- I recorded this one minute audio snippet of Perfectly Broken for WNCW as promo for my upcoming event at... fb.me/5FuNG5owS 6 hours ago
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- Thanks to bookseller Eli at the river's end bookstore, for this staff pick! Oswego, here I come! "After the... fb.me/4KWdzZVAL 14 hours ago
In the early days of my life, my single mom, the daughter of a journalist, wrote copy for ad agencies. I recall little of this time. My memories begin when she took a job with a federally funded program called Equal Opportunity of Atlanta, or EOA. The Equal Opportunity Act was part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, enacted in 1964. Even when Nixon took office in 1969, the government kept it going, and the feds hired my mom to help poor people – mostly African Americans – get off welfare, find jobs and good homes, and keep their kids off the streets by employing them. Even though she’d been raised in a racist household, and brainwashed, like most of her white southern generation, into Fear of the Blacks, Mom rebelled with considerable flair and invested her energy in the very activities her parents’ old-guard peers regarded with mortal terror as “the n*****s taking over.” This included supporting Andrew Young in his unsuccessful first bid for Congress in 1970. She planted a campaign sign in our all-white neighborhood, a sign that was three times vandalized and replaced.
In my memory, these activities gave her more pleasure than anything. At EOA, she wrote radio spots and created programs like Rent-A-Kid, wrote and edited copy for brochures and pamphlets, and went into the black communities to engage citizens, from elders to hipsters to preachers to unwed moms. Once in a while, she would take my brother, Britt, and me.
Perry Homes was a housing project in “the black section” of Atlanta. A tornado swept through one night, and seriously damaged Perry Homes, plunging the complex into darkness.McDonald’s donated a couple hundred cheeseburgers, and Mom and some EOA co-workers drove through the pitch-blackness with Britt and me in the bed of a truck, five and six years old, handing out burgers to residents huddled around trashcan fires. They were baffled and grateful. Like a lot of my childhood, it was both scary and fun. My brother remembers a man insisting on showing us his knife wound. In the glow of flashlights and cigarette ash, Mom was full of energy, unafraid, and all smiles.
One summer Sunday we went to a black church somewhere in the poor neighborhoods of Atlanta. Despite the sweltering heat, everyone was in their Sunday best, which mostly consisted of dark wool suits for the men, and immaculate, long dresses for the women. Even the kids were dressed up. My mom, brother, and I were the only white people there, and we had no Sunday clothes. Mom had some business with a young preacher, who strode out in long black wool robes and commenced testifying to much response from the crowd, who yelled and hooted and sang. This both exhilarated and frightened me.
The potpourri of sweat-soaked fabric, hair oil, and aggressively soap-scrubbed hands wafted in waves, buffeted by fans in the hands of every congregant. Each fan – a piece of cardboard on a popsicle stick – was emblazoned with a trinity of faces: MLK at the top, flanked below by Robert Kennedy and John Kennedy, each with their famous sayings below their portraits. We took one of these home, and the three figures looked back at me from the kitchen wall for years afterward. I memorized the snippet from each man’s speech, RFK’s being my favorite: “Some people look at things as they are and ask, ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and ask ‘Why not?’” (MLK’s was from the “I Have A Dream” speech and JFK’s was “Ask not what your country can do for you, etc.…”)
I’d never seen a preacher so worked up. He worked the pulpit like a rock star, sweat pouring down his face. In the middle of saying something about the Lamb of God, he collapsed with a clatter and boom on the wide floorboards. The room gasped and fell silent. Two men hurried over, ready with smelling salts, which they waved under his nose. He rose, drew a ragged breath, waved off his minders, and launched right back into his sermon. The church fell in with him, like nothing had happened. His passing out seemed a regular occurrence.
Every summer, Mom took us to the Piedmont Arts Festival, in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. Britt and I roamed barefoot and free in clouds of patchouli, incense, and pot smoke; we wandered in and out of stalls where young, scraggly, fragrant merchants sold leather goods, tie-dye, head shop items, and art in all manner of media; musicians played on stages and among the people, singing their anthems and laments while Hare Krishnas jingle-jangled along the winding paths. Grilled meat, spilled beer, oiled skin, stinky feet, cigarettes: all hung in the thick, hot air.
It was the waning days of hippie-dom, but you wouldn’t have known it. It seemed like the heyday. The willed embrace of chaos so favored by the counterculture often scared me, but at the Piedmont Arts Fest, I successfully tapped into my brother’s and my mom’s contagious fearlessness. My brother and I were quick enough to elude pursuers, ready to climb to the upper boughs of a tree or to burrow beneath a gewgaw-strewn table if need be, and we often did, fantasizing that we were mini-hippie-kid outlaws, half-pint tricksters who could wreak mischief and vanish into the melee at will. We had such fun.
Mom would catch up with us by evenfall, when sweat trickled onto my eyeglass lens, the salty drops skewing and refracting the soft lamplight, transforming it into a private vision of will o’ the wisps dancing above the exhaling park, my own little lightshow across the scuffed lenses of my glasses. In the homebound VW, Britt and I, filthy, scuffed, and happy, would crumple into each other and fall asleep as the streetlights passed overhead, our mother puffing on a cigarette, humming along to the radio, tipping ashes into the cool of the evening. Ready for anything.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. 5-8-2016
Today, April 21st, is my late grandfather, Salvatore “Sam” Francis Lucchese’s birthday. I honor him, now more than ever.
My writing gene comes from Sam. As I’ve nurtured it this last decade, communing with the DNA he bequeathed me via my mother, I have connected to a man I never felt close to in life. Most significant, I’ve realized how that writing gene altered the course of my family for the better, pivoting the line away from darkness. I feel that significance, and I am so proud. My grandfather was a quiet, unassuming hero, the savior of my bloodline.
Sam F. Lucchese, as he was professionally known, was born in 1900, in Victoria, Texas, to Sicilian immigrants, Giuseppe and Anna. Giuseppe and his brothers were renowned boot makers from Palermo. In the late 1800s, they’d come through the port of Galveston to make footwear for the Army at the Texas/Mexico border.
Sam, however, cared nothing for boot making. For reasons we will never know, when he came of age, he chose to make a life as an American writer. He did not go to college, but rather taught himself.
His cousin, Cosimo, turned Lucchese Boots into a thriving business. (LBJ is buried in Lucchese boots.) Sam, meanwhile, became a typesetter straight out of high school, and worked his way up to editor. In the 20s, he accepted a position on a paper in Georgia. In the Peach State, he met the beautiful, charismatic Genevieve Camp, my grandmother.
I never got a chance to know Sam. Although not unkind, he wasn’t really a kid person. My mother says he wasn’t “a hugger” in her youth, either. I don’t think Sam and I ever had a conversation. Yet, he was always around, a benign, calming presence, easy to take for granted. A diminutive Sicilian-American who loved All in the Family, black instant coffee in a plastic mug, and his poodle, Nicole, a gift from Tony Curtis. As children, my brother and I spent a lot of time in our maternal grandparents’ bungalow home. While our grandmother, Genevieve, aka “Gammie,” was very affectionate and present, Granddaddy spent hours in his musty basement office, focused, tapping incessantly on a manual typewriter. To this day, the distinctive percussion of a manual typewriter reminds me of him.
Before my birth, he primarily wrote arts-related features for Hearst-owned newspapers, most significantly the Atlanta Journal, for which he was entertainment editor most of his professional life. He was the publicist for Gone with the Wind and he interviewed the Beatles when they played the Atlanta Stadium in 1964. He retired from the Journal the year I was born (1965) but did not stop working; he wrote for Variety and other outlets, including the Atlanta Playboy Club’s At the Club publication. His writing put food on the table, paid the bills, kept my mom and her two sisters in saddle oxfords, and put them through college.
After a long decline, Sam died from Alzheimer’s in Atlanta in 1986, just before my 21st birthday. I was touring with the Fleshtones, in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. I flew home to help my brother and cousins carry the casket, my fingernails painted black, Mardi Gras beads dangling from the epaulet of my biker jacket.
Gammie did not speak much of her history until just a couple years before she passed in 2000 at age 94. While she displayed no photos of her family, the Camps, in the Lucchese house, she festooned the walls and surfaces with framed pictures of her and Sam’s progeny – their daughters, my brother, our cousins, me – and many movie stars they’d met on junkets. This lack of documentation of her pre-maternal life aroused no curiosity in me. Until Gammie, in the winter of her years, addled from falling down and hitting her head a few times too many, began to talk of the distant past.
Much is still shrouded in Southern Gothic mystery, but what emerged was a harrowing story of Gammie’s father, Josephus Camp, a hopeless alcoholic, failed attorney, likely bipolar. Darkly handsome. He would eventually blow his brains out in the 50s, and Gammie’s mother would insist she come help clean up the mess, which she did. He left behind a legacy of addiction, shame, and fear; carbons of letters thick with the scariest racism – i.e. hatred from the pen of an educated, eloquent, crazy person.
The Camps were devout Southern Baptist. Gammie’s siblings, Imogene and Joe, were both certified mentally ill; she with paranoid schizophrenia, he with what they called “dementia praecox,” which was likely schizophrenia with excessive manic features. Movie star gorgeous Imogene was able to function in society, but Joe spent most of his life institutionalized in the state mental hospital in Milledgeville, Georgia. Nannie, the febrile Camp matriarch, wrote of their relentlessly stressful life in journals now in my mother’s possession.
I knew none of this until my son, Jack, was born in 1998, and I was thirty-three.
In the middle of the maelstrom was Genevieve, my Gammie, eldest child and caregiver for her entire family. The rock. Yet, I imagine her desperate to find a way out of the doomed drama that was her family, a drama she would not speak of for decades.
To her racist parents’ horror, her ticket out was the short, blue eyed, Catholic, Sicilian writer, Sam F. Lucchese. On top of all those qualities, Sam was a “Yellow Dog Democrat,” meaning he would rather vote for a yellow dog than a Republican. The Camps, diehard conservative Republicans who loathed FDR, would refer to him only as “The Wop.”
According to Gammie, she had two suitors named Sam, so she called my grandfather “Casey.” This nickname would stick for the rest of their lives. Gammie’s parents desperately wanted her to marry the other Sam, a lily white Protestant guy whose parents did not hail from a country so close to Africa. The other Sam was, like the Camps, likely an apologist for the Confederacy, one who romanticized “the old ways.”
But no. Genevieve Camp chose the swarthy Wop. To her parents’ dismay, she converted to Catholicism, and began the process of shutting them out from the family she created: three girls, whose father would be faithful, a solid man who would not be consumed with alcohol-fueled madness about race, religion, or some destructive fantasy about white supremacy.
And Sam chose her. He spirited her away to Texas, where they married among his kin, surrounded by the lilt of Sicilian dialects, excellent food, and hardboiled Texas folk, a bright sun blazing down, my grandfather resplendent in a double breasted white suit, my pale-skinned grandmother holding the hand that would write them into a new life in the New South. The writer. She married the writer, and put her faith in his ability to spin sentences into money. It was an excellent call.
Interestingly, while Gammie converted to Catholicism, she did not convert to the Democratic Party or leave behind the racism that her chronically terrified family carefully taught her. Not hardly. She remained a product of the pre-Civil Rights Act, Jim Crow South. In years to come, she and I would argue about civil rights, unions, and miscegenation, and she would infuriate and disappoint me. I would wonder how the man who enthusiastically voted for Jimmy Carter could live in relative peace with the woman who adored Ronald Reagan. And I continue to marvel at how much Gammie’s love, despite her reprehensible moral and political beliefs, shaped me.
I have come to realize this: by accepting Sam Lucchese’s marriage proposal way back when, Gammie contributed to change almost in spite of herself. I recall how she did not make any great effort to convert anyone to her batshit crazy, backward views, smiling enigmatically as I grew ever more liberal, like her husband and like my mother. I prefer to think Sam appealed to the better angels of her nature, secret forces that helped her take baby steps toward the right side of history, an evolution her youngest daughter, my mom, would continue in passionate earnest, and which her great-grandson, my boy Jack, amplifies with captivating, inspirational vigor.
It all began with Sam F. Lucchese. He enabled the pivot that changed everything. Thank you, Granddaddy. And happy birthday.
Dear Faithful Readers,
Perhaps you’ve wondered where I’ve been. I see eight months have passed since my last post, so if I do not see you in “real life,” you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking I’ve been idling.
I’ve not been idling.
In June, my big brother, Britt, took me to Peru. It was my 50th birthday present.
In the picture above, Britt and I are at 16,000 feet, in the upper reaches of the Vilcabamba pass. (If you click on the pic, you’ll see the whole album on Flickr.) Because of the clouds, you can’t see the massive glacier behind us. Ascending that mountain was the hardest thing I’ve ever done physically, and I almost did not do it. But Britt convinced me I could. We had some adventures. You can see some in the photos. I will write more about it all before too long. (I promised Britt I would.)
Upon returning home, I got a full time job as Program Director for the Roxbury Arts Group, a nonprofit in rural Delaware County, NY, about a 40 minute drive from my house. I’ve been booking performers, administrating, and helping bring the arts to a particularly underserved segment of the population. It has its rewards.
The publication date looms for my novel, Perfectly Broken. At this writing, it is a mere three weeks away. Advances went out a few months back and I’ve received a handful of very kind reviews on Goodreads. You can read them HERE.
How, you may I ask (I hope you do), may I get a copy of Perfectly Broken? Simple! You can order it from your local bookseller (be sure to say it’s by Robert Burke Warren, as there are a couple other books with that title), or you can order it from amazon.
In fact, for the rest of this month, there’s a sale on the Kindle version. SIX BUCKS! And be advised: pre-orders encourage corporate overlord amazon to promote my book. Just sayin’.
My new website! That’s right: robertburkewarren.com is LIVE. It’s got a lot to offer, I daresay. The aforementioned collected works (I’m adding to that daily), my bio, an EVENTS page (lots of readings planned for my book) and NEWS, which will keep folks up-to-date on radio interviews, features, reviews, etc. Also, the SOUNDTRACK page features songs from and inspired by Perfectly Broken. You can stream and/or download them for free. Several of the songs are plot points in the book. Play them loud.
I will still be blogging here, but as you can see, I am more consumed with work – of both the day job variety and my creative endeavors – so perhaps not as much. But I’m glad to say I’ll be traveling to promote my book and working on its follow-up. You can keep up to date with me either at robertburkewarren.com or my Facebook page. I also tweet on occasion.
Thank you for reading me here, and for the very inspiring comments and encouragement. All helps me get my work done.
Speaking of which, I am off to do just that.
sound as ever –
“I am a lonely painter, I live in a box of paints / I am frightened by the devil, and I’m drawn to those that ain’t afraid.” “A Case Of You,” Joni Mitchell
The SCOTUS ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in all fifty states got me thinking about the so-called “queer” people who shaped my 80s youth. To my amazement, the memories posses an unexpected clarity, and I find myself welling up with happiness for people I have not seen in two decades, friends whose faces dance as if on a shimmery VHS tape whirring in my mind.
Many who shepherded me through some crucial years were – and are – what we now call LGBTQ, but that term was only just being concocted back then. In any case, more than anyone else, they showed me how to recognize family, love, forgiveness, grace, and courage. Both literally and figuratively, they taught me how to dance.
It took a village, indeed. An East Village.
Like most people recall their college years, I recall my time with queer folk, and I’m glad. While my friends were enrolling in BFA programs, I threw myself into the wind, traveling with hope, heading north with a bass and an amp, landing in Manhattan to couch surf in the winter of ’85. The folks who caught me, cut me a break or two, had my back, and directed me toward my various destinies, were what we would now call the LGBTQ community. I learned more essential, useful life lessons from them, usually in a bar thick with beer-and-cigarette stank, than I ever learned in any classroom.
While none of my “scenes” had labels, distinctions can be helpful. To that end: my roots are in the New Wave Queer Underground of Atlanta, and the mid/late 80s post-punk/pre-Giuliani East Village scene. In each of these, it’s important to note, nobody delineated between “gay community” and “straight community.”
In my Atlanta years, bands, plays, art exhibits, and late-night hangouts teemed with all manner of sexual persuasions, and for the most part, it was all fine, our own brand of same-old same-old. I knew some disapproving parents, but no tyrannical parents. (Quite a few “old hippie” parents.) I also knew some kids who harbored secret nonhetero tendencies, but they weren’t tortured by the furtiveness in which they couched their desires; they actually kind of dug it.
These days, when I see modern, troubled kids who must be talked off the ledge with the “it gets better” movement, I realize how odd my scenes were, and how charmed. I wish with all my might that one of those shamed, disaffected kids could get a postcard from the Rocky Horror crew, circa 1981. It would make them brave and it would make them fight back.
Of course I see now that we were in a bubble, but at the time, it didn’t seem so, partly because, being kids, we were self-centered, and anything beyond our sphere did not warrant our attention. And the alphas among us were some of the most willful people I’ve ever known, to the point where the heteronormative standard (as we now say) was, quite frankly, effectively branded as insane. Being pretty heteronormative myself, I sometimes felt a little out of place, but not so much that I wanted to flee. On the contrary. I wanted to belong, I wanted to be brave like them.
Later, in Manhattan, at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, a bar on the corner of Avenue A and East 7th Street, a new set of offbeat characters welcomed me into another arty oasis. Together, in a lovingly tangled skein, we hung out, worked our money gigs, turned each other on to music, played in bands, and could not have cared less if he/she was intimate with their own sex, or whether he/she liked to wear, say, heels, or, say, combat boots, or dye their hair, or experiment. People uptight at our lack of concern – and of course, many of my peers had fled such folks – were the butts of our jokes, and we laughed our asses off at them.
Maggie and Doug, co-owners of King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, hired me a few months after I turned 20. I’d been working midnight to 8 AM at the Village Copier for $5 an hour, and washing glasses at 8BC (bar-club on East 8th between Avenues B and C). King Tut’s needed a non-heroin-using glass washer/bar back. and my brand new bandmates Mark and Keiko, who I’d met through impresario-activist Jim Fouratt, introduced me to Maggie and Doug, who hired me on the spot. I soon graduated to bartending and bar managing. (Not being a junkie came in handy.) From that connection, from Maggie and Doug taking me on, I can now trace every major event of my life.
I’d come to New York a few months previously, reeling from some heavy girlfriend drama and family issues, and even though I didn’t consciously realize it then, I see now I was eager to find a way to be alone and to enjoy a community. I’d bounced around apartments, was unhealthy and depressed, and very close to heading back to Atlanta, but with the kindness of a few strangers, I found my way.
With my East Village scene, I found that balance of aloneness and community for a couple years, especially when the aforementioned Mark and Keiko let me (illegally) sub-lease their Ave B. railroad apartment. Tisch School of the Arts actor-in-training Peter McCabe become my great friend and roommate, and I was set. I paid my bills from cash I kept in a Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee can, and on occasion, I was happier than a pig in shit.
It was not wasted time. I played music, began to write, and spent many hours walking the streets of Alphabet City, often in the pre-dawn, adventuring with the Wah Wah Hut crew, breaking into the Pitt Street Pool to swim, watching many a sunrise over Tompkins Square Park, the last park in Manhattan with no curfew, where fires burned and kids a little less lucky than me camped.
Indeed I was lucky. In addition to being the recipient of the largesse of a few people, I was, unbeknownst to me, in the last wave of artists who could move to NYC and live cheaply. Within a decade, those days would be over.
As the 80s played out, AIDS ravaged my community. It still chills me to recall sick friends dying in their prime, to remember the feel of their wasting-away hands grip mine across a hospital bed. But when so many – including me – lived in fear of illness, or indeed, became ill, outsiderness remained a source of pride and power. We all hunkered down and embraced our outsiderness even more. Some of the braver ones marched on government buildings – the amazing ACT UP crew comes to mind – transforming grief and rage into action. Among other things, they shamed Burroughs-Wellcome into lowering the price of AZT by 20%. This was real, tough love. And it was a lesson.
There was so much love. In our little enclave, some of us at the Wah Wah Hut wished for stardom, but at the same time, we were loathe to leave the love we knew in our East Village obscurity. (Although one of two did achieve that stardom dream.) It was uncommon, this love, infused with, but sometimes beyond, sex; an amalgam of friendship, family, foxhole intimacy, erotic fascination, and besotted crushes, spiced with a healthy degree of disdain and pettiness, maybe a little bad behavior (OK, a lot) just to keep it lively. (We were kids, after all.) I think, in our hearts, we knew how special this all was, but we could not articulate it, and even if we could, we would not have done so because it would’ve been very uncool.
This era didn’t last, because these things never do, as this grumpy old man now knows. People eventually let go, or they fled; everyone, in their way, moved on, relinquishing apartments, turning the page on a life chapter lived with gusto and abandon. Some died, and we mourned them, and mourn them still.
When it was my time to go, I did, with my wife and son. My son was four when we left NYC for the Catskills, and he’s now seventeen and guess what? He’s finding his way among LGBTQ youths who are much less in the shadows than the queer kids I ran with when I was my boy’s age. That makes me smile. They shine, these kids, they make great art, they look after one another, and although I don’t say it aloud very much, lest I get a withering look, they take me back.
At age 50, my short term recollection is starting to go. Mostly, when I meet new people, I can’t remember their names. It is vexing. But part of my memory, apparently, is ironclad, at least for now: seems I will never forget the names of the queer and queer-friendly East Village denizens who took me in and/or steered me toward the better part of my life: Jim, Maggie, Doug, Brian, Jesse, Stacy, Kate, Richard, Byron, Byron, Luis, Itabora, Michael, Grace, Stan, Jo, Lucy, Annie, Paula, Denise, Monica, Effie, Ethyl, Wendy, Ida, Chuck, Curtis, Chris, Lady Bunny, Bob, Marleen, Baby, Mark, Keiko, Gerard, Bernard, Nick, George. They were all there as I became me. They helped. They emboldened me.
With the step forward that is the SCOTUS decision, my old friends who remain on this earthy plane who are gay, or LGBTQ, or whatever, have much to celebrate. That means anyone who loves them – that would be me – also has a lot to celebrate. And at this stage of the game, celebrating a good day is crucial. Not all days are good, that’s for damn sure, but even after everything, some definitely are.
(In this Nelson Sullivan video, shot in the Pyramid Club basement dressing room across from King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, I enter with my then-girlfriend Holly around 1:41. It’s 1988, and I’m twenty-two.)
Even though the last two winters were particularly harsh, I griped less about the weather. What changed? Mellowing with age? Hardly. One word: gardening.
Winters 2014 and 2015 found me looking at the snow-packed ground and easily summoning the sensation of soil yielding to my fingers. I’d actually felt that in my gardens, as opposed to talking/thinking about it and/or benefitting from someone else doing it. The memory, housed in my fingertips, bore me up. Spring was imminent.
Of course, like you, I always realized snow would melt, ground would soften, buds would bloom, etc. Even in the noticeable throes of climate change, Nature still grants us our somewhat predictable (although less so) seasons, particularly here in the Hudson Valley. But with gardening, intelligence extends beyond the head and into the hands, where it remains. I retain the feel of dirt in my palms, the muscle memory of digging, wielding a trowel, stroking stems and buds, the sweet snap of the bounty dropping into my palm. Like the music I’ve learned to play, the knowledge isn’t only in my brain; it’s in my flesh.
You think you know yourself, especially when, like me, you are smack in midlife. But no, I had no idea I’d love gardening as I do. I didn’t think I’d be on the verge of tears the first time one of my tomato vines fell from its stake and broke; I didn’t think I’d be elated seeing bees congregate on my plants, or blindly furious when an idiot dog figured my garden an excellent place to dig and defecate. Apparently, moments of looking in the mirror and saying, “Who are you?” never cease.
It was a long time coming, this shift. When my wife and I moved with our four-year-old son, Jack, from Manhattan to the Hudson Valley in 2002, I had been a city dweller my entire life, an admirer of gardens, but a stranger to them. Arriving in Phoenicia, we fell in love with and bought a 1910 Victorian house on four acres of land, a significant chunk of which had been gardened by the former owners, the Teasdale family.
The Teasdales were intrepid, back-to-the-land techno-hippies (please check out Videofreex). They’d lived in the house for twenty-eight years, raised three girls, farmed the acreage, and done a lot of gardening. Vestiges were evident: fenced-in plots, long-dead vines among the loamy earth, and, to keep away birds, glinting aluminum pans hung from stakes.
The land called out, but I ignored her for about a decade. I didn’t quite get the language she was speaking, and I was too busy to learn. I was the hands-on parent of an elementary school kid, re-inventing myself as a teacher, attending to children, and spending my spare time playing and writing music. My nurturing energy was spoken for.
In times of stress and heartbreak, however, I found myself wandering into the back yard and talking to the land, regardless of the season. I’m not sure what gave me the idea, perhaps I just needed to get out of the house. In any case, I asked for signs, for solace, for clues. I received no clear answers, no actionable intelligence, but the mere asking helped. I sometimes felt like Chuck Noland, Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away. [Spoiler alert!] Marooned on a desert island and desperate for connection, Noland talks to a Wilson brand volleyball that, like him, washed up from a plane crash. He christens it, wait for it, Wilson. While Wilson never answers (that would have made it a very different movie) the act of engaging helps stave off Noland’s madness.
Unlike a volleyball, however, the land is very much alive. I never felt this more than when I took my troubles to her and asked for help. We got further acquainted, the land and me. Just by being there, steadfast, all things respirating at a slower pace, she helped me relax in tough times. I was able to tap in to her rhythm, and this helped stem the flow of my cascading, dark thoughts.
Still, I wasn’t ready to go all the way.
Finally, in 2013, when our son was fifteen, my wife and I began the process of stepping back as parents, letting him go in some ways. Obviously, you can’t parent a fifteen-year-old the same way you do a five-year-old or even a ten-year-old. Seems like a no-brainer, but this process is always rife with missteps and mistakes, a clumsy dance most families know well. Your kid has his own life, his own friends; his world is not yours. Staying engaged while backing off is a challenge.
You can talk about this stuff ad nauseam – I know I did – but luckily, in a quiet moment between conversations, I heard and, most importantly, heeded, the call of the land, which I’d begun to decipher on my stressed-out nighttime wanderings.
After a decade of living on it, I looked intently at our acreage, assessing the arc of the sun over the maples, the firs, the birches, the mountains. I listened to the Earth’s call resonating in the space where my need to obsessively care for something resided. Perhaps I was not only born to parent, but to garden. The time was ripe, if you will, to find out.
That first season, I started late (timing is not my strong suit). I bought small plants and potting soil, Googled “starting a garden,” and built a raised bed from spare wood salvaged from a disused tree house I’d built for my son when he was tiny. I upcycled it into a square, about the size of a small table, and placed it in a sunny spot. I poured in soil, planted my tomatoes, lettuces, and cukes, added in some foul-smelling fertilizer, and waited.
A late frost almost took out my tomato plants, but to my elation – and I do mean that – they survived and budded. I watched the bees pollinate, and the process captivated me. I’d never fully understood why sex was euphemistically called “the birds and the bees,” but seeing the insects burrow deep into the dripping petals, I got it. When the fruits and vegetables swelled from those petals, I really got it.
I tended my garden every day, loving the scent of it on my skin, the dirt under my fingernails, my actual red neck. (Not loving the ticks, which are worse every year.) I watered and weeded, pruned the plants, and talked to them like a crazy person, sometimes well past dusk. My family made good-natured fun of me, but they loved my little handful harvests. Meanwhile, I felt ever more like a hunter-gatherer, a little more ready for the grid to go down, connected to a shadowy part of my ancestry.
With regards to parenting, the garden, I think, made it easier to step back and better realize what I can and cannot control, what aids growth and what stunts it. Again – I knew a lot already, intellectually speaking, but not in my body. And gardening requires patience. I couldn’t force my plants to grow any faster, or bear fruit on cue. They did it on their own time, which I had no choice but to respect.
Thankfully, I couldn’t afford to muse overmuch on this stuff. (That’s what winter is for.) There was blessed work to do, always. The vines grew ever faster, and I hammered in stakes and old pieces of fence to keep them vertical. My tomatoes in particular thrived, yielding fat, juicy fruits, which I foisted on neighbors and friends, not unlike a new dad waving food in front of a small child. I could be irritating.
“Eat this! I grew it!”
“Could you not do that?”
The first time I ate produce I had grown, it tasted quite different from store-bought, which, by comparison, is virtually flavorless. From the moment the juice squirted from the skin, I was as hooked as a crack head.
Last year, I expanded to a space twice as big. Mysterious and tenacious blight plagued my tomatoes both years, but luckily it arrived at the end of the season, after I’d harvested a lot. The first year, the unsightly black fungus upset me, but last year, not so much. Humbled is a better word. As I put in my new garden I known I will fight it again, and the smart money’s on the blight to win. But fight I will.
One of the biggest getting-to-know-yourself aspects of gardening has been my deeper connection to the natural cycles pervading all life. Through this, I realize now, in my body, that we, as a species, are screwing up the Earth. I’ve known it intellectually since I was a kid, but I hadn’t really grasped it until now. The media, of course, makes a lot of hay with the doomsaying and the screaming headlines and much-clicked-on posts. It all gets a lot of play, as it should. And it is upsetting, even more so now that I am viscerally connected.
What to do? Some of my friends just say, unequivocally, “We’re fucked. Or rather, our grandkids are fucked. Do nothing. You are wasting your time.” But I’ve discovered hand-wringing fatalism to be profoundly depressing and certainly no help except in a “misery loves company” kind of way, which I can’t really brook anymore.
Naturally, I hope there’s hope. I take heart that history, like life, is rife with game-changing, 11th hour saves; I hope something unknowable, but good, is in store for our descendants. But in the meantime, I asked myself, what can I, as an individual, do? What process feels right?
After years of consideration, I joined the Green Party. I’ve watched my Green Party friends expose and/or fight climate change deniers and/or outright rapers of the land, or those who would legislate in favor of the desecrators. I want in on that. I look at these foes like I look at my tomato blight. We may not win, but we will fight, even as they slime back into my (and your) plot. Also, we may win, or, at the very least, affect change.
Now that I’ve put my energy into the land, I really do hear the Earth’s voice, even when the snow is thick on the ground, and even when the many connections in my world crackle and spark with the noise of “civilization.” I hear her from within; she is, quite literally, under my skin. And despite her awesome power, I hear her call for allies.
She’s taught me and given me so much, especially in these last couple of years. Fighting her enemies is the least I can do.
Tomorrow, on March 29th, 2015, I turn 50. This feels more significant than any previous birthday. When I turned 16, 21, 30, 40, people said, “Wow, look at you. Big change, eh?” but I never felt it, really. Not like this.
Now, however: lots of gratitude, some grief, snatches of wonder, some perspective, and, I’m glad to say, a little excitement, all of it just under my skin, informing every step I take. It’s odd, bracing, and I’m riding it, wondering how long it’ll last.
I have a lot in front of me this coming year; my three-years-in-the-writing novel, Perfectly Broken, will be published, I’m knee-deep in satisfying work on another book, and my family dynamic is shifting, as my son is setting himself up to leave high school (class of 2016) and I am very excited for him. That’s a lot of stuff, and I’m sure there are plenty of other things I do not foresee (that’s always the case).
Below are recent thoughts from some stolen moments of reflection. Some are positive and feel-good-y, others are on the dark side, some surprise even me when I read them. All are from the still-functional heart and head of RBW, looking to his next 50 (if I’m lucky, fingers crossed), where, I’ll wager, you’ll play some part. Thanks for reading. Onward ho.
THOUGHTS AT 50
I am a better singer and guitar player than I’ve ever been. I cannot run as fast, do as many pushups, or avoid rest like I once could, but I play guitar and sing better than at any other time in my life. This is largely due to performing for kids on a weekly basis for the past nine years as my alter-ego Uncle Rock. The sheer hours have improved my guitar work, and singing unamplified at top volume – a must with kids – has strengthened my voice. I now have a good solid high A, which I’ve always wanted. (That’s the “money note” McCartney sings in the bridge of “A Hard Day’s Night,” on the word “tight.”) My voice is not my strongest suit as a musician, nor will it ever be, but it’s better. As other physical attributes inevitably decline, I’m happy to acknowledge that, a point for me in the ongoing battle against time.
I have logged quite a few failures, more than I care to list, and about which I rarely speak. Someday I will post only about those, but not just yet. Even though the stories are less interesting, I’ve also enjoyed some great successes, which, often as not, arrived in disguise. Still, who wants to see a list of successes? Not me. At least not written by me. What I like to talk most about is the work, whatever I’m working on, and I’m always working on something, and happy to be employed. One maxim I have found to be true: “The idle mind is the Devil’s workshop.”
Another maxim I’ve found to be true is Eleanor Roosevelt’s, “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.” Amen, sister. Although, interestingly/maddeningly, I’ve found sometimes I want to feel inferior, and I recognize others do, too. You want to be the kid, the little brother/sister, the acolyte, the newbie in the thrall of the expert, the fledgling at the feet of the pro with the will of iron. But I capitulate to that less and less these days. I am 50, after all.
I get frustrated and remorseful, but still, I must say, at least once a week I look around and say, “You got lucky. Don’t let the good stuff get away unnoticed. Look at all those excellent friends, supportive family, lovely wife, healthy kid.” As the great Graham Parker sings in “Brand New Book”: “I’ve got much more than most people have, and a little less than a few / But you can’t measure these things by weight, they either drag you down or they lift you.” I will file that line (the whole song, really) under “Wish I’d Written That.” That is a big file, by the way.
I’ve had many close brushes with death, one just last week on the Thruway. I can’t account for my luck, or if there is some “reason” for it. But I practice gratitude for it, just in case.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes, most due to passivity. I made some active mistakes, of course, but some top cringe-y moments feature me capitulating to someone else’s will, and/or being a coward. Those episodes haunt me, but I’m trying to turn them into work, trying to be kind to myself, and that helps keep me moving forward.
Speaking of kindness, I’ve found that to be an increasingly rare thing, so when I see it, I do my best to acknowledge it, not take it for granted. I try to surround myself with kind people, or people who are inherently kind, even though they may not seem so outwardly. Whether in the actions of a child or a crusty old adult, kindness strikes me as grace, little sparks of whatever force binds us together. The jury’s still out on my spiritual beliefs, but suffice to say here and now: I feel forces of creation and destruction swirl about us always, and an act of kindness, more often than not, is tapping into creation, and allowing some level of intimacy with that force. It’s a mini-religious experience. Cruelty, more often than not, is about distance and destruction. I’ve indulged in both, and these days, I try to invest my life more with kindness. Cruelty can be exhilarating at the outset, but for me, it carries a prohibitive cost, and no act of cruelty perpetuated by me in the past feels good in retrospect. Those acts resonate now as mistakes, but teachable ones. Everyone knows cruelty has become ever more prevalent in our culture, even celebrated, so it tends to feel more OK, while kindness feels less accessible, certainly less cool. But kindness is always a choice, even when seductive darkness swirls around it. It’s like searching for mushrooms in the mulchy leaves; the more you look, the more you see. The more you see kindness, the easier it is to find it within, and enact it. That’s been my experience.
There is no such thing as closure, at least not for me. It’s an ingenious bit of psychobabble, but it doesn’t have any teeth, that word. Would that it were so. We move on, we get back into the sun and sometimes we reconcile, but any physicist or Alzheimer’s ward worker will tell you: time does not exist, and the illusion of it frequently shatters. Music, scent, the turn of a phrase can, and will, deliver you back. Sometimes it’s great and you want to stay. Sometimes, not so much. Getting back to the present is not always easy, but the work required is good work, and just being able to make that choice is a wallop of good fortune. I tell myself: it’s nice work if you can get it, and you can get it if you try.
For me the work includes but is not limited to: strenuous exercise, fellowship, sunlight, psychotherapy, art, diet, getting away from the Internet, doing something that evokes fear in myself. Again, I invoke Eleanor R: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” That is excellent medicine.
Some folks prefer to be miserable, and they excel at it, sometimes to an artful degree. Hard not to be impressed, especially if they’re humorous people. Still, unless I can bring the laughs, I try very hard not to be one of those people, but sometimes I still am. I am well-acquainted with the “I feel sorry for you” energy, and, when given, it can be a kind of narcotic, but for the most part, I feel complaining, for me, is the road to madness. I can sense that if I didn’t try to accentuate the positive, I would be in a van down by the river, alone, wrapped in a moldy blanket, feeling righteous, and going slowly insane.
Some people work very hard to be happy, and they inspire me. I’ve seen people brook incalculable loss, and somehow find their smiles again, and that stuns and humbles me and, at least once daily, makes me shut up about my problems.
Sometimes I actually forget a friend or loved has passed away and think about them in the present tense, go to the phone to call, or wonder what they’ll say about something. I like to think this isn’t just a brain misfire but is, in fact, me slipping the time-space continuum for a moment.
I’m a better writer than I’ve ever been, because I do it a lot and because I have actively sought out writers I admire and asked for their time and input, and they’ve given it, and helped me improve my game. I am grateful for that, and expect/hope this energy exchange will continue well into the future. I’ve turned in some copy of which I’m proud (also some lame stuff, but whatever) but my best work is ahead of me.
A large part of what I seek to know in my work is forgiveness. The concept fires me up. I’ve spent the last decade or so trying to figure out just what, exactly, it is, and realizing how often other things masquerade as forgiveness, i.e. passivity, indifference, masochism; all can walk as forgiveness, but they’re not, at least not to me. I wrote a whole book to try to figure it out. Lily Tomlin said, “Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past,” and that’s pretty good. For me, it’s a fluid thing, like an expanse of terrain opens within where plenty of space exists for everything, so bad stuff doesn’t crowd other feelings, memories, etc. Indulging in the aforementioned good work creates that broadened vista, which, thus far, inevitably contracts, and it’s back to the drawing board. But knowing that drawing board even exists feels like a blessing.
In dreams I have, on rare but real occasions, forgiven everyone, even myself, and awoken with real joy, though it ebbs away as consciousness takes hold. Still, I know it’s there, somewhere.
I’ve done my share of causing others pain, and I am grateful most seem to have found their own brand of forgiveness, however they conceive it. (It is a subjective thing, after all.) As far as I can tell, they don’t let my bad deeds define me in the ongoing story they tell about me, when they’re thinking of me, which, I realize, is far less than I imagine.
Speaking of stories, I am, obviously, a storyteller, but I recently realized: everybody is. Everybody is telling stories about everyone else all the time. It’s a trait that sets human primates apart from other mammals, and it’s mysterious. Scientists argue about it constantly, but most think this ability resides mostly in the pre-frontal cortex, which is the least developed area of the human brain, i.e. it is prone to mistakes, full of bugs, if you will. In any case, it’s how we do so many things. Consider: you want to build a city. You must tell yourself a story about where the buildings and roads will go before you build them. Or say you must go shopping; your list is a story, a projection into the future. You wonder where your loved one is, you tell yourself a story about it. Anxiety and paranoia –with which I am well-acquainted (you too, I bet) – are the storytelling impulse gone awry. Art and the healing circle of fellowship, by contrast, are storytelling at its best.
Relationships go well when the story you tell about yourself jibes with the story the other person tells about you, when the stories harmonize. When they don’t, things get rocky. Some folks, to my amazement, actually like that, in the way some folks like really dissonant music. I do not prefer it, though. At all.
To sum up, the story continues. Mine, yours, ours, each different, but intersecting in real time, and across this expanse of virtual space. If you are reading this, we are part of each other’s stories, and for that I am deeply thankful, even if the story you tell about me is flawed, just as the one I tell about you is flawed. But there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in, or so says Leonard Cohen.
In any case, among writers, affixing the words “THE END” to a work is considered the greatest feeling. But in this case, that’s not accurate. For me, here and now, the greatest feeling is to write these words:
MORE TO COME.
Ahoy there and Happy Spring.
Songs fascinate me. I play them, I write them, I obsess over them. I throw myself at them like a drunk. Last year, at the preschool where I play once a week, an encounter with a three-year-old inspired me to find out more about “Let It Go” from Frozen, which, you probably know, is an international phenomenon, and the engine behind the most successful animated movie in history. I wrote about it for the Weeklings. Please enjoy by clicking HERE or on Elsa below.
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Thanks for reading, folks.
sound as ever