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Monthly Archives: March 2012

Home Sweet Home, Wherever it is

Schlafly’s Tap Room was a pleasant little sports bar in downtown Saint Louis which, in lieu of the usual generic national brand, was serving the locally brewed delicacy: Schlafly beer, it’s own namesake. It appeared a bit funny to me that they would be doing that in Saint Louis, home of the Anheuser-Busch corporation, makers of Budweiser. It goes without saying that Schlafly was superior to its big-time competition, and so Christi and me sampled several different flavors before settling on Dry Hopped APA. We had arrived at the tail end of a Blues game, and I was a little bit disappointed that I missed the team at the top of the NHL standings. Still, Schlafly’s Tap Room was the first bar I’ve been to where I could hear myself think and where I wasn’t constantly fighting the crowd. The crowd was small, but Christi said it was very large compared to the last time she was there.

Our conversation took us from sampling beers with a man from South Africa to family business to what our concept of home was. That last one was of particular interest to Christi, a Chicago native who spent two years in Nashville before moving back to Chicago and ultimately moving to Saint Louis with Kevin. She wondered what my concept of home is, since I consider my adopted city of Chicago every bit a home as Buffalo, even though I spent only half a decade there as opposed to the 25 years I’ve now lived in The Nickel City. My answer was a short and concise one: To me, home was where I went though my greatest developments as a human being. Christi understood, and said that in that sense, she didn’t develop very much during her time in Nashville.

Most of my closest relationships still remain in Buffalo, and so Buffalo will always be my home. But my years in Buffalo also included my nightmarish experience in junior high school, something that stuck with me to such an extent that for years afterward, I still chased off and avoided a lot of potentially close, far-reaching friendships. It forced me into seclusion. In Chicago, I had no choice but to force myself into the functioning world. While my friends today know I can be very awkward at times, they’re still my friends, and many of them would be amazed to know I was once a lot worse. My distrust of humanity still shows up every now and then, but for the most part my assimilation into the rest of the working world was very successful. I have my years in Chicago to thank for that, and so I still consider Chicago a home.

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Why we Travel

As my father dropped me off at the Amtrak station on the night of my departure, he asked me where I was going. After I told him, he asked me why, and my response was the same used by millions of people: Because it’s there. I have a lot of respect for my father, but he’s never felt the stinging bite of the travel bug, and so I don’t think he understood.

Our society currently stands in a bit of a paradox regarding mass transit and mass communications. It is easier than ever for people to get across the entire world in short order, but with the emergence of the internet, we have access to photographs of every place on the planet from every possible angle. So if one can see all of the wonders of the world – as well as nearly everything the planet has to offer that isn’t a wonder – why spend good money on an airplane ticket and lodgings to see a place you can see in ten billions photos called up instantly in a Google search?

There is a scene in the classic movie Good Will Hunting which sums it up well. Matt Damon and Robin Williams sit at the edge of a pond. Williams, who is playing the court-ordered psychiatrist to the extremely bright but troubled student played by Damon, is frustrated by the way things are going early in their relationship. To make a point, he tells Damon that Damon could read up all the information in the world about the Sistine Chapel. He could look at the pictures and do all sorts of things which could make him the world’s great expert on Michelangelo’s 15-year-in-the-making masterpiece. But, depite all of that studying, he would never be able to tell what the Sistine Chapel smells like.

With that one phrase, Williams nailed it. There are a lot of things to be learned about the world through book study, but all of the descriptions and pictures in the world don’t have any place next to personal experience. Seeing or doing something in pictures and words robs a person of the ability to create his own description of the sight in question. It deprives him of the right to say what he, personally, thinks of it. There’s a mindset to real experience, and if you’ve never been to a place or through an experience, then all of the statistics, words, and pictures are worthless to someone who’s been out there. It’s the reason why pilots need to log flight time with instructors, tradesmen learn their crafts from master hands before taking the reins themselves, and people don’t walk around acting like experts in foods they haven’t eaten or cooked themselves before.

Yesterday, I took the directions given by my friend Kevin to get into the city of St. Louis itself. My first stop by the Metrolink was to Laclede’s Landing, where I hopped off and made a steady beeline toward the St. Louis Arch. The Arch is the great icon of the city and its most recognizable symbol. Anyone who lives in the United States has seen it countless times through the assistance of photographs, caricatures, and any other device employed by the schoolbooks to tell you just why St. Louis is (or at least was) so important as a city. There was no reason for me to visit, at least not logically.

The Arch defied any picture or description I’ve ever seen or read of it. As I approached that stainless steel rainbow, I could get a sense of its true size by gazing up at the small holes along the curve which function as the observation deck’s windows. I walked up to one of the legs and placed my hands on it, getting a sense of its strength. I rapped my knuckles against it and was surprised to hear that the metal plates weren’t clanging the way we expect metal sheets to clang. The sound was instead a very solid sound which was didn’t reflect or bounce off anything. As I stood back a little and soaked in the sight, my head couldn’t get itself around the idea that it was a real object which I had physically touched just a few minutes before. The sun’s continuous reflections off the steel make it appear very surreal, like something out of a dream. I didn’t visit the observation deck yet, though, and I’m not sure if I’m going to get up there during this trip.

Without being there, I never would have been able to say those things. It’s why we travel. At least it’s why I travel, to confirm the existence of things I had only read about before and speak about it with the inarguable authority of authenticity.

Radio Man

When I began packing to make my trip, I decided I wanted to make my primary eqipment as low-tech as possible. I did have to reactivate my cell phone and, as a photographer, bring my camer along. But after that, I decided against bringing my computer – although I did bring the flash drive containing my book – and I didn’t even bring my iPod along, deciding instead to bring along a small short wave radio in its place.

It seems like an antiquated concept these days, but I’m one of those weird people who still listens to and loves radio. More so than even the TV, radio was a big part of my life growing up. Every day, I started my routine listening to Larry Norton on 97 Rock, and am probably one of the few people in Buffalo who can clearly recall his days with Mark Stout. On many nights, Rick Jeaneret would lead me to dreamworld, colorfully calling Sabres games with the excitement and energy of an overcaffeinated cheetah. I would also listen to the smart, thoughtful takes on culture, events, and random happenings in the day’s news as presented by Janet Snyder and Nicholas Picholas (which the latter swears is his real name). In Chicago, with the AM dial on my main radio having apparently been mysteriously broken into by a small alien, I would turn my father’s old handheld radio into Blackhawks games and listen over headphones whenever they played a game that I wanted to hear, while I also tuned into shows like 8:48 on NPR and Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me on NPR.

Radio is still a huge part of my life, and on a recent Christmas, I was delightfully surprised to be gifted with a small – almost pocket-sized – short wave radio. Since I have access to another very good main radio, though, my short wave has been relegated to secondhand duty. Here on the road, though, its been the only radio I have, and so its been getting a lot of use as of late. Its also been useful beyond anything I needed.

I sat on the Megabus and fiddled with the stations, frequently hoping to find something interesting to listen to, and get some information about the local weather in the area. Hell, I also kept tuning in to try to find out what area I was passing through. I discovered the rural farmers of Illinois have a radio network dedicated to news stories which would affect them specifically. At various spots during the trip, I found radio networks in Kankakee, Bloomington, Peoria, and Springfield as the bus drifted along Route 66. The radio was the most important thing I had at the time because with it, I could keep track of where I was, what the weather was doing, and what kind of time the bus was making. But perhaps more importantly, it allowed me to make a more personalized connection to where i was than an iPod ever could. Radio has dics jockeys, after all, who all have unique personalities and are therefore able to connect with the listeners.

There were times during the trip when I would find a station I liked and listen to it until the end of its transmition range, when my short wave would slowly fade it away as it picked up another, stronger, more localized signal. This is how I knew the bus was making progress. I kept listening and flipping through stations eagerly, trying to find some clear signal that the bus was close to where I was going. Finally, I found my location from one of the more unlikely and annoying sources available on the radio – a car sales advertisement – as the voice over made an autioneer’s fast-talking pitch at the St. Louis area. After the whole of the trip spent staring across the summits of anthills on the Great Plains, I knew the bus was definitely close.

Just over 40 miles outside of St. Louis, I was still getting clear channels from Springfield when I spotted a billboard on the road which advertised another St. Louis radio station called The Arch. This was my cue to begin flipping through more stations, and I began finding stations in St. Louis coming through clearer before the bus ran into the nastiest torrential downpour I’ve ever seen. I started to worry about having to actually walk off the bus in that shit, but the weather fortunately started clearing up, and the blue of the sky began poking increasingly larger holes into the cloud blanket which has cast itself over Illinois for most of the trip.

The rain’s letup allowed for the creation of a scene scene straight out of a cheesy movie. The terrain got a big more rugged and the bus began navigating the valley of a couple of hills which, although small, were still large enough to block off my view even though I was sitting on the top deck. When the hill receded, though, I saw a small cluster of buildings in the distance against the fire-yellow evening sky. And just to their left, in silhouette, was the unmistakable form of the famous St. Louis Arch. I set my radio aside for the rest of the trip, took out my camera, and started trying to get good pictures.

It was, to say the least, difficult from a moving bus, even though I was at the front of the top deck.

Coming Home

I had a case of the severe nervous jitters yesterday as I sat on the North Avenue bus, waiting for it to slowly weave its way westward. It was probably the most absurd case of nervousness I’ve ever experienced; I was going to my little Chicago church, Wicker Park Grace – the name is now Grace Commons – knowing full well that I wouldn’t be kicked out. Hell, for all intents and purposes, Grace was my home. Everything else I had ever known in Chicago was merely an extention of it. Even my apartment was little more than a spot to sleep and hang my ever-expanding hat collection.

Sometime during the ride, I took notice of an attractive young woman who got on the bus with a small child. This normally isn’t a big issue because good-looking woman are all over the city, but as I took notice of her profile, I thought, Amy? I’m blind as a bat and couldn’t get a good look from where I was sitting, so I tried to let the thought drift out of my mind; the person I was thinking of had become another economic victim and had to move to Nevada to get back on her feet. I started to rethink this when she got off the bus at my stop. I dashed across the street, and, still a little nervous about going inside, waited for the woman to go to the corner crossing and return to the front of the building. It was then that I got a good look at her, and…

“I thought that might be you! I spotted you when I got on the bus!” she said. As we conversed and caught up with old times, I wondered if she was a little nervous about her return to Grace Commons too. Grace Commons had been touting a baptism for weeks that was scheduled for that very Sunday, and Amy told me that it was her child, Felix, who was being baptized. Somehow I doubted she was quite as nervous.

My (totally irrational) fears were immediately laid to rest once I walked in, though, and I was treated like the prodigal son. I had done a lot of work for Grace Commons simply out of goodness and the obligation I felt to give back to it. Through my time in Buffalo so far, I’ve thought of it often and wondered if I had been forgotten. But the spirit of inclusion which had gotten me to return after my first visit there manifested itself again, and I was asked to light the candles just for old times’ sake. My friends – or at least the ones who were there – were thrilled to see me, and I had work in the cleanup process, just like when I was there every week.

It might seem like a little, foolish thing, but I liked that I was involved with the physical aspects of cleaning up after the service. It was the way my old friends in Chicago showed me that I would have a place there. I have an ego, and if there’s a large, important bit of work the place is trying to get done, I have a drive to feel like I made a tangible contribution when it’s finished. One of the most painful parts of my move was leaving all the work to be done, and there had been many weeks when I was almost a one-man show. When I overheard the minister, Nanette, talking about perhaps starting a rotation during the week, I felt knew then that my departure had been felt. If that didn’t give me that impression, the reactions of my old friends upon seeing me again certainly did. There were countless hugs and questions about my situation not born of courtesy, but from real concern for my well-being.

It was a lucky coincidence that I happened to go in on the week that Amy was baptizing her son. Since baptism is an important sacriment, it gave the work I did an added sense of importance. It made my contribution worthwhile, knowing I had helped out with it. It also turned out to be the final appearance of another friend, Noelle, who will be moving to Oregon soon.

Over our traditional potluck dinner, I discussed my life and my frustration with the way St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in Chicago.

The real surprises came the next day. I had a hankering for a breakfast sandwich from Potbelly, so I went to the Potbelly I used to frequent in my messenger days, inside the Merchandise Mart. The woman who had usually taken my sandwich orders was still working there, and she spotted me right off and asked me how I was doing. Later, I went to the Dominick’s I once lived by and was recognized by one of the employees.

The reactions of everyone upon seeing me again gave me a sense of worth I never really felt when I was growing up. It’s sometimes very difficult to keep my depression in check, and at a couple of points in my life I’ve seriously contemplated suicide. But for all the times I’ve asked myself if there’s anyone in the world who would realize I was gone, seeing my Chicago friends again was a potent reminder of the fact that, yes, there are many people in the world who lead slightly richer lives because I happened to be among those whom Richard Dawkins calls the Lucky Ones – those who are lucky because, among the millions of others who could have been born in their place, we happened to be among those who made it into the world.

In the meantime, I’ve also learned how to be an ambassador to the United States without ever leaving the country. I’m staying in a hostel in Chicago, and it’s easy to meet a lot of interesting people in hostels. There are times when we take our country for granted, or forget that people from other countries may not have the viewpoints we might think they have. I met a group of Japanese tourists who asked me questions about the United States, the people, and how we see ourselves in the larger world. I gave the most concise and honest answers I could, and in discussions about politics, I tried to be as objective as possible; I even managed to shut off my ranting libertarian switch. I also tried to teach them a little bit about how to play pool and foosball.

Revisiting the Beach Boys

I was quickly familiarized with the music of The Beach Boys in my earlier years. It wasn’t as if I had much of a choice; my father was – and still is – a major league Beach Boys fan. My sister quickly caught on to his taste and wouldn’t stop playing fucking “Kokomo,” that cheesy single about an escape to a dead industrial city in central Indiana which The Beach Boys had for some reason mistaken for a tropical second-world getaway resort. Eventually, Beki used The Beach Boys as the launching point to the logical next step in her musical taste development: New Kids on the Block and Vanilla Ice. In the meantime, I had gotten sick of a band I was already indifferent to, and that carried over into New Kids and Vanilla Ice. So when people of my generation today talk about how they always hated those two artists and never bought into the hype, I’m one of the very few people who isn’t lying through his teeth about it. But I always mention, with a haughty self-righteousness, that I was an MC Hammer fan!

I had grown up with a similar attitude towards The Beatles (my mother’s favorite band), but as I passed through my teenage years, I gave Beatles music another, closer listen. It grew on me, and I finally started to appreciate and even love a lot of it. But The Beatles were an actual rock band. The Beach Boys, with their complex vocal harmonies and barbershop doo-wop songwriting arrangements, had a much different style. The Beatles always placed more emphasis into what they were able to play, especially in their later years, when they were strictly a studio band. The music and studio magic were always as much a part of their songs as their vocalization. The Beach Boys always sounded to me like the vocals were meant to be the stars of the show all by themselves. Therefore, whereas I was mostly indifferent to The Beatles, they were spared the seething hostility I had for The Beach Boys, who reminded me so much of New Kids on the Block and, later, Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, and other boy bands who would come to torture me throughout the late 90’s.

Last week, I found myself at my local library branch placing an order for The Beach Boys album Pet Sounds, which is widely considered their best work (my father says he recalls not liking it very much himself) and one of rock music’s premier albums. When I say that, I mean it’s frequently mentioned in the same breath as The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album that expanded the minds and imaginations of a million future musicians. Sgt. Pepper enlightened its millions of listeners to the idea that a rock album could be more than merely a compilation of songs desperately trying to capture the sound and atmosphere of a live performance. Its songs roll without pause, one blending into the next, as if they were written and arranged specifically to go together to the exclusivity of all others. Pet Sounds was released before Sgt. Pepper, though, and lately in my readings about music, I noticed a lot of people were saying Sgt. Pepper was influenced directly by Pet Sounds. For that matter, a few people had even taken the trouble to write off Sgt. Pepper as Lennon and McCartney’s hollow attempt to recreate what they heard on Pet Sounds, which ordinarily wouldn’t mean a whole lot to me. But in this case, one of the people saying it was Paul McCartney himself. My curiosity was piqued.

My father says he does own Pet Sounds, but on vinyl. Since the vinyl record player isn’t hooked up, I had to learn about this album the hard way and order the CD through the library system. That’s okay though, because I can always burn it if I like it.

During the wait, I started using my father’s computer to listen to his own Beach Boys downloads, which include a greatest hits album. As I gave that a listen, I began to believe what the critics had written about The Beach Boys being the American experimental equivalent to their vaunted counterparts in England. The hits on dad’s greatest hits album sounded chronological, and as the album moved along, I noticed how different it sounded in the later half. On a greatest hits album, the latter half usually does sound a little different from the earlier half. During the early half of a band’s musical career, the band usually can’t spend as much on studio time or technique, and so the songs are comparatively rawer and simple. As they mature and go into a prosperous career, bands tend to become more experimental. It’s musical maturation. But The Beach Boys underwent a dramatic change, beginning their career with the three-noters so commonplace in rock music before sound layering, psychedelic influences, echo and reverberation. The band’s content – so directly focused on the fun-in-the-sun southern California lifestyle beforehand – also expanded. I’m honestly excited about being able to listen to Pet Sounds, and I hope it lives up to its hype.

I had long wondered why the American bands I grew up listening to never sounded as innovative or inventive as the British Invasion bands of the same era. Jimi Hendrix aside, the United States never was able to produce a major, commercially successful band of experimenters on the level of The Beatles, Pink Floyd, or The Clash. I’m proud that rock music was invented in this country, as was blues, its direct forerunner, but it always felt like the British perfected it. The more I learn about The Beach Boys, though, the more I think they could have evolved into that creative group if only Brian Wilson hadn’t been driven mad by the creative standard he set for himself.