Tuesday, April 2, 2013

I Haven't Felt Like This in Some Time, Maybe Ever

Most days I arrive downtown in the morning with some time to kill before I have to be at work. I won't bore you with the specifics; it just works out that way. Often I will run errands or just wander around for no particular reason. On such occasions, it's all but guaranteed I'll be listening to comedy podcasts, managing to fit in a few fits of laughter between bouts of scoffing at the well-to-do dregs of society who terrorize from behind the wheels of their always slick and often comically oversized automobiles, defiantly jeopardizing not only the safety of their fellow commuters but the future of humankind by brazenly eschewing the traffic laws put in place to best protect us allbut especially the weakest and most fragile among usfrom injury and death.

On a recent sunny, wintry, but rather lovely April Tuesday morning, I was walking toward the City Target to purchase a reasonable pencil sharpener for my kids, which is something that I've been contemplating for some time now (but with no real urgency, as I will occasionally bother our friends Genny and J who live upstairs in the two-flat we share and use theirs; my version of borrowing a cup of sugar). There's nothing sadder than watching bushy-tailed children futilely trying to release brilliant, joyful colors from their wooden confines and, instead, winding up with psychotic, errant and dull indentations littered with mocking hints of color. And there's nothing more deflating than essentially just repeatedly breaking the tips off of pencils while trying to sharpen them in those cute little pencil-case-bred faux pencil sharpeners that usually have, like, the Paul Frank monkey or something on them and that not even the manufacturer would concede work in any fashion; nor would anyone who has ever deigned to use one expect them to. Honestly, you'd probably have more success using your teeth.

And, after a fruitless trip to our office supply room the previous day, I was prepared to buy a couple of rulers. Because somebody at work keeps stealing my fucking rulers.

Suddenly, after placing my earbuds into my ears, I found myself accidentally listening to "GGF" by Rancid. Here, indeed, "accidentally listening" may sound like a misnomer; but let me give it context.

In all honesty, I don't listen to music anywhere near as much as I did when I was in collegeprobably where my love for listening and creating music reached a fever pitchbut far more than the period between post-college infancy and the advent of being able to carry around every song you've ever heard in your life on a device roughly half the width of your wallet. Sadly, listening to music of your choosing is sometimes more trouble than it's worth when you've got kids who only want to hear what they want to hear, primarily because they've heard it before. But I try pretty hard to expose my kids to real music rather than hackneyed recordings of children's music, which isn't really for children at all, but people who don't like or know anything about music. Singing "The Wheels on the Bus" with your kids is great. Singing "Baby Bumblebee" at school or summer camp is grand. But why the fuck would anyone want to listen to a recording of someone else singing it in their living room when they could listen to anything else?

When I do decide to put something on of my choosing, it will invariably be met with my almost three-year-old daughter demanding in a demonic voice, "I want my song," which changes from time to time. It's been "What Makes You Beautiful" by One Direction and "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen, and, most recently (and tragically), "Trouble" by the insufferable Taylor Swift. Usually what happens here is, in the service of being accommodating, I stop washing the dishes (or whatever I'm doing in the kitchen; usually washing dishes) and fling a dish towel over my shoulder and switch our mono AM/FM/mp3 player compatible Crossley (a manufacturer specializing in electronics that invariably exemplify the embodiment of style over substance and, more often than not, functionality and quality control) from AUX to 103.5, Kiss FM, while trying to explain to this little lunatic how a relic such as the radio workswhere you are required, if you so choose, to listen to whatever happens to playing at the timewhen she's privy to the concept of on demand through the magic of the much-maligned Comcast corporation. But I must give credit where credit is due: My daughter did graciously allow me to listen to a  big chunk of We Are the Champions by Jeff The Brotherhood recently while she played in the kitchen and I washed the 8,000 cups she and her brother managed to use in a two-hour stretch of time. But it wasn't without initial bloodshed and the engagement of resolve. Like the man says, you've got to pick your battles; this was one of the times I was willing to.

Don't get me wrong; I love a lot of pop music, including a lot of what they play on KISS FM, but I grow weary of listening to the same shitty songs over and over and over again (KISS FM's standard procedure); I don't need to hear "Die Young" by Kei$ha twice in one hour (especially because she ripped off at least one line from a far superior Katy Perry song from three years ago). Speaking of which: I'm not a huge conspiracy theory guy, but those "Kidz Bop" sample CDs that have four songs on them that they give out at McDonald's when there's not some dumb Madagascar movie in theaters must be intended to force the population's hand in killing itself off; apparently eradication of the general population by its consumption of McDonald's food is taking too long. I mean, seriously, even when you were a kid, wouldn't you have rather heard the Go-Gos singing "We Got the Beat" than a bunch of kids?
Excuse me, but do you have "I Love Rock and Roll" by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts?
Hey, I can do better than that, pal: We have a lifeless version of it performed by a bunch of children singing over a bunch of hack musicians doing their best to simultaneously approximate and completely neuter the original version.
 Why not take it to the next level?
Hey—you know what would make "Achilles Last Stand" by Led Zeppelin better? If it was played by studio musicians and a bunch of fucking kids sang it.
But kids can't get enough of it. If you ever make the mistake of sliding a Kidz Bop CD into your dashboard once, it may not just ruin every car ride you will ever take from then on, but music in general; so tread lightly. I suppose I should be thankful that our Kidz Bop sampler CDs are strictly associated with the car and not the house. It's like the vampire legend: it can't come in unless it's invited, but, once it's in, it won't leave you be until either you've been drained of your plasma or become one of them by submitting to the path of least resistance. 

I'm pretty much a slave to routine with little variance. Variance in mundane everyday doings makes me anxious to a problematic degree. For example, if, on any given morning, I'm going to make a sandwich for my son's lunch, and somehow the peanut butter is in a different location than normal, requiring me to search for it, this could throw off the natural momentum of all of the other irons I have in the fire. Which, in my estimation, could easily end in tragedy: the sink filling up for the dishes (sink overflowing), the eggs scrambling on the stove (eggs burning), the iron heating up on the ironing board (it falls over and sets the kitchen and, eventually, our two-flat on fire), etc. I'm working on trying to accept this type of variance instead of letting it consume me, but I usually just try to structure such things so they can occur without requiring much thought. I only point this, and the following, out to convey the unlikelihood of the scenario occurring on one recent sunny, wintry, but rather lovely April Tuesday morning and, perhaps, its significance:
  • The previous day I had forgotten my iPod at home. So later that day when I got to work, I chucked a few podcasts onto my phone to listen to on the way home. I had forgotten all about the events of the previous day when I went to plug my headphones into my iPod, thinking I would listen to a neglected episode of the indispensable Best Show, at the time approaching two weeks old, an unheard of amount of time for me to be behind, which can be attributed to my recent obsession with Bill Burr, even though he frightens me a bit.
  • I incessantly punch the hold button in on my iPod, because it drives me insane when I find that something has been playing in my pocket and I have to try to guess where I had stopped listening, mostly because I'm usually wrong, which will only occur to me after five minutes of listening, at which point I'll realize that I've already heard it, and it freaks me out a bit: Why did it take me this long to figure out that I've already heard this? Was I not engaged the first time around? How much material do I miss on a regular basis because I'm not engaged? What was I doing when I heard this the first time that I can't remember any of it? Is this because of those countless times I smoked weed out of that ridiculous (and impressive) three-foot homemade bong my buddy Chuck made from parts procured at Pier One Imports and Home Depot with an aluminum foil bowl?
  • I try on at least a few Fridays a month, when I am afforded the time, to take whole albums I've recently obtainedoften new releases but sometimes simply new procurements of older releases, both standards (like Queen's Jazz) and curiosities (like Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction's Tattooed Beat Messiah)and dump them onto what will become a massive playlist littered with tried-and-true reveries I know will prick up my ears when hanging out, drinking beer and playing cards or a finite revolving cadre of board games with Genny and J. (Genny made it known that she couldn't tolerate the copious amounts of pre-American market breakthrough Whitesnake that dominated early latter-day playlists; J has repeatedly confessed that he never expected to hear anything from The Cult's Sonic Temple after graduating from high school, let alone on a weekly basis. They're incredibly good sports.) It's honestly the highlight of my week; sitting around with my wife and friends, listening to music old and new. And I love that the technology exists to enable you to make "mixes" that are so massive that, even though you made them, the amount of time you spend doing it is relatively small in proportion to the amount of music you can collect in one space, that you can still be surprised when Bang Tango's "Attack of  Life" or "August" by Love comes on after that new Riff Raff song you're hearing for the first time: Hmm. I put that on there, huh? What a lovely surprise. Then I'll name it something stupid. My last playlist: March Moodiness (don't hate); 536 songs, 1.2 days. It may seem simple or something, but I am truly grateful to have this technology at my disposal. I think it's amazing. Can't I think that's amazing?
So it was kind of an unusual experience for me to plug my earbuds into my iPod to listen to a podcast that was actually on my iPhone, only to discover that the hold switch had either been triggered off or I forgot to put in on entirely; the previous night, Genny and J had come down, so we listened to some music, all around a rarity for a Monday evening. So here it is now a wintry but still kind of lovely April Tuesday morning, and I'm suddenly accidentally listening Rancid's "GGF," a playlist staple of mine from their (second) eponymous effort from 2000, which I had put on Moodiness (don't hate), was playing. The song is essentially an homage to buy-it-or-don't-buy-it Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong's childhood by using Golden Gate Fields, a racetrack in his hometown of Berkeley, CA that seemed to cast a big shadow over his formative years, as a conduit:
This is not Churchill Downs
This is not Hollywood Park
When the field's wide open
I'll pick the horse who has the biggest heart
It's kind of diabolically clever, really, how he establishes his punk rock ethos here by announcing an affection for and ownership of the place by setting it apart from the other area tracks, and he even uses a racehorse in  a "racehorse" analogy to the racetrack itself. The verses see Armstrong kind of talk-singing in that sort of mischievous street-poet cadence that has been used (to varying degrees of success) by everyone from Bob Dylan to Lou Reed to Jim Carroll (blecch) to Bruce Springsteen to Craig Finn, overstuffing an inordinate amount of syllables into a tight musical corner in an attempt to elevate the urgency and literacy of the piece, wringing the last drops out of those three-chord progressions when a lesser troubadour with a suspect work ethic would have settled and moved onto something else. Tim Armstrong sneers and cackles it out in there with an unlikely loose-ends precision and the urgency of a wild-eyed, disheveled schizophrenic wearing a sandwich board proclaiming "The End Is Near" while the band pounds and pummels the pace into adherence; the whole thing together sounds like a locomotive plowing through a boxing ring.

But it's when the song quiets down a bit when it turns into a ghost story, and transcends the three-chord confines of pop punk, a form of music that was bought and sold to Disney XM roughly around the time Milo came back and the Descendents put out Everything Sucks. The brevity of it all makes it more impressive. There's something tragic, haunting, and beautiful about it. But, really, it's the ethereal nature of the experience described, I think, that makes it so sublime:

Every time I go back to the East Bay I run into Big L
My old friend Big L, lord, he's not doing so well.
See, me and Big L grew up across the freeway from the track.
Yes, we spent many, many, many, many days at the track.
I see Big L come rolling up the street
On his little sister's pink, ten-speed.
He said, "Tim, Tim, don't you remember me? Way back in 1973?"
And every time I see him he has to remind me
Like I would ever forget Big L
But then he's gone like a flash
There's something hallucinatory about the image of Big L riding into the center of the songas the band has cleared some space for him by laying back a biton his little sister's pink ten-speed, left behind, frozen in time and pleading, "Tim, Tim, don't you remember me?" And it's rendered all the more heartbreaking given the assertion that "[m]y friend Big L, lord, he's not doing so well." Saddened that his childhood friend, whatever his state, could even suggest that their bond is anything less than lifelong, Armstrong's response, "Like I could ever forget Big L," pulses like an open wound. And just when Big L's about there, just when Tim is about to come face to face with his childhood friend, in this place where he spent his childhood, "he's gone like a flash." It's stunning and confusing, otherworldly and haunting. It's all so fleeting, man.

After listening to it once, chills surging down my spine, I listened to it again, and a strange but very real concoction of euphoria and melancholy rushed through my being. Then, the third time I listened to it, I started crying. Not uncontrollably, but not timidly either. Just crying.

I haven't cried in a long time; and there's no telling how long it's been in relation to being moved to tears by artistry. This was something. Immediately I remembered one lovely spring Saturday afternoon in 2001: I was comfortably seated in our one-bedroom in Chicago's Ukrainian Village neighborhood watching The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly on our recently procuredbut, years later, doomed to be rejected by the Salvation Army as worthless, sent away to find a sympathetic Best Buy employee who would afford it a place in Best Buy's recycling program instead of saying, "Fuck it, let's just 'recycle' this fucker into the dumpster"32-inch mammoth of a television and, due to an unfortunate union forged by price point and infancy of the technology, surly and misshapen DVD player, which still, together, mercifully replaced our 13 inch and VHS player. My girlfriend (now wife) Melissa was on our back porch studying: I had only recently realized that she was going to make good on her threats to go to graduate school at the Teachers College at Columbia University in New York. Of course she was and, Jesus, thank Christ she did, but this was something that I had previously been too dumb, blind or self-absorbed to recognize, or was a scenario I was out of desperation unwilling to entertain as likely to occur. I was so moved by the Ennio Morricone score and the Eugenio Lardani titles, that I darted out to the porch to fetch Melissa. You have to watch this. Then, we sat down and watched the title sequence, and I turned into a blubbering mess, sniveling and spouting. "It's just so beautiful," I whimpered.

My point being: Yes, I cried because I was touched by the artistry of the title sequence of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. And on subsequent viewings I've teared up. But there was some shit going on that made it more likely that tears would be shed than if shit hadn't been going on. Which is why I immediately thought about that here, before thinking, Who cries at Rancid songs?

I had been walking, and I kind of just stopped and stood there. Not that I necessarily subscribe to the mysticism associated with the concept of an epiphany and its purported transformative nature, but this seemed to sort of approximate one: I was suddenly overwhelmed with joy and fear, and a longing and desperation to defiantly carry the burden until I can no longer feel its weight. I've had anxiety issues for years, but it's been an especially rocky road for me the past few months, something that would probably be easier to cope with if there were a reason for it. But there isn't, and when I feel like I'm going to melt into a mess of sweat, organs and gristle because I'm trying to tackle basic things that people do every single day, I feel ridiculous. People have no food, no money, no family, no shelter; what the fuck do I have to worry about? I want to beat my chest and yell and scream, "Just fucking stop it!"

But what can you do?

So I'm standing there at Washington and Dearborn, just standing there, tears streaming down my face, eyes squinting from the sting of salt and the brilliant sunlight, and I'm thinking about how glad I am to be here, right now, experiencing this thing. I'm filled with wonder. I think about my kids, my wife, my lifelong friends in Texas; why shouldn't I feel lucky? I haven't felt like this is some time, maybe ever. And I'm thinking about how life is too shortand too longto be riddled with anxiety and sweating the small stuff because it's all amazing. It's all amazing. What do I care if someone takes my rulers, or my kids give me the business when I'm trying to get them in bed? And so I'm trying; I have a lot of work to do, but I'm trying.

There's that sage old advice: write what you know. That's what Armstrong did in this beautiful, ramshackle punk rock anthem; I don't know fuck-all about Golden Gate Fields or horse races or the East Bay, but he and his band facilitated an unlikely—and accidental—eye-opening experience for me by telling his very specific, personal story in a way that I could relate to wholly. And goddamn; that's a hell of a thing.

Friday, September 9, 2011

IKEA on a Budget

Usually when my wife Melissa says, “I have a crazy idea,” it involves some sort of shopping excursion to the suburbs. Woodfield Mall, Old Orchard Mall, IKEA, etc. And I’m not one of those guys who hates the idea of going shopping. I actually love the idea of going shopping and then wind up hating it when I’m there.

So a few Sundays ago Melissa volunteers, “I have a crazy idea. How about after naptime we go to IKEA?” This, I think, is a fantastic idea for several reasons. First and foremost, “after naptime” means around 4:00 p.m. And every parent of young children knows that Sunday from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.—or whatever your children’s bedtime—is like waiting for a table at a restaurant for four hours while listening to the collected works of Nickelback, or being stuck in an elevator listening to Nickelback for four hours, or being at a four-hour Nickelback concert.

On Friday nights, I invariably look ahead to the weekend and being in the company of my children with great aplomb. But by Sunday at 4:00, especially if we’ve been housebound for much of the weekend, I’m ready to abandon them at the fire station under the protections offered by the Illinois Safe Haven Program, even if they are a bit too old.

By 4:00 on Sunday, the tail end of the weekend, I’ve dutifully weathered an impressive amount of whining, even for children, who are known for their whining; have done the dishes approximately fifty times; cooked countless meals and prepared countless snacks that have wound up either on the floor or in the trash or in the refrigerator for a time before they wind up in the trash; and wondered, upon feeling the slow dread set in when there’s only five minutes left of Scooby Doo! Abracadabra Doo, after an amount of television viewing that cut in half would cause the American Academy of Pediatrics to suffer a spit take, Just what the fuck are we supposed to do now? Any respite from the unpleasantry of simultaneously waiting impatiently for the sun to get the fuck out of Dodge while plagued by guiltily realizing that there’s obviously something very wrong with you for feeling this way is heartily welcomed.

So I run some numbers in my head related to this proposed IKEA excursion. After naptime, it’ll be about 4:00. And by the time we get everybody out the door it’ll be 4:30. It’ll take about 40 minutes to get there; 5:10. We’ll leave there about 6:30, home about 7:10. 7:30 is bedtime.

“That’s a fantastic idea,” I offer.

You may think that we’re going IKEA to do some shopping; look for some chairs, some knickknacks, light fixtures, bookcases, etc. And you would be forgiven for thinking this, as if you were to remove all of the IKEA furniture from our apartment, there would be no place to sit except for on the newly orphaned piles of books and records. But no, we go there for “something to do.” You see, at IKEA, there is a play area you can drop your kids off for an hour at this magical place called Småland, whose method of operation initially had my eyebrows raised, wondering What’s the catch? Turns out, there is no catch: as long as your child meets the height/age requirement and is potty trained, he or she can shoelessly roam the play area freely, which includes a vintage Chuck E. Cheese-style plastic ball pit, indoor playground-type equipment, and Disney films showing on an HD TV, free of charge.

So, while most people go to IKEA to shop, we go there for a little break. And our five-year old son Mascis loves it. Usually he doesn't want to go anywhere, sometimes not even McDonald’s! But he’d been pestering Melissa to take him there. Though, for some reason, he gets the name mixed up with the Salvation Army’s: “Mommy, I really want to go to the Salvation Army,” he had confessed earlier in the week.

So on Sunday, we all happily headed to IKEA to take advantage of its free babysitting service. The only anxiety being that, since Mascis had a hot dog for lunch, we wouldn’t be partaking in their 50- cent (!) hot dogs. But I was reasonably certain we’d be able to figure something else out for dinner, given their surprisingly wide selection of cheap, disgusting food options.

So we dropped Mascis off, loaded our daughter Lulu (who at fifteen months is alas much too young to be dumped off at Småland) into a cart and started wandering around fairly aimlessly, feeling kind of like being at Whole Foods not to shop but exclusively for the free samples.

We determined that there was one thing we could use from IKEA, that being a five pack of cardboard magazine holders costing a whopping $1.99. We quickly located them, put one five pack in the cart, and then continued to wander around aimlessly among the suburban undead, with their defective internal compasses and deficiencies in ability to determine acceptable parameters of personal space.

Walking around IKEA (like pretty much every public place, I suppose) really punctuates that there are people who don’t know how to walk around, and their sole purpose is to infuriate people who do know how to walk around. It really illustrates the inevitable moment in the automobile’s infancy when the decision was made to invent traffic lights: We have to do something; these dumb fuckers are constantly smashing into one another left and right.

“I don’t know,” I drawled, trying to conjure some direction. “I kind of like looking at glasses.” “We could do that,” Melissa agreed. “I saw some glasses in someone’s cart that looked pretty cool. So, yeah, let’s do that.” On the way to locating the glasses, we passed the staged kitchen areas, which hadn’t really changed since the last time we’d been there. We had fun dissecting them previously, in a manner not dissimilar to commenting on the results of home makeover shows when they finally reveal the results, so why not give it another crack, I thought. “I sort of like that kitchen,” I said. “It kind of reminds me of a ’50’s farmhouse or something.” “I know what you mean,” Melissa countered, “but it’s way nicer.” We stopped the conversation there, as we had this exact conversation, verbatim, the last time we were there.

When we reached the glasses, we poked around to no avail. The glasses that Melissa saw earlier in someone else’s cart were either an anomaly or a hallucination brought on by sleep deprivation, as they were nowhere to be found. Melissa pulled on the rim of a wineglass housed in cardboard on an endcap to reveal a comically oversized wine glass. Big enough, I joked, for the freakishly large infant—most likely no more than five months old but already the length of a four-year old, having fat wrinkles bubbling from behind his knees, his thick neck holding his enormous and weird head up sturdily so he could search the depths of your soul with his disquieting eyes—slung over the shoulder of his frazzled father with a wearied brow, himself (in direct opposition to his surroundings) strangely assembled, who sweatily got on an elevator going down when he meant to go up.

We made our way through each of the three floors quickly and unceremoniously, punctuating the difference between an annual (delightful) and a semiannual (uneventful) trip to IKEA. Kind of like seeing a The Usual Suspects for a second time; you know the whole time what’s going to happen, and the construction and minutiae of it isn’t the slightest bit interesting if you already know how it’s going to end.

Before long, we notice a sign that reads, “All Summer, Kids Eat Free,” and I sort of paw at the sign, as if the words will wipe off to reveal an addendum like “weather permitting” or “certain exclusions apply” or whatever other sinister truth may be unearthed by rubbing a cardboard sign. But, no, there are no restrictions. That’s amazing, I think, my excitement immediately being replaced my guilt. We were already planning on having the kids eat there, but neither Melissa or I would be patronizing the IKEA eatery, as we had learned a valuable lesson on our last visit, having purchased and consumed the handsome but thoroughly icky buffalo-chicken wrap: even if it only costs five dollars, five dollars worth of shit is still shit.

But now, in addition to babysitting our son for an hour, IKEA was going to feed him and his sister for free. I’m fairly certain that when it put these plans into practice, IKEA didn’t have the family of four that spends a scant $1.99 there in mind.

But oh well. Our one-hour time allotment at Småland was coming to an end, so we decided to check out with our meager purchase. IKEA doesn’t supply bags for your purchases, which is fine, but Melissa asked, “What are we going to do—just walk around the store with it not in a bag?” “Sure,” I said, “I’ll just carry it around with the receipt and show it to anyone who wants to see it,” as if it were a credential of some sort. And I would, eagerly, rather than have someone ask me; I would rather preemptively wave it said person’s face, which is probably at least as annoying to him or her as it is for me to have someone ask to see it.

So we retrieve Mascis from Småland, narrowly avoiding being trampled by this misguided lady and her dumb kids, all walking at us ensconced in a mysterious trance to get to the elevators perched behind a turn style bearing bold red letters spelling out “Do Not Enter,” as the elevator was meant only to be entered from the other side of the turn style. After losing this game of chicken we became unwitting participants in, we made our way to the food court up on the third floor.

The food and ambiance on the third floor is fancy compared to the food and ambiance on the first floor. But, to put things in perspective, they only sell hot dogs, cinnamon rolls and ice cream cones on the first floor, so it’s a relative comparison. To say that the third floor restaurant is cafeteria-style would somehow insinuate that it is somehow a step above a school cafeteria, when, actually, it’s pretty much on par with one. They offer a 99-cent breakfasts of powdered eggs; sad, shriveled diced potatoes; and toast, with something approximating coffee, which seem like a great bargain before you sit down to eat your meal and a rip-off by the time you’ve finished. Even with lowered standards, it’s the pits.

But free is free.

Mascis has settled comfortably into eating chicken fingers in these kinds of situations, which is easy enough, but his sister is a little harder to please. She doesn’t really like chicken, but, oddly, she likes beef. So we got her the IKEA offering that most approximates beef—Swedish meatballs. Which is made out of God knows what. It seems strange ordering Swedish meatballs for a baby, for anyone, really, other than for an old man with bushy eyebrows and foamy deposits plaguing the corners of his mouth.

I decided to take Lulu to get a table, maybe feed her some crackers, as she was starting to get fussy. Mascis soon followed, which left Melissa alone to make the food purchase.

“Are these meals really for kids?” the lady working the register asked Melissa. “Because they’re really only free for kids.” “Yes, they’re for kids,” Melissa responded. “But are they really?” the cashier countered. “Yes,” said Melissa, starting to get a little weirded out by the cashier's tone. “Because we have to enter it in if they’re not,” the lady explained. “They’re for kids,” Melissa repeated. It almost seems as if this cashier took it upon herself to stage this impromptu interrogation; I have a hard time believing that the idea was: Hey, let’s offer free meals to children, and then, when their parents order for them, let’s make the parents feel like unseemly criminals by badgering them about whether the meals are really for their children. Maybe it will even dissuade them, if not from ever coming back to IKEA, than at least certainly from trying to get free meals for their kids again. Thatll show em.

The kids had two bites apiece, as usual, and Melissa and I scarfed down the rest.

We had promised Mascis an ice cream cone, but not a cinnamon roll as he had requested, because he had those for breakfast. (Apparently, our kitchen turns out food remarkably similar to that turned out by IKEA’s first floor eatery.)

So we go downstairs, wait in line, and when we get to the register, Mascis is tugging on my (by the nature of their being, stupid, godforsaken) shorts, meekly saying, “Daddy I need to tell you something.” “Just a minute, Daddy has to order.” I order three ice cream cones, one for me, one for Melissa (she kindly offered to share hers with Lulu) and one for Mascis. We get the ice cream cones, and move over to the strange area set aside for people to eat? I think? It’s somewhat unclear: Among the rabidly horrible prepackaged whole coffee beans (do not be persuaded by their inexpensiveness and attractive font), bulk Swedish Fish, and weird lingonberry juice boxes (possibly for witches-in-training) there’s one table with chairs and a few wobbly, chest-height (while standing) tables with no chairs.

I handed Mascis his ice cream cone. “Daddy—” he started, but I saw that the one dirty and ravaged table was miraculously unoccupied, and delightedly ran to it, as a nomad to an oasis. I took Lulu on my knee to share my ice cream cone (taking a cue from Melissa’s selfless gesture to share hers with our baby daughter, an idea that never would had occurred to me), handed Melissa hers, and asked Mascis, “What did you want to tell me?” “Daddy, I don’t want this,” he confessed pathetically. “I want a cinnamon roll.” I explained to him that we had talked about it, and that he had cinnamon rolls in the morning.

“But I didn’t want this,” he said, now crying, crouching down on the floor on one knee and hanging his head, yet still holding the ice cream cone erect, improbably.

By this point, my blood pressure was beginning to rise. What kid cries when you give him an ice cream cone? Mine, apparently. We’ve spoiled him to the point that he’s crying because we bought him an ice cream cone. If my parents bought me an ice cream cone when I was his age, the only reason I would shed tears would be due to their kindness in breaking the cycle of sweets deprivation. I would have gladly accepted any flavor or form of ice cream and carried the joy of having had it with me to bed in the evening. What a fantastic day, I would think. What a magical day of ice cream.

What a shit day, I was now thinking, half-assedly feeding an ice cream cone to my daughter, pretending that I cared more than I did that she liked it so that my son, in a state of total collapse, might notice that I was not thinking about how upset he was, which, of course, was all I was thinking about.

I smelled something very un-ice-cream-like, and recalled that Lulu was exhibiting some suspicious behavior when we were upstairs waiting for Melissa and the food to come; I had completely forgotten. So I reached down to stretch out the back of her diaper to take a peak, like you do, soiling my finger in a very unfortunate solution for its resurgence.

Melissa sprung into action: she went to the counter, grabbed a napkin, and dispensed some water on it from the fountain soda station. I wiped off my finger and threw the napkin in the trash. Melissa had finished her ice cream cone and offered to take Lulu to the restroom and change her. “Take these,” she said, and gave me the five pack of cardboard magazine holders we had purchased earlier. Removing Lulu from my lap revealed a large, damp spot on my (stupid, godforsaken) shorts, which I immediately realized wasn’t pee, which certainly would have been the lesser of two evils.

I’m not horribly squeamish when it comes to these sorts of things, but even the most hardened among us with no real bodily-fluid aversion would admit to this requiring immediate attention. I looked at my crumpled son on the floor, his arched back rolling in waves with every heaving shiver of five-year old teary moans. “Mascis, I have to go to the bathroom and wash my leg. I will buy you a cinnamon roll, but you have to come with me now.” He looked up, confused. “DO ... YOU ... WANT THIS?” I asked, sternly, slow with the weight of the question’s importance, taking the ice cream cone gently out of his hand. “Because if not, I am going to throw it away.” He indicated that he didn’t want it, and asked why I had to wash leg in the bathroom.

“Because sissy peed on it,” I said. Mascis’s constitution is more fragile than mine.

I tossed the ice cream cone in the garbage and shuffled him into the bathroom, and while I scrubbed my shorts and leg with soap and water, explained: “Look, I’m upset, and I’m not buying you the cinnamon roll as a reward, I’m buying it because I needed you come to the bathroom with me immediately because sissy peed on me, and I couldn’t think of any other way to get you to come with me. I’m not at all happy about having to buy you a cinnamon roll, especially because I told you before that I wasn’t going to get you one. And from now on, you aren’t going to melt down in the middle of a store because you don’t get what you want. I mean, come on, man! Things like ice cream and cinnamon rolls are not rights, they are privileges. If you don’t want the ice cream cone, fine. What do I care? I won’t buy it for you. But I also would’t buy you the cinnamon roll, because we already talked about how you were not going to get it.”

Are your eyes glazing over yet? Just imagine trying to pay attention to this as a five-year old. After we left the bathroom, I kneeled down, and asked him if he knew why I was buying him the cinnamon roll. “Because I was upset,” he said.

So I bought him a cinnamon roll, explaining again why I was buying it, if not to ruin it for him, then to at least make it a bittersweet affair. I got the distinct feeling that, though he was able to repeat the gist of what I was getting at, he didn’t really care, he was just happy to be getting a cinnamon roll.

Melissa came back with Lulu. I asked her if it was really bad, and she said, vibrating her head slightly, quickly, back and forth, “Oh, it was absolutely disgusting. I almost vomited.”

We all made our way to the parking lot, got in the car, and followed the ridiculously complex series of turns to make our way to I-90, then back to the city. We pulled in our garage at about 7:00 p.m.—almost bedtime!—and got out of the car and started gathering our belongings, mostly IKEA food garbage, from the car. “Where’s our purchase?” Melissa wondered, referring to the five pack of cardboard magazine holders we had purchased many moons ago. I then remembered that, flummoxed by the wetness of my daughter’s liquid waste on my leg, I completely forgot that I was put in charge of them, and left them in the ramshackle first floor IKEA café to be found by some sleepwalking slob chomping on a sensibly priced hot dog, caught unaware that his magazines or personal papers even needed to be organized.

May it bring him better luck than it did us.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Old Young Man's Blues

A few weeks ago, I came to the conclusion that I no longer care how I look. I was packing for a camping trip, just jamming a bunch of shit into a bag without really caring, championing comfort (flip flops, shorts, other things I should be embarrassed to wear) over all else. I don't even have sunglasses anymore. I've traded those in for actual glasses, in true adult fashion. It’s funny how I used to worry about how I looked in a bathing suit, I thought, as if I could not believe the folly of worrying about my appearance as I was wont to do in younger days. Too hairy, flabby, what do I care? I’m married, have kids. I’m at peace with it. My feet are all calloused and crazy, I have a trick toenail; what do I care?

I tend to do this a lot; bemusedly reaching some level of enlightenment, breathing deeply and laughing silently, imaginary brandy swishing around in my imaginary snifter as I shake my head in remembrance of the fool I once was. But this notion didn’t last long—they usually don’t, as I come to realize that I don't know anything. (I mean, Christ, I don't even know any of my friends' phone numbers.) Needless to say, I have since returned to looking at my male friends’ feet enviously. Summer is the worst for this line of thinking. In winter, everything's covered up, knees and feet; no worrying about what kind of socks look the least stupid with shorts. As if I didn't have enough to worry about with my stupid hair.

I've kind of always thought of myself as a fat kid even though I was only really a fat kid for about two years, maybe fourth through sixth grade. But somehow that feeling during those years really stuck with me and I carry it still today. By the time I was a freshman in high school I was hella bony, my face kind of resembling Skeletor's. All through college and beyond, my head was nearly shaved, and I kind of pictured myself as a punk rock guy even though I was in a band that wrote songs that, at times, tragically sounded like Better Than Ezra. After college, I put on an impressive amount of weight and paraded around in Gap clothing and like sandals and shit, because I thought it was the adult thing to do. This didn't preclude me, however, from smoking insane amounts of grass and writing lo-fi mini-rock operas that no one would ever hear.

A health scare forced me to lose a ton of weight, returning me to my Skeletorian days. I then grew my hair pretty long, determined to restyle myself as a harbinger of some sort of ill-defined new rock and roll explosion, one that sprinkled insufferable pretension and heavy-duty guitar riffs over songs whose lengths would give Yes pause.

I remember back in these long-haired days I seldom worried about how ridiculous my hair looked, ostensibly because by design it was pretty ridiculous. But it was intentional. Now I look at pictures of myself from back then and think I look like a sickly foal.

One day I looked at myself in the mirror and noticed the length of my hair in relation to my aging skin and thought, Boy, I really don't want to see what that dude looks like when he's old. So I decided to chop it all off. I remember when I cut off all my hair people would say, “Oh it’ll be so much easier to take care of now.” And this has turned out to be patently untrue.

With long hair, it kind of always just fell the same. If it got a little too long, I'd cut it. Sooner or later. Didn’t really make a difference. And since you couldn’t see the back of my neck, it scarcely mattered if it was shaved close. Simple.

Now I have a beard and short hair, which you would think is easier to manage. After all, beard, no shaving; short hair, no fuss, right? The first sign that something was amiss came with my wife’s correctly noting, “Dude, you need to shave your neck,” usually in the car on the way to a social engagement, at which time little to nothing could be done about it.

And perhaps most troubling, in addition to frequently shaving around my beard, which has proven to be just as difficult and time-consuming as shaving, I now spend most of the little time I spend looking in the mirror trying to judge the ratio of facial-to-head hair, something that is way more complicated and crucial than I would have imagined.

For years my wife cut my hair, but it just got to be a bit too much with the kids and whatnot (the last time my wife cut my hair, I was rocking my infant son in his car seat with my foot so he would stay asleep). So one Friday, knowing that there was a Hair Cuttery located next to my son’s pediatrician’s office, I though it brilliant to schedule a haircut during my son’s checkup, which was scheduled for the next day. So I called up and made an appointment.

When I got there the next day, I was asked who I had an appointment with by a lady who was completely frazzled. I said that I wasn’t sure; nobody had told me. She exasperatedly opened up what was presumably the appointment book and asked my name. I told her and she said, “That’s with Frannie.” “Okay” I said. She said that Frannie was running late. “Okay,” I said. Then she said that they don’t really take appointments. “O…kay?” I said, wondering, if they didn’t take appointments, how had I made one the previous day for the exact time that it is right now? In my experience, usually, if you call a place for an appointment that doesn’t take appointments, they’ll say something like “I’m sorry, sir, we don’t take appointments,” not “We’ll see you tomorrow at 8:30.”

She then begrudgingly told me to follow her, complaining about how she (Frannie, I assumed) always does this. My hopes for a wash—easily my favorite part of getting a haircut—were dashed when she had me sit in the barber chair, haphazardly swooshed and velcroed a smock on me before she began to furiously spritz my head with water from a spray bottle. “Gonna be a crazy day. Gonna be another crazy day,” she said, shaking her head, spritzing, lukewarm water running into my ears. A man walked in at this time, and she said, “Sir there’s going to be a bit of a wait. We’re missing Frannie.” Spritz spritz. Worry worry.

Right then, I realized that I would rather be just about anywhere else than trapped her with this person, whom, through no real fault of my own, I had upset gravely, and who, by the nature of her profession, was about to lunge sharp objects at my head.

“What number?” She asked. “I’m sorry?” I asked. “What number? 4? 5?” she continued. “Umm…I’m not sure what you mean.” “WHAT NUMBER GUARD . . . ON THE CLIPPERS?” she hollered, somehow managing to stifle the YOU IDIOT that was clearly meant to follow this question. “Uh, I really don’t know.” She rolled her eyes, and showed me the various guards that go on the end of the clippers in order to vary the length of your hair. “How about this one?” she asked. “That looks good,” I replied—it really could have been any length and garnered the same response, as I recoiled into the barber chair, now replete with nerve-induced back sweat—and she put it on and began buzzing away at my head.

I dared not tell her my preference for not using clippers—dictated by my wife’s preference for not using clippers. “I can tell they used clippers,” she would say, revealing an amateur by his or her tool preference, and, with a mere six words—the briskest of sentences—truthfully and efficiently deflating the enjoyment of a shiny new haircut.

“The next time someone asks you what number,” my Hair Cutterer said, sternly, “it’s a five.” Buzz buzz buzz.

The whole thing was over before I knew it, which is saying something, because generally when you’re in an uncomfortable situation, time drags on. When she was done, I paid her, gave her a reasonable tip, and her demeanor and tone changed instantly. “My name’s Lois,” she said, now beaming nearly psychotically and scribbling on a business card, “and these are my hours,” purportedly so I would know when not to make an appointment. Excuse me: when to not come in for a haircut, as they don’t take appointments.

It was only after I left that I realized that she had never asked me how I wanted my hair cut.

I then joined my wife and son at his pediatrician’s office. My wife inspected my head with her hands, squinting. “I can tell they used clippers,” she said.

Not long after, I became privy to a friend of my wife’s—a professional stylist!—who cut hair out of her apartment after she had her son. She did a great job, and I really enjoyed the whole experience. We talked about the minutia of being new parents, bands we liked, our former lives, and cigarettes, and she became a friend of mine. Everything about it was beyond pleasant, except for scheduling haircuts for after the kids’ bedtime on a weeknight became too difficult; I work from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.,and it's surprising how much that one-hour shift can throw a monkey wrench into the works. So I regrettably needed to get my hair cut on my lunch break, which was really the only free time I had available.

There’s three options within walking distance from my work. The first was to go to a salon, and spend upwards of fifty dollars (or, as I like to think of it, between six and ten pizzas, depending on where you or, rather, I order them from) on a haircut, which seems ridiculous, given that a fifty-dollar haircut for one as dumb as mine seems absurd; plus, I just couldn’t afford that. The second option was Supercuts at the Thompson center, by all means an unpleasantly drab experience: ten minutes of idle chitchat, clippers, no wash, B96; it's like getting your hair cut in the salon equivalent of one of those pop-up Halloween stores. It bordered on unacceptable, but it wasn’t as bad as the alternative, which was looking like a disheveled lunatic.

One of my biggest fears, which is all but predetermined, is winding up looking like an alcoholic middle-school math teacher: short-sleeve, light blue button-up; Coke-bottle glasses; puffy face; black oil-resistant Sears work shoes; wildly disheveled hair from perpetual neglect; the unmistakable look of surrender.

Then one day I went to the uncelebrated Supercuts and it was closed until further notice, because they were doing some kind of renovations. This seemed odd to me, because, if you’re going to a place like Supercuts, clearly you don't care about the environment. You just want a haircut like, right now. Couldn’t they have kept a chair amongst the rubble for emergency haircuts, lest they alienate their client base? (They certainly did with me.) So I began researching option three, the local cheapo barbershop.

The place I wound up isn’t really an old-school barber shop, per se, with the candy-cane barber pole and whatnot—Chicago certainly has those—but more like a holdover from the ‘80s; the kind of place that has weird books for reference purposes featuring pictures of people with wildly explosive out-of-date hairdos on pages that look like perhaps someone has liberally grazed or urinated on. The lady who became my “hair stylist” for the next year or so strictly due to her availability on the day I first went there, I’ll call Theresa, is by all accounts a lovely Latino woman, with a bit of a jaw abnormality that makes it appear as if she’s smiling and gritting her teeth at the same time, all the time. She was delightful to talk to; she shared stories of her kids’ sporting events, the tumults of dealing with the bullshit of her extended family (which travails she had little time for), how she would accompany a friend of hers to visit a loved one in prison (and how you’re not allowed to show any cleavage when you’re there, Thanksgiving dish preparation, and the time she thought her son disappeared, but it just turned out he spent the night in the family car.

The biggest selling point, however, was that I could get my hair cut during my lunch break. The haircut was marginally better than Supercuts or Hair Cuttery and, though she would use clippers on the back, a cut included a wash, and she would even trim my beard. But then a sort of DIY ethos salon run by lesbians opened up in my neighborhood. Male haircuts cost $20, a mere $4 more than I was paying downtown, the difference being less than the cost of the cheapest pizza on my radar. And, not that I’ve ever indulged there, they offer you a PBR to chug during your haircut (although I must confess that I’m not quite sure how this would work, unless they also give you a straw). The decision to jump ship was an easy one to make.

By all accounts, my experience there has been uniformly pleasurable. I’m pretty much relegated to getting a haircut within whatever two-hour period of time on Saturday or Sunday (again, work makes it impossible for me to get there on a weekday) we don’t have some museum, park, play date or birthday party to go to, meaning that—even though I try—making an appointment with the same person isn’t really possible. Which leads to a bit of awkwardness every time I’m there, as I’m not really sure if the person who cut my hair the last time, if they even remember me, wonders why I’m getting my hair cut by somebody else.

At this point, I think I’ve had my hair cut by just about everybody who works there, and the conversation is usually unusually great. There’s something comforting about having your hair cut by someone who swears unabashedly, talks about smoking pot with her 13 year-old niece at a time share in Orlando, is dreadfully hung over, or talks about how his mom responded to his coming out. And I get the benefit of being able to talk about being a dad and having a square job in my normal voice, rather than one affected to appeal to the most general audience. (One of the guys, a gay man, who cut my hair seemed encouraged by our conversation, volunteered that it seemed like cool people were having kids now; I decided not to burst his bubble by pointing out that, if you have kids and you’re getting your hair cut by a gay man at a salon run by lesbians that offers canned beer to its patrons, you’re probably not representing the majority of parents out there, for better or worse.)

At any rate, I love this place, even though no haircut I have gotten has been the same. In fact, I came out once with my hair parted on the opposite side than when I went in. But I don’t give a fuck. I wholeheartedly love the experience, the people, that it’s an independent business in my neighborhood, and, not least of all, the price.

But now I find myself back in the same position as I have so many times in the past. It’s been months since I’ve had a haircut, due to scheduling difficulties. It used to be I felt like we got invited to nothing, but now, with all these kids’ birthday parties, I feel like we’re in an elite circle of socialites, constantly responding to online invitations: “We’ll be out of town. Boo!” or “We have another party early, but should be by late afternoon before we’re having our own party in the evening, which you are certainly invited to!” It’s dizzying.

I sometimes see my ex-stylist Theresa on train on my way home, and I imagine it’s a lot like how most people feel running into an ex-girlfriend, though, as I don’t have many ex-girlfriends and they’re good people, I can’t really equate it with that. “I haven’t seen you in awhile,” she said upon our last encounter about a week ago. “Mmm. Ha-ha. Yeah,” spilled out of my mouth as I got off at my stop. What could I say?

Which brings us to the facial-to-head hair ratio, a rather difficult terrain to navigate; risky business. If your hair is overgrown and you trim your beard too short, you wind up looking like Ken Burns. Of course, it’s easy to manage if all you do is use clippers for both, but this tactic demonstrates a lack of finesse or bother. It's the tactic employed by the same people who were the demographic for those who would rather hook up a contraption to their vacuum cleaner than pay someone six dollars, let alone get off the couch, to cut their hair. Though it is most certainly a way to avoid the dreaded alcoholic middle school math teacher appearance fate that assuredly awaits me, that’s not me, man.

When I go too long without having a haircut, there will inevitably a time, usually some morning, when after having a serious conversation with my wife or disciplining my son, I’ll see my reflection in the bathroom mirror, notice how insanely explosive in all directions my hair is, I'll replay the conversation I just had and wonder how anyone can take anything seriously this guy with the extremely fucked up hair says.

So, since the deluge of children’s birthday parties and other family events this summer have made my getting a hair cut virtually impossible, in order to not upset the hair-to-beard ratio, I did what any reasonable person would do: after coming up empty at Walgreen's, I ducked in the neighborhood dollar store that is going out of business and bought an orange (the only color they had) bandana for 85 cents. (See the aforementioned going-out-of-business comment.)

I put it on that evening, as we were putting my son to bed, thinking, Hey—here’s a solution to my problem. Plus, it’s like, cool and stuff. I’ll wear this headband; it’s like I’m the doomed muscle-bound cool guy in like Friday the 13th or something.

Every night, my wife, son and I have sharing time—which may sound even more hippieish than wearing a headband—where we each take turns recounting what happened during the day that we found “good,” “silly” (a recent addition upon my son’s recommendation), and “frustrating or sad.” The headband died instantly, as, when we all settled into my son’s room, my wife could not restrain from covering her mouth, laughing gutturally, and pointing at my head. To no one’s surprise, my headband proved a shoe-in for her “silly” thing of the day.

The next morning, as I was getting ready for work, I decided that my beard, approaching braiding length and somehow making my eyes appear to be weighted with a deep disturbance for which bloodshed of the innocent offered the only release, could no longer be neglected, facial-to head hair ratio be damned. I put the adjustable guard at seven—a full two above five, which number in relation to guards I shan’t ever forget—and hoped for the best, investing the 20 minutes in an endeavor not likely to have a positive resolution, but at this time seemed like the lesser of two evils. After showering, dressing, brushing my teeth and plastering my hair with surf goo, I took a good look and, sure enough, the facial-to-head hair ratio had been irreparably disturbed, at least without the intervention of a professional. Despite my best efforts, my head looked like a shriveled, overcooked potato below, a cacophony of discarded Easter basket grass up top.

I remembered my thoughts a few days earlier, the briefest flirtation with a certain weightless relief in finally reaching an apex in not caring how I looked. You know, I thought, turning my head this way and that, slowly, with a sort of defeatist’s vanity, I wouldn't care how I looked if I didn’t look so fucking stupid all the time.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

I Had a Dream, I Had an Awesome Dream Part 2: I Had Another Dream, I Had Another Awesome Dream

Transcription of miniature tape recording. The morning of Thursday, April 14, 2011.

I just woke up from one of the most startling and prophetic dreams I’ve ever had. It was punishing in both content and length, having long, hyper-realistic and unnerving stretches where nothing much happened, similar to those found in a Michelangelo Antonioni film. I can’t help feel that there’s something profound to be learned from it, possibly answering the question “Is there a God?”

The dream begins with my going to see the new Muppet movie, presumably the one Jason Segel is writing. Since this film, titled The Muppets, is slated for release on November 23, 2011, this dream most certainly takes place in, and in fact may be a warning from, the near future. In my dream, the only theater that is playing this film is located at Cherryvale Mall (which in reality no longer has movie theaters) located just outside Rockford in Cherry Valley, Illinois.

When I was growing up, Cherryvale Mall was (and still is, I suppose) the premier mall in the Greater Rockford Region. When I was in college, a friend of mine from some weird small town that the people who live there probably have never heard of confessed that its inhabitants routinely drove an hour and a half just to go to Cherryvale. Both Cherryvale and, to a lesser extent, Colonial Village Mall were exclusively for the folks who lived on the east side (of the Rock River); the side of town which, if you were of a certain mindset (as I was), seemed to be exclusively inhabited by rich people. North Towne Mall and Machesney Park Mall were the people’s malls; malls for the working-class stiffs who lived on the west side, rummaged the bakery for day-old bread and watched network television because they couldn’t afford cable.

We always went to Machesney as my dad refused to go to Cherryvale. Though the malls had a nearly identical roster of stores, my father claimed that at Cherryvale they “jacked up the prices,” a belief he maintains to this day.

There was an element of distrust ascribed to Cherryvale by the working-class folk, like its sole reason for being was to pull one over on you. But there seemed to be a mutual respect inherent in shopping at Machesney: Thank you, JCPenny, for this affordable acid-washed denim jacket.

These days Machesney and North Towne are in pretty rough shape, as is the majority of the west side of town. And Colonial Village has been purchased by Heartland Community Church (aptly described by usachurches.org as a “mega church”), whose slogan is “A Different Way to Do Church,” which apparently means (a) in a converted mall where the pastors wear light-washed tapered jeans and loafers, (b) using those buzz-kill headset microphones that Sammy Hagar modeled on the “5150” tour (which, incidentally, Colin Quinn also wears in his latest HBO special, which is the sole reason I refuse to watch it), and (c) offering the particular brand of worship lenient enough to supplement “The Message” with embarrassing rap parodies or silly rock orchestrations possibly written in homage to Savatage mounted on the pulpit.

While Machesney and North Towne have had to settle for inhabitants like Great Clips, Big Lots!, and seemingly inaccurately—but disappointingly accurately—named restaurants like “21st Century Buffet” in a fashion similar to the way that your Aunt with crushingly low self-esteem had to settle for shacking up in a trailer park with your slob of an uncle—I know he’s not perfect, but my psoriasis and tooth decay don’t bother him—Cherryvale has thrived, and is the last mall standing.

And it appears space is at a premium there, because it is no longer sufficient to merely have stores; every inch of space must be taken up by kiosks and aqua-massage machines somewhat resembling a marriage between the Batmobile and William Hurt's sensory deprivation tank in Altered States. Here and there and everywhere, young hucksters with bluetooth headsets callously thrust hastily copied and jaggedly cut fliers at your person, advertising cell phones that seem not only shady but somehow dangerous, as if they are the methamphetamine equivalent of wireless technology, while some poor sap in a too-big, no-iron shirt and tie combination obviously sold together attempts to trip you up with an impossibly fast remote control hamster.

Call me old-fashioned, but unless it’s like a lemonade or something, I’m not buying anything from a kiosk. “Hey, I like your airbrushed shirt. Where’d you get it?” “I got it at the mall, in the area that used to be designated for people to walk. They set up like these little huts there, like the Ewok village. I also got these Family Guy pajama pants, a foot-long egg roll, a bottle of Vin Diesel cologne, a few body piercings, and this light-up dummy cell-phone that plays “E.T.” by Katy Perry and is filled with neon green kiwi-flavored edible paste.” They should identify this section of the mall on the directory as “Snake Oil.” It’s like you half-expect Jesus to show up (possibly in Crocs and brandishing a waffle cone) and angrily tear the place down in disgust—you know, like he does in Jesus Christ Superstar—and turn it into a Heartland or something. I wonder if optometrist Sanford Ziffthe, creator of Sunglass Hut, is celebrated and revered within this sect of the business community, as he is clearly its progenitor.

When I was younger, I rarely went to Cherryvale. In fact, I felt like a traitor when I was there, as if I was a budding socialist at Wal-Mart comparison-shopping for an army jacket. But I remember it well, and this dream version of Cherryvale was the version I knew in my youth; a little more spread out, containing a Walgreens and a movie theater.

I was with my brother; we purchased our tickets from the box office, removed our shoes (of course!) and entered into the theater. The inside of the theater was some sort of outdoor café on a hillside whose sole purpose seemed to be to prop up the huge mansion on stilts there. It was nighttime, and the fuzzy yellowish light emanating from the mansion's countless windows was barely adequate to guide us to a black steel patio furniture set where two gentlemen were seated, playing cards. Upon taking the only vacant seat I realized that my brother was gone, and that one of the guys playing cards was Dr. Dre.

Wow, it's Dr. Dre,
I thought. I had to say something, as I was now seated at their table and it would be weird to just sit there in silence. “So,” I asked him, “what do you think about this Muppet movie?” He laughed, said, “Man, I don’t know,” and took a hit from a curious-looking blunt. Dr. Dre, you’re not so tough, I said to myself, before Dr. Dre took another hit from his blunt without passing it along. You're also stingy with your pot, I thought.

I looked at his blunt a little more carefully, and realized that—I assumed as a high-caliber take on rolling a joint in grape-flavored Swisher papers—he had rolled his blunt with actual grape leaves. That’s some Roman Empire-type shit right there, I told myself. “Yeah, well,” I said nervously, “they say this new Muppet movie is pretty good.” Dr. Dre laughed dismissively and said, “Man, I’m just here looking for beats.”

Hmm, I thought, a true professional, always on the lookout for beats, even while at a screening of the new Muppet movie!

At that, an air raid siren went off and searchlights haphazardly began spewing mammoth cones of unfocused white light in every known direction. Everybody started screaming in terror and running tentatively, then assuredly. I too ran, flailing my arms and feeling my heart threaten to rupture the veins in my neck, all the while screeching like Alfred Molina does in Raiders of the Lost Ark when he is assailed by the remains of Forrestal. We—by now an enormous mob of hunted game—splashed through a shallow body of water before settling into what appeared to be a church basement.

People were calmer now, some sitting on the floor, others in folding chairs. I could hear the unspooling of film reels and the flicker of a film projector, but couldn’t locate it or see any projection. Just as I was thinking this, we were besieged by a modestly sized but enormously frightening projection of the bust of a perhaps wooden character wearing, presumably, tails and a Victorian cravat, looking like a mix between Andy Serkis and Crispin Glover in Willard, with jet-black, slicked-back hair and black marble eyes. Almost instantly upon appearing, he gurgled, “Fellow Martian-mallows, blerg ... hack ... marack ... balak ... takk ... gock ... tilk ... brack,” while an all-too-real tongue slobbered around on his chin, and a greenish-tinged motor-oil-like substance oozed from his wooden mouth in amounts both disturbing and improbable.

Holy fucking shit,
I thought. This is the new Muppet movie?

The projection stopped abruptly, the lights went on, and all of the church basement dwellers—unnervingly calm now—started collecting their belongings, gently, gently, and filing out the double doors leading to the Cherryvale Mall Theater lobby.

And that's when I realized, Hey—this isn’t the new Muppet movie! This is some sort of program designed to brainwash people—by using this strange form of organized religion— into never leaving the mall! But it didn’t work on me, for some reason.

Now I knew what I had to do: break the fuck out of Cherryvale Mall.

But it wasn’t as dramatic as all that. It was actually really, really boring. I wandered around the mall under an umbrella of the echoes of the people who hadn’t yet screened the new Muppet movie covering for the lack of noise coming from the mutes who had been brainwashed, forced to roam without purpose in service of an unknown type to an oil-spewing wooden puppet of some sort with a loose religious affiliation of unknown denomination.

As I walked around the mall, I noticed I was barefoot, but I wasn’t about to go back to the movie theater to get my shoes; there was some weird, shady shit going on there. I moved slowly, suspiciously around, trying to find a way out. But before I could locate an exit, I noticed a Coconuts—the now-defunct music store recently acquired by the soon-to-be-defunct FYE—and they were having a going-out-of-business sale!

So I spent a long time roaming around in there, looking at posters (I remember one was of Cinderella frontman Tom Keifer), and thinking, Who on earth is going to buy this shit for $7.99?

After deciding that the clearance prices at Coconuts were more expensive than the full prices charged by online retailers, I resumed looking for a way out. I located an exit, but it looked tricky to navigate, as it was a winding corridor leading to a loading dock and appeared to be guarded by the dude who fired the death star ray that blew up Alderaan in Star Wars.

Defeated, I wandered around for what seemed like hours, barefoot and window shopping, all the while aware of the slow-boil in my stomach waiting to either erupt in a full-on panic certain to cause my sudden death or dissipate and permeate from my pores when my current situation was resolved. I had to do something. Now was the time for action: I needed to retrieve my shoes.

So I journeyed back to the theater, arriving just in time to see a new batch of freshly converted zombies exiting the theater. I walked up to the guy who was hunched over the concession stand counter where he was working—I’m pretty sure he was a young Ernest Borgnine—and asked him if anybody had turned in any shoes to the lost and found. It was at this moment that I realized that (a) I had not only left the pair of shoes I was wearing behind, but also a brand new pair of shoes I had bought earlier from Sears, though I couldn’t remember what they looked like, and (b) there were no concessions for sale.

Without looking up from the crossword he was doing in the artlessly folded newspaper section he was holding, he mumbled “baahhh” and motioned over by the wall, where I saw a horrifying, mountainous graveyard of mismatched shoes. Are they killing people for their shoes, I wondered.

Of course, I realized. They’re killing people for their shoes!

"Thanks for your help," I warbled nervously to young Ernest Borgnine, who now looked up from his crossword with suspicion and picked up a phone from behind the counter. Why did I come back here, I asked myself. And what happened to my shoes?

Now there was no option: I had to accept the search for my missing shoes as a lost cause and make my escape through the exit I had seen before, knowing it was going to be the most difficult thing I had ever done. How would I get past the menacing guard?

I sprinted through the mall, whizzing by dozens of poor saps doomed to roam the confines of Cherryvale with no purpose (for all eternity?) before snaking my way through the dingy white corridor while fluorescent lights and cheap drop-ceiling tiles took turns soaring over my head until I reached the door to the loading dock and smashed it open. Still running, I saw, parked in the loading dock, a delivery truck for what appeared to be a cheap Doritos knockoff called “Shock-itos,” and I remember thinking, Wow, that’s pretty lazy.

And then there, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the dreaded guard, unwavering in his battle stance and resembling a jet-black salamander, menacing and sleek, ready; his sole purpose being the prevention of the very type of escape I was attempting. His rigorous training in this capacity would make him a fierce competitor indeed. The battle would surely be intense, victory only awarded to he with the most endurance and tolerance for pain.

I ran up to him, pushed him, and he fell over.

I hopped in the truck, where my brother was waiting. He started the engine, and we took off from the dock. I wondered if there were any Shock-itos in the back.

There was a really old, boxy TV mounted on the dashboard—obscuring roughly 75 percent of the windshield—showing what looked like outtakes from a film: Brittany Murphy’s smiling, tears streaming down her face as she is reacting to hearing news over the telephone. As the romantic score swells, she starts shaking and crying harder, quivering,“I’m so glad that everything is going to be all right.” “And cut!” an off-screen voice says before Brittany contends, “I can do it better.” The off-screen voice says, “OK. Roll film, sound, and ... action!” and the whole scene plays again.

So sad, I thought, that Brittany Murphy's last film is this bullshit Muppet movie. I rip ped the TV off the dash and threw it in the back, where the Shock-itos presumably would be.

It was very dark outside. We squealed out of the dock and, despite our best attempts to break the sound barrier, puttered out of an enormous parking lot jam-packed with cars (after all, people were coming into the mall without leaving) as my brother relayed that the tires were nearly bald. “They must smooth them out,” he said, “so nobody can drive fast.” This isn’t over, I thought. We made it out of the mall, but if they don’t want us driving fast, their grasp must reach beyond the confines of Cherryvale.

My brother was driving down a gravel road that led out of town—and danger—as fast as he could, though the truck was weaving around a lot due to the baldness of the tires. If we can just make it to the border, I thought, we'll be free. Up ahead, we saw a makeshift little shantytown to the right, and the glow of torches coming into the road. As we neared the glow of the torches, they were revealed to belong to a group of Amish people forming a human blockade at the border.

“We are but a simple people,” one of them shouted as we approached. “Please stay and join our community. We need your shoes!”

“Go! Go! Go!” I shouted, as my brother slowed down. "Run them down," I commanded, as the truck slowed. “What are you fucking doing?” I was screaming now. “Run them over! Run them over! Run them over!”

And so here I am, awake and now alert, with the urgent feeling that I have just experienced something revelatory subdued and shrunken to almost nothing, saddled with the knowledge that I would fervently condone running over a human blockade if it meant escaping to Wisconsin.

. . . .

The next evening, according to my wife, I woke up in the middle of the night and said, “Cookies. Tee-hee-hee. Um-num-num-num-num-num-num-num.”

“Brent?” she said, but I was still and smiling, awash in the luxury of unmemorable sleep.

Friday, April 15, 2011

On Being a Shithead

When I started Donkeyshame, I never had designs on posting all the time, only when I had something interesting to say. Which is kind of funny, because, looking over it now, most of these posts—the most recent being more than two years ago—are if not embarrassingly insipid then at least wholly unimportant. At the time I was still reading the Chicago Sun-Times every day (which sadly seems absurdly antiquated to me now), and I think I was trying to find a voice similar to Mark Brown or Neil Steinberg, neither of whom I am particularly fond of.

At any rate, in my mind Donkeyshame has been active the whole time, which I realize makes no sense at all. But you see I’ve been working on something— let’s call it the “Pilots project”—that required, for me at least, a great deal of research and time investment, and a clarity of purpose, which seems these days to be ever more obscured by a dense layer of fog, perhaps of my own device.

I am now beginning to accept that the Pilots project is at worst a small-scale disaster on a personal level and at best an excuse to procrastinate and be lazy about writing: I’ve had ideas both great and terrible in the duration, but, for better or worse, I’ve shelved them because the Pilots project needed to be my next piece. I read The Shining and sat through the entire stupid mini-series of The Shining, listened to the fucking commentary track by the hack director, Steven Weber and Stephen King, thinking that I was going to write something about it after the Pilot project was completed. And now, it’s been so long, I can barely remember anything about any of it. What a waste of like, 50 hours. For some shit I don’t even like.

Yesterday morning, after wresting myself from the grasp of an especially wacky dream, my first instinct was to write about it. But then I remembered that unspoken rule in my head, the one where I can’t write anything until I finish the Pilots project. I instantly realized that, in my writing something, anything, and putting it out there, I would remove this self-imposed exile from writing and, by damning the Pilots project—the exact type of piece that had been the reason for the creation of Donkeyshame—to an unknown fate, I might just save the whole fucking thing.

I’m not sure why I was so shocked when I recently realized, upon finishing all the punishing research for the Pilots project, that the two years I spent (at my leisure) doing research and watching shitty out-of-print movies in ten-minute segments on YouTube was the easy part of the endeavor; trying to spin something out of what my Grandmother would call “oodles” of notes that don’t necessarily add up to anything (or maybe they do) it is the hard part.

So I’m trying to convince myself that if the Pilots project is not the next thing, that the occurrence is not necessarily a failure. Or, if it is a failure, then that’s okay.

I have this mentality that’s all like I can’t do this if I don’t finish this, which doesn’t even make any sense because I’m always working on 27 different things at once (currently, demos for my now-defunct band, the Pale Gallery, working on forming a new band, writing two screenplays (mostly in theory), writing this dumb Pilots project, and recording a hip-hop record that I’m certain will be fantastic, though I would never tell you that in person, because, actually, I’m certain it will be terrible).

Plus—the Pilots project is not even suited to the blog format. It’s got footnotes.

I’ve known that I was going to at some point have to write this, and have been dreading it, because I don’t even really like the conversational aspect of blogs. I love film criticism more than the Mark Maron podcast; I want this to be the résumé on heavy-test paper, even though they tell you not to do it that way these days.

I can’t even write a blog the way it’s supposed to be written. But being a blogger had never been of much interest to me, whereas being an essayist and film critic has always been an ambition of mine. I'm going to be posting more frequently here (hopefully), but I decided to also start another blog completely devoted to film, which will mostly be a collection of capsule reviews for films I happen to watch, and perhaps some longer pieces of criticism, such as the long-stewing and troubled Pilots project.

You win some, you lose some. Fuck it.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Twenty-Six is the New Ten

So there's this thing going around on Facebook where, if you are tagged, you're to come up with the ten albums that influenced you the most throughout your life. Finding that too difficult (or easy, I'm not sure which), and having a lot of free time today at work, I decided to expand on it. I have organized them in order of when they made an appearance into my stupid life, as opposed to when they were actually released. Why not, you know?

  1. Def Leppard—Pyromania (1983). I would watch MTV’s Friday night video fights over at my friend Kurt’s house, and “Photograph” was unbeatable. I thought that they all looked so cool. It’s funny now to look at how ridiculously they’re dressed, and notice the cheapness of the set. Then, it looked like the future or something. So did the video for “Foolin'." I still love this record and think it sounds like it's from the future.
  2. “Weird Al” Yankovic—In 3-D (1984). My first case of hero worship. I was obsessed, for years, with this man. I loved his originals—“Midnight Star” and “Nature Trail to Hell” were my two favorite songs on this record, and I sampled the latter a few years ago on an Air Mack record.
  3. White Lion—Pride (1987). As an aspiring guitar player, Vito Bratta was my Eddie Van Halen. I pretty much learned how to ply guitar listening to this album. His guitar playing on “Wait” and “Little Fighter” still freaks me out. Every time I’ve ever seen my friend Kurt play acoustic guitar, he’ll invariably play a handful of Hank Willams songs before finger picking the intro from “Little Fighter.”
  4. Metallica—Master of Puppets (1986). Made me realize that there was heavy music that wasn’t about lusting after women. I rode my Huffy to the K-Mart on North Main Street (where Kurt, Chris, John Lindmark and I, for the most part, would buy our metal tapes) and bought it there. We all instantly loved it. Jeff Massey would later work there.
  5. Rock City Angels—Young Man's Blues (1988). I remember seeing the video for “Deep Inside My Heart” and buying the tape immediately thereafter. I thought they were going to be huge. To me, it was the best thing I had ever heard. They were peers of Guns 'n' Roses, kind of bluesy and punk rock (as far as mainstream hard rock goes), but they never caught on. They had a six-million dollar record deal with Geffen, put out one single and three-sided double record, then disappeared. In the locker room, Chad Sneath laughed at me, lodging, “I can’t believe you like that country metal band." And at the first dance that I was at with my first girlfriend, she asked me what music I listened to. “Rock City Angels,” I answered. "Have you heard of them?" “I’ve heard of them,” she said, “but I’ve never heard them.” I was pretty sure that she had never heard of them, but it was sweet of her to say. I wasn’t sure why we were the only couple slow dancing to “No New Tale to Tell” by Love and Rockets (I had never heard it before) until the chorus struck, when it became all too apparent. I had never felt so uncomfortable before.
  6. Public Enemy—It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988). My friend Jeff Thompson, who loved Anthrax and Megadeth, also loved PE. And since I loved Anthrax, I thought I’d give it a shot. I actually used to watch Yo! MTV Raps with some frequency (and owned cassettes by The Digital Underground, D.O.C. and Snap!) but had never really connected with a hip-hop group before (besides Run DMC). One day in psychology class (this was later, after the release of Fear of a Black Planet), an African-American classmate noticed my PE shirt and was like, “I bet you can’t even name all the members of the band.” I did, even including that Professor Griff was on suspension for Anti-Semitic remarks he made in the press. I instantly felt stupid, like I was taking something away from its true owner.
  7. The Cure—Disintegration (1989). I made a conscious decision, my Freshman year of high school, to try and clean up my image. I was a mulleted metal dude, and I thought that maybe I could try to be more social and outgoing so I could meet my one true love (I was never interested in “meeting girls,” just with finding a girl that I could be obsessed with and melodramatic about). So I replaced my mullet with a much shorter hairdo that wasn’t unlike what is found protruding from the head of Woody Woodpecker. I also started going to “steering committee” meetings (I still don’t know that the fuck that’s supposed to mean) and pretended to enjoy myself while building floats and washing cars. Mostly I just stood around nervously trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing (a ritual I engage in with some frequency to this day). At any rate, I started listening to The Cure, because my girlfriend listened to them, and she didn’t really like Rock City Angels. I got Standing on a Beach, and I thought it was okay, but when Disintegration came out, I listened to it and nothing else for weeks, maybe months. My life is very tangled up in this record and, each time I listen to it, it is with complete surrender—a very strange mix of longing, joy and sadness for experiences that range in spectrum from ethereal and passionate to drunken, joyful and communal. By the way, if anybody wants to hear a lo-fi, bashed-out, albeit very faithful rendition of “Plainsong” recorded by me and Kurt under the Scary Monsters moniker, I would be happy to send it to you.
  8. Various Artists—Say Anything Soundtrack. (1989) Pretty bad soundtrack, actually, but it did introduce me to the Red Hot Chili Peppers (who would, for a few years, be among my favorite bands) and Fishbone (another short-lived favorite). I absolutely loved the movie, seeing it six times in the theater. I wanted to be Lloyd Dobler. There’s a line, where Corey says to Lloyd: “me, I’m a great person, but you, you’re a great person.” I remember talking on the phone to a really good girl friend of mine, baiting her, trying to get her to tell me that I was a great person. “You’re a good person,” I would say. “Thank you,” she would say. “No, I mean . . . you’re really a good person.” “Thank you.” My first kiss was to “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel. It occurred in the back seat of my mom’s station wagon on the way back from a trip to St. Luke’s Episcopal church in Evanston for its “Advent Lessons and Carols” program. When we would eventually break up, I made a tape of just “In Your Eyes” over and over again on both sides and slid it into her mailbox along with a bunch of really shitty poetry.
  9. Jane’s Addiction—Ritual de lo Habitual (1990). My brother had Nothing’s Shocking and, after the nausea I felt the first time I listened to it had subsided, I listened to it again. And again and again. By the time Ritual came out, I was completely in love with them. They were still mysterious then. They didn’t grant a lot of interviews, Stephen Perkins was not yet in the boneheaded Infectious Grooves and this was years before Dave Navarro and his Something Wicked This Way Comes-fashioned beard/eyes and shaved hulking chest were revealed on network television and in the tabloids to belong to just some other fucking “dude” who played guitar and was totally into boobs. I liked the “we are serious artists” of it all. I liked the homoeroticism of it all. And the Christ imagery. And the deviant sex and drugs and rock and roll of it all. I still think it’s easily their best album, and “Then She Did” their most harrowing and beautiful song. The end still gives me chills: “would you say hello to my mom?/would you pay a visit to her?/she was an artist just as you were/I’d have introduced you to her/she would take us out on Sundays/we’d go laughing through the garbage/she’d repair legs like a doctor/on the kitchen chairs we sat on/she was unhappy just as you were.”
  10. Dinosaur jr—Just Like Heaven Single (1989). The first thing I heard by Dinosaur. The next would be Green Mind, which I got from the Columbia House Record Club, and it completely sealed the deal. What can I say? I had never heard anything like it before, and haven’t since.
  11. Bob Mould—Black Sheets of Rain (1990). I saw the video for “It’s Too Late” on 120 Minutes and, though, I don’t necessarily think it’s a great representative of his work as a whole, it’s still a pretty awesome song (even if it’s a total rip-off of “Do Ya” by ELO). And it led to a lifelong love affair with Hüsker Dü (and a two-album love affair with Sugar). I got through my first breakup by crying and playing guitar to this album in its entirety. Perhaps more than any record, this album has defined how I play guitar.
  12. The Jimi Hendrix Experience—Electric Ladyland (1968). Also a selection from Columbia House. I instantly loved this record, and used to listen to all 15 minutes and one second of “Voodoo Chile” over and over again. When it was discovered that my friend Kurt and I would be attending different colleges, he came over to drink some bourbon pilfered from a ramshackle liquor supply in the basement. We sat in the stairway of my house on Camp Avenue and got real drunk, all the time listening to Electric Ladyland on repeat. I puked in a wicker trashcan.
  13. Descendents—Somery (1991). My friend Khanh introduced me to Descendents offshoot ALL (we covered the immortal “She’s My Ex”) during our brief stint playing in a band together. I wouldn’t know anything about Fugazi, All, Descendents or Dag Nasty if it wasn’t for Khanh. The album featuring “She’s My Ex,” Allroy’s Revenge, is nothing special, but in the Decendents compilation Somery, I found punk rock that, for the first time, I could relate to. It was funny and corny and loud and well played and produced. Descendents, to me, are the natural predecessor to Weezer, Andrew W.K. and Damone; all bands that I love immeasurably.
  14. The Clash—The Story of the Clash Vol. 1 (1988). My freshman year of college, I was in some shitty art room making some ridiculous sculpture for some stupid sculpture class that was, like, the hardest class ever somehow (I got a D). There was some other dude there and we were talking about music. He told me: “do yourself a favor and get The Story of The Clash Vol. 1.” So I did. It was the first timeI hadn’t really gotten into Fugazi yetthat I liked, not only the songs of both singers, but the fact that there were two people that sang in the band. (I always hated the Mike Mills R.E.M. songs; now I pretty much hate all of the Stipe ones, too.) “Safe European Home” blew my mind apart and introduced me to early punk. The Clash also introduced me to the notion that you could incorporate different styles of music into punk (reggae, old-school rap, etc.) and that political music need not be stiff, angular and humorless.
  15. Ramones—All the Stuff and More Vol. 1 (1990). My brother introduced me to this, the best compilation of their material, probably because it’s mainly just their first two albums in their entirety (and some other shit). I heard this around the same time as The Clash, and I got it and got hooked right away. It was around this time that I started to feel stupid about all the shit that had I spent much of my life listening to and started to realize that my band, while trying to sound like Dinosaur, actually sounded like the Gin Blossoms. Now my son loves The Ramones, and even has a plate/silverware set emblazoned with their crest, thanks to the person who prompted me to write this ridiculous assemblage. (Thanks, Saher.)
  16. The Mr. T Experience—Milk, Milk Lemonade (1992). My friend Kurt worked the late shift at the college radio station at SIU (where we were both film students our freshman year of college) and I tagged along with him a couple of times. We heard a lot of great music for the first time there (and a lot of shit), the Mr. T Experience being a true discovery. Milk, Milk Lemonade was the first record I got of theirs and, while MTX is strangely soft and non-threatening for a punk rock band, I am a total sucker for Dr. Frank’s wry lyrics. They’re really funny. Also, MTX is endlessly tuneful. I love them. My brother took a picture of them when they played On the Waterfront in Rockford, got their autographs and had it framed. Pretty awesome.
  17. Eric's Trip—Love Tara (1993). Through listening to Dinosaur, I had started listening to Sebadoh and some other lo-fi stuff, but this was, for me, the first “lo-fi” album that actually sounded like a cohesive record, rather than a bunch of songs recorded in some guy’s bedroom or basement. I especially liked the combination of acoustic guitar and bombastic drums found on “Spring.” It really opened up the possibilities of what you could do with shitty equipment and microphones. You could record an album. (This is what I thought; in reality, engineering genius Bob Weston mixed the record.) When I would play drums, I tried to play like I was in this band.
  18. Pavement—Crooked Rain Crooked Rain (1994). I used to lie in bed listening to this album over and over, dissecting it as if it was a concept album. “Silence Kit,” with its verse blatantly lifted from Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” represented the birth of rock and roll, and its closer, “Fillmore Jive” marked the end of the "rock and roll era.” That’s it, I would think. I thought its legacy would be as the last great rock and roll record, which, fittingly, told of the story of rock and roll from beginning to end. It’s sort of like that, I guess.
  19. Archers of Loaf—Vs. The Greatest Of All Time (1995). I really liked Icky Mettle quite a bit, but this connected with me in a way that no other indie band had. It was fucked up, it was tuneful, angry and sad, and Bob Weston’s production on it is a gold standard for indie recordings. Vee Vee expanded on this musical formation and, though great, Greatest bests it, or anything else they had done or would go on to do. For me, their seminal record.
  20. Superchunk—Here’s Where the Strings Come In (1995). It was around this time that my future wife, Melissa, and I were spending a lot of time together. She absolutely loved Superchunk, and it was great to have that common musical interest. I would visit her in Champaign, IL, where she was studying Anthropology at the University of Illinois, and we’d hang out in her room (a converted sun porch, which was blistering hot in the winter from the disproportionate heat piped in) and she would just lose her shit on the chorus to “Green Flowers, Blue Fish.” And that’s when I fell in love with her.
  21. Blue Cheer—Vincebus Erruptum (1968). My friend Chuck introduced me to this record (I had seen the video for their version of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” on MTV’s Closet Classics), and it knocked me out with its bludgeoning, particularly unpleasant brand of longhaired blues. The dual guitar freakouts were unlike anything I’d ever heard before (now you hear it all the time). Blue Cheer was, purportedly, Jimi Hendrix’s least favorite band of all time. I think that’s funny.
  22. Black Sabbath—Black Sabbath (1970). I had no idea, until my friend CB played “The Wizard” for me, that Black Sabbath was actually good. Having come of age when Ozzy was in full-on soccer mom regalia (which I was totally into) early Sabbath seemed too old and comical for my tastes. I remember hanging out with my buddies Tony and CB at their crappy little coach house in Lincoln Park (the one bum building on the block), getting totally blown and listening to the first Sabbath album on vinyl, and just thinking it was the most awesome thing ever, from the instrumentation (particularly Bill Ward’s drumming) to the production. And of course those lyrics of Ossie’s: “Oh, no please god help me!”
  23. Chavez—Ride the Fader (1996). The first time I heard “The Guard Attacks,” I cried. Because of the sheer majesty to be found in the interplay of the guitar, bass drums and vocal melody.
  24. Rancid—Rancid (2000). I remember when my good friend and roommate Erik got the first Rancid record (their first self-titled endeavor) when we were in college and I fucking hated it, mostly because the bass is all over the goddamned place—it sounds like a can of extra-chunky peanut butter sprouted wings and is buzzing around your head incessantly. My brother-in-law loved them for a bit, too. After Life Won’t Wait got good notices, I decided to give them another shot. It would wind up being the perfect soundtrack to a road trip Melissa and I took to Toronto. But when Rancid (the band’s second self-titled endeavor) came out, they became my heroes. Unfortunately, neither my brother-in-law nor Erik likes them any more, so I find myself alone in my enthusiasm and adoration for Rancid (except for that first record, which I still think is pretty awful). Oh, well.
  25. Gillian Welch—Soul Journey (2003). I heard Gillian Welch playing at a Barnes and Noble in Manhattan while I was visiting Melissa, who was now my wife and in grad school at the Teacher's College at Columbia University. (I was still in Chicago trying to get my shithead rock and roll outfit off the ground.) I don’t think it was this record that they were playingI think it was Time (The Revelator)but I went out and bought Soul Journey, thinking it was the one I had heard. And, now, having heard all of her records, I have no problem saying that it is easily her best album. I have come to love it to an unreasonable degree, and it has provided me with a entry point into the music of The Carter Family and Alan Lomax’s field recordings (the “Southern Journey” series), both of which I find amazing.
  26. Wolf Parade—Apologies to the Queen Mary (2005). Though I have recently gotten pretty excited over The Blood Brothers, Black Mountain and The Brother Kite, among others, Wolf Parade’s Apologies to the Queen Mary was the last album I was completely enamored with. It was practically the soundtrack to my friends Kurt and Meredith’s wedding, and I remember spending a lot of time painting the room off of the dining room, which was to be my son’s room, anxiously awaiting his arrival. I finished it up and he was born two days later. At two and a half, he prefers At Mount Zoomer to Apologies, and went through a good three-month period of time where he would listen to nothing else in the car except for the first song on the record.
Lately, I've just been listening to a lot of Clipse and Black Flag. Except in the car—my son's new favorite: Samiam

Honorable Mentions: TeslaMechanical Resonance; The ActionRolled Gold; Alex ChiltonBach's Bottom; Faith No MoreThe Real Thing; Bruce SpringsteenNebraska; Polvo—This Eclipse; The CarsHeartbeat City; Daryl Hall and John OatesBig Bam Boom; T. RexThe Slider; Eddie CochranSomethin' Else: The Fine Looking Hits of Eddie Cochran; Black FlagWasted . . . Again; FantomasThe Director's Cut; The Who—The Who Sell Out; FugaziIn on the Kill Taker; Walt MinkBareback Ride; Guided by VoicesAlien Lanes; Soul Asylum—And the Horse They Rode In On; Hüsker Dü—Everything Falls Apart and More; Iron Maiden—Number of the Beast; Jawbreaker—Dear You; Samiam—You Are Freaking Me Out; Kingdom Come—Kingdom Come; Velvet Underground—White Light, White Heat; Morrissey—Kill Uncle; Pearl Jam—Ten; Iggy Pop—Lust for Life; Tommy James & the Shondells—Anthology; Weezer—Pinkerton.