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.

GO

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

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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

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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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Every Day is Mother’s Day

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I’m fortunate, in a sense, to be the type of person that gets more sentimental about the times I read a certain book or heard a particular album than I ever do about holidays. But I’m still human. I still recall the almost breathless inability to accelerate time and make Christmas arrive more quickly. Or the Halloween costumes, Easter candy or the great Thanksgiving feasts (and the not-so-great family fights that would sometimes ensue). The holidays, as idealized rites of passage, still resonate; but these occasions are not capable of enhancing or obliterating whatever mood I’m already in. As such, the absence of my mother might feel more acute on holidays, but none of these events have been unduly marred during the past decade.

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 am mostly able to channel that grief into gratitude for the times she was around. Similarly, Mother’s Day is seldom joyful, but it provides an imperative to consider happy times and my relative good fortune—despite what is obviously lacking, now. It also obliges me to behold my family members and friends who have become admirable mothers themselves, and I am humbled to see my mother alive in the looks they give their children.

And if I’m ever inclined to stop and consider how corny, or manufactured these sentiments may be, I console myself with the awareness of how increasingly corny and manufactured holidays in America have become.

***

Any time I need to be reminded that I am one of the lucky ones, I look at the picture taken 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. I don’t need to resort to religion or sociology: I can simply consider the circumstances and the infinitesimal odds that I ever made it from my father to my mother in the first place (if you know what I mean).

What child cannot recall asking, on Mother’s Day, why there wasn’t a Kid’s Day? The response was always the same: Every day is Kid’s Day. Most of us who have lived a single hour in the so-called real world quickly came to register how accurate this tired cliché actually is. Indeed, those of us who were sufficiently well-raised didn’t need to wait that long for this epiphany to occur. A year or two punching the clock, paying bills, cleaning up one’s own messes—the literal and especially the figurative ones—and generally attaining that independent status one strove so single-mindedly to attain is impetus enough for reflection. Not merely an appraisal of how impossible it would be to repay the investment made, measured in money, time, affection and approbation, but a recognition of what was truly at stake: the selflessness your parents displayed, putting in all that effort to enable you to become your own person. The best gift a parent can give (you come to understand) is loving you enough to allow you to not be exactly like them; to encourage you to figure out exactly who you are supposed to become.

***

Holidays have not been intolerable, no more than any other day, especially the bad days when I miss my mother most. As a result, I reckon I’m not the only one who has found that my birthday is the single occasion that can never be the same. Inexorable nostalgic pangs, the pull of biological imperatives, or the simple fact that I’m still human has ensured that the annual recognition of my birth day is imbued with sadness and a heavy longing I don’t feel any other time. If so, it seems a reasonable trade-off: that deep and uncomplicated connection, along with the longing any child can comprehend, signifies that yet another cliché holds true: absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Every time I scribble a thought with artistic intent I am inspired by the support my mother offered, going back to the days I was a kid with crayons, coloring outside the lines while listening to The Nutcracker Suite. She will never be forgotten; in fact, she will never be gone. This is what helps and it is also, at times, what hurts.

***

How do you get over the loss?

That is the question I asked a former girlfriend who lost her father when she was a teenager. “You don’t,” she said. Hearing this, 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.

Every day is Kid’s Day, and who would hope to change that?

Every day, for me, is Mother’s Day. And on my birthday, I don’t celebrate myself so much as acknowledge—and appreciate—the one who did the most to help me get here.

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

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Murphy’s Laws: 47 Infallible Observations on the Occasion of Turning 47

47-mel-blount

“With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.”

That, from the ever-quotable Oscar Wilde.

Does age impart wisdom? Maybe.

It definitely provides opinions.

Some of them, perhaps, are worthwhile.

After 47 spins around the sun, you probably haven’t had an especially worthwhile time if you don’t have some observations, and a handful of opinions you’re willing to stand by. I do.

Here’s one: avoid making any important decisions until you’re sober and showered.

Here’s another: irony is essential, but not unlike caviar, it should never be cheap and should always be served in judicious portions.

And another: the only thing worse than cynicism is apathy, and the only thing worse than apathy is aggression—and worst of all is cupidity.

