Friday, July 31, 2020

Love, luck, and anarchy

Under the bridge at Lincoln Highway 
DeKalb, IL

“Everyone has to scratch on walls somewhere or they go crazy," Michael Ondaatje

Thursday, July 30, 2020

When you're not there

Someone asked me this morning what my earliest memory is. I often tell my writing students that I recall when my dad and I visited my mom at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland after my younger brother was born; I was three and a half years old. I'm sure that I possess snippets of images from even earlier days, but this memory's a vivid one. My mom had long red hair, was smiling in the lobby, holding my new brother in light blue blanket, my dad and I approaching....

My parents tell me that this never happened, that I wasn't at the hospital that day. I was home, being looked after by my older siblings. I guess I have to trust my parents on this one—their authority as witnesses and participants is pretty unassailable, after all. And yet.... the image of my mom holding my brother is so crystal clear, even narrative, in its details, that can't let go of it, have in fact replayed it countless times over the decades, and it's become a kind of touchtone for my relationship with my family and with Paul, with whom I'm in many was the closest of all of my siblings (in part because he's closest in age to me). The confounding and profound questions remains: where did I grab that image? Did I dream it? See a comparable scene in a movie, TV show, or magazine, and will my family into it, to posses and take it over and name it as ours? (Mine?) Am I conflating a different event that verifiably occurred with this fantasy? If so, how? Or the more interesting question to me: why? If we are the sum total of our memories and if many of our earliest, formative memories are suspect—let's face it, invented—like mine, what does that say about our past and our relationship to it? Our personalities and temperaments are forged in part by the events in our past, and if some of those events are created wholesale...well, which came first.... If this fictional image of my mom and brother was the result of misfiring synapse gaps or the product of pure fantasy, that it's stayed in me for decades, feeling as if it occurred as vividly as last night's dinner (if soft around the edges), seems vital. I was born at the same hospital. Does that mean anything? Regardless of how much of the past we create, the stories the past tells informs our present and future as surely as the news on CNN. None of this is new, of course and yet startles me every time. You tell me.

Holy Cross Hospital of Silver Spring postcard, ca. 1960s, via CardCow

Tuesday, July 28, 2020


During coffee this morning we spotted a squirrel at the end of the yard fooling around on a downed tree branch. At first I was afraid he was sick—a couple of summers ago we'd watched a raccoon "frolicking" under an arbor vitae; he stayed there all day, finally wandering in small, aimless circles, clearly deranged from rabies or poison—but soon enough the squirrel appeared to be playing. He flopped on his back, did flips and chin-ups on the branch, scaled its length, dashed beneath the arc like a show dog, and generally had a blast. Was it the novelty of a branch on the ground? He didn't seem to be accomplishing much of anything, just enjoying himself without purpose, hurtling through the air and rolling around, like a kid at the beach. After a few minutes of recess, the bell rang and up the nearby locust tree he shot, punched in, and was back at work squirreling away.

In an undergraduate poetry workshop with the late Stanley Plumly at the University of Maryland, a student next to me ventured writing a poem about a squirrel. Plumly, in his self-assured way, discouraged him, claiming that it was impossible to write a good poem about a creature as ubiquitous and easily sentimentalized as a squirrel. (As I recall, he mentioned Richard Wilbur's amazing "The Death of a Toad" as an exception to this.) Plumly may have been right, but today all I know is that watching that squirrel seemingly unburdened of the fear of predatory animals, hoarding food, and the general grim business of staying alive in a cutthroat world, reminded me of the joy of being a body, of the fact that all of us are capable of playing in the world and ignoring the daily weights we carry around and grow resentful of. A poor-squirrel's jungle gym in the backyard was a welcome surprise. Having a body feels dangerous now, surrounded as we are by an invisible virus intent on exploiting that body's weaknesses, and we're taking measures to protect ourselves, in the (necessary) process depriving our bodies of some of simple physical pleasures that we crave.

We want to play. Yet it's easy to give in to nostalgia, especially these days. When we were kids fooling on the jungle gyms, slides, and swings on the playground, each of us still carried around some dark stuff, rascism, gut-wrenching tweener politics, sad and bewildering family issues, any host of problems. Maybe flying through the air on a swing or balancing precariously at the top of the climbing bars or risking a leg burn on a hot slide lifted us out of our lousy bodies for a moment, until we were returned moodily to the adolescent crises of feeling complex things before we could name them. Sentimentalized or not, that playful squirrel was a nice reminder of the pleasures of the body we take for granted, what we experience in those moments before we're back toiling in the tree, one eye on the ground below, the other over our shoulder.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Looking back

Not that you asked, but I'm dubious about the runner standing out on second at the start of extra innings ("I missed it; how'd he get on second?"), the expanded playoffs (for $$$, I mean, fairness), the piped-in Crowd Noise and virtual fans in the stands as well as the Houston Astros playing without enduring the fair-and-balanced judgments of drunk fans (are they going to pipe in lusty boos when Jose Altuve's at the plate?), and the very fact of a baseball season (with traveling, spitting, high fives, physical intimacy among players, etc.) occurring in a pandemic, even with cautionary practices in place and robust testing.

Yet, historically at least, this season will be pretty damn interesting to watch. And I'm intrigued thinking about a 12-, 13- or 14-year old fan for whom the 2020 season is their formative season, the campaign that ignites their love of the game and to which they warmly return in memory for decades. Mine was the '78 season, for many reasons; I was twelve and I loved Reggie and Lou Piniella and the rancorous Yankees, and with some lean years along the way—the game was replaced by rock and roll and girls for quite a spell—I've been a lifelong fan, though one armed with plenty of complaints about the sport, though rarely the game. I'm looking forward to the future memoir written by the middle-aged fan whose love for baseball was sparked by that crazy 2020 season when they were a kid, when the Pandemic raged, when the game stood at a crossroads of sorts when many were writing it off. At the time it all seemed so serious and important. You know, memory. Oh, and those masks (some of) the players wore!

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

It's the reason I exist

I had tickets to see Amyl and The Sniffers at Lincoln Hall in Chicago back in May. Well, yeah. The show's been rescheduled for October. Well, yeah. [Edit: well, nevermind.]

So, who knows when I'll be able to catch the Melbourne, Australia band whose intense songs and live reputation have created a major buzz since their self-titled 2019 debut. Meanwhile, I've got the videos and the songs. "Control" is a riveting track that, like the best rock and roll, is poised between command and chaos. The song's about the singer's obsession with being in charge, made all the more powerful and urgent given that it's sung by a woman, the tiny stick of TNT known as Amy Taylor. (She's also been dubbed a “human firework.") Gender politics aside, what's most galvanizing about the song is the tension between what it's saying and what it's doing, the band harnessing their considerable three-chord firepower to both support the singer's declaration and to make it vulnerable to implosion. "I like being a big bad boss," Taylor sings, sexily. "I like telling people off."
I like working under pressure
I'm a freak, it gives me pleasure 
I like control, I’m obsessed
She likes staying up all night, yet also being treated right. She gets off on proving people wrong, as she should, yet grimly recognizes that because of that she'll "probably...die alone." Frankly, she claims, it's "the reason I exist." What is? Control, or the obsession with it? The fact that she needs it, or the fact that she succeeds at it? In the stunning bridge, Taylor chants I like control until it becomes a mantra more dimensional with each declaration, as the band builds intensity vamping a single chord. Moving to the second chord might topple things, so precarious is the balance between authority and anarchy, yet the band holds it together. By the sound of Taylor's excitable screeches at the end, she might be on the brink of losing grip on things altogether. Ot maybe it's glee. Two and a half minutes is all this boss needs, or all she can handle, it's hard to say.

I feel as if I need to hear this song more every day, not only because my withdrawal pangs from not seeing shows are reaching epic levels, but because the overwhelming urge to control things—politics, other people, a virus—beyond my ability to do. Cranking one of the great rock and roll songs of the last couple of years helps me to press re-set. Turn it up—in a controlled environment.

