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.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Johnny Rojo's One-Hit Wonders: Stone Poneys, "Different Drum"

The song Different Drum, by the Stone Poneys, was released in September of 1967. It reached the top 20, topping out at #13 on the singles charts.

The Stone Poneys were a folk rock trio that formed in Los Angeles in 1964. Their singer, Linda Ronstadt, went on to huge success in the 1970's. Guitarist Kenny Edwards would continue to work with Ms. Ronstadt.

The guy who penned the tune in 1966 would also go on to fame and fortune. Mike Nesmith, who was the sole son (and heir) of Betty Nesmith, who invented White-Out, would go on to be one of the Monkees, and later become a movie producer ("Repo Man").

The song is one of the few pop songs I can think of that has a harpsichord (Richard Harris' "Macarthur Park" comes to mind.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The "Big Hair and Plastic Grass" Friday Five

After dinner tonight, my son and I walked over to a book-signing at the wonderful neighborhood bookstore/cafe/bar The Book Cellar. The book is an account of the weird and wacky seventies era of baseball.

We thoroughly enjoyed it. The author, Dan Epstein, did a reading, mostly from the chapter on the hideous uniforms of the era. As you can see, Mr. Epstein dressed the part (they were also playing '70's funk hits before the reading). He was funny and charming, and we had a ball. I bought Adam a copy and bought a copy for my old friend Jamie, who just had another, unexpected, surgery on his leg (he had a knee replacement a few weeks ago). He once met Cubs player Jose Cardenal, who had some of the biggest hair in the majors, when he was a kid. Afterward, we went up to get Mr. Epstein to sign the books. I told him that I was supposed to go to the biggest seventies baseball event ever, the Disco Demolition at Comiskey Park. Epstein signed Jamie's book "May the power and glory of Jose Cardenal's 'Fro be with you always...Dan Epstein."

We came home and my stepdaughter returned from a trip with a friend of hers with a Scattegories game she'd picked up for a buck at a garage sale. We played several games of this. Now my daughter's watching outtakes from "Rent" and Adam and I are watching "The Great Escape." All in all, a delightful evening.

1. Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys- Willie Nelson
2. Rock and Roll All Night- KISS
3. Happy Xmas (The War Is Over)- John Lennon
4. Shot By Both Sides- Magazine
5. Arc Of A Diver- Steve Winwood

1. I love to karaoke this one.
2. I'm not a huge KISS fan, but love this one.
3. One of my favorite Christmas songs from one of my favorite athiests
4. A seventies punk classic
5. A big comeback song for Winwood, in 1981.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Father's Day

About a week and a half ago, I was re-watching a scene from an overlooked movie I love, "King of the Corner." The movie was written and produced by Peter Reigert, the actor who played Boone in "Animal House," and has had wonderful roles in movies like "Local Color" and "Crossing Delancey" over the years.

There's a great scene in the movie, toward the end, where Reigert's character, Leo, gives a spontaneous eulogy for his father, whom he was never close to. In the course of a few minutes, he suddenly understands his father-- his failures and successes, and consequently his own failures and successes. It's hard not to cry while watching the scene.

Later, in the final scene, it's clear that Leo has taken his lessons to heart. It's hard not to smile at the last scene. Leo realizes, before it's too late, what the important things are in his life.

About 9 years ago or so, I was still married to second wife Cynthia. We went together, with my son, who was then about seven years old, to a party my brother's in-laws were throwing for his son's first birthday. It was, in general, a very joyous occasion; it was doubtful, when he was born, that my nephew would see his first birthday; he'd been born with a serious heart defect, which was, happily, surgically repaired.

At some point in the party, my father asked if I'd leave the party to go to a nearby electronics store with him-- he needed my help in selecting an electronic component.

Later, I realized that he had no need of help; he'd worked with computers for years and knows way more than I do about them. He just wanted to talk to me alone.

We picked up the electronic component and, since we were near it, we ran by the house we lived in in Western Springs, a western suburb of Chicago.

We drove through the cul-de-sac it was on and stopped to look at the house. I did not, in general, have good memories there. The people in that town were snotty, hypocritical and mean. It was one of the places we'd move to when my father was feeling his vague sense of dissatisfaction. He continued this pattern even after my brothers and I went off to college.

