The fear to really be | what scares us most, about art

It had been many months since I went around the corner from our house to the new development. Why would I?—turning left instead of right, I could go down to the lake. Turning right, and right again, they’d taken out a grove of trees and prepped the lots with storm and sewer drains marked with stakes and plastic tape, put down straw and strips of sod, drain rock, sidewalks. It’s where I used to come for story ideas, when it was still woods with vague trails, ferns, moss: signs saying “Sensitive Area” with illustrations of heron and bobcat, an idealized salmon arcing, mid-air—and yet, it was no different than the developments I knew back east growing up, the only difference was I knew this place before, when it was trees.

I had a story idea about an evil character with really long arms. The character had these arms that extended like tendrils and moved the way strands of seaweed might in the ocean, real slow. I kept going back to the woods thinking the story would just present itself to me and I wouldn’t have to write it. I took notes, but when I reread them I got discouraged. The idea didn’t really pan out. I kept combining the horror premise with scenes from my childhood, but like mixing two pieces of music it didn’t fit. I also wasn’t sure I wanted to do horror. I kept coming back to memoir, there was enough horror in that for me.

I think I didn’t write it because there was this barrier of fear between me and the story. The barrier was just around me, I made it. I didn’t know many writers but one I did, Dawn’s friend Patrick: we’d go see him and his new baby, and when it was time for everyone to go he’d brew a pot of coffee and start glowing; he knew he’d be up late writing, before he had to go to work in the morning. He was really excited about that, he was doing it.

And there was a guitar player I knew in Pittsburgh who was really good, I remember watching him play in my apartment and that far-away look he got concentrating, disassociating himself, the fingers and the brain. And we’d often go to bars or people’s houses to hang out but he’d always decline, he said he had to go home so he could play.

It’s much easier to be someone or something in your head. The fear even allows you to rationalize it, to make it seem real. I heard a guitarist do an interview on the radio last week who said he had to become himself, that’s what he really needed to succeed, to just be who he was meant to be.

I’ve said it before, the danger comes with the money, the real need for security we all have and the trade-offs we make, the fear in us that prefers we don’t even try, so we don’t have to fail. To protect us from ourselves and our urges, and deny us the same.

It’s that banging on the desk, on your window, in your in-box that beats the same drum, “I’m an artist,” I’m an artist, I am!

Perhaps keep writing it enough and you won’t have to say it so much.

And when they say “I play music,” or “I’m going to a play,” remember that’s what it’s supposed to be about, so play.

Photo credit, Loren Chasse.

Come play with me on Saturdays on my new, spring guest post series Anthony’s Navel.

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“One more red nightmare”

Donnie said he forwarded my email to Fripp and would let me know if he heard back. I sent that to Loren, because I wasn’t sure I’d ever get an email like that again, that said “I forwarded your message to Fripp.”

I don’t worship Fripp, but there are reasons I should. Loren worships him though, and it’s possible if we hear back from Fripp we might get to meet him when he comes to Seattle later this spring, and they start their US tour of King Crimson, and play an invite-only show the night before.

In my note to Donnie I told him that John (my stepdad) had a line of guitar strings I think they made just for Robert Fripp, and wondered, did Robert remember John? I included a photo and link to his Wiki page. And then I went onto Fripp’s, I looked him up, because I only knew about his time in King Crimson, and the fact he played guitar on Bowie’s song “Heroes,” and made records with Eno and Peter Gabriel.

And then I learned he has 700 official releases, was left-handed but forced himself to play right, is tone-deaf, and sits on a stool on stage while playing.

Donnie and I high-fived each other after he cut my hair, and then Brad and I went downstairs in my old office there at Starbucks, so he could show me pictures of his time in New Zealand, and use one of the flat screens to project from his laptop. It was a Saturday, which is the only day I can go there to get my hair cut, because there’s no one around.

