Ride

September 26, 2009

I have ridden this train before. I have taken the Lake Shore Limited many times
from Toledo to New York City. Usually I have had to ride coach all the way, trying to
sleep sitting up with my jacket rolled up as a pillow beneath my head and my back
turned to whoever is sitting beside me. If I am lucky, I have both seats to myself and am
able to curl up with my knees against the adjoining back cushion, my feet occasionally
slipping off onto the floor as deeper slumber claims my consciousness.

Every once in a blue moon, though, I am flush enough to have my own tiny
sleeper compartment for the duration of the journey. This is one of those times.

I am enjoying the solitude of my mobile cocoon as we pull into the Erie station.
I am well familiar with the drill by now; this is where the engine will be serviced before
our travel continues. In general we remain primarily immobile in Erie for anywhere
from half an hour to about fifty minutes, depending on the locomotive’s condition. But
throughout the course of the maintenance, the train will be activated and halted again,
moving forward a few feet, a few yards, to monitor its progress. This is the part of the
stay that interests me the most, but as I am in a sleeper in one of the last cars, it will be
a while until I need to look out the window. So for the time being I return my full
attention to Jane Austen and the travails of the Dashwood sisters as Secrets of the
Beehive
unfold in my ears.

In the meantime, the train has shuddered to a start and stop several times.
Finally, I look up to see that we have cleared the station and it is time for me to pay
heed to my outer surroundings again. Every time I have traveled this route, I have
been fascinated by this same scene. It is a neighborhood of small wooden frame
houses of varying colors, mostly faded from the elements, at least this is so for
those in my line of sight. I have always wondered about the inhabitants of these
homes, how they manage to live so near to the tracks and the almost constant noise
of the trains, the way the motion must surely shake the diminutive structures to
their foundations. I imagine a person grows accustomed to this with time and
necessity. I have grown used to my own figurative Amtraks for the same reasons.
It’s amazing, the length and limits of what a human being may be forced to bear,
isn’t it?

Suddenly a movement from the second closest house catches my eye.
This is the first time I have ever seen a sign of life emanating from this little cluster
of buildings; I am curious to see who calls this particular, tannish edifice “home”.
Even though the music does not affect my vision, still I remove my earphones and
press my face against the window.

A woman with blonde-streaked brown hair pulled back into a ponytail
apparently more for convenience than fashion has stepped out onto her back stoop.
I can’t see too clearly, but from my less than ideal vantage point, she looks to be
early thirtiesish, a slender figure clad in a white t-shirt and jeans. She lights up
a cigarette and sits down on the stoop. Now I really have to crane my neck to keep
her in my perspective.

After a minute or two, during which she occasionally smokes and seems
otherwise lost in thought, the screen door behind her opens and a little boy comes
bounding out. He is sandy-haired, about four I guess, and dressed identically to the
woman. He races out into the yard (your basic generic yard except for an empty
clothesline and what I assume must be a tool shed of sorts), bursting with the kind of
energy you can only have at that age, when everything in life still is so fresh and feels
like an adventure. I remember that feeling, I think. The woman (his mother?) seems
to remember too; she smiles as she inhales on her cigarette (Camel? Marlboro?). I can’t
see very well, but I imagine that her eyes indicate she has entered a different mental
scenario altogether. What is she thinking? Is she recalling a happy childhood memory
or a more recent encounter with a loved one? Or is she simply ruminating on a favorite
television program, or plans to lunch with a special friend later in the week? It can be
anything, I suppose, but whatever it is must be pleasing. She is smiling and smoking as
the boy bounces tirelessly around in the yard. From my point of view it appears as if he
is pretending to be a horse. I used to do that too.

Just then the gears shift on the train and we jerk forward once again, but now
the engine remains running and I sense we are about to depart. At the exact same
moment, the boy has headed towards the tracks; he is still what looks like a safe
distance away when the engine’s racket snaps the woman out of her reverie and she
focuses on the straying child. Quickly she stands up and shouts something to him that
I cannot hear, but I have an idea what it must be. Inside my compartment, I too am
telling the boy to retreat to the refuge of the yard; it is a big scary world once you reach
the tracks and he needs to stay sheltered for now. There will be plenty of time for him
to cross the tracks later. Of course my words go unheard, even by myself.

The boy obediently turns back towards the house. The woman drops her
cigarette and crushed it on the stoop with her sneakered foot. Then she looks up again
as she holds the door open for the child and I could swear our eyes meet for just an
instant. But in fact the sunlight reflecting on my window glass is likely what has caught
her attention. She turns and follows the boy inside the house, closing the door to their
world behind them.

