Mar 23

Should we continue trying to travel in March?

Or traveling at all?

Here is where we are. Spring Break is next week. We’re taking a few extra days for a conference and that meant a trip to the airport and that’s where the fun begins.

We flew, today, from Indianapolis to New York. We did that after giving up on a bike ride, which was the right idea, for a change. That allowed us more time, so we were well ahead of schedule and relaxed going to the very large building with the planes attached at odd angles.

Our flight from Indy to JFK was just fine. Arrived on time. The plane pulled into the same terminal we’d use for our connecting flight, an overnight trip to Spain. Here we are, waiting to board the plane to Barcelona.

We got on the plane, let’s assume it is that one, and everything was just fine.

And then someone kicked out the extension cord that connects the plane to the airport’s power. The plane goes dark! But we’re on the ground, so not a problem. Because there’s ground beneath us. I think about all of that ocean we have to fly over — power and gliders and altitude and ocean — but the crew did not seem concerned. The power is restored, either internally, or via that extension cord. Boarding took forever, and so we pushed back about an hour late.

We got out on the taxiway to learn we had to go back to the terminal for a maintenance issue.

And that ate up the entirety of our second-connection window.

But it allowed me to watch two movies, first, Minari.

Lee Isaac Chung wrote and directed the movie. He was just about to give up on Hollywood, taking a teaching job, when he decided to try one more script. Odd, but lovely, Willa Cather became his inspiration.

She drew upon memories of life in the Great Plains and wrote a series of intensely personal works that are among the most moving novels in American literature. She said, “Life began for me, when I ceased to admire and began to remember.”

I wondered if the voice was leading me to these words, so that I would begin to trust in my own. As an exercise, I devoted an afternoon to writing my memories of childhood. I remembered our family’s arrival at a single-wide trailer on an Ozark meadow and my mother’s shock at learning that this would be our new home. I recalled the smell of freshly plowed soil and the way the color of it pleased my father. I remembered the creek where I threw rocks at snakes while my grandmother planted a Korean vegetable that grew without effort.

With each memory, I saw my life anew, as though the clouds had shifted over a field I had seen every day. After writing 80 memories, I sketched a narrative arc with themes about family, failure and rebirth. That’s how I got the idea to write “Minari”; it began for me, when I ceased to admire and began to remember.

I also watched Clerks III, which, I assume, Kevin Smith wrote and directed because he wanted to cash in one more time. Truth be told, I knew this was in the works. I was skeptical. I didn’t realize it had already been produced and released. But here it was, on the plane, full of its own brand of contemporary nostalgia.

The first movie was 23 years ago, so there’s nothing contemporary about this nostalgia. But it bristles a bit that we’ve now become a nostalgia generation. But, befitting our role in this timeline, our self reverence is saved for reference to other media. Star Wars is all over the Clerks trilogy, so much so, there are two meta references right there in the trailer.

Give the third movie this: it is better than the second one, and has, perhaps, the best heart of the series.

Tomorrow, the rest of the journey. Or part of it. Or the beginning of a new side-journey.

Anything is possible.

Except for our booking travel in March, ever again, after these last two years.

Mar 23

The final trick of winter is upon us

At last, I noticed the last of the series of winter’s tricks. I’m a few weeks late in the observation, but we’ve now worked through the full sequence. The sun returns. Then you have a random day or two of unseasonably warm weather. We’ve done that too. And now, these guys.

That’s about as low angle as I can get in coat and tie. But when these emerge, from this particular spot, in a bed between the parking lot, the street, and our campus building, that’s the signature trick of winter here. You want it to be spring; just look at these petals …

… but winter isn’t done with us yet. You don’t know when, or why, but winter will be back. This stems from a 2017 observation. Oh, I was fooled that first winter. The next year, I had that in mind. You want to believe the outliers break your way, but outliers don’t always break your way.

One’s a dot, two’s a line and three is the dawning of understanding a pattern. By the time 2019 rolled around I recognized this for what it was. The winter and first flowers of 2019 didn’t fool me. I was, by then, wise to Mother Nature’s tricks.

Thing is, this has been a remarkably mild winter. It got up to 75 today! It makes you want to believe. But winter isn’t done with us yet.

We are 51 days from spring.

Not many people liked this album, apparently, and most of them were wrong. That’s the takeaway from today’s installment of the Re-Listening project. We’re listening to Seven Mary Three’s third studio album, and that puts us in the early summer of 1997.

My roommate and a friend and I saw them in a small venue the year before. It was very much a post-grunge type show. (Moe opened for them. Their bassist did the stage-dive-crowd-surf thing. His giant clodhopping boots were a danger to society.) And the band was continuing down this route, even as “RockCrown” was flirting with the idea of becoming a concept album. It went to number 75 on the Billboard 200. Two singles hit the top 40 on the Modern Rock and Mainstream Rock charts. But critics kinda panned them and the one-hit wonder jokes started right away.

I liked the record.

This one was just uploaded three weeks ago. It’s a 2008 performance. And the original song isn’t acoustic, but maybe it should have been.

The problem, I think, is that most of the songs on this album aren’t designed for airplay. That doesn’t make a project bad, or even unsuccessful. Maybe everyone had misplaced that concept for a time. But if something sticks in your head for whatever reason, it sticks in your head.

There are a few lyrics from this song that still come to mind unassisted — sitting quietly, working in the yard, walking down a sidewalk, they just float to the surface — all these many years later.

These guys are from Virginia, and using a guitar like this is allowed on that side of the mountains, I guess.

This was always a car CD for me. Windows up or down. Better when moving around at a fashionable speed. And I don’t know if it evokes the desired response, but this song always makes smile.

So it is good to hear all of this in the car. And the next CD has started, to my delight, which means we’ll be Re-Listening here again soon. We’ll be going all the way back to something released in 1991, though I picked it up six years late. I enjoy it every time I listen to it, though. I may listen to it twice. But that’s a topic for another day.

Feb 23

The Girl Scout cookie story

It has been four days and I’m doing fine — well, my hair has been unruly and the days since have seemed longer, though no more productive, but I’m fine — so I may as well tell this story. The timing of this telling was inspired by a longtime friend. The story involves an old friend, and it goes like this.

I had some Girl Scout cookies on Saturday. I bought them from a friend’s daughter.

My friend Jeremy called and asked if he could bring his daughter to sell some cookies. We lived between Jeremy’s house and the grandparents and so it turns out that we offered her first real cookie selling experience. It was bitterly cold the day Sadie rang the doorbell. I invited her inside.

Remembering this was her first sell, I made a big point out of this. Sadie, you’ve been to our house before, and I’ve been to yours. Your mom and dad know us and we see each other a lot, and that’s why I’ve invited you in out of the cold. People you don’t know shouldn’t invite you in, and you shouldn’t go into their houses when selling Girl Scout cookies.

It seemed an important teaching opportunity.

The thing to know is that Jeremy has a dizzying, dry wit. Truly, you can catch him in the right moment and see his whole head and upper body making tiny circles while his mind simultaneously and instantly goes through a dozen textured, punned, historical, hipster jokes for any given moment, discarding the 11 inferior ones and offering the two best, one each pared for red meat or white. The man has a talent. And he can’t hold a candle to his wife. So their oldest kid, you see, has no choice but to be funny.

“Let me go ask my dad. For ‘safety.'”

She even threw in the air quotes, which, though she did not realize it, earned her a few extra boxes sold.

So she came in and we made our selections and the transaction was completed.

And the year, was 2014.

I had some of those cookies Saturday. They were the last from that order. (It seems important to always have some Thin Mints on hand, just in case.) This came up Saturday when I got some grief about not eating any of the cookies I ordered last year from my god-niece-in-law (just go with it). The Yankee said she wasn’t ordering me any extras because I hadn’t eaten any of last year’s (#StockpileMentality), to say nooooothing of that final 2014 box.

And you’re wondering what they were like, the 2014 cookies. The plastic sleeve was opened. No memory of that. But they’ve at least been in the freezer throughout, at least — though we did move once in the interim. They smelled of a bit of freezer burn. You could see a bit of freezer burn on them. They tasted exactly as Thin Mints should.

Maybe I’ll get around to eating the second 2014 sleeve in 2024.

Back to Willie Morris who, at this point in his memoir, has moved on from his small town on the Mississippi Delta to the University of Texas, where he would eventually become editor of the campus paper, and launch his incredible career.

This says a lot. And says, perhaps, even more, that we’re in much the samea place.

There’s another paragraph, nearby, where he talks about being invited, as a young college student, to join some grad students for dinner. In the interest of not putting the whole book here, I’ll summarize. He was overwhelmed by all of the books they owned, more than he’d ever seen in anyone’s home. Sure, he was the valedictorian, but small town Mississippi and all. He tells us it made him shy. He couldn’t talk, he was just staring at those books, wondering if they were for sale, or an exhibit.

It is a rare experience for certain young people to see great quantities of books in a private habitat for the first time, and to hear ideas talked about seriously in the off hours. Good God, they were doing it for pleasure, or so it seemed. The wife asked me what I wanted to do with myself when I graduated from college. “I want to be a writer,” I said, but not even thinking about it until the words were out; my reply surprised me most of all, but it was much more appropriate in those surroundings to have said that instead of “sports announcer,” which probably constituted my first choice. “What do you want to write about?” she persisted. “Just … things,” I said, turning red.

He then goes on to talk about going to the library later that night, promising himself to read every important book that had ever been written, but not even knowing where to begin.

I know the feeling, Willie, I know the feeling.

Later, after studying at Oxford, and then coming back to take over as the editor of The Texas Observer:

Some things will be good for a long, long time. Like how you deal with hacks and, also, my appreciation for Willie Morris’ writing. And Girl Scout cookies.

Feb 23

Did you have “Appalachian murder ballad” on your Bingo card?

I took three photographs today, each one less useful than the last. First, two big wheel cars came down Indiana Avenue. I have seen them both before. You see a lot of cars over and over in your daily routine, of course. Most sensible mid-sized sedans and the ubiquitous SUVs don’t stand out, but when you see the classic land yacht on oversized rims, it stands out. When one of them is purple and gold and celebrates the Los Angeles Lakers, you make a mental note. I saw that car today. He was in front of this guy.

They generate a lot of interest and, it turns out, they have annoyingly interesting horns. I only looked out of the window because it sounded like an animal was dying, over and over. And, thus, the from-the-hip photo.

The next picture was of a daisy someone brought into the building. It seems there was someone outside handing out flowers. If you’ve seen one thoughtless composition of an oversized flower, you’ve seen them all.

Also, this little guy. I’ll let you figure out what it does. I know, but do you? Here’s your hint, we have four of them in the studio.

And, if you cheat and look up those letters, you’ll quickly learn what it is. But it is more fun if you guess.

We have some catching up to do on the Re-Listening project, and so we should dive in while I can still remember the order of things. So two quick ones today, both of which I picked up from a radio station I worked at, probably in early 1997, or the very very end of 1996. I know that because this first one had a stamp in the liner notes. Not for promotional use.

It was The Lemonheads, their last record on the Atlantic Records label. Band members were coming and going around lead singer Evan Dando, including a lot of talented session musicians, and for whatever reason — promotion interest, most likely — it was not as successful as the previous alt rock records from the Massachusetts group. But it has developed a cult following, and that’s the least we can do. This is a great record.

The first track is one of my favorites.

But then there’s the next song, which was the one that got a fair amount of air play.

But you see pretty quickly, I think, how The Lemonheads’ style was being outpaced by what was being offered on radio and MTV. The mid-third of the record gets a bit eclectically moody.

Then, and I still don’t understand why, though I’ve certainly burned brain cells on it, there’s an Appalachian murder ballad in the eighth spot. I knew this song right away.

Let’s take a little detour. This is worth it. This is why I knew that song.

The Louvin Brothers’ version was published in 1956. And in the Tennessee Valley, in the Highland Rim, I heard that around a kitchen table or in a garage, or both. Charlie Louvin, who was born on the other side of the mountains, in the Sequatchie Valley, in the Cumberland Plateau, did a haunting version of it again, 51 years later.

It’s deep in the marrow, is what we’re left with. Knoxville Girl dates to the 1920s, but it’s all borrowed, a version of “The Wexford Girl,” a 19th-century Irish ballad, which owes its origin to a 17th century English ballad, “The Bloody Miller or Hanged I Shall Be.” (Samuel Pepys wrote that one down for all of history.) It may go back even further. I wonder if the three dozen or so bands that have recorded the song in the last several decades knew all of that.

For some reason, and maybe this is why this record has a cult following now, there’s an ode to the movie Se7en. Then another ballad and, finally, more glorious noise rock.

I wish I could give you a count of the number of country roads I sped down listening to that song, or, indeed, the whole record. It would be a substantial amount.

I could not say about this next record, which was another radio station freebie. It had a little airplay. It was not for me, the guy who is referring you to the history of an Appalachian murder ballad, but a girl I liked at the time loved ska, so I picked up Goldfinger’s eponymous, debut, record.

I remember one sunny day, one curve in a particular road, where I caught the punchline in one of these songs. Which, hey, if anyone remembers a joke I’ve done 20-some years on, I’d be pleased, but other than that …

On this listen, this is the only one that I find interesting at all.

I know what is coming up in the next few CDs, I’m going to like those much better. Maybe there will be some stories to tell. Maybe you’ll like them too. The stories, or the music, either one.

Feb 23

That’s my wiper

In the studio tonight, the sports people were talking sports. Bit of a stretch, I know, but we encourage them to extend their interests and pursuits as far as possible. There is, and I don’t know if you know this, a football game this weekend. I understand it has captivated the attention of many advertisers, and appetizer connoisseurs. Big game, so they talked about it on the big talk show. They had props.

It promises to be a compelling matchup for a change. That’s the consensus opinion, though the “for a change” phrase might be a bit more singular. Perhaps the game will be more intriguing than the commercials which have underperformed of their own accord in the last few years.

Think about those young viewers. They don’t watch TV anymore. The biggest TV event of the year, a cultural touchstone unto itself and the youths don’t get to see properly creative creative.

I wonder if AI will come to ad agencies’ rescue one day. I wonder if they’ve already written an absurd ending to the Super Bowl. We’re probably due another one of those.

Eagles by two scores.

At the Chick-fil-A drive thru on Saturday — we get lunch there on Saturdays, it’s a whole thing — we found ourselves behind a car with a wiper on the rear window. I held forth on the point and purpose of the rear window wiper. Once, when I was young and full of promise, it was important to be able to demonstrate an ability to talk at moderate length on any given topic.

You want five minutes on soybeans? I can give you seven minutes on soybeans. Here’s the outline.

  • The soybean is a legume native to East Asia
  • Edible bean with many uses like soy milk, soy sauce, tempeh
  • Cheap source of protein for animal feed
  • Flowering is triggered by day length
  • Bees like them because they are high in sugar content
  • The fruit grows in clusters of three to five
  • One of the top staple foods in terms of major nutrients
  • Brazil produces more soybeans than us, but no one else does
  • The Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Illinois are our top producers
  • Research suggests there’s a slight health benefit to soy consumption
  • Soybeans, as a topic, was where it started. Do you know a topic? Can you sell your topic? Can you make a metaphor from it? Can you sell the metaphor?

    I was never an extemporaneous speaker. I was barely a prepared speaker, but I like to learn and be prepared for the extemporaneous things. It seldom comes up, but at some level, it’s a decent enough party trick. (But if you do it frequently, you’ll be in the sad lonely corner of the party.)

    At any rate, I set out, in that drive thru line on Saturday, to see if I could do a few minutes on the rear window wiper. Turns out I could.


    This evening, in the parking deck, I saw this, and realized the entire argument was just right here.

    If I ever find myself driving something that requires a rear window wiper, I’m going to Wipertags. One extravagance deserves another, I suppose.