Friday, June 5, 2009

They're doin' the E Street shuffle...

It's only a block and a half down E Street, from the chameleon-green beach cottage to the liqour store.

Which turns out to be closed, so it's across the main drag, past THE PALACE (vaulted, waterfalled) of beach T-shirts, to the IGA grocery store. The parking lot is packed with everyone else who missed the liquor store deadline, plus the sunburned kids just out of school for the summer, and their divorced parents, and their retired grandparents, all seemingly on the make for something. Everyone seems to be in a hurry and yet they all move so slowly, checking each other out. Friday night in a small town on a small island temporarily awash with tourists.

I just want beer, bottled water, bugspray, and a corkscrew. I only walk away with half the list, because the store's shelves have been cleared. Then it's back down E Street to the Sea and Sands Cottages court in my flipflops and torn black jeans.

There's little deja vu for me in this town: the last time I spent here was forty years ago. In a polaroid photo taken on that trip, I'm eleven years old in a yellow cowboy shirt and wraparound sunglasses (both probably from the 1960's version of THE PALACE), eleven miles out to sea near the oil rigs, standing on the rear deck of a fishing boat, holding aloft a silver king mackeral I'd just caught which is half as big as me. Both the fish and I are grinning; all teeth.

The photo doesn't show the rest of my family: my sister, mother, and father. I seem to remember they were below deck, sea sick. But probably my dad was just getting a beer, or took the picture, or both.

Now I'm here with my twins -- son and daughter each about the length of that kingfish, and each grinning at the prospect of the Beach -- and my wife. It's our first family vacation together since we discovered Gail's illness and began the grueling treatment process. She's on a mission, I think, to take our kids to the Jersey shore of her youth, and this is the nearest comparable option. Without missing daily radiation. Or going below deck, sick of the journey and the prospect of the return trip.

The barefoot manager asks me if we plan on doing any fishing while we're here.

I tell him no. We've caught our limit.

And we're happy with our catch, despite everything. Our children shine in the sun, laughing and bouncing like the dolphins we hope to see tomorrow. And we're alive to see them. We have no real plans for this trip other than that.

More later.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Madmen, drummers, bummers...


In an episode of Mad Men, the finale of the first season I think, it is defined, in Greek, as "the wound that won't heal".

And I'm one of those kids that picks at their scabs.

The picking has occurred in several areas of late. For one, I have been studying the television series Mad Men (as opposed to Mad Magazine, another vintage period marker), on assignment from my friends who are opening a bowling alley in an abandoned thrift store. I am to design and build the sign for this project, and hopefully the sign artwork will become the logo as well. The building itself is from 1958, but my friends are addicted to Man Men so they have set the 'backdate' of the project forward to the early 60's --the time frame of the series. We hope to create a setting that looks like we "discovered" the bowling alley intact, buried beneath the thrift store's rubble like a lost Palace. A Palace, I should add, that also featured a diner and bar, a stage and dance floor, multiple projection screens, and (so very un-60's) karaoke rooms.

Mad Men was supposed to infuse my vision, in order to create a period piece. It has done so, but it has also sent me reeling into memories of that time, because 51 years ago yesterday I was born into that time, and that world, of cigarettes and cocktails and saturation and repression. Like the empty thrift store, I was born in 1958, but my memory only recognizes the years afterward. Every night after the twins finally fall asleep, my wife and I slip another disc into the time machine and revisit our distant youth. It is like watching highly stylized home movies, albeit with better actors standing in for our flawed parents and grandparents.

