Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Return of Johnny Yen

Most of the handful of regular readers of this blog know that I posted on another blog, Here Comes Johnny Yen Again... for about four years before I started this blog for various reasons. In the last week, I've had two different people tell me that they miss my old blog. I'd always intended not to end it, but to let it lie fallow for a while. I think I'm ready to resume Johnny Yen again, but will continue this blog as well. To quote that noted philosopher Billy Joel, "But it's alright/Cause we all need a place to call home/It's alright/Yes we all need a room of our own."

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Anniversary Road Trip

I was taken away from blogging for a few days by a big road trip: I drove down to Knoxville, Tennessee to see my parents for a combination of things, mixing my annual summer visit with my son with a celebration of my parents' 50th anniversary (today, August 1, actually) and my mother's 68th birthday, which was today as well. She got married on her 18th birthday.

I hadn't realized, until I talked to my son about it, that it was the first time in a year and a half that I'd been down there. This was mostly due to school. Since the last time we'd made the trip, the wind farm in the picture at the top had been installed, the Benton County Wind Farm. It's an enormous project. So far, there are 87 of the 400 foot machines installed, enough to power over 40,000 homes. I found an article on it online which indicated that the project, already huge, will eventually be six times its current size. I found sighting this wonder a rather magical way to start the trip. My son and I are very interested in sustainable energy and frequently talk about it.

My wife and my stepdaughter came along for the trip. Neither of them had met my father, who is unable to travel since his cancer surgery four years ago. As noted in my blog, my wife and I are currently in a rough patch, and this sometimes came through during the trip.

Overall, the trip was great. I had a couple of great talks with my folks about a bunch of things, including the fact that it appears that I am probably permanently alienated from one of my brothers, who I have not spoken to for nearly nine years. In the last couple of years they have realized what I'd figured out a long ago-- that he's an aggressive bully who constantly works to make the people around him uneasy, and who constantly blames his problems on others. I think that my wife came away with a better understanding of me after spending time with both of my folks (she'd met my mother already).

My folks were delighted to spend time with my son, who is hands down their favorite grandchild, and my father was happy to finally meet a granddaughter he'd never met before.

I did manage a little bit of down time, but this was balanced by the fact that I did the majority of the driving. I took the time to do something that is the start of a long-term project. Inspired by the life and career change of one of my favorite bloggers, mi, the "blogger formerly known as barista brat," who has launched upon a new endeavor, becoming a young adult fiction writer, I made the decision that I am going to write a book about my friend Mark, who was one of the most alive, unique and vital people I had the fortune to spend most of my adulthood with. When I attended the trial, last summer, of the guy who killed him (the trial was actually for the killing of one of his accomplices in the robbery, who Mark's killer was afraid was going to "roll" on him), I met Alex Kotlowitz, an author who wrote, among other great books, a book that was very influential when I was a teacher, "There Are No Children Here," about two young boys growing up in Chicago's horrendous Henry Horner Homes housing project. In an issue of the British literary magazine Granta last year, Kotlowitz had an article about the murder of Khalid, the young Sudanese immigrant whose family had been Mark's tenants, and had been led unwittingly, I've come to realize, into the attempted robbery in which Mark was killed. I finally purchased the issue of Granta last week on Amazon, and during this trip, I finally skimmed the article, marking the references to my friend in the article with Post-Its as I sat at the pool with my mother, watching my kids swim. It's a starting point.

It was funny to see my kids on the trip. They kibbutzed a lot, and bickered a little. Later, my wife and I talked about it and made the observation that it's exactly what a sixteen-year-old brother and 13 year old sister would act like. They're as close as if they were actually blood relatives.

The trip was, overall, I think good for Kim and I. I think that meeting my parents together helped her understand me better. I don't think that she'd really gotten my sense of humor, irreverence, sarcasm, openness and not giving a shit what other people thought about me until she saw where I got it from. Our frustration with one another spilled over into a couple of brief spats during the trip-- it was funny to hear our kids referee them. Overall, though, the trip was good for us individually, and probably as a couple. I'm not sure we're going to be together forever, but I think there was a better understanding overall.

