Monday, December 28, 2015


   I looked deep into my heart last week. 
   It beats at an odd rhythm. Thump, tap tap, thump, tap tap.
   It works fine when I'm resting or when I'm working out but the everyday beat is uneven. It stutters. It plays around. 
   I had some tests done. 
   The MD told me, "Well, if you do die from it it'll be fast so...there's that." 
    Just keep riding your bike, was his parting advice. Your heart's a champ when you're sweating.
    Normal life is killing me was the message. 
    Trussed up like Da Vinci's akimbo man - tape and wires hanging between my chest and the machine. I was a health care marionette. 
   I stood , I sat , I laid down, I ran on a tread mill and then they took that thing they run across a pregnant woman's belly and filmed my heart with sound. Sonared my chest. 
   And there it was. The little muscle that's kept me alive for half a century. Pumping away. An oblong shape jumping at every beat. That motion when someone surprises you- that full body jerk you make when you leap back from sleep - that's what a heart does - and when it's going at 180 beats per minute the saying "Nearly lept out of my chest" no longer seems like an idiom.
   Every step I've taken. The days I spent grousing in Edgewood grade school, fused to the chair in Ms Jozwiak's class, the long beautiful Ohio summers, the dark incredible years in New England, the decades sprinting between New York and LA. Each minute inside that pathetic personal immensity my heart was pumping inside me. The same song every day, every hour down to the minute.
   In the sonogram what struck me most was the not the heart's wafer thin walls  but its bird-like finger valves opening and closing, tapping away like feathered drumsticks, letting the blood run from chamber to chamber. It doesn't even look like a "process"- it's a dance, a stream barely regulated. I've never seen such efficiency. 
   Your life rushes through you and your heart keeps the time. Keeps it from overflowing. Or stopping dead. It is the time. Your time. 
   Your life as a single muscle. Stunning to stare at on a screen, cut in half like a house you're wondering should I build it or not, a cross section. A four room fixer upper.  
  I wanted to give it a name. Reach out and pet it like I would an eager dog, a happy horse who had carried me for a hours. I stared. It couldn't possibly be me but really is me more than my imagination or the bag of ideas I call my soul. 
  There I was. A nameless, blind blob, eager and working in the dark, bobbing away like a mad legless gerbil .....there I am. David Conrad. 
   Inconceivable machine. One that never rests. Amazing we live as long as we do.
  Every one of us with the same inner badass. 
  I laughed. I wanted to hug the little guy.
  I guess I kinda do, every day. 
   Now I lay me down to sleep...
   And wake up in 2016. Another decade making the turn and heading home. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

the train to Harper's Ferry

  The train from NYC to Pittsburgh costs almost 400 bucks. The train from DC to Pgh costs 150 and you get a private room.
   Union Station, just a few blocks from the Capitol, is one of the most beautiful structures in the country. I imagine the old days. House members and maybe even a Senator walking the distance and hopping on a train home, their term complete.
  When DC was said to be a quiet town and politicians spent as much time in the State they represented as the place they made their name.
   Now DC seems to me more like the Kremlin I saw once when I was 17 or Wonka's factory behind the walls. No one ever goes in. No one ever comes out. Or to tell the truth, like a Steel Mill, like the one I live next to in Pittsburgh- in all the years I've spent in my hometown only once have I seen an employee walk thru the gates.
   The 4:15 to Chicago. I had an empty room. A thin thing- two seats faced each other,  a drop down bed, a sliding door with a curtain that velcro'd to the aluminum threshold.
   My window was huge but the sun had almost set by the time we cleared the Maryland suburbs and by the time we crossed the Potomac at Harper's Ferry it was dark and I had to imagine the old town; period houses preserved from falling down its hillside to the warehouses and shops where Lee had once commanded a garrison and John Brown had tried to end the Civil War before it began.
   I thought of two things.
   1) We. Traveling by train is always we. You're part of a troop, a continuum, a gathering of emigrants leaving one place, finding another but always welded to the ground. The rails deliver you or they take you away but you are always home. You're in America.
  Trains I think are mechanical metaphors for the best of the States, the best we ever did. Yes, rail travel and the Railroads brought the murderous wealth of the Eastern States across the continent and helped burn and bury the Native tribes. That's for sure.
   But they also literally became the skeleton for a nation that was previously only an idea. They let us make it flesh. They were Will incarnate. They were the sound of hope for generations of American kids trapped in tiny towns across Middle West and the Plains. When Fitzgerald talks about the dark fields of the republic rolling on under the night, his wild dreams rolled across them by train.
  Maybe I was born in the wrong century under the wrong star but to this day I can't think of anything more elementally astonishing than a full locomotive roaring by pulling a half mile of metal. Not planes, not movies, not a cruise ship spinning on its 1000 foot axis to dock on the Hudson, not anything made by humankind shakes me the same way.
  My family on both sides worked for a Railroad that at the peak of its strength had more employees than the federal government. I can't help but feel that I belong to them, the rail yards and the old stations and the dying men sitting in little museums up and down the East coast telling the occasional visitor how these mammoth furnaces on wheels once worked.
  The second thing I thought as I crossed the Potomac was that, soon enough, we're going to have a battle on our hands. Because a new Civil War, started in the imagination of extremists on both sides, is going to raise up a new Cloudsplitter, a new John Brown for whom the only solution to America's deep sins is more violence.
  This is what I see-
   And before I tell you what I see, let me say that I own a gun.
   I wish I owned several more.
   My father had 8 guns in the house, two of which were rare and beautiful family heirlooms that I wish I had been able to save. My brothers sold them when he died, emblems they claimed of a culture they wanted no part of.
  I shoot skeet and trap and sporting clays. A Pennsylvanian, I've of course gone deer hunting. I've shot grouse and pheasant and I tried once to shoot a turkey. (It didn't go well.)
  I have more than a few friends -some veterans, some not- who hunt regularly, who own multiple weapons, and who can strip, rebuild and repair them like you'd clear a pencil sharpener.
   They lock their weapons away. They separate the ammunition stores from the gun. They pay copious license fees to hunt where they hunt- fees that make up the majority of the money raised to maintain the State Forests of Western PA.
    That said, I believe resistance to increased Gun Control legislation is more than a tragedy. I believe it's criminal. As a nation, as a people, I think we are responsible for every mass shooting, every gun death - we have the blood on our hands, our souls really- until we change our laws.
    No true hunter needs an assault rifle. Most hunters I know pride themselves on Robert DeNiro's mandate in The Deer Hunter- one shot. You should be able to kill a deer or an elk or a bear with one shot, if you know what you're doing. Hunters train themselves to do so. They train their sons and daughters. And mostly, they treat the weapon with the utmost respect, always treat it as loaded, know its every part and tooling, learn to strip it cleanly, learn to kill cleanly and use as much of the animal as you can.
   I see nothing wrong with this. There's no intrinsic evil here, just a choice. Cattle farming is more deadly, more disruptive to the environment, than hunting.
   But, none of this lifestyle, this gun culture requires unlimited liberty. This life can continue with NO change even if we demand stricter registration and purchasing laws.
   What would change is the body count. Plain and simple.
   It's simple statistics- change the laws, fewer people by a factor of ten are murdered.
  When these laws are changed does it mean you can't buy almost any gun known to mankind? No. Does it mean the government is going to come and take your weapons? No.
  All it means is you're going to be required to pass some tests that you, as a responsible American, would already pass. All it means is your unfettered liberty is now slightly ( and not even "well") regulated. Within reason.
   I frankly don't care what the framers of the constitution meant in their 18th century minds when they wrote the second amendment. They were fine with slavery. They had no inkling women should vote. I can handle that they may have not been able to foresee the future.
   No original intent, no abstract notion of Americanness or liberty or freedom is worth thousands of deaths. Nothing is worth it.
  But that's just me. And I'll argue this all day. Hell, I'll argue it at a gun range with my radical republican friends, some of whom were Navy Seals. And then we'll hug and go home. Usually.
  But that's not what came into my mind as I crossed the Potomac.
  What I saw was this.
  There's going to be another John Brown.
  There's someone out there. A man who saw his kids or his neighbors gunned down in an Amish church, or in a grade school in Connecticut, or his wife killed in a VA Tech classroom, or one of his co workers blown across a wall by an AR-15 held 2 feet from her chest in a Municipal office in San Bernadino, there's a guy out there, or maybe even a woman who's watched this madness up close, or maybe only watched it play out again and again on the tv as people look the camera straight in the eye and say "If we put more money into mental health this would all end"- this person is going to go and buy a gun, and train themselves how to use it and then they're going to walk into the government office of a Representative who got an A from the NRA, or they're going to walk into an NRA meeting itself, or a gun store, or a shooting range, and they're going to kill a few people.
  Maybe hold some hostages, maybe live long enough to say, "This is how the fires come back , this is the circle of justice, this is what your laws bring you." And gun down the gunners.
  I hope I'm wrong. It's everything each lunatic fringe would love to see happen.
   For a long time slavery was something abolitionists prayed would end. They spoke eloquently that an enlightened nation should legislate it out of existence. The met, they organized, they asked for sanctions, they abhorred what they felt was a culture of violence, a civilization built on human cost.
   And then one day one of them, John Brown, got up and was willing to kill people to end it. He watched his own son die as he tried to start an insurrection to stop it.
  Most people, abolitionists included, called him a madman, a radical extremist.
   His last words were, "I am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had as I now think vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done."
   Under the dark hillside where he was cornered more than a century and a half ago, as the steel behemoth taking me home crawled into the trees, I thought- he's out there now, he exists, he's been brought up by what we've left undone in this country.
   God help us.


