Brooklyn Reading #9: Good Neighbors/Newark Airport, 1980


May 29, 2014.

It was billed as a throwback to the old Beatnik days, minus the bongos and clove cigarettes.

As such, New York City was a mandatory locale; Brooklyn made it perfect.

Full, unedited video HERE.

My neighbor, whose name I’ve of course forgotten—if in fact I ever knew it in the first place—(and, being roughly my age, never objects to and always answers my irrefutably cordial salutations which include chief, dude, bro, and the ever appropriate and all purpose man) is standing outside my door: I can see him through the peep hole.

While I wonder if I should wait to see if he’ll knock again, he knocks again. It’s eight-thirty in the morning, what’s the worst thing that could happen?

“Hey Byron,” he says, embarrassed or anxious. Or both (at least he remembers my name).

“What’s up my man?” I say, not missing a beat.

“Listen, sorry to bother you…you on your way to work?”

“Yeah, actually…why, is everything okay?”

“Uh, yeah, listen, do you mind if I come inside for a second?”

I back up obligingly, resigned to roll with it. What choice is there? After all, I did open the door.

He corners me in my kitchen and asks if I know anyone who might be interested in buying a condo. His condo, for instance.

“I’m sure there are plenty of people who would love to live here,” I offer.

“Yeah, I know, but…I mean, do you know anyone who’s looking to buy a place?”

“I’d be happy to ask around, you know, put the word on the street and whatnot…”

“Yeah, that’d be cool, I’d appreciate that.”

He looks away and it’s my turn to say something.

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah, well, I got laid off, you know? So I’m just gonna move home for a while, with my folks. You know, ‘til I get my shit straight.”

“I hear you,” I say as encouragingly as possible, but it’s only half true. I do hear him, but I also hear myself (saying I hear you) as well as the voice inside my head, which is processing this situation and repeating the verdict: Not good, not good, not good.

He is sweating, his hands—which seem puffy and pale, I’ve never noticed what unbelievable meat hooks he has, though admittedly, the only times I bump into him are in the hallway as he disappears into his end unit with a case of Miller Lite cans under one arm, McDonalds or some other fast food monstrosity in the other—his hands, exhibits A and B, are shaking like the lid on a boiling pot, they are very obviously not obeying their master, and before I have half a chance to put two and two together he interrupts my internal assessment and looks at me searchingly.

“Hey Byron, you got any beer?”

At eight thirty-three in the A.M., there is only one possible answer to a question like this: “Sure,” I say.

I open the refrigerator and remember: I drank my last beer last night, which makes me a liar.

“Actually, I don’t,” I start, but sense that will not suffice, so I hold the door open and let him inspect for himself, which he does, making us both feel better—or worse—depending on how you look at it. He accepts this answer, but is clearly not satisfied with my response.

“Oh. I have plenty of liquor, if…”

“Yeah, do you care if I take a shot of something?”

Are you sure you’re okay? (To myself I say this).

A pint glass is obviously inappropriate, so I grab a juice glass and put it down on the counter, sliding it over to him like a bartender from a black and white western. He has eagerly grabbed my fifth of single-malt and I tell him to help himself.

He pours a generous, bordering on unbelievable, belt of my booze and inhales it in one febrile motion. This is strictly business (to myself I say this).

“Better?” I inquire, and actually mean it, I actually want to know.

“Uh…do you mind if I get another one?”

“Hey bro, knock yourself out,” I say. Stupidly.

He doesn’t notice because he’s too busy securing the second round in case I try and give last call at the last second. Even the sweat on his forehead seems relieved. Although I know exactly what time it is, I can’t help myself from looking up at the digits blinking on my oven: 8:34.

He looks at me and nods his head, expressing gratitude with his burning eyes. The eyes never lie. Then he snatches a tube of toothpaste out of his front pocket, puts it in his mouth and pulls the trigger.

“So, you wouldn’t mind asking around, you know, just see if anyone is looking to maybe live here…I’ll cut a deal…”

“No problem,” I assure him.

“…I’ll hook you up with a finder’s fee too…”

“Oh don’t worry about that man, I’m happy to help.”

Not good, not good, not good.

“Let me give you a card,” he says, putting the toothpaste back and reaching into his other pocket. I’m surprised, in spite of myself, that between the shaking and the sheer size of his hands he can even fit them into his shirtsleeves.

“Fuck,” he says, frazzled or furious. Or both.

“What’s up?” I ask.

“I left my fucking cards in my place…”

“Well don’t worry about it, let me just write your number down and…”
“No, let me run and get them, and you can hand them out and shit…”



I wait (too long) and go down to get them myself.

On the way, I think: Gambling debts? Drugs? Or both?

Drugs, it must be drugs.

Whatever it is, it’s something I know I want no part of. It’s obviously something my neighbor wants no part of either, or we wouldn’t both be here right now.


I knock on the door.

It opens, quickly, and my neighbor walks out, shutting it behind him. Apparently I’m not supposed to see inside. Perhaps I don’t want to see inside.

He follows me into the hall.

“Hey Byron, I appreciate anything you can do.”

“No problem dude, I’m happy to help…”

“Listen,” he leans in close. “Do you mind if I grab another shot?”

“Sure man.”

I’ve already locked my door on the way out, so I let myself back in, tricking my dog into thinking a full day has already passed.

