IT’s Good to Be KING: Stephen King at 70

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FACT: STEPHEN KING, the most successful author of our time, arguably toils more diligently than any other writer. For this alone he deserves recognition and respect.

To the haters: Yes, it’s unlikely any of his works will ever be dissected in graduate seminars. But ask any writer, in whatever genre, about their ultimate goal and the honest, simple answer is to be read. On this score, King has achieved what few authors, of any time, will. For this, too, recognition and respect—however grudging—is warranted.

To the savvy social media hipsters: How many likes did you get on that pithy post? You have how many Twitter followers? Keep channeling that energy into tweets, cultivate your online presence to evanescent perfection. King just wrote another novel while you refreshed your screen.

Here’s the Thing about King: he is so incredibly, so preposterously productive it’s not unreasonable to imagine the thousands (millions?) of trees that would still be standing if he’d at any time decided to take his foot off the throttle. Then again, how can we do anything but admire an artist for shutting out the very distractions we love to lament? How much reality TV time do you think King is racking up? How many hours is he wasting on Facebook? Sure, he’s afforded himself the luxury of not needing to pay the bills, so he gets up every day and punches a different kind of clock, and his time seems regulated not by machines but the engine inside him. This drive—it can’t be for money, it’s unlikely he craves more fame—keeps him engaged and, if it gives him no rest in the superficial sense, it’s provided him peace.

If he won’t be accused of being a craftsman, he should be celebrated for putting on his boots every day, without exception or excuse, and killing more trees. Stephen King is the Paul Bunyan of fiction, America’s literary lumberjack.

~

It’s actually not that difficult to imagine some of King’s novels getting the grad school treatment; at the very least they may be ripe for undergraduate-level exegesis: “English 301: Stephen King and the Pop-Culture Apotheosis”. Here, let’s give it a shot.

Salem’s Lot can be interpreted as an extended metaphor about the increasing cycle of parasitic capitalism, forcing blue collar folks to feed off the blood of the upper classes, until egalitarianism is achieved, at last, through eternal predation. (But no, it’s just a book about vampires rampaging through a small New England town.)

Cujo was written, so the author claims, while he was putting more blow up his nose than Tony Montana in Scarface. Perhaps we can reconsider the mucus-coated muzzle of the St. Bernard as an extended allegory regarding the danger and disempowering potential of hard drugs. Or greed, or power, or any vice. (But no, it’s just a book about a big rabid dog rampaging through a small New England town.)

Christine: a car possessed by the soul of its original owner, or a car that possessed the soul of its original owner, who now possesses the car that possesses the soul of its new owner: a Borgesian labyrinth deconstructing the self-abnegation and reincarnation inherent in the act of creation? (No, it’s just a book about a car rampaging through a small New England town.)

Is it exhausting reading this? It’s exhausting just writing it. Plus, the uninitiated could simply watch the movies. Though, in fairness, even the better movies are worse than the most mediocre books (yes, for my money that includes the overly saccharine and sentimental crowd favorites Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption). Again, one thinks of the recurring theme of carnage and the inestimable tonnage of trees…

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Stephen King has been a bit more defiant in recent years, and he’s earned the right to be a tad truculent about his influence. Selling more than 350 million books and making multiple generations of readers into fanatics is undoubtedly gratifying and something a fraction of writers will ever experience. And he can boast penning at least three novels that anticipated colossal cultural trends: he made vampires cool again (a few decades ahead of schedule), he conjured up a delusional sociopath jump-starting a nuclear apocalypse before Reagan took office, and envisioned a devastating pandemic before AIDS became front-page news (‘Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone, and The Stand, respectively). This trifecta alone earns him street cred that should extend beyond literary circles. Yet clearly, the critical backlash accumulated over the years sticks in King’s craw. As an éminence grise who, it might also be pointed out, paid his dues for many years before his “overnight” success, he is aware he’ll always be a tough sell for the lit-crit crowd.

In his recent, extended interview in Rolling Stone, King is candid, calm, and not above throwing a few haymakers at some usual—and a couple of unusual—suspects. He gets his licks in on the insufferable Harold Bloom (who went out of his way to savage King when the latter won the National Book Award in 2003), whom he describes as taking “(his) ignorance about popular culture as a badge of intellectual prowess”. Fair enough. If King’s ghastliest work injures the eyes, it doesn’t quite deaden the senses the way Bloom’s sacred cow shenanigans often do. As such, King’s bitter tea tastes pretty sweet on the page, and he is justified for calling out people who dismiss him out of hand.

King correctly connects the dots between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Jim Thompson; he rightly invokes Twain and delivers some welcome insights on the ways we are conditioned to receive and respond to different mediums. And his commentary begs necessary—or at least worthwhile—questions regarding labels and poles, high-brow and third-rate, and whether the twain shall meet (they always do, of course, as Mark Twain himself proves). His observations, for instance, on Jaws—and how movies are capable of attaining a credibility seldom afforded to popular fiction—offer a refreshing alternative analysis regarding what his work is, who it serves, where it appeals, and why it will endure, in its way.

And then, with a chip on his shoulder as Big as the Ritz, he takes a curious swipe at Fitzgerald, who probably spent more time polishing a paragraph than King takes to write a rough draft. He also sets his sights on Hemingway, and his remarks underscore how simultaneously disarming and exasperating King can be. “Hemingway sucks, basically. If people like that, terrific,” he shrugs, gauntlet thrown.

These comments are not as sacrilegious as they may seem, at first. It’s difficult to deny that Hemingway—and much of what he epitomized—continues to age poorly, and some of his novels are as overrated as some of King’s are unfairly maligned. On the other hand, The Sun Also Rises establishes sufficient evidence of Hemingway’s brilliance, and many of his short stories are more indispensable than anything King has written (particularly his own short stories). For all the hype and possibly deleterious influence of Papa’s minimalism, it does serve as an aesthetic antidote for King, a writer who edits his tomes the way weeds regulate their growth.

King asserts that he has elevated the horror genre, and few would disagree, even if some might say: “So?” He compares himself to Raymond Chandler whom he credits with elevating the detective genre. It’s clear that what King covets is more respect. His disdain for the Literary Industrial Complex is understandable, but—unfortunately for him—the people he loves to loathe are typically the arbiters of these matters. On one hand, he can point to his sales stats and declare victory (that’s what Hemingway might do; it’s also what Tom Clancy—whom King hopes to distance himself from—did). On the other hand, all the clever arguments and eyebrow-raising one-liners can’t accomplish what his work must do on its own accord. If sales and celebrity are what distinguish hacks from legends, in the end it’s always the writing itself that must outlast or endure the hype.

~

Let me tell you a story.

Stephen King has been very good to me. If I haven’t read anything he’s written since the late ‘80s, I sure as shit read everything up to that point. I first encountered him in grade school: I saw ‘Salem’s Lot, then I read it. Ditto Carrie. From then on, he was always there for me, a new book every time I needed one. By the time I caught up with the back catalog, he was on his early-to-mid decade roll, cranking out Cujo, Christine, Different Seasons, etc. It was also around this time that every King effort was made into a movie, so in many regards it was all King all the time for a while there.

