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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Weeklings: Final Popped Culture

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

As always, please, no wagering.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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10 for NYC by 10, on 9/11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sanctuary

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

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

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

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

But sometimes this is not enough.

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

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

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

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For My Mother on Her Birthday

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I’m scared, I said.

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

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

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

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

I’ll never leave you, she said.

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

Like her mother, she eventually became acquainted

With the white-walled world of procedures

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

Hope and fear, faith then despair—the nagging need

To believe in men and the magic of machines.

Or the things we say when no one is speaking.

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

She sits alone by the window.

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

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

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

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

Who will remember us?

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

 

She said: I’ll never leave you.

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

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

How do you get over the loss?

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

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

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Intimation: A Poem

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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.

********

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

serf

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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.

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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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