Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Rear window

In the middle of the day a man in winter garb — jacket, knit hat, and mittens — stands in his front yard facing a small leafless tree a few feet taller than he is, and performs a delicate tai chi posture, but with his hands gently touching the tree as if he were dancing with it. The man continues his freeform tai chi dance with his stationary partner, while people walk by on the sidewalk paying no attention at all.

He makes various gestures with the tree for a surprisingly long while before he pulls away, briefly disappears, then triumphantly returns, now strutting around the tree as if it were a Maypole: round and round he goes, enacting a springtime ritual on a winter day in front of everybody passing by his street in a Denver suburb.

I used to practice my saxophone in a spare upstairs bedroom in Kenmore, a Buffalo suburb, facing a window looking over my back yard and the adjacent back yard of the house one street over from mine. I didn’t know the people who lived there, but I spent hours every day staring at their place while going over this or that thing on my horn, and after a while the primate brain does what it does: (me, cleaning up sloppiness in my palm key fingering) “Looks like they’re getting mail”; (I’m playing overtones) “He must be off work”; (going over a pattern I want to get under my fingers) “Red Car Lady again, maybe somebody’s mom?”; (memorizing a tune) “New lawn mower.”

While I wasn’t Jimmy Stewart in a wheelchair, there was strong Rear Window energy: I was a stationary observer watching the comings and goings of strangers and piecing together narratives about their lives based on that limited data set. I wasn’t really investing any conscious energy into these observations at all; they just appeared in my head unbidden, like faces in the clouds, while I busied myself with this or that exercise.

Now I find myself in Colorado, practicing a different horn, looking out a different window into a different back yard, and off in the distance is a different street. The vista here has also changed: I’m on a ground floor, and the arrangement of houses and fencing and whatnot means I see a much tinier slice of life one street over, and now it’s a front yard, and farther away.

But, whatever, because in that front yard is Tai Chi Man, and Tai Chi Man marching around his Maypole tree is unusual and compelling enough to directly pierce my consciousness, so that I pull the horn out of my mouth and make the age old observation, “What the fuck.”

The Maypole ritual ends, the tai chi performance is over, the man appears spent. He walks out of my view.

After a moment, while I’m staring and pondering, the tree suddenly comes brilliantly alive with lovely colored lights: he WASN’T tai-chiing, he WASN’T Maypoling, he WASN’T making a spectacle of himself on a busy suburban street — he was just putting lights up in his tree, and all at once this has turned into a budget tale of Holiday Cheer, God Bless Us, Everyone! 

Monday, November 16, 2020

something from nothing (for Keith Jarrett)

if I could toss into the air
one crystalline line
ending the silence
of a moment ago

and if that line folded into itself
self perpetuated
then collapsed
then uncoiled into ribbons

if I could project into space
that line
and also beneath it another line
answering the first

this second line
buttressing the argument
refuting the argument

if I could toss into the air
something from nothing

if I could birth these lines
into the empty air

if I could bring forth
into the empty air
these complicated and lovely and impossible
somethings from nothing

if I could do that

I would not be able to keep myself
from crying out

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Yesterday was Monk’s birthday

Yesterday was Monk’s birthday. Every minute of the day, in fact before it even was the actual day, I knew it was Monk’s birthday: late Friday night, toward midnight (NOT “’round midnight”: too corny by a mile) Google Calendar told me that Monk’s birthday was in 10 minutes.

All day long yesterday it was Monk’s birthday, and I knew it. Brushing my teeth, it was Monk’s birthday. Doing dishes: today is Monk’s birthday. Scooping cat litter — my sister introduced me to the Litter Genie (I got the name wrong for about a week, thinking is was Litter Genius), which makes dealing with cat poop less of a pain in the ass, and which every time I use I think ‘wow, some dude had this idea and made it happen,’ which it occurs to me is also the story of Thelonious Monk — anyways, as I was plopping poop into the Litter Genie, I thought about Monk.

I was at the Safeway, and it was Monk’s birthday. I don’t know where anything is at the Safeway. It’s my new grocery store. The green beans looked pretty good. I surveyed the pasta, and was delighted to find DeCecco, superior to the ubiquitous Barilla in my opinion.

Peet’s Coffee, French Roast, Whole Bean. In stock if you look for it, I discovered. (It’s Monk’s birthday, I thought, as I inventoried Safeway’s coffee selection.)

I didn’t like Monk at first. I didn’t think he could play. (Same with Eric Dolphy: I had a 3-LP anthology, “The Saxophone,” with Max Roach’s “Mendacity,” where Dolphy takes a blistering solo. Miles Davis had said of Eric Dolphy, in a blindfold test, that he played like somebody was stepping on his foot — Miles didn’t quite put it that way, but that’s how I’d remembered it — so when I heard Dolphy for the first time on that anthology I thought “Miles was right, it sounds like somebody’s stepping on his foot!”)

