Down East Customer Service

True story: I’m up in Maine on holiday, and yesterday it was time to seriously lay in provisions for the week–because arriving with scotch, a six pack of local beer and cheese crackers for my buddy the gull seemed, well, lacking.

So I drove into town for all the rest of the stuff adults are expected to consume. And on the way back, there was only one thing left to get. The Pie. There’s a general store on the edge of town that features local gourmet-grade food–the things that inevitably follow behind “artisanal,” “handcrafted” and “small batch.” At the same time, it fully understands the importance of wrapping all the hipster high-end in a semblance of local authenticity. Me, I say decide: either sell me on a bottle of 2008 Chappellet Signature Cabernet or update me on what those Winslow boys are have been up to. I’m good with each, just not both simultaneously.

But the general store is the only place where I can get The Pie–the very specific blueberry goodness that I demolish in the evenings, the portions meticulously planned to last the week. And so I steel myself and opened the door that has one of those bells on a bouncy armature above it. Same guy as always behind the counter–probably 60 but looks older, weathered by sea air.

“Hi there! What can I do ya?”

“I know what I need, thanks,” said as I head to rack where the pies are. This should be quick. Lots of pies, but not a sign of The Pie. “Any more blueberry?” I ask.

“Isn’t that blueberry special? Best damn blueberry pie in region, if I do say so. It’s won awards, ya know.” I did know.

“But are there any more of them in the back?”

“You’re not the first to come in askin’ for that specific pie. Nope–lots of people do. They know it’s the best pie they’ll ever have. And I have to agree! Heh!”

“So . . . you don’t have any?”

“Oh, no–all gone. Sold out, ya see. They sell out quick, because they’re maybe the best pie in these parts and the word’s spreadin’!”

“When will you be getting more?”

“Now that’s a good question–you must be a lawyer! Funny thing, too: lots of people ask me that. Had five . . . No, make that six people asked me that just today. Probably more like 16 if you count the family member standin’ behind ‘em also wantin’ to know.”

“Are they delivered daily?”

“Ha! That’s a good one. I only wish I knew–sometimes daily, sometimes not, sometimes only when she sees fit to make ‘em. Too bad, too, because it’s the best damn pie in these parts–maybe even the world. People want ‘em bad. I know I do. I can’t tell how many times I’ve had to tell folks that; it was almost like breakin’ news of a death. Because people really love that pie.”

“So no pie in the foreseeable future, then?”

“Never said that! Could be here today for all I know. If they do come in today, there’s gonna be a lot of happy people. Folks like yourself come up here for a week, expectin’ that pie–because it’s just so good!”

“Well, what time do they usually come in?”

“That’s another good one–you’re really askin’ the hard ones today, aren’t ya? Don’t have a time because there’s no specific time. Never has been. Those pies come in when they get here, make the whole place smell of blueberries–so good! Then, of course, they sell out–people want those pies, you know–best pies in region. Local blueberries. Everybody asks about those pies. I even wonder about ‘em. We all want ‘em, don’t we? Heh!” He gives me a knowing wink.

“Okay then–I’ll . . . I’ll just stop in until I’m lucky, I guess.”

“That’s the best plan because that’s what everybody else does–they pop in throughout the day, just lookin’ for those pies. Best, maybe, in the world. Wish I could have sold you one, but I can’t because everybody wants one. Too many people lookin’, not enough pies. Heh! Anythin’ else I help you with?”

“That really good cheddar you carry, I’ll have a wedge of that.”

“Oh, that’s great cheddar, isn’t it? Best around here. Easier to keep in stock than the pie. Love that cheese myself. It’s what I eat at home. People are always comin’ in askin’ about it.”

“So yeah, a wedge, please.”

“Wish I could, but I can’t–been telling that to people all day. We’re fresh out of cheddar, not sure when we’re gettin’ more. Funny thing about that, because not havin’ the cheddar has a lot to do with what the Winslow boys have been up to. You won’t believe the trouble they stirred up . . .”


Problems Solved: Taylor McSwift

True: Fast food is not my thing. Said not as a foodie or politically or with a concern for nutrition. I simply don’t like most of the stuff. Sue me. Cross-examine many fast food complainers and you’ll find they aren’t abstainers by a long shot. But not me; I’m pretty damn close: My window for fast food is exceedingly narrow: precisely one day a year, on the first leg of my drive to Maine for my annual holiday. And sometimes, if circumstances are right, not even then. And so when I do approach a McMuffin, it is always with something close to fresh eyes.

Which brings us to way early yesterday morning. Me, a micro McDonalds, coffee that, insanely, was the temperature of the Sun’s surface and the aforementioned Sausage McMuffin With Egg. Let’s be clinical and say this–it’s a product reverse-engineered as a profitable solution to a multi-faceted problem that includes focus groups, business model, consistency, speed, mass manufacturing, distribution and imperviousness to preparer error.

As a response to all of these challenges, Sausage McMuffin With Egg is a complete success–but that doesn’t makes it acceptable food, merely a solution to McDonalds’ tangle of concerns and my specific circumstances–in the middle of nowhere, with nothing else open and my better judgement clouded by the remaining tendrils of last night’s dreams.

The McDonald’s muffin thingy is food in precisely the same way that what NASA provides astronauts is food–“food” understood as simply being the “best response.”

In this, a Sausage McMuffin With Egg is a Taylor Swift song in my mouth. It stems from the same same set of challenges–for instance, take “Bad Blood.” It’s a piece of pop music reversed-engineered as a profitable solution that takes into account audience, music business model, catalogue consistency, beats-per-minute, studio time, the lower fidelity of downloads and the demands of Taylor Swift’s touring presentation.

As a response to all this, the wildly annoying “Bad Blood” is a complete success–but that doesn’t make it acceptable as anything approaching good music; it’s merely a solution to the concerns of an ultimately disposable pop star. “Bad Blood” is great pop music in the same way a football chant is.

Which, I suppose, also explains why the only time I might suffer through Taylor Swift is precisely one day a year, on the first leg of my drive to Maine for my annual holiday. And sometimes, if circumstances are right, not even then.

Alvaro’s World

To explain this post, it’s best to understand that I write from a sense of curiosity–I write about things I want to understand. I find myself most often slinging words in an attempt to get inside something that intrigues me.

I’m currently on holiday in Maine, and today I finally toured the Olson House, where Andrew Wyeth produced over 300 of his paintings. While I knew the general outline of  Wyeth and the Olsons, moving through the rooms of the house was a slightly odd and ultimately mysterious experience. Odd because Wyeth’s paintings of the farm are so precise that one has the weird sensation of having stepped into each of their frames. Mysterious because while I came for Wyeth and–of course–Christina, I found myself increasingly intrigued by Alvaro Olson, Christina’s brother–a shy, life-long bachelor who lived with and took care of his sister.

Over the course of the tour, he began to fascinate me–always there yet unknowable. I began to wonder about his interactions with Wyeth and his relationship with Christina. And thus upon arriving back at my holiday cottage, I began to write as a way of channeling Alvaro, to walk in his shoes. I suppose I was looking for the emotional reality beneath his taciturn public face.

I have no idea if there’s more of this to come–or even what this is. I’m currently working on another book, so if the shard means to be something larger, it will need to get in line. William Gibson once described the inception of a book as  the first few  rubber bands that are at the core of rubber-band ball: difficult to initially knot, but then afterwards it becomes progressively easier to add other bands.

This feels very much like a first knotting.


She always waves when they drive by real slow, whether the door is open or not. Open door means come on in and say hi–and I always make sure that I’m not there when they take her up on it. The minute I see a car pulling over, I go out and tend to the blueberries. Sometimes, just to be safe, I move farther out and chop up some more wood. But even if the door’s closed, even when she’s not up to visitors, she still waves from the window at them.

Christina says all this attention is silly, that she doesn’t know what the fuss is over, but I know inside she’s a just little pleased. That finally the world don’t turn away, either from good manners or just feeling sorry. So I can’t begrudge her–all this is not normal, but better than she’s mostly known. Though if it were up to me, I’d string one up by his feet; hang him on a pole by the side of  road for to scare off all the others. Just like that dead gull on the post out there in the middle of the blueberries.

I tried to tell her way back before all this started, reminded her of Andy tricking me and also how his father died, like it was some kind of curse. Are you drawing me, Andy? I said. No, no–it’s just the lamp was his answer. But it wasn’t just the lamp. And that was the last time he ever got me. After that I made real sure I wasn’t in any other pictures. Andy’s nice but also stubborn and you always have to watch that. You’d think that would be a lesson for her, but she could never say no to him.

He put her in the dress that she had made for that wedding years ago. When I first saw what he’d done, I stopped being mad because she always looked beautiful in it. I think it was his way of saying to the world that she was special, and in the end the world agreed. That’s the part I didn’t expect. That he really did make her something special for nearly everybody.

