Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Lincoln In the Bardo (book)

“We’re only tourists in this life
Only tourists but the view is nice.”
- Everybody’s Coming To My House, David Byrne

“And life is finite
But shit, it feels like forever.”
- tonite, LCD Soundsystem

“And when my time is up, have I done enough?”
- Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story, Lin-Manuel Miranda

“We are blessed with love and activity, but not enough time.”
- Me, July 27, 2018

“We had again been granted the great mother-gift:
“More time.”
- Lincoln In The Bardo, George Saunders
In fiction, ghosts are a manifestation of regret. Can a ghost exist without a belief in the need for its own existence? And that need is to complete something that had not been accomplished in life, as though life itself is defined by accomplishment.

Because it is, really. That is how we as humans define it.

In his riveting, ruminative novel, Lincoln In The Bardo, author George Saunders argues that life is what it is. What we do or what happens to us cannot be judged, it was what it was. No need to glorify not denigrate. Do what you can. Succeed or survive. Strive to do your best, surely. But let no one describe to you what that may be. Then, let go.

I find myself lamenting the scarcity of time. But time is not a thing. Life is a thing, the world is a thing. These can be valued, in the moment or not at all.

Three days ago I was sitting on the porch of a rustic cabin in Maine, listening to the sounds. My son’s peculiar and delightful laugh, the unfamiliar voices across the cove. I recalled that breakfast diner in Charlottesville, last month. (I remember -- the Nook!) The brick wall, the delicious odors; the coffee, the hash browns.

Today I sit at my desk to make a note of the memory. I hear the ticket printing machine, the brief, almost imperceptible whine of the copier. All of these things are special. They are not special because of what they are, they are special because they are what is.

I think I may be Buddhist.

Friday, July 27, 2018

How I Am Spending My Summer (2018)

last nite.
And what's it you do again?
Oh I'm a reminder
The hobbled veteran of the disk shop inquisition
Set to parry the cocksure of mem-stick filth
With my own late era middle-aged ramblings

- tonite, LCD Soundsystem
Sitting on the porch of Barnstable (or to some, “The Barnstable”) on the day after my fiftieth birthday, I am weighted with a feeling of loss. Not merely the loss of an old friend, or that sorrow that has followed our family, like a train, as we have lost fathers and heroes and our sense of hope for the future.

It does not help that I am currently reading Lincoln In The Bardo.

Topsail Island
This place is filled with memories, but also doubts. I carry with me the fear that I have failed or continue to fail in my efforts to be an active, engaged parent. As years pass and traditions fall by the wayside, or as I watch the moments tick by in which I am not actively creating or facilitating an activity, like fishing, or a game, like a treasure hunt.

Those moments in which I have intentionally passed on the opportunity to hold my children in a form of stasis, have encouraged them to grow up too soon, to make their own play and not to lean so heavily on mine. It is like a crime. I have such regret.

Seriously, I may need to set this book aside.

Each summer is marked by moments, those events we have scheduled and look forward to, signposts which I see approaching fast by the side of the road, and then catch in the rear-view as they pass at one thousand miles an hour.

With Joseph Morales (A.Ham)
Theater camp, outdoor Shakespeare, then North Carolina and Virginia. Pre-college, Hamilton, and now Maine. My birthday come, now gone, and we, too, will go, in forty-eight hours time. One million miles an hour.

The women were unavailable to attend Girl Camp this summer, and so for the first time since my son was five we have no opportunity for Boy Camp, which has always been a strange mystery. We will make up for that in other ways, at least I hope we do.

And yesterday I was gifted with tickets to see David Byrne at Jacobs Pavilion in two weeks! Another signpost. I am looking forward to that. And then, more or less, our summer will conclude. We are blessed with love and activity, but not enough time.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Top Ten Life Lessons Pengo Learned From Fred

Me and Fred, from a lost "silent" film. (1986)
This was not the post I intended to write on my fiftieth birthday. But life rarely goes as planned, and birthdays are as arbitrary as any other holiday.

Fred Steiner died this morning from a massive coronary. Apparently he was looking out his window contemplating mowing he grass, which is as fine a way to go as any I can think of.

Fred graduated from Bay High in 1980, a contemporary of my eldest bother, Denny. But we spent a lot of time together, watching movies, engaged in RPG, and producing comedy television for the public access channel.

We haven't spent a lot of time together recently, the last time I saw him was at his mother's funeral, before that at my father's. But unlike some from those old days we never had a falling out, never really lost touch.

I was unable to attend his 50th birthday party, si years ago, but I did pass along a number of things I had learned from him, sincerely offered, to be read at the event. It was only appropriate to be produced as a Letterman-esque "Top Ten" list.

10. Do the best work you can. Don’t get uppity. Create low expectations.

9. Christian Bale was a grown man before he learned what I learned at age fifteen: Do not have a tantrum when the camera is rolling.

8. The cool person stays in his chair, and makes people come to him.

7. Turn TV-viewing into a contest. It's more fun that way.

6. Fred’s defense of The Creature from Alsace Lorraine sketch; “Nobody told me no.”

5. Be original. Avoid high-concept. Edit.

4. Make the Dungeon Master laugh, and you can get away with anything.

3. "I’m SO fucked in the HEAD!"

2. Women are people, not aliens. They are easy to talk to and if you want something from them, just ask.

1. [This one is private.]
When I was a teenager Fred treated me with respect and dignity, long before Denny did. He was one who taught me decency and humility, and humor. I am very sorry he is gone.

Friday, July 20, 2018


This is Monticello.
Eighteen years ago, my wife and I took a second honeymoon. We’d only been married a year, but through the five years we’d been together we had already taken several road trips. One of the great joys of my life was finding a partner who was as delighted by roadside attractions as I was.

For the year 2000 we would take the longest excursion we ever had, perhaps we ever will. Three weeks on the road, traveling south through Memphis and Asheville, taking a week with friends in a roundhouse on the Outer Banks before heading north again through the two Virginias.

Approaching Nashville, we spotted signs for Belle Meade Plantation and decided yes, we have time for this. This was before we had teenage children, whose vote would most likely be “no,” not for any unpleasant reason, but usually out of a desire to “get there,” meaning either our final destination or a hotel with a pool.

Like many stately homes of the old South that were not burned to the ground during the war, Belle Meade has been preserved as a museum, a celebration of antebellum gentility and prosperity. Owner John Harding bred horses, which is a fine thing to do.

The building remains, complete with bullet holes in the stone columns from a “skirmish” between Union and Confederate soldiers. What no longer remained was any evidence of where the 136 enslaved people who worked the plantation and kept it successful for the white family in the big house lived, and raised their families.

Thomas Jefferson
Statue by Alexander Galt, UVA Rotunda (detail)
At the turn of the 21st century, however, things were finally beginning to change. They acknowledged these enslaved men, women, and children -- with particular emphasis on the seventy-two who remained after the war to work as employees, as though that suggested slavery on this plantation was the “good” kind, and not that other kind.

The year before, in 1999, there was a screening of Gone With the Wind at the Cedar-Lee, celebrating the film’s sixtieth anniversary. That was the first and last time I will ever see that movie. AFI still rates it as one of the top ten films ever made, and for sheer craft and artistry, perhaps it is. I fucking hate that movie, one which minimizes the entire American slave trade with the phrase, “they weren’t miserable.”

At the tail end of our journey, we spent a night in Charlottesville and the day at Monticello. It was a lazy day for us, touring the house, yes but also strolling leisurely through the gardens. Our children are good travelers, but it has been a long time since my wife and I have taken a journey on our own, dined at our own speed, made appointments at our own speed, and were able to silently take in a garden, a view, a work of architecture or art without distraction or comment.

One feature she very much liked was the Garden Pavilion, a small room, made of brick, perched on the “little mountain” with a grand view of the valley, the land beyond. She fancied what a marvelous room that would be to sit in and think or write, for hours.

Now remember, this first visit was in 2000, only two years since DNA testing made scientifically evident that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least five children with Sally Hemings, an enslaved person who lived at Monticello. The white descendants of Jefferson were still not prepared to accept the results, many surely never will be. But already the message was being shared from the docents at the site that slavery was to be acknowledged, though that message was not yet very loud.

Garden Pavilion, 2000
We learned about Jefferson the statesman, the scientist, the scholar, the philosopher, the farmer -- though he never really got his hands dirty. We also saw that peculiar bed that opened to his changing room and his study, which used to seem cool but now all I can think is, well, that’s a difficult bed to make.

Of course, he never made it.

It was easier just to tell his story, because it is most evident. Not merely because he was the third President of the United States, but because all of his stuff is still right there, to look at. Following emancipation the housing for the enslaved people was destroyed, what little possessions they owned, lost.

This July 4th weekend, NPR rebroadcast a Studio 360 episode about Monticello, and having recently visited it seemed a bit tone deaf. When an historian described the many debts Jefferson left when he died, he mentions in passing the “contents” that were sold off to raise funds.

Historian Hugh Howard says, “They have an auction, and they sell much of the contents of the house, which don’t go for a lot of money. They sell the slaves, which do go for a certain amount of money. And they begin to think about selling the house.”

He just glosses over the slaves. They get sold. That’s over six hundred people with lives and families who were auctioned off to pay the debts of one man. This episode was a rebroadcast, actually recorded in 2012. Even as late as six years ago a white man can casually reference an obscene act of human cruelty as casually as he was reading a ledger.

The good news is that the tenor of the conversation at Monticello has evolved mightily over the past eighteen years. Today you can expect to hear the stories of many others who lived and worked at Monticello, people whose stories might otherwise have been lost to history.

Hemings Family cabin (reconstruction)
It was a hot day, a not atypical summer day in Virginia, when we visited late last month. Waiting for the house tour we took the “Slavery Tour,” a walk-and-talk along Mulberry Row, which was once a bustling engine of toil and industry, made of homes for those who worked there, as well as workshops and storehouses for the various trades that kept the plantation alive.

Some small buildings have been recreated during the past generation. But our guide mostly led us from one shaded area to another (where we were able to enjoy staggeringly beautiful vistas overlooking the valley) and told true stories of those who lived and worked the row.

Joseph Fossett, a member of the Hemings extended family, was one of the very few enslaved people granted freedom in Jefferson’s will. We heard of the arrangements Fossett made with individual whites to purchase his family members at auction, to be bought by Fossett (with interest) as he made his living in Ohio as a blacksmith. For his youngest, Peter, it was an additional 25 years in bondage before Fossett was able to bring him north to freedom. Joseph Fossett worked every day to pay for his own children’s freedom.

"They sell the slaves, which do go for a certain amount of money." Which. Indeed.

But our tour wasn’t some matter-of-fact description of a bygone era. Our tour guide had an agenda, comparing slavery to the modern prison system, reminding us that the scars of race-based slavery are with us today and are nowhere near invisible.

Because our tour guide, this young man, is from Charlottesville, raised in Charlottesville, this is his home. And he was present during the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in August 2017, and Heather Heyer, who was murdered by a Nazi-sympathizer during the rally, was a friend of his.

Taking the new house tour, we heard once again about Jefferson’s many great achievements, but also the names and the stories of those who worked below floors, exhibits which have also recently been developed to illustrate slave life at Monticello.

Garden Pavilion, 2018
Why so much emphasis on slavery? Isn’t that past? Isn’t it time to move on? That is an argument, but it’s a useless one. It is an argument of exclusion. Thomas Jefferson did a great many things, including lead a country, establish a university, write the Declaration of Independence, the foundation of our democracy. He would never have had the time, the wherewithal to accomplish any of these things without the toil of the six hundred and seven people whose work gave him the time to sit and write and think.

And so we returned to the Garden Pavilion, from which Jefferson would have sat and thought and wrote, overlooking Charlottesville, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Rivanna River beyond. And in his day, he would also be keeping his eye on the hundreds of men and women downhill, harvesting all of his valuable tobacco.

Telling the story of Monticello requires telling the story of the people who literally built Monticello.

See also: Monticello Is Done Avoiding Jefferson’s Relationship With Sally Hemings by Farah Stockman, New York Times, 6/16/2018


Man Who Killed Heather Heyer at Charlottesville Sentenced to Life In Prison, Plus 419 Years by E.J. Dickson, Rolling Stone, 7/15/2019

Plantations are talking more about slavery — and grappling with visitors who talk back by Hannah Knowles, Washington Post, 9/8/2019

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

This American Life (radio)

Radio: An Illustrated Guide
(I own this comic book.)
Recently we had occasion to dig out our old copy of Trivial Pursuit: 90s Time Capsule Edition. The tagline is, “from the most trivial of decades.” Even today, that seems a most accurate description. You can get in trouble painting an entire decade (or an entire generation) with so broad a brush. But historically speaking, we were complacent.

In 1995, when I was creating theater pieces about Gen X nostalgia and long-form improv-inspired by nascent reality TV, NPR reporter and producer Ira Glass introduced This American Life.

Its mission, ostensibly, was to report on life in these United States. Not the famous, or the necessarily newsworthy, but life as it is lived in the corners and in the fringes. I loved it almost immediately, if only because these brief radio diaries were about things I was interested in. Conventions, summer camp, 24-hour diners, Canadians, and terrible sex.

Glass quickly developed a stable of reliable writers he would turn to with some regularity, whose work I greatly enjoyed; David Rakoff, Scott Carrier, Tobias Wolff, Dan Savage, Sarah Vowell, and David Sedaris. You notice that even in this sampling, which I thought up off the top of my head, almost all are men. All were white.

By the late 1990s I was consuming episodes voraciously, even using primitive methods of “downloading.” Due to issues of copyright, TAL came to the podcast game rather late, but early on you could stream the program with players like RealAudio, and I hooked a cassette machine to my computer to record episodes in real time for playback anywhere in house or car at my convenience.

The most compelling to me were the truly moving ones, most notably Last Words, an extended rumination on death. This episode sends chills down my spine through the music alone, prompting me to buy CDs from Bill Frisell, Philip Glass, and to put Brian Eno’s Music For Airports back into personal rotation. It was here I first heard the quote attributed to Yahuda HaLevi, “It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch.”

A moving sentiment, it has what the kids today refer to as “all the feels.” I did not yet comprehend what that phrase means, though. These weekly journeys into dark corners America were, shall we say, an in vitro experience. I was thirty. I was a slacker. I didn't know much.

On one episode in the mid-2000s, Ira related the moment he was watching The O.C. when two of the characters name-check his show. They’re on the phone and one says he’s listening to This American Life, and the other says, “Is that that show by those hipster know-it-alls who talk about how fascinating ordinary people are? Ecch. God.”

However, by that point, things had already begun to evolve for the program. The events of 9/11 was a challenge the team met with surprising speed, depth, and clarity. The last program in August, 2001 was about basketball tricks and professional gambling. By September 14, they had assembled a collection of stories they already had in the can on personal loss; co-writing your father’s obituary with your not-yet-deceased father, and David Sedaris writing about his mother’s death.

By the following week they were able to break open tales of how communities experience and cope with (or do not) monumental tragedy and grief with the brilliant episode Before and After. David Rakoff recounts the historic destruction of the steamship General Slocum, which devastated nearly every family in an entire New York neighborhood, and Haruki Murakami reporting first-person accounts of the 1995 poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

In telling smaller stories around a subject, and not necessarily about the big story at hand, the producers of This American Life have been able to effectively, and in recent years with more urgency, comment upon recent events. The war years (which have not actually ended) pushed the program out of its comfort zone, and TAL’s definition of what constituted a story about “American life” broadened considerably. We were taken to Afghanistan and Iraq and Kuwait and Guantanamo Bay.

Your host.
I mentioned the prominence of male writers and voices on the program, though even from the beginning there were women producers, writers and reporters like Nancy Updike, Alix Spiegel, Julie Snyder, and later Sarah Koenig (of Serial fame, a TAL spin-off) have played a prominent role. But if you tried to articulate any bias, or particular point of view for the program, it would be that squishy, liberal, can’t-we-all-get-along vibe. Homosexuality was always presented as matter-of-fact (though predominantly male-centric homosexuality) and racism, for example, is presumed to be a bad thing.

For example, in Be Careful Who You Pretend To Be we hear the story of Ron Copeland, who plays a “slave owner” as part of an interactive, historical reenactment. He thinks of himself as a good person, certainly not racist, and it begins to tear at his soul when he has to behave as one for the purposes of education and entertainment. It is an affecting piece. You feel bad for him, the white guy.

In light of recent national events, however, the show has started to lean with greater strength into uncomfortable modern issues … and Ira Glass, the omnipotent, white, cis-male narrator has noticeably begun to lean back. Two remarkable episodes from the past twelve months illustrate issues in American society which have deep roots, but have been brought into sharp relief during the time of the Trump Administration. And in each case, Glass has taken the once rare and now more frequent opportunity to hand over responsibility to another, one more familiar with and a true representative of the subject matter.

Last summer We Are in the Future, hosted by TAL producer Neil Drumming, who is African-American, delved into the subject of Afrofuturism. For the uninitiated, one of the most powerful recent examples of Afrofuturism is the movie Black Panther, and particularly the fictional nation of Wakanda. What would the present be like if white colonials had not ravaged the continent of Africa in the past? But that is merely one way to describe the aesthetic.

FTL, Y'all!:
Tales From the Age of the $200 Warp Drive

Cover art by Paul Davey
One of the stories reflects that episode from almost twenty years ago, about the white historical reenactor who played a slave-owner. In this case, however, it is comedian and actor Azie Dungey recounting her time playing the part of an enslaved person at Mount Vernon. Playing the part of one of those whom our first President claimed to own as property, she was exposed to the mental and emotional abuse of white visitors and co-workers who unintentionally or not saw her as what she was performing -- a servant, an object, an other -- which begs the question; is that not already what happens every day in America?

This past spring, the episode Five Women, hosted by producer Chana Joffe-Walt (a female-American) told a story about one empowered man -- a so-called progressive, liberal man, by the way -- and the manipulative effect he had on five women he worked with, was romantically involved with, or in several of these cases, both. The President of the United States is an unapologetic serial harasser, who only this week mocked the #MeToo movement, but the outrageousness of his sins have served to created not merely a conversation, but a revolution is the way we consider inappropriate and/or inexcusable behavior across the society.

The past year and a half we have seen historically marginalized people’s rights and liberties threatened, at the same time witnessed as they have used their voices in new, exciting, insightful, and powerful ways. And while This American Life was never meant to be at the forefront of fierce social debate, I am glad that this program, which originally focused on stories most trivial, has evolved to reflect the current moment in a manner most relevant.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

One From the Heart (album)

“I should go out and honk the horn,
It’s Independence Day.
Instead I just pour myself a drink.”
- This One’s From the Heart, Tom Waits & Crystal Gayle
Twenty-five years ago and shortly after I got married (the first time) I craft myself a mixtape. I do not need to explain what a mixtape is, Nick Hornby did so most eloquently in High Fidelity. Needless to say, there are the tapes you made for yourself, and those you made for others. This one was for me.

Mixtapes took time in a way playlists do not, because they needed to be edited in real time. You had to play the song all the way through to get it on tape. You had to listen to it that way, too. There was also a mystery to the duration of the side, and how many songs you could get on it … unless your new bride was a programmer and made you a special time calculator, which she was and she had.

My urge for this particular mixtape was to create a melancholy mix of every song that hurt. If it was not a song which in the playing humiliated me, and deeply, then it had no place on the cassette. The cover art is made of lines of handwriting, photocopied from some of the most painful letters I had ever received from lovers or friends. The tape was titled, “pathetic.

I made this tape for myself in January 1993. I had been married for less than two months.
“I can’t tell, is that a siren or a saxophone?”
- This One’s From the Heart, Tom Waits & Crystal Gayle
July 4, 1981. Not yet thirteen, crazy about girls since I was at least ten, at the annual Independence Day carnival celebration in my hometown I made a connection with the one who would soon become my first true girlfriend. Soon, but not yet.

Emboldened by my first kiss, I spent the summer flirting with other girls, too. I decided I wasn’t exactly the creep I always thought I was, and it was a new world, writing letters, straining to express desire and interest without knowing the words.

I had my own soundtrack then, too. A cassette of singles I had purchased over the months from Kmart. They were the songs of the corporate radio machine, so even though my memory of the summer of ‘81 includes masculine pop classics like Hall & Oates “You Make My Dreams” and “Jessie’s Girl” the tunes on my playlist were prefab nonsense like “Hooked On Classics” and “Stars on 45.”

As with so many things, I was never very good at knowing exactly what good taste in music was. This was always something I relied on girls to teach me.
"Don't sit home and cry
On the Fourth of July."
- Little Boy Blue, Tom Waits
One woman I knew had a term for when you tell a story so many times you put yourself into the story and believe that you had actually been there; she called it an “in vitro experience.” And so it is with the music that means so much to the people that I get close to, and my love for them imprints this music on my heart so deeply that even when they are gone, and my connection between them and the music in question has faded deeply into the background, my own affection for the music remains as though I had discovered it myself.

First she played me “Nothing Looks the Same in the Light.” Later, she taught me what it means.

He played the soundtrack to The Moderns so often, I had created an entire screenplay in my head years before I had ever seen it. My version was darker.

Then there was the one with whom I often shred a bed, but no kisses. At bedtime, they would often play One From the Heart, a collection of songs by Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle written for a film by Francis Ford Coppola. It was in joining them in this practice (more than once) that this entire record became one I still need to listen to all the way through, that it doesn’t even exist to me as individual songs, only endless night whispers and thwarted fumbling.

Never seen the movie. Most people haven't.

Sometimes I feel as though I have absolutely no personality of my own, that I am merely a hollow vessel, devoid of spirit, emotion, or understanding, filled to overflowing with the memories, thoughts, ideas and passions of others. My great hope is that my interpretation and redirection of all of these compelling and competing narratives has somehow held within them any spark of originality.

Happy Independence Day.