Showing posts with label Utah Phillips. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Utah Phillips. Show all posts

14 February, 2020

Calling in well

artwork by Darrell McKinney
Maybe someone should give those Madison Street marketing cutthroats a cigar, because it's three decades on and I still think about those Sunday morning retirement commercials on television. Do you remember them? Sandwiched somewhere been Archer Daniel Midland commercials, Meet the Press, and Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood like cheese in a Dagwood?

Maybe it's because I'm turning 47 next week and it's getting that
What's a Dagwood?
period of life when people (I'm told) start paying closer attention to their retirement nest egg... assuming they have one to look at. Maybe it's because I'm looking forward to being someone's grandfather when my granddaughter makes her appearance sometime in the next 6 weeks or so. I've been thinking about my dad a lot lately, and maybe that has something to do with the fact that he didn't live long enough to meet his grandchildren, or with the fact that I'm getting older and seeing less of him in how I make my way in the world.

I've written about this before, so I don't want to hammer in on it too much. Instead, I want to talk about calling in well.

I first heard the term from Utah Phillips, on The Past Didn't Go Anywhere, a collaborative album put out by indie icon Ani DeFranco's  on Righteous Babe Records. Utah was talking about his friend, the musician Mark Ross, "America's most famous unknown folk singer."  Calling in well is what Utah called Mark's decision to stop trying to live someone else's life and live his own... which meant making music, no matter what.

The notion stuck with me... sort of a dream, an unarticulated goal.  As peripatetic as my employment life has been, except for a 2 1/2 year stretch as a full-time composition instructor at Arizona State University, you might be surprised to know I didn't call in decades ago.  As a matter of fact, most of my working life has been an attempt to do things The Right Way.

No. Really. Honest.

I think in the end it's all about the platitudes you choose to give your life over to. Most of my working life was given over to Give your life over to the work you love to do and you'll never work a day in your life. That's primary mantra of job coaches, HR reps, college admissions counselors, and my high school Guidance Counselor Mrs. Click.   And as much as I fought it, and regardless of how much my own experience kept shoving my face in the contrary, I still tried for that goal. Teaching was close and so was journalism; those jobs, even though I was largely underpaid and certainly unappreciated in both fields, came close to matching my skills and my need to be useful. Both teaching and journalism -- the real kind, not what passes for the press most of the time -- can be noble endeavors, and I know people who engage in them nobly. 

But it didn't last. Some of the reasons were my fault, but I still believe I was written off by both higher education (for having the temerity to suggest that economic exploitation is wrong) and journalism (for not game playing and politicking in a political town).  The part of both of those situations that was my fault is this: I'm not good at the whole "play the game" thing. 

That's another one of those platitudes, most often uttered by parental types and sports fans. Play the game... which is code for "compromise for a paycheck." Now I do enjoy watching a good baseball game, but I never understood treating my working life like trying to get to third base, only to be tagged out sliding into home.

Maybe it's a temperament issue. Maybe it's about my birth order. Maybe it's about my middle class upbringing that translated into a disregard for money. Maybe it's the chip on my shoulder that, chip away at it as I might, I can't seem to get rid of.   All I know is this:

I'm calling in well. Now. 

It doesn't look like I wanted it to look; I was hoping to have a slightly better idea where the little bit of money I'd like to make would come from. But I'm done with platitudes that don't work for anyone except a larger system that's built to exploit and hold out the promise of retirement as the time to "really live."  I'm a poet, a writer and teller of stories, and a collector of stories. I'm a wordslinger. I write Word-Things. I fully expect to take on gigs from time to time, but copywriting gigs aren't going to define my life. 

So, to borrow and edit from Charles Osgood... really the best part of Sunday morning when I was younger... I'll see you in between the words. 

