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.

"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.

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

Friday, July 3, 2015

Opening the mailbag, for yet another fat-loss question

I get this one fairly often, always from a woman -- not because guys don't have the same issue, just because... oh hell, I don't know. Guys just generally don't ask each other these things.

I'll paraphrase:

"Hi Steve, so I'm eating (mostly) paleo, pretty low-carb. I'm doing CrossFit metcons three or four times a week and lifting heavy those same days. My sleep's pretty good, at least seven hours a night, often more. I'll cut to the chase: WHY CAN'T I LOSE BODY FAT?!?!? I'm stronger than I have ever been. I'm also leaner than I was when I started to change my food and exercise habits, but I'm nowhere near where I want to be in terms of body comp. What the hell? Suggestions?"

Just about a year ago, I did a blog post called "How can I lose body fat?"

The answer is definitely in there, but I'm going to give a hint at an even simpler solution. Because here's the thing.... our protagonist isn't starting from Step One. She's been at this thing for a while. She's not eating food from packages. She's all about prepping her meals and eating real food. She's picking up heavy shit and putting it down on a regular basis. And still she has hit a plateau. Her body fat isn't budging.

For the next month, my friend, don't change anything except for two things:
(1) stop drinking alcohol and (2) take a walk for at least an hour every day at the fastest pace you can walk.

At the end of that month, you'll know whether you are making progress. And you will be, because you are already eating pretty well, sleeping well and lifting heavy. Then, once progress is made, you can decide how, or if, you need to modify this, or any other, aspect of your routine.

I've said it a bunch before, and I will say it a lot more in the future: alcohol -- I love it. But it screeches fat loss to an awful, untimely halt. If you are fatter than you want to be and you are still drinking alcohol, stop. Just stop. Like a wise man once sang, "Not forever. Just for now." But, really.... STOP until you get to where you want to be body-comp-wise. Then play around with it. But, until then, you are, metaphorically speaking, trying to sprint with your shoelaces tied together. Fat loss in any significant amount is unlikely to happen while you keep drinking. It's fine to drink a little if mere maintenance is your goal, but fat loss? Nope.

And daily walking? It's the missing low-stress/low-cortisol component in almost everyone's fat-loss protocol. Let me guess.... you think walking is boring. I have no answer for that, except this: if you walk at a brisk pace for at least an hour a day, it works wonders for fat loss. It's also -- perhaps because it is so free of thrill-a-minute excitement -- a pretty decent sub for daily meditation. You know... it focuses you on the here and now. (And if I had to add one additional cortisol/stress-lowering activity to your fat-loss protocol, it would be meditation). So think of walking as the way to kill two birds with one stone. If you leave the headphones at home and just walk for walking's sake, you'll simultaneously be stoking your body's engine and metabolism for fat loss and you'll be clearing your head of the unwanted muck of the modern world.

And seriously, if , like most of us, you are a resident of the northern hemisphere of our big blue orb, when is there a better time to start a walking routine than summer? That'd be right now. Hell, there's daylight out the wazoo. Take advantage of it. 

Then you'll even sleep better than you are now, which, un-coincidentally, helps fat loss too.

Everything affects everything, folks. And if you are stuck in the fat-loss department despite eating only real food and having a solid heavy-lifting routine, put the drink(s) down and take a walk. Every day. For a month. You'll like the results. Then, like the grown-ass woman (or man) that you are, you can decide where to take things from there.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Obergefell v. Hodges, a huge step for more than just marriage equality?

Today’s marriage-equality decision from the U.S. Supreme Court is a truly watershed moment for what regular folks would call “liberty.” You know, freedom -- the right to do what you want as long as it’s not hurting someone else.

In fact, it is frankly so “duh” obvious to most folks that I know that an adult ought to be allowed to marry the consenting adult of his or her choice that a non-lawyer could wonder, as I saw some of my friends doing today on Facebook: “Why the hell was this decision so close? It was 5-4!”

Here’s why: this opinion is, from the perspective of this lawyer, actually a big deal – a very big deal – for reasons that go way past the right to marry. And those who don't want it to be a big deal were fighting hard against it.

