Friday, October 13, 2017

Misspent Youth #3: Race to the Bottom

Though my favorite toys as a child were action figures I did have my share of cars. Matchbox cars and Hot Wheels primarily. They were relatively cheap, so I’m sure they were Mom’s default when I wanted something. But there were a lot of them. I had the Hot Wheels track with the loop and the jump ramp that I would stretch from the kitchen table out into the living room. I don’t have any of these left and have no idea what happened to them.

There was one toy car that stands out more because I do remember what happened to it. It wasn’t one of the small cars, but a larger one called an SSP Racer. SSP stood for Super Sonic Power. Each car had a large wheel in the center of its body. You would insert the ‟t-stick” and then pull, making the wheel spin and create sound, then let it go.


Mine was called the Laker Special. It was bright orange and I thought it was the coolest model they made. The others all looked like cars. The Laker Special looked like a Sci Fi rocket car. When it raced along the floor it looked like it was floating slightly above the ground. I have often thought that Luke’s landspeeder in Star Wars was influenced by this.


Living in the country I didn’t have lot of places where I could really take advantage of the full Super Sonic Power. The space in my house wasn’t really big enough for it to play out it’s full potential. There were no sidewalks, and even with very little traffic back then playing in the road was a no-no. But, I took it outside and made the best of it.

One day after a hard rain I was in a nearby wooded lot. Crews from the telephone company had been working in the area, digging holes to bury the phone lines that up to that point had been stretched between poles. It was an overall upgrade to the system at the time. There was a large hole in the ground, filled with muddy water. That’s when inspiration hit. I yanked the t-stick and put the car in the water. Just as I thought, the spinning wheel revved and sprayed filthy water everywhere, soaking me in an instant.

Pretty cool.

The Laker Special immediately sank out of sight into the brown mud. The hole was a lot deeper than I thought it would be. I sank my arm into it, but couldn’t reach the bottom. I got a shovel from our garage and poked around with it, but no matter what I did I couldn’t find my racer. I didn’t tell my Mom because I think I was afraid of getting in trouble for losing this slightly more expensive toy. Within a day or two the work crews were back and filled in the hole. Unlike the happy ending of my previous story about Geronimo, the Laker Special was lost forever.

To this day I can go to that spot. Somewhere, six feet or so under the ground, like an ancient artifact of the past, my SSP sleeps.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Oh, for Fudge Sakes

When was the last time you laughed hysterically? Not just laughing hard, but uncontrollable, difficult to breathe, tears and snot rolling down your face, completely unable to stop yourself laughter? It’s cathartic, but I’m not sure it’s healthy. I laugh a lot. I know a lot of funny people. I’ve been told I can be a funny people. But it’s been a long time since I was out of control hysterical.

This may not be the last time this happened to me, but it was certainly the worst. Best? Most memorable.

It was the end of my first semester of grad school, without a doubt the most difficult academic semester of my life. I think grad schools plan it that way in order to weed out the people who aren’t going to make it early. I’ve always been a pretty solid B student without having to work very hard. As a result I have crap study skills. I can get really motivated when it’s something I’m interested in, but have little patience for the topics I’m not. That semester was full of things I just didn’t care very much about. That same fall Fred and I had signed a contract to produce our first comic book, which ended up never appearing, so that was taking up a lot of my time and attention. That alone should have clued me in on where my actual priorities were.

Anyway, even though I had dropped a class in Research Statistics to be taken again later, I still had four final exams and a major paper due the last week of class. The story I have told for years is that I got about eight hours sleep in the course of four days. That seems unlikely to me now, but nevertheless, I didn’t get much sleep. I was living on caffeine. The area I lived in was a test market for Jolt Cola (‟All the sugar and twice the caffeine!”). My routine for those four days was a cup of coffee, a cup of tea, a can of Jolt, repeat. There’s a reason I wasn’t sleeping.

The day came when we were all finished. It was the day before we were all leaving for Christmas break. A bunch of us were hanging out at the apartment, trying chill and relax and have fun before we left. I should have taken the opportunity to crash but I was really wired. Our friend Holly made chocolate fudge. I want to go on record by saying it was possibly the worst fudge in the history of fudge. We all thought so. Holly thought so. Somehow it seemed like a really good idea that instead of eating it we should wad it up into a ball and toss it around the living room.

Based on my reaction, this must have been the funniest thing to ever happen. Ever. Anywhere. Another friend was there, reading quietly on the couch, somehow completely oblivious to our shenanigans. At one point the fudge landed in his lap. He held it up like it was an alien artifact. The look on his face was the final straw for my sleep-deprived, caffeine-addled brain. I lost it. Completely, rolled up in a ball on the floor, shivering, uncontrollable, difficult to breathe, tears and snot rolling down my face, completely unable to stop myself from laughing.

Every time I thought I was getting some semblance of control, I would look up and lose it again. I eventually made it to my bedroom, closed the door, turned out the light and curled up on my bed, still shaking in the throes of mirth. It took awhile, but I got my shit together and went back to join the others.

Where I immediately collapsed to the floor again, all composure gone.

By this time my friends were getting seriously worried about me. I think I may have been on the verge of some kind of breakdown. Miriam came to my rescue. I was still reeling, but she took my arm, grabbed our coats and made me walk her back to her dorm. I think the combination of the cold December air and her calm presence may have saved my sanity that night.

