Top Ten Pundit Talking Points Targetted For Termination

If you watch Stewart or Colbert, you are familiar with the phenomenom of a catchphrase being coined and then spreading like a virus to every talking head on the tube (LEDs, plasmas, what-have-you.) It’s bad enough that they’re all bleating the same song but what makes it worse is they always pretend like they just came up with it themselves. I don’t expect this to change anytime soon, but I’d like to submit the following candidates for expunging.

10. Blood and treasure. This one is often used in conjunction with the cost of war. For some reason, it’s always invoked with know-it-all faux gravitas as if the invoker is the only one aware that wars are actually bad. There’s also a pretense of literary eloquence, which may have been legitimate the first nine thousand times it’s been uttered. Leave the treasure to the pirates. War is bad. People are maimed and killed. It’s expensive. We get it.
9. Perfect Storm. Saw the movie. Sad. But the idea was Perfect Storms are rare events. There seems to be a “Perfect Storm” of something darn near every day. Perfect Storms for re-election, Perfect Storm for recessions, Perfect Storms for retail sales. The Jets defensive coordinator cited his squad’s “Perfect Storm” in both their win over the Cardinals and their loss to the Patriots. Enough already. Let’s reserve this one for weather.
8. Super Storm. This one came along as a mid season replacement for Perfect Storm. It started with Sandy, which was legit, but soon found its way into sports, politics and entertainment.
7. Mother(s) of All. Saddam got this one started and it really had its heyday back in the early 90’s. But it’s back. Mother of All Bailouts. Mother of All Oil Spills. Even Mother of All Battles – except this time it’s Syria instead of Iraq. What exactly does one’s mother have to do with anything anyway? If Mike Tyson can kick your ass, should you assume that Mike Tyson’s mother can really kick your ass? (Well, in my case: yes.)
6. Founding Fathers. Whenever there is some cockamamie right wing conservative/reactionary idea afloat, you can be sure that some wingnut is going to weigh in on behalf of the Founding Fathers. I’m not going to throw mud at the FF’s, I think they did an exemplary job getting things started. But time marches on: science, society, culture and politics advance. The Founding Fathers would be completely out of their depth if they were to appear in today’s society.
5. The New Normal. “Is this the New Normal?” No, it isn’t. Things happen that you don’t expect. After they happen, you expect them. Then something else happens you didn’t expect. The things you expect are normal. The ones you don’t are not. The New Normal is just another way of saying, “Well, I didn’t expect that, but I guess I do now…”
4. We The People. This is generally used as a smarmy substitute for just “the people” or “the citizens” or “the voters” or “the taxpayers” primarily to give the impression that the speaker is not only a patriotic conservative, but is also familiar with the Constitution. I’m all for “We The People” as in anti-authoritarianism or anti-monarchy or even anti-government. However, it is often invoked when “We the People” vote down gay marriage, medical marijuana or universal health care. More like, “We The Majority” which is admittedly fair, but not really what the Framers meant by “We The People.”
3. Tea Party Candidate. This is actually a perfectly legitimate phrase. It’s just after Bachmann, Akin, Palin, O’Donnell (Christine, not Rosie) they seem to have a low bar for intellect. I suppose that could be said for all parties, but for some reason these folks scare me the most. I don’t expect them to go away in 2013, but hopefully they’ll be a little pickier in the primaries.
2. Job Creators. Do business owners, inventors, entrepreneurs create jobs? Yes – but not by themselves. I used to be an employer. I never created a job I didn’t have to. Opportunity creates jobs. Innovation creates jobs. Wars, fires, crime, pollution, hunger, sickness and death ALSO create jobs. I applaud the risk takers, the small business owners, the entrepreneurs, the innovators. But, please, spare me the benevolent ruling class, without whom the rest of us could not exist. They create jobs when it’s in their best interest. And they destroy them when it’s in their best interest too.
1. Fiscal Cliff. If we don’t do anything taxes will go back to what they were under Bill Clinton. Which we can trim at any time. We’re all going to die! Get real. Let them go up “automatically.” Then trim them back some. Everybody wins.

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Ten Reasons Thanksgiving is Better than Christmas

10. No gifts to buy. Or wrap. Or return.
9. Always on a Thursday. Always a four day weekend. Unless you work for Walmart.
8. No Thanksgiving songs.
7. No Tree.
6. No lights. No ladders. No extension cords. No timers.
5. No costumes.
Wait, that’s Halloween. Still…
5. No cards. No addresses. No postage.
4. No “newsletters.”
3. Three football games. In a row.
2. You’re supposed to overeat to show you’re thankful. Genius.
1. No religion. Unless Tebow starts for the Jets.

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Top Ten Gifts I Got From Obama

Mitt Romney recently unveiled the shocking secret of why I voted for Barack Obama instead of him. It was the gifts of course! You’d think a guy with his kind of dough would have ponied up something, but, it was the same old, “I’m not really into the generosity thing.” And all I got from Ryan was a doctored marathon photo.

Ennyhoo, now that the cat is out of the bag, I figure I might as well come clean on what it took to get my vote. Here’s the top ten “gifts” I got from Jolly Old St. Barack:

10. Staved off Financial Armegeddon. Really liked this one as I have no job at the moment.

9. Stock Market doubled since ’09. BO said he didn’t really give me this one, but I think he kind of did.

8. Don’t have to have my rapist’s baby. This was more of a coupon, and I probably won’t use it myself, but I might know someone that would appreciate it.

7. Lowered my payroll taxes. You’d think Romney would have gotten me this one, but, he’s more of an Applebee’s gift certificate guy. Was great when I was working.

6. Gay Marriage. What can I say… misery loves company.

5. Health Insurance. Not really sure if I got what I wanted here. The specs on these things are so complicated, everything is so expensive and you never feel like it’s a good deal. But at least someone has to cover me now, even if I’m self employed and might get sick.

4. Hilary Clinton. Normally, any old Secretary of State is fine with me. But after Condoleeza Rice, this is like replacing your Camry with a Lamborghini. Vrooom!

3. Joe Biden. Yeah, he seems like an idiot about half the time, but when your idiot, makes their idiot look stupid, well, life’s a little sweeter, innit?

2. Non-Neanderthal Supremes. Scalia, Alito, Thomas – these guys claim to be strict constitutional interpreters – as they systematically gut the Bill of Rights. If we can’t smoke weed we should at least not be subject to warrant free search and surveillance. (Yeah, I know Barack himself’s on the wrong side of that one. He’s not quite as liberal as people think!) Let’s hope he gets to appoint a few more, hopefully to replace some of the aforementioned.

1. Didn’t get me a new war in the Middle East. Which is good, cause I still have the other two I got from Bush.

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You Might Be a Target of A Government Sting Operation If…

… your co-conspirator’s e-mail ends in .gov.
… sleeper cell carpool is three Crown Vic’s and your Scion.
… your new non-drinking buddy offered you a nuke for the exact balance of your savings account.
… the radio station in your contact’s car is tuned to Q102 Country.
… Cell leader always pays for Starbucks with crisp 100’s.
… your Al-Qaeda contact has a “Bomb Stuff Now, Ask Me How!” bumper sticker.
… books spotted at the secret hideout include “Arabic for Dummies” and “Your First Dirty Bomb.”
… Driver Aboud always gets off with a warning – and a wink.
… Contact refers to you as “you-know-who” when explaining to caller that he “can’t talk now.”
… Brother Khalid ordered Wendy’s Triple Baconator – then quickly asked them to hold bacon.
… your rendez-vous instructions arrive in an envelope marked “Postage and Fees Paid – M. C.”
… ringtone on prepaid cellphone is theme from Disney’s Aladdin.

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Not Funny Jokes

“Hey, that’s not funny!”

A Jew, A Catholic and a Muslim walk into a bar.
They get into a loud argument and the bartender asks them to leave.

Two guys are stranded on a desert island.
Crazed by thirst they drink seawater,
go blind and starve to death.

A guy driving down the road sees two gorgeous hitchhikers wearing skimpy outfits.
He pulls over to pick them up.
Two guys jump out from behind the bushes, shoot him and steal his car.

Guy comes home late with boozy breath and lipstick on his collar.
His wife files for divorce, gets his house, car and full custody of his kids.

Have you heard the one about the dead hooker?
There’s thousands of them.

A woman comes home early one day and catches her husband in bed with her best friend.
She tells her she hopes he’s wearing a condom cause he has HIV.

Guy walks into a bar and says, “Gimme a beer!”
Bartender says, “I’ll have to see some ID first.”

Woman tells her GP, “Doc, I think I’m pregnant.”
Doctor tests for hGC, “Yep, you are.”

A pollster asked women if they’d have sex with Bill Clinton.
They said, “No. He’s old, has a bad heart and he’s married.”

Guy goes into the clinic, says, “Doc, you gotta help me, I got warts all over my thing.”
Doctor says, “You’ve got anal cancer.”

Your mom is so fat that she’s no longer attractive and will likely have related health problems.

A man advertised dead babies for use in witchcraft. He was arrested.

A lawyer died and didn’t go to heaven because it doesn’t exist.

An electrician replaced a light bulb and billed the homeowner $285.00. “$285 for a light bulb?” “The light bulb was $5.00 and it’s $280 for the labor. It’s itemized.”

The difference between dogs and cats is that they are unrelated species descended from different progenitors.

“Mom, why is the goldfish floating upside down in the bowl?”
“Because it’s dead.”

What’s the difference between a hooker and a prostitute?
Nothing.

Why did the chicken cross the road?
He’d gotten out of his pen and became disoriented.

What time is it when the clock strikes 13?
13 o’clock.

What did the crack whore say to the businessman?
“I’m willing to do humiliating things to earn money to buy crack.”

What did the blonde say to the brunette?
“In some cultures, women with my hair color are presumed to be more promiscuous.”

What did the brunette say to the blond?
“You’re dumb.”

A man was married to his wife for over forty years.
He was no longer interested in her sexually.

What do you get when you cross a lion and a tiger?
A liger.

