Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Unthinking Human, Part 1

Lately I've been irritated about the sheepish, unquestioning nature of most people. Okay, anyone who knows me - or who reads CF with any regularity - certainly knows that my irritation in this arena is ANYTHING but "lately." Still...things have been coming to a head over the past few weeks, to the point that I need to get it off my chest before I explode.

(Heh. I said "coming," "head," and "get it off" in the same, non-dirty sentence.)

So, to begin a series of short rants: toys. You'd have to be living in a cave (one with no electricity or cable, no less!) to have missed the fact that, basically, any toy coming from China is to be viewed with deep suspicion, if not outright hostility. Between lead and possible date-rape drugs, it seems like every day the news another big toy recall. I was inadvertently watching the local news last night (something I try to avoid with every fiber of my being, as I hate the "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality of the nightly newscast), and solemn, serious-looking store owners were assuring the public that "every reasonable step" is being taken to safeguard the children of America. (They didn't mention WHICH America, but never mind that...) Shoppers who were interviewed seemed concerned about independent testing, and concerned about which toys were "safe," and concerned that their children might not have enough toys to play with come Christmas.

The single concern I never ONCE heard - not ONCE! - was any sort of comment about the point of origin of any of these toys. NOT ONE PERSON even FLOATED the idea that, gee, if toys from China seem to be tainted (heh - "taint")...well, why not FUCKING AVOID TOYS FROM CHINA?!? This, to me, seems the simplest solution. But nope: all of the interviewees "moo-ed" and "baaa-ed" their way around the store, nattering on with scrunchy eyebrows and much wringing-of-hands, "Ohhh, dear! How do I tell if this toy is good or not?" Hey, numbnuts: look on the back of the damn box, whydontcha? If you read "Made in China," put it back and BUY SOMETHIN' ELSE!

Okay, to the chorus of well-established parents out there: shut up. I KNOW I'm new at the toy-buying game, and sometimes you just HAVE to get her a Dora doll, or a fuck-me-with-a-broomstick Elmo, or whatever. Yes. I GET IT. I'm not trying to play a holier-than-thou trump card here, like I'm oh-so clever. Roslyn has PLENTY of toys that originated in China, and she loves them all. I'm just talking about the idea that people didn't seem to even KNOW that there MIGHT be options. For instance:

• While searching for non-Chinese toys for Rozzle this season, we happened across the Oompa Toys site, which has TONS of cute, wriggly figures, and blocks, and other cute shit. We registered for a bunch of stuff from Haba, a European toy manufacturer.

• If you want to keep things REALLY close to home - and maybe save your neighbor's job and the U.S. economy in one fell swoop - Toys Made in America is a wonderful site that links to scores of other places where you can get quality toys made rah-cheer in dis here country. Among my favourites: the Slinky, Lincoln Logs, and Gibson Guitars. Rock ON, America! BOO-yah!

Naturally, there isn't necessarily any indication that these toys are any SAFER. I suspect that the reason we're hearing so much about Chinese-made toys is that the ginormous majority of toys that people buy these days ARE made in China. No one does a safety check on Lincoln Logs because, quite frankly, who else but some lame-o excuse for a dad would BUY Lincoln Logs as a serious present for his child? When there are electronic toys that play with themselves available, you want your kid to actually BUILD something? Feh. Okay, I admit it: THAT was a little holier-than-thou. But I stand by my point: there are simply too few people asking the right question. I always try to teach my students to THINK, dammit!, and not just follow the herd, lemming-like, off the metaphorical cliff of blind adherence. If enough people would just look at the box this season, just think ENOUGH to make that one small change, maybe we could get ourselves back on the path that frees us from cultural zombiehood.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Making Sense of Age

I've spent quite a few hours lately scanning childhood photos of myself into my computer. These are photos that my mom has taken, or my grandparents, and that I've known & seen for years, but without the slightest CLUE where the negatives are. I asked to borrow the album so that Tess & I could see whether we thought Roslyn looked more like me or her, which is ridiculous: she's beautiful, which means she looks like her mom! But no matter...once I started going through the photos, and REALIZED that any negatives that once existed are probably long gone, I decided to scan these in. Many of them were taken with a camera that leaked a little light, and plus...well, the photos are 30, 35...close to 40 years old! They...well, they LOOK old, in that dated, faded, "from before" way. I figured that Photoshop could restore some of them to something close to a prior glory, and this way they at least exist in two forms, should something happen to the originals.

