Friday, September 30, 2005

Satan has longhorns

I'm making popcorn in our credit union lobby to celebrate the big Michigan/Michigan State game tomorrow at noon.

"Do you have a bag that's maroon?" a gentleman - rich cabernet-colored shirt, blue jeans, deep southern accept - asks.

No sir, I say, just MSU and Michigan colors today.

"Well, do you read the Bible?" he asks.

Not enough to pick my sports teams, I answer.

"In Genesis, around the beginning - I don't remember the verse - it says God built Texas A&M University for Jesus to go to school," he says. "It's in there - you can read it when you get home. So I was hoping you'd have a maroon-colored bag for me."

So the Longhorns fell to Earth with Satan?

"We don't speak of such things indoors," he says. "My mother would wash my mouth out with soap if I ever mentioned the University of Texas."

Amen, I say.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The future belongs to those willing to get their hands dirty

Back in mid August, I had tickets to a Detroit Tigers baseball game. The tickets came courtesy of work – good, behind-home-plate seats – and I spoiled a few friends by taking them along. A good summer evening to enjoy a game and some friendly fellowship.

After the game, when the four of us piled into my car to head home, my car wouldn’t start. In downtown Detroit, not more than two blocks from Comerica Park.

It had always been one of my worst fears – to be stuck in downtown D-town. And as often as I go there, it was an ever-present fear. It’s why I bought a cell phone.

We were messing with the car, when down the street walks Carl. Carl asked us to try and start the car, fiddled around with some connection cables to my battery, and diagnosed the problem. “Do you have a flat-head screwdriver?” he asked. I did, in my toolkit in the drunk. He stuck the flat-head in a slot near my battery. He told us to start the car.

It rumbled to life like nothing ever happened.

All of us rode most of the way home in stunned silence. Here comes Carl, Jesus in disguise, and after only listening to my car (and perhaps consulting some long-deceased auto god), knew what was wrong. But here were four college students. Why couldn’t we figure out the problem? We had four bachelor’s and one and a half master’s degrees between us, and we were impotent.

What was our problem?

- - - - -

Garrison Keillor wrote a column on today about his mother canning vegetables during his childhood, pressure cooker steaming and glass jars filled with foodstuff to get the family through the winter. He also wrote about his father, stooped over the engine block of the family Ford, fiddling with this and that. Keillor ignored the skills his parents could’ve passed on to become a writer (and radio host). But those handy skills can come in…well…handy, especially when civilization starts to break down, or even if all you can depend on for survival is your two hands.

“Beware of losing basic skills,” Keillor writes. “Hang on to that pressure cooker.”

I remember my own grandmother, steeped in the traditions of her home states of Arkansas and Missouri, canning her own vegetables, fresh from the garden, and storing them in the basement for the winter. She always warned me of that pressure cooker – wheezing as loud as a school bus braking – and told me never to touch it. “It could blow us all up,” she warned.

And I also remember my father working on cars and trucks – especially my own. I’ve never had a new, or even semi-new, vehicle in my life. As a teenager, my cars would need constant repair. Instead of taking it to a mechanic or dealer, my dad would take it to his friend Scott’s, and together they would work out whatever was wrong with it. My dad always encouraged me to watch – “You might learn something,” he told me; none of what I saw stuck. I’m car illiterate; always have been.

In fact, much like Keillor, my mind was built for more artistic passions. I did well in school, I was active in my community, and I worked all through my teenage years. But I never learned such essential and elementary tasks as changing my own oil. Or changing a tire.

Confession: I’ve never changed my own tire, and am scared I don’t know how.

I got another wake-up call last night, on the way to the bar with friends. My driver-side headlight seemed dimmer than the passenger-side light. My first thought: I have a headlight out. My second thought: I don’t know how to change a headlight.

(My third thought: I hope we don’t get pulled over on the way home)

That, combined with Keillor’s article, got me thinking about what skills I do possess. I can cook. I can put simple things together with my meager tool set. I can play guitar. I can design graphically. I can write.

But if I were to crash-land on a desert island somewhere, would I have the skill required to survive for more than a week or so?

Probably not.

- - - - -

I have a deep-held respect for DIY people. My grandmother can garden. My uncle can make his own wine. My grandfather could put together bikes from scraps he bought at yard sales and sell the complete bike in his front yard for profit.

One acquires the necessary skills to survive over the course of ones life, I figure. Eventually, my car will have broken down so many times that I’ll have a mental encyclopedia of all that could go wrong with a post-1981 American-made car. Right?