The trip was a good one. It had been way too long since I'd been down there (this last Christmas they flew my son down since I could not afford to take the time off to go down, since I'm paying my own way through school). It cost me a lot, taking a whole weekend off. But as imperfect as their marriage has been, it has lasted 50 years, longer than most, and I thought it was important to be there. And whatever beefs I've had with my parents in the past, I'm now close to both of them. Recently, I've been faced with a bunch of mortal illnesses in people around me. As I've mentioned before, I've been doing a lot of emotional housecleaning lately. I've come to the realization that when I lose my parents, I don't want to be crying to myself "why didn't I give them more phone calls and visits?" Having my own kids has made me realize that nobody gives you a manual when they're born. My mother is fond of quoting Maya Angelou, who said something to the effect that "I did the best I could, and when I learned better, I did better." As I travelled, I looked both backward and forward, hoping that I've been able to take what I could learn from them, and hoping I've done well enough with it that my kids can live happy adulthoods.

Monday, July 26, 2010

I'm Back

Okay kids, I'm back after almost two weeks away from blogging. I'll explain.

This all started with a bad marital spat nearly two weeks ago. As usual, it started over something minor and rapidly escalated until everything that she and I are pissed about otherwise got dragged into it. Isn't that the way it usually happens? In any event, things aren't all hunky dory, but at least our big gripes are out in the open. With me in school and she trying to recover from being unemployed a lot of the last year, and both of us having kids, there was no question of a separation or anything that drastic. But the fact of the matter is that I've been pretty unhappy about some things, and at least those came out in the open.

That aside, some other serious shit came up. My wife has a young cousin (four years old) who has been fighting cancer since she was less than a year old. She had a bone marrow transplant a couple of years ago, and things looked better, but have taken a bad turn for the worse lately. She is suffering from "graft versus host disease," and her skin and organs are hardening. This weekend, she lost her eyesight. It's looking like we need to prepare for the worst.

On Thursday, my old friend Julie came into the restaurant and explained why I hadn't seen she and her husband in there since the spring. He's suffering from cancer of the adrenal glands, tongue and thyroid (he was a heavy smoker until about 23 years ago). The cancer is inoperable, and though he is being treated with radiation and chemo, I could tell from talking to her that the prognosis is not good. The fact that he has diabetes is undoubtedly making things worse. I'm particularly fond of Julie as a friend-- she was the one who got me my interview for my teaching job in Cicero. This is going to be rough. I let her know to call me if she needs help with anything.

It was not just rough stuff. A couple of Saturdays ago, I took my nephew to a Cubs game-- which they of course lost. Still, he and I had a great time; I could tell he appreciated me taking him to the game, and appreciated that I'm as big a baseball fan as he was. His only disappointment was that he could not go with my son, who he has become good friends with; my ex- wouldn't change the schedule to accomodate this.

The biggest event-- and perhaps most bittersweet thing-- was last Tuesday, when my old friend Jamie and I took a day and went to visit our friend Mark's grave in central Illinois. I've mentioned Jamie before-- we were friends and roommates in college, and lost touch with one another for nearly ten years. I finally found him last year, and was able to tell him the terrible news that Mark, who we'd gone to school with, and both roomed with at different times, had been murdered four years ago.

I had no way of knowing, but just days before I finally tracked Jamie down and let him know about our beloved friend, his mother had died. He was already reeling from her death, and then found out about Mark.

I posted about Jamie coming with me to the annual celebration we have of Mark's life. That weekend, we hatched the plan to visit Mark's grave; since he is off work recuperating from a knee replacement and I have a little spare time since I didn't have to go to summer school, we thought it was an ideal time.

The night before the trip, I put together a playlist on my Ipod. It was heavy on our old favorites, including the Replacements and REM, which were also favorites of Mark's.

In a post I wrote in my other blog I described the day we buried Mark's cremated remains; how a picture-perfect blue sky day suddenly erupted into a violent thunderstorm as we approached the cemetery, and lightning struck near his grave. It was if, his mother said, he was telling us, that he wasn't ready to go.

On Tuesday, Jamie and I drove south and thought we were driving into a storm. As we approached the cemetery, we were stunned; the heavy overcast of clouds that we'd had over us since Chicago started clearing up, and we were met at the cemetery, for the first time in the day, with blue sky and sunshine.

It was downright uncanny.

A lot of things were uncanny. As I mentioned, I'd made an Ipod mix for the trip, but I played satellite radio at first, so he could see how awesome it was. Minutes into the trip, a Frank Sinatra song came up on Little Steven's Underground Garage." He mentioned that he liked Sid Vicious' (of the Sex Pistols) version of "My Way" better than Sinatra's. I had to stop him and tell him.

I had put that song on the road trip mix.

Jamie had asked me, from the beginning, if I was all right with him having a moment alone with Mark when we first got to the cemetery. Of course I was.

There were a couple of strange things. First, I was completely mistaken about where Mark's grave was. I had the right side of the cemetery, but was certain that he was in the back of the cemetery. I'd been there when we buried him-- highly emotional and a rainstorm going on, so that could be explained. But I'd come by there with Tim a year and a half ago. Emotional again, I guess. In any event, as I walked around looking for the grave, I embarrasedly told Jamie "Christ, I know it's a black stone on this side of the cemetery."

Jamie spotted it seconds after I said that. Later, he told me that it was all exactly like he'd pictured in his head earlier.

He walked up to it, and I hung back, moving the car closer so that he wouldn't have to walk as far in the "Mad Max" leg brace he was wearing as a result of his knee replacement surgery. As I marvelled at how sunny, warm and beautiful the day had turned out to be, he walked over to my car, indicating he'd had the time he needed.

I grabbed my Ipod and a little battery-powered speaker I'd bought a while back-- and something else-- and we went over to his grave. He showed me what he'd left at the grave-- a cross that had been his mother's. This trip had been, for him, I realized, to grieve both Mark and his mother.

I set up the Ipod and the speaker and put on a song I knew Mark loved-- "Gardening At Night," by REM. I set down something I'd wanted to leave at his grave: a set of keys from his house. His house had always been open to me when I was in trouble, and to any of his friends. He'd opened the door the night he was murdered by a pack of stupid young would-be robbers because he thought it was one of us, in a jam. His largesse cost him his life. It kills us that this was the case.

Later, Jamie told me that besides the clouds clearing and the sun coming out just as we were approaching, one other thing floored him. "Gardening At Night" was exactly the song he would have picked for that moment.

I'd brought along one other thing. I'd taken a break on drinking for a while before this trip after discovering that my kids thought I was drinking a little too much recently. I opened up the sole beer I'd brought along on the trip, a bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, my favorite beer, and a beer I knew Jamie liked, and we shared it.

As we were getting ready to leave, we looked at the graves around Mark's. We're terrible, but we couldn't resist chuckling at the fact that a gravestone near his had the name "Lust" on it. Then we looked at the other side and realized something that made us laugh even harder... was a mother and son.

We were laughing so hard we were both crying. "That is SO WRONG!" one of us said.

We wondered about a grave that was way off from the other graves and understood why.

As we saw the name "DICK" on the gravestone, we were laughing our asses off and saying "No wonder they put him off here." And it only got worse when we saw that the nearest gravestone was more LUST.

As we got ready to leave, we talked for a moment deciding whether to turn around and go right back to Chicago or go to the town that he, Mark and I had gone to school at, had met at, had started our adulthoods at. It was a half hour drive away. And if we turned back now, we'd hit Chicago right at rush hour.

It was an easy decision. We headed off to Charleston.

Jamie reminded me of the last time he and I had gone to Charleston-- in 1990. I had a 1972 Cutlass Supreme convertible that was beat to shit but had a great stereo. Back then, neither of us had kids. He was married-- more on that later-- and I had never been married, but was living with Marva, my first live-in girlfriend.

On the way there, we talked about our pasts. I mentioned a line from an old Band song, "The Shape I'm In."

Out of nine lives, I've used seven; now how in the world do you get to heaven?/Oh, you don't know the shape I'm in"

We were in a little disbelief that the two badass boys of the group were here and alive on this beautiful day to pay homage to our much more careful friend and visit our old stomping grounds, to enjoy being parents, to enjoy the music we love. And our friendship.

On the way there, I explained why I'd put the Grateful Dead's "Box of Rain" in the Ipod mix. Years ago, I was watching a documentary about the Grateful Dead. I love a lot of their music, but am not so much into the "Deadhead" thing. In the documentary, they explained how "Box of Rain" had come about. They'd suddenly had success in the late sixties, and suddenly a bunch of the band members had lost their parents. The song is a rumination on how just as we accept the joys and successes in our lives, we also have to accept the losses that time also brings us.

What do you want me to do, to do for you to see you through/
This is all a dream we dreamed one afternoon, long ago"

I realized, as we drove and talked, that it was almost exactly 25 years, to the day, that this picture was taken:

It's Jamie, with Mark, putting on a record at the beginning of a party that Jamie and my other roommates threw when I got my Master's degree in July of 1985 (the record they put on was the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?").

I had been friends with Mark a couple of years at that point, and knew we'd stay friends (he was, in fact, one of the few people to actually write to me after graduation). I'd just met Jamie a couple of months before. But both guys were to remain two of my closest friends-- "a dream we dreamed one afternoon, long ago."

As I drove, I reflected on the last lines of the song:

And its just a box of rain, or a ribbon for your hair;
Such a long long time to be gone, and a short time to be there.

As I approach 50, I find I'm less able tolerate bullshit, and find myself losing patience with people who sweat the small stuff. Jamie is in a similar boat (including the marital difficulties). I think that he and I both realize that we have more days behind us than ahead of us, and have certainly realized the importance of spending time with the people who are important to you. It was unspoken-- we will never let anything allow us to go years without seeing one another ever again. Because besides the people you love, all the other stuff is small stuff.

What do you want me to do, to do for you to see you through?
A box of rain will ease the pain, and love will see you through.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Books: Alvin Toffler's "The Third Wave."

In 1978, I read Alvin Toffler's classic "Future Shock." We'd seen a documentary based on it in a high school social studies class, and it piqued my interest.

A couple of years later, in 1980, when I was a college freshman, Toffler published his next book, "The Third Wave." I purchased it, started it, but put it aside. There was a lot of content that went over my head.

In 2006, my friend Mark Evans was shot to death in a botched robbery in front of his own home. I alluded to that loss in this blog and my old one. Mark was probably the best-read person I've ever known, and I never had an uninteresting discussion with him. He referred to "The Third Wave" frequently, so when I helped other friends and his family in boxing up and hauling away his belongings shortly after his death, his copy of "The Third Wave" was one of the handful of books and cd's I kept.

I'm glad that I waited to read it and that I finally got around to reading it this summer. Having gotten a bachelor's and master's in Political Science, I'm much more able to read it critically got much more out of it my first attempt to read it three decades ago. Plus, I was filled with a sense of just how prescient this book was in many cases. And I sure wish Mark was still around for me to discuss the book with.

Alvin Toffler and his wife Heidi, after getting graduate degrees at Eastern colleges, moved to the midwest and worked factory jobs for five years in order to get an insight on things. That time was well spent.

The Third Wave that Toffler refers to is the next economic/social/political shift. The first wave was the formation of agrarian societies about 10,000 years ago. This resulted in massive changes in human civilizations. The economics went from hunter/gatherer to cultivation. Social and political structures formed to deal with human needs; villages formed, trade came about. The extended family and the village became the center of life.

