#177: Trigger Warning

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Trigger Warning:

The following poem
may contain upsetting
material.  The poet wants
to warn you about it
in advance so you can
decide whether or not
to proceed, knowing
full well that you might
be upset by the poem’s
contents.  It has become
the convention of late
for writers, for readers,
for teachers of writing
and reading, to provide
warnings such as these
to guarantee that no
one is ever unwittingly upset.
This is so kind.
Isn’t it good to know
that writers and readers
and teachers care so
much about your feelings,
care so much about
your emotional well-being
that they would avoid at
all costs writing or reading
or teaching material
that might upset you?
They know and appreciate
how upsetting it is to
be upset–especially when
it could have been
avoided in the first place.
Maybe some day in
the glorious future
writers and readers
and teachers will not
need warnings because
their concern for your
psychological welfare
will prevent them from
writing, reading, or teaching
anything upsetting, anything
that might possibly require
a trigger warning, and the
word trigger will go back
to being and remain always
only the name of a movie star
horse. And that, my dear,
dear friend, is the real
trigger warning.

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#176: On 29 Years of Marriage Measured in Cats and Dogs

On 29 Years of Marriage Measured in Cats and Dogs

It’s possible to measure out a marriage
in pets. Up to year 29, my wife and I have had
two cats and two dogs. Our first pets as newlyweds
were all about the same age, relatively speaking,
so about half way through our history in wedlock
the two cats and the first dog died. We rescued
our next dog not a year later from a relative,
and that dog, the best dog ever, is old now,
and, as they say, on her last legs.
For some odd reason, this year
has been a dog year, a total dog year.
Perhaps, out of guilt for running over the old
dog backing the car out of the driveway,
and despite the fact that she miraculously
survived with nothing but a tire track to show,
we took on the task of rescuing dogs.
We fostered one dog, nearly fell in love
before finding it a home. We adopted another,
only to find out days later he was deathly ill
with some intestinal parasite. We
entertained the crazy notion after that,
perhaps, out of further guilt for giving up
the sick dog, of adopting two dogs at once,
at which we tried, and then failed. Totally overwhelmed
and stressed, we found a home for one and
kept the other, a rot, hound, spaniel mix,
a friendly but rambunctious pup, cute as hell.
I don’t know what it means that we
have had five dogs in our lives in as many
months, what it says about our marriage;
I don’t know why after 28 years only two dogs
and at year 29 four consecutive visits, one permanent.
Are we not busy enough? Do we not have enough
to do? Are we so overflowing with love
that we must find ways of spreading it around?
Would it kill the kid and the old dog to have too much
of a good thing all to themselves?
One of us was less enthusiastic about the dog project,
hesitant, doubtful, trepidatious, finally giving in.
Taking on the care of an animal is a commitment
and requires mountains of negotiation and compromise.
Plainly speaking, it’s hard work.
And at the risk of seeming almost pathologically
unsentimental, writing an anniversary poem
essentially about dogs, let me just say
that marriage or wedlock would perhaps
work more often for people if they would take
it as seriously as they take the care of their beloved animals,
which I believe, despite the various and sometimes momentous
challenges along the way, my lovely wife and I have done for 29 years.

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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume IV, Letter C

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Welcome to Volume IV of my crazy project of listening to a single compact disc from start to finish from each musical artist represented in my neglected cd collection and then writing about it in a blog post. Wow, that was a mouthful.  The B section was bountiful; it took two volumes of blog and many moons to complete.  Now Summer is upon us and I can feel time opening up for more listening. I predict that I will be through the C section before the end this current month of July in the year of our dog, 2015. We begin with

Cake, “Comfort Eagle.” This record is so damn catchy.  I listened to it once with utter joy and then, maybe a full week later, the tunes still swirling around in my brain after only one listen, I had to listen to it again.  Cake, they are a wonder.  How could a singer with such a lack of stylistic flare, such a deadpan delivery, be so stunningly memorable?  Partly, it’s the delivery coupled with the lyrics and of course the melodies, which are sometimes more spoken than sung, nevertheless, infectious and difficult to abandon.  I’ll just give you a few lines.  “Swim in your kidney–kidney-shaped pool.”  The greatest misleading lyric turn since David Byrne’s, “Do I smell? I smell home-cooking,” from “Cities.” “You are an Austrian nobleman, and you’re commissioning a symphony in C.” Of course I am! “I am an opera singer.” Of course you are!  And perhaps the most famous Cake line ever: “I want a girl with a short skirt and a lo——–ng jacket.” Of course you do, and so do I!  And finally, more profound and about as seriously as Cake ever takes itself: “We are building a religion.”  This album brought me through, perhaps, the darkest period of my adult life. 2001. Thank you, Cake.

Camper Van Beethoven, “Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart.” Oh my god, it’s been a long time since I heard this record, the only record from CVB in my collection.  I could, without listening first, recall by memory the first two tunes, at least in part, by their lyric hooks.  “Eye of Fatima,” I could have hummed a bit of, and “O Death” I could have hummed in its entirety, but other than that, I could not have sung or remembered another single track. I tried to guess the album’s release date.  I thought 1989 and I was off by only one year.  But I could have purchased the record in ’89, as I associated it with living in the basement of my in-laws for a year while my wife and I got our feet on the ground financially.  So, not bad.  Music and memory. That’s part of what this whole project is about.  I’m surprised I only have one record from this group, because, as I listen I rock and I am immensely happy. This is a record that needs to go back into rotation, I think.  This one needs to be sucked up by the mighty iTunes program so that it can be carried around and shared between all the devices.  It’s that good.  And it’s a nice springboard, I think, into the 90’s.  Its lost most of the aspects I would associate with what I like to call the 80’s stink.  A cool, rocking, kind of progressive record. Rock band with fiddle. And David Lowry’s snotty but lucid drawl. Dig it.

Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, “Trout Mask Replica.”  I haven’t started listening yet.  I’m afraid.  I suspect that the only reason I have this record is that I have been since the early 80’s a Frank Zappa fan, and Zappa was a collaborator of Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, and Zappa produced this album in 1969, so if nothing else, it represented for me a sweet little piece of Zappa history.  Also, more credibility piled on once I learned that another one of my 80’s rock heroes, Andy Partridge from XTC, was also a fan and heavily influenced by the Beefheart.  Okay. So I bought this record(cd) long ago, the album cover sporting a portrait of a dude who appears to have a fish for a head and is wearing some kind of pointy top hat.  Why am I afraid?  I know it’s an important record, and undoubtedly I bought it because I was informed that it was an important record, and I know I can’t remember anything about it off the top of my head, and I know it will be weird, and I’m afraid that I will not like it. Here goes.

Holy shit. It’s weird all right.  But awesome.  I can’t look away.  It’s like a train wreck in the very best possible sense. Perhaps the weirdest record in my collection. But listening now, after a bourbon, I can hear the influence on Andy Partridge’s angular guitar playing, and the guy from Gang of Four.  That’s what happened.  That’s why this is so remarkable.  And the words, holy crap, the words are “magical” indeed.  And as chaotic as the music sometimes is, it is surprisingly listenable–unlike other groups I love (The Flaming Lips) in their most experimental moments.

The Cardigans, “First Band on the Moon.”  What a perfect pop record.  There’s not a clunker on the thing.  This band exudes charm.  I’m in love with Nina Persson all over again.  And these are the best worst-sounding drums I’ve ever heard, boxy, compressed, like toys, but nevertheless awesome.  And their cover of “Iron Man” is one of the greatest recorded covers ever.  It is as unlikely and beautiful as is GWAR’s version of a Pet Shop Boys tune in the Onion’s AV Room.  It’s 1996, but timeless.  I don’t have very many specific memories associated with the record because I think it’s one that I kept listening to consistently over the next 19 years.

Neko Case, “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.”  I caught on to Canadian singer songwriter Neko Case through The New Pornographers, hadn’t realized at first they were a kind of supergroup of stellar artists all in their own right.  This is the first Neko record I bought, and it’s as far from The New Pornographers as one could go, it seems to me. I don’t even know how to categorize this record.  Is it country? Is it folk? Is it the blues? The answer, perhaps, to all three of these questions would be yes.  The drums are huge, played with heavy brushes.  The reverbs on her voice are wide open. The lyrics are astounding and profound.  And that voice is absolutely to die for. This record is only 10 years old.  I was listening to this album when my boy was an infant. This is not necessarily a happy record, but I know how happy I was when I found it. A beautiful, quietly disturbing and comforting listen.

The tweeters in my JBLs both died tonight–in the middle of the Neko record.  Headphones, then.

The Chamber Strings, “Month of Sundays.” This is, I think, only the second pirated cd I’ve pulled off the shelf in two and a half letters of the alphabet.  I’m not happy about it.  Some years ago, after a friend of mine burned me a copy of this record, told me to check it out, and I did, I should have gone out immediately and bought a copy. I might still have to do that, not only because I’m generally against pirating music, but most importantly because this a truly great record. I’d not heard of them at the time my friend passed this to me, years after its release in 2001.  Because of record label issues, bad distribution, and the singer songwriter Kevin Junior’s drug addiction and poor health, the band kind of fell apart and then into obscurity–but nevertheless developed a rabid cult following, of which I now consider myself a part.  It’s pop music, but it’s melodic, smart, lush, serious, loose, yet expertly performed.  It’s a pop record that really breathes, feels legitimately human.  It feels like a record made without computers of any kind.  Note to self: buy a real copy of this record.

Tracy Chapman, “Self Titled.” “Talking about a revolution. . .Finally, the tables are starting to turn.”  It’s kind of sad.  This tune is probably just as relevant now, if not more so, than it was in 1988.  But we didn’t really get, and we’re still waiting for the revolution she’s singing about. It’s in progress.  It’s gathering some momentum.  She was 27 years ahead of her time.  “Fast Car,” again, profound, smart, heartfelt, poignant.  What happened to Tracy Chapman? I totally lost track of her.

Cheap Trick, “In Color and in Black and White.” My god.  Here’s another band for which it might be extremely difficult for me to listen to only one album. It’s almost impossible for me to express what this crazy rock band means to me.  I saw them open up for Kiss in 1976 and I immediately loved them. And after listening to a 40 minute set, I already knew the tunes after a first listen and had already decided how much better than Kiss they were.  There’s no comparison. This was my first Cheap Trick record, their second album. That opening guitar riff.  Bun E Carlos’s explosive drum entrance. Robin Zander’s evocation,  “Hello there, ladies and gentlemen.  Hello there, ladies and gents. Are you ready to rock? Are you ready or not?” I’m a 50 year old guy, but listening to this record tonight with headphones on, I am as excited as a school boy.  They rocked. But they were melodic and funny, sometimes smart, quirky, adventurous, the Heavy American Beatles, and between that voice (the best power pop singer EVER?), those nerdy Nielsen antics with the hats and the picks and the 1001 guitars, those 12 string bass parts, and the pure, effortless, pulsating, literally smoking drums of Bun E., I’d almost go so far as to say that Cheap Trick was (IS!) the greatest power pop band American music has ever produced.  And they’re still going!  There was a dark period in the late 80’s and early 90’s, but after 1997’s self-titled “Cheap Trick,” they completely reestablished themselves as a continuously relevant force in rock and roll. I haven’t missed a record since. Okay.  Let’s do this one, too: Cheap Trick, “Self-titled” (1997). 

In case you were worried or curious, I found a pair of Boston Acoustic Satellite Speakers with a matching subwoofer.  Headphones no longer necessary.  These babies sound pretty good.

Chicago, “Chicago Transit Authority.” This record was way before my time.  I was 5 years old.  But my oldest brother, 12 years my senior, had this album on reel to reel.  Yeah, he had a reel to reel tape deck. And between my brother and A.M. radio, I would have heard much of this famous record as a child. I thank the Almighty Almighty my siblings were avid music listeners.  If they had not been, there’s no telling whether or not I would have ever caught the bug that has shaped so much of my life. At any rate, only a decade or so ago, these first few Chicago records were remastered and rereleased on compact disc.  I felt that these records, at least the first two, were too important not to have a home in the collection.  So here I am, 45 years later, grooving on this music, miraculous in a way, that a band with such progressive leanings could land so many hit songs.  “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” Listen to that jazzy opening.  Could a thing like this ever hope to be a hit on pop radio in this dark day and age? On the flipside, though, musicians got away with all kinds of shit in the 60’s and 70’s.  How about a 6:47 tune called “Free Form Guitar” which consists of nothing but, you guessed it, free form guitar?

Toni Childs, “Union.” 1988.  The first and last Toni Childs record I ever bought.  It’s groovy.  80s stink on the production. More spiritually minded, perhaps, than a lot of 80s fare. Cool musical ideas.  A strange, singing voice, an old soul voice. I’m not sure why I bought this record, initially, because it’s unlike a lot of things I dig. I often have found myself buying music, especially as I became an adult, that I thought somehow would diversify my musical experience, broaden my horizons.  Toni Childs was also a very beautiful woman to this 24 year old young man and that could have had something to do with it. There are cool moments on this record, though. I know I gave it some deep listening towards the end of that decade.  First time I’ve listened to it, perhaps, since then.

The Church, “Starfish.” Man, I don’t know, I’m four songs in, and even after the hit, which is a pretty darn good song, “Under the Milky Way,” I’m about ready to pack it in. Not a very adventurous band. Brooding. Lush, but predictable and dull.  Makes me want to gaze at my shoes.  I’ll hang in there. I understand the appeal, I think, but at the same time, I understand why this  record did not have staying power with me.

Billy Cobham, “Power Play.”  It’s 1986. I had not moved completely through my prog-rock jazz-fusion phase. I am probably not yet through it. However, this record strikes me now as an especially dumb entry in the genre, as it attempts, using synthesizers and drum machines (drum machines, my god, on a Billy Cobham album), to make itself “contemporary.”  And as prog-jazz-fusion goes, it’s not that prog-jazz-fushiony. There are moments, though, as there are on records like this, especially for musicians, when one is simply blown away by the precision and skill. When it’s good, it’s really good. Otherwise, it’s background music played by some of the best musicians in the world.

Cockeyed Ghost, “Ludlow, 6:18.” Perhaps the only group or artist thus far with which I have a personal acquaintance. I know this guy. I’m not sure how we connected, but he did a house concert at our place during one of his many extensive tours and he hosted us in Los Angeles in a club on one of only two tours my band ever made–down to LA and back, once in 1999 and again in 2001.  I think we played with Cockeyed Ghost in ’99.  I don’t even remember the name of the club.  At any rate, I have a few of this band’s records, and because they’re not “local,” they ended up in the general collection.  A good, solid rock band.  A singer who tries sometimes too hard to be Brian Wilson fronting Cheap Trick.  Good songs, though.  Some intricate moves.  Some angry-about-the-record-industry lyrics–always a big hit.  Crazy key changes.  A moving song about a girlfriend-that-could-have-been who committed suicide.  Heavy. Overall, though, a good rocking vibe.  I’m glad I know this songwriter.  I’m glad his music is in the world.

Coldplay, “A Rush of Blood to the Head.” I really wanted to listen to “Parachutes,” the debut record, but alas, it was a pirate, and worse, I couldn’t find it.  That’s a record that ripped my heart out for some reason and I have super fond memories of it, even though I haven’t listened to it in ages.  Never bought a real copy of it, either.  So I choose this, the next best thing, I suppose, before Coldplay got all arena rock on our asses.  Not a fan of the evolution of this band, but loved the first two records. Let me see if this one holds up. Oh yeah.  This guy is such a great terrible singer.  That was part of the charm, I think. I pictured him as a grizzly guy with a big beard and was kind of disappointed to learn he was so clean cut and cute.  This record rocks more than the first, is less intimate, but some of these tunes are gems.  And I know what it was about them that struck me. At this time in my life, they seemed to be speaking straight at me, to me directly, personally.  That second tune, “In My Place,” is a prime example. In 2001, 02, 03, I was lost, I was lost, I was scared, tired and under prepared. Absolutely. And then there was “Warning Sign.” And the truth is–I miss you.  Holy crap.  I think I recently saw a friend of mine place this song against a collage of pictures of his deceased wife, a cancer victim, a friend of mine from ages ago and a super huge influence on my life, and I didn’t know she was sick.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I think I’ve remembered this incorrectly.  It was a different Coldplay song my friend used in the video collage of our mutual friend, but nevertheless, this is maybe the tune I heard.