There are times I feel like it’s been way too long since I have indulged in genuine hilarity. I like to laugh until I ache, especially in the company of good friends. I never want to be that out of control again.

No more fudge for me.


Saturday, October 7, 2017

Misspent Youth #2: Geronimo!!!

My favorite toys as a child were action figures. Pretty specifically a line from Marx Toys called The Best of the West. The cowboy Johnny West was the main character but there were soldiers and Indians and a full West family including Johnny’s wife, two sons and two daughters. I had most of these. There were also two medieval knights (my favorites), and two vikings, of which I only ever owned one. They came with a wide assortment of accessories. I still have many of the figures, though some of them are lost to time (and the memory of why some are missing). I have a few hats and swords left, but that’s about all.

These are the figures I have left.
They're standing on top of a bookshelf in my living room
.

In first grade I took my Geronimo figure with me to school. I don’t know if it was a show and tell day, or if I just wanted to take it to show my friends because I loved it so much. During recess outside I started to throw it high in the air and then catch it when it came back down. I’m fairly certain I was shouting ‟Geronimo!!!” when I did this because for some reason that’s what you shout when jumping out of a plane or off something high. A friend asked if he could do it and I said Yes. I’m certain it didn’t happen on his first throw, and I’m equally certain it wasn’t intentional, but, on one of his trips to the sky Geronimo ended up landing on the roof of the school.

There were tears, mine and his. I think I yelled at him and told him he had to buy me a new one. The teacher came over and tried to comfort us. What no one did was make any effort to retrieve it. It was a small country school and all of the teachers were ancient, so I understand why they didn’t climb up there. But, we did have a maintenance guy, and there were ladders. But no one went up to get it.

For a long, long time.

Every day at school after that I would see Geronimo laying at the edge of the roof. Over summer vacation, every time we drove by, there he was. The following year, when my class was bussed to different school, every day through the bus window I saw Geronimo, abandoned to his fate. I saw him soaked by rain. I saw him covered in leaves. I saw him buried in snow.

One day while the bus was stopped in front of the school, discharging the kids who went there while the rest of used stayed seated to go on, I noticed Geronimo was no longer on the roof. The maintenance man got on the bus and handed him to me. He explained that someone had kicked a football and it got stuck on the roof. While he was up there he got my action figure as well.


This is the actual figure that went
through this ordeal.

Little Wayne learned a valuable lesson that day about what we value as a society. My toy, something really, really important to me at the time, and my tears, was not important enough to justify getting the ladder out of storage and climbing to the roof. But, one single football gets kicked up there and everyone leaps into action. Thanks for making my feelings and values an afterthought, Janitor Jim.

I’m still a little bitter.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Misspent Youth #1: Flashback

Ten years ago or so I wrote and drew two short comic strips detailing the misadventures of myself when I was a child. I intended these ‟Little Wayne” tales to be an ongoing series, to be collectively titled Misspent Youth. I drew them in a different artistic style than what I usually do. My goal was to emulate some of the great ‟Little” comics series of the past like Little Archie, Little Dot, and Little Audrey, as well as strips like Richie Rich. While I was mostly happy with the results of the two I produced the art style never clicked for me. I began work on a third one, but ended up really hating the art I was producing for it, got frustrated, took a break, and never went back.

It’s unfortunate, because I think I had some good ideas. I had a list of autobiographical memories that dealt with nostalgia, child-like wonder, and the disappointment that arises when confronted with the real world. They were also pretty funny. I still think they are worth sharing, so rather than go back to a dead project and attempt to draw them I want to relate them here. It will be different of course, but hopefully still entertaining. Each of these blog entries will carry the Misspent Youth title.

I want to begin by retelling the first story I drew in prose form.

When I was in first grade in 1967 I wanted to be the Flash for Halloween. I’m pretty sure none of my teachers or most of my friends even knew who the Flash was. Fifty years later he’s on TV and kids everywhere are into the Scarlet Speedster. It makes me incredibly happy when I see posts of friend’s children dressed in the incredibly detailed costumes that are now available.

I wasn’t so lucky back then. Mom bought me a Ben Cooper Flash mask and costume at McCrorys. One of those plastic affairs that made you sweat and it was hard to breathe. The costume was a plastic sheath that had a picture of the Flash on the chest. Flash wore a red and yellow costume with a lightning bolt on it. He didn’t wear a picture of himself. I didn’t want to wear a picture of the Flash. I wanted to be the Flash.


So Mom got out her sewing machine. We got red and yellow cloth ad began to cut and sew. I was pretty specific with what I wanted. In every Flash comic, and on the costume we bought, the yellow part of his costume streaked out behind him as he ran. I now know that these drawings were by Carmine Infantino. The yellow streaks were meant to represent Flash running at super speed. At the time, all I knew was that I wanted the yellow part of my costume to be made out of long, trailing strips of cloth. It would make me look like I was running really fast, you see.

So the day of the first grade Halloween party came. We held a parade down the only street in my small hometown. There I was, all drooping red and yellow cloth, not looking like I was moving very fast at all. To make matters worse they paired me up with some kid in a devil costume. I was supposed to be a superhero and they made me hold hands with the prince of Darkness.


