3 a.m. analog, musicians who write

Well, 3 a.m. analog is up and running! The stories are available for sale on Amazon. It feels like we’ve been working on this forever, but it’s truly been a labor of love. There’s a link to the site here (look to your right). I’m sure it will take us while to really get going but on the 18th of October, some of the writer/musicians (me included) will be reading at KGB Bar in NYC to kick things off.

It’s been a crazy busy summer into fall. In addition to being in school full time, I’m teaching a class at Hunter three days a week, and tutoring at the Writing Center there. It feels like a marathon sometimes. For a couple of years, I was sitting at my table writing seven days a week, walking Doe in the park, and not doing much else. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be busy. I’m still adjusting to the change, but suddenly my life is full of people and places I need to be and stuff that needs to get done. I think it’s a good thing.

The other night, I wasn’t feeling well. I was coming down with a cold, but J. had gotten tickets months ago to see Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon) at Town Hall. There was no way I could stand him up, so I went and was so glad I did. It was an inspiring show. Mark Kozelek (in case you don’t know him) is this amazing singer-songwriter who writes these long, personal story-songs. Then he sings them in this super-soulful way, so you can feel his whole life (and your own) down to your bones. I had listened to his record Benji a lot last year, and other songs from a record he made with Jimmy LaVelle (Caroline, Gustavo) but had never seen him live. Man, he was so good. (Thanks J). I think he’s doing something, with his songwriting, that Karl Ove Knausgaard is doing with his writing. It’s a rejection of artifice. A real-time, unedited representation of living. When there are rhymes in his songs, they seem random. The story just unfolds, formless and beautiful. It feels so genuine. He writes about people who have died, and aging and loneliness and the characters he knows. His band was great too – two drummers, a keyboard player, and a guitarist/bass player who sang harmony. It was the best thing I’ve seen or heard in a long time.

Now, it’s a beautiful fall day that feels more like summer. I’m sitting at my table writing this. Tomorrow the marathon starts up again, but there are still many hours to go before then.

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Everyone is Hooking Up With Everyone

Last week I found a bloody bird on the street. I had an appointment to take Target to the vet, because he wasn’t feeling well, and didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have time to do both — to rescue the bird and get Target to his appointment. But I ran home and found a shoebox for the bird. It looked scalped. I was sure it was near death. Later, I learned It was a baby pigeon. I called my vet to see if she would let me bring the bird when I brought Target, but she said she doesn’t treat birds because they carry diseases. So I postponed Target’s appointment, and got in a taxi with the bird. “Please, hurry,” I begged the sweet cabdriver. We raced across town to the Wild Bird Fund, a hospital for birds on Columbus and 87th Street. I’ve taken birds there before, the last a dehydrated baby starling in the spring, but this bird was in terrible shape, and I burst into tears as I arrived. I felt like an idiot, crying like that but couldn’t stop, not even when a kind doctor came out and told me that the bird was in bad shape but might survive. He was still strong. They put him in an incubator to warm him up. If he was stable in the morning, the doctor would operate, stitch his scalp back together. I couldn’t believe it. I’d taken him for nearly dead, but the doctor sounded hopeful. They named him Carson (they name all rescues after rescuers). I haven’t had the nerve to go back yet, to find out if he made it. But I may go tomorrow if I can get up the courage.

(Update: Carson the baby pigeon didn’t make it, unfortunately. I learned his wounds were caused by other birds in the nest. The vet I spoke with said she’d never seen quite so severe an injury, but sibling abuse in the nest is quite common. He was euthanized the morning after I brought him in when it was decided he was too badly injured to survive.)

This is all so gruesome, I know. I blame Julia for my choice of subject matter. Or rather her recommendations of beautiful, dark fiction. I think I shouldn’t read any more of it. I can feel it in the flow of these words. The protagonists are always struggling to survive.

It’s hot and humid tonight but I’ve turned off the air conditioner, opened the windows. Without the roar of it, it’s almost silent here. I hear the click of the keyboard as I type, far away sounds of traffic. It’s just getting dark at 8 p.m. Outside, the maple tree trembles in the breeze. Maybe it’s cooler out there. I could be sitting closer to the window, at my table, but instead sit on the floor, back to the sofa, computer on the glass coffee table, sweating. A candle burns, smells of lemongrass and wax. It’s reflected in the mirror over the fireplace. I gave the TV that used to hang there to J. who says he’s been watching Bachelor Island or some such thing. “Everyone is hooking up with everyone,” he tells me.

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This is a photo of the morning that inspired these paragraphs from the new might-be-someday novel I’m working on:

She liked to lie on the bed in that small room and watch the clouds drift past. Sometimes they created an optical illusion that made it seem as if she could see the earth’s rotation and, when that happened, she would think about how all the buildings and trees and people, everything, including the atmosphere, took up only the tiniest area, just the very top layer of the planet, and it made all of life seem terribly fragile.

Other times, the clouds made her feel peaceful, like a baby looking up at a mobile, and she would lie there allowing her thoughts to drift and float. She didn’t need much to be happy, she thought. Just peace and quiet, a window, the sky. She wasn’t like other people who needed so much.”

Almost mid-July: I’ve been in school this summer and have spent a lot of time doing homework, reading and writing for my classes in Literary Studies and American History. The Shakespeare class ended this week. We finished with Cymbeline; the play will be performed in the park in a couple of weeks. I saw the Tempest and would like to see Cymbeline too. It’s a fantastic thing to sit under the darkening sky in Central Park and watch these plays being performed. I’m learning so much in school. My teachers have been great. American History too is fascinating and as I understand the connections between everything that has happened and everything that is happening now, it makes me so angry. Why don’t we learn as a country?

I don’t know why I’m surprised to find school such a rich experience. I didn’t get it when I was twenty. I thought it was something to get over with before you had a life and I was too impatient to start my life.

Got together with Jana this week about the website for 3 a.m. analog. Also, received a story from Matt Keating that we’ll feature in our launch. It’s a creative non-fiction piece about finding a piano on the street and it’s really good. The site will feature short-fiction and creative non-fiction by musicians. Richard Lloyd of Television and Elizabeth Trundle (who recorded as Boo Trundle) have also contributed work. My contribution will be the first in a serial about a musician turned drug dealer called “Cold Weather.” Julia Brown, the beautiful singer-songwriter and fiction editor of Gulf Coast Literary Journal will be on board as an editor (and hopefully, will contribute her stories). We’re aiming for end of August. Musicians will be able to submit their own stories to the site and there will be writing prompts and other coolness (such as an advice column). If you’re a musician reading this and write fiction or non-fiction, please send me an email.

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I was ahead of the curve when it comes to the Norwegians. Finding Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses felt like a personal discovery in 2005. I’ve always loved a good translation, one that retains a book’s original idioms, place, and cultural details. A good translation gives you the illusion of reading a book in its original language. Ann Born translated Out Stealing Horses. She died a few years ago and I have to think that Per Petterson must miss her. I’m sure she was a good part of the reason that the novel sang the way it did. Its publication in 2005 coincided with a year I was hungry for distraction. I had fallen in love with another Norwegian and although we spoke on the phone every night and spent our weekends together, in between there were all these days to fill where I tried to live in my own skin. Falling in love was like being kidnapped from myself. It was a kind of agitated madness. I was well into my forties when this happened and it caught me unprepared. Maybe love always does. The songs it inspired were pretty good but they didn’t provide relief, really. Books, on the other hand, could be escaped into. A couple of days a week, I rode my green Schwinn over to the Mattituck Library, checked out the new fiction, and talked to anyone I could about books. I was devouring three or four a week. There was a nice man who worked behind the counter, not a librarian, but a local man who loved to read and volunteered there. I would talk to him for an hour. I remember recommending Out Stealing Horses to him.

Since then, I’ve read everything by Per Petterson that has been translated into English. None of his other books is as structured or formal as OSH, but I’ve loved some of them even more. In The Wake may be my favorite. Petterson spoke about that book last week at the New York Public Library, where he was interviewed for over an hour, on the occasion of his most recent publication, I Refuse. His new book was reviewed in the Times last weekend, was on the cover of the Book Review, alongside Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Book Four, also just published. (I have a first row ticket to see Karl Ove read at the 92nd Street Y next week. I guess I’ve got a thing for the Norwegians.)

After Per’s reading, I stood on line to have him sign my copy of his new book, and we talked for a few minutes. It turned out he shared my love of Jayne Anne Phillips’ work and we spoke about that. He was lovely. I was able to tell him that his writing has influenced and inspired mine. Then I left the magnificent New York Public Library and walked to the subway, thinking of my old green Schwinn (now stored in my mother’s garage) and the modest but really excellent library in Mattituck. 2005 was ten years ago, unbelievably, but it doesn’t feel like that.

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Ghost of Itself

Sometimes when I’m brushing my teeth before bed, I hear the traffic on Lexington Avenue through the skylight and it gives me a feeling that I can’t quite put my finger on. Like these pictures taken from the window of a train. It’s a feeling that I get sometimes playing guitar too, singing, and remembering the different phases of that. It becomes its own ghost. Things not only what they are but what they used to be. This is what it must be like to lose your memory.

Earlier, I picked up the guitar and played a song written some months ago. The lyric goes: It’s easier now/to think of you as lost/like summer and childhood and the city as it was. It felt good to play and I wondered if the song was as good as other songs I’ve written. I remembered what it was like to be ambitious, to want people to hear the songs, and do what I had to do to make that happen.

I heard Michael Cunningham, the writer, speak a few weeks ago about ambition. He said that writers feel both ashamed of their work – it isn’t as good as you meant it to be – and confident that it has to be heard. I suppose I still have those feelings – about my fiction at least. But I no longer have the expectation that others should care as I do. It strikes me now as childish, like a kid demanding, “Look at me!” I want to share myself with others but not with any urgency. I guess it’s one of those things that’s become a ghost of itself.

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Old Dog, New Trick

If I wasn’t in school five days a week, I’d probably be hibernating this winter. As it is, I can’t say I mind the weather so much. I’ve managed to get those little rubber boots on Doe’s feet, which has eliminated a lot of the anxiety I felt last year; She started having seizures that I was sure had to do with the salt and ice – mostly the salt. Anyway, this winter she’s scrambling around like a champ in those little red boots and, so far, no seizures.

I leave her every afternoon to go to class. I don’t have any classes before two. That gives me time to write in the mornings, and take her for a walk before I leave. The writing I’ve been doing has been mostly homework but today I dropped math, which should free up about ten hours a week. I don’t know what I was thinking to sign up for that class first semester. I was never any good at math and now I’m rusty on top of it. Also, it brought up memories of my father that were painful. Yesterday, I was in tears about it. I can’t remember the last time I was in tears for any reason, let alone math!

I’m writing a lot, of course, which I love to do. My brain works in that realm. How can you be smart in one thing and so completely out of your depths in another? It’s interesting to have assigned reading too. I’m so used to choosing what I want to read, but part of going back to school is letting go of this idea that I know better. It’s always been something of a handicap, I think – that arrogance. Math should be all the reminder I need that I’m not as smart as I think.

I’ve been trying to get Three A.M. Analog off the ground, too, which means finding the musician/writers to begin. A lot is already in place but, without the stories, it’s just an idea: A literary press for musicians who write fiction and creative non-fiction. I think it’s a pretty good idea. Turns out there are quite a number of us out there. I’m looking forward to working with other writers on their work. It’s one of my favorite things to do.

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Small Things Become Big Things

In reverse order: Saturday morning buildings, yesterday’s recording session with Paul, studio set up by the window, last flowers from Della and Michael. Small things have become big things.

Small things wait. You can live inside them. Cats sleep at your elbow, dog at your feet. It’s quiet. Songs come.

Big things are a carrot on a stick. You chase them. They make your stomach hurt. You can’t sleep. Big things are fast and hard to see. They don’t fit. They block out the sun. It’s better to remember them.

Small things accumulate. They’re yours. You mull them over, turn them in your hands.

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Lists of Things

At the end of the year, NPR, The New York Times, and my FB feed are full of Best Of lists. Music and books and movies. I could make a list of my own favorites this year, and perhaps I will. I’ve seen a few movies: Boyhood, Birdman, and Interstellar. Also lots of documentaries and indies, mostly on my computer screen, via Netflix and Amazon. I could make a list of books, of course, because I’ve read many this year and have lots of passionate opinions about the best ones, and why they are the best ones. All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wylde, An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine, Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend trilogy, Linn Ullman’s The Cold Song. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Book Two. These are off the top of my head.

Of the three categories, I’m least able to make a list of the best music of the year because I’m aware of so little. Friends sent their CD’s and I enjoyed those. Through NPR, I learned of Luluc. Through Jeremy, Mark Kozelek’s (or rather Sun Kil Moon’s) new one, Benji. My friend and former songwriting student Geoff Schroeder has a band called Second Hand. I listened to their blue-grassy debut quite a bit. I bought Haley Boner’s, War, and Aaron Lee Tasjan’s EP, Crooked River Burning. My friend, Amanda Kravat’s EP, and most recently, I’ve been listening to Sylvie Simmon’s record, Sylvie, produced by Howe Gelb. I’m writing about it for Salon. It’s very good. Maybe everyone’s music list is like this now. Songs you happen to come across. There is so much out there. How to even find it, let alone absorb it?

I could make a list of other things, such as: best days, best friends, best dog, best three cats. Best cake eaten all at one time. Best nurse at Lenox Hill Hospital. Best poem for a friend’s lost son. Best reason for a resentment. Best sleepless night. Best things to forget. Best song I haven’t finished yet. Best laugh. Best silly moment. Best reunion with an old friend. Best sentence written today. Best hope for the future. Best wishes for the new year.

Yeah, best wishes for the new year. Love, health, happiness, and prosperity. Now, there’s a list. x

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I Don’t Take it Lightly

It’s hard to take for granted
This gold light, these cool nights
It’s almost fall again
This is our time

Paul’s father passed away on Saturday. The funeral was yesterday and it was heartbreaking, but also good to see Paul’s mother, Norma, and spend the day with the family sharing remembrances of him and crying together. It was a bright fall day and at the cemetery all the trees were red and yellow.

Paul’s dad was a beautiful man in every respect: handsome, warm, strong, funny, and charismatic. Alvin was ninety-six and lived an amazing life. Leslie and I were talking about it and acknowledging that every life has its frustrations and hardships, even his – he walked 300 miles into Poland as a prisoner of war, for God’s sake – but it was also just a spectacular life. He was accomplished and adored. He and Norma were married for sixty-seven years, and happily. Norma is still beautiful at eighty-nine, and looked glamourous in her soft gray sweater and scarf. She was pure, raw grief and it was hard to witness but also magnificent because she was utterly real and herself.

I was eighteen when I met them both, invited to dinner at their apartment on Central Park West. I was very intimidated by the paintings on the walls (Alvin was an artist and fashion illustrator), the stylish furnishings, and their glamour. Norma served cornish hens (she was a spectacular cook) and I didn’t know how to eat mine. I stabbed at it cluelessly until it flew off my plate, but they were kind and generous to me that night and over all the years. I loved them and felt loved by them. I told Norma how much I loved Alvin and she said, “Everyone did.” I told her I loved her too, and she asked me to come visit.

Of course, Paul was everywhere, being his kind, capable self, taking care of all of us and everything. He is the best man I know.

In The Ones I Loved (the name I gave the book I’ve been writing over the past two years) Alvin inspired the drawing teacher my character Mara studies with when she takes a life drawing class (in an effort to begin living again). This scene takes place at the last class as it is just getting to be summer.

For our last class, we meet at the Gansevoort Street entrance to the Highline: Tamir, Ayako, Eileen, Lucas, Lauren, and the others. We climb the steel staircase to the elevated train tracks, now a park. We’ve brought our sketch pads and charcoal pencils, watercolors, and pastels. Mr. P is wearing a beautiful summer weight blazer, a sky-blue shirt, a silk scarf. He must have been quite something in his prime. He’s still dashing at whatever age he is, which I suspect is older than he seems. We’ve learned that he is a World War II vet, was taken prisoner in Poland. Later went to Cambodia and Vietnam as an artist for the Air Force. Married Mrs. P and had two sons. Became one of the best known fashion-illustrators of his time, a time when illustration was more popular than photography.

Mr. P asks us to notice the light – early, almost-summer evening light. Without any eye at all, you could see that it’s a special time of day. He calls it the magic hour. We walk the whole length of the park. A new section has opened that extends it into the thirties. The path narrows as we go. Plantings and surrounding architecture shift subtly from landscape to landscape: Steel beams and wildflowers, rooftops and tall grasses, trees and brick buildings.

We scatter to find benches and lounge chairs, take supplies from our bags: charcoal pencils, watercolor, pads with thick paper. Mr. P gazes out over the Hudson River. I wonder what he’s thinking? Maybe only of how beautiful the light is as the sun goes down.

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Heads and Bodies

I’ve always had a thing for Buddhas. These are from an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Viewing them, I couldn’t help but wonder how they’d been procured. And there are so many. I was also reminded of hearing once that it is disrespectful to separate the head from the body of a Buddha statue but many are displayed that way. I have a couple on my fireplace mantel too – one a gift from Anton. The other, from a trip to Malaysia, many years ago. Just heads.

I went to hear Simon Van Booy read at the Strand the other night. G. took me and afterwards he told me that I had behaved badly, not at the reading but in my dealings with WM. I found myself wondering about it after. Do I burn bridges? Am I hard to deal with? I don’t mean to be difficult but, when you’re fighting for something that’s yours, sometimes it’s appropriate. Maybe G. has never had to fight like that. I don’t like to fight. (G. thinks I do.)

People are complicated. People are more than one thing. People are vicious and sweet and pissed off and sorry. People are lazy. A long time ago, Gary Baker (my music attorney) told me that no one would ever care about my music the way I did. It was a revelation.

G., if I don’t fight for it, who will? They separate the heads from the bodies. That’s what they to do.

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