Category Archives: Pointless Nostalgia

Embracing the Audience of One

Years ago, I worked on a biography of Jean Shepherd, performing research and doing interviews with people who worked with him. As I’ve written on this site many times, Shepherd is one of my artistic heroes, someone whose craft I admire as something uniquely his own which has no real parallel before or since. But the more I delved into his life, the more it seemed he was a damaged, strange man.

It was difficult to find people who knew Shepherd in his heyday and were also willing and able to talk. Many of his contemporaries and friends had died; others, like Jules Feiffer and Paul Krassner, proved difficult to contact. The same went for people I knew or suspected were influenced by him. I was aware Terry Gilliam had been a Shep fan in his youth, and I even had some contact info for the man, since the company I worked for had done a few books about his films. Alas, he did not return my faxes. (Yes, this was a long time ago.) Garrison Keillor wrote me a brief but polite letter in which he stated he grew up in Minnesota and therefore Shepherd–whose primary radio work was done in New York–didn’t really have any influence on him.

One of the few people who’d worked with him whom I was both able to get in touch with and wanted to talk to me was Fred Barzyk, who had produced most of Shepherd’s television work for PBS. At Barzyk’s invite, I was able to go to the WGBH archives in Boston and view some of these shows, most of which have not been seen on TV in decades. This included an odd show where Shep stood on a dock in Boston Harbor and delivered a version of his radio show there directly to the camera, monologuing for half an hour and then abruptly stopping.

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A Sample

My roommate had an odd look on his face. It was an unsettling mixture of trepidation and something close to embarrassment. I thought either someone was dead or I’d won a lottery I didn’t know I’d entered.

“You have a voice mail,” he told me, “from Kathleen Hanna.”

Kathleen Hanna had called me because I’d emailed her about doing an interview for the zine I had just started. I named it Jes Grew, after a “disease” in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, a novel about race and the influence and spread of black culture into the mainstream. Said novel was one of my many obsessions and a driving influence behind Record Ignite!, the band I’d formed a while ago. But that band was no more, and so this zine was where I thought I should channel my creative energy.

I’d emailed Kathleen at a generic info-type address on her website, so I didn’t have a huge expectation I’d actually hear from her. It felt like asking for a million dollars–this probably won’t work, but it’d be awesome if it did. When I’d formed my now defunct band, there were a select few groups in my pantheon of what I wanted it to be, and Bikini Kill was one of them. I admired their commitment to doing something that was genuinely dangerous, and was also sympathetic to their brand of feminism, though I realize now my understanding of exactly what feminism entailed was rudimentary at best. (Now that I have a daughter, I feel like I understand feminism better than I ever did before, but that’s another post entirely.)

In other words, getting a call from Kathleen Hanna was an enormous deal in my universe. My roommate left the room so I could listen to the voice mail, sensing that this was something he should allow me to enjoy by myself. Hearing a recording of her voice address me was enthralling and terrifying all at once. She sounds just like she did on that Mike Watt album!

I eventually reached her on the phone in person, which was even more terrifying, and we arranged to meet at a coffee shop in Soho for the interview. The day we met was a gorgeous late fall afternoon, just the faintest chill in the air, summer stubbornly hanging on. At this point in my life, my only interviewing experience came as part of a group affair when Jello Biafra came to speak at NYU. Me and another editor at the school’s humor magazine lobbed questions at him along with 20 other “reporters,” one of whom took a good 10 minutes to ask Jello if he would lend his time to something called the Million Marijuana March.

I did plenty of advance work to prepare for this interview, and yet was still frightened beyond comprehension before it began, afraid that I’d say or do something unspeakably wrong. That feeling faded quickly once I actually met Kathleen, because she was unbelievably warm and engaging, completely putting me at ease about talking to someone I considered a hero. (I imagine she had extensive experience doing this.)

We talked for 2 hours, in large part about her new artistic direction, since her first solo album Julie Ruin had just come out and was quite a musical departure from Bikini Kill. But we also covered the gamut of politics and feminism and music, and I somehow managed to sound coherent on these subjects while cognizant of the fact that I was discussing them with Kathleen Fucking Hanna.

