Monday, April 23, 2012

What Y’all Missed

I know some of you didn’t. I know I didn’t.

What am I talking about? The passing of Levon Helm last week. But that’s not what I mean by what y’all missed. I’m sure many noted his passing.

What you may have missed was one of the most unique voices in rock history as part of a band that was one of the most iconic in rock history. A band that had the audacity to call itself…The Band.

The Band. Simple. Profound.

And very, very talented. Led my Helm on the drums and lead singer, The Band also boasted Robbie Robertson on lead guitar, Rick Danko on bass guitar, Garth Hudson on keyboards and Richard Manuel on just about everything else. This was group that was truly a group – an alchemy. A sum greater that its parts. Individually, they were talented musicians to be sure…but together, they were amazing. They were…The Band. Totally deserving of that simple title.

With the passing of Levon Helm, I was spurred to do a little reminiscing via YouTube of their musical peak, which was the mid-70’s. I watched them perform Up On Cripple Creek and The Weight – two of their most recognizable hits. In both, Helm gave it that soulful, homespun, twangy Arkansas vocal performance that marked his style.

But then I came across a video that I was just mesmerized by. So much so that I played it over and over and over…to the point where the song was just stuck in my head for days –

Virgil Caine is the name and I served on the Danville train…

That song, right there, is why Levon Helm was – and is – a national icon. He took this powerful song about the end of the Civil War and the utter defeat of the Confederate army and wrung every ounce of passion in his body into it. “By May 10th, Richmond had's a time I remember oh so well....”

And it also shows why The Band was, well, the band.

And it also gave me, as a northerner; pause to reflect on what the south must have gone through when they knew defeat was imminent. The song paints a graphical feel of the time – the army was defeated, they were hungry, tired, and heading back home…but all the bells were ringing and the people were singing.

And what were they singing? “Naaah na na na na na naaaah…Na na na na na na nah”

Almost like a taunt. We won. You lost. Scoreboard. Now go back home while we fill your ears with the sound of your defeat.

And one hundred and ten years after the war ended, Levon Helm and his bandmates totally captured what it must have felt like to have lost that war through the eyes of Tennessee farmer Virgil Caine…and his brother who took a rebel stand until a Yankee laid him in his grave.

Folks, we lost a great voice last week.

