Sanctuary

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

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

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

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

But sometimes this is not enough.

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

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

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

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For My Mother on Her Birthday

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I’m scared, I said.

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

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

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

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

I’ll never leave you, she said.

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

Like her mother, she eventually became acquainted

With the white-walled world of procedures

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

Hope and fear, faith then despair—the nagging need

To believe in men and the magic of machines.

Or the things we say when no one is speaking.

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

She sits alone by the window.

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

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

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

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

Who will remember us?

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

 

She said: I’ll never leave you.

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

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

How do you get over the loss?

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

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

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Intimation: A Poem

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Intimation

My fiancée informs me that I snore

now: either comfortable enough to tell

the truth, or else a commentary on my own

contentment. Our unconscious understands

and steers us with its own somnolent wisdom.

But wouldn’t it have seemed more sensible

to have been snoring all those other nights,

when the only thing that ever got into my bed

was an exhilarating dream: someone beside me

to break that onerous silence by sharing it?

 

 –For Heather Sherard, May 2016

 

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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:

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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.

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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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Borne Back Ceaselessly Into the Past: Steinbeck, Nostalgia, Empathy and Amtrak (Revisited)

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WHEN I FIRST read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America I was not quite old enough to drive. Still, I felt I could appreciate his somewhat elegiac ode to a world that was quickly disappearing, literally and figuratively. Literally in the sense that old things were becoming new, being torn down, refurbished, modernized; figuratively in the sense that airplanes had become more accessible (affordable) and de rigueur as a mode of business travel, while highways continued to get people from Point A to Point B a hell of a lot more efficiently. As a result, people who found themselves on the road were missing (intentionally) the long haul through less-traveled paths, and missing out (unintentionally?) on interacting with the places one doesn’t see, and the people who populate those less-known places.

And that was in 1960. What is there to say, over a half-century later, about the things we do and the things we don’t see?

Perhaps more to the point, how many of us, given the opportunity, would be interested in an old school trek from coast to coast, stopping to sniff the sights and taste the sounds made by towns that time has forgotten? In this era of two-weeks paid vacation, where staying-employed is the new promotion, would anyone have the means, much less the inclination, to take an extended jaunt from coast to coast?

A leisurely circuit through several red states is, perhaps, too much of a good thing, so how about splitting the difference between automotive crawl and air-travel excursion, old school, train style? Quaint? As it happens, in 2014 you can’t be whimsical enough: skinny ties and dirty martinis are back in the game, making TV watchers believe they’re on to something that hasn’t once again been marketed and served up on a cynical (if tasteful) platter, new school, Mad Men style.

Still, some types of nostalgia, let us concede, are better than others. If the archaic Old-Fashioned—which I remember only senior citizens ordering when I waited tables in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s—now doesn’t seem quite so…old fashioned, less ancient fads like Zima remain mercifully buried beneath the basement of our collective consciousness, at least until some hipsters dig those cases up.

Nostalgia, in short, is arguably the most irresistible elixir. Amtrak, in an impressive grasp for relevance—or at least recognition—seems keenly aware of this, and this spring they featured a series of promotions for a writer residency program. (Travels with Siri, anyone?) Good press and many applications ensued: the company claims to have received over 16,000 submissions from would-be road trippers enticed by a free 2-5 day trek. However calculated this potential escapade might be, it’s interesting to contemplate how many of these aspiring Steinbecks have even been on a train before. In terms of wistful or aesthetic import, it hardly matters: everyone has likely been on a plane and planes, as we know, are hardly conducive to creativity.

Then again, is anything conducive to creativity these days? Even when we’re alone, we are never truly isolated, at least in the sense that anyone who was sentient prior to Y2K can recall or comprehend. Once the Internet became ubiquitous and we could hear the siren-songs of new e-mails announcing their arrival, we typically had to walk into the other room to read them. Now, our machines are equal parts security blanket and business imperative: we are never without access to the wide, webbed world. And for people with a penchant for introspection, or a compulsion to compose, distraction is now a full-time adversary.

