Thursday, February 25, 2010

On Paved Roads and Poetry

Yes, it's been too long. No post since 2/17 which was really a 2/13 post (mysteriously disappeared so I reposted) meant for 2/14 but actually written on 1/22. So we have to go back 14 days to 2/11 and the epic Seymour post that caused eyes to well up and fists to rise (stop talking about the stupid song, Ali... talk about the cat!) if we want something relevant and new.

Where have I been? Is it possible I have been cheating on you... blogging somewhere else... with that somewhere being a different blogging platform?...

(Don't say it! No!!!!!!!!!!!!)

Have I been blogging on ...Tumblr?

Did I really start an entirely new blog with that graphics-happy small-post-friendly microblogger?

Yes. But.

It does not replace Blueprint Blue.

It does not replace Blueprint Blue.

This site here will be where you go fro my words, my daily living, my soliloquies on music and basketball.

The other site will may eventually replace BpB's sister site - the poetry-centered Take the Body With You. 

Was there really a time I thought that poetry - and poetry alone - could sustain itself? 

(And I can hear your impatient rumbles. Just tell us where to go damn it! Where is the other blog? No, not just yet.)
Poetry is wonderful. I got my start as a poet. I remember the early days well... hitting the dimly lit readings in the darkest cafe corners of sad St. Paul or maybe Minneapolis. Reading my heart out - reciting all my classics - Worms, Albatross, CompuNation, Bakersfield, Marbles - only to be met with heavy heavy silence. 

Meanwhile, Johnny PoetDude would get up there with his black-and-white composition notebook and his floppy hat and his goddamn tambourine that he held like a harp and he'd read Twine of Souls or The Low Moan of the False Witness or Mother is Sister and Father is a Salesman in a breathy tone presuming significance and the audience would swoon

When Johnny PoetDude read, girls would throw napkins with numbers on them; boys would learn from JPD and write notes on their palms because the napkins were all taken.

Full disclosure: I have never read my poetry publicly, unless you count the small wine-cooler and pizza parties attended by my movie theater co-workers and me in the mid-1980s, usually while the guy-in-charge-of-the-record-player was over-deciding what to play next. (The songs Steppin' Out by Joe Jackson and Goddamn Motherfucking Love Vigilantes by Motherfucking Rat Bastards New Order would invariably be playing at these parties.) Nevertheless, reading among friends is very different from reading to strangers. So yeah, that preceding paragraph was fiction. Except my poem's titles were real. And Johnny PoetDude - he's a real person. Rather, he is real persons. He is a composite. 

Full disclosure #2: I have attended only two poetry readings in my life and one of them was technically an open mike in a Borders in Rapid City, South Dakota in which songs were allowed and the poets were ignored. So yeah just that one reading in St. Paul with Laurel, John, and Greta.

Today, however, poetry is a tougher sell. The short bursts of creativity and raw emotion formerly housed in my poems are more frequently exposed right here at this URL. Rather than shyly express my sadness at the death of a pet or the bleakness of a lost chicken weekend in verse, I now just tell the story - reporter-style, with short bursts of clever prose mixed in with the facts.

These days, when I write poetry, I set up parameters. I challenge myself. I come up with a title - say, Unincorporated East Los Angeles #1 - and go from there. Or I force myself to write a poem as a boredom-curing exercise. In these situations, maybe I  forgot I was ever a poet until I'm faced with 10 minutes of nothing to do in a waiting room or drive-thru lane. So I get out the Rhodia notepad (orange cover) or iPhone (black rubber case) and I write (Uniball Jetstream - black 1.0 or the fingers of my own two hands touching screen). I write about the embellished past or the unlikely future. I imagine what would have happened if....


Nah, not today.

But then Tumblr comes along with their cool interface and rather amazing templates. I consider moving this whole damn blog over there. But then I realize that long text entries and Tumblr aren't exactly best friends (e.g., they have not yet figured out the HARD RETURN). And then I hear you say "yes Ali - maybe if you move over there your posts will be less... less... gratuitously lengthy?" Hey - whose side are you on anyway?

And then I remember that visual stuff has appeal too. I can experiment a little. I can pretend to be a photographer, a cataloger of fascinating images, a poet with visual supplements. So the decision is made: I will create something altogether new. It will be where my poetry and most of my visual imagery can be found. It will be on that nifty newish bloggish place called Tumblr. Blueprint Blue will stay here - perhaps forever, perhaps until September. Who knows?

The new site will link to and be linked from this very site but I will not provide constant updates telling you to go over there or here. You will do the work. Visual imagery in the form of photos I find in my internet slumming will still show up here from time to time. Maybe even photos. It will be a liquid process. I'll probably put more song files over there. Mostly words over here. The process is not a fluid one. I hate that word. Fluid. Disgusting word.


What shall the new blog be called?

We Used to Go Driving Down Paved Roads.

Why? The story behind this title is long; you don't want to hear it. (Which really means: I can't remember.) I'll say this: We did indeed go driving down paved roads. And we can say that with confidence. Lest you think I'm setting us up for failure, let me ask you this: Me and you, did we ever go driving down paved roads? Perhaps you are hesitant to say a definitive 'yes' though I know the answer. We did - you and us and them and me. We drove.

We Used to Go Driving Down Paved Roads.

But tread lightly today. There are pictures of cats and trees and well-structured sentimental poetry over there. It'll get ugly soon enough.

Orange Addendum :
I'm aware that there are ways - there must be ways - to post on one site (here?) and have the same entry to be entered at the other site. I think we're close, so close to something like this. Then, everyone can have everything. But the current available tools are not quite enough. And then there's the automatic redirect.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Four Moments in My Life When I Asked "What am I DOING with my life?" Part 4 of 4: The Valentine's Day Massacre of Misfortune

Don't forget to read parts 1 and 2 and part 3 of my woe-is-me whinefest. Now, in honor of Valentine's Day...:

February 14, 2009
Remember last year... last Valentine's Day? It fell on a Saturday, which means the day before was Friday the 13th. And as I wrote the other day, my cat Seymour had just passed away on the 11th last year. So, with this set up Valentine's Day 2009 wasn't shaping up to be one of the best.

Due to reasons I can no longer remember, I postponed a trip to Chicago planned for that weekend. I had planned to see my cousin Sharif and to forget about my status as a 40-ish single man on that most romantic of fake holidays, Valentine's Day.

Despite my postponing the Chicago trip for the second time (there would be three more postponements), my cousin, in a very helpful and empathic gesture, suggested I take a road trip up north, to San Francisco. That way, I could mourn Seymour among caring familiar people, while at the same time getting away from home. He arranged for me to stay with his friend Audrey.

I had done this before... take the long drive up the 5, spend the weekend socializing with Sharif's friends (which almost always meant watching lots and lots of TV because Audrey always sprang for the HBO AND the Showtime and really what else is there to do in San Francisco?), and then drive back on a Sunday night asking myself if I could have just done the same thing in L.A (the answer: "Yes but it wouldn't be as much fun.")

Then, on Friday the 13th, my car started acting up as I drove to work. The "check engine" light was on and it mysteriously stopped running while I waited at a stoplight. (Short aside to Honda: Your game is over. Your cars are so mechanically unreliable that any aesthetic superiority you may have once emitted is forgotten, locked in the vault of my (un)consciousness like my lost affinity for bands like Styx and Possum Dixon. I am never buying one of your crappy Honda crap-cars ever again.)

I got the car started again and took it to the reliable Mr. Yu down the street from where I work. He told me what was wrong and said he could fix it. I didn't really understand what he said but... as with everything involving the CR-V and Mr. Yu, it would be ready at 5:00 and it would cost me $260. Okay, that's $240 more than I could really afford but if I pick up the car by 5:00 and rush home to pack, I could make it to SF by car by midnight.

At 5:00, Mr. Yu gave me the bad news. The car would not be ready until 6:00. Also, the timing belt needed replacing very soon. I asked if an impromptu 800-mile round-trip drive starting tonight would be imprudent. He gave me the classic Mr. Yu look, indicating moral and mechanical superiority, silently emitting the message that I would be taking my life into my own hands. Did I mention it was raining hard? There was no way I could drive to San Francisco. I'd be spending Valentine's Day alone in my Hollywood apartment, staring at the misty rain with only the ghost of Seymour keeping me company.

(Yes, I know about Lily, my other cat. But she doesn't really keep me company so much as hide in closets and on top of laundry baskets, skitting away like a bunny when she hears approaching footsteps.)

There was one small detail I just mentioned that represents the most important part of the story. It's the one variable that sent Valentine's Day '09 up to the top of the Misfortune Chart. The car was not ready at 5:00. It would be ready at 6:00. What was I to do between 5 and 6? Well, it was dinner time and Yu's garage was just a block away from the college campus where I work. I was very close to the campus food court that housed the new branch of Wahoo's Fish Tacos. Yum. Wahoo's. That would make me happy.

Inexplicably, I ordered chicken - not fish. A quesadilla. I ate half of it right away and the rest of it in the car after picking up my car, as I braved the Friday night traffic home.

Chicken. Not fish.

Around midnight, as the 14th began, I began experiencing the stomach pains. I thought it was just excessive heartburn. But no it was worse. Was I finally paying for my lost KFC weekend-in-one-night in '91?

Yes, I was. The vomiting began in earnest, at 3:00 in the morning. In a way, it felt like that was it, there would be no more. But with food poisoning, there never is just one trip to the bathroom, crawling on all fours because standing just wasn't going to happen.

Before I finally fell asleep around 5:00am, I threw up two more times. I should have had the fish. After the final time, my head was clear and I could stand... and walk without dizziness. I got it all out of my system. Good.

The next thing I knew it was around noon and my phone was ringing. It was my mother. I told her about the food poisoning. She must have felt some sympathy because for only the second time in the three years I lived in Hollywood, she drove from the Inland Empire into the City to see me. Seymour's death wasn't enough to do it. But Seymour's death PLUS debilitating food poisoning did the trick.

