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Positive Feedback ISSUE 55
eBay Charlatans and Letters to Friends (Part II)
Pssst, come a little closer because I've got a secret to tell you. I need you to keep a lid on this, but here goes: There are times when I'm wrong. Not only that, but sometimes I become the biggest beneficiary of my own blunders.
Such has been the case in the past few months when the worst year of my life ended on a materialistic high-note because my wife insisted on us becoming homeowners again, having lost our last one at the track because I didn't know "bet the house" was a figure of speech.
Actually, that's not true. We lost it after a pack of hungry termites crashed our Halloween party dressed as a donkey that I thought was the Feldmans from across the street.
Actually, that's not true either. We lost it when... OK, OK— I give up. We lost it in the same way every other Mr. and Mrs. Schlemiel in the country lost theirs, falling prey to an economy tough on everyone who didn't own a bank, a tank or a skank (prostitution having survived every economic downturn since Eve realized apples weren't the only way to pay the garden's landlord). But I guess I'd rather admit to being wrong than being boring.
That said, boredom would've been welcome in 2010 when it seemed a streak of personal difficulties might endure longer than Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in 1941. Part I of my manifesto ended about mid-year, when a vicious disagreement with the landlord we had since losing our own home in 2007, became the opportunity my wife, Nancy, used to push her agenda of doing the one big thing she wanted and knew I didn't: owning a home again.
In short, Nancy shocked the crap out of me by hitting a set of parameters I figured she stood no chance of achieving: a) a mortgage payment less than what we had been paying in rent; b) no down payment; and c) some kind of rebate for the cash we would undoubtedly need to fix problems nearly assured in whatever modest home we could afford.
And oh, one more thing: It had to have two bedrooms separated by a non-load-bearing wall that could be removed, to make a sound-room for a stereo that needed both repairs and a few new pieces (budgeted into that rebate I insisted upon). I had dearly missed the 15 x 25-foot sound-room for which my main system had been designed, never getting it to sound right in the 13 x 13-foot room at our rental house (with faulty wiring that shot down gear like Wyatt Earp taking target practice at a carnival booth).
So although the personal problems didn't stop when Nancy steamrolled me into a new stereo (heh, heh, heh), plotting my purchases gave me the little-kid feeling former Brooklyn Dodger Hall-of-Fame catcher Roy Campanella said was intrinsic to baseball. That analogy rings true for me, and in fact, you could say my eventual $3000 upgrade (detailed to excruciating levels in Part III) did for my psyche what I hoped a new baseball glove would do for my emotions many years ago, when the visualization of material purchases first substituted for the real thing.
We closed on the new house in June and I got more exercise than at any time in my adult life shortly thereafter, making my daily dash to the mailbox until the rebate check arrived in November. Before that reward, however, there was even greater depression on the personal front that I'll also continue to relate through letters to a composite friend nick-named Schro (a real guy, but pulling multiple-muse duty for streamlining purposes). In July, came the worst news of the year.
Sorry if I continue to lean on you, but this one's bad – real bad. Burksie died.
Details are sketchy, but after looking for all the world like he was on the road to a miraculous recovery from that respiratory infection that somehow crossed paths with his diabetes, he suddenly died. I don't even know the official cause, and to tell you the truth, I really don't care. All I know is my oldest friend is dead.
I've asked a few people in their mid-50s, like us, whether they have any 45-year friends. Nobody said yes and a couple seemed to look at me like I was crazy. I mean, it seems normal to me, to stay friends with somebody you met in the fourth grade and with whom you share so much in common, but I guess I was lucky.
Did I ever tell you how we initially bonded? Listen to this series of things we had in common... when we were nine years old, in Miss Lapham's fourth-grade class at Seth Boyden Elementary School:
* Although we lived in an area where nearly all our friends and family rooted for New York teams, we had each—before we met—chosen the nemesis of each team as our favorites. That meant the Celtics in basketball, the Packers in football and, because of all the Mickey Mantle vs. Willie Mays arguments in the early 1960s, the San Francisco Giants in baseball. Those are teams from Wisconsin, Massachusetts and California. The only pattern is the degree to which we were both natural-born contrarians.
* Fourth grade was also the age pupils were allowed to take up an instrument and join the band. Without knowing it—and with an endless choice from French horns, to cellos, to drums—we both picked the clarinet. Yeah, you read that right: the clarinet... just after the Beatles washed ashore without a woodwind in sight and about a million years removed from Benny Goodman playing Carnegie Hall.
During winter of that school year—between leading Miss Lapham's class to victory over the other two fourth grade classes in after-school, pick-up games of football (in the fall) and baseball (in the spring)—we practiced the clarinet together in the basement of my dad's paint store. It was dark, dank and, most importantly, damned-near sound-proof. One day we discovered a few of my brother's spiral-bound notebooks from freshman classes at Rider College. After seeing the usual markings for science, math, English, etc., Burksie spotted one that read, "All sorts of shit." He thought that was the damn funniest thing he ever saw, and every once in a while, he'd mention it in decades to come. At the start of the next school year, we reported to our first band class in agreement to quit. I did, but he didn't, sticking it out for three more years. I don't think that to this day either of us knew who was the victor in that situation.
* In that same basement came two other areas in common. One was how we were teamed together to draw a map of Africa, for a geography project. I don't remember how we were assigned the most far-away land in the class, but I do remember us drawing dots with magic markers, to denote the Sahara Desert on our oak-tag map. I think we got the highest grade in the class, although I'm not positive on that one.
* Our other basement commonality nearly led to the only blows we would've ever exchanged: We were both after the same girl on Valentine's Day. Debbie Staatsburg was the prettiest girl in the fourth grade (or at least, we both thought so) and it was a race to see who could get our I.D. bracelet on her wrist first. I think Burksie won that battle, but I definitely won the war... 20 years later. I saw Debbie at a local bar-restaurant a year after my divorce, but while he was still married. I wound up going out with her for two years, at which point a friend convinced me she was mostly after my paycheck (I was making some good scratch at the time, as an eastern regional sales manager for Sansui, and she had a five-year-old daughter to support). A few months after we broke up, I discovered she had been a mid-level porn star, which definitely explained her best talent—and how I was blinded from seeing the forest, given all the nightly trees, if you get my drift. For my part, I touched her inner-child, for reasons that should be obvious.
All but that last chapter were 45 years ago, and although geography or circumstance separated us for large chunks of time, we stayed friendly and in communication throughout. For instance, in the 1980s—when I had moved back to New Jersey during the Larry Bird-era Celtics—we used to tear-up New Jersey bars we knew to have a lot of Knicks fans we could disparage, even at a 10-1 disadvantage. And I was particularly touched when he seemed to pick me for emotional help during that awful divorce with his cheating wife. Some of that, I'm sure, was because I could relate to the divorce issue and I don't know if any of his other friends could. But I'd like to think the rest was a result of knowing I was someone he could trust, having proven our friendship to each other so many times, for so many years. And of course, we engaged somewhat regularly via phone, to talk a variety of things, but mostly sports—especially to commiserate about our hapless San Francisco Giants. And on it went... until the last few years.
For reasons I'll now never know, a rift developed between us, with Burksie canceling long-range plans to get together four times. In no particular order, they were: a) my wedding in Arkansas; b) a separate plan for him to come out a few years later; c) meeting in State College, Pa., to see my Nittany Lions, shortly after my best college-year friend had become Joe Paterno's defensive coordinator – and for which I spent hours finding a different place to stay, when he said he wanted to join Nancy, Jeff and I; and d) dinner plans in New Jersey, about a half-hour from his place, when we were out there for my 30th high school reunion.
That last situation was the last straw for Nancy. It convinced her she was the problem, given he surprised me by showing up at your bar when I came to visit you, by myself, during that class reunion trip. I can't blame her for feeling the way she does, but who in the world would have such a severe problem with Nancy, a candidate for World's Most Genuinely Nice Person, as I'm sure you and all my friends would agree (much to your astonishment). I don't buy it. We knew each other so well, for so long, I just can't believe Nancy—or my marriage to Nancy—could possibly be the problem.
Second only to his death itself, this has been the toughest part for me. If I would've just picked up the phone—as I had said to myself at least a half-dozen times in the past year—I'm sure we could've figured it out. You don't just throw 45-year friendships overboard. What we had was special and I'm confident he felt the same way. I've nearly dislocated my knee, kicking myself in the ass in recent days. Fortunately, though, I haven't totally lost perspective, realizing this situation between us wasn't the most unfair element to Burksie's death. Not even close.
No, the most unfair part is how hard he worked, for how long, as an administrator at the same high school nearly all his adult life. Remember how impossible it was to convince him to take off any of the hundreds of sick days he had coming to him? Remember how confident and content he was with his long-range plan of topping out his pension by retiring a principal, selling the house he would own free-and-clear by then and moving to North Carolina, spending the rest of his life on a golf course? Remember how he attacked his diabetes, losing so much weight I actually hesitated a half-second before recognizing him when he surprised me at your bar?
Now compare that to me. While he was so rightfully proud of how hard he worked, I was proud of how much I didn't work. While he did everything right, from obeying traffic laws to eating right, I've told every doctor I know that I'd rather die ten years early eating what I want and spent most of my life substituting my own sense of what's legal for what the lawmakers say it is. While he was patiently waiting for the end of the rainbow, I was taking my share out of the middle.
That's what's so unfair. Is that selfish survivor's guilt on my part? I don't know. All I know is I miss my friend, Schro. And to tell you the truth, I don't think I realized it until that last sentence. And although I'm so thankful you're now my oldest friend, I'm sure you'll understand if I retire the trophy.
A simple letter about my oldest friend dying wasn't enough to put it behind me and I've often had delayed reactions to large-scale events. Burksie's death was no different and we'll get to that in my final letter to a friend. But you want a new definition for ironic? All our lives, Burksie and I kidded about wanting to see the Giants win the World Series just once before we died. They hadn't won one since 1954 (when they were the New York Giants) and we were born two years later. And yet, the Giants won the first World Series to take place after Burksie died. I suppose a lot of Giants fans died in the previous year—but I didn't know any of them.
More bad news followed, but I'm going to go a bit out of chronological order to express how an eBay charlatan enlightened me to the true definition of "audiophile." And for my non-audiophile friends – who are encouraged to not even look at Part III, which you'll think requires a propeller on your head to fully appreciate my description for the multiple stereo systems now in my house—perhaps this will provide some insight about what it is that has kept my boyish enthusiasm for this stereo stuff.
In my first effort this year for PFO a few years ago, I wrote about how buying an old pair of Sansui speakers with beautiful lattice-work grilles, and the subsequent restoration of them, yielded something of great pride. The reader reaction I continue to get regarding that story—including an extraordinary conversation with an audiophile in Russia who wanted to know just a bit more—has been quite rewarding. So I'd like to publicly thank all those who have written to me about it. If yet others would like to read that story, you can find it here: http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue37/sansui.htm
Their sound is not as sophisticated as what's available today, but sometimes they're a fun change-of-pace and I've placed them in the living room, with iPod hook-up. There they can be easily seen by guests, which can make for good conversation. The missing ingredient, though, was a Sansui amplifier also made in the 1960s and with which they were likely voiced.
The series of Sansui amplifiers from which I wanted to pluck any model in good shape was known by the confusing term, "the triple single-digit series." There was the AU-222, 333, etc., with companion AM/FM tuners of the same number, but with a TU prefix. They were the first solid state amplifiers made by the company and the companion tuners had a tuning scope that would not only increase the visual appeal of my vintage system, but more importantly also retain the original creative intent. They were popular enough that many working specimens still exist today and are generally available at downright cheap prices. For instance, I wound up buying an amp off eBay for $154, but my failure to win the companion tuner is where enlightenment occurred.
A preamble about our shared sacrifice: I don't own a turntable. I'm willing to stipulate records are more musical than the harsher sound of CDs, but I lost most of my record collection through a series of long-distance moves and at a storage facility plagued by rats that were, apparently, big LP fans—or at least, fans of their covers. Subsequently, I chose to build my CD library instead because I'm willing to trade the last word in musicality for listening without surface noise, clicks, pops, etc.
