Tuesday, December 4, 2007

#114 - Brindle (Eulogy for a band)

Brindle (Eulogy for a band)

12/4/07 (#114)

Every day in America, somebody's favorite band breaks up. On November 18th, it was my turn.

The dissolution of a band is a common tale, the rate of successful longevity so pathetically low that it makes even the most volatile marriage seem like a sure thing. As musicians often say, being in a band is like being married, except your married to two or three or four other people, and for "date night", you attend drunken bar scenes, display yourselves on a cramped stage and hope nobody boos your romantic bliss.

A band is susceptible to myriad intrusions upon its creativity: The quiet or clamorous clash of egos as members jockey for navigational control, the constant allure of new and potentially more satisfying projects that form on the periphery of one's circle of friends, and/or the tedium of playing songs you no longer wish to play, to name just a few. Even simple logistics outside of the musical realm can inflict a fatal blow: The bass player gets a job working nights, or the drummer gets an opportunity to move back to his home state and rediscover family, friends and familiarity.

It is the latter that brought down Brindle, a modest little duo that played sporadically in the Portland area over the last half decade, always to appreciative crowds that understood they were witness to something precious. Watching them play, you just knew Brindle wasn't going to "make it big", because "big" would have been cosmically (and comically) incongruous: They were intimate, and the rooms where they sounded best were ramshackle little places that scoffers would dismissively refer to as dives and regulars would proudly refer to as dives. When Brindle played, these rooms became a sonic geode: A gritty, unimpressive exterior disguising the gorgeous, colorful, multi-faceted beauty that existed within.

Their audience was heavy with friends and fellow musicians, most wearing a smile like they were getting away with something, privy to a secret spoken in a language that couldn't be understand beyond the walls of the room. When the band began its set, the crowd inevitably encroached Tim McMurrin (and his uniquely detuned guitar) and Josh Gambrell (and his uniquely arranged left-handed drum kit) because the music had irresistible gravity---all fleshy excess and muscular poses had been been boiled off, leaving a sonic skeleton that revealed the genuine grace and power of rock and roll. As my friend Paul Bryant noted on a web site upon hearing the news of their demise, "Brindle is some of the most satisfying live music I've ever heard. Their music is somehow secretly formulated in its simplicity to move me and choke me up while totally rocking me out."

Corralling their sound into a small collection of adjectives is a pointless procedure, as the contradictory modifiers "simple" and "complex" were immediately appropriate and simultaneously accurate. Their music bounced as if it was navigating a hopscotch game that stopped at 5 ½, often beginning with an irregular gait before revealing a strange yet lissome cadence. Such revelations had to be quick: Most Brindle songs clocked in around 120-seconds, with a rare few stretching toward the 3-minute mark and others stopping half-way to that point. Where most bands find a catchy riff and try to maximize the utility of the hook by repeatedly returning to it in the same song (verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/verse/chorus), Brindle allowed the hook to shine brightly then disappear, a formula written as "verse/chorus/next song". This could be heartbreaking, as it was disappointing if they never went back to a particular cool part, but that ache was soothed by the next song, which was always just as good as the one that preceded it. Two minutes later, fresh heartbreak ensued, a cycle that repeated throughout their set. The most accurate description of the band's sound involves no adjectives at all: "Rock smarter, not harder" was their unofficial motto (everything about Brindle seemed unofficial), and a more apt summation could not be written.

There are some bands that flash with stunning brilliance, but whose passing is accepted with little more than a shrug of regret. This is not a commentary on quality, but is instead essential to the natural order: Music is constantly evolving, and a particular bloom can be thoroughly enjoyed and then allowed to fall from the vine, to be replaced by a new bud. But there are some bands that urge us to break this order, that possess something inexplicable in their biology that makes us want to pluck the flower and press it, preserve it, prevent time from taking it from us.

Brindle was one of the latter bands. They will be dearly missed by many.

©2007 wpreagan

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

#113 - Aquatic Engineering

Aquatic Engineering

11/14/07 (#113)

There are several small lakes that form at this time of year in North Portland, waterways that rise and engulf vast tracts of land to form landmarks such as Lake Chautauqua (occupying the same general coordinates of N Chautauqua Blvd) and Halleck Pond (located where N Halleck St. was known to have existed in September.) These recreational areas abut the curbs of my neighborhood, formed by the confluence of rainy rivulets that flow along the gutter toward the city block's topographical low point, the storm drain, carrying on their waves the thousands of horse chestnut leaves that have spent an unhurried season papering the neighborhood in a veined, pale-yellow wrapper.

The chestnut leaf is enormous, shaped like a droplet of water if a droplet of water was the size of an adult's gym sneaker, and usually falls in the same cluster in which they grow, five leaves fanning out from a single point of connection with the branch, together large enough to form a plausible placemat for a formal dinner on Gilligan's Island. On a day with legitimate rain (not that ubiquitous Portland drizzle that is often referred to as rain), these enormous leaves are hurried to the sewer inlet where they are promptly splayed across the iron grate: In a matter of minutes, the drain is clogged and a pool begins to form. It's not uncommon for the pool to swallow the pavement completely, as the storm drain on the other side of the street is usually clogged with leaves as well.

Growing up in New England, I learned to regard standing water as the enemy: As one old-timer in my town told me years ago, "If it doesn't go where I want it to go, then it'll go where I don't want it to go." In Maine, water that backs up at a street drain will seek the next available low spot, which is most likely our or our neighbor's basement---it's a civic duty to make sure that the drains are flowing freely, as no one wants to hear the sound of their sump-pump turning on every four minutes throughout the night. (Plus, standing water breeds mosquitoes, and the battle against the mosquito never rests: I don't care if it's a puddle forming underneath a slowly melting icicle, sop that slosh up with a towel or it will soon look like the pool at a Las Vegas hotel, with bug larvae taking the place of uncouth brats on spring break.)

Armed with this history, I could mount a nurture-based defense for the behavior that, when seen through the plate-glass window of a cozy living room, must look like madness: A grown man teetering on the edge of the curb, stabbing at the water with a felled maple branch, too foolish to come in from the rain. I could argue that I deserve their thanks more than their ridicule, saving their basements from certain flooding by allowing the city's drainage network to perform as designed, but honestly, I don't do it for them. Benefit to others is simply an ancillary bonus: Mine is a primarily selfish act, aquatic engineering for fun and adventure.

If you're thinking that standing outside on a rainy day poking blindly at a puddle in order to find a storm drain doesn't sound like fun, then you have a stunted definition of fun. (And you can count my wife among your allies, as she invariably delivers her standard "So I'll see you at home?" whenever we approach one of these spontaneous lagoons.) The evacuation of these impromptu ponds provides a three-point fulfillment that is not readily available within the confines of our hectic and overfull days, especially not readily available on the average 35-minute dog walk through the city, including (but not limited to) these pleasures:

An opportunity to reconnect with the simple joys of childhood: The neighborhood where I grew up was bordered on one side by Chartley Brook, a stream that originated somewhere in a Norman Rockwell painting. In this stream I learned about pollywogs, frogs, turtles, crayfish, and a guidebook's worth of other small water life. During summer vacations, or even after school on sunny days, I loved to visit that stream and play for hours: Standing in the water with old sneakers on, I arranged rocks to make breakwaters and harbors, created tree bark boats that sought refuge in the harbors (or missed the harbor and fell victim to the "whitewater" that percolated under the dense copse of birches downstream), and assembled a world where my imagination could spend unfettered hours. Frankly, my adult life doesn't have enough of that type of recreation, so the clogged storm drain is like a portal---as the Chestnut leaf seal is broken, small whirlpools form and gain velocity, sucking nearby flotsam into their inverted cone, and I suddenly have the enthusiasm of a boy standing at the bank of Chartley Brook, unaware of anything except the manipulation of the flow. This is more than mere nostalgia; it's just short of time travel.

Negotiating peace between nature and man-made infrastructure: The clogged storm drain is a microcosm of the battle between earth and industry (don't fool yourself, industry and the environment rarely meet with a genuinely cooperative spirit, even when the best intentions are present), one of Mother Nature's myriad miniscule retaliations for the Hoover Dam, the Manhattan Project, Love Canal, etc. (The earth can certainly justify a grudge.) Yes, I'm aggrandizing, but this small lubrication of the friction between nature and technology provides a palpable sense of harmonic restoration.

The satisfaction of a job well done: My life is cluttered with tasks in various states of completion: Some of these projects require me to conform to someone else's schedule (which can prevent them from getting done punctually), others allow me to work at my own pace (which also can prevent them from getting done punctually.) As such, my brain is constantly being tickled by the loose ends of these endeavors, each of which distracts from the other until I feel like a man populating six crossword puzzles simultaneously. ("Where was that 8-letters down for 'overstimulated'?") But when I chance upon a flooded street, I can enjoy the satisfaction of overseeing a project from start to finish: When I arrive, there is an impasse; through my efforts, there is resolution; when I depart, fishing season is over.