Minutes after I got out of bed, ready to shower, the inside of my body struck again, purging itself of what was left in the stomach. That's GOT to be it. There could not be anything else in there.

Mom and I ran some errands. We went to Rite Aid and got medicine and saltines and Gatorade and light bulbs and everything I needed for the apartment. We went to the vet's office where she took care of what was left of Seymour's vet bill ($822 and you couldn't even save him? No - you give ME $822.) Eventually, she drove back to La Verne and I decided my system had stabilized itself, that I was better.

By 9:00pm, it had been nine hours since the last episode. I had successfully consumed saltines, bagels, fruit, and Sprite. I was feeling better. Physically, if not psychologically. The parade of sympathetic Happy Valentine's Day Sorry About Seymour texts from ex-girlfriends, non-girlfriends, and the ex-wife was in full swing. Laurel checked in from Minnesota, Alex from Long Beach, Michelle from some restaurant on the west side, the one whose name starts with a J wrote from a few miles away, someone else texted from the Central time zone, and I think there may have been one other one from Long Beach.

My memory may be playing tricks on me. The texts may not have all come at once; it just seemed that way. And it was very nice of all of them (you?) to think of me. But the sheer magnitude of all the stuff that had happened in the past few days got to me. The medicine may have played a role too. I began to feel dizzy. I slumped on the couch and tried to lose myself in a movie (The Break-Up with Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn), only to find myself feeling my stomach stir again. Oh no. Not again.

All those other times, I could make it to the bathroom. Not this time. I dropped my body to the (hardwood) floor and tried to roll myself to the bathroom. I only made it a few feet when I vomited something that was 90% Sprite and 10% other stuff. All over my living room floor.

I just stayed there all curled up, not in an attempt to get fetal but to avoid the pools of body detritus that lay on the floor from inching toward me. Finally, after what seemed like an hour but was only a few minutes, I felt strong enough to crawl (yes, crawl) toward the kitchen where I could get some paper towels with which to clean this mess. No paper towels. Then, I crawled to the bathroom where there may be some left over paper towels and, if not, I could use one of my rejected towels (i.e., the towels that I was in the process of retiring.)
Most of the towels I owned at that time were in the washer - wet, waiting for the dryer. In the bathroom, I realized that there were no more paper towels and the rejected towels I had used to clean up the mess from that morning had been thrown away. I had nothing with which to clean the living room floor.

Don't get me started on mops. They weren't an option. That's all I'll say.

Did I mention that my mom and I bought everything I needed for the apartment that day? Except we forgot paper towels.

Well, I did have one thing I could use. Toilet paper. And that's what I used. Two full rolls did the trick. The floor was eventually clean. But let me stress something: When you find yourself unable to stand, writhing in pain, stuck on a cold wood floor on a rainy Saturday Valentine's Night, cleaning up bile and vomit with massive amounts of toilet paper, you find yourself at a low moment in your life.

So, to sum things up and to end this sad sad story: Broken car, canceled trip, chicken again, food poisoning, throwing up, death of favorite creature ever, soiled towels, The Break-Up, sympathy texts from the exes, and cleaning up vomit with toilet paper: What am I doing with my life?

Purple postscript: I spent the following day - Sunday - in bed all day, watching movies and slowly starting to feel better. Monday was a holiday from work (great timing - I spent the entire three-day weekend sick, all from food I ate at my workplace.) But I felt good enough to leave my apartment, thanks to a helpful visit from Alex. She took me out to lunch and I successfully kept all of my food in. I hung out a bit at home that Monday evening before realizing the overwhelming suckiness that the weekend represented. I had to get out. Even if it meant driving around in the rain (pouring rain!). I had to get out on my own. I dressed warmly, gathered my umbrella and backpack-with-laptop and strode defiantly toward my car, which had not been driven since Friday night. As I approached the car, I senses something wrong. My driver's side front tire was completely utterly totally FLAT.

But, as I mentioned, I strode defiantly. Fuck it. I'm not letting this flat tire stop me. What did I do? Did I change the tire, employing the full-size spare strapped manfully to the back of the CR-V. No. I just started the car and drove.... my rims rolling on the wet asphalt all the way to the 76 station three blocks away. I pumped my tire full of air. I drove to Peet's for coffee and thinking and reading. I drove home, believing I had stared Satan in the face and emerged victorious, that I had reached the nadir of low points. And maybe I did.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Today is the one-year anniversary of the death of my cat Seymour. I've assigned the event to February 11 though it may have been the 12th. I do know the last time I saw him was on the evening of the 11th when I visited the vet's office and spent a little time with him. He had been having kidney and stomach problems and lost more than 20% of his body weight, going from a jolly 19 pounds to a stocky 14.5 in just a few days. I knew the prognosis was not good. His body was mostly rejecting the IV fluids. Sadly, for animals, kidney problems don't go away and often have no solution. This was especially true for a 16-year old cat. 