The family that lived there now was out on the front lawn. When we stopped to look at the place, the father, who was out playing with his kids, came out to say hello. We told him why we'd stopped by and talked to him about the things that were the same and the things that had been changed.

We drove a short distance, then my father pulled the car over. He started tearfully apologizing for how he had been as a father. He had, in his own words, "terrorized" my brothers and I (he had). He asked me to forgive him. I did.

The thing is that at that point, only a few years into being a parent, I'd realized that no matter how well you did as a parent, there were going to be things that you could have done better if you'd only known. He'd come from a very rough background, as I'd discovered, unbeknowest to him over the years. I'd known about the death of his own father when he was less than 2 years old. I knew about his mother remarrying to a violent drunk, and her own death in an automobile accident when he was a teenager. What I found out over the years were some other facts. His mother had not been an angel. There'd been a steady succession of men in her life-- and bed-- before and after her remarriage. I'd also discovered just how violent a guy his stepfather had been; he'd spent time in prison in Louisiana after shooting a man to death with a shotgun after he'd lost a barfight to him.

I came to understand my father much better-- the mercurial mood changes, the screaming, the battering, the sobbing apologies afterward. His unrelenting worry over what people thought about his house, his life. He has spent his life battling, like most people who were battered as children, a crippling depression. He's 72 and still struggling with it.

Today, he and I get along very well. It was good for him and cathartic to me to forgive him for his past. And it released me to let go of all the anger I had as a younger guy and to put my energy into what to me is the most important job I'll ever have: raising a couple of kids.

This July 4th will mark the 17th anniversary of the phone call I got from a then-recent ex-girlfriend informing that she was pregnant-- and keeping the baby.

I was just staggered; I didn't feel like I was father material. I was a hot-headed, hard-drinking guy. I'd been juggling a couple of relationships. My life was books, work-- two full-time jobs-- and boozy conversations every night. Looking back, I don't even know how I found the time or energy to carry on the relationships.

But the first time I held my son, at Columbus Hospital in Chicago, I knew this had to change. I'd never seen anything so helpless in my life and I was blown away by the fact that I was responsible for this guy for at least the next 18 years.

Over the next couple of years, I tried to make it work with his mother. I had originally broken up with her, before she discovered she was pregnant, because she was passive to the point that I didn't feel like I could carry on a relationship; I couldn't even carry on a conversation with her.

But when we moved in together, she turned into a bullying, screaming hellion. It puzzled me. Later, I discovered that this was the way her father, a father she hated, and who had died before she had a chance to make peace with him, was.

After two years, I moved out. Things were pretty friendly, as long as she had hope that we'd reconcile. When it became clear that we weren't, we had a knock-down drag-out custody fight that left both of us broke and my son upset.

Around the same time, I finished my teaching certification and spent most of the next ten years working as a teacher.

I had had a brief marriage in the late nineties. I ended it when it was clear that she was not willing to be a step-parent. A couple of years later, I reconciled with an old girlfriend and married her. I thought things were going to be good, but it became apparent that she resented my son. Worse, she wanted her own kids. My gut told me that this was a bad idea.

Flash forward to my nephew's birthday party. My father told me that that day, my wife had cornered him and cried and told me how hard it was to be there with all those kids when she was probably never going to have her own children. My father told me later about this conversation and his feeling about it: that if she and I had children, she would try to get me to marginalize my son. He confirmed exactly what I had been thinking. A few months later, she and I separated and then ended the marriage.

She has since remarried and had a child.

When I decided to start dating again a couple of years later, I decided that I'd only consider people who had their own kids; they were the only ones who would understand that your kids come first. I remarried, and acquired an eight-year-old stepdaughter in the process.

My wife's ex-husband, who is a writer of some note, remarried even before I met Kim. The woman he married is openly resentful of my stepdaughter, and he seems to have had less and less interest in parenting.

In the meantime, over the years, my ex-girlfriend seems to have been hell-bent on making sure my son hates her. According to my son, she's continued her tradition of screaming at and belittling the person she lives with. She's thrown him out of the house twice, the first time when he was eight. The second time, I was at work. I could hear him wailing in the background as she said, and I quote, "Come pick this piece of sh*t up." I'm not making that up or exaggerating. She has frequently criticized him telling him that "You're just like your father."

I don't think he takes this as an insult.

A few years back, I discovered that several of the parents on my block were strongly encouraging their kids to play with my son when he was at my home. They liked the fact that he was polite and well-mannered. I shook my head, thinking of my ex- telling him he was worthless.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife got home from work exhausted and conked out. My stepdaughter asked if I'd go for a walk with her. I was happy to.

We talked about school, her friends and then she brought up her father and his wife. It was no secret that his wife was awful to her. My stepdaughter complained that back before the stepmother was in the picture, her dad and her would always do stuff together-- go to the park, go to movies, etc. Over time, this stuff has dwindled to nothing.

This father's day, I didn't see either of my kids, not for long, at least. My son asked me to put off hanging out together-- he had an oppurtunity to hang out with my ex-'s family, a close-knit Chinese-American clan, who are, unlike my ex, lovely people. He told me that we'd hang out an extra day the next weekend he was over. I told him that was okay. And my stepdaughter's father asked to hang out with her on Father's Day. It was all fine with me-- I had an opportunity to work a lucrative double that day, and right now money's a big consideration; my wife was unemployed a lot of the last year, and I will start having to make payments on next semester's tuition soon. Finishing a nursing school is a priority; it will allow me to pay for my kids' college.

Because I have a different philosophy on college than my wife's ex, who who said "I paid for my own college, why can't she pay for her own?," my feeling is "Gee, I really want my kids to study whatever they want, without having the worry of having a crippling debt afterward." Because you see, that's what a parent does-- we make sure, to the best of our ability, that our kids have a better life than we had.

If I were to sit down with my ex and Kim's ex, I'd explain, at the risk of sounding smug, what parenting is all about, and why my kids still like hanging around me.

It's not, like both of you like to think, that I'm lenient. You see, not being arbitrary about discipline, about having set rules, not rules you pull out of your ass randomly-- that's important. I don't think that makes me lenient. It makes me fair.

I'd explain to them some things about parenting. It's the hardest, most satisfying thing I've ever done. It's been alternately excruciating boring and mind-blowingly thrilling. Yes, it's meant a million games of Candyland, checkers and Monopoly. It's meant sitting watching baseball games in weather so cold that I coudn't feel my hands at the end, or watching a lacrosse game in the heat. But it's also meant seeing my son pitch in a championship series, and seeing my daughter hit her first base-hit ever in softball. It's meant taking shifts at my second job as a waiter when I was a teacher so that I could take care of my kids, and working that waitering job, a job I'm really too old for, so that I can provide for them while I'm in nursing school.

I'd show them this picture:

To them, it may look like an alley. To me, it's the place where I taught two children how to ride bicycles. This was important to me; my old man didn't teach me to ride. I taught myself, and then taught my two brothers how to in an alley about a mile from here.

I'd show them these pictures:

What is that? It's a three-bedroom house in a two-flat on the north side of Chicago. Yes, it's a beautiful place-- not too big, but full of wood and books and laughter and love. It's a place that two kids consider home, despite the fact that one of them spends more time at the other house. It's a place that the parties tend to land because everyone knows they're welcome here-- including my kids. If I were to talk to the two of you about it, my ex and my wife's ex, I'd thank you. Because even if I put aside the fact that I love parenting, I suspect I'd still look better by comparison. You've made, in a weird way, parenting easier for me. Your failings probably would have made me look better anyway.

So in the end, it didn't bother me that this one Father's Day that I didn't get to hang out with my kids. Tomorrow, I'll pick my son up at my ex-girlfriend's house, bring him home and I'll have dinner with he and my daughter. Probably barbecue, because I know they love it. My son and I will probably go to a book reading at a nearby bookstore, and then we'll come back home and we'll all hang out, eat popcorn, watch a movie or play Rock Band.

Because you see, being a parent isn't just providing financially for them, like the two of you seem to think. To be sure, that's part of it, and I have no problem sacrificing to do that. But it's so much more than that. It's listening to them rather than scolding and criticizing them. It's them knowing that they can come talk to me about anything. It's them knowing I'd never be with someone who tried to make them anything less than the most important two people in my life. It's them knowing that I think that a hit they got in baseball or softball is the greatest achievement known to humanity. It's knowing, when they ride their bikes to a friend's house, that they could do that thanks to the fact that taking the time to teach them was more important to me than watching tv. It's late night conversations and schlepping them off to games and events. It's them knowing that this is their home. It's knowing that they won't have to spend the beginning of their adulthoods unravelling just why I was so angry and difficult all the time, because I took the time to unravel that myself and not lay it on them. Unlike Leo in "King of the Corner," they won't have to wait until my funeral some day decades from now to understand me, because I'm close to them now and always will be. Because, you see, to me, every day is Father's Day-- a day to enjoy with my kids.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Johnny Rojo's Fave Raves: Lovin' Spoonful, "Summer In The City"

Not only did I pick up an extra shift for tonight, my boss asked me to come in a few hours and bartend so that he can get out early. Consequently, this will be a short post.