This season I have enjoyed having an apprentice, as my five-year-old daughter precociously recognizes the enjoyment of this seasonal pastime, exercising her body and brain with an improvised deployment of strength and strategy. (Either that, or she simply relishes the opportunity to splash about in an ankle-deep puddle with parental approval.) This companionship does more than provide a semi-plausible alibi for my playing in puddles---aquatic engineering offers a bundle of teaching opportunities: Choosing a suitable poking stick (we discuss the tensile strength of different woods, how to identify hardwoods versus softwoods, what happens to wood when it rots), identifying different leaves (we examine the various shapes of the leaves, searching out as many variations as we can find), and observing the water flow (what makes a whirlpool, why more holes makes for faster draining, how the city's drainage system works.) In fact, I could pitch the whole process as an unscripted biology and physics seminar, a chance to reinforce that the world is a giant science lab and that class is always in session.

That it also looks like two kids and a dog playing in a puddle is purely coincidental.

©2007 wpreagan

Thursday, October 11, 2007

#112 - Missed


10/11/07 (#112)

"Dogs' lives are too short. Their only fault, really." -- Agnes Sligh Turnbull

I don't understand people who don't have pets. I do understand people who enjoy animals but whose household is ill-suited for pets---small apartments, erratic and/or busy schedules, allergies, whatever---but folks who have the time/space/finances to have animals and don't, that mindset is a complete mystery to me.

I once discussed this concept with a friend whose house resembles a start-up zoo (two dogs, three cats, five birds, and a turtle---and that was just the welcoming committee) who had observed over the years that people who don't have pets tend to be selfish in most areas of their lives because they are the center of their own universe. I don't know how accurate that is as a blanket statement, but it struck a chord with me: Pets require our attention and our care, and indeed, some people seem to reserve their attention and their care for self-indulgent expenditure.

That type of attitude simply doesn't work if you're a pet owner, or at least a conscientious pet owner. Stephanie and I once had a cat with diabetes, a condition that required us to administer insulin shots twice a day, 12 hours apart, at the same time every day. The cat's medical condition had a profound impact on our lives: Someone had to be there for the medication, so if we went to dinner, we had to be back by 8:00; If we went out of town for a night, we had to have someone handle the shot in our absence; if Steph wanted to see the early evening movie, I would stay home to tend to the cat. (I always enjoyed attending events with a mix of friends and strangers and announcing at 7:30, "Sorry, we need to run---time to shoot the cat." The look of concern on the faces of those unaware of Djama's condition was thoroughly enjoyable.) These days, my friend Nick has the same restraints on his schedule as a result of his dog having diabetes; I know that if I want to make plans for us, they have to work around punctual injections. No problem---his wonderful dog is worthy of our accommodations, just as the value of our cat made our adjustments irrelevant.

Many pet-free people use stories like these as validation for their anthropocentric lifestyles, reveling in the fact that they don't have to vacuum up dog hair, don't have to yank the stove away from the wall every month to sweep up the errant kibble, don't have to plan their lives around some creature who offers slobbery kisses with a tongue that drinks from the toilet bowl.

And that is exactly what I don't understand about them, because these were always minor inconveniences when it came to Boo Radley, the Chow/Golden Retriever who, until recently, brought eight years of joy into our house. (Fortunately, we learned early on that Boo would drink from the toilet bowl if he had the chance, so we quickly converted to a strictly enforced close-the-cover ritual.) Sure, he had accumulated an invoice file at the vet that grew to the thickness of a 19th-century Russian novel; sure, he broke more than the average number of car windows with his territorial exuberance*; sure, his joy of digging left our front lawn looking like the aftermath of the famous climax of Caddyshack. But I would gladly endure all of the above many times over if I could have him back for one more long walk through the neighborhood.

We lost Boo to cancer, with an alarmingly short time between his exhibiting of symptoms and the obvious need to ease his grief. Since this happened, I have heard many stories from friends who had similar canine cancer experiences: The dogs resist and persevere for as long as they can (thus hiding their symptoms) until it overwhelms them and it's too late to help. Among the many disappointments that I felt was the frustration that he was only 10 years old. When the vet referred to him as "geriatric", I wondered if she had misread his chart: Boo didn't have a gray hair on his face; up to a week before he was still playing like a puppy. Geriatric?

My confusion was derived from Winnie, the Labrador/Weimaraner mix with whom I grew up**. Winnie came to my parent's home when I was an infant, and lived to be 16 years old. While I remain grateful that she lived such a long and happy life, the combination of her longevity and her being the only dog I had ever known from proverbial start-to-finish left me with a mistaken notion: Dogs live to be 16 years old. In the 24 years between Winnie's death and now, I had never received any information to contradict this non-scientific data, as I regularly saw dogs who were 12 and 14 years old tugging their owners through the park.

Turns out my understanding of lifespan was terribly wrong, and I should have been paying more attention to the one-human-year equals seven-dog-years equation: I never imagined that the point of that math was to make clear that a 10-year old dog was a senior citizen.

Boo was a fabulous dog, a poster child for successful adoption from the Humane Society, and a testament to enduring bonds that can develop between people and pets. While I tend to remember Boo as he was in his last years (mellow, loving, peaceful), reminiscing with friends has reminded me that when we got him, Boo was a wild-man, a 70-pound bundle of muscle, enthusiasm, and intermittent brain activity. (We referred to the latter as "the switch": He was an extremely bright dog when he wanted to be, but let him see a squirrel from 30 yards and he left logic and obedience behind. Fortunately for the squirrels, his hunting prowess resembled that of Elmer Fudd.) As a younger man, he snapped at least three retractable leashes in his efforts to tussle with other dogs (the bigger, the better), he refused to sleep on any soft surface (if we could coax him onto the couch, he humored us, then hopped right off), and once the switch turned off, our only concern was limiting the mayhem. (As an older man, he overcame his aversion to couches---in fact, he often positioned himself so that he could prop his head on a pillow. "You've gotten soft, Boo", we'd chide, and he wouldn't even raise his head to protest.)

One of my favorite Boo stories occurred at the pond in Laurelhurst Park, home to several dozen resident mallards. There was a brief stint in Boo's life when his behavior warranted a short experiment with off-leash walking. (You've seen those dogs who walk along with their owners, untethered and well behaved? That I thought Boo could be one of those dogs is a testament to my foolish optimism.) To set the stage, the duck pond is probably an acre in size, with an island in the middle that the ducks call home; the ducks spend most of the day investigating whether any of the humans on the shore are throwing bread into the pond. We were walking the path that circumscribes the pond when Boo saw the ducks: Off went the switch, and off went Boo, leaping from the concrete beach and splashing into the pond in hot pursuit.

Actually, "hot pursuit" is an overstatement. While Boo's bloodline included noble water-dog lineage, his swimming could be described with the same phrase used by my Pee-Wee hockey coach when describing my playing: "He's certainly not the most talented guy out there, but no one plays with more heart." Watching him swim after those ducks was like watching a UPS truck chase after a handful of high-performance motorcycles: It was obvious to spectators, and to the ducks, and to everyone except Boo, that he was not going to be having mallard for lunch. (I doubt he would have known what to do if he had caught one---as I said, his expertise as a hunter was such that catching the prey was a purely theoretical concept.)

As Stephanie and I futilely yelled his name from the bank, Boo swam like a fat man running for a bus that was already pulling away from the curb; his resolve shone in his eyes as he pursued his quarry, his head barely above water as he dog-paddled after a small subset of ducks. The ducks were fully aware of his presence (alerted by the enormous splash of his belly-flop) and casually retreated around the island. I cannot over emphasize their disregard for his threat: If ducks smoked cigarettes, several would have paused to light up before continuing their evasion.

As Boo's efforts led him further from his point of entry, I moved along the bank yelling, "Boo! Boo! Get over here right now!" but whether by insolence or obliviousness, he clearly had no intention of giving up. He chased a cluster of six ducks as they rounded the west end of the island, the sound of his huffing breath so audible across the water that Stephanie and I independently worried from opposing sides of the island that he would frantically dog-paddle himself into heart failure. (I'm sure he'd have deemed that a glorious way to go, like Keith Richards surely will when he eventually (inevitably?) succumbs to a heart attack onstage.)

When one of the ducks broke from the flock and veered toward the shore, Boo gave it a quick glance but kept his focus on the numeric advantage of the remaining five; ditto when another drifted off as he puffed his way around the south side of the island, still ignoring my bellows from shore; soon after another duck split away…and then there were three.

By this time they had almost circled the island, the ducks looking over their shoulders now and then to see if Boo had displayed a shred of intelligence and given up the pursuit: Nope. Boo struggled on, as if at any moment the ducks would simultaneously collapse from exhaustion. As if tired of mocking him, the three remaining ducks suddenly increased their speed and diverged in various directions, leaving the hilarious sight of a 70-pound dog bobbing alone in the middle of the pond while children and parents laughed and pointed from the edges. Admitting defeat, Boo swam back to the bank where Stephanie was waiting.

I know it's wrong to anthropomorphize our pets and assign them human emotions, but when Boo emerged from the water, he bore a smile that unmistakably said, "I know, bad, but did you see that?! I chased those ducks all the way around the island! That was awesome!" In cases like this, it was pointless to punish him because he didn't care about punishment---there was no scolding, no repercussion that could ever be bad enough to negate the joy he felt for what he had done, and it seemed disrespectful to chastise a dog for….well, for doing what dog's do. While Boo sometimes misbehaved, our motto had always been, "We wanted a dog, not a robot", and we knew that his heart was pure, even if his spirit---and his swimming---was weak.