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They just didn’t get it.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Burning From the Inside

Carrie was the first Goth girl I ever knew. Black clothes with lots of lace. Black ripped fishnets. Black hair, black nails, black lipstick, thick black eye makeup. Pale white skin. She was tiny, definitely under a hundred pounds. A few years later when Neil Gaiman introduced the character of Death into his Sandman series my first thought was, ‟Ahh... Carrie.”

Death from Neil Gaiman's Sandman series.
Art by Chris Bachalo.
©DC Comics

I was in grad school at the time, living with five undergraduate guys who were just slightly younger than I was. Carrie had grown up next door to one of them and he thought of her as a little sister. I don’t think she was out of high school at the time. One night we went to hang out at the rehearsal space for a local punk band called Faces of Death. It was in the basement of an office building in the downtown section of the small city we lived near. Though I was a veteran of large concerts this was my first up close exposure to the punk underground (but not the last). It was supposed to be a band practice and while loud music was played for awhile it turned into more of a just hanging out and drinking kind of party.

Carrie was there. Though underage she knew everyone and my roommate in particular was looking out for her, at least to the extent of her physical safety. She was drinking with the rest of us. A few people went outside for a smoke break, and even though I don’t smoke some fresh air seemed like a good idea. That night Carrie had applied a lot of Aquanet to her hair, sculpting it into wing-like crests on the side. A long black devil’s lock hung stiffly over her face. While lighting a cigarette the devil’s lock caught fire and went up like a fuse. At least three of us jumped into action, trying to put it out, slapping the poor girl in the face and head before the entire thing was engulfed in a hairspray inferno. We were successful. Carrie wasn’t even burnt. The devil’s lock was a thing of the past though.

I have no idea what ever happened to Carrie. She would be well into her 40s by now. Does she still embrace her Gothic past, or is she slightly embarrassed by it? Does she remember the night she was on fire?

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Quaker Notes


It was a Quaker wedding, the first of these I have ever attended. The couple are a little over half my age, vibrant, brilliant, and beautiful. They are relatively new people in my life, new enough that I admit to being surprised to be included in their special day. And it was special. It was a perfect outdoor wedding, complete with sunshine, a wide variety of wonderfully eccentric guests, the most fun first dance and mother/daughter dance I have ever seen, tremendous food, and a ginger pear alcoholic cider slushie that could easily lead to a joyous coma.


But it was the ceremony that stood out. I have attended many non-traditional weddings in my life. I have officiated quite a number of weddings, my presence in that role alone guaranteeing the non-traditional label. But that’s the thing here. This was a traditional Quaker wedding. It was my unfamilarity with the proceedings that made it seem different. It was wonderful. Quakers believe that no one has greater authority over these matters than anyone else, so there was no officiant. It was a self-uniting marriage, legal in Pennsylvania, where all that is needed is the signatures of the couple and a witness. Instead of a service the couple sat, surrounded by their friends and family. It was silent at first, but then, as the mood struck, people would stand up and speak to the couple. Stories were told. Personal anecdotes were shared. Some were funny. Some bordered on the profane. One man sang a song he had composed for the occasion. All were heartfelt expressions of the love and happiness everyone there felt for the couple. When it eventually became apparent that no one else was going to speak they stood and recited their vows to each other.


What a marvelous thing, to have the people you care most about tell you that they love you, in so many varied and wondrous ways. What better way to embark on a voyage together than to be buoyed up on waves of joy? We all take for granted that our friends care for us, but maybe we need to actually hear it more often. Maybe we all need to tell others more often.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Moving

About once a week while driving to work I see a couple out for a morning stroll. This morning was a cool September day after a stretch of much too hot and humid ones. The street where I see them in North Oakland is tree-lined and leaves cover the sidewalk. I never get a very good look at them. Since I’m driving it is almost always from behind, then a sideways glance as I go past, followed by a quick vision in my mirror, then I go about my day. As a result it’s difficult for me to get a handle on them.


He is tall and very thin, with very long white hair. He has some sort of physical disability. His hips seem to lean to one side and he limps along with very short steps. The hair and physique makes me think he is older than I am but that may not be true. The woman with him looks younger. She may be his wife, or his daughter, or simply a friend. She may be a physical therapist who comes once a week to help him out. She holds onto his arm, lightly as they move.



And move they do. What strikes me most about this is how quickly they seem to be moving. Short, shuffling steps, but fast, churning up the autumn leaves. Whatever difficulty he may have, it’s obvious he is going somewhere, even if it’s just the end of the block. Perhaps I’m reading into it, given that I see such a brief moment of their day, but I always feel a sense of the joy of simply being in motion.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Reflections and Projections on Writing

In my previous post I mentioned that I am reading The Crow’s Dinner by Jonathan Carroll. As an author he is difficult to describe. At bookstores I have seen his novels filed with Horror, with Science Fiction and Fantasy, and with contemporary literature. Magical realism probably comes closest to defining his genre, but even that doesn’t quite get it right.


The new book is different than his others. It is a collection of short, some very short, essays that he used to publish regularly on Medium.com. I read them pretty regularly at one point but over time I had gotten way behind. The book is 500-plus pages of one to two page essays. He wrote a lot of these. I kind of love them.


Carroll brings a number of things to all of his writing. He had tremendous observational skills allowing him to capture the tiny moments of the every day that brings verisimilitude to the worlds he builds. This applies not only to the physical world, but also to people, their behaviors and motivations. It all feels very real, places and people we all recognize from our own experiences. Then, when something fantastic or magical occurs, it seems as real as everything else. He finds the magic in the mundane.


That seems even more evident in his essays where he deals pretty exclusively with the real world. He is attentive to it, relating anecdotes with clarity and vision. He is compassionate about the human condition in all of its flaws and wonders. With a concise economy of words he conveys moments of everyday magic.


If you can’t tell, I am envious of his skill.


This morning I had a conversation about writing, specifically the merits of brevity versus longer works. There’s a place for both, obviously, depending on what your goal is. This conversation was specifically about writing for comics, and how many words on a page are too many (because in comics words equal space), and how much the art should tell. It’s a fine balance and there is no right answer. That seems to be the one place where my style leans toward the more sparse and concise. But then Alan Moore of Watchmen fame puts a whole lot of words on a page and it works.


There’s a reason that my fiction tends toward novels instead of the short story. The same is true of my reading habits. To paraphrase, I like big books, and I can not lie. Big books that comprise trilogies, or more. But excessive word count isn’t always necessary. A good haiku says everything it needs to. In the current era when we’re bombarded by too much information word count can be a detriment. I’m certainly guilty of scanning web pages instead of reading them thoroughly. How much time can I spare? While I can’t deny that Twitter is powerful, I feel that much of it lacks context. Some topics simply can’t be critically addressed in 140 characters.


But there has to be a happy medium between a tweet and tl;dr.


I have a lot to learn from writers like Jonathan Carroll. In this spirit I plan on trying some new things with this blog. I won’t entirely give up my longer pieces, but I want to try my hand at shorter posts. Using his style as a guideline, without completely aping it, I want to tell smaller stories. A side effect of this, I hope, is that I will write and post more often, because I often psyche myself out with the need to write about something more in depth. I want to observe the world around me a little more closely and report what I find. I want to look for the magic in the everyday. The post that immediately precedes this one was an attempt. There will be more.



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Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Odds and Ends

Last week I had two experiences that ended with opposite endings to what I normally expect.


I went to the Rivers Casino here in Pittsburgh. I’m not a gambler. In the many years the casino has existed this is my third trip. The first was when it opened, just to see this new addition to my city. The next two times for the buffet (which is a different type of gambling, I suppose). I play low stakes poker with friends occasionally, but I’m far too intimidated to sit down at a professional table with strangers. Slot machines are hungry beasts that have never been my friends. But I was there, for the food, because on my previous trip I had been given a coupon for a free buffet. Twenty dollars worth of free is a good thing. I tipped my waitress five bucks and then walked through the casino to go back to my car. On a whim I stuck a dollar in a penny slot machine. Fifteen cent bet, no luck. Second fifteen cent bet... ding ding ding, lights, and sirens! I hit for $6.70. Pretty good return on a fifteen cent investment. I cashed out because quit while you’re ahead, right? So I left, full of buffet and, minus the tip, $1.70 more than I walked in with.


A couple of days later I made a trip to the library, which I do a lot of. I read a lot, and the library is free. I still need to occasionally buy books for my collection, but the library has saved me thousands of dollars in my lifetime. I had a book on hold, The Crow’s Dinner by Jonathan Carroll, one of my favorite authors. It’s a large collection of his short blogs, most of which first appeared on Medium.com. I followed it for years. While there I stumbled across a new book about David Bowie called Forever Stardust. Within five or ten minutes of reading each of them I knew I needed to own them. They cost more than the dollar seventy from my casino windfall.



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I can’t help but feel I still came out ahead.


Saturday, September 9, 2017

Talking Leaves, Open Book


As I mentioned in my previous post I believed that the main reason my memory of Sequoyah: Young Cherokee Guide was so strong was because of the art on the back cover. A free hand drawing I did of that when I was eight is my first very specific memory of realizing I had some artistic talent, that I could draw. I remembered very little of the actual story, other than Sequoyah created a phonetic alphabet that allowed the Cherokee language to be written down for the first time. I had never really paused to wonder if there was something in the story itself, rather than just the artwork, that made this stand out among all the other volumes of Childhoods of Famous Americans that I read at that time.


After reading it again for the first time in nearly fifty years, the answer is yes. Yes there was.


But, some disclaimers before I go any farther. This entire series of books were written as story-driven narratives and not as accurate historical documents. In my subsequent research I discovered that there are tremendous gaps in what is actually known about Sequoyah. I will say that the author, Dorothea J. Snow, did an admirable job of taking what information was available and creating a story that incorporated actual history. The book is also a product of its time with some of the attendant problems of racist attitudes and the white mans interpretation of what Native Americans were. While it firmly acknowledged the rapaciousness of the European expansion across America and the mistreatment of the Indians, it also seemed that most of Sequoyah’s best qualities were inherited from his absent white father.


But I read this when I was eight, so none of that was part of my prior experience, and I have no interest in tearing apart this artifact of another time in a scathing review. While these are certainly valid complaints, it’s not what I’m here to talk about.


The book begins with Sequoyah being teased by his peers because he has to help his mother with household chores and gardening, something they see as ‟women’s work.” Because he is lame in one leg he is also unable to hunt or to compete in their sports the way the other boys do. This also sets him apart.


I was not lame, and my father was a positive presence in my life, but reading this now, I can see echoes of eight-year-old me. I was, and let’s be honest here, I still am, a Momma’s boy. Mom has always been, in many ways, my best friend and I interacted with her in the house more than a lot of boys do with their mothers. Not so much with the cleaning and housework, but I liked to help her cook. Dad would want her to chase me out of the kitchen because he thought I was in her way. I don’t think it ever crossed his mind back then that we both enjoyed the experience and that I was earning a valuable life skill (I’m not a chef by any means, but I can whip up a mean pan gravy). I still do this when I’m home, and one of my favorite holiday traditions, both Christmas and Thanksgiving, is helping with the spread. I was much more interested in learning how to make homemade noodles than in changing the oil in my car. I resented some of the time Dad would engage me in car maintenance. I am now incredibly grateful for this time spent with him that younger me couldn’t appreciate. Interested in cars or not, the time with Dad was invaluable, and I learned enough about cars to save me a million times on the road. But, back then, I would rather have been reading than changing tires.


Okay, that’s still true.


I was also not very interested in hunting or sports. These are two of the most important manhood rituals where I’m from and I just didn’t care very much for either. Let me say, for all of my friends and family who do engage, I am not opposed to either of these, then or now. Just not my thing. When I was twelve I got my hunting license because I didn’t know how to say no back then. It was just expected. I loved being out in the woods, but I didn’t feel the need to kill anything. I did though: squirrels, and groundhogs, and rabbits in small game season. When I was eighteen I finally accomplished the ultimate cherry-breaking moment of being a hunter and shot my first buck. I was literally sick and haven’t been in the woods with a gun since.


With sports my lack of interest may be because I’ve simply never been any good at them. Or, perhaps the reverse is more likely. I never pushed to be better at sports. Just not competitive enough, I guess. I went to one practice for wrestling in fifth grade and after spending an hour on my back with my opponent’s knee in my nuts I never went back. I played Little League baseball for a year, but that was more to hang out with a friend than from any real interest in playing. I could hit pretty well, but couldn’t field for shit. I was a slow runner.


Which brings me to an anecdote. The boys in my school loved to race. Every recess had boys challenging each other to see who was the fastest. I wasn’t and as a result, got challenged to race a lot. It’s an easy win, right? One day the playground was covered with snow and ice. I was wearing boots with really good tread. Due to traction I won my first race ever, against the guy who always beat me. I won a second one as well. He didn’t want to race anymore and when I asked him why he said it was unfair because I knew I was going to beat him. You know... just like he knew that every other time he challenged me.


Life lessons.


I hated the military posturings of my gym teacher and was actually kind of happy on those occasions when I sprained my ankle or broke my arm and had an excuse not to participate. I got to go to the library and read instead.


And of course, I was teased about all of this. I was teased a lot. Before I get too far into this I do want to say my childhood wasn’t Hell. I was picked on, because of my interests and my red hair, and because I was sensitive and cried easily which made me an easy target. But I was never beat up. I didn’t live in fear. I had friends. My teachers mostly liked me (probably not the gym teacher). I recognize how much of a golden child I was. But I had my tormentors.


And I see little Wayne in these aspects of Sequoyah.


My interest in reading and in books is what prompted this blog and the last one, so it’s no surprise that I share that with Sequoyah as well. The Cherokee did not have a written language. The white man came bearing sheets of paper with strange markings on them. These ‟talking leaves” were treaties and orders from the government that gave them great power. The Cherokee, according to this book, believed they were magic, allowing the white man to communicate over long distances. Sequoyah became fascinated by the talking leaves and became determined to unlock their magic. He spent many years working on this, becoming an outsider to his people. They thought he was queer (in the old sense of the word), and strange, and maybe dangerous. He would become obsessed with his project to the detriment of his other work, his friends and family.


As I pointed out in my last blog, I too became fascinated by the talking leaves when I was very young and learned their magic very early. In my world of sports and hunting and those who simply don’t appreciate books in the same way I do, I too have been considered strange and queer (in both definitions of that word).


These things are not mutually exclusive of course. I have friends who hunt and read. I have friends who are way into sports and read. After living in Pittsburgh for nearly three decades I have learned an appreciation for the Steelers I didn’t believe I would ever have.


But I’m still more interested in books. I still believe that they are magic. Entire worlds are held between their covers. The wisdom of the ages is there for anyone to access. They are time machines, allowing us to hear the thoughts and voices of people long gone. They are portals to imagination and empathy. The story of Sequoyah that so spoke to me when I was eight continued to live as strange lines on aging paper until my now 56-year-old eyes could rediscover it. The words were unchanged in all those decades, but I am a different person so it is now a different book.


But, as this experience teaches me, in many ways I’m still the same book too.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

BookQuest



I have always loved books. My mother says she read to me constantly as a baby, long before I was conscious of what books were. As I grew older she says I was always asking her to read to me. Books, children’s books, comic strips and comic books... everything that had words on a page. She smiles as she talks about how she would set the words to song to put me to sleep at night. She winks when she tells me how I would correct her if she skipped the words to well-known stories.


For me books have always been magic. They are portals to other worlds, the most important of which has been my own imagination.


As you might guess, I learned to read early. The mystery of what was contained on these strange marks on paper we call the alphabet was one I needed to solve. Apparently, for all of her indulgence, I needed more time with books than Mom could give me. By the time I started first grade I was already living between the pages. One of my most-repeated anecdotes of that time was when the teacher, Mrs. Baldwin, yelled at me for not paying attention. She was teaching the alphabet to the class and I was bored, so of course I grabbed a book from the shelf in the back to keep myself occupied while the rest of the class got caught up. Yeah, I was an arrogant little snot, but I was bored. I still reach for a book when other people are boring me.


I grew up in the country so there wasn’t a local library. My small school was serviced by a library bookmobile and I couldn’t wait for the weekly visit. Luckily it continued to make rounds during the summer months as well. The librarian, Mrs. Berryman (who I have alreadywritten about), loved me because of my love of books. By fourth grade a new grade school had been built, consolidating several smaller schools and gave Mrs. Berryman a permanent home and large new library. I practically lived there.


I graduated to chapter books pretty quickly. The earliest full books I remember reading were the Howard Pyle version of Robin Hood (I spent a summer writing a play based on it and trying to recruit my friends to be in it. It was, sadly, never produced. Luckily, in sixth grade I was cast as Will Scarlet in a school musical production). I also read both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. In 4th grade my classmate Charlie Brown (yes, that was actually his name), reenacted the scene from Tom Sawyer where the boys first encounter Injun Joe.


Actual copy from my childhood
My really beat up copy of Tom Sawyer. The copy
of Huck Finn is long gone. Mom says these
were my brother's copies from when he was
little.

There were a series of books on the library shelves that I plowed through. They were a series of biographies of figures from American history, written for children. I specifically remember a few: George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Kit Carson, Brigham Young, Betsy Ross, and many others. I read them all, some many times over. I credit these with my interest in history which eventually led to one of my undergraduate degrees.


One in particular stands out in my memory, but not because of history, but because of art. The book was a biography of the Cherokee Indian Sequoyah, inventor of a written alphabet for the Cherokee language. The cover of this book, like all of the covers in this series, was covered with drawings, done in the inked style of the comic books I was so familiar with.


In third grade all of the boys were obsessed with cars, based on the Hot Wheels and Matchbox toy cars. I had a bunch of these, but I didn’t have the same obsession. Trapped indoors for recess in the winter everyone was drawing their favorite cars. I tried, but just couldn’t get the hang of it. One of my regular tormentors made fun of my inability to draw. One day, while the others worked at their cars, I did a freehand drawing based on the art on the book. It was, in my memory at least, really good. Okay, really good for a third-grader. My teacher praised it. So did other kids in my class.


My tormentor said, ‟Yeah, but you still can’t draw cars.”


This whole experience stands out plainly in my memory. I pinpoint this drawing of Sequoyah, unfortunately long lost to the ravages of time, as THE drawing that made me aware that I had some talent. The one that eventually led to the art I still do today.


The problem with memory is that it is incomplete. I have spent many years of my life trying to track down this series of books. Unfortunately, I had no idea what the titles were, or what the series was called. I tried my Google-Fu with every variation of ‟American biographies written for children in the 1960s” you can imagine. Nothing that ever came up seemed to match. My visual memory for these, especially for Sequoyah, is strong. I would know it when I saw it. But many image searches later and I was still unsuccessful. Every trip to a used bookstore for the last twenty years included a perusal of the children’s section. Still, no luck.


But books are magic.


A month or so ago I was in the main branch of the Carnegie Library. This is not an unusual occurrence. I typically do two things when I’m there; I look for very specific books that are next on my reading list, and I browse the shelves to see what catches my eye. I frequently discover books and authors I have never heard of before. That day a book on a display caught my eye due the title. Morningstar: Growing Up With Books by Ann Hood is not something I would have ever been aware of except by the synchronicity of it being there right when I have been researching the concept of Lucifer Morningstar for another project I’m working on (not a Satanic one, I swear). It’s also the name of the character I am currently playing in a superhero roleplaying game. I picked up the book, discovered it had nothing to do with my research, but saw that it was a memoir about a woman my age and the significant books she had grown up with. Good enough for me, so I took it home.


On page seven of her introduction she mentions a series of of books in her childhood library called Childhoods of Famous Americans.


Click!


Two minutes on Google and I had it. Sequoyah: Young Cherokee Guide by Dorothea J. Snow. I saw the picture of the front cover and I knew my search had ended.


But it hadn’t. The thing is, there are multiple printings. I now realize that I had actually found the book in my searches years ago and didn’t recognize it because it had a different cover. I looked around Amazon and Ebay and found copies but none of them showed the back cover. I finally ordered one with the front cover I recognized. It arrived a couple of days later and I excitedly tore open the package only to disscover the back cover was blank. I had the book, but what I really wanted was the drawing.


So, more research. I discovered that the cover artist, who also did illustrations for the interior (all of which lit up memory switchboards in my brain), was Frank Giacoia, a name I knew from the hundreds of comic books he pencilled and inked in the 1960s and 70s. I found another copy for sale with a different cover, but by the same artist. I ordered it. I was once again disappointed.


Third time’s the charm. Through Alibris I found a store in Florida that listed four copies in stock. None of them had pictures. By this time I had found a photo of the back cover with the drawing I wanted, so I wrote to the bookseller with the photo. A woman named Virginia wrote back immediately that she would go their basement and check the overstock. Four days and eight dollars later and I held the book in my hands.


I read it last night. My eyes scanned words I haven’t seen in nearly fifty years. I stared at the artwork and remembered doing that one specific drawing, and some of the others I had forgotten about as well. In reading it now, with a lot more self-awareness, I can see why this book, more than any of the others in the series stuck with me. The drawing I did cemented the image in my mind, but the story says a lot about who I am, and who I was.


But that’s a separate blog.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Nick the Revelator

I first heard Nick Cave in the summer of 1988, a little late given his career up to that point. Like a lot of the music I was discovering at that time it came from my roommate Steve’s record collection. I had left my grad school apartment in May but was going back frequently to visit my friends. While there Steve played Kicking Against the Pricks, a collection of cover songs. I remember liking the sound of it, but it was background music to the weekend and didn’t sink in. I left there with a cassette with Your Funeral, My Trial on one side and Tender Prey on the other. The Mercy Seat was the first Nick Cave song I really listened to. By the time Up Jumped the Devil, the second track on the album, was over I was a confirmed fan. Since that time Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have remained in the uppermost echelon of musicians I’m into.


I saw him on Thursday night at the Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh. While I admit that I’m riding high on the adrenaline I want to say that this was simply one of the single best concert experiences I have ever had... and I’ve been to a lot of shows. This is not the first time I’ve seen Nick, but the fifth, including his only other appearance in the Pittsburgh area with Lollapalooza in 1993. I want to talk a little bit about the specifics of this show, and then tie it in with a broader context of Nick and his work.


First just let me get my complete fanboy moment out of the way. I had paid what for me is a pretty high price for this ticket. I was down close to the stage, but off to one side. It would have been a great seat, except that speaker stacks blocked my view of about 80% of the stage.


I was feeling pretty pissy about the whole thing when the concert began. Nick came out and sat in a chair at the front of the stage and performed Anthrocene. His presence was great, but I really wanted to be able to see the Bad Seeds as well. At the beginning of the second song he stalked along the front of the stage, motioning for everyone to move closer. My seat was kind of crap, so along with a lot of other people I moved.

Much better.

There were crates of some sort along the floor in front of the stage, allowing Nick to come even closer by standing on them. During the second song he moved to a crate right in front of me and began singing to our segment of the crowd. Next thing I knew he had leaned onto my shoulder and stretched himself out over the crowd. I stood there, one hand on his chest directly over his heart, and the other bracing his side, supporting his weight while he sang. So, while I still can’t say I’ve met Nick Cave, I can say I’ve held him.



I was not alone. Nick spent a lot of time in the crowd. I mean really in the crowd. He walked into the seats, and over them, held in place with the hands of many of us who were down front. It was the most intimate show of his I’ve ever seen.





Nick is not a stranger to mingling with the audience. Early videos of him with his band The Birthday Party, show him completely engulfed by the small crowds, with seemingly no concern for his personal bodily boundaries or safety. This was very much in the spirit of Punk Rock confrontational theatrics. His performance style for much of his career has had the element of the confrontational to it. If not directly in people’s faces like in the early days, then certainly in terms of subject matter and intensity of performance.


This fit his image as a fire and brimstone preacher of Apocalyptic visions. His image, and this was a big part of what appealed to me way back when, was that of a larger than life, mythic wandering doomsayer. He was the offspring of a world created by Johnny Cash, William Faulkner, and Manly Wade Wellman. The world he created through his lyrics and music (and his poetry and novels), was one where God and the devil were engaged in daily warfare, one populated by angels and demons, both made manifest in the actions of people and their own virtues and vices. It was dark and thunderous and dangerous, yet redemption and salvation were both possible down in the mud of our dark desires. His concerts often had the ambiance of a tent revival or a faith healing. For his fans they were both.


The new show still is, but there is a difference. His interactions with the crowd were more of an embrace than an attack. He was calling people in instead of pushing them away. His approach was more confessional than confrontational. This change is not completely new. In a spoken word piece entitled The Flesh Made Word he described his own journey using the Bible as a metaphor. The early Nick was the Old Testament, frightening and judgmental wrath of God Nick, while he saw himself moving into the New Testament love and compassion of Christ Nick. Both sides are still definitely present, but the tent revival I saw this week was far more about building a community of love and support than it was about fear.


There are reasons for this. Nick has been wandering in a wilderness of loss and grief recently. In 2015 his fifteen year old son Arthur fell from a cliff and died. The documentary, One More Time With Feeling, deals overtly and honestly with the aftermath of this. Nick went back to work in the studio, and Skeleton Treethe new album, is now marinated with loss and sadness. We see Nick, his wife Susie, and Arthur’s twin brother Earl throughout, trying to move on with life in the midst of grief. I have seen and read a lot of interviews with Nick throughout the years. He has always been someone who was powerful and larger than life. He was self assured, and fiercely intelligent, and a master wordsmith. In the film he appears lost and broken, a man of words who simply can’t find any to express his new world. We see the process of recording, where Nick seems more vulnerable than ever before. His voice breaks with emotion many times, but these takes were kept for the final release. While it is a difficult film to watch it is ultimately uplifting. Nick and his family make a conscious decision to live their life, honoring Arthur and not forgetting him.


Everything is not OK, but that's OK, right? If things go on, you know, if anyone is interested, the records go on and we still do what we do, um, and the work goes on. And in that respect, things continue. A belief in the good in things, in the world, in ourselves evaporated. But you know, after a while, after a time, Susie and I decided to be happy. As happiness seemed to be an act of revenge. An act of defiance. To care about each other. And everyone else. And be careful. To be careful with each other and the ones around us.”


The concert was this idea made flesh. He seemed happy on stage. He interacted with the crowd more than I have ever seen him do before. He bantered with people, touched them. He didn’t just come out into the crowd, he invited people into his space, allowing himself to be held by the audience, to be buoyed up by them and their love, and in return, gathered in the community he had created, he shouted his defiance to the heavens.


The show itself was a mix of the new and the old, with a noticeable gap of anything from the mid 90s until the last two albums. As a long time fan, if Nick had asked me personally which of the old songs I wanted to hear, he pretty much did everything that would have been on my list. He has always been able to transition seamlessly between the furious and the funereal and this was no exception. After four of his newer, more atmospheric, but no less powerful, songs he said ‟I wanna tell you about a girl,” and launched into From Her to Eternity, and this driving song about obsession and stalking and murder brought down the house. This was followed immediately by the sound of distant thunder from the stage and I knew that we were in Tupelo.


The decision to perform this song was one of the most surprising for me. It’s one of his classics and a regular feature of his concerts. But the recent details of his life has given it new context. While a lot of Skeleton Tree was written before Arthur’s death many of the lyrics seem prescient given what happened. It is impossible to listen to the album without this event infusing your interpretation of it. What is more fascinating to me is how this can now color our perceptions of his previous work as well. The lyrics of Tupelo play with the idea of how we mythologize real people, particularly modern rock stars. The song conflates Elvis with Christ, the King who will rise again. For years some people did not believe that Elvis was dead, and he was treated with a religious fervor. Elvis was a twin. His minutes-older sibling died in childbirth. The imagery of the dead twin runs throughout the song, now conveying the extra resonance of Cave’s own twin sons, one of whom is gone. In the raging elemental fury of the performance I found myself emotionally gut-punched by the new meanings of these lyrics, of which Nick has to be very aware.


Well Saturday gives what Sunday steals,
And a child is born on his brothers heels,
Come Sunday morn the first-born dead,
In a shoebox tied with a ribbon of red.

The final repeated refrain, changed slightly from the recorded version, of, ‟Oh mama rock your lil’ one slow, Oh mama hold your baby,” was being sung with full, lived knowledge of how easy it is to lose that child.




He followed Tupelo with Jubilee Street, from the 2013 album Push the Sky Away. This song in particular felt like Nick shouting his defiance. Interspersed with the repeated refrain, ‟Look at me now,” he seemed to be addressing Death directly, speaking of his transformation, the alchemy of his loss producing gold.


I am alone now.
I am beyond recriminations.
The curtains are shut.
The furniture has gone.
I am transforming.
I am vibrating.
I am glowing.
I am flying.
Look at me now!”



The Weeping Song is a favorite of mine from his album The Good Son. It has always spoken to the idea of true sadness and grief in this world. Twenty-five years ago Nick knew that, ‟True weeping is yet to come.”


Former Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld is the other man in this video.
He has not been with the band for many years.

Into My Arms is perhaps my favorite love song. It is a paean of romance sung by a skeptic, acknowledging the one thing he can truly believe in. It echoes a lot of what lives in my head and heart and has long held a special place for me and one other. You know who you are.



I can’t stress enough that although there was a lot of sad, grief-filled content to this show, it was not a dirge. It was a celebration, not just of Arthur, but of life, and love, and perhaps above all else, the idea of community and all of us taking care of each other and supporting our friends. I said earlier that it seemed that Nick was inviting us into his space, breaking the barrier of the stage and audience dichotomy by joining us on the floor. This was taken to it’s logical conclusion during the final number, Push the Sky Away. Once again Nick began to gesture for the crowd to come closer, even though we were already as close to the stage as we could be. When he took a woman’s hand and helped her onto the stage, then kept gesturing, his intentions became clear. He was inviting us to join him, physically onstage. About a hundred of us did so. I stood in this crowd with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, an impromptu chorus, singing along with him as he closed the show with what became a hymn for everyone there.

And some people say its just rock and roll,
Oh but it gets you right down to your soul.
Youve gotta just keep on pushing and keep on pushing and
Push the sky away.”


Set List:
Anthrocene
Jesus Alone
Magneto
Higgs Boson Blues
From Her to Eternity
Tupelo
Jubilee Street
The Ship Song
Into My Arms
Girl in Amber
I Need You
Red Right Hand
The Mercy Seat
Distant Sky
Skeleton Tree
Encore:
The Weeping Song
Jack the Ripper
Stagger Lee

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Push the Sky Away