personal stories

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

family footprints

My parents own a house down in Bradley Beach. It was decided that this house is where my wife, daughter, and beagle would be spending our 1-week summer getaway as a family.

Behind the house is a small “bungalow” of sorts. It’s kind of a mini house of its own. There are two floors. The first is simply a living room with a bathroom, and then upstairs is a tiny kitchen and two small bedrooms. A screen door leads out to a quaint balcony, complete with railing planters and a glider for two. This bungalow is where we stayed.

We did not do too much all week except get up, drink coffee, walk down to the beach, come back, eat lunch, nap, wake up, hang with family, eat dinner, put the baby to bed, chill for an hour, then sleep. That was pretty much the extent of it. It was wonderful.

I got to dig into some Steinbeck—The Grapes of Wrath. I also played lots of piano (there’s one in my parent’s basement, an old spinet). My sister and her husband visited for a night or two, I played a gig in a nearby shore town of Toms River, we had a couple meals out with my folks, one night I ate some strange cookies and saw Planet of the Apes, another night my wife and I watched Stir Crazy with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, and yet another night we recorded our very first single as the blues duo DREAM HOUSE. My father-in-law came down with his girlfriend one day and we chatted for a while, then went over to Vic’s for some pizza. The order of these events is sort of a blur to me, and it doesn’t really matter anyway.

There is one day out on the beach that I remember more than all the others. The tide was high and the waves tumbled in at a good clip. The water was not too cold, we could go down and walk along the surf together. We all held hands, my wife on one side of my daughter and I on the other, taking a few steps and then swinging her up into the air, causing her to shriek with delight. I know people say things about the sweetness of a child’s laughter, but when it’s your own child all of those horribly cliche things that make you squirm as a younger man (or perhaps woman) suddenly become true—almost in an instant.

This is the strongest memory I’m taking away from the vacation. It’s frozen there in my mind like a Polaroid picture. Probably because I have seen it so many times before. It’s a scene that is so wholly unimaginative, and yet it is the one I keep returning to.

The week ended and we packed up our Toyota Rav4 like a good American family does: daughter in the carseat, doggie in the carrier, and ma and pa up front with a couple of Grandes for the road. I wish I could say the sky was pink as we drove off from the house, and maybe it was, but for now this is all I can remember.

Confessions of a Third Grade Nail Biter

I’m nervous.

I’ve read lots of books that give me mental tricks and strategies for pushing these nagging thoughts to the side.

But the nervousness just seems to follow me around.

I bite my nails. I’m trying to stop. Been trying for… ummm. 20 years?

It all started back in third grade. Jonathan had these trading cards. They were all kinds of different creatures, like lizards and bugs and duck-billed platypusses.

He also had a robotic arm at his house. I envied this deeply.

Jonathan’s father was a scientist. His mother only had one arm.

He was a good buddy and he got me hooked on bugs and biting my nails.

My parents did that thing. “Where did you learn that?”

I learned it from Jonathan.

Anyway, we drifted apart but I’m still a nerd and he probably is too.

I just wish I could stop being so nervous all the time.

It’s getting better. The books, the strategies. I’ll get there someday, I know I will.

That’s what I like about life. The feeling of hope. It’s not always visible, it is often tucked behind a cloud.

But for the time being, it’s still there. I hope it stays.

Do you curse too much?

I’m tryin not to curse so much, I really am. Well I suppose I could try harder, but the truth is I only realize I’m cursing too much after the bad words come out. It’s like an ambush or something.

Funny thing is, I grew up very proper. My folks were into church—we would go every Sunday. I went to Sunday school and now my dad’s even a deacon. So the church thing is very serious and cursing is definitely not allowed.

One time I slipped up and said “shit” in front of my dad out in the garage and he looked at me with a look of total disapproval, real hard, and said “what did you say” and I stammered out somethin like “I don’t know I’m sorry it just came out” and then I ran back inside the house. He wasn’t gonna do anything like hit me or ground me or anything but I just felt so embarrassed. Funny cos now every other word out of my mouth is eff this eff that goddam so and so. Like a crotchety old man. Which is part of why I liked curse words to begin with. It’s fun to act like an old man when you’re young. Weathered, you kno? Like Tom Waits or something . But then you actually get old and you’re like wait a minute. This is not so good.

Like my back for instance. My back is killing me for the past week. I mean I’m only 33 for god’s sake but my back is killing me. More than my back—it goes down through my butt cheeks and into my upper thighs. Would you listen to me! I sound like a granny. And I feel like one too.

Told my dad about it and he said it sounds like the sciatic nerve. I thought sciatica was a skin disease but it turns out that it’s when you’re sciatic nerve, which is the biggest nerve in your body—runs down your whole spine—well that thing gets inflamed. And let me tell you it’s no party. I can’t even tie my shoes. I look like a goddam fish flopping around in the morning trying to get my clothes on. Makes you appreciate things. You know some people live like that every day, forever. What about the girl who has no arms, have you seen her on TV? She does everything with her legs, it’s pretty amazing. She can peel a banana with her toes and then eat it with no trouble, can you imagine?

My soon-to-be-brother-in-law’s dad told me ice was the way to go. We didn’t have any ice packs so I used a bag of frozen tuna steaks. Laid on top of em in the bed. It kinda worked for a minute. My wife said DO NOT leave those tuna steaks in the bed. I thought, of course I won’t, and then would you believe I almost did! They were hiding under the covers but I spotted em before I left for work and put them back in the freezer. She woulda killed me. Can you imagine?

Playing The Anchor’s Bend in Asbury Park

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Photo: Paul Leonardo

With the car jammed to the gills we made our way down the highway. It was a great ride. Cool night. Held my sweetheart’s hand, baby asleep in the back. Everything was breezy.

Crashed at the folk’s place and arose Saturday to coffee and chit chat before I headed over to Asbury Park. Some family and friends came by.

Now the way these bar gigs work is you’ve really got to read your crowd. You try a little this, you try a little that. And a few stabs you usually see what is making the girls sway or the guys nod their heads. And there’s your in. The first crowd liked country, but the second wanted soul. Things derailed during the third set when I started taking requests. Too many Beatles. The death knell came with a Hall & Oates request and I simply had to take the show back at that point. It’s a dance of sorts.

Sunday was spent kind of milling about the boardwalk. The girls picked up some jewelry, the boys destroyed a mannequin. After a bite at Porta Pizza we headed home to pack up.

I paused for a few seconds in the backyard. The evening air was cool, I could smell the beach. The seagulls sang a note or two. I could see into the next door neighbors house–they were gathered around a table, having some laughs in the warm glow of the dining room. I had to take stock. It was a moment.

Got in the car and took off. The drive home was quiet. We were tired. But it was nice to arrive home. There was a Monday looming.

How To Be Yourself, Even When You Don’t Fit In

Tropical storm be damned, I wasn’t about to miss The Oblivians.

I sloshed over to the South Street Seaport through the rising flood and headed out on Pier 17. There was a big tent, this must be the spot.

I approached the hand-stampers, a couple of young girls. The one looked at me.

“Are you here for the concert?”

“Yes. Why, is there something else going on?”

She smiled and stamped my hand. “No, go ahead in.”

I was wearing my work clothes, shirt and tie. Maybe she thought I was too square for the rock show.

When I got inside, I saw why. Everybody, and I mean everybody, was dressed the part of a rock n roller. It was kind of a turn off. My bullshit detector kicked in immediately and I was kind of sizing people up trying to figure out who was the real thing and who was just playing pretend.

This kind of put me in a sour mood. I started feeling like a crabby old guy. But then I realized, no, I’m not just a crabby old guy. I’m searching for authenticity, in myself and in others.

Or maybe I am grumpy cause my socks are soaked.

The opening band started playing and I went to the back of the tent. Got myself a hot dog and sat down on a picnic bench. Took my book out and started to read. It’s fun to do whatever you want to do, even when it’s totally weird like reading a book at a rock show.

The band ended and The Oblivians were up next. I started to get pumped. I stood up, looked around, and suddenly felt very proud that I was the only guy in a shirt and tie at the whole show. I’d rather just do me than look like eveybody else.

As I waded up to the stage I started seeing some familiar faces. Jon Spencer of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Eric Davidson from the New Bomb Turks. Yes! These people made me feel at home. It didn’t matter what I was wearing, I was among kin.

The Oblivians took the stage. They sounded perfect. I felt victorious. End scene.

Here’s me singing my favorite Oblivians song, Bad Man.

How To Know If You Can Trust Your Doctor

I was having chest pains so I made an appointment with the doc.

Naturally I’d cooked up all sorts of horrific explanations for what was causing this pain. Really, more of a dull ache. A slow growing cancer no doubt, or perhaps the early onset of emphysema, or maybe I’d even hit the jackpot with heart disease. As these diagnoses crossed my mind, I could feel their symptoms worsening, their presence becoming ever more certain.

I’d never been to this guy before, he was uptown, but as I scanned the list of doctors available to me on my insurance carrier’s website, I deliberately selected the one with the Asian name. I’m not entirely sure why I did this. At any rate, let’s call him Dr. Huang.

When I got to Huang’s office, his elderly Asian male secretary handed me the customary new patient forms, except these were clearly created on a typewriter. There were stacks and stacks of paper everywhere, it was chaos behind that front desk. It frightened me. If this is how they keep their practice, how good is their medical care? Then a second thought occurred to me. No, this is good. They’re not all bogged down with the latest technology, they’re the homier sort, they care about people, not metrics.

So Huang calls me back to his office, and starts to ask me some questions. He laughs at me when I tell him I looked him up online. “Tee hee. I get more and more people finding me online, which I find so funny! You could die from a misprint.”

Okay then. This guy is tickled, but I’m not really in the ha-ha mood.

He tells me my insurance numbers look all wrong, but that his secretary is dyslexic and maybe it’s his fault. “He’s a good guy, he sometimes messes up the numbers—and when he does this, the bloods aren’t accurate.”

What’s this now? Good god, why keep this scrambled old man employed?! WE ARE SICK! We need bloods, whatever they are, and for the love of god we need them to be accurate.

“Where did you grow up?” he asks.

“Central Jersey, right off Route 1.”

“Do you go into the woods a lot?”

“No.”

“I’m asking because you’ve got to be careful of Lyme’s disease. It’s basically syphilis. Tee hee!”

I don’t know why, but I was beginning to trust this quack. If he was this openly insane with how he spoke to his patients, perhaps I could be certain that he’d give it to me straight when it comes to my condition.

Into the examination room we go, I strip to my skivvies and he returns to poke and prod me on the table. “You’re very fair-skinned. Have to be careful of melanoma. It’s very bad, very bad.”

“Yeah, there’s been some in my family.”

“Yes. And it can appear on the bottoms of the feet,” he said as he examined my own. Just then, his eyes narrowed. It appeared as though he’d noticed something on the bottom of my right foot. He looked closer and closer, pushing the skin around, ogling the area with great care and curiosity. Do I have foot melonoma, is that what this all boils down to?

“Tee hee. Just some dirt,” he says. “But it can appear on the bottom of the feet. I had one patient who had two melonoma spots on the feet. I missed one. I feel bad about that.”

He feels bad about that. HE FEELS BAD ABOUT THAT?! Booooom, mind blown. I love this man. He’s so transparent. I believe everything he says. You know, we just want honesty. We want truth. Give it to me straight doc. You know? Your friends can’t give it to you straight, your parents can’t give it to you straight, and your boss can’t give it to you straight. But this doc, well, apparently he’s straight as an arrow. A crazy, crazy arrow.

He continued the examination and concluded with a great deal of certainty that it was stress that was causing these chest pains and sent me on my way with some sort of souped up aspirin that should do the trick. I kind of doubt it but we’ll see. But I have to say—I do feel a bit better already.

Why Rock n’ Roll Music Is Like Crack Cocaine

Spicy’s bachelor party had derailed for reasons I won’t even get into here. Nevertheless we had to do something to celebrate his last days of bachelordom, and so a jam session was called.

We got together at my studio in Hoboken and played. We played old songs that had not been played in many, many years. And I was amazed at how easily they returned to us. It was truly surreal, like a time machine took us back to my mom and dad’s basement exactly 10 years ago. And there we were. Fresh, young, excited, open-minded, and hungry.

Do I sound old? Sometimes I feel old. And I don’t mind some parts of being older. In fact, I quite like the perspective aging brings. I think it’s done a lot for my music and my overall happiness. But time is something you can never get back. And there’s something bittersweet about getting the perspective now. It would have been so useful 10 years ago.

That’s not to say I have any regrets, because by and large I don’t. And I find that I’m meandering now, so let’s get back to something more concrete.

The time machine. The “bachelor party”. Something happened that night that had not occurred since those days in the basement. It was the feeling of being truly in awe of the music you’re making.

Anybody who plays in a band, or even plays guitar, can attest to the sheer delight of hearing yourself play a famous riff for the first time. For me, it was Sweet Child O’ Mine in Ricardo’s basement over on Upper Brook Drive in 1995 or so. It’s like magic. You’re in disbelief, saying to yourself “Oh my god, I’m making the SOUND. I’m actually making the SOUND.” And if you’re playing in a band in those early teen days, you’re saying the same thing. “I can’t believe we’re making the SOUND.”

Rock music is so powerful, and loud, and COMPLETE, and when you peek behind the curtain and learn that by simply adding guitar plus bass plus drums, ANYONE can make it, an entire new dimension is opened to you.

The thing is, if you stick with it and you’re any good, this feeling dissipates pretty quickly. The awe fades away and you jump into the study of music. And this is an insatiable beast. You can never learn enough, you can never feed the monster enough songs, chords, sounds, techniques, lyrics, performances, YouTubes, artist interviews, magazines, catalogs, and dreams. It just goes on and on. I’m still in the grips of it to this day. I’m hopeless.

But again, I derail.

On that night, the long lost purity returned to me. I felt like a teenager again. It was so overwhelming in fact that I am afraid to get together with the guys again. What if it’s gone? What if it was just the magic of that one “bachelor thing” night? We came to the table with no expectations, and therein lies the secret to success. Now, when we return, it will be with expectations. That’s just how it is. There’s no escaping that.

And so, I remain tortured. I want that feeling of freedom so bad. It’s rock n roll in it’s purest state. The kind that makes you shake and shout. The kind that drives your mind to strange places and summons a freakish energy that you cannot get from anywhere else.