As I write this story, I worry about justly representing Boo, as if he might read this from the great beyond and woofing to the German shepherd next to him, "No way! I was within inches on those ducks!" But I will fail, in the same way that any eulogy fails to capture the eulogized: It's as futile as trying to capture the Grand Canyon in a single photograph---the more we try to include, the more the detail is lost. And Boo's life was nothing if not a series of joyous details, 10,000 vignettes strung together to make a story. It was my privilege to share so many of them, 10,000 bits of happiness that I will remember long after forgetting about hairy floors and food under the stove and any other so-called inconveniences.

Boo, you will always be missed. I hope there is an afterlife for dogs, and in that world, the couches are cushy and the ducks are slow.

©2007 wpreagan

* Boo's window-breaking incident appeared in Torrential #70, A Day in a Dog's Life

** Winnie was featured in Torrential #18, Involuntary Time Travel

Thursday, September 20, 2007

#111 - In Praise of the Dibble

In Praise of the Dibble

9/20/07 (#111)

My daughter's cousin* Owen was over one day and we all decided to mix up a round of Nesquik, the world's most fabulous chocolate milk. The powder, mind you, because my pint-size posse and I roll old school: I have tried a host of challengers to the "best chocolate milk" crown, from the so-called gourmet Scharffen Berger sludge that seems to defy the milk to at-least-it's-better-on-ice-cream Hershey's and most of the options between, but nothing hits the spot like Nesquik. (Though I still have trouble calling it that, as it went by the trade name Nestle Quik when I was a young chocolate-and-calcium-speedball fiend.)

When out of the scrutinizing watch (and frustratingly flawless memory) of adolescents, my powder-to-milk ratio tends toward the exorbitant, ensuring that many gulps feature that sweet, gritty texture I love; but with the impressionable eyes of two five-and-unders watching, I am invariably the responsible adult, heeding the directions on the package in hopes that they will grow up with a taste for moderation that I don't possess. The kids were going to mix their own, and before we started, I said, "Remember, two spoons, that's all."

Of course, one would expect them to try to maximize each scoop by balancing a ridiculously tall tower of powder on the end of their jittering spoons, to gingerly move the payload across the deceptively vast terrain between Nesquik container and milk glass without that disappointing twitch that causes a minor avalanche of chocolate to be lost upon the counter top. (At least I would expect that, because that remains my standard Nesquik modus operandi.) But the kids each took one reasonable scoop, then another. As I moved to put a cap on the mix, Owen quickly jabbed his spoon into the shrinking gap between yellow container and plastic top and protested, "We didn't do the dibble!"

The dibble? I didn't want to sound concerned, but I didn't like the sound of a young boy dibbling in my Nesquik. "How does one 'do the dibble', Owen?"

He pushed the lid aside, dipped the tip of his spoon into the cocoa and retrieved a tiny portion of the Quik, an amount so small it could be hidden behind a shelled peanut. "Two scoops, plus a little dibble," he chirped brightly.

Ahhh, that dibble. I didn't know it had a name, but I am quite familiar with the dibble; in fact, I am a great fan of the dibble; furthermore, I would venture that the dibble often possesses as much value as either of the immeasurably larger scoops.

The dibble is that little something extra that separates a satisfactory experience from a sensational one. Of course, the most essential element of the dibble is its visibility---the inconsequential bit of cocoa dust that Owen added into his glass of milk did nothing to increase the chocolaty flavor of his beverage, but he knew it was there, and he reveled in his victory over the two-scoop limit. He might have started with two larger scoops, and thus had more chocolate even without the dibble---but then, that method didn't include the dibble.

Young and old, we can all be swayed by a little dibble. When I worked as an auto station attendant (a.k.a. gas huffer) my station had a commitment to washing the windshield of every car that purchased gas. There was a time long ago when that service was the norm at a good filling station, but the bean counters discovered you could have less staff if you only washed the windows on request, not on principle, and these days you can usually expect some high school kid to stand at the rear quarter panel of your car staring into space until the pump automatically clicks off. Our station charged more per gallon than those no-service stations, yet we regularly dispensed 300,000 gallons a month---washing nearly every windshield as we did. People didn't mind paying our price, because they got the dibble: Pardon the pun, but when they left our station, they could easily see the difference.

Many businesses have exceeded expectations as a direct result of the dibble, and many others have failed for lack of the dibble. For example, I cite my last two experiences with the oft-maligned (and oft-deserved) airline industry.

My brother summed up the state of modern airlines this way: Customers have lost all loyalty to a brand, and brands have lost all loyalty to their customers. We might prefer one airline over another, but airline seats are a commodity and few will spend $700 for a favored carrier if they can reach the same destination for $500 with a competitor. Because of that, airlines scrape to keep their seats as cheap as possible. Corporate budgets have no room for dibbles.

I flew US Airways in July, my first time flying that carrier. It was a red-eye flight departing at 11:00pm, and while waiting to board, I heard a customer ask the ticket agent for a blanket and pillow. "You can get those on the plane," she cheerfully assured. Seated in Zone 2, I boarded early in the process, and after stowing my bag I looked for the promised blankets and pillows. There were none to be found. I asked a stewardess where they kept these items, and she explained that they didn't have any. None? "None." Well, we're still at the gate, let's solve that problem before we leave. "Portland isn't one of our hubs, we aren't provisioned for that here." A full-capacity, four-hour overnight flight and US Airways decided that the t-shirt-thin blanket was too much of an expense in exchange for the $600 airfare. (Bonus points: Upon arrival, as the exhausted coach peasants trudged wearily off the plane, we were treated to the sight of a wrinkled blanket and pillow on each of the first-class seats. Apparently, US Air now considers the t-shirt-thin blanket and no-cushion doll pillow to be first-class items.) Forget the dibble---this was 1 ½ scoops of chocolate being passed off as a two-scoop glass of Quik.

Compare that to my last experience with Delta. Same journey (though not a red-eye), and a typical airline experience: Standard free-for-all jostling to get everyone aboard**; 25 minutes on the tarmac waiting for takeoff; ample room to slide several sheets of paper between my knees and the seat in front of me. 3 hours and 30 minutes later, one of the stewardesses got onto the intercom and encouraged us to join her in some "post-flight yoga", a simple bit of stretching that would get us ready for the mile-long trek through the airport to our next connection.

"It's easy," she began, "let's start with our necks----let your head gently fall forward, then slowly rotate in a clockwise position. Since we traveled from the West coast, we've lost three hours, so to help you adjust, maybe start with your head dropped to the right." She continued on in this whimsical way, coaxing us to rotate our shoulders, chastising some passengers for not participating, demonstrating how to rotate the ankles…"Good job, everyone. I bet you're feeling better already. Now gently put your left foot behind your head". Many eyebrows shot up in disbelief before the cabin filled with laughter. Her routine lasted 10 minutes, and at the end, I felt a strange sensation: I felt good. Everyone seemed to feel good. Where most flights end with exhaustion and silent competition to escape the fuselage, that plane was full of smiles and cheerful conversation. And how was this miracle of air travel achieved? One exuberant woman provided one simple service that we didn't expect. There was no extra cost to Delta, but the extra value was immeasurable.

Such is the value of the dibble. Her dibble didn't even include a metaphorical mini-dip into chocolate powder; instead, she provided something intangible, a contagious enthusiasm that spread throughout the plane. (Admittedly, the airline-hostess-enthusiasm-bar has been set rather low by those hosts who continue to deliver the cartoonish string of perfunctory "buh-byes" to the bleary-eyed masses as they eject them into the terminal.) Her enthusiasm managed to defy the state of modern air travel and win my loyalty for Delta: That brief interlude of faux-yoga and a funny monologue convinced me that Delta has a much better understanding of how it feels be a traveler than the yes-we-have-no-blankets attitude of US Air, and I appreciate a company who understands what it feels like to be a customer.

Now if only they'd just include Nesquik among their complimentary beverages. But then, the yoga was Delta's dibble---Nesquik would be a double-dibble. I dare not be so greedy. (At least not while the kids are watching.)

©2007 wpreagan

* Why not say "nephew"? Because Sage and Owen aren't technically cousins; their moms are cousins, which probably makes them second-cousins, or first-cousins-once-removed, or some other impersonal and irrelevant modifier that I refuse to embrace or even tolerate. Family is family, and "cousin" is the furthest semantic extension I will abide. My wife's cousins are my cousins, not my cousins-in-law; my wife's cousin's spouses are my cousins, and not some hyphen-riddled sub-set of my life. Family is not an org chart, it's a tree, and no matter how far out a particular branch any of us might be, our roots are shared.

** Tangential mystery I would love to have explained: When they call passengers for boarding, they start at the front of the plan and work back. This means that the first group of people are filling up the first set of seats, standing in the aisles forcing their over-size carry-ons into the overhead bins and looking for non-existent blankets while everyone else waits in the unheated/uncooled tunnel that connects the airport to the plane. Then the next group of people start filling the next group of seats, followed by the next, and the next, etc. All the while, the back of the plane is empty, and the people who will sit in those seats are standing in the hallway. It seems that if they loaded the back of the plane first, then you could get everyone on board simultaneously. There must be a reason---perhaps with weight in the back and not the front, the plane might do an inadvertent wheelie---but I wish such things were explained during the pre-flight informational session. That, and how an 80-ton bus with wings can get airborne in the first place.