Meanwhile, the train beings to move ahead slowly and gradually picks up speed
as the station and the cluster of slightly weathered homes remain fixed behind. For
a few minutes I continue to sit with my face pressed against the glass, the passing
scenery escaping my notice as I ponder what the woman and boy may be doing at this
moment. Possibly she is fixing them both lunch as he sits in front of the TV with his
Matchbox cars: peanut butter and jelly on white, no crusts, for him and a carton of
blueberry yogurt for herself. Or maybe she is having PBJ as well? In the end it doesn’t
matter, not to me anyway.

Clouds are beginning to form in the temporal sky outside and the residents of the
second house near the Erie tracks are fading from my mind as rapidly as the fleeting
miles below us. I put my earphones back on and David Sylvian’s voice fills my head as
I open the book on my lap again and pick up where I left off a short while ago. Soon
thoughts of Manhattan will be consuming me, but for now all is as it should be.

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January 14, 2007. A friend lent me her DVD about Gram Parsons (I think it’s called Gram Parsons Fallen Angel) so I watched it last night, not expecting too much as I am not exactly a fan of that sort of music. It turned out to be quite engrossing, though, mainly due to Gram himself. He was so pretty and charismatic and you could see immediately that he was destined to be a Tragic Figure. I didn’t know this before, but his biological father committed suicide when Gram was very young, and then a man named Bob Parsons married Gram’s mother and adopted him and his sister. Both step-dad and mom were serious alcoholics, which is where I guess Gram got his gene for overindulgence himself. He was also a trust-fund baby (his mother’s family were wealthy as hell) so later, when he moved to LA to become a musician, he never had to worry about the paying gigs the way some of his bandmates did. He was able to drink and do lots of drugs and go to London at the drop of a hat to hang with his close friend Keith Richards. It’s as if Gram never had to grow up in a way, despite the fact that by now he was a father himself. There’s a lot more to the story, but in the end he died at a motel at the Joshua Tree Monument in California, a victim of his own overindulgence at age 26, and in the presence of three friends. (One of them was interviewed for the film; she still seems understandably affected by the fact that her friend died right in front of her. I don’t expect a person could ever get over something like that.) Then there was a fight between Gram’s estranged step-dad and Gram’s friends over his body, which led to his friends literally stealing his casket from the airport before it could be flown to New Orleans and his family. His two very stoned friends took his body to Joshua Tree, opened the casket, poured gasoline on him and set him on fire in some sort of ritual cremation. This was apparently what Gram had wanted, though he probably would have appreciated it if they had been sober enough to finish the job properly. His half-burned casket and remains were found shortly afterward by the side of the road and eventually were flown to New Orleans after all, where he now hopefully rests in peace. I don’t know what it says that I think Gram Parsons as a person was much more interesting than his music. I suppose I am just naturally drawn to Tragic Figures, as are many of us….you know, there but for the grace of God and lack of a trust fund and so on.

September 19, 1009. I’ve grown to be just as interested on Gram’s music as I am in him as a person since I scribbled the above thoughts 2+ years ago. It didn’t take me long to realize for myself what a true pioneer Gram was and how bands like Wilco and the Jayhawks and so many others would not ever have existed if not for him. Everyone says that, I know, but it’s true. I wonder what he might have been had he lived, but I guess a lot of people wonder the same, though maybe our conclusions differ.

I don’t know, but “Return of the Grievous Angel” sounds like a little piece of heaven to me today. Thanks for that and everything else, Gram.

Snow storms and key chains

September 19, 2009

October 13, 2006.  So all my old friends in Michigan and Chicago are snowed in as I type.  Seems a little early for this, but let’s face it, the weather has been insane like everything else in the world in recent years…yet another price we humans are paying for our bullish refusal to take care of ourselves and each other and the environment and so on.  (I sound like such a hippie, but it’s still true, isn’t it?)

I remember when I was 8 and living in Kalamazoo.  It was the last week of January and naturally, snow in Michigan in January was not a surprise.  But this snowfall was a stunner.  The weather had actually been on the temperate side earlier in the day and it almost looked as if we could anticipate an early spring.  I wore my sneakers to school that day and a windbreaker because nothing more was really needed, or so we thought.  After lunch, though, the snow started slowly, then began falling more heavily….by the time school ended for the day, there had to have been several inches on the ground already with more coming.  I shivered in my blue windbreaker and red Keds as I waited for my dad (who taught music at our school) to put my little brother in the backseat of the Volkswagen, then I climbed in behind him.