“Knock, Knock”
“Just a minute. I’m on the phone!”

How many electricians does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
One.

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How I Became a Record Label

It all started back in 2008 when my friend Brandon coaxed me out for a night of bohemia. Being older than dirt and not much of a social animal, I’d become the definition of “don’t get out much.” Brandon thought getting out of the house, seeing some people and listening to some music might do me some good. Also, he was trying to get up his nerve to play his guitar in public and had enlisted me as a wingman of sorts.

So, off we went to the Monday Night open mic at the Gypsy Den in Santa Ana. Brandon didn’t perform that night, but a lovely local girl did and, for probably all the wrong reasons, I bought her CD and suggested I might be able to set her up with a show of her own. I’d worked on and off with The Chance Theater, an intimate venue near my home in Anaheim Hills, and I was thinking, “It’d be cool to do a music show there…” I think I fancied myself as the Jools Holland of North Orange County.

Of course I hadn’t ever hosted a show and had no idea at the time how difficult it is to get people to come to music events – especially if they have to pay for them. But ignorance is bliss – sometimes you don’t know what you can’t do.

I kicked the idea around with the theater management and about six months later, they gave me the green light to host an almost-monthly series, the somewhat cheesily named Set Sounds. (We spent about three hours brainstorming to come up with that gem.) I ended up doing five editions of Set Sounds during the summer and fall of 2009, each featuring three performers: two openers and a headliner, although often the only difference between the headliner and the openers was a few months longer experience or a few songs longer set. To fill my bills, I frequented the Orange County singer songwriter scene: discovered the Thursday Night Open Mic at Gypsy Den and started hitting places like eVocal, Alta Coffee, La Cave, Sol Grill, Neighborhood Cup, McClain’s and so on in search of talent. Along the way I met John Carrillo, local open mic impresario and a singer songwriter in his own right.

John had the good fortune to host a Singer Songwriter Night Tuesday’s at Alta Coffee in Newport Beach. Not only did he get paid to choose the night’s performers from the cream of the Gypsy Den’s Open Mic, but Alta Coffee has an inexplicable allure to the Most Beautiful Girls in Newport Beach. (Seriously – there must be something in the coffee that attracts them.) I like music as much as the next guy, but, once again, I may have been drawn to Alta for all the wrong reasons.

One night, I’d settled in to my usual perch and a relatively elderly gentleman (turns out he wasn’t that much “elderly” than me, but I’m getting ahead of myself) took the stage (really just a window ledge) and launched into the somewhat edgy self-penned ditty, I Love to Get Drunk In the Car. This being the heart of Orange County and all, and what with the general trend towards drunk driving outrage, both phony and genuine, this struck me as a rather brave admission and, as was likely its express purpose, it drew my attention away from the customary bevy of beach beauties and towards the white haired geezer singing it in the front window. The politically incorrect troubador followed his naughty paean to irresponsibility with the equally discomfiting Love Me Slow a sort of Tantric Sex Guide with a ragtime feel.

“Who is this guy?” I wondered, a query almost immediately answered at the close of his set by emcee Carrillo, “Let’s have a nice hand for Lon Milo DuQuette, everyone!” I filed his name and likeness away in the moth-eaten wasteland where my short term memory used to be, and returned to the business of contemplating the evening’s more interesting clientele.

Towards the end of 2010, John registered “ocmusicscene.com” and began posting featurettes on local indie musicians and the general goings on in the Orange County Music Scene (thus, the name.) Although it wasn’t clear to me whether the purpose was to promote his various music enterprises or to perhaps build value for the domain, I expressed interest in being a stringer – thinking it would be a nice vehicle for meeting musicians and also an opportunity for me to learn how to do interviews. Having heard some odd stuff about Lon from John, I asked Mr. DuQuette if he would deign to be my first interview victim and he readily agreed.

Turns out, in addition to thumbing his nose at convention (and DUI statutes) Lon dabbles in the occult. Perhaps more than a dabbler: he’s written sixteen books on such topics as the Enochian Magick of John Dee, a guide to Qabalistic practices and Aleister Corwley’s Rituals of Thelema. He’s the oldest living member of the Ordo Templi Orientis, Crowley’s erstwhile secret society and an Archbishop of its ecclesiatical incantation. In short, he’s some kind of a nut.

He also, as it turns out, is formerly one half of the seventies duo, Charlie D. & Milo, has played the guitar since he was fourteen (well, except for a twenty five year lay-off) and was signed to Epic Records where he was paired with the likes of Arlo Guthrie, Hoyt Axton, Johnny Rivers and, of all people, Sammy Davis Jr. As Sammy would have said, “This was one strange cat!”

I see Lon here and there, playing open mics, occasionally slightly longer sets as a “featured artist” and I start to get familiar with his repertoire. He agrees to buy my one of my books if I agree to buy one of his (I buy Low Magick.) Reading is not part of the deal, but I do it anyway. Winter of 2011 finds him and me both in the frozen tundra of the Chicagoland area and I attend a full length concert sponsored by the local coven of heathens (probably not how they’d describe themselves, but accurate as far as it goes.) I hear a lot of pretty good stuff and take note that his local followers have all kicked in $15 apiece for the privilege (of which they are enthusastically digging.) I start to think, “This guy has potential…” but before I can give it any further thought, I take on a musical project of my own (see related …)

Mid summer I get an invite to a Lon birthday party/gig of sorts at DiPiazza’s in Long Beach. I don’t go, but it reminds me that Lon is still flailing around in the minor leagues, musically speaking. I resolve to think about what can be done about this.

My thinking proves to be unproductive so I decide perhaps the best thing to do is plunge in despite having no experience and no ideas. My decision making process has often been flawed in this regard. I’m up front with Lon, “Hey, I think your music merits a wider audience than the ladies of Alta. I’ve got zero experience in artist management. You’re 63 years old and in a dying industry. Why don’t we team up?”

And so we did.

Initially, I thought I might be able to contribute on the management side. After all, I’d been a manager of sort at my “day job” for quite some time and (probably mostly due to dumb luck) that had worked out okay.

I had some ideas.

The first order of business was to get him out of his pajamas and Vans and into a proper costume. Initially I was thinking vintage, but circumstances dictated we go modern. We stopped into Lubiano’s on Newport Ave and had him fitted for “The Suit.” The Suit is part Redbone, part Colonel Sanders with a little Mark Twain. Looks sharp with the right shirt, hat, tie and suspenders. A pair of faux ostrich shoes completed the look, although they didn’t fit as well as they looked.

Next we set about securing a record contract. But first we needed a publishing company. Or was it the other way around? No matter. Working my way down the Checklist to Stardom, it proved to be most expedient to just create both entities and get to the important stuff: recording the songs. I called the label “Ninety Three Records” as those digits are the most numerologically significant to the OTO. I hoped that those that knew of Lon’s work in the occult would make the connection.

Recording is expensive. You need a place to do it. It has to have certain equipment. Someone has to know how to operate it. You often need other instruments. And people to play them. Some degree of experimentation may be beneficial. All of this takes time. And money.

I was familiar with Kickstarter, a “crowd-funding” application that friends had used to raise money for theater projects. I thought, given Lon’s following, perhaps his friends, family and fans, might be willing to donate some of the seed money. They were. So were mine. Some gave a little, some a bit more and one generous soul gave a whole lot. We raised our goal and then some. Expenses of fulfilling the donor rewards ate into some of our kitty, but we started out in pretty good shape.

We spent the money raised very judiciously, mostly to good effect. This was fortunate as I hadn’t properly budgetted for the things that come after the basic recording is complete. The costs of Mixing, Mastering, Manufacturing and Marketing, often exceed that of the studio sessions themselves. I lived, learned (and paid) and we got about eight large boxes of CD’s a couple of days prior to our big CD Release concert at The Chance Theatre. We had a cool looking cover, eleven tracks of solid music – even a bonus hidden “Easter Egg” at the end! We even had distribution on the Internet – CD Baby, Amazon, iTunes, Spotify – Lon’s songs were nestled right in there with the latest from Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga.

“I’m Baba Lon” was released on March 9th, 2012. Several dozen Folk DJ’s added it to their setlists. Lon was interviewed by the local papers, including a front pager in the Orange County Register. An East Coast tour in April was followed by a European tour (four countries!) in September. People like the songs, love the CD and Ninety Three Records established a tiny foothold in the topsy-turvy world of the record industry.

We’re still figuring out the sales end of things, but between our fundraiser and concert patrons, we’re only about half as much “in the hole” as we might have been. All-in-all, it was a pretty rewarding experience.

“Baba Lon II” comes out September 3rd. (Click here to order yours today!)

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Fear and (Self) Loathing in Avonlea

