Gas @ 27 cents/gallon with Green Stamps to boot!

There’s one gas station in Westport that’s 5-10 cents cheaper than any other in town (if you pay cash). It’s an off-brand corner site with a convenience store crammed with cigarettes, lottery tickets and five-hour energy drinks.

For the past year I’ve driven past this station and virtually every week the gas price has gone up. There have been times when the price changed several times in a day. But last week, for the first time in ages, the price dropped.

I heard on the news that gas dropped nationally 15 cents. Not here. The price at my place is $4.03, down from a high of $4.09. Plenty of stations in the area are still north of $4.10.

I remember my dad filling up for 27 cents a gallon. A fill-up also got you green stamps or a gift. I remember collecting glasses with baseball team logos on them. Does anyone remember the Green Stamp Redemption Center?

It costs me over sixty bucks to fill my tank nowadays and there’s no gift or stamps. Fortunately, I don’t have to drive far these days, but how do families on tight budgets afford it?

And yet, because I always pay cash to save the 5 cents or so per gallon, I can’t help but notice the sorts in line when I go in to pay. Most are buying lottery tickets in bulk and cigarettes at $9 dollars a pack.

How on earth can they afford that? I don’t want to profile by their disheveled appearance, but I’m hard pressed to believe their mattresses are stuffed with cash.

My mattress doesn’t even have a dime, but with gas prices inching down, perhaps the costs of everything tied to gasoline (which is basically everything) will also come down. Somehow I doubt that will happen, but if we could just stop the increases, that would certainly make a difference in my world.

The Good ‘ole Days as a Suffering Philly Fan Return

The 2012 Phillies team has plummeted back to earth after four high-flying years. I’ve followed them since the late ‘60s and a .500 win/loss percentage in April used to be acceptable since the team was typically out of it before school was out, but I’m spoiled by the victories, the free agent signings, and that one World Series victory.

And to think, at one point, I thought this group had a shot at being one of the great teams in history, a multiple World Series winner with the game’s most devastating pitching line-up, but alas, that group of Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels is no more.

So far this year, making the play-offs looks like a stretch.

I know it’s early and the team has injuries, but last year’s final pitch still haunts me. Howard’s Achilles snapping on the last out of the year, falling to the ground in agony as he tried to run to first base on a dropped strike three ball. I was in my own agony, coming to grips with the impossible, Halladay losing to the Cardinals, a team that wasn’t even headed for the playoffs, and there was Howard on the ground writhing in pain.

It was f*#&ing Shakespearean. And all I could do was shut the TV off because it was just too awful to watch–I simply couldn’t absorb any further bad news.

It came as no surprise that Howard wasn’t in the line-up on opening day, but on the bright side, last year also showed that a team can be mediocre all season and still pick it up in September to win a championship.

Yes, this year feels hauntingly familiar to what I’ve known as a Philly fan most of my life, but odds are they’ll still be hanging around come September, and as everybody knows, great pitching normally beats great hitting.

Let’s hope that holds true because my team won’t be setting any batting records this year.

The Tale of the Train Clipper and the Sauna Flosser

I was on the commuter train into Manhattan and the guy next to me started clipping his nails. Usually I’m not shy about saying something when a person violates such a social norm, but the last time I came across someone conducting personal grooming in public, it almost exploded into a fist fight.

I was at the gym. I’d just completed a great workout and I walked into the steam room for a few minutes of heat and relaxation. What transpired next, occurred in a flash of discord, a sequence of emotional reactions.

My gym has a cozy steam, it’s tight when four people are in there. An older man sat just a few feet away, flossing. The steam blurs everything and at first I assumed I had it wrong, but no, he was a Sauna Flosser.

I shut my eyes and tried to ignore him, but the sound of floss sawing between teeth was too loud.

I wanted to say something, but what do you say? Instead, I shook my head and walked out mumbling, “This is unbelievable.”

As the door shut behind me, I heard the guy cry out, “Asshole.”

Anger bubbled inside my belly. I could not control the rage at this guy’s arrogance. I turned around and opened the door. I popped my head back into the sauna and said, “You’re the asshole.”

I turned and headed for the shower, hands shaking, wondering if this prick was going to emerge from the sauna for a fight. But he remained in there. I showered and changed, never seeing him again.

And so when confronted with Train Clipper, I just shook my head and ignored him. But someone across the aisle wasn’t so reserved. He said to the guy, “Do you mind not clipping your nails, that’s disgusting.”

