Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Looking Up (Literally)

Anyone who has children or owns a dog knows the monotony that can come with walking the same familiar streets for years on end.  When my kids attended grade school there were times when I walked the same four blocks back and forth four times a day.  The same houses.  The same trees.  The same cars.  Sure, sometimes these walks led to a little mind-wandering that was good for the soul, but often I viewed the strolls merely as chores to do, not unlike tackling another load of laundry.  If you live in the mountains you may be spared this plight, but residing in the Chicago suburbs doesn’t lend itself to particularly interesting landscapes – people don’t call Illinoisans flatlanders for nothing. 

But there’s an old adage I once read somewhere that went something like this: if you want to discover something new, walk down a familiar path.  A year ago I took this tidbit to heart and decided to change my mindset by doing something very simple: looking up.  I began to notice the trees of the neighborhood, and I recognized that with a few exceptions I couldn’t name them beyond the most rudimentary level, like asking a three-year-old what those large green things are in the front yard.  “Those are trees.”  Aside from obvious maples and oaks, there’s little I could tell you. 

I purchased a copy of Peterson Field Guides Eastern Trees, watched a few videos on YouTube, and began to challenge myself by learning how to identify the multitude of trees lining the parkways and front yards of Elmhurst, Illinois, attempting to add a few varieties every week or two.  I’m not very good at it – it’s incredible how many species of trees there are and how darn similar they can be to each other – but little by little I’m expanding my knowledge base, and my walks have been enriched greatly as a result.  Now when I walk familiar streets, my mind is focused on something other than whether my dog has peed or pooed.

Trees are varied enough and intricate enough that I could probably spend the next decade on this endeavor alone, but there are other ways to open up your world when taking walks if trees aren’t your thing.  A friend of mine who walks far more than I do has a background in architecture, and for her the suburban streets are the source of endless variations of home styles.  When engaged in conversation with her, she’ll sometimes say something like, “You know that red tudor on the corner of Grace Street?”

No.  No I don’t.

It reminds me of something my buddy Don said to me back in grad school when he purchased flowers for his girlfriend.  I asked him what kind, and he answered, “Purple ones.”

The point is that the world around you is much bigger and interesting than you might realize, and all it takes is a little initiative to tap into your surroundings in new, profound ways.  If trees ever lose their luster, you could start identifying house styles, or makes and models of cars, or types of flowers or birds or the names of colors.  I’m terrible at describing the color of objects, and I’d love to add shades like mauve, chartreuse, azure and fuchsia to my immediate lexicon.  There’s no shortage of ways to mentally challenge yourself as you do your daily strolls.

But for my next challenge, I’m focused on getting our dog to pee on command so that four walks a day aren’t a necessity come wintertime. Here’s hoping.

The Brewers' Home Stretch

When I last wrote about the Brewers on May 31, the Crew was in first place, and I wondered about the lack of starting pitching and whether the relief staff would be able to be effective throughout the long season.  The next three months were no picnic for Brewers fans, as they finished just one game over .500 from June 1 through August 31, slipping out of first place to the Cubs by the end of July and slipping out of second by the end of August. But unlike years past, the Brewers have managed to bend but not break.

For me the season’s nadir was a 9-1 defeat against the Pirates on August 25.  I texted a fellow Brewer fan, “I think that’s the end of the road for the Crew.”  Here we are less than three weeks later, and the Brewers are on a seven-series winning streak, having won 16 of the last 22 games, including 4 of 6 against the division-leading Chicago Cubs, and culminating in an exciting 5-1 victory last night to pull to within one game of first place.  With fifteen games left to play, the Brewers, at 84-63, have matched the number of victories I predicted they would win at the beginning of the year.  I couldn’t be happier for having been wrong.

So what happened?  Why has this year’s team been able to hang in there?  I think there are a few reasons:

1)     Mid-season pickups:  general manager David Stearns didn’t find the solid starting pitcher he’d been hoping for, but he did manage to pick up three players before each trading deadline, finding just enough talent to help bolster a tired team.  Prior to August 1, he traded for relief pitcher Joakim Soria, and infielders Mike Moustakas and Jonathan Schoop.  Soria helped bolster the bullpen just as the unit that had been so incredible for the first half of the season was starting to show signs of fatigue, and while Schoop has been a disappointment thus far, Moustakas has given the Crew a solid bat, allowing manager Craig Counsell to adjust the lineup based on matchups.  Then, prior to September 1, Stearns once again picked up three players: relief pitcher Xavier Cedeno, starter Gio Gonzales and outfielder Curtis Granderson, the hero of last night’s game.  Time will tell how these three contribute, but there’s no question that having Gonzalez as another starting option in lieu of the struggling Junior Guerra and Freddy Peralta is a plus, and Granderson gives the Brewers another option in the outfield where Eric Thames has been an absolute bust, both offensively and defensively. 

2)     September call-ups arrived just in time.  The relief staff had endured injuries and sub-par performances from Matt Albers, Corey Knebel and Dan Jennings, and even Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress showed signed of wear during the dog days of August.  With September call-ups, Counsell can now give relievers the time off they need and pull starters at the first sign of trouble.  Case in point: last night starting pitcher Chase Anderson left the game after four innings of shutout ball.  Why?  Well, he’d gotten hit pretty hard during those four innings, and the Brewers have an excellent relief staff with a day off today, so there was no reason not to throw everything at the Cubs.  Unlike so many of Counsell’s predecessors, he’s willing to treat today like there’s no tomorrow.  This bodes well for a team that still might end up making the playoffs as a wild card, a game that can and should be treated like the seventh game of the World Series.

3)     The return of Zach Davies.  The starting pitching has been just good enough this year, which is pretty remarkable when you consider that seven starters have spent time on the DL this year, including a total season loss of Jimmy Nelson, a first half loss of Wade Miley and a second half loss (and all of next year) of Brent Suter.  These are not run-of-the-mill DL stints, yet somehow the Brewers starters have kept it together.  Davies’s return came just in time, and if Gio Gonzalez manages to pitch well for his three remaining starts, the Brewers should be in good shape until playoff time.  After that, all bets are off.

4) Lorenzo Cain and Chistian Yelich. Enough said.

Winning a wild-card berth is cold comfort these days in the MLB; a one-game playoff is a cruel reward, and I love that the Brewers at least have a chance to win the division.  It’s important to note that National League parody has allowed teams like the Brewers to stay in the hunt this year – the Brewers’ .571 winning percentage would place them in a distant third place in two of the three American League divisions.  But unlike the AL, the NL doesn’t have any doormats in the league; there’s no Baltimore Orioles or Kansas City Royals to beat up on (even the Miami Marlins and San Diego Padres have shown signs of life).  But the NL Central is eminently competitive.  Think the Cincinnati Reds blow?  Tell that to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who finally beat the Reds last night to finish the season series 1-6.  The Boston Red Sox may have an incredible team, but 20 percent of their 100 wins have come against two teams: the Orioles and Royals.  It’s entirely possible that Boston isn’t as unstoppable as some claim. 

Then again, this year’s World Series might play second fiddle to the Main Event of the ALCS.  We shall see, but I’m hoping against hope that the Brewers will be a part of it somehow.  No matter what happens, it’s been a fun 2018.

ELO in Chicago

An early morning email from a friend opened the door for me to attend Jeff Lynne’s ELO concert at the Allstate Arena in Chicago on Wednesday night, a show I’d toyed with going to until I saw the ticket prices, but leapt at the opportunity to attend last-minute for a more reasonable price.  ELO's music was a significant part of my childhood, and while I kept up with the band through the early 80s, I certainly can’t be labeled as anything other than a casual fan, unlike many of the thousands who attended last night’s show, which ran a little over an hour and a half.  The number of recognizable songs performed in such a short span was amazing.  Just when I thought, “I think that about covers it,” the band would break into yet another gem from the mid-70s.

Dressed in dark pants, a black shirt and grey blazer, 70-year-old Lynne masked his age with a beard, curly hair and sunglasses, and while his mid-range voice sounded strong and pure, he wisely relegated much of the higher vocals to his stellar backup singers, who added the animation that Lynne lacked and enabled the band to stick to the original keys for most (if not all?) the songs.  Twelve musicians joined Lynne on stage, including three string players and three keyboardists, one of whom spent the entire show doubling the string parts, allowing the arrangements to cut through the mix and sound much fuller than three strings could accomplish as a trio. 

The nineteen-song set strayed none-too-far from ELO’s first greatest hits album, including nine of the eleven tracks from that LP and only one song post-1980, “When I was a Boy,” a 2015 recording whose strong melody and nostalgic lyrics fit in nicely among the evening’s other songs.  There were a few other surprises, including the debut song off the band’s first album, “10538 Overture,” and “Wild West Hero,” among my favorite tracks from Out of the Blue and one that I played incessantly thirty years ago.  One song that was surprisingly absent was "Fire on High," which surely would have brought the house down and to me would have been a far better opener than "Standin' in the Rain."

Lynne didn’t engage his audience with storytelling the way James Taylor, Jackson Browne and other aging rockers do, but he still gave off an appreciative vibe for the audience, thanking them several times in a way that appeared heartfelt.  Lynne's music director, Mike Stevens, took the reins to introduce the large cast of musicians.

During the performance of “Handle with Care” from the Traveling Wilburys, the crowd cheered during the second verse, and while I couldn’t see the screen from my vantage point, I knew that they were most likely reacting to a photo or video of the departed members of that band.  The last time I saw this song performed live was at the Vic Theatre in 2003, when Tom Petty dedicated it to those who had gone.  Though Roy Orbison had died a long while back, it had only been a year and half since the death of George Harrison and a still-raw two months since Petty’s long-time bass player, Howie Epstein, succumbed to heroin addiction.  Here we are a decade and a half later, and it’s comforting to see Lynne and Bob Dylan still standing and still playing music.

As fans of aging rockers, we need to embrace these moments while they last.  Last night at the Allstate Arena, the fans of ELO surely did.

Best Debut Songs

There’s nothing better than a new band hitting the airwaves and blowing you away.  It may happen far less frequently today than back in the 70s and 80s (though it does still happen), but I still have fond memories of hearing Van Halen’s “Runnin’ with the Devil” for the first time and knowing it was unlike anything I’d ever heard before.  It was a game changer, as was “Good Times Roll” by The Cars just a few months later.  The late 70s was an exciting time for rock and roll, and it just so happens that many of the standout tracks from that time were debut songs, the first track of the first side of an artist’s first album.

My old go-to station during my tenure in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia’s 88.5 WXPN, recently compiled a list of the best debut songs (they call them lead-off tracks).  These are the kind of lists my vinyl buddies and I thrive on, and over the years we’ve compiled and debated about our own favorite debuts.  A silly endeavor, to be sure, but a fun exercise and especially helpful when insomnia strikes.

The XPN list on-line includes many of the obvious choices most of my friends and I would have included (the aforementioned “Good Times Roll,” “Chuck E.’s In Love” by Rickie Lee Jones, “More Than a Feeling” by Boston, “I Will Follow” by U2, “Girls on Film” by Duran Duran), but also includes a host of interesting tracks that I probably wouldn’t have thought of and excludes several that should be in the running.  (Note: the link says 150 tracks, but the playlist only includes 100.)

Here are some of the more inspired choices on the list:

Edie Brickell & New Bohemians – What I Am
Living Colour – Cult of Personality
John Mayer – No Such Thing
Ben Folds Five – Jackson Cannery
Sheryl Crow – Run, Baby Run
Television – See No Evil
Aimee Mann – I Should’ve Known
The Shins – Caring is Creepy
Jeff Buckley – Mojo Pin
Elton John – Empty Sky (I love Elton but would never have thought to include this track.  It’s pretty damn good!)

Here are my choices of debut songs that were overlooked but should have been included:

Led Zeppelin – Good Times, Bad Times
Company of Thieves – Old Letters
Off Broadway – Stay in Time
The Knack – Let Me Out
INXS – On the Bus
Rush - Finding My Way
Joni Mitchell – I Had a King
Rufus Wainwright – Foolish Love
Van Halen – Running’ with the Devil
Tori Amos - Crucify
Joe Jackson – One More Time
Dido – Here With Me

That last track gets my vote for one of the best recordings ever made.  What about you?  Any songs you’d include that the XPN list and I both overlooked?  Send ‘em my way.  I’d love to hear them.

Pooch Panic

Were you to have recorded my worst moments two weeks ago, you’d surely need no additional evidence to determine that I suffer from some form of anxiety disorder, manifesting itself in extreme panic attacks and severe fits of rage.  It was rough week, and while I plead guilty to the symptoms, if not the diagnosis (yet), it just goes to how hard it can be during times of stress to see the finish line and put things into perspective. 

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My family adopted a pooch two weeks ago – a four-year-old beagle recovering from hip surgery who suffers from her own anxiety issues and is prone to pee in the house – and within a short twenty-four hours of our adoption I was unable to see how this experiment would result in anything other than me packing up and leaving the family, since I know that my wife would never willingly spurn the devotion of a pooch, no matter how much pee she empties onto our carpets.  (And just last night – our couch!)

I panicked.  My wife and I argued.  She calmed me down.  And just when I thought, okay, maybe this will all work out, Piper, our sweet loving pooch who was clearly treated poorly for much of her life, would look at me, plop down on her back, and pee all over the floor, leading me to get amped up all over again until Alice tranquilized me with reason.  This was hard for her to do in person, but especially difficult to do over the phone, juggling normal work-day stresses along with her insane husband yelling while he mopped up pee for the fourth time that day.

And it wasn’t just the pee.  During that first week, Piper suffered from diarrhea (and anxiously deposited one bout onto our living room floor), wouldn’t eat dry food, wouldn’t pee outside, making it impossible to reinforce good behavior, and even if she had peed, she wouldn’t eat any of the treats we offered. (After a few days we resorted to giving her pieces of boiled chicken).  Add to this that she was still getting over hip surgery, so she was unable to walk any distance and we had to initially carry her up and down stairs.  It was all too much.

And then Monday night happened.

I had travelled to Louisville for a day to visit my daughter and get away for a while, and upon returning home came back to the same poor pooch, who immediately peed upon leaving her crate after my son had accidentally slept in too long.  I called Alice yet again on the phone and told her how this wasn’t going to work out.  (I’d like to say that were my exact words.  Not quite.)

And then that night Piper ate dry food.  Gobbled it, devoured it.  And then while on a walk she peed – on the GRASS – and when I offered her a basic store-bought treat to reward her, she ate it.  Gobbled it, devoured it.  Upon returning home she sprinted up the stairs, played with a sock that we’d tied into a knot several days earlier, and acted, well…like a dog. 

Piper has had a few setbacks since then – she peed on the carpet after refusing to climb down the stairs for some reason, and last night she peed on the couch, but the majority of her issues fixed themselves so quickly that now all we’re left with is a really good pooch who has a few issues on occasion.  I wish I could same for her owners!  Piper still is a little jumpy, and we may have some difficulty when it comes to leaving her to go on vacation, but I feel like these are challenges we can face.  Two weeks ago, I couldn’t see any light on the horizon, and all it took was one day before I started to panic.  Woe to my family if I ever have to face real stress for actual weeks or months.

I feel lucky and grateful.  Lucky that my wife forced me to hang in there just a little bit longer, and grateful that Piper is currently sitting by my side on our backroom couch.  And I hope she knows that she’ll never face another difficult day for as long as she lives.  Those days are over.  For your remaining years, dear Piper, all that’s expected of you now is to rest, eat, play, cuddle and act happy when we walk in the door.

And to pee outside.  That’s it.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved