Top Five Films About Music

The thing about doing a “top five” review of any pop-culture genre is that it easily can turn into frustrating, time-sucking exercise that absolutely none of my 12 readers will agree with me about.

I know from experience.  Way back in April of 2014, I did a piece on the top five television detectives.  It took five full days of writing and research and ended up being 4,000 words long.  You can find it here, if you are a fan of detective shows.

Nonetheless, I’ve discussed before how much I like the sub-genre of films that are about music, musicians, or the music industry.  I’m not sure why it touches such a nerve for me. I think it is because I view a love for music as such a universally unifying force. When a film that portrays that well, and throws in a great concert scene where the band or the performer connects in some kind of magical musical moment, it takes me back to when I’ve been in such a crowd.  Those are some of the happiest moments that I can think of.

So when I first discussed this topic with my wife, she asked the question I was avoiding:  What criteria are you going to use?  I wanted my criteria to be just two things

1.  I’ve seen the film

2.   I liked the film

But given the list of 20+ nominations that came in when I opened the topic up to my Facebook friends, I knew I’d need something to winnow down the list.  What I decided I was looking for were the films that both captured the raw passion of a love for music and managed to keep music as the main focus of the film.

The more I thought about it, virtually every good music film is a hybrid of some sort. A pure “focus on the music” is pretty rare.  But, I said I’d pick five.  Here they are:

#5–Searching for Sugar Man

This documentary almost fell of my list just because the first half leans heavily on making it a mystery film.  However, the story of Sixto Rodriguez, an artist known almost entirely by his surname, is so remarkable that it bears a careful look.The 2012 film, written and directed by Malik Bendjelloul, recounts the story of Rodriguez, a Mexican rock singer and composer who played in small clubs in his native Detroit and impressed a record studio enough to release his first album (Cold Fact) in 1970 and his second (Coming From Reality) in 1971.  Despite the enthusiasm of the men who had discovered and cultivated Rodriguez, the albums went nowhere.  His Dylan-like style and dedication to social justice, his anthems that spoke for the working poor, died on the vine.  He went back to a simple life of doing construction demolition to make ends meet at the same time that lurid stories began to circulate that he had gruesomely killed himself during a concert performance.  He simply drifted into obscurity.

The bulk of the film is dedicated to the search performed by two fans from South Africa where, unknown to Rodriguez, he had become wildly popular by the mid-90’s.  His music of rebellion against social norms resonated deeply with the oppressed people of the region.  Even though he was virtually unknown in the US or in his own hometown, he had become “bigger than Elvis” in South Africa.  The film unravels this discovery slowly (perhaps too slowly) and documents Rodriguez traveling to South Africa in 1998, stunned by the greeting from adoring crowds at six sold-out shows.

I chose this film because it proves that music, like The Dude, endures.  HIs songs of protest and change caught fire in a country where they were banned and where apartheid was used to oppress the masses.  The masses heard his voice and brought his music back to life.

#4–Love and Mercy

There were a number of fine bio-pics (“Ray,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” come to mind) to chose from, but the Bill Pohlad film was the one that stuck with me. Before I saw the film I considered the music of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys to be nothing but fun-loving, pop music that was the background of my adolescence even though I never drove a “woody” or spent anytime close to a surf board (regretfully).  Nothing wrong with that.

Wilson’s story weaves back and forth between the young Wilson (Paul Dano) and his older self (John Cusak).  The adult story line is compelling enough, as Cusak’s character tries to escape the smothering presence of his uber-manipulative agent and keeper (played creepily by Paul Giamatti), but far less interesting than the parallel story of the younger Wilson.

The core of the movie develops as Pohlad unfolds the musical brilliance that was behind all of that fluff.  The story he tells is of a young genius, who eschews the limelight of performance and touring to spend hour after hour working with studio musicians creating the sound of the Beach Boys.  In one such scene, Wilson passes out a single sheet of music to his crew who all go to work trying to interpret it while he bounces from the drums, to the cello, to the keyboards, coaching them along, assembling bits of music that are mostly in his head, and improvising on the fly.  The viewer has no chance to figure out what song is being assembled until the scene builds to the addition of the vocals and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” emerges, sounding like an entirely different song than the one I grew up with after witnessing it’s construction and Wilson’s incredible creative process.

The film builds around scenes like these, and I wish there were more of them.  There are enough though to paint the picture of how a person with a creative vision can pull together all the disparate pieces needed to create beautiful music.

#3–Once

One critic described Once (2007) as “a musical for people who don’t like musicals.”  I have to admit, I never thought of it as a musical, but director John Carney describes it that way, so I’ll have to take him at his word.

Set in Dublin, Once tells the story of a guy and a girl (they are never named–something else I never noticed) who come together as musicians and almost (but not quite) as lovers.

The guy (Glen Hansard) is a street musician and songwriter, and we are immersed in his songs and his dedication to music from the opening scene as he stands out on gritty Dublin streets singing for donations.  He meets the girl (Marketa Iglova) who stops to comment on his songs and toss a coin into his guitar case.  They chat and it turns out that she too is a musician, a pianist.  It only takes the film 14.5 minutes to get the two of them into a music store where she is allowed to play piano during the owner’s lunch break.

In this scene we get one of those moments of “musical magic” that is pure fantasy.  They decide to play one of this songs together.  After a 20-second tutorial, the pair seamlessly, without a single misstep or mistake, soar through Hansard’s lovely “Falling Slowly” a rendition so good that they will eventually win the 2008 Oscar Award for Best Original Song for it.

