This Blog Is Closed.

So it’s not just me. When your favorite blogger says the blog is dead, at least you know you’re not alone.

For the purposes of documentation for the year 2013, I should say that this year has been probably the best year of my life, so it comes as something of a surprise that it’s the least documented year on this blog. Most importantly, I’ve gotten married. We had a lovely wedding party (pictures coming soon). We also went on a delightful honeymoon road trip.

Once upon a time I was quoted as saying “You have to have a life in the first place, in order to blog about it.” A caveat to this, I’ve discovered, is that once life accelerates, there simply isn’t much time to stop and document it. And life is about to accelerate even more.

Life Moves Pretty Fast

So a lot has happened. And every time I tell myself I’m going to sit down and update the blog to recap life events for my own future reference (which is basically the entire purpose of this blog, one that Facebook Timeline seems bent on demolishing), I find myself actively avoiding writing of any kind. Maybe it’s a passing phase, what with all the activity around here (Girlfriend moving in! Band rehearsals! Losing my job! Getting a new one!), but I find myself documenting my life less with words and more with photos (thanks, Instagram). I also find myself wondering about things less, and that was a primary reason for blogging in the beginning. It’s entirely possible that I’ve just figured most things out, I suppose. Anyway, here are the highlights of the last 10 months:

I have a few other bits of writing I need to finish up so hopefully the gap between blog entries won’t be quite so massive as the previous one.

Adventures in Jury Duty

No one seems to like jury duty. It interrupts peoples’ work schedules, certainly, but there seems to be more to it than that – the drudgery of dealing with randomly assembled people, the formal and vaguely threatening institutional setting, the paperwork, the bureaucracy. I don’t know if these things don’t bother me much because I’m generally fascinated by novel societal experiences or because my dad was a judge.

I was summoned to the Brooklyn Supreme Court building last Thursday at 8:30 a.m. As I exited the subway station, I was asked for directions by a guy looking for 320 Jay Street, my very same destination, so we walked together toward the courthouse. He was another prospective juror, a sharp-dressed black dude in a thick cream-colored sweater and Timberlands, named David. We exchanged ideas for getting exempted from jury service and generally commiserated as we entered the building and went through security.

We entered a large room on the second floor filled with rows of seats like pews but made of vinyl. We watched a spectacularly low-budget orientation video featuring historical re-enactments of medieval justice: a group of people in robes and rags tie up an accused person and toss him into a river to see if he floats. Then Ed Bradley from 60 Minutes circa 1992 came on and welcomed us to the world of the US justice system. Perry Mason clips were shown, after which Diane Sawyer appeared, explaining that courtrooms are seldom the high-drama arenas that we see in movies and on television.

The combination of the institutional setting and the irresistibly mockable video meant that I naturally reverted by small degrees to my smartass high school self. After the video, David and I joked around with a guy next to us (I didn’t get his name so I’ll just call him DJ Premier because he looked a lot like DJ Premier) about what might disqualify us: language difficulties, backward caps (Premier had his cocked to the side), hoodies, the sincere principles of our Amish-Rastafarian religious beliefs (Premier later remarked that it might be troublesome that his laptop smelled like weed).

The jury room was a terrific cross-section of New York City. Every archetype was present: Old Hasidic Jewish guy? Check. Three-piece suit dude? Check. Confused Asian and Caribbean ladies who didn’t understand much of what was being said? Check. Starbucks laptop guy doing graphic design work? Check. Rotund ladies with impeccable nails and hair of questionable authenticity? Check.

After a Cheese Danish and terrible coffee, I heard my name called, along with David’s, so we both went to the next room for a roll-call before heading up to the 19th floor along with our group of about 30 or so people.

The 19th floor had a nice view, so David and I stood by the window and talked. He’s 39, with a wife and four boys in Brownsville, and he works as a property manager in Queens. Originally from the island of Dominica in the Virgin Islands, he moved to New York when he was 10. We talked about moving from a rural area to the big city, the state of NY public schools, the real estate market, and raising kids in the city. Brownsville, for those who don’t know, is one of the rougher parts of Brooklyn, and David mentioned a local kid was recently shot in a domestic dispute. So he’s looking into moving the family elsewhere.

We were all called into the courtroom for an initial introduction to the attorneys and the case. The defendant was accused of assault and robbery of a livery cab driver at knifepoint. The briefing was short, as it was already 12:45, so we were dismissed for lunch. David and I went to a pizza place, where we talked about music, in particular the decline of popular hip-hop. He spoke a little bit about New York City in 1982 though the crack era of the late 80s/early 90s, and how his father disapproved of rap music, and how much fun hip-hop used to be then compared to today. He’s the disapproving father these days, as the genre has descended into empty materialism. David didn’t get to see many shows in the 80s, but when I mentioned that I had been to Brownsville last summer to see Special Ed play Summerstage, he said that he once went to a car auction with Special Ed back in the day!

