Thursday, June 30, 2016

Comedy Classics

We were somewhere near Daytona on the edge of the ocean when the '70s soft rock began to take hold.

My friend Todd and I were driving to Jacksonville after another big Orlando/Gainesville meetup/reunion in Cocoa Beach.  We were playing my Wussrock playlist - you know, AM Gold, Yacht Rock, the sort of songs where they use the word 'lady' a lot. You heard it on the radio if you grew up in the '70s. If you grew up a little later, you were probably conceived to it.

Todd and I were roommates in Gainesville years ago. We could...well, honestly we could be pretty annoying when together. Actually, I've got a fairly large group of people like that. Everyone has in-jokes with their friends, I've managed to meet and befriend a few who could stretch those in-jokes past the point of comedy, way past annoyance, barrelling past anger, and finally into hysteria. Well, hysteria for us, anyway.

We were playing Gerry Rafferty's hit "Baker Street" (You'll know it when you hear it) and one of us came up with the idea of President Obama playing the sax solo in it. Here, now it's in your head:

This naturally led us into all sorts of scenarios - Obama practicing daily in the Oval Office anxious to show his sax skills to the public, a public address where he would announce "America, we are a strong nation. But we are never stronger when we can share the gift of entertainment to the world. That is why I have gathered you together tonight. Folks, I've been practicing these tasty sax licks for a year now, and here is my gift to you, the American people. Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome the great Gerry Rafferty."

Needless to say, our Obama impressions were flawless. Or we'd do an impression of a secret service agent seconds before the sax solo hits: "Mr. President! You're on!" This one in particular would crack us up. We then expanded our joke to having President Clinton step in for the guitar solo at about 4:45 if you're following along on Youtube. I'm pretty sure we were picturing him doing the 'guitar face' where you sort of half close your eyes and bite your lip. At least I was.

You could argue that this scenario is not funny. I probably wouldn't argue too strongly with you. It could have been the consequence of a long car ride, lots of caffeine and boredom. But it made us laugh and passed the time.

Couple weekends later I was in Atlanta. After a few drinks Todd and I couldn't stop our Obama sax routine. Predictably, our comedy was lost on the squares, who pointed out things like the fact that Clinton played the sax, not Obama, or that we were being annoying and stupid. Much like Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor, we were just ahead of our time.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Return to the Sea

Years ago I received some advice from a wise old Native American. I had just moved back to Gainesville after spending a year in Atlanta delivering food and felt that I had basically wasted a year of my life. I didn't like Atlanta, but in truth, I didn't really give it much of a chance.

"Remember," he said, in a voice resonating with ancient wisdom, "Never live somewhere that isn't within a half hour of water."

Technically, that ancient Native American was really just one of my friends, and there was a very good chance that one or both of us were drunk on King Kobra malt liquor at the time, but I've remembered his advice ever since.

I'm no "Salt Life" guy, but I can't deny that the ocean has a pull on me, a calming effect, probably from growing up near it. Again, if I grew up in Nebraska, I'd probably be waxing philosophical about the meditative effects of wheatfields, so take my psychological musings with a grain of salt. It's one of my homemade therapeutic tools, along with punk rock and the healing power of a good drunk

The past few months, hell, past the year or so has been full of death and a strange, nagging feeling similar to waking up from a bad dream - you can't really remember what happened, you just know enough to realize you should feel bad or upset somehow. Then you wake up more and the feeling fades away.

A friend's dad had recently passed away. He was one of the few adults in my teenage years who treated me with respect and interest, even when that respect wasn't actually earned or deserved. Coming closely on the heels of losing another friend, this sort of seemed like a psychic last straw.

Since I am an unattached grown man who can take time off from work, I decided to take a trip. I didn't really have an idea as to where I was going, I just felt the urge to go somewhere.

I ended up in Bradenton. I didn't tell anyone, mostly because it wasn't planned, and partly because once I ended up there, I felt like being anonymous. Sure, I can be anonymous just as easily in Jacksonville, but it wasn't the same somehow.

I didn't shop around. I got a room at the first place I saw close to the beach. I bought some trunks and walked into the Gulf of Mexico. It was warm, and I could see little transparent fish swimming near the shore. It felt right. I felt like the kid at the end of The 400 Blows when he finally makes it to the ocean. Except of course, I knew all about the Gulf and that kid had never seen the ocean. Thinking about it, maybe I wasn't anything like that kid at all, and the only thing close to the French new wave were the European tourists gazing in disbelief at my pale, almost translucent skin.

The song "Drowned" off the Who's Quadrophenia kept running though my head in a loop as I swam and floated around for about an hour.

Let me flow into the ocean. Let me get back to the sea

I didn't think I was stressed, but floating out there in the Gulf I could feel the anxiety leaving my body and floating away in the water, probably out to Mexico.

I got out to get some food. Driving around the island (which is what we called the beach), I was struck by how many ghosts inhabited it now. That's where my first girlfriend and I used to go to watch the sunset and mess around. That's the channel where my dad and I would fish in. Both of them are dead. I was playing Quadrophenia and thinking how I had probably listened to this album on the same beach probably 25 years ago.

I ate middling fish tacos and listened to poor renditions of Bob Marley, Jimmy Buffet*, and Van Morrison while I drank a fruity drink and watched an angry sunset. I listened to the tourists and thought of ways to butt into their conversations just so I could insert some lie about being a tourist from the Midwest finally getting to see the Gulf.

See, I told you it was angry.

I came back hours later after the sun had set. The night was cloudy. The water was cold but I needed to get back in. I acclimated and started swimming.

I wanted to feel something. Something more than just the absence of stress from earlier. I wanted to feel my muscles burning, my lungs aching for breath, and hopefully avoid any Jaws or Kraken beneath me.

I swam out as far and as fast as I could, then stopped and treaded water. I panted in the cold water for a while, then dove as far down as I could before my sinuses threatened to implode or a Loch Ness Monster noticed me, then flew back up. I could still see the white sand of the beach, so I knew I was OK, even if I was starting to realize that maybe this wasn't one of my smarter ideas, what with the sea monsters probably starting to wake up.

In The Postman Always Rings Twice the protagonist wants to swim as far as he can in the ocean until he can't muster any more energy and just sort of let nature take its course in a sort of passive suicide. I didn't have anything that drastic in mind, and plus, I hadn't helped murder a diner owner to get with his wife, so my conscience was clear.

I swam back, walked to my motel and spent the rest of the night watching cable in bed, feeling worn out, both psychically and physically.

The next morning I got up early and drove home after a great night's sleep. Once again, I had stumbled on to a perfect homemade therapy - something to do with salt water, anonymity, and shark avoidance. Someday the American Psychiatric Association will recognize me for my services. I'm not sure where exactly my statue should be erected, but I have several majestic poses already picked out.

* Trick question! As a native Floridian, there are no good versions of Jimmy Buffet.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Money Folder

I'm not the greatest mathematician. If you've ever watched me try to calculate a tip or figure out how much longer a movie lasts, you'll soon realize that I'm basically functionally retarded when it comes to numbers.

I've had to do some calculatin' at work recently. In my last bit of mathmagic, I submitted an invoice requesting an order of 200,000 cards at $27.88 per thousand for a total of $5,576. Pay attention, this will be on the test.

As with many things work-related, this required dozens of signatures and different offices and forms and letters and holy crap I just fell asleep reliving all those forms I had to fill out.

About a week after I turned all this in I get a call from someone in City Hall. The numbers weren't right, which wasn't really surprising. She talked me through it and pointed out that the order I submitted actually came to $55,760, a sum that would never, ever, ever get approved.

I hung up and looked at my forms (always keep a copy!). I dunno, it looks like my numbers were right. 200,00 cards, $27.88 per thousand...that should come up to $5,576, right? Then again, just because I came up with the same answer twice doesn't really mean anything, so I asked some smart people and they came up with the same answer. So when City Hall called back this morning, I laid out my case.

It did not go well. Like a beloved comedy routine, we kept getting stuck in a loop, which I'll recreate for your pleasure:

City Hall: "So if you order 200,000, that would be $55,760."
Me:    "Right. But they're $27.88 per thousand. So you would multiply that by 200, right?"
CH:    "OK. $27.88 times 200,000"
Me:     "No. $27.88 will buy me 1000. To get 200,000, I would have to buy that 200 times."
CH:     "So multiply $27.88 by 200,000."
Me:     "No. Say I go into a store. I've got enough money to buy a thousand of these. But I want 200,00. So I'd multiply that by 200, right?"

After about 10 minutes of this, she hung up and said she'd call me back. While I was waiting for her call, I began to question my math. She was probably right. I mean, she works with numbers every day, and if I could do math, I'd probably have a different job. Why am I pestering that poor woman? Then she called back and said, "OK, so my math skills have disappeared." Then we worked through the requisition process like a team, which was nice, since she said I was driving her to drink on our first call.

I don't mean to make fun of City Hall lady, since anyone can have a brain slip-up or get so sure of something that we fail to see the facts. Hell, I do both constantly. But if you're ever in a situation where my math skills are what saves the day, that is a situation you do not want to be in.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Pants on Fire

"Man, I just can't believe it."

