Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Barbecue and rockets

With guests visiting from out of town this weekend, decisions had to be made. Two mainly: where to take them and what to feed them.

You want it to be something sort of unique to the area. So for dinner Friday night, we hit up Greenbrier Barbecue, where they got to sample some Alabama White Barbecue Sauce as well as some of their still-the-best-I've-ever-had hush puppies.

As for something to do, well, that was a bit tougher. Especially after my offer to drive them by the gym where I once scored 26 points in a preseason rec league basketball game was shot down. But alas, we finally decided on the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville. Because like I always say, nothing says Alabama like barbecue and rockets.

The Space & Rocket Center is located adjacent to the Redstone Arsenal army base and NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. Outside, several rockets are on display, along with one of the space shuttles and various other phallic symbols, er, bastions of power and might. At night, they light up the Huntsville skyline. Heck, what am I saying, they are the Huntsville skyline.

(Ideally, there would be a picture here.)

Inside are various exhibits which tell the story of our history in space. Currently, there is a special exhibit commemorating the 100th birthday of Wernher Von Braun. I got pretty excited when part of the exhibit was simply an enlargement of his Wikipedia entry.

Now from what I understand, Von Braun was one of more than a hundred German scientists who were brought to America in the aftermath of World War II. He was first given a one-room apartment, which best I could tell, held little more than a desk, a bed, and may or may not have contained a nuclear warhead. Anyway, he went on to help develop the Saturn V Rocket which would be used to transport man to the moon. Allegedly.

Other items on display inside the Space & Rocket Center include one of the Apollo command modules, a mobile quarantine facility, a Gemini training simulator (again, pretend there are pictures), and a lunar rover -- which is cool, but would be so much more awesome if they'd let you ride around on it. Or even sit on it and pretend you're riding around (which FYI, they apparently frown upon). There's also astronaut food for sale. Freeze-dried ice cream sandwich. Bet that's tasty!

The Space & Rocket Center is also home to the U.S. Space Camp, where you can send your kids if you want to get rid of them for like two weeks, or you know, if they're interested in becoming an astronaut. Because apparently, a lot of kids are. I, personally, was not.

I remember going to the Space & Rocket Center when I was a kid. They had this little simulator of some sort that you could actually climb into. There were switches you could flip and they'd have some mock radio communications playing to make it sound like a real mission.

Well, I would never climb in.

Because I was always afraid that somehow someone had made a huge mistake, and as soon as I got in there the thing was gonna take off with me in it. And I'd be leaving the Earth. What do you think would happen then? I don't have any formal reentry training! I'd be stuck in outer space. Nooooo sir. You weren't gettin' me in that thing.

So, yeah, astronaut was never something I aspired to be. I was more of a fireman kid. Also, garbage man.

Unfortunately, I don't think they give tours of the fire department to people my age. I suppose I could always drive out to the city landfill. Ponder what might have been.

"Tell me, did you sail across the sun? Did you make it to the Milky Way to see the lights all faded, and that heaven is overrated..."

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Gordon Lightfoot - Alabama Theatre

That evening found me pondering a question men have pondered for many years: Was it really worth two months' salary?

I have to be honest. It didn't seem likely. To put it in practical terms, that's a bunch of rounds of golf. Not to mention several beach trips. No matter how much you love someone or something -- and I do -- it just seemed like too much to spend.

You know, for a pair of football tickets.

But this was THE game. Bama. LSU. National Championship. In New Orleans. (Ironically, the site of the last time I proposed to a girl. Don't worry, I didn't know her name.) So I continued to look desperately for a better deal. There's this guy, Craig Slist (weird name, I know), who sells all kinds of stuff online. I was browsing his site when I saw it:

"Gordon Lightfoot - Alabama Theatre - January 15th"

What? Could it be? Was GLight coming this close? How could I not have heard about it?

It could. He was. And I had not. Perhaps I'm not as "in the loop" as I think? Nonetheless, I was going. (And yes, I'm just now writing about a concert I attended more than two months ago.)

This would be my first visit to the Alabama Theatre, located in Birmingham. Having looked up some info online, I found it was built in 1927. Not knowing anything about architectural styles, I think I can best describe the theatre like this: It looked like what I imagine the theatre where Lincoln was shot probably looked like.

Before the show started, several people were taking pictures of the inside of the theatre. It had a classy feel to it. To wit, there was one section of seats called a "dress circle," which I will confess I was afraid to purchase tickets in because I thought maybe the people who sat there were required to wear formal dress. I mean, would my Argyle be classy enough?

So we sat on the floor. Row 13. Even though I only purchased tickets the day before the show. I found that to be a little sad.

There was no opening act, which I have come to prefer in my late summer years as it has gotten difficult to sit for two hours without becoming stiff. Gordon took the stage with a simple four-piece band, and launched right into the set.

The first thing you notice is the voice isn't as strong. I suppose time and health issues have taken their toll. I remember reading he had been in a coma for six weeks some years back after suffering a ruptured abdominal aneurysm. And then five or six years ago, he had a light stroke.

He struggled at times with the high notes, and you had to strain to hear in a few places. But in a way, it worked to make the show more intimate. A small, half-filled venue. The audience quiet and focused on every word. All except for one (hopefully) drunken female who continually shouted in her native Southern tongue, "Yeeeaaah baybeeee!" and also yelled for "Freebird" once.

Lightfoot never missed a single lyric that I could tell, as he sang probably 20 to 25 songs from his abundant catalog. There were songs I'd forgotten about, such as "Early Mornin' Rain" and "Ribbons Of Darkness," which was a big hit for Marty Robbins. And of course, he did the expected favorites, "Rainy Day People," "Carefree Highway," and the still-haunting "Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald."

You couldn't close your eyes and pretend it was forty years ago. You couldn't. But you could open your eyes and appreciate the moment, and what you were experiencing. A prolific and phenomenal songwriter, and gifted storyteller, doing what he's done seemingly forever. And I'll always be thankful I had the opportunity to be there for it.

When he sang "Song For A Winter's Night," I thought of all the thousands of winter nights that song must have been listened to by some lonely soul somewhere. And not just listened to, but felt.

And in Bone-is-a-Wikipedia-nerd news, I'd read that Gordon's daughter had asked him to change a line in "If You Could Read My Mind" from "The feelings that you lack" to "The feelings that we lack." So I was curious to see if he still made that change. He did.

I also hearkened back to the first time I heard that song. In the car. At night. Far from home. And I remember wishing it wouldn't end.

That was the night I discovered Gordon Lightfoot. Back then, the thought of ever seeing him in concert wasn't even a possibility I considered. But maybe I was always meant to. It's funny how things like that work out sometimes.

As for the football game, I opted to save my money and watch it on TV. Guess I'll have to come up with something else to spend that two months' salary on.

What, I have no idea.

"Once upon a time, once upon a day, when I was in my prime, once along the way. If you want to know an answer, I can't turn your life around. For I am just a painter passing through the underground..."

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The void in my life

I fought it as long as I could. But even I must admit, there is a void in my life. A vast wasteland of nothingness that is as gray and desolate as the surface of the moon (minus the dazzling view of Earth). Yes, I'm speaking of that annual three-fortnight span known as sports purgatory.

It's a term I first introduced you to in 2009, referring to the space between the end of football season and the beginning of March Madness. You may recall that in past years to try and fill the void, I resorted to things like becoming an avid curling fan and leading the Chicago Bulls to the 1992 NBA title.

This year, for the first couple of weeks, I actually thought I might sneak through without those familiar feelings of despondency and hollowness returning. Oh, foolhearted self!

At first, it was going OK. But eventually, the euphoric afterglow of another Bama national championship began to fade a bit. I mean, there's only so many times you can re-watch a game. (Currently, I'm at five.) And so, I found myself back where I always knew I'd be -- grasping at straws to once again try and fill the empty spaces.

How bad has it gotten? Well, I'm glad you asked.

This week was Alabama's pro day. For those of you who don't live-eat-sleep-and-breathe college football 366 days a year (it's a leap year), that is the day when players hoping to be drafted work out for NFL scouts and coaches. They're measured for things like vertical jump and 40-yard dash time.

So after reading every article I could find about how all the players did, I went out and ran a 5.3 40. I was pretty proud of my time, although the people at work were looking at me kinda funny when I was sprinting across the parking lot.

In other God-help-me-I-need-some-sports-in-my-life news:

I watched two NBA games. All the way through. And not even playoffs. Regular season games. How many games do they play anyway, like sixty?!?! And they're calling this a short season???

