Why this White Virginia Boy Feels So Proud Today

Today is my proudest as a native Virginian, thanks to the announcement by Governor Northam (another born and raised Virginia boy) ordering the removal of the 6-story tall monument to Robert E. Lee in downtown Richmond.

The decision could not have come easy for the governor, knowing that a vocal minority of his constituents will rage, but also because in doing this he has needed to evolve his own thinking, which for most of us would have been the heavier lift.  I know, because like the governor, I am a white guy of a certain age raised amidst tales of the noble, daring, underdog General Lee, a native Virginian cheered by ragged troops as he passes on his good grey steed Traveler.  Like the governor, I underwent three years of Virginia history classes in elementary school, reading text books that not only never mentioned the extermination of the original Virginians, but that substituted the word “servants” wherever the phrase “enslaved persons” should have gone.  I even remember an amateur minstrel show at the white high school’s auditorium on the 100th anniversary of Virginia’s secession from the Union, where white leaders in our community dressed in black face and ragged tuxedos.  I played a role in that play as the son of a Confederate soldier, and in my skit ran onstage to my hoop-skirted mother shouting, “Father!  Father!  Here comes father!” to announce his return from the war. 

It was not until 8th grade that our county fully integrated its schools, and my re-education began.  I am grateful for that.  Looking back, maybe I should say that was my proudest day.  Because that’s when I began to walk the path the governor too has followed.  My first black teacher was Irvin McQuaige, a tough love fireplug of a football coach who made it clear to us that nothing he was putting us through at practice compared to the cotton fields he worked as a child.  He spoke in Bernie Mack staccato, made sure our integrated football team set an example of racial equity and comradeship for the school, and that we were undefeated in district play.  (Coach McQuaige later became a beloved high school principal in our county.) 

Some of my white friends left for the local military school, segregated at the time, but most stayed on.  It was the early 1970s.  The black students led walkouts when administrators made particularly bone-headed (ie, racist) decisions, but our county got through the era intact.  That our sports teams won championships, setting shining examples of interracial teamwork, helped. Black and white students alike are friends to this day.

I think we all know what happened when Governor Northam went off to study medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School. That photograph in black face will forever haunt him.  But his journey from that day to this mirrors my own and that of so many other white Virginians.

I’m a little younger than the governor.  Went north to college, where I spent a semester-long independent study reading all of Faulkner, whose entire Nobel Prize-winning oeuvre is a wrestle with slavery and its aftermath in the Deep South, and where I studied history under Professor David Herbert Donald.  Hearing this barrel-chested white scholar dissect and disprove with plain evidence lies I’d been raised on about the Lost Cause and the happy servants and what people I knew back home still called “The War of Northern Aggression,” all with a Mississippi drawl, frankly blew my mind.  Professor Donald taught me what history is all about (he almost made me a historian).  History is about facing the evidence, about wiping away cobwebs of myth and self-serving lore.  It’s about reading the ledgers of humans sold alongside cattle and the postcards showing lynchings all over the South.  It’s about letting the facts guide your opinions.  What a concept.

Which brings us to this past week, when everyone watched the slow and agonizing death of one man beneath the knee of another, and when the steadily growing protests across the country (and the world) made the white knees on the necks of black, brown and indigenous Americans over all these centuries plain for anyone to see and maybe finally reckon with.  Governor Northam saw it, and it changed him.  It pushed him along a path he’s been on his whole life.  The governor had already signed legislation that has made life easier for under-served Virginians, but until yesterday he hadn’t taken any step that might answer that yearbook photograph, that might punctuate the achingly slow revelation so many of us white Virginians have journeyed towards in our own lives.  Yes, there is so much work to do. Yes, our black friends are like, what took you so long? Yes, it’s only a symbol. But what a symbol! He’s done it now.  The Lee statue is coming down.  I’m so proud.

One last thing. If you were not able to listen to the entirety of Governor Northam’s remarkable announcement, I highly recommend it. One of the most moving speeches I’ve heard in a week of moving speeches:

Summer Reading for White Folks

I’m helping a friend write his memoir.  In doing so, we’ve uncovered themes that have colored his life and that have me thinking about the threads that weave through all our lives.  For Americans, an important one is race, whether we choose to acknowledge that or not.  So, sparked by this past week’s horrors, I’ve been trying to come to grips with it, as a writer will do, by scribbling down my own experiences as a rural Southern white boy raised in the midst of school desegregation and all that has followed that noble, failed experiment, a white man whose ancestors in Albemarle County, VA, owned other people, a white man with black friends who, in their vigilant courtesy, never share their real feelings about race with me, a white man who has written four young adult biographies about famous black Americans, wondering all the while why the publishers did not find a black author to pen them.  The more I scribble, the more I realize how deeply race has threaded through my own life story, but being a white guy with all the privileges that attain, I haven’t ever really had to think about it much.  I’m determined to do so now, as a form of narrative therapy.  I hope it helps.

