Hell on Wheels (tf)

•May 15, 2012 • 2 Comments

Generally I carry on about weightier topics. But I’m feeling less pretentious today. And quite a bit aggravated by one of life’s little chores that can turn hellish with the pull of a rope. I’m speaking of course about cutting the grass…which seems a simple little task, and is actually if you have a device for cutting it that actually, you know…..works.

Since the cutting grass season has started I’ve gone through the following…

1. Four year old mower. Died multiple times. Always paid a guy to “fix” it, which worked out better for him than me because the “fix” would only last about 2 weeks. So I decided, much like throwing money into an old car, that it wasn’t worth it anymore. Besides, I had a free alternative.

2. My Mom’s mower. Mom is 84 and a neighbor cuts her grass for her, so she had no need for her machine. I gladly took it off her hands. First time I used it I realized that even though it’s “self-propelled”, that bit doesn’t work anymore. It’s amazing how lazy we’ve gotten, reluctant to even push a thing that has wheels on it without substantial help. But still, I’ve got hills and stuff, and this was a huge pain in the ass. But at least it worked. So I sweated through it, happy at least it wasn’t costing me anything other than wet clothes and curses. Until it started to make really funny noises one day….and nearly caught on fire. Dead. The most dead lawnmower I’d ever seen. You didn’t even have to try to start it to know that it had taken its last breath. I rolled it to the curb and waited for some fool to drive by and pick it up. It took all of 30 minutes. I hope it didn’t end up killing the guy. But…not my problem anymore.

3. Lowes here I come. This is a bad match. Me and Lowes. There is nobody who knows less about the stuff in Lowes than I. I stand in the middle of the store and become paralyzed. It’s like being dumped in a strange land where nobody speaks English anymore. I’m not interesting in “fixing up” anything. I don’t want to “build” anything. My brain is simply not wired this way. Put a screwdriver in my hand and I need to ask which way to tighten. Every time. Eventually, I stumble on a wall of wildly priced lawnmowers. I do what I always do, which is buy the cheapest one that has a name I recognize. The name escapes me now. I get it home. I put it together. And it won’t start. The pull cord? Won’t let you pull it. Seems perverse to have such a thing….but if it’s gonna happen it’s gonna happen to me. So I load it back up and bring it back. Guy says “what’s wrong with it?” I say, “can’t pull the cord”. He says, “that’s ’cause you didn’t put it together right. See…”…he then proceeds to disassemble and reassemble the thing while I’m standing in line. Before he’s done showing off his manly skills, I’ve had enough. “I don’t care. I don’t want it anyway”. He’s genuinely taken aback. “You don’t want it?” “No, I don’t want it. If I’m too dumb to put it together, I sure as hell ain’t gonna be able to use it.” And so that’s that. Poor slob. He looked at me like I was an escapee from a mental ward. Show me up will you? Screw you, I’m heading to Home Depot. Which brings us to…

4. This one was $100 more….but said “no assembly required”. Worth it. Got it home. Started right up. Only problem? Blade wasn’t turning. I thought that was the point? Was near tears at this point. Looked at the directions for the first time. Turns out there were a few steps to take. I missed one of then. The one numbered “1”. Hooking up some wire or another. Live and learn I guess. So after about an hour I was sailing through the high grass like a hot knife through butter. But still, why did I feel the ever-present sword of Damocles over my head? Ah yes, now I know. The second time I used it, while halfway through my backyard….it stopped. Gas? Plenty. Oil? Yep. Pull cord? Well, you know the rest. I nearly ripped the arm out of my socket. Cord would not budge. I stop outside staring at it for a long time. Then it started to rain.

I went inside and googled the make and model and “pull cord won’t pull” and found about 5000 other saps with the same problem. The solution? Well, there was many things to try, and I tried them all, but in the end the one that kept getting the most play was “return it”. So I did. Guy said “what’s wrong with it?” I said, “can’t start it…cord is stuck”. Here it comes. But no, he just said “well that’s odd” (“not really” I wanted to say…based on my online research) and took it off my credit card. I said, “I want another one”. He says, “the same kind?” I say, “yea, I figure it can’t happen twice.”

Yes, number 5. Five.

So I look for help to get it off the shelf. Guy I find makes me go outside and find a wheelie cart, then when I do he tells me all about his bad back…so I end up lifting the thing and nearly killing myself while he stands there and supervises. I get it out to my car and ask the first guy I see who looks stronger than me (took about 2 seconds…a customer, not an employee mind you) to help get it in the back-seat. He says sure and I’m all set. Lawnmower number five. Got it home…remembered step one this time, and was all ready to go when the skies opened up and it started pissing down rain. That was yesterday. It’s been raining ever since, so I haven’t had a chance to break this one yet.

