Category Archives: Wow

Robertburkewarren.com, Perfectly Broken, etc.

Dear Faithful Readers,

Perhaps you’ve wondered where I’ve been. I see eight months have passed since my last post, so if I do not see you in “real life,” you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking I’ve been idling.

I’ve not been idling.

In June, my big brother, Britt, took me to Peru. It was my 50th birthday present.

Peru

 

In the picture above, Britt and I are at 16,000 feet, in the upper reaches of the Vilcabamba pass. (If you click on the pic, you’ll see the whole album on Flickr.) Because of the clouds, you can’t see the massive glacier behind us. Ascending that mountain was the hardest thing I’ve ever done physically, and I almost did not do it. But Britt convinced me I could. We had some adventures. You can see some in the photos. I will write more about it all before too long. (I promised Britt I would.)

Upon returning home, I got a full time job as Program Director for the Roxbury Arts Group, a nonprofit in rural Delaware County, NY, about a 40 minute drive from my house. I’ve been booking performers, administrating, and helping bring the arts to a particularly underserved segment of the population. It has its rewards.

The publication date looms for my novel, Perfectly Broken. At this writing, it is a mere three weeks away. Advances went out a few months back and I’ve received a handful of very kind reviews on Goodreads. You can read them HERE.

How, you may I ask (I hope you do), may I get a copy of Perfectly Broken? Simple! You can order it from your local bookseller (be sure to say it’s by Robert Burke Warren, as there are a couple other books with that title), or you can order it from amazon.

In fact, for the rest of this month, there’s a sale on the Kindle version. SIX BUCKS! And be advised: pre-orders encourage corporate overlord amazon to promote my book. Just sayin’.

Lastly, I’ve been writing a lot. A couple short stories, more posts for the Weeklings, and the odd piece of journalism. I’ve collected some of that on the WORKS page of…

My new website! That’s right: robertburkewarren.com is LIVE. It’s got a lot to offer, I daresay. The aforementioned collected works (I’m adding to that daily), my bio, an EVENTS page (lots of readings planned for my book) and NEWS, which will keep folks up-to-date on radio interviews, features, reviews, etc. Also, the SOUNDTRACK page features songs from and inspired by Perfectly Broken. You can stream and/or download them for free. Several of the songs are plot points in the book. Play them loud.

I will still be blogging here, but as you can see, I am more consumed with work – of both the day job variety and my creative endeavors – so perhaps not as much. But I’m glad to say I’ll be traveling to promote my book and working on its follow-up. You can keep up to date with me either at robertburkewarren.com or my Facebook page. I also tweet on occasion.

Thank you for reading me here, and for the very inspiring comments and encouragement. All helps me get my work done.

Speaking of which, I am off to do just that.

sound as ever –

RBW

 

 

 

 

 

2014 Writing Round-Up

RW_A3R0210-Edit2

RBW by Franco Vogt, 2014

 

Happy End-of-2014 Faithful Readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Holidays! – RBW

LINKS

The Weeklings (a selection)

Salon

The Bitter Southerner

Chronogram writing

souvenir.jpg

 

 

Not A Misspent Youth, Part 7: Wee Wee Pole/RuPaul and me in Marietta, Ga., 1983

It happened again! An episode from my youth as part of the New Wave Queer Underground of Atlanta popped up online, thanks to YouTuber rottingtapes, who once managed the Marietta, Georgia-based band Guadalcanal Diary. My band Wee Wee Pole – featuring RuPaul – shared stages with Guadalcanal Diary several times, and I think this was one of them. It’s June of 1983, and my friend Todd (on guitar) and I are about to graduate high school. We’ve just acquired our new drum machine and percussionist David Klimchak. Back up singers/dancers the U-Hauls have quit in a huff. But we are in good form.

The venue is “new wave” club The Strand in Marietta. Marietta’s about 15 miles from where I grew up in Atlanta; it was more country then, but it’s now an Atlanta suburb. RuPaul is ON, and as you can see, the audience loves him. The song we’re playing is “Hips.” Most of the lyrics are indecipherable, but the tag line is, “her hips were made to kill!!!” Please enjoy. More to come.


More about my time in the New Wave Queer Underground HERE.

More about Todd and me HERE

More about My Life in Music HERE.

End of the Summer Writing Round-Up, From Dorky to Nirvana to Trolls

20-year-old retired huntress cat Sis, watching me work.

20-year-old retired huntress cat Sis, watching me work.

Ahoy there,

Summer isn’t officially over, but Labor Day has passed, the maples are beginning to turn, the tourists have folded up their tents, and the garden is surrendering to blight, so change is certainly afoot. As ever. Hope your season was fun.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve signed on as music editor of The Weeklings (Rogue Commentary for Now People). Every Monday or so, I either write or edit a music-oriented post. It’s been fun. More to come. (Of course you should subscribe to The Weeklings. It’s easy! And my cohorts are wonderful writers, all.)

In addition to excellent writing about culture, politics, art, and music, The Weeklings occasionally indulges in listporn, i.e. the increasingly popular subjective list – usually a “50 Greatest.” These lists draw an insane amount of attention, every day. Far and away the most trafficked Weeklings post is Samuel Sattin’s  “The 50 Greatest Superhero (And Villain) Names of All Time.” The reasons for list popularity, and especially the reasons why that list in particular is so popular, are subjects for another post on another day.

In any case, I jumped into the fray with “The 50 Dorkiest Songs You Secretly Love.” I have always had a fondness for music I’m not “supposed” to like, music the “cognoscenti” deem “bad,” and this was my chance to state my case for everything from disco to bubblegum to weepy 70s folk. “Dorky” is merely a catchall term, more lively than “uncool.” I was inspired by conversations about songs we’re not “supposed” to love; I find it fascinating how eager people are to divulge guilty pleasures in the presence of friends, and how liberated they feel upon sharing. I hoped to engender more of that with my post.

The post was very popular, and Salon re-blogged it, which, while satisfying (it got shared a lot) re-introduced me to the world of the Internet Trolls, who I hadn’t encountered since I wrote to the Kingston Freeman in support of the SAFE Act. I didn’t wade too deep into the comments section, but from what I could tell, most commenters misunderstood my idea, thinking I was putting the songs down, and, being Internet Trolls, they spoke their minds and assailed my character mercilessly. It didn’t bother me, though, in part because they were in the monority.  And, as Dolly Parton said, “People ask if I get offended by dumb blond jokes and I say, ‘No, because I know I’m not dumb. I also know I’m not blond.'”

My other post was “Razor Sadness, Wizened Eyes: Nirvana Unplugged, 20 Years On.” Since Robin Williams’ death, I’d been meaning to write about my changing feelings regarding suicide, and a viewing of Nirvana’s remarkable swan song gave me a way in.

I also wrote a post on this blog about my dad for Father’s Day. if you missed it and want to check it out, you can read it HERE.

Other summer writing included book reviews for Chronogram and finishing my novel, Feedback, about which I will post more in depth later. Suffice to say, it’s 306 pages, approximately 77 thousand words, and soon I’ll be sending it out in the world. Also upcoming: several spoken word/storytelling performances. I told the universe I wanted more of that, and she honored my request, apparently.

Thanks again for reading. Your comments, troll-like or not, are always appreciated.

sound as ever

RBW

9-2-14

 

 

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.