Keillor’s right. In a sort of anti-yesterday’s-post vision, I came to realize that the skills of our previous generations are slowly being lost. We can’t even remember the phone numbers of our best friends – our cell phones remember them for us. Should the world go to shit, I think the mechanics, the janitors, the country cooks, and the hunters of this world won’t have too much to worry about.

The rest of us? We’d be in our own pressure cooker – struggling to think of all our parents and grandparents had taught us that we either ignored or forgot.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

On childhood.

Today at lunch, while enjoying my quiet dish of tuna-cheezy noodle casserole, a few co-workers reminisced about the time when they had similar dishes as poor kids; when they couldn’t afford milk to put on their shredded wheat.

I knew what was coming.

"Kids today don’t appreciate anything," one woman said. I think she heard my eyes rolling, because she and another co-worker addressed me - and the fun began.

Stories of children who didn’t appreciate their $100 tennis shoes or who demanded a cell phone at age 13. Stories about, when they were kids, working night and day, all summer long, to afford a pair of pants for school in the fall. Up-hill both ways.

"And isn’t it weird," I said, "that your parents probably said the same thing when you were kids. ‘Our kids have no respect.’"

Oh no. Not their parents. Our generation was apparently special. We are selfish, spoiled brats, demanding a TV in our room and a Lexus when we graduate.

As in Macbeth, a lot of sound and fury signifying bullshit.

First, I don’t think there’s anything about our "entitlement generation" that bucks trends from the last - oh, I don’t know - umpteen generations before us. Our parents wanted more from their parents, who wanted more from their parents, and on and on. And our parents gave in. They wanted to give more to their kids then they had. It’s the American Dream.

Second, any glorification of one’s childhood amounts to a pissing contest. "Well, we had it worse" and "You don’t know how bad we had it" just becomes a silly boxing match, neither side giving ground until they end up barefoot in the snow, tilling fields for pennies a day (if they were lucky) and enjoying a rare ice cream cone on Sundays.

I don’t care how bad you had it as a kid. You made it out alive.

And if you’re using your woe-betrodden childhood to make your life legit, you deserve the rotten kids you have now.

I was diagnosed type 1 diabetic at age seven. I went to about 15 different schools up until high school. I had an unfit mother.

These are my experiences, and they make me who I am. But I don’t trot them out for the world to stand up, take notice, and identify with my suffering. In fact, I rarely share instances of my childhood. Because they’re mine.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe when I have kids, as those women in the lunchroom say, I’ll "understand." Understand this: I’m going to spoil my kids rotten. Why? Because, like my parents were supposed to do, I’m going to give my offspring a better life than I had growing up. It’s the greatest legacy you can give to the world, my grandmother says - a well-off, responsible, loved child.

Why complain about giving your kids the world, even if comes in the form of a Playstation? I think if you do your job as a parent, your kids will care about the things that matter. And, after their selfish teenage years, they’ll appreciate you as a parent when they reach adulthood.

You don’t, after all, have to buy a new car for your kid when they graduate. You can make them earn it with an after-school job.

But I can just hear it: "Junior’s job isn’t nearly as tough as the one I had as a kid."

On Wisconsin.

Being a semi-celebrity at a Rotary district conference is kind of humbling.

Dropping the average age of all the attendees to, say, 35 or so is even more humbling. Or weird. Even the Rotarians themselves ask me "What are you doing here."

I wish I had an answer. One that made sense on this brisk Friday night, three Spotted Cows and an Oberon later.

I wish this was a true vacation, one where I could explore the wonderful city of Madison on my own terms. Instead, I'm forced to study State St. on a limited time budged while the rest of my time is spent in breakout sessions and plenary speeches. least I have Adrian alumni to keep me busy as I bar-hop solo.

Tomorrow I think I'm skipping one of the morning speeches to (a) sleep in and (b) enjoy the farmer's market on the steps of the capital building not more than a block away. I've earned it. I'm the youngest bastard here, and I'm going to hump it for all it's worth.

This was supposed to be the Great Awakening for my Rotary career. Instead, it's more like forced geriatric isolation. I'm the only young fool to sign up for this trip, and the vibes are starting to get to me.

It could be the beer. It could be that.

Monday, September 26, 2005

We ain't goin' to the town (we're going to the city)

Saw Interpol at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor last night.

This was after a whirlwind weekend spent in Royal Oak with friends Shanita and Andrea. I got to Ann Arbor about 3:00 yesterday, went and saw the Pop Art exhibit at the univerity's museum, read for a bit at Borders, then had a tuna sandwhich at some deli.

The show was great, but I was a bit suprised at the crowd. I had figured Interpol fans would be the long-haired, suit-jacket-wearing, tight-pants strutting kids that I've seen so much these days. And there were some of them, but there were some normal folks too - and that was nice. I didn't stick out like I do at KMFDM shows.

