Friday, July 17, 2015

We are our influences

She's too "Precious," indeed.

There are few things I enjoy more than talking about the writers, artists, musicians, etc. that have influenced me in ways that have helped to shape who I've become. In fact, set me up in a coffee shop or a bar with good friends and no time limit, and I can wax on for a ridiculous amount of time on just this sort of stuff. I'm fortunate enough to have a partner and friends who also love doing this, which means I've done it a lot in my life. So—surprise!—I'll be doing it here in this space too. Probably often. So consider this part one of a multi-part series. And I'd love to hear your thoughts on my ramblings and/or if your influences dovetail with mine or if not what's influenced you.

So here we go with the first two entries in what I'll call my Personal Influence Hall of Fame. More to come later. And like my children, I love 'em all equally.

Probably the first band I remember loving, The Pretenders have been a musical constant for most of my life now. I discovered them like most kids in the early to mid 1980s through MTV and their video for "Brass in Pocket." And when I say I discovered them, I think it was really Chrissie Hynde that I discovered and whenever that video came on (which was a lot back in the days when, yes, we watched actual videos on MTV, and there were  relatively few of them on so you could be sure to catch the same ones often) I sat rapt, staring at the mysterious waitress singing to herself in a diner, and listened intently to a song whose lyrics oozed sexuality in a way my young mind could not possibly comprehend but dammit if she didn't get my attention. The guys in the video (her bandmates) were clearly idiots for not giving her the time of day and my god didn't they understand she was one-hundred times better than those women they were hanging out with in the diner I mean even I knew that and I wasn't even ten years old yet!

Uh, yeah, so I had what you might call a little crush on Chrissie. I'm pretty sure she was my first pop culture crush (or at least real-life, non-illustrated pop culture crush—I'm sure I'll write about Jean Grey here one day too). A crush that has held up for the last thirty-plus years, in fact. But it was really about the music and lyrics—her authorial voice was so strong and compelling. Her songs were mostly about how complicated it was to be an adult, so as I aged they became even more meaningful to me. Also as I started to appreciate music more I came to realize that while I loved this band's hits and deep cuts equally over the decades, it was really this initial iteration of the band that recorded their first two albums that blew my mind. I return to those first two records often, along with the equally strong third album. The first album is utterly perfect. Not a clunker in sight, all hits no filler: "Precious," "The Wait," "Mystery Achievement," etc. And as I started winding my path through musical genres in my teens and college years, absorbing them like a sponge, I realized that a lot of what I loved tied back to that first Pretenders album. The ringing guitar tones, the gorgeous melodies and catchy-as-hell song structures, and the utterly unique voice of the lead singer who could convey strength, weakness, joy, sorrow, tenderness, and acerbic wit—all in one line of a song! These were the hallmarks of my favorite bands and once I realized this it helped me to further define what most brought me happiness and joy when listening to music. And Hynde and the Pretenders really started it all for me.

I saw them with Elizabeth (also a fan) for the first and only time maybe five or six years ago at a small theater. It was around that time that I realized Hynde was old enough to be my mother, and amazingly always had been! Crazy how aging works, huh? As a kid you think of famous people as ageless, or timeless. I was a little worried, that as an aging band with several new members, they might not do justice to all of the years I'd spent living with their music and words in my head, but as they started to play the first song of the night it was obvious I had nothing to fear. Hynde must have been close to sixty years old at this point and she commanded the stage with absolute authority, just like she had in all of those live videos from their early years that I'd been watching for decades. I guess some crushes are built to last.

Sadly, I never found out what diner she worked at or else I'd have made myself a regular there.

Michael Chabon had written two previous novels before The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but neither he nor those books had made my radar. Kavalier and Clay was getting major accolades when it was published in 2000 and eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001. I read it sometime in 2000. Or more accurately, I devoured it sometime in 2000. It's been my favorite novel ever since. I also caught up on his previous novels and have read practically every damn word the man has written in the fifteen years since, from novels to short stories to essay collections to online only essays, etc. I've tried explaining how his work has influenced me before, and I think I've failed at it pretty miserably. But here goes, once more with feeling.

My Chabon shelf runneth over

Unlike the title of this blog, Chabon's words never seem out of place. They fit together in the most organic of ways to create an emotional resonance in me that few, if any, authors ever have. It doesn't hurt that some of his favorite interests to write about align perfectly with my own: how music can not only soundtrack your life but burrow into your heart and head in a way few other art forms can; the relationships between men, be they friends, lovers, or somewhere in between, have never been as richly explored by any other writer I've ever read; and finding value in works of "low" culture like comics and pulp and science fiction novels by noting that they are just as much worthy of critical analysis as the most respected texts in the "cannon." Kavalier and Clay really did a lot to bring these "low" culture bottom-dwellers like comics and science fiction/fantasy stories to a place of more importance in the greater culture, a place they seem to reside in (occasionally at least, and definitely more often than they had previously) with increasing frequency today (for good or ill). Chabon is of a generation (Gen X) that decided that everything was for the taking when it came to culture—whereas members of previous generations of the twentieth century had been taught to feel ashamed to read comics or lurid pulp novels out in the open, let alone name-check them as influences for god's sake, Chabon and his contemporaries like Jennifer Egan and Jonathan Lethem praised these hidden gems and talked in essays and interviews about how works of genre fiction influenced them as much as works of classic literature. For me, as a younger member of Chabon's generation, I took this to heart. It clearly influenced me, and my friends, in  how we participated in popular culture. We proudly wear our Marvel Comics pins on our messenger bags while carrying in said bags copies of a science-fiction graphic novel alongside a seminal work of feminist essays. There is no difference in our minds. Chabon helped codify that for me.

And now I'm realizing I just spilled 500 words and barely discussed how gorgeous his sentences are and, and, and...I'll have to return to him another day here.

Thursday, July 16, 2015


If I'm being honest, I've been a jerk plenty of times in my life. Who hasn't? Lately I've felt like more of a jerk than I had in a long time. I'm not sure anyone noticed my jerkiness, but if you did, well, it wasn't personal. Well, it was personal to me. The past several weeks were tough and I reacted to the stress by not reacting very well to the stress. Which is a valid reaction to stress. It's the most common reaction to stress, honestly. Still, it means there were times I felt like a jerk for being moody or short with people, but I was trying to work it out and just get through the damn thing and sometimes that took all the energy I had.

So what's the damn thing? My infant son had to have a couple of standard tests run over the last few weeks just to rule out something that, if it had been found on one of these tests, would have been really fucking scary. I'll cut to the great news - it was not found. Test results were totally normal. And no further tests are necessary, thank you very much. He's doing beautifully. He's a happy, healthy, smiling, laughing, rolling, scooting, crawling little 6+ month old baby. And so is his twin sister. So they're awesome. But...because a doctor ordered a test as a matter of protocol, we had to agonize over the results for a week. Because, you see, the doctor didn't know that the lab only ran this test one day a week. And I delivered the sample to the lab on that day, but apparently too late in the day for the test to be run. So we had to wait a week for them to run the test. Then once they did the test, both the lab and the doctor decided it was best to run another, very similar test, because the first test is really done for adults and this second test is much appropriate for an infant. So, why did we even bother with that first test? Good question. I have no answer. The lab seemed to insinuate the doc shouldn't have ordered it but instead should have only ordered the second test. The doc didn't give us any explanation and blithely moved on with her day. And we waited one more agonizing week to put this behind us.

The short version of all of this is that in the end it's all good. My boy's fine. And in our hearts and minds, his mother and I knew he was fine. He smiles at us all the damn time. He's such a happy baby it makes my heart burst just to look into his eyes and see the joy he's bringing into this world. So that, and mostly that, got us through the torturous weeks of waiting for test results. But during that waiting, I realized that I had fallen into that abyss again, that cycle of anxiety that rolls over me (and most people, for god's sake) when faced with really stressful situations. So I spent the better part of the past few weeks feeling uneasy, on edge, and just exhausted from worry. We still had some great times, don't get me wrong. Every night is a party in our house with the Wonder Twins! We can't help but be happy just from looking at those two gorgeous smiles every day and night. All of my awesome friends sent me encouraging texts or invited us over to hang or met me for lunch so I could vent. That helped more than any of you will ever  know. Thank you. Our families visited and brought positive vibes with them. But at certain points every day, I'd remember that this was my son's health, and I'd let the waves carrying stress and anxiety just roll over me again. Sometimes it's too hard to swim away, you know?

The wave metaphor popped into my head a week or so ago during all of this and I realized I probably got it from the Lou Reed song Waves of Fear, which used to terrify me when I first discovered it years ago during my deep dive into The Acerbic One's back catalog. It's brutal. I've never heard a panic attack described in such visceral detail in song lyrics before or sense. It's uncompromising and truthful in a way most songs aren't. I used to cringe at his depiction of anxiety's devastating impact. Then when things in my life went sideways about 4-5 years ago, and it seemed like every month brought a new challenge that was seemingly more insurmountable than the last, and this pattern continued unabated for a few years, well, then the song took on a new meaning for me. It didn't scare me at all anymore. It comforted me, in a way I never imagined it could. I was never as low as Reed was when he wrote that song (at least, I like to think I wasn't), but I could relate in very real and specific ways to not being able to carry on. Or at least not thinking I could. Because I did. Every minute of every day, somehow.

My favorite writer, Michael Chabon, has an essay about a particularly difficult period of time in his and his family's life. Everything that could go wrong went wrong for them, it seemed. One health crisis after another. I first read this essay last year, while Elizabeth was pregnant and we'd cleared the hurdles of the past several years and were living in a new golden age, feeling renewed and excited to be past all that and now focusing on bringing new lives into the world. So in reading the essay at that time, I saw so many parallels with my own recent past, and I was struck by how Chabon came to the conclusion that, basically, sometimes life just dumps one disaster after another on you and that's just the way it is. We seem conditioned to believe that it shouldn't be that way. That life is really about sunshine and roses and every now and then a thorn crops up and cuts you. But what if life isn't about just dealing with the bad times so you can move on to the good ones, but instead is about dealing with the bad times while the good ones are happening at the same time? Because the bad times don't go away as neatly and cleanly as we'd like them to. They come back whenever they feel like it. So Chabon was basically saying we have to learn to stop putting life on hold during those bad times because then we're missing out on some good times when we do that. A sentiment that I'll continue to try to live by. And fail every now and then, of course. But not always.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Pleased to meet me

I've been contemplating (threatening?) to do this for a long time. I have too many feelings, opinions, thoughts, passions, and grievances not to vent them somewhere besides at my loving, patient wife and incredibly caring friends. Plus, writing has always been a tonic for my soul, right up there with drawing. Similar to the solitary pursuit of sitting with a sketch pad and some pencils to form something on paper to resemble as best I can what I see in my mind, writing also allows for that absolutely necessary act of purging what's inside me, to get it out on paper (or on screen in the modern age) so that I can keep things in proper balance. I've been asked what it's like to have to draw, to need to put down on paper what is itching to get out of my head. "It's necessary," I say. When I do that I'm welcoming the calm into my life. Who doesn't want or need that, right? Writing provides a similar sense of calm in my life. And while I enjoy offering up my opinions on Facebook now and then, I really needed a place for long form writing. It's been far too long since I've done this.

So, here I am. I'm not sure how often I'll post but I'll do my best. I don't have a plan, or a theme for this, besides "write what I need to say, what needs to spill out of my head" and I'm going to let the words fall out and try to make sense of it all later. I might review a book I just read or talk about a current event or just explore why I felt so [insert emotion here] that particular day. I'm a fairly new father (to twins!) so I suppose it's insane of me to think this is a good time to try to start blogging. When will I have time between all of the diaper changing and dodging spit up?? Well, maybe that's actually what makes it the perfect time for me to start.

Oh. And I apologize in advance for typos. And for probably geeking out over things like the upcoming Star Wars movie or waxing nostalgic for some band I loved back in 1995. Because all of those things are bound to happen on this blog. Often.