One wonders what Steinbeck would make of our sociological intersection, circa 2014. Innovation has advanced to the point where just about anyone can carry a miniature computer in their pocket, and Google Maps provide virtual road trips to places we can’t pronounce. At what cost? Steinbeck might inquire.

Have our technological toys provided us with everything but perspective, making us increasingly oblivious to the realities of people we’re not familiar with? Is this one possible explanation for a country, like ours, with unlimited access to all sorts of content, being as polarized (politically, psychologically, personally) as any time in recent memory? Has the anonymity—and security—of electronic interaction made us immune to and/or intolerant of opinions we don’t share?

The country Steinbeck described, that awesome, even intimidating mid-century experiment, is now overdue for resuscitation. A society still unsettled and, at best, uncertain after our recent recession has definitive answers for questions that are not being asked by the appropriate people. Highways, tunnels and bridges that once signaled our arrival as a genuine global model to be envied have become a sullen indictment of our myopic priorities.

Perhaps it’s not prospective authors who most need some quiet time on a train, but the politicians who are too preoccupied by 24 hours news cycles and sound bites substituting for policies. Assuming, of course, most of these cretins consider such things; further proof that we don’t manufacture cities, or elected officials, like we used to.

Since poets are likely to remain our unacknowledged legislators, here’s hoping as many of them as possible are able to take a tour of the places that otherwise glisten from below when seen through the window of an airplane. Riding a train is, of course, a paltry approximation of what Steinbeck experienced, but there’s something to be said for a brief, backward glance at an invisible America.

Here are some field notes from a recent journey, spread out over three hours on the Acela Express from Newark to DC.

ii.

Most of the time, it’s a blur of trees or water or dark (as in, when it’s nighttime or when you’re asleep) so the only times you tend to look are when you are aware—instinctively or otherwise—of being alongside something you’re not accustomed to seeing. Driving through the ass-end of deadbeat towns, back alleys that no one remembers; the kind of real estate that seems vaguely mortified about its dirty laundry being aired to mostly upper middle class commuters.

Look: a ramshackle white building with the painted black letters House Of Flowers. Except the only thing visible is an assortment of junked cars and worthless tires, begging the question: does anyone frequent this place? (Does anyone sometimes this place?) How about the name: was it, at one point, an actual house that sold flowers? Is it now? Is the name intentional or ironic? Both? Neither?

A few clicks along the tracks and there is another in a series of dirt clearings strewn with trash. There is a large green bag that had been filled with bricks. Naturally, the bricks broke through their confinement and have formed a makeshift wall around the plastic that only briefly concealed them. Rained upon, rusted, growing mud and moss, they are incapable of fulfilling their intended purpose. Kind of like certain types of people.

More things contemporary eyes don’t see or understand: sprawling pipes standing three stories high, tarnished kettles with nothing left to hold inside, barbed wire encircling works in progress that had their plugs pulled by design or default. Most of these monuments are graveyards for machinery that has decayed in direct proportion to the time passed since industrious hands operated them like so many human ants.

Dozens of bridges, covering creeks and sporting graffitied coats of many colors; one big backyard that never gets raked, watered or mowed; limbs of trees at the end of the line, immobile and out of time. Warehouses, 18 wheelers, school buses, cinder block cathedrals and stolid electrical grids, genetically indifferent to the power they provide.

You lose count of the burned out buildings, all harboring grudges against the good old days, hoping for central heating. Their shattered windows have blinded them, denying a jealous glance toward the other side of town, or even across the street at their regentrified brethren. These broken properties are like the broken people who enlist in the military or throw themselves at the not-so-tender mercies of the types of churches named after obscure saints: they need to be torn down and rebuilt from the roots up. A new lease on life, an extreme makeover that only requires forfeiture of the souls they once possessed.

Through it all, the trees remain impervious; the trees adjust to the death rattles and reclamation projects—they are planted on firm ground. The trees grow, get green when Nature calls, and mostly are kind enough to offer no comment. They are uninterested in passing judgment on the concrete and the cars and the punks with their spray painted patois. Quietly and in some cases long-sufferingly, they provide cover for the plants and animals, offering window dressing for the inquisitive eyes barreling by at the speed of surround sound.

And then, of course, there are the neighborhoods. New ones and especially the old ones: Oddfellows and American Legions and taverns with Christian names. Fences and grass and street signs, an arithmetic formula found in translation. There is money here. Little league fields, churches and bicycles in repose. The rain feeds the lawns and the sun warms the driveways of four car families. The birds circle the well-stocked feeders and can’t quite believe their good fortune. Even the worms are relieved to burrow in safer soil, praying that once they are eaten and shat out they can fertilize the earth they once called home.

This is the calm calculus of civilization, just out of earshot from the neglected intersections that choke and sigh but no longer scream. Sometimes docile dogs and curious cats sneak past their security gates and wander too close to a reality their caretakers keep them from. They sniff the fear and sense the dread and understand the choice was never theirs to make. The wise ones, inherently aware of the whim that separates fate from fortune, run safely back to masters who speak a language they’ve learned to understand.

*This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings, 7/2/14, and is featured in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)

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My First Time (Revisited)

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It was my great pleasure to guest-post at The Quivering Pen, a fantastic site for writers (and readers) curated by David Abrams (himself an excellent reader and writer: check him out, here).

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My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Sean Murphy, author of the just-published novel Not to Mention a Nice Life. Murphy has been publishing fiction, reviews (of music, movie, book, food), and essays on the technology industry for almost twenty years. He is an associate editor at The Weeklings, where he contributes a monthly column. He writes regularly for PopMatters, and his work has also appeared in Punchnel’s, The Village Voice, AlterNet, Web Del Sol, All About Jazz, The Good Men Project, Elephant Journal and Northern Virginia Magazine. He is the recipient of a Noepe Center for Literary Arts Writer Residency. Murphy’s best-selling memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone: A Memoir for My Mother was released in 2013.

 

All My Firsts

Let’s talk about the first.

There’s the first story I wrote. (Original story: fifth grade; vaguely plagiarized ones where, looking back and with apologies to Edgar Allan Poe, imitation was the sincerest form of flattery: third and fourth grades.)

There’s the first “adult” book I read. (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, fourth grade. Huge mistake. Having seen the movies and read some comic book treatments, I thought I was ready for the real thing. It took me more than halfway through to understand Frankenstein was not, in fact, the monster.)

There’s the first success. (Being asked to compose and recite an original poem for an eighth-grade student assembly.)

There’s the first readership. (A series of features I wrote for my high school newspaper. For a teenager, a printed byline is as close to the big-time as it got, at least in the old-school era before social media and blogs.)

There’s the first publication. (A poem in my college literary magazine.)

There’s the first “important” publication. (A short story in another, better-known literary magazine.)

There’s the first in a series of unfortunate events. (Also known as writing workshops, wherein the cocky writer’s work gets, well, workshopped. Hilarity does not often ensue.)

There’s the first in a longer series of ceaseless rejection. (No comment necessary.)

There’s the first short story I knew would make me famous. (It’s still unpublished.)

There’s the first attempt at a novel. (Also unpublished. Fortunately, for all involved.)

There’s the subsequent, earnest attempt at a first novel. (Still a work-in-progress. Sort of.)

Nothing especially unique or noteworthy, right? All of these events or experiences were stepping stones most, if not all, writers will recognize and relate to. There is an evolution comprised of myriad firsts (and lasts), but what separates all but the most successful and/or lucky authors is what happens after the familiar epiphanies of the apprentice have occurred and it gets to the eventual, inevitable matter of perseverance.

The “first” that was, if not unique, for me the most formative and indelible, involved rejection and resolve.

Let me tell you a story: a famous writer saw a first chapter of this aforementioned novel. Famous writer picks up phone (people still used phones in those days) and tells unknown writer that he loves the material and wants his agent to look at it. Agent receives chapter, loves it too, and asks to see entire manuscript on an exclusive basis. Unknown writer thinks: this is it, the big break, the moment of truth, and other clichés. An entire summer passes, which is unfortunate. It happens to be the same summer unknown writer’s mother—who has been battling cancer for five years—begins to lose her final battle. By the time unknown writer’s mother passes away, the novel, the agent and the famous writer are about the farthest things from his mind. On the day of mother’s funeral, unknown writer makes the ill-advised decision to check his email before leaving the house. He sees the overdue email from agent. Something tells him not to open it, but of course he has to; according to logic and everything right in the world, not to mention the imperative of Cliché, this is the perfect time to see he’s about to be represented and eventually published, and this is the miracle he’ll employ to overcome his grief, and he’ll dedicate this book to his mother, without whom he could never have written it, or written anything.

Naturally, the email is, in fact, a rather terse (but apologetic) rejection.

And this unknown writer, in spite of himself, looks past the computer, looks beyond his disbelief, and looks out to whomever or whatever may be listening (or orchestrating this test of faith) and can’t quite believe hearing the words, in a voice that sounds a lot like his: “Is that all you got?”

No, this is not going to be the final, unkindest cut, the sign that failure is inevitable, the signal that it’s better to move on to other things, the message that it’s not meant to be. I’m not doing this, he thinks, because I want to, or that I hope to prove anything, or become famous (he has put away childish things). I’m doing this, he knows, because he doesn’t know what else he could possibly do with himself. He does it, he finally understands, because there’s nothing else he could imagine himself doing. And that the only failure is to stop. To be afraid, to give up.

It wasn’t the first rejection, obviously, and while it may be the biggest, it wasn’t the last. In addition to death and taxes, writers recognize at some point, however resignedly, that rejection will always be on offer, for free, forever.

And ultimately it mattered only in the sense that it didn’t matter. Or, it mattered a great deal in the sense that it was not enough to dissuade or discourage him from stumbling down a path he made up as he went along; that revealed itself only when he looked back on another piece of writing and thought: Good thing I didn’t stop.

This was the most important first, the first day of the rest of my life.

My novel Not To Mention a Nice Life is now available.

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Four Albums and a Film: The Best Summer Entertainment

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The Congos – Heart of the Congos (1977)

Great art knows no seasons. Nevertheless, some music is made for—or at least can be fully appreciated during—specific times of the year. Reggae, which many people still believe means Bob Marley’s music, tends to get broken out only once the flip flops and hibachi grills come out of hibernation. For an alternative that’s both inspiring and educational, the first reggae disc you should turn to as soon as the weather warms is Heart of the Congos. Shepherded into existence by the incomparable Lee “Scratch” Perry at the height of his uncanny powers, this album functions as a timeline of history invoking “songs and psalms and voices” to create a soulful, occasionally unsettling tapestry of deep cultural roots. On many tracks, Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, maximizing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar.

Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland (1968)

Electric Ladyland is not merely one of the ultimate summer albums, it is summer. From the hot-town-summer-in-the-city chaos of “Crosstown Traffic” to the midnight lightning of “Voodoo Chile” and the sexual swagger of “Gypsy Eyes” to the sweat-soaked croon of “Long Hot Summer Night” (!), this double-disc oozes with bright lights (“House Burning Down”) and warm remorse (“Burning of the Midnight Lamp”). Even the Apocalyptic imagery, properly psychedelicized in “All Along the Watchtower” (the only time Bob Dylan had his own work improved upon) mutates from cryptic folktale to field report from the steamy jungles of Vietnam and/or the sweltering streets with police staring down protestors. And then there’s the extended suite that occupies all of Side Three: it starts with a saxophone and a smile (“lay back and dream on a rainy day”) and then slips underwater, literally: our feet find the sand and the sea is straight ahead. By the time the moon turns the tides (gently, gently away) you have most definitely been experienced: it’s a hot, sweet and soulful adventure. Electric Ladyland is a trek through sights and sounds that only one man could convey, and he seems like he’s eager to shed his skin and get to a place where his body will not constrain him.

Pink Floyd – The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)

It’s not so much that Floyd’s debut helped define the Summer of Love (though it did), or that there is necessarily anything one can associate with hot weather in those sounds. It’s more than that: from the echoed cadence of roll-called planets to those last surreal goose honks, Syd Barrett’s guided tour through the miniature landscapes and dreamscapes he was imagining does transport you to other places, but also another time: youth. Everything about the execution, and realization, of this spectacular album exudes the uncorrupted innocence of a novel conception. More inspiration than insanity, Barrett’s acid-inspired reveries unlocked the obvious genius teeming inside his head. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is an enduring and ever-relevant document of unbridled and ecstatic creativity realizing its initial and immediate fulfillment, a full-flowering burst that would not (could not?) be duplicated. Listening to it, especially during months that might remind you of a (sigh) more innocent time, it’s not unlike a trip to the beach for your mind.

The Who – Quadrophenia (1973)

“The beach is a place where a man can feel he’s the only soul in the world that’s real…” The Who’s masterwork Quadrophenia could almost be described as “accidental beach music”. Most of the narrative details the mercurial urgencies of young Jimmy, the disenchanted Mod. As such, the words and sounds and feelings are alternately frantic and claustrophobic—the story of a sensitive, chemically altered teenager uncomfortable inside his skin. There is only one release for him: the beach. The album opens with crashing waves and ends with electrified air of a summer storm; in between there are seagull chirps, scooters careening out of the city into open spaces, and bass drum thunder and cymbal-splash raindrops. The album, like the protagonist’s mind, wrestles with itself and rises and falls like the moods of adolescence, until the fever breaks, the skies open and the air is dark, cool and clear.

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

A confident, if impetuous detective sits patiently at the top of a sloping cliff, overlooking the Los Angeles coastline as the day’s light drops into evening. He waits, lighting cigarette after cigarette, totally unaware that he has already stumbled into a hornet’s nest of corruption. The beauty of what he sees (and we see) perfectly conceals the brutal ugliness of what is really going on: unwittingly, Jack Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is about to lift up a rock and behold the guts and machinery of what gets sold as the American Dream. It is hot and dry; indeed, the backdrop of the story is a severe drought that is wreaking havoc on local farmers. Over the course of a few scorching days, cars overheat, people drown in dry riverbeds, and a great deal of blood, sweat and tears indelibly compensate for the rain that won’t fall and the relief that never comes.

Elements of several of these essays are featured in Murphy’s Law, Vol. One –available now.

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50 BULLET POINTS CONCERNING AMERICA’S GUN PSYCHOSIS

 

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  1. Let’s politicize these acts, if for no other reason because, in America, we politicize everything else.
  2. Of course it’s a mental health issue.
  3. For starters, the mental handicap of anyone who thinks this weapon, in the public (or private) sector is useful, safe or justifiable on any level. ar154. Oh those annoying, anti-American liberals, right? Wrong. Let’s allow General Stanley McChrystal the floor: “I spent a career carrying typically either a M16 and later, a M4 carbine…and a M4 carbine fires a .223 caliber round, which is 5.56 millimeters, at about 3,000 feet per second. When it hits a human body, the effects are devastating. It’s designed to do that. That’s what our soldiers ought to carry…I personally don’t think there’s any need for that kind of weaponry on the streets and particularly around the schools in America. I believe that we’ve got to take a serious look — I understand everybody’s desire to have whatever they want — we have to protect our children and our police and we have to protect our population. And I think we have to take a very mature look at that.”

5. Certainly I’m not the only person who, immediately upon hearing the news, suspected that Omar Mateen was a closeted, likely tormented gay man—a reminder that religion is always the problem.

6. President Obama has, as of this date, had to give fourteen press conferences to address gun-related massacres on American soil.

7. If you continue to rationalize the NRA’s role in these atrocities, you are not merely part of the problem, you are the problem. We can—and do—count on the NRA and the cretins bought and paid for by their blood money to assume the hardest and most irrational line; they count on moral equivalence, sanctimony and above all, hope for frustration to lead to social media sloganeering with no action.

8. If you continue to defend the NRA’s role in these atrocities, you are a traitor, however ignorant or unwitting.

9. Fuck the 2nd Amendment. Follow the money.

10. No, seriously. If certain entities weren’t making obscene amounts of money (and spreading it around to keep craven opportunists on the payroll) this issue would have been remedied decades ago.

11. Special committees have been formed to explore, just to cherry pick some low-hanging tempests in a tea (party) pot, the proliferation of witchcraft, opposition to the dangers of dancing, the creeping spread of communism, the hidden, evil messages in certain rock lyrics…and the mere suggestion that maybe an amendment written when muskets were cutting edge weaponry is grounds for scorched earth opposition. This is a profound sickness.

12. This is still the single best commercial on the topic.

13. You know the commercials with first-hand testimony to what cigarette addiction can do to the human body? Start making commercials with statistics of kids shooting each other. And find some brave people willing to go on the record about what unintentional gun violence has done to their family. Or people whose loved ones have been victimized. Tasteless? Too personal? Well, the possibility that any of us could be killed by an accidental (or, in states with “Stand Your Ground” laws, intentional) gunshot couldn’t possibly be more personal. And the fact that, thus far, the will of a clear and overwhelming majority is thwarted by a relatively tiny faction with unconscionably deep pockets is about as tasteless as anything imaginable.

14. Be clear: it’s not that nothing can be done, it’s because so much can be done. Sensible and overdue gun control is a slippery slope, as it should be. The people with nothing to lose, except money (and, presumably, those with minuscule and/or impotent penises), are very aware of this.

15. Whether it’s a drive-by, a road rage incident or a calculated assault, guns are the refuge of sissies who wouldn’t last three seconds in a fist fight.

16. Good guys beat bad guys with the benefit of bigger guns. This is the America we have manufactured, via movies and the marketing of war.

17. Speaking of marketing: lobbyists and the political machines they’re paid to pimp have made a sick science of selling unreality to a nation of terrified suckers.

18. Speaking of terror, how many different variations of the same formulation will it require? gun photo

19. If the only time you pay attention to gun violence is to grandstand on your Facebook feed (or worse, send “thoughts and prayers”), you are not merely a coward, you’re acting entirely within the pre-approved script.

20. Imagine if we felt “hopes and prayers” were sufficient, or all we could do every time a drunk driver killed someone.

21. If you’re still alive, you’re not Orlando. Do something.

22. We have made airport travel into the most inconvenient, obnoxious ordeal conceivable, yet it’s many times easier for anyone to bring a gun into any public place than it is to board a plane, even without luggage*. (*White males, that is.)

23. Guess what demographic (hint: not Muslims) is responsible for the majority of gun massacres on American soil?

24. Start showing the dead bodies on the news.

25. Ditto for returning soldiers. As T.S. Eliot once observed, “human kind cannot bear very much reality”. Americans, of course, can bear very much reality TV.

26. “Hate will never win.” Hate isn’t trying to win. It’s trying to kill.

27. “Well, if he didn’t have a gun, he would have had a bomb!” No, he wouldn’t. Because, for starters, you can’t buy a bomb at Walmart.

28. Although we have a specific cultural malady, mental illness is, of course, experienced by all ages of all people in all countries. Without guns, you can’t easily enact slaughter. Full stop.

29. Any time anyone walks into an establishment with a gun and body bags are required in the aftermath, it’s an act of terror.

30. All it would take is one shooting spree in the United States Capitol to ensure extreme action was immediately taken.

31. Anyone in congress expressing condolences without mentioning the word “guns” should be shamed from office. Anyone in congress expressing condolences who has accepted money from the NRA should be shamed from American citizenship.

