Thoughts At 50

rbwchilton

Ahoy there,

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.

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A Song Shall Lead (And Annoy) Them: “Let It Go” from Frozen at The Weeklings

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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Also, I have a Facebook Author page. Why not LIKE me?

Thanks for reading, folks.

sound as ever

RBW

Music Posts Galore in The Weeklings, George Clinton Interview, Book Reviews

Hello one and all,

I’ve been writing a lot this cold, snowbound February, covering topics as varied as the Beatles, crying, disco, and politics. I’ve also been writing more memoir, but I can’t post it because I’m submitting it to publications and that’s a no-no when you’re sending stuff around.

Also, it was my great honor to interview funk pioneer George Clinton onstage at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock. Clinton was in town to promote his new memoir, Brothers Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kind Of Hard On You?. His folks got in touch with great Woodstock indie bookstore the Golden Notebook, asking for help, and proprietor and my dear friend Jackie Kellachan asked if I’d like to interview George and moderate a Q & A with a live audience. I said YES. Here’s a version documented on Lawrence Hultberg’s smartphone.

P-Funk Maestro George Clinton Interview from Lawrence Hultberg on Vimeo.

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For a dee-luxe, edited, three-camera shoot of the event by James Orr, click HERE.

Here are some links to my pieces for The Weeklings:

TAKE A SAD SONG AND MAKE IT BETTER

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IN DEFENSE OF DISCO

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CONFESSIONS OF A CRYBABY

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And here’s my combo review of NY Senator Kirsten Gillabrand’s memoir and Zephyr Teachout’s history of political corruption in America:

OFF THE SIDELINES & CORRUPTION IN AMERICA

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January Roundup, featuring Elvis, Lo Fi, and Sneak Peek at my novel “Perfectly Broken”

Hello all!

Hope the first 1/12th of your 2015 was fun. Here in the Catskills, it’s been characteristically cold and snowy, with the usual constant commentary about same, which reminds me, once again, how storytelling is innate in everyone, and I mean everyone.

In addition to  publishing several items this month, I licensed the Uncle Rock tune “It’s Hot (Don’t Touch It!)” to 2015 film People, Places, Things, which stars Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords. Here’s a teaser:

 
I recorded “It’s Hot (Don’t Touch It!)” in my bedroom/home studio with a cheap microphone and a Mac and a then-seven-year-old Jack on background vocals. I sent nine tunes to the music supervisor, most of which I’d recorded in pro studios for substantial sums. But this one had something those others didn’t. I think I realize what it was/is.
 

As for writing, here are links to several pieces I delivered this month.

Originally published in The Weeklings, Salon picked up and re-ran my piece on Elvis, in honor of his 80th birthday. I watched the ’68 Comeback Special again, and, as ever, it blew me away. Click here.

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Both the ’68 Comeback Special and the licensing of “It’s Hot! (Don’t Touch It!)” got me thinking about “lo fi.” My favorite aspects of the Elvis special and of that song are that they’re raw, and therein lies the magic. I wrote about that for The Weeklings in a piece called Lo Fi Luv.

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My novel Perfectly Broken is still bouncing around editors’ desks, but the venerable Akashic Books published a snippet from one chapter on their site, as part of their weekly “Terrible Twosdays” flash fiction series. It’s from a chapter entitled “The Junkie Incident.” Read it HERE

Lastly, I’ve put up some memoir writing on temporary site Notes From the New Wave Queer Underground. 

More to come in February. Thanks for reading and all the enthusiastic and supportive comments. Much appreciated.

sound as ever – RBW

2014 Writing Round-Up

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RBW by Franco Vogt, 2014

 

Happy End-of-2014 Faithful Readers,

2014 was a huge year for me, writing-wise. In addition to posting here, I finished my novel, now titled Perfectly Broken, and my agent is shopping it around. At this juncture, I daresay we’ve got a couple of nibbles, but that’s all I can say. The great Akashic Books, who brought you the hilarious “kids’ book for parents” Go the Fuck to Sleep – a worldwide hit – will publish a short excerpt on their site on January 20th, a chapter entitled The Junkie Incident.

I became music editor of The Weeklings, and that’s a great gig to keep me busy. I edited and wrote several pieces, three of which mega site Salon cross-posted (that is the parlance). My favorite published writing of 2014, however, was Southern Belles, Latchkey Kids, and Thrift Store Crossdressers, a bit of memoir for The Bitter Southerner. All of the above propelled my byline far beyond my bubble, and that was a thrill. Links to all below.

Southern Belles, Latchkey Kids, and Thrift Store Crossdressers was the start of something. With the encouragement of some dear friends, including memoirist/teacher Beverly Donofrio, I am forging ahead with more stories like that. I’ll be posting some of them here, or on a new, dedicated site.

Last year, Holly and I, along with fellow musician-writer Michael Eck, wrote liner notes for the CD Live From Caffe Lena. Earlier this year we all received an ASCAP-Deems Taylor award for excellence for our work.

I wrote a lot for arts monthly Chronogram – book and CD reviews, and an article on “empty nest syndrome.” (Links below.) I branched out to the Woodstock Times, writing about local music and the Sinterklaas festival in nearby Rhinebeck.

Thanks for being my audience and for the feedback. I really appreciate it. I turn 50 in March, and I plan to spend the next twenty years writing. Hope some of that reaches your eyes, dear reader.

Happy Holidays! – RBW

LINKS

The Weeklings (a selection)

Salon

The Bitter Southerner

Chronogram writing

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The Hippie Angel – A Christmas Story

Hippie Angel

Hippie Angel by MCL, photo by EBW

On Christmas Eve 1973, I was hyperventilating beneath my Charlie Brown sheets, thrashing in the dark, my salivary glands in overdrive. This was my first anxiety attack, triggered by the worry that I would hear my mother placing presents beneath the tree, thus officially obliterating the Santa Claus illusion.

I already knew the truth. I was eight years old, soon to be nine, and I’d seen the remote controlled car I’d requested from Santa in my mom’s closet. Even before that, science had captivated me, and I couldn’t square the technology requirements for the sleigh, among other things. But I had yet to admit my crisis of faith to anyone. The dreamer in me, the believer, was still strong, and, due to particularly hard times, I was desperate for dreams and magic. More than ever, I desired the illusion of Santa’s visit. To experience that, I needed to fall asleep.

I gotta get to sleep, I told myself, again and again.

1973 had been intense. It was my first full year of fatherlessness. My dad had died driving drunk the year before, and my mother hadn’t taken my older brother and me to Dad’s funeral. As secular, hippie agnostics, we’d not engaged in any rituals to deal with the loss.

In the wake of my grief, I’d befriended an impish boy named Kemp. While dumpster diving behind the A & P grocery store, Kemp and I had discovered a brown bag full of Penthouse magazines, which we secreted away in our plywood treehouse in his family’s backyard. We pored over them, fascinated, titillated, and scandalized. The explicit photos and erotic stories alternately aroused us and freaked us out.

Perhaps in response to it all, Kemp and I invented imaginary friends Antonio and Joe, who were elves. We swore to each other that Antonio and Joe were real, indulging our fantasies in a kind of sad pact. We ginned up excitement at seeing them in the monkey grass, peeping from behind the azaleas, their little peaked caps bobbing among the bees. Sweet, yes, but our imaginary friends could not compete with the smut. The siren call of porn lured us away from Antonio and Joe time and again, until finally, as the magazines grew dog-eared, our elven playmates faded.

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In retrospect I wonder if the lingering trauma of my dad’s death, combined with the adult activity of ogling Penthouse magazines, had something to do with my anxiety attack. Quite suddenly, I was intimate with death and sex, and I had no tools to shape the horror and excitement they evoked. In my bed, on Christmas Eve of my eighth year, the air around me was heavy with shadow.

Our house was small, so only the dining room stood between my tiny room and the area where the Christmas tree shimmered, covered in lights and garlands and crowned with a homemade angel we called the Hippie Angel. Sometime in the mid-60s, when she was newly divorced from my father and we were quite poor, Mom had drawn the Hippie Angel in ballpoint pen on white cardboard and cut her out. The haloed, long-tressed, tiny-winged Hippie Angel wore a wide-sleeved gown and slippers. In her left hand she held a scepter topped with the peace sign. She was much beloved, especially when I was very small and she seemed quite real.

Mom was bustling around in the kitchen, waiting for me to fall asleep. I smelled her freshly lit cigarette, heard her boiling water and padding in bare feet on the old linoleum, familiar sounds and smells that usually gave me comfort. It was well past 2 AM, and my brother slept soundly in his room at the other end of the house.

My mother came to my door to check on me. I called out.

“Mommy!”

“Yes, honey?”

“I can’t sleep! I can’t sleep!”

“You’ll be fine, you’ll fall asleep, I promise.”

I resented her apparent calm. “If I don’t fall asleep,” I said through sobs, “this will be the worst Christmas ever.”

She recoiled a little but recovered quickly, took a drag on her cigarette, the burning tobacco crackling as she filled her lungs. “You’ll be fine, honey,” she said. “You’ll fall asleep. I love you. Merry Christmas.”

She headed back to the kitchen, and, according to my ears and nose, she made a cup of Constant Comment tea in the crockery she and my dad had received as a wedding present, stirring in honey with a tarnished silver spoon. Sometime after that, I finally drifted off into wild dreams in which the Hippie Angel flew between the synapses of my fevered brain.

I bolted awake at dawn, having slept an hour and a half, but energized and deliriously happy. I ran to the living room and there, in the flickering of the Christmas tree, the Hippie Angel smiled down on my remote controlled car, plus some Sesame Street puppets and, for my brother and me, a racetrack, fully assembled. Our stockings were crammed with candy, which we would consume for breakfast. I ran into my brother’s room, passing my mom’s on the way, noticing the familiar lumps of her deeply sleeping body.

My brother woke easily. We did not speak of Santa, but rather said to each other, “Look! Look what I got!” We put the Partridge Family Christmas Card LP on the turntable and tore into our gifts, a familiar ritual we’d engaged in for as long as we could recall – just the two of us, wide-eyed, intoxicated with sugar, avaricious as pirates.


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I took my remote controlled car into the street to see what it could do. My brother stayed in to play with our racetrack. It was unseasonably warm that Christmas Day, so I wore no coat. Our house stood at the end of a hairpin curve, and we often played in the street with no fear, so I plopped myself down on the manhole cover in the middle of the road. The neighborhood still slept, and I heard no traffic, just the birds heralding the new day.

My car zipped along quite well on the cracked concrete as my hands played across the plastic remote. I was happy, but my huge chocolate breakfast and lack of sleep were taking a toll, and as the sun poked over the pines, my head drooped. I could barely concentrate on my toy.

A woman screamed and my head snapped up as a car screeched in front of me, a real, speeding automobile, swerving to avoid smashing into my head. It skidded to a stop a few feet away. I was running for our front yard, my remote control car forgotten, when I heard a woman’s voice.

“Hey!” she called. “Hey kid, stop!”

I did. I turned around, panting like a baby bird, to see a young, flax-haired woman wearing a long, wide-sleeved dress, walking toward me on slippered feet. She stopped below a naked old oak, shaking her head and panting just like me. A bearded man was slumped in the passenger seat, rubbing his eyes. The scent of burnt rubber wafted over us.

“I almost… I almost hit you kid,” the woman said, pushing hair behind her ears. “I could have… Look. I don’t want to sound like a bitch, but you shouldn’t be playing in the fucking street, kid. Please. Never do that. Never.”

I nodded, transfixed. The bearded man got out of the car, lean and lank-haired, and retrieved my toy, which he handed to the woman, who handed it back to me. It was warm.

“Merry Christmas,” the bearded man said, smiling. A frisson of energy passed between them, quick micro-expressions shared. I shivered.

“Be careful, kid,” said the woman, on the verge of tears. “You can be a little wild, but… You got a long life ahead of you.” I nodded again. After this, I would never play in the street again.

Just before she dropped back into her car, she smiled and held up the index and middle fingers of her left hand. “Peace, kid,” she said. “Peace.”

RBW, December, 2014


 

Not A Misspent Youth Part 8: Wee Wee Pole and me in Marietta, Ga., 1983, More of The Strand

YouTuber rottingtapes has been busy cleaning up and uploading a VHS performance of Wee Wee Pole, featuring RuPaul & the U-Hauls, at The Strand, circa June, 1983. (Thank you, rottingtapes!) After some chit chat, we play our “banned from WRAS” song “Body Heat.” (First clip, of the song “Hips,” uploaded HERE.) That’s Todd on guitar and Casio (see also HERE and HERE), Gina and Chrissy, aka the U-Hauls, moaning and screaming, percussionist David Klimchak adding flava, and that’s me on bass in my BSA T-shirt, weighing in at about 155 pounds.

Please note the fan who says that she skipped work and ignored a migraine to come see us. Such love.