Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Traveling Companion

Not even I should go a year between posts, so I figured I'd check in, and with no topic in mind, just put down what's on said mind.

My depression is visiting me this week, but he's different than he has been in the past.  It seems like he's matured and mellowed along with me.  When he first sunk his teeth into me in earnest, some eighteen years ago, it was a savage, hard-edged thing.  It knocked me flat.  As I was able, with the help of doctors at least somewhat versed in brain chemistry, to control him, the edge came off, he donned softer clothing, but whenever he drew closer, he was still hard underneath the skin, and took me down for the count at least once.  The medical help?  The ignorant think it's some kind of chemical escape mechanism; as one uninformed, tactless nursing undergraduate called it, a "happy pill."  Those who really know, know better.  It's no such thing. In the throes of depression, one is spiraling down a black hole with no end, and no desire to stop descending.  The medicine simply nails up a sturdy floor to stand on to stop the descent.  That floor may be lower than the surrounding ground, and it's made of rough-hewn planks, not carpeted in flowers and unicorns, but it is a floor, a limit to further downward movement.  And that's enough, and thank God for it.

Anyway, I've grown and learned, and I have people who depend on me.  They get my mind out of myself, and they're worth it.  I had my chances to be more than a mediocrity, but now is the time to be a springboard to their dreams, and it's a joyful thing to do so.  Now, thanks mostly to the much-maligned doctor-prescribed SSRI in residence in my bloodstream, rather than being a savage primate riding piggyback, screeching in my ear, depression is more of a companion walking a few paces behind silently in a hooded robe.  (If I were a man of consequence, perhaps he'd be the slave standing behind me in the chariot as it passed beneath Roman arches in the triumphal parade, whispering "Remember thou art mortal.")  I'd love to be altogether free of depression's company, but that's probably not in the cards, and I can tolerate it.

This week, he's pulled up abreast of me.  Not on my back, saying dark things to me from behind gritted teeth, but keeping pace.  But where before his mutterings were a danger to me, this week, they're causing me to withdraw from people, all people except for family and the closest friends.  It's not falling down a hole, but left unchecked, withdrawal into one's self isn't much better.  But I think this is an episode that won't last; he'll drop back again and take his designated place behind me in our pathetic two-man parade.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Reflections - 2013 A to Z Blog Challenge

It all started innocently enough.  A post to the Writers of Kern facebook page by our president, Dana Martin, said "Hi guys! Who has a blog?? I'm doing this challenge..."  And, genius that I am, said "Sure, I'll do it."

One month later and here I am, a Survivor of my first  A to Z Challenge.  I've written a blog post for every day of April, save Sundays, one for every letter of the alphabet.

Now, I've made no secret of my distaste for runners.  They're so fit, and always so damn high on endorphins, and you can actually make out their abs, and they don't eat Moon Pies and wash them down with Dr. Pepper, and they have those "26.2" stickers on their car and they run, of all things, and like to talk about it.  I really do hate them.  But I have to borrow from their world to describe what doing this Challenge was like for me.  (I think I ran some in eighth grade, so I'm not completely without firsthand knowledge here.)

Yes, this challenge was like a marathon.  At the beginning, you're borne along on excitement, then pleasure at doing what you love and doing it in an actual event.  After a few miles, it gets harder as the enormity of the task sets in.  Well into the race, there are hints of panic and a thought of bailing out, but some perverse pride keeps you going.  Farther in, it becomes a real slog, with actual pain, and all your strategies go out the window save to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.  But as the possibility of actually finishing becomes better than an even bet, something curious happens, the "second wind."  As the finish line draws closer and the you realize that yes, you really are going to make it, the tension and fatigue in the muscles fade, the lactic acid and cramping is forgotten, and you find your form and hit your stride with a kick of newfound energy.  Finally, as you cross the line, the thought of never having competed seems ludicrous, the pain is forgotten, and only pride remains.

And I am proud.  I'm great at starting things, but not so great at finishing them.  Not too experienced with closing the deal.  Most of my projects lie unfinished.  If you're not like me, it's hard to explain how exhilarating finishing a month-long task can be. 

There have been costs.  I've stayed up too late, too many times, finishing posts.  It's made it hard to get to work on time and added to my fatigue at work.  Worse yet is that time spent writing was time not spent giving my attention to my family. 

But we made it through, and it's time to give the computer a bit of a rest.  I'm glad I did it. 
It's been great for my writing chops.  I'm pretty much an essayist, and my best-ever essays have been for this challenge.  And it's turned my blog from a neglected and somewhat embarrassing thing to something I'm proud of, an actual blog.  That gets updated regularly.  And people read.

I'd like to thank the 2013 A to Z team that made this Challenge such a polished, professional showcase.  They are The Madlab Post (Nicole Ayers), Tossing It Out (Arlee Bird), Amlokiblogs (Damyanti Biswas), Alex J. Cavanaugh (Alex J. Cavanaugh), Life is Good (Tina Downey), Cruising Altitude 2.0 (DL Hammons), Retro-Zombie (Jeremy Hawkins), The Warrior Muse (Shannon Lawrence), The QQQE (Matthew MacNish), Leave it to Livia (Livia Peterson), No Thought 2 Small (Konstanz Silverbow), Breakthrough Blogs (Stephen Tremp), Spunk on a Stick (L. Diane Wolfe), and thanks to their cohosts, teams, minions and helpers.

Thanks also to all my fellow Challenge participants who encouraged me just by sticking with it, and provided me with so much great reading.  Thanks especially to fellow Writers of Kern A to Z bloggers "Coach" Dana Martin and Dennis VanderWerff and newfound blogging friends like Kern Windwraith, Bethie, Susan Scott, Kathy Wiechman, Suzi the Literary Engineer, Sylvia Ney, Julie Kemp Pick and many others, and to Arlee Bird for sending A to Z love in my direction.  Thanks for everyone not mentioned by name here who took valuable time from their day to read and commnent on my posts (including the very same Mom and Dad who used to put my stuff on our Avocado Green refrigerator)After all, without you all, what's the point?

Finally, I'd like to thank all of my fellow Writers of Kern for support and encouragement, particularly my biggest cheerleaders, Joan Raymond, Dana Martin and Annis Cassells, whose comments I eagerly looked forward to every day.  I suppose I could have managed something without you, but it wouldn't have been nearly as good or as fun or as worth it.

Love you all,


Tuesday, April 30, 2013

"Z" is for Zenobia

Zenobia was the legendary Queen of the East.

I know this because a few days ago, my 8-year-old daughter brought me her well-worn copy of Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz's The Daring Book for Girls, which I had originally bought for her twelve-year-old sister's eighth birthday, for us to read together. Out of all the crafts, activities, history and biographies of great women, she decided we'd read the story of Zenobia, the 3rd century B.C. warrior Queen of Palmyra, in modern-day Syria.  She was a beneficent ruler, whose kingdom at one time stretched across the entire Levant, until she rebelled against Rome and was overthrown.

My Daring Girls
Fast-forward a couple of millenia. When I found out our first child would be a girl, I was thrilled.  When I found out our second and most likely last, was a girl, I let out a slow breath and then proceeded to be equally happy.  And I decided from the very beginning that I would do everything I could to raise them strong and independent and believing in their limitless potential.  No, I would not try to make them into the boys I'd never have.  Why would I want to do that?  I was glad to have girls, and other than feats of sheer strength and certain functions for which testosterone and hard-wired aggression uniquely fit men, girls can do anything.  (If God had rested after making the first man, I'd have judged humanity to be a bit of a shoddy piece of workmanship, but happily, He wasn't finished yet.)  Whatever vestiges of male chauvinism still clung to me as a young man were pretty much knocked off by my beautiful, precious daughters.

The Daring Book and a companion
Anyhow, In an age when what's considered de rigueur for girls and women is dispensed by a society that belittles motherhood and seems hell-bent on robbing girls of their childhood as quickly as possible for maximum profit, The Daring Book for Girls is a refreshing step backwards.  In 106 delightful articles, girls can learn everything from How to Whistle with Two Fingers to How to Negotiate a Salary, to Books That Will Change Your Life.  Had The Daring Book come out long enough ago, Annie Oakley, Jo March and Idgie Threadgoode would have had it.  My tomboy wife would have had it. Grandpa might have bought it for my mom, and Atticus Finch might have bought it for for Scout.

The Daring Book for Girls is a perfect gift for daughters and granddaughters, as would be your time spent reading it and doing its activities with them.

Oh, and Zenobia?  Accounts differ on what became of her after she was captured and taken to Rome.  But in a book like this, it's fitting that the ending is left up to the girl's imagination.

Monday, April 29, 2013

"Y" is for Yonder (the Wild Blue)


Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away.
If you can use some exotic booze, there’s a bar in far Bombay.
Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away.

Come fly with me, let's float down to Peru.
In llama-land, there's a one-man band, and he'll toot his flute for you.
Come fly with me, let's take off in the blue.

Once I get you up there where the air is rarefied
We’ll just fly, starry-eyed
Once I get you up there, I’ll be holding you so near,
You may hear, angels cheer, ‘cause we’re together

Weather-wise, it’s such a lovely day,
You just say the word and we’ll beat the birds down to Acapulco Bay
It’s perfect for a flying honeymoon they say,
Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly
Pack up, let’s fly away…

© Cahn Music Company; Maraville Music Corporation

Are any of you old enough to remember when train travel was common and air travel was a big deal?  When a trip on an airplane was exotic and exciting?  When Frank Sinatra sang "Come Fly With Me" and you wished you could take him up on it?

Do any of you remember this scene?

Your dad wore his best brown suit and hat (well, back then he always wore a suit, although at the beach he'd at least roll up his pant legs and leave his coat and tie in the Buick) and your mom wore her new floral-print summer dress and lacy white hat. Airport security consisted of a middle-aged guy with a nightstick and revolver and clip-on tie who looked like he'd eaten more than his share of donuts and rocked back and forth on his heels as he gave you a wink and a nod.  You strode out from the terminal building across the tarmac toward a gleaming, streamlined airplane with either a blue or orange stripe or two red ones, depending on whether you were flying Pan Am, American or TWA.  You ascended a set of air stairs that coveralled mechanics had wheeled up to the plane and were greeted at the top by a beaming stewardess (as female flight attendants were called in that less enlightened age), impeccably attired in a neat blue suit adorned with silver wings and a smart, military-style cap.

The cabin wasn't cavernous, but only because wide-body jets weren’t yet invented, not because you were being stuffed into it like so much sausage by a bean counter corps trying to stave off bankruptcy proceedings.  Maybe your dad brought you up to the cockpit where the pilot (who almost certainly flew during the War) pointed out what the various levers and switches did and handed you a set of Junior Aviator wings that weren't made in China. The biggest challenge for the flight attendants was your little brother wanting to zoom through the cabin with his toy F-86 Sabre jet, not business travelers refusing to turn off cell phones or surly men glancing furtively about.

Jet air travel was in its infancy.  You could get on a 707 or DC-8 for a trans-oceanic flight or major domestic route, but just flying was excitement enough and you felt a thrill, tempered with a bit of healthy apprehension as you looked out the window of your DC-6 or Super Constellation and saw the mechanic standing below the streamlined engine nacelle, fire extinguisher at the ready, and each propeller slowly turn before its massive Double Wasp or Turbo Compound radial engine caught and fired in a thunderous coughing fit and cloud of white smoke.  The booming cacophony calmed to a loafing, lopey idle until the pilot deftly eased the four throttles forward together with a practiced touch, unleashing ten thousand stamping, impatient horses to urge you free of the ground.  And then, leveling out at cruise speed and altitude, the engines settled down to a reassuring, steady drone.

It was still only 15 years since those same engines powered the Thunderbolts and Corsairs and Superfortresses that helped your dad and uncles whip the bad guys in the big war.  And even though they couldn't go down and have a big time in Havana anymore since that Castro clown took over, and even though the Russkies were rattling their sabers and sending stuff into space and you had to do duck and cover drills at school and your dad looked over brochures for backyard bomb shelters as he smoked his pipe, you still liked Ike and it was still an idyllic and exciting time, full of ideas and pregnant with possibility.  And on a day like today, bobbing on invisible currents of air between puffs of blinding white cloud in the achingly, impossibly blue heavens, even the Reds couldn't spoil it.

* * *

High Flight by John G. Magee, Jr.

Oh!  I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
my eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor eagle flew-
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

"X" is for X Planes

The "X Planes" (X for experimental) are the series of research aircraft flown mostly by NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and its predecessor NACA, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, sometimes in cooperation with the U.S. Air Force.  They've served various purposes over the decades, but the flights that most captured the public's imagination are the ones that set speed and altitude records.  The first and most famous of the X planes was the Bell X-1 in which the great Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947, reaching the pinnacle of the test pilot hierarchy and becoming an american hero and legend.  The literal summit of the X Plane flights came courtesy of the North American X-15, the first spaceplane, in which, between 1961 and 1968, pilots like Neil Armstrong reached the edges of outer space and helped blaze the trail to the moon.

However, like so many of my blog posts about "things," this one isn't so much about the thing itself, but what the thing represents.  The X planes represent many things; the can-do attitude exemplified by President Kennedy's speech challenging America to reach the moon by the close of the 1960s, explosive innovation and exploration, and a time when almost all of the countries of the world looked at America with admiration for our audacity and technical leadership.  They also are part of an all but bygone era predating modern computer-aided design, when advancements in flight required men with the "right stuff" to strap on rockets, stare death in the face and laugh, and go blasting off into the stratosphere.

Friday, April 26, 2013

"W" is for Watching the Wheels

This one is for me.

"W" is for my favorite solo John Lennon song.

I still remember the days when John and Yoko's album Double Fantasy was released in 1980.  The reviews were mixed, but there were some great songs that got plenty of airplay, and of course, critics gave it a second look after Lennon's death.  My favorite track was Watching the Wheels; I thoroughly loved it and everything about it.  The relaxed but driving tempo, John Lennon's piano playing, his beautiful, conversational singing and phrasing, the staccato saxophones, the way it captured the feel of the end of the seventies; it was a musical gem. It's also always been a melancholy song for me, because we know that after recording it, he had precious little time left on earth to enjoy the peace, contentment, and freedom from the expectations of fans and the music industry that it expresses.  That knowledge also colors listenings of Woman, (Just Like) Starting Over, and Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy).

In the car, I'm a real radio channel surfer, but there are some songs that are guaranteed stop me in my tracks and keep my finger away from the preset buttons; What'd I Say, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, American Pie, Margaritaville, Under the Bridge... and most of all, Watching the Wheels.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

"V" is for Vinyl

Please note: this post is about vinyl records.  If you're looking for pleather,  just keep moving.  This isn't that kind of blog.

Having been born in 1969 not only means my knees ache and I need glasses and I'm squarely in the target demographic for some of the tackier pharmaceutical ads on late night television, but also that my contemporaries and I remember some pretty rad stuff, like G.I. Joe with the Kung-Fu Grip, The New Zoo Revue, crocheted beer can hats, and... the vinyl record.

Most of us children of the '70s had portable phonographs with our very own 45s and LPs, and as teenagers of the '80s, we caught the tail end of an era when going over to a high school friend's house meant studying album covers and reading lyrics from sleeves while listening to their record collection, just as it did for our Boomer parents.  We were living the swan song of the vinyl record; we just didn't know it, and probably wouldn't have understood it if we had.
In my childhood bedroom... and at Chris and Greg's house after school

Digital music is an advance over the vinyl record... in some ways.  It's compact and portable, it's not affected by a host of physical problems that plague record playback, it's not worn out by normal use, and a rack of CDs is much less likely than your roommate's musty stack of cardboard-sleeved records to take on the lovely bouquet of spilled beer and cat pee.  The vinyl record is also pretty much a home-bound affair.  1950s car-mounted record players gave it the old college try but pretty much went the way of the Edsel (I wonder how many discs were scratched going over railroad tracks).  If you've got to roller-boogie in sweatbands and short-shorts to Alicia Bridges, your boom box is going to need a cassette player.  And what level of hell would recitals, family gatherings and car trips be for sullen adolescents without mp3 players and ear buds?

Remember this?
But as with many other objects of nostalgia, the vinyl record has qualities that have never been bettered.  Much has been said about the realism, immediacy and warmth of vinyl, and I'm convinced that when an analog signal is converted into discreet zeroes and ones, just as when an image is expressed in pixels, something is necessarily lost.

Then there is something that the quibbler or the uninitiated may complain about, but is an essential part of the experience for many of us.  We vividly remember laying down on the floor of our living room in front of the gigantic Magnavox console stereo, or flopping down in a beanbag with headphones (real ones, that covered the ears) plugged into the hi-fi.   When we lowered the tone arm onto the record's lead-in groove, that little bit of audible crackle was a Pavlovian signal to our young temporal lobes that something cracklin' good was about to happen.  In particular, I remember that anticipation just before the London Symphony Orchestra sounded the first crashing strains of the Star Wars Fanfare on our two-disc soundtrack album.

But the biggest loss with the demise of the LP has to be the album cover.  It's not just that the larger format provided a more generous canvas for groundbreaking artwork than the CD; in the '60s and '70s, especially with double albums, they blossomed into interactive mixed-media experiences, with front, inside and back covers linked conceptually, playing a joke, giving a visual pun or surprise, or telling a story.  A jewel case insert or the digital thumbnail picture next to the .mp3 listing on iTunes has no provision for the listener to punch out die-cut marching band memorabilia, open tenement windows, undo zippers or peel bananas.

Often, "new and improved" really means cheaper to manufacture, distribute and retail.  Whether it means real improvement for the consumer isn't always clear, especially in the rear view mirror.  Call me a throwback, but I'm sad that the vinyl record is mostly a museum piece.

What's your favorite album and album cover from the vinyl era, and why?  

Update: Five bonus points for the first person to give the name and artist of all the above album covers.  Two points if you know which picture is of the back cover and why, and one point if you can identify the doohickey above.  Points not redeemable outside Bakersfield, CA, terms and conditions apply, see store for details.