So those are my nights of nostalgia. During the days, after I drop the twins off at preschool, I have been going to work on the existing old neon sign at Nau's Enfield Drug, which has been in business at their Clarksville location in Austin since 1951. I have been repairing the neon there, when needed, since 1996, but now we are actually restoring the sign to its original glory, with new paint in old colors, and new neon tubing. In effect I am also 'colorizing' the sign, because a hailstorm last year stripped the sign of its neon, leaving only the early-1970's paint scheme of brown and tan with faded white lettering. The same storm also chipped away at these earth tones and revealed a few small areas of the old 1950's paint underneath. Which gave us a window onto a past which we could previously no longer see or remember, shining through the mud imposed since. So the new/restored paint will be in the bright blue, leaf green, and pale orange colors of the fountain service inside the drug store, matching those tiny shards revealed on the sign, with original neon colors to match.

This process also sends me hurtling into nostalgia, not just because it is a vintage sign project -- I do quite a few of those each year -- but because I grew up in an adjacent neighbourhood, just a few blocks away from this pharmacy, in the 1950's and 60's, and then my grandmother moved into a nearby apartment in the 1970's and lived there until her death in the mid-80's.

This little corner drug store is therefore home for me, complete with the sensory overload that a visit to home produces: the taste of the vanilla malt, the smell of the old tiny bathrooms, the look of faded displays for forgotten products, the feel of using a rotary phone to make calls (because the twins knocked my cell phone into the toilet one morning), and the sound of ... conversations. I have more conversations with passersby at this pharmacy than at all my other job sites put together. People from my childhood, people from my recent history, people I don't even know. Nobody can resist talking to the man on the ladder, with his ancient truck full of light and a paintbrush stuck into his graying hair. Another mad man at work.

And then the final quick-pick in this nostalgia trifecta was yesterday, and it was an unexpected birthday gift from the cosmos. I was playing guitar with our band, comprised of a group of signmakers. We play after hours, just for fun, upstairs from a sign shop, at the end of the work week. Drums, bass, keyboards, guitar. Playing with a band again is a throwback to my teenage years in the aforementioned neighbourhood. Except that now I have no illusions that I am good at it or will ever be a rock star.

We had been playing for about an hour. The bass player told me to turn up my volume, so I did. The drummer said it was too loud, so I backed off. I try to pay attention to what the drummer says, because he has the best vantage point on our overall sound, and I try to lock into his rhythm and vantage point, and because my son Creed has announced that he is to be a drummer and I am trying to anticipate that relationship between us.

So I squatted in front of the amp to adjust the controls more carefully, and I suddenly felt and heard the beginning of feedback squall coming out of the grill. I was crouched in the jaws of the speaker, where an amp and a guitar begin to have a heated conversation that, initially, does not include the player. Prior to Jimi Hendrix, most players avoided this phenomenon when possible and squelched it when it occurred. Because it sounds like your amp is about to explode. After Hendrix, players avoided it for this same reason, and also to avoid being compared to Hendrix. I have never attempted to control and dance with feedback the way he did. Like an aural acid trip.

But this time, for some reason, I did. As I stood up to get the guitar away from the speaker, and felt the roar diminish, I stopped in mid-crouch and began to try to explore the edge of the distortion field, moving in the periphery of the speaker to adjust the effect. I began to play to it, with it, and heard my playing rise above the rolling noise. And I stayed with it, imagining that this is what it felt like for my middle-aged friends who have taken up surfing in recent years, the first time they caught a wave successfully, and felt the ocean carry them away.

The rest of the band fell in with me, and for the next five or ten minutes we all rode the swell of distortion and howl and whammy bar shimmers and harmonic dissonance. This was why I wanted to play electric guitar in the first place, all those years ago. Not to sound like Jimi, but just to feel that Wow! factor of creating something Big, even if it's an accidental discovery.

Then I unplugged, and went to pick up the kids at school.

Watch this space. It is literally, and figuratively, a work in progress. An attempt to fiddle with the controls and find the Wow and ride. To see what bright shards are revealed in the storm of (cognitive) dissonance.

It all starts here. And goes I know not where. I've threatened this for years: come along if you dare. I'll write about the things I see, or found along the way. Metaphors and ironies, from the past and today.

My wife says it is a prosaic mosaic.

More later.