Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Rude Descending A Staircase

The last two years of my academic career were spent in what was referred to as a “school without walls,” an experimental program that offered students a greater amount of freedom than the traditional classroom.

Applicants were chosen by lottery and the winners found themselves in an environment more like college than high school. There were classes to be selected, credits to be earned and, in place of the traditional grading system of A through E, the teacher would write an “evaluation” which would discuss in detail what they thought of your performance. Not only that, but the student then got to evaluate the teacher, a dream come true for any student who felt they’d been slighted by a prejudiced educator.

The faculty consisted of private citizens and business people who were willing to share their expertise, the only caveat being that they had to be in the vicinity of Center City Philadelphia, close enough so that students would have enough time enough to travel from class to class. For instance, I had a class about Broadcasting in a local radio station, a class about Economics with a local Economics teacher (the class consisted of me and one other student), and a class on Comparative Religion at the local Art Alliance.

You would think that this would have been the ideal place for someone who had authority issues. But, as I’ll relate another time, I managed to find a way to turn most of these advantages against me eventually. It all ended up with my having to take a summer school class for the functionally illiterate. After awhile the teacher couldn’t figure out why I was there and said I could just hang in the library if I wanted.

Later that year my diploma arrived – in the mail. But that’s another story.

Sometime circa 1972, our section of the school (it was divided onto four – Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta) organized an event to take place atop the long staircase at the Art Museum that would allow the students to show off their musical talents. Having honed my chops on song parodies, having recorded a song called “Do The Christ” for an assignment from my Comparative Religion class (“You hang up on the cross/Hey, man, it’s really boss!”) and having made my art statement back in Drama Class, I seized on the idea of blending the music and the art.

I quickly corralled my drummer friend Harry into participating. I’d met him at school and ran into him frequently at The Franklin Institute, a local science museum where students had unlimited access to its Giant Heart, Nickelodeon, and Smell Bar. It was actually a pretty cool place to hang out between classes. Harry worked there part time on the trains and was himself a model train enthusiast with an impressive set-up at home. He was happy enough to go along with whatever I was planning which I thought was awfully tolerant of him.

Looking for inspiration, I hit on using the accordion that a friend had recently revealed she owned. I knew that had to fit in somewhere. So I had drums and an accordion. But it was my very recently acquired (not to mention first) girlfriend who suggested that she could be the vocalist for the ensemble. She wrote the lyrics for the piece, which consisted of four words: “My mind is messed.” I would bash the hell out of the accordion keyboard while she declaimed the lyrics and Harry kept up a steady beat to nowhere. We christened the number “Drug Fiend Polka” and prepared for our debut.

It was indeed a beautiful sunny day when we set up for the show. From the top of the steps you have a beautiful view of the city from the end of the Parkway whose other end is marked by City Hall. I chose to wear a rather loud jacket, which seemed appropriate considering the racket we were about to make. After a relatively straight rendition of some current radio hit rendered sincerely by some fellow students, a small crowd gathered around as I strapped on the accordion. My girlfriend stood patiently at the microphone while Harry took his place behind the drums.

I was cognizant that the building behind us held some of the great landmarks of Surrealist and Dadaist Art. We would be playing beneath the eyes of Marcel Duchamp’s now-shattered masterpiece “The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even” and his enigmatic “L’Etant Donnes.” Hopefully, we would receive his blessing as we prepared to present our own ready-made, a composition that owed as much to the gods of chance as it did to conscious preparation.

These ruminations were rudely interrupted as all at once, Harry began to pound out a massive basic rock beat. It built up the anticipation of the audience who started to lean in, wondering where this was going. Then, suddenly, I hit the accordion keyboard with extreme prejudice, producing a roar like a church organ having gone over to the other side. I continued to improvise in an atonal fashion until our vocalist felt the time was right and then she put the cherry on top:

“My miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiind is meeeeeeeeeeeeessssssssseeeeeedd!!!!”

I began to swing the box around, like I was the Hendrix of the accordion. If I could have gotten feedback out of it, I would have. All of a sudden, the faceplate of the instrument went flying off into the crowd. Now we had a show.

We kept up this tornado of auditory brutality until the three of us eventually found some natural place to stop, and we concluded to some applause. Someone handed me back the faceplate as I started to put the instrument away. A lot of folks seemed to like it and told us so. There was even one person who wanted to join the group.

But the “Drug Fiend Polka” was history. In a few years, the spot where it was performed would be universally celebrated as the place where a cinematic underdog makes good. But in the secret history of Philadelphia, it was first and foremost the place where an accordion went mad, a woman screamed about the deterioration of her mental faculties and a man with a train fetish held the two together through sheer force of will.

The place where Cubism and Rubism met.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

My Kind Of Town

Lest anyone misunderstand me, I say this with love about the City of Philadelphia, my home for most of my life:

We are a city of losers.

But, and this is important, it is by choice.

It is something so ingrained in the Philadelphia psyche that to extract it or change it would be to kill the essence of what it means to be a Philadelphian.

We don’t want to be New York or Boston or Chicago. We don’t need or desire sophistication. We aren’t sissies, for god’s sake.

Yes, we have a Social Registry and Debutante Balls and such. After all, our Kelly Drive, which escorts you into the heart of Center City, is named for Grace Kelly’s family. But our socialites seem ill-at-ease in their formal wear, as if they’re waiting for the wedding reception to be over so they can go home, change, and watch the game.

We have a fear of success and we jealously guard our mediocrity by making certain that anything we attempt will be done in an enthusiastically half-assed fashion.

If we ever won an award, we’d trip ourselves on our way to the stage to receive it.

On the other hand, don’t talk smack about us. We fully understand where we stand in the hierarchy of American cities, but our official line is that we’re just as good as any of those other big cities. Don’t screw with that illusion or we’ll give you a real Philly welcome.

We’re much happier not trying, not changing, and only doing something after some other city has tried it first.

For all intents and purposes, we are culturally retarded.

Sure, every once in a while you’ll see us make a half-hearted attempt at brightening the place up, but it’s like watching an entire city change its position on a couch.

It’s why so many people never leave and fresh blood never makes us their destination. You can’t simply “become” a Philadelphian, as Neal Pollack found out. It’s like our plentiful political patronage jobs: you simply have to be born into it. If you don’t grow up with the Philly mindset from birth, no amount of training or experience is going to give it to you. Most people can’t be deprogrammed into wanting less.

David Lynch got it right when he made Eraserhead. It may look surreal to most viewers, but to the denizens of the city that inspired it, it’s more or less a documentary.

Which is why it’s so wonderfully ironic that the motion picture the city is most identified with, 1976’s Rocky, is the story of a scrappy little underdog who triumphs over all the odds. A winner.

We don’t want to triumph over anything. We just want to be left alone.

Do you think we want to run up the Art Museum steps? Hell, no. In fact, we wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere near an art museum. Or any museum.

Do they play football or baseball at these museums? No? Then we’re not interested.

Unless the museum is serving drinks.

A few years before Sylvester Stallone hiked up those steps, though, I found myself standing on that very same plateau with an accordion in my hands while my girlfriend screamed into a microphone about drugs.

It’s a story that will have to wait for now, a story we’ll call…

Next: Rude Descending A Staircase

Monday, August 29, 2005

Anglo File

It’s tough when the things you’d like to buy all seem to cost around $20-$30 apiece anymore, which seems to be the going rate for import CD’s, special edition DVD’s and any decent book. You have to make some cuts in your shopping list or at least try to space them out.

So I was caught between a postpunk rock and a hard place at the Tower this weekend when faced with the dilemma of throwing down cash for the new Mark Stewart compilation Kiss The Future or Simon Reynolds’ 1978-84 overview tome Rip It Up And Start Again (Faber U.K.), first mentioned here ages ago.

The Stewart comp is brought to you by the fine people at Soul Jazz, who have done such a fine job reissuing the A Certain Ratio catalog. It’s weighted heavily in favor of his work with the Maffia, with only two Pop Group tracks in sight, We Are All Prostitutes and She Is Beyond Good And Evil. My hope is that we’ll get the Pop Group stuff on CD eventually and, as I like the Maffia stuff but have much of it on vinyl, I opted to put it on the back burner for now and read about it instead.

Initially enthusiastic after reading about Reynolds’ forthcoming book (and exchanging an e-mail with him at one point), I was taken aback when a friend read it and said that he thought it was a simple cut-and-paste job with nothing much new to say. As the only book to come forward on the era that I felt was a golden age, not to mention one that I was lucky enough to live through, I felt obligated to buy it regardless.

Although I can understand where my friend was coming from (there may not be enough “new” info you haven’t heard before if that’s what you’re coming here for), the book excels at placing the period in context and explaining just how these various scenes sprang up and interacted with each other. And there actually was enough new material in it to keep me happy and interested. Was I aware of the hidden Mekons/Delta 5 connection before? Well, I am now. Did I know that Young Marble Giants used to bring their dog to their gigs? Well, sir, I do now. Reynolds also does a nice job of encapsulating what a band was about in a handful of paragraphs. I thought his Fall section was very fair and perceptive, saying a lot more than some of the recent books on the subject.

Some of what the book has to say may sound obvious if you were there at the time, but you have to remember that it’s already started to fade into history. Reynolds conveys the adrenalin rush of these six years when it seemed that anything was possible and record after amazing record appeared in a seemingly endless series of instant classics. It’s the story of how group after group of kids suddenly realized there was nothing to stop them from putting out their own records and the distribution systems that were almost organically created overnight to handle the traffic. It’s a story of missed opportunities (the tale of how Magazine seemed to kill the momentum of an incredibly promising career with one appearance on Top Of The Pops is especially dismaying) and pop stardom that occurred both by accident and by dogged perseverance.

Mostly, though, it’s a great antidote to the history of punk that’s flogged by the mainstream press, the one that jumps from Never Mind The Bollocks to Nevermind. That’s not what happened.

This is.