The other night I was bored, so I started shooting free throws on my Nerf goal. I sank 23 out of 25. It was probably my best sporting accomplishment in several years. (Actually, I can't blame this one on sports purgatory, as I'm apt to do this at any time throughout the year. And yes, I have a Nerf goal. In my living room. How old am I? Why do you ask?)

I've also gotten into The Voice. Me! I detest reality shows. Oh, and I'm pretty sure I've developed an unhealthy man-crush on Adam Levine. Like I want us to be friends and hang out. Just me and him though, no one else. I'd get jealous.

Tonight, I watched part of the Louisville-Cincinnati basketball game. Did I enjoy it? Not really. It's more of an IV drip just to keep me alive until March Madness, which cannot get here fast enough.


I couldn't wait. I filled out a bracket today. I don't even know who's playing yet. The brackets don't come out until Sunday evening. You think that's easy? This is what comes from living under purgatorial conditions. Besides, I figure I've probably picked North Carolina to make the Final Four seventeen out of the last twenty years, might as well go ahead and pick them again.

When assessing the effects this year's sports purgatory has had on my behavior, however, perhaps no single thing is more telling than this: I've actually gone out and done stuff a couple of times this week. With people!

I don't even know who I am anymore.

"If you're going through hell, keep on going. Don't slow down. If you're scared, don't show it. You might get out 'fore the devil even knows you're there..."

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

"Now I know how Jimmy Buffett feels..."

I've always considered myself and Jimmy Buffett to be kindred spirits. Let's take a look at the facts: We both love the beach. We've both blown out a flip-flop, granted with varying degrees of notoriety. He writes songs. I wish I could write songs. He's the son of a son of a sailor. I've.... been on a boat before. I think we can all agree that any more examples would only serve to cloud my point.

And so, when I saw he was coming to Birmingham, subtle hints were strategically dropped into everyday conversation.

Things like:
"Jimmy Buffett is coming to Birmingham!"
"Hint, hint, birthday, hint."
"That would probably make a really great gift for someone who has a birthday in February." (Ed.'s note: The "someone" in that sentence is really me.)

OK, so not so subtle. But it got the job done. Tickets were procured and a concert was attended.

I must say it was a little odd to be wearing a winter coat to a Jimmy Buffett concert. But temps were supposed to be in the thirties for once, and I'm just manly like that.

He, of course, came on stage in shorts and flip-flops. Then again, I'm fairly certain he didn't have to hike ten blocks to get to the arena. It's all about the free parking for me. It's more the principle than the cost, or so I tell myself.

This was my first Buffett concert and one of the curiosities I had was whether all the Parrotheads would also be potheads. Much like when I attended that Willie Nelson concert a couple of years ago, I wondered if I would experience a second-hand high. Or low. Or whatever you get. I don't know, I've never even smoked a cigarette.

Those concerns seemed to be unfounded. For I have walked amongst the Parrotheads, and maintained my inhibitions. Although after the show I did notice I scarfed down my food at Chili's like I hadn't eaten in two weeks.

Buffett, as comfortable on stage as he (or I) would be on the open sea, moved seamlessly through familiar favorites "Volcano," "Fins," "Come Monday," "Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes," and of course, "Margaritaville." There was newer fare, such as "Trip Around The Sun," "It's Five O'clock Somewhere," and "Knee Deep," which featured a guest appearance by a member of the Zac Brown Band.

He also sang several songs about Alabama, which is one of 3 or 4 home states claimed by the Head Parrot. There was the expected "Bama Breeze" and "Sweet Home Alabama" (replete with audience chants of "Roll Tide Roll"). But there were also a couple of songs I'd forgotten about: "Birmingham" and "Stars Fell On Alabama."

Then following an encore of three or four songs, the band left the stage again. But Jimmy stayed behind to do one last number, by himself, for the home-state crowd. Almost like he didn't want to leave.

After that, we went our separate ways -- he to his Hush-Puppy-wearing, island-hopping, sponge-cake-nibblin' ways; me to begin the ten-block hike back to reality.

The guy who wrote Wikipedia describes Jimmy Buffett's music as "often portraying an 'island escapism' lifestyle." Now there's an ideology I can embrace!

Yep, kindred spirits.

"I got a school boy heart, a novelist's eye, a stout sailor's legs and a license to fly. I got a bartender's ear and a beachcomber's style..."