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Istanbul. A tour.

  "Well, two thirds of the Bible happened here .... And basically we're your only real ally in the East so I'm always surprised when Americans say, 'Turkey? Why Turkey?'
   It was my last day in the country. I'd asked the hotel manager if I could hire a guide, but one who was willing to make up a tour as we went along - I told him, "I have 5 things I need to do: I've got to buy some cloth from this particular store off the Divanyolu, I want to see the aqueduct, I want to see the oldest Christian mosaics in the city, I want a Besiktas scarf, and I want a real turkish coffee at the end of the day. Oh and I want to get into a Sephardic Synagogue."
  "That's six."
   "You're right."
   He nodded, "The last one will be hard. But, I know the man."
   By noon I was walking at a good clip on the crowded old town streets with a man I'll call the Turkish David Mamet. Not tall. Strongly built. Short black hair clipped for efficiency. Wearing a vest only war photographers or Hemingway buffs would wear. Smart as a whip.
   "He knows more about Istanbul than anyone", the manager had nodded, "you two will have... an interesting time."
  "You know that's a curse right?"
   He shrugged.
   As I bought some cloth for someone's xmas gift to come, from a store I'd randomly passed three days before and whose gorgeous patterns I couldn't get out of my head, my guide, Serhat, married and father to a young son, told me stories about Roman triumphs rolling down the main drag (the Divanyolu) a block away and into the Western City.
   Where Starbucks and Burger King and countless nougat stores now stood, bejeweled elephants and crowds of captive Bulgars and shining Circassians once paraded past. For a millennium, this was Main Street.
   "No one here ever called themselves 'Byzantine'. You people made that up. They called themselves Romans, and mostly they spoke Greek." He tugged at some cloth samples and then outside rolled his eyes at my bargaining skill. "You paid too much for that."
    "The guy started at 500 a piece, I got him down to 500 for three!"
    "He started in outer space so when he got you down to 500 you felt like you'd won. He's a thief, they're worth 300 lire."
    "Say something next time, huh? You're my guide, you're here to help me, right?"
    "I'm here to educate you. Consider yourself educated. Someone has to pay retail, I guess."
     On the way to the aqueduct we visited the largest mosque in Istanbul which sits on the highest hill - the fourth Hill - in the city- above the ruins of a 13th century school a local landlord was trying to demo for office space.
   " Mimar Sinan, who built this mosque - and he built scores of them in Istanbul- tried several times to build a bigger dome than the one in Hagia Sofia which is 35 meters across...but he never could. Imagine this man, a genius, his people have preserved the knowledge of the ages, algebra and geometry, poetry and the secrets of the Roman pontifices, saved all of it from your insane Gothic hordes...but still he cannot match the work of the nameless man who built the old church 900 years before. Amazing."
   We never did get to the aqueduct. We saw it about a hundred yards away as it crossed the main east west highway - Ataturk Bulvan- that bisects Istanbul. It was massive. A massive silhouette that looked like it had been drawn yesterday. I'd say 6 lanes of traffic ran beneath it but the Turks define lanes a bit more freely than we do. When I travel I like to imagine returning to the place to ride my bike through it- I never felt that in Istanbul. God save the brave few who do. Inshallah.
    The oldest Christian mosaics in the city ...well it depends on who you believe or who will let you in...but it's generally agreed that the best ones are found in the Chora church or, spoken in the more beautiful Turkish "Kariye Camii", "sam ee",  being the word for mosque and a word I never tired of saying out loud.
   (I thought we'd have found a word for mosques that sounded something like their word for it. The way Peking sounds like Beijing or Cologne sounds a little like Koln. I thought we'd have gotten close, that we'd have chosen a term for the most important structures in their community which sounded native. Ah well. I was learning.)
   There was a cafe by the front steps of the church, besieged by Germans or maybe they were Dutch, I didn't listen long enough to tell. There was a public bath where locals were trying to perform their wudu before prayer, dodging Birkestocked blonde men, and western women splayed across the stones.
   The entire building was framed in scaffolding- like a ship in a yard, you could barely feel the shape of the place beneath all the gridding. But inside...inside ...I nearly fell down. I'm not much of a Christian. I went to church every Sunday as a kid and I went to a summer camp where we linked arms and sang Jacob's Ladder. "Soldiers...of the...cross..." but once I got to college, Marx, common sense, and the fact that 5 billion other people don't pray to Christ made me think "Great ideas! Sure. Resurrection? Maybe not so much."
  But say what you will, what you learn is love as a child you will follow all your days. And when I walked into the delicate Kariye Camii, this old mosque built within an even older, an ancient, chapel, I felt like you do after you've been singing for an hour. Like you do when you finally tell someone you love them. I was speechless, and happily so. And happily this tough little Muslim man next to me had spent most of his adult life studying the odd obsession Christians have with the mother of their Christ, this lady called Mary. The container of the uncontainable. The living emblem of God's space in the world. Theotokos. What we moderns have made of the earth mother. Of the Goddess. He told tell me everything. Image by hovering image.
    I think he did. But I don't remember the facts or even the story. I was in a kind of reverie that I'm not sure I understand. I don't know why it took me there. The place.
   Images of Saints and and Prophets, apostles and angels; Gabriel looking more like Gabriela than I'd seen before....the Annunciation happening , between two women...hmm?...All placed and drawn 1000 years ago with a grace difficult to describe. As if the builders had just stepped away for a coffee and a smoke, the roaring intensity of their vision undiminished but not alien to a guy with an i-phone.
   Hours later we wandered down the steep hill below the chapel, into the old Jewish and Greek neighborhoods - Fener and Balat.
   I wasn't going to get into a Sephardic temple. Al Qaeda had blown up a synagogue a decade ago and the Jewish population of Istanbul -16,000 among 16 million- had hunkered down, walled itself off, or left. It was astonishing. Barbed wire, unmarked doors, defensive gates, prison security cameras.
    I didn't know why we stopped, mid block, in a block like any other in this tougher, poorer part of the city. My head was still reeling, the Mother of God, Christ Pantocrator, and then the children we'd passed on the streets above, filthy, playing in puddles, literally huddling in ruined doorways, unaware of course that they were objects of pity. "Gypsies?" I'd asked.
   "Oh no,....don't you see? Syrians. Europe in an uproar over 200,000 immigrants...we have one and half million in the country. They suffer terribly."
     I stood still.
    "And do you know where we are?" He asked me.
    "Next to an espresso shop that could be in Portland Oregon?"
    "The wall behind you is the oldest Synagogue in Europe. It's been a house of worship since the 1450s."
    "That wall?" It looked like a place you'd store trucks behind.
    "See the wooden building- two stories- that was their schul and where the baths were.....all done now since the bombings."
    "You're Muslim. You're a Turk. You live in a gigantic modern city. How does this make you feel?" It was unfair. It was so very American, but I couldn't help but ask.
     "Your Christ is a prophet, one of many yes, but a prophet, to me. To all Islam. These Jews, they are the sons of Abraham, as am I. We're people of the book. It's a disgrace they fear for their lives being here in their home."
     I learned you have to petition to visit a Synagogue in Istanbul. They need your passport number, your itinerary, and a letter from the US consulate. It takes two weeks or more. The few remaining temples are literally walled compounds, hidden in back streets, the size of a two bedroom two story home. One was now a museum, and that museum was closing at the end of the month. There'd been 500,000 jews in Turkey at the end of the 19th century. They'd been there since the Spanish expulsion and even earlier. They'd thrived. All this was coming to an end.
     To enter a mosque all I needed to do was remove my shoes, and show some respect. We went in together, into five of them, some massive, some the size of a Greek hilltop chapel, women draped in fabric, the men engaged in the rhythmic prayer of Islam, the westerners asked to remain in the rear of the space, and oddly enough the children let to run free. I was touched that the most intense prayer, truly men abasing themselves before their God, took place as infants and kids ran and played and danced in the Mosque.
   "It's a short quote from Muhammed, that we let them do this, it's common." And I thought of the countless times I'd been hushed in Church or wanted to hush some recalcitrant tween as I grew older, the rod and the staff you internalize as a Western made me laugh. I liked them both, these ways, theirs and mine.  Maybe I'd found some wisdom- two contradictory ideas in happy habitation.
   I never did get the soccer scarf. The craziest of the crazy Turkish football fans follow Besiktas. They're like a cult. Turks I'd met in America warned me not to get anything bearing the team colors, I might meet one of their sworn enemies somewhere across the globe and catch a beating. Which of course made me like Besiktas all the more.
   An example. One of the team's better players, but one who'd shown little affection for Turkey- an international star brought to Istanbul - had been racially harassed during a game with a rival. The next week the entire home stand showed up wearing his number and waving massive signs that said, "We are all black."
   The rival player who now was the focus of legal attention said, "I didn't harass him because he's black, I did it because he's a fairy."
   The next game the entire Besiktas home stand arrived again wearing the player's number and huge banners which said "We are all gay."
   To paraphrase General Patton, "Men that eloquent have to be saved."
   We ended the day in a college bar packed with twenty somethings you could have met in Berlin, overlooking the giant bay of the Bosphorus which of course isn't a bay but is so massive you want to lend it higher praise- Istanbul, a place that screams destiny, a location fated by geography, it could have been nothing else but one of the centers of human history. You grasp that all in a moment when you stand by the shoreline. It's humbling. Jaw dropping. One of the great narratives of the species made into a place.
   We had two coffees each, I think Serhat would only have had one but he thought as an American accustomed to "venti" portions, I wanted more.
  It was good stuff but no different than I'd had at the old Lebanese restaurant at Yale, or at the Greek food fairs of Pittsburgh. I smiled. Somehow the disappointment was not disappointing. It was just a coffee. This place was a place like any other, frustrating to its natives, limited, normal- the bizarre gestalt switch of being a traveler happening to me, to stand among what to you is miraculous but to a local is part of the commute.
   On the way back to my hotel we stopped at one more mosque, just slipping in before the 4th call to prayer began. He let me linger as the faithful arrived, heads lowered, hip to shoulder, gesturing that curious way with their hands behind the ears as if to say "The day's troubles are behind me, I'm here now Lord."
   I asked Serhat was there a major in Istanbul Studies, was that how he'd come to know the place so well...and he said no.....I simply do a lot of walking....and then he told me, when I asked him to be my guest whenever he might come to New York or Pittsburgh, that he had never left Turkey, and in fact had only left Istanbul a handful of times in his 40 some years.
  He was terrified of planes, of water or of heights, and the rhythm of trains made him ill. His wife drove the family car.
  He was, I realized, quite brave to even let me disturb the usual schedule of his touring but that he'd been asked by the concierge he said this time, and because I'd enquired about the mosaics, he would.
  I was with a man probably not too many steps from a hermitage but someone who'd made it his life's work to learn and love his home, his city, and share it with foreigners. He was its living map. I envied him.
  "I do want desperately to come to one place....San Francisco. There's something about that city I must see. So I will try. The bridge is beautiful. The light."
  I told him he was right.
  I paid him in Lire, not American Dollars and I wondered if that was a slight but he didn't let it show as he tucked the money into one of his many pockets. I watched him walk home, up past the Topkapi Palace, seat of the Sultans for 500 years, built over the capital of Western Rome,  an empire which but for electricity mirrored and or dwarfed what we call our own great powers, and beneath that the fortress of Constantine himself - the illiterate warrior who decreed Christianity will help hold the ground which the survivors of Troy must have thought, centuries before him, this will keep, this no one will take in a thousand years.


Thursday, September 17, 2015

The War at Home

       I don't sit around and think about dying. I don't ponder my mortality. 
       I think I've always known we don't get too much time. We have only so many hours. I fought sleep as a kid. I still do. Not as well as when I was 16 and tried to cram as much living, writing, raging and running into any given day as I could, but generally I still like to be the last guy up, the last man in the museum, the one the guards have to shepherd toward the door. 
     Because of this I travel well. I don't mind jet lag. I don't mind not knowing what time it is, not feeling the tick of my internal clock. Beyond physical freedom travel also brings you that psychic shake up - the chronological vertigo of moving from one place to another faster than we should ever  be able. The head rush at 30,000 feet.
   I got back from Turkey four days ago and I'm still waking up at odd hours. Sleep won't come. I wish I could embrace this like my 16 year old self - he'd have written a book by now- but mostly I walk the streets at noon feeling like it's dawn or watch tv in the middle of the night. 
   I flicked on the set in my buddy's house- it's always curious to navigate someone else's cable system, you feel a kinship if you guess well, old bonds affirmed - I got the damn thing on and the menu scrolling in under a minute and there, was The Civil War. 
   That 90's blockbuster that launched a thousand documentary channels and 1000 more Civil War neo-cons. "Lincoln said it himself 'If I can save the Union without slavery I'll do it. If I can save the Union with slavery I'll do it.' It wasn't about slavery!"  Shoot me. Or better yet, shoot them. (Wait, didn't we already do that?) 
   The Cannon in Silhouette at Sunset. The Fiddle Theme. David McCullough's Old Testament voice. The Red Line beneath the chapter titles. 
   Enough to make me groan. 
   25 years. 
   Think of Redford's film "The Candidate". He makes one impassioned, impromptu speech and becomes a challenger. His managers insist he repeat that impassioned impromptu speech verbatim 500 times and he becomes a joke. Ergo The Civil War. First time it ran I swooned, 15 years and 1500 reboots later, I wanted to hurl. And now add 10 more years. It's a classic car exempt from sentimental emission controls. It's classic doc rock.
   Regardless, I pressed "select". 
   And what came back to me as I watched was not the tale of the final episode, the sad battles after Appomatox or bourbon voiced Shelby Foote choking up "Was it not so real?" or how clearly the language of these long dead men still rings to me -how well they wrote- but that 25 years ago it was 1990 and I was a just out of college not yet to drama school, my dad and my brother were still alive, my mom still worked at CMU and what the Hell was a cell phone, who'd heard of an internet? Or blogging.
  I was back in Pittsburgh, living in a house owned by the friend of a friend who was yet to marry and wanted to be surrounded by his younger pals before the final plunge, so he charged us next to no rent and didn't care whether we slept till 2 or played U2 too loud or ate most of his food.
   I was an almost Ivy League graduate making 5.60 an hour plus tips, making lattes at a "coffee shop",  and commuting to work on a borrowed BMX. I was happy. 
   Once in awhile, I'd head home and visit mom and dad, eat out of the fridge, sleep in my old room up in the attic, if they went away for a couple days I'd colonize the house and turn it into my seraglio studio - the last designs of my sublimating High School self strewn around the little Dutch colonial. 
   But for a straight week sometime that year, was it Fall? it had to be- I came home and watched The Civil War with my parents. My father in his tan leather chair up against the fireplace. Mom in her comfier spot by the stairs. The cat dug in and drooling on one of them. I stood behind them, waiting, for awhile acting like I might leave, as if I was deciding whether or not the episode was good enough, whether I didn't have something better to do, when in reality I just didn't want to show them I wanted to be home, to be curled up by the fire, to share for an evening, oddly enough, in their silence. 
  When either of my parents was moved to tears, moved by something they'd seen or read or heard they most often said nothing. As we would in church, we gathered in a kind of piety. A shared hush. Some would call this WASPY rectitude or simple embarrassment but I've always been suspicious of people who want to show and tell me how important their feelings are- my sense is feelings come when they come and we should be grateful for them, wonder at them, thank God, rather than hold them up for all to see. "Unpack my heart with words and fall a cursing like a very drab."
   I think of the long black pews in my old church. Rows and rows of them as you walk past for communion, the slumped shoulders, the stillness, heads so obviously related not turning toward each other. It can be unbearable, yankee solemnity, but I'm comfortable being quiet before God, I've always felt my default response to the "Lord"- however you want to manifest him or her- when it wasn't singing was humility, silence. 
  And so 25 years ago when I was 23 and broke, my father and I would refrain from sniping at each other and my mom and he would call an evening's truce, and the cat would curl up around our feet and we would listen together to a fellow Pittsburgher read us a story from our country's most incredible, and maybe its saddest, chapter. 
  And since we knew him by degree, the McCullough's and the McCrady's on my dad's side grew up across the street from each other, we could tell when he read that he wasn't intoning like a distant God, or a tidy Western PA Presbyterian ticking down a list of the dead, but that he was throughout on the edge of tears. Like my dad listening as brothers, who'd fought on opposite sides, died in the same hospital with Walt Whitman the nurse to each, like my mother, an ancestral Virginian, hearing a Richmond girl bemoan the wreck of her family while the "chimneys of our leveled homes stood like telegraph poles relaying the destruction", like me listening to them both and not speaking, listening to the changes in their breathing saying they were sad and wouldn't share it. 
  And then the episode ended and it was 4:41 in the morning, tuesday the 15th of September 2015. Like any other day, but now. A side room in LA in the house of a friend from college who after he graduated was playing in Punk bands in DC while I was pouring coffee in Pittsburgh. Now a teacher, married 14 years, divorced 4. Still playing the bass. 
   The 24 hour media cycle stared me down. What next? Press select. Scroll.
   I walked out on to the porch. No light yet in the East. Dad gone, brother gone, cat long gone. - that's the thing about LA, you get a dark night but no stars and there are so few tall buildings that the land rolls out in front of you for miles. The sky's huge, you see the undulations that the desert here once had, but somehow unlike a Great Plains landscape, it's disheartening. Like the cable menu, it's endless but without comfort. Far from enobling, the eternity involved diminishes you.
   Sometimes I wish I smoked. I don't. I hummed the fiddle theme. I tried to imitate McCullough's voice, but it wouldn't come. The day I left Turkey, that morning one of the guys who ran the hotel, "Okay" was his name, asked me where I was from. Pittsburgh I told him. And you miss it yes? Yes I do, I told him.  I do. We have a word for that you know - memleket. It just means 'home', the ground there, but ....more than that. Like your word nostalgia, his eyes smiled, but ...harder. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015


