Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Book 16: Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing

I have read this book several times over whenever I needed a boost in spirit. Every amazing second of it is true.

For those who are unfamiliar with the tale it bears retelling. Ernest Shackleton was an Anglo-Irish explorer who set out on an expedition in 1915. The goal of the trip was to cross the South Pole on foot.

Here's how it would work.

Shackleton and his primary crew would sail to the South Pole in the Endurance, a ship outfitted specifically for the voyage. Concurrently a ship would sail to the other side of the pole. They would trek as far inland as they could leaving supplies which Shackleton could then retrieve.

Shackleton would disembark, stop at the South Pole, and then follow the gingerbread crumbs all the way to the other side of the Pole.

The Endurance never made it to the Pole. They lived on the ship trapped in ice pack for just about a year, finally having to abandon it when the pressure from the ice destroyed it completely. By that point they'd taken everything they could or might possibly use off and proceeded to live directly on the ice for several more months. They had salvaged a few small boats which they eventually had to use in a mad dash for tiny Elephant Island. In open lifeboats they sailed for five days to reach the tiny island.

This alone is a miraculous enough escape. None of the men had died. They had survived a year exposed to the elements while living on ice which was moving through the Antarctic.

But this was child's play compared to what came next.

They could not count on being rescued at Elephant Island seeing as it was unlikely that a whaling ship would pass close enough to signal.

Shackleton took five men in one of the lifeboats, a ship they'd christened the James Caird, the name of the man who sponsored the expedition in the first place. They set sail for South Georgia, a mountainous crag of an island that housed a small whaling village.

South Georgia was 800 miles away.

800 miles.

They sailed across the most forbidding stretch of ocean on the planet in what was essentially a big rowboat with a sail. 800 miles in the Antarctic/Weddell Sea, an area sailors shiver upon pondering and not due to the cold.

Two weeks later they reached the island. Landing almost killed them as they were exhausted almost to the point of immobility, fingers frozen, bodies numb. The tiny swath of rock that they were able to cling to was inhospitable almost to the point of cruelty. They had inadvertently landed on the side of the island WITHOUT a whaling village.

Once again, the story implausibly become more and more heroic. After all that, after a journey that defied any and all odds, they faced an even more difficult challenge. South Georgia had never been mapped in the interior, basically because it was a mountain sticking out of the ocean. Whalers found a flat spot on the southern tip and used it. No one had ever thought to explore inland. Mostly because it was a sheer winter ice mountain of almost 10,000 feet.

Shackleton and company knew what direction they had to go in order to get to the whaling village. But they had NO IDEA what they would encounter on the way.

What they encountered was a 22 mile journey up and over one of the most forbidding landscapes known to man. Or unknown to man since no one had ever done it before. They had only what they could carry. They had no climbing gear. The five men struggled up and over a mountain having nothing but a compass to show them the way.

At one point they had struggled mightily to span a ridge. After hours of backbreaking labor they reached a steep slope which disappeared into the mist below them. They had two choices. Head back the way they came for hours and hours only to have to find a new way or to sled down into an abyss which might plummet them off of a cliff.

They slid. By their estimation they flew almost a mile down a steep incline.

Small children playing in Stromness saw five hooded bearded figures coming out of the interior of the island and thought they were monsters. Nothing had ever come from that direction before.

The men rested and recuperated in Stromness. They commandeered a whaling ship and sailed back to Elephant Island four months later and rescued those they'd left behind.

To give you an idea of how amazing all of this is, the interior of South Georgia island was not traversed on foot again until 1955 when a mountaineer followed their tracks using the best equipment available. Antarctica was not crossed until 1958.

So on days like today when I feel as if I'm on an ever-quickening treadmill being tossed chainsaws to juggle blindfolded and on one foot, it eases my worries a bit to think of Ernest Shackleton turning and waving to the 22 men on Elephant Island who, no matter how much they trusted and revered their boss, had to be thinking, "Man are we fucked."

Book 17: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

I've already established my antipathy towards beret-wearing, finger snappin', liner note quotin' Thelonius Monksters. In short, what I call jazz douches.

Don't get me wrong. I own Miles Davis' 'Bitches Brew'. I've zoned out to Charlie Parker. I get it. But there is this sense among rabid jazz fans that somehow it is not as popular as it deserves to be, as if it should be the preferred genre. This reminds me of right wing nutjobs raging against all the people who speak Spanish as a first language. And who are Americans.

Jazz is ethereal. It is ephemeral. It is esoteric. It is a whole slew of words beginning with 'E' that don't mean jack shit to most people. Sorry, but three chords and a point of view work a hell of a lot better than minor diminished sevenths and ambiguity. They just do.

Somehow Dave Eggers has written a memoir that is more fun than a novel, a novel that is more fun than most memoirs and a big fat rock and roll concept album that incorporates everything jazz douches love about jazz. He shoots off on crazy tangents like jazz players. He throws in little homages to outside influences without even calling too much attention to it like jazz players.

Unlike jazz fans, however, he has a sense of humor about the whole thing.

I mention jazz in conjunction with this book only because I did 'Side Man' at Stamford Theater Works in Stamford, Connecticut the year it was released. As I auditioned for it I knew I would get it because it is all about jazz players in the 1950's. Of course a man who has coined the term 'jazz douche' would be condemned to being in a play where the free-form improvisation of jazz is used as a metaphor to mirror a chaotic upbringing.

When I got the part I wasn't surprised.

Stamford is about an hour outside of New York City by commuter train. For roughly six weeks I hopped on a train and rode out to the little barn tucked in behind a private school. The play was much more than a paean to jazz. I quickly discovered why it had won the Tony. It wasn't a bunch of grizzled beret wearers talking about how the Bird could really blow.

It was a devastating picture of a family destroyed by alcoholism.

If you came up with a simple outline for Eggers' book, you'd never say it would be a laugh a minute. Young man must care for younger brother after both parents die of cancer within six months of each other. You'd think it would be sappy, full of woe-is-me and isn't-this-hard. In short you'd think it would fall into the cliche of your expectations.

But from the opening page he lets you know that you would be sadly mistaken if that was what you came for. He interrupts the publisher's page with tiny jokes. He puts drawings of toast in the book. He will do just about anything to get a laugh. This attitude doesn't diminish the impact of the details of his life, it amplifies them a thousandfold. The desire to entertain becomes a beautiful reaction against such pain.

The character I played in 'Side Man' is named Clifford Glimmer. His father is a journeyman jazz player, a side man. Chaos rules the house. My mother is mentally ill and abuses alcohol. My father only cares about music. It doesn't define his personality, it IS his personality.

We follow my character from youth to young adulthood and the play culminates in a terrible domestic scene. I finally step in and force my parents to split up. I then move to California to pursue my own dreams.

The play is hilarious, by the way.

I loved riding out to Stamford. I loved doing that play. It even helped me turn the corner and love jazz. Still hate jazz douches but I get it. I get it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Book 18: A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving

Let's get one thing straight. My memory is about as reliable as trying to turn on a laptop with a TV remote. Not only is the central act faulty to the point of absurdity but there is a basic disconnect between the tools involved and the results achieved.

This blog might not seem like the blog of someone with a bad memory seeing as each piece usually involves revisiting important moments in my life via music or literature. But like all art this blog is a big fat fucking lie.

For example, 'A Prayer For Owen Meany' by John Irving came out in 1989. I was deep into the University of Rhode Island Theater Department by this time. I am sure that I read this book close upon the heels of its release because I'd become a die-hard Irving fan after 'The Cider House Rules' and 'The World According To Garp'.

And even though thinking about the finale of this insane tale of faith and friendship brings me to tears twenty years later, I could no more tell you where I was when I read it than I could tell you what John Irving had for breakfast this morning.

In fact, the connections that I have made between certain books and memory on this blog are in themselves fictions. I can connect emotional dots but the real nitty gritty might have seen me reading a book years after I have claimed. Good thing I have no plans to run for any office ever. Plus I inhaled.

Which could be why I can't remember Jack-Doodle if it doesn't involve a story. So instead of trying to reach into some murk which I actually have no recollection of, I will instead cherry pick from this era an act of friendship comparable to the lifelong love affair the characters in Owen Meany have.

And by love affair I of course mean any friendship, not merely the physical kind.

Joe LeDuc was one of my best friends. We played music together. We were in plays together. We raved into the night about music and plays we were in together. We raved into the night about music and plays we WEREN'T in together. Cuddles I called him because I have this thing about backwards language.


I miss Joe. I have reached out to him on a few occasions via email to email addresses I do not know are accurate. Which when I think about it amazes me even further because our friendship began in high school one neighborhood apart from one another and stretched through half a decade of college, all before the internet was a gleam in Al Gore's dick.

Joe yelled at me because I hadn't listened to The Who 'Who By Numbers' album and yet claimed to not really be into The Who. He held beers and almost cried about Roy Orbison and the beauty of his voice. Joe had taste. I still consider him to be a great friend even though we haven't seen each other in probably 15 years.


When I began writing this review of 'A Prayer For Owen Meany' I was not planning on writing about Joe LeDuc. The memory of the book is not connected in any way to Joe. But thanks to this blog it now will be.

Joe was the one who told me about a friend of ours who had died that morning in a car accident. Somehow a smile came to my face the moment he said it and that smile has kind of haunted me ever since. Where did it come from? What synapse misfired to such an inappropriate degree?

Joe never said anything about it to me. We cried at her funeral and wound up out in a field drinking beers that night and recycling Spoon River Anthology monologues in an impromptu acting seminar just for ourselves.

I wish I could ask him if he remembered that smile. What he thought of it. Did he notice it at all? If he did, why didn't he say, "Hey, what the fuck are you smiling about? She's dead." And then I could say something like, "I don't know...I guess I'm freaked out."

Maybe he'd have understood. He probably would have, he was that kind of guy. He probably did.

