Monday, June 29, 2009

On the radio.

I can remember being a kid sitting by the window in my room, radio on, finger poised on the duo record/play button on my cassette recorder, waiting for one of my many favorite songs to come on so I could record them, capture lightning in a boom box, and play it back whenever I wanted. I could never quite get the whole song. My method was flawed, but it didn't dampen my enthusiasm for the task. I spent the majority of one summer (I think between 5th and 6th grades) honing my skills before ultimately settling on simply recording the end of every song and station break ready for what might be next.
I spent a lot of baby sitting money on blank tapes. So much that I probably could have just bought the majority of music I wanted, but that idea never occurred to me. Don't know whether I'm dense or just naturally thrifty. I lean toward density because despite the amount of recording I did and the number of songs I captured (Chaka...Chaka Khan...) I rarely, if ever, played back anything I taped.
Frankly, I think I just loved the radio. I loved the serendipity of it, the singular joy it brought when one of my favorite songs was played at the very moment I happened to be listening; when you had no choice, but to stop what you were doing, turn up the sound and sing really loudly because who knew when you were going to hear it again?
I still love the radio. I love NPR because I'm in my 30's and I'm supposed to, but for music, despite the proliferation of ipods and satellite and on-line on-demand music services, nothing beats a good radio station.
And good radio is really hard to find. Most radio stations gave up the love of music so necessary to ceaselessly put it on 24-hours-a-day in favor of airing a jangled auditory gee-gaw of gossip, traffic, sports and doofishness (trademark!). Nearly all radio is "talk" radio whether they embrace the moniker or not. What used to be bastions of local identity, culture, music and flair are now mostly all the products of marketeering and playlists generated based not on what people genuinely adore, but on what corporate record companies (teamed with whatever other merchandising/product tie-in/tatertot making groups) want us to buy. And well, that's just messed up.
When I was in middle school, the coolest DJ at the coolest radio station in town was my BFF's dad. He played what we liked. And I know that there were plenty of shenanigans going on (in the radio business. Would never dream of besmirching the rep of the awesome Wayne Fanning), but it was at least a bit more organic, more local, more about the listener, more human.
Satellite radio, although still made by people at some point, just seems to sterile for me to get into. When we had satellite television, we also got satellite radio by proxy. Even though I couldn't find a good radio station to save my life, I couldn't fall in love with radio on the TV. Very surgical and precise, neatly packaged in specific increment, I would never be surprised by a pea in my carrots. So specific were the genres, it would be nearly impossible to be surprised by anything beamed to my ears from on-high. And I'm the kind of girl that likes the random weed that pops up in the garden. That's where I find inspiration and why I've got wood sorrel in a pot on my porch. I'm willing to wager more imaginations are being dulled by satellite radio at this very moment than Nickelodeon.
Why aren't we willing to take any kinds of risks anymore? Why are so many of us so complacent, eating the same Lean Cuisine we could find in Terra Haute, Toronto, Texarkanna, or Taiwan, listening to the same songs we could hear broadcast in the same way worldwide as well?
There's so much to hear out there. Shouldn't we all begin by listening to as much as possible?
The good news is that some people out there are thinking and doing, not just bitching and grousing like me. In my neck of the woods, you can get local, excellent radio via WNRN. You can also listen on-line if you don't live in range. It's community supported, meaning that the listeners donate money (about that, it's coming, I swear, I'm just so poor right now, dude, for real...)to keep the station afloat, and while there are businesses that underwrite programming who get plugs every now and again, there are no commercials.
The best part of WNRN though isn't the lack of commercials or the wicked fund raiser t-shirts, it's the true love for music - all music - that pours right through the speakers and out the rolled-down windows of the car. Though primarily a modern rock station, you can hear pretty much anything a pretty much anytime. If you want a dedicated hour of bluegrass, you can hear just that at the appointed hour, but you're just as likely to hear an Old Crow Medicine Show song smushed between old-school Depeche Mode and something so new you never even heard anything like it ever before.
And the best part of all about WNRN is the responsiveness of the on-air crew. Hear something you like, but miss the station break, just give them a call. They'll tell you what it was, the album it came off of, give you a personal critique of the rest of it and wish you a heartfelt "good day!" all in about 17 seconds. And best of the best of all, if you're hearing just a little bit too much of something, say Aimee Mann whinging endlessly on about your having a lot of money, but not being able to afford the freeway, you can give them a call explaining that you will have to go find a puppy with cancer to kick if you happen to hear it one more time in a given day, and they'll take a wee break from playing it. Just for you. And just because you asked them to.
Not that I would ever have done such a thing. I personally love Aimee Mann. Really. Can't you tell? No irony there. At. All. Uh-uh. 'Til Tuesday was boss. Oh, shush. Keep it down now. Voices carry...even that shower-curtain-hook earring, dating an asshole at the opera video was right on. Who hasn't lived through that? Dude, if I could sing one to three notes max without ever moving my jaw, I'd *be* Aimee Mann myself...and gladly.
Life is bigger with real radio. Life is better, too. Why would we accept anything less? Even if we don't always like what we're hearing, it still gives us something, even if it's just the motivation to cross the room to turn it off for give or take three-and-a-half minutes. Come and join me in the magnificent joy of hearing the best song ever at 1:13 pm on a random afternoon when the mundanity of everyday tasks had gotten overwhelming and for a brief moment, the Universe turns her shining face to you, and you just have to stop what you're doing, turn up the radio and dance. Because who knows when it will come around again.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Wee peeps

Children. What good are they?
Always at your back, mouths full of something, usually fingers. Theirs or someone else's.
And what are their fingers full of?
Is it something intentional like snot or peanut butter?
Or is it an unplanned menagerie of dirt and sweat and hand sanitizer?
It's really impossible to say, isn't it? And which is better? Fingers slurped free of snot are better than fingers full of snot, right? At least marginally? Maybe?
No. I know. None are better.
There are a great many people who think the answer to Global Everything is negative population growth. Me, with my three children, I've had the word "Breeder" snarled about me by people with far too many pets.
I have.
I try to get angry about it, like David, but I can't really.
Some of us are meant to raise impossibly small dogs that run counter to any evolutionary imperative and some of us are meant to raise children (who, funnily enough, will grow up to comfort those who spent their lives raising anything small enough to fit in a teacup and also walked on a leash by running geriatric facilities with names like Papillion Acres and slogans like "You're Shit-zu can't wipe your ass, but we can!").
Maybe this isn't an appropriate topic for Father's Day. Maybe it's the most appropriate topic. Parenting is the devil's business, even God left it to someone else when it came to his own Son. So, for someone like me, who is spending the greater part of her life doing nothing other than parenting, sometimes, I get a little punchy.
Sometimes, I refuse to help my son get his arms out of his sweater. Even though he's all sweaty and as close to swearing as is possible for an eight-year-old who knows all the words, but has sense enough not to say them. Sometimes , I make him go in the grocery store with one arm going this-away and the other going that-away with a sweater holding him hostage because, well, an eight-year-old should not be befuddled by a sweater at all, should he?
And despite the looks I get from other, kinder parents, yes I do insist he help get the groceries, even if he is mostly strait-jacketed and ends up trying to kick a box of Ritz crackers into the cart because he can't use his hands.
I parent with ginger and lemon zest. Don't get caught by me doing something stupid. I will cancel a birthday party. But that's not as bad as David who threatened to cancel Christmas one year. Not the Jesus part, just the presents. I would never do that. That'd be like punishing myself.
At school once, in the lunch-line when Schuyler was in Kindergarten, I politely reminded one of her classmates not to spit on another person - me. He didn't listen and proceeded to do it again and again. Now, I am good humored and understand that children are, in fact, children and don't expect more of them than they can deliver, but only up to a point. Just as I was about to get pretty stern with the child, Schuyler popped in with, "You better listen to my mama. She won't hit you, but she will talk you down to the ground!" Never a truer thing spoken of me and how I raise my children.
I love them dearly, but daggone, it's a lot of work. A lot of thankless, repetitive, mind-numbing work. Perhaps not as much as raising show dogs, but I don't get a clicker or the benefit of hiding an old piece of chicken between my teeth for coercion. And I can't tuck my kids into a crate at night or lock them up in one in an outbuilding when I need to accomplish something or get some sleep. This now, is being written with a one-year-old playing base jumper from my shoulder over and over.
So, why now am I contemplating homeschooling the same child who can't escape a sweater instead of sending him off to fifth grade?
I dunno.
I love him?
I think he's neat?
I see him growing up into this young man and I want him to have the kind of childhood that launches one into greatness?
Even in a life free from the wardrobe-wonders that are the pull-over sweater and vest?
He's really a wonder, my Eli. He's so much like my husband and myself. And not in all the good ways, either. Even though he's still so young, I see emerging some of the same self-limiting idiosyncrasies I see in myself. I didn't realize, when he was younger, how important it was to my children to always try to be better than myself. And Eli's got a lot of self-doubt and also has my nasty habit of finding the coldest corner in the room and sitting there, so no one else has to. Like he doesn't deserve better.
I'm not really sure how homeschooling will help with that. And I'm not sure I'm not being selfish and just trying to grab at the trailing remains of his childhood and keep them for myself.
I love school. I think it's important. But frequently, with Eli, I wonder why he's having to jump through so many hoops he clearly doesn't need to. When you are spelling "Anachronistic" in 4th grade without having to look, you already know how to spell. Why spend more time on spelling? Why not do something else with that time?
Eli aced his 4th grade SOL tests, two with an emerging abcessed teeth requiring emergency surgery, and one the day after that surgery. If you can manage that, how truly challenged have you been?
But the school is still a school and has to function for the greater good of everybody. That isn't a bad thing, but for Eli, I want to try something different. Instead of always reigning him in, I want to let his throttle run wide open and see what happens.
How many people who have truly changed the world trace their different points of view back to time spent doing something different than their peers? I mean, there's Einstein and Twain and Roosevelt and Kahlo....and hundreds upon hundreds of others. It could be that their stories just haven't been written, but I've yet to hear story upon story about inmates who attributed their lives of crime to a year spent being home schooled or bedridden.
I want Eli to have the kind of break you can only get when you're a kid. I want him to dawdle and stare. I want to allow him to have the mind space to think and learn and create without limits or interruptions. I want to help him wrestle with and pin down those dogging demons I unwittingly sat on his shoulder now before they're dug in tight.
I want to give him the world. But I can't. I can only give him the opportunity to reach out and take it for himself; show him that he's worth it and worthy of it. And I'm just the person for that job, I think.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


Sitting here this morning, listening to The Pretenders, I realize I have not been entirely fair. David will argue with me about this, but I think that I do owe my father one very important thanks. Probably a great deal more, but right now, I am thinking of his record collection.
He didn't leave it for me. Rather, when he moved to NYC, he left it at my grandparents' house. There, it sat in a cabinet in the basement until I rediscovered it one day.
One of the few interactions I can remember having with my father was about Heart of Glass by Blondie. He was a big music fan and fancied himself a musician. Still does, apparently. It's not that he was any good, but he did have good taste in music. I think he had good taste in lifestyle as well. He was a young man in the early 80s, when there was so much good music, and New York City looked as glossy as it did gritty - just the right mix. And who exemplified this more than Debbie Harry? I think no one.
I don't remember how old I was, but I do remember him listening to the record in my grandparents' living room. And I remember standing in the doorway, listening. I really liked Blondie, the way a young child likes music. Like my daughter loves The Scissor Sisters, Weezer and Vampire Weekend. The lyrics of songs do not inform her life as much as they are informed by it. There are a great many things about which my 7-year-old has no idea. And those things are the topics of a great many good songs. She makes up pictures in her head to make sense of the words. I did the same thing.
I guess I was singing or something. I don't recall how it happened, but for just a moment, my father spoke to me like I was really there and like I mattered. He seemed slightly impressed. Maybe he thought I was something like him after all. I don't know. Maybe he realized we were actually related for a second and I just didn't appear from nothing to send his life skittering off track. I really can't say.
But he gave me his two Blondie albums. Maybe it's because, like any little girl trying to stand out to her father, I seemed awed a bit by him. If anything, that is probably what he liked best. Little children can make small grown people feel mightily important.
When he left for NYC, he didn't take a lot with him. There'd been this incident a few years before in which he threatened to kidnap me and never let his parents see me again if they didn't give him some money. It didn't go well for him. His parental rights were taken away, according to my mother, and I wasn't allowed to be alone in a room with him. Before that, he'd sometimes come take me to a movie. I can remember the previews of a movie I saw with him. A huge paper cup emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo spun slowly on the screen, condensation pouring down the sides. That's what I remember, Coke. More often than not, he'd not show up and I'd sit at the end of the sidewalk of our house on Fairmont Ave. and wait.
After the "threat", though, even that didn't happen anymore. It's hard to sit now and piece all of that together. It was so long ago and I was a kid. I guess I was somewhat protected from the truth, but then, my mother wields her personal truth like a cudgel and no one is immune from its blows. Probably I knew more than I should have. Probably I struggled to make sense of it. At any rate, I didn't really see him anymore after that. Except that one time in my grandparents' living room, even though he lived in an apartment in their basement, until he left for good.
I don't know why he didn't take his albums with him. He left most everything behind. Breaking free, I think. Starting completely over. Reinventing himself into a person more to his liking. There were hundreds of albums left in the basement. My grandparents' kept them forever, because they were his and one day, he might come back for them. I knew that wasn't going to happen, but I was glad they were there.
I was like a mini-archeologist, in search of some previously unknown, forgotten people, sorting through all the albums, meticulously scrutinizing every inch of cover art. The Tom Tom Club. Talking Heads. The Clash. Elvis Costello. The Pretenders. The Police. It was years before I actually took one home and listened to it. For the longest time, the records, stacked in the cabinet smelling of cardboard and Ivory Snow, existed for me in every way except the one in which they were most intended.
The music became my father to me. Although I could not picture him or hear is voice (and still can't), I could hear the voices and sounds he chose to surround himself with.
And they were good. Any port in a storm. I took what I could get.