Sunday, November 8, 2015

Time is a Ghost Town

Part One: The other side of Time

Did I ever tell you I grew up just outside of Time? You had to travel through Time to get to my house? Well, actually there were several ways to go around Time if you knew where to look.

Seriously, it’s the name of the small (I mean like five houses small), village I grew up near. A friend from back home is writing an article about it and just last week sent me some questions, so that set off a cascade of thoughts on the topic of Time.

Time isn’t on a lot of Pennsylvania maps these days. I found the following images online.

Time actually appearing on an old map.
I grew up at the intersection right under
where it says Simpsons Store.

An old map listing the land owners.
J. Wise is my grandfather, James.
This is a tin type picture of my
grandfather, James Wise. He died two
years before I was born. He was born in
the early 1880s. Yes, you read that right.
Thanks to both my father and I coming
later in our parent's lives two generations
ago for me is close to 140 years.

No one who lived there actually called it Time. It was always ‟Dogtown” to the natives, even though there was a now long-gone Village of Time sign on both ends of town. It’s rumored to have had a post office at one time, but no I know remembers it (including my parents who have both lived there for over 90 years). They do remember a school. I vaguely remember a country store run by George McNeely and a barbershop run by my great uncle Clark. In talking with the folks I know there was another school, a couple of lumber mills, another store, and a grain mill with a water wheel on the creek in the immediate vicinity as well. Part of the stone foundation of the grain mill is still there if you know where to look under the vegetation.

That’s all gone now. Most of it has been for decades. The store and the barbershop were still there when I was little, but both were gone by the mid 60s at the latest. It has been a slow process, but at this moment in Time, everything is gone.

That whole area, Union Valley, is in the middle of coal mines and gas wells. Fracking has come to Time and most people who lived there have been bought out and have moved. My parents are two of the only people left in the valley. Every time I have gone home for the last several years something was missing. Houses are abandoned, their windows either knocked out or boarded up. Driving through Time two weeks ago it reminded me of several old abandoned towns I saw in the dry hinterlands of New Mexico.

Time is a ghost town.

There has never been a written history of Time. Why would there be? The only thing that remains of it are the memories of the people who lived there. My parents are the oldest and they only have fragments of what came before. I have even less. Even memories die eventually, and sometimes they don’t leave even a ghost behind. Some things are just gone.

I’m witnessing the slow passage of Time.

Part Two: Time Passages

I recently was asked to participate in a gallery show at Most WantedFine Art in the Garfield section of Pittsburgh. The show was called The Art of Blogging and featured art work by people who are more well known for blogging than for drawing or painting (that’s an oversimplification). It was great to be asked to participate. I identify as a writer much more than an artist these days, so having some focus on my art was gratifying.

As part of the info for the exhibit I was asked to write a brief, one hundred words or less, description of what my blog was about. That proved more difficult than writing the blog.

My friend Leigh Anne also blogs (go read her at You’ll thank me). In addition to being a superb friend in many way she is also one of the people I frequently talk about writing and blogging with and I value and trust her insights more than most. So, when faced with describing my blog I asked her, ‟What’s my blog about?”

Her answer?


I asked her to elaborate and part of what she said was, ‟You treat time as if it were something tangible and malleable to work with... though you do seem to focus on the past and present rather than the future... you don't take anything for granted. You treat everything as if it’s important without coming off like a pompous ass, which is no mean feat.”

Hmmm... I hadn’t thought of it that way but she’s right. I often talk about memory and how it changes, about the past and nostalgia, with a focus on how these things impact our present and future. I’m very aware of the stories we all tell, and how they differ due to perspective and the passage of time. Our memories are ghosts and we can never be sure they’re real.

Part Three: I remember doing the Time Warp

Okay, I’m going to talk about Doctor Who.

Like a lot of people I’m a fairly new convert to the Doctor. Because my hobbies included comics and science fiction I think I was always vaguely aware of the show without ever getting a chance to see it. Though I know episodes aired on PBS in the 70s, television reception wasn’t very good in Time. I was pretty much limited to NBC and CBS affiliates when I was little and ABC as a teen when we moved a whole hundred yards up the road closer to Time. I saw photos in magazines and drawings of the character in comics form, but I don’t think I ever really understood the concept back then.

This was primarily the Tom Baker era Doctor Who. Even then, not knowing anything, I liked the look. I never really cosplayed back then, but in the 80s I took to wearing a trench coat, an Indiana Jones fedora, and a long scarf. I don’t think this was a completely conscious attempt to look like the Doctor, but I can’t say I was totally unaware of it either.

At some point I saw an episode or two, too late for it to really hook me. Slow stories, cheap looking special effects... It just didn’t grab me. I have known many friends who were huge fans though, friends who tried many times to get me to try it. I’m pretty sure it was Steve Segal who finally convinced me to start with the reboot featuring Christopher Eccleston as the 9th Doctor. Okay Steve... You were right.

Steve edited and wrote a lot of the entries for a book called Geek Wisdom a few years ago. I know he wrote the entry about Doctor Who. In it he makes the point that some time in the last ten years the Doctor replaced Star Trek as the cultural touchstone for those of us involved in the geek lifestyle. He refers to Doctor Who as ‟a grown-up Peter Pan, always collecting new young friends and teaching them to fight the good fight on Earth rather than in Neverland,” someone who has an ‟unsullied, childlike vision of a universe where all things ought to be possible.” In the same article he quoted Craig Ferguson as saying the Doctor represented, ‟the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.”

I happen to think those are remarkable qualities for a role model.

I’ve been accused of being something of a Peter Pan myself. There are good and bad things about that. There is a difference between being child-like and being childish. I think I still have child-like wonder about many things, and a youthful spirit. I value humor and play (the title of my blog isn’t an accident after all). I don’t think I’m an immature brat who needs others to take care of me. I’m pretty good at living in the moment and could be a little better at planning for the future. I do seem to have an ever-changing cast of young companions who look to me for guidance of some sort, many of whom become genuine friends because I know I learn as much from them as they do from me.

Remaining youthful in outlook while getting older in wisdom is an act of internal time travel.

I’m really enjoying the current, Peter Capaldi era of Doctor Who. After two young-looking incarnations of the Doctor (David Tennent and Matt Smith), they skewed older with Capaldi. I thought this was a good move, just for the show in general, but also because oddly enough I skew older than I used to. I knew it would change the dynamics of the show and it did. Doctors 10 and 11 could easily be seen as romantic interests for the companions, and this plot line played out to some degree with both of them. With Capaldi being older it more firmly moved into the role of mentor than romantic leading man.

The 12th Doctor began as a little rougher around the edges than his immediate predecessors. Matt Smith was just over the top cuddly and lovable. Capaldi was crankier, didn’t suffer fools gladly, and seemed to have an arrogant disdain for humans. As I watched his first season unfold I started to see this not so much as a disdain for people than a way of emotionally distancing himself from them. I believe all of the Doctor’s regenerations, the new person they become, have roots in who they were before. If this is true then his need for emotional distance was something of a learned response from his last years as the 11th Doctor.

This became clear to me this season in his interactions with Ashildr, played by Maisie Williams, a character he made immortal. She refers to him as the ‟man who runs away.” As an immortal he spends time with humans, but leaves when things get too tough for him. Ashildr had lived for 800 years and simply couldn’t remember everyone she had known, even those who had been close to her. She was wounded by the passage of time and the things she had lost to it. To survive she had stopped allowing herself to get attached to people who were just going to die and leave her.

It was her mention of 800 years that did it for me. The 11th Doctor, in his last season, spent more than 800 years living on the planet Trenzalore while it was in a constant state of siege and warfare. In this case he wasn’t the ‟man who runs away,” but the man who stayed. In that time he watched generations of people live their entire lives and die while he continued on. By the time he regenerated into the 12th Doctor he had become used to losing people and out of the habit of caring for the mayflies, as he called them in conversation with Ashildr.

The ability to care is something he had to relearn. The ability to care, even when you know something may be short-lived, even when you know you may lose it, is the essence of being human. I think that is the central theme for Capaldi’s Doctor.

As a quick aside, I think his growth as a character can be seen through his clothes. When he first appeared he wore a frock coat and a severe white shirt buttoned up to his throat. Very formal. He still wears the frock coat, though it looks a little frayed and worse for wear this season, but he is wearing beat up t-shirts and a hoodie under it. His appearance has become less formal to mirror his attitude. I confess that I like this look a lot, partially because I’ve been wearing a frock coat/hoodie combo in fall and spring for years now. I feel like I’m participating in stealth cosplay every time I leave the house, much more so than when I wore the trench coat, hat, and scarf many years ago.

Part Four: It’s astounding, Time is fleeting

So I’m losing Time: my home town and the moments of my life. There are people and relationships I have lost. I relate to the current Doctor because of this. Some days I feel old and look at the enthusiasm of youth with the painful wisdom of knowing they don’t know what awaits them. The painful wisdom of knowing neither do I. It is more difficult to pursue and create meaningful relationships because I know many of them will not last. People go away, not because of failed friendships or relationships but because of Time. Many of the dearest are still out there. We have the metaphorical Tardis of shared space on social media (much bigger on the inside), and the occasional reunion where we reminisce about old adventures but rarely actually share a new one. There will be new companions I love, but the old ones are always just the ghost of a memory away.

But Time isn’t a ghost town. It’s filled with people, just waiting to come into your life and change it. People who are waiting for you to appear like magic and bring them new adventures.

That’s the point of living with a child-like wonder. You never know what people will prove to be the best companions. Live in the moment, enjoy them now, dance with them in the playground of your life. Create the best future you can because the future is just nostalgia that hasn’t happened yet.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

It Was Great When It All Began

I was a regular Rocky fan.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show, that is. I’m not the first person to write about this, not by a long shot. I won’t be the last. But it’s Halloween and I have an annual ritual of playing the soundtrack in my car and loudly singing all the parts this time of year, something I did this past weekend. I also watched a BBC stage production of this on Saturday, so it’s on my mind.

My first exposure to RHPS was back around 1980 or so. I was in college and working as a volunteer teaching assistant for the secondary gifted program in Greene County. One of the students had a copy of the Official Rocky Horror Picture Show Movie Novel and the record of the soundtrack.

A janitor found the Movie Novel left in the classroom and lost his shit. He turned it in to the principal, believing it to be little more than pornography and what the Hell was being taught in that gifted class anyway. The teacher was forced to sit through a no doubt uncomfortable meeting about this, and to her credit, went to bat for the students, eventually convincing the administration of the value of discussing these kinds of topics. I don’t know how she managed it, but kudos. The book was returned to the student and we all got the stinkeye from that janitor from that point on.

Being out in a rural setting we had no access to actually seeing the film, so my experience with it was exclusively through these artifacts. It would be a couple of years before I actually saw the movie at a midnight showing at the GeeBee’s shopping plaza in Washington, PA. It was the full-fledged audience participation event I expected. All of the props, all of the chaos. I vaguely remember someone tearing a toilet out of the floor in the men’s room, so there was a level of vandalism not usually associated with this as well, probably explaining why it was never screened there again.

I loved it. How could I not? The film was, and forgive my obvious metaphor here, a Frankensteinian collage of my favorite things: science fiction, horror, rock and roll, comic books, and sex.

Which probably says way too much about my priorities.

What I didn’t recognize at the time is the extent of the Pop Culture nexus RHPS really is for these elements. There are lots of connections I want to explore, so bear with me while I work this out.

RHPS is pretty specifically a product of the time and place in which it was created. It was first staged in London in 1973, firmly at the height of the Glam Rock movement. Glitter, costumes, camp, and sexual ambiguity were the order of the day. T Rex, The Sweet, Roxy Music and David Bowie, among many others, were scandalizing the stodgy keepers of the status quo on record and on TV with overtly sexualized, gender-bending performances. Glam was a short-lived phenomenon in the music world (though I could make the case that it never went away, just reformatted). It’s lifestyle was too extreme. It served as a short transition from what rock music had been up to that point and what it was going to become.

In the midst of all of the Glam indicators in RHPS it is Columbia who most clearly represents it. Her costume is all glitter and sequins, with character references to Betty Boop and Sally Bowles from Cabaret (another influential film in the Glam Rock canon).

Little Nell

Liza Minelli

Betty Boop

Columbia is torn between the past and the future, as represented by her love for both Eddie and her obsession with Frank. It makes complete sense to me that Columbia was in love with Eddie. Glam was in love with the music of the 50s. A tremendous amount of the genre (the artistic achievements of Bowie and a couple of other artists excepted), was a return to the aesthetic of the past. The social consciousness of the 60s, the experimentation of the Beatles, the jazz-influenced jam band sound of the Grateful Dead, and many other signifiers of the hippy generation were eschewed in favor of the three-minute pop song single. Both Gary Glitter and Alvin Stardust had been 50s era crooners who reinvented themselves as Glam stars. A lot of the music itself sounds like it could have been written a decade earlier. Roy Wood of Wizzard tricked himself out in more makeup and gaudiness than most, but his songs were direct sonic throwbacks to old time rock n’ roll.

Glam wasn’t alone in its love of the past. A full blown 50s revival was in the air. Grease premiered on stage in 1971. AmericanGraffiti hit the big screen in 1973 and Happy Days was just around the corner on the small screen in 1974.

For all of its subversion, RHPS is drenched in nostalgia. The most obvious examples of this are the film references. The late night, science fiction picture show was part of 50s culture as much as doo wop. Frank was a mix of the horror movie icons of Dr. Frankenstein and Dracula, with Riff Raff as his Igor/Renfield. The reference to Fay Wray, followed by Rocky climbing a tower and getting shot down is less than subtle. Rocky himself is a parody of the Charles Atlas ads that ran in every comic book ever for decades (an exaggeration, but not by much). Body building, and the magazines dedicated to it in the first half of the 20th century are one of the direct influences on comic books and the superhero genre.

But Columbia fell in love with the future as well. Eddie only had half a brain after all, and Brad and Janet are the cliched archetypes of the 1950s teen. Nostalgia is at its heart, conservative. The belief that things were better in the good old days prevents growth and progress into new ways of thinking. These images of a somehow more innocent past are subverted not only by the clothing and sexuality of the film, but by actual history itself. By this time we were wounded by Viet Nam, and assassinations, and the death of the love and peace ideal of the 60s. In the middle of this moment we had Kent State and Watergate (Nixon’s resignation speech can be heard on the radio in the RHPS movie). To go back to the metaphor, ‟Darkness conquered Brad and Janet.” No wonder we were clamoring for some innocent nostalgia. But, once we remove the lens of sentimentality and acknowledge the darkness it’s impossible not to see it. ‟Still the beast is feeding.”

But as scary as the past may be, the future is more so. It is the great unknown. David Bowie’s Major Tom was alone in his capsule, the ultimate in alienation, while Ziggy Stardust was ‟a Starman, waiting in the sky,” who would, ‟like to come and meet us, but he’s afraid he’d blow our mind.” Frank N Furter exhorts us, ‟Don’t get strung out, by the way I look.” He knows he’s blown our minds.

And in the end both Ziggy and Frank had to die at the hands of their admirers. It was too much, too soon. The lifestyle is too extreme to carry into day to day living, but the encounter with it changes people.

In 1973 50s rock n’ roll was nostalgia, Glam was dying of its own excess, but RHPS anticipated what was coming. The leather and ripped clothes and makeup and anti-authoritarian mindset anticipated Punk, and in its use of horror imagery, more specifically Goth (Riff Raff and Magenta appear in the early scenes in Denton posed as the American Gothic painting). Not that this was the first appearance or only influence in music. Screamin Jay Hawkins, Arthur Brown, and Alice Cooper were openly utilizing these motifs in ways that probably influenced RHPS as much as it influenced what came after. It’s certainly debatable, but I can see direct lines from Glam to Punk to Goth (which I might talk about in a different post). To quote myself from one of my novels, ‟Goth is just Glam with the lights turned down.” Count the number of Glam songs covered by Bauhaus if you doubt me.

All of these elements come to together, and to tease out specific connections and influences can be difficult. To explore one example, as an aside (because we need one of those in a post that’s already tl;dr), I want to talk, briefly I promise, about the Runaways. There is an anecdote where their Svengali Kim Fowley took the girls out to see RHPS. This was significant enough that it was mentioned in at least two books that I’ve read, and possibly three (I don’t have them in front of me). Cherie Currie and Joan Jett are both on record as being heavily influenced by Glam acts (Bowie and Suzi Quatro, respectively, among others). Because of the timing they were lumped in with the burgeoning punk movement. You can see this clearly in their fashion. Cherie famously scandalized the rock press by wearing a bustier and thigh highs on stage when she was sixteen. Was this directly inspired by RHPS? Hard to say, but the imagery speaks for itself. Years later Joan Jett was cast as Columbia in a Broadway revival of RHPS and in the floorshow section of the play can be seen wearing an outfit remarkably similar to Cherie’s. Full circle.


Cherie Currie

Joan Jett as Columbia

RHPS was a failure when it was first released, but over the years developed a cult following in repeated midnight showings around the globe. It is perhaps the most viewed movie in history. Hundreds of thousands of people (millions? Is that possible?), have gathered in the dark to not just watch, but to participate in this cultural phenomenon.

My friend Dr. Michael Chemers has written about this (source cited below). He talks at length about the RHPS Performance Cult. The movie has transformed into a participatory experience as opposed to something that is simply watched. It has become a mystery cult, where virgins, those who have not seen the movie, are initiated into the shared group experience. There is a call and response, where the congregation shouts out specific lines in response to what is happening on screen. Props are brought to the theater to simulate the experience.

In many theaters there were performance troupes who dressed in costumes and acted out the entire film. You can see this in the movie Perks of Being a Wallflower, filmed here in Pittsburgh at the Hollywood Theater, which had a long history of showing the film (in 2008, when Chemers article appeared, Pittsburgh had only one of three theaters in the country that still did this). While I have certainly danced the Time Warp I never officially participated in these performances, though I know several people who did.

This level of identification with something is the essence of religious experience, and if I may go out on a limb, of intense fandom of anything. We identify with something larger than ourselves and wish to emulate it. Fans go to concerts dressed as Ziggy Stardust, Alice Cooper, and KISS. We wear the sports jerseys of our favorite players. Comics conventions are filled with cosplayers with dozens of Deadpools, Harley Quinns and Doctor Whos. We pull on the sacred raiments of our obsession and engage in Participation Mystique.

But, as Dr. Chemers points out, watching RHPS on DVD in the comfort of your home changes your interaction with it. Fewer and fewer people are having the shared communal experience. The mystery cult has no place to congregate. It’s a shame because it is in the shared experience that the lessons of the sacrament become embodied in the real world, and I think there are many lessons to be learned from RHPS.

The first is the obvious mantra of ‟Don’t dream it. Be it.” It is a statement that speaks for itself. It is Joseph Campbell’s ‟Follow your bliss.” But, as important as this may be, I don’t think it is the main lesson we can learn. While there are many factors in any major social change I can’t help but wonder about just how much of a cultural impact RHPS has had on our perception and acceptance of sexuality. For thirty years thousands of people participated in a world that embraced transvestites, transexuals, transgendered, queer, bi, and straight characters.

In 1973 these were topics that very few people discussed openly. Bowie casually hugged his guitarist Mick Ronson on TV and Great Britain lost its mind at the perceived overt homosexuality of the act. We now live in a world where these issues are being dealt with in a much more open fashion. We still have light years to go for full acceptance, I understand that, and in no way do I want to diminish the very real struggles many people still endure. But, I know that for myself, this movie was an open door into a world I had not encountered, one that changed my perceptions. In these over-the-top caricatured characters I was able to recognize truths that went beyond the campiness of the film. Under the glitter and the makeup and the thigh highs there was the possibility of very real people trying to find their identity, trying to connect with other people.

There was the possibility, for everyone, of finding a light in the darkness of their lives.

Chemers, Dr. Michael. ‟Wild and Untamed Thing: The Exotic, Erotic, and Neurotic Rocky Horror Performance Cult.” in Reading Rocky Horror: The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Popular Culture. Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, ed (Palgrave MacMillan: New York, 2008)

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Of Monkeys and Memories

A week ago I posted the following picture as a Throwback Thursday feature on Facebook.

It’s a picture of my first grade class in 1967. Actually, it’s a picture of the first and second grade classes at Nineveh elementary. It was a small country school with three classrooms and a small auditorium, so each room housed two grades.

The picture spurred a lot of conversation. I’m friends with a couple of the people in this picture, but the truth is I haven’t seen or even thought of most of these kids in years and years. I couldn’t name a significant number of them and as you can see, not a big group of people.

But Facebook works some algorithmic magic. On the day I posted it one of the girls in the pic (Hi, Marijane!), who I haven’t seen since second grade or had any contact with somehow saw the picture and tagged herself. As soon as I heard her name I remembered it. Others began to comment and over the course of the day identified most of the faces in the picture. Names that I would never have consciously thought of again were apparently coded in a neuron somewhere.

Which brings me back to the topic of memory again, a recurring theme on this blog.

I have a pretty good memory. Better than a lot of people, I think. I remember the day that picture was taken pretty well, simply because of the somewhat traumatic event that proceeded it. Earlier that day, during recess, one of the other kids threw a rock and hit me in the back of the head. I cried and bled a lot. You can’t see it in the picture, but I don’t look real happy in that shot. My head hurt and there was probably still blood in my hair.

I mentioned this in the thread that followed my post. No one else remembered that, nor did I expect them to. It was an incident about me that, unless you were really traumatized by witnessing it, you would have no reason to remember.

And I know exactly which kid in this picture did it.

But then I mentioned a couple of other things that no one remembered either. I’m pretty sure everyone in that picture has their own version of this; memories that are clear to them that I wouldn’t recognize as part of my experience at all. But I do wonder... I’m known as a storyteller and a writer, which can be synonyms for being a liar. One of the memories I posted sounds completely absurd and made up. No one commented, maybe because of the sheer improbability of it. But I confirmed this memory with my Mom, so I’m not crazy.

We took care of a monkey in our house when I was six.

Two of the kids in the picture I couldn’t identify were a brother and sister with the unlikely last name of Mullet. Another friend recognized them and said in her post, ‟Remember, Wayne, when their house burned?” I do, which is what reminded me of the monkey.

I don’t remember all of the details, but Mom tells the story like this... On a Saturday morning in February she received a phone call from someone telling her that the Mullet's house was on fire. They were neighbors of ours. Now where I grew up in the country the word neighbor referred to anyone in a five mile radius, so it wasn’t like they were next door or even in sight of our house. They lived on a narrow dirt road maybe a mile from us. Mom went out to see if she could help and found the kids walking along the road, the older one pulling a wagon with his little brother and sister, and I think, a baby in it, walking away from their burning house.

There was also a cage with their pet monkey in it.

They didn’t have coats or anything with them. Mom took them into our house and fed them soup. Over the course of the next few days, with help from our church, Mom helped find them a place to live, and gathered food and clothing donations.

And we took care of the monkey until they were settled in their new home.

There was a cage they kept it in. For a few days this was in our living room. My primary memory of it was that it ate bananas, which I know is a cliché, but that’s probably why we gave them to him. I also remember him holding a stick of Juicy Fruit gum in his tiny paws and nibbling it.

This is not an actual video of that monkey, but you really need a visual here.

This is vivid to me. I realize how unlikely it may sound to anyone I knew back then. Why or how the Mullets had a pet monkey I’ll never know.

That’s pretty much it. I have no great insights about this. Just wanted to establish I’m not making this up.


When I was working on my memory blog last spring I spent some time thinking about first grade and wrote down a lot of stuff I remember from that time. I’m going to post them below, just for the sake of documentation. I realize this may be tedious for readers, so I understand if you want to bail now. None of this really means anything to anyone but me.

I’ve also posted a short comics story I did a few years ago that chronicles one of these memories. It’s at the very end.

I had this Zorro lunch box.

On the first day of school I got on the bus okay, but then when I got there I wouldn’t go into the classroom. I sat on a chair in the hallway. Miss Baldwin (who had been one of my Mom’s teachers), kept trying to bribe me to come in. At lunchtime I went out for recess and sat on the front steps to eat. Mom stopped by. I think Miss Baldwin had probably called her. She led me to my seat for the afternoon. After that I was okay.

There was a substitute teacher one week who spent time playing the Mary Poppins soundtrack for us. I don’t remember watching the film, but whoever she was she was pretty obsessed with it. Possibly she just had no idea how to fill in and teach us at the time and this was a way of keeping us entertained.

One day it snowed a lot. Before recess I heard some of the older kids talking about building a snow fort. In my mind this was an elaborate construction of snow that would look like a real fort, like the Alamo or something. When I went outside and saw that it was just four big snowballs rolled together to hide behind during a snowball fight I was pretty disappointed. The real world not living up to my imagination has been an ongoing theme in my life.

Miss Baldwin paddled one girl (this was the memory I posted that no one else remembered). Thelma kind of lost her mind smacking her. The wooden paddle broke and a piece went flying up the aisle between the desks. Thelma kept right on hitting her.

I could read before I started school, so there were days when I was pretty bored by our lessons (this is a problem that followed me through my whole academic career). There was a bookshelf in the back of the room. One day while Miss Baldwin was teaching new words (I remember her holding flash cards up with words on them and her spelling them out so the other kids could learn them), I grabbed a book from the shelf and was reading it while she did her thing. She noticed I wasn’t paying attention, so she came back and snatched the book out of my hand and yelled at me. I remember confusion. I’m sure I couldn’t have articulated it then, but why was she shaming me for doing the very thing she was trying to teach everyone to do.

There’s a WWII Memorial stone outside the school with Dad and Uncle Carl’s name engraved on it.

One of my classmates cut figures out of his comic books, essentially making paper dolls out of them. I thought this was cool for a short time. I remember cutting up at least an issue of X-Men, something I still regret. Mom brings this up frequently when we’re talking about old comics. She seems to think I cut up my whole collection. I know I still have comics from that era, so that can’t be true. I don’t think it was more than one or two, but maybe.

Every day someone would walk to the store in Nineveh to pick up snacks and candy if we had money. I got pretty addicted to cheese popcorn.

I took some of my Marx action figures to school. During recess we were, for some reason, just throwing them up into the air and catching them. Another kid threw my Geronimo figure up and it landed on the roof. I don’t think he did it on purpose. I cried and so did he when he saw how upset I was. Even though there were ladders and we had a maintenance guy no one would climb up to get it down. I would see it up there every day. The next year I went to Rogersville for second grade. From the bus I could see Geronimo laying on the roof. Rained on, covered in snow and ice, always there. One day when we stopped at Nineveh to drop off the first graders and pick up the second graders that went to Rogersville the maintenance guy, the same one from the year before got on the bus and handed me Geronimo. Someone had thrown a baseball or a football up and it got stuck on the roof. That was worth their time getting out the ladder and climbing up. While they were there they might as well get my action figure as an afterthought.

Later that same day we were again throwing Geronimo up in the air at recess at Rogersville. This time he came down on a rock and sheared off half of one of his feet. Poor Geronimo. In between these two events I had bought (Mom had bought), a second Geronimo to replace the first one, so for years I had two, one crippled, one not. I still have the non-crippled one.

I had the lead in the play, Boots and His Brothers (this might have been 3rd grade… it was in the auditorium at Nineveh).

Here's the comic.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

We Float

Conversation with my roommate while at a wedding at Heinz Chapel:

Me: ‟So, what do you think would happen if I just went up there and hovered over the Nave like fifteen feet up?”

Him: ‟It would probably really disrupt the wedding.”

Me: ‟See, that’s why I don’t do things like that. People are so skittish.”

Yeah, my brain doesn’t always work the way others do.

But this exchange brought up a memory of a dream. It wasn’t a dream of flying, not in the traditional sense. More a dream of hovering.

It was in the early 90s and I was living in the Bloomfield section of Pittsburgh. In the dream (and I kind of think it was a series of dreams with the same basic premise), I was able to levitate about a foot off the ground by flexing my feet back and forth. Somehow, if I continued this very specific motion I was able to propel myself forward, like walking, but I was hovering. I have pretty vivid memories of floating out of my apartment and crossing the Millvale Street bridge spanning the valley of the busway. So vivid that they feel like something that actually happened instead of a hazy dream image.

That’s the thing with this memory... it feels so real that at times it seems like something that actually happened. Okay, I know it didn’t so don’t dial 911 to get me help. But it feels that way, like somehow it is something I could still do, but I’ve forgotten the first part, the launch. If I could somehow remember how to do that I could flex my feet back and forth and hover around the city.

In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams states, ‟There is an art to flying, or rather a knack. Its knack lies in learning to throw yourself at the ground and miss... Clearly, it is this second part, the missing, that presents the difficulties.”

I’ve lost the knack of hovering.

Maybe it was astral projection. I’ve read enough comics to have been exposed to the concept from a very early age. Dr. Strange was doing it through magic and Professor X through psychic powers throughout my childhood.

Art by Dan Adkins
From X-Men # 117 by Chris Claremont and John Byrne

I’ve encountered the idea through a lot of reading about psychic phenomena and magic to know that a lot of people would say that is what I experienced.

I’m not saying that’s what happened. As much as I want to live in world of magic I’m enough of a cynic to not jump headfirst into that metaphysical pool. It’s as easy to drown there as it is to swim. So I dangle my feet, dip my toes in, and watch from afar. I can’t speak for the experiences of others, nor do I have the arrogance to deny their definitions. I hate to put any of my own experiences in a tightly defined box with lots of labels.

But the memory persists, more so than a lot of more obviously real experiences.

In classic dream analysis the experience of flying is usually interpreted as a positive thing. It is a symbol of freedom, of rising above one’s circumstances and seeing things from a new perspective.

I can see this in my life at that time. I had walked away from a good job (a really horrible ‟good” job), and my career in psychology and was living as a temp, making my first forays into the world of freelance art and writing. Other than some financial worries it was a really good time in my life. I was involved in a remarkable relationship. I was actively engaged with a group of people who would become my life-long closest friends. I was finding my power as a writer and an artist. I felt for the first time that I was on my true path and not one based on simply having a career. I was living in a dump and eating ramen noodles and ending up with twelve dollars in my bank account at the end of the month.

To quote Henry Miller, ‟I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”

So why think of this today at a wedding? Hmmm...

I’m still pretty happy overall. I have more responsibilities now than I did then, certainly. A lot more security as well, though I don’t want to take that too much for granted. I have matured and been somewhat successful with my writing and art, though that is a never ending work in progress. There are times I’m too busy and do feel too much gravity. I have my own litany of ‟stuff I need to accomplish” that can get in the way of freedom (however you wish to define that term).

Maybe the metaphor of hovering needs to be looked at. None of us ever have the ability to fly completely unfettered. That implies leaving everything behind, no ties to the earth at all. It’s important to fly, but so is the the need to remain grounded. We do have responsibilities here, to ourselves and others. There’s a difference between being grounded and being chained. Gravity is hard to overcome and Sisyphus’ stone won’t get to the top of the hill all by itself. But maybe we occasionally need to stop and think about what we are really responsible for and look at what may be holding us down.

There is a concept in Taoism called Wu Wei (Chinese, literally “non-doing”). It means ‟natural action, or in other words, action that does not involve struggle or excessive effort. Wu Wei is the cultivation of a mental state in which our actions are quite effortlessly in alignment with the flow of life.”

We all need to rise up once in awhile, see things from a new perspective, put our head in the clouds, stop fighting and just float.

Quote from Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

Here’s PJ Harvey’s take on the topic.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

I'm Your Fan (mostly)

There are very few perfect albums. Even the definition of what that means varies from one person to another, based on taste, nostalgia, and when you first heard an album that spoke to your life. I have my list, which is of course debatable.

I want to talk about a near-miss for my perfect album list. I don’t very often use a public forum to complain about something. I would rather spend my energy celebrating the things I love rather than ripping apart things I don’t. For the most part this post is a celebration of something I love, with one really annoying exception.

I discovered the poet, singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen around 1990. Even though he had been around on albums since the late 1960s (and as a poet before that), I hadn’t been exposed to his work. I may have heard a couple of his more well-known songs at some point, but they didn’t penetrate my consciousness. He never got a lot of radio play on the stations I listened to, and none of my more musically savvy friends owned any of his albums. I found him the way I ended up discovering a lot of music, by following the recommendations of musicians I already liked.

Cohen is name-dropped in the song Speed Boat by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions on their album Rattlesnakes (which, coincidentally, is on my list of perfect albums). Nick Cave mentioned him in interviews. I’m pretty sure other artists did as well because somewhere in there I decided that if that many musicians I liked were fans of this Leonard Cohen guy, maybe I should check it out.

So I bought a vinyl copy of Songs of Leonard Cohen at Jim’s Records in Bloomfield not long after I first moved to Pittsburgh. At the time I had no idea this was his first album from 1967. Based on the title I think I assumed it was a greatest hits collection. I fell in love with it immediately. His voice, his inflection, his lyrics and songwriting... it all came together for me pretty quickly. I could see how the artists I already liked were influenced by him. I started picking up a lot of his work.

Which brings me to I’m Your Man, the album I want to talk about.

It was released in 1988. I bought the CD in 1992 or 1993. I have vivid memories of listening to it over and over again. At the time I was teaching a class on Comics For Kids through Community College of Allegheny County and on Saturday mornings I would drive to a community center in East McKeesport. I’m Your Man was my soundtrack for that drive every week. The album was full of amazing songs. First We Take Manhattan. I’m Your Man. The amazing poetry of Take This Waltz. I still have no idea what the lyrics of that song means, but the imagery and language reminds you that Cohen is a poet first. On my weekly trip I would sing along (yes, I occasionally sing... in the car, by myself, or in a crowd at a very loud concert), absorbing every song into my DNA.

Well, not every song. And that’s the problem. Six songs in, right after the sublime Take This Waltz, is the single worst song Leonard Cohen ever recorded. That’s a strong statement, but I really feel that way. It’s called Jazz Police, and apologies to those out there who like it, but it completely grates on my nerves. The lyrics are ridiculous, his voice is annoying, the entire presentation of the song is like finding a turd in your birthday cake.

It’s followed by I Can’t Forget and Tower of Song, both of which are brilliant, but man...

I’m pretty album oriented in my listening habits. I rarely make a playlist. I usually listen to an entire album by an artist, beginning to end. I tend to see them as whole pieces of work that need to be experienced as it was released. You wouldn’t pick up a novel and read chapters 1, 7, and 13 and skip the rest. Why would you skip songs on an album? Yes, I know there are lots of reasons and I’m not here to debate how anyone enjoys music. But, this is the way I listen. I think my brain searches for a narrative to an album, whether one was intended or not. They are not individual songs to me, but pieces of a whole that need to be evaluated not only as songs but in how they interact with each other on the album.

I only bring this up to illustrate what an enormity editing a song out of an album is for me, but I did it with Jazz Police. For my car trips I had a cassette player, and the tape version I made from my CD omitted this song. When I did play the CD I skipped it. Years later when I transferred my collection to an Ipod I eliminated the mp3 file completely. In my universe this song is simply not a part of I’m Your Man, which is now a perfect album.

For the last year or so I’ve been working on a personal music project. There is a book from 2006 called 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die (edited by Robert Dimery and Michael Lydon). I haven’t read the book, but I have access to an online list (and I should have a separate blog entry about this experience). Needless to say any list like this is debatable. Anyway, thanks to the magic of Spotify I’ve been listening to these albums in order (most of them are available) to increase my experience as a self-proclaimed music nerd.

I’m Your Man is on the list, and you’ll get no arguments from me that it shouldn’t be included. So when it came up in my ongoing listening quest last week I thought, ‟Okay, I’ll sit through Jazz Police this time.” For Science, as a dear friend says.

Time and distance have not been kind. I still really disliked the song and felt it to be a horrible intrusion on my listening pleasure.

Sorry Leonard. I’m going to keep living in a universe where this song doesn’t exist.

Here’s a video of Take This Waltz.

And Lloyd Cole’s Speedboat where I first heard Cohen’s name, just because I really like it.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Alternate Timelines

I had a conversation with my Mom last weekend in which I was reminded of something I probably knew at one time but had forgotten. It was a reference to a moment in time that, had things worked out differently, would have led to a completely different life than the one I have lived. Given the theory of multiple universes, somewhere out there in the infinite Multiverse, I led that life. I can’t say I’ve been obsessing with this, but I have been sort of fascinated for the past few days.

I’m going to attempt to tell this story without using any names. There are people who are involved and have no idea about any of this. It’s not a bad story, just not something that needs to be brought into their life (at least I don’t think so).

I’ve never had a lot of contact with my Dad’s side of the family. He only had one brother who was much older than him. His kids, my first cousins, are much older than I am and never lived near me in my lifetime. Their kids are my age and I have met them once at their grandfather’s funeral twenty-five-plus years ago. It’s pretty safe to say I wouldn’t know them if I saw them. There were other cousins, children of my grandmother’s siblings, only one of which I ever have any contact with. It was a strange contrast for me, because my Mom’s side of the family is huge and I have lots and lots of cousins I have spent my life with and feel incredibly close to even though we rarely see each other.

When I was little we used to take my paternal grandmother to visit her youngest sister. On these occasions I would see her grandchildren, my second cousins. There were a pair of sisters who were four or five years older than me, so it was difficult to really play with them when I was there. In 1967, when I was six, a little sister was born in their family. I only vaguely remember this.

Not long after, probably within the year, their Mom died while in the hospital, leaving the two girls and a newborn baby with their father.

So, the story Mom told me this weekend, is that during the time that the widowed father didn’t know what to do, she briefly discussed the possibility of adopting the baby and raising it. I don’t know how detailed these discussions were or how far it went, but needless to say, it didn’t happen. He eventually remarried and over time, after the deaths of my grandmother and her sister, we gradually lost touch with most of that family.

But somewhere out there in the Multiverse I had a little sister come to live with me.

And, I realized, somewhere out there in the real world, is a forty-something woman, my second cousin, who could have been my sister, who I don’t know at all and who has no idea I exist.


So, I went internet stalking. I have a friend who went to the high school I was sure she would have attended. She was younger than him, but it was a small country school, so I thought he might have some connections. I was right. He didn’t know her personally, but he was able to figure out who she was and give me her married name. She’s on Facebook. Lives in West Virginia. I’ve seen her picture. This was all to sate my curiosity. I won’t name her here. I have no inclination to contact her at all. She’s a stranger who I probably shouldn’t invite into my strange land.

But out there, somewhere, we were more than that.