I looked at all of them on the screen, magnified now beyond their 3x3" original size, and I find that I'm seeing all kinds of things I never noticed before. Some are easy: hey, that's my aunt standing in the middle of the picture! I just...never noticed her there before! Some things, though, are tougher, and they have me thinking about age in a new way. Not a BAD way, mind you: I have no problems with age, or with being the age I am. In my mind I feel anywhere from 11 to 18, depending on the day and how many fart jokes I feel like cracking. If my popping knees and hair color don't always agree with this inner age...well, whatever. 40 next year? No problem. After all: getting older sure beats the alternative! But I started looking at photos of people I've known all my life, and I'm seeing them in a much different way now. Take this photo, for instance:

Pictured are my somewhat-surprised looking grandpa and, seated to his right, my uncle. This is Christmas, maybe 1978 but no later than '79. Gramps looks just like he ought to: round face, big ears, heavy on the double chin. This is the face I've known all my life, and even thought it's a bit more wrinkled and the hair's a bit more grey (although nowhere NEAR as grey as his grandson's!), this man looks & FEELS like my grandfather. But my uncle? Wow. Don't misunderstand, he looks "normal" to me, for this time period (satiny disco shirt and all). But what I'm realizing is: he's in his mid- to late-20's here. His TWENTIES! Holy. Shit. This man was effectively a father-figure for me (since I lacked a true one of my own during these years), and I look at him now and see...a kid? Well, little more than, anyway. I mean...these were his "fuck years," to quote Eddie Murphy! 'Course, he was on his second marriage...and he'd been to Viet Nam...and he'd taken most of the drugs Bay City had to offer, and boosted liquor stores, and stolen, yeah, maybe in the late '70s being in your 20's was somehow older than it is now. I just feel...I dunno, I guess I just feel really strange that I'm NOW 10 years older than my UNCLE was THEN. Like I said: it makes me see him in a little different light. Not anything like less-respectful, He probably thought he was so...grown up.

And speaking of grown up, here's a photo of my mom, with me and some of our extended family, on a camping trip in the U.P. during the summer of '75:

My mom is the one in the striped shirt, leaning against her Jeep Renegade CJ-5. I'm being held my Gramps, and with us is my aunt (who, at only a little less than 5 years older than me, has always been more like a sister) and our grand-Aunt & Uncle. This was the summer I turned 7, and so my mom hasn't yet turned 29. In this photo, she's two years YOUNGER than Miss Tessmacher is NOW...and she had a 7-year old. We camped a lot in those days, including the summer of '76 when Mom hauled us on a summer-long trip out to Denver to visit relatives. This trip began in Michigan, and progressed in a rough circle through Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and finally to Colorado, coming home through Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois before arriving back home. We left the day after school let out (in those days, late-May) and got home a few days before it started up again (before we needed a law mandating that said beginning should be AFTER Labor Day). We slept that whole summer in this tent:

a good, solid Coleman job made out of canvas that she had to spray with water repellent so that we'd stay dry. There were times that, following a rain storm, we'd stay an extra day or two so that she didn't have to pack the tent still wet. When we were in Galveston we got caught in a tropical squall and ended up lashing the tent to the Jeep bumper on one side, and the car of another camper on the other. It was a great trip, one I'll never forget...and it was the summer before my mom turned 30. At the time, she wondered why HER parents were so worried about us that summer! Sheesh.

Like I said: seeing these images doesn't change how I feel at the tail end of my 30's, but it does really change how I think about the "adults" in my life at that time. I saw them as all-knowing and all-capable, but really, they were going through the same sense of "Am I doing this right?" that Tess & I now find ourselves considering. Funny.

I'll probably post some more of these yesteryear images in the coming weeks, with little stories to match. Hope that doesn't bore y'all. 'Til then!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Garbage Rant

(Beginning of rant.)

I just threw away about 10 pounds of rigid styrofoam packing material. I did this because...well, because it came packed around this cheap-ass laundry hamper made out of pressboard we just bought. Said pressboard of quality not likely any better than the fucking 'foam I pitched. We bought this Made-in-some-Southeast-Asian-country piece of furniture to house the cloth diapers we use on Roslyn. Yes, that's right, in an attempt to make some sort of educated decision as to which diapers would be "better" for our baby, we ended up creating this huge pile of petrol-based rubbish.