Yes, it is musical fantasy, but the gorgeous kind that gives me chills when the music is that good.  The guy and the girl are now “falling slowly” in love, not yet aware of the obstacles that will end up keeping them apart.  But they begin an unlikely collaboration as she shares some of her original work with him, and he asks her to begin to write lyrics for some of his work.  Their work with lyrics allows them to express their feelings about love and loss in ways that they just can’t through words alone.

The guy’s songs lament his lost love a former girlfriend who has left him and gone to London and bend between anger and longing and regret.  We learn later that the girl has left a husband behind in the Czech Republic and her songs are full of haunting lyrics that evoke loneliness and alienation.

We get a generous dose of music throughout, but it culminates in a weekend session in a recording studio with the guy and the girl and three other street musicians that they’ve talked into playing with them. The goal is to produce a demo disc that the guy can use to launch his career in London where he hopes he might win back the love he has lost.  The more they play, the better they get, and soon they’ve made a believer out of the bored studio tech as they push through the marathon recording session.

Once tells the best kind of love story, the bittersweet kind in which two lovers find each other in the wrong time and place. However, it never loses its focus on the music and the camaraderie that it brings, and the hope that it inspires.

#2–Almost Famous

“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.”  Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).

Here’s the dilemma about writing a piece like this.  I want the focus to be “films on music” where some element of music is really the driver of the film.  For example, Walk the Line is a fine film about an iconic musician, but isn’t it mostly a story of enduring love and the struggles with addiction and recovery?  Same with A Star is Born, a film I absolutely loved (for the first hour and ten minutes).  See what I mean?  Every story is a hybrid.

Almost Famous could be filed away under “coming-of-age story” where the real focus, reflected in the quote above, is on our never-ending desire to fit in.  However, watching it again and reading up on it, made me feel very comfortable having it on the list, and under the sure-handed writing and direction of Cameron Crowe, it makes its way to the number two spot.

Set in 1973, fifteen-year-old William (Patrick Fugit) has been raised by a mom (Frances McDormand) who has tried to insulate her children from the corrosive effects of pop culture, especially its music.  She catches her daughter Anita (Zooey Deschanel) smuggling a Simon and Garfunkel album into the house, which she declares is “the music of drugs and promiscuous sex.”  The scene prompts Anita to run off with her Ken-doll boyfriend but not before leaving a box of albums behind for William.  As he flips through his new collection of Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell he opens a familiar looking Who album where she has left him directions on a post-it: “Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you’ll see your whole future.”

The film is held together by the quest for “cool.”  Anita’s gift is supposed to reassure him that some day he will be cool, but it is his dedication to rock and roll, and his rock reviews for a local underground newspaper that launch his career into the coolest adventure a fifteen-year-old could imagine–getting invited to join the tour of the mythical band Stillwater as they bounce from city to city on an old bus–getting to be “with the band.” He strives throughout the film to get his critical interview with lead guitarist, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), as he sits behind the scenes watching the tensions grow in this, “mid-level band struggling with their own limitations in the harsh face of stardom.”  One minute he is a trusted friend; the next he becomes “the enemy”–the keeper of all of their secrets.

Ironically, the band in this film is not portrayed as particularly dedicated to their music, seeming much more concerned with status, fame, and being allowed to live a life of excess.  But for William and all of the other band followers including the “band-aids” (don’t call them groupies) lead by Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), the love of the band and the love of their music and the experience of each concert is something that they have come to live for, a drug more important than any of the drugs that get passed around at the never-ending parties.  Sapphire, one of the “band-aids” sums up passion that draws them into this life when she says, “They don’t even know what it means to be a fan.  Y’Know? To truly love some silly little piece of music or some band, so much that it hurts.”

Even through betrayals and reversals and the initial rejection of his article by Rolling Stone magazine, William persists and finally returns home.  In their unexpected reunion near the end of the film, William finally corners Russell for this interview.  The first question:  “So Russell…what do you love about music.”  And the guitarist finally answers, “To begin with…everything.”

Cameron Crowe has a lot of stories to tell in this one semi-autobiographical film, but his affection for rock-and-roll creates the core around which this film is built.

#1–The Commitments

This 1991 film directed by Alan Parker just barely broke even at the box office, but has gathered something of a cult following and produced an absolutely killer soundtrack.  It is the story of music fanatic/entrepreneur, Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkin), who develops a passionate love for American soul music while living on the rough-edged north side of Dublin, Ireland.

Jimmy is living his dream of assembling a band that will bring soul music to Ireland.  Along the way, he has to do a lot of convincing, to both his musicians and his audiences that there is a reason that this music is something that will connect with the people of Dublin.  Once he has the core of the band collected, he lectures the group enthusiastically, telling them that, Soul is the music people understand. Sure it’s basic and it’s simple. But it’s something else ’cause, ’cause, ’cause it’s honest, that’s it. Its honest. There’s no fuckin’ bullshit. It sticks its neck out and says it straight from the heart. Sure there’s a lot of different music you can get off on but soul is more than that. It takes you somewhere else. It grabs you by the balls and lifts you above the shite.”

Predictably, the group begins with many squabbles and stumbles as they try to master a musical style that none of them have grown up with.  Rabbitte tries to build the bridge between their experience and the music during one session when he tells them, The Irish are the blacks of Europe, Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and the North Siders are the blacks of Dublin … so say it loud — I’m black and I’m proud!”

The band gets better as the crowds become larger and increasingly enthusiastic.  Before long, they are belting out the music of Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and the Marvelettes with passion and sophistication.  It appears as though Jimmy was right all along–American soul is the perfect expression of the north Dublin working man.

The character of Jimmy Rabbitte’s unwavering belief in the magic of soul music and his devotion to the goal of bringing it to the consciousness of the Irish working man imbues this film with a joyfulness that is untarnished by all of the chaos that comes with trying to  manage an unruly and undisciplined group of musicians.  Watching them catch fire as a group and wow their audiences in the latter part of the film, makes every minute worth watching.  It may well be the best film about music that you have not yet seen.

Ok, that’s it.  That’s MY list.  Which of your favorite films about music did I miss?  Lay it on me!

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Trying Out Sobriety–One Year Later

It was one year ago today that I was sitting in my doctor’s office and he said to me, “I think you should give up alcohol–entirely.”  I’m sure it was the stricken and horrified expression on my face that forced him to add, “…for at least two weeks, until you can come back for a re-check.”

I had come in because I was having repeated bouts with atrial fibrillation, and while I had realized some time before that alcohol could be a trigger for a-fib, I had refused to admit that it might be the trigger.

I told him, “I really don’t know if I can.”

I did not and do not consider myself to be an alcoholic, but I certainly had become alcohol dependent.  All I could think about, sitting with my doctor, was how much my life would have to change if I gave up my nightly “beer time.”   But suddenly, I had a very concrete reason to abstain.  Suddenly, it seemed like I was besieged by commercials promoting a-fib medication that reminded me that “a-fib is the leading cause of heart attack and stroke in men over 65.”  Since I was two months away from turning 65, I felt like the ads were mocking me–rubbing salt in the wounds.

I made it through two weeks and sure enough, my heart seemed to be settling down.  Two weeks became six and on December 20, 2017 I wrote a piece called Trying Out Sobriety reflecting on what I had learned after six weeks of abstinence.  Today, makes it fifty-two weeks since I gave up alcohol.

Last Monday, I was meeting with my addiction medicine therapist, a woman who has been an invaluable source of care, insight, and support throughout this process.  She asked how I intended to celebrate one year of sobriety.  I told her that I didn’t plan to do anything.  Making a big deal about sticking it out for one year sounds like something an addict would do.  “Celebrating” makes me think about rewarding myself with a 22-ounce Double-IPA, thank you very much. So, no celebrations don’t seemed called for.  I did tell her I felt I needed to write about it.  That means if you are reading this, you are celebrating with me, and thank you for coming (cue fireworks!).

I don’t want to recount everything I wrote about last December. You can read about that here.  However, one constant has been my therapist’s admonition that I needed to shift the focus of my thinking to concentrating not on what I had lost or given up, but rather on what I had gained.

Some gains I have made are quantifiable, but we need to do the math.  Let’s say that I used to drink 300 out of 365 days per year.  That would mean I took roughly 65 days off per year due to illness, guilt, or hangover recovery.  On the days I drank, I drank between 2 and 4 beers, so let’s call it an average of 3 beers a day.  That means I consumed about 900 beers per year. At roughly 150 calories per beer, I can approximate that I saved 135,000 calories over the course of the year.  Now, if I had eaten a lean diet and not replaced some of those calories by indulging in pastries and chocolates of all kinds, I’d probably be down to 75 pounds.  However, I have lost a solid 10-12 pounds and the ever-growing beer gut has vanished.

I never used to keep track of how much I was spending on beer between the six-packs I’d drink at home and the tabs I would pay at a bar.  I really didn’t want to know.  However, if a beer from a 6 pack ran 2-3 dollars and from a bar was 6-8 dollars, let’s just guess that my average cost per beer ended up being $4.  That means I saved $3,600 over the past year.

Best of all, I feel healthier and happier than anytime I can remember.  Yes, I’ve struggled through some depressive periods over the past 12 months, but I revel in the changes I have made in my life.

I go to bed every night knowing that I will not wake up with a hangover and the guilt that would come with it. I can almost always remember exactly what I said and did the night before, something that increasingly would elude me on drinking nights.  I feel stronger as I’ve pushed myself into more challenging hikes around the county and trying to be on the trail two to three days a week. I practice yoga and meditation 5-6 days a week and marvel at how the importance of that practice has grown for me over time. There seems to be a part of my brain that was always thinking about drinking that gets to rest and dedicate itself to other things.

Do I miss it?  Yes–every day.  I still feel jealous when I’m surrounded by drinkers at a bar or a restaurant, and I’m making may way through another bottle of Pellegrino.

Back when I wrote the initial article, I was already hedging–assuming I would cheat occasionally.  What could it hurt, right?  But, it’s just been easier to stick to my new habit and continue to build on the gains I have made as a person.  Nothing about alcohol ever helped me be stronger, smarter, or kinder.  I think I’ve made some strides in those areas.  I don’t want to give them up now.

Thanks for celebrating with me! (cue balloons!!)

 

I Am A Moron

Before I sat down to write this I pulled on a pair of sweatpants.  Backwards.

I could just stop there, but there’s more.  Anyone can make a simple mistake.  Recently I have been on a quest for more thoughtful and sophisticated ways to screw up–like two months back when I was doing the bills, and following my system, I wrote down the amounts for all of the bills I pay on-line carefully in my checkbook.  Somehow though, I never made it over to the computer to actually get into the “bill pay” page and get the payments sent out.  I sussed it all out when “past due” notices began to sprout from my mailbox like an unwelcome weed infestation.  There are also some months where I pay all my bills twice.  It just helps to round things out.

I know what you are thinking.  He’s losing it.  Dementia.

Normally, I’d go straight for that diagnosis also.  That and brain tumor are my go-to thoughts if I get anything worse than a hangnail.

But at the time all of this happened, I was struggling with chronic dizziness (probably a brain tumor, right?).  It isn’t incapacitating, but I can feel kind of “foggy” at times.  It’s one reason I haven’t been writing of late.  I first went to see my doctor about it in April, but I’d been having problems for at least a month before.  It’s not the first time I’ve had this issue, but it was being so persistent that I decided to get my doctor involved.

That started a marathon round of appointments.  He checked me over and sent me to a head and neck specialist and recommended I see a vestibular physical therapist (yeah, who knew there was such a thing).

The head and neck specialist did a couple of tests and deemed that whatever was causing it was probably cardiovascular or neurological.  The physical therapist spent two sessions making me do a series of bizarre exercises trying to make me dizzy (or more dizzy than I was at the moment) and failed miserably.  Shrug.

Went back to my primary care doctor who thought I should go see a head and neck specialist (wait, didn’t I already do that?).  I ended up seeing exactly the same woman, who did exactly the same test, and came to exactly the same conclusions. I decided to check in with my neurologist.  He suggested I go to the head and neck department.

I sought help from my acupuncturist who concluded there were clouds of smoke in my brain and that I needed to stay away from television, politics, basically, the world.

My local health provider held a small ceremony for me where I was given a certificate of achievement for my tenacity in unsuccessfully trying to find the cause of the problem.  There was cake and everything (I’m making that part up).

Finally, I decided to quit listening to everyone and pulled down the box where I keep my daily meds and started looking at everything I was taking to see if there was anything I could eliminate, anything that might be the culprit.

Most of my meds are “old dude” regulars for blood pressure, cholesterol, and a couple more exotic ones.  I take some Chinese herbs from my acupuncturist also, you know, for the whole “smoke in the brain” thing.

Oh, and I’d been taking Melatonin.  When I stopped drinking nearly a year ago, I had trouble sleeping though the night.  I was waking up more and more often at odd hours and finding it impossible to get back to sleep.  Two in the morning is just not a fun time to find yourself awake and yet still groggy and exhausted.

When Mary suggested Melatonin, I thought, sure!  It’s over-the-counter and therefore “safe”.  It worked great!  Magic!  Later, when she mentioned that maybe I wasn’t supposed to  take it continuously, I dismissed the suggestion.  Pssssh.  After all, I bought it at Sprouts. It was doing exactly what I wanted it to do.  I didn’t even read the label until the day I began to examine all my meds.

Yes, the label that stated “If any adverse reactions occur, immediately stop using this product and consult a doctor” and “Limit use to two months with a break of one week.”  I was checking out this information, written clearly on the bottle, after taking it every night for, oh, ten months straight.

It gets worse.  I googled Melatonin and looked up possible drug interactions.  Under “serious interactions” I found one of my daily medications.  Possible side effects–dizziness.  And the timeline fit.  The dizziness had begun shortly after I started taking it.  I just never made the connection.

MOTHERFORKING MORON!

So I quit taking it right away and the dizziness did not go away immediately, but at least the insomnia returned.  It actually took three weeks before I was symptom free.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t do any permanent brain damage or anything although, you never know.  I enjoyed 4-5 weeks of mental clarity without the low-grade sense that my brain was slowly rocking or spinning occasionally.  I was quite proud of myself for chasing down my own stupidity.

And then the dizziness came back (“heavy sigh”).  What are you gonna do?  I’m just going to enjoy the ride for now.  I’ll go through the pill box and see if I’ve got something else I can toss out.  Maybe I can put my yard blower up against one ear and see if I can blow out some of that smoke on my brain.

Don’t Want to Burn Out; Don’t Want To Fade Away

I don’t enjoy reminders of my age although it’s hard to miss the signs when I face the mirror every morning.  I certainly never used to keep my very own blood pressure monitor tucked behind my laptop on my desk just so I can check it every now and then for my entertainment.

I don’t feel as old as the calendar tells me that I am.  I have a few limitations on my physical activity, but most of them are mental limitations–fear of failure or injury.  Learning how to surf sounds like fun on some days.  On others days it sounds like an invitation to the emergency room.

I can’t seem to shake the tendonitis that I have in both hands which may hamper or end my days as a guitarist although that career was always teetering on a lack of talent and a certain laissez-faire attitude toward actually practicing.

But speaking of the guitar, I do still admire the skill of others and so last night when my wife and I were enjoying the warm evening at one of our local go-to restaurants, we were pleasantly surprised by the live music on the patio.  The artist was an older guy, probably our age, who looked like a refugee from the ’60’s. He was just a gentle soul with long, blonde hair who sang simple folk songs that all sounded as if they came right out of the playlist of my teenage years.  Every now and then he’d ramp up a cover of a song by Neil Young or Bob Dylan and rouse the friendly group who had hung out to listen to him through the end of his second set.

Toward the end of the evening he began playing a song I had never heard, but as I listened to the lyrics it felt as though the writer had ripped a page out of my life and thoughts over the past months. The guitarist told me after the show that the song was “If We Were Vampires” by Jason Isbell and that it had been voted 2018 Americana Song of the Year by someone.

The song is a reflection on growing old with someone special so as I sat listening to it with the girl I met when we were 16, the girl I didn’t begin dating until after high school, and the woman to whom I’ve been married for almost 45 years, the words were poignant (although they lose something without the music, I suspect):

It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever

Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone

Maybe we’ll get forty years together

But one day I’ll be gone

Or one day you’ll be gone

If we were vampires and death was a joke

We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke

And laugh at all the lovers and their plans

I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand

I don’t wake up and begin my day by dwelling on mortality.  I mostly think about how good that first cup of coffee is going to taste, and how I really need to get down to the shop and get new tires put on my car.  But I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t noticed that 65 is a big number, and that I’m increasingly aware of the very finite nature of life.

I always imagine I’ve got maybe 20 or so good years left and let’s face it, that’s a lot of years. But that number seems smaller when I realize I’ve already burned through three times as many plus a few.

The song concentrates on the relationship and how it has sustained the couple and it made me think how meaningless life might have been for me this past 40 years without the life I’ve had with Mary and about how I would not want to grow old alone:

Maybe time running out is a gift

I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift

And give you every second I can find

And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind

I actually like finding music that hits too close to home.  It’s nice to know that others think about these things.

It’s nicer still to hear her working in the room next door as I’m writing this.  And that she’ll be nearby when I fall asleep tonight.  And that hers will be the first face I see tomorrow morning and in the many mornings left to come.

Fussy

I don’t think of myself as a fussy person, but I’m pretty sure that I’m perceived that way by people around me.  I think that perception comes from the fact that I develop habits and preferences and, in the absence of other options, better options, I will stick to those established habits and preferences.

For example, once I secure my cup of Starbucks coffee for the morning, I sit down to read the paper.  When I get to a certain part of the front page, I get up and toast an English muffin which I slather with almond butter and blackberry jam.  I like certain brands of the almond butter and jam so I stock up on them when they are on sale.  That means I’m thrifty, right?  Hardly fussy.  Not even close to being OCD.

However, I find I’m really weighed down when anything around me isn’t working as it should.  If a faucet is dripping, or a door is binding up, I struggle.  I feel this immense weight until I can address the problem.  I literally feel lighter and happier when I’m able to tighten the right valve or smooth the side of the door properly.

So when the “check engine” light started glowing on my dashboard, I immediately began to feel this unreasonable sense of dread.  I’d like to put a piece of black tape over it so I just can’t see it, but it’s like the dripping faucet–I HAVE to take care of the problem because all peace and happiness has left me and will stay away until it is repaired.

I’ve owned cars for long enough that I should be able to deal with it calmly. For example, I know with this particular light:

1. It’s not an emergency.

2. I will have to take it to the dealer.

3. Whatever this non-emergency repair is, it’s going to cost me about $1000.

4. I have the $1000 in the bank for problems just like this.

I got the appointment at the dealer, got the car dropped off and went home to wait for the expensive phone call.  The service representative finally called me to explain that a fuel sensor inside the gas tank needed to be replaced which would involve the mechanics pulling out the backseat so they could access the gas tank and replace the sensor.  Oh, and by the way it was impossible to do the repair without some gas being spilled on the outside of the tank. Not to worry–they’d clean up everything nice and tidy for me by the time I picked it up.

So, when I showed up to pick up the car, I payed my $1000 and was very happy to see that the “check engine” light had been retired as I started it up.   But as I began to drive home, I was almost overcome by wave after wave of a gasoline smell coming from the backseat of the car.  I turned around and wheeled the car back to the dealer where the service rep reassured me that the excess gas would burn off within a couple of days.  Totally normal.

A week later I was still getting whiffs of the gaseous odor and returned the car to the rep to have it checked out.  After he and a mechanic took it for a spin, I was informed that they couldn’t smell any gas at all.  As I walked out the the lot to retrieve my car, I could smell the reek from 5 feet away.

I’m fussy, right?  I dragged the rep from out of his cubicle and made him stand with me and enjoy the fumes emanating from my vehicle. He looked puzzled and thoughtful.  “Oh, that smell.  I guess that could be gas.”  We decided he would keep it for another day and have the mechanics rip the seats back out and double check to be sure everything was properly sealed and he agreed to have the back half of the car shampooed just in case the odor was now coming from the seats.

The next day, he called and assured me all was well, and I could come and retrieve my vehicle once again.  And, believe me, I wanted nothing more than to believe that all was well, that they had fixed the problem, and that hey, maybe the whole thing was just in my head.

As I drove off, the toxic shampoo they had used in the back of the car was almost as bad as the gas fumes had been, and I drove through the night with the windows down.  Sure enough, before I had made it home, the gas smell was back.

At this point, I’m not angry–just indecisive.  I’m not sure whether to call the dealer back for the fourth time or just to have a nervous breakdown.  I can no longer tell if my car has a problem, or if I have a problem.  I’ve made four trips to the dealer, consumed hours with this problem preying on my mind, and by now, I’m starting to think that maybe I’m defective.

Then I remember this older gentleman who owned a little car shop called The Little Car Shoppe nearby.  He specializes in BMWs, but had done some work for me years before on my daughter’s Acura.  I called him and explained my situation and he seemed intrigued.  “Bring it down,” was all he said and then hung up.

This guy is the guy you always hope you will find to work on your vehicle.  He’s quiet and thorough and doesn’t bullshit you about the cost.  I usually don’t even ask because I trust his expertise, and I know he will warn me if it’s going to be extraordinarily expensive. I’ve never heard music being played in his shop.  He always keeps the radio tuned to NPR.  Gotta love that.

By the end of the afternoon he’d found the seal that the guys at the dealership had failed to replace properly.  He had to chase down a new one and asked me to give him one more day to see if he could find me the best deal on one.  By the next afternoon, he called to say he was done.  When I got there, he showed me the dirty and pitted seal that the dealer had tried to get by with and which had allowed the fumes to escape.