It all started off somewhat innocuously, back in April, with an e-mail from a certain artistic director I know. He’d landed a pretty cool regional gig and was sharing the news. After I congratulated him, I could not resist putting in a plug for my own, admittedly more pedantic, artistic pursuits…
“Any ‘chance’ I might be able to play some of my Christmas stylings at the theater this year? I can play the same three songs from five years ago, except slightly better.”
“Would you consider playing for Anne of Green Gables?”
Would I? Well, sure. Anne wasn’t even on the schedule until November. Shows that far away are still Exciting and Full of Possibility. Just the idea that the AD would be foolish enough to think I could actually play the show was enough to lift my mood.
Mr. Artistic Director went on to sell the opportunity, “They’re really just simple church hymns.”
Just simple church hymns? Well, hell, I ought to be able to play simple church hymns. After 40 years of crapping around at the keyboard I should be able to fumble my way through a couple of canticles. But was it really just a few ditties from the missalette, or was there more to it?
Fortunately a score was available.
The production manager loaned me the book and I went through it song by song. There were 26 compositions, several with “A” and “B” versions, along with various play-ons/play-offs and so on. About 32 separate pieces of music all together. With a few exceptions, all mercifully short.
I went through and sorted them into Doable, Maybe and I Don’t Think So. Only one fell into the latter category: The CharlotteTown Rag.
There was some question about whether I’d actually have to play that one. In previous productions, the piano player danced to the rag and thus, the music was provided by a fake record player. My piano playing is not going to win any prizes, but I can’t dance under any circumstances. I figured I’d be better off learning to play the rag instead of having to do the dance.
I shared my self-assessment with the music director. He seemed to think, given the long lead time I had, plus the brevity and the overall relative simplicity of the score, I’d probably be able to do it – with the possible exception of The CharlotteTown Rag.
He might have been biased. If I didn’t do it, he would have to, and he’d already made plans to go home to Nebraska for Christmas. Plus he was giving lessons weeknights and Saturday afternoons and could not afford to drop his students for the run.
So on or about May 1st, I opened the score and plunged in. I harbored no illusions. I fully expected that at some point, they would wake up and realize a mistake had been made and call the whole thing off. But, I figured the pressure to practice would do me good regardless of whether I ended up playing an actual show. Worst case, they’d use me for a few rehearsals.
It’s a long time between May and November. Six months give or take. So you’d think I had plenty of time to master a handful of easy pieces. That’s because you’re unfamiliar with my rate of piano piece adoption. The way it works for me is: If it’s real easy, I can sort of get it right away, but not really get it for, oh… about three years. This presents some problems as far as being of any use to anyone. But give me three years and I can play an intermediate piece pretty darn good.
I didn’t have three years, I only had six months. And I didn’t have one piece, I had about 20, five of which were in the Intermediate area and one of which had parts that were… “tricky.”
I bought a spiral notebook, set up a few pages for each piece and made notes about “issues” I had encountered. For The CharlotteTown Rag, for example, one of my “issues” was “measures 45 through 60” (I could play the rest okay though!) I also made use of a video camera. I figured I’d “tape” my performances every couple of days or so and be able to see if I was improving over time. Also, having the recorder on makes me real nervous, so it was a good approximation for singers and audiences and stuff like that.
By August, I was starting to feel like I could play most of the pieces well enough, but there were still those 16 measures of The CharlotteTown Rag that remained elusively outside my command. I probably spent 60-70% of my time practicing that section, an allocation I would come to regret later. Although I got pretty close at times, I never got that stretch up to a level fit for public consumption.
In October I found out the music director was not quite as busy with students as he once was, and was now able to play the Saturday and Sunday shows. Being a vastly superior choice to me, he was quickly drafted for the weekend performances and my slate was cut to weekdays only.
I had some mixed feelings about this development. Reducing the number of shows I had to play from 32 to 14 was actually a blessing in disguise. I had the weekends off and most of my days I only had to play one show (on the weekends they do a matinee in addition to the regular evening performance.) However, I suspected I would soon find my involvement reduced further or, worse, I’d be given a one-time “charity” opportunity to play, which I really didn’t want to put the cast through.
Regardless of my misgivings, and accepting that I might ultimately only play for a couple rehearsals, I really had no other course of action than to just soldier on and let the chips fall where they might. And, since the “real piano player” was doing the dance, I would not, under any circumstances, be playing the Rag.
Rehearsals were originally scheduled to start early in October, but they were pushed back a couple of weeks. The first week and a half of rehearsals were held in a smallish multipurpose room at an Anaheim public park, which also served as a base of operations for the area homeless. The “piano” in said space was a cheap keyboard with spring loaded keys and a faulty sustain pedal.
My first couple of days in rehearsal did not go well.
Pieces I thought I could play blindfolded, failed to materialize. Missed notes, flubs aplenty, bad tempos, and just generally crappy playing abounded. And this was on the ‘Easy’ songs.
I told the director that I was sorry and offered to quit. I’m not sure if they couldn’t tell how much I sucked or they didn’t have any other options, but they refused to fire me. On the third day, I brought my own electronic piano from home. It weighs a ton and is a pain to transport, but it plays nice and sounds nice. Its weighted keys and my familiarity with it helped somewhat.
But, there was still a huge gap between how I sounded in my living room, and how I sounded when it really mattered. It was at this point that the learning process really started.
Given the show was scheduled to open in less than three weeks, and I knew that my playing was not going to cut it, I desperately focused my attention on figuring out what my problems were.
Fortunately, I came up with a few things right away.
Clearly, lack of experience was a factor. And nerves.
Nerves were a big problem. I was a wreck. I realized that when you are terror stricken there are parts of your brain that do not work anymore. Like the memory. Think you had that piece memorized? Forget it! You’ve memorized nothing! And probably won’t either, because you’ll be just as petrified on opening night as you are in rehearsal.
And forget “muscle memory.” There’s no muscle memory when your heart is racing along at 200bpm, sweat is squirting out of your armpits and your vision is reduced to a small tunnel, about the size of a roll of quarters. All your muscles want to remember is how to run home, crawl into bed and pull the sheets over your head.
I had inadvertently memorized a lot of the pieces and I’d been looking at my hands instead of the pages for months. When I panicked, the memory went out the window and it was like I was looking at the sheet music for the first time. So, I had to re-learn to play from the score.
Another thing I discovered was there were sections in nearly every piece that I could not play! How could this have happened?
Oh, I could almost play them. Close enough that I convinced myself that I was actually playing them, even though I clearly wasn’t. My hands were moving around and my fingers touched some of the keys involved, but more often than not, they were not the right keys, and if they were, it was just a fluke. This was a disturbing development. I realized there were countless other pieces I thought I’d been playing lo these forty years… that I really hadn’t been. The only good news is that a new layer of my ingrained ineptitude had finally been revealed to me, and at least, now, in the cold harsh light of the rehearsal hall, I was able to distinguish between actually being able to play something and just fooling myself.
There was one last phenomena I noticed. The more difficult the piece was in my initial assessment, the more likely I could actually play it. I was having the most difficulty with the “easier” pieces. Partly because I had spent less time practicing them and partly because each had measures that were not, in fact, that easy.
So with a couple weeks to go I applied my newfound self-knowledge to the task at hand. Drills were initiated, troublesome measures were trotted out and beaten into my brain – think Rocky training montage, except it’s a piano instead of raw meat and no one’s gonna get their ass kicked. I did run up to the library at one point, but it was to return a book and it was only like three steps.
I’d like to be able to say that I remedied all of my deficiencies by the dress rehearsal, but, this is real life and not the movies. I had some minor and not so minor flubbery right up to and including my public “debut” a week after the show opened. I dumbed down a few pieces, got lost on a couple, hit a few wrong notes, skipped some stuff here and there and generally limped my way through the first two shows. Nobody noticed or they were all nice enough to keep it to themselves. (There are a bunch of very attractive young ladies [and lads] out there singing their hearts and lungs out, so the attention is not directly focused on me.)
The heightened anxiety associated with performing the shows helped shine the bright light of reality on my level of ability across the various pieces. Where I did not have the notes down cold, it showed, and I had a very accurate assessment of places where I needed additional work.
And work I did. I had six days in between my two show debut and show number three. I used that time to address the rough patches I’d encountered on my first day. Unfortunately, I came down with a bad cold in the week leading up to my third show. Conjestion, sniffles and abject terror nonwithstanding, by show three I showed some improvement flubwise, even as I remained teetering on the brink of disaster.
About a half hour before my fourth show, an eerie calm (are there any other kinds of calms?) settled over me. Rather than bolster my confidence with Xanax, I told myself, “Self, you can do this. You know the damn songs. You’ve been playing them for nearly seven months! All of the neighbors want to kill you! Just go out there, put your frigging head down, and play the effing songs!”
And so I did.
Oh, it wasn’t perfect by any means. But it was close enough. I started connecting more with the singers, the audience, the flow of the show. Hardly any anxiety. I did have a few moments as I approached the end where I worried I was gonna blow what was shaping up to be a grand slam. But I didn’t.
Just as nobody seemed to notice when I was straddling the abyss, neither did they notice that I’d dodged my demons (for at least this one performance.)
Well, except for me. I noticed everything. Good, bad or otherwise.
Seven months is a long time to spend getting ready for anything. I spent less time training to run a marathon. In retrospect, it seems pretty extravagant. Yes, depths were plumbed, failings faced. Still a tough call whether it was worth it. I’m still pretty terrified in front of an audience.
Besides, if I hadn’t spent the summer playing that score (over and over again), I probably would have done some motorcycle meandering, repertoire refurbishing or recommended reading, most of which I would have soon forgotten. Each distractions of equally dubious distinction.
What’s done is done and no matter what happens the rest of the run, I’ll always have show number four to hang my hat on.