The words came from the guy sitting next to me in study hall.  They were punctuated with a heavy theatrical sigh. Let's call the speaker Steve.

I sat there trying to focus on whatever I brought to study hall, but Steve wouldn't let up. He now complimented his heavy sighs with some dramatic head shaking.

I knew Steve would keep this up until I made some sort of comment, so I waded in.

" OK?"

"Yeah...I guess. Sigh. I've got this girlfriend up in New York. Last week she was murdered by some drug dealers. Luckily, my uncle lives up there and he's got a bunch of friends from 'Nam who have all sorts of killer weapons. They know the cops can't do anything, so they're gonna take 'em down. I'm supposed to go up there for the funeral and meet them and blahblahblah..."

I had seen that Charles Bronson movie on TV last night as well, but let Steve keep whispering the plot, spiced in with declarations of his fighting and weapon abilities while I haphazardly went about my work. These stories had been going on for a while, and while I didn't really encourage them, they were fascinating just for their sheer audacity. He was taking a chance that I hadn't seen the movie he was plagiarizing as well as banking on the fact that I wouldn't call him out on any of his fantastical tales.

Which I didn't, so I guess the guy knew his audience.

It's funny - people feel compelled to share their secrets with me all the time. I've had countless conversations that start with "I'm really not supposed to tell anyone this..." or end with "I guess I really shouldn't have told you that."  It still happens, and I'm not really sure why. Maybe because I can be counted on to keep a secret unless it makes a really funny story. Maybe I have a trusting face?

But Steve's tales were something else. I was awed at the sheer audacity of them, if not their originality. They were generally blatant rewrites of whatever action movie had struck his fancy lately, interspersed with digressions on Steve's fighting skills.

I fancied myself an experienced liar, but my lies were utilized to get out of trouble or used as an occasional spice to liven up a story. I have completely grown out of such childish antics and would like to remind readers that all stories I post are run through a battery of fact-checkers, which explains why I'm down to like one story a month now.

But back to Steve. His penchant for stealing storylines was emblematic of a bigger problem. He was also highly susceptible to '80s media. At one point he became obsessed with the hit TV show Miami Vice, like a lot of people at the time. Unlike most people, he took it a bit farther and started dressing like a high school version of Don Johnson.

Of course, a lot of other people probably did that. What they didn't do, however, was go undercover.

Apparently there were a few convenience stores that would sell booze to underage kids. Steve would go into them dressed like a mini Don Johnson, buy some beer, then call the cops. Or maybe he was wearing a wire already, who knows.

I didn't really drink in high school, and honestly thought that the kids hanging out in parking lots getting drunk every weekend lacked imagination, but even I considered this a Benedict Arnold-like strike against the kids.

That was the last I heard of Steve. After we had both successfully completed study hall I didn't see him anymore, which was fine with me. It took a lot of psychic energy to act halfway interested in recycled action movie plots every day.

Occasionally I'd think about the guy, wondering if he had picked a new persona or had finally gotten comfortable enough with himself that he didn't have to do stuff like that anymore. Adolescence is a time to put on different guises and characters, and although most kids didn't take it to the extremes Steve did, we were all in the process of figuring out who our real selves were.

Then I'd forget about the guy, harnessing my mindpower to decipher the lyrics to punk rock songs, where the best skate spots were, or the best way to get my money's worth at the Wendy's buffet.

Years later I was working at a film developing place in the mall and I see Steve saunter up. He was a mall security guard, or possibly had bought a really good replica uniform from the same place he bought his Don Johnson getup from.

He didn't recognize me, and I didn't say anything to him. Actually, I couldn't even if I wanted to, since he was telling my co-worker some story about trying out for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had spring training in Bradenton. After he left, I told my co-worker, "Hey, uh, I know that guy, and he makes up a lot of stuff."

"Oh, that's just Steve," she said.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Old Follks at Home

Bradenton, at least my little corner of it, was a strange place to grow up in. When my parents first moved there, there weren't many kids in our neighborhood for my sister and I to play with. There was also a prevailing parenting philosophy at the time that if kids weren't doing yardwork or domestic work, they should be out doing ...something or other until dinner time. That's how my sister and I made friends with a lot of old people.

Our street was full of elderly people - I remember at least two of them referred to as "The Colonel." You'd see them out watering their yards or smoking cigars and they'd talk to you. Somehow my sister and I decided to take our old person relationship to the next level.

I definitely remember us hanging out in a lot of sun rooms, Florida rooms, and living rooms (I sort of think all of these are the same room). Sometimes our elderly neighbors would give us cookies or candy, and we'd talk about...jeez, I have no idea. School? What else could we talk about? The houses were shaded by palm trees and you could see the quartz crystals sparkling on the outside walls. The rooms were heavily air-conditioned, so much so that you could almost see your breath indoors. You could also vaguely smell the residue of decades worth of cigarette residue on the walls.

Sometimes WDUV would be on lightly in the background, making me think now that we were part of the entertainment for cocktail  hour.

Funny thing is, I don't ever remember an invitation, I just remember going up to the door, like you would with an age-appropriate friend.

I do remember a couple of the old guys telling me some pretty cool WWII stories, but I've forgotten most of them, only retaining the impression of hanging out in the cold Florida living rooms while the ceiling fans whirred above.

I don't know what the old people got out of these visits - I guess they got to hang out with some little kids for an hour or so until we all sort of mutually decided our visiting time was up.

I also remember cutting through people's yards and gardens regularly - whether on our way to the bus stop in the morning, or just deciding to play in someone's back yard other than our own. There were lots of houses with landscaping full of ferns and palms dark enough that you could pretend you were in a jungle. There was also a family of wild parrots in the neighborhood that would screech occasionally to add authenticity.

We didn't have a strong concept of property rights, and luckily this is before Florida became synonymous with shooting people, and I guess nobody really minded a pair of kids trespassing through their property at the time. If they did, they never said anything about it.

Again, I realize that this is another of those stories that makes it sound like I grew up in the '30s or something, but if you think about it, culturally, the early '80s were still really the '70s. Then you have to subtract a few years for it being Florida, then another few years for it not being Tampa or Miami, and ....uh, do a little more subtraction, and you've ended up with 1964. That seems about right.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Elf Power

Nobody gives much thought to Santa's elves. Santa and his reindeer get all the love and recognition while his elven workers tirelessly churn out toys for ungrateful little kids day after day up at the North Pole and we don't even know their names.

I know what it is like to be an elf, for I have walked in those pointy shoes.

I went to an after-school art program when I was in second grade in Mississippi. It was on the first floor of a creepy looking two story-house with a wrap-around porch. The house was surrounded by weeping magnolia trees and majestic oaks dripping with Spanish moss. The class was taught by Mizz Elizabeth, a kindly but gnarled old woman who loved children almost as much as she loved her snuff and cursing the Yankees.

OK, so I made all that up, except for the two-story house with the wrap-around porch. However, my internet class, New Southern Writing: Hush Your Mouth is accepting applications.

It was actually taught by a college student. There were about 15 of us in there, and I was the youngest. We were making paper mache heads for the Starkville Christmas Parade, which apparently still exists. I don't know what everyone else was making, but I was going to be an elf.

Some are born elves, some achieve elfness, and some have elfness thrust upon them. I can't remember if I chose to be an elf, or elfness was thrust upon me for being the youngest in the group. Either way, I was fine with it. Elves were an important part of Santa's village, and I was going to be representing them in the parade.

It took forever for the paper mache to dry. I remember we added layers and layers of the stuff every week, although I mostly remember getting Cokes from the old timey machine on the porch and wondering what was going to be our snack for the day.

I had a dentist appointment on the painting day. Well, sort of. It had gotten cancelled or something, so instead of painting my big elf head, I sat on the porch and waited for my parents. When the other kids came out of class, I jumped from behind a pillar and yelled "Boo" at them.

The teacher asked to see me. I thought this was a bit of an overreaction to a Booing, but she was actually upset that I had skipped class on the important painting day. That got me worried. Was I going to have an elf head that looked like it was mummified with the Starkeville Daily News? That was no way to represent elfdom.

She explained that she had actually painted my elf head, which of course turned out way better than anything my 7 year old hands could have done. This taught me a valuable Christmas lesson that has served me well in life. Forget about it, and someone else will always come along and fix it.

The night of the parade, I was dressed in my huge-ass elf head and the elf suit my mom made for me. I don't remember what everyone else in the class was, or where they were. Maybe they distributed everyone throughout the parade to ensure adorableness equality? All I knew was that I was a solo elf.

"Just follow the band," said my handler.

And I did. I followed the high school band all down the parade route. People were cheering and waving. I knew they didn't care about the band. They loved the elf. The guy that made their toys. The guy that put in the hours. The unsung worker toiling for Santa was finally getting his due.