Rest in peace, Levon Helm.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

An Orlando Primer

So I have now lived in Orlando for over three years, which is an ample amount of time to get a good feel for this place. And to not get lost anymore. Trust me – it is very easy to get lost in this town. I will get into the reasons for that shortly. So I decided to impart the things I have learned about this town on all y’all.
That’s redneck plural.
I love Orlando. I was excited when I first moved here in 2009, and it has just gotten better and better. So many things to see and do. Something always going on. My pet phrase is, if you are bored in Orlando, you just want to be bored…because it is not due to a lack of things available to do. It’s due to your unwillingness to get off your butt and do them.
But it is also a city with a seamy underside. And if you visit, you can certainly stay in your comfy room at the Grand Floridian on Disney property and take the monorail over to Epcot and have a swell time. But if you are feeling adventurous and want to see the city that over two million of us call home, well, read on.
Disney Ain’t Orlando
Nor is Universal Studios. Or Sea World. Or Wet ‘n Wild. Those are our major attractions, and what brings in tourists from all over the world. But that’s not Orlando. The world has gotten a view of the other side of Orlando recently – Casey Anthony, Trayvon Martin. Point being, we are like any other metropolitan area with over 2.3 million people – we have our issues.
So unlike other cities, we are not defined by how we are perceived. This isn’t Cinderella’s Palace or The Incredible Hulk roller coaster. We are a large, sprawling, teeming city filled with excitement…and danger.
Sinkhole City
Orlando likes to boast about all the lakes we have. And we do have a bunch of them. But you want to know what they really are? Sinkholes. Orlando is built on unstable land in the middle of a peninsula. A very high water table, which means there’s a reason we don’t have basements – because they will turn into indoor swimming pools.  And every now and then the land just gives up and falls in. Voila – a sinkhole. And after one of our summer rainy seasons that sinkhole turns into a lake. And two years afterwards, half-million-dollar homes are built with a sinkhole, er, lakefront view.
What the sinkholes also cause is windy, curvy roads. Nothing is in a straight line here. Therefore it is very easy to get lost, and your sense of direction gets compromised – ‘Let’s see…I was heading east, but now the sun’s in my eyes and it’s 7pm….how in the hell did I get headed west?’
Avoid I-4
Traffic is hideous in this town. Anywhere you go – from Winter Garden to Bithlo to Sanford to St. Cloud, there is traffic. Lots of it. And we only have one Interstate – I-4. Now, we do have other highways, but they are toll roads – the Florida Turnpike, 408, 429, 417. So if you want to get anywhere and you don’t want to go fishing through your pocket for change, sooner or later you are going to be on I-4.
I am telling you now. Try not to. At time it’s unavoidable – hey, I-4 is my daily work commute because there’s no other way to get from where I live to where I work. But if you have other options, use them. Please. For the rest of us.
All Cici’s Aren’t Equal
I mentioned earlier that the attractions of Disney, Universal and so on aren’t Orlando. But they are a section of Orlando – the section that we refer to as ‘The Attractions Area’. This is roughly defined as the area southwest of the city, northwest of Kissimmee. This also includes the International Drive (I-Drive) area. I-Drive is a cool place…to visit. But it’s not a place to spend an inordinate amount of time at. Because you will eventually get hungry.
Not that there aren’t places to eat on I-Drive. It is loaded with them, providing any culinary sojourn you care to endeavor upon. The issue is, they’re mostly tourist rip-offs, so expect to pay $15.99 for a cheeseburger. The biggest example of this is Cici’s Pizza – that wonderful chain of all-you-can-stuff-into-your-fat-face pizza buffets. I got two Cici’s within a 10-minute drive of my apartment, one of which is less than a mile from my yoga studio. $4.99 for the buffet.
The one on I-Drive with the exact same selection? $8.99.
You Got A Walmart? We got 10 of them
One of the things that blew me away about O-Town was its proliferation of urban amenities. Whenever I move to a new area I have to identify my amenities – the closest dry cleaner, Chinese take-out restaurant, driving range. Much to my surprise and pleasure, there are about 6 of each. Within 10 minutes of my place.
We also have damn near any restaurant you have where you live, and most likely, multiple locations. Fan of deep-dish Chicago pizza? We got Unos. You a New Yawker that likes his pizza thin and foldable? Good God we got about 150 pizza joints claiming to be ‘authentic New York Style’. Cajun? Try Tibby’s in Winter Park. Vietnamese cuisine? We got a whole section of town – East Colonial – tailored to your palate. Mongolian barbecue, fried catfish huts in the middle of the ‘hood, sports bars, Hooters, Spanish cuisine, Puerto Rican cuisine, Mexican cuisine (each is different), Thai…we got it all.
You want it, we got it. Guaranteed.
Cool Free Stuff To Do
Universal City Walk, Downtown Disney, Leu Gardens, Orlando Historical Center, Wall Street, Lake Eola…to name a few. Believe it or not, you don’t have to spend scads of money to have a good time here, and in many cases, you don’t have to spend anything.
So enjoy your time in Orlando. The City Beautiful.
And stay off I-4.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

So Who Moved?

I have been a Democrat ever since I was old enough to vote. Growing up in the strong Union town that was 1970’s Akron, Ohio, there was nothing surprising about that. Akron was a Democrat town.

But it wasn’t just geography that made me a Democrat. My political beliefs have always been aligned with that party. I believe, for example, that how we treat our poor is important, that business isn’t concerned about the public good (they’re concerned about making money), and that war should always be as a last resort. There are many other positions that, if I were to illuminate, would just make me even more Democrat. I have consistently held these beliefs even as I have moved up the economic ladder, and even as I have moved into middle age. So I have been consistent for over 30 years.

What has not been consistent is how I, and on the macro level, the Democratic Party, has been viewed through the years. In the 1970’s we were the majority. In the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s we were often the minority. In the George W. Bush years of the 2000’s we started to become marginalized, especially those of us who were against the Iraq War, as anti-American. After Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, we were considered left-wing propagandists. When the Republicans won control of the House of Representatives through Tea Party support, we were radicals.

From the voice of the majority to, 30 years later, the far fringe. But the funny thing is, as I pointed out earlier, I didn’t move. So who did?

Kewpie Doll for you if you say the Republican Party.

Republicans have become the well-oiled weathervane of American politics, ever shifting to cater to wherever the prevailing winds are coming from. Now, I get that – to an extent. But what has happened to them is an outright hijack of their party by a true fringe movement. The Tea Party. A movement that came about under dubious pretenses – the election of a black president, fueled by dubious assertions – that said black president is going to ruin the country.

Well, four years later and we’re still standing. Quite better than in 2008 for that matter.

But that’s not the point I am trying to make here. The Tea Party is what they are, and by my count, that’s about twenty percent – at best – of the electorate. And twenty percent of vote in any election makes you, guess what – a loser. Every time.

So I don’t blame the Tea Party for what they are. They have their beliefs and they are entitled to them. Who I blame is the party that has pandered to them, and in the process has moved violently to the right. Want proof? Here you go –

There was once a president that had strong beliefs and a strong vision. He was very popular and served two full successful terms. But even he knew that, in order to get anything done in Washington, compromise had to happen. Legislation that served the interests of both Republicans and Democrats had to occur. This president raised taxes. This president raised defense spending. This president exploded the deficit.

This president was Ronald Reagan.

The same Ronald Reagan that today’s Republicans reverently refer to. The problem is, in today’s political climate, Reagan would not win a single primary, let alone nomination by his party. He would be branded as a Socialist conspirator who not only acknowledges the other side of the aisle, but actually works with them. Today’s Republicans do not take kindly to such traitorous actions. Current-day Republicans do not compromise. They do not budge. They have become the embodiment of far-right dogma. A large chunk of their supporters not only do not accept Obama as president, they believe he is a Muslim. Another large chunk do not even believe he was born in the United States. Folks, agree with me or not, but that is the definition of radical, fringe thinking. If you believe that the president is illegitimate, the radical is you.

As a result, we Democrats (remember us?) have been, in their eyes, moving father away.

But we aren’t the ones who have moved.

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. And in this current political climate, a vacuum has been created by the Republican’s violent move to the right. So someone has to step into and fill that vacuum. It won’t be a Republican. They’ve been hijacked and hamstrung catering to a percent of the electorate that cannot elect anything.

So I will make this prediction now, and check back in November for confirmation. Barack Obama is going to be re-elected. And it won’t be because of Acorn, voter fraud or other concocted conspiracies. He will win the same way he won in 2008. With a solid majority of sane people.

The Republicans created the vacuum, and Obama will fill it.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Ooh My Head

That’s the title of a Ritchie Valens song from the late 1950s, later stolen by Led Zeppelin to create Boogie With Stu. Look it up. Wait, I’ll do it for you –

But I’m not going to discuss music or specifically Zep’s unsavory habit of ripping off other band’s music and calling it their own.

Instead, I am talking about MY head. Last Wednesday I shot my lowest round of golf in five years. A very satisfying 71 at Casselberry Golf Club, with My Man Mike. Satisfying in the sense of shooting a low number, but also unsatisfying in that my damn head got in the way of it being a much lower score. Allow me to recap, and you will see why –

I hit a nice drive on the first hole and proceeded to make a solid par. On two, I half-skulled a gap wedge to 6 feet and made birdie. Number three was a solid two-putt par. We jumped ahead to #6 to bypass a slow foursome and I hit a sand wedge to 3 feet and made the putt for another birdie. On 7 I made a real good sand save for par. On 8, a tough par-3, I hit a 5 iron to 15 feet, two putt par. On 9 I hit a 6 iron to 5 feet and made the putt for birdie.

Enter the first chink in the mental armor – I said to Mike “Holy shit I’m three under.” Mike’s response is what he always says to me – “Don’t think about it. Keep swinging.”

On 10 I made a lucky par. Eleven is arguably the toughest hole on the course, and I made a bogey. I parred 12 and 13. Standing on the 14th tee I’m 2 under and I know it.

And that’s exactly the wrong place for your head to be – knowing what you’re shooting. The impulse is to try to protect/defend instead of, as Mike said, to keep swinging.

I pulled my drive on 14, but was okay. I tried to hit a hard 9 iron into the wind to a front pin with a bunker in front. Bad strategy. There was 40 feet of green behind that pin, but I hit the club that brought the bunker into play. Splat – into the bunker. Left with a very simple, clean uphill lie in the bunker and about a 50-foot shot, my last thought was “Don’t blade it over the green.”

Well I didn’t. I hit it 3 feet and left it in the bunker.

Now I’m pissed. Stepping up to the next shot I did exactly what I told myself not to do on the previous shot. I bladed it over the green, damn near decapitating Mike in the process. I pitched on and made a 10-footer for double bogey.

Even par.

On to 15. The toughest hole on the course – a 220-yard par 3. On the drive from 14 to 15 I am kicking myself – ‘Nice job Nimrod. You just doubled an easy hole and now you gotta play the toughest hole on the course’. I tried to jump on my 3-hybrid and hit a skank pull-hook that rattled in the huge magnolia tree and came to rest inside a drain culvert. After taking a drop, I hit on the green and two putts later, I registered back-to-back double bogeys.

