Friday, December 24, 2010


The motel is a fixture of the American imagination.  The term entered popular lexicon in the first half of the Twentieth century, following “Auto Camp,” a quaint tag evoking a quieter time before the post-Eisenhower roar of highways and blend of diesel fuel and baloney sandwiches would become for millions of Americans their Proustian cake back to simpler times.  The parents in Robert McCloskey’s 1943 children’s book Homer Price were the proprietors of a “Tourist Camp,” a modest small-town enclave consisting of a gas station, a diner, and wooden buildings with bedrooms.  Mom cooked and tended to the rooms, Dad pumped gas and mended things.  Their son Homer lived an idyllic 10-year-old’s life, often interacting with the visiting tourists who were eager for a home-cooked meal and cup of coffee after a long day of driving.

The old-fashioned tourist camps of Homer’s world didn’t last; by mid-century, the hotel-and-motel industry was accelerating rapidly.  After the $25 billion Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 paved forty thousand-plus miles of highways across the country, increasing numbers of Americans loaded up their station wagons, strapped on car-top carriers and headed out, visiting far-flung family or National Parks, grinning wearily behind guide maps, enjoying wider (and more numerous) lanes, and tuning in AM radio broadcasts of baseball games and car-dealer ads.  The impulse to find a motel at the end of a lengthy day hasn’t changed much, but the motel itself has undergone radical transformations over the decades. Mom-and-pop motels still cling to the branches of the interstate system, but the majority of motels are now corporate-owned, offering few differences in service or styles from state to state. According to Census Bureau data published in September of 2004, there were 46,163 hotels and motels (excluding casinos) in the United States; though the recession has certainly slowed growth, there are likely more now.


You don’t plan to visit an abandoned motel.  You come upon it accidentally.  You notice how it’s been reduced to its elements.  Any entrepreneur’s flair, individualistic owner’s touches, or corporate brand bludgeoning have vanished after years of pitiless sunlight.  The buildings decay back to their skeletal origins, man-made structures meant to house the weary.  Their blueprints are showing.  It’s shabbily sad.  This devolution is a kind of dismayed silhouette of a great American promise: Head for the highways and the horizon’s marvels; we’ll take care of feeding you, recreating you, putting you to sleep.  The abandoned motel is tragic Americana.  Embalmed in time, its trumpeted features obsolete, whizzed past by ever sleeker, GPS-emboldened cars in pursuit of smoke-free rooms and free Wi-Fi.

“Un-remembering is the enemy of good places and of public history,” says Robert R. Archibald.  At an abandoned motel, un-remembering dwells at the intersection of facts and ghosts.  I took the following photographs in June and August of 2010 at two abandoned motels in western Pennsylvania.  In both cases I caught a glimpse of the motel as I was driving down the interstate.  (Jean Baudrillard, in America: “Driving is a spectacular form of amnesia.  Everything is to be discovered, everything is to be obliterated.”)  Locating the motel among generic service roads, chain restaurants, gas stations, and other hotels was tricky.  I trusted a call of the discarded to lead me there.  In both cases, the shabby motels looked a bit embarrassed to be standing at all next to new, or in some cases refurbished, establishments that — given the harsh reprove of daylight and my overly-romanticized imagination — seemed to want to glance in other directions.

Archibald, again: "Places are produced in that wonderful interaction of people, place, narrative, and time.  When the people desert these places, narratives are forgotten, ties break, and the place is unmade."

A motel parking lot is designed to invite and efficiently draw weary vehicles off of the highway and to deposit them within brightly-painted parking spaces.  We don’t expect the natural world to be there, a field rising to its own surface. The lovemaking, the fights, the children’s cries, the overindulgences; the spirits of ardent, ugly, exquisite lives blooming as something verdant and permanent.  Wild now in a different way. 

Manicured plantings, flowering shrubs, and ground cover are the hallmarks of a nice motel.  But when shrubs grow unchecked they threaten the organizing principles, redefining parameters by erasing them. The cool, regulated commerce of the 7-Up and Pepsi machines is crowded now by a countrified revolt.  What’s become of our pleasant view, our casual meeting spot?  We’re in an unexpected greenhouse. 

If you look long enough, the poured concrete and the nature-echoed curves of the pool drift, and only the metal ladder remains as an unnatural thing, a rusting toe-hold.  I look long enough and imagine the pool softening a bit at its edges, the fading blue paint turning cerulean, the depths blurring into a swimming hole lucked upon by a wandering kid in the woods.  What’s man-made and forgotten begins to give and loosen in the sun, the unnatural taking on organic rhythms.  In the quiet of a very hot afternoon I listened to the cicadas and frogs and birds doming their loud buzz around me.   I felt a pull back.  I was too wary of having walked beyond the NO TRESPASSING sign.

A resting area, a shady patio off of the room, has been obliterated by hoods, a tossed rock, or nature.  The two lounge chairs are long-gone, stolen or blown away, probably lying somewhere near the interstate. The cut branches?  Early Twenty-first century tumbleweeds.  

“Things fade into the distance faster and faster in the rear-view mirror of memory,” Jean Baudrillard, America.

Doors provide the illusion of privacy.  Removed, their absence reminds us of how thin they really are.  An empty bedside table, a tottering lamp, ugly things caught with their clothes off.  What’s missing: an eye-hole, a chain-lock, room freshener; things we hide behind.  When the elements strip away a motel’s comfort and protection, what’s left but brutality and ugliness, a regression back to the true nature of the place: a temporary stay against chaos and disorder.

“At times, the simpler the image, the vaster the dream,” Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics Of Space

You and your tired, hungry family can relax knowing that a full-service, high-quality restaurant awaits you at your motel.  A top-rated chef will prepare fresh, delicious meals to help you wind down your fun-filled days of touring and exploring.  And when the kids are asleep, dad and mom can slip down to the cocktail lounge and enjoy a drink or two, unwinding with new friends and pleasant strangers.  Then it’s back to your comfortable room for a night of blissful slumber, dreaming of tomorrow’s drives to new places, and new  possibilities.  Have a good night on us.  We hope you return. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"Life should be an aim unto itself; a purpose unto itself."

I've just finished reading Sara Bakewell's absorbing How To Live: Or A Life Of Montaigne In One Question And Twenty Attempts At An Answer.  Montaigne was a fascinating man in his commonness.  His life wasn't common — the majority of us are not born into nobility, live on a prosperous wine-growing estate, or became mayor of a town, let alone enjoy sufficient leisure time to devote to writing — but as anyone who's a fan of Montaigne's Essays knows, the ordinariness of living, not one's special trappings, is his great and endless subject.  Montaigne's "I," though a unique one, is universal; at its best, his hundreds of pages of autobiographical essaying over decades reduce (or elevate) that "I" to a silhouette of the human condition, where Montaigne's specific biographical details and 16th century historical and regional contexts evaporate into ether that drifts over time.  What's left is the human across ages.

This is not new, of course, but Bakewell's biography does a great job of freshly presenting Montaigne's achievements both during his life and after his death, discussing not only the content of his essays but the heated and humane reactions to them by successive generations, and how those generations found warmth in or recoiled from Montaigne's musings.  How To Live explores the human's tendency to recognize himself/herself in what's gazed upon, whether it's a mirror, a book, a political process, or an act of war.  Bakewell describes the manner which the Romantics, the Protestants, the Victorians, the English, the Twentieth Century postmodernists, among many others, all found their own versions of Montaigne — and how they needed to — and how those versions were created and affected by the politics of translation, of abridgement, of religion, and of pride and self-indulgence.  And as Bakewell points out again and again, this would have delighted Montaigne, "the accidental philosopher," wryly aware as he was of the flux of life, the self-interested need for the corroboration of self, and of the limitless lives of language in the minds and hearts of readers.


I came to Montaigne late, and hesitantly.  He'd slipped through the cracks in my undergraduate education (so did Yeats!), and he was of little interest to me beyond a dutiful head-nod to the The Cannon until I moved from writing poems to writing essays, about a dozen or so years ago.  Suddenly, he was everywhere: in my reading, in the libraries of my favorite essayists, in my shamed, late-to-the-party conscience.  So I moved through the Essays slowly, first with Phillip Lopate's help, then on my own, eyes glazing at the obscure historical references; I taught the essays for a semester, and slowly grew to appreciate them beyond a kind of essayist's obligation.  One day it struck me that appreciating and fully absorbing Montaigne was going to take the bulk of my lifetime.  Then he made sense.  "Anyone who turns his prime attention onto himself will hardly ever find himself in the same state twice."  It was going to take a while.  A man's life.


Bakewell writes:
Modern readers who approach Montaigne asking what he can do for them are asking the same question he himself asked of Seneca, Sextus, and Lucretius—and the same question they asked of their predecessors.  This is what Virginia Woolf's chain of minds really means: not a scholarly tradition, but a series of self-interested individuals puzzling over their own lives, yet doing it cooperatively.  All share a quality that can simply be thought of as "humanity": the experience of being a thinking, feeling being who must get on with an ordinary human life—though Montaigne willingly extended the union of minds to embrace other species too.
     That is why, for Montaigne, even the most ordinary existence tells us all we need to know:

     I set forth a humble and inglourious life; that does not matter.  You can tie up all moral philosophy with a common and private life just as well as with a life of richer stuff.

Indeed, that is just what a common and private life is: a life of the richest stuff imaginable.

Bakewell's book is less a biography of Montaigne than it is a biography of mind, a chronicle of thinking.  Montaigne's often described as the first "modern person"; he was also the first blogger, in that he edited and rewrote obsessively, never bound by false closure, always open to doubt and uncertainties, to the fluid nature of life and of self-expression.  (Many have made this point about Montaigne; especially good is Andrew Sullivan's take.)  Bakewell also tackles the tendentious, somewhat ludicrous history of  book publishing, and the violence of Catholic/Protestant warring, the mania of the French Civil Wars, and the heated, intimate nature of mentors and mentees.  Above all, How To Live is a well-written account of how honest, measured, disciplined, skeptical engagement of the self is the great leveler.  Smart, impressively researched, calming, and humane, How To Live is an important book.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ordinary Matters With Luc Sante

Luc Sante has been essaying the fringes and half-shadows of American culture for many years.  His first book Low Life (1991) was a dense, grimy, wholly alive account of Manhattan in the 18th and 19th centuries.  (Sante's research and the book's verisimilitude attracted Martin Scorsese, who hired Sante as an advisor on Gangs Of New York.)  In his many books and edited collections since, including Evidence (1992), Walker Evans (1999), Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces 1990-2005 (2007), and Folk Photography (2009), Sante explores the commonplace, the underside, the accidental and the artful in American life.  He engages photography, literature, art, and music with a scholar's skill and an everyman's perspective, never forgetting that the minor, unself-conscious Americana document has the power to move us as profoundly as conventional art-making.  As Sante himself says on his image blog Pinakothek, "Generally I favor humble over great, marginal over central, old over new—but not always, because like a four-sided porch I'm open to all winds."

Sante was born in Belgium in 1954 and moved with his family to New Jersey in the early 1960s.  In 1998 he published The Factory of Facts, an autobiographical account of his upbringing and emigration.  Sante currently teaches at Bard College.  His essay "My Lost City" is one of my favorite pieces about New York City.  I recently e-interviewed him about writing, photography, and nostalgia.


I'd like to start with the personal nature of your writing. Are you a daily writer?

No, I'm not.

Why did you decide to write an autobiography?

I don't think of The Factory of Facts as an autobiography. It only goes up to about age 7 or so, for one thing, but it's not primarily about me at all. It's about my family and my city and southern Belgium in general, which few Americans have visited or know anything about. I wrote it because I wanted to make an accounting of where I came from, and it's relentlessly specific, but my alibi was that it was about the experience of immigration and displacement, an experience more widely shared today than in my actual childhood.

What do you mean by "alibi"? Defending the specificity of the book?

I'll leave "alibi" alone, if you don't mind.

What role does "Resume" play, those very cool alternate "I was born” mini-memoirs at the front of The Factory of Facts? At what point in the book's writing did you compose them? And why?

I'd been struggling to start the book for a couple of years when one day I woke up from a nap and wrote the "Resume" chapter in a single breath. It made the rest of the book possible. "Resume" helped me by putting matters into perspective, confronting my fears—my early years were drenched in fear, and all those alternate scenarios represented very specific fears (there were a few that were even more scabrous that I omitted from the book because my parents were still alive and I didn't want to cause them pain), and it set up a verbal rhythm. Maybe that last one is actually the most important.

You essay the past often. I'm interested in the role that nostalgia plays in your writing, both in your autobiographical work and your less personal work. You successfully avoid nostalgia and sentimentality in Low Life, and elsewhere. Do you guard against being led or deterred by nostalgia/sentiment when writing about the past, especially about customs and modes of living that are gone for good?

Nostalgia plays no part when I'm writing about the time before my birth. I'm deeply interested in the past and compelled to try and recreate what it was like to live in a certain long-gone time—something I've now done in a number of works—but I can't be nostalgic about something I didn't physically experience, can't imagine how one could be.

Maybe I meant feeling sentimental for a long-past age, for what it represented, and now represents.

When I've written about my own youth, that's a different matter. I do have to find a way to contend with nostalgia when addressing the 1970s, but I think I have pretty effective built-in guards against sentimentality.

Is that a native guard, something in your temperament/personality, or something that you've fashioned by necessity?

Yeah, I think my anti-sentimentality guards were fashioned by necessity long ago—I lived in a household where the chief theme was regret (my parents regretting Europe, primarily) and was both prey to it and determined to fight it.

About what in the 1970s are you/could you be sentimental? The way the city's culture was, the way you were?

Whenever I think about the 1970s I feel a gigantic weight of loss, about a great many things but especially about living a scavenger existence outside the market economy (but not, like, in the woods). The past thirty years have been a huge regression—people are working more and getting less and there's no hope in sight.

What jobs did you hold in the city? You teach now, but were you able to commit yourself to writing full-time?

I worked at the Strand Bookstore for three years after college, then as assistant to a photographer who specialized in author bookjacket photos for about six months, then for four years at the New York Review of Books—one year in the mailroom, three years as assistant to Barbara Epstein. That was my last fulltime job. Then for five years or so I was a proofreader at Sports Illustrated—a fantastic job at the twilight of both proofreading (they eliminated the job category circa '91) and of the paternalistic corporation. Full benefits for 17 hours' work a week was a good deal.

In 1990 the murder rate in NYC was the highest in the city's history. You were presumably writing or finishing Evidence around the time. Was the city's then-crime wave an influence on you and/or that book in any way?

No. I had no idea of that statistic. I was aware of murder as an aspect of the city in both the long and short term, but my book was not intentionally about the current headlines. It was about photography first and foremost.

As a scholar (and fan) of photography and its cultural history, what is your reaction/attitude toward the explosion of personal images in the form of digital self-documenting (i.e., digi cams, phone cameras, Facebook, etc.)? Do you see this as a positive development?

I see it as a neutral development. We don't know yet what the ultimate effect will be. I imagine that more photographic images have been produced in the last year than in the first 150 years of photographic history, something like that, and so grasping the totality is nearly impossible. The pix also seem more dully competent and less risky, but there are undoubtedly other complications. Just the other day I met some young people who described themselves as photo collectors, and it turned out that they collect by selecting and downloading pix from online databases. It thought that was great. Much editorial and curatorial work lies ahead.

In Folk Photography you write of early American domestic and regional photographers, and how isolated they were from one another, having few examples of photography to react or conform to, or rebel against. Now we have the inverse situation, it seems to me. Do you see us reaching critical mass at some point? A teenager can have over 1,000 images of himself on Facebook, gathered in just a year or so!

Our relationship with photography is changing in very large ways we can't yet see. For one thing, the set rather than the individual picture is the unit of measure on Flickr. And pictures taken simply as documents are much more compelling that the ones taken for artistic purposes. (Well, maybe this has always been the case, actually.) We may well end up with a situation where photography as an art is something relegated entirely to the past, while photography continues in daily life as a mere unremarkable practice of recording. Advertising is what will keep schools of photography in business.

Given the capacity/potential of art to "return us to the world refreshed" as A.R. Ammons described poetry, why do you think it is that photo-as-document is more compelling than a quote-unquote artfully-composed photo?

Because it's unconscious. The unconscious mind is much more interesting than the conscious mind. But it's also the case in the other arts that you make good work by following a rhythm, a color, an image, etc., whereas if you decide deliberately to tackle an important subject you will produce dogshit. Your unconscious has to do that tackling while you remain more or less unaware.

Can advertising photography ever move us profoundly? Or do artists have to co-opt it, approach it from a different angle, such as Walker Evans (signs, billboards, etc) and others?

Not these days. This actually follows from what I said earlier. Advertising photography, besides being an aspect of evil, is far too calculated and calculating nowadays to be any good. Evans's pictures were not advertising. They were documenting advertising, which is another matter altogether, and it was advertising of the Eat At Joe's variety, which was the very opposite of calculating, and which is in the process of disappearance, at least in the Western world.

Yeah, I know that Evans wasn't in advertising; he was photographing advertising in interesting ways that revealed their aesthetics, such as they were. On to the present: who are you reading now who's compelling to you? Any current and/or future projects to mention?

I just read Geoff Dyer's The Missing of the Somme, an older book by him that used to be hard to find here. It's terrific and he's terrific. I'm rereading Colin Fletcher's The Man from the Cave (1982) in preparation for a trip to the southern California desert, where I've never been. Fletcher's book was the second book to make me want to go there (the first was Ed Sanders's The Family). I'm slowly beginning work on a very slo-mo translation of Maxime Vuillaume's Mes Cahiers Rouges (1914), a nearly hour-by-hour account of the last week of the (1982) in preparation for a trip to the southern California desert, where I've never been. Fletcher's book was the second book to make me want to go there (the first was Ed Sanders's Paris Commune.

And I have two big writing projects, but I'm superstitious—sorry.

Friday, December 10, 2010

An Origin Story

Spying on a teenaged couple making out in the woods I lost control of my ten-speed and went careening off the path and in my hot memory the couple turns toward me and mouth curses that I've willfully mistranslated down the years, and the other time, walking up Amherst Avenue to 7-11 staring hungrily at the girl in shorts atop her ten-speed I ran into a parking meter and saw stars and bruised the bridge of my nose, a story I've told elsewhere and a story that lingers like a poor-boy's myth, the way it dissolves, always dissolves into the yellow afternoon when my brother was trying to take a hill in his bike and he couldn't make it to the top and lost control and slid hysterically down to the bottom, and the jeers and laughter from the other kids there — girls and bikes, and woods, and watching, and boys' hoots and a boy's submissions.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Fleshtones Ain't Leavin' 'Till You're Believin'

Bottom Lounge, Chicago, June 2010
I've been asked plenty of times if I plan on writing a follow-up to Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band.  The band jokes about the next edition, too.  (And the edition after that — they don't call themselves Living Legends for nothin'.)  It took me half a decade to write the book, and it's only been three years since it came out, but the band's been involved since then in enough sloppy, fun, high-intensity International Action to at least make "Volume 2" something to semi-seriously consider.  I've no doubt that they will be around long enough to warrant a sequel.

In the meantime, they're laying low, mastering a new album that they've recorded on NYC's Lower East Side with the legendary Lenny Kaye.  It's out in March, and the guys are supporting it with their busiest gigging year in a long, long time — (What is this, 1986??) — including a swing through SXSW.  There will be plenty of Flickr and YouTube evidence, and I'll be hanging out at as many of the shows as I can.

If you want to get a taste for this great American band, check out Sweat, and/or Geoffray Barbier's great documentary Pardon Us For Living But The Graveyard Is Full, posted in-full here.  As the Fleshtones once sang, they can't change their luck, but they can change your mind.

