June 23, 2012 | Permalink
Old habits die hard. I still listen to tons of music every year. I still keep track of what I've listened to and what my favorites are. And, for the zillionth year, I create a top albums list at the end of the year.
Here are a collection of the albums I grew fondest of this year. It is more or less in order, though not specifically so.
Top albums of 2010
Runner-up: Foals Total Life Forever
Looking at this picture, the following statement might surprise you. My grandfather, Chester Sycks, who passed away early this morning at the age of 87, was a total bad ass.
When my grandfather worked in the offices of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, he had an arrangement with the waitress at his favorite lunch spot. When she saw him pull into the parking lot, she would call over her shoulder to the cook, saying, “Put on a burger, Chet’s here.”
That way Grandpa’s burger--his extremely well done burger--would be ready when he settled in. His favorite lunch, at his favorite lunch spot, exactly when he wanted it, exactly the way he wanted it, all without exchanging a single word.
Grandpa related this story (which he told me...many times) with such pride, his storytelling imbibed with such flare and self-satisfaction that you might think he was telling you about the time he saved a busload of schoolchildren from drowning or won the Nobel Prize in physics. To him, it was a crowning achievement. This Zen-like, no-nonsense, wordless example of simplicity, perfection, and efficiency in the form of a working man’s lunch.
Grandpa was a quiet man, devoted to being a meticulous rule and routine follower. He had deeply ingrained and deliberate ways of doing just about everything. Every day was more or less the same. Get up (late), go to Burger King for a danish and cup of coffee, then hit the post office, grocery/pharmacy, and library (to make copies). Same deal. Every day. This routine was so ingrained for so long that when he was hospitalized for a heart attack in 1992, the morning crew at Burger King sent him get well cards.
He had plenty of other unique characteristics. Whenever traveling more than 20 miles from home, he would load his car full of enough emergency gear to make a survivalist blush. He was retired before he tried any flavor of ice cream other than vanilla. He also never wore shorts until he was in his 70s, then would only buy them from one store...in New Jersey. He used to eat mashed potatoes by dividing the mound into neat squares, consumed one at a time. He was known to put a lamp in his yard so he could mow the grass at night. He was a huge fan of Ohio State football and attended every home game for years even though he had no connection to Ohio State nor any real interest in football (and when attending the games, would stay in the same hotel--in the same room--each time).
When Grandpa found something he liked, he stuck with it. This is why he drove a blue 1987 Caprice Classic--three of them. Not updated models--but the exact same model, color, and same year, bought over and over again until he simply couldn’t find another blue 1987 Caprice Classic. (At one point, he had a spare 1987 Caprice Classic in the driveway, waiting for the then-current car to expire.)
And this is all just tapping the surface.
You see, the important thing to know about Grandpa is that he wasn’t a rule follower because people told him what to do. Grandpa did all these things because he believed that they were the right thing to do. The smart way to do them. The good thing to do. He was less concerned with what others thought than being steadfast in doing what he thought was right. He was uncompromising. He may have had a lot of them, but Grandpa lived by his own rules. And that is what made him so bad ass.
I think what drove my Grandfather was that he wanted to protect and provide for his family. Growing up during the depression, he wanted to be thrifty and prudent. He wanted to be the one who could help in any situation. The person that could always be depended on. He thrived on that.
But, with these important qualities noted, he was also a fantastically peculiar dude.
During our annual vacation, Grandpa would go “prospecting” with his metal detector on Long Beach Island. He would spend all day combing the beach, just to come back at the end of the day with 37 cents, a rusty screw, and a video game token. Regardless, he was always so pleased with himself and would regale us with the exploits of finding his treasures. He did this all day, every day of vacation.
One evening he came home and told us that a couple of bikini-clad young girls had come up to him on the beach and asked for his help in locating some lost keys. He took his detector and found the keys pretty quickly. They were so happy that they all gave him hugs and invited him to hang out with them for the afternoon and attend a party with a group of their friends. They even offered him a beer, which he declined.
After hearing this, I thought there was no way this story could be a true...until the next night. I was sent out on the beach to find him for dinner. As the two of us walked back to the house, we passed a beach front bar. One very tan young man looked over at us and said, "Hey, it's Chet!!!" Then he and his friends all let out a loud cheer...for my Grandpa.