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I Flew Three Million Miles on American…

…and all I got were these luggage tags.

Three Million Miler Tags

Three Million Miler Tags

Okay, that’s not exactly true. I didn’t actually fly 3 million miles. When you get to a certain mileage level, they juice your stats a bit. Technically speaking, I probably have only flown about 2 million actual miles. But it’s still a lot. Took me close to thirty years.

When I first started flying on American, it wasn’t even American. It was a regional airline called AirCal. Used to go back and forth to San Francisco damn near every week for a few years in the ’80’s. Ground out 25,000 miles that way, 343 at a pop. Went to Alaska with the missus for a reward. American acquired AirCal in 1986 and my mileage transferred over.

I did most of my heavy mileage in the late nineties. Mostly US domestic, with a handful of international gigs: London, Paris, Brussels, Barcelona, Stuttgart, Manila among them. Back then there were “business” fares and “tourist” fares controlled by how many days in advance you bought the ticket and the all important Saturday stayover. We used to game the system a bit, by buying “wrap-around” tickets – basically you put two trips together and by reversing the itinerary of the two middle legs, you could make it look like you had Saturday stayovers for both. Was a neat trick until the airlines caught on.

When I first started flying, it was sort of exciting. Even though I wasn’t a rock or movie star, it was as close as I was gonna get to being a member of the “jet” set. Flight attendants still were relatively attractive, there was hot food, (even in coach!), planes were relatively empty and business people and the wealthy comprised a higher percentage of the passengers. Although we had airport screening, the process was a lot looser. You kept your shoes on, laptops remained in their bags. You could pack as much shampoo as you wanted and leave it right in your carry-on, no questions asked! Ticket prices were a lot higher then, in some cases as much as 800% higher, so there were fewer babies and vacationers. There were also fewer seats, more overhead space for luggage and more room for your knees. The movies still sucked on American (and for the most part, still do) but overall, it was a much less stressful experience.

