Friday, May 25, 2018

Read and Burn

Back when I was writing press releases for the University of Florida, I had a professor turn the tables and start asking me questions. He wanted to know what newspaper I read. I told him the St. Pete Times, and I’m sure I had a good rationale because I was in my 20s and had lots of reasons and justifications and speeches for why I liked or disliked things.“That’s a good paper,” he said. “But they go overboard on all that ‘the moon hung lightly in the fog-misted night’ stuff. Sometimes I just want to know who got murdered, you know?”

The professor had a point. I’m not opposed to a little poetry or finesse, but journalism school, years of simple punk rock, and my shattered attention span have me screaming, “Get to the point,” or “take that ‘word symphony’ back to creative writing class,” when an author gets too overblown.Which brings me to Love and Death in the Sunshine State, a book about the disappearance of a motel owner on Anna Maria Island which is about 10 minutes from where I grew up. It's where we went to the beach. My first girlfriend lived there. I was interested to see how it described the place, especially since the book got pretty good reviews.

Man, did that thing make me mad.

Author Cutter Wood hangs out on Anna Maria Island for a week, gets obsessed with the murder/disappearance and halfway attempts to investigate. Actually, his half-assed investigation is my favorite part of the book, where he’ll sleep until 10 or 11, show up to interviews unprepared,  and try to guilt the motel owner into giving him a reduced rate. Hell, I’d totally read a book about a lazy detective. Somebody get on that!

I think I hate Cutter Wood. I want Oprah to make him cry on the TV like she did to that Million Little Pieces fraud. I want him to be forced to grade his dumb students’ short stories for eternity while Jimmy Buffet plays on a loop. I want Donald Trump to be his roommate. I want the stupid typewriter he uses (yes, of course he uses a typewriter and has to mention it) to run out of ribbon right before he types out another overwritten “poetic” description of Florida.

Incidental characters sound like mashups of Tom Waits and Jimmy Buffet songs, and I don’t really think Woods actually talked or listened to them giving their “I’m just a sunburned carney worker propping up the bar here, but let me tell you some hard-earned wisdom about women and life” jazz. I grew up in Florida. I’ve ridden busses. I’ve worked terrible jobs. I’ve heard those guys all my life. They’re not that poetic.

It's also full of mistakes that are easy enough to fix in the age of Google. Mr. Bones is a bbq restaurant, not a bar. I don’t even think they have a bar. Hernando DeSoto died near the Mississippi River, not in Florida. The name of "The Sarasota Paper" is the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Tourist season is generally in the colder months. After mistakes like these, I’m a bit leery that he really saw a cook give himself a blood sugar test in a greasy spoon that smells like nail polish remover because it’s next to a nail salon in a strip mall. I also don’t believe the young woman that takes a birth control pill and a Flintstones vitamin every morning.  Do they even make Flintstones vitamins anymore?

You could say that the true crime book started, or at least turned respectable with In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s blending of reporting and novelistic tools to create a work that was able to get into the characters’ thoughts and motivations. You know what Truman Capote didn’t do? Dedicate over half of his book  to chapters about the author falling in love and moving in with his elementary school crush and teaching students he thinks are stupid and attending parties.

He also, from what I remember didn’t cover the thing in the most florid, overwritten prose that I’m not going to give an example of because I’ve already returned the book and trying to remember it angries up my blood. 

Sometimes you just want to know who got murdered, you know?

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Free Speech for the Dumb

I was in the back of a city car being driven to a drug test. This was my third time getting tested in about a year.

This meant that instead of doing my job, I was being taken to a building to pee in a cup to prove I wasn't smoking the jazz cigarettes, a process that could last up to two hours depending on the backlog.

It was evaluation season, and I was wondering how I was going to get everything finished and approved and signed in the next week or so, but couldn't get too worked up about it, because, honestly, for as much I might grumble about being taken away from my work, not doing evaluations and having an official excuse wasn't that bad.

Plus, the two HR guys driving me were acting as an unintentional comedy team.

"You're driving way too fast."

"I have to - you drive like an old lady."

"Maybe, but I'll get us there in one piece, and without a ticket. Who's gonna pay for that, anyway?"

The driver (who was going sort of fast, honestly. I mean, what's the rush?) was an old Florida cowboy type. I can't remember his name. Like the nerdy guy riding shotgun, they've both long retired. Let's call them Cowboy and the Nerd.

I wasn't paying too much attention, just hanging out in the backseat, looking down the river from the bridge, wondering how long this was going to take, and pondering what I'd get for lunch later when I heard Cowboy give his philosophy on the police.

"You know, they work for you, right? I mean, we're taxpayers," Cowboy said. The cops were also taxpayers and we were working for them also, but I wanted to see where Cowboy went with this.
"So anytime I get pulled over I just tell them whatever I want, like, 'how did you pass the physical to get on the force,' or 'Looks like you've been hitting the donuts too hard lately, buddy.' And they have to take it - they can't do anything to you. It's free speech."

"You really do that?" the Nerd asked.

"Oh yeah, everytime," replied the Cowboy. "Most of the time they're too shocked to do anything and just let me go. If they write me a ticket, I just ball it up in front of them and make fun of them. There's nothing they can do about it. It's in the Constitution."

Cowboy didn't sound like he was lying, and I'm not sure if he was or not. In any case, he believed what he was saying.

The Nerd was quiet after that, possibly trying to think of a rebuttal. I was in the back thinking, "You might be able to pull that off, Cowboy, but I'm gonna stay with my usual acting polite and still usually getting a ticket anyway plan."

And I've stuck with that plan ever since. According to a 20 second internet search, you can't get arrested (legally) for swearing at or flipping off a cop, so I'm assuming going all Don Rickles on an officer is similarly protected by our Founding Fathers. Needless to say, I'm not going to be the one to try it out, but if you do, please let me know your experiences.

Oh - and I totally passed my drug test, by the way.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Reading Rainbow

Were your parents too cheap to buy you a Shogun Warrior when you were a kid? Did they not love you enough to shell out for a complete set of Strawberry Shortcake dolls? You're a grown-up now - head to the flea market or Ebay and fill that nagging hole in your soul! Who's going to stop you? Your spouse or significant other? Your financial planner? Why are they trying to keep you down? Do they hate your happiness and well-being?

As a kid I wanted anything associated with Star Wars, even more so than dinosaurs and Peanuts, my previous obsessions. Put a Star Wars sticker on a comb and I'd start negotiating: "Mom! Dad! You know how much I love combing my hair - please, please, please get this for me. I won't ask for anything else until Christmas, I swear. I'll brush my hair every morning please, please, please!" Then I'd get it, be a styling combed hair little kid for a couple days until I got bored and wanted a Star Wars pencil holder or trash can.

Couple weeks ago I finally recalled the name of a Star Wars book I had as a kid. The way I remembered it, it tied the movie in with its influences in westerns, war movies, and science fiction serials. There was photo of John Wayne from The Searchers, as well as that half guy from Freaks that I'd dare myself to look at. There was a chapter on Universal monsters which I was also getting into at the time. Even though it was a kid's book, it still planted the seed of an idea that a movie (or any artwork, actually) is more than what's on the screen, it's all sorts of previous influences and inspiration and can be a way to understand the bigger culture.

This meant that I was one of the few kids on the playground in Mississippi who was able to say with an affected sigh, "Yeah, Star Wars was OK, but it was better the first time when Kurosawa called it Hidden Fortress."

After finding the generically named The Star Wars Album on Amazon for three bucks (and 25 on Ebay - come on people, knock it off), I found that I was sorta right in my memories. The Star Wars Album is a quickie production with no author listed but manages to be better than it should be. The first twenty pages or so deal with the influences, then about a third of the book is taken up with movie summary, then there's info on the art and models and behind the scenes stuff.

Flipping through it, I remembered how many of the movie photos I tried to draw (and also remembered how I was sort of annoyed the book spelled out names like Artoo Deetoo.). And yeah, the picture from Freaks that fascinated and terrified me was there, ready to terrify me again.

This photo really  messed with me as a kid.
Funny how such an obvious cash-in held such a place in my memory for so long, and I'd suspect began my obsession to research and investigate my media tastes, from finding out all I could about the movies that influenced Star Wars (well, the monster and sci-fi stuff) to poring over Thank You notes on punk albums and noting what shirts my favorite bands wore to find more musical obsessions, the book started me down a collector nerd path of which I've only recently sort of stepped off of.

