Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Only Thing to Fear...

Annie and I helped pass out candy at a friends house this Halloween. This family has one of the most elaborate front yard horror displays of any I've seen. A graveyard with an unearthed coffin, a butcher shop resplendent with various dismembered appendages, A body hanging from a noose that, when activated, will jerk and kick for its lack of life. It is thorough, to say the least. I agreed to play a part in their terror filled production, along with a few of their other friends. One man was the butcher, carving up arms, legs, and heads. There were people portraying all the horror favorites – Jason, Freddie Krueger, and Michael Myers. I was given a generic goblin mask and told to mill about, jumping out when candy grabbers passed my way. I begrudgingly tried this for a while, but after feeling very awkward and completely not scary, I eventually opted for a more subtle approach. I sat myself down against a hay bale and did my best dummy impersonation. Sitting as motionless as possible, I waited for a group of ghouls to pass my way, then I slowly turned my head, following them with my rubbery eyes. I didn't make a sound. I didn't move any other muscle. I just watched. What I saw was very interesting.

Pre-teens resembling rejects from the Insane Clown Posse came up to the display and shouted,

“Hey! Gimme some candy!”

Sitting next to the candy cauldron, I turned to the terse carnies and clarified,

“Excuse me? What did you just say?”

“You heard me. Gimme some candy man!”

I was having some trouble wrapping my brain around the brazenness of the young mans demand. I pushed him for a more appropriate request,

“I would argue that you've known what to say in this situation since you were old enough to form full sentences. You make the proper request, and I'll give you some candy. That's the way it works.”

The punk shifted his weight, obviously annoyed. He finally muttered those three key words, and I graced him with a packet of sweet tarts and a sucker. As he swaggered down the driveway, I contemplated chucking a jawbreaker at the upstarts head. Maybe the candy would live up to its name. I restrained myself.

A little later, A man bedecked in a white dress shirt, tall socks and a kilt came by with his son who, in a miniature ninja suit, could not have been over two years old. They stopped at the bottom of the driveway and the dad gave his son a nudge toward the house. The karate kid took one look at the labyrinth of horror that lay between him and the candy at the top of the hill and became petrified. At first, he simply turned and began to move on to the next house. When his father insisted he make this trek, alone, he began a more adamant denial. As he begged his dad to let him pass this house by, the father finally proposed a compromise – they would go up together. The virile Scotsman took his sons hand and began the ascent. But the son was not interested, even with his father at his side. He dug his heels into the driveway and began wailing his disapproval. That is when I grabbed some candy and started down the driveway. My intent was to give this poor child the candy he deserved after all the trepidation he was experiencing. As I approached, his face turned from discomfort to sheer terror. Realizing my misstep, I quickly removed my mask and crouched down to assure him that there was nothing for him to fear. I gave him the chocolate peace offering and bid the nervous ninja farewell.

A while later, a mother and her daughter came by. The girl was dressed as a nondescript witch, and the woman was masquerading as a worn out mother. This child was probably around eight years old, and at the sight of the butcher shop, she was very nervous. When Freddie stepped out of the shadows, she jumped and clung to her mothers leg. But she successfully reached the candy cauldron, treated, and began her way back down the driveway. She was still uneasy as she navigated the frights, but when her mother commented on the scariness of the house, the little girl just turned to her mother and reassured her,

“It's not REAL, Mom!”

After the trick-or-treating was over, we all went inside for an amazing smorgasbord of chili, cornbread, pumpkin seeds, popcorn, and cake. The inside of the house was almost as meticulously decorated as the front yard. Garlands, little Halloween cityscapes, candles, and rubber bats. In the corner was an old witch in a rocking chair which, if you got too close, would start rocking on its own. The witch would cackle, her eyes would glow, and finally her head would lift up from her shoulders. One of our friends' brothers was at the party with his two eighteen month old twins. These two children were incredibly inquisitive, unafraid to talk to any of the other party goers, and as rambunctious as can be. Toward the end of the night, the father decided he should get a picture of the two children on the lap of the hideous animatronic witch. As he sat the little boy on her lap, the child began wailing and squirming for his life. He gave up on his son and attempted to get the little girl into the witches maws. Same result. They quickly retired the photo opportunity and released the children back into the fray of the other kids. Watching this exchange left me with some thoughts.

Are we afraid of goblins and ghouls from inception? Is there something inherently scary about the mask that Michael Myers wears, or the Freddie Krueger ensemble? Why were the twins so afraid of the witch? At less than two years of age, had they been exposed to enough to identify a witch, let alone correlate one with fear? When does a child learn to step back and separate the fiction from the fact, and say,

“It's not REAL, Mom!”

And when is it fair to expect your child to strike out on their own and face their fears? When can we expect a healthy amount of rationale to guide us through life? I would argue that it never fully works for some, afraid to face any amount of uncertainty or risk. And for others, the fear reaction is still dormant, causing uninhibited carousing and risk taking, almost to a fault. I think that the majority of us fall somewhere in between. Hopefully we can help guide the next generations through the labyrinths of their own fears, shaping them into cautious, yet bold individuals.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Pumpkin of Shame

I would like to think that I've always been an ingenuous person. Chalk it up to my time in the Boy Scouts of America, my agrarian heritage, or my tenure in Future Problem Solvers (yes, that is a real program in American schools). I've always looked at problems with a technical eye, and known that there is a solution out there, one that I alone could remedy. This drive for ardent individualism has not always resulted in the most flattering of outcomes.

One October, at an age when I was probably old enough to know better, I decided that I was going to make my own costume for the Halloween season. I don't know why, but I chose to don the visage of one of the holidays' most iconic items – the pumpkin.

It would make sense that any normal child would call upon their parents to help them fashion the costume of their fancy, but not me. I built my costume in the basement, refusing my mother entry into my workshop. I began simply – with a cardboard box. Cutting asymmetrical ellipses into the appropriate faces, I created holes to extrude my appendages and create the main element of my costume. The next step was to decorate it.

I found some pale orange paint that looked to be at least a decade old, a sickly sherbet, and began slapping it onto the box. Emptying the bucket with only 2/3 of the box coated, I was forced to find an alternative source of orange to complete my task. I could have asked for a trip to the hardware store to acquire more paint, but in my attempt to keep this craft project secret, I opted for another solution. I pulled out my trusty Crayola markers, located the orange and went to work. While this seemed like a great option at the time, in retrospect, it makes me blush, even now. The shipping info from the box was still evident under the valencia scribbles, making it look as if I was on my way to FedEx. But this slight imperfection did not phase me. I pulled the black marker from its sheath and added the necessary accents to my creation – vertical stripes, and of course, the appropriate triangles and jagged lines to denote the tell tale jack-o-lantern face.

To cap off my creation, I took a smaller box, lopped off the bottom, magic marker-ed it green, and slapped it on my head. Suiting up in a blaze orange sweatshirt and viridian sweatpants, my costume was complete. I, the cubist pumpkin, was ready for the world! Picasso would be proud.

I cannot imagine my mothers internal reaction to the bizarre attire I'd created, but to her credit, she was supportive of my choice to wear homeless housing as a Halloween habit, and sent me off to my first public engagement – a Halloween dance at the Argyle school gym.

Argyle is a small town that feeds into the same community school as Donnellson. The population of this meager metropolis is well under that of even Donnellson's one thousand citizens, and that includes the farms that fall within the surrounded area. Argyle didn't have much - a gas station, a post office, and a handful of side streets. The one thing that Argyle did have was a little league baseball association that put on the best dances in the county, every month at the old Argyle high school. What was so great about these dances is that they were open to elementary students - 4th grade through 8th grade. They were amazingly well attended, with hundreds of students at each dance. And the Halloween dance was one of the most anticipated events of the year.

I entered the dance that night with a bit of trepidation. I was not self conscious, only excited to see my friends, as well as those popular students I wanted so badly to be my friends, and to finally get a non-familial reaction to my cardboard creation.

I was met with a myriad of reactions. The woman who was taking coats and money at the door reviewed my costume with a raised eyebrow, smiled and let me pass without a word. Once I entered the fog filled gym, I fumbled my way to the corner where my friends normally congregated. Along the way I got reactions ranging from laughs and smirks to glares and outright looks of disdain. I brushed them aside and found my friends. That is when I heard,

“What are you wearing?”

“Is that a joke?”

“Ummm...Nice costume?”

As I looked around at the store bought monsters, superheroes, and ghouls, I realized that I was a different sort of frightening. I came dressed as the embarrassing friend in the cardboard box. The comments and looks I'd gotten as I confidently strode across that gym floor suddenly came flooding back, and everyone seemed to be staring straight at me. I was mortified. Desperate to avoid any further scrutiny, I bounced my boxy self back across the crowded room, seeking asylum in the concessions area. While there were fewer of my classmates in this room, the concessions area was tiny, so it seemed even more packed, and the florescent lights focused every detail of my shoddy craftsmanship into stark clarity. At this point, I just wanted to contract my head into my box and turtle my way out of this situation. But my mom wouldn't be back for another two hours – an eternity in elementary time. I determined that the only option was to scrap the carapace of my crappy costume and try to ride out the rest of the dance in my sweatpants. Not flattering by any means, but at least I'd be inconspicuous. It was much easier to shrink into the shadows when your silhouette was not so geometric. Or three foot wide. I rushed to the coat check lady,

“I need to store With the coats?”

The lady seemed confused. She studied me a moment, then asked,

“Why would you want to do that? The costume contest is in an hour. You have to have a costume to win the prizes! Go back and dance with your little friends!”

I balked. I didn't give a scratch 'n' sniff sticker about her stupid contest. I knew I wasn't going to win squat in this box. I had to think fast to convince this PTA dropout that I had to remove the dreaded pumpkin from vision before it sabotaged the rest of my elementary school career.

“It's just really hot in there...and crowded. I don't want to ruin it before trick-or-treating tomorrow night! Can I please put my boxes in the coat check? PLEASE?”

It may have been exasperation. It may have been pity. Whatever her reason, the woman begrudgingly took my cubist costume and shoved it into the coat room. For good measure, I hollered,

“Careful with that. It's...expensive!”

Then I rejoined my friends. They seemed relieved that I'd ditched the vegetable garb, although I doubt that my pumpkin really degraded any of our chances of making contact with the feminine gender that night. I spent the rest of the night trying to convince people that I was dressed as Pete Stoyanovich, kicker for the Miami Dolphins.

After what seemed like days, my mother arrived and I was relieved of the shame of that dance. When asked why I wasn't wearing the costume I'd worked so hard on, I could only reply,

“Um...I didn't feel like it.”

The next evening was even more difficult than the dance. I knew how people would react when they saw me in the box – the same way those kids had reacted at the dance. That self awareness was brutal. But it was the day of trick-or-treating. There was no time to call an audible on the costume now. And how would I explain it to my mother – that the costume I'd worked so hard on was a scarlet letter, publicly denouncing me as a 4th grader with horrible taste in costumes? So I did what I had to do. I donned the dreaded decoration once more, and took my walk of shame – my plastic pumpkin pail in one hand, my pride in the other. We walked for blocks, my sister, my mom and I. Every look from the candy patrons we approached seemed to pity, persecute, or propagate the idea that I was a sad little man in a sad little box. The only consolation was that, despite their looks, they did not withhold any sweet delectables from my bucket. So I kept my head down, let my sister do the talking, and collected my bounty.

At the end of the night, I had survived, despite my fears and resignation. I ran into a few classmates, who may have thought nefarious things about my costume, but dared not say anything with our parents present. In the end, I made it home with my candy and my pride. I ate my fill, got ready for bed, and lived to see an new day. And from what I remember, there was little jeering the following day at school.

I can only hope that I am the only one who remembers what I wore that Halloween. Lord knows I've worn worse in recent years. But at least those costumes were bad on purpose.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Ballad of Three Chilean Hearts

This song was born out of a story I heard during coverage of the Chilean mining incident earlier this year. Upon hearing of the mine collapse, locals came in droves to hold vigil for their trapped countrymen. Friends, co-workers, children, wives, and even mistresses. That is where the story gets interesting.
Miner Celebrating Rescue
One of the miners had both a bride and a mistress, and the subterranean catastrophe brought them together in a way no one had anticipated. I can only imagine the conversation they must have had while waiting for their shared love to return. That is where the song picks up.

The Ballad of Three Chilean Hearts

I came to work today like any other day
Digging coal to earn my bread, turning dirt into my pay
But then the walls came crashing down
Trapping me a mile under ground
Tell me wife I'm doing fine
Stuck down here in this mine
Send food and send some wine
Until then I'll bide my time

I lay these flowers down for my man underground
Our lady pray for us, bring him home safe and sound
Oh god bring my husband back to me
Back to the surface where he's s'posed to be
Tell my husband that I'm here
Tell him there's nothing to fear
I will hold this vigil dear
I will not leave till he's appeared

My love so soft and sweet again when shall we meet
I miss your loving touch In that soft and sweet retreat
My darling soon I'll be above
Hold on tight and do not fret my dove
The darkness of this cave
The secret love we made
Your scarlet passion of saves
Gives me strength and keeps me brave

I heard the new's today my lovers trapped down there
In mourning I will wait until he's in my care
Who are you waiting for my dear
Why does that picture look familiar
My man's been at your door
Senorita tell me more
although you are a whore
Right now I hate him more

Show me the light of day endlessly I fervent pray
Unite me with the one I love and above ground I'll always stay
Is that the rescue team up there
Tell my flower God will soon answer her prayer
As we ascend this hell
My good fortune will tell
Dios me you've served me well
I avoid the death toll bell

Upon the blinding light here I meet a frightening sight
One I'm wed and one I might on a desperate lust filled night
Never were the twain supposed to meet
Suddenly the cavern seems a sweet retreat
Both of you I can explain
No need to be profane
Oh god they wish me pain
Deliver me just once again

Feel free to share your thoughts, comments, and suggestions. Please realize that this is an extremely rough cut of this piece – an early draft. stay tuned for harmonization, as well as the possible addition of some accordion accompaniment.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Side-Splitting tale of Medical Marvel

I worked several jobs to get through college, both during the summers and while in school. The most consistent employment was the three year tenure I held at Walljasper construction, my grandfathers Vermeer baler implement. I never had an official title, but in practicality, it ranged from office manager to baler technician to farm hand.

Sporting a Walljasper Construction hat
I inventoried parts as they came in. I built hay mowers, rakes, and tedders like they were giant Lego sets. I serviced balers that stood fifteen feet high and spit out six foot round bails from their pneumatic maws. They were like giant jungle gyms for adults – the only differences being that this playground was equipped with giant roller bars that, if not properly restrained, could crush me like a corn flake, and generally I was required to scramble across its surface wielding a blowtorch and a hammer, the only tools capable of breaking free the ball bearings we commonly replaced. Every day was different, every task brought on a new challenge that generally led to a string of curse words that were common vernacular around the shop. There was a particular eight word expletive stream that flowed so easily from the mouth, it seemed to be the standard expression of complete frustration among men of my family. Any timidity I had when I first entered this job was soon lost as I smashed fingers, ran over toes, caught my hair, or banged my knee. Couple these mild injuries with the healthy dose of uber-machismo heckling I received from everyone save my grandfather, and I quickly learned that it was better to shut my mouth or let forth an exasperated fray of flower wilting utterances than to whine about the ailments that befell me.

The characters I met during my summers at the shop were among the most peculiar bunch I will ever encounter. Many of them lacked the book knowledge I was so proud of attaining as a sophomore in college, and I looked down on them for it. I thought that they were inferior for their ignorance. But what many of the farmers I met lacked in philosophical know-how, they made up for in honest labor and experiential wisdom. They knew more about the land they worked and the crops they harvested than I'll ever know about any one subject. They knew more about the weather than any meteorologist, and any one of the men I met in those ungodly hot Iowa summers could jury rig a broken down piece of machinery in a field a hundred miles from nowhere with some baler twine, a pair of pliers, and a can of chain lube.

The summer after my Sophomore year of college, I resumed my post in the shop, just in time for prime baling season to hit in mid May. Not three months earlier, I began dating a Junior at Monmouth College, the girl who would later become Mrs. Chris Walljasper. Before leaving school, we agreed that Annie would come down from suburban Chicago to visit and meet my family. She had experienced limited agrarian life, and was excited to meet my grandparents, learn about where I grew up, and see where I worked. So one sultry summer afternoon, she embarked upon the journey.

Annie was supposed to arrive a few hours after I got off work, giving me ample time to clean up before seeing her. In her excitement to be reunited with her new love, she showed up about three hours premature, discovering me at the shop, elbow deep in baler chains and grease. It was an amazing surprise, and I was ecstatic at the sight of my future wife, dressed like a million bucks and there just to see dirty ol' me.

She cutely attempted to help me on the baler for a few moments, but we soon realized that this was not the best idea, considering her polished attire. I sent her into the air conditioned office, where I would soon be finishing the day out before going home. I assumed that this would be the best place for Annie. Evidently, I was mistaken.

When I completed the repair on the machine, I joined my girl in the office, only to find that she was being entertained by an unintentional yet eccentric guest. And appearances were not as they seemed.

A farmer, who's name I'll leave out of this anecdote, had come by the shop office while I was busy, wanting a part for his hay mower. The man was honestly one of the nicest guys who worked with my grandfather, but did not come across as an incredibly learned man. The cleft pallet that divided his upper lip was the main culprit in giving our agrarian friend the appearance of a less than philosophical personality. He was never incredibly concerned about his attire, which on that particular day, was composed of a blue vented cap, a flannel button down shirt, a pair of shabby gray sweat pants, and Velcro strapped shoes. This was particularly slovenly for the farmer, but none of these characteristics, by themselves, were enough to be a cause for concern.

The thing that had Annie's jaw on the ground was the fact that one of the mans arms appeared to be firmly planted inside his jersey trousers, dangerously close to what she logically concluded were his genitalia. Upon entering the office, I strolled to the pop machine, grabbed a soda, and meandered to the counter before realizing that Annie was shooting me desperate looks as she feigned interest in whatever the farmer was chatting about. Mr. hand-in-pants, not phased by Annie's look of utter horror at the evident impropriety, kept talking, chatting away as if nothing was amiss.

I cordially assisted the man, providing the parts he'd come in for, and after he left, burst into laughter. I knew exactly what Annie had been thinking, and couldn't wait to hear what she had to say.

“What was that man doing?!? His hand was...Was he, TOUCHING HIMSELF?!?!?!”

Picking myself off the floor, I wiped the tears from my eyes and began to explain the bizarre story of our one armed friend.

The man owned a Model K baler. It was a newer vintage, equipped with an additional piece of equipment on the tail of the machine that, upon completion of a six foot round bale of hay, would administer a cellophane like wrapping around the circumference of the bale. This feature was the pride and joy of Vermeer, but after a few months of constant use, the rollers that conveyed the net wrap would collect remnants of the polyvinyl product and eventually stop the wrapping process. When this happens, it is recommended that the farmer bring the machine to the implement, where a technician could service it. Our farmer did not heed this advice.

I do not know the specifics of the incident, but evidently, the baler jammed up, so he hopped off the tractor to see what was the matter, and, finding the net wrap rollers incapacitated, took out his trusty pocket knife and began whittling away at the clog. This would have been a perfectly acceptable remedy, had the PTO been disconnected and the roller halted. But that was not the case. In seconds, both of his hands were caught by the spinning cylinder and forcibly run through the machine. At this point, I personally would have passed out. The grizzliness of this event is enough to make my stomach churn even now. But for his lack of foresight, this guy was tough. He retrieved the dismembered pieces of his opposable digits and made it across the field to his truck, where he proceeded to drive over ten miles back to his home, where his wife then escorted him to the hospital. Through all the pain and blood loss, he remained cognizant and focused enough to attain the medical attention necessary. But this isn't where the story ends.

The practice of reattaching a persons severed digits, then sewing them into the abdomen is evidently not common, as everyone who I've told this story to has been either appalled or dumbstruck. The technical term is Autografting, transferring flesh from one part of the body to another. By inserting the reattached thumb into his stomach, the healing properties of the abdominal cavity promoted blood circulation and nerve regeneration. To its credit, the unorthodox procedure resulted in a fairly successful use of his hand, when everything was said and done.

I explained all of this to Annie, who was dubious, to say the least. Upon verification from several other members of my family, she was finally convinced. I wouldn't believe it either, if I hadn't seen it myself. 

The miracle of modern scientific ingenuity prevailed to save this mans ability to hold up the underside of a sandwich for another day.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pistols to Plowshares

I was listening to an excessive amount of William Elliot Whitmore a few weeks back. Whitmore always gets me feeling reminiscent for home and a more agrarian life in southeast Iowa. Now my childhood in Donnellson, Iowa was no where near a country life. Residing in a town of 946, resplendent with baseball fields, a city park, and a public pool, I was seen as a soft city kid. I didn't raise animals, save the cats and dogs we kept as pets. I didn't learn to operate heavy machinery until I was in high school. I didn't hunt, ride four wheelers, or drink Busch Light at the age of 14.

My home town
But compared to the students I met in college from Chicago and St. Louis, or the thespians and artists I work with in Davenport, I am as country as an ear of corn. The handful of years I spent on my grandparents farms has made me a certifiable agricultural specialist in the circles I run. That and a healthy dose of bull shit.

So I was driving home from work, listening to NPR (that's the city boy in me), when I heard a sponsorship PSA for an organization called Plowshares institute. The name is derived from a scripture in the book of Isaiah,

They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

As I mulled over the idea of Swords into Plowshares, I attempted to update the metaphor.

Plant the Piece

Bombs into plowshares
Guns into plowshares
Pistols into plowshares

That had a great ring to it. As I rolled the words around my brain, a story began to develop. A Jesse James style tale of misdeed and a fight for survival for a young country boy. A little dramatic, maybe, but perfectly in style with the over-the-top affectations of the early westerns by John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Errol Flynn. From that story, this song arose. Here it is.

Pistols to Plowshares

I was born in the dust bowl, in the fall of '21
Grew up corn and cattle, my old man, and his shot gun
Saw my pa gunned down in cold blood over debts we could not pay
I took everything that meant anything to my pa and I rode away

Trailed him home that night, on my dads horse with his shot gun
Buried two shots in that bankers back, and in the dead of night I run
15 year old fugitive, I gunned my way cross the midwest
Lookin for some answers, praying for some rest

Now I been running longer than I've been sitting down
looking over my shoulder, so I don't end up in the ground
And all I want is a plot of land, a place to lay my head
Turn these pistols into plowshares, find some peace before I'm dead

I met a girl in Iowa, on the day I turned 16.
Took her out a dancing, I sure did find her keen.
But some ol' rounder cut in on us, he'd seen my face and the word reward
Lit up that ol' dance floor, left my lover on the floor.

Now I been running longer than I've been sitting down
looking over my shoulder, so I don't end up in the ground
And all I want is a plot of land, a place to lay my head
Turn these pistols into plowshares, find some peace before I'm dead

My old man never taught me much before he left this earth
The value of a good mans word, what a hard days work is worth
The only thing he didn't teach is how its bigger to forgive
If he had I wouldn't be here now just struggling to live.

Now I been running longer than I've been sitting down
looking over my shoulder, so I don't end up in the ground
And all I want is a plot of land, a place to lay my head
Turn these pistols into plowshares, find some peace before I'm dead

As always, post any thoughts, comments, additions, etc.

Thanks for listening! See you next week.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A day in the Laundry

Doing laundry has always been an exercise in futility for me. I am not good at laundering. Have had no formal training in the craft. As a 25 year old male, I am currently residing in a quaint a one bed room apartment, cozily tucked in with my lovely wife, Annie and persnickety basset hound, Ellie. 
Ellie and Annie
This minuscule complex does not have adequate laundry facilities, so I am often lugging my soiled unmentionables to the local laundromat.

For those of you who have not been blessed with the public laundry experience, you are unfortunate, as this is a ripe forum for studying the social habits of your fellow human, as well as pondering your own perceptions of reality. This may be due to the extended amount of time spent sitting idle, or the extreme hours in which I do my laundry, but my mind always seems to stray to questions of a more metaphysical nature during the spin cycle.

It all begins as I lug my laundry bags into the florescent dinginess of the drab facility. I throw open lids of three or four adjacent wash-o-matics, and do my best to remember the formulaic bifurcations of hot versus cold, dark versus light, delicates, sweaters, permanent press, polyester, socks, suits, and all the rest. Erratically, I race the rushing water of the machines to get the articles into the appropriate bins before the agitating cycles begin. Myself slightly agitated, yet content that my clothing is on its way to downy fresh status, I sit down and begin the wait. 23 minutes of contemplation before we tumble dry on medium heat for another contemplative half hour.

As I sit in one of the uncomfortable plastic lawn chairs that are scattered about the laundromat, I become aware of my fellow washers. The facility is not full, but has seven or eight other patrons scattered about, sorting, washing, folding, and waiting.

Unintentionally, these people beg me to define them. We do not speak, rarely make eye contact, unless it is to beg forgiveness for squeezing by one another in the narrow aisles between machines. But there are stories to be heard. In what they wear, in their gait. In their ethnicity, and the items they clean. It is as if they want to share their stories, and do so with every method and manner feasible, all but actual vocalization. They are leaking out the stories of their lives in every action they take, and every decision they do or don't make. Each nuance gives another clue to their existence. Each item pulled from a laundry bag is an epiphany. A woman answers her phone, another piece of the person is revealed. Every reprimand to a child gives an insight into a new world. Within a few moments, a patchwork story is revealed.

On one particular day at my particular laundromat, there were the following characters:

The college girl.
The young professional.
The woman with
Three children running.
The disheveled old man.

Each has their own relationships with the other characters, each has their own narrative. Granted, it is a narrative that I have gleaned from the surface contact I've made with these people, but from the information they've proffered, what other conclusion could I arrive at?

And then there is me. In my observation of the other inhabitants of the world, I neglected to consider my own presence. If I was reviewing these, was there any reason that I myself would be safe from the same judgments? I had been prejudicial in my assumptions of these launderers, and now realized that the same preconceived notions could very well be put upon my own inadvertent communications.

I began to realign my perceptions of my fellow washers, adjusting the reality I thought I'd defined so succinctly.

And so again I watched, and waited. Then I began to see a new narrative unfold:

The woman with
The disheveled old man.
The girl in her twenties.
The young person folding someone's business professional attire.
Three children running.

The relationships I'd assumed were not as they'd first seemed. The lives of these strange entities were not as they'd first appeared. Their stories morphed and interweaved as they skirted the laundry baskets and hemmed the edges of my own life. They finished their folding, drew up the drawstrings of laundry bags, and walked out of the fluorescence of this world we shared for a few brief hours. With their freshly washed garments, the people exited into the oblivion beyond the reality I'd presupposed within those washing machine walls.

In my reality, this was their reality. These people did not exist outside the four walls of the laundromat. If they thought about it, I'm sure I wouldn't be any more substantial away from the rinse cycles of those machines. Outside the big glass windows, none of us existed in the others' minds.

My dryer buzzes. I take my warm, freshly cleaned unmentionables and follow my laundromat life into the oblivion of my fellow launderers' minds.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Me and Henry Fonda

This song was born of an out-of-context comment, a few text messages, and the folk influences of Dylan, Guthrie, and Seeger.

The initial spark came during a rehearsal of a play, written by a local author. In the play is a devil character who, in the opening scene, is drinking tea and smoking a cigar. After a night of rehearsing, the director gave a note to the actor portraying Satan, referring to the cup as

“the devil's tea”.

As a lover of bourbon, this term immediately brings to mind the prohibitionist propaganda of the 20's and 30's in America. I can picture some matronly woman scolding her squirrely teenage sons as to the horrors of “the devil's tea”. Meanwhile Grandad's got a still on the hill, sippin' on white dog on the way to church on Sunday. This is a caricature of a time that was probably much more serious than I envision, but the Norman Rockwell painting in my mind is much more entertaining.

I mulled over this phrase. It just smacked of folksy artistry, but I couldn't come up with another line. That's when I called in the big guns. Brian Wilcoxon is an amazing singer songwriter friend of mine out in Indy. I texted him the line,

“Sippin' on the devils tea”.

He responded with,

“Me and Henry Fonda, sippin' on the devils tea”.

Henry Fonda, aside from being a great actor, has always held special significance to me, as he was one of Jimmy Stewart's best friends as they were emerging as young actors in New York, and remained close to Stewart throughout his life. As a great admirer of James M. Stewart's life and works, I loved this referrence. Henry Fonda, in my mind, is the symbol of stalwart friendship and companionship amidst hardship. I sat there a moment, rolling the cadence of this line around in my mouth like a taste of Kentucky bourbon. Then I replied,

“Me and Henry Fonda, sippin' on the devil's tea
riding in a box car all the way to Tennessee”,

paying homage to the preferred transportation of Guthrie and Seeger during their early years. From there, the rest of the folk form unfolded. I attempted to evoke the repetitive feel of a spiritual hymn, and even added in a little protest song at the end.

So here it is. As always, post any thoughts, comments, additions, etc.

Me and Henry Fonda

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Me and Henry Fonda, sippin' on the devils tea
riding in a box car all the way to Tennessee.

Ain't got no where to go
Ain't got no row to hoe

All I got is freedom, that's the only thing I need.

All I ever known is the shirt upon my back
All I ever known is the dirt so good and black

Don't need no roof above
To block out all of God's good love

All I needs the open sky to know just where I'm at.

Every time I get a dollar than the taxman takes it back
Every time I try to holler than the cop man gives me flack

Got to get away from it all
somewhere I can stand strong and tall

Got to find my freedom and fight to get it back.

Everyday and everynight the train runs down the line
Everytime I look, the clock keeps keepin' time

Gotta make the best of this place
Runnin' the big human race
Gonna ride these rails til I find what sure is mine.

If you have any ideas or comments, please post below. Feel free to offer suggestions on style, technique, recording methods, instrumentation, lyrics, or anything else. Again, the purpose of these entries is to spur dialogue that will improve the level of this piece.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Fight or Flight Dichotomy

I am not a violent man. I have to say that, if confronted with a physical altercation, My first impulse would be to run for my life. It's a survival instinct. I've always been skinny and unassuming, so it seems like the logical choice. But in recent years, an alternative impetus has begun to emerge.

I almost came to blows with a large man in an F-350 extended cab today. He tried to turn in front of me as I was passing through an already precarious intersection, and almost decimated my wife's Prius. Having already had a stress filled day, I'd had enough. As he screeched to a halt across the nose of my hybrid, I laid on my horn and shook my fist while my wife gestured irreverently. From the navy blue cab emerged a huge black man. His head was shaved, his face contorted into a menacing grimace, and his t-shirt could hardly contain the overflow of muscles packed into his arms. He loomed over the roof of the pickup with a scowl that could have bore a hole in my forehead. The behemoth began his march around the bed of the truck, towards my Toyota, and everything slowed to a crawl as I began to assess the situation. I was so livid that this man dare cut me off, let alone think he had the right of way. My initial reaction was to reach for my seat belt, go toe to toe with this linebacker of a man, and explain to him the traffic laws of our great state. He would see that he's fucked with the wrong skinny white dude today, and he'd get back in his truck and drive away.

Instead, as the surly giant lumbered out of his vehicle, Annie broke me from my paralysis with a commanding,

“Chris? Drive. NOW!”

With that, I snapped out of my daydream of virility and laid on the accelerator, getting as far away from that meathead as I could. My rational pacifism had returned to save my neck again. But will this sense of chivalry and physicality return again?

It seems that in the past five years or so, there has been an almost carnal impulse to defend, confront, and retaliate using force. In the past, I'd never consider it, as my self-esteem was fairly low, and my ability to envision a fist fight that didn't result in my bloody remains on the sidewalk was nonexistent.

When I was in the seventh grade, I played soccer. Our team was good, as middle school soccer teams go. We even won the district championship that year. But practices were rough. One teammate in particular made it his goal to push, poke, prod, and provoke me to the breaking point. And one day, while waiting in line for a drill, he succeeded.

He'd been punching me in the arm, repetitively, for about ten minutes. Small, consistent blows to the same spot on my dilapidated deltoid. Finally, I couldn't take it any more, and I pushed him away. I swung back my arm, my hand balled up in a little round clump of fingers and knuckles, loosely organized into a fist and let loose the hardest, most devastating blow possible. It landed on the bully's shoulder, then bounced to a rest at my side. I checked to see the result of my fury, and found only mirth and condescension. More out of shame than the physical pain he had inflicted, I began to tear up, so I ran to the locker room to avoid any further torture.

That incident had a lasting impression on my fight or flight instincts. Maybe it is the film industry that makes me feel that I've slacked in my ass kicking duties as a man in this country. Maybe, as I grow more comfortable with who I am, I will continue to stop people from pushing me around.

Whatever the reason, I've found myself appealing to fisticuffs other times as well. There was a time when my cousin and I went to a local bar in the Quad Cities to get a beer and watch a band we'd heard about. We got there and Adam went to the bar to get some drinks. After a while, he returned irritated, no drinks in hand. Without an ID, it seemed, the bar tender was unwilling to chance serving alcohol to a minor.

I then went up and got a beer. They eyed me suspiciously, as they'd seen me with Adam. After a few moments of enjoying the music and conversation, Adam got up in a huff, irritated by something.

“This is bullshit. I'll be right back.”

I watched him approach the end of the bar and begin what appeared to be a heated conversation with the bartender. Soon two gigantic men entered the discourse, at the behest of the server. It looked as if they were about to forcibly remove my cousin from the premises. That is when I realized that I had a filial duty to become involved and protect my family. As I approached the discussion, my mind went to the movies, where one person gets into a fight at a bar, and his friends are obligated to jump into the fray and bail him out. I came to the meeting with my nerves steeled, anticipating the worst. I stepped into the circle and asked Adam, in a tone that made it evident I was here for support,

“Is everything alright here?”

Adam then explained to me these gentlemen had been giving him threatening looks from across the bar, and that he would not stand for being treated in such a reproachful manner. He demanded they leave him alone. It needs to be said that my cousin is a bit more tempestuous than I, and does not have a problem flaring up in the heat of the moment. While I cannot attest to the validity of his argument that night, and I did not relish the idea of getting my face turned into ground hamburger, part of me was ready to step into the fray and offer a valiant attempt at coming to my friends defense.

Luckily the conversation calmed down, and we left the bar unscathed. But this is one more incident that leads me to wonder if I am somehow hardwired to a visceral desire for expressing this physical dominance. The feeling is by no means pervasive, but it does seem to flourish in times of extreme adrenaline rush. Is this brought on by something inherent, or is it something that is merely a product of the media, my learned response to “what a man should do when faced with a conflict”?

I am no more physically capable of defending myself in a brawl than I was in the seventh grade, save being a few feet taller. But maybe my change in self awareness and perception of the world over the past decade has given me this new aggression towards those who've caused me injustice. I don't know if I'll ever use it, but knowing it's there, somewhere in my core, is comforting.

So don't think you can push around us scrawny little white guys. We may look nerdy, but who knows what kind of fight we have inside.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

On the Greyhound

Note: This is a weekly element of the MUSINGS where I share music I've been working on, as well as other original works or interpretations by musicians who submit things to me at 

The purpose of this segment is to get feedback from viewers on the work that is presented. Please offer respectful ideas and/or criticism, with the intention of improving the music presented. I hope you enjoy.

I was talking to my friend Brian earlier this summer, and he told me this story about two brothers who owned a grocery store in his hometown in central Illinois. It was a locally owned grocery, the type you don't see around much any more. The store wasn't a warehouse of pristine florescent light and overwhelming options. It was dimly lit, sparse, and dingy. Scores of students had worked in this little shop over the years, earning cash to be spent on a sultry Saturday night, put down towards a beat up old car, or tucked away for a college dream. They bagged, checked, swept, and stocked their way to a meager check at the end of each month.

The owners were well known in the community. Not necessarily well respected, but everyone knew the brothers. They were a little eccentric, but nothing that made people leery. They weren't the type of guys you'd see on the City Council, but neither were they considered low life's. The high school guys who worked at the store were privy to a stash of dirty magazines that one owner kept in the back room. It was rumored that one of the owners carried a gun while taking the deposit into the bank.

Then one day, the two brothers got into an argument. They began yelling in the store, stormed outside, where the altercation escalated to physical violence. Some say it was about money, but no one knows for sure. The only thing that is for certain is that at the end of the day, one brother lay dead in the parking lot, gunned down by his own flesh and blood. The rain fell intermittently as the investigators assessed the situation.

The day the incident happened, a friend of ours was on a bus in a near by town. The bus driver received a call and, upon hearing of the tragedy, pulled the vehicle over and began sobbing uncontrollably. The event literally brought this little town to a standstill.

This story has a sepia-toned, reminiscent imagery about it, at least for me. It feels like the small town in which I grew up, where everyone knows everyone's business, and news travels faster than the afternoon papers can report. The scandal, the horror, the foundation shaking magnitude of this event makes everyone question what they've known to be real in their own lives.

So out of that story, a song was born. Brian and I discussed how this story was so human. We could relate to it because we've all been at our wits end with someone close to us. But most of us don't take it to such a drastic level. We curse, we scream, we punch, but do we ever think of actually ending that persons existence? In this song, I attempted to convey the idea that this could have just as easily been any one of us. Who knows what any of us all capable of.

On the Greyhound
Times are hard for everyman
To each his own doing the best that we can
As for me, I'm just traveling through
finding work and doing the best I can do

Middle America, late July
Hot enough to make the Devil cry
Greyhound bus grinds to a halt
Ain't going no further tonight on the old asphalt

Tensions rise in the July sun
when your 'gainst the wall there's nowhere to run
Behind the counter's more than tobacco and gin
Blood runs thick from your next of kin

Money turns a man's soul black
Jealousy cannot bring it back
One man dead, one man in chains
A family torn 'tween prison and the grave

Sometimes I think about those times
When everything was yours and mine
In the end there's no way to share
and now there is no one. There is no where.

Tensions rise in the July sun
when your 'gainst the wall there's nowhere to run
Behind the counter's more than tobacco and gin
Blood runs thick from your next of kin

On the greyhound no one knows your name
fade away everyone's the same

If you have any ideas or comments, please post below. Feel free to offer suggestions on style, technique, recording methods, instrumentation, lyrics, or anything else. Again, the purpose of these entries is to spur dialogue that will improve the level of this piece.

It's October, so If you've been working on a piece of music that is morose, sinister, or downright scary, send it to me at, along with the back story and lyrics and I'll post it. It doesn't have to be polished or well produced, just an original composition or interpretation. I'll be posting one song each week.