Thursday, December 18, 2014

Whittling the Terrier

I didn't enjoy being a member of the Cub Scouts of America, or, the pack, as we were referred to within the organization. Truthfully, I barely recall the pack meetings, or what went on therein, every Tuesday night for the two years I was involved. I’m sure I’d remember more if I relished my days as a Cub Scout.

Okay, so I do recall a few things. I remember when I sliced my pointer finger open with a pocket knife while I attempted to whittle a Scottish terrier out of a bar of soap. I remember wiping out on the jagged asphalt during the go-cart races. And I remember, after a fundraiser, Scout Leader Barnes slipping on icy steps and gashing the left side of his face on the frozen top layer of snow. Perhaps the only achievement badges I earned were those that represented bodily harm: the bloody finger, the brush-burned torso, and the horrified eyes. Wait! I was victorious in the DuBoistown-Nisbet Cub Scout checker tournament; my opponent still owed me two king pieces when I jumped his final pawn. THAT is my sole fond memory of "obeying the law of the pack," as the motto goes.

I don't know, exactly, why I wasn't hyped to be a Cub Scout. I was somewhat of an outdoorsman in my youth—I enjoyed hiking in the Appalachians behind my boyhood home, and fishing the local streams with my grandfather, and camping in the Tiagahton Forest with my buddies. I suppose I was adverse to the structure. Also, come to think of it, our troupe's meetings were exclusively indoors. We learned to pitch a tent while cooped-up in the local fire hall basement, next to the boiler room. Ah, the great underground, block-windowed, asbestos-tiled, indoors!

I also hated the fucking stupid yellow scarf.

My inner adventurer perked when our fearless leader (he wasn't really fearless—I think he was a claims adjuster, or something) Scout Master Barnes, announced a three day, two night sojourn to Camp Karoondinha. Camp Karoondinha is "The Land of Shining Waters," nestled in the foothills of Mifflinburg, PA. Finally, the pack was leaving the fire hall basement and heading into the great outdoors. I gathered a weekend's worth of my most outdoor-sy possessions: compass, map of the Appalachians, and Swiss army knife (I WISHED it was one with the spoon), and loading them into the plastic duffel bag I got free with a specific number of Kellogg’s proofs of purchase. Next thing I know, the pack is unloading Scout Leader Barnes' minivan and gathering amongst a thick canopy of lush deciduous trees. The untainted breeze wafted the pure scent of pine into our nostrils, which had, after so many troupe meetings, sucked in more dust and mold spores than the EPA would deem suitable.

Hawks cawing and circling above, the snap of a distant branch that was likely caused by an unseen whitetail deer, the startling menace of an 18-wheeler's horn reverberating from the major interstate not far from camp…we were finally outside.

Yes, we were now in the heart of God’s country. But a true survivalist would’ve scoffed at the conveniences: pre-pitched tents, a modern bathroom, a ranger’s office with electricity, etc. Bear Grylls would’ve likened it to a penthouse on Fifth Avenue, albeit one with raccoon scat dotting the woodland floor.

The first half-day of camp was comprised of relatively standard camping fare for the pre-adolescent uninitiated: unrolling sleeping backs, cooking a sausage and grit dinner over the pre-built fire pit, and generally running amuck without regard for the true beauty of the natural habitat in which we were immersed. Before long, night had fallen and the pack had gathered in a circle around the fire pit under the bulbous radiant moon.

Duh, of course we did. The cliché is realized.

To further the cliché the fireside chats quickly became a carousal of ghost stories. One camper after another told the scary story his grandfather told him the Halloween prior, or he'd heard on the playground, or at a sleepover, or whatnot. But a kid rarely possesses the narration skills to truly spook an audience, even when said audience is a bunch of pubescent sons of sub-suburban soccer moms. After the umpteenth telling of the ol' "hook hanging from the car door" urban legend the troupe leader cleared his throat, which snagged his pack's attention. "Quiet kids," he said. "Enough silly stories. I need to tell you something that may save your life this weekend…Hey, stop making fart sounds and pay attention, Biff. You all need listen up or you may DIE." The fire roared and the moon flickered when he said "die." (Not really, but I'd add those effects if I were directing the movie version). "Not long ago, a small plane crashed deep in the woods not far from this campsite. The pilot, who was alone on the flight, survived. But his arm was trapped underneath a crushed part of the cockpit. He screamed and yelled for help, but no one came. Fearing he would die, and understanding that his only chance at survival was to escape the wreckage, he pulled out the axe he'd kept in the cockpit and chopped off the arm that was trapped. He had freed himself. Days later, a search party found the downed plane. They also found the pilot's severed arm and a trail of dried blood leading into the woods. The pilot, however, was never seen again. Legend has it that he still lurks about these very woods at night, still carrying his ax, and seeking someone with an arm that might fit onto his own mutilated shoulder. And when he finds that perfect arm he's going to chop it off and replace the one he had to leave behind in the plane crash. Camp Karoondinha is full of campers this weekend. I'm sure the, ah, bloody stump pilot will be out looking for a match. I wouldn't go out wandering in the woods if I were you. You might just come back to camp with a BLOODY STUMP YOURSELF. (The fire would rage again).

