cramp my style.

"Hey, Sandra, would you mind taking pictures tonight?"

I sigh with defeat. I've been going to Josh's band's shows for over two years now, getting in free, enjoying free beer and food and backstage freedom. And yet I never have to run a merchandise table or take pictures or pass out flyers. Sometimes I have to fetch a beer, but I'm free to get one for myself along the way. Still, I knew that at some point, I would be required to earn my keep by doing more than just kissing the bassist (although I do that a lot).

It was Friday night and we were playing at the Cat's Cradle. I say "we," just like a football fan would say it, as somehow part of the band but in no real way contributing. I love playing the Cradle. To anyone who pays any attention at all to bands that play in clubs smaller than football stadiums, the Cradle is a big deal. I remember living in Boone and wishing that we had such a place where bands would be willing to come play. As it was, I made the four hour drive twice during college.

Aside from being a real club that gets real bands, the people that work there are incredibly nice to us. Every once in a while, we open up for a band at the Lincoln Theatre. They treat us like crap. They yell at us, scold us, kick us out of the green room, are generally just jerks to us because we're a podunk local band. Or maybe they treat the big acts that way, too.

But back to taking pictures. I agree to be photographer for the evening and take charge of the drummer's tiny digital camera. I don't mind it so much, except that my photographing philosophy, particularly in the digital age, is to take as many pictures as possible, so that at least five of them will be worth keeping.

The show starts, but I'm still backstage, which turns out to be the place with the best view of the band. The sound board is on a raised platform at stage right, and the technician tolerates me as I wander around taking blurry pictures. Even with a steady-cam button, it's hard to take a good shot of a drummer. I do wander out to the crowd a bit to get a couple of shots of the massive (for us) audience. I'm feeling cocky in my official position as girlfriend/picture-taker/beer-getter. I'm with the band, we're playing the Cat's Cradle, and I describe them using the first-person, plural pronoun.

At some point, the guitarist gives me the "I need a beer" signal. Actually, he gives me several, because I interpret the first few as the "I have a crick in my neck" signal, the "I like to move my neck like a duck" signal, and the "I've got something stuck in my teeth" symbol. So I make my way back to the green room to fetch a PBR, but am blocked by a mass of people I've never seen before. They number half a dozen, and are being led through by someone like me, someone with a band, but not in it. This person is different from me in that he is trying to impress one to four girls by showing them and their friends the green room.

At the tail end of the group is a dude in a leather jacket. He is no way blocking my path. Yet as I pass him to get to the fridge, he says, "I'm sorry we're back here, cramping your style." I reassure him, "It's okay. I don't really have any style." He thinks that's funny, but he would think anything I said was funny. I could have given him the "I like to move my neck like a duck" signal and he would've thought it was great.

I'm so amused. For some reason, this guy thinks I'm someone of importance. He probably realizes that I am just the girlfriend of a bassist in a local band, and yet that means I am cool and should not have my style cramped in any way. After all, I was already backstage when he arrived, and I didn't even need a tour guide.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a They Might Be Giants concert. I've been their number-n fan since I was twelve or thirteen. I stood in line with other fans while a girl my age took our money for t-shirts and albums and hats and bumper stickers. I confess that I thought this girl was so cool. She's the TMBG merch girl! Oh, what it must be like to be the merch girl for a band like TMBG! Who needs programming when you can be a merch girl? If I ran into this girl, I would apologize for cramping whatever style she had.

I should get used to being so revered. Josh has asked me to start manning a merch table.


the generous stranger.

The concept of earning a living by waiting tables is a weird one. You wear a uniform, spend an hour or so with some people you've never met, trying to keep them happy while relying on factors that you have little to no control over, and at the end of it all, they decide how much you are worth. And you live on that.

Some people are schmucks or don't know any better and are lousy tippers. Some servers are schmucks and deserve lousy tips. Most people are decent folks and don't create too much of a hassle for you before leaving you an acceptable gratuity. Then there are some tables that just click!, where you're charming and the food is just right, and they're all ready to slaughter the fatted calf if only you'd come home with them. Basically, you can often predict your own tip based on how the dining experience has progressed before the check is dropped.

And then there is the Generous Stranger.

The Generous Stranger is the one who overtips for no apparent reason. Something you did struck that guy just right and you didn't even know it. The meal went fine, nothing spectacular, and you foresaw maybe seventeen percent. But then you're left with something like thirty or fifty percent, and you have no idea why. These are the kind of reassurances you need in your job, a stranger who owes you nothing and expects nothing in return saying, hey, good job there, tiger.

Now that I'm on the other side of the apron, I like to be the Generous Stranger. I remember my days in the trenches, when some days it was those mysterious people who were the only things that kept my head up. I eat alone a lot and like to be left alone for the most part. At the same time, if I need something, I don't want to have to sit quietly, looking forlorn while my server is somewhere else. It's a difficult balance, but some people nail it. Those servers refill my tea without disturbing me, and if they have to ask me something, they do it quietly and apologetically, as if they were interrupting. They are not pushy, nor do they try to be my buddy.

It's such an easy role to play, particularly when you eat alone. On a $10 check, it's only three extra dollars to go from a twenty percent tip to a fifty, and you're a hero. It's even easier at some greasy spoon where the check is five bucks and the waitress is sweet but looks like she could use some dental work. Servers don't think so much in dollars as they do in percentages when they look at their tips.

Someday, if ever I make it to a status of ridiculous wealth, I'm going to take the Generous Stranger to the extreme. I'm going to leave a hundred dollars or something crazy for a ten dollar check. I'm not just going to make someone's day, I'm going to make someone's year. They'll be telling that story to their grandkids, how some crazy old woman came in, had a tuna sandwich and left a crisp, clean C-note. They'll wonder what it is they did or if I was hitting on them or if maybe I thought I was leaving a Washington instead of a Benjamin. I delight in the idea of leaving that kind of wonder in my wake.

I am the Generous Stranger.


coulda been your twin.

"You know, we used to have a woman that worked here, her name was Tina, and she coulda been your twin sister."

"Really? Huh."

"She had a great personality, too."

I'm not feeling spunky enough to say, "Oh, well, I actually have a terrible personality," though I enjoy the joke to myself. See, by saying that I have a rotten personality, I'm making a good joke, which indicates that I, too, have a terrific personality. You see what I did there?

I don't have a twin sister, though I do have a sister-in-law named Tina. She doesn't look much like me, though I suppose as her marriage to my brother continues, she might be heading in that direction. Frankly, I have my doubts about how much this mythical Tina with the great personality looks like me. I actually get told that I look like someone quite a bit. It's annoying, because I never actually look like my supposed doppelgangers. Had I been feeling really snarky, I would have responded, "Oh, so you mean she has brown hair and wears glasses?"

I'd like to announce that there are a lot of females out there who have brown hair and wear glasses. I look like very few of them. I'm tired of being reduced to the two things that people notice first when they see someone. Maybe next time, I should ask, "Oh yeah? Did she have a mole right here on her neck? Does her nose do this ski jump thing? Was she tall with big feet? Well, I guess we're not related after all!" I want to tell these poor well-meaning strangers that I am more than brown hair and glasses.

Obviously, I'm just going to have to get over it. I'm not a particularly striking person. There is probably a Lego woman who fits my description. So people who don't look very closely might think I look like any other girl with brown hair and glasses. I'm sure this sort of thing happens to lots of people: red heads with big noses, blonds with unibrows, short, fat, bald guys. Looking at those groups, having brown hair and glasses doesn't seem so bad anymore.

I suppose the tiny silver lining of this story is that I'm totally set if I ever decide to rob a store.

"Sir, what did the assailant look like?"

"Well, uh. She had brown hair. And glasses. And uh, actually, you know what, she looked exactly like this girl I used to know. Coulda been her twin. Her name was Tina."



The signs vere placed every block or so, on opposite ends of the downtown street. They were white with moveable black letters, such as you might buy to announce your church barbeque or a sale at the locally owned jewelry store. I was lacking any device that said "megapixel" anywhere on it, so I had to make due with the camera on my cell phone.

"No equine on Main Street except for parade."

Before Saturday, I'd never been to Benson. So maybe it's the kind of town where that sign needs to stay up all year long, to remind the citizens to keep their horses and mules and donkeys to the side streets unless there's a parade on. Then it makes one wonder how many parades there are a year, and whether you have to register or sign up or if you can just throw yourself in there, provided you have a hoofed work animal to ride upon. My favorite part of the sign is the word "equine," because you look at the citizens of Benson and wonder how many of them know what it means. But then you know that it was chosen because the sign originally said "horses," but all these people with mules and donkeys felt they had the right to trot up and down Main Street, regardless of parade status. Someone in the Benson Town Council owns a thesaurus.

The fourth weekend in September is Mule Days in the town of Benson. Someone might ask why a festival about mules exist, and the only answer I can come up with is that some other town was already celebrating acorns. The sad part is that other towns do host Mule Days, and one in Tennessee apparently attracts over 200,000 mule-lovers annually. Poor little Benson, North Carolina only gets about 60,000 mule-lovers. (The official Mule Days web site states that they get between 60 - 70,000 visitors, which seems like quite a wide range.)

I decided that I wanted to go to Mule Days because I had nothing else to do, because I am Southern, because I am charmed by small town weirdness. I've been to a lot of such festivals. I can't say that there is really a lot of variety between them, but I enjoy them just the same. I like being outside and eating overpriced fried food that is bad for my blood vessels. I like looking at the various vendors of crafts, and I like buying things that I could never find anywhere else. I like being surrounded by friendly people in good moods. And Josh shocked me by loving me enough to go with me, because, really, Mule Days? Sounds like a waste of a Saturday.

Mule Days was pretty much what I expected in terms of festivals. We sat in the park and ate barbeque ribs while listening to a bluegrass quintet play old church and country favorites. We looked at the vendors and debated on whether to buy a Mule Days t-shirt (we decided not to). I wondered if my dad would think the statement "If it ain't half ass, it's just a horse" was funny enough to risk wearing a t-shirt bearing the word "ass." The biggest difference in Benson's grand festival was the smell and the fact that you really needed to watch where you stepped.

We got there in time for the last 3/4 of the parade, where lots of equines were free to roam Main Street. The parade halted only minutes after we arrived, but no one moved. What were we waiting on? Why weren't we proceding to other mule-related festivities? Josh and I navigated through the throngs on the sidewalks further down Main Street, where we realized that a train was coming through town and directly crossing the parade route. Apparently no one in the Benson Town Council owns a train schedule.

While we waited on the train to pass, a chubby ten year old boy stopped to talk to the people in front of us.

"You seen my momma?"

"Huh-uh. She ain't been 'round here."

"She h'ain't? I gots to quit this. I been runnin' up and down the street a-lookin' for her."

"Oh, well, honey, there's yer momma, right 'cross the way."

My skills are not up to reproducing the words as well as I would like, but I was startled to realize how strange this conversation sounded to me. After all, I had grown up listening to exchanges like this. There is likely video or audio tape of me participating in such conversations. I already knew of the existence of the word "h'ain't." Here in the South, we like to give our apostrophes a workout. But I'd been surrounded so long by people who were much less country than I that I'd forgotten what English could sound like in a small southern town. Was I horrified? No. In fact, I was strangely pleased that such dialects continue to thrive. Somehow, it's part of my heritage, and though it reeks of ignorance to big city folks, it's just another culture.

Finally, the train passed, and we were able to catch a glimpse of the rest of the parade. I can honestly say that the Beson Mule Days parade is the best parade I've ever seen live. But perhaps that was only because of the relative lameness of the Christmas parades of Lenoir and Blowing Rock. Josh told me about the Macy's parade in New York, but does it have a rodeo man on a mule riding on a horse trailer cracking a whip?

Now, I can't say this is exact, but I've concocted a short recipe for creating your own Mule Days parade.

A dozen classic American trucks
3 high school marching bands
2 cheerleading squads
Half a dozen road buggies
2 dance troups of 20 - 60 little girls in tap shoes dancing to techno remixes of bluegrass songs
2 dozen beauty queens of a range of ages with various cheesy titles in fancy convertibles borrowed from local doctors, pharmacists, and lawyers
A vintage McDonald's truck featuring long-forgotten advertising and Ronald McDonald
Any golf carts lying around
3 pickups blaring gospel music, advertising local churches
6 Shriners dressed as clowns with silly bicycles
A dozen classic tractors, one of which should have "Old Rusty" painted on the side
A dozen small carts pulled by shaggy, half-pint ponies
All the equines you can find, with riders of every race
60 - 70,000 spectators

Line spectators up along Main Street. Make sure they have to stand close together so as to best mingle their flavors. Mix the remaining ingredients well. There will be many more equines than anything else, so just shove them in a big group at the back. Teach the beauty queens to wave (elbow, elbow, wrist wrist wrist). Send equine/queen/tractor mixture down Main Street between lines of spectators on a sunny fall day. Wave. Holler. Enjoy.


not a movie review: judgment at nuremberg.

If I told you that I watched a movie featuring Judy Garland and William Shatner last night, you'd be intrigued. "Captain Kirk and Dorothy? Awesome!" And then I'd sigh, because watching the movie for a bizarre combination of supporting actors is fine in some cases, but this is actually great cinema we're talking about here.

Judgment at Nuremberg is a black and white film from the 60s, which means it was black and white on purpose. Unless you're more than unusually slow, you can probably guess that it's about the Nuremberg Trials, specifically the Judges Trial. To me, this is a particularly fascinating time in history. How do you try someone for six million counts of murder?

This movie has many strengths, but we'll start with directing. I have a hard time deciding whether the direction is good or bad in movies. It seems an impossible task to tally up the quality of decisions in all aspects of the making of the film solely as a viewer. There are people who do it, I know. However, I strongly suspect, with my completely uninformed and amateur powers, that director Stanley Kramer knew what he was doing here. That opinion is mostly based on one item: the handling of the bilingual nature of the trial. It's the story of a trial held in Germany with German defense attorneys and defendants and witnesses, yet with an American prosecutor, judges, and audience. The participants in the trial constantly make use of headphones, into which translators are speaking. At the beginning of the movie, the defense attorney is giving his opening statement in German. He is seen through a long shot from over the translator's shoulder. His voice is dim, while the translator's voice is prominent. This goes on for several sentences. As you get used to it, you think, hmm, that's a good way to handle it, though you suspect that it might make the movie a bit long. Then, there is a sudden zoom into the defense counsel, as he switches mid-sentence from German to accented English. You understand that in reality, he is still speaking German and the translator's voice is still ringing in the headphones of the America tribunal. It's important to understand that there is a huge language barrier in place here, but you don't have to wade through that to watch the movie. This crucial aspect was handled so well that I decided to trust Kramer in everything else.

The cast is impressive, a list of people who have already proved themselves in other roles. Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich, Burt Lancaster. Even the relatively small performances were absolutely perfect. Judy Garland broke my heart, guys. Shatner was good enough that I didn't recognize him until the credits rolled. The roles in this movie are so powerfully played that I feel certain that I will think first of them whenever I see these actors in other parts.

But while the acting was fantastic, they really seem only to be a part of the whole, a vehicle to get this story told. One of the things that I loved about this movie was it showed just how many shades of gray there can be (Perhaps the black and white film was a good choice, eh?). On trial are four judges, and each represented a different kind of mindset. Each approached the problem differently, but arrived at the same destination of assisting the Nazi government in sterilizing and executing innocent people. One was scared, and one was obedient. Only one was a really terrible person, who took the government's policies of hatred and ran with it. And finally, there was the tragic figure, a patriotic, brilliant, and dignified man who thought he was helping his country be great. As these men are on trial, you feel that all of Germany is, too. Where does the blame of letting something happen stop? Are the rest of the citizens of the world fully guiltless? The defense brings up Winston Churchill's praise of Hitler as late as 1938, as well as American Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes support of the idea of sterilizing the mentally incompetent.

Tense is maybe the word of the day for this movie. The German people are rebuilding, ashamed of what happened, embarrassed for their country and anxious to prove to the occupying Allies that they are not all Hitlers. The Soviet Union is making advances, and as a Cold War seems imminent, many U.S. officials want to make sure that the Germans are on their side. Both the defense and the prosecuting attorneys are passionate about their cases, one wanting to recoup some shred of dignity for Germany, the other haunted by memories of liberating Dachau and wanting to see justice done. And then there is the main judge of the case himself, as he is forced to pass judgment on a man that he respects within his own profession.

Judgment at Nuremberg is both an investment in time and emotion. Surprisingly, the three hour dialogue-driven film does not drag, though I suppose you have to be into that sort of thing. It raises a lot of questions and then leaves them for you to answer for yourself. It is a beautiful, powerful film that represents a very tense and sticky time. If I were a history teacher, I'd make it required viewing. As I am not, I'll just recommend it heavily. See this movie, even if it's only for Captain Kirk and Dorothy.


my special day.

My birthdays are traditionally underwhelming. I have no one to blame but myself. I don't like to make a big deal about my birthday. I hate it when people manage to bring up the fact that the anniversary of their birth is today or tomorrow or next month. It feels like a plea for attention and above the age of, oh, say 16, is just sort of obnoxious. (There are people whom I love that do this, and I'd like to state that I do love them still, but sometimes even people you love do annoying things.)

A notable exception was my twenty-first birthday, when I was just so over the top with excitement that I found myself unable to keep it in. (Addressing whether my excitement was indicative of a larger problem is not a topic for today's discussion.) People asked me how I was, and they were informed that it was my birthday. They reacted about the way that I do when other people do that. "Oh. Happy Birthday." I don't feel that I was trying to get attention, I was just excited. And maybe that is what other people are feeling, because it's their "special day."

Birthdays are not inherently special, but we live in a culture that makes them so. If you'd spent your whole life believing you'd been born on one day, only to find out at age 45 that you were actually born three months earlier, which day would you celebrate? Okay, probably both.

I can yammer on about silly cultural traditions all day long, but at the end of it all, I was still raised in this silly culture, and so I expect my special day, too. "You know, this birthday business is just an excuse for people to feel good about themselves and have a party. It's just another day that doesn't really mean anything. I suppose you could argue that it's a good time for reflection upon your life, but do you really need an assigned time for that? Wait, is that cake?"

Because of all the build-up that birthdays get, I always expect to feel different somehow on the actual day. I am apparently a very slow learner, because I never feel any different. I don't feel older or wiser or even sort of glowing. In fact, I have to keep reminding myself that on this very day in 1982, I made a wet and screaming entrance into the world. Hmm, I need to pay rent tomorrow...but it's my birthday today. I'm out of milk...on my birthday. This code that I wrote isn't quite working...on my birthday.

To sum up, I don't want to make a big deal on my birthday. But if someone else wants to make a big deal about my birthday, then that is just fine. Pass the cake, give me a silly crown to wear, just don't say that I asked for it. I'm just special today, that's all.


Christmas cakey.

Upon hearing that I was about to turn 25 without a ring on my finger, my Uncle Jack called me a "Christmas cakey." I was confused, because that doesn't make any sense at all. Is that like a Christmas cake? And if so, is that like a Christmas pie? I don't really eat cake at Christmas.

"A Christmas cakey?"

"You know, because it gets passed around and no one wants it."

"Oooooh, a fruitcake!"

"A Christmas cakey is how they say it in Japan."

I thought about how weird the Japanese were, that they adopted this English term and then pronounced it wrong. Granted, we do this sort of thing all the time, as it seems the French are often bitching about how we've stolen a word of theirs and tainted it with our German-derived pronunciations. Just go to a restaurant in Paris and ask what they've got "a la carte" and then taste the haughty French spit in your drink. It just never occurred to me that other cultures might do the same to us. And, given the word sake," to say "cakey" actually sounds like a pretty reasonable interpretation of "cake." What's really funny is how they've taken this phrase, Japanized the pronunciation and then applied it as a metaphor for women who don't get married young enough for arbitrary societal standards.

It makes you wonder, of all the things that we could have given the Japanese, why fruitcake? Did all the people who have received fruitcakes they didn't want finally catch upon the idea of sending them to foreign countries? I really wonder whether they just heard the custom of passing around fruitcakes or if perhaps they developed it on their own because even they didn't want them.

All these thoughts passed through my mind before it occurred to me that I'd just been insulted. Maybe that's why I'm still a Christmas cakey.

* Wiki research shows that the term "Christmas cake" is used in the UK. In Japan, it's not a fruitcake at all, but just a spongy one marinated in liquor. The cakes are often saved to be eaten the following Christmas as a symbolic high five to the Ghost of Christmas Past.

The cakes are also used in a growing New Years custom involving hurling them at the girls who turned 25 that year without nabbing a husband. This last part was completely made up by me, but if you saw it in Wikipedia, I bet you'd believe it.


we can always use some more electrical equipment.

My boyfriend is a collector of vintage electrical equipment. Most of you would say that he collects old, broken crap. Some days, that's what I say, too. But usually, I'm more generous with my phrasing, perhaps because I'm used to it. My ex-boyfriend also collected old, broken crap and there are members of my family who have old, broken crap collections, too. I should admit that I've held onto a piece of OBC longer than I should have once or twice, though usually, I'm more into ugly, kitschy crap.

Anyway, Josh and I were driving through Cary one day and happened upon the largest example of OBC that either of us had ever seen. Josh requested that I take out my new, working digital camera (not crap) and take pictures, as he could hardly add this particularly stellar piece to his bedroom-based collection.

I sort of like vintage electrical equipment, myself. (See what I did there? When I like it, it's called "vintage electrical equipment." Writers are shifty.) It's sort of fascinating to look at it and think that it used to be state of the art. Back then, the concept of a digital camera had not been born. Then I try to think of things that might be state of the art once my digital camera has become vintage electrical equipment, but I give up. I get as far as go-go-gadget helicopters and realize that I can't think outside the box enough to realize what would even be possible. The future is kinda fun that way.

But here's to the past.