Monday, August 24, 2009

The End of an Era

Last week marked a passing. Not like a passing of gas, but another sort of passing–one that is far less satisfying.
I performed my last two library shows with Steve Blunt. It has been a lot of fun doing these shows with Steve and I'm sure we'll be doing more together in the future. Steve is a dedicated performer and, I am compelled to add, a really decent guy. I have learned many things during the course of the summer and I've compiled a short list so I may share my knowledge with the masses.
  1. When asked to clap along with a song, children cannot keep a beat.
  2. Neither can adults.
Actually, I guess that's about all I really learned. It just sort of fascinates me, as an alleged drummer, to watch seas of people attempting to clap along with a song. I suppose that anyone passing by thinks the audience is applauding wildly, so it makes Steve and me look better.

We decided that, in true rock & roll fashion, we should end our summer tour with a bang.

Or at least a soggy squish.

On Wednesday we had a gig in Meredith, a lovely town nestled snugly along the crowded shores of Lake Winnipesaukee, a lake whose name, I'd like to mention, is almost impossible to spell.
Steve thought it might be fun to make a day of it by renting kayaks and paddling around and generally frolicking in the water before the show. Two grown men frolicking about like goons tends to raise suspicions about their mental competence, so I brought my kids along for cover.

The whole day went surprisingly well considering Steve was the only one among us that had ever been in a kayak before. We managed to remain in an upright position and we were not taken out by any of the millions of motorboats that go roaring across the lake every few seconds. We even commandeered a tiny island and used it as a private swimming spot.

After a quick lunch at a nearby park, we raced to our gig and arrived only a half hour later than we had planned on. My extremely poor choice of clothing (a t-shirt with the comical, but incredibly inappropriate "Life Is Crap" logo) lead to my having to wrap a towel around myself and change clothes in the library parking lot. My fear was that a freak gust of wind would snatch my towel away and a I would be the cause of a certain amount of negative press for Steve and myself.

I changed without calamity and we did what was probably our best show of the summer. Sometimes, they just feel good. This show was relaxed and a lot of fun. I can't say we've had any bad shows, but some of them just seem to really go perfectly. After the show, they served ice cream to the kids outside which reminds me of something I need to add to the previous list:

3. To clear a room FAST, offer free ice cream somewhere else.

I'm going to try this at school visits when the crowds are milling about and another group is waiting to come in. I will announce, "Your teacher has ice cream waiting for you in your classroom." With any luck, I will be able to escape before the teachers can arm themselves.

On Thursday, we had our last show in Hooksett, which is much easier to spell than Winnepisaukee. My drive to Hooksett has the dubious distinction of being the drive where I have taken the most wrong turns. I do a LOT of driving. I drive all over the place to go to presentations and I'm generally pretty good with a map, but Hooksett go the best of me. What really bugs me is that I knew where the library was (sort of) I just tried some different directions and got profoundly mixed-up.

I eventually found my way there and we had a good show. There was a big crowd and the librarian was obviously familiar with my third rule of shows because there was free ice cream offered and Steve and I were able to pack up crowd-free. I actually do enjoy meeting and talking to people after the shows.
One of my favorite meetings occurred earlier this summer after a very crowded, hot show. After the crowd had thinned to nothing and we were almost done packing up, we heard footsteps tromping up the 3 flights of stairs that led to the room we were in. A young girl bounced through the doors and held up her tightly clutched hands.
"I brought something for you guys!" she announced.
In each hand she had 3 sweaty, crushed french fries. Steve looked at me and smiled. Steve is evil. He eagerly took the fries from her and ate them. Then he turned to me. "Those were good, Marty. Are you going to eat yours?"
In Steve's own words, I am somewhat "freaky about my food". The translation is that I try to eat organic food when possible, I prefer not to eat processed foods, and I would sooner gargle toenails than eat those 3 sweaty, mangled french fries.

I took the fries from the girl and thanked her politely. Then I pointed to my bongos at the far end of the room and asked her if she could possibly get them for me. She happily bopped across the room and I threw the fries out the window.

Which leads me to the final thing I learned this summer:

4. If a kid gives you a french fry and you throw it out the window, make sure the kid's dad isn't standing directly below the window.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

High Heat in the High Hills

Last Tuesday, as the temperature soared to a brain bubbling 90-something degrees and the humidity made it feel as though you were living in somebody's old, but recently used gym sock, Julie and I hiked another mountain.

Is there a better way to beat the heat than by strapping on a heavy backpack full of water and granola and hauling your sorry, sweaty self up rocky trails? Frankly, yes. A cool, refreshing beverage (preferably with a little pink umbrella and several tinkling ice cubes) served poolside sounds about right. But Julie is stark-raving insane and I'm her friend, so off into the hazy gray yonder we went.

We climbed Mount Pierce, a 4,000 footer in the Presidential Range and named, obviously, after former president Jimmy Carter. What struck me first about this hike was the fact that the parking lot was full. This is a rare occurrence.

When Julie and I go hiking, there are typically very few cars in the trail-head parking lots. Most of the cars that are there are the vehicles of people from Massachusetts who have mistakenly wandered into The White Mountains to "Do a little hiking and get back to nature." We often see them stumbling past us on the trails, their high heeled shoes broken and flapping off their ankles and their make-up running down their cheeks, headed for their cars and grumbling about the fact that there are so few places to get a Dunkin Donuts Mocoolattachino on the trails.

Most people have more sense than to willingly hike mountains in the first place. I figured that surely, as Tuesday was so hot that furry woodland creatures were exploding in fiery balls of fur, we would at least have the luxury of sweating ourselves into strips of human jerky in relative privacy. It turns out that the trail we were hiking is like some sort of superhighway for freaks who actually find joy in hiking when it's so hot you can hear yourself sweating.

Our trip up the mountain was punctuated by a brief stop at Mitzpah Hut, an Appalachian Mountain Club outpost where, for the small price of about a hundred dollars a night, you get a bunk in a room filled with several sweaty, snoring strangers who share your passion for being sweaty in the woods.

We took what might generously be referred to as 'the scenic route' when we left Mitzpah Hut, heading off down the wrong trail toward another, and far distant mountain. It was the steep decline of the path that made us think we may have made a slight navigational error.

"My, my, Julie," I observed. "This is the easiest summit ascent we have ever made. This gently rolling, mossy path headed downward certainly makes the hiking a breeze."
"Hiking is never easy," Julie answered, "We must be doing something wrong."

And what do you know? We were.

After locating the proper path (easily identified because it was steep and treacherous and towering high into the hazy sky above us), we began to test the limits of human perspiration. We reached the summit and were greeted by hungry swarms of black flies, thirsting for human blood. We had sweated so much that I imagine our blood had thickened to the consistency of milkshakes, giving the black flies a delightful treat and causing them to tell all their friends to give us a try. Which they did. As a brief side note, if you look closely at the picture of me (I am the hairier, ugly one) you will see a strange, blurry form in the sky above my head. That is actually a single black fly about 3 miles away. It had feasted lustily on my blood just a few moments before and had swollen to the size of a 1965 Buick.

On this particular hike, Julie and I decided to try something different. Given the proof of her powers over the animals on previous hikes, we decided that we didn't need to bother packing lunches today. Instead, Julie packed trail-mix and we used it to lure gray jays into our hungry clutches.

After our refreshing lunch of gray jay, we began our descent, pausing briefly at the summit marker so Julie could touch it and have her picture taken at it. She operates under the odd misapprehension that if she doesn't actually touch the summit marker, the hike does not count and she will have to do it over again.

As we approached the bottom of the hill, after passing many pungently aromatic hikers headed for Mitzpah Hut to revel in their mind-altering stinkiness with other similarly olafactorally enhanced hilers, we spotted a small mountain stream with a delightful carved out spot just right for taking a cool, refreshing dip.

Mountain streams have the amazing property of always being frigid. A brief plunge in the water was enough to cramp our toes and cleanse us of all desire to ever swim again. I would have posted a picture, but our fingers were too cold to push the button on the camera.

We slogged back to the car and headed back home, stopping only for the mandatory ice cream cone in Lincoln which melted into sticky puddles almost before we could gulp them down.


We're planning our next hike for sometime in the early fall. I'm packing BBQ sauce for that one.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Not Unless you Have A Really Cool Go-Kart

No. Really. I probably won't do this for you. I mean, not for a Go-Kart. Not unless yours is REALLY cool. Like with turbo boosters and a full 4 wheel independent suspension. Possibly a roof mounted potato cannon and definitely a chocolate milk cooler/dispenser.

I painted this picture for my son, really. It's not him, of course, and he's not going to keep it. Instead, he's going to keep my neighbor's go-kart.

For many months Alex and I had been collecting parts to build our very own go-kart. The goal was to build it completely out of scraps that we could collect for free. I lucked out early and found a guy giving away two broken down riding lawn mowers that we spent many happy hours disassembling with hammers, wrenches, cutting torches and other many implements of deconstruction.

It was fun.

It was not, however actually getting us any closer to actually having a running go-kart.

After many days of sweating and banging and grunting, I decided that we needed to get a closer look at a real, live go-kart. My neighbor, Lin, a local equestrian educator, had a go-kart at her stables. She used it to bribe a local teen to work for her. As far as I can tell, the deal went something like this: You shovel mountains of poop and you can then drive up and down our driveway in a go-kart.

This sort of arrangement, as you might imagine, soon lost its appeal and the go-kart was languishing, unloved, when Alex saw it and was immediately and hopelessly smitten.

He needed a go-kart.

So when our plans were seeming to go nowhere, I called Lin to see if we could borrow hers to take measurements and see how it was all put together. She agreed and then went on to ruin my life by adding, "For $50, it's yours."

Alex and I had been having a lot of fun planning and working together, but I knew that ignorant bliss would carry us only so far. Soon,the cold, hard reality of mechanics would drive us down the highway of disappointment.

(that was a beautiful metaphor)

I wrestled with the idea for a few minutes and then made Lin a counter-offer. "Okay", I said, "How would you like to barter for the go-kart?"
Ever a sport, she asked, "Whaddaya got?"
"Well, I just came back from this week long intensive portrait workshop with the world renowned painter, Paul McCormack. [see older posts for full, exciting details] Would you exchange the go-kart for a watercolor portrait of your kids?"
"My kids? I look at them all the time. I know what they look like. Would you paint one of my horses?" she asked.
"No. I can't paint horses, and don't you know what your horses look like, too?"
She admitted that my powers of persuasion were too great for her and she said that she would trade the go-kart for a portrait of her younger daughter.

While she was looking for a picture, she asked me what I charge for a portrait.

"They usually start at about $500." I answered casually.

I thought she was going to have a stroke.

"$500?!?! I can't make up the extra $450!" she said, clutching at her heart.

(I never asked her to make up the difference–I made the offer and I was happy with it.)

Sad to report that this reaction is all too common. People say they like my portraits and might want to have one done. Then they find out how much I charge and they soil themselves.

The portraits take a LOOONNNG time. I work on most of them for several weeks. If I actually broke it down to what I earned per hour, I'd probably soil MYself. I've spent years and years studying art, drawing, and painting and I take pride in what I do. The paintings will last for generations if treated carefully and in light of all that, I think they are well worth the meager sum of $500.

Or at least a REALLY cool go-kart.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Is This Wedding Actually Legal? Marty Performs a Wedding.

A long time ago, back when I was in Florida getting all educated up so I could be a teacher, I spent almost all of my free time working as a columnist, illustrator, editor, and art director for a college newspaper. It was, I must stress, A college newspaper. Not THE college newspaper. The newspaper I worked for had its humble beginnings at the official school newspaper. It seems that several of the staff members of the official school newspaper were fired, en masse, for some offense so foul and egregious that I never found out what it was. I have my suspicions, but they are based solely on the machinations of my overactive imagination and have no basis in reality whatsoever. If they were even remotely true, the parties involved would most likely have been deported to another country–possibly another planet–rather than having been simply fired.

So these oppressed workers took matters into their own hands and founded their own paper. A paper devoted to the principal that anybody can make a newspaper.

It was shortly after this schism occurred that I became a staff member on the paper, penning my weekly question and answer column, Mad-Dog:Master of the Universe. the simple premise of my column was that people would write to me with some deep, profound question, like, say...

If Ivory Soap is 99 44/100% pure, what is the other 56/100%?

Or, Are there any foods I can eat or drinks I can drink that will allow me to have total control of the color of my urine?

I tackled these questions week after week with the diligence one would expect of someone who was working for free.

During one of our weekly newspaper meetings, which were held whenever Taco Bell had its Deal of the Week, Randy, one of the staff, let us know that he had recently been ordained as a reverend and offered his services to our blackened souls and those of our readers. We, of course, laughed until cheap Taco Bell burritos sprayed across the apartment (and still remain smeared across the wall to this day, I'm sure).

Upon further reflection, we decided that it may prove an invaluable service to our readers if we could absolve them of their sins. This being one of the myriad powers that Randy claimed to possess since his free, instant on-line ordination in the Universal Life Church. Other powers included officiating at weddings, providing funereal services, and condemning people's souls to eternal damnation. We actually never checked on the last one, but it seemed wisest not to push Randy too far. Thus was born Reverend Randy's Corner of Absolution.

I'm sad to report that the good Reverend never had a single sin submitted to him, the entire campus evidently too mired in goodness and purity to be in any need of his services.

My point in telling you all of this is that I was so awed by Randy's many powers that I, too heard the calling and by simply entering my name in the appropriate fields, became one of the millions of official, real-life reverends ordained by The Universal Life Church.

I had not used my powers for evil or for good until recently when my good friends Tim and Katie asked me to perform their wedding ceremony. I laughed until cheap Taco Bell burritos sprayed across the living room. Actually, not true. It was expensive homemade organic guacamole. My ordination might be connected to Mexican food in some cosmic way.

Once they convinced me that they were serious, I did my best to make them see the foolishness of their request. When that did not work, I actually agreed, hoping they would forget about it and come to their senses in time.

They did not.

They continued to assure me that their desire to have me do this was real and not some delusional fantasy brought on by too much spicy Mexican food or its liquid antidote.

With my options for escape nearly exhausted, I called the NH Secretary of State's office and asked if my online ordination was enough to make their wedding legal. The short answer was, "Yup." The long answer was, "Yup. It sure is. Just make sure you sign the license."

I was going to perform their wedding.

The reason this all worked out is that Tim and Katie are wonderful, laid-back people with, evidently, very low standards and dubious taste. I should qualify that. Very low standards and dubious taste regarding who performs their wedding ceremony. In all other matters, they seem very sane and stable. They did have the good sense to provide me with a script, thus eliminating the very real possibility that I would pepper my oratory with words like 'booger' and 'fart'.

The ceremony went beautifully. The reception was great fun. Now, as long as the Secretary of State doesn't call them on their honeymoon to discuss some "irregularities", they'll be all set.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Rock and Roll Life with Steve

Last Monday my buddy Steve Blunt sent me an email that asked if I wanted to go for a hike or a bike ride after our show in Franklin on Wednesday.
My first thought, naturally, was, "We have a show on Wednesday?"
I consulted my calendar and found it blank. I consulted my wife and she was similarly blank. As I geared up to write Steve a bitingly sarcastic, witty, hard-hitting response about his apparent inability to use something so simple as a calendar, I checked the letters I had sent out to libraries.
August 5, Franklin Public Library. 12:00.

My somewhat revised, somewhat less acerbic, somewhat more humble email went something like this:
"Sounds good. I'll bring my bike. See you there."

We arrived at the library–a delightful old building that simply dripped with character–and began loading in our stuff. I've been visiting schools and libraries for almost 12 years now and Steve has probably been doing shows for as long. What I am always struck by during our combined shows is how much stuff Steve has. Drums, microphones, horns, guitar, ukulele, CD's, and all the other paraphernalia that make the world of rock-n-roll the glittery spectacle that it is.

I, on the other hand, have some books, some paper, a laptop, and a projector. I need more stuff, I guess. Steve, on the other hand, needs roadies. Instead of which, he has me. For the meantime, and until I get my pyrotechnics all set to go, I will have to live the rock-n-roll lifestyle somewhat vicariously, absorbing and reveling in as much of Steve's reflected glory as I can.

My favorite part of performing these shows with Steve, and he will hardly believe this, is his almost obsessive dedication to getting the set list just right. The songs we play, the stories we will tell, and the order in which they will happen are, to Steve's credit, something I suspect he considers for about 22 hours a day. He loves what he does and wants each show to be perfect.

I love what I do, as well. However, I need to sleep sometimes. Before each of our shows (usually about 2 minutes before the show) Steve will pull out one of the dozens of note pads he has secreted in his belongings and he will show me the set list he has worked up for the day's show. To my untrained and ignorant eye, it will look strikingly similar to the last set list and the one before that and the one before that... But Steve will have made a few tweaks and changes. He will have reasons for the changes and they will always sound reasonable to me, so I blithely agree.

Then the show begins and Steve will have an inspiration. Between songs he will casually walk over to me and quietly tell me that he has just thought of a great addition to the set list. "I'm going to play this new song that I made up last night," he'll say, "I know you've never heard it, and I haven't quite figured out all the lyrics, but I think it will go really well here. Just play along."

Then he will casually walk back over to his microphone and begin playing a song he wrote the night before and I have never heard. He'll smile at me and silently urge me to jump in and start playing.

In spite of the fact that I am a drummer and thus, musically handicapped in the most profound way, I can usually sit there and pound on a drum in a reasonable simulacrum of competence. When the song is over he will then introduce another song, not from our set list and ask the audience to sing along.

These shows, I must admit, are thrilling to me every time. When I do my own presentations at schools or libraries, I use an electronic slide show to illustrate what I am talking about. I love giving the presentations, but they really don't vary all that much from one presentation to the next. I know what I'm going to talk about in advance and what order I will talk about it in.

A show with Steve is like doing stunt performing. In the words of the immortal (yet still somehow dead) Frank Zappa: Anything, Anytime, Anyplace, For No Reason At All.
And it's a lot of fun.

Sometime, I'll tell you about that bike ride, too.

(I just read this post to my son and he walked away saying, "Okay. Lots of big words you used there." I'll include a glossary next time, Alex.)

Monday, August 3, 2009

White Water Madness - sort of...

If you are not from NH, you must know that this summer we have been under some evil voodoo hex. It has caused so much rain that my socks mildewed. Actually, that may be a function of poor hygiene, but the fact remains that this has not been the sunny, bright summer that one likes to reminisce about in one's dotage. More like the gloomy, gray, moist funk wafting out of a high school locker room.

Noisome, intimate bodily functions aside, we did have at least one bright sunny beautiful day just a few short days ago. I jumped on my bike and zipped around town, delighting in the breeze through my hair, the sun on my face, and the swarms of insects peppering me like birdshot. On my approach home, I have a delightful 4 mile stretch along the Piscataqua River where I can ride in relative peace, soaking in the natural beauty and having only to remain vigilant about the hundreds of cars zipping by–every driver desperate to either get to Goffstown or leave Goffstown.
As I reveled in the beauty of the river and enjoyed the tickly sensation of the thousands of bugs wriggling along my lips and mouth, I saw a kayaker stopped at the bank of the river listening to the music from an annual blues festival that comes to town, um... annually.
Of course, this made me think, "I should bring my fragile children on a life-threatening ride down the churning, rain-swollen rapids of this river in a large, hard to control, inflatable raft!" Perhaps it was simply the giddiness of all the Vitamin D surging through my sun deprived system, but this was indisputably the best idea I had ever had. Of course, the kids agreed whole-heartedly. They're good like that.
We unearthed the raft from beneath the porch, scoured it, inflated it and strapped it to the roof of the car. We dropped my truck off at the proposed end-point for the ride and Kerri drove us all to a spot several miles upstream so we could 'put in', as the pros say. For us, it might be more accurate to say that we dropped the raft into the water and flailed and dived for it as it was whisked away in the current. After scrambling aboard we settled in for what proved to be a delightful sojourn down the river. There were a few bumpy parts that were a lot of fun (save for the crippling pain of bouncing off a rock with my knee) but the rest of the ride was smooth and fun. In the interest of absolute honesty, I feel that I need to post an uncropped copy of the exciting looking picture at the beginning of this post.

The glamor and high excitement is somewhat lessened, I know. The river loses some of its potential as a raging force of nature when you see how calm most of it is. In the background you can see the bridge leading into the fairgrounds where the blues show was being held. You can also see the man who warned us, "There's whitewater up ahead there." then sat back and ghoulishly watched to see if the guy with the two kids careening down the river might wind up on the news that night. "Hey," he could tell his wife, over dinner, "I warned them..."