At that point, I couldn’t help myself, knowing that if this did erupt into violence, the odds were now in my favor. “I have to agree,” I chimed in.

The Clipper mumbled something, did two more nails and then put his clipper away, acting as if we were the dicks.

What amazes me most about these two is their conviction that they do no wrong. Sauna Flosser believes he has the right to shoot bits of food from between his teeth into the steam room and Train Clipper thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to send nail pieces flying across the aisle of a commuter train.

Is it me, or nowadays, do people think they have the right to do what they want with no obligation to worry about how their actions impact the community? What type of society have we become? Or has it always been this way?


Don’t ask the poet Rilke if you’ve got talent

Here’s an essay I wrote in April, 2005, after my first trip to Nashville. Bob Regan, the president of the Nashville Songwriter’s Association, called me after he read it, saying this should be required reading for anyone that comes to Nashville with dreams of selling their songs. Both he and Steve Seskin have used parts of it in talks to aspiring songwriters…

I spent a couple of years hanging out in Nashville learning how to write songs.

Last week I attended the NSAI Symposium in Nashville. NSAI is the trade association that represents songwriters.

Although I had a few business meetings, my intent was to watch and listen because I have nothing appropriate for the market. I did play a few cuts from my upcoming CD and the reaction was quite favorable. But I’ve been warned about this town’s friendliness, nobody will say your song sucks.

NSAI is a great organization because it caters to both the professional and aspiring songwriter. NSAI runs song camps and seminars, they publish books and provide a critique service as well as career guidance.

But the possibility of fame and fortune draws all types to the two-day Symposium. It reminded me of the gold-rush days — rumors spread early of past strikes and attendees bought whatever the pick-and-shovel merchants hawked in hopes they too could hit it big.

On rare occasions someone does land a deal and that just fuels the frenzy.

I exceeded my goals last week because I was realistic as to what could be accomplished from a first trip to Nashville. Most at Symposium, on the other hand, were confident that they had what Nashville needed, and consequently left disappointed. Most don’t realize that incredible songwriters living locally struggle to get songs sold. An outsider has to be that much better, and even then the odds are against them.

I learned this the hard way. Seven years ago I attended my first songwriting workshop and was positive that as soon as my songs were heard I’d get a break. I was more confident than most because I’d spent twenty years in the music industry. Nothing came my way. I took subsequent seminars from Rosanne Cash, Steve Seskin, and Jason Blume as well as from other Nashville hot shots — my songwriting improved, but nobody bought my songs.

Structure and function came easy, but the ability to capture an emotion in melody and lyric was a challenge. That same ingredient was also missing in my fiction. It took seven years of writing every day to finally find my voice. To date I have had minor success, but it is still unclear if I will earn a living from writing. There is one thing however, that is certain: my best work is ahead of me.

At one point at Symposium we broke into groups of twenty to play a song for a publisher. There was great anticipation amongst attendees, this is what everyone had come for — to dazzle Nashville with their song.

Industry execs must sift through tons of dirt and pebbles to find a speck of gold, and that’s when standing in an established Nashville writers’ stream, you can imagine what wading through the crippled creek of Symposium songs was like. Most I heard had no business being presented. Even a fancy five-hundred dollar Nashville demo can’t hide a song’s flaws. They sound impressive to a novice and provide work to folks here in town, but that’s about all they do.

I did hear a handful of good songs during the two-days, but publishers don’t need good tunes; often excellent isn’t enough.

And yet people hear a bad song on the radio and think their tune deserves a shot. Sometimes those songs are written by the artist or friends, sometimes by a pro, but most ‘hits’ are penned by professionals; outsiders have little opportunity with established artists.

A woman approached me after our publisher session and told me she enjoyed my song. It was one of the few that had received positive feedback, despite its lack of country credential.
This woman’s song hadn’t fared as well. With pleading eyes she asked if I would listen to another one of her songs and tell me if she had talent. I told her I’d be happy to listen but that she was asking the wrong question.

At the turn of the last century a poetry student sent the famous German poet Rilke a sample of his writing and had asked that very same question.

The poet had responded:

“You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you — There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: Must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity.”

I listened to her song, then told her that it didn’t matter what I thought, that it all depended on how badly she needed to write. I told her that I had given up a successful career as a music-business executive to write full-time. I admitted that if someone had told me back in 1998 how hard this would be, I might not have had the courage, but I was glad that I had done it because no matter what, I realized that I had to write. If she had such desire, I told her, she had nothing to worry about.

She shut her eyes for a moment and sighed, then looked at me. “But what did you really think of the song?”

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