32. In America, the only thing more powerful and effective than money is shaming. Call on any and all elected officials to return their soiled money, or send it to the families of victims.

33. Guess what? Here’s a list of GOP senators who voted against ensuring people on terror watch lists can’t buy firearms. (Props to journalist Ivor Volsky for doing heavy lifting in the service of exposing this illimitable hypocristy.)

34. It takes considerably more time and effort to adopt a dog that’s facing being euthanized than it is to purchase a firearm in America.

35. Seriously, America is the only place this happens.

36. This is the single best (and hilarious, to boot) take on America’s unique gun psychosis.

37. I’d rather have a limb hacked off than be censored in any way. That said, Hollywood has a lot more blood on its hands than anyone acknowledges.

38. Video game manufacturers too.

39. Enough with the accommodations and equivocations, let’s treat—for a start—gun manufacturers the way we treat cigarette companies.

40. Start taxing the shit out of organized religions. Why? Because the same type of illogic and—be clear—highly organized, orchestrated and effective propaganda keeps these institutions unregulated and unaccountable.

41. In our society, police forces have become more martial and intimidating in direct proportion with our dread of potential danger posed by anything “Other”—inexorably people who aren’t white. This is not coincidental.

42. An average of seven children under the age of 20 are killed by guns every day.

43. Read this.

44. Just like actually speaking to issues of economic inequality and the dissipation of a healthy American working class (and commensurate wages) is politically viable, action on gun violence will attract, not repel voters.

45. Seriously, Democrats have been paralyzed for the last half-century by the ludicrous trepidation to offend a constituency that wouldn’t, under any circumstances, vote for them anyway.

46. Whatever you want to say about Obama, this is what he had to say on June 1.

47. This is what the presumptive nominee for the Republican party had to say in the wake of the single biggest gun-related massacre in American history: dt48. At one point in our nation’s history, women’s suffrage, civil rights—first for women, then racial minorities, then gays and lesbians—were all considered insurmountable obstacles, politically suicidal, and, a special bonus, “endorsed” by biblical scripture. Progress is inevitable, so long as people clamor (and are willing to work) for it.

49. If we can’t set the bar at the embarrassingly low level of getting the AR-15 banned from civilian ownership, we are officially the Roman Empire, super-sized and on Soma.

50. William Carlos wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day for lack of what’s found there.” That’s always worth remembering.

*This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 6/14/16.

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Muhammad Ali’s Biggest Victory (Revisited)

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Question: What cultural figure of the 60?s best represents you–the way you dress, act, create, see the world, or wish the world saw you. It can be Chuck Berry or Chairman Mao. It can be Betty Friedan or Betty Rubble. More importantly, why?

Answer: 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 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 loud and saying nothing (unlike, say, the cat who wrote that song)? 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.

Is there one figure (don’t say John Lennon) who humanizes, epitomizes, the racial, sociological, human upheaval of the era? Here is the rarest of folks who was the best in the world at what he did, at the height of his ability to make history, and money, willing to sacrifice it on principle. And more: a cause that every year is proven more prescient and unassailable on both moral and military levels. April 28, 1967, a little over a month before Sgt. Pepper initiated the Summer of Love, Ali made a statement as brave, audacious and impactful as any of that—or any—decade.

Look: we live in a time where we can boast about our beliefs and have our righteousness measured by likes and follows, all from the safety of an overpriced coffee shop. As such, I’ll continue to be humbled and inspired, as a dude with big hopes and modest abilities, by the icon who stared down doubt, ignorance, security and compliance. Ali is the exception to the way we’re ruled, and how we roll, and like the rest of us mortals, his biggest fight took place outside the ring.

This post originally appeared as part of a larger feature, with all the editors at The Weeklings submitting their choices for the same question. Check it out!

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Murphy’s Laws: 46 Infallible Observations on the Occasion of Turning 46

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“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 46 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 46 judgments, opinions and observations.

46. Get it?

46. 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.

dog cone

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.

newmarcatwoman1

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”.

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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