Sunday, January 24, 2016

The movement prescription

Back on New Year's Day, I wrote a long post about how I was in the process of making some big changes. A knee injury led me to some decisions that included leaving my CrossFit gym where I'd been a member for over five years, adding yoga and Core Align work to my flexibility regimen, and, most importantly, switching to a gym where my entire workout would be individually programmed for me. The idea was to have a trainer, who came highly recommended, set up a series of workouts, including specific warmups geared towards loosening up all my many immobilities.

It's all working really well.

Since last August when I tore the lateral meniscus on my left knee, I'd been sluggish, for me anyway. I was walking every day, but I wasn't lifting much, wasn't as active as usual and just wasn't moving enough.

Moving is good. Really good. A typical week for me now looks like three days in the gym, two or three days of yoga, a Core Align session and maybe a band practice (drumming is moving, believe me). It sounds like a lot (ish), but I'm still getting "rest days," and, honestly, the remedial (read: arthritic) way I do yoga makes it less energetic than a full-on gym session, so those days are more "active rest" than they are hardcore movement. But still... I'm MOVING. I'm moving a lot. As a result, I'm less dependent on caffeine, more energetic and generally in an absurdly good mood. And I am also not getting injured because I am riding that line between "Wooooooo yeah!" and "Damn it, I've overdone it again." Hell, I even ventured to New England for the 29th year of that glorious meeting of musician friends that we call Band Camp, played two gigs while I was there, including one that had me drumming on songs I'd never practiced or played before, and I not only survived all the late nights and madness without getting sick or run down; I loved every second of it.

I know... it's truly fucking absurd to have started all these big changes right with the new year -- cliché anyone? -- but, really, January 2016 has kick-started my engine. Moving: I highly recommend it.


Friday, January 1, 2016

F*ck resolutions, but changes are good

If there is anything more clichéd than a New Year's post about big changes, I don't know what it is. But I swear that it wasn't supposed to happen this way. This post has nothing to do with New Year's resolutions. Timing is everything, and mine sucks. Try to keep the barfing noises to a minimum, and I promise that we'll get through this as smoothly as possible....

Let's go back to late August 2015.

There I was, doing my thing at the CrossFit gym where I have been a member for over five years. My shtick for at least the past three years, and probably longer, has been that I am one of the first people you will see modifying a CF workout so I don't get injured. I've always been one of the older people at that particular gym, and the process of sensibly scaling workouts, or even completely changing and substituting various movements for others, has served me well. I sort of pride myself on being Captain Sensible in that regard (no, not that Captain Sensible).

That day we were doing some sort of three-round conditioning workout that involved 30 wall-ball shots each round. I remember thinking that 90 wall balls seemed like a lot of really repetitive grinding, but I didn't modify anything. Not so sensible after all, as it turned out.

At about the 75th rep, I felt this "snap" on the outside of my knee. It was as if something with some "give" to it ("Maybe the IT band?" I thought) got hung up on something else, stretched out, and then went "BANG" back into place. It hurt. It hurt a lot.

So, of course, being the eminently sensible human being that I am, I immediately went to the doc to see what was up.

Well.... no. 

I thought it was just the IT band. So my brain and I opted to not "bother" the regular doc -- because of course it really "bothers" a doctor when a patient comes to see him or her complaining of an injury (gahhhh, what the fuck am I thinking sometimes?) -- and instead I consulted with Dr. Google about the possible causes/symptoms/treatments. Dr. Google almost immediately had me convinced that I had "IT band syndrome," which is often cured through a stretching routine over quite a while. Dr. Google -- helpful, all-knowing physician at large -- even showed me sites where there were many of these IT-band stretches. 

I did them, sort of. 

I also went on a vacation to Oregon with my wife in September. As we often do, we did a lot of hiking. The uphills felt great. The downhills? Even with a knee brace, not so much.

So when I got home, in late September, I immediately consulted a real doctor!

Well... no. Not quite. Not actually at all. Not yet, anyway. I decided the knee needed rest.

But sometimes I'd try to exercise.

This pattern of unrelenting genius continued until mid-November when I finally decided to see my doc about the knee issues. That knee was full of fluid and not bending very far. I was immediately sent for X-rays and an orthopedic consultation. I was told not to wait so damn long next time. I might have seen the nurse practitioner write "stupid" in my file.

I went to see the ortho doc. I learned that Dr. Google is an asshole. I learned that I am an asshole for relying on Dr. Google. It wasn't an IT-band thing at all. I had torn the lateral meniscus in my left knee. As such things go, it's not a major tear. But it also can't be fixed with surgery. Meniscus tears, particularly in people my age and older, aren't easily repaired. A lot of the meniscus doesn't get proper blood flow to allow a repair to really work. So the only surgical option would be to remove it. That's a mess, my ortho doc informed me, and a last-resort kind of option, because, without a lateral meniscus, I'd need a knee replacement in the near future. 

Awesome. 

But one decision was easy: No surgery for me.

Also, by the way, the doc informed me, my mobility sucks. He may have added "donkey balls," but I may have imagined that. He certainly made it clear that I suffered from an aggravated, extreme case of awful mobility, not just a minor issue. In fact, the injury probably happened because I was forcing myself into positions that my (lack of) mobility couldn't handle. 

He wouldn't let me leave his office until I sang this song to him start-to-finish:


 

So the prescription was, er, pretty simple:

Change everything.

The first step was going to be physical therapy, then a slow return to exercise. 

The physical therapist did a top-to-bottom movement assessment on me. She seemed, well, pretty horrified, but she was totally up for the challenge of mobilizing me. My favorite quote from the first session: "Most of the people I see with a torn meniscus are fat, weak and immobile. You certainly aren't fat, and you're strong. But, wow, do you have mobility issues! I mean really. Wow." I'm wow-worthy for all the wrong reasons. I've been working with her twice a week for the last seven weeks to get me on a less horrific track. She's also been assigning me (and I've been doing!) 30-45 minutes of mobility "homework" to do at home each night. Every night. Really. The results have been amazing. I've learned that my left ankle and left hip have been in an immobile conspiracy against my left knee for a while now. Like a long while. The physical therapist has also convinced me of the truth of something the orthopedist tried to tell me, but I didn't want to hear at the time: maybe I need to take a long break from CrossFit and get into something -- maybe a number of somethings -- that focus more on getting me mobile and also tailor my strength and conditioning work more precisely to my individual needs.

So I decided to try a little of everything.

I tried Pilates, specifically mat Pilates. Pilates is... interesting. First of all, not many guys do Pilates. I don't know if any other men ever go to the studio where I have been going. I certainly have never seen one. But it's not actually "girly" at all and one's Man Card is in no danger of being torn up and discarded at a Pilates studio. Pilates was designed by a guy -- Joseph Pilates -- and its emphasis is on core strength and alignment, which can lead to progress in mobility, but I don't feel like mobility is the primary goal. Pro athletes like Pilates. I like Pilates. I like it a lot, actually. But, trying to keep mobility as my primary goal, when my initial multi-class ticket was fully punched at the Pilates studio, I decided to switch gears and give yoga a shot, in order to compare the two.

Let's spend a moment to fully take in the enormity of what was about to go down.

Yoga.  
Me doing yoga
For reals. 
My view of yoga has always best been summed up in this manner:




I signed up for a beginner class. I liked it. I liked it a lot. (You may sense a theme here). I even dug all the hippie-dippie shit around the fringes of the class. Hell, I even liked the little "You control your own happiness/Happiness is a decision" talk that the teacher gave at the beginning of that first class. At other junctures of my life, I would have gagged a little on the unrelenting joy of that spiel and gone home and blasted the first four Black Sabbath albums to cleanse my soul. Instead, it's like I walked in there, had my Sarcasm Card immediately temporarily confiscated from me, and not only didn't complain, but actually enjoyed it. So I went to another class, and then another one. I started inquiring about which yoga classes are suitable to drag my lame inflexible ass into and which ones would leave me in traction. I learned that using the phrase "my lame inflexible ass" is not actually favored in a yoga studio.

I soldiered onward.

Yoga is a really good thing for me. Yeah in a mental sense, it perfectly augments my meditation practice, but it's the physical angle that I am really digging, particularly the way it seems to be working in conjunction with my PT regimen. As soon as I started yoga, my PT could see even more improvement in my mobility. I also have to admit that I like the fact that it's so non-competitive and non-judgmental. Hell, I've spent my whole life being competitive and judgmental. The personal-growth opportunity here is seriously too much to pass up.

Then, cleared by my PT to do so, I signed up for individualized strength and conditioning with a trainer. I went for a Functional Movement Screen (FMS) with said trainer, who came highly recommended. I don't think it's possible to "fail" such a screen, but my score was low. If it were possible to "fail," I would have been the king of failure. I would have gotten my photo placed up on the wall under a motivational sign that says: "If he can do it, you know you can too." It was going to be a low score anyway, but Trainer Dude picked up on side-to-side imbalances that even my PT wasn't as focused on. Those imbalances made the FMS score even lower. It seems like 35 years of drumming has taken its toll on me in more ways than just wrecking my right elbow. I have my right side, from top to bottom, working much more efficiently than my left. It kind of figures. In fact, he said something that really clued me in to how, er, "lucky" I was to only have torn my meniscus. He said, "I can't believe you don't have back problems." Apparently, most people who are as out-of-balance as I am start to "corkscrew" their backs and injure themselves. I'm strong enough that I haven't done that, but, the trainer said, keep on going down the current path of out-of-balance immobility and back problems are in my future. 

So the score so far is:  

Physical therapy: Yes!
Mat Pilates: Not right now!
Yoga: Yes! (Yeah, I'm still trying to absorb that one).
Individualized S&C programming with Trainer Dude: Yes!
CrossFit: Not for a long while! (But I still love it. It changed my life). 
Drumming: Well, of course, yes!

But there was one thing still to try....
When I was finishing up my initial run of mat Pilates, my instructor -- who drives me sorta batshit crazy in a good way by being just as insightful about all my imbalances and immobility issues as my PT and Trainer Dude are; seriously, somehow I am lucky enough to have met three geniuses and entrusted them all with fixing me up -- said, "I think you might want to try Core Align." I'd never heard of it.

For something that looks so calm and sedate, Core Align is completely nuts. In a good way. You stand with one foot on each of two "carts," which you could consider to be a Nordic-Track type of deal, except so frictionless that it is like being on ice. You do all sorts of movements, focusing on balance and control, using not just the larger muscle groups, but the smaller ones too. It is so much harder than it looks, and, while I have not yet landed on my sorry ass, I've come close. Core Align forces to me to work through all the side-to-side imbalances and find some normality in my movement patterns. 

So yeah, yoga a couple times a week, PT a couple times a week, plus "homework" each night, S&C training two or three times a week and a weekly Core Align session. It's a lot of change. It's kind of time-consuming. I'm totally digging it. Because really, if I don't have time for my health and feeling good, what the hell am I spending my time on?

My sorry ass is on its way to getting fixed.

See? I told you this all had nothing to do with New Year's resolutions. Forward....


Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Lemmy Kilmister, 24 Dec 1945 - 28 Dec 2015



In April 1981, my brother Paul and I had tickets to see Ozzy Osbourne on his first solo tour. It was at the Tower Theatre just outside of Philly. Randy Rhoads on guitar. Lots of Sabbath songs in the setlist. It was the sort of thing the kids call "epic."

The opener was this band Motorhead, on their first American tour. I knew about them from my days as an avid reader of Trouser Press (RIP), my fave rock mag ever, but neither of us was prepared for what hit us.

Despite some familiarity with Lemmy from the couple early '70s Hawkwind songs that he sang, to quote Bob Dylan, we had "no idea what kind of shit was about to go down." From the seventh row at the Tower, it was like we were witnessing a biker gang on speed playing instruments with the accompaniment of a 747 taking off -- right next to our eardrums. The setlist went like this.

I was 18. Paul was 15. I wasn't wearing earplugs. Paul wasn't either. No one was wearing earplugs. In 1981 earplugs could get your Man Card revoked in seconds flat. As a result my Man Card is far better shape than my hearing these days.

I wish I could say that either of us fully and properly appreciated Motorhead that night. But, literally, I've never been so completely freaked out by volume in my life. "Punishing" is too tame of a word. Within seconds of the band launching into "Ace of Spades" my left ear began this whistling howl that never happened before or since. We hung in there for a few songs, but both of us could feel our hearing actually shutting down.

We did something neither of us has ever done since: we ducked just into the lobby to escape the volume. We were not the only ones by any means. There was a crowd of people doing the same, but we still wanted to see the band. So we stood at the doorway between the lobby and the theater and took in the spectacle. I've seen a lot of punk rock over the years -- and let's remember that Motorhead were at least as much a punk band back then as a metal band -- but I still don't think I have ever witnessed that level of attack on a stage. It was the kind of thing you survived as much as enjoyed. Moreover the sound mix sucked. Ozzy's mix later on was perfect, but you can just imagine Ozzy's soundman fucking with the Motorhead mix just a little to make sure his boy wasn't smoked off the stage by these renegade tough guys. Phil Taylor's drums sounded like a train going over Niagara Falls in perfect time. And Lemmy and Fast Eddie never let up for a second either.

Then we went back to our seats and Ozzy blew our minds -- and the rest of our remaining hearing -- so much that on the walk back to the train station, when the roar had subsided, two things became evident: (1) I was not going to hear a word anyone said to me that night unless that person was on my right side (my left ear was stone fucking deaf), and (2) the hearing that remained in my right ear was limited only to higher tones at that point. The low end had been mostly smoked by Motorhead and Ozzy had finished it off. Everyone's voice sounded like the product of a massive hit of helium.

Two days later, my hearing was back. The human body is an amazing thing.

I didn't see Motorhead again until 2005. It was their 30th anniversary tour at the Tower Theatre and I was psyched, armed with earplugs and hanging out with my buddy Robert Wisdom (R.I.P.) whose musical taste was self-described as "I am a tempo junkie, Steve. Will it be fast? I am there." This one was perfect. My hearing survived. No, the setlist wasn't nearly as great as in 1981, but it was no slouch either. And the sheer level of attack? Still there. Only Lemmy remained from the 1981 lineup at that point. But they blew the doors off the place. Redemption was mine.

Now Lemmy's gone. Robert died a little over seven years ago. My hearing, from years of drumming without earplugs, until I finally got on that train in like 2009, is, shall we say, less than optimal. Or as my wife says, "You are *so* fucking deaf sometimes." The world keeps moving.

Regret nothing, my friends. Regret nothing.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

On December 1, 2015, a new 30-day meditation challenge starts


Hey there, it's that time of year again -- you know: when otherwise rational people lose their shit over the holidays.

So I figured that maybe, just maybe, it's time to resurrect the 30-day meditation challenge.

We've done this before.

More than once, as a matter of fact.

A lot of people have really dug it -- so much that they have been moved to commit philosophy (or at least prose) about it -- like her, and her and him.

The deal is simple: starting December 1 -- sooner if you want, later if you want (this isn't a competition) -- meditate for fifteen minutes every day. Every day.

No, really... every day.

There are lots of ways to meditate. The only one of those that I know anything about is this way. It's pretty simple. I believe the Buddha himself once endorsed it as "totally fucking simple." But then again, he also said, "Don't believe every quote that's attributed to me," so you'll have to sort your way through all that. You could also choose to do it any of a myriad of other ways -- with your eyes closed, chanting, surrounded by fluffy ducklings, etc. Whatever works. The Buddha said that too.

The goal is simple: to try to empty your mind for that 15 minutes.

Note the use of the word "try." As I have attempted to convince you so many times that if you searched the word "meditation" on this blog, you'd find yourself overwhelmed by my blahblahblah about Zen, it's the "trying" that matters, not the actual emptying. Find that thing to focus on -- breathing patterns, a spot on the wall, whatever (dude) -- and focus on it to the exclusion of all else.

It won't work.

What I mean is... that first day, it won't "work." (Note the quotes). You'll get really frustrated. A couple seconds into it, you'll think: "This is the stupidest damn thing I have ever tried and if I ever meet that drummer guy I will wring his fucking neck."

But if you are smart about it, you'll keep trying. Every day. For 30 days. Somewhere around maybe the tenth day, when you've actually occasionally gotten an "empty" five seconds or so in your mind -- five seconds when the swarming nest of bees that is your typical thought process actually shuts down and gives you some space to live -- you'll realize that that little bit of emptiness didn't happen as some sort of cosmic fucking accident. Nope: you made it happen. You had a thought -- or maybe 5000 thoughts -- arise and you dismissed every single one of them, until there were none left.

For five seconds.

And then you learn how to stretch that five seconds to maybe six, or even seven.

And then, if you're one of those people that often can't shut off his or her brain at 3 a.m. when you wake up and can't get back to sleep, you'll start using that emptying technique -- that dismissiveness of sorts that you've taught yourself -- to actually get a good night's sleep.

And your whole life might change. Because now you're sleeping better.

Or maybe your stressed-out stomach will give you a break. Your acid reflux might take a hiatus.

And your whole life might change.

And then after a while, if you are a dumbass like me, you'll slack off because things are pretty cool. And then around and around we go....

Fifteen minutes a day. For 30 days. It might do so much to de-stress your holiday season that you'll want to hug me instead of wringing my neck. Or not.

It all starts Tuesday December 1. Daily annoyances/reminders/encouragements will be posted on my Facebook page.

Let's do this.








Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The never-ending lesson....






Sometimes it's necessary to have a good long conversation with yourself.

Mine resulted from learning that I tore my lateral meniscus in my left knee. Surgery isn't the first option being explored because, apparently, once a person is of a certain age, meniscus repairs give way to just clipping out the offending portion of the little bastard, leaving a person temporarily with less discomfort but ultimately headed for a full knee replacement sooner than later.

Actually it's necessary, or inevitable, for me to have many conversations with myself in situations like this. The first was pretty practical: a realization that, for right now, CrossFit is a bad idea. Physical therapy, including manual therapy, plus some yoga, plus walking, plus pressing and deadlifting are a good idea (although "Ix-nay on the eadlift-day until the swelling goes down," said my PT). Cool.

That first conversation was a model of adult-i-ness.

It always is.

It's the second conversation with myself that can go south quicker than a rich New Englander in December. And that one usually gets out of hand a lot quicker when I've been a little slack-o-licious in my meditation practice. Because, really, unmoored from mindfulness, I can engage in Disaster Thought quicker than you can imagine.

It went like this today (at 4:15 a.m., of course, because that's when that second conversation with myself always happens.... I guess I'm lucky that it wasn't 2:30 a.m.):

"Fuck, so I can't deep-squat ever again. Fuck, so I can't do CrossFit for now. Fuck, I'll never run again. Fuck, I'll never be healthy in time for indoor-volleyball season in January. Fuck, I can't ... <pause>... EVER DO ANYTHING FUN ANYMORE AND I'M GOING TO DIE ORTHOPEDICALLY WRECKED AND MISERABLE IN, LIKE, NO TIME AT ALL!!!"

Never mind that I am otherwise healthy, perfectly capable of doing a lot of things right now, including drumming, walking, some lifting and that my life is full of people (and dogs) that love me.

4:15 a.m. second conversations with myself are never logical.

The only way to stop them is not to have them. I know this. When I am meditating regularly, I don't allow these little self-torture sessions to happen. I shut them down cold, cutting their legs out from under them like an NFL cornerback moving in for the kill on a hapless airborne wide receiver. "Just fucking go away," I tell That Fucking Guy, and he does. Instantly. And back to sleep I go.

Seriously... I know better. Mindfulness is no joke. I'm jumping back on the daily meditation train right now. Because really... I know better.






Sunday, November 8, 2015

Automatic -- a.k.a. why it's been so damn quiet around here

I feel like I have to explain myself, just a little, for all this silence.

2015 has been the year that I've written the fewest posts ever on this blog. The question of "Why?" comes down to a simple answer: I spend approximately zero minutes per day thinking about "eating paleo." And if I'm not thinking about eating paleo, I'm not thinking about writing about eating paleo.

It's not because I think "paleo" is an unfortunate name for this anti-inflammatory way of eating, although I do. It's "just a word" to me, but it's a word that, sadly, gives the naysayers a too-easy platform from which to launch this and that theory about what cavepeople really ate, or how long they lived. And I don't care about any of that because I'm not staging a reenactment -- paleolithic, mesozoic or otherwise. The list of the number of fucks that I give about what cavepeople ate would be the world's shortest book.



I'm just eating foods that my body seems to like and not eating the ones that it doesn't. I got to this point through an initial plunge into no-grain, no-dairy, etc. eating and have gotten to where I am now through some experimentation inside -- and outside -- those parameters. And now I never think about it. In fact, I'm spending way more time in this post thinking about not thinking about it then I ever spend thinking about it.

Really. (Yeah, I didn't like that sentence all that much either).

If I walk through a supermarket -- yes, even Whole Foods -- I don't see a lot of food in the interior aisles of the store. There's a lot of processed shit in boxes that is so far from what I consider food that the chances of me grabbing something to eat out of, say, the pasta aisle is about the same as me munching down on a tasty item from the auto-parts store. The notion just doesn't compute for me at this point.

Short of a quick diversion to the stinky-fish aisle for some sardines or maybe the dark-chocolate or almond-butter aisles for a little of their wonders, I'm not even in that interior section of the store. And I'm not plagued by existential crisis or otherwise conflicted with thoughts of buying packages of processed pseudo-food. I've been on this ride so long now that the line between "food" and "not actually food" seems so clear that, really: I don't even think about it

So where's this leave me in Blogland?

There's a saying that goes: "It's hard to prove a negative." I think the blogging corollary to that piece of wisdom is that it's hard to write about something that's become so automatic that I just don't give it any consideration any longer.

I'm not making any broad-based declarations that I'm done with blogging. I enjoy writing too much to walk away entirely. But in case you're one of a small group that stops by occasionally to read my latest "paleo" blahblablah, I just wanted you to know why it's been so quiet around here, which amounts to: I don't spend a lot of time thinking about food at this point.

So, who knows.... Maybe we'll do a December meditation challenge. If we're going to think about the absence of something, it might as well be the absence of thinking. And the "holiday season" (hear my brain making "aaaauugghhrrrrrffffllmmkkk" noises?) seems like the perfect unduly-stressful time of year to head for emptiness. Stay tuned.... well, sort of.






Saturday, August 22, 2015

"Making plans on sure things that aren't" -- live review: Eleventh Dream Day in Philly and NYC, August 20-21, 2015



Scene: 1989, Philadelphia, the Chestnut Cabaret....

I was outside in a line waiting to get into the club to see the Meat Puppets. Guy #1 in front of me asked Guy #2: "Hey man, you know anything about this opening band Eleventh Dream Day?" He didn't. I interrupted them: "They're awesome. They are at least half the reason why I'm here. I love the Meat Puppets, but these guys are killing it. Their new album is all I've been playing lately. Just layers and layers of guitars. It's like X and the Velvets mixed with Crazy Horse." The two guys, in their best Philly accents: "Whoa. Noice!"

Fast forward to the end of the EDD set that night. Guy #2 comes crashing/careening through the crowd to find me. "Duuuuuuuuuuuuuude!" he shrieks to me, grabbing my shoulders, and shaking me. "That was fucking unbelievable!"

Another satisfied customer.

Guy #2 was right on the money to get so wound up. At the time the band was touring what is still, for me, a Desert Island Disc called Beet. From its opening salvo of "Between Here and There" about the joys of "the MC5 way past midnight" through the closer, "Go," the album roars and rumbles and twangs and slides and shouts and just fucking rocks like little else from the time period. The X/Velvets/Crazy Horse comparison that I gave that night? I don't think I can do any better than that. They carved out a special part of the musical universe all their own on that record. The harmonies are gorgeously jagged, the guitars overdriven and the tales of the seedier side of life are spot-on observational genius. (For no finer example of those lyrics, check out: "Teenage Pin Queen"). And live? The ante was upped considerably from the album. I was, instantaneously, signed up as a fan for life of this band.

So I've seen them a bunch of times over the years since then, but while they've never lost the intensity of their live shows, the frequency of their tours has dwindled quite a bit from the early days. Kids and marriages and divorces and jobs and all that heavy shit of life can seriously get in the way of a band. Many have collapsed under a lesser weight. But EDD keep soldiering on, just not quite so often. They'll give us a new album every three, four, maybe five years since the mid-'90s, and maybe a really short tour thereafter. In fact sometimes the "tour" is just a New York City show or two plus whatever they put together a little more frequently in their home base of Chicago.

So when I saw there was a new album -- called Works For Tomorrow -- coming out this summer, I started checking for a NYC date. They hadn't played Philly in years, so I was expecting to have to travel. Sure enough, August 21 at the Mercury Lounge! I was in. Tickets were bought; plans were made. It was even an "early show" with doors at 6:30. (I'd be lying if I didn't fess up that my old self dug that part).

Then, two weeks later, a Philly date was announced at Johnny Brenda's the night before the NYC show. In the spirit of YOLO, I said, "Oh, what the hell. It's been a few years. I'll see them twice in two nights."

I chose well. Philly was great. NYC was several levels of stunning way past "great."

Little things, like where you happen to choose to stand, really matter at a concert, especially in a small club. I picked a spot in Johnny Brenda's -- at the bar only a few feet from the side of the stage -- that has served me well in the past. But that night, I lost a little in the sound mix. I was stationed a bit too close to Mark Greenberg's keyboard amp and a bit too far from Jim Elkington's guitar amp on the other end of the stage. I could see that Jim was playing different, complementary riffs to Rick Rizzo's slash-and-burn ones, but I couldn't always hear them in Philly as well as I wanted. They were getting lost in the keyboards. (I know... why not move, dumbass, you might ask? Uhhh, because I was settled in nicely at the bar and the venue was crowded enough that I would have either had to go to the back of the room or plant my 6'3" frame right in front of someone already standing in a premium spot -- a dick move that I try to avoid. So I stayed put). And let's not overstate the sound issue; the show really was great. The set focused heavily on the new album, highlighting just how clear it is that this band may have just released their best record since the mid '90s. But "Bagdad's Last Ride" (from Beet) seemed a little less urgent than usual, and the Wipers cover ("Taking So Long") seemed a little flat, energy-wise, as well. The show finished, however, on a huge uptick in energy, with "Orange Moon" building into a wall of power and fury and "New Rules" letting Rick take us to places on the guitar solo that sounded a whole lot like Weld/Ragged-Glory-era Neil Young. Sandwiched in between those two was a chance for Janet Bean to get out from behind the drum kit, replaced by Greenberg, to sing a bluesy wailer that had her bouncing all over the stage.

I left thinking, "Damn, they still have it going on." But I also thought that maybe I could do even better in NYC with a little strategic placement of myself a little closer to both guitars.



After arriving at the Mercury Lounge the next night and having a quick drummer's conversation with Janet (It began: "OK, so I saw you guys last night in Philly and I have a totally dorky question: what is up with that bent-up ride cymbal of yours? It's wild!" Seriously, I never ask "gear" questions, but that crazy cymbal warranted some inquiry, and possibly now warrants some shopping....), I declared to my friend Pete, with laser-like focus on the sonic prize at stake: "OK, so we can hang back here for Antietam, but then let's go up there for EDD," pointing to a spot in the front just between where I knew Elkington and Rizzo would each be attacking their guitars. I explained the sound-mix issue of the previous night, and Pete agreed with my ultimate conclusion: "What we lose in hearing will be made up for in rock."

That turned out to be the understatement of the year. I shit you not when I tell you that even though the NYC set differed song-wise from Philly only in one respect -- swapping out "New Rules" for a burning slide-guitar-filled encore of "Tarantula" instead -- every single song was better in NYC. You could simply chalk that up to getting our heads torn off in NYC by the Verlaine/Lloyd guitar interplay of Rizzo and Elkington, and you'd be mostly right, but it wasn't just that. Janet was attacking the drums with a little extra energy at the Mercury Lounge. Everyone in the band looked, and sounded, more "on" at the NYC show. Did the earlier start time play into that? Maybe. I can personally testify that rocking out in one's forties and fifties requires considerably more caffeine than it did in my twenties, and I'll always take an earlier start time to a later one. (In fact, I read somewhere recently that the Mekons simply will not take the stage later than 11 pm anymore, which is about when EDD started in Philly). But whatever it was, it all just fucking smoked at the Mercury Lounge. They were a force of nature.

The new album shone mightily, with particular nods to "Go Tell It" and "Cheap Gasoline" as standouts, but, really, the NYC versions of every song that they played from that one -- and they played nearly all of it -- made it clearer than ever that the new record is nearly the equal of their late '80s and early-'90s perfection. Bands that have been around that long just don't pull off that trick very often, but EDD has done it. And the rest of the set had a little extra kick as well. "Bagdad" shook off the cobwebs from the Philly version and, instead, Elkington and Rizzo transported us right back to 1989, as if Rizzo and his old guitar partner Baird Figi were wielding their frantic firepower of yore on the Beet tour. The Wipers cover had all the urgency of the original, and "Orange Moon"???? Whoa. I thought they had done a mighty version the night before, but I had no idea what we were in store for in NYC with that one. "Matt Rizzo! Your momma wants you onstage right now!!" Janet Bean called from behind the drums, summoning her and Rick's son to the stage to add to the roar with a third guitar. The steady build of "Orange Moon" into a kerranging thundering beast is ordinarily a thing of beauty, but add to that the beaming looks of the proud parents as their kid joined them to make some noise and, damn it, I thought that it just doesn't get much better than this. Janet hit the drums a little bit harder on that one, and I thought Rick's slashing and soloing were going to rip every string off his guitar by the end of it. Passion, enthusiasm, dynamics -- really... that rendition of "Orange Moon" had it all. I've seen them a lot over the years, but they've never been better than that single moment.

It looked like this (photo by Jeff Economy):



By the way, special kudos to the two openers from Philly and NYC whose sets I caught in full. Chris Forsyth and the Solar Motel Band put on a riveting clinic on the art of the well-focused jam. I think they played only four songs in their 45-minute set -- a potential recipe for self-indulgent disaster -- but, instead of wandering too far into excess, the band locked down in hard jazz-influenced grooves that gave the two guitarists just enough room to explore without ever losing the attention of the listener. I hadn't run into them before, despite the fact that they're centered in Philly, and I'll be seeing them again as a result of that set. And Antietam? I have seen them so many times over the years, often opening for other bands, like Yo La Tengo, and they are always solid -- with the noteworthy guitar skills of Tara Key prominently displayed each time -- but this set, with horns on some songs, a backup singer on many others and a hook-filled selection of songs, was the best I've ever seen them. It was the perfect lead-in to the glory of the EDD set.

It was a hell of a 24 hours.... I imagine that, their busy lives being what they are, it may be a few more years before I get to witness another Eleventh Dream Day show. I'll be there, and this pair of them will carry me through for quite a while until then.






Thursday, July 23, 2015

The mailbag returns with... the dreaded "macros" question

So, let me ask you a question: why are you doing this diet/lifestyle-change thing anyway?

If it's for some aesthetic goal, like a "beach body" or "great abs," or any of that shit, then I have nothing for you. Go do whatever you are going to do and have a good time with it.

But if you are in this game for good health, long life, all those kinds of important, life-changing, sustainable goals, etc., then the answer is pretty simple: start by eating real food. We've gone over that before. If you want to specifically lose fat, I've given you a multi-level guide to that previously, as well as the Reader's Digest version.

But then I got a question, just the other day: "Hey Steve, what do you think of this 'macros' thing?"

My answer's pretty simple: mostly, I don't like it.

See, here's the thing: a whole lot of people have seriously fucked-up relationships with food. And for those people, turning mealtime into a math problem is not going to change their seriously fucked-up relationships with food. It's going to make the problems worse. What's going to fix all that is throwing out all the awful food in the house and eating real food to satiety (every single time). Do that for a month, or two, or three or four. Learn how to feed yourself properly. Learn how to love yourself, to stop hating your body and to love eating real food. Learn how to think, "I eat whatever I want and, you know what? No, I actually don't want to eat food that makes me feel awful." (Or, sometimes: "Hell, yes, I want that awful thing, and I'll eat it, love the hell out of the experience, and get right back on the real-food bus, guilt-free.") Then, once your whole perspective on food/life/everything has changed, you can start playing with macronutrient ratios, if that really is necessary at that point. (But, really, it's probably not).

Because if you take the average person who hates the way she looks, hates mealtime, hates just about everything at this point, and start her with weighing and measuring the amount of hate she is stuffing into her mouth three, four, whatever times a day, exactly how is that going to help? (And yes, I just made that hypothetical person a woman, because facts are facts, and more women than men have horrendous food neuroses). Let's cut to the chase: it's not. And if this sounds like "Free your mind, and your ass will follow," well, yeah. Truly sustainable changes in the way you eat come from your head, not your stomach. And if you aren't here to make a truly sustainable change, then you're just on a fucking diet, and those are categorically stupid and unsustainable. And they have nothing to do with long-term health.

The other point is this: you can "zone" or "macro-count" frozen pizza, cookies and diet Coke. It's just a math game; that math has nothing to do with underlying food quality. Yet, what's more important to health -- the reason you're here, remember? -- than food quality? That would be nothing.

So, you're here for good health. Good health requires eating good quality food in a sustainable way. I can't see how turning mealtime into a math problem is going to help most people do that. Sure, there are a few rare birds out there among us who already have a great relationship with food, and already consistently eat high-quality food, and still want to tweak macronutrient ratios -- maybe to help attain certain athletic goals. And that's fine. But applying the dietary strategy of those few to the masses is as misguided as applying programming that is designed for a CrossFit Games athlete to the average gym goer. It's utterly inappropriate.

Fix your head. Eat real food. Love yourself. Love the whole food experience. If you get all that straight and then you still want to go all math-nerd on your amazing food... whatever, dude. Have a ball. It just seems like the wrong strategy for the vast majority of people.








Sunday, July 19, 2015

Clearing the fog, while observing the fog

In light of the fact that I've been running around to Mekons shows, it's been a couple of days since I meditated. I woke up on this humid Sunday morning with a swirling miasma in my brain of ideas for things to do today. But I didn't have a plan.

By and large, I need a plan.

I also was feeling a little restless, so my standard seated meditation wasn't going to cut it today. I required a little locomotion. So I hit the pavement for a walk, sans phone, sans music, sans headphones. Just me and five miles of country roads.

My head cleared almost immediately. Ideas fell into place for what I really could accomplish today versus what was likely just too damn much.

The corners and crevices of my brain opened up so much that I noticed things that I might otherwise zoom past, like a family of Canada geese crossing a cedar-stained stream in the shadows cast by trees being beaten down by a fat old summer sun:

                                                     (See 'em waaaaay back in there?)

And all around me, people were going in circles.

That's not a metaphor. Or not entirely a metaphor, anyway. Really. I kept seeing the same cars over and over.

We live in a pretty rural area. Our "block" is over two miles around, with no connecting streets in the middle, and most of the roads around here are like that -- big old country two-lanes with high-ish speed limits. We live on one of the more "main" of those roads, a north-south highway that has a fair amount of traffic. During the portion of my walks that are on that road, I tend to stay way over off the shoulder. It's not worth the risk of getting hit.

This weekend's been a different story, though. Just a short way up from our house, the main drag is closed for road construction.

Not like "down to one lane."

Closed. Completely shut down.

The highway department has been warning drivers about this for weeks with giant flashing solar-powered signs in both directions telling us all that the road was going to be "CLOSED" all weekend. And, now that the weekend has arrived, farther down the road there are "Road Closed Ahead" signs warning: "Local Traffic Only."

People apparently don't like to hear that sort of thing. Over and over and over today, I'd watch folks slow down, ponder the "local only" sign, and, apparently thinking, "Fuck it. That doesn't apply to me," they would go around it. Moments later, I'd see them coming in the other direction, post-U-turn, looking pissed-off, confused, appearing as if it'd all be different <angry get-off-my-lawn old-guy voice> "IF ONLY WE'D HAD A LITTLE WARNING!"

They had a lot of warning, both long-term and short-term.

So my walk was full of metaphorical splendor of many types.

Yeah, my own head cleared out and stacked the tasks of the day into a neat pile, ready for attack. But I also got to observe the madness of the modern non-mindful world in full bloom. I shit you not: people were circling back and forth and around and around, often more than once -- refusing to believe that if they had just made that damn right turn back at the "detour" sign, everything would be peachy. Nope, they were going to pound a square peg into a round hole. They were going to make the impossible happen. They were going to eff the ineffable... well, until they just plain couldn't anyway. As far as I know, no one tried to crash the barrier that was manned by law enforcement.

Slow down. Take a look. Breathe. Think. Your brain loves that shit.

Now it's time to get some things done....

                                                     (The typical scene on this road involves a whole lot 
                                                      of cars and no "road closed" sign. This is more fun, 
                                                      hay bales and all).


 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

"It looks like an accident...." Live review: The Mekons, Harrisburg, PA, July 17, 2015




They were Lester Bangs' favorite band. And he died in 1982, so he never even heard their best stuff.

They've been cranking out albums for almost 40 years. Their period of absolute and complete genius, which I'd call 1985-1993 or so, matches or exceeds that of any of your favorite bands. And yet, the chance that you've even heard of the Mekons, let alone that you approach them with the sort of slavish devotion that Lester did -- or with which some of the rest of us still do after all these years -- is pretty small.

I'll let you poke around that Wikipedia link, and this one too (from AllMusic) if you'd like to edu-macate yerself on all things Mekons. It will not be time wasted, I assure you. But the rest of this review is for the fanatics, the freaks, the devoted (non-)hordes -- the kind of people who fully and completely understand why I drove over two hours to Harrisburg, PA to see the Mekons three days before I am already planning on seeing them Monday night in Philadelphia.

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"This is our first time in Harrisburg!" Jon Langford exclaimed, with the sort of gleam in his eye that warned the Langford-aware that he might just come out with a zinger at any moment. But he didn't. Well not then, anyway. He seemed genuinely amused and honored that the room was nearly full in a city where he'd never previously set foot. Then again, moments earlier he'd denied any knowledge of the story told by the emcee/host/booker guy who introduced the band. Pointing to Langford, the man declared, full of pride: "I am so thrilled to introduce this band. Jon and I got drunk together in Mexico last year." "It's all lies!" Langford interrupted, with the same gleam in his eye. "I've never been to Mexico!"

And we were off to the races. A Mekons show is always a recklessly-stirred slumgullion stew of musical genius, comedic moments, drunken witticisms and barbs exchanged between band members, and, yes, often episodes of complete chaos. At their best, or most memorable, you might get all those things in the course of a single song.

So the band thundered its way through the opener, "Memphis, Egypt," gave "Beaten and Broken" the amped-up-waltz treatment and locked into a heavy reggae-ish groove for "TINA." Vocals were expertly traded amongst Sally Timms, Tom Greenhalgh, Rico Bell and Langford. The rhythm section of Steve CompleteFuckingGenius Goulding (his actual middle name... look it up) on drums and new bass guy Dave Trumfio (introduced as "Baron Von Trumfio") was, as one would expect, locked and (not nearly as) loaded (as its bandmates). Violin player Susie Honeyman, as always, somehow floated above the cosmic fray, alternating expressions of "Good god, Jon, shut up," with genuinely amused/bemused looks that told you she still gets a kick out of being in this band, where her expert playing is an essential cog in the indescribable machine. And Lu Edmonds, looking decidedly Middle Earth-ian, skillfully played an electric saz that added Middle Eastern textures to song after song.

But let's not pretend that all was perfection in paradise. This was the Mekons, for fuck's sake. They wouldn't know intentionally perfect if it bit them in their sarcastic asses. They'd pour tequila over their heads and light each other on fire onstage, if necessary, just to throw a touch of the unexpected into a gig. No need for that, fortunately. Not long into the show, something went wrong with Lu's foot pedals; Langford, clad in an inexplicable pith helmet that he's been wearing all tour, filled the repair time by telling jokes, each increasingly more groan-worthy than the next. He then told us again that it was the band's first time in Harrisburg. Sally didn't hear that; so she then told us all that it was the band's first time in Harrisburg. Langford, looking at her with the kind of incredulous expression that really ought to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, interjected to much laughter: "Have you been drinking, Sally?" "Yes, I've had a few," Sally smirked.

Langford's clearly driving the bus here. He leaped about the stage on song after song, conducting the orchestra, stomping his foot in time, singing off-mic to parts that others already had well-covered. When Tom lost his place headed into the chorus of "Sometimes I Feel Like Fletcher Christian," Langford shot him an "Oh, give me a break..." look that was priceless, and then took over the vocal until Tom could get his bearings and right his own personal ship. He coached Trumfio, gave Rico noogies when his hands were free, and didn't bother Susie at all, because I think he knows better.

There were, of course, sound problems. Put eight people on a tiny stage and someone's monitor mix is going to suck, and then, because it's the Mekons, at some point everyone's monitor mix is going to suck. And they'll joke about it with Dave the soundman. And it won't get better. Then Dave will just seemingly disappear. "Oh no. Dave's hung himself," Langford quipped. And then, because they are the Mekons, someone -- Sally this time -- will suggest that they ignore the shitty onstage sound and just rock out. So they did. It was glorious.

The setlist looked almost exactly like this (photo by Heather Copeland at one of the band's Chicago gigs):


We didn't get "Big Zombie" -- a shame, that -- but we got a soaring Sally vocal on "Ghosts of American Astronauts" to make up for it. Otherwise, I believe every song on that list was played. And if you forced me to pick favorites, I'd tell you "Memphis," "Beaten," "TINA," "Ghosts," "Hard to Be Human," and the melange of waltz-y goodness that resulted when the band blended "Shanty" with "Wild and Blue" to make, yes, "Wild Shanty," but, really, it was all great. If the Mekons want to make me absurdly happy on Monday in Philly by playing a song that I know they taught the good Baron for this tour, "I Have Been to Heaven and Back" would be an extraordinary addition to an already perfect slice of Mekons bliss.

I love this band, if you can't already tell. They have never, in many many gigs over the years, ever disappointed me. And when they bring their sardonic wit and their shambolic brilliance to my fair city on Monday night, I'll be, once again, in full Mekons glory. Lester Bangs? He had no idea how great this ride was going to get.

Long live the Mekons.

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These pics are all from the band's recent Chicago gig. Photo credit is Heather Copeland's for each one: