The super, blue, blood moon blues

We got up at 4:30 to watch it, but it was all cloudy. “Discreet music,” I guess.

So much for January.

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Dover to Dunkirk, Jan. 31, 2016

And just like that, January was over. It meant we could reenter the Schengen by way of France, spend a night, and the next day return to my mom’s house in Germany. The radiator crapped out on the Opel and we had to replace it in a small town called Combe Down (a suburb of Bath), but the weather was good for January, good for the UK, and we walked most days though I didn’t have rubber boots, and often came home caked with mud, sometimes losing a shoe. I’d made it through a whole month without a drink, my first dry January, and learned to satisfy my cravings through long hot baths and nights spent reading. The girls watched the entire BBC Pride and Prejudice series twice, and I read Catch-22. On our last day at the cottage in Combe Down I said goodbye to England, goodbye to our 90 day forced-leave of the Schengen, where we’d spent equal parts in England, Ireland and Scotland. As it was with all the nice people we’d met who wished us well, I wanted the same for us, to come back one day.

We spent the month of February in Germany, my mom’s old house. Dawn and I took a train to Berlin for Valentine’s Day. We walked from our hotel to the Holocaust memorial and discussed how we’d structure the rest of the year without my having any solid leads on work yet, or the seeming desire to start looking. And we agreed it didn’t make sense for me to jump back into anything, now out of work a year: instead, I could take the summer to watch over the kids while Dawn’s work kicked in, then start back in in the fall.

In March, Dawn’s mom came to Germany and the two of them went on a two-week tour of Italy by train. I flew to Amsterdam for two nights, befriended a Dutch bartender over a series of Canned Heat bootlegs he played in his Belgian-themed bar, bought two Smurfs for the girls in the Stuttgart airport on the return home.

Easter came early, our French friends visited from Metz, and we had only a month left on a nine-month stay. It snowed our last day in Germany (late April) and I went up the tower with the town artist Mathias, who has a key, rents space there, sometimes holds exhibits. Mathias pointed out the hawks that nest in a crook outside the tower, how they’re bad for tourists, get blood and feathers everywhere from the birds they feast on. We looked out over the village from the top viewpoint and I could remember all the places we’d been; I knew it was time to go.

In June we got the animals delivered home and moved back into our house, which we rented to our friends on a one-year lease. It was strange, how everything looked the way it did before we left. And it was exactly a year later, it wasn’t hard to remember moving out, that last night: we’d had our friends over for a party, with the agreement that they’d spend the night and we’d just leave, move in with my mother-in-law Beth for a month, a few miles away. We invited everyone from the neighborhood for a barbecue, and people stayed impossibly late, past midnight! Dawn forgot her car keys and I had to go back to the house the next day to retrieve them. How odd it felt reentering our house that wasn’t our space anymore, noting a light or two that had been left on overnight, the temptation to turn them off…

By August it was definitely time to start looking for work, but my friend Brad was doing a long stretch on the Pacific Coast Trail, so I joined him.

By September the kids were going back to school, Lily starting the 6th grade, and Dawn ran into her friend Deanna, who’s got kids our age too, works at Microsoft, said they needed someone right away, “a writer and a project manager,” she described it, but Dawn said they should talk to me instead.

On my first day at the office it was early October, I met a German guy named Ralf and a French woman named Camille, and Ralf shook my hand, said welcome to the team, if you want to be successful here you really have to kick our ass. And I smiled and nodded and just said to him, okay.

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Who’s really sitting around crying now, getting drunk over Mark Smith?

Ivar Kamke, “Drinking Men,” 1920

When I moved to Philadelphia in 1995 there was a record store off South Street with an old speaker out front, and the first time I heard “The NWRA” (The North Will Rise Again) it was there, bleating out, getting louder step by step as I rounded the turn. Buying Fall albums then was like buying a new book, the James Bond books I devoured when I was 13: they sucked me in with familiar hooks, each one different than the last, all basically the same. Mark E. Smith was a real artist I thought, my favorite singer, until the first time I saw him live.

It was also in Philadelphia, in 1998. The Fall didn’t really come to the States, you had to go to them. And I doubt they played shows in Asia. There was an element to Smith that seemed a bit arrogant about traveling, kind of like “if you want to see us you need to come here.”

It was early days for me on the internet and I didn’t know what to do so I looked up information about The Fall. I met a guy named Jon Cook who lived in Liverpool and for years we exchanged mix tapes and handwritten letters; he’d send me bootlegs you couldn’t really find in the States. And as their tour crept closer to Philadelphia I learned Smith had received an injunction or criminal charge from the state of Maryland for allegations of abusing his keyboardist, Marcia S— and it was unclear if the tour would go on, or be canceled.

That night I drove down with my friend Pete Snyder and sure enough, the show was a shamble. Smith was a known drunk, that was part of the act—he played power games with the other musicians onstage, often disrupting songs or threatening to sack band members on the spot, which he often did.

I was disappointed but not surprised. There was no song structure to most of the tunes, more a keyboard droll with chaos and uncertainty from everyone on stage and in the audience. Pete said it was the greatest thing he’d ever seen, he’d never seen anything like that. And that may be true, but in the words of Smith, a good mind does not a good fuck make.

Instead, the surprising thing about The Fall was their depth and staying power, that they could continue to be so good for so long, and change and evolve so many times throughout. Perhaps it was sacking the band members that allowed for that, imposing Smith’s fear and intimidation to demand their best (but not altogether fun-sounding to me).

Punk music, post-punk, “indie” or alternative, really any style of music outside the mainstream gives voice and hope to those who feel like outsiders, who reject the norm, and identify through that distinction…who stubbornly insist that’s where they belong, on the outside.

Smith helped me bolster my identity as a would-be writer trying to find myself as writers do (and why does it have to be so hard?—perhaps it’s the discord we need).

Playlist of my favorite 10 on Spotify here.

If you can’t remember your password, I’ll mail you a tape.

 

 

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Discreet Music (MES edition) | Jan. 24, 18

The January, I’m-about-to-lose-my-fucking-shit moment

I’ve lived out here since ’96 and always had a good attitude about the rain, that it’s just November and December which are hard, that by the time you get to January you’re over the hump. Not true! It doesn’t have to be true to get you through, but it’s not true (and it’s not getting me through). The rain came down our gravel road in rivulets like blood from a crime scene thick and grotesque, and when I drove out in the dark it looked like rice thrown from a wedding scene, how it hit my headlamps. And there were Dementors over our house Dawn said, by the mood our family was in and all the yelling and crying, the hitting and malaise…and Dawn said Mark Smith had died, my favorite singer, and the clock in our den stopped working, the one my step-dad got us for our first house—it was dead too.

We had the Drug Talk with Lily. I confessed I’d done drugs so I knew, that she should listen, they’re a lot stronger now, I KNOW.

I fixed dinner with the soy sauce that wasn’t soy sauce so Dawn could eat it, and baked two sweet potatoes the way Cooks Illustrated suggested, using kitchen towels to pinch the flesh out of the middle.

I drove Charlotte to her dance lesson but she was mad at me and wouldn’t talk: I’d told her I didn’t want to talk about it anymore (whatever the subject was), so she clammed up and didn’t say anything the whole ride over, and when we got there and I walked her up to the studio she seemed embarrassed by me, didn’t want me to wait with her so I said fine, I’ll be back in an hour—and I drove to the Whole Foods looking for supplements and got into a vague argument with the girl in the supplements section about Lifoic vs. Lipoic acid (I was wrong), and when I checked out it was $50 for two small jars—and on the drive home I wanted both gin and whiskey and realized I could split the difference, I had a bottle of gin that’s rested in Bourbon barrels but it’s generally gross, the thought of gin the color of whiskey: but I mixed it with Pomegranate martini mix and added an orange rind, and sat there blank in the living room while things happened around me, and when I went to bed I got up the next morning and did it all over again.

I drove out to the store because I had to get out of the house, and when I got back Dawn looked grave, said did you hear the headlines…Mark E. Smith had died…and I didn’t care or feel anything: I told her about John Peel, the DJ/producer who was such a fan of The Fall (Mark’s band), and seemed like the nicest, humblest guy you could know…and when he died, how Mark disparaged him, and if there’s 15 people in the world who are sad Mark Smith’s dead now, I’m not one of them.

We have to maintain our gravel road and the potholes keep reopening. We’ve put gravel in them but the rain keeps coming and the holes open up again, and the gravel just gets sucked back into the ground and goes who knows where. Rolling the empty recycling can up the road I thought this must be a metaphor for something, all this rain and these holes, putting the gravel back in, where does it all go.

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Discreet Music | “Brutal Ardour,” Jan. 22, 2018

So on a typical Monday here in the suburbs:

  1. Lily (12) starts seeing a therapist and texts me, “My therapist said I shouldn’t worry about finishing my homework tonight.”
  2. Charlotte (10) is caught moping over the kitchen island drawing another picture like this:
  3. I learn I have a different client at work for reasons no one can really talk about (and I don’t want to either).
  4. A ~$6M error is discovered on one of the KPI’s (key performance indicators) for a report I’m distributing (one version of 11, but order of magnitude is ~$12B so root cause isn’t material).
  5. I offer to get a smoothie for Lily at the Whole Foods on my way home and spend about $72 on:
    1. Smoothie for Lily and Charlotte ($1.99 ea., on sale)
    2. A bottle of Pfriem IPA
    3. A .500 mL flask of Norwegian Cod Liver Oil ($55)
      1. Small talk with the cashier: “I used to think that’s about the cost of a good bottle of Scotch but had to think about what I’m really putting into my body and it’s worth it” (right)
  6. Charlotte, sulking over the fact that Lily’s gone to nana’s for dinner, can only be roused by the act of going out to Happy Hour at the sushi place, where we bump into the same, despondent family of friends we saw last time, and makes me wonder do they really go there a lot or is it just us?
  7. Dawn interrupts my driving with text photos of the food she’s confronted with on a business dinner and can’t eat because it’s got either dairy, grains, legumes, flour, sugar, wheat, gluten, or something in it not meat/vegetable/fruit or nuts, basically.
  8. Charlotte takes a bath for the first time on her own volition.
  9. Something outside smells sweet, like spring, and I point out the small buds to Charlotte on the Magnolia tree, at the neighbor’s, and she yanks on a branch to tear one out.
  10. The 3-week-old battery on the Volvo is starting to hesitate because the mechanic told me the alternator is about to go, and that will fry a new battery in like, 3-4 weeks.

Earlier this week, in the midst of not having anything to write about, I wrote:

When all that fascination falls away, the world just looks like a replica of itself, plastic and small.

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Discreet Music | January 14 (Portland, OR)

The funny thing about ambient music is, I can play it over and over again, and never really notice if it’s the same song. And then, there are times I’ll recognize the artist and feel sophisticated, like when I’m seeing my new age hair stylist, Donnie. It’s my kind of classical. It’s music you can play waking up, or settling down—as foreplay, meditation, or yoga. It’s “ambient.” It conforms to the mood, and vice versa.

We went down to Portland on Saturday, arrived an hour and a half later than expected. Even the squirrels seem happy in Portland. Or maybe it’s just the weather, the fact the sun finally came out. Walking our dog Ginger through Loren’s neighborhood on a Sunday, past the old Craftsman bungalows and sun rooms, the succulents in the concrete cracks, the old Volvo’s and BMW’s and signs in all the yards saying This is Our America, where Everyone is Equal and Love Wins, and Black Lives Matter, and so on. I want to live and die in Portland, like The Smiths song, Such a Heavenly Way to Die. I bought a toothbrush at the Trader Jo’s made out of recycled yogurt cups. We did our best to stay off our devices and when the kids got back from the bookstore Powell’s I took a picture and texted it, here:

“Discreet Music” is the name of a Brian Eno album from 1975 and also a blog series I’m running through January, prompted by a journal-writing theme I started in Germany over the holidays. It’s inspired by the David Sedaris book I’m reading that chronicles his journal entries from the late ’70s onward.

 

 

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Discreet Music | January 16, 2018

I made marrow soup for the first time (or released the marrow I guess, into a soup). And I took a hot bath and imagined myself settling into it the same as the chicken carcass, reduced. I flickered in and out on the sidewalk again today, unable to place myself in a distinct time. In my mind I wrote a blog post on LinkedIn from a cynic’s point of view, but cynicism doesn’t bring me any joy, it only dampens. Another friend and former colleague about to be let go, told “it isn’t personal.” I realized my capacity to love changed and I hadn’t realized that, hadn’t thought about it until it already happened. And there was no art in the fine details of the moss on the sidewalk or clouds, just a banal suburban walk. Dinner was hurried and “leftover” and I went upstairs for a bath and a book.

I got out the old Mac I bought in 2009 for our first sabbatical. I hadn’t used it in a few years, but it fired up after charging just a few minutes, and I checked the browsing history: all the detail from late July 2015 still, right before we moved to Germany for nine months. Lily was the age Charlotte is now, roughly 10. And the sites they were looking at, decidedly “10.” We’d gained and lost a fair amount in those years, the trade-offs that come with age and experience.

I think I figured out why I like writing memoir, because I have to patch together my past, and my past got scrambled the way a puzzle looks when all the pieces get dropped out of a box. There was a time it all fit together, but time cuts into things, it breaks your life into frames that are hard to put back together, to where they belong. Maybe I’m just a control freak. But I know I don’t like puzzles.


“Discreet Music” is the name of a Brian Eno album from 1975 and also a blog series I’m running through January, prompted by a journal-writing theme I started in Germany over the holidays. It’s inspired by the David Sedaris book I’m reading that chronicles his journal entries from the late ’70s onward.

The photographs are taken from our flight from Germany over the north pole, late December.

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