Post #130: Authority Zero Needs Ya

Had he never married my step-sister, I likely never would have met Jason Devore (center, dark tank top), or  become so well acquainted with Authority Zero, the Arizona based band he leads. Authority Zero delivers a blistering brand of punk/ska/ heavy metal (check out this video of them doing “No Other Place”), and I highly encourage you to check out their music, or to see them if they visit your neck of the woods. They tour constantly, so it’s likely you’ll have a chance. They’re bad ass, and some of the nicest guys I’ve ever met.

But though I’m excited to recommend them, I’m writing about them for a different reason. A few days ago, only three dates into their six-week Summer Sickness Tour, Jason and his band mates had their van and trailer stolen in San Antonio, Texas. When the van was eventually recovered, not only were the van and trailer damaged, all their gear had been stolen, an estimated $100,000 in guitars, amps, custom drums, and underwear. That’s right. These assholes even looted the band’s clothing.

Being a touring band trying to sustain a life is grueling work. These guys live in a van for weeks at a time and don’t always know what kind of audience awaits them in the next town. They endure long drives, friend’s couches, shitty hotels, and diner food week after week. Yeah, they could do something else, but they grind it out tour after tour in tough conditions because they love what they do and the uncertainty they battle day after day is a small price to pay for the thrill of bringing their music to the audiences that sustain them. Now I don’t know what kind of soulless fart cloud you have to be to rob a band and deprive them of their livelihood. And maybe it doesn’t matter. But these moments make you wonder what the hell is going on out there.

Authority Zero soldiers on and their Summer Sickness Tour continues. What choice do they have? But to do so, they could use some help. A friend of the band started a GO FUND ME page to support the band to finish their tour and begin to replace the irreplaceable. If you feel so inclined and you have a few extra bucks, consider supporting the arts in this odd, but essential way.

Post #129: The Seeker

For the first time I’ve been reading Irving Stone’s biographical novel Lust for Life, about the life and artistic pursuits, and general unwavering obsessions and fanaticism, of the great Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, whose work is so known and admired it’s almost a cliché. Van Gogh was an artist who suffered a great deal, more even than I’d ever realized, even though many of his worst wounds were self-inflicted. He eschewed paying work and jobs that would monetarily support his efforts, instead relying solely upon the charity of his brother, Theo, and others, which was barely enough to live on. Better to live in poverty with moth-eaten clothes, a writhing hungry belly, and early wrinkles upon his battered face than to compromise even an inch. In short, Van Gogh was single-minded and epically stubborn, and once he dedicated his life to producing drawings and paintings, he was unshakeable in that pursuit. It should also be said that it’s pretty likely that Van Gogh suffered from some undiagnosed mental illness and that were he alive now, he’d be popping Prozac like Tic Tacs.

Despite some early encouragement, many of those who’d originally supported Vincent’s art, eventually turned against him and tried to talk him out of this pursuit.  This included his cousin by marriage Anton Mauve, who was one of many who disputed Van Gogh’s claim even to be an artist and tried vehemently to dissuade him from pursuing his craft. Now, before we wholly demonize this un-supportive enclave, it should be said that Van Gogh was a bit of a leech. He borrowed money he never paid back. He was socially awkward, frequently inappropriate, and ignorant to the sorts of daily social norms that lubricate the vast majority of our interactions, which are constantly suffused with the suppression of true feelings in exchange for being liked and getting along. Van Gogh possessed no such filter. He showed up at people’s houses. He said weird, creepy things that would have found him the odd man out at every party he attended. It’s likely that he would have been very difficult to be around and remain friends with. So while I found myself angry at Mauve and others, there’s context to their frustration with Vincent and their eventual rejection of him.

I’m only about halfway through the book, but I was struck by the following exchange, in which Van Gogh bumps into Mauve weeks after they’ve had a terrible quarrel that has driven a perhaps irreversible wedge into their relationship. Van Gogh tries to apologize to Mauve and invites him to visit his studio to assess his most recent work, even though Mauve (who regularly loaned Van Gogh money and initially supported his work) has grown frequently, even cruelly, dismissive of Vincent’s efforts. After assuring Vincent he will do no such thing, Mauve asks:

“Do you call yourself an artist?”


“How absurd. You never sold a picture in your life.”

(Here is where my ears perked up and my nervous system began to murmur. I have been writing constantly for nearly twenty years and have made little to no money from my writing in that entire time. I’ve often felt embarrassed over that fact, even though I know the same is true of so many writers, many far more talented than I. It’s Van Gogh’s response to Mauve that has continued to resonate and whisper. He says…)

“Is that what being an artist means–selling? I thought it meant one who was always seeking without absolutely finding. I thought it means the contrary from ‘I know it, I have found it.’ When I say I am an artist, I only mean ‘I am seeking, I am striving, I am in it with all my heart.'”

I’m not personally sure what an artist is, and in spite of being one most of my life, I’ve spent little to no time thinking about what it means, let alone having such a clear understanding in my mind as Van Gogh expresses here and elsewhere. Is that bad? I always feel a little awkward when someone calls me, or I call myself, an artist. The word has never seemed to properly indicate what I do, what I feel, why I sit and write. But this idea of seeking, or striving, even in the absence of monetary, or other brands of external reward? That felt just about right.


Post #128: Some Thoughts on Ann Patchett

9780062049810_custom-7ad2bd2af04c0ac867ab2c601a045a0fd85fd7b2-s99-c85            In Ann Patchett’s 2011 novel State of Wonder, she demonstrates how a writer can, and should, manipulate time to inform a reader’s experience and focus her attention. In a rudimentary sense, time = importance. By skipping briskly through time, for instance, a reader subconsciously infers that the story’s most urgent action is not currently happening, but coming, perhaps concealed just around the next corner/chapter. Conversely, such as in a long scene in the first chapter of State of Wonder, Patchett slows the story clock down to a crawl in order to draw the reader’s attention to the story weight the moment carries. In part, she does this in unsurprising ways, using description, conflict, and dialogue. What is surprising, though, and worthy of a closer examination, is how Patchett also uses repetition to quietly deepen our sense of who the characters are and how they will behave later in the story.

The scene opens in a suburban neighborhood where Marina Singh, the novel’s protagonist, along with her boss and (secret) lover, the aptly named Mr. Fox (think perhaps he’s devious?), have arrived at the home of Karen Eckman to deliver the awful news that Karen’s husband, Anders, is dead. And not only dead, but dead through suspicious circumstances in a remote section of the Amazon. Though the scene is quite early in the novel, for the seven pages Marina and Mr. Fox are in the Eckman’s household, time slows to a crawl. As they drive up, we get a long description of the Eckman’s neighborhood, as well as Marina’s internal wonderings about the finances involved in living there and how different her own life as a single woman is from her married colleague, a father of two. Then, after Karen Eckman opens the door and sees her husband’s colleagues standing there, clearly unnerved when she says “now this is a surprise,” Patchett withholds the reveal, building tension. We meet the family dog Pickles, who becomes a metaphor for the dead husband by scene’s end, and are treated to long descriptions of both the house itself, as well as the weather outside (it’s winter). We also glimpse a jungle gym through the window, a reminder that not only has Karen lost a husband, but two boys have lost a father. They just don’t know it yet.

When Karen asks if they’d like coffee, “Marina turned to put the question to Mr. Fox and found that he was standing directly behind her.” Meaning, of course, that Mr. Fox wants Marina to do the talking. At first we don’t make too much of this. But later down the page, Patchett repeats this character detail. “She {Marina} glanced back at Mr. Fox again…but Mr. Fox had turned towards the refrigerator now.” The repetition of the notion that Mr. Fox, who is not only the dead Anders’s boss, but the replacement male in this scene, shrinking back, thereby making Marina do the tougher, braver work, does two things. It tells us that Mr. Fox is perhaps cowardly, or at least deferential to a fault. It also tells us that Marina is, or will have to be, strong. It’s this latter character detail that Patchett gets the most use out of, for as State of Wonder progresses, Marina will over and over again have to dip into reservoirs of strength, bravery, and resilience she didn’t even know were there. Often, too, she has to do because Mr. Fox is (symbolically) hiding behind her.

Patchett continues to mine this tension through repetition as the scene develops. When Karen finally stops rambling and tending to the dog and says, “this isn’t good news, right?” Marina thinks to herself, “this was the moment for Mr. Fox to tell the story, to explain it in a way that Marina herself did not fully understand, but nothing came…Mr. Fox had his back to the two women.” A page, though perhaps only moments, later, Marina thinks “surely it was Mr. Fox’s part to give Karen the letter {in which she and Mr. Fox had learned of Anders’s death}…but then with a fresh wave of grief, Marina remembered that the letter was in her pocket.” Patchett is shrewd here. The main character is thinking one thing, that she’s doing what Mr. Fox should be doing, but Patchett’s goal is to both transfer power and responsibility, but also to prove Marina as a strong person who will rise to an occasion, demonstrated through this letter, an object Patchett uses to great effect here by placing it in Marina’s path.

Once Karen Eckman has absorbed the horrible news and read the aforementioned letter, again we are reminded of Mr. Fox’s lack of ability to engage in this most urgent moment. “The two of them were alone in this,” Marina thinks regarding she and Karen. The reason? “Mr. Fox had been driven from the room by the sound, the keening of Karen Eckman’s despair.” The repetition has built towards his very removal, enforcing the twin notions of female strength/companionship and absent men, which will both play central roles in State of Wonder.

Towards the end of the scene, after Marina has left Karen briefly to try to figure out what to do, who to call to support her and how to tell the Eckman boys, she returns to the kitchen to find Mr. Fox has finally stepped in and is “petting Karen’s head with a slow and rhythmical assurance” trying to put her at ease. He’s too late, though. The damage is done. And as Marina and Mr. Fox are driving away from the house, Marina thinks about how “she certainly blamed him {Mr. Fox} for leaving her alone to tell Karen.” She then wonders a heavier, more damning thing: “Did she blame him for sending Anders to his death in Brazil?”

By the time you’ve read State of Wonder in its entirety, this long, held moment early in the novel only grows in importance. Patchett slows down time and uses a range of craft elements, repetition most dynamically, to build character and introduce conflicts that will surface through the book, making this early moment a microcosm of who these characters are and how they will respond to difficult situations. Finally, it’s worth noting that Patchett’s use of repetition also achieves a great sense of contrast, for the focusing on Mr. Fox, important as it seems about him as a character, actually reveals even more about Marina, the novel’s heroine and most sympathetic and deeply developed character. In fact, the closer you look at this scene, the more you’ll wonder: how does Patchett do so many things so well at the same time? Writers of all stripes would be wise to study Patchett’s use of slowed time and repetition and try to borrow a bit of her craft mojo in their own work.


Post #127: Me Vs. Batman

UseYourWord1-1Hello! If you’re still out there, thanks for hanging in and many apologies for the radio silence. I’d make excuses, but you don’t care.

The leaves are changing here in Vermont and our yards are dusted with crispy little piles of orange and purple leaves. It’s six-thirty right now and the sun is already starting to set. I went to a bar tonight and there were wooden crates of complimentary apples on the tables, local varietals, crispy and juicy and delicious. I ate one while I drank my beer.

I also have an essay in the new Kids Vermont, a publication I love and have written for before, including an award winning essay I wrote last year about my father. This time around they asked me to write about technology and I gave it a go. Have a peek. It’s not even that long.



Post #126: Nothing Is Ever Really Lost

eudora-470x260Greetings to you, faithful and patient readers!

I’m excited to share the good news that I have a new essay on Eudora Welty up over at The Bangalore Review. It’s an in-depth look at Welty’s amazing short story “Music From Spain.” Give it a peek. Many thanks to them and their editorial staff for including me in the May issue. Enjoy!

Post #125: From the Files of the Wonderful and Utterly Unexpected

So, here’s a strange one. I won an award. For my writing. That’s never happened before. It wasn’t a major award or anything, and I suppose it’s obnoxious to gush, but I can’t deny it feels good to know some people out there noticed.

It’s a piece you may have seen before, as I featured its publication on the blog. It’s an essay I wrote about my father entitled “On Becoming–and Not Becoming–My Dad” and it was featured in Kids Vermont in June, 2013. If you haven’t read it, you can link to the essay here.

But about the award. There’s this thing you’ve never heard of called the Parenting Media Association. They host an annual Conference in Philadelphia where they honor contributions to journalistic efforts related to parenting, looking at publications all over the East Coast. There’s a personal essay category in which, unbeknownst to me, my essay was a candidate, and ended up winning Silver (2nd place, if you don’t follow Olympic parlance). Until I heard from the editor a couple weeks ago, I had no idea this was even a possibility.

There’s no money or anything, but I do understand a certificate of some sort will be forthcoming, and I have nice spot on the fridge picked out.

It’s the little things in life, friends. It has to be.

Post #124: Dallas Buyer’s Club

hr_Dallas_Buyers_Club_10I know I’m not alone when I declare it was a great year for film this past year, and I’ve been seeing more movies than usual, trying to make my way through the Best Picture Nominees . I’ve seen everything but Philomena and American Hustle. I caught The Wolf Of Wall Street the other night and felt an odd confluence of enthrallment and boredom, and then, after seeing Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey sweep the acting awards at the Oscars the other night, watched Dallas Buyer’s Club last night. I didn’t know much about the latter, only that it was about AIDS and that the performances were supposed to be magnificent.