It was my first time back in the main part of the office since I left in 2014, where I’d spent almost 20 years working. And I remembered an infamous meeting in that same conference room, 4 o’clock on a Friday, a bitter hour to host a project meeting, when I dropped my first F-bomb, and did so to a VP, but he was a VP of Design and really cool, I liked him, he was left-handed too, and when I blurted out “what am I, the FUCKING PROJECT MANAGER,” he laughed nervously, touched my arm and thanked me: he said thanks for saying that, I feel better now, and I wondered later if I should apologize, and probably did the following week.

In that room the others were coming unglued too. We sat there waiting for the VP, and they shared more about their personal lives, how much their kids were driving them nuts, how badly they needed a drink, and Dawn was picking me up at the office afterwards because it was my birthday, and we had overnight reservations downtown: we ate dinner and went bar-hopping and ate dinner again, when we got back…and the next day we had a garden crew come out to the house for the first time to do a fall clean up, and they picked it as clean as a chicken carcass, and I hung up the Christmas lights, and probably made dinner.

Brad brought his good camera to meet me at his work, and hung out in the salon while Donnie cut me, and afterwards we went to a different conference room that had good light and an interesting background for my headshot, except the background said Starbucks on it, so we moved to the side where it was more generic.

And I was surprised I looked okay in the photo when he showed it to me, and we packed things up and got on the elevator and headed out, and I was surprised too it didn’t feel weird to be back at my old office, and then wondered in a way if that’s why I still go there to see Donnie, because I feel some attachment to it I can’t get over, or I’m morbidly fascinated by it, the way we’re sometimes drawn back to old places we used to live, and sometimes the owners will let you in to walk around, and for a moment you just stand there looking, soaking it up, and after a few minutes of that you have to let it go, and just leave.



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Not too far into the first side

That Easter weekend my girlfriend Marie’s parents were away she stayed home and I lied about where I was going, and went to Marie’s. There’s something about going to work the morning after you’ve lost your virginity that feels invincible, even if it’s a holiday, a religious one; I felt like it was me, who’d arisen. I was working my first job, a CVS pharmacy in my neighborhood, and Marie dropped me off and we kissed and hugged, and the sun and the birds were out, and I stormed in to work a new man, and it was April, 1988, about 9 in the morning, Easter Sunday.

In that job I was responsible for cash handling and the light tasks of keeping the aisle carpets clean, facing the various lines of Aqua Net hairspray on the shelves, breaking down boxes and scanning things when the orders came in on Tuesdays.

When I worked the till, it was up on a raised platform with all the cigarettes and cash registers and condoms, which I felt to be in league with now and entitled to steal, along with the blank cassette tapes and razors; in my loosely established value system of 17, these seemed the perks that come with minimum wage.

And it was on the cassettes I wrote love letters with the music I dubbed for Marie, and that Saturday night it was just the two of us I brought the first album by the band The Lords of the New Church, and there was nothing female-friendly about it but I put it on after dinner when we started in, and we didn’t get too far into the first side before I was through.

That week it had been really sunny, I remember because my dad built a raised platform in our backyard and on it I sunned myself but couldn’t find any suntan lotion so I used cooking oil instead; I ran it all over my chest and lay there for a good, long time—and that night at Marie’s I had sun poisoning so bad I wanted to die. I scratched my chest just once and then it was aflame and burning and I had to sit on my hands to keep myself from scratching—but she gave me some anti-histamine from her parent’s medicine cabinet, allowed me a can of one of her dad’s Coor’s Golds, and I lay in a cold bathtub wondering if it was true, we’d finally do it.

Marie made pasta and lit a candle and played some music and when I came down, the pill and the beer and the bath had fixed everything, and we left the dishes on the table half-eaten and went upstairs, and that was that.

But Marie lied to me about being her first, which I found out through my roommate later at college. In fact, she’d been with another guy, the one I’d dressed up like Run DMC with one Halloween, when the two of us wore Kango hats and gold chains and lip synced one of the songs at the high school dance, and drove there in his mom’s silver Mercedes, and probably had a good amount of beer, and looked like dicks, because we were.

