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.