The second wave was industrialization. This change in the mode of production entailed, as he pointed out, a shift in economics. Instead of individuals consuming most of what they produced and trading or purchasing a little of what they needed, the exact opposite started happening; individuals became part of a production system in which most of what they produced was sold (usually not by them but by the owner of the means of production) and they purchased most of what they needed to consume.

Toffler argues that both Marxists and capitalists assume that industrial production will continue to be the main mode of production. He asserts that they are both wrong; that there will be a massive decentralization of life and production, a Third Wave, and that this wave will have economic, social and political changes that will come with it.

In 1980, when few people had personal computers, Toffler predicted that not only most homes would have computers, but that appliances and the homes themselves will have computer components in them. In this prediction, he was dead on.

On page 169, he points out a computer service called "The Source," which provided computer users access to news, stock and commodity market data, educational material, shopping, the ability to make hotel and travel reservations, etc. and even to play chess, bridge and backgammon with players thousands of miles away. This was, in short, the proto-internet, which then existed mostly as a mostly-unknown means for military and scientific computers to communicate. Toffler understood the potential significance of this, including the ability for it to allow a large portion of people to work from home.

He predicted many things. Among them: that vocal recognition programs, then in their infancy, would revolutionize computer use; that the connected computers would allow people with like interests find one another despite geographical separation (i.e. social networking); the rise in importance of cable television; he even suggested that there was the strong possibility of the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Much has not come to pass, though. He suggests that eventually former industrial societies will decentralize into "cottage industries;" that using improved agricultural technology combined with the electronic connectedness, people will be able to use enlightened utilization of technology to return to an echo of the not-so-rustic village past, this time much safer, comfortable and enjoyable.

While I believe that this future is possible, and certainly hope that we follow at least part of this vision of creating a sustainable civilization (he addresses the upcoming energy crunch and environmental destruction, things that are in our laps now), I think that he dismisses the fact that capitalist societies will allow industry to chase the lowest labor, and that frequently this means industrializing the most politically oppressed areas because unionization is also suppressed, resulting in ludicrously low labor costs. Mr. Toffler, a former Marxist, dismisses the differences in capitalist and Marxian societies a little too quickly. I would argue that what he was comparing was not capitalist and socialist societies, but capitalist and left fascist societies. Regardless, the former USSR and China have hurtled headlong into capitalism, and the United States continues to be stripped of its industrial jobs as capital chases the cheapest labor costs.

Still, overall, this is an amazing book and highly recommended. It will serve as an excellent blueprint for a more sustainable and humane human future.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Good Weekend Friday Five

Did my Friday Five on Friday, but just getting around to writing this up.

Friday night, my kids seemed to want to hang out together-- they only see one another every two weeks because of my custody agreement with my ex-girlfriend. I went out on the back porch and combined rare reading time with the lovely weather. I'm reading Sheila Weller's "Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon--and the Journey of a Generation" on my Kindle. Fascinating book-- I'll review it when I'm done. Since it covers the lives of the three women mostly in the sixties and seventies, lots of sex and drugs.

On Saturday, my son and I combined a favor for friends of ours (watching their baby while mom ran an injured dog to the vet) with a trip to the couple's record/dvd store. I let Adam pick out a dvd, and he chose the Bond classic "Goldfinger." When I got home from work Saturday night, he was just finishing watching that one. I joined him in that, and then we stayed up late watching "Bull Durham." Every time I watch that one, I marvel at what a wonderful masterpiece it is.

On Sunday, we cooked our traditional Sunday lunch. However, I pursuaded him to mix it up a little; instead of cooking Chinese food like we usually do, I showed him how to cook a paella. It turned out marvelously.