The bottle and glass are still on the counter, forming sticky circles of an early morning crime scene.

“Do you mind if I pour a stiff one?”

“Help yourself, chief.”

You want to take the bottle with you? (To myself I say this).

He pours a shot that would give Liberty Valance pause, polishes it off, and then pulls out the toothpaste from his holster.

I ask no questions, he tells no tales.

I tell my dog to hold down the fort (again) and my dog looks confused or disappointed. Or both. I lock the door (again) and escort my soon-to-be-ex-neighbor out.

“Thanks again Byron.”

“Okay man, take care of yourself.”

“Give me a call if you hear anything.”

“Will do.”

Both of us seem to understand, as we go our separate ways, that we’ll never see each other again, and we are each somewhat deflated, probably for opposite reasons.

Buy the novel HERE!


Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before* (Revisited)

Let me tell you a story.

It involves a white male born in a steadily prospering town to a slowly prospering family. His father, the first in his Irish family to attend college, like his wife, was raised Catholic.

This young boy played soccer, listened to music, read any book he could get his eyes on and went to a public school amongst kids whose names he could not always pronounce.

He served, faithfully, as an altar boy and developed a profound appreciation—and respect—for tradition and ritual, a lingering humility regarding forces and impulses larger and not entirely conceivable.

He was, and remains, comfortable with how much he does not know, as a visitor on a planet that expands outward each second, into infinity.

He was encouraged by parents who, more than once, reassured him that his curiosity would never dissipate so long as his capacity for learning did not abate.

He talked, listened and learned.

Looking back, the habits and routines inculcated inside his impressionable mind served as a foundation for who he’d become: flawed, tolerant, empathetic, insatiable, in love with the gift of life.

The pursuit of higher education, even as it necessarily exposed him to classes, books and teachers that ardently challenged—and often contradicted—many of the precepts he was once instructed to emulate, was a priority. It was the gradual, not always painless process of understanding the ways he could not, and should not share his parents’ perspectives in every matter that secured the respect for them he solidified as an increasingly independent adult.

The exposure to religion and the example set by his mother and father ingrained an acute solidarity with underdogs and the dispossessed. The charities he has supported (HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE) reflect the causes and crises he endorses and decries.

He appraised the often enigmatic, occasionally debilitating specter of depression that stalked relatives on either side like a demented daemon; this condition a wind-whipped and sun-scorched flag planted deep alongside his family tree, a genetic calling card he has had, at times, a more than casual acquaintance with, obliging him to check himself lest he wreck himself.

Too much eyewitness to illness drove him to learn more than he might have cared to know about cancer, leukemia, and the various, run-of-the-mill maladies that all the doctors and dollars in the world can’t completely shield us from. This cognizance, coupled with an ineradicable conscience forged on altars and inside confessionals, further amplified an appreciation of how fortunate anyone is to be born in a first world country. To be born a healthy white male a blessing, just as being alive at all is an obligation—at once sacred and secular—to interrogate, expand, live: to abhor the self-indulgence of ennui and cultivate antidotes to quiet desperation—by any means necessary. To explore the creative impulse he could never fully fathom or explain, and expedite that dialogue (with himself, with others) by writing down those thoughts, images, feelings and fears; sharing them, so that as soon as they escape their frail human vessel they are free, without any power to scare or sabotage. To express emotions, allowing the heart to breathe and the mind to swim, the body a humble temple unto itself: a self-portrait of a work perpetually in progress. To encourage these sensations inside oneself so that they might awaken feelings in someone else, some not yet born and others alive but no longer living.

*So here’s the part where I address you, gentle reader.

First off, thanks for reading this blog. I resisted the blog thing for years because so many of the ones I read were either uninspired or a public airing of dirty (or worse, boring) personal laundry. Diaries and journals are kept in bedside drawers for a reason: they are an act of catharsis, celebration or introspection –or, at least, interrogation– that is best kept private. Remember when they used to actually come with locks on them? Do they still do that? Do they still make diaries anymore? Maybe I’m just old school. Here’s how I put it back in 2009 when I first considered the fact that I had, in fact, become one of those people who could use the word blog as a verb. Over five years later (this blog commenced in November, 2008) I think the sentiment still applies:

Blogs are, or can be, like diaries.

Except that diaries, by nature, are private. Which begs the question: do people who blog censor or soften the observations, complaints or critiques that in other times would exist inside a document designed to remain unread by others? (Or more to the point, should they?) To be certain, only a few years ago, thoughts like the ones I’m about to express would have been safely ensconced inside a journal, not read by anyone else, even including myself (I don’t often return to old journals, hopefully because I’m too busy living in the here and now). And for whatever it’s worth, I am humble enough to know that modest numbers of people visit this blog, and I have enough sense (or self-respect) to instinctively acknowledge that nobody is well served by overly earnest airing of personal trivia.

Put another way, I don’t begrudge anyone else documenting every last detail of their existences (no matter how mundane or mawkish); I simply remain uninterested in reading about it. In that regard, blogs are self-regulating: if you don’t write things that others will find interesting, you won’t have an audience. And who cares anyway? In that regard, blogs are like diaries: people post on them because they want to, or need to, and the concept of friends or strangers reading their innermost thoughts won’t necessarily hamper their willingness to compose. Still, only the sensation-seekers looking for notoriety (usually the already famous, and even those folks have a shelf-life of about six months) go out of their way to wax solipsistic in a public forum.

All that being said, I was already publishing regular thoughts on music, movies and literature (alongside the occasional sociopolitical soap-boxery) at PopMatters –a site I encourage you to check out– so keeping a blog was not unlike working out: it was a way to keep in shape, mentally, and push myself to put thoughts in a semi-coherent form for a public forum. This is an endeavor that obliges you to edit with extreme prejudice: once you’ve written something that goes into the electronic universe, it stays written. I’m mostly delighted to consider that I’ve written a great deal of material that otherwise would have been lost to e-mails, conversations or that creative impulse killer, apathy. We should all do our best to remain allergic to apathy, because we owe it to ourselves and the world. Obviously.

Anyway, I was eventually humbled to acknowledge that the next formal project I’d been preparing to tackle, as a novel, could –and should– be a non-fiction piece. Indeed, once I realized this (after several years of false starts, frustration and best intentions), I wished it had occurred to me sooner. And it was then that it dawned on me that I likely would not have been able to conceive of writing a memoir if I had not been blogging. Non-fiction and personal essays were not foreign territory, but a sustained examination of life and how it’s lived (including death and how to live through it when it rocks your world) turns out to be the best real-time training for getting one’s mind –and pen– around a full-length, unfettered attempt to make sense out of deeply, if not profoundly personal things. And then you realize (you are always realizing as you write, or think, or talk) that a great many of these matters are universal: we all wonder who we are, where we’re going and where our loved ones may or may not go when they are no longer here. It not only seems possible, but oddly appropriate to embrace the audacity of putting it out there, so to speak. Best intentions clash against execution and at a certain point it’s out of your hands: other people will determine if the work in question works. It is at once intimidating and liberating, the way it should be for anyone who puts words on paper.

Just about three years later that memoir regular readers of this blog were already familiar with: Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone, has gone from idea to execution. The continued plan for 2014 is to see this sucker reach an audience beyond the vital Friends & Family network. I will continue to give a healthy portion of profits –and all profits from all public events– to a handful of awesome cancer-oriented charities. (More on that, here:

Social networking and word-of-mouth will, naturally, play a hopefully-prominent role in disseminating the project and then who knows what might happen. If you’ve read it, please consider leaving a review at Amazon and/or –it helps! If you have opinions, advice, connections or cautionary tales, I welcome your thoughts anytime (contact me privately or feel free to put comments below). Simply put, this thing is not going to design, market or endorse itself; if you’ve gleaned anything positive from my writing thus far, you can do me the biggest service by helping my mission become something I could never accomplish on my own. And in the final analysis, that is the secret not only of writing, but of living. Right?

To be continued…


The Fall Classic: 27 Years Ago


I don’t believe what I just saw!

No one else in the room could believe it, either. Kirk Gibson had, before our eyes and on television, done something so improbable, so historical that we had no choice but to get drunk.

It was something we were developing the typical college freshman’s proficiency for. I was getting good at a lot of things, not all of them necessarily good for me. I’d already become a professional at ordering pizzas late at night and passing out before I could eat them (the reason so many people of a certain age insist that pizza tastes better cold is because they have so much experience eating it that way; they have no other choice). It had only taken a few weeks of American History 101 to understand that maybe I should have been rooting for the Indians in all those old movies. I had discovered, with equal amounts of surprise and delight, that I was not in fact the only person in the world who still listened to bands like King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and Pink Floyd. I had overcome, with impressive ease, the initial guilt I’d felt regarding my official status as a contentedly lapsed Catholic: the more Sunday masses I missed, the less I missed the whole routine. The timing couldn’t have been better, considering I had finally ended an eighteen-year sexual losing streak (Original Sin has no chance against unrestrained orgasms). I had been promoted to the Big Leagues and was doing everything I could to make sure they kept me around. I wanted to be a team player and I was pleased to establish that there was little I wouldn’t do for the team: even if you lost the game it didn’t matter as long as you left it all on the playing field, et cetera. The only thing, in short, that surprised me was how easily surprised I was at how little of life I had actually experienced thus far.


My parents hadn’t had the privilege of hearing about most of these wonderful developments, in large part because I hadn’t seen and had hardly spoken to them for half a semester. It wasn’t personal, it was strictly business: I had things to discover and, being a team player, I certainly didn’t want my parents wasting their money on my education.

But it had also been a less-than-peaceful transition, getting to this point. My folks had dealt better with the departure of my sister four years earlier, but at that time I was still around. In some ways, and for obvious and understandable reasons, I became closer to my parents while I was in high school. My relationship with my mother had invariably been present and positive, but it was during those awkward, impressionable mid-teen years that I became particularly close to my old man. Exhibit A: Rather than bemoaning my feeble inability to handle Algebra II, he took it upon himself to tutor me. Each night after dinner we would work through that day’s assignment, and he displayed a patience and proficiency that I’d never witnessed or even imagined. I’d never had previous cause to doubt, for a single second, how much he cared about me, but it was during my junior year, when he helped me fumble through a subject I would forget as soon as I got past it (which must have killed him, a man of math and science, seeing yet another child who possessed so little of his ability or interest in the very disciplines that gave his life purpose and passion), that I heard him say he loved me each night with actions, not words.

I wouldn’t go so far as to imply that we became friends (although he seemed to understand, and appreciate—as a father and a man—the ways my mother and I had bonded over things he didn’t share or espouse), but it was during this time that he became my Pops, and the real foundation, which we would require years later, was firmly established.

It was, then, startling and more than a little painful to witness him acting like such an insufferable prick as I left for college. During those weeks I saw a spiteful silence and intransigence I had never observed, not even during his sporadic periods of silent-treatment toward my mother when they fought.

What’s your problem, I didn’t ask, because I knew he had his reasons and therefore wouldn’t be able to share them. Being a typically self-absorbed eighteen-year-old, it didn’t fully occur to me that he was simply sad to see me go. I understood he wasn’t happy to see me go, nor was I unequivocally happy to leave parents I genuinely loved, and more importantly liked. Having not dealt directly with absence or loss (excepting my grandmother, whom I’d been too young to properly mourn or miss), I was unable to fathom what my departure signified for my father, on theoretical as well as practical levels. He wasn’t just watching his son depart (and apprehending, having been to college himself, the ways in which he was paying large amounts of money to ensure that I grew, changed, and figured out for myself all the ways I was unlikely to emulate him, philosophically as well as practically), he was being confronted with the unpreventable void of a house without children. If this was the first day of the rest of my life, it was the same, only more so, for him.

Still: to have the same man who had been to every single swim meet, soccer game, school function, and rite of passage giving me the cold shoulder was more than slightly disconcerting. Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Earlier that year I’d been in a car accident, during Christmas break, up in Boston. My cousin lost control and slid on black ice into a tree, which greedily ate the (fortunately for us, extensive) front end of the thrice-owned Pontiac he was driving. Fortunately, the injuries were minimal, although uncertainty remained about whether or not I’d broken some ribs. At the hospital they confirmed I had badly bruised them, which disappointed me because I wouldn’t have as good a story to tell. By the time my old man arrived, he was his typically stoic self. “You clowns are lucky,” he said, and I didn’t disagree with him.

The next morning his father, Gramps, came in to check on me. “We’re glad you’re okay,” he said, and I didn’t disagree with him. “Now you know how Darrell Green feels after every Redskins game.” He smiled, and then he got serious: “Your father was very upset when the hospital called. He was really shaken up until they confirmed you were all right.” He said some other things, but I was still trying to imagine a scenario that could ever cause my father to become flustered to the extent that it was noticeable. For a teenager who figured he knew everything, this conversation was an invaluable opportunity to concede that all sorts of things happen that none of us necessarily see. I didn’t need to see my father unnerved and scared on behalf of his son to appreciate how much he loved me, but I was also grateful my grandfather had revealed the way I would never otherwise hear him express, without words, the things he couldn’t always bring himself to say.


My roommate came down the hall just as we were cracking open our first beers. He told me I had a phone call. I asked, “Who is it?” “I think it’s your father,” he said.

*Excerpt from my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone. Get it HERE.


First Reading, Revisited


Two years ago today.


On Losing Faith and Finding Myself Instead


AUGUST 30, 2002. I was in a church for the first time in forever. The church where I received the Sacrament of Confirmation. The church where my parents celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. The church where my sister was married. The church where I almost got married.

(My father had said: Obviously you’ll deliver the eulogy.

Question: How will I get through it?

 Friends and family asked: How did you get through it?

Answer: I don’t know.)

It had been half a lifetime since I’d experienced this vantage point. Standing on the altar, looking down at a church filled with somber, expectant faces. All those years as an altar boy, hearing the words and receiving the ritual on its austere terms, the practiced movements and mannerisms that sought to convey the meaning—and purpose—of existence in sixty minutes or less. Carefully studying the priest who presided over the congregation, routinely looking up at those stained glass images that looked down at us and filled the room with an inexpressible awe and approbation.

Periodically I would be called upon to serve at a wedding and less frequently, at a funeral. Weddings were preferable for both obvious and selfish reasons: happy events, pretty women and typically a few extra dollars for my time. The funerals were, in practically every sense, contradictory occasions. I had only been to one funeral before. At age ten I’d been old enough to remember it. I mostly recalled how surreal it was to see my grandmother in an open casket, and the way my mother, her siblings, and their father wept, and not being able to console them or fully grasp the depth of my own sorrow.

“Listen to the words,” my father told me, sensing my ambivalence before I prepared for my first funeral mass. “It is actually a very beautiful service.” I listened to him, and I listened to the words. I listened to everything, then. The passages and prayers—some familiar, some not—were carefully chosen, and went a considerable way toward impressing upon my adolescent mind how communal, and inevitable, this rite of passage was for everyone who drew breath. Someday each of us will watch a loved one die, and eventually all of us will pass on from here to there. That is where the meaning of the words, and whether or not you believed them, came into play. I believed the words; I believed everything, then.


God’s will?

Who knows? I don’t, but neither do you. No one can say except for the vulnerable ones who say it, who need to believe it in order to grant order or at least coherence to things that are, by any other measure, incomprehensible. Whether one is grappling with the death of a parent or contemplating the plight of impoverished people, there exists—in God—an easy, irresistible answer that removes doubt and eradicates responsibility (ours, His). When one is young, or weak, or wanting, the concept of God is less a matter of belief than an enchanting vindication or our inability—or unwillingness—to confront our own fates.

Whether it’s a relationship, a job or a religion, as soon as your participation seems pointless, or painful, or if it ceases to inspire you, it’s time to look around, or better yet, inside, for other options. Some people need an answer; some people can never stop asking questions.


The worst moments, of course, occur in the waiting room. It’s unconscionable the way families are obliged to receive the news, good or bad, in front of each other: that negative diagnosis a public spectacle hardly tolerable for loved ones, much less strangers; a positive diagnosis a slap in the face of those anxious and suffering within earshot. In ’97 the news had been unexpected—and not good—but they caught it (They got it!), so the shock was mitigated by how much worse it could have been (She’s going to make it!). 2000 was the same scene, only more so. 2001 was disconcerting, a surprise (It’s back) coupled with an inconclusive report (We can’t get rid of it all). We absorbed this verdict in the crowded space where everyone else sits and waits, a nerve-wracking purgatory we pay to provide (and, if possible, avoid).

“I’m going to the chapel,” my father announced, and I followed him. “You don’t have to come with me,” he said, almost gently. It was the first time I’d seen him this close to defeat, the first time I’d noticed the thinnest red streaks on either side of his mouth—burst blood vessels from clenching his jaw so long and so hard. “No, I’ll go with you,” I said. It was the first time I’d ever voluntarily accompanied him to a place where you pray for things.

I sat while he kneeled. I put a hand on his shoulder and we each thought our own thoughts. And even here, in this poor approximation of the churches we’d always attended, even as matters of life and death were being decided all around me, that familiar voice could not keep quiet. That voice inherited as birthright by anyone born into a family of faith, the conscience inside and beneath the sense of right and wrong, somewhere between my gut and my memory, the voice that sustains itself by feeding on fear and fantasy: Maybe if you believed it would work. Maybe, I thought, looking at my old man, his eyes squeezed shut and his mouth mumbling words I didn’t need to hear. Maybe if we all believed nothing bad would ever happen, the troubles we cause could be more easily explained. Maybe if nothing bad ever happened we wouldn’t need to believe. Maybe if we didn’t believe we would never inculcate this formula that can make a human being like myself, at his most frail and vulnerable, capable of entertaining thoughts like this.


Believing in miracles requires faith. Faith in miracles, faith in faith.

The Bible, taken on faith, is God’s word and the document of His work. Miracles are, for the faithful, not merely possible or even expected, but inevitable. Blood into wine. Blindness into sight. Death into eternal life. Virginity into conception and then ascension, beyond and back into the skies. With faith all things are conceivable.

One becomes wary of miracles the same way—and for the same reasons—one disdains forced faith. After seeing a magician reveal his tricks, whether he’s wearing a black cape or a white collar, the spell can never again be unbroken.

One conditions oneself to put away childish, or unreasonable things: one learns not to pray for miracles, to neither count on nor believe in them. It has less to do with forsaking faith in the possible and more to do with reconciling oneself with what’s not possible.


Was that as bad for you as it was for me?

That’s the question I didn’t ask when Father _____ left our house. On to his next appointment; all in a day’s work.

Extreme unction: the old-fashioned term for that quaint custom. It serves its purpose even now, I suppose, but I couldn’t help thinking on this particular occasion it’s more often a ritual designed for everyone except the person lying on his or her death bed.

Speaking only for my mother, she was too busy dying to want, much less appreciate, the solemn incantations and grim officiating on offer. It didn’t help matters that our local church’s current pastor had a personality that made even the surgeons we’d dealt with seem convivial. It wasn’t his fault; he was an older man from an older school: the twenty-first century didn’t suit him, just like it wouldn’t suit over-the-hill academics and the stratified folks still clinging to every ism they could get their claws on. The world keeps spinning and younger, more insolent models keep popping up to replace you. Some learn how to take this in stride; others resist and end up like insects flying against traffic. And some just disengage and surf that sluggish wave into the safe haven of senility. Father _____ was of the latter ilk; it wasn’t that he was going through the motions so much as the motions were going through him.

And who could place blame at the exhausted feet of a man ten years past retirement age? Not I. Can you imagine earning your living re-reading the same book (no matter how much you enjoyed it the first thousand times; even if you believed that as soon as the words left your humble lips they ascended straight to God’s impossible ears) and knowing, every day, how this particular story ended? Worse, telling a tale with a conclusion that already occurred, since everything we do—if you follow this narrative—has already been plotted out in that great workshop in the sky. And all this role required was that you promise to anyone willing to listen the same salvation you could never be sure of; no matter how certain you were, no matter how achingly every aspect of your existence relied on this deus ex machina.

Father _____ had quite apparently made peace with his place in the world (or worse, resigned himself to it) long enough ago that by now every rote gesture was divorced from anything approaching passion. But was passion, in his case, even a prerequisite? He was, at this point, incapable of being surprised by anything: in certain vocations this might signify the highest possible level of proficiency.

In any event, I couldn’t know—and didn’t particularly care—if his visit was doing anything for him (that was between him and the surprise ending awaiting him once he got a taste of his own unction). I knew it was doing something for my old man, so I contented myself with the diminishing returns of dubious blessings. Pops was receiving the same dispensation he attained at each Sunday service: a box checked off, a chore completed, an obligation fulfilled. It was, at best, a somber sort of solace, but I certainly wished, for his sake, it was bestowing some measure of spiritual respite.

“Does she want to receive communion,” the holy man said, more a statement than a question as he reached for his stash, a to-go Eucharist in what looked like a Tupperware container. At that moment he more than a little resembled a parent ready to placate an unruly child with a treat, and I realized (reflecting on this later) that my observation signaled the tipping point of an extended but ultimately unsatisfactory experiment with the Catholic faith. The priest’s indifference (even worse than the indignation he may have managed in his younger years) when my father broke the news that his wife was not able (none of us could say she was not willing, but we all had our opinions) to partake didn’t rankle me as it might have in my younger years. If this had gone down a decade earlier, I wouldn’t have yet seen enough of the world—and the ways it wears on all of us—to appreciate how even the noblest occupations are, at the end of the day, a way to put bread on the table, even if that bread is supposed to signify the body of Christ.

It wasn’t anger I felt, just relief that when finally confronted by the thing I feared most in the world, I was neither willing nor able to clutch at the redemption he stuck back in his coat pocket. I couldn’t feel disappointed and I dared not feel pity; what, after all, did I know about all he’d seen and the things he felt? I hoped then, and hope even harder now—though I’m not quite willing or able to pray—that he was still alive somewhere inside, or had been at one point. I hoped, although his extremities were growing cold, that an ember of faith and hope blazed warmly somewhere inside the recesses of his worn-out heart.


You don’t lose faith (and here I refer to Faith with a capital F, or maybe that should be faith with a lowercase f—whichever kind we can associate with feelings not involving supernatural entities—the bigger kind, or smaller, depending on where you stand on such matters).

When you lose a loved one or something indelible happens to shake your balance or even shatter your belief that there’s anything sensible about this life, you eventually come to a place where the one remaining issue is the only one you can’t avoid or get around, and it turns out to be the thing that saves you. You’re still alive, you’re still around to try and make sense of it. Or, short of that, to keep drawing breath and taking more out of existence than it takes out of you. Just being is winning in the existential sense, no matter how cynical or nihilistic one feels about such matters.

Only until it happens to you, until you get your own death sentence (or, if you’re lucky—or unlucky, depending on where you stand on such matters—you die suddenly and unexpectedly); only when your own light is about to be extinguished (forever or temporarily, depending on where you stand on such matters) do you have to confront whether or not you still have faith in how your life has played out.

In my case, my mother’s death didn’t shatter my faith; I’d already taken care of that matter on my own.


Milan Kundera, in the book Testaments Betrayed, explains his vision of the novelist’s acumen, which is “a considered, stubborn, furious nonidentification, conceived not as evasion or passivity but as resistance, defiance, rebellion.”

In The Brothers Karamazov, during the chapter entitled “Rebellion,” the mercurial Ivan lays out his rationale for rejecting God. If the ostensibly benevolent—and omnipotent—Being who created us in His image can be credited for everything we see and achieve, He must also be accountable for all the inexplicable misery. Ivan is, ultimately, less concerned with Heaven or Hell than what occurs on God’s watch, here on earth. Even if his personal salvation was secured, even if every soul’s redemption was guaranteed, the arrangement is intolerable if it depends upon one innocent child being forced to suffer. Ivan is incapable of accepting any circumstance where ultimate peace is contingent upon anyone’s pain. This is his rebellion.

Ursula K. Le Guin takes this scenario one step further in her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” synthesizing elements of what both Kundera and Dostoyevsky describe. In her tale, once certain types of people ascertain the way things really work (on earth as it is in heaven), they turn their backs and forsake the security of organized society. Unable to reconcile the cost of a not-so-ignorant bliss, Le Guin’s heroes rebel by refusing to endorse—or even abide—the practical, and spiritual cost of doing business.

In Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut draws an intractable line in the sand (or salt), siding with vulnerable humans over an infallible God: “And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.”


Once I’d dispensed with organized religion and then determined that academia was no longer a suitable solution, I might have become paralyzed, either because of other options or the lack thereof. Instead, I felt oddly liberated, although that realization by no means occurred overnight. Eventually, I found I wasn’t running away from anything so much as feeling compelled to run toward almost everything. Avoiding quiet desperation became my approach; finding ways to make art into life and life into art was my new mantra. (So simple, so impossible.)

My rebellion, if it could accurately (or fairly) be described as such, was rather simply an antagonism against cliché: clichéd thoughts, actions, excuses, and even intentions. I still wasn’t certain what was going to work for me, but I was steadily recognizing what wasn’t going to work. Understanding that bills had to be paid, relationships had to be cultivated, mistakes had to be made, and, above all, that one day I would no longer be around, my objective revolved around an obsession to live a life nobody but I could live. During those post-graduate years I steadily fortified, for all time, the most important—and rewarding—relationship of my life: the one with myself.


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’s 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 shortcut 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 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 where 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 reflected up. At night the stars strain toward the earth, fulfilling their preordained purpose.

sean lake

This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 8/26/15 and was also picked up by Salon on 8/30.




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.


Art and Life (Three Years Later)



Every so often I can’t help hoping that there will be a knock on my door and when I open it, who is there but my sexy soul mate, a beautiful woman who heard the blues music every time she walked by, and wondered if, according to her own fantasy, a sensitive, erudite dude had been right there all along, waiting for her, waiting for happily ever after. And after a while, she could no longer ignore the siren song escaping from the small space under the front door and came knocking.

Of course, this illusion presupposes three things, in descending order of unlikelihood: one, that there are such things as soul mates; two, that my soul mate happens to live in my building; and three, that anyone actually listens to—much less enjoys—blues music.


Sometimes art aspires to attract life, and sometimes –all too seldom– life responds.

Sometimes life manages to surpass art: life is where the real art happens, if you are open to it; if you are paying attention. Or if you are lucky.

And sometimes a dignified and generous gentleman (you won’t use his name and you can no longer call him a stranger) surprises you.

“I love music,” he says. “And I walk past your door and always hear your records playing.”

He is holding a pile of records.

“I hear jazz and blues, and those are my two favorite types of music.”

He holds up one of his records, and it’s an artist you both admire.

“There are not many people I know who appreciate this.”

Not many people appreciate jazz and blues, you don’t need to say.

“We should listen to music together sometime,” you say.

“Well, I would like that. I’m caring for my wife and I don’t have a chance to listen to music like I used to.”

You just summed up everything I’ve been trying to write about for the past five years, you don’t say. (You can’t begin to explain, but you think about connections, omens, gifts and messages, and all that this week signifies. And what this encounter may or may not mean, and how it need not represent anything other than what it is: that elusive, soulful human touch.)

He would understand, though. And maybe you’ll get there.

For now, he’s left you with a pile of records.

“I want to find people to give these to,” he says.

I can’t tell you how much this means to me, you say.

And although he is obviously a dignified and generous man, he could not begin to understand how much you mean these words.


For My Mother on Her Birthday


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


Under the Influence: The Story of My Life, Cont’d

SM 7-15

Q: What did Holden Caulfield do when he grew up?

A: He got a job.

That is the elevator pitch of my novel Not To Mention a Nice Life, reduced to two lines, a simple question and answer.

(Here is an excerpt that expands on the narrator Byron’s dilemma:

Something was wrong with me. I applied to the appropriate colleges and one of them accepted me. I applied to the appropriate graduate schools and one of them accepted me. I decided not to apply to any PhD programs (it didn’t seem appropriate) and so none of them accepted me. The unreal world of academia beckoned; the unreasonable world of reality awaited. Neither seemed particularly appealing and I found myself paralyzed: options aplenty, none of them especially enticing. And so I decided it was time to go underground for a while. I found myself serving the people who had the sorts of jobs I regarded with the ugly envy of the underclass. I made less money than I might have liked but I got more free drinks than I could ever have imagined. One way to see the glass being half-full is to ensure that it is always half-full. While I worked on emptying those glasses I came to the conclusion that money is wasted on the wealthy and retirement is wasted on the elderly.

Something was wrong with me. I drank myself sober and couldn’t commit myself to more serious indiscretions. I did the unthinkable: I started thinking about that unreasonable world again. I found myself skulking around the library, picking up magazines and thinking about that itch I could never quite scratch. I read an article about this world wide web. How ridiculous it all seemed. So this is what people do during the day? A million possible futures unfurled in unreal time, right in front of my not so open mind, none of them remotely appealing. There it was, I thought: it’s already over; I’m out of options. And then a funny thing happened. I got a job.)

Of course, I’m taking some presumptive liberties and the question would not be possible without the heavy lifting J.D. Salinger did to create Holden Caulfield in the first place.

My novel does not mention The Catcher in the Rye, does not in any conscious way imitate it and the invocation of Caulfield is only a conceit.



In fact, and for full disclosure, I’ve weighed in on Salinger’s novel (inspired to do so shortly after his death, in 2010). I concluded that I was perhaps a tad too old or insufficiently impressionable when I first encountered it, though I did –and do– love the short story “For Esme–with Love and Squalor”. Here’s a taste:

The narrator of this story is reeling from actual experience in the real world, so it resonates to a young reader about to enter it, and certainly a more mature reader who has seen and felt some of those proverbial slings and arrows. It is, for me, difficult to recall a more quietly coruscating image in literature than the narrator lifting Esme’s (KIA) father’s wristwatch, which has shattered in transit, out of the care package. The question, as the story ends, is: does that broken glass represent the narrator’s spirit, or will he rally to once more become part of the world?

Q_ What did Holden Caulfield do when he

Speaking of becoming part of the so-called real world, one of the reasons the instant classic film Office Space is so beloved is because it’s so real; it resonates with just about anyone who has spent a single day in the unreal world of corporate America. More, it retains a nostalgic vibe for its irreverent and accurate deconstruction of the error, I mean era.

To be certain, Office Space, and any work of art that attempts to take the piss out of our increasingly mechanized, complicated and incomprehensible modern world, owes a tremendous debt to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

Anyone who understands Heller’s masterpiece as the ultimate insider’s sardonic assessment of the insanity/inanity driving so much of military muscle is at once accurate, but selling it short. Heller is going after America, as a corporation, and his writing, while prescient, is also distressingly relevant, well into the 21st Century. In many regards, he understood the way middle management and their underlings would be used as proverbial cannon fodder (foxholes becoming stock-boosting rounds of layoffs), while increasingly isolated and aloof higher-ups would divide the spoils and conquer their 401-ks. Yossarian is our guide through this surreal hall of one-way mirrors, but it’s not the commanding officers, but the evil star of the supporting cast, Milo Minderbinder, who epitomizes what our country has become, and who has engineered the shift. It’s not by accident that the average employee wages have stagnated for decades while the riches of the executive officers have multiplied by factors that would be hilarious if they weren’t so horrifying. Making Monopoly money a real thing via stocks and shares and seeing profits increase as production craters has long been the American Way. For all the success stories from the era, we now have systematized a formula where the game is rigged to imperfection: CEOs are brought in like exterminators to kill a company from the inside-out, and then they parachute away with millions of dollars (and shareholder approval) for their efforts.

Suffice it to say, Catch-22 has informed my sensibility as a writer (and thinker) and has more than slightly inspired some of my writing. The corporate shenanigans in Not To Mention a Nice Life owe a debt of respect and gratitude to Mr. Heller.

And I think all of us, veterans or not, owe some measure of approbation to the iconic Steve Jobs, one of the few citizens who we can actually claim changed the entire world.

Certainly, the era and the online reality of the Internet would be very different (if it happened at all) without his input and influence. Here is some of what I said on the occasion of his passing in 2011:

While I’m congenitally disinclined to join the choruses of hagiographers anointing this outstanding marketer, salesman and genius as some type of saint, I’ll certainly throw my hat in the very crowded ring and concede that our world would be much different (and not for the better) without his influence. As trite as it may sound, Jobs did in many ways help transform fantasty into reality. For that alone, he is a monumental figure in American history and should be celebrated as such.

For now, it seems right –and human– to celebrate the life and accomplishments of a man who undeniably left his mark, and provided a past, and future that would be radically different (and not for the better) had he not made his mark. Equal parts iconoclast, counter-cultural guru and corporate crusader, he made a complicated motto (Think different) and turned it into a postmodern religion of sorts. We could have done much worse. Whatever else he did, Jobs thought differently and in the process, took much of the world with him.


It’s easy enough to admire (and envy) the abilities and lifestyles of the great artists, especially the ones talented (and/or fortunate) enough to actually make a living out of making art.

For me, I take a special inspiration (and kinship and solidarity) from the folks who never had it easy, who struggled to make art and/or a living. The ones who plugged away, with little assurance of pay-off, artistically or otherwise. They did it, ultimately, for the same reasons anyone tilts at the creative windmills: they don’t really have a choice. As such, Harvey Pekar remains someone that anyone with artistic aspirations can appreciate. In the excellent film about his life, American Splendor, he wakes up from a nightmare, and then remembers he still has his job. He actually stops to appreciate that he can pay his bills and understands how much worse things could be. In that one scene he provides proper perspective for all the naval-gazing narcissists who feel the world owes them a living, and lament that the world is so full of imbeciles who can’t appreciate their genius.

Here’s some of what I wrote in tribute to Pekar, when he passed, in 2010:

And while Pekar was groundbreaking in a way for making the primary source of his subject material his own life, his life story is more remarkable than anything written by or about him. To go from a genuinely obscure misanthrope living in squalor to becoming the mostly obscure misanthrope living mostly in squalor…that’s America. It’s definitely the American Dream, through a broken glass darkly.

It’s almost impossible to envision now, with everyone’s daily trials, tribulations and ablutions the focus of a billion blog posts, or the solipsistic Greek chorus of the Twittering class, but what Pekar did, then, by pulling the soda-stained cover off his personal life in the service of art was a revelation. Certainly, the subject of our immortal Self goes back to cave drawings and Don Quixote, and only official autobiographies are truly fictional. But when it came to the more postmodern type of tilting at windmills, Harvey Pekar was the patron saint of the unshaven, recalcitrant crank (actually crank is too harsh by half; he was more misanthrope who looked at life the way a chronically ambivalent dieter regards that piece of cake: he knows better but he just can’t help himself).

To become a meaningful artist one must be intolerant of cliche. To become a meaningful human being one must be intolerant of untruth. Although it came at a considerable cost, Harvey Pekar was incapable of cruising along the soul-crushing streets of quiet desperation. In becoming the poet laureate of disinclined endurance he helped remind America that there is a splendor in our shared obsolescence.


Finally, I pay tribute to the force in my life that rivals the solace and inspiration I take from books and friends and family: music.

I could say more (and likely will), but I put my love affair in writing for my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone (2013). While the book describes my relationship with my mother, whom we lost to cancer just after her 59th birthday, the memoir is also the story of my life, and the things that have helped motivate, galvanize and shape me. The chapter is entitled “Bright Moments”, and an excerpt is below (the inspiration for that title is written about in detail, here.):

Question: What’s it all about?

Answer: I don’t know.

But I do know a few things.

I know some of the things that make me tick.

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

You hear plenty about the suffering artist syndrome, the suicides, the drinking and the desolation, because these are the things that people who write about artists tend to write about. Certainly, the artists themselves express this angst in their art, but you seldom see the solipsism on the screen or the stage or in the grooves of the vinyl. But then again, these artists don’t need anyone to celebrate their achievements, because the art they created does so with exceeding adequacy and eloquence. You can’t believe everything you read, but you can always have faith in what you hear; the ears never lie. Not when it comes to music.

I reckon, if everything else was removed from my life, including love, I could find meaning and solace if I still had music. If I’m ever reduced to a bed-bound wreck, so long as I have ears to listen with, I’ll never be beyond redemption; I’ll always be willing to draw one more breath. Take away my ability to write, speak, see the world, smell the air, drink, eat or emote, this life will still be worth living if I can hear those sounds.

To be continued, of course.


“My First Time”, via The Quivering Pen


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).


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.