To this day I still have only very patchy recollections of this event (apparently I had nightmares for weeks afterward) but I don’t think we got very far in the VW.  I think we still had about three miles to reach home when the car got stuck and we had to abandon it.  I remember being very, very cold.  My dad carried Jeff through the mounting snowdrifts and held me by the hand as I navigated my way through snow that came up almost to my waist (maybe it really wasn’t that high, but I was small and it felt that way at the time), in my thin windbreaker and soaking wet Keds.  I don’t know how long we were out there but eventually we sought shelter at a house that turned out to be just two blocks from ours.  An elderly man lived there seemingly alone and he gave us haven from the storm, literally (by now it was evening; I remember watching the snowflakes in the streetlights as if I were hypnotized).  He gave us dry clothes and I remember sitting on his sofa underneath a blanket, eating soup and watching television.  When my mother and older brother finally arrived later on via boots and sled, carrying our own winter coats and boots, I apparently balked at having to leave the warmth and safety of this kind man’s abode.  But I did, and finally we were home again.  It could have been so much worse…we were really lucky, actually.

The snow continued for another two and half days and we had no school for almost two weeks as a result.  (That part I loved, needless to say.)  It’s a miracle that none of us fell ill or suffered any other physical ailment (like, say, frostbite or hypothermia!) after this unexpected adventure, but apparently I did have nightmares for some time afterward…I don’t remember this, though.

I hope everyone in the path of the current blizzard is and will remain safe.

In the shadow of the pyramid

camels are

fire racing through the dunes.

Diamonds shatter like glass.

Servants feed

their masters manna from heaven

and honey from the catacombs.

Orion is yet a decade away

as your skin tastes of caramel

and eyes burning pure amber

we soak up sand in every crevice

and mystics whirl

entranced by thunder sounding

in our memories alone.

Pinwheels explode

in the moon’s eye and he shuts it in reverence

as I lick the sweat from your every pore

and the pyramid winks.

Last stop (gengaku)

September 7, 2009

Immobile in time I

watch you grow ever distant.

Memories recede in

another inclination.

My heart is shattered glass

resounding in my ribcage,

synched with your far engines.

You are just a shadow now,

slipping through my fingers

rather like misty mountains

on the train to Oban.

Beauty 3

September 7, 2009

Recently, my friend Alexis asked me to send him my impressions of Edie Sedgwick and it made me realize that I have never really considered this before. So I poured a glass of chardonnay and pondered it awhile…you know how some people walk into a room and seem to be leaving a trail of stars in their wake? As a gut reaction, that’s how I see Edie. In my mental Factory, she breezes in, all gamine, giggly and electric, and each time she moves, a little shower of mini-astral bodies issues from her and vanishes as if by magic before hitting the ground. Doesn’t she seem that way to you too?

So many of us love Edie; she is eternally glamorous and gorgeous, forever the Belle of the Ball, the flame to whom all of us mere moths flock. This is the Edie that first enraptured me all those years ago when I first picked up the Jean Stein book (Edie: An American Biography) at a friend’s house in Philadelphia. She was and is Charisma Personified and reading about her often troubled life only endeared her to me all the more. I needed to possess the Edie persona, so I began to wear t-shirts and tights on my nights out in homage to my idol, and the longest earrings I could find to accessorize. Despite the fact that our backgrounds were disparate, I only knew about her what I read, and our paths never crossed, I felt a bond with Edie where it counts, in the heart and soul. I still think of her as a fragile butterfly too beautiful for this world, and while I consider myself much more of a permanent caterpillar, I used to feel too sensitive for my own good. Like Edie, I battled with anorexia in my later teens. And, like Edie, I self-medicated frequently, though my weapons of choice were generally more liquid than pharmaceutical, with certain exceptions. It doesn’t matter, though. Trying to smother the pain is pretty much the same, no matter what your method. But I was lucky because I survived. Or was I? Sometimes I wonder, ha.

It’s a cliché but it’s also true that everyone loves a pretty, tragic figure. Edie, James Dean, River Phoenix and Heath Ledger (to name but a few) will never develop a need for Botox or hair transplants, never develop middle-age spread. The rest of us can admire their eternal beauty while mourning their loss. It’s almost like a trade in some ways for apparently having so much more than most of us: it’s as if the gods decided these people had too much and decided to take it all away far too soon, you know? It’s not fair but then a lot of life isn’t. Of course, in reality the gods had nothing to do with the drugs and the fast cars, but it’s nice to be able to assign blame somewhere safe, right?

So really, Alexis, I guess my basic impressions of Edie are that of a gorgeous, somewhat wounded bird whose wings were clipped before she could fly as far as she wanted, a tarnished angel with much more depth to her than many imagine, a talented artist in her own right but who ended up being celebrated far more for her surface fabulosity than her ability with ink and paint. Perhaps my ruminations appear overly romanticized, but I never had the chance to formulate any first hand. Like anyone else, Edie Sedgwick had her good and bad sides I’m sure, but it’s hard to resist the dimples and the long-limbed charm that continue to captivate thirty-seven years after her death, and the inner hurt simmering underneath.

To put it bluntly, I love this album.

Altered Carbon is a lush, musically ambient slice of electronica. It is three-dimensional in texture; indeed, each track almost feels tangible to me. As I type, I have “Frozen Ground” playing in my ears: I close my eyes and feel myself literally surrounded by the beats and tones. I am Alice in a gorgeous atmospheric Wonderland where the landscape is populated by lavish, lovely sensations that are heard as well as felt, where some beats grow larger as others shrink, some keyboards morph into blips and static and throughout I am falling down an endlessly awesome aural rabbit hole. These are mesmerizing sounds that will take you to a different place if you relax and let go.

But don’t relax too much! The primal funk of “Levitation” will have your feet going before the rest of you has recovered from your abrupt landing at the bottom of the rabbit hole. Too, “Conduit” would be right at home in a dark, smoky, strobelit tea party with its moody yet pulsating feel.

I don’t pretend to be the most knowledgeable person around re: the genres of electronica and ambient music, but I  do know that Altered Carbon contains some of the most beautiful, hypnotic, intricate sounds I have heard in ages, that transcends categories and usual iPod tastes.

Give it a listen and allow yourself to be transported too.

http://www.neugestalt.com

http://www.myspace.com/neugestalt

Patient (a very short story)

September 5, 2009

Outside it looked like a perfectly ordinary day. The sun was streaming through the branches of the oak trees beside the window; she watched the reflected light and shadows tango on the carpet, wall and furniture before her. She noted how, gradually, the said light and shadows moved as the sun crept higher in the heavens. People passed by on occasion, in car or by foot, apparently not paying heed to the immaculate sky, the warm spring tinge to the air, that lovely intangible scent and feel that the air gets when winter has finally shut down for another year and the new season brings the world back to life.

The Beatles sang that all we need is love as she thought of another spring day not so long ago. On this day, there were clouds, lots of them, dark ones that hovered low and thunder rumbled distantly. She was enroute to meet a friend at their favorite café for lunch and decided to take a shortcut through the park to hopefully beat the rain. While crossing the grassy expanse between the pavilion and the playground, something caught her eye and she stopped, knelt down for closer examination. It was a four leaf clover, wasn’t it? She had always hoped to find one but never really thought it actually existed. Automatically she reached for it, pulled it out by its roots…only to find that the fourth leaf had been an illusion created by her own mind or the grass beside it. Before she could react, she felt the first raindrops hit the back of her neck, quickly joined by many more. Standing quickly, the three leaf clover dropped from her fingers as she pulled her jacket over her head and began to run, imagining herself darting between the bullets of rain that now fell liberally and smashed on the ground below. In her wake, the clover landed near its plucking place, already forgotten, waiting for the next person who might mistake it for something magical before it died.

As The Beatles gave way to an anonymous female singing of lost romance, she watched the shadows dancing on the Manet print beside the black metal floor lamp and tried not to dwell on the what ifs, the maybes. Suddenly another memory filled her mind. She must have been ten years old and it was January, not April. She was trying out the brand new ice skates she had received for Christmas and she was doing so on the small pond two blocks from home. She was too shy to let her friends at the rink see her in her beginning stages on ice, so alone she ventured to the pond, sat in the snow to lace up her new white Riedells and then, very carefully, stood up on the edge of the ice. Tentatively she tiptoed out until she felt safe enough to put her feet down and take that first skating step. She thought she heard the ice groaning and creaking below; she worried that it might give way, so she kept to the sides of the pond as she relaxed and enjoyed the feeling of moving on the blades, her arms extended for balance. Eventually she stopped concentrating, losing herself in the cold wind hitting her back and imagining herself being propelled along like a kite. It was then that she caught her toe on the ice and sprawled headlong on the frozen water, banging her chin, biting her tongue and tearing a hole in her Christmas snow pants in the process. Tears freezing to her cheeks, the taste of blood in her mouth, chin and knee aching, she crawled back to the snowbank and removed her new skates. At least I didn’t fall in, she reasoned from her current vantage point, as the memory of her younger self limping home, torn and raw, receded into the distance as the sun rose higher in the sky outside the window.

Restless now, she wondered how long it would be as she glanced at her watch for the nth time and shifted in her chair, recrossing her right leg. She caught the eye of an elderly woman in a blue linen shirt and trousers sitting across the room; the woman smiled blandly and rolled her eyes in mock exasperation and comradeship before turning her attention back to her book. Meanwhile, the small boy in blue jeans and dirty sneakers crossed his eyes at her before turning around and attempting to stand on his head in the chair beside the oblivious older woman.

The song playing now was new to her but soothing to her ears and spirit. She began to relax in her seat as the piano and gentle harmonies seemed to leap out of the speakers and Norah Jones et al. played before her. A familiar hand was taking hers and gently pulling her to her feet. All of a sudden she was dancing with him again, this special person whom she never expected to see again after that ugly, hateful night last year. Bitterness ebbed, only to be replaced by peace and that feeling of rightness that only love can bring. Seamlessly they moved together in the natural way they always had done…her head fit so comfortably into the crevice of his shoulder and neck. Just as she was about to speak, though, ask him if he was back for good…the song ended and she found herself sitting where she had been all along: no Norah Jones, no piano, no lover. She blinked back tears and looked at her watch again. Tick tock tick tock tick tock….the girl jumped off the dock…the band knew how to rock…I need to mend a sock…I’m going into shock. No, he wouldn’t be back, and that’s fine. Life moves on. There’s no time for corny reveries or might have beens. There is just now, and that might be all there ever is.

Somewhere nearby a phone rang but by now she was unsure if it was inside or outside her mind.

When the door opened and the nurse beckoned to her, she stood, setting aside the unopened People magazine, and as she left the waiting area for the examination room, she thought of three leaf clovers and scabbed chins and knees, the marks of a survivor who was just lucky enough. So far, anyway.

Don’t You Forget About Me

September 5, 2009

August 6, 2009. John Hughes died today and I can’t sleep again. I don’t know if the two are connected because I have frankly not been sleeping well since I returned from Edinburgh nearly three weeks ago, but it doesn’t help. John Hughes was only 59 and he made some of my favorite films ever. I know that I’m not alone here; at the risk of sounding melodramatic, his movies are touchstones for an entire generation and then some. Who doesn’t think of the 80s without accompanying mental images of Anthony Michael Hall asking to borrow Molly Ringwald’s panties in Sixteen Candles, Hall again plus Judd Nelson and Emilio Estevez doing the Madness dance in the library in The Breakfast Club, Jon Cryer trying a little tenderness (and failing) in Pretty in Pink? And then there was Macaulay Culkin holding his face and screaming in Home Alone, although to be technical that was a 1990 film but so what.

And then of course there was Bueller. Bueller. Bueller. Save Ferris! The classic day off that no one will ever be able to top no matter how hard they try.

I remember the first time I saw The Breakfast Club. By this time, I was no longer a teen but I still felt like one in many ways and all these years later, I have come to recognize that in certain ways I probably always will; I think each of us still has that inner sixteen year old lying dormant somewhere within, right? My friends and I all took this film so personally; it just spoke to us in a way that few had ever done before. We were all Ally Sheedy inside and out, complete with the overstuffed bags but minus the dandruff, lol (that was a great scene, wasn’t it?). Our single complaint was that Emilio Estevez only liked Ally after she was given a makeover by Molly Ringwald; to this day, I still maintain she looked better before. But whatever.

“When you grow up, your heart dies.”

“Who cares?”

“I care!” This little segment made me cry the first time I heard it, and it made me determined never, ever to let that happen to me. And somehow, so far it hasn’t.

Goodbye Mr. Hughes, and don’t worry, we’ll never forget about you.

Ninth month

September 2, 2009

September…new beginnings…a hint of autumn air finally cooling summer’s humid hold…birthdays for family and soul mates alike…a David Sylvian song…a Woody Allen film…school days and waiting for December…work days and waiting for December…Halloween decor assembled in stores…good tv, bad tv…canadian geese headed further south still in beryl skies..nine one one…goodbye to an old friend…a bittersweet hello to others.

September…a month of promise and sorrow, a month of change, of more color to come.