It wasn’t a flute, dammit

It’s only the giving
that makes you what you are
— the prophet Ian Anderson 

“I miss records,” Mo said.

Sometimes I supsect Mo has a surveillance device in my brain. I have been thinking a lot lately about returning to vinyl. Not so much because of the sound quality or the warmth or analog vs. digital. I just miss holding records.

I miss that feeling of peeling off the wrapper, pulling out the brand-new black disc and moving the cartridge over. The hypnotic spinning. I miss liner notes and album covers. I miss the pause in the middle, and I miss that sound at the end. I miss records.

I haven’t actually owned a stereo in a couple of decades, which I guess is odd because nobody on the planet loves music more than me. Having been an apartment dweller who works nights, headphones make more sense. I had lost touch with all my vinyl during a series of downsizing experiments, then jettisoned the CDs once spotify that I could have every song ever created for 14 bucks a month. The sound is OK, I guess. I’m in it more for the ideas than the technical aspects. I even listen to the iPhone a lot with its little built-in speaker, pretending I’m 8 again and listening to my transistor radio. Maybe I had a transistor radio?

I had been looking at turntable/speaker combos on the interwebz when Mo made the record remark. So I piled the family in the car and we went to the store that sells such thing. Except they sort of don’t.

We found a barbecue grill/baby stroller combo and Mo was smitten with a wool cap since it was 95 degrees today, but no suitable turntable. They have karaoke machines and five-way things for your TV and little boom boxes, but not just a basic turntable/combo. They actually had the one I had looked at online. It’s a Klipsch, very hip. Surrounded by industrial steel and old wood, complete with tattooed twentysomethings in leather chairs. This is exactly how I picture us, except for the steel and wood and tattoos. I asked Mo what she thought. She just gave me the “bless your heart” look. And that was that.

But then a funny thing happened. We went to Zia’s which sells new and used stuff. I picked up and old Crosby/Nash album I once owned. I remember that cover, that feeling when I first got it. It was exactly the way I thought it would feel. I must have this.

But as I looked around, I realized just how hard this would be. Some are $1.99. Does this mean they’re hopelessly scratched or just wildly unpopular. Some are 10 bucks, about what I would expect to pay for a used record. But then I saw that new ones are $20. TWENTY BUCKS FOR AN ALBUM WHAT THE HELL IS THIS? But then I remembered. When I bowed out of the CD buying business, I think they were 16 or 17 bucks. So 20 would be about right. And isn’t that worth it to support musicians? The system is hopelessly screwed up and I realize my 3 cents for their share wouldn’t be much. But it’s something.

But the whole thing’s so complicated. There was a copy of Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” on the wall with a $100 price tag. Why? It looks like a normal album. And a lot of the old classics were 30 or 40 bucks. But here’s the third Beatles album for $8. And it’s impossible to find stuff. Sorted by genre. Is wilco rock or country or americana or pop or does it depend on what mood Tweedy was in during the particular recording session? And it’s a small store. You can’t possibly have everything. And if I’m buying from scratch, what will it be? Neil Young’s On the Beach? Joni’s Hissing of Summer Lawns? Rundgren’s Something/Anything? These are all albums I could not exist without. If only there was a better way. And then I realized there was.

So as I type this I’m listening to the Jethro Tull (aqualung and thick as a brick.) Which is sad, because it makes me think of the thick as a brick cover that’s a newspaper. You don’t get that on spotify.

Is the quality as good? No. Am I screwing over the artists. Probably. Am I relieved that I don’t have to think about turntables anymore. Oh, yes.

I love the past. I love that memory of unwrapping pink floyd’s wish you were here. Standing in the driveway with the cutouts from inside the sgt. pepper’s album. The feeling of pulling out an album from its little home and placing it on the turntable.

But I have pretty much every song I’ve ever loved in my pocket. I suppose that’s an acceptable tradeoff.

Maybe we can go to Zia’s once a week just to hold them. And if I come across Hissing of Summer Lawns cheap, it wouldn’t take up much space.

