Pumps a-Dangle

Posted: November 11, 2013 in Visions

I am a sensualist. Admittedly, when I hear a guy say how sensual he is, it sounds either creepy, slightly gay, or both. That’s not, strictly speaking, what I’m saying.

What I mean is that my attention can be arrested, distracted, derailed by any one sense over another. The sight of a perfect curve, a slant of light, a color palette I’ve never seen before or in that specific context, the unbroken perfection of the line leading from toe, across ankle, over knee and across thigh and torso and neck and smile and silhouetted profile: all of these visions and many more can halt me in my tracks or thoughts and stimulate pure appreciation of the moment.

Likewise an unusual sound, or a familiar one in a new context, can give me pause while I decipher its source or familiarity. A faint throb of music I should recognize but can’t without stopping and damming all other inputs, temporarily; a late night eighteen wheeler bleeding its brakes three streets over, its only competition my own boot heels on my own abandoned way, listening as its gears climb back to full speed; a sigh of contentment or of passion from one that I love, reverberating forever down to my future self, now and for all time the measure I use for all such encounters.

Smell, too, can do it. The hollow of her collar bone, (or is it from her hair’s passage there?), or piles of fall leaves, or home cooking – mine or another’s – or snow. Its memory as evocative or more as the others; it once stopped me in a crowded airport, sure that I’d see her near, and that the spicy fragrance I’d just passed through had to be hers…

Touch can vary at least as greatly as its mates. Feathery light, walking through a spider web, her touch tracing unseen ley lines across my skin. Gripped tightly, in anger, in urgency, in heat. Smacked hard against the rail or into my fist when a favorite loud song crashes against me, stinging high five after a score or an encore that won’t be forgotten, ever, until the next one.

And taste – impossible to forget. The bite of sriracha, the soothing cool of clear water on a warm day, her unclothed heat, varying along with its tastes depending on where its sampled, the strawberry’s sweet tang and the peach’s thick, nectary sublimity.

Knowing I’m not the only person to appreciate such alerts, such natural notifications and pop ups, but fancying that I can and do appreciate them more intensely and more frequently than the average. Kidding myself that such is one of the many signs that prove my artistic nature, well hidden though it may sometimes be.

Nothing confirms all of that for me, or better represents such sensibilities, as noticing a woman’s shoe penduluming precariously on the end of her foot, metronoming a rhythym only she can hear, the shiny high heeled piece of functional art forever seeming like it has to fall at any moment, but always swinging back into place, defying physics at the same time it affirms the simple beauty of the curvilinear – both alive and not. The shape of the shoe mirroring that of her foot itself, no straight line to mar either curve’s perfection.

Perhaps what makes it so achingly, distractingly beautiful to me is the sheer unconsciousness of its grace. Will she ever know the effect such a simple, thoughtless gesture can have?

Whether or not intentional, conscious on un-, such a perfect, sensual image – bright or dark pumps a-dangle beneath the desk or table or just my gaze – will stay with me, and will become my new barometer for incidental beauty and art and grace. Until the next time.

The day started like many other days on the road. Awakening in a tier 2 or 3 motel, too early to be good, discovering which essential tool or product I’d forgotten to pack and adjusting the morning routine accordingly. This trip I seem to have lost the prescription eye drops that combat the pollen that’s been mysteriously plaguing me of late; I’d always assumed cold weather and pollen don’t mix, but apparently I was mistaken. I could use a blast right about now, too. Oh, well. They can be replaced on the other end.

Gray, wintry day, as cold on the inside as it looks to be through the dirty window. Industrial part of the city, not much color, even the potential romance of the snow drifts lessened by their dingy, days-old gray pallor.

Putting the bag into the car before breakfast, I notice behind car next to me a familiar tiny white bottle. My eye drops! Must have fallen when I pulled the keys out the night before. And here they sat, all night long, in the wind and the rain and the general hubbub of the parking lot, only to be recovered hours after they’d been dropped. ‘Hm,” I thought. ‘Maybe a good omen?’

Looking back on this day, that was just the first, small example of the kind of luck I’d experience and observe.

A forgettable breakfast, then into the rental and off to the first (today’s only) meeting, thoughts of the long trip home buoying my spirits considerably. I’d had to extend what should have been a quick overnight trip into a muti-nighter, and I was looking forward to getting back to my daughter. “Miss you, Dad…” she’d said, that mix of sincerity and insouciance that can only be mastered by high school teens shading her words. “Me, too, sweets. Won’t be long now though!”

The meeting went well – better, in fact, than the one I’d originally traveled for. The players had been receptive, had asked good questions, and expressed eagerness and enthusiasm to work with us. I left feeling like staying over had probably been worth it.

Checking the sky as I left their building, I saw that the gray skies had darkened, puffed full with predicted snow, a storm they were already calling “The Snowquester.” Clever, but threatening enough that I’d made alternate arrangements to get home, not wanting to get stranded for days on top of the already too-long trip. Instead of flying out of NJ late in the day – about the time the snow was due to arrive in force – I’d arranged to take the train from the Newark airport to Philadelphia and catch an earlier flight back to Atlanta. Part of me recognized that the logistics involved in dropping the car, finding the train station and getting to Philly in time to make that flight, were fraught with opportunities for hassle and stress, not to mention the possibilities that at any given point during the day the plan could be derailed completely and new arrangements required. For the most part, though, I was looking forward to the change of pace, and of transport, and thought that it might be an interesting way to spend a day.

My phone talked me all the way into the airport from the wilds of New Jersey, and I returned the car with no trouble. There was nobody in line at the counter, so I made a quick change to the bill and asked the attendant if they’d ever taken the train from Newark to Philly. “I haven’t,” she said, “but I think William has.” She stepped to the side and called out to the lot attendant. “Will, you’ve ridden the Amtrak to Philly from here, haven’t you?”

“Sure, lots of times. C’mon over here.” He gave me some tips on how to get to the station, and said he loved the ride – made it several times a year.

His tips and directions were as good as his word, and I got to the train station with time to spare.

Getting in line for the tickets made me feel like I was in a b&w movie from the 40’s – I was Powell’s Thin Man, or Bing Crosby in White Christmas. Lots of stamping and timetables and huge luggage carts trundling past with good-spirited high energy.

I was behind several others waiting to get tickets when I noticed a kiosk a few steps away. A quick swipe of the credit card, a few touches on the screen and I heard the ticket chittering out. Considering how well the day was going I even sprung the extra $15 for the Business Class upgrade. What did that entail? No idea, but for $15 it sounded like it was worth a try.

I saw that I had plenty of time to grab something to eat for the train ride, so as I approached the ticket lady I said, aloud, for no reason at all – why would she care? – “I’m gonna grab something to eat back in the airport terminal before we board,” and turned away.

“Sir?” She shouted as I hurried in the opposite direction. “Don’t get off at the first stop – you’ll have to go through security again to get to the food. Either of the next two stops have some pretty good choices.”

Thanking her, and glad I’d blurted my plans, I took her advice and was back on the platform in plenty of time to board.

Even so, I almost missed the train when I couldn’t find the Business Class car entrance. The train pulled in, everyone rushed onto the train, and before I found it all the doors began closing. ‘Great,’ I thought. ‘This is it – the point where the day unravels and I have to change everything again if I ever want to get home…’

I was the last person on the platform, wondering what to do next, when the conductor jumped off four or five cars up. “You coming to Philly, or not?”

“Yes! I didn’t know where to get on for Business Class!”

“You get on anywhere and THEN find your car! C’mon, man, we got a schedule to keep!”

He punched a button and the door in front of me slid open.

And then, I swear, he shouted with a stentorian roar that carried the length of the platform and likely all the way back to the ticket counter,

“All aboard!”

I found Business Class and I was glad I’d spent the extra for the upgrade. Seats a little bigger, tables for spreading out, free WiFi – what’s not to like?

And I liked the way the horn sounded when they blew it. I liked it a lot.

I started to catch up on emails and other work but the rocking and the clatter of the tracks, the wintry scenery whipping by outside the window, kept me from paying attention. ‘Trains are great for thinking long thoughts,’ I said to myself. And proceeded to prove myself right.

I plugged in some new music, trusting to shuffle to do me right, as usual, and pondered.

The band was a new one for me: Whitehorse. Their combination of stripped back, one-guitar rock and the simple harmonies of the main guy & girl couldn’t have fit better with the rhythm of the train car. Song after song matched the ride, my thoughts and my ever-lightening mood. This really was turning into an interesting day.

Right about then I thought a quick snooze would be nice so I set my alarm for an hour hence. Just to be safe, I pulled up the train’s timetable. The board back at the station said it was a two hour trip, so I was pretty sure I’d be ok, but the timetable showed us pulling into Philly ONE hour after leaving NJ, giving me only about 20 minutes before we arrived. No nap for me, but better than sleeping through my stop.

Hurrying off in Philly (that conductor was right – they kept to their schedule, all right, taking off before I even had both feet on the platform) I emerged into the Old World splendor of the Philadelphia train station. Beaux Arts? Art Deco? I don’t know – but I do know it was cavernous and echo-y and burnished brass beauty at every turn. I spun around on my heels like a tourist, and saw I wasn’t the only one fumbling their phone out for a picture or two. How often in today’s breakneck-paced travel arenas do we get to pass through such a wonder? Not nearly often enough.

Stepping outside into the wind of a rainy Philadelphian street and into the cab line, face pocked with the first tiny crystals of snow getting to town just as I did was enough to dispel the time-travel fantasy of the station. Although I was about tenth in line, both cabbies and the lady at the curb had their drill down, and woe be the person not paying attention.

“NEXT, I said, or I’m giving it away!” she yelled at the lady in front of me. “You come on, too – I got one for ya…”

My cabbie was just talkative enough, and was glad to get the run to the airport. “I been waiting all morning for a ride to the airport! All these short ones on a rainy day like this take forever.”

With the weather coming in, he said, it may take us a little longer, but I’d still have plenty of time to get through security and to the gate.

In almost no time we were exiting and pulling to the curb at the airport. “I can’t remember when I’ve made it that quick from the station to the airport, even on a sunny day! That one-lane bridge usually ties me up for twenty minutes, and we just sailed on over…”

I laughed and tipped him more than I should have, and hurried off for the next queue.

The line for security checks was long. Long enough to make me wonder if THIS was the hurdle that would trip me up and overturn all my plans.

A few passengers behind me was a small group of twenty-somethings, judging by their accents from the city. The TSA agent at the entrance to the turnstiles shouted at nobody in particular, “The lines at the B gates are a lot quicka!”

One of the twenty-somethings said in a good-natured Tony Soprano voice that I won’t try to duplicate here, “That’s on the other side of the airport, right?”

“Yeah,” the agent agreed.

“So how do YOU know how fast it is? Can you see that far from here? Cause I can’t.”

All this was said lightly, no challenge or bravado or anything but a smart kid asking a good question. I wasn’t the only one who caught the exchange, or who laughed.

His buddy said, “Maybe he’s right – I’m goin’ over to B.”

First guy: “I’ll be through security and having a drink before you even get over there.”

Second guy: “Oh, yeah? How much money you got?”

First guy: “None! You said you was paying for this vacation!”

This went on for a while longer, and before I knew it I was near the front of the line.

Two families were in front of me. ‘Great,’ I thought – what do they tell you? Never get behind families or novice travelers when you’re in a hurry.

The first was a family of three, the parents and a little girl still small enough to ride in her father’s arms. I could tell the TSA agent checking boarding passes and IDs was nearing the end of her shift, and that judging from her posture she’d probably handled traffic like this all day. I crossed my fingers that she’d rise to the occasion; I could tell the girl was a little nervous.

