Sunday, November 19, 2017

An Immodest Proposal

I've been a musician of some kind for most of my 63 years: guitarist, bassist, keyboardist, composer, teacher- and even conductor on a few occasions(my stuff). And for the most part, it's been quite a fun ride. I've gotten to play in a wide variety of venues, all over the country and even in a few others(Canada and Japan). I've made CDs of my own music and even sold a few copies to folks all over the world. And I've taught guitar and bass to a lot of people over the years, some of whom have come back to tell me how I helped them. 

All good things. Rewarding things. Okay, I would like to sell more CDs than is the case- but then a lot of people are in this boat with their wares, musical or otherwise. But really, no regrets. At least not in these areas. Even though they've fallen short of my expectations, I'm okay. 

Strangely enough, the one aspect of musicianship I do have regrets about is playing gigs. Not all gigs, mind you. Just the ones for the general public, in bars and clubs- where you're up on a stage for all to see. 

It goes back to adolescence, which is when most of us take up an instrument for the first time. I started on guitar just a month before my 12th birthday, and not long after that was playing in various bands with my fellow fledgling musicians. Endless band rehearsals, where we'd prepare our stuff for that magic moment when we present our show to whoever will listen(and hopefully throw a few bucks our way- or at least free food). Our first gig(s).

This is also the age when puberty sets in. All that testosterone(or estrogen, as the case may be)bombarding your system.  And all those new  feelings in all those new places. These things become inextricably woven into our early musical experiences. The mystery of new sounds coupled with the mysteries of sex- of life!

Of course advertising does a lot to fuel those fires- and has been going on long before the British Invasion. I've seen ads from the 40's and 50's promising instant popularity upon learning to play the piano, or guitar, or drums. So that carrot has always been there, just in different form. 

   Beatlemania greatly modified the carrot, morphed it from the small coterie of Your New Friends listening to you play the piano to being chased by hordes of screaming teenage girls. To the adolescent male mind, screaming(or at least willing)teenage girls is what Heaven must be like. Well, at least to this adolescent mind..

Even though they weren't screaming, we had a few teenage girls of our own who'd come watch us play- just as they might go to a basketball or football practice. We would feign nonchalance(under the guise of being cool), but still be playing our damndest to gain their approval- and maybe a few other favors thrown in. 

From there, we kinda learned our roles. Some of us had more talent, and took to the musical end of things more easily, which usually meant being more featured in the music. Some were better leaders, which usually meant the best 'business' head. And as far as meeting the girls, some  were more Leading Man material(the right height, looks, attitude), while the rest of us  better fit the bill of Character Actors- or at least supporting roles.  

Of course, the optimal role would be Leading Man who's also a blazing talent- but we're all good at different things.I always had a knack for music, so I emerged there as one of the more talented ones. Still had to work my tail off, but it came easy to me. In the other department, however, definitely a character actor. 

In the movies, the character(or supporting)actor can conceivably get a girl, just not the girl. Possibly one of the Leading Lady's slightly frumpier friends. So it's not really in the cards the way it is for the two leads. I guess that's just one of those things you have to accept, being a character actor. 

But somehow I never could. I always wished I could be a leading man, who always gets the girl(at least for awhile), even though I was way too short and not quite fine-featured enough to qualify. As far as I was concerned, I was still entitled to those benefits, just by virtue of being me and playing in the band. So I felt cheated, even though I knew better "intellectually"..

 Of course there have been a few successes in there. Like I said, the character actor, even though he lacks the "universal" appeal of the leading man, can still attract a female or two. So I have had ladies who fancied me. One I even married. And during these married/involved times, playing gigs was unequivocally fun, since the mating ritual aspect of it was already taken care of. I even had some offers during my marriage. No I didn't follow through, but was flattered nonetheless.

 Unfortunately, I've been alone far more than I've been with someone. So there have been many nights on the bandstand when the mating-ritual was not already taken care of, nights when I wanted to meet someone and either got shot down or just not noticed.Try as I may to minimize my expectations, I still feel disappointed. 

It's a problem. Not a life-shattering problem, but a dissatisfaction. Something that ain't right in the Land of Rog.

Okay, we're halfway there. When you have a problem, you have two basic options. One is to stay in the situation and try to fix it. The other is to get the hell out of there. I've tried the first one, by being decently dressed and groomed- even lost a pretty good beer gut, with a little work(and no beer)-and by keeping my expectations low if not entirely non-existent.  Unfortunately it doesn't seem to make a difference. 

So I could exercise the second option and just get out of gig-town altogether. I considered doing this back in 2009 or so, when I was playing-a-lot-but-not-meeting-anyone- at least until my 'relationship status' changed. Not one for making any proclamations, I just decided to suck it up, and keep plugging along. Despite the lack of 'social benefits', playing music is still great fun. 

According to my main man in psychology, the late Albert Ellis, most of the time the best solutions involve compromise. So I continue to play gigs- the playing is enjoyable, I like the other musicians and the audiences(despite the dearth of interested women). But I do a lot less of them, and avoid those for the general public- lest I start feeling like I'm not getting the full benefits package. 

This seems to work.  Fewer gigs means there's more novelty in doing them, and with that, you're concentrating on the basics: your sound, your playing, and fitting in musically with the others. I still try to look okay, and am still bereft of abdominal protuberance, but am too involved with the freshness of the situation to worry about what are really ancillary concerns. 

But I have a far more elegant solution than simple avoidance, even though it may sound a bit hare-brained. At this point in life, I no longer need the money from gigs to survive. I'm not rich but I'm not poor either. Got enough coming in to cover things, so the gig money is always extra. Pocket money. Hang in there with me, this gets better. 

Not needing the money means I could play for free. The bandleader doesn't need to pay me in money, which means he could pocket it or split it among the others. I'd still want to be compensated for my efforts, only(this is where it gets good- or maybe just weird)I figure they can pay me in social benefits!  

In other words, they could take the money they were going to pay me, and take at least a part of it to buy drinks for some woman with the proviso that she take at least a casual interest in that short guy playing the guitar. From there it's up to me, and her, and the planets aligning just right. If it doesn't work, at least I got the interview. If it does, then problem solved! (The only thing is I'd probably want to get paid for any gigs after that..)

During my working years, one program I was involved with was WOTC, or Work Opportunity Tax Credit. It offered tax breaks to employers who hired individuals who were Veterans, ex-felons, on SSI or other public assistance, and a few other categories I can't remember anymore. This bears a great similarity to my idea of getting paid in social benefits, since the employer(in this case, bandleader)gets a break in hiring me. Less money he or she has to pay out, even though some of it may have to be allocated to whatever woman they buy drinks for. 

That's my 'immodest' proposal(with apologies to Jonathan Swift).  Sometimes there's no real solution, so a creative one like this at least imbues it with humor. And I remind myself that relationships are great when everything's working, but there's a lot of work in maintaining it. And then there's getting what you don't want, which is actually far worse than not getting what you want. 

So I count my blessings, such as they may be. I'll be okay bach'ing it in case nothing happens, but I haven't given up. If Alan Ladd can be a Leading Man(okay, with a little camera help), so can I.

Those "backline" gigs where they want you to set up in a corner and provide background noise are fine. There's usually very little interaction between the 'crowd' and the band. Plus, they usually feed us. And with no one really listening, we're free to play what we want, so long as we keep the decibel level at a certain low-enough point. I leave with money in my pocket and food in my belly- and hope in my soul if it was a good playing gig. 


Monday, June 05, 2017

Frenzied Computations

One of my favorite 'retirement' pastimes is Lumosity. For a couple of years now, I've been getting their daily workouts, 5 games designed to challenge me in different areas: problem solving, attention, speed, memory and - damn, I forgot the 5th one!
 Rectum! Sorry, wrong movie. That was from Punch Line, where Tom Hanks plays a stand-up comic who, in the opening scene, flunks out of Medical School. His original answer was "poop chute", at which point the examiners pack up and start to leave the room. Hanks then smacks himself in the forehead. I coulda had a V-8!

Flexibility was what I meant to say.  Memory, at least short-term, is not one of my strengths..So yeah, I get a fair-to-middlin' workout every morning with that first(or second)cup o' Joe. Get the old encephalon warmed up for the day. 