01 March, 2012

Shipping Out to Boston: The Beantown Massacre (Verses 1 and 2)

And Alice... Remember Alice? The song's about Alice. -Arlo Guthrie

I'm tired of being civilized. Look for me Butte. -Utah Phillips

Verse 1

I'm leaving Boston by train. 20 minutes or so in and moving along more or less on schedule. Although my stay here was brief, and I saw hardly any of the sites people are supposed to see when they go someplace as historic as Boston – my friend and host, Eric (heretofore after known as Neil The Protestant Saint) did point in the direction of the bridge where The Actual Tea Party happened.

[My use of capital letters was intentional. With the Koch Brothers financing the cadre of yahoos known as The Tea Party – which consists primarily... though not ENTIRELY... of lower class whites disenfranchised by the power mongers and money changers (in the Biblical sense... think about it.)and older white folks who probably consider themselves middle or upper middle class... primarily because they still have the hope of retirement, Snow-birding in Florida or Arizona, and a cool, comfy grave... who are alternately afraid that some great brown or black horde is out to destroy their way of life and also afraid they might have to start paying legal wages to get their landscaping done. Of course, on a FUNDAMENTAL level, there's probably not a lot of difference between this current batch of crackers who don't want to pay taxes and the historical bunch of crackers who didn't want to pay taxes. Except the pantaloons and the tri-fold hats.]

I had such ambitions for my visit. I knew it was going to be brief. I knew I would be heading back to the Midwest – as I am right now – to take care of some remaining details regarding my current and ending marriage and to make plans for the future. I don't know if you've noticed a particular pattern over the last 31 posts; but if you have, one of them might possibly be a certain desire to avoid conflict and put off thinking about What I'm Going To Do Next.


The truth is, I normally find it challenging enough to live in the present without having to worry about the future. But this trip – and the ones that will follow – are, underneath the bad varnish and veneer of my procrastination, all about The Future.

And of all my friends, probably the one who most interested in The Future is my friend Neil. Like my brother, he is tech-savvy and probably too smart for his own good. And, knowing my situation, and because he and I have always enjoyed what I like to think of as a certain meeting of the minds – we both had a predilection to wander into trouble when we were younger and we both wanted to be writers and we both liked our bourbon (Life long friendships have been forged over far less important things.) – he has been quick to not only offer his friendship and moral support, but some much appreciated assistance in the monetary vein when it was most needed. He also arranged for my transport from New York to Boston via Bolt Bus, allowed me to meet his wife, Laura, and their gold retriever, Clementine.

[I was supposed to meet Laura a few years back, when they were married in a picturesque chapel outside of Bloomington, Indiana. I was teaching at Arizona State and Melissa and I were, as always, in some cycle of living paycheck to paycheck; and even though I had almost a year to try and figure out how to get to Bloomington, the same thing happened that has always seemed to happen... a bunch or random events, seemingly unrelated, but still oddly conspiratorial in their result. And so, I wasn't able to make the trip. But Neil did show me pictures from the wedding. It was very nice. I (still) felt appropriately guilty for missing it.]

Neil works in the IT Department at Harvard, though they are looking hard at trying to move in the next few years. Laura is in the process of building up a business out of their apartment in the suburbs– Pansy Maiden Handmade Purses. Neil told me, based on the progress she's making that he expects she will be the primary bread winner by the time he's 40.

Like many of my friends, Neil and Laura are trying to be healthier and more conscious of what they eat. As a result, they're now full-fledged vegans. Now, let me say that even though I still occasionally want a hamburger or a well prepared steak (there's really no point to any other kind and anything else is an insult to the cow and to the person eating it), and even though I like chicken and I like fish when it's properly prepared (for the similar reasons as listed above), I am not opposed to a mostly vegetarian diet. I like the food; and when it's done right, it doesn't have to be expensive. I don't know that I could give up eggs and cheese on a regular basis; but I understand the impulse. The drive behind it has to with striving to live as close to a healthy and pure life as possible. And while some folks take this to an almost obsessive extreme, Neil and his wife, like my friends Susan and Steve in New York, are thoughtful and rational about the whole process. In some ways, Neil's desire to pay attention to the nutrients he takes in reminds me a little of Arc in Washington, D.C. (Though Arc is far more obsessed in his approach; maybe it's some derivative impact of being an IT person of a particular generation, not of my brother's... though he is, in his own way, extremely particular.) And I must confess that both meals I had under Neil and Laura's roof – a vegan Sloppy Joe and baked brussel sprouts (the best way to eat sprouts, I now believe) and a vegan Shepherd's Pie that was also really very good with a little sea salt and pepper) – were both wonderful.