Two over. When fifteen minutes earlier I was two under.

Ooh my head.

Sometimes I really hate this fucking game.

But it’s not the game! It’s how I play the game that’s the issue. I made three good pars on 16, 17 and 18, and I said to Mike, we gotta go back and play 4 & 5 because I want to post this score, and we had skipped them earlier.

So back to #4 we go, a solid 380-yard par 4 with water in front. The play is to hit the drive as far as you can to set up a short iron over that water. Knowing that, I heel a piece of crap drive about 210 yards off the tee. Now instead of a 9 iron approach I have 170 yards to a back pin into the wind with a pond in front, and I am trying like hell to get two over into the clubhouse.

It was at this point sanity re-entered the cesspool of my brain. I took out a 7-wood, my 180-yard club, and made my best swing of the day, placing the ball about 25 feet from the hole. Two putts later and I can finally breathe a sigh of relief because the fifth hole is just a 120-yard par 3 with no real hazards.

On the fifth tee I said to Mike “I need an ace to break 70.” He just laughed. Because he knows me. I hit it 12 feet from the hole and before I hit the putt I said “If I make this it’s 4 under on the front nine.” I didn’t, but a tap-in par gave me the 71.

Golf is essentially played between the ears. Yes, there is a lot of mechanics involved in executing a proper swing, but ultimately it is about using your brain to a point, then shutting it off – you have to use it to calculate yardage, wind direction, the lie, where you want to hit it and so on. Then you have to shut it off when it’s time to hit the ball. Trust what you got…and just swing.

And for Christ’s sake, do not think about what your score is.

My head hurts.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The View

No, not that estrogen-laden talk show.
I was thinking about my job and what I do for a living. It is an unglamorous position in an unglamorous profession. Specifically I am a transit planner. I determine where buses go. And here in Orlando, that consists of 230 buses on 65 routes serving 95 thousand people a day. It is intricate work, much like a large crossword puzzle where the ‘Across’ and ‘Down’ words intersect at key points, except instead of words it’s buses.
There is a lot of ‘behind the scenes’ work in making a transit system run efficiently. On the surface it seems pretty straightforward – you see a bus going down a street picking up people. You might think, looks easy. Well, when planned properly, it is. But couple the detail of writing bus schedules, making sure the Across and Downs intersect at the right places, then couple that with the road network in Orlando and the insane traffic we have here, and it is a constant struggle to get it right.
In fact, you never really do get it right. There’s just degrees of wrong.
So my job is to minimize the wrong – to get printed bus schedules to reflect real-time, daily-changing variables. For example, a bus operator once asked me, “Do your schedules take into account getting caught by a train?”
No. They don’t. If you get caught by a train then you will run late.
“What about when the Orlando Magic are playing at the Amway? Do you adjust the schedules?”
No. We don’t. If Dwight Howard is pouring in 33 points then you will run late.
So to summarize, this is not a job that most kids grow up aspiring to have. And to be fair, I like what I do, and to quote my mother, I am pretty damn good at it. The pay isn’t bad and the people I work with are, for the most part, a pretty good bunch.
But if you’re sensing a lack of passion for my profession, you would not be incorrect.
So why do I do it?
Well, for one, because this is what I chose to do, and I am now 53. A second career really isn’t in the offing, especially since retirement is (hopefully) just 12 years down the road. But there is one thing I absolutely love about my job, and for some it may seem trivial, but it is really what motivates me.
It’s my office.
I have an awesome office. It is on the top floor of the LYNX Building in downtown Orlando with ceiling-to-floor windows looking westward over Interstate 4. I can look to the southwest and see Disney in the distance. To the north I can see all the way to Seminole County. Looking south I see the skyline of downtown. I can hear the I-4 traffic humming below. It is a fairly roomy office with room for a little circular meeting table and shelves with mementos of my real passions – my son, golf, and the Cleveland Browns.
As I mentioned, some may consider this trivial. I so disagree. It really means everything. I have worked in cubicles. I have worked in a large room with twenty other people. I have had offices with four walls and no windows. I’ve had jobs with no office. My current office beats them all…by a mile. It is the best office I have ever had.
Look, work is where you spend 40 hours a week (at least) at. That’s twenty-five percent of a week. You actually spend more of your waking hours at work than elsewhere, including home. And the environment you are placed in matters. A lot. Cubicles are soul-sucking constructs of supposed efficiency. But an office with windows – 60 feet in the air? That’s damn-near nirvana, Bubba. Especially for what I do.
So, to take it back to the top – why do I do this?
Because I love my office.