Archive for the ‘Miscellaneous’ Category

Every year on my birthday, my grandparents sent me cards with cash in them. My father’s parents, Rose and Sam, sent me $5. After Sam died, and as Rose came to depend more on her children, my Aunt Edith took over this birthday chore. She sent me the card, tucked in the $5 bill, and signed her mother’s name. I once asked her to stop. “I know it’s you behind this, and not Grandma,” I said. Aunt Edith repeated this to my father as further proof that I was a mensch. She thought I was adorable. By the way, I was 22 when we had this conversation, not 12. Edith sent the cards until Rose’s death and I kept raking in the $5.

My mother’s parents, Bella and Sol, were more affluent. They started me at $5 but through various cost-of-living adjustments raised me to $25 by the time I got to college. There I remained for many years after Grandpa Sol’s death, an early victim of contemporary capitalism’s rule that no one should ever get a raise. When I married the woman with whom I share a mortgage and put on parties, Grandma Bella sent her $25 on her first birthday in the family. I was outraged. She should start at the bottom and work her way up! Bella’s curt ruling: “Tough luck!”

It’s been many years since I received a fresh-from-the-bank $5 bill or a check written in the penmanship of someone who was born in 1904. But every year on my birthday, my current employer gives me a $10 gift card roguishly tucked into colored tissue paper inside a festive bag.

Last year my card was good at an upscale supermarket, New Seasons. I bought a fried chicken lunch and some stickers. This year the card was for the Pacific Northwest department store chain Fred Meyer. What the heck was I going to do with $10 at Fred Meyer? Buy socks? The closest store to our office doesn’t sell lunch, unless I wanted to buy something wrapped in plastic and vacuumed into a skinny box printed in primary colors. But I was up for the challenge. “I’m leaving now for Fred Meyer,” I told the boss at noon. “Don’t be surprised if I don’t come back.”

It was a beautiful day here in Portland and I drove with the windows down and my music playing. Though I am a man of a certain age, I felt ageless as I walked in, and I realized I was thinking of my grandparents and their birthday gifts and all the useless stuff I bought and how much fun it all was. I’m not saying my job is my family, but I am saying thanks for the free money.

I bought 18 colored pencils and I still have $1.02 remaining on the card. The sky’s the limit.

To my readers in the United States (what’s left of it): Happy Fourth of July! I hope you’re enjoying our nation’s birthday as much as I am. It’s late in the day. Soon I shall be drinking the Bloody Marys of Liberty. I don’t expect Trump to send me a card with five bucks in it, either.

Random Pick of the Day
Smashing Pumpkins, Pisces Iscariot (1994)
My father-in-law used to say about dogs, “They only have one thing to say and only one way to say it.” Billy Corgan’s voice is about as versatile. He usually sounds as if he has a grievance, if he could just remember it. The rest of the time he sounds like his voice just changed, or maybe he’s feeling faint.

Despite this handicap, when Smashing Pumpkins starts to move, they’re a blend of Cream, Hendrix, and Led Zep in a Nirvana shot glass. They can be unexpectedly quiet, too, as on the cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” Corgan doesn’t have much of a voice, but I can forgive him for his guitar-playing (“Starla” and everything else).

Random Pan of the Day
The Rolling Stones, Blue & Lonesome (2016)
Their first album since A Bigger Bang in 2005. This time around we have 12 covers of old blues songs. They did this in 1964! Eric Clapton helps out. He could’ve helped out in 1964. Yawn. The only person who triumphs on this record is Mick Jagger. His voice and his harmonica are in excellent shape, plus Mick still weighs less than a wet hobbit in a bathing suit.

 

What a confounding time this is. I’ve been running and lifting weights to prepare for the war with Canada. Fox News claims it will be “a mere matter of marching.” Trump promised me I’d be making love to Celine Dion at 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa by Labour Day.

But instead of decimating Canadians with my fabulous hair and sense of irony, the invasion is on hold while the total resources of the United States are focused on locking kids in wire cages. If we don’t want to import kids, waiting until they cross the border before locking them in wire cages is a waste of time. Why can’t we keep them out before they ever get here by slapping tariffs on them? Works with everything else.

While I try desperately to hold onto what’s left of my soul as a U.S. citizen, I want to remark on the passing of the poet Donald Hall, who was 89. Hall wrote one of my favorite books, Life Work, which he published in 1993. The 2003 edition has a new introduction. This is only partly a book about being a writer. It’s mostly about work. Working. Work to do.

The first half of the book is all about Hall’s best imaginable day – spent at his desk, working, of course. (He also walked his dog in the woods and that evening watched two baseball games on TV while dictating letters.) From this I learned that you can’t just have a best day. You have to earn it, grow into it, survive long enough to grab it. “Contentment is work so engrossing that you do not know that you are working,” he writes. “You are only content when you have no notion of contentment.” He quotes the artist Auguste Rodin: “To work is to live without dying.”

Hall’s career might not be possible today. In 1993, he could pay for a typist for a year by selling one extra essay or book review to what he called a “periodical.” He sometimes employed several typists simultaneously, each working about four hours a week. Essays and book reviews must’ve been lucrative in 1993!

Hall provided his own epitaph in the last line of the book: “There is only one long-term project.”

I’m looking forward to the day when I can stop slinging words for The Man and do nothing but my own work. Until then…at the rate we’re going, I might not get to Celine before Boxing Day.

Random Pick of the Day
My Bloody Valentine, Loveless (1991)
MBV was yet another British band that was going to be the next Beatles. On Loveless, they lather on distorted guitars and distorted keyboards and distorted road graders until you get an out-of-focus Smashing Pumpkins or an experience not unlike listening to David Bowie through soup.

They occasionally spawn a mesmerizing melody, and the boy-girl singers are excellent at sighing and singing drawn-out, disconnected syllables, but most of this record sucks. Why is it a Pick? Because if Loveless had been a four-song EP instead of the 11-song equivalent of Shackleton’s struggle to survive the South Pole, this review would be a rave rather than a rant. If you were listening to alt radio in the 1990s, those four songs would be a chunk of your life’s soundtrack: “Come in Alone,” “I Only Said,” “Only Shallow,” and “Soon.”

They’re not good at song titles, either.

Critics noticed that MBV performed while staring down at their shoes and dubbed them “shoegazers.” This was a band that was never going to lose the ball in the lights.

Random Pan of the Day
MC Hammer, Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em (1990)
I found this at a yard sale. It’s as monotonous as I remembered. However, this time around I realized that any spot in any song where Hammer is quiet immediately improves. Also, his cover of “Have You Seen Her” (a hit for The Chi-Lites in 1971) completely gets away from him. By the halfway point of “Have You Seen Her,” Hammer is trying to squeeze himself past his backup singers, who don’t notice that he’s there. With no one else to talk to, he asks himself if he’s seen her. Turns out he hasn’t. He gives up in the final 15 seconds, and the song takes off, with a surprising and effective ending.

I was saddened to learn that Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em is the biggest-selling rap album in the history of everything. Hammer hurt us.

 

World of our fathers

Posted: May 26, 2018 in Miscellaneous

My Uncle Eddie died yesterday. He was about six weeks short of turning 94. He was the perfect uncle: sweet, generous, and willing to put up with anything. He also had a bottomless supply of terrible jokes. In English. In Yiddish. Terrible.

Eddie was one of that dwindling population of people who were born in the 1920s and who beat the Depression, beat Germany and Japan, and in the 1950s and ’60s beat the crabgrass in their lawns. He served in World War II as a meteorologist with the U.S. Air Force in North Africa. To hear Eddie tell it, all he did was ride camels and take pictures from planes. All the WWII guys I’ve known, including my dad and my father-in-law, talked like that. It was one big lark.

When I was a teenager and my parents and grandparents were wondering how I’d ever make a living if I grew up to be a writer, Eddie bought me a copy of Writer’s Market (which listed every market for every kind of writing in the USA and weighed about 10 pounds) because he’d met someone who was a writer and she said all writers should have this book. See? Perfect uncle.

Eddie, my Uncle Morrie (who died in 2010, age 89), and Dad were brothers, but as adults they weren’t often in the same room. Adult lives are busy and complicated. But I remember a moment 50 years ago in my grandparents’ old wooden house, in a hillside neighborhood in Fall River, Massachusetts, when they were talking together and I was listening when I noticed my Grandpa Sam, in his overstuffed chair to one side, smiling, the joy of seeing his children plain on his face. When I heard the news about Eddie, I was shocked, but as the memories flooded in, I smiled.

Every family should have an Uncle Eddie.

