“On This Day” or, Take My Life, Please

The author, en fuego in '09

The author, en fuego in ’09

Remember when Facebook was still new?

The novelty of being able to keep tabs on everyone, like e-mail on amphetamines, with pictures (and now, video, and all the other things we can incorporate instead of actually living life moment by moment) was, naturally, addictive.

I loved it, then, and still (mostly) love it, now, because I –and, I’m sure, you– can attest to the non-superficial ways it enables one to stay in touch: to be informed, to engage and be engaged, to eavesdrop, to laugh, “like” and mostly scroll past. I see people now I’ve not talked to in person for months, or years, and still feel like I’m up to speed on the important things: what they’re doing, how their kids are, what silly things their pets have done, what friends or relatives they’ve lost, which movies and albums and books they’re enjoying (or hating), how incredible their meals are on aesthetic levels, etc.

We’re all, also, guilty of the alternately transparent, amusing and pitiable spectacle of the ways we manufacture our reality for public consumption.

Who can blame us?

With great power comes great responsibility, right? (By power I mean the capacity, with a flick of the keyboard, to assume the mildly divine authorial license to craft our own narrative. By great responsibility I mean editing the unflattering pictures and ever-present danger of TMI.)

We probably all do –and should– process these narratives, equal parts hopeful, trusting, resentful, with more than a shovel full of salt; we know most of us are obeying the 21st Century impulse to put our best face forward, literally and figuratively. In a way, the people ostensibly leading the healthiest and most satisfying lives — the ones who’ve sucked so much marrow out of life it’s oozing onto their wrinkle-free smirks — are sadder than the handful of friends we all have who use social media as a ceaseless cri de coeur: the people who are seeking sympathy might well receive a portion of solidarity that Facebook can provide (if a paltry consolation for that human touch, a few thumbs up, shout outs and, in extreme cases, direct messages, it’s definitely better than nothing). Those golden gods and goddesses, on the other hand, likely aren’t looking for approbation so much as attempting to quell their own fears of inadequacy or unhappiness. Of course, there are also the folks who really do work hard, stay in shape, raise wonderful children, love their partners, glow with salubrity in every selfie, and generally have karmic insect repellent for all the world’s pesky problems. Fuck them. (Just kidding, mostly.)

All of which is to say, I do my best, most days, to moderate my mostly good-natured envy and use it as inspiration (sleep and procrastinate less, be kinder, care less about how much everyone cares about everything, etc.), and I try to, as the kids say, keep it real. Certainly, I’m mostly trying to respect the self-imposed social media contract by keeping the more unsavory aspects to myself, and the motivation there is both benevolent and selfish. The nitty-gritty of life’s rich pageant is best left to journals, texts and long-suffering spouses.

I think a great deal about the information overload we all attempt to navigate, and as an insatiable consumer of all-things-cultural, my issue is less with filtering out the crap and trying to keep up with the authentic and irresistible. I’m of the opinion that one can never be too informed, so the bizarre mixed-blessing of having so many intelligent and diverse friends (thanks, all) is the luxury, the exorbitance of incredible content. (One reason I still don’t subscribe to any podcasts, regardless of how much I know I’d adore some of them, is I don’t have the time; I already lament the hours I used to dedicate to reading books, writing about them and trying to write them, not to mention the endless struggle to not be fixated on a handheld device (our poor eyes) every waking second. It’s another reason I seldom surf Twitter; it’s too much. Yes, there’s a plethora of easily ignorable effluvia in those tweets, like so many digital dust mites, but it requires time and effort to scroll past them; the real issue is all the amazing links to columns, interviews, video clips (sigh) and insights that, without question, will make the lucky reader more aware and alive. The thing is, it’s too much of a good thing: keep up or die trying. And that shit will kill you.)

Perhaps the notion of info-overload is particularly top of mind as it’s the impetus (if not specific subject) of my next novel, now officially a work-in-progress. I’ve written a great deal about the uneasy intersection of technology and life (politics, art, creativity, commerce) as a poor man’s industry analyst; I’d like to explore, through autobiographical fiction, the ways these pressures and the urgent pursuit of some undefined, evanescent ecstasy are shaping our behavior, on macro and especially micro levels. In other words, the same stuff every novelist writing about the times in which they live attempts to do.

But mostly, I’m reflecting today on the unanticipated and often illuminating gift Facebook provides, via its “On This Day” back-to-the-future feature. Old posts, including the comments, pictures, and videos, are a reminder, however pleasant or painful, where we were a year, or two, or –in this case– eight years ago. Among other things, these reminders are undeniable snapshots of where (and who) we were. Have we grown, in both the good and bad ways (guilty of the latter; hopeful about the former)? Are we keeping our promises to each other, and ourselves? Are we at once the same and different in all the right ways? Is this magical online diary of our journey telling the story we want others to hear? Most importantly, is it, with its pixels and opinions and portents, corroborating the story we need to tell ourselves?

I think, and hope, the most honest answer is: To Be Continued.

Here’s what I had to say, eight years ago, when responding to the viral (“tag, you’re it”) entreaty of posting 25 “random facts” about myself. I enjoyed reading what my friends wrote, then, and I’d enjoy revisiting them, now. I’m mostly content that I’d stand by just about all of the things Murph, aged 38, had to say for himself. Not sure if they’re flattering or implicating, but they’re definitely true.

The author in '09: not a rock star then or now

The author in ’09: not a rock star then or now

1. OK: I just spent some serious time crafting my list and I felt pretty good about the way it turned out. And as I went to post it, my page “timed out” and I lost it. There has to be a lesson in there somewhere.

2. I crave time by myself, and I seldom feel alone.

3. By far the most difficult thing I’ve endured to this point is watching my mother fight–and ultimately lose–her 5 year battle with cancer. By far the most humbling, and inexplicably amazing experience was being there with her (and my family) the entire time.

4. Ever since my mom died, I’ve gotten together every Tuesday night with my old man for dinner. I call it “pops night” and with very few exceptions, we have not missed a week since 2002.

5. I haven’t been to church in many years, but I have no regrets about being raised Catholic (for one thing, it has provided ceaseless writing material) or being exposed, at an early age, to the the complicated powers of a ritual.

6. Making new friends is a great way to keep the heart and mind engaged; maintaining old relationships is all about the soul.

7. I realized, as I genuinely enjoyed seeing and reconnecting with people at my recent 20 Year High School Reunion, how fortunate I am. I understand that those formative years are difficult, even horrible for many people, and I’ll never take for granted that I was very lucky in many ways. (Incidentally, can you imagine if we’d had email or cell phones in high school? Me neither.)

8. My miniature schnauzer Leroy Brown is one of the miracles in my life, and I’m going to have a very tough time when he goes.

9. I used to spend unhealthy amounts of time agonizing over how to rank my favorite bands, or songs, or albums. Or how, say, a list of the Top 100 songs of all time would look. Unhealthy amounts of time.

10. I kept a journal, starting in 5th grade (props to Mr. Taliaferro!), through high school and after. I seldom, if ever, revisit those old spiral notebooks, but it’s good to know they are there, just in case.

11. If I never drive cross country I’ll have a hard time forgiving myself. (To his credit, Matt Gravett tried to convince me, several times, to accompany him when he made the journey. Rain check!)

12. As soon as I discovered The Beatles in 3rd grade, that was that.

13. Apparently, I’m difficult to reach on the phone.

14. Watching my friends become parents has enriched me in direct proportion to how much I’ve seen it enrich them.

15. Seeing my niece slowly turn into my sister has provided me more amusement than it should. And the teenage years have not even begun yet. Ha!

