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.