Friday, August 3, 2007

#110 - Firecrackers


8/3/07 (#110)

I grew up in a house of sparklers. With four kids of varying ages, I think my parents had visions of three-fingered children and a future of tedious "no, he wasn't born blind" explanations and opted against any Independence Day explosives.

For us, fireworks weren't an item designed for backyard enjoyment---that product was called badminton. (Or later, Jarts, enormous weighted lawn darts for a game that fused the sharp-object danger of darts with the unrestrained hurling of horseshoes; while I don't recall any of us being injured by the Jarts (save the occasional accidental drop on one's own foot) I'm still astonished that my parents drew the line at firecrackers with the firepower of a shaken pop can yet allowed a set of one-pound sharpened metal projectiles into the toy box.) Fireworks were an event to be attended, not hosted; a spectacle presented by professionals for the entertainment of the entire community.

Yet I remember the mysterious longing I felt when the neighbors across the street would drag out their minor-league pyrotechnics on the afternoon of July 4, smuggled up from South of the Border, a southeastern institution whose interior looked like a grocery store's produce department except in place of apples and cantaloupe they had bottle rockets and M-80s. Fireworks were illegal in my state (at least that's what I was told), so when Mr. Comey ignited the rocket that launched a tiny plastic soldier into the sky to have him parachute gently back to earth (with obvious charring to his face and extremities) it seemed like an irrationally bold defiance of the local ordinances---not to mention insanely dangerous considering that the Comey kids were essentially the same age as my brothers and sisters. Was he unaware of the danger he faced? Mom never hesitated to give us unsought safety advice---had she thought to offer some to this madman across the avenue?

By today's standards their arsenal would likely seem juvenile at best, as the home fireworks market has changed massively in the last 10 years. Where once the neighborhood kids vibrated with excitement at the zzzzzzzzip-pap of a bottle rocket shot from an empty Coke bottle, there are now folks two streets over who launch massive charges that rival a respectably-sized small town's civic presentation: these displays easily reach an altitude of 150 feet, their multi-colored bursts 30 to 40 feet across, an astonishing form of recreation for a man who grew up writing his name in the dark night with an incendiary device that could be hidden behind a pencil. These neighbors even have what I call "cannon blasts", those incredibly loud non-visual fireworks that seem to reset your heartbeat upon demolition. Had the Comeys unleashed such so-called entertainment back in 1972, the cramped area behind the couch would have been crowded with both the family dog and me.

My frustration with 21st century home fireworks aficionados is not the size of the displays or the volume of the bangs. What annoys me is the disregard they have for neighbors, exhibited in three significant ways:

  1. No adherence to any acceptable curfew: 10:00pm to midnight, that's fine, blow yourselves up for all I care. But if you purchased so many fireworks that it takes you until 4:00am to ignite them all, you are not celebrating independence, you're celebrating being an ass. No one wants to come to that party.
  2. No adherence to the calendar: In our neighborhood, they start around June 27. I suppose we have Christmas light to blame for this, as those lights are enjoyed for weeks before the holiday, not just on Christmas day; but then, Spiderman and Jack Sparrow don't show up at my house on October 29 expecting me to feed them. They also last well past the July 4---in fact, we suffered though six or eight late-night cannon blasts on August 1 this year. (Unfortunately, folks who don't obey this second complaint seem to be the same folks who disregard the first.)
  3. No concern for cleaning up: On the morning of July 5, our neighboring blocks are littered with the charred cardboard and melted plastic remains of seemingly hundreds of explosive devices. If I thought it was kids leaving the crap to blow away I would knock on doors and report it to their parents---but these days, parents are as bad as the kids. (But that's an issue that transcends this particular holiday.)

Living in Portland, we have a variety of options for great public fireworks displays, and most years we attend the big city-sponsored display downtown. Launched from a barge in the river that divides the city, there are plenty of places on both banks that offer a fabulous view, so we pack a knapsack with a blanket, beverages, and (of course) sparklers and head down to find a nice vantage point. This year, it was a grassy area near the south end of Waterfront Park where we had room stretch out and watch the crowd while we waited for the festivities to begin. As darkness slowly claimed the daylight, I was forced to confront two realizations.

First, the line between a public fireworks display and a home fireworks display has regrettably blurred: the very public and very busy walking path in front of us was constantly blocked by children---actual children, six to ten years old---igniting fountains of colored sparks from tubes with names like "Towering Inferno" and "Geyser of Fire" and tossing spastically gyrating sparking devices toward a vaguely defined no-cross zone with only the slightest regard for accuracy. (Meanwhile, their parents sat gabbing in closed clusters, apparently confident that if none of the children were screaming, "Argh! My hand!" then all was well.) We saw kids toting boxes they could barely heft, crates so large that had they been filled with dog food would have fed our dog for a month. (And ours is no small dog.) It was noisy, odorous, annoying, and frankly, quite unsettling.

The second realization was my daughter's reaction to it all.

Genetics never fails to astound me, and her body language screamed familiarities at me: I recognized myself in her obvious mix of fascination and fear of the spectacle, and felt anew the bittersweet enjoyment of the simple sparkler, at once innocently fun and embarrassingly inadequate. As her eyes soaked up the scene, I ached for her, wanting to snatch her up in my arms and run until it was July 5 and those confusing, contradictory emotions had faded like the resonant echoes of a cannon blast.

But of course, that would be trying to save her from life, and I don't want to save her from that. If not then, she would face that disquieting clash of emotions on the next day or the next, and if it didn't involve fireworks, it would be about bicycles or best friends or even badminton. In fact, it will probably be all of those, as that seems to be the human condition: It's not that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, but simply that there is another side of the fence, and things are different there, whether the grass is greener or it's blackened by the burn of department store fireworks.

As darkness settled further, I stood and snatched her up in my arms and said, "Let's write our names in the darkness," which we did with laughter and delight. The sparklers have long burned out, but I can still see her name scribbled in the dusk.

Try that with a firecracker.

©2007 wpreagan

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

#109 - Rabbit Test

Rabbit Test

7/10/07 (#109)

I was walking through a local mall last week, cursing myself for forgetting that the myopic decision to visit a particular store within the mall also requires navigating the mall itself: Even if I'm spared the complete Sears-to-Nordstrom retail Iditarod, the mall offers too much of its special hospitality (strangers in ill-fitting tank tops, bath shops reeking of synthetic tropical fruits, ill-mannered kids whose parents have mistaken the building as a playground) in even the most direct route. I scurried through the brightly lit nave that divides one wall of stores from the other, noting the uncanny similarities between a mall and a prison (each wing of the mall as cell block, each store a cell, the multiple tiers packed with prisoners of the retail justice system, security guards patrolling the perimeter, the various social factions staking out their respective areas) when a young woman approached and discreetly informed me that a certain cosmetics company conducted research on rabbits.

My initial reaction was shock: Was this girl implying that I needed to use make-up? Sure, in the boxing match of life, Time has landed some notable blows, but I was unaware that my face had so wizened that strangers felt compelled to intervene. Up to that point, I had never contemplated wearing make-up, fully expecting that even the latest advances in face-paint technology would make me look like either the bearded Celine Dion impersonator at Darcelle's (whose beard might have ruined the illusion had her melonesque beer gut not killed it first) or the wake-ready corpse of a 40-year-old man who too often sought the answers to life's questions in the bottom of an ice cream bowl. (Of course, where else are you going to look if you think the answer to most questions is, "cookie dough"?)

But before I could slip into the mild depression that should accompany a man's realization that young women now see him as a candidate for age-defying chemicals, I thought about her message: Testing their cosmetics on rabbits? What can humans possibly learn from how a rabbit looks wearing make-up? Their faces are covered with fur---true, I've known a couple of people about whom that modifier might apply, but they hardly constitute a viable target demographic. And aren't bunny eyes usually pink? Any eye shadow that compliments pink is unlikely to look good on a woman with hazel eyes. And what about the lips---I'm not sure what can be done with collagen these days, but I've never seen a rabbit whose mouth warranted adjectives such as "luscious" or "pouty." Judging a cosmetic's effectiveness by seeing how pretty a rabbit looks while wearing it is like deciding if a woman's sweater is properly designed by having it modeled by a Golden Retriever.

I imagine that cosmetics companies have chosen rabbits for purely financial reasons: With humans having those vast expanses of flesh between the eyes and lips, I'm sure the bean counters visited the test kitchens one day and were aghast to see so much product expended for zero-revenue quality control and immediately asked, "Do you have any smaller faces?" Thus began the search for a properly small face: Parrots (application would probably be easy, but there would be feather-flapping mayhem every time they had the birds look at themselves in the mirror); Turtles (nice face size, but the shell-retraction would be a nuisance, having to reassure the turtle that yes, Tsunami Blue eye shadow accentuates her shell); Mice surely made the list of contenders, but with so many rodents gainfully employed in the pharmaceutical industry, only the ugliest and laziest mice would be available for cosmetics, and every issue of Cosmopolitan reaffirms the industry credo that ugly faces do not sell cosmetics.