Bottom photo by Jamie Wdziekonski via Monster Children

Monday, July 20, 2020

Early Self-Portrait

I'm a kid, lying on the kitchen floor, cradling a puppy on my chest. I can't remember now whose—possibly ours, Molly, but I think she might've been on loan from a neighbor. I was alone, enjoying this nice moment with a warm animal on top of me, when a subtle shift in consciousness occurred. I slowly became self-aware, seeing myself on the floor, an image of a small boy with a puppy. I imagined what I looked like—precious, I probably thought, though I wouldn't have used that word at that age—and then I imagined what I'd look like to one of my siblings if he or she walked in the kitchen. Precious, I probably thought—so I struck a pose, staying there on the floor long after the spontaneity and immediacy of the moment had passed, and certainly long after the poor squirming puppy wanted to bolt to better fun.

An ordinary moment, yeah, but one I find myself returning to as a kind of melancholy origin story. I see that moment as the beginning of my awareness of myself as a person who others notice. I became, in effect, a tableau, or part of one anyway, part of a stage set that I constructed. A step toward maturity and self-actualization, I guess, yet clearly too a step away from purity of feeling unburdened by self-consciousness, purity which is I guess is a definition of innocence. I was proto Instagram. I was branding myself. ("Cute kid and puppy.") I became mannered. Early Self-Portrait. I was concerned more about appearance than authenticity—again, words and ideas that I wouldn't have know or used at that age, but, you know, childhood: it's all about catching up to experiences with the language to express those experiences, and often failing. I think of this moment as a sweet one, and on days when I'm feeling generous I see it was the burgeoning of a writer's sensibility, but I also recall feeling quickly foolish on that floor, a phony, annoyed by my own self-interest. Then that sweetness of that moment curdles, becomes something unappetizing, a fact of the human condition I grimly accept and often try to flee. Like you, I can attain moments unburdened of self-awareness—at a live show, or two or three drinks in, or during sex, or occasionally on long walks, solo or with Amy—but those moments are finite. This is hardly news, is in fact is simply the hard won stuff of maturity, I guess, but it says a lot about me that I try and doge it as often as I can. Live in the moment, they say. How brief those moments are before marauding, toxic self-awareness arrives. I wish that poor sap on the kitchen floor had has a few more moments to himself before his self showed up to spoil everything.

Photo of "Mannington vinyl floors—Roman Square pattern (1974)" (detail, filtered) via Click Americana

Friday, July 10, 2020

Don't play ball

Normally, reading the following comments from Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Lucas Gialito would fill me with the warmth of anticipation. “[The] first inning I felt was a nice pace, established some pitches there,” he said of a recent start in so-called Summer Camp.
Second inning rushing, I felt like I was a little bit out of my mechanics and needed to make an adjustment. In a real game, that’s something [catcher James] McCann would recognize. We talked about it after. After I walked the first guy and went 2-0 the next guy, he’d be out there getting me reset. Third inning, [I] bounced back, made the necessary adjustment. It was a solid inning. Overall it was good work.
I've been missing this kind of baseball talk: unhurried, granular, the everyday work of the game, of a guy tuning up. Yet such modest talk feels reckless now, as Major League Baseball prepares to play a "season" of sixty games, a meaningless mad dash against great and perhaps lethal odds in order to reap the financial benefits of cable, streaming and advertising revenues and thus to satisfy owners and investors, to desperately keep baseball on the cultural radar and in the minds of casual fans, and to allow highly-paid professional players to do what they do. The foreground is the so-called Grand Old Game assuming its rightful role as "healer" of the nation, a gently smiling, field-taking Pastime that we apparently need; the background is a chaotic blur of rising COVID-19 rates, tragic and unnecessary deaths, and an appallingly heartless, ignorant administration more than willing to trade lives for self-serving politics. I feel for those at the less remunerative levels of the game—the park attendants and concession stand employees, the parking lot guys, the grounds crew, et al—but I don't know that baseball should proceed. I imagine the wheels falling off within a week or two as more players and staff become infected, and the notion of playing seems, finally, inappropriate and reckless. I could be wrong, and though I miss baseball on the radio and the kinds of daily comments like Gialito's—that is, the game itself, not the often craven and cash-obsessed sport—I would happily do without for the greater good. It's hard to imagine what October will look and feel like, let alone next week. Play ball? Let's wait, wear our masks, travel only when it's essential, work as we need to within CDC guidelines, and meanwhile dial up some favorite classic games on YouTube. We'll all thank ourselves next March, when Gialito and other rested players can get back to the business of murmuring about making adjustments, the small and less-risky kind.