About John Ochwat

John Ochwat is a recovering journalist, the co-author of one of the most obscure academic books of all time, and was a columnist for the publication the Columbia Journalism Review called "The Worst Newspaper in America" (regrettably, he was not singled out for mention). His work has appeared in McSweeney's, Soma, and Forbes ASAP, among other places. He's also a dabbling musician, an intermittent blogger at First Person Irregular, and a procrastinator on Twitter.

Little Victories

My friend has multiple sclerosis. MS is a nasty disease, which has robbed my friend of the ability to walk. She gets by with an electric scooter and a wheelchair, but for someone who has traveled around the world, it’s been a tough adjustment.

When our family was going to a water park for a birthday party recently, our friend told us she wanted to meet us there with her nephew, who was visiting her. The idea was that her nephew would play with the boys at the birthday party at the water park.

At the park, our friend had fewer options. There were two lifts: One assisted her from her wheelchair into a pool, and another did the same for the hot tub. But my friend has traveled around the world; she wasn’t content to sit and soak like a dish sponge.

She wanted to ride the slides. Specifically, the biggest, hairiest slide in the park.

So she and her husband asked whether they could do that.

The first lifeguard was nice, but said the rule was that if she could get up the stairs (about four flights of them) by herself, she could ride the slide. That seemed arbitrary. What did the ability to walk up the stairs have to do with hanging on to the inflatable raft on the way down? You couldn’t use your legs on the raft anyway. On the slide my friend wanted to ride, your butt sat in a hole, and your lower body was immobilized, or was supposed to be.

What comes down must first go up.

What comes down must first go up.

That was discouraging. I once wrote a story about an engineer who spent a half day in a wheelchair to get a sense of what it was like. He was astonished at all he ways that streets and sidewalks and ramps that were built to code — the way his manuals told him — were nevertheless unusable for people in wheelchairs. I’d learned the same thing with my friend. Every doorway, every step, every time she got in a car, or got on a streetcar or bus, or went in to a restaurant — everything we take for granted is a possible barrier for her.

A little while later, my friend asked another employee, and got another no.

There were people who were grossly overweight, and really out of shape, whose upper body were far weaker than my friend’s, who has an impressive set of triceps as a result of propelling a wheelchair. But I understood the rules … which are often set up by lawyers as a result of someone somewhere suing someone else.

But my friend wasn’t giving up so easily. She went to the central first aid desk and asked a third time. This time her husband, my wife and I came too, to emphasize the point that we were willing and able to get her up the stairs.

The woman she spoke to was more senior, and was very apologetic. But she still said no.

I walked away from that feeling pretty defeated. I could go back and ride the slides, but it didn’t feel exactly right. I had free roam of the place, but my friend was hampered by a lack of machinery, and a set of invisible rules.

But then, about 15 minutes later, my friend came over, grinning. They’d changed their minds!

Up the stairs we went. The line was long, and we took turns piggybacking my friend up the stairs, while taking a lot of breaks while the line wasn’t moving. When we got to the top of the slide, we had to convince the girl working at the top that we’d gotten permission (since she was the first one we asked).

She relented. We got my friend into her seat, and off we went. With four adults, we had a lot of weight on the raft, so it was a pretty wild ride. But we made it to the bottom intact.

My friend was happy. We were happy for her.

Funny how that ride ended up being the highlight of the day.

My Canada Day Memory

Happy Canada Day!

When I was 16, I worked for a company that did special events. On July 1 of that summer, my one-day sent me to a mall where I took turns with another guy, wearing a 7-foot Mountie uniform and walking around the mall greeting kids. The Mountie’s breeches came up to my ribs, and the Mountie’s head sat on top of mine (I looked out a V-shaped piece of mesh at the the base of the neck). Since I was mostly blind, my partner led me around and made sure kids didn’t kick me.

When he was sweating inside the uniform, I did the same. Plus, the name had just changed. So I spent half the day explaining that “It’s no longer called Dominion Day, it’s called Canada Day.” And then I handed out little Canadian flags.

mountieSince I was actually born in the US, I got a laugh out of lecturing Canadian kids on an approved-by-government-committee holiday name change.

Kid: “Why isn’t it Dominion Day anymore?”

Me: “Not sure. I guess they want to recognize it as a country.”

Kid: “Oh.”

But that’s no less baffling to a kid than the lyrics of the Star Spangled Banner, including “O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?” (huh?)

Adding to the je ne sais quoi of the day was the fact that I ran into my high school law class teacher, who was quite tickled that I was spending my summer teaching Canadian mores.

Anyhow, happy birthday, Canada. You were a fine country to grow up in, and I was happy to help teach a wee bit of civics to your youngsters. Especially because none of them kicked me in the ass.

Traveler vs. Hotel Room

I’ve been traveling a lot for work, which often means a bad night’s sleep.

For complicated reasons involving hotel no-vacancies, my only room option last week was on the other side of the machinery at the top of the elevator shaft. If you can imagine the sound of enormous carts rolling across bumpy pavement every ten to twenty seconds, you’ll have an idea of what it sounded like.

But it was either than or hump over to another hotel at at 11 p.m., so I took the room. I even fell asleep at a decent hour.

Then I woke up. It was about 3:30 a.m. The elevators were pretty quiet, but a green light was flashing from overhead every five seconds or so.

And I was hot. I tried to adjust the thermostat, but every single knob was missing. Luckily, I guess, it was preset for a decent temperature. I flipped back the fancy down comforter, which would have kept Nanook warm in the north, and went with a complicated thermal solution that involved wearing a long sleeve t-shirt under the sheet.

And then the elevators started to rumble again. I lay in bed for a while, then remembered I had a solution for the sound:


Those things that look like bullets are actually foam ear plugs. I’d forgotten I had them, but necessity is apparently a great spur for your memory. I put the ear plugs in, and there was much rejoicing. You can buy them at any drugstore. They pencil out to about 10 cents apiece. Trust me: a pair of those in your suitcase is money well spent.

But there was still a flashing green light above my head, and I needed a fix for it. A piece of tape would have been perfect, but I didn’t have tape (I am not, you know MacGuyver). I took a look at the light sources, which was a smoke alarm of some sort. 

After some casting about for suitable material, I realized the cardboard key sleeve that the hotel provides could be shimmed into the alarm on either side of the light, creating a barrier. Even better, the sleeve was printed in a dark color on one side, letting less light through.


I was proud of that hack … and it was probably for the best I didn’t see the mold around the smoke alarm (yeesh!) until I downloaded my photo a few days later.

So I managed to outwit the elevator, the balky air conditioner, and the green light — yet I still lost out on sleep, because I had to do major surgery on the hotel room in the middle of the night.

If you can help it, don’t travel for business.

Book Review: The House of Silk, by Anthony Horowitz

The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes NovelThe House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel by Anthony Horowitz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two points about THE HOUSE OF SILK (and the notion of writing a Sherlock Holmes story in general):

  1. Sherlock has been done so many times, especially recently, that the character is basically a cut-out. You prop it up, and substitute whoever you like, be it Robert Downey Jr. or Benedict Cumberbatch.
  2. That said, the author (in this case, Anthony Horowitz) is in a slightly odd position. Because everyone is so familiar with Holmes, all his characterization feels like a retread. I almost skimmed over those parts … keen intellect, yeah yeah … stunning deductions … yeah, been there.

That said, Horowitz tells a good tale, weaving orphaned children, immigrants, a man apparently threatened by an Irish gangster, and the nefarious doings of well-to-do into a story with a bunch of twists and turns that he ties together in a way that is both surprising and satisfying.

He also writes well. It isn’t just good prose, but he adds period detail with his use of language, especially anachronistic terms.

It’s not the kind of book that I’d expect to see shortlisted for the Booker, but it’s a good story, a fun read, and moves along at a lively pace.

View all my reviews

Bernard Purdie at the Cadence Jazz Festival

David Haney, Andre St. James, Bernard PurdieI went to the last night of Cadence Fest on Tuesday. Cadence, a well-respected jazz magazine, has been reborn thanks to the efforts of jazz pianist David Haney (left), who put on the festival as an extension of his magazine work. (Willamette Week did a nice write-up about him before the festival.)

I managed to catch a set by the Rich Halley Group, which was neat. Halley, a saxophonist, played with a trombonist, bassist, and drummer. I’m not usually a big fan of really free jazz, but I found it was a lot more approachable when I could see the musicians cue off of each other.

But the real reason I was there had to do with the headliner: David Haney was playing with bassist Andre St. James, and a drummer named Bernard “Pretty” Purdie. As a drummer, I’ve been a fan for a long time — I’ve been listening to tracks he’s recorded for most of my life (I’ll bet you have, too. Check out a list of his top 100 tracks.) But I’ve never seen him live.

The trio was great. Haney actually took the stage wearing a winter coat, a sport coat, and a scarf, like a commuter on the bus. But Haney plays piano unlike almost anyone I’ve ever seen — his right foot taps, his legs kick out, and he lurches around on the bench. If there’s such a thing as a physical piano player, he is one. All that motion warmed him up, and he took off the jacket, then peeled off the sport coat during a song. One song later, the scarf joined the jacket and the coat on the floor next to the piano. It was like the dance of the seven veils.

As good as Haney and St. James are, I was mostly focused on Purdie. For the most part he was just comping, and didn’t even solo. But even compared to the drummer that preceded him, Purdie was smoother, his time was perfect, and his dynamics (variation in volume) were just effortless. He was so technically adept that when he was playing a fill, his hands would just bring his idea to life.

Purdie is now 73, so I’m feeling lucky that he came out one night to help out his friend’s jazz festival. I can only hope he decides to do it more often.

Son vs. The Grizz

I know it’s a bit of a social media no-no to post photos of your food, but this was a wager. It happened like this: My sons and I have been going to a local diner for months, and on one visit, my cousin was with us. My cousin mentioned that his nephew keeps ordering “The Grizz,” but that he can never finish it.

“The Grizz” is a cluster-bomb of breakfasts: Two strips of bacon, two sausage links, a ham steak, three eggs, hash brown potatoes, and two pancakes. According to the calculus of my stomach, that’s three breakfasts, not one.

the grizz

Needless to say, news of the distant cousin’s failure to summit Mt. Grizz naturally became a bit of family lore. The Grizz was no longer just an expensive breakfast menu item — it had acquired a bit of myth.

So this morning, my older son said he wanted to order it. My son is thirteen, and struggles to fill out slim-fit jeans.

I said no. It was too much food, it was expensive, and I hated to see food and money go to waste. My son kept after it: “I’m hungry.” “I can finish it.” Etc. Then my younger son waded into the fray, offering to help. I countered with, “Why don’t you two share it?”

They had the uni-mind on this one, so they vetoed that motion. Son 1 wanted The Grizz. Son 2 wanted to see Son 1 eat it.

I agreed, on the condition that he had to finish it. I also decided to document things, thinking that if things went sideways (or came back up),  I’d have digital proof of his folly.

When our food arrived, we tucked in. Son 1 knocked off the three eggs, over-easy. And the bacon. And the sausage. And the ham. And then the pancakes. Then, slowing down noticeably and drinking plenty of water, he went after the hash browns. A few bites from the end, I was ready to give it to him, on rounding error.

He shook me off. He was hell-bent to conquer.

The Reimains of The GrizzWhich he did. Remarkably, we did not have to go directly to the drug store for Pepto-Bismol, or Alka-Seltzer. He didn’t want to go jump on a trampoline, but he was otherwise fine.

I’m just hoping this doesn’t become a habit.

“Moneyball” and the Case of the Copycat Song

I saw “Moneyball” this weekend. It’s an excellent movie, but I still think Michael Lewis’ book is even better. My suggestion: Go read the book. Then go see the movie.

But one thing the movie has, which the book doesn’t, is a subplot involving Beane’s 12-year-old daughter. In the movie the daughter sings and plays guitar, and the song she writes becomes kind of an anthem for her father.

The song, called “The Show,”  was actually written by a singer-songwriter named Lenka and released in 2008. Here’s Kerris Dorsey’s cover (she’s the actress who plays the daughter), in a video that looks like a trailer for the movie:

Lovely song, eh? But since I’m a hobbyist musician, I spend a lot of time listening to music, and I thought it sounded familiar. Like, really familiar. Like, substitute-other-lyrics-on-top-of-existing-song familiar.

Which existing song? “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz (first released in 2005):

I took a look at the chords, and they’re not the same (though I think they’re both using variations on the I-IV-V chord progressions). Then I compared the first two lines:

“The Show”:

I’m just a little bit caught in the middle
Life is a maze and love is a riddle

“I’m Yours””

Well uh you dawned on me and you bet I felt it,
I tried to be chill but you’re so hot that I melted,

Similar number of syllables, similar meter. You could easily sing those four lines as a single verse.


I Must Be Crazy: I Signed up for NaNoWriMo

I signed up for NaNoWriMo. In case you haven’t seen it, that’s a mashup of National Novel Writing Month, and it’s a thing among some writers (usually the ambitious ones). The idea is to write like a maniac for 30 days. And you “win” if you get 50,000 words written.

But damn, that’s a lot of words. If you do the math — and this is one time when writers will — it works out to 1,667 words a day. That’s about seven pages a day, for 30 straight days.

I don’t expect to “win.” I’ve got a full-time job, as well as a part-time job as a dad/husband/dish-doer/errand-runner/math-homework-helper.

Also, I’ve tried not sleeping. It hasn’t worked out too well. I’d also like have my wife not divorce me.

So why go through all the trouble? Because it’s there! Also because I’ve been dipping my toe in a new project, and this gives me the institutional excuse to dive into the deep end. And because the things I regret are usually things I said no to.

Besides, writing is easy! As Gene Folwer (or someone else) once said, “All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

So, starting in 90 minutes, it’s November. And I’ll be cranking.

PS – You can see my progress on the widget on the right (because I know you have nothing better to do). And should it come to pass, I expect the widget will also show my lack of progress.

If you want to know more, check out their site. Or Nathan Bransford’s post about NaNoWriMo resources.

My Son Attempts to Spend Donald Trump’s Money

Just before dinner tonight, I was watching the news about Hurricane Sandy, fretting about all the destruction, and wondering if people were all right. My son was in the room doing homework. He glanced at the screen, and said, “Why doesn’t Donald Trump take that $5 million he was going to donate for Obama’s transcripts and give it to the Red Cross?”

I thought that was a good comment, so I put it on Twitter. After dinner I was helping him with his math homework, and I peeked at my Twitter mentions. His comment had been retweeted twice, and someone responded by saying, “That would require ‘The Donald’ to have a soul.” My son thought that being retweeted was kind of cool.

But things were just getting started.

Over the next hour the mentions flowed in, as did the retweets. They kept coming. And coming … for the next two hours. Then it looked something like this:

Over 450 people had repeated it. Needless to say, he was really excited, even though he didn’t fully understand the dynamics of social media (or really, why his well-meaning comment about philanthropy had struck like a well-timed bolt of lightning).

But it made him happy. And I liked it when the commentariat started including Donald Trump’s Twitter address in responses and asking, “Well, how about it?”

As a former English instructor, I’d like to think this is empowering for him: that a good message will cut through all the noise, that it’s worth speaking up … that he might even affect change.

Will that happen? Hard to say. I think the tweet struck a chord because people were fed up with Trump’s grandstanding that if President Obama released his college transcripts, Trump would donate $5 million to the charity of Obama’s choice. It’s a gambit that looks particularly awkward, now that New York and surround states are facing billions in damages. Then again, about 10 percent of the mentions thought Obama should comply; apparently they were more concerned with how Obama did in college than they are about Hurricane Sandy wreaking havoc on the eastern U.S.

But you never know. Two hours after my son’s comment was out in the world, someone sent me a message that they had started a group on Facebook, called Donald Trump Should Donate His $5 Million to the Red Cross:

Can you see that first post? That’s the part that made me happy.

Movie Review: “The Wrecking Crew,” by Denny Tedesco

The Wrecking CrewOn Monday night I went to see a screening of a really good documentary called “The Wrecking Crew,” about a group of little-known Los Angeles studio musicians who played on hundreds of hit records in the 1960s.

In a sense, The Wrecking Crew were never supposed to be the subject of a documentary, or of a book by Ken Hartman that came out this year. They were union musicians, hired to lay down tracks, and their work was never credited on singles or albums.

Which, to the record labels, made a certain kind of sense. They probably feared what the public would think if they learned that the same few dozen musicians recorded songs for the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra, Sonny and Cher, Jan & Dean, The Monkees, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Mamas and Papas, Tijuana Brass, Ricky Nelson, Johnny Rivers, and comprised Phil Spector’s famous Wall of Sound.

The Wrecking Crew

The Wrecking Crew in studio. Hal Blaine is on the drums. Carol Kaye is on the left, wearing white glasses and holding a bass.

Back in the early 1960s, a lot of groups became famous before they could actually play. Wikipedia says that members of the Wrecking Crew played on the first Byrds single recording, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, because Columbia Records didn’t trust the skills of Byrd musicians except for Roger McGuinn.

At the time, no one outside of other musicians probably cared about who played what (unlike jazz stations, which often credit every musician on a track). But now it’s a great story: These guys (and Carol Kaye, a bassist) were the core of a hit factory that included scores of number-one songs, and songs that won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year. (Here’s a list of the songs.)

How good were they? A New York Times review of Ken Hartman’s book has two anecdotes: Once, with only three minutes’ worth of studio time available, “they played a first-take, no-glitch version of ‘The Little Old Lady From Pasadena.’ As Roy Halee, Simon and Garfunkel’s engineer and co-producer, once said of a top Wrecking Crew bassist: ‘You never have to stop the tape because of a mistake by Joe Osborn. There just aren’t any.’”

The movie’s director, Denny Tedesco (son of Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco), made the movie to tell his dad’s story — Guitar Player magazine once called him the most recorded guitarist in history — and to shed a little light on the other members, such as Carol Kaye, whose credits are staggering, and drummer Hal Blaine, who played on 32 songs that reached #1.

It’s nice to see these musicians get credit for their body of work, even if it’s belated. In a sense, the movie does for The Wrecking Crew what a documentary and book did for The Funk Brothers, the nickname for a group of session musicians in Detroit, Mich. who played on many of the hit Motown records from 1959 until 1972.

Though the movie’s been well-reviewed at film festivals, the record labels want money for the songs, and that cost has delayed the movie’s release. The screenings are fundraisers, pushing the movie closer to its revenue goal. (There are upcoming screenings in Washington and California.)

I’d like to say that I heard about this documentary on an oldies radio station, or in the newspaper, or somewhere prominent. Instead, I heard about it from a fellow musician. I’m glad he told me, and now it’s my turn to pass it along.

Because this movie and these musicians are excellent, and they deserve to be well-known.