In the spirit of sharing, and to forestall the indignities of encroaching middle-age, I’ve gathered 47 judgments, opinions and observations.

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47. Get it?

1. You never feel more confident, and impatient for the world to recognize if not celebrate your brilliance, than the moment you submit a piece for publication. (The predictable, inevitable rejection has the opposite effect, taking you down the necessary notches and keeping everything mostly in balance.)

2.  These days we look for poetry in all the wrong places. Some of us even believe we’re gazing more deeply into the murky waters of existence when all we’re seeing is our own reflections.

3. A commitment to free speech inexorably allows bigots an opportunity to spew sewage, all in the name of ill-will. But that is precisely the price we pay for free speech, and hurt feelings are an exceedingly small price to pay, especially compared to the body count accumulated in religious conflicts throughout history. But there is a silver lining: allowing, even encouraging, morons to get their outrage on does us the collective service of isolating the antisocial and potentially psychotic amongst us. Free speech is, like it or not, an all-or-nothing proposition.

4. It’s possible, if not probable that our technological toys have provided us with everything but perspective, making us increasingly oblivious to the realities of people we’re not familiar with. This might help explain a country, like ours, with unlimited access to all sorts of content being as polarized (politically, psychologically, personally) as any time in recent memory. And undoubtedly the anonymity—and security—of electronic interaction makes us more immune to/intolerant of opinions we don’t share.

5. As politicians of a certain party confirm time and again, you cease to be especially useful once you’re no longer in the womb or wearing the uniform.

6. F. Scott Fitzgerald infamously (and incorrectly, as it happened) declared there are no second acts in American lives, but he was writing his own epitaph at the time. He could not have anticipated the way artists and later, politicians, would perfect the Lazarus routine to the point that it was itself an art form of sorts.

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7. All dogs want is other dogs. People aren’t like that which, I suppose, is why people love dogs. You can always tell when a dog is unhappy because the rest of the time they are either ecstatic or asleep.

8. The way we signal our solidarity with bumper stickers, sweet nothings on national TV or pink ribbons signifies how we simultaneously take the path of least resistance and make any unfortunate situations as much about ourselves as possible.

9. The exceptional artists are too often hampered by their fragility and inexorably broken by the world, their pieces an ineffable legacy we are left to ponder. The hacks thrive once they suicide their souls and feed their flesh, growing old and obscene by eating their unjust desserts, applauded all the way by an unreflective Hoi polloi.

10. In the mid-‘70s, in an attempt to inspire his friend Errol Morris to complete a project, Werner Herzog agreed to eat his shoe. The project was completed, the shoe was cooked and eaten, the occasion filmed for posterity. Every artist can—and should—learn from Herzog, who has made a career of balancing the dicey line between commitment and insanity.

11. Generally speaking, the more obviously a writer wants the audience to associate the protagonist and himself, the more insufferable and lifeless the prose is likely to be. Correspondingly, the more noble or lovable a protagonist that might coincidentally be confused with the author is, the less trustworthy and insecure the human writing the book is likely to be.

12. Virtually everything about The Beatles was sui generis: they broke all the rules and, in the process, invented the new rules. It didn’t need to end; it had to end. How could they keep going; they kept going. In short and in sum: John needed Paul, and Paul needed John, perhaps more than they ever realized.

13. What if I were to tell you the 21st Century has already produced the great American novel? And what if I told you it was actually written almost five decades ago? And then I mentioned that it’s not a book, it’s an album? And then, this: no one has ever heard it and no one ever will, because it remains unfinished. And yet: everyone has listened to the opening chapter, a prologue to the most infamous what-could-have-been in musical history. The song: “Good Vibrations”. The band: The Beach Boys. The album: SMiLE.

14. Top Gun remains miraculous, a Nabokovian movie-within-a-movie where the insufficiently endowed, militarded men-children, with minds toupeed like so many half-ass John Wayne wannabes (speaking of movie-within-a-movie), achieve all the things every impotent flag waving closet case fantasizes about. Starring the epitome of style-over-substance insincerity, Tom Cruise, for whom they had to lower the volleyball net to five foot zero, the eternal box office elf wins one for the Gipper (movie-within-a-movie-within-a-cliché) and liberates the Military Industrial Complex forevermore from tax cuts and providing scared little boys a Big Daddy who’ll never disappoint (because, like Santa Claus, he doesn’t exist and is the gift that keeps giving). Everything awful about the ‘80s in America, an erectile dysfunction ad disguised as Hollywood fairy tale, a flat-top wrapped in a flag, bleached chicklets smiling to sell the used car soul of an empty empire.

15. The people I’ve known in MFA programs (yesterday, today, and probably twenty years from now) get taught to write. Or, they get taught to write short stories. Or, they get programmed to write short stories. Or, they get programmed to write certain types of short stories. And? The language is usually okay, although clichés are dispensed like crutches in an infirmary. The effort, for the most part, is there (no one, after all, would take the time to take a crack at serious writing unless they wanted to do it right; the only exceptions are the ones to whom it comes easily and who write the way most people urinate: often, every day, and it’s mostly water, or the other sort: the ones who don’t have time to actually write because they are talking about all the books they have planned out in their pointy heads, not only because it’s less complicated to discuss one’s brilliance at a party or in a bar, but also because there is always an audience, however reluctant). The underlying impulse, the central nervous system of these short stories, always at least approximates technical proficiency. So? What we wind up with is a story that avoids everything the young writer has not experienced: love, fear, empathy, and understanding. For starters. Stylizing over substantive insight equals an anaesthetized aesthetic; a soulless solution for a problem the writer created. And the short story, upon inspection, is a shell that reveals its non-essence. Poetic pronouncements of some of the important things the student does not understand. In other words: short stories that might sell. Short stories that strive to be successful. Short stories for readers with short memories. And in some cases, a star is born.

ali

16. I love the ‘60s and write often about the significant things that did happen, did not happen and should have happened during that decade. In terms of import — be it artistic, social, political, cultural — opinions on what matters and endures about the ‘60s often says as much or more about the person offering an opinion. In spite of my interest and enthusiasm, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have wanted to be a young man in the ‘60s. Sure, I could have been witness to too many milestones to count, in real time. I also could have been killed in Vietnam, or in the streets, or fried my greedy brain with too much LSD or, worst of all, somehow been a Nixon supporter. Every event and individual from this seminal decade has assumed mythic status, but so many of the figures we admire were not admirable people. It’s worth the gifts they left, we say, often correctly. But has there been a single period in American history where so many people get too much credit for talking loudly and saying little? The older I get and the more I learn—about the ‘60s, America, myself—the deeper my awe of the man who changed his name to Muhammad Ali grows.

17. When it comes to the often embarrassing topic of sex scenes in literature, a standard rule is that the authors who speak (and write) the loudest are probably not the people you want beneath you or on top of you, and they certainly are not the ones you should be paying to be your creative tour guide.

18. For all its obvious and mostly superficial flaws, John Carpenter’s They Live offers as blunt and enduring a critique of unfettered capitalism, taken to its (il)logical extreme, as has ever been committed to celluloid.

19. If Edgar Allan Poe—and his writing—has not aged well and seems more than a little passe for 21st century sensibilities, it’s not entirely his fault. Like others who have done things first, and best, it’s likely we grow more impatient with their imitations than the original. Poe was a pioneer in almost too many ways to count. If his work and his life (and most especially his death) seem clichéd, it’s in part because dying young, debauched and with too little money was not yet the career move it would eventually become for other artists. With vices and an intensity that would give even a young Charles Bukowski pause, and would have buried the punk rock poseur Syd Vicious, Poe managed to be for literature what Miles Davis was for jazz: he didn’t merely set new standards, he changed the course of subsequent art, perfecting entirely new paradigms in the process.

20. When you think about the distinctive ingredients of Americana, the elements that comprise what we think about when we think of what makes America so…American, it’s easy to recite the clichéd short-list: mom, apple pie, convertibles, rock and roll, McDonalds, sexual repression, colonialism, enhanced interrogations, et cetera. But really, when you get down to it, we’re all about violence. And, to a large degree, violence sort of encompasses all of the things listed above (the violence we do to others, the violence we do to the environment, the violence we do to ourselves–inherent in the desires we succumb to as well as deny, which are epitomized by most religions). But our religion is violence, and our cathedral has long been the silver screen. So we celebrate our addiction to violence in ways less brutal but more calculated than the barbaric Gladiator spectacles of yesteryear (we weren’t Americans yet): by perfecting what has become a universal aesthetic, the movie fight scene. Kind of like porn movie plots are a delivery device for the fucking, action movie plots are often a disposable fulcrum for the fighting.

21. The intensity of lamentation an individual displays on the occasion of a celebrity’s death via social media tends to be inversely proportional to their difficulty conveying emotions toward actual people they know.

22. 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 The Road To Wigan Pier 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 and the myriad ways Truth and History are manufactured by the so-called winners.

23. Dick Cheney, the most despicable citizen America has ever produced, has so much blood on his hands he makes Lady Macbeth look like Snow White.

24. Capitalism isn’t wrong, but neither is intelligence: you cannot spend money and make money; someone is always paying the tab (and it’s usually the poor suckers who can’t spend it who take it in the you-know-where so that anonymous, ancient bored members can pulverize their portfolios). It’s all about numbers. Like an army, like America. Whether you’re a company or a cult (like an army, like America), you simply want to amass enough affluence that nothing else matters. That’s how we’ve come to define success and, perhaps not coincidentally, it’s why so few people are capable of achieving it.

25. The problem with the homeless problem is that these people who don’t see you and can’t see themselves are all chasing something they can no longer name: memories. Or, even worse, it’s the memories that are chasing them, speaking in tongues they long ago ceased to understand.

26. I can’t recall the last time I read a book where there wasn’t at least one sentence I could edit or improve. There’s hope there: we’re all human. Except Faulkner.

27. Hagler vs. Hearns on April 15, 1985 is the best sporting event I’ve ever witnessed. For years, I regarded this masterpiece the way oral poets would preserve the ancient stories: I remembered it, replayed it and above all, celebrated it.

28. I admire David Lynch, but admit that he’s very much like God. I watch his movies the way I look at the creation of the world: most of the time I can’t discern what’s going on, but someone seems to have gone to a great deal of trouble. Beauty, not to mention intelligent design, is always in the eye of the beholder.

29. Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun seems to me the most accurate, or at least successful depiction of what we might call “Tolstoyan”. Memento, for my money, is the most “Dostoyevskian”.

30. In my personal experience, The New Testament resonates with people who are interested in emulating and not merely obeying. Indeed, the only people who seek inspiration in the Old Testament tend to be proselytizers or repressed opportunists looking to find ecclesiastical back-up for their very human prejudices and desires.

31. 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.

32. The ‘90s Academy Awards were like a Bizarro aesthetic universe, a perverse pinball machine where smug smacked off cynical and clanged into self-satisfaction and descended into the gutter of banality (Life is Beautiful should have earned everyone involved a cinematic red card, sent off the artistic pitch for eternity; instead, of course, it won that buffoon Roberto Benigni a best actor statue proving that Life is Unbearable). But hey, if it wasn’t for the ‘90s Academy Awards, I may have entered the new millennium not sufficiently disabused of the illusion that substance beats style, or that feel-good and soulless saccharine is sniffed out by uncorrupted tastemakers. Instead, I understand the First Commandment of Modern Commerce: Money always, always means more than Authenticity. As such, I express my indifference to the pompous and circumstance of the Academy Awards the old fashioned way: by not watching.

33. I usually sleep on Sunday mornings. Everyone else, it seems, is either on the golf course or in church. As far as I can tell, I haven’t been missing much. As far as I can tell, golf affords grown men the opportunity to accomplish two things: get out of work (or, if they are married, out of the house on weekends) and drink beer. Not that I’m necessarily opposed to either activity, but I usually don’t have to dress up like a frat boy from the early ‘80s to make it happen.

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34. Sigourney Weaver discarding her space suit in Alien; Susan Sarandon slicing lemons in Atlantic City; Faye Dunaway at any point in Bonnie and Clyde—all of those are contenders. But for my money, no woman in any performance has ever been as sexy as Julie Newmar’s Catwoman attempting to seduce Adam West’s Batman.

