Touching Moments in the Life of a Vagabond

It’s no secret, at least to my close family and friends, that my path to the so-called establishment has been non-linear. I prefer the term iconoclast, but call me what you will. While traveling this proverbial road and cobbling together a career (international development, for lack of a better term), I’ve been, to name just a few things, a waiter, a tutor, a bellboy, a clerk in a music store, a K-Mart employee, a martial arts instructor, a group-home manager, a swimming pool builder, a warehouser, a writer, an editor and a carpenter.

The last of those trades, carpentry, has served me the best financially, and I’ve leaned heavily on its advantages for several extended periods in my life. I’ve managed projects and contracted lots of jobs, but in all honesty, I prefer shunning responsibility, turning off my brain, buckling up my belt, and trimming out houses for other contractors in order to reserve mental energy for things I’m more passionate about. This approach paid my way through graduate school, subsidized lots of travel, allowed me some free time to write, and helped keep my life baggage light so that I might be able to pop off to places like Swaziland from time to time.

Recently, I’ve been up to the same, trying to bridge the gap between my most recent overseas excursion — the United Nations Delivering as One in Mozambique: Joint Programme for Disaster Risk Reduction and Emergency Response — and whatever it is that a specialist in post-conflict countries does in North Carolina. Yes, that was a mouthful, and yes, it was spelled, ‘programme.’  Bloody British English. Call it the DRR project if you like. I did.

There was a time in my life when I didn’t mind building things, framing walls, remodeling kitchens, hanging doors. But it’s become tedious. Carpentry, you’ve served me well, but I no longer love you. I’m sorry.

This week I’ve been helping finish a room in a basement that was previously used as a storage room. The room is next to a basement apartment shared by a single mother and her 11 year-old son. The boy has been sleeping on the sofa and using the coffee table as his study desk; this new room will be his bedroom. His mother told me that this will mark the first time in her son’s life that he’s had his own room.

The first two days we built a closet, enclosed the room with drywall, installed electrical outlets, and added a window. The third day, we continued finishing the room, cut an opening into the apartment, and installed a door. Yesterday, when we showed up in the morning to work on the final touches of the project, we found a chair, seated in front of the new window, facing out. The boy had been sitting there in his new but unfinished room, staring out at the woods just beyond his window.

*Best bourbon to drink while remembering to appreciate the details, even while doing things you dislike: Woodford Reserve.

Posted in et cetera | 2 Comments

Artists and the Free Market: The Snuzz Story

Just over a week ago, I had the good fortune of attending Snuzzfest at Local 506 in Chapel Hill. Snuzz, a.k.a Britt Harper Uzzell, is a beloved North Carolina singer/songwriter/guitarist. I first saw him perform some time around the turn of the millenium at a small venue in the bustling town of Elon (I was home from god knows where for a visit) and he immediately won my respect by deftly and politely deflecting the moronic heckling of an inebriated good old boy (GOB) who had wandered in by accident. Snuzz was wearing his signature flat cap, and the very clever GOB remarked, quite loudly, that he wanted to “take a shit in it.” Why I remember these types of things and not which day the recycling truck comes is anybody’s guess. But that’s neither here nor there. Snuzz inhaled deeply — a breath filled with what I was sure would be a venomous burst of microphoned and amplified remarks about Mr. Shit-in-hat’s dirty sleeveless t-shirt, too-tight, knee-length jean shorts, and feathered mullet. That’s what I would have done. But Snuzz exhaled his venomless breath, smiled, quietly explained that the situation wasn’t worth the effort, and cranked out another wonderful tune.

It goes almost without saying that he’s an amazing talent. Great performer, unique delivery, brilliant guitar tone (sorry geeking out on you), and his musical resume really boggles my scrotum: played in Bus Stop, toured with Ben Folds, and was in International Orange with Django Haskins and Robert Sledge. That’s not casual name-dropping; he’s worked with and is respected by some of the most engaging, prolific and dang purty sounding musicians to come out of Cackalack.

Snuzzfest was a quickly organized affair to raise money for Mr. Uzzell, who has lymphoma and no health insurance. The event was incredibly pedigreed, with members or former members of some very well-known NC bands. I won’t get into all that: It’s already been written, and written better, at some of the the links provided in this post.  Better yet, listen here to Snuzz on the State of Things along with Tom Maxwell and Django Haskins.

The show was great. It began with a few quiet solo, duo and trio versions of some Snuzz standards by a few of his very gifted friends. The excellence of the songwriting was apparent: Each song carried a certain gravitational force around which the various interpretations revolved.  All of the performances were remarkable in some way, but Caitlin Cary signing “Like it Matters,” a song about the disconnect between the lonely inspiration of songwriting and the tedium of playing dive after dive after dive, nearly caused me to cry in public. I came so close to tears, in fact, that my “mildly” intoxicated friend and B & G consultant KP from over at My Blog Ate Your Blog asked me if I had swine flu. True story.

Things heated up as bigger ensembles got on stage.  Greg Humphreys played an infectious old Bus Stop number, Snuzz’s old bands Big Kids and International Orange reunited and rocked it after extended dormancies, and Snuzz’s current band, the Numbers, left me cursing the cosmos that I am destined to be such a mediocre musician.

Aside from all that, and aside from healthcare reform — that sumo belly slap of a political discussion that we could easily find ourselves in the middle of — Snuzzfest got me thinking about something in broader terms. Namely, the artist and his or her relative value in our society. Granted, healthcare and Snuzz’s lack of coverage is a big part of that, but it’s only one aspect of a greater question, at least for me.  But for a moment, let’s talk about healthcare. To get started, listen to this, NPR’s Rose Hoban interviewing first Snuzz and then Lynn Blakey of Tres Chicas about the question of musicians and healthcare.  Hoban notes that only 55 percent of professional musicians in the U.S. have health insurance with only 5 percent of those receiving coverage through their work as musicians; the remaining 95 percent are covered either through a spouse, a day job, or out of pocket. It was also noted in the story that Snuzzfest raised about $6,000 for Snuzz, while one diagnostic test alone cost approximately $7,000.

I find it appalling that the U.S. ranks so poorly with other developed (and some not-so-developed) countries in healthcare. Having a sudden illness or a quite commonplace and fixable accident can drive you to bankruptcy and ruin your life in this country, and it just shouldn’t be that way. Not only is it bad for the person, it’s bad for society.  I would ask those water cooler (and tractor) pundits out there who demonize other countries’ systems if they have ever been to, much less lived in, another country. This may be anecdotal and the sample size small, but I assure you that the people I’ve worked with around the world don’t want our current system. They can’t even fathom the idea. The very conservative Australian I worked with?  Nope, he’s quite happy that Australia has full access for everyone. The even more conservative Italian?  Ditto, he’ll take Italy’s system over ours any day. The Brits, the Portuguese? All the same story. Granted, the system in Mozambique, where I worked recently, was terrible, but you could have guessed that, right? Here’s a great slogan:  “U.S. Healthcare, Better than Mozambique.” Take that to your town hall meeting and wear it on a t-shirt.

I’ll also say that I don’t think the bill currently in question goes far enough.  It has some good things in it, but I’m just not sure if the American public has the collective stomach for even these small changes, which, as my good friend and respectable insurance advisor over at Chip Millard’s Weblog has noted, may raise a lot of people’s premiums in the short run.  And as far as broader reform is concerned, I’m pessimistic.  What we’re talking about is an interest group political economy smackdown with a 24-hour media cycle / public opinion tag team.  It ain’t pretty.

Now back to my original thought: the value of artists in society. I can already feel it coming, and it’s a good thing that nobody reads this blog because before I even get started I can sense the ignoble nonplussitude brewing in the anonymity of the internet. Someone named jackmioff69 is going to call me a socialist, which means that thoughtful discourse is over before it starts and that I am obliged to retort by calling him names, and on and on ad infinitum. But here we go anyway.

Let’s say, for example, a youngster decides to attend an art school, or to pursue some sort of fine arts degree at a liberal arts college. He has some talent, and art, music, drama, etc… is something he loves. He comes from a family with little means — which fuels the body of work he will later produce — so he has to rely in part on loans to get himself through school. He comes out with a substantial burden of debt. On the other hand, someone else who lives down the block with a similarly humble upbringing decides to get a degree in business or computer science or some such thing. This person ends up with the same amount of debt, but actually finds a financially lucrative career path just out of school and is able to very quickly eradicate that debt. Meanwhile, the musician (we’ll go with a musician here) plays in a few area bands, gives some lessons on the side, and works in a coffee shop. He struggles to pay his debts  (much less his rent) while living in the same community as the business major, who wears a tie during the day and visits the musician’s coffee shop because the musician is also an excellent barista. The business major also enjoys the brilliant and thriving local music scene on the weekends and sends his child to get guitar lessons from the musician, who, by the way, is still barely getting by. These two people have skill sets that cost the same to acquire but carry very different market values.

What I’m getting at is this. Artists contribute a great deal to society, while most get paid very little for their work, and the rest of us get a whole lot for next to nothing. The places artists tend to live have music and galleries and small theaters and great restaurants. These places are more aesthetically pleasing. They are cool. And advertisers, administrators, computer programmers, and building contractors all like living there. Because it’s pleasant. Because there’s entertainment. Because those musicians are funky and beautiful when they bring out that salad and glass of wine. Artists add a tremendous amount of real property value to an area, but most get very little in return.

Of course I don’t have a solution for this, but I promise to work on it. I’m a big proponent of free market economics for things like mp3 players or running shoes, but in this situation, the system breaks down. If you don’t believe me, then don’t support arts or artists at all, wait until they starve or move, and then go listen to a band full of bankers. Hope you like it.


Posted in Music, Subbacultcha, The South | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

11 Reasons Not to Hate Technology: Reason 4, Podcasts

I haven’t actually come up with a list of 11 reasons, and I don’t know where I’d rank this if I did. But, along with political extremism and free porn, it’s something that seems very popular on the web these days. Making lists that is.

Embracing new forms of media technology to the detriment of more traditional forms of media is something that I’ve shunned, or at least lamented, in the past. But I’m not a crotchety old man just yet, and I’m not above changing my mind. Some little snippets of new media I hadn’t explored until recently were podcasts. Probably most people with an internet connection know what they are, and certainly, most of those people are more familiar with them than I am — or at least than I was. But gosh darnit, I’ll have to say that I’m a fan now. There are lots of podcasts to choose from of course: Try listening to a weekly rundown from The Economist, a daily dose from Slate, or an investigative story from the BBC on your way to work. Better yet, take This American Life with you on that boring 45-minute drive to visit your mother. Podcasts allow the convenience of having these shows with you when you get a chance to listen to them. These shows and news sources aren’t new to me, but now I have them when and where I want them.

Dig around a little more, and you can find something amazing, though.  Something you haven’t encountered before. For example, The New Yorker has a series of podcasts in which famous (this is a relative term these days) writers read some of their favorite short stories by other famous writers — short stories that have previously appeared in The New Yorker.

In order to get an idea of how great these are, start with “One With a Bullet.” This is one of my favorite writers reading one of my favorite stories by another of my favorite writers: T.C. Boyle reading “Bullet in the Brain,” by Tobias Wolff, and then discussing the story with The New Yorker‘s fiction editor Deborah Treisman. Boyle’s reading is skillful and entertaining; he’s said before that he prefers to say that he performs stories rather than reads them because reading sounds so boring. He then discusses why the story works so well and what’s unusual about it without embarking on the usual esoteric wankery of literary theory.

photo from USC faculty profiles

photo from USC faculty profiles

There’s a lot of horse shit out there that passes for literature, and often it seems that modern short story writers are out to punish us rather than entertain us, which may be contributing to the decline of the genre.  Short stories used to matter. Not so much anymore. These little podcasts from The New Yorker prove that short fiction can still be entertaining and relevant. Oh, and they’re free.


Posted in Literary, Subbacultcha | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Jon and Kate Plus I Hope They Both Get Swine Flu

photo from VH1

photo from VH1

Many doomsday freaks like to reference current geopolitical events as evidence that the end is near. I say a better argument that we are now living in the End Times can be made after watching a few minutes of Real Chance of Love.

In case you don’t know what that is, here’s a brief rundown of the genealogy. It starts with Flavor Flav, whose original schtick was being in Public Enemy, the world’s angriest hip hop ensemble, while being the world’s most lovable crazy person, while wearing silly sunglasses and enormous clocks around his neck. After some years of obscurity he resurfaced in the VH1 reality show, The Surreal Life, in which he embarked on a love affair with Brigitte Neilson, who played alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in Red Sonja, then played Ivan Drago’s wife in Rocky IV, and then actually married and quickly divorced Sylvester Stallone, and whose schtick is now being a lunatic.

A spinoff of that show called Strange Love featured Neilson and Flav rekindling their incredibly creepy relationship in Milan because, well, that’s as good a place as any to have a creepy relationship. Alas, they weren’t meant to be, so Mr. Flav was given his own reality show called Flavor of Love, a Bachelor-style elimination show on which exotic dancers competed for Flav’s affections. The certifiably insane runner-up from the first season of Flavor of Love, named “New York,” then got her own dating elimination show called I love New York.

Two brothers nicknamed “Real” and “Chance” were contestants on the first season of I Love New York, and now they have their own show, Real Chance of Love, on which exotic dancers compete for their affections.

While “researching” this little six degrees of damned good reasons to move to an off-the-grid cabin in the Yukon, I drooled on my keyboard, lost 19 IQ points, and invited a nest of fire ants to take up residence in my eyes. Consider that during this bit of “research” I found out that the Flavor of Love 2 finale was the most watched non-sports cable show of 2007, and that a guy named “Tailor Made,” who won I Love New York 2, and was on an I Love New York/ Flavor of Love spin-off called I Love Money, is now running for New York City Council.

Now consider this scenario: You are trying to convince a sentient alien being that he/she/it shouldn’t destroy Earth a la Marvin Martian with his Illidium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator. This being is neither benevolent nor malevolent, just neutral, and he’s doing a sort of cost-benefit analysis of whether or not to destroy our planet. He’s trying to figure out if Earthlings have anything to contribute to the galactic canon, so to speak. You’re trying to convince him that saving us is worthwhile, but then you somehow start talking about Real Chance of Love, and you end up assuring him that total destruction will be the most pragmatic choice, and that his view of Venus will now be unobstructed.

Late last year I left the United States for work, and I was gone for eight months. I already had a sort of hate-hate relationship with reality television, but while I was gone, I mostly forgot about the phenomenon. I had cable television, but the strange  mix of international stations thankfully seemed to omit nearly all of these god-awful shows. My housemates and I, on the rare occasions that we did sit down in front of the television, were more inclined to agree on watching news channels, or a classic movie channel, or even Top Gear, which I suppose, technically, is a reality show.


Sometimes we’d watch more recent movies, and my housemate, an Australian, decided he would never visit the U.S. because he was sure it must be infested with zombies. His argument was quite simple and went something like this: Based on American movies, he reasoned that Americans were obsessed with zombies. Therefore, America must be full of zombies. I thought he was nuts, but when I came home and saw part of an episode of Real Chance of Love, I knew he was right.

I’ve never really been able to comfortably navigate the concept of celebrity, especially when people started becoming celebrities simply because they had begun to attain a certain level of celebrity, and not for being good at something, or really, even being able to do anything at all. Take Jon and Kate of the drippy show, Jon and Kate Plus Eight. When I left the country, they were merely two people who had an unfortunate fertility drug mishap that produced a family of sextuplets and twins. That’s eight children in two birth sessions in case you couldn’t work out the calculations. When I returned, Jon and Kate were plastered on the covers of every low-brow entertainment rag in every supermarket checkout line from here to Spokane and down to Albuquerque. They had affairs. They had hair implants. They had liposuction. They had plastic surgery. They had sex with bodyguards. They bashed each other and cried on televised interviews. In short, they were acting like celebrities and were therefore being treated as such. I don’t know these people, so I certainly shouldn’t hate them. Their situation seems as much a manufactured product of the entertainment machine as their own doing: a celebrity chicken-and-egg dilemma, if you will.

No one seems immune to the relentless assault of these shows on our daily lives. My wife watches some of them. She’s a social worker, and spends her days immersed in the sort of real real life that would cause most of us to crawl up in a dark corner with a handful of Xanax and a fifth of Old Crow. So when she gets home, sometimes she likes to switch off her brain by watching fake real life. Of course I love her unconditionally and I like to give her the benefit of the doubt, but she once shushed me during an episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians, which I think is legally admissible in a divorce case as evidence of spousal abuse. That, and turning into a zombie.

Posted in Subbacultcha | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Kickin Chicken

chicken partsAs with many neighborhoods, mine is governed by a set of covenants.  For example, it is codified that residents may not keep livestock in my neighborhood.  It’s not something I’ve really given much thought to, save the brief, passing desire to raise a small herd of bison on my 1/3 acre lot.  When I found out about the no livestock bylaw I thought, “Well, that sorta blows,” but then I realized afterward that my neighborhood association had saved me from my ill-conceived plan.  As much as I enjoy the challenge of a new project, I have no business whatsoever being a bison farmer.

In general, I hear very little out of the neighborhood association.  Ours is an older development with wooded lots.  The yards aren’t immaculately manicured, and in the summer, we can barely see our neighbors through the trees.  We’re on an emailing list that mainly exists to let everyone know that the annual neighborhood yard sale is back on this year (yippee!) and that it’s time for the bi-annual brush pickup.  Occasionally, there’s a photograph of a dodgy looking mutt accompanied by an email query wondering if the dog is a stray or simply a clever little Houdini.

Last week, there was another of these stray dog alerts.  What made that email different was a short postscript at the end.  “On another note,” it said, “what do the good people of Polks Landing think about allowing residents to raise chickens in their back yards?”  And then, as they say, it was on.

I’ve been living in this neighborhood for more than five years now, and I can safely say that the chicken debate has been the most impassioned in that time.  By a long shot.  There’s not even a contender.

Comments have ranged from the simple, straightforward, “I’m in favor of backyard chickens,” to a resident wondering, “What the hell is wrong with you people?  Are times so bad you can’t afford to go buy a decent meal?”  One neighbor noted that her opinion would be based on what people intended to do with their chickens.  “A few eggs would be fine,” she wrote, “but the idea of people slaughtering chickens in my neighborhood is deplorable.”  This hastily written electronic two-cents was quickly refuted with an essay espousing the nobility of killing a chicken with one’s own hands.  People wondered about disease, quickly being challenged by neighbors who accused humans of being the dirtiest, most disease-ridden creatures in the neighborhood.  Others were concerned about the noise, but one creative thinker quickly solved that problem by suggesting that the new code include wording that allowed hens while prohibiting roosters.

One interesting comment called the whole thing a fad and wondered if it wouldn’t just be less of a headache to forget about this chicken business altogether and let it pass out of trend faster that you can say, “Take those damned Crocs to the Goodwill!”
I’m into the whole slow food thing.  Hopefully, getting a little more intimate with our food and food sources is a movement instead of a trend.  I don’t want to live next to a chicken house, but having a couple of egg layers in the back yard would be great.  I like eggs.  And the added bonus is that free range hens in the back yard eat ticks, which we have in abundance because we’re overrun with deer.

*Best bourbon to drink while conteplating a new neighborhood covenant on backyard chicken farming:  Wild Turkey.*

**Quotes from my neighbors are paraphrased.

Posted in Food, Subbacultcha | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Wave of Mutilation: GRE remix

I just registered for the GRE again.  I’ve taken it, but it’s been more than five years, too long for universities to accept.  I think it’s all a scam: kickbacks and so forth.  Just like textbooks, a subject I’ll save for another time.

I have mixed feelings about the GRE.  Sure, the test itself is painful and expensive, but the preparation doesn’t bother me all that much.  Call me a masochist, but I actually enjoyed studying for it the last time.  Instead of writing about these mixed feelings I’ve chosen a video to speak for me.  Pixies “Wave of Mutilation,” UK Surf mix.

*Best bourbon to drink while studying for the GRE: none, unless you plan to conduct an experiment in altered states learning.  But once you’re finished, anything will do.  Try Old Rip Van Winkle.

Posted in Music, Subbacultcha | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Poetic License and Registration

I was having one of those grammatical OCD moments earlier this evening. A sort of no-holds-barred cage match inside my brain over the usage of the words optimal and optimum. When I re-read what I’d written, the word optimum used as an adjective just looked a little out of place. A quick lick of the thumb and a gentle ruffling through a dictionary or three proved fruitless. In Merriam-Webster, The American Heritage, and Oxford, the word optimal is listed only as an adjective, while optimum can be either a noun or an adjective. So it would appear that I was not incorrect. But it was still bugging the bejesus out of me. On-line dictionaries (I actually looked at print versions first) turned up the same thing, with no guidance on preference. I saw a few discussions on the Internet on the subject, with some people stating that the preference should be to use optimal as an adjective because it can only be used as an adjective, and to use optimum as a noun. But these were clearly just opinions. The Associated Press Stylebook that I have had no entry regarding this. I’ve  decided to go with my gut and use optimal as an adjective because it just sounds better — at least to me. Now that I’ve settled that great inner debate, I can move on to more important things, like the AP Stylebook itself. It had been a while since I’d opened the thing, and I’d forgotten what a fascinating read it is. Seriously. It’s a real page turner. One can always find something that has been previously missed. For example, I found out that, at least according to AP style, one can only take poetic license with poetry. And all this time I thought I could take poetic license wherever I damn well pleased. “Sir, do you realize why I stopped you?” “No, officer.  I don’t.” “You were taking poetic license in a prose zone. I’m gonna have to see your poetic license and registration, sir.” And then there was the hillbilly entry. I realize, of course, that the term hillbilly can be (and is often) used derogatorily. What I didn’t realize was that the guide offers the use of the term mountaineer as an alternative to the use of hillbilly. In all fairness, most dictionaries do give two definitions for the term, one being a person who climbs mountains for adventure, and the other, a person who lives in a mountainous region. I would argue, however, that the latter definition is rarely used now. And it just doesn’t seem to fit. I’m at least a quarter hillbilly on my father’s side and one-eighth on my mother’s, so I’ve known a few hillbillies in my day. I can assure you that none of them owns a pair of crampons or an ice axe. As things sometimes work on the Internet, this all somehow led me to an exploration of the portrayal of stereotypes in various media, and how bad it used to be in the U.S. Especially with cartoons. The depiction of African Americans in cartoons in the earlier part of the 20th Century will blow your mind in a surreal, “Did that really happen?” sort of way. The portrayal of white Southerners and hill folk (there’s a term I can get behind) wasn’t much better. For an excellent example, try “Musical Mountaineers.” It’s a Betty Boop cartoon from 1939. I’m guessing the producers weren’t being sensitive or using any particular style guide when they came up with the title; the alliteration probably just had a better ring than Musical Hillbillies. The stereotyping in the video is interesting. And I apologize for using the word hillbilly so freely, especially when I have a family full of them.

Posted in et cetera, Literary | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments