Sunday, April 3, 2016

Fragments is now available

After about a year of build-up, my book of essays: Fragments is out. Many of these stories had their first draft on this site. I don't know if anyone still reads this site, but if yes, thanks for following.

If you enjoy the book, please leave a review... and tell a friend about it.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Tidal Wave City

A crashing wave, packing unusual force and energy. The water hits the beach and runs. Walls breached. Houses swamped and washed away. A senseless loss. Built too close to the sea. But it's expected. Tidal Wave City has run its course.

This is a beach game. An extravagant sand castle built just below the high-tide mark. Moats, roadways, out-buildings, walls. Walls, decorated with sea shells. Hours to complete the city. Until it gets washed away.

This game has been going on for centuries. Probably millenia. When prehistoric tribes came to the beach to fish, to collect salt. And played with the name Tidal Wave City? For at least for forty-five years. My brother Dana and I might have made up the name. Or possibly we got it from some older kids or even my father. Regardless, now I play it with my kids. And they will probably play it with their kids. At least if parent/child interactions don't change too much.

My father didn't play with me on the beach. Sometimes we would fish together, but we wouldn't play. I don't remember any other dads playing with their kids either on beach vacations. People have changed. Parents playing with their kids is no longer unusual. Especially digging in the sand. Either the adults are less mature or less inhibited. I'm guessing the latter. We are saddled with a much smaller sense of propriety today than our parents and grandparents were. Personally, I like digging in the sand, building Tidal Wave City. It's more fun than fishing, especially since there are no fish left in the ocean.

I'm at North Carolina's Outer Banks right now, Nags Head Beach. We are as far south as possible before it is no longer considered Nags Head. It's pretty quite here. This is where development turns into national seashore. Pennsylvania schools let out exceptionally early, the season hasn't even started yet. The shops are still hiring and many of the rentals are empty. We pretty much have the beach to ourselves.

The last time I visited was twenty-five years ago. Approaching this vacation, I was told time and again that I wouldn't recognize the Outer Banks, things have changed so much. This is true, I don't recognize anything. But the last time I was here it was truly a beach vacation. And a drinking vacation. Up at ten a..m., volleyball on the beach until three or four, beers until bedtime. We didn't get out much to explore the town.

I'm sure we went to some restaurants, but I don't remember which ones. I don't remember how the town looked. But at the time I was in marathon training. I needed to log a shortish “long-run.” Something less than ten miles. I don't remember having any trouble finding a quite place to run. My recollection of that outing is a sleepy beach-town. Half built neighborhoods and a wide sandy shoulder. It isn't like that now. Every inch is of these islands is developed, right down to the park. A bike path adjoining the road is pretty much the only running option now. This vacation, all of my runs have been on the quiet, almost empty beach.

One of the constants in Tidal Wave City is that a portion of the population pushes closer to the sea. They are the 'smart' ones. The outliers. The ones with the prime real estate. The best view. All human building is temporary, but some is more temporary than the rest. Although Tidal Wave City is a child's game of destruction – a game with a certain and inevitable outcome – it is also allegorical for humanity. It is human nature to want a home in the most beautiful spot. Or the most useful spot. But it is foolish to think that our ever evolving planet is not going to change. It is the responsibility of humanity to hedge its decisions with knowledge. Those outliers are always the first to go.

When I look at a map of the Outer Banks, I see a real-life Tidal Wave City. It's a thin strip of land, and it hasn't always been here. And undoubtedly, it will be gone again. The other day I was watching a documentary about the changing nature of the Currituck Sound – the body of water that lies between the northern Outer Banks and the North Carolina mainland. In this documentary, they showed how inlets opened and closed over time in the peninsula. They showed where the last inlet closed up “for good.” This change was so recent, it is remembered. “For good” implies forever, and this is simply wishful thinking.

The next time an inlet opens on the Outer Banks, billions of dollars in property and infrastructure will wash away. It will be national news. People will blame the government for not taking the proper precautions. The Governor will appeal for disaster relief. And the insurance companies will get a financial bail-out. This will be an unforeseen act of God. Except we already know it's coming.

Tidal Wave City happens again and again. The rebuilding New Orleans; the houses littering the slopes of Mount St. Helens since it's last eruption; San Francisco; New York City. It is all temporary. These are places where nature will ultimately win. It may be next month or it may be next century, but calamity is as certain as the next high tide.

