Sunday, March 29, 2009

Day four hundred and fifty three ... Larger than life.

Oh, how we inflate the unknown.

I remember, as a kid, understanding the world of celebrity in an unorthodox way. 

Anyone who grew up in the Seventies knows that, besides Star Wars, the biggest celebrity swarm involved a few hundred inventively cut swaths of fleece, adorned with ping-pong balls, foam rubber and fake fur: The Muppets.

The two titans of this group were Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie ... 

... now that was a revered pair of icons. I seem to recall there being a short period of time in my life before I realized they were puppets--when I actually thought the world contained creatures that existed as they existed; it didn't last long. I kind of remember wondering if I was ever going to get to spend time with them in their world, on their block, like the lucky children I saw on TV who got a chance back in the 1970's. That was when the show was new, fresh, and exciting. Back then, the world felt to me as if a can of day-glo paint perched above the threshold drenched my existence daily as the TV warmed up ... and the door opened in.

But there was a certain disconnect with it all. Because while I knew Bert and Ernie weren't real people, they were real celebrities. Lunch boxes,  sippy-cups, and any number of toys I remember as a child sported the classic odd couple. Jim Henson and Frank Oz would eventually become household names (Henson more than Oz until Yoda came along) but they were more or less names on the back of record sleeves and at the end of TV shows. They were the genius, but I wasn't immediately aware they were the genies, too.

Things changed as I got a little older and became a puppeteer myself. I understood the way a simple hand movement can signify a grand gesture. I realized that the reason that The Muppets made it before a host of other puppet-related shows was because Mr. Henson understood the importance of anatomy and the process of movement and physical communication better than his competition. When a person speaks they don't move the top of their head up ... they move the bottom down. In other words, to become more realistic when simulating speaking one must move their thumb down rather than the flattened fingers up. This is simple anatomy. It's harder to achieve when you are just fooling around with a sock puppet, flapping your hand open and closed, but, done right, it is a truer representation than some of the more pedestrian children's shows.

That said, it's still just a guy with a hand wrapped in fleece.

It interested me to no end to watch the "making of" shows where you got to see rare glimpses of Mr. Henson and Mr. Oz performing their craft while the cameras rolled. You could see them staring at monitors in front and to the sides of them while the Muppets, overhead, traveled in a sort of alternate reality, disregarding the fact that their puppeteers were not only not looking at each other ... they weren't even looking up.

And then came Muppets on Ice. 


What a ruse! This was, to me, the epitome of incongruity. This represented the shift in trust between creator and audience that I felt was grossly corrupted. 

This was a travesty.

I mean, think about it. You watch television and you see the Muppets and children interacting on the set. The selling point seemed to be that the Muppets, for the most part, were equal size or a tad smaller than their real-life children actors. This made sense for so many reasons. It was malleable for purposes of interpretation, but it more or less ran by a pretty consistent rule book: 

Kermit, Robin, Roosevelt Franklin=small.

Oscar, Bert, Ernie, Cookie Monster, Grover=equal size to a 7 year old.

Big Bird, Snuffy=gigantic--larger, even, than the tallest adult.

And then, we are expected to believe that somehow, when you throw a pair of ice skates on these guys each and every one of them are now not only bigger than the children they had previously cavorted with, they are gigantic!

Some may call this nitpicking; I just like to follow the laws of physics when I can, even when discussing fictional, fabricated, anthropomorphic creations.

This same breech in trust can be said for Disney. Are we to believe that Jimminy Cricket--when introduced into the "real" world of Disney theme parks--is the same size as Goofy or Donald Duck? I mean he's a freaking cricket for christ sakes! But put him back behind the lens of the animator's camera and he is shrunk down to ten times the size of his largest animal character.

And worse than that--worse than the inconsistency that comes with dismissing the rules of perspective stature--is that the people inhabiting these iconic characters are so far removed from the creator that any actor with intermediate skating ability can put on the costume and go out and attempt to convince the average second grader that they are the real deal.

They are so far away from the real deal that only Santa Claus could hope to compete for blind faith as strong as this.

And it is in this gross misrepresentation of an initial idea that I find more than a few connections that help me stay sober.

You may call this a stretch, and if you've gotten this far I thank you for keeping up with my train of thought ... I swear I can explain ...

You see, I fell in love with something that was once my size or a little bit smaller.

It was friendly, it was funny, it was exciting, and it led me into situations and surroundings that I had only heard tell of. I became connected to it on a very basic and fundamental level.

Sure, there were times when it got a little bit bigger than me, but I managed to remain in control of it for the most part. I let its unusual voice project from my body. I let its eyes see for me while I monitored my progress by looking away. I shared its character.

And this worked for a surprisingly long time--twenty plus years. And then, almost without warning, the laws of physics and convention failed and I suddenly became wrapped in this character. This once desirable iconic aura of the wild one--the Joker--seemed to overtake its creator and I quickly began to act not as an operator, but as a full-blown, larger than life puppet--a caricature--my most striking features unflatteringly blown out of proportion so even those in the cheapest seats could see my every twitch. And though on the outside I was instantly recognizable to even those who only knew of my reputation, it became clear to me that the person on the inside was not only becoming increasingly unnecessary but was also beginning to fail to perform even the most cursory of functions with any level of success. 

I couldn't see through my eyes anymore because they weren't really mine; they were my character's.

Luckily, the time came when I realized that what represented a figure who had once possessed a place and a time of relevance and productivity was now moving on a plane of existence where the laws of convention did not apply. It was confusing even to me. And the people who once shared time with me were now uninterested. I would have to bring the show on tour--to leave and find a new audience--if I wanted to maintain a level of what was then my definition of happiness.

Or I could take off the costume and pack it away. I could unzip and remove, for the last time, the body and head that had needed to be fabricated larger than life (while disregarding the esthetics that had facilitated its creation) and stepped out and into the light as who I really am.

And when I did I realized that I was still recognized as an entertainer. I had retained my skill for attracting attention. I couldn't have shaken that part of me if I tried.

Because it was all my idea to begin with. And, that being the case, there would always be a connection. 

Everyone who sees me now tells me how happy they are that I am back in control.

But I can tell from the look in their eyes that I wasn't ever really fooling anybody but me.

Thanks for reading,


Monday, March 23, 2009

Day four hundred and forty four ... User friendly.

I've been away for a while, I know.

It hasn't surprised me that it's been almost a week since I dug into the Qwerty keyboard. That's mostly because I remember posting the last one; it was in the morning and I was in a hurry. I hadn't posted an entry in a few days and I do like to keep the mill gears churning. But it seems this has been happening more and more as life starts to speed up a bit.

And here we are almost a week later and I don't really have much to discuss.

But I think I really understand why that is. You see, this blog started out as therapy for me. I spent 208 of 365 days last year typing, typing, typing away, trying to balance, in print, the morbid details of a life fraught with substance abuse next to stories of my remarkable and loving family (add to that my penchant for reliving the somewhat idyllic adventure that was growing up in the 1970's and 80's, and you have my M.O.).

I wrote incessantly mostly because I had to. I was holding this desire for a tangible increment of a year of alcohol abstinence up to the light in an effort to attach a numeric value to an emotional renovation. I feel like I have succeeded, but, as anyone who has attempted to rid themselves of undesirable propensities, it never really goes away for good; you just get better at keeping it from showing up unannounced. 

Now the place is almost exactly as I had envisioned, and my job is to maintain its current state, picking up the bits of trash as it gets discarded on my lawn, mowing the grass, and shoveling the snow (and thank you again, Robert. It was a long winter).

Not to imply that I am done with my (ugh ... I hate this word) recovery ... but I always knew that, ultimately, if I were to ever succeed with my plans for a better life it wouldn't be with the constant mantras and regurgitated reminders of the sordid past that are entailed with other programs.

I already stress enough as it is trying to remember to buy half and half.

I realized that, just like almost everything in life (for me, anyway) you can only beat yourself up so much. You can only read the instructions so many times before you can put them away in a safe place.

I have a big box of instructions. This is no analogy, folks. I really have one.

I keep it nearby in a cabinet, full of all the many and confusing pages--some in English with foreign translations, some in Japanese with English tarnslations, and some just have pictures with arrows, lines, and smiley faces (and frowny faces, too). 

And for each set of instructions I have a corresponding product. There's one for the universal remote (excessively essential for reference); there's one for the coffee maker (essentially less necessary but still worthy of retention); there's one for the TV (great to have in case of a problem, but maddeningly verbose); and there's a whole book of pictures and arrows that came with my IKEA stuff. I probably only needed to use them once to assemble the coffee table or shoe rack, but I keep them in the box with the others because they symbolize a successful procedure of putting many parts together to form one useful whole. They also hold a special place by eschewing text for illustrations, thus essentially eliminating the need for multiple translations. 

I try to not collect too many documents that could get recycled, but this box is orderly, it's nondescript, and it's where I can find it in a jiffy. 

It gives me comfort to know it's there even if I don't call on it often.

