Thursday, December 31, 2015


New Year’s Eve, 1983.

When I was twelve, my parents took my younger brother and me to Florida for Christmas, for what reason I can’t remember (not DisneyWorld). But, just a short time in, something got stirred up between them, and next thing we knew the car was turned around and heading north again, days early, without explanation, leaving Chris and me in the back seat silently wondering what the fuck.

For the better part of the day, I listened to Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man album on my Walkman and looked out the window at nothing but bleak winter sky along I-95. Six or seven hours in, the landscape started to change a bit. It was broken up, here and there, by those corny signs for South of the Border. (“Pedro’s Weather Forecast: Chili Today, Hot Tamale!”; “You Never Sausage a Place!”; “Pedro’s Fireworks! Does Yours?”) I wanted to go. As you kid you always wanted to go. Even if you’d been there and knew what a bore it was, you still wanted to stop for some reason. So Chris and I started pointing to the signs and making half-jokes. “Hey, Mom, Dad — we could reeeeally go for some cheeeeli!” After a few minutes of this, without a smile or a word, my dad took the exit.

We ate dinner somewhere—Mexican, if memory serves (or, perhaps that’s just the most obvious answer to write into the blank spot in my mind)—and my parents checked us into a ground-floor motel room not far from the huge Pedro welcome sign. By nine o’clock or so, they were out cold.

Chris and I sneaked out and by the light of the TV and headed back toward the shops. There was only one vendor still there, a big sweaty guy who was in the process of shutting down. He had a hodgepodge of junk: Pedro knickknacks, pecan rolls, maracas, and, of course, fireworks. Chris—only nine-years-old at the time—had the balls to ask the guy if we could buy some. He shrugged and gave us a handful of loose firecrackers, in a real “Here, go knock yourselves out” kind of way. We needed a light, so we pressed our luck for a Pedro lighter. He made us pay a buck for that.

Chris and I ran away from the main strip and found a little playground off in the distance. It was a nothing thing: just a stretch of dirt with three swings flanked by a slide. We were far enough away from trouble, we thought, so we lit those things up, one strand at a time, giggling and hitting each other in the arm as they pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-popped off.

When they were all gone, we just sat there on the dirt and looked around. It was dark and empty. It couldn’t have been later than ten o’clock, but there wasn’t a light on in a single motel room, and most of the lights on the commercial strip had gone out. Anything you could see was illuminated by some combination of the moon and the big Pedro sign by the highway. I thought about Dick Clark and all the people on Times Square right now. Then I thought about a New Year’s Eve we’d spent a couple of years back, at the home of my parents’ friends, Don and Pat. There were lots of kids there, and music and food and bouncy talk and laughing. At midnight, everyone hugged and kissed. We got hugged and kissed by people we didn’t even know. It surprised you to get that sudden warm feeling in your face and chest from total strangers ... and it equally surprised you how suddenly the feeling vanished, and how much you missed it when it did. 

I made a shape in the dirt with my heel. Chris and I went back to the motel room and fell asleep. We were asleep when midnight came and everyone everywhere hugged and kissed. It was just as well.

# # #

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Simple parenting advice: Keep em Close

From up in the stands, they all look virtually identical.

I was at my daughter’s swim meet last Saturday, looking down at the masses of girls around the pool. A bunch of blue swimsuits here, a bunch of red ones over there. Every head covered in a black swim cap. You might be able to pick your kid out by the specific way she walks or by that thing she does with her hands. Or, if you squint, you can maybe make out your last name printed on her swim cap. But otherwise, really, it’s hard to tell one from another.

Up close everything is different. The girls sit beside their parents. They talk about their races, ask for snack money. S. sits down next to me chewing a soft pretzel. Here I can see her full face: her freckled nose, her bright eyes that animate as she talks. From this short distance, I can also hear her sweet, musical voice through the crowd’s murmur; it has a lightness and bounce that still defies the weight of everything.

Looking around, each of these girls appears as she truly is: a precious, one-of-a-kind being. And each unique girl you can see is illuminated by the arcane light of her parents — a fire that burns with the blind raging faith that your child is unlike any that’s even been, like any who ever will be. And, more importantly, that your child is a rare, special being who will — somehow, in some way yet to be realized — shine in this world, and be showered with recognition and praise for simply being the wonderful thing that she already is.

The girls finish their snacks and head back down to the pool. There, they fall back in with each other — slipping seamlessly into uniformed herds, indiscernable throngs. From this long-view, you can see their real future. Cars in traffic. Bodies in cubicles. Shoppers in line. Gravestones in rows.

Keep her close, I tell myself. Try to remember to keep her close.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Consumerism in America

I caught this lecture the other night at the TED x Phoenixville event. Author and social critic James Kunstler goes off on how uninspired architecture and half-assed city and suburban planning have blighted our culture.


Kunstler delivers an impassioned plea here. But he also raises a powerful question about consumerism in America, if only slightly indirectly: Have the words “consumer” and “person” become synonymous in our culture?


When Saturday morning comes and you pour that first cup of coffee and start thinking about “what to do” with your day, are you really wondering “what to buy”? Think beyond just straight-up shopping; consider any activity where spending money is integral (e.g., browsing at Ikea, going to the movies, stopping off at Panera for a bite, etc.). How much of your leisure activity is truly purchase-free? A friend recently half-joked that he probably spends more time shopping in book stores than he does actually reading. But there’s an uncomfortable, expansive truth in that statement.

For many of us, a lot of the time, “doing” and “buying” are one and the same. We exist in a culture where consuming goods is just what we do — an automated behavior that we don’t even question because it comes so naturally. If this is indeed the case, what does it imply about this culture of ours? And, by extension, what does that imply about us as people?

In what do we truly find meaning?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Deep Cuts, Vol. 3

When we comb our memories to recall the great bands of the ‘90s, why don’t the Cranberries (a-hem)...linger?


Their debut album was tremendous. Their second album — which could have been ironically called “Everybody Else Is Doing Grunge, So Why Can’t We?” — was spotty, but had some moments. And then their third album produced a wealth of great tunes, including this one here: an alt ‘60s doo-wop tune with an Irish yodel and an evo twist. Two-and-a-half great albums released during one of the most explosive eras of killer music P.E. (Post-Elvis)? That’s more than Counting Crows can say.

Granted, looking back through the prism of prescribed history, just about everything you need to know about ‘90s music falls into one of four categories: Grunge, Hip-Hop, Alanis Morissette and Radiohead. But there were a handful of artists outside those buckets who mattered. R.E.M. Pavement. Tori Amos. Dave Matthews (I know, I know). Weezer (yeah, yeah). Beck, for Chrissake. PJ Fucking Harvey. And, yes, the Cranberries.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Deep Cuts, Vol. 2

I read somewhere — but I have no idea where, so take it with a grain — that Radiohead was commissioned to write this song for the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack (Leo DiCaprio version). “Exit Music” wound up being so different than anything they’re done before that it shifted the very direction and tone for what would become their next album: the incomparable OK Computer.


Few people think of this song first when they think of Computer — what, with the sonic awesomeness of “Paranoid Android,” “Airbag,” “Let Down,” “Karma Police” and so forth — but the tune is just outstanding. Unassuming at first, the languid progression creeps along with a dark, hypnotic energy, before launching into an explosive the final quarter. (I’ve heard this song approximately 1,237 times, yet the ting-ting of Phil’s ride cymbal, in the seconds before he goes full into it, still sends cold adrenaline down my back.)

But beyond its importance to Computer — arguably one of the greatest albums of all time — this song doubles as an almost ideal theme song for Romeo + Juliet. Shakespeare’s masterpiece, after all, is not a love story; rather, it’s a story of two kids rebelling against their own fast-approaching adulthood. They want no parts of the world their parents represent, and their attraction, and immediate bond, is driven by that shared (unspoken) existential woe. They rather die than become their parents, and they wind up doing just that. “We hope your rules and wisdom choke you” sounds like it coulda come from a modern-day diary of Romeo’s or Juliet’s.

I imagine Billy Shakes would agree.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Deep Cuts, Vol. 1

I’m trying a new thing here. Basically, any time I dust off an old CD and run into a song that kicks ass -- but got lost in history as an unrecognized, un-talked-about “deep cut” -- I’m gonna post it here for fun.

Maybe you’ll find something great you never knew existed. Or maybe you’ll be reminded of something long-gone and have one of those, “Oh, right, I forgot all about that tune -- awesome!” moments. Either way.

As Eddie Murphy’s Buckwheat used to say: “Take a whisten.”

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

On Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk will be selling and signing his new novel, Damned, at the Free Library of Philadelphia (Central Branch) on October 29th at 2:00 pm.

Some authors may take you to dark places with a delicate and sympathetic hand. Other authors drag you there and shove your face in their perceived, juvenile sense of “truth.” Chuck Palahniuk is the latter type.

First rule of Chuck Palahniuk: do yourself a favor and skip reading Chuck Palahniuk.