Now, because I’m a loser I not only watched the Oscars but read the day after critiques of the speeches and hosting, and yes, looked at all the candid and red carpet photos I could find. Like many, in my day after investigation, I stumbled into poignant reactions to both Leto’s speech for Best Supporting Actor and McConaughey’s for Best Actor. One writer declared Leto’s an improvement over his Golden Globes speech, during which, apparently, he came across like a pretentious ass and paid no homage to those afflicted with or victims of AIDS, or to the trans or queer community, to which he is obviously indebted since he plays a trans character in Dallas Buyer’s Club. His Oscar speech was rambling, but really interesting. He gave his mother an extended nod, and also got political, drawing attention to current unrest in the Ukraine. Still–and I’ll admit I didn’t even notice when watching live–I read the next day about the fact that he didn’t mention the queer community at all. Didn’t seem like a major offense, given the intensity of the moment and the time pressure when you’re up there in front of a billion people world wide. But interesting all the same. I wonder here about responsibility. Lupita Nyong’o, in her speech for Best Supporting Actress, spoke movingly about Patsy, the real life slave on which her 12 Years a Slave character was based. I’m paraphrasing, but she said something about how she knew the sad irony of so much joy entering her life because of so much pain having been in someone else’s. It was a lovely sentiment, and very appropriate. And yet, I think it’s a little heavy handed to get in a tizzy about who a big shot actor does or doesn’t thank at the Oscars. Let’s not get too carried away and go pretending that any of these people are humble.

McConaughey’s Best Actor speech I missed because I’d fallen asleep, but I watched it the next morning and was entertained by how scripted and prepared he sounded–not disingenuous, just ready–but this time I did notice his lack of mentioning of either the real man he portrayed in the film, who died of AIDS in 1992, or those who’ve been afflicted by the disease. He talked about God, his family, and himself. He basically said that he was his own hero, which was weird, but I think I knew what he meant. Again, not a major offense, and in some ways, who really gives a shit, right? It’s the Oscars, why are we even having this conversation?

So, anyway, I watched Dallas Buyer’s Club last night. It’s good. It didn’t quite live up to the hype for me, but it’s a really powerful film that tells the story of a straight man’s man in Texas, an avowed homophobe, who’s afflicted with AIDS because of loose sex and drug use and given only thirty days to live. He lives far longer than that. When he realizes that the AZT the hospital is giving him is actually toxic to his system, he seeks unapproved but better drugs elsewhere–Mexico, Israel, Amsterdam–and his short term health improves. What’s more, he start’s a “Buyer’s Club” in which other AIDS patients can buy a membership and obtain the drugs and supplements they need that are better for them than those approved by the FDA and being given to them by real doctors. The trick is that none of the products he’s selling are FDA approved, and that’s where the trouble starts, and why we today know Woodruff’s name and, presumably, why his story was made into a feature film.

And yes, the performances are top shelf. Both actors immerse themselves in the material.

My only trouble with the film was the nagging feeling that I’d seen it before. Shortly after becoming ill, Woodruff befriends Rayon, a gay male ported by Leto, and one can predict that Rayon, who seems to forgive Woodruff his gruff machismo and aggressive homophobia, will be the moral center of the film. One can also predict that this friendship will make Woodruff a different man and that he’ll become more gay friendly in the process and realize how false he’s been living and all that. Now, I don’t know what happened in real life with these human beings. The film has gotten some flack for overdoing it, suggesting that the real life Woodruff was probably bisexual and certainly not the almost comically grand gay hater that the movie makes him out to be in the opening third. One is left wondering if the set up is as such so that his transformation can seem all the more compelling. More, shall we say, Hollywood.

I was reminded of a headline I’d seen on the Huffpos a few weeks ago urging the Academy Awards NOT to give Dallas Buyer’s Club any Oscars. Seemed odd. I didn’t read the article then because I wanted to see the film and wanted to avoid spoilers, but I went back and found it and gave it a glance this morning. You can check it out here. In fact, do that, then come back.

Personally, I find Mirkinson’s tactics a little heavy handed in suggesting that DBC is actually a milquetoast film that plays it safe for straight America and doesn’t properly acknowledge the gay or queer community. He takes the film to task for Rayon’s character being thin and too morally “right,” a prop, he accuses, so that Woodruff, the safer straight character, can achieve the moral victory that audiences need in order to feel good about themselves. Basically, he calls the movie chicken shit, and suggests that it shouldn’t win any Oscars because it tells the tamest possible version of its own story.

I’m not suggesting Mirkinson’s fully correct here, but I do think he makes some powerful points about the filmmaker’s intentions, and one’s that are nearly worthy of the weight of his criticism. One point on which I disagree with him is that Rayon’s character is paper thin. I found the character compelling, and though I saw it coming, when Woodruff grows as a man and their friendship becomes more genuine, and more urgent, I felt something. I also wonder if he’s a tad naive here. The idea that Hollywood waters stories down to make them more palatable to mass, white, straight audiences seems just a tad self-evident to warrant such vitriol. And would Mirkinson rather the film NOT have been made at all? It’s story is still an important one. And yet, it’s hard not to applaud his gusto. And so I do.