Monthly Archives: September 2009

Pearl Jam “Backspacer”

Pearl Jam
Monkeywrench Records

Rating: 5.5

The cover to Pearl Jam’s latest album “Backspacer” is reminiscent of their 1996 release “No Code” with its collage of random images.  The big difference of course is that “No Code” featured blurry photographs while the new release displays well defined comic style drawings. The same comparison can be made about the music on the two albums.  The band that once blurred the lines of style and genre have transformed into a distinct, predictable caricature of their former selves. 

On “Vitalogy” and “No Code”, Eddie Vedder became the godhead of the group, writing the majority of the songs and taking their sound into more experimental territories.  After “No Code”, the band almost had a falling out, and Eddie realized he needed to pull back and let the whole group take part in the creative process. Their collaborative approach, beautifully captured on the documentary “Single Video Theory”, resulted in one of their finest albums to date, “Yield”.   From that point forward, the songwriting continued to be equal opportunity. Unfortunately, the process that once worked so well didn’t yield the same results on mediocre releases like “Riot Act” and “Binaural”.

That’s where we sit today with “Backspacer”, a collection of milk-toast songs with little, to no attempt to push the boundaries of their sound.  Instead we get arena rock anthems with paint by numbers guitar hooks that sound contrived and forced.  But maybe that’s the type of music they need at this juncture in their career where filling arenas takes precedence over filling their albums with sincerity and soul.  The majority of the songs on “Backspacer” would fit nicely on a concert playlist, while you’ll never hear a concert performance of such arty classics as “Bugs” and “Push Me, Pull Me”.  (I could be wrong on this point, although I doubt anyone wants to take the time to scour the collection of over 200 concert albums to prove it). 

 There are a few highlights on “Backspacer”, and they just so happen to be the songs solely written by Eddie himself.  “Unthought Known” is the pick of the litter while “Just Breathe” and “The End” sound like they were written alongside his work for the “Into the Wild” soundtrack. But even these diamonds in the rough seem a bit too produced. What made his solo work so great on “Into the Wild” was the barebones approach, no string section necessary, which are relied upon heavily in both songs.  Still, any overproduced Vedder song trumps a Jeff Ament song any day.  

 Eddie should be commended for sacrificing the self for the whole, the five against one approach, but writing music for “Into the Wild” may have been a bit of a blunder because it illuminated how much the band is holding Vedder back.


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Mark Olson & Gary Louris “Ready For the Flood”

Mark Olson & Gary Louris

“Ready For the Flood”
New West Records

Rating: 7.0
This year at SXSW I had the pleasure of seeing Mark Olson and Gary Louris play together, marking the reunion of the two prominent voices that made up the early nineties alt-country act The Jayhawks. That evening at the Driskill, their voices still shared the same fluid harmony that gives you the full body chills, but something had definitely changed since their last album together, “Tomorrow Green Grass”.  13 years later, their voices now shared a worn exhaustion, gritty yet sopped in wise serenity. While their work with the Jayhawks seemed to be filled with a bright eyed hope, the duo’s sound has now taken on an old man winter approach.

The photographs on their new album “Ready for the Flood” share the same sentiment. While their classic Jayhawks album “Hollywood Town Hall” is adorned with snowy photos of them bundled up in front of a church, an image seeping with Midwestern zeal,   “Ready for the Flood” shows the band relaxing in what resembles a retirement bungalow somewhere in Arizona.  Like a couple of aging snow birds, the two have escaped the uniform, cold world of their youth and moved to warmer surroundings. 

Even the lyrics reflect this same haggard message.  In “The Trap’s Been Set” the two voices warble “I’m an old an angry man … when I was young I felt the sun within”. The majority of the songs on their latest are just as catchy and hummable as their past work (“Bicycle” and “Chamberlain, SD” are definite highlights), although the album does have its weak moments, a claim that couldn’t be made during their highest moments in the mid-90s. 

For “Ready for the Flood” Chris Robinson (of the Black Crows) stepped in to produce, although the work he did isn’t very evident. It’s not that the production value is bad, it’s just unobtrusive, which I suppose is a good thing in some respects. But part of me wanted the album to resemble the sparse atmosphere that Rick Rubin created on Johnny Cash’s American Recordings. Yes, I know Rubin and Robinson hate each other, but my pitting of the two rivals is completely unintentional.

 I wanted this album to seep with age, to hear the same two voices I heard at SXSW, gravelly and earnest.  The sounds are still sweet splendor; I just wanted it to spill out my speakers like a finely aged wine.

