a. raymond johnson

gadabout | bon vivant | writer

Storm’s brewing.

The barnhouse I call home, for the month of September, as seen from the top of the hill main building that contains the main kitchen and wireless routers. I hike up that 50 yard hill at least three times a day, so if I don’t finish this novel rewrite, at least I’ll have stronger quads and glutes.

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preparing for a monthlong residency

I made a few lists.

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Guessing Games

I’m pretty good at games like password, taboo, pyramid; once during a game of 20 questions, I correctly guessed “David Leisure” after 6 inquiries and another time I correctly guessed “Bob Hope” after four, but both of those instances were on long road trips with people I was dating, so the combination of long hours of playing with day-to-day intimacy makes sense when those giant leaps happen.

The weekend before last I was vacationing at the cabin of a friend of a friend’s family, with a small group of strangers and acquaintances.  On the second day, my friend Nicole suggested a round of two-person catchphrase, and I accepted.  Nicole and I have started hanging out more in the past year and I certainly adore her, but I’m still filling in the gaps of getting to know who she is and the trip was the first time we’d even spent significant time together beyond a few meals or house parties.  So, we were 15 minutes into our game of Catchphrase, using the timed beeper version.  If you don’t know the game, it throws up words or phrases from a category and you are trying to get the person(s) to guess without saying the words — basically Taboo with no restrictions, so it’s about getting as many as possible before time is up.  I was pleasantly shocked when this happened during a turn in the entertainment category.

Nicole: “Oh.  Um, I don’t actually know why this person is famous…..”

Me:  ”Carmen Electra.”

And that was correct!  Catchphrase soul twins.

Seriously, you always want me on your team when playing charades.

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That is the feeling of summer.

It’s nearly 9 pm on a Friday night and I’m sitting on the edge of my bed, in a bedroom that is not mine for much longer, that has been mine for many, many years — a large portion of that shared, but the third of it alone is the more recent recollection — and I am looking out the window at the church across the street, with its flashing neon OPEN sign that is illuminated only on Friday nights, for weekly community social nights, and I’m looking at the last few boys of the night, still playing basketball in the parking lot, against the hoop mounted on the wall, and the sun is long gone, twilight is long gone, but they still want to play, so they find an adult — a man most likely, a man who understands the need, but not exclusively men either, I have seen mom, sister do this on other weeks — with a car and he pulls it up and turns on the headlights, and these two beams shine up into my vision and cast shadows on the wall of my bedroom, and I look out at their source and see silhouettes of lanky and chunky teenage boys both, going for the ball, making shots, mostly missing, but going for it, going for it, going for it, they don’t want to stop, no matter that it is dark, no matter that bedtime is approaching, or maybe because of it.

That is the feeling of summer.


Adventures in DWTS Blogging

[originally posted at I Fry Mine In Butter.]

I professionally blog about the television show Dancing with the Stars (DWTS).  This fact is still hilarious, ridiculous, and amazing to me.  It came about as a matter of necessity, I was a movie reviewer, but the budget for that ran out and they needed coverage in the area of television, and so I jumped on board and immersed myself in the world of DWTS, chatting up friends I knew who’d watched it from the beginning.  At the end of the season, my editor contacted me about doing an interview with Mya, who was not really on my radar that season, I was voting elsewhere, but I wasn’t going to turn down a big break into the illustrious world of celebrity journalism, i.e. a chance to sit on my bed in my pajama bottoms and talk on the phone to the woman who sings Ghetto Superstar about any possible backstage gossip on the show.  See, it was my job to care, and I can take a job seriously when it comes to immersing oneself in a world and observing what is happening in it, that is what writers do.  And I won’t lie, she softened my heart to her plight after that interview, I have mad respect for Mya’s work ethic now, even if I will never own any of her records.

So I am not a DWTS superfan, I wouldn’t proselytize the show to anyone the way I would about say, Parks and Recreation or Friday Night Lights, but it has become my beat as a writer, and so now I care.  I watch the show every week, twice a week, I’d write up recaps at night and wake up early to scour the web for clips to add to my posts at Popnography.  This season I decided to take matters into my own hands, I dug out a wire that came with my little flippy cam, and I snipped and posted my own clips of the show (and I’m now waiting for my first youtube cease and desist notice, too, I’m sure).  I uploaded them last night, and my blog recap hasn’t been published yet, but people on youtube have found my clips anyway, over a thousand views in twelve hours, and monitoring what conversations are happening there is already proving useful. Continue Reading…

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Moonlighting like Al Jarreau

Given the general elegance of design and content on this serious writerly site, I have been keeping my pop culture operations elsewhere.  Also because ‘elsewhere’ is where those posts will be the most read.  If you don’t already know, I blog occasionally for Popnography, including my recent recap of the Oscars and the new season of Dancing With the Stars starting up on March 22, but more often I will be having fun posting at I Fry Mine in Butter, serving up whatever cross-section of pop culture combinations I feel inspired to wax on about.  Today, I took a mini-tour of youtube to round up the best clips of Frida Payne’s Band of Gold.