Rather than argue the point, however, I'd like to express appreciation for those who continue to collect LPs and play them more often than CDs. I respect their organic connection to adjusting the tracking angle of a phono cartridge, lowering it onto a record and returning to their seat, from where they listen to an entire side at a time, uninterested in cherry-picking songs by remote control. I respect and admire those who have such an emotional connection to their LPs and turntables. Why? Because I get it.
Although that part of this hobby may not be my cup of tea, I'm willing to acknowledge it as being so for others and hope that respect is returned for my obsessions, such as arranging my own equipment as if merchandising it in a Macy's window and for vintage equipment to be treated with particular respect. The latter is where I diverged with the eBay seller—and rekindled a distinct distaste for eBay, as well.
Here's what happened:
Despite having sworn off eBay several years ago because of stupid lies told to me for very inexpensive gear (I try to make my lies count for something), I knew that's where I'd be most likely to find an amp/tuner combination to my liking. It took a couple of days, but I bumped into something extraordinary. Somebody had an AU-555a amplifier with a TU-666 tuner. A mismatch? No, a perfect match that's not likely to appear again. That "a" suffix for the amp is because it was an improved version, but when Sansui brought it to market, they used knobs and switches that matched the tuner for the next model up—not the knobs and switches found on the TU-555. They also had the same wooden casework, which wasn't always true.
This was like the Titanic and the Lusitania sinking on the same night. But instead of selling them together, he was selling them separately—kinda like tearing the Mona Lisa in half, thinking two auctions are better than one. And on each ad, the lead photo was of the two together, suggesting just a bit of historical awareness. But maybe that was an innocent coincidence (I hoped), so I wrote to him, saying I used to work for the company and that what he had was worth far more together than apart. I also asked how I could have even a sporting chance at winning both when the auctions ended simultaneously. That's when he told me he spaced the tuner to end 15 minutes later and that he felt he could make more money separately. Or in other words: He was a devious kind of asshole. Even if he was right, how much more could he make? Ten dollars? Twenty?
I pay $20 to watch monkeys fuck. Hell, I'd pay $20 to watch The Monkees fuck.
Being the romantic sort, though, I took a run. I won the amp auction at $154 and then monitored the tuner, remembering that most eBay action happens at the end. With five seconds to go, my hidden bid of $150 was still $50 ahead of the competition. And then, like being shot in the head, I lost by $2.50 with two seconds to go. Not even I can type that fast and felt as crushed as I can feel about a material object.
I wrote to him immediately and again the next day with the hope maybe he'd turn out to be a decent guy and pass along a simple message. I said the two pieces were meant to be together and asked him to tell whoever won the tuner that he could double his money overnight—or, if the other person felt like me but even more strongly—I'd be willing to sell him the amp at no profit. This was nothing off his back because the auctions were done and he'd have my money ASAP. No viable eBay policy could possibly be broken because even if they had one, it would constitute them violating his right to free speech. Besides, wouldn't he be doing the other buyer a favor? Doubling money overnight without lifting a finger might be viewed by some as a good thing.
Not only wouldn't he do so, he didn't have the guts to tell me directly. Instead, he turned the communiqués over to eBay officials ... so I could go to eBay jail, I presume. Of course, if this has ever happened to you, you might know such action by the seller is not divulged. You just receive a lie from eBay that your mail couldn't be delivered—despite having sent both e-mails to the same address I had been using for previous communication—and to try doing x-y-z for attempting to re-send. Well, I followed their directions for the heck of it, got nowhere (of course) and then called customer service because at this point my reporter hackles were up.
So dig this: The cop on the beat wanted to know what my e-mails had said. What? WHAT? You want to know what was said in a private conversation? Holy frickin' shit—got some control issues, bitch (that's a gender-neutral rendition of "bitch," if you get my well-placed drift)? Bastards. Typical corporate clowns.
In planning this part of our story, I was going to ring everybody's bell. I was going to divulge the seller's name, home town and whatever he said when I called for comment. At the same time, I was going to write a story about how eBay policies fly in the face of how a free society conducts itself. I was going to do the reporter thing, seeing how I was already in that frame-of-mind. But to commit actual journalism and bury it this deep in a shockingly long, three-part essay seemed out of place.
More importantly, though, the favor that had been done for me finally sunk in: The guy had defined what a gear-jockey is but an audiophile isn't. A bona-fide audiophile would acknowledge the art and act appropriately. The fact I might never find a TU-666 with a wood case and in good shape isn't what's important. I'll keep looking for that, but I'm no longer looking for how to define an audiophile or running from calling myself one either.
And that's pretty significant, don't you think?
But that type of positive reflection happened at year's end and might not have happened in the wake of Burksie's death because I was too busy with self-pity. No, what happened between news of Burksie and discovering the true definition of an audiophile is quite embarrassing. But like I said at the top of this book, I'm not continuing my writing life just so I can play it safe ...
If you're going to hear this at some point, I'd rather you hear it from me. Bottom line first: I was locked-up in the minor league version of a psyche ward for six days (that were supposed to be three days, although that hardly seems like the most important part to explain right now).
On the Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend, I made an incredibly stupid, but off-hand comment to Nancy in the morning about suicide. As you know, it's been a rough year and I guess I was allowing myself way too much pity. You know that's not in me. We've talked about it before and you know my theory about a Suicide Gene—that you have to be pre-disposed to suicide, to actually follow-through and that I'm not so inclined.
Anyway, Nancy stormed out of the room, but a (bad) joke I made later, led to me waking up from a nap with a half-dozen cops in my office. Nancy was out in the garage and I went to say something to her. On the way out, when I thought she saw my face (she hadn't), I smiled, grabbed a pitchfork and said I was going to keep it with me in case anybody tried to break into my office. At that point, I took a nap—always the sign of a suicidal maniac.
Shortly after falling asleep—a very deep sleep, aided by a Valium for which I've had a prescription for ten years, as a muscle relaxer for my back—Nancy handed me the phone. I sincerely don't remember the conversation, but I learned later it was my shrink. I still see him every three months, to legally justify his continuing to prescribe the anti-depressants that worked for the severe anxiety I experienced nine years ago. Apparently, he didn't know I was asleep and after I mumbled something incoherent (that part I believe), I gave the phone back to Nancy and he told her to call the police, as I went back to sleep.
After the police woke me up—and believe me when I say there was a half-dozen of them... at least a half-dozen—I saw one of them in the hallway, talking Nancy into leaving. She says now that if she knew what they were going to do to me, she wouldn't have allowed it and I believe her. But at the time, they saw a guy with a pitchfork in the room and a bottle of Valium. If I was going to commit suicide, wouldn't the bottle have been empty? Unfortunately, I didn't think to ask that at the time. But I did know enough not to be a wise-ass and calmly answered their questions for more than a half-hour, as the number of them in the room whittled down to four. I figured that would be it, but all of the sudden, two of them jerked me out of my chair from behind—one of them, I came to find out later, tore my rotator cuff—while one of them drew a stun-gun, held it two inches from my sternum and smiled while informing me of its specifications.
I was then strapped to a gurney, thrown into an ambulance and taken to the hospital, where I was put in a small room without windows. Hospital Jail, I suppose. When a doctor walked in, I told her one of the cops injured my shoulder and asked if she could please order X-rays. Not only didn't she do that, she told me she was giving me a pain shot, which was instead some kind of knock-out shot because I was unconscious for hours. You know how high my tolerance is to painkillers, given I'm prescribed the best available, so no pain shot short of Kevorkian volume is going to put me out for hours on end. Further, no hospital administers pain meds without first taking a urine sample, to see if you're already on them.
At about 2 a.m., after I finally woke up from whatever it was they gave me, I was taken to a local treatment center that's mostly for substance abuse and told the police had put me on a 72-hour hold. Apparently, not even Nancy could get me out of it. Of about a dozen or so patients, not only was I the oldest, but I was the only one not there voluntarily. That meant I was only allowed restricted movement, or mostly, that I couldn't go to the cafeteria with the rest of them. Instead, I was brought cold leftovers of what was the worst food I've ever eaten in my life. That's not hyperbole—I had a long time to think it over and it made airline food (when airlines used to serve food) seem like it came from the Russian Tea Room. Not only wouldn't I serve that shit to a dog, I wouldn't serve it to a cat. And as you know, I'd like to someday see cats on a list of extinct creatures, next to pterodactyls and the wooly mammoth. I know, I know: You like cats, but I'd contend they don't like you and why should I like an animal that doesn't like people?
The place was a joke, Schro. Among their various therapeutic tools were—dig this—coloring books. I shit you not. Crayolas and everything. At one point, I went up to one of the other patients and asked, "Not for nothing, but when does the therapy start?" Best I could tell, the main responsibility for "therapists" was to monitor smoking breaks. If Congress is so hot to cut programs, why don't they leave the tsunami warning center intact and cut funding to joints like this. And of course, I kept telling them there was something wrong with my shoulder and they didn't do anything about it either. If you're counting lawsuits, that would be at least three, if I were so inclined. But wait, this gets better.
I didn't see a doctor until Monday morning and he informed me that weekends and holidays don't count in the 72-hour hold. If it wouldn't have made them think I truly was nuts, I would've went batshit-apeshit. What the hell do they mean, weekends and holidays don't count? So for whatever reason, I wound up spending six days there. Fortunately, it only took a couple of ten-minute talks with their two doctors for them to realize it was all a big misunderstanding, so there was nothing other than waiting for the clock to tick.
But since I had nothing to pass the time other than jabbering with all the kids, I had some time to think about what got me there. First, I can assure you the word "suicide" will never cross my lips again; I'll learn how to say it with signing instead. Second, I really needed to get over this self-pity thing. I had a bad year, but not as bad as Burksie's sister and brother—or the millions of kids who go to bed hungry every night, which is as much an insult to mankind as anything in the world. So at least I left in better shape than when I went in and maybe it'll give me a jump-start on processing this piece-of-shit year, to try and put it into a perspective I can live with.
I mean, really—I've got it made. I have a wife more wonderful than I deserve (despite the worst case of miscommunication in recorded history) and I've somehow managed to assemble the best friends in the world. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I know that what I wrote in my book is without doubt true: My friends are my best achievement.
Thanks for being one of them.
I know it seems like a million words ago, but at the start of this blasted thing I wrote that you audiophiles—bright folks that you are—might see the pattern in what 2010 represented for me, faster than I did by living it. But in case you haven't, here's what I finally realized while killing time in Lock-up Lite:
These were things that happen when you get old. Friends get sick. Friends die. Maybe you get sick yourself – or at least, doctors think you are. I hope all these things don't happen to you in one year, but if they do, maybe you can learn from what happened to me because surviving it means I no longer look at 2010 as the worst year of my life. I now look at it as the most important year of my life. And my friends have actually noticed a difference.
Three times in recent months, friends with whom I rarely talk about anything deeper than zone defenses have said they've never seen (or heard, in the case of a long-distance friend on the phone) me seem more in control and happier about my life. One went so far as to say there is a glow about me – and was dead-serious. And I think they may be onto something.
And yes, this audiophile hobby can be salvation. Or at the least, it can be soothing until you get past whatever ails you. I know there are audiophiles apprehensive about admitting they like the material end of our world—that admitting to liking gear somehow means you're not totally focused on the music and are therefore shallow. Well, consider yourself pardoned. There's nothing wrong with admiring the gear that makes the music. I wouldn't recommend allowing it to consume you, so find your own way of putting it into perspective, but don't lie about it... not even to yourself. Final proof of my comfort with it is the semi-technical Part III (fit for audiophiles only), but the human part of this story has now been told.
As for me, I'd like to hang around. If the publishers and readers of PFO want me here, I'll be here for as long as I have something to say and it somehow relates to the part of the world we share. I'm going to keep clear of the 20,000-word variety because, honestly, this was a bear to write. In fact, it might've been the toughest writing assignment of my life and that includes my book, considering it was a book of short stories.
But what the hell. It was worth the effort because you audiophiles are OK in my book—particularly now that I truly know what one is.
Mike Rodman, an Associate Editor for Positive Feedback Online, is a free-lance writer and author who lives in Fayetteville, Ark. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org