It was the Ulysses of my adolescence; that novel contained the universe (known, unknown) to me, circa 1987. And if it transfixed me, then, I can still admire the adrenaline and drive, the ambition and sheer endurance it takes to attempt—much less pull off—such a project. When we found out, in 1985, that he was also pumping out product as Richard Bachman the scope of his capabilities became apparent. He was Beethoven: inhuman, unreal, too prolific to adequately measure in logical terms, teenager-wise.

It was my Holy Grail; even as a sixteen year old I suspected nothing could ever be the same, I stoically anticipated the inexorable comedown: How can he follow this? How can I? Coincidentally or not, soon thereafter I went to college, girls became more than a yearning concept (where they had heretofore been mostly unimaginable, even dangerous, if not quite able to start fires with their minds able to confound and incinerate my own illusions). An undergraduate no longer requires whimsical nightmares via fiction; he is too busy instigating them in real life. Above all, I read authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald for the first time. Hemingway, too, of whom it can succinctly be stated: “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” conceivably has more heft than the best 100 pages King’s ever typed. In sum, I grew up. That’s not to suggest King is more suited for children, it’s to relate that the more widely I read, the more acutely I realized ten lifetimes would scarcely present an opportunity to cover the menu I was compiling.

And yet. King made me want to write. He made me want to be a writer. He was the one who consistently made the magic happen. He cracked the furtive code of storytelling: creating memorable, occasionally indelible characters, and, through the use of words and imagination, making our world more vital, more real. (And, importantly, he has never taken himself too seriously.)

Stephen King remains as relevant as ever, as a concept if nothing else. While we behold the ongoing implosion of the traditional (and often dysfunctional, elitist, undemocratic) book publishing industry, we should commend a multi-millionaire who is still, somehow, an underdog. King is an unacknowledged legislator of sorts, the man of the people most politicians pretend to be. Accuse him of anything, but no one can say King does not care—about his characters, his readers, his craft. Quick: how many artists of any kind, regardless of rank or reputation, roll out of bed and get busy every day, including weekends?

Even if the quality is forever debatable, King’s picture could hang on any aspiring writer’s desk. Not enticed by (more) money or accolades, King goes about his business without distraction or depletion: he puts pen to paper and does the work. That King is still driven by those demons and finds his faith (in writing, in himself) intact after all this time makes him a hero of sorts. Toward the end of the Rolling Stone interview he describes his vocation as only the luckiest and most blessed amongst us ever will: “It fulfills me,” he says. “There are two things I like about it: It makes me happy, and it makes other people happy.” There is a peace there, something that combines Zen and the certainty of a difficult job, dutifully done. It is, in the final analysis, good to be The King.

*This essay originally appeared at The Weeklings on 3/31/2015.

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Why Taxi Driver Still Endures

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Besides being a masterpiece, Taxi Driver endures in part because the conditions that inspired it endure.

Not many critics would name it as the best American movie, and it probably would rank as few fans’ favorite films. Is Taxi Driver, nevertheless, the most important American film? It is, in the sense that we need our best art to endure; to speak past trends and time, to tell us about ourselves while asking more questions than are answered (otherwise it’s philosophy or worse, literary theory).

Shakespeare’s oft-quoted notion of stories holding a mirror up to Nature has become a crutch if not cliché for describing what art does. As history continues to confirm that we’ve evolved less than we might hope or imagine in the intervening centuries since Hamlet soliloquized, the more relevant issue might be why art matters. As such, it’s probably Oscar Wilde who got it right when he declared “It’s the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”

Taxi Driver might not even be Scorsese’s best movie, but it’s definitely in the Top One. Okay, Raging Bull could fairly be considered his ultimate achievement (although substantial credit must be given to the ready-made script and tag-team for the ages from De Niro and Pesci). Mean Streets may, for aficionados, be his most consistently watchable (aside from The Departed, but in terms of aesthetic heft, that comparison would be like an all-star game vs. what the Miracle Mets pulled off in ’69—de rigueur brilliance vs. once-in-a-lifetime lightning caught in a bottle of straw-covered Chianti). Goodfellas, of course, is Goodfellas.

Aside from Taxi Driver, is there a film that continues to address—both directly and indirectly—so much of what makes America simmer and sometimes explode? Network turned out to be so prescient it’s practically a documentary (and would this make Paddy Chayefsky cackle or cry?). Taxi Driver seems to provide both a macro and micro analysis of our combustible American experiment: violence, sex, repression, isolation, exploitation, poverty (for starters) and the ways these phenomenon push and pull on practically everyone, occasionally proving toxic for the least-equipped amongst us.

Two words: Bernard Herrman. Three words: Best Soundtrack Ever.

In the crowded field of contenders, a handful of geniuses easily distance themselves from the competition: Piero Umiliani is Bach, Nino Rota is Mozart, John Barry is Wagner, (John Williams is Stephen King), and Bernard Herrmann is Beethoven. (Ennio Morricone is God.)

There’s also Beethoven-level pathos in the fact that not only was this Herrmann’s final score, but he died literally hours after completing it. Added bonus: as Scorsese was largely unknown during pre-production, the notoriously cantankerous Herrmann was unmoved by the director’s desire to have him score the film. “I don’t write music for car movies,” he allegedly said. Only when he saw the scene where Travis pours peach brandy over his breakfast was he convinced.

Fact: during the immortal “You talkin’ to me?” scene, the screenplay simply read “Travis looks in the mirror.” (A reminder that not only was De Niro once an actor, during his prime there were few better.)

Apparently Scorsese first approached Dustin Hoffman to play Travis Bickle. It’s best to not even imagine how different this movie would have been.

Many other actors were considered for (even offered) the part, ranging from the intriguing (Jeff Bridges) to the preposterous (Burt Reynolds?!).

The fact that Paul Schrader spent some time sleeping in a car before writing the screenplay helps offer insight into the myriad ways everything about Taxi Driver feels so real.

In an interview, Albert Brooks relates the conversation (equal parts amusing and disturbing) where, after filming, Schrader thanked him for helping him “understand” Tom, the one character he didn’t understand.

The stories of method actors being method actors can be hilarious and embarrassing, but at times, instructive. It may seem obvious or facile, but the time De Niro took actually driving a cab around NYC enriches his performance. Just the way he stretches his sore neck after another endless evening is a deft, if subtle touch. It’s also a natural reaction from someone who has pulled some 15 hour shifts.

We rightly mock the onanism of thespians who believe staying in character throughout a shoot confers authenticity. How many actors, today, fresh off an Academy Award—as De Niro was in ’74—would actually spend any (much less substantial) time physically driving a cab?

Also noteworthy is the way De Niro, the ultimate New Yorker, is able to convincingly seem out of his element (on all levels) in The Big Apple. He supposedly studied the speech patterns of some soldiers from the Midwest (while on the set of Bertolucci’s 1900).

The issue of Bickle’s “complicated” views on racial relations is a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) theme that recurs. In the original screenplay, the pimp (Harvey Keitel) and both the Mafioso and bodyguard/bouncer were all black. Consider that, and appreciate the credit Scorsese deserves for his better judgment—creative and cultural—in spite of screenwriter Paul Schrader’s objections.

No matter how controversial his treatment of race, in this or any movie, it’s impossible to pretend Scorsese is not rendering real people, however backward or repellant. Contrast this with another director who courts derisive scandal, Quentin Tarantino, whose characters’ bigotry always seems too gleeful by half. Where Scorsese, at his most incendiary, can credibly claim he’s interrogating certain experiences and observations of an adult with the filth of a city under his fingernails, Tarantino repeatedly comes off like a developmentally arrested video clerk who has lived his life watching movies.