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Missing Sophie

While making the bed, the photo of Sophie on the wall caught my eye, and I looked, really looked, and then I was sitting down on the corner of the bed sobbing reflexively, the sort of crying like a sneeze, it comes upon me unexpectedly, almost violently. I lift up my hands though tears don’t quite fully emerge, I shake for a few seconds, and then it passes. I catch my breath, my face relaxes, and I’m fine. I haven’t had one of those about her in awhile, maybe a couple months, it made me nervous at first, but then I let myself just have it. There is no special occasion anniversary nearby to trigger it, but grief is rarely a two-dimensional narrative. Maybe the occasion is acknowledging that I’ve become one of those people who sighs wistfully at the memory and the mention of my fallen companion. It is probably the easiest way to get me to tear up, to talk about my dog, but it is also easiest for me to tell dozens silly stories and memories that no one else could really possibly care about though they make me so happy. You are either a pet owner, or not, though even among those that are, there are different schools and approaches to how people attach themselves to animals. I grew up with a cat, Max, who was a dream come true to my 12 year old self, I have great fondness for cats and enjoy interacting with them, but it is just different, a dog is different. A dog is always there, always there. She was one of the first things I thought of in the morning and the last things at night. My afternoon schedules were always coordinated around letting her out during the day. There is an intimacy with dog’s company that is not usually the same as cats, from being at our feet, literally and metaphorically, lying in wait and springing forth to action the moment we move, watching us so intently and relying on us. Though I have met and heard of a couple cats who are very dog-like in their attachment and relationship to people, and there are certainly dogs who couldn’t care less about people, so I’m not saying anything is absolute, but there is a reality to the companionship that can form between the primary owner and the dog. It is a love, and all love is familiar to each other, but they are also all different and now I’m learning how this one is different from others, so I’m acknowledging how that for me it feels different. And I get it now, I get why people stare off longingly at portraits of their beloved dogs that have passed on and get lost in the reverie of remembering for a moment. It is silly, but it is happening despite myself.

So I was reminded recently of an old post I’d written about her on a previous blog and decided to add a new photo, make minor edits, and bring it over here as a permanent homage to the love that turned me into That Guy when I talk about my dog. Continue Reading…


Adult Sledding.

It was supposed to be a giant snowstorm last week, six inches at first, then, no! Twelve inches! Winter storm warning! I had no significant plans on Thursday, and it was snowing, but at a pleasant pace, and I have new snow boots I bought recently, so I didn’t even mind taking a walk for a few blocks to return some DVDs. By Friday morning, it had snowed 4 inches — enough to require shoveling sidewalks, not enough to require much digging your car out, in Chicago it is relatively nothing once the plows give the city a once-through. But in some areas of town, there was more snow, and so on Saturday my friend Emily attempt to gather a small group to venture to the suburbs for some sledding. As you know, Illinois is some of the flattest land in all of God’s country, and so when one goes sledding, it is a bit more of an expedition than just sliding down your back yard or your neighbor’s hill, and so we ended up in a city park up in Evanston (just north of the city limits) to a place called Mt. Trashmore, which I imagine is named literally. But for a mound of trash that had been covered in dirt and trees planted into, it was quite lovely. And steep. And high. Five stories? Is that possible? At least three stories tall this hill, as we towered over the two-flats across the street, and from the top you could view a downtown Evanston skyline I forgot existed.

Emily and I were the only of our friends at the top, the rest were up for the idea, but fell through, because of sunday chores and/or colds, and so we stood there holding the plastic snow discs that she had purchased at Target that morning for five dollars. They seemed so flimsy and unsafe at such great heights. We were slightly winded from the trek, it was so steep. When I imagined sledding, I was thinking of deep snow drifts, soft slick tracks down gentle slopes, but the reality was I had signed up for going over sheets of ice down an bluff with a plastic garbage can lid under me. Is this safe? This seems impossible to achieve without dying. But here were children and teens and adults, going off one by one. And each one, after only about ten feet, would just drop out of sight. Then reappear mere seconds later at the bottom of the hill, spinning towards the flat plain, relatively intact and still on their sleds. But still — what was happening in those few seconds between the disappearance and that drop? I wasn’t sure I needed to know. I watched a few more people go down, trying to look for tips, and not finding much. Continue Reading…

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The Perfect* Cornbread Technique**

wedges and sticks

{baked on 1/28/2010}

*: “Perfect” in this case is a relative term – perfect for me, right now.  There’s space for variation to maybe make it perfect for you.

