Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Playin' Possum

I spent last summer in rural Pennsylvania, sorting through a collection of 30,000 books in my mother’s basement. Needless to say, I needed to time away from the basement, so I got back into the running habit. I ran pretty much the same routes every day – there weren’t too many options, either into the hills or out of them. Out of them was easier due to the decreased grade, but it had its moments too. Probably the most noticeable was that every time I ran in front of the Laurel Health Center at the bottom of the range I had to sidestep a big dead possum. Through the passage of weeks it bloated out, until it settled into a slow decomposition. Each time I ran by I thought I should move it, but I didn't.

I have a strict policy of not moving dead possum. The reason is simple and deep-seated. It goes back to possibly the first cliche I discovered the true meaning of, when I was five and living with my grandparents. My only real job was to take the trash out, but I always managed to put even that off until the last minute each night. So one summer night, right before my bedtime at 9:00, I lugged the garbage bag out to the trash bin, and when I opened the lid there inside was a dead possum curled up in a fetal position. I'd never seen one so close before, so I of course wanted to pet it. But when I reach my hand in, the second I felt fur that dead possum reared up, hissed loudly, and jumped out at me. They don't call it playin' possum for nothing. I screamed, my grandparents came running out, and the possum scurried off. The next week I got pneumonia; as my grandpa was dunking my head under the ice water in the tub he told me, "That's why you don't touch dead animals, son."

But I can't say it stopped me completely. When I was 10 or 11 I was riding my bike down the old highway to Tee Pee Junction when I saw another dead possum by the side of the road. I at least had sense by then to keep my distance, but I couldn't help stopping. It was pretty obvious this possum was a goner, as its head and chest were ingrained in the highway. But what made me stop was that its entrails seemed to be arranged in a line behind it across one lane of the highway. When I looked closer, I realized its entrails were still crawling away - four or five little pink possum fetuses had crawled out of the maternal pouch and were pulling themselves all in the same direction, further into the street. My curiosity combined with my undisciplined sympathy compelled me to pick each one of them up and pull them to the side of the road. But when I realized my parents would kill me if I brought another wild animal home (we won't even get into the copperhead, snapping turtle, squirrel, and rabbit babies I'd already tried sneaking in) I quickly deduced that the best I could do for them was to dig a hole, put them in it, and put some dead grass over the hole. Come to think of it that was maybe the worst thing I could do for them as they must have died a slow death of either freezing or starvation, but I was never much of a quick thinker. I did wash my hands profusely when I got home though.

That must have worn heavily on my subconscious through the years, because when I was a graduate student and crew coxswain in college I found myself in a similar moral quandary. We were on our way to a training camp in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and our van got lost. Now I don't know if you've been to that neck of the woods, but it's hairy. Our van driver got lost in the middle of the night, and we ended up at some police station so far into Bumfuck Egypt that the one cop in town had put a sign on the door saying he was out and would be back in less than an hour. When he returned he was lugging a trashbag over his shoulder and had a shoebox under the other arm. He apologized; he had a call to exterminate a pest under someone's porch. It was dead now, he said, but it had a brood. I knew what was in the shoebox before he opened it.

Six baby possum were wriggling all over each other in there, and I immediately asked if I could have them. My crewmen looked at me - well, you can guess how they looked at me. But I told them this was my responsibility and it wouldn't be any bother to them. The cop was strangely tender with them for such a big, gruff man, and it was with a little reluctance that he gave them up after rescuing them. The last thing he told me was not to get too attached, they'd die within a day or two anyway.

I was late for our first practice on the river in Natchitoches, as I got up early, found the nearest pet store, ran there, and got pet bottles to feed the babies with. At first everyone on the team was wondering aloud if I came down there to cox or to rear wild animals, but after the first practice I let my roommates at the hotel help me feed them, word got around on how cute they were drinking from the bottle, the girls' team started coming over to our room, and everyone was happy. We kept the shoebox on the heater to keep them warm, and they seemed rather comfortable with us.

The next morning every one of them was dead. I had to tell the news to every visitor who came to say good morning. I dated a girl on the crew team for a couple of months after that, and I think half the time we were together we were talking about those dead baby possum. I don't know whether to feel bad about that.

So every day when I sidestepped this big dead possum in front of the Laurel Health Center, I restrained myself from moving, poking, or otherwise disturbing the fate nature dictated for it. Well, I did take a picture of it - that's not too disturbing, is it?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The New York Cool Archives

As you probably don’t know, I spent a decent chunk of 2007 writing for NewYorkCool. It was a pretty sweet gig, work-wise – Editor Wendy Williams always gave me full creative freedom and responsibility for arranging my own pieces, and I got a couple of nifty assignments I wouldn’t have learned about otherwise. If it wasn’t for this whole “making a living as a writer” thing that led me inevitably to higher-paid (read: paying) pastures, I would have been happy to graze in the verdant NYCool meadows for the foreseeable future.

I’m a little more financially stable now (as much as a freelance writer and tenure-free college professor can be) and should be putting out some more stuff with NewYorkCool pretty soon, so in honor of that I thought I’d do a quick retrospective:

Calling All Nerds: Williamsburg Spelling Bee @ Pete’s Candy Store
- This was the first piece I wrote for NewYorkCool. I still go to the WSB regularly, winning my first one a couple of months ago and finishing third in the mosr recent finals. Go me!

Alexi Murdoch @ Mercury Lounge 2/7/07 – The sheer brilliance (and overexposure) of his breakway single “Orange Sky” and his own reluctance as an artist for self-promotion – he took a year or so of being courted by record labels until self-releasing his first album to follow up the single – have probably destined Alexi Murdoch for one-hit wonder status. This was his first US tour, a good 2 years after Orange Sky’s popularity made his name for him. My response to his gig at Mercury Lounge was mostly “eh.” The opening act Midnight Movies was a revelation though, and they did a couple of songs with Alexi for the highlight of the show.

Beyond Race Launch Party 2/21/07
– When I was invited to this party, I really didn’t think Beyond Race Magazine would make it past their first year. First, there was the name – they’re not really about race, which I guess they were trying for with the title, but why put race in the title if it’s not about race? Also, the grammar nazi in me wanted to mark up the issue they were throwing the party for. And finally, they seemed so intent on promoting the print copy at the expense of a their website not even coming close to being interactive. But here we are a year and a half later, and they have a nicely designed website with plenty of links and a few advertisements, and they seem to have a copy editor now. Go Beyond Race! (Hey, a little double entendre action never hurt anyone.)

The Bowmans @ Joe’s Pub 3/3/07 – This gig was special to me for a number of reasons. For one thing, it marks the only known recorded instance of my voice online, as I included a pre-show interview with Claire and Sarah Bowman. Even better, it started a fun email exchange with the opening act, a folkie who accused me of slander when I compared him to Art Garfunkel. My response: “Hey, I like Art Garkfunkel!” But most importantly I got to finally write about one of my favorite acts, AND I got Claire into Nicolai Dunger, another of my favorite acts.

Langhorne Slim @ Southpaw 3/23/07 – In many ways, Langhorne Slim was my last shot at hipsterdom. He played his first gigs at Asterisk near my apartment in Bushwick, where my good buddy Domer has been rhyming for years now. He also tends to attract crowds at least 10 years younger than I am. But most importantly, he was most likely the last artist about whom I’ll be able to say, “I heard him before he was big.” That smugness is fairly evident in this piece.

Chris Smither @ Joe’s Pub 3/9/07 – The day after this show, Chris Smither called me from the road northeast of NYC. He couldn’t give me an interview the day of the show, but I pestered his publicist enough that she told me he’d call me the next day, but I never thought he really would. I absolutely loved talking to this guy. His knowledge of the songster tradition, his general intelligence, and just a good dose of that down home charm completely won me over. The show was pretty convincing, too – you can tell he’s been doing what he does for over 40 years now. If you’ve never listened to him, pick up Leave the Light On, which he released in 2007 shortly before the show. All acoustic, the album has a presence that actually makes me look forward to getting old.

Erin McKeown @ Southpaw 4/20/07 – In a lot of ways, Erin McKeown is like a younger, female Chris Smither – she does quite a bit of public domain material, is a first-rate guitarist, and probably feels most comfortable playing to a coffeehouse crowd. But se’s also firmly in the Lilith Fair tradition, with a hefty lesbian following and plenty of more personal songwriting to go with the songster material. I truthfully thought this gig might be a flop, as her material and persona aren’t necessarily a match for Southpaw’s wide-open sound and sometimes raucous, sometimes indifferent crowd, which wasn’t challenged when her publicist told me she only allows photographs for the first 30 seconds of the first 3 songs of her sets, with no flash. But she really rose to the occasion, with an energetic, fun set.

Punk Rock Record Fair 5/12/07 – Now this is what I’m talkin’ ‘bout. There’s nothing like spending a verdant spring morning and afternoon in a dimly lit music venue looking at musty old records and watching people compare their tattoos. There was no sarcasm in that statement.

That 70s Show @ PowerHouse Arena – This one was new to me – the only art show I’ve ever reviewed. I toured the collection with Melinda MacLean, who contributed the other half of the review. Really, though, it was more of a pictorial history than an art show, with lots of good shots of 70s punk rock acts at their unashamed best and, even better, some truly wondrous candid shots of NYC at a time during which I’m not ashamed to say I’m glad I didn’t arrive here. Check it out here.

Serendipitously, I recently wrote my first piece for NewYorkCool in over a year, a review of the Latin Alternative Music Conference in July. Enjoy.