Category Archives: Essay

LIFERS

pic by Jack Warren

“You still playing music?”

Occasionally, a person who knew me in my teens, twenties, or early thirties will cross my path again in real life. I see them squaring two versions of me. Perhaps they recall the affable, energetic guy always in a band, walking the sidewalks with an instrument slung on his back, leather jacket squeaking as he totes an amp into a dive, hissy demo tape in his breast pocket. There he is with his Kinko’s-made postcards and flyers. Here comes his spiral-bound mailing list. There he goes, en route from his sure-to-be-temporary bartender gig to a rehearsal space. Behold another young dreamer come to Manhattan, rolling the dice like a drunken gambler, betting the farm, laughing at the odds.

pic by Jimmy Cohrssen

pic by Dan Howell

Before them is a graying, fifty-two-year-old man, decidedly not famous, healthy if not wealthy (actually technically poor), shoulders not quite so high, clearly settled into domestic life in rural Catskills obscurity, well-worn sensible shoes, utilitarian duds, limited options, no corona of celebrity glowing around his head, no evidence he has been sharing studios, stages, agents, and accountants with his heroes, as he creatively visualized in the 80s and 90s. Not a star.

So: do I still play music?

“Oh yeah,” I tell them. “Always. I will always play music. I’m a Lifer.”

“Of course,” they reply, often with discomfort, like they’ve accidentally insulted me. “Of course. That’s great.”

I get it. Perhaps they think the letdown of unfulfilled aspirations killed my desire to play. It happens. I know a few who dreamed with similar blind, public ferocity, and who, like me, ultimately didn’t make pro, at least not for the long haul. Persistent bitterness poisons their creativity well, they sell their gear, distance themselves from music like a recovering alcoholic avoids bars. They listen only to talk radio. Not pretty. The passion killing can be especially complete if a musician had a real taste of The Life, as I did. I spent a cumulative total of about eight years in which I stood in spotlights, garnered great press, toured internationally, and, through several income streams, made a living wage or better as a musician/performer. For various reasons – some of which I do not actually know – I did not sustain my membership in this small club.

But here’s the thing: now that it’s mainly for pleasure (but also for much-needed supplemental cash) and less an attempt at a kind of lifestyle, playing music is, in some ways, more enjoyable. And wouldn’t you know it? With the fame chase removed, I am a better musician, writer, and a far better singer. Can I thrash around for marathon sets, (try to) imitate Townshend, Springsteen, Cobain, Westerberg, et al, go home drenched in sweat, and bounce out of bed the next day to lather, rinse, repeat? I cannot. At least not without designer drugs and an on-call chiropractor. But I would pay more money to see me now than in the 80s and 90s, when my ace wasn’t necessarily skill, but energy.

That erstwhile me was certainly having fun deep inside a sweaty, amped-up groove, singing too high into a dented, beery microphone, leaving bloodstains on my pick guard, but… are the record company folks here? Or some other impresario? Or a bullshit artist claiming to be an impresario? Is tonight the night I meet my “Idolmaker”? My Brian Epstein (Beatles), Jefferson Holt (R.E.M.), Andrew Loog Oldham (Rolling Stones), David Geffen (Eagles), or Malcolm McLaren (Sex Pistols)? Is a powerful person going to fall in love with me, and/or see dollar signs, and help ferry me to the far shore? (Spoiler alert: no.)

I do not miss that element at all. My heyday was the pre-file sharing era, when giants roamed the earth. Record companies were still enjoying a revenue windfall from folks re-buying albums on CD. They were more flush than they would ever be again, Goliaths swimming in money, dispatching expense-accounted emissaries to all manner of venues to find the next _________. I cringe at memories of time wasted desperate for attention from these scouts, indulging dudes in satin jackets emblazoned with a record company logo, or some such sartorial ridiculousness. Kissing ass. Yeah, I did it, and it did me no good. Regret number 27.

I did indeed join a group signed to Island (home of U2), and we made an album (never released) at the Jimi Hendrix-designed Electric Lady Studios, but I quit soon thereafter because oh my god, y’all, the manager and singer were a couple of the biggest assholes I ever met. Ever. And their kind of assholery was not uncommon in “the music scene.” On the contrary.

Though I ultimately refused to share space with them, I admit I was fascinated by and occasionally envious of my enfant terrible peers. When an enfant terrible ascended, I originally thought belligerence was their key more than objective talent, and wished I too could so brazenly unleash my Id on bandmates and music biz folk. But while a compelling bad attitude didn’t hamper a trip down the garden path, it alone didn’t always keep one off the streets. (The aforementioned band, for instance, was summarily dropped by Island not long after I quit. A common story.) Those who matriculated to music (or acting, visual art, writing, et al) as a career, and remained there, were special, lucky, resilient, and tenacious. If they have one thing common, it was an allegiance with a simpatico soul who believed in them and took risks, an advocate who put their money where their mouth was. Assholery alone did not guarantee longevity, which is kind of a relief. More often than not, the few who “made it” were just consistently better in some way than most – including me – or at least more salable. And they had representation.

Naturally, these people are the minority of musicians I have known. The far greater percentage, like me, retained or eventually returned to day jobs, exiled from, or denied entrance to the big(ger) leagues. Shall we discuss why? Bad idea. Frankly, going down imaginary roads not taken, second-guessing and/or revising pivotal moments, doing the woulda coulda shoulda, makes for tedious conversation. (I would know.) No one but a paid therapist wants to hear it, and my guess is even they don’t.

Point is, years rolled by, and most of my music making, dreaming-out-loud peers, my fellow rock star wannabes, moved forward. As the writing on the wall became ever clearer, we abandoned hunting the white stag of fame, moved on to marriages, degrees, jobs, families, mortgages, layoffs, unspeakable losses, divorces, accidents, yard work, reversals, joys and sorrows, diagnoses, prescriptions, raises, pay cuts, et cetera.