I ran my daughter up to a friend's home this morning and this song, the Lovin' Spoonful's 1966 hit "Summer In The City," one of my very favorite summer songs, came up on my Ipod shuffle.

Looking up the song, I discovered that, much to my surprise, John Sebastian didn't write the song-- his younger brother Mark wrote it, along with Steve Boone, another member of the group. I love the sound effects-- the car horn is a Volkswagon. I remember reading that the group went out on the prowl to get the jackhammer, and were satisfied with the one they had as sounding "particularly flatulent." I love the wordplay in the song and the fact that it's one of the few pop hits to feature a zither.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Perfect Day Friday Five

Here's a shot of my current setting. The backyard has blossomed into perfection for the summer. After I finish this post I'm going to do something I'd had little time to do in the last year-- actually read something I don't have to read. In this case, I'm reading Alvin Toffler's "The Third Wave," a book I started nearly 30 years ago and never finished. Fascinating book-- amazingly prescient.

1. Mojo Pin- Jeff Buckley
2. Six Pack To Go- Hank Thompson
3. Hotel California- The Gypsy Kings
4. Baby, It's You- The Shirelles
5. Mothers of the Disappeared- U2

1. From "Grace," of of my favorite albums from the nineties.
2. Back in the day, this one was on the jukebox at the Hopleaf (back when they had a jukebox), and I admit to playing it more than a few times. I will even cop to the fact that it could have been written about me at that point in my life.
3. A great cover of the Eagles, used to great effect in "The Big Lebowski." An old friend's ex-wife has a good story about coming upon the Gypsy Kings engaged a brawl in a hotel lobby in Madrid.
4. One of many great tunes written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. There was an amped up version of it that was a hit in the late sixties by a group called Smith.
5. From "The Joshua Tree," which I finally purchased on CD recently.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Cinematic Chicago

The Chicago Tribune recently had an article about the filming of Blues Brothers here in Chicago 30 years ago and how it broke the ice on a long period of reluctance of Chicago officials to allow movie-making in a very photogenic city.

There was a Straight Dope article last year that discussed this. Mayor Daley, the first one, was reluctant to allow the movie industry in because he hated the way they played up Chicago's gangster past. And it certainly didn't help that Haskell Wexler's 1968 movie "Medium Cool" used the police riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention as a backdrop to the movie, filming it as it happened. It wasn't the best portrayal of Chicago.

After the "Blues Brothers" shoot, many movies were filmed in and around Chicago, including "The Untouchables," "Midnight Run," "Adventures In Babysitting," "Trains, Planes and Automobiles," "Ferris Buehler's Day Off" and many others. There was a time, though, that many of the industry's movies were filmed here in Chicago.

About three blocks from my home, at Irving and Western, the Selig Polyscope Movie Company once produced many of America's movies. It was founded in 1896 when magician and minstrel show operator William Selig began filming movies using his own photographic equipment (in order to avoid infringing on patents that Thomas Edison held for movie cameras).

In 1909, Selig pulled up stakes and became the first moviemaker to move to the Edendale district of Los Angeles, establishing that area as a moviemaking mecca. A car lot replaced the movie lot afterward-- but the lot was not done with cinema yet. More on that later.

There is one building left from Selig Polyscope. This building, now in what is now called the "St. Ben's" neighborhood, echoing a time when Chicago neighborhoods were named after the Parish they were in. It would have been at the southeast corner of the movie lot. It was renovated a few years ago and is now a residential building.

A closer look, at the doorway of the building reveals its old identity as part of the Selig Polyscope Company; if you look above the doorway, you can see the "S" for Selig.

Around the same time, George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson formed Essanay Studios in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood in 1907. The old buildings are still there, just a few blocks from where I go to nursing school, themselves in use now by a St. Augustine's College, on the 1300 block of West Argyle.

