Post #134: Concert Etiquette au Centre Bell.

14jjpxpxSo, my wife and I ventured up to Montreal last weekend to see John Mayer at the Bell Center. Mayer shredded, wailed, crooned, and serenaded us at one point with a fake Japanese garden projected behind him while he sang songs solo acoustic. It was a great show, featuring Mayer’s full band and his blues trio, and I recommend catching Mayer on his current world tour, but that’s not what I want to talk about. If you’re interested, here’s a review of the show from the Montreal Gazette. Or, if you want to read up on John Mayer and his current goings on, including various non-sequitors and narcissistic ruminations about the nature of celebrity and the strangeness of the modern condition, here’s a recent profile from the New York Times.

No, what I want to talk about is the Canadian crowd. Namely, I want to talk about their deference, their politeness, their near silence, their I’m-not-gonna-stand-up-ness, and their overall laid back and staid approach to seeing a rock show in a large venue, which they responded to with about as much gusto as you would muster for a street performer who you begrudgingly decide isn’t half bad before you drop a buck into the kitty, then go get some frozen yogurt.

Let’s start with contrast. Five or so years ago, I went to see Phish at a hockey arena in Albany, New York. There was no smoking allowed inside the venue. Did that stop the Albany crowd? Please. By the middle of the first set, the place was like a bar in Mad Men, washes of smoke clouding your vision, wispy swirls of it gray and pink in the stage lights. So thick you just knew you’d never quite get the smell out of your clothes and likely have to burn or throw them away. And, being a Phish show, at least half the smoke was not from Camels or American Spirits, but had a more, shall we say, herbal inflection.

I’m not saying I liked the smoke. I did not. I’m just making a point.

john-mayer-vaguely-teases-title-of-new-single-01John Mayer also played in a hockey arena. The Bell Center is home to the mighty Montreal Canadians. But there was not a single puff of smoke, tobacco or otherwise present. When’s the last time you went to a concert at a large venue and you didn’t see anyone smoking? Even indoors. In fact, I think if you’d lit up in that place, the locals would have smothered you in gallons of warm, overpriced Molson, then escorted you from the premises.

The couple to our left arrived late, mid-way through Mayer’s first whole band set. They sat down, settled for a moment, took a couple cell phone pics. After that, they did not move. At all. They clapped politely between songs, but otherwise stared down at John Mayer as if he was no more real than a vision on a television screen. They did not stand for the encore. They did not show any more animation following a wailing solo, or a song’s crescendo, than they did for a ballad. In fact, virtually nobody moved in the whole place. The crowd was appreciative and I think genuinely enjoyed the show–they were cheering by the end–but the lack of hooting, dancing, or any other kind of external pleasure or tom-foolery, which I’ve come to expect as part and parcel of seeing live music, mystified us. I’m not a rowdy concert goer, but I like to whistle and cheer and get my white man’s overbite on as much as the next guy. Usually, I follow the flow of the crowd. The crowd stands, I stand. They hoot, I hoot. But that night, the crowd was so mellow as to be almost sedated, and I kept looking around wondering if I was missing something. Wondering if I should lead the charge. But we were afraid to stand up since nobody else was and so kept our seats and clapped politely like everyone else.

A couple of times I went to the bathroom, only to find the beer lines empty, the hallways bare and silent, the souvenir stand abandoned.

I began to wonder if there are unwritten codes around concert  etiquette that are regional and perhaps even national. Thoughts on this? Was I witnessing some sort of national politeness that felt utterly foreign to my crass American instincts? Or was I myself that brash, noisy, hard drinking American that a Canadian citizen might be quietly judging as uncouth or uncivilized?

pere-lachaise_chopin_graveI was once standing near Chopin’s grave at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, admiring the weeping virgin atop it and the maudlin bust of the great man at its center, some of Chopin’s haunted and tinkling melodies dancing through my memory, when I heard a man shout, “It’s over here baby!” I shit you not that at that moment, my reverie was broken as an obese family of four ambled down the dirt path wearing matching American flag t-shirts on their way to Jim Morrison’s grave. I hid in the bushes until they passed, lest I be accidentally linked to their horribleness in the eyes of a local.

That’s not what I’m talking about.

I appreciate quiet and being able to sit and enjoy a show. I don’t talk at the movies and I’ll shush you if necessary. And generally, I’m not in favor of smoking at indoor venues because it’s gross, but the near capacity crowd at the Bell Center last weekend brought a Lay-Z-Boy vibe that I found wholly unfamiliar, and not a little disconcerting.

I believe in wearing it on your sleeve. Someone rips a sweet blues solo, how else are you supposed to show your approval save shouting into a crowd, whistling, or high-fiving the person next to you? You gotta let em feel you. Arms folded, dead eyed, and silent is no way to rock and roll, Canada.

But perhaps I’m being too harsh. Too judgmental. Dare I say, too American?

I still love you, Montreal. But you gotta loosen up a little. A $13 Molson should do the trick.

 

Post #133: Stomach Flu 1, Me 0

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Today is my fourth day with a vicious bout of what is almost certainly stomach flu. As such, it felt like a good time to make a list to document my experience.

THINGS I HAVE NOT DONE THE PAST FOUR DAYS:

 

  1. Gone to work
  2. Slept for longer than 2 hours without waking up cloaked in sweat
  3. Taken off this red sweatshirt I’m wearing right now
  4. Eaten an adult sized meal
  5. Had coffee
  6. Consumed an adult beverage
  7. Left my house for longer than 10 minutes
  8. Changed out of sweatpants
  9. Showered (okay, I showered this morning, but it was a solid three days)
  10. Hugged or kissed my wife
  11. Hugged or kissed my children
  12. Worn my glasses
  13. Driven a car
  14. Seen any of my friends or colleagues
  15. Read more than 2 pages of a book (no energy)
  16. Kept any food or drink in my system for longer than 90 minutes (gross, I know, but it’s true)
  17. Worried about what the mirror was telling me
  18. Put on deodorant (what’s the point?)
  19. Been able to be even a half assed parent to my two sons (praise my wife)
  20. Had a conversation longer than 5 minutes
  21. Been without a mild to severe headache
  22. Gone longer than three hours without taking my temperature
  23. Consumed a beverage (excluding water) that doesn’t end in “ADE”
  24. Had on a pair of shoes for longer than 10 minutes (see #7)
  25. Stopped thinking about how awful I felt and when, oh sweet lord, when was it going to end?

 

Keep me in your thoughts, won’t you?

 

Post #132: Abundance, Etc.

remote_control_0306You’re sitting in bed trying to decide what to watch on Netflix. There’s a beer on the nightstand. A spouse beside you. You’re yawning, but it seems silly not to at least start something. After all, you’ve got so many choices at you’re fingertips. So you click on the Apple TV and start searching. And searching. But before long, there’s a restless jitter in your brain, a little thunder storm in your gut. And you know it immutably…you’re going to fail at this. The sheer quantity of choices renders you paranoid. What if you make the wrong choice?

Should you try Bloodline? You’ve heard that Narcos is good. Or perhaps something offbeat like Jane the Virgin. What are you in the mood for? You’re not quite sure, are you? You think back to what your co-worker told you you had to watch. Or what your friend couldn’t believe you hadn’t seen yet. Was it Westworld? Game of Thrones? Something like that, you think. What you know for damn sure is that you can’t watch them all–there’s simply too many–and so you better make it count. Time is life’s most precious non-renewable resource, and you’re sure as shit not going to waste any of yours watching, or even taking a chance on watching, something subpar. Why would you even dare? Not with so many choices.

You scroll the “New Releases.” Then the “Suggestions for You.” You cycle through the “Recently Watched” to see if there’s something you started last week that you forgot you started last week that you may or may not have liked. You remember you like Cosmos, but it’s so out there and brainy. You’ve heard that documentary about Design is pretty good, but are you in the mood for something so heady before bed? You’re tired, after all. You worked a full day, and you’ve got to thread that needle to end it just right.

Perhaps you’ve been going about this all wrong, you think. Maybe you’re not in the mood for a TV Show at all. After all, there’s been some great independent films released in the past couple years, haven’t there? You’re a little behind, so why not catch up right now? What was that one called, the one with what’s her name from Mad Men? Someone said it was pretty good, a little weird, but in a good way. You go to look it up on your phone, but then you remember there’s a basketball game on that you wanted to watch. Except you cancelled your cable subscription. You spend ten minutes clicking on promising links on your phone to find a bootleg stream of the game, but the one that seems like it would work isn’t compatible with your operating system, and the others all want you to download something sketchy, so you figure you better not. You toy with the idea of just buying the NBA League Pass so you can watch a game anytime you feel like it, but it’s expensive and the season’s over half over. You put your phone down. You’re supposed to be watching TV, remember?

You get another beer. Your spouse is nodding off. You go back to Netflix and figure you’ll try to search through Genres. You start with documentaries. You’ve always liked food shows. Are you in the mood for something artsy and brooding like The Mind of a Chef? Or a guilty pleasure like Beat Bobby Flay or Chopped? Except Chopped is kind of stupid, isn’t it? Or do you like it? You honestly can’t remember. But the decision matters. You know it does. This decision matters because you know that it’s one of a thousand tiny mirrors you’ll hold up this year that all ask you what kind of person you are. What kind of person do you want to be? Now, more than ever, you get to decide exactly who you want to be, all through the glorious power of choice, of options.

Maybe you’ll watch John Oliver on HBO. But you read a lot of news anyway, don’t you? What it it feels like a re-hash of what you already know? And what if by the time you realize you wish you hadn’t started it you’re too far in to commit to something else?

You run your fingers through you hair. Your back is a little sore from the way you’re sitting and how tense your shoulders are.

You’re getting tired now. That second beer is about gone. You click off the light and settle into you propped pillows. You finally just click on something, a drama you heard was good. It’s got what’s his name in it. From that show that you sort of liked. You take a deep breath. Good. You’ve decided. But now you’re tired and you don’t last more than a few minutes before you fall asleep. You wake up an hour later mid way through the second episode of the show, or maybe the third, which has automatically started, and you’re annoyed with yourself because you really wanted to watch this show. You heard it was good. Someone told you it was. Maybe tomorrow. You’ll do it right tomorrow.

Post #131: A Podcast for Your Pleasure

flat_sharp_logo6_burg_grey4So, yes, I haven’t written a new post in an embarrassingly long time. It’s not because I don’t love you. Getting an MFA and starting a new podcast has kept me sadly away from this platform, and from all of you fine people.

I did want to let you know, though, that I have a new endeavor I’m excited to tell you about. A podcast.

I assume you know what a podcast is, but just in case, it’s like a radio show that you don’t listen to on the radio. You can stream it, or download it.

My show is called Flat Sharp, and it’s about music. My co-host Matt Saraca and I each choose one song per episode to discuss and that random pairing becomes fodder for a discussion about music, pop culture, and beyond.

I’m very excited about it, and would love to have you as listener. You can find our first two episodes below. You can also connect with us through our website and also through Twitter or Facebook. Let us know what you think.

 

Cheers. Until next time…hopefully sooner.

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?”

“Yes.”

“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.