1. Boom Boom Mancini- Warren Zevon w/ REM
2. Leather Jacket- Mick Taylor
3. Like A Rolling Stone- Bob Dylan
4. Coat Of Many Colors- Dolly Parton
5. Love Her Madly- The Doors

1. Love this song! It's about Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, who accidentally killed South Korean boxer Duk Koo Kim in the ring in 1982.
2. A great late seventies solo song from former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor.
3. I think I nearly wore out this song on my father's vinyl copy of this song. Not to worry-- I bought him a cd of "Highway 61" once he bought a cd player.
4. I love this song of poverty and family ties.
5. One of many hits the Doors had.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Toy Story 3

I took my son to see Toy Story 3 a couple of weeks ago. As we walked over to the movie theater, we talked about the other movies. The first one came out in 1995, when he was one year old, so he's pretty much grown up with the movies. My mother bought him a VHS of the first movie when he was about 2, and he loved it.

One day, when he was about 3, I had to stop by my friend Mark's house to pick up some material for a web design job he had me working on-- he frequently gave me web and graphic design work around then, which I desperately needed; it was in the dire period of my life when I was trying to finish teaching school while fighting over custody of my son with an ex-girlfriend. The extra money was a godsend.

While Mark and I went over the work he wanted me to do, Adam talked to Mark's housemate Aaron. While they were talking, Adam noticed a Buzz Lightyear figure near Aaron's computer. These were the days when Adam would tell anyone within earshot about his favorite two characters, Buzz Lightyear and Woody the Cowboy. He'd tell them, "Buzz Lightyear says "To infinity and beyond," and that Woody said "Reach for the sky!"

Aaron told Adam he could keep the toy. He still has it.

That year, he wore a Woody costume for Halloween.

My son and I enjoyed Toy Story 3 throughly. The CGI was amazing, and the story very sweet; Andy, the owner of the toys, is getting ready to go off to college. We discover that though he's long stopped playing with the toys, he still keeps them in a trunk in his room. The toys get separated and a wonderful story ensues that tells lessons of friendship, trust, betrayal and renewal.

As we sat there watching the movie, I realized that like Andy, my son is not far from going off to school. I thought about how the movie series has been such a part of my son's childhood and part of our relationship. And I was suddenly glad that the movie theater was dark and that nobody could see the tears welling in my eyes.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Bad Blogger Friday Five

I've been a bad blogger this week-- had a couple of posts running around my head, including reflections on seeing "Toy Story 3" with my son last weekend. Maybe this weekend I'll write that one.

In the meantime, I feel like my batteries are recharging; I got a good bike ride in this week and finally dug my rollerblades out of the basement and got on those. My weight has slipped up ten pounds since school got out. I plan on fighting back.

I did get a bunch of reading done. I finally finished Alvin Toffler's "The Third Wave," which I started and put aside 30 years ago when it was published. Got way more out of it now than I did then, and I'll write more about that. I also went back to reading Sheila Weller's "Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon--and the Journey of a Generation" on my Kindle, which I'm really enjoying, and I'm also reading a hard copy book I bought 17 or 18 years ago, Tom Bates' "Rads: A True Story of the End of the Sixties." It's about the bombing of the Army Math Research Center in Madison, Wisconsin in 1970, which resulted in the death of a physics researcher who was in another part of the building, uninvolved in the Army work. In one of the odd coincidences that seem to happen in my life, I had pulled the book out of my basement to finally read it, and a couple of days later, Dwight Armstrong, one of the four men behind the bombing, died recently, at the age of 58-- I was surprised to discover that he was only 9 years older than I am. I'll review that one too when I'm finished. So far, it's been a terrific read.

1. Please Please Me- The Beatles
2. Sheik- ZZ Top
3. Jeepster For Your Love- T Rex
4. You've Got To Hide Your Love Away- The Beatles
5. She Belongs To Me- Bob Dylan

1. One of the first singles the Beatles released. Still sounds great.
2. From ZZ Top's fabulous seventies classic "Tres Hombres" album.
3. "I want TV/But I've got T Rex...."
4. I love playing this one on guitar.
5. From the acoustic side of "Bringing It All Back Home." Rick Nelson did a nice cover of this one.