Thursday, February 28, 2013

No. 462 – The Weapon (Part II of Fear)

Performer: Rush
Songwriters: Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, Neil Peart
Original Release: Signals
Year: 1982
Definitive Version: Live Grace, 2004. The Count Floyd introduction is quintessential. I always have to hear this song start with it now.

My sophomore year at Wabash, when I was listening to Signals a lot, the must-see-TV show was The Day After. I steadfastly—pointedly even—refused to watch it and hid in the library as Ed and Jim and more than 100 million of their closest friends huddled around TVs watching it. At the time, there was nothing more terrifying than the prospect of nuclear war, and I didn’t want to watch a movie about it, because I knew how bad it would be. What was the point?

Many years later, after my curiosity at how others depicted the end of the world developed, I realized I had to see it, and it was really cheesy. Of course, considering that it was a TV movie from 1983, what was I expecting? The thing that grabbed me the most about seeing it for the first time in 2005 was how it was far less tense and horrifying than I had expected it to be.

I suppose this was partly due to the cheesiness factor—the more cartoonish something looks, the easier it is to discount it. But I think it had more to do with the fact that my existential fears had changed. Nuclear war and global annhilation no longer was the scariest thing I could imagine.

Two decades after The Day After, I was flipping through the TV one evening and stumbled across a documentary proclaiming the top 100 moments in televised history. As I started to watch, I mentally made my own list and tried to guess the top 10. Let’s see … Apollo 11, the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, the Challenger, JFK’s assassination, 9/11, the start of Desert Storm, Nixon’s resignation …

I was pretty close as it turned out, and I nailed the No. 1 moment. It wasn’t my No. 1 moment, but as soon as I saw the black title screen showing No. 2 as Apollo 11, I knew No. 1 was going to be 9/11.

Part of that no doubt was due to the newness of the event. 9/11 wasn’t 3 years old yet; Apollo 11 was 35 years old. The average TV viewer barely remembers what happened last week, let alone 35 years ago. When in doubt, OF COURSE, it would be the more recent event. It was like ESPN’s countdown of the top athletes of the 20th Century in 1999. There was no drama, because there was no question that No. 1 was going to be Michael Jordan, because no one remembered Jim Thorpe, and TV (let alone ESPN) didn’t exist back then anyway.

As soon as the segment on 9/11 ended, another title screen came up that said “A Rebuttal,” and the show gave the final word to Walter Cronkite. Cronkite said that in time, after the visceral impact of 9/11 eroded, Apollo 11 would regain its spot atop the rankings, because Apollo 11 represented man’s greatest accomplishment to date. Apollo 11 was about hope and achievement—the best that we could be—and 9/11 was all about fear and destruction—the worst that we could be. In the end, Cronkite said, hope and achievement always win out.

I hope he’s right, but … I don’t know. Given another decade of perspective, it’s clear that the United States not only still hasn’t recovered from 9/11 but that man’s lesser qualities seem to be winning the day.

This country has regressed steadily, starting with requiring passports to go in and out of Canada, to trying to build a wall blockading Mexico, to surveilling online correspondence without a warrant, to allowing invasive body scanners in airports, to flying unmanned drones over our own country and backing politicians openly advocating torture, er, enhanced interrogation, and pre-emptive assassination of U.S. citizens, er, targeted killings of terrorists.

How could this possibly happen? There’s only one explanation: Since 9/11, the United States has become a nation ruled by fear—fear of death, fear of those who look or think different, fear of a lack of control.

At the time of The Day After, I thought this song had a literal meaning—The Weapon was a nuke. It wasn’t until years later, after I finally read 1984, that I realized I was wrong. This song isn’t about 1984 per se, but it doesn’t take a genius to envision Room 101 in Neil Peart’s lyrics.

I’m certain I’m closer to the day I will die than the day I was born. I don’t have a death wish, but—now closer to death—I’d rather lose my life than my dignity, and it’s becoming apparent that I live in a nation where a majority definitely would choose the former over the latter. It’s Patrick Henry turned on his head.

1984, the year, was 29 years ago, but it seems the possibility of Oceania remains firmly in the future, and the future is a lot closer than it ever has been before. Nuclear war? To me, there’s nothing scarier than the totalitarian scenario of 1984 coming to fruition—where every facet of your life is under surveillance and control, including your secret heart. That’s the unthinkable.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

No. 463 – This Is Us

Performer: Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris
Songwriter: Mark Knopfler
Original Release: All the Roadrunning
Year: 2006
Definitive Version: None

The start to our trip to Mexico in March 2008 was excellent, but the activities, altitude and alcohol at altitude had their effect. After dinner at La Posadita, we planned to go back to our casita, change and go back out. We never made it off the bed—just shoving our suitcases to the floor and crashing with the lights on.

When we awoke, we had no real plan—at least for the day. We were on our own, so we decided to hike up to El Jardin and tour La Parroquia.

I sought a Spanish phrasebook a few months before the trip to practice a bit, and at Borders, I found a Mexican Spanish phrasebook. I had it with me the first day, but I didn’t really need it at the airport, and then Laurie’s aunt acted as our tour guide after we arrived in San Miguel.

We had a late lunch at a cool place along the route that had an open courtyard—a popular theme for San Miguel restaurants as we found out. Then we made our way to La Parroquia, which was almost as cool from the inside as the outside.

Before we got there, a street vender accosted me. He was selling straw hats, which were essential considering the sun beating down from a cloudless sky. I wasn’t going to buy from him, because I never buy from the first vendor, but he had the hat on my head before I knew what hit me, and I was passing over the 25 pesos. I knew the instant I’d walked away that I’d been suckered, and seeing lower prices for similar hats as we walked along confirmed it. Oh well. I just figured the guy needed the money more than I did.

The evening’s plan was to head back to El Jardin for dinner and then another place for an after-dinner drink. Before that, however, we wanted to see the puppet show, which would play one more night. It had been so enchanting the evening before; we wanted to see the whole thing this time.

We got there early, and the area in front of the stage was packed with kids and their families. The show started with two people coming out on stage, acting as though they were embarrassed to be there. It turns out they should have been.

I don’t know whether it was a different show company or new actors or what, but it was clear from the outset that we weren’t going to see the same show. In fact, we almost never saw puppets. The show as best we could figure—after about 10 minutes of the puppeteers playing unfunny human clownlike characters—involved a grumpy old man puppet and his human maid.

It was brutal, and kids—being an honest audience—gave an instant thumbs-down review. After about five minutes, they started to fidget, run around and generally stop paying attention. Laurie and I felt the same way, so we split feeling gypped that we hadn’t stayed longer the night before.

Dinner was at a place called Tia Lucas. We picked it from a travel guide before we left, and it was both the fanciest and most Americanized place where we dined the whole week. I didn’t need my phrasebook, but I had it anyway, because—as I noted with Italy—I wanted to be a good guest.

I don’t remember what Laurie had, but I had a churrascaria—I wanted to load up on beef in Mexico—and I had another outstanding margarita. (I also wanted to drink tequila in Mexico.) Again, it was served in a tumbler and was a translucent whitish color. I asked the waiter what the tequila was, but it was a name I didn’t recognize, so it got lost in the wind.

