Tuesday, June 30, 2009

the 80s: background - Son of Schmilsson

The first album I ever owned was Son of Schmilsson by Harry Nilsson. It completely twisted my mind.

My mom and step dad bought it for me. They gave it to me along with one of those little plastic record players that's about the size of a donut box. Mine was red.

Must've been when I was four or five because the album came out in 1972. I have no idea why they got it for me, or why they thought it would be appropriate for a kid, because it wasn't, honestly. I'm guessing it was my step dad's idea.

Son of Schmilsson is a decidedly adult album. Not just because it has cuss words (one song goes, "You're breakin' my heart, you're tearin' it apart, so fuck you!"), but because it's full of irony, metaphors and puns, all of which can really mess with a young mind.

Remember, at this time, I had no concept of how an album was made. I thought groups just pressed record on some sort of record recorder and started playing, live. Listened to in this mindset, Son of Schmilsson has some really weird twists. It begins between the first and second songs when this weird Dracula voice shouts "Son of Schmilsson!" You can hear someone snoring, and they suddenly wake up wondering who said that and what's going on. As I listened, I was trying to figure out where this all was happening. Was the band just standing around watching? Was this guy sleeping in the middle of the room where the band was playing? Where was Dracula?

Then it goes right into this beautiful song called "Remember (Christmas)." Like, the band just started singing again as if nothing happened.

Another weird moment comes on side 2, when they start singing "Remember" again when suddenly the singer burps really loud, at which point the band kicks into some hard rocking. Out of nowhere, a crowd breaks into applause. And I'm thinking, where'd the crowd come from? They must've been sitting quietly for the whole album. But then when the guy burped and they started jamming, it must have been too much for them to contain their enthusiasm.

Beyond that, it's just weird from top to bottom. Like, it's a very accessible, poppish album. But the lyrics are filled with backward logic:

Joy to the world
Was a beautiful girl
But to me Joy meant only sorrow
You know I wanted to be a space man
That's what I wanted to be
But now that I am a space man
Nobody cares about me
The most beautiful world in the world

Well, if you haven't got an answer
Then you haven't got a question
And if you never had a question
Then you'd never have a problem
But if you never had a problem
Well, everyone would be happy
But if everyone was happy
There'd never be a love song

Seriously. Imagine a four-year-old brain chewing on that one.

It even had a song that went, "I'd rather be dead than wet my bed." I was still young enough that bedwetting was a not-so-distant memory, so that one sort of struck home. But what made it really weird was that the chorus was sung by a choir of really old people. And I just couldn't put that one together. Old people wet beds?

So there you have it. I'm a little kid in the 70s listening to this record over and over and over and my little brain is forming along with it. It should come as no surprise that by the time I hit my teens, in 1981, I wasn't to keen on Lionel Richie and Hall and Oates. I was ready for something weird.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


This morning I woke up with a seething resentment against Pete Campbell. I told Allie about it she said something like, "Wow, it is a good show. I don't think I've ever known you to be mad at a fictional character."

A good friend of ours who has impeccable taste in all things fictitious practically demanded that we check out season one of Mad Men from the library. We're three quarters of the way through. It's gripping.

It's weird, though, because I only like three of the characters. There others I kind of like sometimes and there are a bunch more I pretty much can't stand. And I don't share any of their ambitions, at least not superficially. It's about an ad firm. I could care less if they keep the Lucky Strikes account.

But it's great drama because all of the characters are hurting, and the writers and directors show this expertly. So when the guy you hate does something despicable you also feel just a little bit sorry for him, enough to want to keep watching and hope he might turn around. Which, actually, he usually does do, kind of, with a semi-nice gesture a few scenes later.

Ad, of course, it's got that whole "it was a different time, different place" thing going. The sexism is astounding. It's satisfying to watch from the next century, with a wife you don't lie to, hide things from or cheat on.

Friday, June 26, 2009

the 80s: background

My step dad Dan was a record collector. He was a fancy, uptight 70s guy. He took a long time making his hair just right every day and he often wore white pants. He mostly bought cheesy jazz. He also bought plastic cover protectors and anti-static inside dust jackets for every record, which he would file alphabetically when he got home.

Dan took forever to figure out what he wanted to buy. So I'd wander around the store and look at record covers. A lot of it scared me.

I'd been warned that some rock and roll was satanic. I even heard a Christian tape once where they played records backward and, though you could never hear the words that were supposed to be there, like "satan" and I don't know what else, they still sounded really creepy, so they must've been bad. Plus, my real dad, who died in 1976, when I was eight, was a born again Christian and he thought all rock was a sin. I didn't quite believe him, but I was still a little young to be sure.

So there I was, eight or nine, I suppose, in a record store surrounded by records by Blue Oyster Cult, Nazareth, The Grateful Dead, Judas Priest, ACDC, Black Sabbath and probably a few others I can't remember. The covers were dark and full of demons and skulls and blood and they terrified me and fascinated me all at the same time.

I was still too young to distinguish completely between art and reality. I was into pop music. My mom kept the car station set to the top 40 station, and I could sing along with most of the songs. My favorite was Elton John. I would wear sunglasses and silk shirts and put on lip-sync concerts for my family. I couldn't uderstand how or why they got the audience to stay quiet for every song on his Greatest Hits except for Benny and the Jets.

So it was in this highly impressionable stage, poised between bubblegum and the pits of hell, that I received a great gift. My mom and stepdad Dan came home with a bright-red, plastic record player, and a record that would propel me on a path that would take me through all the weird little corners of the 80s.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

40 to 80

My friend Chuck says that 40 is half time. It's when you look back over where you've been and get ready for the rest of the game. (It's also an age I never pictured Chuck to be, and he probably didn't of me either.)

He's right. I've been doing a lot of looking back lately. Or more accurately, listening back. I've been digging up all the old tunes I used to listen to.

Of course, that's got me rememberin. And the more I remember, the more I want to write it down. So I'm going to do a little Back to the Eighties thing on this here blog for the next couple of weeks.

Warning: This isn't going to be like an Eighties Night at your local bar. I lived a comletely different decade.

For instance, the other day Allie said something about dancing on the ceiling. I didn't know what she was talking about. So she got on YouTube and pulled up this:

She was shocked when I said I'd never heard the song or seen the video. She said it was on the radio all the time back then.

But, back then, this was my idea of a party:


Today I got an email from my grandma: "If writing is so hard why not go lay brick"

(And I thought grandpa was the editor.)

I wrote back: "Because I'm a writer not a bricklayer."

Truth is I love writing. Especially on days like today when after four days of agonizing I have three decent paragraphs and a pretty good idea of where to go with however many graphs I have yet to write.

As Joyce Carol Oats said, the vice has loosened and I feel incredible.

I have a hunch that if I'd approached a bricklayer yesterday, when it was 105 degrees, and asked him what I thought of his job he'd say he'd rather be a writer.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


I once saw Joyce Carol Oates speak at the University of Colorado. She said being a writer is like having a vice permanently clamped on your head. The only way to loosen the vice is to finish writing something.

I have one of those vices. Mine is radioactive. It weakens my brain. So I have a harder time loosening the vice.

Today I reworked yesterday's paragraph and then I wrote three more for a total of 791 new words, all of which suck.

Then I went for a punishing four mile run in the noon heat, during which it occurred to me that I ought to begin the proposal with an entirely different paragraph. When I got home, I scribbled down an outline.

The vice loosened a little.

When I complete this proposal, which I will do, the vice will be completely removed, and I'll feel elated. As Oates said all those years ago, it's just the feeling of a normal head without a vice clamped on it. But for the writer, it's euphoric.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

grinding graph

I spent two hours today writing a single paragraph. One usable paragraph. I actually wrote more than one, but they were awful.

I hate writing.

The toughest part is starting. No, actually, the toughest part is after you decide to start, when you get all settled in your chair, with the right documents open and the right music playing, and you're brain completely freezes up. That sucks.

I've gone through all kinds of routines to trick myself into writing. This time around I'm using "Dark Star" to get me going. I pick a version of the song, which is typically about a half hour long and force myself to sit at the computer in a writer's pose for the duration of it. Lately I've been doing this four times.

So far it's working, sort of. Five or ten minutes in, I manage to write a sentence. Often that's enough to keep me going. The downside is that I only wind up writing one paragraph, maybe two, during one version of the song.

Here's hoping a month of this will be enough to give me a draft of proposal.

garden midsummer

Here's an update on the growing things around me.

Monday, June 22, 2009


For the past month or so, we have noticed a lot of dead birds in our neighborhood. They are just laying around near the sidewalk or on the side of the road.

And the ones that are alive seem weak. When you approach them, they remain on the grass far longer than usual. Then, at the last moment, they take off, but only a few feet away. It's as if they're barely alive.

We've mentioned it to friends in other parts of the city and they say they're seeing the same thing.

Does anyone know what's going on?

Thursday, June 18, 2009


I'm listening to a live recording of Müm with me feet up on my desk and my keyboard on my lap. I've finished the last of my coffee. Now it's time to write. Of course, I don't want to.

Outside of my window I can see the top part of a tree and the sunlight on a neighbor's roof.

All I really have to do is polish what I've already written. And pick away at an outline.

I'd like to see Müm live in concert. I didn't realize they had so many acoustic instruments. I thought they were purely electronic. They're from Iceland.

I'm a writer. I spend most of my time not doing what I do, and feeling guilty about not doing it.

We're going to pick blueberries on Friday afternoon, after I go for a 13-mile run and have lunch with an investigator.

I think I can write now.

Here's the concert:

living room concert

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

mass murderer

We have ants.

They come up through the spots where the kitchen counter doesn't quite meet the wall. We intend to exterminate them as soon as we find the least toxic way to do so. Meantime, the best way to keep them under control is to kill them.

When the kitchen is spotless, which is often lately, there are few or no ants to be seen. But if Allie or I leave a dish out for a few hours, and that dish has food on it, then the ants emerge.

Today I had two peanut butter and honey sandwiches for breakfast. My plate had a few splotches of honey on it. I didn't rinse it and put it in the dishwasher. When I came downstairs for a late lunch there were hundreds of ants marching in a line from the wall to the plate.

Ants were lines up around the edges of the honey spots antenna to antenna. They looked like they were stoned, like Deadheads passed out around a hookah with the hoses still stuck in their mouths.

I cleared everything away from the counter, except for the plate and a glass the ants had infested. I did this so I could murder more quickly and efficiently.

First I picked up the glass, exposing a huge crowd of them. Some of them started stomping all around, sensing danger, looking for escape. Others were too jacked up on honey to move.

I took the plate to the sink and washed them all down. Some clung to the sides of the sink, writhing. I finished them off with the sprayer. Ants can't scream. At least not loud enough for me to hear.

Then I took a sponge and ran it along the ant highway. Two seconds, dozens gone.

Ants can be anthropomorphized. You can imagine them as little people and picture yourself among them, working away, trying to score a hit of honey, when all of a sudden you're washed into oblivion or smashed by a thumb. It's awful when you think of them like that.

But it's also easy to remember that they probably have little or no brain and that they're vile invaders in a sovereign land and that for this they run a very real risk of dying violently.

That's just the way things are.


I was 67 cents short on my bill at Aldi's yesterday. The nice lady at the cash register told me not to worry about it. I thanked her profusely.

When I got in my car I noticed spare change in the center console. I counted up 67 cents and went back in to pay her back, locking my car door as I left.

She was very happy when I gave her the money. We had both done one another good deeds. I felt good.

As I went back to my car, I felt in my pockets for my keys. They weren't there. I pulled the door handle. It was locked. I looked in my window. The keys were on the seat.

I went back in and told the woman about my keys. I asked the use the phone. Because of my good deed, the cashier was very accommodating. She said I could use the phone whenever I wanted to and for as long as I want.

I called Allie and she called AAA. She said it would take 45 minutes. But they were there in ten.

The man popped open my door in less than a minute.

He said, "We were surprised that it was a gentleman who had locked his keys in his car. We got a lot of ladies who do that. But not many gentleman."


I'm liking this here band.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

going long

Today: A boring post about running.

I'm halfway to my goal of running for a year without injury. And I'm running more miles per week than I used to. A couple weeks ago, I ran 26 miles, including an 11.4-mile long run. This week I hope to run 29.

Reasons why I'm not hurt:

  1. Slowly building up the mileage.
  2. Sticking to the run/walk method.
  3. Running slowly.
  4. Running mostly on grass and trails.
I'm feeling so good, I'm quite certain I'll run a marathon this fall. Can't decide between this one or that one.

In fact, I'm even starting to think maybe I'm on a path toward an ultra.

Monday, June 15, 2009

good new music

I've been listening to lots of music lately. Here are some of my recent favorites:

Dirty Projectors: Bitte Orca

Sonic Youth: The Eternal

Jim O'Rourke: Banana Hall, Osaka, Japan, July 8, 1999

write on

I have written five book proposals since 2004. Now I'm about to embark on a sixth. I have a hunch this will be the one.

Book proposals are by far and away the most difficult things I have to write. I've gone through extreme pain on each of the previous five. I'm bound to go through more on this one.

I'd like to think I'm getting better at it. My last agent told me as much. My writing has really improved, she said. But still, none of them sold.

Now I have a new agent. She talks with me more than the last one did. During a phone call last week, she suggested a new angle on the story of my experience in the mayor's office. I've been thinking about it for a few days. I think she's right. This is the direction I'm going to pursue.

I've set a goal for myself of completing the proposal by mid-July. Today I started sketching ideas on a scatter graph. I'm not exactly sure why I do them. They never seem to have much bearing to the end product, except that they're where I start. Tomorrow I'll draw a picture of a narrative arc. Or at least a picture of narrative chunks, with arrows between them. This will turn into an outline.

A good thing: I seem to be able to write crappy lately. This is a good thing. It's hard to start writing when you won't let yourself write crappy.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

running of the squirrels

So we traveled to Marinville, Missouri, for the annual Running of the Squirrels. It was a lovely race, and they had the best race T-shirts I've ever seen:

And we actually got to see one of the little white creatures. It was too far away and squirrely to photograph.

People are very friendly in that part of the country. And they have lot of neat antiques.

All in all, a lovely weekend.

Friday, June 12, 2009

This weekend, Allie and I are going to participate in the annual Running of the Squirrels.

Not these squirrels:

These squirrels:

More here and here.

As you can see, this is serious business.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

leaf eaters

There's a part in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle where Barbara Kingsolver says something like spring is the time when we stuff our faces with leaves. Sounds about right.

I laid down a law a couple of weeks ago. I said to Allie we need to eat two large salads everyday. And when I say large I mean gigantic. I've been eating mine out of a mixing bowl.

We've been obeying the law for the most part. But we've made barely a dent in the garden. And now some of it is starting to bolt.




The other night, as we were eating salads on the porch, I wondered aloud if we've evolved to store up the nutrients you get leafy greens each fall and then replenish them in the spring. Because those are the times when they grow like crazy. And there's no way to stock pile them. You've just got to eat and eat and compost the rest.

I think this is the way we've evolved. At least in growing zones four to six.

In other news, this not a head of pink lettuce but a rose I dug out of my grandma's yard and brought to KC on a plane five years ago:

As you can see, it's doing just fine.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


These are my files from Cross-X. I've kept them around for three years. Last week I dumped all but the notebooks in the recycle bin. And I only kept those because I didn't have enough room to stuff those in too.

I kept them around for obvious reasons. Who wants to get rid of such impressive evidence of hard work?

On the other hand, it's kind of stupid to keep them. It's not like I'm Robert Caro.

So I'll do the next best thing. I'll print up one of these pictures and put it somewhere by my desk.


We treat each other pretty good on birthday's around here.

I woke up this morning and got exactly what I wanted -- a last little boost toward a 160g iPod.

Tonight I'm having steak from a well-treated cow and key lime pie.

A month from now it'll be my turn to make someone else's day.

And for your listening pleasure, one of the best Grateful Dead concerts ever, on this day 36 years ago at RFK Stadium in Washington D.C.

(It's almost 5 hours long, so save it for when you've got a bunch of computer work to do.)

Tuesday, June 09, 2009


I like to speak a little Spanish when I go to the corner store -- the carneceria.

Tonight I went there to get a pound of liver. But I wound up asking for a book of liver.

Oh well. At least I didn't ask for it for free.


As part of my ongoing reclamation of days gone by, I've picked up my old Sonic Youth habit.

Sonic Youth was easily my favorite band through college and for the first couple of years after. I saw them in concert five times, the last being in 1999 in Santa Fe.

They have a new album and they're on tour. I'm going to see them in July. Right here in Kansas City. No traveling.

It's kind of funny, I guess. They're all in their 50s now. They've been asked if they will change their name, now that they're so much older and they've said no. They think it's more radical the older they get.

Best of all, I was pleased to discover that there are tons of Sonic Youth bootlegs free for the taking on the Internets. Over the last week or so I've downloaded several dozen and am enjoying them immensely.

I'm well aware that they're an acquired taste. Allie can't stand them.