So while I don't remember shit about shit, I'll never forget Joe LeDuc even though he seems to have disappeared from my life. And yeah, I'm writing this in hopes that he'll email me. There might be some band he knows about that I would like.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Book 19: Tender Is The Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

If 'The Great Gatsby' is Fitzgerald's 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' then 'Tender Is The Night' is his 'White Album', overstuffed, sprawling, more ambitious, less successful over all but still perfect in a magnificent way.

It tells the romantic tragic tale of Dick Diver and his young wife Nicole as they travel Europe from one glittering empty party to the next. The atmosphere that they move in is dominated by their presence, almost as if they were some sort of entertainment, which other people arrange their schedules to be a part of. Of course, like any entertainment, they have a limited shelf-life unless they adapt and come up with a new show. They only have one show.

Diver is a psychoanalyst and has married a patient. He believes he can cure her with his love. She eventually divorces him to marry another and he retreats to the States, exiting a life of prestige and opulence to find himself in more and more obscure circumstances. The narrator ends by saying that he'd heard some sort of rumor about him losing his right to practice medicine after a scandal, forcing him to move from his last known address. He then speculates that he is most likely in that area of the country.

Compare this to Gatsby's fate which has the kind of dramatic exclamation point that works very well in that story. Here Diver gets no easy murder as a path to iconic status. No, he begins as fascinating as Gatsby and slowly dissolves until he is less than anonymous, he is forgotten.

My senior year at URI had been a tempest in a teacup. My sister and the whole crew I'd come in with were no longer there. I had had my foot on the theater pedal non-stop for four years. I'd spent my junior year living in a party house down by the beach with two great friends, idly drinking and flirting and rehearsing and occasionally taking a test in some subject I could barely acknowledge.

By mid senior year I'd already made the decision to spend my fifth year abroad in Orleans. This gave every interaction some sort of weight, a kind of formality ensued in which I viewed my whole life as some kind of victory lap.

An intense flirtation had blown up into a disaster of a relationship involving multiple betrayals. I began the slide by breaking up with her to date an old friend. She then returned the favor in kind over and over again. I don't blame her but she caused me a lot of pain.

The summer approached. Life as I knew it was ending and I was going to leave it all and go where I was not known by anyone but myself. After having spent four years in extremely comfortable if dramatic surroundings, this prospect was exciting but terrifying as well.

Just before finals I developed a wart on my heel. I ignored it as best I could until I couldn't get a shoe on without grimacing in pain. I shuffled down to the URI Health Services to see what they could do. Most likely the night before I spent sobbing with my girlfriend or pretending everything was fine.

The nurse said this wouldn't be a problem. They'd freeze it off with liquid nitrogen. Fine, I said.

Finals started that next week.

They used a swab to layer liquid nitrogen over the wart which was about the size of a pencil eraser.

Two days later it was a plum sized red/black blister.

They'd told me I could expect some swelling so at first I didn't pay it any mind. But it became quickly apparent that something was wrong. I limped back over there and said, "Um, I know you said it might swell up a bit but this doesn't look too good."

When the doctor saw it he said, "Oh my god." Not what you want to hear from your doctor. Seems the nurse had used far too much solution and burnt the shit out of my heel. They held me down and lanced the blister. Blood flew all over the god damn room and they had to hold me down.

They wrapped me in gauze and gave me painkillers and a note saying I wouldn't be able to study too well for my finals.

Four days later my girlfriend left to go back to Illinois. I limped around using a cane and drugged up. The wound on my ankle was about the size of a golf ball and deep. She was going back home where the guy she'd dated in and around our relationship lived. She then spent the first four weeks of summer pestering me about coming to visit while she secretly started seeing him again. She neglected to tell me this until I was in her room after having spent money I didn't have to fly across the country to see her.

I dragged myself home, got Lyme's Disease shortly thereafter and rolled off to France a total mess.

Our last real days together as a couple were spent with her helping me to dress and care for my ankle. She was kind to me then in spite of what was to come. As far as I know she is a veterinarian working somewhere in the Northwest.

Book 20: Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden

This is the only book on this list that I did not finish.

Could not.

I made the brilliant choice to start reading 'Black Hawk Down' in October of 2001. Smoke from the Twin Towers still streamed across the East River and over my neighborhood. We'd find scraps of charred paper in Prospect Park with financial figures obscured by ash. The smell hung in the air.

And that was just the physical reminder.

Looking back on this time is extremely difficult and strange for me. I have the sense memory of going about the normal aspects of my life (grocery, Cashel, Melody, auditions, etc.). Those portions called for a determined grip on coping. And the coping was real, it was not a put-on.

At the same time existed chaos. Total, utter, absolute inner chaos.

The juxtaposition of those realities was (and is) very difficult to maintain. I couldn't take much that strayed from the norm. And yet I seemed to need the release of being stretched, pushed past the constrictions I also needed in order to make it through each day.

I was wound pretty damn tight on September 10th for fuck's sake.

'Black Hawk Down' had been everywhere for a couple of years, the book having come out in 1999 and the movie was already garnering buzz even though it hadn't been released yet. I had been meaning to read it.

Being profoundly disconnected and yet hyper sensitive, I somehow chose to begin reading this dark violent true story on my daily commute into the Big Apple.

I can't even remember how far into the story I got. The fire fight was underway and one of the soldiers had been taken by the mob.

I actually just got a little dizzy typing that sentence.

I sat on the F train holding the book in my hands. Outwardly I don't think anyone would have ever known what was happening to me. Inside all was whirling together, the way kaleidoscopes do, everything converging in a circular merge which blurs all edges of connection, all distinction, all clarity.

I felt as if my head were several feet above my body or beside it or beneath it. Any way you sliced it I was actually split apart. I was sweating profusely, feeling drips slide from behind my kneecaps down over my calves. And yet I was shivering. I continued to read.

I took the paperback page between my fingers and began to turn the page to find out what happened next. The paper felt an inch wide and scratchy, as if I could distinguish each pore with my fingerprint.

I felt the train slowing, pulling into a station. I had no idea how many stops I'd been on the train, how many I had to go, where I was, why I was, who I was. I let the paper slip from between my fingers and even that minor escape gave me a great sense of relief. But I was not out of the woods yet. My head was still somewhere over there and my body was right under me, swirling and blistered all throughout my interior.

The train stopped. I somehow found the wherewithal to step out of the train. I couldn't breathe. I felt nauseated. I struggled to take a few steps, my head not being close enough to my body to control it.

I held 'Black Hawk Down' in my hand.

To this day I don't know which F stop I was in. I know that the benches were the wooden block sort that many subway stations have. I gently placed the book on one of the seats of the bench and moved down the platform away from it. I immediately began to feel better, my head swam a bit closer to my body and the intrinsic whirlpool began to subside.

I never revisited Bowden's amazing book.

It is hard to type this final sentence because my brain is just a little off to the right, still, always.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Book 21: The Pigman by Paul Zindel

During my junior year of high school I got into a bit of trouble. I was the President of the Drama Club, a title which I single-handedly transformed into purely figurehead status. Our first major production of the year was 'The Diary of Anne Frank'. Perfect for Christmas.

I played Mr. Van Daan, a member of the family stuck in the attic with the Franks. I got to be the guy who snuck out while everyone slept and ate food that was meant for the kids.

We did the play on Friday night as snow began to fall.

Late Saturday afternoon the snow came back with a vengeance. My drama teacher called me to tell me that the evening's performance was to be canceled. She also asked me to arrange for one of the members of the Drama Club to go to the school and inform those who showed up for the performance that is was canceled.

This seemed wrong to me. If one kid had to go to the school shouldn't all of us go? And if all of us went shouldn't we just do the damn show for whoever showed up in a snowstorm?

My teacher didn't agree. I called the former director of the Drama Club and my senior year english teacher. Great teacher. I asked him what he thought. He was very adroit, he told me that I should probably do what I was told while also implying that he didn't agree with it.

I was mobilized.

I let everyone know that the show would go on whether our teacher was there or not. The snow let up and we had almost a full house. Then the shit hit the fan.

I was banned from the spring musical.

And you know what wound up happening? Prout happened.

Prout was the Catholic All-Girls school in Narragansett. They were doing a production of 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat' and they needed someone who could do an Elvis impersonation. And who was, more importantly perhaps, a boy.

Someone had seen me singing 'Blue Suede Shoes' as part of an English project in our school library and passed my name along. Within a day or two I was in daily rehearsals surrounded by 40 teenage girls.

The moral of this story? Don't do what you're told.

'The Pigman' is one of those books that aims straight for your heart without reservation. Two disaffected teenagers befriend an old man, mostly out of scorn and a kind of latent cynicism. They abuse his friendship by throwing a huge party in his house when he is in the hospital after a small heart attack. He comes back early, unexpectedly and dies of a big heart attack.

In a crucial scene in the book John and Lorraine are alone at the Pigman's house and they dress up in clothes that he and his wife used to wear. Things turn a bit intimate and their charged platonic relationship threatens to turn into something else entirely.

Sounds like a bummer but it isn't. It is exciting. It is sexy. It is uproariously funny. Much like my journey from having gray in my hair and stealing bread from Anne Frank to wearing gold lame, hair swept up in a duck tail, swiveling my hips to a bunch of squealing teenage if I weren't just some kid banished from my own Drama Club.

As if I were Elvis himself.

Book 22: The Stand by Stephen King

For the first time since I was a freshman in high school I wasn't working for Belmont Fruit during the summer. My old friend Kate had hooked up with a company called College Pro Painters which operated on a franchise model. The more houses you paint the more money you make. Kate had switched from Belmont the previous summer while home from Yale and had made much more money than she would have at Belmont. I made the leap.

I also read 'The Stand' that summer for the first time.

And it is the only time in my life that I have ever been deeply tanned.

The whole premise of College Pro Painters was quantity. If you have a motivated relentless team you can make a mint. We did not make a mint.

