Category Archives: From My Personal Desk…

40 Essential Albums: A List

I first published this in 2009, and decided it was time for an update!  The top ten are the same, but I’ve discovered some great new music since, and thought I would share!

I believe Elvis Costello said it best when he said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  It’s true that it’s impossible to capture the delicacy of music on paper, but I have many times been moved to explore new music based on what I read, and have been many times rewarded for my exploration.  It is only my hope that I might return the favor.  I’ve tried to abide by the general list rules, i.e. no greatest hits albums, etc.  I also accept that the best part about my list, and yours, is that they will be completely different.  So here they are, in loosely-ranked order.

40.  Yeasayer – Odd Blood

Difficult to categorize, Yeasayer occupies a unique place in the sonic landscape of my iPod.  Pulsing, psychedelic electronics drive the beat, with sometimes poppy, sometimes obtuse arrangements driving off-kilter lyrical musings, all showcasing nuanced, binary tenor vocalists.  A few tracks are impenetrable, but most are transcendent.  High points are the soaring “I Remember,” “ONE,” and the impossibly catchy “Ambling Alp.”  Watch the somewhat disturbing video accompanying “Madder Red” if you have a moment; it will stick with you.

39.  The The – Mind Bomb

The criticisms that might be levied at most of Matt Johnson’s offerings are present here: reliance on synths (despite some great guitar work from Johnny Marr) give it a slightly dated sound and it’s a bit uneven.  But few artists capture such naked emotion in both voice and lyric, and Mind Bomb stands atop his impressive body of work.  Whether he’s pointing the gun at religion, politics, failed love, or himself, his aim is unfaltering, and in this album’s finest moments the result is a tour-de-force of the human soul laid bare.

38.  Counting Crows – August and Everything After

Perhaps the last remnants of folk in pop music found life in this album, which in 1993 sounded unlike anything else I’d heard.  Though it is melancholy throughout, it’s never truly dark and even its most equivocal lyrics retain a sweet humanity very little pop music manages.  The best moments of the record never saw the radio, notably “Sullivan Street” and “Anna Begins” (the latter of which I count among the most touching songs I’ve ever heard), and there isn’t an ounce of filler here.  I think that had August remained obscure it would have been critically regarded as a masterpiece.

37.  The Shins – Wincing the Night Away

James Mercer is a genius with his pen; I place him in the same category with Roger Waters, John Lennon, and Paul Simon in his ability to turn a phrase.  In Wincing his pen finds its deepest well, to say nothing of the intricate song construction.  The opening track, “Sleeping Lessons” wafts in on a pillow of lazily trembling organ, building languidly into a punchy rock tune, with the lines: Eviscerate your fragile frame/And spill it out on ragged floor/A thousand different versions of yourself.  “Australia” is possibly their catchiest number to date with the lyrics: Never dreamt of such sterile hands/You keep them folded in your lap /Or raise them up to beg for scraps/You know he’s holding you down with the tips of his fingers just the same.  And perhaps my favorite from the dreamy “A Comet Appears”: Every post you can hitch your faith on, Is a pie in the sky/Chock full of lies/A tool we devise to make sinking stones fly.  With musical arrangements that equal the grace of its poetry, Wincing is an absolutely brilliant achievement.

36.  Tegan and Sara – The Con

You can’t hold it against Tegan and Sara that Taylor Swift likes them; these twins were rocking ten years before.  Rollicking, tense, pretty, harsh, uplifting, crushing…this record has it all, in 14 tracks tightly executed and delivered without a wasted beat.  Seldom does music this glossy have such an emotional core, with each track both dressed to the nines and nakedly honest.  It’s not surprising they crossed from Lilith Fair into the mainstream a few albums later, but this is their swan song, easily one of the best pop records in a decade.  “The Con” and “Are You Ten Years Ago” are among the best, though it’s hard to pick a favorite.

35.  Barenaked Ladies – Rock Spectacle

This is the first of a few live albums on my list, and while it’s a bit of a cheat given that such albums tend to be greatest hits compilations, in this case I feel it’s warranted.  BNL own the stage in live performance, and the emotion and potency captured in every track of Rock leave the studio versions sounding lackluster.  It’s not that their studio albums are weak or inferior; it’s that they are just that good live.  They cut loose and leave it all on stage, and as a result it’s hard to listen to original recordings of “What a Good Boy” or “Break Your Heart” after hearing these versions.  This goes for most of the tracks; it’s the next best thing to being there.

34.  XTC – Nonsuch

Due to a breakdown by lead singer Andy Partridge resulting in permanent stage fright, XTC never toured past 1982, ten years before this album was released, which is a shame as it is their most accessible work.  At times too smart for its own good, Nonsuch explores typically weighty fare (the assassination of JFK, war, evolution, the dark side of human nature, etc.) often with a wink and a smile and ties these to lilting and often catchy pop-infused melodies.  The result is a highly-listenable collection of very intelligent songs full of clever metaphor and musical styling that offer hidden treasure, listen after listen.  Highlights include “My Bird Performs” and “World Wrapped in Grey.”

33.  Deep Sea Diver – History Speaks

This is one slick record.  Laden with pretty piano chops and mixed to perfection, this freshman offering from Jessica Dobson, who’s worked with The Shins, Connor Oberst, and the Yeah Yeah Yeah, is at times wistful, but mostly shot full of adrenaline.   In between the occasional longing piece displaying the full power of Dobson’s sultry crooning, most of this album is anthemic, with danceable rhythms, infectious hooks, and groovy melodies.  This album is cool as hell.  If there’s a complaint, it’s that it always seems over too soon.  Check out “Ships” and “You Go Running.”

32. Def Leppard – Hysteria

While it’s possible that no other genre of music was as bloated and full of itself as hair-metal, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of fun to be had in that Aqua-Netted mess.  Def Leppard wins the place-holder spot for their peers: Bon Jovi, Poison, Warrant, etc. all get a slice of #32, but Hysteria narrowly edges out Slippery When Wet for the crown. This isn’t to say Lep was superior to Bon Jovi, but Hysteria may have been the quintessential album of the era, and that era has a special, if funny-looking, place in my heart.  It’s mega-overproduced, juvenile, damn-near reprehensible arena rock aimed at the basest hormones of its audience…and I love it.

31. The Chameleons – Strange Times

While the U.S. was doing lines of coke off Culture Club records in Regan-era prosperity, the UK was singing a more somber tune in the early to mid ’80s as unemployment shook the economy, and from the blue-collar town of Manchester The Chameleons emerged among the best post-punk acts of the time.  While groups such as Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen choose a more sparse and jagged approach, The Chameleons wove intricate drum work and simple but potent guitar riffs into their more melodic, if still occasionally bleak sound.  Though a feeling of isolation and emotional turmoil permeates much of Strange Times, there is a thinly veiled optimism peeking through the cracks, both lyrically and musically, that give the album a depth that’s worth exploring.  More mature than their previous offerings, and less vitriolic, this remains their best effort.  “Swamp Thing,” “Time” and “Caution” are high points.

30.  Weezer – Weezer

Given their later offerings I often wonder if this album was half an accident, but if so it was a perfect one.  Weezer brought cool to the quasi-intellectual outsider in a record full of no-frills, straightforward rock songs which adroitly explored many of the seldom-avoided social pratfalls of being young.  In the musical landscape of contrived, grungy teen angst, songs such as “The World has Turned and Left Me Here” and “Only in Dreams” were refreshingly honest and authentic.  There really isn’t a weak track on the record: even the ostensibly silly “Buddy Holly” is a rollicking shove-back at being bullied.  Fifteen years after its release, Weezer remains timelessly original and real from beginning to end.

29.  For Against – Coalesced

I can’t remember how I came across this band, but I’ve never met another soul who’s heard of them.  Regardless, this is one of the most elegantly written and crafted albums I’ve ever heard.  Simple, atmospheric guitar arpeggios provide a dream-like backdrop for Jeffrey Running’s earnestly passionate vocals and lyrics in song after song, each reveling in its own beauty, building and deepening into shimmering bliss.  This is the kind of album you can sink into and let take you away.  There just isn’t enough music like this, and I find this album a good friend every time I return.

28.  Death Cab for Cutie – Plans

I’d never heard of this (oddly named) band until “Soul Meets Body” hit the radio a few years ago, to a cacophony of “sellout!” cries from heartbroken hipsters.  Since, I’ve listened to much of their catalog, and I think this is their finest hour, though I cannot see any notable difference between this and their other work.  I still vividly remember driving in Clearwater for work years ago, spinning this over and over; I think sometimes an album hits you at the right time.  I have weird memories, like picturing the opening to “Different Names” as, rather than played near a crackling fire, as played instead upon a slowly burning piano.  “Brothers on a Hotel Bed” is one of the prettiest sad songs ever written.

27.  Kenna – Make Sure They See My Face

It’s hard to fathom how the Ethiopian-born Kenna isn’t a staple of nearly every radio station in the country.  Apparently critics can’t seem to properly categorize him, which may be one of the most tragic results of our compulsive human need to place everything in a box.  A sort of hip-hop/rock hybrid with influences from Stevie Wonder to Depeche Mode, his rhythms are challenging, his lyrics thoughtful, and his voice sublime.  If you can’t enjoy “Baptized in Blacklight,” you’re listening with the wrong ears.

26. Shiny Toy Guns – We Are Pilots

Thinking this was a Shins album (mis-filed and I clearly wasn’t paying much attention), We Are Pilots became my best accidental/random purchase ever.  Falling sonically somewhere between The Thompson Twins and The Knife, Shiny Toy Guns merge catchy techno beats with throwback synths to a borderline transcendent result.  “Le Disko” grabbed some attention as the album’s single and stands as it’s most modern work.  Tracks such as “Rainy Monday” and “You are the One,” however, party like it’s 1989.  While some of the album is semi-vapid lyrically, the title track and “When they Came for Us” round out the record as its most sincere material.  I have yet to tire of any song on this album, after a ridiculous number of listens.

25. Ra Ra Riot – The Rhumb Line

Ra Ra Riot isn’t the only rock band that relies on strings rather than guitars to drive its sound, but they may be the best.  Before cellist Alexandra Lawn departed as they moved to a more synthesized sound, they produced two matchless records, the strength of which will likely keep them selling out small venues for years to come.  The Rhumb Line was the debut, and it overflows with an unrestrained energy and earnestness that most modern music cannot touch.  “Ghost Under Rocks” perhaps showcases everything the band is capable of; “Winter ’05” is the Beatles had George and Paul swapped their axes for strings, and “Suspended in Gaffa” has to be the best ever Kate Bush cover with a male lead singer.

24.  Sarah McLachlan – Fumbling Toward Ecstasy

Though she broke out with her next album Surfacing, which was aimed closer to the pop-sensibilities of the day, Fumbling Toward Ecstasy finds Sarah unrestrained and fearless.  Her angel voice is complimented with the addition of more musically and rhythmically bold arrangements, sometimes sparse, sometimes exultant, with a songwriting depth that all but evaporated in her later work.  From the smoldering longing of “Elsewhere” to the obsessive pulse of “Possession,” she reaches her most intimate and stripped moments here.

23.  Mark Lenover – The Wreckage

Still relatively unknown, I recently discovered Mark’s work in an independent film and became instantly enthralled.  Sonically falling somewhere between Neil Young and Pink Floyd, with modern synths and electronic rhythms, and lyrically comparable to Leonard Cohen, this is compelling and unique art.  On his site, Mark indicates that he wrote this, his eighth album, in coping with a recent diagnosis of schizophrenia, and knowing that, its moments of pain and sadness become that much more poignant.  But unlike other similarly burdened artists like Syd Barrett and Daniel Johnston, whose work clearly reveals the fracturing psyche below, Mark’s grip remains stronger than his demons; we only know of his struggle because he lets us in.  And it’s not an easy place to visit: “Always Take Your Medicine” is a harrowing treatise on the fallout from chemical treatment; “Malice” is frighteningly beautiful and dark, a view of its victim through the eyes of mental illness.  But despite its oppressive source material, Mark lines the atmosphere with silver; the emotional residue of listening to his music is always positive, even when I’m mired mentally in its hopelessly weighty themes.

22.  The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang

If Bruce Springsteen had been born in 1980, I’m pretty certain he’d sound a lot like the Gaslight Anthem.  Hailing from New Jersey, the Boss’ influence on lead singer Brian Fallon is hard to miss, but this material is anything but derivative.  The Gaslight Anthem is one of the last vestiges of pure rock’n’roll left in modern music, and though my wife and I continue our gridlock over their best album (she insists The ’59 Sound is superior), I have to give the nod to Slang.  I agree that ’59 has a grit that Slang’s polish misses, but with a string of highlights in “Diamond Church Street Choir,” “Stay Lucky,” “Queen of Lower Chelsea,” and the title track, Slang stands a hairsbreadth above.  This is old cars, broken hearts, battered guitars, cracked leather jackets, and empty whisky bottles.  This is rock.

21.  Kate Bush – The Hounds of Love

Some of this record is experimental to the point of difficulty, but its peaks: the title track, “Running Up That Hill,” and “Cloudbusting” encapsulate the best the British siren has to offer.  Discovered at the age of 16 by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, Kate, with her achingly beautiful and haunted voice, remains the touchstone for all female vocalists I encounter.  While some of her later work is more straightforward, Hounds plays whimsically in the maelstrom, showcasing her rapturous disregard for convention at the time of her creative apex.

20.  Better than Ezra – Closer

Better than Ezra achieves that most elusive of musical elements, that in my opinion is the hallmark of a master of the craft: mood.  To me, mood is the place the music takes you every time you hear it, its own unique square of real estate in the mind, or the heart, or the soul.  It can be as simple as a sun drenched meadow or as convoluted as the topography of a broken heart, but a great band has the ability to take you exactly where they want you to go, and Better than Ezra has always been one of my favorite magic carpet rides.  Closer is an upbeat album, and while there are heavy moments, fun is never far from most of these tracks.  While it’s true that happy songs tend to fade long before their sad and darker counterparts, BTE genuinely captures that life-is-good moment better than anyone, and there’s always room in my playlist for that feeling when it’s as real as it is here.  My favorite track on this record is “Rolling.”  Like so much of what BTE can do, “Rolling” isn’t about driving nowhere on a Sunday afternoon – it is driving nowhere on a Sunday afternoon.

19.  Imogen Heap – Speak for Yourself

This album ambushed me.  My wife had it on repeat for a few nights while we were gaming, and while this isn’t my usual fare, after it sank in, it never let go.  While Imogen did interesting work before and after (Frou Frou was great), this album is simply her best.  There’s hardly a weak moment on the record, a synth-pop masterpiece from an exceptionally talented songwriter and producer.  “Goodnight and Go” is the best stalker song yet (sorry Sting), and despite its unfortunate treatment by remixers, her original “Hide and Seek, a beautifully layered a cappella elegy to a crumbling relationship, is one of the few pieces of real genius in modern music.  Oily marks appear on walls/where pleasure moments hung before./The takeover, the sweeping insensitivity of this still life.

18.  Toad the Wet Sprocket – Bread and Circus

I think that Toad is among the most misunderstood, or at least overlooked bands in recent history.  Lead singer/songwriter Glen Phillips was 14 when he joined the older members of the group, and was 17 when this first album was completed in 1989.  Done for the cost of $600 and as a result mostly laid down live in the studio, when this underground tape caught the attention of the large labels the band insisted it be cut “as is” with no re-recording, and so it remained in its original format: rough edged and alive with the raw energy that so often gets washed out in heavy production.  The maturity of Glen’s songwriting for such a young balladeer is shocking, often reflecting the insight and self-awareness of a man twice or three times his age.  Nevertheless there’s a youthful angst that drives some of the writing that had all but vanished by the time they reached commercial audiences two albums later.  The combination of these elements make for an album without peer.

17.  White Lies – To Lose My Life…

The consequences of digital music sometimes create problems with differentiating albums; I bought Ritual and To Lose My Life… at the same time, and they sort of run together for me: I can’t tell you what’s on which without looking at the track listings.  But the point is, these British lads, with their throwback 80’s post-punk sound, are one of the best new acts touring.  Led by Harry McVeigh, whose baritone is a velvet-wrapped claymore, their synthy, brooding anthems are stadium-ready, but thoughtful enough to reveal nuance after repeated listens.  Life gets the nod for tracks such as “From the Stars” and “The Price of Love,” which tell vivid stories in sharp detail, as well as the incomparable “Death,” which is one of their most essential tracks.

16.  Mark Lenover – The Girl in the Window

Having heard the title track as the credits ran on an indie film, I purchased this album in full and haven’t stopped spinning it since.  Where The Wreckage is more inward-facing, this album is populated with otherworldly denizens and edifices, wrapped in metaphor and cloaked in twilight, begging to be explored.  We see the world through the hazy vision of Mark’s constructs…a tortured mother, a boy with his music box, a hypochondriac…or are they?  We see only a glimpse of each through a keyhole, and unlocking their mysteries isn’t likely in the first few listens.  Even more veiled are tracks like “The Girl in the Window,” which is equal parts eerie and rapturous; in fact most of the album could be described that way.  It is both the darkness, and the candle that pushes it back.

15.  Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials

How did she get popular in the mire of vapid modern music?  I don’t know and I don’t care; her rise restored my faith in humanity.  This album is so lyrically dense and layered, that I am guessing that its secrets are arcane to all but few; those that truly listen are rewarded with so much more than just incredible vocals and sweeping arrangements.  With twelve tracks and not an ounce of fluff, from the soulful (“Lover to Lover”) to the enchanted (“Only If for a Night”) and the bombastic (“Heartlines”), this is a journey worth taking over and over.  The only sad thing about this record is that it’s so damn good that I can’t imagine them reaching these heights again.

14.  Fleetwood Mac – The Dance

Few bands are as talented as Fleetwood Mac and I’d been a fan for years, but the live The Dance brought them closer to me than ever before.  There’s more new material here than on the usual live album, and “Bleed to Love Her” is a favorite, but it’s the older stand-bys that shine.  “Everywhere” sparkles live in a way the studio could never match, and “Dreams” is so rich and full it dazzles.  Stevie Nicks brings such a sadness with her in “Landslide” it’s hard not to feel her loneliness.  “Silver Springs,” a song which didn’t make Rumors during a time when Stevie and Lindsay Buckingham were splitting up, is delicate and mournful as it begins but ultimately crescendos into a crashing wave; the live performance sees Lindsay and Stevie’s gazes locked as it crests and rolls back, that old ember between them glowing red for a brief moment.

13.  Better than Ezra – Deluxe

There’s a good deal of nostalgia attached to this selection, as I think it was the first time I felt like I had “discovered” something no one else had.  BTE had reached some commercial success with “Good,” a simple but catchy rock tune that was heavy on hook and light on substance.  But I was floored the first time I listened to Deluxe all the way through; expecting standard alt-rock fluff I instead found a spectrum of musical stylings, from the country lilt of “Coyote,” the gentle cadence of the gorgeous “Porcelain,” to the folky twang of “This Time of Year.”  Along with an impressive bag of musical variety, the songwriting is mature and self-aware, clearly personal but very accessible at the same time.  Everyone knew “Good,” but I knew what they were really about.  Better than Ezra is still one of my favorite groups, and this album still sounds incredible.

12.  The Mary Onettes – Islands

Scandinavia seems to be divided sharply between musical poles of the delicately gossamer and the violently assaultive.  Sweden’s The Mary Onettes (like, Marionettes) falls in the first camp; this is an enveloping cloud of ethereal pop, with just enough emotional heft to keep it tethered to the earth.  I am completely smitten with this band and like every single one of their songs; for me, they simply can do no wrong, and I have to force myself not to over-listen.  Islands gets the nod as their best for the inclusion of “Puzzles” and “Disappearance of My Youth,” the latter of which is probably my favorite song of the last decade.  For gauzy, atmospheric guitar/synth pop, it doesn’t get better than this.

11.  Toad the Wet Sprocket – Dulcinea

Toad hit their peak here, their fourth and most dynamic album.  Glen’s songwriting and the band’s chemistry had reached a level that each song became its own entity, a complete act musically and lyrically.  Navigating thematically deep waters, the empathy of the songs is perhaps what stands out the most.  “Crowing” is in intimate glimpse into a woman’s loneliness, and Glen can bring you close enough to feel the silent tears.  “Fly From Heaven” brings you into the struggle of a man challenging faith and its consequences, while “Windmills” breezily floats after the elusive peace that comes from letting go.  There’s a place that only Glen and company can find, and Dulcinea is the best version of that place.

10.  New Order – Substance

This selection is just short of flat out cheating, because this is essentially a collection of singles…BUT…many of the tracks are re-recordings and remixes which represent some of my favorite versions, especially “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “True Faith,” which means I can kind of break the rules here.  New Order remains in a category by themselves in terms of electronica; there’s an organic feel to the music, especially in the simple but powerful guitar leads, that so much techno loses in digital space.  Here New Order offers dance-ready, extended mixes of many of their classics, yet even given this treatment the songs maintain their flesh-and-blood gravitas.  Substance has plenty of it.

9.  Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here

In the pantheon of great bands and albums in the genre of what we call “rock” or “pop” in the last 50 years, Pink Floyd has no superior.  Whatever “druggy” stigma that clung to them based on founder Syd Barrett’s weird, psychedelic whimsy is largely unwarranted, though it kept me away from them for years.  It’s not that this music can’t take you somewhere if you listen to it in a darkened room, because it can; but by the time they evolved to the sound that defined them in their 6th LP Meddle, their command of the craft was inimitable.  Roger Water’s vision and razor-blade pen balanced with David Gilmour’s unmistakable, crystalline guitar work and Rick Wright’s jazz-influenced keys, arranged with the aplomb of a classical composer, culminated in albums that were astounding in scope, both thematically and sonically.  Wish You Were Here, a missive to erstwhile front-man Barrett, is among their finest work, the title track being a favorite acoustic Floyd number, a multifaceted musing on losing touch. The two-part, bookending “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is the soul of the record, this the 26-minute epic dedicated to Syd’s gradual loss of self.  Hauntingly gentle and melancholy in prelude then erupting to the exultant, this is one of the best Floyd experiences, including a roaring sax interlude by Dick Parry, who’s touch adds great dimension to their soundscape.  A truly sublime piece of music.

8.  Depeche Mode – 101

The masters of dark electronica recorded their 101st concert as a double-live album, and as I recall the second disk, marooned from its partner, was the first used CD I ever bought.  This was my first real step into Mode’s shrouded universe.  The collection of songs reads like a greatest hits list of their early work, but the reason this appears here is the energy and lifeforce the live performance infused into the music.  The heartbeat of the masses brings this to a rapturous pitch and adds that living pulse that studio-generated techno often lacks.  Some favorite versions of songs exist here as well, especially the layered building of “People are People,” and “Everything Counts,” which finds it’s lushest arrangement here, the crowd ultimately pushing this concert-closer into Mode-ecstasy.  In fact, the crowd is a tangible force on this album more than any other that comes to mind.

7.  Simon & Garfunkel – The Concert In Central Park

One of the world’s most golden voices performing with one of America’s finest songwriters for their hometown, this is a magical album.  The experience of listening to them is transcendent: no other group has the power of mood that Simon and Garfunkel manifest to take you to exactly where they want you to be.  The beauty of their harmony is unmatched in anything else I’ve heard, and the melodic verse in pieces like “Scarborough Fair” “Sound of Silence” and “The Boxer” are so gorgeous they’d to lift you to the heavens if the words weren’t so earthy and so very human.  There is something ethereal about their music that is beyond words.

6.  Morphine – Cure for Pain

Dirty sax, swervy bass, and Mark Sandman’s syrupy baritone vocals – this ride is swanky and sexy as hell.  One of the few acts to eschew guitar as a lead instrument, Morphine pirates rather uncharted waters.  Sax player Dana Colley has the chops to play both a Tenor and Baritone at the same time, and his scorching growl is the dusky soul of their sound.  Cure finds them at their pain-killing finest; from the opening slide-bass riff of “Buena” Mark beckons you into his cloudy night…take that step and you’re spellbound as his thrall.  In their smoky haze there’s much to explore, from the sleepy sway of “Candy,” to the snarling, jazzy “Head with Wings,” and my favorite, the title track – a laid back groove with a ripping sax solo.  This stuff feels so good, everyone should try it once.

5.  Depeche Mode – Violator

“Enjoy the Silence” was the first Depeche Mode song I ever heard, and I remember it being the first time I acknowledged techno as a legitimate musical format.  Violator is beyond legitimate…it’s mesmerizing.  Previous records were amazing, but a gutsy swagger bloomed in Mode with that red album-cover rose that thrust them to the next strata.  With songs like “Personal Jesus” and “World in My Eyes” the lusty undercurrents that had ever run deep tore through the surface and Mode was reborn.  With this metamorphosis none of their mystique was lost; the understated “Waiting for the Night” is chillingly pretty and dark, while “Halo” revels in it’s own sweet destruction.  Very seldom does an outfit hit its mark so perfectly as Depeche Mode did here.  In its sphere, Violator has no rival.

4.  The National – Boxer

It’s hard to find the words to explain the secrets this album has to offer if you’re willing to surrender to it.  Musically, there’s nothing extraordinary about any single facet of The National, and yet they achieve a sound that is absolutely their own and like nothing else.  Matt Berninger’s deep baritone is the weighty centerpiece of the arrangements, which are simple and mellow and gorgeously pristine.  The creative use of rhythm gives a heartbeat to these preponderant hymns, reaching such an endearingly personal and intimate place that most musicians can only dream of.  “Fake Empire” was the first to captivate me, its modest piano lead softly backdrops the golden vocals, then gradually builds into a explosion of horns as the song peaks.  “Slow Show”‘ is another personal favorite; as close and charming as the first movement is, it’s the quietly passionate closing that melts: You know I dreamed about you/for twenty-nine years/before I saw you/and I missed you for twenty nine years.

3.  Billy Joel – The Stranger

If it’s matter of the heart, no one tells it better than the streetlife serenader.  Billy’s nakedly honest, blue-collar-rugged songwriting set to his virtuoso touch on the ivories is all the magic New York can weave.  Whether the storyteller, with the three-part masterpiece “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” the Romeo in his leave-it-all-behind anthem “Only the Good Die Young,” or the sage, in the sweet, piercing deconstruction of “She’s Always a Woman,” there’s only one Piano Man.  The Stranger is all the yearning, joy, bitterness, and vitality Billy has to give captured in one absolutely incomparable record.

2.  Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon

What Pink Floyd achieved with Dark Side will likely never be matched.  The album breaks only once, as the record had to be turned over; the rest is a seamless, staggeringly intuitive tour of the darker aspects of the human experience.  Roger Water’s vision of a concept work covering the weight of time, the lure of insanity, the sorrow of war, the perils of wealth, and the final journey of death was realized in such grand fashion that it became a cultural icon almost immediately.  Beyond the peerless songwriting, the album was years ahead of its time musically and technically, every sound, every phrase envisioned and executed flawlessly in a time long before automation or digital recording.  And for all the precision and unrivaled musical crafting, it is rather the unclothed humanity flowing through its veins that makes the album so irresistibly potent and vital.  “Time,” with its ticking, inevitable introduction, rapier poetry, and slow-scorching guitar lead remains my favorite individual piece yet, while Claire Torre’s primal, wordless vocals over Rick’s subtle keyboard work in “Great Gig in the Sky” stands as one of the most powerful pieces of music ever recorded.  One of the most consummately perfect albums of all time, Dark Side of the Moon is pure genius.

1.  The Cure – Disintegration

My love affair with this album dates back almost half my life, and the years have done nothing but deepen my devotion.  From the opening, shimmering moments of “Plainsong” its lush, hypnotic whisper carries you into it’s delicate embrace and doesn’t let go until the final, wistful moments of the album slip away.  Though the songs themselves are unconnected, the spirit of Disintegration flows, creeps, dances, and shines throughout each, as they revel in extended prelude, swirl in reams of entrancing sound and lyric, and fade like vanishing fog.  Darkly alluring, these vast sonic landscapes blend the simple elements of echoing guitars, pulsing keyboards, and slithering bass into a kaleidoscope-tapestry interlaced with the precious, restrained tremble of Robert Smith’s voice weaving bittersweet melancholy into each thread.  Timeless and achingly beautiful, Disintegration is like nothing else on this earth.  Its heart beats somewhere beyond the boundaries of any other music.


Selling in Hell (Part 4 of 4)

My summer selling books in Texas, concluded.

Ben and I were both starting to make some noise.  Now our names were showing up in the Pacesetter, the Southwestern booklet sent out every week showcasing the highest book salesmen of the summer.  Ben was ahead of me, but our competition was becoming a friendship, and we helped each other stay motivated every day, the two of us against the world.  We’d become close as trench-mates, and I learned that all my knee-jerk reactions to Ben had been wrong; he proved to be a better compatriot than I could have asked for.  We even broke the stentorian rules laid down by our managers, strictly forbidding any kind of fun, and had a few drinks together one Sunday night; we figured we’d earned it, and nothing was going to stop us at that point.

Now with three weeks left, I was still under the halfway mark.  To further complicate things, I had to begin in a new town, as I had worked every street and country road in Bridge City and the surrounding area.  The small town of Lumberton, just north of Beaumont, was my target, but I had no coaches, teachers, or principals to help me.  I had to start over as I had in the beginning, but things were easier now.  I’d slowed down my Yankee-clipped speech, which often terrified the locals, to something closer to the Texas drawl and learned that the use of y’all and fixin’ were essential to effective communication.  I’d demoed the books over 1,000 times and had encountered every objection to buying that could be conjured.  I was no Ryan, but I was seasoned and confident.  For the first time, I outsold Ben.  After that week, I didn’t lose again.

The next Monday I met my most memorable and magnanimous family of the summer, the Mills.  They liked the books, but were even more enamored with the details of this insane job, especially with the delivery.

“You have to deliver these books yourself?” Mr. Mills asked.  “Hundreds of books and all that weight in your little car?”

“I guess they don’t want to pay for individual shipping,” I shrugged.  “They’re pretty cheap up there at the corporate offices.”

“Your car will sink,” he insisted.  “Come with me,” he said, and led me to a barn at the back of the expansive property.  He walked toward the massive covered bulk of what could only be a large vehicle, and yanked the canvas tarp free, revealing a dark blue 80’s model Ford F250 pickup.  “Why don’t you use this?”  My jaw dropped.  I had, to that point, ignored the conundrum of delivering all those heavy books, but this would make it so much easier.  I was speechless for a moment, but at last accepted with grateful thanks.  Then he let me shoot his rifle, the first and only time in my life to date I’ve ever fired a gun.  I shot it at the ground, and managed not to miss.  It was getting on late in the day and they asked me to stay for dinner; I declined because there were many books yet to sell before the Bahamas, so they insisted that I join them at summer’s end.  I agreed.

By this point, I was selling a set or two every day, netting around $140 in profit each.  Ryan asked me to help a struggling first year in her territory, so I drove an hour and a half one morning and sold three sets in half a day with her shadowing me.  As the last days were winding down, my goal was in sight.  But the crucial element would be in delivering well, and I would have to perform flawlessly in that task to earn the trip; nothing really counts until it’s delivered.

There was, in the book-field, what we called “strong” and “weak” sales.  “Strong” were those in which we received the entire amount, or at least half up front.  “Weak” were those customers that committed to buy at the end of the summer, but gave no deposit.  Strong sales almost always came through, but weak sales were an altogether different hobgoblin.  I would need to realize a high percentage of the weak, or come November I would be freezing in Indiana while my colleagues sipped boat drinks in the Caribbean.  I picked up the blue truck from the Mills’ barn and began the grueling process of going back to every house I sold, delivering and demoing the books again.  The strong customers were happy to see me, and delighted to receive their handsome and elegant volume sets.  For the weak sales, the following were the typical responses (if anyone actually came to the door):

“Oh, yeah.  I completely forgot.  Can you come back in a month?”

“My wife told me about this.  We’re not interested.”

“Someone got fired/died/left the state/is in prison.”

“I’ve never seen you before in my life.”

As the weak units failed to pan out time and time again, I felt those sandy beaches slipping away.    Soaked with sweat in the un-air-conditioned vehicle on my second day of deliveries, my frustrations were compounded when, on some lonely country road, the big truck overheated and died.  I walked a few sun-scorched miles to a payphone and called Mr. Mills, apologizing profusely for killing his vehicle.  He came and picked me up, 45 minutes away, and we loaded the remainder of my books into his sedan to get me back to my car.  I’d lost a lot of day, and time was running short.

The next day I loaded the gray Oldsmobile with books until it dragged the pavement like a pot-bellied pig.  Drastic measures were required, so I attempted to make sales out of nothing at all.  I went to families who’s ordered just the first volumes early in the summer, and brought out the rest to complete the set.  “I know you only looked at two, but aren’t the rest of these incredible?”  Then to the weak customers, I stopped asking if they still wanted the books, and started demoing them again as if they’d never seen them.  Once they remembered how much they liked them, they began to buy.  I even managed to sell a few more volumes to people I had missed all summer, just knocking on doors with a full set in my arms.

I delivered my last set late Friday afternoon, and I was ready to turn tail-lights to Texas and never look back at that hellishly hot state, but I had one more stop to make.  I rolled up in my exhausted gray car to the Mills’ home outside Lumberton to thank them for their kindness.  They came outside and insisted on taking me to dinner.  We ate at Sartin’s in Beaumont, a seafood restaurant where they feed you fried shrimp, bar-be-cue crab, fish, and Boudain (Cajun sausage) platter-style until you black out.  After living on canned tuna fish, ham sandwiches and cereal for three months, it was the best meal I’d ever eaten.

The next morning I packed up and said my goodbyes to the Clouds.  I boxed up the books I had left, including a set I kept for my brother and sister.  As I did the math on what I had to turn in and what I had collected, I would clear almost $9,000 in nine weeks.  Words could not express my relief at having nothing more to sell, nothing more to deliver.  But neither could they express my sense of accomplishment for getting through that summer and not giving up.  The book-field had tested me and taken me to brink, time and time again.  Few experiences in my life have taught me more about myself, or forced me to dig down so far to find out what I’m made of.

“What kind of nonsense are you bailing on me for?  Some debate camp?” Ben asked with a smile, helping me load my last box.  He’d lost over thirty pounds lugging that book-bag all over Texas and barely looked like the same guy I’d met in Nashville.  “Who’s gonna be my competitive partner now?”

“You don’t need me, you book-selling machine,” I said, laughing.  We caught each other in a bear-hug.  “I don’t know if I could have done it without you,” I said.

“Same here, brother, and you know I mean it,” he said.  I started the car to begin the long trip back to Nashville that would take me through New Orleans, where I’d meet up with my father and brother on the way.  “Hey, J,” he called as I backed from the drive, “I know we don’t talk units during the week, but I have to know.  Did you make it?”

“1,640,” I said.

“I’ll see you in the Bahamas,” he said, grinning from ear to ear.

“I know you will.”


And he did.  We both went to the Bahamas, as did Ryan and a few others from our Org.  There were almost a hundred that made the trip, and it was incredible, though sleeping four to a room (with one key) was a bit cramped.  It didn’t matter; we were on the beach or crowding the local bars, swapping stories from the book-field and enjoying what we’d earned.

Though making the trip and the money seemed the goal all summer, these things are long gone.  What remains, and what cannot be lost or spent, is the experience itself.  I came back stronger after that summer’s work.  And it wasn’t the books I sold that strengthened me, but rather the books I didn’t.  “Yes” is easy.  “No” is hard.  And as the “no’s”  piled on, they became heavier and heavier to bear.  But then slowly, as a stream carves a mountain, my fear and doubt wore away, replaced with a resistance to failure that only repetition can fortify.  At the end of the summer, looking back to the mountain and the path I carved, it was hard to believe I got through it.  It still is.  But I did, and whenever the “no’s” and the failures threaten to overwhelm, I have a place I can go, a place on a sun-burned road near the gulf, where I can find the strength to try the next door.

Selling in Hell (Part 3 of 4)

My summer selling books in Texas, continued…

Breakfast, positive affirmations in the diner parking lot and we were off again.  It hadn’t rained yet, but it rained that day, alternating between a drizzle and a downpour.  By mid-afternoon I was soaked to my boxer shorts, sprinting from porch to porch to and just trying to keep my book samples dry.  Late in the day a sympathetic mother let me in and offered me a towel.  I showed her the Student Handbooks, but her toddler was several years from needing them, so I tried the children’s set.  I don’t know if she liked the book she saw, or just felt sorry for me, but she ordered one.  I didn’t sell anything else that day, but at least I had something to bring back to headquarters.

Friday brought another zero day, but Saturday earned me my first student Handbooks sold; I sold volumes I and II of the set to a family.  My total units sold for the week: 17.  Just 1,583 to go to hit my goal.  As Ben and I loaded up to drive to Houston for the Sunday Org meeting, I felt like a failure.  As everyone revealed their units sold for the week, I was to the rear of the pack.  Rob hadn’t sold much either.  He hated his territory and his spirits were lower than mine.  Ryan took me aside at the meeting and asked if I wanted to have a “follow” day with him, shadowing him for all his calls, and I agreed.  If nothing else it was one less lonely day in the book field, and maybe I’d learn something.  I took Ben back to headquarters that night, and set off in the morning for College Station, home of Texas A&M University, to watch the master at work.

Ryan’s approach and demo were effortless, his five summers of experience having rendered him unshakable.  It was almost as if the close was a foregone conclusion from the first few words; he didn’t take no for an answer, but he seldom had to.  He got in almost every door, and sold five full sets of books that day – one hundred twenty five units.  Seeing it done made it seem more plausible to me.  When I went to the field Tuesday, all the confidence that they’d so diligently cultivated in sales school was back.  With one day of the week already gone, I was determined to go into the next Sunday meeting at the top of the Org.  Head down, I worked late into the evening, selling a two-volume set around 8:30.  On Wednesday I sold another set.  On Thursday, another.  Two on Friday.  Two more on Saturday.  At this pace I’d never make it, but I didn’t care; at least I was selling, and I was getting better.

Ben was doing well, I knew it, but we weren’t sharing our numbers.  “You’ll find out Sunday,” he told me when I asked how many units he’d sold.  At the Sunday meeting I learned he’d passed the hundred mark, but my 70 was one of the better totals.  The competition between us was on, and I felt like I was getting the hang of things.  But Rob wasn’t doing well at all.  He seemed disillusioned with the whole process, but didn’t talk much about it; there was little time for private conversation at the meetings, designed primarily to provide guidance and motivation.

Week three started strong until Wednesday; I’d forgotten to pack my lunch and had to stop to eat at a Dairy Queen.  Shortly after, I was demoing the books for a young mother when I started to feel queasy.  I stopped mid-sentence and grabbed my stomach.  She asked if I was okay, and what I had eaten.  I told her.  “Oh no,” she said, “you didn’t eat a chili cheese dog did you?  I used to work there and they let that chili sit out all night.”  Of course, that’s exactly what I’d eaten.  I barely made it to a local grocery store bathroom before puking my guts out.  I drove back to the Cloud’s retching into a plastic bag all the way back, and couldn’t move until the next morning.  I worked harder Thursday, moving from house to house like a man possessed, trying to make up for lost time.  By Friday night I was still short of my mark.  On Saturday I went to every prospect I’d missed in the last three weeks, and sold three sets.  By far my best week!  At the Sunday meeting I learned that Ben had beat me again.

It was at this point that some of the first-years began quitting.  The heat and lack of success had taken its toll, and we learned that some had given up the first week, but were just too ashamed to go home.  Rob was one of the casualties already, but I didn’t know it.  He didn’t want to tell me, didn’t want to bring me down.  He wouldn’t be at the next meeting, or any others.  We lost a total of six of the fourteen new students that had begun in Sales School.

With six weeks remaining I was still impossibly far from my goal; I would have to average over    40 books a week to reach it, and I realized that was all but impossible.  But it was one day, one door, one demo at a time, and I pressed on.  I caught a bit of luck early in the week when I happened upon the high school football coach’s house and he bought the books for his family.  High school football is a religion in Texas, especially in Bridge City, where their Cardinals are the pride of the town.  When I told folks that Coach had picked up the books for his kids, their ears perked right up, and it netted me my best week yet.  Ben outsold me again, but not by much.

The next week I had some of my best dog encounters of the summer.  A particular house had a yard full of toys, and that meant a house full of kids, but I’d missed them time and time again.  Complicating the approach was that there were six small mutts running loose around the property, and each time I made for the door, they surrounded me in a swirling pack of leaps and barks that kept my head on a swivel and my finger on the mace trigger.  But none were bold enough to bite.  Finally, on my fourth try, someone answered.  I was thrilled!  And I had the door shut in my face faster than I had all summer.  “After four times with these little mongrels?  You got to be kidding me!” I muttered, and steamed off back to my car.  And then it happened…seeing that I was distracted, the biggest of them shot in and grabbed a chunk of my calf.  “Ow, you little…” I growled, and out came the mace can.  He must have seen one before, because I’ve never seen a little a dog run away so fast.

The next was at a small home out in the woods, a few miles from town.  I drove up the gravel driveway, reciting my mind numbing affirmations about smiling and getting to the next door.  I hopped out, and I wasn’t ten feet from my car when the door opened and a huge Rottweiler shot out at me, death in his eyes.  I wheeled around on one foot, the heavy book bag throwing my momentum into a cartoonish teeter, and dove back for my door handle.  I could hear him running, panting…closing.  I pulled the silver lever and jumped in, jerking the door closed with all my strength, but something stopped it.  I roared in pain as the signal reached my brain that it was my foot that had caught in the jam, but the beast had reached the car so I yanked my smashed appendage in and slammed the door to safety.  It was all I could do not to hit him with the car as I skidded back out of the drive.

Then, at a double-wide trailer out in the country, I encountered my friendliest local yet.  I parked, grabbed my green sample bag, and approached the front door.  It opened before I could knock and a grizzled old man in a dirty trucker hat appeared pointing a shotgun directly at my chest.

“What the hell are you doing on my property?” he demanded.

“I, er, uh, I’ll be going now,” I stammered, backing away.

“What are you doing?” he screamed louder.

“I’m selling books!  Just books!” I insisted.  I was scared, of course, but also a bit miffed.  This didn’t seem a reasonable response to a kid in shorts with a book bag.  I hardly appeared threatening.

“We don’t want none of that!  Yer trespassing, and I have the right to protect my property!”

“Yes, sir,” I said.  “I’ll be leaving now.”  And I did.  Quickly.

It wasn’t a red-letter week in Texas hospitality.  But on a positive note, I’d learned a new technique from Ryan called “The Price Buildup,” which involved easing the sticker-shock of the $300 set after the demo by comparing them to the more expensive encyclopedia sets on the market.  I was usually gun-shy about trying to sell the 5-book set, but I sold my first full set using this strategy.  I had already shown the books to a father of two teenagers.

“Okay, so these books are great, I have to have them for my boys, but what’s the cost?” he asked, worriedly.  I’d been using the price build-up all day, so I thought it would help.

“Well, the Britannicas are going for around $2,100 these days,” I said.  He winced.  “The World Books are less, around $1,200.  And you can see how you’d probably use these more than an encyclopedia, right?”  I asked.  He nodded furiously.  “Well, they’re not $2,000, not even $1,200.”  His face brightened.  Just to have a little fun, Ryan taught me to leave them higher than they actually were.  “They’re only $600,” I said.

“That’s it?”  he said, leaping up from the couch.  “I’ll take them!”  I had to laugh; a couple weeks before I couldn’t give these things away.  Of course when I told him they were actually half of that again, he jumped through the ceiling, and after we dislodged him, he wrote me a check for the full amount right there.

It still wasn’t enough to top Ben that week.  But our friendly competition was driving us past the other teams, and we were quickly becoming the best headquarters in terms of first-years.  At the Sunday meeting Ryan told me it was time to start selling the whole five volume set at every door.  Up to this point I’d been primarily selling the first two volumes, or letting the customer choose which ones they wanted.  “It’s a complete set,” he told me. “Sell it that way.”  I knew he was right; with 4 weeks to go I still needed over 1000 units.

I was ready to move into the wealthy part of Bridge City now.  The football coach, a few teachers, and even the Principal of the middle school had purchased the books.  Trying to sell the $300 set of five proved a challenge; I’d gotten used to breaking down the set and making it easy to buy.  Now I was attempting to move it as a single entity at each door.  It didn’t work Monday.  Ryan assured me on the phone that it would; I’d seen him do it.  Tuesday, nothing.  I was getting frustrated.  I hadn’t had a zero day in weeks, and it didn’t do wonders for my confidence.  I was losing days, I was missing units, and I saw the Bahamas slipping away.  I was going back to how I was doing it, I decided; selling just the two was so much easier.  “One more day, for me,” Ryan asked.  I agreed.  On Wednesday I finally sold a five volume set.  On Thursday, two.  By Friday and Saturday it was getting easier.  My last sale on Saturday was one of the most memorable of the summer; I’d sold a family the set in a ritzy neighborhood and the mother, Sandy, sent me over to her neighbor’s home.  “She has kids, she’ll get them,” Sandy insisted.  I caught the neighboring family just as they were leaving.  “Come back tonight around nine,” the mother told me.  I finished the rest of my day, and returned late, as instructed.  The house was dark, but I knocked on the door.  She answered the door in a robe, looking tired.

“Oh I’m sorry,” I said, “Should I come back tomorrow?”

“No, no,” she said.  “What did you say you had, books?”

“Yes,” I said.  “They’re for homework.  Sandy next door said you’d like them.”

“She ordered them for her kids?”

“Yes, the five volume Student Handbook set,” I said, and reached down into my bag to show her my demo books.

“How much are they?” she asked.  Everything I knew about selling told me not to tell her.  First demo the books, do the price build-up, do what I know works; telling the price before the demo was the kiss of death.  But I was learning to read my situation, and I took a chance.

“300 dollars,” I said.  “I’ll deliver them at the end of the summer.”  She nodded, and disappeared for a moment.  She returned holding a checkbook.

“Make it out to me,” I said.  She handed me the check, took the receipt and said goodnight.

She never even looked at the books.

It was around this time in the summer I remember starting to feel comfortable with what I was doing.  It’s true that with all the obnoxious positive-mental-attitude they cram into your skull at Sales School, you could cheerlead for an angry mob stoning you to death.  But it was more than that; I don’t think at any other time in my life before or since did I feel so productive.  In certain moments it was almost like a high.   I recall walking a road at dusk that curved through a patch of sun-browned grass, and thinking, “Why don’t I have this kind of motivation in my classes?  Maybe I should get out and start working in the real world now.”  It was a moment I remember vividly, and though there are a host of them from that summer, this one stands out as the most self-reflective.  When so often my thoughts were full of anxiety or excitement for the next door, such a moment of clarity was a beacon.  I felt like what I’d overcome to get there had, in a way, left a permanent mark.  And it wasn’t a bad one.

Selling in Hell (Part 2 of 4)

My summer selling books in Texas, continued…

I learned I was to be paired with a different first-year, Ben, one of the sharpest natural salesmen in the group.  His brother had sold several summers before, so he was a bit of a legacy.  He had thinning blond hair atop an always-grinning baby-face, and was a little on the round side in stature.  I didn’t know what to make of him at first; he seemed more of the loudmouth camp, and I didn’t relish the thought of living with a loudmouth for a summer.  Though we were taught to fake a positive mental attitude if we couldn’t muster the real thing, this guy was ostensibly the crown-prince of Faux-enthusiasm-city.

Then we were told that we would be the only group of two in the Org – others were three – and we’d be the only group without a Student Manager.  Ryan trusted us to hold each other accountable, so I decided to put aside my preconceptions and try to be a good roommate and ally.  Before we left, Ben and I made a pact to be the best group in the Org.  We loaded up my old gray car and joined the caravan, our final destination: Orange, Texas, a town of about 30,000 a few miles from Louisiana and the gulf.  As we made our way into the Lone Star State, cars began splitting off one by one, each team whooping and waving out their windows as they left the pack to find their territories.

We were lucky to have been given contact info for a family in Orange who’d housed Southwestern students before, as we were instructed to find a “headquarters” which was low-rent or rent-free if possible, as motels were too expensive.  The older couple was happy to let us stay for a few days, but we would have to find a more permanent solution for the rest of the summer.  With just a weekend before we had to start selling, I dropped Ben off in one part of town and drove to another and we cut our teeth knocking on doors trying to procure lodging.  “Do you know anyone who might have a room to rent, or perhaps yourself?” we were trained to ask.  I picked up Ben late in the evening and we compared notes: a few leads, one place that was a little high in rent, but a name I came across, the Clouds, had housed Southwestern students before and had a beautiful home.  They were out of town, but supposedly would return shortly.  That place became our Shangri-La.  We kept looking, but nothing else turned up.  When I drove past on the third day, I saw a car in the drive and knocked.  Dr. and Mrs. Cloud, he a General Practitioner and she an Attorney, were in their 60’s and semi-retired, had a dachshund that sang “Toreador”, and were happy to let Ben and I stay in their upstairs loft for the summer.  It was perfect: two beds and a shower to ourselves and they wouldn’t even accept rent.  The loft overlooked the rest of the rooms, each finished in mahogany and smelling faintly of the rich wood.  It was a beautiful home, a palace for the summer.

With our lodging secured, we were ready to hit the field the next morning.  Ben didn’t have a car, so after breakfast I dropped him off; he would work in Orange, closest to the headquarters, while I drove to Bridge City, a smaller town fifteen minutes away.   I’d picked up a map days earlier and had a spot picked out on the edge of town to start banging on doors.  Never start in the big brick neighborhoods first, Ryan had explained, as they were bombarded with door-to-door salesmen.  You had to have a few sales under your belt, and preferably a few teachers or prominent community members, to sell in the wealthy part of the town.  So I chose a trailer park.  I parked, slung bag over shoulder, and was immediately faced with how lax leash laws are in Texas.  There was a pack of five or six dogs running loose around the park, and they made straight for me.  I turned and ran back to my car as fast as I could without dropping my sample books, reaching safety seconds before being overtaken.  I don’t know if their plans were to lick me to death or tear me to pieces, but I wasn’t going to find out.  I went to a hardware store, bought a can of mace, and found a neighborhood without a roving pack of bloodthirsty canines to begin my quest for 1600 units.

I learned three things my first day.  Texas is hot…really, really hot.  It cracked 100 most days that summer.  By midday I was trying to get a glass of water as much as I was trying to get a demo.   Tea is the only drink to bother buying at a convenience store, because anything else tastes awful after the sun has heated it to near-boiling.  Second, getting 30 demos in a day isn’t easy.  As I was ticking them off on my chart, I found myself falling behind almost immediately, and had to resort to flashing the open book to people quickly before they slammed the door in my face.  “Well, they saw the damn book,” I said.  Check.  Finally, I learned that thirteen and a half hours is a painfully long and stressful workday.  By 9:30 I’d done 30 demos, mapped two full sub-divisions in a notebook, sweat three gallons, and sold nothing.  Not even close.  I picked up Ben, and he hadn’t sold anything either.

Driving back to headquarters that first day, it was difficult to envision doing it again, over and over, six days a week for nine weeks.  Almost depressing.  We did our nightly call to our manager, reporting our units sold: 0.  We ate cereal for dinner down in the kitchen, and Dr. Cloud wandered in to pour glasses of wine for himself and his wife as was his nightly ritual.  Like many nights, he was bare-chested, and at 65 he lifted weights daily and was in better shape than Ben or myself.  He asked us how our day was as he drained one glass, poured another.  Over his second glass he told us that the sales would come and to keep our chins up, and finally pouring himself a third he retreated back to the bedroom with the glasses.  Exhausted, we climbed the stairs to the loft and turned the lights out early, hoping for a better Tuesday.  We kept our chatter positive; if either was having doubts after the first day, we wouldn’t bring the other down.  It’s what we were taught, and we’d made the promise to each other: no negativity.  There just wasn’t room for it.

Tuesday was better for Ben; he made his first sale.  I didn’t.  Thirteen and a half hours passed under a merciless Texas sun, 30 demos done, and not one “yes”.  At the end of the day, Ben called in his units, while I reported another zero day.  His attitude brightened, and I tried to feed on it.  If it worked for Ben, it can work for me, I thought.  So I did it again Wednesday.  Morning to night, 30 demos, mapping neighborhoods, setting callbacks, reciting the words just as I was taught – nothing.  Ben had made another sale, while I was zeroes again.  Ryan called me.  “Keep going” he said, “it will happen.”  It was hard to believe.  I’d logged 40 hours, 90 demos and yes’s weren’t coming.  Doubt set in as I began to fear I just couldn’t sell.  But I couldn’t face failure; I couldn’t give up and prove all the detractors right: that this was a ridiculous idea, that I should get my head examined.  I lie awake long after Ben was snoring that night, sunburned, thinking about the neighborhood I would be working the next day, thinking of how long 13 and one half hours is.  The 6:30 alarm came too soon.

Selling in Hell (Part 1 of 4)

This is the first entry chronicling my experiences as a college student selling books door-to-door in the desert heat of a Texas summer.

It was May of 1997, the spring following my freshman year at Purdue University, and I was traveling south into the unknown, into what would be one of the most storied and intense experiences in my life.  Six weeks earlier I had been in a lecture hall, filling out a form for summer work, coasting toward the end of the semester and an unmarked calendar beyond.  After receiving a phone call, I had attended a meeting conducted by Ryan, a lanky blond character in his early twenties, who led a team of students selling books on location, door-to-door, 6 days a week, during summer break.  Of course, this sounded like the worst idea I’d ever heard until he started talking money, the rarest of commodities for the college student.  Students were making ten, fifteen, twenty thousand dollars in twelve weeks, sometimes more.  Ryan made over thirty thousand one summer.  For someone who’d never made much more than minimum wage and considered Miller Lite “the expensive stuff”, that is an almost comically large sum, especially in just three months.  Suddenly door-to-door sales didn’t sound so preposterous.  With dizzying dollar signs swimming in my head, I went home to ponder.

The phone call with my mother was calm and rational.

“Mom, I’m thinking about selling books door-to-door on location for the summer.”

“What?  What kind of books?  Where?  You’re not coming home?  Who told you about this?  Have you lost your mind?”

“Um, educational books, I don’t know, no, this guy from The Southwestern Company, I don’t think so, but I have done a lot of drinking this year…”

“You don’t even know where you’re doing this?  Well, I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“Rob heard about it too,” I told her.  Rob and I were friends since middle school.  “They canvas Universities across the country…he got an invite at Ball State.  He’s thinking about going as well.”

“His parents aren’t letting him go are they?  You’ll both end up dead or worse.”

“I think they’re more or less saying if I get the okay it’s fine with them…”

“Has everyone lost their collective minds?  Does your father know about this?”

There was weeping and gnashing of teeth, but at last my parents agreed to give their blessing.  So after final exams, Rob and I, along with a host of others, found ourselves descending upon Music City, the corporate headquarters of The Southwestern Publishing Company, full of ambition and excitement, and generally scared to death.  The building itself was impressive; a glass fortress of several stories, it looms at the end of Atrium Way, not a great distance from Nashville’s famed Opryland.  On the warm spring day of our arrival, the sun dazzled brilliantly on its slashing glass panels, and college students of all shapes and sizes buzzed about the grounds, chattering with nervous energy and boasting of how much they’d sell.  Two distinct varieties of student became quickly identifiable: the loudmouths and the wallflowers.  The loudmouths appeared to be the world’s entire next generation of hucksters and used-car salesmen, and they were more than happy to inform you that they would sell circles around you, and that their college had better parties/girls/sports teams than yours.  Then there were the wallflowers, who seemed to wonder what the hell they had gotten themselves into, and whose primary activity was to try to keep away from the loudmouths.  Rob and I found ourselves leaning more toward the second group.

Though we would all eventually wind up in some backward corner of the continental US peddling our wares, we all met first in Nashville for Sales School.  Sales School was the name for the training conference held every year for new and returning book salesmen.  Attended by over 2,000 students from all over the world, it was designed to turn hard-partying college slackers into weaponized book-selling machines in a week.  From day one we paid for everything we received; from our hotel room, to the training, to our demo materials and our copies of Og Mandino’s The Greatest Salesman in the World, nothing was free.  It was made clear to us we were running our own business for the summer, and through seven intense days full of instructional and motivational rhetoric we learned what it took to be successful book salesmen: thirty demos a day, six days a week, eighty hours Monday through Saturday from 8 am to 9:30 pm, always on schedule, minimum expenses.  We never stopped; as we moved from building to building for meetings, the streets of downtown Nashville were flooded with college kids running full tilt with forty-pound book bags over their shoulders, hooting and hollering, shot full of adrenaline for the upcoming battlefield.  We met our small organization, or Org as we called it, twenty in all from Purdue, Indiana University, and Ball State.  Ryan and the returning members of his team, five Student Managers, would be our mentors.  These would be the closest thing to family we’d have for the summer.

Our lead product was the five-volume Student Handbooks, a thick, hard-leather bound set of homework guides which could be sold piecemeal or as a set.  They represented every subject from geometry to Spanish and offered condensed and concise guides to make school work easier; conjugations, historic dates, formulas, and example problems were conveniently collected in easy-to-access tables meant to simplify homework and studying.  Our sample cases would also feature a recently launched set of books for children, but it was the Student Handbooks that we were encouraged to showcase.

We role-played the scripted demonstration with book in hard, alternating between playing the part of seller and the mom or dad.  We did this hundreds of times.  Hundreds.  They went something like this:

Seller: “Hi, I’m that college student from X University.  I’ll be in the neighborhood this summer showing some ideas to help out with homework.  Are you the person in charge of helping with homework?  Do you have a place we can sit down so I can show you?”

Mom/Dad: “Sure, come in.”

More realistically:

Mom/Dad: “Get off my porch.”

If you could get in the door, things got easier.  The books were actually very useful, especially with historic time-lines and difficult math problems.

Seller:  “You know how when you’re helping with math, the examples in the book get you through the beginning, but they don’t show you how to solve the tough ones at the end?”

Mom/Dad: “I’m a math teacher, thank you.”

More realistically:

Mom/Dad: “Yes, that happens all the time!”

Seller: “Let me show you how they work those tough ones out, step by step…”

It all seemed to make sense, and as a student of Secondary Education, the books weren’t hard to get excited about; education is important and more or less sells itself.  But learning the books inside and out helped to assuage the fear of aimlessly wandering around neighborhoods all summer, no sales, penniless, and cloaked in shame.

While our education on the products was important, Sales School was more about selling; they taught us everything that could be taught about the sales process in a week.  We heard countless anecdotes and cautionary tales, tales of great successes and great failures.  We learned that attitude is everything, that even if we’d just heard “no” fifty times in a row that “yes” could be behind the next door.  We learned how to manage a territory, to work a town or school district from the outskirts in.  We learned how to spend little so we had big checks at the end of the summer.  We learned that the demo was time-tested and sacred; they promised us it worked.  They vowed that if we worked 80 hours a week, did thirty demos a day, and recited the demo exactly as they designed it, that we would make our numbers, the coveted 1,600 unit mark (each book having a unit value relative to cost) that earned you a trip to the Bahamas in November.  I wanted that trip; we all did.  And I had to be better than most to get it, as I had previously committed to coaching a high school debate camp at Indiana University at the end of the summer, which gave me only nine weeks to sell instead of twelve.  I needed the money, and I wanted the trip, so I drank the kool-aid and decided to trust the system that had served college students since Southwestern began publishing in 1868.  I’d do the work no matter what, no excuses.

Motivation was everything at Southwestern.  Over half of the first year book sellers don’t make it; they quit after the first few weeks, unable to keep up with the work, or rejection, or the long days alone with the book bag.  They warned us it’d be hard.  They warned us we’d want to quit.  They promised if we did what they said we’d win in the end.  It wasn’t how good you were at giving the demo, it just mattered that you did two thousand of them.  You will sell, they swore.  We believed.

In retrospect, this entire process appears to be the work of a brain-washing cult bent on nothing but massive sales at the expense of the minds and bodies of their student-soldiers.  Later research has shown that many students and parents have been unhappy with the entire system and have demonized it as slavish and soul-crushing.  I think that’s excessive; no one stood over me with a whip or stuffed my spirit into a hydraulic press.  The truth is this: you can’t expect teenage college students who consider 15 hours full time to make a smooth transition into 80 hours a week without some serious psychological rebar.  If they hadn’t done any programming, we all would have left the book-field in the first month.

As Sales School drew to a close, we received our territory assignments, and Ryan gathered to tell us that we’d be heading to southeast Texas.  He pulled Rob and me aside.

“You two won’t be living together in the book-field,” he told us.

“What?” we demanded in chorus.  Having a friend in the field was one of the main reasons we’d committed to this ridiculous scheme.

“We almost never let friends stay together,” he said.  “It’s too easy to get off-schedule.  If one does poorly, he will bring the other down.  It never works the other way around.  It’s too easy to get negative with a friend’s shoulder to cry on.”  He was using the buzz words they taught us…off-schedule, negative…the killers of great summers.

“You never told us that,” I huffed.  I was angry.  I didn’t care how strong the reasoning behind it was, I felt deceived.

“I never told you you would live together, either,” he said quietly.

“You knew that’s what we thought, and you let us believe it.  This is bullshit, Ryan, and you know it,” I said and stormed off.  I didn’t care if he was my manager or not; I was an independent contractor anyway.  It stole more light from the already dim unknown for both of us, but what could we do?  It was far too late to turn around now.

Continued next week…

The Maladroit Manifesto

There are several moments that define a childhood, and much of our childhood defines who we will become as we forge through such classic experiences as teething and soiling ourselves every single  day for two years.  It’s probably a blessing that our conscious mind and memory-machine skip town for all of the fun we have as molars stab bloody trenches through our gums while we wallow in our own filth.  Also, circumcision.  But while this gracious reprieve gives us a pass on all the trials of infancy, we’re oblivious to some very significant milestones: our first word, our first step, the first time we’re bitten directly in the face by our grandmother’s dog, Cory.  Oh wait, I actually remember that last one.  Aww, pet the cute doggie…oh no!  Cute doggie bit my goddamn cheek off! Scared of dogs until adulthood? Check.  But most aren’t so lucky to capture these poignant moments.  As our future personas grasp in vain at youth’s cloudy ether, it is solely our parents who are privy to these banal benchmarks, and it’s on their memory we must rely.  But just as Cory’s goring of my rosy toddler cheek fostered a healthy distrust of canines from then on, so do these other defining events foreshadow what’s to come in our future, whether we remember or not.

I am proud of my first word as much as I’m shamed by my first step – the implications of the later to be the focus of this tale.  First word – “light”.   Not bad!  Proof in the pointing, mom told me.  Aimed a finger up to the fixture and let fly my first utterance, with a little struggle on the “L”.  Only one syllable, sure, and shaky execution, but a fairly unique first pitch, and one that preceded a long and tireless string of mind-numbing rhetoric I’ve seldom ceased to spew since.  My first step, however, was a harbinger of trouble to come; it was not so much embarrassing in the how, but in the when.  Chatty little-person that I was, I could sort major appliances by brand before I could waddle past the open dishwasher without cracking my femur on the door.  I was as coordinated as a marionette tied to a windsock.  I’m sure my parents got a kick out of watching me repeatedly test the integrity of the plaster walls with my skull, but eventually my mother was forced to enroll me in a tumbling class so my future classmates wouldn’t mistake me for a drunk humpty-dumpty.

There is evidence in group photos of the horrors to which I was subjected in this class which my mind has blissfully obliterated – duck costumes, bee outfits, and some pink-fringed getup with cowboy hat and baton that would have made Liberace blush – all in the name of connecting my scarecrow limbs to my garrulous brain.  This seemed to work to at least the extent of eliminating the tripping-over-the-shoelaces walk which I’d somehow mastered in Velcro shoes, but couldn’t erase the overshadowing issue that would soon rear its head in one the next great childhood moments…

My first bicycle.  If the inventor of the bicycle had me for a son, he also would have been the inventor of helmets, antiseptic, and 9-1-1.  I leaned so heavily on my training wheels, I couldn’t go in any direction but “in a circle”.  It was by the grace of God I grew up on a cul-de-sac.  Of course, like a moth to the flame I loved bikes, and so when I got my new shiny red BMX, nothing could have matched my sheer joy other than my parents’ stark terror.  Seeing me attempt to ride that thing without training wheels elicited more sharp intakes of air and face-palms than watching Keanu Reeves do Shakespeare.  Even after I’d developed some inebriated sense of balance on it, I couldn’t be convinced for anything that pedaling backward would make me stop; that’s what the evergreen bushes at the end of the street were for.  I spent more time picking vegetation out of my spokes and chain than riding.

I still hadn’t mastered the art of braking when David, a friend from the neighborhood, came by and asked me to ride with him for the first time.  I was ecstatic!

“Mom, can I go around the big circle?” I begged.  This was serious…cars actually drove around this section of our sub-division.  I was seven, and can’t recall the blood draining from my mother’s face, but I’m sure it did.

“You haven’t figured out how to brake yet,” she reminded me.

“I’ll get it, I swear!” I insisted.  She pondered.

“David, look out for him, please,” she implored my adequately coordinated friend.  And we were off.  My father arrived home from work shortly after.

“Where’s Jason?” he asked my mother.

“He’s out riding his bike with David,” she said.

“He’s what?” my father asked, incredulous.  “You let him go?  He can’t stop the bike except in the bushes!

“How could I embarrass him by telling him no?” she said.

And there we were.  Riding around South Park Drive, the big circle, wind in our hair, the invincibility of youth coursing through our limbs.  I can’t remember who threw the gauntlet, David or me, but the inevitable challenge fell…

“Wanna race?”

The contest was on.  We’d start at his house and go all the way around the circle, his driveway the finish line.  I had my sleek new Team Murray BMX, and I was ready to leave it all on the track.


We were off, pushing pedal like tour competitors.  David had the sizable edge of height and weight, and also the advantage of having ridden more than fifty yards without smashing into shrubbery.  But I had the will.  His longer legs pushed him to an early lead, but I wouldn’t be denied on my first race.  I churned my Pinocchio stems faster and faster as we sped around the neighborhood, and as we reached the final bend, I could see he was tiring and I kicked it into fourth gear.  I passed him just within sight of his house, and as I crossed into his yard, I realized he didn’t have any bushes in which to decelerate.  There was just a huge oak tree in the center of the property, and I had not, up to that point, considered this dilemma.  I cannot fully articulate what thoughts passed through my mind at that moment, but stopping quickly seemed imperative to claiming my victory.  So, as was my habit, I aimed for the closest flora available, and the oak tree and my front tire became intimately acquainted at full tilt.  This was my first physics lesson.

Transference of force is a funny thing; when one small object moving at high speeds meets a colossal one that has withstood the forces of man and nature for 80 years, the small object gets to keep it all.  Then this small, wheeled object transfers as much of that force as possible into the squishy, spleen-filled flesh-bag riding it, through the conduit of said flesh-bag’s groin.  This is extremely unfortunate for the flesh-bag in question, and adds a bittersweet element to its victory.  It is at this juncture that it learns the importance of using the brake, to preserve what internal organs remained.

It would be neither the last nor worst of my riding debacles.  It was on a sunny spring day, a few years later, in front of peers not so forgiving as David, that I attempted a large ramp on a dirt trail.  I had, by that point, mastered stopping.  However, my athletic skill roughly rivaled that of a three-toed sloth with an anvil strapped to its neck.  I’d watched several boys take the jump, and they were egging me on to try.  Initially I refused; I knew my prowess on a bike rated somewhere between “questionable” and “kid, do your parents know you’ve left the driveway?”  They all knew this too.  But peer pressure is what it is, and I lined up for the jump, thinking I’d prove them wrong.  As I went airborne, I faced the reality that I had no idea how to land the bike, and wondered also why the seat had gone out from under me so quickly.  As I touched down awkwardly, somehow I managed to keep hold of the handlebars as my crotch hit the back tire, which had the effect of slamming the seat into my solar-plexus, dropping me in the dirt as my bike wobbled on into a ditch.  The pain of trying to rectally assimilate my bicycle tire was nothing compared to the enema my pride took from the laughing boys, who had witnessed what I’m sure was one of the funniest things they’d seen up to that point in their lives.  It was the end of my Evel Kineval days.

A birthday picture from around the same period in which my lip and right cheek are obscured by a large band-aid reminds of another time in which my dexterity utterly failed me.  My next door neighbor Jimmy and I had crawled into his parents’ minivan and were playing on the back seat.  The back hatch was open, as his father had been cleaning the vehicle and had, unbeknownst to us, unlatched the seat from the floor of the van.  So, as the seat inevitably tipped over backwards, launching us toward the open hatch, Jimmy had the common reflex to put his hands out and stop his momentum.  I, of course, did not.  So while he stopped short of the gate, I continued on out the back toward the driveway, leading with my head.  As my face smacked into the asphalt, I heard my mother gasp and come running.  Her look of horror as she witnessed by blood-splattered visage was enough to terrify me, but in retrospect I wonder if her fright was more at my mangled grill, or at how this sad creature she’d birthed was born without the slightest instinct or capacity for self-preservation.

“Why didn’t you put out your arms to break your fall?” she would ask me after my trip to the emergency room.

“I don’t know,” I shrugged, and tumbled backward out of  my chair.

The Basement (A Special Halloween Entry)

The axis of scary for the young child comprises three key locations: in the darkened closet, under the bed, and down in the basement.

And the scariest of these is the basement.

Most closets of the young are overflowing with crap; this is the nature of ankle-biter organization.  So logic dictates  that closet monsters have to be fairly small or exceptionally tolerant to the pointy corners of toys and the stench of fouled clothing.  This kind of creature is likely more pitiable than terrifying; you’d certainly never catch Dracula with his fancy capes and medallions throwing his back out slipping on a roller skate in tight quarters.

Under-the-bed monsters suffer a similar if ostensibly more comfortable quandary (at least they can nap): it’s usually pretty unpleasant down there, especially beneath the mattress of an excitable bladder.  If you’re an under-the-bed monster, any number of offensive fluids and germs are likely spilling your way this very moment.  The true aristocracy of the macabre wouldn’t put up with that; mummies hang out in pyramids, vampires haunt castles, minotaurs roam giant mazes   . . . these guys like their space.  Under the bed is embarrassingly small time for a legitimate monster.

But basements . . . you don’t have to see Silence of the Lambs to be afraid of them.  A cursory glance and well aimed flashlight will dispel the bogeyman from your mini-wardrobe or the cluttered space under your bunk, but basements are cavernous. They offer the perfect lair for the monster-on-the-go – they’re cold, spacious, uninhabited, and dark as a devil’s soul.  Nothing short of a supernova can throw enough light to illuminate every dark crevice where a basement-dwelling gremlin might stow.

The house I grew up in was no exception; it’s cellar was dark and partially unfinished with many shadowy corners and places any number of ghouls could hide in wait for the unsuspecting four-year-old meal to wander by.  So as a four-year-old, I was always on my guard and wouldn’t be caught dead down there without one of my parents.  At the first hint they were ascending, I flew up the stairs as though escaping a burning building.  Basements are not to be trusted.

To step down the tattered carpeting that covered the red-tiled steps was to enter a different world to me; with each step the air grew colder, damper.  At the landing, the concrete floor could freeze toes stiff in the Indiana winter as one crossed to the laundry area.  The lower level of the house always filled the nostrils with a faint musty smell, and at times, if the rains had flooded through the drain in the floor’s center, the smell of damp was pungent and insistent.  To overcome the moisture, a dehumidifier ran ad infinitum in the adjacent great room, which held a couch and chairs, bookshelves and storage closets.  During the day, the laundry room caught light from the window wells dug in below the surface – a favorite home to salamanders and toads – but the great room was dark, and the noisy hum of the dehumidifier made it impossible to hear creeping monsters.

To the back of the laundry room was my father’s workshop, one of the few non-scary places in the basement; it was covered in tools, wires, nails and screws, and every other odd and end imaginable.  It smelled of rust and WD-40, and was off-limits unless my father was down with me.  But directly across the room, in open defiance of this sanctuary, was the narrow blackened  hallway that lead back to the circuit breaker box.  I can describe it that way now, because in later years when the hair dryer and vacuum got together and decided to blow a circuit, I’d head down with a flashlight and flip the switch for my mother.  But at four, it was an infernal lair for spiders and their grasping webs, eager to cling to hapless fingers and faces.  At night, the lightless hallway was a portal to the underworld; Skeletor, the Green Goblin, and horrors only my own imagination could conjure lurked at the heart of that passage, and when the nearby refrigerator-sized heater kicked on in a roaring burst of flame, it was high-tail up the stairs, three at a time.  No thank you, tunnel of death, I’ll not be your victim today.

The great room was only slightly more friendly given that my parents hosted the occasional party there, so monsters weren’t quite as at liberty to run amok.  But it’s still the basement.  It would become my bedroom when I turned sixteen, and even then the creaking sounds of the old house settling in the pitch dark were disturbing, especially with my penchant for reading Edgar Alan Poe before switching off the light.  More than once, our prowling cat sent me pounding blind through the dark and up the stairwell, blood howling in my ears and adrenaline pumping through my veins until I realized what had woken me.  I suppose that’s what I get for reading “The Tell-Tale Heart” in a black-as-the-void cellar before sleep.

As a child, of course, I avoided the great room at night altogether.  Especially since near the cold fireplace there was a door – a mysterious and terrible door – only about four feet tall that led under the stairs.  A large chair partially obscured it, but I knew it was there.  The way under the stairs was connected to the tunnel of death on the other side, although I had trouble spatially absorbing that at four.  I just knew that the dwarf-door haunted and intrigued me.  Maybe it lead somewhere else . . . to some Indiana Jones cavern with treasure and adventure.  Maybe it lead to certain doom, but I had to know.  “There’s nothing in there,” my father told me, “just wood for the fireplace.”  That seemed a huge waste to me; a secret door should lead to a secret, horrible or otherwise, not to firewood.  My imagination refused to believe him.  He moved the chair and opened the door. . . nothing but the moldy scent of old logs.  Sure, I thought, but what about when you’re not here Dad, then what?  I knew better than think that just because it didn’t reveal itself to him, that there was no secret.  As all children know, arcane passages and portals to Narnia don’t open when adults are around.

Eventually a friend and I built up the courage to open that door ourselves, in the daytime of course.  It must have been the wrong time, because we never found the hidden world I was sure it led to.  As the mysteries of the basement bled away with my fleeting imagination, I became comfortable down there and watched as my little brother and sister encountered the same hobgoblins I had.  “It’s not so bad,” I showed them.  And when I turned sixteen, I moved in to prove it; I hung my posters, set up my PC, played my music and struck my claim.  “This is my den,” I proclaimed.  And it was.  Except for on those nights when a chapter of Poe and the unsettled darkness reminded me that the basement could never truly be tamed.