyes it silently covered the wooden kitchen floor in three inches of foam, pouring out the dishwasher door seams like cotton candy.

I shut off the dishwasher, gingerly opened the door. I grabbed a dustpan and began shoveling foam into the sink, which became full after about four shovelsful.

It is nearly impossible to get bubbles to go down a drain. They dance happily above their eminent doom, and all the hand-corralling and cuss words won't make them obey gravity.

On the plus side, my kitchen floor was never cleaner. And I use the proper soap now.

It was like a similar adventure I had after spilling a jar of instant coffee on the floor. (Apparently I'd rather tell this story than hide from you the filthy truth that I once drank instant coffee.) Using a wet mop to clean instant coffee just makes a pot of coffee on the floor. The more I mopped, the more coffee I made. One must respect how much coffee they squeeze into those little brown crystals. Science is amazing.

Ironically, you have to clean up after soap. Seems like soap ought to be self-cleaning, but I hire a cleaning lady twice a month to get "soap scum" off my shower. And what does she use to clean soap scum? Soap.

My face soap comes in a little pump bottle. (Some girl finally convinced me that using a bar of Lava on my face was not right.) It's a nice little bottle, a shame to throw away, so I thought I'd keep it around for, um, something. I was feeling recycle-y. I rinsed the remnant soap out, and it bubbled and bubbled out the top. I rinsed. And it bubbled. A-n-d b-u-b-b-l-e-d. About twenty gallons of hot water and a size-12 carbon footprint later, I gave up and threw the bottle away.

I can be crotchety but I don't yearn for the days where we (Who am I kidding? By we I mean women.) cleaned our clothes by banging them onto rocks. But as I encounter about fifty kinds of soap a day, including body soap, shampoo, toothpaste, face soap, dish soap, dishwasher soap, laundry soap and all manner of solvents I have in my workshop, I gotta think somebody out there is really cleaning up.