I’ll keep you posted.

–Tom Flannery

Doing the Right Thing (tf)

•May 7, 2012 • 1 Comment

Sometimes you need to just catch your breath. Life comes at you pretty fast….and we’re not all Ferris Bueller. I want to miss most of it if possible. Tell me when to duck. Tell me when it’s safe to be bored again. I adore being bored. There’s so much opportunity therein.

And doing the right thing is not always not easy, it’s a downright nuisance at times. Sometimes I’d prefer to have my own kind of fun. Watch a Phillies game with the sound on mute and a Band CD playing. Or read a book about a guy who decides to live in Juarez for a year, just because he heard it was the most dangerous place on earth. Or to just sleep in. All preferable to….you know….most stuff.

With age comes lots of things. Not many of them are any good. Responsibility for one. A dreadful thing when the seas start to get rough.

Not that I don’t at least try to measure up. It’s just that when I see the quiet grace with which others handle all sorts of bad things, I kinda hang my head. I might “handle” things….technically….but I’ll end up putting all sorts of dents and dings in the walls, like an underpaid, overworked, furniture mover. It can get kinda messy. Going through the brick wall, despite the mess…..is still quicker than going around you know.

I tell this to people and they look at me all funny like.

Age is supposed to be synonymous with wisdom. But I’ve met plenty of dumb old people so I don’t think that’s true. The one thing in common will all old dumb people is that they were all, without exception, young dumb people at one time. Age can mean wisdom if your IQ is sufficient to begin with. But saying that at 46 I’m twice as smart as I was at 23 is like saying that at 46 I’m twice as ugly as I was at 23. Truth is I looked kinda goofy at 23. Bad glasses and a Bono-mullet. I’ve aged somewhat gracefully since then.

But I digress. We were speaking of increased responsibility, no?

I think one of the reasons lots of guys my age act like adolescents is because it brings with it, at least until the booze or the chemicals wear off, a sense of irresponsibility that is, let’s be honest, somewhat irresistible. If I pretend to be forever 17, the drudgery of being 46 no longer exists. It’s quite a leap in logic but it can be achieved via the correct mix of substance abuse.

But it never lasts long enough, which is why I gave up on it some time ago. Now I just read lots of books and wait for the other shoe to drop.

Which is has been doing lately. With the regularity of a man pacing his own floor.

But still, the right thing beckons, as does the pesky conscience when the “right” thing can be avoided by so many little things that comes so naturally…..like not picking up the phone.

I’m not perfect. I’m actually embarrassingly far away from being even in the same zip code. I am, I feel, astoundingly average when it comes to these things, which makes me feel….well….sorta ambivalent about becoming reliant on others as I age even more. But still, the glass can be half full, or half empty.

At least it’s not dry.

–Tom Flannery

Monday Monday, Washday Washday (ms)

•April 30, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I like predictability in life, at least to some extent. There is always room for the excitement of a new find, a new way of doing something, an “Ah Ha” moment and they are all welcome provided they come at the right time. The “Ah Ha” moments that bounce me out of bed at night, I can do without those. Knowing that something is going to be where you expect it to be has its rewards; it’s comforting I think and much less stressful — it also helps to define life.

Somebody uploaded an image of a ringer washer to Face Book the other day and when I saw it my mind started to wander not that it takes much to get it moving. The old washer pictured in that photo made me remember washday, which always occurred on Monday. I don’t know why that was so beyond the fact that the rest of the week already had designated days for cleaning, baking and such and Monday was the only one open.

At any rate it was quite the project compared to these days. There is still ironing to do of course but the machines are essentially set and forget, they even signal you when they’re finished. The old ringer washer was nowhere near as convenient.

The system involved the washer and two tubs each with clean water. The machine washed a load, the ringer was brought around and the clean clothes put through it dropping into the first tub to be rinsed and pushed through the ringer again into the second tub. There was one more trip through the ringer into a clothes basket before they were ready to go out on the line.

The first load of clothes was always the white stuff for the water needed to be at its cleanest. See, the machine was not automatic and so to avoid emptying and refilling it a half dozen times the system called for progressively dirty clothing to go through. By the time the kitchen carpets were done the water was so dirty you could have planted a garden in it. In the beginning, though, were the whites, the brilliant flags that hung on the line signaling another washday.