I was barely a teenager.

I was alone at the precise moment when I fell in love with Monk’s playing. I was living in my girlfriend’s studio apartment in Minneapolis. (I had an actual “official” roommate, my college pal Doug, in an upstairs duplex in St. Paul where I was paying rent, but I’d moved my stuff to her place and hadn’t seen Doug in months. I wasn’t ready to tell my folks I was serious about a girl, and she and I weren’t ready to specifically identify just what we were doing, which is why I was still paying rent in St. Paul.) She worked nights as a cocktail waitress at a fancy bar in downtown Minneapolis. You wouldn’t believe how much she’d bring home in tips every night.

(Another thing about that shitty studio apartment, in a crummy part of Minneapolis where she’d been mugged once walking out of a bank [she fought with the mugger and actually got one of his shoes — I told her jeezus don’t fight next time]: one time we’d turned on the oven and, as it heated up, leagues of roaches scattered from it in broad daylight, from tiny baby roaches to gigantic Abominations Unto God, and we didn’t use the oven after that. Also, it had a gas fireplace that she’d been told not to use because it didn’t work, but one winter day she tried it when the apartment was too cold and it was fine, and after that we used that illicit fireplace all winter long, making the place so steamy we’d have to open the windows, even in a Minneapolis winter. It was great.)

I had a lot of time to listen to music while waiting for her to get home from the bar, a few hours after midnight. (She’d get home after 2; I’d have to be at work in a downtown music store around 8: I have no idea how I functioned on the amount of sleep I was getting back then, but I found her very compelling and worth the wait, and drank enough coffee at work to seem lucid.)

One evening I turned to Monk. I don’t know exactly what I was listening to when I realized how wrong 13-year-old me had been about him, but it was almost certainly a live recording of the quartet with Charlie Rouse. Monk swung So Fucking Hard, he was so funny, he knew exactly what to play to tighten up his rhythm section or push shit to another level. His playing was beautiful and wise and absurd. Monk played the truth. He astonished me. I bought every damn record of his. I was smitten.

Yesterday, all day, was his birthday, and I knew it. I’ll always know it.

If I stick it out here in Colorado (it’s very beautiful, by the way) someday I’ll probably know where everything is in the Safeway. 

I’m divorcing the woman who was a cocktail waitress 35 years ago. My mind is scattered, but I didn’t forget Monk’s birthday. He’s important to me. He changed my life, changed the way I play, changed the way I write.

I listened to Monk last night, and I thought about the young man I was when I fell in love with a girl and with him in that shitty studio apartment in Minneapolis. I was transitioning to a new, adult, post-college version of myself when I fell for him back then. 

And once again I’m in transition.

Anyways, I toasted Monk last night with some bourbon and maybe a little weed, because it was his birthday. 

Friday, August 28, 2020

Every day I live in less of my house


Every day I live in less of my house. One day the piano’s gone; later the wall art starts to disappear; little-used kitchen utensils are stowed or thrown out. (What the fuck we owned a cherry pitter?) Each day a bit more of my life is stacked in banker boxes with cryptic messages like “LR BOOKS #3” written in enduringly stinky Sharpie ink.

There’s not a single thing that comes into view that I don’t think “do I really need you?” Every object I settle my gaze upon quakes at the prospect of the landfill.

In the current context almost everything I own seems absurd. I am triaging decades of my life. According to these artifacts and trinkets, my life was also absurd. I know the artifacts don’t tell the whole story. I know my life [so far] wasn’t absurd. For the most part. But still.

I don’t live in Buffalo any more. A viral neutron bomb has left all of the physical structure of Buffalo intact. But what made Buffalo Buffalo: my friends, our shared lives, the unhealthy food we ate together, the sweet fragile beauty of connection that we had — that’s all gone. I’m one intensely socially-distant motherfucker right now. I love you, but I don’t trust that you don’t have the plague, so I’m not hanging: because if I get this plague, an already impossibly complicated life will just fucking go off the rails.

I’m not sad at all. (For the most part.) I’m ready to move on. This was not how I thought I’d end my days in this sweet, lovely town, amongst you sweet, lovely people. You are, sincerely, the best part of my life. 

And yet: here I go!

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Super Ramen



(from End Times Recipes for the Whole Family, a fake cookbook I made up just now)

I guess it’s time I told you about Super Ramen.

I’m not entirely sure you can handle it, but it’s too good a thing not to share during Plague Time™, when you’re (as in, “I am”) looking in the cupboard while sighing deeply and talking to your (my) volleyball friend Wilson.

First, a stipulation: Ramen just made directly as-is from the package is Perfectly Barely Adequate. It is a dorm room staple because it is a perfectly barely adequate food item.

Super Ramen, on the other hand, is a substantial upgrade.

First, the BASE INGREDIENTS:

• A package of ramen. Better ramen is better, theoretically. (He posited, offering no evidence.)

• Ketchup. Yeah, I hear you: “Git a rope.” Listen, punk, no greater a food authority than Mark Bittman (NOTE: he’s a bigger food authority than you are, unless you’re Julia Child and this is a séance, in which case GREETINGS YOUR MAJESTY!) sings ketchup’s praises for “Asiany”-influenced dishes — this idea is stolen directly from his AMAZING Ketchup Braised Tofu recipe in “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.” You will not know there is any ketchup in your soup; you will just think hey this is better.

• Toasted sesame oil. ALWAYS keep this amazing condiment on hand, in the same way that you should always have at least 3 months of expenses in your savings account, which you emphatically do not have and now here you are, eating ramen.

• Soy Sauce. Duh.

• Sriracha (correct) or your preferred (incorrect) hot sauce for Asiany dishes. (Frank’s RedHot is an inappropriate hot sauce for Asiany dishes. Fight me.)

If you only have the above, you’ve already got a hugely better bowl of ramen ahead of you.

But if you also have some OPTIONAL ADD-ON INGREDIENTS, you’ll be godlike; for example:

• Broccoli.

• Leftover cooked chicken, or whatever.

• Or pork. Or tofu. You got this!

EVEN MORE OPTIONAL: GARNISHES

In a More Perfect World, as opposed to Our Current World — which is not merely imperfect, but is sprawled fully-disheveled across a bus stop bench, shouting profanities at passersby — one would/could/should add:

• lime wedge squirt (delightful!)

• green stuff (scallions are divine, cilantro is lovely for Those In The Know, Thai basil or just Basil basil, etc.)

• whatever speaks to you: no one’s judging you here (unless, I mean, let’s not push it) (sez the guy telling you to put ketchup in your ramen)

BASIC PREP

1) While heating your noodle water (as per package directions), squirt a Very Decent Squooch of ketchup into your sufficiently-large Destination Bowl (the bowl you’ll be eating from; C’MON KEEP UP!). How much, you ask, reasonably. More than you might think! I’m fully guestimating that my squooches appear to be around 6ish OR MORE tablespoons. Be generous! Whatever, you really can’t go wrong here. BREATHE.

2) Grind some black pepper (“ThAt’S nOt In ThE iNgReDiEnT lIsT”: PEOPLE, IT’S PEPPER!) into your ketchup squooch. Grind in as much as you think is right. Wrong: grind some more, You Unbelievable Sissy.

3) Sprinkle the soup base packet, chock full of incredibly (MSG) wholesome (MSG) ingredients (MSG), into your ketchup/pepper squooch.

4) Also put any already-cooked add-ons (like that leftover chicken), into your Destination Bowl.

5) Once your water is boiling, put in the noodles. Don’t break them up. One minute into the (presumed 3 minute) cooking time, put raw broccoli florets on top of the intact “noodle raft” in the pot while they’re cooking, and cover the pot. They’ll be just right when the noodles are done. (Putting the florets on the floating noodle raft rather them just plopping them into the boiling water means they’ll be more steamed than boiled, as God ordained.) (Ignore any package directions to “stir the noodles” while cooking: madness.)

6) Any other veggie that needs cooking also needs to be added to the pot, either to the raft if they need steaming, or the water if they need more intense cooking.

7) When the time’s up, pour the noodles/veggies/etc. into the Destination Bowl. Stir stuff around like a crazy person!

8) À table (French, for “à table”) add your soy sauce, sesame oil (DON’T be shy with this!), and hot sauce to taste. More is better. More. More. Yes: more.

9) Put in all your lavish garnishes, you Crazy Sexy Person!

10) Eat your Ramen Of The Gods a.k.a. Super Ramen!

Saturday, January 4, 2020

First day of school

First day of school, and I’m running late. A friend agrees to give me a ride, but stops EVERYWHERE — drug store, coffee shop, bank — because he has “errands” and then I realize he’s also picking up fares as an Uber driver! Meanwhile, it dawns on me that I have done ZERO class prep: forgot to order books, forgot to print syllabi — in fact, I’m not 100% sure just what I’m teaching or where. Somehow I finally get to the classroom, a giant theatre-style space I’ve never seen before, I’m late, the class is standing room only and they’re angry with me. So many faces I can hardly focus on any single one of them. The room is silent. There’s a mic at the lectern that I can’t get to work, so after an excruciating minute or two I start half-shouting, trying to “wing it” and see if I can figure out just what this class is supposed to be and how I’m going to fill the time since I have no handouts and no roster and no idea of what I’m up to. As I’m speaking a kid stands up in the front row and starts doggedly reciting the morning news. I try to speak over him, then stop for a moment and realize it’s the radio and wake up. 

Candy corn

At this very moment, as you’re reading this, somewhere in America, a factory is making candy corn, on purpose.  A hairnetted worker in a lab...