Saturday, January 26, 2019

Stepping up to the brain challenge



It's a repeating theme in my head: I'm running out of time.

No, not imminently (that I know of), but I'm 56 years old. If I'm really lucky, I'll get 30 or so more very healthy years on the planet. What am I going to do with that time?

As I told you a few months ago, I recently "retired" from a job, as a public-interest lawyer, that I had for almost 30 years. When I decided to leave, I hadn't nailed down exactly what the next step was. But I knew one thing for sure: I wanted to keep my brain busy.

Just about every study/article/conclusion on healthy aging involves an active mind. Gray matter will rot, figuratively speaking, if not stimulated.

Well... here comes the stimulation: shortly after I made the retirement decision, a public-interest law practice in Philly chased me down and made me a full-time offer. I accepted. So I "retired" for all of two months, and I'm headed back to work, in a different state, doing work that is related to my old work, in a very general sense, but it's really not the same kind of job.

"You understand that basically no one does what you're about to do? No one jumps jurisdictions at age 56 and takes on a whole new body of law. This move is going to be amazing for your brain." That was a friend telling me the positives of the new gig. "No one" is an exaggeration, but the point is a solid one. My aging brain will be still on the move, and that's awesome.

But it's going to be a hell of a challenge too. There's a reason that "no one does what [I'm]] about to do": because it's really hard work. I'm a very good lawyer. But, unlike my old job, where I already knew 98% of what I needed to do the job, this one has required me to realize that I have a lot of information to amass in a short time. I know New Jersey law; Pennsylvania is a land of mystery, so to speak.

So the last few weeks, I've been studying up. I've spent at least a few hours each day, sometimes a lot more, reading (and reading and reading...) case law with which I was previously mostly unfamiliar. I'm entering a new arena.

It's a little daunting.

It's also exhilarating and cool. And really, I don't screw around when it comes to being prepared. I don't know if "most people" would start prepping three to four weeks in advance for a new job, but I'm not most people, and prepping is exactly what I've been doing.

If I'm lucky, I balance this job with all the fun creative things I do as a drummer, and my brain is so awash in endorphins, challenges, and growth that I am -- to quote a tattoo artist who made me laugh when he applied the phrase to me -- "crushing life."

Or I suppose that I could hate it.

I'm about to find out. Wish me luck. My brain already is thanking me.


Wednesday, January 23, 2019

An "aging" podcast that's well worth your time, or: how eating paleo/primal matters a lot more as you get older

As I've been heard to say: "As you get older, don't eat like a six-year-old and don't drink like a college student."

Here's some science behind that concept:

I started playing catch-up with some Robb Wolf podcasts recently and stumbled on this one. Wow. What a keeper.

Dr. Michael Rose's research, which he describes at length in the podcast, has led to the conclusion that aging represents a cessation of adaptation. Translated, from a dietary perspective: at a certain age, our bodies cease to be able to handle certain neolithic foods as well as we previously have.

So, while no one should be eating crappy processed Frankenfood at any age, younger folks can do fine, even thrive, on a wide-ranging diet that is not remotely paleolithic. However, at a certain point -- Rose says between 30 and 50 years old for most people -- the ability to handle that neolithic food load decreases sharply.

In other words, between ages 30 and 50, the *adaptation* to neolithic foods disappears and those foods become a significant source of inflammation and aging. His prescription: eat paleo as you get older than 30, and certainly by age 50.

The concept makes sense to me. I watch 20-something friends shovel in all sorts of things that I wouldn't eat now, and they do so without significant current consequence. When I ate those things in my thirties and early forties, I got heavier, softer, less-athletic, and generally less healthy. When I went paleo in 2010 at age 46, things changed quickly for the better. I leaned out, gained energy, and generally felt stronger and more alive.

You probably knew the basic idea already: when you get to a certain age, you cannot eff around with bad food and drink like you used to. Dr. Rose's research provides a strong genetic/evolutionary-science basis for that "obvious" fact.

Link to the podcast is here.

Friday, December 28, 2018

I do yoga because I suck at yoga

 "Adult humans are really bad about sticking with something that is good for them, but that they aren't great at. Doing something difficult requires strength. Be strong. "
-- my yoga teacher this morning, dropping a truth bomb.

*************

For a while now, I've been operating under the theory that we are happiest if we are really good, even great, at at least two things. It helps if one of those things is the way the person makes a living -- you know, a skill that leaves you able to afford food/housing/etc. at a level that makes you happy/comfortable or at least takes away some worries. I also think that, ideally, the second thing ought to be a hell of a lot of fun. (Obviously, if you're lucky enough to combine fun and making a living, you get some sort of Life Bonus Points).

