Category Archives: Tributes

Post #27: My Obsession With a Small, Be-Spectacled Man

There’s a small handful of artists with whom I’ve experienced what can only be described as an obsession, and I don’t use that term lightly.  I’m serious.  I was so head over heels for these people’s work that I probably should have been medicated, or sedated.   They include, but are not limited to: The Beatles, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Keith Jarrett, Wynton Marsalis, Ernest Hemingway, Robert B. Parker.

And Woody Allen.

I don’t quite know what it is about certain writers or musicians or film makers that makes it feel like they’re creating simply to please us.  As if we are their first and only true audience.  I only know that it’s a somewhat strange and wonderful feeling, one in which there’s immense pleasure, a little bit of fear, and probably some guilt too (of coveting, of over doing it and ruining it in the process).  There’s this feeling that you’ll never have enough, and yet alongside that, there’s also this horrible feeling of ruining it by loving it too much and compromising the brilliant spark that made you want to absorb it in the first place.  And yet you can’t stay away.  Some of these obsessions we outgrow, but most we don’t.  They change form, perhaps, but they’re always sort of with us.

When I was a boy we had a dog named Joni.  It always struck me as a strange name, somewhat because I’d never heard it before, but also because it sounded so…well, human.  Come to find out, it was my father’s crushing love of Joni Mitchell that inspired the naming of the canine.  For years my father had been spinning Joni Mitchell for us, expounding on the genius of Hejira or The Hissing of Summer Lawns, riffing about Joni’s artistry.  I didn’t get it at the time; mostly I thought she looked weird.  But obsessions are not there to be gotten, condoned, or understood.  They simply are.  I fully believe that we have no say in them or control over them.

I don’t indulge my love of Woody Allen like I used to and haven’t watched his films as regularly as in years past, but Robert B. Weide’s recent two part documentary, originally aired on PBS, re-kindled the flame.  It’s tremendous.  A little padded with love for its subject, perhaps, but full of insight and great interviews with actors and confidantes and writing partners and former lovers.   Highly recommended.

Post #15: The Sky Was Crying

I have a piece about to come out in Word Riot (Nov. 15th issue) that features a narrator who spends a lot of money on a guitar that looks like one that used to belong to Stevie Ray Vaughan.  It’s not about Stevie Ray, per se, but his image and power are essential components to the narrator’s worldview.  The reason I bring it up, though, is that even though the piece tops out at a mere 300 words, the writing of it was more pleasurable than any in recent memory, mostly because it’s given me a reason to reminisce about a certain Saturday afternoon a long time ago.

I was seventeen.  Mike was eighteen.  And we’d both been in a Stevie Ray stranglehold for what felt like a lifetime, though for me it had only been a year or so.  All we listened to was Stevie Ray, spun the CDs in a loop, watched “Live at the El Macombo” on VHS, jaws agape.  Mike, who’d been a fan for a while and could play some mean blues guitar himself, had introduced me to the late guitarist’s output the summer before.  The music, like that of Keith Jarrett a few years later, was a life changing revelation from the first note.  Found a secret place inside me I didn’t know was there.

We’ve all had this experience.

That day, we were stopped by the side of the road on a small highway in Oneonta, New York, waiting out a bad storm that had forced my teal Hyundai to the curb and made us ditch our cigarettes and roll up the windows.  It was the kind of rain that obscures all sight.  That leaves the existence of the outside world in doubt.  That makes you wonder how many animals you really could fit in an ark, and whether there’d be any room left for you once they were all in there.

As the rain pummeled the hood and my hazards blinked out through the downpour, we did what seemed only natural, put on Stevie’s take on Hendrix’s “Little Wing.”   And it all went away.  The rain.  The car.  The highway.  Even us and our teenage lives that felt so much bigger than they were.  The only thing that existed was that music.  All these years later, I can still feel it rattling around in my soul somewhere.   Still find it seeping into my thoughts, and, it would seem, into my words.

Post #2: DFW on the (sub) Brain

The umbrella topic to start the year in my classes has been “What Does it Mean to be Educated?” but after re-reading and playing the audio to my honors seminar, I’m wondering now if the entire theme and the subsequent class periods spent discussing and writing about it wasn’t subconsciously chosen so that I could spend more time with David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech from Kenyon College.

Posthumously published as This is Water, the speech is a marvel.  And not a little unsettling, due to the onslaught of suicide references within it.  In it, Wallace urges us to live more aware lives, believing that the essence of being educated lies not in having information, but in being able to choose what information, and what emotions, you’ll give your time to.  He talks about the challenges of being alive and enjoying life in a world as fractured and busy as ours.  As usual, it sounds trite when I talk about the same idea, but in Wallace’s hands, cliches become nuanced and remarkably interesting things.  They become birds.  It’s especially powerful to listen to Wallace give the speech, which can be done here:  

I won’t re-hash the sadness of Wallace’s suicide and the giant crater it left in American letters.  Suffice to say, it’s massive.  But I will take a small stand here and say that, though I’ve read quite a bit of Wallace’s fiction, it’s his non-fiction that I go back to, that I would choose if pressed to grab only a handful of books from my shelf while the house burnt around me.

Post #1: Fantastic and Twisted Individuals

I’ll begin my first blog post with a couple of tributes.  First goes to my good friend (and Bread Loaf roommate) Alan Stewart Carl, who can be found on the interweb at alanstewartcarl.blogspot.com.  Read his fiction, much of which can be linked to off his blog.  It’s really good.  And occasionally unsettling (in the best possible sense), steering us down strange avenues of the human psyche.   Alan is going to be a “I knew him when” kind of writer, so get on board now.

I credit Alan with urging me to get my writing identity on-line.  He brought me back to facebook after a long hiatus, and inspired me (indirectly) to start this, the blog you are now reading.  He’s also, though he may not know it, re-invigorated my own fiction, and has me excited to take more risks in my writing.  He’s a fantastic and twisted individual.  That’s high praise.

The second tribute goes to another good friend of mine, Mark Twain, the inspiration behind my blog’s title.  Twain wrote (and the exact wording fluctuates depending on who you ask, which I suppose Twain would have loved) that “the difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lighting bug and the lightning.”  I’ve always loved that.  It’s so Twain.  It’s funny.  And true in a way that feels self-evident and fresh at the same time.

Another fantastic and twisted individual.

By the way, did you know that Twain, when he wasn’t penning classic literature, was an inventor?  It’s true.  He invented and patented something called the “Improvement in Adjustable and Detachable Straps for Garments,” which, apparently, could make your shirts snug and was supposed to give suspenders the boot.