Our boss was a college student named Sean. Nice guy but not a great manager. I was used to being at work every morning at 6:15 at Belmont. Seemed to me if we wanted to paint as many houses as possible than we should be on the ladders at sun up. But we weren't. In fact, if we were painting by 9 it was a good day.

I started to get a bit of an inkling that I might have a death wish working. I sought out the highest ladder point, the places that other people didn't seem to want to paint. I dangled from rooftops dabbing trim with sponge brushes, clutching a bucket of paint in my teeth. I straddled gutters and hung unhitched over three story drops. In short I was losing my mind.

Everything seemed to move in slow motion. Cotton seemed to be stuffed in my ears as if I were some bottle of over the counter medicine never to be opened, never used for the purpose I was made for. I didn't take lunch with everyone. I kept painting. Whenever I wasn't on a ladder I did pushups and situps. I had a hard time wearing t-shirts because I felt claustrophobic with the slightest bit of pressure on my skin.

To make matters worse we were not being paid regularly by Sean for all the work we were doing. Resentment started to openly fester. Things came to a head when the paint store where we picked our supplies up informed us that we couldn't have any more paint until Sean paid up. Which meant that there was no way he could pay us what he owed us, probably $2 grand apiece for a team of 5 or 6 painters. Yikes.

We traipsed over to his frat house and knocked on his door. It was probably 9:30AM. At first he started to get mad at us for not being at the house. When we told him that we were going to run out of paint later that day and that we couldn't buy any more he changed his tune right quick. We demanded checks. He said he couldn't. It was one of the more tense moments I've ever had. Violence was definitely in the air.

I was deep into 'The Stand' and in a trance. King does that to you. He is just relentless. The story seemed to unfurl like some horrific flag over a kingdom of death. No matter how fast I read the whole story seemed, much like the way I felt all summer, to be moving at a frighteningly slow pace. As if you'd been drugged or shot with a tranquilizer dart.

I marched over to Belmont and asked for my old job back. The next morning at 6:15 I dragged my tanned shirtless body to work and delivered fruits and vegetables all day on familiar routes. I missed being out on those ledges though. I must admit.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Book 23: Deliverance by James Dickey

I had stumbled upon the movie on TV one Saturday or Sunday afternoon but I barely remembered seeing it, probably too caught up in pretending to play left field for the Boston Red Sox or sinking a last second half court shot for the Boston Celtics or diving over the goal line for a decisive touchdown. Or winning Wimbledon. You get the picture.

I somehow knew that Dickey was a poet first and that this was his only novel. I was intrigued by that, by someone clawing their way to the top of an arcane outdated field and then jumping genres to produce an enduring masterpiece. Plus a movie still famous for anal rape. Right on.

First the novel. I began reading it on a weekend night or summer night. Point being I did not have to be up the next morning. I read through until dawn and finished it.

A more harrowing night of entertainment you could not imagine. Dickey masterfully leads us into a savage unknowable landscape which is almost supernatural in essence. The men set out on what is designed to be some sort of back to nature back in touch with your testosterone trip and wind up fighting for their lives with the creatures who actually inhabit that world all the time.

After a terrifying sequence of events that you most likely remember from the movie, the main character is climbing a rock face in hopes of getting one clear shot at murder. I felt as if my fingernails were digging into the rock along with him. I was exhausted. I'd been reading for almost 8 hours straight but I couldn't stop. This mirrored the main character's experience to such a perfect degree that each word felt like a drop of sweat on my own forehead.

I closed the last page feeling as if I'd never be the same, as if I could never quite trust anything again. I don't know if any other novel I've ever read more directly imparts the central theme contained therein.

Now, the movie.

More specifically Burt Motherfucking Reynolds.

Anyone who only associates Burt Motherfucking Reynolds with Dom Deluise, stupid Camaro movies or even 'Boogie Nights' which is fantastic, needs to drop everything, infant babies included and watch 'Deliverance' right the fuck now.

Excuse the swearing but merely thinking about 'Deliverance' (movie or book) will cause a major uptick in bullshit male behavior.

Burt Motherfucking Reynolds swaggers all over this movie like a grizzly staring down another grizzly who thinks he can have a piece of Burt Motherfucking Reynolds' grizzly bitch pussy. Guess what? Burt Motherfucking Reynolds ain't gonna let you anywhere near that sweet grizzly pussy. Because he is Burt Motherfucking Reynolds.

All testosterone fueled language innapropriateness aside, Burt Motherfucking Reynolds pretty much defines 'movie star' in this film. He doesn't seem to be an actor. He is THAT guy in THAT situation. Seems easy, right? Well it ain't. Just because you are as tough as Burt Motherfucking Reynolds doesn't mean you can ACT as tough as Burt Motherfucking Reynolds.

Ask Jean Claude Van Damme. He could kick just about any ass in real life. He'd have seemed RIDICULOUS in this movie.

'Deliverance'. Check out film and book. Not necessarily in that order but it don't matter.

Book 24: True and False: Heresy And Common Sense For The Actor by David Mamet

My favorite part of this book is the dust jacket. Alec Baldwin says something to the effect that every actor should read this even though Mamet is talking out his ass most of the time. And he is right on both counts.

I have stayed away from talking about acting, actors, directors, etc. on this blog. The reason is quite simple. I want to work with even the people I would deride. I have done imitations of a certain Hollywood starlet that brought entire bar rooms to uproarious laughter and I hope to cringe in remembering it the day I act opposite her in one of her films.

I am VERY uncomfortable judging those who have the same aspirations and yearnings. The aforementioned starlet for example. She probably grew up dreaming of being an actress. She made it happen to an EXTRAORDINARY degree even though I personally can't stand much of her work. But should my opinion of her carry any weight whatsoever? I sort of feel like it shouldn't. Her accomplishments stand outside of any subjective view I might have.

Music is different for me. It is more personal, less collaborative, singular in a way that movies and acting is not. Being a singer/songwriter myself I feel quite comfortable calling out those that I have an aversion to. I don't quite understand this juxtaposition. I am fiercely protective of those actors/actresses who make me roll my eyes. But I'll tear Jewel a new asshole from the highest mountaintop. I am not saying this is how it SHOULD be, or that it makes any sense. Just how it is.

I would venture to say that David Mamet thinks this way. He seems to cherish the very fact that actors/actresses exist. He revels in their insanity, their willingness to put on various chicken suits and dance for us. But he has little patience for those of the breed who have any pretension. Who won't get their hands dirty. Who take themselves too seriously. Who don't take themselves seriously enough.

I bring up my dichotomous ethics in remaining neutral on actors/actresses but villifying musicians willy nilly because 'True And False' seems equally schizophrenic. One minute Mamet is championing those actors who are fearless to such an extent that they shock us with their choices. The next he is scoffing at actors who seem so into making choices. He barely seems able to go 2 pages without contradicting himself.

Several times in reading this book I rolled my eyes and thought, "Oh, sure, this sounds good on paper but try doing the 'To be or not to be' monologue that way, David Fucking Mamet. See how fucking easy that is, douchebag."

And that is what makes this book so much fun for actors. We are at once inside the club of 'good' actors as we read it, able to chastise those without our sensational skill, and outside Mamet's bullshit understanding of how we do what we do. Double pleasure. Double judgment!

I can't say how much fun this book would be for a non Theater person. For those of us forever caught up in stage left stage right shenanigans, it is like coffee after dinner and dessert. Not necessary or even healthy but just what we need all the same.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Book 25: The House At Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne

This book hardly even qualifies as having been written. It materialized out of the ether and entranced the entire planet.

I remember being mesmerized by the hollow trees and the stout honey jars. What was wrong with Eeyore? Why was Piglet so scared? How could someone as dimwitted as Owl believe so fiercely in their own intelligence? Why was Rabbit so pissed off at everyone all the time?

And then there was Pooh. I don't know about you but I RELATE. As a kid the world pretty much was incomprehensible and humorous at the same time. Pooh seems to exist beyond any action/reaction relationship to his surroundings. His essence floats from moment to moment treating everything the same. Pure equality of contact.

Cashel loved Winnie the Pooh as well. I would read to him from 'The House At Pooh Corner' which has portions that I'd forgotten since my childhood. His fevered end-of-day cheeks pressed against a pillow or my chest I would slowly take each word from the page and give them to him. More often than not I fell asleep as well with Tigger just about to appear.

Ah, Tigger. Anarchy. No boundaries. No sense of repercussion or consequence. Pure id. I remember being benignly frightened of Tigger when I was little, he was like the friend who convinced you to do something stupid like jump off the top of the jungle gym. But man was that kid fun.

I understand why I tear up when I think about Christopher Robin and all of his playmates. I am nostalgic for my own childhood, for Cashel's which is rapidly receding into the past. But as a kid there was nothing nostalgic about Winnie the Pooh at all. It was pure fun. WHY??? WHY???

Trying to articulate how this particular story achieves its greatness is like trying to make air into ink. Not only is it impossible but it would take magic and even then you couldn't quite be sure why or what you were really doing.

There is scaffolding inside of me. Way down at the roots where the foundation begins I have real memories of Winnie the Pooh staring bemusedly at the rising water around his bed. I couldn't have imagined that the memory of my own boy listening to the same story would one day be almost as far back down the scaffold. Before you know it he'll be reading to his child.

Was there ever a time when this world didn't exist? Seems to me that Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Owl, Rabbit, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo and Christopher Robin came hurtling out of the Big Bang fully formed, just waiting for A.A. Milne to arrive and pin them down.

Book 26: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon

This slight book has no right to pack the punch that it does. It has the feel of a drunken confessional from a self-obsessed theater student who has just fallen in love with his leading lady and male director all at once. Half the time you want to slap the kid and tell him to suck it up and the other half you ENJOY wanting to slap the kid and tell him to suck it up.

During the most turbulent of my college years my life somehow slid from intensity into a kind of dramatic self-parody. I had half-heartedly declared a History major which was a joke because I glaze over at the mention of anything that didn't happen today and have trouble remembering even the most earth-shattering moments in my own life. A first semester role in Noel Coward's 'Hay Fever' plunged me directly into the heart of the fantastic URI Theater Department and I never looked back.

And what did that immersion entail? A commitment at least as grueling as scholarship athletics. Each main stage production rehearsed for four weeks and ran for two. There were four main stage shows each year, which meant that for roughly four months you were either rehearsing or performing a play. Rehearsals were five or six times a week for up to four hours. Twenty hours a week which adds up to four hundred hours of rehearsal time per year.

And none of that includes the off-stage drama that exploded year round. Here are some snapshots.

An amoral ingenue who claimed she was pregnant by a friend. She claimed to have a Planned Parenthood appointment at a certain time. Since she had already proven herself not to be trusted we staked her apartment out and followed her throughout the day skulking like bad ass movie private eyes and smoking and drinking coffee. She went nowhere near the Planned Parenthood clinic. No child ever materialized.

That same ingenue (and I use that term very loosely) called 911 and reported a rape. Randomly another theater student was walking his dog in the general vicinity and was picked up for questioning. She was later charged with filing a false report. Our poor friend was very shook up because the cops truly believed he was the perp.

The girlfriend of the non-rapist incurred his wrath one night when she claimed that John Lennon was a liar. Now, you have to understand that the Non-Rapist was such a huge Beatles fan that this would be akin to telling Jerry Falwell that you believed that Christ liked little boys.

Parties at the house I rented down by the beach would not officially begin until everyone did a shot and jumped off the porch. We had roughly 40 shot glasses in our cupboards and we would line them up. The porch was pretty high too. But people jumped.

You could also get up on our roof and see the ocean. It was a gorgeous view. The girl I was circling came over early before a party in a minuscule black dress. She wanted to see the roof but the dress was so short that to climb up meant certain revelation of underpants. She paused, hiked the already teensy skirt up and over her hips and mounted the house.

She wound up sleeping that night in my roommate's bed with another guy.

These dramas constantly unfolded around all of us but were still somehow contained by the term "Theater Department". We would stumble out of a rehearsal for 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' having struggled to master some intricate group dance step and we would stagger down to Tony's Pizza for late night beers and improv. Legs were rubbed under tables, man on man, girl on girl, guy on girl, girl and girl on guy, et cetera.

Pitchers of beer disappeared in blinks of eyes and some sort of group tension carried us through the evenings.

'The Mysteries of Pittsburgh' is like that. It thinks it contains some nugget of tragedy, some kernel of human truth that exposes a vulnerability in our existence. But really it's just a boatload of fun.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Book 27: The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison

I have no idea how I stumbled upon this book. I was not a voracious sci-fi reader as a teenager. I devoured Agatha Christie books but never got into Asimov or Bradbury or Philip K. Dick. But 'The Stainless Steel Rat'? That one got me.

James Bolivar 'Slippery Jim' DiGriz a.k.a. 'The Stainless Steel Rat' is an unrepentant criminal mastermind. He lives to steal, loves to rob, risks all to con. The very first 'Stainless Steel Rat' novel which was published in 1961 opens in the midst of one of his signature heists.

This is no ordinary stick-em-up gun in the teller's face bank job. No. Slippery Jim has staked out an out of the way planet with a particular way of doing business. Once there he assumes the identity of a small businessman, owning and operating an actual factory. He is turning quite a nice profit and actually getting rich from the above-board running of this business but money is not the point. The thrill of the job is what he is after.

After an impossibly elaborate scheme which could never be traced, he seems just about in the clear when some small detail goes awry. This is not out of the ordinary, the Rat is used to improvising. He comes to believe that he is being hunted by the Special Corps, an elite police force created especially for tracking down criminals who have mostly been eradicated by gene reprogramming.

He takes evasive action after evasive action, shifting disguises multiple times, doubling back, taking random streets over and over again until he himself barely has any idea where he is. He rushes down some dimly lit corridor and collapses into a room. Waiting for him is the Chief of the Special Corps, a former criminal mastermind and hero of The Rat, Inskipp.

The Rat has a choice. Join or die.

He joins.

And thus we have the ultimate storyline for an impressionable teenage boy. The anti-hero. The unwilling good guy. The lusty misfit.

None of this is to be taken seriously. This is part of the fun of Harrison's writing. If you can even call it that. The novels read almost like screenplays and I'm quite frankly shocked that no one has ever tackled this on film.

Dropped into the midst of all of this is a psychopathic ball of sex appeal, Angelina. Behind all of the crimes he is asked to investigate for the Corps she lurks, a Black Widow licking her lips in anticipation of a good romp in her web and a quick meal of Jim's head.

He is shocked at her willingness to kill, something he avoids simply because he has more fun leaving enemies in impossible situations. He may be a sociopath but he is not a psychopath. She is both and he is drawn to her.

Again, I am actually making this sound more serious than it actually is. The whole thing is cigar smoke against futuristic glass and one-piece jumpsuits zipped just low enough to cradle some alien stone between perfect breasts and cargo freighters hiding behind asteroids. It is ridiculous.

So ridiculous that when I saw a paperback copy at my local Good Will store I snapped it right up. And felt fifteen again, browsing the stacks in the Kingston Free Library on a Saturday afternoon, looking for an escape hatch to another world.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Book 28: Life After God by Douglas Coupland

This is a pocket size book which contains infinity inside a small container.

I currently do not have a copy of this book because I keep giving it away.

I've heard it described as depressing because the characters it contains are all in crisis, almost beyond the reach of connection. But for me the opposite is true. To me it is a lifeline, a description of the strength that is inherent in us even when we are pushed to breaking points. And that breaking points are as much a part of life as triumphs, as ecstasy.

There is something deceptively simple in Coupland's prose, a kind of casual tone that is easy to dismiss as simplistic or lightweight. Compared to the density and verbiage of a Pynchon or a Vonnegut or a Faulkner he seems like a magazine.

But, like I said, that is deceptive. I believe that Coupland's work comes the closest to truly mirroring our modern society. It doesn't achieve this through bells and whistles, chutes and ladders. It does so the old fashioned way. Plot.

'Life After God' is so episodic that one might say there was no plot to speak of. Most people will notice the little drawings that accompany the first person narratives, the tiny size of the book. But when you actually pay attention you get a plot like no other, almost as if you had access to an email inbox after a tragic death.

More a collection of narratives than a collection of short stories, more a novel than a collection of short stories, more a rumination on modern existence than a story about someone ruminating on modern existence, these stories follow ropes to the people at the end of them.

I can't quite say how Coupland does what he does and why it moves me so. I only know that this little book got me through some of the most difficult times of my life. And when I read it if you'd told me things would get worse I wouldn't have believed you.

But they did get worse. Much worse.

And after they got worse I read the book again and it helped me again.

Somehow the pocket size nature of it is comforting, that such despair and desperation can fit inside such a tiny book, that these disasters and tragedies are portable, able to be carried without so much as a backpack. They could sit in your back-pocket as you hitch-hiked right out of your life, down the road into possibly worse circumstances but at least as far as out of the current malaise.

Or they can sit right on your bedside and help you be where you are. Help you see that 'Life After God' might not be so bad after all.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Book 29: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

I read this book at the insistence of my best and oldest friend Justin Brady. Thankfully I read it before the movie came out. Not that the movie is all that bad but, as usual, the specific nature of what makes the book so great is absolutely absent from the film. The film works beautifully as a tragic Hollywood romance. But the sweat and nerve that goes into defusing an explosive device? No filmed re-creation can hold a candle to what Ondaatje does in this book.

Justin spent two years in the Peace Corps in Guinea-Bissau. Much like my time in France affected me, so did Justin's time in Africa. While there he read Ondaatje's book and it changed his life.

He grew interested in landmines, in the effects they have on societies that struggle in the aftermath of conflict. Now, I'm sure some of the romance and beauty of the novel had something to do with this fascination, but what might have lit someone's brain up for a couple of weeks for Justin turned into a career.

After numerous hazardous jobs with various NGO's, Justin went to work for UNMAS, or the United Nations Mine Action Service.

Imagine for a second that your job, the actions you take in the office you are in each and every day, directly affect human beings who face the threat of unexploded landmines in their surroundings. Well, that is what Justin does. He is the Acting Chief of Programme Planning and Management Section. Which means he deals directly with countries who are attempting to rid their citizens of this threat.

Now, I try to find meaning in my work. I am an actor, a musician, a writer and an administrative assistant. I get great satisfaction from performing these various tasks well, if only for my own sense of self-worth.

But Justin spends each minute of his paid time striving to make various regions safer than they are at this very instant. So when I hear people complain about "the government", or more specifically the United Nations, or about any large organizations dedicated to human kind, I get very frustrated at any kind of cynicism.

No, the United Nations is not perfect. They can be viewed as a symbolic structure without much claim to power or influence.

However, my best friend, a guy with three kids and a mortgage and many other interests (songwriting a chief one), this guy literally spends all his time chipping away at a real problem. He makes a difference. And there are countless people just like him who toil away without much publicity or thanks.

Whenever I hear people ranting and raving about getting government out of their lives, I just want to remind them that governments are PEOPLE. And there are people who NEED those people in government.

We aren't talking about a higher tax rate or re-zoning communities for optimal voting results. We are talking about men in protective gear REMOVING bombs from playgrounds. We are talking about women in classrooms teaching local officials how to teach the general populace in the art of identifying unexploded ordnance.

So read 'The English Patient'. It is a gripping novel and worth delving into even if you saw the movie. And check out for more info.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Book 30: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

Kavalier and Clay, the two gorgeous title characters of Michael Chabon's sprawling masterpiece, discovered a cousin kinship that set their artistic aspirations free. The book came out in 2000 and by the time I got around to reading it that year, my cousin Timothy was back in my life for the first time since we were kids.

Timothy grew up in Maine. I grew up in Rhode Island. I was born in July of 1969, Timothy in March of the following year. Timothy's father Joe was the youngest of the O'Malley clan and by all accounts he was an imp of the highest order. While staying with an Aunt at a house that was next door to a convent, he would wait until the nuns were out on the lawn and then climb out an upstairs window and hang from the gutters until the poor sisters saw him. He was 5.

An uncle tells of hearing that a crowd had gathered in a soda shop across from the school. Joe was bragging to a crowd about his report card. It was all F's.

Hilarious, rogue, with movie star looks and perhaps a bit of an over-developed taste for illicit chemicals, Joe would show up at our house with a backpack, having hitch-hiked down. In one of my earliest memories he drove me around Boston in a school bus one weekend. I couldn't believe that I had the bus all to myself and I played with my toy cars up and down the aisle.

Joe got leukemia and died when I was 8, Timothy 7. By that point, he and Timothy's mom had divorced. She'd remarried an amazing man who I have come to think of as my uncle. As Timothy has said, "I won the step dad lottery."

Point being, the O'Malley closeness that the rest of us shared was denied Timothy and his sister Marianne. They were around but not as much as the other cousins. We saw them less often and by the time I was in high school they were not regularly at the family functions (Uncle Jimmy's on 4th of July, Thanksgiving at Mummy Gina's, Christmas somewhere).

Long story short I saw Timothy at my grandmother's funeral and then a random time in college when we were both finalists in the Irene Ryan Acting Competition. Then at weddings and one random time when he came to New York to see my band play. This was when he first showed me the now infamous "P-Leg Funk", a dance done by a man with a prosthetic leg.

I tell all this because it dovetails perfectly with the reunion of Kavalier and Clay. Reunion being a deliberately funny word because they'd never met. Kavalier flees the murderous Nazi regime and treks halfway across the world, winding up in Brooklyn staying with his cousin Sammy.

This is how it felt with Timothy.

We began to communicate a bit more in our twenties, and when I was going to spend 8 weeks in North Carolina I went to Timothy for advice on how to get into shape quickly. I knew he was a fitness nut and could give me tips and pointers. He did and they worked like a charm.

In early 2000 I moved out of the condo I shared with Maria and Cashel. I moved into a basement apartment as close to them as I could. A lucrative freelance writing job fell through and the rent which had seemed doable suddenly seemed impossible. Timothy came barreling through the city on tour demonstrating how to use digital cameras to K-Mart nation. He was going to be on the road for the next year and had no fixed address in Maine anymore.

I asked him if he wanted to move in with me, the idea being that he could store everything with me and hang out in New York when he wasn't traveling. He immediately agreed, a moment we relive over and over.

Needless to say his job also fell through and voila. Instant roommate. I had a 4 track recorder (using CASSETTES bitches) and we immediately began passing time with it.

Timothy and I had polar opposite taste in music. My high school years I was a musical outcast for delving into hardcore punk, Timothy got sucked into the early rap genres and never looked back. The offshoot being that we each had been writing songs in opposite genres for over 10 years.

We put the two together.

Here's how it worked.

I'd head into the city and audition. Then I would pick Cashel up from day care and hang out with him at Maria's place. When I got back to my apartment Timothy would have been fiddling around with the drum machine and the 4-track all day long.

The first thing he ever recorded in The Basement was called "Cot In The Corner", which was where he was sleeping, in my kitchen/dining/living room. It was only months later that I realized he was talking about the literal cot. I thought he was describing himself as being "Caught In The Corner" which is just as good.

In quick order after that we began churning out songs. Some called for me to sing, some called for a little electric guitar, I did whatever he asked. I was so used to playing three chords on an acoustic that it was as if I'd been given a license to kill. Suddenly all that mattered was the sounds I could make. This transformed my guitar playing in a flash.

'Kavalier & Clay' reminds me of this time, but not just because it is when I first read it. It is evocative of a new blossom from a forgotten flower, a meeting of the minds, a freedom of expression that cannot be aimed at, merely released.

So here's to Michael Chabon for giving those fictional men real weight. Here's to Timothy for injecting a sense of humor and play into my music. Here's to his alter ego Pimp Fu who makes some of the sickest beats I've ever heard. Here's to Bomer-B who had no right to rap but did it anyway.

Here's to cousins. Here's to Kavalier and Clay.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Book 31: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

I read this book in Providence in the first apartment I shared with a woman.

My time was split into various separate realms. By day I traipsed around New England in a brightly colored van and entertained school children. I was working for a theater troupe I'd seen when I was a child and I still believe it is this job that prepared me to be a professional actor. I defy anyone to grab and maintain the attention of 400 kids between the ages of 4 and 11. It is roughly equivalent to using charades to tell someone how to put together an Ikea bookcase.

My second job was as a caretaker in a chain of group homes for adults with developmental and emotional disability. Compared to this my day job was a piece of cake. I have a scar on my cheek from a headbutt, several more scars on my fingers from scratches, and the lingering ramifications of Lyme's Disease which I contracted while cutting down trees on a private construction site.

This job, while psychically stressful and physically taxing, was also how I met my band. After a false start as One Man Out with a giant ex-con for a drummer, we switched drummers and became The Mahoneys. We rehearsed weekly in our drummers basement. I have the live album recording to prove it.

I had just read 'Wise Blood' by Flannery O'Connor and thought a second blood book would fit nicely. I was writing songs by the boatload and they were packed with violent religious imagery and 'Blood Meridian' seemed just the ticket to provide more grist for that particular grisly mill.

Even still the book was almost too much for me to bear.

One passage has haunted me forever and I almost had to stop reading the book once it arrived. McCarthy limits his punctuation to commas and periods, no quotation marks around dialogue, question marks and exclamation points seem almost like Renaissance paintings when they appear.

A wagon train is attacked by Indian warriors. In what seems like one unending sentence McCarthy shows every corner of this massacre. Scalping babies, sodomizing corpses and living victims, it is a mini apocalypse.

I felt as if time had stopped for me. I lay frozen in bed, unable to process the images that he had inserted into my brain. I was terrified. But worse than that, the passage seemed to have made my soul unknowable, unreachable, cut off from even the most basic sense of self.

Somehow I managed to stave off this madness in order to perform 'From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler' in Portsmouth or Westerly or Needham the next day, but I knew that I wouldn't be rid of that scene until I'd strapped on my own axe.

The band filed into the basement and it was as if we tore a rip into the fabric of our everyday lives. I rushed headlong at these songs as if I were fleeing one of McCarthy's apparitions bent on murder. There was a leanness to our sound, and a gnarled melodic propulsion that felt like an aircraft carrier crossing the Mojave pushed at my back as I swallowed the microphone.

We only played out a handful of times, first at 3's in Newport, at a company fundraiser, then at the Ocean Mist, and finally, aptly enough, at the Last Call Saloon...but those basement concerts were relentless. Like the carnage McCarthy describes, our music was lost to the eye of history, only carrying emotional weight to those who were actually present, not entering any larger cathedral for a benediction or condemnation. But for the warriors who were determined to exact revenge on those who would take their homeland, for the innocent children caught up in a moment beyond their capacity to understand, for my band mates who gave everything they had down in that hidden arena...

We were there. We know what happened.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Book 32: Microserfs by Douglas Coupland

When I was hired in 1996 to host an AOL website called Urban Legends I'd been online exactly twice in my life. Once in France on a very crude version of the internet and once a few years earlier at a Greenwich Village apartment party of a rich girl.

Neither of these internet experiences seemed to be of the mundane day-job variety.

I was about to be married. Maria (my then fiancee now ex-wife)had presented AOL Greenhouse (a division of AOL dedicated to discovering content designed specifically for AOL) with a Romance Novel website idea. Write stories as a community, critique existing books, market new books, etc. etc. The idea went pretty far up the AOL chain before it was eventually rejected. But they liked Maria's ideas and that is a good little poem.

Another idea was in the hopper, one that focused on urban legends. The sense was that this was a natural kind of transition, taking stories that spread organically and giving them virtual pathways. A different New Yorker had presented AOL with the idea of doing an Urban Legends website and they thought that Maria's presentational sense would mix well with the content.

She went to work in Greenwich Village, quite near the apartment I'd first seen a computer online. The original host (a fellow named Tim Disney and yes he is a Disney) had to drop out due to a television opportunity. They then thought a host wouldn't be necessary and that they could just make it APPEAR as if there was a host.

Here is where I come in.

They hired me to portray Legs Urbano, private eye/investigative journalist on the trail of urban legends (hence the name). We did a photo shoot at Chumley's where I dressed vaguely like Legs Urbano and that, I thought, was that.

But no. The date of their going live was still quite a ways away but it became clear that they would need an awful lot of content re-purposed for internet reading. Most of the famous legends had been compiled in several psuedo-scholarly volumes and to avoid copyright infringement they all had to be rewritten.

This was the first writing job I ever got.

They gave me the books. They gave me the titles, like "Alligators In The Sewers", "The Hook!", "El Chupacabre", "The Moon Landing Is A Lie", etc. etc. I then familiarized myself with the stories and wrote short peppy versions of them. They had all sorts of categories and wanted to have as many examples as possible in each one.

At this point I was auditioning several times a day for commercials, TV and theater through an agent and hustling my own amateur auditions all over town wherever I could get them (NYU, black box theaters, etc.) I was happy to have a part time job that was creative but I assumed I'd be moving on shortly.

Then they upped the ante, they being Maria and her boss, the creator of the site. Who I won't name. For reasons I may divulge later on in this post. But maybe not because I'm a classy joe.

Would I consider becoming a full time employee and writing and researching the weekly investigation into a particular legend? And build the online community?

Mind you a mere weeks earlier I'd NEVER BEEN ON THE INTERNET. Thus was the way of the Internet boom in New York City.

We worked extremely hard to get the site ready for launch date. I made bizarre phone call after bizarre phone call asking people questions they had no interest in answering.

"Hello Chairman of the New York Subterranean Sewage Plant Association...have you ever seen a white alligator in your time beneath the city?"

"Being a spider expert, have you ever seen a spider lay eggs in a coed's face?"

"Has a man with a hook as a hand ever been convicted of serial murders in the United States?"

As you can imagine, I had more than my share of angry hangups. Before I knew it Urban Legends went live and became a bit of an instant hit. This was back when AOL was still charging by the minute so our success was measured by how long people stayed and browsed.

A great aspect of Urban Legends was that readers were encouraged to submit stories that they heard. Before we knew it each category in the Library of Urban Legends was full to bursting.

Our little 4 person operation had caught the eye of the channel who housed us on AOL, The Hub. A joint venture between New Line Cinema and AOL, The Hub was AOL's stab at the MTV demographic. Our blood encrusted horror ridden tumor-in-a-KFC-sandwich-which-seemed-like-mayonnaise was a perfect fit for them. And we were getting a lot of traffic.

A meeting was set up. The head of The Hub came down from Midtown to talk us into signing up with the parent club. My boss was freaked out because by this point she had no input into the content itself. She'd had the idea but had no affinity for actual work. She was like the stoner at the after party who can't stop coming up with new names for the band which had just played a sold-out show. Like, bitch, we got a name already.

She was petrified that I would blow the meeting. She'd been angry with me ever since the site went live, something she attributed to me "not answering the phones quick enough" but which I knew stemmed from a deep jealousy at the response my take on Urban Legends was getting.

She told me not to mention my acting career to the Pres. So of course that was the first thing I said. I said that I had a concurrent goal which involved auditioning as much as possible and that with the move I wouldn't be letting go of that. I would complete my work but on my own time. He seemed a bit put out but more or less accepted what I said.

She however was apoplectic. In the week between that meeting and our move she seemed like a bug pinned to a wall. She'd no longer be directly involved in Urban Legends. Which when you think about it is a pretty big slap in the face. This little limbo in which she was still my boss but wouldn't be shortly seemed to send her over the deep end. She also would now have to be part of a team and she was incapable of anything but looking in the mirror and attempting to be pithy and clever.

I remember her sipping her coffee like a rabid ferret, eyes all bulging and brain all misfiring, knowing how useless she was and being unable to do anything constructive about it. So she decided to attack me.

Literally on the day that all the hard work and creativity I'd poured into the project resulted in what should have felt like a slam dunk. But she was too wrapped up in her own reflection to be able to handle the intrusion of another image of ownership or triumph.

I lost my temper and told her I quit and that I wasn't going to make the 50 block transition to the larger team at The Hub. I sarcastically wished her good luck finding someone who could do what I did. My sister (now a contributing member as well) quietly typing and pretending to do work. Actually, I think Maria was not in the office that day, which gave Unnamed Bitch the license to attack.

A minute went by as I gathered my things. Then I realized how wrong all of this was. Sure I wanted to be an actor first, but this was a portal into a strange new world of creativity and I was in on the ground floor. My creativity had been exploited and I liked it. I told her that I wasn't quitting, that I was going to continue the work that I was doing and that once we got up to The Hub we would barely have to deal with each other.

She twitched and stammered a consent of sorts, one-hundred percent incapable of true dialogue. It was as if she walked around with a 360 degree helmet on which had no visor to look out of, the interior of which was all mirror so whichever way she turned all she had to see was herself.

The next year and a half were a deadline, each week getting weirder and weirder. Legend after legend fell apart at the slightest scrutiny. Nothing could be proven. Buried in the Library Category were rumors that seemed to come from DC about the President having clandestine meetings with an intern in the White House library. Turns out there is no artistic connection between rumor and legend.

Oh. Yeah. And Microserfs is about people who work at Microsoft but go off on their own to start a small company. We all felt that something new was coming.

Maybe our helmets were mirrors too.

Monday, November 30, 2009

And They Say You Can't Go Home Again (Or That'll Learn Ya Reunites)

There is a room in an old sea-weathered beach shack. It is a very large room, perhaps the size of a small barn. This shack could have been a house on the water. But it is a bar. A beach bar. To my mind, THE beach bar.

The Ocean Mist.

This is a review of a rock show that took place in that room. A room which, because of some equipment and a raised stage on the wall furthest from the waves, becomes a club. But first and foremost it is a room. Rooms are personal places. They hold memories.

My memory of That'll Learn Ya haunted me for 20 years. Now I have a new memory that is laced over the old, a memory that somehow ties all the others into a great big Thanksgiving bow.

I would tell you to read my post from January of 2008 about my decades long obsession with a That'll Learn Ya song called 'Robert DeNiro Movies' but since it is a story I love to tell I will briefly recap it here.

Long story short.

I had a beat up That'll Learn Ya cassette with a copy of 'Robert DeNiro Movies' on it. I think it got stolen out of my car one night when I was apartment hunting in Providence in 1993. I didn't know what tapes were in the tape briefcase that got nicked.

During the ensuing 15 years I have searched for that cassette. I tore my parents house from top to bottom, finding old Graham Parker tapes, old Neutral Nation 45's, Channel Three albums, Carl Yastrzemski posters and boxes of letters from every girl I ever loved.

But no tape.

Technology evolved to the point where I could start a blog. I raved (mostly to myself and a few friends) about music shows I'd seen, albums I loved, books I'd slogged through.

One morning I decided to write about 'Robert DeNiro Movies'. At the least I thought maybe someone out there would have a copy of the cassette and they could copy it. I wish I could say that my post turned out to be the impetus for what eventually occurred but if it was it is only in that string theory/quantum physics/the secret kind of way.

Some time after that post, Facebook started. And one day I saw an old high school friend on there...Kurt Friel. Kurt now lived in Boston and was part of a kick-ass rock band himself, slinging bass lines for Minky Starshine, a band determined to reclaim power pop's good name that has been sullied by countless charlatans. We friended each other and that was that. Or so I thought.

Then one day in my news feed I see a name. Al Valatka. Mind you, I had GOOGLED AL VALATKA to try and get in touch with anyone from That'll Learn Ya a year earlier. Nothing had come up. And now here he was popping up on my computer. I instantly friended him (a verb I love and use unabashedly).

The reunion I attended Saturday, November 28, 2009 was already in the works. Kurt had wrangled these cats into a night out on the town. He convinced them to strap the axes back on and reclaim their catalog. They agreed. Kurt, when you read this, I am asking you to write up your side of this story and send it to me so I can post it here...when you got the idea, how, etc. etc.

They met in basements as if it were 1988. As if 20 years hadn't passed at all. As if they'd never broken up.

I must digress for a moment...this post is going to be all over the map because the show crystallized this time line that holds so much of my life. I believe I was at the very last That'll Learn Ya show...Club Baby Head or it might have already changed to The Rocket (or vice versa, can't remember which was first...).

That'll Learn Ya was opening for someone and I remember being psyched because I hadn't seen them in quite some time. I went to the show early just to catch TTLY. About 15 minutes into the set Terry Fallon picked up his backpack which was next to the mic stand and jumped off stage, exiting the club through the audience. The rest of the guys soldiered through the rest of the set and waved good bye.

I hate to bring up what must have been a painful memory for all involved but I simply can't ignore that I held onto their music in my head from that moment until they triumphantly took the Ocean Mist room by storm on Saturday night.

Nostalgia doesn't make good rock and roll. So while there were waves and waves of it rolling through the crowd and between Al, Ted, Dave, Rick and Terry on stage, not a shred of it entered the music. They were as vital as they'd been when I'd seen them at the height of their popularity, whipping an outdoor crowd on URI's quad into a veritable frenzy.

Minky Starshine opened the night with a finely honed hook ridden harmony laden set of sing along rock and roll. Much of the crowd knew Kurt's place in arranging the possibility of the evening itself so there was immediately a sense of urgency and connection in the air. Minky took that and ran with it, priming the pump with their own unique brand of sturdy flash.

Two Guys and Another Guy followed, another throwback to my college years and their bratty snotnose thrash pop was like a cup of coffee the morning after an all-night study session that devolved into a keg party. I'd seen them play in a windmill and was so college drunk I only remember the blades of the windmill and the spiral staircase I stumbled down. And I might have invented the spiral staircase.

The moment had come. That'll Learn Ya ambled up onto the riser to face a room filled with joy at the present moment mixing with a wistful view back to earlier shows, the collective echo of another lifetime.

They did not rest on their laurels.

From the very first note the power that they'd had way back when was back with a vengeance. My three favorites ('Robert DeNiro Movies', 'Pulling Up The Night', and 'When I Go Down') were delivered with an undiluted ferocity that never slid over into sloppiness or generality. I don't want to sound like I didn't expect greatness from the show but I was rather blown away at how cohesive and NOW the music sounded. There was absolutely NO sense of cobwebs or age to the sounds pouring down.

My three sisters were there with me, along with my best friend and two childhood friends. Between them they have witnessed my life since birth. That kind of context can be quite powerful, especially thrown on top of the turbulent two years my family has had and the O'Malley reunion that had happened earlier that day. This band used to play in the Memorial Union during coffee hour. I'd then stroll a hundred yards and pop in to see my Dad in the library where he worked for 42 years.

These are the kinds of thoughts that were running through my mind as these five guys gave everything they had. I'm sure the same can be said for the rest of the crowd. The mere fact of the performance could have been enough but That'll Learn Ya seemed bent on cutting through that sepia-toned barrier, diving back into the material and infusing it with the passion of TODAY. They kept knocking the past out of my head and reminding me that I was seeing a great rock and roll band.

So while many rooms flashed in front of my eyes as That'll Learn Ya roared and snorted, rooms like my father's office, rooms like the Green Room at Will Theater, rooms like my basement where my band played the night of my birthday when my parents took everyone else to Canada and I refused to go because The Replacements were playing The Living Room and I had to see my heroes...

While those rooms flashed, That'll Learn Ya gave the present room the same power. They created a new memory, one that wasn't tethered to the past, one that lived all on its own.

There was the ocean. There was the mist. There was That'll Learn Ya at long last.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Book 33: Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

This damn book sat on my shelf like an albatross for close to 10 years.

I first tried to read it when I still lived in New York City. I next tried to read it when I still lived in New York City.

Then I tried to read it on our family vacation to Cape Cod. Then I tried to read it the next summer on our family vacation to Lake Sunapee.

Then I tried to read it in Los Angeles. Then I tried to read it in Los Angeles again. Then I tried again to read it in Los Angeles...again.

Each time I would get to the same point in the book, roughly 15,000 years ago when modern society started to evolve. Perhaps I was not advanced enough to care about my past, perhaps I couldn't relate to the main character (i.e. Earth), perhaps I was too busy using my own blood and fecal matter to paint on the walls of my apartment. Whatever the underlying causes, I was categorically unable to finish this book.

And now a small digression in which I prove that public transportation is good for something other than saving the environment.

Due to financial considerations, Melody and I share a car. There is an easy bus line that takes me to work from where I live. I reluctantly dug up the schedule, charged my iPod and set out to be one of the few who regularly uses THE BUS in Los Angeles.

This is why I was able to finally keep turning the pages of 'Guns, Germs and Steel' until I reached the final one.

One morning I was heading out with my $1.25 in my hand. I'd finished 'The Dark Tower' series for the 4th time and was feeling a bit sheepish about my literary choices. Frankly I wanted to seem smarter to the rest of the idiots on the bus - y'know, the people who yell intimate conversations to their girlfriends, who try to eat soup while standing, who pick their nose right in front of you, who yell at the bus driver for the traffic or because they got on the wrong bus and it isn't stopping where they imagine it should.

There lay 'Guns, Germs and Steel'. The White Elephant in the corner. I grit my teeth. I bared my gums. I picked it up and started again.

For roughly the 37th time.

This time I was determined that it would be different. I reached the onset of modern man within a week and pressed bravely on. I marveled at the travel of seeds from the Fertile Crescent to the Far East! I lorded my intellectual pursuit over my fellow morons on the bus.

And then a funny thing happened.

I got really into it.

And then I had to admit that I was a moron like everyone else. I didn't eat soup on the bus, but I drank coffee and almost spilled it on people. I had conversations on my cell phone that were too loud and too private. I don't think I picked my nose but I wouldn't want to swear on a stack of Bibles to that effect.

But I'd swear on 'Guns, Germs and Steel' which turned out to be one of the best books I almost never read.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Book 34: The Dark Tower by Stephen King

This is for Tim Taylor who will be outraged by the inclusion of anything written by this 'ferocious hack' on a Best Books list.

I can't say that I fully disagree with him either. But that doesn't stop me from loving his books.

'The Dark Tower' is a sprawling 7 book fantasy that straddles two worlds and seems to be cobbled together from memories of black and white westerns and reading 'Lord of the Rings' by flashlight under a blanket.

To give you an idea how much I love this series, I've read it 4 times. All 7 books. Do the math. 7X4=28.

He has better books. 'The Stand' and 'It' come to mind. But this one seems to mean more to him than any other. That intensity comes across and makes it his most personal work even as it is the most fanciful.

There is a kind of apologia inherent in singling King out for praise, as if he weren't worthy, as if the simplicity of his prose and our collective reaction to it were somehow a black mark on modern society. Or so the literati would say. And I count myself among them, cultivating my snobbish categories, looking down my nose at the Grishams, Browns, Binchys and Crichtons of the world.

But I loves me some Stephen King.

Oh he's put out some stinkers. You can almost smell the booze and cocaine while reading 'The Tommyknockers'. 'Pet Sematary' is almost unreadable. Even his best books have a kind of thinness to them. He opens with a few finely wrought sentences but soon he is swamped by the onrush of story and can barely get his pen out of the way fast enough to just let that shit happen.

So. Is Stephen King a great writer? Absolutely not.

Do I love his books? Some, not all.

This one is 7 novels, roughly 5,000 pages. I've read it 4 times. 20,000 pages. Sometimes you can't explain love. You just feel it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Book 35: All Over But The Shouting by Jim Walsh

If I were to measure this list solely by sentimental markers this book would be at the top. Number one. Here's why.

This book is an oral history of my favorite band The Replacements. Those who know me know that 'favorite band' is an understatement of colossal proportions. The Replacements are in my DNA.

So the book has that going for it. Jim Walsh, a musician, rock journalist and longtime friend of the band, interviewed anyone and everyone who had been part of the scene The Replacements came out of. Paul Westerberg declined to be interviewed which is only just seeing as his words and voice dominate the discussion as it is. And this band doesn't have 18 gold records and meticulous rock historians cataloging their every move. This book is crucial because all of this happened before it was easy to chronicle every fucking second of every fucking day.

But the real reason that this book means so much to me has nothing to do with The Replacements or music or the book itself.

It has to do with my son Cashel and how much he means to me and who he is. (In a related sidenote, I have only ever asked for one autograph in my life...I had Paul Westerberg autograph Cashel's school photo when I saw him play in Anaheim...he softly said, "He looks like Johnny', his son...a very sweet moment).

The book was published in November of 2007. Cashel was 10. I'd talked about the book, knew it was coming out, couldn't wait to get it. Cashel and Melody conspired to get it for me for Christmas.

Now, Cash was in elementary school at the time and blossoming. He'd finally settled in at Roosevelt Elementary and was shaking off the effects of three big moves (NY to Maine/Maine to TX/TX to CA) in two years. I would walk from my job to his school every day and walk him home. We would have time to kill until his mom came home from work.

Here is where Barnes and Noble comes into the picture. We would mosey over to the 3rd Street Promenade and browse the stacks. Cashel would find the latest book he was interested in, I would do the same and we would sit in our little corner and read. It was here that he convinced me that he could go down to the lower level by himself to get another book. It was here that we talked about how to handle adversity in school, handle his emotions, something I was in the process of doing myself.

One day in November we walked in as usual. Before we went up the escalator to the kid section, I stopped to browse in the Music Section.

Cash saw the book before I did and draped himself in front of it nonchalantly, hiding his Christmas present from me.

Now, I'd known the book was out but I'd deliberately not looked at it because Melody had forbidden me to do so, seeing as it was going to be my Christmas present.

So the history of the band that I'd desperately fallen in love with in high school was now contained in a hardcover book hidden behind my ten year old son Cashel as he tried to convince me to go upstairs.

I've read it three times since then. Cashel is two years older and in middle school. Rumors of a Replacements reunion have been swirling louder than ever. I hope it is delayed until Cash is old enough to go. I'll hide the tickets from him and pretend we are going to some boring dinner party.

I'll never forget him in front of that bookshelf, as if he could possibly conceal what he'd already given me, as if the gift was the book, as if he needed to give me anything at all.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Book 36: Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor

I picture Flannery O'Connor suspended over a wheat field, the night sky screaming away behind her, stars trying to get through the black, get away, be unseen by that all-knowing eye. Her hair is on fire but her thoughts are so cold it can't hurt.

'Wise Blood' doesn't begin, it continues. The sum experience of reading it is akin to waking up inside the dream of a vagrant ecstatic in the midst of a psychotic break.

I once dreamed that I was riding my bicycle along the wharf of Newport, Rhode Island on a gorgeous summer day. I saw bikinis under sarongs, paper cups filled with intoxicant refreshment, glistening tans and gorgeous bodies lounging away under sun that bestowed everything beneath it with a distinct glamour, myself included.

Then I heard a slight buzzing. Without slowing the bike, I turned to place the noise. Perhaps fifty feet behind me flew a white insect, following lazily, outlined against the ancient hull of a tall schooner anchored in the harbor. Some instinct told me I was in danger.

I began to pedal faster hoping to lose the bug. But instead the buzzing grew louder, so loud that I became unnerved and crashed to the cobblestones. The bug landed on my shoulder. It looked like a grasshopper and a cockroach but it was completely white. It sunk a pincer into my neck and instantly I knew I was dead.

I noticed that my knee was bleeding but the paralysis from the bite was so instant that I couldn't feel the cut. I died within seconds.

To those who think that you die if you die in your dreams I share that story. And I say read 'Wise Blood' because it is a dream of death that will not kill you either.

But there is the field. There she hangs, head on fire, stars scrambling to escape, eternity personified.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Book 37: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

To measure the greatness of this book, one must resort to a kind of magic, a faux-science akin to phrenology, handwriting analysis or divination. These processes have all been used to catch criminals but that doesn't make them real. Some criminologists claim that DNA is the first ACTUAL criminal science tool.

If literature and American culture followed that same path, the DNA of 'The Great Gatsby' would be splattered all over every little damn crevice of the crime scene that stands for our communal memory. It is in the close to 27 poems I wrote that have a green light blinking off in the distance, it is in the way we respond to Robert Redford as a movie star which is linked by the evidence to Sundance and the independent film movement, it implicates Mia Farrow and by extension Frank Sinatra and Woody Allen, and it is clear as a bell in roughly every other coming of age novel you've ever read. In short, it TOWERS over the collected output of this nation.

I first read 'The Great Gatsby' in high school and it is a testament to my teacher Mr. Crothers that I can honestly say that I knew how vast the reach of those words really was. Mr. Crothers had insisted that we read the Bible before we tackled any modern literature because he claimed (and rightly so, I believe) that it is the source material for much of the finely tuned layers of meaning inherent in any good piece of modern literature. Of course, the same could be said of The Koran or Talmud or any other religious text that infuses modern culture with opportunity for allusion and cross--referencing.

Bottom line? 'The Great Gatsby' terrified me. It reminds me of the first time I heard 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' and was shocked to realize that I was going to grow up and it was not going to be easy. 'Gatsby' is similar. It starts out like the promise of an immaculate suit and then sends waiter after waiter scurrying by with precarious glasses of red wine poised to stain.

I think of it when I see boats. I think of it when I hear of people in power who have life shattering moments. I think of it when I think of the Rhode Island mansion where they filmed it and where I would later have my Senior Prom. I think of the Bible. And I think of evidence, evidence that cannot be covered up, evidence that will continue to expose the book for what it is...

The apotheosis of American expression, perfectly mirroring the time it was created in and reflecting anew with each passing moment the bitter core of our collective splendid heart.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Book 38: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

I took an AP English class senior year. We read "Moby Dick". The real irony is that our teacher was a short drunk Scotsman named Mr. Dick.

I am not lying.

He looked like the Burl Ives snowman from Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer after he'd spent a winter drinking hot toddies and eating nothing but beef. His mustache blurted out of his upper lip like Play-Doh through a screen.

He loved "Moby Dick".

He was a bit of a joke to all of us but the amazing thing was that he somehow got the whole class INTO it. He would shriek about it, arms above his head in astonishment, reeking of Scotch, saying things like, "The entire chapter is about the penis! The flaccid penis of the whale!"

He retired not long after I graduated.

I can't really go into the specifics of why I am including it on this list, mostly because I read it over 20 years ago and don't remember much aside from what everyone knows. (White whale, crazy Ahab, Ishmael, etc.)

Any book that is too heavy to be carried in a backpack but still manages to grab the attention of a classroom of horny teenagers must be a classic is all I'm saying.

This story is really about me and my friend Tom DeVincke. And my other friend Justin Brady.

By the time senior year rolled around, Tom, Justin Brady and I were a drummerless punk powerhouse called Fecund Youth. We spent most of our time playing basketball and cutting each other down. I don't talk to Tom as much as I talk to Justin but I still consider him to be a best friend.

There are two parts to the story...

Part 1

Mr. Dick doesn't seem to care that I pull my desk up to the front of my row to sit with Tom. No one else seems to be allowed to switch seats or move but somehow we've escaped scrutiny. We must be exceptionally well-behaved, you surmise. Uh, no. We talk openly about Minor Threat, The Replacements, 7 Seconds, Dead Kennedys, and our own future as leaders in the punk movement. We snap rubber bands at testicles. We draw X-rated cartoons on textbooks. We are incorrigible.

Mr. Dick says nothing. For months and months. Both of us are A students but we are most likely ruining the class for everyone else. As well as posing a fire hazard should anyone have to get out the top of the row of desks.

Somehow we exhaust the patience of our saintly inebriated English teacher.

He looks over at us (Tom and Brendan). We are talking away. He snaps...

"Tim and Brian! Shut up!"

Part 2

I am moving out of the condo in Brooklyn that I'd shortly shared with my wife. We are going to be divorced. I need help moving. I haven't seen Tom in a couple of years.

But he made the trek to Brooklyn from Rhode Island to help me haul my things out, to help me get my life back on track. And Justin lent me the money to get the apartment.

So the next time you see a couple of teenagers being rude and disrespectful to everything and everyone around them, the next time you judge three young hoodlums loitering outside of your local supermarket drinking grape soda and popping zits...

Just know they may need each other down the line.

Monday, July 27, 2009

That'll Learn Ya Redux

Back on January 24, 2008, a full 20 months ago, I wrote a post about a song I hadn't heard in over 20 years.

This weekend I heard the song.

To recap...

That'll Learn Ya was a Rhode Island band in the early/mid 1980's. They gained a big local following. I bought a cassette that they released. On it was the song 'Robert DeNiro Movies'. I loved the song. But lost the cassette.

Every time I've been home to my parents house in Rhode Island I've dug through boxes of old tapes, looking for that missing gem. Never found it.

But through the wonder of Facebook, I recognized the name of one of the guitar players, Al Valatka. Within 20 minutes of this I was listening to a copy of 'Robert DeNiro Movies'.

Even crazier? A mere 10 days earlier ANOTHER old fan of That'll Learn Ya (a guy I went to high school with) had convinced That'll Learn Ya to reunite. The day the songs were uploaded to the internet for the first time? My birthday.

What a grand old world. So I'm planning on attending a Thanksgiving reunion show of That'll Learn Ya.

Next time anyone rails about how the Internet has dehumanized us all and left us disconnected and disaffected, just remind them to come to Rhode Island in November to see a concert and listen to some songs that would have been lost forever to me if not for Facebook.

By the way, the song was as good as I remembered it and I had the melody perfectly.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Book 39: The Left Hand Of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin

In my junior year of college, I got a great job. The theater department had gotten a grant to create an acting troupe. Work study. Other departments could then bring us in to perform in classrooms as a teaching tool. We were to be called 'ETC', the Educational Theater Company' and 6 of us made the squad.

I think I made $1,000. I only remember one scene.

A science fiction class was reading 'The Left Hand Of Darkness' and wanted to have some of the information presented as a debate. Three of us had to quickly read the book and dissect the chapter in question into a 'scene'...needless to say, we had a blast.

What started as a job quickly became an obsession for all of us. The book tells the story of Genly Ai, a representative of the Ekumen, a new ruling group which is based in equality and social order. There are planets that had once been part of the empire that have fallen out of contact with the rest of interplanetary society so envoys are sent to observe in secret before trying to reintroduce these runaways back into intergalactic community.

Long story short. Genly Ai goes to observe a planet where the inhabitants have a very unique sexuality. They go into a kind of 'heat' 2 days out of every 26. For most of the time they are androgynous and asexual. But on those 2 days they morph into either male or female form. One month they might be male, the next female. The father of one child could be the mother of many more.

This book has continued to resonate in my heart almost 20 years later even though I remember NO details of the plot other than that one.

LeGuin, in inventing this different mode of sexual living, points out just how fixed and trapped we can be in our own version. This isn't judged, merely presented. The complications that arise in this book are COMPLETELY impossible here. Imagine. You meet someone. You like them. For almost a month you get to know them. The moment of transformation occurs and you may be the male, you may be the female. But your knowledge of that person HAS no sex attached to it, the sex is completely OTHER. Which, when you think about it, is not all that foreign at all.

We met in dingy college rehearsal rooms and hashed out three different characters who were debating the information brought back by Genly the observer. One of us was a functionary, determined to keep his conservative view of sex and sensuality. One of us was a purely scientific mind who merely wanted to investigate the information as dispassionately as possible. And the third, I think, was a more artistic soul who was interested in the emotional aspect of this anomaly above all.

We were also in the middle of rehearsing 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' (see 'As Datchery I Did My Bit' elsewhere on the blog for an amusing anecdote on that subject) so my friend David and I had big mutton chops and long unkempt hair that could be slicked back to approximate Dickensian style. This added to our alien appearance since this was before grunge swept the nation and shagginess became chic again.

Imagine if you will a classroom of sci-fi literature nerds seeing us sweep in wearing robes and hotly debating 'kemmer', the 'Ekumen', 'mindspeak', and Genly Ai's relationship with Estraven, especially what happened out on the ice when Estraven 'transformed' during his 'heat' period and Genly Ai was the only other being around...

And the State paid for it! I love America.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Book 40: The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx

Somehow this book took me by surprise in spite of the fact that everyone I knew was reading it, everyone who had read it insisted I read it, and everywhere I looked a review raved.

I resisted this tidal wave of praise out of an innate sense of contrariness, a go-against-the-grain-and-don't-believe-the-hype sensibility that was most likely honed while I was a teenager listening to music that was born of total outsider status and despising the flavor of the month. This kneejerk eclecticism kept me from appreciating some very worthwhile music, books, movies, etc., but it is a stance I still prefer to its inverse, which seems slavish and Pavlovian to me.

Needless to say, the second the character of Quoyle appeared I realized that popularity in this case was merited. Like 'The Scarlet Letter' or 'Ethan Frome', this book lives in a spare, sparse, isolated environment which is made all the more stark by the love affair that populates it. This elevates the subject matter to something universal and not soap opera-ish. Which is also why the movie seems an abomination to me. Never having seen it I'll never know for sure.

I do know that the book affected me in an emotional way in which few books have. I love books in different ways. 'Crime and Punishment' I love in the way a citizen loves the country of their birth. 'Moby Dick' I love the way a young boy loves the worlds he imagines for himself to play in. 'The Great Gatsby' I love the way you love a masterpiece painting hanging in a museum of a beautiful woman, the pose capturing a moment in a life you'll never quite grasp.

'The Shipping News' feels like an actual love affair, one that had to end, one that was destined to end, one that, looking back on, you can't quite believe that you started because the end was already so obvious.

This is due partly to my reluctance in picking the book up in the first place.

I dated a girl in college. Dated is a strong word. We flirted for a short time and then she came to a party at my house. She slept with someone else at that party and I fooled around with someone else but we were at the party together. There was a desperation to our coupling when it finally occurred, already laced with guilt because we'd betrayed each other from the first.

This pattern continued over the next year and a half, only ending when the Atlantic ocean intervened and I went to France. Once in France it was as if I was exorcising devils daily. I sank deep into a blackly nihilistic view of humanity which haunted me until about last week.

'The Shipping News' is like that for me. This is heightened by my relationship with the rest of E. Annie Proulx's work. I remember breathlessly awaiting 'Accordion Crimes'. I read the short story volume 'Close Range' which contains 'Brokeback Mountain'. I can't really overstate how much I disliked these books, 'Accordion Crimes' especially. Ooh, I hated and still hate those books.

This adds yet another layer of the bitter remembrance factor to my view of 'The Shipping News'. Why would she move away from that style? Why wouldn't that be the catalyst for deeper, plainer, stronger work?

And like the scars from that collegiate love affair which was over before it ever began, what might have been is stamped onto what is, until you decide to scrape it off and let it heal. So, E. Annie Proulx, I let you go. Thanks for the one book I loved but no longer need.