I'm doing OK on both of those fronts. I've always been pretty accomplished at my attorney day gig. And I've become a pretty damn good drummer too. "10,000 hours," and all that.

But lately I've been thinking about another category: doing something that you suck at. Because if "relentless self-improvement" is the goal -- hint: it is; it really is -- just improving the things that you're already great at seems like cheating, or selling yourself short.

**************

I've been going to the same yoga studio for the last three years, and they're closing. No big deal, right? Just find another, you say. There are tons of yoga places around. OK, sure. So I shopped a bit, looking for a mix of different types of classes, at convenient times, etc. And I found a studio that seems to fit the bill.

When I got out of the chilled-out/hippie comfort zone of my usual yoga place, I was then almost immediately reminded of one thing: good lord, I suck at yoga.

I'm 56 years old. Despite being in generally good shape -- healthy, decently strong, good aerobic capacity, etc. -- I have arthritis in both knees, both shoulders and at least my right elbow (and probably the left one too). That right elbow is also damaged enough from 37 years of drumming that it doesn't allow my right arm to fully straighten in a locked-out position. I was at the old yoga place -- a quiet studio with a mostly older clientele -- for so long that I sort of forgot how many rungs down the proverbial ladder of yoga skills I am. I can get left in the dust pretty quickly.

At the new place, a lot more than at the old one, the proverbial dust and I get a little time together quite often, while the rest of the class plows ahead at full speed. The clients here are all ages, and all skill levels, but mostly they are much more accomplished at yoga than I am. It's a humbling exercise to be practicing at this studio.

**************

But yoga is not about competition, you might say (and you'd be right). Sometimes, being a bit of an overly-competitive jackass, I have to remind myself of that fact over and over. "YOGA IS NOT ABOUT COMPETITION," I mentally yell to my inner self as I wait for class to begin and the room fills with beautiful people who can accomplish twisty/bendy things with their bodies that appear to be flat-out sorcery.

I mostly focus inward and, depending on the class and the teacher, struggle somewhere between a little and a lot.

But, in the new studio, I'm already learning cool new things too: like that doing yoga when the room is already warm-ish and there is also a giant infrared lamp turned on does crazy positive things to both my state of mind and my flexibility. That ginormous glowing infrared lamp doesn't heat the room. Nope, in its own bit of sorcery, it heats the people in the room but not the room itself. My only prior experience, a couple years ago, with "hot yoga" was in a grossly humid studio that was so unpleasant that we were one small step from doing yoga in Satan's armpit (or close to this). The infrared experience is nothing like that. Or at least the humidity/armpit part is removed. You get really warm; you sweat; but you do not feel like you are in a rain forest. The heat comes from within because the lamp heats your insides. I told you: sorcery. Wonderful wonderful sorcery.

Just the other day, in an infrared class, instead of mentally mumbling, "Oh I don't think so," to myself when the teacher suggested transitioning one difficult pose into another tougher one, I just... did the harder pose. When sweat is pouring out of me, I am not thinking about anything else. I'm in the moment -- you know, that place we're always supposed to be?

*************

But this post is about sucking at something, not about success, and let's not pretend -- despite small gains being made in the mental and flexibility arenas -- that I don't suck at yoga. I definitely suck at yoga.

But here's the thing: in a Zen trick of sorts, that's kind of the point, hmmm? Somewhere, even amidst the modest improvements, there is an ever-present thought that no matter how much yoga I practice, I am never going to be able to do whatever the hell that pose was that the teacher showed us at one point today. And that's OK.

Really, it's not just OK; it's why I keep moving forward.

It's fine to do things that you're good at, and it's even better to get really good at those things, but sometimes -- despite my reflexive recoil against such new-agey phrases -- it really is the journey and not the destination that's important. That concept right there is why I do yoga: because I suck at yoga, the "journey" will be an endless path forward, and forward is a good direction. Indeed it's the only direction worth going.


Monday, December 17, 2018

When the going gets tough....

"This was us all on the planet lamenting the loss of a man who was a master human being. And the density of that loss is of great weight: a mass of massive missingness."
--Howe Gelb (1994) in the Pioneertown Sun lamenting the death of friend and collaborator Pappy Allen.

"The massive missingness." That wordsmithery stuck with me all these years. Mired in New Jersey at the time -- in every way not romanticized by the Artist Formerly Known as Mr. Julianne Phillips -- I never read that particular issue, or any other, of the Cali-desert-based Pioneertown Sun. But I was a big fan of Gelb's band Giant Sand -- deeply obsessed with their then-current album, Glum -- and I must have read an interview with him, likely in Option Magazine (speaking of obsessions), where he employed that phrase. I read that line, dug it, remembered it, and put it into the tool kit, filed under: "Don't overuse."

******
More than once in the blahblahbloggery of these many years, I've made reference to my alleged superpower: mostly I look forward, not back. That approach is mostly positive, some sort of nod to the wisdom of Zen. I am generally not bogged down in the slop of the past. Hell, I can't even stay angry with anyone for very long. I'm just driving toward that shiny thing on the horizon, figuring that we've all been through some shit and that we'll all break through it. Or not -- and having watched the "or not" play itself out in the lives of others is a scary incentive for me to rarely look back much at all, and almost never at losses.

Or at present-tense losses to be.

*******
I'm usually someone that bangs out a blog post pretty quickly. But not this one. I wrote a little and then it has sat, untouched, for a few weeks. When I first began this post, I wrote what you see above and also the following bit:

"In a few days, I'm out the door at a job as an attorney that I've had for 29 years.

I'm not leaving because I'm burnt out, or feel myself slipping, or winding down. (More here if you really care about the reasoning).

More than one person has noted to me that I don't seem very sentimental, and that others are a lot more sentimental about me leaving than I am.

I plead (mostly) guilty. And here is your explanation: forward means forward, and the fear of the massive missingness is strong. We all build up walls. They aren't all bad. Some are extremely useful. This particular 'always forward' mentality is generally a good one in that regard."

*********
Well, non-sentimentality and forward thinking was the plan anyway.... I thought I could just plow through all those feelings in a Cyborg-like way.

But then my job threw me two different retirement parties, and I got to thinking -- always dangerous, I know -- and I got a little better realization of how some people were really positively affected by my work over the years, and how much we'd miss each other. Sure enough, the Guy Who Doesn't Really Do the Past got forced to take the past into account. The "massive missingness" was present more than I expected.

It took about a week post-job, but, damn, when the "feels" hit after all those goodbyes those feelings were truly something. Like all sources of stress in my life, this particular one visited most prominently at 3 am one night, and then the next night again. Despite being "retired" -- supposedly free from the bullshit demands of a job, at least temporarily (more on that in another post -- we can't cover everything in this one) -- I was a bit of a sleep-derived mess after just a couple nights like that.

**********
If you've been around these parts for very long, you'll know just what I decided to do next:
re-start my meditation practice.

"WHY DID YOU EVER STOP?' some of you are yelling at me. Because, like most of us, I have -- I dunno -- shit to do, and, like some of us, I usually feel pretty good most of the time. So I get lazy. When I have lots on my plate and I am not feeling bad, I often slowly but surely lapse out of daily meditation.

Ironically, just two days before I left work at the old job forever, we had a continuing legal education (CLE) seminar on mindfulness for attorneys. It was run by a guy named Jon Krop, and his meditation pitch was simple -- very close to what I've previously said on these pages, actually (and, yes, then ignored myself) -- and direct: just do it, every day. A strong theme of Krop's talk was that repetition is more important than duration. In other words, ten minutes of meditation every day is far more valuable than a whole lot of meditation crammed into one day a week.

Krop is specifically a proponent of morning meditation, for a basic reason: it just fits better into the day. "Just do it first thing," he urged us, "Before anything else." I decided to give that strategy a shot. I'm a nighttime/before-bed meditator traditionally, but, as I've made clear, I'm also known for ditching meditation too easily sometimes. "Too tired to meditate" is an easy excuse just before bed. Maybe my morning routine could start with 10-15 minutes of meditation? Maybe I'll keep at it for a longer while that way? I jumped back in.

**********
Unsurprisingly, the results have been spectacular. Yes, I've had all the usual thoughts that I never should have stopped meditating. But the stressful 3 a.m. wakeups also immediately vanished. I learned to address some of those "missingness" feelings more head-on than I'd been doing. Hell, I even made a few changes to my fitness routine to get me to the gym and to yoga more often than I'd been going in the last couple of months.

It's almost like when your head is stress-free (or at least lower-stress), you make better decisions more often. Almost exactly like that.

Granted, restarting meditation for me is like the proverbial bicycle ride; I never "forget" how to meditate. That's because I've been at it for years. A few months away? No big deal. I just settle in, and let that wave of calm wash over me and, yeah, I invariably wonder what my damn problem is that I quit too easily. But it's not a struggle to restart. If you've never been as deeply into a meditation routine, your mileage may vary in that regard.

But really, whether you are an experienced practitioner or not, Mr. Krop has the one critical part of meditation right: just do it, every day. Repetition is the key to success.

Maybe we should start another meditation challenge soon? I think so. More on that idea soon. In the meantime, I'll be staying the course, every morning.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Cutting the Cord, a.k.a. Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space

Honestly, it's a little weird.

I've been in the same job for 29 years, and I'm leaving in two months.

Thanks to a retirement system that I never used to think about when I was younger, I don't have to get a new job to have enough money to live on. I'm a lucky man, and I'm grateful as hell.

But I'll almost certainly keep working in some form or other.

I'm leaving because I have pretty solid info that moves are afoot -- among those who have the power to make such moves -- to change aspects of that very retirement system in a way that would cost me a lot of money if I stick around. It would be a ridiculous and foolish risk to stay -- or so say those who advise me on financial decisions. The math on leaving adds up -- easily -- whereas the math on staying makes the obvious sentimentality of that potential course of action seem something close to reckless.

**************
By the way, in case you can't tell, I'm being intentionally vague. If you're a long-time reader of this blog, you'll know that we don't ever talk about my day job as a lawyer here. I'm trying to maintain that facade, for now anyway.
**************

OK, it's probably closer to really weird. I'm really good at my day job. I could keep doing it forever.

But it's also exhilarating as hell to be free-falling, with a giant safety net below me.

I'm 56 years old and in two months I can do whatever I want.

Have I mentioned the exhilaration part of the deal?

I'm in two bands. I do volunteer work. I teach. Add in travel, gym, yoga, playing sports, etc., and I don't think I'll be anything close to bored. Last night I had a few ciders with a guy that works in a law office that I might want to join one day. Or not. I can also just handle individual cases once I'm "retired." There's talk of relocating to the Mountain West some day.

Hell, there might even be a book in me. There could be some freelancing or other work in the "paleo" world.

None of these things could come true, or all of them, or, more likely, something somewhere in between.

The exhilaration is real. The uncertainty is pretty cool.

 It's time to have (more) fun (than ever). Let's go.
















Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Little Garage Gym That Could

In June 2010, I quit the standard-issue gym where I'd been keeping myself in okay shape, and I showed up at 7 a.m. at a one-car garage in the suburban town of Cherry Hill, NJ, ready to try CrossFit.

These were the early days -- for New Jersey anyway -- of CrossFit. At the time, there were two CF gyms in the area, and I chose the upstart for a really simple reason: I was fairly sure that I was a decently fast runner for an old guy, but I otherwise didn't know anything about barbells. So, my brain reasoned, I could embarrass myself a lot less at a smaller CrossFit gym, especially a new one. We'd all be newbies in this thing together, sucking toward some higher goal, right? Right.

When I say, "One-car garage," I shit you not. This wasn't one of those sort of 1.5-wide garages where you could keep the beer fridge on one side of the car and maybe a folded-up ping-pong table on the other side and still have room to open your car door. Nope. One car. One. (Count it). To make room, the car was parked outside. There was a pullup bar. One. There was a barbell and there were some weight plates. There might have been two barbells, actually. There were some dumbbells and a fucked-up-looking thing or two that I later learned was called a kettlebell.

I remember a few very specific things about that morning:

--Justin and Alycia, the owners, were really nice, enthusiastic, and ready to talk all things CrossFit at the drop of a hat. As a new convert, so was I, so the CF-oriented yapping was exactly what I wanted.

--Justin played loud music and also told me that he played bass in a band. Now we were getting somewhere. CrossFit and music/band talk? Sign me up. (I signed up).

--I deadlifted for the first time ever. Dude. Deadlifting. I felt like Barney in the Simpsons when he has that first drink ever and yells, "Whoa. Where ya been all my life?" It was like Jesus, the Buddha, and the Quaker Oats man had all shone their little lights -- or whatever it is that they do -- on me simultaneously. I was hooked. This deadlifting was a thing I could get into. It was nothing like Olympic lifts -- cleans, snatches, or jerks -- all of which seemed at the time more like magic tricks than actual achievable feats. Deadlifting was just digging in, with the right basic form, and standing up while holding a heavy thing that had been on the floor. I've never stopped loving deadlifts. Ever.

When I joined CrossFit Aspire, I think I was the fourth member. I learned a lot. I got really fit, not just runner fit. I eventually, a few years later, got a three-rep deadlift at 425 pounds that made my then-51-year-old self pretty effing happy.

But back to 2010. Fast forward to the end of that first year and there were enough people showing up on a regular basis that Justin and Alycia ditched the garage for a rented space. The new place seemed huge.

A year later the gym got even bigger, moving to a much larger space. That one seemed extra huge.

From 2010 through 2015 -- when an injury sidelined me enough that I quit CF altogether -- CrossFit Aspire, whether located in a garage or a giant warehouse, was a centerpiece of my life. CrossFit gyms are rarely just gyms. They have parties and dinners and pig roasts and generally become an important part of a member's social life.  Even after I quit, my wife remained an Aspire member and we still hung out with lots of CF friends fairly often.

My wife got an email yesterday that CrossFit Aspire is closing -- for good -- in less than two weeks. The gym world is rough, and never stays the same for long. A thriving enterprise one year is yesterday's news the next year. I don't even know all the details. I just know all that matters: that consistently, without fail, over the years Justin and Alycia ran a top-notch facility where the nice people were in charge and attracted a clientele that includes some of the best people I know.

Impermanence is a repeating-theme blues in all of our lives, and gratitude is not overrated. So you cherish the good times and the people that made them. And you move on, but always remember. Thanks, CrossFit Aspire. "You changed my life for the better" might sound trite. Nope. Really. You did.






Sunday, September 9, 2018

Live Review: The Jesus Lizard, Philly, September 8, 2018

"Oh, stop!" were the first words out of David Yow's mouth last night in Philadelphia as his band, the Jesus Lizard, took the stage at a sold-out Union Transfer and he waved his hand dismissively in a faux gesture of humility. A few seconds later the rest of the band was off into the crushing riffage of "Puss," and he was off as well: off the stage -- horizontally riding the crowd as he delivered his vocal chaos -- seemingly off balance, and off the hook. Within a few more minutes, as the band ground another song to a simultaneously punishing and precise halt, another Yow emerged.

The faux humility was gone. He knew they were killing it:

"Amazing. Fucking amazing," Yow said in wonderment of his bandmates. "I am SO HAPPY for you people to get to see this." And then a wry smirk came across his face: "This has to be the highlight of your life. I mean, after all, you live in Philadelphia."
          ________________________________________________________________
"One [Steve] Albini trademark was to mix the vocals very low -- on the Jesus Lizard albums that Albini recorded, singer David Yow sounds like a kidnap victim trying to howl through the duct tape over his mouth; the effect is horrific." --Michael Azerrad ("Our Band Could Be Your Life")
       ___________________________________________

My attempts to describe the sound of the Jesus Lizard invariably end up at some sort of melange of noise and math rock -- maybe the Butthole Surfers and Fugazi had a love child? (That's reasonably close, actually). But I most like what my rock-critic friend Mark Deming just today said about the band: "An amazing balance of precision and chaos."

Yeah. That's the one. Precision and chaos.

Mac McNeilly (drums) and David Wm. Sims (bass) lay down a thunderous groove, often in time signatures that seem familiar, but which then veer off to something more unsettling -- after which they return to the familiar. Repeat, ad infinitum. The two are so inextricably bound together that I just assume that they eat meals at the same time even when they are thousands of miles apart. They sound a little bit like it would if, in a cartoon, you threw a perfectly-tuned drum kit and bass guitar down the stairs, and they landed together. The rumble is frantic, but with the exacting perfection of genius musicians.

Over top of that rhythm ride two things, one providing shimmering texture and one... uh, not. Duane Denison's guitar is the texture. While McNeilly and Sims roar and seeth, Denison adds flavor, sometimes joining in the musical brutality of the rhythm section, but more often operating in (somewhat) more ethereal tones.

When I first heard this band, I thought vocalist David Yow's name was Yowl. It would fit. He provides most of the chaos. Yow speaks, growls, screams, and occasionally sings the words. Most of the time, I have to look up the lyrics; sometimes when I do, I wish I hadn't.

I knew all that -- I've owned this band's records for years -- but nothing prepared me for the first time I saw them live.

That first time -- inexplicably (I have no excuse) -- was last night.

Christ, it was powerful. It was, no shit, one of the greatest performances I have ever seen. My thesaurus is broken. I have no more words. Everything I just said about the nearly disturbing power of this band? In the live context, it's increased by several orders of magnitude. These men are all in their late fifties, just a couple years older than I am, but McNeilly attacks the drums with the testosterone-fueled aggression of a teenager and Yow spends song after song stage diving while continuing to vocalize as the crowd passes him around. Sims and Denison are less physically aggressive than their bandmates, but their musical delivery is no less precise, mathematical, and deadly.

I really don't know that in 41 years of seeing bands that I've ever seen anything better than the Jesus Lizard last night. And they went on for 26 songs -- 15 in the regular set and then three multisong encores. I believe the set was the same exact order as this one, but I'll post the Philly setlist when it gets published.

Ordinarily, I'd tell you what the very biggest highlights of the evening were, but every single song fit that bill. Yes, 26 strategic blasts of perfect tactical chaos. I'm a drummer; I've played in bands for years, and I simply don't know how they pulled off that sustained intensity for a whole set, and I don't know, specifically, how Mac McNeilly isn't in the fucking hospital, or, at a minimum, on long-term doses of anti-inflammatories.

I hit the drums really fucking hard, harder than most guys my age. But Mac hits them harder. Sometimes most of the joints in my body ache as a result of the way I play. In fact they ache so hard that a soon-to-be post will address the relative wonders of CBD oil for chronic pain. But... Mac, dude, sir, I do not know how the hell you do what you do. But please keep doing it.

This band is a multiheaded hydra of power and precision. And, yeah, chaos too. They have no peers.

It may take weeks for me to fully recover from this one.

Dig in:













Thursday, August 16, 2018

Aretha Franklin, 1942-2018

The Queen of Soul had been ill for quite a while, and I don't feel particularly well-qualified to wax poetic on her staggering value to the musical universe other than to say that it was profound. Goddamn, it was profound.

So I'll let Billy Preston tell you better than maybe anyone ever:

"I don't care what they say about Aretha. She can be hiding out in her house in Detroit for years. She can go decades without taking a plane or flying off to Europe. She can cancel half her gigs and infuriate every producer and promoter in the country. She can sing all kinds of jive-ass songs that are beneath her. She can go into her diva act and turn off the world. But on any given night, when that lady sits down at the piano and gets her body and soul all over some righteous song, she’ll scare the shit out of you. And you’ll know—you’ll swear—that she’s still the best fuckin’ singer this fucked-up country has ever produced.”

Indeed.

Here are a few that you may have forgotten.





Sunday, June 17, 2018

Anthony Bourdain: I'll miss him more than I might even have imagined


I'm not much on heroes. They invariably disappoint me.

But, at least for the ten-ish years that I "knew" him from his books and his "Parts Unknown" and "No Reservations" series, Anthony Bourdain seemed worthy of the title.

The guy was punk rock to his core: "Skills can be taught. Character you either have or you don't have."

His "fuck the chains; eat local" mantra was great advice. Quotes like "to me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living" hit my paleo-ish/real-food heart right in the feels. I can't tell you how many times I've made the more-adventurous food choice -- heading for the nasty bits usually, like sweetbreads -- because Tony Bourdain urged us all to stop being so fucking boring with food.

Bourdain's near-constant touting of local (to the episode) musicians and artists was not just doing a solid for those folks, but indicative of an appreciation for the grittier aspects of art and music that made me always wish I could shoot the proverbial shit with him, preferably over drinks and hunks of meat. For godssakes, he had Mark Lanegan sing lead on the theme song. I felt like we dug the same stuff. His magic was in making a lot of people think exactly the same thing.

He was gloriously judgmental in his non-judgmental-ness (or was it the other way around?): "Assume the worst. About everybody. But don't let this poisoned outlook affect your job performance. Let it all roll off your back. Ignore it. Be amused by what you see and suspect. Just because someone you work with is a miserable, treacherous, self-serving, capricious, and corrupt asshole shouldn't prevent you from enjoying their company, working with them, or finding them entertaining."

Tony dished casual life advice with a smirk: "Next to making a proper omelet or wiping your own ass, knowing how to roll a joint is an essential life skill for any self-respecting member of society."

But to paraphrase one of the thousand or so Twitter accounts that I read when mourning his sudden death, Anthony Bourdain's greatest accomplishment by far was to try to make white-majority Americans less afraid of people that don't look like them. That approach obviously only succeeded to a point -- take a look at the festering nativist carbuncle that we elected as president if you think otherwise -- but it could make a person think. Hard. And lots of us did.