The band has one of the most amazing light shows I've seen so far. Paul Banks and tailored-suit crew were bathed in monochromatic light - strong reds, blinding whites, deep blues - that gave them an otherwordly look. And boy did they sweat.

I was disappointed that the band didn't address the crowd more - Paul gave a few "thank yous" and it was Daniel's (guitarist) birthday. But they mainly just stood there and played. Carlos D., the bassist, looked like he was having the most fun. But any guy wearing a shirt, tie, and gun holster should be having fun.

I remember how I came to Interpol - it was the summer of 2003, and I was at Dayna's, when this band that I thought sounded like the Tragically Hip came on 89X. Monotone voice, oblique lyrics - it was Gord for sure. But instead it was "PDA" off Interpol's first album, Turn on the Bright Lights. I didn't think much more of them after that, but then Antics came out. I volunteered to review it for Crush Music, and just fell in love.

But it's weird: what would a Midwestern average guy dig about a hip, well-dressed outfit from NYC?

It doesn't matter why. They just rock.

And because they've only released two albums, I heard most of my favorites last night. "Slow Hands" especially, but also "Public Pervert" and "PDA." Very spooky, very atmospheric, and it all translates really well live.

Maybe a little too well. I can't imagine a live CD being very interesting or novel.

But anyway, check them out if you get the chance.


"I'll suprise you, sometime - I'll come around
When you're down."
- 'Untitled'

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The mystery is gone (Out Lady Peace live)

Our Lady Peace has always struggled with legitamacy, either in their songs or in the band's structure. With each new album, Raine and company have proclaimed that the current incarnation is the "true" OLP.

So of course, when the new album came out, I thought that it would be part of the natural progression of sound and subject matter that the band had been tweaking over the years.

From Naveed's primal urgency and passion, to Clumsy's big commercial breakthrough, the cerebral experiments on Happiness... and Spiritual Machines, and the slick and rock-ready Gravity - each album did bring something new, and arguably something better.

But the myth of progress holds true even with the most heart-felt of rock bands. This was never more evident than Our Lady Peace's concert in Royal Oak last night. Gone was the manic, scorching performance I saw at the Concert for Toronto in the summer of 2003. That became a landmark performance for me. I had always held tepid feelings for the band - didn't not like them, but they didn't move me - but that show was a sight to see. Pure energy.

Last night's show was pure lethargy. The band cycled through the songs off their new album, Healthy in Paranoid Times, and neither the crowd nor the band seemed very excited about them. With a few exceptions ("Angels/Losing/Sleep" and "Where Are You?"), we yawned through the new stuff. Even the opening saw, "Picture," had everyone staring around and saying "What the hell?" It was no way to open a show. My good friend Heather came with me, and she put it best: "Opening songs are supposed to get us pumped up."

The few older songs, like "Starseed," "Naveed," and "In Repair," got the crowd riled up - but even their delivery left me feeling like the band was robbing us of the vaunted "true" OLP. It almost seemed like Raine was afraid he would lose his voice. No more paranoid schreiking, no more banshee highs and despairing lows - it was just one almost-monotone delivery. It wasn't legit.

And the songs they did play were not the passionate high-risers I came to the show to hear. "Innocent," "Boy," "4 a.m." - these didn't take much to pull off. "Superman's Dead" was a rocker, but it had to be. It's the band's cornerstone.

Part of it, I think, is that this smaller club tour was made to promote the new album. It wasn't meant to be a "greatest hits" show, like the Toronto gig. But hearing the new songs live didn't help me appreciate them any more, which was a shame.

Our Lady Peace had always been experts on dealing with the inter- and intra-personal. The struggles we humans face in a society that, the band felt, didn't offer the needed support was the band's territory. Need help? Look to your friends. Holed up in a room somewhere? Grab my hand - I'll help you out. The rock-as-therapy routine had done the band well.

But on Healthy in Paranoid Times, Raine delves into some grander subject matter. War, Bush, poverty, the decline of humanity - this was OLP on a global scale. It's just too bad they don't have the grit to express their vision well. They want too much to sound like U2.

And I don't mind bands changing - it's part of what makes them vibrant and interesting. But when you change, and it sucks...well, you put on a show like I saw last night.

"No matter what you say / no matter what you do / no matter what I'm always right there behind you" Raine sings on "Right Behind You (Mafia)." I feel the same. After only recently becoming a big fan, I'll give OLP the benefit of the doubt. They're still very talented, and very passionate.

Maybe they'll be a bit more legit next time they come to town.