I waved. I brandished a plastic hammer, demonstrating the old world craftsmanship one can only get from elves. I affixed a few people with a stare (I really couldn't do anything else, since my eyes were painted on), showing that it wasn't just Santa who knew who was naughty and nice. Little children were in awe of me. Working people identified with me. I was the hit of the parade.
I struggled to keep my apron on and my arm was getting tired with all my hammering. My feet hurt walking the parade route, but I was a trooper. I was Elf. 

After walking like what seemed like hours, the crowds started thinning out. "This part of town doesn't have much Christmas spirit," I thought, and I kept walking, following the band.

The band wasn't playing much anymore. I figured they were as tired as I was. I kept up my antics. I couldn't let down Christmas.

We reached the high school where the band members got into their parents' cars. I finally took my head off. I was alone. Someone asked who my parents were. I had terrible pronunciation back then, so when I said, "Charles and Marilyn Adams," they said, "Saws Adams?"

Finally, my parents walked up. Apparently I was supposed to have stopped walking about a half mile ago, but with my only direction being "follow the band," what else was I supposed to do?

Later I was able to see myself on TV. I was hammering up a storm, waving to children, and being the best damn little elf I could be. I had done it. I had achieved elfness.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Aunt Mary's All Alone

My dad's funeral was on a Saturday. I left work early the previous Monday when I got the phone call and spent the rest of the week in a daze. I obviously knew he was gone, but it didn't seem altogether real, that someone I knew for my whole life (and had known me even longer) had just been sort of disappeared from the earth.

I spent a lot of time on the couch, sort of halfway paying attention to movies we had watched together, texting and talking to family and friends, and trying to wrap my head around his death.

Before my dad died, I had planned to drive down to Gainesville for a Radon reunion show that weekend. While by my estimations I have seen about 46,000 Radon "reunion" or "original lineup" or "final" shows, it's always a good time, and it brings all the oldsters out of the woodwork so we can drink and sing and act the fool away from our responsibilities and set the clock back about 20 years or so to recharge our worn out batteries.

While I obviously wasn't going to go to Gainesville Saturday night, I decided to spend Thursday night in Tampa, catch Radon in Ybor City, then drive down to Bradenton the following morning.

I was a bit conflicted about this plan. Should I really be having fun so close to my dad's death? Sure, I could tell myself that dad would want me to have a good time, but that seemed sort of hollow and somewhat disrespectful. In the end, I decided that it would be good to have a little fun to step into normal life for a little while and to steel myself against the funeral. Sure, that was a pretty cheap rationalization, but it was what I was going with.

I had a great afternoon; sure, sadness lurked around the corners, but I hung around band practice, drank some beers and talked with great friends that I haven't seen in a while, some of whom had gone through losing a parent and offered whatever advice or sympathy they could.

Remember that band in college, that one who might not be technically proficient, and maybe the drummer would slow down halfway through the set, or the guitars might be out of tune, or the singer might forget a verse, but it didn't matter, because after a few songs you and your friends transformed into a single organism, jumping and singing and making the wooden floor creak and bend under your weight while you could transcend, just for a second, the day-to-day cares and frustrations and become one, unified mass of humanity? Well, Gainesville was (and still is) lousy with those bands, and I was counting on Radon to bring that feeling back for a few minutes that night.

And they didn't disappoint. I knew the song that was going to kill me. "Grandma's Cootie," a song about an aunt left alone by the death of her husband who takes a ride on a roller coaster and sees the beach from the top of the coaster.

They played it about halfway through the set, right before "Stepmother Earth," a song that always made me think about the complicated relationship between fathers and sons, even though there's not really anything specific to that reading in the song.

Tears welled as I sang along with old friends and strangers, but they were different somehow. They were sadness mixed with that feeling of transcendence along with a bit of happiness. I could almost grasp a theory about loss and death and the power of friendship and love, but the music and gin and tonics clouded my thinking and it remains just out of reach.

Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. Most people freeze their musical tastes in their 20s, and while I have continued seeking out different genres and styles since then (just ask anyone who has had to endure my "Summertime Reggae/Ska/Rocksteady/Dub" playlist at a cookout), the music and friends I made in my 20s have a special place in my heart. You can use that feeling to live in the past and moan about how things aren't as exciting now as they were back then, or you can take a bit of that feeling now and then to jump start your heart, to realize that you are part of something, that you have friends and family who love you, and that no matter how shitty life can be at times, you will endure and thrive.

I'm not saying that that night cured me, I continued (and continue) to have bad moments and bad days. But it did help, and if the suits at the American Psychiatric Association will ever recognize my groundbreaking research into punk rock music as grief therapy, I feel many more people will be helped.