Thursday, September 3, 2020

Tom Petty and a life

I finished watching Runnin' Down a Dream, the panoramic 4 hour 19 minute documentary about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, last night.

Not all in one sitting.

The 2007 film was directed by Peter Bogdanovich.  You know, The Last Picture Show guy.  

I knew virtually nothing about Petty and his Heartbreakers before this.  His music was not a part of my life.

The film is thorough, if anything.  It mainly consists if concert footage and interviews with Petty, his band members, and various well-known musical figures.  It's not a great film, in my view.  And fours hours is a long time if you're not a rabid Petty fan.

But the film is curiously addicting.  Because of its length, you are able to really get to know Tom Petty.  And his career, which began in the mid-1970s, and continued until his death at 66 in 2017.

What I gathered after imbibing this much celluloid is that Tom Petty was one interesting, admirable guy.  Brave and a man of great integrity,

Thinking about it this morning.  Two things.  First, the influence of seeing the full sweep of a life.  Or a musical life, because there is almost nothing of Petty's private life in the film. One can assume this was deliberate on Petty's part.  The most affecting glimpse is the material about his mother and his cruel father.

You see a life unfold, decision by decision, resolution by resolution.  Petty twice fought the music industry in David vs. Goliath encounters, and twice he prevailed.  These were nasty and prolonged fights, not mere skirmishes.

This nearly day-by-day accounting is sobering.  A life is an accumulation, and today is part of that accounting.  A life is all those todays.

What does my accumulation look like?

I don't like a lot of what I see.

Second thing.  Suddenly, Tom Petty is dead at 66.  Did he have regrets?  I have no idea.  But if the film is any indication, I would say: not many.

I'm 75.  

How much accumulating do I have left? Will it make a difference?

Friday, August 28, 2020

A walk in Charleston

I arrived in Charleston, SCor nearbyMonday.  On my way back to New Orleans.

Went into the city proper yesterday.  I'd been on previous trips but wanted to see how it looked with this shitstorm we're facing. 

Pretty place, early-19th-century century houses.  Enjoyable to walk, normally.  Scene of a monstrous church slaying in 2015.  Civil War started in the harbor.  I'm sure you know this.

The place was practically deserted.  Masks required, but half the few people I saw, wearing none.  Zero police presence, either on foot or in auto, to enforce.

The last time I walked here I had a companion, a woman I'd been with for three years.  My leaving her ached within me.  No place is the same if it can't be shared.  She liked Charleston.  

She walked with me in my mind.  I pointed out things to her.  "Remember this house?"  Or, "I bought you a hat here.  You liked it so much."  We went to the harbor, in my mind, watched the birds.

As Dylan says: I threw it all away.  

Even without her, it was sad walking the streets.  The life is squeezed out of the town.  Even towns can lose weight, become thinner, look wan.

I wanted to see one building, though, before I turned around.  

The Old Slave Mart.  I'd been before, taken a tour, but wanted to see it again.  

I stood before it.  It's odd, in a way, with a plate glass facade.  But the lettering above is not odd.  Reading the words "MART" on the building made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.  As well it should. 

It's impossible to process, the fact of slavery.  As soon as I thought of what went on inside that building 165 years ago, my mind collapsed.

I walked away, interior fingers pointing at me.

Hardly any walk is simple, is it?

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Notes on a courageous writer

Lacy Crawford. 

She published a remarkable memoir in July, Notes on a Silencing.  The book takes place, mostly, at St. Paul's School, a storied, elite prep school for boys and girls in New Hampshire.  It's a dark story of violation, cruelty and betrayal that is as well written and stirring as any memoir I've read in years.  

Crawford was 15 when she got a phone call one night from a boy at school she hardly knew.  He was distraught.  He said something had happened with his mother.  Would she please come to help.  She did.  That boy and another boy brutally raped her orally. She didn't know it then, but one result of this crime was she contracted herpes.

The book is the story of what happened before and after that night. 

Lacy Crawford is able to describe the machinations, pettiness and outright cruelty that flows through prep school dorms better than anyone I've ever read.  Having attended one of these so-called elite prep schools for five years myself as a boarding student, I can tell you that she has perfect pitch when it comes to describing the particular form of cruelty that arises from youth who come from money and privilege.