Humans are destined to repeat this mistake. We posses an innate ability for optimism, especially to get something we really want. Maybe we just secretly enjoy the destruction that comes at regular intervals from the choices we make. I know I enjoy watching the waves inch closer and closer to Tidal Wave City. And when that exceptional wave breaks and runs, I always feign disbelief. My kids and I shout out “Ugh!” As if we are all bummed out that our hard work has washed away. But really, this is the point of the game.

Friday, July 3, 2015


"The address is underCRUST... no, it's a "dot" not an "at"... UNDERcrust, it's a play on words..."

I should have a card.

I rarely give out my blog address verbally – thank God. My blog isn't intended for local consumption. It's not something that I talk about around town. I'm opinionated, counter-culture, irreverent, pissed-off, outspokenly not-Christian. I have a checkered-past – mental illness and substance abuse; It's all there in my writing. Easier to keep private than to explain. My town is small, judgmental, very Christian. Like a small town from a sixties-TV show. Only it's bigger. But everyone still knows each other. Or knows of each other. And the latter makes things far worse from a gossip perspective.

I've been blogging for eighteen months. Writing consistently for a bit longer. And I've improved. A lot. Writing better, cleaner, clearer. Taking esoteric topics and poking at them until they tell a story. In that story, I include reflections about culture, about life. But mostly, reflections on myself. It's intensely personal and often revealing. Best offered to an anonymous crowd. On-line people I'll never meet.

Undercrust isn't for everyone. My posts are long, sometimes deep, or raw, or sad. They are crafted to inspire thought, evoke emotion. The social-media population prefers short and easy. Pictures, sound-bites, video-loops. Reading my blog takes time and introspection. There is an investment. And a possibility of wasted time. I believe that reading Undercrust is worth the effort, but of course, since it's my blog, it's natural for me to think this.

I joined a writers' group. It's a loose group with dozens of members, and a core of eight or ten who show up on a somewhat regular basis. We have a standing Wednesday night meeting in a bar. But only one person drinks alcohol. Everyone else has water. I'm not sure why we don't meet at the library. I suppose I'm part of the core, even though I attend less than half the meetings. The members enjoy my writing, and seem to respect my commentary. This is important to me. I see these people as real writers. Writers of achievement. Writers who have completed novels, have worked in the industry. They actually earn money by writing. Professional writers. My twelve-year-old daughter has won prize money in three contests. She's made $125 dollars with her writing. That's $125 more than me.

"So, it's What's that mean?" It's a valid question.

When I first built my blog, I was mostly writing commentary. I envisioned parlaying my blog-posts into a weekly syndicated column called Curmudgeon. I would be that old guy with bushy eye-brows in the Sunday paper who complains about everything. I'm not that old, but my eyebrows, if left unchecked, will bush with the best of them. Fortunately for me, every URL playing off the word "curmudgeon" was taken. I was forced to do some actual creative reflection. To come up with something unique.

Who am I? Or really, who am I not? Not the upper-crust. The wealthy people with a sense of propriety and decorum. A group that gains status from hanging with a uniformly affluent crowd. This isn't me. I'm polite, but I'm disdainful of protocol. Rules should be questioned before followed. Status from wealth is snobbery. I'm the opposite of the upper-crust. But "lower-crust" isn't right. It is too obvious. It implies low class. Not the image I wanted to convey.

Undercrust: It suggests something hidden. Inaccessible. Protected behind a shell. The flavorful part of a baked good. The part that isn't on display to the public, but is anticipated all the same. Something to be excavated, to be mined. Plus, the word is barely in use. It is word that I made up, that I own. Less thought went into the name than all this. It just felt right. But it is the perfect name for what my writing has become. Which is not as much societal commentary as I expected. For the most part, I'm engaged in self-analysis. Also, I keep my eyebrows trimmed.

Over eighteen months, I've generated a boat-load of content. Probably 200,000 words. Enough for two full books. Each essay stands alone, so there is no need to read my entire blog to enjoy a post, to get the point. I haven't spent any effort on web-metric tracking, so I don't really know who reads my blog. I've had thousands of page hits, but I don't know if these people actually read anything. Or how many ever come back. Based on comments and discussions, I'd estimate my readership at somewhere between four and seven consistent followers. This includes my wife. Pretty lame. Not much pay-back for a thousand hours of work.