Speaking of The Fall, there’s a recent Mark E. Smith quote I’ve been meaning to work into a post, mainly because it describes something I’ve also found myself doing lately.

What can I say? Great minds think alike:

“I'm also using that thing on TV where you can get subtitles so you can read the band's lyrics. That's always a good laugh. Some of the lyrics they come out with are quite absurd. You get this really heavy guitar music, the band going DA-DA-DA, really loud and the words are just like, 'You passed me in the street. You said hello. I said no. We went up the hill. Then we went down the hill.' You would think from the music that they're saying something really profound.”

It's called "closed captioning," Mark. Just FYI.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Pleased To Breathe Here

Sometimes I just enjoy sitting here and experience myself breathing.

Yeah, I can hear you. Must be a slow news day.

But when there's nothing getting in the way of breathing out and breathing in, as the song says, I think of the times when I was scared it would stop or when I felt I was having trouble drawing breath. Panic attacks that convinced me I was having a heart attack or that I would soon have a stroke or pass out. Anxiety that seemed to make me short of breath. Irregular heartbeats that made me gasp for air. Waking up in the middle of the night with my airway blocked. Illnesses that wouldn't allow me to breathe without coughing like a maniac.

There have been those times when I felt I was as close to madness or death as I ever wanted to be, even if these moments turned out to be false alarms. So to sit and draw a complete breath, and I don't even mean in a meditative, zen kind of way, just to do it, just to be able to do it, seems like the finest thing I could be doing at that moment, like watching a rippling stream or a beautiful blue sky. I'm in a peaceful place where nothing can hurt me.

One day it has to stop, though, which worries me. I had a long chat with a friend the other day about his kidney stone problem and we laughed at how we've turned into old ladies now, going on about our doctors and pills. And sometimes we talk about what's going to become of all the stuff we've spent our lives collecting. You don't want it scattered to the four winds after all that effort. We should chip in on a museum and put it on display. God, we spent enough years organizing it.

And now it all goes to someone else, like the house the wife and I bought from the little old lady who moved to Colorado. She'd spent the greater portion of her life in that house and here we were, moving in like we owned the joint, trampling over her memories. But that's the way of the world. We spend that first half of our lives gathering our rosebuds and the second half trying to figure out what to do with it. It takes that many years to understand that none of us really owns anything. We leave with the same stuff we brought with us. Dust to dust.

Which we know, of course. But we don't really know it. We whistle past the graveyard thinking we can sneak our stuff across the River of Death with us. But what would we do with it? Won't we be glad to get rid of it?

I generally don't like to think about the things I treasure ending up in other hands. Things that were signed to me, things that memorialize special occasions, special moments.

In the end, they're worth no more than the moment itself, I guess, which was always intangible.

I'm just enjoying the breathing. I own that. That's me.

But they're even going to ask for that back.

Who's going to get me?

Friday, August 26, 2005

The Crazy Southern Sisterhood of The Woo-Woo Underpants Club

They had all been childhood friends from very proper families. After the embarrassing incident with the physical education teacher and the pommel horse, Arianthe had been sent to Miss Cranston's School For The Wayward and Unfortunately Wealthy, where she'd met Clarissa whose golden curls beguiled small animals. Together they would hula hoop their summers away as the years began to slowly sculpt them into models of Southern womanhood, smarter than any man and as radiant as a can of corn from the Piggly Wiggly.

Jim had broad shoulders for a girl, but Arianthe and Clarissa were sensitive and intelligent enough not to judge her by her appearance. Jim liked them both very much and together the merry trio would haunt second-hand clothing stores, searching for that antique bauble that had the qualities of strength and tenderness that they all aspired to. Jim particularly enjoyed when they would share a dressing room together, exchanging used sweaters with each other as they giggled about which parts of their anatomy they wish they could change. Jim had a long list of these, but Arianthe and Clarissa assured her she would soon blossom as they had done and become a woman of strength while retaining a girlish innocence that men would find confusing.

Soon there was much blossoming going on. Arianthe and Clarissa blossomed their way across three states, in fact, while Jim would visit local bars as part of a journey of self discovery. The three would share their stories together late at night under a blanket, Arianthe and Clarissa much amazed at Jim's stories of generous out-of-town salesmen, while Jim stared at the pair wide-eyed as they described their proficiency at tearing open small wrappers with their teeth.

One night during a full moon, the three friends decided to make a ritual out of what was already obvious to the three of them already: they were a club, linked inextricably together for life, regardless of whoever blossomed who now or in the future. Recalling the words that Jim had uttered upon first seeing Arianthe and Clarissa in their crisp white cotton panties, the trio christened themselves The Crazy Southern Sisterhood of The Woo-Woo Underpants Club, a mad baptism that would stay with them all their lives, through various marriages, divorces, lawsuits, and sex change operations. Their identifying "handshake," as it were, consisted of one member lifting her skirt to reveal her underpants, while the other party would point and say, "Woo woo!" It was an empowering gesture that made them feel strong, as well as feminine.

But it was Crinoline who would finally teach them what it really meant to be a woman, Crinoline who would show them how to negotiate Life like a woman, Crinoline who would eventually go mad and be put into an assisted living facility for women. It was Crinoline who showed them that the Underpants Club was not merely some adolescent whimsy but an iron-clad declaration of friendship and dedication that would last their whole lives long. When she died, it was as if something died inside of Arianthe, Clarissa and Jim. But deep inside that death lay the blossoming of a new generation of Southern womanhood, a blossoming that would blossom until the world itself would point at the panties of the universe and declare, "Woo woo! Woo woo!"

A "Woo woo!" of Life, that would blossom in the hearts and minds of women everywhere who were smart, strong, beautiful and womanesque, bonded together by a common understanding that was as intimate as their undergarments.

Carpe Panties!

Thursday, August 25, 2005

America Gives A Sheet or: A Plea For Tiny Crackpots

In these days when celebrity right-wing crackpots seem to be getting all the publicity by revealing their drug addictions, complaining about their TIME magazine covers, talking up the merits of “Intelligent Design,” or calling publicly for political assassinations, it seems unfair to me that the screwballs of the nation’s modest heartland aren’t given similar attention. After all, to hear Mr. Bush tell it, they’re the real backbone (or boneheads) of this country.

That’s right. I'm not talking about the usual crew, the Limbaughs, the Coulters, the Robertsons, et al. I'm talking about those folks in the heartland, the ones who didn't want to offer therapy to Osama Bin Laden after 9/11. The simple folk, the ones you'd want to have a beer with, like Mr. Bush. The bedrock of this great nation, the ones whose colors don't run, the ones that wouldn't let Michael Dukakis take their god-given guns away.

You know the type. You pass them every day. Their stories aren't front-page news. They make no great claims for themselves but prefer to move through this life with humility, paying their own way and worshipping in their own fashion.

No, you won't see them on the talk shows plugging their latest feature film, or see their mug shots the way you see those of so many of Hollywood's so-called "stars." And yet, their story is a larger one. They are the fabric of the tapestry of the cloth of the knitted sweater that is the United States of America and they don't ask for any phony recognition for doing what they believe is right.

Well, just to take an example:

No doubt you've been reading about the peace camp in Crawford, Texas near the Bush ranch, where Cindy Sheehan and her supporters wait for Mr. Bush to invite Cindy in to discuss her reservations about the war that killed her son.

No real American is going to take those kind of shenanigans for long.

Already, one neighbor shot off his gun in hopes of scaring the varmints off. There's no better demonstration of why Americans treasure their right to bear arms than that.

Then there was the other fellow who respected the memories of the war dead so much, he was moved to drive his pickup truck over 500 makeshift crosses commemorating them while dragging a length of pipe behind him. You tell 'em, sir! These pickups don't run!

But that's not my favorite story of America's Heartland coming together to support Commander KooKoo Bananas (as Homer Simpson referred to him this year) against the threat of Cindy Sheehan.

No, that honor belongs to the "I Give a Sheet Vigil and Prayer Rally."

No, really.

Let one organizer, Eve Tidwell of Georgia, explain the motivation: "People who are for things don't usually go out and say something, it's usually people that are against something that does." Right enough, Ms. Tidwell. Unless, of course, you're "against" whatever it is the other side is "for," I suppose, in which case the waters are needlessly muddied. Let's stick with your simple, but potent, reasoning for now.

According to the Washington Post, "about 80 Bush supporters, including a group that chartered a plane from Georgia, held a rally…at the nearby Crawford Community Center. They hung up white sheets filled with written messages like 'Mr. Bush, you are doing a great job, thank you for all your hard work! God Bless America!'…The messages were written with washable markers so the sheets can be washed and donated to homeless shelters, organizers said."

What fascinates me about this is that sitting right in the middle of the name of this event (which is, I remind you, a vigil and prayer rally) is a pun on a popular anglo-saxonism for excrement.

Will we now see bumper stickers asking if Jesus would give a sheet?

Better yet, this opens the door for all manner of quasi-religious events supporting the war. How about the "I Give A Flying Duck Vigil and Pancake Breakfast" wherein the devout each takes a rubber duck and writes a gung-ho message to Bush on it like "Osama can go 'duck' himself!" Then they all toss them into the air over the fence of the Bush Ranch.

Or the "I Give A Rat's Ash Vigil and Prayer Retreat" during which the ashes of cremated rats would be dumped on the ranch by plane.

Or the "I Believe In Bush's Whore Sheet Vigil and Witch Burning" in which the bedlinens from whorehouses would have the arguments for Intelligent Design printed on them and hung up in science classrooms.

Or they could just use some bedclothes from the White House. Same thing.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Scum Also Rises

"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn."
- Ernest Hemingway

The car situation was this: my girlfriend and I got in the back while her boss drove and the Doctor took the passenger side.

It felt awkward. Mostly we kept quiet and listened to the boss try and make small talk with the Doctor. The ride to the university took a while, though, and we could sense that he was getting desperate and was going to throw the ball into our court soon. What would we say? How do you make small talk with this guy?

It was to be far worse than that.

Before I knew what was happening, the boss bent his head towards us and said, "Well, you know, Robert here does a bit of writing, I'm told."

Oh my god.

Apparently my girlfriend had mentioned to her boss that I was interested in writing. I instantly flashed back to being 3 years old and held up while someone said, "Say your word! Say your word!" I was mortified. I hadn't written anything worth a damn and now I was supposed to talk to a world-famous, celebrated author about it?

"Well," I stammered, "they've been more like a series of false starts, really."

"Hey," said the Doctor, "I have false starts all the time. That's how you start, that's how you learn."

"I know, but…"

"Really," the Doctor persisted, "don't let that discourage you. Just keep trying, don't give up."

I didn't know what to say. This was Doctor Gonzo? He'd just given a complete stranger a pep talk. What happened to May God have mercy on your doomed ass?

At the university we were met by a student liaison, a striking dark-haired woman who was very attractive. My girlfriend smiled at me and said, "I know what you're thinking. I think she's cute, too." Was she going to take every opportunity she could to prove to me what a potential lesbian she was?

She led us all down a long hallway and when we arrived at our destination, a sort of backstage holding area, she turned and asked us, "So do you travel everywhere with Hunter?"

There was no answer at first except for two pairs of lovestruck eyes.

Then we explained that we were just helping out that evening, etc., and after some similarly harmless banter it was time for the show. The Doctor disappeared, no doubt to steady his nerves, and we were invited to sit anywhere in the auditorium.

It was a very entertaining evening, with the Doctor effortlessly volleying back answers to questions he'd probably answered a hundred times. He really didn't need to speak at all. It was enough for everyone that he was there. I still remember the terrific laugh he got when, after someone asked him if he thought that rock 'n' roll was still important, he replied, "I didn't think it ever was."

Then it was over. The ice being somewhat broken, everyone felt a little more comfortable on the ride home. Once in a while we'd try to eavesdrop on the conversation going on in the front: apparently the Doctor was filling the boss in on who was and was not a "head," in the parlance of the times. "Kennedy?" the Doctor said, "Yeah, he's a head."

We finally arrived at the apartment and the Doctor invited us to take a 6-pack of Heinekens with us from out of the trunk. The boss hit the latch and we grabbed the beers and said our goodbyes in the middle of the street.

We watched the car take him away and it seemed suitable, as if the Fear and Loathing road trip was still continuing. But that was just romanticizing a guy being taken back to his hotel.

It was the end of things. The end of the decade, the end of my relationship. She'd stay on in Boston and start following a well-known rock star around the world, which probably put the kibosh on the poetry. Landing in New York City, she'd work in the music business and I'd see her name in the credits of music specials sometimes. I headed back to Philadelphia, where I'd end up doing volunteer radio, a little more writing, and where I'd meet the wife on a street corner in a ticket line in the middle of the night.

It wasn't Morning in America; it was more like High Noon and the Big Cowboy would be gunning for all of us soon. The territory was starting to run out and the death valley days had begun. It was time to hunker down in the bomb shelter of your choice to wait out the next batch of rogues. They were already starting to drain Hemingway's big, two-hearted river and Thompson would write that the years to come would be hard ones for freelancers, by which he meant: find your hole, find your home, find your niche. You're going to need a group to help you survive the new America. It's easier to hide that way and you're going to need the support. He had half of a half-century to go that night and I never would have dreamed that one night they'd blast him all over the sky like a roman candle, as if that car had finally hit a brick wall. Maybe it was the only place that had any freedom left in it. I had to admit I was jealous of the sheer American pageantry of it all. Fireworks shot from a tower specifically built to be just a little bit higher than the Statue of Liberty, as if to say, "Try this torch on for size."

Would you have wanted it to be an invitation-only event for celebrities and politicians with black-garbed guards protecting you from your readers? Would the Hunter Thompson thing to do have been to crash the party while swigging from a bottle of Wild Turkey and taking pot shots at your own monument? I like to think that you would have liked the chance to offer a Heineken to anyone who wanted one.

At least I drank to you that one night, long ago.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Home On The Strange

I’m standing in the hallway of a hotel waiting for an elevator with Hunter Thompson’s luggage in my hand, trying to figure out how it, and I, got there. And where am I going?

My girlfriend had finished showing me her latest appearances in a selection of poetry chapbooks and she read the puzzled look on my face correctly. All of this Sapphic content seemed tacked on. I mean, she’d never said anything about these sorts of feelings to me. In fact, she worshipped male rock stars like gods.

“You’re wondering about…”

“Well,” I said, “it’s not like you’re…”

“No, not technically,” she said, “but I was interested in exploring certain…feelings in my work. And they get accepted much more easily than my usual stuff.”

“So this is a…a short cut to getting your poetry published?” I asked. Her eyes flashed darkly.

“That’s unfair! These poems are perfectly legitimate! They’re part of who I am!”

“Ok, ok. They just struck me as…a little out of character.”

She made a frustrated sound. “That’s because men are so unyielding and…limited in their conception of how fluid sexuality can be. Women can move in and out of these states of being.”

“If you say so.”

We made an attempt to get over this conversational hump and play catch-up with various topics until it was time to leave for her office. I hadn’t the faintest idea where we were going, but the subway soon deposited us a few blocks away from a grim, plain-looking office building that looked even more depressing in the dusk.

She introduced me to her boss, who looked a little like the Sundance Kid gone to seed. He had this large 70’s mustache that was trying hard to be hip clinging desperately to an insurance salesman’s face. There was a feeling of sadness over the entire enterprise, but then again I felt that way about nearly every facility that employed people for the purpose of making a living.

“Well, let’s go get him!” the boss said, ushering us to his car. “We may have to…encourage him to get ready. Hunter’s not always easy to…motivate,” he informed us as he was driving. “I mean, he’s great once he’s up, but…”

The rest of the sentence hung in the air. What did encouragement involve? Was it legal?

Once at the hotel, the boss used the house phone to try and rouse the Doctor from what one assumed was slumber.

“He’s not answering,” he said. “I think we have to go up.”

Up? Go up? Why? Doesn’t the hotel do this sort of thing?

The three of us took the elevator up to the room, whereupon the boss started to knock on the door.

“Hunter?…Hunter? Are you up? It’s time.”

The knocks and entreaties continued until a strange barking sound came from the other side of the door.

I imagined the Doctor doing battle with the bedclothes, like Quixote with the windmills. Take that, you bastard. I’ll slice you down the middle like a cheap suit if you don’t let me out of this goddamned bed. Where’s my machete?

After no little amount of noise and commotion, the door opened and we entered.

I was immediately struck by how vulnerable this gangly, balding man looked in his robe without his glasses. Where was the artillery?

“Hunter, c’mon, we’re on a schedule here,” the boss pleaded.

“Sure, sure,” the Doctor replied, his head craning around the room as if searching for something. The boss quickly introduced us and we were immediately the recipients of what I quickly gathered was a natural sense of courtesy and politeness.

“Would you like a Heineken?” the Doctor asked us as he busied himself with his toiletries. It was then that I noticed the room service cart. The top shelf was taken up by six or seven Bloody Marys, while the bottom tray was reserved for the Heinekens. Now even as a non-drinker, I wasn’t about to say no to a Heineken from such an esteemed host. But just as quickly as he’d made the offer, the Doctor’s eyes darted to the Heinekens and quickly sized up how few were left.

“Er…maybe you’d like a Bloody Mary instead?” he suggested.

I nodded my head and took the drink. He looked relieved.

It then became plain that the “toiletries” I’d seen the Doctor fussing with were far from the typical hotel amenities. Suffice it to say that this much of the legend was true. In 5 minutes, the good Doctor demonstrated his facility with various pharmaceuticals until there was nothing left for the maid to vacuum. Thus fortified, he took a shower.

Soon he emerged fresh as a daisy, with no trace of the torpor he‘d been in 10 minutes before. I suppose it was partly the Bloody Mary, but I had trouble comprehending what I’d just seen. How was he still standing? I’d just seen him shovel in a small drug store and he was, if anything, more alert and sober than before.

It was time to go. The boss nodded to me to help carry some of the luggage, which at first I resented. After all, I wasn’t on the payroll here and he had some nerve treating me like the hired help.

But there was another part of me that said: Holy cripes! I’m carrying Hunter Thompson’s suitcase!

Conclusion: The Scum Also Rises

Monday, August 22, 2005

It's All About The Fear

The events I'm about to describe all happened during the twilight of my first important relationship, a peculiar stage during which neither of you is sure exactly what it is you've got. Is it over, is it a break, should we still talk, do we see other people? A sad and confusing time, but because life never has actual fade-outs or curtains that conveniently close at the appropriate moment, you go on, making up the rules as you go along.

These were the circumstances under which my sort of but maybe not quite ex-girlfriend invited me to visit her for the weekend in Boston. This was after the years we had spent in Grand Rapids, Michigan (don't ask: like living inside of an iceberg run by Puritans) and Providence but before she moved to New York. Now, she had somehow gotten a job with a lecture tour agency that arranged for speakers to appear at colleges and special events. The weekend she had in mind was one in which her agency would be escorting the infamous Dr. Hunter S. Thompson to a speaking engagement at a nearby university and this promised to be fun and exciting. At the very least, she promised, I'd get to see him speak at this event and that in itself should be entertaining.

So I packed and set off for Boston by train, as I was still over another 20 years from setting foot on an airplane. If anyone ever asks you, it's a long ride from Philadelphia. But one during which you get to do a lot of thinking. Just what was involved with "escorting" Dr. Thompson? And how close would you want to get? I had read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas during its original serial publication in Rolling Stone and was more than a little confused by it.

The drawings didn't help, either.

This was the guy who, at the end of a scathing reply to a letter in the same magazine, capped it off with the endearment, "May God have mercy on your doomed ass." The guy who wrote, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.” The guy who went toe-to-toe with Nixon, for cryin’ out loud. What was I letting myself in for?