Years later (or between Star Wars movies) I was became obsessed with the Hardy Boys. I saved all my money to buy as many books as I could. I wanted a brother I could solve crimes with (I had a perfectly fine sister, but detectives seemed to travel in same-sex groups), and if I couldn't have that, at least give me a bumbling fat comic relief character who would blurt out something so stupid yet genius that he would help crack our case.

I had a friend who was equally obsessed, and we'd trade books after school in my mom's classroom, filling in the gaps in our respective collections. He had one book, however, that he would not part with - The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook. I don't blame him at all. Damn, did I want that book. I needed that book. He wasn't using it - he never told me about solving any crimes or tracking clues at all. It just sat in  his stupid house while crime ran rampant in Bradenton.

I did get to borrow it, and committed some of the techniques to memory, which is more than he ever did. In the years since I've forgotten most of it, but I did remember it had a glossary of criminal slang which I hoped I'd overhear some unsavory character use someday so I could tell the cops or my dad or something.

I figured while I was buying ancient Star Wars books, I should probably shell out for the Detective Handbook. Who knows, maybe it had as big an effect on me as The Star Wars Album did. Or maybe I can finally launch that detective agency this city needs, or at least learn some cool old-timey slang.

I had completely forgotten that Detective Handbook opens with a bunch of  chapter-long cases designed to illustrate different aspects of detecting to junior sleuths. Like one chapter would deal with making plaster casts, one would tell you how to dust for fingerprints, that sort of thing. Also, one chapter is called "The Case of the Shabby Shoes," which I think was Tim Gunn's first big case. These were kind of cool, but learning that criminals call the electric chair "pew" or a passer of counterfeit money is called a "queer shover" (at least whenever this thing was first published) is sure to repay the 2 dollars I paid for it in no time.
Sharpening my observation skills.
Overall, it's not as corny as I would have thought, and had I owned it when I was younger, many crimes might not have gone unsolved, or maybe I could have used my powers of deduction to free some innocent people. Instead, my meager detective skills were put to use investigating bands and records, crime continued to spiral, and we ended up electing a TV conman as President of the United States.

One of the great things about being an adult is that you're fee to use your wealth and discretion to fill up those nagging holes in your soul. So check that Paypal account! Hit the yard sales this weekend! Get on Ebay at work! You've got childhood trauma to fix!

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Best of Bread

I don't know how many of you have been on online dating sites, but on one of the big ones the final question is, "I spend a lot of time thinking about..."

I don't remember what my answer was for that one, but I didn't exactly tell the truth. This was a departure from my policy of absolute honesty for the other questions, where I revealed that I am a 6 foot tall ex-CIA agent who once rescued a baby and several puppies from a house fire. Although I'd like to think that they rescued me.

If I'm being completely honest, I spend a lot of time thinking about bread.

In fact, let me share some of my favorite gluten-free bread recipes I got from my CrossFit group - hey, where's everybody going?

Actually, I spend time thinking about bread just as a sheer impossibility. I mean, the cards really seem stacked against its discovery, you know?

Like, some caveman (or woman) had to notice some wheat growing out in the wild and think, "Hey, I I could probably eat that."

Which just in itself seems like an insane leap of thinking. I get seeing some berries or a fish or a watermelon or whatever, and thinking you could take a bite out of it, but wheat? That's like thinking you could eat feathers or sandspurs.

So even after Ook figures that out, they have to decide not to eat it then, but to grind it up and add...I dunno...eggs? Water? then bake it up. Meanwhile, there's mammoths and fruit and vegetables right outside the cave just begging to be eaten. The whole grinding flour thing alone seems like the cave equivalent of the Space Race or the Panama Canal.

Just to prove how astonishing this step was, it was thousands of years after this invention before the Earl of Sandwich discovered the sandwich, and possibly centuries after that before the invention of the Reuben or the club sandwich.

I would like to take this space to thank you, unknown caveperson. Not only did you provided me the basis for many treats throughout the years, you've also provided me with much to think about. For this, take a bow, unknown caveperson. You deserve it.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Zine Thing

Was there ever a youth movement that demanded as much out of its fans than the American punk/hardcore scene? Sure, you could just go to the shows and buy the records or whatever, but there was an unspoken expectation that you would add something to the conversation - start a record label, write for or publish a zine, or in the words of the Big Boys' Randy "Biscuit" Turner, "OK ya'll, go start your own band."

I wasn't in a band (even though it is generally accepted that I have the voice of an angel), but I was on the community college newspaper, so I decided to stick a press card in my hat and become a zine publisher.

It's sort of amazing that a gawky kid could just declare himself a writer and people in bands would take minutes out of their day to answer hard-hitting questions like, "What are your influences," "What do you think about GG Allin/Ian McKaye," or "Are you straight edge?"

Of course, that makes it sound a lot easier than it was.

My zine 
Freezerburn started with a crack staff of four of the least outgoing and self-confident teens on Earth. Our first journalistic coup was a trip to Brandon to interview a couple of bands, Awake* and Slap of Reality. We sort of shadowed them around for hours in their houses without really asking any questions. I'd like to think this was an exercise in immersive journalism, trying to find what made our subjects tick by observing their day-to-day life, but in reality we just didn't come up with any questions, even though we had plenty of opportunity on the hour-long ride from Bradenton. And even if we did have questions prepared, we would have been too shy to actually ask them.

Somehow we became a little more outgoing and were able to work with the local promoter to interview nationally known bands like 7 Seconds, Social Distortion, and a couple more I can't remember right now. Fugazi, Down By Law, Pegboy, I'm sure there's more I'm forgetting.

We didn't get press passes or anything, or even get on the guest list. We just got permission to hang out at the sound check until we got the courage to approach our musical heroes with our questions that they had probably just answered at their last tour stop.

We'd wander around the venue trying to keep out of the way of sound people and workers and spending hours trying to work up the courage to approach the bands. Our approach consisted of, "Hey, maybe they'll see us standing around and ask us if we want to interview them." Or, "Uhh...well, they look really busy right now, so maybe we should wait another couple hours," until the promoter basically took us by the hand and made us speak, sort of like making your kid perform in front of company at a party.

While we had learned the valuable lesson of actually preparing questions for bands, we would get thrown if something came up that wasn't on our list of questions, and I'm sure our stammering and stuttering either brought out a protective big brother trait in these bands, or at least provided some entertaining van talk when they recounted the shyest interviewers they ever encountered.

Looking back, I wonder why we didn't just stay in the venue once we were inside, which as an adult and pillar of the community today, I'd totally try to get away with. The only time we did that was late in our journalistic career when we interviewed All and Bad Religion. We wandered through Florida Theater killing time, at one point hanging out in the green room (We had gained a bit more self-confidence by then), actually helping ourselves to some beer (Hey, that's how we gained our self-confidence!) until some Swedish guy said, "Now you are to be going now," so we hid in the bathroom for another half hour or so. As professionals, we did not let this incident color our story.

I'd like to say that interviewing people and seeing a project through to completion gave us all needed self-confidence and courage, but it would take years for me to feel comfortable enough to speak to strangers (although I did get better at interviewing) or vague acquaintances, instead of waiting for them to speak first. So you could say that zine writing kept me from living the life of a Howard Hughes-like hermit. For that, you can all thank Freezerburn.

*In a feat of under-the-gun, working-with-what-we-had journalism, we were able to salvage enough to write the stories, almost like a sober Hunter S. Thompson. Also, that Awake 7" is so good. Here, check it out:

Thursday, January 26, 2017


Remember that fable about the grasshopper and the ant? You know, there's a fun-loving grasshopper and an industrious ant. The ant gathers his ...wheat or whatever it is that ants store up for the winter, while the grasshopper hangs out playing music. Winter comes and the grasshopper hasn't collected any food, probably because he was helping the ant by playing music to help him forget that he was gathering wheat. The grasshopper begs the ant for some food, but the ant tells him to go pound sand, since he should have been working instead of playing music. Then the grasshopper starves to death while the ant feasts on his stores of wheat and rejoices.

Most kids heard this and maybe vaguely got the idea that there was no reward without work. They grew up fine. Other kids heard this and grew up to be people who post on Facebook about how a woman in front of them at the grocery store used food stamps to buy lobster and champagne.

I'm not sure how or why, but I'm pretty sure this has something to do with racism.

To an anxious, overthinking kid like me, this story just gave me a new pile of worry. I already had to stress if I had been good enough for Santa and God, now I had to worry if I had saved enough wheat or worked hard enough.

It probably didn't help that my mom's favorite saying was (and remains) "I've done a full day's work before you even got out of bed." That's the sort of thing ants are always saying to grasshoppers.

I'm still not 100 percent sure if I'm an ant or a grasshopper. I feel I'm basically lazy - if I'm at home unsupervised with a couple hours to spare, there's about an 80% chance there's gonna be a nap involved. I've got just enough grasshopper guilt in me that I can't really relax during the day unless it's raining or I'm sick or something. You know those dudes that can watch football or movies all day? After about 2 hours, I feel a crushing guilt - that I haven't accomplished anything during the day, and some grasshopper is gonna be laughing at me while I beg for winter wheat in the cold.

That leaves me to overcompensate - like if I laze around on one day, I'll have to complete a huge list of chores the next to keep the grasshopper anxiety at bay.

And that's as an adult. I remember being a kid on a Sunday evening and having total little kid psychic meltdowns over this. "This was it," I'd think. "You've had some fun this weekend, but fun doesn't last. Now you have to get ready for school. And you're totally unprepared for school." It didn't help that my favorite non-science fiction reading material at the time was collections of Peanuts, which in retrospect, might not be the most healthy stuff for a somewhat smart, yet tightly-wound prepubescent.

I totally identified with Sally here.

I'm trying to get away from being torn like this. This is the year I commit to either total grasshopper or total ant. So 2017 will either see me transform into a total renaissance man, or I'll just wait on someone else to do things for me, like in my favorite fable, the shoemaker and the elves.

Now that's a story I liked, with a moral I still appreciate - if you're a pretty good person, some magical force will take pity on you and do all your boring work for you, while you revel in the profits and abundant free time.

That seems like a much less stressful way to live.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Ball and Biscuit

Here's another Fest story halfway shrouded in booze and memory.

I was headed back to my room at the Hampton Inn the second night of Fest. As a middle aged man who had spent the day drinking and listening to loud music I was very glad Hampton Inn was within walking distance of everything.

I was feeling good. My ears were ringing and I was tired, but I was nice and drunkhappy. I was thinking about the last full Fest I had attended five years or so ago and how I felt like a completely different person. While I had an awesome time both times, there was a desperation last time - sort of a yearning need to blow out my system and ...I dunno, feel something, some sort of connection with people again or something. This time I was a little older and more centered, and was just focused on catching up with friends and bands and getting drunk.

I was holding on to that feeling as I settled into the Hampton Inn's elevator, an elevator so slow that I'm pretty sure it is powered by a Donkey Kong-like gorilla pulling the cable up and down.

I wasn't alone in my reveries. A group of British Fest goers was in the other corner. They didn't pay attention to me, as they were engaged in culinary conversation.

"Oi mate, that wasn't really gravy was it?"

"Blimey, and what they called biscuits was bleedin' huge and doughy. Nobody could eat that for breakfast, guv'nor."

It took a while to cut through all the gin and tinnitus and sleepy, but it slowly registered that these limeys were dissing biscuits and gravy, here in central Florida.

The nerve of these foreigners. Gainesville had put on an amazing music festival for them and they were gonna malign biscuits and gravy? You didn't hear me disparaging British cuisine when I was over there - no, I kept my comments stateside out of respect for their ...Queen or whatever. Plus, those people riot over soccer games, who knows what would happen if they heard my irreverent take on spotted dick, which I'm sure they had never heard before.

They might have well been bad-mouthing Steve Spurrier or Tom Petty (As a side note, I can think of at least three houses in Gainesville that I was assured were Tom Petty's old house. Dude got around).

I wasn't going to take this lying down. As a Southern gentleman, I was considering challenging them to a duel, but I think the limeys invented that game, so instead I just burst out with a incredulous "Whaaaaaat?"

That broke the ice. "What kind of gravy did you expect? And your biscuits are cookies. Why would you expect cookies for breakfast?" (I hoped they hadn't heard about Cookie Crisp cereal, or my argument would be invalid).

I actually meant my remarks to be in the nature of good-minded fun, but I did notice they visibly recoiled from my outburst. Then again, if I were trapped in an elevator with a dude twice my age ranting about cookies and gravy, I'm not sure if I'd be able to discern the feeling behind the words either.

We soon patched things up and hurled a few good-natured insults back and forth, all of which are lost in time, unless they've got the internet over in England and they happen to read this and can get back to me.

A week later, my country elected a TV con man to be President of the United States, so I guess they really showed me up, after all.