     Clear and Present Danger.
It's a tidy movie from the 90s.
Harrison Ford took over as Jack Ryan from Alec Baldwin, who somehow decided he was too good for a franchise.
(Funny that.)
Willem Dafoe plays a black ops CIA commander who, buried in the Colombian jungle, calls in an airstrike on a summit of Narco leaders. The three major drug lords of South America, all in one place.
Dafoe orders one of his men to tag a truck with a laser signature, makes a call to an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic which launches a lone F-18, which as it flies sub radar, releases a single piece of stealth ordinance, and......The US of A blows the drug dealers to kingdom come.
A neo con's dream.
A little piece of fascist justice that makes even Democrats nod their heads and say under their breath, "Fuck yeah".
 Obama with a beer in his hand watching Bin Laden die.
I have friends who carry concealed weapons every day.
Shopping at the local market, feeding their kids lunch, on the way to Zumba: they could drop to one knee and kill you and 7 of your threatening pals.
I have several friends who regularly go down into their basements, unlock their arms cabinets and withdraw assault rifles -which on full automatic could hold off a platoon from their front porch.
I have several friends who, given the chance, would wall off Mexico.
Who would end all aid to Israel.
Who would welcome a Holy War in reverse.
I think quite frankly that some of my friends are mad.
I still love them, but...
This is maybe why...
Because if I was president of these United States, I would have in the air a squadron of murderous stealth jets and helicopters, and I would have on the ground the most secret special Ops team there is, to make and keep the promise that any-single-damn-one, any person, calling themselves a freedom fighter, or a martyr, or ISIS, or a retiree from Isaly's, anyone who so much as disturbed a stone at the ancient site of Palmyra -much less blew the standing history of Civilization (EVERYBODY'S civilization) to bits because of their asinine, anal, infantile, imbecilic take on Islam- I would have them vaporized on the spot.
With extreme prejudice.
No hesitation.
I think we as the "defenders of democracy" and the "beacon of freedom" should for once back that shit up and blow these bastards to atoms.
We should have done it when the Taliban destroyed the Buddhist statues of Bamiyan. We didn't.
We should do it now.
Kill anyone who gets within the perimeter of the City of Palmyra. Just say it. For no strategic reason, for no rational gain, with no apologies for due process or sovereignty or cause: You enter here, you die.
Kill them all because sometimes the stuff of eternity is more important than us. Sometimes men should die so that temples stand, so a painting is preserved, so a song remains. Human blood should flow so human history survives.
No quarter.
Yeah. I'll own it. That's on me.
Part of me thinks this is worse than any hand gun my buddy's wife might be carrying to the Shop and Save.
Part of me wishes my finger was on the trigger and Willem Dafoe was saying, "Paint the target."

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Burnt by the Sun

   I'd never seen a tarantula in the wild.
   Well, not a lone one.
   I had seen tens of thousands of them, waves of them, migrating to high ground in the annual spider "race" in Pinnacles California. 
  During the rainy season / the flash flood times, in the steep hills between the Central Valley and the Salinas, grandstands are set up in a state park where crowds gather to watch a tidal horde of arachnids move to escape the coming waters. 
   It's more you can imagine. 
   It's worse than you think. 
   It's truly stupendous. You get to see more spiders than anyone ever sees in a lifetime and you get to watch grown men scream. 
   But I'd never seen just one tarantula, on his or her own, in the California dust. 
   There's a park in south East County San Diego. Near Rancho something or other. It's a lot of desert acres sitting at the foot of a mountain the military uses for some purpose or another. Evidence that the only way to stop suburban development in California is with guns. 
   There's a willowed stream that runs aslant a gully, some riverine cliffs, some rare birds, a lot of coyotes, and an iron bridge that was built in Bethlehem PA and shipped to Southern California in the 20s. An early symbol of progress in this godforsaken land. 
   You can still see "Bethlehem Steel" embossed on the cross beams, arch rival of every Pittsburgh iron company. To reach the park from the nearby mega mall you pass right by them.
   I went for a walk at sunset. 
   Some would call it a hike. I think something called a hike should have the potential to kill you. 
    The drive from El Cajon to the park one could call a hike.
     This was a stroll. 
     I heard some birds. I avoided some beetles. I saw two uncut Pit Bulls and an asinine owner warding them away, I walked right up to the nose of a wild born Mustang, 15 plus years old on a late day walk with its kind equestrienne keeper. Sweet breath, soft eyes, along the trail he barely left a footprint.  
   Later, when the dark was falling as it does so quickly after a California sunset, I heard coyotes call to each other across the fields. Three different packs in the safety of the hills owned by the army, triangulating and wondering, I wondered, could they get to me before I recrossed that bridge and was I worth it, the meat vs the run and the fight?  
   Midway through the journey I came across a wasp the size of a hummingbird.
   A black fast attack demon of an insect, with bright orange wings. 
   An Apache helicopter of an arthropod. 
   A murderous exoskeleton with teeth and antennae and intent. 
   Dragging a dead tarantula three times its size across a cow path. 
   My first impulse was to run. My second was to stare. My third was, if that tarantula even twitches a limb, if it's got any life left at all, I'm gonna stomp that evil wasp and save me a spider. 
   But it was dead. And that wasp tugged it a full 15 feet. That wasp had to stop and regroup. It had to take a breather. Find purchase. 
   That's the fucking life force, I thought. 
   That's what things do to survive out here. Down here, in desert Alta California, in water free, Carl's Jr full San Diego. 
   I'm gonna remember that bug for a long freaking time. 
   And partly because it made me ask, What is it that drives people out into the desert? 
   Bugs, birds, tarantulas, even Coyotes, they don't have a choice. But why do we go? And more importantly, why do we stay? 
   In a place where we are guaranteed to die, if the AC, or the coolant, or the water runs out. 
   "Because it's clean." Said Lawrence of Arabia. 
    And I have to agree. 
    It's clean of us. 
    On the one hand, it's a place that denies kinship with our species. It tells us here is where you will fall. Here is where in a hundred years, they'll find your dried up carcass.
   And weirdly enough I think that's why a certain breed of people flock to it. It helps them vacuum pack their suburban dream- the home as an extension of the ego. The autonomous self made manifest by a three car garage, game room, studio and den, with a his and her master bathroom the size of a junior college. 
  All of it sealed and shut against a dangerous world. 
  For if that world is an actual desert, with no water, 110 degree days and killer avian bugs then how much more potent the home owner and his pioneer brood. 
   The home as the unabstract self. The brain and the soul and the human computer, in analog. Where one can sort and rearrange, sketch and legislate, doodle and dither for ever. 
   Where one can deny kinship with one's own species. 
   So it seemed when I was drunk. 
   On 112 degree sunlight. 
   I'd gone for a hike in the Mojave.
   And then it all switched over, and the denial of me, of "you", became a gift. 
   The heat shocks you into motionlessness, it encases you and you can feel the metal in the ground warming to receive your body, and somehow it's comforting. It's deliverance.
  The desert makes people glow. 
  Standing in a valley 10 miles across, flat as a seabed, with less foliate protein in its entire expanse than a back yard in Pittsburgh, you begin to entertain your own preciousness.
  You're a bag of fluid. A shining scarecrow in an oven made by the Gods. In all this dumb stone, dust, and wind, you speak. You sing. You sweat.
   It's humbling yes but at the same time, it elevates you. 
   I flex my hand in the sun and I want to cheer, My Christ will you look at that. What is this quintessence of dust? 
  The four major religions were born from the desert. Judaism. Hinduism. Islam. Christianity. All of them rose up out of the heat. 
  I wonder. Did we go out into those vast and beautiful wastes to find a God? Or get there and pretend we were one? 
  And if there is a God, or Godliness, maybe it exists only in the heat where our feet meet the sand, along that thin tissue between our selves and the glories of oblivion- air sun water-  right there all along as simpler people have known, in the dust itself among the lizards and the birds and the dogs and the bugs, all of whom sing and fight and sweat in their own ways, who all thrive where we can barely function. 
  In that hot and peaceable theater, can we still hear the faint rhythm of things as they should be? 
  Maybe that's why people go out to the desert, to the Mojave or the Sonora or the Chihuahua, to sit and listen, and wait. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

