Category Archives: Fatherhood

Perfectly Broken Southern Tour!

souvenir.jpg

Hello and Happy June!

I am prepping for my Perfectly Broken mini-tour through the South. Very excited to be doing events at Malaprops in Asheville (Thursday June 16th at 7 pm) Parnassus Books in Nashville, (Friday, June 17th at 6:30) and A Cappella Books in my old stompin’ grounds, Atlanta (Sunday, June 19th, 6 pm). I’ll also be dropping in on an Atlanta book club called “Reading Between the Wines.” They’re reading Perfectly Broken, and we’ll discuss it.

I’ll be posting all press clips. Watch this space. (And/or my Facebook page.)

More reviews have been coming in. You can read a great one from The Nervous Breakdown HERE.

Remember: if you’ve read the book and want to help out, you can (and please do) write reviews on amazon and Goodreads. Or just give stars. And of course actual word of mouth is still the best. Thank you.

Wonderful North Carolina public radio station WNCW asked me to send them a one minute audio file of me reading from the book, which they will use to promote the Malaprops event. Here ’tis:


On Tuesday the 14th, I’ll be renting a car and hitting the road for my first jaunt – 14 hours, give or take, to Asheville, where my brother and his family live. I’ll be staying with friends and family in every town. I expect Atlanta to be particularly interesting, as I’ll be seeing some folks I’ve not laid eyes on in 30 years – a combo of schoolmates from Christ the King Catholic School and Northside High School, members of what I have dubbed the New Wave Queer Underground, my family and friends, plus curious strangers attracted by the press.

I intend to blog as much as I can. Stay tuned!

RBW

Indie stores with signed copies of Perfectly Broken to ship to you:

LITTLE CITY BOOKS

GOLDEN NOTEBOOK

OBLONG BOOKS & MUSIC

 

 

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

garden1

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.

Garden2013 (1)

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.

garden2015

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.

slabsides copy 2

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.

Elvis_stage

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.

outside

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

Rock On for The Weeklings

 

RBW in Rocky Horror. Pic by Dennis Oclair

RBW in Rocky Horror. Pic by Dennis Oclair

I’m happy to report on my new gig as music editor for The Weeklings. I’ve written for this fine publication before, weighing in on post-apocalyptic novels, rock and roll movies, and the Syria Crisis (see here) but now I will be writing and editing regularly on music and music-oriented  topics. My first post is a getting-to-know you essay entitled  Rock On, in which I condense highlights of my life in music, including, but not limited to, RuPaul, the Fleshtones, Buddy Holly, Electric Lady Studio, The Roots, the Big Apple Circus, and kindie rock.

Please click HERE and enjoy. And thanks.

RBW

Blue Impala – On Father’s Day

RBW Sr. early 60s

RBW Sr. early 60s

Father’s Day has always been an unusual day for me. Prior to my son Jack’s birth in 1998, it wasn’t a happy day. But now it is, at least partly. Yes, it’s the day my son and his mom make a fuss over me, and that’s very sweet indeed. And it’s an opportunity for me to reflect on this most important aspect of my life; fatherhood defines me more than anything, and makes me feel blessed. But Father’s Day, for me, is also a time of deep, melancholy wonder.

I wonder how things might have been different, had my own father, Robert Burke Warren, Sr. – Burke to his family and friends – not died on April 11th, 1972, just after I turned 7. He was 30.

Jack’s birth has brought lasting joy in the face of a vacuum in my life, but Father’s Day still finds me longing, occasionally angry (less so these days), and stubbornly curious about what might have been, how my dad would have aged, changed, and whether he’d be a Mac guy or a PC guy. I think about the man who, even though I only knew him for a brief period, shaped me, and whose shaping I both accept and continually fight against.

Burke’s death was tragic and mysterious. He was an ex-Marine, and, like his parents, an alcoholic. One night, after carousing with his cousin,  he drove drunk at high speed into an embankment off I-85 in Atlanta, and killed himself, by accident or by design I will never know. By all accounts, he was depressed (a proclivity I inherited), unemployed, and perhaps, like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman (spoiler alert) he knew his heirs would receive benefits in the event of his death. (Which my brother and I did.) But like I said, I’ll never know. My last memory of my dad, I’m happy to say, is of him playing guitar at my 7th birthday party, leading my friends and me in a singalong of “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Country Roads,” “If I Had A Hammer,” and “Home Grown Tomatoes.”  He seemed pretty ebullient that night, although if anyone knows the skill with which a depressive can hide his condition, it’s me. But I was so proud to call the cool guitar playing dude my daddy.

RBw, dad, brother Britt, saying grace, probably 1970

RBW, dad, brother Britt, saying grace, probably 1970

My mother had divorced him when my brother and I were toddlers, and they’d been estranged, but in the last few years of his life, he was making an effort, coming around, hosting us at his swingin’ singles apartment, taking us on trips. I adored him. He drove a blue ’68 Chevy Impala, and often had a cocktail in a plastic cup when he picked us up from our home. The summer before he died, he and his second wife, Dee, took us to Disneyland. Our first airplane trip. They rented a Volkswagen Bug, and I recall laying on the backseat, happily exhausted from all-day amusement, and making up a song as I watched the passing streetlights of Anaheim, bringing myself to the verge of tears with the joy of creating a melody out of thin air (a melody I do not recall, but was, in all likelihood, a rip-off of something from a Sid & Marty Krofft show).

Britt, dad, RBW, Christmas '68 or '69

Britt, dad, RBW, Christmas ’68 or ’69

Dee, a gorgeous stewardess, adored Burke, too. He was movie star handsome, charismatic, a fun character with a debilitating gloomy streak exacerbated and medicated by alcohol. Though my mother says he would rage when they were married, the only time I recall him angry was when my brother and I – aged 7 and 6, and impish – got his Marine sword down from a shelf and unsheathed it. He came in before anyone was impaled, and of course he freaked out, swatting us on our butts as we howled in terror and remorse. He wore British Sterling cologne, had a BA in English from UGA, had once considered the seminary, but also wanted to get in the shit in Vietnam (they wouldn’t send him). He loved to play guitar and sing, and was skilled and self-taught, loved the early 60s folk stuff and sappy, romantic ballads. Didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up. Probably peaked in high school and never got a chance to redress the imbalance. Was not cut out to be a husband, at least not at 22, when he married my mom, hastily, if you catch my drift.

RBW Sr, 50s

RBW Sr, 50s

From these details, and others I have culled from people who knew him, I compulsively try to create a presence with which to commune, to try to understand, to rage at, and, as I’ve gained a little perspective, to console. I expect no satisfaction from these actions, no “closure.” It’s just a thing I do, sometimes gaining traction somewhere inside, sometimes spinning like a hamster wheel.

***

When my mother sat us down and broke the news that sunny April day, we all cried for a long time. I remember, just before she dropped the bomb, being in a  great mood. My mother said, “I’ve got some bad news,” and I replied, “What could be bad on a day like today?” And then she told us, through tears. Probably one of the hardest things she ever had to do, and she handled it well. 42 years on, I retain a visceral memory of the grief. All of us bereft, in unison, mom telling us to cry as long as we needed to. We asked if we’d ever see our father again, and she said no and she was so sorry.

She was sort of a weekend hippie, our mother, working in advertising, a la Peggy Olson, during  the week, but attending protest marches, communes, and festivals on the weekends. (Atlanta in 1972 was still kind of “the 60s.”) She said she believed in the collective unconscious, which we did not understand intellectually at that time, but sort of “got.” In a move she regrets, she didn’t take us to our father’s funeral, at which, I was told many years later, Dee threw herself on the coffin.

Mom initially told us our father “fell asleep at the wheel,” but when I was about 13, I found the police report in the attic and learned the truth. Documents and, horrifically, a photo of the Impala, the front end demolished, spiderweb shatter on the windshield. Thankfully, no photos of my dad, but autopsy reports stating he’d died with high levels of alcohol in his brain. This discovery occasioned another memorable sit-down with my mom, during which she revealed to my brother and me some of our genetic inheritance, i.e. our family tree is blighted with alcoholism. (Also, I would find out later, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, suicide, and, not surprisingly, divorce.) We were adolescents then, and it was an excruciating, but enlightening chat, and one of the only times she talked to us about our father when we were kids. Mainly, she said, “Watch out for alcohol, boys,” which I appreciate.

I’ve dodged the bullet of a “drinking problem,” but, interestingly, I am drawn to addicts, usually without consciously knowing they are saddled with the disease. Somehow – pheromones? facial “tells”? intuition? – I am disastrously discerning on a preconscious level. I have a history of diving into relationships with addicts, and then, after wonderful intimacy followed by stress, disappointment, and chaos, I bolt. I need to do the abandoning this time around, and I do. After the dust clears, I see the pattern clearly and feel like an idiot. Again. It was – and is – a therapist’s dream, and I have the bills, the time spent in Al Anon, and some fractured relationships to prove it. Also: my main source of moonlighting income in 16 years in NYC? Bartending, at which I excelled. I have to admit: I enjoyed cutting people off and 86’ing them. Power over the drunk at last.

Bartender, The Beauty Bar, wee small hours of Truckstop Tuesday, 2000

Bartender, The Beauty Bar, wee small hours of Truckstop Tuesday, 2000                          “You are cut off.”

Is it my destiny to neurotically recreate the story of the relationship between my troubled father and me, wherein the addict elicits and invites great affection only to spoil it all through bad, yet predictable, choices? Choices I, as an adult, can now control, or feel like I control, through rejection? Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe addicts are common, especially in my lifestyle, and 86’ing some – from my life and the bars – was the right call, regardless of my history. The addicts still in my life are a challenge to love, but that’s not been wasted energy. And they will tell you I can be trying, too, because I can be.

Juicy Freudian interpretations of such life choices are the rage of our age, as is blaming and shaming, etc., but at the end of the day, that all feels simplistic and reductive. Fodder for good stories, sure, but only fodder. To flesh it all out, to get closer to accommodating, if not understanding, marks left by love, you need music. You need art.

***

I inherited my father’s musicality, and I’ve been a musician most of my life. I wrote songs in my teens and 20s, but didn’t really invest serious energy in songwriting until I became a father at 32.

The received wisdom is that parenthood saps your creative juices, and your spawn are like little vampires. But, like a lot of dire parenting predictions, this was not true for either my wife, a writer, or me. For both of us, Jack’s birth brought a burst of creative energy. Also, and this is crucial, I wanted to impress him. Granted, he wouldn’t grasp the tunes for a few years, but I needed to buckle down and write some good stuff, and that entailed lots of rewrites and hammering away as I had never done before. No writing about romantic love; the best stuff came when I wrote about family.

I’d tried to write about my father before. I wrote a terrible poem about him in high school, a screed about his alcoholism and abandonment.  My English teacher loved it, and I got an A, but I’m glad it did not survive.

With my first CD, … to this day, I set about trying to write a resonant song about Burke, how I felt about him, how I dreamed about him sometimes, how I was angry but also sad about his death, and how I would always remember and miss him. In becoming a father myself, I felt a few steps closer to knowing who he was, what he’d felt; the delirious happiness, the terror, the humbling – and, at times, humiliating – privilege of parenthood. But for my father co-creating me (albeit by accident, my mom says) I would not be experiencing any of that – and I was and remain grateful for all of it.  Becoming a dad helped me move further toward forgiveness.

Al Anon sharing, therapy, et al, is helpful in constructing a less chaotic narrative of one’s life, but it’s no help in the songwriting process, so I let all that go, and let dreams and photos guide me. Most interesting, the song for my father began to come when I tuned my guitar to DADGAD. Coincidence? Maybe. (I would record it one step higher, in EBEABE, which makes the story less cool, but true.)  For non musicians, all you need to know is this is an alternate tuning favored by folkies.

My efforts birthed “Blue Impala.” Except for Richard Doll’s exquisite bowed double bass part, I played everything. And I stepped back from it and felt satisfaction. Fourteen years on, I still do.

 

Blue Impala
by RBW

Your paper face, your silent smile
Peel back the years, erase the miles
Bittersweet scent, cliche cologne
Photograph ghost in sepia tone.

CHORUS:
A blue Impala, one hand on the wheel
I will remember you, you were just passing through.

Sometimes you rise into my dreams
Some strange disguise in mad shifting scenes
I’m like you now, back then did you know?
Did that make it easier to let go?

CHORUS

Questions go unanswered, mysteries will remain
Wonder why and I ask the sky, but all I hear is the rain.

Just a wild seed in the tailwind of time
Cruel as a storm with calm in your eye
You left us all with so very much
So much to claim but nothing to touch.

CHORUS

Questions go unanswered, mysteries will remain
Wonder why and I ask the sky, but all I hear is the rain.

***

I sent … to this day to my mom, and she loved it, but for about a year, she told me she couldn’t bear to listen to “Blue Impala.” This did not surprise me, and, in fact, gave me a perverse little thrill; I’d evoked an emotional response, which is what you want as a writer.  But finally, she told me she could listen to it, and was ready to talk in detail about my dad, lo these many years later.

Even though I’d wanted to hear that for decades, I said, “That’s OK.”

I’d found him on my own.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

Your son, Robert, June, 2014

rbwsrgrave

 

A Visit With the Cloud Walker – Philippe Petit in Rhinebeck

A couple nights ago, Holly and I drove with our sixteen-year-old son, Jack, across the Hudson to Rhinebeck, NY, to see and hear the wonderful Philippe Petit at Oblong Books & Music (a great indie bookstore I recently wrote about). Philippe is the Frenchman who walked on a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center forty years ago this August. I need to write that again in italics. He walked on a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. At that time, the second tallest buildings in the world. And he didn’t just do it once. He strode back and forth 8 times, approximately 1400 feet above the pavement, 110 stories, jumping occasionally, and even laying down, as if to take a nap. Thinking about that, seeing photos, and most of all, standing in Philippe’s presence, never fails to spike my blood pressure, but in a good way. My sense of wonder re-ignites, and a whole vista of possibility opens inside me. In short, I feel like a kid. I will never, ever wrap my head around Philippe’s astonishing, unique feat, but that’s OK. It’s like what T. S. Eliot said about poetry: it communicates before it is understood. Philippe’s 1974 walk, and his entire life, is best viewed, I have decided, like a poem, a living work of art, communicating volumes of mostly inexpressible, yet invigorating energy. There is no “processing.”

Philippe on one of his 8 passes between the towers.

Philippe on one of his 8 passes between the towers.


I was 9 and growing up in Atlanta, Georgia when Philippe took to the Manhattan sky, but I heard and read about it, fascinated. I was too young to recall the Moon landings, so this, I assume, was like that for me, although sadly (or perhaps not) no film footage exists of Philippe’s walk among the clouds, except an indistinct, faraway helicopter video. When I moved from Georgia to Manhattan in 1985, and saw (and briefly worked in) the WTC, my amazement was refreshed. I went to the top floor of WTC 1, and thought about Philippe’s act. It made me queasy, especially when I realized the towers swayed in the wind.

Further keeping Philippe in my forebrain was my first roommate, Peter McCabe, who was studying acting at NYU. He was a big Philippe fan, and, to our landlords’ dismay, Pete constructed a walking wire in the long hall of our Avenue B tenement (he drilled supports into the floorboards). He practiced on it, honing his actorly grace. And, a la Philippe, Pete occasionally fastened a slack rope between two trees in Washington Square Park, and walked it.

So Philippe never really left my consciousness. And when the towers fell in my last year as a New Yorker, I thought of him, and knew his heart was breaking even more than mine.

***

Because Philippe is a Catskill neighbor, our family trip to Oblong was the fifth time we’ve seen him perform. I say perform because calling what he does a “lecture” or a “talk”  seems insulting. Although it was an author event for his recently published (and excellently titled) Creativity: The Perfect Crime, it was not a “reading.” It was a performance.

We almost didn’t go because Jack is in the final crunch of his sophomore year of high school and he had studying to do. (And, to be frank, I was in a tunnel-visioned bad mood.) But, as often happens in parenting, we took a calculated risk, in part because Jack knows Philippe, and really wanted to go. As parents, we want Jack to connect with extraordinary people as much as possible, to see, up close, lives lived with bravery, integrity, and joy. That sums up Philippe pretty well. I have told Jack time and again that he will go his entire life and never meet anyone like Philippe Petit. So we made the 45-minute drive, and Jack alternately napped and studied in the back seat.

My son first met Philippe via Woodstock’s Golden Notebook  (another great indie bookstore). Jack works there after school on Fridays, and helps out at author events. He assisted Philippe at a Woodstock Writers Festival event for Philippe’s 2013 book Why Knot? (Philippe is prolific) and they hit it off. Philippe even came to our tiny town of Phoenicia and gave a performance in an old church, where I rigged my decrepit amplifier for his microphone and wished with all my might I could make it sound better than it did. But Philippe didn’t complain. And he sold a ton of books.

Philippe Petit and Jack, Woodstock Writers Festival, 2013.

Philippe Petit and Jack, Woodstock Writers Festival, 2013.

At Oblong, Philippe, true to form, did not mingle with the crowd prior to his performance, as authors usually do. He was going to make an entrance. The place was packed, standing room only, almost 100 people, which is a lot for Oblong, although, as ever, I looked around and wondered why 5,000 people weren’t there, just as interested as me. Honestly, what could be cooler than this guy? What?

An assistant gave every audience member a plastic fork – no explanation – and, after a quick intro, Philippe bounded out, elfin, graceful yet powerful, like a ballet dancer, looking many years younger than 64. He sized us up with a palpable intensity, the molecules in the air shifted, and he began.

Philippe at Oblong, photo courtesy Helen Seslowsky, Oblong Books

Phiippe at Oblong, photo courtesy Helen Seslowsky, Oblong Books

His voice is musical, accented of course, his English is fluid and perfect, and he is as funny as a stand-up. The only unintentional (I think) malapropism of the night was when he explained why he sketches so much, rather than taking photos during his travels. He said, “I do not have an intelligent phone.” After saying hello to Oscar-winning local gal Melissa Leo in the front row, Philippe expressed his hatred of “books about creativity,” but his editor encouraged him to write about his creativity, so here we are. Then he invited a woman out of the audience and pretended to perform a card trick when, in fact, he removed her watch from her wrist without her – or anyone – noticing. He talked of learning magic as a kid (on a commune, it turns out) then mastering juggling, riding his unicycle everywhere, and basically teaching himself everything. The word “autodidact” never sounded so lovely. He also got kicked out of five schools.

This is all covered beautifully in the documentary Man On Wire, by the way, which you need to see if you haven’t.

 

Philippe at Oblong, Melissa Leo in baby blue sweater, front row, smiling. Photo courtesy Helen Seslowsky, Oblong Books

Philippe at Oblong, Melissa Leo in baby blue sweater, front row, smiling. Photo courtesy Helen Seslowsky, Oblong Books

Philippe finally mentioned the forks. He asked people to come up with alternate uses for the fork, i.e. be creative. He got some entertaining answers. Jack raised his hand, but we were way in the back, and he didn’t get called on. I asked my son what he would’ve suggested, and he said you could hold the fork tines up to your eye and get a sense of what it was like to be in prison, thereby broadening your perspective on life. I’m biased, of course, but no one else’s suggestion was nearly as good as that.

The only dip in the positive vibe was during the Q & A, when a guy asked how it felt for Philippe’s “pinnacle” to have been when he was 24. Very annoying. But, deft as ever, and unflappable, Philippe explained, in a roundabout, poetic way, that it wasn’t “the pinnacle” of his life, because he is still living that moment every day. The subtext: if you ever did anything as magnificent and monumental as that, you wouldn’t be asking that obnoxious question (interpretation mine). And, in fact, Philippe’s life has continued to be unusual, bountiful, and inspiring.

Around this time, Philippe noticed Jack, and called out to his friend, his “soul cousin.”  That, in a word, was the pinnacle of the night.

We bought books, and Philippe said hello, signed them (in honor of Jack’s style, he drew a top hat on his) and we headed into the night, each of us quite jazzed. For Jack in particular, the event was very encouraging, and he was buoyant into the next morning. What he said on the street was that Philippe made him feel less stressed about school, which is marvelous. His school experience is much, much more stressful than his mom’s or mine ever was, and we all endeavor to stay engaged and on track without overdoing it. It’s a challenge. Does he plan to get kicked out of school and take to death-defying antics like Philippe?  No. But it’s not about that. It’s about seeing a vibrant expression of life beyond the version of what a school kid – or anyone – knows and sees every day. An active encounter with an amazing person telling an offbeat life story, who is vital and engaged, gives more perspective than reading a book or passively watching something. It’s complimentary education. The values of art, and artist, and life are there before you, breathing, laughing, transporting fellow souls into the limitless imagination, as artists do.

The terrain where we experience wonder and possibility gets obscured by the daily grind, the news, the hammering home every day of our collective peril.  Philippe restores that imaginative-yet-very-real vista, where some important living must take place. This vista is crucial for all of us, but mostly for Jack, who, like his soul cousin, looks to the clouds and sees more than just clouds.