Sometimes that does me for the day, but many times I linger and work on one game or another. One I've always loved is Train of Thought, where you have to connect different colored trains with their respective stations. Maddening but fun. I somehow worked through the different levels, 14 in all, until I got to 13. 

Seems like I was locked in that level forever, something like the Bill Murray character in Groundhog Day, having to re-live the same day over and over and over.  Finally made it to 14, and even through 14, and thought there'd be some kind of fanfare after all that Herculean effort. Maybe throw me a parade or something. But they just give you more trains..

In the last week or so, they've added a new game in which I've had much the same fate. It's called Fuse Clues. You're the superintendent of an apartment building that's just lost power, and you have to connect the fuses. There's a series of numbers, with of course about half of them missing, and you have to deduce the remaining numbers. Like the kind of thing you'd see on an IQ test, only with cooler sound-effects.

Some of them are baby-simple and others are hard as hell.  And I've found additionally that they sometimes throw in numbers that almost work in a certain way, to throw you off course. Maybe a bit of sadism or schadenfreude on the part of the game developers, who knows? Wouldn't put it past them..

Well somehow, I've managed to squeak through the different levels- 12 this time- and just as with the trains, spent an eternity on the penultimate level. I'm now on level 12, and getting my arse kicked just as I did on the level before this.  But I'm hanging in there. 

Fuse Clues involves a bit more ciphering than any game I've played on here. There are number sequences you sometimes have to work out on paper(at least this dummy does!). So I'm noticing all this paper with furious numeric scribbles, and I flash back to almost 30 years ago. 1988-89. 

In that period, I was a married guy with kids(her 2, at home with us). My ex worked at a retail facility that had a Lotto machine, and for a time became hooked on 'playing the numbers'. She had all kinds of  schemes going as to what might come through, most or all of them scribbled on little pieces of paper. Quite often, her numbers would almost make it(I'm sure she would love this feature of Fuse Clues!), much to her dismay.

She'd walk around our apartment intoning, 5-1-4, or whatever the almost-numbers were. Her daughter, then about 5, would walk behind her- 514!- just like Mommy. She had no idea what her Mom was talking about, but still had this look of great certainty on her face. That's one thing(of many, of course)that's so cool about kids, their ignorance/wisdom.

I used to refer to all my ex's  scribbles as her "frenzied computations". Always easier to see 'flaws' in someone else(if indeed they are flaws)than in oneself. So, almost 30 years later,  I look around the room here and see a wastebasket stuffed with my own nombres. My own frenzied computations, if you will..

So this recent experience of mine was a sort of portal to a time long past. One of the better moments from that period. There were, of course, many funky moments as well, but I try not to revisit those. I'm thinking of Kurt Vonnegut Jr's planet Tralfamador, where you could "literally" revisit any moment of your life- past, present or future. And naturally, you'd concentrate on the good times and avoid the bad ones. 

I haven't thought about my ex-wife in a long time. Wish her the best, no reason not to. I'm imagining that there's something she's engrossed in, and probably has a notebook or a wastebasket full of some kind of frenzied computations. 5 1 4! 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sleep, Two, Three, Four!

It wasn't any sort of oneupsmanship, a case of my-Dad-can-beat-up-your-Dad, but a co-worker some years back was talking about his Father, and what a relaxed guy he was. 

"My Dad", he said, "would come home from work at lunchtime and grab an hour's nap before heading back". And judging from that, he was probably one of those lucky souls who falls asleep right as his head is hitting the pillow. Upon impact, as it were. 

My Dad(and thus half  my DNA), on the other hand, was just the opposite. He had a hell of a time getting to sleep at night--a midday nap, at least during his "working years", would be all but unthinkable--to the extent that he even had a mini-library of books on how to reach the elusive Land of Slumber. I told my co-worker friend that his Dad, at least in this respect, was the very antithesis of mine.

There were three or four such books in Dad's library(which he termed the Study--this sounded incredibly pompous to me as a kid, strangely enough, much less so now as an oldster). My favorite title in this collection-actually, the only one I remember- was "Sleep, two three four!"

