We welcomed two new additions to the Short Punks family (and no, not kids — you wish): a harmonica player and a Gretsch.

The harmonica player is named Bob Kessler, formerly of Bakelite 78 and a member of the Buddhist temple I attend in Chicago. Our first “gig” with Bob was at the temple’s Holiday Auction when Bob sat in on a song. It was an impromptu idea on our part, and we had 15 minutes with Bob before the show to give him the chords and run through the song at a short sound check. Even in those few minutes, Brian and I knew Bob was a winner. Bob studied clarinet at the Bloom School of Jazz in Chicago and that training really shows. He can make complementary melodies to supplement Brian’s singing and falls into a groove like a duck sliding into a lake.

Our next gig was at Phyllis’ Musical Inn in January and in an amplified setting Bob sounded even better with us. What I noticed is that I didn’t have to work as hard to keep the music going, and for the first time, I could lay back a little and enjoy the music. In a duo, both people are working really hard the whole time to keep a momentum going, but with an addition of a third person both Brian and I can function as a kind of rhythm section for Bob’s harmonica which gives us moments of rest in what can be an exhausting forty minutes or so.

Bob Kessler, harmonica player extraordinaire

Bob Kessler, harmonica player extraordinaire

Our next show is on January 24 at the The Bottom Lounge in Chicago, and Brian and I are excited to continue to explore how our sound changes with a harmonica player.

Not long after that show, Brian and I were commuting home after a day at school and in break between snow storms. We had a long day, and both of us felt mopey and tired. In moments like these, I like to make suggestions to Brian which will cheer him up. And one thing that always make Brian happy is a new guitar. I suggested we stop at Midwest Buy and Sell, Brian’s favorite guitar store and “check out what they have.” We went in thinking that Brian would pick up a Gibson SG (“the guitar with the horns” I usually say), but there’s the idea of the guitar and then there’s the actually playing of one. The SG is a great guitar, but every time Brian picked one up and I listened to it neither us felt that spark, that click in our heads when we think “Oh yeah, that’ll sound great on stage.” After forty minutes I was ready to go. I was cold, hungry and I had to pee. While I waited for Brian to try guitars Iwandered around the store. On the top of row near the ceiling, I caught a flash of orange. I noticed the color more than the guitar. I noticed how it felt warm and cheerful. How it reminded me of candy corn and pumpkins, and how it made me think of Halloween and Fall and warmer seasons. I saw it and thought all this in a second, then I went back to feeling bored and tired and wandered on. Just as I was about to tell Brian I would meet him at the deli across the street, he walked up to me with an orange Gretsch in his hand — the one I had noticed a ten minutes before.

“What do you think of this?” He asked.

“I didn’t think you liked hollow-bodies.”

“I like the color.”

“Well, try it.”

Brian plugged it into an amp, and played one chord. In our heads, a switch seemed to flick on. Click. Oh yeah.

It was love at first strum.

So the Gretsch came home with us and now we’re listening to CD after CD of rockabilly, Elvis, and Eddie Cochrane. Who knows what will happen next?

Gretsch Joins Short Punks

Gretsch Joins Short Punks

One of my all time favorite gigs was the Temple gig when we followed a puppet show. And I’m thrilled that we will be playing there again on Saturday, December 13.  SPIL is in the short Peace Concert included in the Temple’s Annual HolidayAuction evening.

The doors open at 4:30 PM and I think we’ll be playing around 5 PM. Tickets are $10.00, which includes the auction, vegetarian food, and the concert.

If you’re in town, the auction will be a great place for bargains on art, services, and event tickets.

For more on the evening, go to the temple website:  http://zenbuddhisttemplechicago.org/auction/index.html

I teach for a living (not drum, alas), and the first 2 weeks of December is our rush period.  Students come at all hours of the day, dropping off papers, begging for extensions, and excusing absences.  And it’s 8:30 PM and I’m waiting for an errant student to finish a make-up final exam.

In this brief moment of waiting I realized that my blog missed me.  It’s weird, isn’t it?  This space has developed a personality in my head as if it was a person I should be talking to — or, would rather be talking to.  So, what have I wanted to tell you in the weeks since my last post?

  • Our cat has cancer.  I know… I forgot to mention.  He was diagnosed during the first week of orientation, I have barely had time to think about it until now. 
  • Short Punks has a gig on Saturday and I haven’t picked up a drumstick in months
  • I filed my dissertation and was cleared to graduate
  • It’s 22 degrees in Chicago
  • Oh yeah, and they arrested our Governor (big surprise)

There was a list in my head of really cool stuff I wanted to write about and you know what, this isn’t it.

I guess what I want to remind myself was that I need to open some space for the drumming and the writing.  This is my new challenge  — creating that space for the things I was doing before I began full-time teaching.

I’ve got a job — a real job. The kind you have to show up at or they look really unhappy with you.  Oh wait, that’s all jobs.

In this real world of employment I have discovered that there isn’t any time for “the stuff I really want to do.”  Like this blog.  I think about this blog a lot.  I take notes for it.  I take pictures.  And yet, I never write the posts.  Why?  I’m too tired most of the time from reading student papers and commuting.  And for the first time in a long time, I spent hours vegging in front of the TV.  The remote in one hand, and a bowl of food in the other.  Whole days evaporated in front of the TV.

But, today is a new day, and I’m going to try a new approach:  speed posting.  I have a 40 minute break between classes.  I eat for 20 minues, and now, I’m going to try to write a post in the remaning 20 minutes.  Okay, I have ten minutes left.

What do I want to write?  What do I want to say here that I can read later and remember?

It’s snowing.  I have to pee.

I live in Chicago, for those of you who did not know, and Tuesday night the city exploded. Cheers rose up as thousands upon thousands celebrated the state’s favorite son and his victory.

“Were you in Grant Park?” an enthusiastic friend e-mailed me this morning.

I would love to say I was in thick of the crowd, but I was not. I was working — proctoring an exam in my evening class. School was in session. Students were in class at 8:30 PM and I passed classrooms with students in various states of attention. Some slumped down so far that their hats nearly touched their desks. Others sitting in front, upright, attentive. And the professors talked on. Except for one professor who was projecting election results on a screen at the front of the classroom, I would not have know history was being made.

I remember a story someone once told me about what they were doing the day man first landed on the moon. “I was watching it on TV,” he said. “While I finished typing my dissertation.” And, I have to admit, it was like that for me. A black man became president and I was proctoring an exam. But, he was not becoming president in that single moment on Tuesday night. He was becoming president in all the moments before when we did not know him, when he lived in Hyde Park just blocks from where I used to live ten years ago. He was becoming president when he ate breakfast at the Valois on 53rd street that has the great sign advertising its cafeteria-style dining: SEE YOUR FOOD. He was becoming President when he was still teaching law at the University of Chicago, proctoring exams like the one I proctored on Tuesday night. He was becoming President when he wasn’t famous, when he walked the streets in Chicago’s bitter winters and brutal summers.

Chicago is an amazing place. For me, it is no coincidence that he came here after college. Chicago is large enough for someone to grow into himself. Brian and I know this when it comes to being musicians. We have been playing here for three years already and in this vast city with its numerous art scenes and music communities, we can grow in relative obscurity and yet hone skills. And the audiences here are still generous — people still open to listening even in the worst venues. In the dirtiest, the roughest places we have found the odd supporter who raises his head from a glass of beer and nods, “Hey man, that was pretty good.” Then turns back to the TV screen to watch the game. Chicago is an incubator. If you’re willing to grow here, this a place to put down roots and grow leaves.

And then Chicago has that cranky side. That side that says: “Oh yeah? Whachugot?”

I was reminded of this in Reckless Records on Broadway when I walked in and passed a stack of newspapers. The Reader, the free weekly alternative paper, had a color drawing of Obama on the cover with a headline that read:

Don’t Screw This Up.

Ah, Chicago…

Brian and I are two years overdue in producing our third CD. The “blame” for this goes back and forth between the two of us all the time:

Chickdrumer: If you weren’t so fussy about recording we would have done it by now.

Brian: Me? May I remind you that you were writing your dissertation all summer?

Chickdrummer: I said I would take a weekend off to do it.

Brian: Oh yeah… when?

Chickdrummer: Don’t blame this on me. At least, I wanted to record live at Swing State just to get some live versions down before we forget them.

Brian: That would have sounded like crap.

Chickdrummer: It would have been something.

Brian: Yeah, crap.

If this goes on for a while we then manage to blame our jobs, our families, the economy, and our cat, Ben, whose emergency hairball surgery last month cost $3000 and ate up the entire recording budget.

And then we don’t talk about it for a while. Brian starts looking at Craigslist for other bands, and I started planning a novel, and in our heads we “give up” on Short Punks.

Then something out of the blue happens. For instance, we might be sitting in the car listening to the radio, and Sound Opinions with Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis might be on and they might play a track of say, Little Richard, and they might talk about how well recorded the drums are and we might not turn it off and we might listen and one of us might say: “That’s how we should do our CD.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” Brian might say.