Before we parted, I gave Kathleen a bunch of 7 inches from the label my friends upstate had started, including my old band’s sole release (seen to your left). I can’t say why I did this. Perhaps because I felt I should offer some kind of token of appreciation for taking the time to talk to me, and I had nothing else to offer. I think my rationale was, We all love you, so here’s something you, in essence, helped make. She demonstrated far more thankfulness than she needed to, and left. I hadn’t the slightest idea, really, of what I’d just done.

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Pledging

I experienced an awkward moment at a PTA meeting I attended recently. This was something above and beyond the normal awkwardness I feel in a room full of people I do not know and whose only connection to me is having children who attend the same school as my child, as I struggle to form some cruel parody of conversation. “So, I hear your kid likes Justin Bieber?”

The moment came at the beginning of the meeting, when the PTA president insisted we all rise and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Once I heard this, I was gripped by a childlike but very real panic. I hadn’t been asked to do this seriously* since high school, and for a terrifying split second I wasn’t sure what I should do with myself.

*I include the adverb seriously here because the live Pee-Wee Herman Show I saw with my daughter opened with Pee-Wee reciting the Pledge along with the audience, which I don’t think counts, really.

The reason I wasn’t sure what to do is because I spent a good chunk of my childhood as a Jehovah’s Witness. Witnesses refuse the say the Pledge of Allegiance. They don’t do a lot of things, due to their selectively literal interpretation of the Bible (or their translation thereof; it’s a very long story, the more you hear of the less you truly know). Being a Witness is almost like keeping kosher, but instead of worrying about what you eat, you have to worry about everything else.

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Stamped

Of the remaining GOP presidential hopefuls, Newt Gingrich has the ugliest soul.

Rick Santorum possesses some vile views on gay rights and abortion (like thinking rape victims who get pregnant should just accept this “gift from god”), but he seems like such a brutally strange and damaged person that I’d pity him if he weren’t in such a position of power. Ron Paul seems sincere and I don’t disagree with his anti-war and anti-war-on-drugs stances, even if some his other positions bug me (not to mention his ugly newsletters, the racist content of which he’s never explained satisfatorily). Mitt Romney has the nonplussed cheesiness of a local news anchor.

All members of this trio possess varying degrees of harmlessness, as far as I’m concerned. So with Rick Perry out of the race, Gingrich stands above all of them as, hands down, the worst human being of the bunch.

Among them, Gingrich is the most eager practitioner of Bully Politics. This has been a feature of the Republican arsenal ever since Barry Goldwater and part of the general pushback against New Deal/Great Society ideals we’ve seen since those days. However, it’s never been practiced more brutally than now, and never more gleefully than by Newt. When he talks about making kids work as janitors, there is vengeance, and almost glee, in his voice. When he sneers at Juan Williams during a debate, he all but invites the riled-up audience to attack his outnumbered questioner and seems not too concerned about the consequences. He is never happier than when he attacks those can least defend themselves.

When Gingrich called Obama a “food stamp president,” it was an obvious dog-whistle statement. (Subtext: “Remember, guys, he’s BLACK. And he’s gonna give YOUR money to OTHER BLACK PEOPLE.”) But apart from the badly disguised racism, it was also part and parcel with the delight he takes from attacking the least of us, joyfully positing that the poorest among us are the most deserving of our scorn and ridicule.

Hearing this, I had an immediate, visceral, infuriated reaction, for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate at first. Yes, it was a reprehensible attitude, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on exactly it bothered me so much. And then it all flooded back to me, a memory I’d done my best to bury: My family was once on food stamps.

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A Slippery Vision of My Own Ridiculous Demise

It was just like a bad comedy. I stepped into the shower without first noting that there were no towels hanging up, or a bath mat laid down, either. It was such a dumb Man thing to do. I should have hung shelves badly and not asked for directions to complete the Idiot Sitcom Dad trifecta.

Instead, I opted for a different brand of idiocy. Rather than call out to my wife to grab me a towel from our linen closet, I chose to try and get it myself. Again, no bath mat, so I am completely soaking wet and trying to ford my way across the bathroom floor without anything between my dripping feet and the tiles.

I make it to the bathroom door, open it, and make a fumbling grab for the linen closet door, which is mere inches away. And then, one foot slips violently, doing a Rockette kick upward. The other one follows a split second later. For a moment I am completely off the ground, in mid-air, and am fully conscious of this. I feel like I’m outside of myself, observing it. Time stands still.

I’ve had an experience like this once before. On a trip to Action Park at age 12 or so, I rode the alpine slide and followed all the directions, and still found myself separated from my sled when I hit a bump just a bit too hard. I remember feeling suspended above the ground, seeing the sled on the grass next to the track, and consciously thinking “Huh, that’s weird,” before I crashed down to the concrete below me, shoulder first.

While I’m mid-air above the tiles, I think, “I’m going to be one of those idiots who kills themselves slipping in the bathroom.” For this nanosecond, I’m 1000 percent sure I will come crashing down and break my neck, leaving a wet, naked, dumb corpse for my family to find later. I’m going to be a Darwin Award winner.

I come crashing down to the floor and somehow I fall side first. It hurts like hell, but is nothing near fatal. I let out a series of loud laugh-cries, these weird stuttering chuckles that draw my wife’s attention. (Well, that and the noise of my fat ass plummeting to the floor.) She yells “What happened?” several times, but my voice is too choked with pain-laughter to respond.

Finally, I spit out “I slipped” between guffaws. Then, a “fuck!” that is chopped up by so many gasps it gives the obscenity 13 syllables. A split second ago, I was convinced I had a date with the Grim Reaper. Now, I only have a sore hip, stinging pain in my knees, and the burn of my own stupidity. I was also given a depressing reminder that you don’t get to choose how and by what manner you will meet your fate. (Unless you go for suicide, which is not really my cup of tea.) My own experiences with death in the last decade taught me that pretty much every death is undignified and unfair, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. This, however, would have been a shade more undignified than most, I think.

Not many people come so close to death and live to tell the tale. I am one of the very few who has been given a vision of my own mortality. And it was fucking ridiculous.

Working

I recently acquired new dresser drawers, something I do maybe once a decade. This necessitated relocating the top drawer of my old dresser, which was basically my Treasured Memories Trove. I never looked at any of this stuff, mind you. If I thought I wanted to keep something for posterity, I just shoved it in the drawer, figuring one day I would be able to find it again. A fool-proof plan!

Unfortunately, in the middle of trying to transfer my Treasured Memories to their new home, I stumbled and completely unended the old drawer, spilling tons of stuff I forgot I had all over my bedroom floor. It felt like dropkicking my entire life.

Though I was alone in my bedroom, this filled me with a deep, red-face shame, and I tried to shovel all my Treasured Memories back into the old drawer in the most inelegant way possible. I didn’t dare glance at most of them, save for the most valuable items that caught my eye. A silver bracelet my grandfather wore throughout World War II. My dad’s last passport. The only foul ball I ever “caught” at a major league baseball game (quotes = long story).

I had to retrieve one errant piece that floated across the room, away from the other stuff, a rectangular swatch of pale posterboard that caught a drift and slipped away. I had no idea what it might be until I picked it up.

It was a postcard I received a long time ago. On one side, tour dates for a band. On the other, a note from one of my heroes, someone I was lucky enough to correspond with for a while.

I don’t mean to be vague or to tease, but for the purposes of this tale, it doesn’t matter who this person is to anyone but me. Suffice to say, this came from someone I admired immensely, and still do. This is what they wrote (in part):

Loved yr last letter. If yr book is 1/2 as good, it will change everything.

My heart swelled. I had completely forgotten all about receiving this postcard, and I felt like I was reading it for the first time, getting this praise for the first time.

And then, I turned over the card and looked at the postmark: 2000. Almost 12 years ago. And as much as my heart had swelled, it sank twice as far, because I felt the crushing weight of how much time had passed since then, and how far back the book it referred to had receded in my memory.

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Christmas Minus 10

At Christmastime 2001, I’d been out of work for over a year. When I was first laid off, I got a number of interviews. I even turned down a job offer for a position that sounded painfully uninteresting, foolishly thinking it wouldn’t be my last opportunity for full time work. But it was, for a very, very long time. To this point, I didn’t conceive of the idea that times could get tough for me, because apparently I’d blocked out my entire childhood.

Belt tightening followed. I gave my car to my dad because the insurance was killing me, even though I loved that car and knew giving it my dad was tantamount to a vehicular death sentence. I was forced to pay utilities only; student loans and credit card bills would have to wait. Except that student loan and credit card people didn’t see it that way, and so began the relentless, harassing calls and a mailbox stuffed with envelopes that screamed FINAL NOTICE.

Unemployment insurance helped keep my head above water while I scrounged for what I could. I worked temp jobs here and there, mostly proofreading for ad agencies. I conducted airline surveys at JFK and LaGuardia. On the creative side, I was doing some commentaries for NPR2, an embryonic satellite radio version of NPR, fun and easy work that, of course, dried up before long. I channeled most of my energy into online writing, pitching anything and anyone I could think of, and working on a novel, in the hopes that any one of these things would rescue me from predicament. They didn’t.

I did three full interviews with a financial publishing company, then was given a two-week “tryout,” copy editing, writing headlines, and doing light layout work in Quark. I got paid for my time, with the promise that if they liked my work the position would become full time. After the “tryout,” I never heard from them again, and later suspected this was really just a roundabout way of wresting temporary work out of someone without having to deal with an agency. Their offices were a few short blocks from what would soon be known as Ground Zero.

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The Past of the Future!

I recently wrote a post about my days in a band, one that focused on the unfortunate aspects of the experience. However, those days were not all bad. In fact, they were almost all great, some of the greatest times of pure, stupid joy I’ve ever had. Rare are the moments that I am able to shut off my brain and just have fun, and many of them happened when I was in this band, or rocking out to friends’ bands, or just hanging out with them and being colossally dumb.

That’s why I’m pleased that someone has seen fit to chronicle this scene on its own Facebook page, Save the OCNY Music (OCNY = Orange County, New York). If you were around there/then, it has lots of photos from the time (some of me, like this bizarre picture of yours truly in a West Point cadet’s jacket; you’ve been warned) and some music clips that will cause a Proustian rush of memories. If none of this is familiar to you, you may still enjoy checking it out. I know I always like to see photos of a scene gone by, something made by and for kids that they loved madly.

You can also check out an ever expanding archive of music from said bands right here. My band’s first demo can be found there, as can the first demo from Life Detecting Coffins, which I cannot recommend too highly.

I am very happy someone is saving this stuff for posterity. Enjoy.

From Zero to Five

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I stand at the corner of Grand Street and Queens Boulevard, waiting for a bus to take me home. It is 5:30 in the morning. It has taken me a small eternity to get here on the subway from the Upper East Side. The sun is just starting to peek out from behind an abandoned furniture warehouse on the other side of the Boulevard. The weather is surprisingly mild for this time in November, brisk but not freezing. I am hoping to get a few hours sleep before I return to the hospital and visit you. You are two hours old. I am profoundly exhausted. I have been for a while, I’m sure, but I am only now reaching the point where my adrenaline is fading.

Standing here in the early morning sun, shivering more from fatigue than cold, I am gripped by a sudden, profound sense of This is real, isn’t it? I’ve already held you in my arms, heard you mew (you didn’t quite cry when you were just born; you let out a plaintive, almost cat-like sound), seen a small cut on your eyelid from the trauma of being born and felt a pain I’d never known before.

But it’s not until this very moment that the enormity of it all crashes down on me. You were anxious get here, almost six weeks premature. At this very moment, I don’t feel ready for this. I don’t understand that no one, in the history of time, ever has been.

Looking back, I feel this is my last singular moment, my last time feeling something selfish like What does all this mean for me? I go home and sleep a few deep hours, wake up, and go back to the hospital, feeling nervous the entire time, like this is when things will get real. But I arrive and see your mother and hold you in my arms again, and I have no anxious, crushing feeling of me. There is only we.

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Senior Moments at Junior High

My daughter’s kindergarten is part of a small school that does not yet have its own building. Their classrooms are wedged into one section of a junior high. This provides an interesting contrast every morning as I walk her to school. My daughter is still very excited about the idea of Big Kid School. She’s learning to read and making new friends and bringing books home from the library and even jazzed about cafeteria food.

And as she tells me about all the wonderful new things she loves and wants to shout out to the world, I must wade through a sea of junior high kids who hate life. They loiter in the schoolyard, the nearby sidewalks, the local delis, they give off a pungent scent of man, fuck this. And also hairspray.

Junior high was the absolute, rock-bottom worst. I have never met a single person who did not feel this way. (If you do, please, tell me about your magical native land of unicorns and leprechauns.) I don’t know how it was in your neck of the woods, but for me, the worst thing about junior high was how brutally different it was from elementary school, how there was absolutely no transition between the two. One day I was quoting Monty Python with impunity, the next…well, the next day I was still doing it, but now I was made fully aware of just how weird this was.

Seeing these junior high kids every morning is a painful reminder of this time and how awful it is for everyone. I feel immensely sorry for them, when I don’t want to throttle them for standing eight across right in front of the school’s only entrance, or running into traffic because they think it’s funny.

I feel like my junior high years were worse than most. Not really because of anything horrible that happened to me–on the continuum of junior high experiences, mine were at average horror levels–but because of the institutional gloom that hung over me then. The building I had to go to every day was my district’s huge, ancient schoolhouse, built in days of yore when my town was tiny and it only took one brick manse to house every single grade, K-12. As the district grew over the decades, new elementary and high school buildings were erected, leaving behind this funhouse to function as the junior high. You could not have picked a better place to emphasize just how awful this time is in everyone’s life.

It was constructed during an era where light and joy were considered luxuries. The hallways–particularly the ones where all the lockers were located–were incredibly dark. Decrepit lightbulbs hung from too-high ceilings, but when they were turned on they somehow managed to make the corridors darker, as if the photons they emitted were encrusted with soot. And the less said about the bathrooms, the better. It was soil fertile for mischief, where those inclined to evil could emerge from nowhere as you shuttled between classes, ruin your day, and quickly disappear into the shadows.

I caught onto to this very quickly, around the time some douche attempted to dump a Ziploc bag of pencil shavings on my head as I committed the crime of retrieving books from my locker. (I saw my would-be assailant coming from a mile away. In a ninja move I’m still proud of, I waited until he was extremely close and just about to tip the bag over, then reached up and tilted it back in his face.) So I made it my mission to spend as little time in the hallways as possible. I would carry as many books with me as I could stand, leave a class the nanosecond the bell rang, and speed to the next one. My friends called me Matt-Man, because they’d turn to talk to me when class was over and I’d be gone like The Dark Knight.

Old habits die hard. While walking with my daughter in the morning, once I neared the school’s block, the one with a million loitering newly-minted teens, I would begin to speed up. I’d find any tiny crevice between two kids, even if I had to turn sideways to fit. Anything that would to get me to my destination a little faster, just like I did in my junior high days. Only instead of lugging six classes’ worth of books, this time I was towing a four-year-old who wants to know why I’m running.

It took me a few weeks to notice I was doing this, and understand why I was doing it. One morning, I stopped myself and made a conscious effort to take it slow. In doing so, I realized most of these junior high kids were tiny and, although almost uniformly annoying, not in the least bit terrifying. It made me mad at my young self. Was I afraid of kids like these? If so, what was wrong with me? I bet I could pick up any of them by the scruffs of their necks. Hell, I could pick up two, one in each hand. It took every ounce of willpower I had to not do just that.

I have a habit of walking way faster than I need to in general. When strolling with others, I will constantly find myself half a block ahead of my companions. A few weeks ago, I was visiting New Orleans for the first time in years, and me and a friend took a stroll through the French Quarter. “Why are you rushing?” my friend asked. I had no conscious idea I was doing this, but something within me says that walking too slow is a dangerous move.

It’s partially due to years of urban living, but I have to think that the junior high experience is a factor as well. My innate impulse to get places faster goes back to the days when I was convinced that I was a shark who had to keep moving forward or perish, or at least get a head full of pencil shavings. In the post-junior high years, friends would say I stomped. I wanted to protest otherwise, but the frequency with which I wear through shoes backs them up. I also blame this on the days when I felt I had to scale the stairs of this horrible building as quickly as possibly, two steps at a time, three if I could manage it. Since then, I haven’t been able to step lightly, even if I try.

Of course, if someone had told me Don’t be afraid of these wimps; they’re just as fucked up as you right now when I was in junior high, that would’ve done me no bit of good. No amount of reasoning would have changed my idea of what was VERY IMPORTANT when I was 13. Just like when I tell my daughter that it’s not worth throwing a fit because I told her she can’t have candy for breakfast, or because the cable On Demand is broken and won’t allow her to watch Adventure Time. Some things you can’t be talked out of; you simply have to live through them and laugh them off later.

Or keep running for the rest of your life. You know, whichever.