Gah! I'm so FUCKIN' PISSED about this! I reuse styrofoam packing PEANUTS all the time. As an eBay king, that shit is like squeaky gold to me! But that white, rigid 'foam that gets packed around disassembled furniture and electronics & stuff? No reuse value whatsoever. And what the FUCK am I supposed to do with it, anyway? Recycle it? Great! WHERE?!? It's not like the "sanitation engineers" pick that shit up at the curb! Maybe some utopian green-zone like Ann Arbor or Madison recycles rigid 'foam board somewhere, but I live in rural, small-town Michigan: we're lucky to recycle green GLASS, for fuck's sake. (That's especially lucky considering how much red wine I drink. But never mind.) So, what...I store this crap somewhere until who knows when, and some hazardous-waste unit comes by to pick it up?

Nope. Uh-uh. I fuckin' throw it away, same as I do with the fuckin' CAT LITTER, and the damn USED-UP BATTERIES, and the "save-the-planet" fuckin' compact fluorescent, can't-even-spell-the-damn-thing mutha-fuckin' LIGHT BULBS! I THROW ALL THAT SHIT AWAY, dammit, because I'm an American, and that means I'm one lazy fuck. I need to be FORCED to do the right thing. Recycle? Oh, sure, pick it up at my curb and I'll set it out for ya...I'm settin' trash out at the curb, so it's really no diff. But do the "right thing?" Heeeyyy, what the fuck? We won dubya-dubya-two, my friend! We don't HAVE to do the right thing, not until someone makes it a law. Build a car that's actually safe? HAH! Sell it to Tucker, my friend, because the Big Three weren't interested. What? Secondhand smoke is dangerous to my kids? Well, I'll be FUCKED if I'll quit smokin' in the car with 'em! You gotta pass a LAW, my friend!

Christ. Y'know, 75 years ago my father's family just threw their trash over the riverbank. That's right, haul it across the field and dump 'er down the 50-foot drop to the flatlands along the Cass River. I guess we're lucky to not STILL be doing that. 'Course, 75 years ago what did they throw away? Glass bottles and tin cans, mostly, 'cause there WEREN'T NO FUCKIN' PLASTIC SHIT! Gas was two bits a gallon, and we weren't making diapers and plates and furniture and fuckin' PACKING MATERIAL out of oil. So, sure, throw that fused sand and amalgam metal back to nature...who gives a shit?

I dunno. You try to do the right thing, and it fuckin' comes full circle to bite you in the ass. Buy "cloth" diapers so you're not throwing away plastic, and then you need someplace to store 'em. Buy CFL bulbs so you're not wasting (coal-fired) energy, and they contain mercury so you can't dispose of 'em. Buy a car that'll last you the 200k miles you need it to, and you're taking a job away from a fellow countryman. I've just about had it up to my TITS with trying to do the right thing. Y'know, the older I get, the more I can appreciate George Carlin's humor over the last 15 years or so. Used to be he did dick-&-fart jokes, interspersed with Catholic-baiting humor from his school days. Lately, he's been ranting about stuff, and I'm finally starting to get it. He's just gotten old enough that he's PISSED OFF about all the SHIT that you have to put up with, and he's cuttin' loose through his comedy routine. Fuh. makes me wonder what I'll be like in another 25 years.

(End of rant.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Narcissearching and My "Hit"

I love Pat Benatar. I think she's a great singer and all-around musician, cranking out some of the most memorable tunes of the 80's during her big run, and continuing with great music into the 21st century. It drives me crazy, though, that she no longer cares for Hit Me With Your Best Shot, and needs really special circumstances in order to perform it live. Because, y''s a great song! Catchy melody, very singable words...what's not to like? She claims that she's "moved beyond it" now, and even the last time I saw her live, and she DID do the song, she told the audience "You'll have to sing one of the lines for me, I just can't do it anymore." (Meaning we all sang along to "Before I put another notch in my lipstick case/you better make sure you put me in my place!"...and I mean, she QUIT at that point. The whole band, everything...just the audience screamed the line, and then the band came back in at the chorus.)

Same thing with Cheap Trick and The Flame. That song is Trick's ONLY #1 record, and yet it's a rare occurrence for them to perform it anymore. That one I can understand maybe a little better: the didn't write the tune. (To Benatar's credit, she didn't write Best Shot, either.) Still, a great song, very VERY catchy melody, and I think it does real credit to Robin's voice.

Last example: one of my former composition teachers, who we'll call Professor X (he could also read minds, but that's another post...), told me that every time he goes to a conference he's inundated by vocal teachers who know him from a choir piece he wrote maybe 30-40 years ago. Professor X was quite proud of the tune at the time, but he's moved on since then and is humorously irked to find that his fame sort of centers around this one tune, at least to the large contingent of vocal people out there in the music world.

So...this all relates to my "hit" and the need to narcissearch. (Or, "vanity-Google," if you prefer.) It's fairly common for musicians to look themselves up online: performers can read reviews of themselves this way, and composers will unearth performances of their works they hadn't been aware of. I do this regularly as a way to keep my curriculm vita updated. I have this tune I wrote, which is sort of being performed all over the world. I mean, I've had performances in Singapore, Thailand, Canda...even one coming up in Grenada. This, in addition to tons of performances in the U.S. Which, I mean, is GREAT! Far be it for me to look down on the tune for being popular. It's just...well, I wrote it nearly 10 years ago, and while I remain proud of it, I rather feel like I've "moved on," and that given the chance to RE-write the tune today, I could make it much better. Or, I'd simply write something else, of greater depth and/or complexity. I guess what I'm trying to say is, I finally understand something of what those other folks I mentioned feel about the tunes they're no longer quite so thrilled with. Am I glad people are doing this tune? Absolutely! Am I glad that it's popular, and that it seems to resonate with both performers and audiences? Very much's quite humbling, actually. Do I secretly hope that, in performing THIS tune, performers will be inclined to check out the OTHER stuff I've been doing, and then perform THOSE pieces? Well...yeah. Because I've got LOTS of other stuff out there that is of, shall we say, meatier quality than my "hit."

Friday, November 09, 2007

8 Random Things

Thanks to Steph who tagged me with this meme. I haven't done one in awhile, so I suppose the time is ripe, eh? Steph suggested using humiliating things to, as she so eloquently put it, "keep narcissism in check," but I'll roll with the original idea of simply coming up with random things. I'll leave it up to the reading audience to determine whether or not they are humiliating, as I often will do things that don't strike ME that way, but in fact leave other people curling their toes in embarrassment for me. Sort of like watching a Ben Stiller movie.

1) I am a geek. I mean, I'm on the level of a 40-Year Old Virgin geek. I'm not 40 - not QUITE, anyway! - and certainly a far cry from a virgin. But I do read comic books voraciously, and have 70+ short boxes worth in my basement. In little plastic bags, with little white cardboard backers to keep them all nice & protected. I'm not sure what my eventual plan for this fire danger is: I'd like to say that someday the collection will pay for Roslyn's college, except 1) we already have a 529 started for that very purpose, and 2) what, she thinks I'm gonna sell my comics for HER?!? Well, maybe. If it comes to that. I also play Magic: The Gathering at every opportunity, which has been a lot more lately now that Eric has moved back to Michigan. I have action figures: some are MIB (that's "Mint In Box" for you novices out there) and are stacked 6-ft. high in my bedroom closet at my mother's house. Some are prominently displayed at the same location. Tess has, thankfully, managed to purge such displays from our OWN home, although I've turned my work office into a veritable museum of all things Kiss...that includes a rare, original advertising poster for their 1976 concert at the university where I work. eBay RULES! I have an electric drumset that takes up far too much space in my home office. So, yeah...rock & roll sensibilities aside, I'm pretty much a comic book, gamer dork.

2) I'm a little OCD. To a point: I make lists. This comes from my dad's genes, and it drives my mom crazy. I make shopping lists, which makes sense. I also keep a running tally of my comics, which also makes sense but only if you COLLECT comics. I'm a completist, which means for comic collecting I have some issues that are pretty much dreck, but, dammit, I have to have 'em to complete the set! I like things nice and neat and orderly, which means that occasionally I'll take a trip to Staples in order to buy a 3-ring binder into which I can put pages of a list. Whatever it is.

3) I describe myself as a non-smoker, but I do smoke. Occasionally. Meaning, if I'm with a friend/relative who DOES smoke, I do too. I was a full-time, pack-a-day smoker from about 18 to 30. I went through a lengthy process to quit, and then abstained for a year. I got back into the social habit with my old marching band buddies...most of whom have now THEMSELVES quit altogether, thus shrinking my favourite vice pool. Even my best friend, dammit, the guy who I thought I could always COUNT on to supply me with cadged ciggies, has kicked the habit. Which is GREAT, because frankly he was smoking way TOO much. So, it's pretty much now with my mom, who ought to quit herself but shows no immediate signs of doing so, and my sister-in-law, who also describes herself as a non-smoker but always seems to have a pack hanging out in the garage when Tess & I go to visit. If there was one thing in this world that I personally wish would be healthy that ISN'T, it's smoking. It's like Dennis Leary said in his old HBO special: "I love to smoke!" But, knowing it isn't good for me keeps me from doing it most of the time.

4) I write lots of songs. That probably isn't altogether that random: I am a professional composer, after all. But, I write a lot of pop/rock songs, and then never do much of anything with them. I still harbor this secret desire to someday be a famous rock musician, even though I'm a terrible singer. In my teens I wrote hundreds of songs that pretty much fall into the hard rock/hair band mold of the day, things like All in a Night and 1-800-HOT-LOVE and Iron Fist (Gonna Rule). Now I mostly write introspective, wistful songs with complicated chord changes, such as Magic (my tribute to childhood), Christmas in July (my tribute to the holidays) and The Journey (my tribute to parenthood). I can still be inspired to pen the occasional thrasher, though, especially with the Garage Band application giving me realistic guitar that I can't play myself. The most recent of these was one man's rant about the disappointing actions of his fellow man called Happy New Year, the chorus of which is "Whenever I meet someone/I'll know just what to do/I'll smile so bright, shake so tight/and say 'Happy New Year...and FUCK YOU TOO!'"

5) I marched for six years in college. Six. Years. I marched as a GRADUATE STUDENT. I probably would have majored in marching band, had that been an option. I loved the point of it, working together on the drum line to get dozens of people to play the same thing at exactly the same time, then taking it on the field and making the various forms come out exactly right. I also loved the deviant and hedonistic social aspect of marching band, or at least of the crew that I hung out with. We ate together, we drank together, we slept together. (One of our favourite games at the time was figuring out how often you were connected to The Circle, meaning how many people you'd slept with. At one party I can [barely] remember, I came to the realization that I'd effectively slept with all 20 or so people in the room, as I'd slept with HER and she'd slept with HIM, and so on & so forth. Good times.) I have a permanent & chronic back injury from marching with a 36" bass drum during my freshman & sophomore years. (For those of you counting at home, that's the same size as a concert bass drum.) I mean, I was COMMITTED.

6) I don't like to get my hands dirty or sticky. This is probably the primary reason Miss Tessmacher refers to me as a "delicate flower." I've apparently been this way since childhood, by my mother's recollection. I just...DON'T LIKE having sticky shit on my hands, and when I garden or plant flowers, I must be wearing gloves. I guess this could conceivably go under item #2 above.

7) I'll call anyone, anytime, for any reason. Although I hate the phone, I recognize the need to occasionally call an office or something to get a question answered, and so I pick up the phone and call. I never used to be like this: as a kid, I hated the thought of calling someone I didn't know...but, conversely, would spend hours talking to my friends. It's a complete reversal now: my friend Mike can leave an increasing number of demanding messages that I call him BACK, dammit!, and I can sort of blithely ignore them. But, if I need to know what a particular charge is on my credit card? BING! Pick up the phone and call. I firmly believe that it's the job of someone out there to have the answer to my question, and if I don't get that person on the first ring, I'll ask to be transferred until I get what I need. Weird.

8) I'm an excellent typist. I type VERY fast, nearly 90 words per minute, and I'm usually deadly accurate. I actually had typing as a class in 8th grade, and I've always been really thankful for it. I type the way you're "supposed to" on the qwerty keyboard, and I don't have to look down for anything except numbers and the shifted special characters on that upper row of keys. I made good money during college typing papers for a buck a page (I'd even WRITE your paper, for $5 a page!), and when I first moved to E. Lansing for graduate school I applied for a job at one of the paper-typing storefront businesses.

So, that's it: 8 totally random things, which may or may not be embarrassing. Tag someone? Okay! Let's get Lisa away from her running/nursing thoughts for awhile, and maybe we can convince Mike that he needs to get numbers out of his head for an evening. Lauri-o and Kim could probably stand some blog fodder, and I notice Mark hasn't blogged since September 12th. Oh, and as long as Feral Mom is doing NaBloPoMo, maybe she needs something for this weekend. Get on it, people!