September 20, 2016

September 20: THE INDIAN RUNNER - The Intimidating Legacy of Fatherhood

THE INDIAN RUNNER: Premiered September 20, 1991

Originally published September 20, 2014.

I was 21 when Sean Penn released The Indian Runner, his first film as writer and director. I had been a Sean Penn fan before that, but watching The Indian Runner cemented my fondness for the man's work. It was clear upon the first viewing that Penn and I shared many of the same influences and tastes. The film was based on Springsteen's song "Highway Patrolman", off his album Nebraska, which was - at that time - my favorite Springsteen album. The visual style was reminiscent of great 70s directors I was obsessing over at the time: John Cassavetes and Hal Ashby. The theme of the song was reminiscent of Austin and Lee in Sam Shepard's True West, a play I had read at least a dozen times, by that point. One of my favorite authors, Harry Crews, made a cameo. The cast was loaded with many actors I loved, all giving some of the greatest performances of their careers. More than anything, I was drawn to Viggo Mortensen's portrayal of wayward younger bother Frankie, who half-heartedly struggled to keep a lid on the boiling cauldron of toxic violence within his soul. Frankie had the kind of self-loathing typical to young men; it lashed out at the world regularly, and any attempts to soothe it were met with violence and humiliation. At 21, I understood that particular self-loathing. But as the years went on, my view of the world changed. Slowly, that self-hatred turned itself around. Slowly, "the world" stopped being the problem, and any lashing out I did was actually "lashing in" - a long, protracted soul-flagellation for not being able to understand the world better. Self-directed anger for never seeming to fit in. For not being good enough for anyone. For never finding a consistent way to stay happy or satisfied with myself. By the time I reached forty, the world was a perfect place which operated by a logical set of rules that everyone seemed to understand intuitively. It was only marred by me. And my inability to understand it. And the many failings that I brought to it.

September 5, 2016

September 5: LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III’s “MOTEL BLUES” – Sarcasm and Salvation

Loudon Wainwright III: born September 5, 1946

Originally published September 5, 2015.

I’ve always been a sarcastic person. I come from a sarcastic family, and I generally find sarcasm funny. But not when it comes to art. Something about art feels too important, too sacrosanct to me to be treated sarcastically. Throughout my life I’ve discovered bands whom I desperately wanted to like, bands with extraordinary talent and flashes of true genius, but who always revert to a sarcastic tongue-in-cheek pose that screams, “We’re not taking this very seriously.” And some of that may be a pose. Sarcasm and disaffection - the act of looking down your nose at something you’ve created - may spring from that same well of insecurity we’ve all had since childhood. It may be that push-pull of the intense desire to be accepted and understood, balanced with the freedom beyond being hurt by others. As boys, we insult the girls we find ourselves attracted to. As teens, we roll our eyes at the first glimmer of promise in an activity. Enthusiasm and vulnerability are reserved for the experts, for the confirmed. Which is understandable in a 15-year old, but I have no patience for it in an artist, especially a talented artist. Which makes my fondness for Loudon Wainwright III pretty unique. Because of all of the bands I really want to like but can’t (Pavement, They Might Be Giants), Wainwright is the most sarcastic of the bunch. He’s the kind of artist who watched his infant son Rufus breastfeed, and described the strong bond between mother and child – and his own lack of that connection – with a song called “Rufus is a Tit Man”. The song was a sarcastic, silly chuckle-fest, in which Wainwright ends up admiring the connection so much that he dreams of breastfeeding beside his infant son. It’s a silly ditty with lyrics as childish as “Yeah, you’ve got the goods, mamma / Give the little boy a squirt”. But as silly as it is, Wainwright still manages to articulate the undying (yet often neglected) need for comfort and touch and nurturing, he tried to resolve the triangulation that occurs when “husband and wife” turn into “father and mother”. But he did it with an attitude that says, “This is all so silly, but I’ll write about it anyway.”

September 3, 2016

September 3: MAURICE TILLET – When Giants Get Worn Down

Maurice Tillet: October 23, 1903 - September 4, 1954

Originally published September 3, 2015.