In the warp and weft of these lives, my tribe of also-rans, I am very happy to say, just could not stop making music. Crushing disappointment, bearing witness to people at their worst, an obscene lack of appreciation for our kind from the world at large, and the cruelty of time could not vanquish our collective mojo. We say fuck you to all of the above, and make our music. Barring something unforeseen, we will continue to do so. We are Lifers.

pic by unknown fan

~

Like me, most of my Lifer peers got into music to be rock stars of some stripe, whether of the Led Zeppelin variety, the Nirvana/R.E.M. variety, or some other version, even the versions who disdain the term “rock star.” A few pals say that was not their intention, but I don’t believe them. To be sure, it is an absurd ambition to admit to. It bespeaks insecurity, a need for extravagant affirmation from unknown fans, delusions of grandeur, and an irresponsible tendency toward risk. But there you have it.

Having said all of that, if rock stardom were offered me today, I would take it. At fifty-two, with my son off at college, I am now ready. I am much more comfortable with saying fuck you to an asshole. Just putting that out there.

In truth, it may sound like sour grapes, but I often think being denied and/or turning away from The Life in my younger days was a good thing. The life I have made, while not without challenges, is pretty swell, and as years accrue and I stay vertical, I often feel very fortunate. One of the best aspects of this life is making music with no eye on a potential “big break.”

My fellow players come into rehearsal talking about their kids, spouses, car, the dumbass at work, aging parents, illness, their friend’s illness, the man who is putting down a new floor in their half bath, the horror of politics. But then we play, and all of that recedes. Amps buzz companionably, beers slake parched throats, pets wander in, laughter punctuates gossip. And the music is fun, even thrilling at times. No talk of recording a demo, making a CD, inviting the right people to a gig in the hope of advancement. We discuss the songs, the endless fascination of how our individual parts mesh; we compliment each other, and we argue a little. Time flies. We leave exhausted in the best way, and click back into our individual timelines with the heightened awareness music offers.

Recently, a rehearsal in a friend’s outbuilding went especially well. We’d locked in, and created joyful music destined to make local folk dance, sing, and be happy. At the end of a great rock and roll song, I looked around at my Lifer companions. Some had dreamed the Big Dream, and, like me, subsequently made peace with failure, and moved on.

“We are totally getting signed,” I said.

Everybody laughed loud, and joined in making fun of our ambitious erstwhile selves. I, for one, know youngster me would be aghast to witness his future in decidedly unglamorous circumstances. But I would encourage him to look closer, in the hope he would see not the failure he feared, but a seasoned musician surrounded by very cool, if obscure, fellow players, artists of great soul, skill, and generosity. Broken dreams and foiled plans cannot deter these people from making music. The young me would have no idea how precious and enriching such a life is. But lucky for him, he will learn.

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My Racist Friend

joyriding

When I see the hate-filled faces of the Neo Nazis, KKK, and assorted white supremacists, I feel revulsion, anxiety, and sadness. I also feel familiarity. Like most white Southerners, my family tree contains a carefully taught, particularly intense fear of difference.

My maternal grandmother, Gammie, was in the United Daughters of the Confederacy – her grandfather, Josephus Camp, Sr., fought for the South – and she cleaved to the Gone with the Wind fantasy of “the good old days” of Dixie: the Civil War was about state’s rights, the generals were men of honor with rebel spirit, slaves were often “family,” and the Jim Crow South was when “everyone knew their place,” etc. You can boil down all of the above to fear, learned at her daddy’s knee; fear of difference, and desire to remain separate from, and feel superior to that which is feared.

My estranged father died driving drunk in 1972, when I was seven, and my mother, Mary, never remarried, so she depended on Gammie to help raise my brother and me. For that we were lucky. Gammie loved us, we loved her, she showed up. It pains me to write anything negative about her, lest she be reduced to something she was not. But in truth, among many other things, she was an apologist for the Confederacy.

Interestingly, although raised Southern Baptist, Gammie married and bore the children of Salvatore “Sam” Lucchese, my grandfather, a Sicilian Catholic son of immigrants and lifelong Democrat, not a racist. Her distraught mother would only ever refer to him as “The Wop.” I like to tell myself that an unconscious-yet-engaged part of Gammie, a genuinely good and brave element discouraged and suppressed by her forebears, sought to commingle her DNA with Sam’s to begin the process of breaking the cycle of racism, of hate. If so, it worked. Mostly.

My mom, a Baby Boomer, rebelled against her upbringing. She exposed my brother and me to narratives and morals wildly different from what we saw and heard in Gammie’s house. We were hippie kids, grubby, longhaired, and barefoot, raised feminist (in our house, at least), taught that the absolute worst word in the world was nigger. (To this day I have a visceral reaction when I hear it.) Mom presented the rising multiculturalism of post-Civil Rights Act Atlanta as something to embrace. And embrace it we did.

The times were on Mom’s side. The 1973 election of Atlanta’s first African-American mayor, Maynard Jackson, signaled a shift that felt as normal to me as a change in season. We enjoyed the brief, post-Watergate, welcome novelty of our state’s former governor Jimmy Carter, an erstwhile peanut farmer and blue collar Democrat, rising to the White House in 1976. Other aspects of this environment that shaped us were integrated schools, friends and teachers of color, Jewish neighbors, queer neighbors, immigrant-owned businesses, and pervasive, genre-bending, rainbow-fueled music. Gammie’s politics didn’t stand a chance. They actually made no sense.

Yet somehow, I strayed. For years, when I’ve told told the story I concoct of my life, I’ve omitted an aberrant period of a year or so, when I rebelled against my mother’s rebellion. From age twelve to thirteen, I ran with a rich, charismatic, racist kid. I’ll call him Ricky Green. Today, when I see the so-called alt-right, I see Ricky, and I cringe at the version of myself that maintained a friendship with a kid who routinely said nigger, even as I protested. Especially as I protested.

I wonder why, exactly, I put up with it, as I didn’t before and haven’t since. I can say this: As a child, I was often afraid, obsessed with thoughts of death, made all the more intimate by losing my dad, having him here one day, gone forever the next. I was acutely aware of my connection to other people, and the prospect of another rupture terrified me.

Ricky Green’s cardinal trait was a dumb kind of fearlessness, and engaging with that helped alleviate my fears, of that I’m sure. To thirteen-year-old me, his racism was worth the payoff of feeling unafraid. Until it wasn’t.

~

Ricky’s and my story began in the summer between 7th and 8th grade – the summer of ’78. Quite abruptly, our shoulders had broadened, we’d grown taller, and girls bloomed all around us. They paid particular attention to sandy-haired, movie-star handsome, foulmouthed Ricky, who was not yet my friend, though we’d attended the same school for years. Even as he gleefully popped their bra straps, I noticed how girls nevertheless drank him in, how they convulsively giggled at his quips. How everyone gasped as he talked back to the teacher, even as that teacher hit him with a hockey stick, and pulled him, still seated at his desk, by his hair across the classroom. All the while, Ricky just laughed.

Soon after the hockey stick incident, Ricky seemed to sense my admiration, and invited me to his house. On the way home, we stopped at the Majik Market to play the Kiss pinball machine. Ricky mercilessly made fun of the Pakistani counter guy’s accent (behind his back). My face went hot with shame, but Ricky’s magnetism won out. Even as he whispered nigger in my ear when we passed an African American on the sidewalk – in part because it upset me, which he found hilarious – I continued hanging out with him.

Like me, Ricky was a latchkey kid. His very successful attorney father – who I never saw – had divorced his mother, and she was either not at their splendid, pine-shrouded home in an upscale neighborhood, or she was asleep in her upstairs bedroom, or, as Ricky said, she was “at the fat farm,” leaving us the run of the place. I have no recollections of her present as we raided the pantry, and/or watched R-Rated movies – Ricky called them “fuck movies” – on HBO. (The Greens were the only family I knew with HBO.) She slept so soundly, Ricky could sneak into her room and grab her car keys from her pocketbook.

“Let’s go for a ride in the Caddy!” he said, laughing. “You gotta help me push it into the street, though.”

“You can drive?”

“Fuck yes, I can. I’ll drive us to Kathy’s house. Ally’s there. It’ll be like the panty raid on Happy Days!”

Of course I helped. In the wee hours of the morning, we pushed his mom’s 1979 Cadillac DeVille down their driveway and into the street. I hopped in as Ricky started it up, wrestling with my nerves as he caromed through the suburbs, wind in his hair, laughing, radio blasting Styx and Kansas. We had no drugs or alcohol, just Ricky’s contagious bravado, perhaps the most potent intoxicant I’ve ever imbibed.

Incredibly, we got away with it. This further emboldened us to joyride several times that summer, two thirteen-year-old boys in a Cadillac in the dead of night, dropping in on girls having sleepovers. We were never caught.

Eventually, Ricky got his hands on a bag of pot, and we began to get high, which dampened the impulse to sneak out the Caddy. We just sat around smoking joints, watching HBO, and eating junk food. As I dragged on the joint, Ricky was fond of saying, “Don’t nigger lip it!”

Later, while smoking a joint with my friend Johnny and his much older disco dandy brother, Gus, I aped Ricky. I said, “Don’t nigger lip it!” This was the only time in my life I’ve used that word. Gus and Johnny’s parents had emigrated from Cuba, and I thought Gus was the coolest. He said, “Don’t say that, man. I got a lotta black friends.” He seemed personally hurt, disappointed.

In that moment – an older person acting parental, calling me out, caring – something shifted. It would take a night of wingin’ for me to fully awaken.

Wingin’ entailed hiding in bushes and hurling rocks at cars. These episodes pain me the most, even more than my wimpy protests to the word nigger. Because we endangered people. For fun. The night our mutual friend – I’ll call him Jim – joined us, things escalated. Jim was particularly insecure, desperate to be liked, and would do anything Ricky asked. After a few volleys of rocks at cars, followed by running into the woods, Ricky held up an aluminum baseball bat.

“Wing this at the next car,” Ricky said to Jim.

Jim readily agreed, laughing maniacally. Soon, a Volkswagen Bug much like my mom’s headed our way. Jim flung the bat as hard as he could and it slammed into the car door with a resonant bang. The car screeched to a halt and we bolted into the woods by Ricky’s house.

Instead of my usual adrenal euphoria, I felt a cold wave of guilt. Clueless Jim and Ricky cackled, pushing pine branches out of the way, and once again, we escaped retribution. But for me, the thrill was gone. Was it because the VW reminded me of my mom and reignited what she’d taught me, clarified my shame? Perhaps.

Soon after, Jim told me Ricky was sick of me talking about my dad’s death. My father had been gone for six years, and to my horror, memories of him were fading. And I did, in fact, often mention him as a means of keeping his memory alive, and, quite honestly, to gin up sympathy. As sad as that seems now, I can actually understand how it could irritate a thirteen-year-old. But at the time, I seized on Ricky’s insensitivity toward my grief; I would use it to sever ties. This particular affront produced actionable rage. I challenged him to a fight next to the tire swings at school.

“Don’t say shit about my dad,” I said, as kids gathered to watch.

“I didn’t say shit about your dad!” Ricky said.

Ricky and I grappled and swung for about ten seconds before a teacher broke it up, and gave us a talking to. The teacher made us shake hands, and Ricky said, “Can we be friends again now?” I nodded, but we both knew it was over.

Summer came. I kept to myself. I slept on our screened-in porch, and rode my bike all over Atlanta in the middle of the night, thinking about finally learning to play bass. I’d been procrastinating picking up an instrument, resisting a pull from my future, but I was about to give in. One night, riding in the middle of a deserted road, I nearly wept with sweet anticipation, a sense of destiny. Mom bought me a plywood starter bass, and I immediately devoted myself to it. Within three years, I would be gigging in clubs, a working musician.

The last time I saw Ricky was junior year of high school. He was hanging out with the druggies, waving to me from the smoking area, a glazed Cheech & Chong expression on his face. He would soon either drop out or transfer. Years passed, I moved to New York, and my time with the racist kid faded, in part because I was loath to revisit it, afraid of being judged for having been so cowardly. My brother occasionally crossed paths with Ricky, though, and reported that he had become a restorer of old Atlanta houses, but had subsequently developed an anxiety disorder, become addicted to Xanax, and never left his home. A couple years ago, I learned Ricky committed suicide.

Had he changed in those post-school years? I do not know. Truthfully, I hadn’t thought much about him until I saw those young white supremacists marching, and I recalled childhood time spent with Ricky, thinking we were invulnerable. The pleasure I experienced in his company was in feeling unconnected to others, until I woke up to the painful, beautiful fact that no one really is.

Luis Revisited

 

 

Eleven years ago, in the summer of 2006, my old friend Luis Fernandez de la Reguera was staying with us when he crashed his motorcycle on our street and suffered ultimately fatal head trauma. He lingered in the Albany Medical Center ICU, attached to machines for three days before they unhooked him, let him go, and harvested his kidneys and, to my astonishment, his liver.

Something in the summer air tonight brought him back to me. He is heavy on my mind and heart, and I am missing him, wishing with new acuity he was here to see his godson, Jack, now 19 and home from his first year away at college. These longings do not go away, apparently, but rather ebb and flow. Tonight, they flow.

I am remembering in particular telling Luis that Holly was pregnant. He was the first person I told. It was a summer night, not unlike tonight. He was bartending at the Lakeside Lounge on Avenue B, and I walked across Tompkins Square Park to tell him. Face alight with joy, he hugged me, his eyes wide, focused on my me with palpable heat. “You have intent on your face,” he said. “Intent.”

He was correct. I’d been floundering in my life, unsure if I was investing my energy wisely. One of the only things in which I felt confident was I knew I wanted to be a father. This had always been deeply true. Now it was happening, and my energy shifted, consolidated, concentrated on a single point, a spark of life we would name Jack. I would become his primary caregiver while his mother worked in midtown Manhattan, and we’d all navigate accordingly. I don’t really believe in Destiny, but it felt fated.

I wanted Luis in on this. A couple months later, at the Dynasty Diner (AKA the Die Nasty) I asked him to be my son’s godfather. I wanted him in Jack’s life, to help teach, to shepherd. Luis was one of the bravest people I ever met, and he made me brave; he cast light on a bigger, broader picture of life. I wanted my son to know that sense of release, of expansiveness, where emotions like shame and regret dissipate, and joy and hope solidify, so you can touch and wield them.

Luis was taken aback, but he said yes. Rather than godfather, he asked to be referred to as padrino, i.e. “little dad,” a nod to his Mexican heritage. To be honest, he was a little mad at me for asking him. This came out later. Neither one of us really knew what we were doing, and as a man, he was still struggling to strike a balance in his relationships between no-strings-attached gypsy freedom and pledges of responsibility.  Still, he adjusted, and came to appreciate and love his role as Jack’s padrino. I had faith he and my son would find a distinctive relationship rhythm, and both would feel enriched. I was sure of this.

The following January 21st, he was the first to visit us at St. Vincent’s, when Jack was born. It was a Wednesday. A couple days later, Luis would drive us home in a blinding, record-breaking rainstorm, to the safety of our warm, dry St. Mark’s Place apartment.

 

In the days following Luis’ death, the smoke alarm outside the room he’d been staying in went off three times, with no smoke in the house. A blackbird flew in the dining room and perched, and then shat, on a tribute poster we’d made for Luis’ memorial. Our cat, Sis, caught an electric green hummingbird in her mouth, a horror to which Jack alerted me. I pried the bird loose from the irritated cat, prayed it would survive. After lolling stunned in my palm, it rose, hovered before my face, and zoomed away.

Years passed, and our lives carried on, as lives do. (Until they don’t.) Partly to assuage my grief, I jumped into the business of making children’s music as Uncle Rock,  surrounding myself with little humans unburdened by loss.

I also began to write in earnest. Luis’ death, combined with the death of my oldest friend Todd two years previous – about whom more in a few – spurred me on in this particular endeavor. (I’d been procrastinating for years.) But Luis’ presence was, and still is, so huge, I didn’t attempt to wrangle him into significantly meaty, dedicated prose. I was not ready. Nevertheless, aspects of his personality obliquely appeared in my work. All the while, my Writer Voice nagged me to come back to this presence later, and tell the story of our friendship, revivify the man and our connection as much as I can with the tools I’ve honed. I still intend to do it. It will be an undertaking. But I am working on Todd first.

(Luis’ and my mutual friend, Michael Poole, AKA The Professor, wrote about Luis beautifully and at length HERE.)

The few paragraphs I did manage about Luis are pasted below, shared at last. The file is dated September, 2006. I re-read them tonight for the first time in years. I banged them out in a haze of numb grief, closed the file, and got on with my life and work, which have been fulfilling, and for which I almost always feel grateful.

So please enjoy some remembrances of this man I loved, whose ghost rose in me tonight for reasons unclear, but who I welcome, as ever, despite the sadness. And while I’ve got your attention: forgive someone, call someone you’ve been meaning to call and tell them you love them, take a risk, hug a child, swallow rather than voice a complaint, take pleasure in your body. Seek out someone who makes you laugh, and laugh.

~

LAST CONVERSATION WITH LUIS

9-06

The last conversation Luis and I had was two nights before the motorcycle accident that cut short his life. The crash would occur three driveways from our 1910 Victorian house in rural Phoenicia, New York. He was on his way back home and we were all going out to have Mexican food. I remember being nervous about the prospect of Luis not being impressed with the Gypsy Wolf – the Mexican restaurant in nearby Woodstock. Having just spent three years on the Yucatan Peninsula, in the Mexican culture than ran thick in his blood, Luis knew whereof he spoke – and ate – when it came to Mexican food, and his stories of culinary adventures ran the gamut from sublime to horrifically disgusting and funny. For instance, he’d gotten parasites from eating a taco filled with brains, about which he laughed. I wasn’t nervous about what he would say about the Gypsy Wolf; the truth was always a given with Luis. I simply wanted him to be happy with his food.

Thirty-six hours prior to that day, in the dim light of a computer screen in the guest room of my home, Luis and I were riffing and laughing. Luis was allergic to our cat, so my wife Holly had given him an Allegra, and he was buzzing like he’d just drank a double espresso. And stimulants were not his thing; drawn to depressants, he’d struggled with heroin before I knew him, and he was always at odds with alcohol. On the Allegra, his already-protruding brown eyes were bugging out and his everyday rapid-fire speech was even more accelerated than usual. But it was like music, that voice – a New Orleans gumbo of oddball pronunciations, a giddy squeal-to-a-snort of laughter, laced with punk rock energy and sweet, soulful charm. I was exhausted, having worked that day at a summer camp, but I’d not yet had much quality time with Luis, so I fought my fatigue.

Luis had been with us for a week, having divested himself of his house in Mexico, bought an RV in Florida, and driven up I-95 to come and get a bunch of things I’d been holding onto for him during his time south of the border. His plan was to have a long-overdue visit with my family – which included his godson, my eight-year-old Jack – get his stuff, and turn around and head to Costa Rica to start a new chapter in his life. Included in that stuff was his beloved BMW motorcycle, which was in our horse barn, draped with heavy quilted blankets. A family of mice had taken up residence on the seat, nesting in shredded cloth on the cracked black leather. Amazingly, however, when Luis wheeled it into the bright August sun, the bike had started right up. In the day-and-a-half that followed our last conversation, he would tinker with it in the backyard. Some time later, while he lingered in this realm, tethered to machines to keep him alive, I would clean up the flattened cardboard box he’d been using to keep the oil spillage off the flagstones.

In the guest room, we’d been talking about suicide. My friend Todd’s, in fact. Next to Luis, whom I’d know since 1985, Todd had been my oldest friend. The two friendships were similar not only in their length, but also in the fact that each was a thread that could be picked up effortlessly after weeks or months had passed. There was no awkward period of getting back in tune with one another – we always just picked up where we left off. In that last conversation, I’d played Luis a song I’d written about Todd, and, even though the song does not overtly state it, Luis picked up on something. “You’re still mad about that, aren’t you?” he’d asked, referring to Todd’s intentional drug overdose two years earlier. I’d replied that yeah, in addition to the myriad other emotions that torment my innards, anger still rises and falls, though with less intensity than before. In response, Luis told me a story.

He’d been 18, living in New Orleans, where he’d spent much of his youth with an abusive single father. Careening into manhood, Luis had moved out of his father’s house and into a shitty apartment with two fellow punk rockers. Tired of feeling bad all the time, Luis had chosen to kill himself. He’d waited until he was fairly sure his roommates would be out, then he’d purchased three bottles of Sominex and a fifth of Jack Daniel’s. He’d taken off his boots, downed his drugs and crawled under the bed to hide, and ultimately, to die. Through a series of unlikely twists of fate, one of Luis’s roommates happened to see the three Sominex boxes on the sidewalk outside the apartment, had sensed something, and had gone inside to look for him. Because he’d taken off his boots and left them in plain sight (“They were the only footwear I owned,” Luis laughed) the roommate eventually figured out Luis was in the apartment, found him, and called 911.

Luis told me he’d awoken in the emergency room with a tube down his throat, the taste of charcoal in his mouth, and a New Orleans cop in his face telling him he’d broken the law. He’d told the cop to fuck off, then got his shit together and headed for New York. “But man,” Luis said with a soft shake of his head, “when I was drinking that Jack Daniel’s and taking those sleeping pills… I was so happy. I remember that. I hadn’t been that happy in a long time.”

I can see his face as he said it – deep dark eyes filled with fierce love, and a trace of fear overcome by the heart that beat strong inside him. In my mind’s eye, Luis is stretched out on the bed a couple feet away from me, in blue Carhartt jeans and a white V-neck T-shirt, dingy white socks on his feet. He is smiling, in need of a shave. Scalp, and handsome, russet face covered with stubble; hirsute forearms, usually gesticulating expressively, are resting on his round belly. He’d told me on the phone, en route north to Phoenicia, that he’d gotten “fat and bald,” and he had. But he’d been surrounded by family love in both Mexico and Florida, a nurturing sort of love that he’d never experienced to such a degree with blood relatives, and when I saw him thus, I was happy for him.

I’ll never know if Luis realized what a gift he gave me with that story. The tale of his attempted suicide had broadened something within me. My compassion for Todd increased, and I could finally let go of some of the toxic sense of betrayal I’d harbored over his decision to leave behind his wife and newly-adopted daughter. I know now that when I go to that inner landscape to grapple with life’s difficulties, I will have a broader field on which to work my creative energy. Luis gave me that. And while I did realize it at the time, I suppressed an impulse to hug him. I did, however, tap one of his sock-covered toes and grab one of his shins and say, “I’m really glad you didn’t check out.” I said it as I was getting up to leave the room to go to bed. Luis was wearing me out.

“Yeah, me too!” he laughed.

He spent the entire next day with my son Jack, walking along the nearby train tracks, going into town for ice cream, and talking. The day after would be the day of Luis’ wreck, which remains a mystery. My neighbor says she saw the BMW stop abruptly – the engine likely seized up – and Luis pitch over the handlebars, landing on his head, which was protected only by a so-called “brain bucket,” i.e. a helmet mainly just for show. He’d left in our mudroom the helmet that likely would have saved his life.

But I focus on the day before, Friday, August 11th, 2006, when Luis and Jack hung out. That afternoon the two of them brought home a large rusted plate of iron with a railroad spike sticking out of it, which is still on the porch as I write this. Luis and Jack bonded that day. The accident and Luis’s subsequent death gave my then-eight-year-old son his first experience of grief. He cried many times with Holly and me between my trips to and from the hospital ICU.

Luis had sent Jack a T-shirt from Mexico emblazoned with a bandanna-wearing chulo on the front, and a low-rider with flames around it on the back. It’s too big, so it has become a nightshirt. Jack pulled it over his head a few evenings ago and wept. But he left it on and it kept him warm as he slept.

Jerry Ayers in Paradise

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Limbo District by Barbara McKenzie. Jerry in Hat

I have many fond memories of my 19th year, spent almost entirely in Athens, Ga. 1984. A particularly vivid one is visiting Jerry Ayers at Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden. I am stunned to realize this was 32 years ago, as the images retain piercing clarity. Now, with the sad news of dear Jerry’s passing, those days pulse even more.

I first met Jerry in ’83 when I was in Atlanta band Wee Wee Pole. We opened for his band, Limbo District – sexiest Athens band ever – at the 40 Watt. Later, when I moved to Cobb St to play bass in Go Van Go, Jerry and I crossed paths a lot. We often talked well into the night beneath a streetlight, or under an awning. I admired his sweet, lone wolf quality, sought to emulate it. In his presence, I felt recognized as I wanted to be recognized, accepted, appreciated – all of utmost importance to a kid alone in the world for the first time.

Jerry and I were avid bike riders, and frequently passed one another on the blacktop, sometimes at 2 or 3 in the morning. We both sported straw hats. Sometimes, in the dark of a backyard party, someone would think I was him, which was quite a compliment. He was kind and nurturing, radiating energy, both elder and innocent. It was easy to forget his incredible history, in part because he was so interested in what was happening at that moment, which, to him, was always pretty fucking amazing. He could make a case for any quotidian moment being pretty fucking amazing. This perspective was contagious. You always walked away from him with more vigor than before. Needless to say, I would not meet anyone like him again.

In Autumn of ’84, Jerry was living at Paradise Garden in Summerville, helping rehab the long-neglected grounds, and writing grant proposals for Howard Finster. Thanks to REM’s championing, Reverend Finster was increasingly popular, but his sprawling, kudzu-wreathed, mud spattered, dawg-infested property was, to put it mildly, a mess of Biblical (literally and figuratively) proportions. Jerry was working hard to accommodate the rising tide of visitors, i.e. potential customers. This entailed much back breaking labor: shoveling, weeding, toting heavy, unwieldy, often crazy shit to a dumpster. Jerry knew international fame for Finster was imminent, and he wrote our mutual friend Cynthia Williams, imploring her to come partake of the magick, before Paradise Garden’s funky character was smoothed, before there was a gift shop, and, of course, while the still-vital Reverend still roamed the acreage with a liter of half frozen Coke, playing banjo, singing, and preaching on request. Prescient Jerry knew these times were not to last, in part because of encroaching renown, but also because Finster, a diabetic, ate almost exclusively junk food and never slept. Jerry said: If you want to meet a true holy man in his natural element, an art prophet, do not hesitate, come now. And if you can, bring money and buy art. (Incredibly, Reverend Finster would live 17 more years.)

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Reverend Howard Finster

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Paradise Garden

Cynthia invited me to come along. I had no gigs, and was not scheduled at Kinko’s, so I said hell yes. We drove to Summerville on an Autumn day. Jerry met us in the rutted driveway, handsome in red clay-crusted waders and mud spattered, billowy clothes. Grinning like a hillbilly pirate. Cynthia and I were stunned at the place. Like most, I’d only seen Paradise Garden in the hazy, dreamy video for “Radio Free Europe,” which was, like most of what REM did at that time, tantalizingly obtuse. Arty. But now, in stark detail, Paradise Garden rose, a collection of ramshackle buildings, a couple trailers, art everywhere, a car carcass covered in Howard’s distinctive religious characters and Bible verses, bicycle parts, scrap metal, plywood, and the aforementioned dawgs. Perhaps the happiest dawgs I’d ever seen. Assorted family members came and went, all smiles, conferring with Jerry about various duties, chores. It never occurred to us to worry that perhaps Jerry – a former Warhol Superstar, a decidedly unhetero male – would be in trouble around these God-fearing rural folk. The divinity of the art, the devotional work, rendered all of that meaningless.

Jerry was very glad to see us, excited like a little kid to share. He squired us around, and we marveled at the twisted tower of bicycle parts, the paths beneath the stately oaks, the painted faces everywhere, all spreading good news about salvation, about a world unseen, a world of love and poetry. Angels. Elvis. George Washington. Jesus. Howard himself, as a grinning young man, touching the ineffable, brimming with hope, eyes fearless and joyful.

Jerry was particularly struck by Howard’s preternatural energy. He said: the man is tapped into something beyond, something unexplainable, because all he eats is garbage. Twinkies. Ho-Hos. Hostess Fruit Pies. And yet. Jerry told of waking in his room in the wee hours and looking out to the trailer where Howard basically lived, where the Reverend did most of his painting while the world slept. No matter the hour, the light was always on, an aura of creation radiating into the Summerville night.

Laughing, bespectacled Howard came out to meet us, resplendent in a polyester sport coat over a flannel shirt, ever-present bottle of Coke in hand. Cynthia asked if he would tell us a story, and he said yes. Like children, we sat on the floor before him in his trailer, and he told us of a woman he knew who put her son’s jacket on a hook when the boy went to Vietnam. She said she wouldn’t take it down ’til her son returned. And then Reverend Finster wept. He told us the jacket was still there, to this day. As he cried, we sat speechless. Then Jerry thanked him, placed his strong, lovely hand on the man’s shoulder, and ushered him back to us. Reverend Finster thanked us for coming, and Jerry led us into the late afternoon, shadows creeping.

I do not recall what or where we ate. But I do recall where we slept. Jerry was eager to show us the innards of a tower Howard had built with no architectural knowledge at all. Reportedly structurally sound. How did the Reverend do it? God told him how, that’s how. In the tower was a small shrine to the actress Lisa Whelchel, aka Blair on the Facts of Life; mostly clippings of her face from magazines, pasted to a kind of altar with a cross. It decorated a wall just outside the bedroom in which Cynthia and I would sleep on a terribly uncomfortable fold-out bed. I remember the dark of that room, the hum of a heater, the warmth of Cynthia beside me, a confusion of all that I’d seen and barely grasped. Yet also, a feeling of being lucky.

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The Tower

The next day, Howard was busy working, not to be disturbed. Cynthia purchased for me one of his two-foot-by-one-foot angels, a beautiful smiling creature covered in Biblical verse and exhortations. It pains me to write this, but somehow, in my months of couch surfing in Manhattan in 1985, I would lose it. It is the dearest thing I have ever lost. As I’ve come to know grief – the tax on a long life – I have learned not to grieve objects. Except for that.

I returned to Athens in 1987, while on tour with the Fleshtones, but I never saw Jerry again. With the advent of social media, however, we connected several times. Still, I never thanked him for his kindness on the streets of Athens, when I was a kid, struggling, for the first time, to be independent. Running from trauma. And I never thanked him for providing me with the experience of walking the holy land of art, where he fit in perfectly, where he made me feel welcome. But I think Jerry knew what he’d done for me. When I did not realize it, he knew I would carry that time with me for the rest of my life.

Thank you, Jerry.

RBW, Phoenicia, NY, October 25th, 2016

The Gods Await to Delight in You: Playing and Enjoying Music in the Catskills

Originally published in the Woodstock Times

RBW, with Satellite Paradiso, 2016, pic by Hans Wendland

RBW, with Satellite Paradiso, 2016, pic by Hans Wendland

Hudson Valley life affords me more opportunities to play music in front of people than any other place I’ve lived, and that includes New York City. The Catskills, in fact, feel like one big stage, with accommodating spirits hovering, encouraging, constantly offering chances for musicians and music lovers to step out of everyday life and into the timelessness of song. I completely understand why Dylan, the Band, Hendrix, John Sebastian, Van Morrison, Rundgren, Bowie, and many other musicians have lived – or still live – here. And why Woodstock (in Bethel) happened in these hills, and why its scope and vibe has never really been repeated elsewhere.

In his poem, The Laughing Heart, Charles Bukowski wrote, “The gods await to delight in you.” In our rolling, mysterious hills, this notion feels quite real. Our local gods, in the rocks, the waterways, and lush mountainsides, await to delight in us, musicians and music-lovers alike. Their desire is palpable.

Uncle Rock & Noel Fletcher, Wilson Campground, Mt. Tremper, NY, 2006

Uncle Rock & Noel Fletcher, Wilson Campground, Mt. Tremper, NY, 2006

~

I’ve actually lost track of the venues in which I’ve performed. The list runs the gamut from the Bardavon and First Steps Preschool, to the Bearsville Theater and the Woodstock Farm Festival. Almost every church. Definitely every school in the Onteora system. Mountain Jam? Did it, more than once. Santa’s arrival on the Woodstock Green? Played that, with my band, on a flatbed truck, with Santa himself on lead guitar. Adoption ceremony in Delhi, at which foster kids officially became family members? Check. Garlic Festival? Several times, ate the garlic ice cream. Glenford Church? I turned fifty on that stage. New World Home Cooking? Yes, broadcast on WAMC. Utopia Soundstage? A lot. Levon’s Barn? God yes, with Levon on drums. Harmony Café? Yes, and walked off with a cannabis-scented, crisp fifty dollar bill, pressed into my hand by a very friendly, very high dude in a Grateful Dead hoodie.

RBW, Kleinert/James Gallery, Woodstock, NY, 2014

RBW, Kleinert/James Gallery, Woodstock, NY, 2014

Also: Kleinert/James, Byrdcliffe Theater and Barn, Colony Café, Tinker Street Café, every bookstore in the region, every library, Proctors, The Linda, Rosendale Café/Street Festival/ Theater, Clearwater (Sloop and Fest), Taste of the Catskills, Belleayre, summer and winter Hoots, Tinker St. Cinema, the Shandaken Theatrical Society, Empire State Railway Museum, Woodstock Animal Sanctuary, Woodstock Community Center, ‘Cue, BSP, Market Market, and probably your neighbor’s house. Maybe even your house.

Uncle Rock, First Steps Preschool, Bearsville, NY, 2015

Uncle Rock, First Steps Preschool, Bearsville, NY, 2015

RBW with the Catskill 45s, house party, Mt. Tremper, NY

RBW with the Catskill 45s, house party, 2014, Mt. Tremper, NY

Every venue offers something different, and affects music, music-maker, and audience. As a musician, you become accustomed to how you sound while practicing, usually at home or in some hovel. But once you play out, that sound changes; the music takes on characteristics of the room (or the outdoor space), the people, the communal vibe of the day, which is nigh impossible to predict. After some time, you learn to gauge the space, the people, and adjust. You learn to pivot.

RBW in Rocky Horror at Byrdcliffe Barn, Woodstock. Pic by Dennis Oclair

RBW in Rocky Horror at Byrdcliffe Barn, Woodstock. 2013, Pic by Dennis Oclair

Sometimes the venue is charmed, and energizes, imbues you with power. Alternatively, even in our music-friendly region, a space can work against you, with bad tech, crappy acoustics, and/or a clueless or hostile crowd that’ll make you feel like you’ve been thrown to the lions. At which point you must suck it up and play on.

In my experience, the local venues I’ve loved playing are, not surprisingly, often the venues in which I’ve also seen some unforgettable shows. Best acoustics? Easy: Levon’s Barn. Thick, rough-hewn wood, few windows, and somehow, even though you feel you’re in someone’s home (because you are in someone’s home), the Barn features top-notch sound equipment and sound operators – usually Brendan McDonough.

When I played the Kids Ramble in 2007, I stepped onto the thick rugs of the performance area and recalled how, three years before, I’d seen Levon sit in with Ollabelle at the first Midnight Ramble I attended. We’d been told Levon couldn’t sing, due to his cancer treatments. But to everyone’s astonishment, he did sing, in duets with his daughter, Amy. The energy between them was magic, a glowing thing. And like I say, it all sounded fantastic; perfect volume, all instruments discernible as individual waves, but also part of a whole, touching the audience’s insides, enlivening us, making us one.

Uncle Rock and Tracy Bonham, Fiber Flame, Woodstock, NY, 2014

Uncle Rock and Tracy Bonham, Fiber Flame, Woodstock, NY, 2014

Because most of us listen to music on substandard speakers, earbuds, or through bad systems operated by amateurs, you forget how great amplified sound can be. So, excellent live sound is often revelatory. And that’s what you get at the Barn.

And by the way, Levon was not supposed to play at that 2007 Kids Ramble gig, either. But he did. Elizabeth Mitchell and You Are My Flower, with whom I, as Uncle Rock, shared the bill, played the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On,” and they drafted me to play bass an arm’s reach from Levon, who laid down a funky beat and grinned at me like a Cheshire cat. I will take that one with me when I go.

~

When folks talk – and/or post – about “best concert(s) I ever saw,” I always include Richard Thompson at the Bearsville Theater, solo acoustic, Rumor & Sigh tour, 1991. (My wife and I were weekenders then.) First time I saw him, first time I heard his now classic “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” The sold out, 400-person capacity room was the perfect venue. Any bigger, and it might’ve lost some intensity; any smaller, and the crush of people would’ve distracted. His songs, jaw-dropping fingerpicking wizardry, and quiet charisma mixed with a mysterious element he conjured among the congregation, a sense of community. I’ve seen many shows in this room, full bands and solo performers, and I’ve played in various configurations – solo, band, huge band – and for me, the Bearsville Theater excels with smaller-scale acts. Again, much wood makes for good acoustics, the vaulted, church-like ceiling gives a sense of quiet grandeur, and the separate space for the bar means no glasses clinking during quieter moments.

When I finally played Bearsville Theater about fifteen years later, my first thought was, “This is where I saw that amazing Richard Thompson gig.”

RBW in Paul Green Rock Academy's Christmas Spectacular, 2014, Bearsville Theater

RBW in Paul Green Rock Academy’s Christmas Spectacular, 2014, Bearsville Theater

~

My favorite local gig of all – one that I played – was impromptu and just three years ago. I’d performed at Mike and Ruthy’s inaugural summer Hoot at the Ashokan Center, first on the Toshi Seeger stage, then throughout the grounds over the course of the day. It was a perfect summer day, ideal temperature, few bugs, verdant surroundings. The Hoot was well attended, with great food, reasonable prices, and much spontaneous fun for kids and adults. It was the kind of day that makes everyone a better person.

Summer Hoot, 2013, Toshi Stage, Ashokan Center

Summer Hoot, 2013, Toshi Stage, Ashokan Center

I was officially done, and Mike Merenda asked if, after Natalie Merchant’s set, I would commandeer a “song swap” at a bonfire atop the hill overlooking the Pete Seeger stage. It would be an alternative for folks who didn’t want to go dance at the Killian Pavilion, an opportunity for the many campers who’d brought instruments to play together. I said sure, thinking, “No one will come. Everyone will go dancing.” I was wrong.

RBW, Kingston, NY sidewalk, 2012, by Tania Baricklo

RBW, Kingston, NY sidewalk, 2012, by Tania Baricklo

The perfect day melted into a perfect Catskill summer evening, starlit, no sounds of heavy industry audible, dew in the air. Someone lit a huge bonfire on the hill, just as Natalie said thank you, good night. The crowd below dispersed into the deepening dark. To my surprise, a wave of people ascended the hill, and campers stepped into the firelight with guitars, mandolins, banjos, and ukuleles. The congregation swelled quickly, from twenty, to fifty or so. Maybe more. The crowd, as an organism, was initially bashful. I was wondering how to engage everyone, when out of the darkness, a woman’s voice asked, “Anyone know ‘I Love Rock N’ Roll’?”

“I do!” I said. And I played it, and everyone sang, and we were off. As the hours passed, people grew ever bolder, singing folk songs, country, rock, punk, and originals that ranged from a cappella emo laments to crusty sea chanties. As goes it with a successful song swap, a momentum asserted itself, and young and old alike settled into our temporary little firelit tribe, tapping into ancient strands of collective memory. Humankind as a species has spent much more time singing songs around fires than any other activity, and a sense of familiarity takes hold, a constant déjà vu.

Finally, around 1 A.M., I grew tired and took my leave to drive home while I still could. The circle kept singing, barely conscious of me, piling on logs, sending sparks aloft as they engaged in song after song after song. I could still hear them from the darkness of the parking lot, where I reluctantly re-engaged with modern life, i.e. my car. Just before I turned the ignition key, I could also hear, ever so faint, the laughing of the delighted gods.

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Back to the Garden: How Digging in the Dirt Made Me Better

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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.

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Garden, 2013

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.

Garden2014

Garden, 2014

~

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.

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Garden, 2015

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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