A New Yorker

  My last apartment in NYC, in Brooklyn, had 10 radiators.
  My bedroom walls were lined with cast iron. I slept with a 2 foot gap between me and the metal. Between me and burn marks. Dating me had its risks.
  I did a lot of cycling. Almost no rental units have washers and dryers.
  I thought, "hmm, perfect way to dry stuff." 
   My landlord didn't agree. "Put nothing on top of the radiators. Nothing touches them." 
   So in a rare effort toward manliness I built shelves. Counter tops framed above and around the heaters. 
  Went down to the hardware store run by the Guyanans, conferred with David the son of the elder owners who'd occasionally give me slices of a jam filled cake on holidays I didn't recognize, dragged home the wood he assured me wouldn't buckle in the heat (it didn't) and built me some tan shelves around the black metal monsters in my temporary home. 
   And as soon as I finished them, I remembered that my parents had done the same thing. 
   Pittsburgh. 317 Chestnut St. The radiator in the dining room behind dad's chair, between him and the windows had a wooden "top" where mom packed her plants in rows to catch the southern light. 
  The rear radiator, a spectacular thing, ran the width of the living room with a 2x6 bent across it. A tribute to wooden suspension. And on top of that my parents piled their magazines. Scores of them. Hundreds. Starting on the right with the Nat Geos, the Smithsonian's, Dad's National Defense Quarterlies, Jane's Ships, left over LL Beans leaning into Consumer Reports, merging with mom's knitting instructionals and the odd radical tomes my brothers brought back from college and piled within all that sliding and sorting, like decks of cards in an abandoned casino were the New Yorkers. Years of them. Decades. 
   When I was young I sat by that radiator with my cats who liked the view and the heat. I sat there with them and pretended to have a desk. I'd slide my feet under the radiator, a little sting earned where the keel of the iron met my skin and I'd read my parents' leftovers. Magazines printed before I was born. Articles about countries that didn't exist anymore. I wondered, if I mailed a check to LL Bean for the price of a pair of boots in 1968 would they send them back?
    I couldn't believe people had been writing all this stuff, printing all this material, year after year after year. They hired people and sent them out. They paid people to tell other people about their vacations. You could get a job doing this. And there it all was for me to page through. To learn about the world from a hilly street corner in a collapsing steel town in Western Pennsylvania where almost no one was getting paid to do anything they used to do.
     The New Yorkers came to me late. They didn't have photographs. They reeked of adulthood. Little print. Black and white cartoons. For a child what could be worse?
   And then one day it happened, what could be better? 
    I often say to my friends I never want to be a child again. I don't long for childhood. I don't miss it. I don't want to run around in a smock and play with dolls and little toys, setting up campaigns and conquests or drawings car engines and guns or costumes and kittens, unconcerned with what adults care about because what adults care the most about, deep down, is love. The problem, or the promise, is that that love, adult love,  comes coupled with sex. 
  And suddenly love isn't easy. It's dangerous. It's epic. And often of course a tragedy.
   We love children and how easy it is for them to "love", how clear their emotions are but it's kind of like how "good" child actors are. They're not acting, they're just charming. They're playing tennis with the net down. They don't have the stakes that matter, that we're all gonna die for.
   One day, I was re-enacting Battlestar Gallatica episodes with my 12 year old buddies up in the attic or debating whether or not Vida Blue was a better pitcher than John Candelaria and then the next day I walked outside it was all just over and done with. I didn't want to play with Legos or build an empire of guns and tools and dirt and name it Narnia or whatever fantasy I was being fed lately, I didn't want to act out war movies scene by scene, or argue which Pittsburgh Steeler had the best head fake or the best arm. 
    I wanted to watch Laurie Murphy walk down the street. 
    I wanted to sit with her and see the finial hairs on the back of her neck catch the sun. 
    I wanted to watch her blink. I wanted to watch her breathe. Run. Flex. Bend. Be.
    Nothing else.
    Everything else was just wrapping, just foam flying off the sea. 

  And right about then the New Yorkers became very interesting. 
  They didn't come out every month like the Geographic. They weren't quarterly like dad's military magazines. The weren't even simply weekly. They had a day printed in the cover , " March 23, 1983" a specific day they'd been made back there in NYC and shipped to you to receive. 
   They talked about the previous week just passed in NYC , city politics, parties attended, artists interviewed, odd balls asked opinions of, all of it brought to us out there in the Appalachians and I couldn't quite wrap my head around why we were allowed to read it. I mean, we weren't NYers, how come we got a subscription? 
    Years later when I asked my Eisenhower republican father why he read such a lefty publication he answered , "so i can see what the enemy is thinking." 
  Like the guy afraid to cry during Charlotte's Web my dad privately loved the thing-  he read it cover to cover soon as it arrived. I can see him smiling to himself, wagging his feet back and forth - as clear a sign dad was content as your dog kicking when you scratched him- and I cursed myself that he and I now truly had something in common. 
  The painted covers, the waxed silky stock, the company typeface changing font mid page, the narrow columns, the two or three poems which appeared among the fiction and the non, and those ridiculous ads in the rear, tiny things from stores and schools too small you'd think to afford the rent. but there they were, the end. On my tombstone I wouldn't be upset if, "And he finished his New Yorkers" was carved across the top.
   They gave me diction and an education. They rescued me from countless hours trapped in airports, auditions, subways and bus stations. They've pulled me out of the depression and doldrums that tv only deepens. 
   And they taught me what was love. What printed love was. What passion could come up out of the page. The same passion that walked down the street, that hummed off the skin, came out of a sentence. A voice. Astonishing.
  I drove to Reading PA once because I wanted to see the house where John Updike had spent his childhood. He was from Shillington, a small town just north of Reading and it was still there, a tiny white framed workmen's home on a inconspicuous street. A team of architects used it as an office then but they let me wander around for an hour or so which now that I think of it makes me laugh. They didn't mind. Even when they found me sitting under the dining room table Updike hid beneath to watch the colors from his stained glass door move across the carpet. They didn't mind.
  All this to say it was this fellow Pennsylvanian, Updike who first made me blush or thrill to hear what it was to want a woman, to adore her, to try and describe what this other but same thing was, this femaleness that surrounds us all, all of a sudden transmuting from the maternal to the erotic and back again, and it was in the New Yorker that I first heard him speak and try to say it.
  I remember it like I remember breaking a bone, or running from a fight, or being caught out in a lie. When the truth gets tapped into your heart for better or worse, you never forget.
   Just a poem. Just a short story from let's say  December 14th, 1981, just for imagination's sake, a magazine mailed from a printing press in New York to Western PA and I held it in my hands leaning over the radiator as the cats purred and fogged the window and the metal burned my skin and I read Updike's story where a man lays gold Kuggerands across the soft mound between his wife's legs and they laugh, that finally they are rich, they are safe. This is what it was all for.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Theater Dreams

  I was in a shoe box last week. A theater the size of a shoe box. On Melrose Ave -the busier, noisier, trendier section of Melrose. 
   And by trendy I mean utterly behind the times. It's something you notice as you get older - big cities create these eddies that gather old trends and sustain them or ....eddies of nostalgia form in big cities because there's so much capital - human as well as corporate- and the human tide of it never stops. Never stops wanting to buy an old dream they heard started here. 
   The Ramones, or Guns and Roses, or NWA, or Patti Smith... The Cure... There are enough people walking the streets of New York or LA or London to convince you it's the year the week the day you first heard them and fell in love. 
   And every year enough kids come from the hinterlands to maintain the fire. 
    I missed all this because thank God, I was in a black box. 
   One of those lovely, tiny theaters you can't believe grown men and women use to perform in. Four steps to cross from the back wall and trod the feet of your audience. How in God's name could this place be used for Shakepeare or Ibsen or anyone else? 
   I've seen people stand up to give a toast in dining rooms bigger than this. More suited to the epic. 
   My local bar has better acoustics. 
   Last year I watched the High School students of Saltsburg PA, population 896, perform Bye Bye Birdie in a theater that held ....well 896. 
  When I was in college my black box was twice the size of this LA equity space, had better lighting and had wings to hide in and move things through rather than the exit door this place had to get you to the parking lot. 
   What a change is this. 
   You're a teenager, you're 20, and you're performing in a space the likes of which no one but the luckiest, finest Broadway or West End actors will ever see. 
   And then you become a professional. You work in this mad business, for what's called a living, and you ply your trade in a room you could rent from Guardian Storage. 
   Which is not room enough and continent to hide the slain ( ambitions of your adolescence). 
   It's an acting class. We meet once a week. We perform a scene our teacher's assigned us and then listen to his advice. 4 hours. Next pair, next pair after that. Every Monday. 
   12 of us in the space, a third of which is roped off to protect the props of the show running the other 6 nights of the week. 
   A soft glow on the raked floor. Everyone looks better on a stage well lit. Our teacher's an old pro, started with Steppenwolf in Chicago and made his way to LA where he's made a life half what he was raised to be, half what the business makes you. 
   I noticed as he spoke that the walls of the theater were cinder block. About the worst thing you can hope for soundwise. They were painted black and the ceiling was maybe 9 feet. 
  The chairs of the theater were recycled movie seats from the old days, with that red brushy plush penned into a metal frame, so fun to play with when you're five. Or 45. 
 Running above the last row of seats along all 3 walls - it's a 3/4s stage- the black paint seemed to have been worn down, almost to a silver. Above each seat. Little pale halos. 
   And I realized, that's the audience leaning back. Where they'd lain their heads listening to Hamlet, or Trigorin, or Miss Julie or some mad kid's latest rant. The very oil of them resting on the walls. Still there. 
   And every cliche I've ever been told still seemed true - that it doesn't matter how big the theater is or how much you get paid, the only magic to the thing is how you get thru to those people. Thru the cloud of language and feeling and drive you gather amongst yourselves any given night. 
   Like I said - big cities let these eddies gather. Mine's just a little less marketable. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Fryman Canyon LA

    Los Angeles has a series of pocket parks that run along both sides of the Hollywood and Beverly Hills ridgeline. If you look at a map they seem to hang from Mulholland drive - flanking green patches scattered between the massif of Griffith Park and the immensity of the Santa Monica preserve west of the 405.
If all you did was drive by them, you'd never know they were there.
I didn't for years.
They're Godsends. Public space hidden within the tightly guarded real estate of West LA.
They're great because once you're inside them you can smell California and not California traffic.
California flora when it bakes in the sun for weeks and months has a kind of intoxicating tang. It's neither sweet nor acrid, it's a little of both. Some eucalyptus oil poured over cooked desert flowers and the rich bark of live oaks. The air warmed with this atomized duff.
  And because there's so little water, scent is reduced to what it actually is - an inhalant, particles of things, living and dead, coating the lining of your mouth and your nose. Which all seems a little creepy, but California's creepy. It's an absurdly beautiful and absurdly cruel landscape. It's attractive and dangerous. It's rich beyond measure and dumbfoundingly wasteful. And you read all this in a glance. As was said about a famous Hollywood magnate "he won't stab you in the back he'll stab you in the chest." So goes the Golden State.
   The same thing occurs when you first cross the Mojave, or see El Capitan, or crest the Tehachapi pass and there's the Central Valley, or stand beneath the surf at Half Moon Bay, or enter a room at Universal with 10 executives who control your fate and a network that spans the globe....the reaction is twofold... "my God what power". And ...."I'm gonna die here."
   But in a tiny twisting little park, hanging off the back of the Hollywood Hills, cut between estates and cul de sacs you can enjoy California lite and get a decent work out among shrubbery and trees that once in awhile obscure the fact you are dead center of a 7 million person metropolis.
  Which is something that always astounds me.
   I was on the return leg of my loop and, for 30 minutes, I saw and passed no one.
   Not a single person.
   I can't quite wrap my head around this fact; that you can still find yourself alone in LA, or New York, or San Fran or any of these mega cities, it just doesn't seem likely, but then there you are, following a trail, riding thru Central Park at 10 pm, crossing the Golden Gate in a decent wind, and somehow you are the only one there.
   It's a gift. A little grace parceled out to each city and I suppose if you seek enough your karma it sometimes finds you.
   At the far end of my loop I'd gone searching for a special spot, a sort of box canyon some friends had shown me years before. You had to climb past what supposedly was George Clooney's old house lined with security cameras, and then up a steep staircase, weave along a trail which ran below more mansions, one of which was the beauty built by Jennifer Aniston for Brad Pitt that ended up being the empty shell built to honor Angelina Jolie's beauty. But 3/4's of a mile on you'd find a place where water almost always ran, real water not sewage, coming off the escarpment of LA and creating a tiny tropical corner. Maybe half an acre but in there everything is green. The eucalyptus trees are 100 feet tall, the Oaks three people at the base couldn't get their arms around. The place seems just a little bit like home, back East, where parks should have trees and trees and trees not just scrub.
  It was still there, still green, or "greenish" as California's drought has turned all its dirt to a dust as fine as sand on the moon and its plant life into a kind of kindling, but the stream was running and the leaves on the ground were alive. I felt like I was in a borrowed version of Frick Park, the city park in Pittsburgh I most like to pretend I can still get lost in. So I lingered, I saw the remains of a rope swing my friends and I had used 10 years before, laughing that we still loved this shit at our age. I wanted to grab it now.
  And then George Clooney walked by.
 I looked up when I heard someone coming toward me. Saw an older man, pretty fit, knee braces, silver back hair, led by one of those fabulous dogs only the coolest people keep- half husky, half something with half an ear gone and one eye blue, one yellow. A dog that looks like it's always smiling. And a dog that looks like it could drag you out of a crevasse.
   Of course it wasn't Clooney it was that other guy who looks like Clooney but even more like an ex football player from the 70s, not quite big enough but bigger than you, the duller Clooney clone who didn't quite get the parts - you'd know him if you saw him.
   I said something like "Now that's a dog." and the guy half smiled and I thought, yeah I'm wearing my Steeler's shirt and either you get "GO PITTSBURGH!!!!"  or you get that quiet jealous smirk from all the losers who somehow decided to throw in with Oakland or Dallas or Denver and he was one of the latter. So big deal.
   And then I realized, No, he's not smiling because for a few minutes he'd been alone and blissful and then this dude showed up who looked like that actor from...."Well, you'd know him if you saw him", he probably told his wife when he got back.
 I realized, we'd found each other and cancelled ourselves out.
 I put my head down and made no sign I'd done the same thing everyone usually does to both of us.
  Just another day in Los Angeles.


Monday, July 13, 2015

Art and Money

   Okay.  I don"t do this very often. In fact I've never done it.
But watch this link

This is my buddy Lex.
He's a genius.
Not like when you say "Oh that's genius" when the guy at Best Buy tells you how to turn on your Direct TV or "What a genius!" when you see Rory McIlroy pitch out of the rough.
Nope. I mean GENIUS.
Like scary smart and skilled and driven and rare.
Way rare.
He builds, he paints, he sings, he draws, he writes, he throws, he prints, he plays, he can even dance pretty good.
He's the real deal.
And that's his latest project.
He's 1800 bucks away from his goal.
This is an easy one.
If you like art, if you give a shit about this country just about now trying to take its colonial, slave owner, indian killing past seriously, trying to fess up and own up and say, "Yes we're still a great nation but ....yeah we did this", then send my man some scratch. A little bit. The week's coffee allowance. Or share this with someone you think might dig it.
Or send a lot of money and get a bottle.
Take a gander, take a listen, pass it on.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Tweet on twits

  Roger Rees died yesterday. A British actor most people know from his work on Cheers or The West Wing.
  When I was 13, he played the lead in Nicholas Nickleby, the 8 1/2 hour extravaganza that brought intelligent spectacle back to Broadway, saved the RSC, and convinced a generation of playwrights they didn't need to press delete. He made a teenager wonder what all the noise was about, this acting thing. This theater stuff.
  He was remarkable. He shone, and his voice was a thing you sat back and closed your eyes to.
  He won Tonys, he won Oliviers, he was a star of the stage.
  But this morning when I read about his death, a day losing Omar Sharif, the first thing I saw in the paper were all the tweets. You could check up on who sent a note memorializing his life. There, before the obits, before the summation of a 40 year career, were little links to the three sentences some other celebrity thought to tick off as they were walking to set.
   And I thought, What the fuck have we become?
  A guy dies. A giant in his particular art form. A campaigner for human rights and what's first thing on offer from one of the world's foremost publications? What do people go to?
   Three grammer free burps from the producer of Cats. Words to make the words "sound bite" seem like a meal.
   What do we want these days in America?
   What do we get?
   What we deserve.
   140 characters and a mule.
   Please let me show my deep concern, my love and praise, let the first thing that the family members of an old friend hear from me be found in.....a tweet. Let me advertise my appreciation. Let me show my followers (Glory be to God for that Guyanan slip up, for that Mormon, Scientologist phraseology finding its way to Twitterdom) let me show them that I care. Let me advertise empathy.
  Publicizing your business, your latest painting, what play you went to, what joint makes the best pulled pork, where you like to shit when you go to the airport, great, feel free, it's all sort of absurd and in its American accumulative madness sort of something Whitman might have enjoyed playing with but when it comes to people fucking dying, keeling over from disease as we're all going to do one day or drowning in Korean ferry disasters, burning in a hotel in Vietnam, wiped out in a train wreck etc etc etc what pieces of your soul are you crunching up in your hands like a dried leaf every time you tweet things like "Sure sorry to see him go. True gent. Luv to his family."
   The Sioux weren't far wrong every time they refused to be photographed. We should keep their  "primitive prejudice" in mind. Part of you goes with every choice you make giving yourself away. Handing over what matters when there's apparently no pain to the process, when it seems so simple, just the press of a button. Send. Fire. Boom.
   Oh it's not such a big deal. It's so minor. It's just fun. So silly to rail on about such silly stuff.
   Yeah. Fill your days, your waking minutes, hour after hour, date after date, next to your kids playing on their i pads, next to your lover who's reached to check a text, tap on with all the media errands you can find and tell me the next time you can write a decent sentence, carry a tune, find the time to write a letter telling someone who actually mattered to you that they mattered.
   Death by a Thousand Cuts is now Death By a Thousand Apps.
   Cause we can have

 "Alone with his longing
he lays down on his bed and sings a lament;
everything seems too large, the steadings and the fields."

and we can have

"Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man."

and we can have

"He was my North, my South, my East, my West
My working week and my Sunday best
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong"

or we can have

RIP #RogerRees - a lovely, generous &  kind man & an heroic & passionate actor. We all fell in love with him in #NicholasNickleby  so sad

so fucking # sad indeed. 


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Art All Night. Pittsburgh all over.

    Art All Night's the most Pittsburgh thing I know.
    Or knew.
    A giant building. A call to artists. Any and all. Bring your stuff, we'll show it. No curators, no frills. All night. Free. Music. Food. Thugs, suits, posers, welders, drinkers, lovers, actors, activists, grandmas and kids, pastors and proletariats come on down, start your engines. The city poured into a building to see what the city has made. 
     But it's 18 years old now and so popular it's packed with people more excited to BE at Art All Night than they are to look at all the art or ponder "who are all these weirdos", these normal people who still make art, than they are to ponder each other. 
    Ponder? Might sound like an app, but it's not. 
    It's a pity. The event has turned a corner. Going is the event. The art's become secondary. The culture's commented on. "How primitive and local." It's tourism. It's a cause.
      "I went to see the Mona Lisa", not  I saw the Mona Lisa. 
     "Just waitin here in line to drive up Lombard!" 
   "Writing to say I'm at the Grand Canyon! OMG!" not Jesus Mary mother of God look at that....
   It's odd how the primacy of attendance and reportage not experience have taken over behavior. Or maybe that's what popularity has always been. The projected aura, the rumor of a thing becoming stronger than it's actual aura. The perfume more important than the person.
   I walked thru the boredom of thousands of people supporting an idea- like folks walking around a park for heart disease, or liking something enough to think they've changed it- they came to Art all Night like people go to museums: not to look at art but to show that they support the idea of art. Which in a way, fights art itself. Art's not an idea it's an action, a happening between a person and an object. A gesture and a body. A voice and your heart. 
   And where could that bond be more important than at an uncurated show, a display of art that no one's filtered, or judged, or censored, that was hand delivered by children and retirees and odd balls to an old steel mill where anyone can stand and stare? It's one of a kind.
  It was. 
  And is that the fate of Pittsburgh? Or should I say "Pittsburgh"? The way of Pittsburgh, the way culture happens in this city, its active sense of itself? 
   A town that trusted more in the making of a thing than how it could be sold. 
  And what else is social media but the selling of everything? Its dispersal and by that dispersal its dilution? How do you sell a City? 
   Happiness for millions? What does that even mean when what you're really talking about is the happiness of the marketer tapping those millions. 
   What else is branding? 
    What's the old story? Guy finds an abandoned beach on an island off the coast of Wherever and on that beach is a shack where this graying sunburnt dude and his gorgeous wife make a fish stew for the locals and whoever happens by. And the guy tastes it ....and it's the best fish stew he's ever had. I mean ever. He's traveled and worked all over the world he's made millions and spent lots of that money trying to find vacation spots where no one else goes and food no one else has tasted and this, this stew is the best.
   So he tells the old dude- give me jar of your stew and I'm going to go back to the States and get a team together and we're gonna market this shit and make you millions man, we're gonna change the face of cooking, put you on tv, spread your magic around the globe and make you a powerful man. 
  Oh yeah?
   Yeah I mean it's gonna take some hard work up front from you , probably five or ten years working 70 hour weeks, touring, making appearances but we'll get there. 
   Yeah? What do we get in the end?
    Well shit man we'll be able to move to some abandoned beach town with a gorgeous women and do whatever we want. 
   So when I look up at the folks living on Troy Hill or Greenfield in their middle class homes with their astonishing views and ten minute commutes and solid public schools, I wonder what the Hell theyre gonna get after we sell Pittsburgh to the planners of the New East Liberty and North Point Breeze. 
   I wish we had the guts to live in the old one.
   To live up to the old one's ethics. 
   I wish I did. 


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Crosswalk Jungle

 Tom Scanlon's terrified of Pittsburgh traffic. Of Pittsburgh drivers and their snarly ways.
  Seattle, San Fran, and even New York get his nod for driver decency but not Pittsburgh.
  Now understandably I'm suspicious of anyone with the same name as a machine politician nominated by Tom Corbett to a district court, but I've lived in all 4 cities mentioned above so lemme give my two cents here.
What's going on is that a generation, dare I say "a class",  of people are coming of age who expect cars to stop.
No matter what.
Crazy huh?
It's their right.
And they're not wrong about that. Legally.
 When you walk into a lane, and....maybe you've got your head down updating your twitter feed, maybe you've just turned up the volume on your headphones, and you're juggling a paypal or a bitcoin account as you switch hands, the fair trade Americano (no milk !) going from left to right, and, with nary a glance to see that the 2000 pound object coming your way is obeying the laws of the land or physics, you amble into the street...when you do that...Maybe there's a better way?
I mean, you're not going to re-spawn.
When I see someone put their life like this into the hands of automotive fate the first word that comes to mind is "Stupidity."
The next is "Entitlement."
A new generation feels like they don't need to look. It's beneath them. It's not their job.
Now we're all glad this gang has chosen Pittsburgh as the next center of a new and righteous economy but when I watch someone cross a street without the slightest acknowledgement that someone else - who could have just spaced out, or passed out, or who might have a job to get to, or a semi's worth of payload to deliver, or who might be late to pick up their kids from school, or who -hey- could be on the way to their virtual coffee shop office in their Prius- just stopped their car in the no-man's land between law and common sense and allowed them to live, something seems kind of off.
It's their right, I know, but it still doesn't seem "right".
I grew up in a city where you agreed mostly that everyone was part of a plan. That everyone in one form or another was "going to work". So if you had a chance NOT to slow them down, not to keep them from getting to whatever work it was they had to do, you took it.
 If you waved a car thru when you could have walked it wasn't a sign that the evils of urbanity had triumphed. It was simple decency.
 There were simple gestures. Take some quick steps getting across the street if 30 cars were waiting for you. Jaywalk whenever, but don't do it into oncoming traffic. Nod at the plumber who held his truck, even if he could have slipped past you. 
You were in it together.
I don't see that now.
 Well I see it in Pittsburgh still, but I certainly don't see it in Seattle or San Fran, and it's even starting to slip away from New York.
  What I see instead is a class of people letting everyone else know that they don't need to be rushed, they don't care if you have to wait, and they don't even have to register your existence, because history's on their side. You and they are not part of the same plan. You have a car, they have to mind their carbon footprint. You make a wage, they make content. You're post industrial and they're posting, as you hit the brakes. 
 I know that cars are bad. I know more people should walk or ride bikes and that everyone would feel better about themselves and the world if they moved thru it more slowly. Sure, ban cars from Manhattan. From Inner City San Fran. Tax every company that uses heavy trucking and that consequently bankrupts the ability of small municipalities to do anything BUT fix their roads. Require all parking structures be permeable concrete or better, raise gas taxes thru the roof (and into the basement tax structure of Europe), eliminate any subsidies to oil companies or to the highway commissions. But until the 80% of the nation, working to prop up these as of yet unreachable goals, feels some benefit from the new economy, take a second and lift your eyes as they pass you on the way to one of the 4 part time jobs their family's juggling. It's called class.
 When you don't. When you assume everyone should have had your education and if they didn't then screw em, it's called arrogance and in Pittsburgh it's kind of not how we do things.
 The average grandmother who's crossing Carson to get to her church on the Slopes, the family of four pushing a Giant Eagle cart across the lot in Homestead, the guys jay walking E Ohio.... when a car stops for them, they nod, they throw a smile, they wave. Join the club.
 Someone cuts you off, or gets a little too close to your kids in the crosswalk, go ahead and make an entirely different gesture but either way engage, make contact. Make believe that there's still a social contract. 
 Now I'll admit that the drivers of the new economy -so proud they're not driving at all- might lose a text or two if they look up and make eye contact with a fellow citizen, they might have to delay an email saying the real email's on its way, but would that be such a bad thing?
  Give me a little Pittsburgh aggression once in awhile if mostly what I see is decency.
  Puritan pedestrians can have Seattle, and Portland, or they can leave their bitter hearts in San Francisco.

The Straw and the Camel called America

   Things haven't been the same since......?
   Fill in the blank.
   Wave your generation's tattered old flag. Choose the poison you think everyone's been taking since.....?
   What's made us weak, us Americans?
   "Britain!!' said the founding fathers. "Banks!!" said the Jacksonians, "Disunity"said Lincoln,  to which the Rad Republicans replied "The South!!', the Gilded age barons said "The Weak", The Edwardians said, "Income Tax!!" , the Warriors to End all Wars quoted Washington, "Foreign Quarrels!!", the Greatest generation was about to say something profound and quite possibly change this country forever but then they all got drafted and for decades afterwards said "Reinstate the draft!", the Baby Boomers said "Everything!!" was wrong about America  ....and then they voted in Reagan who proved there's an exception to every rule even a Greatest one.
   I'd pretty much meld the teens and twenty somethings of the next three decades - 70's punks, 80's nihilists, and the 90s underground because all of them were caught by the first tsunami of mega capitalism and simply because they were the last kids to live when there WAS an underground, when the eyes and teeth of the internet couldn't find out your every inkling toward rebellion and make it pay.
   Taking a website page from Moore's law, or copying and pasting it ...or, even worse, should we say 'internalizing it".... there seems now to be a new generation every two years, a movement in every other county.....kind of like how there's a new grey and a new black at the Gap every other season. Yeah, I just dated myself there.....let's say kind of like how there's a new "custom made' sneaker every 4 months at....whatever the local pop up shop around you is called.
  Kind of like how you keep kids from crying. Give them new stuff. All the time. Don't worry, the dam of tears won't break and do anyone any harm until after they've moved out of the house and call themselves adults. "Hey, we're not liable..."
  That could be what makes America weak.
  I scaled this question back to the revolution because I want to posit that the fault - what makes America weak- is not in our stars but in us and has always been so.
  But before I try and prove that that can of worms has always been open I'll say this - What makes us weak is that we think escalators are elevators.
  We get on them and we stand as if we've just rented a cabin by the sea and we're gonna park there till the lease is up.
   Possessed by the idea that possession is 9/10ths of some law, damned if we'd imagine someone behind us might be late for work or late to catch a plane or late to get to their mom dying in a hospital, we occupy the escalator.
  What's happened here? When did egalitarian America decide not to make room? Not to give someone else a chance? Not to take more than your share?
  Stand to the fucking right and let people go by.
  Escalators are not Orange County. They are not your golf tee. They are not the four top in a Starbucks you've just colonized with your homework.
   Escalators are still stairs, the just move a little.
  They're like the highway: there's a fast lane and there's a slow lane. If you want not only to go slow but to stop entirely, stand to the right please......excuse me, could I slide by here?......pardon me, could you take the headphones off for a sec,...... sir could you just shift that bag a couple inches?.....HEY, GET THE FUCK OUT OF THE WAY.
   thank you.
   Now back to the core problem in American history.
   It's easy.
   Money and Jesus had a baby and that little demon's been torturing this country since the Dutch landed.
  oh....wait a minute, gotta get this text.....

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The New World

     In 1667, Peter Stuyvesant -Pieter to his friends- planted a pear tree in a corner of his Manhattan farm. That corner is now the corner of 3rd ave and 10th. The tree grew pears until a truck hit it in 1867.
     Papers blamed the weather as much as they did the driver. Global freezing and the irresponsibility of organized labor. So contemporary, as they mourned the loss of a fruit tree which had survived Washington's evacuation to Brooklyn and on through to the draft riots of the Civil War.
   There's a memorial plaque to it now on the original Kiehls bldg - which opened for business when the tree was a tree and probably supplied fruit for the employees during their lunch breaks. 
     That's seven blocks from where I currently and will briefly live.
     Six blocks from St George's Episcopal Church - where I recently sat thru a bit of an Easter vigil- which was also built on the remaining grounds of Stuyvesant's estate. The Anglo establishment putting a religious stake into the heart of Pete's Dutch Reformation.
     An avenue and half east of that is a small brownstone pressed up against the massive Beth Israel hospital complex - all of it built on the slopes of Pieter's farm rolling down to the East River- where Antonin Dvorak lived in the 1890s and where he composed most of his famous and relentlessly overplayed symphony "From the New World".
   My friend Milton and I used to sit on a cliff overlooking a slice of Lake Erie and blast our teenage souls into reverie as we scanned the water for ore boats. Summer camp. Back when if you wanted a soundtrack to your life you had to make it public.
    The things you learn when you're unemployed and like to walk.
    Facts pile up around you in NYC. They cry out to be sifted. I'm sure 20 other, 2000 other, famous people lived and worked on their masterpieces and died ten blocks from where- in a Dunkin Donuts- I'm sitting right now. I'm sure orchards stretched the width of the island and streams ran beneath the corporate counter behind me. Datum don't make a poem.
   Life here is so literal, so angular and monetized and at once so abstract. You walk an endless grid. It's filled with variety, layered to the point of madness, but at the same time it's like an experiment and you're the control factor to a circuit board testing various economic theories, a proving ground looking for an exception to gather up, to either champion or ruin. Exalt or swallow.
   Triumph here is a rare as a public bathroom.
   Oblivion is easier.
   You can hide in New York. Retreat from your own ambition, give up, let the reins drop and because there's so many strivers here few take notice as you plod to a halt on the sidewalk. 
   If you don't want to make it here you don't have to make it anywhere. 
  At least you're "here". Reigning in your own private Hell.
   But rough as it can be Manhattan is always part Heaven. 
   Long as u can pay your rent you can put your head down here and not lift it for a generation. 
   There's a guy two floors up from me in our Stuyvesant brownstone who was friends with a famous children's author. Got written into his will. Hasn't done a thing in 20 years. He gets his mail. He takes out the recycling. Amazon delivers the occasional package. Beyond that he does....nothing....
   What would Pieter, our original Protestant, the founding father of our infamous work ethic, have to say about his distant tenant?
    Maybe the man's writing a symphony. 
    They say Vladimir Horowitz was studying a Beethoven score, got depressed, went upstairs and didn't come down for two years. Ate Dover sole every night, played very little, read and reread all of Beethoven's piano pieces while his wife ran interference and made excuses to the media and Vlad's agents and then one afternoon the man put on his overcoat, went to the barber as he'd never once shaved his own face, walked to the Steinway store on 57th street and tried out a new grand.
    Someone should replant that tree.