Thursday, December 16, 2010

American Pride

     I’m not proud to be an American. I have no right to be. It’s like being proud of being born rich.
     I feel fortunate to have been born an American.  Most of the other locations on the planet to which I could have been born range from somewhat worse to horrific.
     While I feel extremely fortunate to have been born a citizen of a country which grants and respects so many freedoms and opportunities, the only people who have any right to be proud of their citizenship are immigrants who have earned it.
     This is somewhat different from being proud “of” one’s country, as Michelle Obama famously said. One can be proud of one’s country’s actions, e.g., liberating Europe from the Nazis, or ashamed, e.g., our support of dictatorships throughout the twentieth century which has come back to bite us so hard. To the extent that one may have played a part in the action of which one is proud, as did Mrs. Obama in her husband’s election, one has even more reason for pride.
      Great song line: “Six hundred pounds of sin/ Was grinning at my window/ All I said was come on in/ Don’t murder me.”

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

December 7, 2010, My 59th Birthday, In Which I See Jesus

     It’s been a real cold spell here in the Georgia Piedmont, especially for so early in December. I have some pets, as faithful readers may recall, and one of them, Honey, the cutie-pie cat, terrorizes Kirby, the black cat I know to have been born in the U.S.A.

     As a consequence, Kirby stays away days on end, not far—I see him around. I assume he gets some food at neighbors’ houses and kills small game in the Mansfield bush. Sometimes he’ll come and sit in the driveway casing the joint, wondering if he can get inside and eat some chow without being mauled by Honey.

     A few days ago he was sitting in the driveway when I went to take out the garbage, but Ginsberg, the dog, was with me and he chased him away. A little later I looked out the window and saw him sitting in the driveway again.

     I fed the other two cats, then locked them out of the kitchen and went out and fetched Kirby.

     I fed him two and a half cans of Friskies. There’s no telling how much he would eat if I would let him after these sabbaticals, but I fear making him sick if I were to find out.

     I shut the other two cats out of the two warm rooms and let Kirby stay. Ginsberg and he rub up against each other fondly. “Sorry about chasing you away. I can’t help myself. It’s a dog thing.”

     I tried to let him out before I went to bed, but he was quite comfortable where he was, thank you, and I let him stay. In retrospect this was foolish because he’d eaten two and a half cans of chow.

     In the morning there was a pool of soupy cat shit in the kitchen which the poor fellow apparently had deposited on an empty Ingle’s bag on the floor, but when I first saw it Ginsberg had the bag in his mouth and said poop was on the floor in front of the microwave.

     I couldn’t face cleaning up cat shit at 7:00 A.M., so I decided to leave it until later. Unfortunately, as I was going to reheat my coffee before leaving for work, I forgot about it, stepped in it and tracked it around the kitchen.

     I was wearing my new suede saddle oxfords which I soon discovered had indentations in the sole. What were the people at Bass shoes thinking? Certainly not about stepping in cat shit I can tell you.

     As a result I went through the day with an odor of cat shit always near.

     My next move regarding the kitchen problem was to put newspaper on the pool and the places where I’d tracked it. When the next day I tried to remove it, part of the paper was glued to the floor, so I sprayed it with 409 and put paper towels on it. I hoped this would soften it up and kill germs.

     So far you’re thinking this story stinks, but it gets better.

     When I came back to attack the problem again, I looked down at the site of Kirby’s mishap and there on the paper towel looking at me is the image of Jesus, smiling like he has a passel of kids in his lap.

     I was dumbstruck. I knew there had to be a message here, that Jesus was trying to tell me something, but I was having trouble concentrating because of the angel choir’s rising crescendo.

     I closed my eyes and there was the message printed in English on the back of my eyelids. It said, “Wassup dude?”

     I look down at Catshit Jesus and he’s still smiling benignly when it hits me. Jesus is thanking me for the shout out I gave him in the recent Apocalypse/Recycling post.

     No way am I going to clean this up now, but I should have taken a picture while I could. What I did was call the Pope.

     It’s not as hard as you might think to get the Pope on the phone. Just say you’re a twelve year old choirboy  and you have a secret to tell him.

     The Pope gets on the phone. “Habla Espanol?” I ask. “Une poco,” he says “pero hablo Ingles mas mucho.” “Que bien,” I say because I don’t speak much Spanish.

     Then I tell him about Catshit Jesus. I’m figuring he’ll want to send out investigators to confirm the miracle, but what he says is “Someone is full of shit here, but it is not Our Savior. Perhaps you should call your National Enquirer.”

     Then he hangs up before I can call him a Nazi, but I get to thinking about it and realize that maybe that’s it. Jesus wants me to make a little  money for our respective birthdays.

     So I get the National Enquirer on the line, and while they say they’re not coming to my house to look at cat shit, they’ll pay $1,500 for a good photo of this phenomenon. I tell the guy to hang on, that I’ll take the picture right now.

     I go in the kitchen and there's Ginsberg eating Catshit Jesus.

     I consider giving him some wine to go with it, but I don’t want him to start acting all holier than thou, so I get him outside and go back to the phone. “My dog ate the work Jesus did in my home, but it looks like we’ve still got one of Jesus’ legs from the knee down. What’ll you pay for that?”

     The son of a bitch hangs up on me. I'm noticing that this subject tends to make people cranky.

     So what did it all mean? Catshit Jesus doesn’t appear and ask you “Wassup dude” for nothing. On one’s birthday no less.

     I’m toying with the idea that maybe Jesus was telling me that I’m his second coming and I’m to lead my ragged company to the Pearly Gates.

     I’ll need to leave some money for Aunt Ida.

     Kool-Aid, anyone?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Best and Worst Lyrics

     Some of my favorite lines in songs I like because they’re just so funky. In that group I’d put “It’s fever in the funkhouse now” from “Tumblin' Dice,” “They’ll go gaga at the gogo” from the song “Hair,” “His body hit the street with such a beautiful thud” from “Lost in the Flood,” and “Wearing afros and braids in every gangsta ride” from “Players Ball.”

     Others are my favorite because I like the ideas expressed: “And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here” from “Once in a Lifetime, “Now some guys they just give up living, and start dying little by little, piece by piece. Some guys come home from work and wash up, and go racing in the street,” because it expresses a basic tenet of my credo, and “I wanna' be Bob Dylan” from “Mr. Jones” because of course I do, and when you can put that line in a kickass song that evokes “Ballad of a Thin Man” it’s all the better.

     Another class would be lines that are verbal hooks that drive the song. The best example of this I can think of is “Mother what a lover, you wore me out.” Would “Maggie Mae” have ever become the radio standard it is without this line? “Whoop. There it is!” is another example.

     Some hook me because they’re just so unexpected. Steppenwolf released “The Pusher” two years before “Workingman’s Dead,” and hearing “god damn” in a song was something we hadn’t heard before, but the long groans of “The Pusher” lack the startling and delightful force of “God damn, well I declare, have you seen the like?”

    Others are on my list because of the beauty of the language and the imagery evoked, none better than “To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free.” It’s right up there with Coleridge’s “Woman wailing for her demon lover” which some critic has said is the best line in English poetry. (I’m an English major)

    Finally there are the lines I like because of the cleverness of the rhyme. At the top of this list is “One thing is for certain, you will surely be a hurtin’, if you throw it all away.” As a matter of fact this song has the best lyrics of any song ever written, and that includes “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Amazing Grace” and the French National Anthem.

    (Have you ever heard or read a translation of the French National anthem? It has lyrics like, “Let us march! May impure blood water our fields!”)

    The entire “Nashville Skyline” LP is lyrically wonderful, like Hank Williams if Hank had been smarter. The showstoppers are “Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You,” and “If You Throw it All Away,” (Mr. Dylan had by this time stopped giving his songs maddeningly disconnected titles) but “If You Throw It All Away” has a half dozen lines that would be in my top twenty list if I made one. “I once had mountains in the palm of my hand/and rivers that ran through every day.” Jesus is sitting on your shoulder and whispering in your ear when you can write a line like that.

     About that top twenty list: I’d originally intended this post to be just that, but then I realized I’d need six months to think about it so as not to forget a gem. For example, as I write this I realize I’ve left out “I’m wishing I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then /Against the wind.”

    So as more come to me I’ll stick them at the end of future posts and I encourage my readers to add their own through the “comments” section.

    (Which reminds me. There’s someone in Moscow—Russia, not Idaho—who reads my blog. Tell me please, what brought you here and what causes you to return?)

    Worst lines in songs are another matter. Bad lines in good songs are the exception. Most bad lines are in bad songs piled one upon another, and you have to be willing to listen to bad songs to know them. Therefore the ones we know we remember from our youth when our tastes were less refined and we listened to whatever came on the radio.

     In my case that would be songs like “Wonderful World,” Sam Cook’s celebration of ignorance, “Knock Three Times” (on the ceiling if you want me), and Bobby Goldsboro’s makes-me-want-to-stick-hot-knitting-needles-in-my-eyes “Honey.” Oh, and “Last Kiss” a song for which I still have a perverse affection. Are you old enough to remember when syndicated columnist Dave Barry solicited suggestions from readers for worst songs ever recordered? (1993) “Honey” was nosed out by “McArthur Park” (someone left the cake out in the rain), an asinine song but for my money it can’t touch “Honey” as a stinker.

    I offer two examples of bad lines in good songs and I’ll probably catch some flak for this. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” Sorry Mr. Lennon, but the fact that there are other dreamers makes you no more or less one. Al Qaida and the Nazis could make the same claim,

     “Him and I, Aquemini.” Sorry Mr. 3000, but it’s either “he and I” or “him and me.” You can’t go juggling noun cases just to make a good rhyme. It’s bad form.

Some Thoughts on Recycling and the Apocalypse

     A relative of mine—we’ll call her Aunt Ida—like much of my family is a fundamentalist Christian and regular churchgoer. A former Baptist, she now attends one of those non-denominational mega- churches. Her Sunday school teacher there--we’ll call him Mr. Jimmy—is an educated man, somewhat handsome, whom she idolizes.

     Mr. Jimmy has lately been teaching from the book of Revelations. He told the class that John the Revelator says that when the Rapture occurs the chosen ones will be taken up to heaven and that will be followed by seven years of terrible turmoil before, I assume, those left behind will be sent to the lake of fire and brimstone.

     Mr. Jimmy says that the signs are in place and this should come to pass any day now.

     This is all news to me—not the end is near part—we’ve been hearing that regularly since 33 A.D.—but the part about the seven years of turmoil, and I went to church an average of five times per week for the first seventeen years of my life. My father was a Baptist preacher but he didn’t have much truck with Revelations. I think he considered it pretty much symbolic mumbo jumbo.

     Anyway I’ve always been under the impression that all this shit was supposed to come down at once.

     But Aunt Ida puts any proclamation of Mr. Jimmy on a par with scripture and believes she’s heaven bound any day now. As a consequence she’s told my wife that she is putting money aside at a hidden location in her house.

     This money is for Cynthia and me after the Rapture comes, because she’s certain that we won’t make the cut.

     My reaction to this was to tell Aunt Ida the Rapture had already happened. They took Mr. Rogers, Mother Theresa, and a few thousand others, but she and Mr. Jimmy didn’t make the cut. Witness the turmoil the world is in now.

     I know many people, and again, much if not most of my family, who believe, or claim to, that this second coming thing is going to happen. I say claim to, because I don’t believe that many people who say they believe this actually do. They say they do because the rest of the clique in which they move say they do.

     It’s kind of like the old preacher’s joke—I heard a lot of them growing up—where the preacher asks the congregation to raise their hand if they want to go to heaven. All do but one man.

     After the service the preacher asks him, “Brother Jones, don’t you want to go to heaven when you die?”

     Brother Jones answers, “Oh yeah, when I die. I thought you were getting up a load to go now.”

     I have no problem believing that Jesus Christ died for my sins. There’s considerable evidence to support that and there’s nothing illogical about the premise, but to believe that a supposedly loving god is going to send to hell everybody who’s not down with the program is absurd. And his dropping in out of the blue to make up or down calls for every human to heaven or hell—surely no sane person actually believes that.

     The Catholics at least allow for some middle ground on the up or down call.

     People in the Middle Ages, I think, actually believed this nonsense. Many Muslims today are still living in the middle ages and believe similar folderol. How many neo-Christians do you think would be a suicide bomber for their cause. I mean if you really believe you’re going to heaven, why wait?

     This claimed belief that the Rapture is imminent is apparently widespread on the religious right. I have read that higher ups in the Bush administration justified not taxing the rich or controlling pollution by their supposed belief that the end is near and you might as well get it while you can.

     How convenient.

     And if you claim to believe this malarkey, why recycle? Aunt Ida doesn’t, and I’d be willing to believe that most of these other “believers” don’t either, because they don’t seem to share another basic religious tenet, one given lip service at least by all your major religions, that being that one should sacrifice for the common good even without direct benefit for oneself. Like recycling and energy conservation say.

     Even though I’m sometimes guilty of riding around in my car just to listen to the stereo—why is it that music sounds best riding in a car at night—I’m something of a fanatic in other ways. For example, I won’t take an elevator unless I have to go over say six floors, and I refuse to go through automatic doors if a normal one is available. In both instances I’m saving fossil fuel and getting exercise.

    I don’t, as you see, subscribe to the Machiavellian philosophy of these so called believers.

     One other thing and I’ll stop this rant. I’m willing to bet that on a circle graph, the circle representing “idiots who have our car remotes set to honk the horn when we lock the car” is almost totally contained within the circle of self-proclaimed fundamentalist Christians. I’m also willing to bet that none of the idiots contained in the smaller circle recycle. Having the horn honk when you lock the car so the rest of us have to hear it is the same “it’s all about me” attitude demonstrated by putting glass in the garbage.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Natchez Trace

     Last week I went on a three day bike ride on the Natchez Trace. The Trace goes from Nashville Tennessee to Natchez Mississippi. It’s a wide two-lane road with a 50 mph speed limit. The entire road is a national park. Originally it was an Indian trail, but in the early 1800’s people on the Ohio River began floating goods on barges down the Ohio and Mississippi to Natchez, selling their goods there and walking back on the Trace.

     No commercial vehicles are allowed. There are no stores or houses on the Trace. The only towns it goes through are Tupelo and Jackson. It’s perfect for bicycling.

     In the 1970’s I took two trips on the Trace. The first was three friends and I bicycling from Tupelo to Jackson, about 100 miles, and back. One of us, Rodney Temples, a crazy Vietnam vet, borrowed a bicycle to ride with us even though he had no experience, unlike the rest of us who cycled all over Atlanta. Setting out from Tupelo—after of course visiting the King’s birthplace—Rodney took off and yelled over his shoulder that he’d see us in Jackson.

     We caught him in about five miles and for the next ninety-five we’d have to stop and wait on him periodically and we filled that time singing to him, “Yeah, yeah, go to Jackson/ Go ahead you big-talkin’ man/ Go on go to Jackson…”The June Carter part of the song.

     The second trip was three years later. Dan Denoon and I rode from Jackson to Natchez and back, again a 200 mile round trip. We pulled into Natchez in July heat so hot you could see it rising off the pavement. On an otherwise deserted narrow street in an old part of town, while I was leaning against a wall to rest in the shade, an old black man appeared and told me he didn’t believe in that civil rights, that white folks were superior and the young coloreds were messing with the divine order.

     I also encountered my first armadillos in south Mississippi. They were still decades away from North Georgia. On both of these trips we rode the whole way the first day and stayed in a motel, then took two days to ride back, camping in sleeping bags without a tent along the way. Armadillos are so stupid they will crawl over a person in a sleeping bag scavenging for garbage. They do not fear tennis shoes flung at them. They got body armor.

     On last weeks’ trip my plan was to ride about 120 miles, from Muscle Shoals to Nashville, over three days, with my assistant Michael driving me to the starting point and Cynthia picking me up at the Nashville end. I figured three days to do the 120 miles because it’s hillier in Tennessee and I’m 30-odd years older than on the earlier trips. Also, I don’t sleep on the ground anymore. I booked two places to sleep in a bed near the Trace.

     This is a long tale so I’ll be giving it to you in installments. The next will be “Day One” and then with “Day Two” we’ll get some pictures, because it wasn’t until then that I figured out how to take pictures with my cell phone.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Day One: Collinwood

     Michael and I set out from Covington at 9:30 AM last Wednesday morning thinking we’d be in Muscle Shoals in four or five hours. It ended up taking seven and a half. We were idiotically using a map of the eastern U.S. I had in my car which of course doesn’t give you a very blown-up view of Alabama and doesn’t include a lot of smaller roads.

     We were fine until we got off I-20 near Birmingham to head northwest. We kept missing our turns and having to fall back on various plan B’s. We never stopped to buy an Alabama map. I’ve already alluded to why that was.

     We only stopped once, to eat at so-and-so’s Barbeque in, I think, Gadsden, Alabama, where they had a large menu but DID NOT HAVE BRUNSWICK STEW, and even though it took so long I don’t think we could have shaved more than half a hour off the trip if we’d been riding with someone who knew how to get there or had sense to get a better map. It just took a lot longer than we expected.

     I’d intended to start riding at about one or two o’clock Alabama time and to get on the Trace just before it crossed the Tennessee River because the bridge looked so cool in the pictures. That would’ve been about a 30 mile ride before my first night’s stay in Collinwood, TN. But since I wasn’t going to be getting out of the car until after four, I decided to get on the road about 10 miles farther north.

     Near the end of our drive, not being sure how to get to our next road, we did the girly thing and stopped for directions in Florence. It turned out that the real estate office I went in had a woman at the desk who said she didn’t know how to get to highway 20, so she called her boss out to tell me.

     It was about fifty yards away on the street that ran beside her office.

     A few minutes later I started pedaling north. The entire twenty miles to Collinwood was uphill but it was a very slight incline and really easy pedaling. In this very southern part of central Tennessee I crossed five or six small streams per mile. There were also many swarms of small black bugs, bigger than gnats but much smaller than houseflies, so that I had to keep my mouth shut and be continuously brushing them out of the hair on my arms.

     The city limits of Collinwood were only a few hundred yards from the Trace. Collinwood is about the size of Social Circle, Georgia in 1960, less than a thousand people I guess and like Social Circle in 1960 it had one of everything one might need in easy walking distance: a Piggly Wiggly, a drug store, a florist, a hardware store, a bank, one church each of your common denominations, and a restaurant, but I was soon informed that better food was cooked to order at the Exxon station, advice I took and was glad I did.

     It was getting dark when I pulled into Collinwood and called Mr. and Mrs. Butler, proprietors of Miss Monetta’s Country Cottage where I was to stay. They had already decided to come downtown and watch for me. I followed them the three blocks to the cottage.

     The cottage, which I’d reserved for $75, was a two bedroom house with a living room, dining room, large kitchen, breakfast nook, a front and back porch with rocking chairs and swings and a large screen cable T.V. for the first game of the World Series.

     When I left the next morning around 10:00 (I was waiting for it to warm up some) I wrote a whole page in their guest book. Among other things I wrote: “It’s just like being at home, only better—cleaner, no Sarah Palin calling me every 15 minutes.”

     I highly recommend Collinwood and Miss Monetta’s.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Day Two

     I left about ten o’clock on Day Two, waiting for it to warm up some and figuring that would get me there in time for supper in Falls Hollow where I’d spend the night. I took two miniature Snicker bars from Miss Monneta’s jar for some lunch time energy.

     The ride on Day Two started out with some mild climbs and descents and I thought “Oh, this is much more interesting than the monotonous gradual ascent.” I would later come to yearn for that old monotony.

     I decided I’d learn to work the camera on my cell phone but the pictures I attempted didn’t show the scene I was aiming at. This picture depicts my discovery that up until this point I’d been holding the phone backward.

     A couple of observations about the Trace are worth mentioning here. Throughout my entire ride I saw six empty cigarette packages, five beer empties, two plastic soda bottles and a Reynolds aluminum foil box. That’s it, period. At no time did I see prisoners picking up garbage.

     Throughout the ride I saw only three instances of road kill: two small snakes and a frog, all near the side of the road. On the other hand, until the middle of day two, the only animals other than birds I saw were squirrels and one dog. I know there were at least deer there because I saw their droppings in the road and many tracks on the old unpaved Trace—more on that road later.

     Finally on the afternoon of Day Two I came silently upon a large doe, about forty feet off the road in the woods. She didn’t run—no hunting is allowed there—I just looked at her and she looked at me and that’s the way we wanted it to be. I called her Lola.

     I thought a lot about this absence of road kill. Much time for thinking is available on a three day ride through the backwoods. I attribute this lack of carnage to the low speed limit, the fact that the road is for sightseeing, which can’t be done very well at night, and the fact that most of the traffic is RV’s and campers pulled by retired people who don’t drive at night anyway.

     The picture of the goofy guy looking in the camera was taken on the “Old Trace.” The road I was cycling follows the “Old Trace” pretty closely, but better equipment was used to straighten curves, reduce inclines, and build bridges.

     My first successful shot is of a section of the Old Trace about two miles long. It’s roughly paved for one-way traffic so that motorists may briefly experience the old road.

     This shot is of a “scenic overlook” on the Old Trace. Not very impressive for a mountain boy but about as good as it gets in these parts.

     Meanwhile back on the ride, the uphills and downhills turned into a long steady medium uphill grade. I can now report that from Muscle Shoals, Alabama until about fifteen miles from the Trace’s end near Nashville, it is 90% uphill and after Collinwood the ascent is much steeper.

     Sometime around mid-afternoon, I started to suffer. The tendons covering my right knee, heretofore having been body parts whose existence I had little reason to consider, proclaimed themselves through steady aching. The little streams of Day One were not to be seen. Now when I saw water it was like this picture here. This one in the Little Buffalo river. I came to hate seeing streams like this, because although there was some coasting down to them, that didn’t compensate for the steep ascent to follow.

     Sometimes streams would follow the Trace for miles on end, but they always flowed in the opposite direction from which I pedaled.

     This is a picture of what the road always looked like in the direction I traveled. You see where the road disappears from sight and it looks as if it might level off there? Well, it doesn’t.

     Historical markers on the Trace are common and a big deal for the aging uphill cyclist, because other than the call of nature, there’s not much reason to get off the bike. You read them all. Some of them twice.

     About five miles from Falls Hollow I came to signs pointing up a paved road to the left telling me that 1.1 miles off the Trace is the burial site and memorial of Meriwether Lewis. Mr. Lewis, by all accounts a mentally unstable person, had after his famous exploration been appointed by a grateful President Jefferson as governor of the Louisiana Territory, and during that tenure had somehow managed, under mysterious circumstances, to get himself shot and killed at an inn formerly located here on the Trace.

     There are milepost markers every mile along the Trace. At this point they were getting farther and farther apart, and I would not have ridden another 2.2 miles if Meriwether were going to rise from the grave and explain how he got himself shot.

     The last mile and a half to Falls Hollow was a steep descent and while I was glad not to be pedaling for the nonce, I cursed what I knew would counterbalance it in the morning.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Falls Hollow and Day Three

     The best thing about the Falls Hollow Restaurant and RV Park for the cyclist is that it’s located almost directly under the Trace on a highway the Trace bridges over. The worst thing is that it’s called Falls Hollow which should have tipped me off that it’s in a hollow which must have seriously steep sides if there are falls there.

     The place advertised two “motel like” rooms one of which I’d booked, primarily because it was right on the Trace at a distance from Collinwood where I needed to stop before the 53 mile ride to Nashville.

     After finding the proprietor in his house behind the restaurant, he led me through the restaurant where people where prepping dinner to one of the aforementioned rooms.

     The room was a pretty sorry affair. The bed creaked. There was no table for playing solitaire, and although it had Dish T.V., the set was so old that the dish remote would not operate its volume. It was also so small and out of focus that I couldn’t read the score in the baseball game wearing reading glasses and from six inches away. It reminded me of spending the night at a poor relation’s house, e.g., it took a half hour for the bathtub to fill.

     I’d arrived at around four o’clock, and after two airline bottles of vodka was the first person in the restaurant for dinner. I had a ribeye and fries, which was O.K., and several cups of pretty good coffee. (I always order steak in a questionable restaurant—say I’m at the Holiday Inn and decide to eat in their restaurant—figuring they can’t screw that up too bad.)

     As I say the bed creaked, I couldn’t see the T.V., and the four cups of coffee were a mistake. I alternated playing solitaire on the bed with reading Made In America by Bill Bryson which I highly recommend. It’s about the development of peculiarly American English and it’s full of interesting trivia. Do you know why the South came to be called “Dixie”? I do. You could borrow my copy but I gave it away to a guy I met in a bar who I thought would like it.

     The Falls Hollow experience was at the other end of the spectrum from the endorphin euphoria I felt at Miss Monnetta’s. Despite repeated attempts I didn’t get to sleep until three A.M.

     Nevertheless I was up at 7:00 eating a good breakfast which the proprietor came over to make for me and was pedaling by 8:00. It had turned cold and there was frost on the ground, but Day Two it had taken me six hours to ride forty miles and I had 53 to cover on Day Three.

     The hill leading out of Falls Hollow was steep and continued upward past the falls to my right as far ahead as I could see. These falls were nothing like Niagara or even Amicalola. They were more of a long steep cascade.

     My knee hurt continuously for the rest of the trip. It took me thirty-five minutes of lowest gear pedaling to cover the first mile. I winced with every down pedal on the right. Cyclists use their strong side, their “right handed” side in my case, to do more of the work. I developed a mental count of “easy, left, easy, left,” trying to concentrate on doing the hard pushes with my left leg. I must have looked like Gunsmoke’s Chester riding a bicycle.

     I gave some brief thought to getting off and pushing, but that would cost me time and I needed to get to Nashville before it got dark and cold, but the bigger concern was that serious cyclist machismo says you don’t get off and push, i.e., I didn’t want another cyclist to see me pushing.

     Here’s a good place for an aside about other cyclists. I only encountered four other cyclists on the Trace. I’m pleased to say that none of them overtook me from behind. Three of the four were my age or older. One of them was an old guy on one of those bikes where you sit back in a “chair” and pedal out in front of you. He complained that he was having to ride into the wind. Although there was a brisk cold breeze on Day Two when I encountered him, I had little sympathy for the old fart because the wind was blowing from my left to right—which does make pedaling a little harder—and he was going down the incline I was steadily climbing.

     After a mile and a quarter of climbing out of Falls Hollow, I returned to the steady medium ascent of Day Two.

     Pictured here is another section of the Old Trace, unpaved, and it’s supposed to look much as it did when Colonel Jackson led his men down it to fight the bloody British in the town of New Orleans.

     This picture shows me as I looked bundled up for the cold of Day Three. It was taken by an old couple in an RV who told me that I’d be pretty soon reaching some long downhill. The headgear was fashioned by Yours Truly from a bicycle helmet and an old lady’s gardening hat which I cut the crown off of and attached the brim by cutting holes in it and passing the helmet straps through them.

     This was around noon and indeed that downhill was about twenty miles ahead. It came after a historical marker denoting the Tennessee Valley divide. At one time it had been the boundary between Tennessee and Indian lands to the south. What I discovered on my own about it is that it is a high ridge which separates where water flows south to the Tennessee River and where streams flow northward to the Cumberland.

     (The Tennessee River comes down out of the Appalachians, goes through Chattanooga, then down into north Alabama to get around the highland I was climbing before it turns north again and joins with the Ohio and on to the Mississippi).

     But before I was to reach the aforementioned divide, there came the episode of Fly which is a small settlement about a mile off the Trace where I intended to have some lunch and which was to become a fly in the ointment of this tale.

     A few miles from Fly my rear tire went flat. I stopped and pumped it up, hoping that it was a slow leak. In another mile it was flat again.

     I stopped at a bridge where I could sit on a concrete ledge while I patched the tube. Did you know that they now put a green oozy slime inside of bicycle tubes now so that you can see where a hole is? It was news to me.

    I’d come equipped for this contingency, but it was an aggravation that took about fifteen minutes. Although I could see some green stuff of the other side of the tube from the hole I was patching, I thought it came from the same hole.

      My patch job proved ineffective, and my tire soon went flat. Being only about a mile from the road to Fly, and being hungry and cranky, I decided to push the bike to Fly and eat something. After that I could see if I could fix the leak or else call Cynthia to pick me up there. I’m happy to report that no cyclists saw me pushing.

     The attempted tube repair and the two miles of pushing put me an hour-and-a-half behind schedule. It was 2:30 when I reached the Fly General Store.

     If you ever have the opportunity, by all means go to the Fly General Store. Like Collinwood, it is a vanishing fragment of Americana. It’s a small wooden building with gas pumps and a little bit of a lot of things inside. It’s like the country stores I frequented as a kid. While there I spoke with a pretty British woman who said the store was like one her grandmother had operated.

     They also had the best ham and American cheese on white bread sandwich which I’ve ever devoured, and an air pump which saved my arm some exertion.

     My cell phone wouldn’t get a signal, but a friendly customer whose would let me use hers, and I was able to leave a message on the cell of Cynthia who was en route to Nashville. The elderly and gracious Mr. Fly let me leave her the store’s land line number. (Fly is named not after the insect, nor because it is phat, but after the Fly family, whose French ancestor fought with LaFayette during the American Revolution and was given a large land grant in which is now Fly. Other than the store and a lumber yard, there are no other businesses in Fly.)

     After the sandwich, I took the tube off again and discovered that there were inexplicably (at least to me) four holes going all the way around the tube at the spot where I’d patched the first one. A much larger patch and Mr. Fly’s air did the trick.

     While I was patching the tire, Cynthia called and I told her she’d need to ride down the Trace when she got to Nashville and find me there or, worst case scenario, sitting outside the Fly General Store which closed at 5:00.

     It was four o’clock when I got back on the Trace and pedaled as fast as my knee would permit. It was indeed getting really cold and dark when she found me seventeen miles from Nashville.

     If you’re ever in Nashville and especially if you’re staying at the Vanderbilt Courtyard by Marriott, I recommend the Midtown Café, a wonderful upscale restaurant in what looks like a large old tool shed right across the street, a blessing to me since I could barely walk. Our waitress was a twenty year veteran who knew everything about the wares and was just plain fun. After martinis and a bottle of wine she insisted it was Tequila Time.

     There’s an eighty mile segment of the Trace from where I started this trip to Tupelo which I still haven’t ridden. I hope to do that this spring and then drive to Graceland.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Back on the Job(These next 4 pieces were written in 2007)

     Since we last met up here, I’ve had occasion to compile a résumé-like document. I won’t go into why, because it’s a story that, as Grandpa Simpson says, isn’t so much interesting as it is long. To understand the following saga all we need to know about the résumé is that it ended, under the heading “Other Skills and Accomplishments,” with “am able to sing lyrics to the theme song of any T.V. western ever aired,” and “can work crossword puzzles faster then Bill Clinton. (This last hasn’t been documented but I’m willing to take him on any time, any place.)”
     Having spent a good forty-five minutes putting the thing together, I couldn’t let it just founder in a file cabinet, so I decided to apply for a few jobs, see what the market is for a geezer with no particular talent other than those just mentioned.
     The jobs I really wanted – general manager of the Braves, groupie tester for Led Zepplin – obviously required “skills and accomplishments” outside my poor resume, so I decided to buffer my ego by starting with a job for which the qualifications were patently low.
     I applied for “Director of F.E.M.A.”
I put my résumé and cover letter in the mail addressed to “His Excellency, George W. Bush,” and waited. (I was pretty sure “His Excellency” wasn’t the proper form of address, but, figuring he wouldn’t know either, I didn’t go to the trouble of looking it up).
     One’s zeal for such schemes often pales in the hangover piercing light of day, and I’d almost forgotten about my resume when my secretary buzzed me one morning a few weeks later. “There’s a guy on the phone who says he’s the President of the United States. He sounds retarded.”
     My secretary types fast but doesn’t watch much news.
     “Put him through,” I say.
     “Mr. President, it’s good to hear from you. You must be calling about my job application.”
     “Job application? Naw, I’m callin’ to see if you kin loan me a coupla hunerd
bucks… Nah! Just messin’ widjeu, I’m richer’n Oprah. I like at resume ye sent.”
     “Well thank you, Mr. President. I spent some time on it.”
     “I particularly like the part about workin’ crossword puzzles faster’n Slick Willie.
      That there’s what interests me. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but they’s some folks sayin’ I’ve hired folks based on their loyalty and politics stead of their qualifications.”
     “I believe I did run across that in some godless rag, sir.”
     “Well I’m looking to preserve my legacy here. Hire me some smart folks down
the home stretch, ones they caint accuse me of hirein’ just cause we’re oil bidness buddies. You say in your cover letter that ye don’t even like me. Ain’t that right?”
    “Well, what I actually said sir—with all due respect— is that I didn’t vote for
you, but don’t take it personal. There were millions of people I didn’t vote for.”
     “Well, ye kinda implied ye don’t like me, but I like at. Shoot from the hip. Stick
to yer guns right or wrong. I think we might have a job for ye. We just need to set up that puzzle workin’ contest with Bill Clinton.”
     “Do you know President Clinton?”
     “No, but my diddy does. I’ll have one a my people git back widjeu when I get this
set up. Heck fire! I’ll just get Willie to call ye hisself.”
     We said our goodbyes then he gung up, somebody else hung up and I hung up.
     Thus began a chapter in my life that would lead me to travel in Air Force One; bone up on etuis, arêtes, epees and Uri; and to meet presidents past, present, and possibly future, as well as a really hot-looking white-trash woman from the Ozarks.
Next week – J.E.M vs. W.J.C.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Showdown on Pennsylvania Ave.

“Mr. Millsaps, this is Bill Clinton. Wassup, buddy?”
This was the second time in the past week I’d been called by an American president and I was thinking nobody’s going to believe this. I might as well claim I was called by Kennedy and Nixon.
“Wassup, Mr. President.”
“You ready to have our crossword showdown?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
“How about next Monday at 1 p.m.? Some Secret Service guys will be in Mansfield to pick you up at 8:30.”
“Well, I’m afraid I’m striking a jury in an armed robbery case Monday.”
He laughs. “I think we can get that put off. Your client have a bond he can make?”
“O.K., we’ll fix that too. Don’t want your client spending extra time in jail ‘cause you made some outrageous claim in a résumé, now do we?”
“Mr. President, if you don’t mind my asking, why are you doing this? What’s in it for you?”
“I’m doing it because George H. W. Bush asked me to. He’s been such a good sport about me making him a one-termer I just couldn’t say no. And the fact of the matter is this is a win-win situation. If you win you get the job, and you gotta be better’n anybody Junior would pick on his own. If I win that’ll be nice ‘cause I like winning, and either way we keep our fearless leader busy a while on something where he can’t do nearly as much harm as he does when left unsupervised.”
“I see your point. I’ll see you next Monday, I guess”
“I’m taking you down, buddy.”
After we hung up I for the first time wondered what I’d gotten myself into. I was about to make a fool of myself, which I’m used to but not on such a large stage. I mean the man is a Rhodes’ scholar. He’s probably pretty good with puzzles.

Monday at 12:30 I’m escorted into the Oval Office where President Bush gets up from his desk and pumps my hand.
“Mr. Millstead, the puzzle man, hope ye don’t mind we gotcha here a little early. We got a little pre-game strategy to work on. Now this’ll be your spot rycheer.”
He ushers me to a high-backed armchair, and when I’m seated says, “Now this little ear plug thing here pulls right outa the chair on the side Slick Willie caint see, and if ye run into any trouble, the Vice President is just outside the door with a camera on your puzzle. He’ll have a dictionary, an atlas and Google right there widdem.”
“Mr. President, with all due respect,” I say, getting up, “Isn’t the point here to see whether or not I can actually beat President Clinton?”
“Well dang Millhouse, I see ye point. Well then ye probably not gonna like…Well never mind. It’s just that you’re my boy here and I like winning. George W. Bush is a winner.
“Can I getcha some coffee or ice tea?”
It’s at this point that President Clinton enters followed by Al Gore and a snarling man on all fours who has Mr. Gore’s pant leg in his teeth and is shaking it furiously.
“Get this thing offa me,” Gore shrieks.
“Down Cheney, down,” the president says, grabbing him by the collar. “Ye gonna blow ye pacemaker.”
He gets the vice-president out the door, and turns to the three of us. “Sorry boys, Dick’s just doin’ his job; he just has a little trouble sometimes knowin’ what is and what ain’t an attack dog sicheashun…What are you doin’ here anyway Gore?”
“I’m here as an observer to make sure you don’t cheat. I know you’ll steal this thing if you can.”
“Steal it huh? Well talkin’ bout stealin’ stuff, I mona check’n see if somebody done stole the Goodyear Blimp, ‘cause it looks like ye done swallered it since the last time I seen ye. I got my doubts ‘bout global warmin,’ but obesity is real son.”
Mr. Gore takes a step toward the president before Clinton stops him with a hand on the chest.
“Now, now, just calm down Al. He’s just making a joke instead of being one for a change. Let’s all smoke us a cigar and have some fun and games here.”
He produces a golden case which opens to reveal eight H. Upmann Churchills and holds it out to me, but before I can accept the president has his own humidor open saying, “Better take one a mine Millstop. Ye don’t know where them’s been.”
“Mine’s better,” Clinton says.
“Yeah. Well ye probly got yours from Feedel Castro personally.”
While they’re bickering I take two of each, because, well, I can.
Meanwhile Mr. Gore has stepped between them.
“Now there’ll be no smoking. Air quality’s bad enough as it is. You’re setting a bad example for the American people. Have you read the reports out of - -.”
“Shut up, Al,” his former boss interjects, “and smoke your cigar. It’s that kinda namby-pamby-mama’s-boy attitude that made the troglodyte here president instead of you.”
“Ye think you’re so smart Bill Clinton. Ye think ye can use big words and I won’t know you’re makin fun a me. Well I been to college too, smarty pants, and I like the Troggs as well as the next fella. ‘Wild Thang. Ye make my heart sang. Ye make everthang groovy’.”
The president is playing air guitar when the First Lady comes in carrying a tray with coffee, tea, Kool-Aid and Oreos. “I thought you boys might could use some refreshments.” She smiles sweetly until she notices that we’re all holding large unlit cigars. “I hope ya’ll aren’t planning on smoking those in here.”
She says this to the company at large but she’s glaring at the president who grins and shakes his head, and we all follow suit when she looks our way.
When she’s out the door, the president cracks it a little and looks down the hall, then gives us a grinning thumbs-up, whereupon we all sit down and light up.
Next week: Let the Games Begin (And I haven’t forgotten the Ozark woman, she’s just been delayed.)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Games Begin

     We’ve all got our coffee and cigars and are sitting down except for President Clinton who’s looking around the Oval Office.
     “Where’s the green leather recliner?”
     “Laura moved it to the attic; said it looked un-dignefied.”
     “That was my favorite chair. I had some good naps in that chair.”

     “Well to be honest widjeu Willie, I liked at chair too, butchee know women, they get a hankerin’ to rearrange furniture, ye gotta hep em er jes git outta the way.”

     “My wife don’t move furniture, George. I can’t even get her to bake cookies.”

     “Not eme the Nestle Toll House kine thatche just gotta cut in little pieces and slap in the oven?”

     “Not even them, George, and I love Nestle Toll House Cookies, especially when they’re still hot and gooey in the middle.”

     “You ever take two of ‘em and make a marshmallow cream sandwich?” Mr. Gore wants to know. “You don’t even have to bake ‘em. Just get you some cookie dough and slap some marshmallow cream in it. Now what’s really good is when you deep fry that in some peanut oil. That’s a world-class culinary experience.”

     We’re all commiserating with the former president when the door opens and President Carter walks in. We all get up and shake hands.

     “Well, Mr. Goody-goody Gore, ye worried ‘bout thangs bein’ fair now? Lookie who I gotcheer. I got the wurl famous e-lecshun refree and do-gooder, Pres-i-dent James…,” the president pauses for a brief whispered exchange with President Carter, “Earl Carter, and he’s here to cer-ti-fy that thangs are on the up-and-up wid my puzzle contest, aintchee Jimmy.”

     “Those smell like some mighty fine stogies you boys are havin’ heah, and ah’d love to stay an watch the contest but theahs some children stahvin in Africa ah promised to save, and ah see Vice-President Gowah is heah as an observah anyway.

     “President Bush asked me to look at the contest puzzle to make shouh it’s fayuh. Ah have it heah in this bubble-wrap envelope—well, it was bubble-wrap befouh President Bush popped all the bubbles—but it was prepayuhed by Mr. Will Shortz of the New Yawk Times based on a theme suggested by President Bush."

     “Ah’ve cayahfully reviewed it and it seems fayah. Both the contestants ah about the same age and from similah backgrounds—“

     “Ye mean white trash, Jimmy?” The president wants to know.

     “They ah both children of wukin class Suthun families who got scholahships to prestigious univuhsities and theyah both lawyahs. The knowledge requiahed to wuk the puzzle seems equally accessable to both.”
     When President Carter insists he has to leave for Somalia, President Bush stops him.
     “Here, I wonche ta take the resta these cookies to yer kids,” he says , indicating the Oreos on the silver tray, “tell ‘em Amurica aint fergot ‘em.”

     While we’re distracted by the President looking for something to put the cookies in, Gore grabs a handful and puts them in his pocket.

     With that done, the president hands President Clinton and me each a puzzle and tells us to “turn ‘em upside down on yer desk ‘til we ready to start,” even though neither of us has a desk, just the copies of Money magazine he’s given us to support our puzzles.

     “Now we gotta git the timekeeper. C’mon in here Miss Yokum.”

     Whereupon a young woman enters who’s a dead ringer for Jessica Simpson – she could be Jessica Simpson for all I know – wearing the “Li’l Abner” Daisy Mae costume. You know, the one that just covers her bottom before it turns to raggedy threads.

     “Wait a munute,” Gore says through a mouthful of Oreo. “We don’t need a timekeeper. Whoever finishes first wins.”

     “Shut up, Al,” Clinton says, adjusting his britches, “I’d be happy to have Ms. Yokum here be our, uh, timekeeper.”

     “We need us a timekeeper, smarty pants, cause we caint be here all day. I got im-portant matters a state to tend to. You got the planet to save. Willie’s got expensive o-rations to make. Millweed here’s probly got some ambulances to chase.

     “Naw, at the end a twenty minutes, game over. We take up the papers an I git Laura to grade em. Everbody awright widdat?”

     He brings out from behind his desk a notebook-paper-sized tablet and places it on an easel, a really small easel, maybe fifteen inches tall, and sets it on the floor in front of us. It has “20” written on the first page.

     “Gentlemen, starchur engines,” the President shouts and adds, winking at Ms. Yokum, “I always wanted to git to say that.”

     I flip my puzzle over and see that the theme is “Yippie ki-yay,” and locate the first long answer. The clue is, “Wild as a wind in Oregon…[“Maverick”],” and I fill in, “Blowing up a canyon.”

     Same with “A _________ is the man called Paladin. “Soldier of fortune,” I write. “He packed no star as…[“The Rebel”].” I answer “he wandered far,” and then “Lonely man, Cheyenne, where will you…” produces a quick “be sleeping tonight,” and all my theme answers are finished.

     I look over at President Clinton and see that he’s pretty much finished the top left corner when Ms. Yokum bends over at the waist to flip page 20 and I stop working my puzzle because her attire, as they say, leaves little to the imagination. Then I’m further distracted by a primal groaning to my right.

     I look at President Clinton, who looks like my dog Ginsberg watching me eat a pork chop.

     I get back to my puzzle but it’s a good twenty seconds before my opponent looks at his, a process we’d repeat every time another minute rolled over.

     President Clinton and I were both about two-thirds through when President Bush called time. He took my puzzle.

     “Looks like ye done purty good here Millpond.” Then he took Clinton’s.

     “Good Lord, Willie! Ye done drooled all over the page. Ye caint read any a this. It’s e-legable. Millstrap wins!” he shouts, holding up my arm like a boxing champ.

     “You done stole another one, you…you…troglodyte!” Gore yells, which starts Bush to singing “Wild Thing” again. “We’ll file a protest with the Supreme Court, won’t we Bill…Bill?”

     But President Clinton was nowhere to be seen, and neither, curiously, was Ms. Yokum.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Wasn't That Special

   “Now,” as the Church Lady says, “wasn’t that special?”

    Perhaps we’ll revisit the Connecticut cowboy and the southern presidents again – I’m thinking they might provide Election 08 coverage or call a Braves game -- but for now we’re going elsewhere. In future columns I’ll be writing on, inter alia, (O.K., I’m a lawyer, you’ll get some Latin) bumper stickers and church signs, people with tiny phones growing out of their ears, eating fruit, nostalgia for the old Wal-Mart, nostalgia for the old People’s Drugs, global warming and land speculation, armadillos, being a song writer, being a band manager and making myself Traffic Czar of Newton County.

     If you have ideas for columns, email me at the address which I hope appears below, but today the subject is my love/hate relationship with Longhorn Steakhouse – any of them, they’re all the same.

     I go out for lunch almost every weekday and to dinner maybe bi-weekly. I’m familiar with what’s out there. Longhorn serves the best steaks available locally and their grilled salmon, which I’m enjoying as I write this, is the best I’ve had anywhere, anytime. They know how to cook asparagus superbly and the kitchen runs like clockwork.

     So what’s not to like?

     What’s not to like is what I have to go through to get the food.

     You’ve heard me rant in this space before about having to listen to restaurant servers, and at Longhorn they bring the whole package of obnoxious jargon – commanding me to “Enjoy,” asking me not the standard, “Is everthang all right?” but “Was everything excellent?” and answer all requests with “Not a problem.”

     So I have to be in a good mood to venture eating here, else I might snap and hurt somebody, maybe a young woman who’s just trying to make a living in the manner her employer has instructed. Because as part of their training, these young servers must put to memory the company training manual, “What Stupid Americans Like and How to Give it to Them.” I imagine this document beginning, “Hi! You now work for Longhorn Steakhouse, as advertised on T.V.! That makes you a star! People will be flattered if you spend a long time telling them what’s plainly written on the menu...”

     It should be pointed out that I usually lunch alone. It’s where I read newspapers, work crossword puzzles, write this column. I value this time. I’m happy here with a, I must say, comfortable booth to myself.

     Here’s a sample dialogue between a Longhorn waitress and me. The actual dialogue is in quotes while the parenthetical information is what I think rather than say.

     “Hi! Welcome to Longhorn! I’m Overdosed On Stimulants and I’ll be your server! Have you been to Longhorn before?”

     “Many times.” (But that’s not going to stop you from telling me what’s written on the menu, is it?).

     “Today we have two new items and they’re both excellent!”

     At this point she sits down in the booth opposite me. I’m not kidding. It’s happened more than once. It must be in the manual. “If you see a man eating alone, he’s probably lonely. His drab life will be brightened if you sit with him a few minutes.”

     “Our new trout dish in our new lunch specials menu is my favorite! It’s grilled to perfection then smothered in our own special blend of bacon, butter and lard. Would you like to try it?”

     “No thank you, I know exactly what I want. I’ll have…”(Who invited you to sit at my table? If your going to do that you probably shouldn’t put this large serrated steak knife on the table. A swift flick of the wrist through the jugular and you’ll be spouting other material entirely. You don’t know who you’re messing with. Really, I’m like a cat.)

     I’m having my coffee. The salmon was great, and talk about biting the hand that feeds, I’m finishing this column. In an ironic twist, my server today, (only once that I can recall have I had the same one more than once,) Amber, apparently hasn’t read the manual. At any rate she’s actually paying attention rather than chattering non-stop. She sees what’s up, is polite and says no more than is necessary. If I were the Mormon protagonist on “Big Love,” I’d be trying to line Amber up as my next wife.

Monday, October 4, 2010


     In my household we are five: a dog, three cats, and me. Of the five only Ginsberg, (the dog,) and I act right. The other three are crazy.

     It’s a mixed household, the kind the Tea Party people would frown on (capitalized so as to cause no confusion with Alice and the Mad Hatter who I think would not [frown]). Everybody’s black except me and Honey, who’s a long-haired mixture of grey and brown and white, and Tuesday, who’s black with a white chest and paws. Honey and Tuesday claim to have been born in Oxford, Georgia, and Richmond, Virginia, respectively, but neither can produce a birth certificate. Ginsberg, a purebred Lab, and I have our papers in order. The other cat, Kirby, I know to have been born here, because I knew his mama, Lola. More on Lola later.

     The only thing these cats have in common other than basic feline traits is a do-not-cross-the-road gene which has allowed them, unlike a half dozen others I could name, to survive long enough to be the subject of lore.

     Tuesday is known locally as Crazy Foot Cat because his greatest pleasure is rubbing up against human feet. It’s OK for a while but eventually it drives me crazy. If I cross my legs and dangle my foot he walks back and forth under it arching his back into it so hard I have to brace myself to maintain balance. If he catches me standing still, at the bathroom mirror say, rather than walk back and forth rubbing against my shins like what passes for normal in a cat, he rubs the side of his face back and forth across the top of my foot. I don’t know how long it would take him to get tired of this and stop, because I’ve never been able to wait him out.

     It doesn’t seem to matter to him whether the feet are shod or not.

     Another eccentricity of Tuesday is drinking out of the toilet. Never mind that there’s always fresh water for him on the washing machine which he doesn’t have to share with the dog, he always drinks out of the toilet if he has the choice.

     In order to drink out of the toilet and not topple in, he has to do something like a spread eagle push-up where his paws hang on the rim and his head and torso dip well below them, which is a great athletic maneuver, but not the greatest I’ve seen. That would be my old cat Mover (rhymes with Rover, the name being given by my then toddler son) who nonchalantly sauntering up to our back steps used the first step as a springboard for an eight-foot vertical leap to snag a bird in flight who may have seen him coming but didn’t see that coming.

     Anyway, Tuesday, when doing this toilet drinking, is in a vulnerable position and I’ve more than once envisioned an hilarious scene where someone (other than I, hence the hilarity) obliviously plops onto the toilet seat while Tuesday is so engaged. All of the elements for humor are there: a cat which thinks it’s drowning in a toilet, an unsuspecting individual who must’ve did somebody horribly wrong to suffer such senseless, random violence, and a cat and a human trying to see which can outscream the other.

     Ginsberg, as I’ve suggested, is right as rain, does what you’d expect from a dog: barks at noises, drools over food, chases anything which will run from him. Every morning he brings me the newspaper accompanied by Honey, who idolizes him.

     I’m not going to tell you about the other cats’ oddities for fear that this piece is turning into something like an old lady showing you her grandchildren’s pictures, but I am going to tell you about Chance, Ginsberg’s predecessor, who always walked backward through doorways.

     Chance, due to medication he was required to take, was quite fat, and if he got in a hurry would lose his footing on the vinyl kitchen floor. Thus he learned to proceed gingerly, but when he got close to the door he would panic and make a run for it, causing his feet to spin like tires in mud until they splayed out from under him.

     He eventually fixed this problem by turning around and walking backwards through the door—which he couldn’t do fast—and it worked so well for him that he adopted the maneuver for all doorsill crossing situations.

     And I haven’t forgotten Lola, a pretty long-haired cat, who didn’t share the do-not-cross-the-road gene but survived long enough to mother kittens and sit with me on the porch for all of one summer. At this time of my life I would sit on the front porch at night, drinking, musing, and smoking cigars, and she, a stray kitten dependent on the kindness of strangers, began appearing and hopping into my lap.

     Soon I began to notice trumpet vine blossoms on the porch, a new batch of a dozen or so every evening, which was odd because the nearest trumpet vine grew about thirty yards away. If I hadn’t eventually seen her carrying them one by one across the yard, I would never have believed a cat would daily pick flowers and leave them for the nice man who took in a young unwed mother.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

                                             Another List

     A few years ago I made a list of the top 100 songs I liked the first time I heard them. These are the songs that would make me most happy if they suddenly came on the radio. Here’s the top 20 in order.

20. Baba O’Riley (Teenage Wasteland)

19. Sweet Home Alabama

18. Whipping Post

17. The Loco-motion

16. Breakdown (Tom Petty)

15. Do You Believe In Magic

14. White Rabbit

13. Daydream Believer

12. That’ll Be The Day

11. That Thing You Do

10. Rockin’ In The Free World

9. I’m Into Something Good (Herman’s Hermits)

8. American Girl

7. I Want To Hold Your Hand

6. Hey Ya

5. Smells Like Teen Spirit

4. Like A Rolling Stone

3. I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)

2. Satisfaction

1. We Can Work It Out

Monday, August 23, 2010

                               Some Thoughts on Senator Byrd

     Recently, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia died. Serving 57 years in the Senate, he was an American of great stature, the third American Bird in stature in fact, behind Larry and Big.

     And who would win a jump ball between Larry and Big? (Robert could throw the ball up cept he dead). Big has those skinny legs, apparently no knees to bend and really short arms, but he is 8 foot 2 and Larry’s getting older. At any rate there’d be some trash talking.

          Larry: Dodo. Bird brain. Chicken shit.

          Big: You are one of the whitest, ugliest men I’ve ever seen.

     Which leads us to the first and last annual Bird Awards.

          Best Bird Song: Tie. Free Bird and Blackbird

          Worst Bird Song: Bluebird. McCartney at his sappiest

          Jailbird Award: The Birdman of Alcatraz

          Worst Bird in Oil: Louisiana pelican

          Best Bird in Oil: KFC

          Best Bird Lisp Award: Tie. Daffy Duck and Tweety

          Bird Brain Award: Dan Quayle

          Best Basketball Bird Name: Meadowlark Lemon

          Evil Bird Activity Award: Cardinal sins

          Avian Altitude Award: The Birds, “Eight Miles High”

          Worst Bird Dog: Wile E. Coyote

          Eats Like a Bird Award: Karen Carpenter
                                             For Rose

     A friend of mine recently asked me to tell her what I thought were the twenty best songs ever. Her only proviso was that there could only be one song per artist, and while she said they could come from any genre, I assume she meant the broad umbrella of “popular" music since I can’t very well compare the merits of “Positively Fourth Street” and Tschaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto.

     By “best” I mean the twenty I think are best as opposed to the twenty I like the best, thus “We Can Work It Out” and “American Girl” came off my list in favor of “A Day in the Life” and “Refugee.” I also didn’t list songs because I thought they were “influential,” something the Rolling Stone top 500 list of a few years back seemed to me to do. For example, in its top 20 are “Hound Dog,” What’d I Say” (Ray Charles), and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” all important songs but not the best song by the artist in question. (I wouldn’t put “Blowin’ in the Wind” in Dylan’s top fifty).

     You can see the RS list at It was compiled as I recall by averaging the rankings of a large group of musicians and other “experts.” Their list doesn’t have Rose’s one artist limitation, so there are five Beatles/Lennon songs in its top twenty, two each by Dylan and Chuck Berry. Even so, while I agree that “Like a Rolling Stone” is the best rock song ever, only four of my top twenty are in the RS top twenty, and nine of my picks don’t make their top 100.

     I have some serious objections to the RS list: “In My Life” is better than “A Day in the Life”? At girl scout camp maybe.

     Anyway, here’s my list in no particular order. And yeah, I know there are twenty-one, but I couldn’t bring myself to give any one of them the axe.

Like a Rolling Stone

A Day in the Life



(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding (Costello version)

Heroin (Velvet Underground)

Your Cheatin’ Heart

Heartbreak Hotel

Peggy Sue

Thunder Road

Once in a Lifetime

Rockin’ In the Free World

Stairway to Heaven

Free Bird

Carey (Joni Mitchell)

Smells Like Teen Spirit

Rosa Parks

Good Vibrations

I Will Survive

Try a Little Tenderness

Layla (Derek and the Dominos)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

                                        Noise Annoys
     Parents, as a rule, don’t like the music their kids listen to. They often refer to it as “noise.”

     Kids may or may not call their parents’ music boring. If they’re hearing their elders refer to their music as noise, this is a natural reaction, i.e., “Oh yeah, well yours is boring.” And there’s the generational identity thing of the “new” music, as in the Who’s “My Generation.”

     But what I want to talk about is the parents calling the new music noise. At first blush this just sounds like an insult, but I’d like to take their side here in a backhanded sort of way, because I think what they hear is in fact, to them, merely noise.

     I realized when I reached middle age and started seeing my contemporaries dissing new music (they didn’t get grunge and they really don’t get hip-hop) while I welcomed the changes, that most people can only “hear” music during a small window of their lives, puberty to early twenties. It’s the only time of their lives they’re open to possibility. Any music which comes after that which is not the songs they heard during their window, or songs of the same style, they simply can’t hear as music. It’s just noise. Note 1.

     This window phenomenon figures particularly in popular country music. For the past thirty years at least, the popular country music of the day has been the mainstream rock and roll of fifteen years before, in style at least and sometimes actually the same songs, e.g. Dolly Parton in the nineties covering Fleetwood Mac’s mid-seventies “Landslide.” Thirty-something country musicians play songs such as they heard on commercial rock radio at fifteen.

     This also explains why people who would never have listened to country music in their youth become converts as adults. It’s the only place they can hear “new” music which is a kind they can hear. It also explains serious rock musicians converting to country in their later years, most notably the King himself.

     Some rock musicians can only ever play the music they played when they were young and just keep making that same music. In some cases it gets tiresome, (Jackson Browne, Chuck Berry) but in rare cases a group (Led Zeppelin?) keeps exploring the same genre to good effect.

     Others (Dylan, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, David Bowie) have that rare ability to continue to hear new sounds and make them themselves. It’s those people who keep rock music evolving for new generations.

     Sometimes a musician will release a song about how music ain’t what it used to be, and these are generally awful. Case in point, Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll.” (To give Bob his due, his best songs are reflections on his teenage years (”I started humming a song from 1962…” “It was long ago/But it seems like yesterday”)

     The rare exception is “American Pie,” where I agree with almost nothing the singer is saying but am immediately hooked by the pure genius of the whole.

     Finally I want to talk about “An Old Fashioned Love Song,” partly because it sort of fits my topic but more so because it’s one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard. It was a radio hit for Three Dog Night, one of the last popular rock bands to write none of their hits. You’d think that they would’ve had really good material since they weren’t constrained by having to write songs. Apparently they just had really bad taste and saw that much of the radio public did as well. Also see, “Joy to the World” (Jeremiah was a Bullfrog)

     Anyway the song was written by Paul Williams and contains the lines

Just an old fashioned love song

Comin down in three part harmony

Just an old fashioned love song

One I’m sure they wrote for you and me

    Mr. Williams actually wrote that down on a piece of paper. He probably had more than one draft. Note 2.

     1. I was gratified to hear on NPR a few years back a scientist who had done a study which supported my window theory. This guy had a graduate assistant helping him do research. His assistant played music all the time, which was like all the other assistants he’d had before, but the new guy’s music was driving him crazy.

     He realized after a while that what bothered him so was that the young man wouldn’t stick to one kind of music. Counting Crows would be followed by Mozart, then Elvis then Wu Tang Clan, then Barbara Streisand. The scientist realized that when he himself played music it was the same Pink Floyd albums he’d been listening to for twenty five years. He then observed that most people were like him rather than his assistant.

     After doing some study, he realized that this phenomenon wasn’t just about music but about new possibility generally. Among his observations: if you’re fifty years old and you’ve never tried sushi, you probably never will. Also, the rare person who keeps following new music throughout his life is likely to change professions and interests throughout life.

     2. This last paragraph is stolen from a Paula Poundstone routine about a Snickers commercial.