Pictures are worth 1,000 or more words, we know. What I didn’t know was how instantaneously one could fold space and time and bridge a gap 40+ years wide without seam or pause. This one did. Like a tea-soaked Madeline from Marcel’s own side table, seeing that shot I was overcome with memory, with feeling the way I’d felt as a kid, the potential of having everything ahead of me, and of that road forward being hinted at in all those thoughts and feelings I’d felt right that very moment.

At first you only see two guys on a stage, both cradling huge, unwieldy double-neck guitars. To the left is Alex Lifeson, captured mid-run on the lower, 6-string neck of his beast, while to the right Geddy Lee thumps his upper 8-string bass. Then behind and between them you see Neil Peart and his relatively small but still impressive drum kit, all of them in flowing sleeves, mid-jam on what has to be…

“That’s Xanadu,” I say out loud to myself. And the floodgates open.

Summer of ’78, Charleston, South Carolina. Family vacation on Folly Beach, courtesy of my grandfather. Six, sometimes seven families under one beach house roof, along with the in-town cousins coming out for the day every day for two weeks, almost always around July 4th. I was 14.

My closest cousins were Keith and Carl, one day and one year younger than me, respectively. We only saw each other a few times a year growing up, but we were close. My younger sister had several cousins close to her age, too, and there were a few slightly older than us; altogether there were probably 20 people sleeping there, with another 10 to 20 coming by during the day.

All of the budding teens in the house were just discovering the kinds of music that would really start to last, would stick with and influence what each of us would be listening to for the rest of our lives, so we had turntables and cassette players aplenty. Faye, I remember, had a white-handled red case of 45’s that we’d all sort through to queue up favorites like “We’re So Sorry, Uncle Albert” and “Timothy,” a gruesome (and near impossible to find today) tune about a group of kids who get stuck in a cave and have to, um, eat their way out, then wonder why they can’t find Timothy…

Up to then my only exposure to “real” Rock and Roll was Kiss, and more recently, Aerosmith via their Toys in the Attic album, which I’d bought not long before that and promptly wore out. Sure, all of the Kiss I’d heard to date was hard and heavy, and Aerosmith opened those avenues even wider for me, but I was not prepared for the responses evoked by what Keith, Carl and I would listen to the most, by a wide, wide margin, that summer.

I’m pretty sure it was Carl that had the double cassette (Oooh! Cool!) of Rush’s All the World’s a Stage, as well as their iconic 2112, both released in 1976 (2112 in April and AtWaS in September, for those keeping score at home,) and A Farewell to Kings, which debuted in September of 1977.

We probably listened to 2112 – both the side-long opus and its weird opposite with songs like “Twilight Zone” and “A Passage to Bangkok” the most often, just because extremely long songs with multiple parts and strange names were so foreign to us, and thus amazing, but there was a very close second, from Farewell… It’s called “Xanadu.”

We had no idea it was based on a long, eldritch poem from over a hundred years before, or that there were numerous other works that referenced that magical place where nobody ever aged, or even that some of the verses were lifted directly from the poem. (Discovering that poem later, and its own odd back story, was itself an epiphany.) We just knew it built, and built, and built, and then opened up wide with a majesty and an all-enveloping sound like none of us had ever experienced. Weird, Dazed and Confused-era Jimmy Page-like string manipulations from Alex’s guitar, staccato trills from Peart’s temple blocks, Geddy noodling around on some keys in the background, all lasting just enough to make you wonder, “What the…?” before going over the cliff and jamming like no three-piece had any right to do.

It’s very easy to isolate the two guitars from each other and from the monstrous underlying drum fills, and it’s hard to remember that these are just three guys playing their asses off. The speed, the virtuosity on each instrument, the runs up and down the scales, all leading to the most unearthly vocals any of us had ever heard (before or since) were otherworldly. It was damn close to sensory overload – almost too much to bear. But only almost.

Again, not knowing that many of the lyrics belonged to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and not to Neil, (partly because they meshed so well stylistically,) I attributed all of their mastery to Peart. Even later, though, when I could tell which set belonged to whom, I marveled that the drummer could possibly have put together such soaring, mysterious, and evocative words; this was true in nearly every case, since there were usually only a song or two per album that he didn’t provide the lyrics for.

So here we have this sonic cathedral built by the ringing guitars and bass, bedrocked by the bones of the continuously astounding drumline, and buoyed by the mystical, magical, maddening imaginings of both Peart and Samuel T; almost Lovecraftian, Poe-like despair and madness, mapping perfectly to Coleridge’s own struggle from “the last immortal man” to “a mad immortal man” and every state in between. Then a long, ringing fade that crashes and flows like the River Alph itself, until silence reigns again, the chilled caves of ice quiet once more.

I’m surprised that tape survived the summer.

Then the long ride home after two wondrous weeks, my parents letting us play tapes in turn, and when it’s mine I naturally choose “Xanadu.”

Halfway through my dad says offhandedly, “You know that most of this is from a famous old poem, right?” I was torn between being amazed at his words, and that he’d been paying close enough attention to figure that out.

“No. Really?”

“Yeah. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about Xanadu sometime in the 1800’s, I think. Legend has it that he dreamed about it when he was on some heavy painkiller – opium, I’m pretty sure – and someone came to his door and interrupted him before he could finish the dream and understand all that he’d seen and experienced. He spent the rest of his life trying to get back there and figure it out.”

‘Whoa,’ thought I. ‘This just gets cooler and cooler.’

Naturally I researched all I could find on the subject, which made me wonder if Mr. Peart had mined other such veins for use as Rush material. Guess what? He had.

The name of the space ship in “Cygnus X-1” from the A Farewell to Kings album? Also the name of Don Quixote’s horse.

The song “Anthem” and the entire first side of 2112? Based on the writings of Ayn Rand.

“Rivendell” from the Fly by Night album – I knew that source well.

So not only did I discover the band that would change my life, and shape much of it for the next decade or so, musically speaking, I’d accidentally uncovered one of the most literate lyricists in Rock.

For each of their next several albums I dove headlong into liner notes, album art, interviews and any other sources I could find. Uncovering all of these riddles, solving puzzles only I seemed interested in, added to the overall effect the music had on me. I also realized that most of my friends (a) weren’t as into the music as I was, preferring more straight ahead Rock and Roll, radio-friendly stuff (nothing wrong with that,) and (b) even the small minority that did appreciate the band weren’t as into all the minutiae that turned me on. I didn’t care.

I ended up writing my senior English paper on the band, chiefly around the Hemispheres album, with its Apollonian versus Dionysian dichotomy. Heady stuff for any Rock band to tackle, and that album definitely wasn’t for everyone; even more so than usual the trip they took us on there and then was much more rabbit hole than destination, but it was fun stuff nonetheless. (And a continuation of a song from the previous album – also cool.) I got a good grade on the paper, and a soft suggestion that maybe I’d relied too heavily on the words of others; there being so few citable sources on the band I’d had to fudge a bit a make a few of them up, including the accompanying article’s “quotes.” I’d never been prouder of being accused of using someone else’s writing.

Like no other source for me then or since, Rush opened and combined vistas that I would never have otherwise experienced in such a visceral, cerebral way. It was the summer of 2112, of All the World’s a Stage. Of Xanadu. And there were we, marveling at the first taste of honeydew, and so very drunk on the milk of paradise.

Thanks, guys, and Happy Canada Day! (And happy 4th to everyone else!)

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MathomIn keeping with a Tolkien “tradition” that I’ve loved since I first read about it years ago, where Hobbits give small presents (or “mathoms”) on their birthday rather than receive them, I’ve curated a short playlist of the best songs to come my way over the last few months. It ranges from older hard rock, to newer hard rock, to acoustic, to un-categorizable. Here’s some info about what and who are included.

American WrestlersKelly – American Wrestlers

I don’t know anything about these guys – where they’re from, how long they’ve been around, nothing. All I do know is that the first time I heard this song I really liked the groove of it. (I also thought they were singing, “Kill it…” instead of “Kelly”)

Stoic Resemblance – The Helio SequenceHelio Sequence

I’ve heard and liked stuff from this band in the past but have never given them a deep dive, album wise. Still haven’t, but this tune makes me want to. Will report back once that’s accomplished.

RocksCombination – Aerosmith

I rarely go this far back when making compilations like this, but having just discovered that the album Rocks was finally available on iTunes (and I’ve been checking over the years…) I had to get it. I always remembered that this was my favorite collection of theirs, but I’d forgotten how strong these riffs are. “Combination” is the best, most visceral one of the lot, though it’s hard to rank them – they’re all killer. This was, to me, right in the middle of the band’s most fertile period – Toys in the Attic and Draw the Line were put out around the same time, and though hugely impacted by the band’s increasingly inhuman intake of all sorts of drugs, all three albums remain their strongest true rock and roll for me.

Methodrone – The Black CadillacsBlack Cadillacs

Just found these guys – total accident thanks to social media. On first sight, and even first listen, they may be easily dismissed as simply a good time bar band, bluesy and light. Far from it. Their song structures, lyrics, and busy rhythm guitars make what should be old hat sound like new again. Highly recommended.

musee mechaniqueThe Lighthouse and the Hourglass – Musee Mecanique

I found Musee Mecanique a year or so ago and love all of their long instrumental pieces. This is one of the rare tunes with lyrics, and it’s a strong one. Check out their Daytrotter session here.

Witness – Mewmew

Mew is one of those deceptively deep bands who sound, at first, like a hundred bands you’ve heard before – light piano or acoustic guitar intros reminiscent of Coldplay, Fallout Boy and the like. I find them a little more substantive than that, and it was hard to pick just one of their tunes. This won by a narrow margin.

BushBreathe – Bush

Almost all of my compilations include at least one good cover. This one was a big surprise from Bush’s recent Daytrotter session – didn’t even know it was included until I heard it on random in the car. Pink Floyd was a colossal influence on my musical growth, consciousness expansion, and – to be honest – my delinquency. Very interesting to note how differently these lyrics (and almost all of their others) hit me at 51 than they did when in my teens and twenties…

Bath Salt – River Whylessriver whyless

Interesting sound from this band, who I’m planning on seeing in July. To these ears, there’s a definite Chinese influence to the fiddle pieces; would love to find out if they’ve ever heard or played with Abigail Washburn, who also shows those influences.

tree machinesF**king Off Today – Tree Machines

Deceptively loud and sloppy, I was captured by this band’s entire Daytrotter session, too. (Pardon the profanity, but I figured we’re all old enough to take it, and if the kids are in the car when you’re cranking this one – and it needs to be cranked – you can always skip to the next one. It’s a little tamer.)

Full Circle – Xavier RuddXavier Rudd

Nice and calm after all the previous noise, this one is in keeping with the rest of Rudd’s canon – mellow and deep, inextricably sad and uplifting at the same time. (Bonus: when’s the last time you heard a didgeridoo on a song like this? Or anywhere?)

young buffaloSykia – Young Buffalo

I’ve been familiar with this outfit for a few years now. Good to see that their progression continues – familiar enough to the older stuff, new enough to sound fresh.

Cumin – The AcornMerlin by Richter

Another nice acoustic piece, this time with an almost Afro-centric beat that offsets it nicely. From a great collection called Oh! Canada 25 from The Line of Best Fit.

leisure societyWhen It Breaks – The Leisure Society

This felt like a nice bookend to the beginning section, and a softer way to wrap up.

I used to make these collections every few months – the above represents only new stuff from the last 60 days or so – but it’s been awhile now. Depending on how these are received, maybe I’ll get back to a more regular schedule. Let me know what you think, and thanks for listening/reading!

Secret PlaceMy only worry on starting this one was reading it too quickly – her prose is so lyrical and rich that it’s nearly impossible to stop once I’ve started. I seriously wondered whether I’d be able to sip or if I’d be forced – again – to drink deeply until the cup ran dry. Turns out not much sipping went on.

I ended up enjoying this one at least as much as her others, which is strange to me since, as I was reading through the early chapters, I remember thinking to myself that her prose wasn’t quite so lyrical, wasn’t prompting me to capture all the quotes I usually grab from her – noticing all of this, by the way, without it diminishing my total submersion into the story.

Before too long, though, the magic started seeping in – so much so that (like all good writing) I forgot I was reading, and forgot to collect those dark and shiny quotes as often as I’d done before; they were too good, too perfect for me to pause and clip them away from the whole pattern. It would have taken me out of the story.

With “The Secret Place,” Tana French mines some familiar territory, and handles it as deftly as she has before. The dynamics between friends – real, true, forever friends – was definitely the main reason I was so utterly captured by “The Likeness,” her second novel but the first of hers that I read. (After that I immediately went back and read the first, “In the Woods,” and was then forced to wait the several years between those and each of the next three.) The effortless closeness of the college students in “Likeness” reminded me of the few close fiends I’d had during that time, how bonds like that are forged, and sometimes broken.

In “The Secret Place,” French goes back even further, to a group of early teenaged girls boarding at an elite Irish school in the heart of Dublin. She focuses on two distinct groups, each with their tidal pulls and pushes, each their reasons for attracting and repelling others. The obnoxious group, not-so-fondly referred to by the main four as The Daleks, are all of the worst stereotypes of teenage girls rolled into four distinct personalities: the ringleader is someone you would cheerfully smack in the face every time she crossed your path; her minions are, for the most part, simpering hangers-on who put up with her awfulness mainly for fear of not being one of her inner circle. Despicable, all.

The main group, though, represents everything I remember as being strong, magical, impermeable about true friendship, while painting a much more relatable picture of what teenage girls can be and do and represent. Fierce loyalty, innate intelligence, soaring imaginations, insular senses of shared humor, profound empathy – all described beautifully and believably, as French so often does. Having had a hand in raising two teenaged girls, still witnessing their own growth and that of their friends, I’m glad to say that although I recognized some Dalek behavior in some of their acquaintances, if any were lucky enough to make it to true friendship status they were always more like the “good four” seen here than the bad ones. Still are, like attracting like the way it does.

I won’t spoil the discovery by rehashing the blurb – the short description and my familiarity with the author’s canon were more than enough to tease me into starting it – except to say that The Secret Place, like most of her titles, represents more than just one spot, and that – like all secrets – they bond the knowers together, like it or not.

I like the way she alternates between the girls’ perspective and the investigating officers from the Dublin Murder Squad. (All of French’s novels have so far featured different members of the Squad, usually with little overlap. All can be read as standalone stories and out of order, if necessary, without loss. This is the fifth in the series.) That back and forth in time and perspective, as well as a very creepy countdown that occurs in one of the two paths, reminded me of Stephen King’s totally effective use of a similar device in “It.” Like that one, as the novel gains momentum and suspense I found myself hating to leave one of the threads to return to the other only to feel the same way when that chapter ended and I was back on the first track. Continuing that model past what most may see as the “traditional” denouement was a bold and brilliant choice, and provided me with one of the most evocative and emotional scenes (of many) in the book, one that not only tied up and retstated some of the main themes, but which delivered its various epiphanies in such a gorgeous way that I had to pause and appreciate and remember how that had felt in my own story.

The juxtaposition of the deep friendship of the main girls with the unfamiliarity of the main two cops was also executed beautifully. Their differences in style and behavior were legion, but seeing them begin to develop some of the same signals and marks of friendship exhibited by the girls was beautiful, and masterfully done.

I also loved hearing the lilting pronunciations and flip-flopped sentence structure of the very Irish dialog as I read it. That and the just-right dashes of local slang thrown into the mix made the characters all the more believable, yeah?

Having said that I missed out on some of the better quotes at the beginning, in looking I found that I saved more than I remembered. Here are a few of my favorite lines, to give you just a taste of the power of Tana French’s paintbrush pen:

“… a sudden blond smiling afternoon that popped its head up in the middle of a string of hovering wet days.”

“The moon catches flashes of light and snippets of color strewn through the bushes, like a crop of sweets in a witch’s garden.”

“She’s sitting up with her arms clasped round her knees and her face tilted up to the sky. The moonlight hits her full on, burning her out to something you can only half see, a ghost or a saint. She looks like she’s praying. Maybe she is.”

“None of them say anything. They keep their eyes closed. They lie still and feel the world change shape around them and inside them, feel the boundaries set solid; feel the wild left outside, to prowl perimeters till it thins into something imagined, something forgotten.”

I won’t spoil any more – there are a couple of surprises that are simply too good to reveal, even elliptically.

Well worth your time if you appreciate strong tales well told, and if your heart may need a jump start to remind it of how you once saw the world and all of its possibilities.

Maplecroft is another amazing accomplishment for Cherie Priest. Maplecroft

I’ve read nearly everything she’s written, and have never been disappointed. On the contrary, her books – especially those in the Clockwork Century line (Boneshaker, Ganymede, The Inexplicables and others) – are some of my all-time favorites of any genre. Brilliantly drawn characters, period language (made up period though it may be!) and evocative stories with noble themes never fail to satisfy and impress.

I remember vividly a scene early in the second tale in the series, Dreadnought, where a newly trained nurse enters the chaotic main ward of a Civil War hospital – a war that’s lasted more than 20 years in this universe – and is so thunderstruck at the pain and horror before her that she whispers under her breath, “Where do I start…?” I remember feeling her fear and frustration and amazement viscerally thanks to Ms. Priest’s incredible abilities.

When I heard that she was tackling a new series of stories that had nothing to do with the Clockwork Century universe, I was disappointed and excited all at once. When I discovered what types of stories they’d be the disappointment faded and the excitement grabbed hold.

What if Lizzie Borden had in fact killed her parents with her trusty ax, but had done so because she’d been forced to? Because those same parents were changing… had changed… into some Lovecraftian nightmare from the deepest fathoms?

“Where do I sign up?” I thought, “and how?!”

Turns out that not only did I sign up – for a sweepstakes to be one of only fifty advance readers to receive a copy of the unedited version of the story – I was one of the lucky winners! (Thanks, Goodreads, ROC and Ms. Priest!)

I dove right in, and from the very beginning was hooked by the style, so very different from her other works but no less compelling for that. The language, while appearing somewhat dated (duh – turn of the century…) transfixed me, and struck me immediately as being from the same linguistic tree that Lovecraft had pulled from, if from very different branches.

The epistolary style was fine at first, with alternating letters, journal entries, and just plain interior thoughts from the various characters moving everything along nicely, but was frustrating as the story gained momentum. (It reminded me of my early readings of The Lord of the Rings, when I couldn’t wait to get back to Aragorn and the gang, and every time a Frodo and Sam chapter would intervene I’d cry, “No! Not yet!”)

I was completely immersed in the story, and in its delivery. It was so like all of the Lovecraft I’ve read in the past, whether it was Lizzie, her sister, or the transforming madman narrating. Totally impressive. I never got the sense that she was merely copying his style, though; otherwise each chapter may have ended with “… and the green-skinned monstrosity reared its bulbous head, and HE SAW THAT IT WAS HER! IT WAS HER!!!” The voice is hers, the story is hers, but it was like he was lurking just over her shoulder, guiding her thoughts and her hands with a nudge here, a tickle there. Like Lovecraft himself, it was uncanny at times how she spoke in his voice while successfully maintaining her own.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable ride, highly recommended, with only one niggling complaint: I didn’t care for the speed or the content of the ending itself. I realize it lends itself well to follow-ups, which I’ll greedily inhale as they appear, but when I turned the last page (something I’ve not done, by the way, in a long while since converting to eReading,) I was left with an unusual feeling. Normally, upon finishing her previous works I’d be sad that it was over, anxious for the next, and ultimately satisfied with that portion of the overall tale. As much as I enjoyed Maplecroft, only two of those states applied for me at its end.

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.