I will miss him terribly, but I’m also happy for him. His suffering is over, he has moved on to a place where everything is bright and clear. There are thousands of dollars in coins under the sandy beaches.
I imagine that shortly after he died, Grandpa quietly strolled up to the pearly gates. I’d like to think that once Saint Peter noticed him there, neither of them said a word. Saint Peter simply called out over his shoulder, “Put on a burger, Chet’s here.”
November 20, 2010 | Permalink
"Do I need to vote this time?" Katherine asked me.
Living in DC, it is a reasonable question. Not every election "matters" here. We have no representation in Congress, obviously. And in a place where 92% of voters cast ballots for Obama in 2008, the real fight is for the Democratic primary. From there, the general election is kind of a foregone conclusion. It does beg the obvious question--does it matter?
On Tuesday, I walked into my local polling place in a futile attempt to exercise my civil duty. In the process, I almost (and still may have) elected myself to public office.
After reviewing the ballot for a few minutes, I came to one of the few ballot issues that does matter in a DC general election: ANC Commissioner.
In DC, ANC Commissioners (ANC stands for Advisory Neighborhood Commission) are the ground level connection between government and the people. They are supposed to help citizens navigate city government and solve problems. Trash collection missed your street again this week? You call the ANC Commissioner to help straighten it out. Streetlights not working and no one has fixed it after three calls? Call the ANC Commissioner. Having trouble getting a permit for your Latvian Heritage Festival? You get the point.
Being an ANC Commissioner is tough, thankless work. The position is unpaid, carries little authority or power, and is almost never a stepping stone to bigger political office.
So I'm sure you, like me, are not surprised that there were no candidates listed on the ballot for my local ANC Commissioner. None. No one wanted the job. The only line on the ballot was for a write-in candidate.
"Do you have another shirt?" a friend once asked me.
I asked what he meant.
"I mean that I always see you wearing that shirt...don't you have another?"
Of course, I do, I said. But this is my favorite.
Admittedly, I wear this shirt a lot. Anyone who has spent time with me will recognize it.
I bought it in 2003 on a trip to Las Vegas that included a tour of Hoover Dam. I bought it because I loved that it didn't have anything on it except fun facts about the dam. No photo, no fancy lettering. Just fun facts.
Eventually, this t-shirt worked its way deep into my heart, becoming my favorite. But this weekend, word came down from Katherine: It's time to let it go.
Okay, so it is completely faded. Okay, so the silk-screening is cracked and started to fall off the fabric. Okay, so it has a nickel-sized hole in one of the armpits (which no one would ever see--I mean, how often do I go showing people my armpit). But it is my favorite shirt.
We've been through this with previous favorite articles of clothing too. It starts off as a suggestion. Then a stern suggestion. Then an offer to retire it for me. Then, a kinda-but-not-quite ultimatum. Then an actual ultimatum. Then, if the matter is still not resolved, one day the item of clothing goes downstairs to be washed--and mysteriously does not return. Then Katherine denies having any knowledge of the whereabouts or fate of said clothing item.
But this shirt is special. It has, literally, traveled the world with me. Think of any major event in my life in the past seven years and I guarantee you I was wearing that shirt for part of it.
Faced with yet another Old Yeller-like situation with a beloved clothing item, I decided to take matters into my own hands.
"Do we have any combustible fluids?" I asked Katherine.
Living in a city, we don't have a lawn mower, so no gas can. I was kinda shocked that I had such trouble laying my hands on something that would ignite.
"Why do you want a combustible fluid?" Katherine asked, her tone indicating that she already didn't approve of the answer I had yet to give her.
"I'm going to burn my shirt."
I explained that I just couldn't give it away (I would be heartbroken if I saw some ironic hipster wearing my t-shirt at a concert) nor throw it in the trash (imagine how it would feel, especially after all we've been through). I couldn't even consider cutting it up to save for a quilt or something equally as ridiculous. It seemed more fitting to burn it.
Katherine was understandably concerned. Giving the degree of craziness we've observed in our alley, lighting a match back there is probably not a wise choice.
"How would you feel if I said I wanted to take something into the back yard and burn it?" Katherine asked.
"I'd probably tell you that you should burn it in the driveway instead," I said. "That would be much safer."
Katherine suggested that if I had to do something, I should bury it instead.
But then what will happen is that in 100 years someone will be digging up the backyard to put in a hovercraft landing pad and will come across this shirt. They will look at it and say, "Huh, what a cool shirt...why would someone bury it instead of wearing it?"
I, honestly, could not come up with an answer for them.
I turned in my new book, Bring Me To Heaven, almost a year ago. Since then, my editor and I have been going back and forth with edits. During the initial writing, this book changed from a wacky travel adventure about ghosts into a memoir about what it means to be haunted. During the editing, its found even more clarity, losing almost 70 pages of girth as it finds its focus.
I've since discovered that the only thing harder than writing a memoir is editing a memoir. When you finish writing, you have this euphoric sense of relief, mostly that you no longer have to relive all the thoughts and emotions of the written-about portion of your life. Editing is worse. You are forced to reopen everything and dive back in, usually to go deeper. That's the main reason why I've been editing for so long, and thus, delayed its publication another year.
My editor had suggested cutting the section below. Initially I was going to do it, but when I read it, I think its actually kind of important to understanding me and my world view. So, it's staying.
The scene is between me and a therapist, named Dr. Blumfield, who I had very little interest in talking with. He wanted to discuss my belief that I was seeing a ghost of a little girl in my dreams.
Here it is:
“Let’s talk about this ghost business,” Blumfield said.
“What about it?” I replied.
“When did you start seeing her?” he asked.
“I’ve told you before,” I said. “I never saw her.”
“Yes you did,” he replied quickly. “You told me you saw her in your dreams, repeatedly.”
“Dreams aren’t real, Blumfield,” I said. “You of anyone should know that.”
“Moving on,” he said, taking a pause to light a fresh cigarette. “You’d never seen a ghost before you started to experience her, correct?”
“Not true,” I said.
Blumfield put down his notepad and removed his glasses.
“You saw a ghost before?”
“Yes,” I said. “Or at least I thought it was a ghost.”
“When was this?”
“At camp…Camp Telpahak. I saw the ghost of Chief Telpahak.”
“Camp Telpahak was a camp you went to?”
I told Blumfield about Camp Telpahak. It was part of the programs the local YMCA offered during the summer. Basically it was a day camp where they ran you through a litany of camp stuff like fishing, hiking, swimming, making God’s Eyes out of yarn, and so on. The best part of Camp Telpahak was that they also taught archery and air rifle marksmanship—things that most of the kids would never be allowed to do at home, especially at eight or nine-years-old. On Thursdays, the campers stayed over at Camp Telpahak. It was quite exciting. We would have a campfire and a sing-along and roast hot dogs for dinner.
August 10, 2010 | Permalink
I've been taking a new route to work in the morning, which takes me by this huge statue, kind of in the middle of no where.
The only words on or around it are a name: Samuel Gompers.
You might, as I did, wonder who the fuck Samuel Gompers might be. And what he did to deserve this monstrous statue?
Well, thank God for Wikipedia. Not surprisingly, Wikipedia has a quite exhaustive article on Samuel Gompers.
In short, he founded the AF of L (later the "AFL" in AFL-CIO) and had a lot to do with the evolution of the labor movement in the U.S.
Another interesting tidbit. The otherwise empty plot of land the statue sits on is called Gompers Square (though, to be honest, it isn't a square at all--more like a tiny triangle/wedge between K St. and Mass Ave.). Gompers used to live in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, which explains the location (and might also explain all the shirtless men in the statue).
And if one giant statue tribute to Samuel Gompers isn't enough, there is a second--in Chicago.
July 13, 2010 | Permalink
You'd think at my age, I would have learned my lesson by now.
Whenever I end up caring about a houseplant, it always ends up disappointing me. In fact, I can't think of a single houseplant I've ever had that didn't end up crushing my dreams about houseplants. The ferns end up dead. The African violets end up wilting away. They start off looking lush and green, but then, reality sets in...again.
But I never seem to learn my lesson. You think I'd learn after all this time that I should stop getting emotionally attached to houseplants--because I know it will always, always end up in the same place.
So I've decided to go in a different direction.
Herbert is a Venus Fly Trap. For some reason I can't really explain, I've always been fascinated by these plants, but never knew how someone could raise them. They eat meat, right, so...do they have babies? Do they lay eggs? Magically split into multiple fly traps?
I had no clue.
Ends up they aren't that much different than other houseplants--except they are totally different.
I found a place online, called Carolina Carnivores, which sold me a Venus Fly Trap for $7. That didn't seem like much of a risk, so I ordered it. A week later Herbert arrived.
I don't normally name houseplants, but figured if something was going to live in my house and eat meat--it should have a name. Herbert is as good as any name, I figure. He doesn't seem to mind.
Now, there are some particular things about raising a Venus Fly Trap.
Herbert, it could be said, is a sojourner. While he can lay down roots--he can't do it in DC soil--it is too acidic. So, Herbert lies in a cushy pot of peat moss. Herbert also can't deal with local water (it contains chlorine), so Herbert can only get moisture from rain water or (as is often our choice) bottled spring water.
Even though I was fascinated by Herbert at first, I was also, equally, a bit repulsed. I didn't want to touch him. When he started to grow and needed a bigger pot, I didn't want to touch his roots, either. I know what happens to the leftovers when I eat meat, so I figured the same would be true for Herbert. God knows what is mixed into those roots.
So Venus Fly trap. Check. Peat moss. Check. Bottled water. Check.
Um, what about the flies?
Herbert had been living on my porch for about two weeks and I hadn't noticed any of his traps closing (a sign that he has caught a meal). I figured that he had to be starving and that I should help him out a bit.
It just so happened that a big, juicy spring fly had made its way from the front porch into the house earlier that day--so I went about trying to catch him for Herbert. Here is the rub: I'd have to catch it alive. For some reason, raw meat and dead bugs are unhealthy for a Venus Fly Trap. It has to be fresh--as in alive.
So I went about chasing the fly around our house trying to swat it--but only swat it lightly enough to stun it. This is more difficult than it may sound, as I was constantly missing the fly because I was second guessing how much force to use.
The next morning, I managed to take down the fly--I think I broke a few of his kneecaps with my pansy-like swat. Then I quickly scooped him up and carried him outside to Herbert. As soon as that squirming fly hit Herbert's leaf, his trap snapped shut like like a mouse trap. It was an amazing sight.
So Herbert digested the fly for a few days and then slowly opened his leaves again, letting the leftover fly parts flit away like pieces of ash in the breeze.
Herbert never showed any gratitude. Never really did much of anything--since he is a houseplant.
But, he survived.
Since then, Herbert routinely catches flies and mosquitoes on his own (don't know if he has a preference). And every time is as fascinating to watch as the first.
And Herbert is doing great. He just recently sprouted a flower for a little spring pollinating. (Does that mean he is a girl?)
I'd like to say that Herbert had renewed my faith in houseplants. But the truth is, houseplants are houseplants. Herbert is Herbert.
"Do you take pictures of every dog?" I asked.
"Yes, I keep a photo album in my room of every dog that visits," Mr. Stevens replied. "But usually all I get back is pictures of the owners' legs."
He spoke in a rapid-fire mumble and didn't like staying in the same place for more than a minute or two before pulling his wheelchair around the room by shuffling his heels against the tile floor. From the condition of it, I bet that Mr. Stevens had chosen to wear that Air Force jacket every day for a long time. It looked like he had been shaving without using a mirror for the past few weeks.
Yet, Mr. Stevens was one of the more "put together" of the bunch--about a half dozen residents who came down to be volunteer subjects for therapy dog training.
The other volunteers weren't quite so gregarious, instead ranging from aloof to catatonic.
More than once I wondered if there was actually any film in Mr. Stevens camera.
Our dog Lolly has never met a person she didn't love. Seriously, it doesn't matter who we come across walking down the street, she will drop to the pavement when anyone offers the slightest bit of attention. She is the most social dog I've ever seen. And people love her back. When we walk down the street, children will often call out her name and come running to see her. Almost everyone we've met in our neighborhood was a result of approaching us to ask about the funny little happy dog that prances down the street.
She'd make a great therapy dog, Katherine and I would say to each other.
After a year or so of looking around, we finally found a therapy dog group that sounded like a good match for Lolly. They have monthly training sessions for new dogs at the Armed Forces Retirement Home (minutes from our house), so we signed up and went this past weekend.
Once we got there, we realized that it wasn't really training for Lolly--she just has to be a dog. The training was really for us.
Therapy dogs are brought into retirement homes, hospitals, after school programs, and other situations where a chance to pet a friendly dog might bring some joy or happiness. Our trainer told us that after a visit with an animal, patients are usually "up" for a week afterwards and often talk about the dogs they meet long after.
After learning all the rules and doing some obedience commands and tests (which Lolly, the first dog to be tested, ace'd with almost military precision--not quite sure how that happened), we were supposed to practice with the retiree volunteers.
I consider myself really good with people. I can make conversation with just about anyone, in any situation, with relative ease. But once I looked around the room of volunteers, I immediately felt completely out of sorts.
Outside of Mr. Stevens, they weren't really a very communicative bunch. They all just kind of sat there and stared. I had trouble accepting that these people had actually volunteered to be here, as I'm quite positive most of them had no idea where they were.
In a situation like that, every physical and expressive cue that someone is approachable is nonexistent. You see some dude slouched in a wheelchair blankly staring at his foot and you have no idea what to do. Can I approach you? Do you want me to bring the dog to you? Are you going to scream if I get within two feet of you?
Lolly wasn't helping, as she surveyed the room and immediately determined that the resident volunteers were not nearly as interesting as the other dog owners, who did things like speak, move, and acknowledge her presence.
It was Katherine who figured it out first. She just saw a woman sitting alone in her wheelchair in the middle of the room, pulled up a chair next to her, sat down, put Lolly in her lap, and said, "Would you like to meet my dog?"
The woman immediately smiled and reached out to touch Lolly's face.
I thought Katherine's approach was genius and decided to repeat it myself. I went up to the most spaced-out dude in the room, pulled up a chair, and introduced him to Lolly. Without saying a word, he thrust out both arms and gently rubbed her face and neck. Then he got a huge smile on his face and Lolly melted at the affection.
By this time, a few non-volunteer residents had noticed all the activity and shuffled/rolled over to see what was going on. Now there was about 12 retirees curious about the dogs, so we kept taking turns bringing Lolly to them.
Of those who spoke, they all wanted to know everything about Lolly--how old she was, where she came from, what kind of dog she was. After getting the basic bio facts out of the way, the retirees would then tell us about pets they'd had.
Unfortunately, every pet story they shared ended with a full retelling of the pet's awful demise.
"Yeah, I used to have a dog that was this color, we called him Mr. Barks," one gentleman shared. "Then, one day, Mr. Barks woke up and his back legs didn't work no more--so I knew he had to be put down. I couldn't decide if I should take him to the vet or just take him out back with a shotgun and do it myself. The vet charged fifty bucks to do it--can you imagine?"
I told him Mr. Barks sounded like a wonderful dog.
To be fair, when you are that old, I'm sure a lot of your stories involve characters that are now dead, be they human, canine, or whatever.
We go back in a few more weeks for another evaluation, then the group leader and we decide if this this is something we should commit to. Even before that, I'm pretty convinced already at this is something that Lolly and I will make a part of our lives.
As intensely awkward it was for the first few moments, that is also what I find so compelling about the opportunity. Lolly doesn't care that they are frail, old, shy, or smell like pee. She has a great time regardless.
As I get better "trained," I'm sure I will too. Given the opportunity to spend an hour listening to someone reminisce about their dead pet, compared to sitting at brunch and listening to some hipster douche bag go on and on about video games and LCD Soundsystem--Mr. Barks is gonna win every time.
"Like Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense–I have a mildly embarrassing confession to make. But unlike him, I don’t see dead people.
I see naked people.
And I don’t know what to do about it."
I'm even making the questionable decision of responding to several of the (typically) nasty commenters. Here is a link to the whole thing.