Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Fat Cigars and Bass Guitars

One morning not too long ago, on the way to drop my kids at daycare, I was waiting at a red light when what should pass before me but a perfectly fine excellent example of a quintessential old man. He navigated his shiny gold Chrysler slowly through the intersection. Funny, though it was a newer model, it still seemed to float with the boatlike grace of a much older vehicle. Fedora on his head, suit on his back, big fat cigar nestled between a smile that told me there just had to be music in that car. Something big-bandy and jazzy. 

After dropping the boys off, I found myself waiting at yet another red light because that’s just the kind of luck I have. Walking through a parking lot next to me was a boy of about  sixteen. He wore those tight jeans that all the kids are so fond of these days and a Batman tee-shirt of the style that was so popular around the time that Tim Burton’s take on the Caped Crusader hit theaters. But the detail most compelling about this lad was the black bass guitar he carried. He had it slung over his shoulder as if it were a literal axe. No case, no amp, just the instrument itself, as if he’d just gotten his hands on it, perhaps borrowed or purchased after scrimping and saving for months so he could finally take that first step from just listening to music to making it. I hoped he wasn’t headed to a pawn shop.

I saved an entire summer to buy my first guitar. I know it sounds like a fucking Bryan Adams song, but it’s true. It was a black Ibanez and it had a whammy bar. Nobody should die without striking a power chord at least once in their life.

Have you ever had a thought just pop into your head? Of course you have. I might as well ask if you’ve ever farted at an inopportune moment. As I pulled away from that intersection, it occurred to me, “I bet that kid is that old guy’s grandson.” Why in the world I thought it, why it should be so, I can’t tell you. But I liked the idea. I liked the thought of this cigar-chomping old man and his teenage grandson riding around in that gold Chrysler, each trying to impress upon the other an appreciation for the music that they loved. Like maybe after a few of Benny Goodman’s greatest hits, the old fellow would let the boy pop in his band’s CD. And even if it’s not his cup of tea, which of course it won’t be because nothing compares to the music of one’s youth, the old man will glow with pride that his grandchild is doing his part to organize sound and noise into something recognizable as music.

It’s true, no music touches us as deeply as the music of our formative years. All the same, I hate it when people bitch that there hasn’t been any good music created in X number of years where X = Bitching Person’s Current Age - Bitching Person’s Most Recent Formative Age (typically somewhere between 18 and 23). 

The old man pulls up to a house, the house of his grandson’s friend, the friend whose dad has a bunch of old musical equipment in the garage that he lets the kids use, even though he hates their sound. They sit for a moment, letting the song finish. The old man has softened a bit with age, and finds it easier to express to his grandson the kind of praise that he wishes he had lauded more freely upon his own children. He was always proud of them, sure, but for whatever reason, he was never able to muster the kind of enthusiasm for his children’s pursuits that he feels for this boy’s first foray into making music. The boy gets his bass out of the back seat and goes to band practice smelling like cigar smoke.

At least that’s the way I imagined it.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

How You Do It*

How you do it* is this: you start off by getting one of those big-ass inflatable bouncy castles--no wait, strike that. Even better, you let somebody else get one of those big-ass inflatable bouncy castles that all the kids love so much. You let ‘em blow that fucker up in their yard, and then (and only then!) you and a bunch of other parental types head over there, kiddos in tow. Upon arrival, you all point your kiddos at the big-ass inflatable bouncy castle and say “GO! GO! GO!” They’ll do exactly as you say. Relish it.
I know all this to be true because this is exactly what we did one weekend not too long ago when we went to a birthday party for our friends Tim and Julie’s four year old. Tim and Julie being the aforementioned acquirers of the aforementioned big-ass inflatable bouncy castle.

With the kids safely ensconced in their bouncy paradise, gather the parents around for adult conversation. Not adult as in XXX, though if the topic comes up, feel free. The ears of the children are too full of joy and laughter to pick up any naughty bits.

Then cake, then presents, then more bouncing. It helps if there are robots. It helps  even more if the robots are princesses. Robot-princesses, people. All of these factors contribute. This is how you do it*.

Don’t be too afraid to let the kids have at it whole-heartedly on the cake. Keeping the bounce alive will suck their energy like a hospital stay on a bank account. Like the hip-hop kids say, belee-dat.

Then home and naps and maybe some boring stuff like yard work that’s not really worth writing about other than as an explanation for why you weren’t doing non-boring stuff. Count down the minutes until you can escape on the date you have planned with your beloved. Grandma is in town, which equals night out. That’s how it’s* done.

Count down to date night in T-minus three, two, one....

DO go to a sushi place that looks like a total hole in the wall, but gets excellent reviews.

DO gorge yourself on sushi and realize that those reviewers were right.

DO enjoy the company and conversation of your beautiful beloved.

DO enjoy the special pieces of sushi sent compliments of the chef.

DO pay for your meal with a debit card, which is how, I’m guessing a high percentage of people are doing it these days.

DO find it strange when the receipt that they ask you to sign has no line to include a tip. In hindsight, I realize that I should perhaps have waited for the dude to come back and asked him to re-ring it with tip included, but what can I say? I got hit with a bad case of proper restaurant etiquette anxiety and panicked. Yeah, don’t do that.

DO not go back there again for a while.

DO make a note to bring cash next time, even though you shouldn’t have to because fuck carrying cash.

This next part gets complicated, so stay with me. Because for the rest of the evening, everywhere you go, you need to keep running into friends, both those you expect to see and those that you don’t. Like when you’re driving down the road to the theater and you spot some friends of yours sitting outside at the taco joint? And when you join them for a beer and you spot another friend from college that you haven’t seen in fucking years? This isn’t amateur stuff, folks. Say hello. Gush about how glad you are to see each other.

From there, head to the theater where you’ll watch a show that consists of improvised comedy about the end of the world.
 If at all possible, have your wife be the one selected from the audience to spin the big wheel that will decide how the world ends. Flesh-eating virus? World war? Ice age? No, don’t let the wheel land on any of those. Have it land on the wild card so that she, and only she may choose the form in which the destroyer shall come. She can choose anything she likes, but if she’s doing it right, she’ll choose killer comet. From this point forward, your wife and Ray Stantz will share a bizarre understanding that the rest of us can only guess about. I tried to think of the most harmless thing...

After a hilarious show, chat with the director. He will bring you the baby-walker toy that he and his wife were borrowing from you but don’t need anymore because their kid is walking now. You don’t have to be the oldest person there, but be sure that you’re the only person there with baby-related paraphernalia on your person. Laugh about it.

FOR PROFESSIONALS ONLY: Go to a bar. Go to a good bar with good beer. Go to a good bar with good beer where a bunch of your friends are gathered for a birthday celebration. Go to a good bar with good beer where a bunch of your friends are gathered for a birthday celebration only to find that a whole other group of friends that you haven’t seen in ages are also gathered. Enjoy hugs and handshakes all around. Enjoy multiple beers, but wake up without a hangover.

“Wow, that seemed really cheap.” your wife will say upon reflection of the bar tab.

To which you respond, “That’s because the waitress totally wanted me.”

“Oh really?” your wife will say.

“Totally.” you tell her. “I’m surprised you didn’t notice. Every time I ordered a beer, she looked directly at me.” Make your aw-yeah face.

That is how you do it*.

*Any given Saturday.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

A Song For Grandma

A hospital room. An old woman lies unconscious in the bed. She’s attached to a whole variety of machines that beep and chirp and whoosh and buzz. It’s just her on stage for a bit, long enough to establish the rhythm of these machines helping to keep her alive. 

The door opens and
Mama walks in, followed by her two sons, Lance and Chris. They are both in their early 20’s. Lance wears military fatigues and his hair is buzzed Marine length. He carries an acoustic guitar. Chris is dressed in ill-fitting khakis and a polo shirt that bears the emblem of the shitty retail establishment where he works his shitty job. He even has a shitty little nametag. He carries a small portable stereo. Lance and Chris are both a bit emotional at the sight of the old woman in the bed. They kneel at her side. 

Now she’s unconscious, but the doctor says she can still hear you.

Pause. Lance and Chris struggle with tears.

Well go on, say something to her.

The boys look at each other.

You first, dude.

          Works up nerve
Grandma? It’s me, your Chrissy.

Lance chuckles. Chris smacks him.

Me and Lance came to see you.

I came from Iraq.

Shut up, dude! Damn. Always interrupting.
          Turns back to Grandma, starts to speak, but can’t. Smacks Lance again.
Damn dude, you made me forget what I was gonna say!

I didn’t make you do nothing.

Dumb jarhead.

At least I got in.

Chris smacks him hard, Lance smacks back, a smack fight ensues, a continuation of the same smack fight that they’ve had going since they were little boys.


They stop.
I swear, what is the matter with you two? If y’all can’t behave for Grandma, then by God, you might as well just go on home. Honestly. Now Chris, you’ve had your chance to speak, why don’t you let your brother take a turn?

I don’t know what to say.

Just say whatever you would say to her normally.

But she ain’t normal.

Well just pretend she is.

Mama adjusts Grandma’s bed, her pillows, and her head so that she’s facing towards the boys. But of course, her eyes are still closed. Both boys are freaked out. 
There now, just pretend like she’s got her eyes open and y’all are having a little visit.

Lance clearly does not like this. He opens his mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. He babbles for a few moments, then breaks down in tears. Chris is too freaked out to even make fun of his brother for crying. 

Oh for heaven’s sakes! You can go halfway around the world to get shot at by a bunch of Muslims but you can’t even talk to your grandma without turning into a big baby.

She’s not right!

Chris is also crying now.

Well it ain't doing her a damn bit of good having you two come in here and bawl like a couple of babies. Good lord. Now pull it together, the both of you. Chris, why don’t you tell your grandma something nice that you remember about her?

Uh, well, uh....

Fig newtons.

Fig newtons!

In that glass cookie jar up on the counter in her kitchen.

Next to the T.V.

And she kept that old step stool right there next to it.

So we could reach ‘em when we were little. Damn, I don’t even like Fig Newtons, but I ate a ton of ‘em every time we were over there.

Me neither. They only tasted good at Grandma’s house.

Pause for a moment.

I been in Iraq, Grandma. I been being careful like you told me to. Ain’t nothing bad happened yet. Not to me anyway. Dude in my company got blown up pretty bad.

You shoot anybody yet?

Lance shakes his head. Chris nods understanding.

Seen anybody get shot?

Lance nods.

Bad guys?

Lance nods.



Boys, why don’t y’all tell Grandma about your music?

Oh yeah. Um, should I just tell her about it?

Well of course. Go on.

Go ahead, dude.

Grandma, you remember how me and Lance used to have a band with Trevor and them? We had to quit when Lance went off to the Marines.

Y’all ain’t had to.

We ain’t had no guitar player, dummy.

What about Lucy’s brother?

I don’t like that dude. I’m trying to talk to Grandma here.

Then talk.

Damn. Um....what was I saying?

The new song.

Lance grabs his guitar and starts tuning it.

Oh right. Um, Grandma, we been writing this new song since Lance got back a couple of days ago. We were gonna play it for you, if you want us to.

I think she’d like that.

You sure the doctors and them ain’t gonna mind?

We’re paying for a private room, ain’t we?

You sure she can hear us?

I don't see why not. Go on. Play your song.

Chris queues up the portable stereo. Lance is seated, guitar in his lap, ready to play.


Lance nods. Chris presses play on the stereo which bursts forth with a southern-style hip-hop beat. Chris dances accordingly, Lance bobs his head and taps his foot, but he does not, I repeat, he does NOT play a note on his guitar. Mama sits and watches, seemingly pleased. 

Finally it’s lyrics time. Lance and Chris trade off back and forth.

    Take them panties off!
    Take them panties off!
    Take them panties off!
    Take them panties off!
                Take em off!
    Take them panties off!
    Take them panties off!
    Take them panties off!
    Take them panties off!
    Take them panties off!
    Take them panties off!
                Take em off!
    Take them panties off!
    Take them panties off!

This repeats for as long as necessary in order for it to go from ridiculous to just plain stupid. Somewhere during the song a nurse enters to check some vitals. She pays them absolutely no mind while she goes about her business, then exits.

The song finally ends with boy boys yelling:


Lance strums an A-minor chord.

Dumbass! E-minor!

I like A-minor better.

I don't care what you like. It’s supposed to be an E.

Says you.

That’s right, says me.

I’m the guitar player.

You’re the dipshit.

Lance stands, chest puffed out all fighting rooster-style.

Boys! That’s enough. It sounded very nice, whatever chord it was.


Okay, that’s probably enough for today. We should get going. We’re meeting your Aunt Louise at the Golden Corral in 30 minutes and I need to swing by the Wal-Mart for some pantyhose. Y’all kiss Grandma goodbye now.

The boys take turns kissing Grandma goodbye and telling her they love her. They exit, followed by Mama.

Grandma is once again alone on stage, and I find myself with a choice to make. Part of me wants to do something fucked up like have her heart stop, as indicated by having her heartbeat monitor go flat line, with the little beeps suddenly turning into a long continuous beep. Nurses rushing in and all that. But that seems so cliche. On the other hand, I want to do something kind of sweet like have her give a sign of life, maybe a twitch of her hand, or maybe even open her eyes, maybe even say something. But that seems cliche too. 

I seem to run into this question a lot in my writing: do the fucked up thing or the sort of sweet thing? 

In the end, what I would probably go with is to have nothing change. Just leave Grandma on stage, just as she was at the beginning, as the lights fade out. Visiting hours are over.

What'chall think?

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Muddy Waters

A few nights ago, I found myself sitting in a shallow pool of water on the banks of a muddy river. The yellowish brown water concealed everything within from sight, even my legs which sat folded in the mud. I had nowhere to be and no worries to deal with.  The water and I, we were perfectly chill. 

This sense of calm disappeared when I spotted something moving across the surface in my direction. Much too quickly, it was in front of me and approaching fast. An alligator. Its eyes hovered over the water, each promising several hundred pounds of predator hidden beneath the murk. Any second now, it would leap, jaws wide, ready to sink its teeth in and drag me under, down into its territory. If that happened, it was all over. I would struggle and flail, I might get a thumb into its eyeball, but my efforts would accomplish nothing more than making me need air that much sooner. My lungs would fill with water and I’d be a meal. I backed away, but the water slowed my retreat. I was in deeper than I realized. I didn’t want to make any sudden movements, but even as I backed towards land, the gator was closing in. The river bank seemed miles away. The fucking thing was arm’s length away and it was not listening to reason.

Then of course, I woke up.

I was in my bedroom, in bed with my wife asleep next to me. Night was just about to punch out for the evening and the whole house was quiet. The alligator had remained back in my dream, but my heart thumping in my chest told me that I had managed to bring back the sense of terror that he had inspired, that feeling that a certain and horrible demise was in my immediate future. I laid in bed waiting for my pulse to slow. It was an awful way to kick off a morning.

So I decided to take it up with the guy in charge of these things, the Dream Lord himself. I had to go to him, of course, as he isn’t one to come by the invitation of some random human. Adding to the difficulty of the trip, I had to take on the form of my spirit animal in order to travel through his realm. It took forever, but after an impossible number of hops, I finally came to the grounds of his palace. I found him in his courtyard, listening to the singing from his newly planted orchid choir.

“Ribbit.” I said.

“You may speak with your human tongue.” he sighed. He didn’t bother to look up from his flowers. He was already bored with me.

“Oh, uh, thank you.” I said. I waited for him to bid me continue, but he did not. I realized he was just going to let me sit there and age, so I figured I might as well state my case. I mustered up all the dignity befitting of such a fine bullfrog as I, and spoke.

“You threw a dream my way last night--”

“The crocodile. Yes.”

“Crocodile? I thought it was an alligator.”

“I crafted that dream myself aeons before the first human could dream it. I know the beast I placed within its territory.”

“Ah, right. Of course.” I said. The orchids were now singing a Tori Amos song. “Winter” I think. Must be crafting another nightmare personalized just for me.

“So,” I continued. “That was a pretty messed up dream.”

He glanced at me, just for a moment. Wow, those are some black eyes, I thought. The pictures don’t do them any kind of justice. They’re like pools of non-existence.

“I don’t mean messed up in the sense, like there’s something wrong with it.” I stammered. “It’s totally...effective. Too effective if you really want to know.”

“Do I?” he asked.

“It scared the crap out of me.” I said. “I woke up completely freaked out. I wasn’t right for the whole morning.”

“Such is the power of a good nightmare.” he said.

“Well it’s not the only time it’s happened in recent memory. I had one a few months ago that woke me up in the middle of the night terrified to step foot out of the bed. I can’t even remember what the dream was.”

“Ah yes, the laughing--”

“I don’t need to remember.” I interrupted. Again, he fell silent. The orchids had finished their song and were now running scales.

“Look, I don’t mean to complain, but this nightmare business...aren’t I a little old for it? Aren’t I supposed to outgrow it? Like acne or fear of rejection?”

“Do you not occasionally struggle with bouts of those issues?”

What an asshole. What a totally correct asshole.

“Look,” I said. “I don’t even remember most of the stuff you put in my head at night while I’m sleeping. How come these are the only dreams that have such a powerful effect on me? Why can’t I have happy dreams that wake me up all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and loving humanity?”

“Your dream memory is none of my doing or concern.” he said. “But since you asked, perhaps fear is the impulse that you find most compelling, and therefore such dreams make a stronger impression upon your psyche.”

He just called me a big pussy. I scoffed, the only possible reaction I can have when somebody says something about me that’s both totally shitty and totally probably true.

“It is not uncommon.” he said.

“Oh yeah, well I also happen to have a pretty rockin’ libido. How come I don’t have sex dreams that make we wake up all nice and relaxed?”

“Need I really answer that?”

Blink. Blink. Ribbit.

“If there is something you wish to ask of me, I would advise you to do so. I’ve little time to take complaints from upset mortals.”

“Fine. Cut it out with the fucked-up scary dreams.” I hadn’t meant to be so demanding. It had just popped out, like a slippery bullfrog from a little boy’s grip. My froggy skin felt dry.

“Someone is flat.” he said. I thought he was making some kind of bizarre threat, but then I realized that he was talking to his flowers. “Once more from the beginning.” It was quiet for a moment. Their petals hummed and vibrated, and then, song.

    This is the first day of my last days....

They even managed to mimic the guitar part. They had a lot more bass than you would expect from a bunch of flowers.

    Build it up, now take it apart.

    Climbed up real high, now fall down real far.

“Is that really what you want?” he asked. He was talking to me again, but still looking at his flowers. Though both of his hands were hidden in his coat, I still had the sense that he was somehow directing them. “Do you not enjoy a good scare? Are you not a patron of the horror genre of both film and literature?”

“Sure, but--”

“And do you not lament how rarely you are able to partake of these frightful pleasures due to both the constraints of time and a spouse who does not share the same fascination?”

He's got me there. “Okay sure, but those are controlled situations. I know that it’s not real. Dreams are a little more immersive.”

“And therein lies their limitation. At any time you can look away. You can hide your eyes behind a pillow, taking furtive glances back at the screen to see if it’s safe, if the awful thing is gone, if the gore has passed. And even if you keep your eyes on the screen the whole time, you can simply remind yourself that, as you say, it’s just a movie. It’s a rare piece of cinema that can draw you in so completely that you forget about the boundary between its world and your own.”

Then he looked at me.

“And how are you supposed to learn anything that way?”

“Learn?” I croaked. “What am I supposed to--?”

“But if no more nightmares is what you want, I suppose it is not too much to ask. You did come all this way.”

I thought about it for a moment. Did I really and truly never want to have a nightmare ever again? It’s not as if they were plaguing my every night of sleep. And what was this learning business he was talking about? Learn what? Why is this kind of stuff always so shrouded in mystery?

“Well,” I said. “Maybe the occasional nightmare wouldn’t be totally horrible.”

“So keep things as they are, then?”

“I guess so. And you know, while I’m at it, I wouldn’t mind the occasional flying dream. I had one of those one time and it was awesome.”

“You need to leave soon.”

“Oh, and if I could be the guitarist for Rage Against The Machine for a night, I would so owe you.”

“You have nothing that I want.”

“I don’t care how you do it, either. Like I can actually be Tom Morello, or else I do it as myself, like maybe Tom is sick or dead or something. Either way. Whatever works. Whatever’s easiest.”

“Anything else?” he asked. It was probably a rhetorical question meant to show his annoyance, but I didn't much care at this point. I’d come a long way.

“Well since you asked, I could go for--”

And then I woke up. Right back in my bed, back in my human body. That sneaky fucker. Woke me up before I could ask for more sex dreams.

My wife was already in the shower, but the boys were still asleep, dreaming of who knows what. I crawled out of bed and went to the kitchen to brew up the morning’s coffee. Out the window, I could see one of the neighbor’s many cats sitting atop the fence. The dog was waiting anxiously at the door, so I let him out and watched him chase that little fucker down. He never catches them, or much of anything else for that matter. But from the way he kicks in his sleep, I’m guessing he catches a few in his dreams.