Still, I had hope on the 11th. The vet's assistant brought me to a clean white room with a bunch of average-sized and large cages, most of which were empty. Seymour was the only creature in his section, on the near right side of the room. They gave him one of the large cages. The cage door was opened for me and I got to interact with him for a short time. Careful not to dislodge the IV tube in his wrist, I gently petted him and he gave me a sweet but distant look. He appeared exhausted and just too skinny. When I rubbed his belly even more gently, his eyes came to life and I felt him purr for a moment. When I rubbed the back of his head, he looked genuinely at peace. He closed his eyes. If this was the last time he saw me, I wanted him to remember peace and comfort. I kept my hand there for a moment as he kept his eyes closed. I then pulled away slowly, closing the door carefully as I hoped he'd drift into sleep. As he lay there with his head on a towel and a clear tube feeding liquids through his white fur, I didn't want to leave him. But when he half-opened and glanced at me for a second, I just whispered goodbye and walked away. He didn't want me to see him suffer. And he didn't want him to see me cry.
The veterinarian that had been treating Seymour called early the next morning. He said Seymour passed away in the night, that his body kept rejecting the fluid, that his kidney just wasn't working, that 16 years is a long life for a cat. I never asked for a time of death so I've chosen to assume that it happened before midnight, thus ensuring that his pain didn't extend to February 12.

I expect that the anniversary of Seymour's death may one day pass without notice, on my part. I remember after my father died in 1995, I feared that as I approached his April birthday or the June anniversary of his death, it would all hit me hard, months of pent up emotions spilling out of me. But that didn't really happen. First of all, time changes everything. mourning evolves into merely remembering. Eventually, the days passed with little notice. That hasn't happened with Seymour's death. The emotions weren't really stuck inside me over that time. We live with our important losses in our everyday lives. We can't hide them.

We expect the death of a loved one to crush and devastate us but we're resilient. We go to work. We go to sleep. We have dinner with old friends and cousins and, when we go through entire days without bringing up the missing ones, we think we're okay. But the loss is recognizable, to those around us. So, if I haven't been myself these past 12 months - and it's true, I have not - I apologize.

Over the weekend, I was talking with a friend about what it means when someone (a man, usually) loves something (his record collection, a sports team, etc.) too much, to the detriment of his ability to actually love someone (another person). My friend and I were listening to a radio interview of an author whose novel featured a character obsessed with the "soundtrack of his life" - the songs that impacted him at particular times in his life. For this character, the obsession manifested itself in such a way that he became an overzealous collector of the physical manifestations of the songs (records, ticket stubs, cassettes, liner notes, etc.). Each object, the author and his interviewer argued, took him farther away from the thing he should have been "collecting" - actual human contact. Or actual life experience. 

One could argue that each object took the book's character away from the song itself, that his relationship with its sound and words and melody was the true human life experience and the rest was all just packaging. In The 40 Year-Old Virgin (a film that touched me deeply), the main character collects superhero action figures in their original boxes. It is not until he gets rid of his "toy collection" that he is able to break out of his isolation and become a (non-virginal) man. I'm simplifying what happened but I think it was the film's one mistake. There was no need for Steve Carell to sell his dolls. His was too smart of a character to live a life where action figures replace human contact. All he needed was to connect with the right person and, though she was the one who convinced him to get rid of his toys, Catherine Keener was the right person. (When is Catherine Keener not the right person?)

How does this all relate to Seymour? The radio interview I cite above reminded me of another film, High Fidelity. A major theme running through the movie and the book its based on is that of a man in love with his music more than his girlfriend. One scene, seemingly played for laughs but truly meaningful, features that man - John Cusack's character - trying to resolve a conflict between two other music-obsessed men, played by Jack Black and that one guy who looks like Moby. 

Black's character enters the record store where all three of them work, eager to play his new mix tape. He hears the song that's playing - Seymour Stein by Belle and Sebastian - and is enraged. He doesn't need this sad mopey maudlin pop. He turns off the music, replacing it with a song that, mathematically, is Seymour Stein's opposite, Walking on Sunshine by Katrina and the Waves. Then Jack Black dances maniacally, the Moby guy mopes, and Cusack calms everyone down and tries to resolve the conflict. In a lesser film, this would be the moment when Cusack realizes just how over the top his own music obsessions are. But this was a good film based on a great book and the main character's distance from his girlfriend was about a lot more than music. He had some other life inventory to complete, before coming to terms with love.
Let's go back to Seymour Stein, the much maligned Belle & Sebastian song that I feel ranks as one of the greatest ever. Ostensibly, it's about a couple of members of the Scottish band having a meal in America with Seymour Stein, the legendary record executive, sung from the perspective of one of the other band members who couldn't make it to dinner. The song is written as if he is singing to Stein himself. But running through the song is a heartbreaking longing for a lost innocence, an innocence lost the moment the band started having meals with record executives. The band (in song and in real life) never signed with Stein's label, Sire, They went with Matador. Still, the song became a symbol for the band and their transformation (I'm exaggerating here)  from cuddly indie-rock darlings to distant, stilted superstars writing songs about being famous. People - even their fans - hated that song. It was one of the band's songs written by the band's "secondary" songwriter/vocalist Stevie Jackson, the guy who's not Stuart Murdoch. I love Murdoch's songs but I've always felt that Jackson - who writes about two songs per album - is underrated and underutilized as a writer. If, at a Belle & Sebastian show, a fan yells out for Seymour Stein, he/she is likely to be beaten senseless by a gang of lanky wool-scarved bespectacled men, all of them former baristas well-versed in the more obscure of the martial arts.

But this was not a song about Scottish sellouts. The look on the face of (the guy who looks like) Moby in that scene when Jack Black violently interrupted Seymour Stein was one of shock and heartbreak. He loved that song and suddenly he's powerless to play it again. That song's hypnotic graces got to him. I don't know why he loved that song but I know why I loved it. I sang it to my cat all the time. When I came home from work and saw him run like a fat jaguar to the door, I crooned "Seymour Stein, I've been lonely." On those mornings when I'd wake up and feel particularly down and I'd find Seams still sleeping on my feet, I'd sing "Seymour, send her back to me." 

I knew I'd be writing something today that would attempt to tie together Seymour's death, High Fidelity, and the song Seymour Stein. The 40 Year-Old Virgin part was unexpected. But I truly didn't know where it would take me. I've told people that Seymour was "my favorite creature ever - human or non-human." So, during his 16 years, was it possible that I was giving him too much of my love, to the detriment of others - humans - who deserved love (family members, girlfriends, myself)? Or could it be that the love I felt for Seymour was just a substitute for the love I felt for my similarly named dad who died two years after Seymour was born. No, love is not zero-sum. Love can be infinite. I can love them both. Seymour is not my father, just as he is not the action figure or the long lost b-side needed to complete my collection (e.g., Lifter Puller's Bitchy Christmas or Prefab Sprout's Radio Love (on vinyl)). Seymour was a cat I loved and still love. The love was real and the sadness hasn't gone away.

And I haven't remembered that quite well enough. In the past 12 months, I've retreated into a greater sense of solitude, content to let friendships or other kinds of connections just fade away because it's just easier that way, because I won't be devastated again by one sudden movement and one early morning phone call. I'm filled with great ideas. I love ideas. I share the ideas. I start the work on these ideas. But I never finish. Through it all, I feel like I am too delicately getting by in life, that I walk away from what's difficult because to not to do so would be catastrophic (not a pun).

I talk a lot. I write often. But I have too many notebooks with writing on the first few pages and nothing on the next 80 pages. I have too many conversations that devolve into monologues. I have no shortage of thoughts. But I do feel a shortage of love, both given and received. I have an idea where some of it went. It went away with Seymour and with Samir, 14 years earlier. I just need to remember what I said moments ago: love is infinite, that the disappeared love is different in nature from the love that could be waiting for me around any corner.

Seymour, this one is for you:

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Sunday Morning Forced (Failed) Metaphor #1: Egyptian Reggae vs. Swedish Reggae

(First of all - YES, I did write a blog entry this morning at 4:30, one that is far more personal, provocative, and self-revealing (or what passes for it here) than my typical posts. Your question is likely - Ali, were you still awake from Saturday or just up early on Sunday? Neither. I was in between two 180-minute sleep sessions. Second of all - YES, I did push that entry's prominent top-of-page position down below that of my first entry in the SMF(F)M entry. Finally - my Super Bowl pick? New Orleans... nothing but New Orleans 34-17.)

In 1977, Bostonian / future desert hobo / troubador / icon Jonathan Richman released a song called Egyptian Reggae. Though not a fan (nor a detractor) of reggae, I acknowledge this song's genius. This is Egyptian reggae. It sounds exactly like what you would want it to sound like. No need to try to top it. And no one has. 

In 1990, Finnish ethno-folk-jazz collective Piirpauke released a song called Swedish Reggae. Like Sweden and Finland in all wars, I am neutral regarding whether this song achieved Swedish reggae-ness. But really - can we trust the Finns to capture what Swedish reggae is all about? Those dudes are practically Russian.

I was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and an Egyptian father. The family as a whole was really more Egyptian than Swedish, Dad's homeland entering our psyches more often and comprising a greater chunk of the family sensibility. As with the nationalities, Egyptian Reggae is the more well-known, more readily available song. In fact, I didn't hear Swedish Reggae until earlier today after reading that Pavement singer Steven Malkmus wanted to name his first post-Pavement-breakup solo album Swedish Reggae, a fact which caused me a disturbingly large amount of glee. In the end, the album was self-titled. Malmkus chose no title at all over Swedish Reggae. (And Pavement has reunited!)

So, if Egypt and Sweden played against each other in World Cup Reggae Soccer (stay with me here), the final score would be Egypt 2, Sweden 1, the swarthy husky moody brooders garnering both their goals in the first half and then employing tight Gaza-level defense the rest of the way, never allowing the pressure to drop. The lanky tousle-haired Scandi-boys do score a too-little, too-late goal in the 88th minute, when the Mediterraneans begin celebrating too soon by singing One Love while facing east.

On how many levels did I fail, metaphorically? I'm going with six.

The Six. The One. The Three (alternate title: Postmarked: Precious Metals)

That was a strange day, a lovely day.

It begin in bed. I woke up. Later than planned. MUCH later than planned. I needed the rest and I need more. Just like I needed the unrest.

Then, off to the City of Orange. It seems like I'm always there, in the Circle - a place many many miles from home but a place that important people in my life seem to find themselves near. So I get invited to lunch. Or I invite someone to dinner. And we go to the one place or the other. Today, it was the other. This makes four trips to this one restaurant - all in the last 18 months.

In time, all time, one time, it was at night and things were calm. The second time, she was going to be moving away soon. The third time, things seemed peaceful for one hour. Today, I saw old friends and I'm glad I did. May have made new ones too.

I was exhausted when I entered the restaurant. My head has been in a funk some days, in a ruckus others. Today felt muddy before lunch. I had every reason to doubt and then every reason to believe that doubt. Memories rushed me, in one ear and never leaving. I saw her face. And then hers. I recognized his and the other hers. I was introduced to one more his. They saved a seat for me. I saw her face but I couldn't quite believe. 

After lunch we strolled. We walked into stores where sudden movements could cause art to fall. Nothing fell. We talked about languages and cities. We reminisced on missed weddings, kept weddings, gun laws, and things kids know.

I remember in the early 90s I had to convince myself that feelings I had weren't real. It was easier that way because the ones I had feelings for weren't there or weren't available. You could call it a coping technique or you could call it essential to survival.

No, there wasn't just one feeling, nor was there just one unavailable heart. Take last night (another story for a quieter night) for example - she had a smile in her step and a skip to her face. Puddles had no chance at slowing her.

So I entered the restaurant. It was obviously them. Haley, I hadn't seen for 18 years. Impossibly, she looked younger, truer, more alive and beautiful today than... than what, who knows? It was clear that she's spent 18 years living a rich life, a real life, an unexpected one.... not an easy life but none are. She is also aging in reverse, or youthening if that's a word.

When I saw what I saw, my instinct was an old one, a shy one. When I saw Haley, I pretended to believe that it couldn't be her, that this wasn't real. They must be in another part of the restaurant. But look there -  there was Tinka across the table - it had only been a few months since I had seen her and I knew there was no way around the fact that this was the place. This was the table. There was no pretending that two of the most important people in my life were sitting at this table for seven, in the front room, left of the center, a half-block from the circle

In other words, I arrived (late, yeah). I saw them. I looked away; this must not be the place or the part of the place. I'm shy, you see. But not that shy. I glanced back quickly and then I felt what love felt like.

Later, earlier tonight, I drove past the old apartment building in Brea. I was in town, nearby... after the sun set and before the rain set in. I was surprised to see that La Casa Brea had a security gate for the parking area off of Laurel Avenue. I drove to the Date Street side and tried to figure out which balcony, which window belonged to the two of us - John and me - when we lived there. Or the three of us - add Tinka because she spoke loudest (a compliment). Or make that the four of us - add Matt because he was there more often than... than everyone but the first three.

Or, and I say this with the purest of hearts, the five of us - Haley once knocked on the front door on a Saturday night in March, 1989. I don't remember why she knocked. The party - I believe this was the first one, of two - had not yet started. She may have arrived early and yes she could have just come through the door, knockless and wearing white and black and red (what I remember). I opened the door. We shared a non-conspiratorial look and what happened next... or later...or up to discussion. In fact, we discussed it this afternoon at the table. To answer your question, no we did not. But hearts were affected and poems - or at least verses - written. Back to 21 years ago. She knocked on the door. I opened the door. There were chips and pretzels and beer and three of us walked to the liquor store on Imperial Highway, for something fruity but menacing.

Jim is the sixth. But really he's the first. He set it all in motion and he waits in Seattle for his own next great entrance.

I could be clever and create a hexagon. Or two triangles that don't cross. They can cross but they won't. Or three straight lines, each with two points (different shapes on each point; but inside each shape is a face and each pair of faces smile at the same time).

Which pairs of faces belong to each other? The easy answer is six times five equals thirty divided by two equals fifteen. But we were in pairs a lot back then and we know who we are, who we were with. And being that no one else but the six of us will have read this far down this self-indulgent page, I'll consider my question fully answered.

It's the second balcony, yes that's the one. We never went outside on those March Saturday nights. We never approached the balcony. Window-wise, it's the third one

We went our separate ways. I kept coming back, over and over. Katinka never left. Matt traversed oceans. Jim is in the city of pockets. John is happy... must be happy if we hear his silence. Haley lives in her own strength. 

Ali doesn't know but he's happy nonetheless. His past came back in big storms of wild wet rain, settling in messy asphalt puddles. He's writing the book. About the girl who mailed the letter. He's the third person. There are six of us. In time, there will be five then four then 3-2-1-0. Until then, there are risks to take, risks not yet enumerated. Until then, there are surprises manifesting themselves through the openness.

