Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Mission..... Accomplished?

I recently came across a picture that sent me into full-on hindsight mode. I wasn't in it, but an old friend of mine was. His name is Zach Barnhart, and it was a pic of him and another guy I knew from my lost year at Washington State University, Brian Akesson, playing in the drumline of WSU (pronounced as 'wazoo' by Washingtonians and others in the know) marching band. It got me to thinking about that year of my life, what went wrong with it, and what may have actually gone right in the long run.

I'd always known that I'd wanted to go to college. I was far too smart (and smartassed) for a blue-collar existence in Port Angeles, working in a mill, or somebody's shop, and I knew it. But my grades in high school were never good enough because I just didn't give a fuck about class. I was only interested in hiding from bullies and indifferent teachers. Only my final semester of my senior year did I have grades that actually mirrored what everyone but myself thought was capable of. So I knew that going to the University of Washington (U-Dub) or Wazoo was out of the question. Even the smaller state schools like Central or Eastern Washington were beyond my reach. So I applied for Pell Grants and signed on to get my Associates Degree up at Peninsula College instead. I actually enjoyed studying there, because I was among people that were actually there to study instead of enjoy the social cliques of high school that I had always been denied access to. I sang in choir, played dixieland jazz with my music instructor's band, wrote for the college's newspaper, even managed to find a girlfriend or two - sort of. It was a pretty good time for me, and being turned down for university after earning my Associates degree wasn't a total bummer for me - I just took a third year at PC, knocking out some courses that I'd probably need further down the line, and waited for an opening to come my way.

I'd told people that I'd wanted a degree in Music Education, because the only teachers that ever gave a shit about me (in my opinion) were my music teachers, and I wanted to go into that field if only to be able to reach someone like myself somewhere down the road and help them find their way in the world. In hindsight, I know now that I was fooling myself. I just wanted to play, that was all. But I'd lost that urge I'd had in marching band to practice relentlessly, and what skills I had then eroded away after three years at PC. But after my third year, my prospects were still kind of cloudy. By university standards my grade-point average, just a hair below honor-roll level, weren't great. But Central Washington University in Ellensburg was willing to take me on in the winter semester, which meant a six-month wait which could possibly dampen any enthusiasm I'd had to go. Then during the summer I was accepted at WSU, albeit with no real chance at getting any financial aid, because their entire allotment for the year had already been distributed. And my while my parents were barely scraping along, they made too much money for me to qualify for financial assistance set aside for kids from low-income households. But a hastily arranged bank loan got me on the bus to Pullman, just about as far away from Port Angeles as you could be and still be in the state of Washington. How was I to know that this was about as good as it was going to get?

I'd already been to Pullman, though. After my loan was secured, my dad and I took a weekend road trip to get a lay of the land, so I knew the place reasonably well. But that long bus trip was a nightmare. It almost didn't even start. Already in my seat on the bus waiting to leave the Greyhound terminal in Seattle, I was just beginning to get angry about the bus being delayed when I saw police in bomb-squad gear approach the bus' cargo hold, and pull out my luggage box! I practically had to throw the bus driver aside to ask the cops what was going on - they asked me if I'd put a bomb in my box! A porter got nervous when somehow the little boombox in my box got turned on, and called the cops. I told them there was no bomb in my luggage, that I had no interest in going in getting it to turn it off, and since the batteries were rechargeable, did it matter? Let's get the fuck outta here! This delay made us nearly two hours late into Spokane, where I missed my connection to Pullman, and the last bus of the night got me there after the student dormitories had closed for the night. I wound up having to share the last available hotel room in Pullman with a guy I'd never seen before in my life, a student from Ohio who was similarly unable to get into the dorms.

My educational status was pretty odd there. Since I was a transfer from a community college with an Associates Degree, I was considered a Junior. But others in the university's bureaucracy considered me a Senior because of having three years' worth of transferable college credits. But despite my diligent effort at closing any gaps that I might have had in my portfolio, I still had to take sophomore- and even freshman-level classes! That entire year, if anyone asked me what grade I was, I told them 'all of the above'! And the other percussion students I was dealing with were far more talented than I was. My instructor there, a good man by the name of David Jarvis (he's still there at WSU - go look him up), I think I was pretty much a remedial student by his standards. And in retrospect, I wouldn't blame him for feeling that way. I just wasn't up to it. And as the year went on, I came to the realization that my heart wasn't into it. I've always told people that I ran out of everything while I was there - time, money, energy. I need to add enthusiasm to that as well. I had so much on my plate between classes, rehearsals, a part-time job slinging pizza for the local Domino's, and then I discovered that my dorm (Orton Hall) had a radio station within its innards. And since it wasn't a broadcast station (cable-radio?), it was exempt from FCC regulations. I took to it like a duck to water, managing the station under the oversight of my resident-advisor from my dorm's floor, setting up a schedule, and personally running six hours of programming a week - albeit that was just me playing stuff out of my tape collection and talking shit with my friends.

As a result, my grades suffered, I was placed on 'academic probation', and my managership at the radio station was taken away from me. The station's operation was awarded to another RA, but he couldn't be bothered to do anything - once during a meeting, his girlfriend (who had nothing to do with the station) suggested that I just go to another station, and I basically had to put both of them in their place rather abruptly. I ran the radio station for the remainder of the year, and played the weekly delivery of records (!) that played Dr. Demento and America's Top 40 in addition to my regular shifts. By mid-April of that year, I think that was when I came to the realization that I wouldn't be coming back the next year. I wanted so badly to just quit right there and then, but I had to try to keep up the illusion to my parents that I was trying hard and doing my best when in reality I just didn't give a fuck any more.

I still went to classes, still took notes, still answered questions, but I knew my heart wasn't in it. I'd been a part of the university's Percussion Ensemble and performed in several concerts, but now it all seems a blur to me. I wasn't selected for further concerts after I blew off a concert for an intramural basketball tournament. I'm pretty sure that my fellow drummers in the Ensemble just didn't give a shit about me, that I wasn't in their league. Can't say that I blame them if that's how they felt. I beat my head against the wall of Psychology 101, but the skinny puta grad-student that ran the class failed me despite B-plus work because I couldn't get into the required 'experiments' that all Psych 101 students were required to take part in no matter how hard I tried to get into them. By the end of the year, I was glad to just go away and wash my hands of the entire year. I made a few claims to family that I would go back after a year off to get my head right and my chops up to snuff, but I don't think I was even fooling myself, let alone anyone else. I spent more of those last months just wandering the campus more than anything else. At least that's what I remember, or what I choose to remember.

But where am I now? Okay, my financial situation is the shits, but let's look at things from a professional standpoint. In the fifteen years or so that I've been a professional drummer, I've likely logged more hours onstage than all those other, better drummers in the Percussion Ensemble combined. Sure, the gigs that I've played haven't exactly been glamorous, but I've earned the respect of my peers. I've played all over the West, and it looks like I could be going truly nationwide if the cards fall right for me. Perhaps even....... international. Who knows? What I do know is that for as disappointing a failure as that year was, I still survived, and my dream to play was still there. It just wasn't coming in the way I was thinking it would in 1990 and 1991. It'd come in bars and nightclubs instead of concert halls. It would be loose and limber instead of tight and formal. It would be with the love a wonderful, caring wife in my heart rather than a series of confused, uninterested girlfriends always wondering behind my back what I was up to.

It all boils down to that old chestnut, 'what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger'. Well, I am stronger for that year, regardless of the what-ifs and what-could-have-beens. Regardless of the pain and disappointment. I am still here, still playing, still doing what I've always wanted to do most in my heart. So in that case....... mission accomplished. Where do I go from here, who knows? At least now I can enjoy the ride.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Joe's Sense Of Snow

If you live anywhere in Western Washington, you've probably been digging yourself out from the freak (by local standards) snowstorm that hit over the last few days. I'm no stranger to the flaky white stuff myself, having driven through ungodly amounts of it from here to breakfast. Surprisingly, sometimes it doesn't even change the way I drive.

It depends on where I am in relation to the Cascades and/or Sierras usually. What makes this most recent storm so unusual is that the snow was powder-dry. Usually, snow in Western Washington is wet, heavy crap the skiers call Cascade Concrete. The name is quite appropriate, because the second it hits the ground it turns into an impenetrable layer of ice that lasts far longer than you'd think it would. I won't be terribly surprised if I have to deal with roads still icy from this storm in two-plus weeks when I have to drive back to Nevada.

On the other hand, the snow in Reno and lake Tahoe is dry, powdery perfection - if you ski or snowboard. For me it's only an annoyance when it comes down really heavy, really fast. When I drove my courier route around Tahoe's eastern shore, the snow only slowed me down marginally. What slowed me down more was state law - In California. Y'see, while California and Nevada both are quite active in notifying travelers of road conditions in snow-prone areas, California actually enforces posted chain requirements while Nevada only advises for the most part, save for the drive west from Reno up Interstate 80, climbing up to Donner Pass. And this can be most annoying.

What the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) does is to actually install crews on either end of a pass to visually inspect each and every traveler's vehicle to see if they comply with the posted requirements. The problem is that sometimes the requirements change and the 'chain chimps' (my term) don't get the message right away - if at all. That can be a real pain in the ass. Sometimes the traffic along these back-road passes is so light, they forget what they're there for and take a little nap on the job, which I can say because I've seen it with my own eyes. Obviously it's a pretty thankless job, and even though I don't necessarily like it, I do appreciate the service they provide, helping keep the roads somewhat safer.

All I know for sure about my next trip is that I've planned to take my Explorer this time around, trading in a 30 - 40% drop in fuel mileage for the safety of better tires and better tire chains. I try not to skimp when it comes to tire chains. I usually by the self-tightening diamond-pattern chains that WalMart sells for anywhere from $60 - $80 depending on the size of the vehicle. But after a rather dramatic case of getting and returning a set of defective chains, I went with cheaper, basic chains that were supposed to fit my truck but didn't really live up to that billing. The best ones I've ever bought were Les Schwab Tires' QuickFit chains, which were pretty similar to the WalMart self-tighteners, just without the self-tightening thing. They weren't cheap either, but those were minor inconveniences as they worked like a motherfucker.

I just hope my back is feeling better by then. Loading and unloading my truck three or four times in the space of 72 hours tweaked it pretty badly, to the point where Joy is basically browbeating me into taking her Vicodin to ease the pain instead of plain old ibuprofen. I'm not looking forward to being in a car for that long with my back on fire.

I guess this part of growing up, right? Y'all can have that shit back.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Longest Drive Home

After Joy's birthday on the 27th, things hummed along as they normally do for me. The final day of our run in Carson coincided with Nevada Day, which celebrates the anniversary of the Silver State's admittance into the Union. And this being an election year, every candidate running for every office, from Senator to town dogcatcher, was out and about in the parade. Sharron "Forty-one To" Angle came within about five feet of me, and reeked of psychosis. Joy had to grab my shirt collar to keep me from asking the now-defeated Republican candidate why she hated America as much she did.

Heading home on Monday, we took our good sweet time going north. Y'see, we had a few side quests. Monday, we stopped in Bend to see Joy's sister Cindi and her family. We'd been charged with dropping off Christmas presents for them by Joy's mother, and they'd been riding behind the driver's seat for the last two weeks and change. My back appreciated dropping off the package. I also stopped by the local Fred Meyer to pick up tickets to see our old friends Ozomatli in Portland at McMenamin's Crystal Ballroom. We spent a quiet night at a cheap hotel, then headed northeast.

With the concert in Portland not until Thursday, we had a little time to kill. So in order to slay the beast, we spent a few days in Umatilla with her older brother Steve and his fiancee Nancy. We rested, played Nancy's Wii, sang karaoke, and marvelled at Steve's bountiful garden. Not to mention the fresh rabbit resting in his fridge. It cost an extra half-tank of fuel, but it was time well spent.

Thursday morning meant a steady cruise along the Columbia River Gorge into Rip City. We did a wee bit of shopping, searched for a convenient place to park, and found one directly across from the Crystal Ballroom. How convenient was it? The parking spot I chose faced the windows on the building's south side, and directly across from us we could see Ozomatli soundchecking! Once on the ground, we satisfied a long-standing and most major craving by visiting Voodoo Doughnuts. How good was it? Three words: Bacon Maple Bar.

I'll let that soak in.

Was it good for you? It was for us.

It was a long push for me with Joy in her wheelchair - ten blocks each way - but being able to get into line with fresh tasty doughnuts with bacon on them! was well worth the effort. Within a few minutes, the members of Ozomatli began to filter out of the Ballroom in search of food. We wisely hid the doughnuts. Joy wore the bass-guitar string she got from last year's show as a necklace, and Wil-dog wanted it back. Okay, he was just joking, but Joy was not about to give it back. Just about every member of the band stopped to say hello as they went past us. It was a long wait outside the hall to get in, and just as long to wait for the show to start. A DJ kicked off the show, then brought out a posse of rappers by the name of Animal Farm. They were pretty good, but I had one suggestion for them - for the love of God, invest in cordless microphones! The Tangled Cord Monster was on the verge of swallowing them all!

Ozomatli gave their usual 1,000%. I won't bore you with the details, but I will throw you one little anecdote. During the show, Asdrubal Sierra (vocals/keyboards/trumpet) did a little call-and-answer passage during a song on his trumpet. I more-or-less knew what was coming, but I like to participate. He played a passage, the crowd sang it back. A second call, a second answer. The third came so fast there was no way anyone could repeat it, and I knew it was coming, so I gave Asdru the finger for being a shit. I don't think he noticed, but Raul Pacheco, the band's guitarist and vocalist, saw me and busted out laughing! I was having a great time.

And that's when things started going downhill.

About an hour into Ozomatli's set, I got a phone call from Mike. Probably just checking in to see if I was okay, he does that a lot with me because of how many more miles I have to drive than anyone else. Well, I couldn't hear him over the roar of about a thousand Ozo-heads, so I yelled into the phone that I'd call him back later. Mikey called a second time, and I yelled that I couldn't hear him over the crowd and the band before ending the call. Then he texted me - to come back to Reno - now!

A band that shall remain nameless simply decided to not show up for a three-day gig at the Nugget in Sparks, and Stew Stewart called Mikey to see if we could fill in. Let's see here a minute - Mike is still in Carson City getting his car repaired, Cliff is back in Sparks, Arthur is back home in Las Vegas, and I'm in fucking Portland, Oregon! I texted Mike back saying that I'd get back to Reno as soon as the show was over. Later, I told him that if I'd been any further north, I would've told him no. I knew that Mike would've taken the gig regardless, and he would've accepted my decision. But it would force him to use one of the guys they use when they play at that place Cockbreath McPothead got me booted from. And while Alan Zukor and Vern Taylor are capable drummers, and Vern's a damn good singer in his own right, neither of them know the material as well as I do, and the show would suffer, and Mike and Arthur's reputation would suffer as a result of that. I couldn't let that happen. And I told him so. Mike appreciated that.

In hindsight, I kinda wish I'd let it happen after all.

Y'see, my truck had been acting funny. It was having trouble starting up, like it needed an extra second or two to get going. And it was beginning to get worse the further we got from home. The gig at the Nugget went well, and Mike gave me an extra $50 to make up for the expense of driving back and forth. The drive home Sunday had to be done in a real hurry because Joy had a very important doctor's appointment the next day, one that she'd been waiting for for nearly six weeks. So we had to go all out, all the way back to Port Angeles. Then my battery indicator came on as we left Chemult, OR. I figured that my battery was giving up the ghost - I knew it was several years old - so I figured that I needed to get to Eugene to get a fresh battery. One fresh battery later, my truck wouldn't start! Even getting a jump start from the reefer-unit of a friendly trucker couldn't get the truck to turn over. But a push-start did. By the time we got back on to I-5, the battery light was off, and we were heading north.

Then it went out again - with the sun going down. I made a command decision, and continued north, with only lights on. No stopping until the battery died. No stereo, no heater, no nothing. Joy took my phone and started making calls to arrange a rescue scenario. 170 miles later, sixty miles into Washington, the battery began to give out, and we coasted into the parking lot of Mrs. Beesley's Burgers, a burger shop on the highway between Toledo and Vader that crosses over the freeway. A deluxe cheeseburger and fries (quite good) eased my stomach, but not my mind. Eventually, I was able to focus on the positive - at least I was only an hour or so from Tacoma. Joy's youngest brother Scott came to our rescue about ninety of the longest minutes of my life later, and tried in vain to jump start my truck. Instead we let the battery charge, and push-started it again. He nursed the battery again in Chehalis, and eventually we pulled into Joy's mother's house in Parkland, sometime close to midnight.

Meanwhile, Joy had called her best friend Delane, then Delane's son Mike, and got him to drive our Exploder down to Parkland to come rescue us. He's a good boy, and does what he's told. Most of the time. He'd just made it there when we arrived. Everything but my drums and foodbox went into the Exploder, and we backed my truck out of the way of other vehicles. My gear went into the garage, to be picked up at a later date - with the truck, preferably. I finally went and got it today with my dad. Now it's in the hands of the Sequim Auto Clinic, where the brother-in-law of my dad's second ex-wife put it into the care of his best mechanic. And Joy made her appointment on time.

The ironic thing here is that I hadn't planned on driving my truck to Reno again any time soon after this trip, regardless of what happened to it. Winter is coming, after all. And that's when my Exploder's better tires, chains, and four-wheel-drive would would more than compensate for it's shitty gas mileage. And while my truck will be up and running long before December 8, my next date of departure, It's not going anywhere right now, or for a while to come. I just hope that I don't hear "it's not really worth fixing." My pickup is a POS, but it's my POS, and I've gone all over the West with it. I'd be pretty bummed out to lose it. Not to mention unable to replace it.

But I've gotta keep my head up, right? I think I shall.

UPDATE: My truck was fixed up a few days after I wrote the original post, and a new alternator and starter were required. Marvin and his mechanic Wong bought top-of-the-line parts for it, and they put a lifetime warranty - including nationwide retrieval in case of breakdown - on the work, for $685.11. That's a steep price to be sure, but Dad paid for it. I just find it hard to put nearly $700 in repairs into a truck worth only about $200 or so. But I won't complain too much. I figure that after my next run to Nevada, I'll be able to put fresh tires on the front end of the truck, or at least gently used ones. My stepfather recommended a local dealer to me, whose name I can't remember right off hand, so I'll give this place a look-see come January.