Tag Archives: essay

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

Gammie and RuPaul

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Wee Wee Pole, 1983. From left: David Klimchak, RBW, Todd Butler, RuPaul

In 1983, I was a teenage bass player in a funky Atlanta band called Wee Wee Pole. Our lead singer was a magnetic, six foot four, black, gay man named RuPaul. Ru would go on to international fame as a drag queen, singer, and TV star, but in the early 80s he was running with the scrappy “new wave queer underworld.” These were my people, a group thick with gender bending children of absentee parents. I’d fallen in with them around the time I started shaving. Many, like me, were the spawn of exhausted, former flower child single moms. Because of a laissez faire “trust in the universe,” these moms often let their kids twist in the wind. The only adult keeping tabs on me was my maternal grandmother, Gammie, a southern belle in her 70s.

 Wee Wee Pole was popular, due in part to RuPaul’s tireless self-promotion, which included wheat-pasting provocative flyers everywhere, in neighborhoods both sketchy, like his own, and respectable, like Gammie’s. The posters always featured a Xeroxed image of a near-naked RuPaul, and his name in boldface. On a leisurely walk down her dogwood-lined street, Gammie encountered this image on a telephone pole: Ru in a loincloth, a feather boa wired into his Mohawk, his arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross.

 I’d told my grandmother I was in a band with a guy named RuPaul (“Tell me about your new band!” she’d asked, always interested). I’d omitted crucial details, however, and she’d not seen Ru until that day. I was, as usual, home alone when she called and curtly asked me to come over. I figured she needed help with my Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandfather, but upon turning onto her street in my VW Bug, I saw the “Wee Wee Pole featuring RuPaul!” poster. My heart sank.

 Gammie and I were close. My dad had been dead eleven years, killed when he drunkenly drove at high speed into an embankment, and my mom was often otherwise engaged, so Gammie had co-parented me for over a decade. She nurtured my rock star ambitions. Showbiz, in fact, was part of her life; my grandfather, Sam Lucchese, was the retired entertainment editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and had been the publicist for Gone With the Wind. Gammie had tagged along on junkets, and, judging from the photos and frequent stories, she loved glamour. Lucille Ball, Natalie Wood, and Jimmy Stewart, seated with my beaming grandparents, smiled down from framed 8 x 10s on the walls of Gammie’s house.

 In thrift store regalia and a sloppy new wave haircut, I walked in, my hands sweating. I found Gammie in the den, where I’d eaten many meals from an indestructible TV tray as I watched All in the Family with my grandparents. Gammie, a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, cheered Archie Bunker’s bigotry, and I knew I was due for an earful regarding RuPaul.

 “Sit down,” she said, unusually terse. I did so, across from her Civil War library, which included The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government by Jefferson Davis. She loomed over me in a faded housecoat. My grandfather mumbled incoherently in the next room.

 “Robert,” she said, drawing a deep breath and clasping her hands, “I know you are going to think I am just a crazy old lady who doesn’t know things. But I do. You listen to your Gammie. Robert, you… are a type.”

 “A type?”

 “You are a type that… an older… homosexual man… would want to… lead… astray.”

 The clarity of the moment stunned me. This was how she saw me? I babbled denial, to no avail. Little did she know I was en route to my latchkey girlfriend’s, where, quite frankly, hetero sex would ensue. I wanted to blurt this out, but didn’t dare. I sat mute while she leaned into her fantasy.

 “Your grandfather and I know… gays,” she said. “We met all kinds of people in show business. I know how it is. I’ve seen it, and I want you to know what I see with you and your… band. You are naïve, you need to know that. No one else is going to tell you this.”

 I protested feebly, and she finally let me go, her lined face clouded with doubt, her hug harder and longer than usual. As always, she said she loved me. But I was embarrassed for both of us. Wee Wee Pole would not last, and much of my teenagerdom would fade with time, but this intense episode stayed with me. It was the only time Gammie and I discussed anything sexual.

 Fast-forward a decade. I’m living in Manhattan, and, to Gammie’s delight, I’ve married a North Carolina woman. When RuPaul appears on Arsenio, my grandmother, pushing 90, calls to make sure I’ve seen this career-making performance-and-interview. I tell her I have, and I’m happy for my old bandmate. She says she imagined I would be. I hear her smile down the line, and I smile back. Our long-ago conversation has morphed from cringe-worthy memory to a reminder of when she, alone, was looking out for me. Even when it was unnecessary, Gammie had shown up. She wants me to remember it like that, and I do.

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Jack, RBW, Gammie, on Gammie’s Etowah marble bench in Atlanta, 1999

Lou Reed and the Frogs

It’s early spring, 1984. I am 18, living in a one-bedroom cottage on the outskirts of Athens, Ga. For the first time in my life, I am alone for days on end, unattached, free. I own next to nothing; a bass, an amp, some thrift store clothes, a few cassettes, a bad stereo, and the Velvet Underground’s first LP, which I purchase at Wuxtry Records because the guys in R.E.M. say it’s great, so it must be. (And it is.) I’m acutely aware I stand on a threshold, my childhood behind me, my as-yet-unwritten adulthood ahead. I’m mostly thrilled, but sometimes afraid. One March morning, it pours rain, and I make coffee and play the VU album, which begins with “Sunday Morning.” Lou’s voice is often remembered as caustic and sneering, but on this tune, he is the urban shadow man crooning words that I hear as encouragement, hope, and faith, all the more potent because they flow from this damaged guy’s mouth: Everything will be fine. The world awaits. People will detract, but don’t worry, all will be well. You’ll get hurt, yeah, but it’ll be worth it. Go for it. Live. Before the song ends, the sun comes out as the rain still pours on the monkey grass, and hundreds of tiny frogs appear out of the muddy soil, jubilant, dancing, as if heeding Lou’s call. In time, I would do the same.

Rest in peace, Lou.

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The Last Straw: Halloween Grace

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Our old home, 113 St. Mark’s Place, NYC

A thug stabs a teenager to death outside the Catholic school on our block. We stay. Gunshot to the face kills a handsome drug dealer on our stoop. We stay. A junkie O.D.’s in our basement. We stay. On the 14th street A-train subway platform, during rush hour on a Friday, a man who will never be caught shoots and kills our wacky, beloved upstairs neighbor. We stay.  

Shortly after we become parents, we watch the Trade Towers fall. For many Manhattan families, this horror is the last straw leading them to seek safer homes. Perhaps this should be the case for us. Especially considering 2001 is already the worst year of our married life. Pre-9/11, both my in-laws have passed away within weeks of each other, my wife has parted ways with her longtime employer, and, due to a lost eviction case with our landlord, we must find a new home. 9/11 is actually the cherry on top.

You’d think we’d get the hint, but no. We perversely cling to New Yorker-hood, tighter than ever. We’re still looking at apartments, living off hope, dwindling savings, and cash from the one bartending shift I kept when I became a stay-at-home dad.

For weeks, black plumes rise from the financial district, but we cleave ever tighter to the crucible of punk rock and possibility where, over the course of almost two decades, both my wife and I have become our current selves. We’ve suffered, but also, through skill, luck, and stubbornness, each of us has beat mythical odds, and experienced some dreams actually coming true; at different times, we’ve both made good money, or I should say, acquired remuneration doing what we love. We’re like compulsive gamblers refusing to leave the crumbling, squalid casino, because once in awhile, we’ve hit the jackpot. If that doesn’t root you to a place, what will?

Speaking of jackpot: one realized dream we share is our Manhattan parenthood. I love toting our son in a backpack in the russet-tinged light of the East Village. I love the immigrant women baffled by my stay-at-home dadhood: “Where’s the baby’s mama?!?” the Ukrainian woman yells from her stoop. (And/or the Indian woman, or the Ecuadorian woman. They cannot wrap their heads around a man doing what I’m doing.) I love foreseeing our boy coming of age in multicultural neighborhoods, where Farsi, Arabic, and Urdu pepper the air, where Richard Hell, Lou Reed, Allen Ginsberg, and Phillip Glass still walk the earth. This will be our son’s stomping ground.

We’ll find some way to explain to him the violence that haunts the sidewalks where he learns to walk. We vow he will experience the wonders of Manhattan, his bedazzlement overshadowing the horrors. We picture him becoming a city teen, meeting pals at CBGB, hanging out with his girlfriend on the tar beach of our roof. We are not easily dissuaded from these dreams. We are, in fact, professional dreamers.

The shock of 9/11 morphs into deep sadness; we decide to take a break from the collective grief of our town, and leave the acrid odor still wafting up from Ground Zero. We will spend Halloween in a secluded cabin near Woodstock. Our three-year-old will experience his first trick-or-treating in the famed Woodstock Halloween Parade, not the East Village storefronts and stoops.

I’ve not thought about pagan Halloween history in a while, but on the 31st, when we drive to Woodstock and see the crowds, I remember delicious details of this odd fete, details I learned at Enchantments, the occult store near our apartment, where I’d spent a little time buying essential oils, getting my cards read, and talking to the witches.

The urban witches at Enchantments told me the reason people began dressing up at harvest time was to disguise themselves from malevolent forces that run amuck in mid-Autumn, when omnipresent death of crops weakens the barriers between the world of the living and the spirit realm. Trick-or-treating would come later, but in the beginning, we donned costumes so these ill-meaning entities would mistake us for their own kind, and move on. Move on, at last. Christianity tried to squelch these powerful rites, and failed.

Anne Beattie said, “People forget years but remember moments.” I remember this: Woodstock Halloween Parade, 2001, air scented with apples and fresh donuts; my son, in a homemade ghost outfit, walks fearlessly among strangers guised as vampires, werewolves, zombies, all manner of pretend evil; in my mind, they are joyously keeping the real evil of the world at bay. This clear moment is, quite unexpectedly, the last straw: I see the promise of a new life, protected from wickedness by mischievous, benevolent spirits of the wood. An illusion, yes, but a powerful one. It bears me up.

Soon after, we leave our beloved, broken New York for good, and head for the Catskills, feeling blessed for the first time in a long while. The final straw is steadfast, pagan, Halloween grace.

Children Trick-or-treating