**: This goes beyond a simple recipe.

I bought my first cast iron skillet, a big deep 12 inch standard one, in the summer of 1998 at a Crate and Barrel, after having been unable to find them in any other stores here in the Chicago area.  Then the following year, I found a three-skillet set at Target and got that too.  After a few attempts at the best ways of seasoning and maintenance, I finally got the rhythm going of how to cook, clean, and care for my cast iron cookware.  My cleaning technique was actually discovered on a camping trip where we used salt/sugar to scour a pan, thinking of how cowboys used dry sand to clean their cast iron skillets in past. So at home I started to use hot water and kosher salt to scrub my cast iron skillet, keeping it shiny and clean but also delicious.  I fry chicken, make bacon, and cook eggs.  I saute veggie hashes, cook rice, and steam spinach.  And, of course, I make cornbread in it (and it’s offspring, cornbread dressing).

I am picky about my cornbread.  It must crumble, but not explode dry bits all over my lap.  Savory, with a tiny bit of sweetness and maybe a nearly imperceptible hint of spice.  I don’t want it to be like cake.  I will accept bits of corn, but feel no need to go through such lengths when I make it at home.  Once a year I like jalapenos in it, but that’s it.   I like a basic, simple framework of cornbread that can be made quickly, from memory, and with staple ingredients that are almost always on hand in the kitchen.

Continue Reading…


I’m supposed to be working.

I have been Unemployed for over 9 months. (This is not a post about the torturous emotional process of job-hunting, this is another story.) There is a 10% chance that anyone reading this is also unemployed, or a 17% chance that they are merely underemployed, but when you add in people who have been unemployed at other parts of their life, or the general underemployed lifestyle of many creative types, the numbers are larger, it is a shared experience among many, but still, I frequently wonder if I am alone in what I am feeling, if I have really made such illuminating discoveries on my own volition or if this the awakening of every person who has walked down this path, the one where it isn’t just a few or a dozen weeks of recumbent living with zero expectations or opportunities to contribute to society, but months and months, a year or more, and how dizzying the change of pace can seem once you fall off of that plane. I have concerns about my ability to function again in the everyday practical working world, even though I know rationally I am fine, this is normal and all my skills are intact, but the feeling remains to nag at me a bit daily. The converse to this bad feeling though is that suddenly I understand so many more things. So many things! Movies from months ago, conversations with friends from last week and last year, life I’ve witnessed this year, with the time to properly digest, it is possible to fully realize and understand so, so much. Namely, the 19th century. I make a fruit and nut bread with scavenged ingredients from the fridge, finding creative substitutions because the store is too far of a trek on a dreary cold afternoon, and besides, it will be a fun experiment to pass the afternoon. I slice off pieces of this bread in the morning to eat with breakfast in bed, reading and lots of staring at clouds. I stay in bed for hours, working and thinking, but eventually get up and insist I make the bed, to keep myself out of it. I spend a lot of time making this bed, pulling the sheets as taut as possible, so it will feel as wonderful as possible when I slide back between them later. I fluff every pillow, I spray lavender mist. Afterwards I always pause to admire the work. Lunchtime is more like tea time, supper is light, or elaborate but if so, it is late at night and there will be drinks. I hand write letters to friends and walk to the post office to drop them in the mail. On the way home, I walk past the bank to deposit checks. I wander through libraries, I lazily peruse my own books at home, never committing to one, letting myself dabble in the philosophy texts. In the late afternoon, as the sun shifts, I go around and change the blinds, I turn on certain lamps and light candles, preparing for the shift to night. I drink tea, a lot of tea. Doesn’t it all sound positively Victorian? To ward off the occasional bouts of hysterics, I even use a personal vibrational device. I know how luxurious it sounds, and it is, it certainly is and I am not complaining, but it does fall into a routine like anything else. It sometimes troubles me because parts of it can resemble a depression episode from the outside, and those questions are there too, but if I look at the guideposts, I am not immobile, I am just moving at completely different speed then most other things around me. Occasionally I touch down and have to get present into the other dimension: a meeting with a client, a phone call to family, a night of dancing. It is, in a word, weird. And difficult to adequately explain, since loss of language is another symptom I’ve experienced, and not total loss, obviously, but more occasional loss of understanding the common uses and patterns: everything is defamiliarized, which is a bit like walking through the world with a hangover, without any of the physical ails. Not an entirely unpleasant sensation, but not all there. That is exactly what unemployment is like: a hangover. I’m just still not exactly sure what I was drinking. And when I will start up with it again.

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