16. I viscerally detest violence, yet I always enjoy hockey fights. (Thoughts?)

17. It actually infuriates me that “True West” is not available on DVD (“True West” is a remarkable play by the brilliant Sam Shepard that was filmed for TV and shown, on PBS, in the early ’80s. It stars a young John Malkovich before he became John Malkovich and Gary Sinise before he became…whatever he became. But seriously, it’s intolerable that this masterpiece is not easily available for people to discover and fall in love with. Until I hear a better reason, I’ll remain convinced that it’s just a plot to piss me off, as I seem to be the only person who has ever seen it!)

18. Every year I tend to care less about college sports (except for GMU basketball!), and even certain pro sports. And yet, I somehow found the time to buy the Red Sox season package last year. So…if anyone needs to catch a game between April and October, holler at your boy.

19. I’ve never played a flute in my life, but I’m reasonably certain that, if provided one, I could play much of Jethro Tull’s catalog on it. In fact, the first time I saw Tull live (’89) I was convicing people all around me that I was Ian Anderson. But that might have been the mushrooms.

20. It’s certainly a cliche, but still: if everyone in the USA had to wait tables for one week (or more) before turning 21, our country would be infinitely more progressive, tolerant and equitable.

21. The recent (and ongoing) financial meltdown–and the obvious, predictable ways it unfolded–have, against all probability, made me even more steadfast in my left-leaning views. Also: while the concept of Hell has for quite some time seemed rather childish to me, I would love for it to actually exist, if for no other reason than to eternally house (among other worthy candidates for admission) the richest of the rich who actively and with impunity disenfranchise others in the sole pursuit of further enriching themselves.

22. Whoever dies with the most toys spent entirely too much time accumulating a lot of useless shit.

23. Mozart, Symphony 41. It’s all in there.

24. Having people confide in you is sustenance for your soul.

25. I’m pretty much exactly who I want to be. But I’m still working on it.

 

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Nat Hentoff: Great American Hero

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Spiderman, I suppose, came first. Six or seven, comic book in hand, convinced there was no one cooler, no one more righteous, no one else I’d rather be.

After a while, kids figure out there’s no such thing as superheroes, but fortunately, there are sports. Who, circa 1978, inspired the combination of envy and aspiration? Yaz was already too old, Fisk too rough around the edges. Maybe Freddy Lynn; after all, what nine year old doesn’t want to play center field in Fenway Park?

A few years later, most adolescents have come to the painful and permanent realization that there’s absolutely no chance they’ll ever be professional athletes. What else can a precocious six grader do but lick his wounds and start reading Stephen King? Yes, by high school there were a few things of which I was certain: Larry Bird was even more of a badass than Spiderman, the Red Sox were never going to win a World Series in my lifetime, and I wanted nothing more than to be Stephen King when I grew up (A lot more on that HERE).

Flash forward several years and the combination of encouragement and rejection that forms the necessary cauldron any young writer must marinate in to emerge, many years after that, at best a mediocre, but still potential author. In short order, any lingering illusion is obliterated and the novice recognizes the prospects of Stephen King-level sales are even more remote than shooting webs out of his wrist. Still, this is what we have heroes for: to serve as guides or at least paradigms for our potential self-perfection. Or something

By the time you graduate college, you have put away childish things such as superheroes, and both sports and politics are mostly forms of entertainment, capable of instigating short-lived excitement, but the thrills are short-lived and seldom enough to sustain the occasionally crushing tedium of everyday existence.

Some seek solace in money, some succumb to cynicism, and the ostensibly fortunate folks thread the tightrope between awareness and oblivion—doing what life seems to require and not asking too many questions. And then there are the hopeless saps whose capacity for exhilaration cannot be quenched by drink or drug or job title.

What else is there? Jazz, of course.

Fortunately, I endured and explored long enough to figure out there are heroes, after all. They don’t wear capes, they don’t have the superhuman powers we typically associate with cartoon characters, and unlike Santa Claus, they are not something you grow out of; they are the opposite: entities you need to meet on their own terms, and invest the time and effort necessary to understand (and appreciate) the gifts they bestow. They don’t dress in costumes or uniforms, and no movie franchises have been created in their honor. All they do is save your life.

In my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone, I attempt to describe what music has meant to me, throughout my life, and what it continues to mean:

Even though I write (for fun, for real and forever), I would still say that music has always been the central element of my existence. Or the elemental center. Writing is a compulsion, a hobby, a skill, a craft, an obsession, a mystery and at times a burden. Music simply is. For just about anyone, all you need is an ear (or two); that is all that’s required for it to work its magic. But, as many people come to realize, if you approach it with your mind, and your heart and, eventually (inevitably) your soul, it is capable of making you aware of other worlds, it can help you achieve the satisfaction material possessions are intended to inspire, it will help you feel the feelings drugs are designed to approximate. Et cetera.

h and m

All of which brings us, circuitously, to a grateful acknowledgment of the spectacular life of Nat Hentoff, who has passed away, aged 91. As the various obituaries testify, Hentoff was a writer sufficiently productive and peripatetic to make Stephen King seem almost…indolent. Hentoff was a writer’s writer, as well as a reader’s writer. In addition, he was a musician’s writer. He was, in short, a hero. He was of the old school (in all the good ways) and so exceedingly erudite that there’s nothing he wrote that’s not worth checking out. And he wrote a lot.

I discovered Hentoff’s writing as I busied myself devouring as many jazz albums as I could afford, in those lean and hungry years, post-graduate school and pre-rest of my life. He became steadily familiar as the James Boswell of jazz, having written liner notes for seemingly every other immortal album that dropped in the mid-to-late 20th Century; a time, it should be remembered, when immortal albums were dropping all the time: during this brief period when jazz was as popular as it ever would be; America was Eden and these albums were apples, gifts full of wisdom, vitality and revelation. Naturally, many folks ignored them (then, now).

Equal parts interpreter and ambassador, Hentoff helped navigate these sounds, steering the novice toward key passages or to find otherwise elusive phrases for what this music is doing. (Of course, as always, it’s enough to simply affirm that it’s affirming, but part of being a hopeless sap is needing ways to articulate what and how and especially why.)

Understand, it’s all but impossible to describe an era before social media (where the artist can speak directly to the audience), or the Internet; before computers, before cable TV, before color TV. The role of the critic, particularly for an art form that is at times accessible and others, oblique—even for musicians—was not merely instructive, it was often obligatory.

Here he is, having the opportunity—and honor—to pen the liner notes for John Coltrane’s globe-shattering masterpiece, Giant Steps, the calling card announcing, effective immediately, there was a new Heavyweight Champion on the scene (and more, while Coltrane had already provided abundant proof he was allergic to stasis as both player and composer, Hentoff is prescient in perceiving that, perhaps, advanced as Trane now was, he would dig deeper and go further; within a decade it’s possible he took his gifts and, propelled by his compulsive questing, took them as far as any musician ever has):

What makes Coltrane one of the most interesting jazz players is that he’s not apt to ever stop looking for ways to perfect what he’s already developed and also to go beyond what he knows he can do. He is thoroughly involved with plunging as far into himself and the expressive possibilities of his horn as he can. (Full liner notes, and recommended further reading, here)

One thing about superstars is that they need not brag, and don’t need others to boast on their behalf. In Hentoff’s case, a cursory list of titans for whom he wrote liner notes starts to put his import into proper perspective: Andrew Hill, Art Blakey, Bill Evans, Cecil Taylor, Charles Mingus (that he wrote well over a dozen for Mingus speaks volumes, both about the ever-irascible bassist’s approbation and Hentoff’s powers of perception to “get” the challenging genius and make a ceaseless case for his significance), Dizzy Gillespie, Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, Max Roach, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk. Understand: this is a partial sampling of the veritable encyclopedia of liner notes Hentoff composed, which comprise a living history of the great American art form as it unfolded, in real time.

Perhaps the most personally meaningful of his myriad contributions (at once inadequate and yet entirely appropriate, in tiny print inside CD inserts) is the notes he wrote for Booker Little’s masterpiece, Out Front (an album he also produced). Little only lived to be 23, making him—for me, anyway—the apotheosis of premature artist deaths, in any genre. He recorded enough to leave ample evidence of his brilliance, but what he may likely have achieved renders one speechless. I wrote about Little in a piece called “Victory and Sorrow”, a meditation on jazz, life and death. Here’s an excerpt:

At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating—and realizing—some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing. Was he in fact dealing with significant pain while he composed and played this music? If so, we are getting into deaf Beethoven levels of drama and disbelief.

Here is Hentoff, using his full powers of perception and insight to succinctly capture the almost otherworldly anguish and terribly beautiful profundity of Little’s trumpet:

I find Booker’s playing here—with its resemblance to a Spanish flamenco singer or a Jewish Cantor—exceptionally moving.

Check it out: “Moods in Free Time” flies from the starting block, bursting with ebullience that can scarcely contain itself; and then, after some portentous tympani from Max Roach, it slows and becomes almost elegiac. This is indeed exceptionally, almost unbearably moving expression. I’m not sure I can think of a better (if sadder) instance where a musical instrument has mirrored the bliss and torment of its creator.

Here is Hentoff, from the liner notes, discussing a piece written in his honor.

 “Man of Words” is, I’m told by Booker, dedicated to this writer…actually, it is Booker’s description of the writing process. One begins with an appallingly blank sheet of paper and a few ideas. The writer is seldom positive about how the piece will develop…eventually, a high (or a crisis) point is reached when the writer knows he he’s solved the problem and the piece will work out. The rest is embellishment, resolution, or exhortation. Although there has been a considerable amount of fiction writing about music…(this) is one of the rare examples of a musician describing writers in musical terms. Booker’s performance is an impressive display of sustained invention—and sustained clarity of line and feelings.

Here’s the thing about heroes: we all need them, even (and especially when) we no longer find ourselves able to believe. Fake ones are easy to find, and that much easier to forget. The real ones are out there, although it seems we’re not producing them nearly as often as we once did. So many of his words, offered in the service of his (and my) heroes, are not readily compatible with our increasingly all-digital habits of musical consumption. Put another way, it’s difficult to preserve the record if no one retains their records. Men like Nat Hentoff reaffirm my intense gratitude for being alive in a slower and more soulful time. If I’m sad to see him go, I’m appreciative of the work he did—the life’s work he respected and consistently refined.

In my modest and hopeful way, I’ll continue my own work, using his example (as a writer, as a human being) to seek out worthy subjects and celebrate them, accordingly.

A modest sampling of Hentoff's handiwork

A modest sampling of Hentoff’s handiwork, from my personal collection.

 

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Mom, Johnny Mathis and Me

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Despite accusations to the contrary leveled by friends (and especially family), I don’t hate Christmas music so much as I’m allergic to cliché and kitsch — and as such this covers about 90% of pop culture, particularly rom-coms and, yes, holiday jingles. But I do have a soul, and I’m not immune to happy memories and nostalgia; one of my all-time favorite memories is being out in the car, Christmas shopping with my mom, as a rare December snowstorm made the sky dance all around the Ford Grenada, circa early 1980-something. On the 8-Track? The Merry Christmas Johnny Mathis masterpiece, my number one pick for best Christmas album ever, only John Fahey’s Guitar Soli and of course A Charlie Brown Christmas even close to second place.

It’s not (necessarily) my favorite track on a collection crammed with impossible-to-improve upon takes of beloved chestnuts (roasting on an open fire), but this is the one I associate with that day with moms, and, clichés be damned, it fills my heart with joy every time I hear it.

Question: has anyone ever sounded happier than Mathis does on “Sleigh Ride”?

This stuff is cynicism-proof. Whether or not Mathis actually means it is as irrelevant as whether Laurence Olivier was actually insane when he played King Lear. Mathis is invested in the artifice: he’s selling these songs— and he’s doing it with the conviction (and confidence) of a man who could persuade a guy in Miami he needed a down jacket in July.

Happy holidays!

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The Life You Take is Your Political Voice

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Pivoting –and plagiarizing– from earlier sentiment expressed in greater detail HERE, HERE and HERE, this is my succinct .02 on what’s at stake and a final shout-out for any of my undecided or indifferent friends.

As my girl Chrissie Hynde said: Everything touched is by political choice/The life you take is your political voice.

Believe that.

An ostensibly rhetorical question I read (and get asked) quite often these days is “Why bother?”

Why bother getting invested in politics?

Why bother reading all those papers and blogs and magazines?

Why bother wasting time since they are all the same?

Why bother voting?

Well, there are lots of good reasons, some of which are immediately evident to anyone who takes the time to be moderately informed and is aware of not-so-complicated concepts like cause and effect. That the policies of our former administration (and, more importantly, the power-to-the-powerful ideology that informs those policies) bankrupted our nation and –this is the toughest one to grasp– made us less safe is not a matter of opinion; it’s not debatable and there is no room for any possible nuance.

Also, there is only one type of Socialism being practiced in America today and it has been in effect for longer than four years. It’s Corporate Socialism. For evidence to support this claim, I submit every action taken by every Republican politician since 1980. Case closed, your honor.

To the haters, I certainly feel your pain, to a point. Yes, watching the Democrats try to govern is an often painful and occasionally pitiful spectacle (it’s amusing: Harry Reid is at once a man who should never, under any circumstances, have gotten involved in politics, yet he is, in the final analysis, the prototypical politician). Of course, in their defense, a reasonable person understands that actually attempting to govern is messy, difficult and frustrating. Particularly as our nation has become increasingly ignorant, self-absorbed and childish: we don’t want any government interference, we don’t want to pay taxes and we demand to see all of these pesky problems go away and take care of themselves. We have become a country of children who want to skip the main course and go directly to dessert, every meal, and then complain that we’ve gotten fat. And that in itself is a problem: that allows the Republicans to continue to frame the idea of shared accountability and responsibility as an inherently negative or intrusive notion. Let me be clear: that is, upon cursory inspection, a decidedly anti-American sentiment. The idea that paying taxes and supporting regulation of the food we eat and air we breathe is some type of burden implemented by a leering Big Brother is beyond moronic and borders on offensive. The idea that we can have no taxes, no regulation, no government involvement, unfunded wars and private interests in charge of everything is exactly the intelligence-insulting ideology that landed us where we are now. And, for the last time, and as Thomas “What’s The Matter With Kansas” Frank elucidated, vigorously endorsing the notion that the wealthiest .01% of the population should not pay any taxes is going to put exactly zero cents in your pocket and create precisely zero jobs.

This is why you have to choose sides. This is why you can ill afford (literally and figuratively) to let these cackling, wealthy and well-insured weasels lull you into a state of impotent rage or, worse, apathy. Because aside from the ceaseless corporate welfare they will fight for, their ultimate ambition is to render the actually literate and sentient amongst us fed up and indifferent. Without awareness, and with no resistance, they can more easily continue their unchecked assault on our collective well-being.

Do what you have to do.

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Remembering The Things We Learned About Terra As She Taught Us About Ourselves (Revisited)

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Boy, it’s been a tough two years for dogs in my (and some of my best friends’) life: first we lost our beloved Otis in September, 2008; then in Febrary, 2009, my own best friend Leroy Brown. Just before Labor Day that fuzzy-eared rascal, Trapper, went to that great kennel in the sky. And now, this week, my O.G., Terra: the one-of-a-kind pitbull mix.

Let me tell you about Terra. I first met her shortly after my great friends Elyse and Jamie brought her into their home, saving her from (at best) a sketchy life in a shelter and (at worst) the lethal injection that is so often the last indignity for ill-treated, unloved and abandoned dogs.

I know I’m not exactly going out on a limb here, but I am definitely one of those folks who is certain that a special, very soulful bond is immediately established between humans and dogs who have spent even a couple of days on death row (because let’s face it, that is the most expected outcome of the borrowed time these dogs are living on).

Terra (or T, as most of us usually called her), was in many ways a cliche. A pit bull who had been abused, probably used for illegal fighting, and discarded. When Elyse and Jamie rescued her she was a bundle of nervous energy, uncertainty and anger. And love (she was, after all, a dog). As she slowly came out of her shell she displayed a delightful capacity for mischief and play. She was strong-willed (a trait she was obliged to develop in order to survive) and could at times be a diva: she was one of those dogs who could just look at you when you called, her expression speaking volumes about her personality.

Perhaps understandably, she was wary around other people. Distressingly (and understandably) she was incapable of being around other dogs. Living in a large apartment complex, as we did, with dozens of dogs being walked all hours of the day, it was impossible to avoid interaction, however well-managed. Watching her react to her canine cousins was genuinely upsetting, because you knew where this anxiety came from (even though you didn’t really know and you certainly didn’t want to know). She would bristle, shudder, and make noises I’ve never heard another dog make. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t the cultivated bravado most dogs learn to perfect (particularly smaller dogs); it was more like an anxiety attack. I share this simply to describe what destructive forces she escaped, and the long road to happiness she gradually strode toward.

As the good friend and neighbor, I was on dog-sitting duty often, and I savored the experiences (especially as I was, at the time, without K-9 companionship). We learned that other than being brought into close proximity with other dogs, the only thing we had to fear from T (the Terror) was her exasperating ability to slip out of her collar on walks. One time, on my watch (because these things only happen on your watch) she gave me the slip, contorting herself like a yoga master and discarding her leash like a string of spaghetti. She actually gave me a look that might have been a smirk before she sprinted off into the evening. I chased that rascal for a good half hour, all the time counting up the thousands of dollars of debt I’d amass once she (inevitably) tangled with some neighborhood poodle or (all jokes aside) child.

Thankfully, all she wanted to do was run, and be naughty. There were no attacks, and (as I should have already pointed out) she never had any actual confrontations with other people or dogs. But I had a confrontation with her once I finally tracker her down told her, in that voice people reserve for the times when our dogs have crossed the line, to get her ass over to me now. She was only ten yards away, but she smirked at me again, and I realized (too late) that she’d heard the fear in my voice that I’d tried to disguise. Don’t get me wrong; I was pissed off, too, but above all, I was nervous. Out of necessity, I learned a valuable lesson: the only way to get a dog to come to you is run in the other direction.

Flash forward a few months. I was finally ready (and willing) to bring a puppy into the mix. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to find friends, spouses and jobs (and pets) who change our worlds knows the genuine humility and gratitude one forever feels after making a choice that is never regretted. The only moment that gave me pause is when I realized, later that day: What are we going to do about Terra? In other words, I understood the situation and I understood it. I couldn’t fault T for the PTSD she struggled with, and I reluctantly acknowledged that perhaps we could simply never have these two dogs in the same room.

After discussing the matter, we decided the only way to know if it was possible was to try it. I can scarcely explain how full of trepidation I was when we brought Leroy over that first night: this wouldn’t just be an older and bigger dog doing damage; if T got hold of the little guy, she could easily (if unintentionally) kill him. I’m a dog person, and if you are too, perhaps you won’t be surprised about the scene that followed. Quite simply, what I witnessed told me more than I could ever hope to know about dogs and their limitless capacity for astounding us. We put Leroy (who weighed about three pounds) on the table and T immediately jumped up with both front paws to inspect and sniff him. It was love at first sight.

Not only did T not attack or terrorize him; she immediately became a big sister and embraced him (literally and figuratively). Having subsequently discussed this so many times I’ve concluded her reaction was a combination of two things. First, his being a small puppy and in no position to assert, or fake, dominance. Second, and more importantly, I believe because T knew me, and respected me, she “got” that this new pup was “mine” and she instinctively welcomed him to the pack. It was equal parts deference, trust and love. After watching (with considerable unhappiness) her inability to be in the same room, or often the same block, as other dogs, this was redemptory and awe-inspring in equal measure.

She not only accepted him, she played with him. And when they played, she would let him get the best of her. When they romped, Leroy would eventually escape to a small space: under a chair or (his favorite) inside of a four-legged cabinet, and she would get on her back and pretend to try and get to him while he took the liberty of lashing out with his puppy teeth on her ears, snout and neck. She let him attack her (knowing he couldn’t hurt her; perhaps knowing he needed that confidence) and when he got too feisty, she (gently) put him in his place. It was precious and priceless, and those months contain some of the happiest memories of my life. I feel all three of us humans learned some valuable lessons from that interaction, and for those who think dog people are hopeless saps, you just don’t get it (that you are also correct is beside the point).

Less than a year later T followed her parents to the Gold Coast: Leroy lost his big sister, and I lost my “girlfriend”. We got over it (dogs are even better than people at enjoying the moment and not lingering on the past), but we always missed her (and her parents). I was fortunate to see T every time I subsequently visited San Francisco, and I thought of her often in the painful days after Leroy’s untimely passing.

Like most dogs who have lived a long, eventful life, T started to have health issues and (fortunately) her decline was mostly slow and measured (as opposed to quick and uncontrollable). I was able to spend some quality time with her this past April and I suspected then (without foreboding or regret) that it was likely the last time I would see her. I was correct.

(I’d like to offer a special and sincere appreciation for the three people who loved and cared for T in San Francisco: Jamie, Elyse and Elyse’s wonderful husband Jeremy. I can speak to how agonizing it is seeing a pet experience pain, but as I’ve told many people, as difficult (and, ahem, expensive) as LB’s last couple of years became, he was –with very few and fleeting exceptions– in good health and spirits; he never seemed to know there was anything “wrong” with him, which was nothing short of miraculous (for me) and provides a familiar reminder about a dog’s ability to live in the unblinking eternity of now.

One of my best memories, which I consider the greatest gift the forces of fate could have given me, is from what turned out to be Leroy’s last walk: he jumped up and surveyed the neighborhood –like he always did at the end of each excursion– and let out a little bark; not nearly as menacing as he hoped but more a “sounding off” to let any/everyone know he was patrolling his hood. It was always about as cute, endearing and bratty as you may imagine. He was himself (even eating freshly baked baguette bread at my sister’s) the entire day and night before things took a quick, awful turn, and even that was relatively brief in terms of actual time (we’re talking hours, not days).

T, on the other hand, has been –like most dogs who live to a certain, welcome age, on a much slower and dragged out endgame. This is when you see what owners are made of, and I’ve never observed anything from any dog owner approaching the compassion, patience and unquestioning devotion those three extended to T. On our last adventure to Hog Island oyster farm, in April, it was an overcast day, but there was no question that T had to join us. Elyse simply covered Terra in a very stylish leather jacket while she laid on her blanket (the pic above says it all, as only pictures can). Between meds, special meals and the obligatory –and seemingly endless– trips to the vet, T’s welfare and comfort were not only never in question; the care she received extended her life, and expanded her happiness here.

Having done my fair share of caregiving and witnessing the unwelcome suffering of people and animals dear to me, I still learned a great deal these last few years. With my friends’ inspiring example, I understand more than I could have imagined about how we honor our commitments and keep faith in the relationships that, inexorably in the harder times, define the better angels of our natures.)

Terra passed away peacefully, with people who loved her, this past week.

Rest peacefully, sweet girl, and thanks for letting us share the journey.

*A post from 2010, which will be in the forthcoming collection Murphy’s Law, Vol. Two

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The Weeklings: Final Popped Culture

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In this much-beloved feature launched for the very final time, our editors and contributors each respond to a single cultural question.

As always, please, no wagering.

 

Five years later, what Weeklings essay has stuck with you the most?

 

Ashley Perez
My introduction to The Weeklings came about when then-editor Antonia Crane introduced a feature called Welcome Kink, an essay series that featured the good, bad, and amazing on kinky sex and kink culture. She worked with me for six months to get my essay ready for the series, as well as a lot of other talented writers. One of my favorite essays from that series is Seth Fischer’s essay, “The Skinner Box”, which brings together kinky sex, bisexuality, masturbating, and psychology. What more could you ask for? I think this is what The Weeklings can be most proud of; fearlessly bringing the best writing on every topic to a wide audience.

Janet Steen
I don’t know how to pick the Weeklings essay that has stayed with me the most from these past four years. So many still spark in my brain: pieces by Jennifer Kabat, Lawrence Benner, Sean Beaudoin, Henry Cherry, Jana Martin, Greg Olear, Melissa Holbrook Pierson, Sean Murphy, Derek Bardowell, Barbara Mansfield, Deirdre Day, Robert Burke Warren, and others. But I will complete my assignment by choosing one that resonates with me especially in these days of catastrophic news and foreboding election coverage: Nathaniel Missildine’s essay “Catching Us at a Bad Time.”  It’s a perfect example of the sort of essay I wanted to see at The Weeklings: nimble, questioning, unpredictable, baffled. Missildine tries to parse the strange, nonsensical texts his young daughter is sending him while also absorbing the horrible news of the day: beheadings of journalists and aid workers, murderous cops who escape indictment, school shooting rampages. And all of this from his bucolic expat life in France. It’s a piece that has questions but no easy answers, and that captures the feeling that this world is fucked up beyond understanding right now. “I don’t know where we go from here,” Missildine writes at one point. That line sticks with me in these strange days.

Kurt Baumeister
Top GOP Excuses for Romney Being a Loser,” by Elissa Schappell. The qualities I most admire about Elissa Schappell’s writing are her style and wit. From her short stories and journalism to her Facebook posts and Twitter tweets Schappell’s work embodies something I like to call “savage urbanity”, an acid wit (barely) contained by her eloquence. This rare quality is fully on display in Schappell’s short post mortem on the 2012 election. From “Lord Mittens” to “panda jerky” and “Hell Hath No Fury Like A Woman Who Doesn’t Want the Government in her Vagina” this piece shows Elissa at her best. And it points to one of the greatest attributes of The Weeklings as an endeavor: Freedom. People on the outside may not realize it but there was a lot of freedom in the content The Weeklings produced, a lot of room for individualism. There are other sites and magazines where this exists, to be sure; but in a sense The Weeklings was a little like an asylum run by the inmates, something any lunatic in his right mind can appreciate, something that will be missed. Beyond its content, this piece is memorable for me because Elissa is one of the first new (to me, at least) writers I admired when I began to pursue publication a few years ago. The fact that she was one of The Weeklings original contributors is, more or less, why I wanted to write for The Weeklings in the first place. And I’m very happy I did.

Hank Cherry
Rather than pick one essay, I offer one each by the four founders of The Weeklings. I’ve been reading Sean Beaudoin’s written work since we sat next to each other in Philosophy class back in college, me the younger student, him the wizened bulb ready to enter society and bend it to his will. Check out his excellent meditation on the Newtown school shootings, “Going Home.” Jennifer Kabat always directed light and diligent intelligence with particular concern for the arts, from her pieces came conversations that lasted long after reading. Read her brilliant “My Favorite Marxist” essay. Greg Olear presented a firm grasp of word-smithing but always with a particular zest, daring anyone to rob him of his love for Billy Joel while still remaining remarkably credible. And of course, Janet Steen offered real clarity of concept in her pieces while cloaking each essay with incisive poetry. Her offering, “The Gravity of the Situation,” will make you a better, smarter person. From them, others sprouted: Joe Daly, Sean Murphy, Michael Gonzalez, my friend Antonia Crane, along with many others (Bob Devine!!!). But if you’re here reading, it’s because of Janet, Greg, Jen and Sean. So l thank them now for giving us all the room to move. I, for one, am much, much better for the opportunity. And if you need something else, check out Hank Cherry’s sublime “Soul Seduction – The Bar-Kays” for an indelibly raw and vibrant commitment to musical appreciation. It should have been a contender! The Weeklings are dead! Long live the Weeklings!

 

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Litsa Dremousis
Choosing my favorite Weeklings essay is like choosing my favorite Top Pot donut or picking the cutest kitten in the box: damned near impossible. That said, I’m particularly drawn to Janine Canty’s “Don’t Blame Yourself”: A beautiful, blunt, bloody look at grief and the ways in which life seemingly targets each of us again and again. So vivid that reading it is like watching a film. And while, from a technical standpoint, Canty’s sentences occasionally need polishing, that’s one of the things I love about her work: she’s not precious and she’s true to her voice. Sometimes publishing feels like a round-robin, circle jerk, echo chamber where all of us know all of us know all of us. Canty, a nurse in northern Maine, knocked down the damned door with the weight of her talent and we’re each the better for it. She’s not one more MFA darling spending a paragraph describing a tree. (Seriously, guys: call it “a maple” and then move on. You’re not writing for Martians: we know what a fucking tree looks like.) I’ve never met Canty in person, but when I read her essays, I feel like I’m reading a supremely gifted friend. As for the end of The Weeklings, I guessed it was coming because all of us on the masthead and all the regular contributors are fortunate and tenacious enough to be supremely busy. Which doesn’t mean I won’t miss it. Writing for The Weeklings has been one of the favorite parts of my career. To a person, the aforementioned are not only superb writers, but kind and trustworthy. Goodbye, Weeklings. You were the meal AND the dessert and I always licked my plate clean.

Jamie Blaine
It’s difficult to pick from all the fifty greatest band names and drug-addled albums, from riffs on Bowie, Prince and GNR but I have to give it to Robert Burke Warren’s coming-of-age tale of lazy eyes, metal groups named Ickee Phudj and forming a punk-funk band with RuPaul called Wee Wee Pole. Sweet and nostalgic with a lot of soul — everything I love in good writing. For example, this line, when a reluctantly-grown-up Burke found himself playing songs at his son’s preschool. “And I always told them, to their astonishment, that skin, bones, and hearts are stronger when they heal.” Also that time Questlove played his song “Elephant in the Room” on Jimmy Fallon was pretty darn cool.

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Jen Kabat
I have four essays, not one, and death is truly what unites them. The first is Judy Juanita— a former Black Panther’s take on guns today. The Panthers took up arms; they armed others. They believed in their right to bear arms. And, Judy carried a gun in her purse. In a world where black men were being sacrificed in Vietnam, and doing-anything-while-black could be called a crime (to this day), the Panthers armed for defense and offense. Here she writes about her own gun and the power of guns, their poetic and psychic strength as well as their sheer horror. Her essay is as lyrical as it is nuanced and angry. To say I am proud of it isn’t nearly enough. It begins and ends with Trayvon Martin. The week I write this that essay seems ever more timely and urgent. And, then there is Sean Beaudoin’s essay also on guns and the inane/insane shooting at Newtown, CT where he went to elementary school and how to make sense of loss.  I still don’t know how to make sense of it, or any other. Finally as meditations on death that also try to comprehend loss and the unaccountable calculous violence leaves there is Nelly Reifler’s “Blue Spark.” Janet Steen always manages to circle around ideas in ways that slip in something unexpected— loss, family, hope, but death too… 

Sean Beaudoin
Well, if I were to get technical about it, the essay that has “stuck with me” the most is one that I still get regular hate mail about, even four years later. Who knew Beach Boys fans were so sensitive? Or I could pick all two years worth of Hank Cherry’s classic “Sunday Light & Word.” I’ll admit to being enamored with Vince Navy’s take on the moral legislation against having an opinion about Caitlyn Jenner that fails to be cloyingly positive. I also loved Jamie Blaine’s elgiac “Tuesday’s Gone, Ride On,” but in terms of most affecting as a piece of prose, I’m going to go with Bob Devine’s “Delmark Records 1965.” I solicited it, as Bob was college professor of mine and in-between lectures would sometimes tell cryptic little tales about his years interacting with iconic blues personalities, some of whom were my heroes, both then and now. It’s a great piece that sets you firmly in a very specific time and place that can never and will never come again. But it’s also a document, a story that might not have been told. If nothing else, in five years at The Weeklings I’m proud to have been a part of something whose greatest purpose might have been to give a platform to obscure voices, and archive stories that might otherwise have just disappeared.

 

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Greg Olear
We’ve run a staggering 1,320 pieces (!) since April of 2012. I just now scrolled through the list of titles, which runs to 64 pages, and it’s amazing to me how much good stuff we published. I wish Diana Spechler wrote more. I wish James Greer wrote more. I wish Whitney Collins wrote more. I wish I wrote less. I wish Big Ron Dantomine had taken off. I wish I knew why some pieces got a lot of hits, even if they didn’t deserve it, while other really great ones died on the vine. I wish we’d had a real budget, so we could have paid everybody and/or promoted the site more. As for which post has stuck with me, I’ll go with Lawrence Benner’s “The Island of Apples.” One of my favorite writers, Larry tends to write about weird, obscure stuff, or else come at current events at a particularly peculiar angle. But this post is about something so real, and so inherently sad, that I didn’t take it at face value until I was several paragraphs in. Just a sublime piece of writing.

Sean Murphy
When I first met Sean Beaudoin, which is to say when I first met his writing, it was love at first sight. I suspect I’m not alone in this, but as a writer it makes my love, well, complicated. We read, often without reward, hoping to encounter that rare piece that will both inspire us and reinvigorate our passion for why we do what we do in the first place, despite the rejection, obscurity and annoying groupies (okay, mostly the first two). So it’s a tad awkward when you find yourself hating a writer a little bit because they are so good at what you try to do. Yes, it’s useful and refreshing and all that crap, but it’s also a reminder that we ultimately must measure ourselves not by clicks and likes but by our peers. However, all of these mixed emotions are forever redeemed by the first piece of his I read, “Ronald Reagan, The Greatest President Who Ever Lived.” It contains all the elements that make Sean’s writing so memorable and satisfying: humor, erudition, just the right amount of cynicism (easy to attempt, near impossible to pull off in an essay) and, most importantly, he did heavy lifting for those of us who wanted, no needed to write an essay exactly like this. Thank you, Brother Beaudoin, for writing this so I didn’t have to. On a personal note, the essay that will stick to me is this one, since it led to a note from Julie Newmar, and what guy doesn’t have a message from Catwoman on his bucket list?

 

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10 for NYC by 10, on 9/11

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New York City would be unimaginable without jazz, and vice versa.

Here then is a tribute for –and by– several musicians who help define and celebrate the cultural mecca of our known universe. On a day like today, it seems appropriate and right to acknowledge the artists that express the pain, grief, joy and delight –those things that comprise this fleet, miraculous time we have together. Their music is a living celebration of life, and a testament to what the best among us are capable of delivering.

How about four from the old guard, five from the new(er) guard and a final one from the epitome of so much of what makes The Big Apple such a special, truly incomparable place?

Kick it off with the king: Charles Mingus, one of his many (many) tributes to the amazing city that coursed through the blood pumping his huge heart:

(If you are new to this blog you may not know that I have a slight reverence for Chazz Mingus. More on that here.)

Put plainly: Arguably, no single musician was able to get the most out of this medium –at once celebrating every aspect of its history and potential, as well as incorporating other types of music and sound– as Charles Mingus did. Irascible, insatiable, indefatigable: his bass was his bull-horn and his compositional prowess (second-only to Duke Ellington) towers over the second-half of the century and casts an intimidating, all-encompassing shadow over anything anyone will subsequently come up with. He was that good, that huge, that immutable. And his music is infectious: it doesn’t require advanced degrees or a special cultural acumen to pick up what he’s putting down. Yes, he was political (and, as George Orwell famously declared, the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude); yes he was often angry (imagine being a black man in the 1950s; imagine being a genius in America, at any time); yes he was intense. His passions fed his muse –and vice versa– and his imagination created some of the most ecstatic sounds you’ll ever enjoy. He willed himself to be heard and he refused to be silenced. His life, like Melville’s, was part and parcel of what we like to think we’re thinking about when we think about the American Dream, and all that this entails.

A scorcher from Sonny Rollins (more on him here, but here is the bottom line: The last century blessed America with more than a handful of geniuses whose lives and work will be studied and appreciated many, many centuries after they are gone. Rollins is most definitely on the short list of masters who can teach us a great deal about ourselves and how we should aspire to be, and in the process, as all great art inevitably does, make that life quest immeasurably richer and more enjoyable in the process).

Another native son, and icon we will appreciate as long as we have ears to hear (and his sidemen each, in turn, crank out some of the best solos ever caught on tape: first trumpet fire from Freddie Hubbard, then the most bad-ass bass solo from Jimmy Garrison and the typical roaring thunder from the mighty Elvin Jones):

Slowing it down, a tear-jerking tribute from the gentlest of giants, John Coltrane.

(A lot more on him here. My quick .02: For those whose definition of genius is either too encompassing or excessively narrow, John Coltrane poses no problems: there isn’t anyone who knows anything about music (in general) and jazz (in particular) who would contest that he is among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and his unsurpassed proficiency in its simplest perspective, it might be suggested that no one has ever done anything as well as Coltrane played the saxophone. Plus, he was an exceptionally gifted composer and bandleader and, by all accounts, he was a generous and gentle human being, as well. All of which is to say, if there is anyone worthy of celebration in our contemporary American Idol Apocalypse, Coltrane should serve as both antidote and inspiration.)

And lest we forget, the man who took one of the biggest bites out of that apple, Miles Davis. (He needs little introduction, but if you are as yet unitiated, take care of that as soon as possible. Check it: Here was a man that could have coasted on a richly-deserved reputation, and even if he’d never strayed far from the formula he perfected in the mid-‘50s, or late ‘50s, or mid-‘60s (get the picture?), he would have undoubtedly made remarkable music. Of course, Miles scoffed at the notion of playing it safe, and constantly created challenges for himself. Like any exceptional artist, Miles was restless and did not (or could not allow himself to) care about yesterday. His legacy might be best summed up by suggesting that he was not interested merely in excellence; he wanted to matter. Having gone from being the young buck riding shotgun into bebop eternity with Charlie Parker in the ‘40s, to assembling some of the better players on the scene to form his first great quintet in the mid-‘50s, to surrounding himself with a young gang of geniuses almost half his age (his second great quintet in the mid-‘60s), the moves Miles made as the ‘70s began seem, with the benefit of hindsight, like magnetic fields pulling him into the future—and taking music with him.)

From his second quintet’s masterpiece Nefertiti, the appropriately entitled “Fall”, a glorious elegy for autumn, featuring some of Wayne Shorter’s most gorgeous writing and playing):

Aram Bajakian’s Kef, who made another one of my favorite albums of 2011 (full review here). This is my bottom line appraisal on the debut recording from this remarkable young artist:

There are no unsatisfactory tracks to be found here, and while some may dazzle or impress more than others, the last two, “48 Days” and “La Rota”, warrant special mention. Alternately serene and sombre, these closing statements comprise an elegiac, deeply moving conclusion. There is beautiful music and there is moving music (the best, of course, can combine the two), and then there is music that goes to that other place which is at once inscrutable and oddly familiar. By the time the last notes have been played it will occur to the tuned-in listener that something significant is happening here. This is a different type of music.

Music remains the ultimate antidote against cynicism and apathy: all it asks is you lend it your ears and in return you may just get something that makes the world more beautiful than you thought possible. If that sentiment is, understandably, a bit much to process with a straight face, let it suffice to say Kef is as extraordinary an album as I can recall listening to in a very long time.

Yoshie Fruchter’s Pitom (here is my very positive review of their 2011 effort Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes). Here is the conclusion of that piece:

By the end, Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes is not unlike a good workout, on multiple levels. You should be exhausted by the experience but you mostly feel rejuvenated, aware that something meaningful has happened. There is emotional heft here and a vibe that engages the intellect. This is music that matters. Is it too soon to begin wondering—and anticipating—what Pitom is going to come up with next time out? Stay tuned.

Jon Madof’s Rashanim (much more on him and his band here). Writing about his masterful 2009 effort The Gathering, I concluded thusly:

So…healing music? What is that supposed to mean?

Well, the great news is that we should properly relish the runaway democratization of content, with artists (like John Zorn) creating their own labels to more effectively disseminate their unfiltered (and unsanitized) vision. This is happening with all art, but musicians have arguably taken most advantage of the opportunities inherent in the increasingly viable DIY model. This, of course, is a very positive development for both artists and their audience. That said, we are still very much living in a corporate-sponsored country where suit-wearing weasels determine the bottom line based on a focus-grouped free market. For an artist to survive in this era is not an inconsiderable achievement; for an artist to thrive, defiantly crafting an original voice and sharing that vision with people, is cause for genuine celebration. That a musician like Jon Madof is fully committed to expressing his gift of music is enough to restore one’s faith: in music and the people who make it.

Matthew Shipp, from one of my favorite albums (jazz or otherwise) of the last decade, Equilibrium:

Jamie Saft (more on his most recent effort with New Zion Trio, entitled Fight Against Babylon, here). I can’t say enough good things about this utterly original genius, but here’s a taste:

Zelig-like, Jamie Saft has been an indefatigable fixture in the downtown NYC music scene. Equal parts MVP and unsung hero, his presence—as player, producer and composer—is at once daunting and exhilarating. Anyone familiar with John Zorn’s Tzadik label will already be quite familiar with his work, but if any musician is inadequately described by labels and geography, it’s Saft. Granted, Tzadik’s mission statement is the promotion of music without boundaries or agenda, resulting in albums that shift comfortably between genres like jazz, classical and so-called world music. Still, even in the Tzadik stable, Saft has been all-world in terms of his reach and aspiration these last ten years and change.

Productive and diverse, Saft has steadily amassed a body of work that can rival any contemporary artist. There are practically too many quality items to count, but consider a random sample of high points: there is his involvement with Zorn’s Electric Masada project, The Dreamers series, and—to pick only two from a half-dozen from the remarkable Filmworks series—Workingman’s Death and In The Mirror of Maya Deren. He also figures prominently on Bobby Previte’s (enthusiastically recommended) Coalition of the Willing and original Masada trumpeter Dave Douglas’s Freak In. Then there is the work he’s released as a leader…Get the picture?

And last but far from least, the master. John Zorn, who over the past several decades has done as much as anyone to encourage and inspire the creation of meaningful music. (A lot more about him, here.) Here is an overview, with some recommended recordings (and cohorts) included:

In the early 2000’s Electric Masada, a semi-rotating cast of characters including Trevor Dunn (bass), Jamie Saft (keyboards) and Ikue Mori (laptop and electronics/effects), began to tackle the catalog. The live performances were incendiary (trust me) and all this time, Zorn continued to make other music (tons and tons of it), particularly his always-compelling series of film soundtracks (currently at Volume 23, and counting…). Then, roughly ten years after he completed the first Masada songbook, Zorn challenged himself to compose new material, and quickly found himself with another 100 (!!) compositions, which he christened Masada Book 2: The Book of Angels. Unlike the first book, all recorded by the (acoustic) quartet, this series has been handled by a variety of bands in and outside the NYC jazz circuit, including Medeski Martin and Wood, Secret Chiefs 3, Marc Ribot, Uri Caine, Koby Israelite and The Cracow Klezmer Band. It can be said, without the slightest hint of (intentional) hyperbole that this is by far some of the more moving music recorded so far this century: it is not comparable, really, to anything being created by anyone around at this time.

He is not from New York City, he is New York City. Here is perhaps his most somber and elegiac piece, “Kol Nidre” (more on that and what it signifies, here):

I hope that anyone who lost someone fourteen years ago, or suffers for any number of reasons due to the day that will define our new century, finds some peace and comfort. And as always, I encourage everyone to realize that while no music can completely heal a broken heart, it can go a very long way toward restoring your soul. Peace.

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Sanctuary

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I visited my mother’s grave the first several years for the same reason I used to attend church: it was expected, it was meant to make me feel better, it was supposed to signify something. I stopped going for the same reasons I ceased attending weekly services. Catharsis by commission most likely satisfies only those who don’t realize the game is rigged, spiritually speaking. Or else, they do know it’s a game and they couldn’t imagine it any other way. (It is not the people with genuine faith the faithless have reservations about; it’s the folks who find their faith so onerous or insufficient that it causes them to act in ways antithetical to the precepts they purportedly approve.)

The historical intersections of culture and psychology suggest that there can be no archetypal way to grieve, just as there are no ultimate answers for how we might reconcile our place in the world, including the non-place before we are born and wherever we go when we die. But there is certainly a wrong way to grieve and grapple with the transient nature of existence. Anytime we are encouraged—or obligated—to follow a path someone else prescribes (particularly someone who is getting paid for the prescription), it’s a short cut to resolution we can only attain for ourselves.

Cemeteries are like churches: created to contemplate people not accessible to those still living. They serve as memorials, affording an opportunity to ponder this world and reconcile our place in it.

I’ve been to the cemetery, and I don’t mind going to the cemetery. From a purely aesthetic perspective it is a lovingly constructed memento for departed souls: names and ages and years connected by what all of us ultimately have in common. The cemetery is where my mother’s body rests. Anyplace else I go is where she lived; where she still exists. Wherever I go, she accompanies me.

But sometimes this is not enough.

So I return to the lake by my father’s house. The house I grew up in; the house where my mother helped raise me; the house where we helped her die. The lake where I once caught sunfish; where I swam and drank my first beers. The lake where I skinny-dipped with the girl across the street, not knowing what I’d do without clothes on dry land. The same lake I walked around during those last two weeks, my own routine once the August sun began its slow descent and most families sat down to dinner. The only place I was ever alone those last two weeks: a respite from crowded and uncomfortable thoughts; a retreat from the inevitable rituals of adulthood. The same lake my father and I ended up, later that final night, after it was over and my sister had returned to her family. The lake we silently circled, not saying much, not needing to do anything other than exist.

This is where I go. I return to this lake. It is my church, my sanctified place for reflection. The water flows and recedes, feeding and restoring itself. The trees surround the water, their leaves emblems of Nature’s enduring procession. The sky stares down impassively to see its ancient face reflecting up. At night the stars strain toward the earth, fulfilling their preordained purpose.

*excerpted from the memoir Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

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For My Mother on Her Birthday

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I’m scared, I said.

“It’s okay,” she said. “You know I’ll never leave you, right? I would never leave this place without you.”

How many times did she tell me that? How many places did she need to remind me that even if I couldn’t see her, she was still there? In the grocery store, the shopping mall, a swim meet, even a restaurant. Parents typically didn’t use words like agoraphobia back in the late ’70s. Maybe they don’t use them today, at least around eight-year-olds.

“It’s okay,” she would say. “You know I would never leave you.”

And I did know it. I believed her. It wasn’t the fear of being left alone (even an eight-year-old knows it’s irrational, even if he can’t explain it); it was the fear itself. It’s the fear itself, I didn’t say, because how can an eight-year-old articulate a concept he can’t understand? How do you convey the dread, bubbling up like blood from a scraped knee, brought on without warning or reason—the inexplicable consequence of chemistry? Only once it’s become established, a pattern, do you remember to expect it, even if you still don’t understand it. Anticipation of a word you haven’t yet learned and a sensation you can’t yet articulate: anxiety.

I’ll never leave you, she said.

And I believed her. It was never quite enough—in that moment—but it was all she could do, other than never leaving my sight. Even I could understand that. Years and too many close calls to count later, I finally figured out that I had to go through that moment, alone, and then it would never be the same. The fear disappeared and everything would be okay. It was the dread of not knowing, yet being aware it was always inside, that made those moments so difficult to deal with. I had to experience it, get past it, and then this ineradicable fear would subside.

Like her mother, she eventually became acquainted

With the white-walled world of procedures

And all that happens—before, during, after, and beyond:

Hope and fear, faith then despair—the nagging need

To believe in men and the magic of machines.

Or the things we say when no one is speaking.

There were three pictures above the fireplace: her wedding, her daughter’s wedding, and her son’s high-school graduation. So many of her friends’ marriages had ended in divorce, even the marriages she had admired and envied. So many of her friends’ children required separate sets of photographs for special occasions. They had done it, she reminded herself. They lived up to every reasonable expectation, for their children, for themselves. This was a comfort, even if it also caused an indescribable sorrow at times. Nothing lasts forever.

She sits alone by the window.

She hears the old clock, spinning above the fireplace as it always has, serving its simple purpose. Above her, a picture, a moment secure in time. In her mind, in her memory. The man, a lifetime of work and fatherhood ahead of him. And who is that woman smiling back at her? What thoughts were in that hopeful bride’s head? The same thoughts that are most likely behind every face that knows the assurance of love. What would she tell her younger self now, if she could? Everything? And to what avail? She would not have believed it; this is the redemption of youth. Who should think about anything else when all a young woman knows is the security of a healthy heart, the shuttle that spins life and expedites the enduring labors of love? She would say nothing. She has no regrets; she has done the best she could.

She closes her eyes and hears her mother: He’s beautiful. Yes, a girl and then a boy. Perfection, completion. Her prayers answered both times. She sees her daughter, married and once more a mother (a girl and then a boy; all of their prayers answered, again). She sees herself, a grandmother, but still a mother. A woman, a wife.

She considers her son and focuses her energies on his evolving design, the visions he shares with her, the way he sees himself, the way he hopes he can be. She prays it will happen, she wishes it might happen for him as well. He hasn’t found a soul mate yet but she no longer worries about him; he has found himself. His writing keeps him company and it helps keep her alive; their discussions, the things they love and share, the things he still wants to learn. Hopefully he will live that life and find ways to record what he sees.

She envisions the future and sees her husband, alone or at least without her. He would have to learn new routines, she knows. He would also have the time to recall some of the things work and married life have prevented him from pursuing. She hopes he will feel contentment if he reconnects with things that matter only to him. Mostly she prays for him to find peace, without her and for himself. She prays and worries for him, and then for the people she knows and the people she has never met. And, eventually, for herself.

Who will remember us?

This is the question implicit in all these words, addressed to God, or Nobody or Anybody who might be willing to listen. This is the question that can’t be answered except by words and deeds and memories that will occur after we’re gone. This is the origin of our primordial impulse to connect and believe we stay associated, somehow, some way, after we’re no longer able to interact on human terms. This, perhaps, is what ran through her mind once her eyes closed and she stayed asleep, already in another place, still hoping to apprehend some of the miracles she had or hadn’t happened to miss during her life. This is the final question that, scrubbed of its universal and spiritual covering, asks explicitly and directly: Who will remember me?

 

She said: I’ll never leave you.

Neither of us realized, then, that in addition to comforting me—like she always did—she was also preparing me for this moment.

Any time I need to be reminded that I’m one of the lucky ones, I look at the picture taken of me and my mother the day I was born. The pose is not unique; virtually every child has at least one frameable shot of the post-delivery adoring gaze. Or, every child fortunate enough to have been born in a hospital (or home) under safe conditions to a mother who welcomes the moment and, most importantly, is prepared for the moments (and days and years) that will follow. Surprisingly, even the week that presents a triptych of raw remembrance, comprising her birthday (August 23), and the anniversaries of her death (August 26) and funeral (August 30) have been bearable. These have become prospects for celebration, however somber, and I’m mostly able to channel that grief into gratitude for the times she was around, the time I did get to spend with her.

How do you get over the loss?

That’s the question I asked a former girlfriend who lost her father when she was a teenager. “You don’t,” she said. Hearing these words, you can acknowledge—and appreciate—the sentiment; you can easily empathize with how inconceivable it is to possibly heal from that kind of heartbreak. But it isn’t until you experience it that you comprehend the inexplicable ways this reality is an inviolable aspect of our existence: it’s worse than you could ever envision, but if you’re one of the lucky ones, it’s also more redemptory than you might have imagined. Mostly, you accept that a day will seldom pass when you don’t think of the one you loved and lost. And more, you wouldn’t have it any other way.

*Excerpts from my memoir Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone

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Intimation: A Poem

seanheather2

Intimation

My fiancée informs me that I snore

now: either comfortable enough to tell

the truth, or else a commentary on my own

contentment. Our unconscious understands

and steers us with its own somnolent wisdom.

But wouldn’t it have seemed more sensible

to have been snoring all those other nights,

when the only thing that ever got into my bed

was an exhilarating dream: someone beside me

to break that onerous silence by sharing it?

 

 –For Heather Sherard, May 2016

 

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