Word/Play : Essays, meditations, rants and raves, findings, musings, mutterings and screeds.

fierycool

The Death of Cool

I had lunch last week with a friend of mine who’s in the music business. He’s a passionate guy, around my age, with an impressive resume. I like talking to him. We debated the fine points of the Black Keys’ rise, the difference between real and cultivated authenticity, and whether people know or care about it. Then the conversation turned to taste and I asked my friend about his criteria for working with a band. Must he love the music? Does he have to believe they’ll be big? What matters? One thing that matters, my friend told me, a little bit quietly, after he told me about some other things that matter, is cool. He wants his music choices to make him look cool. “More than I should,” he said.

The next day I had a phone conversation with another friend, who was describing a business venture that required him to either face off with or extend a hand to a competitor. My friend wanted to make nice. He told me that he’s no longer attracted to exclusivity and the sort of mystique it confers.  ”As I’ve gotten older I care less about cool than I once did,” he said. “I’ve defined it for myself as not wasting a lot of time lying. It’s become tedious.”

The day after that (it was one of those weeks) I had a long talk with my dad. We spoke for maybe the 300th time about the importance of relying on your own internal guidance system instead of external cues for direction and meaning, and about how hard that is to do — even if you know it’s the way you want to live, even if you’re the mindful type, even if it will without a doubt make you happier. My dad thinks it’s because from the get-go we’re taught to seek approval from other people. We’re ingrained with the belief that we’re only as good or smart or valuable as our parents and teachers and friends think we are, and it’s tough to unlearn those early lessons. My dad is a wise man, a font of short-form allegories, and he trotted out one of my favorites. It goes like this: imagine yourself standing on a stage, preparing to give a performance. You gaze out at the audience and discover that the theater is empty. No one is watching. But the show goes on.

I swear, these conversations never get old. Much as I’d like to evict the imaginary chorus heralding the imaginary spectators whose imaginary cheers and jeers inspire too many performances, they’re determined squatters. So it’s war. It’s me versus a hallucination. Me versus a misguided notion of value and power. Some days I win. On those days I know that the cool kids are muddled like me, not at all as sure as they seem to be about what’s good and what’s smart and what matters. Some days, consumed with self-doubt and comparitis, I lose. I wonder why I even bother. So it’s one step forward and one step back. Actually it’s more like this:

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Listening Lab: Thurston Moore

Maybe everything exists at once: past and present, youth and adulthood, consonance and dissonance, secrets and confessions, punk and art. Thurston Moore makes me believe it.

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Listening Lab: The Blow

I played the first few bits of “My Cake” for Hannah and she said it reminded her of The Blow. Without furthur ado, I love everything about this song.

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An Admittedly Perplexed Paean To Unplugging.

I know the rules. As sole proprieter of a blog and website, I’m expected to be a content creation machine and a social media maven. The way to grow an audience is to update frequently, tweet feverishly, and slather myself all over Facebook. That’s on top of writing songs and interviewing artists. In a normal work week, I fail miserably. It’s a big huge problem. During the holidays, I didn’t even try.

I spent last week in a rented house in Los Angeles with my sisters and my dad and all of the husbands and kids. We swam. We ate. We hiked and played games and road-tripped to Joshua Tree in a pimped-out tour bus that my pal Curtis lives in. I met my friend Tori’s horse. We exchanged gifts on the little-known miraculous tenth night of Hanukkah because various personality-related circumstances prevented us from celebrating during the traditional eight-day window. I don’t know what happens in your family, but our family gatherings require a certain flexibility.

Sometimes on vacation I carve out an hour or two each day to work, but it’s a double-edged sword. I feel vaguely productive, which stems the constant anxiety over the need to produce more and better and faster, but I invariably wind up spending more time than I had planned in front of my computer or with iPhone in hand. My family is always understanding and always bummed. And once the door to work is opened it oozes all over everything. I might be lounging in the sun having a lovely chat with my nephew but in the back of my mind I’m trolling for something clever to tweet or post. Hardly a recipe for quality time. I did carry my lyrics notebook out to the yard one morning but as soon as I got settled someone put on Stevie Wonder and cranked it.

So. Work was a wash. I halfheartedly posted a couple of photos and then abandoned the social network entirely. For a minute there it actually felt like I was disappearing. Like if I didn’t make my presence known to unseen followers and invisible friends I would quickly be forgotten. Like I was losing the thread of something important, and maybe I was. Maybe I’m messing up by not being a more dedicated, disciplined, hard-working member of the digital ranks. I want to live a real life. I want my project to succeed. It’s so confusing. All I know is once the panic subsided, there was nothing but relief. Here’s what that looks like.

In a year or two, when my website is a bust and my career is up in smoke, will I look at these photos and kick myself for not working harder? In a year or two, when I have a stack of songs that could only have been written by a person living her life, will I be satisfied that I made the right choice?

I know I’m not the only one struggling to straddle worlds. Pray tell.

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ralph jumps

The Dog Is Dead.

We put Ralph to sleep yesterday. He was 13. I’d known he was near the end for a couple of weeks because he started letting me pet him. Ralph didn’t want to be touched the way other dogs do. I think it’s because he was thrown away when he was a puppy, like a piece of trash, in a dumpster behind his namesake supermarket in Palm Springs. Who knows what kind of mistreatment he endured before that. Ralph, like anyone who’s abused, had scars you couldn’t see. His manners were appalling. With a couple of exceptions — Phoebe, his lady friend, who has issues of her own, and Tober, who lived next door —  Ralph didn’t play well with others. His usual greeting at the park was a menacing crouch followed by growling and lunging. Fortunately we found a big-hearted groomer who was moved by the Ralph’s tale of woe and put up with his barking and nipping. He wasn’t one of those dogs that wagged his tail like crazy or showered his people with affection, nor did he expect or even tolerate much in the way of physical displays in return. If you started to stroke or pat him, if you showed him too much tenderness, the dog walked away.

And then he didn’t. A couple of weeks ago I smoothed the strands of fur back from his eyes. He gazed up at me. I rubbed his ears. He lowered his head, groaning with pleasure. I started to cry. It was so ridiculously poignant. The dog was letting me in at the end of his life. He was letting me in because it was the end of his life.

On Monday I called Jill, my dear friend and the one who heard Ralph whimpering in the Palm Springs dumpster on her morning run. We were all on vacation, and my family wound up taking the dog home. We called Jill Ralph’s birth mother. Jill was Ralph’s middle name. Jill was the dog’s favorite person, place, or thing. She drove from New York to Boston with Phoebe even before the vet phoned to tell me that Ralph’s lungs were filled with metastatic cancer nodules.

The nice thing about scheduling death is you can orchestrate the send-off. In the morning we lifted Ralph and put him in Jill’s van, where he used to beach himself on the back seat as she packed up to leave after a visit, hoping to be taken along. He took a nap on the floor with the door open and the sun pouring in.

We went to the field. His nose was in fine form and he smelled, and smelled, and smelled. Billy hugged him. Hannah hugged him. Satchel played guitar. Jill made videos with her iPad.

When we came home Jill and Phoebe left and Satch took the dog outside. He sat on the front stoop for a long time. He wasn’t looking for trouble like he used to but maybe he remembered the sensation of being King of the Block. Maybe he caught a whiff of squirrels and cats and recalled the thrill of the chase. I brought out a few bits of ham which is all he would eat during those last few days. He came back in the house and rested in the living room with Hannah.

We built a fire in the fireplace. We moved the coffee table and brought Ralph’s bed into the center of the room. The only thing missing was Eli, my oldest, who lives in Oregon. We surrounded the dog, stroking him and telling him what a fine fellow he was and waiting for our wonderful vet Holly to arrive at 5 for the kindest and most awful sort of house call.

Ralph slipped away quickly. He was ready to go. But I wasn’t. Who is ever ready to let anyone they love go? I’ve been crying for days. Literally. I burst a blood vessel under an eye. There are dry moments: I stopped crying to sleep for 12 straight hours after the vet drove away with the dog’s body in the back of her Rav 4. I stop crying to eat. But it starts up again if I think or talk about Ralph. I cancelled an interview today because I worried I wouldn’t be able to stop crying.

I know the tears aren’t just for the dog. They’re for my dad, who is in the twilight of his life. They’re for my kids, who grew up. They’re for time, which speeds up like a bad slapstick routine in direct proportion to my wish for it to slow down. They’re for the horrible part of love, which is losing the thing you love, which is going to happen every time. I can hardly fathom it.

Hannah read a Pablo Neruda poem, choking back sobs, just after Ralph’s heart stopped beating. It’s so sad and so beautiful. That’s all there is to it.

A Dog Has Died

My dog has died.

I buried him in the garden

next to a rusted old machine.

 

Some day I’ll join him right there,

but now he’s gone with his shaggy coat,

his bad manners and his cold nose,

and I, the materialist, who never believed

in any promised heaven in the sky

for any human being,

I believe in a heaven I’ll never enter.

Yes, I believe in a heaven for all dogdom

where my dog waits for my arrival

waving his fan-like tail in friendship.

 

Ai, I’ll not speak of sadness here on earth,

of having lost a companion

who was never servile.

His friendship for me, like that of a porcupine

withholding its authority,

was the friendship of a star, aloof,

with no more intimacy than was called for,

with no exaggerations:

he never climbed all over my clothes

filling me full of his hair or his mange,

he never rubbed up against my knee

like other dogs obsessed with sex.

 

No, my dog used to gaze at me,

paying me the attention I need,

the attention required

to make a vain person like me understand

that, being a dog, he was wasting time,

but, with those eyes so much purer than mine,

he’d keep on gazing at me

with a look that reserved for me alone

all his sweet and shaggy life,

always near me, never troubling me,

and asking nothing.

 

Ai, how many times have I envied his tail

as we walked together on the shores of the sea

in the lonely winter of Isla Negra

where the wintering birds filled the sky

and my hairy dog was jumping about

full of the voltage of the sea’s movement:

my wandering dog, sniffing away

with his golden tail held high,

face to face with the ocean’s spray.

 

Joyful, joyful, joyful,

as only dogs know how to be happy

with only the autonomy

of their shameless spirit.

 

There are no good-byes for my dog who has died,

and we don’t now and never did lie to each other.

 

So now he’s gone and I buried him,

and that’s all there is to it.

 

 

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