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Category Archives: Shared Experiences

Here Comes The Sun

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This morning I was amazed by some kind of new light shining in my window. It seemed to be coming from the sky. And the sky itself — it was some shade of blue, not gray.

What was this? We had torrential rain here in Walrustropolis continually from Sunday through Tuesday night, so it was a shock. Then it dawned on me (literally)  — it’s the sun!

I remember the sun. Warm, bright, welcoming as a good friend. I’d just started wondering if we’d ever see it again in the wake of Tropical Storm Debby. The slow-moving storm dumped a LOT of rain on our little corner of Central Florida. We’ve got some local flood damage, a few new sinkholes (the collection is getting quite impressive), and some other issues, but nothing catastrophic.

So we should be back to normal within a few days. Here comes the sun. And I say …..

Here Comes The Sun


Originality Is The Highest Form of Tribute

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There are some things I just don’t get when it comes to music. The ongoing popularity of The Doors, for example.  How bands such as Train can combine good music with God-awful lyrics.  Or why on earth Judas Priest recorded Joan Baez’s classic, autobiographical “Diamonds and Rust.”

But one of the biggest musical mysteries to me has always been impersonators and tribute bands. I just don’t understand why someone would want to perform in the persona of another artist — and why on earth people pay to see (and hear) them do it.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not talking about COVER bands — a band that performs other people’s songs, but doesn’t try to look and sound exactly like the original artists. A good cover band can be a lot of fun, and a great one can really rock. But TRIBUTE bands that want me to suspend disbelief and think I’m seeing the original artist(s), not so much.

Take Elvis impersonators — please. Elvis Presley was a revolutionary. His arrival was a slap to the face of the stagnant, boring musical establishment of the 1950s. Elvis was cool, sexy, and most of all to the established order, dangerous  (Not as dangerous, perhaps, as the African-American artists whose style he emulated, but that’s another story). Elvis was nothing if not original.

I’ve seen Elvis impersonators, good and bad. I’ve seen imitation Elvii ranging in age from about 8 to roughly 60. And the one thing they have in common, both good and bad, is that they’re safe. They’re wholesome. They’re not dangerous. And that makes them emphatically NOT Elvis.

Same thing with Beatles tribute bands. I’ve seen a few, and while they’re very good at imitating the vocals, gestures and stage presence of the Liverpool legends, all the Faux Fours lack a certain something.– depth, say, or sincerity. Instead of John’s biting wit, Paul’s likable cuteness, Ringo’s goofy sense of fun and George’s spirituality, the tribute bands give us a “performance,” in the acting sense of the word. Once they step off that stage, they could be a completely different person, just waiting for their next acting gig.

I just don’t understand what makes people WANT to take on those personas. Is it insecurity that they’re not original enough to make it on their own? Plenty of folks prove otherwise every day. If you can sing like Elvis, you can sing, period. Why not be an authentic artist in your own right?

As for the audience, I know people want to see their musical heroes. I have a fairly long list of artists I’ll happily pay to see over and over again — think Springsteen, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Elton John — but there are plenty that I never had the chance to see.  I was too young to have seen the Beatles in their prime, and  I wasn’t born when Elvis was in his. I would love to have seen them then; I don’t want to see an imitation of them, no matter how faithfully reproduced, now. I’d rather make do with their recorded music, and with videos of their original performances.

Like so much in music, and in life,  it all comes down to originality and authenticity. Why would you want to be a second-rate member of the Prefab Four or an imitation Elvis when you could be an original, first-rate you?

Of Good Coffee, Bad Coffee and Mom

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I never liked coffee when I was younger. Didn’t really have much use for the stuff. It kind of made me an anomaly in my family. My parents and grandparents drank coffee by the gallon. Perked at first, later drip brewed, always with milk or, if need be, non-dairy creamer.

Mom was the real fanatic. She was a caffeine fiend of the highest order, and would stop at nothing to get her fix. But it had to be brewed coffee, never espresso or anything like that. She was somewhat nonplussed when we took a family vacation to London. A true daughter of the American South, she had no use for tea unless it was A.) iced, and B.) sweet.

But she carried on — she dragged Dad and me all over the city searching for her beloved coffee. She finally found it, not far from Piccadilly Circus — at a Burger King.

Not for me. I just didn’t like coffee. Even in college, when I needed a pick-me-up for an all-nighter, I’d walk to a nearby convenience store and pick up a can of (shudder) instant iced tea with artificial lemon flavor. That stuff bore a closer resemblance to battery acid than anything someone would actually drink. But it was caffeinated, and the nasty taste helped keep me awake for a few more hours of cramming for an accounting test.

Strangely, I always enjoyed coffee flavors in other foods, such as candy, ice cream, even liqueurs. But I didn’t like coffee.

Then came the ’90s. Coffee shops blossomed everywhere. My wife and I were out shopping one day with Mom, and stopped at a coffee shop. I tried a cappuccino.

With the first sip, I had a revelation. A light went on. It wasn’t that I didn’t like coffee. I just didn’t like BAD coffee. It wasn’t the coffee that was terrible, it was my family’s low expectations for it. The truck stops, drive-ins and Waffle Huts were to blame, not my taste buds! Begone, Maxwell House of Horrors! Farewell, foul Folgers!

I started having the occasional latte. True enlightenment came when I discovered a working pump espresso machine in a thrift shop. Despite her trepidations about allowing me anywhere near a combination of hot water, electricity and pressurized steam, my lovely wife bought it for me.

I began enjoying a daily latte before work. Before long, I was up to two a day. I couldn’t help noticing a tinge of pride in my Mom’s voice when she told Dad “he drinks coffee now.”

The thrift shop espresso machine served my needs for a couple of years. But I knew I could do better. I soon got a real espresso machine from a serious coffee provider, and a proper grinder to match. (I got both as Christmas presents from my lovely bride. Mom was beaming as I opened the grinder box.)

I drank more coffee. I became a coffee snob, able to discern fruity notes, a hint of chocolate. I looked down my nose at drip brewed pre-ground beans.

Yet the seductive siren song of the caffeine monster called my name. My habit grew. My workplace added one of those handy little pod machines. I rationalized it by saying, “it’s not great, but it’s better than drip.” And with a serious lack of coffee shops of any kind in Walruslandia, I had little choice but to drink drip brewed coffee (or in my preferred term, “swill.” ) whenever I visited Mom and Dad.

A lot has changed in the last few years. Mom’s gone. I’ve changed jobs. My job no longer has a pod coffeemaker. There’s no grinder. Instead there’s the usual suspect — an industrial strength drip brewer, complete with its own plumbing. And pre-ground coffee filter packs.

Of Folgers.

And I drink the stuff. Several cups a day.

I’m still a coffee snob. But somewhere up there, Mom’s looking down, watching me pour the dreaded swill into my cup. And getting the last laugh.

Of American Idol Winners and Losers

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OK, American Idol fans, this one’s for you. I’m one of you, have been since the beginning. And I’ve gotta say a few words about my favorite contestant this year, the one who — as usual — stands no chance of winning.

We all pick our favorites each year, of course. And I have a near-perfect track record of choosing the folks with no realistic shot at winning.  I think the last time I picked a winner was Year 1, when Kelly Clarkson blew away the rest of the field right from the start.

Trouble is, I’m not a part of the largest Idol voter demographic, which, by most measures, is teenagers with cell phones. Lotsa good singers do well with that group, as is evident by this year’s Top Ten. But the young singers to whom the voting audience members relate are seldom, in my not-so-humble opinion, the BEST singers.

This season’s group of contestants is the most talented the show has had in several years, no question.  But for my money, the best singer, hands down, is Elise Testone.

At 28, Elise is the oldest, most experienced singer on the show this year, and it’s apparent in everything she does. She’s been around long enough to have real, gritty capital-s Soul in her voice, and she doesn’t act like a giggly teenager. She sings real rock, soul and blues music, not watered-down imitations, because she CAN.

But Elise has been a regular in the bottom 3 contestant group, in danger of being eliminated from the show. Why? Because the aforementioned teen voters can’t relate to her. She doesn’t pander to the fans, and the fact that she’s a woman, not a girl, likely turns some voters off. When she sings Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” you know exactly what she’s talking about, and it’s not holding hands at the malt shop.

The only thing that’s kept her on the show this long (she’s in the top 6 as this is written) is raw talent. And as AI has proved many times over the years, that’s just not enough  Anyone remember where Jennifer Hudson — you know, Oscar AND Grammy winner — finished on the show? Try seventh place.

Granted, Elise hasn’t done a lot to endear herself to fans. She doesn’t really take criticism from the judges well, and as noted, doesn’t pander to younger voters the way some contestants do. And yes, she did have a point last night that the judges have been harder on her than they have on some others.

But I have a feeling she’s destined for great things. And I’ll wager that at least some of those voters who aren’t crazy about her now will appreciate her music more when they’re older.

So rock on, Elise. You won’t win Idol this year. You’ll lose to someone safe and saccharine and nonthreatening. But even if you’re eliminated next week, know that lots of us out here are listening, and will buy your music.

Remembering Dick Clark

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Wow, so Dick Clark, the “World’s Oldest Teenager” is gone. Hard to believe. He always seemed to be one of those people you expected to be around forever. Yet another of the icons of my youth is history, something that seems to be happening with gradually increasing regularity lately.

I’m too young to have seen American Bandstand at its peak int he 1950s and ’60s, but it was a regular fixture of my Saturday afternoons in the ’70s. In small-town middle America, there was no local club, no hangout, no gathering place for music and dancing. But there was Bandstand, reliable as ever, to show us the latest bands, dance steps and fashion — polyester and platforms, anyone? — of the era. And Dick Clark was the kindly uncle to shepherd us through the brave new world of singer-songwriters, pop divas and disco the big cities were enjoying.

Keep in mind this was all way before the Internet, YouTube, blogs, or even cable tv. We had three channels on television and small-town radio stations that signed off at sunset. Bandstand was a window to a new world, one with infinitely more possibilities than our tiny little speck of the map could ever envision.

Perhaps even more influential though was New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. I can still remember how exciting it was when the very first edition aired, December 31, 1972. I was so excited — as only a newly-minted teenager could be — to have an alternative to the boring old Guy Lombardo’s ritual “Auld Lang Syne.” Finally, here was something in touch with MY music, with MY generation!

Yes, I realize that today’s younger folks probably regard “N.Y.R.E.” the same way I considered Lombardo way back when. But that doesn’t’ detract from the revolutionary nature of the show back then, or the enjoyment I’ve continued to derive from it even as recently as last December. Over the years, I’ve traded toasting 1973 with Dr. Pepper and my parents for toasting 2012 with champagne and my wife, but it’s still great to ring in a new year with some good music. And I have Dick Clark to thank for bringing that into my life.

I’ll leave it to others to opine about Clark’s many other shows and business accomplishments, and his personal traits. All I can say is that for one young man in one very small town, he made the world a brighter, more exciting place, and I thank him for that.

Rest in peace, Dick. New Year’s Eve won’t be the same without you.

A Sense of Wonder

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Earlier today, the space shuttle Discovery made its way from Florida, flying up the East Coast and over the monuments of Washington, D.C. on its way to its final home at the Smithsonian Institution. The shuttle, always a breathtaking sight, was no less so atop the modified 747 that took it to Washington. The magnificent craft drew thousands of onlookers on its last journey.

As well it should. The space shuttle represents the pinnacle of aeronautical achievement that started on a beach in Kitty Hawk. in 1903.

It’s easy to take for granted the incredible technological achievements of the past half century. But we shouldn’t. If you stop to think about the things humankind has accomplished, it’s truly staggering.

The instinct to explore, to wonder, is a natural part of the human condition. Consider how many thousands of years men and women gazed at the night sky and wondered what’s up there. From the earliest humans to today, it’s likely that everyone ever born has wanted to know more about the mysteries of space.

Only in the last half-century or so have we been able to begin to find out. From the Russian Sputnik to the American Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, to the International Space Station, we’ve figured out how to escape the constraints of Earth’s gravity and actually see what really exists at the edge of our imagination.

And then we built the space shuttles. Possibly the most complicated machines the world has ever known, the shuttles had no equal. We sent them into space 135 times, trusting their ability to keep up to 7 people alive. We’ve brought them safely back to earth.

There were some tragedies along the way, yes. We will always remember the brave astronauts who lost their lives aboard Challenger and Columbia. But the fact that only two shuttle missions out of 135 resulted in loss of life shows a remarkable safety record.

In part though, that’s why the shuttle sometimes seemed routine. We grew accustomed to successfully sending people into space and returning them safely to earth. When everything works the way it’s designed to, it’s easy to forget just how many things could have gone wrong, and how many times they didn’t. So many complex things had to happen either simultaneously or in sequence to keep 7 people alive, get them into space and return them safely home.

Think about how the great minds of history would have viewed the shuttle’s achievements. What would Aristotle, Plato, Leonardo, Einstein had to say about our exploration of the heavens? Imagine how the Wright brothers would see the accomplishments made possible by the shuttle.

How can we see it as anything less?

Lunch With The Whippersnappers

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So today was Taco Tuesday. That’s the name of the weekly  2-tacos-chips-and-a-drink special at one local quick service restaurant. A group of us from the office headed that way for lunch.

Today’s merry band included a couple of folks new to the office. We got our food quickly and were talking around the table. Turns out one of them graduated in 2007, and the other in 2008.  Not college, mind you — high school.

Now while the Walrus is hardly what one would call “old,” let’s just say there’s a significant span of years between my graduation from Walrus World High and these guys. OK, fine, the youngsters probably WOULD call me old. So be it.

I did my best to avoid muttering “whippersnappers” under my breath.  And then I thought about the generational differences. Don’t worry,  this isn’t going to be one of those “when I was your age, I walked to school barefoot in the snow, uphill both ways, to write on the cave wall,” rants.

No, the remarkable thing about the lunch conversation with the younger guys was in fact how LITTLE some things have changed. They went to the same school as another coworker at the table, although he’s a few years older than they.  So they were able to talk about teachers they’d had in common. At one point, they laughed about a teacher qualified in one field who had been assigned to teach a subject he was utterly clueless about.

Guess what? I had more than one science class when I was in high school that was taught by a teacher who had been an English major. She was cheerfully clueless about the nuances of science, but she tried her best.

Sure, technology marches inexorably on. I typed term papers on a clattering old electric typewriter. The younger folks have never known a life without personal computers. Moving forward another generation,  today’s middle schoolers doubtless have no idea that the iPhones in their pockets pack more computing power than the room-size mainframes NASA used for the Apollo moon landing. That’s just a fact of life.

But I have no doubt those same middle schoolers will someday have memories of at least one teacher like the ones we were talking about at lunch. The basic experiences of life don’t change even as the technology around us does. Ask Shakespeare about that one.

And sometimes things come full circle. My grandmother was born before Pluto was recognized as a planet. She’s lived long enough to see Pluto be demoted from planethood.

So we all have something in common, no matter how old or young. Now if those crazy kids would just get off my lawn….

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