Sunday, March 29, 2020


Scenes from a quieter town. Above, the statue of longtime DeKalb band conductor Dee Palmer at the empty Hopkins Park bandshell named after him. Below, a town and campus quieted by stay-at-home.

Friday, March 27, 2020

For real

In May I was a senior at the University of Maryland; in August I was teaching freshmen at Ohio University—three short months between being a sometimes half-attentive English major to being the teacher laboring to get that kid's attention. My graduate T.A. cohorts and I had had a smattering of training—a three-day intensive with the Director of Freshman Composition on what to expect in a Freshman Composition course, with the emphasis on You Really Can't Predict A Thing—and, wow, there I was: a beautiful Monday morning in quiet, sweet Appalachia, where I'd lived for only a week or so, having alighted from the bustling and cosmopolitan Washington D.C. suburbs, walking into a classroom in an old building to face twenty-five students, all of whom were only a few years younger than me.

To say that I was petrified would be severely understating things. I bolted upright at 3 a.m. virtually every night for weeks that quarter, panicking with a blend of fear, imposter syndrome, and desperation. Teaching freshman composition to half-attentive students was paying my way through graduate school, and for that I was grateful, but that gratitude did little to assuage my sickly fears. All these years later I still feel a nervous flutter in my gut in the moments before I walk into a classroom, and that's a good thing, but nothing quite like what I suffered those first couple of quarters at Ohio University. It turns out, happily, that I love teaching. But it took a while for me to recognize that. That I woke up trembling and managed to march into a classroom three times a week and teach amazes me now.

These memories are returning this week as I'm remote teaching for the first time in my three-decade career. I've come to prize the classroom, the literal space where a handful of students, ranging in age from their twenties to their fifties, and occasionally beyond, gather twice a week to talk, react, think, quarrel, be bored, be thrilled, be resentful, be grateful, be rude, be gracious, remain stubbornly resistant to surprise or bravely open to it. A classroom is a special space, and I'm extremely grateful that I've been allowed to teach in one, learning as much from the students as they are, hopefully, learning from me and the many, many books we read and discuss. Happily, I've never lost the excitement of being a student, and I vibe on the unique energy that students bring. I still vividly recall sitting in a college classroom among strangers, and then friends, bored or riveted, concerned one day with flirting with the girl next to me or mentally assembling the opening set of my campus radio show, and then willfully ignoring all of that the next class if I'd surprised myself into caring about the text we're discussing, bobbing on top of an excited conversation, though shy, maybe lost in the inability to express my thoughts but amped nonetheless to try.

Now, I'm teaching at my desk, in my writing/music room, via Zoom. The moments before the first class began, the butterflies came back; this time I was dependent upon a technology I'd never used before (and about which I've been skeptical for years). Yet when my students' faces began popping up on the screen one by one, my heart melted, There they are! They were sitting in their old bedrooms, or their current apartments, and I could see the stuff of their lives behind them—posters on the wall, plants, propped and hanging guitars, old dressers, a tiny kitchen, cats everywhere—adding poignancy to the whole thing. Despite the occasional tech glitch or three, the sessions have gone well; we all know each other now and each other's work. The conversations, I hope, been productive and valuable for my students.

Yet the energy that I try to send into a room and the energy I subsequently feed off from the students are radically different, and considerably lesser. We're all simply gazing at a flat screen, away from the dimensional intimacies of the classroom, where our bodies as well as our minds were; physical tics and sidelong glances between buddies and laughter and outfits and buttons on book bags are now sublimated to a grainy screen image. Though Zoom is proving to be a decent substitute for face-to-face teaching, I long for the day when my students and I can gather again in a place, not a computer, pad, or phone. As I write, that day seems mythical.

Heeding the advice of online guides and tutorials, I've been keeping up my daily routines during this crisis, as has Amy, who's also remote teaching, literally in the next room on her laptop as I'm teaching in my room. I wear my full-on teaching costume, head to toe, which, granted, isn't all that far off from what I wear when I head out to the local bar, but routine is deeply valuable to me. Edie Falco, who played Carmella Soprano, admitted in an interview that she'd forgotten to wear her character's many rings as she got into costume in preparation for filming The Sopranos' infamous final scene at a New Jersey diner. About that shot, she said, "It was a very big emotional thing. We couldn’t believe it was actually done. We were hugging and kissing, it was like 3 in the morning. We wrapped, I was walking my way back to my trailer. I felt my pocket, I put my hand in my pocket and all of Carmela’s rings, her engagement ring, you know, she had like 45 rings. This is her marriage to Tony that she wore like a statue on her finger."
I forgot to put them on. I forgot to put them on for that final scene. I finally went up to Ilene Landress, who was the producer, at like 3:30 in the morning, sweat dripping down me I was like, “We gotta redo the last day.” Anyway, she just said, “Forget it. Don’t worry about it.” I was sure that that would work its way into the meaning of the final scene. It never did but I had a pocket full of her engagement ring, and her wedding ring. She never wore them in the final scene.
Elsewhere, Falco has said that wearing those rings had always been crucial to her in helping her embody Carmella, get fully into character. I get that, which is why I was worried that I might feel slightly "off" teaching remotely if I weren't wearing what I normally wear, even though the students are only seeing my head and shoulders. How much of teaching is a variation on method acting, getting into the role? I've never really had to think about that before. Who knows. I just look forward to the day when my students and I can gather in a room again together, for real.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Abandonment, revisited

For the past decade or so I've been photographing various abandoned buildings in and around DeKalb County. In the last couple of weeks, some unexpected gravitas and layers of poignancy have visited these photos. Guarding against ruin porn and romanticism, I've been attracted to the emptiness of these places, of structures heading back to the world, of the absence of people and industry and the transparent-overlay of their stories on top of the imagery. Depending for how long this new era of distancing and sudden absences lasts, I may never look at these photos, or abandoned buildings in quite the same way. Some measure of the news we're in is that I can't tell if I'm being precious here.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Touch, Ctd.

I've been thinking about Richard Rodriguez's great essay "Late Victorians," which first appeared in Harper's Magazine in 1990, then two years later in Rodriguez's second book, Days of Obligation. In the mosaic-style piece, Rodriguez "interrogates the landscape" around him, in his case the gay community in San Fransisco at the dawn of the AIDS crisis. He weaves observations about architecture, friendship, weight rooms, loss, bath houses, grief, interior design, pop culture—a string of points along which he hangs his overarching argument, one that brims with loss as well as hope: he is alive because he is not living. Stung by this paradox, Rodriguez considers irony upon irony around him, among them that the muscles that preening, mirrors-gazing weightlifters build is really a "parody of labor, a useless accumulation of the laborer's bulk and strength"; that the gay communities' rehabbing of the Victorian houses in the Castro district is an inside-out takeover of a structure long associated with heteronormative behavior, a home meant for reproduction and the spawning of generations of family. Society's condemnation of queerness "forced the homosexual to find his redemption outside nature," Rodriguez writes dryly. Thus, "The impulse is not to create but to recreate, to sham, to convert, to sauce, to rogue, to fragrance, to prettify." The complacencies of the barren home, he writes a bit later.

The essay gets deeply personal when Rodriguez considers his dear friend, César. A native skeptic, Rodriguez shyly avoids the bath houses where César makes nightly, blissy visits enjoying a "paradise" among welcoming men in a "region of complete acceptance." Yet you go home every night alone, Rodriguez protests to his friend. I go home satisfied, César corrects him. The tragedy, of course, is that César likely contracted the AIDS virus in the baths. "It was then I saw that the greater sin against heaven was my unwillingness to embrace life," Rodriguez admits in the essay's most powerful discovery. That Rodriguez writes as a devout Catholic feels less urgent than that he's writing from the point of view of an emotionally reserved man, an introvert, someone who is suspicious of beauty and sensuality and the shallow promises they make. And so: he doesn't live. And so: he survives, but at what cost?

In the essay's moving conclusion, Rodriguez, attending yet another funeral for an AIDS-stricken friend, shifts his tailbone on a hard pew, alone, a "barren skeptic" and an "inheritor of the empty mirror," the understanding presented not with bitterness but with a kind of rueful understanding. This rings graphically with me today as we collectively stare into weeks, if not months, of sudden isolation, of brutal withdrawal from physical contact within communities built to foster such contact, whether it's movie theaters and grocery stores or classrooms or rock and roll clubs. The context of Rodriguez's epiphany is more tragic than what the majority of us are experiencing now, thankfully, yet those skeptics among us (ahem) may be forced into making discoveries analogous to Rodriguez's. His "unwillingness to embrace life" was his choice, however a pained one, while our new normal, where we are defining togetherness in radical, baffling ways, has been thrust upon us.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020


There's a somewhat glib comment pinging around these days about how introverts are built for self-isolation, "social distancing" being so integral to their makeup. I'll admit that I've added my assent to this, yet I'm equally concerned for those natively inward who might painfully discover how much they, in fact, thrive off of the company of others. Everything is strange and feels a bit counter-intuitive right now. I'm struggling with learning how to remotely teach my creative writing workshops (though I recognize how privileged and lucky I am that I have a job that allows me to work from home, and neither are Amy and I burdened by a sudden need for childcare, and so aren't suffering that level of immediate stress.) I so miss my students—their casualness and energy, their cynicism and discoveries, the bunker mentality that they forge over a long semester (or two), their personalities forging, ebbing, at war, at peace. As always, I feel grateful that I'm around them, leading where necessary, following their lead whenever I can, and this sudden lurch away from the intimacies of the classroom is wrenching. Dan Chiasson recently wrote a beautiful, sobering piece lamenting the shut down of college campuses, and one graph in particular resinates with me: "And so the idea of calling [the semester] off, cutting it short, could mean that a student might face violence at home sooner than she’d anticipated. It could mean, for an immunocompromised person, the fear of a reunion with her daughter or granddaughter."
I keep thinking especially of students who are in love, and who may be in love in ways not permitted in their homes or communities. The person you became infatuated with last Thursday is now suddenly going to be on the other side of the world. I think of students whose identities needed the entirety of spring to play out. What will they face when sent abruptly home? They’d just got started.

What's contributing to the uncanny, spooky feel these days is less that we're experiencing that very rare thing, a global phenomenon, when what's happening in South America and Europe is happening, and matters, here, in real time, than the fact that, locally speaking, everything outside the window looks pretty much the same: there are fewer cars, maybe, but they still glide past; car doors open and shut down the street; construction crews are out, God bless them; the newspaper's delivered; food trucks idle in the pre-dawn behind Jewell; the sun is out; the garden needs tending to. But look closer: the Y is shuttered; restaurants and bars and venues are closed to patrons; campuses are emptied. All looks the same, but everything feels off, and the economic suffering will be incalculable. Something invisible is pressing on us that we're reckless to ignore, though we can't see it. Around the world, as I write, the notion of togetherness is being radically redefined. Get in touch with family and loved ones, text or email or call your friends, especially those you haven't in a while. I have no idea how I'll feel, literally and figuratively, in a few months when I read back these sentences. But now they feel urgent.

As usual, I've turned to music for solace. Who knows how to define what Todd Rundgren was doing with Utopia in 1980—parody, satire, genre-fiddling—but however fun and glib the message, delivered with a half-grin and a knowing wink, playing off of early-60s decorum and "Moon/June" coding, Rundgren lays it bare, and his simple statement is a brutally graphic one now. I just want to touch you. Do you want to touch me, too?

Photo CC BY 2.0 by Josep Ma. Rosell via Flickr

Sunday, March 15, 2020

These are a Few of my Favorite 45s, or, "Home is where the record player is"

I've been posting some of my favorite 45s over the years at 3 Chord Philosophy on YT. Got some time on your hands? Crank it up.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Still reigning

DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—"We haven't done this together in seventeen years!" proclaimed Reigning Sound bass player Jeremy Scott, looking fondly at his bandmates. 

Band launches into next song. Clanging false start.

Scott, to the audience: "Remember that seventeen-years-thing I said?"

Such was the warm looseness of a terrific Reigning Sound set at Sleeping Village in Chicago's west side. The band's original lineup—Greg Cartwright, Greg Roberson, Alex Greene, and Scott—is playing a brief swing of midwest dates (Milwaukee the night before, then onto Detroit), and showed little signs of rustiness. Pulsating but loose, urgent and restrained, the set highlighted Reigning Sound's underrated greatness, Cartwright's songs (about which I've held forth before here and here), so moving in their heart-stopping, evocative changes and melodies, finding a lived-in home in his bandmates' supportive playing. Though they've decades worth of long nights among them, they played with ferocity and precision, save the one or two fuckups and good-natured responses, the desperate ballads and stomping four-on-the-floor rave-ups charting the wide interval that these wonderful players roam in their music. They played mostly songs from their first three albums, this lineup's outstanding calling cards, throwing in a rockin' cover of Adam Faith's "I Don't Need That Kind of Lovin'." Grins, laughter, sweat, shut-eyed bliss—the guys in Reigning Sound ran the gamut of responses to the songs that they played, vibing on the packed club and the intimate room. And they warmly received well-wishers (a few bearing drinks) after the show, congregating on the floor in the front of the stage.

My favorite sequence came when the transcendent "I'm So Thankful," played in an upbeat arrangement unfamiliar to me, segued into "Since When," a darkly gorgeous song that illuminated the room. Both tunes are from the band's first album, and both sounded as fresh and surprising in their tenderness, truths, and stark beauties as they did in 2001. I'm so grateful.
l-r, Scott, Cartwright, Roberson