Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Writer's Dilemma

The last two sentences of "Coda: The Life of the Mind," the last essay in Phillip Lopate's Portait Inside My Head:
For it is only when writing that I begin to exist. In that sense I take no risks by writing: intensely honest self-exposures come easily to me, the most provocative positions that clash with conventional morality are a breeze, complex researches and ambitious structural challenges are finally child's play, next to the difficulty of getting through daily domestic life, trying to love one's family members on a consistent basis (despite the lack of respect they show me compared to the literary community), listening to the neighbors' small talk, and deciding which telephone company provides the best service package.
Both amusing and grave.

Photo via The Aviary.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Rain on the Window

Although I cherish childhood memories of riding my bike all over Wheaton, Maryland, in and out of the dark green woods of Wheaton Regional and Sligo Creek Parks and zipping down suburban streets, and of shooting hoops in my driveway until dusk, I secretly loved waking up to rainy days. (Come to think of it, those activities are solitary endeavors.) My introverted side, there all along but succumbing to adolescent and, later, teenage pressures to remain hidden, embraced the damp, the closing in of gray all around, the outside world shrinking to something psychological, emotionally manageable to me. The politics of the playground and of after-school hangouts, the witnessing from the side of the stage, where I'd often drift, of Naturalism played out among pre-teens and teens, the chill in my chest when faced with acting out with others whatever identity I'd adopted that afternoon: all of these external dramas vanished, as in a magic trick, with the image and soft sounds of rain on the window. Now: I could spend an hour with a book, or with an album, or scribble a lousy poem or, more secretly, shamefully, a dirty story, or just be alone in my head where I was always the happiest and safest, unburdened with the need to be public. Even now as an adult, waking to a rainy day or the prospect of afternoon showers means a staving off of anxieties: yard work and its brutal character-building; certain social engagements; choring I've put off. How eternally childish is it of me to prefer a day that requires the rest of the responsible world to stall in its gregarious, forward-moving momentum; why should I revel in a day that others detest, or that makes the daily tasks of already-busy adults more difficult? If I'm always gladdest when the world slows behind a wet gray window, I may need to sift the childish romance of that from the more pressing notion that I'm falling short of being a grown up.

Image via YouTube.

Saturday, March 18, 2017


I've just finished Phillip Lopate's A Mother's Tale, and it's a doozy, a deeply weird but engrossing hybrid of a book wherein Lopate disentombs taped interviews he'd conducted with his mother, Frances, when she was sixty-six and he was forty-one. For personal and psychological reasons Lopate ignored the tapes for more than thirty years—he'd stuck them in his closet—but recently felt compelled to listen. His relationship with his mother, who died in 2000, was fraught and terribly complex; she was governed by a remarkable tide of bitterness inside of a vexed and unhappy marriage, and Lopate in no small measure defined himself both in sympathy with and in opposition to his mother for his entire life (and it's an ongoing process). In listening to and transcribing the twenty hours of taped conversations, Lopate faced both his younger self asking questions and reacting to, and often challenging and mollifying, his mother, and his present self (Lopate is seventy-three) making sense of a relationship that's in the past but which marks his daily life. The bulk of the book, perhaps too much, is devoted to passages of his mother talking—about her unhappy childhood, her early marriage and overwhelming distaste for her husband, her numerous affairs, her children, her odd jobs, and her late-in-life career as an actress and singer—as Lopate the questioner listens, occasionally responding or pushing back, and as Lopate the writer reflects on the whole, knotty process. For many pages Lopate simply lets his mother go on—and she could talk! and was a larger-than-life character—hopeful that, as she holds forth, complaining usually, her considerable personality will dramatize her life and her many, deeply-ingrained complexities and grievances. This becomes maddening in places, as Frances can really suck the oxygen out of a room, as her children can no doubt testify, and the reader's patience is tested as Frances often ignores her son's attempts to steer her away from solipsism—but that's also what I like about the book, that nerviness, that dare to the reader to put up with it all. That said, I would've liked more present-day Lopate in the book; when he does appear, the passages are marked by his characteristic skeptical reserve, witty intelligence, stabs at resigned wisdom, and clean and entertaining prose—what we Lopate fans love in his writing.  

A Mother's Tale is quite unlike any other book that I've read, and for that I'm grateful. I'm fascinated by it. In a recent conversation with Kristen Martin at Literary Hub, Lopate was asked about the genre of his book. "I think it’s closest to a play," he said. "And I think it could be staged, in fact."
It does seem to me like a dialogue. Now some people think that dialogues have a relationship to essays, coming out of Plato or Oscar Wilde, and in any case, an essay is something that usually necessitates taking different parts of yourself and talking with each other. But I don’t think of it as essentially an essay, and I don’t think it’s a memoir either. It’s a bit of an oral history, because something that struck me a lot was how her own life was playing against the history of the times—particularly as a woman going through all of these periods.
Not an essay, not a memoir. A Mother's Tale does push at the conventional understandings of autobiography, in that it presumes that by listening in on a conversation—which is really, finally, what the book is and what the reader does—the reader can glean essential qualities from the participants, can hear in the back-and-forth, push-pull, personality-clashing of an intimate conversation between a mother and her son something personal, not merely private. On that score, the book succeeds. I do wonder on the confessional nature of the material Frances offers; she and her husband are dead, but Lopate's brother and two sisters are alive, and though much of what Frances unburdens herself of is unlikely to surprise the siblings, some revelations might, or at least go beyond the boundaries of what they would like to have been made public. Lopate doesn't state anywhere in the book that he asked permission of his siblings to publish these conversations. And the book thrives on that matrix of the private and the public: one son listening to his mother speak of family concerns in all of their joy and anguish, in so doing becoming a silhouette of sorts for any child on the long journey from son or daughter to independent adult, still weighted, always weighted, by the burdens of adolescence and of the family dynamic. I've long felt that America's greatest literary subject is the family—the way its definitions are challenged by evolving notions of gender and sexuality, the way the country's size encourages literal distancing and subsequent loss between and among family members, the way immigrant families are sometimes radically affected by assimilation, the way generations fight toward and away from clarity—and A Mother's Tale essays the agonies, secrets, pleasures, and complexities of family in a strangely idiosyncratic, necessary way.


Lopate recently joined his brother Leonard on the latter's WNYC radio show to discuss the book here.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Making it Tidy

In her difficult but rewarding book Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions, film, video and multimedia artist Michell Citron writes about her dreadful experiences with incest and the difficult ways to narrate it in film and prose. In one particularly interesting passage, she nails the tensions between the lure and the weakness of narrative, writing from the perspective of a filmmaker, but the challenges she describes common to any writer:
Narrative renders the incomprehensible understandable. Narrative offers the much needed illusions of coherency and cause and effect where there were none. Narrative puts the author at case. For the audience, however, narrative reduces a complex, confusing, overdetermined tidal wave of experiences and half-found awareness into something that is linear, understandable. It cleans up the trauma, makes it tidy, and makes it, at the structural level, familiar. Narrative makes it seem safe. This is a lie. Everything that makes narrative honest for the author is precisely what makes it false for the audience. Pieces not wholeness, discontinuity not fluidity is a more authentic language for the expression of trauma and its aftermath.
Speaking as an essayist and nonfiction writer, to evocatively and artfully piece together the past with the parts showing, rather than as whole, seamless cloth, seems to me the dividing line between authentic memoir/essays and less-authentic ones, between writing that recognizes the vagaries of memory and the chaos of the past and writing that shapes that chaos into a form with a beginning-middle-end. I've already mixed my metaphors in the preceding sentence, so let me go further. Autobiography-as-architecture: I prefer a partially constructed building with a few enticing closed-off rooms, uneven stairs, mirrors on the walls that distort, a stuffed attic that's off-limits, and the external scaffolding showing. Yet I deal with the necessity of syntax, of sentences and paragraphs. The stubborn question: where is the sweet spot where baffling incoherence—how reality feels—meets art—the root of which, after all, ar, means to shape and mold?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Field Recordings, an update

My new book of music essays Field Recordings form the Inside, has been out for a month. For the uninitiated (and the interested!), I answer seven questions here for Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press about the book, reading, writing, and music, Joshua James Amberson at Los Angeles Review of Books thoughtfully weighs in on the book here, and Literary Hub has posted the title essay, along with a Spotify playlist I created especially for the book, here.

If you're in or visiting Chicagoland in the near future, I have two readings coming up: at the wonderful Seminary-Coop 57th Street Bookstore (where Barack Obama might wander in; I mean, he could) in Hyde Park on April 1 at 2 pm, and in my lovely town of DeKalb at the terrific House Cafe on April 13 at 7 pm. Both readings are free and open to the public, and I'll be signing books at both events.

Details for more events as they're scheduled! Hope to see you! And please spread the word!
Reading at The Book Cellar, March 4.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Schaefer Beer, redux

I've been thinking that it's high time Schaefer beer enjoys a hipster renaissance, a cultural sea change not unlike that which elevated Rolling Rock, PBR, et al from cheap and obscure to cool and coveted. But I'd gravely fear this development, too, of course. I fantasize this because I can't find Schaefer beer—the beer of choice when I was in my 20s and 30s, and a brand I still love—anywhere in northern Illinois, where I live; when I'm on the east coast visiting family I make sure to buy a case or two to bring back home with me. While I'd welcome the increased availability that came with a revival of Schaefer, I'd worry that it might result in higher prices, an unwelcome (by me) change to the brewing process (a process that does not turn on the folks at Beer Advocate), and, worse, the kind of identification among scenesters that might alienate longtime Schaefer fans, those who, like me, won't apologize for the flavor or lack of ABV punch, who love one or several on a hot day, with a sandwich at dinner, or while spinning a stack of old albums into the night. When I was visiting-cum-living in New York City while writing Sweat in the early 2000s, I was stoked to stumble upon the Parkside Lounge on Houston that served Schefer on tap; that supply was short-lived, but there was always that diner off of Union Square that served Schaefer cans, and, later—and still—the wonderful International Bar on First Avenue, my warmly dark, narrow bar of choice for years when I'm in the city, where an always-friendly, always-laughing Claire will sell me an ice-cold can of Schaefer in the late afternoon. Sure, the nearby Burp Castle features a terrific cache of Belgian ales and kick-ass IPAs, and I always duck in there, too, but I often prefer the mild-strength, red-and-gold, American-style lager late of Ebbetts Field and my Washington D.C. suburban adolescence. A fashionable revival of the brand might deliver Schaefer more widely, but on second thought maybe I prefer to seek it out, a corollary to chasing my early and lasting affection for what the mid-century advertisements called the "real beer."

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Great Arrivals

I recently wrote about blue guitarist and performer extraordinaire Guitar Slim, who used to like entering clubs playing a guitar, leaving the club playing a guitar while on the shoulders of his valet, and sometimes driving away from a venue still playing the guitar. I love stylish rock and roll entrances, arrivals, and departures. Screamin' Jay Hawkins emerging from a coffin, P-Funk's Dr. Funkenstein exiting the Mothership, a black-thong attired Prince appearing onstage in a bathtub, Little Richard ending a show with a striptease on top of his piano (alas, no video): these are sublime rock and roll stage moments.

Here are three favorites: Jerry Lee Lewis descending from the heavens while opening his 1964 Grenada TV show with "Great Balls of Fire." Shouldn't he have been ascending from hell? Many commentators at the time thought so. Look at the dancers, they're telling the whole story.

I also love love rock and roll spectacle of the lo-fi variety. Bo knows that all you need for an epic entrance are a few stair-steps, in-sync, sequined gals, and The Beat.

This song comes near the end of AC/DC's blistering performance on Rock Goes to College from 1978, and the sight of a shredding Angus hitting the stage for an encore while aloft on Bon's bare shoulders, with smoke pouring out of his school book bag, is R&R personified. Every 12 year-old kid would wonder—what's in that bag?!