And I might add: “Why don’t we just do it like that? One room mike. No drum mikes. No Pro-tools.”

And Brian will agree. Then he’ll mention a Chicago recording studio famous for that.

And I might say, “Yeah, let’s do it.”

And then we get out of the car, and all of sudden, walking down Kedzie Ave to get Lebanese food, Short Punks will be back together again, planning, thinking about the ‘what next.’

If I could really describe what being in a band with your partner/spouse could be like, it’s like that. Spontaneous, simple moments when we agree, when we find the chord change at the right time, when we know what our “sound” is, when we being in band is mostly easy and not always hard. If I were to describe this in words that are concrete, I would say playing in a band with Brian is as easy as realizing that we both want falafel for lunch.

I’m a working stiff now. In the last two months I self-ejected myself from the uncomfortable, stiff little womb I call “graduate school” and managed to complete a languishing dissertation, defend it, and start a new job.

Insta-presto! You’re a grown-up. I have an office now and a desk and a password to “log on” (to what? I want to know) and I commute and I work late and I am really really tired.

The last few months have been a whirlwind and it is only now in the quiet of an empty building that I have the moment to reflect on what got me here…if I can remember.

What do I remember?

I remember rising at 5 am to attend morning meditation, and then breakfast with the temple residents and then to a cafe or a library to read or write. I remember the moments of utter desperation when one thought roiled in my brain: “you will never finish in time.” The grad school clock had wound down on me and like those desperate I-just-want-to-make-it-perfect students I see in my own classes, I was still scribbling away while a proctor tapped his desk with a pencil and looked at his watch. I was writing against some intractable clock with a stubborn second hand.

I remember walking home from the cafe in the warm summer night passing happy dogs and dog-owners enjoying the late, balmy evenings. I remember wishing I was them.

I remember the 8 hour marathon when Brian and I sat at the kitchen table editing and revising the last draft the night before it was due.

I remember not sleeping, lying in bed, eyes open, writing in my head.

I remember paperwork that “gave me permission” to defend lost in the quagmire of the university. I remember worrying if it would come down to this: a form misplaced.

I remember proofreading the dissertation in an Amish cafe in Florida, sun beating down on me while I sat in the window.

I remember ice tea. Gallons of it. Drunk at all hours.

And what do I not remember?

I don’t remember:

The defense.

The topic of the dissertation itself.

What I did to celebrate when I passed.

What I did yesterday.

What I will do tomorrow.

The world has seemed to whirl around me like a hurricane in the last few months, and in brief moments I feel I am in the eye of this storm, watching the water, the houses, the boats, the Tinman, the dogs circle around me. From there, it all seems clear: this is life. In other moments, like the ones marked “today” I swirled in the storm with the cats and the dogs and the trees, wondering when it would stop, when I would come to rest, to sit still breathing heavily amongst the wreckage. The ability to stop, to slow the swirling hurricane seems beyond me now, and I wait for the storm to slow itself.

Of course, we in Short Punks have watched the mock-documentary, Spinal Tap, eight million times. And like most musicians, we can quote choice lines from the movie whenever we encounter the same situation in our every day gigging life. For example, Brian can say onstage, “my amp goes to eleven,” and 90 percent of the crowd chuckles knowingly. Or, in a club backstage we can ask for bread that matches the size of the cold cut and know we all know the joke. [And right now, if you aren’t getting any of this because you haven’t seen Spinal Tap, then you need to GO RENT IT RIGHT NOW.] So, of course, when the time came for Short Punks to follow a Puppet Show as an opening act we were thrilled.

If it’s been a while since you saw Spinal Tap then here’s a scene refresher:

The band has hit new lows in bookings and the guitar player’s girl friend is managing the band. At their latest booking — a fairground — they approach the venue to see the name of the band on the marquee. In smaller letters, “Spinal Tap” sits atop the larger letters of “Puppet Show.” The visual joke: Spinal Tap opens for Puppet Show. The girlfriend then says: “If I’ve told them once, I’ve told them a hundred times. First, Puppet Show; then, Spinal Tap.”

In May, we did a show for the Burning Karma Kabaret at the local buddhist temple but, unlike Spinal Tap instead of being a career low, it was for us — no joke here — a career high. The room was filled with well-fed, happy buddhists who had just had a vegan feast. And the entertainment included traditional Mongolian music, singer-songerwriters, a puppet show, and Short Punks. We were last in the bill — not because we were featured — but because…well, we were running the sound, too. We were doing double-duty engineering the event and playing it as well, so everybody had to go on before us so that we could run the sound for the other acts. In any case, the result was that we followed a puppet show.