35. If I could come back as another person and experience their life, Peter O’Toole would be on the very short list.

36. Playing for mediocre, at times downright awful teams, Pedro Martinez was the rare ace who could carry a franchise on his scrawny shoulders. If he had been surrounded by the talent Greg Maddux had for most of his career in Atlanta, it’s difficult to imagine how much more impressive his stats would be. Not for nothing, he played in the bruising AL East (having to face designated hitters instead of easy-out pitchers each outing) during the peak of the steroid era—when hitters (think Brady Anderson or Barry Bonds) went from skinny sluggers to beefed-up mashers seemingly overnight. The point being, Pedro played in a time of almost unparalleled offensive production and he still put up numbers that stagger statisticians. Bottom line: best pitcher of the modern era, perhaps of all time.

37. If a lousy self-published book falls into the electronic void, does it make any sound? No. This, then, is precisely why the first rule of writing always applies: no matter how or with whom you choose to publish, it’s ultimately in the author’s best interest to put forth their best product. Neither short-cut nor salvation, Amazon merely presents possibilities previously unavailable, or imaginable. The best news is also the bottom line: people in it for the wrong reasons (vanity, the illusion of fame and fortune, etc.) will invariably find this new model easy, yet unfeasible; people in it for the long haul have no guarantees and the road is as long and grueling as it’s ever been. But here’s the catch, and the reason to rejoice: mechanisms now exist wherein any artist can cultivate an audience through the most and honest and organic means known to mankind: good old fashioned word of mouth. Amazon, and the community it sustains, allows anyone to have a voice, and those voices will be creating and encouraging literature for the foreseeable future.

38. I can usually tell where people are coming from when they assail The Great Gatsby. They’re invariably similar to folks who, striking a rebellious or recalcitrant pose, dismiss Shakespeare as overrated or impossible to appreciate. Of course, too often it becomes obvious that most of these people have failed to read many (or any) of the works in question.

39. When it comes to Jimi Hendrix, there is really no conjecture. The growth he displayed in only a couple of years is unlike anything we’ve witnessed from just about any other musician or composer, ever. We’re talking light years, the universe expanding; real quantum type shit. Put it this way: Miles Davis, who didn’t have many good things to say about even the best jazz musicians, made no bones about his desire to get Hendrix in the studio to collaborate. That’s like Michael Jordan saying he’d like to play some pick-up, or Sugar Ray Robinson asking you to spar with him.

40. My .02 on a woman’s right to choose can be boiled down to one sardonic observation, which I offer with maximum disdain: If adolescent boys could get pregnant, the Catholic Church would be passing out birth control with the communion wafers.

41. Libertarianism in two sentences, same as it always was; same as it will always be. When Christians envision God they see themselves. When Libertarians envision God they see dollar bills.

42. If Mozart heads straight for your heart and Beethoven always gets you in the gut, Wagner is not satisfied until he has your entire soul. And then there’s Bach. When I listen to Bach I feel the way I’m supposed to feel about God: awe, wonderment, solemnity, incredulity, and—this is important—joy, reverence, relief.

SJ

43. A common misconception is that, as dog lovers, we crave subservience; 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.

44. 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.)

45. An immaculately clean kitchen betrays the absence of soul; an immaculately clean house betrays the absence of pets (or love; same thing).

46. If there is light at the end of the tunnel, the sound you hear as you stride toward it is undoubtedly the cornet solo by Thad Jones on Thelonious Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser”.

47. Marriage is indeed work and, if you’re lucky enough to find the right person, it’s the most fulfilling job you’ll ever have.

Bonus observation:

Don’t be cynical: find a charity you can feel good about supporting, endorse the efforts of our great artists, tell your parents you love them, appreciate—and savor—the friends who always have your back. Be good to strangers and be better to yourself: you deserve it.

(Some of these observations appear in my first collection of non-fiction, Murphy’s Law Vol. One: So That Happened.)

M LAW cover

This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 5/20/16.

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“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.

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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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