If you have begun to wonder about these things, too, I’d recommend a little summer reading that has opened my white man’s eyes.  These books were written by black authors who drop the vigilant courtesy for a moment, telling it like it is, and daring white folks to attend.  You may not agree with what they say, and they’re okay with that.  What they want, I think, is self-reflection, dialogue, some kind of reckoning.  Because without that, even now, twenty years into the 21st Century, what Joe Biden yesterday called our “open wound” cannot begin to heal.

The books:

Ta-Nehisi Coates – Between the World and Me.  Only 150 pages long and conceived as a letter to his son, this book is also a memoir of growing up in Baltimore and learning how to navigate the world one hard lesson at a time. It pulls back the curtain for us white folk on what black parents teach their children, about the past, about the police, about dignity in the face of systemic outrage.  Coates’ meditations on the “black body” in the American consciousness are instructive and unforgettable.

Also recommend Coates’ essay collection We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.

James Baldwin – The Fire Next Time.  Coates clearly modeled his book on Baldwin’s, universally recognized as one of the great works of 20th Century American literature.  Baldwin’s is even shorter, only 130 pages, composed as two letters to black and white America, about growing up in Harlem in the 1930s into the civil rights movement he did so much to inform. They may be letters, but they read like incisive, surgical pleas, the closing argument of a brilliant attorney who preaches from the pulpit on Sundays.  That Baldwin wrote this in 1963, and that last week happened, is all to our shame.

Toni Morrison – Any of her novels, but I’d start at the beginning, with The Bluest Eye.  The thing about the late great Morrison’s work, apart from the brilliant way she condenses history into personal experience expressed with lyrical concision, is that white people hardly figure in.  Her novels are of, by and for black people.  Black people who make their lives inside a waffle iron that is being heated and pressed on by a hand that doesn’t even have to be named.  In the (white) spaces between every line she wrote seethes a righteous anger with too much pride to go there.  And once you see that, as a white person, you learn something crucial about all the things your black friends don’t say to you.

A film:

Spike Lee – Do the Right Thing.  This movie came out 31 years ago, and it ends with a riot sparked by three white cops choking a black man to death.  So, yeah, relevant.

A documentary series:

Hip-Hop Evolution (Netflix) (4 seasons).  It’s a music series, yes, but whatever your thoughts about rap, it’s also a scathing history of the past 50 years in America, with important footage of the bombed out Bronx in the 1970s, of the Rodney King riots in LA, of the crack invasion that ruined whole communities, and the prisons that filled behind all that.  The talking heads keep saying that this week’s riots are not just about the killings, but also about all the other societal inequities communities of color face.  So if you’ve not lived all that yourself, this series can help bring you up to date.  If you also add Dr. Dre’s The Chronic to your Spotify playlist, that’s a bonus.

Another thing to think about.  Before you do anything else, watch this 50 second YouTube video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yrg7vV4a5o.  Then let’s chat.

Love Over Fear!

PS – My friend Doris McGehee shares these additional readings:

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. I’ve known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation
(1994).

“I’ve Known Rivers is about loss and triumph, rage and love, blackness and sexuality, trauma and healing, and the challenging journeys of life. The courage and insight of these storytellers and the wisdom of Sara LawrenceLightfoot as she presents their memories, struggles, and dreams inspire recognition and hope.” – Marian Wright Edelman [Katie Cannon; Charles Ogletree; Toni Schliesler; Tony Earls; Cheryle Wills; Orlando Bagwell]

 Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Thirteen ways of Looking at a Black Man (1997).

“Colin Powell, Harry Belafonte, Louis Farrakhan, Anatole Broyard, Bill T. Jones, James Baldwin, Albert Murray: these men and others speak of their lives with startling candor and intimacy, and their illuminating stories reveal much about the anxieties and contradictions of our society.  What emerges is an unforgettable portrait gallery of “representative” black men – which is to say, most unrepresentative ones indeed.” [also Simpson trial]

Shelby Steele. The Content of Our Character (1998).

“In this controversial essay collection, award-winning writer Shelby Stelle illuminates the origins of the current conflict in race relations–the increase in anger, mistrust, and even violence between black and whites. With candor and persuasive argument, he shows us how both black and white Americans have become trapped into seeing color before character, and how social policies designed to lessen racial inequities have instead increased them. Neither “liberal” nor “conservative,” but an honest, courageous look at America’s most enduring and wrenching social dilemma.”

Punk on Film Top Ten + 1

Compiling a list of books on punk naturally led me here. You can stream a lot of these in our confinement. Play loud.

Documentaries:

Punk (Epix) – 4-part docu-series produced by Iggy Pop. Best if you want to see the originators playing live, and light on hoary pronouncements of significance (thank you Mr. Williamson), letting the explosion (or fart, if you will) of that 2-3 years yawp for itself.

Punk:  Attitude (Youtube) (90 minutes) – Don Letts’ history starts with Brando in The Wild One, links to ‘50s rock’n’roll, gives props to hippies, it’s about why punk.  Interviews and concert snippets by the originators but follows through to hard core and noise bands (Fugazi, Sonic Youth), even for some reason includes Nirvana.  If you only have 90-minutes, watch this one.