Tia Lucas wasn’t my favorite food place—that was still to come—but it was good, and it was one of my favorite dining experiences on the trip. After a while, a jazz band played live music as we dined, and towards the end of our meal, a waiter came by and noticed my phrasebook. Spanish? Si. Ahh, MEXICAN Spanish! Bueno! He smiled and gave me a thumbs-up.

After dinner we headed off into the unknown. Also before we left Chicago, Laurie looked up a couple of nightlife places to check out and found one called El Gato Negro. She wanted to check it out, because it had the same name as a notorious Chicago drag bar that we frequently passed by on the way to other things and where a couple of her gay friends threatened to take me one night. One problem: This El Gato Negro was a bar.

In Mexico, there are different types of public houses—not different as in d├ęcor or theme, but different as in who’s allowed inside. In Mexico, a “bar” is a He-Man Woman Haters Club: Women generally aren’t allowed. Laurie didn’t know whether El Gato Negro was one of those bars, but she still wanted to give it a try, and we hiked up the dark street a bit off the beaten path until we came to it. El Gato Negro in fact did allow women, but it was definitely a guy’s bar: It was a total dive. A dive in Chicago is one thing; we weren’t in Chicago—or Kansas either, toto. Laurie didn’t care: Let’s go in.

The front door was saloon doors—I kid you not—and we entered into a tiny, undecorated and slightly intimidating dark room. Two tables sat on either side of the door that had a single chair at each. A single neon sign over the bar seemed to provide about the only light in the room. The bartender and his companion welcomed us with a hearty “Buenas noches” and asked what we wanted.

Laurie’s aunt told us to stick with only non-iced drinks off the main drag, so I ordered two bottles of Pacifico, which at the time wasn’t served in Chicago. We noticed a slightly ramshackle, open staircase to the left of the bar and made enough of a motion with our hands as to inquire if we could go up. Si, si.

Upstairs was a scene straight out of the Twilight Zone. It seemed to be someone’s attic as opposed to a room at a public house. My recollection was that it had a pool table and piles of what best can be described as clutter on top of it and, well, throughout the entire room. In the center, three amigos sat like zombies watching futbol on a TV in which you could barely make out the players through the static. We saw another staircase at the far end of the room and kept going.

This staircase led us to our destination. We now were on the roof, which was furnished in white plastic tables and chairs. Two more amigos were sitting at one shooting the breeze. We took one next to the edge … where we had a view of the Nuestra Senora and the rest of the town to the west. We also had a canopy of stars above us.

We didn’t see the Southern Cross, but like Stephen Stills said, we knew after arriving why we’d come this way. The roof at El Gato Negro was the payoff, and the fact that the next apartment over had laundry drying in the warm night air only added to the ambience.

No one bothered the gringos, and it was the best night of the vacation.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

No. 464 – Amnesia

Performer: Toad the Wet Sprocket
Songwriters: Glen Phillips, Todd Nichols, Dean Dinning, Randy Guss
Original Release: Coil
Year: 1997
Definitive Version: None

OK, so this song is a little out of order from the actual timeline, but I’m not about to skip ahead and give away the ending like I’m the editorial page of USAToday, which ruined the finale of Downton Abbey for me.

Anyway, the second round of house listings that our real-estate agent brought to me and Debbie in early April 1997 looked good pricewise—too good. A few were at $150K; one even was south of $140K. Several were in the same neighborhood. That’s great, but … something was up.

I got out a city map and saw the issue: The neighborhood was right next to I-270. That was going to be too loud, not to mention ugly, but I just mentioned it. Still, those prices …

I had to take a look for myself. Maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. One day before work, I drove over to see what’s what. The neighborhood was off Sunbury Road only a few miles from our apartment. I liked that it seemed to be removed from the hustle and bustle a bit—it wasn’t adjacent to any huge shopping complexes, and there was a lot of open land around. I turned west onto Woodstream Drive, the street that led into the subdivision of the same name and consisted of a few looped streets. (The larger part of the subdivision was east of Sunbury.)

The houses looked OK. They were typical suburban, four-bedroom, two-story buildings—not notable but not bad. They also were close to the highway, as in it was right in their backyard. If you didn’t mind living as though you were in a freeway motel, it was fine. The listed houses weren’t going to work.

But as I entered the subdivision, closer to Sunbury, another house was for sale by homeowner, so it wasn’t on our list. It looked nice from the outside—a tan stucco Tudor with dark wood trim, well-kept gardens with a few trees—and I could see between the houses into the backyard that a lot of tall, well-established trees were back there. Huh. I took down the phone number and noted that from this lot, you couldn’t hear the freeway; you barely even could see it.

I called the homeowner when I got home. I told the woman who answered that I’d seen the sign and asked about the price. It was in our wheelhouse—$169,000. I knew after we had seen enough houses, this house was one we should see, so I took the initiative and made an appointment to see the house that Sunday. When I told Debbie what I had done, she was surprised but pleased.

She was even more pleased when we saw the house. She told me later that she loved it the second she walked through the door. The house was owned by a minister and his wife. They were ready to retire and move to Kansas City to be close to their kids, and they kept it in immaculate shape.

The house was about 6 years old, and it was plenty big, about 2,000 square feet. It had four bedrooms—one very small, two OK and the master bedroom, which was massive. The master bathroom was hidden behind double doors and had a huge soak tub with a skylight. That feature alone might have sold Debbie. The toilet and a separate shower were behind another door, and the massive walk-in closet was behind a second door.

Downstairs was a formal living room, dining room and great room that included a kitchen, dining area that had bay windows looking out on the backyard and a wood-burning fireplace that included a brick hearth and built-in bookshelves. OK, now I’m sold.

The back door opened to a double-tier wood deck that had bench seats on the upper level. The yard was sizeable and open, but at the back were several tall ash trees, pine trees that marked the boundary of the property and a run-off stream. Debbie and I looked at each other knowingly.

We left, and I’m not sure we had even hit the stop sign at Sunbury before Debbie said she wanted that house. My only concern was … well, I had no idea what to do next. We had made this visit without any input from out real-estate agent. Did we need to involve her in the sale negotiation?

Debbie called a few friends to get some advice, and I had remembered something that my grandfather had told me—never agree to the asking price, at least right away. We needed to do a little research on the neighborhood to see what others had recently paid. We needed a little time. It turns out we already were too late.

Debbie called the next day to ask a few more questions about the house, and then she called me at work with the stunning news: The house had been sold. “Oh, Debbie. I’m so sorry,” Debbie said the minister’s wife said when Debbie spoke with her. “I know how much you loved this house.” But after we had visited—hours after, maybe less—another couple from New Jersey showed up. They were transferring and needed a place ASAP. They agreed to buy on the spot at the asking price.

I couldn’t believe it. Debbie was heartbroken. I’m done, she said. I don’t want to look any more. That was my house. I was OK with that—Debbie was more behind the search—but I also was OK with buying that house, too.

