Secrets

April 3, 2021

                As I made my way through the crowd of people, squirming, dipping my shoulders and ducking my head I went in one way into the crowd that hung over and around me like vines in a jungle and soon I appeared at the other end, like a rabbit running through a tunnel. I rose from the mass under a light but not in the shine of the sun but a beer light. I nodded towards the bartender who slid a bottle of beer towards me, raised on finger and pushed a shot of Jim Beam in my direction. He held up two fingers, for two dollars and I put a five on the bar another showed my palm to let him know to keep it, turned around towards the stage and quickly downed the shot. Grabbed the beer and made my way towards the restroom. As I stood at the urinal and drained the beer in two gulps while I peed, the beer fell deep in me and I felt good. Sparkling.  Soon I went back towards the front of the crowd, doing the same bent dance through all the sweaty bodies and sidled next to my girlfriend who eyed me suspiciously, “you were gone a while” she yelled in my ear, “did you get another drink?” She handed me the half empty bottle of Black Label she had been holding. I was not supposed to be drinking more than what I had agreed on before we arrived, two or three beers tops. I promised. “No, I didn’t get another drink” I felt like rolling my eyes. “O.K.” she answered, but her eyes said she did not believe me. I thought to myself, “no, I had two drinks.” In my mind I was not really lying, I was just omitting.

                “Please call me when you get home, from the show” she was calling from Gainesville and I was in the small bedroom apartment I was renting with my friend Kent in Columbus. I had arrived back in Columbus after fourteen months in Gainesville, with  just over a year of sobriety, and the apartment that Kent lived in was on the corner of 5th Avenue and Hunter anarea that was quickly being gentrified but we were both in early sobriety—he was working at the residential treatment program he had completed the year before, I was back working at a record store—the apartment had not yet been upgraded to the rest of the neighborhood. It was dusty with musty carpets and a faucet that was always dripping. “I will, I’m coming right back to the apartment after the show.” The plan was to see the show, and head home. My routine was to get up early, hit the gym, then go to work, hit a 12-Step meeting at noon, back to work and then another 12-Step group and then home where I would read before bed. It was working for me, the temptation to drink was dissipating by degrees as was the years-long depression that hung around me like a stench. I had actually started attending a gay AA meeting that was just down the street from our apartment, because there were no women there, I would not be tempted to engage in the other secretive behavior I had been involved in besides sneaking drinks. “I’ll call you when I get home, it shouldn’t be late—maybe twelve or so.” She instructed me not to call if it was too late, “I have to teach in the morning, but if you get in before midnight go ahead and call.” We told each other our love for one another and hung up.

                The show ended fairly early, somewhere between eleven and twelve—people were milling about, the band was loading out-with the exception of the primary singer who was standing at the bar receiving congratulations and getting a beer. I had not been back in Columbus long, and friends I hadn’t seen in almost a year were coming up and chatting—at this point, I had realized that I was a bit uncomfortable and had not yet made the connection that one aspect of my drinking had to do with the underlying social anxiety I experienced for most of my life—this revelation took some years to discover. We laughed, told stories and a few offered to buy me drinks, one person brought me a beer that I politely declined and shared that I didn’t drink any longer-a brave step for me. “That’s a good one, here you go.” Smiling, “no, I really don’t drink anymore. I quit over a year ago.” The beer sat between us, he hesitated, “I guess I’ll have to drink both!” he backed away as if he walked in on someone using the rest room.  There was a woman who I was talking with, we had flirted over the years and as we laughed, she inched closer to me, our hands nearly touching as we stood in a small circle of friends. “What are you doing after this?” she grinned, her smile a little off, her words a slushy slur. She had perfect teeth. Suddenly it hit me, my intention to stay at that point had drifted past seeing the music, of enjoying what I had loved so much and slide into the part of me that yearned for female companionship. Realizing that I could have gone home with her, I stammered, “I need to go home. It’s so great to see you but I need to get up early.” “Are you sure?” her eyes beamed into me. “Yeah, I do need to leave. It’s late.” I said my goodbyes. Everybody except me was wasted. As I got ready for bed that night, opening a book that helped me with self-reflection and hopefully pour some wisdom into my brain I had the realization that I was more tempted by the companionship than by the alcohol.

                There is a vail that we carry, an inherited invisible garment that is constructed from generation to generation—some  by words and some  by actions that never appeared, only stuck in the shadows of familial relationships. I learned secrets early, some I did not fully know the meanings behind, when a parent closed their door and there was a stranger with them on the other side. A fist fight in the front yard between my father and my uncle, both men spilling the others blood in the snow while my father hustled my brother into his car in the middle of the Christmas party. “What happened dad?” we didn’t want to leave, the latin and disco music carrying over the heads and into our famished ears, this was an experience we looked forward to every year. “Your uncle Pablo is an asshole” my father’s voice was gruff and stabbed through the car which seemed colder than the freezing December chill outside. He held a handkerchief to his nose as the blood dripped around his mouth onto his lap. His glasses crooked on his face. “We want to stay” my brother was cross with him, “we have all our stuff in the bedroom.” “O.k., then stay but I’m not.” Hustling into the house, the party hadn’t let up. Everything was a shimmying normal. My father picked us up the next day, in a bustled hurry he grabbed our things and barked at us to get in the car.

                This past year my partner asked me if I thought my daughter read this blog, “I don’t think so.” She asked me why and I explained that I don’t think she interested in what her father has done, and besides she is fifteen—she is discovering her own interests. “If I could read about my parents when I was fifteen you better believe I would” she smiled at me. “Do you think your kids will read your writing, your poetry?” I asked. “Yes, at some point.” Recently I received copies of my first book, a large heavy box appeared on the front porch while I was in the middle of a meeting. Bruno opened it up and held a book up, “wow dad, it looks pretty cool.” He yelled upstairs, “Hey Saskia, dad’s book is here!” She came downstairs and opened one of the hardcover copies, “this looks neat dad” her hand pressing against the dust jacket. Dusk jacket. “Are you going to read it?” I went into the kitchen, pulling a can of Diet Coke from my decrepit fridge. “Yes, of course!” she had moved to the heat vent in the dining room, her body wrapped in a blanket, she was turning the pages. “I’m happy you dedicated it to us, my name is in a book!” “Of course, it is” I turned the record over, the needle from the turntable was hic-cupping in the run-out groove. “Bruno are you going to read my book?” He was headed outside, skateboard carrying him across the wooden floors. “Nope! I don’t read dad. Let me know where we are going tonight” and the door shut behind him. Later, after taking Bruno skating while I went to the gym we came back to the house. Saskia was still on the vent as I walked through to fetch some water. “Still reading?” I asked. She was staring straight ahead and it had looked like she had been crying. “Dad?” I set the water down, chose another record and put it on the record player. “Yeah?” my back turned to her. “This was a weird book to read.” I turned around; she had a slight smile. “Why is that?” “It’s really sad but also funny at times. Plus, it’s strange to read about your dad getting blowjobs” she laughed. “Well, there aren’t any real descriptions of blowjobs” I replied in a matter-of-fact voice, I didn’t want her to be frightened of sex or talking about it—I had enough sex shaming when I was a child that I did not want to pass this along to my kids, “but yes, there are some sad parts, Jenny lived a sad life—one of desperation but she was also funny as was Jerry. Plus, hopefully there is some redemption in there.” There was a pause from the vent, “I suppose, but I liked it. I don’t think I’ll tell my friends to read it.” There are a lot of secrets revealed in those pages, it is easier to write the secrets than to say them.

                 The dance of lies that we learn takes us through truth and out the other end, sometimes like a bullet and other times like a soft cloth, but it’s always a dance that gets more complicated with more steps every passing year. I am a magician at times holding out one truth that acts as an inverse mirror, so strong that I believe it myself—but on the other side the truth dims under the layers of avoidance I learned to bury and fold into myself. There is a saying in Buddhism that that present is a shadow of the past, the future is a shadow of the present, the cause and effect of my drinking taught me subtle ways to avoid the truth although I tried to live my life honestly—to follow up on my word, the complexities of learning to live honestly was difficult even if on to the outside world I was honest. I was raised to tell the truth, it was hammered into us as well as to be mindful of those who suffer, stick up for the little guy, be true to your convictions—give of yourself. These stuck with me and my siblings, as we grew up these are things we did, challenged bullies, befriended the kids who were picked up, don’t follow the pack—live truthfully in your heart. I’ve challenged authority most of my life, and in high school it got me tossed out of class (for instance, when I told the biology teacher in the middle of class that using the n-word was offensive) or slammed against lockers by bullying teachers. I didn’t give a shit as I knew I was right, my daughter is the same way although she is wiser than me, she reads feminist literature, communist theory, Angela Davis and others. I gleaned my philosophy from Woody Guthrie, Kurt Vonnegut, the Clash and Huck Finn. When I was in my mid-forties, my marriage was disintegrating like a cardboard box left out in the rain. We were both unhappy but loved each other in such a mammoth way—it did not seem possible that two people with so much love could live in such emotional silence. I had been sober for nearly fifteen years and finally, out of dire depression went back to counseling. The edge of the bed is where I would sleep, my wife slept on the other edge and some nights I would creep downstairs and log into my computer searching for some connection or I would slip into Bruno’s bed and listen to his soft breaths next to me and stare at the ceiling. “Why do you leave our bed in the middle of the night?” Merijn would ask me in the morning, her eyes pleading and her voice taunt with anger and tension. “I don’t know, you are always mad at me” and while I would flip it back on her, a dangerous emotional game of ping-pong I truly did not know was transpiring between us.

                After talking with the psychologist who was an expert in the subtitles of what I was going through he explained to me that I was not uncommon, that he had many people, mostly men who had been sober for about as long as I had whose lives had slowly unhinged emotionally. My subconscious was operating on a different level than the rest of my brain—I was being powered by a screaming voice that was telling me things that simply were not true. Mostly that I did not matter.

                I imagine we are born with a massive empty space, one that is gleaming with shine, a polished universe devoid of anything but truth. The space is slowly filled, redesigned like a manic interior decorator constructing staircases to rooms with only one entrance, one room here then another until the rooms are all wedged together like slums on the side of a mountain. On top of the rooms, packed together as if they were shove-stacked into grandma’s junk room there is still the truth gasping for air as if it were the vacationers in the Poseidon Adventure, bobbing their heads above the rising water while the capsized luxury liner tries to drink in the ocean. But the truth slides between the rooms, like air and works it magic by slowly dismantling each room, acting like wind against sandstone. When the rooms are finally leveled, they leave a scar almost a ghost limb within our psyche—still there but not at all.

                In addressing my alcohol problem all those years ago, there were moments when clarity struck me dumb although dumb is not the correct word here, they actually struck me lucid. There were many experiences that happened, small discoveries—innocent like a child’s eyes ingesting a flower, a turtle poking her head out of her shell—small but transformative. One afternoon I was sitting in my office when we were living in Gainesville, my ex-wife was teaching at the university and I was alone amongst my records, the vintage clothing I was selling on ebay waiting for the dial-up internet to slowly load the photos of ancient Brady-Bunch shirts to sell. I was in the midst of working on my Third Step of AA, I had to complete it for my treatment program and for my AA sponsor. This was an odd time for me in terms of my spiritual life, I had come to the realization that my theistic beliefs no longer worked for me—if they ever had-the discovery of Buddhist philosophy smacked me like cold water from a shower—I was awoken to something new. “Made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood him” is the third step but I didn’t believe in God, it was a dilemma, but it wasn’t really at all. My rooms were being slowly dismantled and tiny explosions were popping up in my brain, tearing apart the walls of those secret rooms—on that humid Gainesville morning, as sweat clutched on the back of my calves, my thighs sticking to the vinyl office chair I came to the realization that most of my actions, mostly non-actions in terms of my non-drinking changed me in subtle ways—time and space changed my mood if I allowed it. Running every morning helped a great deal, putting on my headphones, sliding a mix tape into my bulky Walkman I would be transformed by one step after another, one drum beat after another while I ran around Gainesville, exercising my secrets with the help of Superchunk, Springsteen and the Wedding Present blasting into my skull.

                I kept my secrets in a safe space, underneath walls constructed of guilt, bewilderment, a bit of shame tossed in along with a belief that everything was alright. Now. For years, the community that I discovered was the safety net I felt pulled onto, a joyous exercise of living that eased the rest of the hardships of life behind. An insular world was the one I was a part of, but it was outside of the world that that I was supposed to be a part of—one where personal responsibility—personal choice was dictated by how loud you played your music at night and if you could make it to your slummy job by 10 am. Nothing more. Nothlng less. Guitars were our bible, and amplifiers were the locomotive engines that powered us for far into the night that our ears and bodies still vibrated the next morning until the third cup of coffee pushed the last note out of our bodies the next afternoon. So, when it was time to get sober—to get real with what my ingesting alcohol had done for me for the past fourteen years it was frightening, a lot of rooms were constructed out of liquid and everything that came along with it, the broken relationships, the sex that left me wanting more but without the intimacy of a partnership—life had become, finally harder than what I thought it could be.

                Around one pm every afternoon in Gainesville, I would get home from the noon AA meeting I attended, and I would do my push-ups, slide into my running shoes, put the headphones on my head—checking to make sure that the batteries were working and start my run. It didn’t matter how hot it was, in fact the hotter it was the better it was as the anxiety that ran up and down my body was visible, eyes furrowed, I was restless but my daily seven-mile run did wonders. I would get back exhausted. At times when I was running the undisclosed parts of my marriage would burble up, twin spikes of betrayal would leave me shouting during these runs although the music was so loud, I could not hear myself. I would come back exhausted. Spent but always. Always. Always feeling better. Changed. There are times now when I look for a change in how I feel, there is never a longing for alcohol but there is a wanting to change the way I feel, to connect the feeling of disconnect to something the feels better, and the simple curiosity I felt on finding something new—besides alcohol, in those searing Florida days in those days that now stretch behind me like bridal train forgotten in the chapel,  and I forget what that period was like. It is simple to view the past as something that was something it wasn’t, remember the good times is a phrase that is uttered but my bones and cartilage only seem to recall the mutterings of anxiety, of the stark fear of aloneness.

                My father would pack us into his scarlet-colored Malibu, and we would drive into the hills of Southeastern, Ohio. The state route and back roads, zigzagging over the lumpy miniature mountains and fledgling woods that yearned to be forests but fell short because, well, this is Ohio where even the woods aren’t forests and the cities are still small towns. In the trunk were paints, watercolors, thick paper, jugs of water, empty jars, and if we were lucky a few bottles of warm pop. The two-lane roads would blister in the summer heat, newly laid asphalt would cover the potholes and short stretches of the road, at times it looked like chunks of black rocky caramel corn and would stick to the bottom of my father’s $500 car. “Shit” he would whisper to himself as he drove through a patch, the asphalt clicking under the tires only to get stuck on the bottom of the car like industrial freckles made by God. It was an escape for him, and for my brother and I. Although the twisty roads always made me car sick as my stomach dropped and jumped until he found a place to park and we would park at the side of the road on into a small dirt road so we could paint a barn, or field. He would turn the car off and pull everything out along with a few folding chairs. In my mind, this memory that has been boxing out so many other experiences that crowd the sky of my brain this experience happened a lot. The drives that we made to go painting but when I do the memory math, it didn’t happen very often. I only lived with my father from the 4th grade to 6th grade, two years and while I visited him every summer before fourth grade, I seldom spent time with him after moving out. And certainly, never painted with him after the 6th grade. But although these excursions only happened 5 or 10 times, they were joyous for me—the made a mark, an impression just like my comic books and my favorite records. Remember the good times. But the other side of this lies the violence of my father, not just the physical violence but his words—which could be hateful and cruel towards my siblings, my mother, myself and to so many others whom he felt threatened by. It was there, in those words he spit and yelled that I began to construct the rooms made for my secrets, that I had no idea that they even existed. There were trapdoors being created that I didn’t even know would be there until I fell through them nearly thirty years later. “I’m not falling” I would tell myself and the chill of ancient scars tugged at my ankles, trying to yank me to the bottom of the river. Kicking up, I leave the mottled green and brown slimy bottom, upwards towards the sunlight—bursting through the thin line of water into the air. Open.

                There are usually three parts to my secrets, me, the other and then the secret formed between us—an invisible wall that now pushes out in its flexible partitions in my brain—it breaths as if it had just run a race, hands on hips, cheeks blowing in and out—this secret reminds me that there were times when, I felt not only frightened but excited. When there were two of us birthing this yet unknown experience, we may have laughed into each other mouths. I climbed on top of you and you climbed onto me, leaving us gasping. A giggling, furtive act and as we laid staring at the ceiling afterwards you held my hand, finalizing the walls of that concealed room we had just created. “I feel evil.” I did not know if that was spoken in giddiness or remorse. Probably both.

My marriage had fallen apart, a slow sinking that took years, the foundation built upon quicksand, so much of my life felt like quicksand but at the beginning we were sure we were different. She was different, European, two parents still married, finishing her Masters degrees, more beautiful than any person I had ever seen—in real life or a movie, she spoke gently to me her voice a soft touch on my busy mind. A quieting gesture every time she spoke to me. And although the years before our marriage were filled with hidden lies I got sober within a year of our civil agreement—a commitment to transparency. But over time, after the children, after my own graduate degree, our voices turned sharp towards one another, we grew wary, I slept on the far side of the bed. I looked for other connections to feel alive—no longer the bottle but searching again—I was suffocating under a soft pillow of searching that had begun from the moment I fell into the world. Anyway, afterwards, both time and distance uncovered much of the rooms in my head, in my tiny two-bedroom apartment that I stuff with cut flowers whenever they are on sale (because I can), with stacks of records next to the blue turntable that spins from love, a gift, I unpack the rooms I created. Opening the light.

                Last night I walked with my partner, her small hands folded into mine, her blue eyes stealing small peeks at me as the April wind blew into us –we talked about our children. My daughter is fifteen, straight A’s, funny, creative—she loves to bake for her friends, she has good friends who also get straight A’s, they walk together and talk politics—feminist theory, a good kid. “Dad, if you want to sleep at Maggie’s this week when Bruno is at grandma’s you can” she volunteered the other day. I bring this up to Maggie who smiles, “well I know what I did when I was fifteen when my parents went out of town.” Me too, in fact my daughter is aware of it through my writing, “do you think she would do the things we would.” Concerned that my fifteen-year-old might be constructing her own scrumptious secrets while her father is across town, “you think she would do what we did?” Am I this naïve? “I’ll talk to her mother about being careful” I say, satisfied with my own answer. We cross the busy street and I pull her hand close to me, keeping out the worry of things I will not longer be able to control as if I could at all. Saskia asks me often about my friends, many who are no longer of this world, and mostly what I remember is the laughter, how funny they were, and sweet—everyone I remember was sweet. A hearty chuckle as Jerry Wick once sang. His was more of a hearty cackle that made the rest of the room feel both welcome and small. An incredible talent in and of itself. Jenny left a void but in that empty space she is still there, a ghost of broken dreams and shattered laughter. Edo with his warm smile, his soft eyes searching outwards. My grandmother, her eccentric beliefs and mischievous laughter. They all felt the world more than anybody should, they were the small hairs on the roots of trees searching for nutrients. “We laughed a lot” I tell Saskia, this is my explanation. I tell her that she needs to laugh a lot during life. It breaks down the things we unknowingly create. As we turn the corner into the neighborhood, my partner leans close to me—whispers a joke that only we will get as we riff on something absurd down the sidewalk for several blocks these secrets are ours and they are filled with our truth.

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Jerry Wick-20 years later

January 10, 2021

Twenty years ago today I walked into Used Kids Records and Ron House told me that Jerry Wick had been killed by a hit and run driver earlier that morning while riding his bicycle home after a night hanging around the places that felt like family to him: Used Kids, Larry’s Bar, Bernie’s and even BW-3 where the confines of warmth, music, alcohol and friendly faces made the world outside a bit safer, softer and easier—it’s ironic that the world outside, literally killed him as he rode home with a pizza on his bike handles.  Jerry was, for a period in the nineties my best friend and was family to me and for many of those whom I regarded family during that period of my life, the other staff members at Used Kids, the members of the New Bomb Turks and a few others from our insular scene—we were family and Jerry was the prodigal son who would at one moment make a comment to have us all erupt with laughter and the next somehow insult all of us with a single utterance.

                When I think of Jerry I think of his toothy grin and his laughter that would cause his shoulders to chug up and down as if they were the wheels on a locomotive, and his energy was like a train, even down to spitting black smoke into the air. We were drawn to each other by our love of music, by the one thing that never turned on us as we staggered out of broken and at times abusive childhoods into our early twenties, knees wobbly from our adolescence years but fortified by vinyl records, alcohol, and a charm we didn’t even realize we had. We were broken but confident that no matter what, we knew what we didn’t want and that was enough. We also had a built in soundtrack which was the music we created and took part in, our lives were a mix-tape to ourselves with our evenings filled with bands we would tape and plaster ourselves to in the form of the flyers we hung around High Street to have people join in our party, our lives: Guided by Voices, Sub-Pop bands, K records, Ass Ponys, Karl Hendricks, Superchunk, the bands were endless. Anyway, this was our life and it was safe, it felt safe even though we walked on the invisible line of life precariously, we had friends die of overdoses, car accidents and by suicide which haunted us both.

                Jerry pulled me from the rubble of a failed suicide attempt, something that was an exercise in both courage and fear—mostly fear but that has been something that I have had to accept in my life, like buying an old house with a cracked foundation. That’s me, I have learned to tend to it. Jerry nursed me back to health, mostly with laughter some music and even ambition, it was his idea to make Anyway records a viable thing and although it was something that drove a wedge between us after a few years it provided hope and even the simple thing of having a plan for anything even if it is as minor of putting out a seven inch record by a punk rock band that played the smelly cramped stages of Stache’s and Bernie’s. It was something. And something we clutched onto. My partner is a poet, she is nine years younger than me and we have realized that we had been at Larry’s at the same time, her stepping into her twenties, and me stumbling into my thirties. Jerry and I would dread going to Larry’s on Monday nights-poetry nights and we would grumble to each other as we headed over to BW-3 or Bernie’s until 10 when the poetry would end. We were too scared of the honesty I suppose while Jerry was comfortable hiding his words behind his guitar the bravery of reading in front of people was something we could not do. In the early 90’s Gilmore Tamney asked me to read some of my writing at Monkey’s Retreat, my hands shook so violently, and I clutched the beer I brought to the reading—I can still remember it. I did not read again for years and the last time I did, with my children in the crowd of an audience of poets and writers, I wept as I read with only a glass of water for assistance. Braver now than I was then.

                Jerry and I soon exhausted each other after a few years, he grew annoyed (and perhaps jealous) of my wanting to have a more traditional relationship—I was involved with my (now ex) wife and was trying to grow up—to limit my drinking which I was failing at. When he died in 2001, we were hanging out more, his band-Gaunt, had mostly broken up but he was working on his solo music and as a chef. He had newer dreams he was starting to form, he had bought a house, and although the dreams we had bought into in our twenties did not come out the other end of the decade as we had hoped, there was some semblance that something else could be possible. I would not call it hope at this point, perhaps it was more a rickety awareness that things could be ok even if they were different. We were now in our thirties, old in our punk rock world view but quite young from my vantage point of a fifty-two-year-old.

His final day was spent doing what he loved, he hung out at Used Kids most of the afternoon, drinking and listening to records with me and Mike Rep, we had a beer at Larry’s and I walked home to my more domesticated life and he was later seen at Bernie’s and Larry’s before picking up a pizza and taking the last ride home.

                His death was a turning point for me, it shook me deeply then as it does now—Jerry dying made me look more honestly at my own life, my own struggles and what I needed to do. In 2001 and more importantly 2002, I did not know what I wanted but I was certain what I didn’t want and that was to continue drinking and hurting not only those whom I loved the most but also myself. I was tired of hurting. Jerry was a critical man, one who had opinions about things he did know anything about but of things that hurt him—love, women, family, institutions—of course most of us have these same opinions about the very things Jerry did, things we know extraordinarily little about at that young age. Although pain and love seemed to brighter than, sharper and stinging, I realize now—twenty years later that they arrive in different packages and colors, some slide in softly, a hand clutching mine, the roll of my lover’s feet against my toes on the couch, a nuzzle, my son’s soft curly hair bobbing up and down as he laughs and my daughter asking me if she can make me food. I used to think of beginnings and endings which I no longer believe in, things just change, morphing into something else—shape shifting over time like shadows across the floorboards, almost unnoticed-I do not judge the shadows and I am trying not to judge anything anymore—things just move into something else. Jerry died and his life ended, I do not know about what came next for him, and there isn’t a day that doesn’t go by where he does not cross my mind—my own big life changes started with Jerry dying. Although Jerry has not been physically with me as I have gone through my life since that day, a long marriage and divorce, two children, falling in love again, three college degrees, writing, music, lots of pizza…sobriety, his memory has been with me every step of the way. A constant encouragement.

December 2020

December 24, 2020

“Dad, c’mere…. hurry.” My son, Bruno, was pointing at a tree hanging from a thin rope, surrounded by hundreds of other cut trees all dangling from the same type of cheap rope, like we had walked into a butcher shop just for trees. Their green carcasses swaying in the breeze. “Look at this one” he was all smiles, pointing at a thin sparse tree, one side devoid of branches, the top slightly dented and the base of the trunk crooked.

“Dude, I don’t know…it’s kinda um, special needs.”

“Exactly, we need a Charlie Brown tree and this one is the Charlie Browniest” he walked around the tree pointing out all its broken charms.

 “Bruno, can we get on that will hold at least a few ornaments?” his fifteen-year-old, sister Saskia sighed, clearly annoyed.

 “Sas, look—it’s perfect. Dad needs this tree in his house.”

 Laughing she concurred, “Yeah dad, Bruno’s right you need this tree—it’s a must for your apartment.”

 I fetched one of the Mexican workers at Oakland Nursery who walked over smiling, wearing a floppy Santa hat whose fluffy white top fell over his brown and cracked forehead, “Merry Christmas sir, let me help you.” I showed him the tree and his smile froze, “ah, hah.” he paused, “so you want this tree? This little guy?” His smile tilted towards nervousness, ‘this one?” he repeated himself.

“Yeah, this one.” I looked at Bruno, who looked at the man, who looked at me and I nodded.

Reaching up to cut the rope, he asked again, “you sure, we have a lot of other ones” scanning a hand towards the legion of trees swaying around us,

 “Yeah, they want this one” I answered, with eyebrows raised.

 Whistling he took out a small pocketknife and cut it down, pulled a small yellow tag from the tree’s hindquarters and directed us to pull our car around to pick it up. “Sir I will have it ready for you, Merry Christmas” he spoke with a Mexican accent,

 “Merry Christmas to you as well.”

                With the small tree strapped to the top of my Volkswagen sedan, one of my first steps into adulthood that I bought last year at the age of fifty-one we headed for home with a pit-stop at the grocery store for eggnog.

“Dad, it’s gross” Bruno offered.

“Get the good stuff” Saskia chimed in, meaning buy the $6 kind and not the store-brand that sells for $3 and is, indeed gross.

“O.K.,” I slipped on my mask and headed in, buying a cheap bouquet of starting-to-wilt flowers as I headed for the dairy department. This was our second Christmas in my small two-bedroom apartment since I moved out, the divorce sandwiched in-between then and now. At home, we carried the tree in, Bruno secured it in the hard green-plastic stand while Saskia searched for the two small boxes of Christmas ornaments, I kept while I poured us the eggnog and made made homemade whip-cream for the hot chocolate. We settled into decorating the tree, which because of its courageously pathetic stature took all of ten minutes. “Well, what do you guys think” I asked as I stared as it leaned towards the bookcase, a decoration broke free from one of the limp branches and crashed to the floor. “I love it” Saskia said triumphantly, Bruno added, “it’s cool, it’s for sure a Charlie Brown tree.” He grabbed his skateboard and headed outside. I sat on one of the small couches I have, looked at the twinkling lights, Christmas music playing around us and asked Saskia if she would sit with me, “yeah dad, but then I have homework to do.”

                That night they were both upstairs, I lite candles, put on some choral Christmas music and read while the lights winked at me with its colorful lights. They are older now, long past the days of believing in Santa or Sinterklaas which has peeled some of the magic of Christmas away but not all of it. Their mother is Dutch, hence the many years of believing in Sinterklass and we would try to incorporate both the traditions into our lives but their mother, a very practical woman did not really go all in for the Santa aspect, so Christmas turned into something we travelled to my mother’s for and to make a nice dinner. Divorce does not ruin Christmas it just morphs into something else.

                I was in graduate school, attending Case Western Reserve in Cleveland one weekend a month for two years. Every year we had driven out to rural Licking County, Ohio to cut down our Christmas tree and it seemed to snow every weekend we chose to do it. Afterwards we would retreat to the small barn the on the farm and have hot cocoa while they prepared our tree for the hour ride home. Scanning the walls, we would see our pictures from years past hung up as the owners took snapshots of various families when they engaged in their yearly ritual. We could trace five years of tree cutting and measure the growth of the children, even though Bruno was still quite young while I was going to graduate school. The weekend before I had to go, two weeks prior to Christmas we had travelled to the far end of the farm, sitting on hay bales on the back of a flat bed tractor as the wind whipped into our faces as we rocked back and forth over the muddy fields. We walked to the top of a hill and the kids chased each other around the trees, until finally after some insistence we picked one out and I grabbed one of the small bowsaws we were given and cut the tree down, yanking it up over my shoulder we marched to the wooden hut where a barrel fire burned to keep us warm while we waited for the tractor to take us back to the barn. That night we decorated the tree and tucked the kids in, and the week went forward. The following Thursday evening we had a row, she resented me having to go to Cleveland and leaving her with the children for the weekend— “I only have two semesters left and I’m done.” I had guilt when I left, the children were young—Bruno just three that year and Saskia was six and this began the seeds of a divorce that would happen by the end of the decade.

                Sitting in class on Friday morning I felt my neck itch, and by midafternoon it became unbearable, so I went into the rest room and examined my neck in the bathroom mirror. It was red and I had a red rash the ran up over my ear and stretched over my neck. I had poison ivy. In December. I wondered how I could have gotten it and I realized that I must have gotten it from the Christmas tree. I called home that night to check in and told my family, who laughed at my Holiday misfortune. Saskia remarked it was a Charlie Brown thing that would happen. Of course.  

“Dad, remember that time you got poison ivy from the Christmas tree” Bruno remarks as he glides by me on his skateboard, “try not to skate in the house, yes I remember—I can be pretty dumb sometimes.” Bruno skates by me the opposite way, just missing my toes, “I’ll say” as he rolls to a stop against a shelf of records and books. “Dude, please don’t skate in the house.” He walks by me this time, “I’m not, see I stopped” as he enters the kitchen and pours himself a bowl of cereal. “

“Saskia, can you do me a favor and wrap the Christmas presents I bought yesterday?” I stare at my email.

She unplugs her headphones, “you want me to wrap the presents?”

“Yes, please…”

 She then finishes my sentence, “because you suck at it?”

 “Exactly.”

She adds, “you mean the ones you bought us yesterday that you don’t want us to know what they are?”

“Yes, exactly. Just don’t show Bruno his and act surprised when you open yours.”

“O.K., will you buy me dinner?” she starts looking for masking tape.

“ummm, yeah.” I am easily defeated.

                I grew up poor, splitting time between my mother’s and father’s house made summers and holidays busy. At certain period in my childhood, my father lived in Athens, Ohio while we lived on Long Island and Virginia, and much later in rural Ohio. We would travel to Ohio for Christmas, hitting both sets off grandparents as well as my father, an awkward man who was even more of an awkward father. He was prone to laughing to himself and did not seem extremely interested in getting to know his children, it was as if he had been given a book about children but declined to even open it. He tried though, one year he gave my almost teenager brother and myself gifts that were more appropriate for seven and eight years old. ‘Jesus Dad, you could have at least asked what we wanted” my brother scolded him, in that moment I felt for my father who had done some last-minute shopping so we would have something under our tree. In hindsight, that was giving him too much credit, he could have easily asked us what we wanted weeks before. My own parenting skills are, at times bereft of discipline—although the children know their mother and I love them very much, and they are sweet, caring, and funny. But I try hard to provide for them that I did not receive from my own father, that is a childhood filled with sweetness and laughter, and if they want a new pair of shoes, a new skateboard, a book or to eat out, I usually do this for them. I do not wait for Christmas or birthdays, which may decrease the magic of Christmas but in the end, I would rather have Bruno be able to skate for hours on a board he can practice on then wait three months for a new board after he was whittled down his last board. I am learning this thing as I go along. A tree grows crooked because that is what it knows. I get up off the couch, go to the other room and flip the record over, on the table are two glasses with the remnants of eggnog and Bruno’s half-finished hot chocolate. Saskia brings down a handful of presents, “here dad, when my big present comes in can I have it?” Smiling I look at her, “you don’t know what it is, do you?” “I think I do, you told me to pick two things and you would buy me one. Can I have it?” “No honey, you can on Christmas. It’s a tradition.” I am making up traditions as I go along.

                Saskia is swinging towards adulthood, soon her Christmases will be filled with trying to duck out and be with her friends, and perhaps, if COVID did strike us to our knees this year she would now be looking at the clock waiting for her getaway, but I think she has not inherited some of my escapism.

                Christmas of 1986 was magical, I stumbled into my first love who came a-caroling to my front door as fat snowflakes floated around Jenny Mae and our classmates. A few days later we went on our first date which consisted of drinking a six pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon in my bedroom and listening to the Car first record on repeat. That Christmas break my brother was home on leave from the Army, he had spent the past few months in Germany and had stepped into adulthood wearing a Kangol hat, pleated stone-washed blue jeans and carrying cassettes of classic country music he discovered in the mountains of Bavaria. I was a senior and biding my time until the end of the school year so I could make my escape into the world outside of Clark County, Ohio—fueled by records, books and an imagination that was larger than the cornfields that surrounded our house. The parsonage where we lived in had turned into a launching pad for a two-week party over the holidays, our stepfather, a Methodist minister was not there much as we drank case after case of beer upstairs while listening to Z’s tapes, Christmas music and my R.E.M. and Lou Reed records. My first grimy Christmas.

                This was a year where Christmas had turned into a long holiday party, where we straddle adulthood, adolescence and firmly at an age where we had little to any responsibilities. I would carry on this philosophy for as long as could, well into my early thirties. During the break we got a room at the Holiday Inn in Springfield, Ohio and crammed as many 17- and 18-year old’s into the small room. There was a pool that we invaded as well as the bar, where a lounge singer, with full-on Magnum PI mustache and combover grew frustrated with the constant interruptions we flung his way. “C’mon guys, please be quiet” he begged as he launched into another tired Holiday favorite, “I’ll have a blooooo-Christmas, without youuuuuuuu” he bellowed as if he were Elvis, but he was not, and we let him have it until we were kicked out of the bar. Retreating to the hotel room, we bribed the two security guards to try arrest one of our old classmates, pinning the abhorrent behavior we were engaged in on him. As they had him against the wall, checking for weapons we all broke and howled with laughter. Promptly thrown out of the hotel, the security guards somehow ended up back at the parsonage, having quit their jobs that night to follow us home. As four a.m. rolled around, we sang Christmas carols as one of the lay passed out on the stairs wearing a red Santa hat. The mystery of childhood Christmas melted away that year in a pool of Natural Light and marijuana smoke.

                I hold my children close, as we navigate lives that have left them with two different homes and parents who still are parenting partners but no longer are lovers. They tend to help me more than I think I help them, lifting my spirits and with quit wits our house is closer to comedy than any sort of traditional household. My goal it to bring them into adulthood with fearlessness and courage, to be able to roll with setbacks with humor, cleverness, and compassion. So far, so good. Nearly a year ago, I fell in-love again—she is lovely, funnier than me and as tender as the inside of love, vulnerable and soft. Her youngest still believes in Santa, and he has Bruno on one of our walks if Bruno still believed in Santa, I held my breath as the street-smart Bruno told me this. “And what did you answer, buddy?” I asked, tensing up. “I told Rhett of course I did, and he said, ‘thank God’”, Saskia asks Rhett if he is excited for Christmas and he grins, “Of course! Who isn’t!?” I hope that Saskia’s forays into late adolescent Christmas can wait until she is farther along into her twenties.

Hands.

November 26, 2020

I have spent a great deal of my life being angry, an unsettled anger and perhaps, “angry” is too strong of a word—perhaps a feeling of displacement is more appropriate. Which means I have never really felt settled, which is in fact, a truth about me. When I was younger, during my teenage years and twenties my brother would remark to me “why are you such an angry young man” (he was prone to cliches at that point of his life) and Jenny Mae would accuse me of being an angry young man as well but this usually was spoken when she was disappointed in me—which was often. My response was usually defensive or incredulous, as the horror of the world was felt distinctly in my very being—the selfishness of Reagan, Bush(es) and capitalism. At times, these feelings would be dismissed as me being sensitive but there was another dimension to my anger and this was one of a propensity to violence which was just a half beer away in some situations. My trigger was always clicking although I kept it in check most of the times, but my past is filled with balls of fists that have struck my face, the back of my head as well as being stomped on a few times, and it is also pocketed with my own fists connecting with other people’s faces, heads, walls, dashboards, tree trunks, floors….the list of things my hands have been bruised on is almost as long as my life. When my ex-wife told me she was pregnant we cried together, it was something she was hopeful for and for myself it was something that petrified me—we were both crying for different reasons—hers was for love and mine was for fear, that the violence of my childhood would be doomed to this soon to be child and although I had become a practicing Buddhist and had been sober for nearly four years, I did not know if I had rid myself of anger.

                I drank for a feeling of intimacy, I am convinced that this was the main reason, alcohol helped with my feelings of unease of the “displacement” I felt, it centered me and in it’s charms I found love and intimacy. Or so I thought, I found smiles, acceptance, laughter and sex and what was so very important to me, that I found women who said they loved me as we laughed and fucked across bedrooms and bars, in the end I felt doubtful, unsettled by any words of affection. I would retreat to music, to the bottle and eventually towards other women and finally into total isolation.  A quest for intimate rejection.

                Jenny was loud, she crowded out the rest of the room with her manic energy, transforming calm into combustion until she would fold into herself and grow quiet. She would call these moments, “The Stare” when her face would grow blank, her eyes looking forward but vacant—she would be lost in something that she could not describe. Mostly, these were brief, maybe only seconds long but at other times they would last for up to half an hour, years later as she lay in a hospital bed experiencing visual hallucinations she turned her head and confessed she had been experiencing them for years, “since I went off to college, I believed there were men in the walls out to get me. I would joke about it but I was scared to death.” The nurses and doctors felt that her hallucinations had to do with her alcohol and drug use but it wasn’t until she prescribed a psychotropic medication did she experience a decrease in the hallucinations, by this time she had been slowly choked out by her alcoholism, her last breath just a few years away. I felt safe in her instability, she would prop me up (“you are the smartest person I know”) and then tear me down, (“you have no friends, only me and I hate you.”) This was the relationship we had, up until her death but I had quit believing her insults and judgements years before, like a tree letting go of its leaves I had moved on into another season.

                Biologically women tend to have more sensitive hands and wrists, there are several reasons for this, they tend to have a type of cell (Merkel) that are more packed closely together that creates a more nuanced sense of touch, there are also biological reasons dating back to when we were hunter-gatherers and even earlier when we were primates, when females held onto the young so they wouldn’t get eaten, drown, fall off a cliff or some other wilderness mishap. This is a key component of intimacy, one that I did not learn until many years later where emotional touch was difficult, as if I were built from magnets and when I was drawn to somebody I would suddenly turn away as I got closer—instead of clamping on I kept a hovering distance, an invisible field. Darting through my twenties and for much of my adult life I fell into patterns of escape: drinking, music, sex, internet, art—all taken too far and  making me feel bereft, and here it comes again: displaced. If someone grows up not feeling settled it is only normal that when it happens it may not be recognized for what it is or it is treated with skepticism. For myself, intimacy was equitable to sex and to getting approval. There was nothing deeper, because deeper can drown a person, annihilation.

                On my daily walk, through the small thatch of woods at the end of my street, just off a bike path, I enter through a small doorway made of leaves and small branches that have learned to grow sideways to let in those who need to step out of one world into another. The dog is let off her leash, and she bounds over small branches, darts into one side of a bush only to appear forty feet later out of another bush, like some kinds of natural subway system—she is covered in joy and everything in her wake is filled a hint of freedom, that is, until she is put back on her leash. At this point she gets frustrated with the red rope that has “End Puppy Mills” written up its spine, grasps it in her jaws and shakes it in anger until she gives up and starts the walk of sniffs and ghost pees towards home. The leash provides both the key to and from freedom. On these walks, that are as familiar as the smell of my morning coffee, the steps I take are the same as the day before, the same leaves crunching under my feet. The wood is large enough for me to lose my thoughts in but small enough for me to exit in a matter of minutes, and I suppose a real naturalist would scoff at my referring to this clump of trees and bushes as woods but I would say anything larger than ten trees and needs a path are woods in my book. Under the canopy of the arching branches that fold up around me, like spider web hands made of wood they cover the sky in the spring and summer, and in the fall they hover like swaying dark shadows until they shed themselves naked for winter, as barren as I tend to feel during that season. We have an understanding those trees and I. When I was a child my father would take us for hikes in the Hocking Hills, an area in Southeastern Ohio that is filled with caves and trails nestled in the foothills of Appalachia. It is all we have in Ohio; our version of mountains is but the beginning steps to the mountains of West Virginia that lay just fifty miles away on the other side of the Ohio River. But these are our hills, our over-reaching foothills, they dreamed of being giants but instead are like us, average but also remarkable in our ordinary essence. We would walk the trails of Old Man’s Cave, Cedar Falls and Conkle’s Hollow whose very name inspires the imagination. I would, and still do feel somewhat awkward on these walks, in the same manner that I would when I was trying, so hard at times, to be a Catholic.  A part that was searching in what I thought was all the right places, in the words of Christ, in the smelling of the incense and the rituals that still harken me back to some semblance of peace but mostly I was just a waiting for an epiphany that, alas, never arrived. I was left wondering why I didn’t “get it.” I still feel this way about much of my interaction with nature, there is satisfaction, but I enjoy my walks more when I have my headphones on and I’m listening to music. Every evening I fasten the leash to Pearl, my small Jack Russell mix whose energy is astounding and tiresome to watch, she is untethered to her passion for running which causes eruptions of joy as she literally bounces and hops through the woods and the surrounding field, every walk for her is a new adventure. I can only wish I had this simplicity. We walk with only the sky, the wind, and the stars around us. For the most part, the park is empty save for some of the homeless that may find some suitable places to camp under the hutches constructed by the close growing trees. It is during this time, alone with the dog, feeling the wind swift in my face and needling my mostly naked legs (I usually wear shorts at all times, even in the winter), that I feel something akin to feeling aligned with the unknown. There are several ways of feeling small, when dwarfed by depression sometimes it is a relief to have the outside, the sky and the silent existence of the trees to transform that smallness into something greater, larger—to dream and contemplate.

                On the other side of the river where the woods and bike path have grown side by side, there is a small graveyard that appears almost as old as Columbus. Sometimes we walk among this field of headstones, where somebody dug deep into the granite of these markers, carving in the names of people who someone loved enough to tie their memories to rock. Many have been washed away by the seasons the memories of their loved ones have long been extinguished but we look at the names, the dates of birth and death. Bruno will skate through the winding little asphalt roads that resemble driveways more than the streets of graves. I only walk here with others.

                Saskia was around two when my grandmother died, and I would sometimes take her with me when I would visit the old woman in the nursing home where she spent the last few years of her life. The room was sterile, but she tried to add as much of her overstuffed house as she could without replicating the hoarding clutter, she lived in. Against the large flat-screen television that sat on the small dresser in her room that resembled more of an affordable hotel room, sat a row of stuffed animals, above them on the wall paintings of flowers my grandfather had painted for her over the years and black and white photos of her parents, frozen in place from a world that will always be colorless and proper. Where men wore fedoras, walker, and derby hats. Women wore dresses with belted waists, wide pants and the day dresses my grandmother would wear for the rest of her life. Saskia would hold me tight, apprehensive about my heavyset grandmother whose deep Hungarian accent no-doubt frightened her and stare at her shriveling body in the bed. She was a large woman but the longer she was confined to her bed the more it gnawed at her, made she small—not only did it eat away at her life but it also shrunk her entire being. She would reach out to Saskia, whom she thought was a boy and coo, “He is so beautiful, let me touch his hands.” Her skin had turned to parchment and at times it would tear just as easily, the back of her hands were dotted with bruises and small band-aids where age would give in to the normal use of her limbs. When she reached for a fork, the skin would gently tug apart, and she would softly bleed. Saskia’s hands were new, fresh and full of the pinkish peach color that toddlers have, round and fat like dough she would allow my grandmother to hold her tiny balls of fingers until she grew to frightened and fold herself back into my arms. The touch was the gift. And when my grandmother died, I held those paper-thin hands, as she left her body. They grew cold quickly, within a matter of minutes, my Uncle Pablo held her and wept until her hands grew cold and left in a rush while I waited for the paramedics to haul her body away.

                I bought almost all of my clothes from thrift stores in during my twenties, except for the ones the were gifted to me by visiting bands and the shoes I grabbed from my dead grandfather’s closet everything else was from second hand stores. Everything was cheap, most shirts were a dollar or two and since the sixties and seventies were not that far away and a great many of my grandmother’s generation were starting to die off the clothes were a mirror into those decades. Stripped shirts, shiny button ups, evening gowns, dress pants and button-up sweaters. In the fall and winter, I would wear sweaters, never a fan of coats or even pants, I was poor and learned to wear sweaters in the house. I would visit my grandmother who would remark about the holes in my clothing, “Bela, your sweater is broken” pointing to a small hole in around the collar or on the shoulder, “get a new one please next time you come over.” She felt personally hurt that I would wear something in such disrepair to her house, “Grandma, I usually wait until they have five holes in them before I get a new one.” A philosophy I pretty much had and still do, I will wear anything until it is literally falling off of my body, half my wardrobe is in tatters and when I wear something for work people are genuinely surprised, “Wow, you are wearing pants and a shirt with buttons” my girlfriend has remarked to me. Buying clothes is a step into intimacy, an unspoken gesture of love and care, “I want your body to be comfortable, I want you to be warm, to look nice. I care about you.” A favorite scarf, robe or shirt are usually given from another-a reminder of love and goodwill. I care about you.

                I reach for my lover’s hand when I am driving, she sits next to me in the car-telling me about her day, her hopes, or singing along to the music that is always playing around us, it is unconscious but provides reassurance. I care about you. You make me feel good, safe. Hers are tiny hands and my hands swallows them, she squeezes my fingers while I stare ahead, another reassurance. There are other moments where I feel compelled to hold her close, bury my head into her neck, whispering until we giggle and again hold hands. My apartment always has flowers in them, I realized that while I have no interest in knowing the names of the flowers that brighten my mood—I like them, and it is ok not to know their names. I buy what I like, what looks comforting to me. It’s that simple. One day she sat on my couch and remarked that she liked that I bought flowers for myself, it was beautiful that it wasn’t just the flowers that she noticed it was my pleasure in having them, I laughed and explained that I don’t even know what I am buying, other than lilies which I do know and love but that I like to have them in my house. They are a comfort. They offer closeness by just being.

May 2021.

May 11, 2021

“My father was a sonofabitch, I would dream that he would die.” Nick told me this while he held a cup of coffee in his hands, the smoke rising from it into his face, he blew the smoke away, look up and smiled. He had the beard of a homeless man, unkempt, looking like brambles or an evergreen shrub whose owner had quit venturing outside for years. Except with Nick he had done the opposite living on the streets and in a tent for the past fifteen years. “This is good coffee; how much was it?” I bought him the same coffee I drank, somewhat of a coffee snob I wanted Nick to experience something that offered a little bit more dignity that the instant coffee he was used to. “Three dollars but don’t worry about it.” Eyebrows raised, “Three dollars? Wow, I can buy an entire jar of Nescafe for that.” He blew on the coffee again and took a sip. “Yeah, my dad was a mean one…he’d take his frustration out on my mom and if she wasn’t around, he’d go after me—never my sisters. One time he broke my arm and I couldn’t go to school for a month. My aunt finally took me from him one day, this was the sixties—they didn’t do anything to help kids back then. It turns out my uncle was worse than my dad—at least my dad only hit me.” He lets the words hang in the air. He has deep blue eyes, that sparkle under his wiry eyebrows that look almost maniacal, sticking out in every direction. I suddenly feel the urge to trim them. Those eyes though, so sensitive and deep, the light glints off them and in flashes they are almost golden. He feels deeply. Nick talks freely with me, pausing at times to let me know he hasn’t told anybody about what happened—only his mother once when he was visiting her when he was in his late teens, “I pissed the bed until I was twelve and wouldn’t talk to my teachers, they thought I was retarded and put me in those small classes, but I read every day. Comics and then I discovered the Tarzan books—Edger Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, Victor Hugo…I wasn’t dumb—I was just scared.”

                For many years I worked with the homeless, mentally ill and tortured substance abusers—people whose childhood were filled with abuse more frightening than most movies, because the abuse came from not unknown monsters but the monsters of their families, the ones who were supposed to care for them, press their tears against the chest and drive the fright from their heads with kind words, a glass of milk and gentle kisses on the crown of their head. Instead, they planted the seeds of despair and fear in those young gentle minds, made of innocence and clarity—forever to be muddied and fearful—they grew up almost destined to a life of pain and confusion. “I didn’t have a girlfriend until I was twenty-eight and she went away, eventually she told me to choose between her and my drinking—you can see how that turned out.” His smile curves under the mass of hair the shrouds his face. He takes another sip of coffee.

                Most evenings I walk my dog, she is a Jack Russell mix, over five years old but lives every moment as if she were just hatched; let out of a shell. She pulls so hard on the leash her body twists sideways, my girlfriend calls it the comma walk, I find her energy exhausting. Some nights I walk for almost two hours, leaving around 10 pm and sometimes not getting home until after midnight—I sleep better after the walks. Never a person of nature, I don’t hike I’d much rather be ten or fifteen minutes from home just in case I have the urge listen to a favorite record or crawl in the bathtub, and I am fearful of bugs and poison ivy, so I prefer the streets over dirt paths covered in tamped down growth. At one end of my street there is a small thatch of woods that border one of the two rivers that run through Columbus, and at the other end, the north of my street there is a long ravine that stretches for nearly a mile. A hidden gem in the heart of Columbus, sort of my own Central Park without the whole New York City part. And the hot dog stands. About halfway through the ravine if I plan it right, I encounter three owls, it is almost nightly—they screech and coo at one another sometimes they ride one of the long branches of the thin powerful trees that stretch towards the moon. The trees look like wiry basketball players soaring and stately in their muscly exteriors. The owls do a little line dance together, shuffling along the branch and leaning into one another, at times they look like they are whispering little jokes in their partner’s ears. I screech at them, while trying to keep the dog calm, I like to think they screech back to me but I realize they are talking amongst themselves and most likely mocking me in the unknown manner that animals must do all the time. We have our own thing going on. Other times on the walk I usually run across deer, who stand tight in small packs, nibling on bushes and trees and the front yards of people who make way more money than I ever will. Sometimes they look like yard ornaments they are so frozen, looking side eyed as I try to shush the dog and other times, they dance nimbly away, their massive bodies balancing on narrow hooves, they are the ballet dancers of the trees.

                Never a walker, I found out in my twenties I was a runner both physically and metaphorically although staying in one city for most of my adult life provided me the illusion that there was something in me that stuck things out. Even being in a marriage for 18 years had convinced me I was not a quitter, but I was a runner, although the methods in which I learned to protect myself provided dangerous. The Buddhist Zen Priest Claude AnShin Thomas writes about the violence in all of us in his book, “At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace”, a Vietnam veteran Claude AnShin came home broken, angry and eventually turned to drinking and found himself homeless until he went on a retreat with Tich Nach Hahn, eventually transforming his life—once an living instrument of violence to an instrument of peace. Being the way I am and being true to my DIY aesthetic as I was reading the book, shortly after it was released I got a hold of his publishing company and soon Claude AnShin and his aide were giving a workshop in Columbus and he advised me on not only Zen practice but on working with the own violence I grew up with, part of which was intoxicants I had ingested for years—a search of connectivity that left me barren as I limped and raged into my thirties. “You have to confront that within you” he told me as he ate unsalted popcorn from a large bowl. Sobriety was something still new to me as I look back, but I still had found and believed I had conquered it, I was two years sober—my mind clicking a fresh machine-reborn while I started reading books again, meditating, going back to college. “Oh, it goes much deeper than the alcohol” he chuckled, swirling his sun-burnt hands along the sides of the bowl, scooping up the last vestiges of tattered corn. I wasn’t sure what he meant.

                “Dad you basically give us anything you want because you feel guilty” my daughter remarked to me a few weeks ago, she was setting the table, trying to space the plates out around the small round table so we call all squeeze in around it as we could only use 2/3 of the table. The other third was pushed against the wall, we could see the neighbor’s curtains perfectly, they could see into our dining room easily as I never bothered to hang curtains downstairs. And if they are unlucky they can catch a glimpse of me munching away on Cap’n Crunch naked at 3 am, as I blink and chew away the oblivion I feel in the middle of the night. “Well, maybe” I say, my girlfriend gives me a slight smile and raises her eyebrows, “she’s got a point” her eyebrows are telling me. We are eating carryout tonight, every week when I have my kids, I remind them I don’t have money to eat out and yet, most nights that is what we do—I not only cave to make them happy but I’m usually too tired to cook (which I enjoy).  I try to explain to them, “When I was a kid we were poor, we never ate out and maybe got pizza once a month—if that. When your uncle Z and I lived with my dad we ate fifty cent pot pies, hot dogs or cereal for dinner most nights. My dad wasn’t around and when he was…he, well, wasn’t around. I want to give you guys what  I didn’t have.” Which is true, mostly though I want my children to be supported and loved. Sometimes it is hard to do this.

                Standing on my friend Tom Shannon’s porch in October of 2001 I was swaying a little bit to the music coming from the living room, maybe it was Love or Lee Hazelwood, Tom always preferred something older at home and the day drinking that led to early evening, then late evening allowed me to feel alive. There had been a show at Bernie’s, maybe Tom’s band The Cheater Slicks had played but we were gathered there on his porch and into the living room, and farther back -were people gathered into  his small kitchen, crammed next to each other—moving sideways to get to the refrigerator to pull out a beer or to put a six pack in. The autumn wind felt like a perfect shadow on my drunken self. I had been living with Tom for a few months, my (now ex) wife had moved to Gainesville where she had started teaching fine arts at the University and I had stayed in Columbus feeling my life was glued to working in a record store which was all I had ever known as an adult. I was a thirty-three-year-old college drop-out. Perhaps more scared I’d get found out than wanting to get out of what I was stuck in. There was a woman I was chatting with, humor has always rolled out of me like concrete pouring out of the back of a concrete truck, she was laughing and touched my arm as she said she would be back but needed to fetch a beer. Suddenly from across the street a couple of large fraternity looking fellows were running down the sidewalk, bulldozing their way over the large plastic trash containers that lined the street. They were laughing as each tub of trash fell into the street, beer cans, tin cans and white kitchen garbage bags tumbled into the street and yards. Without thinking I leapt off the porch and scampered across the street when I tackled one of the men from the side, he crumpled to the sidewalk. All those years of wrestling practice usually paid off when I was fighting, some of the other folks from Tom’s house crossed the street and when I bent the lunkhead’s arm back he yowled and after a few minutes he agreed to pick up the trash he had knocked over. I think his friend was long gone. On the porch my friend Gene marveled at my ability to take on the bigger guy but while it may make for a funny-ish story in terms of my own small attempt at environment justice the underbelly of this encounter is that I’ve had a temper that I have not always been able to control but for many years felt justified in flexing it as I felt it was needed.

                Waiting around for love felt like a flower waiting for a bee, knowing I would get stung, but the payoff was always worth it—although like the flower I realized that the bee would fly somewhere else, leaving a scar that, in some instances have remained but always have provided me the opportunity for retrospective. That mini brawl on Summit Street happened years ago, the person who flew across the street in drunken righteous anger metamorphosed into somebody else but inside there are kernels, rivulets of inner disturbance that move within me. Worry and anxiety can flood the rivulets, and like a ship captain that my know the waters around him but can’t control the water only navigate around the rocks, I try—sometimes successfully, other times it feels like I intentionally ramming my vessel into the craggy barnacle encrusted rocks. There are thumbprints inside of me, made from my father’s course words, from the anger that rode in waves inside of him until he would strike me—a hand across the face, his language brutal at times, the speeding of the car, dangerously accelerating through traffic—a whistle through his teeth as he seethed. I was scared of him, petrified but I tried for years to express the gentleness he was capable of showing, The clumsy, and oafish man who took us fishing, the immigrant who loved to sing along with Willie Nelson in his American made car, a father who would chuckle to himself at the buffoonery of Peter Sellers. I strived, in my own way to exercise that kind man out of him but at some point I realized that was like wanting to hold the sun. Eventually there was nothing left except the jingle of memories rattling around in my mind and the scars.

                Last week I lost my temper, which as a parent happens, but there is a difference with  me now from the man who cruised through my life, filled with alcohol and a moral high ground, not a healthy combination and I am a father who at the age 52 who feels deeply when I lash out. When I let my anger consume me. I am frightened and ashamed, although it doesn’t happen often it tend to fall into a deep depression when it happens—sometimes for weeks—the ache of myself cripples me emotionally. While I have grown to be more forgiving of others, it is still difficult to know better and forgive myself. No, better. Recently, my daughter and I, she of only knowing the world for 15 years squared off in the living room. In the end of it we were both in tears, and I was placing a call to the furniture repairman after flipping over my coffee table—and then, every step she took towards her mother’s that morning was more distance she put between her and her father. I last put my hands on someone in anger nearly twenty years ago, on Summit Street when I made that frat kid go pick up the garbage, he spilled all over the street, but I know what words can do to a child.

                My father turned eighty this week and I haven’t seen him in over fourteen years, have only spoken to him once during all that time, but spoken is an understatement as my words to him were curt and to the point—and in the moment I wasn’t the ten year old boy who craved his approval but the protective father who was establishing boundaries and in the time since that brief phone conversation I am both the loving father and a man who had thought he had extinguished most of his inner anger. And even though I felt the power in me when I spoke to him this past year, that I was able to push back on what I had felt for so long—I still feel the hurt of my words—that I was intentionally unkind, even in establishing my boundaries.

                When I was twenty-one years old, in the fallout of a break-up, feeling angry, lost and on fire I tried to take my life a moment of absurdity and failure that ended up with me in the emergency room at times both joking and then bursting into tears with the nurses and the doctor while they saved my life, I drove alone the next morning and waited for time to wash away the agony I felt morph into ache and finally a discomfort that has continuously stuck with me. Some years ago, in my mid-twenties my brother wanted to give me a gun—he had thought it was a needed necessity in Columbus. I declined, knowing the only purpose of having a gun was to count the bullets with my teeth. Sobriety taught me something new, as did the teachers and mentors that followed from the first days of wanting to learn how not to drink—whether it was Claude AnShin, Lama Kathy Wesley or the many books I read by eastern teachers—one of the most important things I can do is to be attentive. To be present, the screen saver on my phone is the simple word “available” that is one of the lessons I learned through my divorce. We were in counseling, trying to save something we carried deeply about but had lost our way and in the room of our therapist in a curtain of tears streaming down her face she bellowed “he is never here, he is always somewhere else.” She was right, and in my desire to protect myself-to defend who I was I stammered, shifting the blame to my ADHD, “it’s impossible for me to always be present.” Which was not true because there was (is) plenty of evidence that I can be focused, to allow myself to be with others. “Do you hear her?” he asked me, “she wants you to be available, not physically but emotionally.” It was then that I changed my screen saver, so when I pick it up I have a cue to remind me that I don’t have to be lost in diversion.

                My anger has left me barren at times, and I realize that isn’t just my father’s anger but also the anger of generations past, of his parents losing the life they had in Hungary—becoming immigrants in not just one land but two during their adult lives, and for my father twice before he turned twenty years old. And it goes past father, frustration handed down from mother to daughter, from father to son. A person can not be aware when filled with anger, with shame and righteousness. In those moments I am a balled-up fist, melting from the inside. What my daughter wants is a parent who listens, and if I am yelling I can’t hear anything—not even myself. And I want her to experience memories later in laugh that are filled with kindness with the attention, like a well-crafted painting or piece of ceramic that touches and moves. When I fell in love last year, I went to my psychologist, wanting to not make the same mistakes that I have so many times in my life and while we talked—mostly me, parsing out memories coupled with fears and hope he pulled me back and gave me a warning, “do not make yourself unlovable, you have done this to yourself forever.” I have done this, in subtle ways—pulling back emotionally, hiding, not being present—not, as he phrases it, leaning into love and being uncomfortable. “It’s ok” the lean tells me, meanwhile something inside of me throws a tantrum.

                When I do my work, my professional work, I try to create the space for men and women to be their authentic selves—to allow them to be angry with their parents and their life but also to listen—to use this space to help them grow—to shed themselves of the scars of their fathers, their mothers and those who were supposed to nurture them. As a father, a partner and as I view myself it is easy for me to concentrate on my failures, that I am the worst parts of me—which is true but this perspective does not allow me to see the other parts—the funny parts, the goofiness I have, and the courage—there is no space to grow when our lives are filled with shame. In a weird way, I don’t bring it to my work but I seem to allow it to flourish, at times in my own life. I am always learning, from my partner who teaches me to look up into the clouds and hold hands again, like I did when I was a child, from the clients I serve and of course, from my children who teach me lessons I should have learned years ago.

                Today my daughter had her end-of-the-year presentation with her mother and I, along with her advisors from school. She is fifteen, compassionate, funny and beautiful—and because of her hard work she will start taking college classes next year. There was never a doubt from her advisors that she could do this and when they asked if we, her parents, had anything to say I started speaking but I could not finish. I choked back tears and could only give a thumbs up because of my blubbering. As I looked at her and her mother through the screen because in COVID the entire world has separated, even from the ones we love the most, I saw two beautiful women who laughed and supported each other. I felt proud of them both, and while her parents are no longer married, I think she knows we love her deeply in spite of those kernels inside of me that sometimes pop like hot popcorn. I am, a proud papa.

                The owls sit swaying high above me as I pull Pearl in close on her leash, It is dark and they look like construction paper shadow figures, like something out of a children’s book and then suddenly one stretches out, wings expanding until the fill the space between the tree branches and the moon and fly above me- I can hear the fluttering of their wings and the creaking of the tree limb as it jumps into space and it is majestic. It brands itself into my mind, I will not forget it, this quiet bird flexing itself into the universe.

there is an owl in this photo

Stories

February 21, 2021

“Dad, tell me a story,” Bruno asks me as we lay next to each other, he is restless, his pointy legs shifting under the blankets, elbows unsettled–he is trying to twist himself into slumber. “I don’t’ have any stories to tell, I’m tired” I breath, hoping his overactive body will quit. “C’mon dad, you always have stories, please” he reaches for the dog that has settled between us, her neck reaching out to his hands that clutch her face; she will take anything that is offered. “Remember when you would tell me about Dr. Wigwam? I thought he was a real person, maybe tell me one of his stories?” I can tell he is starting to drift, “you know the one about the racoon making chicken soup?” His legs curl up under him. Dr. Wigwam was a character I had created to help the kids go to sleep when I would put them to bed, sometimes I would try to read to them, “A Cricket in Times Square”, “Wind in The Willows”, even “Tom Sawyer” but they always wanted me to tell them the stories I would make up on the spot, perhaps because the kids were always in the stories I told, they were the main characters. Some of the stories went on for years, “The Daddy and the Little Boy” which was Bruno and myself on an adventure where he had uncovered, by happenstance some nefarious plan for world domination by the evil Dr. Terminus, “Miss Duffberry” which centered on Saskia and her friend meeting a kindly old cartographer who discovers a plot by the evil oil tycoon, yep-you guessed it, Dr. Terminus. The aforementioned Dr. Wigwam who was a magical man who stood tall (nearly seven feet) and lanky, “he was almost as thin as the whiskers that stretched from his chin to his belly” who could speak to the animals, travelled in a lemon colored hot-air balloon and lived in a house that was a magical as a child’s imagination would allow. There was a story of a mouse who found her courage in a bakery behind her rose-garden apartment. The children would mine the stories out of me, and I would usually drift off to sleep myself as Bruno and his father would hide in the bowels of a lighthouse while sinister men marched on the floorboards above their huddled bodies, every creak of the wooden floors causing them angst. The next night Bruno would tell me where we left off and I would start the story again, never really knowing where it would end up. “Buddy, I don’t even know where to start” I reply, he silently knees me, “dad, it doesn’t matter, just start anyway.” Searching my mind for the stories, as if I’m trying to pluck the perfect cloud from the sky, I hesitate and then start, “Bruno shushed his father and pointed to the wall, they could hear the men fighting against the wind, ‘they must be near, their bikes are leaning against the back wall—we need to find them, or Dr. Terminus will have our head.” Soon we are both asleep.

                From my middle-aged perspective, the pulling of stories from a mind that is a haze of bills, deadlines, the emotional tug of relationships, pets, car insurance…is difficult—my thoughts are a chore to wade through, picking through the scraps of the day that passed and the days to come. I sound more tired than I really am when he asks me to pluck tales from my head, there is a tinge of resentment—a weariness as I reflect on all the things that have pushed out the giving part of my brain. From his perspective it is much different, he remembers the time together in bed, his father’s voice painting pictures of adventure with him as the hero. He isn’t aware of the fatigue I clutch too, as if my life choices are what controls my ability to give and receive love. I try to dispatch the wanting to have him shuffle off to sleep so I can cower alone next to him, my sweet boy, sometimes it works and sometimes I fall for the dizziness of my intrusive thoughts.

                My father wore corduroys, the lined indentations stood out like a topographic map, my fingers tracing them—down his leg as he drank his coffee. “Tell me the story of the bull” I would ask him, it is something his mother told us many times, when he was just a child and had stealthily climbed through a hole in a fence to pet a cow who stood near an old tree. Although it was not a cow but a bull who ended up chasing my father until he was scooped up by my grandmother, although my father was a terrible storyteller. Quick and too the point, when he told this story it ended quickly, there was no build up, no description of the heat, or the way his feet got stuck in the mud as the bull barreled down on him—this was how my grandmother told it. He would get up from the couch when his coffee grew cold, walk into the kitchen, taking the comforting fuzzy pants with him. When he spoke his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, a ball of manliness stuck in his throat, I would ask him if I would have one when I grew up, he would chuckle and tell me “only if you are lucky.” He had a tweed jacket, the ones with the elbow patches that he wore to work—most likely a carry over from his brief spell of being a college professor, he would get his hair wet and comb it straight back, the sides turning gray—as he got ready to leave the house, he would leave his dirty razor on the edge of sink. The brush that he used to lather his face in shaving cream sat next to it, I would stare at them wondering what it would be like to shave one day. But my father was mostly quiet, he did not tell us many stories, nor did he read to us—although he loved to read, he would buy my brother and I books from the Little Professor bookstore in Athens, he tried in vain to steer us away from comics. The stories we were told were from his mother and our uncles, Pablo and Peter, their adventures burned into our spongy brains. The story of Pablo driving through Nicaragua and resting for the night, sleeping on top of his car in the jungle while Sandinistas rifled through the car unaware that he was asleep on top. It probably saved his life. My grandmother’s life was a trial of loss and gain, losing the life of wealth due to the Second World War, rebuilding her life not once but twice, in Venezuela and then in Columbus, Ohio. These made an impression on me, like a thumb print on a window, they would fade but always be there. Gaps fill the memories of my childhood, holes where laughter should reside, or learning to hit a baseball—the people who taught me to throw a baseball and a football were not my father, who appeared to be caught up in whatever worries seemed to be choking his life, but from my brother Zoltan and a step-father we had named David.

                The urge to give in to annoyance is great, and I was conditioned to do this—it was easier to complain and let the world know how heavy it felt to me than to work around the urge- to resist the “give-in.” As a parent I realize that this is an insufficient cop-out, that I do not want my children to learn that irritation is something to wear like a pin on a jean jacket. Patience provides the luxury of space, to allow the imagination to grow and feel deeper. Some years ago, when I was working with an addict who was struggling with a mind that was chewing its way out of his mind, he asked me about learning patience, me of all people I thought to myself, and I replied that the only way to learn patience was to do it. Not a very satisfying answer but the only answer. It is easy to get lost in the doom-scrolling of my mind, the reinforcements against this are being present with those in my life, easier to say than to do.

                At some point I started to write down the stories I told the kids, although I am unsure of my skills as a children’s storyteller, when I told my partner this, I added that I tend to sprinkle my stories with words such as “fuck” and “blowjobs” she believed me for a moment and reminded me you can’t put those words in books, probably not even YA books. When I write these memories of their childhood down it is with hope that they can recall sitting in med, staring at the ceiling, my words falling into them like small safety stones to protect and propel them into sleep. The stories would get tucked into their minds just as they were under their blankets.

Book Announcement: “Love, Death and Photosynthesis” to be published by Don Giovanni August 6th.

February 16, 2021

After many years of rewrites, edits and bumbling through life events my first book is set to be published by Don Giovanni on August 8th. I am incredibly humbled and proud of the book. Pre-orders are available by following this link. From my understanding pre-orders are very important for sales. Below is some early reactions for the book.

“Love, Death, & Photosynthesis is such a generous text. One that offers both a timeline and a soundtrack of living. One that populates a world with people who could easily be your kind of people, immersed in days and nights that could be your days and nights. I loved this book for how it acts as both an intimate profile of a time and era, and also a mirror through which a reader can see their own history, their own affections, and their own music.”-Hanif Abdurraqib author of They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us

“”What a painful, funny, deep-souled chronicle Bela Koe-Krompecher has written of his life in one of the great American underground music scenes. Two beautiful and very human ghosts haunt this story, and this book is a monument to their gifts, but it’s also a brutally honest exploration of the dreams, diseases, passions, disappointments and tragedies that plagued their lives, as well as the author’s. Finally, though, it’s a clear-eyed celebration of what it means to build your life around music and share it with those you love, and of the endurance of all that feeling unleashed by a certain guitar sound and drum beat when you’re a kid. The feeling may fade, but it never really disappears. In fact, it may save you again when you least expect it.”-Sam Lipsyte author of “Venus Drive” & “Home Land”

“”This is not a love song, or a rock memoir, or a book about getting sober, or an unflinching look at mental illness — though it is in part all of those things —  or a book really about much in particular except everything, ever, in the way that the particular can sometimes illuminate the general in unexpected and deeply affecting ways. Bela has somehow managed to capture the love, loss, and longing that he and a handful of music- and alcohol-besotted friends/lovers experienced at a specific time (mostly the 90s)  in a specific place (mostly Columbus, Ohio) in unpolished, raw-kneed prose as lucid as the amber light of a sunset slanting through a bar window on High Street. It’s a fucking masterpiece, and it will break your heart.”-Jim Greer, novelist and screenwriter

“Bela Koe-Krompecher’s Love, Death & Photosynthesis is a remarkable book: an exploration of indie rock, a memoir of drinking and, then, not drinking, and ode to Columbus, Ohio, and most of all an elegy for a handful of musicians—particularly the haunting singer Jenny Mae—who lived hard and bled art and died too young. Koe-Krompecher, a co-founder of Anyway Records, is one of the spindles that keeps the indie-rock world spinning and Love, Death and Photosynthesis is a wild, real tender combination of Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Michael Azzerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life. Hell, Love, Death and Photosynthesis isn’t even a book—it’s a juke box, the wonderous kind that you find in a dive bar and that seems, suddenly, to contain every song you need to hear.”-Daniel A. Hoyt, author of This Book is Not For You

““Bela so beautifully writes about the connection between love, identity and an underground music scene- if music’s been the way you’ve made sense of the world this book will move you to tears.” –Matt Sweeney, VICE/Guitar Moves

“Anyone who spent the 90’s watching bands in half-empty bars and mixing their brains with other underground misfits will recognize themselves in the great stories Bela Koe-Krompecher tells in Love, Death & Photosynthesis. But Bela’s vivid memories are full of surprises too, and there’s something universal about the way he unravels his past, giving it an emotional weight that resonates beyond all the lost nights and dearly departed comrades.”-Marc Masters, contributor to Pitchfork & The Wire, author of “No Wave”


“In Love, Death & Photosynthesis, Bela Koe-Krompecher gives us a memoir that arrests, entrances, repulses even as it fascinates, pulls the reader close enough to whisper in the ear, holds at arm’s length to assess life’s ruins, and explores the sanctuaries we build within and around that wreckage. It’s a book born of fresh young Ohio corn fields and autumnal brass marching bands, just as it inhabits barrooms dank with despair yet illuminated by the melodic rings and howling squalls of music—the ever-present, blessed music—that holds it all together. Crushingly sad and defiantly hopeful, it’s a paean to Jenny Mae, it’s On the Road for the Rust Belt, it’s a desperate diary of struggling for equilibrium in a wildly spinning life, a broken-bottle bare-knuckled account of the ’90s Columbus music scene, and a sober love letter to hope and forgiveness. There’s real blood and tears and, yes, laughter in these pages.” —Matthew Cutter, author of Closer You Are: The Story of Robert Pollard and Guided By Voices

I”m guessing I met both Bela and Jerry on Mudhoney’s first stop in Columbus circa 1988, but it’s a bit murky. Whenever, it was an instant kinship based on music, records, & booze. Fellow Travelers. I know these people, but if I didn’t, I’d feel like I did after reading this. A beautifully vivid, heartbreaking tale of friendships cut far too short.”-Steve Turner, Mudhoney

“Love, Death & Photosynthesis” is an incredible look at friendship, loss, creativity, and growth. Koe-Krompecher writes beautifully about the thrill of loving music, booze, late nights…..and facing everything that comes next. Throughout the story, he is able to honor the two very important friends he lost, who burned bright but left early. In explaining the ways they touched him and changed his life, he delivers a great reflection on grief and a hopeful tale of moving forward. Really amazing, super moving and, of course heartbreaking. A story beautifully told and does a lot to honor to both Jerry and Jenny-Craig Finn, The Hold Steady

“I never sat with Jerry Wick—on a double-date and drunk—through a Mel Brooks double-feature, violently laughing as our disgusted dates dashed out the theater doors. I never woke any morning to find a homeless Jenny Mae sleeping in my car’s front seat, torn candy wrapper and broken thorns stuck to her face. Nor did I sit with her as she played her haunting songs on the organ in her parents’ basement or have a jailhouse conversation in which she, in a too-rare lucid moment, explained the reasons for her addictions. In fact, I never met either of those underground musicians before they died young due to dissimilar, yet equally sad, circumstances. But I feel like I knew them. Bela Koe-Krompecher’s music-memorized and booze-drenched memoir, Love, Death & Photo Synthesis, introduced us. Then we became friends.”– Jeff Burlingame, NAACP Image Award-winning author of Kurt Cobain: “Oh Well, Whatever, Nevermind” 

“In his candid decades-spanning memoir, Koe-Krompecher’s journey through the grayness of Ohio gets entangled in music, love, mental illness, loss, addiction, and death—but he leaves a sliver of hope. It’s a tribute to his gone-too-soon friends and musicians Jenny Mae—who “burned brighter than the surface of Mercury” —and Jerry Wick—who “could light up a room with his humor, wit, and songs”—but it’s also an insight into the music industry, a hard-knocks upbringing, and battling addiction, sometimes told with hilarious anecdotes. Koe-Krompecher’s non-fiction dirty realism is the stuff Raymond Carver would’ve written if he had lived in Ohio. In the end, it’s music—and friendship—that saves us”-Garin Pirnia, author of Rebels and Underdogs: The Story of Ohio Rock and Roll

Ephemera

February 14, 2021

                On the east wall of the small ranch house where my grandmother lived for over thirty years an old stereo consul complete with built in television, speakers and turntable was covered in plants, glass trinkets and small decorative plates. Above them was a wall covered in photographs, most were black and white, they spoke of a different world where my father and uncles wore matching dark shorts and white shirts, black socks pulled up almost to the knees, my grandmother staring down at them as they gathered around her. Like a proud hen, her eyes beaming while they all smiled into the camera, in the background of these photos were palm trees and one could almost see the invisible heat that rose from the concrete that surrounded them. These photos were taken in Caracas, Trinidad, and Spain, they lived in Caracas, were taught English in Trinidad, and travelled to Spain with her—she insisted they be giv4n the opportunity to leave their life in Venezuela. She was an immigrant to that South American country, forced by the Second World War to sculpt a new life as a woman in her thirties from the wealth she was accustomed to in Budapest. Eventually her children would move to the United States, all settling in Columbus, Ohio where they, after fits and starts made themselves Americans, taking in American football, owning trucks, campers and enjoying fast food. The other photos climbed up the wall like ivy, marking out the memories of her life and the lives of the generation before, the images of frozen ghosts on her walls. There were knick-knacks and other ephemera on the walls, mementos of her travels, a small windmill clock from the Netherlands, a miniature mask from Morocco, small plastic men she put up for me and my brother; “The blue one is Zoltan and the yellow one is Bela” and we believed these solid-colored top hatted men were, indeed, somehow us. In the middle was the Krompecher Coat-of-Arms dating from the thirteenth century, not only was her wall a reminder of a life well lived, but it also was there to prove the family’s bona-fides. There was the menu from her father’s famous Budapest restaurant “Gundel’s” as well as photos from members of the Krompecher family that had served in the Hungarian parliament. These images were imprinted on us as children, that my grandmother and especially her father was someone special, anything less than felt like failure. The images provided not only motivation but a sense of familial loyalty.

                On the south wall of my apartment between my wooden desk and the front door sits two pine shelves made for records and along the top are two Hungarian dolls that are dressed in traditional celebration attire, one of them has her face chewed out from my old dead bad-dog, next to that sits an empty pint of whisky I had bought and drank on an incredibly weird night in Caracas, back when it was safe to travel to that city that sits among the clouds. With mountains looming around its plentiful skyscrapers, I was lost in the midst of the effects of that whiskey, the lights a blur to my eyes while I wondered how Jenny Mae and I would get back to my uncle’s apartment. The whiskey drank all my money, and it was not until a kind toothless taxi driver drove us home for free. The bottle a remembrance to both human kindness and the haze of being nineteen.  There is a painting by my son that hangs above the shelf and next to it a small painting my partner had commissioned for me, a wonderful chunk of wood that reminds me of love and thoughtfulness. Above the mantle on the east wall sits a print by Billy Childish, hanging above Buddhist cards and reminders, this painting is also a reminder of love. On top of bookcase next to the mantle, that comes from my childhood, it was once canary yellow and now is a subtle beige there are photos of my mother, my son when he was six months old—his happy grin stretching across the years, a framed picture of Chenrezik who the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion is. There is a copy of Wind-Up a fanzine by my friend Liz with a note attached to it introducing herself via US Mail, when small packages containing messages constructed of thought and time arrived in post office boxes—the care involved in sending this is still not lost on me. On the same shelf sits a small vase of dried flowers with a note from my lover and below all of these are rows of books and records. Books of poetry, of eastern thought, of recovery, graphic novels, and fiction. Most have traded time with me, imparting humor, wisdom and tears through their pages and I, in turn have given them my attention.

                There are photos of my children on the walls, both taken in the Netherlands, one of my daughter when she was eight, wearing a scarf over her head as she looks out the window of a train. I think we were coming back from the sea. The other photo, of my son is when he was four, this one also taken in the Netherlands, he is naked standing on the old remnants of a pier that had been taken by the water, his hands outstretched as if he was getting ready to hug the water while he holds a bag of chips in one hand. I have other pictures and paintings on the walls, one of Richard Brautigan a favorite writer that was painted by Derek Erdman, another drawing by Daniel Johnston, and walls filled with records, CD’s and box sets. Some of these things I have wanted to put away for years, there are two boxes of “things” I have had sitting next to one of my couches and one next to my dining room table that have not moved over the past two years when I moved into this small apartment.

                The apartment usually smells of coffee and onions two things I consume nearly every day, the stacks of books and the unattended boxes can make me feel guilty as they have sat ignored for far too long. Some of these things are the putty that can hold my sadness in, or my joy depending on what I may be feeling on a given day, a given hour, a given moment.

                When I was a child, I collected things: Matchbox cars, football cards, comic books, records and at the suggestion of my grandfather I collected stamps for a few years but while these captured my imagination, I needed some encouragement to continue and because of the lack of interest by my father my interest in philately soon diminished. In grade school my brother and I would tape our favorite football player cards to the tops of our desks making for a bumpy desk, but it helped get through the drudgery for fourth grade math when one could dream of the exploits of Franco Harris or Jack Lambert while contemplating fractions. Fuck fractions. The miniature cars I collected where things I played with until the fourth grade when in one afternoon of playing with my friend Mark, I realized I had suddenly outgrown them, I put them away and only pulled them our years later when my ex-wife started an interest in them. Apparently, they were not a thing in the Netherlands. My son and I would play with some of the ones I was able to pass down to him but a few years ago, he realized he too, had outgrown them and his are now confined to a box in his room. The comics I collected with my brother were split between us, he bought some large collections in his twenties and there are several long boxes of Marvel comics that sit in the closet. Occasionally I pull them out and try to get my son interested in them, he only asks me how much they are worth. Saskia on the other hand did show an interest in Archie comics which she collected for several years and graphic novels. They both tend to like records, Saskia has a small collection at the end of my towering shelf of records and she plays them when she cooks and reads downstairs, her tastes are towards the emotional and she tends to be drawn to indie female artists: Girl in Red, Phoebe Bridgers and Stella Donnelly.

                Many years ago, I was visiting my father and his wife, I was in my early twenties trying to repair a relationship that had been cracked, punted, and bruised—there was hope in their living room and they poured me hot coffee, brought me homemade Hungarian cookies, and asked about my life which at that time was centered on music and extraordinarily little else. I had dropped out of college a few years prior, was working in a record store, and had discovered an underground community that in no way I could explain to my very catholic and very conservative father. “Why don’t you go back to school?” he asked, his wife chimed in “You are too smart to be in a record store, it’s unhealthy.” My inner response was to inform them they knew nothing of my life, had showed little interest in much of my life and that my thought of the future involved listening, selling, and making records—instead, I replied, “yeah, one day I’ll go back to college.” His office was in the downstairs of his house in Athens, Ohio. As one of the few practicing architects in Southeastern Ohio during the nineteen-seventies he won a lot the contracts from the state and the county and he had a fairly large office staff of architects and engineers. They worked on the state hospital in town, many of the larger buildings and businesses in downtown Athens as well as many home improvements. By all measure he should have been well off but when my brother and I lived with him we were poor, mostly made our own dinner which consisted primarily of box macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, frozen pot pies, cereal and eggs. Once a month he would splurge and buy a $5 Domino’s pizza. He sold his office building and moved his practice into the downstairs of his house, a kitchen door shutting off the living quarters from the office. We sat in the meeting room, which was a white couch, several comfortable designer office chairs, and a glass coffee table. The walls were decorated with his wife’s abstract artwork. When I used the restroom, I had to walk through the kitchen door and it is felt like I had entered the bowels of a museum or government building, this is how they really lived. The kitchen was spotless and there were massive jugs of wine on the floor, the food on counter was healthy, wheat germ, oats, cannisters of nuts and bowls of fruit. If I took to long in the bathroom, they could sense my prying investigative eyes, I would draw in as much as I could to get some knowledge of a man, I did not know but needed too. “Bela, what are you doing back there” his deep voice would bellow. ‘Nothing, just looking for a glass for water” as I wondered what the upstairs looked like. “Come back here, Ildiko will get it for you.” He had secrets he didn’t want me to know. So, I would go back and sit on the edge of the couch waiting for his disapproving beatdown of my life choices. And in my quest to have a connection with him I would accept his judgement only to disregard it as soon as the door shut behind me. It was always emotional harassment. On one of these visits as I was leaving, Ildiko said she had something for me, “Bela you left something here and we need to give it to you” she got up, “wait, I will go find it.” I looked at my father, I could not think of anything I would have left at his house, these visits were infrequent, and I stood up and made my way towards the door. “I need to go; I have some people I have to meet.” I did not add that there were friends I would be seeing at the Union. “Wait, she will be back in a moment.” We made more small talk by the front door, his displeasuring lecture over my life choices a silent barricade between us until his wife appeared with a small blue and yellow winter cap in her hands. “You left this year and I thought you might need it.” I had indeed left this small Webelo scout toboggan that I had left when I moved out of his house when I was eleven years old. It was tiny in my hands, “I washed it for you.” I was now 22. “Oh, thank you.” She seemed pleased with herself for remembering to return this hat to me eleven years later. “Yes, it’s cold out. Wintertime, you should wear your hat.” Thanks for the advice. Last year I gave the hat to my kids. “Honey, its cold out, please wear a hat.” Saskia held the cap in her teenage hands, “didn’t your dad regift this to you?” I paused, as the years sprawled out in my mind, ‘well not this hat, he just returned in, you are thinking of the Ohio State Bart Simpsons shirt my grandmother had me wrap for him one Christmas and he gave it to me the next year for my 21st birthday.” “He did?! Wait, why did you grandmother give your dad a Bart Simpson shirt, wasn’t he old?!” Smiling, I explained “She bought it because it said Ohio State Buckeyes on it and she thought Bart was cute, and yeah, he was probably 50 years old. Anyway, he gave it to me the next Christmas.”

                “What?! Why did she do that?!” I cried into the sterile stiff hotel pillow, outside the Miami sun was baking the red Chevy Malibu that carried us from Ohio—it was too hot to go outside, we were sunburnt from swimming in the motel pool. The drive took over 20 hours, but my father did it in one shot, drinking thermos after thermos of gas station coffee, talking to himself and rolling down the window and sticking his face into the wind. He refused to stop. There were three of us piled in the backseat, my sister on one side, my brother on the other and me, the youngest stuck on the hump. At various times during the trip, I would curl up on the floor and try to sleep. We passed the hours trying to read, counting VW Bugs, looking at various license plates, singing and teasing each other. My father flipped through the FM dial, where he mostly chose soft rock or Paul Harvey. My aunt Milagros sat in the front seat and occasionally they would speak to each other in Spanish, leaving us to think they were talking about us, a secret code that they used when they needed to talk about “adult” matters. I later found out that they did not like each other, and it was natural that they did not, my aunt was outspoken, a woman and considered some of the mythmaking of my grandmother about Hungarians was just that, myths, and stories. “Your grandmother is nuts” she would tell me when I was older, then she would add “so is your father, something is seriously wrong with that man.” She was right about one of them. I was frozen with panic as I realized that Milagros had thrown away my favorite blue blanket that I.  been carrying around for years, it was thread bare in spots, and the smooth ends had unraveled but left small crinkly threads that I would rub against my nose while I sucked my thumb. I carried it around the house and when I had a friend sleep over, I would hide it under my pillows, so they dare not see that even as a ten-year-old I still clutched on to my blankie for comfort. When it was in the washer my anxiety would rise and I would be disappointed as it usually took a while to replace the comforting smells it held for me, syrup, cereal, cats. Before we got in the car for the trip Milagros sniffed at it, “That blanket is not going with us on our trip to Venezuela, you are way to old to have a security blanket.” My siblings made an effort to explain the importance of the blanket to me and my emotional state. The blanket had provided comfort for me through my parents’ divorce, multiple moves, meeting and leaving friends and at that time my fifth school in five years. Milagros had thrown the blanket out during one of our stops, it was mostly likely now covered in fast food bags, coffee grounds and diapers in some truck stop in Tennessee. She was right, I didn’t need to be lugging around my childhood blanket as I was getting ready to start middle school in a few years and shortly after that trip to Venezuela I quit sucking my thumb, finding other ways to sooth myself—through reading and music.

                I knock on the door of my old house, the one that my children still spend half their time in, the one whose wooden floors will need to be sanded again as my effort to sand them some sixteen years ago was never particularly good but Merijn appreciated it enough to keep the floors in all their misfitted blunted shimmering manner, the murky gloss a testament to my bumbling efforts of being a handyman.  This house holds many memories and as I finally let myself in, it holds new memories now; ones for the children and her. I walk in and it is the house she always wanted, with new furniture replacing the old, white walls where shadows climb and fall in a dance of creativity-learning dance steps from the sun, the duck and stop like gray lizards soaking up the shine. Gone are stacks of compact discs, records stacked against the far wall, books not put away and mounds of letters and bills, replaced by more whiteness and order. It isn’t reclaimed but remade into something hers, theirs while the piles of music, books and bills have migrated to my house. I need to unload of many of these things. I walk into my son’s room, on one wall he has hung up the skateboard he has worn out and collected: his first, that is nearly worn though—a Baker skateboard, next to it hang two others that he has whittled down practicing ollie’s and other tricks along High Street and various skate-parks, a Dinosaur Jr. board he got for Christmas last year. On the other walls hang his artwork, a tee-shirt he designed with “Zero Zero” superimposed on one another, grunge life indeed and old flyers on his walls from my days when I booked shows. One, for the Magnetic Fields has a painting of his mother and in a near kiss while I’m holding a beer. I enter his sister’s room, one wall is basically a giant shelf of books she has read, F. Scott Fitzgerald, manga, fantasy, and some new additions of her recent forays into politics, feminism, and social justice. Some, like Angela Davis where her grandmother’s. She has posters up, signed Mountain Goats and Superchunk posters. She is a resplendent teenager. There are a few things I wish I still had when I was a teenager, things that helped center me and expanded my imagination beyond the cornfields and existential heaviness of rural Ohio, my dog-eared split-spined copy of Breakfast of Champions, the 90 minute Maxell cassette of R.E.M.’s “Murmur” on side A and “Reckonging” on the other—played nearly every day my junior and senior years, or the photo of Lou Reed that hung on my wall—portals to something else, something more dangerous and bigger than the tightly wound world of small town America, where I felt like a proud outsider every day of high school.

                There were railroad tracks that lined the outskirts of Athens, they came up from West Virginia and over the grand Ohio River, hauling passengers, wood and more importantly coal into town and then hauling them north towards Columbus and all over the Midwest. When I was a child, there were still some houses that still burned coal and between the railroad station and the hospital was a gigantic hill of coal. We had a friend, Todd who lived a few blocks from us on Mill Street—they were poor, his father a grounds keeper for Ohio University. They had a tiny two-bedroom house, Todd slept on day bed that sat behind his parents La-z–Boy chairs, they still heated their house with coal and kerosene. When we went over to his house after playing pick-up football, his mother would make us grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, we would spend the rest of the afternoon trading football cards and playing with the miniature football helmets we would buy for a quarter out of the novelty machines at Kroger. The tracks split through the town, and we would walk them as we played army or cowboys and Indians in the fields next to the track. There was an abandoned house in the middle of one of the fields and we would use it as our “headquarters”, and onetime we discovered a cache of Playboy magazines and records. The men’s magazines were quickly snapped up by all the boys to be smuggled into bedrooms for late night discovery while my brother and I grabbed the records. Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, a Motown collection, Mad Magazine Twists Rock and Roll, we listened to them when we got home. I still own them, and every time I flip through my records I hold onto a slice of memory. Bruno and I sometimes pull out the green nylon gym bag that my brother and I transported our miniature football helmets over forty years ago and tape out a field and play with the same game we made up on the floor of Todd’s house. He tells me as we laugh that this was something he loved to play together when he was “little” which means just five years ago or so, his world will still be unfolding as if the future sky is constructed of wrapping paper for him to unfurl.

                I keep things to remind me of love, of connections I felt and, perhaps, lost—always something sweet–a reminder of feeling accepted, of laughing and exchanging tenderness. Every memory is just that, a memory of something I can share through words, to tell a story not so much for anybody but for myself—to recall something that happened, that changed me so much I needed a token to recall it because I knew even as a child that my memories would slide into nothingness—an effort to consul myself. I never kept the items that remind me of pain, I did not keep the snot filled shirtsleeve I wiped my nose with after my father slapped me across the face of that red Malibu when I was eleven years old because I was not the child, he wanted me to be, nor did I keep pencils and the rumpled papers of third grade when I felt alone attending yet another new school. There are other things I do keep that remind me both of my failures and successes, my wedding ring that I keep on my dresser— not a symbol of a marriage that came up short, but of a union that changed, one that brought two wonderful people into the world. The ring signifies a love that produced joy, struggles and, yes divorce but most importantly that produced children that I adore. I keep paintings of my father, when I see them, I feel both a tinge of hurt, a prick into the softness of my being but there are also memories of paining with him alongside the winding roads of Southeastern Ohio, of those brief episodes of soft love he showed me. I don’t hang them anymore, realizing that the hurt outweighs the comfort and realizing that no matter how many times a day that bruise was there to stay. They sit in the closet. Of course, there are some things I could not keep, a favorite dinner atop a sunflower kissed field in Italy while staring up at the Milky Way, or sing-screaming “Tractor-Rape Chain” with Guided by Voices at Stache’s in 1994, or holding my lover’s hand while curling up on her couch while she lays her head against mine, her fingers tracing the veins along my arm, her breath against my neck providing the music of acceptance. I keep pictures, trinkets, photos and even plates from my life—at some point they will mean nothing, perhaps given to the local thrift store when I pass on, the memories of my life destined to fall under the spell of the mundane fluorescent lights of Goodwill, but for now they hang about me, twinkling and winking at me that I am, not alone.

Bee Thousand 1992-2000

October 28, 2020

Bee Thousand. 1992-present.

photo by Jay Brown

                I recently pulled out my vinyl copy of Guided by Voices “Bee Thousand” which I had not listened to on vinyl since at least the mid-nineties. This doesn’t mean I haven’t listened to it, I had an advance cassette that lived most of it’s life in the Ford Tempo I drove at the time, it may or may not have migrated to the small pick-up truck I had in the late nineties. I also have a CD of it and have streamed it on my phone. There has been a reluctance to actually put the vinyl record onto my turntable, as well as some of their other records from an era that I feel an emotional attachment as well as a bit of hesitance too, I’m not sure why. There are a few other records from this time that have this same sort of push/pull attraction to, the names are not important—they all hold something within me that I cannot quite understand. One may think I hold something for them, but music only gives—it doesn’t take so I receive its gift and it may or may not curl up inside one of my cells and keep itself ready for duty whenever I call upon the special talents it brings.

photo by Jay Brown

                That time in my life, from the late 80’s to the late nineties are alike a painting full of smudges, all of them smushed into one another so I can’t recall what year is which and it really doesn’t matter unless I give my memories that much power—as if I got the date wrong it will negate the feeling associated with it. Autumn is a difficult period for me, one on hand it is one of my favorite times of the year, the shedding of leaves, the teeming colors of the trees making the landscape burn with a cacophony of red, pinks, yellows, oranges and yes, black. The rot in the branches set everything aglow, I am drawn to it—a certain part of me feels whole in the discord of change. A comfort. It also brings in the wisps of winter depression that, like my favorite songs live in my cells and burst open like morning lilies when the wind slips under my windowsill brining in the nips of winter.

                When I lived on North Campus, so many houses throughout the eighties and nineties, it seemed every other summer I was hauling my records from one block to the next block. I had finally ended up on East Patterson Avenue from 92-96 or so, a small clapboard house that stood in the shadows of Holy Name Catholic Church, a church where my brother had been baptized years before. I would walk to the record store, my Walkman in my hands listening to mix tapes that were built to shoot emotions throughout my being, tying both brain and body together, kicking leaves all the way to High Street. I had gotten an advance copy of “Bee Thousand” on a cassette, the cover just a piece of plain white folded paper like so many advance tapes of that time—they looked like a cassette version of Generic brands. I don’t know if Matador had sent it or maybe Bob Pollard had given it to me, but it was lodged in that Tempo’s tape deck. In May of that year a friend from Athens, Ohio had overdosed, and he was airlifted to Columbus. It took Ted about two weeks to finally die, and during those two weeks I fell in love with my first wife. At his funeral I played “Esther’s Day” on repeat, wondering what he felt like before he died—surrounded by his family and his friends while wires ran in and out of his body as if he were an appliance. And I also thought how I was going to extract myself out of a brief relationship I was involved in as I knew I was falling in love with another person.

                I was an uncommitted sort; it was difficult for me to move forward in love—something within me resisted feeling loved—it was easier to make someone smile than to lean into love. I held back and retreated into what I trusted, mainly records and alcohol. They were much safer than a relationship, less commitment, which was something that I knew little about—the sacrifices needed to be accountable and present. I would go home and wrap myself in records, playing them one after another, cracking open one beer and then the next until I hit that magical moment of bliss when my feelings melded with the songs. We were all one, the song, the alcohol and me. Or so I thought. Being broken has its advantages, looking for the glue to patch the cracks can be a lot of fun but the introspection it involves when stepping away and looking into the mirror is like holding one’s hand into the flames of the universe, at times I feel like the skin of a toasting marshmallow bubbling before I my burst into a small inferno.

                Robin and I married the following May, she moved out in October and I started sleeping with other people the week she left. We divorced that February; the marriage did not even come close to making it through the fall. I met my second wife the April following the annulment from Robin and we fell into each other immediately, and as I danced, crawled and galloped through shows she followed me, all the while as I tried to bow into our relationship I was falling out of myself, the music and alcohol had quit working. It felt like I was decaying in slow motion, parts of me lopping off and making metaphorical thuds onto the floor of my life. We married five years later, and she moved to Gainesville that fall, while I spun my way into the bottle. My life had become like a corkscrew. That autumn was a parody of my life up to that point, but instead of racing to records, I raced from woman to bottle to woman to bottle, each one I used as an oar to keep moving through the sea of my life but the sea too violent and the waves would cause the sutures I was providing myself to decompose after a night or two. The beast of depression was roaring within me and I thought I would die. I got sober shortly after moving to Gainesville and for a long time our love supported each other until, well, when it quit. Music had not worked for me in a long time, although being a father, meditation and writing helped, I was still pulling away. Never leaning in, only pulling away and invisibly apart-year by year, hiding although I had not realized it. The depression had resigned me to the far end of the bed, I had taken to sleeping in my son’s bed, listening to the soft hum of his breathing to feel alive. I moved out in October of 2018 and started another relationship. Always searching.

                Moving into a small two-bedroom apartment, located just blocks from the home we had created together I slowly started to breath again. The record and CD collection is always within reach, my television is intentionally upstairs in the bedroom, music fills my house all day long. The kitchen is small, my partner refers to it as a “one-butt” kitchen, with cramped quarters, jerry-rigged cabinets are shoved next to one another-the largest appears to have been found in an alley and  is shoehorned into a corner. I cracked my head against constantly my first year living here, at first a subtle reminder of my failed marriage until I finally learned to just make sure the cabinet doors are shut. The dining room is lined with a wall of records that face three tall shelves of compact discs that I won’t sell—I humorously refer to these as my walls of loneliness, of course it is only half a joking. Every weekend I take the stack of vinyl that sits next to my turntable and put them away, the stack is usually at least a foot or two high-they tell a tale of my mood during the week. And on Sunday I start a new stack.

                When “Bee Thousand” came out I was living in a tiny two bedroom house with a room-mate that worked at Kinkos and Stache’s, he was a great roommate who would help me out by printing flyers and xeroxed record sleeves for Anyway but also kept to himself so while we got along we both had our own lives that intersected but didn’t travel together. He would later marry a woman I had dated. I worked six days a week at Used Kids and the schedule in retrospect was a bit nuts but working there never felt like work, in fact it was where I usually wanted to be besides Larry’s, Stache’s or Bernie’s. Nevertheless, the weeks could grow long and the days at the store were made easier because we could drink there, chat with the regulars and listen to music all day long.–it was advantageous to someone who both enjoyed drinking and felt lonely a great deal of the time. I would cover myself in music, at home I would put on a record, crack open a beer and let the music smother me until the world outside disappeared and my insides would match the buzzing in my head. Bob Pollard, his brother Jim, and the rest of the band had been working with Mike “Amrep” Hummel on engineering and mixing their previous records Propeller” and “Vampire on Titus” over the past few years at the record store, and “Bee Thousand” was their first record with Matador which was akin to being asked to the prom by the prettiest girl in school. I was exceptionally happy for them.

                I’m more than half a century old, closer to death than birth where every year seems to flow by quicker, like the ending of the escalator getting eaten up by the floor—I am aware of my gliding towards annihilation. I have gone through much of life feeling a confidence that I would be ok, that with the help of music, books, and laughter everything was ok as it was. I never wanted for more, I have been content in many ways—not needing to feel the need to impress others. Although the search for companionship has always been there, a needing to feel loved does not always square with feeling unlovable, a cellophane wrap of self-doubt has covered me since an early age. It is like when someone purchases some new electronic equipment and there is a ribbon of plastic covering it but it never is removed. I was in my mid-twenties when it came out, had been through two difficult relationships—where my heart had been squeezed to hard, like a sponge being wrung out and had left me even more apprehensive. My favorite lovers were records and live shows, they couldn’t really leave a larger hole in my life like lovers do and I knew what to expect when I held them tight in my mind. Love though, was fraught with doubt—the worst imposter syndrome a person could have, a pursuit and, ultimately a rejection of what I wanted the most. “Bee Thousand” was a celebration of what I held dear to myself, that is music that filled holes in my life made my friends that in turn, helped jell the community we were all in. Like a secret handshake, it united many of us but also helped us to just feel better. I listened to it as well as the next several Guided by Voices records incessantly, which may sound like a lot but I listened to music continuously during that period of my life. I didn’t own a television for several years and never have never had cable television as an adult, my chosen salves have been records and books. Near the end of the 90’s when disappointment rose, the death of Jim Shepard and others were stacked next to the failures of many of the bands I worked with, a failed marriage, the splintering of who I thought I was—all trying to be sewn together with alcohol, records quit working. There was only so much room I had in my life, alcohol, and my hopes for having a “real” relationship was nudging the rest of the world out. I felt the pain of disappointment when I listened to different records, “Bee Thousand” being one of them—not anything to do with the music but, perhaps for the promise I felt during my early twenties, it was all smoldering by the end of the decade.

photo by Jay Brown

                Recovery lit something up in me, the first few months were terrifying—the shedding of the skin of alcohol that I had worn for all of my adult life was fast but left me exposed not only to the world but to my own inside world. Thoughts were frightening, like apparitions that floated from my brain down in the heart they towered inside of me, a metaphysical happening that exacerbated the anxiety I was feeling but it also provided an opportunity to remake myself to what I had once been, or maybe could have been. A rose color itself. Gainesville, Florida is always growing and decaying—every inch of earth sprouts life and while some of the life blooms almost daily some of it is gobbled up by larger and stronger beings that prey upon what ever lays in their path. A walk through the swampy area reveals large spiderwebs that stretch from tree to tree, flashing miniature rainbow diamonds constructed by the sun—it was both invigorating and challenging. I was running a lot then, this was a continuation of the long distance running I had taken up in the late nineties and early two thousands, a way of telling myself my world wasn’t splintering—a marathon runner can’t be an alcoholic. I would get up early, after Merijn left for work, log into the computer—drinking coffee and walk the dogs up through our neighborhood and out to Lake Alice, it was dangerous to let them all the leash as there were alligators on the golf course we lived across and they were dug in deep in the waters of Lake Alice. One beast devouring another, so we would walk, the two animals soaking in the sunshine while I soaked in the music on my Walkman. It was one of the only peaceful moments I may experience that day. Then I would log into my eBay account and sell records or the clothing I would find in the yard sales and thrift stores that dotted Alachua County. Central Florida is thumb-printed in poverty, a large county with the University in the middle, middle-class neighborhoods extended outward from the campus of Florida until the outskirts of town where a large state prison sits and just beyond for miles are ram-shackle houses, home-grown vegetable stands and mobile homes line the state routes. Many of which have every-lasting yard sales that line the road, tables of junk, old clothing and battered furniture pulled from the houses and garages and set on the side of the roads. One would wonder who would actually stop. I found it depressing. I would then attend a noon 12-Step group which would get me through to five or six o’clock where I when I would make dinner and then attend another 12-Step group to help quiet my brain. I listened a lot, and slowly felt comfortable enough to share what I was feeling and found my voice. Back home my records sat in a little office, my turntable had lost its needle, so I played CD’s and felt the pull of Ohio as I progressed through early sobriety. It was a year of growing out but also growing small. The biggest growing pains happen inside, and sometimes they happen long after our limbs have stretched out into the world, our ankles defying gravity as they move slo-mo towards adolescent. We can’t wait to grow older, grow out of our stumbling awkward selves even well into our lives, I found out that looking ahead or glancing backwards impedes whatever I am supposed to feel now.

photo by Jay Brown

                “Bee Thousand” came on the heels of “Vampire on Titus” which, I think, was mostly out-takes from “Propeller” which may be my favorite one of theirs. It sounds like it was recorded in the coolest treehouse on the block, the one that you could slip into, sneaking cigarettes and swigs of beer while your mother called you in for dinner, all the while you pressed play on the boombox and let Kiss “Destroyer” play. I idolized the kid across the street from my father’s house when I was ten, he was in high school and must be sixty now but he blared Boston, Kiss and Cheap Trick out his front door, he showed me his record collection one day after I told him I got “Hotter than Hell” with my birthday I money, “This is the good stuff” waving the dust jacket of the first Boston record, he had a cigarette in his hand, the dark shag carpet in his house smelled like must and cat. The next record I bought was Boston’s “Don’t Look Back” just because of him. I not only wanted to be cool but I wanted to be wrapped up and hugged by the music I listened to—be taken away from what ever it was that was making me sad and alone. Even now, when listening I feel primitive—as if the cosmos gave us this trinket called music to pacify us and give language to the way we felt, the indescribable. “Bee Thousand” and the records preceding it and the couple that followed felt like the kind of embraces I had always been yearning for but not only that because of the nature of the songs and the joy in the music, it felt like a collective experience with whomever you listened to it with, or saw them with. Which for me was my closest friends, lovers and of course, myself. It was made more intense because it was something I not only close to but a part of, and as the decade bore down on me a few years later, the fear that was but a kernel in the first half of the nineties had now turned into a shifting monster that was chewing me from the insides, the music became too much for me. My friends were dying, and I was adrift, not even music could save me. I stored the records away, so many records that kept me dancing and screaming with glee throughout my twenties. Guided by Voices, Gaunt, the Grifters, Jon Spencer, Teenage Fanclub. I did not listen to them for years, instead of lifting me I felt the soft underbelly of hurt and I did not know why.  

Bela and Merijn 1997

                I climb the elliptical, with mask on and pump my legs to the music I blast through my headphones, the ones that have the plastic ear coverings taped on because I sweat so much when I work out and for an hour I try to block out the world. It’s not even the running that carries me away as I work the machine it is the music; it has always been the music. I tend to go back to what I always have listened to, Bruce Springsteen, Superchunk, Teenage Fanclub, Built to Spill, almost everything with guitars—somethings really do not change. What moves us moves us unless we block it out. Sometimes on the nights I sleep alone, the dog stands next to me and nudges the blankets with her nose and I let her crawl under and she curls next to my chest, sighs a giant breath and falls asleep. When I moved out a few years ago to live alone for the first time in my adult life an empty bed to face me and my decisions-my mistakes every night there was a fear the crept in but also a bit of courage that I would be ok. For many years the solace I would search for came in the form of hard vinyl cylinders, where the crackle of the needle would spin me into feeling something differently or better articulate whatever emotion I was feeling, putting a spotlight and elevating it into something more magical than my brain could sort out. I also found solace in the women I was with, but in the end the hurt of loving someone usually made me push away, sadly I didn’t know any other way. Recently I went on a walk with my ex-wife, we laughed and watched my dog (that used to be our dog) scamper through the woods near my house. We talked about our current relationships, with no hint of jealousy and I told her I feel happy. That I reach for my partner’s hand unconsciously, that we laugh more than I ever have with anybody—and that I am trying to lean into my own fears and into love. “I’m glad you like to hold hands now” she said, as I used to pull away from her, unconsciously—maybe when the unconscious becomes conscious that is where change can start to really happen.

                I listened to “Bee Thousand” on repeat a few weeks ago, it sounded great and it felt better. There was no nostalgia or the tender pain of the disappointment I felt towards the end of my twenties, of that heady time in my life when there seemed to be an endless supply of drinks, laughter and bodies to clutch. There were many expectations I had for my friends, not so much for me, I wanted to be the fuel that helped get them to where I thought they should be but we all exploded in our own ways on our own gasoline that burned some of us down earlier than we should and scorched the rest of us. The hope that I once had changed, morphed into something else even though I didn’t have any idea that is what was happening. “Smothered in Hugs.” Make sure I close the cabinet doors.

Pearl

COVID Clouds.

September 27, 2020

“I think I lost my job today, I think” yelps Jerry Wick on the Gaunt song “Hope You’re Happy Now”, I remember the circumstances surrounding the line from this song. Jerry was working at Used Kids and even though he lived only five hundred feet from the record store, in his sparse one room apartment above Larry’s he had a difficult time making it to work on time. We were lax with time, me more so than Ron or Dan, both who arrived early and took great pride in this fact, a marker to show that no matter how much a person drank, arriving at work on time meant that there was not a problem with alcohol. I had only missed one day of work due to a hangover, and this was only after calling off as I was dry heaving in the back alleys as I groaned towards the shop. But Jerry was late, constantly and he did not have a phone. “Why would I get a phone, I can just use the store’s” he would reply without irony. He was in the midst of breaking up and breaking in with a woman whom he wrote the two best Gaunt records about, she worked a professional job of which she would tell Jerry, “I have a real job Jerry when are you going to grow up?” Working at a record store allowed Jerry to pursue his art and live the lifestyle that was better suited to his philosophy of living on the edge and being non-committed. He was able to tour with Gaunt, record his songs during the night and afternoons he had off and still make enough money to pay his meager rent. He mostly ate at the record store where lunch and dinner was provided by opening the cash register. He didn’t eat much, hence the name of his band. At one point Dan and Ron got sick of his tardiness, I would try to stick up for him but he would basically force every one around him to question their relationship with him, it was as if getting close to him was a dare. Get to close, have any expectations and he would burn you and scorch himself. He eventually got fired.

 

I left my job recently, one that I loved a great deal, that provided a sense of duty and mission. The work I do, while satisfying can be exhausting, at times I am complimented for the work I do, “it’s amazing you can do that job” but the day to day work of helping the homeless, addicts and mentally ill is never very tiring, everything else that comes with it is what I find taxing-working with systems that are not geared to help the less-fortunate but actually do the opposite is what would keep me up at night. This past year I developed insomnia that has prevented me from getting more than five hours of sleep a night, I experienced chest pains, shingles and finally vertigo that has ended up costing me thousands of dollars in medical bills but that I finally have a treatment that has kept me vertigo free for over two months. COVID has only increased worry and anxiety but it has also provided something far greater than existential fear of the future and the anger that has arisen from living in the breathing callousness of the world we are living in. Sometimes some of the worst circumstances have the power to transform us into something greater and more human than we have thought possible. I have learned what is important for me, while working from home half the time has put pressure on me in a variety of ways by always being on call, always feeling the need to check email, write a report or finish a training, all from my evening couch, I have also enjoyed and relished being with my children almost all day long. Making them lunch, going for afternoon walk breaks with them, finding other ways of connecting that I didn’t notice before. I realized that I liked my smaller world and wanted to refocus, to realign myself with my family and those I care about. I was losing my ability to keep these things my priority.

There are periods where the world keeps itself too close, pressing in until it feels as if you have swallowed in all in a giant bite and the feeling of choking becomes overwhelming—like the Chinese proverb of the boy who could swallow the ocean until it burst forth from his cheeks and killed his brothers. I have eaten my world bit by bit until I have retched on my own inner greed and pain, what I drank to relieve me was killing me. In my twenties, there were periods where I lived in panicked emotional state, drunk dialing, pulling my dogs in close, never going long without someone to share my blankets—it wasn’t so much as sex but as not wanting to be alone. I had a list of late-night friends I would call, Gretchen, Chris Biester, Katy, Haynes, Michelle, Jenny S., almost all of them women and none of the lovers. Maybe the lovers knew me in ways that prevented my from reaching out at 2am, I needed tethered to something to keep me grounded until I could finally sleep-most likely the edge of sex would have tainted that simple quest.

 

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If I ever own a house again I want one with as many windows that can let in the sun as possible, to invite the outside world in and to invite my inner world out—I don’t want to have anything to hide not to the neighbors, not to the wind, not to the moon or trees, all are welcome. I have been learning to watch the clouds, I have an excellent teacher—someone whose eye for detail is almost mathematical but without the numbers, who as someone in the 19th Century has the “touch”, that is, she is gifted on a higher level in the language of emotion. “There’s a good one” and I don’t even have to look at her, I only have to look up to see what she is pointing to, and there it is, an entire ocean built in the sky, every cloud a pigment of some heavenly cosmic paint. “Yeah, wow.” I find myself trying to say something but how does one say something that is unspeakable without sounding like an idiot? So, I usually, touch her back or lean in and kiss her. I am now cloud watching all the time and, in the evenings, when walking my dog, I gaze at the moon, as if it were a companion walking every step in the damp grass along with me. A few nights ago, after a day of inhaling the world in deep gulps—I was brittle and tired, and I got into an argument with the kids. Nothing of consequence, perhaps it was the dog not being walked, or one of them simply asking for specific groceries but it was the last leaf in the barrel that caused it to overflow. An eruption that was lit over generations in my family, a coarseness and sense of self-righteous fairness that left much of my own childhood with me being not only being bewildered by my father’s rage but more importantly being scared as fuck that an adult would act like this. I knew, even as a ten-year-old, that something was amiss. As much as I have tried to temper and smother that flame inside of me, it’s there—mostly a small smoldering speck but it can transform rather quickly if my mind isn’t in the right place, if I am holding the world in my cheeks. I blew up, unable to come back I raged in the car, at the kids, at the dog who is compelled to bark “FUCK YOU!” at every motorcycle we pass on the street except her “Fuck You” comes out as a high pitched bark that blasts through ears like a bark-y explosion. In the back yard, I sat in the parked car—the kids went inside, no doubt wondering and thinking the same thoughts that I had about my own father over forty years ago and I sat, I listened. I tried not to hear the sounds of depression, of wanting to be annihilated, to submerge myself under waves. To call it out while sitting in my car, breathing, each breath one more step away from that wanting to be engulfed. Bruno knocked on the car window, “Dad, Saskia is yelling at me. I cleaned the living room.” He held up a can of Pledge and a dirty sock. “Will you come in soon?” Closing my eyes, “I’m not quite ready yet, I will though. A few more minutes.” I watched him stroll back to the porch, his bare feet climbing the steps and he disappeared inside. I listened some more. I looked up and saw the moon, a haze in the city sky but a comforting haze, my blurry companion. I saw the clouds, rolling over the sky in slow moving waves, and I let myself be engulfed but by something far more powerful than the depression that has nibbled on my insides all my life. After a few more minutes I went inside, said my apologies to my kids, that I was wrong to yell. An apology was something that was not offered by my father, he only handed his children blame, a cruddy way to live life and in my own growth something I never want to do. We got in the car, we laughed, and I pointed out the moon and we drove through the drive-through where I managed to make them laugh. Not everything has to end the way we feel they might. I left whatever future scar I might leave my daughter on the front seat that night and traded it in for take-out Chinese that we ate and laughed together with.

I love my new job as well.

 

 

 

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