According to legend, the actor intended to play the role of Bickle’s psychotic passenger (George Memmoli, memorable as Joey from Mean Streets) was injured and couldn’t make the shoot. Scorsese gamely stepped in and gave it a shot. Suffice it to say, the results are terrifying, and astonishing. The entire film holds a camera up to NYC’s shadiest back-alleys, and this scene depicts the rotten core inside these hearts of darkness as much as any of the more celebrated ones.

It’s fascinating to hear Scorsese (in interviews and the making-of feature) describing the way De Niro directed him during their scene together.

While so many other scenes continue to be discussed and celebrated, with good reason, De Niro nevertheless gives a clinic even as the camera mostly focuses on Scorsese. His economy of words and movement in this scene are extraordinary: for almost four whole minutes, the only thing Bickle says is “Yeah,” twice.

The best soundtrack scores contain music that can exist entirely outside the films they appear in (or were written for), yet are—for all the right reasons—inseparable from the movies themselves.

Perhaps more than any film, Taxi Driver portrays New York City as it used to be (for better and worse). Adding to an already claustrophobic script, the shoot occurred during a garbage strike over the course of an unusually sweltering summer. One can certainly see, and practically smell the mid-decade grime.

For visual evidence of how much the city has actually changed, this site does some wonderful work.

No matter how many times you’ve seen it—and you know it’s coming—the slow pan-up revealing Bickle’s Mohawk remains one of the more arresting, and disturbing visuals in all cinema.

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The aforementioned improvisation before the mirror is venerated as one of De Niro’s finest moments. For this writer, the unbearable moments that occur as Travis follows Betsy out of the porn movie might best illuminate De Niro’s mastery of craft. Even as his date (and we) cringe that he’s naïve enough to even consider a “dirty movie” (in Betsy’s words) appropriate, the fact that in this scene—and for large chunks of the movie—we feel empathy for Travis, a character we might understandably feel nothing but disgust for, is one of the primary reasons the movie resonates after repeated viewings.

A great many things occur throughout the course of the film, but few of them happen quickly. The languid pace of the action, obviously, reflects the tensions simmering below the surface. It’s possible that Scorsese’s directorial instincts were never quite as impeccable as they are in Taxi Driver. For instance, this: a scene so pitiful even the camera looks away.

Or this. The implication that Travis is rehearsing his own soliloquy (Hamlet meets the narrator from Dosteyevsky’s Notes from Underground), editing and perfecting it, in his mind.

Okay, one more. If I were forced to submit the single scene (in any movie) that best illustrates both loneliness and alienation, and the ironic disparity between what gets sold on TV (as normal, as achievable, as happiness) and what so many people actually experience, it would be difficult not to choose this one.

A lot of actresses auditioned for the role of Iris. Like dozens. Jodie Foster allegedly was not the first choice, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone else doing the role similar justice.

Some serious heavyweights auditioned for the role of Betsy. Cybill Shepherd was far from the most talented of the lot, but she did exude the combination of beauty and banality the part required.

It’s a minor role, but it can’t be overstated how crucial Albert Brooks is for providing humor and fleeting relief from the near-suffocating intensity of the screenplay.

Even when it’s well-intended, we have an inclination to mythologize artists, particularly actors. There’s nothing wrong with this, especially if the work warrants our adoration. That said, shrewd preparation is seldom sexy as improvised magic, but it’s often crucial for a convincing performance. Case in point, Harvey Keitel spending time with an actual pimp (and play-acting as a prostitute to really get a sense of the power dynamics at play) unquestionably provided heft and credibility to his uncanny turn as Sport.

Paul Schrader, naturally—and with Scorsese’s full blessing—scoured the streets to find a prostitute he could talk to. The young lady he eventually met not only informed the final script, she appears (as Jodie Foster’s friend) in the film.

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In terms of bang for buck, is there a character actor from this era who ended up in more epic films than Joe Spinell? In addition to a brief role in Taxi Driver, he also found his way into both Godfather movies, the first two Rocky movies, as well as Cruising, Nighthawks and Night Shift. He should be buried, with a plaque, beneath the Empire State Building.

How many movies have been as flawlessly cast, from the leads to the most minor characters (think Melio in the convenience store, or even the man attempting to rob him, or the Secret Service agent Travis attempts to impress, and not least, Peter Boyle (!) as Wizard).

As reliable and perceptive as Roger Ebert usually was, his speculation that the post-shootout epilogue is a dream sequence has always seemed remarkably undiscerning. Never mind that Schrader, Scorsese and De Niro all are on record as stating the opposite. Never mind that if Travis, from whose point of view we’ve seen all the action unfold, is dead but still “seeing” it undermines the narrative logic. The carnage, horrific as it is, is still only the second most grotesque aspect of the film. The most appalling incongruity is that Bickle’s viewed as a hero. The movie would already be an unqualified success, but with Travis (who, no sentient viewer should forget, was seconds away from attempting to assassinate a presidential candidate) being lionized by the media, Schrader et al. offer some of the darkest irony in cinema history. More, they anticipated an American media that’s only become more culpable for sanitizing or altogether misreading sensational acts because, naturally, sensationalism sells.

Even the ending isn’t really the end. Courtesy of the extremely ambivalent final shot of Travis seeing (or hearing, or sensing) something, and only catching his own eyes in the rear view mirror, the last image the viewer is left with is that Travis remains tightly wound. As the credits roll, one is left wondering if he might be in the news again, inevitably.

Eternal props to Tom Scott.

Apparently De Niro was on board for a sequel. Thank God for the rain that helped wash that garbage from our screens before it ever got made.

 

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 9/19/16.

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Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone: First Reading, Revisited

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Four years ago today.

Thanks again to the Jasmine Café (RIP).

Kudos to Reston legend Robert E. Simon (RIP) for showing up.

Love to all my friends and family who came out to support me.

And eternal love and gratitude for my mother (RIP), without whom none of this would have been possible — on any level.

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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 makes modern music for modern times, but it is very much rooted in the tradition of America’s greatest invention. Joined on this outing by the impeccable William Parker (bass) and Gerald Cleaver (drums), the wild card here is the one-two punch of old and new school: vibes by veteran Khan Jamal and programming by FLAM. As a result the recording at times invokes the Modern Jazz Quartet and at others modern electronica. The solo pieces recall Thelonious Monk and some of the experimental ones (with bowed bass by Parker and percussive interplay between Jamal and Cleaver, cut by FLAM’s wizardry) are like Pink Floyd paired up with Sun Ra. Yeah, it’s all that, and it’s intelligent, soulful and, at times, it swings like nobody’s business.

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 sixteen 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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On Loving & Losing Man’s Best Friends

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i.

Schnauzers look at you.

I mean they really look at you.

Not through you, only people do that.

If dogs, in general, are correctly credited for living entirely in the moment, anyone who’s owned or known a schnauzer can confirm that they live within the millisecond. They are not only acting—and reacting—to their own internal and external stimuli; they are measuring your mood.

As a result, their mood is inextricably connected with yours. In this regard they are like all other dogs, only more so. If you are obviously not altogether there, for whatever reason, they feel you. They get it, and they make it clear that they get it.

(We got this, they don’t say.) You can always tell when a dog is unhappy because the rest of the time they are either ecstatic or asleep.

Suffice it to say, they are happy and they need you to be happy. That’s all they want, besides food, shelter and their Dog-given right to sniff other dogs’ butts.

A common misconception is that, as dog lovers, we crave subservience, and it feeds our insatiable egos. That’s not why people have dogs, it’s why people have children (just kidding). In truth, it’s a great deal more complicated, more philosophical than that. Sure, what’s not to love about an incorruptibly honest, obedient, affirmative presence one can count on every second of every day?

And yet, I suspect, if you spoke with people who are not just dog people, but those people—the type who not only talk incessantly about their own dogs, but other dogs, and are up for talking about dogs, and meeting new dogs, even if it occasionally involves stalking an unsuspecting owner on the trail or outside a supermarket, because it’s not only bad form, but impossible to not make the attempt—they’d suggest that the secret ingredient of our obsession is at once selfish and something more than a little noble, in an aspirational sense: dogs, with their total lack of guile and excess of fidelity, are ceaselessly humbling, and remind us of what’s so lacking in our fellow humans, and within ourselves.

ii.

Schnauzers talk to you.

They say different things to different people, but a schnauzer is going to make things abundantly clear.

Most dogs are content, not to mention genetically equipped, to let their tales do most of the talking.

Schnauzers do, too, but if you want to know what’s what, they let you know with their ears, their eyes and their mouths.

The only time they get truly frustrated is when they talk to you and you can’t seem to figure out what they are so obviously telling you.

iii.

Schnauzers also listen to you.

All dogs, of course, are avid listeners, especially when they hear things like doors opening, bags crinkling, strangers (or better yet, friends and family) approaching, thunder rumbling and, above all, the rhetorical—but crucial—question of who, exactly, is a good boy?

Schnauzers are never not on call, and in their long-suffering way, they tolerate our inability to adequately appreciate their oversight of our fortresses.

If you’re lucky enough to own or know a schnauzer, especially one that has not had its ears clipped due to outdated, immoral and aesthetically unconscionable standards (the people who care about these sorts of arbitrary standards and regulations aren’t merely missing the whole point of dogs, they’re failing in any and all attempts to become either more human or dog-like), you’ve seen the way those ears work. The ears are satellites and the tail is signal: affirmative, message received.

iv.

But really, schnauzers look at you, and they convey everything with those eyes.

I’ve never had a dog look at me the way Leroy Brown, who was my designated best friend between 1999-2009, did. It wasn’t obsequious, it was never angry, it was seldom disappointed, it was invariably earnest, and—as anyone who has loved a dog will testify—it was always honest.

Having eyes always watching you does not make you aware of being watched so much as cognizant of yourself. I am accountable, that look reminds you. Aside from the aforementioned things every dog needs and wants, the look reinforces the fact that you are everything to that dog. And while some (probably many) people parent dogs the way they parent their human puppies, with a combination of best intentions, carelessness and competence, the enlightened among us are kept in check by that look.

The world is bigger than you, that look explains.

Companionship and culpability are too big a burden for some. It’s okay: most dogs will meet you more than half-way. And then they’ll meet you the rest of the way. That’s the way it works.

But if you’re sagacious enough to understand, and embrace the responsibility, the look you get from your dog reimburses even the most modest efforts with exhilaration and allegiance that can never be explained with words.

If you’ve been on the receiving end of that look, you’ll do anything in your power to deserve it, and encourage it. You eventually comprehend that dogs do far more for us than we do for them. A dog can tell you more about yourself than anything you can read, say, write or hear. If you’ve tried to see yourself in a schnauzer’s eyes, you can fathom how rare unqualified love is. And you know, with a sadness that can’t overwhelm your gratitude, that nothing else can replace them once those eyes are no longer looking up at you.

*Thanks again to Elephant Journal, in which this piece originally appeared. It’s included in the recently-released collection Murphy’s Law, Vol. Two.

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The Death of an Indestructible Dog: What Quinzy Taught Me (Revisited)

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Portrait of the artist as a young pup.

Wait, did I say artist? I meant barbarian.

No, that’s neither fair nor accurate. It’s difficult with Quinzy– he was many things, frequently at the same time: tameless beast, gentle soul, abominably-behaved, adorable, impish, awe-inspiring (of which more shortly), incorrigible and, above all, utterly unique.

Check it out: I have three separate, visible scars on my right hand. All of them are from Quinzy’s teeth. The largest scar is from a bite he gave me, while I was petting him.

I feel quite confident in saying there has never been another dog that was anything like this Shih Tzu, who I am proud to have liberated from a rather disconsolate puppy mill almost exactly 15 years ago. But I am not the hero in this story; not even close. That person would be the woman who became his mother (and shortly thereafter, her husband, who became his father), who “inherited” him because the woman who was my mother could not handle him. At the time I was surprised and more than a little disappointed that the same woman who had already raised two human puppies decided, in a moment of anxiety-induced weakness, that she was not up to the task. The woman who insisted she wanted a “grand-puppy” (based on her love of Otis, the first Shih Tzu in the family) and, at that time without a human grand-puppy, was looking for somewhere to direct that abundance of love and affection she had in reserve. Fortunately, my sister was on the case and within a year my mother was able to dedicate herself to the proposition of spoiling my (human) niece.

I would have taken Quinzy myself but the complex I lived in at the time did not allow pets. I contemplated rolling the dice but realized (wisely) that it would be devastating for all involved if the little guy got settled in and attached, only to find himself (and/or myself) ejected from the apartment. And so it was that the woman who at one time had been my fiancee was now, abruptly, the mother of the puppy my mother owned for less than 24 hours. And just like that, Otis (himself only two years old) found himself a rather reluctant older brother.

Quinzy? My mother had picked out the name long before we picked up the pup. Growing up just outside of Boston she could attest that one way to sniff out transplants and fake New Englanders was the way they pronounce the town of Quincy: If anyone says it the way it looks (kwin-see) they are suspect; everyone else knows it is actually –and correctly– pronounced kwin-zee. She felt that was a great name for a little dog, and I tended to agree. I especially liked the added touch of spelling it with a Z, as it reminded me of the fact that Led Zeppelin did not spell their name the correct way (Lead) because they knew (correctly) that Americans would invariably pronounce it Leed Zeppelin. To see a two pound, eight-week old Shih Tzu named Quinzy is difficult to describe or surpass, even if he had the all-but obligatory (and quite noisome) case of puppy-worms. Little did any of us know what we were in store for…

Long after he was house-trained Quinzy still had accidents. As a person whose carpets and floors bore the brunt of too many of these incidents to count, I used to call them “on purposes”. Quinzy was a character. Theories abound, from the lazy to the elaborate: he had a screw loose; he was mildly retarded; he was the utter distillation of pure Id; he was the inevitable result of a very irresponsible and poorly run breeding factory (“puppy mill” is at once an appropriate and completely inadequate euphemism for the conditions in which so many of our best friends are bred: when I first took my mom to inspect the pack, I made the mistake of sitting down on the carpet while scores of Shih Tzus –literally– bound hither and thither, and ended up with a urine stain on my shorts that I could never fully eradicate). Like recalcitrant literary figures before him including Whitman, Thoreau and Kerouac, Quinzy marched to his own funky drummer and sucked the marrow out of life –and he wasn’t afraid to kill something in order to get that marrow (of which more shortly).

Quinzy’s “condition” was mostly innocuous (says the man with the scars) and often cute: there was undeniably some type of faulty wiring, or he was part feline, or he was the first of an evolutionary leap forward –even though he often acted like the opposite. When he was being pet his tail would wag, indicating happiness, but he would growl, indicating displeasure. After a while it became clear that it was his way of purring (part cat? based on his hunting prowess and the environment he was born into, this possibility is not totally far-fetched). When he was young he had a freakish ability to jump: his hang-time was more impressive than most adult white males. He was a born predator and while he was seldom without some type of stuffed animal lodged in his snout (see above), he much preferred actual game. His success rate was astonishing considering he did not live on a farm. In his prime (and his prime was pretty much his first year through his thirteenth when he finally began to slow down a tad) he was able to capture and kill several birds. Let me repeat that: he was able to capture and kill several birds. I know leopards with less-impressive track records. His mother, ever sensitive and not supportive of these feral proclivities, felt obliged to tie a bell around his collar so that the birds in the backyard had half a chance. Please keep in mind: we are not talking about a retriever or what some people may unkindly (if not inaccurately) call a real dog: this was a twelve pound Shih Tzu. You know, Shih Tzu; that is Chinese for Sissy Dog.

That picture is cute and all, but it more than half-resembles an alligator lying in the weeds, waiting for an unsuspecting fish or fowl (or human) to amble along. One of my favorite Quinzy stories (and I have dozens: buy me some beers and I’ll keep you laughing for hours) is the brawl he got in with the opossum that had the temerity to live in the wood-pile behind the townhouse. His mother recalls him coming in from a late-night tinkle and laying down beside her. It wasn’t until she saw (or smelled?) the blood that she realized he was injured. Inspecting him, she saw a substantial cut under his throat; he hadn’t barked or cried, he just came back in as if nothing had happened. Naturally a trip to the vet was necessary and it was later discovered that a family of opossums had set up shop behind the wood-pile. Opossums are pretty big, and have rather sharp teeth. They are also kind of nasty, especially if they are protecting their brood. Needless to say, the next time Quinzy stepped into the backyard (and every time for a long time afterward) he ran directly to the wood-pile and frantically looked for his foe so he could finish what he started. Fearless, idiotic and inimitable.

Quinzy bit people. He pissed and pooped with impunity. Another favorite of mine is the electric blanket story. I was taking care of him (and Otis) one weekend during the middle of winter. It was frigid outside and while I was snug inside my bed (and electric blanket) I realized the two poor pups, although snuggled together in their “nest” in the living room, probably would welcome a little extra warmth. I brought them into my room and in short order they were wrapped around me and, presumably, grateful. A few minutes later, just as I was drifting off, I felt what seemed like liquid on and around my legs. Impossible, I thought. And then I remembered the Quinzy factor. I threw the cover off and flicked on the light. Sure enough, this contemptible swine had taken an enormous piss, soaking my sheets, blanket, comforter and himself. It made me recall the old trick we used to always play (unsuccessfully) where during slumber parties we waited until someone fell asleep and put their fingers in warm water. Leave it to Quinzy to perfect that adolescent scenario, much to my chagrin. Yet, as always, when you looked down at him he did not betray the least bit of guilt or even comprehension that he’d done anything wrong. And I sincerely believe it never occurred to him that he had. That was the difference; he was never bad, he just was.

Years and at least one scar later, I would tell people, watching his growl/purr in disbelief that I was almost entirely certain he was expressing deep joy and gratification. Except he still might bite you. Many years later, I’ve had enough experience with dogs (my own and others) that there is no canine I can’t trust and not a single one I won’t snuggle. But with Quinzy, even after a decade and a half, there was always, always the awareness that you didn’t want to get your face too close to his, just in case…

You could not help but love him.

I used to say (and I was more than half-serious) that while I did not believe he could ever die, if and when he did, the medical community needed to study him and find the cure for cancer. I’ve never seen a dog that simply did not show any signs of weakness or age for so long. He was not hyper, he just went at the world in a way that Auggie March would fully endorse. So with apologies to Saul Bellow, I’ll take the liberty of embellishing that famous first paragraph from his masterful novel: “I am an American, (puppy-mill)-born—…and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a (dog)’s character is his fate, says Heraclitis, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles (or muzzling the snout).”

Quinzy treated the world like his bitch and while I couldn’t (and wouldn’t want to) necessarily emulate that approach, it’s hard not to admire and respect it. I’ve never met a human –much less an animal– that slurped so much ecstasy out of every second he was allowed to enjoy. Quinzy got his eyes, ears, snout and occasionally his teeth on anything and everyone within his reach and he never hesitated and he never slowed down. Until he slowed down.

But we never thought he would die. We actually thought he would live forever. Or at least shatter some canine records. I still reckon that scientific minds should study his DNA and come up with the antitode for illness, aging and depression. He was the most alive dog I’ve ever known and I’ve known a lot of dogs. Dogs, if nothing else, are very alive and adept at living (they are dogs, after all).

I won’t get carried away and claim that the scars on my hand, which I can see right now as I write these words, are the ironic gifts Quinzy left me. But in a way I could not appreciate until this very second, perhaps he was giving me something I could not fully fathom, since I’m a human. Did he understood and appreciate that he had been rescued from abandonment or a premature appointment with the veterinarian’s least-loved needle? Who knows. Who cares? What was he supposed to do, thank me? He did more than that anyway, and he did it without guile or the expectation of gratitude, since he was a dog. He showed me how to live a less contrived, more memorable life. He left me with a part of him that I can easily keep in my head and my heart. Finally, in his own incomparable fashion he ensured I had a visible reminder or three I’ll carry with me until the day I finally slow down myself.

*This piece is included in the recently-released collection Murphy’s Law, Vol. Two.

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Washing Dishes as Antidote for Apathy

Help wanted sign on the Mexican border.

Tom Sietsema, the excellent food critic for The Washington Post, wrote a fantastic piece about dishwashers (in general) and his experience, as a dishwasher, on 8/7/17.

I highly recommend this piece to anyone, but to be certain, anyone who has never worked in the service industry will be enlightened.

Long and short: Sietsema volunteered to go inside a busy restaurant to see, and feel, firsthand, what it’s like. Why?

Because I wanted to experience firsthand the job that CNN star Anthony Bourdain says taught him “every important lesson of my life,” the one New York chef Daniel Boulud calls “the best way to enter the business.”

There are several illuminating observations, and here’s a short history of why, inside successful restaurants, reliable dishwashers are not only appreciated, but celebrated:

The median annual wage for the 500,000 or so dishwashers in the United States is about $20,000, up only $4,000 or so from just over a decade ago. But a few restaurants, including the French Laundry, give cleaners the stature of sous chefs and extend titles that capture the broad range of responsibilities.

Without them, “everything would break down.”

“We don’t call them dishwashers, but porters,” says Keller, who got his start washing dishes in his mother’s restaurant, the late Bay & Surf in Laurel, Md. “We give them the same respect we give anyone else in the restaurant.” Indeed, the only difference between the embroidered uniforms worn by his chefs and his porters are the latter’s short sleeves.

When I start my shift at Caracol, an upscale Mexican seafood restaurant in Houston, Keller’s words are echoing in my head: “Everyone in the restaurant depends on you,” he told me. “If there are no glasses, drinks don’t get served. If there is no silverware, tables can’t get set. If there are no pots or pans, food doesn’t get cooked.”

I couldn’t help, reading this piece, hoping a handful of ignorant or apathetic folks might gain an otherwise unobtainable appreciation for how difficult this work is, how important, and how anonymous. With my own considerable experience in the service industry, I never need to be reminded that the most challenging job is done by those who are paid the least. That our restaurants and, not for nothing, our economy, rely on the efficiency of these folks, many millions of whom are casually derided as “illegal immigrants,” is one of the obscene ironies of a uniquely American cognitive dissonance, one that has been utilized to cynical effect by our current president and the imbeciles who support him.

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Why bring politics into it? Short answer, duh. Longer answer, courtesy of the ever-reliable (and prescient) George Orwell: “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Speaking of Orwell, it was his seminal memoir Down and Out in Paris and London that helped me understand, appreciate and articulate the historical and sociological interstices of injustice. As important, he was the first great writer I encountered who described the marginalized with both empathy and rigor. The typical authority of his observations satisfy on literal and artistic levels:

It was amusing to look round the filthy little scullery and think that only a double door was between us and the dining-room. There sat the customers in all their splendor –spotless table-cloths, bowls of flowers, mirrors and gilt cornices and painted cherubim; and here, just a few feet away, we in our disgusting filth…There was no time to sweep the floor till evening, and we slithered about in a compound of soapy water, lettuce-leaves, torn paper and trampled food…the room had a dirty, mixed smell of food and sweat…This washing up was a thoroughly odious job –not hard, but boring and silly beyond words. It is dreadful to think that some people spend their whole decades at such occupations. The woman whom I replaced was quite sixty years old, and she stood at the sink thirteen hours a day, six days a week, the year round.

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Check this out:

A dishwasher in a busy restaurant is a modern-day Sisyphus, sending his load of clean plates, cups, glasses and utensils steaming and shiny up the hill to hungry patrons, only to have a fresh batch of soiled work come back to him, over and over until that last cycle has gone through the long-suffering machine. And yet there’s a satisfaction in this. While it’s repetitious, by the end of the evening there’s an end, an immutable sense of accomplishment, having ensured all the dirty objects have become clean. There’s a cause and effect, a purpose served, that makes even the most demeaning and thankless work rewarding in its way. It’s an occupation everyone should be required to try at point or another, but a job no person should suffer through for more than a few years.

That’s an excerpt from my as-yet unpublished novel, The American Dream of Don Giovanni. Inspired in large part by actual events experienced by the author during his times in “the industry,” it presents, I hope, as accurate a portrayal as possible of this world.

More politics? Definitely.

I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what you study in college, or the type of person you already are (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if you are a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right (and anyone under the age of twenty-one who is certain of either of those things is already a lost cause, intellectually and morally), reading a book like Down and Out in Paris and London changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: cause and effect, agency vs. incapacity and history vs. ideology.

Put another way, even if you are open-minded and receptive to various sources of information, if your studies focus on economics, business or political science you are already being inculcated into an established way of thinking. Liberal arts education, if it has anything going for it (and it has plenty, thank you very little), reinforces and insists upon what Milan Kundera called a “furious nonidentification”. This does not mean to imply that all, or most, or even some of the students who embrace (or ascomb from) the ivory tower remain inquisitive and objective. It does mean that reading works from different cultures and different times inevitably denotes truths and facts (even if couched in fictional narratives) that are outside of time and agenda.

It is, therefore, easier then to make connections between Irish immigrants who worked the coal mines in Pennsylvania and Lithuanian immigrants who worked in the meatpacking plants in Chicago (Jurgis Rudkus, anyone?) and Mexican immigrants –especially the illegal ones– who labor in sweltering kitchens and frigid fields all across our country. It is impossible not to put human faces and real feelings alongside this suffering and start connecting the dots that define how exploitation works. All of a sudden, it’s less easy to espouse the impartial axioms of the Free Market and the immutable forces of commerce or especially the notion that (in America anyway) everyone starts out at the same place and those that work hard enough and say their prayers and drink their milk will attain vast fortunes without breaking laws, stepping on innocent faces and engaging in the oppressive pas de deux with Power (and the puny but influential people who possess it). Then, presumably, it goes from being merely disconcerting to outrageous that the weasels of Wall Street are back in business with billion dollar bonuses (thanks tax-payers!) and unionized public school teacher pensions (and the immigrants providing so much of this industry, and revenue) are being blamed for America’s current deficits.

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Here’s, well, an excerpt from an excerpt. My short story, “No Tengo a Nadie“, is an excerpt of sorts from the novel. (I’ll embed the link to the published piece, below.)

Washing dishes, for instance, is a good job, particularly in light of the alternative options, such as the uncertainties involved with construction work, or moving furniture, or washing windows two hundred feet above the ground, all outdoors, all day, in summer and winter.

Two jobs, the same job. The same work at two workplaces. A necessary and normal routine, because none of the employers are interested in paying overtime. The better jobs, in the better restaurants (where they will provide you with plastic gloves, apron and a free meal each shift) do not come easily. Even if you are fortunate enough to find one, or make the connections necessary to get considered for one, there is always the fear of being replaced: you are easily expendable since the supply considerably outweighs the demand. So, you work.

***

From his cramped corner in the sweltering kitchen, he grabs another steel pan—the same one might get scrubbed clean thirty times in a single evening—and gently places it in the sanitizing solution, always a numbing, not unpleasant sensation after the steaming mess of filthy water. It does not take long for the feeling to leave your hands if you left them too long in the cold, deceptively soothing water, as he discovered once while emptying a drain clogged with broken glass. He didn’t feel a thing until he pulled his shredded hands out into the warm air and saw the blood bubbling through the holes in his rubber gloves.

 

 Read the rest, via the link below.

No Tengo a Nadie (Pushcart Prize Nominated Fiction)

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July 28, 1979: The Long Way Home (Revisited)

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If I ever need to check myself and consider what a privileged life I’ve led, I simply need to recall that moving across town in the summer of ’79 was a traumatic event. True, it was about four miles door to door from old house to new house. Also true, since nine year olds can’t drive, four miles may as well be four hundred. More truth: I was fortunate enough to grow up in a neighborhood that even Norman Rockwell could not have painted. (Which is just as well, because I’ve always found Norman Rockwell kind of creepy. Put another way, cats like Jackson Pollock make more sense to me as I grow older, and Stormin’ Norman, besides being predictable, bland and boring, also seems, in retrospect, to reinforce the cliches he often embraced in his crackerjack portraits of cracker America.) A more straightforward way of putting it would be to simply state that there were a ton of kids in my neighborhood. It was early ’70s planned community paradise: no matter what was actually going on inside the individual houses, the collective population of kids ensured healthy representation in any game of kickball, baseball, soccer or the obligatory summer ritual of ding dong ditch. (For anyone too young to actually know what that last one means, rest assured the game had everything to do with dinging and ditching, and nothing to do with our dongs.)

All of this is to say that I grew up, like many kids in Reston, surrounded by boys and girls of or around my age. It wasn’t because it was perfect (it wasn’t) or that there was no turmoil (there was), it was because of the make-it-up-as-you-go sensibility that prevailed in this town (in this country?) during the early to late ’70s presented a fairly ideal petri dish for a distinctly suburban kind of acculturation.

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(Put still another way: no matter what decade or what neighborhood one grows up in, if you aren’t fortunate enough to have a good foundation you have a significant, and unfair strike against you from the start.)

More about Reston another time, but a few brief words about our awkward Utopia are in order. Lest anyone, understandably, think this was some type of Stepford Wives experiment or that my depiction is merely the Byzantine nostalgia of a Proust freak, let me establish some street cred with two words: Burger Chef. Our town was not yet cool enough to have a McDonalds (in hindsight, I realize our town was too cool to have a McDonalds); we made due with the chain who invented the Happy Meal, originally known as the Fun Meal. You better recognize.

It was also, of course, a town in transition: it grew as we grew up (it’s still growing today, as are we). For those of us who did not stray far, it seems fair to suggest that some of the affection we feel is inextricably connected to watching things change (the town, ourselves). All towns transform, age and renew, but Reston seemed to exist as the touchstone of modernity even as it was designed to be self-consciously retro (three words: Lake Anne Plaza). In this regard, the evolution from quaint (one street light in the early ’70s) to cutting edge (the Metropolis also known as Reston Towncenter) was personal: it all went down on our watch. For me, it is significant on a variety of levels that I can head west on the W&OD trail and, in less than half an hour, be engulfed in a soundproof canopy of green and feel like it’s early part of a new century (circa 1909). I also like living in the shadow of the old Virgina Gentleman distillery, and I felt like I could hear history whisper every time I walked my dog past that place.

The last remnant of the Virginia Gentleman distillery

The last remnant of the Virginia Gentleman distillery

What else? Trying to recapture childhood and the indelible and often inexpressible ways it affects you is like remembering what it felt like to hold a firefly: as an adult, you understand the science that makes it glow but as a kid it really is magic (I’m still enthralled not necessarily because I retain my formative capacity for wonder, but because I actually don’t understand the science that makes it glow…). I attempted, several years ago, to recollect that time and mentality, after revisiting it with a five year old (my niece) and wondering what that broken in neighborhood looked like to younger eyes (hers and mine). That poem, called Old School (a title I defend since I wrote it before the excellent film of the same name was released) is below.

But getting back to summer ’79. As devastated as I was to leave my boys behind (especially my oldest friend Mark Seferian, with whom I appear at the top and bottom of this page–pictures taken on the day we revisited our old stomping grounds), I was also pretty excited about the new Kiss album (an album I still endorse, mostly for moments like this and this). I was giving up 7-Eleven but gaining a High’s which was effectively trading the all-star Cola Slurpee for a player to be named later: in this case the revelatory Slush Puppie (the highlight of August ’79 was discovering that the woman behind the counter would allow you to mix and match flavors, leading to early chemistry experiments like the grape/lime or the inimitably perfect raspberry/cherry). The other high point of that formative summer was the glory of NASL which many of us did not realize was already in the early stages of its semi-tragic (if self-inflicted) death spiral. Let me recap the calculus of birthday party apotheosis, circa mid-to-late ’70s: Farrell’s, seeing movies like this and going to RFK to see a Dips game.

Summer of 79 redux:

album-Kiss-DynastydipsSlush_Puppie

 

 

 

 

 

It was a pretty great time, musically, as well. Of course there was plenty of crap, like there always is, but there were some magical moments as well. And don’t think I’m going to sleep on this one or especially this one. And this one had particular resonance, especially for a nine year old who was a tad too sensitive for his own good. And to put some things in perspective (too much fuckin’ perspective, to quote Spinal Tap), can we talk about how long ago 30 years actually was, in regards to fashion, music, and culture? If a picture can say a thousand words, a song can say a million; and a video of the song (especially a video performed on a TV special) is capable of limitless expression. In other words, this was the number one hit thirty years ago today (and more on Donna Summer, HERE):

From Forest Edge to Terraset; from Tall Oaks to Newbridge; from the Green Arrows to the Whitecaps; from Carter Lake to Lake Audobon. Anyone but a kid about to enter fourth grade would have been thrilled with these upgrades. At the time, it felt like my parents were plucking me out of recess and placing me in detention. Moving into a new development on a new side of town, with no prospects of neighbors for several months (actual friends my age? Forget about it) was almost unendurable. The five weeks before school started were the closest I ever came to purgatory. And I laugh at how amusing that sounds, today: five weeks? I feel like I could take a nap that lasts that long, but back then, you didn’t live by weeks or days or even hours: you lived by moments. And nothing made time pass faster than playing with people your own age. Having fun. Being active and involved: no time for thinking.

Remember: this was an era way before Internet and iTunes; before video games and cable TV. For this I am forever grateful. Coincidence or not, this was right around the time I became a voracious reader, and my imagination began to come alive. I had always drawn (do kids over the age of five even draw anymore, or do they reach right for the joystick and the iToy?): first monsters and then soccer players and eventually the members of Kiss. Around this time I started to put little stories alongside those pictures. And I kept reading. Within a year I was keeping my first journal, and that was that. I was on my way (still not sure where I was headed, or where I’m going, but I’m sure I’ll let myself know when I get there). Some of this, undoubtedly, had to do with my age and not my environment. But there is little question that during an exceptionally formative period in my development I learned how to tolerate, and eventually enjoy, my own company. The best way, I found, to accomplish this was to surround oneself with kindred souls. Hence, the books, the music and the cultivation of a creative ambition. Habits I had to learn, then, saved me from the not-so-quiet desperation of a happy and healthy nine year old suddenly shifted to neutral. Looking back, I understand and appreciate the ways they shaped my sensibility over the years, delivering me from an altogether different sort of despair.

********

Old School

 

This is old school, I say

to my niece who, at five years old, is now

the same age her uncle was when his parents

transported him to this place—new then, old now.

 

Old school, she repeats, repeating things

I say because I’m older, because I’m still

interesting, because I am…old school.

Even I can see that.

 

You Can’t Go Home Again,

someone once wrote and he was wrong.

 

Of course you can; all you have to do is never leave.

Leaving it behind does not mean it leaves you.

(And certainly I can’t be the only grown child

who returns often—in dreams, in memories and yes,

in my mind, I must confess: earnestly, ardently, often—

to the old streets that I came to outgrow,

the way we outgrow games and bikes and friends,

exchanging them for jobs and cars and co-workers.)

 

You can always go home, and you need to go home.

It’s only when you want to go home that you should

start asking yourself some serious questions.

 

“Did you play kick the can?” my niece does not ask.

She also doesn’t ask if I ever played

Red Rover Come Over or Smear the Queer.

Those games got neglected, or else we learned

to play them in ways not measured in bravado & bruises.

And I wonder if we are better off:

Growth granting us the eventual awareness that everyone is

queer and no enjoys being…over.

 

I put away childish things each time I think

about them, storing them safely inside my heart

where grown-up games can’t make them say Uncle.

 

“Uncle, did you play?” she doesn’t say.

(She doesn’t know everything, but she knows

enough to understand her uncle was never young,

the way she is and the way she’ll always be, and

far be it from me to tell her otherwise.)

 

Question: Can you play?

Remember when that’s all we used to say?

Summers summarized in a phrase we learned

eventually to overlook.

 

This uneven field (Field of Dreams, I’ll never say)

was our Fenway and with tennis ball and wooden bat

we righted the wrongs of an evil world, where

Yaz never struck out, Bucky Dent was a blip,

and the Curse of the Bambino played off-Broadway

those days, that ceaseless, sweltering summer in 1978.

 

(Summer, seventies, Schlitz—not malt liquor, my friend,

this was strictly old school—no bull. I remember

block parties, warm beer, burnt marshmallows, mosquitoes

and putrid bug repellent that didn’t kill anything

but made us stronger (Don’t let the bed bugs bite, I’ll never say.)

I had no idea how little I knew but I knew this much:

If there was a beer besides Schlitz or Bud I was unaware;

That’s all adults drank back in the bad old days.

 

Play ball! no one needed to say because we played ball

anyway: ball was our business and business was good.

 

Get it! The ball would invariably make a break for it

ending up in the gutter (we called it sewer but, of course,

We were old school). Without a second thought

we pried off the manhole cover and dashed down into semi-darkness.

 

We never thought twice about it—we were young.

The game must go on! no one needed to say, we knew.

(I look now, and think: I wouldn’t go into that hole

for all the allowance money I never earned.

I know there are rats and who knows what else

down there: the things our parents never realized

they should warn us about.)

 

We never worried about the things that weren’t

waiting for us, down there in the darkness.

 

“What are they doing?” I don’t ask aloud, noticing,

just in time, before I can call attention to it,

two cats in coitus, doing what they do when they’re young & free.

That’s something I’ve never seen and as I worry about

my niece asking me to explain I understand: I’m old now.

 

Old school, I cannot say (to myself I say this).

That’s how it happens.

This would never have happened, then.

 

(I didn’t know much, but I knew this: cats

did not fornicate and kids fought only with fists.)

 

But this is what happens when you go away.

Back then, in our close and cloistered community

even the cats had discretion (they were old school).

 

Or maybe they were mortified, because

bent over with booze or barbiturates they were

silently screeching behind closed doors,

all of us, unknowingly, out in the light

winning the World Series, while wicked women

garrisoned themselves in dark alleys, behind

the anodyne of automatic garage doors.

 

It’s quiet, now. Our mothers were so quiet, then.

Please allow them to have been happy,

in our memories if not in their actual lives.

 

I don’t remember, but have a feeling that if

I think hard enough, I will recall things

never said and therefore never forgotten.

 

I drink in the past and am reminded of youth,

which tastes unlike anything other than

what it is: freedom.

 

Cold, sour Schlitz (of course I took a taste),

with those sharp & awkward silver ring-tabs

we pulled off for the privilege of first sip.

 

That is old school, I don’t tell my niece.

It’s only when you’re older that beer tastes

like freedom, but it’s a borrowed brilliance,

a manufactured feeling, just like in school

it’s cheating if the answer’s already in your lap.

 

The things they can’t package or make you pay for:

That they never tell you about until you’re old enough

to know better: that’s what freedom is.

 

Curiosity killed the cat,

someone once said and they were right.

 

But something’s going to get all of us

eventually, whether we ask for it or understand it.

 

The cats are gone, maybe they’ve gone home

(they can always go home), back to their families and

those heavy silences and the salvation of routine.

 

(Do they still have strict rules about no TV,

and everyone present around the table when

dinner’s on the table at six-thirty sharp?

I certainly hope so, for their sakes.)

 

Or maybe they’re getting down to business—

dirty deeds and dirty work go hand in hand—

Down in the darkness, doing their thankless task,

keeping the sewers safe from rats & reality.

 

Curious or content, we know enough to take

whatever it is that life offers up.

 

We went into those sewers the way we went into the world:

Unafraid, unencumbered and above all,

unconcerned about so many things

older people were kind enough to never…say.

 

“Old school!” my niece repeats, curious.

Smiling, she does not comprehend at all.

Old school, I don’t say, reticent

because I do remember it (all).

 

If curiosity doesn’t kill us, contentment gets there quicker.

 

How did we go down there, then?

How do we go out there, now?

3-20-02

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July 20, 1969 or, One Small Step for Man’s Mind

MOON-2

Listen: there are people who actually believe that the moon landing never happened. Lots of people. Not that it didn’t happen, necessarily, but that it was an elaborate, carefully staged scam; that it happened out in the desert, secret film crews capturing the entire thing. Unfortunately, most of the people who agreed to be interviewed all happen to live in trailer parks, which tends to undermine their credibility.

But I’ll be damned if, fifteen minutes in, I’m on board, buying just about every argument. After twenty minutes I’m talking in increasingly agitated tones to my TV. A half hour later I’m ready to make a down payment on a used trailer.

Listen to them: these people might not be crazy, but they are playing the part to perfection. Wide eyes working to wash away the one-two punch of alarm and indignation, creased foreheads wet with the weight of their weird worlds, the insistent outlook of the converted Christian or polished politician, the unburdened body language of a puppet who has finally plucked the wires from its back.

And, I think: Please!

Please let this be true. Imagine: all the churchgoing, flag-waving, right wing radio listening, free market following, see-no-evil simpletons (and that’s just Whitey) if they found out?

And then, this: No!

Nothing, it eventually occurs to me, could conceivably be worse than if those astronauts actually landed on Earth. Because it is marginally acceptable, or at least comprehensible, that in a time when millions of people are starving and dying of decades-old diseases, we’d have the effrontery to float billion dollar babies in space—that is enough, that confirms all we need to know about priorities and good and evil and the fact that there is, of course, at the end of the night, no chance whatsoever that God is watching over all this. But to think that the suits who call the shots arrived at the decision that it was ultimately to their advantage to take the time and imagination to choreograph a made-for-TV miracle to propagate compliance, or boost morale, or whatever mendacious busywork those men who don’t work for a living get up to when they are hard at work behind those fortified doors.

If that is even a possibility, then all bets are off. Then suddenly even the cynics are shit out of luck, and things like fake wars and flying planes into buildings begin to seem like a rather ingenuous part of the program. See: it is conceivable that money gets spent every day on scientific charades that serve no practical purpose. Or conceding that God obviously does not exist, so it can’t be His fault (because He never existed). But finding out that we are capable—and worse, willing—to pull off that kind of crap? It is almost enough to make you join a militia. It’s almost enough to cause you to cash it all in and start looking for the alien transmissions in your fillings. Or hunker down in a trailer park on the outskirts of Area 51.

*Excerpt from the novel Not To Mention a Nice Life.

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Memorial Day: A Poem

md

Unanticipated clouds advance, shifting the weight

of the world—or at least the measured objectives of

so many compulsory affairs—nonplussed after all

this time by their capacity to inspire, interrupt, or else

frustrate the better angels of Nature’s encumbrance.

Fathers linger absentmindedly at inexhaustible grills.

Mothers indulge in a quick cry behind bathroom doors

(more from habit than necessity). Bored children fish

in depleted ponds, muscle memory improvising

rituals handed down unthinkingly, like faiths or families.

Soldiers, acknowledged at last in their fortified shrines,

die afresh each time a bouquet drops like a shell

atop consecrated soil, foretold fates secured again,

courtesy of grim yet unconflicted officials, whose

solemn directives ensure that history echoes itself.

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