Of course, you’re thinking, a guy with sock puppets. And well, he kind of was that….but better. He was a guy with sock puppets who helped to found Red Moon Theater in Chicago — a premier puppet show with elaborating stagings. For us, however, it was the little box puppet stage and some cat puppets — but I’m telling you, it was awesome.

The Puppet Show

The Puppet Show

We came after the puppet show, and I got a tell you, he was a hard act to follow. He had a group of 6 year-olds gathered around him like a bunch of ‘tweens at a Miley Cyrus concert. But, Short Punks went on and we did our best to rock the house — you know, with acoustic instruments.

Short Punks at the Temple

Short Punks at the Temple

We did two songs: “Hard Luck Town” and “Twilight.” And I have to say the buddhists were a great crowd. They cheered enthusiastically and were responsive. I’ll take a bunch of buddhists as an audience any day.

I realized the other day that for the first time in a year I have not posted in a weeks.  This is not because nothing has happened but because I am finally (hallelujah!) completing a doctoral dissertation which is due …. um…. Monday.  So, I have been a little busy and not posting.  One person wondered about my absence and e-mailed to see if I was all right (Thanks, Lisa).  I’m fine — just writing other stuff.

If you have never pursued a Ph.d. then you may not know that a doctoral dissertation is the final requirement to complete before one can be awarded a doctorate.  It is usually a minimum of 200 pages, although some people have written two or three times that (Brian’s was 400 pages).  If I can make the 200 I’ll consider myself happy.  And what do we write about in these things? Whatever we decided we want to spend 6-8 years of our lives researching. I chose medieval saints lives from 13th century Italy.  Why?  It seemed like a good idea at the time.  Six years later, I’m not so sure.  And what about these saints?  Well, I argue (yes, that’s the grad student word: “argue”) that images of blacks/blackness in the medieval saints lives are potentially racialized and reflect interactions with Africans long before the beginning of the slave trade.

Sounds fair, enough, right?  Took years to prove — if I have.  In any case, the last month or so I’ve been busily trying to fill in the research and complete writing this project which I began more than a few years ago. So, Chickdrummer has not been much in my mind.  Although that doesn’t mean we didn’t do gigs.  We had three:  a buddhist temple, an all-ages hookah lounge, and a wedding. I know, I know.  Those would have made great postings.  And they still will.  I took pictures.  I have stories to tell,  but unfortunately not right now…later  when I have finished the dissertation and hopefully, successfully defended it.  Oh yeah, that’s the other requirement.  I meet a committee of professors who question me on the dissertation and decide together whether I can legitimately be called “Doctor.”  Yes, that will be nail-biter.  I’ll let you know how it works out. If it doesn’t work out, at least I’ll have drumming.

So, check back or better yet, add me to your blog reader and I’ll let you know how it works out. The defense date is scheduled for August 12th — think good thoughts for me.

Yesterday, June 1, 2008. I turned forty years-old. Four. Zero. For-ty. Somewhere in my brain there was a feeling that I should worry about this. And I tried for a bit. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that at forty I have none of the life hallmarks of mid-life crisis. I have no “real” job — not yet, anyway. I’m still a student. I don’t own anything. No house. No car. No investments. It’s hard to feel in a rut when nothing in my life has been permanent.

And that impermanence — that uncertainty about life — has been a great source of my best adventures. Hey, why not try drumming? What’s the worse that could happen? I’d suck at it. Not a first. Why not try being buddhist? What’s the worse that can happen? I’d suck at it. Not a first. The years into my forties have been about being curious and exploring the things that intrigued me.

I have a friend who turned forty and had no reluctance about it. In her late thirties she got divorced, lost weight, and began a new career that she loves. When I asked her what it was like to turn forty, she said: “I was single and hot. Forty was great with me! It was the thirties that sucked.”

Forty is great. The thirties weren’t bad. And the twenties is a lost in a haze of unconsciousness.

How did the Short Punks household celebrate? Birthday presents in the morning, Ethiopian food for lunch, naps in the afternoon, and the day ended with a massage and a long, fun phone conversation with an old friend.

And, of course, the annual Birthday-Cake-with-Animals picture.

Annual Birthday Cake-with-Cats Picture

Corralling two cats and a rabbit ain’t easy, but we did it.

Happy Birthday to me!

For more about the band, go to: www.shortpunksinlove.com

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