The handsome brick building next door was used as housing for movie casts and crew. I've been in the building many times; my best friend Jim lived there for nearly ten years.

In 1914, Essanay succeeded in luring Charlie Chaplin away from Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios, and Chaplin produced 14 comedies at both the Argyle Street studio and a facility had in suburban Niles, Illinois, including Chaplin's classic "The Tramp." Many of the "Bronco Billy" Westerns were filmed at Essanay (in addition to being filmed on location in actual Western locales.)

Reportedly, Chaplin did not like Essanay Studios, and left after only a short time. Essanay survived in various incarnations for about another decade, until being absorbed by Warner Brothers in 1925. The building was used by producer Norman Wilding to produce industrial films until St. Augustine College purchased the building.

In the meantime, the old Selig Polyscope Company lot was not done with having its cinematic day in the sun. It appeared in two movies in its car lot incarnation.

In Chicago native Michael Mann's 1981 movie "Thief," the main character, "Frank," played by James Caan, is a jewel thief who owns a tavern (potrayed by the Green Mill, which is still there, and was once the hangout of Al Capone) and a car lot-- portrayed by the car lot at 3939 North Western; the picture near the top of the post, which I took a couple of years ago, is the sign from that lot. It's since been removed in order to make room for the condos that have been built on the location.

The sign did make it into one more movie before its demise: the "Bohemian Rhapsody" scene at the beginning of Penelope Spheeris' 1992 movie Wayne's World. Here's that clip-- look for it right after Phil, the "puking" guy gets in the car.

I wonder if Mr. Mann and Ms. Speeris knew the history of that particular location when they chose to include it in their movies.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Elephant In The Room

A couple of nights ago, I had a long phone discussion with my old friend Jamie, who I'd gone to "Atwood Fest" with a week and a half ago. He and his wife, he told me, had had a fight over his emotional reaction to the Black Hawks Stanley Cup victory. She screamed at him that he was emotional about this, but not over the fact that their marriage was on the rocks.

He responded with a five page letter, which he left in her car to find when she left for work the next morning. It's rough, but at least one thing has happened: they've finally acknowledged the "elephant in the room," which both of them have been avoiding for a few years now; the fact that their marriage is close to failing. They have three kids, ranging in age from 10 to 17, so there's a lot to consider. At least the dialogue has started, whatever the end of it.

This seems to be happening on a national level lately. I felt a little sick when I heard on the radio this morning that estimates of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico were wildly underreported-- that it may have been spilling upwards of 60,000 barrels a day.

Doing a little quick math, that comes out to more than 140 million gallons of crude oil despoiling the Gulf of Mexico since the start of this fiasco.

This is unspeakably tragic on a lot of levels-- environmentally, economically. But maybe something good will come out of this: we'll acknowledge the elephant in the room.

The West's addiction to petroleum has, like any addiction, had awful consequences. Global Warming, acknowledged as a problem by every reputable scientist who has weighed in on it (a few cranks notwithstanding) is the biggest elephant in the room. Our petroleum addiction has caused us to sidle up to horrible regimes, like the one in Saudi Arabia, and allowed onerous regimes like those of Venezuela, Iran and Nigeria to survive.

Predictably, some have tried to pin this on President Obama. Some pointed out that he does not have a degree in engineering-- and the magical ability to swim a mile down into an ocean and plug up a giant hole. British Petroleum was responsible for first avoiding this disaster or mitigating it if it happened. When people pointed out that he should have tightened up the safety regulations that the Bush administration had let loosen, Obama pointed out, quite correctly, that "certain people" would have jumped on him for increasing the power of government and interfering with free enterprise.

The big elephant in the room, in the end, is this: there is a finite amount of petroleum and other fossil fuels on this planet, and extracting them will become increasingly difficult, dangerous and expensive. If more countries industrialize and don't develop sustainable sources of energy, competition for these finite resources will become fierce, perhaps resulting in wars. That is, if the global warming doesn't get us first.

I've mentioned that my renovation/rebirth of my blog will have some changes. One of the things I intend to do is to explore some of the options we have for the future. As I've mentioned before, I've been interested in these things, and reading up on them, ever since the first "energy crisis" in the 1970's. I plan on sharing what I've learned here in this blog. And hopefully now that our society has acknowledged the fossil fuel "elephant in the room," that knowledge will be put to use in my lifetime.

Friday, June 11, 2010

BBQ Friday Five

We've got a rare night where everybody is going to be home. I'm making dinner-- bbq beef ribs and chicken, potato salad, broccoli/tomato salad, coleslaw and of course, for my son, rice. Later, we'll probably play "Settlers of Cataan" and maybe some Rock Band.

1. Oh Boy- Buddy Holly
2. Wanted Man- Johnny Cash
3. Turd On The Run- The Rolling Stones
4. Thrasher- Neil Young
5. Guess Things Happen That Way- Johnny Cash

1. Buddy Holly has grown on me over the years.
2. The Man In Black covering Bob Dylan
3. From the greatest rock and roll album ever, "Exile On Main Street."
4. Some science fiction from Neil.
5. I was watching a documentary on Johnny Cash a week or so ago and learned that the the mariachi horns on "Ring of Fire" came to Mr. Cash in a dream.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


This Saturday, we had the fourth annual "Atwood Fest;" a party remembering the remarkable life of my friend Mark "Atwood" Evans, who was shot to death in a robbery four years ago.

We pointedly make it about the way he lived, not the way he died. The guy who killed him was locked up last summer for a long, long time-- 70 years without the possibility of parole. He's 24 years old.

I wrote about Mark more in my old blog, which I started partially as therapy in dealing with my beloved friend's death. Sometime in the near future, I'll write more about what made him such an interesting and unique guy, to the point that a bunch of people have a party every year celebrating his life, which ended when he was 42.

It was, funnily enough, a very happy night, in part because there was a reunion for me and for a bunch of other people. We had lost touch with Jamie, a college friend of ours (here he's pictured the night of my college graduation party with Mark nearly 25 years ago. The picture at the top of the post is Jamie and I taken on Saturday night.

We shared tales of Mark-- times Mark bailed our asses out of a jam (I stayed with him twice during periods of problems with both Tammy and Cynthia, wives #1 and #2). I recounted the tale of our friend Chico getting a phone call from the police after our friend Jimmy drunkenly stepped out of a moving cab on the way home from one of Mark's birthday parties. Jimmy lived, happily. And no longer drinks.

We also got some gossip. I had managed to track Chico down and he showed up to Atwood Fest 1-- with his religious fundamentalist wife. He'd stopped years ago in a small town in Arizona on the way to California, when his car broke down, and stayed, building up a successful car customizing business, and taking on a wife. We all talked the night away with Chico-- it had been over 20 years since most of had seen him-- not realizing that his wife was a holy roller, We laughed about the night he accidentally put his hand through a window and sewed his own arm up with needle and thread, and other hijinks.

I think that it occurred to her that night that she really didn't know him. She left him at the party, and he had to walk ten miles to the motel they were staying. Apparently this was the beginning of the end. I found out Saturday that they've since divorced.

Mostly, though, it was good news; Mike is back to work after nearly a year of unemployment. Davo and Deanna are still a happy couple. Eric is still semi-employed and still living with his mother. Here are some shots of the night; there was a lot of joy there, the kind of joy that people who still love seeing one another after 25 years of friendship have. And people were particularly thrilled to see Jamie.

In the four years since we lost Mark, my life has changed a bunch-- I've trained for a new career, raised a couple of kids (a few more years on that one), established a scholarship in Mark's name and processed a lot of grief. There was a time, right after Mark was killed, that I really wondered if I would ever feel good again. Over time, I've come to realize that he would have insisted that I and we, the rest of us, move forward. He would be the first to tell us: Living well is the best revenge.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Meeting The Songwriter

A few weeks ago, I discovered that a song that I've loved since I was a kid, "Rock Salt and Nails," was written by the late singer/songwriter/labor activist Utah Phillips. What's notable about this is that I had the privelege to meet Mr. Phillips about ten years ago.

I grew up listening to my dad's copy of Joan Baez' "David's Album." Ms. Baez had done the album as a tribute to her husband David Harris, who had submitted to imprisonment by the federal government rather than be drafted into the military during the Vietnam War. The country-tinged album is a beauty, recorded with many of the best country session musicians of the time (Mr. Harris loved country music), with covers of Graham Parsons' "Hickory Wind," some bluegrass standards like "Will The Circle Be Unbroken," and of course Utah Phillips' song, which is a melancholy tale of a jilted lover.