And my perspective has changed here too. As a kid, I used to laugh at my Dad's mini-library of sleep books(soporifics in themselves), not derisively of course, but more from the gentle humor towards one's all-too-human foibles. People are often funny as hell in ways they'd really rather not be, and my Dad was no exception. With him, it was a sort of dramatic fretfulness(and sometimes just plain dramatics, always uttered in deep, Stentorian tones)-occasionally viewed with concern, but mostly with a sort of compassionate amusement. 

As far as his difficulties in getting to sleep, not so funny now that I'm experiencing it myself, now that the shoe is on the other foot. Okay, Dad, you got the last laugh. But then I'm not surprised. Ever since I can remember, I've had occasional trouble getting off to sleep. So it figures that this problem would follow me throughout my life, all the way into retirement. And maybe even intensify.

During my working years, I'd occasionally hit a patch of 2 or 3 days, never longer than that. Probably because you're kept active at work all day, and thus giving yourself something to sleep off. And after that first night's good sleep resumes, you feel wonderful! So good it was almost worth it to feel that bad.

In these retired years(at least thusfar), it's different. Upon embarking on this new period, I did note that every night was a good night's sleep, and this began a good two year span of relatively undisturbed slumber(ahh-the halcyon days of my retirement!). But in August of last year, I had the first of what were to be several patches of insomnia. Four, sometimes five days- which, of course, are progressively rougher day by day. 

 One in August, one in September and one in October. And then another in January of this year. Since then they've tapered off considerably, but still occasionally there. And then I just had one this month, from which I'm emerging. Never say never again, I guess..

There are those souls, like my co-worker friend's Dad, and my next-door neighbor, who drift off effortlessly into blissful slumber. Unlike the Unicorn, they do exist. But for every one of those 'genetic mutants' I meet, there are at least two more(sorry to say)kindred spirits who experience trouble either getting to sleep or staying asleep on at least a semi-regular basis.  

For many folks, it's a chronic problem. For me, just an occasional annoyance, one which has gained more regularity with advancing age(or maybe I'm just more aware of it, having all this time), but still remains something I can fend off- though not always as quickly as I'd like.  Still, I figure if I got myself into this mess, I can, with the right kind of effort, get myself back out again. 

So how do you get out of it? Well, there are a goodly number of remedies out there. Some folks like meditation tapes. Tried that Zampfir flute thing myself and it just weirded out my cats. Sleeping pills work to an extent(as does Melatonin) but they're really just a nudge. Got some from my Doctor, and take them, but still have occasional trouble. 

The only things I know to do are the commonsensical things every healthcare person you ask will tell you to do: avoid caffeine later in the day, avoid naps, wind down at bedtime. Exercise is probably the best remedy though, particularly strenuous exercise. At least that seems to turn it around for me. Hit the body hard enough and the head will follow, to borrow a phrase from one postulate of the sweet science. 

So I try to have as few sleepless nights as I can, trying to do the right things as far as maintaining. Despite my best efforts, it still fluctuates, but most of the time I sleep just fine. Out in maybe 20-25 minutes, not to awaken until morning. And it reinforces itself, just like the sleep-deprived periods can. Nothing succeeds like success, and nothing fails like failure. 

In these periods of Nice Restful Sleep, which I hope I'm re-entering, I feel a little bit like my neighbor and my office friend's Dad, or at least like I've been granted access to their world. Not having their same makeup(see 'genetic mutant' earlier in this piece), I have to make my peace with the fact that at least a few of my days. perhaps like Persephone in Hell,  will have to be served Elsewhere. 





Thursday, July 28, 2016

Destination: Ptuj!

Yes, there really is such a place. Ptuj, pronounced(just how you'd think)p'tooey, is a small city in northeastern Slovenia, with about 18,000 inhabitants. For what it's worth, Ptuj is also the oldest city in Slovenia, dating back to the 1st century, when it was under Roman rule.

The republic of Slovenia, if you've never heard of it, is a tiny nation in eastern Europe, a little more than half the size of Denmark- and that's small! About 2 million people live there. Slovenia was once one of the six countries which made up Yugoslavia. Seems like they've been under somebody's thumb for most of their history until the last 24 years. Slovenia has been a free nation since 1992, and are members of NATO and the European Union. All plugged in, and like that.

Geographically, it's bounded by Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, and has a small southern coast on the Adriatic Sea. Interestingly enough, the Slovenian language is spoken in parts of each neighboring country and also "borrows" some pronunciation from each of them. Almost a symbiotic relationship. 

Their capital, and biggest city, is Ljubljana, with about 275,000 residents. Their second-biggest city is Maribol, with 116,000 people. And then there are the interesting little towns like Ptuj.

From the pictures, Ptuj looks like a peaceful little place, idyllic even. I'm sure the lake attracts its people year-round, for swimming in the Summer and skating in the Winter. And there's more:

 Ptuj is the center place of a ten-day carnival in the Spring, an ancient Slavic pagan rite of Spring and fertility, called Kurentovanje or Korantovanje. Kurent is believed to be the name of an ancient god of hedonism-perhaps the Slavic counterpart of the Greek Priapus(with or without the characteristic tumescence, who knows)although there are no written records. 

Kurenti or Koranti(singular: Kurent or Korant)are figures dressed in sheep skin who go around the town wearing masks, a long red tongue, cow bells, and multi-colored ribbons on their heads. The Kurenti from Ptuj and neighboring villages also wear feathers, while those from other regions wear horns. Organized in groups, Kurents go through town, from house to house, making noise with their bells and wooden sticks, to symbolically scare off evil spirits and the Winter. 

I'm sure it's quite a show for those ten days, with lots of food and drink and merriment. To me, that door-to-door business would feel like I landed in the middle of a Jehovah's Witness Convention(tell me they don't exist), but to the natives, these Kurenti would be more like trick-or-treaters. Well, only in a weird, mythological sense. To these eyes, the characters in sheep skin running around would be both amusing and scary. 

Believe it or not, this isn't the first time I've written about Slovenia. There's a post in here from about two years ago, titled Bones n' Slovenia(with, to recommend it, a beautiful picture of Bledisland). The impetus then was that a good friend of mine went there to play music. So it got me curious, jump-started a few neurons, and I did a little research.

 The motivation this time was the same friend adopting a Slovenian alter-ego, whom he named Zoltan. He was writing a bit in Slovenian, so to get a linguistic handle on things, I found what I could about Slovenian(also called Slovene). And through the miracle of copy-and-paste, I've been able to interject a bit of Slovene into my online exchanges with Zoltan. One phrase I threw in translates to "get a plumber at once!"

Wonder if he ever caught that, and if so, how?

Hope you've enjoyed our virtual trip to Ptuj. I keep wanting to put an i on the end, like our onamotapoetic word ptui(although I personally favor the perhaps archaic p'tooey). Some things, culturally, just cross that International Mirth Line, and hilarity ensues. Like the German word fährt. It means journey, and comes from their word fahren, to travel. My Dad spent some time over there(on a Muni Band trip, not during wartime!)and told me the Germans he met cracked up when they learned how their word "translated" into English. 

And I'm sure, crossing the International Mirth Line from the other side, that there are plenty of things done here in the US that folks from other countries, other cultures, would find hilarious. Things we'd have no sense of humor about. Either we wouldn't see the humor or it'd be something we take all-too-seriously and thus piss us off. Who knows? I sure don't. 

I'm interested in places all over the globe, but have a particular intrigue with the out-of-the-way spots. Slovenia is definitely connected to the world at large, with their own literary, music and sports figures, but at the same time seems very self-contained to me, just from all the dialects spoken there. The number seems to vary 7 or 8 main ones, which break down to as many as 50! And this is in a miniscule country about the size of Indiana. Talk about localized. 

There's a Slovenian proverb which might explain it. (Let's hope so, because it's the only one I know!) Every village has its own story. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Meet the Meerkats(and a few of their friends!)

I've had this picture sitting around in my computer for the longest time. Can't really tell you why--just an oddity I couldn't quite part with. Something in those eyes, which I first thought were photoshopped. Downright anthropomorphic, like someone graphically superimposed people eyes on 'em. Real or fabricated, they're still somehow compelling.They draw you in.
   Anything is possible I guess, but not the case here. Those are their real peepers, eyes that look at you with what comes off(at least to me)as a thoughtful reserve. These animals are Meerkats, also called Suricates. They're members of the Mongoose family, and are found in various locations in southern Africa: all over the Khalahari Desert in Botswana, much of the Namib Desert in Namibia, southwestern Angola and South Africa. 
   They're classified as omnivores, but insects are their main thing there in the arid desert . For their daily bread, they often have to compete with the smaller birds, mainly their "buddy" the Drongo. And also to watch out for bigger(and thus predatory)birds--mainly the varieties of Eagle that can swoop them from the ground in a New York second. 
  For the Meerkats, it's a bit like being in a Boxing ring, where the object is to hit and not get hit. Here the objective is to eat and not get eaten.
  In this area, Mr Drongo is a bit of a trickster. He is known to sound a warning cry , to signal an approaching Eagle. Then, as the Meerkats scamper to safety, he'll come down and eat their food. Some varieties of Drongo are skilled at mimicry and can imitate the sound of the Meerkats' sentinel, sending them scurrying to safety from another false alarm.
 Much of the time, the Drongo's warning cries are legitimate. But still, a guy's gotta eat..
  Back to the Meerkats. Very social creatures,  they generally live in families of 20 to 30, and as many as 50.  There is a designated Alpha Pair, the Prom King and Queen who propagate the species, and everyone else has their roles to play as well. They generally have litters of one to four pups, and live around 10 to 12 years, probably less there in the wild. 

  Due to the extreme heat, they aren't out in the sunlight for very long during the day, only enough to forage for food. Their dwellings are a network of underground tunnels which protect them from the elements. And that's all I know(perhaps even less)about Meerkats. 
   Africa has some amazing birds, besides the mischievous Mr Drongo. The Picathartes is a beautifully and strangely colored creature, who, like Pigeons and Catholics,mates for life(to quote the old Woody Allen joke). The parents share their duties of watching the nest/foraging for food in shifts. Not much time to work with as far as getting their young ones ready. They live in central Africa, in the 
tropical region.     
                                And I didn't even get started about the Elephants or Black Rhinos and their respective communities, or the myriad other life forms ekking out an existence there.  

Last but not least, though, I must mention the Shoebill. Strangely familiar, but that might just be a memory from something out of  Walt Disney- or, more aptly, Dr Seuss. These very odd birds are found in central Africa, in the tropical climates.They look very jovial, but I wouldn't want to get too close.
                              All of this information is courtesy a fascinating documentary series on Africa I just finished watching. I never was a Discovery Channel nut growing up--my Dad had an occasional thing for them-- but shows about wildlife get my attention anymore--particularly when the wildlife is as exotic(and at times downright psychedelic)as was found in the show I just watched. 
          I even know the names of a few more of those 54 countries. Some, of course, have changed over the years. For example,  Tanganyika, which I remembered as a kid, is now Tanzania. But most have been there as long as I can remember. Big countries like Algeria and Libya, tiny ones like Rwanda and Swaziland. Lesotho I'd forgotten about, speaking of Chihuahua-sized lands. It's completely surrounded by South Africa, sort of a country-within-a-country. Hope they don't have any plans to try to take over the world..

 Anyway! A fascinating glimpse into the world of wild animals. Their social structure of course  parallels that of the human animal, with their designated leaders and followers- and the concomitant power struggles between the leaders and would-be leaders, from Elephants to Giraffes to Lions and on down the line.  Interesting to observe the gathering places for Elephants and Black Rhinos and others. A place to meet, mingle and mate. 

For what it's worth, there is also supposed to be a community of marine life, found at the sea's floor. It's called the Benthos, and was no doubt the inspiration for Spongebob Squarepants' hometown of Bikini Bottom.  

This current stumble, into the land of Africa's wildlife, has awakened an appetite in me. Maybe not to go there, but certainly to view more. Discovery channel, here I come. Wow, in my advancing age, I'm turning into my Dad.