 

After my last post, I wanted to tell you that my Dad is back in his house and, thanks to my sister, he has a new housemate: a 6-month-old kitten. He’s named her Susie but he calls her Elliot. Whatever works. They fell in love on the first day.

Dad is happy to be sleeping in his own bed under his own roof, even though he knows his stay is temporary. You could say that about all of us. After six weeks of rehab in a nursing home where quiet never reigns, Dad is thrilled to be sitting again at his kitchen table, drinking Lipton tea, eating Oreos, and thinking again, as he has for 40 years, that he doesn’t like the wallpaper. Soon it’ll be time to watch another rerun of Gunsmoke.

When I have a photo of Dad and Susie, or Dad and Neo Elliot, I’ll post it.

In the next few posts we’ll look at some much lighter subjects, such as singing drummers, Las Vegas-style versions of rock songs, why Herbie Hancock is a musical minefield, and marriage. Until then, go in the kitchen right now and make yourself a nosh. You deserve it.

 

My Dad brought home his first pet when he was 85. His family had collies when he was growing up, but when Dad married Mom and they moved to the country, they had human creatures, not creature creatures. The reason for this is unknown, though for years Mom could unintentionally start an argument by wondering, “Why didn’t we have a dog when the children were small?”

When Dad was 85 and Mom was 82, my sister and her daughter, who were visiting, spotted an ad in the Sunday paper for a kitten who needed a family. They urged my father to go look at that cat first thing Monday morning. “This house is dead,” Gayle told him. “You need some life here.”

Elliot was the sole survivor of a litter left behind by a feral cat. Dad, who often said, “I never thought I could love a cat,” loved Elliot beyond all measure. Adopting Elliot was one of Gayle’s best ideas and one of the best things Dad ever did, because as my mother slipped into dementia and eventually into a nursing home, Elliot took her place.

Elliot gave Dad a reason to get up in the morning. Elliot created movement in the house. Elliot spoke Yiddish with Dad. Elliot was always waiting when Dad came home. In his excitement at seeing Dad, he’d stand on a table by the back door we always used and claw at the metal venetian blinds over the back door window. Dad eventually sliced the blinds until he had cut an Elliot-sized gap.

Recently, when Dad had a fall in the kitchen, Elliot stood guard beside him until the ambulance came.

My father will be 91 in May. He’s currently sharing a room in the nursing home with my mother. We’re hoping he’ll get strong enough in physical therapy to go back to his house.

I went to visit last week. I stayed in the house. The first night, Elliot hid. The second night, a few minutes after I turned out the light and rolled onto my side, there was a thump beside me and then paws started punching my back, trying to mold me into a more Dad-like lump. Then he rucked up the blanket, because that wasn’t right, either. Then he curled into a ball and began to purr like he was motoring across Lake Michigan.

(I’m allergic to cats, but I have a new combination of meds. Dad had been worried about Elliot being alone. Elliot is an indoor cat who lives a quiet life. I did my best to keep the little man company.)

This went on for three nights. Around 4 a.m. each morning, Elliot put on his miniature hard hat and reported to various work stations around the house, banging on objects, racing from Point A to Point B, and fighting a war inside a paper bag.

On the last full day of my visit, my parents’ caregiver, Melissa – another hero in my parents’ story – brought Elliot to the nursing home. Dad, who is in a wheelchair, held and kissed Elliot. Mom, who is on a walker and who was never a fan of cats, was happy for Dad, I think. Elliot, like all cats, was unimpressed.

Melissa was about to put Elliot back in his carrier when he went limp. She screamed. She put Elliot on the floor and ran for a nurse, as you can’t leave Mom alone and we were about to drive to an emergency vet down the road. There I was, holding the cat on the floor while it convulsed, shouting his name, with my father three feet away. I knew Elliot was dead. Melissa returned and we ran for the car. She drove. I held Elliot. I had never held Elliot until this moment. He was silky. I used to make fun of his excess weight, but now he felt tiny.

The vet couldn’t revive him.

Elliot, the one factor in my Dad’s situation that we all thought was a constant, the cat who would surely outlive a 90-year-old man, was a couple of weeks short of his sixth birthday.

One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was face my father on our return. He was waiting at the nursing home, in his wheelchair, by the back door we always used.

It’s difficult to know how Dad is feeling. How can we understand the emotions of people this age? I doubt that anyone reading this blog has 90 years of ups and downs trailing behind them, with all the emotions that follow along. Sometimes Dad is teary. Sometimes he reminisces. Mostly he’s calm. Once he said, “Now I really am alone.”

“I’ll miss him,” Mom said, and then asked if Elliot was a cat or a dog.

You could say, if you’re a Christian, that God has a plan for everything. Was it a plan to give my father a heart attack? Einstein said that God doesn’t play dice with the universe. Then how do you explain Donald Trump? Depeche Mode said that God has a sick sense of humor. I’m tending toward Depeche Mode.

But in fairness to that bumbler, God, at least Dad was able to say goodbye, even if he didn’t know it at the moment. What if I had come home that night to a dead cat in the kitchen? How would I explain that?

Why am I telling you this?

I’ve been writing this blog since 2010. In 2011, I asked you for money. I am asking you again. I want you to make a donation in memory of Elliot Bieler to the Town of Swansea Animal Shelter, 68 Stevens Rd., Swansea, MA 02777, swanseashelter@yahoo.com. These are the people who saved the abandoned kitten who saved my father.

Thank you. If you have a pet, please give it one of those treats you hold for special occasions. With Elliot, it was herring.

 

 

I’m applying for a job in Trump’s cabinet. Why not, at this point I have as good a chance as anybody. I could hang in there for 10 days, do something I won’t admit with a porn star named after the weather, and play chess with the Russians (they’ll collude to let me win). I guarantee you that no one in that confederacy of dunces knows anything about ’80s music, except for Rick Perry, who still dances in his underwear to “Wake Me Up (Before You Go Go).”

Yes, I’m leaving soon for a trip to D.C., and then I fly to Massachusetts and Antique Parent Land, where all the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are middle-aged. I won’t be back for a while. But before I go, I have to settle something, and that something is the challenge I threw down in my last, very exciting post about spare change. Somebody won. Bigly.

I have a friend who goes by the handle Accused of Lurking. He’s also a superhero who fights disorganized crime as Khaki Man. Accused of Lurking is one of the scariest people I know. He’s so organized that the Library of Congress, knowing they need help, keeps him on a retainer. (When Lurk was 12, they paid for his retainer.) If you give him something, he will not only save it, he’ll cross-index it. Accused of Lurking is the only person I know with the stamina to interview 15 contractors and input their data in a color-coded spreadsheet before he decides who is going to paint his fucking house.

Facts stick to Lurk and never fly away. He could break Jeopardy. Things stick to him, too. Rosebud! He lives with every computer he’s ever owned, including the Apple I he bought out of Steve Jobs’ garage in Los Altos in 1976. (He also lives with a woman who, on the occasion of their marriage and through total force of will, compacted her name from 20 letters to seven. She’s scary, too.)

Thus you won’t be surprised (but you will be frightened) to learn that Accused of Lurking has almost exactly guessed how much money my jar holds when it’s full.

Drum-machine drum roll, please.

The amount in the jar varies based on my impatience to go spend the cash already and how many quarters I steal from myself while the coins are building up. But the range never varies: $65 to $68. I write the dates and the amounts on the inside of the lid.

$65.85 on January 22, 2018
$65.35 on September 23, 2016
$68.98 on June 9, 2014

Accused of Lurking’s winning entry: “My mayo jar guess is $65.”

Second place goes to my friend mikenr with $51.43. “Given the parameters of your story,” mikenr writes, “your mayo jar should hold $51.43. But my official guess will be – one cent (virtually, no, literally, guaranteeing me an interview-free interview, merciless or otherwise, which is a ‘prize’ I do not care to win. But it’s the journey that counts, right?).”

In third place we have my friend Mr. Seaside, who sent this story:

Looks like $21.73 (though this estimate may be as much as $3.47 too high). Gallon glass jars are the way to go in coin accumulating. I had a friend who picked up all of the coinage he found on his daily walks. After decades of doing so he had 5 or 6 large jars of cash with coins dating back as far as the 1920s. Then he ‘cashed in’ before he was able to cash in the coins. Just a small part of his legacy.

Nice try, boys, but you will never be as scary as Accused of Lurking. As Count Floyd used to say, about something that wasn’t scary at all, “Vazn’t that scary, kids?” before pretending he was being filmed in 3D by repeatedly lunging at the camera. To commemorate Lurk’s triumph, he will receive a lifetime supply of Rice-a-Roni, the San Francisco treat, and a lousy copy of our home game. No, he will be mercilessly interviewed. No, I think I’ve done enough of that already. He’ll receive something, because he deserves it. Perhaps an ash tray from my first cabinet meeting, but not the contents of my jar the next time I empty it.