“But now, it’s sealed up tight, right?  No leaks.  We’re all good,” I questioned, seeking reassurance.

With a smile, he let me know the problem was fixed in the nicest possible way when he said, “I sure don’t want to see you back here with it.”

This adventure is the kind of thing that sucks the soul out of me.  It makes me question both my judgement and my sanity.  When I let it, it consumes me.  I can’t stop thinking about this “tragic” development in my life when actually it is mostly just a simple, but annoying, bump in the road.

At some point, I did manage to step back from it and get some perspective.  I told myself, “It’s a car problem.  It’s unusual, but there’s got to be an explanation.  In a few days this will get sorted out and I won’t have to think about it at all.”  Why it was so hard to get that perspective quickly and easily after all of these years, I’m not sure.  Maybe it was all the gas fumes that were scrambling my brain.

Secret Self

Sure, sometimes I feel under-appreciated.  Who doesn’t?  The many thankless tasks that I complete that go unnoticed and unthanked–it happens.

But most recently, I’ve noticed how much credit I get for things that I just don’t deserve.  I feel like an imposter.  The general consensus is that I’m generous, “a nice guy.”  But I know my darkness.  I feel like the character William, from the film Almost Famous who explodes when the character Penny Lane declares him to be “sweet.”  “Where do you get sweet? I am dark and mysterious, and pissed off! And I could be very dangerous to all of you. You should know that about me.”

Yeah, that’s me.  Dark, mysterious, pissed off.  Just this week I purposely drove 50 yards or so down a one-way street the wrong way just to to avoid going around the block.  Dangerous.

Most recently I got way too much praise for something I did out of sheer impatience.  I was standing in line at a Kaiser pharmacy behind a young man who had to be at least 18 years old, but appeared to have no clue about the process for ordering or paying for medication that he apparently needed right away.  He showed up to get the prescription with no money and no credit card.  The attendant let him use the phone to call his parents thinking they could give a credit card number over the phone to cover the co-pay.  For some reason this was no longer (if it ever had been) allowed.  There was a lot of shrugging and “well, I don’t know what to tell you” going on and they were about to let him make another phone call while the line continued to build when I called out loudly to the cashier, “Is this about a $10.00 co-pay?”

She looked up at me, startled, unsure if she could share such privileged information, and so I asked her again speaking more slowly and more clearly.  She finally answered in the affirmative, and I leaned forward and slapped a $10 bill on the counter and said to the kid, “I got you covered on this one.”

What appears to be naked and unexpected generosity is often confusing, so it took a second for her and the boy to realize that I was willing, without question, to pay the toll for the kid’s medicine.  Finally, the boy thanked me profusely, and the cashier told me repeatedly what a nice person I was for doing this.  The guy behind me tapped me on the shoulder.  “You paying for him, man?  You’re like, paying it forward.  Man, that is really cool.”

What I was paying for was convenience and my own impatience.  It was well worth the ten bucks to get to the front of the line and not have to wait any longer for the Kaiser people to figure out what to do with this kid. but the people who witnessed the transaction were left with the impression that I was just an exemplary guy.  Extra credit, see?

After keeping the same eyeglass frames for 8 years, I changed them up recently.  One friend told me they made me look “edgy”–my true self becoming more apparent.

I also jaywalk–frequently.

For now, I’ll stick with the generally false impression I’ve created.  It helps me to navigate the world with a good reputation.  Only you, my 12 faithful readers, will know the real truth.

Depression–Again

I’ve wanted to write this piece for some time, but I wanted to start with:

“It’s OK.  I’m feeling much better now.”

I didn’t expect it would be July before that happened.

I did not see this one coming.  Near the end of March, I was about to write a piece about how well the experience of sobriety was going with one of the most remarkable things being a nearly euphoric sense of well being. I had just finished a 30-day writing challenge and had gotten to spend five days on the Oregon coast.  I was physically active and had my volunteer work going to keep me engaged. I felt great.

And then, everything seemed to go south on me.  Suddenly, I began to feel a sense of isolation and anger began to build up inside of me.  I was plagued both by self-pity and a sense of inadequacy.  I didn’t have friends to be with.  I no longer had the comfort of a bar or a brewery to use to pass the time and enjoy the boozy camaraderie.

I can’t explain the weird reversal of my my emotional state.  There was not an easily identifiable trigger.  I simply drifted into a state of withdrawal and anger bordering on a kind of rage–rage at the news, rage at nearly everyone I encountered on the road, simmering anger at every person in every bar or restaurant I entered who was allowed to enjoy their beers, when I had to deny myself.  Was it their second or third?  Why were they allowed to toy so casually with their health when I could not?

I have been seeing a therapist who specializes in addiction medicine and I saw her twice during the month of May when things were going badly.  Before the appointment begins, I have to take an iPad and click through a multiple-choice questionnaire about my mental state and how I’ve been doing since the last visit–have I been drinking, have I taken drugs, have I felt depressed, had I had thoughts of harming myself–you get the idea.

I feel like a kid in class when I do the iPad thing, wanting to get good scores for my efforts at abstinence but also wanting to be honest about how bad this bout of depression had been.  When I got to the question about harming myself, I had to press the button for “once or twice” instead of the usual “never.”

I had not actually contemplated suicide over the past two months.  I hadn’t started to imagine how I would do it or make a plan. It wasn’t like that.  But I was feeling a deep sense of weariness, a feeling of being overwhelmed by the effort it took to say “no” to alcohol every day, and to simply cope with everyday life.  Dealing with a minor car problem seemed epically difficult.  The multitude of unfinished projects around the house made me feel surrounded by failure even though they were dwarfed by the overall beauty of our house and our yard.  I hate to use a Hamlet reference (it’s so former-English-teacher-ish), but when he thinks about death he imagines the peace that comes from ending the “heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to.”  A respite from all of those “thousand shocks” was all that led me to momentary thoughts of being able to go to sleep and not get up to once again have to fight that feeling of being overwhelmed.

It is as hard for me to describe clawing out of a depression as it is to explain how I fell into it, but two things stand out as I look back at how I began to heal.

Since I retired, I’ve been a casual and occasional hiker around the county of San Diego even going so far as to join a hiking group that meets up once a week.  I was far from passionate about it.  However, inspired by my niece who has set a goal of 100 rigorous hikes during 2018, I started upping my interest as she and I began to meet up occasionally, and she introduced me to more and more challenging peaks to climb.  As I started to get stronger, I started to push myself to take on these tougher hikes 2-3 times a week. The hikes became easier and my body began to recover more quickly between them.  I found that the hikes literally cleared my mind as I was immersed in the natural terrain and the physical exertion I was putting in.

But that kind of healing takes time and 6-8 hours a week of physical activity was not going to, by itself, be enough.  When I was still deeply mired in feeling bad, I sat on the edge of our bed with my wife and admitted the obvious–something that she clearly already knew–that I was really struggling with depression once again. She did the best of all things.  She let me talk through my confusion, my anger, my sadness and just acknowledged and affirmed what I was feeling.  When I was all talked out, she held me close and we just quit talking and I could feel something melt away inside of me.  I can’t explain it.  There was no advice, no insight–just warmth and love and reassurance.  It was as if a boil had been lanced and the healing began almost immediately.

When I first wrote about my decision to abstain from alcohol back in November of ‘17, I recognized the the decision was going to force me to confront some substantial issues.  At the time, I wrote, “Alcohol had simply helped me paper over feelings of isolation or purposelessness or inadequacy.  Now, I need to confront those feelings for what they are and see what kind of growth can come from that.”  

Maybe that is what I was going through here.  Maybe this was a time of growth and reassessment of my purpose and the things I need to work on to stay connected to the people in my life.  I’m working on all of those things.

I hope it will be enough to keep the storm clouds away.

Trumpocalypse: An Open Letter To Mike Pompeo

Dear Mr. Pompeo,

You should not be surprised that after your recent meetings with North Korea, your demands were characterized as having a “gangster” quality to them.  Clearly, the North Koreans were nice to you while you were there, made vague promises to try to fulfill the U.S. demands, and then blasted you once they stopped laughing among themselves.

It’s hard to know which label to put on the most recent U.S. government interactions because we lurch from claiming to be victims of other greedy countries to making demands of sovereign nations that they have no incentive to agree to in an attempt to look strong.  We have pulled out of the Paris climate accords and reneged on the nuclear deal with Iran, one in which Iran is doing everything it said it would do–it’s just doing things that Mr. Donald (gansta-in-chief) doesn’t like but that were never part of the agreement.

Our trade policies are incomprehensible as we veer in and out of the imposition of tariffs that all seem to be hurting American businesses more than helping them.  When Harley- Davidson motorcycles (can a company be any more MAGA than H-D?) shrugs their shoulders and claims that they will need to move their operations overseas to avoid the tariffs, the gangsta-in-chief claims that they are weak and are declaring surrender.  Rather than punish our rivals and hostile countries, we have alienated our closest allies and we are becoming increasingly isolated in the world.  The “America First” attitude is turning us into “Gangsta-Nation” because we have no respect for the treaties we have signed and no respect for the norms of diplomacy. Our word means nothing to the nations of the world.

Just within the past few days this “bully-first” attitude came to light at the United Nations as reports began to surface that the U.S. had tried to undermine a resolution promoting, of all things, breast-feeding that was being introduced by the country of Ecuador.  Despite all of the scientific evidence that breastfeeding is beneficial for infants in both developed and developing countries, we tried to sabotage the resolution to “protect the infant-formula industry.”  Our team went so far as to threaten Ecuador with trade sanctions and got them to withdraw the resolution.  At least a dozen other countries also refused to submit the resolution fearing retaliation.

It took the Russians and Uncle Vlad to save the day and put forward the proposal.  Not surprisingly, the American team stood down as soon as the Russians got involved.  The resolution was passed on a vote of 118-1 with the United States being the only dissenting vote.  Talk about isolation.

Once source said, “There is no scientific evidence behind the U.S. position.  It simply reflects the fact that corporate sales are more important to the U.S. administration that the well-being of women and children.”

So, Mr. Pompeo, get used to the characterization of yourself as a gangster for as long as you represent this rogue administration.  You can’t see it now, but every day you stay in this job you are creating a stain on your reputation that will never go away.  I know you can’t see it, but you are living in the low point of your career.

Death By Cliche´

Even though I lived my adult life as an English teacher, I’m not usually picky about how other people use or misuse language.  I never correct people’s grammar and truth be told, was never much of a grammarian.

However, I’ve started to notice that the use of certain cliches´ has begun to wear on me, especially those that come up in political speech.

If I hear one more congressman or woman say, “We’re not going to be holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’ here ya’ know” that I may have to cancel all of my newspaper subscriptions.  Again.

First of all, I’m not sure why they are picking on “Kumbaya.”  I was going to write something here about it’s history and how it has come to be a political punching bag, but discovered that Linton Weeks of NPR already wrote a spirited history and defense of the song called “When did ‘Kumbaya’ Become Such a Bad Thing?” for the NPR website on January 13, 2012.  You should read it.

Needless to say, it is used to express a contempt for things like kindness, compassion, and compromise–certainly not the type of values that we want to encourage anymore.  We used to think that such ideas were a good thing–you know, before we elected Voldemort as our president.

Besides, if you want to bash a song with kind intentions you could always pick on the iconic 1971 jingle from the Coke commercial named “I Want To Teach The World To Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” which may deserve mockery just because of the absurd length of the title.  If you should look up the original commercial just for fun, you may cringe a bit at the collection of Stepford-like teens that they collected on a hilltop in Italy to sing that catchy little piece.  You might also accidentally stumble across a creepy anti-sugary-drink parody that shows sickly people using the same tune put to different words that try to make the link between soda and its many potentially harmful side effects.

Also, I have wondered when did everything bad become an “existential threat”?  Certainly Al Qaeda, ISIS, North Korea, and Iran have been deemed to be our enemies and they do present a threat to do bad things to our country, but having studied existentialism, I couldn’t make the bridge to the emerging use of that adjective.  When I looked it up, one scholar suggested that this new usage implies that something (or some country, or some country’s leader) presents an “existential threat” if it threatens the very existence of our country, of our way of life.  That means the phrase is being horribly overused since none of the above, while they may wish us harm, has the wherewithal to end our way of life. Hey, I watch Homeland too, I get it. But in fact, our military budget is so huge that it dwarfs the budget of the next seven closest countries combined.  Combined. There are more serious threats to worry about.

Truly, the only existential threat that I see to the United States of America is Scott Pruitt.  This is a cabinet member so corrupt and so deeply in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry that he has taken a wrecking ball to every environmental protection that he can find.  I fully expect that if he hangs around much longer the EPA will propose that the US should be doing everything possible to encourage pollution, global warming, and climate change, and that we will be be immersed in Orwellian-style propaganda that insists that melting ice caps, costal flooding, increased droughts, increasingly violent hurricanes are things we should embrace. After all, all of those disasters do create good jobs for people.

Scott Pruitt, not ISIS, is the definition of an existential threat.

Finally, it has been an inspirational ray of hope that the country seems to have turned on gun makers and the NRA.  People now openly mock the “thoughts and prayers” response that most politicians give to the latest mass shooting–lip service being given to this epidemic with no effort to make even the most common sense changes in the law.  These horrific acts are happening with such frequency that I sense that politicians who have long supported the gun industry are afraid to utter the words “thoughts and prayers” as an offer of support to devastated communities because they now know that everyone else knows that offering “thoughts and prayers” is code for “I don’t really give a shit about you and your community.  As long as no one I know personally gets hurt, I have no intention of alienating my donors.”  Or something like that.

Actually, I don’t mind a good cliche´ now and then.  It’s the ones that drip with hypocrisy and deceit that start to grind on me after a while.  I think we just need to keep an eye out for the leaders who depend on these timeworn phrases as if they were wisdom and, please, stop electing them to office.

It’s Time

Just this morning, I took the outgoing mail down to the box and dropped in in.  Included with the monthly bills was a form letter to my former school district declining their offer to continue working for them as a substitute teacher.  I finally decided to stop teaching–entirely.

When I retired, I refused to sign up for any classes or do any kind of structured activity for the first six months.  I had been in school for 53 straight years, first as a student and then as a teacher, and was delighted to not have a daily time schedule.  I was happy that I no longer had to wait until the bell rang to go pee.

I was as surprised as anyone when I did the paperwork to become a substitute teacher after that six months passed.  I quickly discovered that I needed to put down limits. I’d only sub for English or social studies teachers (subjects I knew pretty well), only at two schools where I had friends, and only for teachers who I respected because I knew they knew how to run a classroom.  Every time I made an exception, I ended up regretting it.

For the first few years, going back to my school, was a pleasure.  It was fun to see my ex-colleagues and meet new teachers.  There was a cadre of former students still there who knew me because I had been their freshman English teacher, so I was not an entirely unknown quantity.

Going to the other school was a test, having taught for 36 years in one place, but among the groups I subbed for, I quickly became just another teacher and a sub that they (usually) respected.  You have to understand, the pool of competent subs is so thin that showing up with a level of confidence and expertise was often something kids appreciated.  I was shocked at the number of times kids actually thanked me for being their sub that day.

I learned to always ask the teachers I subbed for to email me lesson plans the night before when possible, so I could go in feeling prepared and even read what the kids had read if we were going to do something text-related.  Getting to interact with the kids without having to do any significant preparation and then walk away without any papers to grade was wonderful, and getting in front of a classroom again felt really good.

But then there were days when I’d end up showing the same film for 5 hours, or administering tests for the entire day.  I’d feel like the clock-watching students, just anxious for the day to be over.

I started turning down so many jobs that the demand began to dry up.  I had grown so used to spending time in my yard, or taking my daily walks, or going hiking that I hated being required to be indoors.  I didn’t like being on my feet all day and coming home feeling exhausted with my back aching.  Taking sub jobs meant I’d miss yoga classes or time with my hiking group or acupuncture appointments I’d been looking forward to.

So, last year, I put the word out that I was pretty sure I was done.  I volunteered for a couple of school-related things to help out friends–proctoring AP tests, being a part of a panel for senior-project presentations–but that was it.

This year, no calls at all.  I guess I am done as a teacher.  I’m not an entrepreneur.  I don’t need the time to start a new career, but I do want to have the time to learn new things and maybe become good at something that’s not teaching.  I gave 40 years to teaching.  I think it’s time to let it go.