It drizzled as the three of us walked back to our cars. The two I was with were not among the two that were among the six I had known. They were new. They were good. I had said goodbye to Katinka and Haley at the height of the rain, minutes earlier. I said goodbye to the others as the rain stopped. I hit the 22 West as the clouds parted and the sun fell hard on the February trapper-keepers.

Friday, February 05, 2010

"And the Stars Fell Over Michigan: A Parallel History, Courtesy of Mango Mush: The Top 7 Songs of the Past Decade That Did Not Appear on the BpB Top 100, Part 1 of 1: #7 to #1

Given that it took nearly three months to compile my top 100 songs of the '00s, you'd think that no song would elude my radar. I put so much thought into that list (there are Excel spreadsheets!) and you have to admit it's the best list I've ever written (emphasis on 'written' as opposed to 'list.") But I did forget a few songs here and there. In other cases, I underrated or overrated certain songs. And then there are the songs I had never heard until 2010.

Actually, forgetting songs isn't that bad - there were about 30 trillion songs written/performed/recorded during the decade. No one is perfect. Not even me. Well I was perfect once. It was the mid-nineties. I took the GRE test before applying for grad school. My score on the since-discontinued Analytical portion? A perfect 800. God, I loved that standardized test with limited predictive validity.

But I didn't want to edit my existing list. I will let it stand on it own, its all-over-the-place but not-that-many-places quirkiness a monument to that part of my being that feels the music. There is only one Blueprint Blue song list.

But, back in the early days of this blog when my first and last name appeared in the URL (not a good move, professionally), it wasn't always called BpB. It was known by various names and one of my favorite incarnations was when it was briefly (very briefly) called Mango Mush, after a period when it was The Mango (which was supposed to sound like The Onion but tastier and fruitier... but people assumed that it was some kind of reference to the Saturday Night Live character Mango played by Chris Kattan. No!)

So, how about if I call this untimely fake list the Mango Mush Best Songs of the Decade. Becuase I am finishing this up in one entry (this is what's known in the industry as "filler"), we're only going through a limited number of songs. A top 10 list would be customary. But Mango Mush was an outsider blog. Mango Mush broke the rules. Mango Mush says "Rules??? What does that word even mean? Me want to write only about 7 songs as a way to pay tribute to that period of time back in the day when it always seemed that track 7 was always the best song on any CD... back when we had CDs." Which leads us to 

Mango Mush Presents:
The Top 7 Songs of the Past Decade That Did Not Appear on BpB Top 100

7. Good Fortune - PJ Harvey (2000)
Last week I stopped by the face recognition / family tree website They have a feature where you can upload your photo and they return a list of celebrities who supposedly look like you. First on the list for me? PJ Harvey. 

Now, the obvious response is "Ali, you're a guy; she's a girl." But look at her. Look closely. Holy crap, it's my doppelganger. No need to wonder what I'd look like with long messy dark hair and an inability to hold the weight of my own head. 

If I had a sister who was a brunette, she'd look like PJ Harvey. But I do not have a ... wait, yes I do indeed have a brunette sister and she looks nothing like PJ Harvey. Rather, she resembles Sandra Bullock mixed with Rico's wife from Six Feet Under.

Anyway, great album. And Good Fortune is a great song. Okay, time to post a link and move on to the next song. But wait. STOP.

(talking to myself... Ali, didn't you once write a poem about your dislike of PJ Harvey? You titled it My PJ Harvey Problem. You recently posted it on your under-read poetry site.)

Yes. I did. But that was the 90s. The 90s were over when the album with the #7 song was released.

6. Little Bird - Jazzanova featuring Jose James (2008)
It took guts for me to type the word "Jazzanova" on this list. Because that's a truly wretched band name. One of the worst ever, right up there with Infected Mushroom and Cowboy Junkies. But Jazzanova, though talented and resourceful, earnest and skillful, are not the story here. No, it's Jose James' awesome soaring vocal performance that I would say stands alone among that of all jazz singers of the decade if I listened to enough jazz to make such a statement. I did not listen to enough jazz to make such a statement. Besides, jazz? Who has the time? The new Jose James album comes out Tuesday. This is my (your) last chance to say you (I) heard of him before most everyone else did.

Little Bird is an example of a song I never heard until the decade was over. Number 5 is another one.

5. PS Exclusive - Life Without Buildings (2001)
World, I think we've found our female Craig Finn. Wait a second... you mean Life Without Buildings lead vocalist Sue Tompkins has retired from music after one album, that she wants to paint? Damn. Well, she had a good run as the best female talk-singer of her generation, an honor I bestow on her based on just this one song. Here it is. Enjoy PS Exclusive from 2001. Which I did not hear until 2010 (an acronym for 2001). I want to court and coddle her down solely for the way she says "exclusively." Not "exclusive" but "exclusively."

