Plinky: Natural Disaster?

( sends me an email everyday with a question or other instruction meant to inspire a blog post. Occasionally I take the bait.)

I once heard a stand-up comedian tell a joke that went something like this:

You know, they always tell you, in the event of an earthquake, to run and stand in a doorway, but when was the last time you saw footage of earthquake devastation and all you saw was rubble, doorway, rubble, doorway?

This morning’s Plinky asks:

Have you ever experienced an earthquake, flood, or other natural disaster?

So it was around 1990 and I was living in a three bedroom apartment in Los Angeles with two buddies of mine from New Jersey. The floor plan of the apartment consisted of a living room, dining area, and kitchen, separated by a door from a tiny hallway where four more doors all clustered together led to a bathroom and the three bedrooms respectively.

Anyway, if me and my buddies were to each stand in our own bedroom doorways we were no more than a few feet away from each other, and one time, deep in the middle of the night, a sizable quake rumbled us awake, we ran to our doorways, and there we were, three guys in our underwear, half asleep, looking at each other, not knowing how serious the earthquake would be, thinking about that comedian’s joke and decidedly not laughing.

In honor of today’s Plinky, I bring you a rather fitting song by Loudon Wainwright III:

Plinky: Desert Island Album?

( sends me an email everyday with a question or other instruction meant to inspire a blog post. Occasionally I take the bait.)

This morning’s Plinky asks that maddening, old chestnut: If you had to listen to one album for the rest of your life, what would it be?

And, rather than fall into the obvious trap, trying to answer a question that can often paralyze a person with indecision, a question that so fills a music lover with anxiety that he forgets that, if he was on a sinking ship or crashing landing in an airplane in the vicinity of a desert island, he would of course have his iPod, containing hundreds of albums, along with a solar-powered charger and earbuds in a waterproof container, on his person, hence rendering the sadistic question moot.

Seriously, I’ve fallen for this before, I’ve blown hours and hours trying to think of the “one album”, and if not the one album the Top 5 or Top 10, and fortunately I learn from my mistakes and won’t go there anymore.

Still, just the other day, my 13-year old son, Julian, reminded me that I promised him over a year ago that I’d buy a turntable so that he could explore the 200 or so vinyl records that I’ve had stored in our basement, untouched, since before he was born. As I wrote about at the time, we had just visited a Bellingham institution, the wonderful hole-in-the-wall, late night eatery Pel Meni, and Julian, for the first time, got to see vinyl records in action, on the turntable they offer up for use there to any customer who wishes to make a selection from their extensive collection.

Embarrassingly, I never kept my promise, but Julian was recently given a vintage copy of The Who’s Quadrophenia as a gift, and although he already has the album on his iPod, ripped from my CD, he wants to play his record and try out the other records in my collection with a renewed sense of urgency.

And so, we’ll soon be off to Goodwill and checking Craigslist for a used turntable, and then, just maybe, one of those glorious old records of mine might take me so thoroughly back down memory lane, reminding me of just how sweet that old scratchy analog sound is, that I’ll decide that there is one album amongst them that could keep me happy for the 40-50 more years I plan to have left on this planet. (After that, of course, I’ll for sure have my iPod in heaven, so I’m covered.)

Plinky: Favorite Holiday Movie?

( sends me an email everyday with a question or other instruction meant to inspire a blog post. Occasionally I take the bait.)

This morning’s Plinky asks for a favorite holiday movie, and for me I don’t even have to think twice about it. I love the fact that Frank Capra’s 1946 film, It’s A Wonderful Life, is a beloved classic, because it is such a subversive Christmas movie.

Please keep in mind, I’m no Scrooge. For, despite my Jewish upbringing and my leanings toward Buddhism, I’m a willing and enthusiastic participant in Christmas. We just decorated the tree last night, I’ve had my first egg nog of the season, I’m brushing up on carols on the guitar for upcoming sing-a-longs, and I look forward to watching a wide variety of traditional Christmas movies.

When I say that It’s A Wonderful Life is subversive, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not the only Christmas movie that offers messages that attempt to counteract the rampant materialism and consumerism that tend to overshadow the holiday. And yet, It’s A Wonderful Life is in a league of it’s own in that regard. Truly, it is an epic story wherein Christmas is nearly an incidental background, and in fact I don’t think there’s any mention of Christmas until roughly two-thirds of the way into the film.

According to Frank Capra himself (via Wikipedia):

The film’s elevation to the status of a much-beloved classic came decades after its initial release, when it became a television staple in the 1970s and 1980s Christmas seasons. This came as a welcome surprise to Frank Capra and others involved with it. “It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” Capra told the Wall Street Journal in 1984. “The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

I chose the photo included here for a very specific reason. Google Images offers many shots from the film taken from various scenes, but this one here, the freeze frame when Jimmy Stewart, as college graduate George Bailey, exclaims, “I need a big one!”, in order to describe how big a suitcase he needs for the trip around the world he would eventually have to give up, is so representative of how the primary story in the film is George’s story, a story of deferred dreams, which isn’t particularly relevant to Christmas in any way that I can think of.

Oh, but it IS particularly relevant to me. The first time I fell in love with the movie, like George here, I was newly graduated from college, was working some forgetful summer job, still living with my parents, wanting to desperately strike out on my own, but unable to do it. (Yes, I watched the movie, which we owned on VHS, in the summer, another symbol of just how little I associated the film with Christmas.)

Of course, my circumstances were very different than George’s. His obstacles were all external and mine internal. Unlike young master Bailey…

Mary, I know what I’m gonna do tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that. I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world! Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colesseum.

Then I’m coming back here and go to college and see what they know, and then I’m going to build things. I’m gonna build air fields. I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high. I’m gonna build bridges a mile long.

… I had no idea what I wanted to do. Oh, I had dreams, but as I’ve written about before, I had no one in my life, as I was accumulating my dreams, who encouraged me to seize the day and let nothing (e.g. fear, doubt, finances, etc.) get in my way.

But wait, did someone mention Christmas?

See what I mean?

Add in the stock market crash, World War II, and the evil of big business and Christmas seems like a quaint afterthought.

If you want Santa and his elves or Rudolph and the Grinch, there are plenty of other movies to choose from. But, there’s only one It’s A Wonderful Life.

Plinky: Music when you’re blue?

( sends me an email everyday with a question or other instruction meant to inspire a blog post. Occasionally I take the bait.)

The exact wording of this morning’s Plinky is: When you’re feeling down, what music cheers you up?

Personally, I have an entirely different process when I get down, mainly because I don’t think it’s either realistic or healthy to try to always be happy. We live in a world increasingly obsessed with ridding our existence of any emotions other than glee, joy, elation, ecstasy, etc. — it’s no surprise that the pharmaceutical industry is the 3rd most profitable industry in the world.

Additionally, I strongly oppose the age-old, destructive cultural conditioning that boys and men are subjected to, conditioning that tells boys that they should not be emotional, boys should NOT cry, conditioning that originates from ancient societies that had to prepare boys and men to be wariors. I’d even go so far as to suggest that our failure as a species to fully abandon this ancient conditioning shows an appalling lack of growth, development, and evolution, and that it lies at the heart of our continuing inability to rid the planet of war and other violent atrocities.

That’s pretty heavy, I know. Enough to bum anyone out, right?

Well, why don’t you try doing what I do? Don’t reflexively run from those depressing feelings. Put on some sweet, sad music, dive deep into the feelings, find solace and communion in the melodies and lyrics of songwriters who have felt as you have, and have yourself a good, long cry. In most cases, you’ll feel better after having released the pent up feelings rather than trying to bury them or numb out altogether.

(A somewhat related post I did last year.)

Caveat: This post is not in any way meant to ignore or belittle the potential crippling effects of chronic depression. Nor am I advocating for voluntarily developing a state of chronic depression.

Plinky: Worst Haircut?

( sends me an email everyday with a question or other instruction meant to inspire a blog post. Occasionally I take the bait.)

Ok, this creeps me out.

I get my haircut once every six months or so, today happens to be that day, and just by chance (yeah, right!) today’s Plinky suggests the posting of a photo of one’s worst haircut.

One of the reasons it takes me so long to schedule an appointment is because I procrastinate. Why do I procrastinate?

Because, I’m TERRIFIED of bad haircuts!

Seriously, I don’t consider myself a vain person, but like so many people in our culture I suffered a formative early trauma, the Haircut from Hell, back when I was an early teen, probably not far from my son’s age of 13, an age when, paradoxically, bonds with friends start to mean everything, and yet friends will laugh and ridicule you if you don’t look cool.

I don’t remember a specific haircut, but I don’t have to. The wound lies unhealed just below the surface. And every time I look in the mirror and notice that the hair’s getting long and unruly and I know full well that it’s time to get it cut, the wound activates, and something will somehow come up day after day that delays my calling to make an appointment.

But today’s appointment is set, this Plinky thing arrived an unbidden bad omen, and I’m just going to have to bite the bullet and face the fear.

Wish me luck.

Plinky: Do you celebrate Halloween?

( sends me an email everyday with a question meant to inspire a blog post. Occasionally I take the bait.)

On Halloween night, the Great Pumpkin rises from his pumpkin patch and flies through the air with his bag of toys to all the children.

–Linus Van Pelt

For years I joked that the Great Pumpkin, not a stork, visited my wife and I on Halloween 1997. And while, of course, nothing supernatural really did occur, when our son Julian was born at around 7:30pm that All Hallows Eve it sure seemed magical to us.

Our doctor came to the delivery room wearing a witch’s hat and skeleton earrings. Julian entered the world with a tuft of bright orange hair. (I kid you not. Think about it. “Red” hair is actually orange!) Our friends, the next morning, visited bearing pumpkin muffins and have baked them for us every year since.

Do we celebrate Halloween?! You betcha we do!

Here’s our pumpkin with his fellow pumpkins back in 2006.

Plinky: Advice to my 16-year old self

( sends me an email everyday with a question meant to inspire a blog post. Occasionally I take the bait.)

Ok, I know, it’s terribly cliché, so Dead Poets Society and all that, but I LOVED that movie, and I really can’t think of anything that I needed to hear more than Carpe Diem when I was 16.

Regrets can be toxic, and here’s what Langston Hughes had to say about deferred dreams:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

And while I’ve been mostly free of festering, runny sores, and I certainly haven’t exploded, two things came to mind that I wish I had, at age 16, approached with a seize the day spirit.

Besides my family and friends, making music is the most important thing in my life, and yet most of the time all I do is make music, informally, recreationally, with my family and friends. I’ve been obsessed with music since I was just about my son’s age (12), and yet I didn’t start learning guitar seriously until I graduated college. I missed the opportunity to immerse myself in music while I was young and single and free, when I could have at least had a chance to realize my dream of being in a band.

The dream is not dead and I’m still working on being in a band and performing, but it would have been a HELL of a lot easier when I was younger, and I’d be a MUCH better musician by now as well.

When I was a senior in high school I already had serious dreams about traveling and I knew other people who did as well. Backpacking through Europe, for instance, was at the top of the list…and I still haven’t done it.

Some of the other people I knew who wanted to travel made it look easy. They worked hard to save up the money and then they took off and did it, starting a pattern they’d repeat again and again for years, making their way around the globe. For six months or so, it was all work and little play, two, sometimes three jobs. But that would be followed by six months of journeying to wondrous places.

I was too conditioned by my parents’ financial insecurities to follow my friends’ examples. It was too risky, you see, to take off and travel with no job to return to.

I’ve since been able to manage one significant solo trip — Israel & Egypt in 1996 — as well as some great trips with the family — Mexico, Hawaii, Jamaica, Costa Rica — and there are many years and many trips to come. Yet, there won’t be the twentysomething backpack trip to Europe. More likely, it will be a fifty or sixtysomething trip, which isn’t really the same.

Plinky: Describe a “Hah! I told you so” moment

( sends me an email everyday with a question meant to inspire a blog post. Occasionally I take the bait.)

Kid, the next time I say, ‘Let’s go someplace like Bolivia,’ let’s GO someplace like Bolivia!
Butch Cassidy

While Plinky actually asked for a description of a “Hah! I told you so” moment that happened recently, my first thought was of an incident that I blogged about back in July 2005. My wife, son and I went on a road trip down the Washington and Oregon coasts, and the following describes the inauspicious beginning to the journey.

You know that great feeling when an argument you were making turns out to be correct? It must have its roots in early childhood, because even though you know you shouldn’t gloat, it just feels so damned good to say “I told you so!”

An exception would be when you are arguing that something shouldn’t be done a certain way because it would result in something bad happening. In that case, saying “I told you so!” does not make the bad thing, that you correctly argued would happen, magically go away. In fact, grumbling “I told you so!”, either to yourself or out loud, simply makes the situation worse, because now you are mad about the bad thing and about the other person not having listened to you.

So I say to my wife, “My friend who lives in Bremerton recommended that we drive down Whidbey, take the ferry to Port Townsend, and then drive Highway 101 all the way to Long Beach.” I add details about all the traffic we’ll hit in Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia, pointing out that while I-5 may look more like the direct route, especially if you consider the speed limit is 70mph much of the way, with all the traffic we won’t be driving 70 very often, and even with the possibility of a wait at the ferry terminal and a maximum speed of maybe 65mph on 101, we’d still make better time that way.

I was, however, overruled, and just a few hours into the trip, in the intense summer heat of midday, we got caught in horrendous traffic that did not let up until we were on, that’s right, Highway 101. No viable alternate routes, no chance of my wife not accompanying us on the rest of the trip.

Needless to say, “I told you so” was no solace at all, and even if it was we all know what happened to Butch and Sundance in Bolivia.

Plinky: Swear words, pro or con?

( sends me an email everyday with a question meant to inspire a blog post. Occasionally I take the bait.)

Swear words, pro or con?

Well…shit…I don’t know. Depends. Are we talking about when I’m blogging or in my everyday life?

Everyday Life
I’m from New Jersey. I use profanity. While I use discretion most of the time, my 12-year old son has heard me. I’m neither proud nor ashamed of that fact.

I remember wrestling with whether or not to use profanity when I started my first blog with a couple of friends back in 2004. I never decided to be anti-profanity, but I did find myself either avoiding it or using thinly-veiled substitutes like frickin’.

And, while I’m staunchly free speech and believe strongly that self-censorship can be stifling to the creative process, I do use profanity sparingly, confident that it’s hardly ever the only way to express any given thing.

That said, every once in a while it just feels right and comes naturally and who the fuck am I to mess with nature?!

Plinky: Start the first chapter of your memoir

Call me Ishmael…

…no, that’s taken, and my name’s not Ishmael.


In my younger and more vulnerable years…

…damn! That’s taken too. Bummer. That’s a really good one.


If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like…

…nope, taken, and also really, really good.

Ok, so I don’t feel very original right now. Besides, all three of those are from novels, not memoirs…

I was born a poor black child…

…OK! I confess, I’m not black.

It’s interesting that this Plinky should come up now, since I’ve just finished Dave Eggers‘ novel, “You Shall Know Our Velocity!”. Eggers, is the author of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”, a book known for blurring the lines between memoir and fiction. And “Velocity”, though a novel, finds Eggers continuing to play around with first person narrative, exploring how just such a narrator can dabble in embellishment and wholesale fabrication.

Purists probably have all kinds of criticism for Eggers. “Fiction is fiction and non-fiction should be factual,” you can hear them say. “If he wants the freedom to fictionalize, he should just write fiction.” And yet there are few words as stifling to a writer than the word should.

Perhaps what the purist needs to do is better distinguish between memoir and autobiography, the latter being a more literal, chronological, and historical literary form, and at the same time consider that the Latin root of memoir is memoria, meaning “memory”, or “reminiscence”. Memories are incredibly unreliable things, so why not embrace this fact? Why not have fun with it? What an exciting prospect it seems, to scribe one’s memoir with the memories we have and fill in the gaps with the memories we wish we had…or perhaps those we are thankful we don’t have.

I, for one, found “Velocity” to be a wonderfully experimental book, a book that convinced me to bump “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” to the top of my reading list.