Unbundling the Stories

Each life is made of stories. A person’s life can be viewed as a long, often boring, novel, or an anthology of far more interesting short stories.  Often the only thing these stories have in common is the main character (and often supporting characters).

Short stories are written to be the telling. Life stories exist just because life happens. Many go untold, perhaps even unreviewed by the collaborator. Some stories must be told but told only to the right person when they come along. Why? Because the stories simply need to be heard, acknowledged without comment, so that teller can free themselves of the burden of the story.

The listener just needs to listen. To comment if asked, but otherwise their role is to witness the telling. To add a thereness to the telling.

A Sense of Touch

A good sense of touch is an imperative to many things. I think that one of the hardest things to develop in any endeavor is a sense of touch. Parallel to this is a sense of feel. And because I don’t believe you can have a good sense of touch without a good sense of feel, I’m going to treat them as the same thing for this post because I think they are the same thing.  You might disagree (and if I try really hard, I might care about that).

In golf, if someone makes a great chip shot into the hole or very softly around the hole, or a really long putt up to the hole, a playing partner might say, “Nice touch!”  In this example, the touch referred to is the combination of speed, acceleration, and line resulting in a very soft finish. There really is no touch or feel involved in the physical sense. Such shots are results of practice, technique, and experience. However, if we accept that that touch and feel are the same thing, but slightly different aspects of the thing, then it makes sense. It is being able feel the slope and its changes across the green through your feet, feeling also the softness of the green, and the thickness of the rough around the green. It’s also knowing the difference in response of a very dry green versus a very wet green, and the range of possibilities between.

If we take the same thought to a guitar or banjo (let’s use the banjo as guitars have an unholy number of strings) and start with the concept of technique we find that a banjo is a hell of a rhythm instrument. (Yeah, yeah, rhythm is important to all stringed instruments, and all music.)  The various techniques of three-finger picking, clawhammer, the Seeger-style strum, and all other other techniques and variations rely on rhythm and technique. Being that banjos are very loud instruments by default, it takes changes in touch to play softer while maintaining rhythm. So it is a sense of controlled touch that makes a difference here.

But playing banjo is not just about picking and strumming. It is also about the chording, the pull-offs, the hammer-ons,  the slides. These are the nuances that make the music rich and deep. These things require a sense of feel and touch like few other things. One’s fingertips develop calluses that dull some of the feeling of the strings and frets, but that feel is still necessary to know where you are, to touch the strings just right, to know that you are in the third fret and able to pull off the string in way to make it resonate before hammering down on another.

A third example  is pottery. When throwing a pot on a wheel, one works the clay and shapes the pot using pressure inside and outside the formed pot to create its shape. You simply don’t just push your finger against the clay. You have to feel the clay respond and respond accordingly. A machine can be created to move a tool against a spinning object. It can respond to a predetermined pattern and reproduce that countless times, but it is not art. It is not art because the machine cannot feel, it cannot touch, it cannot do these in response to each other…without becoming a much more complex machine.

Having a sense of touch is not just about softness. It is about touch in response to feel, feel in response to touch. It is the continual adjustment of physical factors in response to feedback. A sense of touch is about awareness and response. It is about being there.




In the suburbs of Hell

In the suburbs of Hell, the only fires are those in the barbecue pits of the Pleasant Valley Sunday people who fire them up at 4:30pm. The hissing of propane is covered by the inane chatter of people with no depth to their souls. Music without discernible tempo fills the air. No one moves to the music or against it, it is a separate thing, unliving.

Married couples quarrel behind closed doors. Their voices never raised, the cadences never change. It is a language of despair and desperation, tinged with personal neglect.  When they make up their differences, the surrender is only pretense.  The next battle is always close to the surface awaiting the next perceived slight.

Hidden in plain sight, lovers twiddle on smart phones. Making love in back channel communications on Twitter and Facebook, surrounded by ads for mythical vacations and home STD tests. They sit at dinner tables, or on couches next to spouses or offspring, texting their undying passion in fewer characters and less grammar than a Shakespearean sonnet.

In the suburbs of Hell, despairing children play without amusement on playgrounds of chopped tires, recycled for the purpose. The smell of rubber and vehicular death pervades the air around the swings and slides.  The structures are brightly painted with images of clowns with darkly deep-set eyes and slightly pointed teeth. Children are more likely to sit listlessly on the merry-go-round kicking at the shredded rubber.

These are the discomfited people, many of which who voted a certain way.  They want change, any change that will bring more change. They just want change. They are unhappy. Bored. Unchallenged. So they want change.

Unless the change doesn’t look or sound like them. Then they want it unchanged. They want retreat to a half-remembered time when things were better. Only things weren’t really better, it just that the unpleasant change wasn’t present.


Don’t Misunderstand

If you don’t know that I live a life of passion and anger, then I have done a good job. Make no mistake, I am not happy about how things have turned out. The anger rages, but where I can make a difference, requires more temperance than anger.


Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

We do not have to grow more conservative with age. We can choose to fight for everyone. We can choose to let our old prejudices die. Prejudice and hate are merely the results of lazy, sloppy thinking; habits carried out of fear. We really don’t have to be fearful of difference.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Have no regrets. Fight for right. Fight for the rights of all. Don’t leave it to others. Do you really want to die knowing you stood by and did nothing? Or worse, that you actively supported the subjugation of women and people of color?

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

–“Do not go gentle into that good night,” Dylan Thomas

I will never go gently into that good night. You will have to take me kicking and screaming. I won’t just stand by.  Rage, rage  against the dying of the light, against the dying of rights.

A Dangerous Kiss

In the foreword to the short story collection Skeleton Crew, Stephen King writes this:

“A short story is a different thing altogether – a short story is like a quick kiss in the dark from a stranger.”

Kisses can be sweet.  They can also be dangerous. And somewhere in between. Think of your first kiss with a new partner. Where did that take you? Was it where you expected? Each time you kissed someone new, was it the same?

In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo replays a conversation with Bilbo to Sam, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”  Likewise, a kiss is a dangerous business, especially that first kiss, because you never know where it might take you. I know that in my case, there was one first kiss that led me down a road to disaster. It was a trip that almost destroyed me, one for which I still pay a heavy price.

When we get to the point of that first kiss our emotions are often surging, passion overwhelms. When we are young, it is awkward and confusing. When we are older, the awkwardness might be gone (unless we really care) and the confusion is present when deserved (such as crossing new boundaries).

A kiss is really nothing. A pair of lips touching another pair. It needs be nothing else. Just a physical act of no great consequence. It is all the stuff leading up to that kiss that makes it special, especially once combined with the uncertain promises of an idealized future. Perhaps this is a wrong. A friend reminds me that sometimes we are attracted to danger. Yeah, that’s true. That’s why we allow quick kisses from strangers in the dark. We thrill in the risk, the endless possibilities, the potential of a journey across a mythic landscape with risk of certain destruction.

At the end of the brilliant “L.A. Story,” Steve Martin narrates, “A kiss may not be the truth, but it is what we wish were true.” Indeed, at least when it comes to love. If we kiss out of something other than love, or infatuation, what is it we wish were true?

Michael Corleone kisses his brother Fredo with the “kiss of death” in Godfather II and says, “I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart.” I watch this scene now and I wonder, “Is this what a predominantly white part of America said this week?”

For those of you who embraced, and kissed, your infatuation of the last 18 months, you’ve taken us all on a new journey. Is this really what you wished to be true? Early signs look to be far more ironic and threatening to us all than any new change that is good. What are you going to do if this doesn’t work out the way you thought – such as the privatization of medicare or the return of a bunch previously ousted politicians turned lobbyist?

It all begins with a kiss. Journeys of excitement, love, glory, or excruciating failure. And worse.


On Night’s Plutonian Shore

I had a visitor tonight. One, a bird, of ill omen. Actually, there seemed to be many flying around the house. He was bit frenetic.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

“What is this, middle school?” I thought. “Why is the Raven here? I have no pallid bust of Athena, or anything close.” Of course, he just sat there for a bit and flew off. No prophecy needed. I already know what’s wrong and that future may be bleak dystopia of the kind in which I dreamt of finding myself in as a hero in seventh grade. Truthfully, I prefer my crows just a little more modern.

There’s a black bird perched outside my window
I hear him calling
I hear him sing
He burns me with his eyes of gold to embers
He sees all my sins
He reads my soul

Any such black bird reading my soul these days would find a very long book of unanswered questions. I knew more in middle school. In high school I knew everything. It was glorious. Moving through the world immortal, full of piss and vinegar, certain in my knowledge of how the world worked. I was in love. A lot. You might say I was in love over and over again. How could it be wrong? Each time was pure. Regardless of the car.

But baby I’ve been here before
I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor
You know, I used to live alone before I knew ya
And I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
And love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
Well there was a time when you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show that to me do ya
But remember when I moved in you
And the holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

Well, maybe things weren’t really so hallelujah, but the memories can be arranged that way. Forget the bad. Think only of the good. Or the glorious. Revel in the excitement, or the constant loops of Main Street searching for excitement when gas was 51 cents a gallon. But all such glories of youth end. We get jobs, we struggle, and look for love, or the best facsimile we can find.

Workin’ like a dog fo de boss man (oh)
Workin’ for de company (oh yeah)
I’m bettin’ on the dice I’m tossin’ (oh)
I’m gonna have a fantasy (oh yeah)
But where am I gonna look?
They tell me that love is blind
I really need a girl like an open book
To read between the lines

Love in an elevator
Livin’ it up when I’m goin’ down
Love in an elevator
Lovin’ it up ’til I hit the ground

But it’s time for bed. We get older. We get tired earlier.

Now the dogs are barking
And the taxicabs parking
A lot they can do for me
I begged you to stab me
You tore my shirt open
And I’m down on my knees tonight
Old Bushmills I staggered
You buried the dagger in
Your silhouette window light
To go waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda, you’ll go waltzing Matilda with me

Acknowledgements: Edgar Allen Poe, The Raven; The White Buffalo, Come Join the Murder; Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah; Aerosmith, Elevator; and Tom Waits, Tom Traubert’s Blues.

untitled thoughts

Well, you wonder why I always dress in black
Why you never see bright colors on my back
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone
Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town
I wear it for the prisoner who is long paid for his crime
But is there because he’s a victim of the times

-Johnny Cash, “Man in Black”

It’s always going to take more than wearing a suit of black to make a difference.

I’m not going to analyze the data of the vote. There are countless people doing that. Most of them are probably wrong. I’d rather just complain about the 50% of citizens that didn’t vote, that couldn’t be bothered. Regardless of who won, the winner would have be selected by a quarter of the eligible voters. That strikes me as rather pitiful.

Of course, some portion of this is a direct result of gutting the Voting Rights Act and various voter suppression laws across the nation. Nearly 10,000,000 fewer people voted than in 2008.

Disaffected millennials struggling in today’s economy also did not vote, many because they already believe their vote doesn’t matter. They don’t trust the Electoral College just because it is *possible* that some elector(s) may be faithless. Those that aren’t engaged with political news, or news beyond the Facebook feeds, feel the whole government is corrupt and the choice is between higher taxes and subsidized services or lower taxes and unsubsidized services, so why does it really matter?

Why does any of it matter?

Did the Boomers and GenX do a poor job teaching about the collective nature of society? Or is “collective” too much of communistic word and out of style? I guess “social compact” is better, but a compact generally is an opt-in kind of thing. Maybe we have forgotten to explain, or even just plain forgotten, that by remaining citizens we are opting in to the compact and if we don’t like the compact we are free to seek amendments through politics and governance. What I see with some of the young people I know, they have essentially opted-out of the process without understanding the process is everything.

Of course other millennials are highly engaged and involved. Variance exists.

I’ve had enough conversations with conservatives over the years to know that one of their biggest issues is that they want their ideas and beliefs respected. Ignoring that, trampling those beliefs has always had risks.

I was telling a friend tonight about how my son injured himself every single campout with the scout troop for nearly four years. One minor case of frostbite, numerous cuts and gouges, and several broken bones. Most were accidents, the others exercises in useless male stupidity. For example, he earned a “boxer’s break” on his right for punching his tent – as it lay on the hard, frozen ground.  As I relayed this, my friend asked:

“Why do men do that sort of thing?”

“All I can say is that anger and frustration leads to the desire to destroy something. As a Paul Muad’Dib says in Frank Herbert’s Dune, ‘He who can destroy a thing, controls that thing.’ So, practicing destruction becomes a demonstration of control. And it seems pathetically stupid to me.”

“You took the words right out of my mouth.”

Unfortunately, in anger and rage I have done pathetically stupid things. (It may be a gender thing, but I think not as I have anecdotal evidence otherwise. Of course they may be outliers.)

There is a lot of anger and rage out there. It may not always be rational or earned, but it is there nonetheless. We’ve now seen it on the macro-level. But millions of non-white Americans or LGBTQ or somehow just different or new experience it at the micro-level every day. We, including me,  must take action to change this.








Seduction and the Word

It has been difficult for me in discussions of the election not to mention Hunter S. Thompson or Joe McGinniss’ “Selling of the President, 1968.” To my mind both presage today’s mockery.  Both are too obvious. For some reason tonight, I started thinking about John Updike’s “A Month of Sundays.”

“A Month of Sundays” is a delightfully bad story of a fallen minister assigned for a month to desert retreat where such go for healing. Healing is found in a prohibition of sermonizing or discussing the Bible, but instead miscreant clerics are to play poker, golf, drink, and smoke. Throughout this month he journals daily his thoughts and recollections of his fall from grace. These are also poorly disguised sermons.

The daily writings are written in the first person and addressed to Ms. Phrynne, the stern, foreboding woman in charge, always hinted at, never seen. But as the passage below suggests, our protagonist is clearly not above misinterpreting the text to suit his own desires. Further, each journal entry is part  of act of seduction, aimed at the one woman present.

But who that has eyes to see cannot so lust? Was not the First Divine Commandment received by human ears, “Be fruitful, and multiply”? Adultery is not a choice to be avoided; it is a circumstance to be embraced. Thus I construe these texts.

And so I started thinking about seduction, and politics, and the act of writing. Election politics are all about seduction. Writing can clearly be an act of seduction. Whether it is persuasive writing or attempts at romance (love letters). But it also occurs to me that raw, gut-wrenchingly honest (or at least appearing to be honest) writing,  can be seductive. Such writing can be used to draw the reader into the author’s world, especially if the reader is even only mildly empathic.

This line of thought got to me to thinking about the responsibility of writing. The last year in particular has provided innumerable examples of irresponsible writing. Trash-writing on blogs, fake news sites, and real news sites, citing fake data or fake stories from other sites. All in the name of generating content or persuading  you to a point of view not your own. Or persuading you to hold onto your point of view without basing it in real fact. Really though, it is simply the provision of information that is at best only partially true but designed to stir certain feelings in you while removing your sense of agency.

I know there is a word for this. I learned it from working with an individual many years ago who was going through sex offender therapy as preventative measure.

The word is grooming.

And it pretty well describes how I feel about about the last 18 months.


I’ve Been Here Before

A lot of time for reflection these days of driving. As I have thought about this election, my memories have drifted back to 1991 and the listserv Clinton-L@marist.edu. In fact, I talked with @GoogleGuacomole about this experience recently in relation to her mapping of digital visitors and residents.

Way back in 1991, Marist College set up three listservs, one for each of the presidential candidates – Bush, Clinton, and Perot. I joined all three. I was in my first year of working at Saint Louis University and relishing the day-long internet access. I had been online a couple of years at this point through Compuserve, Prodigy, and AOL, but I had not yet acquired a dedicated phone line for dial-up (which I did in late 1991 because I learned I could dial-in into SLU). The lists defaulted to reply-all and since this was before spam and the wide use of email, conversations took place every day.

The Bush and Perot lists were essentially flamewarzones.  You trod carefully there.Lots of infighting with relatively few reasoned discussions as I recall. Clinton-L (or C@M as it became known) was different. We had our fights and flamewars, generally from people that hadn’t gelled into the community that developed. Later, that community then spun-off as a community to a new listserv at Penn State, QC-L (Quiet Communication) as a pet of our list mentor, Gerry M. Phillips, a retired professor of Rhetoric. Phillips was in poor health and generally homebound, spending much his days and nights online. Some of that history is documented here in the book Electronic Tribes: The Virtual Worlds of Geeks, Gamers, Shamans, and Scammers by Tyrone L. Adams, Stephen A. Smith. (I had forgotten, or simply did not know, that this chapter referred to me as one of the resident storytellers a term I don’t associate with myself.)

Members were predominantly academics. One member was a DMV employee in Keizer, OR who was also mayor, and lost his job for spending too much time online – the town we later moved to from St Louis. Another member was one of the two sons of the Rosenbergs. He once called me a Nazi during the great debates of Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan incident, a mere four years into Godwin’s Law. SFC Kiss was an active duty soldier who was definitely one of the resident conservatives. He and I once debated gun control for two weeks, demonstrating to the group that such things could be done with respect and good-nature. Flamewars were not necessary. But members did complain about the volume of the topic. There’s always someone whining somewhere, about something.

Meetups became common between members. Dan worked across town at Washington University and we became fast friends once we met. We also each made efforts to meet others as we or they traveled across country. At one point, in the summer of 1994, we decided to have a party. Since Gerry was placebound, we all went to Happy Valley, PA.  Dan and I road-tripped from St. Louis, picking up Lena in Greencastle IN, and Dr. Bubbles (Melanie) and her 12-string guitar in Columbus. We also stopped in Johnstown to pick up another member and her daughter.

Hugs, fun, lots of conversation, and hours spent sitting around a Mac while Dr. Bubbles (she was a Phd Chemist from New Orleans)  and Gerry S. played guitar while sang along to the lyrics on the screen.

The debriefing after the gathering had to be curtailed a bit. It was clear that some of the stories made the non-attendees jealous. Especially each of the accounts for those of us in Dan’s custom van. WE had stories. Most of which got told.

Ultimately I left the group after moving to Oregon. I don’t really recall why. I think the tenor of the group had changed too much. More though, I had too many others going on. New job. Wife in the hospital near death for a couple of weeks. Far too many problems raising special needs children. Whatever it was, the need for that community disappeared.

The listserv was just a replacement for Usenet and BBS. Just as various discussion forum platforms,  MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and others have all evolved to replace things or just add add dimensions. We still use listservs, we just generally discourage reply-all. (Despite the fact that accidental reply-alls can be delightful to read when they aren’t your mistakes.) I still participate in a number of discussion forums. Nothing really useful goes away. And despite the bells and whistles it all feels the same. Just the people are different, but that is not really true at all. It’s just a matter of who self-selects where they hang out and what roles they play.



Spare Parts

I can be a restless listener. This drives my wife nuts as I will use the hand controls on the steering wheel to skip through channels or the USB drives full of music. I can thumb that button for miles and upon miles to find something to sing. In the cause of peace, before we started listening to an audiobook, I put Sirius on the Springsteen channel and left it there.  this happily included a four-hour concert from New Year’s Eve 1980.

In my second attempt in college at  completing a BA, I was a big Bruce fan. The 10 year retrospective album had been released and I listened to it a lot during studio time.  Having done my teenage years in on Main Street USA (both Route 66 and Main Street in Joplin)  in the late 70s, cars, unfulfilled love, and conflict on search of a cause was all  familiar.

In my last year of college, I hada few small exhibits of my work in coffee shops and cafes. While leaving the more risque examples of my work in the studio (I was told that some parents shielded the eyes of their children as they walked past my senior exhibit) one piece in particular drove comments.  It was called Spare Parts and consisted of a woman’s torso (clothed)  and a collection of automotive parts.

I think the offensive bit might have been the orifice and flange of a set of bright red header pipes. Regardless, I saw nothing bothersome. It was Art. It  was not really anything like the song:

Bobby said he’d pull out Bobby stayed in
Janey had a baby it wasn’t any sin
They were set to marry on a summer day
Bobby got scared and he ran away
Jane moved in with her ma out on Shawnee Lake
She sighed Ma sometimes my whole life feels like one big mistake
She settled in in a back room time passed on
Later that winter a son came along

Spare parts
And broken hearts
Keep the world turnin’ around

–Bruce Springsteen, “Spare Parts”

Funny thing is, it is not even one of those songs I may much attention to. The lyrics are unimpressive and the vocals seem a bit muddy if I am not actively listening. I think I have even had a tendency to forget this song. The painting I don’t forget, although it is long gone. I have a color slide of it somewhere.

What really remains is that I offended somebody, somewhere in Joplin.

It was not the first time. It certainly was not the last.

Just another story that has been on my mind this trip. Lots of spare parts of memories, detritus of a living somewhat unfiltered.