Late to All Parties

29 Mar

“It was 1986 and the trees were heavy with bears.” That’s how I initially read the line. Quickly. And for a split moment, that mistake stretched out impossibly into a full-color mental image which lingered for much longer than the nanosecond it took for the thought to take root and expand via the axons in my brain. What I saw were the thick branches of an old oak strenuously supporting a family of black bears. Mama, Papa, a couple of babies, and maybe an uncle or aunt. I was more than four lines beyond when I realized “bears” was likely “pears.” And I was right. I returned briefly to the line to confirm, and the image of the old oak barely cradling the family of Ursidae was replaced with a more classic scene in my mind. Something that maybe Monet might have painted.

This line lives in Patti Smith’s memoir of her life together with the photographer and artist Robert Mapplethorpe. The book is called Just Kids. It is a good book. No, it is a great book. And it’s filled with her poetry and his photographs and her drawings and his collages and tales of their brief life together as true artists and partners struggling to survive making their art while they, at times, slept in doorways or subways and starved on the streets of late 1960s New York City.

I come to Patti Smith very late in my life. I come to all the good things, or artists, very very late in my life. It’s always been that way. I came around to The Beatles just two years ago. To Steely Dan last year when, mainly staying at home, I became obsessed with the precise work of Fagen and Becker and for some reason, even upon the hundredth or two hundredth play of every track from every album, the songs never seemed to fade from my favor. Every time I spun the track something new was found. In each and every one of them. Still holds.

And so I came to discover Patti Smith extremely late. Just three weeks ago, in fact. Oh, I have known all my life who Patti is. Just as I have known all my life who The Beatles are. Or Steely Dan. Who De Kooning is. Philip Roth. Jose Saramago. The Bee Gees. To all of them I came late. I’ve known about Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Billie Holiday all my life, but my train did not arrive at their stations until early 1990. I was 21 then. Waaay too late to get into Jazz. But better than never. Thanks to my obsession with bop, hard bop, and modal Jazz, I skipped the Boy Band craze of the mid-90s. I skipped over Hootie and the Blowfish, The Dave Matthews Band, The Gin Blossoms, Better Than Ezra, The Smashing Pumpkins. (I’ve always had a desire to rename them The Rupert Pupkins as my homage to Marty Scorsese.) I totally hopped over “the Seattle sound” although I was right there, right on time at Nirvana’s breakthrough. As well as Jane’s Addiction a few years earlier. (“Pigs in Zen” stood out for me on a compilation record of underground bands from L.A.) Probably the only two times I was with the program. On time. Since early ’90, Jazz has occupied many of my listening hours. It seems to be analogous to our universe—always expanding, never able to be caught up with by anyone. Not even the historians or aficionados.

Here’s what I love the most about Patti, though. And you’ll likely want to inflict a very painful death when I tell you first what I don’t like. I do not like her songs very much. I do not like her singing voice. And I do not like her poetry. In fact, I do not like poetry in general, unless it’s Charles Bukowski’s. Which really isn’t poetry at all. What I love the most about Patti Smith are her drawings. Her art. Her collages. Well, of course I love her as a human being. From all the interviews I’ve seen, all the speeches to various audiences I’ve listened to on YouTube, she comes across as an exceptional human. A true artist. Kind and generous with her time and words. But for me, her drawings just do it. They just do. It is truly a testament to her as a quintessential artist that people like me can flip through her artistic portfolio and pick what I like. What do I love about Patti? A, B, C, D, E, F? All of the above? There isn’t one answer. Mine is her visual art. We all benefit from her various talents.

Here are some others that I’ve come to love very late in life: Joan Didion, Thelonious Monk, Jackson Pollock, cooking (by myself), Vaporwave/Retrowave, the Impressionists, Electronic Dance Music, Anime/Manga, tiny drum kits, the Expressionists, cracked cymbals that sound like trash cans when struck, Toronto, kimchi, Indian and Pakistani cuisine, Muzak (“elevator music”), Mad Men, gin, standard time, cold weather, Withnail and I. There are probably some others that I could list here, but I sense you’re getting bored.

My obtuse way of rationalizing or maybe excusing this tardiness (ignorance? hard-headedness?) is that I will live a very long life. Not that I really want to. But my squaring up this tendency to arrive late to the party goes something like this: well, I finally got to appreciate and even love The Beatles at age 50 because it’s likely that I’ll live to a hundred. And so I still get to have a good half a century of spinning their records. To enjoy just as much and just as long as many others, when it’s all accounted for and added up.

I am and have always been an organized, disciplined, punctual person. You tell me the party starts at 10, I’m there at 9:45. You come to escort me up for the job interview scheduled at 11, I’ve been in the lobby reading a book for 20 minutes. I’ve always made my planes, trains, buses on time. Always. But for some reason art and music and literature always seem to encourage me to not be hasty. Maybe because they know that, despite my intuition, I won’t be celebrating my 105th birthday having just “discovered” Mahler. But that instead they’ll always be around for me to get to. Whenever I am ready to get to them. And however long it takes.

These are the semi-permanent footprints we, humans, leave into the terra firma. I say “semi” because there’ve been plenty of times in history that factions, tribes, torch-carrying mobs, and politicians have moved to erase these footprints thoroughly. Mostly for personal reasons. And almost always for obtuse and inconsistent moral issues raised by the artwork itself. The banning of certain “offensive” books in the Texas English language curriculum just recently comes to mind. Robert Mapplethorpe’s censorship in 1989 of his traveling collection of photographs, spearheaded by the insufferable, Philistine, politician-types like the disgraceful Jesse Helms (R-NC). The near-banning of “offensive songs” with “offensive lyrics” by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), created in 1985 and led by then-senator Al Gore’s wife, Tipper. Interesting side note here about the PMRC: the group’s formation was cemented with the financial help of Mike Love, a member of The Beach Boys, and Joseph Coors—the owner of Coors Beers. The group finally shut down in the late 1990s after suffering several legal losses in attempts to deem the music of Judas Priest or Ozzy Osbourne as “satanic” or “evil.” Or the likes of NWA and Public Enemy as “sexist,” “inciting race wars,” “anti-police,” and other similar nonsense.

Circling back to Patti Smith (and Robert Mapplethorpe) in her memoir from 2010, Just Kids: sadly Mapplethorpe merged off our ever-moving beltline 32 years ago, but Patti is still with us celebrating her 75th year of walking this spinning rock and still making art and telling stories. I have finally “discovered” her, and my life—itself moving toward a twilight period of sorts—is for the better. For the so much better. I am late to the party, as usual. But I am here. And the party is still going on.

Famous (Pick-Up) Lines

22 Mar

“A screaming comes across the sky.”

In the mornings, most mornings, early, I am greeted by the opening line above that Thomas Pynchon wrote in 1973, as he slammed opened the door to what would be the ride of my life. Or your life, perhaps: Gravity’s Rainbow. It’s a wacky, kooky, funny, intense, profound adventure into what most called post-modernism literature . . . or pre-modernism . . . doesn’t matter. It’s often called a “difficult book” to read, and I must admit my first pass through I read it alongside an academic paper that went chapter by chapter over possible meanings or symbols or themes explored. The academic paper was my lifeline, I thought then, before starting the novel. I fully expected to need much help getting through this “difficult book,” but by the second chapter I found the paper not useful any longer. I didn’t need it. I understood everything in Pynchon’s tour-de-force and found that reading something that underscored or reiterated or explained in academic ways what I’d read in that morning’s session just made the book more of a drag. If you haven’t figured it, I love Gravity’s Rainbow. And no, it’s not a “difficult book.” It’s funny. Weird. Insane. Intense. Astounding. Did I mention funny? No, strike that. Hilarious.

Its opening line stares at me every morning because it’s one of the maybe 40 opening lines to famous literary novels printed on my coffee mug—a Christmas gift last year from my better 3/4. Pynchon’s line happens to say good morning to me every day because I have a preference of holding/placing my cup on the left arm of my chair, drinking out of it with my left hand, while with my right, holding and flipping pages of the book I’m currently reading. And in that position, the opener of Gravity’s Rainbow perpetually looks at me. There are, of course, other lines underneath Pynchon’s, but it so happens “A screaming comes across the sky.” is written in very large font, and so my eye goes to it every morning before that first sip of warm blood. You would like to know what’s underneath it, right?

Let’s play a game and see if you can recognize the others directly ‘neath Pynchon’s.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

“You better not never tell nobody but God.”

“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”

“I am an invisible man.”

There are maybe three dozen more written in all kinds of wacky and colorful fonts all around the coffee mug, circling it like the ice and rock in Saturn’s rings. They are all great and you probably know at least half of them. I think, I should maybe switch up the position of the cup from time to time so I can read them and enjoy them. They’re there, after all. They’re just waiting to be read. But I am stubborn and old and prefer to hold my cup in my left hand. I also prefer to wear a wrist watch on my left hand. (I am right-handed. But often wrong-footed. And very often hard-headed.)

One of my favorite lines ever written is by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It is this: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” It is so damn brilliant that it inspired me to concoct one of my own along the same . . . lines (*groan*), as an homage. I remember working on it for many hours. In the end, it exists as its own for sure, alas it doesn’t measure up to Marquez’s. Not many do, and I am comforted by that. But it does open a story called “The Good Sentinel,” and I was lucky enough to have it published in The Rappahannock Review in 2015. You may have read it there or in my collection The Imagination of the State. Or not.

If I weren’t so hard-headed (see disclosure above) or set in my ways, I would get to peer at this most brilliant line from One Hundred Years of Solitude every morning. But, you see, for that to be I’d have to completely switch everything around. I would have to place the cup on the right arm of the chair, hold it/sip from it with my right hand, whilst flipping the pages of whatever I’m currently reading (and this week it’s Patti Smith’s Just Kids) with my left. For an unknown reason, that is not possible, despite the fact that I am basically ambidextrous (owing to my lifelong love of playing jazz drums) and have achieved enough independence in controlling each limb so as not to be bothered by the measly action of holding a coffee cup in the other, non-preferred hand. And so it is that Pynchon will continue to wish me good morning every day, while the merry band of pranksters like Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf (I ain’t afraid of her! Or any ghost.), and many others will live and breathe on the other dark side of the mug. My loss. As usual.

This past Saturday morning I walked in after a laborious run (jog) and headed for the shower. My daughter had just awakened for the day. I told her to give me 15 minutes to clean myself and shave quickly before sitting down for lunch and then heading out for some coffee and a walk in the woods. When I came out, she had perused the bookcases in the living room and picked up Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. And begun it. She was on page 26 when I emerged all glistening and smelling of Kenneth Cole’s “Black.”

Jesus, you read fast, I said. Big font, she answered. And only 127 pages, I said. Mhm, she answered. Why this one, I said. He’s got tons of others. I have ’em all. I know, I saw, she answered. But this one is short. And it reads easily. It goes by quickly. You know, I said, he got the Nobel Prize for this one. It impressed her. And, he really considers it more a poem than a book. You see in there, there’re no breaks. No chapters. No stopping anywhere. It’s just one long poem. I like Hemingway, she said. You should read more, I said. It’s all “simple” but not really. I then explained Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory” (really, it’s Gertrude Stein’s but who’s counting besides me.) and she seemed intrigued. She took the old man and his lousy luck with her on Sunday when I drove her back home for the week. I hope she finishes it. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking. I told her that.

The opening line of The Old Man and the Sea is this: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” Another fantastic first salvo. Though labored upon by Hemingway himself, it was no doubt tooled around with by Scribner and Sons’ famous editor Maxwell Perkins. You should know that it was really Perkins who made Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Wolfe . . . well, Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Wolfe. For those who knew these authors intimately (Lillian Hellman, for example) the work and magic of Max Perkins was no secret. According to Hellman, Fitzgerald—a barely functioning drunk at that time, unsure of his skill and talent—turned in such a horrific manuscript of The Great Gatsby, that Perkins didn’t think it would be salvageable. But it was. Thanks to that Perkins magic. So much so, that some people argue it’s the Greatest American Novel. (I’ll take Melville’s Moby Dick and call it a day, thank you.)

And then there’s the time in ’93ish maybe, I was walking down 5th Avenue with my mother, one of the many day trips she and I would end up taking over the years from D.C. into Manhattan on the very early morning Acela train (express) just so we could spin around and catch the flavor of the city for a day. We were headed south from Central Park. 5th Avenue was always her favorite because she could fantasize picturing herself living there among the heirs, the socialites, the billionaires. We were looking for a coffee shop that had restrooms. Passing by 48th St., I happened to look to my left and on the side of a beautiful and modest-rising building was the famous logo in giant, faded, burnt orange letters: Charles Scribner and Sons.

It was tremendously exciting to be passing by the historic building in which Max Perkins once toiled; the building which gave us the Hemingways, the Fitzgeralds, the Wolfes (wolves?), the Vonneguts, the Stephen Kings, and many other greats. I wanted to tell my mother what we were passing by, but she was resolute in finding that rest room. I had to walk fast to catch up; for I had inattentively stopped and was staring at the edifice with my mouth open. So I kept that one for myself.

My all-time favorite opening line of a novel was written by Charles Bukowski. He was extremely prolific, so he had many hits. And just as many misses too. But the line that opens his Post Office, a book he wrote in less than two months after being offered a $100/month stipend by his would-be editor to quit his job as a U.S. Postal Service mail carrier and write full-time, is absolutely brilliant in its brevity and application. It is this:

“It began as a mistake.”

The Lost Year

27 Feb

As I write this by hand in my log, the “o” in “lost” looks much like an “a.” Which is, more rather than less, accurate. The lost year is the last year. That’s what my daughter calls 2020: The Lost Year. The last year. From her lookout point high on the cliff, she is right to speak for herself. She didn’t just lose the year, she lost a boyfriend (who she couldn’t see physically because of lockdown, therefore the relationship ended), she lost her stellar grades which she always achieved with much ease (online classes have yielded literal failure of 11th grade) in her academic career, she likely lost full scholarship to reputable universities these grades would have brought, and more importantly (and not a bad thing from my lookout point high on the cliff), she’s lost her verve for achieving anything within this education system here in America. She is, like I said, not wrong to feel like that. This system has failed many many talented young people. In many many ways. She is one of those.

I do not know if 2020 is a lost year. Or, rather, I should say for me any year is a lost year, and so it no longer becomes “lost” as much as just merely completed. Or “in the books.” I measure time by photographs. I look at people or places that existed and that looked a certain way in the moments I took those images years, decades, several decades ago and realize: hm. Some time has passed. I don’t feel it. But the photos show it. I had hair. I had weight. Cars looked different. Writing out the years don’t bring the same weight for me. 1979 looks the same as 2021. There are just numbers there.

When I wake up each morning, I don’t feel time as most people feel time. Certainly not in its supposed linear form. I wake up and I feel like I am existing in a sphere of matter, not on a time line per se. Like coming aware suddenly from a usually difficult night (for me) that I am floating underwater in a giant pool. The water is time. It’s there always. I can move this way and that within this waterTime. And so there doesn’t exist the concept of going backwards or forward or anything like that. I come to, sit up on the side of the bed, and all around is time. Water. Push off and start the day, and everything is encased by time. Water. It exists. But it doesn’t flow forward, backward, nothing. That is it. It is simple.

In 2020 I’ve lost some things and gained others. Lost bits of mind. Gained pounds. Lost the heavy burden of finishing the writing of a book. Gained a promotion at work. Lost ideas. Gained delusions. I lost some important papers but found some early drawings that my daughter did as a toddler. So I really didn’t lose important papers at all. I found them.

This morning I just finished Lillian Hellman’s autobiography, An Unfinished Woman. So she is finished, despite the title. It’s a magnificent snapshot of some very interesting, difficult, and great things in her life, written by a magnificent playwright. And woman. And writer. The last chapter is on Dashiell Hammet, her longtime partner and brilliant writer, once a Pinkerton detective out in San Fran. You may have heard of one or two of his novels: The Thin Man. Or The Maltese Falcon.

I am looking at a photograph of Dash. He is thin, trim, handsome as hell, wonderful little mustache worn as it was fashionable in the days the photo was taken (1940s). He looks like Roger Sterling from “Mad Men.” Which is to say he looks like John Slattery, really. I am a huge fan of The Thin Man. Not just the novel, but the film series. I own the collection on DVDs. And I am not just a fan of Dash’s novels, but his short stories as well. Nothing is lost. They all exist. I have them. They’re collected in a quite handsome volume. When I read anything, it’s not lost. When I hear about anything, it is not lost. Even if someone says something is lost, it isn’t. It’s right there. Right here. Because it was mentioned.

One day I will not wake up in the early morning, not right myself up and not sit on the side of the bed for those first 30 seconds while I get my wits about me and get started on my day with a coffee. That pool of waterTime will still exist, but I won’t be within it. This isn’t anything heavy or philosophical. It’s the opposite. It’s simple. If you know how to drive a car, it’s this: you’re merging into fast-moving traffic on a highway. You have a long merge lane during which you can get up to the speed of the flowing cars so you can join in safely. You drive on the highway for a while, and then your exit comes up and you take it. Disengage from the hellions doing 100 mph. Decelerate accordingly. You get off, they keep going.

It’s simple. Any 16-year-old with a learner’s permit can do it.

Which reminds me of something else my 16-year-old daughter lost in 2020. The opportunity to learn how to drive an automobile.

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