Not to mention the fact that I had very little personal experience with drugs. I mean, taking drugs. I knew people took them – I’d seen them take them. But I didn’t know what the difference was between uppers and downers and the laudanum inspired visions of Fear and Loathing were something I had to take the good Doctor’s word for. The closest I could come to them were those sparkly kaleidoscopic designs you’d get when you’d push your eyeballs in. Would he spike our drinks with mescaline and leave us alone to beat the bats away? Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea after all.

And what was going on with my relationship? How am I supposed to behave now? Do we kiss? Is it just a friendly kiss? What about sex? Like most men in my situation, I figured, well, surely that's still acceptable. I can just keep the kisses noncommittal. Just follow her lead, son, follow her lead, I thought. See where it goes.

I hadn’t heard any talk about another boyfriend, or even a date, for that matter. Unless she was just trying to spare my feelings, which I supposed was possible. But it was certainly reasonable to assume that with her in Boston, me in Philadelphia, and the relationship being what it was, she could well be involved with someone. But then, why invite me? Between worrying about this, the ether-binging Doctor, and the usual cast of idiosyncratic fears, I arrived in Boston a jittery shell that jumped at the least provocation.

She met me at the train and seemed pleased to see me. Maybe there’s no other boyfriend after all, I thought. When we got back to her apartment, she began to show me some of the poetry she had recently had success in publishing. She, like me, had hopes of accomplishing something in the way of writing and it was beginning to look as if she was winning the race. She pulled out a number of small press publications and, most impressively, a collection of poems that had each been printed on its own separate page, unbound on quality paper, and each page a different color.

It was all quite a display and I was more than a little jealous.

It was only after reading these new and unfamiliar poems a handful of times that it began to sink in that most of them seemed to be meditations on the subject of lesbianism.

Next: Home On The Strange

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Garry, Gonzo, And Gunpowder: A Prelude

Today’s the day when they fire the late Hunter S. Thompson out of a cannon.

Didn’t he always seem shot out of a cannon, though?

Even though he appeared laconic, his mind seemed like it was going a million miles a minute with his mouth struggling to keep up. Thompson-speak was sometimes difficult to interpret, a streak of mumbled lightning that danced around one note, but prone to rising in volume at any moment.

At the same time his body would move in a series of minimalistic jerks as if, like an action figure, he only had a limited number of articulated points. He was a marionette of the American Dream, Edward R. Murrow on peyote, the conscience of a country that no longer appeared to care for conscience.

It was easy to caricature him – just ask Garry Trudeau. But behind the cartoon was a writer (always, a writer) who cared deeply about the fate of his country and who couldn’t bear to see it fall into the hands of the crooks, the swindlers, the liars, and the cheats. They kindled a righteous, patriotic anger in him that still burns today.

I can never think of that old bromide about a cynic being nothing but a fallen idealist without thinking of Hunter S. Thompson. He may have sounded cynical at times, but it didn’t take much scratching to see that it came from someone who felt we’d dropped the ball and could do better. As ridiculous as it sounds, I’ve often thought that Thompson simply couldn’t handle another 4 years of George W. Bush, not so much because he couldn’t handle what Bush would do, but because of what it said about us: if we had fallen so far as to re-elect someone who was so obviously a lying, incompetent scoundrel, what hope was left for us, really? Why go on? What flag is left to wave? What dream is worth fighting for? If stupidity, greed, and theft are the new ideals, where are we going? What argument is worth making? What hope has any currency?

Hey, he’d been through worse so maybe I’m all wet. But sometimes I wonder what would have happened if Kerry had won. Maybe it would have been the little ray of sunshine that would have encouraged him to stick around a little longer, just to see what happens. If it seems too much to suggest that an individual would make a decision about suicide based on a national election, it’s also true that we’re talking about someone who ate, drank, and snorted politics. He was as intimately connected to his country as any writer I can think of.

If there’s even an ounce of truth to this and we look at Thompson as the canary in the coal mine, we have good reason to mourn much more than a writer. We have reason to mourn a country, an indomitable spirit, a vision that failed.

I followed him around Boston one memorable evening, a tale we’ll save for next week, which we’ve entitled…

Next: It’s All About The Fear

Friday, August 19, 2005

Gentlemen's Club

The wife’s off on an overnight trip so I’ll be fending for myself this evening.

You know what that means, don’t you?

I’ll have the remote all to myself as I search in vain for something worth watching, hammering away at the buttons with Dorito-encrusted fingers.

And I will be terribly, terribly bored.

I was never a very good bachelor. Well, I was in the sense that I never got the hang of dating. My relationships always grew organically out of my friendships with women. Of course, a lot of my dating reluctance had to do with shyness and fear of rejection and the fact that women make me terribly nervous. But part of it was also that I sensed that I’d never hit it off with most people. I can remember my poor mother trying to fix me up and my reassuring her that “it wouldn’t work.” I meant that I didn’t seem to have a lot in common with most folks. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that I must have sounded like I was trying to gently break the news to her that I preferred more masculine company. Poor Mom. She must have wondered.

No, I was never a very good bachelor because I always instinctively needed/wanted to be partnered. I always liked being part of a couple, having a partner in crime. I always felt more fully integrated as a person and as a part of the world. And, with the exception of a few years, I’ve always been half of a larger whole. Which is why the whole “speed-dating” concept makes me laugh. A date with me usually lasts for about 10-20 years.

Well, except for that girl with the money. That lasted about a year. That’s how long it took her to figure out that I probably would never have any money. No, that’s not fair. Actually, she was unlucky enough to catch me shortly before a wave of severe depression came over me and she found it hard to deal with. I don’t blame her. She was young and didn’t feel the need to be attached in the way that I did.

By and large, I think these relationships have lasted as long as they have because they were knitted together strongly in sympathetically emotional and intellectual ways first. And usually my partner and I both held sexual stereotypes in contempt while generally preferring the company of the other sex. I had a natural dislike of locker-room talk and their clichés about women and usually enjoyed being in the company of women more than I did men. Men were predictable and didn’t seem to want to talk about anything but cars, sports and money, which bored my merry tush off. And of course, women were…women, and I’ve always been deeply in thrall to them in ways biological, animal, and mineral.

The wife, interestingly, is a dedicated feminist who loves men and the company of men. Her taste in music runs along the lines of The Dictators, The Ramones, and the Beastie Boys. You know, music your average adolescent male would enjoy. I, on the other hand, have my little piles of Poindexter music, CD’s that marry quirkily poetic lyrics to musical car accidents. The wife also has no patience for women who like jokes about how stupid men are when they leave the toilet seat up, etc. In the end, we both have trouble with men and women who see each other as adversaries rather than friends. A Guy or Girls Night Out doesn’t hold much appeal for either of us. Parties that break up into sexually segregated conversations about the opposite gender baffle us.

So we figure either we’re both gay or we’re doing something right.

I had a dream once that I never forgot because it seemed to express something deep and true. I was supine and surrounded by women who could instinctively see that my heart was helpless before them, but who promised not to take advantage of that weakness. It was understood who held the power and who would gladly do anything he was asked.

Welcome to my gentlemen’s club.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Thing On Hope Street

I was far from home, and the spell of the eastern sea was upon me.
- H.P. Lovecraft, "The Festival"

Through a mad cacophony of stars and spiraled galaxies, I somehow found myself in Providence, Rhode Island, a town which prided itself on having been the home of H.P. Lovecraft, noted author of strange tales of the beyond.

I had come to the eldritch streets of Providence seeking succor for a life not yet truly lived, an existence that had yet to blossom. The mere fact that this decision had been made for me, by virtue of the fact that some friends had moved there, only underscored the mad vacuum of my insular universe. Somewhere down these dark and eerie streets, I reasoned, must be a whisper in the night’s inky blackness that would reveal the secret that could crack open the universal egg of madness.

Or at least get me a job.

I had secured a place in a training program that would pay me while I learned the ways of offset printing. All I had to find was shelter.

The house stood on the top of Hope Street, enshrouded in mist and bathed in moonlight. Although I seemed to have little in common with the pair who’d advertised for a third roommate (the Dan Fogelberg albums in their record collection assured me of that), we settled on an arrangement that was mutually beneficial for all concerned. The first few nights, I put off the strange noises above my room to the usual uninvited inhabitants that dwelt in the walls. Sleeping was easier that way.

My roommates were collegiate in dress and speech, appropriate insofar as we were within walking distance of both Brown University and The Rhode Island School Of Design, both known for libraries full of arcane volumes that contained spells and lore better off left alone. I’d while away many an hour there seeking an explanation for the sounds from the attic, but found myself frustrated by the archaic terminology of these dusty tomes.

In the meantime, I did what I could to absorb the lessons in my printing class. They seemed to get progressively more boring so, as hopelessness set in, my evenings began to include drinking sessions that would take my mind off the otherworldly sounds trying to break through into our universe via the house on Hope Street. Soon the empty bottles began to line up and I imagined that they were a first line of defense against whomever, or whatever sought entrance to our reality.

Unless it was, of course, I who was going mad.

I began to steer clear of my roommates as much as possible, taking care to enter the house through the back which led straight to my room. Only on rare occasions would I join them in the living room where the coffee table was littered with adult comics and the main topic of conversation appeared to be hosin’. It was a word they worked into their discussions as often as possible: How about the hosin’ ? She knows what hosin’s all about. I need some hosin’. After enough of this, I began to see my roommates as something half-human, half-not human, octopods with tentacles that roamed the room in search of hapless victims whose sole purpose in their minds was that as meat was to man.

Eventually I graduated from the training program and was placed in a position that had absolutely nothing to do with what I’d learnt. Since I’d been taught about printing, someone higher up decided that I’d be just the fellow to operate this giant press that manufactured Hawaiian Tropic Suntan Lotion labels. It must have weighed a couple of tons and looked like one wrong move could take an arm off. It had one huge lever that turned it off and on and made it spit out the distinctive, hourglass shaped golden labels. I’d look at the labels and think that Hawaii probably wouldn’t be a bad place to be right now.

