Saturday, October 29, 2011

Statehood vs. Status Quo: Who Sets the Conditions for a People’s Freedom?

Though the Lincoln-Douglas debates are rightly considered the apex of competitive political discourse in American if not world history, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are all but non-existent, still I find parallels with the elegant yet forceful antebellum rhetoric of The Great Emancipator and The Little Giant, and the bold if futile recent actions of Palestinian President Mahmoud “Abu Mazen” Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu.

On Monday, October 16, 1854, in Peoria, Illinois, nearly four years before Abraham Lincoln would traverse the state in a series of debates with Stephen A. Douglas, the future President rose from the audience of a Douglas address to invite the crowd to return after their supper, at which time he would deliver a prepared response (Douglas and Lincoln had arranged the dual appearance ahead of time, and Douglas had negotiated a one-hour rebuttal following Lincoln’s remarks).

“The repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and the propriety of its restoration, constitute the subject of what I am about to say,” Lincoln began. The Missouri Compromise, which prohibited slavery in the western territories north of the parallel 36° 30’ north and cut through present-day California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and the Oklahoma panhandle, had been in effect since 1820. The actual compromise was that Missouri would be admitted as a slave state even though it was above the line, and Maine would be admitted as a free state.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, designed by Douglas and signed into law by President Franklin Pierce on May 30 of that year, effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise and replaced its imaginary line with the concept of “popular sovereignty,” in which settlers of a territory would decide for themselves whether to establish it as a free or slave-holding state. The act resulted in political chaos, with the new Republican party eventually rising from the ashes of the fractured Whigs.

Passion – and empathy
But in 1854, all that was on Lincoln’s mind was that slavery was no longer on the road to extinction – he had hoped to starve out the institution by confining it to the lower south, where cotton would eventually destroy the soil in which it grew. Minus that crop, he was certain, the need for slaves would disappear.

Impassioned as Lincoln was about the repeal of the Missouri Compromise – in a short campaign biography he wrote in late 1859, Lincoln noted that after several years working in his successful law practice, “I was losing interest in politics, when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused me again” – he took the platform that night armed with logic rather than vitriol, even saying at one point:

“Before proceeding, let me say I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up.”

Lincoln and Douglas were both speaking about self-government and self-determination that day. For Douglas, those terms meant that the free white settlers of a territory could decide for themselves the nature of their society. For Lincoln, they meant that all people living within the boundaries of this nation have a voice and the right to rise to the level of their ambition and ability without government-imposed impediments.

The U.N. General Assembly: What’s good for the goose…
On May 14, 1948, ninety years after the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel – Israel’s “declaration of independence” – was announced to the family of nations. It reads, in part:

“On the 29th November, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel [“land of Israel”]; the General Assembly required the inhabitants of Eretz-Israel to take such steps as were necessary on their part for the implementation of that resolution. This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their State is irrevocable. This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.”

Israel and its citizens have been defending this right with their blood for 63 years.

On Friday, September 23, 2011, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stood before the United Nations General Assembly and asked that Palestine be granted independent statehood. Members of the Israeli delegation left the hall as Abbas rose to speak. His proposal is unlikely to get far in the U.N. Security Council since the United States holds veto power there, but his stake, now planted, will not easily be removed.

So now let’s see how language from one era has resonance on another.

“…[M]asters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.” Jews understand what it means to be strangers in a strange land. They know of longing, of the sweet taste of freedom, of the unceasing desire for self-determination. Lincoln understood that this was all that slaves desired, to be masters of their own fate. But would a racist country – racist both North and South (it’s worth noting that Abolitionists were a fringe group and largely anarchic; though history has been kind to them, they were far from pragmatic) – let them be free on the same land in which they were enslaved? Lincoln eventually thought not, as he conceived an ill-designed plan to ship freed slaves to Liberia.

“They are just what we would be in their situation.” Lincoln’s empathy is acknowledged to be nearly superhuman, particularly in the context of his time. This simple acknowledgement of his, though, is not well understood by many Jews and by the Israeli government in particular. Benjamin Netanyahu possesses neither the empathy nor the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln. He seeks to claim disputed lands by building settlements on them in violation (so say the U.N. Security Council and the International Committee of the Red Cross) of the Fourth Geneva Convention (Netanyahu, needless to say, does not concur).

While Lincoln appealed to “the better angels of our nature”, which he knew existed among his friends and his enemies both, Netanyahu effectively thumbs his nose at his friends (the U.S., to the tune of $3 billion a year) and gives the finger to his enemies. He is provocative, obstinate, and arrogant, which plays well to the hawks at home but which has cost Israel as much good will over the last few years as George W. Bush did for America following 9/11. On the international stage, Israel is now seen as the aggressor, the tyrant. It can’t be surprised that Abbas brought his case to the U.N. given that he and Netanyahu cannot come to terms even on the conditions that would only bring them to the negotiating table.

The fiery trial: then and now
“In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free – honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve,” Lincoln told Congress on December 1, 1862. After years of bloodshed, countless deaths of innocent civilians, instability that strengthens the resolve of terrorists, it has to be clear to all parties that the only way to assure the long-term security of Israel is to enable the establishment of an independent, autonomous, and internationally recognized Palestine.

In that same address to Congress, Lincoln noted, “The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.” If Benjamin Netanyahu wants to be remembered, nothing will assure his place in history more than in assuming the mantel of peacemaker.

The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel closes with the following: “WE EXTEND our hand to all neighbouring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighbourliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.”

Sixty-three years later, it’s time to make good on this promise.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Thirty Years On, King Crimson’s Discipline Retains Its Power

King Crimson, Discipline. Released September 22, 1981.

In the Jewish community, a boy comes of age at his bar mitzvah, which typically occurs at age 13. For me, that was 1976. Disco was at its height and bad fashion was the only fashion there was. But at 13, I didn’t care so much about the rather desolate cultural landscape into which I was thrust. At 15, however, I did begin to care. In just those two years, the insipid simplicity of disco was replaced by the inspired simplicity of New Wave. But simplicity was not where my head was at. I’d begun doing certain things recreationally and my brain was excited by more complex and sophisticated music.

By 1979, I was firmly a fan of “progressive rock,” most specifically the music of bands such as Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Yes, Pink Floyd, ELP, The Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, Genesis, and Rush. These bands would more or less align themselves with the credo that appeared in the liner notes of Gentle Giant’s second album, from 1971: “It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of becoming very unpopular.” Applying instrumentation not typically found in rock music (such as violin, cello, and flute), technology (such as synthesizers and various new gizmos), lengthy compositions, and album-length concepts, progressive rock was never radio-friendly, though some groups like Yes, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, and Rush did manage to become quite popular, often through a somewhat more accessible tune edited for radio that managed to slip through the programming gatekeepers.

Unfortunately, 1979 was not a great time to enter this genre. Gentle Giant was working on its final album, continuing a recent trend of ever more commercial-sounding releases. King Crimson had disbanded in 1974. Yes lost its singer and keyboardist following a creative nadir of an album called Tormato. Pink Floyd was riding high with The Wall, but significant personnel changes were on the horizon, as they were with The Moody Blues and Jethro Tull. ELP was gone. Rush was doing well on the radio, which to some extent cut into their prog cred, and an exciting new band called U.K., comprising two ex-members of King Crimson, broke up after only two albums and two tours.

So it was that I turned my back and ears on the current music scene and instead became obsessed with the music of 1967-75. To this day, my younger colleagues consider me “the ‘70s guy.” Even when entering college in the fall of 1981, I was decidedly anti-anything that had to do with ‘80s music or fashion. There was, however, one thing that helped me bridge the gap between the past and the present: the sudden and surprising reappearance of King Crimson.

Unbeknownst to me, guitarist Robert Fripp, the group’s leader and only constant during its initial run from 1969-74, had approached drummer Bill Bruford, who had been in the last incarnation of the band, which lasted from 1972-74 (and on U.K.’s first album, as well as being the original drummer of Yes and serving short tour stints with Genesis and Gong), with the idea of doing a project together. Fripp, who had been working with the likes of David Byrne, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, and Daryl Hall, wanted a somewhat funkier drum sound, with less emphasis on cymbals. Bruford had just gotten a Simmons electronic drum kit. Together, they began to sketch out a sound.

Bassist Tony Levin, who had played on Fripp’s first solo album and was a mainstay of Gabriel’s band, was recruited, as was Adrian Belew, an innovative guitarist who had brought interesting sounds to Frank Zappa and the Talking Heads. These two additions were notable in that they were the first Americans to be members of King Crimson (though the band was not yet called that), and they brought with them a host of electronic goodies: Levin the Chapman Stick, and Belew an assortment of pedals and gizmos that enabled him to mimic the sounds of wild animals. Not only that, but never before had another guitarist slung his axe alongside Fripp, an acknowledged master of the instrument.

Fripp dubbed the band Discipline and they began gigging as such. Eventually, Fripp concluded that this band was, in fact, the reincarnation of King Crimson. The name was minimally more marketable (though the band had its cult following, it had been seven years since they last were heard from), but more significantly, it raised the expectations for the outfit.

From my dorm at college, I heard that a new King Crimson album – titled Discipline – was afoot and even more exciting, the band was set to play at the college that spring. I couldn’t imagine what the new Crimson would sound like. My friend Marc, back home in Newton, Massachusetts, bought the album before I did and we listened to it together for the first time over the phone. It was unlike anything we had heard before. Yes, there was a Talking Heads rhythmic influence, the production values were of its time, and it was unquestionably progressive. But the front line of Chapman Stick and the twin interweaving guitars created a unique sonic jigsaw that could only have come from something called King Crimson, even as it distinguished this edition from all previous ones.

I bought the album as soon as I could and played it often. I became very familiar with the seven cuts. But as the concert approached, I began a relationship with that album unlike anything I have ever had with any other recording.

I was a member of the student group that produced and promoted concerts on campus, and one of my responsibilities as a Publicity Department volunteer was to set up a record player on a table on the Campus Center Concourse and play the records of artists who were appearing, give out information, and answer questions. Typically, I had other volunteers I would schedule for when I had classes, but at this time for some reason I can no longer remember, extra hands were hard to come by. Therefore, I manned the turntable for long stretches over a three- or four-week period.

What this meant was that I heard Discipline in full probably four or five times a day for weeks. The first interesting aspect to that is that I never became sick of it. There always seemed to be new things to discover in it. The other thing is that I found the varying tempos and timbres of the album seemed to match perfectly the rise and fall of activity within the Campus Center. In between classes, students would rush through with a cacophonous din of conversation, shoe clacking, and the beeping rustle of retail transactions all around me. But then it would clear out and serenity would take over. Fast, slow, loud, soft, organic and electronic, Discipline had it all, and it truly became my soundtrack for that period of my life.

Ultimately, the concert came and it was a glorious experience. In the meantime, 1981 also saw Rush come out with its masterpiece album, Moving Pictures. In 1982, Asia, a supergroup comprising exp-members of Yes, King Crimson, and ELP, debuted to much commercial acclaim. Yes rocketed to the top of the pyramid in 1983 with 90125. It seemed progressive rock was back with a vengeance. But when Crimson disbanded again in 1984, the genre again appeared on the verge of extinction. Groups still plied their trade, but more often than not the music was a series of trade-offs between the echoes of the glory days and a more commercial, current sound that alienated as many old fans as it did win new converts.

But that’s as may be. The fact is, for 30 of my 48 years, King Crimson’s Discipline has been an album of unique emotional and visceral power for me, one that is by turns terrifying and tranquil, and as complete as it is complex. To Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Tony Levin, and Bill Bruford: Thank you.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Remembering Marc Rains, March 5, 1963 – August 29, 2001

Ever play a game called Which One Am I? You take an ensemble of any kind and identify which character or member is most like you. You can also play it by matching characters with other people you know. I’ll do it now to give you a sense of who my friend Marc was:

• The Big Chill: William Hurt’s character
• Doonesbury: Zonker
• Crosby, Stills & Nash: David Crosby
• Dead Poet’s Society: the kid who changed his name to Nuwanda

I think you get the idea. Marc was a bit of a rebel, a free thinker. Uncomfortable with authority, he never wanted to have to answer to anyone. We all got high back in the day, but whereas it was a purely recreational activity for the rest of us, for Marc it was a Statement of who he was and what he believed in, which was, in a word: freedom. He dreamed of a world with no hassles, just hedonistic pursuits. He wanted to suck out all the marrow of life, one joint at a time.

He wasn’t all about drugs, of course. He was also very interested in creativity, especially music and writing. In fact, while I had known Marc since kindergarten, we didn’t become close until junior high school when I somehow found out he could play the organ and he somehow found out that I had been writing lyrics. We would get together at his house, steal some of his parents’ booze, and I would sing my lyrics while he wrote down the notes I was intending to sing.

Eventually he wanted to express himself through writing as well. He would start something, get stuck, and give it to me to finish. I encouraged him to keep working through the blocks. There was one piece of his that I liked a lot and he gave it to me as a present. Except for all the things he owned, like records, he wasn’t about ownership.

I know what you’re thinking, what a hypocrite. Yeah, well, it’s not easy living the life of a nonconformist iconoclast. For one, you need money to eat. So he took a job, but it was a job he could live with: at a record store. He never went to college with the rest of us; in fact, he never finished high school. All through elementary school, he always had the most extraordinary record of absences from school. Some of this was because of health problems that plagued him all of his short life. But by the time he got to high school, he just couldn’t be bothered with schedules, homework, and responsibilities.

He did, however, go to high school. He would show up in the morning and park himself in the cafeteria, where he would stay most of the day, striking up conversations with whomever happened by. Connecting, that’s what he really valued, more than sitting in one desk-chair in one classroom for 50 minutes, then sitting in another one in a different classroom for another 50 minutes, and so on.

Though we were very tight in junior high and most of high school, things started falling apart as college loomed closer. We were moving in different directions, meeting different people, having different experiences. The one thing that kept us connected was music. I remember in 1981, my freshman year in college, he bought the King Crimson album Discipline, which was the first album by the group since 1974. It featured a new lineup and we were curious what it would sound like. He called me up and we listened to the album for the first time together over the phone.

Eventually, his health problems became quite serious. He had a kidney transplant. Within a few years, he needed another one. In spite of his condition, he wasn’t living a healthy lifestyle and for some reason, he eventually took up cigarettes. He used to say that he didn’t want to live to age 40, but that was when we were stupid teenagers and we thought 40-year-olds were decrepit hags who shat themselves. Still, it seems he knew he was living on borrowed time and didn’t want to waste his remaining years going through the trouble of being healthy.

But he was also very useful. He took the experiences he had with dialysis to become a dialysis technician and more importantly, he would counsel and console kidney patients who were going through what he had gone through. He met a woman he loved and got married. He had two daughters. He was very happy. Though we both lived in Massachusetts, we were basically on different ends, me in the north, he in the south. We didn’t see each for long stretches, though we communicated by phone and email on a semi-regular basis.

At some point, there were issues with the second kidney surgery, and his pancreas was damaged. He had to have a gaping hole in his back for a long time. I visited him in the Intensive Care Unit. I was going to see David Crosby in concert and he asked for a shirt. When I went back to the hospital to give it to him, his room was empty. I was chilled, but it turned out that he was transferred to a regular room. I went there and he was sleeping. I left the shirt on his bed.

In 1997 or 1998, he had a stroke. He was only in his mid-30s. The next time I saw him, I didn’t recognize him. He had lost a lot of weight, had not much of an expression on his face, and moved slowly. It was at the shiva of a friend’s mother. I helped him get some food, and we talked about what was going on. He had been through so much, but he was optimistic. He loved his life. He loved his family. He had a lot of joy and a lot to live for.

The last email I have from him was sent to me on January 1, 2001. Typically optimistic, it reads:

Happy new year,
Well, I made it thru every thing they did again! My right side feels a little alien but its getting better every day. I have to go 6 weeks infection free and then they'll start looking at putting a permanent access back in my body right now I have a catheter sticking out of my neck which drives me a bit crazy, but they still get to dialyze me with relative ease, and I still have a right arm so all in all things are OK I guess.
How is all by you? A nice holiday? I hope!
can't keep arm in this position for typing for to long talk to you soon!
Love to all!

Next thing I heard was that he had died. He was being prepped for open-heart surgery and went into cardiac arrest. It was August 29, 2001. He was 38 years old. He’d fulfilled his prophecy. Less than two weeks later, 9/11 happened. It seemed that everything was falling apart.

Marc’s final request was to be cremated and have his ashes spread over the golf course we used to sneak onto and party at in high school. He told his wife to contact me and have me plan it. It was sufficiently moving for me that it inspired me to write an essay and a one-act play about the experience. With his unusual request, he had managed to bring together a number of friends who had become estranged over the years.

A few years later, his wife called me and asked me to take his records. Going through them was like watching a documentary of our lives. I remembered where and when he had purchased those albums and gotten those autographs. I remember listening to them with him. I remember how much they meant to him.

Two years ago, I got a message from his oldest daughter who found a letter I had written to her mother after the funeral. I had promised her I would help with the girls. But I had one of my own and a rough marriage, and I never kept my promise. I’m now Facebook friends with both of his girls; I’ve helped them restore and retain memories of their father and they’ve helped keep his spirit alive for me. Marc always was all about connections – and second chances.

I’m thinking of you, buddy. Damn, but you would have loved Facebook. And seeing how your girls have grown. And me? I’d love to write one more song with you. One with a chorus that keeps on repeating and never fades away.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Late thinking on early adopting

Recently, I was out with a friend and I received a call on my cell phone. Shucking my clamshell-styled telecommunications device, I took the call. After I hung up (in truth I was hung up on but that's another story), my friend marveled that I still have a flip phone. Everybody else, it seems, has some kind of Star Trek gizmo that they poke and stroke every few minutes to get information they don't really need except that it's fun to poke and stroke a device.

The fact is, I was the last person I knew to get a flip phone in the first place. I used to have a basic little flat thing that if I held the ear part to my ear, the mouth part rested at the top of my jowl. Considering that a number of my friends think of me as being somewhat of a mumbler, that phone never was all that practical for me.

What I find interesting is that I've become such a late adopter. I used to be just the opposite. I had one of those Cellular One bag phones in the '90s and I distinctly recall calling people from my car and saying, "Guess where I'm calling from? MY CAR! Isn't that so cool?" Back then it was. But that was probably the last time I was cool.

CD players became available between my junior and senior years of college, and when I moved into my senior-year apartment, I was rocking one of those beasts. I was, in fact, the first of my friends to own one. It was big, expensive, and had none of the features my friends' CD players had when they got theirs several months later. But I was proud to have one first. Only trouble was that music stores had maybe 40 CDs to choose from. Before long that all changed, of course. And by the time I got my second CD player (only a year or two later), the landscape was forever altered, and I was just another one of the masses who were making vinyl obsolete (for a little while anyway).

Another great technology I adopted early was a CB radio. Mine was about the size of a small radio station. I knew about five or six people who also had CB radios, and after school we would get on the air and talk funny to each other until we got bored. In retrospect, there was no good reason for me to have a CB radio. There were no smokeys I was evading in my Newton, Massachusetts, neighborhood. But it was cool to say "10-4, good buddy" and if you knew that 10-100 meant you needed to take a leak, you were pretty happening.

But of course, CB radios went the way of 8-tracks (had one of those, too) and I guess after all this time I've come to realize that there's no great advantage to being an early adopter of anything. Things always get thinner, faster, cheaper, and more powerful in their second generations than their first. Over the last several years, it was mainly my financial situation that kept me jumping on anything new; now it's more a case of replacement fatigue. I'm tired of upgrading.

Case in point: I took my daughter to the phone store the other day. Her phone and mine are on the same account and i had received a message saying that one of our phones was due for an upgrade. We went in and learned that it was my phone. My daughter, whose phone slides and glides and glows, was crestfallen. So I let her have my upgrade, and now hers is more like the Star Trek ones. I still have my flip phone. I can use her upgrade in November, at which point phones will probably be in our shoes a la Maxwell Smart. Keeping up with the Joneses is impossible enough for me; I'm not even going to try to keep up with society's joneses.

Friday, July 15, 2011


I wrote this after visiting a cemetery with my four-year-old girl, Stella.

There is fascination and there is obsession. Between the two is a line. It may or may not be a thin line. But there is a point, a line, a point along a line, a line of infinite points, across which fascination – which is healthy – becomes obsession – which is not. The subject now is death. The fascination is hers. The obsession is his.

They are now in his apartment, a two-room attic studio on the third floor of a nondescript house on the harder edge of a transitional neighborhood. Down the street is more residential, but his house is on the corner, closer to the business district: a pub, a few convenience stores, a deep-discount supermarket that stocks brand-name seconds and brands that have never advertised themselves anywhere. Just beyond that on the other side of the street is a strip club that is one more knifing away from being closed for good. Amateur night was three nights ago, but he’s not interested – the girls are probably only four years older than his older daughter.

His house, then, is a demarcation point, signifying the split between residential and commercial areas.

He is with his younger daughter, Stella, nearly five, nearly a decade younger than her sister. The difference in age can be explained largely by the mismatched libidos of he and his soon-to-be-ex-wife. Like the lottery commercials say, you have to play to win. Not much chance they’d get pregnant having sex half a dozen times a year. And yes, boom, one day when they least expected it, they got lucky. But luck is relative. Money was already tight, the marriage already in trouble. Tension grew. Eventually, she wanted him out of their bedroom. So he slept in the den for more than a year before finding the cheapest apartment available that was close to his kids.

The wall in the den against which the futon couch that served as his bed stood abutted the bedroom he used to share with his wife. That wall was a demarcation. It separated man and wife; it was a physical symbol of the distance between them.

Now, the older daughter is at school. The wife is working. He is alone with Stella. He is thinking of what they can do together. Just a mile from his apartment is an old Jewish cemetery where his paternal great-grandparents are buried. He decides they should visit. He likes to visit them anyway.

They get ready to leave. She is excited. When she gets excited, she jumps up and down. He tells her she can’t be do that in his apartment. Why? Because there are other people living underneath them. The sound disturbs them. It’s not like her house where the whole place is hers. Here, the floor distinguishes between one tenant and another. It is another demarcation, a boundary of personal space in a place that is only partly private.

They go out his door, down the back staircase, through the side door of the house, and onto a short paved path to the sidewalk. They cross the street to his car and drive to the cemetery. They arrive quickly. The cemetery is small, smaller than a supermarket. The stones are old and covered in a mix of words and symbols, English text and Hebrew text, mold, moss, and lichen. His great-grandparents, Max and Rose, are in the rear. As they walk, Stella starts to skip ahead.

No running, he tells her. Why? It’s not respectful, he says. What do you mean? A cemetery is a place to think about your loved ones who are gone. We don’t run or play here because it can disturb other people. It disturbs the sanctity (he thinks but does not say because she won’t know what the word means). You mean it’s like in your apartment, she asks, why I can’t jump on the floor because I’ll disturb the people downstairs?

He smiles. Yes, it’s the same. You don’t want to disturb the people downstairs. People like Max and Rose, downstairs permanently. The ground, this ground itself, is a demarcation between the living and the dead. And so they walk on to Max and Rose’s resting place, and there he begins to tell her about them.

What’s going on up there?
Someone’s up there, Max. Who is it?
What do you think, I have eyes in my skull? How am I supposed to know who’s up there?
It’s two voices, a man and a girl.
OK, so now you know. It’s a man and a girl.
We’ve been here many years, you longer than me, when have we ever heard a little girl?
How do you know it’s a girl? Maybe it’s just a bird?
Oh sure, so a man and a bird are standing above us talking to each other. Smart, Max, you’re really smart.
Well, what difference does it make? It’s not like they’re digging us up.
I just want to know who’s visiting us. Very few people come to this lousy little cemetery at all and I’ve never heard a girl come to us. Now go find out who they are.
Rose, I’d love to go see who they are for you, really I would. But you see, I’m dead.
Excuses! Send your spirit form up there and take a look.
All right, all right. You want I should scare them away?
No, you schmuck! Be invisible. Just take a peek and let me know who’s up there. Gevalt!
Twenty-seven years she outlived me. Twenty-seven years I had peace and quiet.
I heard that!
OK, let’s see, activate spirit form, turn invisible, float out of the box, up through the ground; WHOA, that sun is bright! Now who do we have here? Ah, it’s him again. Nice boy, a real mensch. Doesn’t forget his elders. But who’s this little cutie? With red hair no less! Who had red hair? Must be his daughter. He’s reading our Hebrew names to her. Mordecai and Raisel. Telling her our journey from Pinsk, Russia, to Chelsea, Massachusetts. Little more than 100 years ago now. Well, anyway, no threat to us. Time to report back to the boss.

He never knew Max, but Rose lived to be 101, long enough to dance the hora at his bar mitzvah and well beyond that. Three years ago, a chance glance at an envelope of documents he’d been given by his aunt a few years earlier revealed Max’s naturalization certificate. It had the date and place of Max’s birth, the date he left the old country, the name of the ship he sailed on, and the date he arrived at Ellis Island. As it turned out, the following year would mark Max’s centennial anniversary of coming to America.

Intrigued by the discovery, he announced to his family that he was going to research Max’s story and asked their help in setting up a commemoration on or near the anniversary of Max’s arrival. He interviewed great aunts and uncles, did research online, and gradually pieced together the story. The czar was conscripting Jews into his army, though otherwise denying them basic rights. Max’s brother left for America and having received word that he was OK, the man known officially as Morche Rubacha soon decided he should go, too.

By that time, Max and Rose were married and had two children – one of whom was Stella’s great-grandfather, Harry. Yet Rose also was pregnant with a third child. Still, a distant Max was preferable to a dead Max, so he went. When he got to New York, his plan was to live with his brother. He had a little difficulty finding him, though, because his brother had changed his last name from Rubacha to Rubin. Max followed suit, also ditching Morche and Mordecai for the simple and quintessentially American “Max”.

Max was a carpenter by trade, and the following year the Great Chelsea Fire of April 12, 1908, destroyed most of the inner urban suburb of Boston. Assuming there would be plenty of work for him, Max left his brother and New York and relocated to Chelsea. Three years later, Rose and their three children finally came to America and rejoined him. They quickly built their family to an eventual 11 children. Longevity being a Rubin trait (actually, it was from Rose’s side, given she outlived Max by nearly three decades), Stella’s father had many primary information sources at his disposal. Interestingly, it was only in beginning his research that his own father told him that Max and Rose were buried a short drive from his house. From that time, he had been a regular visitor.

It’s the blond guy again, with his daughter. Oy, such a shayna punim. And a gingit, too!
You mean, Jason? He’s Harry’s grandson. Paul is his father. I tell you that every time.
OK, so his name is Jason. Look, I was dead before he came. I had a hard enough time remembering my own children’s names.
So what’s with the redhead?
Nothing. She’s cute. A little kid. The red hair must be from your side.
I don’t remember any redheads in my family. Must be from Paul’s wife’s side.
Mildred, you remember, but you don’t remember Jason?
Mildred was alive when I was alive!
Yes, but they have the same coloring. Her mother’s people were from Austria.
They have gingits in Austria?
Well, they’re very fair.
And what? We discriminate? Ho ho ho!
You’re not funny, Max, you’re not funny. You weren’t funny then. You’re not funny now.
Oh, no Rose. That was funny. That was funny!

Longevity had its limits, though. When he was only one year old, his sister, Donna, died of leukemia. She was only seven. Paul and Mildred were devastated, especially Mildred, who could not endure any mention of Donna and would not allow any photos of her to be displayed. He has no memory of her – did not, in fact, know about her until he was about five or six and a friend relayed what he’d been told by his parents – yet he has always felt guilty about having been a needy toddler during a time when his parents were intensely mourning. Surely, he feels, there must have been a pall cast over the house, an interruption in the blissful focus of a deepening parent-child bond.

He never felt unloved, but he did feel loss. His mother became overprotective and he complied with her wishes never to wander far, at least until he was a teenager. If he so much as sneezed, his mother would chase him with a thermometer. When he was older, if he stayed out late, she stayed up late. Yet starting when he was in grade school, night thoughts of death – of laying within a closed coffin forever – brought terrors he could not subdue on his own. He went when he was younger into his parents’ bed; as he got older, he used drugs to clear his mind of the scary images.

In his adolescence he hit upon a new strategy, that Donna was his guardian angel. Close calls on the ball field, fevers that broke, even a rough airplane ride that unnerved even the seasoned flight attendants but landed safely were all evidence that she was watching out for him. Yet still, death was always the enemy. The eternal finality of death was an idea to be fought.

As a young man out of college, hitting the great incline of life, he was moved by being present at a relative’s funeral. He realized that funerals calmed him, gave life meaning even if it settled no great questions about death. The eulogies told him that lives well lived are well-remembered. The rituals brought dignity to the transition from the known world of the living to the unknowable world beyond. Even pure expressions of grief – the clutched tissues of which there never are enough to stem the streams of tears, the babbled words and wails of an elderly spouse now alone – impressed him.

He began attending any funeral or burial in his social circle. He began frequenting cemeteries, visiting and communing with his own lost loved ones. He took comfort in being close to death, but always on the safe side of it. Always he could walk away.

And then he became a parent, and life and death took on new meaning to him. He had to be alive for his children, and yet his love for them was so deep and strong that he knew he would take a bullet for them, would stand in front of a racing car to protect them. He had a fantasy that someone would try to abduct one of his daughters, he would catch the fiend and beat his skull open on the sidewalk. That was how he could adequately express his love for them.

But he did more. He talked to them about his mother, now dead. About Donna. About his grandparents. About Max and Rose. The older one was sensitive and it was kept from her that cemeteries contain dead bodies. But the younger one seized life and knowledge. She knew already, no doubt the older one told her. But she wasn’t scared. She was fascinated. Curious. She wanted to play where dead bodies lay. So she joined him there.

She amazed him. For a long time, he blamed her birth on his financial and marital troubles. But her unceasingly wide-eyed enthusiasm for life captivated him. She may indeed have been the last straw that ended her parents’ marriage, but it was a doomed marriage anyway. She made it possible for them to move on with their lives with less stress, anger, and misery. She made him see that things could be better, that the future was less hopeless and scary. That life was still worth living – and for her sake, to keep on living was essential.

She, then, was herself a demarcation. A demarcation between a painful past and a hopeful future. Between a fear of death and a new appreciation for life.

So, what are they talking about?
How do you ask such a question? I would strangle you if you weren’t already dead, you aggravate me so much. Jason and the girl, of course!
He’s telling her my story, what else?
Your story, huh? Your story? Your story is not such a story. You came here in a boat. You lived with your brother. You moved to find work. When were you planning on sending for me? After a while I couldn’t wait anymore. I came, not alone, but with three children! Did he mention that?
Yes, he mentioned it. He’s a good kid, may God keep him on that side for many years to come.
It’s good that he tells our story. He’s a real mensch that one. As long as he tells our story, we live. He should know that. He should know that you’re never really dead until you’re forgotten. And you’re never fully alive until you know your history. He should know that.
He knows, Rose. He knows.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Mother's Day poem for my mother

Lazy Sundays
by Jason M. Rubin
for Mildred Rubin (1933-1999)

I long for lazy Sundays like I had when I was young
If I had known how fleet they’d be more tightly I’d have clung
I’d wake up not by ‘larm bell rings but rather by the scent
Of onions in a frying pan; I knew just what that meant

A breakfast made by mother dear, the best I’ve ever had
The only morning meal we'd share, we siblings and our dad
Those eggs with onions, bits of lox, and bagels fresh and warm
To fill my plate in those old days I’d weather any storm

I’d watch my father build his bagel piling lox and cukes
Atop a sliced tomato and red onion, no rebukes
In fact I sought to emulate his architect’ral feat
And strained to stretch my mouth so what I’d built I could then eat

My mother served us all, of course, and cheerfully at that
Despite the fact that she had toiled while all of us just sat
Indeed those lazy days I loved were lazy not for her
I’d change that all today if only with us she still were

A poem for my mother, though, is all I can now do
And if you’re reading from above, you know, mom, I love you
On Mother’s Day my thoughts still stray to Sundays I dream of
And to the woman who fed me with lox and lots of love.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Mr. President, please do not publish a bin Laden death photo

Dear President Obama:

I congratulate and thank you for finding and eliminating as a threat Osama bin Laden. By all accounts, our troops undertook a variety of actions to establish that the deceased was indeed Osama. By all accounts, the body was handled with respect to, if not in absolute accordance with, the proscribed death and burial rites associated with Islam. To do both of these things so quickly and efficiently is evidence that every aspect of this operation was considered well in advance of its execution. For this, all involved should be commended.

Surely, though, the question of whether or not to publish a photograph of Osama in death must also have been considered. Perhaps the brisk success of the mission and the near-universal acclaim it has received has provided a window of opportunity to reconsider this question? If so, Mr. President, I respectfully implore you not to release any photographic or videographic evidence of Osama's death and burial you may have.

I understand the reasons why the body was disposed of quickly. I understand that no legitimate nation-states would want his remains in their soil. I understand that rogue entities and terror groups ought not be allowed to make him a martyr. I understand the danger and difficulty of bringing his body back to the U.S. or to a U.S. territory. And I understand that burial within 24 hours was what Muslim practice required.

I do not claim to be an expert on Muslim death rituals, but from what I've heard they appear quite similar to Jewish death rituals, in terms of washing and enshrouding the body without embalming or otherwise seeking to preserve or tamper with it. Soon-as-possible burial ensures it will decompose back to the dust of the earth from which it originally sprang. Jewish custom also prohibits viewing the body except by those entrusted with washing and preparing it for burial, a holy act. This is why open-casket wakes and funerals are not part of Jewish tradition. I can only assume it is so for Muslims as well. In death, the body is naked of its soul. To view it is to disrespect it. I'm not saying that Osama, dead or alive, deserves respect, but when a person passes from its mortal state to the unknown, from its place among humanity to the judgment of Divinity, our work is done.

We have seen over the past decade brutal thuggery and cruelty among our enemies in the Middle East. Bodies have been dragged in public and shown on television, Daniel Pearl's beheading was on YouTube. This is what inhuman savages do with their kills. Vlad the Impaler, inspiration for Dracula, put the heads of his victims on stakes leading up to his castle door. We are not trophy hunters. We are not savages. We made a justified kill. It is over.

There are those who doubt the deceased truly is Osama bin Laden. The Taliban, for example, says that America has shown the world no conclusive evidence. To this I say, So what? Who are we to care what the Taliban says? Why should we be concerned about satisfying the Taliban? If they don't believe it, fine. It doesn't change anything. They won't lay down their arms if shown that he really is dead. And if they doubt, then they have no grounds for retaliation. That's a win/win in my book.

The image, we are told, is gruesome. He was shot above his left eye and part of his skull was blown off. We know what this looks like from the JFK Magruder video. It is unsettling to say the least. Showing this image will only engender sympathy and inspire rage among those who wish to do us harm. Among our friends and allies, our own people and especially the 9/11 families, it will only disgust the masses and disennoble the mission. We believe you, Mr. President, and again, we thank you.

But please, do not release the photo.


Jason M. Rubin

Monday, May 2, 2011

Random thoughts on the death of bin Laden

Just last month at Passover, we read about how God led the Israelites across the parted Red Sea, then allowed the waters to swallow up Pharaoh's pursuing army. Referencing Talmudic teaching, our haggadah says, "Our rabbis taught: When the Egyptian armies were drowning in the sea, the Heavenly Hosts broke out in songs of jubilation. God silenced them and said, 'My creatures are perishing, and you sing praises?'" I am reminded of this when I see college students waving American flags and shouting "USA! USA! USA!" with pumping fists. This, in spite of the fact that they were not cognizant of what 9/11 meant when it happened, and what this act of delayed retribution means now. This isn't about America kicking ass. It's merely our volley in an unwinnable game that the Israelis and Palestinians have been playing for many years.

Which is not to say that I don't applaud the mission or its outcome. I do. I'm glad he's dead, and I'm glad he wasn't allowed to die of natural causes or disease. He deserved to meet his fate by an act of man. I am not in favor of capital punishment, but Osama bin Laden had perpetrated crimes against humanity and he deserved not the mercy of humanity. His targeting of the West for the wrongs his own people had suffered was just an updating of Hitler's targeting of Jews for the wrongs committed against Germany after World War I. There are bad people and there are evil people. A bad person might be reformed; evil must be expunged.

There are many on both sides who are eager to politicize this act. I have seen the left smile smugly that this happened under Obama's watch and not under Bush's. I have seen the right declare that Obama did nothing; all credit must go to the Navy Seals. Both sides are right and wrong - and ultimately wrong even to politicize it. I will say that Obama had a better chance of scoring this trophy because he was more focused on it than Bush, who gave up on Afghanistan early (no doubt chastened by Russia's failed war there) in favor of Saddam Hussein, an easier yet less relevant target. But the work that led to this daring act had been going on for many years, long before Obama even thought of running for the Presidency. In his speech, he could have been more generous to the efforts of others; his repeated use of "I" was noticeable.

And yet, it was also appropriate. After all, had the mission failed, it would have been incumbent upon him to stand before the American people last night and accept the blame. This is where the Commander in Chief earns his money, which is why Donald Trump is indeed such a joke. Someone has to make a decision that has to do with life and death, not just dollars and cents. True, Obama did not pull the trigger that separated part of bin Laden's skull from his head, but he did pull the trigger on the mission itself. He weighed the information, the risks, the opportunity, and he was satisfied that this was the time, this was the place, this was the plan. And he was right. Abbottabad is now America's Entebbe. It took brains and guts to execute it, and it also took brains and guts to green-light it.

The world without Osama bin Laden is still a dangerous world. And our enemies are beyond the tools of diplomacy. Like it or not, we are in a war of attrition against terror networks large and small, all over the world. Killing bin Laden did not make us stronger or safer; reprisals are not only possible but expected. Like in an old Western, all we did was settle an old score. It could well have been Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name who pulled the trigger (in fact, due to safety concerns, I am sure we will never know the name of the person or persons who delivered the fatal shot or shots; unlike Boston Corbett, who killed John Wilkes Booth, or Jack Ruby, who shot Lee Harvey Oswald, the avenger's name will likely be withheld from history).

I know someone who was killed on 9/11. I've been to 9/11 funerals, sat in 9/11 shivas, watched 9/11 footage with 9/11 mourners. Today, that person is still dead. Her children have lived longer without her in their lives than with her. The dead can't help us now. Then as now, it is the survivors - all of us - who must carry on. If the world is to become better, it can't be done only by expunging the evil. We must also activate the good. That's why, while this act was important, while this act was courageous, while this act was even necessary, it is the next act that will define us as Americans and as a civilization.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Exiles: A Passover Meditation

Passover has always been a favorite holiday of mine, filled with gratitude and awareness, a review of a tragic history and a hope for an idyllic future. When it begins tonight, Passover will have for me an additional layer of meaning, a deeper level of personal connection with the themes of the seder and the meaning of redemption. We are taught to feel empathy with our ancestors, and we say “For we were slaves in the land of Egypt” to express our oneness with them. But this year, I understand more clearly about banishment, about constraints, restrictions, wanderings. About exodus, the search for a home and, finding it, the relief and gratitude and joy of freedom. I feel I have been redeemed. I believe, in this season of renewal, that I am starting over, and in the words of a spiritual that was popular in the Civil Rights movement (which also had great empathy with the Passover story), I ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.

One of the themes of the Passover story is that of exile. Joseph, the eleventh of Jacob’s twelve sons, was sold to passing Arab traders by his jealous brothers, and ended up in servitude in the house of the Pharaoh. That his dreams ended up making him a valuable advisor to the Pharaoh is no lasting reprieve for the Israelites, for when famine spread to Canaan the brothers came to Egypt to beg for mercy and corn. Joseph commanded that the brothers and their father move to Egypt and from that time the Israelites grew and multiplied until some generations hence the new Pharaoh grew suspicious of the large Israelite population and so enslaved them.

By treachery, Joseph was exiled to Egypt. By hunger, his brothers and father came to Egypt was well. For centuries, the Israelites were trapped as slaves there. Once freed, they endured forty years of wandering in the desert, a nomadic people trying desperately to reach a Promised Land they were long deemed unworthy to inhabit.

Last July, with the embers of my failing marriage still hot and glowing red, I was forced to leave my home and my children. For the next five months, I lived out of a plastic storage container, finding shelter through the kindness and generosity of friends who let me stay on their couches and spare rooms. I had no permanent forwarding address, no groceries to call my own (or a place to put them), and I despaired of ever knowing normalcy again.

With no money to set off on my own (I was still responsible for the mortgage and other expenses of the home I was no longer welcome to inhabit), I was at the mercy of others and in their debt. Finally, in late December a crisis took the floor out from under me and my already unstable existence began going into a free fall. It was at that point that I knew I could no longer live as a wandering Jew.

Thanks to more generosity from those around me, I got an apartment of my own as of January 1. An unspectacular two-bedroom studio in the attic of a house in a lousy part of town – but only three miles from my children – my Promised Land was, at first, barely promising. I had, after all, no furniture of my own. But again, more friends pitched in, colleagues too, and with some resourcefulness on my part (I grabbed a bureau, bookcase, and other items from curbs where they were awaiting the garbage truck, and got many other items for free or very little money from craigslist and dollar stores), my dingy apartment suddenly became a comforting and comforting place filled with my stuff, a true sanctuary I was happy to wake up in and come home to.

Best of all, my kids like it here and have had sleepovers. My oldest just returned from Israel with a gift for me of a mezuzah, which Jews place on the doorposts of their homes in fulfillment of a Biblical commandment. That she would not only acknowledge this place as my home but also want to consecrate it as such was the most extraordinary gift of all, better even than the mezuzah itself.

In two days, my wife and I will appear before a judge and our marriage will finally be put out of its misery. Which doesn’t mean that my troubles are over, not by a long shot. But when the strings are cut, I will not fall helplessly into an endless pit of despair. I have already come out the other end of exile. I have reached the far distant shore. I am home. I am free. The other day I was on the phone with a friend I last spoke to just after getting the apartment. She was impressed by the difference in my voice, how it had so much more energy and optimism. Next year in Jerusalem? A nice thought, but to be still here in Linden Square, Malden, next year will be blessing enough.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Musings on Record Store Day

Yesterday was Record Store Day, an annual, nationwide, well-intentioned attempt to get people back to record stores – specifically, independent neighborhood stores. Whether it ultimately is successful long-term in stemming the tide of online purchasing and downloading of music, or just a last-gasp effort from a doomed industry, I enjoy RSD and treat it as a holiday of sorts. On this day (it's been going on since 2008), my kids know to leave me alone and let me commune with thousands of pieces of plastic.

They don’t quite understand my fascination with record stores, of course. Being 14 and four, they (well, the older one anyway) get their music from the radio, YouTube, and any number of music-sharing sites. The idea of cracking a cellophane seal, handling a disc, God forbid flipping a platter that had to be removed from not one but two sleeves after 15-20 minutes to hear another 15-20 minutes of music speckled with pops, is as beyond their comprehension as a washboard is to me.

I, too, no antiquated primate, have downloaded plenty of songs from the Internet. It’s faster and cheaper, though the physical space savings are offset by the amount of hard disk space they take up on my computer. Many websites also offer free (and illegal) downloads of albums, as well as bootlegged live recordings you would never find at most reputable record stores.

To offset the allure of sit-on-your-ass music procurement, Record Store Day has become a trigger for the creation of special products to be sold or distributed at RSD-participating stores. These are publicized well in advance and as a result many stores see long lines of collectors (and, unfortunately, eBay resellers) assembling outside hours prior to opening. This means that many of the most coveted items sell out quickly, which is a shame for those of us of a certain age that may be coaching their kid’s soccer game that morning. But from the perspective of a local, independent record store, this is the whole point of RSD and a signal of its success. For that one day, anyway, hordes fill the stores.

Every RSD, I enjoy picking up special sampler discs and other cool stuff. The store I frequent, part of a legendary local chain called Newbury Comics, uses RSD as an excuse to give away piles of promotional materials that have been taking up space in their storeroom. Posters, stickers, magnets, poor-selling or promo-only albums are free for the taking. I’ve often found wonderful treasures in these piles. Just yesterday, I came away with a Beach Boys 78 rpm set that features official and alternate takes of “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains” over four ten-inch sides on sale for $9.59, the new CD by The Band’s Robbie Robertson on sale for only $7.99, two free jazz CDs, a free t-shirt for a movie I’ve never heard of, and a free promotional poster for Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin. Two years ago, I got a free orange-vinyl single by Brian Wilson so he’s become sort of an RSD totem for me.

Still, no matter how much fun RSD can be, to me the allure of being in a record store is not about the products or the pricing. Rather, it’s the atmosphere, the community. A record store like an archives or a library. There’s history there, and lots and lots to learn. Some of my favorite music-buying experiences have happened in record stores where I was shown something or where I had the opportunity to point something out to someone else. It’s the sharing of information, sharing the passion for music and musicians, that makes record stores indispensable, and no music BBS or Amazon review section can replace the hands-on, face-to-face experience of seeing someone’s eyes light up when a rare album is found or a new, exciting sound is discovered.

If you’ve read the book or seen the movie High Fidelity, you get a sense of what I’m talking about. But here are a couple of examples from my experience of how being in the physical presence of others in a record store helped me to find music of great personal value to me.

1979: I had just gotten into the progressive group Gentle Giant. I was in a now-defunct store called Popcorn, which had a large selection of import LPs. I was looking through the domestic Giant albums, and then looked in the import section. I noticed that there were two albums with the same exact cover art, except that one just said Gentle Giant on the front and the other said Gentle Giant/Three Friends on the front and a list of songs on the back. I was holding the two albums side by side, apparently looking confused, until a salesperson came over and told me that Three Friends was the group’s third album but only the first to be released in the U.S. The other one was the rarer eponymous first album. That’s the one I ended up buying and it contained a song called "Funny Ways" that became very important to me (though a female friend sneeringly calls it "Progboy's Lament") and cemented the group as a favorite.

1984: Early in the days of CDs, I was not particularly eager to buy digital versions of LPs I already owned and listened to. Instead, I saw CDs as a way to fill gaps in my collection. I’d decided I needed some Pat Metheny because while I was unfamiliar with his music, I understood him to be an artist whom the musically literate must possess works of. I went to a local store and stood next to someone who was browsing through the Metheny section. When he moved on, I took over. It was hard to choose since I had no frame of reference but one recording stood out: As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, featuring the 20-minute title track. The fellow whose spot I now occupied saw me scrutinizing the disc and asked me if I was familiar with it. I said no, in fact I don’t know any of his albums but I want to buy one. “That’s a great album,” he said, “but it’s not for everyone. It’s very atmospheric and there isn’t really a rhythm section.” Sounds interesting, I said. “You just have to know that it’s pretty different from his other stuff," he continued. "It’s good, but it’s different.” It almost seemed as if he was trying to warn me away from it, but I was only getting more and more intrigued. I thanked him for the information and proceeded to buy it. It’s now a desert-island album of mine.

In truth, I don’t spend much time in record stores anymore, either because I’m chasing my kids through malls or because I don’t have the expendable cash flow to allow me to buy music as I once did (in high school, I would spend $50 a week at a used record store where most of what I bought was priced from $2.99 to $7.99). But whenever I do have the opportunity to visit one, I always feel a sense of belonging, a feeling of being home. I especially like used record stores, where every bin holds a potential surprise, and the smell of old vinyl and cardboard brings back happy memories of my adolescence.

I salute the record stores, past and present, that I have frequented in my life, sources of soul-enriching sounds and sympathetic seekers of musical treasure. Some of these are dead or dying, but some are still around. Thank you Nuggets, Disc Diggers, Looney Tunes, In Your Ear, Popcorn, Good Vibrations, Stereo Jack’s, Cheapo Records, Salem Record Exchange, Main Street Records, Newbury Comics, Tower Records, HMV, Midland Records, and others whose names I can’t remember. I also want to mention the Newton Centre Music Shop, where I made my first music purchase on my own, a 45 rpm single of Andy Kim’s “Rock Me Gently” back in 1972.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Todd Rundgren Two-Fer

In 1976, Todd Rundgren released an album called Faithful, side one of which was filled with covers of songs that he enjoyed in his youth, performed, naturally enough, as faithfully as possible to the original. They were, however, songs of unnatural complexity and distinction, such as the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”, the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”, and Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9”. To Todd’s credit, they sound amazingly close to the originals, and I used to delight in fooling people by playing them his version of “Good Vibrations” and betting them that it wasn’t the Beach Boys.

In 2011, Todd has embraced an even greater challenge: covering himself as faithfully as possible. In keeping with a recent trend that has seen Lou Reed bring Berlin to the stage, Van Morrison resurrect Astral Weeks, and Steely Dan alternate among three consecutive albums in its catalog (The Royal Scam, Aja, and Gaucho), Todd is performing not one but two of his classic albums: 1974’s Todd and 1981’s Healing. These are very different albums representing different periods in his career and in the state of music in general. Both can be lumped in with his more progressive works, though there are ample examples of pop, soul, heavy metal, and other styles throughout.

In the case of Healing, he had originally played all the parts himself. For this show, he put together a crack band of musicians with varying degrees of history with Todd. On guitar and keyboards was Jesse Gress; on bass, keyboards, and background vocals was Kasim Sultan, who played with Todd in Utopia; on drums was Prairie Prince from the Tubes, who has played with Todd for years; on keyboards was Greg Hawkes from the Cars (and the New Cars, featuring Todd) and Bobby Strickland, who also played soprano, alto, and baritone saxes, and recorders. In each city of the tour, he has recruited a local choir to perform as well. In Boston, where I caught the show on March 27, it was a Berklee College of Music group called Overjoyed.

If you knew the albums, you knew the show. The only surprise came in the visual aspects – and in the fact that this complex music was recreated exquisitely well. Visually, the band were in the height of 70s glam fashion during the Todd material, with lights and lasers recreating the era of arena rock excess. During the somewhat more spiritual Healing material, I noticed that the band were all barefoot. Unfortunately, Todd’s presentation was so faithful that during the Healing set, Prairie Prince used electronic drums extensively, an artifact from the era best left in the past.

It was a magnificent evening, all the more amazing to me because I actually have had zero interest in anything the man has done since 1989’s Nearly Human. I had long written him off as someone who lost his way, who abandoned music for computers and various side projects that drew him away from his strength, a devotion to music of uncompromising power and originality. But last night, even as the music was from decades gone by, he was fully engaged and energized in his performance.

And his audience, as always, was with him all the way. Few artists have such a loyal and devoted following as does Todd (even though I wasn’t going along with his more recent stuff, I could never turn my back from his work from the early 70s to the late 80s). This was demonstrated by the fact that the anthemic final song of the night, Todd’s "Sons of 1984", ended with a refrain that the crowd picked up seamlessly as the curtain closed on the band. For minutes after the lights went up, the faithful continued to croon, “Worlds of tomorrow/Life without sorrow/Take it because it’s yours/Sons of 1984.”

That song, of course, was written in 1974. Performed now in 2011, it seemed to take on a different meaning. That utopian promise in some ways seems further away than ever before, but this world is ours, this music is ours, and it’s up to us to make our lives what we want them to be. I had never doubted that Todd had been delivering such a message in many of his works for many years, but last night’s concert provided a guided tour not only to his past but to mine as well, and everyone in the theater. It’s not too late. Orwell’s 1984 never happened. It’s still possible. You just have to remain faithful.

Friday, March 11, 2011

My Three Drum Teachers

It was 1978. I was 15 years old and in a boring eighth-grade typing class, so I began one day to write song lyrics. I found it both easy and fun to come up with melodies in my head and words that told of a love I had yet to experience. After a while, I had a number of these lyrics and I decided to share them one day with my friend Marc, who had an organ at home he could play a little. He was enthusiastic about them and we started to try to write songs together: me singing my lyrics and he picking out the notes I was wanting to sing them in.

Soon, we began to fantasize about having a band and we shared our fantasy with our friends Andy and Larry. It seemed like a good idea. There was only one problem: only Marc owned an instrument, and only Marc and Andy had really taken music lessons in their lives. Then one Hanukkah, my mother came home from work and asked me if I wanted to take drum lessons. I’m almost positive mine was the only mother on earth who actually initiated a drum conversation with her son.

It turned out that my mother, who worked in a photo lab, had a colleague named Greg Welch, who was a drummer. Greg wanted to raise a little extra cash to fund the recording of a demo tape with his wife, Susan, who was a singer. I guess it was actually his idea.

You’d think I’d be jumping for joy at the prospect of learning how to play drums. But in actuality, given that I was writing lyrics and singing them to an audience of one, I had sort of envisioned myself as being the lead singer (which, of course, is purely laughable in retrospect because while I’m better than bad at singing, I’m still far from good, and have always suffered from stage fright; whatever else I may have thought I could do, being a frontman of a rock group was never going to be it). I went to discuss it with Marc and he was very clear about the issue: “Don’t be stupid, we need a drummer.”

So it was decided that I would be a drummer. And if I was going to be a singing drummer, I’d have plenty of company: Ringo Starr, Dennis Wilson, Micky Dolenz, Levon Helm, Jim Capaldi, Phil Collins, Don Henley, Karen Carpenter, the list goes on. So my parents bought me an incredibly old, crappy set that had been sitting in the attic of friends of theirs since their son went to college a few years before. I remember it was made by U.S. Mercury and was red sparkle. As old and crappy as it was – four pieces with Zildjian hi-hats and a cracked ride cymbal – the red sparkle excited me. I could instantly picture myself wailing a drum solo with lights and lasers flashing all around me.

So there it was, sitting in my bedroom: a drum set. A real live drum set. Now I just needed to learn how to play it. Enter Greg. He came the first day, early in 1979, showed me how to set them up properly, tightened and tuned the drum heads, then sat down and played some rhythms to show me what real drumming looks like up close. Then he asked me whether I wanted to learn jazz or rock drumming. I said rock but in retrospect I’m sure I would have learned more if I’d said jazz. However, he was able to quickly show me how to play the basic 4/4 beat and a number of variations. So while I hadn’t yet mastered any sense of coordination, I was able to at least make some manner of organized noise.

Ultimately, Greg only gave me six lessons before becoming too busy to continue. Though he never taught me rudiments, he gave me the tools I needed to get started as a rock drumming god and I’m grateful for his instruction. I still have a copy of his demo tape, which I still think is marvelous, and he is a Facebook friend.

All I needed now was a new teacher. Ask me to this day my level of percussion education and I’ll tell you I was largely self-taught. And that’s true. After all, I’ve drummed now for 32 years and had only six lessons. But if I didn’t technically have another teacher besides Greg, I did have a couple of other guides and role models: Stephen Jo Bladd of the J. Geils Band and Nick Mason of Pink Floyd.

See, after Greg what I would do is put on records I liked, don a pair of headphones, and attempt to drum along with them. In many cases, it resulted in pathetic flailing on my part. But that was partly because I was trying to copy extraordinary drummers like Keith Moon of the Who, John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, Bill Bruford of Yes, Bill Ward of Black Sabbath, and Steve Gadd, whose solo on Steely Dan’s “Aja” from the recently released album of the same name both confused and astounded me.

My father wasn’t much help. He said I should buy a Buddy Rich album. So I did. And nearly gave up the drums right then and there. I had to have realistic expectations for myself. I was never going to be that good. I just wanted to be good enough for a garage band.

But there were two albums from that time period that were not only great records, they also featured good solid drumming that was not particularly complex and with what little I knew and some dedicated practice I could begin to approximate what the drummers were doing and then master it. Those albums were Sanctuary by Geils and The Wall by Floyd. I played those suckers several times a day, along with other Geils and Floyd albums. Bladd and Mason are never flashy but they are remarkably solid and consistent. They also throw in a few fillips when you’re not expecting them, which is testament to their talent. They tend not to get mentioned when the great rock drummers are discussed, but they were essential to me gaining confidence that I could actually play this instrument competently.

As for the band, Andy eventually got a bass and an amp, which meant by default that Larry would have to be the guitarist. But he wouldn’t get a guitar and as easy as that the fantasy of the band evaporated. I continued writing songs on my own, and still do to this day, but never actually played with other musicians until I got to college, and never really had a band until I turned 40. And even then, it was only to play dinners at our temple and be the pit band for Purim spiels that I wrote and directed.

I don’t really consider myself a drummer, more like a guy who plays drums, but I do enjoy it and even if I don’t get a chance to really bang out on a stage, I have continuously improved in my ability over the years. But without Greg, Stephen Jo, and Nick, I would still be thinking about that frontman gig I mercifully never got.

Saturday, February 26, 2011


This post is dedicated to the memory of my sister Donna, who died on this day in 1964. What follows was my submission for an intended book project that never happened, a collection of essays on the subject of immortality. Whatever its literary merits, for me it turned out to have a lot of cathartic value.

I don’t know exactly when I began to fear death – particularly my own – but I know I was young enough to wake up my mother at night and ask to sleep in her bed because I’d gotten myself upset by thinking about it. I can easily recall the scene and the feeling. I would be lying on my back in bed and imagining I was in a casket. Then the door closes and I’m plunged into total darkness, never again to see or speak or think or be until … never! The cold, hard thud of finality is what sprung me from my somnolent sarcophagus.

I had a sister named Donna who died when I was only one year old – she was just seven when she succumbed to leukemia – and I’ve wondered if the intense mourning in the household and my own neediness at a time when my mother was sad and distracted left any trace of trauma in my young brain. I have no memory of Donna and was otherwise unfamiliar with death. The first funeral I went to was my maternal grandmother’s when I was ten but surely that was after the start of my death-obsession.

When I was younger, the world seemed safer, thought I know now it wasn’t. Back then, kids went wherever they wanted without having to tell their parents, as if pedophilia hadn’t been invented yet. I recall summer mornings when the mosquito truck drive through the neighborhood spraying insecticide into the air. I used to hold my breath when it passed slowly down my street, then I’d gingerly stick out my tongue to see if I could taste the poison. By any modern measure, it seemed that grownups back then were trying to kill their children. After all, our pajamas were flammable, second-hand smoke was second nature, and seat belts were vestigial annoyances that were rarely employed.

Still, the only real threat I was vaguely aware of was from the Russians, which was kind of hard for my Three Stooges-influenced brain to fully grasp. Why, then, was I so concerned with my own demise? Maybe it just didn’t make sense that humans break down and die. My family (on my father’s side, anyway) was blessed with longevity. My great-grandmother danced the hora at my bar mitzvah and to this day, at age forty-eight, I still have a few great aunts and uncles. I grew up knowing old people who could still work, reason, move, and beat me at Crazy 8s.

But I also knew that as mortals, we age; slowly yet irreversibly we decompose. Our skin gets lined and spotted, our hair thins, our backs stoop, our legs lose their bounce, and our brains retain less and less of the myriad details that kept us so engaged all our lives. By the time we die – hopefully, some time after our allotted three score and ten years – we are a shriveled shell of what and whom we had been. Even from the most optimistic perspective it is an unpleasant eventuality.

I had been told that immortality was impossible, but I didn’t know why a perfect God would make disposable people. Of course, I know and understand more now than I did as a kid, but I often wish that I didn’t. For example, as a kid I didn’t know that the planet itself is doomed.

In about five billion years (give or take a few billion), the sun will have consumed its own fuel and will begin gradually to burn out. Everything that relies on the sun for life will die. So even if someone were immortal by the frame of reference of we finite beings, at some point life of every kind will cease to exist. And even if someone were supernaturally immortal and could survive independent of the sun, what would be the point? You couldn’t see anything.

Thus, immortality itself is a finite concept, because someone who somehow can live for billions of years is still living on borrowed time. I didn’t know that back then, but when I first learned about reincarnation (through the 1973 novel The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, which my mother owned) I immediately became a believer, for no other reason than it gave me hope that death was a generous comma and not an unforgiving period.

And yet reincarnation seems to make so much sense. At least the Greeks thought so. Five centuries before Christ, who is believed by many to have experienced some kind of life after death (not the kind of material we covered in Temple Beth Avodah Sunday School), the Greek philosopher Empedocles wrote, “For it is impossible for anything to come to be from what is not, and it cannot be brought about or heard of that what is should be utterly destroyed.” In other words, nothing can come from or return to a state of nothingness. If it exists now, it has always existed and always will. Death cannot, therefore, be a finality; nor is birth an actual beginning.

As I have neither the intellectual capacity nor the courage to challenge the idea, I cling to a belief in reincarnation. Who can prove me wrong? For all we know, Abraham Lincoln today is a coal-colored cormorant deftly plucking fish from Charleston Harbor.

(Personally, I’ve long sensed that in a past life I was a commercial fisherman. For as long as I can remember, I’ve experienced a strange familiarity whenever I’m by the ocean, listening to the lapping currents and the scavenger birds flying overhead. Certainly the smell of salt water is something ingrained and primordial as we are salinous creatures ourselves. But I remember being transfixed by an oil painting in my grandparents’ house of a vacant fish pier, the grey, weathered wood standing over the cool ocean water while an aging sun gradually makes its way back to the horizon. It wasn’t any great piece of art, just the kind of serene scene in a frame you’d expect to find in the home of grandparents, but it somehow spoke to me. Looking at the painting, I heard the creak of the wooden beams and felt the late-afternoon chill of the briny air. I’d been there before, I thought.)

The question I now consider is, is reincarnation the same as immortality? Could immortality be not the absence of death but rather the repeated return from death? A coward, it is said, dies a thousand times before his death. Perhaps that is true of immortals as well.

In the meantime, a clue as to the genesis of my death-obsession occurs to me. I was born on February 12, Lincoln’s birthday. My family always made a big deal out of that, as if it were some kind of omen that I, too, would achieve greatness some day. I was given pennies because they bore Lincoln’s likeness, which of course was very exciting to me (they neglected to tell me that his likeness adorns the five-dollar bill as well). As soon as I could read, I sought out Lincoln biographies for children, which were plentiful. In short order, he became my hero.

Now, in the life of any true Lincoln nut, one experiences his death innumerable times: in books, in movies, in plays, in classes, in one’s imagination. Lincoln’s reputation, his belovedness, his whole hagiography, began with his death. It remains one of the most tragic moments in American history and was certainly the most shocking death of its time. (“Assassination is not an American practice or habit, and one so vicious and so desperate cannot be engrafted into our political system,” wrote Lincoln’s own Secretary of State, William Seward, on July 15, 1862, exactly two years and nine months before Lincoln died from an assassin’s bullet.)

As a child, learning about this giant figure I somehow was cosmically connected to, the assassination was my favorite part of his story. I couldn’t wait to get through a Lincoln book so I could “enjoy” the death scene; in fact, I eventually began to read the last chapter of Lincoln books first, and only at the end would I go back and read from the beginning. To me, the skill with which the assassination was described was the key marker as to the quality of the book overall.

Quite possibly, then, my first obsession with death was specifically with the death of my hero. It’s a reasonable suggestion that immersing myself in his violent death had an effect on me. When my older daughter was five or six, my wife bought her a book about Lincoln as a kind of a daddy-daughter gift, and the picture at the end of the book gave her nightmares for days afterwards. It may not have affected me the same way because of my already-established fascination with the subject, but the horror of that scene may indeed have filled me subliminally with a dread that would occasionally take hold of me in the quiet darkness of my bedroom.

Lincoln himself is well known to have been a melancholy soul so obsessed with death – chiefly his own – that he dreamed of it. One can’t help but be sympathetic to his preoccupation; after all, he lost his mother when he was a young boy and his sister as a young man. Only one of his four sons lived to adulthood, and two died in his own lifetime, one while in the White House.

And yet surely Lincoln, of all people, has attained a degree of immortality. Though he was reviled by some in life and died horribly, he quickly attained angel wings and ascended to the highest level of human honor and worship. Marking the centennial of Lincoln’s birth in 1909, Leo Tolstoy wrote, “The greatness of Napoleon, Caesar or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln. … He was bigger than his country—bigger than all the Presidents together … and as a great character he will live as long as the world lives.”

When Lincoln wrote in the Gettysburg Address (1863) that “The world will little note nor longer remember what we say here,” he clearly was wrong. Yet Lincoln was not unmindful of the fact that the war provided him a platform from which history would view him and, for better or for worse, remember and grade his performance. “We of this Congress and this administration,” Lincoln said on December 1, 1862, in his second annual address to Congress, “will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation."

Lincoln’s use of the phrase “latest generation” seems to suggest a belief that humanity would in time die out; that there would be a final generation to witness the end of days. Though not a faithful adherent to any religious doctrine, Lincoln by all accounts was a spiritual person who believed in God and, as many did in his day, knew his Bible and quoted it often. In the midst of a calamitous Civil War, it was no great feat of the imagination to have apocalyptic visions, yet there is no evidence that he believed in life after death or an eternal life among God’s chosen.

For Lincoln, then, immortality was something held in the collective memory of the people rather than a limitless state of being in either the physical or unseen worlds. In his day, memory was no small thing, because even though his was not strictly an oral culture lacking the tools to print and distribute news, it was still a time when the most learned and popular men had the ability to memorize and recite extensive quantities of facts and stories. At Gettysburg, Lincoln read his two-minute address off of two sheets of paper, but preceding him was the pre-eminent orator of the day, Edward Everett, who delivered his two-hour speech from memory, with no text to guide him.

Lincoln himself had memorized countless jokes, stories, and Bible passages, with which he entertained friends and visitors. His father, though functionally illiterate, was also an admired storyteller. Currency took all forms on the frontier, and a man who could regale others earned a reputation money couldn’t buy. And though a man’s own memory ends with his death, the stories he shares in his lifetime are like dandelion seeds strewn in the wind; in other listeners’ fertile minds they may take root and continue to charm and so endure beyond the limits of individual mortal minds.

So then. Lincoln and I share birthdays. We both also share an obsession with death. He was an exceptionally gifted writer who by his words and deeds has attained immortality. I am a writer. Am I so in order to achieve immortality? Certainly there is a strong appeal in the idea that something I write may be read and, with luck, enjoyed many years after my death. Maybe it will receive some sort of posthumous honor. Ah, but therein lies the rub. I don’t want a posthumous honor. I don’t want a posthumous anything. I want to remain prehumous. After all, the longer I live, the more time I have to try to achieve something worth remembering.

At the end of her book on Lincoln’s peerless leadership qualities, Team of Rivals, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote, “The ambition to establish a reputation worthy of the esteem of his fellows so that his story could be told after his death had carried Lincoln through his bleak childhood, his laborious efforts to educate himself, his strong of political failures, and a depression so profound that he declared himself more than willing to die, except that ‘he had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived,’” as he had related to his friend Joshua Speed. In the end, though, Goodwin notes that Lincoln’s “deathless name” was and will be “revered and sung throughout all time.”

And maybe that’s where the truth of my death-obsession really lies. My fear of death perhaps is tied into my fear of failure, of passing through life unknown and unappreciated. Mind you, I don’t need to be anyone’s hero. I just want to be remembered, and to be remembered you have to become known and to become known (outside your own small circle of supporters), you have to accomplish something, and if you’re a writer accomplishing something means publishing something and publishing something good, really good, something that could only have been written by you but is so universal that it is felt by others, others who will appreciate it, be touched by it, be touched by you, and thereby remember you.

And yet, so what? If I live forever in memory but not in body, does it make any difference? I would have the recognition I crave yet not be able to experience it. On the other hand, suppose I were to be offered a Faustian bargain whereby I could live forever yet never achieve anything that would make me notable. Would endless days of being no one special be preferable to doing something of consequence and letting history write my name for me after I’m gone?

Back to reincarnation. Let’s say I produce a work that becomes famous after I’m dead. Sometime later, I am reincarnated. If my work is truly special, I will be likely to come upon it in my next life, assuming I come back as a human. Let’s say I do and I read it. Would I recognize it? If so, would I dismiss it merely as déjà vu, or could it spark something in my subconscious so intensely that it would be an inescapable conclusion that I was that writer in a past life?

I guess I won’t know any of this until I die. And I guess I have to have faith that it won’t then be too late.

What I do know is that it was only when I became a father that I had an inkling as to the enormity of the loss my parents experienced when my sister Donna died. Knowing now how precious a child is, how much of yourself you invest in their well-being, how they consume your every thought and every nanometer of your heart, I feel terrible guilt over those times when I told my mother – only a few short years after her first-born had died – that I was afraid of death. How brave she was to try to comfort me. How kind she was to let me into her bed so I could feel safe.

And how, nearly a dozen years ago, did I repay this maternal tenderness? By deciding, along with my father and my two other sisters, that after Lewy body dementia had destroyed my mother’s mind, immobilized her body, and taken away her ability to swallow, it was more humane to suspend nutrition and hydration and let her die than to insert a feeding tube and keep this pathetic and increasingly unfamiliar mass alive a while longer. It was the right decision – she had suffered increasingly over a period of ten years, and would experience only more suffering in her limited future – but a difficult one. We consoled ourselves with the thought that my mother would finally be reunited with Donna. There was no intellectualizing as to whether that was something that could actually happen. We needed it to be so, and so to us it was. Same as my belief in reincarnation. There’s no cost or consequence to believing it to be true, and so I continue to believe.

If physical immortality is impossible, as it seems to be, perhaps the best we can hope for is that, as in a relay race, one person hands off to another the truth – and true value – of another’s life, words, and exploits. And that person, nearing the end of his or her lap among the living, hands off to another person, and so on and so on, through the generations, an ongoing cycle of remembrance and regeneration that keeps the eternal flame of memory lit for as long as life on earth extends.

In that way, a child may someday understand with equal clarity and respect the character of a great statesman such as Abraham Lincoln, and that of his or her great-great-grandparents. Because immortality need not be reserved for those who were well-rewarded in life. Immortality is itself the reward for living a life in the presence of others willing to carry that memory forward. Just as I carry the memories of my mother and Donna so that their names live on in my heart.

I didn’t know Donna while she lived, but my children know of her now. And what my mother suffered, both through Donna’s illness and her own, is redeemed by the example of her love and the peace she found through death. Which may, when all is said and done, simply prove that life eternal is no match for love eternal. And that, perhaps, is an idea I can live with.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The (Re)writing Life, or A Room of One Zone

The other night I was sitting at my desk in my apartment, blissfully alone, and all of a sudden I thrust my arms in the air, leaned back my head, and said audibly and excitedly, “I love being a writer!”

This doesn’t happen all that often, at least not with such showy enthusiasm. But the other night was different because while writing can be hard, there are times when it runs like silk across your cheek. That night I was working on a novel, one that I had started in February 2009 and abandoned about a year later. I returned to it hesitantly because I wasn’t sure it was going anywhere. So the first thing I did was read what I had already written, about 35,000 words. To my surprise and delight, it was better than I thought it was. So that gave me some motivation to dig in.

Now, this is the second novel I’ve attempted; in fact, its file name is “NEWNOVEL.doc.” The first one has been languishing under a small pile of form rejection letters and while I intend to revise and resubmit it, I felt I needed to take a break from it. Also, from July to the end of the December last year I was essentially homeless, staying on friends’ couches and in their guest rooms as I separated from my wife. The lack of personal space and privacy made it impossible to do any writing for myself.

Now that I’m in an apartment, however, I have those few nights when I’m not with my kids to fill with writing (Virginia Woolf was right: one does need a room of one’s own). I found it a fairly simple matter to pick up where I’d left off and before I knew it I had a new, clear vision of where the story should go. I foresaw a new character entering the story a couple of chapters hence and suddenly it dawned on me that a 3.000-word scene I had written years and years ago and that had remained on my hard drive a narrative orphan in need of a sympathetic context, would fit perfectly in that space.

As I wrote towards the moment when I could merge the two pieces, I found myself experiencing that transcendent phase of writing where the characters take over and begin writing their story themselves. I know that sounds a little precious, if not downright flaky, but I’m telling you this happened at times with my first novel and now it was happening again. I was sitting there pressing the keys and I was doing more reading than thinking. The situations and dialogue just came out of nowhere and my fingers struggled to keep up with the story I was watching unfold on my screen. In fact, there was one scene that when I started writing it I told myself, “They’re going to get together and do this thing but they are absolutely not going to have sex.” I was thinking that because the last time these two characters met they unexpectedly (to them) ended up having sex. Now that they were getting together again (they’ve not begun dating yet, these are chance encounters), I felt it was essential – for credibility’s sake and narrative flow – that these two people not do the same thing again.

But apparently they liked it the first time around because, swear to God, I was writing perfectly innocent dialogue and things were going along just fine when all of a sudden the guy blurts out, “Is it OK if I kiss you?” and then she says yes, and the next thing I know they’re rolling on the floor. I didn’t plan that at all, but it came onto my screen with such inevitability that it couldn’t have come from any other source than the characters themselves. (Of course, if the scene works, I’ll take credit for it; I think it does.)

Anyway, it was during this time when I was at least as much observer as creator that I thrust my arms in the air and exulted in my career choice, which, though it’s proven to be a difficult way of making a living, enriches me often.

Of course, the phrase “career choice” suggests that I could have been any number of things but chose specifically to be a writer. In many ways that’s clearly true but in another sense I think I was born to be a writer. Though I wasn’t sure for a long time exactly what type of work I would do in my life, I probably always knew that writing would be a major part of it. Whatever my employer, whatever my job title, in terms of my identity it’s almost always been a simple matter: I am a writer.

I am a writer because I have always loved words. Ever since my older sister taught me to read The Foot Book by Dr. Seuss when I was in kindergarten, I have loved to look at words. Dr. Seuss delighted me because I saw that you could play with words; different words that looked and sounded the same could be arranged to create funny but meaningful verses. From that time forward I was a voracious reader and perhaps not coincidentally have always been a good speller: I just know how words are supposed to look.

When I entered school and had to write papers I found it to be a stress-free and successful enterprise. I knew that some of my peers fretted over the blank page they had to fill but to me it was a welcome opportunity to let all the words running around inside of me to fall out in any order I chose. Writing to me was fun, and creating something new where nothing currently exists still excites me.

As a kid I always got good feedback on my writing. It wasn’t anything I consciously worked at, so I came to see it as a sort of gift. Other of my peers got the good looks, the big brains, or the athletic ability; I reaped the writing crop. If it didn’t make me popular, at least it was something I could take pride in.

In fact, I distinctly recall my junior high and high school English classes. All my teachers tried to teach me the method and style they preferred. It would take me a couple of papers to master their process and I would get good grades. Then the next term or the next year, I would have a different teacher and have to learn another method and process. And again I would adapt, but never really adopt. I knew how I wanted to write and merely accommodated my teachers until I was old enough to do it my own way. I’m sure there are molecules of their instruction within the granules of my style but I retained control of the proportions.

(I would like to give props to one teacher of mine, Mr. Ernest Chamberlain, who introduced us to the essay form but always advised us against trying to use humor. His reasoning was that if the jokes fail, the whole piece would fail. As James Thurber was my favorite essayist, however, I couldn't resist writing something funny - and I didn't care much to be told how not to write. When he read my graded work before the class, he admitted that while his advice was sound, I had nevertheless succeeded.)

My older daughter is a wonderful writer and I see how her teachers are trying to restrain and mold her instincts into something that sinks to the baseline of her peers, thereby making it easier to quantify its quality. Rightly or wrongly, I tell her to play their game but never lose her own distinctive style. All her teachers have recognized her ability to write with a strong voice and depth of imagination but apparently there’s not a big place for that in the state educational frameworks.

So anyway, I get through high school and it’s time for college. What am I to major in? Communications was kind of a big-tent major so I chose that but took a lot of English classes. We read good books but the classroom discussions threw me for a loop. Everything was existential this and existential that. Suddenly the plot of a book wasn’t good enough; we had to explore its meaning. What was going on in the story was always an allegory for some form of political repression or something. This over-intellectualization of a perfectly good piece of fiction bored me silly. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for symbolism and literary analysis, but it seemed to me to take the fun out of the book.

Back in high school, I can remember an English class where we spent the entire class time one day discussing why Robert Frost repeated the line “And miles to go before I sleep.” I fantasized that if Frost himself were still alive and present in the classroom he would’ve slapped the teacher upside the head. Maybe there are some writers who want their readers to look up from a page and wonder for a while, maybe a long while, what the writer is actually saying and why. I should think I would want my readers to be able to digest what I write on the go and keep turning the pages.

After two years, I had to choose between Mass Communications and Interpersonal Communications. The former was mainly radio and television; the latter dealt more with sociological and psychological issues. I actually preferred the latter, specifically a course on Persuasion Theory, but it didn’t seem to have much of a career arc associated with it. At the same time, I wasn’t that interested in working in broadcast media. So I jumped ship and became a Journalism major. At least I would always be writing. (A - Always. B - Be. W - Writing.)

By the way, I would recommend journalism training to anyone who wants to be a writer. Anyone can write complex prose with florid details and fancy words; it takes real work to be succinct, clear, direct, objective, and factual. Journalism training taught me how to gather and prioritize information; craft tight, meaningful, active sentences; and conduct interviews and research. While I never desired to be a newspaper reporter, and never really have been one though I do write occasionally for a weekly newspaper on a freelance basis, I use my journalistic skills every day, no matter what kind of writing I do.

After college I got a job doing public relations for a trade show producer. I wrote all right: the same press releases over and over again, just changing the names and places and dates. One release announcing the show, another announcing the keynoter, another announcing the numbers of exhibitors and attendees expected, another announcing the numbers of exhibitors and attendees that actually showed up, and another announcing next year’s show. I did that for about 10 different events over the course of a year. This wasn’t writing, it was typing.

I left that company and went to another company, a small entrepreneurial firm that made digital fonts. It was a completely different culture and while during my first year there I was still dissatisfied being a PR guy, at least I was around creative people and working for a company I thought was doing something interesting. Then one day, the copywriter in the marketing communications department left the company. I had gotten to know people in the department and thought what they were doing – creating brochures, ads, and product packaging – looked fun. So I asked if I could give it a shot. They agreed, the results were good, and so the company ended up hiring a PR person to replace me and I became a copywriter, which I still am more than two decades later.

Writing fiction, however, was a whole different ball of wax. I’ve never really been about fiction; born on Lincoln’s birthday, I was attracted to history books and biographies while as a journalism-trained PR person and copywriter I was always involved in the factual. But a few years ago, a colleague dared me to enroll in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), an annual rite of writing in which participants are urged to compose a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. That’s when I began my first novel, but since I’d had a baby just three months before, I didn’t have all the time I needed and so it actually took me two or three years to finish it (if, in fact, it’s even finished yet).

Concurrently, I do a lot of freelance writing and look for opportunities to publish short stories and essays and the like. Unfortunately, I seem to have lower standards for my blog than other publishers have for their titles because it’s proven difficult to get my name and work in widely distributed publications. But no matter, this is a writer’s life and it’s the life I apparently was meant to lead. It’s required a few revisions along the way, as well as reimagining just what kinds of writing I want to do and am capable of doing, but for all its ups and downs I still feel fortunate and happy to say it: I am a writer.