With the benefit of both hindsight and maturity, I should've recognized this grisly story as impromptu bullshit fear-mongering designed to simply scare curious or mischievous campers into not straying into the woods and facing threats much more likely than ax-wielding ghosts— like black bears and the distinct prospects of getting lost in the vast Pennsylvania woodlands. The should-have-been-obvious reasons for disbelief are aplenty. First of all, I imagined the pilot as a burly lumberjack-type. Thus, Scout Leader Barnes himself owned the only appendage suitable to compliment the pilot's size requirements. How laughable would a barrel-chested brute look if he had one strapping arm, and another befitting a squirrelly 9-year-old? Furthermore, the dismembered pilot would've needed to survive the blood loss, and somehow manage in the unforgiving woods for several years armed with only an ax—and perhaps a little Cub Scout know-how. Never mind that he apparently decided to nest with the wildlife like the Unabomber, rather than hike to the nearest highway and seek a ride to the ER. Lastly, why would Scout Leader Barnes allow us to stay a weekend at Camp Karoondinha when he knew a rural Jack the Ripper was roaming about? The woodlands were London alleys, and we were prostitutes.

Despite the overlooked surefire signs that the scout leader’s story was nothing but B horror movie fodder, we naïve Cub Scouts immediately thought of ourselves as targets. After storytelling time concluded with the collective pants-pissing of about two dozen scouts, we finished our S’mores with chattering teeth, doused our fire, and schlepped to our tents. Yep, we were sitting ducks; it was just a matter of who “got the ax.”

Todd, my tent-mate, and I spent the first night in our sleeping bags assuring ourselves ad nauseam that our arms would remain intact with our torsos for the duration of the trip. We had some cause for hope. Most significantly, the law of probability dictated that neither of US would LIKELY be the pilot’s victim—someone, perhaps, but neither of us. But if either of us were chosen to be sampled, so to speak, surely we would notice the pilot approaching long before he could pounce. I felt strongly about my changes of outrunning a one-armed man hauling a cumbersome ax. Besides, if Todd and I were to stand back-to-back all weekend—think Forrest Gump and Bubba in the jungles of Vietnam—our surveillance would gain us the advantage. Those thoughts were comforting enough to allow us to begin to drift into slumber…until Todd brought up a good point, “What if he sneaks into our tent while we’re sleeping?” Oh shit!

I spent the next hours of the slog to sunrise either tossing and turning, or in a half-sleep state in which gruesome images appeared and vanished in my reeling mind like a flickering fever dream. But I was rattled back to reality when a shrill scream—that of a boy—blitzed the pre-dawn air. I sprang up in my bed Jack-In-The-Box style, eyes bulging, but recoiled just as quickly under the feeble security of my thin tattered sheets. I was too scared to ask Todd's opinion of what the scream meant. I didn't need to, actually. The pilot was trying on a brand new arm.

The next morning began as inauspiciously as the previous night had ended. After exchanging a few silent hours of petrified glances with Todd amid the muted glow of an early morning sun, Scout Leader Barnes rang the breakfast bell. What we happened upon along the short trek to the fire pit confirmed, or, re-confirmed, what me and Todd had already concluded. The flap to Biff's tent was wide open. His bed had been stripped and the bags and toiletries that normally accompanied occupancy were missing. We surveyed the other scouts lingering about the plates of scrambled eggs and sausages on the picnic table—Biff was gone!

My nerves instantly ran amuck upon this realization. Biff and I were never friends. In fact, I didn’t even know him particularly well. But now, poor Biff was dead. Murdered by a bloodthirsty ghost! His parents must be crushed. Scout Leader Barnes was just sitting on a rock, munching on greasy bacon. He seemed quite collected…eerily collected.

How can he hide his shock? Why aren’t we piling back in his minivan and scurrying home? Wait. Where are the police? Where are the investigators collecting evidence and writing down quotes? Crap! The Cub Scouts of America are sweeping the tragedy under the rug! Scout Master Barnes must've yanked the bloody sheets off Biff's bed to hide the fact that his friggin' arm was chopped off. Biff's camping gear was removed to erase any traces of his existence. His name surely has been erased from Camp Karoondinha's attendance records. Why? Is this a calculated effort by the Cub Scouts of America to protect a wholesome image? Did they honestly not foresee this tragedy, the ghost story come to life, and now feel the irrepressible need to avert the headline "Scout Master's Tongue in Granny Knots as Camper Slaughtered?" Either way, does the Cub Scouts of America think tank presume that Biff's fellow scouts would simply forget he was a part of the pack?

Scout's dishonor.


The remainder of the day consisted of standard camping and/or Cub Scout stuff, less the permeating immense fear that I may be violently murdered under the cloak of night in the vacuum of the Central Pennsylvania wilderness, and the nefarious Fraternal Order of the Cub Scouts of America would wipe away all traces of my untimely demise and order Scout Master Barnes to simply tell my parents “I’m sorry Mr. and Mrs. Bower, but Matt went down to the creek to skip rocks, and never came back. Damn, this is always the hardest part of the job.”

Beyond earshot of the scout master—preferably behind a tree or the outhouse—pack members exchanged whispers concerning the events of the preceding night. Everyone had heard Biff scream. Everyone had noticed Biff’s absence. Everyone took note of the mysterious state of Biff’s tent. And everyone was convinced that he was a goner.