When you’re always the biggest person around, you learn that the world will always treat you a little differently. I was over 11 pounds at birth. I was always the tallest kid in school, and outweighed most of my classmates. As a kindergartner, I was frequently mistaken for an older child. I grew taller than my older brother by the time we were teens. I was taller than most of the adults I knew by the time I could drive, and unlike most gangly teenagers, I was neither lean nor lanky. In high school, I need a helmet big enough to cover my size 8-1/4 head, which my high school was able to borrow from the state athletic association – because nobody else was using it. In the entire state. Of Illinois. And as I became an adult, I grew used to kids staring at me everywhere I went. I got used to people always commenting on my size everywhere I went. I got used to smaller men picking fights all the time. I got used to the good-natured jokes and even the passive-aggressive ones. When I met my wife in my late twenties, she couldn’t understand why I was so uncomfortable with my appearance but after a few years of everyone mentioning things she didn’t think of as atypical (“He’s really tall!”), she came to understand how being almost constantly singled out can eventually lead to a skewing of self-perception. And certainly, being singled out for being overly tall or overweight aren’t nearly as damaging as people singled out for their race or for their gender or for a disability. But there is a similar process at play, because part of the assumption about me is not just that I look different, but that these looks indicate something specific. After years of hard work in my career, I have found a certain amount of credibility as a thought leader. I’ve published a few things, been used as a resource for a couple of other books, and I’ve spoken at a number of industry panels. But I find that meeting people in person changes the dynamic. They almost seem taken aback, as if they shouldn’t be taking advice from someone who looks like me. And it has limited my career. As I get older and it happens with more frequency, I find myself more and more hesitant to leave the house and meet people. When you physically resemble Shrek, as I do, facing people’s perceptions of you is rarely kind. Even less so, I would imagine, if you were Maurice Tillet - the inspiration for Shrek.

September 1, 2016

September 1: FRED ROGERS - The Purest of Honesty

Mr. Rogers Neighborhood: Final episode aired August 31, 2001

Originally published September 1, 2014.

Tomorrow, I will mail a letter which confronts a bully. Not my bully, but a teacher who bullied my son last year in school. And when I recognized - a year too late - the damage this teacher had wrought, and when I realized that someone needed to address the issue with the teacher, I wanted to do it. Which is odd, because I've been combing my memory for any time in my past when I may have confronted a bully. I can think of times where I've fought back when completely cornered, and I can remember plenty of times where I forced a conversation through passive-aggressive tactics that highlighted my victim status. And I can think of times when I used sneaky tactics and diversions to get others out of difficult situations, but I've never been the one to stand bravely between predator and prey. And so the idea of sending a letter felt unlike anything I would ever want to do, yet I knew that it was something I needed to do. Partially because I do want to be the person standing between a predator and my child (even if it's a year too late), but at its core, there's a simpler desire. Sometimes, I just want to say what I feel, even if those feelings are ugly. Even if those feelings have negative consequences. Even if those feelings cause disharmony or escalation. Because I spend my days inundated with the voices in my own head, and they're generally drowned out by the millions of voices from others, and all of those voices are trying to establish "who we are". Except they're generally establishing "who we wish to be" or "how we wish to be perceived".

So few of us are the person we wish to be, that we almost don't understand a genuine person when we see them. The advantage of that situation is that genuine people aren't bothered by that in the least. Take, for example, Mr. Rogers.

August 12, 2016

August 12: ANDRE DUBUS – We Don’t Have to Live Great Lives

ANDRE DUBUS: August 11, 1936 - February 24, 1999

Originally published August 12, 2015.

I had no intention of writing tonight. Like most every night, I planned on finishing up my day with the same self-dismissing review of the day that I go through every night: not enough attention paid to my family, not enough time spent writing or drawing or playing music, another day without exercise, et cetera, et cetera… It’s not a behavior uncommon to me. I’ regularly disappointed with myself, to the point that it no longer feels like a failure in behavior, and more a failure of character. I’m not a person who makes stupid choices; I’m a stupid person who makes reasonable choices (for a stupid person). But I was watching the new Chris Farley documentary, I Am Chris Farley,which ended with a prayer Farley carried in his wallet. Farley is another person I’ve long admired (and written about in this blog), so I was touched by the prayer, called “A Clown’s Prayer”:
“Dear Lord, as I stumble through this life, help me to create more laughter than tears; dispense more happiness than gloom; spread more cheer than despair. Never let me become so blasé that I fail to see the wonder in the eyes of a child, or the twinkle in the eyes of the aged. Never let me forget that my work is to cheer people, make them happy, and make them laugh. Never let me acquire success to the point that I discontinue calling on my creator in the hour of need, and acknowledging and thinking him in the hour of plenty. And in my final moment, may I hear you whisper, ‘When you made My people smile, you made Me smile.’” 
The prayer made me think of a story that novelist Andre Dubus III told about his father, the writer Andre Dubus. When describing his father’s influence over his own work, Dubus III said, “It’s not his fine work. But seeing him walk daily into his downstairs study in our tiny rented house and try to write something beautiful for someone he would probably never even meet. It’s that image that gave me permission as a young man to view writing as a legitimate line of work to devote one’s life to.” Both stories are reminders that whatever gifts we have are not just gifts for ourselves, like a child’s Christmas toy. The gifts we have are to be shared, and denying those gifts is denying… well, everyone. Which is difficult to reconcile when you love the people who give of themselves, but find it easy to ignore and avoid that path yourself.

August 11, 2016

August 11: ROBIN WILLIAMS - Ending the Never-Ending Battle

ROBIN WILLIAMS: July 21, 1951 - August 11, 2014

Originally published August 11, 2014.

I was just thinking about Robin Williams a few days ago. We were driving out of town to visit family and I was listening to some podcasts and he was mentioned in two different podcasts. In both instances, he was discussed as a lover and a supporter of comedy, and the comments about him were glowing. I have a lot of comedy heroes, and for me to pretend that Robin Williams was one of them would be a lie. But listening to the positive comments about what a difference he made in the lives of these comedians, I felt a warmth for him that was beyond the warmth one feels for an artist because we're so in love with their art. It was the kind of warmth you feel as you grow older and realize that sometimes you don't have to set the world on fire; sometimes you just have to be nice and appreciative and supportive and that creates an environment where many other people can set the world on fire. As a young man, I was only interested in the former. As I grow older, I am beginning to see the value in the latter. And it was within that reflection that I found a certain fondness for Robin Williams.

June 24, 2016

June 24: ROY O. DISNEY – Behind Every Dreamer, A Realist

ROY O. DISNEY: June 24, 1893 – December 20, 1971

Originally published June 24, 2015.

Near the end of their lives, my grandmother shared a number of stories about the early years of her marriage to my grandfather. Despite leaving school in the ninth grade, my grandfather’s tireless work ethic and indefatigable belief in himself had led to numerous successes as a small businessman, and he and my grandmother had amassed a healthy retirement savings. My grandmother had more than a few stories of my grandfather believing in family and friends who had regularly proven themselves undependable. Yet my grandfather was always willing to support the people he cared about. In a number of cases, my grandfather lost his entire investment, but over the years my grandmother had learned not to hold a grudge against my grandfather’s support of oft-losing causes. When I asked her why, she answered confidently that she came to know that my grandfather would just work hard enough to make everything right again. It was a rare set of skills which my grandfather displayed over and over throughout his life – the ability to bet on people, but also hedge the bets with his own hard work and ingenuity. It’s not a tactic for the faint of heart, and most people would quickly grow frustrated and filled with contempt, but not my grandfather. Throughout his life, he supported the dreams and goals of the people he card about – however misguided they may have been – without asking for recompense or to share in the spoils. There are few people with that kind of attitude, but some have gone on to support some of the world’s greatest visionaries, including Roy Disney, the older brother of Walt.

June 23, 2016


WILLIE NELSON’S RED-HEADED STRANGER : inducted to The Library of Congress National Recording Registry, June 23, 2009

Originally published June 23, 2015.

A friend of mine recently asked me for a list of great country albums. The recent shift in country music to “rock music with a fiddle” has shifted the great country music of past decades completely off the map, and it was difficult for him to find evidence of what country albums are truly great and/or influential. Modern country is more influenced by ‘90s guitar pop than by Hank Williams or Merle Haggard, so I compiled a list of albums. I struggled with raking the albums, but I could certainly group them into “the Top Ten”. And of those top ten, two of them were from Willie Nelson. Interestingly, despite a career that has spanned over 50 years and a discography of over 100 albums, the two albums were Willie’s two concept albums from the early 1970s: Phases and Stages and Red-Headed Stranger. Unlike typical country albums, whose songs were a collection of stories that generally stay within a fairly limited set of topics (love, death, heartbreak, family, alcohol), Willie’s albums of the early 70s were album-length stories. Phases and Stages was the story of a marriage that had fallen apart. Loosely based on Nelson’s recent second divorce, Side One of the album was a series of songs detailing the divorce process from the perspective of a long-suffering wife of an unfaithful man. Side Two were the songs from the perspective of the husband. As far as I know, it was the first concept album ever released by a country artist. But the album’s theme was as depressing as the individual themes in country music. At the end of Side One, the wife dances alone drunkenly in a bar, now over the hill and looking for love, but aware that she’ll never trust enough to be happy. And the unfaithful husband closes out Side Two with the admission that his poor character is set in stone, and he’ll never be a good husband or man. It wasn’t an album of redemption; it was a tale of word-down acceptance. It was a tale told in millions of divorces, and as such, it was a brutally honest album. Which made the redemption on the follow-up Red-Headed Stranger even more striking.

June 22, 2016

June 22: KRIS KRISTOFFERSON - A Quiver Full of Arrows

KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: born June 22, 1936

Originally published June 22, 2015.

A good friend of mine has returned to central Ohio during the summer break from his university teaching job in London. As we were catching up over lunch, he mentioned that I had come up during a lecture about Shakespearean acting. In the lecture, he and another professor were talking about how critical it is for actors to have multiple passions – not just a passion just acting. They were asserting the idea that multiple influences and passions would access different parts of their brains and their emotional landscapes, and these experiences would become like arrows in a quiver, and allow the actors to access more emotions and experiences while on stage. My friend used me as an example of someone with multiple passions. As we shared lunch, he re-told the story, and described me with the most humbling and flattering examples: scholar, cartoonist, father, singer. He said, “They’re impressed with you in London.” But as flattered as I was, I felt like the examples – while technically true – were misleading. I’m a singer who doesn’t practice very often and gigs less than once a year. I’m a cartoonist who hasn’t drawn or published in years. I’m a scholar inasmuch as it feeds projects like this or my job or my own curiosity, but I certainly haven’t published much or produced anything of import in a long time. In reality, I have the potential to have a quiver filled with arrows, but I’ve failed to fill it over the years. In reality, I am an average husband, an average father, and a hard working-but-underappreciated employee. And that’s about it. Because as many talents as I may have, when it comes time to access and embrace them, I rarely do. I regularly have people ask me, “Have you drawn anything lately?” or “How’s the music stuff going?” and when I admit that little is happening, they give a slight nod of understanding and their faces twist into a position that says “that’s a shame”. And it is a shame. Not because it’s wasted talent; nothing in this world is more common than wasted talent. It’s a shame because people who regularly fill their quiver with the arrows of passion can often create works of staggering originality. One of the easiest examples is Kris Kristofferson, who went from janitor to country superstar at age 34. He was an overnight sensation. One that could not have occurred without a quiver filled with arrows, a Rhodes scholarship, a rugby career, a heavy willingness to slog through his own shame and addiction, and a rented helicopter landed in Johnny Cash’s back yard. As grateful as I was for my friend using me as an example, he should have used Kristofferson. Because unsurprisingly, Kristofferson eventually expanded his quiver to include acting – another passion in which he excelled.

June 18, 2016

June 18: THE WILD BUNCH - The Inexorable Walk Towards Whatever

The Wild Bunch: premiered June 18, 1969

When Warner Brothers screened Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch for the MPAA and assorted film critics in 1969, the reaction was decidedly mixed. It was a Western, but a Western without heroes. The protagonists spend the film working for the villains. The Wild Bunch themselves was a broken-down pack of worn losers, and the film’s moral center was a tool of a fascistic railroad. The film started with a robbery and cold-blooded murder by the protagonists, and ended with an entire village being slaughtered, including the angry murder of a woman. 1969 was the beginning of an era of anti-heroes in cinema, but even then, seeing William Holden play a cowboy who angrily calls a woman “Bitch!” before shooting her dead was shocking. And none of this takes into account the violence of the picture. The Wild Bunch is easily one of cinema’s most artistically, realistically violent pictures. Peckinpah started by using advanced camera techniques, hundreds of extras, and hundreds of thousands of bullets. But the true violence was in the glee of it all. When the Mexican Army drags one of The Wild Bunch behind a car, the villagers cheer and celebrate. Children hop on for a ride. It was all too much for some critics, who stormed out. When the film ended, critic Rex Reed attacked Peckinpah’s character and amorality during the post-screening press conference. But Roger Ebert, when given a chance to speak, offered up a defense. He knew that the film was brilliant, and would usher in a new era of cinema. But what was the film’s message? That the West (expansion, imperialism, manifest destiny, pioneering) was dead? That violence is pointless? That the world is a morally ambivalent place? That you can’t trust the good guys?

The genius of The Wild Bunch is that all of those are true. It’s a film so rich and contextual that it truly can mean multiple things to anyone. And it has always been in my list of Top Five All-Time Favorite films for different reasons, at different times. Lately, I’ve been viewing it through an entirely different perspective.