At my writers' group the other night we talked about blogging. I'm the resident blogger, so I made sure I was there. Actually most of the more experienced writers have blogs, but as far as I know, I'm the only one who writes exclusively to blog. And even this isn't true. Principally, I write to understand myself. And I write to try to create something beautiful, or worthwhile, or interesting, or even funny. But with the exception of a few pieces winding up on the Op Ed page of my local paper, the only place my writing is ever published is on my poorly followed blog.

I'm frustrated with my writing career. Like Ray Kinsella in Shoeless Joe (aka Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams) I overly subscribe to the "they will come" mindset. The only requirement is to provide a quality product, everything else is handled by the universe. Faith, hard work and skill are rewarded. Of course, this is bullshit. There are a bazillion talented musicians, writers, dancers and artists who never make a ripple in the pond of society's collective awareness, while Ann Rice – of vampire fame – becomes a household name.

Exposure includes an aspect of luck, but it is mostly due to marketing. At my writers' group session on blogging, one of the real writers suggested that my lack of marketing is holding me back. She says I need to be on Facebook and Twitter at a minimum. Google as a social media platform is limited. This is all probably true, but I lack the energy, the interest and the understanding to do anything about it. I can't even figure out how to link my blog to a Facebook page. It isn't how I want to spend my time. I'd rather write. Or hike with my family. Or go running. Or read. Maybe I'm too lazy to "make it" as a writer.

I'm not supposed to care about followers. When I started blogging, I wrote for myself. Creating something I was proud of, creating art. My writing was inspired. My web page was beautiful. Clean and sparse, just like the essays I published on it. This was enough for me. But somewhere along the way, I started looking for props, for praise. Really I should say craving it. Page hits and followers are an obsession. I don't use this word lightly. I suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I know obsessed. A lingering buzz in the back of my brain. Distracting me from being fully present in the rest of my life.

A couple of weeks ago, heading out on a beach vacation, I changed my Google and Facebook passwords. I created a random string of characters and posted them on my desktop. They cannot be memorized, at least not by me. I spent my beach week without social media. And since I've returned, I haven't touched my passwords. The only computer I can use to access my Google and Facebook accounts is at home. At home where I have my wife and kids to distract and occupy me. Where my hobbies – writing and running – keep me balanced. Where I have chores and responsibilities and limited time at a computer. My social media presence is collapsing.

I still don't understand how social media is supposed to launch me as a writer. I don't really expect to be discovered on Facebook, to be offered a book deal. But at the same time, everything I read tells me that this is a crucial step. There must be other formulas for success. Preferably one that involves simply living my life, and then writing about it. Not obsessively posting it and reviewing it on internet platforms. So far, this formula is elusive to me. I suspect that building a writing career includes networking and submitting manuscripts – just like the old days. With my new-found space, the time recouped from breaking social media's grip, I intend to revisit these options, again and again. I'll find the method that works for me. Works in a way that – like my blog name, Undercrust – just feels right to me.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Jenn, Lance & Me

Jenn Shelton keeps popping up in my life. You might be thinking "Who's Jenn Shelton?" She's a minor celebrity. A world-class ultra-marathon runner and a pretty good writer. She had a bit part in Christopher McDougall's massively bestselling Born to Run. Mostly as comic relief. The book made it seem like when she wasn't winning races, she was either lost, or drunk, or wiping out. I read an interview with her once where she said she was unfairly portrayed in Born to Run. To paraphrase: “Maybe everything written about her was technically correct, but it still wasn't fair. And not great for her career.”

Possibly, it wasn't fair, but I doubt it was bad for her career. The very fact that I read an interview with her suggests that Born to Run put her on the map. Maybe not in the ultra community, but definitely for the rest of the running world. I read Born to Run years ago, but suddenly I'm bumping into her left and right, figuratively, of course.

Last week, on a beach vacation, I read Scott Jurek's Eat & Run, his 2012 autobiographical account of his unlikely ultra career. In this book, he name-drops Shelton three or four times. As if he's trying to capture some of her status. The irony of this is that in McDougall's 2006 book, Shelton is portrayed as a star-struck kid when she meets Jurek. Now Shelton is the star. Wholesomely pretty, always smiling in pictures. Self-deprecating, acting like she doesn't have her life together. Living day-to-day, but on her own terms. She represents everyone's wild little sister. She's one of the few marketable ultra-runners.

When I returned home from the beach, I had two Trail Runner magazines waiting in my mailbox. Six weeks ago, I grabbed one in a book-store. I loved it and decided to subscribe. This always ends the same way. I'll buy a magazine at a newsstand for an absurd price. I'll see that I can subscribe for a whole year for a few dollars more than I just paid for the one issue. I wait and wait, and when the magazine arrives, there are two of them. The new month and a copy of last month, the one I've read three times while waiting for my subscription to start. Not only did I overpay for the first copy of the magazine, but I wasted eight percent of my new subscription on a magazine I've already memorized.

Jenn Shelton is a contributing editor for Trail Runner. And so far – two magazines worth of content – a pretty good one. An engaging, clean, thoughtful writer. In the July issue, she writes about a Grand Canyon running adventure with Lance Armstrong. If I have a hot-button, Armstrong is it. OK, I have more hot-buttons than I can count, but Armstrong is high on my list. Before I even started reading the article, I was crafting a letter to the editor in my head – full of contempt and smug self-righteousness. This kept my mind occupied on a scorchingly hot eight mile run.

Armstrong isn't a hero, he's a cheater. "Everyone else does it" isn't an excuse. He has no place in competitive sports, even for recreation. Gains made on performance enhancers don't disappear when the cheating stops. He dumped his wife after she nursed him through cancer. He dumped his girl-friend, Sheryl Crow, when she got cancer. I'm a counter-culture type – disdainful of those embraced by mass-media and the rest of the masses. Lance Armstrong was the anointed "prince of the fitness crowd." With his EverythingSTRONG brand and his stupid yellow bracelets. It made my eyes roll, and my head shake every time his name was mentioned, which, at his peak-popularity, was several times a week. I enjoyed his fall from grace. His clipped wings, his plummet from the clouds.

See? I'm really down on this guy. Judging him without really knowing anything about him. Unfair? That never stopped me before.

Eight miles is a long time to mull over a single subject. Eventually I softened a bit. The trail racing community hasn't banned Lance, so he has joined it. And why not? It's a perfect fit. The sport is littered with broken souls and checkered pasts. Substance abusers trading one addiction for a (questionably) healthier one. Runners who have hit the woods, not just for solitude, but to escape society. The mentally ill, the lonely souls, ex-cons, the chronically injured. It seems like every time I read something about the trail running, I'm reading about redemption.

I fit right in. A long history of alcohol abuse, social anxiety, OCD, and Tourettes. I've been a lifelong runner, but as a trail runner, I feel like I've finally found my sport. I might even say I found my identity. But this is something I work to avoid – gaining identity from activities. I've spent too much of my life putting myself in boxes : a runner, a writer, a drinker, a liberal, a guy with OCD. I took these definitions, I drew a circle around each of them, and I said "these are me". Over the past few years I've worked to switch my thinking. To see myself as something more than the contents of these circles.

There is something about trail running that appeals to the beaten-up crowd. The misfits who feel uncomfortable in polite company. Those who prefer to compete against themselves rather than against others. Pace is all but meaningless on an ungroomed trail. Speed is sacrificed to technical-ness. The ability to navigate through a rock-garden without turning an ankle. Crossing an ice-glazed stream without dunking your feet. And of course there are the hills. Hills on the roadway are rounded down to save gas, to protect car engines. Natural wooded trails tend to follow the most efficient route. Sometimes this includes switchbacks, but usually the trail is a straight line up a hill. The fastest way to the top.

The hills and terrain can be brutal, even scary. And for many (most?) trail runners, this makes a running path even more appealing. There is an element of metaphorical self-flagellation in the trail community. Embracing punishing routes as preferable, maybe even enjoyable. As if the purpose of the run is to serve penance for our weaknesses, our vices. Society won't punish us, so we need to punish ourselves.

My beach trip last week was to North Carolina's Outer Banks. There is a park there that consists of nothing but sand dunes. All of my runs in North Carolina were run barefoot on soft sandy beaches. Uneven foot-strikes and poor traction. An attempt to toughen myself up. But my favorite run of the week was hill repeats on the dunes. Simultaneously burning my quads and calves with effort. And the soles of my feet with scorching sand.

