Saturday, September 30, 2006

How Low Can You Go?

Three weeks ago, I posted the lowest gasoline price I'd seen in more than a year. Yesterday it was much lower than that. My Exxon station is now selling regular for $2.35 per gallon.

More high fives!!

An Interesting Fleck of Music

I like all forms of music and I appreciate when someone can mix and match styles. As I write this I am watching a performance by a jazz band playing intricate jazz, not the Smooth Jazz that’s on the radio. What is intriguing is that the lead instrument of this ensemble is a banjo. Yes, I said BANJO. There is also a soprano sax, a bass guitar, a drum set and some kind of guitar-looking thing I’ve never seen before.

The banjo player is awesome, his technique is part fast picking bluegrass and part rock electric guitar. He weaves melody into all of this, as well as hints of classical, all with an overlay of jazz. His picking blends perfectly with the sax player. And the bass player rivals some lead guitarists I’ve heard.

Who the hell are these guys? And what gave them the idea to put a banjo in a jazz band. And how did they know it would sound so cool? Charlie Parker meets Ricky Scaggs.

My vocabulary fails me when it comes to describing how unique their sound is. And it’s a ‘recorded-live’ performance, with a real audience and no special effects.

Now the sax player is blowing a sweet melody on a flute while the banjo is pickin’ and the bass is walking.

Who are these guys and where can I get more of their music (short of pledging a donation to the local public television station that is bringing this into my home office).

An interview clip between songs reveals the answer: Bela Fleck.

Not only have I heard of him, but I realize I have actually met him. He played some kind of music festival near Baltimore back in the 1980s. I did stage announcements for part of the event and brought him on stage. But I was distracted that day and didn’t really see him perform.

During one of the interview clips on this TV show I’m watching, he calls his group a league of unusual crafty musicians. It is so much more than that. And in digging around the internet for more information, I learn that the unusual guitar-looking thing I referred to earlier is a synthaxe drumitar, a hand-made box instrument with buttons and a guitar neck that basically serves as an electronic drum set.

Crafty musicians indeed.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

I Wanna Talk About Me

The title of this post is also the title of a country song by Toby Keith. It seems appropriate. I saw this on two other blogs and decided to try it myself. Please do the same and let me know where I can find it so I can read it. Here goes:

TEN Random Things You May Not Know About Me:
1. I played trombone in high school
2. I was a shy kid
3. I have a memory for the minute details of things most people don’t remember, such as the date, movie and restaurant of my first date with my eventual high school girlfriend; what I ordered for lunch during an interview for the job I eventually landed in Dallas; the name of the show that was starting on the TV in the next room as I was frantically trying to do whatever it was my mother said I had to do before going into that room to watch the show (my very earliest memory, by the way, at age 3 or 4); where I was sitting and the brand and color of the phone I was using during the first conversation with the woman who is now my wife; the year, make, model, color, price and seller of every car I’ve owned.
4. I really am the nice guy I seem to be but sometimes I’m a complete jerk, usually in a reactionary way.
5. I lose many inhibitions when I drink, but I remember everything the next day, which is why I don’t drink much any more.
6. I’ve dislocated my shoulder five times.
7. I was an altar boy
8. I had braces on my teeth in my 40s
9. I used to know all the words to “That’s Life” by Frank Sinatra and I recall singing it loudly with friends every Saturday night (see #5 above)
10. Casablanca is my favorite movie and I’ve seen it at least 25 times

NINE Places I've Visited:
1. The Grand Canyon
2. Jamaica
3. New York City
4. Cancun
5. Kitty Hawk, NC
6. Denver
7. California
8. Hawaii
9. Dauphin Island, Alabama

EIGHT Ways to Win My Heart:
1. Pay attention to me
2. Be honest
3. Don’t think I’m any less of a man because I’m an emotional romantic
4. Make me laugh
5. Share parts of your life with me but don’t completely change your life just for me.
6. Be healthy, stay healthy
7. Kiss me when I’m not expecting it
8. Accept me for who I am and I’ll do the same for you

SEVEN Things I Want to Do Before I Die:
1. Hike the Bright Angel Trail into the Grand Canyon, spend the night at Phantom Ranch and hike back out the next day.
2. Visit Italy
3. Host a TV show
4. Learn to speak another language
5. Graduate college
6. Write and publish a book
7. Learn latin dancing

SIX Things I'm Afraid Of:
1. Dying in a car crash
2. Not being remembered
3. Making a fool of myself in front of thousands of people
4. Being completely broke and in debt with no local job options (been there, done that, don’t want to go through that again).
5. Falling off a ladder
6. Spiders

FIVE Things I Don't Like:
1. Dishonest people
2. Reality TV shows
3. Too much perfume or cologne
4. People who quit trying
5. Sushi

FOUR Ways to Turn Me Off:
1. Lie to me
2. Tell me you don’t believe me
3. Light up a cigarette
4. Act in a completely obnoxious way in front of my friends or coworkers

THREE Things I Do Every Day:
1. Drink coffee.
2. Read
3. Take a shower

TWO Things that Make Me Happy:
1. A beautiful sunset
2. Strolling along an empty beach holding hands with a woman I really like/love while watching a beautiful sunset.

ONE Thing On My Mind Right Now:
1. I am on the verge of big changes in my life. I don’t know what they are or what part of my life they involve. I’m afraid of them and ready to embrace them, with equal amounts of intensity. I don’t know what action(s) to take but I’m completely confident I’ll figure it out. Status quo is not an option. And I’m not completely sure why I’m sharing this with you, because I probably don’t know you.

Monday, September 25, 2006

AM Radio and the Saints

Tonight the New Orleans Saints played their first game in the Superdome since Hurricane Katrina damaged the facility last year. I would have been watching the game on TV but I was out having dinner with an old friend I hadn’t seen in 10 years. I met her boyfriend for the first time tonight and they gave me the good news that they are now engaged. I was in a reminiscing mood and wanted to at least hear some of the game on my long ride home.

Something that boomers might know and Gen-Xers might not realize is that AM radio station signals often reach out for long distances at night. I discovered this as a kid and remembered it tonight as I got out of range of my local sports station which does NOT have one of those signals. And I remembered the dial position of the New Orleans station that carries the Saints games … click, click, click … buzz, hiss, click … “there’s a time out on the field. You’re listening to the New Orleans Saints Radio Network. This is AM870, WWL, New Orleans.”

Wow! I’m listening to a radio station live from my hometown, the Saints game I hear is the first one played in New Orleans since last August and the Saints are actually winning at halftime!

All of this nostalgia took me back to my teen years when I used to stay up late at night with my little transistor radio listening to AM stations from all across the country. Yes, I was a radio geek even then and this late-night dial-tuning adventure led to my career and to my desire to work in many cities: Cincinnati, Des Moines, Denver, New York, Atlanta. WLAC in Nashville had a DJ with a cool name: Spyder Harrison. KAAY, Little Rock transformed itself every night at 10 from a teeny bopper station playing the Top 40 to a rock “underground” station calling itself Beeker Street. WFAA in Dallas and WBAP in Ft. Worth used to switch frequencies with each other twice a day (I never learned why). WOAI, San Antonio had a live Saturday night broadcast from a stage on the river that runs through the middle of town.

I eventually lived in three of the cities from which I heard stations, Dallas, Baltimore and Chicago. I remember hearing a weather forecast one night on WLS, Chicago … the low tonight will be -3 and tomorrow it’ll get up to 7 … and wondered why anyone would want to live in that climate. Fifteen years later I was walking through snow to a bus stop on my way to work in the Hancock Center.

One message being sent by citizens and business owners in New Orleans is that they want to rebuild. They have the spirit and energy and try to show it off whenever they can. This is a big deal to them to have this game in the Superdome and national TV (even if it’s only ESPN and not one of the “big three”). They want to show the world that they can rise from the floods and devastation. And I’m feeling the spirit while listening to the game on my AM radio.

Laissez les bons temps rouler! Let the good times roll!

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Accidental Friends

It amazes me how often random meetings can lead to good, long-lasting friendships.

Some meetings are predictable, such as with people we encounter at work, in social organizations or at school. Even those meetings can be random, however. The last name of my best friend in high school starts with L; so does mine. We sat near each other in the alphabetized order of a Catholic high school. He and I are still in touch.

One of the most significant dating relationships of my twenties was with a woman I met at a pizza parlor. I was a DJ there and she came in with friends who had heard this place had a DJ who played oldies on stage. She and I haven’t been close in decades but we are still in touch.

Another long-time friend was a co-worker of hers. We became friends and have remained friends over three decades, even though I now live in Maryland and she now lives in Hawaii.

A friend from Wisconsin has a boyfriend stationed at a military base near here. She is visiting this week. She has known her boyfriend for a year; she’s known me for 28 years. Our accidental meeting was at an electronics store. Her boyfriend at that time was the store manager and I was a radio DJ doing a live show from the store.

Email, a technology I could not have imagined when I met these friends, plays a large role in sustaining the friendships. I can go a decade without seeing the friends I refer to in this post, but we’ll email as little as every few months to as much as every few days. In our letter-writing days, we might be in touch once or twice a year. Phone calls fall somewhere between these two extremes.

Bad grades led to my first romance. I had to repeat chemistry class one summer but there weren’t enough failing chemistry students at my all-boys high school that year, so I went to a nearby all-girls high school. My lab partner and I apparently had chemistry. She and I were an item through the rest of high school and part of college. We eventually went our own separate ways but we’re still in touch.

Perhaps the only meeting more random than that the one in which my wife and I met. She answered my Personals Ad. While it’s true that I was literally advertising for friendship, it is so accidental that I should place an ad on the day of the deadline for that month’s magazine and that she should read that ad the day it came out. Hers was one of fifteen replies to my ad, but hers was THE most interesting.

Are these friendships the result of accidental randomness or fate? Who knows? Either way, I value the friendships as much as family.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

A Blue Pill or Free Tow Truck?

Mark Martin is the most obvious boomer-age driver in NASCAR. He is a 47-year-old with graying hair. And his sponsor from 2001 through the 2005 season was … Viagra.

I’m happy to point out that his primary sponsor this season is AAA. Sponsoring a popular NASCAR driver can be an uplifting experience for either company, leading to stronger sales and bigger profits. Some sponsorships just lead to embarrassing commentary. The late Alan Kulwicki is the only driver I ever knew; at one time his sponsor was Hooters.

Martin consistantly finishes in the top 5 in NASCAR Cup races, he has won 35 of them since the late 1980s and has finished second in the Nextel Cup Series (formerly known as the Winston Cup Series) point standings four times. Today, however, he came in 11th. Jimmie Johnson, the driver I usually cheer for, crashed midway through the race and finished near the end. Thirty-year-old Kevin Harvick won today.

There are at least five other noteworthy boomer drivers in NASCAR. Ken Shrader is 51, Rusty Wallace just turned 50, Dale Jarrett will turn 50 in November, Joe Nemechek has a 43rd birthday this month and Bobby Labonte is 42.

Going into today’s race, Mark Martin was the only boomer in the chase for the cup (the top ten drivers in the points standings are racing for the championship in the season’s remaining races). He’s still in it.

Dale Earnhardt was just short of his 50th birthday and seconds from a 3rd place finish at the 2001 Daytona 500 when he was killed as he slammed into the wall in the last lap. He finished 2nd in points the year before and I bet he’d still be racing now (he’d be 55).

NASCAR is big business these days, and sponsors spend big money for the visibility and association with winning drivers. Fans can identify with the sponsors and feel an additional connection to the drivers. Part of why I like Jimmie Johnson is that Lowe’s is his sponsor. I pay attention to Tony Stewart too; his # 20 car boasts a big Home Depot logo. And Matt Kenseth drives the Dewalt #17. Those are all good drivers and I like their sponsors.

I’m an AAA member and that may be why I feel some connection with boomer Mark Martin. But don’t make any assumptions about his previous sponsor and my interesting in his career.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Five Years Later

There have been a few days over the past century in the United States in which an unimaginable event has happened, a tragic event that affects the whole country, a day on which everyone remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. December 7, 1941, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, is one of those days, for example, and November 22, 1963, the assassination of President Kennedy, is another.

September 11, 2001 is also one of those days. And now, five years later, the events of that day have led to patterns of life that affect us every day … like bomb-sniffing dogs at train stations and removing our shoes to board an airplane. And go bags.

You probably remember your story from that day and might be thinking about it today.

This is mine: I was stuck in traffic on the way to a 9:00 am doctor’s appointment. When I arrived, no one at his office had heard the news till I mentioned it. Two hours later I stepped into the sun-drenched gridlock of Bethesda, Maryland, a few miles northwest of Washington DC.

By that time all federal and local government offices had been evacuated, resulting in the gridlock. Most other businesses closed over the next few hours. The drive back to my office, usually 15 minutes from Bethesda, lasted more than an hour. It took most of that hour to get a cell phone call through to my wife, who was working from home that day and had not yet heard the news. She turned on the TV and confirmed the horrible facts my mind could not accept from hearing about them on the radio: hijacked airliners had been intentionally crashed into the World Trade Center towers, the two tallest buildings in the world had indeed completely collapsed and another plane had hit the Pentagon.

The first two paragraphs of this post also open an hour-long radio special I wrote, produced and hosted. I interviewed someone who was on duty at the Air Traffic Control System Command Center when the hijacks were first called in, a cognitive behavior therapist who discusses how children deal with disaster and two officials from a local homeland security department who talk about emergency preparedness then and now.

My guests at the beginning and end of the special are two colleagues with compelling stories from that day, a communications consultant who hosts some of the shows I produce (she’s known in the blog world as
Diner Girl) and the radio personality I was listening to as the news broke that morning.

Two questions I asked each guest: what does 9/11 mean to you now and are we prepared for another attack? You can download
the show to hear their thoughtful answers.

Here are my thoughts:

I think we’re more prepared to combat terrorism than we were five years ago, both as a country and as individuals. But I’m concerned that we might forget how vulnerable we still are.

September 11th serves an important purpose: it’s an annual reminder that in the face of unspeakable tragedy, Americans can set aside differences and egos and unite to help each other out. There were thousands of heroes that day and we must never forget them and their actions. The one singular good thing that happened that day, in my opinion, is that we as a nation of both friends and strangers came together like family. That is a feeling I want to remember.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Live Long and Prosper

Star Trek turned 40 yesterday. The show premiered September 8, 1966. That year we also saw the first episodes of Mission Impossible, the Monkees and Batman.

What else was going on that year? The Beatles performed their last public concert and Janis Joplin did one of her first. Janet Jackson was born and Walt Disney died. The NFL and the AFL merged.

Star Trek was often a political statement about peace and understanding disguised as a science fiction adventure. Kirk, Spock, Ohura, Scottie, Checkov and Sulu functioned well as a multi-cultural team while our country faced race riots and the Viet Nam war. There were plot lines about racial harmony and the futility of war … a little preachy perhaps but appealing to my own sensibilities.

In Kirk’s world, space travel was routine, not just to other planets but to other solar systems as well. In our world a manned lunar landing was still nearly 3 years away.

Star Trek seems to have influenced parts of our future. Men and women of various races and cultures now work together in space. Kirk’s communicator looks a lot like the Motorola StarTac cell phone I just gave up after five years. I bet the name of my cell phone model is no coincidence.

One irony of this story is that Star Trek did not do well in the ratings and was cancelled after 3 seasons. Fiercely loyal fans went where no group had gone before, however, and kept the show alive in syndication and merchandising. Six TV shows and ten feature films were spun off from the original series. Many of the characters and their mannerisms have become part of our culture. Lead actor William Shatner is still on TV.

Boomers like me were fascinated by space flight. Americans first flew in space in the 1960s and as a kid I watched many launches on television. Now, 40 years later, I’m watching live coverage of a space shuttle launch as I write this paragraph …

“… five, four, three, … three main engines up and burning, one … liftoff …. beginning a new chapter in the completion of the international space station for the collaboration of nations in space ...”

The synergy between the anniversary of Star Trek and the launch of Atlantis is thrilling for me. I feel like a kid again, except that today I’m watching a launch live on my laptop computer, with NASA TV on the lower half of the monitor and this paragraph on the top, while simultaneously viewing pictures from MSNBC’s coverage on a large TV to my left. In 1966 our one family TV had a big cabinet with a small screen and computers were the size of a classroom and only found in colleges, businesses and government installations.

The NASA narrator’s launch sentence above might not be as profound as Kirk’s opening but the idea is the same.

Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before.

Happy Birthday, Star Trek. May your legacy live long and prosper.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Only 2.75

Gas is only $2.75/gallon today! Woohoo!

I can't believe I'm doing mental hi-fives at the Exxon because gas is ONLY 2.75!! I'm happy the price is going down. I paid $3.09 per gallon at this same station just 2 months ago. I've paid as much as $3.59, shortly after Katrina.

But even $2.75 seems high. Only 20 years ago we were horrified that the price had crossed the dollar-a-gallon line.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Fall, Loss and Renewal

A couple of bloggers I regularly read (Diner Girl and KJ) recently pointed out that they look at September as the beginning of the year rather than January. One speculated this was a throwback to the beginning of the school year.

Fall used to be my favorite time of year, with fall colors, a chill in the air and yes, a connection to the beginning of school years past.

September 1 is now a very awkward day for me. That is the birthday of two very dear, long-time friends, a 40-something in Wisconsin and a 30-something in England. But that is now also the anniversary of my Mother’s death, partly at the hands of Hurricane Katrina.

Labor Day used to be a family gathering day, with a barbeque at Aunt Catherine’s house and hours spent viewing the Jerry Lewis Telethon. In the days of 4 channels instead of 400, that event was a great singular showcase of entertainment wrapped in the good feeling of supporting a worthy cause. School started the next day, so this was the real end of summer fun for us. Last Labor Day Weekend was a family event because of the long drive my sister and I took from Louisiana to Maryland, in her little car filled with all she was able to take with her as she fled Katrina days before.

But Fall really lost its charm for me in 2001. The terrorist attacks of September 11th were followed by the heart-wrenching decision to move my parents to a nursing home in October, followed by my Dad’s death there in November. Just in time for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I already had trouble with the holidays, although I didn’t really know why till that year. A psychologist I interviewed on the radio pointed out that holiday depression is a feeling of loss. In adult life, the holidays often don’t live up to expectations formed by the holiday celebrations and rituals of our youth. That year was the most extreme example for me.

The Fall of 2002 wasn’t much better. The “sniper” incident that made national news started and ended in my neck of the woods. John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo began their killing spree near where I work and were caught weeks later just 3 miles from where I live. We moved way the hell out here to get away from some of the insanity of DC and it’s suburbs and it followed us.

Everyone faces loss during their lives, but this is an especially big boomer issue. We are at the age when we lose our parents, lose our youth, and sometimes lose our jobs. Boomers with children feel some loss as their offspring move on into their own adult lives. We often lose the sense of purpose in our lives.

This should be a good time of life for us, however, because we can now become who we really want to be. We can choose which of the life lessons we learned from our parents apply to the life we want to live. We can celebrate where we’ve been in our careers as we choose to change careers or direction. We can redefine the word “retirement” to mean a beginning rather than an end and plan accordingly.

The days are noticeably shorter this week, there is a chill in the air, the Jerry Lewis Telethon is on one of the seventy-eight available channels and tomorrow school busses will slow my commute to work. Soon the leaves will turn yellow and gold. Birds will fly south, squirrels will gather nuts and our sweaters will migrate to the cleaners.

My busiest work season starts in two weeks and that’ll be a great diversion for my annual emotional hibernation. New Year’s Day has become my favorite holiday. I throw out the old, bring in the new and begin a nearly month-long process of renewal that ends with my birthday. January sets the tone for my year. I look at where my life has been for the past year and contemplate where it will go in the coming year.

I still enjoy the beauty of Fall, but my usually optimistic nature takes a vacation from September through December. My sunny disposition is more Mardi Gras mask than reality at this time of year.

What gets me through this?

I know it’s only 118 days, 12 hours and 8 minutes till New Year’s Day.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Putting it off … Again

I promised an update on my return to college. Here it is: I failed. The deadline is Tuesday, the day after Labor Day. I have done nothing up to this point.

Today (Sunday) I read many pages of the UMUC web site, particularly those providing a reality check on the topic of online learning. This is the paragraph that led to my decision to wait:

Planning and organization: Online students need disciplined work habits, effective time management skills, and the ability to work both alone and collaboratively. Students should expect to devote 9 to 12 hours per week to coursework for a three-credit class.

I have disciplined work habits, effective time management skills, etc. … at work. But my job demands flexibility (frequent overtime and odd hours) and my commute demands 2 hours of stressful driving. After reading the above paragraph, I decided I need to be even more disciplined in order to pull off this online college thing.

The fact that I am rushing to get into a class right at the deadline date tells me this isn’t the semester for me.

My revised plan: I’ll meet an advisor in October, start the admissions process and try again for next semester.

Feel free to kick my butt.