I handled a potentially deadly weapon for the first time that afternoon. A ranger employed by the camp (read: lackey ordered by the Fraternal Order of the Cub Scouts of America) gave a crash course on proper use of a bow and arrow, and instructed me to take aim at a hail bale 50 feet away. I placed the tip of my left sneaker at the white chalk line in the grass, and raised the bow. I somehow mustered the strength in my scrawny upper body to gradually pull the string back while the arrow’s shaft was clenched between my fingers. The tension in the string was quickly draining the energy from my quivering arm. I squinted and measured the target straight ahead. In my mind, the hail bail was the psychotic pilot, sharpening his ax. He didn’t know I was there. He didn’t know I had him in my crosshairs. In that moment, I felt completely in control. The tension in the string and the ache in my biceps and shoulder assured me the arrow possessed sufficient potential energy to split a man’s eyebrows from across a field. I whimpered slightly when the ache became a throb. The pilot heard me and peered up; the sparks jumping from the grindstone framed his sneer. His eyes said “Look. Fresh meat.” I released the tension. My thoughts were on the tip of the arrow as it careened mercilessly toward its target. The pilot’s maddened eyes trailed the arrow as it whooshed three feet above his head. Then he turned back to me, grinned, and the spinning grindstone stopped. The blade was sharp enough now. And I was meat, indeed.


I awoke Sunday morning—the final day of camp—accompanied by a sense of relief. I hadn't been slaughtered overnight. Neither had Todd. Moreover, no midnight screams had awakened us.

The pact gathered for a final hearty breakfast prepared by Scout Master Barnes over the open fire. Nothing else seemed amiss. No tents were suddenly and mysteriously empty. No one was unaccounted for. My fellow scouts certainly seemed more carefree than the prior morning. Todd was back to his sophomoric quips, and others were playfully tussling. I sensed that everyone was thankful that today we'd return to the safe doldrums of a retreat to the proverbial grit. I know I was. But that didn't mean I was prepared to allow Scout Master Barnes to escape the veiling of Biff's terrible fate without a suitable explanation.

While our leader sat beside the withering fire and munched on a piece of toast, I gradually and deliberately approached him within his peripheral view. I was hoping he'd peer up and ask me what was on my mind before I'd have to tap him on the shoulder and initiate an extremely uncomfortable conversation. Frankly, I think he did notice me slowly approaching—fidgeting hands behind my back—but he refused to acknowledge me until the lingering awkwardness of a silent looming nine-year-old forced him to speak.  “Hi Matt,” he said. “Ready to go home?”

“Yes,” I answered. I stared at his bobbing moustache as he chewed his bacon. “I’m ready.”

“Did you have fun?”


“Will you come back again with the pack next year?”

I didn’t respond at first. Instead, I stared at my feet. “Scout Master Barnes? I have a question. What happened to…” I could hear food squishing between his teeth. “What happened to Biff? Is he dead?”

Scout Master Barnes’ eyes widened, and a grin overcame his face. “Why? Do you think his arm was chopped off?”

My heart didn’t skip a beat. Nor did it quicken. But I’m pretty sure it turned white and coughed air bubbles into my veins.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Hah. Biff didn’t get his arm chopped off, son. No, no. But it’s not much better.  He tried going into the bathroom in the dark and his dang wiener got caught in his zipper. That’s the scream you heard. Shook him up but good.” By this time, several members of the pack had gathered nearby.
“His poor mom had to come and pick him up before you guys woke up. Biff’s fine. He’ll just have an ice pack on his crotch for few days.” Scout Master Barnes erupted into an obscene belly laugh...the dick. “You guys thought the pilot got him, didn’t you. That’s rich! Time to gather your gear boys. The minivan leaves soon.”

I still love the outdoors, much more than any moldy basement. And, yes, I have zero fond memories of my days as a Cub Scout, bar the checkers tournament. But I did learn one thing while camping—always take your flashlight to the pisser.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Slice of Toast Image Mysteriously Appears in Virgin Mary Blow Mold

Bentlyville (AP)- Who says Bentleyville isn't a tourist destination? The population of the small town has swelled dramatically since news of a local barkeep's bizarre discovery swept through the sleepy community, and far beyond. "I was just staring at the Nativity scene in front of the Rufus County court house," said Herb Rosenhauer, "when I noticed something unusual. If I stood at a certain angle and in a certain light and looked at the Virgin Mary blow mold, I could distinctly see a slice of toast appear on her robes. I think its Pumpernickel."

Herb is the longtime owner of The Jolly Miser tavern, a favorite haunt of local boozehounds and dead beats. He's seen some wild things between happy hour and last call, but nothing quite like this. "Our kitchen is open until 11pm daily, and we serve grain in many forms: sandwiches, bread bowls…ah…double decker sandwiches. Even though I handle bread daily, this has shaken me to the core. Maybe it foretells something big…like, triple decker sandwich big"

What exactly that is remains to be seen. However, Herb isn't the only one who regards the phenomena as something more significant than a garden variety optical illusion obviously caused by the street light directly about the illegally placed Nativity scene. When Herb blabbed his discovery at the Basketful Bakery nearby, news quickly wafted downwind to the editor of the Bentleyville Bi-Weekly. The front page story was delivered to doorsteps the next morning, and word spread globally very slowly via Myspace posts and AOL chatrooms. Two weeks later, bread lovers, wheat aficionados, and desperate patients with incurable grain deficiencies have flocked to Bentleyville by the loaf-ful.

A tent shantytown has sprung up about Nativity scene. Those who stand on the exact spot where Herb discovered the mysterious image—again, only when the street light is on—also claim to see the slice of toast. However, disagreement abounds over what the slice signifies. Some think it spells doom, exemplified by makeshift signs; one reads "The Yeast Shall Rise Again" while another proclaims "Repent. The Second Crumbing Is Nigh." Oh, and "Schwebel 3:16." Others who have traveled are stricken with gluten allergies and believe that touching the blow mold on Virgin Mary's plastic bosom—where the image appears—will help their bowels simmer down. Still, other visitors just plain-old love toast. "I fucking love toast," says Tabitha Whitman, a claims adjuster from Paducah, TN, who loves toast.

Businesses in the area also welcome the population surge. "I don't know how long this thing will last, but I've never made so much money from so many disillusioned scatterbrains in my life," said a local petty thief who simply steals wallets from the back pockets of those who stand in muted admiration of the easily explainable spectacle.

Despite the surge of attention that has befallen Herb Rosenhauer since the fateful day his eyes "accidentlly happened upon" on Mother Mary's chest, he strives to remain grounded. "I don't know what this whole toast thing means. But I do know that the Jets should be favorites to win the Super Bowl in 2016."

Update: Proof of a higher flour? Since publication of this piece, a report from Alabama tells of an English muffin spotted in a bust of Elvis, and another from Brazil claims a Toaster Strudel suddenly appeared in a framed velvet Jesus.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Winter Is Here. The Spider Is Gone.

When last spring arrived a wolf spider began spinning a web between my front porch light and the brick exterior of my house. I checked the progress of construction daily whenever I arrived home from work. The silk support beams were attached first, followed by an elaborate network of interconnecting sinuous joists.

Imagine periodically checking on the erecting of a skyscraper or sports arena of a simpler, but no less impressive, design.

The finished project was pristine. The web looked like those in the Audubon Field Guide to Spiders that I often borrowed from my elementary school's library. The angles all matched and the octagons got gradually smaller at the same ratio going from the outside of the web into the tiny dot in the center -- inside of which I envisioned an infinite amount of progressively smaller octagons not decipherable to the human eye. The craftsman of the web herself (I imagine the spider as feminine, like when a woman who poisons her husband is nicknamed a "black widow") was already large insofar as North American spiders go. Sometimes she spread her legs out, in four pairs, and rested in the middle of the web. This exaggerated her physical prowess, like a wary puffer fish. Perhaps she was basking in the glow of the porch light, or relaxing in the fruits of her labor. But most times she was curled-up inside the slightly rusted lip about the crown of the porch light. The lip was her home.

Despite its elegance, the web's primary function was to be a death trap. No one lives in their death trap.

Cobwebs sag about the overhead joists in my basement like individual ghost towns begging to be unceremoniously razed by a swipe of my corn cob broom. But the porch light spiderweb inhabited prime real estate and was occupied month-after-month by both its creator and mummified nocturnal insects of a varied sort. I wondered, had the weaver been clever enough to build her masterpiece beside the porch light? Or did the spider think to herself "Ok. Enough climbing. Let's just spin this damn thing here. It's as good a place as any, I suppose?" Either way, she was the sole customer inside a self-restocking 24/7 buffet. Some nights I watched four or five moths struggle hopelessly for freedom, all at once. The unwitting captives eventually went limp either from fatigue or a merciless fang bite into the thorax. The spider couldn't paralyze her bounty fast enough. While lesser spiders -- those relishing a life of solitude underneath my couch or enjoying sky box views of the daily spectacle of this blog's author struggling to force-feed his squirming son yogurt every morning -- were devoured weekly by a Bissell handheld vacuum. But the architect of the porch light web flourished. Be it dumb luck or crafty real estate forecasting, she certainly flourished. And she grew.

By mid-October, the spider was a gargoyle, safeguarding the front entrance. Visitors were aghast. A home inspector visited our home for a drive-by appraisal. While evaluating the front porch, her commentary was as follows, "The brick looks good and the mortar isn't crumbing. That's good. You porch lights appear to be in fine condi…Holy Shit! Look at that spider!" A few weeks earlier two delinquents climbed onto our back deck. Luckily I noticed the disturbance and chased them away. However, I believe the would-be crooks decided to seek entry into our home via the much-less-manageable deck entrance because of the looming monstrosity out front.


December is upon us and the spider is gone now. The web remains, but its creator is likely a victim of this autumn's sequel to last February's polar vortex. (Polar Vortex II: Further Down the Vortex) She's not curled-up in the lip of the porch light's crown. I checked. She's just flat-out gone. Perhaps she crawled into a toasty little hole in the dirt to hibernate. Do spiders hibernate? She likely became frozen, fell to the welcome mat below, and was either trampled or blown off the stoop where she'll decompose and help fertilize the grass. Her web, now a cobweb like those in the basement rafters, is lonely. A few unwrapped half-decayed bugs remain entangled, as do several pieces of dead brown leaves. The web, now, remains as merely a relic of the summer of '14, like the chipped seashells gathered one foggy morning on the beach to be later tossed into the kitchen trash can when the nostalgia is gone (or when the shells are deemed too unclean to keep in the junk drawer with the collection of half-drained AA batteries and the two keys to unknown latches – maybe someday we'll figure out where they go.)

Unchecked nostalgia anchors one to the fantasy of the past. Abandon nostalgia. The spider is gone.

Update: I found something directly below the porch light yesterday, 12/19/14.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Hey Mrs. Clause, tell your hubby that Billy wants an induced nuclear fission hand blaster this Christmas

Dear Mrs. Clause,

It's me, Billy Nelson from 2333 Winchester St. Paducah, TN. I need you to speak to Santa for me. I feel he has wronged me and I was hoping you could talk some sense into your hubby. Here's the deal. I spoke with the man briefly beside a Verizon kiosk at the McCracken Valley Mall a week back. I asked for one gift and one gift only—a self-designed induced nuclear fission hand blaster (hereafter referred to as my soon-to-be-trademarked name, The Rapture Whisperer). Santa said the elves couldn't produce such a thing. Of course I wouldn't expect that there'd be an induced nuclear fusion hand blaster, or, Rapture Whisperer, just lying around the workshop so I slipped the instructions to build one under this belt. He just looked at them and laughed. I don't know why. Splitting an atom isn't exactly cutting edge science anymore. Einstein...hello. Besides, if the elves are able to build billions of toys for billions of children in one year, surely they'd be capable of building me a single Rapture Whisperer. Anyway, Santa just laughed again and tossed the instructions into a nearby trash can and began walking toward Subway. What a fool! Does he want them to unwittingly fall into the hands of a power hungry food court janitor? I rescued them and confronted him once again, explaining that I'd been an exceeding good boy all year and all I wanted was one single gift of what is essentially a space age hand-bazooka capable of ending all life on planet Earth. I ensured him the plans would be easy to follow. Heck, I'd build The Rapture Whisperer myself if I had enriched uranium. I figured those tinkering elves might have that stuff somewhere in what surely must be a vast warehouse of building materials. Or at least they'd know what North African black markets to surf. But then your snooping hubby began questioning my intentions. Frankly, I was a bit offended. I assure you I don’t give off any eccentric despot vibes in person. I ensured him I meant no harm. Then he asked, "What if it your little gadget goes off by accident?" I showed him on the instructions where there's clearly a foolproof safety mechanism near the trigger on my so-called little gadget. Besides, I've fired my Dad's 22. to end the misery of a desperately wounded raccoon partially squashed by a forklift operated by my drunk heavy-footed uncle. I know how firearms operate and I'm quite comfortable with one in my warm alive hands. And then he asked me "Why would you want something capable of incinerating a mid-sized American city?" Why wouldn't anyone, duh? Not that I'd ever use the Rapture Whisperer to destroy a population, let alone hurt a fly. But what your husband doesn't seem to grasp, Mrs. Clause, is that my invention, The Rapture Whisperer, is designed to be a deterrent first and foremost. I never WANT to use it. But I mean, what sixth grader is going to steal lunch money from a kid with an induced nuclear fission hand blaster sticking out of his corduroys? I told Santa that and he just patted me on the head and turned around and ordered a meatball marinara foot long. So, please talk to the big guy for me. Tell him I deserve this one little thing. Promise him that I will never, ever use my "little gadget" unless provoked and it's absolutely necessary. But, mark my words, if Ted Growler ever tries to tie me to the monkey bars and pound on my kneecaps with a Fun Noddle again…

Thank you, Mrs. Clause, for your anticipated cooperation in this matter.


Friday, November 14, 2014

Sisyphus Quits

I'm Henry the Eight, I am. Henry the Eight I am, I am. Almost there, baby. Almost there. I got married to the widow next door. Come on. So close. She's been married seven times before. Who's the man? Sisyphus is the man. And everyone was a Henry. Henry. Fuck yeah! She wouldn't have a Willy or a Sam. Nor a Sam, you naysaying sons-a-bitches! I'm her eighth old man. I'm SISYPHUS. Sisyphus the boulder-roller-to-the-TOP-of-the-mountain I am. Sisyphus the boulder-roller….OH CRAP! CRAP! CRAP! CRAP! CRAP!

That's it. I'm done. I'm completely, totally friggin' done. I've said it before but I really mean it this time. I really do. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me seven million, three hundred forty two thousand, eight hundred and two times, shame on me. But that's it. Who has two thumbs and won't be taken for a sucker anymore. This guy. Wait dummy. Point your thumbs at yourself. That's right. THIS GUY. You hear me down there. Huh? Don't let the boulder roll over your ass on the way down.

Thinking about it now, I feel like I've wasted a big chunk of my life with this boulder rolling stuff. Maybe the damn thing slipping out of my hands for the seven million, three hundred forty two thousand, eight hundred and second time was the best thing to ever happen to me. Maybe I needed to get to this point to realize the boulder just isn't destined to see the top. Finally, I feel like I got some perspective. Come to think of it, I don't even know what I'd do if I ever made it to the top. What's the end game? No clue. Pat myself on the shoulder and hike all the way back down to the valley to see the old lady and bambino I guess. Maybe check to see if my bowling team still needs a forth guy.

I'm better than this. Any schmuck can roll a boulder. I've been a cog too long. I might as well have been flipping a burger that never cooks, or fetching shopping carts in a parking lot that never ends. I know I'm capable of so much more. Back when I was just another neighborhood kid flicking pebbles for kicks they told me I could do anything one day, if I put my mind to it. Next thing I know my booze-fueled teenage rock flinging years are behind me and I wake up with this shitty boulder rolling gig. Every day, nine to five, plus the occasional weekend shift. Punch in…roll…chase…roll…punch out. If only I knew back then...

Christ. Look at me now. What do I got to show for it all? Huh? A chronic backache and a Wikipedia page.  

It's time Sisyphus pulls up his sandal straps and gets crackin' on a brand new career…a brand new life…a brand new exciting and uncharted future where anything is possible. Duff's Technical Institute, here I come.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Mister Rogers Wants You To Get Off His G*dd*mn Lawn

Hey, you kids, get off my goddamn lawn. Stay the hell off if you know what's good for you.

