October 24, 2016

October 24: RESERVOIR DOGS - An Open Letter to Everyone who stormed out of the Lincoln Theater in Chicago that night in December, 1992

Reservoir Dogs : Premiered October 23, 2012

Originally published October 24, 2014.

Dear people who stormed out of the midnight showing of Reservoir Dogs at the Lincoln Theater in Chicago that snowy night in December 1992,

Weird that I should still be thinking about you all these years later. Weird that I can remember the weather, and where I sat in the theater (aisle seat, two rows from the back). And I can’t remember any of your faces, but I remember you leaving. It was around 1am and snowing in Lincoln Park, the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and yet you were hustling out of the theater. Most of you seemed angry. All of you left with a quick step and a refusal to look back at the screen your heads down as if ducking from an assault of flying objects coming off the screen. More than anything, I remember feeling puzzled. Reservoir Dogs had only been in theaters for a few months, and was never in wide release. It had become a cult favorite at these midnight screenings. That night was the first of many midnight screenings I would attend, and all of them had people like you. People who hung around for awhile, and then usually left right around the time Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) began torturing the kidnapped cop. Over the years, I’ve tried to figure out why you left that film, and I’ve questioned people who didn’t like the film the way I do. Most of them describe the film as being overly-violent. In each case, they can describe (in gruesome details) the violent scenes that upset them the most. There’s usually only one problem when they do that. The scenes they describe don’t exist.

October 23, 2016

October 23: JOHNNIE'S LOUNGE – A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

Ivan “Johnnie” Vrbetic: 1922 – October 23, 2009

Originally published October 23, 2014.

Chicago is a city with a proud pub tradition. Generations of Chicagoans hold firm to social traditions from their European ancestors and spend their evenings at local bars. It’s not rowdy or sloppy or boisterous, despite Chicago’s “stormy, husky, brawling” reputation. People find a few bars where they feel comfortable and spend their nights hanging out at the bars, enjoying a few drinks and being with friends and regulars whom they grow to know. For years, Chicagoans have boasted that the city has more bars per capita than any city in America (a disputed fact). It’s a boast of community, not debauchery. Chicagoans know that their local bars are symbols of community and comfort, and having one on every block is a sign of a connectedness other cities can’t understand. In my twenties, I discovered a few bars that I would frequent, and one of them became an important part of my life until I finally moved away in 1996. When I would return for visits, I always made sure to return to Johnnie’s Lounge to visit with Ivan “Johnnie” Vrbetic.

October 12, 2016

October 12: DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN - The Salvation Inside

Bruce Springsteen's Darkness On The Edge Of Town: Began recording October 12, 1978

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
                                                                                            - T. S. Eliot

Originally published October 12, 2014.

When the superintendents of Venice, Italy were charged with commemorating the Italian victory over Ottoman marauders in the late sixteenth century, they decided to build the perfect citadel in the northeast corner of the country. The city, named Palmanova, was a perfect nine-pointed star surrounded by a moat. At the end of every point of the star was a rampart where soldiers stood guard. Within the city’s walls, the streets were laid out in the purest, most elegant geometry. Angles were perfect and sharp, and the building facades were all kept clean and uncluttered. Foliage was added to enhance any view, without being distracting. The entire city had no jarring angles or inconsistencies in design or layout. Its design was laid out with mathematical precision. It would take neuroscientists centuries to prove what the designers of Palmanova knew from the humanist philosophies: expansive, uncluttered views would bring a sense of peace and harmony to the human mind. Inside this walled fortress, merchants and artisans could leave peacefully, despite the city location in the direct path of Ottoman raiders coming out of Turkey and Bosnia. The settlement’s founders envisioned a world where citizens could calmly live their lives while the world threatened murder around them.

October 7, 2016

October 7: THE GIVING TREE - The Elusive Territory between Codependence and Selfishness

Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree: Published October 7, 1964

Originally published October 7, 2014.

I introduced my wife to the band Lucero yesterday. Her response to their music was similar to when I discovered them; she was blown away. We talked briefly about the talent of the band's lead singer and main songwriter, Ben Nichols. We discussed their sound and similarities to other artists we love. It was a nice, fairly typical discussion about art, but one that until that day, I had only had with myself. I had never shared Lucero with anyone before yesterday. I’d been a fan for quite awhile, but I had never thought to share their music with anyone, despite knowing many fans of their style of music. Because I can remember the moment I had discovered Lucero, and it was literally at one of the lowest points of my life. And I had discovered it in the same room as my wife. And she had heard the same song; in fact, it was her Pandora station that had played it. And while I sat in a living room chair at a phenomenally low point, watching her do yoga and listening in despair to a band I'd never heard before sing lyrics like "It's nights like these I feel like giving up / It's nights like these I don't seem to care for much". I was blown away because the songs seemed to speak so directly to how I was feeling, and so I looked up the band and over the next few months, collected every album they ever recorded. But I never shared them with anyone else. I never told people about the new band, nor did I share with anyone why they touched me so deeply. I received their gift, and I paid the band back by purchasing albums and watching their YouTube videos, but the meaning behind the music was something I kept to myself. Ironically, I would later learn that this pattern was what helped precipitate that particular low period: my ability to give only what mattered to others, to the exclusion of what mattered to me. From my perspective, my life was one of regular, deliberate sacrifice which had eventually turned sour to those for whom I sacrificed. And without anyone to sacrifice for, I was fundamentally lost. Because giving is a complex interaction, and one that requires an understanding of who we are, who we're giving to, and a fundamental awareness of why.

September 29, 2016

September 29: JOHNNY BENCH - Go Until You Can't Go No More

JOHNNY BENCH: Final game of his professional baseball career - September 29, 1983

Originally published September 29, 2014.

My wife and I were recently discussing the process of writing. I stopped writing a number of years ago and worked hard to keep myself from having the kind of opinions and thoughts and feelings from which writing naturally springs. As I've tried to re-engage with writing, I've been plagued with stops and starts rooted in a profound lack of self-confidence and a general uncertainty that my thoughts had an merit. I complained to my wife that more often than not, the words I wanted to write weren't flowing naturally out of me, but required me to force them out. Instead of being my own voice supporting my own thoughts, they became a hybrid of borrowed opinions and style imitations. It was wholly unsatisfying. I fear that I've "missed my window" and become too old and complacent to every write or create again. That kind of self-doubt is self-perpetuating, and I've found myself spinning emotionally, while I produce very little. And so I began to look to authors I admired for inspiration on how to overcome that kind of hurdle. Given the nature of this project, it should come as no surprise that I have a deep pool of inspiration to choose from. I read as much as I could, and then as I sat down to write tonight, inspiration came from an unusual place: Johnny Bench. Team captain for "The Big Red Machine" of the 1970s - one of the greatest teams in baseball history. Johnny Bench was the catcher, the leader, "The Little General", and my very first hero.

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.