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Road Trip 2009: Weddings Woes

“Everyone has to believe in something. I believe I’ll go canoeing.”
Henry David Thoreau

The sexual display continued for another 30 minutes with the mammoth mama continuing to do all the work. Alex and I talked, occasionally checking in on the show. Each time we looked, she’d be in a different position, some of which I’ve never even seen in porn. Despite her persistence, she couldn’t get her drunken/stoned sloth of a boyfriend off.


It just kind of hangs there.

It just kind of hanged there.

Poor gal. Alex and I cracked open a couple bottles of Big Sky’s signature “Bobo’s Robust Porter” and waited out the storm, discussing the breweries planned for my summer road trip including Big Sky in Missoula. He talked about how his friend Josh was now brewing his own beer and even growing his own hops. I told him I’d like to brew myself, and began rambling through my list of NBA themed beers I’d like to create someday: Terry’s Porter, Mchale’s Pale Ale, Pistol Pete Wheat, Shaquille Oatmeal Stout, Bill’s Lambic Beer, Bird’s Trippel, Dee’s Brown, and of course, Charles Barley Wine. I know my dream beer team would be a copyright nightmare, but I find some weird joy out of coming up with new names.

Anything else would be uncivilized.

"Anything else would be uncivilized."

Our talk of home brewing reminded me of my good old friend Sewer who started brewing his own beers a few months prior and was already addicted. He told me he’d save a few of his concoctions for me to try this summer. I told him I may be able to stop through Havasu on my drive back down to Texas, but at the moment I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to do it. I wanted to see him since it had been two years, but regretted telling him I’d make it. I had let him down before, and knew I may be repeating history once again.

After staying down below for almost two hours, the rain stopped, and the waves died down. When we emerged to the gloomy surroundings, we noticed that the party boat and its occupants had vanished. Were we imagining things? Had the sea sickness made us have a horrific hallucination?

We sat back and breathed in the fresh Iowa air, gathering ourselves after the seasick debacle in our little fallout shelter. With it being so late we opted to stay put. No sailing for us. Plus, with the time already being seven, we’d only nibbled on some cheese popcorn while trapped below. My brother fired up the grill, and I sliced up some smoked gouda cheese to make our burgers extra special. We spent the rest of the night sharing stories, sipping tasty brews, eating juicy burgers, and I even pulled out the guitar to share a few of my new songs. When we finally went to bed, we slept like babies, lost in our porter infused dream land.

In the morning we had to be off the water early because Alex was scheduled to meet with a couple other distinguished freelance designers interested in possibly starting their own design firm. Although a bit skeptical, he decided to go and listen to what they had to say. Once off the lake and the boat was all sealed up and put away, he was already running late. Back at the house, he said a quick goodbye and headed off. I unpacked the cooler, and then left for the homeland, Estherville.

Back on the road, I seamlessly moved from suburbia into the rolling fields of green and gold that I love so much. In the spirit of Iowa admiration, I listened to Arthur Russell’s album “Love is Overtaking Me”, an ode to the Hawkeye State. The opening song “Close My Eyes” had a smile growing on my face, looking out on the rolling rows of soy beans; Arthur’s lyrics have never rung so true:

I close my eyes and listen
To hear the corn come out
Don’t you hear the stars they glisten
As we go in and out
Down where the trees grow together
And the western path comes to an end
See the sign it says clear weather
I’ll meet you tonight, my friend
Will the corn be growing a little tonight
As I wait in the fields for you
Who knows what grows in the morning light
When we can feel the watery dew

Back in Estherville, I was greeted by a table of mom’s home cooking and a new addition to the family – Stanley, a little black and tan dachshund with a motor that doesn’t stop and a penis that never quits peeing on the carpet. I would spend the next week trying to corral the puppy and endlessly drying thimble sized pee spots. Despite being annoyed by his antics, I grew to love the little guy in a few short days.

When not babysitting, I spent most of my time recording new songs in my basement studio, planning for my road trip, or walking through the woods in my parents backyard in hopes of getting some semblance of exercise before climbing mountains for a month. Paul and I talked daily, but still couldn’t plot out a plan. He had a lot on his mind that went beyond our trip. At the end of his first year of teaching at a small school in Idaho, he was informed that his contract would not be renewed. When he asked why, they pulled out a laundry list of issues including: calling a student a vagina and letting students play poker. I told him we could skip the trip this year to allow him time to find a job, but he said,”Nothing will stand in the way of our trip, Oceanman.” That’s what he kept calling me on the phone – Oceanman. I had no idea why, and couldn’t fathom taking a vacation when you were in need of a job, especially in this economy. But, I wasn’t going to argue; I needed someone to go with me on the trip, even if it meant at the expense of their career.

Okay class, time to turn in your hands.

"Okay class, time to turn in your hands."

That weekend I attended a wedding reception for my friend David’s little brother Jesse. While Jesse and Brooke got married in Vegas, they set up a reception in Estherville so others could celebrate. Along with David and my old friends Tony, Eric, and their respective wives, we arrived at the reception hall fashionably late. Our tardiness stemmed from our stop at the liquor store to fill the wives’ purses with rations.

Once there, we made the rounds, saying hi to both side’s of Jesse’s family, the Nitchals and Claytons. After about an hour we became bored, and what do you do when a wedding is tanking? Get tanked. Tony unleashed his Sailor Jerry and soon things picked up, or to be more specific, things picked up at our table. By the end of the night, a quick list of our antics included: sneaking into the basement of the dance hall where we got lost in the dark, creating a game that involved throwing crumpled beer label’s down Jenny’s shirt, and borrowing David’s Blackberry to take pictures of our pubes in the restroom.

Honey, why are there all these pictures of Gene Shalit on my phone?

"Honey, why are there all these pictures of Gene Shalit on my phone?"

The worst/best moment had to be when Tony grabbed the DJ’s mike and alienated half the family members in the crowd yelling, “Claytons suck! Nitchals rule!” It goes without saying that we were not liked by many of the people that evening. A group of Esthervillains who relocated to Phoenix (Ian, Lorrie, Whitacre, and his girlfriend Stephanie) made the trek up to pay homage to Jesse’s wedding and fortunately, they didn’t mind our borderline retardation. They were headed across the street to the townie bar Mac’s Top Hat, so we decided to join them for more unnecessary drinks.

My memory from that point is hazy. We had more beer, talked to some people, and somehow walked back to Tony’s house. At some point I got in an argument with Rhiannon on the phone (not sure about what) and passed out on the living room couch.

When I awoke, I was shirtless and wearing a pair of Tony’s gym shorts…weird. Instead of searching, I laid back down and returned to my sleep. I woke again to Tony coming downstairs. I stopped him and asked, “Hey, do you know where my clothes are?”

“You went downstairs for a while…why are you wearing my shorts?” I shook my pounding head in confusion. He headed downstairs and returned a bit later with all my belongings, which he found strewn throughout the basement.

“What happened last night?” I asked.

“You’re asking the wrong guy,” he chuckled.

I wouldn’t find out what happened that night until a month later after my road trip. The following events are based off of evidence found by Tony’s wife Ursella. According to her first hand account, two days after our drunken night, she went downstairs to do laundry. She had left a pile of dirty clothes on the concrete floor to be cleaned at a later date. This was to be the day.

As She picked up handfuls of clothes and tossed them into the washing machine, she discovered that the majority of the clothing felt damp. At first, she thought it must be from the washing machine leaking or something, but then the smell hit her. Urine. Rank, two day old urine. All over her clothes, Tony’s clothes, and yes, her daughters’ clothes. Based off the evidence, one can gather that at some point in the night I drunkenly staggered downstairs to use the basement bathroom (why I didn’t use the main floor restroom is beyond me).

This is a case for Pee-SI.

This is a case for Pee-SI.

Amidst the darkness and drunkenness, I entered the laundry room and relieved myself upon a pile of clothes. Why I removed my clothes and put on Tony’s shorts, this remains unexplained. Did I get pee on my own clothes or did I remove them on my way to the laundry room for easier access? We may never know.

Perhaps you will be able to help us solve this piss-tery.

"Perhaps you will be able to help us solve this piss-tery."

One thing I did remember the next day was discussing a canoe trip with Whitacre at the bar. Him and his Phoenix gang, along with some other Eville folks, were planning a trip down the Des Moines River for Monday afternoon. Knowing I’d only be home a few more days and that David and Tony were working all week, this would probably be my only opportunity to revisit the murky waters of the Des Moines. I naturally invited myself, and Whit welcomed me to join.

Two days later, refreshed and rejuvenated, I headed over to Jesse’s house with a 30 pack of Michelob Golden Light to meet the rest of the canoe crew. There would be 10 of us in all and only four boats. This would mean two boats of three, which can be a bit tricky. I knew I could back out as a kind gesture considering I invited myself, but I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to ride the river’s waves.

Out in the country, we loaded up the canoes with coolers and figured out who would ride where. I ended up being in the same boat as the newlyweds, Jesse and Brooke. She’d never canoed before so we had her sit in the middle on the cooler while we did the paddling, with me in back. She seemed a little apprehensive, so we reassured her that we knew what we were doing. Of course, only about 10 minutes later we hit a log hidden beneath the pesticide infested water, and we went in for a dip. We gathered our coolers and supplies easily, being in shallow water, and returned on our journey.

About an hour later we stopped along the banks next to what is known in those parts as the Moogley tree, a tall oak that reaches out over the water with a thick limb. Over the years many a drunken canoer has jumped off the tree’s mighty arm into the deep waters below, but on this day we were uncertain whether it was deep enough below. “Somebody swim out there to check if it’s deep enough this year,” Ian asked. I of course offered, believing my swimming skills could come in handy. Walking into the water, the power of the under tow pushed against my calves, and I quickly realized that the pull of the water may be too powerful to risk taking the already precarious jump. No one else wanted to attempt swimming out to the swirl of water, so we opted to drink on the banks for a while.

We continued on our way, enjoying the scenery. I’ve tube down a few Texas rivers in my time down south, but nothing compares to the riverside scenery in Iowa: cows chewing grass, barbed wire fences guiding your way, and pastures of yellow wheat greeting you in the wind.

Another hour in we crashed again, this time due to us driving straight into a tangle of trees that caught a hold of us and flipped us over. Brooke no longer found the idea of taking a swim funny, and seemed annoyed at Jesse and my steering ability. I’ll admit, it is definitely a skill to row and drink beer simultaneously.

One, Two, Three, DRINK!

"One, Two, Three, DRINK!"

It didn’t get much better for us around the bend, once again being pushed toward the shoreline of hanging trees. Jesse reached out toward the approaching limb and was able to soften our blow as I steadied the boat with my oar. Then, just as we were gaining control, I saw Brooke lean back toward the direction we were trying to avoid. “SPLASH!”

This time our crash wasn’t as simple due to the strong current, sending Brooke and our coolers up the river. She grabbed onto a root sticking out of the water and held on while Jesse and I used our past swim team skills to gather gear and beer. The rest of the canoes stopped on the sandy shores ahead to wait for us. I didn’t care about falling in; it’s part of the whole canoeing experience. But our new sailor didn’t seem as entertained, stomping up the shore to catch up with us.

Once she arrived, I thought I’d give the newbie some sailing tips. “Hey, I think we flipped that time because you leaned back. You want to keep steady when we get into the trees like that.” She seemed taken aback, but nodded and said okay. Oops. I could tell she didn’t appreciate my tutelage. I hurried to join the others, and cracked open a beer. While we talked about fantasy football, I noticed Jesse and Brooke by the shore arguing. Mid-conversation with Ian, I half-listened/ease-dropped on the fight in progress.

“Do you think it was my fault?”

“Well, if you leaned into it, yes.”

“Oh, so you agree that it’s my fault?”

“Look, we’ve been canoeing for a while. Don’t take it personal, he was just trying to help you out.”

Uh oh. I tiptoed to Jesse’s side in hopes of smoothing things over. “Sorry Brooke, I didn’t mean to say it was your fault. It could have been any of our faults. We were the ones that led the canoe into that mess.”

She cut me off. “NO. It’s MY fault” then walked away.

Jesse looked at me and shook his head. “Forget it. She’s being a baby.” We joined the rest of the group once again, while she sat by the canoe with a scowl. I felt bad now for pointing out her mistake and suggested we get back on the water.

Pushing off shore, the argument reconvened, with the two newlyweds trading barbs. I looked to the other canoes, filled with happy drunks, and here I sat like a kid watching his separated parents arguing. I looked to the neighboring canoe and yelled, “Hey Stephanie, do you want to switch boats?”

She looked to the two quarreling lovers and smiled. “No thanks.” As the hostility grew, I knew I had to escape the madness. Being stuck on a canoe with two people fighting isn’t nearly as fun as it sounds. Having canoed the river many times before, I knew the 4th street bridge, our stopping point, didn’t stand too far ahead. I began rowing, pulling the water beneath us with all my strength, feeling the muscles in my shoulders pop. The shouting voices of “Well you never…” and “You always do that!” fueled my engine, as I rowed to the mantra in my head, “Must escape. Must escape. MUST ESCAPE!”

Even I was impressed by the speed I’d built with the three of us in the canoe. While they used up all their energy tearing each other down, I focused my energy on the 4th street bridge in the distance, a light at the end of the spousal spat tunnel.