The whites on the line were truly a sight to see especially if it was the day for sheets. The huge squares of white waving and flapping in the breeze were so bright that one had to squint when near them. The clothes that came out later were hung to the rear of the whites just because that’s how it worked out but I thought also that the lady of the house did not want to detract from the glory of the sheets. They would allow her family to rest in comfort surrounded by the fine scent of line-dried clothing and there is pride in knowing that important job has been done well. One could not bask in the glories for too long, however; Tuesday, as I recall, was the day to iron.

—Mike Stevens


•April 29, 2012 • 1 Comment

Despite my best efforts our home has not physically grown. Oh we’ve kept up with the inside just fine, done some work in the yard too but so far as the building itself, nothing much has changed. My wife is to blame for this of course for she is always quick to point out the modest income that streams into our bank and from there to various companies with their hands out waiting for the payment register to ring. Kaching. They’re happy; we’re still in the same house.

It isn’t all bad for a small home has its benefits: lower taxes, smaller heating bills, less to clean, difficult to get lost in, grandkids learn the place quickly and there are fewer places for them to hide. Still, there has always been a desire in me to knock out some walls and build an addition to our humble castle. This likely will never happen but I am content to go on imagining it will while living in the pleasant present.

In our home are pieces of furniture called heirlooms by antique dealers and in truth they are though the value outside our family is probably questionable; there is the dining room table for example.

Our house is not big enough for a formal dining room so we sit and eat in a room that is a dining room with a full view of the kitchen and otherwise serves in various ways the rest of the time. The table came to us a few years ago when my in-laws broke up their home. They owned it since the 1940’s so when it came to us it was already old but it was a comfortable old.

We gave the wood legs and sides a good cleaning and polishing but the top, now that was a different story. It’s metal, you see, and so if you are of a certain age you can guess what it looks like. The leaves pull out from underneath to double the space and there is room for four or five depending on the age and size.

I often imagine the stories it could tell if it could speak. How many Christmas Eve dinners had it held? How many late night talks had it listened to? How many long evenings supporting a youngster bent on learning to spell? Too many to imagine. My wife said she and her sister sat on one side, her brother opposite, her parents one to each end. The arrangement seldom varied and that is good for there is security in sameness, knowing that some things are predictable. No matter the time of year, the times of day, the good times or the bad times the table was there and folks just fit into their usual places.

We seldom eat at tables any longer. We eat standing up, watching television, between video games or texted conversations; the table is there as decoration or to hold the days mail or pile of schoolbooks, a purse or car keys. In a way, I guess, the table still speaks to the times.

—Mike Stevens

Sittin in the car car….(tf)

•April 27, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I’ve got young kids, so I spend a lot of time taking them to and fro. School. Practice . Games. The movies. Friend’s houses. Birthday parties. When picking up, there’s a lot of waiting time. Just sitting in the car…lingering until they appear. I’m known to have the patience of a wounded animal, but I never mind these times. Strange.

It’s quiet though…and you get to view the world from a safe place. I become fascinated by the actions of people around me. All have stories. I wonder what they are?

That lady in the next car. She’s on her cell phone. Very animated. Who’s she talking to? Is she mad? Or is hyperactivity normal for her? What’s her story? Is she missing something she thinks is more important? Anxious to get to the bar? I bet her husband or boyfriend has thick skin. Maybe she has both and she’s talking about one to the other. That would explain why she resembles a geyser in full bloom.

That guy in the pick-up across the street. Confederate flag sticker on his bumper. Best not to cut off a guy with a confederate flag sticker on his bumper. Mental note made in case we both leave at the same time. Guys in pick-up trucks never talk on cell phones, so I see him working the radio hard. He’s got a cap on. Can’t see exactly, but I’m assuming John Deere. Cliche maybe, but then he is in a pick-up truck with a confederate flag sticker on his bumper. I could go out on a limb and say he probably owns a few guns too. Perhaps of the republican persuasion? Hmm. Not sure why these guys always drive pick-ups. They never seem to be hauling anything. Still, you meet these guys and almost to a man they’re gentle souls. Maybe rough around the edges, but who said edges needed to be rounded off?

Someone just pulled up next to me. A mom for sure. Driving a mom car. I forget what they’re called, but when they pull up next to me they tower over my little red 4-door. I bet her car is spotless too. I’ve got soda cans and Dorito bags all over the floor. Oh look, here’s a spoon. Not plastic either. A real live spoon. I bet she doesn’t have a real live spoon on the floor of her car. I have no idea why a real live spoon is on the floor of my car, but that’s not the point. I’m not worried about it, which makes me suddenly feel like an excellent parent. Perspective and all that. Gotta have it.

Wow, look at that lady crossing the street. Way too many pizzas in her past. And then to top it off with stretch pants? Wrong on way so many levels. It’s not nice to judge people by their looks alone but when you’ve got time to kill and you’re sitting in your car, it’s normal. We’re all judge, jury, and executioner during such down times.

There goes a teen with the windows open, blasting hip-hop. I feel old when volume makes me cringe, mostly because I listen to music so loud that by now my ears largely exist only to balance my face. I like guitar-based rock and roll though. Never got into hip hop, and when cars literally bounce down the street from sampled bass lines, I get crotchety. Still, I’ll never complain. Except in here of course.

Cars whipping by. Driving so fast. Everybody in such a hurry to get…where exactly? All traffic slows to a crawl eventually. How many times have you been passed by some idiot going 100 miles per hour only to meet up with him again 10 minutes later….looking like he’s gonna have a baby?

When you’re parked and waiting….you really notice how lead footed people are. How impatient. Odd that the only time I’m not impatient is when I’m in a car. Moving or sitting still. Too many things to see. Too many images to conjure up. Too many stories.

Take me ridin in the car car….take me ridin in the car

Woody Guthrie sang that. He probably didn’t like to sit and look around as much as me, but he knew what a car was for. And it wasn’t to get all bothered about time.

Who doesn’t have time for a good story?

–Tom Flannery

RIP Levon Helm (tf)

•April 20, 2012 • 1 Comment

Ironic that The Band have always been considered the quintessential American group. Like nobody before them they merged gut-bucket rock and roll, country, rag-time, soul, bluegrass, folk, and the blues….into a stew that sounded both rustic and entirely new at the same time. Their best music was so shocking not because it covered unknown ground, but because it came as close as possible to perfecting what was already there.

I say ironic because, The Band were all Canadians. Except for Levon Helm. From Arkansas.

Levon was the band’s spiritual and musical leader. Armed with 2 astounding songwriters, Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel, Helm’s voice somehow encompassed something as huge as the American Civil War. To listen to him as Virgil Kane in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is more than just pure musical bliss. It’s a master class. It explains, more than any weighty tome I know, what divides us and why. Then, and now. It’s both majestically triumphant, and unbearably sad. And it rocks like hell, as Levon also just happened to be one of the greatest drummers who ever lived. Not bad for a modest southern country boy.

If there is ever a musical Mount Rushmore, Helm deserves to have his face carved into it. Bearded preferably. He made me want to grow one. At 45 I’m still trying.

I’m just gutted right now. I want to cry but I can’t. I wish I could but there’s nothing there. Dry. So I listen to the music instead. There’s always the music. It will live forever.

There’s a great story about Levon that some may know. It’s worth re-telling.

The Band’s concert film “The Last Waltz”, directed by Martin Scorcese, is probably the best known concert film of all time. It featured a who’s who of mid 70s names….Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison…plus the titanic blues legend Muddy Waters. Quite a party really. So much so that when Neil Young took the stage he had a gob of cocaine hanging from his nose, a shot that Scorcese had to airbrush out of the film. Anyway….the sound was a bit ragged due to various backstage stimulants and what not…and every single performer was brought in after the fact to re-record his or her live vocals (Robertson’s vocal mic wasn’t even turned on)…which is one of the reasons ”The Last Waltz” sounds so glorious.

Levon refused to re-do anything. His performance was perfect because….well…..his performance was perfect. He was that good. And when the show was running a bit long….and there was talk of cutting Muddy Waters from the show, Levon Helm told Scorcese and Robbie Robertson to….essentially….f- off.

Muddy played. Levon backing him up on the drums with one of them smiles that says….”boys, it doesn’t get any better than this.”

It never would again. Robertson left the Band….and they carried on without him with dwindling returns. They went from Stadiums to hick bars. But where Robbie went to Hollywood for the glamour, Helm drove the van and unloaded his own gear at the back door of seemingly every dive club in the country. Not because he had to. But because he wanted to. He was a rock and roller.

These are such strange times. For a while Helm couldn’t afford to pay his own mounting medical bills (cancer has no pity). He nearly lost his house in Woodstock, New York. Only the frequent “midnight rambles” he hosted on his property, musical picnics featuring some huge names, kept him in the black. But through it all he never stopped playing. Even when the cancer and 28 chemo treatments ravaged his vocal cords, he kept at it, drafting his daughter into his band. Music came from Levon Helm the way sweat comes from the rest of us.

Just yesterday it was announced that the end was near for Levon Helm. Cancer had eaten him up and it was only a matter of hours. The announcement was all but obliterated in the press by the insane ramblings of Ted Nugent, which says more about the country we live in than I really care to get into. You take a look at the grace and dignity of a Levon Helm….and then a fool like Ted Nugent comes swinging into the picture on a vine….and it’s no wonder we’re still as fractured now as we were back in 1861.

Levon Helm never divided anyone. By force is personality and sheer talent he turned four Canadians into the most graceful of American rock and roll bands. He never compromised. He just played. And smiled. And when he smiled, at least I would always think…”boys, it doesn’t get any better than this.”

And it probably never will again.

I may be able to cry now. Finally.

But I’ll wait until this song is over….

–Tom Flannery

Tolerance (tf)

•April 11, 2012 • 5 Comments

Nobody seems to have tolerance for anything anymore.

If somebody is different, or just looks different, people pounce.

Agreeing to disagree is a quaint little saying. Folks don’t really agree to disagree anymore. They just clutch signs and take turns yelling at each other over rope-lines. Especially if there are cameras around. Everybody wants their 15 minutes of fame, so if to get it they feel the need to wave a sign bashing gay people or Planned Parenthood, well so be it. They can settle in a few hours later with their loved ones and watch the 6 O’clock news. So proud. “Look dear, there’s Mommy! See the foam coming out of her mouth?”

Civility? What’s that.

For the record….I should share my thoughts on the hot social issues of the day. I shall be succinct.

I am pro-choice. I don’t know when “life” begins. And as a man, it seems a bit cheeky to lecture a woman on what she wants to do with her own body. The day I become pregnant, maybe I’ll feel differently.

I have no issue with somebody who is “pro-life”, as long as they don’t pervert the meaning by being pro-war and pro-death penalty. You’re either all in, or you’re out. And when a child is born and you support every draconian measure to cut social services for that child…well….you lose a butt-load of credibility there too. You can’t love the fetus and then treat the actual child as a good for nothing future crack smoking lazy-ass drain on your taxes. Not sure that’s what Jesus would do.

If you are legitimately pro-life…in all its various permutations, then I salute you. You are surely a better person than I. But I haven’t met you yet. Show yourself.

If you’re gay….good for you. I hope you’ve found your life partner. Your sex life doesn’t concern me anymore than the sex lives of my heterosexual friends. That is, it doesn’t concern me at all. If there’s one thing we should all agree on it’s that what 2 consenting adults do in their bedroom is nobody else’s business. It really is as simple as that. Get married. Become parents. Sleep on the couch when your partner is pissed at you. Fight over the toilet seat. I see no reasons why heterosexuals should have all the fun.

I’m not sure why gay people threaten certain conservatives so much. More and more it seems that those who are the most vociferous in their condemnation are trolling airport men’s rooms…..so perplexed are they about their own sexuality. A bit of overcompensation to throw off the scent of the dogs. These folks are the holy grail of Psychiatry, and are the main reason why gay-bashers seem so cartoonish these days. Like book-burners without matches. Really fellas, it’s time to find a new boogeyman. The lesbians across the street are harmless.

Our national discourse has become positively poisonous. The upcoming Presidential election will surely divide us even more, if that’s possible. It’s no longer ideological differences, it’s red-in-the-face hatred. As a nation we so distrust each other that the majority seem willing to kill a national health-care mandate just so they can ensure that the less fortunate don’t get anything for “free”. They are helped along in this by a brazenly partisan Supreme Court, who recently ruled that it’s now completely legal for Police to do an anal probe on somebody stopped for a (perceived) traffic violation. We greet such news with a shrug, not because we approve of it, but because, considering the 5 conservative zealots on the bench, we’re not surprised by the ruling in the least.

We are at least tolerant, therefore, of the intolerance of others.

We seem incapable of living by the “golden rule”…..that catchy saying that kinda covers all the important and non-redundant stuff Moses found on that rock back in the bible days. The “do unto others” thing.

Seems to me that if we can’t do unto others, we can at least mind our own damn business. If you’re against abortion don’t have one. If you think birth control is a sin, cross your fingers and roll that dice. If you don’t like gays, stay away from them. If you don’t want government in the heath-care arena, go bleed in front of a private clinic. If you think Obama is the anti-christ, vote for the guy who believes in the angel Moroni.

But please do so quietly and respectfully. Nobody ever had their mind changed by getting screamed at by a guy with a sign.

–Tom Flannery