Each time I turned on la machine infernale it would hiccup and stutter, coughing up odd, mutant labels that somehow always missed imprinting the label within its prepared die-cut design. These were labels for no bottle yet dreamed of by man, labels for bottles that contained not lotion, but the oil of evil, the lube of cosmic entropy. I would take home these misfit labels and plaster my walls with them as I drank and shrank from the strangled sounds that would beat against my helpless room from above, making me as curious as I was horrified.

I was fired not shortly afterwards and found myself making wax molds for jewelry. This involved shooting hot, red wax into rubber molds and removing the result which would be used to manufacture rings and the like. This being 1977, it meant listening to a radio station all day whose entire playlist seemed to consist of “Dreamweaver” and “Baby Come Back.” Hearing either one of these today can still bring on an instant case of nausea accompanied by dizziness.

Being 1977, I was also able to bring home a copy of the brand new Sex Pistols album, which seemed to work on my tentacled roommates in a talismanic fashion, the way garlic would with a vampire. I’d place it against the door before I went to sleep, comforted that I was being safeguarded from whatever strange gods dwelt beyond that nameless gate I was certain lay on the other side of my ceiling.

The defensive line of empty bottles continued to gather strength on my dresser.

Finally, I could bear it no longer. I would know the source of this unearthly nightly wailing even if it meant certain damnation. Leaving my door open a sliver, I waited patiently for the otherworldly caterwauling to begin. After I heard an inaugural thump, I gritted my teeth and slowly pried the door open further, gathering strength for the ordeal to come.

My mind reeled through panoramas of fear and horror, conjuring visions of Hawaiian Tropic labels that attached themselves to victims and then sucked the very life force from them. Or wax molds of jewelry on a dream-quest to establish a foothold in the world of the real, prying open the skin of the universe with bejeweled fingers of menace.

At last, the door open wide, I was met by one of my roommates sitting in the living room with all of the lights on. Surely he, too, was hoping the lights would act as some sort of bulwark against the madness battering its way into Hope Street.

“What…is it?” I asked him, sitting across from him.

He barely lifted his head up from his comic book as he replied, “Now that’s hosin’!”

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Ars Longa, Vita Blecch!

I recently had an epistolary debate with someone regarding Lennon, the Musical.

Not so much about the actual musical, but their assertion that wealth and success invariably result in an artist “selling out” and becoming a sad shadow of the force they were when they were young and hungry.

Well, no doubt a certain amount of material success removes one from the mundane tasks that occupy most of our days. But wouldn’t it also free an artist to create without having to worry about those things? Isn’t that what patronage and grants are all about?

In Lennon’s case, he dropped out not, as is so often assumed, because of a lack of inspiration: he wrote songs and stories throughout his entire househusband period. He just didn’t choose to share it. Rather, he was more concerned with not having his identity and worth tied up with values that no longer mattered to him, being in the charts, in the papers, etc.

My loyal opposition insisted that Art, real capital A Art, comes out of misery and suffering. He insisted further that John had been miserable throughout the Beatle years, thereby proving his theory since he held his Beatle work to be superior to the solo work he produced after he met and found happiness with Yoko Ono. When artists cease to suffer, he maintained, they fail to produce anything of worth.

I was a little shocked. Hadn’t this one died with La Boheme ? Did anyone still buy into the myth of the tortured artist in their spare but tasteful garret, who remains genuine until he or she actually sells something, thereby prostituting themselves?

We’re always so eager and ready to declare someone a sell-out, regardless of what they’ve done before. Meanwhile, we’re usually busy dancing around a golden calf.

Dylan “sold out” went he went electric. Phil Ochs “sold out” when he put on a gold lame suit and sang Elvis songs. Charlie Parker and Buddy Holly “sold out” when they recorded with strings. Albert Ayler “sold out” when he started recording R&B. Gertrude Stein “sold out” when she started writing narrative. Charles Bukowski “sold out” when he bought a BMW. Sonic Youth “sold out” when they signed to a major label.

John didn’t “sell out.” He refused to sell himself at all anymore.

My debating friend, not surprisingly, is much enamored with Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, a portrait of a pseudo-Kurt Cobain named Blake who mumbles and stumbles through the end of his life. Because, you know, that’s how real artists are, man. He also holds that (I couldn’t believe he wanted to breathe life back into this one) artists as a group are generally sons of bitches, but that’s to be expected being, you know, artists and such.


It’s been my experience that the greatest artists, at least the few I’ve met, possess humility in direct proportion to their talent, which is to say that the best of them usually turn out to be the nicest people.

Pollyanna, my friend declared. Maybe.

But this idea that artists who have, god forbid, become happy and/or retreated to suburbia have sold out seems to me to be not only puerile, but dangerous.

It’s why Mark David Chapman stood outside the Dakota, waiting for the Holden Caulfield who’d disappointed him.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Doo Dah

As much as I try to stay current on what’s in the entertainment pipeline, once in a while I get blindsided by things I had no idea were coming. In fact, it’s happened a couple of times recently. To wit:

Pat Metheny has released a 20th Anniversary edition of Song X, the record he made with Ornette Coleman back in 1985. At the time it was probably a difficult draught for some Metheny fans to take, at least those more accustomed to his melodic side. For Coleman fans, or at least this Coleman fan, it was a perfect match. As much as I enjoyed Ornette’s efforts with his electric band Prime Time, there was always a certain freedom missing that was part and parcel of his classic quartet recordings. Having to stay within a 4/4 beat much of the time seemed to throw him back on many of his own musical clichés and limited his artistic choices.

The Metheny recording took Metheny and Coleman, added Coleman stalwarts Charlie Haden on bass and his son Denardo on drums, and then put in drummer Jack DeJohnette. The result was a more relaxed and traditional Coleman that still included elements of his electric experiments by virtue of Metheny’s guitar synth and Denardo’s electronic percussion.

The majority of the compositions are Coleman’s and Metheny is more than up to their challenge. He explains in the notes to this rerelease that they had very little time for mixing and mastering the first time around and so he was grateful for the opportunity to have another shot at it. The result is a recording where the word “remixed” actually means something for once. I haven’t done a disc-for-disc comparison yet but unless my memory is playing tricks, the instruments seem to be more clearly separated than the first time around. The 13-minute Endangered Species, which originally tended to come across as a big, impenetrable wall of sound, now lets you hear the interplay between the musicians more clearly than before.

They also found six unreleased tracks which appear here for the first time. If you missed it the first time around, or are just a fan of adventurous music, it’s well worth your time.

The other one that threw me for a loop recently was the release on DVD of Do Not Adjust Your Set, a British series intended as a children’s program that featured Michael Palin, Eric Idle, and Terry Jones shortly before the formation of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Now it’s not that I’m a Python freak, mind you. I like ‘em, sure. But I don’t run around quoting lines from Holy Grail and Life of Brian. No, for me the big attraction here was that the show’s house band was The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. Put simply, the availability of so much Bonzo footage at once, when their previous claim to fame was their too-short appearance in The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour performing Death Cab for Cutie, is manna from heaven. What the kids made of Vivian Stanshall, Neil Innes, Rodney Slater, Roger Ruskin Spear and “Legs” Larry Smith each week I can’t imagine. But for those of us who worship at their altar, this is magical, irreplaceable stuff.

For those MP fans also interested in what the Cleese/Chapman axis of silly was up to at this time, At Last The 1948 Show has been released in tandem with this set. Python completists will have to have them both and, in fact, a cursory glance at the packaging reveals that’s exactly who they’re aimed at. Some dead parrot.


I'd like to import the ability that the Brits are doing to export and deport a bunch of hate-rhetoric filled mullahs and imams that are stoking anti-American sentiment. Wouldn't it be great if anybody who speaks out against this country, to kick them out of the country? Anybody that threatens this country, kick 'em out. We'd get rid of Michael Moore, we'd get rid of half the Democratic Party if we would just import that law. That would be fabulous.
- Rush Limbaugh dreams of a glorious America-To-Be, while fighting the Global Struggle Against Grammar

The savages have declared war, and it's far preferable to fight them in the streets of Baghdad than in the streets of New York (where the residents would immediately surrender).
- New Yorker Ann Coulter

Candidly, the Republican Party did not have a lot of ideas, regarding the poor.
- Sen. Rick "Put A Fork In Me" Santorum

Monday, August 15, 2005

Marginal Delinquents

It may be as well to observe, however, that just as the goodness of your true pun is in the direct ratio of its intolerability, so is nonsense the essential sense of the Marginal Note.
- Edgar Allen Poe

Do you like to write in your books?

You know, scribble little notes and asides in the margins to record your reactions to a section of the text you found particularly interesting?

The book collector in me winces at the thought. Not only would this drastically reduce the value of the book (unless the notes in question were by the author or some other noted celebrity associate), it’s just plain unsightly. Words in a book deserve the dignity of ink, not some unsharpened No.2 pencil.

Which is not to say that there isn’t some appeal in buying a cheap paperback reading copy of something that’s been decorated this way from back to front, usually by an earnest student. Oftentimes the bulk of these notes will be found on the inside front cover, where they may be easily referred to by the scholar-to-be.

But I want to talk about a very specific kind of book defacement today: comments by readers that simply can’t help themselves. They have either found the text to be so transcendent or so incendiary that they have no choice but to comment in any space available. They may not even have bought the book in question – they may merely have browsed through a copy at their local bookstore and been so traumatized or uplifted that they feel the need to express themselves to someone, much like the original author. The ideal solution, of course, would be to reply with a book of one’s own, logically listing their points and arguments and throwing it into the public marketplace.

As this is not always the simplest or most immediate possibility, many readers take it upon themselves to comment in a more personal way.

I’ve recently been on a bit of a Hitchcock kick (try saying that five times fast), not watching his films but reading about him. So I’ve been buying a handful of used bios, ones that look interesting and that have more to say than just the naked facts as that can make for pretty dry reading.

His films have always fascinated me, as they have so many viewers, and I get the distinct feeling I’m gearing up to see what these pictures have to say to me as I approach late middle-age. I was always attracted by the iconography of his American films, but there was something deeper: the feeling that civilization is a mutual illusion that is only just barely being held together and that chaos is waiting for just a tiny opening to reveal the truth. On the other hand, maybe that’s how I remember them from my viewpoint now, because evil never really triumphs in a Hitchcock film (unless you count Vertigo, and who knows what we’re left with at the end of that most mysterious of cinematic romances). No matter how much danger or suspense is present in a Hitchcock film, justice always prevails in the end, like waking up from a nightmare. The end of North By Northwest skips the final rescue entirely and, with a clever edit, jumps us directly to safety.

Good and Evil are much more complex than that, of course, and Hitchcock was fascinated by the joints where they met, resembled each other, and worked together. Without the Hitchcock of Strangers On A Train or Shadow Of A Doubt, I doubt we’d have the David Lynch of Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks. This is in direct contradiction to a critic I once knew who insisted to me that Lynch was such an original artist that he never borrowed anything from anyone, this after I pointed out a sight gag from Fire Walk With Me that seemed to be a direct steal from Jacques Tati, for whom the younger Lynch had a great enthusiasm.

There’s a great used bookstore about an hour away, in fact it’s on the way to the great buffet described here recently, and when we last stopped by I had a look around for any interesting Hitchcock books. Now there was one very basic large paperback, simply titled “The Films Of Alfred Hitchcock,” that merely ran down the films in order with excerpts of reviews and didn’t look like it had that much to offer. I’m flipping through it and I’m skimming the section on Marnie when something captures my eye. There’s a piece of text that looks a little irregular and is, in fact, a different color!

On closer examination, I can see what the previous owner had done. Right next to a line about Marnie being a “lazy, self-indulgent” piece of filmmaking, the outraged reader went to his typewriter whereupon, in all-capitalized red letters, he typed the word “BULLSHIT.”

He then carefully cut it out and pasted it next to the line in the Marnie review.

This particularly passionate Hitchcock fan was not about to allow that line about Marnie to stand without rebuttal. And so he (or she) made certain that, regardless of who ever picked up the book again, the reader would always be aware there was another point of view.

You’d have thought that alone would have been enough to make me buy it, but it didn’t. In fact, it reminded me of the time I’d been looking over the cheap, remaindered books at a local bookstore many, many years ago and came across a copy of William S. Burroughs’ Exterminator! Upon opening it you were met with the message, inscribed in pencil, “Manure in prose.”

I found this terribly entertaining but, once again, not enough to actually purchase it.

Now fast forward a month or so and I’m in the hospital for some mystery ailment which is manifesting itself in excruciating abdominal pain. A friend from the neighborhood comes to visit and he’s bearing get well gifts. One is an issue of National Lampoon and the other is a copy of Exterminator!

Well, of course I know where it’s come from but as I start to open it I’m thinking, “This can’t be that one.”

And it was. There, in gloriously scrawled pencil, was the now familiar “Manure in prose.”

My friend had bought it for me especially because of the inscription, which he figured I’d appreciate. He was right.

Of course, most of my friends were already aware that I enjoyed literary criticism.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

The Gathering Brush

Cindy Sheehan, whose soldier son was killed in Iraq and who is now camping by a road in Crawford, Texas, is demanding a meeting with President Bush...
- News Item

Good evening, my fellow Amnesiacs.

I’ve decided to take the dramatic step of interrupting my working vacation (clearing brush all day can take it outta ya, lemme tell ya, heh heh) to speak to you tonight about our continuing battle against evil-doing and the evil-doers who are doing it so very, very evilly.

I know many of you are concerned about what seems to be an unending conflict and deepening quagmire that appears to be getting worse the longer we stay in it. I’ll be honest. I’m as baffled as you good folks. We’ve told them we’re American and everything, but it still doesn’t seem to be working. We’ve explained all the trouble we went to getting the war off the ground, by exaggerating the threat, using forged documents, and scaring the crap out of the American people. They seem, well, they’re a little ungrateful if you don’t mind my saying.

As many of you are aware, there’s a woman camped out not far from here, a Mrs. Cindy Sheehan, who refuses to leave until she's allowed to talk to me. My friends, nothing would make me happier than to be able to sit down with Mrs. Sheehan and have a good heart-to-heart discussion about why her son or daughter had to die for such a noble cause. Unfortunately, it seems to me that speaking with her would send the wrong signals to the Iraqis, who are ready to pounce on any evidence of weakness on our part. Besides which, I have it on good authority from Karl Rove that Ms. Sheehan has been responsible for at least one U.S. fatality, that of her son, Egbert. That’s right, if she’d never gotten pregnant, there’d have been no son for us to send into a useless war. So whose fault is it really? In addition to which, I'll bet you anything she's Pro-Choice. In which case, it seems to me that she should be thanking us for performing the abortion she never got a chance to have!

With all due repect to Mrs. Sheehan, her son Scrappy is no longer part of the Culture of Life. He's having tea with Jesus now. I'm sure they're having a great time. But how can we promote a Culture of Life when we spend so much time concentrating on all these dead people? It's...counterproductive! This is why I prefer not to attend any of those memorial services or release pictures of the flag-draped coffins. It's boring stuff. They ain't comin' back. Circle o' life, blah blah blah.

I prefer to think about the Soon-To-Be Killed. They're gallant little guys and gals, I'll tell ya, some of 'em barely out of high school. Makes me proud to think about how exciting their last days are gonna be, shooting evil-doers and losing limbs they've come to know and love. That's the kind of "Can Do" attitude we could use a little more of around here because, frankly, looking at these poll numbers has me a little depressed. Seems like we've got a few wussies out there who are only all too willing to let Osama prop up his sandals in the Oval Office.

Hey, fine by me. Just gives me more time to clear away all this brush. And every minute that Mrs. Sheehan's protest distracts me from my vacation, that's more time for the brush to gather and close in. And if no one clears the brush, the next thing you know there's brush everywhere! Get out of bed, brush. Down to the kitchen, brush. Get in your car, well, whadaya know...brush.

Is that what you want, America? A brush-filled country with no one to clear it, brush as far as the eye can see? I'd be happy to clear it, but seems you folks want to go another way. Hey, ok by me. Clear your own brush. See how far you get. Not far, I bet. You need good, thick gloves and...someone to bring out some lemonade. You think the Iraqis give a hoot about lemonade? You bet your boots they don't.

I sympathize with Mrs. Sheehan, truly I do. But she's not helping anyone by crying about how her son Filbert couldn't make the cut. Like I said to Cheney, either you clear the brush or the brush clears you! It's a Brush Eat Brush world out there. Say what you will about Karl, but when he tried to help that reporter avoid writing a story that would have been incorrect, he was working for the war effort. When Mrs. Sheehan sheds these crocodile tears about her son Farnsworth, she's giving aid and comfort to the enemy by leaking the fact that they've successfully killed another of our soldiers. She's actually committing an act of treason.

Which is why I say 10 to 15 years for Sheehan, and Rove in 2008!

Now if you'll pardon me, there's some brush that needs clearing.

Unless you'd like to do it.

Friday, August 12, 2005

The Dream Is Over

After our artistic breakthrough, we were temporarily staggered. Like someone who has produced a masterpiece at an early age, we felt as if the moment might be impossible to top and were afraid to try.

Plans were made for the next session, but nothing ever came of them. Or, we’d settle on a date and then Ted would inform us that a knob had fallen off the mixer and had to be fixed. The truth was that we could no longer face each other so we retreated into our own little worlds.

George, an accomplished guitarist who had proven his dedication to music by mailing away for Elton John’s first import album, was the first to splinter off from the group. He became involved in something that was alien to the rest of us at that age, namely writing his own material. I couldn’t relate to this George at all. What the hell did he think he was doing? Mad Magazine never wrote their own songs. And why bother, when there were so many perfectly good ones to make fun of?

Ted burrowed deeper into his radio project, attempting to realize his dream of broadcasting over a 1-block radius. I would occasionally drop in on him while he’d work on it, but the nuts and bolts gear-speak of the thing went right over my head. Bored by the electronic details, I dropped by less and less. For all I know, he may still be working on it.

As for myself, I could not abandon the lesson of what had been revealed to us that fateful day. I became more and more involved in improvisation and chance operations, hoping to recapture the magic of that session when everything fit together like pieces in some parodic puzzle.

I recorded strange cassettes of my own compositions, which often involved little or no rehearsal, just an instinctual will to cut to the heart of the creative moment. Often I’d be rewarded with some synchronous results that made it all worthwhile. But the truth was that I was attempting to relive something that could never happen again.

George and I got together for other musical projects through the years, which I’ll hopefully get a chance to describe some day, but this was the first. Caught in the vise of social upheaval and current events, we did our best to adapt. Standards were changing. A new magazine had begun to appear on the stands to challenge Mad called National Lampoon. It made Mad look like Highlights for Children. It was edgy, political, irreverent, sacrilegious, literary, sophisticated, and had pictures of naked women in it.

Worst of all, it did the seeming impossible and parodied my beloved Mad. How could they mock the mockers? The world had truly been turned upside-down. Something new was in the wind, a fragrance that would lead to Saturday Night Live, Animal House, and a whole sub-genre of fratboy comedy that would eventually collapse under its own weight.

As I mull over the spiritual demise of Mad, I at least have the satisfaction of knowing that the National Lampoon didn’t escape a similar fate. If you thought the Lampoon name couldn't be associated with anything lower than the latest batch of movies they've lent their authority to, feast your eyes on their latest pay-per-view project:

In each edition of “National Lampoon's Strip Poker” – which was filmed in its entirety at the Hedonism II nudist resort in Jamaica – six stunningly sensuous supermodels gamble their tops, bottoms, and G-strings against each other, until one grand champion succeeds in stripping her opponents down to an embarrassed smile and absolutely nothing else. Loaded with bawdy innuendo, sizzling bodies, and cut-throat card play, National Lampoon uncorks a scathing, uproarious parody of the Texas Hold 'Em poker phenomenon with the most daring, most revealing production in the company's 36-year history. But “National Lampoon's Strip Poker” is much more than full-frontal nudity and gambling – there's also original music from Metal Skool, twisted cartoons from the diabolical geniuses at Icebox, and the unpredictable brand of Machiavellian humor that National Lampoon has honed into an American institution.

Because when you think “Machiavellian,” you think “strip poker.”

Or, to put it another way, they’ve dropped the edgy, political, irreverent, sacrilegious, literary, and sophisticated stuff, and narrowed it all down to the pictures of naked women.

Must this always be the way?

Must the worship of profit and the common denominator eventually ruin everything in America, no matter how promising, no matter how loved, no matter how beautiful? Must every cherished, shining thought become fat, bloated and ineffective, staggering through hallways of gross stupidity and ugliness, searching in vain for a place to die?

Where are the stations with the 1-block radius, the voices from the basements? Where are the happy accidents, the unscripted moments? The human voice straining to be heard amongst the tumult of the traders and dealers, the dull and the thick-witted whose only inspiration was to buy something that somebody else created in a moment of passion?

Alfred, Alfred, Alfred. Strange, lopsided, human face. Magic grin of eternity.

We lift our lamps beside your golden door.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Usual Gang Of Idiots

I don't know if it's really possible to describe what Mad Magazine meant to kids growing up in the 1960's.

Not only did it teach us a lot about the adult world with jokes that we didn't entirely understand, but we intuitively knew that it was on our side. To a 12-year old kid, Mad was the height of subversion, dedicated to exposing the hypocrisy and cant that assailed us every day in the form of television, movies, music, government, and advertising. Mad itself never accepted any advertising, so it never had to answer to anyone. The idiot who appeared on every cover, Alfred E. Neuman, was meant as a badge of honor for a magazine whose staff was regularly described each month as "The Usual Gang Of Idiots."

To be parodied in Mad meant that you had made it. In fact, there are some Mad parodies that I remember better than the movies they parodied.

Like TVs with 3 channels and phones that were solidly lodged into the kitchen wall, it was all we smarty pants kids had. It was the Smarty Pants Bible.

But in recent years Mad has had to make some concessions to the realities of the marketplace. Not only has it switched over to being a (shudder) color publication but it's now filled with ads. It also found itself competing in the middle of a culture where American Pie and South Park had become the new touchstones for teenage humor and have had to dial up the raunch factor, though not considerably more than any "Family-hour" sitcom.

After all this, there doesn't seem like the mag had much left to lose, but the announcement of Mad Kids magazine (for younger readers) still feels somehow like the last nail in the coffin:

"Mad Kids" will target the 6-11 year old audience with classic Mad material, as well as new content, such as Spy vs. Spy Jr. and other age-targeted stories.

Spy vs. Spy Jr.? Lord save us. Can L'il Don Martin be far behind?

"Mad" is partnering with Action Performance Companies and Great Clips to push "Mad Kids" as well. The promotion with the two partners will see the #38 NASCAR Busch Racing Cup car driven by Kasey Kahne painted in a "Mad Kids" scheme with Spy vs. Spy Jr. catchphrases. Action Performance will also manufacture premium di-cast cars and "Mad Kids" racing products. Additionally, the debut issue of the magazine will be featured at all 2400 Great Clips hair salons across the country throughout the launch period, and will contain a special coupon for discounting haircuts.

Continuing the sponsorship lineup, "Mad" is a major sponsor of this summer’s Warped Music Tour, and a promotion with White Castle will run between August 15th and September 15th. Mini magazines will be included with sacks of ten WC burgers, while October’s issue will feature a coupon for free White Castle burgers.

To see Mad gobbled up so throughly by the parties it once railed against is a sad spectacle indeed, especially for anyone who held each copy tightly to their bosom throughout their formative years.

One of the highlights of the magazine was its endless supply of song parodies and, between Mad and Allan Sherman, much of my adolescence was spent as a song parody machine, grinding out witty (so I felt), pun-soaked versions of Beatles songs as well as old standards. Many of these were passed along to my friend George, who claims to still have some of them, during class. In fact, I set a goal of writing song parodies for every song on The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album and finished it, too, thereby instigating the Great Recording Session at our friend Ted Banks' house. Ted was a transistor head who built model rockets and knew what all the stuff at Radio Shack did. He had plans to build a tiny radio station that would broadcast around his entire block, so he had this thing called a "mixer" which he said would be a great help to our project.

He also had a sister named Robin Banks, which we thought was one of the funniest names we'd ever heard. "Robin" Banks, geddit?

To us, this was Noel Coward level material.

Anyway, the Sgt. Pepper Parody Sessions were to be as ill-fated as the Fabs' own Let It Be sessions. We gathered at Ted's house and, after asking "Hey, where's your sister? Robbin' banks?", we took our places in the basement and pretended we were at Abbey Road Studios. George played guitar and we would take turns singing. It never seemed to occur to us that we needed any other instruments. Meanwhile, Ted would be on the other side of the basement door, turning the three knobs on the mixer with the look of a man possessed.

The first song seemed to go ok. We listened back to it on Ted's reel-to-reel tape recorder, a large machine that lent an air of professionalism to the entire affair. Satisfied, we dug into the second track with renewed vigor. Now don't ask me the names of any of these masterpieces, as the scrubbing bubbles of senility have blessedly erased this information. But I do remember that we needed some gunshots during the fade-out of the track (I think this was our big anti-war number) and Ted had just the thing.

He dug out an LP that had some gunshot sound effects on it and, with the twist of a Radio Shack mixer knob, deftly added it to the end of our song. However, some unexpected and mournful chamber music started to come in towards the end that Ted had forgotten about and, mortified, he said "Sorry, we can do that again." To George and I, however, this was the equivalent of one of those famous studio accidents The Beatles themselves pioneered, like playing the guitar backwards or running the tape at different speeds.

"No, no, leave it in!" we cried, "It sounds just like Glass Onion!" Ted looked at us strangely, then nodded his head as if he understood. We all felt like witnesses to history. This must be what it's like to be in a real recording studio, we silently thought. Riding inspiration by the seat of your pants, using your artistic intuition as a compass as you braved the unknown.

We had passed through the fire. We were now recording artistes.

Next: The Dream Is Over

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Late Night With Drunken Lettermen

The wife finally had enough of the neighbors last Saturday.

As previously reported in this space, the neighbors adjacent to the back of our house live during the summer months under the delusion that a) their backyard is some kind of all-night club for the extroverted and b) surrounded by a magical force field that keeps the ample amount of noise they create from moving beyond its boundaries.

None of these things are true.

Now you stand a better shot at having them wrap things up at a reasonable hour when the next day is a workday. On a night like that, you’re more than likely to hear them pull the plug at a reasonable 11pm. But on a Friday or Saturday, there’s no telling how they’ll behave. One just bites one’s tongue and hopes to outlast them.

I think, in the interest of equal time, that I should point out that most of the time our neighborhood is a lovely, quiet place to pass the time, barring the passing car blaring the latest anthem of adolescent unrest.

One of my greatest fears, as someone who treasures his peace and quiet and who reacts a little too viscerally to other people’s noise, has always been that I’d never find a place to live where I could have silence when I wanted it, as well as the power to play my own music or movies without bothering anyone.

Being a single, corner residence solves a lot of that automatically. Most of the time it’s a blissful place to be. But it would be our hard luck that the party animals of the block would choose to move into the house right behind us.

Now, you may well arsk, what in the world prevents you from walking over there when they’re carrying on late into the night and asking them to dial it down a notch?

Nothing. But, in my case, I seem to only have two settings: shut up and suffer or scream my bloody head off.

There’s also calling the police, but that runs the risk of instigating a full-fledged neighborhood block war, and those things can escalate quickly. And I’ve already thrown out my camouflage wear from the last one.

The problem is that if I go over to complain, even if I do so with the best of intentions and have promised myself I’ll be as diplomatic as possible, there’s no guarantee that I won’t end up, er, improvising on the subject of their ancestry.

Besides which, I’ve had enough of these sorts of confrontations. They make my stomach hurt and raise my already elevated blood pressure.

So these days I tend to suffer in silence and just hope for the best. They can’t stay up forever. Right?

But last Saturday, around 2am, the wife finally reached her breaking point.

After trying to sleep with the sounds of, let’s call them Mr. And Mrs. Drunkass, continuing to pulse throughout the house, she got up and said, "This is abusive!"

Well, she may have used slightly different language, but that was the gist of it.

"I’m going over to talk to them," she said, getting dressed.

"Are you sure you want to do that, dear?" I asked.

"This is ridiculous. It’s 2 in the morning. I’ve got every right to ask them to turn down the noise."

My stomach began to jump.

"What if they - "

"I’m just going to go over and ask them nicely."

"Yes, dear, but - "

She was already out the door.

I walked through the house to the point farthest from the impending skirmish. I listened carefully for anything out of the ordinary. Nothing.

After about 5 minutes I walked towards the back door with the intention of steadying my nerves with a swallow of decaffeinated iced tea when, at the same time, the wife popped back in.

"What happened?" I asked.

"Well," she said, "first I had to get their attention because the back gate wouldn’t open. So I stood there waving my arms and yelling for a while."

"How’d that go?"

"Well, Mr. [Drunkass] was sprawled out on his chaise lounge under the tiki lights feeling no pain, so it took him a while to notice me. Finally he came over, which wasn’t easy in his condition, and said, ‘Yeah?’"


"Yeah. So I told him that it was really late and he might not realize it but their sound really carries into our bedroom.

"How’d he take it?"

"He stood there for a bit looking like he was trying to process it."

"I don’t envy the thought trying to make its way up to that brain."

"Then he wandered back to the group, said a few words to Mrs. [Drunkass] and the usual gang of inebriated jocks, and now it’s quiet."

I hugged her and said, "You know, I never would have dreamed that the reasonable approach would work with those two."

"I’m not sure it did," the wife said, "I mean…I’m not sure they actually understood what I said. They just knew that some crazy woman was standing at their gate at 2 in the morning and I think it frightened them."

"Well, it worked. That’s all that matters," I said, as the crazy woman and I wandered back into the sanctum sanctorum of Screwloose Manor where madness, and silence, reigned. Slipping back into the sweet embrace of sleep, we dreamt that the battlements were secure.

For now.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Land Where I'm Forgot

There is a land where time moves more slowly than it does here.

Once in this land, time becomes elastic and things that would normally take 5 minutes will take half an hour. Communication follows suit, as sentences that might once have been short and succinct begin to crawl at a leisurely pace, allowing any number of digressions. It’s a universe of slow motion where movement becomes almost imperceptible, a slow dripping of time that feels as if gravity itself could give way at any moment, spinning everything off this cosmic top into the deep freeze of space.

This place is called the post office.

One of the charms of living in a small community, certainly, is the intimacy of it. There’s something reassuring about being familiar with most of the folks in your neighborhood, and knowing they can be depended upon to keep an eye on your place when you’re not around. You can stop and talk with people you know when you go for a stroll and catch up on neighborhood gossip. Things generally move in a more relaxed way, without your feeling the need to check your watch every few minutes.

But there’s slow and then there’s slow.

And then there’s sloooooooooooow.

Our local post office is manned by two nice enough older gentlemen who we have nicknamed Frick and Frack. Frick is the taller of the two, his hair gone completely white, and he peers at us from behind a pair of coke bottle lenses. Frack is built shorter and stockier with a salt and pepper beard. Both of them have been there so long that they apparently know every single individual who walks in, and they take the opportunity of these meetings to do as much catching up as possible. Everyone seems to be under the impression that this is a General Store and we’re all sitting around the pot belly stove. All the place needs to make it complete is a spittoon.

The end result is that the buying of a stamp or the mailing of a letter becomes an endurance test that the wise consumer has learned to bring a picnic lunch to. They should probably just adopt the method that they use to sell tickets to stadium shows now and hand out bracelets to mark your place in line.

It’s not so bad if you walk in and there’s no line. Under those conditions you’ll only have a 20-minute wait, as Frick and Frack wander back and forth from the service counter to the back of the building, the pair looking like they’re trying to remember what it was they’d started to look for. Eventually they will notice you standing there and slowly, cautiously make their way towards the counter. It’s best not to make any sudden movements at this point lest the entire process start again.

But if there’s a line – just turn around or be prepared to hear more than you ever wanted to know about your neighbor’s kid’s soccer team or the local mechanic or the upcoming car show. Your brain will wither in frustration as you wait patiently for this endless vocal meandering to aim at a particular target or circle with the intention of making a landing. Frick’s slow, lazy drawl stands in sharp contrast to Frack’s more staccato attack, but both approaches result in Beckett-like dialogues that sound as if they would be better suited to the scorched and barren backgrounds of the late master dramatist.

Usually their conversations with the customers are kept separate, but when they begin to cross over, a sort of apotheosis of meaninglessness is reached:

Frick: So…the boy’s graduated, then…

Customer: Oh, yes…in fact…

Frack: (looks over) Graduated? What boy?

Frick: You know…the boy who used to come in with the…

Frack: Boy with! What?

Frick: …had the…you know…the thing with…

Customer: You remember Frankie…

Frack: Frankie boy?

Frick: Sure…Frankie boy…where’s he been?

Frack: Frank! I remember him! Frankie boy!

Frick: Sure…that’s him.

After enough of this, you’ll wish you were waiting for Godot. Chances are he’d sell you some stamps quicker than these guys. But you can’t put a price on local charm, so most folks are happy to let things remain the way they are.

After all, you got some place to go?

Monday, August 08, 2005

The Last Queer

So, it ended as it began, with Michael doing a voiceover and everyone dancing at Babylon.

After 5 years, Showtime’s Queer As Folk, the groundbreaking series that broke any number of barriers for gay and lesbian characters on television, came to an end. It was, predictably, bittersweet, at times heartbreakingly so.

The series which began as the story of lifetime friends Brian and Michael and how they dealt with the barely legal Justin’s crush on Brian ended, after 5 years of variations on the theme, including Michael’s marriage in Canada and Brian’s bout with testicular cancer, with the pair back together and celebrating in the now bombed-out husk of the club which had been the hub of all the characters’ lives.

It’s easy to underestimate the effect that QAF had. It certainly never got any attention from the usual award committees. But it made a huge dent in the preconceptions that many straight people had about the lives of gays and lesbians, merely by presenting them as normal, well-rounded individuals.

You could fault it at times for being a little too soapy, or a little repetitious in its recycling of established tropes, (yes, we know that Brian, the jerk with the heart of gold, will come through in the end) but it was also smart and unafraid to tread on toes, even those in the gay community. It was never funnier than when it took on the criticism it received for stereotyping gays by inventing a show within the show called “Gay As Blazes.” And it took on the crystal meth epidemic months before I ever saw a mention of it in the media.

Mostly, it was the passion of everyone involved and the constant reinforcement of the message that the characters were proud of who they were. It was a message that easily transferred over to anyone who watched it, whoever they were, regardless of their orientation.

Most of the final season was devoted to a confrontation between Michael’s mature married life in suburbia and Brian’s struggle to remain the party boy of his youth despite encroaching age and the increasing demands from Justin for a commitment. It was a schism that threatened to tear apart all of Brian’s relationships, until tragedy made him rethink his priorities.

In the end, the show that had teased us for years about whether or not Brian and Justin would end up together wouldn’t let us have that simple pleasure. It felt cruel, but in retrospect QAF becomes Justin’s story, the education of a young man who becomes, under Brian’s tutelage, “the best homosexual he can be.”

And in many ways, even though he started out as the youngest and most inexperienced character, Justin always seemed the brightest and most level-headed of the bunch, not to mention someone whose talent meant his time living in Pittsburgh was always going to be limited, anyway.

So we were left with Brian and Michael, their roles reversed, Brian moving on to a dull new maturity that he sees as inevitable and Michael deciding that “some things are never meant to change” and encouraging Brian to be everything he’d ever criticized him for, immature, unrealistic, hedonistic and…beautiful.

As the broken Babylon magically reconstituted itself and Brian started to dance through the glitter and lasers to the same song that concluded its initial episode, Heather Smalls’ Proud:

What have you done today to make you feel proud?
It's never too late to try

What have you done today to make you feel proud?
You could be so many people
If you make that break for freedom

What have you done today to make you feel proud?

Brian looked like something larger than himself, confident, unstoppable, heroic…


Sunday, August 07, 2005

Please Help You Elf

It's interesting to me that part of this "Intelligent Design" debate is actually going on in my state, Pennsylvania, which I prefer to think of as semi-civilized. After all, as a state we didn't go for Bush, we went for Kerry.

But, as the wife often reminds me, Pennsylvania consists of Philadelphia on one end, Pittsburgh on the other end, and Alabama in the middle.

We're also the state that gave the country Rick Santorum and that has been host to a growing racist and Aryan Youth presence.

All of which can be easy to forget when you live near Philadelphia.

About a hour away from us, though, lies the Amish Country of hex signs, horses and buggies and Shoo-Fly Pies. Not to mention some rather obscenely large all-you-can-eat buffets. At the moment there's even a television commercial running here touting a "Witness Tour" that tries to recreate the ambience of the Harrison Ford film by taking you through Lancaster County.

There's one buffet there that we like to visit every so often. It's one of the more reasonably priced deals and features what can only be described as a staggeringly enormous variety of combestibles, from sausage and meatballs and veal parmagiana to salmon and strip steak and salad. An endless corridor of consumption that makes the mind reel, the heart beat faster, and the stomach grow fuller.

The only thing about going there is that, from the minute you get off the turnpike exit, you go from Blue State to Red State awfully quick.

For every scenic fruit stand or horse and buggy, there's a billboard advertising a Christian radio program with a hand-painted pair of praying hands.

Similar signs and sentiments appear more frequently the further you travel until the flags become ubiquitous and you get the strange feeling that you zigged when you should have zagged.

So by the time you arrive at the buffet, you're not fazed by the enormous plaque of the Ten Commandments in the Dining Room, or the free Christian literature available by the door.

One of my favorite displays is the little pamphlet holder that sits between the Men's and Women's restrooms, like a referee between Adam and Eve. The rectangular plastic container for the pamphlets, decorated with individually gummed letters intended to spell out "Please Help Yourself" but now missing some consonants, sits in this wooden model of a dinosaur that resembles the one from the sign at the old Sinclair gas stations. It's painted green and hanging from its head is a small piece of wood that's been cut into the shape of a question mark.

As your eyes travel down to the pamphlets, they're met by the title, "What Really Happened To The Dinosaurs?" A skimming of the contents makes plain that the author has got a bone to pick with evolution. Several ancient bones, in fact. The main problem seems to be that we've been brainwashed by the secular society into believing in Darwinism, when we should be using The Bible ("The Ultimate History Book!") as our bedrock of belief and proceed from there.

And all this is only an hour away from my house.

A rainbow of assorted puddings and desserts quickly helps to take the sting out of this sort of thing, however, although there was an incident that once prompted us to complain.

There was this one time that we went when, halfway through our meal, we noticed a party of folks come in, one of whom was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a large black swastika.

There was something very surreal about this. Here, in the middle of a roomful of Norman Rockwell Americans picking at their mountains of food underneath a giant copper plaque of the Ten Commandments, sat this beefy looking skinhead with his Nazi t-shirt and everyone was behaving as if it were perfectly normal.

We got up and complained to the manager, who seemed confused and eager to get rid of us. She explained that there had been times when they'd asked diners to turn shirts inside-out when people found them offensive. She promised she'd look into the matter, but by the time we were finished eating he was still sitting there, cramming food into his mouth.

I don't blame the manager for not knowing what to do, though. After all, she's still trying to work out the whole dinosaur thing.