I saw hundreds of runners in North Carolina. Virtually all of them on the bike path adjoining the main roadway. I saw a few on the beach, but in hard-packed sand down by the water. None in the soft, uneven sand where the tide rarely reaches. And certainly no one running the dunes. I have to believe that if Jenn Shelton or Scott Jurek or even Lance Armstrong were there, they would be blowing past me with a big grin on their collective faces. Running away from – or possibly chasing after their demons.

After reading Shelton's essay, I'm unable to write a rebuttal. There is nothing to rebut. Jenn is not apologetic for Armstrong. In fact she's kind of mean. She calls him a prima donna. A guy motivated by a soft bed and a good meal. Not as mentally tough as the trails-heads in her circle. But she also calls him a friend. She is not judgmental of his past sins. They have nothing to do with their relationship. They like to run, to joke, to poke fun at one another. Besides being a great runner and a fine writer, Jenn seems to be a pretty good person as well. I'm glad I'm getting to know her.


Sunday, June 14, 2015

Teresa Gunn

“Hey Teresa, can I buy you a beer?” This was a safe question in the mid-eighties. Beer was cheap. Miller or Bud, maybe a Heineken for an extra fifty cents. No getting blind-sided with a Dogfish Head IPA or a Troegs Mad Elf at eight bucks a bottle. It was a simpler time. Beer was refreshing, maybe a way to a buzz. For flavor, you ate food.

Teresa was a rock-star – at least to me. A staple of the DC punk band circuit. Leader of the Teresa Gunn Group. She was hot. Pretty, womanly, worldly. Eight or ten years older than me, in her mid-thirties. I had a huge crush on her. My ex-girlfriend had shared a joint with Teresa in the bathroom at her most recent show. Now this was my moment to bask in Teresa's glow. It didn't matter that I was on a date. That date was disintegrating anyway. I was drinking too much.

Part Blondie, part Patty Smith with a sprinkling of jazz thrown in. I never understood why Teresa didn't break out into a national act. Her recordings were clean and professional. Her stage presence, charismatic and assured. She was the real-deal. And she was playing in a shitty little bar to forty people. Half of them the group I came with. She was about to call it quits. But right now, she was having a beer – with me.

Before she packed it in, she rebooted. She took one last shot at stardom, at a music career. She created Urban Burlesque. An attempt to catch that metal/punk wave swelling at the end of the eighties. Bands like L7, an all-girl heavy metal group with a strong punk following. Joan Jett, rising from her ashes with yet another hit and now a heavy metal sound. Teresa put out a single, a pair of songs clearly worthy of airplay. She moved to California to make it big. And I never heard of her again.

Until recently.

And not for lack of effort.

Once the world wide web was up and running, anonymity became difficult. Everything is on the web. Anyone with any notoriety at all is on Wikipedia. My father, a mid-level government appointee for a few years under the George H.W. Bush administration has a Wiki page. Anyone who ever recorded anything, including my 9 year old son, is on Youtube. When I google myself, my life comes up. Past jobs, my resume, road-race times, quotes made to the newspaper. But not Teresa Gunn. Until very recently. It took almost two decades for her to show up.

Four years ago, I was certified as an indoor cycle instructor. I started an early morning spin class at a local fitness center. This entails coaching a one-hour workout two mornings per week, plus uncounted (and uncompensated) hours pulling together play-lists of songs for my classes. Mining through thousands of songs from my music collection, trying to create a fresh and motivating set of music. At age forty-eight, I was suddenly re-immersed in music in a way I haven't been for decades.

In the eighties – in my twenties – tape-mixing was one of my favorite pastimes. Hours spent splayed on the floor in front of my stereo. Recording songs from diverse bands in unrelated musical genres that nevertheless flow. Songs, once paired, seem as though they they have belonged together for eternity. Mixes to distract me on my morning commute. Mixes to keep me company on road-trips. And mixes to energize me on the way to races.