Because. Records.

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life with a cat

one minute, you’re kinda down. the world isn’t fair. life sucks. 

and then, the cat jumps in your lap, curls up contentedly and goes to sleep. 

and just like that, everything changes.  you’re kinda down. the world isn’t fair. life sucks. and you’re covered in cat fur. 

i think this is why we have cats. 

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life is funny, part 373

It wasn’t supposed to end this way.

I’m trying to think back to when I first met him. I suppose we were both very young. He was a couple of years older, but I was way more clever, so it balanced out.

I remember the rides home from Granddad’s store in the back of the car. We had blank paper and pencils. That’s really all you need if you’re left-handed, and we were. We drew cartoons and comic books and debated whose characters were better, although the answer was clearly mine. The 20-minute drive always went by too quickly.

He was always my role model for mischief. Croquet under his rules became Destruction Derby, with the only goal to see who could destroy his mallet the quickest. Sticks and rubber bands became mesquite bean guns. Old tin cans were smoke bombs. The tree house behind Granddad’s store became the Pinky Outpost. Why the Pinky Outpost? I guess I never felt the need to ask. It just was. And that theme song. “We love the Pinky Outpost, the Finky Outpost, the Stinky Outpost, dum dum dum dum dum.”

Our younger brother, who had the misfortune of being right-handed and four years younger than me, was the subject of too many tag teams. Monopoly games were always two on one. Why, certainly you can have Boardwalk for $6 as long as it bankrupts Mike. Sorry, Mike. But he held his own (and got off the best shot ever in Destruction Derby, nailing Rick squarely in the chest in a shot heard round the world, or at least the back yard.)

We found God together. We happened across a wonderful set of friends at church, and became comrades in that way that happens when you’re young and searching for answers. We prayed for my grandmother; we pondered how you could rationalize God in such a screwed-up world; we spent the Summer of Pinto in the church parking lot. I heard “Yessongs” for the first time while watching a volleyball game on the roof of the church. That’s religion.

He taught me the fine art of the practical joke. He once was riding in the back of a pickup while working a summer job. His friend, who was driving, took a turn in such a way that Rick went flying out of the truck and landed on his arm. He was OK, but when he came home I found him in the workshop with plaster of paris and gauze. He constructed a cast on his arm, which he wore for days while his friend was consumed with guilt. Then he pretended to be overcome with the itchiness of it and pounded it to pieces with a hammer while his friend watched in horror. That, my friends, was a prank.

He sneaked me into my first R-rated movie, “Easy Rider,” at the drive-in. We had the soundtrack on an 8-track tape in the car for years.  Barreling down an endless Texas road with “Born to be Wild” blaring way too loud. How could life be better than that?

We shared so much. A room, a car, a college, a life. He, of course, was a born writer. I attribute this chiefly to the fact that he recognized my superior drawing skills and had to find a different avenue to express himself. But, man, he could tell a story. When I found myself with no idea what to do with my life, he got me a job in the newsroom. I know hindsight always makes things seem more idyllic, but god, those were happy times. I’ve been a journalist since.

Once when we were working together, he asked if I wanted anything from the vending machine. Oh, just get me one of everything, I said. Five minutes and a cardboard box later, he came back with exactly that. One of everything. Sooooo many quarters. Those were the days of glue pots and Royal typewriters. Krug seeing how far he could kick a trash can. Deadlines and the dream of making the world better. We shared that. He still has most of the newsroom’s Royal typewriters. Smith boys don’t give up on stuff.

We shared an apartment, then he lived in a garage, and then I lived under a ping-pong table, and then we shared another apartment. I think I led to his first (and only?) encounter with marijuana. I had a batch of brownies on the counter (hey, this was the mid-70s) cooling when he was supposed to be gone for the day. I went out for a while, and when I came back, half of the brownies were gone. He had unknowingly ingested enough pot to float over a Grateful Dead concert. I never told him, but I like to think he must’ve written something pretty great that day. It’s weird. We were always like twins except I must’ve been a difficult labor because it took me two more years to come out. We had the same sense of humor, the same outlook on life, the same love of oddities and underdogs. He’s one of the few people I have ever known who understood me.

He took me to some of the best places I’ve ever been. Austin, the Armadillo World Headquarters just before its demise. On stage to meet Willie Nelson. On the sidelines for UT vs. A&M. The Kerrville Folk Festival when it was just a year old. Luckenbach before it became a thing. Big Bend, the Marfa lights, Pecos, six-man football games in tiny towns, Guadalupe Peak. He always let me come on his adventures in the Land Cruiser. It was loud, cold and uncomfortable. It was perfect. Brother Mike still has it. Smith Boys don’t give up on stuff. I might have mentioned that already.

And then we became adults, as adults often do. He found the perfect woman, moved, had kids. I moved to Austin, because that’s where he used to live, and then Phoenix, because that’s where my job went. Suddenly we were 12 hours apart.

The years go by so quickly. Next year, you think. And the year after that. And then a decade or two. But I’d see him now and then, and it was always like pulling down that old ratty pair of jeans in the back of the closet. They still fit just right and you wonder why the hell it took you so long to find them. And then you fold them up and return them to the top shelf, not to be worn again till that next special occasion.

And the stories. He told me about the time he went out to the country to interview an elderly woman. He had set up a time, and surprisingly for Rick, arrived in a timely fashion. He knocked on the door. Nothing. Knocked again. Silence. So he called her on his cell phone. She answered in a whisper. “I can’t talk,” she said quietly. “There’s a strange man at the door.” These are important stories whenever I wonder whether becoming a copy editor instead of a reporter was the right choice.

We had one last backpacking hurrah, a week at the Grand Canyon. i was aghast to discover he had brought nothing to eat but Nicholson’s jerky. Three days later, I was trying to pawn off my fancy freeze-dried stuff for a little slice of heaven. Never go through Mertzon without stopping.

When my company went under and I lost my job, he helped me get a new one. When I desperately wanted to quit because it was too hard, he just happened to be in the neighborhood after a six-hour drive, setting up his air mattress in the living room for no particular reason. I think we went a day and a half before he asked me how it was going and I spilled my guts. It’ll get better, he said. He was right. He was always right.

It’s funny when you get older. You realize what’s important. I have always had this dream that we’d be the two geezers sitting by the fire pit next to the old jeep, swapping stories while I pretended to play guitar. It would be the perfect closing act to a couple of great yarns. Bluebonnet tours and field trips to Terlingua. I’d bug him to write for no particular reason. Finally the Great American Novel. We’d stage a Club Sandwich whenever we damn well felt like it. You haven’t lived till you’ve heard his rendition of “West Texas Waltz.” It would be a grand finale indeed.

And then.

I guess that’s not going to happen. Alzheimer’s. The demise of all those stories, all that knowledge, all that history, all those memories. I don’t know what to do with that. I cry, I scream, I mope. He was the always the one constant in my life, the guy I knew would be there forever. How the hell am I going to figure out how to get to the top of Mitre Peak now? What exactly WAS the story about the beer-drinking goat mayor at Lajitas? What’s your best Ed Cole tale? Whatever happened to that Cowan guy? Whatever happened to us? Did we turn out OK?

He wrote a million columns that touched people’s lives in a way only a truly gifted writer with a kind soul can. He could make you laugh, and cry, and laugh again, all in the same paragraph. He wrote an award-winning play. But mostly I remember once I came home and on our kitchen table he had written a note: “Dear and worthless brother, happy birthday” next to a cake. It made me so happy. He always made me so happy. Why didn’t I ever tell him that? Is it too late to start now? I’m going to try. Smith boys don’t give up on stuff.

Life is funny …

p.s. he really IS a lousy cartoonist.

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The Dave Schultz Memorial Pi Pie Tri Yi Yi

It seemed so simple in theory. Eat one third of a pie, run a mile, eat another third, run another mile, eat the last third, run 3.14 miles wearing a Dave Schultz mask and toting a pinyata. What could go wrong?

I likely should have thought more about what exactly caused Dave Schultz’s demise in the first place. Dave loved his pie.

And because I’m from Texas, it had to be pecan pie. I remembered too late that even on holidays it’s hard to get down a second slice of pie, much less eight. And I added ice cream on the last slice. It’s Blue Bell, from Texas, and I … well, we covered that.

It was a perfect day at Lost Dutchman State Park on the edge of the Superstitions. We had a picnic table, mo’s paints, a pie and a great view. And then things went to hell.

The first slice took forever. And then the first half of the run is a steady uphill. Who knew that a run heading into the mountains would be uphill? There should be a sign at the ranger station or something.

The second slice was not fun. Nor was the second run. And then.

By the time I got to the last slice I had pretty much lost the will to live. It was horrible. Icky sweet, like a Hallmark Valentine movie. And  like the movie, the last slice seemed to take about two hours. And then, I was done. I went trotting out with my pinyata. The other hikers along the way seemed remorseful that they didn’t have this thing that must be the hot new trail-running tool. I expect a flood of customers at REI tomorrow. I hope it goes toward my dividend.

And then it was done. All quite uneventful, a nudge under an hour, a waste of a fine dessert. I hovered around the trash can for a few minutes, hoping for resolution, but no such luck. Eight hours later, I’m still haunted by the ghosts, a constant gurgle coming from my belly and a standing reservation with the local bathroom.

But, as the prophet Michael Murphey once wrote, success is survival.

And that was the last time he ever ate pecan pie. The end.
















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things i wish i had said, part 67

’Cause we all know how life works, right?

  • You’re born.
  • You make up a bunch of goals and plans.
  • You don’t do any of ’em.
  • A bunch of stuff you didn’t think of comes along and makes you into something you didn’t wanna be.
  • You whine about being ‘dysfunctional.’
  • You eat a lot of Mexican food.
  • You die.

— the prophet joe bob briggs

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24 frames too many

jason isbell: “This is how you make yourself vanish into nothing.”
mo: “oh, you poor thing. whatever.” switches to joni mitchell. who is never whiny at all.
on the bright side, jason isbell turned out to be prophetic.
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life is funny, part 372

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I run past him almost every day. He stands at the corner of the intersection I cross to get to the greenbelt for my daily run. He’s depressingly cheerful. He likes to high five me. And he always wears a dress.

I think about him a lot, the endless symbolism running a loop in my head like intervals on the track. I assume he’s desperately poor. He’s either Hispanic or Pima, two groups we try so hard to repress. He’s posing as the Statue of Liberty while pushing a tax service. Ironic, even in the Marty Cortinas sense of the word. And still, he seems happy.

I finally stop today for a photo. I’ve tried to shoot him guerrilla-style for a long time, but it doesn’t work. I worry that he’ll take it the wrong way that I want a photo. But he seems OK with it. I shoot, we high five, I start to run again. Then I hear a “hey!” and turn around.

He has struck a pose. The Lady Liberty pose. He has one fist raised where the torch would be, and the advertisement has become his tablet.

It strikes me that whether intentional or not, it’s the perfect rebellion pose. Fist clenched, defiant, surviving in a world where it’s increasingly difficult for the marginalized. But I  LIKE margarine.

I take the photo, say thanks again and head off on my run. I go past rich golfers, frisbee players, dog walkers, retirees on bikes. People with privilege, with money, with no fear of the future. It’s a different world on the greenbelt. A safe one.

They say Congress would pass meaningful health care reform if they were forced to have the same insurance as the rest of us. Maybe if rich people had to spend eight hours on a hot day standing on a corner in a dress twirling a sign, things would change. Or at least I’d be entertained.

But the world fails to change in the hour and a half it takes for the mad dog loop run. I come back by and he’s still there. “There’s the man of the hour!” he exclaims as I come by. I smile and wave. He goes back to twirling.

I worry about him.

I worry about all of us.

I worry that the torch is fading. Or maybe it was never there at all.

Life is funny …

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