Of course, all that changed on September 11, 2001. I happened to be in the middle of a trip that morning, having flown into Chicago the previous day. I got temporarily stranded, but eventually was able to fly back. The terrorists didn’t just succeed in taking down the towers that day. They also made life miserable for every American flyer, for every flight, from that day forward.

September 11 affected everything from the screening process to the toilets. During the first few months, screeners confiscated nail clippers, tweezers, scissors, corkscrews, batteries, and many of the other nefarious implements you can find in any American bathroom. Apparently, personal grooming devices become lethal once they reach 30,000 feet. Flight attendants, already a bit surly, became far more so, and used the drama of the hijackings to justify treating passengers like cattle. Bitter labor disputes, widespread bankruptcies (except for American) and general paranoia contributed to a poisonous atmosphere aloft. And that was before they cut back on the cabin oxygen to save money.

Now there was no “congregating” in the aisles. Sit in your seat til it’s your turn to pee. No, we don’t have any (effing) blankets. No magazines, either – they are apparently a security risk (seriously.) The captain’s gotta pee! Block the aisle with the drink tray. The new rules were, “Sit in your seat, shut up and just be happy we’re not headed for the Empire State…. building.” And, the passengers, sheep that we are, pretty much accepted them.

Later came fewer flight attendants, many more seats, “Honey, I’ve Shrunk Your Legroom (Again)” and The End of Free Food. Now the only tolerable way to get through a four plus hour flight was to get upgraded to first class.

If there is one thing I can tell American I appreciate is their policy of offering the big, usually kid-free, seats in the front of the plane to regular flyers that are willing to pay a little extra for the privilege. If they did not have a comprehensive upgrade plan that I have religiously taken advantage of, I would have never made it to three million. There’s food up there, and although it’s not great, it’s not bad – and eating it ever so slowly kills about an hour. You can sleep, you got tons of legroom, there’s always room for your bag and the flight attendants treat you with slightly less disdain. Plus you get to feel superior to all those poor bastards in the back.

I don’t fly that much anymore. I’ll be lucky to log 50K this year. I hate going through the security line so much that I just stay in Chicago over the weekend rather than fly home and fly back. Too bad that the Saturday stay over doesn’t save any money anymore! The airlines probably foresaw this development when they were changing the rules.

But American’s loss is Hilton’s gain. My extra days at the Palmer House (the beacon of historic elegance and service in downtown Chicago) have catapulted me into the rarified rank of #1 Guest of 2011. The Hilton still has free food, there’s plenty of room for my legs and they don’t scrimp on the oxygen.

I probably won’t make it to four million miles. I’m too old, the TSA isn’t getting any nicer and I’m just not that in demand anymore.

Plus, American just announced that, if you want to get those luggage tags in the future, you have to actually fly the full million.

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Intermittent Exotropia

Recently discovered that after a few weeks of intense piano practice I tend to get a little dizzy at the keyboard.  My genius eye doctor friend listened to my symptoms, made a preliminary guess as to the cause and confirmed it a few weeks later when I got out to see her.

It seems to fall in the category of “one more thing that’s not good but isn’t going to kill you either.”  I thought the name of my syndrome had a sort of heavy metal feel to it, so I wrote a little song to celebrate its having been positively identified…

Sung/shouted/grunted in mostly one note (metallica style):

“It’s INTERMITTENT EXOTROPIA!!!
When you’ve got LAZY EYES!!!
It’s INTERMITTENT EXOTROPIA
…When they poop out to the sides

Don’t try to sleep with one eye open
Cause it won’t help a bit
You got to do your pencil pushups
To get yer peepers fit.”

Repeat first verse, get a little dizzy and then take a nap.
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Dreams, Distractions and Serenity

[Ed. note: reprinted from ’10 holiday newsletter.]

It’s been kind of weird year so I figured now’s a good time as any to ruminate on some crackpot ideas that have been rattling around in the old noggin’. Can’t say they are holiday themed, per se, but I’m sure I’ll find a way to tie it all back before I get to the signoff.

When I was a kid I was a prodigious reader – sometimes knocking off several books in a single day. Granted, a lot of them were crap, but I made up for it in sheer volume. My taste ran the gamut from mythology to murder, Thurber to Dickens, Voltaire to Vonnegut. I had several library cards and routinely checked out the maximum, often returning to reload in less than a week.

Later in life, I would often get literary “deja vu”, the phenomenom whereby one has the feeling one has already read the book in hand, yet, cannot recall the details, such as the ending and whatnot. Enter shelfari.com. This is website where you can maintain a list of the books you’ve read. It’s designed to make it real easy to create and add to your list. I suppose the main appeal of it is bragging rights, but I thought it would also be a good way to avoid reading the same book twice. I signed up in August of ’08 and immediately set about building my life list, which I confidently assumed would easily number in the thousands. Two months and a lot of head scratching later, I had barely cracked 400, and this included such gems as Essential Abs and Racquetball: Steps for Success. Here I was thinking I might be Mr. Bibliophile Greatest Of All Time and even with 13 Lawrence Sanders’s in there, I’m way under 500. Worse yet, When it came to books that “everybody has read”, such as Brave New World and Catcher in the Rye, I couldn’t remember what they were about and therefore, couldn’t be sure if I had read them. (For the record, BNW: yes, CITR: no.) So I not only hadn’t read that many books after all, I couldn’t remember much, or in some cases, anything, of the ones I had read.

So this got me thinking about what the point was of reading. Since I didn’t really remember any of it anyway, ultimately, it was simply a means of entertaining myself and no better or worse than loitering or, dare I say it, watching TV!

Of course, in my early years, watching TV wasn’t an option for me. We had one, of course. An early sixties black and white “portable” on a rolling cart. Saw the moon landing on it, the occasional Ed Sullivan, and countless Disney “Wonderful World of Color”s, (in black and white, naturally.)

But most of the time the “boob tube” was unplugged in my Mom’s bedroom. At most I was able to waste one hour of the one hundred and sixty eight in a week. As opposed to the thirty or forty I spent reading, a supposedly vastly superior use of one’s time.

This glorification of the value of reading over TV is something I think that continues to this day, except now, of course, it is also held in higher regard than listening to iTunes, surfing the Internet or playing video games.

I suppose the idea is that reading is equated with knowledge and knowledge is power or something like that. A lot of it seems to be tied into the somewhat amorphous idea of bettering oneself or “making something” of oneself. Granted, there’s some truth to this – if you can’t read at all, you’re probably gonna be limited to first person shooter games and surfing the Internet is right out. But a third grade reading level is likely to be all you need to navigate Call of Duty and Facebook. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are just piling it on.

My questioning of the value of reading lead me to question the value of the “bettering of oneself.” After all, if I couldn’t remember half of the stuff I’d read, how much better was I really? And the stuff I did remember, like the plot to Mack Bolan, The Executioner #1: War Against The Mafia (read about fifty of those, but, alas, could only remember the the titles of about three) wasn’t exactly a ticket to cognoscentiousness. Sure, if I had learned biochemistry and devoted my life to finding a cure for cancer or AIDS, I’d put that a notch or two above watching re-runs of The A-Team. But I didn’t and neither did most of the people I know.

Had I the ambition and the talent to be a heart surgeon, or an astronaut or a even a professional athlete or musician, I would certainly have benefited from a rigorous training regimen early in life. But I had neither the foresight nor the self-discipline to pursue such lofty goals and, like many people, lived my life mostly as an exercise in improvisation. For every Jonas Salk, there’s ten million like me.

I still read. In fact, according to shelfari.com, I’ve read over 60 books this year alone (got Catcher knocked off the list.) But I don’t place any greater value on it than someone who spent the year catching up on five seasons of Lost or doing whatever you do in World of Warcraft. I read because I’m used to it and it’s an efficient distraction for me. I can pick up and put the book down when I want, it’s relatively cheap and there’s almost an infinite supply of product.

I associate with other readers, recommend and trade books and authors. But, given that I read five Murakami novels over the summer and couldn’t tell you the main character’s names of a single one, I don’t hold any delusions that I couldn’t have just as well spent my time following the Yankees or killing zombies on my Playstation 3.

Sports, music, movies, TV, Facebook, magazines, hiking, camping, running, piano, guitar, astronomy, cooking, eating, knitting, painting, riding, swimming, whatever – it’s all pretty much the same thing. I’ll grant you that the swimming guy is probably healthier than the TV/eating guy, but the activities themselves serve the same purpose. Something to do. Swimming guy isn’t going to change the world any more than TV guy.

Speaking of distractions and things to do, there’s nothing like “the holidays” to keep your mind off the shrinking daylight, inclement weather and the passing of another year. Starting with Halloween in October, followed quickly by Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years, the holiday conveyor belt transports us past the gloom of winter right through to the point where the days start getting longer again. Picking out costumes, planning travel, stuffing birds, trimming trees – there’s an unending stream of Things We Have to Do. It’s so distracting, I hardly have time to read!

Having recognized that most of my life is a series of meaningless distractions, often from other pointless distractions, I hope to somehow gain a step in the pursuit of serenity. I’m not sure what this entails or even if it’s possible, but I think it starts with changing my relationship to distractions, in such a way that they mostly serve me rather than the other way around. If I don’t feel up to reading the Modern Library’s 100 Greatest Novels of the 20th Century, what difference does it make? I’ll read what I want when I want, and if it becomes a chore, I’ll look for something else to do. My piano playing ultimately really doesn’t have to entertain anyone other than me. And, if, God forbid, one year I don’t feel like sending out a holiday newsletter, well, tradition be damned!

In the spirit of cheesy holiday aspirations, I hope all of you find some peace and serenity in this most distracting of seasons and find time to truly enjoy a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. And if you’re looking for something to do, that hall is not going to deck itself with boughs of holly.

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