Observation, Decked

I was the only one who saw her.

I was on Third Avenue in the 40s during the Lord of the Flies atmosphere that is the lunch rush when she appeared. She had curly blond hair and a giant pink bow and enormous matching sunglasses and a black tank top. She could’ve bought it all at Madonna’s yard sale circa 1987. She looked like she was eight feet tall because she was wearing rollerblades, scooting leisurely up the sidewalk. Her eyes were trained not toward her destination, but on a giant white iPhone with a gold trim case. I got a good look at the iPhone because her path aimed straight at me no matter how many sidesteps I took. Her ears were plugged up with headphones. She’d deliberately blunted her two most danger-alerting senses as she wheeled through streets full of cars, trucks, bikes, and eight million other people. Millions of years to give her perfect eyes and perfect ears to alert her to danger and she dismissed them all. She missed me by a centimeter or two as she scooted past.

I muttered the fuck is wrong with you under my breath and turned to watch her go. I can’t get lunch anywhere near my office without elbowing and fist-fighting my way through ravenous, pinstripe-suited crowds, so I was confident Rollergirl would crash into a tech-bro or a delivery guy before long. But she kept on rolling, her path unimpeded.

It was easy to chalk her safety up to the old saw that god takes care of drunks and fools. What shocked me more than this girl’s total disregard for the safety of herself and other was this: I was the only one who saw her. Literally every other person on the sidewalk had their heads trained on their phones.

I often rail on Twitter dot com about the growing trend of people traversing city streets while their eyes are diverted by a phone, a crime of which drivers, bikers, and pedestrians are guilty in equal measure. An entire city not paying attention to where it’s going raises some obvious safety concerns. I am baffled that when I arrive for work each morning that I don’t see the streets of Manhattan littered with corpses still clutching their phones in their dead, gnarled hands. However, another idea has gripped me lately that I find just as terrifying: What happens to a people who have lost the power to observe?

I’ve always believed that observing the world around you was how Art was made. You keep your eyes and ears open, you watch how people walk and listen to how they talk. These sensations trigger memories and ideas you wouldn’t have been able to find on your own. Then you take those memories and ideas and go make stuff.

The function of Art is to take something from your own head, translate it into some non-head medium, and make a connection with other people’s heads. I think it’s impossible to do that unless you have a sense of a world outside your own head. And you won’t have that sense unless you allow yourself some time to observe.

But observation can only take place when you’re freeing your head to take in whatever appears in front of it. Observation is not possible for people who are in a constant state of entertainment, which is what the iPhone culture has given us. People chase away boredom at the first millisecond it rears its head, be it waiting on line at a deli or a brief lull in conversation with friends at a bar or walking down the street cheek by jowl with eight million other humans.

One could argue that constant engagement with social media like Twitter is a form of observation, but it’s not nearly the same thing. All social media permit you to include certain people in your circles and, implicitly, exclude others. You can easily move past things you find depressing or insulting or just plain boring. Social media will never make you do anything you don’t want to do or be around anyone you think you won’t like.*

* Not to ignore the very real and troubling  phenomenon of sociopaths (dudes, mostly) harassing anyone on social media with an opinion they can’t stomach (women, mostly).   

That sounds amazing, as long as you never want to understand the things and people you don’t like, and as long as you’re okay with the kind of Art this world produces. Like social media itself, Art produced in the Social Media age is produced with the idea of giving people 100% of what they want and nothing of what they don’t. That’s why it is restricted almost entirely to reimagining previously produced Art (comic books, mostly), which leaves little surprises in either the creation or enjoyment of the Art. I know exactly how Batman/Superman/Wolverine is supposed to behave in this situation. It’s also why this new art leans heavily toward the consumer-first world of Nerd Culture: because unlike the old, thorny world of market research, test screenings, etc., nerds will say exactly what they want to see in a movie/TV show/book, and they will say it again and again and again, and they fully expect to receive it.