About ten years ago, my now-ex-wife Cynthia (who is in the picture at the top of the post along with Mr. Phillips and I) hosted a benefit concert at the Flamenco dance studio that we owned and operated. I alluded to it in this post on my old blog. Mr. Phillips had graciously agreed to play a benefit to help provide a gravestone for a Lincoln Brigade volunteer.

I wish I'd known Mr. Phillips had written the song. I would have probably requested the song.

Here's Ms. Baez' lovely version of the song.

Around the same time, I discovered I knew the writer of another of my most beloved songs, "The Dutchman." I'd first heard Steve Goodman's version of it as a teenager and just fell in love with it. It's a tale of an old Dutch couple living in Amsterdam. The man has long gone mad, but his wife remembers his better days and cares for him. It was one of the first songs I ever figured out on guitar. One of my favorite memories of my marriage with Cynthia was her crying when I sang and played the song on guitar for her.

Here's a live version with bluegrass legend Jethro Burns:

I couldn't find a vid with the studio version, but it's one of my favorite songs.

I had assumed that Goodman, who wrote many fine tunes, including "The City of New Orleans," which was a hit for Arlo Guthrie in 1972, had written "The Dutchman." I discovered I was wrong-- that another singer-songwriter, Michael Smith had written it. I also discovered that Michael was a friend of ours; it was the same Michael Smith who was a musical partner with my and Cynthia's friend Jamie O'Reilly, who we had met through an organization that centered on Chicago-area Lincoln Brigade veterans. It was really cool for us to be able to tell Michael how much we loved the song and how it held great sentimental value to us as a couple.

In the summer of 1982, I was supposed to live with the woman I'd been dating in college, in Champaign, Illinois, subletting an apartment from a couple of high school friends who were attending the University of Illinois (I was at Eastern Illinois University). She backed out at the last minute and left me in a really bad situation-- bearing the whole rent and scrambling to find a summer job. Fortunately, I was able to find a job-- detassling corn-- and got a little financial help from my mother. The girlfriend and I broke up and I had the most lonely (and hungry-- I had very little money for food) summer of my life.

One of the things that cheered me up was the University of Illinois' excellent radio station. I'd call occasionally to request two songs that I'd heard before on the station-- George Thorogood's cover of John Lee Hooker's "One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer," and a song from the new dB's record ("Repercussion")-- "Amplifier."

Amplifier was a serio-comic song about a rock musician who kills himself after his girlfriend leaves him, taking with her everything-- what she didn't take she "found a way to wreck"-- but leaves behind his amplifier.

Here's the video for the song.

A couple of years later, the dB's rerecorded "Amplifier" and included it on their great "Like This" album, one of my favorite records of the eighties.

Over the years, I came to believe that "Amplifier" saved my life during that miserable, depressing summer.

Some time in the late eighties, the dB's toured, and so my friend "Rex the Scumbag" and I went to see them at the fabled Cabaret Metro here in Chicago. The concert was great. Not only did they play "Amplifier," but they included it in a medley with a cover of Elvis' "Suspicious Minds," a song that had a sentimental significance for Rex and I; it was a the theme song for our 1985 pilgrimage to Graceland. After the show, we headed next door to our favorite tavern, the Gingerman.

A little while later, Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple from the dB's, who had written "Amplifier," strolled into the bar and ordered drinks. After a few more of my own drinks, I mustered up the courage to walk up to one of them-- I cannot for the life of me figure out if it was Stamey or Holsapple-- and tell him my "Amplifier" tale.

I was pretty drunk, but I could see that he was a little put off by me-- maybe even a little scared. I backed off, but felt like I'd accomplished one of my life's missions-- thanking him for writing and performing one of my favorite-ever songs. I'm sure that with a few years of therapy, he recovered from his encounter with me.

First Friday Random Five

I've been making changes in format from my old blog. One of the changes I'm making is to streamline my Friday Random Ten to the Friday Five.

Tomorrow, I'll be going to "Atwoodfest," an annual party old friends and I have in order to honor and remember our friend Mark "Atwood" Evans, who was murdered four years ago today. We have it around his birthday every year; he was killed a week before his 42nd birthday. He was one of the most interesting and unique people I've ever met in my life, and will miss him the rest of my life.

A few weeks ago, I found this picture, which I was afraid was lost forever. The picture was taken the night of a graduation party my roommates threw me when I finished my Master's Degree in Political Science in July of 1985. The guy on the right is Mark. The guy on the left is one of those roommates, Jamie, who was also one of Mark's closest friends.

I lost touch with Jamie about ten years ago, and when Mark was murdered, I tried to contact Jamie. I was finally able to get in touch with him and inform him what had happened.

This year, Jamie will be going with me tomorrow to Atwoodfest, at the Tencat Tavern in Chicago. This year we will have one more thing to celebrate-- that the guy who killed Mark was convicted in August of last year of the killing of one of his accomplices in Mark's killing, whom he was afraid would rat him out. He was sentenced to 70 years without the possibility of parole. The state's attorney decided not to pursue Mark's case because of the length of the sentence. We're satisfied knowing that this guy will live in fear of predators like himself for the rest of his life.

In the meantime, I'm looking forward to seeing Jamie for the first time in ten years tomorrow, and to seeing the rest of my old college friends.

1. The E Street Shuffle- Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
2. This Land Is Your Land- Pete Seeger and Sweet Honey In the Rock
3. Too Hot To Handle- UFO
4. Within You Without You
5. She'd Rather Be With Me- The Turtles

1. From Springsteen's great second album, "The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle."
2. Another song from the "Vision Shared" album, a collection of covers of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly songs.
3. An old heavy-metal self indulgence
4. From "Sgt. Pepper," which was released 43 years ago this week.
5. One of many hit singles the Turtles had

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Future Re-imagined

In a recent post, Alternative Futures, I alluded to the fact that I want to take this blog into different directions. This is the beginning of that.

When I was about 12 years old, in 1973, the Oil and Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an embargo on many Western Countries in retaliation for their support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War. The roots of OPEC, however, went back way before the war. OPEC in fact had non-Arab members, including Angola, Ecuador and Venezuela. The organization was formed in 1960 after the member states realized that they controlled a large supply of the lifeblood of the industrial nations, and sought to gain better prices for their product.

Those of us old enough to remember can recall cars lined up for blocks at gas stations, the rising prices and the signs at gas stations stating that they had no gasoline to sell.

The response was huge and varied. Within the United States, the Alaskan Pipeline was built to help exploit the large amounts of petroleum being extracted in Alaska. Smaller, more fuel-efficient cars became more popular. There came a greater awareness of this fact: that there was a finite amount of fossil fuel on the planet, and that it would one day run out, particularly if the rest of the planet began industrializing like Eastern and Western countries had industrialized.

In the late seventies, with Jimmy Carter as President, tax incentives were passed to weatherize homes and to add solar features, such as heating and hot water heaters.

Then, suddenly, Ronald Reagan was elected President, and much of this disappeared. Or so it would seem.

Over the years, however, a small fire has stayed burning. Small groups have explored and studied sustainable living, regarding architecture, agriculture and transportation. I've long been interested in this and feel I have much to share.

My own fire was lit in the late seventies when I came across this book, "Design For a Limited Planet," by Norma Skurka and Jon Naar. The book was a response to an article Skurka had written in the New York Times magazine about about alternative sources of energy and energy-efficient housing. Skurka and Naar featured dozens of projects, large and small, simple and complex. Some of the projects were abandoned-- and some weren't. And time has changed the tone of some of them; for instance, the book covered some wind-energy projects. What seemed like a quixotic quest in 1976 has become a large movement to provide significant sources of electricity to the grid and is serious business.

I gave my copy away to a student at some point, but a while back tracked a copy down online; it's easily available online.

The picture at the top of the post is from one of the annual reports from the New Alchemy Institute. The New Alchemy Institute was formed by husband and wife John and Nancy Todd along with others at Cape Cod, Massachusetts in the early seventies. The picture on the cover shows a mythical serpent eating its own tail. The idea that the New Alchemy Institute had was not the knee-jerk rejection of technology that much of the counterculture had, but the enlightened use of technology to better serve human needs.

Through the seventies and into the early nineties, they experimented with sustainable agriculture, low-environmental-impact shelter and energy use. Better yet, they documented their successes and failures; all of their material is still available online.

More on the New Alchemy Institute and other sustainability experiments to follow.