Dress Like a Man

The Italian host for the business dinner parked on the hillside by the restaurant outside of Catolica. The small, Velveeta-box-on-wheels diesel powered Fiat van he’d arrived in right along with at least five million dollars-worth of high end European sports cars and sedans. There had been nine people in that little van and he’d hauled ass back from Venice. The guest sitting cramped up next to the driver’s side window in the third “row” looked through the hair and shoulders all the way to the dash, asked the guy next to him how fast 165 kilometers an hour was. The answer of “around one-oh-five” turned him whiter. There wasn’t an American mini-minivan made he’d drive a hundred and five, much less with nine people in it on a potholed pick-your-state interstate highway. Italy, though? Smooth as glass and the driver/host, along with the front seat passenger whose wife was in his lap, had some big conversation going that involved the driver frequently taking both hands off the wheel to make emphatic gestures, scaring the rear seat passenger into translucence. Since they’d arrived late in spite of the thrill ride, the host crammed forty minutes of pre-dinner wine drinking into ten and had shaken most of the tension of all-day Venetian tour guide with an early morning “business” related side trip.

He had also spent a lot of time in America. Los Angeles to be exact, where he upped his skill as an English speaker, graduated from college, partied, ate expensive sushi, partied, rode motorcycles with rock stars and partied until his father knocked on the door. Dad said something about time to get married and take care of business. Dad had hooked up with someone equally rich and powerful in Italy that was kind enough to put a nice, attractive, educated twenty-four-year old ready-made wife in his forty-year old son’s sights for him. So son went home to make babies, work and do post graduate party hosting disguised as business dinners.

There are more women at the business dinner table in the posh hillside restaurant than men. One of them the host’s wife. A younger by a good deal, modern Italian girl trapped and trying to make the best of it in the old school, patriarchal Italian man world. The wine is good in Italy, the service is slow. Prodded by an elder statesman sexist who was traveling “on business” with his second or third or fourth wife to “tell us a joke,” the host went where most wine primed male jokers and jokes go. Women.

“Okay, okay, I tell you this one. Listen. My friend, Reynaldo? He looks like hell, I mean this. His face, his eyes. Everyone is telling him ‘Reynaldo, you look terrible, my friend. Go to a doctor. See what is wrong with you.’ Reynaldo says to everyone, ‘But I feel fantastico. I have no need for the doctor.’ After some weeks of this he goes home to eat with his mamà. Mamà says to him, ‘My son, you look like the death of three men. Go to the doctor.’ He tells her, as all of us, ‘Mamà, I feel fabulous.’ As it goes with your Mamà and mine, the next morning Reynaldo is in the doctor’s office. The doctor asks to him ‘Reynaldo, how did you become this way? You look terrible. But you say to me you feel wonderful and I believe you because you have no fever, no other problems. You will please wait while I research.’”

Wine glasses are re-filled, clinked, the host continued. “The doctor consults his books, no? To see what is wrong with my friend Reynaldo. Book after book he opens and reads. After one hour has passed he sees it. ‘Aha! Here it is, Reynaldo. Here, in this book. There is even the picture.’ Reynaldo looks at the doctor’s book, my friend cannot believe his eyes!” The host opens his eyes wide for Reynaldo. “‘Yes, it is true,’ the doctor says to him. ‘You look terrible but you feel fantastic. You, my friend, are a vagina!’”

Everyone laughs politely, a couple of guys with a load going guffaw, “Va-gina! Hyuk yuk, yuk!” The female contingent checks each other, ha ha, they roll their eyes, let it go.

The Italian host’s young wife, who speaks a lot less English than her husband, asked him what he’d said that was so funny. He runs double speed through the joke, in Italian, while she maintains an appropriately rapt attentiveness. He finishes with, “…vaheena!”

She quickly checked the women at the table, her eyes huge, almost on fire. “No, no, no.” She stuck her index finger in the center of her husband’s chest, pushed. “I theenk eeze the deek!”

***

Not far away from this restaurant, in nearby Bologna almost eight-hundred years ago, a woman named Bettisia Gozzadini dressed like a man so that she could study law and graduate from a university when women weren’t supposed to do that sort of thing. After graduation she taught law from her home until she was asked to lecture at the university, and is considered to be the first (known) female professor. Legend has it that she was beautiful, and not to distract from her lectures she spoke in a veil or from behind a curtain. The idea is also tossed around that the sight of a woman lecturing at a university in 1242 might have been enough of a distraction in itself. Attorney, professor and lecturer Ms. Gozzadini was so popular they had to move her lectures into the town square. Her skill as an orator was such that she was asked to put it to use at the Bishop of Bologna’s funeral. In a time when women knowing anything, or talking like they knew something, was considered by the church to be heretical. And dangerous. Because the inquisition into that sort of thing was in full swing. Nevertheless, there she was. Out loud, in public. How did she get away with it? That right there is the wrong question. Why should she have had to “get away with it” at all?

It’s 2016. Eight hundred years is a long time to wear pants and sit through ugly vagina jokes being a pretend good ol’ boy before a girl at a dinner table down the road finally pointed out that the real problem for women might even be uglier than the jokes made about them.

 

You can bypass Wikipedia and read Umberto Eco’s piece on Bettisia Gozzadini and Novella D’Andrea here:  https://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=it&u=http://www.enciclopediadelledonne.it/biografie/bettisia-gozzadini-e-novella-dandrea/&prev=search

 

 

Old Friends

The cat turned away, in a ripple it shook from head to tail
In an effort to ignore the feather in its face, to no avail.
Said the cat to the man with the feather in his hand
I may eat junk from a can and poop in the sand
But there is one thing I do understand;
Clever is clever and fun is fun
However when the feather
At either end
Grows weary of the game?
It’s done.

 

Quesadilla

“All I want to be when I grow up is a ballerina.”

“I think everybody knows that, mom.”

“Most ballerinas retire by the time they’re forty. I don’t think anyone is going to hire me at sixty-one, huh?”

“Probably not.”

“I just love it so-o much. Is that stupid or what? Me and the other old – lady ballerinas. I can’t believe I’m going to a night class. I used to feel really guilty when you were a baby and I’d go. I won’t be home till after nine.”

“Lots of people are out after nine, mom. You’ll be fine.”

“I know, but I got up at five and I’m exhausted. I ate half a sandwich and a little bag of Cheetos at one. I guess I’m not too bloated.”

“Mom, it starts at seven. You’ll be fine. You haven’t gone to night ballet for a while, right, except for rehearsals? What’s dad say? He doesn’t care, does he?

“He says he’ll split a quesadilla with me and leave it in the microwave. And you know your dad, he said he knows if he bitched and told me to go fix dinner and run the vacuum cleaner I’d poison him. I told him I wasn’t passive-aggressive, I’d just stab him or something and be done with it because I don’t have the patience for manipulative stuff. He said the strangest thing, though.”

“Dad says lots of strange, spacey things.”

“Really, right? He said the reason he’d never told me ‘no’ about school or books or ballet wasn’t the knife or anything but because the two things in the universe that cast the longest shadows were love and art. And if I was lucky like him to know both I should stand  by the window and let the evening sun kiss me before it went down and throw my ballerina shadow into forever.”

“Sounds like it’s still okay if you go to ballet class at night.”

“I guess. But you know, I’d go anyway. Splitting a quesadilla with me is nice of him, though. Don’t you think?”

Stigma

Neeko watched Lamar blow in through the door with the wind, late. He knew how much Lamar hated being late to anything, and on top of that, he was a sight. His half-a-head of hair windblown, the shirt tail on a cleaner’s stiff shirt was out. Slacks. Not the usual Friday Lamar. It was Neeko’s turn to offer the contents of the plastic wicker bowl when Lamar dropped on the stool to his right.

“Your girlfriend in the body shirt down there got your pretzels ready, I was afraid her heart would break when she thought you’d stood her up.”

Lamar looked down the bar, got a smile and a towel wave. Sure enough, Neeko’s offering was full of low-sodium baby pretzels. At least he could count on his friends.

“Hey, Neeko. You told her thanks and tipped her five, right?”

“Told her you were a dirty old man and the tip I offered was to run as far and fast as she could.”

“Fucker.”

“You’re late,” Neeko grinned, tipped a Collins glass that had been full of Coke, rattled the ice around. “Not like you.”

“Man. You know, what I wanna say is ‘what the fuck.’ Just ‘what, the, fuck.’”

“Long week?”

“Shit. It started last Sunday when I got light weight bad-husbanded. Marie and I spent half the day bustin’ ass on garden cleanup, I moved fifteen fuckin’ bags of wet cedar mulch into the van, out of the van and stacked up. Then up the sidewalk and stacked them again then threw them out in front of the garden like dead soldiers before I moved all of Marie’s rocks and pave stones and leveled a couple of giant pots. I finished all of that, went to the store covered in sweat and mulch, got her some shrimp, first time in forever she wanted to bust the ban of cholesterol. I had a good Sunday goin’. So she takes a bath while I’m gone and the whole bedroom smells like heaven when I get home so I took a shower and you what happened next. Later she tells me ‘I’m sorry I didn’t have anything sexy to wear, but my husband hasn’t bought me any new lingerie in for-ever.’ Which is bullshit because at Christmas I load her up on those panties she won’t buy herself. Loud, silky, fun everyday panties don’t count. I hear her when she moans about no off-white hose anyplace so I get online, deal with that and all of her ballet tights and leotards. None of that counts because it’s not that sort of lady gear. So I’m screwed. No Charming Charlie, no easy way out of lingerie.”

“That’s the what the fuck? Why you haven’t bought Marie sexy satiny nighties lately?”

“What’s the point? That lingerie shit’s coming off pretty soon anyway, right? This old fart told me back in high school that foreplay started at the mall, and I was like ‘What?’ Holding hands or go make out behind the big potted trees or what? No, he meant shopping for the right kind of undies and both of us thinking about what we were gonna do with that bottle of sandalwood body lotion, gettin’ primed in advance. And I haven’t been doing that, and that was why I took the bad husband bash. But my ‘what the fuck’ is way worse than that.”

“That wasn’t really bad enough for there to be a worst, man. Buying gas on a rainy day is worse than that if that’s all you got.”

“No, man. All week, when I tried to solve any kind of issue with her is why the what the fuck. I go to Home Depot, trying to replace an old faucet set. I’m waiting, and there’re these two women next to me, don’t even know each other and one of them asks the other a question about what the other one said about her health, and they go off on cysts. Vaginal cysts. How one has these cysts that show up and send her blood pressure through the roof and gave her a stroke, and she’s only maybe forty. The other one says how she had these cysts, and her metabolism was so cranked she could eat anything she wanted and lose weight but had to get it operated on, and they were telling all these vaginal scrape and medication stories, and all I wanted was a cheap bathroom faucet. Can I do that? Hell no. I get to wait for the one person with a clue in plumbing while these two women get down on their plumbing. It’s not like they didn’t know there were men around while they blew it out all over the aisle about growing mushrooms and shit in their vajayjay’s and how it fucked them up.”

“Marie might have your ass for doggin’ women not being able to talk about their business like anybody else.”

“Not my point. Look, I had a nut twist in junior high, and it got the size of an orange. They un-twisted it, it was okay. I didn’t stand around in the hall with girls in earshot talkin’ about my giant nut or how my nutsack got so stretched it lost the raisin look. A couple of years ago I thought I was dead because fluid can settle around your nuts and I had a regular and a large in there. I didn’t even wanna tell the doctor. ‘Hey, Doc, while I’m here, am I dying or what?’ He talks about this happens a lot, the fluid on a nut thing. Okay, cool. But you and I, we’re waiting in Home Depot, and we are not going to say ‘swollen nuts’ out loud. ‘Oh? Really? How big did it get? Well mine was ginormous, and I fell in love with pizza again, and I looked great in tight jeans. I mean that shit belongs where it belongs, not in the plumbing aisle.”

“Did you not tell Marie you thought you were dying of a giant testicle? Because that would be stupid. What do you say to her just before you croak? ‘By the way Marie, I, uh, had this giant nut just like killed me overnight.’”

“Marie is going to know if I have a giant nut, that’s how I got the bad husband knock in the first place. The other thing is she decided to start watching this NetFlix show and will I watch it with her so sure, whatever. It beats ignoring reruns and wishing she was wearing something sexy I forgot to buy so we watch, and there’s a hint of a plot and BANG, Kevin Spacey has his face buried in the crotch of this girl half his age while she talks to her father on the phone. And there’s three-way sex and gay sex and all of this in the middle of an episodic treachery drama, and I’m like no wonder she wanted me to buy her something sexy because all these people are standing around in their underwear with their tongues out and moaning. And I’m like wait, this is TV. That’s porn, not a politics show. Every episode it’s like somebody has to assume the bra and panties or less pose and fake an orgasm. If Marie binges on two or three on the weekend it’s like all these people trying to fuck each other over, and then actually fucking each other, over, under sideways, and that’s a TV series? I mean politics by Leave it to Beaver. Beavers.”

Neeko thought about the pretzels in front Lamar, held up his Collins glass instead. “Television isn’t the same, Lamar, nothing is the same. We could talk about why forever. Shifting cultural paradigms and all of that. We know better than to waste air on that shit, part of it is our fault. Nothing is new, it’s just more out front.”

“That’s the deal, Neeko. Stigma. There is no fuckin’ stigma about anything. And in some ways, that’s a good thing. I’m just not ready for anatomical funk where sex happens to be like, ‘Oh, did you have any hail damage Friday? How is your vag?’ at Home Depot.”

“None of that is enough to piss you off.” Neeko was shaking a little with silent laughter. “Get to the good shit before I have to leave.”

Lamar ran his tongue around his teeth, gathered it all up.

“This morning, the reason I’m late? Victoria’s Secret. I’m too old for that place, and that is an unfortunate stigma. But I defy the letch shit and go in. First, they don’t have anywhere near what I found online. Then I’m prowling through silk and satin and being followed by this big bi-cultural guy who asks me in a very affected way if I need any help. A guy. In Victoria’s Secret. A linebacker-sized gay guy who is delighted by the complimentary colors on the nightie I pick out. Of course, it’s not Wal-Mart where the cheap itchy lace panties are on the same hanger. So he goes off to find me some non-itchy Victoria’s Secret matching undies while a couple of girls, one with a figure that would have netted me a restraining order forty years ago are giggling and watching this whole episode go down like something out of Marie’s NetFlix. The gay linebacker comes back really pleased with himself waving Marie’s ‘aren’t these just perfect?’ panties like a fuckin’ ‘Go Niners’ banner. We transact, the girls all still watching while he rolls everything up in pink tissue paper, you know down to the size of nothing and puts it in a bag that might as well have been a billboard for me to carry out of the mall. ‘Old dude buys peach colored panties!’ Jesus. You know? What, the, fuck?”

“A gay, I’m guessing half-black linebacker since you don’t like to talk race at all, helping you pick panties for Marie that you probably wouldn’t have found on your own, that’s the big ‘what the fuck,’ right? The rest of it was just –”

“No the rest of it is just all of it. I want to know when did stigma go away.”

“I’m not sure there was a sell-by-date posted anywhere or if it was officially repealed. It just happened. Why?”

“Here’s why. You remember when I was a kid and sold expensive men’s clothes for a while in college? People called me sir when I was twenty-one ‘cause I had on a Pierre Cardin suit and needed a haircut. Well if stigma had taken a hike earlier and men could have sold lingerie my whole career path might have changed. I woulda stuck around a lot longer and had a shitload more fun with a tape measure at Victoria’s Secret measuring what needs measuring in there than I did knuckle knocking nutsacks out of the way to measure inseams.”

Fanfare for an Uncommon Man

I was a twenty-year-old kid, fumbling around, knowing I no longer belonged to a life I’d thought all those twenty years was for me. Knowing my fairy tale had taken a sharp turn on a dark, rainy night, skidded off the road and gotten mired in the mud. And I sat there, spinning my wheels in 1973 from late May until November 28th. That night, at the Fairgrounds Arena in Oklahoma City, I sat on the seventh row, on the floor, just in front of Greg Lake at an ELP concert. Not long after they’d changed formats, going live with the Brain Salad Surgery album. Chapter one of the rest of my life.

I walked out of the arena and said, “That’s what I’m gonna to do.” Not that I was going to be Emerson Lake and Palmer, something I considered only briefly early on and discovered wasn’t going to happen, but it sent me down a road I’d seen the signposts for that night. I told people about it, what I was going to do. Build a pile of keyboards and rock the world. They said you have responsibilities, you can’t do that, you’re nuts. Sure I was. But I’d already punched my ticket to ride right on out of the mainstream, so why not?

The fastest way to get to be Keith Emerson, or someone like Keith Emerson, aside from piano lessons and a good left hand, was to buy a Moog synthesizer and learn how to use it. I’d already taken piano lessons, so I put my MG Midget up for collateral at the bank across the street from the deli where I was making sandwiches for my old classmates in their office tower clothes and bought the second Mini Moog to hit the state of Oklahoma. Only hours behind the first one that went to a lounge band. I laughed. Screw those guys. I was going to be a synthesist!

Like the man said. Now I are one.

emo adFor just over six years I was the North American Product and Artist Relations manager for an Italian company that built digital pianos. Innovative and unique digital pianos. They were a small company and didn’t pay anyone much for endorsements or ship tons of gear to artist’s doors. They built an instrument, that’s it. Keith Emerson was one of our first “endorsees.” He sold a lot of pianos and got a few free ones in return. And he brought a number of great keyboardists with him. All unpaid, all friendly, all brilliant and talented. Keith or his tech Will would call, “I need a piano to meet me here or there.” Fine. Keith rode motorcycles with the Italian guy who owned the company. Through the desert, the wine country. “No problem,” I’d say. “Give me an address.”

All of that leads to me sitting with Keith in a Holiday Inn restaurant one evening, drinking way over-priced Kendall Jackson grocery store quality wine and, surprisingly, being roundly ignored by passers-by. I’ d often thought of telling him before, but that evening after enough of that expensive cheap wine, I informed him that the lost years of my mid-twenties were his fault. I told him about Oklahoma City, about how my screeching MiniMoog made my neighbors on 32nd and Barnes think I was sacrificing cats. Or worse, practicing some form of Godless Voodoo after I’d figured out his steel drum sound. More importantly, that I’d wanted to be him when I grew up. He laughed, said don’t blame me, and if trying to be him ever netted me any female companionship I owed him. For getting me out in front with the guitar players who, up until Emerson, invariably got all the girls. I told him that if I had to pay him what I owed him for that business I’d be way more than broke. He laughed again, we drank more wine, told more stories. I didn’t tell him that as disrepectful kids we often joked that ELP was what happened when Paul Revere and the Raiders discovered crack. If anyone still thinks that, it’s an urban myth and nothing more.

Keith was an uncommon man whose stiff-necked, iron-spined, no-holds-barred and totally uncompromising approach to rock ‘n roll changed the way the world looked at keyboard players over the last forty years of the Twentieth Century. He had ganglion cyst surgery, piano lids crashed down on his hands, roman candles hooked to a ribbon controller blew his thumbnails off, but the show we were always welcomed to always went on. Emo was the Jimi Hendrix style showman of keyboards and, as I said, he helped an entire generation of dorky piano lesson boys get off the bench and put them in front of serious guitarist’s electricity. The Moog went from Switched on Bach and the hallowed halls of academia to switched full-on rock. We were a legion, the Emerson-ites. A legion of white pirate shirts and vests, all of us turned up to eleven. Our old piano teachers covering their ears, spinning in their graves. It wasn’t about the chops as much as it was about balls. It was about relentlessly pushing the envelope. Turning three guys into five. It was putting ten pounds of music in a five-pound bag and keeping it from exploding. If you blew it up some nights getting there, that was okay.

The show that never ended, that we were all welcome to attend, has now come to a close. Suddenly and violently, just as the finale of Karn Evil 9.

I’ll miss you, Keith. And I’ll say “Thanks” as well. For making me miserable when I was young, making me laugh as I grew older, for being the tow-rope that got me out of the mud and back on the road when I was aimless and sightless. For being the inspiration that forced me to be better than I was. For setting a standard. For setting me on the path that ultimately led me to the rest of my life and for mercilessly demanding better than mediocrity. For making mediocrity, often my own, so easy to spot.

I blew up a studio monitor the other day listening to “Knife Edge” after I found out Keith was gone. It felt great and sounded magnificent even after I lit it up. You might consider trying it, if you have a fire extinguisher handy.

 

 

Locked Out

“Pretzel, Neeko?”

Neeko eyed the plastic wicker-look basket on the bar, full of nothing but miniature pretzels. “No ChexMix?”

“Nope.” Lamar smiled more with his eyes than his mouth, raised his chin a little toward the bartender who stepped to her left, reached under the counter and held up a small bag of miniature pretzels with a chip-clip on top. “Low sodium. She likes me, I can tell.”

“Like she likes her grampa. You always have been able to talk to women, Lamar, I’ll give you that. What’d you say?”

“She came down, stood right in front of me after you left last time. I was startin’ to get up, thought I’d mine the last of the pretzels from the ChexMix before I followed you out. She puts her hand with the towel in it on her hip, puts her other hand on top of mine, locks it in the bowl, cocks her head a little and says, ‘That’s not really playing fair. You know that, right?’ I was trying to dust off my talk to a strange woman chops when she smiled, like to have knocked me off the stool forty years ago. ‘You don’t like my ChexMix, or what? It insults a girl when you dis her snack baskets.’ And now it’s worse because she’s got a deep, movie star voice to go with the rest of her. So I say ‘It’s got nothing to do with you. You’re a lovely, attractive woman and I’m sure your heart is in the right place, but I’m a pretzel man, always have been. I’m not gonna sell-out now for a potpourri of crunch and flavor all goin’ off in my mouth.’”

“Jesus, Lamar. You can still spread more shit than a whole crew of landscapers. So that ‘lovely, attractive woman’ business netted you your own bag of pretzels?”

“Nope. She snort laughed some, said I must have been a real pain in ‘attractive women’s asses’ when I was young. She did that quotes thing with her fingers when she said ‘attractive women’s asses.’ I denied that and she called bullshit. Said she could see it in my eyes I was lyin’, so I told her that it never goes away, all that pretty girl shit. The only thing that happens is the box it’s in gets beat up like something fragile for your wife in a UPS truck at Christmas time. She laughed then, told me all she wanted last Christmas was one of those big-assed Vitamix blender things like the one here at work and she cussed a streak because it showed up in about forty pieces. See she free-lance bartends and caters some not-too-big weddings and graduations, business receptions. Charges a small fortune, and I can see people payin’ it because she wears a nice, tastefully sexed up evening gown and a push up bra, looks like a million bucks, and knows just what kind of music to have playin’ on this Bluetooth thing from her phone. Got a complete little set-up. Showed me the pictures, has a website and everything. She’s a single mom, her kids come along and help. That Vitamix and some more work blouses like she’s wearin’ is all she wanted for Christmas and had hell gettin’ either one.”

“She told you all this over a plastic basket with a disproportionate amount of missing pretzels?”

“She did.”

“She’s not old enough to have helpful sized kids, is she?”

“Thirty-one. Kids are fourteen and twelve. Boy and a girl. Got knocked up as a junior in high school. Boy’s parents were dicks about it, she said screw him, she shouldn’t have fallen for the tall, shallow blonde with sideburns thing in the first place and kept the baby. She had three sisters who didn’t shun her for having sex and they all pitched in and got her through high school. She got pregnant again first guy out of high school, married and divorced before the baby got there. Went histrionic for about six months then took the kids off to New Mexico, sat on a rock for almost a year while she worked at a hospital with free daycare and pulled her shit together. Been around some, no men because of the kids. Here she is.”

“You tell her your life story, too? I guess not, you’d have been here three days just for the Reader’s Digest version.”

“Nah. The funny thing is that all came out because of some sexist trash Fontaine and I threw back and forth about high school.”

“Not more Jaclyn Werther nonsense. Neither one of you went there unless going there was sacred and God froze your tongues after, because both of you jokers would have let that out.”

“No, none of that. Watch your bartender down there bend over.”

“Shit, Lamar, I’m too old for –”

“No, I don’t mean check for camel toe or groove on thoughts of her ass, watch her as a person, check out her clothes.”

Lamar watched Neeko get that serious look he got about everything when he thought it might be against some moral code while the bartender reached for glasses, bent over the ice bin, squatted, reached way over the bar to drop an extra cherry or olive or take a credit card handoff.

“So? Come on, Lamar, this has to do with Fontaine how?”

“Gettin’ there. Bend over, pull up your socks. Not like an old fart, Neeko, bend over, all the way.”

“Goddam, Lamar. Ow. What is this? Stupid stunt Tuesday?”

“Look at your shirt tail, brother.”

“Shit…I might need to unbuckle to fix this. Lamar, Jesus…”

Lamar drank some lemonade in his nonchalant way that always got to Neeko. “Hers didn’t do that. You missed it?”

“No, I didn’t know I what I was supposed to be looking for.”

“When you look at a woman, Neeko, you look at all of her. Taking nothing away from the memory of your late wife, but it’s no wonder you’re still single ten years on. I see your daughter at the bank all the time and she says you told her I was a player in the land that time forgot and she asked me would I please teach you some things sometime so you didn’t die droolin’, horny and alone. That was lesson one. Women are a whole thing. That’s how you talk to a woman, about all of her, you don’t just make some shit up and hope she buys in. We got to talkin’ because I asked her where she got locked out 2the body shirt. She gave me one of those ‘why was I looking so close’ looks like they get these days and asked how did I know. I said what was a real pain in the ass back then wasn’t me, it was going out with girls in those damn body shirts. I told her I thought they had to have been designed by some girl’s mother who was a ‘you’ll be a virgin till you’re out of my house’ Nazi.”

“How’d that go over, her getting pregnant in high school and all?”

“Didn’t know that yet. That’s when she said she wished they had them when she was in high school, she might be two kids lighter and a maybe psychologist, but that’s how it had played. That’s when her story started to come out. She said body shirts were hard as hell to find these days, mostly they were sexed up see-through things with matching underwear, useless as a steakhouse in a vegan commune to her right now, that she’d tried a couple of vintage ones from resale shops and the thought of where those snaps had been, well, she donated them all back. The other option was leotards but skin tight with her figure wasn’t where she was at. She found a specialty place online that had body shirts, kind of utilitarian looking, but they were okay. Notice she dolls them up with a scarf she stitches down. Thought she might find out where they were importing them from and design some for lady bartenders, casino dealers and other women who had to move when they worked. I told her like tuxedo shirts maybe, with those little skinny bow-ties gamblers always wore in westerns. She laughed and sketched a couple out on napkins. Place was dead, she was supposed to be restocking, but we talked about it for a while, let her work it out on me. That’s why the pretzels.”

“Fontaine was in this somewhere and now I’m lost thinking about body shirts and you shooting the shit with my bartender all afternoon about it, trying to get my head around how you watch women way beyond tits and ass which we all thought that’s what you were, you know, a tits and ass bullshit artist.”

Lamar smiled a little, kind of tight. “Fontaine writes to me about how we were back then. How the biggest problems we had were new-fangled front closure bras, stupid body shirts that snapped in you-know-where and zits. ‘Wash your face with shampoo’ he told me back then, I was on my own with the other two. I bought my girlfriend some matching sets of that sheer, stretchy lingerie that hooked in back and I wonder to this day what her mother thought ‘cause my wife would have lit up like downtown if she’d found that shit in my daughter’s laundry basket. Anyway, I didn’t encounter front closure until my wife. But that body shirt business? I promise you, those things cut me out of a lot of loose change because a girl could say ‘no,’ and you could try again, and no matter how hard you pulled all you were doing was giving her a front door wedgie and pissin’ her off because the shirt tail wasn’t coming out.” Lamar got a quick, faraway look and a grin like he’d just replayed that very scene on the big screen in his head, date complaint and all.

“So you know Fontaine, he’s like you, Neeko. Give him a puzzle, he has to work on it. We went back and forth with all these different scenarios, even found some old body shirts we sort of recognized on the internet. What we discovered, after a number of tries, was that there is no answer to the ultimate body shirt mystery. After all that obvious and impossible and what’s left over Sherlock Holmes junk and spreadsheets with countless possibilities, we had ourselves an unsolvable conundrum, and how all we could ever quantify was how much fun those damn things cost us.”

“Now I’m really lost.” Neeko had absent mindedly loosened his belt and was stuffing his shirt tail back in. “What’s the big damn mystery to body shirts?”

“Neeko, look here. You’re seventeen. Our bartender down there who is wondering why your pants are unzipped and who also has no real need for the push-up bra is seventeen, too, and she likes you. Not super likes you, but she’ll make out seriously with you, fog the windows. You roll up somewhere, maybe even the drive-in, you get friendly and she’s all about how nice you are to her twins, and you’d like to get to know them better. No buttons. Shirt tail isn’t giving it up. She likes you, you like her boobs, she’s willing to give you some northern exposure, but you’re not southern material, so how do you get to what you can get to if you can’t get to the lock that will let you in? You can’t. For as long as you’ve got that evenin’ you warm her up through the shirt, you can for sure tell how much better it would be without it and you are locked out like a dog that shit on the carpet. I hated those shirts.”

“This kind of thing keeps you and Fontaine up nights, doesn’t it?”

 

 

 

 

 

Nana Ballet

I asked a three-year-old what I should put on a Facebook page when I was considering it. I thought she’d be a good barometer. Without hesitation, she said, “Nana ballet!”

“Well, I thought it might be about, you know, me.”

“Not you. Me an’ Nana ballet!” “You” was said like someone would say it if they’d just stepped in used dog food. “Not poo!” I haven’t won an argument with a female in thirty-seven years, I’m not going to start today. Nana ballet it is. The one on the left has been three once, and to two Nutcrackers already. The one on the right has been three *ahem* times and I quit counting Nutcracker and Snow Queen rehearsals and performances in the Eighties. The two of them, together, brings me to an old saying; Grandchildren are parents’ best revenge.

There are a lot of those sayings about spoiling grandkids and sending them home full of sugar, how nice it is that they go home, even after a (very) long weekend. How you get to love them and not have to take them to the pediatrician unless they develop projectile vomiting while you have them over spring break. That’s all okay, and understood, as far as the grandparent one-liners go, but what about your kids and those grandkids of yours?

ava bWhat if one of those beautiful grandchildren of yours is your child’s worst nightmare? My daughter’s daughter is my daughter’s mother. Seriously. As well as my son-in-law’s. How messed up is that for them? How could that happen? Those two kids are the pragmatic children, the very antithesis of their Fine Arts and Liberal Arts tree hugging middle-class Last of the Romantics type parents. Parents who dance and play music and still “bust a move” with students when Michael Jackson blows out of the pit at the student center. My daughter was reasonable, talented, smart. Self-motivating and very little trouble until she got Senioritis in high school and started driving by braille. Still nowhere near as much trouble as me, or, I’m sure, her mother. She got over it and turned into an attorney. Just like my son-in-law got over couch surfing and skateboards and became a school principal. They are organized and prepared and scheduled. But their first kid? God help them. My granddaughter is a clone of my wife.

As they run to meet each other “Nana, Nana! Are you going to ballet, too?” bounces off the walls of the studio lobby. The child will dance at the drop of a hat, just like my wife and, I am told, just like her other, now deceased, grandmother. It doesn’t matter if it’s kiddie songs, ZZ Top piped into a restaurant or classical. Gotta move. And read. And imagine. And talk. Talk, talk, talk. Princesses and tutus, fake eyelashes and costumes, all day long.

Nana is actually aBG Denton Ballet on point on Stagen English professor who puts on leotards and tights and becomes ten years old again at least three times a week. Now she has real, kid-sized company. She can even be three now, if she wants, which she does very well. Princesses and coloring books and fairy tales and all that magic you can believe when you’re three that some people, like Nana, have never put away or stopped believing. I told my daughter one day that if she ever wondered how to deal with her daughter, just think about how she dealt with her mom, with maybe a little more patience.

I have heard my granddaughter’s parents say things while rolling their eyes, like “here comes little Nana now…” and my favorite “Will somebody please go get both three-year-olds?” They are inseparable when they’re together. Nana will brave weather she wouldn’t go out in otherwise to see her granddaughter. Stay up late, get behind, go without sleep catching up, make herself sick for a little more time to be ten or three or Belle or Cinderella. To drink tea on the ceiling or hide from a dragon or a wicked witch, dance with a magic scarf or a giant flying stuffed sheep.

girls and nutI used to believe that innocence was the province of children, and that all of our youthful fairy tales from daydreams of ballerinas and pirates rescuing damsels in distress to the sanctity of first true love, were destined to end in heartbreak. Like one day we all get our moment to be Puff when he becomes the un-magic dragon and slumps off to his cave like a big, sad, scaly fire breathing Eeyore. Now, even when I’m tired of crayon bits in the remote control and TV shows laden with songs about everything from “be nice to your brother” to “flush the potty,” I see the magic in my child’s worst nightmare.  The pure, unapologetic logic of Nana Ballet. And I go re-write the last verse of Puff the Magic Dragon.

I believe that the very best thing you can hope for the granddaughters you can spoil and send home is that someday they too will give birth to a nightmare who becomes that very special place where their mother’s magic stays alive.

 

Good Enough for Rock n Roll is Good Enough for Harvard

Thirty-four years later Harvard picks up the mantle of Southern Rock!

Bands were, and continue to be, a classic example of collaborative burnout. I’m not sure if this is an example of cross-cultural contamination, wonderful insight or simple irony. Or if someone in graphic design went through their parent’s vinyl collection and went “Aha!” Regardless, I got a history flashback standing in line at Whole Foods. Who says plagiarism at the college level is a myth?

Turn it up, Harvard! And straighten your tie…

Women Don’t Talk Enough

I’ll take the heat for that. It could have read, “Women don’t say enough when they talk.” And that would be true as well. Now I admit, there’s a stereotype qualifier and it is this; all of the Betty and Suzie and Julie and Crissy and LaTeesha too, and all the stupid and wonderful and awful and competitive bitchy things they do is, well, what it is and for the most part out of this discussion. Also out are the discussions and the Pinterest pins and the websites where it would be so nice to remodel the kitchen with one having slightly more square footage than the footprint of the entire house. What is in this discussion is asking a woman about pointed, personal history, and how we have to pry that out. Even when we do, what we get is female haiku. If you slow down and really listen to it, that’s almost enough.

In a relationship, we, as men, are expected to expose ourselves. “Who was she? What was she like? Why did you/she break up? Did you ever go here/there/anywhere? Have any fun? Beat her, get arrested, wreck her car? Well there was some reason you were together.” Women drill down for detail.

“Where did you go?”

“I stopped at the store for lettuce.”

“Oh? How was that?”

“I dunno. Like buying lettuce?”

“That’s all? That’s it?”

“Uh…” So we invent an emotional and experiential travelogue or shrug and slump away lost like there’s more to shopping for lettuce that we missed and somehow we’re stupid for missing it. However, even a busy woman will answer;

“Well, first I had to move the man with the all the vegetables on the cart, and that took forever because he didn’t speak English but that’s okay, he smiled and I finally got him moved but then the stupid sprinkler thing with the fake thunder? Well, it went off and if he hadn’t been in the way I could have just grabbed the lettuce first and I wouldn’t have a wet sleeve. And they had the cutest cookies. Little round ones with strawberry filling? I got some for the kids when they come over next time. And you wouldn’t believe it. The snottiest girl in the world was checking on express. Would I like a bag? Like I want wet lettuce rolling around in my car. Really? Just put it in the bag, silly girl. So she had to drop it two feet into the bag but by then I was tired of dealing with it. And that parking lot is the absolute worst. No one knows how to drive anymore. They’re all messing with their phones, they don’t look, they just point and go…”

When I bought lettuce, maybe all that happened, but I didn’t care. I got lettuce, got out, maybe gave somebody in the parking lot the finger, got home, got the third degree, let it go. Lettuce, in the bag. Done.

That was facetious on the face of it, but pretty accurate. My point is, if that was buying lettuce, then the next time your wife, girlfriend, significant other female glosses over a question, call her on it. Find a picture of an old boyfriend, her prom, some picture of a beach in an old book she has in the closet, ask her about it. “Oh, that was awful. I hated that trip.” Done. Next. Whoa. Why? “I just did. You know what happened after. He was a real jerk.” No, I have no idea what happened. Why? Exasperated we hear, “What is it that you want me to say?” Okay, right here is the break point between men and women. This is where a guy will say, “She was crazy, she was lousy sex, she cried all the time, her cat peed on my shoes, she was jealous of her own shadow, she was a kleptomaniac, insomniac, nymphomaniac, alcoholic, shopaholic…” We will invent things to say just to get off the topic. Women? Ask them why was it awful? “It just was, alright?” Female communication haiku. Maybe they’ll tell other women a whole story. Us? No way.

So I learned, after a very long and difficult time, to read the novel between the sparse words that women say about things that hurt, or were embarrassing. Things they’ve “forgotten.” I’ll buy some of that, but I’m no genius and I remember things. Good and bad and embarrassing. This is where I go back to that ladies lettuce moment. They have some stories in there and unless estrogen automatically shreds memory after a given amount of time, we’re not getting the stories. Because they don’t want to let go of them. They aren’t part of their lives anymore, they aren’t relevant. I say they’re wrong. Anything formative, anything that makes or made them who they are is important. Not just the fun and funny things, but the embarrassing things, the foolish things, the things they want the kids, and us sometimes, to believe they never did.

One afternoon not long ago I leaned pretty hard on a grown woman with three college degrees when, after about a tenth of a story, I got an “It’s not important.”  Headlines. No substance. Like the female mastery of soundbites and verbal haiku was enough for the simple minded male. She fought me all the different ways I tried to ask, and I was being one of those psych profile tests with a heartbeat so she was having to work. It was maybe half an hour before she finally said, “We’re all girls like that once, alright? All of us. For a summer, for a semester, for a month or a year or at some party summer job we had maybe, and any girl our age who tells you she wasn’t is lying. Alright? Jesus. Are you happy now?”

Hell yeah. No details, okay. Access to the female mindset? Priceless. Because I thought there was a magic word or phrase or coolness factor and I find out they’re just people. And they hate to give that up, let us know they’re human. To give us a chance to know a little more about them, so we can care a little more about them.

Why should we care? Because women and their stories are valuable and they sell themselves short with all of the dodgy answers. Because they think we’re men and we don’t or won’t get it and there’s something judgmental or Neanderthal going on in our heads when they talk. Like if they’re talking about Twelfth Century poetry we’re thinking about beer and booty and that red bra in the top drawer. Not always. Personally, I love to hear my wife talk when she has something to say because there’s music in her voice. Beer and booty is saved for all that office politics and people you never heard of and their cute babies and so-and-so’s such a bitch stuff. Then? Yes, ladies, we surf our brains for pictures of you naked, or at least in that red bra, so we don’t kill you.

***

Something that I found almost always inextricably linked to women and their stories is their mothers. I have no idea why, but if you’ve ever lived with a mother-daughter combo you’ve seen it. If you’re smart you stay out of the middle of it. I don’t care if a girl’s mom was a crackhead or a dentist or civic leader or a man-chasing drunk. She’s mom. I asked some women when I was doing research one time to tell me about how they got where they were, what happened. All of them, mom was in the picture. “Mom died, my family imploded and I got lost.” “Mom decided she wanted to re-career and moved us, and decided against it, and then moved us back and I felt kind of lost.” “Mom did this when she empty nested, and when that happened to me, I followed her.” “Mom did me a favor when she committed suicide. Because my sister and I didn’t need what she’d become in our lives. I don’t get mad, I thank her for that.” “Mom let my brothers feed me dog food so I’d learn not to listen to everything a man said.” “I live with her now, she’s on disability with cataracts. She was messed up a lot when I was a kid, but we always lived someplace okay, she made me go to school and she never made me do anything weird or be like her. She was a good mom.” “I wish my mom had known what to do with me.” “I wish I still had my mom.” “I wish I could ask my mom what to do sometimes.” “I really miss my mom.”

I was asking questions of grown women roughly my own age because I wanted to know what made a girl tick. I’m not one, so I had no idea. Every one of those answers, even paraphrased as they are, contains a novel in between the words. When you can get in between them, the words and the fences around them, there’s beauty and wisdom and insight and laughter and tears. If you look closely there’s an entire story in every one of them. Hopefully not many about desperation and loneliness because I found a few like that, along with the headstones of the women those kind of stories belonged to.

***

Women, for the most part, seem to be blessed with a “now” gene that somehow supersedes memory and pain and even us men and puts the immediacy of what’s important now in their lives right in front of them. It makes shopping for lettuce more than a couple of plastic bags and transacted commerce, makes a weekend  with the grandkids a return to being three years old instead of just bruised thighs, bad TV, a sore back and unknown but colorful sticky stuff on everything. It makes what they want from life and for their kids more important than flowers and poetry and romance. It’s amazing that they can manage all of that, be all of that, with whatever suitcase of blues they keep in their attics. It seems simple from the outside, like if they are loved and allowed to love they flourish like flowers, often in spite of the quality of the soil. Their answers may sound simple as well, but they are actually very poetic, and tell remarkable tales.

So make your girl talk to you. Dig out the real story. You might have to work for it, you might have to listen to her , but you’ll learn something fascinating about her you didn’t know. Something that might make you smile, maybe make you a little jealous or even really proud of her when she shows you where her strength, her humor, her judgement and her heart came from. What made her who she is. That for sure trumps hearing about what that bitch Audrey did at work today, right? Or that bag of lettuce and kitchen remodeling you don’t want to talk about. Some more.

 

Way More Than MIDI

For some reason, MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) seems to be getting more attention on its thirty-second birthday than it did on its thirtieth. I’ve read more misinformation than I thought possible until I realized I was reading things on the Internet. Did you know, according to RedShark, the Yamaha DX-7 was the first synthesizer to support MIDI? Strange. For those of us lucky enough to be standing in the Sequential booth at the Anaheim convention center to see it work for the very first time we saw a Sequential Prophet 600 and a Roland JP-6 play each other, and miscommunicate program changes by one number. That’s not what this is about, though. This is about celebrating more than MIDI. It’s about celebrating a little company on North First St. in San Jose, California that could see into the future.

On MIDI’s thirtieth birthday I sent Dave Smith a note telling him I’d just purchased a MIDI interface for my iPhone, and how cool was that? That same 5-pin DIN plug hadn’t changed. Of course, the 30-pin on my iPhone was doomed, but not MIDI. Dave reminded me that MIDI was still at rev 1 after all that time, and that hardware was more fun than software, cheers. And that is one of the legacies of Sequential. The resiliency of good design. When something works and people can use it; when it’s simple and elegant and deep enough to hang for a long time, particularly in the world of technology, it’s a good idea. Look at Dave Smith’s instruments now. They are sleeker and faster than the originals of 1977, and incredibly similar. Dave has always designed and built performance instruments, and thirty-two years ago MIDI was designed primarily so that physical musical instruments could discuss making music together. Yet MIDI is the defacto standard for hardware and human interfaces to discuss the making of music with pretty pictures of instruments captured under the glass of a computing device’s monitor. It doesn’t matter if it’s a USB cable or that thirty-two-year-old 5-pin DIN, the language spoken is MIDI.

In 1982 when I’d walk by and see Dave in that corner office with reams of green-bar paper and teletype pages covered in hex I had no idea. I don’t suspect that he did, either. Or he might not have given it away. That’s right, the MIDI protocol is free. A very Northern California concept. Hippie engineers making the world a better place for synthesizer players, free. Imagine. MIDI was conceived to foster a sense of modern musical community. That’s some pretty serious save-the-future tree hugger engineering for you right there.

Now for the other really important “seeing into the future” thing that rarely gets mentioned. Barb Fairhurst. What? A female vice president and business manager in 1977? In a couple of male dominated businesses? Not just technology and engineering, but the music business as well. Back in the old cigar smoke, big talk and “what can I do for you, little lady” times. Back when women were usually the vice presidents of the laundry room and the grocery store run, at Sequential we had a lady boss. Who gave this long haired kid from Oklahoma a shot at seeing the future, a coffee cup with my name on it, and made us sign things in a specific color of ink as a “standard.” Barb dealt with the business end of things, the banks, the vendors, the dealers. Us. She even handled the great “we’re not galley slaves” revolt in manufacturing when it was decided they should use anti-static wristbands that were attached to their workbenches. Walk from the “carpet” to the “tile” at Sequential back then and you got an earful from someone about indentured servitude until Barb calmed the waters.

Sequential was the heart of a romantic music-meets-technology ideal in a pragmatic world, and, as a result, is no longer with us in that little building on North First Street, but it is still with those who make modern music every day. I would like to suggest that instead of just wishing MIDI a happy thirty-second birthday we also celebrate the programmable polyphonic performance synthesizer, vector synthesis, multi-timbral workstations, the insight and wisdom of female executives and the spirit of a global musical community that rides for free on the three hot wires of that 5-pin DIN plug. That’s the real reason to be nostalgic and celebrate Dave, Barb and Sequential. To celebrate the little company so small and long ago that showed us the future.