Before she let it go completely, Debbie wrote the minister’s wife to give her our contact information. It was in case the deal that emerged out of nowhere went away just as quickly. You just never know …

Monday, February 25, 2013

No. 465 – Castles Made of Sand

Performer: The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Songwriter: Jimi Hendrix
Original Release: Axis: Bold As Love
Year: 1967
Definitive Version: None

After Debbie and I got engaged, the search for a house began in earnest. The latter part of that statement is necessary, because the search began after we’d lived in our Gahanna apartment for a year. After a year, our lease was month-to-month, so we could leave at any moment with 30 days’ notice.

However, before our engagement early New Year’s 1997, the search primarily consisted of looking through newspaper classifieds to see whether there was anything that we just couldn’t pass up. There never was.

Well, I shouldn’t quite say that, I suppose. We took a quick look at a couple houses in German Village, but they only made us realize that we couldn’t afford what we really wanted in German Village, as I noted.

We found one neighborhood that seemed more approachable. It was between Gahanna and Westerville, and we found it while out looking at Christmas lights. The houses were decent size but seemed modest. It was like the neighborhood in which I grew up, except it wasn’t in Upper Arlington, so the houses probably had about $100K knocked off the price.

A few of the houses in that neighborhood, usually corner-lot houses, particularly appealed to me. They looked like spruced up farmhouses, with huge wrap-around porches that would be ideal for a swing and evening hanging out. I was curious to see what one of those looked like on the inside.

The drawback to the neighborhood was it was so new the trees primarily were newly planted twigs. Debbie’s apartment when we began to date had a little woods in the back, and she loved having that and being able to see birds. She wanted a real backyard—with trees. In driving around, we found a farmhouse that was at the middle of a courtyard that backed into a ravine that had a huge woods. If THAT house ever went on sale …

After we got engaged, however, we got serious about looking. Buying a house was a bit intimidating; it wasn’t like buying a stereo or even a car. I certainly had never done it before. Debbie had, and she didn’t want to operate alone. One of her nieces had a friend who was a real-estate agent. Debbie met with her, liked her and hired her.

After a couple weeks, in March 1997, she brought us a few possibles. We culled the list to four where the price seemed right ($150K-$180K). The agent scheduled us to look at three on a Saturday and one on Sunday.

The first house we looked at on a sunny early-spring March day was a farmhouse in the neighborhood that we had had our eyes on. It wasn’t THE house, alas. Instead, it was the least desirable of the farmhouses based on the lot and location, but I finally got my inside view. It wasn’t impressive. The square footage was about 1,800, but it seemed smaller than that. The thing I remember most were smoke detectors high up on the walls—they looked like old elementary school bells. They were huge and ugly.

That wasn’t the only thing that dissuaded me, however. The neighborhood had huge power lines streaking over it, and I knew that that was bad. After my great-grandfather on Mom’s side died, my great-grandmother moved into a condo building that was adjacent to an electric transformer, and I’m convinced that the dementia that formed soon afterward was a direct result. I also since had seen a study that found that close proximity to power lines led to a much higher cancer rate. OK, moving right along …

The next house was in Gahanna. I was geeked about that house, too, because it had a pool, and I’d always wanted a pool. (And, yes, I knew that they cost a lot of money to maintain.) The pool area was done in wood decking and pretty cool, but the house itself was a classic. I called it the Elvis House after one look at the master bedroom, which had thick white shag carpeting and black tiled walls. Holy schlamoley! What year is this? 1974? OK, the bedroom can be redone, but Debbie didn’t want to bother. Next.

The last place was a nondescript house on a cul-de-sac. The things I remember about it were the second-story deck and the huge sloping backyard that didn’t have a single tree in it. Nuff said. I was starting to get the idea that the houses in our price range were mostly like this: You paid extra for trees.

The next day, we found out before we left that our agent couldn’t make that appointment, so we went alone. It was a fine house in Gahanna—simple—and Debbie noted with some surprise that the selling agent was a name she recognized from her youth. “HE’s still selling houses,” she asked rhetorically. Sure enough, it was the same guy.

The house itself was unmemorable—nice, but boring, and at the upper limit of our price range. However, at one point as we walked around the second floor, the agent offered that the couple who were selling were divorcing, so they probably would move quite a bit on the price. Well, he couldn’t have said a worse thing unless he said that the house was the site of a quintuple murder.

Debbie didn’t storm out, but we wrapped up our visit fairly quickly after that, and she told me when we got in the car that when he said that, that queered the deal as far as she was concerned. She didn’t like the idea that he would dispense with that information so willingly. It was real slimy, she said. I didn’t disagree, but I wouldn’t have cared as long the house drew me in. It didn’t.

So it was back to the drawing board. No problem. We didn’t think we’d land anything our first time out; we were only just getting started.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

No. 466 – TBD

Performer: Live
Songwriters: Ed Kowalczyk, Chad Taylor, Patrick Dahlheimer, Chad Gracey
Original Release: Throwing Copper
Year: 1994
Definitive Version: None

One of the big changes that took place after Debbie and I began to date in the late summer of 1994, when Throwing Copper was omnipresent on my stereo, was in my dining tastes. I had been a fast-food burger-and-fries guy—mostly by experience.

Debbie had a lot to do with that, of course. Saturday night was our going out to a nice place for dinner night, and we started going to a lot of different places—places I probably never would have gone to before.

But my work with the Grump had a lot to do with that, too. I mean, when you’re always reading about this new restaurant and that one—Columbus’ restaurant scene was in the midst of taking off at that time—you get tempted. I was willing to give things a try, and Debbie willingly encouraged gastronomical exploration.

One of my favorite restaurant experiences happened by accident in fall 1994. Debbie and I wanted to go to a new place in Worthington—I can’t remember the name now—but it didn’t work out for reasons that long have been forgotten. What other choices do we have around here? Well, there’s Bravo.

Bravo was fairly new and very hot. It was Italian with an open kitchen. Debbie had been and loved it, and I had heard lots of good things about it. But, she said, Bravo didn’t take reservations, and on a Saturday night, it would be a long wait. Well, let’s see how long.

How about an hour-and-a-half? That’s what the hostess told us, and that clearly was too long. We were about to choose something else when the hostess said, we have immediate seating at the counter if you want to sit there. She meant the counter that overlooked the kitchen.

On the one hand, I wanted a more intimate booth. On the other, I was running out of steam due to hunger, and I didn’t think I could wait another 90 minutes. Debbie said, we’ll take it. It ended up being the right call. We chatted with the cooks about various things as they worked the pans, as though it were dining entertainment. It also didn’t hurt that they’d slip us a little taste of something now and then. It was so great that we ALWAYS asked to sit at the counter after that. (And Bravo long has gone regional. It’s even up here in Evanston—mere footsteps from Engelhart Hall.)

Another great experience was on our first anniversary in 1995. I told Debbie I was going to take her to a nice place. What she didn’t know was I finally was going to take the plunge and take her to Handke’s Cuisine.

I knew Handke’s was expensive: It would easily be the biggest bill I ever paid up to that point. But I also knew it was Debbie’s favorite restaurant—and I thought for sure she’d guess when I drove past it while looking for parking that Handke’s was the destination. But she didn’t have any idea until we parked off Front Street and hiked back. I looked to my left, then right to see where I was and said, “this way,” motioning to my right. Her eyes widened: “You’re taking me to Handke’s?!?” Hey, only the best for our anniversary, babe.

And it was. Up to that time, I’d never had anything like it in terms of the quality of the food. Yes, it was expensive—north of two bills for two—it also was worth every penny. It might not be the best restaurant I’ve ever experienced, but Handke’s remains the best food restaurant—better even than Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago. I was crushed when I found out that Hartmut Handke retired five years ago—I’d never be able to take Laurie there now. Rats.

We saw Live a month later at Polaris, and this song was a standout, with Ed Kowalczyk singing it in the middle of the amphitheater. By then, my transformation from being a fast-food burger-and-fries guy to a full-fledged foodie …

Well, OK, let’s not go that far. My transformation from being a fast-food burger-and-fries guy to being a fast-food burger-and-fries guy who also loves haute cuisine (that’s more like it) was complete.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

No. 467 – Going to California

Performer: Led Zeppelin
Songwriters: Jimmy Page, Robert Plant
Original Release: Led Zeppelin IV
Year: 1971
Definitive Version: Destroyer, 1977

I used to think about Debbie when I heard this song. She loved California—wanted to live there again—but after we split, this song became a free agent. Now I think about a different girl who had love in her eyes and flowers in her hair.

For Jin’s wedding in September 2004, Mom decided to do something that was completely out of character for her—she splurged. She absolutely wasn’t going to fly, and she absolutely wasn’t going to miss the wedding, so there was absolutely only one solution—Amtrak. Mom would take the train from Chicago to Los Angeles, and she decided, if we were wanted to go along, to pick up the tab for Scott, Shani, Leah and me, too. A free trip to California? Of course, we’ll take it.

I had taken only commuter rail before; I’d never been on an overnight train trip, so I was looking forward to doing something different. The wedding was scheduled on the fall equinox—almost three months to the day after the hand-fasting. I made sure to have headache medication on me at all times.

The only problem was the Clippers. They rolled to the playoffs, and if they made it to the championship round, I would have to miss those games due to going to L.A. I wasn’t happy about that or about making the Clippers find someone else to cover for me, but, of course, I wasn’t going to miss my sister’s wedding. Good fortune was with me: The Clippers lost in the deciding game of the first round of the playoffs. I wouldn’t miss anything—except that the minor-league-baseball season was over.

Mom and I drove to Cincinnati, and the next day, we all piled into a rented van and headed north. And I mean piled. Between the five of us, our luggage and Kirby the Dog, who was being dropped off at Shani’s family’s place in Marion, Ind., we were human sardines. That fact was lost the least on Leah, who was wedged into a car seat that was too small for her, and she cried pretty much the entire six-hour drive to Chicago.

It got a little better when we got to Union Station, but Leah’s complaint started anew after we boarded the train. She couldn’t move around while Scott set up his room, didn’t like the movement of the train, hadn’t napped, wasn’t going to nap and generally wasn’t happy about the proceedings.

We had two rooms in the sleeper car. Scott, Shani and Leah had a suite at the end of the hallway, and Mom and I took one of the side rooms. If you haven’t taken Amtrak, by room, I mean a walk-in closet turned into a narrow sitting area and a collapsible table. At night, the seats folded down into one bed, and the bunk on the ceiling was lowered into place. Of course, I had the bunk. The bathrooms were communal and down the hall.

Scott and Shani’s room was big enough for a double-wide fold-out bed, and Scott wedged in his Pack-n-Play to serve as Leah’s crib. He also set up his computer to play amusing videos of Noggin shows. Leah wasn’t having any of it.

I took a hike to explore the dining car and the club car that had picture windows on the second level for viewing the countryside—not that there was much to see in Illinois. When I got back, Leah still was voicing her complaint, and Scott was beside himself. Nothing seemed to work, and finally he said that at the next stop, in Springfield, he and Leah would get off and he’d either drive to L.A. or—more likely—drive home and come get us after we got back. Shani and I told Scott flat out: Don’t be ridiculous. It’ll be all right. I said, go to the club car and check it out. They all left.

A quiet hour later, I realized that they had been gone longer than expected, so I went up to the club car to see what was what. Well, the club car seemed to do the trick. Leah could wander around a bit and look at things. She definitely was in a better mood. So was Scott. There were blue skies inside and out. Even better, there was no more talk about getting off the train early.

That night after Mom turned in and Shani said she’d put Leah down, Scott came by the empty room across the hall from Mom’s room. I had taken it over as a work room until the person whose room it was boarded and said, I need a drink. Meet me in the club car. Since 1999, I hadn’t had an alcoholic beverage in Mom’s presence, and I continued that at dinner that evening. I was ready for one.

It was about midnight as we pulled into Kansas City. Scott and I took up seats in the mostly empty upper deck of the club car, drinking Heinekens and talking about life as we looked out over the largest city that we would see until we arrived in L.A.

After the tumult of the first day, the rest of the train ride to California was fairly nondescript. Everyone settled in. We had a lengthy stop in Albuquerque, N.M., and I walked around a bit trying to find some ice creamy treat, but my search proved fruitless—or even creamless. Mostly, I got a lot of work done on the train, entering data into my computer in my little work annex with my earphones on.

We pulled into L.A. early in the morning three days after we left Chicago. Procuring our rental van took a bit longer than anticipated, but finally we were heading up the 405 to The Valley. Our hotel—also paid for by Mom—was down the street a couple of miles from where Paul and Jin lived. Part I of our family vacation was over; Part II was about to begin.

Friday, February 22, 2013

No. 468 – Cosmic Slop

Performer: George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars
Songwriters: George Clinton, Bernie Worrell
Original Release: Cosmic Slop (Funkadelic)
Year: 1973
Definitive Version: Live at the Beverly Theatre in Hollywood, 1991

I had this big, long-winded philosophical think piece going regarding the tribal mentality of rock fans, the divide-and-conquer nature of the music business and how it relates to this song, which was introduced to me by my funky, funky Journal sports compadre, Brett, but it was turning into a big pile of un-cosmic slop. So, as a good editor would do—and I’m a good editor—I junked the excess word count and pared back to basics.

Laurie likes to say that Chicago is the biggest little town in the world. What she means is that she always comes across someone she knows, and for the first year we met, it seemed like that happened all the time: We’d be out and someone would come up to her who knew her from somewhere. She said that never happened to her in Kansas City, which, although still big, of course, is less than half the size of Chicago.

Jim Abbott can count on his right hand the number of times that happened to me. In other words, it never happened to me—not when I lived in Columbus, when I knew a lot more people and it was one-sixth the size of Chicago; not in Flint which was one-sixth the size of Columbus; and not in New Buffalo, which was one-sixth the size of Flint. Well, OK, it did happen in New Buffalo a bit, but only because, as the public face of Harbor Country News, I was a minor celebrity.

In 2007, Laurie and I went back to Harbor Country for Memorial Day weekend. This time I was fully aware of the trip ahead of time. We stayed at the same place—The Firefly in Union Pier—and we even stayed in the same room. There was a bit of nervousness when we arrived, because the inn-keeper couldn’t find our reservation at first and had mumbled something about renting that suite to someone else. I don’t know if she ever found it or just relented because it was late at night when we got there, and the room was available.

We awoke the next morning to someone trying to come in our front door. It was locked, and after a while whoever it was went away. We surmised that it probably were the people who had booked our room due to the inn-keeper’s snafu, but we didn’t answer it. We were here first, and possession is nine-tenths of the law.

That Saturday, we did many of the same things as during my birthday celebration in 2005: We hiked along the Union Pier beach in the morning and went into New Buffalo for Redamak’s (of course). That night, Saturday night, we were going to check out Timothy’s in the Gordon Beach Inn, which Laurie had read about and wanted to try. It was new since I had lived in New Buffalo nearly two decades before, so I didn’t know anything about it.

As we were heading back to our room to clean up that afternoon, we passed a large group of people hanging out in the back porch of their room and I heard someone say the word, “Will.” That was my name, but I didn’t know of them, so I kept going. Then I heard it again. OK, this time I turned around.

Sure enough it WAS someone calling for me. It was my aunt Nan’s oldest daughter—Annie. What are you doing here? She said that she and a bunch of her friends, who lived in Chicago, wanted to spend Memorial Day weekend in Union Pier and she joined the crew. How about that?

Yeah, she said, and when we got to our room, someone was already in it. Yep, my cousin’s crew were the ones trying to get in our room that morning. Well, we had a good laugh about that, and it turns out it worked out for them, because they had a group of six and they were able to rent an empty two-bedroom suite. Ours was only a one-bedroom.

Afterward, Laurie said, see? Yes, Harbor Country isn’t exactly Chicago, but it is a vacation spot for Chicagoans. Laurie said it counted—an extension of the biggest little town in the world.

That night, as we drove to Timothy’s, which turned out to be an excellent fish place, I debuted a mix CD I had made not long before the trip that included this song. So our trip back to Harbor Country in 2007, along with serendipity, is what I think about when I hear it.

OK, I also think about tribalism, divide-and-conquer music magnates and my old, funky friend Brett, but then you knew that already.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

No. 469 – Beautiful Day

Performer: U2
Songwriters: Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr.
Original Release: single, All That You Can’t Leave Behind
Year: 2000
Definitive Version: None

In fall 2000, I got a call from Dave saying the Brewers were selling chairs from the soon-to-be-demolished County Stadium in Milwaukee. You had to drive up and pick it up. Was I interested? Perhaps surprisingly, I wasn’t.

It wasn’t so much the price; I wasn’t interested in the cushion-back seats; I had a nice set from Comiskey Park and Municipal Stadium already and didn’t really have room for a third chair. Most important, I didn’t really have any feelings for County Stadium. I’d been to only one game there, and, as I documented, I left early. But I told Dave, I WAS interested in accompanying him on a road trip if he wanted the company.

He’d have Andrew, his usual traveling companion, but, sure, I could come. I suggested meeting up in Chicago, but he said, why not come all the way up? Dave recently had moved to Grand Rapids after taking a job at the Press, and it wasn’t that much out of the way, he said.

Well, of course, it was, but why not? I’d drive up to Grand Rapids, and then the three of us would drive to Milwaukee and back the next day. I’d then drive home that Monday before going to work. I bought new music for the drive: U2. After all, I’d hear Achtung Baby the first time we went to Gibraltar many moons ago.

I was pleased to see Dave’s Baseball Room had taken on an extra dimension now that he had half of the basement to himself (and that it wasn’t any more grandiose than mine), but I noticed that his long run of All-Star Game pennants that lined the staircase to the basement seemed to have a hole—one from 1995.

We left early the next morning. It was dreary weather-wise, and it never got better, even when we were on the other side of Lake Michigan—just a cold, rainy fall day. As we got close, we could see Miller Park rising like a giant spaceship out of the valley just west of downtown Milwaukee. County Stadium forlorn and forgotten off to the side.

Dave wasn’t sure of the protocol, so he pulled up to what appeared to be the offices at Miller Park. Leaving Andrew in the car, we went inside. Lights were on, but no one seemed to be there.

We tried a door, and it opened into a hallway. Again, lights were on, so, well, someone HAD to be there, but we didn’t know where to go, and we didn’t want to stray too far from the office. Then I noticed a sign that said, to the ballpark, with an arrow. Hey, Dave. Check this out.

He gasped as he grasped the meaning of the sign, and I turned the knob. The door opened … and we were standing on the concourse of the still-under-construction Miller Park. We were inside the stadium.

I stayed by the door as Dave snapped a pic or two. I couldn’t leave, because I noticed that the door locked from the other side, and we would have been stuck inside the ballpark. As we made our way back down the hallway delighted by our impromptu tour, someone showed up and told us we needed to go to the far parking lot, across the stream. OK.

Unlike in Cleveland, this was an organized, orderly process: You drove up, gave the worker your seat voucher and they loaded the seat(s) into your car. There wasn’t any selection. I wanted to get out and see about maybe grabbing maybe a wooden-chair slat, but they kept the remnants of torn-apart seats—junk, really—separate and unavailable.

Dave got his seat, and now it was time for lunch. The only possible solution was to stop in the open sausage concession stand in the parking lot. We got brats with the famous Milwaukee red sauce. Dave got a Diet Coke; I got a beer. Andrew got chicken tenders. Dave also presented me with a little sumthin-sumthin that he grabbed when no one was looking—a seatback from the junk pile. I got something from County Stadium after all.

After lunch we milled around a bit and noticed that Bernie Brewer’s Chalet from the old yard was there. Someone had purchased it, but photo ops still were available, so Dave and I snapped pics of us in the front door. We drove a bit around Miller Park and had another photo opportunity before leaving thanks to a piece of construction equipment that had been left unattended.

The drive home was fairly uneventful, although we stopped at the Mars Cheese Castle for treats for Dave’s wife, and we each picked up a Brewers Frisbee that had the sweet m-b glove logo on it.

All in all, it had been a beautiful day even if the misty rain never stopped, and a week or so later, Dave got a little sumthin-sumthin of his own in the mail—a 1995 All-Star Game pennant. Sure, it came off my wall, but helping someone complete a collecting run is more important than a mere decoration, and, besides, I had plenty more pennants I could replace it with anyway.

Hey, what are friends for if not for baseball road trips and memorabilia assistance?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

No. 470 – Black Magic Woman / Gypsy Queen

Performer: Santana
Songwriters: Peter Green, Gabor Szabo
Original Release: Abraxas
Year: 1970
Definitive Version: Moonflower, 1977, but really almost any live version will do.

After my sophomore year of living in an off-campus house, there was no going back to the dorms if I could help it.

Fortunately, I met a guy—the general manager of WNDY, in fact—who also was looking for an off-campus living arrangement, so I was all set for my junior year. Unfortunately, he bailed from Wabash … in August, just two weeks before school started. (He either couldn’t get the dough or the grades; he never said which.)

I was screwed. I drove over to Wabash that weekend to try and find an apartment—something cheap enough I could swing by myself. Anything that was single occupancy was taken. I didn’t see that I had a choice: I went to the Dean’s office to get a dorm application. The secretary said she wasn’t sure they even had any openings, but she assured me they would make some arrangement.

Because I went over and back the same day, Beth was allowed to go with me. On the drive home, we went through a huge thunderstorm that forced me to pull over (the last time I ever would). We were parked off an exit just inside the Ohio border when we saw a lightning bolt hit a gas-station sign across the road. It caused the digital numbers to start changing on their own.

A couple days later, lightning struck twice. I got a call from Wabash, and they in fact had an opening at Martindale. I had been in Martindale only once before, and it was like the prison of the school—all dark cement blocks—and not nearly as nice as Wolcott was. Hey, what choice did I have?

But, the secretary added, the other day a student came into the office who was looking for a third student to share rent in an apartment … Oh? She gave me the contact information.

It was a senior named Brian, whom I knew from a class my freshman year. He had studied abroad last year, and he was rooming with a friend named Todd, whom I knew from my Wolcott days. (When your college is 700 students strong, there are few people you never run across at least once.) They had a line on three-person furnished apartment on Grant Avenue and couldn’t find a third (to keep rent at $150 per person instead of $225). Would I be interested?

Sight unseen, I took it. I didn’t have to look at it. I knew where it was—across the side street from the Fiji house—and I knew what the house looked like. I just assumed that if it were a pit inside, these guys wouldn’t have taken it. I called the college secretary and said I didn’t need the dorm room.

We had the top two floors of a three-story house, with our own separate entrance. We had an eat-in kitchen, a living room and one bathroom. Todd would be there first and take the lone second-floor bedroom, Brian had said. Brian was taking the room on the third floor. Being the low man on the totem pole, I got the area at the top of the third-floor stairs. It wasn’t a room with a door, per se, just a large landing. But it had room for a double bed and a dresser. Whatever, I was sure it beat being in Martindale.

I had to be at school a week early for the first football game of the season, so I moved in the following weekend. Soon after the move, I bought Moonflower at the college bookstore, and that’s what I listened to as I set up the living quarters for my junior year.

In the span of 10 days, I had gone from discovering I had no roommate to not having a place to live to going back to the dorms to ending up in an apartment right across the street from the college. It might not have been an ideal situation, but I certainly wasn’t complaining.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

No. 471 – Just Because

Performer: Jane’s Addiction
Songwriters: Perry Farrell, Dave Navarro, Stephen Perkins, Bob Ezrin, Aaron Embry, David J
Original Release: Strays
Year: 2003
Definitive Version: None

It got better.

When I lived in Cleveland, that was about the last time I listened to rock radio with any regularity. I didn’t go to the library every day. I took advantage of my lack of regular work hours to run errands when the crowds would be smaller.

On those days, I’d head to the gym—the closest Bally’s was two suburbs over in Westlake—then I’d go to the Great Northern Mall before swinging by one of the grocery stores close to home before heading home to work from there.

I found Evanescence via the radio; this song was another one. Then I’d have to rely on the kindness of friends to get these songs onto my computer and therefore onto my workout tapes. (Yes, I still was using tapes for workouts.) I bought few records. I just wasn’t spending money on anything.

I did enjoy a few indulgences, however. One was Angelo’s Pizza, catty corner to my apartment building on Madison Avenue. Once a month, I’d splurge and get a deep-dish seafood pizza—lobster cream sauce, shrimp, krab and spinach and provolone. It might sound nasty, but it was good. It was the first pizza good enough to have wine with, instead of beer.

The other indulgence was Eddie Izzard. I wasn’t going to any shows in 2003. I passed up both Pearl Jam and even the first tour by Peter Gabriel in a decade, on purpose, but I wasn’t going to miss Eddie Izzard. If you don’t know who Eddie Izzard is—and I’ve mentioned him before, now that I think about it—just rent or buy Dress to Kill. You’ll thank me later.

Anyway, he was set to appear at Allen Theater downtown in October. I told Scott, to whom I’d introduced Eddie Izzard awhile back, and Chuck, who also was a fan. Scott said to get him two tickets; Chuck said to get him one. I got seats on the floor about 15 rows from the stage.

That weekend ended up being a weekend of indulgences. It turned out that the Browns were in town that Sunday. (Eddie Izzard was scheduled for Friday.) Chuck proposed a trade: You buy Eddie Izzard, and I’ll take you to the Browns game. Cool.

Chuck picked me up at my apartment, and we drove downtown and grabbed some dinner before meeting up with Scott and Shani. They had dropped off Leah in Columbus with the grandparents—who loved being grandparents—and we hiked the few blocks to the Theater District for the show. I’d never seen a comedy show outside of a club before, and I was in a mood to laugh.

Well, even if I hadn’t been in that kind of mood, I couldn’t have helped it. Eddie came out in full drag and was on fire from the word go. (See the Sexie video.) Chuck dropped me off and then went to stay with his Dad, who still lived in the same Cleveland-area home where Chuck had grown up. See you Sunday.

On Sunday, Chuck again picked me up and we headed to the site where the late not-so-great Mistake by the Lake stood—where I never saw a sporting event, but where I saw The Who in 1989 and Pink Floyd (as recounted) in 1994.

Browns Stadium was so much better. You actually could walk in the tunnel below and not feel as though you might be crushed in the stampede. There even were enough urinals so sink use wasn’t necessary. Chuck was a season ticket holder back then, and his seats were in the Dog Pound at the east end of the stadium.

I wasn’t a Browns fan by any stretch of the imagination—in fact, I hated them when I was a kid. But I was falling in love with Cleveland, and they were my hometown team now. So I jumped on the bandwagon and rooted vigorously for the Browns, but it was for naught, alas. The Browns lost a tight one to the San Diego Chargers, 26-20.

Still, it was a sunny, fairly warm October day, so it wasn’t all bad. It was—and is—the only Browns game I’d ever seen in person, and it capped a fun weekend. It was fun to pretend I was living my old life and getting out and doing things. On Monday, I went back to being a hermit with a purpose.

Monday, February 18, 2013

No. 472 – The Enemy Within (Part I of Fear)

Performer: Rush
Songwriters: Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, Neil Peart
Original Release: Grace Under Pressure
Year: 1984
Definitive Version: Grace Under Pressure, 1984 Tour, 2009. As I think I mentioned, I had a bootleg copy of this album decades before Rush finally released it officially.

When I got to Cleveland in 2003, to a certain extent, I felt lucky just to be there. The move was more perilous than it should have been.

I started my lease March 1 and moved over a couple of weekends before my last day at The Dispatch. I wasn’t taking much in the way of furniture, as I think I mentioned, and one weekend, I had Scott’s futon, which would be my bed, my papasan and maybe a table or two loaded in Laura’s Durango.

I was an hour out of Columbus on I-71 when the Durango began to shudder wildly doing about 70. I hit the breaks and kept it under control before pulling off to the side of the road. Fortunately, there was no traffic immediately around me except for a guy in a car behind me who pulled over.

As I tried to catch my breath and start my heart, the guy came up and asked if I was all right. Yeah. I think so. He said, I saw your tire blow and I knew you were in trouble. The back right tire was completely shredded—a rag of rubber. He was surprised I didn’t roll it. I guess I was, too, now that I saw the situation.

He took off, and I called a tow truck to help me with the spare, but I was pretty shook up and just turned around and went home. My move to Cleveland was off to a rousing start.

I eventually got my stuff up there, but then my body decided to have a blow out of its own. Feeling sick to my stomach or having abdominal pain was old hat—I’d suffered that really my whole life but particularly since I was 17. But the feeling that woke me up early one morning was different. This felt like my breath was being crushed out of me.

I recognized right away that this wasn’t a normal situation where I’d take a Tums or merely go to the bathroom and those would take care of things. In fact, this pain seemed all too familiar—echoes of March 1994, because it didn’t go away and only seemed to get worse.

Now, I’m not a pain freak by any means, but I have a fairly high tolerance to it because of my cluster headaches. If I can handle pain that feels like I want someone to relieve it by blowing my head off, I can handle a lot. But this was getting to be too much. OK, I better head to the hospital.

Lakewood Hospital was only a few blocks from my apartment. I was OK enough to drive myself, so I did. I was hopeful that this would be like the last time I had been in the hospital in December 1994—something temporary that would work its way out, and that would be that.

It wasn’t. I was admitted and ended up sharing a room with a biker guy who was on the edge of serious heart and digestive problems but who also had a girlfriend visit him, whom, shall we just say, had a penchant for feeding him yogurt in an interesting way. (And who doesn’t want to overhear that when they’re lonely and feeling like crap?)

It wasn’t all bad, I suppose. I did show perfect comedic timing at one point when a wave of nausea hit me hard. A doctor—one of several who visited me that day—came in and asked when the last time was that I got sick. Hearing my cue, I grabbed my bucket, said how about now and promptly threw up.

I spent the night, and the next day, the diagnosis was neither expected nor surprising—diverticulitis. Dad had it, so did my grandfather. The gastroentreologist ruled out surgery, thank goodness, but he wanted me to have a colonoscopy to rule out anything more serious. One problem: I would have to stay in the hospital until Monday to have the procedure.

I had had a colonoscopy before, so that was no big deal, but it was Easter Sunday weekend. I had planned on heading back to Columbus for family dinner, and after this experience, I wanted to get home. I said no.

I was OK to leave—I felt fine by this time—so the doctor discharged me with the direction to set up an appointment for the colonoscopy the next week. I said I would and headed back to my apartment, packed up and drove to Columbus.

My move to Cleveland was REALLY off to a rousing start now.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

No. 473 – Ah Leah

Performer: Donnie Iris
Songwriters: Mark Avsec, Dominic Ierace
Original Release: Back on the Streets
Year: 1980
Definitive Version: None, although I like the one from Live at Blossom, 1981, which was broadcast on MTV. Seeing the Performance of this song years later, I was struck by how Iris comes across as a genuinely likeable dude who’s loving—and to a certain extent can’t believe—that he has a hit record.

Before we get started, Laurie and I went to see Andy McKee last night in Evanston, and he was phenomenal. If you don’t know who he is, check out Drifting on YouTube. You won’t be sorry.

Shortly after I moved to Cleveland in March 2003, and I mean as in weeks after I moved, I ended up in the hospital (story to come). I already was on shaky ground mentally, and that event seemed to put me over the edge.

For most of the previous two years, I had nothing going romantically while I healed from Debbie. Now I had nothing going professionally except my own wits and my work to publish a book. I hadn’t seen the move to Cleveland necessarily as the beginning of the end game, but when my health took a turn for the worse, I started to allow myself to think it.

I decided I would make no future plans after the book. I didn’t rule out the possibility that I would get the book done and go away, as in permanently. I was, obviously, pretty depressed.

That changed July 1. That was when Leah came along.

Scott and Shani had been trying sporadically to get pregnant for the past two years, and it finally took in fall 2002. The public announcement led to a funny exchange between me and Scott concerning Dad—funny in that our roles were reversed from what they had been for years in the Nineties.

Scott was ticked that when he told Dad that he was going to have a kid, he didn’t think Dad reacted well. Dad had said, well, I’m going to have to think about this, as though he didn’t like it, Scott said. Now that I no longer was persona non gratia over there, I visited frequently, and I had a better idea of where he was coming from. So I defended Dad.

Look, I said, you have to remember, in having two families 20 years apart, Dad’s extended his young adulthood into his 60s. He still thinks of himself as being young, because he has kids living at home. He doesn’t think of himself as being old enough to have grandkids.

Don’t worry, I assured Scott, he’s happy about it. He just has to work through his own deal. Scott allowed that I might be right, but he gave me the whole if-he-doesn’t-like-it-we’ll-never-come-around speech. (It turns out I was right. Dad has loved being a grandfather.)

Anyway, on July 1, Dad’s granddaughter, my niece, Leah Nicole was born. I got the word in Cleveland and drove to Cincinnati—picking up Mom along the way—to see her and spend the Fourth. We arrived almost at the same time as Shani and Leah came home from the hospital. (She hadn’t been expected to come home till the next day, but that’s the health-insurance industry for you.)

I always have been uncomfortable around babies. They weren’t mine, and I didn’t want to do anything that might bother the parents, so I avoided them at all costs, but when Scott gave me Leah to hold, it was totally different.

Quite simply, Leah was as close to me having my own child that I ever would get, and I bonded instantly with her. I promised her as I was holding her that I would always be there for her and help her when she needed me. Mom must have recognized that, because on the drive home, she made reference to something I had said earlier—I couldn’t go away now, as I had said, because of Leah.

Well, here it is nearly 10 years later. I’m still around (although the book still isn’t finished), and Leah has grown up to become a very precocious, intelligent little girl. She’s a huge artist—loves to draw, loves to draw dragons. She loves to visit her uncle Will in Chicago.

So Leah will be 10 in a few months, and with each passing year, Scott gets closer to the inevitable moment when Leah brings home her first boyfriend. If he still had any hair to begin with, he’d be pulling it out. (Scott says he’s looking forward to the moment, actually … when she turns 31.)

Leah was named from the Roy Orbison song of the same name—Shani’s late father was a huge Roy Orbison fan—but I’m certain Scott knows this song. And woe be to him if he knows the lyrics. Yeah, Scott, some guy in the not very distant future will be thinking exactly what Donnie Iris is singing in this song, and my only advice will be what it always is in such situations: Start drinking heavily.

Good thing I’m just an uncle.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

No. 474 – Eon Blue Apocalypse / The Patient

Performer: Tool
Songwriters: Maynard James Keenan, Adam Jones, Danny Carey, Justin Chancellor
Original Release: Lateralus
Year: 2001
Definitive Version: None

A lot of my multisong selections are two songs that have been joined inextricably via the editing process, but some merely consist of a musical intro to the real song. That’s the case with this song. Eon Blue Apocalypse, of course, is nothing more than a solo guitar interlude that precedes The Patient. You could make a case that they are separate enough to be two songs, I suppose. On my iTunes playlist, I have it as one, just called The Patient.

This is an evocative song for me. When I hear the haunting vocal fugue at the beginning, it takes me back to my solo apartment in the summer of 2001, right after Debbie and I broke up. I can smell the smothering loneliness I felt as well as the snap of realization that the life I had lived for the past 4 years was gone forever. Or maybe it was just the fresh paint that took months to finally dissipate.

But it also was the scent of renewal. I suppose I could have given in to the urge to withdraw like Mom had when she reached a similar life crossroads at about the same age, but I didn’t. Instead, I did what most people do when faced with irrevocable change not of their making—I adapted to the new conditions. One adaptation was my renewal with my Dad’s side of the family.

As I mentioned, The Rift had begun to be mended more than a year before Debbie and I broke up. Dad and Laura were more or less OK with us being together—we even saw them as a couple a few times before the split. But The Rift was closed in summer 2001.

It wasn’t a whole lot of fun in May when I had to go over to their house and give them the news that Debbie and I were splitting. I was more or less admitting that they had been right—we weren’t right for each other. I didn’t feel as though that was what I was doing per se. Instead, I was telling them that I was going to have a new address and why I was going to have a new address.

They were properly sympathetic, and when I moved into my new apartment, Dad came over around my birthday to help me assemble my new entertainment center. That marked the first time we had done some activity together, just us, since, well, I couldn’t tell you when—maybe when we had lunch and I told him about Debbie and I getting together in 1994.

A short while later, Dad invited me to go to Torch Lake with him for the weekend. This was back when Laura and the kids spent the summer there, and he was commuting every weekend—leaving Friday and coming back Sunday—so he could work. I readily agreed.

He wanted to take off early on a Saturday with a family friend who had to stay Friday night in Columbus, so I spent the night at his house in the guest room. That was the first time I had spent the night in Dad’s house in Columbus—the second house in which he’d lived since the last time—since I moved back from Flint in 1994.

We left at the crack of dawn the next day, and I was on my way to Torch Lake for the first time since 1995—just before Debbie and I moved in together.

I was greeted warmly upon my arrival—I hadn’t seen these relatives since Scott’s wedding in 1996—and it was strange to go from being the Black Sheep to the Guest of Honor. It was all superficial, though, because no one acknowledged the life change that brought about my return, until the last day I was there.

I had met Beth, my grandfather’s wife, maybe two or three times before this, and we certainly had no relationship other than I was her husband’s grandson who was never around. (She knew why.) But at the yacht club, where I hadn’t been since 1994, she went out of her way to say she was very sorry for my loss, as she put it, and she encouraged me to not give up hope—things will get better.

She didn’t have to say that, but I genuinely was touched by her expression of sympathy. At that moment, my rehabilitation with the family was complete.

Friday, February 15, 2013

No. 475 – Someone Saved My Life Tonight

Performer: Elton John
Songwriters: Elton John, Bernie Taupin
Original Release: Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
Year: 1975
Definitive Version: None

The Kenny Centre Mall was (and is) a shopping center, not a mall. It’s now a pretty good ethnic-cuisine hub, but when I was a kid, it was known as the location of Food World, where I later worked, and The Pharmacy. The Pharmacy was famous school-wide, because that’s where you bought candy, comics, and baseball and football cards.

In 1974, Kenny Centre had a huge expansion built in back. When I saw that the shop on the north corner of the L-shape expansion was going to be an arcade, I was a more than slightly interested.

As I mentioned, on my first trip to Florida in 1973, I got my first taste of pinball at the arcade down the street, and I was hooked. From then on, every time I went to Florida, Dad and I would go to the arcade and play a few games after some putt-putt on the roof. Now, an arcade called The Electric Wizard was opening practically in my backyard.

Dad took me the first time, soon after it opened. Being an adult, he no doubt could see the potential was high not only for his little boy to waste all of his allowance quarters there, but also hang out next to—and possibly get beaten up by, or worse, become friends with—juvenile delinquent teens. I was forbidden to go to The Electric Wizard without parental supervision.

This, of course, was an unjust ruling from my perspective. I mean the teen-agers who hung out with the arcade owner or manager in the back were scary, granted, but … come on. The treasures that lay there tempted me unmercifully.

Well, I had been similarly banned from The Pharmacy when I first became mobile after I bought my 10-speed in 1973, too, but it soon became apparent that that rule was unenforceable. My parents tweaked the pharmacy ban to an ask-permission-first rule.

That was a more liberal rule, but when it came to trying to get Johnny Bench in a pack of cards, the odds were increased by additional purchases, thus extra trips to The Pharmacy. To skirt the ban, I used classic misdirection. Where did you go? Marty’s house. Did you have fun? Uh huh.

As long as the specific question of going to The Pharmacy wasn’t asked—and as long as they didn’t notice the bubblegum in my mouth or the card-shape bulge protruding from my jacket or pants pocket—I wasn’t lying. I just wasn’t telling the whole truth, your honor. I did go to Marty’s house; you just failed to ask whether I also went to The Pharmacy. (Can you tell I come from a line of lawyers?)

I employed a similar strategy for The Electric Wizard. Summer Rec was an Upper Arlington summer program of supervised activity for kids up to age 14 at each elementary school. For me, that meant team dodgeball and what we called German baseball (baseball with a big, red, rubber kickball). I went every day, and it proved to be the perfect cover in the summer of 1975.

Eric, a friend of mine from fifth grade, would ride his big sisters’ tandem bike to Summer Rec. He’d check in, pick me up, and we’d ride down to The Electric Wizard in the afternoon and play games until our quarters ran out.

In the front room, which was the only room visible from the sidewalk, were the air-hockey tables. I never played this game before, and you would play under the watchful (and very much crazed) eye of The Electric Wizard himself, who oversaw the room from a massive painting that hung on the wall.

Around the corner lay the pinball machines, side-by-side in two neat, opposing rows. I don’t remember all of the games, but I definitely remember Bally’s Wizard, which had a Tommy theme; and Satin Doll, by Williams, which was the first pinball machine I ever turned over (cracked 100,000 so the analog ten-thousands counter rolled from nine to zero).

In the back, where the scary delinquents hung out, was a pool table and a few shooting games. The only thing of real interest back there was the manager’s office, where we’d get change, and a couple of games that were played on a TV screen. One was called Pong and the other was Tank. I liked Tank more. But … video games? Who wants to waste quarters on those when you have a dozen perfectly good pinball machines right here?

The p.a. system was on either to WCOL, top 40, or WNCI, rock, and I’m all but certain that I heard this song at The Electric Wizard for the first time, because, well, Elton John was played everywhere back then. In retrospect, I’m surprised The Electric Wizard didn’t have the Captain Fantastic pinball game, but it didn’t.

Eric and I would run out of quarters just about the time when the supervisors opened the gym for the big team dodgeball games that typically ended the day at Summer Rec. We’d head back just in time to join the game and provide my alibi. Where have you been? Summer Rec. What did you do? Played dodgeball. OK.

The defense rests.