Friday Afternoon Potpourri: On the Rebound Edition

Last Sunday brought a relapse of the grippe that had afflicted me a week earlier, but once again, I hope to find myself on the mend. In the meantime…

***

Once again, I consider myself fortunate to be teaching online this month, and since I’ve taught this course online in past terms, I’ve been able to get my work done even given my current lack of strength/stamina. I’ve also been able to get a little reading done, revisiting Jerry Healy’s Cuddy novel Swan Dive and finally beginning Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder series with its initial novel, The Hot Rock.

I met Mr. Healy at an academic conference about crime fiction at my doctoral institution, and started reading the Cuddy series almost immediately thereafter — fortunately, the public library in Muncie had several installments, which convinced me to find the others at a local used paperback store. Swan Dive is the fourth in the series about the Boston-based PI, and it’s one that I guess I last read in Muncie while the Spawn played with plastic dinosaurs in the children’s section of the Kennedy Library, a building that was exactly as mid-1960s as the name would indicate. I certainly didn’t remember much of the plot, but there were enough echoes that I recognized having read the book before.

I’ve said before that while the Cuddy series is overshadowed by Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels, they work in different ways. Parker’s novels are the stuff of capital-R Romance, the “parfit, gentil knight” Spenser and his Lady Susan, where “forever wilt thou love and she be fair.” That’s not a knock — Parker knew he was working a mythopoeic side of the street (after all, his own dissertation was a Frygean study of the hard-boiled PI), and while it got a bit labored by the time he left us after forty Spenser novels, each book brings us a share of appropriately vanquished dragons in Parker’s astonishingly engaging voice. And when that’s all said and done, a hell of a lot of people (including Your Genial Host) dig it.

But Cuddy lives in a darker world. When we meet him, he is a widower, his wife Beth having died of cancer some time before. Many of the books include the hero having imaginary conversations with Beth at her gravesite, which he tends regularly. While Spenser has his core group of allies and supporters (most notably Susan and Hawk, but eventually expanding into a veritable Rainbow Coalition of tough guys), Cuddy is a much more isolated character in what seems to me to be a more realistic, or at least more dangerous milieu. Certainly Cuddy seems to suffer a great deal more than Spenser; while Spenser does have some near-death experiences (at the hands of April Kyle and The Gray Man), I don’t recall his getting pummeled to the extent that Cuddy does on several occasions. In Frygean terms, the Spenser books are largely summery in nature, while Cuddy’s stories have a distinctly autumnal tone.

Image by Robert D. Denham. Source.

(Side note: At this point it’s tempting to try to draw a parallel between these mythoi and the lives and deaths of Parker and Healy respectively, but that feels too easy to me. End of side note.)

In Swan Dive, Cuddy is hired to bodyguard a woman in the midst of a divorce. The client’s estranged husband (and principal threat, and generally nasty piece of business) turns up dead along with a prostitute. Cuddy is a suspect and has to solve the case in order to clear himself, and along the way finds himself facing drug dealers, an eccentric pimp, coked-out attorneys, and policemen who range from uncommitted to actively hostile. While kinds of justice are done (there were five more books in the series, after all), they aren’t especially tidy. But the book is genuinely satisfying, or at least I found it that way, and maybe you will as well.

Westlake’s Dortmunder adventures are caper comedies, and have a devoted following. The protagonist, John Dortmunder, is a gifted criminal mastermind who just can’t seem to catch a break. The first novel involves his assembling an elite team of criminal oddballs to steal an emerald from one African nation for the benefit of a neighboring nation. So they do. But then they have to steal it again, this time from where it was hidden. And again. And again, under progressively difficult circumstances each time. The fun is in watching the exasperated criminals operating professionally in increasingly absurd circumstances. The Hot Rock is a quick read — I read it last night after dinner. Tonight I’ll take a look at Bank Shot, the second in the series. Both Swan Dive and Hot Rock are recommended.

***

Speaking of writing, the contents of Jack Calverley’s Death of a Bad Neighbour (Jack’s British, hence the U in Neighbour) antho have been announced, and you’ll find at least one familiar name at the book’s website. The website is a work in progress, but does include that contents list, along with a chance to sign up for updates, so why not swing by?

Meanwhile, Black Is the Night, the Cornell Woolrich-themed anthology that contains my story “The Jacket” is available for order through the usual suspects. In addition to my own story, you’ll find the work of James Sallis, Joe R, Lansdale, and others, as well as an introduction and Woolrich appreciation by Neil Gaiman. That one comes out in early October, making me a fine belated birthday gift. And as ever, thanks to everyone who shows interest in that part of my life.

***

The music news today is largely focused on the COVID-related death of Michael (ne Marvin) Aday, much better known under his stage name of Meat Loaf. His frequent collaborator Jim Steinman left us last year, and between Steinman’s teenaged Wagnerian epics and Meat Loaf’s rock and roll heidentenor (his range allegedly running from F2 to Bb6), we have perhaps the most genuine example of rock opera, “Bohemian Rhapsody” notwithstanding.

But Meat Loaf was not the only rocker with a taste for high drama that we’ve lost of late. R. Dean Taylor, the first white artist signed to a Motown label, died on 7 January at the age of 82. He co-wrote the Supremes’ hit “Love Child”, but may be best remembered for his own big hit “Indiana Wants Me“, which hit #1 in the Cashbox charts in 1970. “Indiana”, complete with sound effects that would have made Shadow Morton flinch, is considered to be a first-order slab of ’70s cheese, in the class of Clint Holmes’s “Playground In My Mind” and Terry Jacks’s version of “Seasons in the Sun“, both of which are doubtless on Satan’s iPod (Indeed, not even Link Wray’s guitar could redeem “Seasons.”). As the kids say, “Cringe.”

However, the song I associate with Taylor is one I bought at a garage sale when I was about nine or ten, chiefly because the 45 was on translucent red vinyl, and I thought the label (from Motown subsidiary Rare Earth) looked equally trippy. “Gotta See Jane” was originally released in 1968, and made the top 20 in Canada and the UK as a 1970 single. A subsequent release in 1974 made #41 in the US. Like “Indiana”, the track has gratuitous sound effects and a high-bombast production approach by Taylor himself. This put it right in the wheelhouse of the pre-teen Prof, and in those years before I discovered the Beatles, I spun the heck out of this one. In retrospect, I’m surprised my parents didn’t hide it, but in the words of the Widow Loman, attention must be paid.

See you soon!

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Tuesday Potpourri: Perhaps I Should Have Eased More Gently

Although I no longer do New Year’s Resolutions, a common one for lots of folks is to lose ten to fifteen pounds. Mission accomplished, but alas, I did so via some sort of stomach virus that knocked fifteen off me in the course of about three days, and that’s even with having a unit of IV fluids pumped into me. Whatever it was, it was neither the Rona nor the traditional flu — I was tested for both. Clearly, I’m wasting away to enormous. But I seem to be back on the uptick; I’m still pretty tired, but I’d put myself at about 80% this afternoon, and that’s probably good enough to drop back in.

***

The Spawn and Main Squeeze each have overcoats we got them from Land’s End — red for the Spawn and yellow for the Squeeze. Apparently there were things we didn’t take into account. The Spawn reports that they were out somewhere earlier today and heard someone holler at them, “I see you, ketchup and mustard!” The girls thought it was funny, though, and so do I, so I’m glad they were gracious enough to let me mention it here.

***

While I’ve been laid up, I used some of the time to keep working my way through the stack of books I received for Christmas. In particular, I’ve continued my tour of Ross Thomas’s work, having finished The Fools in Town Are on Our Side (1970), Chinaman’s Chance (1978), and Briarpatch (1984). The last of these has recently been made into a TV series, although several of the characters have been cast cross-gender. I’ve not seen the show, although it seems to be pretty well received. The book, however, is excellent, and I can see how it pulled down an Edgar (Best Novel, 1985). El Bee observes that Thomas never wrote a bad sentence, and having read through more than half a dozen of the novels at this point, I certainly can’t argue. The book opens with an allusion to Raymond Chandler’s 1938 short “Red Wind”, but almost immediately explodes our assumptions about where it’s going to go. The book’s protagonist is investigating his sister’s murder, while also doing his part in an ongoing federal investigation. Like many of Thomas’s protagonists, Benjamin Dill is not precisely amoral, but he exists in the thoroughly amoral world of politics, and does what he sees as necessary, sometimes surprising himself a bit in the process. Describing Thomas’s political tone as disillusioned would be understatement — Juvenalian might be more accurate. If you aren’t a political cynic going into these books, you’ll likely be one when you come out.

Mr. Block also informs me that Thomas wrote Chinaman’s Chance after someone told him that books about “Chinamen and dwarfs” never sell. (Thomas’s subsequent book, logically enough, was The Eighth Dwarf, but I haven’t read it yet.) Chance is the first of what proved to be a trilogy of adventures featuring Artie Wu and Quincy Durant, but I wound up reading them in reverse order. The plot involves a missing folksinger, a murdered Congressman, and two million dollars squirreled away during the Fall of Saigon. Our heroes are engaged to find the first (who was having an affair with the second), while they themselves hope for at least a piece of the third. This brings us to another of Thomas’s strengths — most of the books I’ve read so far essentially tend to be caper novels, and the plotting is remarkably intricate, though never muddled. The stories are suspenseful without becoming unnecessarily confusing — the characters generally distrust one another, typically with good reason, and the reader is kept in suspense accordingly.

As I’ve noted in the past, though, I tend not to read these books for the puzzle elements, but for things like character and voice, and for me, the characters of Wu, Durant, and their frequent accomplice Maurice “Otherguy” Overby are all intensely entertaining rogues, perversely charming schemers who may occasionally do appalling things, but they do them to people and agencies who are far more appalling, so what’s not to like?

Finally, Fools, according to LB, is probably Thomas’s best work. It’s certainly his richest, serving as both a political caper and as an autobiography of protagonist Lucifer C. Dye. Like his namesake, Lucifer (a former CIA operative) is a tempter, hired to help subvert a city (modeled, I’m told, on Shreveport — I’m proud to say I had suspected as much before I was told) for the benefit of the People Who Would Pull the Strings. The plotline includes significant nods to Red Harvest, but again, I would argue that in its exploration of Dye’s character, it is a deeper, richer work than its model. After I finished reading it, I told Mr. Block that it may be “the best, bleakest caper novel I’ve ever read.” If that’s something you might look for, you won’t go wrong. All of Thomas’s books I’ve read so far are highly recommended.