His LA episode wasn't about the sunshine or the glitz. It was about the vibrancy of the Latino community, in and out of the restaurant world. The Beirut episode somehow embraced all the contradiction of that war-torn spot and made it glow with beauty amidst the conflict. In the Bronx, he interviewed hip-hop legends and local artists.  In New Mexico, he embraced the mishmash of many cultures. And in Lagos a white dude from NYC taught us about Nigerian garage rock.

This is the description of the Houston episode on Wikipedia: "Tony showcases the extreme ethnic diversity of Houston, Texas. Anthony visits the Little India neighborhood; attends a quinceañera, meets with refugee students at Lee High School, as well as the principal, himself a former Vietnamese refugee; explores African-American 'slab' car culture with rapper Slim Thug; meets Vietnamese fishermen and Congolese farmers; and attends an Indian cricket game."

Notably, no episodes would have fit the description: "Tony hangs out only with privileged white people, doing privileged-white-people things, eating at cookie-cutter chain establishments, and acting like a superstar."

He brought diversity into our lives with an equal helping of empathy. He made you question your choices and your values: about food, about music, about friends, about world leaders and politicians. About life.

I'm not much of a TV guy -- for no reason other than I don't particularly sit still well while staring straight ahead without being involved in a dialogue. (Why do you think I force myself to meditate, hmmm?) But Tony Bourdain -- particularly on Parts Unknown -- was a big exception to that rule. I have my DVR set to record very very little, but it's been recording every single episode of Parts Unknown for a while now. Bourdain has been, and still will be, my default choice for an hour of unrelentingly interesting television.

Sure, I'm sad that I never met him, but I'm really upset that the world lost his voice. The brotherhood and sisterhood of iconoclasts of the restaurant world and elsewhere is down a member. The punks and the artists have lost an advocate. So have the disenfranchised, especially people of color, everywhere, whether in the back room of a New York kitchen or in a remote village in Laos.

I'm glad your pain's gone, Tony. I just wish you didn't leave with it.

Shit. Shit. Shit.
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Here are the closing five minutes of the Seattle episode. I'll eventually get through it without tearing up, I swear. But not yet.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Five Years

Five years ago today, my dad passed away. I miss him sometimes, but, as I documented here, the last few years of his life were really rough, and I don't look back fondly on those at all. Back then I wrote some things about what was going on, and very few of them have seen the light of day. I found the simple act of writing to be cathartic. Here's one of those pieces. (It just kind of slams shut at the end because it was part of something larger at the time).

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No Fun

[1976 or so]

There was a real familial/fraternal tipping point sometime in my early teens. It was when my younger brother Paul and I both decided we were better off as a two-man team organized against the perceived oligarchy of our parents than we were battling each other in sibling rivalry.

We rode that partnership through a lot of teenage hijinks, and, thanks to cunning, planning and a solid bond with each other, we spent most of our time back then trying hard to do two things: enjoy ourselves, and not be like our father.

And that’s probably just two versions of the same thing.

Make no mistake: our father was a good guy underneath it all. He loved his family, and did his best to provide for us, but he was not, in any sense of the word, fun. He was very Catholic, in, yes, an über-religious sense, but even more so in a dutiful way. When I was a kid, my dad went to Catholic mass every day. And let’s put it this way -- and, really, I shit you not: I heard a lot more references as a child to “offering up suffering for the souls in Purgatory” than I ever heard any emphasis on, say, having a good time, or enjoying life. We would joke in later years that “the pope has Dad on speed-dial.”

A teenage friend, who was terrified of my stern-faced father, dubbed him “Party Bill” -- a nickname that stuck for years, through a lot of laughter, although Bill never knew about it.  There could not have been a less appropriate -- and, thus, irony being what it is, more appropriate -- moniker for him.

[April 2010]

Not long after his hospitalization in March 2010 -- after falling and spending three days on the floor before he crawled to a phone and called me, in a whisper, to tell me that he was “having some trouble” -- it became clear that, this time, the party had nearly ended abruptly. My dad had come perilously close to dying. When a living human body lies in one spot for that long, toxins build up so fast in the muscles that the kidneys become overwhelmed and can’t clear them all, leading to a potentially fatal condition called rhabdomyalysis. His rhabdo was advanced, and I was told that he wouldn’t have survived a fourth day on the floor of his house.

But he was tough. Good Christ, he was tough. A few years earlier, around 2007, he had fallen, alone, in his basement, causing a fracture of the tibia that was so close to “compound’ -- i.e., the bone breaking free of its corporeal prison to find daylight -- that the skin in the area was stretched from the pressure of the jagged, broken leg bone against it. His response to that accident was not to somehow crawl or scoot on his butt up the stairs to the phone and dial for help. No, he walked up those steps -- 13 of them -- and then sat in a kitchen chair until the next morning, waiting to summon help until he was “absolutely sure that it wasn’t just sprained.” The surgeon told me back then, “Your father must have a pain tolerance that is superhuman. I get squeamish thinking about taking one step on that leg and he took 15 to 20. And he damn near turned some of the bone into powder doing it. I have no doubt that he walked on it, as he says he did, because it is damaged in a way that matches that kind of behavior.”

By the way, my father later admitted that the real reason he didn’t call for help sooner when he broke his leg in 2007: he was afraid I would (again) bring up how maybe, just maybe, this time it was time to move.

So rhabdo a few years later, after a few days on the floor? That was just a bump in the road for Bill. He bounced back enough within a week or so that he was transferred from the hospital to a nursing-care wing at local place we will call the Q. He fought me hard on that one, but acceded when he still couldn’t stand up without assistance. Then, within another couple weeks, he was able to shuffle along slowly using a walker, and he was shifted to the next step down, so-called “assisted living.” The notion is that residents in that section of the Q can perform the basic tasks of life -- dressing, bathing, bathroom issues, etc. -- but need to have their meals prepped for them, and just generally get checked in on by staff a few times a day. Assisted living at the Q was apartment living, but with community meals that commingled everyone. So in one dining hall there would be folks with very moderate memory/dementia issues and others, like my father, who were there solely for orthopedic/physical problems.

Again, he battled me -- “If I can walk, why am I not going home?!” he yelled -- but the switch from nursing to assisted living was so seamless, from one building of the Q to another, that he hardly had time to complain. In fact, I think staff told him they were just taking him for a “short ride in a wheelchair.” He was mighty pissed off when I said, “OK, so this is your new apartment for now.” His first question, “What do I have to do to get out of here and go home?”

Those were his second and third questions too.

In 2010, my dad was not yet showing any outward signs of dementia. He was nearly blind, couldn’t walk without a walker -- and even then, did so with great difficulty -- and he was not a good candidate to return home, but, as a doctor put it to me back then, “His MRI shows a prior stroke and a normal, aging 80-something-year-old brain. He is old, stubborn and cranky. He even qualifies as miserable. But he isn’t incompetent. There is no doubt that he shouldn’t go home because he can’t get around. But....”

The doc trailed off. The unstated conclusion to his summary: we can’t legally keep your dad here against his will. We can make it seem as if he “needs to stay,” but if it comes down to it and he calls a cab, we can’t stop him from leaving.

But, almost immediately, the staff at the Q tried to incorporate my father into their daily routine. Maybe he’d like to join a group activity? There were many of those!

He refused every offer.

He sat in his room all day long listening to classical music on the radio, or occasionally turning the television to basketball or baseball. The only out-of-apartment adventures were for meals, and, he told me that he hated those “because the food is terrible and there’s nothing here but crazy people.”

Toward the end of April 2010 there was a standard monthly “care conference” held about my father at the Q. He had only one question -- repeated so many times that it became painful: “How do I get out of here?” When staff and I dodged his first few stabs at that interrogatory, he began yelling it. So the director of the Q tried to distract Bill with another subject: “Hey, let’s turn the floor over to Karen for a moment. She is the activity director, and, William [she said his name somewhat schoolmarm-ishly, somewhat singsong-ishly, in a way that made me cringe because I knew what he would think of that], Karen says that you haven’t agreed to participate in a single activity since you arrived here a few weeks ago.”

Karen (a lovely, polite, well-mannered young woman, speaking in a truly earnest and caring tone) stepped in: ”William, we really want you to enjoy yourself while you are here. But I need to know what it is you like to do. What do you do for FUN?” (She put heavy emphasis on that last word).

My dad looked at her incredulously, then contemptuously. Then he squinted a little, as was his habit at the time, peering through the fog of his awful vision, to glare one-by-one at each of the four other people in the room, including me. He paused, put his head down for a moment, then reared up a bit in his wheelchair, slamming the palms of his hands down on his thighs, and bellowed, louder than I had ever heard him speak: “FUN?! [Profoundly long pause for effect]. I’M NOT INTERESTED IN FUN!!!”

The care conference ended.