Monday, November 30, 2009


I love the dry roads. I love when the cold wind blows, and the grass on my lawn turns brittle and brown. The trees are empty; no more leaves blowing in the streets, except for a few dried-out stragglers that long to chase each other across my walkway. I love to linger outside, bundled up in my coat and scarf, feeling the crunch under my feet as I walk out to look at the sky, which is bleak and clear, but pregnant with stars.

The cold outside reminds me of what lies inside. The cold reminds me of that first burst of warm air when I open my door, of what lies in wait for me when I strip down to my underwear and crawl into my double-layered bed, where I don't need to turn on the heat, because I'm cradled in downy fluff, and I'm pressed into sheets that spent the day insulating and warming and waiting for me.

I love to hear the weatherman say, "The temperature is dropping." Because it means that more will come, more excuses to bundle and layer and find new and interesting ways to stay warm without turning on the heat. More reasons to wear my scarf all day at work, to look out of my office window and feel glad that I don't have to be out there for any reason, that everything I need is inside.

The cold reminds me of finding ways to curl up against someone I love, to grab his arms and force them to pull me closer and to find the places where he is the warmest, and where I'm the warmest, and to fall asleep, dreaming mindlessly in those waning early morning hours when we are still locked and pressed together and have nothing to think of but hot coffee and warm showers, clean towels and winter socks.

Cold bleakness outside reminds me of comfort inside. Cold bleakness outside reminds me of shaking off snow-laden boots on the porch, and of looking forward to dry socks inside.

Cold bleakness outside reminds me that we've created a womb inside, where we've made our nest, where we curl up together on our fuzzy couch and fight against the winter front and dream of sunny days, when we wore shorts and tank tops and drank frosty beverages, longing for bleak winter days filled with wind and substantial weather.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Island of Misfit Toys

I've spent a good portion of my life feeling like I've never quite fit in anywhere. Once, when I was in the fourth grade, my mother and I were school clothes shopping, and she picked up a sweatshirt that had a bunch of white sheep in rows on it, with one black sheep down in the corner. "That's you," my mom said, pointing at the black sheep. It didn't really mean anything at the time, because you haven't yet settled into your group of friends when you're in the fourth grade. But it's not long after that when you do.

It wasn't until late in the game when I discovered a core group of friends who had no delusions about their place in the pantheon of secondary education. I had plenty of friends before this important discovery, but even then, even though I knew those friends liked me and accepted me to some degree, it was the kind of acceptance that comes from shrugging your shoulders and giving up, weighing out the pros and cons, and saying, "Yeah, this friend I have is kind of a social retard, but she's funny and entertaining. And completely safe. My parents will never tell me I'm not allowed to hang out with with her." And then they would STILL try to dress me up and give me helpful advice on How To Fit In. It never worked.

College helps alleviate that feeling of not fitting in. Unless you're in school on a sports scholarship, everyone starting college is on even footing: None of us know what the fuck we're doing, and we hate our roommates, and we don't have any money, and your first lecture of the day is at 8am and there are 250 other students in it, and the cafeteria food is awful and calorie-laden, and we've all gained 15 pounds by the end of the first year. College was the great equalizer for me. But naturally, after spending four years in a fairly isolated music school, by the time I graduated, I could count my college friends on one hand. Possibly even one finger.

But I didn't go to college to make friends, and once again, I found my people in other places, people who were quirky and fun and got me. Those people, like my people in high school, are still my friends, and meanwhile, I'm 34 years old, and I still don't quite fit in.

I went to karaoke last night with my friend Lisa. I love to sing karaoke, because it's easy, and it doesn't take much vocal acuity to impress some drunk people at a bar. It's easy validation, and it's really the only acceptable reason for me to be singing Journey or Bon Jovi or Bangles songs in public. It wasn't really as much fun as I'd hoped last night. Granted, my friend Lisa has the uncanny ability to make any situation fun, even the kind of situation that involves an overcrowded, kind of dingy bar with a sound system that's too loud and filled with those making the most out of their holiday weekend. The only joy I managed to wring out of the night came from when I was actually singing, in spite of the fact that the rest of the bar crowd was too busy racing each other to the bottom of their glasses to listen to me sing. I didn't care. The room could have been empty. Singing is one of the few things I get to do in my life that belongs to me and only me. So fuck everyone else.

Still, the feeling of misfittedness was overwhelming. It was crazy crowded, so my friend Lisa found the only two empty seats at a table inhabited by two very lovely young women who were clearly having a wonderful time, as evidenced by the legion of beer bottles that sat spent in front of them. Lisa bumped into someone who she used to know from her days of owning a tattoo business with her late husband, so I lost her for quite some time. So alone I sat, nursing my one drink, wishing I was tucked into my jammies instead of waiting for my next song to come up on the karaoke DJ's list.

Sitting there, I had the opportunity to study everyone in the bar with me. There was the painfully thin blonde nightmare, drinking cosmos with her cadre of friends. There was the waitress who had the same name as me, forcing the karaoke DJ to christen me "KandywidaK". The other "Candy" danced up to a large bald man at one point, grabbed his head, and forced him into a motorboat situation that I'm thinking he may be regretting this Sunday afternoon. There was the hipster couple, boyfriend with the requisite beard and elbow tattoo, and girlfriend decked from head to toe in Urban Outfitters. Our lovely table companions who flirted with 21 year old college boys all night and then cursed the universe for sending them men who were clearly too young for them, but ended up exchanging numbers with them, anyway, leading me to believe that they couldn't be THAT angry at the universe. They all intermingled with each other effortless, fluidly, even those who had never met before until that night. And it made me wonder, as I sat there, intermingling with no one, if I was failing in some way, if I was missing some key social behavior that I was never taught, or if, once again, I just simply did not fit in.

I'm perfectly willing to chalk it all up to being out of any sort of social setting for quite some time. I've been happily ensconced at home with the people whom I love the most, going to bed a decent hour and getting up and girding my loins for the office, yet another place where I clearly do not fit in. Or maybe I don't try hard enough. Maybe if I bent slightly a few degrees this way or that, I would be like my table companions, who fought attention like King Kong hanging from the top of the Empire State building, swatting biplanes like flies.

More likely than any of this, however, is that I've become a pro at wildling down my circle to those and only those I get, only those who appeal to me and my sensibilities. Which, and here's the irony we've been waiting for, has made just the same anyone who never accepted me and what I am. They weren't shutting me out; I've been shutting them out. I fit in fine. It's most everyone else who doesn't fit in with me.

I don't know why, but somehow, this realization makes me feel better about last night, about high school, about any time I've been surrounded by people and yet felt completely alone. I am an island of my own making, and to be honest, I'm feeling completely okay with that. Islands can be really comfortable. Haven't you ever seen Gilligan's Island? Those fuckers had it made!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are Really Screwed Up and Probably Should be Taking Meds

Last week, Michael and I took Madeline to see the movie Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. I loved that book when I was Madeline’s age. The illustrations were fantastic, and I remember my stomach rumbling louder and louder with each passing page, as I longed for a day when a giant pancake would fall from the sky and destroy my school with its buttermilky goodness. Not surprisingly, the movie bore little resemblance to the beloved book by Judi and Ron Barrett, aside from a few enduring images of doughnuts rolling down the streets of Chewandswallow, and frightened citizens building makeshift sailboats out of PB&J sandwiches. But from the very first scene of the movie, none of the three of us cared that it was nothing like the book. Cloudy got it just right. It was hysterical, charming and smart, and featured some of the best voice acting since whatever the last Pixar joint was. The animation was kitschy and cute, and the main character, Flint Lockwood, was actually developed to the point where even parents would give a crap what happens to him in the end. Needless to say, we will be purchasing the DVD immediately after it comes out and will probably watch regardless of whether Madeline or Roan are sitting in the living room with us. Kind of like The Incredibles.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs had a trailer for Where the Wild Things Are (sic), the highly-anticipated adaptation of the children’s book by Maurice Sendak. “We gotta go see that,” I whispered to Madeline and Michael, who vehemently agreed. The trailer just looked so cool, in spite of the fact that hearing Tony Soprano’s voice coming from one of the monsters was slightly disturbing. It kind of had a Jim Henson, giant-Muppet-feeling about it that made me go all warm and gooey inside. I was so excited about taking Madeline to see it, in fact, that as soon as we got home from Cloudy, I text-messaged Madeline’s father and called dibs* on taking her to see it first.

The trailer music should have been my first warning. Arcade Fire with vocals by Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs? Uh oh. It had all of the sadness and depressing open chords of a Mazzy Star or Sparklehorse album without any of the ethereal beauty or pretty singing. I also should have heeded the second warning, which came in the form of James Gandolfini and his voice acting. Maurice Sendak’s characters should never sound like their next line is going to be, “Who ate all the gabagool?”

In spite of these immense red flags, the three of us went to a 6:30 showing, ignorantly blissful, and excited for a whimsical Monday night at the movies. How unsuspecting we were, as we munched our popcorn and watced trailers for the animated movies Planet 51 and Despicable Me. How we marveled, unknowing what was in store, as the movie opened with the adorable Max building a snow fort in his yard. But things quickly deteriorated from frivolous to fucked up when a snowball fight with his sister’s friends goes horrible wrong, and Max bawls when his fort is smashed and no one bothers to apologize. Later, Max has a complete freakout when his mother, who is clearly struggling just to keep her family afloat, dares to entertain the presence of a male figure in the house, which culminates in Max biting his mother on the shoulder and running away from home. And why? Because Max hates frozen corn! Wah!! Madeline, who was sitting between Michael and me, immediately broke down into tears.

Just like the book, Max hops onto an imaginary sailboat and heads off to Where the Wild Things Are (sic). Once he arrives, he finds Carol, the most recognizable of the monster crew from the book, ravaging his fellow monsters’ huts while having a hissy fit of his own. Carol threw about eight hissy fits throughout the course of the movie, and when he wasn’t busy doing that, he spent the rest of the movie acting like a moody, manipulative little bitch, prompting me to wonder if male monsters can suffer from PMS.

Not surprisingly, Max takes to Carol like flies to shit, and soon, the other monsters get jealous because King Max clearly plays favorites. Especially Judith, who eventually tells Max not to listen to her because she’s “kind of a downer.” Really, Judith? YOU’RE the downer in this movie? Frankly, I found Judith to be a breath of fresh air next to the duplicitous K.W., whiney Goatboy (did he even have a name?), pussy-whipped Ira, tag-along Douglas and the completely unsympathetic Carol. In fact, the only character I didn’t find loathsome was the silent, giant, bull-like monster that graces the cover of the original book. He finally spoke at the end, and said something completely forgettable, but I found his earlier quietness to be a nice change from the incessant kvetching of all the other malcontented monsters in the movie.

Every scenario that could have been whimsical played out to a horrible end. Goatboy gets injured during a playful dirt fight. Douglas gets his arm ripped off by Carol. Even the big, congenial monster pile has overtones of danger as Max comes within a hair’s breadth of getting crushed and smothered to death no less than half a dozen times. Meanwhile, Karen O’s strident and frigid vocals punctuated every depressing event until all of us sat stunned as Carol, upon discovering that Max isn’t a king and is “just Max,” which he says “isn’t very much at all, is it?”, runs to beach at the last minute to bid farewell to the little boy as he sails off home. As if to add insult to injury, Carol doesn’t even reach Max in time to make amends, or give him a hug goodbye, or blow him a kiss, or proclaim, “Peace out, bra!” Instead, the monsters mournfully howl their farewells to Max, as he drifts out to sea on his sailboat. Meanwhile, Madeline was a complete disaster in the seat next to me, bawling her poor little eyes out, confused how her beloved book became this abomination. What a kick in the balls.

Rarely has a movie that left me feeling so violated, so emotionally raped, I felt like I had just watched the Sesame Street cast reenact Sophie’s Choice. Madeline bounced back much faster than I did from the experience. She seemed fine this morning, as she happily ate her breakfast while watching Spongebob. I feel like I could use a little cold cereal and Spongebob therapy myself. I’m looking forward to the sequel, Where the Wild Things Are Chilling the Fuck Out and Not Acting Like Crazy Bitches For a Change.

*Calling dibs still works when you're a grown up and divorced. Even judges can’t dispute the dibs rule:
“But Your Honor! I called dibs on Christmas!”
“In that case, dibs granted.”

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Vacation for Dummies

I’ve always fantasized about vacations. Not the kind where you drive your beat-up Geo Metro 600 miles in the middle of the night, hoping it doesn’t break down again in Ohio, even though that trucker was nice enough to get you to the Michigan border while your car spends the night at a rest stop (true story; actually happened). I mean the kind where you have to buy a new suitcase because your old one has a giant hole on the bottom. The kind of vacation where you have to get a new swimming suit. The kind of vacation that requires airline tickets. The kind where you have to create an away message for your inbox at work. The kind where you have to renew your passport. THAT kind of vacation.

The last time I vacationed longer than a long weekend, it was 1996. My ex-husband, Thom, and I went to Ireland for our honeymoon. I had a great time, although the country stayed true to the time-honored cliché of being drizzly and miserable the whole time, including the day we spent at the Cliffs of Mohar, which was the closest I had been to the ocean since 1985 when I lived on the island of Sitka, Alaska. The one sunny day took place while we were in London on the way back, and I was deathly ill with the flu. And we stayed at B&Bs. Some consider them to be nice and quaint, and they certainly are way off the “nice and quaint” scale in many ways. But, you see, I don’t like people. The only thing I like less than people is small talk. So put me in a situation where I have to deal with both, very early in the morning, before I’ve had a cup of coffee because all there is to drink is tea, and you’ve got yourself a good, ol’ fashioned recipe for a moody, irritable, cranky, sullen, pouty and insufferable Kandy.

I have been to the beach. I went to Rehoboth Beach with my daughter, my friend Natalie, her daughter, Chloe, and her extended family. I’ve visited Jones Beach several times, once to see Brian Wilson in concert, and once last summer with Michael. We both got disturbingly bad sunburns and had to drive back that night. Natalie and her sister, Adrienne, and I went to St. Joe’s on the shores of Lake Michigan a couple of years ago, and it was nice. And I spent a solid month watching every episode of LOST on DVD, in consecutive order, until I eventually ran out of LOST and had to check into a rehab clinic. That was like being on a really spectacular beach but without actually experiencing the warm sun and the waves washing over your bare toes and being able to beat the shit out of that annoying and incestuous brother and sister who, thankfully, didn’t survive past the first season of the series.

Michael and I have been talking about a vacation for a while. He’s had even fewer vacations than me. In fact, he’s never been on one, a proper vacation. He’s spent his life being a weekender, like me, and if anyone deserves a proper vacation, it’s him. After years of schlepping it in retail and food service, he’s long overdue for week of doing fuck-all and having things brought to him on a tray for a change. His recent 5-week tour of Europe with Stick Men was valuable learning experience, but don’t be fooled. It was nothing resembling a vacation.

I’m not exactly sure when it was that we decided to just go for it. We had been discussing it before he even left for Europe on the tour, toying with Costa Rica and Hawaii. I had been lightly perusing websites and gathering information on destinations both near the ocean and with an agreeable conversion rate. But I couldn’t commit. Every time I clicked on an image result in Google for one of these places, I felt overwhelmed with white, Anglo-Saxon, Judeo-Christian workaholic, penny-pincher guilt.

Soon, however, the idea of a vacation stopped being a luxury. It started to become a survival issue when I began having dreams about watching my co-workers drop to the floor in a spray of bullets from my automatic assault rifle.

“Why don’t we go to Mexico,” suggested Michael.
“Okay. I’ve never been there,” I said, “but I know people do go there. I mean, before the swine flu thing. But where?”
“I don’t know,” he sighed. “How about Cancun?”
“How about it? I’ve never been.”

So I started looking up hotels in Cancun. There were many fine-looking establishments for cheap, especially since I was looking for the flight/accommodations packages that most travel websites offer. For days, I searched travel website after travel website, searched hundreds of hotels, looking for that right balance between affordable but not a total shithole/dead hooker burial ground. “That one looks nice,” Michael helpfully offered. He said that about every hotel I showed him, like I was trying on a succession of nearly indistinguishable black articles of clothing for him and asking for his opinion on each (true story; actually happened).

I asked around when I got to work the next day. Okay, that’s not exactly true. I asked one of the three people I can actually stomach talking to at work the next day, since the other two were out of the office. One member of my staff, Jenn, told me that her sister travels a lot (no kids, lots of disposable income) and goes to Mexico a few times a year.
“Don’t go to Cancun,” Jenn said, after a brief phone call with her sister. “You won’t like it.”
I asked why.
“Well, maybe I’m wrong, but you don’t really seem like the spring-break, college-party type.”
“Not even when I was in college,” I replied.
“My sister says that you should go to Playa del Carmen. You can still fly into Cancun, but Playa is a smaller town, about an hour away. I think that’s more your speed. And it’s really close to the Mayan ruins in Tulum.” I started salivating. I love ruins.

Instantly, based on that recommendation, I switched my search criteria around. I started looking at hotels in Playa del Carmen, and there were plenty. Most of them looked very nice, some of them looked very pricey, and almost none of them included anything. I thought long and hard about what I wanted from this vacation. I thought about our budget, and I thought about our dietary restrictions (it’s hard enough being a vegetarian in the states). I thought about what we wanted from our first grown-up vacation, and I thought about what I wanted to remember when I boarded the plane back to the states after spending a week in Mexico.

Ultimately, I booked a week at an all-inclusive resort. And then I shelled out a little more for the nice part of the resort with its own pool and beach.

Don’t judge me. I’m sure all the hard-core travelers out there are spinning in their computer chairs, hurling curses at their computer screens at my lack of creativity and unwillingness to experience local flavor. Not true! I made a very educated and calculated choice. I love local flavor. It tastes great, it really does. And chose a vacation package that was inexpensive enough so that if we get bored at the all-inclusive, we can venture into Playa for some dysentery and food poisoning…I mean, local flavor. I read traveler reviews, and a vast majority of those who traveled to Playa on a package similar to ours had a wonderful time. And more importantly, I considered what we do in our normal lives. Here’s a breakdown of an average day:

Alarm goes off at 6:45 and I hit snooze. I will continue to do this until 7:12am. Michael will kick my lazy ass out of bed, go into the kitchen, start coffee and Madeline’s lunch, and then we’ll shower. After that, I’ll attempt to get myself ready before 7:45 (keep in mind that I finally got up at 7:12) so I can drop her off with her dad and drive to work. After the frantic drop off at Madeline’s father’s house, I’ll race to my job, which is 30 minutes on the NYS Thruway IF I drive between 75 and 80 mph the entire way. I skip breakfast and eat lunch at my desk. Lunch usually consists of a salad and cottage cheese or celery, hummus and almonds. I leave the office at between 4:45 and 5pm, race back to Madeline’s dad’s house to pick her up, and then hit the gym, where I will work out for an hour while Madeline plays with strange kids in childcare. Michael will generally start dinner before I get back from the gym, so it’s hitting the table by approximately 7pm. From 7pm until around 8pm, we’ll nag Madeline to finish her food, and then she’ll take a shower at 8:30. I’ll tuck her in at 9pm, and by 9:45, we’re usually passed out in bed, ready to do it all over again the next day. Unless Michael’s out of town. Then I do all of this myself. And sometimes Michael’s daughter, Roan, is with us, too.

It’s hectic. We are busy every minute of the week, unless it’s Saturday, and then we might sleep until 7:30am and go out for breakfast. Perhaps now you can see why spending a week at a resort where all food and drinks (including 24 hour room service) are included, and a waitperson will ask us, “Can I get you anything else?” while we lie on the beach just MIGHT seem extremely appealing to us. Essentially, we don’t have to lift a finger unless we want to. Hey Kandy! Want to go for a dip in the pool? Maybe later. Hey Kandy! Want to go shopping at some of Playa’s fine retail shops? Meh. Not now. Hey Kandy! Want to go parasailing? Perhaps tomorrow. Hey Kandy! Want to lie on a lounge chair all day long and have everything handed to you? Go on, salesman. I’m listening…

We’ll definitely do things, like go visit the ruins, check out Playa, and I really want to parasail. But if we don’t get around to that stuff, who gives a shit? I don’t have to. Next vacation, we’ll do all of the hard shit. We’ll go somewhere difficult to travel to, and we’ll stay at a youth hostel or go camping. We’ll hike to all of our destinations. We’ll carry our belongings on our backs like beasts of burden, and we’ll bargain for a crust of bread in some remote locale where one has to be inoculated before going there. We’ll have an educational and hopefully rainy vacation experience. This time, however, the FIRST time, we’re going to be lazy motherfuckers who will only rise to pee, and even then, well, the ocean’s right there, isn’t it?

As my friend Jane says of my vacation, “Smoke a Cuban cigar (legal down there) and buy yourself a box of Xanax (legal down there), and you can gaze into the ocean with a hint of a wry smile, knowing everybody can suck it. I know that's MY ideal vacation.”

You said it, sister. I’ll send you a postcard.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Please Stop Doing Things Like This, Part I

On the way to go look for a new badminton net last Saturday, we stopped at a local bagel shop for coffee. It was busy, like it is every morning around 9am, and as we waited for our cashier to ring us up, a Spandex-clad suburban housewife nightmare ran up to the front counter, looking flustered. "Give me a scooped out everything bagel with cream cheese," she barked at the cashier. Michael and I glanced at each other when we heard this, and then flashed the cashier taking her order a sympathetic eyebrow raise before going back to staring into our coffee cups. To her credit, the cashier showed saint-like restraint by not freaking out, reaching over the counter and smacking the customer. I'm not sure I could have been as charitable. I instead chose to channel my anger toward her in a lengthy not-well-thought-out rant until Michael finally said, "We should probably just get you a microphone."

In case you don't know what a scooped out bagel is, let me enlighten you: A scooped out bagel is a bagel with all of its bagel-ness scraped out, leaving only the outside crust with a canal perfect for filling with cream cheese.

Please, someone, explain how things have gotten this bad. Yes, I understand the reasoning behind ordering something as ludicrous as a scooped out bagel. You're watching your carbs, and everyone knows that bagels are made entirely of carbs. So it stands to reason that, if you're watching your carbs, your first choice in a breakfast food probably shouldn't be a bagel. I mean, the place where we bought our coffee is clearly a bagel shop. The giant sign outside the door has the word "bagels" on it. The entire wall behind the cashier's counter is made up of huge shelves of bagels. They have bagels on the menu, and not much else. And if that isn't enough to hip you to the fact that you're in a bagel shop, there are even pictures of bagels everywhere.

But instead of going somewhere that sells, oh, I don't know, eggs, which contain no carbs, you decide to go to a bagel shop. And instead of saying, "Oh, fuck it. I chose a bagel shop. Perhaps I should go with the flow and get a bagel," you decide to bring the cashier's already busy morning to a grinding halt by ordering a bagel that has to be painstakingly hollowed out, essentially rendering it no longer a bagel. Way to go, asshole. All you done is made yourself look like a massive douchebag and, oh, by the way, please enjoy the huge lung clam that I hacked into your cream cheese before wrapping up your adulterated bagel and handing it to you with a big smile on my face.

If you're reading my blog, and you've been someone who has ordered or may in the future order a scooped-out bagel, you might just want to go ahead and unsubscribe right now. Because chances are, you're a boil on the universe's ass, and one of my favorite things to do in the whole wide world is write angry blog entries on why people like you suck and how excited I am that, when the great culling finally comes, you'll most likely be the first to go, right behind celebrity chefs and trust fund hippies.

So enjoy that hollowed-out abomination of breakfast. It's good to hold onto those happy memories in life while you're being slow-roasted on a spit over a lake of fire and brimstone while the Devil shoves an apple in your mouth before tucking into your honey-glazed ass. All that fat you ate during your low-carb diet has made you succulent and delicious. What a bitter and fabulous irony.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Real Winner

I sat in my kitchen last night while Michael made dinner and watched a Smiths concert. It was Live in England taped in 1983. I was 8 years old then.

“Imagine being a senior in high school in Chugiak, Alaska,” I said to Michael while he boiled basmati and heated up saag paneer, “and the only celebrity crushes you’d ever had were Cary Grant and Morrissey.”
Michael turned around and blinked at me. “Cary Grant?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “When I was in junior high.”
He turned back to his pots and pans. “Weird,” he said, and continued to stir things.

While Morrissey gyrated on stage in front of flower-tossing fans, I wondered out loud how he managed to make his pompadour so successful. “Superglue or egg whites,” Michael speculated. Turns out, there’s a lot I don’t know about successful pompadours.

During “Pretty Girls Make Graves,” I reminisced about how I first discovered the Smiths. I was a junior in high school…or maybe a senior, I can’t really be sure. Anyway, my then-boyfriend and I were driving around in my parents’ gold Honda Accord on a summer night, on our way to pick up my friend Dave. When we arrived at his house, Dave emerged with a cassette tape in his hand. “You have to listen to this,” he said, as he crawled into the back seat. Dave was always giving me cassette tapes. He introduced me to They Might Be Giants. He gave me recordings of bands like Bad Religion and NOFX. Even though I could never really get into those bands, my musical tastes were molded in a deeply profound way by Dave’s cassette tapes, because they forced me away from church music, showtunes and top 40 radio hits from the 80s.

The cassette tape that day was the Smiths’ The Queen is Dead. Expecting more sloppy 4/4 time drumming and I IV V I chord progressions from some punk band with a clever name, I was shocked to my core when the title track played out of the car speakers. That is, after that “Take me back to dear old Blighty” pub chorus at the beginning. We drove around my tiny town, listening to that album. In fact, I wouldn’t take Dave home until the album was over, because once Dave was gone, so were the Smiths.
“I have to hear more,” I said to Dave, once I finally released him from my clutches. “Do you have anything else?”
“I have everything,” he said.
“Including new stuff?” Dave laughed. What can I say, I was oblivious. I had just assumed they were a magical new band that appeared from the ethers without my knowledge, and I was thrilled I was getting in on the ground floor.
“Um, no. They broke up in 1987.”

This news was nothing short of devastating to me. Broken up? In 1987?? How could this be? I had just heard them, and was deeply affected (which was easily done, since I was a 16 year old virgin who grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist home in Alaska), and it turned out that they disintegrated five years earlier. It felt like I had found my soulmate and then held them while they died in my arms, all in one day.

So I became obsessed, as stupid teenagers are wont to do, and I remained obsessed for years, searching through record stores for discarded B side compilations (remember the days when we couldn’t just go to iTunes and download things? ) and trying to quell myself with Morrissey solo albums, some of which were solid while others, well, you know. Fans don’t like to discuss THOSE albums.

I was relating the above story to someone I knew about 10 years ago, gushing magnanimously over what a huge influence the Smiths were in my late-blooming formative musical years. “You mean to tell me,” the person said, “that you hadn’t heard of the Smiths until you were in HIGH SCHOOL?” This person not only looked shocked, but offended, like I committed the biggest personal effrontery aside from punching his mother in the face and stealing her wallet. “I’ve been a fan of the Smiths since waaaaay back,” he said, and then proudly proceeded to inform me that he discovered them right after the release of their first solo album, his chest puffed out as if he had been the one to first sign the Smiths.

And to this day, I wonder, why with the pride at discovering them before me? Do people get prizes for knowing who a band is before they make it big? I cannot tell you how many stories I’ve heard that start with, at the mere mention of a band’s name, “Oh man, I saw them in this tiny club in Portland back in 19-so-n-so, and it was awesome! Their instruments sounded horrible because they didn’t know how to tune them yet and there was constant feedback from the amps because the sound system sucked! It was great!” Well done! Congrats on becoming a fan while a band is still green and working out its kinks and still kind of sucking a little bit! All that says to me is that you have low standards when it comes to music.

Ultimately, who gives a flying fuck WHEN you discover a band is good? Isn’t enough that you’ve discovered a good band is, in fact, good? I mean, for God’s sake. If I was still stuck in the same musical rut I was in circa 1984, I’d be listening to my parents’ old recordings of the Oak Ridge Boys and Barry Manilow, whistling Rogers and Hammerstein tunes, singing “How Great Thou Art” in the shower and spinning my mother’s vinyl version of “We Are the World”. Who’s the real winner here in the game of musical one-upmanship? I think that would be none other than yours truly.

Just one more reason to hate pretty much everyone.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Stick Men Tour, part V: Kingston, NY and Princeton, NJ

Please don’t be pissed at me for taking way too long to wrap up this tour blog. Turns out, working and being a mom is really starting to cut into my blogging time. Who knew? But frankly, I’m dying to put a button on this because now that I’ve got you hooked, I intend to occasionally write about subjects that have absolutely nothing to do with Stick Men, or prog rock, or even music at all. Don’t run away. I promise it won’t suck…much.

There are really only a few things I’d like to highlight about the last two stops on the Stick Men east coast tour. The penultimate show was right here in our own back yard at Keegan Ales in Kingston. When Stick Men played there in January, the bar was absolutely packed. So much so, in fact, that my friend sneaked me up to the balcony area right above the stage so I could take some video…which I promptly and accidentally deleted while simultaneously fumbling with my cocktail and trying to delete a picture I took of my own thumb. That was a great show.

Stick Men played even better when they came back to Keegan Ales in June, and sadly, only about 40 people were there to witness it. One could chalk this up to a number of reasons: They played at the Bearsville Theatre, which is only a few miles from Keegan Ales, the week before. The day of the Keegan show had also been incredibly rainy and shitty, alternating between torrential downpours and irritating spit/drool rain. But I suspect it had more to do with the dozen or so other, much crappier acts that were playing at other venues nearby. “Non-threatening classic rock” cover bands. Screamy suburban angry white kid bands. Dirty trustfund hippie folk drivel, featuring harmonica, during which smelly girls with dirty long skirts would dance that stupid arm-waving hippie dance and end up sleeping with the guitarist who wears a ski cap even in the summer time. People around here seem to really dig that type of music, the kind you hear at a county fair. Anything new and interesting tends to get ignored in favor of bands that have been playing the same songs in the same dive bars and local street festivals for the past 35 years. I suspect, however, that it’s like that in many places in the US. Music is something people want done to them. They don’t want to have to THINK about it. “It’s the weekend,” cries the bar crowd. “I’m drunk on $1 Miller Lites, and I want you to do music at me!”

A friend from work met me at Keegan Ales to see the show. She had never heard Stick Men before, but she had met Michael a few times, and I’ve talked about the kind of music he plays, and she seemed genuinely interested. Back in the 70s, she used to do catering for bands that passed through a local college town, and back in those days, it was everyone. She remembers the Grateful Dead, Fleetwood Mac, Richie Havens, Joe Cocker, and she got to hang out backstage and see the shows for free. She said she had heard every type of music from every kind of musician, from rock to jazz to funk to classical to avant garde classical to jazz fusion to Latin. “I’ve heard everything,” she told me at Keegan Ales before Stick Men took the stage.

“I’ve never heard anything like this,” she said after the second or third song. She stayed for over two hours of a three hour show, mouth hanging open, peppering me with questions about the Chapman Stick and all those gadgets on Pat’s drumset. Eventually, the dirty girl hippy dancers started to drift in, probably from other shows. Personally, I love trying to watch audience members attempt to dance to Stick Men. The ever-changing time signatures and beats in variations of 5 and 9 and 15 and 23-and-three-quarters keep them spasming off the 1 while they frantically try to find it again. And just when they think they’ve got it sorted out, something else changes and they’re still doing what they were doing before. Nothing is more hysterical. Next time you’re watching a band play and the hippie dancers show up, grab a bag of popcorn, sit back and enjoy the show.

It was another great performance, if terribly under-attended, and more importantly, it took us approximately 15 minutes to get back home and into bed, which is always a refreshing change.

Princeton, New Jersey. I had never been there, but I knew there was some kind of big school there, though, like Yale or Harvard or something. Anyway, after what seemed like a month of rain, it was stunningly beautiful on Saturday, June 27th. We knew that the venue was at a park or garden, but we assumed there would be clearly marked signs, pointing us toward an amphitheatre. Instead, all we found when we got to the address of the venue was a gigantic parking lot and very rustic-looking restrooms. Turns out, in order to get to the amphitheatre, we had to drive along a wooded bike path, where bikers, walkers and nature lovers dove out of the way. I fondly reminisced about having to drive on the sidewalk in Buffalo the week before, and considered myself lucky to have the opportunity to finally take the Stratus off-roading once again.

The amphitheatre was adorable, a little bowl surrounded by trees and opposite a pond filled with turtles, sunning themselves languidly on bales of hay on the shore. While Stick Men sound checked, I walked the path around the park, and eventually discovered a little footbridge that led to a tiny water fall and bench, nestled in the shade. I lamented that fact that I hadn’t known that this is where they were going to be playing, because Michael and I could have brought our daughters with us to play.

I stayed at that little peaceful spot for quite a while, testing the settings on my camera, staying cool and not bursting into flames in the sun. But more importantly, I stayed in that little spot for quite a while because of the appearance of another Super Fan. I’ve met one at nearly every show (I sense a recap!!). Here are some of my favorites:

1) Syracuse: Super fan who complimented me on being Michael’s girlfriend.
2) Buffalo: Super fan who rhythmlessly, drunkenly danced at the lip of the stage the whole night.
3) Natick: Super fan (remember John 3:16?) who sat in the front row right next to me and occasionally played drums on my leg.

But this guy in Princeton was a shining, singular example of a hardcore, well-intended and socially-awkward prog rock Super Fan. Perhaps the King of the Super Fans, in his own small universe. This dude did everything a true Super Fan would do:

1) He showed up to the venue hours before the show was to start, just to witness the sound check.
2) He sat right in the front during sound check the whole time.
3) He never left the amphitheatre during sound check, seemingly not once to pee or eat or anything, and believe me, I was watching.
4) He went up to the stage to talk to the band during the sound check every few mintues or so.
5) When the band was not on stage during sound check, he followed members of the band around to ask them questions and offer helpful tips.
6) He brought friends.

It might be ill-advised for me to say this, but it’s my blog so I’m going to. Potential Super Fans of the world, please keep this question in mind: How would you like it if a stranger showed up to your job, followed you around, talked about how good he is at his own job, offered you helpful tips on how to do your job better and asked you to give him a lesson on how to use the copy machine? And for hours on end? How long would it take you to lose your shit? I’m simply asking you to pose this question to yourself every now and again, when you’re thinking about driving 6 hours to stalk your favorite band during their sound check.

After having lunch in town, we headed back to the venue for the show. The amphitheatre is a bit of a hike from the parking lot, and more importantly, it’s a bit of a hike from the bathrooms. This proved rather unfortunate as I was suffering from some, ahem, gastro-intestinal discomfort. After the fourth frantic walk-run back to the bathrooms, I started to seriously consider staying in the parking lot for the show. But I remembered that it would soon be dark, and it was a park, after all, filled with trees, and I did grow up in Alaska and went camping in some pretty remote places, so I decided to take my chances.

I’m glad I did. There were some great moments during the show, including Michael popping a string right at the end of “Red” and witnessing what Tony referred to as a record-breaking string replacement. You can watch it all unfold on youtube, if you feel inclined. As night enveloped the amphitheatre, the fire flies came out and bobbed along in front of the stage, a much nicer thing to watch than hippie dancers or flailing, air-drumming Super Fans.

The tour was fun, and it ended perfectly at a great venue in front of a great crowd, but ultimately, I was ready to be finished. Our apartment was starting to look like a flop house. We had given up on laundry and were living out of our luggage, even on days when we were home. We hadn’t seen the girls in too long. Hell, we hadn’t even really seen each other in too long, and sitting in a car, racing toward a destination and then racing back, half asleep and bleary-eyed in the middle of the night, does not count as quality time with your significant other. We were beat and tired of driving. Our dishes were piling up, and the bedroom…I’m still not ready to discuss the state of the bedroom. And I was tired of dragging ass into work every day, falling asleep in meetings and letting hundreds of messages go ignored in my inbox. I am a creature of habit. I find my routine comforting. Being home, just being home, with my daughter and Michael and the fishies, is one of those simple joys that taste so much better after a long day at work, or a week in the car.

Three weeks after the final show in New Jersey, I’m starting to feel normal again. Except that I still haven’t cleaned out my car from the tour. You can keep your autographed CDs. I’ve got half-empty to-go cups from every rest stop from Buffalo, NY to Princeton, NJ. And maybe if you ask nicely, I'll have Michael sign one for you.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Stick Men Tour, Part IV: Natick, MA

I was in a Mood on the day of the Natick, MA show. Overtired, overwrought and over-worked. “You’re acting really impersonal,” Michael told me on the three hour drive, “which is pretty much the complete antithesis of how you usually are.” He was right. I’m pretty nice most of the time, and if I’m snippy or cranky or just downright bitchy, it’s because I’m having a blood sugar crash, I had a bad day at work or I’m sleep deprived. Or I’m hungover. I’m fairly certain I was all of the above on that day, at least until Michael popped one of our karaoke CDs into the car stereo. His Michael McDonald imitation never ceases to cheer me*. The goofy-ass VERY white dance moves helped a lot, too, but more on car karaoke later.

We found out when we stopped at a rest area to grab snacks about halfway to Natick that Farrah Fawcett had died. Not that it was a huge surprise. Farrah’s been about 75 pounds soaking wet for a while now, and mentally, I think she checked out about 5 years ago. And what a kick in the balls for her. Ryan finally proposes after 30 years of on-again-off-again, and she bites it, what, 48 hours later? It just confirmed my long-held belief that deathbed proposals DO NOT COUNT. Take heed, gentlemen, if you’re thinking about holding out.

Natick is cute. It takes about 3 minutes to walk from one end to the other. The venue, The Center for Arts (TCAN), is not at all what I expected. It’s a small theatre with concrete floors and brick walls, meaning that sound would bounce around all over the place, and oh, did I mention that apparently, Stick Men are loud? I don’t know if that’s come up yet in this blog. Anyway, it looked like it was more suited for chamber music or children’s theatre workshops than noisy prog rock. But that’s the nice thing about the human body. It’s all-natural baffling, so if the venue was to fill to its 290 maximum occupancy, all those soft dudes with long hair would soak up that extraneous noise.

While downstairs in the dressing room, I took advantage of WiFi to surf a little. “Hm,” I thought, as I looked at “Michael Jackson was taken to the hospital after suffering cardiac arrest. Didn’t see that one coming.” A few minutes later, the statuses (statii??) of my friends on Facebook started to say things like, “RIP Michael Jackson,” and “OMG, Jacko died!!!” That’s when I started to suspect something was up. Pat was down in the dressing room with me, and he immediately jumped onto the Drudge Report (don’t even get me started on fucking Drudge, but that’s another blog), which was reporting that according to Hollywood anal-probe, Michael Jackson was, indeed, dead.

Maybe I was supposed to start rending my garments and wailing to the heavens, but honestly, people, I don’t get all choked up over celebs dying anymore. I don’t know them. They’re not my friends. I’ll save my righteous tears for genocide and wholesale inhumane behavior, but I’m not about to start crying over dead famous people. Michael Jackson did not have a huge impact on my life. Yes, I begged my mom to buy me the Thriller album when I was 8 years old. Yes, I enjoyed Off the Wall. Yes, I thought he was a kook and a sad cautionary tale of what can go wrong if your dad is an abusive prick who pushed you into stardom and early adulthood. But Michael didn’t write his own music. Quincy Jones wrote all the good stuff.

But enough about Jacko, except to say that as I was walking down to the corner store during soundcheck to pick up some dirty, sinful cigarettes, some teenager stopped me on the sidewalk and said, “Hey, did you hear that Michael Jackson died?”
I replied, “Yeah, Farrah Fawcett, too.”
“Who’s that?”
I think I laughed all the way back to the venue.

The Natick show sold out. The audience was great, especially the superfan I like to call John 3:16 in the front row. John 3:16 was nice enough to let me sit next to him when I lost my unassigned seat after intermission (there was an actual intermission!!!!), but his constant attempts at banter with Tony, Michael and Pat while they were onstage, not to mention his spastic, personal-space-invading dance moves, made me wonder if I should have just stood in the back. Regardless, it was another outstanding show, and Michael’s and my friend Steph and her boyfriend drove a rental car from Boston to see it, which was a really cool thing for them to do.

Tony, Pat and Robert Frazza, the sound engineer, stayed overnight in Natick. Michael and I were not so lucky. Once again, I had to be back at work the next day, so we schlepped it to NY in the middle of a dark and stormy night, and got stuck in road construction in the process. Thankfully, we still had the Smiths karaoke CDs. Both of us have an inordinate and probably disturbing affection for the Smiths, and when we got our hands on some Smiths and Morrissey karaoke disks last year, we’ve been wearing them out on our machine at home, drunkenly warbling our way through “Shoplifters” and “Suedehead” a hundred billion times. That CD kept us awake during those crucial moments on I-90 where there’s nothing, no one, nothing around for miles, as Morrissey would say in “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish”, proving that no matter where you are, or what you’re doing, or how long it’s been since they broke up, the Smiths will not only save your life, but they’ll live forever. Unlike Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett.

Sorry. Too soon?

*Please do not ask Michael to do his Michael McDonald imitation for you. That shit’s all mine, yo!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Stick Men Tour, part III: Woodstock and NYC

I’ve been to the Bearsville Theatre in Woodstock on a number of occasions. I saw Mercury Rev there a few years ago, and comedian David Cross shortly after that. Michael and I have frequented karaoke there a couple of times, on one of the five nights in the past year we’ve actually Gone Out. I don’t have a problem with the venue. It’s actually pretty nice, with a great courtyard and the creek gurgling in the back. The Little Bear, my favorite Chinese place in the tri-state area, is right next door, too. No, my issue with the Bearsville Theatre is not the theatre itself. My issue with the Bearsville Theatre is that it’s located in Woodstock.

Settle down and let me explain. I’ve lived in the area for six years now, long enough to meet lots and lots of people and do lots and lots of things and go to lots and lots of shows and bars. I happen to love this area of New York, which is why I’ve been here for six years and haven’t done what I usually do: Live somewhere for a year or two, get sick of it and everyone who lives there, hastily pack my shit into whatever crappy car du jour I had and get the fuck out of Dodge. Granted, I have roots here now, especially since my daughter has been going to school here for two years, and I remember what it was like to be uprooted every 2 years or less as a child, and how traumatic that can be, and I’m too old to drive to a new state in the middle of the night with no job prospects or contacts or friends, so I’m good with the Hudson Valley. In fact, I’m pretty good with Woodstock these days. We have kind of an agreement; I don’t bother Woodstock, and it doesn’t bother me. I’ve met far too many irksome and insufferable Woodstock “characters” over the past six years, fake hippies with trust funds, hypocritical bleeding heart liberals who balk and gripe at town board meetings when a proposal for affordable housing is put on the table…and a lot of really bad music, for which there is never an excuse. Just because you hang out on the green in Woodstock doesn’t automatically make you a musician, so put that guitar down and get a haircut. And don’t even get me started on the drum circles.

It’s always a couple of people who ruin everything for everyone, isn’t it? The prospect of bumping into those select everything-ruiners after a six and a half hour drive from Buffalo on very little sleep curbed my excitement about seeing Stick Men play so close to home. But here’s where my self-imposed hermitage comes in handy: It’s been so long since I’ve been out anywhere, I don’t know anyone anymore. All of those transient characters have either left town and gone somewhere to else to annoy a whole new set of unsuspecting people, or they weren’t around to attend the Bearsville show on Sunday, June 21st. And it was Father’s Day, after all. Even useless sperm donors like to hang out with their spawn on that holiday.

The drive back from Buffalo was plagued with torrential downpours and bad radio. We managed to find an unintentionally hilarious radio documentary on Jeff Buckley. Not that his death was funny. I’m a big fan, and the dude definitely had more in him. What was hysterical were the live recordings of Buckley’s performances. As much as I love his music, he tended to let things get a little out of hand vocally, and while it was relatively reined in for the studio recording of “Grace”, the live performances featured banshee-like shrieking and frequent forays into singing every tone except the right one and lightening fast Hypno-Toad vibrato-ing. Michael does an aces imitation of Jeff Buckley now. Next time you see him, ask him to sing a few bars of “Dream Brother” for you. He’ll LOVE that.*

We were shot when we got to Bearsville for sound check. We managed to eek out a paltry one hour at home before we had to be in Woodstock. Thankfully, the dressing/green room at the Bearsville has a really big couch and a huge TV. WITH CABLE. Cable, people! Do you know how long it’s been since I last laid eyes on cable? Michael was still in Europe when they shut if off.

(Sidenote: Apparently, they will turn your cable off if you go months without paying a bill. Those fascist fuckers.)

While Michael noodled on stage with the boys, I drifted in and out of consciousness while watching a Sunday afternoon marathon of House on USA. Apparently, I had made myself so comfortable that Tony asked permission once or twice to enter. “It is your room, after all,” he said. Damn straight, Levin. The world is my oyster soup kitchen floor wax museum.

I wish I could say more about the show at the Bearsville theatre, other than the usual cast of crazies that show up to these things were thankfully lacking, or, at least, the old, recognizable cast of crazies. I was so glazed and semi-conscious for the whole show that I barely noticed who was there. It was all I could do to remain upright and carry on a conversation with my friend, Lauren, who came to the show. And I guess it was a really loud show, too. I bumped into Martin Keith, an old friend of Michael’s and a local guitar maker. He offered me ear plugs. I asked, “Is it really that loud?”
“Yeah,” he said. “It really is.”
“Damn. I guess the shows in Buffalo and Syracuse have desensitized me. Doesn’t seem loud to me at all.” Of course, it could also be that when one is comatose, one tends to not hear noises, even fucked up loud ones. When he asked me to blink once for yes and twice for no, I knew it was time to go home and sleep for about three days.

Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that the local group 3 played Indiscipline with Stick Men that night. That was even louder, or so I’ve been told. I was leaning up against a wall and drooling on myself by that point in the show, completely oblivious to the onstage Armageddon taking place right before my bleary, half-closed eyes.


In case you’ve been wondering, and I’ll bet you haven’t been, I’ve been attempting to work during the midst of this whole East coast tour. Trying to show up and concentrate in my office, knowing that I would be back on the road with Michael by noon and getting home at 2am, created weird feelings of paranoid schizophrenia. The paranoia stemmed from the sleep deprivation, and the schizophrenia resulted from attempting to feign interest in my job while I’m doing a mental checklist all morning: What day is it? Where are we going today? Are we staying overnight? Did I pack the wrong shoes? What did I do with my underwear? Monday was no exception. Because I was leaving the office early to make the drives to these shows, I would get into the office at 7:30am or sometimes earlier. Tough to do on 4 hours of sleep, and I don’t really recommend it, unless you are 19 years old and a crack addict. I’m neither of those things. Anyway, Michael picked me up at noon in my office parking lot, and we began our drive to BB Kings in Manhattan.

BB Kings is situated in Times Square, an area of the city that is never not crowded and crawling with zombie people who find it hard to walk at a normal pace down a sidewalk. It’s also a really fun place to try to load in, with no parking anywhere remotely near the venue. After driving around in circles for a half an hour, trying to find a spot, we eventually dumped our stuff onto the sidewalk, and I guarded it until Michael found a parking garage three blocks away and ran back.

Stick Men were playing that night on a double bill with California Guitar Trio. If you’ve ever met them in person, you’ll know what I mean when I say their music fits their personalities to an absolute tee. They are the nicest, softest-spoken sweethearts I’ve ever met. My friend Shandana, who came to the show with me, confessed that she had a crush on every single one of them. “I love dorky awkward boys,” she said, as they opened the set. “They’re so sexy.”

Indeed, CGT’s music is, in a word, lovely. Challenging, but executed in such a gentle way that you don’t know you’re being challenged. An absolutely refreshing change if you’ve been hit over the head with mathletic algebra rock, and perfect music if you’re wide awake. Unfortunately, I wasn’t. Listening to CGT made me want to grab my wubby and curl up into a fetal position on stage with them. And when they busted out the Beethoven, forget about it. I felt horrible and guilty for wanting to drift off, and I feel a little horrible and guilty for admitting this in a public forum, but it truly is a compliment to CGT’s musicianship. I was just far to gone from sleep deprivation. I could have listened to them play all night. Tony sounded great when he joined them on stage, too.

If audience members were basing their assumptions on Stick Men on California Guitar Trio, they were in for an auditory shocker. In fact, I watched a few people get up and walk out during the set, holding their ears and shaking their heads. One gentleman sitting at the table next to ours held his fingers in his ears the whole time, and again, I wondered if I was slowly going deaf. And I was close to the speakers. Comic Book Guy, however, seemed to enjoy the show immensely. No fooling, a man sitting at the same table as Holding My Ears Guy struck an uncanny resemblance to Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons. As he bobbed his head along to “Soup”, I couldn’t help but imagine a thought bubble above his head that read, “Best. Concert. Ever.”

I took some video of CGT and Stick Men playing “Larks Tongue in Aspic”. It was cool. Comic Book Guy was right.



After driving 115 miles back home to Saugerties after the BB Kings show, we were stopped about a mile from home by an overzealous, bored town cop. “Where you headed,” he asked Michael, who was driving.
“Headed home from Manhattan. We live in Saugerties.”
“Oh yeah? What were you doing there?”
Michael pointed to the gear in the back. “Playing a show at BB Kings.”
“How much have you had to drink tonight?”
“Nothing,” replied Michael. Which was true. We hardly had time to pee and grab a slice of pizza, much less spend a lot of time getting hammered before he had to go on stage. Not something he does, anyway. It’s his job, after all.
“Oh REALLY? Is that so?”
I could tell Michael was getting edgy. It had been such a long night, and we were so tired and so very close to home. Getting stopped by a cop for no reason just seemed like an enormous kick in the balls.
“No, Officer. I haven’t had anything to drink.”
Supercop wouldn’t let up. “Because your eyes look kind of glassy.”
“I’m sure they do,” he replied. “I’ve been up since 6am this morning, and I’ve been in Manhattan for the past twelve hours. It’s 2 in the morning. I’m a little tired.”
The cop took Michael’s license and registration and proceeded to do whatever it is cops do for 20 minutes while you sit and sweat it out in your driver’s seat. Finally, he came back.
“I stopped you because your plate lamp is out. Take this to a mechanic,” he said while handing Michael a fix-it ticket, “have them replace the light then sign it, and then mail it in to the town court. This is minor, minor stuff.”
Minor stuff, indeed, unless it’s 2am and you’re fucking in PAIN from exhaustion and you still have to get up and go to work the next morning. We cursed Officer Fucktard’s name all the way back home and even as we crawled, already half-asleep, into our bed, we managed a couple more choice descriptive words for the cop who made it so we didn’t get to bed until 3am when we were hoping for 2:30. That half hour makes an enormous difference sometimes.

*Please don't ask him to do his Jeff Buckley imitation, or any other imitation, for that matter. He won't love it, and chances are, you'll end up getting named in my blog as "that clueless asshole who asked Michael to imitate Jeff Buckley".

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Stick Men Tour, part II: Buffalo

Few things in life bring me gleeful child-like joy like a music venue with seating. I won't go to shows anymore if I can't sit, especially if I'm wearing those hot black high-heeled boots that rarely see the light of day. So imagine my delight when Michael and I arrived at the Tralf in Buffalo, about an hour and a half ahead of schedule, natch, to find that the venue was filled with tables and seats and benches and bar stools and plenty of places for a lame-ass like me to cop a squat. It's one of those little things that keep me from climbing up to the roof of a tall building and opening fire.

But before we even set eyes on the Tralf, Michael and I wandered around an eerily empty Buffalo on a grey and greasy Saturday afternoon, wondering where the fuck everyone went. We found the venue straight away, which was situated on a street that can neither be driven down nor parked on. Finally, we took advantage of the ample free parking (thanks, apparent Ghost Town!) and proceeded to search for Chinese food. We never found it, despite wandering down every street in the area for an entire hour, and ended up settling at a pizza place that served luke-warm slices on way-too-thick crust and not enough sauce. I felt like I was back in the midwest and wondered at the fact that we seemed to find the one place in all of New York that managed to fuck up pizza.

Buffalo wasn't empty, after all. In fact, it was full of hard-luck homeless, rearing to pounce if you looked recently showered. One guy twitched his way up to our car and gave us the most long-winded, detailed story about his misfortune I'd ever heard. And I lived in San Francisco for a year.
"My dad kicked me out last month," said the 40ish homeless man, "and there's a YMCA down the block. Will you come with me and get me a room there?"
I would have stammered out some excuse about how I didn’t have any money but had plenty of Daddy issues if he wanted to hang out and compare notes, but Michael is a much nicer person than me, so he gathered up our car change and handed it to the man. He greedily scooped it up and wandered away without so much as a thank the opposite direction of the aforementioned YMCA.

We ended up driving on the sidewalk to get to the venue. A nice cop parked feet from the front door of the Tralf granted us permission to do so. I have video footage of us driving my Stratus down that sidewalk, something I've never done in my life, and I have to admit that it felt really good to do it. Kind of like a big old middle finger to everything we had been taught to avoid with an automobile. But the venue wasn't ready to receive us, so we pulled around to the rear and found a place to park near the Tralf's service entrance, and we waited for the okay to enter.

The Tralf is a nice place. It's tidy and spacious, and the manager and stagehands were incredibly helpful. They presented us with a veritable trough of beer (a Tralf-trough?) in the dressing room several hours before the show. After playing roughly 712 games of Mahjong (are you sensing my old lady-like pattern here?), I quickly changed in the dressing room bathroom and went out into the house, excited by both the huge stage and the opportunity to find a seat. Unfortunately, I waited too long to go out, and by the time I entered the house, it was filled to capacity...except for the completely empty, darkened balcony.

"Hey, do you mind if I sit up there," I asked the two guys at the sound board. They had seen me before. In fact, one of them helped pull gear out of the Stratus and hung out with me in the sluggish service elevator for 3 floors. But they didn't recognize me.
"I'm sorry, ma'am, but the balcony is closed."
I blinked for a couple of seconds, only because I couldn't believe that these guys I had seen and spoken to for the past five hours, since we arrived way too early at the venue, didn't seem to know who I was, all of a sudden-like.
"Okay, but I have this," presenting to them my Stick Men "All Access" official pass, and suddenly they seemed to remember that I had been hanging out at the venue for many, many hours.
"Oh. Okay. Go on up."
Maybe I clean up too well. I was scungey from the drive earlier, wearing a dirty and faded Sun Records teeshirt I picked up in Memphis about a decade ago, crusted with fast food. I had changed into the Hot Boots, put on a dress and smeared makeup on the luggage under my eyes. I can kind of understand how I could be unrecognizable, since I had somehow managed to achieve relative attractiveness in that dressing room bathroom, like an ersatz Clark Kent. But did he really have to call me “ma’am”? That’s just mean.

They eventually opened the balcony to a few more audience members, including two incredibly nice guys who kept me company at my table. They were apparently huge Pat Mastelotto fans, so we gushed for a while about the fact that Pat is not just a drummer. And he truly is much more than that. He’s an instrumentalist. All of that complicated equipment surrounding his kit, all of those blinking screens and gadgets mounted on stands, he uses every single one of them. I lost count how many patches I heard him use over the course of the weekend, my favorite being a chorus patch that sounds uncannily like Brian Wilson and the boys are singing on stage with Stick Men. Not to be left out of the bowing technique used by Tony and Michael, Pat bows his cymbals during “Slow Glide”. This is cool not only because it sounds cool, which it really does, but it’s cool because that means everyone on stage is bowing something. I’m all about theatrics. I grew up on the stage and have a degree in music performance from the University of Michigan (I studied opera). As much as I love to hear good music being played by amazing musicians, I also like things to look interesting on stage. I don’t mean that the boys need to start learning to do a triple time step while they play; I’m not into band choreography, but I like the visual aspect of watching Pat, Tony and Michael all doing the same thing, especially when it’s something as unexpected as bowing cymbals. I’m quirky like that.

See? I told you there would be a gushing screed on Pat! Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

The show at the Tralf was one of the best shows I’ve been to so far on the East coast tour. Not only because Stick Men sounded amazing, because they have been consistently amazing for a solid week now. The Tralf was my favorite because every single person I spoke to at the venue, from the promoter to the crew to the bartender to the audience members, was incredibly friendly. I have but two beefs with our experience in Buffalo (yeah, I know. It’s always something with me, isn’t it?):

1) One overzealous fan. I’ve been that fan in the past at shows, but it’s usually in a stadium where EVERYONE is an overzealous fan. The Tralf is different, and let this be a lesson to you, my loves: If you drank too much before the show, and you just have to stand and do the hippie dance while the musicians are playing, kindly take it to the back wall where you’re not obstructing anyone’s view of the performance or distracting the musicians on stage. Your enthusiasm is appreciated and noted, but standing at the front in a venue where the seating is all level and no one else is standing is rude. Not a big deal, but I’m a cynical bitch who hates everyone and has a very low tolerance for ridiculous behavior. Take everything I say with a grain of salt, or better yet, take everything I say with a pillar that used to be Lot’s wife (the Bible? Anyone? Why do I hear crickets chirping?).

2) When we got back the hotel at ass o’clock A.M., we were absolutely starving. Given that the only restaurants in the area were Applebee’s or TGI RubyHooters, we asked the front desk if there was a pizza place that delivered late. There was, and we ordered a large with black olives and jalapenos. We told it would be about 45 minutes. An hour later, I decided to call and check on the progress. Maybe they were having some trouble harvesting the wheat for the pizza crust flour, or perhaps the dairy cows weren’t cooperating. Maybe the olive shipment from Jerusalem was held up in customs. Who knows. Anyway, a very irritated employee answered the phone at the pizza joint. I try to be nice in situations like this. I’ve worked in food service and retail and it really fucking sucks. It sucks in epic proportions. "I placed an order for delivery an hour ago," I very sweetly explained, "and I was wondering if it would be arriving soon."
"SIGH. Where are you!?!"
"Um, I'm at the Millenium Hotel next to the Thruway exit."
"SIGH. Driver's already left. Don't know where he is. I'll have to call his cell."
"Oh. Okay, well, if it's not too much trouble, that would be great."
"SIGH. Hold on."
After a minute or two, she came back on the line and said, "SIGH. He should be there in ten minutes." Click.

Turns out, ten minutes in Buffalo is actually one hour. Two hours after we orded, our pizza arrived. We noticed that the box said, "We deliver until 4am." Apparently, that means that it doesn't matter when you order it, you're getting it at 4am.

Next stop, Bearsville Theatre, Woodstock...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Stick Men Tour, part I: Syracuse

Ah, the glamorous life of a rock star. You know, the loud music, the adoring fans, the free-flowing booze. Every night is an orgy of drugs and women and sex and bowls of peanut M&Ms with the brown ones painstakingly removed. We all watched the Motley Crue episode of “Behind the Music”.

Sure, those guys might have punched out a cop and did lines off of a hooker’s ass right before walking out on stage, but 80s hair metal played by 20 year old douchebags who wear eyeliner is quite different from being a middle-aged prog rocker. At least, that’s what I discovered over the weekend.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I first found out that Michael would be touring with his band, Stick Men, for five weeks in Europe. I mean, it should have been obvious what to expect. The band consists of Tony Levin, former bass player for everyone under the fucking sun, and Pat Mastelotto, drummer for everyone under the fucking sun and Tony’s King Crimson band mate. Tony is 63 and lives in a lovely house with his lovely wife in lovely upstate New York. Pat is 53 and lives just outside of Austin, Texas. And Michael, who is 35. He’s the youngest member of the band by a nearly 20 years, but he’s a self-described hermit who drives like an old man and is usually in bed by 10pm. Not someone I would consider a nutty, party-loving rock and roller. Tony and Michael play the Chapman Stick (a 12-string [6 guitar strings, 6 bass strings] instrument that looks somewhat like a guitar with no body and is usually tapped with the fingers instead of strummed or picked. It can also be bowed like a cello or violin, a technique that Michael himself pioneered) and their music is hardly what you would hear on the radio or at the local discotheque. Although technically considered “progressive rock” (or “nerd rock” as I like to call it), their music is more accessible and less alienating, I find, then some of the really PROGGY prog rock. Needless to say, girls aren’t throwing their frilly unmentionables wrapped around their hotel keys when Stick Men take the stage. You’ll most likely find 57 year old fat dudes with receding hairlines, wearing Crimson or Dream Theatre tee-shirts, denim jacket pockets stuffed with twelve-sided dice and calculators, at their concerts.

Still, Michael is hot. And he’s really talented, friendly and funny. So the deeply damaged part of me worried about what things would be like in Europe, if the women there were more sophisticated than here in the states, and amazingly he would find himself surrounded by prog rock groupies getting all hot and bothered after hearing “Lark’s Tongue in Aspic” or anything played in a time signature of 9. And five weeks is a long to time to be away from home, and it gets lonely out there on the road, and blah blah blah my own insecurities. It took about 6 days for me to realize just what it was really like for Michael overseas: Endless van rides and questionable hotel rooms with no WIFI and nothing a vegetarian can eat and sleep deprivation and homesickness and, in Michael’s case, illness in Portugal and a shattered tooth in Germany. I saw hundreds of pictures of Europe, many were crowd shots taken from the stage during a show. I think I counted about a dozen women total, and most of them looked VERY reluctant to be there.

Over the weekend, I got to experience what a Stick Men tour is like, albeit on a much smaller scale than the grueling 30-odd shows over 37 days European tour. I feel extremely edified and extremely stupid for ever being concerned about the idea of Michael being on the road.

The first show on the East coast tour was in Syracuse last Friday. I left work early, and we hit the road at 11am so we could make a 3pm load-in and sound check at the venue. Unfortunately, the excitement I felt earlier about getting out of Saugerties for the weekend, going on a roadtrip with Michael (one of my favorite things to do in the whole world) and getting to see him play live again was shattered on Thursday night, when I developed severe lower back pain. I had experienced something similar back in October, which resulted in a midnight trip to the ER and a serious kidney infection that required a strong antibiotic and pain medication. I spent Thursday night before our trip to Syracuse wide awake with pain, struggling to find a position on the couch that didn’t feel like someone was skewering me with sharpened bamboo and cursing the universe for laying this shit on me right before going on a trip I had been excited about for weeks. I had to make a difficult and potentially dangerous decision that night: Stay home and seek medical treatment, or gird my loins and make the trip. Ultimately, I did the stupid thing and decided to go and have a fun weekend if it fucking killed me.

After a completely sleepless night, I managed to muscle my way through a 30 minute drive to work and arrived stupid early in the morning. Luckily, one of my co-workers is a pharmacy in high heels and gave me a fist full of Tramadol and muscle relaxers for the road. They helped. A lot. I found that the Tramadol made me slightly nauseous and inexplicably itchy, but delightfully giggly and amiable. Michael was a useful distraction, too, and we wiled away the three hour drive, exploring forgotten inside jokes, making fart noises, hurling expletives at other drivers and speculating on what people would think of us if they ever heard one of our typical conversations. Before we knew it, we were dropping our bags off at the hotel room and heading off to the venue.

We were early. We are always early. Michael has a thing about it. The Lost Horizon in Syracuse is a little rock club located in a largely industrial and commercial part of town, hardly the type of environs you would expect to feature live music. Conveniently, it was also located next door to a strip club called Paradise Lost, with a neon sign in front that stated it was a “tlemen’s club”. We spend a lot of time trying to suss out what a “tlemen” was, but whatever they are, they seem to wear a lot of Hawaiian shirts and don’t have day jobs. It takes Michael about 15 minutes to set up and plug in, while it takes Tony about 30 minutes and Pat a whopping hour and change. Dude’s got a lot of shit. Acoustic drums and patches and doo dads and screens that light up and blink and shiny objects that you can bang on other shiny objects and all sorts of crap. I sat on a couch with questionable stains in the back, nursing my throbbing kidney and playing Mahjong on Michael’s laptop, attempting to not slip into a coma from being awake for 32 hours straight. Fortunately, Stick Men like to play loud, so sound check kept me alert.

We managed about an hour and a half at the hotel before the show for a quick shower and change. One of the perks of touring is the hotel shower. At home, Michael and I race through a three minute rushed scrubbing, because 2 and a half minutes after we turn the water on, it’s ice cold. I can’t remember the last time I lingered in the shower with the hot water cranked to the point of almost being unbearable, feeling like built-up layers of road grunge and club grime and car sweat were peeling away to reveal real flesh underneath. My Silkwood shower was great. I almost ran a bath right afterwards, something else we can’t do at home, just because I could.

Back at the venue, we skulked around in dark corners for a while, nursing vodka, while an opener played, until it was time for Michael to do mandatory band bonding before going out on stage, and I muscled my way to the front. I picked a spot right in front of Michael so I could get some good shots, which was great, except that I realized I was inches away from a wall of pulsating house speakers. Stick Men play LOUD. And they should, because if it wasn't, it wouldn’t be right. Something would be missing. Their music is so densely layered with sound upon sound, tone rubbing up against tone, it has to be loud so the audience can at least start to comprehend how much is going on in every song. And chances are, unless they come to multiple shows, they’re still going to miss things. I love music like that. I love discovering nuances that I didn’t hear the first time around. I like surprises.

The last time I heard Stick Men play live was back in January, when they opened for Eddie Jobson's group UKZ at Town Hall in Manhattan. They were good then. Before that, they spent a week at a percussion festival in Poland, and I saw multiple videos of them performing. They were good then, too. On Friday night, when I heard them in Syracuse, they were a different band. The long European tour had morphed Michael, Tony and Pat into a three-headed rock monster, alternating between completely blowing my mind and eardrums with bombastism and ethereal beauty. They opened with "Welcome", a song from from Tony Levin's album "Stick Man", a brisk chunka-chunka piece, followed by the mellower, melodic "Sasquatch". "Sasquatch" was originally recordered for Michael's home-produced solo album and has taken on a different life as a Stick Men collaboration, and for years has been one of my favorites of Michael's.

But what really jumps in boo-boo, as Patton Oswalt would say, is bowed stick. There's just something about the sound of the bow sliding across the strings that tugs on me. I've often joked with Michael that bowing makes me feel feelings. And it's subversive. Strings on a Chapman stick are meant to be tapped, but one of the reasons why Michael is a musical innovator is because he isn't interested in what the stick was created for. He's interested on doing incredibly cool stuff on it, even if he has to get out a bow or a guitar slide or a spoon or a hammer. That's sexy to me. So when Tony and Michael break out the bows during "Slow Glide", another song off of Tony's "Stick Man" album, I like to stop watching them and start watching the audience. They never expect it, and they never fail to look delighted. They like surprises, too.

(Speaking of constant surprises, and I didn't realize this until the second show, but Pat never plays the same thing twice, another reason to love Stick Men. But I'm saving my long and gushy disseration on why I heart Pat Mastelotto's drumming for another blog, lest I run out of things to say later.)

A lot of people haven't learned yet that Michael that is actually an amazing vocalist. I love singing with him. In fact, he's got a song we wrote called "Central Park" posted on his myspace and facebook profiles (it's not even a little bit proggy). While I love hearing him speak Adrian Belew's part in "Indiscipline", and I get a kick out of hearing his "Cookie Monster" voice in the tune "Sleep is Wrong" (written by the band Sleepytime Gorilla Museum), I long for the days when Michael will at last be able to SING with Stick Men and not singspiel his way through a couple of noisy tunes. But I digest.

After three encores, Stick Men went out into the house for a sign-and-schmooze with the fans. I stood back and observed dozens of people line up to get Michael's autograph and to talk shop with him. Watching fans fawn over him is a surreal experience, given that I live with the man. There were times when I was overcome with urges to walk up to the dudes in line and whisper into their ears, "hey, did you know he farts in his sleep like everyone else?" God, he's going to kill me for posting that. Eh, what the hell.

I eventually gave up on fan-watching and retired to the outside to sneak a dirty, sinful cigarette. While I sat on the stairs, watching "tlemen" drift in and out of the strip club next door, I was approached by an audience member. "Hey," he said to me. "Why didn't you get his autograph?"
"Why didn't you get Michael Bernier's autograph? I saw you standing nearby but then you walked away."
I chuckled. "I don't need his autograph. He's my boyfriend."
"Oh," he exclaimed. "Congratulations!!"
"Um, thanks."
I was hoping that would be the end of it. I'm no good at small talk, and I felt a little uncomfortable with the concept of getting congratulated for being someone's boyfriend. But he continued with the inappropriate commentary.
"Hope he gets paid well," he said. Clearly he never received the memo that says it's tactless to delve into a complete strangers' personal financial situation.
"We do okay," I replied, hoping that would shut things down.
"Well, whatever he gets paid, it's not enough."
"Yeah. Tomorrow, I'm writing an angry letter!"
He exploded with way too much laughter.
"You're a funny girl!! Hahahaha!!!" Thankfully, he walked away, much to my relief. It was to be the first of lots of inappropriate behavior I would witness over the weekend.

Never in my life have I been congratulated on being someone's girlfriend. I was tempted to respond that Michael's pretty damn lucky, too, considering that I'm fucking awesome, but in spite of the awkward manner in which it was stated, I actually do feel pretty lucky to be Michael's girlfriend. But not Michael the Stick Man. I'm lucky to be his girlfriend because of Michael, the man; Michael, the father; Michael, the friend. Michael, the person who makes dinner for me at night after I've worked all day. Michael, the helper who tucks my seven year old daughter into bed when I have a boss-induced migraine. Michael, the superhero who can conquer piles of dishes and laundry and then put new brakes in my car. Michael, the co-conspirator who writes hilarious comedy sketches with me. Michael, the masseuse and back-scratcher. Michael, the guy who gets me. Michael, the passionate musician and artist who never does ANYTHING halfway. For a thousand reasons a random fan could never understand, I am very lucky.

And with that, I promise to keep my gushing to a reasonable minimum in the future.

Coming up, part II: Buffalo