When we finally reached the loading ramp, I jumped into the shallow water and walked quickly up to shore where I could escape the sounds of discontent. Sitting on a rock, I rediscovered my solitude and relished in it, awaiting the rest of the canoe crew to arrive. Then, suddenly, Brooke came running up the ramp and ran past me across the gravel parking lot toward the entrance. Jesse walked up behind her and stood next to me watching his barefoot, bikini wearing wife running away.

“Where’s she going?” I asked.

“Who knows,” he said, turning back toward the shore, where the rest of the canoes were now arriving. I stood there for a moment, watching Brooke awkwardly run up the gravel road. I was amazed at what I witnessed that afternoon: two newlyweds, two days later, fighting. 

At that moment I began to wonder, what’s the point of marriage? Yes, it’s a lifelong promise, but people change. I’m a completely different person than I was ten years ago.  How can you make that commitment, that guarantee that you will love each other endlessly when you are most certainly going to change over time?  If they were fighting after two days, what would their canoe trips be like in 20 years? Standing there watching Brooke’s silhouette disappear over the hill, the thought of marriage made me shudder.

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Sepultura “A-Lex”

Sepultura “A-Lex”

Rating: 4

The concept album is usually the result of a band or artist being inspired to explore a topic or notion through music.  Usually.   In the case of Sepultura, I’m beginning to think they had an ulterior motive on their latest album “A-Lex”, inspired by the classic Stanley Kubrick movie “Clockwork Orange”.  For a band that now only contains one original member, the bassist at that, releasing an album based on a cult classic film is a desperate attempt at getting your fading name back out there.  Heck, it worked on me. I haven’t heard Sepultura since high school when my friend Sewer would blast the carnage in his beat up Cavalier, but now, 10 years later, I’m listening to their latest incarnation simply because it’s “inspired” by one of my all-time favorite films.

On the surface, a metal band doing a concept album about “Clockwork Orange” sounds logical: both are filled with pent up rage and are unapologetic about the horrorshow they cause. But there in lies the problem – there is much more going on in “Clockwork” than just senseless violence, and this is where Sepultura miss the mark.  While “A-Lex” is track after track of angry thrash metal, much of the actual movie is insight into the psyche of this deranged teenager.  

Yes, “Clockwork” has its moments of barbarism, but even during these scenes Kubrick counteracts the ultra-violence with the beauty of the classical music that Alex admires. In fact, metal is probably the worst music to convey his demented resentment.  Kubrick understood how the classical music clashed with the violence, yet it also worked beautifully somehow.

Sepultura is just not versatile enough to pull it off.  Songs like “We’ve Lost You” start with a sense that the band might be able to capture the helplessness of the parents with the soft plinking of acoustic strings, but 40 seconds in they return to their growling dirge, screaming incessantly “WE’VE LOST YOU!” the parents don’t seem so much as angry in the film as they are frustrated  about their inability to parent.

“Ludwig Van” is one of the few moments where Sepultura actually attempt to pay tribute to the film, creating their own version of “Beethoven’s 9th”.  Unfortunately, the addition of an orchestra cheapens their sound even more.  Who would have thought that Sepultura plus an orchestra would sound like Mannheim Steamroller?  

In reality, not even a band like Radiohead could pull off a “Clockwork” inspired album.  The music in the film is vital enough; the soundtrack is a character its self. The creepy synth of the film creates a sparse atmosphere, a disconnect from the morality of the majority.  It’s one thing to write an album about a piece of literature like Sepultura did with their last pop-disk “Dante XXI” (based on The Divine Comedy), but sinny’s already have their own soundtrack.  Leave them alone, especially anything associated with that fine old droog Kubrick.  

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“Life and Times” Bob Mould

Bob Mould
“Life and Times”
Anti Records


My biggest complaint with Hüsker Dü has always been the quality of their recordings.  If “New Day Rising” were to come out today it would probably be embraced by the lo-fi scene, but I’m pretty sure the gritty sound was completely unintentional back in the 80s punk scene.  I’m still waiting for the day Bob Mould, Grant Hart, and Greg Norton decide to re-master their classics like their Minneapolis brother’s The Replacements did last year, but for now it seems Hart and Mould are keeping busy with their solo careers.

Mould’s latest solo offering, “Life and Times”, is nothing like the work of his former band. Oh sure, the songs still contain Mould’s signature brooding lyrics and catchy hooks, but the quality is far from the northern lo-fi sound of Hüsker Dü. Unfortunately, Mould tipped the scales a tad too far in the opposite direction.  For the majority of the album, Mould relys upon an auto-pitch, ensuring that he’s hitting the right notes (think Britney Spears). The casio-like vocal-tone surfaces again and again on high notes within the music, cheapening solid song after solid song.  Mould still has the knack for writing intelligent pop songs, but I’m beginning to wonder if maybe his voice can no longer meet the demands of his songwriting craft.