Over the past four years, I have sifted through and incorporated a vast and eclectic library of music. Pop hits, punk classics, country twang, classic rockers, show tunes, even kids' music. It is only natural that I would want to include some of my favorite songs from the eighties DC club scene. Songs that few have heard, yet remain some of the best music I know. The Slickee Boys' Jailbait Janet; Tru Fax and the Insaniacs' King of Machines; Martha and the Muffins' Echo Beach. These songs I've used. I bought them on Teresa Gunn? She's not out there. The only Teresa Gunn songs I listened to for more than twenty years was the music I owned – that one Urban Burlesque single. And I've only listened to those two songs over the last few years. After I grabbed a turntable out of a recycling pile.

So she's been lost – at least to me. Each time I googled her name, I wouldn't find anything useful. A couple of old reviews, positive reviews, from DC's city paper. That's it. No videos on Youtube. No followup band. No greatest hits CD. Not even songs for sale on

My assumption is that at the promising start of her career, Teresa expected fame and fortune. She expected to become a rock star. A real one, with more than a small local following in Washington, DC. She was doing more than creating art, more than jamming with her friends in a bar. She was living a lifestyle. Creating an image. She was hard at work, and watching less talented acts “make it” instead of her.

I know this feeling. My “art” is writing personal essays. Taking an arcane topic – like Teresa Gunn – and poking at it until it gels. Until it paints a picture. Often a picture of society, or a bit of society, but invariably a self-portrait as well. It's a popular format for long-form magazine articles, which is what I aspire to write. Frequently, I'll read an article and think “I can do better than that. I have done better than that.” Like most artists, those of us who never transcend the art-as-a-hobby-phase, I wonder why a few break out, while I'm forced to keep my day job.

I'm not looking for fame or fortune. But I would like to make my living doing something I truly love. Change my avocation into a vocation, as the saying goes. I won't do this as a spin instructor. The ten or so people who regularly take my class cannot possibly support me and my family. But as a writer? Maybe that is a reasonable goal. And so I write.

This is about more than making some money. At age fifty-two, I'm feeling mortal. I'm wanting to leave a mark on the world. My footprint so far is very small, and not so deep. A wife, two children, small extended family, a handful of friends. Some, especially my wife, would argue that my dedicated career as the finance manager of a non-profit community center is enough of a mark to leave behind. That I have impacted a whole town. But to me it feels more like a job than a calling. Maybe I'm important to the organization, to the town, but I'm certainly replaceable. So I write.

A year or so ago, I found Teresa. Well, I found her website, and then I found her. We exchanged a few emails. I asked her where I could find her digital music. During this exchange, I learned about what she was now doing with her life. Because it is well written, I'm not going to try to improve on her biography:

In 1998 Teresa turned her artistry into social action through the founding of Musicians for Education, a collective of artists of the same heart and vision. She developed an original music program called "Street of Dreams". Street of Dreams has become a fully accredited high school to college bridge program for kids who are trapped in the juvenile justice system due to the generational effects of drug addiction, alcoholism and poverty. The children served by Street of Dreams come from homelessness, incarceration and foster care. Gunn's devotion to providing creative and educational support to children in the "system" has produced a highly innovative and successful arts-education model.

Failing as a rock star has let Teresa become a true star. The most important person in the lives of the kids who have graduated from her program. I still love her music, the few songs that I can find. Teresa pointed me to a handful posted on Youtube. One of my favorites, Sister Digs the Sharpies, has made its way into my spin class. My riders haven't commented on it yet, but in time they will. One of them will ask about it, and I'll spout off about how the great Teresa Gunn Group was the best that DC had to offer in the eighties. I might even mention Street of Dreams.

The lack of Teresa Gunn Group and Urban Burlesque on the internet is proof to me that Teresa has found something more important to her than her music. As a blogger, I understand self-absorption, self-promotion. This is where I live. Teresa doesn't do this, not with her prior rock-star life. She has moved on to something bigger, more important, more impactful. I doubt this is where she thought she would land, just as working in a community center isn't where I expected to be at this point. While I would love more Teresa Gunn music to listen to, Street of Dreams is clearly more important.

Check out the Music for Education/Street of Dreams website.

Friday, May 29, 2015

A Girl and a Band – my memoir of finding Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth – so cool, they’re hard to like. The band started in 1981. But it took eleven years to catch my attention. Before the internet, discovering a new band was hit or miss. DC's one 'alternative' radio station, WHFS was gearing up for its corporate sellout in 1983, and its ultimate twenty year decline. The least commercial rock station in town, I had it on all the time. To the best of my knowledge, they never played a Sonic Youth song.

A common way to get hooked on a new band was to hear it at a friend's house or in their car. Of my friends, I was the most avant garde, the most experimental. Many liked the post-punk alternative music we heard on WHFS, but they were also still stuck in the seventies and sixties. Hippy music and classic rock. Until I caught on to Sonic Youth, it was unlikely that any of us were going to hear them.

Or you needed to read about a new band in a music magazine. For me, Spin Magazine was the most likely source for this. I now know that Spin wrote about Sonic Youth, and they even had a band member, Kim Gordon, write articles about other artists. But in the eighties, after reading about a band, if you wanted to listen, you still needed to buy the music, typically a whole record album from a store, to give it a try. I was never sold.

And every now and then you might hear a new band in a bar or a club. Played as filler music before the band came on, or in between sets. But Sonic Youth was a New York thing. The DC bands and clubs just weren't into them.

So it took me eleven years to actually hear the band. Long after they stopped representing the 'youth' in their name. In 1992, most of the band members were well into their thirties. By this time their name was familiar to me. In fact, my brain made a mis-connection. I thought they were the same group as Musical Youth. The early eighties pop-reggae band who had a hit with "Pass the Dutchie." So in truth, Sonic Youth was not a band I was seeking out.

* * * * * *
I met Stacey in Spanish class. Yes, as a thirty year old, I decided to retake Spanish. I took it in high school, but none of it stuck. I struggled with the language, and I battled with my teacher, Mrs. Eddy. I even managed to get suspended as a result of some verbal sparring I engaged in with Mrs. Eddy. She called me a baby, I called her a bitch. My excuse is that I was seventeen.

I was bored. I wanted to meet some new people. I was looking for some redemption from my horrible high school experience. In a language class, not only would I be exposed to a new crowd, make some friends, but I would do something useful at the same time. It worked out well. While my Spanish skills only improved marginally, I met the woman I would date for the next five or six months.

It was never a great relationship. It teetered on the edge of something pretty good and something terribly awkward. We didn't fit together at all. She was hard for me to read. Large areas of her ‘being’ seemed off limits, behind a fence. She was a feminist in a way that I didn't understand. Talking about sex seemed verboten  I felt like she thought it was disrespectful towards women. She also seemed hipper than me. Only two years out of college, she was still building her life, still deciding who she was going to be, what she was going to do. But around her I felt pedestrian, a sellout with my corporate job. Lacking control – I often drank too much, and became embarrassing at parties. She hated my friends, she thought they were yuppies.

The relationship wasn't going to last, so I broke it off. Poorly. Over the phone. There were many aspects about dating Stacey that were positive, but for me, two things stand out as her lasting legacy. One is how she sat me down after the break up, when I was getting my leather coat back from her. She gave me some feedback on how immature it was to call off a half year relationship over the phone. I think her exact words were "Sit down, I'd like to give you some feedback on that breakup..." One last time, proving that she was more together than me.

Her other legacy is turning me on to Sonic Youth.

We saw the documentary The Year Punk Broke in a small, grungy , independent theater in DC. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, and simply going into this empty, dirty, beat up theater felt like a very punk/New York thing to do. I rarely went to movies, and I never went to documentaries. I saw being in a theater on a sunny afternoon as blasphemy.

To "sell" the movie to me, Stacey said there would be lots of scenes with Nirvana. The movie is made from footage of a tour that Sonic Youth took with Nirvana in 1991 – the year Nirvana released Nevermind – the year punk broke into mainstream rock. Watching this movie turned me into a Sonic Youth fan.

I guess I’d call Sonic Youth a punk band. But not in the way that any other band is a punk. The music is noise. Artfully crafted noise. It appeals to some, but probably not to many. At times it is musical, even poppy, but mostly it is dissonant, scraping, agitating. There are melodies, but usually they are subtle. For me, the music is about energy.

When I think of Sonic Youth, I think of fire, various types of fire. Songs that remind me of uncontained house-fires – burning with building intensity until they explode into mayhem. Songs that are like igniting a charcoal grill with far too much lighter-fluid – a flash, a roaring flame until the fuel is spent. And then settling into a simmer. Or even songs like a campfire on a very wet day. Smoldering, on the edge of combustion, creating ash, but never making the leap into a real fire.

I'm rather unimpressive as a Sonic Youth fan. My intersection with the band was brief. I only own a few albums. The most commercial albums they made. The three albums released just prior to my 'discovery' of them – Daydream Nation, Goo and Dirty. But these three albums are fantastic, and probably represent the high-point of their career. I'm sure they are dismissed by real Sonic Youth fans as their sellout albums. Their attempt to reach a broader market. A mistaken desire to bask in some corporate cash. But typically what appears to be a sellout is an acknowledgment of greatness. The band hits stride, the world notices, and major labels are attracted. A chance for the suits to cash in on all the hard work. The hard work already completed. Like Nirvana's Nevermind. Like Green Day's Dookie.

Most of my music listening today is centered around my spin class. Twice per week, I pull together an hour of music designed to motivate, educate, shock and appease a cross-section of athletes. They range in age, backgrounds and musical tastes. The Sonic Youth songs I use most frequently, Dirty Boots, Tunic and Sugar Kane, are not typical material for spin class play-lists. At least where I live. But they are long songs that build in intensity and have enough musicality in them that no one ever complains. Some other songs I have used, Kissability, Mildred Pierce and Orange Rolls, Angel's Spit, are a little rougher. When I use these songs, I expect, and I receive, some push back.

I only saw Sonic Youth in concert once – a 2004 show at DC's 9:30 Club. Thinking back, I remember enjoying the show, but a decade later, all I really remember is the volume. A night that remains in my mind as the loudest, most uncomfortable concert I ever attended. Loud enough to make me dizzy. Loud enough to cause muffled hearing for days. Today, my hearing sucks. Ask my kids, they'll say my favorite word is "WHAT??" I've been resisting much needed hearing aids for a few years now. When people ask if my hearing loss is genetic, I always say no, it's Sonic Youth. But this is a wasted joke. In my small, rural town, no one has heard of Sonic Youth.

* * * * * *
I started writing this essay because I just read Kim Gordon's memoir, Girl in a Band. I wanted to write a review. I didn't like the book and I wanted to bash on it some. The book started well. The first chapter about Sonic Youth's last show was a clever way to set up the book. And then as expected, it went to Kim's backstory. In every biography I've ever read, the early years, the section before fame and wealth, is my favorite part. Learning about influences, family members, defining experiences. I got none of this from Girl in a Band.

What I got was a bunch of self-promoting and pretentious name-dropping. Long passages about artists that no one knows. And quick mentions of artists that no one knows. There must be four hundred people mentioned in the book, but to tell this story only a handful are relevant. I felt as if Kim was trying to give a shout-out to everyone she ever met.

I was also offered several confusing, contradicting points:
In one passage, she applauds an artist for her outspoken views against DC's straight-edge ethos of shunning drinking, drugs, sex and consumerism. But the next paragraph goes on to describe the straight-edge movement in such glowing terms, it isn't clear why she appreciates the artist for bashing it.

I was also confused about her romanticism of New York in the seventies. She spends a whole page describing the disintegrated state of the city. The rampant crime and drug use. The inability to walk the streets because of the danger. Then she spends the next paragraph ridiculing the clean-up of these problems. Complaining that New York is no longer real. A Disneyland version of what it once was. As if the only real city is one that you cannot use for fear of your life.

Towards the end of the book, Kim lost me altogether when she stated that a man cannot be a full partner in raising a child. Using her ex-husband as an example – the man she has spent a couple hundred pages describing as a self-absorbed, selfish man – she says that "no man can can feel the necessary urgency" required to properly comfort a crying child. And then she tries to prove this point by suggesting that she was the only one in her house who could handle the family's laundry.

Kim Gordon's inability to write a compelling memoir has not fouled my appreciation of Sonic Youth. Reading this book, despite it's flaws, was a worthwhile trip into my past. It gave me a chance to reminisce about people, events and songs that don't get much of my attention any more.

Undeniably, Sonic Youth is cool. They essentially invented a genre, and they challenged fans of punk to appreciate it. They transcended the hard driving beat of the Ramones and Black Flag. They stuck a finger in the eye of the bands who rely on melody or image to hook an audience. They created noise, energy, tension and anxiety with the same instruments that the Partridge Family used to play "I Think I Love You."

And if nothing else, they created the prototype for the hot-punk-girl-bass-player.