I have fewer and fewer needs lately. But on the off chance I require a new beard trimmer it will invariably come with instructions. I may not even need to read them once to understand how to operate said electronic device, but I'll take the instructions and put them in this big yellow box to save for reference--to have a little piece of paper with a short set of instructions written ten times in ten different languages.

I'll have help when, and if, I need it.

And that's sort of where I am right now. I realize that this blog has become more of a travelogue at times. I enjoy writing what some may call memoirs. But most of all I enjoy having this resource at my fingertips for when I feel like life is closing in on me. I have a reference point to where my life has been--from a week ago tomorrow (fretting about recycling)--all the way back to what things were like when I was a teenager, pushing the boundaries of my mother's (ultimately) limitless love for me.

And just like the cache of instructions I keep in paper format in a big yellow box in the cupboard, I have this portfolio of sorts.

So, I guess I don't feel so bad about not keeping up with my writing. I'm sure those who read this journal would rather me not just publish a daily stream of drivel simply because I can (and believe me, I can). In fact, my aunt used to drive me nuts asking me, incredulously, "I don't understand how you can keep writing day after day after day. What's going to happen when you run out of ideas?" And I'd just tell her I'll deal with that when it happens.

I think I just share on a less regular basis because my life has changed. I'm busier with my music, and I'm presently sharing my time with an amazing new person. I guess when I started this whole thing almost fifteen months ago I kind of hoped there would be a day when I didn't feel the need for this journal as daily therapy. I kind of hoped for the time when I didn't necessarily run out of ideas but rather were so full of them that I had no time to distill them to a series of connected thoughts.

And that brings us to today.

Now where did I put those damn instructions?

The way I see it, I can tell how well made and intuitive something is when I come across their instructions in the big yellow box as I'm furiously flipping through to find the black and white tome that tells me how to turn the "sleep" function off on my TV (as it's powering down every 45 minutes). I'll see the pages--perhaps still sealed in plastic--and realize that I never did read them. 

Sometimes simplicity in design can make for better living. Sometimes things work best when we are unaware of why, in fact, they do. Sometimes knowledge isn't power ... sometimes it leads to a short circuit.

And in saying that, I also know that just because something hasn't shown its intrinsic complexities doesn't permit me to throw away the instructions.

Because if you're like me, even if you only have to read steps A through K to get something to work, once it starts doing what you want it to you usually stop reading.

That said, thanks for getting this far along with me. Here's hoping we can just keep it all in the big yellow box for a good long while.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Day four hundred and thirty eight ... In the bag.

I would never even think of calling myself an activist.

More of a re-activist, if you will.

"Well, will you look at that ... all those picketers protesting downtown. Good for them. I hope they win."

That's pretty much the long and short of it. 

But I find that I have been doing little bits here and there when I can. I'm not lazy anymore (remove the vices and you'll swear somebody installed solar panels in the roof of your head), and so, I enjoy recycling and shopping for local products. I'm somewhat on a never ending quest to never buy anything made in China unless it's a gong, throwing stars, or soy sauce ever again. It's not easy, but it is getting easier as this country realizes that not only isn't it as lucrative to have everything put together thousands of miles from where its parts are fabricated, but people in America have just about had it with recalls and shoddy workmanship. 

However, I keep falling short of reusing my plastic bags when I shop.

Until today.

I collect the curiously insidious bags in a random pattern. It depends on how manic (or thoughtful, or new) the person at the market is about my eggs whether I get one, two, or even three bags to contain an item. When they sit together in that pack at the end of the conveyer belt they look so harmless: sleek, unobtrusive, collected, and countless. 

But their power is unleashed with one pull forward with a moistened thumb. After that, the bag is no longer capable of staying quiet. Its form is forever changed--altered beyond recognition save for the small, circular maroon triangle of arrows on the bottom urging you to "please recycle."

And then they come home and start to really show their annoying tendencies. They puff up in the closet as I stuff one into the other, threatening to forcefully remove the stuck-on hook I hang them from. I've recently been picking the odd bag up outside in my yard. The snow leaves a trail of destruction from both its season, and the one it replaces. The bags have an eerie capacity for flight, though once airborne they have a maddening fixation with tree limbs.

Oh sure, some of them get used for trash bags in smaller capacities. I love utilizing them for the bathrooms. I even put one in my car hanging from my ashtray; that one gets a lot of play. I'm only organized from my doorstep on into my house. After that it's a clutterfest. I blame the coffee.

And every time I go shopping I see the big signs hanging in the entrance way: "Reuse Your Bags." And I always think to myself, "Yeah, I need to do that. Dammit, why didn't I just put them in my car when I was done cursing out how I hate having to rely on them.

Well I've taken a small step. I put a bag of bags into the bag that I use for everything else. I needed to go to the store today and get some butter. Instead of relying on the man behind the counter with the global warming ammo, I brought my own. 

When he asked my if I needed a bag, I said no. I, instead, whipped out the crinkled mess of plastic, put my butter in, walked out and came home. And even better yet, I put that bag back in with the others.

We as people need to carry so much all day long. Even if we think we aren't going to end up having to move more than we can fit in one hand it doesn't last long. Because we can only think so far ahead, and if you're anything like me you are easily distracted and have to forcefully make choices on what comes, and what stays. There was a time before pants had pockets. And, going back further, there was a time before pants even existed, at least in certain parts of the world. But our world now is so full of the need to acquire. We have houses that heave heavy sighs when one family moves out, bringing not only what they need, but everything in the basement that had been forgotten about. Some had caused unforgettable arguments; some had ended relentless coercion (a treadmill, a weight bench, a set of skis for the whole family--now rusted and webbed) and then become just another piece of the room to stack, hang, drape, and otherwise conceal from view the reason why it was lugged in in the first place.

But today I made a small difference. All it took was the initial placement of one bag into another--plastic into leather. And this may start a whole new trend in my life. Because, in the past few years, I've been trying to not take in more than I absolutely need. 

Now I'll be able to carry what I absolutely need in a way that fits in with that ideal. And until it shows signs of wear--a hole, a rip--it'll get used, and that feeling of doing your part is addictive. It feels good to feel good--everybody knows that.

So maybe I've got a little activist in me. And I know that the re-activist is saying, "good for them ... I hope they win."

I suppose every little bit helps.

Thanks for reading.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Day four hundred and thirty five ... Park here.

I'm just looking for a spot to park.

Why I wasn't here hours ago when the lot was barely full, I haven't a clue.

But my car is running, running, running, huffing, coughing, wheezing, mumbling to itself ... or to me ... or to the people who cross it.

I just know it makes a lot of noise for something that moves so slow.

Oh ... there's one! 

Damn! So close. I guess he was waiting before me.

I wish I was going to that store ... look at all the spots open over there.

But that store doesn't sell what I need. I need to park in front of this entrance. I need to reassure myself that I am using my hard fought freedom of choice to enact the most time effective point of departure from the box that brought me here--my noise box--so I can enter another box--the necessity box.

I didn't drive all the way here to walk. 

Ooh! Is that person leaving? Dammit! They're just getting here too. I didn't see them going around the grid with me. How did that happen? Losers.

Maybe I'll cut over two lanes next time I go around. Maybe that'll bring me better luck. I'll just skip that aisle of cars that seem to be hemorrhaging Fords, Toyotas, Mazdas and when I get around from this side there'll be a spot.

Are they leaving? No? Just putting something in the trunk? Is it me, or do people tend to exaggerate their movements when they're just going back to drop something off ... to impress that what they are doing is an aside ... almost as if in quotes.

"I'm just putting this here. I'm not leaving. Sorry if I gave that impression. It took me like forever to get this spot. I'm just putting this here."

And then they turn and forcefully push the key fob at elbow level and move quickly away.

Where the hell did everybody come from?

Look at that guy waiting for that plum spot. How lucky is that? I wish I was him.

And all it really is is luck. It's all general admission. First come, first served. I could have just pulled into any aisle and parked somewhere in the middle and waited. And when somebody came out I would be right there, ready. 

But instead, I take the time to put myself out there, to take the chance that by pure virtue of my insistence of action that my luck will increase. And I just keep going around in circles watching car after car get spot after spot.

How much gas have I wasted just looking for a place to stop.

Meanwhile, not far off (but apparently too far for me to walk from and back to) are any number of places to stow away my ride. But the idea of safely and securely finding a spot in that part of the lot would be all for naught if on my walk to the front door I saw a spot open up right in the first row--the winners circle. Then I would be forced to watch the pleasure on the faces of the people inside the tinted windows when big money came their way--passengers pointing and saying in quick succession--almost on top of each other--"Ooh-ooh-ohh, there's one!" And all because they turned down that aisle at the right time. They didn't have to work for it. They were just there when it happened.

And the time I spend now, looking up and down row after row of irregularly aligned bumpers, I could have parked in that other lot and been already inside getting what I need. I could possibly have secured in my basket what I needed and been carefully assessing which register line I wanted to wait in--who has what in their cart, or on the belt, and which cashier looks like she knows how to bust open a roll of pennies when the time comes.

I could have been in, out, and walking confidently back to a car that was parked just far enough away so that I wouldn't get the slow-down-and-follow from the family of five in the Caravan.

"Do you think he's leaving? Honey, ask him if he's leaving ... " 

Something's going to open up soon, I can feel it.

Everybody's got to eventually have to leave, right?

I didn't drive all the way here to walk.

One more loop around ... something's gotta open up soon.

Thanks for reading,


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Day four hundred and thirty one ... Silly me.

There is so much more to say ... there always is.

I thought I had said it all, though--expressed my feelings in words that I could understand, at least.

Silly me.

I felt like I could predict the course of my life. I thought I had derived a formula to keep me not only afloat, but also moving in one direction. I thought I had set the course.

But nobody can realistically set and follow their own course for long without compensation for the unknown. A breeze can come by and knock your hat off, if not gale force winds that jeopardize ones existence. A storm can wreak havoc. A ferocious wave, hellbent on a crash course with the cleanest deck, can threaten the lives on anyone who dare leave their bed on any given day. And luck is the only thing you can hope to pair with preparation that will do any good.

I thought I had prepared for this.

Silly me.

Sometimes you think you know yourself so well after taking endless inventory that you can't ever imagine being surprised with a new item. You know all too well the volume and selection of your stock--stacked and sorted. You control what comes in. You control what goes out. You don't open the door for just anybody. In fact, you hardly ever open it at all. If it weren't for the faded signs still hanging up in the window people might wonder if it was up for demolition. A broken pane here and there, humanly inaccessible, lets life in and out, but not anything that walks and talks. No, people would have to use the door, and the door is, predictably, almost always shut.

I thought I had everything all figured out. I had a foolproof plan: nobody gets in, and nobody gets hurt. This was it. This was my solution. This was what I thought would be best for everybody.

Silly me.

In fact, I was pretty damn sure I didn't need anything else at all ever again. I had counted up the years that I could reasonably guess to live (a bad habit to get into) and rationed out my emotions. I had set aside enough for each day--enough for me alone--and that was that. 

But I didn't plan for this.

The door of my establishment that humans have to use shows no signs of forced entry, yet the cobwebs that had become so familiar as to act as a burglar alarm--draped from door handle to door handle--hang dangling, separated, in the soft air.

Somebody's gotten inside. 

The faded signs didn't scare them.

The burned out bulbs didn't scare them.

The water damage on the ceiling, the missing fire extinguishers, the walls in need of repair, and the rumors of dangerous conditions overall didn't scare them.

And now they're running around inside. I can hear them and see them and touch them when they come down the aisle I'm in.

And then they're off and running--laughing, listening, smiling, staring, singing.

And how do I feel about this development?

I like it more than I could have ever possibly imagined.

I like it for a lot of reasons, reasons which are too many and to personal to name in print, let alone for the public. No offense.

But my visitor--my new companion--is finding all kinds of things on the shelves that I had forgotten about--literally written off as of no use to me, and so were instantly erased from my current memory. Space, as always, is at a premium.

They are asking questions--honest, invigorating questions that show no hint at accusation or insinuation. They just want to know.

And I want to talk.

I'm going to talk. I'm going to listen. I'm going to enjoy every second. And if I could break each second down into the smallest amounts humanly countable I would. I would--no, I will--live my life frame by frame, colorized, restored, and in big, beautiful high definition. 

It seems that the contents of my many shelves--much to my surprise--are now in great demand. They are disappearing faster than I had expected. I never thought I'd have to share. I never thought I'd feel like I was running out. Supply always overrode demand.

But these are extraordinary times.

I never thought I'd need to hook back the phone, patch up the window, replace the bulbs, recharge the fire extinguisher, call the many purveyors who years ago had written me off as a lost cause--a walking foreclosure--and open the store for business.

I never thought I'd let another person through that door.

Silly me.

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, March 7, 2009

Day four hundred and twenty nine ... A distressing trend.

"Sweetheart, why on earth would you want to buy new clothes that look like you've already worn them?"

These are the words of my mother, Judy. 

I can remember her saying this to me on several occasions--mostly when I was much younger--while we were out shopping for clothes--jeans, to be specific.  

I couldn't understand why she couldn't relate; now it is all too clear.

The hip place to buy clothes when I was a kid was called The Chess King; there was one at every mall in the Northeast. Now, I guess, the place that kind of replaced that is Hot Topic. I never really got why it was called Chess King, but I didn't think too much about why things were called what they were called. That's what Madison Avenue is for.

"But they're all broken in Ma ... that's why I like them."

"Well, you can break these new Levis in on your own time. And in the meanwhile you won't look like your mother lets you go to school in rags."


And so it would go, every year in August: new Levis. Not the ones I wanted--I wanted the $150 Guess "acid-washed" jeans with the leather patches all over. Fat chance of that happening on her dime. I guess I looked good in the bright blue denims. They were a little stiff, but that didn't last long. I played pretty hard as a child and I ended up breaking the jeans in just fine, until August of the following year, when my mom would put a moratorium on wearing them to school.


Anyway. I don't know if any of you reading this have tried, recently, to buy new, non broken-in, non acid-washed jeans. If you have then you know it's nearly impossible. You have to search them out at places like L.L. Bean or Sears or J.C. Penny, and even at that it's pretty tough to find a pair that isn't a little broken in. 

"Distressed" is what they call them these days (cue the sound of spitting chaw into a brass spittoon and whacking a cane against the floor).

Distressed? How unbecoming a term for clothing that is supposed to look casual. 

I've been doing a lot of online shopping--not necessarily for jeans, but they are ubiquitous. And what I've found is that, now, not only are the jeans that seem to be popular "broken in" but they are practically peppered with buckshot holes. It's deplorable. It's cheezy. It's confusing, even to me.

And now they are doing it with guitars.

I'm not going to name names here, but there are certain companies who are producing guitars that have been "distressed" to look like the player has been beating on them for twice as long as they have been alive.

I have an old guitar; it's older than me. And I've been playing it for 20 years. When I look at pictures of me in the various bands I belonged to over the years it's striking to notice not only how much younger and puerile that I appear but also the state of my guitar. I've put a lot of wear and tear on both of us.

Here is a picture of it taken today:

And here's a picture of a new guitar, below, that represents around the same amount of maturity, give or take a few years:

Notice the wear on the bottom left corner. That's where one's elbow would assumedly grind off the lacquer and paint from playing it for forty years.

But this guitar is new.

Now, there's also a trend with guitars that I've seen that is a little less dubious, and that is creating a replica of a guitar that an artist has made famous. I've seen a model that is made to resemble the guitar that Joe Strummer of the Clash used during his career. There is an Eddie Van Halen "Frankenstein" model that one can purchase for the same price as a new car. But there is a certain quality these guitars possess that to me seems a bit less pretentious.

Once again, my guitar:

And below, a new "relic" guitar:

Okay. I can come up with a legitimate reason to own one of these guitars. I can see if you play a vintage instrument and have to tour the country, or overseas, and don't want to risk losing it. Keep in mind that these "relic" guitars are in the $1,500 to $3,000 range; they're not cheap. An actual vintage guitar, however, is worth considerably more, so I can see why some would opt to leave it at home.

But the people who don't really know that much about vintage gear won't care, and the ones who do can spot a fake a mile away.

My guitar:

And a "relic":

Something about the way the paint is worn, to me, looks like it was done with a sander in one hand and a picture of a legitimate vintage Stratocaster in the other. It's a somewhat meticulous distinction, but once one is aware of it it's tough to not see it when present.

I tend to believe that there's a reason people buy old guitars that goes beyond how much paint is worn off the body: they buy them for the history contained inside. They buy them for what fifty years of air, smoke, sweat, heat, gravity, carelessness, and cold can do to the wood that it's made from. They buy them because they were made by hand, one at a time, by people who were driven by the motives found in a different world. They buy them because they were made in a time when people wore oxfords and gabardine blazers to the park; when rock and roll was emerging and changing and there were just as many astonishing advancements made each and every day in music as there were limitations that future endeavors would conquer and expand on.

Not to get too dramatic.

My guitar: built forty eight years ago this month:

And below, one made last year:


And theirs:

I didn't put all of the wear on my guitar, obviously. I have had it since 1988 (when, gratefully, I got it partially paid for by my folks as a graduation present from high school). But I have put a great deal of history on it. I've played hundreds of shows with it. I have left it in no less than five clubs and--knocking on wood--have gone back, sheepishly, to successfully retrieve it each and every time. You might say I even "distressed" it in doing so. I am a lucky man for possessing it and having the good sense to never ever even consider selling it; I am also glad that I had the wherewithal--twenty-one years ago--to beg, plead, and cogently argue the predictable increase in value of this fine assemblage of wood, plastic, and metal.

I wonder if there is a reason we have gone from a society that values the pristine aura and appearance of an item to one that will settle for no less than a product that looks like we have owned it and used it--abused it and even neglected it in some cases--decrying the virginal insinuations of wearing a pair of jeans that look like they are newly made.

I wonder if we feel that time is running out faster than it used to ... when all our lives were less full of the constant bombardment of news items that give rise to nihilistic tendencies. 