So in this age, the Art must hew to all the conventions and expectations carried by the original thing it is based on. The Art itself is not as important as the reactions the consumer constructs from it: namely, recaps, gifs, and memes. If a creator of Art fails to make more Art exactly when, why, or how the consumer wants it, s/he is denounced in terms usually reserved for war criminals (see: George Lucas, George R.R. Martin).

It all works perfectly, in the sense that people get what they want all the time, especially Hollywood execs (thanks, nerds!). All of this is fine, as long as that’s what you want: Art That Works.™

The counter to all my Man Shakes Fist At Cloud is that in the 21st century and beyond, perhaps there is no real distinction between the “real” world in which observation can take place and the online world. If the definition of “the real world” is the place where people spend their lives and people spend most of their lives online, then logically the real world is the online world. As I’ve written elsewhere, we now record our lives via social media, put pictures and memories out there for people to share. In a world where we preserve everything we do obsessively, maybe observation itself is an outdated concept.

Maybe all of these developments bug me because my chosen form of Art is writing, which is an extremely abstract form of Art. You have your own thoughts that you try to squeeze into individual boxes and arrange them like puzzle pieces into a shape that tells people what you’re thinking. It allows for subtlety and shades of meaning. It also allows for gross misinterpretation. It is also, in the year 2016, extremely tedious and does not have the immediate impact of other Art.

Writing made sense when it was invented about 5000 years ago. People are gonna wanna know about the stuff we did and we’re not gonna be around forever, so let’s chip some birds and hands into a rock. But we’ve had photographs for close to 200 years now, moving pictures for over 100. Now we can share all those things instantaneously across the globe. Does observing something, interpreting it, and writing down that interpretation make any sense in the world of Instagram?

A few days ago I saw a post about a new iOS keyboard that included gif keys. My immediate reaction was dismissive. But the more I considered it, the more I thought that gifs were quite effective tools for communication. They are blunt and leave little room for misunderstanding. Maybe gifs aren’t inferior forms of Art after all. Maybe I just want them to be because I’ve spent my life doing something that’s so much more complicated.

If I had a phone on me that afternoon on Third Avenue, I could have taken a video of Rollergirl and posted it for the world to see. You wouldn’t have to filter my words through your brain to get a picture of the scene, because you would have the actual scene. You would literally see it with your own eyes. You might share my frustration with entitled jerks who look at the city as one big party thrown just for them. You’d share and comment and move on. I don’t think that would count as observing your world but I’m not sure what does anymore.

Thursday Was Hot Dog Night

Thursday was hot dog night. Thursday was hot dog night because we were Jehovah’s Witnesses and Thursday was also book study night. Book study night was basically a book club except you only read the books the Witnesses themselves published and discussed all the signs evident in this rotten world that showed us all the end was nigh.

There were three weekly meetings were obliged to attend but book study night was the only one that happened on a weeknight. Me and my brothers got home from school at about 3:45 which left me a tiny window in which to finish homework and set up a tape for The Simpsons because this was the only show on TV I could not miss and make sure I had a shirt and tie and pants to wear to the meeting. If I was feeling fancy I would wear a blazer I got at the Salvation Army. The sleeves were too short so my cuffs stuck out defiantly and I could not fasten any of the buttons without fear of popping them.

My mom got home from her job at the picture frame factory a little before 5 which left her even less time to feed us dinner before we had to leave. Hence hot dog night. I ate everything my mom cooked but my middle brother was a little pickier and my youngest brother was hard to please in the food department. Hot dogs were something everyone would eat. Hot dogs left no room for debate or complaint. Hot dogs could be wolfed down in a few short minutes yet leave you feeling full for the rest of the night so your stomach would not be growling midway through book study night.

Thursday was hot dog night when it was 15 degrees out and we had to wear longjohns to stay warm in the house. Thursday was hot dog night when it was near 100 and so humid you could chew the air. It was hot dog night when the sun had been down for hours and it was hot dog night when the sun was still up and we would’ve gone back outside and shot hoops or played Wiffleball in the front yard if we had the time. Thursday was always hot dog night.

The hot dogs were usually Ball Park brand. I assume these were the cheapest to be found at the Grand Union or Shop-Rite because price was the reason behind all food purchasing decisions. Ball Park boasted that they plumped when you cooked them but in reality they exploded. The skin suppurated to reveal hideous quivering hot dog flesh that looked like it had stepped on a landmine.

To be fair to the Ball Park people this may have resulted from my mother boiling the hot dogs instead of grilling them because I had an intense loathing of anything “burnt.” I had no other food issues unless you count eating anything you shoved in front of my face as an issue. “Burnt” was my one taboo and I had a pretty wide definition of “burnt.” Anything with grill marks that wasn’t a hamburger qualified.

So the hot dogs had to be boiled a la street cart dirty-water dogs. This was just as well because boiling was also the safest method that allowed my mom to get dressed and “cook” at the same time.

When the pot of Ball Parks was placed in the middle of the kitchen table the wounded hot dogs bobbed against each other like buoys in a grease-spotted lake. They slipped away from all attempts to fork them onto your plate.

The hot dogs were flanked by a bowl of Heinz pork & beans that were mostly for me even though I despised that gelatinous cube of “pork” they came with. I had to find that thing immediately and fish it out for fear of accidentally eating it. Once when my mom was in a gourmet mood she added a pat of butter to the beans and every hot dog night after that I asked if she could do it again because it was delicious. She usually said no which I could not understand because I wasn’t aware of cholesterol and also had no self control when it came to food. Exhibit B in this case was the innumerable times I’d burned my tongue beyond recognition while sampling food from pots still gurgling on the stove.

Mac & cheese was the other perpetual side dish for hot dog night. I was not yet aware of any kind of mac & cheese that did not originate from a cardboard box. Kraft was too rich for our blood. More often we were consigned to Shop-Rite store brand. Two boxes were needed to satisfy the mac & cheese lust of all three kids in the house. I liked to mash the beans and mac & cheese together. Sometimes I’d slice up a hot dog to add to the mix because the combination masked some of the hot dogs’ deficiencies. On their own they tasted vaguely metallic and had the consistency of wet fleece but were improved vastly when sliced and integrated into a giant starchy yam-colored mound.

We only ever ate potato buns.

You were supposed to be dressed for the book study before you ate. If you weren’t dressed before then you needed to get dressed the minute you were done. You could not dawdle. Sometimes one of us kids would drag our feet knowing that if it got too late mom wouldn’t go to the meeting because she was embarrassed to show up late. But if the delay was kid-caused then the kids were punished. No TV or Nintendo. Not to mention that my mom would be in a rotten mood for the rest of the night. Getting out of this obligation under such circumstances was a Pyrrhic victory at best. So it was best to hope for some sort of organic delay like a dead car battery or the flu or otherwise accept your fate.

The book study meeting was held at an elder’s house a good 40-minute drive away so we had to be out of the house by 6:15 come hell or high water. My mom’s car was like most of our clothes in that in was a hand-me-down. It was a Nissan Sentra got it from an aunt who’d upgraded to a minivan. It had an aftermarket tape deck on a curious mount behind the gearshift that my mom filled that tape deck with Earth Wind & Fire or Steely Dan or Sting. Barring that she’d tune radio to CD101.9 and the car would fill with slap bass and wind chimes.

The music plus a stomach full of hot dogs and beans and mac & cheese lulled you to sleep but you had to be awake when we pulled up to the elder’s house. If you weren’t you would be woken up with an elbow or a shove and commanded to put your shoes back on and grab your book and gilt edged Bible and reminded that you needed to enter the elder’s house with the appropriate amount of decorum.

The elder seemed very 1970s to me. It was a brown house with lots of wood paneling and avocado kitchen appliances. The living room was elevated slightly from the entrance by a few steps. Metal folding chairs were set up there for the meeting. Between the folding chairs and the couches that were usually set aside for women with small children the room could seat about 20 people.

The had a larger and newer TV than us. It was encased in the gray plastic that all electronics were at the time. The elder had cable too. Don’t you like their house? my mom would ask. My mom liked everybody else’s house better than ours. She described our house with words like dump and sty and when I told her our place wasn’t a dump or a sty she’d say yes it is and that would be that.

I liked the book study meeting. I liked to read and underline things with a highlighter. I liked to raise my hand and answer questions. But sometimes I would sit there in the elder’s living room while someone read a paragraph aloud about Revelation and feel several metric tons of hot dog and beans and mac & cheese lay in my gut and wish I wasn’t there. I’d wish I was drawing or playing Tecmo Bowl or watching The Simpsons. I’d wish I had time of my own.

I believed very much in what I was taught in these meetings but I wanted a few minutes on a Thursday when I didn’t have to be there. To not believe in anything. Other kids at school didn’t seem to believe in anything. Not even the kids who got yanked out of school for holy days of obligation or who had giant confirmation parties. They did these things because that’s what you did. They didn’t believe. I didn’t quite want what they had.  I wanted to believe. Just not all the time.

Sometimes all those hot dogs and beans and mac & cheese would force a trip to the bathroom or sometimes I’d play like they did and I would sit in the elder’s bathroom where there was nothing to read but old Watchtowers and Awake!s in a wicker basket and it smelled like Dixie cups and Renuzit and I’d hear the meeting going on down the hall and I would think that God would be okay with this because I needed one tiny break. I needed five minutes on hot dog night where I wasn’t eating or racing somewhere or wracking my brain to figure out what Jeremiah means to us today.

When the meeting was over the elder and his wife would make some coffee and bring out cookies. I would always have several cookies even if my stomach was still full of hot dogs because I found it impossible to not eat food if it was placed near me. My mom usually stayed long afterward to talk to her friends in the congregation. If any of us got antsy she would get annoyed because these were her only friends as far as I knew and these were her only opportunities to talk to people who weren’t her parents or one of three loud sons. This was all the fun her life allowed.

By the time we got home it would be bedtime and I wouldn’t even have a chance to check if the tape I’d set up for The Simpsons had worked. I had to go to bed worrying about it. I knew how to program a VCR but weird things happened with VCRs all the time. If it worked then we could all watch it after school tomorrow when the weekend began. If it didn’t then we’d all have to wait until the next hot dog night.

Quitting Time

I used to work for an academic publisher. I held this job for nearly two years. I worked in production editorial, helping to print dissertations and other dense technical publications. I had to subject each of the manuscripts I received to a predetermined series of steps before sending them to the printer. Sometimes a piece of art would be too lo-res or permissions wouldn’t be furnished and I’d have to contact the author. Otherwise, it was an almost mindless process. Every working day required me to sit in front of a conveyer belt and spread mayonnaise across each lightly toasted piece of white bread that passed before me.

The job never demanded that I work overtime or on weekends. It required almost no interaction with anyone else at the company, save one supervisor and a fellow production editor who did the exact same job and appeared just as invested in the work as I was (i.e., not at all).

The job was so low maintenance that I took a side gig writing a sports blog for a Major Internet Provider. This required me to compose 5-10 blog posts on the sporting news of the day, a task I was easily able to squeeze into the wide gaps between quote-unquote action during my 9-to-5. The blogging was remarkably easy too, as long as I accepted that no one read this blog save the impotence pill pushers and overenthusiastic Eastern European teenagers who filled the comments section.

None of it was what I really wanted to do, of course. Not the day job and not quite the blog gig. I saw this day job as I’d seen every other day job I’d owned: a means to the end of supporting writing in my spare time. I thought of the blog gig much the same way: A way to have my name somewhere out there in world, a way to possibly get noticed.

Then the company decided to eliminate my department in New York and relocate production functions to offices in Boca Raton. I had gone on a business trip to this facility and was nearly killed on two separate occasions by elderly drivers who could barely see over their steering wheels. So I was not keen to relocate there, not that they asked.

The company gave me a month’s notice, which was generous as such notices go. I’d lined up some temp work that would sustain me until I found a new full-time job, and the blog gig offered a small but steady paycheck. I could not afford any employment gap because my wife was four months pregnant. Technically I was not yet a parent but I already knew that being one would be insanely expensive, especially in this city.

So when the last day on the job came, I barely had any feelings about it at all. If this job was a pet, it was the fish I won at a carnival that died in the Ziploc bag on the way home. I never got to know it and found it quite easy to flush the thing down the toilet.

By 3:30 I had packed up my few personal items and set up my automated “I don’t work here anymore” email message. I didn’t fire off any good-byes to coworkers because the only people I knew there were also being let go. I had shut down my computer. My section of the office had a half-abandoned feeling to it already, with several banks of dead fluorescent lights and not another occupied desk in sight. I had placed my hands on the armrests of my chair and was about to hoist myself upright and walk out of the building for good.

And then the phone rang.

The noise jolted me because my desk phone never rang, save for the occasional call from my wife. The display on the phone, employing old school digital calculator font, indicated this call wasn’t her. It held a jumble of numbers that didn’t look familiar at all. The string of digits seemed too long to be a real phone number.

I let the phone ring. It rang seven times because my office voice mail had already been turned off. I instinctively looked around me, as if the call might be for someone else who was on his way to answer it. But in this part of the office, I was alone.

So I picked it up. Before I could say hello a man asked if I was interested in great savings on office supplies. The man said his name was Brian but his very thick subcontinental accent suggested his name was probably not Brian. I told “Brian” I did not handle that sort of thing for this office. I did not tell him that I was seconds away from not handling anything at all for this office.

“Brian” asked to speak with someone who did handle that function. I said I would try to transfer him to our purchasing department. I cringed while saying these words because I had no idea if the company even had something called the purchasing department.

I opened the drawer of my soon-to-be-abandoned desk that was full of dead pens and ancient ketchup packets about to burst from breeding bacteria. At the bottom of this drawer was an employee handbook I’d never once consulted. It contained a phone directory full of names and numbers I didn’t recognize. No “purchasing department” was to be found among them

I apologized to “Brian” that I didn’t know the number for the purchasing department. This should have been his cue to hang up.

Instead, “Brian” responded, How do you not know the number for your company’s purchasing department.

There was no question mark at the end of his statement because it was not a query but an accusation. His voice, which had been reasonable and sales-cheery before this point, was now cold and sharp.

If “Brian” should have hung up before now, then the same went double for me. I’m sure 99% of the folks reading this post would have done just that. But I have a very particular condition that forces me to endure any amount of pain/humiliation if I think extracting myself from discomfort will cause someone else pain/humiliation. If someone dumped a bucket of broken glass on my head, I’d keep on walking rather than ask for an apology that might embarrass the guy who did it.

So rather than say goodbye to “Brian,” I stammered to come up with a response to his pointed exasperation about my lack of knowledge. “I don’t know how I don’t know…” was the lame answer I spit out.

That is a vital function of your company, “Brian” said. How can you not know where it can be reached.

I told “Brian” that I never had to use the purchasing department.

You have never had to use the purchasing department, he said, exhaling something halfway between a sigh and a derisive laugh. You have never needed anything from your company. That is impossible.

I told “Brian” that I didn’t know what to tell him, because I didn’t know what to tell him.

I think you are not a good employee, “Brian” said.

I pulled the phone away from my head for a moment and looked around the office, searching for evidence that a prank was being played on me. Distant cackles from another cube, maybe. But I saw no one. There was literally no one else in my part of the office, and the only sounds I heard were muffled car horns and air brakes eight floors below me.

I told “Brian” that he was being very rude.

You are making my job difficult, “Brian” said, and for good measure added, You should not be so bad at your job.

The joke was on “Brian”. I no longer had a job to be bad at.

I told “Brian” that a salesman who cold-called potential clients and told them they were bad at their jobs sounded like he was pretty bad at his job, too.

I am only bad at my job, “Brian” said, because you will not help me and you will buy nothing and you will not give me information that even the man who cleans up your office should have.

I told “Brian” that fielding sales calls was not my job.

But it is your job to know your company, “Brian” said, the coldness in his voice being placed with a little more anger moment by moment. I could hear it through a phone calling me from the other side of the world and it stabbed me with the kind of shame I thought I’d left behind in childhood.

I thought of all the hours I’d spent in this place doing a job but not doing work. I’d spent the majority of my waking hours in this place for almost two years and it had made no impression on me, nor me on it. I knew as much about the company I worked for and the people I worked with the day I left as the day I started. I had taken a side gig writing a sports blog for an audience of spammers, just so the fleeting thrill of doing something semi-secretly on the company dime could inject a modicum of excitement into my day.

I realized all at once that I’d filled a chasm of time with nothing but  garbage, for the sake of a paycheck. A sizable chunk of my life gone, never to return, all of it wasted. I was mere months away from being a father and no closer to anything I wanted from my life than I’d been the minute I stumbled my way out of my mother’s house to go off to college. I’d been playing it safe my whole life because I grew up poor and I was terrified of being poor again, and I knew I’d probably keep playing it safe for that very reason and tread water until my legs gave out.

And I only realized this thanks to a literal last-minute call from the world’s angriest office supply salesman.

“Brian” started ranting at me. I could only make out every fourth word or so. So I started ranting back. I can’t remember what I said except that I was so mad I started to sweat. I yelled at “Brian” because I couldn’t yell at myself.

When I was all out of words I slowly hung up the phone as the furious voice of “Brian” echoed through the receiver. Then I stood up and grabbed my bag, weighed down with coffee mug and books and family photos, and I started to walk out of the office even though I could barely move. I was rattled. I felt like I’d just walked away from a car wreck and I wasn’t sure if I was okay yet. Every limb in my body was shaky and my legs were unsure underneath me and I had no idea where I was going.


During the year I stopped writing words, I wrote a bit of music instead. Not songs per se, but notes on lined paper, like some sort of powder-wig fancy lad. I used to do this when I was in high school, as I detailed here a long time ago, but hadn’t given much thought to it in 20 years or so. I gave composing up because it was damn near impossible for me to turn paper notes into the kind I could hear with my ears, being neither a talented multi-instrumentalist nor the sort of person who could gather together a small wind ensemble.

The advent of sophisticated composition apps changed that. A few years back, the desktop composition application Notion came out with an iPad version that’s nothing short of stunning. It allows you to not only write music but also hear how it sounds, with a ginormous number of orchestral sound samples to choose from. For someone like me, who has music theory knowledge but can play no more than one-handed piano on a good day, it’s a godsend.

I played with these toys throughout 2015 and wrote a bunch of pieces of varying quality. I enjoyed doing it because it offered me something writing words didn’t at that time—the ability to say multiple things at once. A lot of the pieces I wrote contain some element of independent themes, each set in their own meters and modes, with the “action” occurring based on where they meet and where they diverge.

Music is math plus air. In the things I wrote, sometimes the math and air added up and sometimes they didn’t, but the shades of meaning in the failure seemed more interesting to me at the time than the cut-and-dry world of words.

I didn’t share these pieces widely at the time for a multitude of reasons, the biggest being my extensive knowledge of myself. I know that my standard pattern of feelings about the things I do unfolds thusly:

  1. Unchecked enthusiasm about how good the thing is, bordering dangerously on hubris
  2. Annoyance and deep resentment that no one else likes it
  3. Terrifying realization that the thing I made was not very good after all
  4. Sense of humiliation for sharing it in the first place

So rather than go through all these stages step by embarrassing step, I opted to not share the pieces, at least not widely, save for the occasional Facebook post for friends and family. I may have put some links of Twitter, but I don’t recall doing so and suspect I was too afraid of junior high-level mockery if I did.

Now that some of this stuff is almost a year old, I think I can separate the wheat from the chaff. Most of it is the latter but there’s a few examples of the former. Since it was all originally shared online either sparingly or not at all, I thought this would be a good time/spot to bring the better pieces together so they could be ignored in one place.

For some idiotic reason, the first things I wrote were full-fledged orchestral scores (more on that below). Trying to do this after years of not writing music was like staying out of the pool for several decades before attempting to swim the English Channel. Having learned my lesson,  I mostly stuck to writing stuff for small, manageable ensembles thereafter, such as this first piece. It’s written for an nonet (seven winds and two percussionists) and is based on a trip I took to the Fresh Pond Columbarium in Ridgewood. Years ago I wrote way too many words on that trip and I think this piece captures the experience in a better way, if a more abstract one.

A walk through Mount Olivet Cemetery was the impetus for the following piece. (Picking up on a theme here?) At the crest of a hill where you can see out over Queens and off toward Manhattan, there is a small plot of land that bills itself The Japanese Section. Most of the people interred within it appear to have died prior to World War II. In those days, the part of Queens around Mount Olivet was overwhelmingly German and most of its graves reflect that, stern black slabs that bellow HIER RUHT IN GOTT. Amid all this stands a tiny, incongruous piece of land full of ornate Japanese calligraphy.

The piece I wrote was for piano and tuned percussion. (I really like xylophones, marimbas, and vibes. No, I don’t know why.) I used traditional Japanese modes (or their Western equivalents; you can’t 100% recreate Japanese music using Western tonalities) to create a palindrome, something that would sound the same played backward or forward. It builds to pivot on one note; everything that follows that note is a mirror reflection of what preceded it.

I recently did a new mix of the piece to prove it, reversing some of the instruments and lining them up with the forward movement, and added some chorus and phaser effects because I thought they sounded cool. You can feel these effects more than you can hear them, really, but I promise they’re there.

The third piece is one “movement” of a larger thing, for an octet (six winds, two percussionists) called Dads. It’s all about Dads doing Dad Things, like forcing conversation at a kid’s birthday party or struggling to pick out a pair of shorts at Kohl’s. It was my first attempt at writing 12-tone music.

Budget explanation: 12-tone music treats every note of the chromatic scale equally, as opposed to traditional composed music, which is in a specific key or scale that values certain notes and intervals over others. 12-tone music usually involves a tone series that dictates in what order the tones must be played and all the permutations of those orders. Every series has an initial, a retrograde (backwards), an inversion (mirror image of the initial), and a retrograde inversion.

Some 12-tone music is as boring and math-y as all this explanation would imply. Some, like Anton Webern’s Symphony, is subtle and atmospheric and beautiful. I aimed for the latter and found the inherent problem in 12-tone: Even when you plot out all the series perfectly, using a spreadsheet and everything, it doesn’t necessarily mean the resulting music will sound very good.

However, I think the final part of Dads came out well. It’s subtitled “Driving Through the Night With a Car Full of Sleepers” and aims to capture the terror of a late-night drive home with a car full of kids on an endless highway, knowing you are the only way that any of them will get home safely.

The last piece is another “movement” for a larger thing, the full-blown orchestral thing I alluded to earlier that I called Great Rocks of Our Time. Aside from the logistical headaches inherent in trying to compose something for an entire orchestra, I soon found out that the composition app I was using was never intended to output audio files for something quite so robust. If you limit yourself to a single-digit number of voices, the result sounds okay, but the more midi “instruments” you pile on top of each other, the less real and more midi it sounds.

A lot of the stuff I tried to write for Great Rocks was half-baked, if that. But there was one part of it that I thought was worth listening to, called “And I Must Make You Ready to Leave Me.” You may notice I’ve made no attempt to hide my efforts to rip off both Fania All Stars and Hot Rats at the same time. Also, the fakeness of the “instruments” gives it a sound that gets a little too close to smooth jazz for my comfort. For all that, I like the notes, and I like the part where three themes of varying lengths struggle to line up, and I dunno, I just like it, okay?  It might be because I wrote it about the fundamental problem at the core of every parent’s mission: To raise a kid that one day won’t need you.

The Weekly Meeting of Everyone Who Doesn’t Talk to You Anymore

The weekly meeting of everyone who doesn’t talk to you anymore takes place each Tuesday at 9pm in a church basement. The College Friend Who Got Tired of Your Whole Thing makes the coffee and The Kid Who Stopped Hanging Out With You in Junior High Because He Wanted to Be Cool brings the donuts.

The meetings are led by The Guy Who Wanted to Collaborate With You on Something But Stopped Answering Your Emails. He brings the proceedings to order by asking if it’s anyone’s first time here. A man stands up and introduces himself as Grad School Classmate. A chorus of Hi, Grad School Classmate echoes back to him.

The meeting leader says that all first timers must share their stories as best they can. Grad School Classmate gulps and looks out over the room while he thinks of something to say. The rows of chairs seem to stretch on forever in all directions. It’s the biggest church basement he’s ever seen.

Behind him a man whispers encouragement. He introduces himself as The Roommate Who Used to Be in That Band and says this is a place with no judgment and unconditional support. Then he shares a fist bump with his seat neighbor, The Roommate Who Ghosted After Her Last Rent Check Bounced.

Grad School Classmate says he doesn’t recall how he got here. He means that quite literally. He doesn’t remember coming to this church basement. He just found himself here. The meeting leader assures him everyone at the meeting feels the same way. Grad School Classmate sees all the heads around him nod in agreement.

Grad School Classmate is not sure when he stopped talking to you. Sometimes he’d joke with you before class and grab a beer afterwards. He went to a few shows with you because you liked the same bands. He sent you links to dumb things on the internet and you’d send some back. Then school ended and you drifted apart. It’s only natural that he’d fall out of touch with you.

The Former Coworker Who Ran The Football Pool stands up and says of course it’s natural. People change and move on and he should never ever beat himself up over this. There is scattered applause as he sits back down.

Grad School Classmate says he’s confused. If what’s happened is natural then why is he here?

The meeting leader says these why? questions are unhelpful. He is here and he should concentrate on that.

A man stands up and speaks on behalf of a corner that he identifies as People Who Used to Like You Online But Don’t Anymore. Some of them conversed with you in chat rooms. Others simply liked a bunch of your tweets. Then they stopped. Most of them don’t even know what you look like. Yet here they are.

Grad School Classmate asks why it’s on him to stay in touch with you when you can just as easily get in touch with him.

A wave of laughter ripples from the back of the room all the way to the front. The Manager Who Seemed Kinda Cool Until He Fired You tells him this is what all first timers say.

The Woman Who Pretended To Be Someone Else When You Called tells him he can’t get into questions of what’s fair and unfair. She went on three boring dates with you and now she’s gotta come here every week. She can see why Woman Who Broke Up With You Via Email From Prague should have to be here but why should she? A few cries of tell it are heard.

Grad School Classmate asks if he should just go home and email you. Would that make you feel better? Would that make things cool between you?

The Editor Who Said He’d Get Back to You About Your Novel But Never Did tells him that they’ve all thought of this before and it won’t work. Once he leaves here he won’t think about you again. None of them do. They only think about you when they are here.

Grad School Classmate doesn’t understand because they are talking about you right now. The meeting leader says trying to understand it all is a dead end. However, he has a theory, though he emphasizes that it’s just a theory. He believes that none of them remember you but you remember all of them and that’s why they are here.

Grad School Classmate is on the verge of tears. He wants to know why he has to be here when you don’t have to go any stupid meetings about the people you don’t talk to anymore. Surely there are people you don’t remember who remember you, people who think about you every day and wonder why you stopped talking to them.

The Mom Whose Kid Stopped Being Friends With Your Kid offers him a tissue and says he can’t think that way because it will drive him crazy. Maybe you do have to go to meetings of your own. None of them know because none of them talk to you anymore.

The meeting ends with a nondenominational moment of silence. Grad School Classmate grabs a cup of coffee from an urn set up under an enormous poster that says ONE DAY AT A TIME. He shakes a few hands. Everyone says he was brave to share tonight. Everyone seems nice. He still doesn’t know how he got here.

A potentially explosive collection of verbal irritants