No, wait. I got a better idea. Tear-up my begonias with your stupid Razor scooters some more. Go ahead. Climb the fence and piss on the glazed ball in my Baroque garden. Be my guest. Hey, come back here and throw stones at the white-crowned sparrows on my bird feeder. I dare you. But be warned, this neighbor just took a tour of the brass-knuckle factory, and he stopped in the gift shop on the way out.

Dammit-all, there hasn't been a single beautiful day in this neighborhood since the blasted Great Recession ended and you little pecker-heads showed up. They've all been shitty. It's been one shitty day in the neighborhood after another. Where are your parents, anyway? I bet I know. They're probably stoned on non-medicinal marijuana, slobbering over their framed velvet Elvis artwork, and grazing on Cheese Curls like bovines. No, don't bother getting off the futon; your government cheese is in the mail. Well, not since Mr. McFeely got laid-off. The glory days are dead. The abandoned Crayon factory is full of winos and squatters. The Sunshine Playground looks it belongs in a real estate listing in Chernobyl. Betty Aberlin's Theater, a long-time sanctuary of fife and drum performances when this town was swingin', is a stash house now.

This neighborhood sucks.

But this neighbor ain't going anywhere, negative equity in his house be damned. This neighbor has had enough. This neighbor is going to sharpen his Safety Scissors—not to cut-out snowflake chains but to cut-down the chain-smoking ruffians who loiter in front of Basketful Bakery. This neighbor is going to take off his old-man boat shoes slowly, and put on this bad-ass throat-kickers lickety-split. This neighbor is going to collect every empty Old English 40 bottle scattered about the curb because he has a fun new craft project in mind—using them to crack some skulls. That's right; this neighbor is stepping out of the land of make-believe and into the land of keeping it fuckin' real.

Hey, you kids, get back on my lawn. You'll rue the day you became MY neighbor.  

Monday, October 20, 2014

Pink Gloyd and the Endless River...of Scarves, Marbles and Fake Backstage Passes.

I am a Pink Floyd completest. If the band officially releases any licensed product—music product, I mean—I feel compelled to hastily purchase said product. Frankly, this compulsion is a curse. Why? Besides spending nearly every dime earned as a teenage stock clerk at Kmart on imported bootlegged concerts and rare demo recordings, seriously dwindling returns began in 2011. The Discover Pink Floyd campaign launched that year, and the band released several album-centric boxed sets consisting partly of re-mastered, live and unreleased music. Note the word "partly." Accompanying the compact discs inside the boxed sets is a slew of truly pointless crap: exclusive photo book, 27x27 art print, 5 trading cards, replica tour ticket, replica backstage pass, 9 coasters, 3 marbles with felt carrying bag…AND A SCARF! Yes, a fucking SCARF! Basically, the boxed sets include everything but an officially licensed replica '94 Division Bell tour hovercraft hand-painted by Portuguese mermaids.

Upon the launch of the Discover Pink Floyd campaign I was so enthused that the band digitally re-mastered their greatest albums and plundered the vaults to release coveted live and studio rarities that, as a completest, I had no choice but to purchase all the ridiculous Crackerjack toys in hopes that the music was buried somewhere at the bottom. Truthfully, I've never worn the scarf while playing with the marbles in the cold. (The fake backstage pass, however, has allowed me fake backstage at many fake concerts). Also, needless to say, the music itself remains fantastic. In fact, it might be fantastic-er since being re-mastered. Therefore, the marbles and scarves own an arguably justified place among my bountiful, and still mounting, Pink Floyd collection. (The marbles, scarves, etc. cannot be separated from the boxed sets in which they were originally packaged—completest rules.)

I'm such a staunch completest that I even own a Pink Gloyd Album. The "Gloyd" is a typo…kind of. The band, sans Roger Waters, released their complete discography in the Oh, By The Way limited edition boxed set in 2007. Each album in the set is a mini-replica (there's that word again) of the original pressing of the respective LP. Floyd purists shunned the release because the music itself hadn't been re-mastered since 1992, and the marketing of the set relied solely on the novelty of repackaging the CD's as imitations of the vinyl versions released back when your hippy uncle was spinning his copy of The Wall backwards on his turntable in hopes of decoding Syd Barrett's clandestine underground whereabouts. Regardless, I thought the marketing ploy was clever, and this was Pink Floyd by the way. Eventually, I embarked on an Ebay expedition to unearth the prog rock gem at a reasonable price. I felt damn lucky to purchase the set from a Chinese seller for a mere $58.00, a few hundred less than I'd seen it for sale on the shelves at FYE.

Do you see where this is going?

I received my order from the Ebay seller in good order. However, the boxed set itself seemed suspiciously shoddy: flimsy cardboard sleeves with perforated folds, plastic bag-like inner-sleeves, and slightly pixilated album art. However, I simply thought "Damn. Pink Floyd's standards for their retail merchandise have declined. I'm glad I got this blasted thing cheap." I filed it among my collection to gather cobwebs until I revisited it years later on a whim. I noticed the semi-blurry name printed on the spine of the album More—Pink Gloyd. My reaction? "Man, the band's retail standards have REALLY plummeted!" But the cruel truth eventually trampled me like the marching hammers in The Wall. I had purchased a forgery.

When Pink Floyd frontman and lead guitarist David Gilmour's wife leaked, via Twitter, that the band was secretly recording a new album entitled The Endless River Floyd-heads were equal parts gleeful, and suspicious. The glee was justified. One of the most transformative rocks bands in history—who fans though dead until the leak—was releasing their first album in two decades. The suspicion was probably more justified. Was the main creative force/songwriter of the band's heyday, Roger Waters, involved with the project? Was this going to be a proper album accompanied by a tour, or instead just rehashed duds meant to help sell excess marbles and scarves? Mostly importantly, regardless of all else, would the music at least be comparable to Floyd's best, or what it be complete shit? After all, 35 years have passed since the band's last seminal album, The Wall. In the meantime, the individual band members wrought such emotional and legal misery upon themselves throughout the prolonged breakup and subsequent poo-flinging that fans may only reasonably expect a battered shell of the inventive and dazzling dynamic exhibited onstage and in-studio during the 1970's.

The new album is due to be released on 11/10/14. I haven't heard any of the cuts, bar the three 30 second promotional tasters, but I harbor plenty of festering opinions on the reawakening of Pink Floyd. Before I get to them I'd like to share some thoughts on the band's history thus far. I could probably write a 50 page essay/opinion piece on my personal relationship with the music, especially in my teenage years, but I'll follow with the greatly abridged version:

No band in the history of music, let alone rock-n-roll, has released a more competent, creative, and entertaining string of (5) albums than Pink Floyd, starting with Meddle and ending with The Wall (excluding the movie soundtrack Obscured By Clouds). Some may argue that the Beatles hold that crown, somewhere between Rubber Soul and Abbey Road. Other dim bulbs may claim that Led Zeppelin's first handful of albums (which contain mostly cover songs, actually) are superior. Surely, others will argue any number of bands lay claim, from heralded standard bearers of the genre to underrated indie bands. Some of the arguments may be sound (pun not intended, but maybe it is now), but all those people are flat wrong. The sequence of Meddle, Darkside of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, and The Wall is unmatched. If you disagree, write your own essay.

The first Floyd album I purchased was the band's studio finale 94's The Division Bell, oddly enough. I was in ninth grade at the time, and lacked nearly complete perspective on the band, and life too I suppose. I hadn't known the album's lineup lacked their two prior creative frontmen, for instance. Months later, and after several family dinners spent listening to the dining room radio instead of engaging in boring ol' family drivel, I finally realized that that weird song, Another Brick In The Wall Pt. 2, was Pink Floyd. I abruptly purchased The Wall. Upon first listen I recognized a few other tunes as FM radio staples. The lyrics clearly had a deeper meaning that, apparently, and according to teenage peers, was only revealed when one watched the movie version of The Wall while high as a Cessna on grass. I gradually collected every other Floyd album by several means: I dubbed some on tape from my uncle's vinyl collection, I requested others as Christmas or birthday gifts, and I saved money from cutting the neighbors' lawns. Within a year I owed all 14 albums in Pink Floyd's discography. By tenth grade no other band graced my car's JVC tape deck. Friends thought it weird that I only listened to one band. I paid those tasteless naysayers no heed.

Needless to say, I also investigated the history of the band. The founder member and chief creative force of the original incarceration of Pink Floyd/The Pink Floyd/The Pink Floyd Sound/The T-Set/The Megadeaths/The Abdabs/The Screaming Abdabs/Leonards Lodgers/etc. was Syd Barrett. After authoring Floyd's hallucinogenic and highly influential first album The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Barrett's brain liquefied as a result of LSD and the pressures of fame…well, probably mostly LSD…okay, almost definitely because of ingesting truckloads and truckloads of LSD. Either way, Barrett was probably the quirkiest bastard in rock history, and was a teenage hero of mine. Outside of PATGOD and the five core albums, Pink Floyd's work is suspect, if not experimental and somewhat embarrassingly amusing. The albums More and Obscured By Clouds were both soundtracks that included short, but mostly enjoyable yet generic tracks. Neither stands out. Saucerful of Secrets, Ummagumma, and Atom Heart Mother do stand out, but not always for good reason. Each of the albums contain meandering instrumental pieces that befit a soundtrack to a fever dream. (I recently listened to Ummagumma while watching the movie Haxan. The music and visuals are perfect complements. Google Haxan…you'll understand.) The Final Cut was Waters last album with the band. The lyrics are political and dated, containing references to Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and "a group of anonymous Latin American meat packing glitterati." Still, the music is powerful in bursts. Lyrically the album is, in-an-of-itself, one of the most pointed, and poignant, in my CD library. Then came the two David Gilmour–led albums, A Momentary Lapse of Reason (an appropriate title) and The Division Bell…two albums clearly lacking creative direction. Sure, the guitar solos are bitchin' but overall the lyrics are pedestrian, and the music is boring and unadventurous. Imagine the song Comfortably Numb as a scrumptious sandwich. Nearly every song on AMLOR and TDB is also a sandwich, but made with much less nutritious ingredients and tasting like spoiled meat mostly overpowered by Dollar General brand spices.

Since my days of devoted and unquestioning fandom I have matured enough that I consider the albums outside of the core five, and perhaps PATGOD, as equal parts mediocre and amusing. However, middle-age maturity has also affected my opinion of the core five—I am a bigger fan of those albums now more than ever.

Meddle- This album contains the 24 minute epic Echoes. Sprawling and ethereal, Gilmour's guitar soars and Water's lyrics are more grounded than those transmitting the spacey concepts of prior work. He conceived of them while peering down at busy sidewalks from a tall building, and watching people buzz about, devoid of human interaction. "By chance two separate glances meet, and I am you and what I see is me." The synergistic effect of Waters and Gilmour at the top of their game is spectacular. 

Darkside of the Moon- The big one. The Sgt. Pepper of the 70's. This is the one that hurled the band into super stardom, and ultimately and unwittingly became a catalyst for the themes of the three proceeding albums. It's easy to see (hear) why. Water's lyrics don't leave the launch-pad at all here—death, finances, running against the clock, etc. The transition from song to song is fairly seamless, as is the album as a whole, with weird time structures throughout. DSOTM has been dissected time and again so anything I write would be redundant. You don't have to listen to it in synch with Wizard of Oz. In fact, listening to it in synch with Air Bud 2 is just as cool.

Wish You Were Here- Probably my favorite album, and the most soulful in the band's catalogue. Equal parts yearning, sarcasm, and gnashing spitefulness. Heck, there's even a pinch of humor, "Which one's Pink?" Absence is the theme—both literal absence and the lack of human compassion and emotion in everyday interactions. From the band's perspective this specifically concerned the music industry cutthroats and their "four star daydreams" in lieu of post-DSOFM success. Shine on You Crazy Diamond is a touching yet mournful tribute to Syd Barrett, who actually walked in the studio (or at least the ghost of his youthful spryness and creativity walked in the studio) during the songs recording. If God existed this would be the prime example of his warped sense of humor.

Animals- 1976 was the "Summer of Hate." Punk had arrived, and so had Johnny Rotten and his "I Hate Pink Floyd" tee shirts. Although Animals contains three songs longer than 10 minutes each—far longer than three-minute crappy punk songs—Animals is far more punk that Johnny Rotten's wet dreams. Animals is pure vitriol, spewing lyrics like "You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to, So that when they turn their backs on you, You'll get the chance to put the knife in." Waters categories humankind into three sets: Dogs, Pigs and Sheep. If you're reading this while wearing sweatpants, you're a sheep. If you're reading this while wearing a tie, you're a dog. If you're reading this and you're on the November ballot, you're a pig. Pigs (Three Different Ones) might be my favorite Pink Floyd song. It's bizarre, funky and cynical—everything I hope my son to be one day.

Eat it, Johnny Rotten!

The Wall- When fame had thoroughly curb-stomped Water's soul, he put a two year self-imposed curfew on himself and wrote his magnum opus. I like to imagine that he constructed a couch cushion fort in his living room and did all his writing inside, alone and weeping. The Wall is the tale of a rock star named Pink (duh) who succumbs to the pressures of fame and reinvents himself as a fascist totalitarian. The adoring crowd is his, ah, sheep. The album is not without flaws: the lyrics can be tedious and whiny, the storyline a bit contrived, and the Waters is now clearly the totalitarian of the band itself. But man, The Wall has moments of sheer genius. In terms of beholding and appreciating sheer talent in mediums in which I consider myself somewhat savvy, few works of art move me like the song Comfortably Numb—bar maybe Hunter S. Thompson’s The Edge piece, and George Carlin’s Coast To Coast Emergency routine. Here, Waters and Gilmour are the Gatekeeper and the Keymaster. The song transcends the casual listener (people who think the song is merely a “drug song”), and rewards true fans aware of the intricacies of the moving parts. Water’s role in the song is that of a merciless “Doctor Feel Good” who pumps a sick and exhausted Pink full of narcotics to rush him on stage. Gilmour’s role is that of Pink’s drug-fueled hallucination, a nearly unrecognizable boyhood version of himself who delights in such pleasantries as “a distant ship’s smoke on the horizon.” Water’s lyrics shine here; they are pointed and affecting. Gilmour’s two guitar solos are topnotch, and unfortunately a staple of every classic rock station that “Rocks (your town name here) like no other station in the valley.” Prog rock’s Lennon and McCartney earn the comparison, tenfold.

Rogers Waters has publicly distanced himself from the upcoming The Endless River. Syd Barrett died seven years ago so he really distanced himself. But the Pink Floyd marble factory is ramping up production. Using prior context clues, can you guess my pro-rated opinion of the new album? David Gilmour has said that The Endless River will be Pink Floyd's sendoff. Although large swathes of The Division Bell sound as though they were produced by Yanni's first cousin, the album's final song titled High Hopes— clearly written as a goodbye to fans—is surprisingly creative and memorable. Unable to leave well enough alone, the band is releasing a redundant goodbye song, Louder Than Words. Gilmour has stated that the song is meant to reflect the turbulent dynamic of the band, and more importantly, despite the headaches and catfights, how the music endures…or some trite shit like that. What’s more, the lyrics were written by David Gilmour's wife. That's right; the lyrics meant to capture the intimacy of the band's interpersonal relationships aren't penned by ANY member of the band, let alone a former member who is known as a stellar lyricist. Furthermore, the music itself is stated to be largely ambient and instrumental pieces (barf!), with very few sung lyrics. However, one song titled Talkin' Hawkin' features spoken bits by famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. (ugh!) What's more, the album is essentially unreleased and unfinished pieces—mostly written by deceased keyboardist Richard Wright—from The Division Bell sessions. The title of the album is clichéd, the album art—a man rowing a boat on the clouds—is clichéd, and this critique is probably clichéd considering the legions of Floyd-heads likely pronouncing their distaste on their own goofy blogs.

Essentially, here's what nubile Floyd fans need to know about the album: The Endless River is the B-side to a mediocre album with music written by a long-dead keyboardist and lyrics written by the guitarist's old lady and sung by Stephen Hawking. And the cover sucks.   

I wouldn't have pre-ordered the album but winter is fast approaching and I need a scarf. At least that is what this Pink Floyd completest is telling himself.

Shine on you crazy sons-a-bitches.