Tuesday, January 31, 2017


Source: Scott Witter

I'm having a difficult time writing lately.

I can trace it back to one moment: the U.S. presidential inauguration on January 20th.

Writing hasn't been the same since. I've tried to muster the energy and inspiration to write about things I love, but all I've wanted to do instead is write about the sorry state of a country I no longer recognize.

I'm an extremely political person with strong beliefs and ideas about the issues. I'm no shrinking violet when it comes to politics. For some reason though, I haven't written about politics much around here, at least not explicitly beyond a few posts over the last year or so. That said, I firmly believe that my politics are on full display in nearly everything I write because they're the underpinnings for everything. I can't help but express them, however subtly, in what I say or do or write.

My disappointment in my country since the November election has only worsened since the inauguration. I refuse to speak or type the name of the man who's now driving our nation into a ditch. Instead, on social media and in everyday conversation I tend to refer to him with only pronouns or the occasionally sarcastic terms those of us opposed to him have been using, like Cheeto or Tweeter-in-Chief.

If you're reading this and you support him and his dangerous and unconstitutional executive orders—which he's been signing left and right while blindsiding both politicians and citizens with them—just know that I do not. I fear for our country, for what he's doing to with it.

Conservatives and pro-Cheeto supporters like to rip into me for my lefty politics, saying that President Obama was the cause of so much consternation and hard times in their lives for the last eight years. Well, I call bullshit on that. I may not have agreed with all of Obama's policies or actions as President, but I never once doubted the man's intentions: he was a strong, sensitive, thoughtful, and intelligent person who weighed options and considered opposing viewpoints before coming to decisions that would impact the American people. The man in office now is none of those things and does none of that. Instead, he tweets, several times per day, about how others have wronged him because they politically oppose him. He and his team believe the media should "shut up," that they are the true opposition party. This goes against everything we hold dear in this country. It spits in the face of it, in fact.

We're going to wind up despised by other countries quickly, if we aren't already. His insane refugee ban on select Muslim countries is only going to create further unrest and sow the seeds of hatred for more radical terrorists over time. His border war with Mexico is appalling. He's talked his supporters into believing that scary Muslims and Mexicans have stolen their jobs and make for dangerous neighbors. Of the seven countries on the travel ban, none have created terrorists who've committed terrorist acts on American soil. Meanwhile, countries like Saudi Arabia have but they aren't on the ban—because he has business dealings there.

I have plenty of friends and family who don't share my white privilege. To hear people, including those in the administration, mock or downplay the very real fears that all citizens should be feeling right now, but especially those that aren't white or male, is disgusting.

The inherit racism in his campaign rhetoric should have been enough to keep him out of the White House. The business conflicts of interest alone should have been enough. Bragging of sexually assaulting women should have been enough. Mocking a disabled reporter should have been enough. Starting the birther movement and perpetrating that absurd and racist lie about Barack Obama should have been enough. I could go on, but frankly I'm depressed and exhausted from the litany of horrible things he's done and said, and then that people still voted for him after that.

It hasn't only been difficult to write lately. Social media has been a taxing experience, especially Twitter. Maybe it's because we all now associate that site with the Russian puppet installed in the Oval Office, but it's also because it's just a vile and cruel place sometimes. I like to promote my writing there and engage with people about pop culture and everyday life on Twitter. Lately however I've had absolutely zero interest in even opening up the app, for fear of how much anxiety I'll feel once I start scrolling. It's become a cesspool of hate. And this is caused by both sides, the left and right. I can't take it. So the plan is to divest a bit from social media, from cyberspace, to live more in the real world with my family and friends. To make concerted efforts to continuing resisting.

Carrie Fisher's death wounded me, deep in my soul. This was followed by the start of our new authoritarian rule by a man who neither reads nor cares to, who has no intellectual curiosity whatsoever and sees everyone—the media, politicians, protesters, other countries, etc.—as enemies. Then the women's marches happened and people everywhere were, appropriately claiming Princess Leia Organa as a symbol of the resistance. My heart swelled. This helps me to see hope where I'd previously struggled to do so. When I look at my kids, I feel that sense of hope welling up, also. Every day that someone somewhere takes a stand against this insanity, I feel hope. That's what the resistance is built on, after all: hope. It will carry us through troubling times. This too shall pass. I only hope it's sooner rather than later.

Friday, January 27, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Life in Progress

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

There's a small moment, just a short scene, from the 1997 crime-comedy classic Grosse Pointe Blank that's always stuck with me. John Cusack's character, professional assassin Martin Blank, is attending his ten year high school reunion. He's catching up with an old friend who recently had a baby. She asks Martin to hold the infant. He hesitates. Once holding the child though, this hardened and cynical man, swimming in a sea of amorality in his daily existence as a hitman, is stopped dead in his tracks by the overwhelming power of holding a new life. Queen's and David Bowie's beautiful 1981 song "Under Pressure" underscores the moment perfectly.

When I saw the film in 1997, just before college graduation, the scene was a close proximity to how I'd have reacted if you handed me a baby: reticent, confused, awestruck. Over the years, I could understand the allure, but the fear and anxiety of caring for them was always overwhelming in its abstractness. You can't really test them out, after all. Once you commit to children, you're in for life. They're counting on you.

Life is always in progress. It leads us through peaks and valleys, each providing opportunities for progress. Sometimes we seem stuck in a stasis period. During those times it feels like progress is stalled, or has taken a prolonged vacation from our lives. But then life resumes, progress returns, and before we realize it, things are vastly different than they were just a few years before.

One of those "life in progress" moments happened when my wife gave birth to our kids. Now the baby scene in Grosse Pointe Blank hit me in a more visceral manner. In Martin's subtly shifting range of emotions on display, I see a man coming to terms with his own mortality through the big, beautiful, innocent eyes of a newborn. In those eyes lie an infinite number of possibilities, not yet extinguished, all still within reach. Maybe there is more for Martin than being a contract killer. Maybe love, and even a family, are real possibilities for him. And for me. And for you.

There are forces at play in the universe that are immune to our cynicism, that can still reach behind our carefully constructed barriers, built out of skepticism and sarcasm, to tug at our hearts. It's eye-opening to realize this; freeing, even. I'm still an optimistic pessimist, the same one I was in '97 while watching Grosse Pointe Blank for the first time. That '90s kid, and all that gave shape to him, is still part of me, no doubt about it. But having kids has brought my optimism to the forefront in ways I never imagined. Why? Because when you first hold your children and see those big, beautiful, innocent eyes staring back at you, it's easy to let hope win out in the end.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Gonna make you, make you, make you notice: The musical constancy of the Pretenders

Talk of the town: The Pretenders.
That's Chrissie Hynde's face staring back at you on this blog's header. I've written about Hynde and the Pretenders here on more than one occasion. So it was only a matter of time before I wrote at greater length about her music and influence. She's provided me with a lifetime of deeply personal music to which I can relate to and also be constantly surprised by. There are several other artists, writers, and musicians whose work I've been equally invested in over the years, but my affection for Hynde and the Pretenders goes back to my formative years and is so intertwined with my life that it's almost impossible to separate the two.

Their debut album, Pretenders, was one of the first rock albums I ever owned and, as I like telling anyone within ear shot, a stone-cold perfect album that I've been comparing other great records to ever since. It's a masterpiece and one of the most impressive debuts in rock history. It contains everything you need to know about the Pretenders, everything they do better than anyone else, and everything they would continue to explore and build off of in the years following. There are other records that I love as much as Pretenders, but none that I love more. I first owned it on cassette in the early '80s and for a long time either it or their greatest hits album were all I listened to. Years later, the CD versions would be two of my most played albums as well. Lately I find myself returning often to the Pretenders on Spotify. While writing this I played their music constantly, including the entire first album sourced from the vinyl on YouTube. No matter the musical format or what stage in life I'm at, I never tire of the Pretenders.

If you've ever spent any measurable time with me over the years, say, at a tavern while having a few libations, then I've likely declared either "Brass in Pocket" or "Mystery Achievement" to be the finest rock song ever written. Bold statements like that are meant to be provocative (especially when uttered in bars), so take it with a grain of salt. The point is, I enthuse about the Pretenders on a regular basis, championing their songs to anyone and everyone. While my wife and several of my close friends love the band's music, I'm still likely the biggest Pretenders fan they know, an honor that I proudly accept.

For many, Chrissie Hynde is the Pretenders. Since the beginning and through various lineups, she's remained their primary songwriter and the public face of the band. For many of us she was our first rock crush. I was only in the initial years of elementary school during the early 1980s, when the Pretenders were huge. I wasn't sure what attracted me to her back then, but clearly her voice and her uniquely cool presence were likely factors. Later on as a teenager I started to pay close attention to her lyrical phrasing and subtle humor and my interest only deepened.

I gotta have some of your attention, give it to me.
She was a revelation. In "Brass In Pocket" she sang about how special she was and that she needed your attention. She was going to make you notice her, no doubt about it. Well, I certainly noticed. There was something mysterious about her as well, with her bangs hanging down low over her face and pouty lips pursed defiantly as if to say, "Yeah, so what?" She was one of the first artists I discovered who had attitude, and as I had none at that time, she definitely helped me to develop some of my own over the years.

In those pre-internet days, we were attracted to the mystery of artists like Hynde, Bowie, and Prince, to name a few. They always left just enough room for us to fill in the blanks, and we used our imaginations to flesh out who they were and what they represented to us. I didn't know much about Hynde besides her music until I was much older. During those years my relationship to her and the band was strictly through the music and their videos. This helped cement my fandom because I was able to insert my own meanings alongside Hynde's intentions. The Pretenders became a musical totem for me, a constant source of inspiration that I could carry with me—in a Walkman, a portable CD player, or an iPhone—wherever I went.

Hynde's voice is one of the most distinctive in modern music. She has a talent for conveying strength and vulnerability at the same time. Her vocals are like her personality: full of attitude and heart. Her feelings and emotions are front and center in her songs, with lyrics that are often tender and cynical at the same time—tender towards her loves and passions, cynical towards the world that's trying to tear them down. She's written numerous songs about growing up in Northeast Ohio and several about her adult life in London, with a mixture of heartfelt nostalgia and brutal truthfulness in both cases. This duality is an essential element of her appeal—Hynde isn't afraid to be raw and honest about her feelings and opinions, both in song and in interviews. Instead, she lets you see right inside her heart by laying bare her true feelings. For all her reputation as one of the most legendarily tough women in rock, her songs are consistently thoughtful and sincere. She paints beautiful pictures with her words and never hesitates to express complicated emotions, even if they aren't always flattering.

That's the look I was telling you about: "Yeah, so what?"
With the release of the band's debut album in 1980, she represented a new perspective in rock music—namely that of the fiercely independent late-twentieth century woman. Patti Smith and Debbie Harry had recently laid the groundwork and Hynde grabbed this torch and added her own unique voice to the tradition. She wrote about being a lover, a mother, a friend, a bandmate, a citizen of the world, and all while exposing the conflicting nature of these various roles that women have to play.

There's a depth to her songs, one that grows over time and through repeat listening. Hynde writes songs that are just broad enough to appeal to many while still remaining intimately personal as well, allowing the listener to find his or her own meaning in them. For instance, "2,000 Miles" was intended as an ode to the late guitarist James Honeyman-Scott but most listeners tend to see it as a story about long-distant love. Due to its allusions to the holidays and wintertime, it's also become a Christmas season radio staple. To this fan, its meaning has always derived from a blend of all of these elements, along with some personal experiences of my own mixed in as well. Hynde is one of the masters of pop songwriting, mixing the deeply personal and the widely accessible, to create songs that powerfully resonate with listeners..

The classic lineup featured Hynde on vocals and guitar, Honeyman-Scott on lead guitar, Richard Fardon on bass, and Martin Chambers on drums. This incarnation of the band recorded what are, for my money, two of the best rock records ever made, Pretenders and Pretenders II. Side note: I miss the days when rock bands titled their records like movie sequels. Together, these albums form an utterly unique one-two punch of early '80s post-punk, new wave excellence.

Mystery achievement, you're so unreal: Classic Chrissie Hynde.
Hynde revealed in her recent memoir Reckless that the band's famously strange time signatures were a happy accident, resulting from her lack of experience with songwriting or reading music. This led to a distinctive sound for the band, one that stood apart from their contemporaries and helped launch their career. The first two albums are loaded with all-time classics, including "Precious," "The Wait," "Mystery Achievement," "Kid," "Brass in Pocket," "Message of Love," "Day After Day," "The English Roses," and "Talk of the Town." Honeyman-Scott was the band's not-so-secret weapon, a true guitar virtuoso with a habit of unleashing absolutely mind-bending solos. He was a tremendous talent and a huge inspiration to Hynde in her songwriting. Their work together is pure magic. His death after the second album left a huge hole in both the band's lineup and their hearts. Soon after Honeyman-Scott's death, Fardon also died, another victim of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle.

The band continued on, with two new members, still managing to record a spectacular and worthy follow-up to Pretenders II with Learning to Crawl. That record continued their hot streak and contained some of Hynde's most moving songs to date, including "Back On the Chain Gang," which put into words Honeyman-Scott would forever remain a central figure in her thoughts and career. Since then, the band has continued to record and tour to this day. Along the way they've made some truly good albums, and even if they haven't equaled the majesty of their first three, they're still wonderful records. Every Pretenders album contains at least two or three eminently catchy songs that you'll never forget, nor tire of hearing.

"Brass in Pocket" was the single that really broke the band, debuting at number one on the UK Singles Chart in 1980. It's still their best-know song, and remains unlike anything else in the rock cannon before or since. It's infectious beat, with an effortless slow groove laid down by the band, makes you want to live inside of its sound forever. The video was one of the most played and memorable videos of the early days of MTV. I was absolutely transfixed watching Hynde play the diner waitress. She played the part to the hilt, sadly pining for Fardon while he cavorted with other women who we all knew couldn't compete with Chrissie. The video cast Hynde as the wallflower, the timid girl in the corner, just longing for someone to notice her. Yet the lyrics were anything but timid, with their forthright declarations in her abilities to grab your attention. With charm and moxie, she tells you exactly what she's going to do to make you, make you notice her—which includes using style, imagination, and certain body parts to lure you in.

While the video is fairly simple and rudimentary in production and technique—these were still the nascent days of music videos, remember—it had fun with a cliched scenario, that of the shy girl pining for a guy who'll never notice how great she is, by brilliantly confusing matters when paired with Hynde's playfully aggressive and forthright lyrics. Hynde defiantly and emphatically announced herself with this song, showcasing what would make her one of music's best songwriters and an icon of cool for decades. She sings the song with a mixture of supreme confidence and desperate longing, "'Cause I gonna make you see/There's nobody else here/No one like me," and a generation quickly agreed—there was no one else remotely like her. Hearing "Brass in Pocket" for the first time was enough to make me sit up and take notice of the Pretenders. After that, I was along for the ride (while "Detroit leaning," of course), even though I was far too young to fully understand why yet. That would come later. All I knew then was there was no one in music (not to mention my life) like Chrissie Hynde, and her songs spoke to me in new and exciting ways.

Raw and honest.
I can still remember hearing "Night In My Veins" on the car radio during college and feeling a sense of pride that Hynde and the band were still out there making smart, hook-laden songs just like they always had. During those years, I could gauge my life against their music as I moved up through school and into young adulthood. Their debut was released when I was only five, so by the time I'd reached high school and college in the '90s, their music had basically always been there. The soundtrack of my life.

Their hits album stayed tucked inside my Walkman for long stretches on a regular basis, never rotating out for long. Their music led me to Elvis Costello and Blondie, among others. So, hearing "Night In My Veins" back in 1994 felt both reassuring and energizing. The bands I was worshiping at the time, like Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and Soundgarden, were reaching the peak of their powers and influence, but here was a band I'd known and loved since my earliest days that could still kick out the jams with the best of them. Not only was I invigorated by "Night In My Veins" but also energized by the notion that life has constants that we can draw inspiration from and measure ourselves against. Hynde and the Pretenders have been a constant for a lot of us for several decades now. Certainly I can't imagine my life without their music being a part of it.

The Pretenders popularity waxed and waned in the ensuring years. There were times after college where they dropped off my radar for stretches, but never for long and I'd always find my way back to their music when I needed it most. As an adult my connection to their music only strengthened, as I could now relate more than ever to their songs about love, loss, life, and staying true to yourself through it all.

On a vacation to Italy about a decade ago, they were the band I listened to on long car rides through the country side, or on a ferry ride to Calabria. I immersed myself in their music again, in a way I hadn't in a few years at that point. I was struck by how relevant it remained to me, and in new and interesting ways. I saw things in their music that I hadn't noticed when I was a kid. The songs might be perfect representations of Hynde's punk rock attitude and trademark pout, but she's also singing about honest emotions and isn't afraid to profess her love for what matters most to her. Listen to "Message of Love," her ode to the idea that love can—and should—conquer all. Paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, Hynde hits at the truth behind how we often find connections with each other in the midst of a chaotic world: "Now look at the people/In the streets, in the bars/We are all of us in the gutter/But some of us are looking at the stars." She acknowledges how difficult prioritizing love can be—"Life is unkind/We all fall but we keep gettin' up/Over and over and over and over and over and over." It's lyrics like this that have lodged in my brain and make the band essential listening for me over the years. Hynde's words and music have burrowed into my heart and soul for the long haul, and at some point over the years I realized that counts for an awful lot. Why wouldn't I want to return frequently to music that makes me feel this alive? After all, life is short and it's best to use the time we have to surround ourselves with things that we feel passionately about.

As I mentioned here previously, I finally saw the Pretenders several years ago. It was a long time coming, as I was far too young to have seen them in their prime. The latest lineup still featured the only two living members from their heyday, Hynde and Chambers. They played nearly every song I wanted to hear, along with surprisingly good new tracks. I needn't have been surprised though; Hynde's songwriting has been nothing if not consistent over the years. Hearing these songs, which had been an important part of my life for so long in a live setting was completely transformative. These were some of the first grown-up songs I ever connected with as a child. They helped expand my horizons and ask questions I hadn't previously thought about (like "Why is life so complicated for adults?").

A musical constant: The Pretenders.
Approaching sixty, Hynde still brought the same energy and charisma from those classic early years. She owned the crowd that night, had us wrapped around her finger from the first note until the last. To say that I'd fulfilled a decades-old wish by seeing them that night would be an understatement. All of my cynical notions about bands not possibly remaining essential after their primes were rejected by Hynde and the Pretenders that night. They proved to me once and for all that certain artists do retain what makes them cool and vital, even as they age. I didn't think it was possible to appreciate the Pretenders more than I had over the previous twenty-five years at that point, but that night I realized it most certainly was.

In 2015 Hynde released her first memoir Reckless, which covers her beginnings in Northeast Ohio all the way up to and through those wildly creative and momentous early years of the Pretenders. While reading it I was pleased to find her prose to be just like her lyrics: honest, funny, raw, intelligent, and heartfelt. She explored some of her life's less than flattering moments with the kind of candidness you would expect from her. Like all of us, she falls sometimes but keeps getting back up, over and over. Once again I was reminded that Chrissie Hynde's work remains a constant in my life, one that only becomes more rewarding with the passage of time.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Myths and Legends

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

Stories about him had been circulating since elementary school. It seemed like the legend had likely existed forever, probably first told by a roaring campfire in the woods one night, long ago. The kids who shared the tale did so quietly and ominously. Who was this man? How old was he? Was he immortal? A ghost?

The urban legend went like this: somewhere on the outskirts of our hometown, way out in the sticks, the boonies, lived a man who haunted the roads near his house. Every night he roamed, lurking in the shadows just off the road, carrying a flashlight or a baseball bat, or both. As cars drove past, he'd shine the light in the driver's eyes. Supposedly he made his nightly rounds with the express purpose of finding his deceased wife, or a surrogate for her, whichever came first. Thus he sometimes carried a woman's shoe, his late wife's, as the story went. He was looking for the woman whose foot it would fit.

This was strictly the stuff of fantastic local mythology for me, until my senior year. I dated a girl who not only lived out in those same spooky sticks, miles from my more heavily populated suburban neighborhood, but on the same street as the urban legend himself. She'd seen him more times than she could count. She'd even talked to him a few times, he knew her father. Was he really looking for his late wife, or a suitable replacement, I'd ask? She had no idea. She only knew that he seemed sad and strange, and that he kept his nightly roadside vigil like clockwork.

The girlfriend had impressive Kelly Bundy hair and a similar, although much tamer, fashion sense. We were an unlikely pairing but it was working out, so that meant regular late-night drives to bring her home or to leave her place for my home. This allowed for frequent sightings of the mysterious roadside creeper.

At first I was admittedly freaked, especially when I left her house alone to go back home. Those nights I'd invariably see him, and he'd see me, flashing his light and staring straight at me, locking eyes, as I drove by. He was unkempt with greasy, stringy hair and rumpled clothes. He looked...menacing. I still swear he was holding a shotgun one time. I'd look back in the rear view mirror and see a lone dark figure stepping out into the road, watching me drive away.

Eventually I grew used to his presence, almost hoping to see him and being disappointed when I didn't. I still never learned anything about him beyond that he lived with his mother and his property looked like a junkyard. Maybe it was.

Sometimes I wouldn't see him, but his mother instead. She stood just back from the road, wielding a flashlight and blinding me as I passed by her. Like mother, like son, I guess.

My girlfriend and her brother ran into the ancient-looking lady one night. They were cutting through the woods heading back home after visiting a friend nearby. Suddenly she appeared. I think she issued a warning about being careful out this late at night, which took on sinister undertones coming from her. They walked past her, but kept looking back, just in case.

A few years later I was home from college on summer break, dating a different girl who also lived out on one of those dimly lit roads in those very same boonies (why was I always driving to the farthest, darkest edge of town for a girl?). She didn't live on the wanderer's road though, and was probably a mile or so past it, in fact.

Sometimes we'd park on the side of the road and talk for a while before she eventually got out and made the long walk down the small hill and through the enormous yard to her house, which was set far back from the road. I usually accompanied her on that walk, through the eerily quiet calm of early morning, just to steal a few more moments together. After all, summer would be over eventually and we'd be living apart soon.

Even knowing that he didn't live on her road, a few times I wondered, fleetingly, was he watching us in the car, or on our walks across that expansive front lawn? I'd mostly forgotten about him by then, as my concerns were now greater than my hometown. Still, there were stories of him roaming great distances certain nights, maybe when the compulsion seized him with more strength than usual.

So I squeezed her hand extra tight on those walks, through the eerie coal-black darkness of those seemingly endless nights during a seemingly endless summer.

If he was watching, I like to think he was struck by the sight of two young people living in the moment, in that way you do when you're young, unencumbered by responsibility or perspective. Maybe he had even been like this once himself, decades or generations or millennia ago, before something led him to prowl the darkness, night after night, perpetually looking, looking for something.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

It Came From the '90s: The Shock and Awe of Divinyls

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

Peeling out of the church parking lot after Sunday night religious ed class, Divinyls' "I Touch Myself" blasting from the car stereo. This makes the passengers giggle like the immature dorks we are, while the friend behind the wheel is grinning out the window at the religious education teachers. The rest of us, shy and non-confrontational, smile sheepishly from the backseat.

The teachers look aghast, displeased. I think one shakes her head in disgust. Each generation looks at their successors this way at one point or another, it's unavoidable. The old timers, shocked and appalled, plus a little envious, when confronted with the temerity of youth.

While I'm just an accomplice in the car—I didn't know the driver was going to do that when he turned the ignition key and the song started playing on the radio—each of us has at least a little fun instigating the older teachers and nuns here. God, they must a hundred years old, right? So old. We're young. We're the youth of today, tomorrow, the future. We will have jet packs, we have been promised jet packs! In the meantime we listen to songs like this because their social inappropriateness makes us laugh, but also because they make our teachers and parents uncomfortable. We don't have much power yet, so this is all we've got, really, these pathetic little displays of youthful resistance. Let us have it, will ya? Just shake your head and move on, already

It's a fantastic song, let's not forget, both because of the lyrical content and despite it. Chrissy Amphlett's husky, sultry voice is so ridiculously seductive that we all fall in love with her the minute we first hear the song. Then we see the video. She's got a sexy Chrissie Hynde thing going on (what is it with that name?). Hook, line, and sinker, son.

In the grand tradition of adolescent boys everywhere, we imagine she's singing directly to each one of us. "I love myself, I want you to love me." Consider it done. "When I feel down, I want you above me." Sweet Jesus, forget religion class, lyrics like that are religious experience enough for fifteen year old kids. So in the car that night, we're just a bunch of hormonal kids who can't get dates yet, and instead become enchanted by a woman like Amphlett that we'll never actually meet. This is a pattern with us; see also: Christina Applegate, Bridget Fonda, Janet Jackson. We're just doing what our forefathers did before us. Every generation of kids goes through this. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Don't the geezers know this? Well, I suppose we can forgive the nuns for not knowing. I mean, I would imaging lusting after a pop star is frowned upon in the Catholic church. It has to be, right? Still, why don't they get it? Will we get it when we're their age? Will we snicker along in recognition—"eh, just kids being kids"—or will frown and send the miscreants to their rooms?

Certainly, blasting "I Touch Myself" outside religious ed is a brazen act. I'm amazed the kid driving has the guts to do it. I like to think I'll laugh if my kids do something similar, but will I? I can imagine telling them that it's inappropriate to crank a song about masturbation in a Catholic church parking lot. Hopefully though, I'll recognize that occasional inappropriateness doesn't have to signal a slippery slope into a life of debauchery.

We really don't like the nun who teaches our class. We feel like she's cruel and unusual in her disregard for our opinions. She seems to dislikes us, all of us, everyone. This is our "F-you," moment, clearly. A sad little stab at pushing back, safely from a distance and inside of a car, while the alluring woman singing reminds us that she likes us, yeah, she likes us just fine.


Chrissy Amphlett died in 2013 from breast cancer. She was only 53. Fuck.

While I hadn't thought of her in a while, the news still stung. Another childhood legend, gone too soon. Her performance of "I Touch Myself" has made me swoon, smile, and even laugh out loud for more than two decades. It's gloriously silly! It's a magnificently subversive pop cultural artifact. It's as boldly explicit as another surprise hit, Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side." Songs like these aren't supposed to be mainstream chart toppers. But like Reed before them, Divinyls stormed the castle of good taste, knocked down the walls of decency, and made themselves at home.

It's worth noting that Amphlett and Divinyls had a deep and rich song catalog beyond their big 1991 hit. Their songs haven't lost any of their immediacy or impact over the years. Tracks like "Boys in Town," "Elsie," "Temperamental," and "Only You" remain powerful, no matter the era in which you hear them. They were a band full of energy, much of which came from the electrifying Amphlett. Just watch her here, early in her career, performing the incendiary "Siren (Never Let You Go)." She's a live wire. The buildup to her taking the mic is pure rock showmanship. Mesmerizing. She was born to perform.

Still, "I Touch Myself" will always be the song most people remember when they think of Amphlett. For years, it empowered women to own their bodies in ways that often made people uncomfortable. Since Amphlett passed away, the song has taken on new meaning for scores of listeners. It's now used to promote early cancer detection. It's legacy lives on in new ways. That's pretty special, and much of the credit should go to Amphlett. She owned that song. Watch her playfully teasing the people in the front row here, back in '91. Around the 2:30 mark, note how lovingly the audience responds when given the chance to touch Amphlett.

It's sad to know that she's not still out there, singing the song that makes both kids and adults blush.

You were good, Chrissy. Thank you.

Monday, January 9, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Chain Restaurant Hell

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on a generation of people who came of age during the decade.

"When you're on break, whatever you do, don't eat the food."


It's 1992. I'm in high school, and working at a Ponderosa Steakhouse. We call it Pondo, or my personal favorite, Pondegrossa. Clever. This is a new franchise of the venerable restaurant chain opening up in our hometown. Word spreads through school: they needed an entire staff of new employees to open the place by end of summer. It seems like everyone I know both applies and gets hired.

It's mid-summer when we begin training. Yes, it's going to take several weeks of rigorous practicing to whip our sorry teenage butts into shape. They fly in a district manager from Ohio, or a "DM" to those of us in the biz. He'll oversee our indoctrination into The Ponderosa Way. We learn important stuff, like whenever the ketchup dips below the illustrated pickle on the side of the Heinz bottle, you must refill immediately. Customers go through a lot of ketchup at Ponderosa, clearly. Probably to mask the sorry taste of the food.

We seem to have a staff of thousands. There are too many of us working to fit inside the restaurant at any given time. How crowded will it be once it opens and we have actual customers? People start to settle into their roles during training—many of us become waiters (including me), others dishwashers, some cooks, then a few that work register and manage the ice cream station. The wait staff is composed mostly of teenagers like myself. Of all the staff we probably look the most harmless, I suppose, yet we're full of the usual teen angst to keep things interesting. On the other hand, the kitchen staff is comprised of the most depraved bunch of miscreants and mischief-makers you're likely to meet outside of a pirate ship. About half the restaurant's staff is from my school, the rest from neighboring districts, then a few older dudes. We're all feeling each other out, through the typical teen currencies of sarcasm and flirting.


During training I make friends with a waitress from another school. Just friends. Of course, I'm intrigued by her. She's flirty with most everyone, including me, but also treats me like a brother. She confides in me, probably because of how nonthreatening I am. I'll take what I can get. It's not often that a girl asks for my number, or invites me to her house, or wants to lounge next to me on the couch, so I'm fine with letting her determine the parameters of our relationship.

We talk regularly and even hang out at her house sometimes. She vents about boy troubles and I try to sound interested. Is this what college life will be like, I wonder? We do share a similar sense of humor. Making her laugh makes me feel good, so I try to do it as often as possible. We're the same age but she seems exponentially more worldly, with far more confidence than I possess. She seems to have lived already, while I'm still waiting for my life to begin. She's unlike most people I know, but seems like a precursor to the kind of friends I might make when I'm older and emerging from my shell. If only I was ready to be in her league right now, we'd probably have even more to talk about. She talks plenty for both of us though, so I don't think she minds.


Once the restaurant opens for business after what feels like an interminably long training period, the pace immediately intensifies. No longer coasting along in our utopian workers' paradise—no customers to interrupt our witty banter!—we're now thrown in the trenches, up to our necks, every day. Customers, it turns out, are no joke. They can be vicious or delusional or frustratingly passive aggressive. Sometimes they're all three at once.

A family accuses me of holding their food in the back so that it would cool down. After I repeatedly try to reassure them I would do no such thing, they refuse to hear  it. I finally snap, "Sure, yes, you're right. I'm holding food back because I want to mess with you. You got it!" Their indignation is now on full blast. They call for the manager. This guy is a restaurant lifer, probably in his late thirties, early forties. He gives absolutely zero fucks. He trudges over, zombified, shoulders set in perpetual slump, bags under his heavy-lidded eyes. He listens to the unhinged customers rant, says he's sorry they feel that way and the meal's on us. As we walk back to the kitchen, he mutters under his breath, "Fuckers," and we each stifle laughter.


There's a thief in our midst. Over the first month, money keeps disappearing from the register. Finally, the person is caught and let go. Shockingly, it's one of the register girls. Fine detective work from our astute management finally deduced that it was, in fact, the girl with direct access to the money.

A waiter is fired around the same time for trying to sell pot to customers. While he was working. One of my good friends, also a waiter, got a ride home from this same kid one night a few weeks back. He feels like he was lucky to escape with his life. Not only did the guy drive like a maniac, but the floor of the car was rotting out. This left gaping holes where you'd normally rest your feet. For the entire ten minute ride, my friend keeps his feet suspended in air above the floor to avoid scrapping them on the pavement at 60 miles per hour (in a residential 30 mph zone). He says it was like getting a ride in a Flintsone's car. That imagery will never leave my brain.


One of the dishwashers is, to put it mildly, coming apart at the seams. Whether its drugs or mental illness or I suspect some combination of both, he's terrified nearly every female staffer at least once. The girl I tend to share a wait station with most often, a genuine sweetheart, has a series of uncomfortable encounters with him one night when we're working together. Every time she brings dishes to the back, he asks to stay at her house for a while because he's been evicted—he'll stay on her floor, heck, even her front lawn will work. He's persistent as hell about it and she's rightfully scared—the dishwasher has to be ten years older than us.

She begs me to bring the dishes back for the rest of our shift. I don't even think twice. I say sure and immediately start formulating what I'll say to him. The next time I bring back a load of our accumulated dirty plates and utensils, I let the dish-jerk know that he needs to stop harassing my wait-staff partner. After I speak my piece, he shoots me daggers with his crazy eyes, there's a brief flash of serious malice in them. I'm scared speechless for a second. Then he tries to laugh it off with some off-color remark. I respond, "Yeah, sure, just leave her alone, thanks." I don't know where I find the courage to confront him, but she can now relax and I'm still alive, so I think the two of us win this round.


Someone spits in a meal that's been made for one of the managers whose on break. No one likes this guy, he's humorless and a hard-ass. Still, after the cook throws down his dare, a series of people come and go through the kitchen, none willing to do the actual spitting. It's never clear why the cook doesn't do the spitting himself, especially because he seems really invested in it. Then a waitress flies into the kitchen. At that moment the cook is repeating his salivary request. Without hesitating or even breaking stride, she turns her head and hawks a loogie right onto the plate. She's a blur, in and back out of the kitchen before we even realize what happened. Wait, did it happen? Did you see her do it?

The manager that no one likes tucks into his meal. Bon appetit, I guess.


A pipsqueak of a waiter unwisely mouths off to a tough-as-nails waitress one night. I would certainly never mess with this girl. She threatens to beat the snot out of him, and then places a call to her boyfriend, very loudly for us all to hear. Boyfriend's coming over to kick your ass and he's huge, she informs pipsqueak. Thus begins the long wait for the ass kicking to commence. Pipsqueak hides out in the back of the restaurant, practically vibrating with fear. He's begging people to walk him out, as protection, and one by one we all turn him down. Eventually I hear that he bolts for the door and leaps into a waiting car, which speeds away. He'd called his mother to pick him up, apparently. Boyfriend never did show.


A group of us waiters spend inordinate amounts of time staring out one of the windows at the Friendly's restaurant next door. We're experiencing serious pangs of jealousy and imagining life is full of rainbows and unicorns over there. Chances are it sucks to work there too, but we can't fathom it would suck as much as working here does. Most of the time we're not even hiding our Friendly's pining, causing customers to look at us incredulously as we ignore them to dream of a life spent serving the Jim Dandy or Reese's Pieces Sundaes. Dream big, young turks.


"Don't eat the food" becomes our mantra. We repeat it every time one of us goes on break. Yet, never fail, we wind up eating there most times. Convenience and cost savings (we get a minimal discount, gee thanks) win out over our health, clearly. The food at Ponderosa is often inedible and other times downright scary. Sure, you can indulge in the mac and cheese or chicken wings and probably live to tell the tale, but that's after a prolonged trip to the emergency room to have your stomach pumped.

One time I bite into some bloody chicken. I nearly hurl right there at the table. Look, it's not all bad, some of it's perfectly serviceable food. We're teenagers with a penchant for exaggeration but there's a reason we chant, "Don't eat the food" so often. I don't know why anyone would willingly pay for this food if they didn't have to rush-eat on their break like we do.


We have a cook who fancies himself a talented singer and all-around entertainer. He's got a look he's cultivating and it's based squarely on the lead singer from Color Me Badd. The meticulously groomed facial hair and high top fade are stylin', for sure. Every night he serenades the wait staff as we pick up our food in the kitchen. He sings a variety of contemporary hits—including of course "I Wanna Sex You Up," duh—and also a selection of originals he's composed in between undercooking the sirloin tips and overcooking the pasta. Here are the street corners we can find him at outside work, he tells us, to hear more of his song catalog. He's going to be big, he tells us. Just think, we can say we knew him when.


Another night, another ice cream cone left turned upside down, melting and oozing across the table and off the sides, dripping onto the seats. It always leaves us with a perfect visual representation of what it's like to work here. The first few times it happens, we're appalled. Who are these customers anyway, animals?!? We want to find the brats in the parking lot and force-feed them the ice cream soup they left behind. After months of this garbage though, it doesn't even faze us. Eh. Another night, another kid leaves a sloppy, sticky vanilla/chocolate treat behind for us to clean up. Another night, another set of parents who didn't care to at least make a cursory attempt to wipe up even a little of it. Okay, that part still pisses us off.


Thursday, January 5, 2017

Barely Making a Dent: January 2017 Books

In which our narrator tries to read his way through the endless stacks of books that are slowly overtaking both his bookshelves and his life.


[The following conversation never happened, at least not between two people, but let's pretend it did anyway.]

Hey! How's that new tall bookcase working out for you?


Lots of room for future acquisitions, I imagine.

Oh, yeah...well, it's already pretty full. You see, once I shifted some things around and emptied an old bookcase to set aside for the kids, I filled the sucker up pretty quickly.


There's still room to fit more books, never fear. Plus the small bookcase next to it also has room. 

I bet that'll also fill up quickly, though.

[sighs] I need to start reading more on my iPad, huh?

But you love actual books.

True. I like reading on my device but I love the tangibility of books. I always carry at least one around in my messenger bag, nearly everywhere I go. I enjoy reading on a device, but switching away from physical books is not likely to happen anytime soon.

You're old school.

When it comes to books? Yeah, probably more so than I am with, say, music. I never dreamed I'd stop playing full albums regularly or spinning them on CD or in iTunes, but today I do most of my music listening through streaming services and YouTube.

But that isn't going to happen with books for you?

I don't see it happening, no. Then again, I didn't see it happening with music either, yet here we are. If it were to happen with books I'd need a new iPad with far more storage than my current one has.

Changing topics, what's up with that header image?

I don't know where I first saw it, but the image always struck me: Marilyn Monroe reading an upside down book, to the consternation of the dapper gentleman next to her. It's from How to Marry a Millionaire, a film I haven't seen but really should one of these days. So I don't know the scene, but as an image it always seemed powerful to me. I just like the joke of her reading it upside down—something about it makes her seem more worldly, instead of less so, as you might expect out of this situation. Again, I don't know the context of this moment in the film, do you?

Nope, never saw it.

We're losing our film nerd cred here. Anyway, great image, right? Plus, it's Marilyn, you can't go wrong with Marilyn.

So are you going to continue utilizing other book-related, seemingly random, images for this series?

That's the plan. I have some good ones for future posts already. If you have any suggestions, send them along to me and maybe I'll use them.

That's a classic look Marilyn's got going on there.

Absolutely. She looks sharp there, like a dame with real class. She was a huge reader, a lover of literature and culture. So when you're looking for images of people reading, you'll find several with her. The one above even has a pun that makes me laugh every time, and I don't even like puns: "abroad" vs. "a broad." I think if I could travel back in time I'd visit Marilyn just to sit with her and read, surrounded by books in her library. That would be fun.

Such a romantic. I'm sensing a potential "The Many Books of Marilyn" series of posts from you next. But you should really start to talk about the books you're reading now, no?

Hmmmm. That might be a photocentric series, with little commentary besides gushing about how great she looks in every picture. I also stumbled on other images of famous people reading, including some cool shots of the always cool John Waters. Anyway, you're right, I should get to the books at hand here. Clearly this overly precious narrative device, with us bantering about whatever, is influenced by the first book discussed here, specifically the chapter featuring the author's highly fictionalized recounting of a Real World audition interview. And that book would be...

Recently Read

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers. Over the past decade and a half I've held this book in my hands countless times at various bookstores, even reading through long passages while plopped comfortably in one of those luxurious chairs you only find in bookstores. Yet somehow I've never taken the plunge and bought the book. The reason is simple: early in the 2000s (it was published in 2000), I was actively trying to distance myself from the 1990s. Move on, I said. Give away those flannels to Goodwill. I saw Eggers' memoir/creative nonfiction/free-form rant of a book as so emblematic of those years—the story takes place throughout the '90s—that I just couldn't make myself revisit it. I was afraid I'd recognize too much of myself, or my generation, in it, thus confirming every stupid cliche that had been thrown at us throughout that decade.

Since finding the book at the public library and blowing through it in just a few days (holiday vacations are a splendid thing), it certainly confirms several '90s-isms. I'm far enough removed from that time that I'm ready to face them now, though. It's actually refreshing, comforting, and even challenging to be confronted with the sorts of things people our age (Eggers is about five years older than me) were concerned with and obsessed over back then.

It certainly is heartbreaking. It's also staggering. There are times when it seems like the work of a mad genius, for how well Eggers hones in on what it was like being young and stupid in the '90s. So the title, while ironic, is also not too far off the mark. The book is one long meditation on loss and grieving. In Eggers' case it was his parents—both dead from cancer within a month of each other while he was in college. Nearly everything that comes after those opening chapters is a reaction to that loss. The events also serve as reminders of an era not long past, yet one that often feels like eons ago now. He sets out to change the world by starting a magazine! He tries out for Real World and meets Puck! He angles for a one-night stand with a famous sexologist! He fails at all of these endeavors! Could it be any more '90s?

Eggers takes the memoir format and turns it on its ear, with fourth-wall breaking tangents and fictionalized and stylized accounts of his life (and letting the reader know they're fictionalized). He and the book are self-absorbed and entirely aware of this self-absorption. It's infuriating and intoxicating, exhausting and electrifying. I can see now why the book caused such shock waves in 2000, as Eggers truly delivers a unique spin on what was already becoming a tired genre. Memoirs are often tedious and irritating. Eggers (or the version of Eggers who narrates the book) might be plenty irritating at times, but neither he nor the book are ever tedious. It's full of life, exploding with life, in fact. Which is ironic, because it's all shaped by death and loss.

Currently reading

Afrofuturism, by Ytasha Womack. This one's for the "space cadets," as Womack would say. It's a gloriously bold and exciting romp through the fantastical worlds of Afrofuturism. If you haven't been paying attention then you might be surprised just how pervasive the literary and cultural aesthetic known as Afrofuturism has become in recent decades. In this helpful primer, Womack shows how much the style has impacted the visual arts, music, literature, etc. Today, popular artists like Janelle Monae, along with fictional works like Black Panther and Womack's own Rayla 2212, are helping to expand Afrofuturism's reach and influence.

Womack is a fine writer, with an effortlessly engaging style. She's a terrific tour guide through the various worlds of Afrofuturism, from science fiction to fantasy, funk to jazz, Afrocentrism to magical realism and beyond. Reading the book is like being in an Afrofuturistic Doctor Who, with Womack as the Doctor and the reader as her companion. We're hurtling through time and space while she's opening our minds to concepts and ideas that we'd never contemplated in that way before. She's a geek and readers with an interest in this subject (like yours truly) will geek out at her geeking out. She's a writer I'll be keeping my eye on in the future (pun intended).

This interview with Bitch Media  from a couple years ago, around the time the book was published, will give you an idea of what she's exploring in Afrofuturism. Be prepared to fall down the rabbit hole, especially if you follow Janelle Monae's Ten Droid Commandments, including: "Abandon your expectations about art, race, gender, culture, and gravity."


Lastly, I apologize for that Eggersian tangent at the start of this post. Mine doesn't get nearly as weird or self-involved enough to merit much comparison at all. Still, I couldn't resist even a watered-down homage.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Kelly Bundy and the Alternative Family Ideal

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

Very few television series in the 1990s were as polarizing as Married...with Children. People either loved it or they loathed it. TV critics and good upstanding Catholic families like mine fell into the latter category. Soon after it debuted during my first year of junior high in 1987 (not quite the '90s, but on the brink), my parents made it clear that we would not be watching. I believe the words they used were "vulgar," "unfunny," and, one of their perennial favorites, "risque." Of course, this meant it immediately took on a prurient appeal for me. Parents can never win, honestly.

Kelly Bundy—the talented Christina Applegate, who never gets enough credit for elevating the blonde airhead trope into an art form—only further piqued my interest. She was like the girls in school with the absurdly voluminous hair and ridiculously short skirts who dated older guys that drove Trans Ams and listened to Megadeath. These girls seemed dangerous and completely out of my league. They smoked! They probably drank and went past first base! They certainly wouldn't have been as impressed with my epic comic book collection as I was. Kelly was so much more approachable, though. After all, she wasn't real and couldn't reject me. Inside the warped mind of a thirteen or fourteen year old, this meant I had a chance.

There was very little television I was discouraged from watching. Even adult-oriented sitcoms like Taxi and WKRP in Cincinnati were allowed in our house, and I'm grateful for that because those shows introduced me to adult themes and concerns that resonate with me even more today. So it's likely that Kelly's scandalously short hemlines and playful promiscuity played a big part in the 'rents' distaste for Married...with Children. What parent wants his or her kid to fall for a wild child like Kelly Bundy? Conversely, what adolescent doesn't want to fall for a Kelly Bundy type? Again, parents just can't win.

Is it any surprise my parents weren't keen on my watching this show?
They didn't need to worry though, or at least not as much as they did. As the decade matured so did Kelly's wardrobe and even her self-awareness, plus my tastes changed. Nonetheless the crush remained, and she certainly earned her place in my personal '90s Hall of Fame. I still carry the remnants of a crush for Christina today. I'm only human, after all.

Other aspects of the show made parents uncomfortable also: Al's wanton and leering demeanor, Peg's nagging, Bud's amorality, and the overall sleaze factor the show wallowed in. The gender politics of the show were confusingly contradictory at best, defiantly retrograde at worst.

But it was also knowingly winking at us through its trashy aesthetic. They knew they were tweaking audiences who couldn't see this for what it was: satire. I only discovered this as the '90s wore on—by high school and college my viewing choices were my own to make, so I checked in on the Bundys now and then. While I could usually take the show or leave it, I at least appreciated the occasionally smart social commentary it slipped in between the litany of dirty jokes. As Judy Kutulas notes in The Sitcom Reader (2nd Ed.), Married...with Children represented one of the first "Gen X response(s) to the happy family ideal" of the Boomer generation. Whether critics or naysayers wanted to believe it or not, the Bundys' dysfunctional family dynamic reflected what a lot of Gen X kids' homes were like.

Portrait of an American family in the 1990s, sweat stains and all.
A year or two ago, I stumbled on some other profound commentary about both the show and the '90s, but this time from an unlikely source: YouTube. A discussion thread had started in the comments of a music video regarding various '90s trends and topics. This commenter weighed in with a thoughtful and ferocious skewering of Boomers and their disdain for '90s products like Married...with Children. The poet-philosopher-troll basically said that Boomers turned their noses up at shows like this, taking a false moral high ground built on the backs of Gen Xers. Twenty years later, eloquent poster continued, Married...with Children looks more like an impossible Utopian dream every day—a single-income family in a decent house raising two kids on a shoe salesman's salary.

Wow. This comment made me feel like Kelly in that first screenshot up top—my mind was blown and I needed a minute to make sense of what I'd just read. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed this person got it mostly right. Today, with it's basic premise so far out of reach for most Americans, the show plays like an elaborate fantasy or science fiction story. The bickering, flawed, and often moronic Bundy clan, always just scrapping by, still lived better than you do now, I'd wager.

Whether we remember Married...with Children today for its prescient commentary on socio-economic shifts in American culture over the last two decades or simply for the stone-cold foxiness of Kelly Bundy, we'll probably never see the likes of it again. Whether that's a good thing or not, I don't know. I'll leave that for the online commentariat to debate.