Only on a few tunes does he forgo the T.I. like voice, and his rasp returns, sounding weak and weary.  While the photos on the packaging show Mould looking strong and powerful like “Iron Man” villain Obadiah Stane, it’s obvious within the music that Mould and his voice have seen better days. Which makes me wonder: what has happened to the poor old fella since his 1998 release “The Last Dog and Pony Show”, a masterful combination of folk and punk, combining the harshness of Husker Du with the syrupy sweeet melodies of Sugar.    From there Mould moved away from the familiarity, releasing two electronica albums which were panned by critics. Many are calling “Life and Times” Mould’s return to his roots, but I don’t remember Mould’s roots ever sounding so produced.

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Road Trip 2009: Goofy Foot and the Manatees

O CAPTAIN! My Captain!
Our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack,
The prize we sought is won.
“O Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman

 No worries. I made it back across the lake.  Fortunately, I had the waves helping me, pushing me along like a rotted tree limb all the way to shore.  Back at the campground Rhiannon and her family were not too pleased by my lake swimming exploits.  While most of the family saw my unannounced swim as idiotic, her brothers referred to me as a Navy Seal the remainder of the weekend, which did well for the ego of a man who days prior felt like he stood on the brink of deterioration.

If Charlie Sheen can pull off the Navy Seal look, I surely can.

If Charlie Sheen can pull off the "Navy Seal" look, I surely can.

I enjoyed the weekend with her family, even partaking in a late night guitar jam session with her grandpa Delbert, a maestro in the school of classic country music. While he strummed through his repertoire, I played around with a few guitar licks of my own (thanks to my knowledge of the basic blues scale).  It’s pretty ridiculous how closely early rock n’ roll and classic country follow the blues tradition.  It’s humorous in a sick way to think of how unapologetically the white man stole the blues from the likes of Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, and Willie Dixon.   

Hey whitey, you dont know Diddley.

"Hey whitey, you don't know Diddley."

On Monday, Rhi and I headed to Kansas City where we would part ways for the summer.  Unlike me, her preschool teaching job is year-round.  I knew I was asking a lot of her – it’s one thing to be away from your significant other for a week or two, but six weeks was asking a little much.  She of course didn’t like the prospect of being apart that long, but I reminded her that she knew from our first date about my road trip, and she also knew how much last year’s trip changed my life.

At the airport, the scene played out like a chick-flick, with us saying our goodbyes, kisses and all, and heading off on our own. Watching her walk away through the gate, I realized how difficult it would be to not see her for a month and a half.  At that point we’d only been dating for nine months and had already been through many ups-and-downs.  Back on the road, I thought about how the summer apart could make or break us.  Would we grow apart or would it make us stronger?

From Kansas City I headed north to Des Moines to stay a few nights with my brother Alex.  He lost his job at a graphic design firm only a few weeks prior, and I knew he’d probably need something to take his mind off the situation. We planned a mid-week sailing excursion, because as I told him, “If you have time off, you might as well enjoy it.”  When I arrived we took a quick trip to the grocery store to get food and supplies (and beer) and then returned to cook up supper. 

We sat on the deck for a while sipping a couple Boulevard IPAs and discussing the shitty economy.  He explained to me how his firing was a no-brainer for the company.  Not that my brother’s not good: believe me, he’s damn good at what he does.


One good thing about having an unemployed graphic artist for a brother: they have time to create kick ass album artwork.

One good thing about having an unemployed graphic artist for a brother: they have time to create kick ass album artwork.

They originally hired Alex as a Creative Director, meaning he’d be the overseer of other designers. But then only a few short months in, the company reconfigured departments and realized they now had one too many Creative Directors.  This meant he was back to being a designer but by contract was still making the money of a Creative Director. So when the economy came tumbling down and the company needed to cut corners, the designer being paid to be a creative director was an easy call, along with about a dozen other designers and copy writers. In the meantime, my brother had to sit back and watch other designers skate free, some of which who only weeks earlier were involved in a designer’s nightmare, getting caught plagiarizing a recent ad campaign by Lays potato chips.  Alex actually caught the similarity, and how was he rewarded for attempting to save the company from making a major design faux pas? A pink slip; mother fuckers.

What is it you DO here other than save our company from complete and utter embarassment?

"What is it you DO here other than save our company from complete and utter embarassment?"

I shared with him the changes at my job also. Somehow, during the early weeks of June, I got tricked into taking a promotion as the English Coordinator at my school.  This would entail me being in charge of 10 other English teachers, ensuring they have supplies, are teaching the curriculum, and handling all their district benchmarks. Being an unorganized buffoon with no leadership qualities (unless it’s 14 year olds) I didn’t want the job. But somehow, I left San Antonio with the new promotion that would have me stressed out the upcoming year. 

My brother understood my fears, stating that he didn’t like being in charge of others the few months he was creative director.  While Alex prefers to stay in his office, performing his designing genius on his own, I prefer staying in my little classroom and inspiring minds without worrying about others on campus.  We were both shocked at how alike we are, preferring to do our job well without being bothered. After our heart to heart, we headed in for bed. Before calling it a night we checked the weather and were greeted by a nerdy weather man telling us we’d have clear skies for our day of sailing.  

The next afternoon we packed up our cooler and headed to Saylor Lake.  At the marina we had to wait around in the humid heat for the incompetent marina workers to lower his sailboat into the water (for some reason they won’t let you do it yourself, yet they allow some two toothed yahoos handle all of Des Moine’s expensive boats).  After an hour the boat finally arrived, and we were both in dire need of cooling off.  With barely any wind at that point, Alex put his little 10 horse power motor down and we putted out to the middle of the lake.  We finally settled on a spot, pulled down the sails, and dove into the murky green water. Breast stroking through the refreshing water, I remembered how only days prior I swam across a lake.  Although it made me proud, my joints began to ache within seconds.  The two of us floated around for a few minutes when I noticed dark clouds to the north.

“It looks nasty over there,” I commented.

“Yeah, I think we’ll miss it though. It’s heading east to west.” He seemed certain, so I didn’t worry, swimming back to the boat. Back on board, the wind began to pick up.  We started preparing for our sailing endeavor.  Pulling up the jib sailing, I looked back toward the grey clouds and navy sky, and reiterated my concern to Alex. It looked to be getting closer.

“We might get hit by the edge of it. I’ll drive us over to the South bay. Hopefully we’ll miss it.”  As we slowly putzed along to the tune of 10 mph, I noticed ripples in the distance upon the water, slowly rolling towards us. I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing – I could actually see the storm creeping up on us inch by inch, ripple by ripple.  “It’s coming our way,” I yelled over the grumble of the little engine that could. Alex looked back, then back to me with eyes the size of saucers.

“Crap. We’re screwed.” He hadn’t counted on the wind changing directions, and now it pursued us crawling along like a gimpy dog running from the dog catcher. Within minutes the ripples were catching us.  I braced myself as it swallowed the last few feet between us and instantly the boat was sent into a frenzy, tipping us back and forth like we were pawns in a game of “Smurfs Ahoy”. 

I never understood why they made a game about Smurfs sailing, but it ruled regardless.

I never understood why they made a game about Smurfs sailing, but it ruled regardless.

The misty rain soon overtook us, and the waves began to white cap, pushing us to and fro.  The waves picked us up every few seconds, and the little engine would be completely out of the water, buzzing in pain.  “This engine isn’t doing us any good,” Alex yelled to me as he bent down to turn it off. “We’ll just have to guide our way to that bay using the rudder. I’m going to go up to the front to put the jib sail away.  Take the rudder and keep us steady.”

He balanced his way up the deck to the front and I grabbed the rudder, attempting to keep us from any sudden movements that would send my brother overboard. When he reached the jib, he began stuffing it down the hatch below.  Just as I began getting the hang of the whole rudder thing, the wind decided to switch directions and within a second the entire boat laid perpendicular with the water, on the brink of being capsized. I was almost upside down, looking into the water in front of me. It was like riding a Viking Ship at an Amusement park, but not quite as fun. 

At least we didnt have to worry about a little kid puking on us.

At least we didn't have to worry about a little kid puking on us.

My eyes moved from the water below, to my brother, hanging on for his life up front.  “THE OTHER WAY!” he screamed, motioning with his thumb to the right. I pushed against the rudder, feeling the weight of the boat fight back.  As I strained Alex continued screaming, “THE OTHER WAY!” He again motioned the same way. I was confused. I was pulling the direction he motioned but did he mean to pull the other way? I never could get a hang of the whole goofy foot style on“Skate Or Die”. 