Photo by Amy Newman.  Ken Fox was feeling under the weather, hence my minute as a poor-man's/poor-band's Jimmie Nicol.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The New Remembering

Driving home after shows at the 9:30 Club or The Bayou or Wax Museum.  My ears are ringing.  We cruise up 16th Street into Maryland jamming to tunes in the car, drinking the night down, and already my memory is conspiring against me.  I try to recall the opening number, the sequence of songs, what'd they play for the first encore? what'd he say then...?  Among the bittersweet contents the next day were the hangover, the hopeless peering into an empty wallet, and the piecing together of the show.  All very Twentieth Century, I know, a kind of analog blank, replaying an event in my head with only the dubious, faulty aid of memory.  Occasionally we'd sneak a mini-cassette recorder into a show — to tape the gig or to ask band members for station IDs for WMUC, the college station where I was a DJ — and the result was usually a muddy roar, a blurred legend on the map.

Many bands like Phish have been encouraging show-taping and -swapping for years, and now — and this has been happening for a while — clubs like the Double Door in Chicago will record select shows direct from the soundboard to be downloaded the minute you're home, or immediately on the premises.  How many times have I seen kids at shows holding up their smart phones or Flip video cameras to record a show for posterity, guffaw and groove to it on the way home on the train or in the cars, or even while the show's going on.  Now, when I miss a show by choice or otherwise, I head to YouTube and minutes after the gig's over someone somewhere will post ten minutes of what I "missed."  Old news.  People take photos at shows and spend the next few minutes head-down, scrolling, looking at what they've taken or sending pics out to friends while dBs are roaring over their heads.  The New Remembering is Instant Memory, GB FlashPast, RAMNostalgia.  The New Remembering is a kind of slide show of the near past in digital precision — before memory and desire and the co-mingling of both produce myth.

I sound dreadfully Luddite.  I don't mean to.  I don't miss ringing ears — remarkably, my hearing is still excellent after decades of rock & roll and I want to keep it that way — though I might miss the dark room that that ringing creates: a room of shifting shapes and memories, half-forgotten shards and story images creating their own, new stories and moments the next day as we wake and begin to sift through what happened.  I will resist downloading those stories, I will tell them instead.  How long will this stubborn (stupid) tethering to last century last.

"Vintage Tape Recorder Book" via Etsy Vintage.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Essays @ Scribd

I've posted some more essays up at Scribd, a few going back a bit: "Swooning At St. Andrew's" (from River Teeth, 2001), "After Cornell" (Quarter After Eight, 2001), "Lime Green" (Quarterly West, 1998), "Gazing" (Caketrain, 2007), and "Looking For Karl" (Under The Sun, 2007).

Monday, November 29, 2010

"A kind of love letter to the teenage rock’n'roll fan"

I was happy to see that Highway to Hell, along with nine other titles, was selected by Flavorwire as a "must-read" book in the 33 1/3 Series:

Bonomo’s take on Highway to Hell is full of all the juicy parts on the band that would appear in any VH1 special: the fighting, the partying, and the tragic demise of Bon Scott from alcohol poisoning shortly after the album was completed. But it also takes on more elusive, less gossipy fare like the power of adolescent fandom–that drive that leads you, as a 16-year-old to plaster your walls with posters of a band and spend your meager savings on a stadium ticket. It’s a kind of love letter to the teenage rock’n'roll fan, as well as an excellent critical breakdown of the album itself.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Learning Empathy With Sinatra

My dad's a tremendous Frank Sinatra fan, so I happily grew up in a home where his records often played. Some of my earliest music memories are listening to, and loving, the great songs on my dad's albums: In The Wee Small Hours, Songs For Swingin’ Loversespecially Sinatra’s Swingin' Session. The latter’s “When You’re Smiling,” “I Concentrate On You,” “My Blue Heaven” are spirited and fast and I’d love when upstairs doing my homework or idling on a weekend I’d hear the needle drop on the family stereo in the rec room. I knew my dad was in a good mood, and I knew that the next hour or so was going to be fun. Sometimes, usually after dinner, usually after a martini or two, he'd disappear down to the rec room and in the dark listen with the headphones on, moaning along atonally, his eyes shut. My mom would smile behind her hands and this would become a house sound — sonorous but wailing, tuneless but urgent — that the family would laugh at, and about. But I intuited vaguely that those moments were necessary for my dad, that somehow they were unavoidable.

I loved listening to those albums with my dad because we’d move close together during those hours. He's of southern Italian heritage and it never takes much — small family joys, a hug, a run-scoring double — to moisten his eyes. But nothing brought out his warmth and emotional life more for me than Sinatra’s voice. I’d sit on the couch and listen along, and imagine my dad's younger self, that half-shadowed Brooklyn figure, pre-Mom, more heavily accented, thinner, smiling at young women whose faces I couldn’t picture, taking the subway into New York for a nickel or a dime and humming along to songs in his head.

One of his favorite Sinatra albums is the sublime Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim. Pushing forty with five children, my dad bought the album when it was released, in 1966. This was an unusual record and sound relative to the hard swing albums, and when it would come on I knew that my dad’s mood was subtly different from when he’d play ‘S’posin” or "I've Got You Under My Skin," or even "Blue Moon," smiling along, shuffling his feet on the rec room floor and gently clapping his hands. The Jobim album is lush, mysterious, nearly tropical in its emotional humidity; yet for all of its smoky sensuality, it’s also cool, controlled, and elegant. A formative album for me (with my dad’s blessing I took it when I moved to graduate school), the Sinatra/Jobim collaboration is of its Pop Brazilian-scented era yet also, in its subtle orchestration and Claus Ogerman's nimble, elegant arrangements, transcendent.

Listening to the bossa nova take on Irving Berlin’s “Change Partners,” I’m brought back to the 70s and our split-level suburban home, the air-conditioned rec room, the period furniture, the stereo and quadraphonic speakers, my swaying dad. Is this a Saturday night and my parents home from their weekly dinner out, my dad loosened and sentimental with wine...

...“The lyrics, Joe, the words. Listen to how he sings them.” Must you dance every dance, with the same fortunate man?...Your lips touching his face...Can’t you see I’m longing to be in his place? “The way he sings them. Somehow he lets you know exactly what he’s thinking. Oh. Sinatra was a master.” My dad’s eyes are wet, and I’m glimpsing his romantic (romanticized?) past again, entanglements from decades earlier that I can only guess at, but his mood is weighted with something, not flimsily mawkish. You know exactly what he’s thinking. What is my dad thinking: what-if or what is? Sinatra’s fifteen years older than my dad, singing about a heartbroken guy in a club who’s contemplating a silly ruse with a hoax phone call so he can get his shot at the girl on the dance floor. On the outside. I’m a kid. I get it. “It’s his phrasing.” The strings playing minor notes. I want to say, yeah I hear it.

A few days later and I gush at my dad about the final movement of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue,” which I’ve been listening to obsessively. “Dad I picture a guy and a girl on top of different apartment building in New York, looking out across the alley or the street at each other during a rainstorm, but they can’t have each other!” My voice cracks. My dad gets it. I’m feverish and embarrassing in my adolescent discovery. I’m returning the favor. I know exactly what you’re thinking.


But for perspective: around this time my parents came home from their Saturday night dinner, tipsy. Peaking in our KISS fandom, my younger brother Paul and I were listening to Paul Stanley’s solo album. The four connecting posters hung on the wall in the basement, and upstairs in the rec room we were completing the shallow pop myth. My mom and dad came downstairs, their smiles loose, their eyes a little glassy. They muttered something and laughed quietly and looked at each other and started slow-dancing to Stanley’s chintzy “Tonight You Belong To Me.” My brother and I were mortified, unable to know what to do, so we looked at each other, and then at our feet. My parents danced in a small private circle to the corny ballad, and I flushed and grew annoyed, embarrassed at their tenderness and affection. I wish a little of the empathy my dad taught me with Sinatra could have pushed up through my adolescent pride. I wish I’d known exactly what they were thinking.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

An Origin Story

The 45 twelve-pack from Korvettes spun in rotation on the family stereo and Sweet's "Little Willy" became as real as my real friends, until the day my older brother sat on the record on the living room couch, cracking the single for good, and then I learned the sadness of broken records — Fitzgerald compared his nervous breakdown to a cracked dinner plate; I'll call adolescent sadness a cracked 45, irreparable, for-good gone, and the analog era of snapped tape and busted 8-tracks and torn album covers crept forward, and not enough kitchen scotch tape in all of Wheaton could splice together the Dart Drug cassettes lost to mean feet or indifference or random tosses down the basement steps.  Now I long for all of the moving parts of my past in a digital age of bits and bytes, where are my cracked 45s?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Who is she?

I'm wondering what accounts for our ability to picture people who we don’t know, or who may not even exist, when we hear or read about them.  I’m not referring to the mental image that comes after listening to or reading a highly-descriptive passage wherein someone’s acute physical characteristics are given (of course even then, one’s person’s “tall and rangy” might be another’s “wizened and weak,” so no two pictures are alike).  I mean: the image of that person that materialises immediately when one’s offered the merest of physical details  Last night as I listened This American Life I naturally and unselfconsciously pictured the man who was centrally described in the episode.  Afterward, I got online to see a photograph of him and was surprised (why?) that he didn't look at all how I'd imagined.

She walked in the room and shyly ran her hand along the window sill.

Who do you see?  Shyness, OK, that opens a certain window onto past or present people we might know who are timid, or who act timidly in certain places or situations.  But if I pare further, removing her shyness: 

She walked in the room and ran her hand along the window sill.

We still see her, maybe now a different her.  “Her.”  Why?  I wonder what we draw on, if there are there essential human gestures, Ur-Gestures, silhouettes into which the human naturally fits.  I’m not a linguist, nor an expert in semiotics, perception, the imagination, or the brain; perhaps these fields can provide answers, of a sort.  Collective Unconscious, Signs, shared Cultural Histories....  I wonder what I draw on as I people a scene when offered little but anti-details. 

She walked in the room.

She walked.

Who is she now?  Who do you see?  Your sister, your mother, a friend, a girlfriend, an ex, a character from a story a movie a song.  Wholly imagined, or living next door?  As fully rendered a fictional character Jay Gatsby is, we all know that there are an infinite number of Gatsby's in the world's sympathetic imaginations.  (The exasperated sighs that come in response to how a novel's film version is cast.  Redford!?  DiCaprio!?)  In his very interesting piece "The Creature Lurches From The Lagoon," novelist Ricky Moody essays his experience of having witnessed The Ice Storm being made into a movie, and he says a lot of interesting things about film's failure (inability, actually) to translate the interior life.  About translation (the heart of film adaptation) he says, 

No exact translation. At the moment of a translation or adaptation is a loss, a falling away from the spirit of the original, a depletion. A photograph is not a thing, even a word is not a thing, but a cinematic adaptation of a word (a sequence of moving pictures) is by its nature farther from the world of the actual and is thus artificial, like the prose paraphrasis of a poem, a falling away, a capitulation to the ingenuine.

And I guess that's what we're doing when we imagine a scene we're reading or listening to, a kind of translating of the semi-known into the known.  The implications for memoir seem very interesting to me: I try and describe very accurately someone I know, yet when you read or listen, you're seeing someone vaguely, or maybe wildly, different.  Substituting, without realizing or against your will, your own person.  Truth here is indeed a slippery notion if my actual is shaped by yours, if my literal (this really happened) is reassembled by your re-casting.  "That really happened to me, too." 


Is it empathy that fills in the blanks?  Who haunts our seeing as we see.  How do we cast the room when the room’s barely there.

“Faceless” via Russ Okon

Saturday, November 20, 2010

In Which I Wrestle With Roger Angell And Lose

I turned to Ame outside of Jewel tonight and said, “Well OK, it’ll now be cold every day until April.” Thus I’ve been thinking more than usual about baseball.  I’ve been to a lot games, but my memories revolve less around the park than objects, images: my autographed Brooks Robinson photo; my card collections from 1976 and 1977; the head-tingling sight of a Topps three-pack at Wheaton Newsstand, an allowance splurge.  I kept the cards in a faux Army locker: Ken Singleton, Rupert Jones, Randy Jones, Fred Lynn, etc..  Earliest: the pennants hanging on the walls of my older brother’s room.  The Senators, and later the Orioles.  I think he had a Mets program from the late 60s?  The poster commemorating Hank Aaron’s record-breaking home run, the first still image of the game that I remember as viscerally exciting, the warm Southern black night, the arc of the ball, Aaron's wide disbelieving eyes.  A year later Carlton Fisk hit his infamous homer in Game Six of the World Series, and I watched it from the top of the stairs.  I think.  I remember raucous cheers from the rec room.  Did I dream that.  The endless replays.

I didn’t need to conjure the great Yankees postseason teams of the late 70s/early 80s.  My dad picked me up from school at Saint Andrew's so we could rush home and watch the one-off playoff game between the Yankees and Red Sox on October 2, 1978, a game that  Bucky Dent ended dramatically, and surprisingly.  I watched in surreal excitement and an intuitive sense of the lasting as Reggie hit his three home runs in Game Six of the ’77 Series.  Those Dodgers rivalries were a blast, I can recall my dad sitting on the chair, he feet tucked under his butt, rigid with excitement like a boy, then leaping up happily when Ron Cey overthrew Steve Garvey.  The coasts were barking at each other: Reggie throwing out his hip at the relay throw from second, the ball careening hilariously into the outfield.  Again, the roar from my brother and dad.  I sensed that it was wrong, and loved it because of that.  Bob Welch striking out Reggie with a high fastball, a kid against the legend.  A kid watching.  And I guess I can admit that I had a nonsexual crush on Craig Nettles.

In 1986, the Mets and the Red Sox met in a classic.  I ignored the Series, as I had since the early 80s.  (Brewers?  Cardinals?  Meh.)  The night Ray Knight came racing home as the ball leaked through Bill Buckner’s gimpy legs I was in the booth at my college radio station, guffawing and flirting, buzzed, with friends, spinning obscure records, fashioning a myth, as far away from baseball as I’d get.  Seven years earlier the Orioles had been in the Series against the Pirates.  The only memory I have is vaguely making fun of Willie Stargell’s weight and his cartoony, ballooning shots to center.  Puberty and girls were far too distracting.  I missed another good Series in '87.  The Twins and the Braves in '91, another gem.  One-run games.  Extra innings.  Game Seven.  Complete games from masterful pitchers.  I watched half-attentively, buried in grad school and girls and the bars.  Mild regrets to this day.   

I made up for this in 1992 by watching (though it was tough to manage jumping up and down) as lead-footed Sid Bream slid under the tag and the Braves vaulted into the Series.  As the unaware Pirates began their historic, slow, painful slide into mediocrity, and worse, I became a rechristened fan of the game.  More atonement: in 1995 I made up for ignoring my hometown-by-default Orioles by celebrating Cal Ripken’s consecutive game streak.  I let my students out early from my night class so I could make it home in time to watch the victory lap.

Some of my fondest memories involve the radio, still my favorite way to catch a ballgame.  In 1978 I followed Pete Rose’s consecutive-game hitting streak.  In August of that year my family drove to Coldwater, Ohio to visit my grandparents — an annual trip, grandpa was an ardent Reds fan; his silhouette rising from his radio behind the warm yellow window when we’d arrive from Maryland, tired, gulping in exotic farmland odors, indelible.  Somewhere on the Pennsylvania or Ohio turnpikes by dad tuned in the Reds game and we listened to Rose’s plate appearances.  I imagined each pitch and swing and the one or two hits strobing cinematically against a pitch black foreign Ohio sky. 

Thirty years later, again on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, this time heading east, and Ame said, “Let’s try and tune in a game.”  A button or two later and the White Sox, my team, come on, editorialized by a high-pitched ESPN announcer calling the three outs left for Mark Buehrle’s perfect game.  As I'd imagined Rose’s swings, I imagined DeWayne Wise’s scaling of the center field wall to preserve Buehrle's perfect game.  We were stuck in endless traffic, construction, single-lane purgatory.  We yelled after the last out and I pounded the roof of the car.  Who knew what the passing cars thought.

I'll end (who am I kidding, I'll continue) sentimentally.  On Father’s Day in 2006 I drove from Illinois to Maryland to surprise my dad.  He, my brother and his son, and I went to the Nationals game.  We turn to art, narrative and abstract, to give us life shaped: Ryan Zimmerman hit a game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth.  Moments later amidst the din I spied Mariano Rivera, head-down, walking to the dugout. 


I strongly resist the mythologizing and sepia-tinted, precious narratives that can arise when lovers of baseball discuss their game, especially with the nostalgic accumulation of decades of fandom behind them. I’ll end with Zimmerman’s walk-off.  Three generations of Bonomo’s cheering.  Clichés originating in beautiful truths.

"Baseball in Snow" via Rockpile Rant

Thursday, November 18, 2010

William Hazlitt vs. Cap'n Crunch

In the 1820s William Hazlitt published his great essay “On The Pleasure Of Hating.” Ranting, confessing, bemused, hands-in-air, Hazlitt takes on man’s capacity for intense dislike, slotting it crankily among our passions. It’s a riot of an essay, a little strange, overheated and rambling, starting with an odious little spider and spreading across Europe. He essays political affairs, friendship, religion, tyranny, office politics, and art — and the dejection that comes after something’s lost its magical hold on us.  On once-striking books (and substitute just about anything here for books, as Hazlitt does): “We take a dislike to our favourite books, after a time, for the same reason. We cannot read the same works for ever. Our honey-moon, even though we wed the Muse, must come to an end; and is followed by indifference, if not by disgust.” I love the dark little secret tucked away near the end of the essay.  Hazlitt's grieving the fading over time of art's charms:
we afterwards miss the accompanying circumstances, and instead of transferring the recollection of them to the favourable side, regret what we have lost, and strive in vain to bring back "the irrevocable hour" — wondering in some instances how we survive it, and at the melancholy blank that is left behind! The pleasure rises to its height in some moment of calm solitude or intoxicating sympathy, declines ever after, and from the comparison and conscious falling-off, leaves rather a sense of satiety and irksomeness behind it... 
Then he recalls a favorite painting by a favorite painter, Titian:
I don't know why, but an air breathes from his landscapes, pure, refreshing, as if it came from other years; there is a look in his faces that never passes away. I saw one the other day. Amidst the heartless desolation and glittering finery of Fonthill, there is a portfolio of the Dresden Gallery. It opens, and a young female head looks from it; a child, yet woman grown; with an air of rustic innocence and the graces of a princess, her eyes like those of doves, the lips about to open, a smile of pleasure dimpling the whole face, the jewels sparkling in her crisped hair, her youthful shape compressed in a rich antique dress, as the bursting leaves contain the April buds! Why do I not call up this image of gentle sweetness, and place it as a perpetual barrier between mischance and me? — It is because pleasure asks a greater effort of the mind to support it than pain; and we turn after a little idle dalliance from what we love to what we hate! 
Hazlitt, you crank, I've got you: it’s too much work keeping buoyant the airless enchantment of love.  Relationships take work.  You should know that.  Loss is inevitable, and what are our choices: lament? Whine? Hate? Reconciliation?  On some days Hazlitt’s argument with the world strikes me as petulant and lazy, on other days cynical and immature, but always humane and honest.


I wonder where nostalgia fits. I’ve worried before about her seductions, her dewy, moist-eyed substitution of writerly diligence with airy mawkishness. And at the risk of courting eye-rolls, and groans all around: I had a dream the other night about a favorite toy when I was a kid, the Cap’n Crunch Spy Kit, an early-70s premium.  I begged my mom to save the box tops. We dutifully collected enough, mailed them in and, during an agonizing, very-20th century wait, I looked longingly at the approaching mailman.  (Six to eight weeks.) When the compact brown envelope finally arrived I opened up it with joy and disbelief. A tailing remnant of 1960’s spy fascination, the "Seadog Spy Kit" was blue molded plastic — “attache”-shaped, clip-on-belt style — and held inside a siren whistle, Morse Code and decoder, a "message flasher," a sundial, and compass. Man, I loved it.  The boring D.C. suburban sun and coordinates rendered the sundial and compass oddly uninteresting, but the Morse Code and decoder vaulted me into all kinds of imaginative play.  It was a little kit of stories, my Spy Kit, all for me.  And I happily revisited those day-log possibilities in my dream.

Fast forward: 2010.  What do I do upon waking, of course, but head to the Internet and, within minutes, find images of the Spy Kit.  And yes, thanks to the largess of online auction and eBay sellers, I was transported back to days when my imagination demanded just the barest of plastic props to stage hours of drama, melodramatic and otherwise.  The air-conditioned basement, the humid backyard, the infinite expanse of the crab apple tree branches....

The nostalgic pleasures I felt when looking at the long-gone spy kit — that remarkable frisson experienced when an object matches its imagined doppelganger —  were, of course, warm, fuzzy, head-lifting, etc..  I see Hazlitt over there in the corner, fuming, but with an eyebrow lifted.  William, if I've been reading you correctly, you must hate nostalgia, that charmer between past pleasure and present regret.  But nostalgia's hard to hate; in fact nostalgia's too easy to love.  Was this what Hazlitt was steeling himself against?  I've no doubt that his wide-ranging observations about Continental politics and religion, poisoned and rendered cynically stagnant by man's capacity to hate, were urgent, dearly-held; I've no doubt that his friendships that curdled did so irrevocably and sadly, as happens.  But I'm happily skeptical of his lamenting art's failure to rouse us consistently.  The work (sorry, but it is work) of the spectator, the reader, the listener, is to reenter the work once the enchantment has faded, to find a way back in to what once was so effortlessly entered, even before we saw the door.  Substitute love, friendship, work.

Nostalgia?  Well, it's a way in, isn't it?  A pleasant tide that carries us back to a source of wonder and mystery.  (Nostos: homecoming!)  But we have to be wary of the course it takes us on, as nostalgia can just as easily settle us in a field of soft, fragrant forgetfulness as a field of hard, jarring stones.  In one we remember what we want, in the other we remember what we must.  Nostalgia is a great mode of remembering, but it can render us lazy rememberers.

Monday, November 15, 2010


London on July 4, 1988 was a weird place to be an American.  Lying on my small bed in a small room at the Beach Hotel in Croydon, I felt that the disorienting experience of living out an American cliché on foreign soil is intensified when that soil is English.  Musty pages of old history textbooks wheeled past me as in a poor movie effect.  Compounding my sense of self-consciousness was my overall, gawky international naiveté, but even this was overshadowed by the news I overheard in Victoria Station soon after my arrival: Americans have shot down a Korean jet airliner.  The glances exchanged between the old chaps in the station stung genuinely, and I felt ill-at-ease, as if I a tacky, pop-up map of downtown Washington D.C. now hung implicatively around my neck; were I strolling with a red-white-and-blue sparkler in each hand I couldn’t have felt more obvious.

I was an American in an odd place, where I depended on maps to get me around, journal entries hinting at complexities of the lived experience. “Not only is it easy to lie with maps,"Mark Monmonier observes in How to Lie with Maps, published in 1991, "it’s essential":

To portray meaningful relationships for a complex, three-dimensional world on a flat sheet of paper or a video screen, a map must distort reality.  As a scale model, the map must use symbols that almost always are proportionally much bigger or thicker than the features they represent. To avoid hiding critical information in a fog of detail, the map must offer a selective, incomplete view of reality.  There’s no escape from the cartographic paradox: to present a useful and truthful picture, an accurate map must tell white lies.
Pre-Google Map, Monmonier asks, “What do advertising and cartography have in common?  Without doubt the best answer is their shared need to communicate a limited version of the truth. . . . the map must omit details that would confuse or distract.”  What’s a map but a larger confusion? The cartographer aims to please, but at its most efficient a map distills, supplanting summary for essence. The color green for trees.  Metaphor for earth.  Abridgment of experience, fading, nonlinear memories straightened out with straight lines.  A paper touchstone.  There it happened, and there it happened, but where did it happen? A map is immense in our cultural memory, its authority vaguely sinister.  Legend, story, popular truth, a clear photograph of the myth, creases and all.  And we believe, popularly, and hand over a reacquaintance with the myth for the myth itself. Claims on the lie of the land.

It's a kind of futile history.  Monmonier says that a map:

suppresses truth to help the user see what needs to be seen.  Reality is three-dimensional, rich in detail, and far too actual to allow a complete yet uncluttered two-dimensional graphic scale model.  Indeed, a map that did not generalize would be useless.  But the value of a map depends on how well its generalized geometry and generalized content reflect a chosen aspect of reality.
Thus the lamentable fate shared by those of us who turn to maps to give us back a sense of experience, to retell an evaporating tale; we sit bewildered like the re-materializing war veteran or the father searching longingly for a legend.  The distance between the map and the land it claims to record faithfully is both figurative and literal, as is the distance between experience and language.  What's remembered remains untranslatable, what's untranslatable remains as desire, and what we've experienced often bears little resemblance to what we see on paper.  “Vision is the intellectual sense,” says J. Douglas Porteous in Landscapes of the Mind. “It structures the universe for us, but only ‘out there’ and ‘in front.’  It is a cool detached sense, and sight alone is insufficient for a true involvement of the self with world.”


OK, the real problem: at the time I was too poor to own a camera, and anyway I believed, in a naive, urgent, stupid way, that my memories would be indelible.  I lost my city guide and map of the London Underground halfway through my ten-day visit.    

Back home in the States, I’d stare at the Rand McNally “City Flash Visitors Map of London,” puzzling to piece together the trip.  The postcard of the Underground map hanging on my refrigerator: a jungle of brightly-colored nerves.  Maps deceived.  I’d stare into a tangle of roads, highways, and subway lines, parks, squares, and lakes.  Blur.  I’m certain I walked down Kings Road, Oxford Street, strolled through St. John’s Wood, visited the Museum, wrote a postcard on Westminster Bridge, stopped in at John Keats’ house — Victorian Line to Green Park to Oxford Circus to Warren Street interchange for Northern Line at Euston to Camden Town to Chalk Farm to Belsize Park to Hampstead—but no associations of any emotional depth are forged by a study of the map, of the roads and blocks I stood on.  Decoding hopeless theory.  The praxis model no longer exists.

In London I dutifully studied my map each morning, outlining the best routes in advance.  I’d savored the visit to Keats’ house, and planned it toward the end of my visit.  But somewhere in downtown London I lost my map and guide, left it behind on the tube, or on a park bench.  I was forced to go on instinct and, though I could have easily purchased another guide, I loved the idea of getting around London — a place I’d been in for only three days — on my own, patching together a circuit through a city I didn’t know, sniffing my way toward what my imagination knew I craved.  I eventually found my way to Keats’ front door, but not before I had to prowl many blocks in conflicting directions, knowing I was near to what I wanted, purposefully ignoring as many signs as I could, coaxing the landscape itself to tilt toward me invitingly, this way or that.

"You Are Here" via Word It Archive.

Friday, November 12, 2010

An Origin Story

Born of an Italian mathematician and a German nurse into the green cradle of the suburbs, fifth of six kids, Patty Hearst on TIME and the fall of Saigon, windows onto a troubling landscape, early lessons in magic at the Rec Center and bike rides into and out of woods that promised solitude and necking couples — I really wanted to steal the origin story of my younger brother who at age two was holding himself up onto the stereo cabinet in the living room watching a record go around — it was Sinatra or Wes Montgomery or Paul Revere and the Raiders — when he turned and for the first time in his life walked upright, beaming, the song behind him.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

In conversation

My idea of a writer is someone who's interested in everything, Susan Sontag.

One does not choose one's subject matter; one submits to it, Gustave Flaubert.

It has been my experience that we do not perceive or write about things as they are, but, rather, we perceive or write about things as we are, Peter Ives.

It is impossible to write meaningless sequences.  In a sense the next thing always belongs.  In the world of imagination, all things belong, Richard Hugo

Memory has its own story to tell, Tobias Wolff

Every man's always a portrait of himself, Samuel Butler

Language led me on, in the most fulfilling way.  It permitted me to learn what was on my mind..., Sydney Lea

Any real communication is exciting, Mariana Torgovnick

Essays don't usually boil down to a summary, as articles do, Edward Hoagland

If my mind could gain firm footing, I would not make essays; I would make decisions, Michel de Montaigne

"Only silence perfects silence," A. R. Ammons.

"Conversation" via

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A reminder

The folks at Continuum Books are running a contest.  Winner receives an autographed copy of Highway to Hell:
The rules for this contest are simple: Why do you love (or hate) AC DC in 500 words or less.
Go wild, images encouraged.  Deadline: Monday, November 8th.
Email submissions to

**UPDATE 11/12**

And the winner is James Brubaker, for whom cousins, weddings, and a particular song will never be the same again:
My cousin eased his new wife into a chair, and then as soon as his knee hit the floor, the DJ pulled the old switch-a-roo, busted out "You Shook Me All Night Long." Instead of reaching up his wife's dress, my cousin stuck his whole head up there, removed the garter with his teeth. That was fucked, man. Have you ever seen your cousin stick his head up his wife's dress and remove her garter with his teeth? That shit stays with you. Until then, I really loved AC/DC. Now when I hear them, "You Shook Me..." specifically, I remember the shock of that moment. So fuck AC/DC. And fuck my cousin, Steve.


Saturday, October 30, 2010

Wheaton Gothic

The strange place.
“Memory is insubstantial,” says Annie Dillard.  “Things keep replacing it.”  OK: what disappears, we replace.  Like many thoughtful observations about writing, Dillard's is also a thoughtful observation about living.  I've had her statement in mind as I've been thinking about a couple that, when I was 11 or so, moved into a house on Arcola Avenue around the corner from my family's.  They were "Bohemian."  I knew this because they wore mostly black, had longish hair, and were childless.  This was the mid-1970s, and they felt different to me, quietly strange.  Their house was a mock-Tudor — and this already marked them as odd, as the ones who live in that weird-looking European house, the faux-Gothic (we didn't know that word), dark place so different from Ours.

This couple was, I'm sure, harmless.  What grievous sin they did commit was in letting their front yard go to seed.  Grass grew wild, waist-high.  Shrubs, untrimmed, reached for ungainly heights.  The front walk was crowded over with weeds.  The house itself grew foreboding, darker somehow (maybe I'm only recalling the house during fall and winter months), and even stranger, and walking past on my way to the public library I sensed a (pre-language) sadness about the place, as if something was going wrong inside.  The wildness of the front lawn seemed riotously unsafe and glaring, an unseemly Yes to chaos and disorder — all of this intuited strangely by me, and obviously only half-comprehended.  I kind of loved and feared the place.  I remember my parents and their friends whispering behind their hands about the couple and their atrocious yard work.  I never saw the two anywhere, ever; but for the few times I glimpsed them out front or coming in and out, they seemed to me to exist permanently on the inside.  

Photo of Levvittown via The Art Of Manliness. 

Wheaton, Maryland was named after Frank Wheaton, an officer in the U.S. Army who rose to the rank of major-general during the Civil War era.  The region, 10 or so miles north of Washington D.C. line, bloomed in the mid-Twentieth century.  The neighborhood where I was raised consisted primarily of small red-brick single family "starter" homes and newer, somewhat larger split-level houses, like ours on Amherst Avenue.  Our friendly suburbia was not manically self-governed — no home owners were fined if their grass grew over a certain height or if their county-strip was too wide or too narrow — but there was an aesthetic uniformity, not unpleasing.  I don't know where this couple's mock-Tudor house came from.  It seemed to spring from some planner's anomalous imagination, a home dropped in the middle of relative homogeny that called attention to itself in gloomy, unhappy ways.  The couple eventually moved out and on, and new owners bought the house.  The front yard was tidied up and, as it were, brought to code.


I keep thinking of Dillard.  What things have I replaced?  Were I to compare a photograph of this house circa the mid-1970s to the house I see in memory, I wonder would the contours line up.  I'm afraid that I've over-dramatized the yard's mess, the couple's outsiderness, the neighborhood gossip.  The home and the nearly-faceless, mythic couple who lived there have been sifted through my imagination for so long that those images and narratives are certain, permanent truths to me now.  And if a photo document of the house — and of course it's coming, sometime, online — conspires against those truths then I'll throw up my hands yet again.  Got me again, verifiable facts.  I still don't believe you.

I've been rereading Jeffrey Eugendies' The Virgin Suicides, a novel that affected me profoundly.  The twenty-year gap between the tragic events in the Lisbon household and the confounding relaying of those events by the collective narrator spills over with grief, mystery, and memory's lame housing of both.  Eugenides said in an interview that if he could be any emotion it would be longing, and longing touches every page of this novel, dampening it.  What troubles the narrators along with the Lisbon girls' bizarre rejection of the world is the narrators' own inability to rub off the tattoo of unknowing.  What to do with unanswerable questions?  Keep asking, searching, in the narrarators' cases with an obsessed, fetishistic investigative process that spans decades and proves fruitless.  

"We haven't kept our tomb sufficiently airtight, and our sacred objects are perishing," the narrators lament near the end of the novel.  They'd attempted, half-successfully, to demystify the Lisbon girls, as Eugenides successfully defamiliarized the suburbs.  I wonder about that strange home around corner from mine, its perishing details that year by year I replace with contents (and content) that I may have well, in part, created, loved, needed in a weird way, manufactured for my own story of growing up in a suburb and its strange pulsing I tuned into.