Archive for December, 2008

The worst Christmas song of all time

December 21, 2008

Yesterday, I listed what I thought were four of the five worst Christmas songs of all time. Today, we learn who the winner is and, of course, by “winner” I mean “loser.”

The perhaps unlikely recipient of this honor is “Do They Know It’s Christmastime?” by Band Aid. I will admit that this song had at least two positives going for it: (1) it was a genuinely catchy and inspiring arrangement, and (2) it single-handedly saved the African continent from the ravages of hunger. Those are pretty strong plusses, so you can imagine the kind of negatives it would take to offset all that good, and transport this effort to the status of worst Christmas song of all time.

I know he’s already considered something of a “Gloomy Gus,” but consider what singer Morrissey had to say about the song.I’m not afraid to say that I think (Band Aid creator) Bob Geldof is a nauseating character. The record itself was absolutely tuneless. One can have great concern for the people of Ethiopia, but it’s another thing to inflict daily torture on the people of England. It was an awful record considering the mass of talent involved. It was the most self-righteous platform ever in the history of popular music.

Another critic suggested “the song presents a very bleak view of Africa, which the lyrics appear to refer to as a whole. Some of these, such as the suggestions (if read literally) that the continent has no rainfall or successful crops, have been seen as absurd by critics. The lyrics as patronizing, false and out of date.”

Well, let’s take a look and see what we, and by “we” I mean “I”, think.

It’s Christmastime (for the half of the African continent that is Christian)
There’s no need to be afraid
(yes there is, if you’re living in many part of Africa)
At Christmastime, we let in light and we banish shade (thank you, ‘80s British rockers)
And in our world of plenty we can spread a smile of joy (that’s your best idea?)
Throw your arms around the world at Christmastime
(just not practical)

But say a prayer
Pray for the other ones
At Christmastime it’s hard when you’re having fun
(please, don’t put yourself out)
There’s a world outside your window
And it’s a world of dread and fear
Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears
And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom
Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you
(that just seems terribly selfish)

And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime (Accuweather calls for humid)
The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life
(Oooh) Where nothing ever grows
No rain nor rivers flow
(except the Nile, Niger, Zambezi, Victoria Falls, etc.)
Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?
(do these people have no calendars?)

(Here’s to you) raise a glass for everyone (we’ll have champagne; you drink the tears)
(Here’s to them) underneath that burning sun
(thanks for that shade banishment)
Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?

Feed the world
Let them know it’s Christmastime again
Feed the world
Let them know it’s Christmastime again
(OK, OK, we heard you the first two times)

With only a few days left till Christmas, I think I can avoid radios, malls, medical offices, elevators, etc., long enough to avoid this song for the rest of the season. If you can’t hole up quite the way I plan, then all I can say is thank God it’s you instead of me.

 

Worst Christmas songs ever

December 20, 2008

Today I begin my list of the five worst Christmas songs in the history of the universe. In reverse order, they are:

Number 5 “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” by Michael Jackson

This is the only song on my list that is a re-imagined classic rather than an original composition. It was recorded back in the Jackson Five days and features Michael at his high-pitched screeching worst. (I’d say he was pre-pubescent at the time, but then I could be talking about last week.) In the final bars – “…mommy kissing Santa Claus … last … night” – the pitch is so grating that I get a headache just describing it. It’s so bad that it’s possibly even worse than the allegations of child abuse against him.

Number 4 “Little St. Nick” by the Beach Boys

Allow me to quote what is otherwise one of my favorite groups of the rock era:

Well, way up north where the air gets cold
There’s a tale about Christmas that you’ve all been told
And a real famous cat all dressed up in red
And he spends the whole year workin’ out on his sled

It’s the little Saint Nick / Ooooo, little Saint Nick
It’s the little Saint Nick / Ooooo, little Saint Nick

And haulin’ through the snow at a frightenin’ speed
With a half a dozen deer with Rudy to lead
He’s gotta wear his goggles ’cause the snow really flies
And he’s cruisin’ every pad with a little surprise

Run run reindeer / Run run reindeer / Run run reindeer / Run run reindeer

Ahhhhhh / Oooooooo
Merry Christmas Saint Nick
Christmas comes this time each year

I think that last line is my favorite. Nothing puts cheer in the season like reminding us that holidays come on a regularly scheduled basis.

Number 3 “Step Into Christmas” by Elton John

I don’t know if Elton collaborated with long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin to create this song, or whether it was one of his rare song-writing efforts with the ghost of Adolf Hitler. Either way, it’s a sorry, sorry offering.

Welcome to my Christmas song
I’d like to thank you for the year
So I’m sending you this Christmas card
To say it’s nice to have you here
I’d like to sing about all the things
Your eyes and mind can see
So hop aboard the turntable
Oh step into Christmas with me

Step into Christmas
Let’s join together
We can watch the snow fall forever and ever
Eat, drink and be merry
Come along with me
Step into Christmas
The admission’s free

 Note that he’d like to sing about “all the things your eyes and mind can see,” in other words, virtually everything known to mankind, from kangaroos to the tensions on the India-Pakistan border to the third law of thermodynamics. Just “hop aboard the turntable so … we can watch the snow fall forever and ever … because the admission’s free.” Excuse me, but I just have to ask: what?

Number 2 “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney

This “song” is an absolute abomination. Even if you didn’t compare it to other holiday efforts by former Beatles – the haunting “Happy Christmas (War is Over)” by John Lennon and the not-really-a-Christmas-song-but-I-think-it-mentions-Jesus “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison – it would still be ghastly. Let’s look at some of the “lyrics”:

The moon is right
The spirits up
We’re here tonight
And that’s enough
Simply having a wonderful Christmastime
Simply having a wonderful Christmastime

The party’s on
The feelin’s here
That only comes
This time of year

Simply having a wonderful Christmastime
Simply having a wonderful Christmastime

The choir of children sing their song
Ding dong, ding dong
Ding dong, ding ohhhh
Ohhhhhhh

“Ohhhhhh” indeed. And, I might add, “arrgghhh” and “eeewww.”

Tomorrow, the number-one worst Christmas song of all time.

Playing the corporate game

December 19, 2008

As I’ve written before, I’ve been involved in a lot of game-playing during my corporate career. I’m not talking about the politics and back-biting that make the corporate life so much fun. I’m referring to the all-too-occasional exercises in what’s generally called “career development,” where a group of employees sit around a table (or a bush or an abandoned fire training tower) and get run through a series of humiliations and/or life-threatening workouts. If you’re lucky, you only feel stupid; otherwise, you end up “developed,” a painful condition where you exhibit a positive attitude all out of proportion to your circumstances.

Generally, these outings are designed to promote creativity and build camaraderie among the troops. You’re taken out of your normal cubicle environment and put in a setting where you are encouraged to think outside the box, dare to be great, or push the envelope of your normal comfort zone. I happen to believe that thinking outside the box is over-rated, and remind my cat of this every time he strays over the edge of his litter container.

Nevertheless, I try to be a good boy and play along. The first couple times, I genuinely tried to improve myself and my value to the company. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become a lot more jaded, as you’re about to read.

One fairly common method to get group members to open up and talk freely is to mentally transport them to a different place in time. Here, they can talk about their aspirations or ramble nostalgically about the past. In one session I went through in the early ‘90s, staged for what were (wrongly as it turned out) perceived to be future leaders, we were told to draw a picture of where we saw ourselves in ten years. The only thing the 15 people had in common was that they imagined a future somewhere very far away from the company they were supposed to be leading. I remember that my picture had me sitting on a dock next to a huge satellite dish that retrieved documents from outer space that I would then proofread while my son sat next to me fishing. (I wasn’t exactly prescient about the coming rise of the Internet.) Poor artist that I am, my group’s facilitator interpreted the scene as someone working at NASA directing the first mission to Mars, with my son playing the part of a tethered robot. Close enough, I figured.

A similar exercise was done with another group a few years later: they were told to think exactly ten years into the past. Headlines of the exact day were read aloud and a hit song from the period was played to tickle everyone’s memory. We heard funny tales from high school, a story about a surprise birthday party and, from one young woman who could barely hold back her tears, a recounting of the day after her mother was killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver. The brainstorming was not especially inspired after that.

Another common activity is to break the group into smaller teams who are then given an assignment that requires them to work together to accomplish a goal. Once, we had to use tape, pipe cleaners and popsicle sticks to create a contraption that could cushion an egg from a six-foot fall. Another time we had to reach consensus on the best way to fold a sheet of paper into an airplane, then test our designs with a farthest-flight competition in the parking lot. My prototype was damaged when it was run over during flight testing; I wanted to ball up the remains and wrap them around a rock, which I was convinced I could throw way farther than anyone’s aircraft was going to go. Apparently, this was not the paradigm shift my trainer had in mind. Maybe I’d do better if a coloring or finger-paint session was next on the schedule.

I also had an opportunity to work on the other side of the equation when I spent a few years as an excellence trainer. (Note that I said “excellence,” not “excellent.”) During each day-long quality awareness session, we played what was called the JIT game, which was meant to demonstrate just-in-time production techniques. Each six-person team was given a collection of interlocking blocks and asked to set up a line that could produce exact replicas of a certain configuration. They were required to re-engineer their process several times – with blatant hints from the trainers – to achieve more and better widgets crafted each time with fewer and fewer people. At the end, they could do their very best work with only two people instead of six. Inevitably, some participant would learn the wrong lesson and ask what would happen to the four people who no longer had jobs. The trainers were told to make some vague hint about how maybe they could work in marketing instead.

The most enjoyable game I can recall from my quarter-century experience with this garbage was the Myers-Briggs personality assessment. What I liked best was that this was something you could do largely in the privacy of your own personal space, without having to “team-build” with your half-witted coworkers. You’d answer a battery of questions about your preferences – there were no right or wrong choices – and then you’d be put into one of 16 categories that labeled you as an extrovert, a thinker, a perceiver, an innovator, a molester, an invertebrate, etc. The only group participation required was at the end when you were given your results and told to go to a part of the room where you’d join up with others of your monstrous ilk and compare notes.

One thing I have learned from all these corporate games is how to game the system. Since no judgments are made, no answers are wrong and no ideas are too ridiculous, you can offer up the most absurd input and enjoy watching your guide squirm as they validate your responses. “Yes, Davis, your idea about twirling on our tippy-toes while talking to clients on the phone is a very innovative one,” the trainer says. “Let’s write that up on the whiteboard.” Until they wise up and put your manager behind a two-way mirror with your personnel file, your pay grade and a taser at the ready, these learning opportunities can actually be rewarding. Just not how they were intended.

 

You want my advice? (Pt. 4)

December 18, 2008

This is the fourth installment in my free but increasingly dreadful advice service. Today’s topic again addresses a technical matter, but I’ll also be tackling interpersonal relationships, spiritual concerns, health problems, do-it-yourself issues, travel, and virtually anything else I care to. TODAY’S DISCLAIMER APPEARS IN UNDERLINED CAPITALS, BECAUSE I WANT TO SEE HOW UNDERLINES ARE CONVERTED FROM WORD TO HTML: REMEMBER, I HAVEN’T THE FAINTEST IDEA WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT.

Q. I’m hoping you can provide guidance concerning harmful radiation from a satellite dish mounted on my roof. I’m a little concerned because we’re expecting a baby soon, and her crib will be just a few feet away from the satellite dish’s position on my roof.

A. You’re quite right to be concerned about the position of the satellite dish. The way that it’s mounted, the angle of the dish and the condition of the bowl itself are all very important considerations in the well-being of your loved ones. You also need to look at the power source, the wiring and the connection into your TV. All of these must be in proper shape to guarantee you’re getting the crispest picture as well as all the channels you’re entitled to. The happiness of your family members hangs in the balance, especially if they can’t see all the Indian cricket, Mexican soap operas and NFL football they want.

As for the baby you’re expecting, I wouldn’t recommend putting her crib on the roof. Most roofs are slanted to allow rain and snow to trickle off, and the same thing could happen to your little girl if the crib isn’t soundly secured. It would be much better to keep her inside the house, preferably in a room by herself, if she’s going to scream and moan anything like my kids did. This room, often called a “nursery,” should not be confused with the nurseries and rooftop herb gardens some people keep in the city. It should contain bedding of soft cotton or linen, not soil or mulch.

Allow me to wish you all the best with the new addition to your family. A rewarding life of laughter, pride and contentment await you as you watch the number of channels offered on satellite TV continue to grow and grow. There’s nothing quite like a dish to make you appreciate how happy you can be with your family.

Just make sure that new little girl doesn’t get loose and chew through the wiring.

I beg (urp) your pardon (achoo!)

December 17, 2008

I wrote not too long ago about my annoyance with the social convention that demands a verbal response from bystanders when someone sneezes. Just as we properly fail to comment when our friends and coworkers make other kinds of unprompted nasal or oral outbursts — like snorting or saying “hi” — so too should we mind our own business for the sneeze.

The most common response always seemed a little presumptuous to me anyway. “God bless” sounds too much like an order to the deity. He’s supposed to stop whatever grand enterprise He might be involved in so He can heed your command to bless Bob from accounting simply because he (Bob) had an irritation of the nasal passage that caused a sudden, forceful expulsion of air and God knows what else? Even the most focused of us has to concentrate when creating worlds or smiting errant Methodists; we don’t need to be distracted by requests for trivial blessings, especially when we all know that Bob makes it louder than he has to just because he craves attention.

Saying “God bless” is second nature to many of us, yet would other cultures similarly demand their gods do such casual bidding? Can you imagine hearing “Shiva, hand me that stapler,” or “Yahweh, tell that guy to knock off the humming”? I don’t think so.

If we’re all going to agree that spontaneous eruptions from the mouth or nose need some kind of acknowledgment, let’s at least be consistent and come up with some standards that make a little bit of sense. I think I’m as competent as anyone to start the discussion.

For sneezing, I proposed we switch over completely to the more secular “Gesundheit.” I believe that translates from the German to “good health,” which is probably too late to hope for if the cold germs are already in the trachea but seems like a nice sentiment anyway.

For coughing, I think we should say “Schadenfreude.” Again, turning to the Germanic tradition feels appropriate and, since the translation has to do with taking delight in the failure of others more successful than you, a certain bitterness is properly communicated.

For hiccupping, I would suggest something along the lines of “Sorry you’ve had a convulsive gasp caused by the involuntary contraction of the diaphragm. Let’s agree that it won’t happen again.”

For burping, let’s go with “Jacksonian democracy.” Admittedly it makes no sense, but it should at least prompt a change of subject to 19th century American history. I think we also need to acknowledge the pause in conversation you’ll sometimes detect when someone just barely manages to suppress a burp. Your boss says “I really think that in order to cut costs further we’re going to have to (pause, slight puffing of jowls and slight lowering of jaw) lay off our entire workforce and outsource our production to Chimp Haven, the retirement home for lab monkeys” and you’re thinking “Wow, he almost burped; I should probably say something.” That something should be “Hail, Satan.”

For yawning, no response should be required unless the yawn is accompanied by an audible sound. If it is, let me propose either “need a nap?” or the equally appropriate “please close your mouth as soon as possible.”

For throat clearing, keep in mind that this is usually done as a preface to an interruption, so a good reply might be “what the hell do you want?” If instead, a true backup of phlegm was actually involved and the “ahem” was sincere, say nothing but instead evacuate the area immediately.

For chewing gum in such an insistent manner as to cause a cracking sound, we should say (into the nearest 911-enabled telephone) “The nature of my emergency is that my friend has apparently swallowed Bubble Wrap.”

For sniffing or sniffling, like when you’re try to get air through a slightly congested sinus, I’m tempted to suggest the caustic “Oh, boo-hoo, what a baby” but that seems a little harsh, even to me. I think I’ll recommend tactful silence unless – and this is a very important exception – the sniff is accompanied by a high-pitched tweet, which should prompt the response “There seems to be a bird in your nose; let’s join together to kill it.”

Nose-blowing, even the most subtle variety, is an abomination that I can’t believe is sanctioned in polite company. Considering that it’s far less spontaneous than other expulsions – the blower even premeditates (if we’re lucky) his or her move by producing a hanky – it should not be tolerated, much less tacitly endorsed with a friendly comment. Nose-blowing should only be done under the care of a healthcare professional on an in-patient basis at the nearest major medical center, or at least not in the same room as me.

Horking, mostly done by cats trying to expel a hairball though occasionally heard from elderly gentlemen, should be met with “bad kitty” (or “bad elderly gentleman”) followed by a stern “No!”

I think I’ve provided an adequate framework for the transition from our current methods of recognizing these outbursts to something much more fair and equitable. I realize that there may be some categories I haven’t covered, in particular those hybrid explosions that combine two or more of the above-defined events: the sneef (sneeze + cough), the curp (cough + burp), the york (yawn + hork) and the never-documented but often-theorized snickup (sniffle + hiccup). But I can’t both create and manage this new system, and will have to rely on the good sense of average citizens to take it to the next level if that’s what’s needed.

I don’t want to appoint a Language Czar to oversee my plans though, if necessary, I understand George W. Bush may soon be available.

You want my advice? (Pt. 3)

December 16, 2008

This is the third installment in my free but dreadful advice service. As I mentioned previously, my philosophy uses the concept of making things up as you go along, with little or no regard for the consequences – a methodology I call “selfish preposterism”. Today’s topic again addresses a health matter, but I’ll also be tackling interpersonal relationships, spiritual concerns, computer problems, do-it-yourself issues, travel, and virtually anything else I care to. IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER, TODAY IN BOLD CAPITALS, IN HONOR OF THE FROZEN CAPITAL MARKETS: REMEMBER, I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT.

 

Q. My 82-year-old father was recently hospitalized with complications from a blood disorder. Medical staff assessed the need for a urinary catheter. The insertion was done with a dry tube surface. When asked if they could “put something on it,” the female nurse just told him to “take a deep breath”. The insertion was done twice, both times without lubricant. When he told his regular doctor, she just about came unglued. My father is now unable to urinate on his own because of a blockage, which his urologist said may have been caused by the dry insertions. He now has to live with a catheter. I cringe whenever I think about his experience and wonder if others have been subjected to this.

     A. HOLY CRAP! DID YOU REALLY HAVE TO TELL ME THIS? OH MY GOD, THAT SOUNDS HORRENDOUSLY PAINFUL.

     On a more sane and sober note, I agree with your father’s regular doctor who suggested using glue as a lubricant. Wait, that’s not what you said. Jeez, I’m really unhinged here.

     I’m guessing that the female nurse who did the unlubricated insertion misconstrued your father’s request to “put something on it” as an improper sexual advance, which it may well have been. Is your father currently getting “any”? Was “it” in an engorged state when the request was made? It may be that his eagerness for admittedly pleasurable but inappropriate touching by the nurse could have caused him a more painful procedure than was necessary.

     As for the blockage he’s now experiencing, I would suggest limiting his intake of fluids to zero. If he still has to urinate, you might try the homeopathic version of a catheter: a Burger King straw (the big ones they give out for milk shakes). Instead of the greasing the tube, try lubricating your father instead with a tall glass of Bacardi 151 rum. While he’s unconscious, his limp appendage should be far more user-friendly.

     And please, PLEASE, never write to me about urinary catheters again. I’m serious.

Don’t forget to get Alzheimer’s

December 15, 2008

Like many people approaching late middle-age, I’m starting to have some concerns about my memory. I’m not sure where on the continuum from a few “senior moments” to full-blown Alzheimer’s I might be, and even if a neurologist could pinpoint it, I wouldn’t be able to remember what he said.

It’s that short-term memory that I seem to be having the most trouble with these days. I guess this is something everyone struggles with to an extent; even the twenty-ish cashier who I just paid for my tea had notes scribbled all over the back of her hands, including a scrawl that looked suspiciously like “kill.” (You’d think a chore that life-altering would tend to stick with you, but maybe she’s got a lot of holiday-related obligations — parties, cards, gifts for the nephews, etc. — on her mind.)

Now that I think of it though, my mid-term memory is also suffering. I recently made a list of all the places we’ve gone on vacations over the years so I wouldn’t forget the tremendous time we had in Montreal or that great walk along Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. My wife would suggest that if these events were so memorable, then I’d remember them, and I suppose she has a point. But I did shoot photographs and took video on both of these trips, so why should I have to waste cranial storage space when I can just as easily root around in the dusty bags stashed in the top of the coat closet to recall such precious times?

What tends to be most bothersome to family members, and I’ve heard this is a symptom I share with the most desperately neuron-deficient, is that my long-term memory remains quite good. The problem is that it’s not important lifetime milestones like weddings and births that I remember with such clarity. I do vaguely recollect that my wife had some sort of child a while back, and I’m pretty sure it was a boy because that’s what we have walking around the house now 17 years later. But the details of that event are roughly equivalent to my recall of the ’63 Dodgers and the record-setting 104 steals made by Maury Wills on their way to the World Series. The emergence of a living being who represents my own flesh and blood from the womb of my beloved life partner is a truly magical experience but, c’mon… 104 stolen bases in one season?

What worries me is that it’s neither long- nor medium-term memory that allows you to get through the day in some sort of organized, survivable fashion. It’s the immediate stuff that’s most important to daily life. I can’t imagine arriving at the airport having forgotten my passport and yet getting a reprieve from the screeners because I can remember the actress who played Granny on “The Beverly Hillbillies” (Irene Ryan).

For just one example, with this being the Christmas season, I am expected to remember hints dropped by loved ones about the type of gifts that would be most dear to them. I barely even realize that it’s the most wonderful time of year until we’ve run out of Thanksgiving leftovers, and that still hasn’t happened yet. My wife and son already have an estimated four presents either in-hand or on-order for me, and I’ve yet to visit a single retail website (unless you can count ESPN.com). I think Beth said she wants an iPod or socks or tea, or something in that general area. But these kinds of things come in such a huge variety of options these days that it’s very challenging to pick out exactly the correct item. Beth has kindly promised to get me to the website of choice this weekend and position the cursor directly on the gift she wants, then turn away as I click so that there’ll be at least some element of surprise.

It’s exactly this kind of immediacy that enables me to function with some measure of decency. I’ve borrowed a term from modern manufacturing techniques to give credibility to the technique I’ve developed. Called “Just in Time” – for the idea that you don’t build something until right before someone wants it – I want to learn what I need to know just before I need to know it. Don’t tell me several weeks in advance that my mom’s birthday is coming up. I need to know at the very last minute so I can spend three times the necessary amount on rush postage and still be two days late.

Aside from occasions like gift-giving and breaking the heart of my dear mother, the other major handicap I’m learning to live with has to do with following directions to get from one location to another. Visiting my son’s high school the other day, I asked at the main office to be directed to a particular room number. I was told go out this door, turn right, go down the hall and through the double doors, walk across the open area to building E and take the first hall to the right all the way to the end. I moved my head up and down and put the most understanding look I could summon on my face as the sounds being made by the secretary in front of me went whizzing by my head. It was at this point that I wished I’d put a Garmin GPS on my Christmas gift list.

There is one major benefit to a severely deficient memory, and that comes while watching television. I can’t tell a first-run TV show from a rerun even if it stars Bernie Mac, Heath Ledger and Pope John Paul II. I can blissfully sit through every episode of “Seinfeld” or “The Office” that I’ve ever seen and enjoy the jokes like I’m hearing them for the first time. This annoys my wife to no end, since she has the memory of a wolverine and can recite dialog from foreign films she hasn’t seen for years, and do it in French. Plot twists already known to millions hit me out of left field, like an errant throw from Orlando Cepeda trying to gun down the speedy Wills on his record-breaking dash for third base.

I’m just hoping to hang on till retirement, when I can while away my remaining days, remembering to drool now and then but not much else.

Rediscovering the rock concert

December 12, 2008

     As a fifty-something man, it’s been some time since I’ve been to a live rock concert. I’ve been a fan of the genre for as long as I can remember (at least since 1966’s “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” assuming that counts) and grew up being inspired by rock’s energy and message (the Red Baron gets shot down in the end). Nothing beats a live performance of rock ‘n roll to celebrate those two magical elements in a community of like-minded people.

     The last concert I can remember attending before just recently was during my final year in college when I drove 180 miles to see John Denver. Now I know a lot of the purists out there will claim that John Denver hardly qualified as a rocker, but let me tell you that the bespectacled moptop could seriously get down. He wasn’t all “Rocky Mountain This” and “Rocky Mountain That.” He actually had a drummer on several of the songs.

     This past summer, I got to attend my first arena show in ages as I accompanied my 17-year-old son to a performance of Canadian rockers Rush. I was delighted to be invited, first because it indicated that Daniel wasn’t too embarrassed to be seen with his dad in public, and secondly because he was embracing a style of music that we could share an appreciation for. Also, I wasn’t on restriction, like the friend he originally planned to go with.

     We made our way to the Verizon Amphitheatre just north of Charlotte on a hot July day. Walking through the parking lot, we saw numerous tailgate parties featuring abundant amounts of beer and suspicious smoky odors. The rebellious nature of rock was alive and well in these small groups who were openly defying the property-wide ban on cigarette smoking. When we got to our seats, we found ourselves situated in mid-row between a guy throwing back Bud Lites at an alarming pace and a 6-foot-8 student with limbs the length of a primate.

     The three-man band took the stage and proceeded to rock long and hard through a set list of new songs and classics. We tried to care about selections from their new “Snakes & Arrows” album but were really there for oldies like “Tom Sawyer” and “Working Man.” To give something of a theme to the tour, they’d produced a short film featuring Jerry Stiller on a nationwide search for rotisserie chicken (I didn’t get it either), and stage props that included upright ovens that roasted rotating birds. The increasingly drunken guy to our left was really getting into this, repeatedly shouting “chicken! wooo!” and “wooo! chicken!” directly into my ear. As the afternoon heat and closeness of the crowd started getting to us, we retreated to the back lawn and spent the rest of the show looking up at the stars and considering how man should “put aside the alienation and end up with the fascination.”

     Then, just this past Wednesday, I had an opportunity to join Daniel for another concert, this time with former Talking Heads front-man David Byrne. We drove through a soaking rain to arrive at a trio of venues clustered together on the east side of Charlotte. I had been to this site several times before but became confused about where exactly I was supposed to park. There’s an auditorium, an arena and a theatre, and they are forever changing labels as corporate naming rights come and go. Were we looking for the Bojangles Arena, which used to be the Blockbuster Coliseum after it had been the Cracker Barrel Arena for years? Or did we want the Papa John’s Theatre, formerly the Time Warner Cable Theatre, formerly the Slim Jim Turkey Jerky Performance Space? We found a line of cars queuing up for a parking lot, so we got in it and hoped for the best.

     And the best is what we got. David Byrne put on an absolutely brilliant performance with all the quirky lyrics and bizarre choreography of the Talking Heads. Three back-up singers and three dancers lumbered frantically around the stage in hilarious chaos, at one point performing while lying flat on the floor and at another time scooting around in office chairs. The music was every bit as enthralling, with the new stuff as mesmerizing as the oldies. I will say nothing nasty or sarcastic about Byrne who is, remarkably, a fellow fifty-something.

     The auditorium offered very comfortable amenities and seating, though the crowd didn’t seem to know how to use the latter. When the musicians first took the stage, we all stood and welcomed them loudly. We continued standing through the second song, and the third song, and I began to wonder why we had bothered to pay for the seats. When a slower-paced song began, most of the audience took the chance to sit down and rest, but then re-exploded onto their feet when a high-energy number followed. My back is not in the best shape and I was starting to wish we could pick a pose and stick with it; I didn’t care which one, I just didn’t like all the up and down. Perhaps the guidance of a program would’ve been handy, like those we used to have in church that prompted “the congregation rises” and “now you sit down.”

     The other parts of the concert that gave me pause were the sing-along portions. It wasn’t a formal row-row-row-your-boat kind of thing. I’m talking about how enthusiastic audience members would chime in with the chorus of certain songs, whether they knew the lyrics or not. I wanted to hear Byrne singing “Life During Wartime,” not the bozo behind me who chanted “This ain’t no Hardee’s/This ain’t no Frisco/This ain’t no dueling in town/No time for potluck/Or heebie-jeebies…” and so on.

     The end of the set arrived, a reasonable 90 minutes after the show began, and we gave a rousing ovation as the band bowed, waved and then left the stage. Then, more awkwardness – how exactly is this encore thing supposed to work in a way that doesn’t embarrass the performer and afflict the audience with repetitive motion injuries? We all know it’s a sham, that the musicians are going to return for another song or two. Still we play this little game where we pretend we can’t live without them and they pretend to be on their bus, halfway out of town already. Byrne and company seemed to stretch their luck a bit with the amount of time they stayed off-stage, and the cheers were starting to ebb when they finally returned. Embarrassing, yes, and yet we did it all over again following another song. After this one, though, we clipped our appreciation short and managed to get them to stay away.

     Though awkward, uncomfortable and slightly scary to someone my age, I must say I enjoyed both of these concert experiences thoroughly, probably slightly more in retrospect than during the event itself. It was a great chance to bond with my son and allow us to share a common passion for a cultural phenomenon that will never die, even if most of its earliest fans will shortly.

You want my advice? (Pt. 2)

December 11, 2008

This is the second installment in my free but awful advice service. As I mentioned before, my philosophy values the concept of making things up as you go along, with little or no regard for the consequences – a methodology I call “selfish preposterism”. Today’s topic addresses a health matter, but I’ll also be tackling interpersonal relationships, spiritual concerns, computer problems, do-it-yourself issues, travel, and virtually anything else I care to. Important Disclaimer, today in Bold Italic: Remember, I have no idea what I’m talking about.

Q. My 77-year-old husband has a bizarre skin problem. On his left arm he has red blotches that appear and then disappear every several days. He’s seen several dermatologists but none can give him a diagnosis. Now it’s showing up on the other arm. The spots are not itchy or painful, just unsightly. Please help us figure out what is happening.

A. There are several bizarre things going on here: your husband apparently has some skin without red blotches and, at age 77, if this is the best he can do for a health complaint, he’s better off than my sorry 55-year-old body.

 When you say the blotches appear and then disappear every several days, do you mean that they flash on and off like Christmas lights, or do they change more slowly? If they’re flashing, this could be very amusing to circus folk, and you should consider renting a tent for him and charging admission. If it’s more gradual than this, your profit-making options are limited. When it shows up on the other arm, does it disappear from the original arm? Does he ever have both arms in this disgusting condition? And are you sure those are dermatologists you’re seeing, or might they be herpetologists, who would be less surprised because of the unusual skin features they routinely see in snakes and alligators.

My advice would be that, if the spots are just repulsive, not itchy or painful, your best bet would be to cover him in a full-body burqa and move to the tribal regions of northeast Pakistan, which is about as far away from me as you can get.

Help me Honda (my life in cars)

December 10, 2008

     With all the attention currently being given to the plight of the American auto industry, I thought I’d take this opportunity to use other people’s hardship for my own personal gain as a topic for a blog posting.
     Not that I’d be caught dead driving an American car, because driving while lifeless can be very dangerous. Actually, my family and I have a long history with domestic auto producers. My grandfather worked for a Ford dealer in Pennsylvania. My father owned almost exclusively Ford products for most of my childhood, except for a failed and ultimately flaming experiment with a Renault. The two most memorable vehicles of my youth were a giant Mercury Monterey with a reverse angle rear window that rolled down at the touch – actually it was more of a 15-second jiggle – of a button, and an even gianter Galaxy 500, our first car with air conditioning.
     And my first car was a “blue” Ford Falcon I inherited from my mother just before my junior year in college. I put blue in quotes because the paint job had become almost crystalline in the heat of the Miami sun. It ran reliably enough despite its stunningly ugly appearance, safely taking me the nearly 500 miles I’d routinely drive between Tallahassee and Miami. My most vivid memory of the Falcon was the day I parked it in front of my landlord’s office while I ran in to pay the rent, then emerged just in time to see it rolling downhill toward several parked cars. Not the best way to find out that adding transmission fluid twice a day was an inadequate alternative to actually getting the transmission fixed.
     My next car was also a Detroit creation, the much-maligned Chevy Vega. This one really was blue, a “fastback” that seemed like one first-rate vehicle to a poor college student of the early ‘70s. Even though it was another automatic transmission, the gearshift was on the floor, which gave its sluggish drive a certain sex appeal (if only to me). We bought it from a neighbor in Miami, who convinced us it was a great deal, which it probably was since he used his front as a used-car salesman to hide what in retrospect were obvious organized-crime connections. I don’t know how many headless bodies were crammed into that hatchback before the Vega came into my hands, but I know they had a remarkably smooth ride to whatever paving project they ended up in.
     The Vega had the distinction of transporting me from my dismal life as an eternally under-achieving college student in Florida to an honest career in a suburb of Charlotte. I drove it for about a year in my new hometown, until I became concerned the corrosive oxidation would metastasize from its body to mine. In my first independent transaction with a car dealer, I made the ghastly mistake of trading it in for a brown VW Rabbit. Not an American car, I know, but by the early ‘80s VW had picked up many bad influences from its U.S. counterparts, not the least of which was constant breakdown. I wasted a lot of money on fruitless repairs before taking it back to the dealer, who took pity on me and put me in my first brand-new car, a Datsun 210.
     I was still a very uneducated consumer – I bought the car in the hope that the “cool” setting on the dashboard fan was actually air-conditioning, which it wasn’t – yet I lucked into a reliable basic vehicle whose fanciest extras were FM radio and faux leather seats. I still remember the feel of those seats after driving through the afternoon heat to my second-shift job a half-hour from home. Open windows on the interstate and that “cool” setting provided little relief to the pit of my lower back, which was utterly sodden by the time I arrived.
     Now that I was experienced with Japanese models, I bought a succession of sensible cars. First there was a red Honda Civic, then a white Honda Civic, then a grey Honda Civic and finally a silver Honda Civic. Not much imagination, I admit, but memories of that damn VW were slower to recede than the stench of a dead rabbit jammed in the under-carriage, and I wanted reliability above all else. I admit I was tempted more than once during that 20-some-year span to go all middle-aged in my car selection, maybe a Miata or a convertible or at least the Honda CRV, the company’s smaller SUV. But common sense (and the advice of my wife) always prevailed. The craziest I was ever able to get was the Honda Odyssey, a chick magnet of a minivan if ever there was one.
     My only complaint with the succession of Civics was that there always seemed to be a slight problem in the same area, one I’ve found hard to describe to my mechanic. It’s sort of near the steering wheel, a bit to the left of the gearshift, maybe just above the accelerator pedal. I think it’s referred to as the vehicle operator, or “driver.” Aside from that incident with the wandering Falcon, I’d never had any accidents with my American cars, probably because I was so attuned to every detail of their operation that I actually paid attention while I was driving. With the Hondas I was able to do other things, like listen to the radio and go in reverse.
     In my first accident, an oncoming driver tried to turn left in front of me and we had a major fender bender in which I actually sustained an injury, a sprained thumb. The next incident was on the interstate near the exit ramp on my way home from work. A line had backed up for some reason, and when the truck in front of me rear-ended the vehicle in front of him, bringing him to a sudden and, I might add, un-signalled stop, I naturally plowed into him. Some extensive front-end damage but nothing irreparable. Finally, I was backing out of a parking spot at the mall on a foggy day, trying to see over the monstrous SUVs that flanked me on either side, when another driver looking for a parking space backed into my rear side panel. In none of these three cases were the Hondas “totaled”, an extremely cool verb I’ve always wanted to use; they were only partialled. All were fixed and returned to service.
     In the judgment of the moment, none of these episodes seemed even remotely to be my responsibility. All of them were largely caused by the inattention or carelessness of others while I was going about my business. I couldn’t have anticipated things were going wrong or changed to a direction that would have led to a more positive outcome. Simply put, none of the three failures were my fault.
     Sounds like I could get a job as head of one of the Big 3 automakers.