I’d listen to him pacing in the room upstairs. When he stopped, I’d know he was painting. And some of all that back and forth must have been about what her dress was going to look like. I still don’t know when he decided, but he had to have asked Christina for it and she had to have given it to him. So in the end I guess she must have liked the idea. But this much I do know–that everybody everywhere thought her pink dress was great.

It’s the brightest color in the whole thing, Andy said. It’s the color of a shell, he said. And after that I could never think about it in any other way . . .


Christina's World

Richard Saul Wurman Was Right

In which an important tenet of information theory is illustrated, the strange wisdom of Quentin Tarantino is honored and The Author thankfully avoids killing a general contractor

Years ago, long before Richard Saul Wurman redefined himself with TED, he was my favorite information theorist–or as he preferred to call himself, information architect. And one of the many Wurman-esque things that has stuck with me is his observation that “people only understand things in terms of what they already understand.” This has served me well in terms of all kinds of writing and, in truth, has probably helped me produce more successful work than I otherwise might have. So yes: Namaste, Richard Saul . . .

But now let’s jump-cut to a remodeling project gone wrong. Over the past couple of months, I’ve had my screened porch remodeled. It was one of the archetypical domino projects: What started out as a-small-repair-due-to-a-leaky-pipe expanded to why-not-replace-the-wall, which morphed into a-new-floor-would-be-nice that, in turn, became now-the-screens-will-look-tired-better-do-them-too. So yeah–big-time Project Creep at its dubious best. Bottom line, everything wound up being redone, thus making it the world’s most expensive repair of water damage.

Don’t worry–I’m not here to obsessively share every step of the job. Because that would be the moral equivalent of 15 old-school slide carousels containing holiday snaps of a place you have no interest in featuring people you don’t care about. Suffice it to say that everything went splendidly (if way too slowly) except for one thing: the bead board ceiling.

And I’ll even shorthand the bead board problem: 221 countersunk screws so badly filled that 95 percent of them were still clearly visible in the finished job. Here’s an even shorter description–Fucking Aesthetic Disaster (FAD). Given this, it’s also vital to know something pertinent about me: When it comes to badly executed projects by purported professionals of any sort, I make Steve Jobs look a go-along nice guy . . .

Jump-cut again to the general contractor and me standing on the “completed” porch. He had stopped by under the impression that I’d be settling up with him on the remaining 50 percent of the bill. He was, of course, delusional in ways I’d not seen since the heyday of blotter acid in San Francisco. So we were both standing there, mugs of coffee in our hands, surveying the project: floor, check; new wall, check; rebuilt bulkhead, check; new screening, check; new molding, check . . . But then sadly we ran out of the non-controversial, well-done portions of the porch. There was nowhere left to go except to slowly raise our collective gaze to the FAD that was my bead board ceiling.

There were many things the general contractor could have said at that point, each offering varying degrees of claimed ownership of the problem–even if only implicitly. However, he chose to probe the limits of my annoyance in an attempt to take the smallest possible responsibility. Thus taking a sip of coffee, he asked with an awkward cheerfulness, “Well, whatdya think?”

I, in turn, took a sip from my mug as I simultaneously searched for a diplomatic response and my Happy Place. And as usual, I failed miserably at finding either. “Well, here’s what I think–it’s the fucking ugliest thing I’ve ever seen. It looks like it was installed by blind, rabid, meth-addled chimpanzees with spit, a blunt army knife and a crowbar in-between wanking jags. That’s what I fucking think.” I gave him a dangerous, tight-lipped smile and then pulled on my coffee again. Contemplate those limits, mofo. After which I said nothing, having long ago worked out that it’s always instructive to let the other person fill the engineered silence.

The general contractor simply stared. My liver/fava beans/chianti moment had instantly forced him to cast aside Plans A through F of charming his way out of this. A hat-in-hand offer of a five percent discount coupled with back-slap was now so not the way to go.

“Errr . . . uh, well . . . um, yeah, I take your point. And I want to make this right–I’m going send Fred back to make this right.” Fred was the original installer of the FAD.

“Why the hell would you do that?” Okay, I hadn’t seen that coming.

“Well he’s responsible for this and I’ll make him fix it for you.” I noted that the general contractor had suddenly made himself blameless because now it was All Fred’s Fault.

“No, you won’t be sending Fred back precisely because the Fucking Aesthetic Disaster you’re looking at is either Fred working at the bleeding edge of his incompetence or–worse–in a deeply comfortable groove of I-don’t give-a-shit. Sending me either the same moron or the same guy who can’t be bothered is not the way you’ll make this right. Are we clear?”

This was not going well for the general contractor because a maniac was suddenly standing between him and a four-figure settling-up. “Well, what do you want me to do, then?”

Remembering Richard Saul Wurman’s tenet, I tried a new approach: “What I want from you is Winston Wolf . . . I want you to send me The Wolf.”

“Who the hell is Winston Wolf?”

“Ever see Pulp Fiction?

The general contractor was perplexed at that this seeming change of topic. “Well, yeah–sure . . .”

“Remember when Vincent–John Travolata–shoots the guy in the car? Who do they call?”

He pondered this for a moment. “Um, Harvey Keitel–they . . . they call Harvey Keitel.”

“And Keitel plays Winston . . .”

“. . . Wolf!” the general contractor said, momentarily pleased with himself.

“And what does Winston Wolf do for a living?”

“He’s the clean-up guy . . . for when things get out of hand.” The general contractor was now deeply into this; it was if a pub quiz had suddenly broken out in front of him.

“Exactly. And that’s what I want–Winston Wolf. Because from where I stand, Fred is John Travolta, and he’s just shot my bead board ceiling in the fucking face–the construction version of blood and guts is everywhere. So what I need is a professional clean-up guy.”

The general contractor began to look cagey as he tried his best to play dumb. “How do you know I have somebody like that?”

“I know it because you subcontract all the time, and people tend to be morons and so it follows that a percentage of the guys who do work for you absolutely shoot their jobs in the faces. So yeah, you have a really good clean-up guy somewhere, and I want him here. Send me The Wolf.”

Like a beaten man laying all his cards on the table, the general contractor said, without even pretending to think, “Yeah, okay–I’ll send Phil out next week. He can’t come sooner, because . . . well . . . he’s busy.”

“Cleaning up after someone else, I’m guessing.” At this, the general contractor averted his eyes . . .

Jump-cut one more time to today, as I write this waiting for Phil The Wolf to show up and make right my bead board ceiling. I imagine that just like Harvey Keitel, he’ll come with trash bags and clear me from the area with a curt professionalism. After all, there’s metaphoric blood and brains to attend to and damage to  seamlessly repair–and all this will require Phil’s undivided, specialist focus.

If there’s any kind of silver lining to this sad tale of power exchange and Wurman-eque explanation via classic film, it’s this: The chance, however slight, that Phil will arrive in a 1992 Acura NSX, wearing Harvey Keitel’s tuxedo.

I’ll let you know.


The Place Where We Started

Notes on the sad state of audio remastering and how
cutting-edge technology is wasted by a greedy music industry
pursuing an increasingly less-sophisticated audience

And the end of all our exploring
will be
to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time

–TS Eliot

Recently I added another three terabytes of media storage space and decided to re-rip some of my CDs to the Apple Lossless format. After all, I now had room for songs that each weigh-in, on average, at 32 MB. Apple Lossless is essentially a bit-for-bit duplication of digital music that’s compressed and converted back on-the-fly to its perfectly replicated state. Thus the whole “losseless” thing–the digitalized music literally is the copied CD.

This has forced me to determine the most pristine source for each re-ripped CD. Which really is a genuine challenge because I collect music–lots of music; more music than you can imagine, and more than I will ever publicly admit to. Normal people have some Bowie CDs–probably not all of them. I, on the other hand, have a three different remasterings of Bowie’s complete works. This is not bragging–it’s an admission of an obvious problem for which I should probably seek professional help. I mention it because it follows that if I have three complete sets of Bowie remasters, well, there must be multiple remasterings of, say, the complete Miles Davis–and, god help us, you’d be right. Thus finding the best source for my new Apple Lossless duplications is a very real problem for me.

And yes, I know what you’re thinking: Well, no biggie, fool–just use the most recent remasters. Advancing technology means increasingly better re-digitaliztions. To which I say in the most world-weary music collector’s tone possible, You’d think, wouldn’t you? But frequently–perhaps even more times than not–you’d be wrong about this.

Let’s digress for a few moments–because an analogy is badly needed. Think of remastering in terms of the restoration of a piece of art. Remember a few years ago, when they restored the Sistine Chapel ceiling? Pretend that Michelangelo’s ceiling is Bryan Ferry’s Mamouna (simply because it’s been the cause of my most recent struggle). Okay, so you’re the art historian-cum-restorer and you’re standing there in the Sistine Chapel, staring up at the ceiling. What’s the first thing you’re thinking–what’s the project’s prime directive so to speak? If you’re sane, it’s Christ on a cracker, this is a fucking Michelangelo, revered the world over–first and foremost I must Do No Effing Harm. To which I once again say in the most world-weary music collector’s tone possible, You’d think, wouldn’t you?

And “harm” for our art restorer, beyond the don’t-physically-damage-the-damn-thing-it’s-priceless, would be a failure to return the Sistine Chapel ceiling to its original state–to fail to honor as closely as possible the Big M’s intention. Easy-peasy, yes? You’d think, wouldn’t you? So it follows that you’d do research–you’d find the earliest possible photos, you’d find the most protected pieces of pigment to ascertain the true colors of the work, you’d consider its entire palette and how the values work in relation to one another. That sort of thing. More full-bore easy-peasy, albeit labor intensive. You’d think.

Now imagine if, when reopened, the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling colors were Op-Art bright–yellows were school-bus hued; blues were all deeply IKB; flesh tones were more akin to those in HD porn. Imagine, too, that the ceiling’s dimensions had been made smaller, and that the background had nearly been eliminated in favor of the foreground. And finally, that God’s hand gesturing to Adam has been repositioned, even though only slightly. So what do we now think of the art restorer? Yeah–me too. I’ll just pop out to get torches and pitchforks for everybody . . .

Let’s review: restorations–physically, visually or sonically–should allow the audience in question to experience as closely as possible the artist’s original intent. We have a goal, we have a path and we have a yardstick by which to measure success. So what the fuck is going on with most audio remastering? This should be easy-peasy, right? You’d think, wouldn’t you?

My recent adventures in ripping cherished CDs to Apple Lossless have underscored something horrifying–for all of the reasons outlined above, close to 80 percent of my remasters are simply not as good as the original releases they replaced and put out-of-print. Far, far from it. In these cases, a Sistine Chapel ceiling went into the remastering studio and a version painted on black velvet came out. Easy-peasy my ass.

On the way to ripping Bryan Ferry’s 1994 Mamouna, I did A/B comparisons of four CD versions to the original UK vinyl pressing of the recording. And because I sense that the suspense is killing you, I’ll cut to the chase: the US Virgin 1994 CD of Mamouna–its first appearance on compact disc–blows away the touted-at-the-time 1999 remastering in all possible ways. The 1999 remaster narrowed the sound stage, eliminated space between instruments and lost an integrated sound in favor of individual instruments which were all made to take what can only be described as the in-place equivalent of solos. We’re talking an aural aggressiveness that borders on harshness. And so 19 years on, down a road that passes by massive technological advances in sound processing and digitalization, I’ve chosen the first CD appearance of Mamouna to preserve with a lossless technology that didn’t exist when it was released. This is so not easy-peasy; this is unacceptable. We have the capability of exactly capturing Bryan Ferry’s intention two decades ago, and we choose not to do so–to instead rethink the release in a way that, one can only assume, makes financial sense 19 years on.

By “financial sense,” I’m not referring to the cost of the remastering itself. Because in this case the tapes were in good shape and, given the history of sound recording, 1994 wasn’t that long ago. You want cheap? Here’s contextual cheap: Find the master tape that’s upstream of the version EQ’d for vinyl. Play it back on the same deck that recorded it (or one like it) connected by a single cable unmediated by any sound processing devices to the best digital recorder you have. Sample the master at 192kHz/24-bit. Done: a near-perfect sonic snapshot of what Ferry left on the original mastering recorder when he exited the studio well-pleased two decades ago. How hard can this be? All things considered, it’s easy-peasy. At least you’d think, wouldn’t you?

So no, the “financial sense” I’m referring to is the only metric the music industry pays attention to–the number of units moved, or–in this case–the number of units resold to those who already have a copy of Mamouna and, hopefully, to new, younger potential fans. For those already owning Mamouna, the remaster has to sound “new;” for younger, potential fans, Mamouna has to sound of-the-moment rather than 19 years old. And the single answer to both these needs is to change the recording by way of deforming it in the remastering. This is definitely not about Artistic Intent. Rather, it’s about differentiating as if it were Coke New Mamouna from Old Mamouna for one market and making it of a piece with the compressed, shrill and MP3-based music that’s the sonic reality of younger audiences. The music labels change releases when remastering them because it makes marketing (and therefore financial) sense for them to do so.

Purists will insist that however onerous, this technically remains a remaster rather than a remix–but I don’t. Because when a previously subtle bass leaps to the front and comes thundering out of the speakers, when the sound stage narrows, sifting instruments to the center in a kind of stereo-mono and when integrated instrumental interplay is shattered by hyper-detail in the manner of an overcooked HDR photo, it is a remix in all ways but the name. Who you gonna trust, the purists say–us or your lying ears? Me, I’m going with the thing that walks and talks like a duck.

I’m genuinely outraged by all of this. We’ve reached a point where we can almost be plunked down in the studio next to Bowie as he records Station To Station or with McCartney as he listens to the final mix of Ram or by Harrison’s side at the playback of All Things Must Past. Instead, we got terrible remasters of all these recordings–garish parodies of themselves–like film stars with too much Botox . . . It nearly makes my music-loving head explode.

But having said this and understanding that my ranting is ultimately useless, I still cling to the dream that someday the best music in my collection will be direct, flat transfers from the original master tapes. And if I can further hear the splices between songs, I’ll be even happier. Given today’s technology, this should be easy-peasy. You’d think, wouldn’t you?

Out On The Edge Of Generic

And I’m hanging on a moment of truth,
Out on the edge of glory…
–Lady Gaga

I’m just back from a trip into the deepest exburbs of Virginia that’s left me agitated in a way that seems close to an anxiety attack. Now it must be said that I usually do anything to avoid the Virginia exburbs; that even a flight from Dulles is pushing it for me. Over the years, I’ve jokingly ascribed this avoidance to the fact I have the exburban equivalent of refrigerator blindness; that past Dulles, I always seem to get instantly lost–turned around out there not from any unfamiliarity with landmarks, but rather from their complete absence. And in retrospect, I suppose, this should have seen as a warning sign . . .

I was returning from the unavoidable errand, maybe 60 minutes outside Washington, when my growing unease turned into, well, anomie. Or something like it. The absolute sameness surrounding me and stretching into the distance was suddenly overwhelming.

Each wide-spot in the road, those places where any other culture would have placed towns, featured identical post-modern shopping centers with the same beige-and-brown stores; where the signs in the parking lots were always name/noun-place–and where those places were always Run, Creek, Crossing, Commons or Square.

In the distance, townhouses were precisely punctuated by McMansions. I had a vision of driving by them at 90 miles an hour and watching them rhythmically pulse in the same way a picket fence would. These too were beige-and-brown–as were the gas stations, hospitals, post offices and medical centers. And everything–shopping centers and housing alike–was designed in an oddly sinister homogenization of all American architecture since, say, 1920. In no way timeless, but rather out-of-time–as weird as the always-conceptual and mediated bagels of Butte, Montana. Structures that half-heartedly tried to be proportionally charming only to end-up zombied by their own blandness–a simplification dictated by pre-fab construction rather than minimalism.

And I’m driving through all this surrounded by nearly identical SUVs, all in the same palette of earth-tone colors, as Lady Gaga’s pop-commodity voice belts out “Edge Of Glory” over the boom of  predictably beige beats and a stuttering, radio-fodder hook. It sounds exactly the same as anything else on any other Top 40 station, and then the conceptual-and-mediated sax solo appeared, sounding as if it were built from samples of “Baker Street.”

And there’s miles upon miles of this sameness–there’s 60 fucking straight minutes of this non-landscape–and the Gaga song never seems to end and all the mommies in all the matching SUVs all have ponytails pulled through the holes in the backs of their matching baseball caps. And that’s when the sense of anomie started; that’s when uneasiness began to feel like an anxiety attack. Think the precise opposite of agoraphobia–not fear of wide-open spaces, but cultural claustrophobia instead. And, of course, there was no pulling over–not there; not in the middle of all that. It was Bat Country, and I was the poor bastard who had finally realized it . . .

Hunter Thompson once described Las Vegas as what the world would be doing on Saturday night had Hitler won the war. I similarly think that the exburbs of Virginia are the final triumph of the Pod People from Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. It’s what developed 50 years after Kevin McCarthy ran through traffic screaming “They’re Here!” These exburbs are where the Pod People hang out while planning their next weekend junkets to Vegas.

And most damning of all, they’re where Lady Gaga is still considered edgy.

The Truth About HBO’s ‘The Newsroom’

On the level of storytelling, HBO’s The Newsroom is abysmal. Remember Basil Exposition from the Austin Powers franchise? Well, on this show, everyone is Basil Exposition. And Aaron Sorkin should be deeply and abjectly ashamed of this. If, of course, Sorkin were in the storytelling business in terms of this project–which he isn’t.

The Newsroom is nothing less than porn for media critics–and in this narrow mission it entirely succeeds. An entire cast of fictional characters consistently speaking in painfully self-aware and sledge-hammer explanatory ways is, well, as unbelievable as a pizza delivery guy having instant, hot, three-way sex with a well-endowed customer and her equally blessed friend (who may or may not be a younger sister). This is not a failure in dramatic construction–it’s the whole point. Rule of thumb: if you’re perusing porn (or Sorkin’s show) for the story, well, you are so watching the wrong thing . . .The Newsroom has the precise dynamics of an X-rated film for the specialized audience it’s targeting–those who care about news and the news business, and who are appalled by its abdication of mission and authority. What the fans of The Newsroom are exclusively waiting for is The Money Shot–the rants about what news once was, what it’s like now and what it could be. The manner in which we get there, lamentable as it may be, is ultimately of no concern. Go ask a porn aficionado whether believable characterization and realistic psychological motivation regarding pizza delivery guys are needed or even necessary. All that wooden failure to convey the quotidian is simply breath-catching filler between the ongoing tangled limbs and orgasms–put up with by the audience because sex (or its analogue, intellectual validation) is bound to pop up sooner than later.

Aaron Sorkin is to media critics what Russ Meyer was to fans of impressive breasts. Full stop. End of story. Fade-to-black with the cold-bloodedly soaring theme music.

No one loathes The Newsroom-as-failed-dramatic-vehicle as much as I do. But after three episodes, I find myself still watching–a slave to the cheap intellectual thrills and release of its glistening and throbbing media critique.

I’m not proud of this, but there you have it.

Sue me.

Notes On A Robert Duvall Thanksgiving

Oh, keep those sidelong glances to yourself–this can come as no surprise: After all, for years I’ve threatened something very much like what’s come into focus this morning.

And certainly, there can be no kind of shock: Tiffany has those blue boxes, Warhol had that platinum wig and when you think of Miles Davis, you can’t help but see The Stare . . . And as for my personal brand, well, there’s the constant, bone-deep loathing of the period beginning a week before Thanksgiving and ending at 6:00 AM on New Year’s Day.

Grim, yes–but also Deeply True.

This morning as I prepared for the imminent descent of the relatives, friends and near-strangers who have made Thanksgiving a cross between a legally required Tweet-up and a death march, I . . . snapped. But again, I always snap during this week. The confluence of recipes, food shops, logistics, and the whole Fawlty-esque bed-and-breakfast thing is designed to drive me over the edge. Then add to all this the fact that beyond the dreaded feast day itself is an escalating number of pre-emptive holiday parties, the culmination of which is Thoroughly Awful And Unavoidable Christmas . . .

It’s a quarter to nine in the morning and I’m wondering, under these circumstances, if a splash of Jameson’s in my coffee can be seen as the crest of a slippery slope.

In previous years, I’ve toyed with a variety of strategies that might allow me to reach that first New Year’s Day mimosa more or less intact and emotionally unscathed. I’ve considered putting myself into a medically induced coma until Janurary 1st, building a time machine and fast-forwarding to the new year and, of course, faking my own death–only to miraculously reappear six weeks later, right next to the champagne and orange juice.

But this morning it occurred to me that the sheer complexity of my previous plans kept me from executing them. What was needed instead was a breathtakingly simple solution: minimum preparation, maximum escape. It was then that The Idea arrived, immaculate and complete . . .

This year I’m holding a themed Thanksgiving gathering to honor the 50th anniversary of the film version of To Kill A Mockingbird. You know those Agatha Christie weekends? The ones where participants role-play through a country-house murder? Well, that’s in essence what I want to do on Thanksgiving–reenact To Kill A Mockingbird. But with this very, very, very important proviso: No matter how the roles are divided up, I get to be Boo Radley. Which means I’ll be barricaded in my office through Thanksgiving and most of the weekend, only to emerge as everyone is leaving (and even then I get to hide behind a door).

Here, let me say it for you: This, my friends, is a genius idea, and so it follows I must be a . . . well, you know.

I’m already working out the details: iTunes informs me that I have 21.2 days of music available in my office, so no problem there. I will, of course, be moving all of the single-malts in with me (but not to worry–in my role as a not-so-good host, I will graciously leave the Dewars for the guests). I’ve placed a ladder under one of the office windows for my coming and going, and I’ve fashioned a basket-and-pulley system to get the sushi and pizza deliveries up here. Check and check again. And there’s a bathroom and shower off my office, so that’s handled.

In terms of my guests, I’ll be arranging for this year’s Thanksgiving dinner to be completely catered–and whoever they decide is Atticus is more than welcome to do the carving. During the meal, the swirl of dark conjecture and wild rumor about my absence will perfectly play into the Boo Radley thing. Younger nieces and nephews will earnestly ask if I’m some kind of monster lurking behind my office door, and the adults won’t shush them because they understand that the truth is so much uglier . . .

I now feel as if a great weight has lifted from me–in fact, I’ve even put away the Jameson’s. And depending on how well my Boo Radley Thanksgiving goes, I can foresee a Christmas gathering to similarly honor The Third Man. There, of course, I’ll have a lock on the role of Harry Lime. That way, I can briefly appear by the neighborhood storm drains to hand out presents and sly epigrams about cuckoo clocks before blessedly disappearing again.

Yes–another genius idea . . .

The Last Chair I’m Gonna Need

It’s just, when you buy furniture, 

you tell yourself, that’s it. 

That’s the last sofa I’m gonna need. 

Whatever else happens, 

I’ve got that sofa problem handled.

Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

If there was one thing I learned from my parents, it was not to go in for cheap furniture–even if it meant the much slower assembly of a fully furnished household. To be clear, we’re not talking about deeply expensive, limited-edition Italian furnishings, but neither are we referring to the unpronounceable particle board that’s found on IKEA shelves. Let’s just call it furniture that’s not irreplaceable and also not disposable: Stuff that, with proper care, might sturdily (and with a righteous exercise of taste) last a few decades . . .

I mention this because four days of last week were spent in pursuit of a new chair–my first in slightly more than 20 years (so yes, the parental lesson really did sink in). And by my, I mean the place where only I sit–the place that is never offered to visitors, the place that even the tyrannical cats understand will never be theirs. This, however, is not a quest story because I knew exactly what I wanted. In the end, it was merely about concentrated persistence–the visiting of stores and the terrorizing of sales staff unprepared for a shopper who came armed with a detailed sketch of what he wanted. And–spoiler alert–on the fourth day of my retail walkabout, I finally found exactly what I was looking for. It was just a matter of time.

But what’s been on my mind since this morning is not just this new, on-its-way chair–I’m also pondering the old, outgoing one. And almost certainly I’m doing so because of its soon-to-be gone intimacy; because it’s been my home within my home for more than two decades now.

Over the past 20 years, a great deal has happened in that chair: happiness, insights, sorrow, the climaxes of novels, mourning, planning, notes, innumerable films, uncertainty, resolution, conversation, world-shaking news and of course jazz–so much of it that the chair’s atomic structure must certainly vibrate Miles, Coltrane and Bill Evans. As Lou Reed once sang, “Someone died and someone married”–and through the years, I received word of it all sitting there. My old chair was reupholstered three times and its cushions were restuffed four. But no matter how serially different it looked, much like the Time Lord in Doctor Who, it was always still recognizable; it always clearly remained mine. And in this there was a continuity that came to be reassuring.

However, now that my old chair is finally going, it hits to me that everything which has occurred in it will more authentically become memories–no longer simply in the past, but also made forever placeless by an irrevocably changed household topography.

Add to this Proustian consideration something else, something bleakly fast-forward: My old chair’s length of service suggests that, given the care with which I’ve selected it, the new one will be similarly long-lived. But this time around I’m no longer middle-aged–even by the most charitable of measures–and the prospect of a new 20-year chair unavoidably forces me to consider that it could very well be my last. And so this morning over coffee, it occurred to me that, like Palahniuk’s protagonist, whatever else happens, I’ve got that chair problem in hand, only this time–gulp–probably forever . . .

This too, it seems, is also a matter of time.

I write this with a lunch-time sandwich by my side, waiting for the furniture store’s delivery. I sit here marveling at how unaware I’d been while choosing the front row seat for my own final act, and suddenly the addition of a beer sounds like a good idea. It had been that forest-for-the-trees thing, but on the most personal level. In a space of probably less than 15 minutes, a new phase of my life will arrive and an old one will suddenly disappear. I’ll be asked to sign and then initial–here, here and here. Then the truck will be gone, taking my old chair with it, leaving me to take stock of where–and more importantly, how–I’ll be spending the next 20 years or so.

And in all likelihood, I’ll wish that I had another detailed sketch of what it is I want–but this sort of planning sadly resists the meticulous addition of details. The future, after all, frequently lacks any sense of proportion and it’s impossible to measure. So, for a while at least, it’ll be my turn to be unprepared because, as Reed further sang, “It’s the beginning of a new age . . .”


Sorry, Bruce: A Better Shoulda / Coulda

I’ve been soldiering through Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town box set for the last 24 hours, and I’m here to say there’s there much to love about the release–from its design to its sonics to its supplementary material. 

But one thing has been bothering me: In his liner notes, Springsteen notes that The Promise–the two discs of additional songs from the Darkness sessions–“. . . Could have / should have been released after Born To Run and before the collection of songs that Darkness On The Edge Of Town became.” Frankly, I don’t know if I’d have gone there if I were Springsteen–it forces the listener to assess The Promise not as a breathtaking collection of brilliant cast-offs, but as a retrofitted second act in a Born To Run / Promise / Darkness trilogy. But there it is, right there on page two of the package–an after-the-fact statement of Bruce Intent that unavoidable colors the additional songs . . .

The problem is that, as complied by Springsteen, The Promise in no way functions as a believable act two connecting Born To Run and Darkness OnThe Edge Of Town--it’s much too representative of the multiple futures that confronted him at the time. It feels more like the genius odds-and-sods collection that’s The Beatles’ White Album. Which is a very good thing, as long as that’s the context the artist wants it to be judged against–and, clearly, this isn’t what Springsteen wants.

And so I’ve been thinking about a different cut of the 21 songs that comprise The Promise that would better position it as a long-lost second act.

Here are my basic assumptions:

First, Act Two wouldn’t have been a double set–it is, after all, a trilogy, not a tetralogy.

Second, Act Two needs to bridge the full-on Spector sound of Born To Run and the starker sonics of Darkness. Similarly, it needs to clearly transform the romantic hope of Born To Run into the hopelessness of Darkness.

Third, Act Two should reflect the vinyl LP reality of the period in which it would have been released. This means a 38-minute to, say, a 42-minute running time that’s structurally divided into first and second sides–with each of those sides beginning with a radio-friendly, potential single.

Fourth, Act Two wouldn’t have been called The Promise–it’s much too quiet when stuck between dramatic titles like Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge Of Town. (This is also why no one ever refers to Star Wars as A New Hope.)

And so, with the same hubris that allowed me to “fix” The Beatles’ Let It Be, I carved out something called One Way Street from the musical yard sale that is The Promise.

One Way Street, the shoulda / coulda second act between Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge Of Town, is a nine-song collection structured thusly: 

Side One
1. “Rendezvous”
2. “Because The Night”
3. “Fire”
4. “Wrong Side Of The Street”
5. “One Way Street”

Side Two
6. “It’s A Shame”
7. “The Brokenhearted”
8. “Breakaway”
9. “The Promise”

Its total running time 38.1 minutes, which makes “act two” a minute shorter than Born To Run.

Am I saying that One Way Street completely works as the thematic and musical connective tissue between Born To Run and Darkness? Of course not. But I do maintain it’s contextually more successful than the 21 songs programmed as The Promise.

Again, I wouldn’t have ever suggested that The Promise was a shoulda / coulda “missing” album. But Springsteen did. And, well, something needs to be done in order for that statement to make sense. And, for me at least, One Way Street is it . . .

Hirsute Hope Springs Eternal

Welcome to what’s probably my 80th beard. And, of course, these days I’m thinking: “80–that’s a very lucky sound number if ever I heard one.” Because, like someone with a gambling problem, my urgent need to believe makes everything seem like, well, An Auspicious Sign.

What I so passionately embrace is that this time, this beard will make me look like exactly Sean Connery. I’ve even wandered around for days speaking in a thick Scottish burr to encourage the growing whiskers. 

So much, then, for belief–because what I actually know to be true is that any day now I’ll catch my reflection in a window and see that once again I bear a striking resemblance not to Sean C, but Eddie, the Jack Russell on Frasier. (See chart below.) So much so that I’ve seriously considered boot-blacking my nose and going trick-or-treating this year.

But let’s pause for a moment and think about this: My eightieth beard. Really? You might think this implies that those other 79 runs at Sean-dom which ended in Deeply Jack-Russell-eques ways have taught me nothing. And you’d be right.

Here’s the thing: Where anyone else would recognize obsessive-compulsive behavior and seek help (me–I’m Kulturhack, and I can’t stop growing a beard; them–Hi, Kulturhack, welcome!), I see a touching, very American belief in perfectibility–even in the face of enormous odds. Deep in my heart, I just know I can bootstrap my way to Sean Connery, if only I keep at it and blindly ignore the facts.

And further, I think I should be forgiven this naivety. After all, I’ve watched the Palins, Angles, Bachmanns, and even O’Donnells attempt to will themselves into high office in spite of the overwhelming facts. I dream of being Sean Connery; they undoubtedly want to be president–and the fact that at the end of the day we’re all Eddie has never slowed them–or me–down . . .

Put another way: The day Sarah Palin takes the oath of office as president of the United States, I’ll be Sean Connery.

I just know it.


Cocktails Outside The Tardis

Those songs to me don’t exist, you know?

“So What” or Kind of Blue–

I’m not going to play that shit; those things are there.

They were done in that era,

the right hour, the right day, and it happened.

It’s over; it’s all on the record.

–Miles Davis

Last night I attended a benefit / premiere for a film written by a friend-of-a-friend. Given a choice, I’d have hunkered down and dealt with some difficult book revisions. But these were unavoidable circumstances that required both my presence and a game-face, and so I resolutely strapped on the old public persona and drove myself downtown.

Normally, most social obligations are easily survived: The trick is to understand their ritualistic context and not mistake them for communication. Social obligations are a kind of profane high mass–dependent on all parties knowing when to respond, when to stand, when to sit and, yes, when to take the wafer–because in most instances we really are breaking bread. And if there’s one thing all those Jesuits taught me, it’s how to cruise effortlessly through ceremony on undetectable autopilot.

But social obligations involving time-travel force me to disengage automatic; they make me keep my eyes on the instrumentation and improvisationally react. Put another way, a social obligation involving time-travel is a genuine bitch–faux communication that insists I remain in the moment and also be hair-trigger, like an adrenaline-flushed cast member of Who’s Line Is It Anyway? It forces me to be fully engaged in my own boredom instead of having a carefully disguised out-of-body experience in which muscle-memory passes watercress sandwiches while I’m light years away with, say, Tilda Swinton. How else to explain this? It’s like having a tooth filled with not quite enough Novocain–the constant anticipation of discomfort is as bad (or worse) as the discomfort itself.

But I’m getting ahead of myself with this time-travel thing. I’m referring to social forced marches with people from one’s past who have no connection to one’s present. Archeology, but with light hors d’oeuvres. The benefit / premiere meant wading waist-deep into a cast of characters from what actually is another life–or as close to one as possible without playing the reincarnation card. And, difficult as ever, nostalgia is among the many things I don’t “do.” This, however, isn’t simply a taste call–I really don’t have access to my previous selves, and, in truth, I’d be profoundly disturbed if I could readily tap into a 13-, 21- or 35-year-old edition of myself.

The usual conceptual model we use to explain ourselves as we meander down the corridor of time is metaphoric evolution. It allows us to be as we were even as we’re changed. It’s an integration model: Nice. Comforting. Continuous. But is this most-favored model the only one? What if moving through time is, well, disruptive? What if time doesn’t slowly accrete a coral reef around us? What if time is a mutagen? Faced with time, what if we’re more reasonable versions of Goldblum’s BrundleFly, and not Tandy’s Daisy Werthan?

This is why I absolutely avoid official reunions and carefully gauge all other social gatherings for their potential reunionosity. Again, It’s not merely the need to conjure-up a one-inch deep, road-company version of Former Me–it’s that I no longer have the script.

Fittingly, I once observed Tom Baker, the actor most famous for portraying the timelord on Doctor Who in the 1970s, interacting with fans decades after his last show. He politely but very uncomfortably was wearing someone’s scarf for a photograph and, as this was happening, someone else was asking him about an obscure plot point is the eighth episode of the third season. And I understood completely: The brittle stance, the furtive look in his eyes as he pretended to remember; the layer of courtliness that was designed to disguise the desire to be somewhere–anywhere–else.

Last night, I stood there with a rictus smile, holding a drink and pretending to remember an obscure photo shoot for a magazine cover I genuinely didn’t remember, even though I’d designed it. And I must have been good, because more than one former associate from 20 years ago gave me that most horrifying of complements–Hey, man, you haven’t changed! Can you imagine? Two-decades of stasis packaged like it was a good thing.

The irony in that meeting of Tom Baker and his fans is that the Doctor doesn’t remain the same–he literally regenerates into someone else. Which is as disruptive of one’s past as it gets. And last night that conceit certainly would have come in handy–me simply shrugging and reminding my former associates that this is my sixth regeneration; that I’m no longer a mid-80s editor-in-chief. Or a ’90s-style publisher. Or a columnist. I’m the equivalent of David Tennant, the current Doctor, and not Tom Baker–and I would have loved to point out that Tom left the set years ago.

But the one thing that has remained constant throughout the years are my manners. Though you’d never guess from the snarky blather here and there across the InterWebs, my manners are sterling. (Think Hannibal Lector without all that nasty serial-killer stuff–even though I do frequently wish I could eat the rude.)  And so last night, I posed for photos and attempted to answer questions about the eighth edition in the third volume of the magazine. I even managed to maneuver around all the last names I’d forgotten.

And all the while, I kept playing with the car key in my pocket–the thing that would open the door to my own German-made TARDIS parked outside, ready to whisk me back into the present after my breathtaking escape . . .

The Thrum Of Brooding Strings

First things first: I hate the effing squirrel. And thinking about this once more, it occurs to me that I’m pissed at his relatives too–each one of those fast-learning, extended family members without benefit of cute nicknames. But let’s be clear; Chewy–the name I’ve given my squirrely nemesis–is only incidentally cute. Because it’s as literal and descriptive a nickname as I’ve ever managed (and if not the king of nicknaming, I’m certainly the prince-consort of the practice).

Chewy, he chews things–all manner of things: the tops of stockade fences, the edges of roof gutters and the associated down-spouts, terra-cotta pots, railroad ties, adirondack chairs, garden hoses, the lids of plastic trash cans, begonias, entire flats of pansies, the occasional lupin, and especially jack-o-lanterns. But, remarkably, he ignores the impatiens–which are seemingly squirrel Kryptonite.

And as long as we’re in waist-deep background, there are three other things to understand about Chewy: First, the locust-cum-termite behavior isn’t a seasonal thing, and it’s certainly not squirrel-business-as-usual: Big C is a non-stop gnawer without precedent. And I should know, because prior to the Coming of Chewy, both my house and I had managed to peaceably coexist with countless generations of squirrels. Second, Chewy is a genius–at least among his scatterbrained peers. But that’s not accurate: Chewy is an Evil Genius; he is the Moriarty of squirrels. Third, the other members of his circle, the ones who also live on my property, are learning from the little bastard. It’s one thing to have a gifted squirrel breaking bad, but quite another when he shows a talent for teaching. It’s a bit like one of those deliciously creepy sci-fi moments, when it’s determined that somehow the perimeter has been breached, and the deadly virus has spilled into the outside world. In my case, it’s Chewyvirales Omnivorous–unstoppable and eating through a neighborhood near you . . . (Cue the dark, brooding string arrangement.)

Throughout this year, Chewy and I have been playing chess with my house and landscaping. For instance, this past autumn I set out a pumpkin, and Chewy’s countermove was to start to gnawing on it. I then turned the ripped skin toward the house and poured half a bottle of tabasco over it. Chewy’s response was to signal his approval of Southwestern cuisine by tunneling inside the five-alarm pumpkin and then out through the top–pretty much the way James Caan tackled that vault in Thief. Prior to this, in the spring, Chewy bit through my garden hose and I repaired it with duct tape. The next morning he returned and, to make a point, once again chewed through the hose, about six inches down from the repair. After a week of this parry-and-thrust over my right to water the flowers, the hose had morphed into 50 feet of duct tape, which made me conspicuous in the front yard–as if I’d forgotten to put on my tinfoil gardening hat.

Then in summer, some coyotes emerged from the park and claimed my backyard as part of their temporary territory. Transfixed, I watched them in the moonlight doing their collective and surprisingly cliched Coyote Thing, and the next morning I dutifully informed my pet-owning neighbors. But even in mid-Paul-Revere, I kept thinking, well, if Chewy doesn’t realize Wile E. and his family have moved in, then, well, youknow–Nature Sadly Taking Its Course; a briefly violent National Geographic Moment. After which I’d have a moment of silence for the late Chewy T. Squirrel, PhD, and then go off to confidently purchase a new garden hose.

But as noted, Chewy is a genius. Within four days, the coyotes had disappeared. County animal control said that it had nothing to do with it, that they had planned to swing into action at week’s end. It was assumed Wile E. and family had simply returned to the park, but oddly, no adjacent neighborhoods subsequently reported seeing them. And the next time I saw Chewy–gnawing on a cast-stone relief hanging on the fence–he gave me this weirdly knowing, Tony Soprano kind of look; a hey-I’m-just-a-member-of-the-rodent-family-but-I-don’t-think-they’ll-be-back-because-it’s-kind-of-dangerous-out-here-if-you-know-what-I-mean stare. For weeks afterwards, every time I saw an overpass under construction, I’d stare at its newly poured concrete supports and wonder about the coyotes.

Given my history with Chewy, you’d think any cartoonish, Acme Company misfortune that might befall him–oversized sticks of bright-red dynamite; chunky, hurtling anvils; that can of paint that makes a solid wall of rock look like the entrance to a train tunnel–you’d think that this sort of assisted intervention of fate vis a vis Chewy would be something I’d welcome. And just three months ago you’d be right.

But what if the aforementioned Fate-With-Assistance wasn’t cartoonish? What if it was disconcerting, brutal and sad? Because here’s the thing: The oak trees around here have stopped making acorns. Let’s hover on this point so we’re completely clear about this: There are no acorns. Not fewer acorns, Not smaller acorns. There are no acorns at all. The oaks (and hickories, too) have simply stopped making nuts. They’ve ceased to propagate. Thousands of trees, all at once, all in one season. You can literally walk through miles of oaks and not see a single acorn.

If you’re waiting for the proverbial second shoe to plummet, forget it. No one understands why the oaks and hickories have shut down nut production en masse. And yes, of course scientists have mumbled their way through various esoteric theories–but, bottom line, there is no answer. Na-da. Frankly, this has spooked me–which in itself should be cause for alarm, because I don’t easily spook. The situation is beginning to feel like a particularly disturbing episode of Fringe playing out in Real Life. I keep thinking about frog die-offs and honeybee hive collapse syndrome and, unavoidably, the apophenia clicks in.

I’m not saying the disappearance of acorns is a portent, but the problem is that no one can assure me that it’s not. And so we arrive back at that deliciously creepy sci-fi moment; when it’s determined that somehow the perimeter has been breached, and a mysterious something has spilled into the outside world: The sudden and complete disappearance of acorns–inexplicable, and possibly moving toward a neighborhood near you . . . (Will you cue the dark, brooding string arrangement, or should

In these circumstances, the brutal, natural equation is succinct: Take away acorns and squirrels die. They starve, but before that, they do crazy, desperate things to get food–things that make Chewy look well-behaved and reasonable. And while there’s no love lost between him and me, I find his starvation unacceptable. Because deep down I can’t shake the feeling that this isn’t just Nature taking its course; it’s the unintended consequences of thoroughly crappy human interaction with the planet. It isn’t about the not-me of coyotes or the third-party agency of the Acme Company. It’s about us.

And so these days I’m feeding the squirrels–you’d probably be shocked to know how many unshelled peanuts I’m distributing. These days, even though I still glare at him, Chewy is getting room service care of yours truly. I wish I could say that a dramatic and suitably seasonable life lesson is lurking in this story–like Scrooge’s transformation or the Grinch turning the sled around–but I can’t. I still genuinely hate Chewy and, come spring, when it’s time to plant flowers and use garden hoses, I plan on hating him even more. But right now, it’s about evening-out the Zen. Because as much as Chewy has fucked around with my house and yard, there’s no proof I haven’t been complicit in his starvation–which is a much worse way of screwing him back. Thus, for the next few months I’ll be busy with peanut delivery as I trying to ignore his triumphant, sneering little face.

Small steps. It’s best, I think, not to squint too far into the future. Because if I push the predictions past spring, chances are I might end up thinking about next fall and whether there will be acorns. Which, of course, no one can say with certainty anymore. How strange it is to write that.

Zipless Caffeine

A few days ago my coffee-maker went to kitchen appliance heaven, and in retrospect, the gurgling finale of that final pot sounded exactly like a death-rattle. This could have been a huge problem because coffee is my drug, my life, nectar for my creativity, and the fuel that I convert into words. Indeed, post-coital coffee has always made more sense to me than a cigarette. So yeah; the sudden absence of a coffee-maker could have been massively problematic in a DTs / detox sort of way: Me, fetal-positioned in a corner, imagining coffee beans swarming across the walls. Indisputably nasty business.

But the thing is, I never much liked my recently deceased coffee-maker–in truth, it’s annoyed me for two years now. (Yes, I actually wore the thing out in 24 months, so you’re right in slightly stepping away from me.) It was a brushed-chrome Cuisinart with retro-cool Thomas Dolby gauges: vague ’30s Modernism with a Steampunk undercurrent. And, of course, this is the problem–even now, after having pulled the plug on the Cuisinart, I’m still describing it in terms of aesthetics, which is more than a little dodgy since it should be all about the distillation of a caffeine-delivery system.

I admit it, Dear Visitor–I was seduced: I should have been thinking about how it would function on the chosen countertop location. I should have anticipated whether the inherent demands of the thing would rankle over time. But I didn’t. Its glowing, brushed beauty spoke to the lizard-brain that routes around the assessment of good industrial design. There in the showroom, I fell victim to its siren song; it was like a tall, slim blonde making deceptively interesting conversation. I was smitten. I boldly picked it up and took it home with me, where we spent the weekend together. And, come Monday, well, it was still there on the counter and, still infatuated, I saw no need for it to keep its box and styrofoam packing.

Over the next two years, however, I began to learn that most cliched of lessons–that sometimes beauty is only chromium-skin-deep. The Cuisinart set the agenda–my interactions with it demanded I move it to the edge of the counter, even as I struggled with what turned out to be a too-short power cord. The hinged top was always banging into the microwave suspended above it. The thing also required that water be poured in from the top and just next to its right side–in the ensuing months, I became resigned to wiping up the counter every other pot. And then there was the daily cleaning of the mesh coffee grounds basket and also the quarterly changing of the water filter (because the Cuisinart insisted on practicing Safe Brewing ). To be fair, the coffee the Cuisinart made was very good, but ultimately not good enough to out-weigh my daily, awkward dance with it.

Looking back, I’m certain there was no commitment problem on my part; during our first weekend together, I’d been very clear about what I was looking for–excellent coffee with minimum effort–Zipless Caffeine, if you will. And the Cuisinart had kept a diplomatic silence that seemed to signal agreement, even as the halogen lights from the range hood glinted provocatively across its Dolby-esque dials, distracting me with the desire to sing a few choruses of “She Blinded Me With Science,” or maybe even “Leipzig.” I guess that, despite what happened later, we’ll always have that weekend of infatuated coffee-making . . .

But now the Cuisinart is gone and, as grim as this sounds, it’s probably for the best. Had it not expired, I’d have dumped it. Harsh, I know, but true. We were only going through the coffee-making motions, the Cuisinart and I. It was becoming progressively difficult and I was increasingly impatient and, yes, ogling other coffee-makers. Sleek, low-maintenance beauties that wanted what I wanted: toe-curling, hair-tossing, shudder-inducing Good Coffee. And why not? I’m still young enough; my coffee-drinking days certainly aren’t behind me.

Caution, though, is indicated. I’m determined not to get into a rebound relationship. I want to play the field for a while; check-out my options. It’s hardly surprising, then, that for the near-term, I’ve gotten back together with an ex-coffee-maker. In the recycling bin, the housing of the Cuisinart was hardly cold before I’d loped down to the basement to reconnect with my old Chemex. The Chemex and I had been together for quite a long time in my youth; we’d even gotten experimental with our coffee-making–how to say this discreetly?–the roasting and brewing practices of Other, Exotic Lands sometimes entered into our sessions . . .French Breakfast, need I say more?

So yeah, the Chemex and I currently have a good thing going: lab glass, unbleached filter paper, boiling water, fresh-ground beans. End of story. Good for the Chemex and certainly good for me. We’ve established an open relationship, meaning I can have dalliances with other brewing systems, while it’s free to participate in any basic lab work it wants and even more exotic things, like heating milk for mashed potatoes. Though I’ve no idea where all this going, I can see always having a little Chemex on side–I’m anxious not to repeat the quiet desperation of the past two years. Sorry, Cuisinart, but I’m so over you . . .

The Nature Of Nature

Prior to settling into my recent season of doctors and campaigning for Obama, I was on extended holiday in the American Rocky Mountains. Being Otherwise Engaged on multiple fronts is the reason for the lack of posts to this blog and also accounts for a recent sense of intercut reality. The past few months have smudged together in interesting and surreal ways: impressions of myself holding a kind of meta clipboard containing hybrid medical/political/revision questions (Does your family have any history of internal bleeding while convincing uncommitted voters to go Democratic in a perhaps-too-confusing and staccato flashback sequence?). That sort of thing. The culmination of this oddly recombinant period was waking up in the recovery room demanding assurances that (a) Obama was still president-elect and (b) fucking Chapter Seven remained finalized . . .

But back to the vacation: It worked liked a charm–much-needed distance was inserted between me and the book (especially fucking Chapter Seven); despite appearances, I actually feel recharged, though slightly worse-for-wear.

And since I can already sense the uncomfortable shifting, you have my word that this isn’t the preamble to an endless sharing of holiday snaps (As you can see, this picture of the Rockies is slightly bluer and less hazy than the previous vista of mountains–but a lot grayer and more distant than the range in the next shot). Rather, I’d like to explore a variant of that Arthur Conan Doyle passage about a mute canine:

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

In my case, the curious, attention-worthy incident is the non-inspirational nature of–er–nature: All the splendor had absolutely no affect on my writing. There was, of course, the obligatory amount of Wonder, Scale and Taking-of-Breath. As a civilian, I respond to nature (though I suspect in a more clinical way than most people), but as an artist, well, not so much. However, this still seems too cagey, so know this: In terms of art, I’m completely disinterested in the natural world.

With the exception of Turner, my appreciation of painted landscapes is entirely technical; minus my fascination with brushstrokes, composition and light, Monet haystacks would die in their amped-up attempts to Make Us Notice The Literal And Spiritual Benefits Of Rural Life In A Way That We Would Otherwise Entirely Miss (And So Thank You, Claude). I remain unmoved by landscapes in the same way I patiently wait for Springsteen songs about The Myriad Aspects of Blue-Collar Life That We Would Otherwise Entirely Miss (And So Thank You, Bruce) to finally end. In each instance, the very obvious has been made epically intense. And, because of the narrowing affect of the obviousness, it’s also about mind-numbing redundancy. (Pop Quiz 1: Explain how “Thunder Road” is in anyway different from”Born To Run” with the exception of tighter focus. Pop Quiz 2: Thematically differentiate three of Monet’s haystack paintings. See what I mean?)

My disinterest in Artistic Nature extends to other disciplines. In most cases, I’d rather saw off my leg with a dull butter knife than read pastoral poetry. Again, it’s the sheer predictability–despite all the passionate attempts to find the new, surprising and oddball detail-cum-angle. I getit–mainly because I got it: a long time ago, reading 400-year-old poetry. Nature is Big. I am Small. Natural Metaphors for What Is Churning In My Soul are somehow more resonant for being externalized (though no one really explains why nature-as-mirror is inherently better than self-examination). Nature is Authentic, whereas Civilization Is Artifice.

(Full disclosure: I have been a hypocritical enabler. At one point, I critiqued some pastoral poetry as a politely down-played but huge favor. What I still remember is the dumbfounded respect of the writer–as if it took special intelligence to discern that, yes, geologic time was being used as a metaphor for a relationship; that, um, Things Change Just Like In Nature. Whatever. My critique was in no way brain surgery, and yet I was deemed Yoda-like for the “insights.” However, the real reason for my carefully chosen, seemingly Zen-like advice had much more to do with me being too polite to explore the author’s psychological reasons for projecting personal feelings onto geological forces. The resulting deflection, disguise and avoidance produced the opposite of truth, which, I finally realized, had been the unconscious intent of the pieces.)

For me, nature-based art is inescapably hackneyed in terms of theme; the metaphoric natural world has been stripped-mined of meaning. Which places it in the same relationship to me as the Blues–so rigorously ritualized in both form and topic that any relatively recent stuff can only be significant in terms of bravura performance. (And, as I learned in my season critiquing pastoral poetry, talented nature poets are as rare as Glenn Gould caliber pianists–journeyman versification of cliched beaches/clouds/flocks of birds/rain/waving grass is as deadening as a cocktail-lounge piano player vamping his way through predictable pop standards.)

All this is a very circuitous way of saying that I inserted myself in the Rocky Mountains to get away from my writing, and not for inspiration. Artistically, I thrive in big cities and interstitial neighborhoods: Fringe-dwelling urban neurotics–my inescapable tribe–give me the ideas and energy that make the words flow.

In this Age of Palin, where “elitist” is the new sneering code word for being smart–dismissive of intelligence in the same way “faggot” denigrates gays– Blue-Collar Authenticity is all the rage. And, being noble savagery with a new coat of political paint, Blue-Collar Authenticity is especially shrill if the Proudly Uninformed also happen to live near equally Authentic Nature (cough–Alaska–cough). My problem is that I don’t see authenticity in the leading of a patently “low-information” life, and the Rockies are no more or less authentic than Manhattan. (And with a scotch in me, I’ll probably confide that Manhattan is actually more impressive, being the product of human aspiration and design rather then entropy and tectonic plates.)

I also went on a walkabout through the mountains because I’ve been forcing myself to do things I otherwise wouldn’t: Ranked absolutely on my personal Things To Do Before I Die list, the Rockies don’t even figure in the top 100. Which made them a perfect choice because they were sufficiently outside both my desire and comfort zone to be perversely intriguing.

Which leads to the dodgy matter of productive masochism–the Rockies were also chosen to address my incapacitating fear of heights; the kind of terror that can literally freeze me in place and screw my eyes shut. However, limping across the tundra above the timberline at the edges of precipices is in itself still giving me nightmares. Thus, despite my intentions, the trip’s takeaway did not have the edifying, arc-to-a-moral of after-school specials: I in no way mastered my fear of heights. After-the-fact and much closer to sea-level, I can see no benefit in the experience. I’m still as neurotic about heights, but now also struggling not to become completely agoraphobic. So much for self-improvement . . .

The more successfully diverting parts of my journey mostly had to do with the region’s wildlife. Episodes with bear, mountain lions, elk, and moose were satisfying encounters with the Other Than, and, being on foot, were also dangerous enough to underscore my view of Nature as brutal entropy in glamorous drag; a serial killer with a deceptively charming surface. For me, Nature is Tony Perkins in a lushly Technicolor version of Psycho (to best convey all those sunsets)–really nice right up until you step into the shower.  Just like mountain lions are majestically nice right up until you find yourself surrounded by scat embedded with feathers, smell the ammonia waves of cat piss and slowly–very slowly–look up (do not turn your back, do not crouch and do not run) . . .

Not that there’s anything wrong with this. Perkins the Mountain Lion is merely doing (or attempting to do) what Perkins does. Perkins has an admirable purity going for him: Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, Perkins gotta eat me (though mind the iPhone, Perkins; I waited in line too long for it to end up embedded in tomorrow’s scat). Perkins’ big-cat life is a perfectly straight through-line from his jaws to the pulsing carotid in my neck. He is without nuance–just like the natural world that surrounds him.

And here, at last, is what I like about Nature: Its lack of agendas. Paradoxically, however, this is also why I have no artistic use for it: Going hand-in-hand with my preference for large cities is a fascination with humanity’s bedecked selfishness. Perkins doesn’t have a string of divorces behind him, and to rationalize them, he’s not reading Smart Predators, Stupid Choices; Perkins has no passive carefully wrapped around his tooth-and-claw aggression; Perkins doesn’t network or politick; Perkins doesn’t manipulate, he merely pounces if the opportunity presents itself; and in the twilight of his big-cat years, Perkins will be guiltless about his savage, red-meat life–there will be no mid-life crisis and, thank god, he will not reimagine himself as a vegetarian. All this makes me want to hang-out with Perkins (albeit at a safer distance), but not write about him.

Each of us is our own spin doctor–we have a deep need to remain the hero of our respective lives, and so we’re constantly riding the gain of self-serving rationalization. Our life-narratives are naturally sloppy things because lurking just below the careful civility and sociality is a Perkins-esque through-line that passes from desire to possession, and it severs anything caught in the middle–particularly the through-lines of others. Happiness; stability; lifestyle; love; material things; spiritual satisfaction; validity; freedom; the perfect job; the perfect family; brain-melting sex: Take your pick–each ultimately arrays itself along the line between desire and possession. Though we will never admit it, there’s often a single degree of separation between us and the mountain lion–we’ve merely learned to lie to others and ourselves.

Be it ever so grim, this is what I write about–our endless streams of often conflicting self-narratives and our endless patching of the frequent holes in their logic and decency. Hero-as-martyr, hero-as-victim, hero-without-a-choice, hero-annointed by destiny: After-the-fact and by necessity, there are many ways to explain the unavoidable and often subtle carnage we cause–the feathers in the scat we leave behind. Marianne Faithfull once sang, ‘Beyond a certain age, every artist works with injury,’ and I’m inclined to agree with her.

I’ve never believed in objectivity, even as child; I’m simply not wired that way. But as I’ve grown older, even the idea of varying degrees of tarnished truth seem increasingly less likely. Perhaps it’s simply occupational disease, given the daily struggle with my book, but I’ve come to see that we’re all just our latest self-revisions, the momentary sum of our constantly morphing delusions. Let’s put this another way: Though I ought to know better, I sometimes introduce new material in these late revisions of the novel–and doing so forces me to pour through the earlier sections, tweaking for continuity or consistency in metaphors. Like a stage magician, I work backwards from the latest effect. And, I think, this is what we all do with our lives–it’s the real function of memory, which is why recollection is the central subject and driver of the book. We are constantly adjusting the past to account for the present; the only parameters being preservation of personal continuity and our status as indisputable hero of the our respective stories.

And so, yes, when it came to taking a break from the book, I temporarily inserted myself into an agenda-less world. See it as a much needed exile from my material. A day spent tagging along with a herd of elk didn’t resolve into fire-illuminated, furious scribbling in a Moleskine. Remarkably, it didn’t even result in many photographs–probably fewer than 30 shots for my entire time in the Rockies. Being artistically unmoved by Nature doesn’t preclude briefly intense and intimate interactions, but they’re inherently fleeting and intensely private; pulling out a camera usually felt as out-of-place as it would be during lovemaking. Roy Batty says this in Blade Runner:

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time . . . like tears in rain . . . Time to die.

Roy’s last-moment epiphany is an understanding that memory is both self-defining and ephemeral; a cupped handful of experience that inevitably slips through the fingers and back into the coursing stream of reality. And this is pretty much how I felt about all those sunsets, waterfalls and mist-filled valleys: You people wouldn’t believe what I saw; their significance is too personal to be pixelated as a digital image. Better to allow them to slip back into the rush of time . . .

Lucinda Williams’ World Without Baggage

There’s a handful of recording artists who never disappoint–well, make that almost never–and Lucinda Williams is long-time a member of this exclusive club. Since her self-titled third album, she’s never let me down. Even when the roots contingent bitched about West, I appreciated what she was doing and admired how she pushed past the genre stances that had endeared her to fans. And, given the polarizing affect of West, the country-rock regrouping of Little Honey, Williams latest release, is its least surprising attribute. In a way, it recalls World Without Tears–a similar retreat into the tried and true after her more experimental Essence. But where World Without Tears left Williams’ considerable songwriting talents intact, she arrives at Little Honey without the baggage that’s provided the inspiration for her best work.

There’s a fine EP buried in Little Honey–but unfortunately, there’s also that other 40 minutes of music . . . The songs neatly fall into four categories: Lucinda In Love, Lucinda Dispensing Advice To Other Pop Stars, Lucinda Classics Old and New, and, well, a Lucinda/Elvis Costello comedy routine. Even though it physically hurts to admit this, the problem is that most of the new material is the stuff of B-sides and bonus tracks.

The quality of the Lucinda-In-Love material suggests that Paul McCartney was right all those years ago–it’s a world filled with love songs that are indisputably silly. And while I’m pleased for Lucinda these days, there’s good reason why great art rarely (if ever) flows from Being Happy. BecauseHappy has few nuances and it also lacks drama–which is bad news if you’re trying to write four-minute lyrical narratives that evolve across their verses and recontextualized choruses.

The tracks where Lucinda Dispenses Pop-Star Advice are problematic in two ways: First, she’s not exactly the poster girl for smart music-business moves, and second, apart from silly love songs, is there anything more boring than dispatches from the echo chamber of rock stardom? “Running On Empty,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” “How Do You Sleep?”–we get it. Fame Has A Price, aka It Hasn’t Been Easy. I’m never sure what to make of this type of song, because beneath the graphic, salacious details, lurks all the complexity of a Lifetime Network movie. The brilliance of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” is her undermining of self-pity–which is why Little Honey will never displace Back To Black at the top of my frequent-play list.

“Jailhouse Tears,” the Lucinda-And-Elvis Standup Routine, amuses on the first two or three listenings, after which the song begins to irritate in the manner of any novelty number (even if you appreciate the implicit Tammy-and-George joke).

The good news is that the remaining songs keep Little Honey from totally disappointing. They comprise a powerful, virtual EP anchored by the heartbreaking “If Wishes Were Horses.” There’s also the infectious, radio-ready “Real Love,” the somber “Heaven Blues,” and “Tears of Joy”–the one silly love song that transcends itself.

Another plus is the paradoxical fact that Little Honey is a near-perfect set of recordings: the live-in-studio production is superlative, the band’s playing is spectacular and William’s vocals are among her best. The impressively austere black-and-white art direction is also excellent. If only the lyrics consistently rose to the level of the production, performances and package.

The final problem of Little Honey is its numbing length. Most classic, vinyl-age pop records weighed-in at somewhere between 34 to 42 minutes. And just as the three- to five-minute capacity of the 45 codified length expectations for singles, 40-something minutes still seems “right” for a set of studio pop songs, even in a digital age. A version of Little Honey less self-indulgently long would have eliminated the water-treading redundancy of “Little Rock Star,” “Rarity” and “It’s a Long Way To the Top:” At 42 minutes, chances are are good that only one of the three would ended up in the collection. Pop Darwinism would have rightly eliminated the weaker two. (Similarly, the ratio of love songs would also have been beneficially pruned.)

But despite all this criticism, I suspect that Little Honey will easily out-sell the more adventurous and experimental West. Which is a shame, since Williams will be encouraged to write even sillier love songs, more navel-gazing rock-star ballads and–worst of all–commit comedy again. And me, well, I’d rather have gone farther down the path that produced “Are You Alright?” and “Learning How To Live,” instead of having to brace myself for Lu and El doing a twangy cover of “I Got You Babe” while broadly winking at one another. To paraphrase something else from West, ‘I don’t want to wrap my head around that . . .’