Or perhaps the researchers went straight for the rabbit, the seed for the beautified bunny planted decades previous as the then-adolescent researchers lay supine on the floor, chins propped up on hands, staring into the Technicolor haze watching Bugs Bunny transform himself from rascally rabbit to can-can dancer, geisha, southern belle, pink-aproned maid or any of the dozens of other drag cameos that Bugs made in his cartoon oeuvre, all donned to deceive the standard roster of inattentive Looney Tune villains. (C'mon, Elmer, why would there be a shower in the middle of the forest? Think, man, think!) Maybe it's the fact that I'm a Marianne man (as opposed to Gilligan's Island's Ginger---apologies to Mrs. Howell for being snubbed in the dichotomy) but I never found the cross-dressing Bugs to be particularly attractive. Yosemite Sam might fall for a few flaps of those false eyelashes, but I know a cross-dressing rabbit when I see one, and it simply isn't sexy. But hey, there's no accounting for taste.

Whatever precipitated the decision to test rouge and eyeliner on rabbits, I feel safe in ridiculing it as a business decision. Frankly, I'm surprised the girl at the mall felt a need to be discreet---when a company expects a person to believe that a product will look good on them because it looked good on a cuddly quadruped named Mr. Wiggles, that company needs to be called out to the light of day.

But before I could slip into the self-righteous indignation that should accompany a man's realization that rabbits are being tarted up like 8-year old beauty contest contenders in order to pedal eye-liner, I began thinking about those rabbits that have benefited from this method of testing.

I know nothing of rabbit culture, but my casual observations during elementary school field trips gleaned this much: Rabbits have no source of income. They don't work, they don't invest, they don't even have grandma bunnies sending a birthday fiver every year. Consequently, rabbits can't afford to buy their own cosmetics. Yet let's face it, some rabbits need them. Not just because of the elaborate web of competition that exists within leporine rabbit communities (true fact: rabbits can see behind themselves without turning their heads; what else could explain this evolutionary development except that they are chronically concerned with what other rabbits are doing behind their backs?) but because for some rabbits, make-up is a means to help them feel better about themselves, a proactive method of empowerment. Sure, the beautiful rabbits who can look perfectly Easterish without "putting on their face" will twitch their noses at this reliance on external devices, but until I've hopped a mile on their feet, I refuse to pass judgment on those bunnies who feel a bit safer when hiding behind a dab of mascara.

I doubt the girl at the mall was thinking about those rabbits. I decided I would double-back to share these insights with her, perhaps enlighten her to the fact that we sometimes let our personal biases influence our impression of situations. But when I turned around, there stood an unusually damp man who loomed like a T-Mobile kiosk in a sleeveless shirt, his child banging on the metal waste can as if composing a tuneless, arrhythmic steel drum concerto.

My apologies to self-esteem challenged rabbits everywhere, but that was all I could take. I ran from the cell block doors.

©2007 wpreagan

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

#108 - Cracks in my Memory

Cracks in my Memory

5/30/07 (#108)

I am a chronic counter. Dump a bag of M&Ms on the table, I will involuntarily compare the quantity of each color, forming various alliances of primary and tertiary arrays; when filling the coffee pot, I tick off sequential numbers in my head while it fills as if I might one day need to fill it without looking; when I see a phone number, I habitually examine it for its value as a cribbage score. A psychologist would likely refer to this as Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder, but I've learned from my job searches that it's better to pitch it as "exceptional attention to detail."

Worst of all is walking---while my brain wrestles with whatever concerns the day has offered, there's one little corner of the gray matter that devotes itself to counting my foot steps. It's as if my brain is a small office, with various synapses in various cubicles devoting themselves to the glorious and mundane tasks that get me through my daily life; the bean counter who sits in the "steps taken" department is relentless, whether I ask him to be or not: it's not uncommon for me to become aware of this counting mid-stride, and finding myself on number 96 or 148 or some other number that indicates I have been doing it for a long time without bringing it to consciousness' attention. (Not that it would matter---Consciousness has long given up trying to wrangle that particular cube dweller.)

While the step counting goes on, another synapse in an adjacent cubicle concentrates on the placement of those footsteps---on checkerboard linoleum, I subconsciously try to step on only one color; in the autumn, I try to walk the dog through the park without stepping on any leaves. (A task that gets exponentially more difficult with each passing October day.) Most commonly, it involves sidewalks, finding a gait that allows me to move at a smooth, normal pace without stepping on one of the lines that divides a sidewalk into sections. I do this not because of OCD, but for a practical and obvious reason: Fear of breaking my mother's back.

I am fairly certain that these seemingly incongruous items---the location of my footsteps in Oregon and the integrity of my mother's spine in New England---have no official connection, as I confess that in my 40 years, I have inadvertently tramped upon a sidewalk crack or two and my mother has never had to wear a back brace. (None the less, please forgive my irreverence to your skeletal health, mom.) Yet despite 40 years of evidence that my feet possess no ability to injure her, the children's chant "Step on a crack, break your mother's back" reverberates in my ears three decades after I last heard it uttered. It is absurd superstition that I know to be absurd, yet I am helpless to defy it. Even if I walked to lunch today and thought, "I'm going to step on every crack", I would do so until I got distracted by tulips or a song in my head or the anticipation of Black Pepper Chicken and then the brain cell in charge of crack avoidance would sneak back to work. (If only the brain cell in charge of dieting was so diligent.)

My particular feet and my particular Mom aside, I have been pondering the origins of this ruthless phrase, curious how innocent mothers came to be the victims of their children's errant footsteps. Much to my surprise, I found no satisfaction for my curiosity. Extensive web searching have resulted in nothing more than either vague (and mostly implausible) speculations or evidence of others searching for this same elusive information. I am baffled that a nation that copiously documents the most mundane details of every episode of Star Trek and compiles baseball stats as if Saint Peter is going to stand at the gates of heaven and demand, "How many 9th inning triples did the 1968 White Sox have against American League opponents while playing at Comiskey Park?" would allow this strange near-matricidal phrase to slip into the lexicon without documentation. I'd like to know the origins of, "Step on a crack, break your mother's back" because I have a few issues with the directive.

The two-syllable "mother" is awkward within the rhyme---say it aloud, then say "Step on a crack, break your friend's back." The latter has a 4-4 symmetry that gives the rhyme a more natural flow, and barring the rare misanthropic soul, everyone who has a mom probably has a friend. (If not, who would utter the phrase to the crack stomper? What kind of nut would walk down the street by himself, worrying about stepping on a particular 1 percent of the pavement?)(Wait, I take that back.)

Obviously "mother" wasn't chosen for the poetic grace of the word. And even if it was, "Father" could be subbed without further breaking either the meter or the familial bond. The phrase is rumored to have appeared in our culture in the mid-20th century---so why is it that some June Cleaver-esque woman at home ironing a crease into her son's Tuffskins is suddenly doomed to collapse like a rag doll, immobilized by pain on the laundry room floor, while the Ward of the family is free to traipse about the office walking erect? Perhaps the office is the clue: in that era, dads spent most of the day away from home, so their value as recipients of this bizarre concrete voodoo was limited; What good is the threat of a broken back if the person afflicted isn't of essential value of the stepper? "Step on a crack, break your uncle's back" is likely to be of impact to the nephew or niece only at annual family reunions, where uncle John or Jerry will be resigned to sitting outside the improvised flattened-six-pack-box base lines with a gin and tonic tinkling in his hand rather than standing on first base with a mitt and a gin and tonic tinkling in his hand.

Focusing away from the victim for a moment, I wonder about the brutality of the phrase. A broken spine---short of a crushed skull, that seems like the most heinous thing you could inflict upon a person. There are myriad other rhymes available for "crack", any one of which would greatly upset a mom without condemning her to a month in traction and the rest of the year having to maneuver like a waddling penguin just to see over her shoulder:

"Step on a crack, kill your mom's lilac" would quite certainly get my wife's attention---and not at all the kind of attention one would normally seek.

"Step on a crack, make your mom fat" is an imperfect rhyme, but at least it's a kinder fate to foist upon an unsuspecting mom. (Actually, that isn't necessarily true: I've had acquaintances in my life who would consider that outcome far more cruel than a surprise spinal collapse---sure, recovering from surgery would be a lengthy, painful process, but at least you would recover; dieting can go on for years, often with no evidence of results.)

"Step on a crack, tear your mom's anorak" would probably never catch on in the south, but anyone who has priced these winter jackets at LL Bean knows that it's not an investment you want to make every year---I'm still making payments on mine, and I purchased it before moving west in the early 1990s. (True story: My friend Jamie purchased a 1966 Cadillac Convertible for less than my fleece-lined, Teflon-coated, hex-resistent jacket cost me. Of course, my jacket has never broken down on a remote section of Stillwater Avenue, so maybe you get what you pay for.)

I suppose the brutality shouldn't be such a surprise---Jack fell down and cracked open his skull (at least that's how I always interpreted "broke his crown", considering he wasn't "Prince Jack"), Humpty Dumpty wound up scrambled on the sidewalk, and as one cheerful little ditty advises, "ashes to ashes, we all fall down". Frankly, while much is made of kids exposure to violence on television, they've already been exposed to a multitude of violent images well before they learn to use the TV remote. (Just ask the wolves of "Little Red Riding Hood" or "The Three Little Pigs", or the rock-a-bye baby who plummets from the tree top.)

While I still don't understand why mothers are the victims of this senseless rhyme/senseless crime, I recently had the opportunity to break the cycle of violence. My daughter has never heard me speak of these issues, but has previously exited the Laurelthirst making a point to step only on the black floor tiles, urging me to walk only on the white; then last night, we were walking through Target (where the linoleum is only one color) and she insisted we both try to avoid stepping on the lines between the tiles. I played along, and as we neared the escalators (surely looking like father-daughter drunkards with our inexplicably uneven steps), she pivoted and asked, "Dad, what happens if we step on the lines?" I think she was trying to establish some sort of consequence---if I stepped on a line first, we'd have to buy popcorn; if she stepped on a line first, we'd have to buy popcorn. (Such are the rules when the game is invented by a 4-year old.) While I enjoy sharing bits of history at any opportunity, I had no intention of saddling her with a lifetime of that little cubicle worker in her head, that sub-conscious toiler who will exhaust her with an erratic gait in a vain attempt to spare her mom's vertebrae:

"Nothing happens, Sage. Nothing at all. Want to get some popcorn?"

©2007 wpreagan

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

#107 - The Bad Photograph

The Bad Photograph

4/18/07 (#107)

It's rare to see a bad photograph at an art gallery. Each piece tends to be a study of ideal proportions, colors meticulously balanced, the subject carefully cropped in order to direct the eye to the intended focal point. In fact, some photographs are so captivating that they seem less a "perfect photograph" than a "photograph of perfection", creating the illusion that the perfection continues beneath the matte, beyond the frame, and into the physical world. I'm always astonished when a photograph can captivate me that way, like the picture of cows taken by my friend Ben Gustafson, an image as beautiful as any photograph I have seen. Cows. When I look at it, I barely acknowledge the bovine subject matter, because it isn't the cows that are compelling, it's the photograph itself: the light, the mood, some intangible element that draws me in and holds me there. In fact, it's misleading to say that it's a photograph of cows at all, because I rarely look at the cows, I look at the photograph.

While that image is worthy of a gallery wall, a great photograph doesn't have to qualify as "art". I saw a Polaroid snapshot on a friend's fridge that featured a woman I don't know, and I was entranced; I wanted to slip it into my pocket and take it home, I wanted to stare at it for hours and unlock the mystery of its allure. I'm sure there was a story behind it, but I didn't care; explanations could be made about the activities documented, but such details were irrelevant to me: I was entranced by what it was now, and how the subject seemed to be looking not at the camera, but directly at me, as if she'd been waiting for me to arrive in front of the refrigerator.

That's the wonderful aspect of a fabulous photograph: they take on a life of their own, independent of the event they document. But that is also a failure of the same photograph: by taking on a life of their own, they lose the life that was taking place in front of the lens. For example, next to my desk I have a black and white photograph of my daughter and me clowning, a moment of unrestrained childhood joy coinciding with the click of the shutter, her grin so ebullient that I defy anyone to look at it and not smile in response. It's one of my most cherished photographs---yet when I see it, I have no recollection of the day it was taken, or of what we were clowning about, or even how old she was when the photo was taken. When I see it, I remember today, laughing about the things we laughed about this morning. It is not a photograph of Sage and me on that particular day, but a photograph of Sage and me now. It captures something seemingly intangible, something other than mere visual facts. It is a photograph that remains perpetually in the present tense.

The bad photograph, on the other hand, is purely temporal---without the art, without the compelling imagery, all that's left is the visual evidence. While our various of levels of vanity cause many of us to moan when a photograph is unflattering ("unflattering" often being a synonym for "accurate" when it comes to photos of me), such reactions say more about the viewer than the photo itself. I'm not defending mistakes---a family photo that captures six scalps and the sky or blurs of movement that wouldn't get you convicted if it was a snapshot of a crime scene---I'm speaking of the photo which seemed like a good idea but which failed to capture the image as it appeared in our mind, that captures an awkward transition just prior to or after a moment of purity. It is "bad" because it is not what we intended; it contains every bit as much information as the perfect photograph, it simply isn't the information we wanted to document.

I have such a picture of me, taken on the first day that we owned our first home. I asked my wife to take a photo of me walking up the steps of our first house, a silly idea that my wife agreed to only because she knew I couldn't be dissuaded. It looks ridiculously posed, my gait unnatural, my sheepish smile giving away any sense of it being a snapshot, the whole composition purely fabricated---quite simply, it is a bad photograph. Had we owned a digital camera at that time, I'm sure it would have been deleted immediately, since at a glance, it's an image that wouldn't be worth the paper it was printed on. But it was printed with the rest of that roll, and somehow it slipped past quality control and made it into the family album where it remains as evidence to be presented in case my wife ever has to produce proof that I am the dork she sometimes accuses me of being.

Yet when I look at that photo now, I am transported back to that day---I hear the laughter that preceded Stephanie's shutter click; I feel the starched polyester scrape of my Chevron uniform against my bare neck and the odd sponginess of the requisite oil-resistant soles; I recall the moment we pulled up at the house in Connie McDowell's white Toyota, arriving just in time to see a minor fistfight in front of the neighbor's house (which proved to be a telling moment about those neighbors); I remember the awesome blend of euphoria and fear that comes with the phrase "30-year mortgage", and the dozen times in 20 minutes that I rolled the phrase "our house" off my tongue. It is a bad photograph by any measure, yet I am grateful for every one of its flaws.

You might think that because this was a momentous event in my life, I would have remembered all of these details with the visual cue of any photograph. Perhaps, but knowing myself as well as I do, that seems unlikely. My memory is like a file cabinet crammed with unlabeled folders: Each folder is full of details, but I have great difficulty finding the folder for which I'm searching. If someone asked me to write a story about playing YMCA basketball, I'd be hard-pressed to find a compelling anecdote; yet if I hear the name "Roger Gray", I immediately recall standing on the YMCA's hardwood court in my purple "Bullets" shirt, the echoing squeaks of Nikes and Adidas against the varnished floor, turning to find my face interrupting the trajectory of a basketball kicked full-force by Roger's enormous leg, my body feeling like a Bugs Bunny cartoon as it became parallel to the floor, the sting in my cheek and eye socket that overshadowed the thump of my head hitting the foul line. I'm sure there are many YMCA stories in my mental filing cabinet, but I'm not going to remember them until something triggers those memories.

Had Stephanie and I managed to capture the campy, timeless "first house" photograph I had imagined, we would have perfect documentation of front-yard euphoria, but the particulars might have been lost: Was this the day we bought the house? The day I quit the Chevron? (I certainly smiled that day, too.) The day we got the dog? (Probably not the latter if there was no dog in the picture.) But there is so much information stored in that picture's goofiness that there is no doubt about the day, no doubt about the details, and no doubt that it allows me to mine a cache of memory that might be inaccessible without it.

I wonder how much the digital camera will impact the photo collections of the average American family. In the film days, you snapped your 24 shots and hoped for the best, but with digitals, we have so many opportunities for deleting: As we're snapping shots, we can immediately view the images on the postage-stamp-sized window and deem a photograph unworthy; when we download them to the computer, we can compare and contrast and save only the best images to the hard-drive; then when it's time to populate an actual photo album, the images are sifted again to see which merit the printing process. It is a great way to eliminate everything except the perfect pictures, but what else are we eliminating from our memory when we save only the perfect pictures?

It's tempting to save only the best photos, as we will one day look back and remember only those perfect, timeless days. But in essence, the decision to edit those photographs is a decision to edit our past, sculpting a slide show of a life that is only partially represented in the pictures; we are deciding now what we will want to remember later, and by deleting the "bad" photographs, perhaps deleting some of our own memory. My memory is spotty enough that I don't want to do any more culling than is necessary---I want to remember everything that I can, and in some cases, these various bad photographs that populate the boxes on the closet shelves offer access to more obscure data. These pictures aren't perfect; but something doesn't need to be perfect to be valuable.

©2007 wpreagan

Friday, March 16, 2007

#106 - Wired


3/16/07 (#106)

I have been assimilated.

Last night when I got home from work, I plugged my cell phone into the charger by the door, went to the computer and plugged in my iPod and Palm PDA to sync and recharge, and suddenly felt like the character in a Sci-Fi movie who had been replaced by a perfect replica of himself---his wife had never noticed, his daughter had no reason for suspicion, even the family dog had missed the moment the subterfuge began. Heck, even I didn't notice the change---but there I was, tethered to the world with a trio of electronic umbilical cords.

While I have long had an appreciation for electronic devices (as a home music studio owner, gear catalogs cause enough excitement that they ought to arrive in plain brown wrappers), I am also my mother's son, my mother who refers to each of the high-tech features on my father's car as "one more thing to break." It is not a matter of thrift (though a pinch of that ingredient certainly exists in the mix), but a combination of Emersonian self-reliance and quiet anti-consumerism. The former is merely a New England birthright; the latter developed as corporate marketing departments began out-sizing Research and Development teams, an org-chart revolution that pursues success not by filling a need, but by convincing the customer to buy things they do not need at all.

Need---now there's a verb rarely heard at the electronics counter. (At least not as Mr. Webster intended--- a video gamer's chair with built-in joysticks, sound and vibration would surely be fun, but it's hardly a need.) I observed the proliferation of cell phones over the last decade, but I don't live a life that requires urgent contact; I watched as PDAs (Personal Digital Assistant for anyone more oblivious to gadgets than I am---surveys say there are two of you out there) became the must-have accessory for the digirati, but I already carried a small notebook that easily handled all of my mobile documentation needs; I witnessed the rising ubiquity of digital music devices, but had no interest in purchasing an over-priced, glorified Walkman. I wasn't taking a political stand against technological advances, nor was I defying trendiness---these were simply items for which I had no need.

So how does a man who has no need for electronic gadgets---and for that matter, no desire---come into possession of a collection of microchip-laden widgets?

I was not dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century (or would that be 20th?), but was coaxed to it, the way a cat is lured to your side my gently flicking your finger under a blanket. In this case, the hand under the blanket belonged to my brother Tim. While we are related, Tim and I would not be referred to as "two peas in a pod"---in fact, if we played brothers in a movie, you'd probably complain about the poor casting. He pedals hard, I like to coast; he reads voraciously, I get a swelling of pride when I finish a long article in the New Yorker; he is single, I'm married with a child; he probably has a savings account, I raid my change jar so frequently that if I ever find it with more than three quarters, I feel flush. But as most brothers know, a brother's love has nothing to do with all of those details---like war veterans, our bond is built on our shared experiences; our differences are irrelevant. But the technology gap was a difference that Tim apparently couldn't tolerate, and thus he dispatched the digital asp into my analog garden.

It started with a surplus Palm M500, rumored not to sync properly with his upgraded PC---though at the time of this upgrade, PDA architecture was making great leaps forward (color screens, web connectivity, built in qwerty keypads, cell-phone capability), so I suspect his efforts to make this generations-old monochrome Palm M500 work were akin to the driver of a 1977 Toyota Corolla failing his DEQ emissions test one time and using that to justify the purchase of a new Honda Accord. When the M500 arrived in the mail, I had no idea what to do with it. Literally. It had a calendar, but I have one of those on the fridge at home; it had a place to store contacts, but I hardly need an electronic device to remember the names of my friends; it featured a to-do list, but my "events" would read, "eat breakfast" and "find fresh excuse to procrastinate on writing childrens books", things I always manage to get done without an electronic reminder; the only feature that intrigued me was the memo pad, but the thought of inputting anything substantial using pokes from a stylus seemed as difficult as writing The Lord's Prayer on a grain of rice---sure, it could be done, but it doesn't seem like an effective use of time. As near as I could tell, Tim was simply using the postal service to take out his trash. But I did a bit of research and found a full-size fold-away qwerty keyboard online---I often joke that the combination of Palm and keyboard provides me "the least powerful laptop computer on the planet", but all jokes aside, the Palm quickly became a constant companion. (I'm typing this column on it right now.) I don't know the exact timeline, but in roughly a year, I went from ignorance about even the basic functions of a PDA to complete dependence on it; if it broke today, I would be devastated. (Though I must admit---perhaps this is genetics---if it did break down, I'd be setting my sights on the PDA equivalent of a Honda Accord.)

The iPod was Tim's birthday gift later that year, a sleek silver Nano that captured my fascination as soon as I turned it on. (Which was about 4 weeks after my birthday, because I was still convinced I didn't need it.) My daily dog walks were completely invigorated by the easy access to 25 hours of diverse music, and I'm sure my neighbors enjoyed the transition, each day concocting new explanations for the awkward body movements that resulted from the thumping beats I was piping directly to my brain. ("I think he's trying to impersonate the gait of an ostrich"; "Today he's evading an invisible bee.") 25 hours allows me to anticipate a variety of sonic responses to a dozen different moods---let's see the Walkman do that.

The cell phone resulted from Tim's visit to Portland---he had cajoled me many times about getting a cell phone, and seemed to view my refusal as tantamount to saying, "Yeah, I've heard good things about cars, but my horse is healthy, so I'm holding off." He came out to visit for a few days, and we made plans to shoot pool at Rialto ("shoot pool" being a euphemism for drinking) and 10 feet from the entrance he spied a wireless store and insisted I get a phone---a dirty trick, making a cell phone the only obstacle between me and a string of tequila-based libations. (But a generous offer, as I was then unemployed and he was the benefactor of both the phone and the tequila.) Now that I have this little Star-Trek-communicator-looking device, I can't believe I ever left the Enterprise without one.

So it's 2007, and my copper-wire connection to culture is nearly complete. I still have to upgrade from dial-up on the home computer before I can get my digirati decoder ring, but I have taken great strides in making my creature comforts entirely portable. I recall hearing about this kind of life in advertisements from Apple or Dell, I just never thought it was my life they were describing.

But what fascinates me is not that I am now a junior varsity Inspector Gadget---indeed, my electronic utility belt is bested by the contents of the average 6th grader's backpack. What fascinates me is how my conversion to the electronic mindset occurred so seamlessly---I went from zero interest to completely enamored without even noticing. I experienced a similar transformation regarding parenting, recalling many times in my 20's when I said, "I don't care if I ever have children" yet being certain at 40 that no one loves being a Dad more than I do. Even the little things---I once mocked fans of Mark Ruffalo's so-called "acting", yet have recently found him incredibly charming. These quiet metamorphoses force me to ponder the other items in my life in which I claim to have no interest---as I age, will I find talk radio intriguing and informative rather than self-righteous and annoying? Will I one day feel a need to apologize for my years spent dismissing the supposed comedic genius of Martin Short? Will time eventually alter me so significantly that I might one day enter a restaurant and utter that most unfathomable of phrases, "Can I get that with mushrooms?"

Perhaps. Except the mushrooms----science has yet to discover a health regimen that will allow me to live that long.

©2007 wpreagan

PS Many thanks, Tim.

Monday, February 19, 2007

#105 - Strainz from the Stereo

Strainz from the Stereo

2/18/07 (#105)

For those of you who don't watch children's television, you likely live in what must be a blissful paradise of ignorance, unaware that music---that broad and beautiful art form that offers both uncanny solace to the soul and impromptu defibrillation to the adrenal glands---has been contorted into an improbably disdainful affront called "Kidz Bop". This heinous "product" ("music" seems an overstatement) was apparently shoplifted from the CD player in Hell's waiting room, repackaged in colors so garish they would make a box of laundry soap blush, and distributed as part of a fiendish plot to make drunken karaoke seem like high art. I dream of the time when I knew nothing of this chalkboard scratching, the way a man allergic to carbon monoxide must dream of life before Henry Ford.

Kidz Bop is an ingenious idea, if you consider making armloads of money by producing cheap, inane crap to be an exhibition of genius. The premise behind this series ("Kidz Bop 11" comes out this month) is to herd a dozen or so kids into the studio and have them sing along, simultaneously and in almost-unison, with the previous year's radio hits and misses. While it's difficult to sift through the drench of pubescence to determine the sonic particulars, it seems they simply record a synthesized version of the original song and have the "talent" sing along with that---literally a recorded karaoke session. Kidz Bop is the bastard offspring of that annoying children's chorus from An Affair to Remember* and Casey Kasem's American Top 20, a Chuck E. Cheese birthday party burned directly to compact disc. Do you own a minivan but just can't find eight or nine little brats to populate the seats and sing with slippery tonal accuracy those insipid pop songs that, even when sung by the original artists, climb uninvited into your ears and spend the rest of the day devouring your sanity? Now you can have all of the sonic annoyance without the spilled juice boxes.

The Z in "Kidz" should already have signaled the dubiousness of this item. Divide the world into two subcategories---things that have benefited humanity, and things that have contributed to the downfall of the species---and you will find any item that mutates the grammatically correct S to the faux-hip Z in the latter category, along with "nu" in place of "new" and "Kool" in place of "cool." The Z says to the consumer, "My son the Phys. Ed. major is the head of Marketing"; the Z says, "Next year I will be the most populous item at your local landfill."

While I have not actually listened to a CD (for the same reason I have not stared at the sun), the television ads flaunt the major attributes of the discs with enough accuracy to make it clear what is being offered: 15 or so songs vocalized by Oz's Lollipop Kids along with which a child can gleefully caterwaul while their parents try to recall why child rearing seemed a better alternative than seminary school. (The answer will most certainly not come to them while the "play" button is depressed.) I once sat at a cacophonous Cecil Taylor concert and my friend leaned over and said, "This is the music they would use to torture my mother"; Kidz Bop would be employed in the event that Cecil wasn't able to do the job.

Kidz Bop would not fail.

As a parent, I live in mortal fear of this type of product. People joke about hell being populated by lawyers, but I'm certain the marketers of children's toys get the seats closest to the fire. I've acquiesced to Barbie, and Walt Disney has been granted more access to my daughter's imagination than a child psychologist would condone, but I've got to pick my battles: When the store aisles and internet links feature a dog that both eats and shits (and it's the same little brown plastic pellet involved with each activity---isn't that charming?), the Bratz dolls (note the Z) that seem to be small children with caked-on eye shadow, bare midrifts and conspicuous "bling", and discs of multiple soprano-and-higher kids caroling like Alvin and the Chipmunks sans sense of humor, Barbie can park her convertible anywhere she likes.