There is not a single drop of self-pity in this book.  You, the reader, will supply the pity, the outrage, the anger and the sorrow as you read this story.  There is much cowardice here, not from the author, but from St. Paul's and its administration and teachers.  Not to mention lying and, as the title suggests, attempts by the school to silence Crawford.  If you're like me, you will bristle, react viscerally, to the wrongs done to her.  They start with the assault, but they by no means end there.

Despite the dark story, Crawford's writing can be funny at times, dry and sardonic.  She also quotes poets, a writer after my own heart.  Elizabeth Bishop's poem "One Art" gets her through some difficult times.  She quotes one of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets at one point.  Anyone who believes in the guiding power of poetry will find evidence of that in Crawford's book.  If you find yourself stymied at times defending the arts, point the skeptics to Notes on a Silencing.

Crawford is wondrously adept with language.  She knows when the strong Anglo-Saxon word is required when writing about sex and when it just wouldn't be right.  She never spares herself in this tale and, to draw on an other poet, Theodore Roethke, she understands, as he writes, that nakedness is her shield.  Here I am, she says.  I'm revealing everything, my messy mistakes included.

Most everyone in the book is not kind to Crawford. "Kind" is a word she uses often, and kindness ranks high, if not the highest, on her list of admirable qualities in a person.  The few exceptions, the few people who are kind to hera female chaplain, a boyfriend of a few monthsbring much-appreciated light into this dark story.  Even a girl's brief arm around her shoulder is something Crawford never forgets.  

The courage?  After having told her story many times to people who doubt her and evenof course!accuse her of being at fault, Crawford decides, nearly thirty years after the events, to write about them unstintingly in a book.  She doesn't hold back onanything. She's married now, happily, and has two small sons.  On day, they will read her book.  She know this, of course. Yet, she proceeds. It's a beautifully written book and a humbling experience to read it.

Thursday, July 23, 2020


I am staying in a small garage apartment in Camden, Maine.  There are windows in the main room that look out onto a congregation of lovely trees, including a spectacular Eastern white pine, perhaps 80' tall.  A tree I'd be willing to fall on my knees before.

Looking out a window yesterday, I saw a fluttering of black near a rock nearby. The black was twisting and writhing.  Birds?  

Trusty binoculars at hand, I picked them up and focused.  Two crows.  They were moving about in the dirt on their bellies.  They were flashing their wings, often changing places, one moving over and around the other.  Constantly shifting.  Like a modern dance but an amateur one.

It seemed more intense than a normal dirt bath.  It went on and on.  Then one bird suddenly hopped onto a plank nearby.  Began preening.  Extensive beak work on the wings and feathers.

Then it was all over.  They flew away.

I went down to have a look.  I saw near the rock: hundreds of ants racing about, at double-speed, like a miniature Grand Central Station at 5:35pm on a Friday.  Heavy traffic!  Well, they'd just been stirred up by two black tornadoes.

What was...the deal?

I went upstairs and Googled, well, "Crows and ants."  And lo and behold, "Anting" came up.

"Anting is a maintenance behavior during which birds rub insects, usually ants, on their feathers and skin," Wiki says. 

A word and an activity in 75 years of living I'd never encountered.  Here's what Stanford University has to say about it:

"The purpose of anting is not well understood, but the most reasonable assumption seems to be that it is a way of acquiring the defensive secretions of ants primarily for their insecticidal, miticidal, fungicidal, or bactericidal properties and, perhaps secondarily, as a supplement to the bird's own preen oil." 

Come to think of it, how did the crows know that there were ants there?  A rush hour of ants?  I'd walked by the rock many times and not noticed ants.

Let there be mysteries.  

Friday, July 17, 2020


Driving from Belfast, Maine back to Camden, I run into a sweep of fog.  I’d been driving through full sunshine up until then. My car climbed and descended a small hill, and there it was: a white presence drifting over the hills and the road before me.  The road is not a half-mile from the sea, so it makes sense.  Still, a surprise.

Fog like this—not obscuring the road completely for the foreseeable future and so not striking fear in a driver—is a delight.  Just enough white to be called fog and yet not enough to be perilous.   Fog can be treacherous, but not today.