See, what the average, non-lawyer folks call “liberty” is not what the U.S. Supreme Court has traditionally viewed as the definition. In fact, Justice Thomas wrote in his dissent today:

“The majority claims these state laws deprive petitioners of ‘liberty,’ but the concept of ‘liberty’ it conjures up bears no resemblance to any plausible meaning of that word as it is used in the Due Process Clause.”

He then goes on to treat the majority opinion as if it is from Mars, ultimately concluding that, as far as he can tell, “liberty” in the constitutional sense doesn’t refer to much more than “freedom from physical restraint.”

“If it doesn’t physically shackle you, quit your whining.” OK, he didn’t actually say that, but he came close.

Likewise, when Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion said what might appear to you and me as a reasonable line: “The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality,” Justice Scalia came out with this doozy: “Really? Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality (whatever that means) were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie.”

(I'll pause for a moment here to say, actually I did! I've always thought intimacy and spirituality are "freedoms." But, then again, even I make hippie jokes, so there's that).

So is this decision somewhat revolutionary? Does it depart, in any degree, from the “usual” constitutional analysis? Does it threaten the very notions of freedom and liberty that make this republic great? Are hippies taking over?

We’ll cut to the chase: yes, yes, no and no. But for that last one… maybe things got a little more libertarian than usual?

Justices Thomas and Scalia have one thing in their corner for this analysis: if you subscribe to their crabbed “originalist” notion of what constitutes legitimate considerations in defining the parameters of constitutional rights, then yeah, this decision is, I suppose, straight-up wackadoodle. The “founders” were not pro-gay-rights in any sense at all, and the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees of due process and equal protection were not intended, at the time of its drafting, to extend to gay Americans.

So that’s where they are coming from.

Is that what you think our most constitutional rights are defined by: only what the drafters of the constitution thought?

Yeah, me either.

But the U.S. Supreme Court, while not usually adhering to strict “originalist’ thinking, has hardly been a bastion of rights-expansion. Remember, less than thirty years ago, a majority of the justices thought it was just peachy for states to criminalize a blow job depending on the genders of the participants. It took them 17 more years to fix that monstrosity of a ruling. (Guess the identity of at least two of the justices that didn’t like the fix?)

Keeping all that troglodyte thinking in mind, a lot of us lawyer types, steeped in the ways of “substantive due process” and the extreme limits placed thereon by the Court in the past, thought today’s decision was going to come down to a not-so-simple simple question. Although you and your non-lawyer friends might sensibly see the propriety of banning gay couples from marrying to be pretty damn indistinguishable from the same issue as applied to racially-based marriage bars in 1967 in Loving v. Virginia, those of us a little more jaded on the “progress” of actual liberty – not Justice Thomas-style “liberty” – knew that sexual preference had never been deemed by the Court to warrant the so-called “strict scrutiny” analysis that racial classifications have. So we thought that so-called “rational basis” scrutiny – a much looser standard than “strict scrutiny” -- would be the test.

And even though there are precious few cases on the books where the non-sinewy methodology of rational-basis analysis has actually invalidated a law, I think many of us lawyer types truly believed that it would be employed by a five (or even six) justice majority to say, in the most basic terms: “Sorry bigoted states. Your marriage laws that exclude gay couples simply have no rational basis.”

And that would have been, well, fine. You and I would have gotten the result from the ruling that we justifiably wanted, and everything would have been as expected. “Yay marriage equality,” we would all have chanted – you know, except for a few originalist thinkers on the Court.

It’s a lot better than that.

Check out a few of these lines from the majority opinion. There’s the opener:

“The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach,
a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.”

My head exploded with joy. They’ve never said that “define and express identity” stuff before.  Try this too:

“A first premise of the Court’s relevant precedents is that
the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent
in the concept of individual autonomy.”

You the non-lawyer may have just read that and thought, “Yeah. Cool. Individual autonomy, man, just like the constitution says.”

Let me tell you that “the concept of individual autonomy” is not a phrase oft-found in Supreme Court jurisprudence. It's not in the constitution. In fact, I checked on my Lexismachine. It’s NEVER been used before in a U.S. Supreme Court decision. That’s never, like in ever.

And then there is this monumental boo-yah to the originalists:

“The right to marry is fundamental as a matter of history
and tradition, but rights come not from ancient sources alone.
They rise, too, from a better informed understanding of how constitutional imperatives define a liberty that remains urgent in our own era.”