***

Next on the fiction list is Steven Womack’s By Blood Written, a standalone that I hope will get me back in the mood for the long-awaited ninth installment of his Nashville-based Harry James Denton PI series. That one comes out at the beginning of February, and I’ve already pre-ordered it. You may want to do so as well.

***

I thought I’d step into the 1970s for today’s musical closer. Robert A. Johnson (not that Robert Johnson) is a guitarist based in Memphis. By the time he was in his twenties, he was considered as a replacement for Mick Taylor in the Stones, and was the lead guitarist for John Entwistle’s solo project, Ox, from 1974-77. This song comes from Johnson’s 1978 album Close Personal Friend, and is a nifty bit of power pop with a certain degree of pyrotechnic fretwork. The album made it into the lower reaches of the top 200, but didn’t really do as well as it should have (Honestly, I can’t imagine the haircut helped). Johnson apparently remains in the business. So from 1978, this is “I’ll Be Waiting.”

See you soon!

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Easing Into 2022

So here we are, not just turning the calendar’s page, but hanging a new calendar altogether. I’m in my office for the first time in a couple of weeks, getting ready for the online Brit survey class that begins tomorrow. But it’s been a week or so since I last checked in, so…

***

The Spawn and Main Squeeze went back to Terpville on Wednesday — I probably won’t get to see them in person again until Commencement in May, but it was good having them here for a week. Mrs. M and I chauffeured them to an airport about an hour up the road; actually, Mrs. M drove up, while I drove us back. And on the way back, we stopped and picked up a few provisions, most notably a large jar of one of my favorite hot sauces (from a restaurant I discovered back when the Berries were in the recording studio). I’ve already put the sauce to work, making roast-beef-and-swiss hoagies for the last few days. Meanwhile, the eagle-eyed Mrs. M spotted some cans of my favorite Cincinnati-style chili on sale at a grocery near the restaurant, so there was at least some compensation for having to let the girls go.

(I know, I know — I have canned Cincinnati-style chili more or less on a weekly basis, but it’s a generic version. If you’re actually from the area, you can tell the difference, and the Skyline-vs.-Gold Star-vs.-Dixie Chili debate is real. Ideally, you get it at diner/greasy-spoon style joints known as parlors, but we expats do the best we can.)

***

The holiday brought plenty of reading material, which I’ve poked at between football games, or perhaps among them, as I’ve watched more than two over the break. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that I started with Jeffrey Meyers’s Johnson bio. Having read several other Johnson biographies, I didn’t run into a great deal of new information, but Meyers tells the Cham’s story efficiently enough, and draws upon Boswell’s suppressed material (and that of others) in order to support his text. This does not mean the book is without factual errors — there are at least a couple (Goldsmith’s burial site and the location of Tom Davies’s bookshop). Meyers also spends considerable time dwelling on Johnson’s probable masochism — I think his case is pretty solid, but as at least one Amazon reviewer observed, Johnson’s own salvation anxiety was a much greater and more definite source of torment than the manacles with which he entrusted Hester Thrale.

I think the book’s chief strength is found in its title; this bio is not intended to be hagiographical, nor should it have been — Johnson was far more complicated than hagiography allows. Nonetheless, by giving a reasonably deep look at Johnson’s various physical and psychological anguishes, Meyers vividly portrays Johnson’s sufferings. I would argue that in the process, he actually demonstrates that Johnson’s flaws and triumphs stemmed from the same sources. His work was remarkable in and of itself — that it was accomplished “amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow” makes it heroic, and reminds us that for all his flaws (including those Boswell tried to skip), Johnson gives us much to admire. . . and I still do admire him.

***

A much shorter read was an early effort in the genre we now call the graphic novel, Dark Horse’s 2007 reprint of It Rhymes with Lust. The 1950 collaboration between Arnold Drake and Leslie Waller (writers) and artists Matt Baker and Ray Oslin was published by St. John Publications, which fans of crime fiction will recognize as the company that published the legendary Manhunt magazine. The idea behind the “picture novel” was to provide a bridge between comic books (still seen as juvenilia at the time) and adult literature. (That’s not adult in the Tijuana Bible sense, by the way — while there’s plenty of allusion to the titular sin, the action is kept off-panel.) There’s nothing in the story that will surprise folks who are familiar with the genre, and indeed, I don’t think it pushes any boundaries that EC wasn’t simultaneously trampling, but it’s executed in a workmanlike manner, and an interesting example of a work that was a few decades ahead of its time.

I’m currently working my way through Ross Thomas’s The Fools in Town Are on Our Side. I’m not very far into the plot at this point — really, much of the novel’s first part provides us with the narrator’s voice and back story. But that narrator (the wonderfully named Lucifer C. Dye) is intriguing to a fault — which I suspect may be part of the point. As with Milton’s Satan, we’re meeting a character we almost certainly can’t trust — but we’re interested in him, and eager to see how things turn out for him. I’ll let you know if and when my thoughts change.

***

So let’s wrap things up with a bit of music, huh? Tony Hiss’s introduction to Fools suggests that one of the reasons Thomas seems to have swiftly receded into obscurity is because with the end of the Cold War (which provided the milieu for much of Thomas’s fiction), the work has become less accessible for post-1990 readers, and although it may not seem like it to folks like me, that’s been a while.

[Side Note: I had a brief exchange with my friend the Mad Dog last night regarding the recent death of Betty White. I suggested that while Ms. White was indeed a good performer (and even more importantly, apparently a good person), the sort of social totemization she underwent in her last years and that now culminates is a different sort of phenomenon. I contend that what we are seeing is in fact a manifestation of a 20th-21st-C. mass media pastoral myth. We’re observing the passage of the pop cultural figures of the 60s, 70s, and 80s (Mary Tyler Moore! The Golden Girls!), and therefore have to acknowledge the passage of the relatively monolithic media landscape of a demographic’s youth, with the accompanying youthful innocence. As always, it’s Margaret we mourn for. As I pointed out to the Mad Dog, while he and I may think of nostalgia as focusing on the 1950s — Happy Days was popular in our youth, after all — many (most?) of the people who experienced 1950s culture as adults have now joined the majority (If Happy Days begins in, say, 1955, then Fonzie and Richie are likely in his mid-to-late 80s now.) In turn, the era most folks online look back on with nostalgia would be the 80s, which after all were about 40 years ago. As I told the Mad Dog, we’re older than we think. This earned me a “Shut up.” End of Side Note.]

But today’s song is also a product of that Cold War. The Hunters were a Dutch band (although there was also a British band of the same name) that featured a young man named Jan Akkerman on guitar. Akkerman would go on to achieve considerable fame as guitar hero for 70s prog rockers Focus (best remembered for their blast of weirdness, “Hocus Pocus”, but they were really much more than that.) But here he is as a relative youngster, with 1966’s “The Russian Spy and I.”

See you soon!

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Boxing Day Update…

So I cleaned up the Christmas dinner a little while ago. Let me explain.

After yesterday’s post, the turkey was in the oven and Clan Mondo (with Special Guest Star The Main Squeeze) was kicking back. Mrs. M was watching Wheel of Time, the Spawn and Main Squeeze were noodling around online, and I was getting ready to watch my doctoral institution’s football team take part in the Camellia Bowl.

And then everything stopped. At least, everything involving electricity did. I called the city’s public works department and reported the outage, which apparently affected a fair chunk of our neighborhood near the college. The power was eventually restored, but by then, the turkey (in our electric oven) had been sitting a while, and we were a bit squeamish about finishing the cooking after the lengthy interruption. So the ladies had leftovers last night — and to make sure they had enough, I got takeout from a local Chinese restaurant. I felt very New York. And when I saw the result of the Camellia Bowl, I realized I hadn’t really missed that much.

This morning, Mrs. M went out, found some more turkey, and we had the more traditional Yuletide feast this evening, with those leftovers on the menu for the next couple of days. And that’s fine. While our Christmas dinner was postponed, I’m really grateful to the public works folks whose Christmas afternoon was interrupted for our benefit. At the very least, I hope they had hot plates waiting for them when they returned home. I’m also grateful for our neighbors at the Chinese restaurant, whose decision to open yesterday made our evening easier.

***

Today, the girls all went to donate blood. I’m ineligible until the end of January, having done my usual bit after Thanksgiving, so I stayed home and removed Turkey 2: Electric Birdaloo from the oven at the appropriate juncture. I missed a little excitement when the Spawn had a quick fainting episode after getting bandaged up, but everyone made it home safely.

And while I know I’m late to the party, the Spawn introduced me to one of her favorite TV series — What We Do In the Shadows — this afternoon. I think I’ll be watching this a lot in the coming weeks. Thanks, kid!

***

Whether you’re back in the saddle tomorrow or you have more time off ahead of you, I hope your weekend and holidays have been comforting and rewarding. Stay well, and I’ll see you soon!

Posted in Culture, Faith, Family, Music, Why I Do What I Do | 1 Comment

Merry Christmas, 2021

I was the last to sleep last night, and last to rise this morning, at about 9:30. My haul included about ten books (including some Ross Thomas and Donald Westlake, along with relatively recent bios of Housman and, of course, Johnson.) I also added to my collection of illustrated T-shirts, and courtesy of the Spawn and Main Squeeze, a 4-CD set of surf-era instros. But the best part, after all, is being together.

Wherever you are today, I hope it’s as good a place as it can be.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Clockwise from top left: The Main Squeeze, the Spawn, Mrs. M, and Your Genial (if Bedheaded and Squinty) Host.
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Friday Afternoon Potpourri: ‘Twas the Day before Christmas Edition

Many of Mrs. M’s preparations for Christmas dinner are underway. The Spawn and Main Squeeze are chatting with her and (I suspect) looking at pictures of something cute, judging from the choruses of “Aw”s drifting down the stairs to me. The weather is less than Currier and Ives — it’s sunny and in the low 60s, and probably a little warmer for tomorrow — but the atmosphere inside the Mid-Century Mondohaus is as it should be.

***

The girls’ flight from Terpville was delayed about an hour on Wednesday, but the terminal in Greenville has comfortable seating and WiFi, so my wait there was pleasant enough. After getting them to the car, we swung by a Whole Foods to pick up some allergy-friendly treats for the Spawn and some other stuff for the Squeeze.

The Spawn has been living up in Terpville for two and a half years now, and the Squeeze has basically spent her whole life at that end of the BosNYWash megalopolis, so it’s funny to see and hear them react to things like the large, spacious parking lots and large stretches of open country down here. After all, they only get down here at this time of year, so there is some adjustment going on — just as Mrs. M and I have to adjust to the urban landscape when we’re up there.

Private and public urban areas need living bridges to lead wildlife... |  Download Scientific Diagram

I did my bit at Whole Foods as well, picking up some high-end egg nog in the dairy section. The Squeeze had never tried the stuff before, so I thought it’d be nice to let her try a fancier version than I usually get.

Yesterday I picked up a few last items to make sure we would be sufficiently stocked for the weekend, and then this afternoon the ladies and I watched Encanto, the new Disney animated movie. It was what my folks used to call a “cute movie,” but of course the best part for me was getting to spend time with the kids. Tomorrow’s viewing is The Lion in Winter, which I haven’t seen in a few years, but hey — it’s set at Christmas, so what the heck.

***

Until Mom and Dad were killed, we spent our Christmases at their place in Kentucky, and of course, they and my maternal grandparents were responsible for the Christmases of my childhood as well. I spent more than forty Christmases with them, and this will be the thirteenth without them. I do feel the gap, of course. At the same time, our Christmases now are easier. Because they’re smaller, there’s less pressure to make everything something stereotypically perfect. Some of this may also be attributable to the absence of little kids in the family at this point in our lives, which means that there are no elaborate gifts to assemble and less urgency to try to turn dinner into a Rockwellian memory. For now, the four of us suffice, and when there are grandchildren down the line, maybe we’ll have learned enough to share that lesson as well.

***

As I mentioned recently, the guys in my band from my first run through grad school discovered a recording of one of our shows from about 1990, and sent me a copy on CD this week. I’ve listened to it a few times now, and while none of the performances are up to being presented by Peter Jackson, some of them are genuinely solid, and all of them are at least fun. If I can figure out how to put some online, I’ll let you know.

It’s worth adding, I think, that the guys included a note letting me know that a reunion show would certainly be welcome. Hmm… what am I doing next summer?

***

Speaking of music, I think I’ll reprise some of my favorite Christmas music before I close for the evening. They’ve all been featured here before, but I think they’re all worth sharing again, and I hope you will, too.

First off is Marty Haugen’s version of “People, Look East”, lyrics written by Eleanor Farjeon for the traditional French carol “Besancon.” Farjeon is best remembered for “Morning Has Broken”, but I like this one at least as much.

Next up is a 1966 track called “Christmas Sounds”, by Chicagoland garage rockers Saturday’s Children, a band much closer to the Beatles than the Stones end of the garage spectrum. They did a double-sided Christmas single, and while this is the B-side, it’s the one I prefer.

Although it’s more cynical than a lot of songs I like for the holiday, I’ve always liked Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas”, and I ran across this performance (including flute solos from Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson) recently.

Perking things back up, here are SoCal first-gen punks the Dickies covering Franz Gruber.

And finally, my favorite Christmas song, “I Wonder as I Wander” as performed by the folklorist who composed it based on a one-line fragment he heard in Appalachia. This is John Jacob Niles, accompanying himself on a mountain dulcimer while singing in his trademark falsetto/countertenor.

See you tomorrow — and let’s rejoice that something wonderful happens tonight.

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Monday Night Potpourri: A Brief Drop-In

A longer post will follow before long, but I wanted to stop in for a moment.

***

As Ogden Nash observed,

Just as I know that there are two Hagens, Walter and Copen,
I know that marriage is a legal and religious alliance entered into
by a man who can’t sleep with the window shut
and a woman who can’t sleep with the window open.

This holds true to form at the Mid-Century Mondohaus. I have a reputation around campus (and at home) as “that guy who never gets cold” (a result at least partially due to the fact that I’m, um, well insulated.) Mrs, M, on the other hand, chills easily. Now generally, because after a certain point, it is easier to put more clothes on than to take them off, Mrs. M makes do by bunding up, sleeping under three metric tons of blankets, and such, while I perk along in my usual shorts and T-shirt. I also tend to spend a lot of time on the M-C M’s lower level, where it tends to be cooler.

However, on the weekends I sleep in, and Mrs. M goes downstairs to watch TV, do lesson plans, or whatever else she wants or needs to do. As part of that, she’ll often plug in a portable electric heater. Eventually I’ll find my way down, and since she came down before I did, I accept that things are a bit warmer than I prefer, even as I know this will pass.

Such was the situation yesterday, as I came down while Mrs. M did some laundry and watched TV. But we noticed a certain degree of flickering lights and alternating ebbs and surges of power. At first, it seemed to be a function of the electrical heater, but as the day went on, we noticed the same business going on with laundry and kitchen appliances. Figuring better safe than sorry, we called our neighborhood electrician, who checked things over and discovered that the problem was…

Squirrels. Specifically, one or more of the tree rats has been gnawing on our power lines, the neutral line in particular. This is not a new phenomenon — a suicidal squirrel immolated himself at our previous address (Spackle Manor), eighty-sixing our dishwasher in the process. This time we managed to avoid that, but according to the electrician, it was a near thing, with the damaged line causing some dangerous surges in current.

The electrician rang Mondoville’s Public Works people, who swung by and completely replaced the damaged line gratis. While this went on, Mrs. M made her way to Real City to prep for the arrival of the Spawn and Main Squeeze on Wednesday. I held down the fort here at the house, which strikes me as well worth it to make sure that the only electrical twinkling this season will be our Christmas lights.

I did point out to Mrs. M that were she not so determined to keep the squirrels away from our bird feeders, they might be less inclined to vandalism, but I haven’t made that sale just yet. The battle of wills continues.

***

Long time readers of the blog are aware of my fondness for the band King Crimson. The latest incarnation of the band concluded what may be its final tour very recently — as the band’s driving force Robert Fripp is now 75, he shows little interest in doing similar tours in future.

Back in August, I linked to an article about a journalist’s decades-long effort to learn a fiendishly difficult Crimson track. In that discussion, there was some mention of Mr. Fripp’s workshops in what he calls Guitar Craft, and how they seem to be a cross between musical workshops and monastic retreats. Part of the workshops include various aphorisms. Some of them are guitar-focused; many speak of music in a more general sense. However, it seems to me that with breadth of understanding and an instinct for metaphor, they might prove useful to all sorts or artists, and indeed to the world at large. In that spirit, I was pleased to discover that Mr. Fripp has posted a lengthy list of them here. I suspect that I may wind up using more than a few of them in my writing workshops in the future, and indeed in my own work. I invite you to do the same.

***

It’s getting a bit late, so I’ll close with some music. When I was in the magazine racket, Mrs. M and I lived in Fort Thomas, KY, a Cincinnati burb on the other side of the river in Campbell County. As it happens, Fort Thomas (and its rougher-edged neighbor, Newport) was the base of operations for the late 60s band The New Limes. While most of their material was released on small labels in Louisville and Cincinnati, this track was picked up by Columbia in 1967, not long after its 1966 original release. The song is a bit mellower than a lot of the stuff I share, but it’s worth remembering that these were working bands, playing clubs and dances, and part of that meant playing slower dance numbers for the evening’s “get-acquainted skates.” Here’s the studio version of “That Girl.”

… and nearly 50 years later, here’s a version of the group with at least some of the original members at a celebration of “Northern KY music legends.” They don’t look much grayer than I do…

See you soon!

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Tuesday Night Potpourri: Decompression Edition

I’m about a week into Winter Break, which is going to be longer than I’m used to. One of the changes that came with COVID was that the school introduced a one-course, online-only January term, with the Spring semester starting at the month’s end. I’m teaching a course in J-term, but at this point I only have one student, so I don’t expect to be overwhelmed. I’m hoping to get some writing done, but I’ve spent much of the last week just vegetating, with breaks for things like decorating the Christmas tree, going to basketball games, and such. For now, how about an update?

***

I spent one of the best summers of my life in Bowling Green, KY. The summer between my junior and senior years of high school, I was one of 25 rising seniors across the state invited to attend Western Kentucky U on an Honors Scholarship. We lived in the dorms and took a couple of courses plus an honors seminar over the eight-week summer term. Pretty much all the other kids were from that region — I was the one from farthest away, from the state’s northern tip. I was a reach in another respect as well; I had the lowest high school GPA, but the highest scores on standardized tests, by significant margins in both cases.

The scholarship interviews were done in groups — a professor met with five candidates at a time. I remember two of the questions. Dr. McFarland asked each of us what sort of things we might daydream about on a lazy afternoon. I told him, “Riverfront Coliseum is packed as I sit behind a 10-piece, stainless steel Ludwig drum kit. It’s our second encore, and as we’re doing our closing number, I’m driving the audience to its feet just as I’m driving the band to a thunderous last number for the night.”

Later, he started at one end of the table, asking the other candidates if they thought they were as smart as their grades indicated. I seem to recall that everyone said that they knew they were bright, but that they were also hard workers, dedicated to academics, that sort of thing. I was the last one of my group. “Smitty,” he said, “are you smarter than your grades indicate?”

“Man, I hope so,” I said, laughing.

“So why are your grades what they are?” For the record, my grades weren’t terrible, but they weren’t where people in my current line of work typically wind up. I wasn’t in the top ten of my class, nor even the top ten percent.

I told him that my record showed that if I was interested in a class, I did quite well. If I wasn’t, I did enough to get by, but that I had other interests — writing, music, reading — and that my passion in those areas meant that the other stuff wasn’t getting my full attention or effort. My priorities and those of Boone County High School weren’t always in harmony.

Somehow, they gave me the scholarship anyway. (In fact, the program’s director told me a few years later that in subsequent years they called oddball choices — like math wizards with mediocre English skills — each term’s “Smitty.”) So I found myself living on the top floor of one of the dorms with the rest of the Western Kentucky University Honors Program’s High School Junior Scholars, more commonly known as the “J.G.s”, for “Junior Geniuses.” Well, the rest of the guys, anyway — the girls were in the women’s dorm next door. (This meant that the inevitable romances were al fresco. I wasn’t involved in any of those; I had a pen-pal romantic interest back home, but I was witness to several others.)

As I said, I took 7.5 hours of classes that summer — a PoliSci class, a course in radio production, and the Honors seminar in psychobiography. I did well enough, and I think I finished with two A’s and a B; the B was in the radio course, where my innate clumsiness came to the fore once again. But the best part of it for me was that I was finally in a situation where the things that marked me as a mutant, a freak, back home were actually things this group of peers valued. As had been the case at the National Spelling Bee three years before, I was in an environment where being bright was cool. The Bee had only lasted a week, though. This was two months, and it was two months I spent with a bunch of other bright kids, talking about books and music and girls, cracking jokes, eating pizzas. We played Runequest (a fantasy role-playing game not unlike D&D) until the small hours, or hung out in bull sessions on the 50-yard line at the football stadium at 2 a.m.

As I said, I was the kid from farthest away — not quite 200 miles, and at 16, one of the younger ones. I also think I had rougher edges than the other folks. I’ve mentioned before that I come from a family of Olympic-class users of foul language, and hanging around with rock musicians allowed me to develop those skills even more. But the other kids put up with that, my loud music, and my homemade suburban teen nihilism: “I don’t expect to make it to 40,” I remember saying. Glad I was wrong.

We tended to travel in packs, hanging out at the student center with its bowling alley and convenience store (where I discovered one of my very favorite beverages, IBC Root Beer.), or wandering around town. Few of us had cars, and Bowling Green in summertime was a classic case of having “to make your own fun.” We went to the local multiplex a couple of times; that’s where I saw Wrath of Khan, and at a midnight movie, Pink Floyd at Pompeii (and after that ended, I snuck into another theater and caught the last half-hour or so of Dawn of the Dead, a movie I number among my favorites to this day.) There were also group trips, to the nearby Corvette factory, to Mammoth Cave, and to a local theater for a production of Athol Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes.

Another evening, we found our way to a Baskin-Robbins near campus. I didn’t have any cash on me, so I asked the counter guys, “If I can eat a Matterhorn (a 7-scoop, 7-topping behemoth of a sundae) in 7 minutes, can I have it for free?”

“If you can do it in five.” I got some of the other kids to fade my bet, and away we went. It took me three and a half., and gave me a mildly legendary accomplishment among the rest of the kids for the summer.

All told, it was probably the closest I ever came to the sort of summer camp memories I’ve read about other folks having. (I did go to Boy Scout summer camp once, but again, my awkwardness and off-plumb way of looking at the world made me ill-suited for that kind of thing. Western was a much better experience.)

I made friends — I remain in touch with some of them — and I started to build some confidence, to develop the notion that I might not always be the outcast I saw myself as being. As I said, Bowling Green is a place I value.

And when I learned that Bowling Green had been hit hard by this week’s tornadoes, and that Western (like the rest of that area) is dealing with considerable damage and difficulty, it made me ache even a little more than such disasters commonly do. If you have an urge and the resources to do some good, you might want to take a look here, or here, or here. I hope you’ll think about it.

***

On a happier note, I’m happy to report that 2022 will see the release of three of my short stories. “Lightning Round,” a story set in the world of bar trivia, will appear in Lawrence Block’s forthcoming anthology, Playing Games. Maxim Jakubowski’s Cornell Woolrich-inspired anthology, Black Is the Night, will include my story “The Jacket,” and this past week I signed the contract allowing my story “One of Us Is Dying” to appear in Death of A Bad Neighbor: Revenge Is Criminal, edited by Jack Calverley. A couple of notes on this last one: the story originally had a less… vigorous title, and Mr. Calverley suggested we try to find something a bit stronger — not least because the story itself is (as he put it) “particularly alarming.” (Given that he’s British, you might want to take that under advisement. I think the U.S. English equivalent might be an ululating shriek.) We kicked a couple of ideas back and forth, but none of our ideas quite seemed to work. I asked a couple of friends for suggestions, and it probably won’t come as a surprise that Lawrence Block came up with the winner — and it’s even one of his trademark five-word titles. So a big thank you to LB for that one.

I’ll give you more information on all of these as I get it, and I’ll make sure to let you know when they’re available for advance orders.

***

I’ve mentioned before that it took me five years (1987-88 to 1991-92) to complete my two-year Master of Arts degree at the U of Kentucky. There were several factors involved in that — while I was well read, I had no scholarly apparatus to speak of, and little experience at academic writing. I also was trying to become a rock star, a subject I’ve discussed at some length at this blog. I found out recently that the other three members are all still based in Central Kentucky, and still do music together. Alas, at 6-plus hours each way, my commute would be a bit much.

But in any case, I heard from the wife of one of the members of the Groovy Kool (yeah, I know), letting me know that they want to send me a CD copy of a show we did at a Lexington club called the Wrocklage. As you might guess, I’m waiting for it with untoward eagerness. I’ll report on that soon as well.

***

And speaking of music, why not a little before we wrap things up? Like many other fields, from stamps to classic cars, 1960s garage rock has a very active collector’s scene, and rare/obscure items can fetch serious money. While you couldn’t trade this even up for say, a 1936 Packard Dual Cowl Phaeton, this single sold on Ebay about three weeks ago for $3500. There were about three million bands called the Rogues during the garage rock era (none of which are to be confused with the Sault Ste. Marie group called “Those Rogues”), and all I know is that these guys were some of them. The label was based in Nashville, but included bands from as far away as Ohio. So here’s at least $1750 worth of garage rock, a 1966 track called “You.”

See you soon!

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Sunday Potpourri: Slouching Toward Christmas Edition

Back in my office, dealing with odds, ends, missing papers, and such. I have one more final to give tomorrow morning, and I hope to get my grades turned in by Tuesday lunchtime. But I haven’t checked in for a bit, so here we are.

***

The end of this semester has been more grueling than I typically find them to be. I suspect that this may stem from the fact that I had three sections of FroshComp instead of the usual two. Add to that the fact that this is the first class of COVID freshpeeps — that is, kids who had at least one year of high school seriously disrupted by shutdowns and virtual classes — and a certain level of dysfunction is to be expected, I reckon.

Whatever the cause, the result is that I’m recording lower than usual grades this term, and am therefore hit with a higher number of futile pleas than usual. That’s a part of the job I hate; I want all my kids to succeed, and it aggravates me when they don’t, even as I know it’s inevitable. One of the things I love about Mondoville is that I don’t have any cattle call classes — the kids and I get to know each other, and I recognize more than a few coming from backgrounds not that different from my own. That makes it more difficult to tell kids that the point of no return has passed and that they need to focus on replacing the grade they have earned with a better one next term.

In fact, I’ve been on both sides of that desk. After I left Transylvania, but before I finished my non-traditional degree, I had courses in subject matter that no longer held any attraction for me, and I lacked the maturity to do the work I needed to do. That means I had a couple of F’s on my undergrad transcript, and because I wound up taking my degree in an unusual fashion, I never made them up. So I know what it’s like.

But that also means that I know that these obstacles, self-inflicted as they were for me and are for my kids, are surmountable, and I try to make that clear to the students even as I tell them that things didn’t work out as we had hoped this time around. A sentence I use a lot in my life is “Education takes many forms.” And it does, and some of those forms are unpleasant. But I learned, and I hope the kids do, too.

***

In better news, it looks like I’m 3-for-3 in the fictioneering business this year, having received an acceptance notice for an anthology due out later next year. The details aren’t entirely settled at this point, but I’ll pass those along as I have them.

An interesting (to me, anyway) aspect of this particular story: The editor is British, and a couple of suggestions he made were, I think, due to the fissures between U.S. and U.K. English. But one that kind of surprised me was when I had a character refer to a doctor as “an OB/GYN.” That’s the term I’ve generally heard used (pronounced “Oh Bee Gee Why Enn”), and now I’m wondering whether that’s as odd as the editor found it. In any case, I suggested that we simply use the term obstetrician, as the important thing is to make it clear that the character in question is in the family way. All the same, I’d be interested in knowing how else the concept is expressed when people aren’t trying to be funny.

***

Well, there’s more Gradeapaloozing to be done, so I’d best get back to it. But how about some music? While I commonly think of garage rock as a peaking in the mid-60s, it lasted a bit longer than that in some areas. (Of course, bands like the Flamin’ Groovies would, ahem, carry the torch over the years, but the genre as a vital force was largely dormant by the time Neil Armstrong went for a stroll.) This particular track was recorded in 1969 by Milford, CT’s Blue Mist. Only about 100 copies were pressed, and the labels were filled out by the manager’s family. We can hear the first stirrings of what would later be seen as heavy psych/proto-metal/bonehead rock, but the fuzzed-out guitar still lets us know we’re in garage country. Also, I love the title. So here’s the Blue Mist, with “Twice Before the Ministry.”

See you soon!

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Thanksgiving, 2021

Mrs. M and I are relaxing in the den, while up in Terpville, the Spawn and Main Squeeze are heading up to the Squeeze’s family celebration. Later, the Mrs. and I will let a restaurant in Real City handle today’s cooking.

We do have a turkey, courtesy of the college’s president — it’s one of our traditions. (And lest you think I missed an opportunity, I thanked the Prez for giving the faculty the bird.) However, it’s frozen enough to serve as a Roald Dahl murder weapon, so it’ll be another day or two before we cook it. (By we, of course, I mean Mrs. M., as I barely know how to boil toast.)

I’m spending a fair chunk of the holiday dealing with a wave of Gradeapalooza, but today I’m taking it easy — my last chunk of freshpeeps can wait until tomorrow, I think. Today, I think I’ll read a Ross Thomas novel and think of how fortunate I am.

I’m thankful for a lot of things — for my home, for a career that allows me to sustain myself intellectually, for the abundant comforts in my life. But more than those, of course, I’m grateful for the people in my life: friends, coworkers, fellow creators, readers, writers, listeners. . . and above all, family, here and elsewhere.

And while I’m sure that most of you reading this fall into the abovementioned categories, I’m really grateful that you’re out there, even if we’ve never met beyond our words on a page or screen. I hope you’re happy, and I hope you’re well, and I hope you have your own things to celebrate, and your own causes for gratitude.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

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