Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Trying to live Christmas

With each passing year, I find myself more cynical and frustrated by the month of December. Like Charlie Brown and Linus, I try to see Christmas for what its meant to me. But I get all bound up in the commercialism, who's supposed to get what, what day do we have to leave, when are we getting back, reciprocal card giving, hey! they'll love this gift card, atheists hatin' on Christians, "peace seeking" Christians spewing hate back at non-believers, Music Row hacks trying to squeeze yet another consumer dollar with a seemingly endless supply of lame country music Christmas albums, etc.

One spot of peace for me the last three years - including a few hours last week - has been at Project Homeless Connect. A Nashville organization called The Key Alliance has some lofty and noble goals of raising funds to implement programs to end chronic homelessness in Nashville over the next 10 years. One of those initiatives is to have a one-day event called Project Homeless Connect.

PHC offers a single-day event where homeless folks can get help in a myriad of ways and on a priority-assessed basis. Personal identification, coats, shoes, a haircut, a dental exam, an HIV test, legal services, pet care, housing applications, etc.

The group with whom I spent part of the day was Room in the Inn. I've blogged about this organization before, and I'm likely keep doing so in the future. In the Nashville/middle Tennessee area, RITI is perhaps best known for helping the homeless get a place to stay for a night in local churches and synagogues from November 1 through March 31.

But the organization is so much more. They have an art lab, technology and other job training classes, sessions on how to get a GED, a post office box for folks needing an address for an employer, drug and alcohol dependency sessions, and so on.

One of the most spiritually-grounded and humbling services they offer once a week is feet washing and care. A foot-washing center was set-up at PHC - and that's where I spent a few hours.

Now, before you get any ideas - I didn't go "all in". I was more than willing to empty, clean and refill the wash tubs; sanitize nail trimmers and pumice pads; ensure the volunteers had fresh towels to use; give out socks to the guests; and greet folks with a smile and "how ya doin' today?". Yet, I just couldn't muster that last bit of Christmas spirit to wash the feet of others myself.

Note: The rest of the pictures below were taken by various folks throughout the day. Clicking them will take you to their Facebook page, Twitpic site, etc.

I hustled as much as I could amongst the 8 to 10 wash stations we had going at once.
  • Emptying a tub here and there.
  • Signaling a heads up to the sign-in table when we had an open station.
  • Giving a large garbage bag to a few folks as their only "luggage" to carry a few meager possessions.
  • Trying to get a read from the body language of those who volunteered to wash to anticipate who may be ready for a break.
But frequently, I found myself pausing to just take it all in ... again. I've witnessed this scenario more than once - yet its always dramatic in a subtle way.

The volunteers took about 20 minutes per guest - TWENTY MINUTES - to wash and dry their feet, trim nails, do a simple visual inspection for signs of a larger clinical problem, massage the feet with lotion, and put on a pair of fresh socks.

To witness the humility required to give that level of personal attention to someone is inspiring.

Similarly, it takes a special person to sit in the chair and receive that level of attention. Homeless folks own essentially nothing from a material perspective. The one thing many of them possess and hold onto, however, is their pride. Sometimes that level of pride may be too great to allow one's self to receive this type of gift. To see folks have a healthy dose of pride - or moderate their strong supply of it - in order to receive the offering of the foot care is equally inspiring.

At the end of the day, RITI volunteers served about 100 people - men and women, young and old, black and white. I was there for about half the day and left feeling I had experienced part of Christmas.

At the same time, I had a twinge of guilt for not being able shelve part of my pride and cross that line to more fully immerse myself in the experience. Maybe next time...

Here are a few links for those who want to know more about homeless relief in the Nashville area. Even if you don't live in the area, I'm quite sure the info at these sites will spur some ideas for action for wherever you are. We certainly don't have the market cornered on this problem.

The Key Alliance - Web - Twitter
Project Homeless Connect - Twitter
Room In The Inn - Web - Twitter
The Homeless Guy - Blog


Monday, December 6, 2010

These are a few of my favorite things

Thought I'd share a few of my favorite Christmas tree ornaments.

One of a few Hallmark ornaments we have on our tree. But its a good 'un: a Richard Petty commemorative release.

A Labrador retriever ornament as a memorial for my faithful companion, Winston, who I lost six years ago.

A See Rock City 'birdhouse' ornament to help remember the years of living in Chattanooga, TN - home of Rock City.

A Nashville Predators bobblehead ornament to help celebrate our NHL team and great times at the games with my kids.

Cold Miser and Heat Miser from one of the greatest Christmastime TV shows: Rankin-Bass' The Year Without A Santa Claus.

A drum ornament given to me by my mother 20-something years ago as a nod to my time in high school marching band drumline. About one-third of the ornaments on our tree have been given to us by her over the years. Just ain't nothing better than a loving mother.

And my favorite ornament. A random, un-Christmas-like, black-and-white cow ornament given to us by my wife's aunt. It has the name "Wanda" painted on the front of it. The aunt is one of those Avon-selling types - the kind who likes to pitch the product but who herself wears too much of that slimy-looking Tammy Faye Baker make-up with black, broomstraw eyelashes.

One year, she made a big production of giving us this ornament. One, a cow? Really, for Christmas? Two, no one in my wife's family is named Wanda. Not herself, mother-in-law, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, nieces, housekeeper, third grade teacher, postal carrier, etc. NO ONE. Which led us to believe only one thing: She re-gifted to us a custom-ordered ornament that wasn't paid for by one of her customers. She found a perfect way to unload it - but likely forgot Wanda's name was already tattooed on it. Needless to say, its now become one of the first ornaments to be hung - and gets a place front and center on the tree.

Disclaimer: Despite the name of this blog entry, I've never seen The Sound of Music. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Blog Bonus! The Miser Bros. finest moments!


Friday, November 26, 2010

Tommy Womack at Family Wash

In the late 1980s, amidst my post-college, early professional years, I was introduced by a friend to the band Government Cheese. As I recall, I don't remember his having any recordings by the band. He had just heard them on local rock radio while on a visit back to Nashville. (We shared an apartment in Chattanooga back then.) So during one of my own family-visit trips back to Nashville, I picked up a cassette of the Cheese's four-song EP C'mon Back to Bowling Green...and Marry Me.

Shortly thereafter, I bought their Three Chords, No Waiting "live" cassette. (I learned much later the producer piped in live audience part of the release during the mix.) I was fortunate to see the band live three times - twice as headliner in Chattanooga and once in Nashville as the opener for Guadalcanal Diary.

Over time, I didn't hear much more about the band. I relocated back to Nashville in the mid 90s and simply continued listening to new and established artists and bands. However, I remained curious what happened to the Cheese but didn't have much way to dig into it.

Then a wonderful thing happened - [sarcasm] Al Gore invented the internet! [/sarcasm]

A night of Google searches landed me on where I learned the band's guitarist was alive and well, had released a couple of solo CDs, and had written a book about his time in Government Cheese. An e-mail sent. An e-mail received. Ba-da-boom, ba-da-bing, a correspondence dialog began, and I was back to listening to my old cassettes and learning about the days of the Cheese.

I've had the good fortune to see Tommy perform many times in different venues around Nashville: The Basement, Exit-In, Grimey's New and Pre-Loved Music, The Melrose (now closed), the Belcourt Theatre, and even the parking lot of Sam's Sports Bar in Hillsboro Village. My favorite spot to hear him perform, however, is the Family Wash. Its a pretty small club seating about 100 people in East Nashville - home of Tommy as well as Todd Snider. Its the part of town where the motto is East Nashville: We'll Steal Your Heart...and Your Lawnmower.

Its not the Bluebird Cafe. Its not Tootsie's on lower Broadway. Its East By Cracky Nashville.

Last Saturday was my first opportunity to visit the Wash in a couple of years. Tommy's set was part of the Wash's concluding night of "10 Years of Short Sets" where several local artists get to perform a handful of cuts. While likely tough for the artists/bands to set-up for only a half-dozen songs or so, its neat for the audience to hear a diverse range of talented Nashville musicians and songwriters.

Before Tommy began his set, he was preceded by Tom Mason - a long-time talented performer around Nashville. As he got ready to perform, it dawned on me I'd met him about three years ago at the Wash when he was in a band called The Big Happy with his wife and Nashville performing and producing couple, Billy and Jill Block. I reminded him of that show, and he remembered it. Mason is quite the showman with no two songs sounding quite the same and his hamming it up during the brief set list. Three songs stood out to me from his set:
  • Chano Pozo's Shoes - An exceptional song based loosely on the true story of a conga player who introduced jazz great Dizzy Gillespie to Afro-Cuban rhythms.
  • The World is Drunk - Mason said the basis for the song is his opinion about the world's appetite for oil. Politics aside, it really is a neat song. During the song, he set down his electric guitar and picked up ... a trombone. He then roamed around the room playing it and playfully bounced the slide against ornamental balloons hanging from the ceiling.
  • The Pirate Song - A completely unexpected closer for me titled simply enough, The Pirate Song. All of us were encouraged to yell "We'll all go down / we'll all go down / we'll all go down...with the ship. Argh!" at the appropriate time.
You can listen to all three of these songs - and several others - on the music page of Tom's website.

Over the last several years, I've seen a number of talented musicians back Tommy. Yet, he's always been billed simply as "Tommy Womack". Saturday, however, he introduced himself and the band as Tommy Womack and The Rush To Judgment. The ensemble featured Paul Griffith on drums, Dan Seaborn on bass, Mark Robinson on guitar, and Lisa Oliver-Gray on backing vocals. An accordionist from Tom Mason's band, Michael Webb, also sat in on a few cuts.

Having memorized the lyrics from most of his songs, I can generally mumble along to them as he sings them. Saturday night, however, he introduced several new tracks, and I wasn't familiar with any of them. That was fine though as I just kicked back, enjoyed my Brooklyn Brown Ale, and tried to absorb the new cuts he offered.

With the number of years Tommy has under his belt - from Cheese days, as a solo performer, as co-writer with Jason and The Scorchers, playing with Will Kimbrough as Daddy-The Band, and/or as a sometimes member of Todd Snider's band - he's developed a loyal core of fans who attend his shows. However, the age demo of the audience continues to climb with each gig! Lots of gray hair, bi-focals, and paunches were in attendance. The days of moshing in the front of his stage... well, I think that ship has sailed. But the huge upside though is the folks largely listen to his performance vs. talking all the way through it as is too often the case in a lot of clubs.

Because he was the final act of the Short Sets evening, Tommy didn't play as long as I would have liked. Yet the songs he did perform in his allotted time were great - especially the new ones.

Set list:
  • If That's All There is to See
  • Play That Cheap Trick (new)
  • A Nice Day
  • Indy - A new, a cappella, spoken-word 'rap' with only Griffith laying down a drum riff. The lyrics are so new Tommy had to read them from a sheet. He told me afterwords the song is based on a true story - though its not one of which he's proud.
  • It Doesn't Have to be That Good (new)
  • On and Off the Wagon (new)

  • Guilty Snake Blues (new) - The song includes the line "I've met my share of reptiles..." I found the lyric interesting for two reasons. One, its not often the word reptiles is worked into a rock-and-roll song. Two, the record label's name for Government Cheese back in the day? Yep, Reptile Records. A connection? I don't know, but I'm just wonderin...
  • Honest I Do - featuring Lisa on vocals. I've heard Lisa many times on backing vocals. She's got such a great voice, and I was glad she got the stage to sing lead vocals.
  • Alpha Male and the Canine Mystery Blood
With that, the show was over. I'd just ordered my next Brooklyn thinking Tommy had another few songs to go. But in keeping with the short sets theme of the evening, the show was done. Dan and Mark packed their guitars, and Paul started his drum kit tear-down. I took my freshly poured beer and went to Tommy to talk a bit before I headed out. I patiently waited as a couple of other folks talked to him. Patiently. Hit the bathroom. Returned. Waited some more. Patiently.

About the time I was going to talk to him, a woman slid in front of me and said "We drove from Columbia, South Carolina to see you. We'd love to hear more." So Tommy being one to accommodate his audience said "Uh, OK. Lisa you ready?" So with many having already left, Paul disassembling his drum gear, and the Wash's staff bussing tables to shut down for the night, Tommy and Lisa returned to the stage.

He encored with:
  • I Need a Cigarette
  • I'm a Coackroach After the Bomb
  • Wishes Do Come True (new)
  • I'm Too Old To Feel That Way Right Now (new)
  • There's No Sex Addicts Anonymous (new)
After those 3 song fragments, he quipped "Pardon me, I'm having kind of a Ryan Adams moment here." I thought the line was hilarious. However, some woman off to the side clearly didn't get it and bleated "CUTS LIKE A KNIFE!" He directly but with good humor responded "Get out! Get out you!"

He closed with two final ones:
  • Pot Head Blues (new)
  • Bye & Bye
About two years ago, Tommy purchased the masters of Government Cheese's recordings. After a large investment of time, effort, and money, he recently released the 2-CD anthology Government Cheese: 1985-1995. If you haven't experienced the Cheese, I highly encourage you to add this one to your Christmas wish list. Also, be sure to watch the Behind The Cheese videos on his YouTube channel. Some very funny anecdotes about the days in the band, inspiration for songs, etc.

Also, as we now enter this season of Thanksgiving and Christmas where we give thanks for our blessings and go above and beyond to help others, I'd like to do some of that myself. I've got a handful of bootlegs of Tommy's shows from over the last few years I could provide for the low, low price of FREE. Please contact me if you'd like to know more. You're a smart reader - you know how to contact me.

The set list from the stage - though clearly many modifications were made on the fly based on the time he was allotted to perform.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

2010 My Many Blessings

Thanksgiving Day. Calories. Cowboys and Lions. Family. Travel. And for some, ready-set-GO for shopping.

I'll have generous helpings of all the above...except the shopping part. This year - as in prior years - I've had generous helpings of things and people in my life for which I'm genuinely thankful. Last year, I turned my thanks into a blog mini-series. The 2010 will be a single, get-it-and-go edition.

Here is a list of a few things of my life and observations for which I'm thankful ...
  • The life of my Uncle Earl who passed away June 3, 2010. My uncle, mentor, and friend. Gone too soon, but he left me with a lifetime of memories, laughs, and counsel.
  • My son's 80+ year-old scoutmaster who continues year after year to have an endless passion for helping shape boys into young men. His wise challenges to the boys and his smiling encouragement of them is very cool to watch.
  • Nashville, TN's music scene. I could make an effort to drive or fly elsewhere to see several bands. But for the most part, I can just stay right chere and wait for them to come through town. I admit I take for granted the vibrant scene of local performers as well as traveling artists.
  • The collective positive reaction and recovery efforts by middle Tennesseans following the May 2010 floods.
  • A brotherhood of five friends with whom I meet each Tuesday morning for breakfast and an hour together to catch up on life.
  • Schaefer beer
  • Richard Petty's desire to stay involved in NASCAR. For the most part, I've covered my interest in racing in another blog. Yet, I'd be remiss if I didn't give a nod to one of my heroes here.
  • The men and women who stand a post in the four corners of the globe doing all they can to defend the unmatched freedoms and liberty of this nation.
  • Strawberries
  • The gift and art of my daughter's piano playing
  • Oatmeal Crisp Raisin cereal
  • The homeless. I'm not thankful folks are homeless. But I'm thankful for the lives of people on the street who are too frequently discarded by society.
  • Not having to contend with an airport during the Thanksgiving travel period
  • Maple trees with vibrant red leaves in the fall
  • Seeing kids ride bicycles without shoes, a helmet, wrist guards and knee or elbow pads
  • My rejection of certain temptations
  • Ceviche and a rita on the rocks at Garcia's Mexican restaurant in Franklin, TN
  • Labrador retriever pups
Happy Thanksgiving if you are reading this.


Monday, November 22, 2010

Corb Lund at Exit-In

About five or six years ago, I saw a relatively unknown artist named Hayes Carll open for Todd Snider at the Belcourt Theater in Nashville. His witty lyrics, soulful sound, and Steven Wright-ish deadpan joke delivery made me a fan.

A few months later, I got a recording of Hayes from his show at the Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, TX. On the recording, he mentioned being on tour at the time with Corb Lund and The Hurtin' Albertans. At first, I thought it was another one of his jokes - that is until I sought and found Corb's own Cheatham Street recording. From the time I first heard Five Dollar Bill (video), I became a fan of Corb's as well.

Last Monday night was my third time to see Corb and the band - all at different Nashville venues. This time it was the legendary Exit-In hosting the boys. The band has been doing several U.S. dates opening for Jason Boland. But with Boland taking the evening off, they traveled to Nashville for a headliner show.

The show was billed as starting at 9PM. As anyone knows who has seen a show at the Exit-In (or most clubs for that matter), the starting time is merely a suggestion. The opening band generally begins at least a half-hour after the announced time with the headliner taking the stage at least an hour after that. So I figured I had plenty of time to arrive.

I parked around 9:20, but as I approached the front door the sound I heard was unexpected. I figured I might hear house music or maybe an unannounced opening act. Instead, it was clearly Corb's vocals of Chinook Wind. I'd missed the start!

The only thing I can figure is the show started on time because it was a Monday night. Folks had just come off the weekend, and the rest of the work week loomed. So perhaps it was a matter of just get on with it.

Again, perhaps because it was Monday, Nashville stayed away in droves. (Or maybe it was because Corb isn't Taylor Swift, Brad Paisley, or any of the other Music Row hacks.) The Exit-In has a big concrete slab floor in front of the stage where folks normally gather. Instead, it was empty - completely. Some stood by the door. A few folks stood to the margins of the building as if they were prepared to beat a hasty retreat during the night. A few more headed to the balcony loft. And a handful of others sat at the few hightops in the back of the club. Once the show began, I guess no one wanted to be that guy to be the only one on the floor so the show proceeded with no one within 20 feet of the edge of the stage.

A trio of girls standing near me chatted constantly during the show. I have absolutely no idea why folks like that bother to show up to hear bands. I get comparing notes, guys and gals trading phone numbers, drinks being ordered, folks asking what did he just say?, etc. But to have a run-of- the-mill conversation like you are at lunch at Panera, that's too much for the rest of us who actually want to hear the band. Yet when Corb asked if anyone in the audience was from Alberta, sure enough these clowns had to rip off a big WHOOOOOO! YEAAAAAAH! At least you embarrassed yourselves and Alberta vs. being a Nashville local.

As usual, Grant Siemens was exceptional. Unlike the previous two times I'd seen the band, he didn't bring as many guitars. But he did play his electric guitar, a pedal steel, and a mandolin - all seemingly without effort. A true talent.

Near the end of the set, the band played Seven Spanish Angels. It wasn't a complete surprise, as I'd read elsewhere the song has been included in the set list over the last couple of years. Yet, it was cool to hear such as wonderful song. I first heard it when Ray Charles and Willie Nelson did a duet of it on Charles' Friendship LP in the mid 80s.

With the lackluster attendance, Corb seemed to perfunctorily proceed through the set without many breaks or engagement with the limited audience that was present.Don't get me wrong - the set list included many great tracks from their most recent four releases as well as a couple of new tracks. And I certainly don't blame the band for gettin' on with it. If the vibe isn't there, just do your job, entertain those that are there, collect the check, and load up for the next gig.

As is the norm, the band closed with Time To Switch To Whiskey (We've Been Drinking Beer All Night). Corb, bassist Kurt Ciesla, and drummer Brady Valgardson had been drinking PBR during the show. Once they said we'd like to close our show with..., someone bought a round for the boys and shots of whiskey were placed near the front of the stage. (Look carefully and you can see them in the photo below.) Corb seemed happy at the gesture, and each band member took their shot after a solo moment during the song.

After a three-song encore, the show ended and the Exit-In emptied almost immediately. I stuck around a bit and chatted with Brady about his drum kit, met a guy who has patented a collapsible upright bass to help with packing and travel (Kurt was playing one of them), got a free CD from the guy's singer-songwriter wife as he was talking to Kurt, and connected with Corb by letting him know I was "toomuchcountry" who helped promote the show on Twitter. He knew I'd done so and thanked me.

Set List:

...joined in progress. what did I miss?...
Chinook Wind
Losin' Lately Gambler
Devil's Best Dress
Big Butch Bass Bull Fiddle
Its Hard to Keep a White Shirt Clean
Alberta Says Hello
This Is My Prairie
I Want To Be in the Calvary
Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier
Drink It Like You Mean It - A new song with Grant Siemens on pedal steel guitar. Corb said the song was about "drinking with integrity".
Five Dollar Bill
The Oil's Back In Town - A big hockey fan, Corb said he wrote the song and pitched it to the Edmonton Oilers team. He talking them into letting him perform it and had visions of free tickets. But after performing it, the Oilers went on an extended losing streak so that was the end of that.

Hair in my Eyes Like a Highland Steer
Buckin' Horse Rider
The Truth Comes Out - Kurt Ciesla's bass intro is artistically haunting. This video from a 2009 performance gives you some idea. But you really have to hear his larger, richer bass echo the low notes to truly appreciate his contribution to the song. As Corb says when he introduces Kurt on the bottom, we got him.

R-E-G-R-E-T (MP3 from a September 2010 show in Luckenbach, TX)
Little Foothills Heaven
The Horse I Rode In On
Seven Spanish Angels
Rye Whiskey/Time To Switch to Whiskey

Long Gone to Saskatchewan - I was trying to take show notes with pen and paper. You have any idea how hard it is to chicken-scratch Saskatchewan in the dark?
Heavy and Leaving
Gonna Shine Up My Boots


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Newark to NYC 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I made my annual trip to (officially) Newark, NJ with a couple of (unofficial) side trips to NYC. My plans were to get to Newark early enough in the afternoon so I'd have time to drop my bags at the hotel, train over to Penn Station in New York, and do a bit of sight-seeing before meeting someone for dinner. I'm not all that familiar with New York and wanted all the daylight I could muster for touring.

As it turns out, we landed more than 90 minutes late. Officially, we were told landings were postponed or stretched because of the heavy cloud cover and rain in the area. I do wonder, however, if perhaps we were delayed because a TSA agent was patting down the junk of the air traffic controller responsible for coaxing our aircraft in safely.

I've enjoyed my previous trips to New York. Its just that I haven't strayed too far. I've walked along Broadway and other streets and avenues from Central Park to Times Square to the Empire State Building. I've been to the Upper West Side around Riverside Church, Columbia University, and Grant's Tomb. I've had dinner one time in Little Italy, and I was driven to the World Trade Center site in 2002 where I stood in the rain...and stared...and contemplated...

On this trip, I had hoped to cover more ground and indeed did so. Once I realized the window of daytime touring had closed, I focused instead on simply getting to the Newark Penn Station so I could ride the train to New York.

While riding to Penn Station aboard the Hampton Inn van shuttle, I chatted up Tony, my driver. I asked him where I could get Schaefer beer in Newark. He said he hadn't had Schaefer in years, but he knew the old ad jingle! Schaefer, Schaefer. The one beer to have when you're having more than one. He suggested a package store a short walk from the Hampton as a good place to begin my search.

Once I hit Penn Station under Madison Square Garden, I quickly sought out the subway to get to the Upper East Side to meet my friend for dinner. He wanted to meet at the Peking Duck House on East 53rd St.

The idea was to share a duck; however, the restaurant required a minimum of four people to serve it. Why? I don't know - maybe its part of some international treaty. Instead - well let's just say the sizzling rice soup, orange chicken and Shezuan shrimp more than made up for lacking a quacker.

One of the places I had wanted to go before dinner was an East Village bar I found on-line serving Schaefer beer - the Spring Lounge. The Village was one of those places I'd never been but felt it was time to try. Fortunately, my friend was willing to seek it out as well. So we headed for the 6 train which dropped us off just a couple of blocks away.

After my experience with only a handful of locals at Schaefer's Bar in Baltimore, I wasn't sure what to expect at Spring Lounge. When we got there though, it was packed. Truly a thriving, community bar that turns out to have been there for a long, long time. And sure enough - there it was. The Schaefer.

I really liked their logo on the wall too: Life Is Short, Drink Early. The Spring Lounge opens at 8AM Monday through Saturday. I left wishing I could return and be in line the next morning at 7:45 to enjoy a bit more of the atmosphere.

After quaffing a couple of Schaefers (and Brooklyn lager for my friend), we headed for the train to Newark to get ready for 2 days of presentations - the official reason for my visit.

The symposium I attended isn't a traditional sort of training conference. Some of the presentations include information for the here and now. But others are strictly recaps of academic research that don't have a lot of practical application in the near term. Coefficients, law of anomalous numbers, belief functions, kurtosis, domain specific language, Zzzzz. Drool. Thank goodness for wireless internet and Twitter during those sessions.

The subject matter of the two days is somewhat of a "cottage industry" in the area in which I work. A fairly small group of us return each year to discuss progress in the area. Getting reacquainted with several pleasant and fun folks I get to see only once a year is an enjoyable part of the trip. But you also tend to run into several others who you just never really connect with - mainly because they're just...duds. Many are about as much fun as the clap. (tip to Ozzy Nelson's old man for that succinct simile)

As I blogged a year ago, the tradition for Friday night dinner at the symposium is to go to the Spanish Pavilion. Because of something going on there this year, we went to Rio Rodizio instead.

A Brazilian restaurant...and sushi house? WTH? I've been to Fogo de Chao in multiple cities and to Churrascos in Houston. Brazilian cuisine is great - meat on a sword! Our host, however, pulled an ol' switcheroo. We got the Spanish/Portuguese menu we normally get at Spanish Pavilion instead - paella, sauteed sausage, calamari, California roll "sushi", flan, rice pudding, sangria, etc. No meat from a spit. Once again, WTH? Don't get me wrong. It was good; however, it wasn't Pavilion-quality and at the risk of being redundant - no meat on a sword. Grrrr.

Once our sessions ended Saturday afternoon, I had time for a quick Schaefer search before returning to NYC for the evening. Sure enough, I found a 30 box at the package store near the hotel. I found Tony, the hotel shuttle driver, in the lobby, thanked him for the suggestion, and tipped him a sixer for the idea. Figured it was just a neat thing to do, but he seemed to be touched by my offering. What I never saw coming was the hug he gave me! That's not something I'm accustomed to getting with my Hilton Honors membership.

Saturday night, I ventured to an area of Manhattan called Chelsea. Again, it was another new area for me, and I really enjoyed walking a bit of it. Lots of restaurants, movie theater, grocery stores, barber shops, etc. Way different than Times Square (which I've now realized all of the city is way different than Times Square).

My target destination? The Trailer Park Lounge - the perfect place for toomuchcountry if there was one.

You just have to love a place that serves big ol' hamburgers, sweet potato fries, and moon pies. And their decorations are fantastic - including this box of White Trash detergent squirreled away in a display case.

What really caught my eye about the place when I sought it out was (likely to no surprise) they served Schaefer!

So I ordered one while waiting for a table. Unbelievable! They were out - zero, nada, zilch available. George isn't happy. But my planned good time was not going to be derailed. So I ordered one of the most uniquely named beers I've ever seen: Porkslap Farmhouse Pale Ale by Butternuts Brew & Ale.

Brian Doherty and I met for dinner at the Trailer Park. He and I met earlier this year through the wonders of social media such as blogs and Twitter. Brian is a fantastic drummer and has played with bands as varied as The Silos, They Might Be Giants, XTC, Freedy Johnston, and Ben Folds. We enjoyed a conversation about family, politics, music past and present, etc. He talked some interesting moments when auditioning to replace Bill Berry when he left R.E.M. What I found really interesting is how much he enjoyed the music and personality of John Prine and Todd Snider.

After gorging ourselves on burgers, tots, sweet potato fries, and several Sam Adams and even a Rheingold (my first), we pushed away from the table and decided it was time to part ways. He headed for home, but I wasn't ready to conclude my trip.

Now having a bit of confidence about my ability to navigate the NYC subway, I hopped a line to a station on Spring St. near Avenue of the Americas. According to my Google Maps app, the previously visited Spring Lounge was a short half-mile stroll from the stop. Perfect. Great evening weather. So off I strolled.

I walked several blocks, and I was pretty sure I'd covered at least a half-mile. But instead of hipster bars all around me, I was in the shadows a lot as I walked along Spring. When I could see the Hudson River, I realize something was wrong. Sure enough, I'd walked the half-mile in the wrong direction from the station. So I turned on my heel, retraced my steps to the station, and walked the half-mile in the correct direction. So my half-mile late night stroll to get a Schaefer turned into a 1.5 mile where-the-hell-am-I-going walk. My walk took me through SoHo - again an area I'd never visited - and before long the Spring Lounge was in sight. That cold Schaefer tasted so wonderful. I then headed for Penn Station to make my train back to Newark.

I awoke Sunday morning unsure what time it was. I was traveling on eastern time. My body and watch were still calibrated to central time. Sometime early Sunday morning, the time changed from daylight savings time back to standard time. And with my head processing remnants of Porkslap Farmhouse Ale, Rheingold, Sam Adams, and Schaefer, the only state I knew I was in was the state of confusion.

A late-morning french toast breakfast at the classy Top's Diner was enough to kickstart me again. As rough an area as Newark is, this little restaurant in East Newark and a short walk from the hotel where I was staying exudes class. Great food, attentive service, hot coffee, fair price. Ahhh.....

With that, this trip was done. Bags were packed - including about a case of Schaefer - and I was shuttled to EWR to return to the normal life.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Fun times in San Antonio

I recently returned from my second trip to San Antonio, TX in a span of about 2 months. This time I went for a users conference for a software application we use at work. Its one of those rare conferences that includes plenty of practical learning opportunities and more fun than any one person should ever get to enjoy on the company nickel.

Because this is a personal blog, I'll focus on my more memorable entertaining memories:
  • Remember the Alamo! - The battle cry of Texans. I remembered it as well when I arrived because I got tossed from the place for trying to drink a beer the last time I visited.
  • Hearing a motivational speech by former Notre Dame football coach and current ESPN college football analyst, Lou Holtz. I have to admit - I wasn't the biggest Coach Lou fan going in. Much of my opinion was shaped by my University of Tennessee diggin' dad who hasn't liked him since his days as coach at Arkansas. But its not every day one gets to meet a championship-winning coach. After his presentation, I was humbled to be invited to meet him and have our photo made together. He also gave me an autograph on the back of his business card.
  • Finding Schaefer Light beer again in another H-E-B Grocery. There it was - nestled amongst some of the top yard beers of all time: PBR, Schlitz, and the Beast. All 24 cans made it back to Tennessee safe and sound thanks to Southwest Airlines. (The whole Schaefer story is too much to explain here. Follow our Schaefer adventures at Bench Racing from the Volunteer State if you want to learn more.)
  • Saddling up on the back of a long-horned Texas steer. I look pretty good after 8 seconds of rodeo riding, don't I? And how 'bout that dime-store cowboy hat! If I had another day or two of beard growth, I'm sure some folks would mistake me for Chuck Norris.
  • Spending a few minutes with some amateur astronomers who brought their telescopes to our hotel. I got up close and personal with the crater-riddled moon. I got to see Jupiter flanked by four of its moons. A third telescope allowed me to get a closer look at Jupiter - including its amazing horizontal bands. And a fourth telescope was focused on a cluster of stars. (Supposedly I was looking at star clusters and the Andromeda galaxy. What do I know? It sounded impressive, so let's go with it.)
  • Varying shades of purple, orange, and red of a Texas sunset. But more important, a pick-up loaded with all-you-could-consume Shiner Bock! (Out of frame was a second truck - just in case we put an undue hurting on this one.)
  • Experiencing the burn of a habanero pepper-infused tequila margarita. From my lips ... down the chute ... to my pit of my stomach. Cue Johnny Cash: ... and it burns, burns, burns. The ring of fire, the ring of fire.
  • Hanging with two friends from the U.K. who I met at previous years' conferences. I excel in speaking with a southern accent - even a bit 'hick' some may say (though I prefer the more sophisticated derisive term: toomuchcountry). My southernness gets more pronounced as the nights get longer and the tab grows larger. The same is true for the British brogue - and unique sayings - of my London brethren. When the hotel sports bar we were visiting closed at 2AM, one of them pleaded for them to they stay open. “Me still has a tab mate.” When the bartender insisted he had no choice, we reluctantly accepted the night was over. But the UK bloke told me he wanted to say “Ahhh, jump off ya bloody wankers”. I'm sure it would have been a true British insult yet understood by Americans as a comical PG smack down.
The three of us also discussed types of beer and drinking habits - both in the US and the UK. I mentioned the planned opening of Mayday Brewery in 2011 and that Ozzy Nelson had given me a growler or two of some of the brews he's begun making.

Upon mention of the word "growler", they both started laughing - snickering at first, followed by gut-busting laughs. Clearly I had missed something. I soon learned my definition of the word as a half-gallon beer bottle in the U.S. has quite a different slang meaning in the U.K. I'll spare you the alternate definition here. But if you insist on knowing, I've got two words for you: Urban Dictionary.

Who knew work-paid training could be so much fun?


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Holy Rolling Halloweeners

Every few years, the calendar does its little rotational trick such that October 31 falls on a Sunday. Inevitably, all sorts of fundamentalist, holy rollin', Bible thumpin' mamas come out of the woodwork pleading Halloween be moved to Saturday, October 30.

You can always predict they'll justify their lobbying on two levels:
  • Primarily - moral/theological reasons
  • Secondarily - its a school night
Look, I'm a believer though I don't always walk the straight and narrow. I confidently believe Jesus Christ died for the sins of us all, and all it takes to receive his grace is to simply believe in Him. Having said that, I will not go to hell for having my children go trick-or-treating if Halloween happens to fall on a Sunday as it did this year.

The repeated mantra by the pleaders is both somewhat humorous and yet tiresome. These folks can't handle the thought of the "devil's day" falling on a Sunday. These same parents, however, are willing to embrace the dark side of Halloween and allow their little goblins to greedily gobble all the free sugar-laden snacks they can collect - provided its done on a SATURDAY night and not the Lord's day.

Huh? If you are so alarmed by the blending of the Sabbath and a potential derailing of it by kiddos in football uniforms, jack o'lantern suits, superhero tights and capes and Michael Jackson get-ups, you've likely got far more ethical dilemmas in your life than can be solved by the changing of the traditional date of Halloween. (Seriously, I saw a kid dressed as the King of Pop this year. Ridiculous. Now, that's a parent that needs help.)

As for the second rationalization when the first one fails, this just in: Halloween falls on a school night more nights than not over a six or seven year period. If as a parent you are overly concerned about school the next day, get your kid off the street, restrict their sugar intake, and get 'em into bed at a reasonable hour - just like any other school night. Bottom line: be a parent.

Look, I've got a couple of kids of my own. Both do well in school. One reason among others the do well is they get a good night's rest - and Halloween night is no different. They've always gone out with their homemade costumes and pillow case collection sack - regardless of what night All Hallows Eve occurs - drain the neighborhood of its Snickers Minis, Skittles, Laffy Taffy, and Smarties; return home at a reasonable hour; clean up; hit the rack; and then rise the next morning - whether it be for church or for school.

Personally, I don't much care for Halloween. I'm glad its over for another year. But I care even less for tard-minded folks who care more about monkeying with my life and traditions than abiding by their own "beliefs". If it rocks your world that much, then keep the kids inside, turn off the porch light, and find something for them to do more in line with your convictions.