Paula Cole, “This Fire.” I’m not sure what to say about this record.  Is it good?  Yes. Musically and compositionally interesting, sophisticated.  It sounds good. It’s a little too much like a Tori Amos record. Interesting, disturbing vocal inflections; she seems sometimes to be barking–otherwise, she sings beautifully.  A hit, “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone.” You all know that one.  A good record, and yet, one that did not withstand the test of time for me. The best songs are the first three or four and then it’s all kind of down hill.

The Colonoscopy. Not a record, not a band, but what I actually had to do this week while working my way through the C section.  I’m 50.  It’s what you gotta do.  Everything they say about having a colonoscopy is true.  The day of preparation sucks, the procedure itself is a piece of cake, a walk in the park, a day in the sun. Except for the fear. In my case, unwarranted. Everything looked good–so they tell me.

Shawn Colvin, “A Few Small Repairs.” This record holds up for me as well as most other female singer songwriter records over the last twenty years.  Except for anything St. Vincent has done.  My god, when will I ever reach the letter S?! After all this while (it was released in 1996), “A Few Small Repairs” still sounds fresh, vibrant, timely, contemporary, and groovy. That’s a pretty great voice. And these are pretty great words.  And these musicians, especially this drummer, are pretty astounding. I’ve followed her over the years, but not a single one of her records is as successful to my ears. “Sonny Came Home.” Dynamite opening track. I gotta say though, that as the record moves along, it gets progressively less interesting.

Concrete Blonde, “Bloodletting.” 1990 BMG record club binge shopping brought me familiarity with Concrete Blonde. I choose this record from two of the band’s records in my collection, neither of which I can recall a single specific thing about. Until “Bloodletting” starts spinning. It all comes back.  Bombastic and bluesy rock tinged with a kind of gothic metal merengue. A good record. Most all of the records I bought during my BMG music club months bring back memories of poverty and living in my parents-in-law’s house for a year and nevertheless feeling stupidly happy.

Alice Cooper, “Welcome to my Nightmare.” My first venture as a young man in the late 70’s into what would become known (later) as shock rock.  Kiss didn’t count.  Spitting blood didn’t count–not compared to the nightmare world of Alice Cooper. As a pre-teen, I started with the record he made with Elton John’s collaborator Bernie Taupin, “From the Inside,” saw that concert, and then worked my way backwards.  “Welcome to my Nightmare,” along with “Goes to Hell,” would have been one of my first acquisitions in the back catalogue. The title track is epic.  There’s a kind of dorkiness about the way it’s sung, I thought, but the elaborate arrangement and the dense instrumentation takes the tune to really far out places.  Vincent Price’s appearance on “Black Widow” is delicious, and the segue from the previous track, “Devil’s Food,” is exquisite.  “Some Folks” provides the evidence that Cooper had a healthy sense of humor to go along with his morbid interests.  “Only Women Bleed,” a beautiful, powerful, disturbing song, but lyrically speaking, is about the most unlikely hit single in the universe. But the second half of this record–almost every track after “The Department of Youth,” that whole  Steven sequence, is some of the creepiest rock music EVER up to this point in my early rock history. How is it that Alice Cooper became a conservative who loves to golf? I can’t get over that. I’m glad he’s still alive though.  He almost didn’t make it.  My discovery of him at that Bernie Taupin period was the culmination of his rehabilitation, hence, a record about a group of residents in an insane asylum. A brilliant record in its own right.  But I gotta add (obviously Alice had quite a hold on my early teens) that, even though it’s not the record I chose to listen to tonight, that “Flush  the Fashion” in 1980 became my absolute favorite Cooper record ever.

At nearly 3500 words, 3500 words that very few human beings will ever read, I realize what’s still to come in the letter C and  I understand that this letter, too, just like B, will need two volumes.  But I’m excited, because what’s coming up next is an artist that had a profound impact on my personal life, my musical life, my emotional life, my aesthetic orientation, the whole ball of wax, and who continues to blow my mind.  I’ll need some space for him. Like the Beatles and The Boomtown Rats and Cheap Trick, he’s an artist for which picking just one album will be a gargantuan challenge.  I’ve got 25 Elvis Costello albums to choose from, so far in the alphabet, the largest collection of records from a single artist. So wish me luck, and for now, let’s bring this episode to a close.

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The Audio Book Experience: Musings on Being Read To and Reading Out Loud

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I have never been much of an audiobook kind of guy. I like reading. I’ve always felt a kind of snobbery about the audiobook, as if somehow the actual reading of text on a page and making all of the voices and inflections and imagery happen in one’s head is a more rigorous endeavor, that listening is kind of like cheating. This may or may not be true–and it comes from a guy who loves to read out loud for a listening audience, be they students or readers of my fiction or fellow writers. Maybe it’s the actor in me–but I think reading out loud to an audience or being read to can be a kind of transformative experience.  More on this later.

I recently tried audible.com, and some time ago I finished listening to my first ever unabridged audio book: Robin E. Black​’s  Life Drawing. I loved the experience. The writing, clearly exquisite and wise, but the performance by Cassandra Campbell was pretty phenomenal. And I’m amazed, but not surprised, how the audiobook experience can be so totally shaped by the performance of the reader.  After that first successful round I tried a sample of another book I have been interested for a long time in reading, but the voice of the reader bothered me to such a degree that I could not go through with it.

I tried again with a book I have on my shelf, started reading some years ago now and for some reason gave up on, Marilynne Robinson’s Home. I love Marilynne Robinson.  Her novel Housekeeping is still for me one of the greatest American novels of the last half of the 20th century.  So I didn’t give up on Home because of a lack of interest, but rather for the reason I give up on a lot of reading projects these days: I get distracted and I move on to another thing.  It’s not a characteristic for which I am especially proud.  So I downloaded Home from audible.com.  It took me awhile, but I finally, on Father’s Day in fact, listened to the novel’s conclusion–but with this exception: for the last 50 pages or so of the novel, I pulled the book down off of the shelf and I read along with the audio.

I do not own a copy of Robin Black’s novel. I listened to that entire audiobook and, as I’ve said, it was a great experience, but I would find my brain, every now and again, drifting away from the narrative, trying to go somewhere else, and frustrated, I would sometimes have to listen again to entire sections–in the same way, I suppose, we have to reread a paragraph from an actual book when our minds wander away. Not a reflection at all on the quality of the writing or the performance of the reader–it’s all pretty much our fault, the fault of a recalcitrant brain.  But I found, when I picked up Robinson’s novel and read along while I was listening, something really wonderful happened with my level of engagement, my comprehension, and my emotional investment.  I was all over it.

I think I understand the appeal for most folks about audio books.  If you like to read but have to drive a lot and it kills your leisure time for reading, audio books are good.  If you like to work out, are a runner or a gym frequenter, audio books are a good way to exercise the mind WHILE you do the whole body thing.  If you can’t read, or don’t read well, and like the idea of experiencing this thing called a book, audio books may be of some help.  But I think I, as a recent convert to the audio book experience, appreciate the audio book in a different way–and who knows, maybe there are others in the same boat. As I said above, I love to read out loud, to an audience, sure, but often, if I can manage it, alone in the house or lounging in the yard, to myself. Yes, I love to read out loud to myself.  And here’s the key reason I find the audiobook, in particular the audiobook in companionship and in tandem with the actual analog book, to be so rewarding.

The brain wants to go places.  Specifically, the brain wants to go other places while reading. The brain has to have total buy-in and focus for its host human to be able to read well.  Some people are gifted as readers, or rather, they’ve worked really hard in the practice of reading, and this kind of concentration is second nature to them. Most of us, I bet, are not in this boat.  Sometimes as a reader, I’m on fire.  But most of the time, I have difficulty attending for long periods at a stretch, UNLESS, I am reading out loud.  Or, as I’ve discovered recently, I am reading with my eyes while listening to an effective reading performance recorded for my pleasure and edification by some professional voice actor.

Here’s what happens, and it’s what I would argue happens when I read out loud to students most of the time. The eyes are seeing the words and the brain is doing that whole incredible decoding thing, and on top of the decoding, the brain does that whole comprehension thing where squiggly markings become abstract sounds which become words which become concepts and images which strung together with other concepts and images become meaningful sentences that tell a story, prove a point, or a million other things. On top of that already sophisticated brain activity, the ears are hearing the sounds and the words and the sentences and the brain is decoding that as well and ultimately it’s as if the reader is reading twice, two times simultaneously.  Two times the comprehension.  Two times the enjoyment.  It’s like a chorus of understanding and appreciation. So that’s part of it.  I read better when I am seeing, speaking, and listening, or at least two of these three in tandem.

But there’s another aspect to reading out loud or being read out loud to that is not about comprehension but about community, connection, and intimacy.  I think there is something so integral and profound and ancient about the act of oral storytelling, first of all in public or in a public way, e.g., the public reading in classrooms, bookstores, libraries, and theaters, or the public availability and consumption of the audio book, but secondly, and more profoundly, perhaps, the reading out loud in private and in partnership.  I love to read out loud to my son. Before my son was born and we had more time, my wife and I used to take turns reading out loud to each other, a ritual I sorely miss. I don’t even know if I have the words to express what this particular practice has meant to me.  Would it be illegal to close by quoting a William Stafford poem in its entirety?  I’m going to do it, and we’ll see what happens.  It’s that good.  It’s that important.  Good night.  Find somebody who will read out loud with you.

ritual

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A Talk at the 2015 Rex Putnam High School Graduation Ceremony

Class of 2015: Good morning!

Many of you have seen a music video on youtube in which a young man wearing a yellow suit, a blue bow tie, and beige converse high tops, bounces up and down, gestures maniacally, and moves rhythmically in a way that sort of resembles “dancing;” his eye make-up is sweating off, and he’s lip syncing to a song he wrote about a “blue refrigerator.” Have you seen this thing? Okay, well, I have a confession to make. That guy was me. I know. I was that guy.

It was 1987, I was probably not more than three years older than you are now, having dropped out of college because my parents had not anticipated me wanting to go and had run out of money, and having recently tied the proverbial knot with my high school sweetheart, I thought for sure, with all of my soul, that I was going to be a rock and roll star, that I would make my living making weird rock music about kitchen appliances and I would only have to work at 7-11 until I signed the multi-album record contract.

This is just to say that when I was your age I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. That’s not entirely true. How about this: I didn’t know where I was going. I would not have been able to tell you that by some fluke of super dumb luck, I would be able to finish my English degree and continue on for a Masters in Teaching at a swanky private school, tuition free. I would not have predicted, in my wildest dreams, even after I decided that teaching might be a thing, that first of all, it would be a profession that I would love, and that secondly, I would end up spending an entire career back where I had started—at my alma mater—at Rex Putnam High School. You think 4 years is a long time? Try 31.

To start with, if my job tonight is to impart some kind of wisdom to you good people about your future, here’s the first part:

You have no idea. You have no idea.

Looking back I think that I should have been absolutely terrified. To be 21, married, working at a convenient store: terrifying. But I wasn’t terrified. And neither should you be. Maybe you’re as clueless now as I was then, or maybe you have some notion, some direction, or maybe some of you feel like you’ve got it all figured out, but I’m telling you, you will go mostly blind into the future, and the challenge is to be prepared for all kinds of surprises, to be okay with that, to revel in the uncertainty of it, the ambiguity of it all, the mystery, the adventure, and, as Rilke advised us, to “learn to love the questions themselves.”

I’m having a déjà vu moment here. In 1983 I spoke at my high school graduation. I was Grant Luecke, a less impressive Grant Luecke(1).  I only remember one thing I said. I concluded with some family story about my dad taking me to the oyster beds at Hood’s Canal and rewarding me with a drink of his beer if I could swallow a raw oyster from the shell. And the whole point of that little anecdote was to say to my classmates that the world was their oyster and that they should eat it raw.

What a dumb thing to say.

I mean yeah, okay, we’ve all heard the cliché, yes, that the world is our oyster, but no, it’s really not. It is not a thing to be swallowed or eaten or conquered—it owes us nothing—and we have no right to demand that it fulfills all of our wishes. So one of the reasons I am so honored and thankful to the class of 2015 for inviting me to speak at your graduation, is I finally get to revise the speech I gave 32 years ago. And to deliver it in a better venue. In my day, we held the graduation ceremony in the gym at Rex Putnam. That’s right.

So, how would I revise that “world is your oyster” piece of non-wisdom nonsense?

I guess I would advise against the notion that your job from here on out is to go out and “get,” but rather, your job is to go out and “be,” to go out and “live,” to go out and “connect” meaningfully, respectfully and joyfully with people and the world, and to find a sense of authenticity, to be authentic.

Live your own life, not someone else’s. Learn to distinguish the voice in your head from the voices coming from your stupid smart devices and the internet and the television and your friends and family, all of which or all of whom think they know you better than you know yourself. Technology is a tool, but many of us live as though we are tools to the technology. Don’t be a tool. There’s a lot of noise in this world competing with the good noise, the music of your own thoughts. Try to find some way, some silent space within your lives, to listen to that music within.

Notice I haven’t said anything in my revision of the oyster advice about writing a great essay or analyzing text or reading great literature. Don’t get me wrong, here. It’s not that I don’t think these things are monumentally important—but they are not the end—they are the means to an end, and those of you who have taken advantage of your education know this and those of you who haven’t will learn it–the true purpose of the last 13 years of your school experience: Learning to befriend your mind, learning to use your mind well will help you create a more peaceful world, will make you more empathetic and less selfish, will help you make sense of your society and your relationships, will help you to think your own thoughts and follow your own passions, and will help you learn to live in the present moment as if it were the only moment left to you. As far as your future goes: treat your life as if it were a work of art and a gift to the world. Try to make it beautiful. And as Frederick Buechner has said, try to find “a place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” Surprisingly, as clueless as I was in 1987, I was attempting to say some of these things in that silly video for an otherwise pretty good song. Find yourself a blue refrigerator, people. It will keep things cool.

With love, deep appreciation and gratitude for all that you have taught me, and with the best wishes for each and every one of your days, congratulations class of 2015.

 

(1) Grant Luecke was the student speaker at this graduation ceremony.

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Notes Toward A Musical Autobiography: Volume III, Letter B

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I’m betting you gave up on me.  I almost gave up on myself.  What with a trip to Disneyland scheduled for spring break, National Poetry Writing Month, and some illness in the family, it looked hopeless that I would ever get through the project of listening to at least one CD from every musical artist in my collection, let alone finish the damn B section.  But let me say, oh those of you of little faith, that I am back at it.  I continue chipping away at those B bands and artists, but with this difference:  I did a whole lot of listening without any writing at all.  So, here I am, trying to catch up this particular nutty blog project with the progress I have made into my collection of B music.  These notes will likely be shorter, more cryptic, in honor of National Poetry Month–maybe even poetic, although, as of this moment, we’re half way through May and Napowrimo is over.  But let me assure you that each of the albums listed here were listened to IN FULL by yours truly, even the really stupidly long ones from the 90’s, unless otherwise indicated.  I reserve the right in this blog post, however, to expound to a greater degree around those bands or records that truly rocked my world.  Here goes the rest of the B’s:

Tony Bennet, “Playin’ With My Friends, Sings the Blues.” Really famous old guy becomes hip again, singing duets with a bunch of artists from subsequent decades. I’m not sure why I have this record.

Andrew Bird, “Break It Yourself.” Here’s a guy with a beautiful voice and prodigious multi-instrumental musical talent, staggering lyric skill, and perhaps the greatest whistler in the history of pop music. Really, he whistles. He’s progressive and nutty. His arrangements are dense and beautiful and feel simultaneously traditional and modern. Good stuff, Maynard.

Frank Black, “Self Titled.” The Pixies were the shit. Frank Black, Black Francis’s first solo album, was not so much the shit. There’s good music here, though. It rocks and it’s got serious hook material. But it’s not nearly as manic and wild as a Pixie’s record; it’s not a record that had any kind of staying power for me past the first twenty listens or so.

Perry Blake, “California.”  Must listen to this Perry Blake guy with a martini. This is martini music. And for me, it’s coming-down-from-an-early-onset-mid-life-crisis music.  2002.

Bleu, “A Watched Pot.”  Not a band, but the project moniker of a guy named William James McAuley III, a power pop genius and a genre hopper and an exquisite imitator of things he loves.  Great tunes.  A happy, funny, sweet and sour record. I recommend more highly “Red,” the album before this one, a record I downloaded, and thus, not a choice for this listening/writing experiment.

Blondie, “The Platinum Collection.” I was so smitten with Deborah Harry as a teenager, and those two titles, “Parallel Lines” and “Eat to the Beat” were phenomenal records.  This collection features those two albums generously. I’m grooving in nostalgia, hopping up and down in the basement to Clem Burke’s explosive drumming, resting now and then for a perfectly legal sip of wine.

The Blow Monkeys, “Animal Magic.” Remember the tune, “Digging Your Scene?” It killed me the first time I heard it, and continues to kill me now. An anomaly of mid-80’s new wave music, these guys were like some kind of blue-eyed white boy soul band from England with an adorable singer/philosopher who had the audacity to adopt a stage name after a famous Beatles tune, Dr. Robert. This record kills from start to finish.

Blues Traveler, “Save HIs Soul.” God, I hate the harmonica, but Jesus, this guy can really play the harmonica.  And he’s a great singer.  But I still can’t understand why this band is in my collection.  They rocked? Yes.  The drummer was good? Check.  They were an alternative to the alternative in the 90’s? Check. Still, I now find I could live without this band for a very long time.

So on the weekend of April 10 I took a little solo road trip to the coast for a writing retreat which afforded me about four and a half hours in a car.  I don’t like driving, especially, so if I’m driving a long way by myself I typically play very loud music to keep myself alive.  It was a happy coincidence that my road trip falls while I’m about to listen to one of my all time favorite bands, another band, only the second, for which I cannot listen to just one album, a band that had no less than a monumental influence on me as a teenager.  So three in a row on the way to the beach, The Boomtown Rats, “Tonic for the Troops,” “The Fine Art of Surfacing,” and “Mondo Bongo.” All three pivotal albums for me.  This band may be deserving of it’s own post, because I’m not certain I can even scratch the surface here.  These guys almost single-handedly revolutionized my musical tastes, moving me from a kind of classic rock fan into a punk, a new waver, a goofy clothes, purple converse, skinny tie-wearing, mullet-sporting music fan with an attitude, a penchant for all-out weirdness, and the budding awareness that there were ISSUES in the world that were larger, more important than me that might need my serious attention. Not only did the Boomtown Rats completely satisfy my developing and specific musical tastebuds, they gave to me in the person of Bob Geldof a rock star who was worthy of the HERO mantel. He’s been knighted for Christ’s sake.    

David Bowie, “The Last Day.” I don’t have a ton of Bowie in my collection, few of the classics, “Scary Monsters,” a greatest hits collection, and almost everything he’s done since “Let’s Dance.” I chose his most recent thing.  I am consistently blown away by Bowie’s ability to grow and continue to make music that is vital and inventive and interesting.  A couple of tunes on this record, including the single “Where Are We Now” are so good it hurts to listen to them.  And–there’s some filler.

The Breeders, “Last Splash.”  Outside the undeniable hookitude of “Cannonball,” This is mostly an awful record.  Kim Deal, from the Pixies, her sister Kelley, Tanya Donelly from Throwing Muses, and some drummer dude.  It’s messy, sometimes interesting sonically, but mostly dumb. One for the hopper, perhaps.

Edie Brickell, “Shooting Rubberbands at the Moon.” I’m not aware of too many things.  I know what I am if you know what I mean. Philosophy is the talk on a cereal box; religion is a smile on a dog.  ‘Nuff said.  A fun record, whimsical, silly, sometimes sad.  Edie’s lyrics can be goofy but sometimes profound, her habitual note-dropping at the end of almost every line can be tiresome, but boy that drummer is good and the rest of this band is top notch.  It was truly enjoyable to listen to this again.

Bright Eyes, “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn.” This weirdo is irresistible.  And this record, almost a kind of electronica thing, so completely stylistically different from the rest of his mostly folky oeuvre, feels just as authentic as any of that other stuff.  A really cool, interesting record that holds up very well.  Lyrically, super smart. Perhaps, worthy of the name poetry.

Jon Brion, “Meaningless.”  If John Lennon were alive and still interested in pop music, he might sound like this guy.  Brion is a brilliant songwriter, and while I don’t know his entire pedigree, I know he was in the supergroup The Grays, a band that made only one incredible record; I know that Brion did the soundtrack for the nutty film “I Heart Huckabees;” I know he produced some of Fiona Apple’s “Extraordinary Machine;” and then I know there’s this record, which is, I think, the only full length Jon Brion record out there. We love the power pop.  We love the intelligent and slightly snarky lyric. We love the infectious melody.

Jonatha Brooke, “Steady Pull.” She’s just so undeniably good.  It’s hard to criticize, except to say that she’s an artist that’s so undeniably good that I bought three of her records before I realized that I just wasn’t all that interested.  This one, though, pretty rocking, edgy in places, funky, is undeniably good, but I will not likely choose it for another play for a very long time. If it comes up in an iPod shuffle, I’ll be happy to hear it again.

Bill Bruford, “One of a Kind.” I first heard Bill Bruford play the drums in the 70’s prog rock band Yes when I was but a wee lad. I had no clue at that time what I was listening to. I dug the music.  “Roundabout” was on the radio for crying out loud; it was just pop music to my naive little ears. But as I reached my teen years, transitioning from a rocker to a new waver and a blossoming young musician to boot, I also found myself gravitating toward the prog rock genre, the sole purpose of which seemed to be to show off virtuosic musicianship. I don’t think that’s entirely true, but I know that at the time that was the thing that sucked me in.  So my real discovery of Bill Bruford was his work in King Crimson in the 80’s, and then I found this solo record from ’79, and then I’d end up going back to all those early Yes records, listening with fresh ears, ears that understood incredible drumming when they heard it.  So, it’s a real pleasure to go back to this record, “One of a Kind.”  I totally geeked out on this record as a teen, and I’m totally geeking out on it now. Allan Holdsworth on guitar, Jeff Berlin on bass.  Extraordinary still.