The fog is delicate, snowy, insubstantial; yet it’s there.  I know it’s entirely water, yet, unlike water, how graceful and airy and white it is.

When fog moves, it often drifts, taking its good time, like a jellyfish being eased on by the current.

Sometimes, of course it stubbornly sits there, unmovable, the last person at the party. 

The poet Marianne Moore writes about an ocean storm: “It is a privilege to see so / much confusion.”  I think it’s a privilege to see this little world of fog. I bask in it.

After five minutes of driving, I’m through its presence and back in sunlight. Regrettably.

Was I seeing things? 

Who knows why there was fog in just one short stretch of land and road and nowhere else?  There’s a reason, of course.  But I think if I knew that reason, the science that is, I’d be the less for it.

Leave me with my child-like wonder.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Living in a new place for a short time and trying to understand how everything works

I've rented a small apartment in Maine for a brief stay.  It's the first time I've stayed in this place.  Everything is new.  The shower, kitchen, windows, front door, closets, bathroom.  

Every time I stay in a new place, it's the same situation.  I have to fiddle with shower handles to discern the right balance between hot and cold, something I've long established in my own place.  Several screams later, I begin to make the proper adjustments.  Finally, after perhaps a week, sometimes even longer, I determine precisely how to reach that correct balance of hot and cold water to produce the ideal shower.

The process is the same with everything.  My stove, for example, has new mysteries of oven temperature to deal with.  Is its 350 degrees the same as my stove's at home? What about the burners?  They're electric, not gas, like mine.   The cultures are entirely different between gas and electric.  This adjusting takes up almost two weeks.  In the process, I burn several dishes, and myself.

Lamps, windows, cabinets, even chairs--they all require learning curves.  Where's that switch to turn this &^%$# lamp off?

Finally, after four weeks, I think I've learned how to make everything work according to my own particular routines and predilections.

The time to leave is just around the corner.

I can't take these highly honed skills and newfound knowledge anywhere else.  They only fit here, in this apartment.  

Maybe I could loan myself out as a kind of apartment docent to anyone else who rents this place.

"Now,  you'll notice this window shade is rather temperamental.  I would  suggest an angled pull on the cord, with the slightest tug at the end...."

Like everyone else, I just want to be useful.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Telling a lie

From time to time, I meet someone who says, "I never lie." 

I don't believe them.

It's almost impossible for me to go through the day without telling a lie.  I lie in order not to hurt someone, for example.  Of course, the truth isn't necessarily called for when not asked for.  But sometimes you're asked for it, and sometimes it's better not to provide it.  If they ask you, are you going to tell your child she or he wasn't less than wonderful in the school recital?  And if you do tell them they just weren't that goodwhich is the truth, mind you!well, go live with the look on their face.  

But, hey, you can say you never lie.  Good for you. 

Someone asked playwright Tracy Letts what he says when he sees a play written by a friend that he thinks is awful and the friend asks him his opinion.

"I lie!" Letts said.  "I lie magnificently!"

I agree with what one of Graham Greene's characters has to say about this:  "The truth, he thought, has never been of any real value to any human beingit is a symbol for mathematicians to pursue.  In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths."

Of course, sometimes lying is despicable.  If the intent is to deceive, to cause harm, simply to gain an advantage, well, it's ugly.  Sometimes you have to tell the truth.  You're a coward if you don't.  I often fail here.  I lie when I shouldn't.  Not proud of that. 

I side with Tennessee Williams.  I trust his sense of morality.  In A Streetcar Named Desire, Mitch confronts Blanche with some unsavory details about her past:

Mitch:  You lied to me, Blanche.
Blanche:  Don't say I lied to you.
Mitch:  Lies, lies, inside and out, all lies.
Blanche:  Never inside, I didn't lie in my heart...

TW was the same guy who said the worst sin is deliberate cruelty.  And a lot of times a well-fabricated lie prevents me from being deliberately cruel.  In those moments, I'm content to be a liar.

A great friend of mine, who tells the truth faithfully more than anyone I've ever known, said to me recently, "I've made a vow not to lie to myself anymore."

Now that is a different story.