Punk Revolution NYC (Amazon Prime) (3-hours).  How it began, fascinating about Warhol’s guiding hand, the influence of transgressive downtown theatre, the nascent clubs, the rebellion against disco, SOHO and Loisaida as cauldrons of creativity when poor creatives could still afford to live there.  Sob.

The Decline of Western Civilization (Penelope Spheeris) (Youtube) – Okay, it’s not the first wave, it’s the hard core generation that Reagan/Thatcher spawned, but damn, the concerts cum riots!  Headache inducing, intentionally, of course.

The Blank Generation (Poe/Kral) (Youtube) (50 minutes) – Grainy black and white footage, audio as if they’re playing down the hall, but it was all shot in 1976 at CBGB, a time capsule, primary documentation.

Hip-Hop Evolution (Shad) (Netflix) (4 seasons).  Watching this series now, and wow!  Hip hop started exactly at the same time as punk, in bombed out 1970s New York, and way outlasted it.  Same impulses, same anger, same release, but black.  (Notes that punk fans were the first white people to fall in love with rap.) 

Movies:

Sid and Nancy (Alex Cox) (not currently streaming).  I so love this sad movie; may have been Gary Oldman’s first (as Sid).  One of my favorite unforgettable movie scenes (right up there with “Forget it Jake”) is Nancy running down the street in an angry fit, catching a glimpse of herself in a store window, and then stopping to tear off her clothes, screaming, “Fuckin’ Stevie Nicks!” when she realizes those clothes resemble something Nicks would wear. 

Summer of Sam (Spike Lee) (pay to stream on all platforms).  If you want to know what it must have felt like to be a nobody in New York when punk and hip hop launched, this is the movie.  The blackout, the talking devil dog, CBGB, the graffiti bombed subway trains, the grit and the hopeless energy.  Figuring out what to wear!

CBGB (Randall Miller) (Vudu).  The late great Alan Rickman’s last movie, as bushy-haired loser Hilly Kristal, the guy who owned CBGB and created a punk Mecca in the process. Actors play the musicians, some even look like the punks, but it’s Rickman’s movie. The scene where he meets the Ramones for the first time is priceless.

Mystery Train (Jim Jarmusch) (pay on Prime).  Are you a Jarmusch junky, like me?  This movie, set in Memphis, is not about punk rock, but I’ve never seen anything that better nails how our lives fail the rock’n’roll impulse, that cry of spontaneity and freedom, and how that failure hurts and in some cases ruins us.

Control (Anton Corbijn) (pay to stream on all platforms).  A biographical film that follows Joy Division’s Ian Curtis to his suicide, and it’s just as bleak and heart-rending as that sounds. If you’ve lost friends and never really understood it, this won’t explain anything, but the movie knows how you feel.

Dear Governor Northam

This is the letter I sent to Virginia’s governor this morning, as we cross the line of 100,000 deaths from Covid-19 in America. Let’s all keep pulling together in keeping that curve bent down here in the Commonwealth.

Dear Governor Northam,

Like many Virginians, I have family members who have come down with coronavirus.  We wait to bury my wife’s grandmother, who died in the early days of the pandemic.  My wife, an occupational therapist at the Richmond VA hospital, spends part of each day 3-D printing face shields and zealously guards the one N95 mask she’s been allowed.  My sons, both Virginia college students, came home at spring break and studied via Zoom the rest of the semester.  My older son, an ocean rescue lifeguard in Nags Head, has been trained to maintain health precautions to the extent that he can (he wishes beach goers there would do the same). My younger son, a film student who lost his chance at a summer internship, is still working in his bedroom, picking up special effects editing gigs online and wondering if it will be worth it to do his senior year if it’s just going to be more of the same.  I’m a professor, had one week to convert my hands-on laboratory classes to virtual versions back in March, and spend part of each day now gaming out strategies for how to manage these courses in the fall.  We all wear masks when we go out, we stay home otherwise.  We even turned down an invitation to a Memorial Day picnic at a neighbors’ house, because older people would be there, and we’d hate to think we somehow might have infected them.

I say all this by way of introduction.  One other thing:  All four of us voted for you.  We applauded your swift and straightforward coronavirus restrictions, even though they directly impacted our lives, because as we have seen they “bent the curve” of deaths this spring.  Since then, however, we have been disappointed by your team’s management of the information and guidance we receive.  Your confusing sort-of-mandate about mask wear in public places, for instance, does not seem to provide any additional incentive for sensible people; in fact, one might think it is intended to poke the hornet’s nest of never-maskers who marched on the Capitol early on.  Your team obfuscates in answer to simple questions.  Perhaps they don’t intend to, but it’s worrying.

I teach my sons and students not to complain without offering a suggestion, so I would like to practice what I preach here, if you please.  This is what I ask:

Recognize that most Virginians will act responsibly when provided with the facts they need to make decisions and the tools they need to act on them.  Trust us to do the right thing.  Understand, however, that we need those facts and tools in order to do so.  That said, please:

Follow Tennessee in making all Covid-19 testing free.  Set up testing tents in the parking lots of county libraries or public schools across Virginia at least once a week; for those who cannot travel to those locations, offer a roving test van and a call-in number to schedule a test.  Turn no one away who wants a test, whether they are symptomatic or not.

At these testing sites, provide literature and guidance on what to do if the test is positive.  Provide explanations for home quarantine, including information on how to notify people we have been in contact with while contaminated, encouraging them to quarantine as well.  Offer free paper masks to anyone who needs one.

(If testing and mask giveaways at this level are still unavailable, clearly explain why, and say when they will be.  If testing must be rolled out in stages, show us the plan for that.)

Put the power of Virginia’s church congregations to work supporting their parishioners who are in quarantine, with food delivery, phone check-ins and prayer.  Other volunteer groups, such as the Lions Clubs, PTAs, and Scouts, may be enlisted to similarly support people who are spending two weeks in isolation.  Reach out to them and provide guidance on how to provide this support safely.

Provide free on-site testing at least twice weekly for all residents and staff at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, as New York is doing.  Do the same at all Virginia state prisons.  Encourage any business where people must work in close proximity indoors (grocers and meat processors, for instance) to do the same.

Provide emergency salary protection for anyone who must quarantine and make it illegal to penalize any employee who is in quarantine.

Break the stupid and unhelpful rule that says nursing homes, prisons, and food processors do not have to report out their numbers of infections.  Communities need to know where the virus is spreading in order to act safely on those risks.

Please provide more accurate, up-to-date and granular local data about the virus’ spread on the Department of Health webpage.  Include the information noted in my previous point.

Explain in plain language what you will do if the virus comes back.  What would trigger back-tracking on the phases of reopening in a particular community?  Stick to whatever plan you have in place for this. Make it clear to all of us that you are acting on the triggers and that you have the numbers to back up your plan.

Please continue your efforts to prepare the state for an upsurge in cases.  At each of your press conferences, list how many ICU beds have been added, how many ventilators, how much PPE.  How are health care workers being trained to meet an upsurge?  Show your constituents that the Commonwealth will be ready for the expected upsurge in the fall.

Finally, if a business chooses to reopen, yet an employee does not yet feel safe to go back to work, do not rescind unemployment benefits for the duration of the crisis.  Workers need to know that the governor has their back.

Governor Northam, as I said, I am confident that most Virginians will act as responsible citizens who care about each other in this crisis.  We have already shown that, in following your initial guidance and bending the curve of cases.  But we need honest, open, and clear information and direction from your office in order to continue on this path.  One more suggestion, please be sure to model mask wear next time you go out?

Thank you for your leadership and for your team’s hard work. Stay safe, stay well,

Tony Vomits Punk, the books

My friend and long-ago college tutor Randy Fertel is writing a follow-up to his well-received book of essays, A Taste for Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation (see my review here).  The new book will explore the uses and abuses of improvisation as an idea and a strategy in the arts, popular culture, and politics, and what I’ve seen of it so far is both fascinating and directly relevant to our current predicaments.  Anyway, he texted me last night to ask if I could suggest a book on the history of punk music, which immediately sent me to my book shelves and to the composition of the list I’ve shared here, in case anyone else may be interested in this topic that has meant so much to me.

Interestingly, I’ve never seen a cohesive history that starts with the New York scene (CBGB), blends in the UK (Sex Pistols, etc.), and adds in LA, Cleveland, DC, Akron, etc. in that incredibly packed and explosive 2-3 years (oil embargo, gas lines, Drop Dead New York) made so depressingly indelible to those of us who graduated out of high school into it (1975-’77).  That said, here are my Top Ten books about punk, for your reading pleasure.

Homstrom, John, & Hurd, Bridget.  PUNK: The Best of Punk Magazine.  This is a hefty coffee table book that reproduces the New York ‘zine that coincided with the very beginning of punk in New York.  It’s fun to read, feels juvenile and clubby and silly.  But introductions to each issue throughout the book do a good job of pulling together what was going on in the streets, what mattered, and how the sound and look developed (first issue was January 1976).

Legs McNeil.  Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk.  Legs co-founded PUNK magazine, was in bands, etc.  A little frustrating as the story is told in fragmented interviews and dashed off asides, but he was there, knew everybody, and paid attention.

Jon Savage.  England Dreaming. This may be the best punk history, fierce and on point, but its focus is the English scene, especially the shooting star that was the Sex Pistols, so it doesn’t catch that first ignition of punk in New York.  One of my favorite books about music and its impact on culture, back when music could do that.

Lester Bangs.  Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung; Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste.  Guessing you know Bangs, the mad king of rock critics, whose stream of consciousness writing and make it bleed tastes made each of his record reviews and interviews a punk manifesto (his review of James Taylor, for instance, is a hilarious plea for something please to come blow up the music scene).  Most of the reviews came pre-punk, but he was there when it happened, wrote the first review of Patti Smith’s Horses, traveled with the Clash, and even took a stab at an article called “The Roots of Punk” (in Mainlines, that doesn’t mention a single band but perfectly nails what it felt like to be a confused teenager of the era).

Patti Smith.  Just Kids.  I’d include this in a list of my favorite books of the century so far, just so achingly beautiful in its appreciation of youth’s glory and what comes after.  Have you read this yet?  Damn it’s good.  Patti, of course, was the first punk goddess (and there were a lot of girl bands in punk), put out the first punk single (Piss Factory), and single-handedly changed college fashion with Robert Mapplethorpe’s black and white photo of her on her first album Horses

Richard Hell.  I Dreamed I was a Very Clean Tramp.  If you ask me, Hell was the first punk punk (Warhol and Reed and Iggy and the Dolls his immediate influences, but let’s draw the line here).  And what’s amazing is that he’s aged into a sort of elder statesman of the scene, sober, articulate, and more clear-eyed than wistful over what he created and survived.  This autobiography is almost as well-wrought as Patti’s, and less insular.

Dee Dee Ramone.  Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones.  All four of the original Ramones are dead (one of their later drummers survives).  Dee Dee lived all the excesses of punk like a latter-day Keith Moon.  He wrote most of their best songs, could hardly play bass, and that was fine.  A line from the book:  “People who join a band like the Ramones don’t come from stable backgrounds.  Punk comes from angry kids who feel like being creative.”  The Ramones are a sort of miracle, the perfect punk band before punk even had that name, and they never made the mistake of evolving into something less crude.  I will always love them and their individual members in the same way I love all four Beatles.

Simon Reynolds.  Rip it Up and Start Again:  Postpunk 1978-1984.  Punk was dead in two years, so they say.  But most of the bands I love came after that, were just as punk as the originators, and even got record deals.  This is a highly readable straight history of punk’s splintering into hard core, ska revival, new wave, straight edge, etc., leaning towards all the amazing bands from the UK then.

Michael Azerrad.  Our Band Could Be Your Life.  This chronological history covers roughly the same post-punk era (1981-1991), but focuses on the American bands.  Title is from a song by The Minutemen, one of my favorite bands, and if they ain’t punk, what is?

Prison Reviews of my Poems?

Just before the pandemic shutdown, I visited my friend in federal prison.  A couple weeks before that, I’d sent him a copy of my debut poetry collection Yearnful Raves, along with some other books.  Check this out:  I’m standing at the guard box in the visiting room when he strides through the prisoner’s door, and before we even get to the one allowed hug he’s saying, “Man, take this the right way, we liked your novel and your stories, all good, but these poems, that’s your sweet spot, man!”

We took our side-by-side plastic seats and he continued, frankly blowing my mind.  He said (paraphrasing), “I went around showing off the book and guys were like, poems?  I told ‘em they were by the fellow who sends us books, so they were like, okay, show me one.  The ones about your dogs?  Guys went, ‘That’s some truth.’  And a half dozen brothers, I wish you could have seen them debating this one poem.  It’s the one where the space aliens are trying to figure out how to conquer us and they hit on the idea of color?  One guy says, ‘This is about black power!’  Another frowns at him, says, ‘No, it’s the power of words, man.  It’s how just little words can mess with your mind.’  They went at it for I’m not kidding a half hour, and they were still talking about it at chow.  That poem about your brother, that was killer, man.  Guys sobbed reading that! Things you can’t fix in your family, they know what that is.”

I’m sitting in this concrete block visiting room bowled over by the whole idea, prison inmates grooving on my poems?  Anybody’s poems, for that matter.  And then a letter arrives this week from my friend.  He’s included hand-written notes from a couple of his pals that read like reviews of the poems.  He swore he didn’t ask for them, they just wanted to tell me.  So here they are, my favorite reviews ever:

Dear Sir – I want to start this off by clarifying very emphatically that I know NOTHING about poetry…unless Dr. Seuss counts (?) I recently was given the opportunity to read your collection of poetry.  I enjoyed your work.  I must specifically address two of your pieces…your work on the subject of picking blackberries and the lament of crawling under a house to retrieve a dog were fantastic.  The way you “painted” both of these experiences took me back to similar situations from my youth.  I will fault you for having me fixate on blackberry cobbler for the remainder of the day…and going to sleep with the reminder of a long passed hunting dog.  Thank you.  I look forward to your future work.  Respectfully, _________

4 STARS! 

This author does a fantastic job mixing in seemingly humorous concepts with melancholic affirmations of what it means to be human.  The most fascinating of the entries is “Weekend Daddy” on page 12.  Though only eleven lines, it paints a picture that is laughable and yet all too realistic in its portrayal of what must be the titular character’s living situation.  One can readily imagine and “see” the home, and the feelings that come with this flood the mind like New Orleans during Katrina.  It’s a visceral torrent of emotion…all within eleven lines.

Another great example is “Alzheimer’s Poem” on page 26.  Hauntingly beautiful and poetic are the only words I can think of to express the emotions brought forth by this one.

My favorite, despite my feelings about the former ones, is “Don’t Let This Happen to You.” The message is clear and the warning simple.  Through its journeys from present to past and back to future aren’t the most illustrative present in the book, they provide a much needed context for the reader.  This one pulls at the heart strings and plucks at the minor chords guaranteed to leave you wondering what happens next.  Sadly, there is no next, and that means something in and of itself.  From start to finish, this one delivers on the aforementioned concepts and affirmations.

I would definitely recommend picking up a copy of Yearnful Raves even if poetry isn’t your thing.  The three above make it worth the price.  ______________________

One thing about writing, it’s all messages in a bottle.  You hope something you wrote will touch somebody, and you’re grateful for any sign.  My friend and his pals clearly get that.  Locked up and in so many cases forgotten, their whole existence is like that, books nobody reads.  So, as you might imagine, I will cherish these notes.  Only wish I could have been a fly on the wall when those guys were debating that poem! And another thing, consider the generosity of these men, currently in their 50th day of unit lockdown for coronavirus. They knew it would matter, cared to reach out, took the time. They have nothing, but they have this. Thank you, gentlemen.

The Day I Met John Prine

I don’t know if this is true for everybody, but the popular singers I care about feel closer to me than some people in my family.  I’ve never met Bruce Springsteen, for instance, but his music speaks to me like letters from the hard-traveled big brother I never had.  And then there’s John Prine.  I did meet him, once upon a time, forty years ago.  He was on the road traveling light with a crew that just fit the big 8-top table at the back of the little restaurant where I worked as a waiter, the Café Sbisa in New Orleans.  I later learned that he’d been dropped by his record label, had launched his own (Oh Boy), and was driving himself around the South playing at clubs.

I’m not a musician, but I had his first two albums and could sing every song on them by heart (still can, pretty much).  I’m not a singer either, but Mr. Prine wrote in a talky register that pretty much anybody can manage, and the way his plain-spoken lyrics matched up with his country-like tunes seemed to reach directly into my chest and out again, which I guess is what heart-spoken means.  You try it.  Sing along with “Hello in There” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVhA01J0Zsg) from his first album, and when you get to the line, “We lost Davey in the Korean War/still don’t know what for/don’t matter anymore,” feel that sinking jab behind your rib cage.  (All the obituaries today focus mostly on those first two albums, fully-formed masterpieces created by a 24-year old mailman, but he never lost that magic.  Join in “Knockin’ on Your Screen Door” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZn8bBBUsLY) from his last album, you’ll see.)

Mr. Prine and his crew were dressed in jeans and t-shirts, all scruffy-haired and rangy.  He sat at the head of the table with a view of the whole restaurant and the front door.  It was late lunch time midweek, we were slow, and I was the only waiter on.  The Café Sbisa, a tourist trap now, was the hippest restaurant in New Orleans at the time, the first to try grilling fish instead of swathing it in butter sauce, back then a radical idea. Rock and movie stars were regulars, and I was well used to their finger snapping entitlement.  One reason I remember Mr. Prine’s visit is that he didn’t behave like that.  He was down to earth and kind, exactly as he sounds on his records.  Seemed relaxed, listened to his crew, ordered grilled redfish and said he enjoyed it.  I tried not to stare or hover, but at the end of lunch, after he’d paid his bill (I didn’t want him to think I was angling for a tip), I thanked him for his music and said it meant a lot to me.  He asked me which one I liked the best and I dared a brief anecdote about my cousin Ronnie, a guitarist who liked to sing a sweet version of “Paradise” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-SKCWXoryU) for his girlfriend’s father on a back porch in rural Virginia.

Mr. Prine nodded and pulled two passes for his show at Ol’ Man Rivers out of his pocket.  I still have those tickets in one of my boxes in the attic, because I didn’t get to see him play that night.  The club was way up and on the other side of the river, and I didn’t have a car at the time.  I have always regretted not splurging on a cab that night, because he’s one of the titans I never got to see play live.  When he went into the hospital last week, and then into intensive care, I feared that at age 73, a two-time cancer survivor, he wouldn’t make it out.  So I’ve lost my chance.

I think I have ten of his albums.  My Top Three include John Prine, that debut masterpiece, Fair and Square (2005)  (which includes a funny cautionary tale Safety Joe (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEPcG1KjoY8) that my sons and I used to sing on our vacation travels when they were small), and In Person & Onstage (2010), a live album that clearly shows me what I missed in never seeing him play.  It feels today like I’ve lost a brother or a dear friend.  Maybe that’s just a music fan’s sadness, or maybe this passing of a famous person dregs up feelings for people I’ve known well and loved and lost.  So maybe playing his music now will speak for all of them.  I don’t know.  I just know that there was this singer-songwriter who spoke for the average joe, who understood our confusion, our worries, and our joys, and wrote these short stories you can sing that are better than anything I’ve found between the covers of books.  Judging by all the obituaries, he wasn’t faking it.  You always hope that’s true in your musical heroes. That nice guy who sat in a little restaurant in New Orleans in 1980 enjoying the afternoon, listening to his crew’s woes, tolerating my fan’s babble, and giving me passes to his show, it appears that’s who he was.

It’s been a busy week in music heaven.  While I mulched the garden on Saturday, my earbuds played Bill Withers and then Fountains of Wayne.  Making spaghetti sauce last night, I tuned into WWOZ on our HomePod and listened to a live performance of the Ellis Marsalis Quartet recorded back when I lived in New Orleans, a show I might even have attended.  And now Mr. Prine.  The song I’m playing right now is another from Fair and Square.  It’s called “Some Humans Ain’t Human” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Ho-EzrsE2U), and it references the President who started the Iraq War.  But it seems even more applicable to the one whose negligence may have killed not just Mr. Prine but so many thousands of us, with more to come.  He’d have found that poetically ironic.  I hope right now he’s smoking that 9-mile long cigarette his very last song “When I Get to Heaven” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKPDFQRmG_M) promised, and shaking hands with all the waiters and roadies and old folks and other homely angels he seemed always to understand so well.

March Fo(u)rth!

For years, I’ve considered this day on the calendar my own New Year’s Resolution reset – March 4th, the answer to the riddle, “What day of the year is a command to go forward?”  And thanks to Google, lo and behold, I just found the Batman comic, which I must have read when I was maybe ten years old, that tucked this riddle away in some corner of my brain where things that could matter to no one else seem to find their lifelong home.  Here it is:

Hooray for Batman and Robin, indeed!

I do recommend this holiday to everyone, but can only speak to its efficacy for me.  After all, the dead of winter is a poor time to launch the self-improvement projects one typically scribbles as New Year’s resolutions while licking Christmas cookie crumbs from one’s fingers.  It’s damp and dark, days are short, you’re attending the funerals of your friends’ parents instead of the weddings of your kids’ pals, and the pounds you gained over the holidays stare back at you in the mirror with plump derision.  So you shrug, say maybe next year, and toss that list of resolutions in the trash.

Or.  Or, you take one more look at them, noticing the daffodils in the yard and the sun setting late enough now to get in a good walk with the dog after work.  Land’s End sends you their bathing suit issue.  And along about then comes March 4th, with its imbedded punning command to step forward.  A-ha!  So, here we go.  On my list this year, I’ve got a slight head start, having just published the collection of poems I’ve been dawdling over for months.  Rather than working through my university’s spring break this year, I’m going to the beach with family, aiming for quality time with sons in their early twenties who teeter at the edge of the nest, but also packing the novel that seems to expand and contract like a bellows with each labored draft.  And this one, the biggie.  Today I hand in my letter of resignation, aiming to leave paid labor at the end of 2020, having never been without a job since fourth grade (often doing two, or holding a full-time gig while attending school).  Gulp.

So yes, I’m serious about this March 4th thing.  How about you?  Let’s make this a real holiday, one that gets ‘er done.  Also, I’m curious, what odd snippets – like that page in a Batman comic read in childhood – do you carry around in that dusty brain corner where such things reside?

Most Important Documents Now

Everyone on tv and social media seems to be squabbling over facts, fake news, and truthiness, but few of us seem to have read the documents we’re arguing about.  These are all dry reads, and none has what you might call a Hollywood ending (at least not yet), but they’re essential to clearing away smoke screens of bias and propaganda as we go forward into the new decade.  I’ve read ‘em all (aren’t I special?) and recommend them. The titles are web links.  These are primary sources so we can all cut the spin and decide for ourselves.

UN Climate Action Report.  Bleak, yes, but also includes a plan for a way forward, if we all get onboard.

The Afghanistan Papers.  Kudos to The Washington Post for this blockbuster report which clearly shows that the only thing learned from Vietnam was eliminating the draft.  As has been noted, Osama Bin Laden is no doubt laughing in his watery grave.

The Torture Report.  This document (much of which is redacted and still classified) about what dear Vice President Cheney dubbed “enhanced interrogation” dates from 2014, but with the new (no, not Star Wars, the other one) Adam Driver movie out…. 

Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Russian Interference in 2016 Presidential Campaign:  I may be the only person in America who has actually read this bipartisan report, but anyone who cares to know which country really interfered and how they’re already planting bots and hacks for 2020 should do so.

The Mueller Report:  Companion piece to the previous recommendation, again heavily redacted, but boy, that Mueller’s team ducked charging the President after all this, well, talk about swampy! And if a two-volume narrative all done up in legalese (and those redactions) feels like a heavy lift, The Washington Post has published a free illustrated e-reader version here.

The Zelinsky Call:  This one’s short, but have you read it?

House Intelligence Committee Impeachment Report:  Maybe you saw it on tv, maybe you missed some of it, well, it’s all here. 

The Breitbart Emails on Southern Poverty Law Center website.  Trump advisor Stephen Miller’s white nationalist emails, advising right wing media on how to play the racist card. That this guy is driving a lot of White House policy is frankly terrifying.

Inspector General’s Report on Emoluments at the Trump Hotel in DC.  Fascinating to me for how the Trump Administration has booted all responsibility for this gross Constitutional breach, each government agency tossing the hot potato to the next.

U.S. Constitution:  Because.

Here’s to a better informed, balanced, and loving 2020. Election Day is exactly 10 months and 2 days away!

Addendum – January 20, 2020. Trial Memorandum: The document detailing the U.S. House of Representatives’ case for impeachment of the President.

Fave Books of 2019

For what it’s worth, here are the ten books I most enjoyed, learned from, dug to the max in the past year.  Only one is new, but they’re all in print if you’re interested.  I’m listing them alphabetically by author’s last name, not ranking them 1-10.

Lynda Barry – How to Draw Comics.  How does a guide to making comics double as a tool for spiritual growth?  Check out this line:  “We might call what we are doing when we use images in this way a form of dreaming.” By the way, Barry doesn’t care if you think you can draw. She prefers students who gave up drawing as children. That’s where the magic lies!

Bill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything.  I read whatever Bryson writes, but this is his best one, I think.  Each chapter a compact, reader-friendly history of scientific discovery (with head-shaking anecdotes about the wacky discoverers themselves), ranging from the macro marvels of astronomy to the micro level guesses of atomic physics.

Ted Hughes – Poetry in the Making.  Like Barry’s book, a primer on imagining differently, in the great English poet Hughes’ case, in order to build poems.  The book was intended as a tool for middle school teachers, but its appreciation of the rigor, attentiveness, humor, and compassion that goes into writing a poem offers lessons for us all.

Mark Hyman – 10-Day Detox Diet:  The Blood Sugar Solution.  Ironic that I write this while slamming one of my wife Chris’ yummy Christmas cookies, but I do so having lost fifteen pounds by following the guidelines in this sensible guide to healthy eating.  The book’s also a convincing screed against the sugar industry that we now know has sucked most of us into a deadly addiction.  The other books on this list expanded my horizons.  This one shrank my waistband.

Gerda Lerner – A Death of One’s Own. Hard to blurb this book, which has touched and shaken me more than anything else read this year. Gifted by a friend who is facing her own deadly cancer, this is a deeply felt day-by-day testament to the tumor-driven dying of the author’s husband. I think it’s a capital-G Great book, singing love, marriage, worry, wonder, and yes, the certainty awaiting us all.

J.R. Moehringer – Sutton.  The author of a poignant memoir The Tender Bar and that ace biography of Andre Agassi, Open (both well worth reading) brings a noir sensibility and hard-boiled style to this fictionalized biography of the world’s most famous bank robber Willie Sutton. Mr. Scorsese, please, make a film of it!

Toni Morrison – The Bluest Eye.  A tremor in the Force this year with her death, sending me to this debut novel I’d missed.  Amazing that right at the start it was all there – her pitch-perfect plainsong, her spiraling dives into complex psychology, her ability to frame explosive critiques of our screwed up world in the troubles of a single family.  In 2020, I’m planning to take them all in order, one by one.

Michele Obama – Becoming.  I bought this for Chris for her birthday last year, in audio book form as read by the author, and we’ve shared it among friends ever since.  We all know that voice: succinct, loving, sharp-eyed, decent, and self-aware.  I’m not a huge fan of listening to books, but this one you have to hear.

Walker Percy – The Last Gentleman & The Second Coming.  One of the unsung pleasures of living in your 7th decade is that of re-reading.  These two novels published decades apart concern the same spacey protagonist, an everyman adrift in the pretty illusion that we call life.  As a youngster, the first spoke to me more.  (Hard for youngsters to care much about the worries of the old, I guess.)  But now, reading them together, Percy’s wily tracing of the way one’s rubbery soul resists its own lessons across a lifetime turned the two novels into one instructive (and even funny) meditation.

Esme Weijun Wang – The Collected Schizophrenias.  Most of us have seen the damage an unbalanced mind can do; Wang shares her own story, that of a brilliant student reduced to hiding in a closet beset by monsters, living always in the shadow of lurking psychosis.  She shares what she has learned about mental illness, too, and it’s clear we don’t know much.  We have labels, we have categories, we have brain-modulating medications, but also people everywhere hiding in closets beset by monsters.

Colson Whitehead – The Intuitionist.  Whitehead’s big book this year was Nickel Boys, but I found his first at Goodwill and thought I might start there.  An audacious mash-up of Ellison and Delillo, this young man straight out of Harvard weaves a sustained metaphor about racism and social striving into a detective story involving elevator inspectors.  After this, in 2020 (just like with Morrison), I’m planning to read straight through Whitehead’s oeuvre.  I mean, wow.

Oops!  That’s twelve (thirteen if you count the two Percy’s separately).  So, sue me.  Please also note that I have not mentioned the wonderful books by my friends that came out this year, having written about them in previous posts.  What have you enjoyed reading in 2019? Please share in a comment if you will. And happy holiday reading to all!