In the middle of the grunge era, there was this, Jeff Buckley’s “Grace.” The most beautiful, rocking, but grungeless record of this era.  I don’t know when I first came across this album.  It may have been late, after Buckley had already met his tragic fate in an accidental drowning. There would be only one more record of new studio recordings, released, I’m almost certain, posthumously.  This guy sang like an angel, an angel with a meat cleaver. I’m not sure, before this guy, that I had ever heard in rock music singing so technically precise and yet so emotionally raw and incisive. This is a record that is worth weeping through and over.  A classic, for sure.

Kate Bush is a goddess.  And this record, “The Sensual World,” while it may not be my all time favorite Kate Bush album, holds a special place in my musical heart.  It wass 1989.  My wife and I were so broke in our third year of marriage that we moved into the basement of her parents’ house.  We were there almost a year, a year where my desperation for new music and my empty wallet drove me to the BMG record club where I ordered 10 compact discs for a penny.  I believe this was one of them.  As bleak as all of this sounds, it was not an entirely dire situation.  I had just been hired in my first teaching job.  Things were looking up. I was young, newly married, newly employed, on the verge of my illustrious teaching career, and despite the economics, I was extremely optimistic and had every right to be. This record by Kate Bush enchanted me and excited me. Kate Bush, as great as she is as a musician, composer, and singer, seems really like a storyteller more than anything else. Her songs embody story.  It’s easy to get lost in them in the way you’d get lost in a great piece of fiction. Eclectic, strange, haunting, and beautiful, these songs transported me. It’s still difficult not to absolutely break down before the end of “This Woman’s Work,” the Bulgarian singers on several tracks of this record are out of this world, and Mick Karn’s bass playing is, as usual with Mick Karn, revelatory.  I remember reading that the first track originally took the lyrics from Joyce’s Molly Bloom monologue in Ulysses, but Bush couldn’t get permission from the Joyce estate and ended up writing her own words.  You can still hear Molly Bloom in there.  Bush is the sexy Joyce of pop music.  Yes I said yes I will yes.  

David Byrne, “Self Titled.” Post Talking Heads, this, I believe, was Byrne’s third solo record.  I’ll have to go into this guy’s impact on my life at a later time, maybe years later when I reach the T’s, but for now, let’s just say that I chose this particular David Byrne record (I think I have them all) because this, 1994, was another pivotal year in the life of Michael Jarmer.  It was the summer I went to the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont.  It was my first solo travel experience.  My first cross continental flight.  My first writer’s conference.  I had begun my first successful effort at writing a novel. And here at Breadloaf I discovered my immediate and transformational future as a fiction writer: I learned about the MFA program for writers at Warren Wilson College, where I would apply and be accepted for the following winter term. It was a heady, trippy, exhilarating experience; it changed my life.  And this David Byrne record, buoyant, lively, rocking, and nutty, was the soundtrack playing over and over again on my little walkman cassette player! Could it be that at this time, if I wanted to travel with music, I had to record my compact discs to cassette?! Memory fails. I’m pretty sure it was a walkman–but I suppose it’s possible that it could have been a portable disc player.

A suitable ending to the B section of my compact disc collection, a transition and a transformation.  The B’s were bountiful.  The C section of the collection, not nearly as much, but perhaps containing artists and bands every bit for me as earth-shattering and mind-blowing as the ones back there in the B part. I don’t know when I will get to it. No promises. I realize, looking at the collection all orderly and alphabetical over there against the basement studio wall, that I am not quite 1/7th of the way through the collection–which does not include, because I have them stored in a separate section, local music from Portland, Oregon. Who knows how I will handle that. I can’t ignore it, that’s certain. That just wouldn’t be right. First world problem.  We will cross that bridge when we get to it.

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#175: Arts and Crafts

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We’re studying Romeo and Juliet
and even though kids are, for the most part,
up on their feet with scripts instead
of sitting at their desks reading out loud,
it’s a herculean struggle for them to
read with any accuracy, enthusiasm,
or understanding, and the kid who insists
on playing Benvolio every single time
also insists that his character is some
kind of 16th century robot man.
The class is restless and uncomfortable,
many of them paying as close attention
as they can and wracking their brains
for some kind of comprehension, others
refuse to follow along, are often distracted,
not listening, not reading, making no effort
and I am in almost constant corral mode.

But as we approach the masquerade ball
in scene five of act one, we take forty-five
minutes of class time to make masks.
Out come the templates, the cardboard,
piles of fabric scraps, elmer’s glue,
color crayons, felt tip markers, scotch tape,
ribbons, yarn, and feathers, and the kids
absolutely go to town. Every single student
completely invested, completely engaged,
totally engrossed in mask-making.
On the one hand, as their teacher,
I am so pleased to see the scene, so
rare it seems any more, of 100%
participation, with only a tiny number
asking the dreaded and inevitable question,
are we getting credit for this?
On the other hand I long for a
teaching experience where
every single student in the room
cares about the real material,
the beauty, the ideas, the craft 
on the page. Sometimes, in moments,
something like this does occur
and it is a feeling unlike anything
else, transcendent, goose-bump
raising, affirming once and for all,
albeit fleetingly, why we do what we do.
But here, in scene five of act one of
Romeo and Juliet, we are practicing
arts and crafts, what my colleagues
and I sometimes disparagingly refer
to as “crayola curriculum.”
But I know I am wrong to dismiss
the need young people have
to play, to work with their hands,
to create something beautiful,
to feel successful at something
in the midst of the difficulty of
Shakespeare.  And so we are
making masks, loving every minute,
basking in the joyful vibe, while I’m
psyching myself up to get kids through
the first act of the play, hoping for
competent readers, searching for
the perfect way to get fourteen year olds
interested in watching Romeo and Juliet
fall hopelessly and immediately in love.

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