4. Singing Joy to the World - Fruit Bats (2009)
Don't manipulate me, Fruit Bats! Don't toy with my pop culture-focused suburban-upbringing-informed emotional reservoir. Eric Johnson, you cannot write a song like this and not expect me to almost practically nearly cry when you sing "She didn't love him back. It wasn't even close." But I smile (as does the guy in the song) when I picture her dancing to I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man at the Michigan bar. Which brings up a question: In this song, there are separate references to a cantina, a Mexican restaurant, and a bar. A Mexican restaurant is  sometimes called a "cantina" especially when it's marketed by non-Mexicans. And cantinas pretty much all have bars. So: are the cantina, restaurant, and bar three separate places? One place? Two places?

We can rule out three places with a careful reread of the opening lines:
He got lonely every time the cantina lights came up on the Indian Casino Queen
'Cause he'd loved her from the time she'd been the waitress at the Mexican place where he'd left his keys
(Note to me: Try the "losing my keys" trick some time.) So then she's dancing at "the bar" where they play the Prince song... the bar might be connected to the cantina but probably not the Mexican place, it nearly being on the wrong side of town (my theory). No those are three different places and then there's the fairgrounds and the parking lot at 3AM. But what is the parking lot for? The bar? The cantina? Perhaps a hacienda-style bistro? And if you can't follow me, it's okay. Just keep reading, keep listening. We're not going anywhere.

If you have 40 minutes to spare, listen to their amazing live performance on KCRW last week. Unlike all other bands save pre-Chicago Poi Dog Pondering, they sound even better than on the album. Video and audio of their radio thing here. Or just enjoy the track here

3. Space Humping $19.99 - Lifter Puller (2000)
Yeah how do I leave this off the list? I mean, these guys put out 15 songs on the 2000s and another 60 or so in the 1990s. I could have put all 15 songs on the top 100 list, along with 13 by The Hold Steady.  Those songs are that good. But I only placed 9 songs on the 100 (4 by LP, 5 by THS).  

And get this - I think Fiestas + Fiascos, their legendary 2000 album could have been BETTER. It's too short... some of the song ideas aren't as fully realized as on The Entertainment and Arts EP or the masterful singles from 2000 and 2001 (see number ONE on my top 100). But Space Humping? Awesome. 
What do you think his girl wants? 

"I love some funky drums and I hate some chunky drummers." Hey! One of my best friends is a chunky drummer!

I can't find a link to a video or a streaming track but this link will give you the song. Yeah it's free but be a sport and buy one one these LFTR PLLR hoodies. (I wear an XL hoodie but an L T-shirt btw.)  

2. Table For One - Liz Phair (2005)
Because she's Liz and she needs to be positively coaxed and and consistently encouraged to PUT OUT NEW SONGS. That's why I chose this song. Please, Elizabeth. Please.

But this isn't a charity pick. Damn this song makes me shiver from sadness. Damn this song makes me want to never feel what the narrator feels (felt): "I want to die alone with my sympathy beside me." Holy crap. That's not what we use sympathy for. Until we can't get it anywhere else. You nailed it Liz. You still got it. If you've got writer's block, I can help. I write poems too. You can make those poems sing! I heard you live in Manhattan Beach. I'll meet you at that one bar on that one corner. Oh and - let's never forget the greatest letter to the editor of this decade. Bitter? Yeah. Defensive? A little. Awesome and timeless? Yes. Oh, yeah: a song:

1. Myopic Books - American Music Club (2004)
I discussed my reasons for putting Mark Eitzel and AMC at #3 for Long, Long Walk, even after weeks of speculation that it would be #1. Well, I inexcusably forgot to include Myopic Books off their 2004 comeback Love Songs For Patriots. Let's run down the awesomeness:
  -Named after the actual Myopic Books in Chicago, yet I didn't know this after deciding I        loved this song. I had been to Myopic Books years earlier. I just didn't know its name then.
  -It's a song about a bookstore.
  -This verse
I'll find a bookstore and buy Saul Bellow
and one about old ruins
for my mother you never met her 
she liked Manhattan
they taste like mouthwash
she understood how to be alone
all alone
all alone
Look closely. She liked (past tense) Manhattans - meaning she's dead or she doesn't drink anymore (which to Mark might mean she's dead). They taste (present tense) like Manhattans. Hey just because she's dead doesn't mean her son hasn't tried them... doesn't mean they taste somehow different now. Nope, they still taste like mouthwash. She understood (past tense) how to be alone. Uh oh, she's not coming back. That's an understanding you never lose if you're lucky enough to get it. If it's past tense, she's no longer with us. Oh and Mark - if you're reading this - your best vocal ever.

And here's a great video of Mark Eitzel singing the song solo in the KCRW studios and KCRW, ikely marking the only moment in KCRW history when they bothered playing Eitzel or AMC, creators of some of the greatest songs ever and here I could give you a list of all the artists they do play who don't deserve the airplay but that would be petty and different people have different tastes and why would I use this forum - an opportunity to praise one band and singer - to complain about Damien Rice and the Gainsbourgs and Kinky and William Orbit and.... come one, influential radio station just play them once Play THIS song: