Friday, February 16, 2024

A Lucky Night for Goldy


There’s a memorable Far Side panel where a goldfish emergency transpires on a stage - a broken bowl, flopping fish - and a member of the audience is standing up and says “Why, yes, I’m an ichthyologist!” The caption says: A lucky night for Goldy.

In A Prayer for Owen Meany, the titular character is doomed for a particular ending, “THE SHOT” the boys call it. Throughout the novel, Owen and the narrator John Wheelwright - amidst the typical madness of characters and plots and all that Irving stuff – practice an odd, highly choreographed and complex basketball shot, obsessively. The final scene of the novel shows you why and it is heart-wrenching and amazing.

It could’ve been chaos and perhaps looked so. The twins are just weeks old and there I am in the kitchen washing bottles, organizing them, filling them, and warming them. Over and over again. There is precious breast milk to manage and divide out. There was Enfamil and ratios and math, more math than I’d thought, percentages and stuff. There were timings and schedules and to-dos and constant juggling and re-prioritizing.

There was the procurement of goods – diapers, wipes, onesies, formula… diapers – and the rotating of the stock and one day it just hit me: No other job path could have better prepared me for taking care of twins than the restaurant business. I’d spent nearly twenty years of my working life, both front and back, in the business by then. It seemed uncanny how it all coalesced. Food costs and recipe development gave me the math; kitchen management, the organizational skills; the improvisation that it takes to keep the priorities straight and get the job done that is the dance of all waiters and bartenders and line cooks and hosts made the sudden swings manageable and, honestly, kept it interesting.

As I continued on as a stay-at-home-parent, I saw this all more and more. Now, I was never a good enough Presbyterian to really get on board the whole predestination ride, but…



Sheer dumb luck?

Maybe, though, maybe we do everything for a reason. Maybe absolutely every move you make, every thought you have, all of it, is terribly important – essential.  We just don’t know, always, just quite how.

So, earlier this week I was our local SongFarmers event here – basically just a good old-fashioned hootenanny - at the local library and a woman sang a song and another joined her in the chorus. I just barely recognized the song and can’t remember it now to save me, which is, arguably, not helping the narrative. All the same, it was great, and the song sounded sweet and it was a nice moment.

Across the room from her, a younger fellow sat and listened. He asked if he could tell us all something and proceeded to say that as long as he’d been in the local music scene, he’d always wanted to hear these two, unrelated artists (in fact they don’t really even know each other) sing this song, in particular, together. (Again, what song would help, but I can’t imagine how I’d find out. The style of performance, ‘round-robin’ it’s often called, is fleeting and the moments come and are, as quickly gone.)

Now, what struck me about it, and him as well, is that the whole scene was so incredibly unlikely. Here’s a song, they both know, they’ve both learned and practiced and played for years and, of this one particular evening, it comes together - out of the beautiful void - in the presence of the one guy who’d always wanted it to happen. He was physically and emotionally stung by the serendipity of it all.


I know, for a fact - although I could never verify the numbers - that there are thousands (tens, hundreds) of folks like me and my SongFarmer compatriots playing songs and learning tunes and practicing riffs and improving tone in their basements or music rooms or porches or parlors every damn night. I belong to guitar forums and acoustic performers pages and even get ukulele posts fed to me by FB because, well, correctly for once, they’ve determined that’s my vibe. I certainly don’t mind; I like knowing ya’ll are out there.

Sometimes folks perform a tune and post a YouTube video and a link on FB (which FB loathes and is trying to end) and a handful of people might look at it, perhaps like it, but, at the very least acknowledge it. I love these. Like the “’zines” of the eighties and nineties, or the old recordings made for a few bucks on a 45 or a little self-published chapbook of poetry, they show me what’s important to you. And they show me, fundamentally, that what we do has meaning, worth and is good – always good.

But, back, just one more time, to the cold quiet basements and hot, steamy summers picnic tables where we labor at it all. I feel we are doing it for a reason, always, that, again, even in that seeming silence, we are not doing it for naught, now way… never.

I secretly imagine a scene where aliens land and one little guy comes out, looking annoyed, and says that if someone can grant his one request then all of earth will be spared. “Can anyone,” he asks sheepishly, “show me how the chords in the chorus of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind work? Is that a B minor in there or what?”

And I’ll hold up my hand and say: “Why, yes, yes I do know that part.” And the world will be saved because I’ve played that song to the void a million times.

Glad to help.


Here's a link to the SongFarmers page, if you are curious.

Friday, February 9, 2024

Al, Is That You?


Did you see what Merriam-Webster’s word of the year was for 2023?


They could have chosen Artificial Intelligence, “AI” (which always looks like Al to me, like the shortened version of the name Allen or Albert) or “rizz” or “deepfake” but didn’t. Authentic won out, and I think it should have.

I am sure the decision was indeed a way to call out AI and all the ramifications of it. I see AI all the time these days and I, for one, am sort of frightened of it. Others more so; artists, photographers, writers all see it as a threat to their livelihood and creativity. College professors wade through fake papers. Politicians use it to slander and defame their candidates. Phones fix bad backgrounds, eliminate people and objects, even aggregate a number of images into one, fake, image where everyone is smiling.

What frightens me more is the AI we don’t see and won’t see even more in the future as it gets better and better and more nefarious and, well, meaner. I should acknowledge that, as I understand it, AI can be an amazing tool – predicting problems and treatments in medicine, finding anomalies in weather patterns, aiding in the building of those amazing images from the Webb telescope that surprise us seemingly every day, and in so many more ways I am sure I will never know.

And, you know what? There’s another thing I think I should be thankful to AI for – it has sent me on a search for the truth, the actual, the authentic.

I ask myself, more than ever, perhaps even for the some of the first times in my life, is this real?

That’s profound and exactly what AI is designed to not have me do.

I listen to a lot of new music, mostly Americana, Folk and Bluegrass, and am finding a new voice coming through it all, a true voice, a real story, a new authenticity and, honestly, I think a lot of folks are looking for that as well.

At The Grammy Awards last Sunday there was a lot of big, big stuff – costumes and choreography and songs from artists I don’t know and never will – none of it AI (I assume) but, for me, fake, somehow digital. And then…

Enter Tracy Chapman, analog, a guitar and an iconic song, Fast Car, and then, Luke Combs joins her and I am holding back tears. The crowd roared; the show stolen.

And then, and then…

Joni Mitchell comes out with her beautiful helper and friend, Brandi Carlisle, and sings Both Sides Now in a spinning throne-like chair and her walking staff and re-steals the whole damn show. Imagine, a woman – a young woman – writes a song in 1966, records it and it becomes a huge hit. (I remember my dad loved it and the song’s been echoing about in my mind for decades.) She records it again, a lavish production, in 2000. And then, she sings it again in 2024 – a frail and beautiful woman, strong and tender and so, so lovely. I let my tears run…

…as they are now.

In an opinion piece in The Washington Post just yesterday, Kim Ruehl writes: “I felt these things again as I watched Tracy Chapman and Joni Mitchell sing their songs. At its best, a song can remind us there is light on offer every day. After the past few years of world events, it still feels as though we are emerging from our tiny cabins. We are pretty sure we know what to expect. But then the light comes — just like that. With it come the tears. We didn’t know how much we needed them.”

Ms. Ruehl wasn’t the only one to mention these two performances, out of the dozens Sunday night – journalists and artists, friends and so many others could not help but marvel, comment and revel in the confelicity that we all shared, the joy.

What we saw was authentic.

What we witnessed was the truth.

We saw unadulterated beauty.

It is not surprising that, in this world of AI and deepfakes and this maelstrom of untruths, many of us saw and savored this moment, humans are better than it all, I swear.

Originally when this all started, (when? I don’t know, it just kind of seeped in, didn’t it?) I was angry and distrustful and vowed to not fall for it and eschew it at every opportunity, and not allow it in my life.

Well, that’s not going to work out and life upsets me enough already.

But something else happened, I look harder now for the authentic.

Go on out now and look for it and yourself, you’ll see it.

A little league baseball game.

A high school musical.

The lyrics to this new song or that old one.

The poems of our tender sons.

The tears of a lover lost.

The stone truth in a memory turned to the sun.


Look for it.


AI can simply not compare to the brushstrokes in a Rothko painting, the story in a Norman Rockwell, the images of Mapplethorpe, the detail in a Vermeer. It cannot compare to “To be…” or "When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow..." and all that comes after those lines. It shall never even hum to Brahms’ German Requiem, Bohemian Rhapsody or an American in Paris. It could never conjure the folk dances of the indigenous or put on the slippers at the Bolshoi Ballet.

It can never get to the truth of it all, this Art.

Seek that truth. Seek that place. Seek that, well… Love. Like the Tinman of Oz, you can see its heartlessness and will never get one. It simply… can’t.

There is no Artificial Love.


Friday, February 2, 2024

Poetry is Hard, Memory is Sweet


I’ve been sick this last week – the same old cold, flu-like symptoms, sniffly, stuffy, sneezy gunk that has meandered across this modern country for decades at least.

“Somethings going around” they say. No real treatment. Common.

So, I am not as prepared today as I sometimes am; more prepared than others, honestly.


I have struggled with finding a clear timeline through my life. “Now” roams through it all like that same virus that sores my throat and muddles my mind a bit. You know this, I’ve mentioned it before… like, well, all the time. As hard as it is to explain sometimes makes me think is just me.

And then you recognize it somewhere else. 

Someone mentions how they can’t remember when something was, but it seems like just yesterday. 

You see a face, your face, mine, and can’t imagine when that face is, could it possibly be me, you, now? 

A sun sets in tomorrows yet to come… today.

Sometimes you can read it in a favorite Christmas story by Dickens.

Sometimes it weeps from a poem by Li-Young Lee:




I was tired. So I lay down.
My lids grew heavy. So I slept.
Slender memory, stay with me.
I was cold once. So my father took off his blue sweater.
He wrapped me in it, and I never gave it back.
It is the sweater he wore to America,
this one, which I've grown into, whose sleeves are too long,
whose elbows have thinned, who outlives its rightful owner.
Flamboyant blue in daylight, poor blue by daylight,
it is black in the folds.
A serious man who devised complex systems of numbers and rhymes
to aid him in remembering, a man who forgot nothing, my father
would be ashamed of me.
Not because I'm forgetful,
but because there is no order
to my memory, a heap
of details, uncatalogued, illogical.
For instance:
God was lonely. So he made me.
My father loved me. So he spanked me.
It hurt him to do so. He did it daily.
The earth is flat. Those who fall off don't return.
The earth is round. All things reveal themselves to men only gradually.
It won't last. Memory is sweet.
Even when it's painful, memory is sweet.
Once I was cold. So my father took off his blue sweater.


Poetry is hard. Yes.


(Thanks for reminding me of this one, Nick.)


If you are ever looking for a long-forgotten poem, it's probably here,