When I get back, we’ll explore the House of Herbie Hancock, spin the most depressing albums of the 21st century (that post will not be required reading), and I’ll unveil my latest innovation in marriage technology: Anti-Wife Movie Night.

Until then, Ryan Zinke says, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

 

I had a boss in the 1970s who once told me, when he wasn’t yelling at me or grabbing the ass of his favorite female subordinate, that every night he emptied the change from his pockets into empty tuna fish cans on his bureau. He claimed he harvested two or three hundred dollars a year from this happy system.

Remembering what I do of this gentleman, I’d guess that his hundreds of dollars went straight up his nose. I wish that Mr. Boss Man had said “Buy a U.S. savings bond every payday” or “Someday, everyone will have a computer in their home” or even “Yoga.” But he said to save your change, and it sounded like something I could do, and it involved money, which I like, so I did.

Humans are generally bad at long-term projects. We lack experience. We’re too easily distracted. But throwing coins every day into an empty tuna fish can is something any human can do. That includes me.

I eventually grew tired of the empty tuna fish can aesthetic and graduated to an empty mayonnaise jar. In the ’70s and early ’80s I paid for most things with cash, so my mayonnaise jar filled three or four times a year.

(It was difficult to get a credit card in the 1970s. The banks feared that we cardholders would fall into debt and not be able to repay what we owed. They hadn’t figured out that they’d make more money if they pushed us into debt and we never repaid them.)

I collected about as much money as the boss said I would. I took my coins to the bank, the bank handed me the cash, and I immediately spent it on books or music or my favorite female subordinate.

(Editor’s note: She’s not actually my subordinate. That is a literary construction. #Justkidding #Nothimtoo)

Futurists have long predicted the paperless office and the cashless society

If you work in an office, you know paper isn’t going anywhere. But we’ve made progress toward a cashless society. It now takes me almost two years to fill the jar, even with the help of my wife and sometimes my Dad, a kid from the Depression who never met a penny he didn’t like.

Last month, I decided my jar was full. I took it to my credit union, Unitus, the one bank in town that still offers the use of a no-fee coin-counting machine to its depositors. I poured in the metal tide, the machine funneled everything through a series of sluices, channels, and gates, ejecting Canadian coins and anything that had been beaten flat by a truck or a train, and spat out a receipt. I took the receipt to the teller, who handed me cash on the barrelhead. As they sang on Portlandia, the dream of the 1890s is alive in Portland.

It occurs to me that my habit of dropping coins in a jar and spending the jarful might be a metaphor or a psychodrama. I grew up in a family where our unofficial mission was to stockpile objects (in Latin, “Multa res accumulare,” or literally, “If I get rid of this, I know I’ll need it in 20 years, and then where will I be?”). You stockpiled objects until they disappeared and were forgotten, and then you had the pleasure of stockpiling the same objects all over again.

Maybe filling and purging my jar is my way of undoing the family chaos. Then again, sometimes a jar of coins is just a jar of coins.

Tonight’s challenge: How much money does my empty mayonnaise jar hold? The person who comes the closest to the average figure will be mercilessly interviewed for this blog.

Random Pick of the Day
Stevie Wonder, Talking Book (1972)

You will never tire of blasting “Superstition” out of your boombox, your stereo, your computer, your tablet, your phone, your gramophone, your car, your scooter, your bike, your Segway, your yacht, your car ferry, your jet pack, or the nanoprobes Google implanted in your neural core while you were downloading that cat video. Talking Book belongs in every music library between here and the Kuiper Belt.

If you were a teenager in the 1970s, this record was part of the soundtrack of your life, as every song in this set made it to AM and FM radio. A couple of the ballads are slow; “Lookin’ for Another Pure Love” occupies what would shortly become Billy Joel territory, if not Tony Orlando & Dawn territory. But any complaints melt away before the majesty of the closing track: “I believe when I fall in love with you/it’ll be forever.” C’mon, let’s fall in love.

Random Pan of the Day
Bell Biv Devoe, Three Stripes (2017)

Their first album since Bell Biv Devoe in 2001. The first few tracks rock hard. The rest of the album is mostly crooning. The one thematic element that unites their material is their refusal to stop saying their own name. They’re really just a gospel group that likes loud music.