The Unraveling of Mark Kozelek

Last week, Kozelek got some press related to belligerent remarks he made to audiences and fellow musicians The War on Drugs. For someone like Mark, who requires a footnote explaining who he is by way of the band he used to play in, any press is good — like a bad restaurant review, better than no review at all. My wife thinks this may be a sign, that he’s really coming apart. To which I say, he’s been coming apart for 20 years. It’s what artists do, they come apart.

This is about keeping your idols, the stars, where they belong — at a distance.

A soundtrack for bumming out or making out

I stayed away from the Red House Painters because I didn’t like the name, and because I heard they sucked in an Internet chat room I visited for my favorite band, The Fall.

It was the early 90s and not many people had computers, so if you wanted to use one, you could rent time browsing the Web in an Internet Café. Someone on a message board was angry about RHP and I figured if a Fall fan didn’t like them, I wouldn’t either.

By 1999 I met my future wife, while living alone in a Craftsman bungalow in Wallingford, with a remote control fireplace and a rust colored shag rug. It was coming on winter in Seattle and I was knee-deep in the Red House Painters now, songs about love and loss, dreary, intricate:

The hurting never ends
Like birthdays and old friends
We forget what is flesh blood and bone is human
Turning phone lines to airlines
Unwilling to face
The love is found on the inside, not the outside

– ‘Medicine Bottle,’ Red House Painters, 1992

And so with alcohol and candles, Kozelek’s music became a kind of séance, though I didn’t know his name or anything about him.

GhostsoftheGreatHighwayBy 2003, Red House Painters had broken up and Kozelek released a record under a new moniker, Sun Kil Moon. The album was perfect, and for the next several years, my friends and I all wanted him to remake it, but he wouldn’t. It had Neil Young rock bite to it, mixed with pretty, acoustic stylings — as a record, as a story, it all made sense from start to finish. But for the next five years, he wouldn’t plug in. The records were all soft and under-stated, a bit precious, and I had a hard time listening all the way through to the end.

Which is just the thing about Mark Kozelek and his relation to the world now, and why he’s bitching out The War on Drugs and getting combative with his audiences, the people who pay money to come watch him play.

Because Mark Kozelek’s music requires you to be quiet and pay attention, to really listen. More than once, I’ve seen him in venues where the crowd has gone there just to drink and hang out, with Kozelek as a backdrop. But Kozelek’s music demands your attention and he won’t tolerate anything less. In an age of distraction he’s on the endangered list, and knows it.


Neptune Theater Seattle, February 2014, Pre-Koz, about to be let down


It’s hard writing about the people you admire most because you put an expectation on them they’ll never be able to carry; you turn them into the perfect expression of who you think they should be, to fill the voids in your imagination of who you yourself could be, if you were half the artist they are.

When they get up on the stage they’re playing for you and singing your songs because that’s the whole point, but they still have an identity they’re struggling to keep and understand, too.

And funny, to be Mark Kozelek and require a footnote for people to know who he is, to identify him, when he knows better than any of us ever will, and that’s why he’s so goddamned good, whether you like him or not.

Fame, Fame, Fatal Fame

It’s never been my dream
to swim in the mainstream
we’re in a different current,
but they’re okay with me

Sometimes I Can’t Stop,
Mark Kozelek & Desertshore, 2013

Popularity can ruin artists, and while Mark has insisted he doesn’t need it, a half-click away from David Gray and a million times better, it has to start to kill you too, the fact of not being popular, when you’re that good and that unknown.

He sings about Elliot Smith and Jason Molina, how hard it is to write songs, to do it right, and for that I think he deserves a pass for talking shit about The War on Drugs. In some ways I think he feels it more.


You can’t retweet a memory: Nick Drake, Starbucks, why we roast turkeys

Nick Drake, You Tube

Nick Drake, You Tube

Hurting, brooding, kind of liking how it feels, discovering pain and self-pity as a teenager, with Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. When I hear those songs now it reminds me of that time and it’s even better, it’s been auto-corrected.

At work at Starbucks, I spend two weeks planning for a four hour meeting with a dozen VPs to talk about a new brand, to confront the idea of coffee’s Third Wave, which is really just to slow down, to have ‘moments.’

We get one of the Strategy guys to share with us what’s been presented to the Board. I haven’t met him, but he’s just as I imagined, as the smart Strategy people always are.

He speaks with a supernatural ease and energy. He owns the room, he likes hearing himself talk, we all do. He’s so good, he just sits at the top of the table eating popcorn and then pops up and tells me when to advance the slides. I’m in awe, nodding, inspired to ask questions, jotting notes, I’m so fired up.

Because what he’s saying is smart and common sense, which you don’t always get in corporate meetings. He’s talking about the brand potential of giving people an experience they remember and want to talk about, they want to relive. Call it a halo effect.

Regardless of how you feel about the word ‘brand’ or Starbucks, there’s a simple, base-level association between things we consume and how they make us feel about ourselves, how they trigger memories.

It’s why I always put Nick Drake on at the start of Fall, because I associate this time of year with his moody, stark music. And I can relive the first time I heard him, far away in the hills of southern France while two Englishmen roasted a lamb leg at my mom’s, and we drank Rosé (Pink, Pink, Pink, Pink).

Pink Moon, 1972 Wikipedia

Pink Moon, 1972 Wikipedia

And it’s the same reason I roast turkey in November — for me, the tradition is in the smell and the memories more than the actual meal.

The brand is rooted in a feeling and connection that will always be better than the product itself. Because products don’t have emotions, people do.




Another run-in with the surly butcher

IMG_2810Why do butchers act the way they do? Because they chop meat and get covered with blood, for work?

I got to the store early, picked up my things, and saved the meat for last. I needed a couple pounds of country-style spare ribs, and wanted to cook the meat on the bone, and have it cut into two inch pieces. In the past, they just run it under the saw and package it, no problem.

But yesterday, the butcher was gone. I noticed a sign that said they’d be happy to help, but only between certain hours, and those hours hadn’t started. So I asked the kid who was handling some fish and he said yes, she was here but she’s on break, probably back in five or 10 minutes.

I killed time in the Ethnic section. 10cc overhead, I’m Not In Love. The time right before it gets too busy for them to stock, to where they all get sucked back to the checkout counters and everyone’s pissed off.

They jam Kosher, Asian and Mexican together in about 15 square feet, in the ethnic section. You’ve got the candles with Mary on them, canned Pork Menudo, that kind of thing. I was on the lookout for guava paste or achiote powder, but no such luck.

I spotted the butcher and we traded looks, she was expecting me. She is stout, graying, stern, smells of cigarettes and yes, has a mustache.

It’s not the kind of mustache you’d say to be mean, about a woman who has facial hair; it’s a deliberate mustache likely paired with a sexual preference, a statement, maybe involving supplements, not something to talk about if you’re her manager, and fringy even here on WordPress.

I realized from past run-ins with the butcher that she’s been working on the mustache and it’s been a while now. It’s developed fins on the sides she could wax and curl if she wanted. I noticed the mustache and she noticed me noticing it, and I said I needed some pork cut up please, and I’m sorry I didn’t notice there were certain hours to ask and I won’t do it again, sorry.

And as they always do, the butcher walked swiftly to the area where the meat is already doled out and packaged. Like, You asshole: it’s right here. Let’s see if I can read.

But I had already combed the packages, and they didn’t have what I wanted. So she grabbed a side of pork bigger than both our cats put together, and slapped it on the counter with the saw.

We had an exchange about how I wanted it cut and she mumbled something I agreed to but didn’t understand, and then when she slid around the counter to present it to me I frowned and said I’m sorry, there must have been a miscommunication, because I needed it cut the other way.

And now she frowned and shook her head and looked down, as if saying something under her breath, but gave me a half smile and said No problem, looking past me, thinking what kind of instrument she’d use on me, how quick or slow it would take, where the shoulder disconnects from the neck in the back, biting her lip, setting the blade.

It didn’t turn out as well as it normally does, the pork and beans. I have a small piece of paper in my cookbook describing how I cook the meal each year, this ‘inauguration to fall’ recipe from my first Jacques Pépin cookbook, the one I learned how to cook on.

This year, I will mention the surly butcher when I put it back on the shelf and we will blend the leftovers into a soup, garnished with fresh cilantro, Tabasco. Sometimes you just get a bad cut.

Why the leaves fall

There is an old woman collecting leaves on the sidewalk
No one notices what happens to all the leaves
They are like days we sometimes save
and they can be beautiful,
and look like all the rest

The days are no different than the leaves
How they come to form a backdrop,
a million endless days you would never notice,
never think to count

When we look back, and find one crinkled in a book
we wonder why we tried to save them,
they don’t look the same.

Carson Street slideshow, 1994

We are in Michael’s boyfriend’s apartment, getting into Michael’s boyfriend’s bag. Michael is gay before anyone else in Pittsburgh. He wears scarves and earrings with hoops and looks beautiful but doesn’t act like a priss. People talk behind his back and he knows it but doesn’t seem to care because he’s not insecure, it’s just who he is.

We’ve never met his boyfriend; he stays in the back of the apartment. He calls out orders to Michael and Michael responds right away. We have to be careful with his boyfriend’s bong because it’s from the 70s, it’s one of those skull and snake bongs with eyeballs and horns and claws. It doesn’t look like you could break it even if you wanted to.

I am on the sofa next to Michael and my girlfriend is on the other side of the coffee table, on a chair. She’s looking at me funny because she knows we’re going to get high and when we do, she goes crazy in bed. It’s better when we’re high because everything feels different.

Michael is meticulous with the weed, separating the small stems and breaking the bud into little pieces, making a campfire. A bundle of faggots. He offers us a drink and brings a pitcher of ice water. We are going out later, after we get high.

Damon is the first among us with kids, the only one, in fact. But because they’re hippies, he and his wife (or partner) are okay lighting up around the kid and none of us knows better or thinks it’s wrong. The kid moves around my apartment touching things and we watch him from ground level.

Damon plays guitar and pares his fingernails and leaves the clippings on my coffee table when we leave. He puts bills up on telephone poles with a stapler gun announcing his project, which no one understands. He has a brand and a look to his project but it’s unclear what it is, something Vaudevillian and circus-like.

Pittsburgh is a hotbed of artists coming in and out of the café, flocking there like crows cawing, smoking, shitting all over the sidewalk. Many of them are there all day, some you only see in the morning because they’re actually doing art in their apartments, the rest of the day. Like Bill Wissell, the welder, who makes contorted bugs out of steel and puts them up in his windows, like it’s Halloween, all year-round.

Or Rick Bach, who plays guitar on the street even though he can play shows and make a living, he’s that good. He has a rockabilly outfit called Hellbelly and it’s as much fun watching them as it is hearing them, even more so, because they all look like real freaks and rock stars with their fucked up hair and sunglasses and beer-drinking right there, on the street.

I have a video camera and film them at Rick’s apartment. It’s a kind of Thing to get invited into Rick’s apartment. He even has an intercom so you have to announce who’s there and when they describe me they have to repeat my name a couple times and say, the guy who runs the open mic at Arabica.

There is an older guy they call Horsey at Rick’s, and he is wasted beyond measure. They are baiting Horsey to do bad things, and Horsey is happy to please. Horsey is likely homeless and slurs even when he’s not drunk. He never comes in to the shop because he doesn’t have any money. They get him high and he sings and takes his clothes off and we all laugh, I film it.

Beanloaf is there too: Beanloaf looks like Charles Manson, with the hair and the far-off eyes, and the stone-cast face. They say he smoked his mother’s ashes once, and I believe it.

And others from the Circus Apocalypse, who can get out of strait jackets and run across broken glass barefooted, and eat large, live bugs. These are the people I want to associate with, I think, because they are making something out of their minds for other people’s enjoyment, just making it up and living it. There is no separation between the two worlds. This time is like a dream and we are all moving through it in that way you do in dreams, when you know it’s about to end and you’ll try hard to remember it the next day, convinced it means something you should pay attention to.

For anyone who cares what they look like when found dead, puts on make-up to jog, or combs their hair before bed

We go to Portland for the weekend, to get away. They’re so polite in Portland, their graffiti looks like this:


All the boxes are checked. I look around and think, maybe it was written just for me!

We round a turn in the park and come upon a girl in the bushes. The path is narrow, it’s twilight, and I fear my kids are about to see a public sex act, or someone doing drugs, getting knifed. But because it’s Portland, it’s just a girl picking berries, smiling vaguely like she’s just realized she’s in love, maybe retarded. She’s wearing pixie boots and a retro skirt, no make-up, like a figure from a Maxfield Parrish painting, Berry Picking in Portland.

The next day, we drive to Mount Hood. The rain is back but it’s a novelty, and because it’s Portland, there are no complaints, just observations.

We follow the way toward Damascus, and other towns with names like Boring, Sandy, Rhododendron. The town is called Government Camp, and we stop to check in.

There are a million lights and switches in the condominium, and I race to understand them all before anyone else can, to set everything to just the right level. Outside on the deck, you can see the tavern across the road, a café down further below, figures outside smoking, bundled up: late August, but it feels like snow.

Our friends from Portland are staying with us; it’s the two of them and their two year-old son, Arthur. When they arrive, Arthur begins playing with all the lights and disrupting the system I had in place. The blinds go askew, the coasters, pillows…I really have to tell myself to let it go, relax.

The condo is on two levels, with an upper loft. I worry that Arthur could get through the rails, could dangle off the side, and worry about my friends and how that will make them worry more than worrying about Arthur himself, because he’s invincible. I saw him bounce his head off the sidewalk, no problem.

But they are much better with their son than I am, so I try to cool it — even when he’s jumping on top of the pool table, throwing the billiard balls hither and thither, and I think about the security deposit, that awkward moment when something happens and we have to talk about damages and penalties.

And so what starts off perfect soon disintegrates, and I assume the role of the Tidier, collecting water glasses and coffee mugs, repositioning the cereal box to its rightful place on the counter, folding blankets and so on.

Due to a miscommunication between Dawn and I, we’re always forgetting to bring the toothpaste, assuming the other has done so, and then I go out and buy some, only to come home and discover she brought it after all and now we’ve got two, which is the same thing that happened last time, so now we’ve got four, and now we are overcome with toothpaste, each tube with the same amount remaining and never rolled up right, just a careless squeeze so that you can make out the shape of the hand that grabbed it, forgot to put the cap back on, didn’t care.

The kids move in loose clumps around the condo while I try to relax, but there’s something building in me that erupts at the moment they start screaming and I shout NO SCREAMING STOP THIS SCREAMING I DO NOT LIKE THE SCREAMING. And I sound like Dr. Seuss; they all stop and look, like How could you — as do the parents — and now I’m the ass, they just look away and bend down to collect the children, “Let’s go find something else to do.”

We go up the mountain to the lodge, where they have an outdoor, heated pool and you can take turns going between the pool, the spa, the sauna. I hide in the spa, but confuse the Hygrometer dial with the Thermometer, and also assume the big number is the American one, for Fahrenheit, but I have it all wrong, and keep turning it up higher, adding more water to the rocks to make more steam, until it gets so hot I can imagine my third eye opening, can see the edges of infinity and pre-cognate how it will feel when I really lose my mind for good some day.

Loren is a musician and only child like me, so we dual over DJ duty and the women recede to the borders. He takes the late shift, the denouement, as the kids are bedding down and the women, in their books, and I hear Dawn calling from the loft, calling me by my name (“Bill”), always a bad sign, commenting on the music volume or selection, I can’t tell.

It sounds like someone is vacuuming in another room; you can hear the attachment rubbing against the edges of the furniture and sucking, whining, and though it’s ripe with meaning, we have to change it.

It’s an Armageddon Rain with wind to boot, making ribbed patterns along the asphalt and wisps of chimney smoke below, smoke like spirits taking shape, bluish faces with long O’s for mouths, cupping the air for sound like fish rising to the surface, Death Eaters, shadows of implied other-worlds playing upon our ceiling.

There is no agenda in the morning, no plan, second-day underwear and coffee, getting riled up and antsy with nothing to do but relax. And so the four of us settle into the in-between moments on the sofa, Dawn and Lily both reading, Charlotte making something with tape and pencils, me flip-flopping between reading and writing, the maddening aspect of an archaeological dig, what it feels like to know there’s something down there, hidden in the earth.

Loren and I stay up late excavating You Tube for rare concert clips of bands like Wire and Felt, and when we find them, it’s hard to believe. We fall asleep on the sofa and trade texts the next day saying thanks, it was so much fun, and on the drive home I keep talking about when we’ll go back next time.



Quoting depressed comedians


We start the 9 o’clock meeting some time after 9 o’clock. I book one of the conference rooms on the north side of the building, the ninth floor, picturesque views of downtown bathed in blue: sky blue, water blue, railroad cranes and ferry boats, boxcars, sea gulls, crows…the raw collision of industry and nature, Seattle.

There’s something about meetings when it’s only guys that’s different, especially when they’re older and they’ve all made their careers in construction. There’s this guy thing, one ring out from the job site.

And for whatever reason, triggered by a reference to bird shit on the window, they all start quoting Bill Murray from Caddyshack.

And it goes around from guy to guy like a secret handshake, the comments and quotes, the Bill Murray-way he spoke like a kind of stroke victim, with his mouth slung low. It goes around from guy to guy until it ends with me and one of them says, “What’s the matter Bill, are we making you nervous?”

Which is just a bully way of saying I’m going to fuck with you now and root you out (you’re not one of us)…and so I say No, I like Bill Murray…especially the films he made after he learned how to act. (And I think about bringing up Lost in Translation, but figure that it would also be [lost in translation]), so I start the meeting instead.)

I was second on the agenda, to talk about Temporary Order Posts. Someone didn’t like the design on the temporary order post after it was installed even though it had been approved and the person who didn’t like it didn’t have decision-rights but it was a political thing now, we all knew it but wouldn’t dare say it, they didn’t like the temporary order post because it was too green, it looked “bolted-on.”

So it was my task to talk to the supplier about changing the design — how much it costs, how long it would take, the difference between powder coating and “wet painting,” vinyl wraps, drop-shipping the units to save transit time, fast-track the QA, etc.

And the details rolled off my tongue in a casual way as I sat there looking at them but I wasn’t really looking, the real ‘I’ just started floating above, watching myself talk like a puppet with someone else’s hands in its mouth: it was odd to be the me talking and the me that was watching myself talk, but it was a deep blue sky outside despite the bird stains, and I told myself to stop thinking about Bill Murray, about Robin Williams, although there was small talk about them earlier, and we all agreed it was sad, so sad…but I started the meeting anyway, and everyone agreed that was a good plan, for the temporary order post. Let’s just approve it, we can do that here, that’s the great thing about this meeting, and one of them even took a moment to acknowledge it as a Team Win, with a dramatic nod to me for leading it, and I felt good and justified, it was even worth promoting, our efforts here.

It went on. Others came in late, sat down, unlocked their devices…and there was a lot of agreement and soon, general bitching about one of the suppliers and the fact that we hadn’t gotten the UL certification from them still, WTF?

A good-sized plate of pontification now, everyone just slapping it on there, splashing around and not caring, the fun of just getting in there, getting dirty with the details when you fancy yourself a decision maker, an expert. Lead: they stitched it in our sweatshirts for that manager’s conference, that one year: Lead.

And it got so much fun I jumped in because it was quarter to the hour and we were all pissed off about the supplier and so I said, Why don’t we just use the last 15 minutes of this meeting to call them, now?

And Tobi said that was a good idea, but the rest of the room fell quiet, non-committal, a half-nod at best, still smarting about the Bill Murray thing earlier wondering, could I be trusted.

I got up to leave and they moved in to the phone and decided they would call the supplier after all, someone had the number right here, and I felt smug for just a moment, to have a good idea and smack the project around a little, to put my spunk in it and then just walk out.

It was so good that the Materials Manager asked what I thought we should do, who to order the 24 hour pylon ribbon prototype from, and I said Who can produce it fastest, we need to release this thing like now?, which was the obvious, executive thing to say and so she nodded of course, and hurried off.

And I marched downstairs with my chest out to meet the VP of a group I used to work with, the one that does employee communications, that’s often explaining things like how to ring up the pastries right, or the importance of using our outdated tracking tools, lists and systems that account for things like milk usage, markouts.

And she put it to me after some chit chat, So tell me: what do you bring to the table?, and I had to step back because I wasn’t really planning to talk in frank terms like that, even though I should have, right?

And I led with the fact that I’m a writer and I just let the words hang out there in her office, out of my mouth now, my tongue hanging there like a dog and me, with my nakedness — and I knew what would come next, the next moment that comes every time you say that, a hand reaches down to grab you by the neck and says, So…what do you write?

And I told her I’ve been keeping a blog, and I mumbled something about a novel but who has the time (Ha, ha), what with the kids and the time and the work you know, and then I started to leave my body again and watch myself mouth the words of a script I wrote (or maybe somebody else) which I didn’t really like, but I do have to smooth out the talk-track I thought later, how it felt like a coming out of sorts, which is how you start to make things real, by saying them.


Prism of grocery store clerk impressions

The song Lunatic Fringe comes on overhead and the checker, who’s deep in her 50s, looks up and disappears for a moment to another time, smiles a secret smile to herself and goes off to another place, all her own.

And there’s a kid with Down’s Syndrome who’s cleaning the glass down the freezer aisle, rolling his mouth to keep his glasses from slipping off the tip of his nose.

And I write it down while I’m standing here at the checkout because I know I will lose it and pretend it’s just a list, and I’m just like the others who have to write things down, to remember.

He blows his nose and opens the tissue to examine it, as if he’s expecting something unexpected, but never finds it. He grows older each time he blows his nose, dying bit by bit, falling through the stem through the hour glass, blowing. It’s part of him he’s looking for, in the tissue.

I’ve lost track of which toothbrush is mine by the sink and stopped caring, there’s nothing much happened to either one of us, yet.

And there is the slow collapse of days and a sloughing off that’s always happening until one day, something changes and you realize.

That’s the feeling with the rhythm of the prism spinning, how it catches the light sometimes and throws rainbows on the wall, then fades.

There are the days you spring out of bed because you can’t sit still when it’s spring, and then one day those days just stop.

And there will always be a fall to follow, and a winter, thereafter.

And our daughter wears a bra before she has to because she cannot wait, and though she reads about the Greeks who fantasized about killing their parents in myths, it’s really a grown-up she wants to be, all of us do.

And so it happens for a period, you resemble the adult you’ve always fancied for yourself but you don’t act that way because you don’t know how, don’t really want to, and then upon realizing that’s lame, you actually become that person you feared you would be, and wish you could be the other one instead.

So the clerk goes back there for a moment to another time, brought on by the urgency of the guitar chords that cut across the tops of the grocery store aisles like lightning, like hands from the sky, hands of the gods, to lift her off and obliterate her and spread her remains through the coldness of space, to remember for a moment, then forget.


An eye, an ear, a voice, a heart: the journey to find

(This post originally titled A voice, an ear, an eye, a heart, but I resequenced it.)

Writers talk about the importance of finding your voice. That’s been the premise of this blog, to see what I sound like as a writer — a kind of open mic.

And while it’s true, the voice is important: to be distinct, to sound fresh and honest and real, there’s other parts that make up the voice, that provide it with depth and range.

Speaking strictly about voices, the singing kind, I think about Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Calvin Johnson, Chan Marshall, Mark Lanegan…not all of them ‘good voices,’ but each come from a place deeply rooted in the singer, a place that seems otherworldly even, calling us to join.

You need to know what your voice sounds like, and that comes from developing your ear, your sense of taste for what you like, how you work with words.

In the corporate world, I’m keenly aware of how people talk in meetings. It’s true, if your breath is constricted and your tone is stressed, you will have that same effect on others around you. We tap into frequencies we’re not conscious of: as a writer, you can have that same effect on readers by your pacing, structure, use of punctuation. We forget that punctuating is supposed to accent what we’re saying, not just prove we understand rules.

And then there is the eye, my favorite. I haven’t studied eastern faiths, but there is something to the notion of a third eye, if you imagine all the wacky shit your brain concocts in sleep, when the mind is left to ramble.

Your ability to see beyond the surface, to see in a different way, gives you more to work with when it comes time to make up wacky shit for your readers. Check this first line from A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius:

Through the small tall bathroom window the December yard is gray and scratchy, the trees calligraphic.

I had to re-read that and think about calligraphic. I’ve never used that word as an adjective, fuck! But as I thought about it, I imagined scant trees etched in a wintry landscape. In the opening line, the author’s created a feeling about what’s to come, with just 16 words and a comma. Poetry! He was able to make me see something, through his eyes.

This is not The Wizard of Oz, but there is something to the heart in all this, the heart that is an organ like the eyes, and functions for biological purposes but also something more.

And you could say the same about the sum of us and who we are as people, a collection of organs and parts that’s also something more, implied when it’s said “She really has heart,” or “What a beautiful mind.” The heart is why you do what you do and what you hope to gain by it, to gain by giving, to change the world.

Of the singers I named earlier you may not know all of them or like any of them, but to me, they’ve all learned to put their hearts in their voice, and perhaps that’s what we really hear when we like someone. It’s more than what they’re saying, it’s what’s behind the voice. And to find that in yourself is the real journey.

Mustard-colored moss and dew-dappled cobwebs, near Connemara, Ireland 2009

Mustard-colored moss and dew-dappled cobwebs, near Connemara, Ireland 2009




What happened when the vanpool driver cracked

This is a confession about me, the vanpool driver, and how I’ve begun to secretly hate the other riders on our van. It’s no different than what happens to bus drivers, taxi drivers, airplane pilots: people who get paid carting other people around. I don’t even get paid for it, I volunteer.

The vanpool program is funded by the county, to encourage people to carpool to work. They give you a mini-van, pay for the gas and maintenance, and then employers help subsidize the monthly rental and some provide free parking in the employee garage. It’s a sweet deal, but someone’s got to drive.

I volunteered because I’ve been in other vans where the drivers were bad, and I couldn’t relax. And if I can’t relax, I might as well drive. Now that I drive, everyone else can just relax. I watch them in the rear view mirror, either slumped back drooling or finger-fucking their phones.

And because it’s a vanpool with colleagues of mixed age, race, and musical taste, we normalize it by playing NPR. They talk about the traffic at precisely the same time every day, and I gauge if we’re on track to arrive by precisely what mile marker or highway feature we’re passing.

Yesterday, the windshield had some muck on it so I hit the wiper to engage the cleaning fluid and I guess it spritzed on one of the riders as she was getting in the van and she made a comment about it, but I didn’t know the fluid could really go that far, and I didn’t apologize. That’s when the crack started to open; I didn’t feel bad about getting her wet.

Then, another one of the riders said Is it Thursday already? (She’s always surprised by what day it is, the same one who asks me to repeat what the newscaster just said because she’s too busy talking over it.)

Another rider, who insists on sitting in the back and often leaves her jacket there, never pays her monthly dues on time and when she does, asks if it’s OK to take quarters. I actually had to send an Outlook reminder to everyone to pay their monthly dues on a set day, and I tried to address this thing about ‘cash only’ in the planner, because people had the nerve to give me their eight dollars by cleaning out their change jars. Who carries change anymore? Old people.

Sudhakar rides shot gun whenever possible, and doesn’t offer it to the others. He always gives me a smile and a greeting, and seems to enjoy the ride. He leaves his phone alone and doesn’t nap. But we’ve had issues with his punctuality and last week, he was four minutes late on the return home. So I sent an email the following day and coated it with niceties about the importance of being on time for people who have other commitments, and that seems to be working.

But in my dream this week, it was Sudhakar who was driving for some reason. And we weren’t on our normal route, on the highway: instead, we were in the middle of Nebraska or Oklahoma, the dream told me that, and I knew that’s where we were because on the passenger’s side, there was a dark funnel taking shape, what could be a tornado or a typhoon, foaming, growing more and more ominous.

I started to direct from the back seat, to cry out and point, Look! But no one noticed, and the typhoon-thing started to spit out chunks of ice. The ice made sounds in my dream like a glacier calving, and a chunk hit the van, causing us to reel out of control.

I took the wheel from Sudhakar, who was either dead now or impaired, and jerked the vehicle in the other direction. The windshield was gone and the van was starting to freeze over; the dials had cracks in them and I felt like a jet pilot now, flicking switches and adjusting the heat to aim at the floor.

We stopped at a convenience store for bottled water. The other riders were anonymous in that dream-way that you sense others are there but the truth is, this dream is about you. Tell it to your therapist.

I walked in the convenience store and was met with the blasé attitude of the workers, who sat slumped on their stools, seemingly unaware of the typhoon thing, likely my own personal nightmare. And even though the dream told me to load up on supplies in that desperate, hoarder way, I passed on the soft pretzels and hot dogs, which looked like they were turning on the spit too long.

And I got back in the van, and was redeemed now as the Primary Driver, and when I awoke, I felt marvelous and superior again, all alone.