When she looked up and saw that the small family was next you’d have thought they were the first and only people she’d helped that day. A gorgeous, sunny smile let her face and she spoke only to the little girl, all while expertly checking passes and licenses and making marks where marks were needed. By the time they left the stand the girl had wriggled from her dad’s arms and was helping at the tray station.

But the most impressive sight of what was turning into a pretty great day was just ahead.

The mom and dad were about my age, maybe a little younger. Five – yes FIVE – little girls were with them, the oldest maybe 12 and the youngest able to walk but riding in a stroller for now. Beautiful blond hair bound in five different but equally intricate ways, all were snapshots of their mom at different stages, and everyone was smiling.

Dad handled all of the passes and IDs, but it was Mom who ran this part of the show.

“Girls!” Not loud, but firm, and kind of fun-sounding – they were all still smiling, anyway – and the five lined up next to the steel counter like soldiers.

“Heads-up!” and the mom rocketed six of the gray plastic bins down the metal counter – one right after the other. Each of the girls caught theirs, and the last one got an extra. She helped the smallest off with her coat and began helping the others pile their stuff into the bins. “No shoes, right, Mom?”

“Right, sweetie!” A quick questioning glance over her shoulder at the same TSA agent, who was smiling just as broadly. “That’s right, ma’am – the kids can leave their shoes on.”

A chorus of “Yay”s and they were almost through.

Inexplicably, one of the girls got tagged for a random hand swab test. This temporary hiccup threatened her calm demeanor only for a second. (I was piling all of my stuff into my own bins at this point, trying to see what was happening with them. I was about to offer my help with the bins, as if it were needed, but purposely held back. I could tell this was something they not only didn’t need any help with, but that they took a sort of unconscious pride in being able to do on their own, as a unit.)

Again, their new TSA agent rose to the occasion, explaining what she was doing and why, and asking all the girls, now surrounding the agent in a circle of descending height, “And where are we off to today, ladies?”

“FLORIDAAAAAA!” they all shouted, and she was done.

“Have fun!”

And off this amazing family went, practically skipping to the gate, having navigated the security checkpoint with more efficiency and style than any one of us solo, so-called “expert” travelers could ever hope to mimic.

My now practically magical day wasn’t over yet, however.

I boarded the plane for the almost three hour flight and found myself in a row alone. Sweet.

Just across from me were two extremely tired-looking parents and their three boys. ‘What is it with the families I’m seeing today?’ I thought. ‘What are they trying to tell me, other than to make me miss my own?’

The boys were about nine months old, maybe three and five. The oldest was sleeping – stayed that way for the entire flight – the youngest was squirmy but happy, oscillating between Mom and Dad depending on who had the freest hands at the time, and the middle boy was obviously on an adventure, pointing and looking out the window, cheering when we took off and whenever we hit any turbulence.

And they were French.

To hear baby-talk in another language is even cuter to me than when it can be (somewhat) understood. A surprising amount didn’t need to be translated – tone of voice is nearly universal. The mom snuggling her face into the baby’s neck and making nonsense sounds could be nothing else but the Gallic equivalent of, “Who’s my favorite boy?” “Who loves you, baby?” and just plain nonsensical sing-song.

They must have been ten hours or more into the long trip, judging by the parents’ expressions. Still, at no point did anyone raise their voices, curse in French, yank anyone’s arm, or otherwise get stern with them. They didn’t need to. Again, their sense of teamwork was palpable, and at one point I observed the dad holding his smallest son in one hand while putting a shoe on another sleeping boy while the mother gently rubbed the back of the oldest, saying (again, no translation needed), “wake up, my love, we’re here. Come on, time to get ready…” When he woke was the closest any of them came to showing any crankiness, and I could tell it was because he could not see where his father and brother were – in the seat behind him, out of view.

“PaPA? PaPA?”

His father peeked between the seats, still securing the shoe and rubbing the baby’s back, said a few funny words. The tension drained from the older boy and he let his mom put his coat on, rubbed his eyes, and settled in for landing.

I did offer to help them once we landed – how could you not, with Dad’s arms full of baby and Mom trying to herd her two oldest – by getting some of their overhead stuff down for them, but once they had a good grip on everything and everyone they were fine. Tired, ready to be wherever it was they were going, but otherwise and overall, just fine.

Off the plane, to the parking lot – where I’d forgotten I’d found a really close parking spot – practically right outside of the sliding doors of the terminal – and onto the highway for the 45 minute ride to my daughter and home.

I made it in 30 minutes. Almost no traffic, even though it still technically should have been the tail-end of Atlanta rush hour.

My girl had stayed with my parents, who live close to us. When I got there I got an even better surprise – which at this point didn’t surprise me at all.

“Why don’t we go out to dinner?”

So as I sat in one of our favorite places for dinner, at the other end of the day, with my parents and my daughter, still early enough in the day that I knew we’d all get a good night’s sleep that night, I told them about some of the highlights of my day. Not all of them – I didn’t realize how many there truly were until I stopped and thought about them all – but the various families I saw, and the guys in line at the Philly airport, and almost missing the train, for sure.

How could so many things, for once (it seemed), all go so RIGHT instead of so wrong?

The closest thing I can compare it to is when Harry Potter drank the Felix Felicis potion in The Half-blood Prince. He couldn’t explain it, he just felt really, really good, and every decision he made – big or small – even the ones that seemed to make no sense or that ran counter to whatever it was he was trying to do – just worked out for the best.

That’s the kind of day I had, too.

It felt like I was riding just behind a bow-wave of positivity, of good luck, good vibes, sunshine and happiness, whatever you want to call it, and that I knew it – I recognized that things were not only going right, but that they’d continue to do so for as long as I could ride that wave.

I told my daughter later that one of the best things about that very good day was that I recognized about halfway through that it was happening. Not what was happening, just that something special was going on, and I acknowledged that fact. I was aware, and even observing these vignettes showing how good things can be I knew I was observing them, and that they were rare, and that not everyone is lucky enough to know when such rare occurrences are, in fact, occurring. I think – just speculating, here – that noticing that what was happening, was really happening, made it more likely that it would continue to happen.

But I was more than just a passive observer. At several key points in the day, when in all likelihood I would have otherwise stayed silent and gone about the day’s business, I chose instead to interact with someone. Whether by saving me time at lunch (“Don’t get off at that first stop…”) or helping me find the train station, the near-perfect day I had could have been knocked off its rails at any of a hundred different points – but it wasn’t. Something kept it running true, and sometimes that something was me.

Before I start sounding all Zen and the Art of Noticing What’s Noticeable, I’ll wrap this up by saying that it was a truly special day, one that I feel lucky to have been a part of, and even luckier to have noticed, partially understood, and totally appreciated.

Can’t wait for the next one.

I really did like the way that horn sounded.

I don’t usually talk politics in this space, and may not ever do so again – who knows? But after voting today, and after watching what’s been going on for the last year or more, I felt like I had to collect my thoughts and record them. Let the heated responses commence!

Just got back from voting.

I promised myself that I wasn’t going to go off on any more political rants, and I’m just as ready as the rest of you for this whole drawn out process to be over, but coming home from the polls all I kept thinking about was this:

“How can so many of my friends, FB and others, most of whom I’ve known, loved and respected for years, be so strongly – sometimes militantly so – for Romney?”

These are people that I’ve worked and played with, and who are in all other respects very intelligent and responsible people, and I just don’t understand how they can’t or won’t see what has been patently obvious to me for years:

Mitt Romney doesn’t care about you. Or “us.” Or anyone except his own family and (maybe) the other 1%-r’s.

I don’t think he’s evil, or that he has a plan to ruin the US, or that he’d ever do so intentionally. But I do believe that there’s never been anyone as out of touch with America and its ideals in the history of our politics as Mitt Romney.

I can only claim membership in one of these demographics, but I am baffled that any of them would even consider voting Romney:

  • Women – of any age, race, or socio-economic status. Maybe neither Romney nor Ryan have themselves said anything outright about the definition of rape or how the female body works, like the handful of ignorant men in their party have felt the need to do, but they (and the tea baggers, Republicans and the rest of the Right) still support those ignoramuses. In some cases, Romney/Ryan still endorses them for re-election. There could not be a more personal, more private topic than the reproductive rights of women, and making such decisions – and acknowledging the consequences as those women understand and believe them to be – is the sole responsibility of the woman affected by them. Any woman anywhere voting to give that power to anyone else – especially to a group like the GOP / Tea Party – astounds me.
  • Christians (of any denomination except Mormonism) – when did it become OK for what is known to be a weird, cultish group like the Mormons to have a representative in the highest office in the land? This is a group who believes that God lives on a planet called Kolob, itself a planet that was discovered by prophets who bound two magic “seer stones” into a pair of spectacles. That’s only one of a long series of extremely strange beliefs espoused by the Mormons and their founders. (Magic underwear anyone?) So how does the far Right, the Tea Party, the evangelical Christian parties, all go from condemning things like idol worship and cult activity to embracing such ideology, or to at least tolerating it? Part of me thinks it’s more a case of “well, anyone would be better than the current President…” but that’s another whole debate and article. I know if that sort of thing were as important to me as it appears to have always been for the Christian Right, I wouldn’t consider Romney or the Mormons for any powerful political office at all.
  • Older Americans – say what you want about Obamacare, if one of the “first things” Romney and Ryan want to do if elected is to dismantle it, Medicare and Medicaid are going away. (I, for one, don’t mind paying a little more as a percentage than I used to if it means more people have medical coverage than did before.) There’s no math in the universe that allows for any of Romney’s fiscal plans to work without raising taxes and/or making deep cuts, and the likelihood that any of those cuts will be from the military is as small as the overall percentage of the budget represented by PBS. If any of the so-called 1% – if even .001% of them – paid the tiniest fraction more in taxes than they’re paying now or have paid in the last decade or so, many of these problems would begin fixing themselves (and the 1% would never even feel that slight increase.) Under Romney that will never, ever happen.
  • Minorities – not much to say here, and I honestly don’t believe there are many Romney supporters in these groups. But I’ve seen a few shills coming out in support of them, or in opposition to the Dems, and even when I know it’s staged it’s baffling to me.
  • Working Class / Middle Class – see above re: taxes and spending.

All of this is just the tip of the iceberg for me on why a Romney presidency would be disastrous for the country. Here are a few more reasons:

Given a handful of opportunities to show us how he’d handle foreign affairs, Romney has muffed each one magnificently. Not only has he blown it in every case, it’s been obvious that he didn’t realize at the time that he’d done anything wrong. That’s because he treats other world leaders and representatives like he treats everyone else, including us: as underlings. And everyone else is, in his mind, beneath him. So he treats those foreign leaders and their representatives like his employees – he talks down to them and doesn’t for a second consider how his words may be (mis)interpreted. He has no diplomatic skills, and doesn’t understand why that is, so he will never get better and will never come across as sincere to any of them.

Taking a “tough stance” with the rest of the world, a la George W, is not the answer to our or the world’s problems, in the Middle East or anywhere else. It’s true, we can’t appear weak in anyone’s eyes, but that doesn’t mean those are the only two choices. W frittered away nearly 60 years of international good will in his relatively short time in office; from the end of WWII to the beginning of his term the majority of the rest of the world held the US in high regard, and would by and large listen to what we recommended and would follow our lead. After Bush and his cabal ran roughshod over everyone – again, us included – it will take decades to win back much of that good will. The so-called “apology tour,” which really didn’t happen, needs to happen but not with “apology” as the sole reason for such a tour. Other countries need to see and to believe that we’re not the blustering bully on the block, and that (as Bush seemed to intimate often) “if you’re not for us your against us, and woe be to you if you’re against us.” Arguing from that position makes us what we can no longer afford to be: the world’s traffic cop, and the ones that “have to” go in and use military force to settle arguments anywhere and everywhere.

The two wars that began under Bush and that have claimed thousands of lives and untold trillions of dollars are the main reason that the economy has struggled and continues to struggle. We can’t afford – in lives or in dollars – to spin up a couple of more. Romney’s saber rattling over Iran, Syria, Pakistan and anywhere else scares me as much as any of his domestic plans do, if not more.

What it all comes down to for me is this: who do I believe? Who is more sincere when they say that their plan, what they want more than anything, is to make life better for as many Americans as possible?

It’s not Romney.

The simpering, pandering tilt of the head and the softer vocal delivery changes of the last few months couldn’t be more insulting. Someone obviously told him he wasn’t coming across as warm and friendly and believable, and that’s as close as he can get to showing any of those traits. And it’s one thing to change your mind or your position on something because you’ve seen new information or you have actually changed your mind. But in every instance of Romney changing his stance on key issues like abortion and health care and taxes and almost anything else on the agenda, it’s been glaringly obvious that he’s done it only to try to convince more people to vote for him, not because it’s what he (now) believes.

I don’t believe anything he or his running mate say, and what’s more, in most cases I no longer believe that they believe it themselves. They do believe that the majority of us are too uninformed or unaware to notice their insincerity and misdirection.

Romney moves in circles that most of us never see, even in all of the over-glammed TV shows and movies that portray the super-rich lifestyle. We’ll never come close to that rarefied air, and he can’t relate to anyone that doesn’t breathe it regularly. He never will. From hearing him talk about the hobby horse his wife keeps for dressage competitions, to hearing him when he meets an unusually tall person on the campaign trail (“Wow! You’re really tall! I’ll bet you went in for sport!” Who talks like that??) he is not one of us. He can’t and never will be, and for him to pretend otherwise or that he has our interests as his first priority is demeaning.

I know the other side plays the game, too, and that the election (or re-election) toolbox is full of things employed by both sides. Spin will always be spin, and staged events and Q&A will always be present. I know that we have many other, deeper problems with our government like the preponderance of lobbyists, the ineffectiveness of Congress (its glee at foiling the other side, no matter what may be best for the country; its near constant state of campaigning; its omnipresent promise of “campaign reform,” which is like asking the foxes how many of them should guard the chicken coop; and on and on and on), and the absurdity of rulings like Citizens United, allowing unlimited and unaccountable funding for anyone who can afford to set up a PAC, “spooky” or otherwise (I’m looking at you, Rove.) Even having the most-watched news channel consist not of news, but of one person’s and one parties’ opinions, for all intents and purposes being GOP Campaign Headquarters, and passing that off as factual, as News. All of these things have to change or else.

For over 235 years we’ve had the best, strongest and most elastic form of government the world has ever seen, and I fully expect it to continue no matter who is elected. I said earlier that a Romney presidency would be “disastrous” and I believe that. But it won’t be the end for the US. I believe that any economic recovery that we’ve seen recently will evaporate, that we’ll become embroiled in more world conflict if not outright war, and that the gap between the ultra-wealthy and the rest of us – greater now than it’s ever been in history – will only widen if Romney is president. But we’ll survive.

I also believe that the only chance we have of a speedier recovery, a more collaborative relationship with rational and cooperative world partners, and a more productive and better-off middle class – and a better chance at a decent future for our kids, and their kids, in perpetuity – is to make sure Obama is elected.

Obama has done, and not done, plenty of things I haven’t agreed with over the last four years. But I’ve seen more that I do believe in, and more that gives me hope for our future – all of our futures – than I’ve ever seen in any plan of Romney or Ryan.

I like that Obama has been able to activate and motivate the younger voters across the country, and I’m very proud of the fact that my 20 year old daughter and her friends are taking a vigorous part in the process, from attending speeches to watching the debates to getting active in their communities to actually getting out and voting.

I hate to vote in opposition of something or someone instead of voting FOR something or someone, and I know that’s one of the positions that’s causing many to vote for a Romney ticket. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a candidate that I wanted to vote for rather than ensuring that the “bad guys,” whoever they may be at the time, don’t get in.

Contrary to what much of this essay implies, this is the first time I can remember where I’ve felt like I could vote FOR someone and not against someone else, and that’s why – at almost 50 years of age – I voted today. For the first time.

I will still “like” all of my friends and family and co-workers (though I will continue NOT to “like” the Romney, Ryan, Tea Party or other Right Wing stuff that appears from them on my FB timeline so frequently these days) no matter what happens in the election. But I will likely never understand how they can support and vote for Romney and most of the other GOP policies.

Good luck, Mr. President. You got my vote. Please don’t waste it.

A little longer than usual between posts, but lots of stuff happening on the work, family and living situations kept me away – not away from the beauteous sounds, which thankfully remain plentiful, but from the ability to rate and write about all of the best ones. That said and there being no shortage of good stuff to pass along, let’s get to it.

I’d heard of Admiral Fallow a few years ago, even follow them on Twitter, but until last month had never really downloaded and listened to them with the attention they deserve. What a waste of a few years. Like their countrymen (with whom I’m sure they’re tired of being lumped), Frightened Rabbit, Bell X1, and the many other beautifully lilting Scottish rockers that have crossed my transom in the recent past, their geography informs their message in almost every instance. I hear defiance even in the softest ballads, poetry in the simplest phrase, lines that would sound sung even if they were spoken instead, and I picture the North Sea, and Glaswegian streets, and earnest glances between beautiful faces, and honesty. Those are probably all just the Scottish stereotypes I’ve picked up over the years – likely as mashed as bangers with the Irish ones – (sorry, lads) but most of the time it doesn’t feel that way. I get a sense of the foreign nestled comfortably alongside the familiar. Rock is rock, no matter where it’s mined, and I like imagining that we’d have something in common in that appreciation, even with all the myriad differences that have made us what we are.

Long way of saying: check these guys out quickly. Their harmonies, their plaintive lyrics, their groove and their vibe all combine to leave you smiling, even if the subject matter may not be handled quite so deftly in other hands. Favorites from their latest, Tree Bursts in Snow, include the titular track – one of the examples of successfully painting a beautiful picture of a horrifying subject – warfare and explosions “all orange and Halloween red…” – the high energy of “The Paper Trench”, and the rousing pub sing-along of “Isn’t This World Enough??” [Pardon the ads on some of these video inserts - it's getting harder and harder to find stuff without them...]

I wrote a few months back about seeing Jesca Hoop open for Punch Brothers, and how she totally enthralled many of the crowd (myself happily included) but left many spouting dismissive nonsense about her short and typically eclectic set. Still baffled by that, but was stoked to get both her new album and a new Daytrotter session from her on the same day. The House That Jack Built is at least as loopy and nonsensical as her last outing, charmingly so, and as full of the mescaline-esque  imagery and lyrical twists and turns that I’ve come to love and to expect from her. “Hospital” is cute and quirky, “Peacemaker” slow and deceptively dirty, “When I’m Asleep” imported from some mythical Middle Eastern harbor town (Qarth, maybe?) where local strictures become a relaxed pastiche of the many external cultural influences passing through.

Her Daytrotter session astounds, as well. I don’t know why she keeps surprising me – after multiple exposure to her unorthodox and impressive play with words and sounds it seems like that shouldn’t be the case. Shouldn’t be. Though short at four songs, each resonates. “Born To,” from the new one, shines.

At the other end of the awesomely different / differently awesome spectrum sits The Lion, the Beast and the Beat, the latest offering from the ever-touring Grace Potter & the Nocturnals. Having seen them four times now – fifth show in October at the incredible Tabernacle downtown – and collected their tunes over the last few years, I’m not too surprised that each outing gets infused with a little more carefully crafted pop, a few less rough edges and a little more polish. Part of me totally understands and is happy that the relentless touring and the well-honed songcraft is resulting in ever larger audiences and greater success, but part of me misses the band I saw performing a drunken-seeming, acoustic-and-wine-bottle-and-ice-bucket rendition of my first favorite song (“Paris“). In concert they remain, without doubt and without comparison, one of the best true rock bands touring at that level; the sludgy weight of the guitars on the slow ones, the builds, the blistering speed on the quick ones, and yes, even the more pop influenced turns are all performed masterfully and with enough improv and stage antics to keep them from becoming, for me, completely radio friendly wannabes. The duet with Willie on an older GP&N song, “Ragged Company,” is a great pairing but left me wanting more from the parts that had them singing at the same time. There wasn’t really any harmony, but the individual verses carry the same sense of deprecation as the original, and Willie’s gravelly delivery matched the phrasing perfectly.

Her forays into the Country realm leave nobody doubting her ability to do so (witness the Grammy nom on her very first outing,) but at the same time I wonder, “Why?” I know she’s having fun, and making a good living (I hope), and no artist wants to stay the same – evolving is as much a part of the process for them as it is for us mere mortals – but it feels like she’s pulling away, just a bit, from some of the stuff I initially loved best about her and the amazing band of gypsies in her traveling family. I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about, as evidenced in my first listening to Lion: just when I was starting to sense that pulling away sensation, the title track came on. It’s so layered, almost progressively so, and any doubts I was nurturing were temporarily and successfully allayed. The song rocks. The band rocks. The woman rocks. Please keep it that way, Grace.

I’m Jonesing for some live Madi Diaz. Hearing her recent Daytrotter session both helps soothe that urge and makes it stronger. I’ve only seen her live once, at the excellent listening room environment of Eddie’s Attic here in Atlanta, and she was enthralling. She’s both playful and deadly earnest in her performances, and just FUN to see and hear. She has a great knack for choosing covers, too- as evidenced in this session, where she takes Paula’s “Straight Up” and turns it from frothy pop to a darker, more plaintive and painful cry that cuts to the quick. Brilliant. (The rest of the cuts are just as strong.)

I haven’t ever written about Rush here, I think, probably because once I got started I may never stop. They were the first band I totally immersed myself in. Sure, I cut my teeth on the likes of Kiss, Aerosmith and others, and kidded myself into thinking they were great, heavy rock, but hearing Rush’s live set on “All the World’s a Stage” with my cousins at the beach in Charleston, SC totally changed me. Without exaggeration, that was the first time that music sliced into the heart of me, grabbed my head in both of its metaphorical hands and screamed, “Hold still! And LISTEN TO THIS!!” Those songs, and the albums they led me to, seemed to be the perfect response to my parents and others who were saying, “Turn that down! It’s just a bunch of noise anyway!”

Because it was anything but noise.

Without launching into a repeat of my senior thesis (high school, anyway) which was all about Rush and its influences, both given and taken, suffice it to say that they were my first favorite band, and I read every liner note, every scarce interview (no Internets back then, friends and neighbors,) anything and everything I could get my hands on.

So when they came out with Snakes and Arrows last time around, and this new one – Clockwork Angels – each of which hearkened back to the Rush that first yanked me away from mediocrity – I felt exactly like I did on that beach in ’77 or so.

Clockwork Angels is nothing if not ambitious. Like 2112, the gateway album for so many fans (including this one,) it tells a complicated but ultimately simple story. Draped in the accoutrements of Steampunk, another favorite genre, Neil Peart – drummer and lyricist extraordinaire – partnered with noted SF writer Kevin Anderson on a novel with the same name. The album tells the story in parallel with the novel, apparently – I haven’t been able to get a copy of the book yet – and there are definite reminders of 2112 sprinkled throughout. Even the intricate album art, something they’ve never skimped on, takes me back to those heady early days and all of those albums that I spent so many hours listening to, headphones tight and volume maxed.

The songs rock, the music is big, almost thick enough to grab onto and ride. The story is sound, if familiar: young man, anxious to leave his mundane day-to-day existence behind, travels the world, falls in and out of love, all while coming to terms with the Watchmaker, who controls the whole world and all of its clockwork machinery (angels included.)

I can easily envision them playing these tunes live in a few months, in the same arena we’ve seen them in three other times now, no opening act, one 15-minute break in their 3+ hour set. They make deep, heavy, intricate rock as pounding and as stirring as ever, and they make it look effortless. Keep it up, guys – it’s still a lot of fun to listen to.

Ryan Monroe was an accidental find – a very happy one. Part of the Band of Horses, his new solo album, A Painting of a Painting on Fire, may be the single best display of multi-genre expertise I’ve ever heard. So much so that all thought of genre – “What is this one? Funk? But that last one was 70’s California Country, wasn’t it?” – go happily out the window.

I heard “Turning Over Leaves” first, thanks to Paste’s awesome mPlayer, and couldn’t figure out why I liked it. It had everything I usually actively dislike in my rock and roll: a funky drum beat, a weird but infectious jazzy bass line, super deep Barry White-ish verses followed by a falsetto chorus. And I love it. It’s one of the only 5-star songs on my iPod at the moment, and was easily enough to make me want more.

There not another song like it on the whole album.

In the rest of those songs I hear James Gang-era Joe Walsh (and who else is channeling that awesome sound these days?), the 70’s CA sound referenced earlier, ELO (what?!), prog rock, and other majestic, multi-instrument, multi-layered Rock with a capital R. It’s not diversity for diversity’s sake, nor do I ever get the feeling that he’s simply showing off his considerable musical prowess. I DO get the feeling that, when putting together a collection of his own songs, he played what he’d written, unrestricted by the pigeon hole people may put him in, and then had a blast laying them down. At least it sounds that way. Current favorite is “The Darkness Will Be Gone.”

Best, funnest all-the-way-through album I’ve heard in years. Even got a Twitter reply from him when I tweeted my fanboy pleasure after the first listen; asked him to please come to Atlanta or its nearby environs, and he basically said, “Hope so!”

I hope so, too.

In the meantime, I plan on catching him with his day job as they begin the steel breeze that is the Railroad Revival Tour, mark II. The last one featured Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and others as they traveled in 1940’s rail cars from California to NOLA, playing all along the way both on and off the train. This year’s crew included Band of Horses, Willie Nelson & Family, John Reilly’s band (yes, that John Reilly) and more, and they start the trip about 10 miles from my current location. Think I’m missing that? Not a chance.

That’s all for now – keep in touch and let me know what’s tickling your eardrums these days.

Later-

After lots of insistence from my daughters and friends, great readers all, I just finished Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, and intended to leave the usual one or two paragraph Goodreads update, but it turned into this:

Wow. Conflicted on this one. Really gripping and enthralling read, but deeply disturbing. Maybe it’s more so for the parents than for the kids who read it; I know my mom has said she won’t read it no matter how many times it’s recommended to her – she just can’t stand the idea of violence done to children, even if it’s among themselves (a la Lord of the Flies, which though similar is a very different story with completely different motivations for the kids’ violence.) I’m of the same mind, but wanted to see what all the fuss is about.

I’ve read plenty of dystopian dramas, each of them disturbing in their own way because, for the most part, it wasn’t a great stretch to imagine such near-future worlds, worlds that we’d screwed up somehow. Usually it was the result of war, or pollution, but in some cases it was nature (like the comet that ended the world as we know it in Lucifer’s Hammer, one of my favorites of that genre) or even inexplicable circumstances like The Change in Stirling’s excellent series.

This one was much more uncomfortable, though, again probably because I have kids (both girls, no less!) and when I imagined them in that situation, in the actual Games, I got the same sort of sensation I get when I’m standing in a high place and my knees go weak. Gravity changed when I read those parts.  I just couldn’t imagine what I’d do as a parent in that situation. Probably, like Katniss, if I lived in that world I would never have kids, for exactly the same reason. Which in itself would be another form of torture, and which makes the Capitol’s Malthusian solution so very insidious. Not only does everyone from every district have to watch their own lottery “winners” in the Games, the only way to not have a stake in them is to not reproduce, making the districts weaker and ever less populated as time and starvation and sickness and the Games themselves winnow them further and further down.

I can imagine lots of heady philosophical conversations around this one, especially among the kids who’ve read it and those who will think about it as they finish high school and go on to college. O, the papers to be written…

One of my worries is that, like so many of the BIG stories such as Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and their ilk, there are large parts of the readership that will always think the evil stuff is the coolest – the badder the better. I can cringingly picture a certain sector of them thinking to themselves, “Cool…” as some of those horrors are perpetrated, or talking to themselves or to each other and saying things like, “He was so stupid there – all he had to do was grab the X and kill the ones around him first. . .” like it was all a first person shooter on their game console and not a group of real, living kids, which – kudos to Collins – is how it felt to me when I was reading it. I felt every death, even those of the so-called bad guys.

I liked reading it- there’s no denying the edge-of-your-seat-ness and “what next?!” aspects of it, and it’s a tale well told, for sure, and I’m sure I’ll read the others, but when it comes down to it I kind of agree with my mom. It’s hard to read about and so vividly imagine such a world with our children in it.

Maybe that’s the best point we can take away from stories like this one, and all of the other great speculative dystopian fiction out there: we need to do everything we possibly can to make absolutely sure those worlds never, ever come into being. And if reading stories that make us uncomfortable help that process, bring ‘em on.

Note: I came across this piece I wrote back in April for someone’s “Remembered” column, and thought it worth reposting here. – MMD

In the waning days of 1969, a half-Black, half-Irish bass player and his drummer bud started a band, like so many of their generation were doing at the time. They met up with a couple of guitarists – the beginnings of a legion of them – and called themselves Thin Lizzy.

Phil Lynott was the driving creative force behind everything they wrote and recorded, and provided some of the best bass playing heard before or since. His smooth and slightly menacing vocals lent the tunes an authenticity absent from many of the bands of that period, and he always seemed to be sharing a joke with the listener – I was convinced that he could break out laughing at any time during almost any given song.

Lynott and original drummer Brian Downey met said guitarists, the Erics Bell and Wexon, who’d recently been backing up Van Morrison as Them and off they went. The Erics were used presumably used to mercurial, hard-drinking Irishmen, it seems, so they meshed well with Lynott from start. At least at first.

For the next five or six years success was elusive. Virtually nothing they recorded charted in either the UK or the States, and it wasn’t until the release of 1976’s “Jailbreak” that people began to take notice.

By this time they’d nearly perfected the twin guitar approach that was to become their signature, and which would be emulated by many of the metal bands to follow. But for most of the next decade they’d chase the level of success brought on by Jailbreak singles “The Boys Are Back in Town” and its titular track, and would never quite get there again.

I came to Lizzy late in the cycle – around 1984, when the bassist in one of the bands I mixed for in college turned me onto the live “Life” double disk. Although up to that point I’d pretty much confined my musical intake to hard and heavy rock (anything less was dismissed out of hand at the time,) it was my first exposure to the modern dual guitar attack that would so dominate my favorite music for the next few years.

We didn’t really consider them heavy metal at the time though their influence has been felt in some of that genre’s seminal bands, from Metallica to Mastodon. They were just good, hard rock and roll, using interesting and arcane subject matter and funkier arrangements than any of us, to date, had learned to appreciate. Iron Maiden was peaking at that point, and while some of the guys in our band were into the more mainstream metallurgists like Ratt, Poison, Skid Row and the like, none of those bands were for me – I used to joke that they were more like stainless steel compared to the truly heavy metal being mined by bands like Deep Purple, Maiden, and Thin Lizzy. (I didn’t consider Zeppelin as being heavy metal at the time, either – still don’t – but in many ways they were just as heavy, and they occupied a lofty spot in my pantheon, too, even if they weren’t producing anything new at the time. They didn’t really have to, with a canon like theirs in the vaults.)

I’d kid myself that I liked Lizzy because of their more literate and unusual lyrics, the historical Irish references, the outsider-ness of liking the unknown and the unloved, but when it came down to it I liked them for the simple reason that they ROCKED, and they did it harder and better than almost anyone I’d heard up to that time. Even those slow, tasty numbers like “Still in Love With You” and “The Sun Goes Down” have a weight and a lurking but unmanifested menace waiting just out of earshot. I couldn’t get enough, and the louder it got, the better I liked it.

The band and the bassist that first brought them to my ears ended up being the ones I lived, mixed and traveled with for the next several years, and we covered many cornerstone Lizzy pieces like “Angel of Death,” “Thunder and Lightning,” “The Sun Goes Down,” and others, and even if we didn’t play some of the outliers live they’d still make it into the practice sets because they were just so much fun to play, and to hear. I remember “Cowboy Song” as one of those – a romping good bit of fun that was basically a metallic take on a raunchy Country tune, and we liked it so much it often made its way into the live set, as well.

Coming late to the Lizzy game allowed me to miss much of their mediocre period, I think. Starting with the live recordings “Life” and “Live and Dangerous,” which are essentially greatest hits compilations on what some critics have called the best live recordings of the era, was a somewhat biased primer, to be sure, but it intrigued me enough to seek out some of the more esoteric meanderings from the earlier records. Like many who did the same, I found that some of it merited its relative obscurity, but there were definitely gems amongst the rubble, and I found them all.

The band had more guitarists – many more – than Spinal Tap had drummers. Some lasted longer than others, some left and came back, some were better than others. There were bar brawls between and among themselves and other bands, many featuring broken bottles and broken bones, and more than one tour-ending injury. The best and most enduring of this cadre included John Sykes, who would go on to play with Whitesnake and Blue Murder, and Brian Robertson, who would later play with Motorhead and others. My favorite of the lot, Gary Moore (RIP), joined Lizzy after stints with Blues masters B.B. and Albert King, then left Lizzy and came back numerous times. Lynott appeared onMoore’s solo album just before Phil’s death.

I remember that night very vividly; it remains one of the clearest memories from that time in my life.

Our drummer’s room was next to mine in the slightly ramshackle house we lived and practiced in, and around 4 AM one night in January of 1986 he came in and woke me up.

“Whaddaya want? What time is it?”

“Don’t know. But I just heard Phil Lynott died tonight.”

I was instantly and fully awake. We found a bottle, and went into the practice room and spun some Lizzy, waiting for the others to hear and come in. They did, and we played til the sun came up. And then we played some more.

I have yet to find as solid and as heart-pumping a finale to an album as the fourth side of the “Life” album. On it, Lynott brings back some of the band’s former guitarists to play on their signature songs: Brian Robertson for “Emerald;” Gary Moore for “Black Rose;” John Sykes on “Still in Love with You;” and Eric Bell for “The Rocker.” What I liked most, though, was that Lynott called them all out onstage at once, at the beginning of the side, and they all played each song together, the myriad disagreements and pettiness of the previous years forgotten for a moment, lost in the joy of the song.

On another tune from that ironically titled album Lynott sings that he has got to “Give it up. . . ooh, that stuff.” He was never able to do it, and it killed him.

All these years later I still get chills listening to that last side, and I can’t give them up yet, either.

I recently experienced the great good fortune of being added to the writing staff at TheOneRing.net, the Internet’s premier storehouse of all things Tolkien and a great source for trailers, teasers and endless speculation on the upcoming Hobbit movies.

I neglected to post links to my first two published pieces:

Radagast & the Magic Treehouse

Under My Skin: Externalizing Tolkien

Please check them out if you haven’t already done so, and let me know what you think!

Also, if there are any areas of Tolkien lore that you’d like to see explored, let me know – I’m always looking for ideas for the next piece.