I've known of Kidz Bop for several years, but have avoided acknowledging its existence in hopes that it would not acknowledge mine. Because we don't listen to schlock radio, my daughter doesn't recognize the songs, so it's been easy enough to change the channel to anything when that helium-sucking choir comes on the screen. ("Look Sage, that man is filling out a 1040 form...can you say, 'itemized deduction'?") But the pitch for Kidz Bop 11 demonstrated that even the most cringe-worthy concept can be made more loathsome: the disc includes the kids singing "Irreplaceable", a song originally performed by Beyonce Knowles.

Let me be clear, I have no issues with Beyonce Knowles. I don't seek out her music (too much package, not enough content), but I like that she's fine with her body image (which doesn't match the waifish American media image, though considering she has only one accentuated proportion to her otherwise enviable body, that doesn't seem like a hard pill to swallow) and she seems charming in interviews. But Beyonce sings songs about being an adult, in adult situations, and "Irreplaceable" is hardly a template for how the average 8-year old should run her life. Take this example from the song:

So go ahead and get gone, and call up on that chick and see if she is home
Oops, I bet ya thought that I didn't know, what did you think I was putting you out for?
Cause you was untrue, rolling her around in the car that I bought you
Awwww, isn't that a sweet sentiment for your elementary school daughter to mimic? And what junior-high boy can't relate to having his girlfriend provide him with a new car? I acknowledge that kids are growing up fast these days, but with my own daughter, I was hoping to broach the subject of infidelity and materialistic leeches a little later in her life, perhaps after long division. And in case your impressionable child doesn't catch those references, they can't miss the saccharine soaked melody that professes (half a dozen times):
I could have another you in a minute, matter fact he'll be here in a minute
Gee, it almost sounds empowering, except the lyrics indicate that the narrator has been exploring her options with only slightly less ardor than her tramping beau. (No wonder, she had less opportunity---it's clear from the verse that the boyfriend always had the car.)

Razor & Tie, the label making the money on Kidz Bop, informs us that the series is "the best-selling children's audio series in the country with over 8 million CDs sold in the past 5 years....Kidz Bop 9 entered the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart at the incredible #2 position, the highest charting non-soundtrack children's release in Billboard history. Billboard named the Kidz Bop KIDZTM the #1 Children's Music Artist for the fourth year in a row. ...Kidz Bop is now a certifiable phenomenon, with a number of brand extensions in the works."** I think about those disheartening figures, and the mercenary taunt implicit in the phrase "a number of brand extensions," and a horrible thought runs through my mind, a once-unimaginable contemplation that, every time I startle the pets with my urgent lunge for the television remote, inches closer to the tip of my tongue:

Barney, come back. All is forgiven.

* I love the verbal repartee in that movie, but I twitch in my chair when those tone-deaf little cherubs come on the screen, knowing that their contract apparently requires them to sing in every scene. I haven't done the math, but I think their repertoire is strictly limited to 9-minute songs, and they perform six or eight of them during the movie. We're supposed to believe that Deborah Kerr is charmed by the cloying "sweetness" of these kids, but every time I watch the movie, I ache for Deborah to scream, "Stop! Stop! Fercrissakes, why couldn't it have been you punks in front of that cab?!"

** http://www.razorandtie.com/kidsmusic.html

©2007 wpreagan

Sunday, February 11, 2007

#104 - Ruining the Polish Joke

How many Polacks does it take
to ruin the Polish joke?

2/11/07 (#104)

Adolph Hitler had the worst looking mustache in history. Just a 1-inch-wide vertical stripe of hair on his upper lip, it could easily be mistaken as over-ambitious nostril hair, yet the man managed to make it his signature look. (A fact that must make Charlie Chaplin roll in his grave.) Not surprisingly, that so-called mustache died along with him---it is so distinctly a "Hitler mustache" that outside of adult Halloween costumes and an occasional TV sight gag, it has never been seen again. (I doubt anyone wants to repeatedly explain to every chatty sales clerk, "No, I am actually not sympathetic to the mastermind of the world's most infamous genocide---I just think it looks sharp.")

As facial hair goes, there are limits to a man's available fashion statements. Beard, mustache, goatee, side burns---excepting a few varieties of each of those styles, there's nothing more that can be done with the bristly thatch that grows on our faces. Folks like Salvador Dali and Fu Manchu may push the tonsorial envelope to the limits of its tensile strength, but even those fashion deviants fit under the primary categories with the simple addition of an extra adjective: Dali's is not technically a "handlebar mustache", but it's close enough to call it a "zany handlebar mustache"; Fu Manchu managed to get a minor beard-and-mustache modification named in his honor, but it's little more than a "pimped-out goatee." Yet as small as the list of options is, Hitler single-handedly managed to make it shorter, scratching one off for perpetuity.

This is no small feat for a single person---to permanently close one avenue of the cultural road map. I'm not recommending Hitler get a round of applause for his inadvertent efforts, but the elimination of that miscarriage of facial fashion is a noteworthy feat. Yet such is the life of extremely notable individuals, becoming two-dimensional caricatures of their most newsworthy achievements while their lesser items of note are left out of the picture---in Hitler's case, it's no wonder that his heinous facial grooming habits got less attention than his more-heinous national grooming campaign. A similar thing happens when a person's positive accomplishments dwarf their minor victories---Lech Walesa's resume, cluttered with bullet points about leading a shipyard strike that precipitated the demise of Poland's communist government, becoming Time Magazine's "Man of the Year", and eventually winning the Polish Presidency, has little room for noting his essential role in the near-elimination of the Polish joke.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, the Poles were the consistent brunt of jokes involving stupidity:

"How do you get a one-armed Polack out of a tree? Wave to him."
"How many Polacks does it take to screw in a light bulb? Four---one to hold the bulb and three to turn the ladder."
In fact, most of these jokes are hardly "Polish" at all---they are generic jokes into which the user installs their victim of choice, versatile put-downs that allow any demographic to be ridiculed. Regional biases personalized these all-purpose put-downs for whatever ethnic group was amassing a sizable regional population---I recall visiting cousins in Fall River and hearing Portuguese jokes; in Massachusetts I heard more Irish zingers; and in Maine the victim of choice was anyone who wasn't from Maine. (The natives used to half-joke that there are two types of people: Mainers, and people "from away"; doesn't matter if it's London, England or New London, Connecticut, you're just from away.*) Yet somehow, there was a consensus that the Polish were the punch-line champions for such humor, the most fitting fools for a one-liner like, "Did you hear they had to close the Polish National Library? Someone stole the book."

Because these jokes is so universally malleable, there are some who argue that it's "just a joke", that someone needs to be the brunt and it's not a commentary on a particular people or culture to star in such chestnuts. But if that's true, why the dearth of Brazilian jokes? And why have the Dutch been historically spared from such barbs? (Ironic that the Poles may have become the de facto brunt of the "dumb" one-liner because Americans weren't smart enough to learn geography.) Imagine a joke that begins, "An American, a Russian, and an Icelander walk into a bar"---it's up in the air as to what could happen, the punch line a mystery until the listener gets more information.** But change the preface to, "An American, a Russian, and a Pole walk into a bar" and you know right away who is going to play the fool. (The Russian might be mimed with a cartoon Kremlin accent, but he'll be free and clear when the wisecrack detonates.)

Whatever the cause of the Poles rise to punch line prominence, Lech Walesa, with help from Polish-bonn Pope John Paul II (elected to head the Roman Catholic church in 1978,) put an end to that. Walesa won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, having proved himself as a courageous David to the Communist Goliath, a tireless champion of the underdog who more than spoke of freedom---he risked all to earn it. Walesa provided the world with a positive, powerful icon of the Polish people----hardly the image that come to mind when you think, "Have you heard about the Polish cocktail? It's Perrier and water." After Walesa, if you cracked a knee-slapper about Polish schools, in place of guffaws you'd get an indignant comment like, "Well you try learning when the Soviet Block is breathing down your neck." Lech did more to protect the Polish people from ridicule than anyone in history ever has. It's time he got the credit he deserves. (Consider that no matter how talented and influential, no blond in history has ever been able to stifle the ever-popular blond joke.)

The shift in the international humor balance that Walesa initiated begs the question, "Who has stepped up to fill the ethnic joke vacuum?" The French make semi-regular appearances in the American one-liner vernacular, but it's a starring role usually cast as retribution for their refusal to capitulate to America's political will, making such flare-ups wreak of pettiness, not jocularity. Frankly, political correctness of the 1990's and globalization of the 2000's has been very bad for the ethnic joke---such so-called humor is simply a hard sell in the 21st century. And while the dearth of ethnic jokes is certainly a positive step in the progress of humanity, it has been nothing but bad news for politicians, those perennial bloomers on the American humor landscape that garnered no protection from either political correctness or globalization. In fact, about the only solace many politicians can find is that at least they're not blond.

* "From away" is a phrase with far-reaching comprehensiveness---even if you were born in Maine, if your folks were from away, then you are still from away. As the an old Maine adage goes, "If a cat has kittens in the oven, you don't call 'em biscuits."

** I admit, in jokes such as these, we all know that the third character will be the fool, just as we know that if Captain Kirk, Doctor McCoy and a red-shirted ensign named "Smith" beam down from the Enterprise, Smith's career path in Starfleet Command is about to come to a gruesome halt.

Thanks to my friend Bruce Morritt, who spoke the wry observation that inspired this column.

©2007 wpreagan