Did you get all that? “Liberty” isn’t that constipated hunk of 200+-year-old goo rotting in the colons of the originalists. Rather “rights” come from somewhere else, a place that includes history, but does not exclude considerations of expanding notions of freedom From. Our. Own. Era.

That’s now, not 1789, or even the post-Civil War days of the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment. Now.

This decision isn’t by any means the first time the Court has looked beyond “originalist” intent. But it truly is the first time that I can recall that they got themselves out of the standard trap that comes from originalist-style thinking. Yes, as I said, the majority could have done a simple, dyed-in-the-wool exegesis on “rational basis” scrutiny, found these laws did not survive that scrutiny and shot them down. Instead, they did a little thesis on liberty.

Liberty, like freedom.

I fancy my political leanings as libertarian-ish, but the catch to the “ish” is that I’ve always cared more about personal individual autonomy (Hey! There’s that phrase again!) than economic freedoms. When the chips are down, I vote for whoever is going to stay the hell out of my bedroom. If they will also stay out of my wallet, that’s a plus, but it’s not the very first consideration for me.

So my take on individual rights has never been that they come solely from the government by way of the constitution. Rather, sure, the constitution enumerates certain rights, and then there are others, just as fundamental, that we are endowed with as a free people, for which the government had best have a mighty good reason before infringing upon. They were there before you ever got here, government, and they will be here in spite of your efforts to trample upon them.

This decision today is the first time I ever heard a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court speak in terms that sound more like my view and less like the no-fun/get-off-my-lawn/you-damn-hippies crew.

Instead of the rack and ruin predicted by Justices Scalia and the assault upon the strange and cramped definition of “liberty” used by Justice Thomas, this ruling could be the starting point for actually expanding real freedom, for recognizing a few other rights in the future -- ones that the founding fathers never heard of, but ones that are as fundamental to being a decent caring people in the modern age as the right to marry the consenting adult of one’s choice.

I’ll get pretty far off-point if I start listing ideas, but you can guess some of the main candidates for that status. Start with the right to end one’s life when terminally ill. What's more basic, decent and civilized than that, and more intertwined with the deepest considerations of individual autonomy?

We just became a potentially vastly more caring people today with a well-reasoned ruling that doesn’t fit the usual SCOTUS mold. It addresses real liberty, not “liberty” in the eyes of those who want to restrict it. We’re all a little more free.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Review: The Courtney Barnett Three Live at Union Transfer, Philadelphia, June 15, 2015

I like bands.

Maybe it's because I've spent most of my adult life in them, but there's an organic thing -- a chemistry thing -- that happens in a real honest-to-bejeezus band that's way different than just some guy (or woman) fronting a bunch of hired guns who don't particularly have anything invested in the whole operation. In its ideal form, a band is a living and breathing entity that stumbles and falls and soars and swoops and dives with a beautiful, freakin' noisy, but coordinated, purpose. To employ an entirely different metaphor, it's also a beautiful machine, and every member is an essential cog.

When I bought tickets a few months ago to see Aussie singer/songwriter Courtney Barnett, I remember thinking, "I dig the first couple EPs. I really dig the new album. But I'm curious to see how riveting this whole 'singer/songwriter' thing really is going to be live."

                                          Pic from

Yeah, I'd heard a few live clips, and I knew that Barnett and her bandmates -- drummer Dave Mudie and bass player Bones Sloane -- definitely turned up live and that it'd be.... well, good, but great? I was a little skeptical. Seriously, it's that "singer/songwriter" tag, I tell ya. I didn't really go into this with hopes super high for a mindblow.

So much for pre-show prejudices. Really, I had no idea what I was in for.

This band has been on the road a lot lately. Bands -- real bands -- get road-tested and road-worn and road-awesome. The CB3, like it says on the drum kit, is definitely road-awesome at this point.

At Union Transfer in Philly last night, the set went like this. And I'm not going to drag you through every moment. But let's just say that if you showed up hoping to hear clever Courtney play whimsical folk songs, you'd have been sadly disappointed. From the opening, "Hey!" this was a band -- a fucking band -- on a mission. What they did, for instance, to "Canned Tomatoes (Whole)" was nothing short of captivating. You could see that they were still perfecting all the twists and turns of an amped-up arrangement. Courtney bounced all over, working sheets of distortion and volume swells out of her guitar (no need for a second guitarist in this band). Bones leaped and locked in tight with Dave, who controlled all that dynamic tension with power and skill. They killed. I was sold.

I'm an asshole for ever having doubted them in advance.
(In retrospect, I should have known when they were playing "I-94" by Radio Birdman through the PA beforehand that this wasn't going to be an ordinary show).

Almost everything was a highlight, but if you want the cream of the crop, it was the aforementioned "CT(Whole)," the big build in "Kim's Caravan," the opening "Elevator Operator,"the predictably grunge-o-licious "Pedestrian at Best," the always manic/sloppy/wonderful "History Eraser" and an unexpectedly more-gorgeous-than-the-original solo take on You Am I's "Heavy Heart."(There's your clever "singer/songwriter" vibe, I suppose, on that last one). To give you an idea of how much Courtney and the boys revved up the originals, frankly their cover of "Cannonball" by the Breeders seemed unnecessary; they rocked harder than the Breeders anyway....

I went into this show thinking that, yeah, it'll be good. I left committed to catching this band every fucking time they come through my fair city. Hells yeah, CB3. I raise my glass to you, and apologize for my pre-show doubt. I'll be there next time, and you'll be even better, I bet.

A quick "Nice work!" goes out to the two openers. Aussie Darren Hanlon walked up onstage with an acoustic guitar, sang a bunch of songs that would make Billy Bragg a little misty, and left everyone in the place thinking, "Yes, I would totally hang out with/shoot the shit with/get drunk with that guy." Chastity Belt, from Walla Walla, WA, pretended to be from Melbourne, played a Liz Phair/Scrawl hybrid that left me wanting to hear more and generally looked like they were having the time of their lives on this tour. Yeah, I would dig it even more if the drummer rocked out a little heavier and left the low-fi Maureen Tuckerisms behind, but they were cool and full of dynamic tension and I would see them again. What is more fun than seeing a band -- there's that word again -- enjoying the ride? Nothing. That's what. It was a Monday night. And it fucking ruled.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Some people suck, so I took this photo.

My dogs seriously hate her.

She's a 60s-ish/maybe-older woman who walks around our rural "neighborhood" -- if you can call it that; it's just occasionally intersecting roads connecting old farm fields -- and she is always (always!) on the phone, talking REALLY LOUDLY.

In a nasally Long Island accent.

Yes, really.

It's like Fran Drescher's rude cousin is loose in Mayberry.

"AND THEN I SAYS TO HIIIIIM: "NO! YOU GO FUCK YOURSELF," and similar of her shouted telephonic niceties are what generally set the dogs off.

So when I happen to be out for a walk and I occasionally run into her, I sort of begrudgingly wave hi. The little that I know about her makes me not like her, but I try just the wave. There's no use actually talking to her. She's on the phone. Always. She never returns the greeting, by the way.

But there was a change in the routine just yesterday.  It was going to be brutally hot and humid, so I went out for a really early a.m. walk. For the first time ever, I saw her before I heard her. She actually wasn't talking on the phone.

We were walking toward each other on a quiet empty road. As we got within 25 feet or so, I looked right at her and said, "Good morning," and she said nothing. There was no acknowledgment from her that I'd spoken. "Whatever," I thought and kept moving. Within seconds, she then popped headphones out of her ears. She still said nothing. Then, just after we passed each other, she laughed self-consciously and loudly exclaimed, "HA! THAT'S FUNNY. USUALLY WHEN PEOPLE PASS EACH OTHER WALKING THEY SAY HELLO. I.... GUESS.... NOT!"

Ten years ago, maybe even five, I would have read her the fucking Riot Act. I would have let loose with a verbal barrage that would have told her: (1) I said hi and she ignored me, like she always does, (2) she would know that if she weren't so self-absorbed, and (3) by the way, could you possibly shut the fuck up on your daily walks because we can all hear you inside our houses, and even my dogs hate you."

Instead, I didn't say a word. I ignored her, kept walking and stopped at the next bridge and took a photo of a bucolic stream.

Life is short. It's probably not worth bothering. Move on.