She and I wrote long letters to one another at college and she sprayed hers with perfume, and I saved them for a long time in a shoebox and lost track of what happened to them, in someone’s attic.

But it was on the raised platform at the pharmacy I remember my English teacher coming in once, my favorite teacher of all time, the one with the lazy eye who was balding and smoked cigarettes, when he ordered a carton of Winstons and I chastised him and he gave me this fraternal look of fuck you and said one day you’ll realize, you just won’t care what people think. And it’s because of him I probably write—and on our senior prom that year, when my parents wouldn’t allow Marie and I to sleep together in a hotel room but would allow us to camp outside in the backyard, it’s Mr. Perrett who lent me his tent, and we thought Marie might be pregnant in the morning but she wasn’t, and I went by his house to return the tent and we talked, and before I moved to France many years later I wrote to him and tried to reconnect, but we couldn’t.

Marie’s mom didn’t like me, that’s one of the reasons it didn’t work out. One night we were in my parent’s car outside my house I was pissed off and punched the inside of the windshield and it just spidered out and broke. The glass didn’t come in or anything but it was impressive, I must have hit it at just the right angle, and though I was proud of myself and my strength, it didn’t play well when Marie made the mistake of telling her mom, who suggested maybe next time it would be her I hit, that maybe I had anger issues.

And I lied to my dad about what happened so we could claim the insurance money, I said something must have fallen on it; it was hard to tell whether the point of impact came from the inside or out.

And when it was really time to say goodbye to Marie, when that moment came after all the breakups and on-again, off-again, she’d gotten a nose job and was laid up in bed, her face bruised and bandaged, I thought it would be a good way to remember her, and on the way out of her house I said to her dad “high price on vanity,” and he only nodded, and how much the same is true for me, how hard that is to see.









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Anthony’s Navel: Kevin Brennan, on discovering jazz

One of my favorite writers and friends on WordPress, Kevin Brennan shares his story for my Saturday guest blog series, answering the challenge “what book, movie or record changed how you see the world?”

“Out of a clear blue sky”
by Kevin Brennan

It’s hard to distill a whole life’s worth of culture experience into a handful of things that “changed how you see the world,” but when I started thinking about it, some contenders floated to the top.

Almost every book I read as a young ‘un seemed to qualify. Any teen boy who read Slaughterhouse Five in 1970 or so was never the same. Catch-22 was huge for me, as were John Gardner’s novels October Light and The Sunlight Dialogues. And in music, any young rocker who obsessed over the Stones’ Exile on Main Street in ‘72 knew he was tasting the sticky, decadent resin of the form — it wasn’t going to get any rockier after that. Just variations on a theme.

But taking “changed how you see the world” almost literally, I’m looking at a time later in life, when a particular record came across my radar and showed me that I’d been looking for the sublime in all the wrong places.

It was the groundbreaking Kind of Blue, by Miles Davis — that pivotal jazz treasure — that changed how I see the world. My world, anyway.

I didn’t stumble upon it till I was about thirty. Up till then I thought of myself strictly as a pop/rock guy who dabbled in standard classical stuff for well-roundedness. But I was trying to write a novel at the time that had a jazz element so I thought I should educate myself. I read one of those articles in Esquire or some outlet like that, “Ten Must-Own Jazz Albums,” and of course Kind of Blue was at the top of the list. I had a fairly new CD player I was itching to try out, so the Miles Davis was the first jazz CD I ever bought.

I guess I thought of jazz in those days as a Louis Armstrong thing, a little old-fashioned and even kind of cartoonish. People were “cats.” It reeked of Beatniks and berets. The Big Band sound also had a grip on it, which I didn’t much care for, and though I didn’t like him at the time, Buddy Rich was always on The Tonight Show in my teens and I thought he was a joke. What a dunce I was.

But when I sat down and listened to Kind of Blue for the first time, I understood I wasn’t listening to what I thought of as “jazz.” The piano/bass duet that starts the first number, “So What,” is like a title card that says, “Get ready. Here we go …” Then the bright clarity of Miles’ trumpet a minute and a half in is pure light. Plus, the thing is swinging like mad.

That song wasn’t even finished before I knew, “I’m a jazz lover now.”

I hear that what made this record different was its use of modes to build the songs rather than chord changes. I don’t think that applies to all the numbers, because “Freddie Freeloader” and “All Blues” sound like regular twelve-bar blues to me, but even so, the average listener isn’t tuned into the modal thing. Instead it’s the vibe. Maximum cool. Relaxed and wavy. Moody at times, and textured like the palm of a leather glove. Who cares about which modes are under the skin?

Beyond the music itself, this record also introduced me to other players I’ve been worshipping ever since. Miles, naturally, but this sextet includes John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb, and Wynton Kelly (on one cut). And each of them, explored in a little detail, branches out to dozens more, so that this one collection of five tunes laid out the framework for a lifetime of jazz appreciation. It’s like an enormous family tree, and any limb leads to giants like Wes Montgomery, Herbie Hancock, Mingus, Dizzy, Monk, Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, and on and on and on. It’s a rabbit hole you’re happy to get pulled into.

Kind of Blue is the record that opened up this world to me, and that’s like finding a portal to Nirvana behind your hallway mirror. I’m learning to play some jazz on the guitar too, realizing it doesn’t have to be fast and complicated, thanks to Miles. If you love classical piano, you can probably learn to play “Für Elise” if you want, and if Kind of Blue has gotten under your skin you can pick up a guitar and learn some jazz chords. They’re all not impossibly hard. They all sound really cool.

Believe me, I still love my rock n’ roll, but every day I get a good helping of jazz, and it all started with Kind of Blue.

Here’s a video of “So What,” which is worth watching just for Coltrane’s solo. That should whet your whistle.

Kevin Brennan is the author of five novels. His latest is Fascination, a tale of self-realization and vengeance set against the seedy ambiance of defunct arcade game parlors. Sample all of his books here and read his blog, What The Hell.




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Dumb questions asked in a Dutch smart shop last Easter

The day after I got back from Amsterdam the sun came out and my mom and I took the dog for a walk in the woods in the nearby town Bietigheim, while the kids went to a circus. All the German towns near my mom’s had names that ended in —heim, you got there in a few minutes by driving through the farmlands, and they were all perfect when you arrived but looked a lot like the town before.

Dawn and her mom were in Italy for a few weeks, and everyone seemed glad it had worked out that way: the kids were burned out on road trips after 90 days in the UK, I couldn’t stand the idea of driving anymore myself, the thought of a carload of everyone and the GPS, those long, Italian street names…so Dawn and her mom decided to go by train, I saw them off, and with no job or structure to speak of I felt entitled to go somewhere myself, so I picked Amsterdam.

I tried to explain to my mom how I came undone with the truffles I tried, how I’d done the responsible thing by at least researching about them beforehand and asking detailed questions of the clerk in the smart shop, but it was her first day on the job she said, she had to ask a colleague (who was very, very pregnant), and after translating in Dutch and conferring awhile, she said it just basically depends on the person, everyone reacts differently.

I tried to explain it to my mom, how I went through these realms of shame and utter sorrow, but another part of me, the buck-up-and-shut-up part, reminded me to try to get over it and just enjoy myself, I was alone in Amsterdam with nowhere to be, and that would likely never happen again, not like this.

And how the thing in Brussels broke on the news as I was sitting in a Dutch coffee shop trying to get my head together, watching these images on the TV screen but not really understanding, just getting the idea something bad had happened nearby, and the others in the shop talking about it in Dutch with their heads in their hands, still getting high…

And on the day I left, waking to that slate gray and disarray from the night before, smoking the last of what I had outside the airport before going in, how it only made matters worse, sitting there watching the people go by and feeling that sense of dread and terror, the unseen…but then the small plane to Stuttgart, only an hour in the air and I was touching down again and catching the train back to Besigheim, how odd it would be to walk down those cobblestone streets with my day pack to my mom’s house, and call it home.

I tried to explain it in relatable terms and my mom listened, and understood. And it was Friday, which meant Dawn and her mom were coming back from Italy that night, and they’d be walking down the same cobblestone streets I did the night before, rolling their luggage…and our French friends were coming in with their three kids…and Christoph’s son Benny and his guitar…and with Easter that Sunday there’d be a lot of eating and drinking and not much sleep, blow-up mattresses and kids over-eating candy, all of us stepping out at some point on the front stairs to smoke, hiding it from the kids.

Laurent had a special way of cutting onions he showed me and now that’s the only way I do it. He insists they hold their shape longer.

And they brought cases of French wine and Champagne like they always do, and the tarts and pastries from their local bakery shop my mom likes…and we sent them back with tea from my mom’s village and all the things they can’t get in France they like in Germany, which isn’t much.

On Easter morning everyone planned to go to the early morning service but I didn’t, and afterwards regretted it: Beth said the full moon was just setting in the morning sky and the sun was coming through the church windows at a certain angle, and I was glad for her, for having that memory, and wished I’d had it for myself.

Even though we’d been there eight months already in Europe, we could feel the time moving faster with just four weeks left, and Dawn and I going off to Vienna for our anniversary, and soon we’d be needing to work out logistics for flying our pets back, and the reentry process into America, and me having to find a job, to figure out what it was I really wanted to do.

Tomorrow, Kevin Brennan on ‘Anthony’s Navel,’ my Saturday, spring guest post series.


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When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez when it’s Easter time, too

Amsterdam store front, March 22, 2016

I envied Andrew Gabler for all he had that I didn’t have. He wore name-brand clothes, had chestnut-brown hair that shone, was good looking and built, athletic, played soccer better than I did and wrestled (though I always thought wrestling a bit homoerotic), and lived on the west end of town, where all the pretty girls lived.

But Andrew was Jewish and around Christmastime he’d complain about all the lavishness of the holiday and commercialism, he’d wrinkle his nose and go on about the fake niceties and tradition, we disingenuous Christians, and as he did, I thought he just sounded like a spoiled brat.

It was almost Christmas one Saturday my parents were gone and I invited Andrew over because I thought I had something he’d want, alcohol. It was hard to get as a 14-year-old, and my parents didn’t normally keep it around, they didn’t drink, but they were hosting a Christmas party and had stocked up, and I’d heard of something called a kamikaze which meant you mixed all the liquor together in the same glass and chugged it, so I did: gin, tequila, whiskey and rum, the browns and the whites, and I stood there bracing myself at the kitchen sink wanting to puke but unfortunately didn’t, not yet: and after it settled in and Andrew had some, we decided we’d walk the short walk from my house to the McDonald’s, they had something new on promotion called a McDLT: hot on one side, cold on the other (they made it sound so special, but it was just an open-faced bun, with fresh tomato and lettuce). And we bounded in giggling and ordered and paid and staggered home, it’s amazing we didn’t die, and then Andrew went home, and I got sick.

The house was the second place I’d lived, our first real house since we’d lived in a two-bedroom apartment most of my childhood, and because I was an only child I got the upper floor, one bedroom for TV and video games, a bumper pool table—the other, my bedroom facing the street below.

When I got sick it was in 360 degrees on both rooms. It was like a scene from Monty Python in its garishness, the scene with the fat guy having a mint after dinner and blowing up, his heart and rib cage exposed: that was me, spraying the walls, the carpet with molten lava, pinks and oranges, rust-colored stomach bile and grease.

And because I was still drunk, I cleaned it up with the Yellow Pages, I gathered it in the folds of the pages and tried to scoop it, and throw it in the trash…and then, used some dirty clothes to gather up some more, and threw that in the laundry hamper…and then to erase the rest I got out the vacuum cleaner my dad used to suck the ashes out of the coal stove and ran that for a while and then returned it to its spot, and when my parents got home, they asked what smells.

I guess being 14 I was still of the age (I see this now in my kids) where I felt like things got put away for someone else to deal with. Like, out of sight, out of mind: you put stuff in a laundry chute and it just disappears, for someone else to manage. That was my logic with the vacuum cleaner. I just assumed the puke would get co-mingled or lost with the ashes, and that would be that.

I told my mom the cat got sick (we had four at the time), and she said WHAT, ALL OF THEM? AT THE SAME TIME? And I probably nodded and slunk away and left it at that, and heard bit by bit as they discovered the remains of my mess on the other floors, their anger and slamming things and mumbling and cussing, and when I saw Andrew back at school I hoped he wouldn’t view me poorly, I cared more about what he thought than my parents.

After I grew up and moved out west and started a family, we began going back to Pennsylvania every Easter. It was our annual visit with my dad’s side of the family (my mom and dad had gotten divorced, and mom moved to Germany with her new husband, John).

Because I felt proud of the lifestyle we’d landed for ourselves and our children, it was important for me to take my kids to see the places where I’d lived, thinking it might have some profound effect on them, to see how good they have it by comparison.

We didn’t live in bad places at all in Pennsylvania, they just weren’t as charming as where we live now. The apartment was one of a series of red brick units staggered alongside a hill across a busy street from a park, and it was that park where my mom and dad and I would sometimes go with our toboggan when it snowed, or on Easter Sundays we might pack a picnic and peel colored eggs there and sit in the grass, and feel like spring had finally come.

I’d go back alone or with the kids trying to recreate that, trying to find something more. Maybe that’s being nostalgic or inclined to write memoir, I just kept going back, looking.

But of course it didn’t work, the kids were either uninterested or bored, and I couldn’t blame them. It became clear it was my problem to work out, so I’d find a couple hours in our visit I could steal away in the rental car, and slink around the old house on 12th street, the one where I got sick that Christmastime with Andrew.

It was a style back east they call r0w-homes, where all the houses are connected to one another and separated by a small front porch, many with screen doors and similar looks to them.

I drove around the back to the alley and peered in at that little yard, and how sad and congested and poor the people looked who must have lived there now. And as I got to the end of that alley there was the house where my old friend Donnie Short once lived, and what could only be his mom out back in her sleeping gown, now old as death, gathering up things in plastic garbage bags, either moving out or disposing the remains of someone recently deceased…and our eyes connected for a minute and I thought how strange, she hadn’t seen me in 30-some years or more, would she even remember who I was if I said anything to her…but why would I, and would I even remember myself?

I parked across the street from our old house and took a picture of it with my phone, and just then it rang and it was my mom, calling from Germany to wish us a happy Easter.

She asked where I was and what I was doing and when I told her I could hear her react on the other end of the line, and how odd it was, to imagine going back in time and being here, that one day in the future she’d be living in Germany and me in Seattle, and here we’d be talking to one another through a cellphone on 12th street—that was unimaginable then, as far away and hard to believe as talking to someone on the moon.

Post title from the song “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” Bob Dylan, 1965.


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All the men at the bar bent over their phones

Ivar Kamke, “Drinking Men,” 1920

All the men at the bar bent over their phones and me among them, with Jimi Hendrix and sports recaps playing and the dull chatter that burbles and rolls like the tide spitting up their remains, making it all disappear beneath the cyclic churn of beers and commercial breaks and visits to the loo…and now the band Heart starts in, and I’m on my private thumb screen typing this here, but not here, and the neon sign outside blinks OPEN in the mirror and they just started the dishwasher and asked, do I want another beer?

Word count: 100, written on my mobile phone at the Pine Lake Ale House, Sammamish.

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