I started pushing back the way I had been in the first place and it sent Alex into a rage, standing up and attempting to run up the deck screaming, “NO!”  I knew by the look in his eyes that I had done something terribly wrong. As he neared me, the ship sent him flailing to the deck face first. I quickly pushed back on the rudder again, somehow leveling us as Alex stared at me in shock.  He gathered himself and lowered down next to me, ripping the rudder from my incompetent hands.  I tried to explain the whole confusion with the thumb directions, but he didn’t seem in the mood. I don’t blame him, I had almost capsized his boat.  “Go down below and pull down the rest of the jib and lock the hatch.”

I ran down to the living quarters and hurried to the hatch the best I could, balancing the entire way.  I locked it up, feeling ashamed for being such a worthless Skipper.  When I returned to the deck the weather had gotten worse. The waves shoved us violently, the rain picked up to a down pour, and Alex struggled to keep us level with the water. “Stay down below,” he shouted over the thunder. “There’s no reason we should both get soaked.” I stayed in the entry-way watching my brother lead us through the hellish storm.  My nerves wouldn’t allow me to sit down and relax.  Was this it? Was my end going to be at the hands of a storm?  Yes, I swam across a lake and back two days prior and both of us had years of lifeguarding experience, but something seemed out of sorts on this day.  The weather man’s prediction had been completely wrong, and now we were stuck amidst one of the worst storms I’d ever witnessed, from land or boat. If the boat did flip or sink, I wasn’t completely confident that we could swim our way to shore amidst the crashing waves. 

Not even this stud could survive a storm of this magnitude.

Not even this stud could survive a storm of that magnitude.

Just when I felt it couldn’t get worse, it did. Lightning, tons of it, like darts striking the water all around the bull’s eye: us.  20 foot tall metal masts and lightning equal a recipe for disaster.  Alex reassured me we’d be fine sitting upon the fiberglass body of the boat.  I was skeptical, watching the lightning tease us from all directions.  The rain decided to also kick it up a notch, and soon we were in Iowa’s version of a hurricane.  

Alex couldn’t hack it anymore. We needed to both be safe below, and he knew it.  After pulling up the rudder, he threw the anchor overboard, knowing it wouldn’t catch in the 40 foot deep water below, but hoping it would eventually catch onto something before we crashed into the rocky shoreline.  He locked up the doorway, leaving the two of us in the darkness below, swaying to the motions of the boat. We sat and watched out the small tinted windows as we slowly approached shore.  I could tell Alex felt nervous, wondering if his boat would soon meet its fate.  After a few minutes, Alex whispered through gritted teeth, “We’re going to hit it.”  We watched in agony when suddenly, a jolt rocked the boat to an abrupt stop. “The anchor caught!” Alex said, the first moment of celebration all day.  Sure, we were still stuck on a lake during a lightning dance party, but his boat had survived. 

With the rain, wind, and lightning still raging, we laid down in hopes of calming our nerves. Plus, we both needed to rest with sea sickness taking over.  After an restless hour, it sounded like the rain had died down. Alex sat up to check our surroundings and noticed a house boat sat near us with a speed boat tied up to it.  As he observed them, he said, “There are people over there partying on the deck. Morons.”  I sat up to take a look and could see the drunken college crew chugging beers as thunder battled with the sounds of their blaring rap music. As I returned back to my resting position Alex continued. “There are two people making out on that speed boat.” I lifted my head once again to discover more was going on than just a quick make-out session during a lightning storm. 

“Dude, they’re having sex.”

“No…” he said, voice trailing off at the realization that I spoke the truth.  On one of the boat’s bucket seats sat a balding, beer bellied drunk, as a pudgy girl in only a stretched wife-beater rode upon him like she was straddling a bucking bronco.  He lethargically sat back while she thrust her child baring hips as if her life depended on it.  Just then a bolt of lightning hit the water right behind their boat. Unfazed, the obese bronco-buster continued her impassioned performance, sending ripples up and down her cellulite body and out onto the water surrounding the swaying boat. 

“What idiots,” Alex said, laying back down, not interested in the show.  Unlike him, I couldn’t take my eyes off the freakish display. Not because I was getting some kind of sick voyeuristic thrill, but because the sight of the two heifers humping boggled my mind.  Hours earlier I feared for my life, and these two sweaty love-turds were having intercourse without a care in the world. It was a fornication fuck you to Mother Nature.  “Strike us down if you like, but we’re going to enjoy this moment regardless.”  As much as the image of the two porkers made my sea sick stomach even woozier, I admired them. With death crashing down around them, they were enjoying every moment, and in some strange way, I could learn a thing or two about living from these manatees.

Who knew manatees mated during lightning storms?

Who knew manatees mated during lightning storms?

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