[People who cook confirm for me what I learned during the process of learning how to cook over the past decade: when you know how to cook, and when you're willing to play with your food in healthy ways, you don't have to spend a lot and you don't have to go hungry, and you don't have to eat garbage. Me, I'm a big fan in rice and beans. Learn it. Live it. Love it.]

Neil met me at Boston's South Station – a huge mass/public transit depot for Amtrak, commuter rail, and bus (Greyhound, Bolt Bus, Lucky Star, Peter Pan). Of the stations I've been in, South Station is one of the better conceived and better kept up. It has all the ambition of Union Station in D.C, but it's not in a state of perpetual construction; it has all the goods and services and kiosks that you expect in an urban transit center, but it's still laid out in a logical way. Boston may be a back water in comparison a place like New York; (even Neil admitted this was the case... and considering where he's from in Kentucky, he knows quite a bit about the nature, scope, and definition of back water. So I am inclined to trust his opinion... except maybe on his newly acquired interest in the Red Sox. At least they're not the fucking Yankees, damn their eyes.) however, at least they know how to build and maintain a train station.

As usual, the cold weather was also there to greet me, and we made our way through an entirely too brisk wind for such a mild winter to a restaurant where I ate a respectable mission burrito (rice, tomatoes, black beans and some guacamole. A nearly perfect meal.) and a cup of coffee. He then wanted to stop a bar, promising me beer with 10% alcohol (Budweiser has about 5%, by way of a loose … very loose … comparison.); but the bar was crowded. So we went on back to his and Laura's place in the burbs, the idea being we could drink there just as easily and far cheaper.

Verse 2

[A Brief Primer on Drinking and the Creative Process:

While it's true that I do and that I have spent many happy hours sitting in bars or in a friend's home drinking, it's not something I consider a real problem. Others may disagree. They are entitled. Since leaving Kentucky I've stayed – much to my surprise and sometimes to my dismay – amazingly sober. It's expensive to drink on road. And believe it or not, I have friends who don't drink. No. Really. Sober people occasionally enjoy spending time with me. Granted they may be laughing at me behind my back; but I'm usually too drunk to pay attention.]

When people have asked me what I studied in graduate school, I very rarely give a straight answer. This is due, no doubt, to a certain puckishness on my part; I'm just as apt to answer Mechanized Finger Painting as I am Professional Underwater Leg Shaver. Sometimes I tell people I majored in loafing as an undergraduate and went on to study the fine art of sloth and indolence in graduate school.

None of these – except Mechanized Finger Painting and Professional Underwater Leg Shaver (I have trouble holding my breath) – is really all that inaccurate. After all, I was (in truth) an English major. And what was worse, I was one of those who aspired to write.

[Now, all you English Majors out there, writers or not, who are screaming at your laptop about just how WRONG my characterization is, please do consider this: if you declared English as a major (May Gawd Have Mercy On Your Eternally Damned Soul) chances are, you like to read. I mean, at least slightly better than half. Say 51% chance. Right? (Nod in agreement.) Ok. So you have to read a lot of stuff you probably wouldn't have and you maybe don't give a good god damn about Dickens or Matthew Arnold or Alexander Pope or whether Sir Francis Bacon was the talent behind Shakespeare or whether it was really his sister Anne, or what. To be honest, I didn't give a damn, Except for the erotic literature (which probably isn't period and certainly isn't canonical), I LOATHE most of the Victorian Era … including Dickens, in spite of his massive social conscience. That he was paid per word, and published his works serially... I don't really object to. Dostoyevsky was paid by the word too, and wrote copiously... but at least he was doing something noble and trying to pay off gambling debts. The point is, essentially, you get to read. You have to learn how to write about what you read and become, in fact, BETTER readers. And if you don't like Return of the Native(which I like, having read it years later) or The Old Curiosity Shop(which I like in spite of Dickens. Hard Times, too. So Suck it.) you don't have to. You just have to be able to explain in precise and bloody terms WHY.]

One of the other things I often tell people is that I majored in GTA (That's GRAND THEFT AUTO, the video game) and beer. (When I was teaching, students especially enjoyed that particular description.) The reason I have told people that is that my entire last semester, other than teach, and work on my creative thesis (Buckeye Gumbo), I was half-assing my way through my one lit class, drinking a lot of beer, and playing video games. I lived in a house with a bunch of other guys who engaged in the same noble pursuit.

And it was nothing short of glorious. As a man, you never really understand yourself as a man until you admit that, even in your early 30's you need to drink beer, eat pizza, and play video games. Or do something else that is maladjusted and anti-social and potentially embarrassing for for friends, lovers, and family to have to explain to others (only when asked and usually with great trepidation.)

Neil was one of the guys who, even though he didn't officially live there – neither did I, for that matter – who was always there and engaged in what can only be described as the contemporary version of the scrotum scratching tribal drum circle that Robert Bly made himself famous for. For my part, I haven't picked up a game controller since we pawned the PS2 in Phoenix to help pay for the move. (Then again, I have moved on to other, more disreputable pursuits... journalism and gambling among them. It's also important to keep your sins down to a reasonable number... say, drinking plus 3. Plus 4 if it's a holiday.) Neil has a gamer's dream: 52 inch plasma screen (LCD isn't THX certified), a PS3 and and an Xbox. (It's important to have everything covered.) He's also got that set up where You Become The Controller.

So he made us drinks and we played darts. Virtual darts. Which I sucked at. But then again, they weren't real, so it didn't matter anyway....

The drinks were Rum and Ginger Ale. I don't normally drink rum, primarily because it doesn't always sit well in my system. Too much sugar maybe. But The only thing bourbon related he had was a partial pint of Jim Beam... which, when I mentioned it, I thought maybe he was ashamed. Maybe.

We spent the night catching up and talking about mutual friends, which is always nice. I had some updates since I've had the opportunity to visit old friends on this particular jaunt. Neil, who is much taller than I actually remember him being, spent a lot time talking about not only how he's happy with the direction of his life, and how happy he is with Laura, but also telling me that even though I'm going through something with the ending of my marriage to Melissa, that I also have a chance to make something good out of it.

“You can write yourself out of this,” he said.

It made me feel good... one, that he's been reading. And two, that he still knows me... even though we actually hadn't seen one another in person since I left Morehead in 2002.

08 February, 2012

An Ohio Valley Yankee in Virginia, Part 1: "Daddy,What's a Train?"

"She blew so loud and clear, we had to cover up our ears..." -Utah Phillips

"It is better to keep silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt." -Mark Twain

It's costing me $4.95 to hook into the wireless at the Richmond Amtrak station, so I want to get this posted as quickly as possible and get about spending the night here. And I'm doing it all for YOU, dear faithful few readers. 

I found this sticky table place near the train station shortly after departing. And yes, I was hungry... I don't eat much when I travel, so it's not surprising that I would be hungry. (Please consult The Greyhound Quarto, available for download here for a more in depth explanation.)

The thing that attracted me to this absolute paragon of cuisine... generally overpriced, probably lard based, and oddly flavorless in spite of looking like something sort of resembling food... was the subheading. As well as the 1970's era neon sign in the window reading COCKTAILS. I wanted something in my stomach and I wanted something in my liver. And since, I had already splurged for a train ticket to Norfolk (really Newport News... with a bus ride into downtown Norfolk) rather than try and figure out the metro bus system. So I lose my $7 fair. But it was still pretty cheap... $28. Not to mention the fact that trains are roomier... bigger seats, more leg room, and a dining car -- with food and drinks that's overpriced and undercooked.

 I didn't experience the wonder taking a shit on the rails. But there's always tomorrow.

And before you ask... NO, I haven't given up on Greyhound Bus Lines. I'm merely playing hard to get. I mean, there's nothing wrong with THAT is there? Don't I have the right to shake my ta-tas and see if I can get those bus executives to throw a little patronage my way???

Mike and Liz woke up before Gawd this morning to take me to the Ashland train station. It started snowing... feeding my growing paranoia that the weather is out to get me, and is constantly pushing me along. Liz, being a cold weather person, was excited by the prospect; I, however, was not.

But the snow then dissipated and stopped altogether. So maybe... just maybe... I'm not at the heart of some meteorological conspiracy.

Maybe. Stay tuned for updated on this one.

The Amtrak Cardinal arrived about a half hour late -- a time we were doomed to not make up the entire day. There are other differences between bus and train travel. On the train, for example, I couldn't sit anywhere I wanted. I was told where to sit. Luckily, though, I got a window seat. I figured I'd sleep for a few hours and try and catch the scenery. Whatever that would be. 

I have to admit at this point to a certain ambivalence -- some might call it hatred -- of (By Gawd!!!) West Virginia. I have lingering memories of driving up Sandstone Mountain on I-64 East, on my way to pick up Stella at the Virginia / (By Gawd!!!) West Virginia State line for scheduled visits. We would meet at a rest stop just passed Exit 1. My car -- a primer orange 1984 Subaru LS Sedan with a massive oil leak, no radio, a leaky exhaust, and a tricky heater that I had to sometimes start by slamming the alternator with a sledgehammer -- almost always nearly overheated trying to climb the 2650 foot Sandstone Mountain, leaving me no choice but to stop at the Beckley mega-stop to let the car cool off and refill it with oil.

And because I could not choose my seat, I could not choose my seat mate. There was a cute blonde I thought might be worth talking to... would've meant an aisle seat, too... but I was perfectly willing to sacrifice.

Instead, I got stuck with 80 year old widower Ralph Miller. Native of Ashland, on his way to visit his son who lives in Manassas, Virginia. Now, in addition to being a widower, Ralph is also a godly man who lives life to the fullest. I know this because Ralph told me this, in various forms, over and over again. He also talked at length about his wife, who has only been dead two months. He also explained to me that the problem with the world is that kids aren't disciplined anymore.

I'm gliding over and making fun; but it was good to talk to Ralph. We probably agree on next to nothing; and I told him nothing of my situation, other than I was on my way to visit my daughter. He was very kind... even when I disagreed about his decision, as a member of his local school board, to ban a particular text that "encouraged the overthrow of the government" and sought to teach students "how to start a riot and how to build bombs."

I'm guessing that he either didn't notice or didn't understand the IWW pin on the lapel of my coat. I would have showed him the Hakim Bey book that Mike gave me before I left, but it fell out of my pocket and was nowhere to be seen. Grr...

He leaned over and whispered "And you know who it was...." he looked around and leaned in closer. So did I, since I knew it was going to be a whopper. "It was by one of them COLORED writers." (Yes, I know, I know. He's 80. He's from Kentucky. Whatever.)

The tiresome generational racism aside, talking to Ralph was interesting enough, and so was the scenery. West Virginia, when you get away from the interstates, is really a beautiful state. Desolate. Depressed. But still beautiful. Once you get past the industrial decay and academic lethargy around Huntington and Charleston, the Amtrak Cardinal runs along the New River... which is the 2nd longest river in the world. You roll by Canal Falls, and the nearby dam/power plant which provides around 35,000 megawatts of energy for more than 4500 homes. The New River Gorge also holds another power dam at Hawk's Nest -- which, among other things, is famous for causing most of the workers who dug the water tunnel into the mountain to develop Silicosis resulting from hitting a cache of silica in the mountain.

Rolling through West Virginia, and knowing even a little of the history of the Appalachian region -- you can't help but get a sense of the tragedy. In fact, it's the tragedy that makes the scenery beautiful. Beautiful and sad. I submit for your approval, the town of Thurmond, WV, population 7.

That's right. 7. Maybe 6, since it's possible someone died.

Thurmond used to be one of those prosperous coal mining towns. And then, of course, the coal ran out and so did the coal company. Thurmond has since been swallowed up by the Department of National Resources, and is suffering a languishing death because... or so I overheard on the train... the DNR won't let the town move forward. No real renovation. No bringing in new business. No real chance to expand and grow. And so, it's dying.

The good news is, Thurmond will always be remembered... in the way the Disney Small Worlds ride is remembered: nice enough scenery if you're rolling by and happen not to be making out with someone. Thurmond is a case where, between the coal company's greed and the DNR's-- and, for all I know, the town leaders -- myopic notions of progress and restoration -- a town will simply cease to exist. This is something I know a little about, having seen it in Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, and now, West Virginia. 

And since I'm paying for this wireless access, I might as well also point out that, in spite of Ralph's obvious bigotry, I found it difficult not to like him. I don't buy into the generational excuse; I believe anyone can change... it's just that most people choose NOT to. I like that he's 80 and that he still loves his wife. He even joked about trying to find another wife, then said there wasn't a point... because, he said, there was no chance of ever finding anything close to what he had with her. And even though he did, at one point, try and save my soul, I found the old guy endearing. Because he's still moving forward. He's still trying to learn. He's not sitting at home in Ashland moping. 

That's something worth thinking about over gin and tonic and tasteless pork barbecue.

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Thanks for reading.]

06 September, 2011

Notes from Bizarro World (Post-Labor Day Post)

The more history I read and the more I consider our present circumstances, the more I think I live in Bizarro World.

For those of you who are not imminently COOL enough to know what I'm talking about, I am referring to the cube shaped planet Htrae, where Superman's block-headed alter opposite Bizarro lives:

(This is also the real  location of Crawford, Texas.)

Because everything on Bizarro World has to be opposite of everything on Earth, this -- again for those of you not comic book inclined -- is a copy of the Bizarro Code:

The implication, of course, is that everything done on our planet is perfect -- or at least, our goal to try and get as close as possible.  And of course, in 1960's comic-speak by PLANET, they mean THE UNITED STATES.

After some deliberation, I've come to the conclusion that if I'm supposed to live in a world where beauty and perfection are the goals, then I'm in the wrong one. As a matter of fact, it seems as if the highest goals and deepest desires of the planet -- and by the planet I mean THE UNITED STATES  -- are the exact OPPOSITE of any attempt to attain beauty, truth, or perfection.

Thus, I can only conclude that I currently reside on Bizarro World.

Because only on a planet such as Bizarro World could Labor Day pass with little or no attention paid to the fact that celebrating Labor -- that is, the Labor Movement -- has more to do with the holiday than fireworks and barbecues. Neither The History Channel, nor The Documentary Channel showed anything about people who work, the history of labor in this country, or the struggle for workers rights and the legalized murder of labor martyrs like Joe Hill and Albert Parsons -- just to name 2; and given the current drive by Tea Baggers, lily-livered Libertarians, GOP'ers, and spineless Democrats to further undercut unions in this country, I sort of thought that maybe one of them might have run something. I don't think PBS even ran anything, either.

The only national news item that ran about Labor was Teamster President James Hoffa calling the Tea Party a bunch of "sons of bitches." Of course, Fox News -- trying, I guess, to distract attention from Der Fuhrer Rupert Murdoch's problems  -- had to give the TB'ers yet another platform by covering the the drippers' condemnation of Hoffa's comments.

On the other hand, I'm not really surprised. Since we are clearly a country of people who have forgotten our history -- accepting, instead, the sanitized, glamorized, homogenized version sold to us in history textbooks -- it's no wonder that we are repeating it.

But since I am clearly on Bizarro World, I should point out one of it's key inhabitants. And no, I don't mean Bizarro Superman, or even Ambush Bug.

The sad part about liking comic books is the realization that in real life there are no super heroes swooping down to save us. Institutions of government and religion and of higher learning have failed us.

That means it's up to us.

Or, you could wait on Ambush Bug.