Were we once, as a people, more sure of the foundations of our species--that we will live forever and who on earth would want to buy clothes that look like you've already worn them? 

Or were we just being naive?

In either case I think it's safe to say that the world is changing. It's already "distressed" enough as it is. We have put it through hell, to say the least. And there's no faking the wear and tear.

So I guess I'm like my mother in that respect. I'll take my clothes as minimally broken in as possible.

I'll take care of that part ... because I blindly believe I have enough time to do it myself.

Thanks for reading,


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Day four hundred and twenty five ... Transition of power.

I've played guitar for almost thirty years.

This fact, to me, is both astonishing as well as a little unnerving. It shows that not only have I managed to keep doing what I gravitated towards as a child into the years where I--by societies' standards--should have gotten a "real" job, but it also gives me the unpleasant proclivity to assess where I am in my progress of my "craft," as it were, on a somewhat regular basis.  

While I can't profess to have put as much time as I should have into my playing over the last year or two (personal reasons and a need for a life-changing reinvention being the main culprits), I can say that I haven't stopped playing. 

The Young at Heart Chorus is my main band now, and they keep me busy with rehearsals, the occasional show, and homework learning a number of new songs that I probably wouldn't have dissected on my own. Having a framework of material to play over and over again gives me some advantages. I'm not the main focus in the show and neither is the rest of my group. Our job is to back up the singers and stay out from underfoot (although I hear from the directors that we will be playing a more integral part of the new show. More to come as it unfolds). So, instead of having my focus be in part focused on my appearance while I perform, I can just concentrate on the execution of the music. I can close my eyes and pay attention to my left hand fretting. I can tune in to the way I tap my feet. I can enjoy occasionally pinching a harmonic with my right hand, emitting a heavy metal tone that invariably gets a chuckle and a wink from my co-workers.

I can focus on how I hold the pick.

And here is where I have found inspiration to write today.

When I started playing guitar I only needed a minimum of equipment. I needed the guitar (obviously). I needed strings. I needed a lesson book. I needed five dollars (?!!) to pay my teacher, Mr. Bob Normandin, who I owe a huge debt of gratitude. And I needed a pick.

Guitar picks come in many sizes. Not only do they come in varying diameters and shapes, but they come in a few different thicknesses as well. Fender carried the widest selection of picks in the early Eighties; they had probably five or six different thicknesses, from heavy, to medium, to thin, to extra thin. I remember my mother giving me a few extra dollars from time to time for me to buy picks, as they are by nature easy to lose. I even owned a few pick dispensers, which were triangularly shaped like a pick, but thicker and spring-loaded, and would dispense one at a time. They also came with a small cord that could be affixed to a belt loop until all the picks eventually had been lost. Then it just clacked against your leg as you searched the floor for something to play your guitar with.

My guitar teacher always used a heavy pick. I, conversely, would opt for a thin.

"When you get older you'll find that it's not how thick the pick is that will determine how fast you can play, it's all in the way you hold it." That's what Mr. Normandin once told me, right around the part of the lesson where he'd launch into a rapid-fire jazz run on his big hollow body guitar. He never pressured me to use one, he just wanted me to know that if you use a thin pick you're only going to be able to get so much out of it--you can only pick a note so hard with a thin piece of plastic. But with a thick pick you have a lot more options. You have a lot more room to explore. You have leverage.

I liked Eddie Van Halen back then (still do), and he played with thin picks. That was enough for me. I didn't doubt Mr. Normandin's wisdom, I just thought I'd always opt for the thinner pick because I played Rock. Rock music entails being flexible; it entails precision; it entails shotgun style riffs made to assault the senses under a thick covering of distortion, delay, and reverb. And I never could imagine doing that with an inflexible hunk of plastic between my thumb and forefinger. I always looked at the firmness as being a liability.

I'd try it occasionally, though. I'd awkwardly attempt to hold the thick Fender heavy (as it's called) up far enough between my finger and thumb so that only a tiny bit of the edge showed. I liked how I could force a tone from that pick that wasn't possible from the thinner version. This would eventually wear off and I'd go running back to the thin Tortex picks, made by the Jim Dunlap company (which I had been turned onto in the Nineties). I did this for years and years, mindlessly asking for them in the music store, then stuffing them into my pockets to transfer with the change and bottle caps that would invariably collect. 

I realized today that I haven't used one in a very long time.

I realized today that the picks that I had been transferring from pocket to pocket for the last five months were picks that came from the trip I made with the Chorus to Washington, D.C. They came from an air guitar contest booth who had a guitar case full of picks out for the taking. I had filled my pockets--filled them full--with a mass quantity of these picks.

And they were all the same size ... because, apparently, you needn't concern yourself with how thick your pick is when you play air guitar.

These picks I speak of were all Fender heavies, and I've been absentmindedly using them exclusively.

I've been playing all kinds of music--fast, slow, hard, heavy, jazzy, country, reggae, Broadway--every kind of music imaginable with the Chorus, and I haven't once gone running for the thin picks. 

And while I was enjoying the flexibility that the thick plectrum gave me I noticed how lightly I was holding on to it. Unlike the iron fisted clamp I previously would employ with the thinner picks (partly because they gave in to the string so easily), I realized today, as I was playing an up-tempo strum with wah-wah pedal on a decidedly funky composition, that I was barely holding onto that pick--not that it had any chance of escaping my grasp--it wasn't going anywhere. But I realized that the focus of resistance had shifted. The discipline and the control that I had attributed to the give and take of the pick was now null and void. It was all in my control. It was fully, and without reserve, in the attack and release of my hand. The angle, the velocity, the location and the frequency of my hand striking back and forth upon the strings was what was allowing me to execute the part, not the resistance of a tiny piece of plastic that I relied on being thin enough for a certain style of music.

And that's when I realized that Mr. Normandin was right. He had assured me that I was going to eventually be in complete control. He told me, way back then, that I was bestowing more importance on the gauge of what came between me and the strings, and not enough on the idea that I held the key to the sounds I wanted my guitar to make, not in my hand, but in my head.

And that got me thinking about a whole bunch of other stuff ...

... but I'll stop right there and call it a day.

Thanks for reading.


PS: a special thank you to Mr. Bob Normandin, who taught at Fererria's Music Center in The Flint section of Fall River in the early Eighties. Rock on, indeed, good man. Rock on.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Day four hundred and twenty three ... Balance and the art of success.

We are designed for progress.

It's such a tricky balance, making plans. I don't know how much of what we do corresponds to the way our body feels/acts/reacts, but I'm going to guess that there's a lot of connections there. Right now I'm making plans for the summertime. The Chorus is debuting a new show in England in July, and I've decided to extend my trip so as to travel the continent and explore places that I've never been to. I'm not trying to brag. I just designed my life to accommodate these things. Perhaps it's a good thing that I never developed any long-term relationships when I was abusing my health. Who knows what kind of hinderances could be sewn into the fabric of my existence. On the other hand, who knows if I would have been spared untold years of abuse had I found someone who stuck around long enough to help me clear my head long enough to realize I was in control of more than I thought. 

But that's not what happened.

As I was saying, I'm making plans for the summer. I'm assuming that I will still have the same options available then as I do now. And this is healthy. This is what is expected of me from any and all corners of human existence. Because to second guess--to fixate on the unknowable--is tantamount to failure. We are designed for progress. We make plans because to not make plans--to give up--will only lead to an unfortunate outcome. 

It's such a delicate balance.

I don't want to live in the past. I don't want to look too far ahead. I just want to be able to stand on that taut wire, with the balance bar held in front of me, and keep upright. I want to stay focused and move ahead steadily and with confidence that I will make it to the other side. I want to believe--no, I do believe--that I will make it to the other side, because to doubt is not beneficial. 

On the other hand, to check all available hazards; to consider the potential for error; to wake up and judge the wind speed and the general weather conditions--this is all part of the act of balance and the art of success. I just have to remember that success is a feeling that is organic. It is not bulletproof. It has a shelf-life.  

To live in the now is to live in a thin bubble of time, with the immediate future in front of me, the immediate past within arms reach behind me, and with the potential for lateral movement--for stasis--on either side. This is the way I have to travel.

I once told a friend that the way I experience life is that I can't wait for an event--any event--to end so I can race to a place in my head where I can think about what had just happened. He asked me why I did this and I said that, that way, I can frame it in such a way that it takes out the blemishes, the imperfections, the awkwardness, and the uncertainty. 

But it also left me in a perpetual state of escape, and that's no way to live. 

So these days I try to strike that balance of being on that tightrope of the now. I must be aware of so much, both in what I have done to prepare to get to this point, as well as which direction I am heading, and, at the same time, remain calm enough and adaptable to any shift of wind direction that may arise.

If I go too fast I'll surely fall. If I try to go backwards I will be making obsolete the progress and the plans I have for the immediate future. And if I stand still too long I will start to fixate on why exactly I am here.

We are designed for progress.

One day, one minute, one second, one letter, one punctuation mark, and one blank space at a time.

Good luck.

Thanks for reading.