Back at the courthouse, we sat around listening to the dude with the loud earbuds (check!) leaking out tunes by Sade and Journey before we were all called back into the courtroom. Twenty folks were chosen for the initial round of inquiry; David was chosen but I was not. Each one was asked their name, job, living arrangement, neighborhood, criminal history (“have you or anyone close to you been the victim of a crime?”), and whether or not they could be impartial to the case, irrespective of any personal connections to crimes, livery cab drivers, or the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant where the alleged crime took place. It felt something like an AA meeting – getting to know strangers and their personal lives.

The rest of us were dismissed and later told that we would not be needed. We returned to the main jury room on the second floor. The time was around 4 p.m., so everyone in the room was told they could leave. Our obligation was over, and we would not be eligible for summons for another 6 years.

While most folks were all but celebrating their dismissal, I have to say I was kind of looking forward to the job. I was also bummed out by the fact that I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to David (and he doesn’t seem to be on Facebook). Looks like I’ll never know how it turned out for the knife-wielding suspect from Bed-Stuy. It’s probably just as well. Dude looked so guilty.

Trumbo

Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter of such varied films as Roman Holiday, Spartacus, and Johnny Got His Gun, was one of the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers and directors blacklisted in 1947 for refusing to testify at the McCarthy hearings. I recently watched a documentary about him, Trumbo, which is available on Netflix streaming. When I heard the following passage on why he refused to name names in McCarthy’s witch hunt, I knew I had to track down a transcript:

I’ve delivered newspapers, reported for newspapers, peddled vegetables, clerked in stores, waited on tables, washed automobiles, picked fruit, hosed down infected cadavers, shoveled sugar beets, iced refrigerator cars, laid rails with a section gang, and served an eight-year hitch on the night shift of a large industrial plant.

I’ve looked at many American faces. I’ve seen them as flak burst around them nine thousand feet over Japan; in a slit trench on Okinawa watching the night sky to see where the next bomb would fall; in an assault boat as they moved toward a beach that tossed more violently than the surf through which they rode.

I’ve counseled with a paroled prostitute on how she might escape the clutches of a policeman who had caught her and was stealing half her earnings and sending his friends to her with courtesy cards that entitled them to take her without pay. I’ve also counseled with Secretary of the Air Force Tom Finletter on how the secretary of state might better explain his policies to a perplexed people. I’ve been asked by Louis B. Mayer why I had no religion, and by a ranking member of the State Department how I could bring myself to work with “all those Hollywood Jews.”

I’ve seen American faces in a miners’ union hall in Duluth on a night when the wind off the lake blew the snow so killingly and so deep that cars couldn’t be used and everybody walked to the meeting. I’ve seen their faces in the banquet room of a New York hotel when the American Booksellers’ Association gave me a National Book Award; and I’ve seen them again in a jury box as each of them twice said, “Guilty as charged,” and one of them wept as she said it.

I’ve been stripped by Americans and paraded naked with them and before them and obediently bent over on command to present my anus for contraband clearance. I’ve lived with and trusted and been trusted by car thieves and abortionists and moonshiners and embezzlers and burglars and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Quakers.

I’ve stood on a gray day in the Fifth Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima and looked off at the graves of 2,198 Americans. In the center of all those graves on a slim white pole on a concrete pedestal flew the American flag. And I swear it was not the flag of informers. And if I could take a census of all the American faces I have seen and of all the dead whose graves I have looked on, if I could ask them one simple question: “Would you like a man who told on his friend?” – there would not be one among them who would answer, “Yes.”

But, show me the man who informs on friends who have harmed no one, and who thereafter earns money he could not have earned before, and I will show you not a decent citizen, not a patriot, but a miserable scoundrel who will, if new pressures arise and the price is right, betray not just his friends but his country itself.

Sometimes Your Instincts Are Wrong

My birthday falls on St. Patrick’s Day. This would be fantastic if I were the sort of person who enjoys the many drunken activities that police officers file under the category of “disorderly conduct.” Maybe I’m just getting old, but St. Patrick’s Day seems to get less fun each year as more and more people have taken it as an excuse for binge drinking. It feels like one big frat party now. Ordinarily I’m insulated from the holiday by my annual trips to South by Southwest, where everyone is too busy listening to bands to get mercilessly hammered, or even notice that March 17th is a holiday.

So it was with some reluctance that I went downtown to Little Rock’s River Market (epicenter of public drinking) on St. Patrick’s Day to see my old college chum Hayes Carll play a show at Rev Room. It was a good show as usual, but I was really tired after a long day (friend’s wedding at which I was an usher/golf cart driver and then cousin’s BBQ afterward) so I left a little early. Walking back toward the Clinton Library where I had parked my rental car, I came up behind a girl having some trouble walking. She would veer into the wall of the Courtyard Hotel and rebound. I passed her, and I was about to round the last corner to the Clinton Library when I looked back and saw her attempting to get into her car. Fortunately she had become temporarily trapped in the game of drop keys-pick up-keys-drop-phone-pick-up-phone-drop keys, which gave me the time to ask myself if I was going to let this happen. Was I going to walk away? My instincts said to let her fate play itself out by her actions, but after 36 years on this Earth, I’ve discovered that my first instincts are generally wrong.

So I talked to her. I asked her if she needed help or if she had anyone she could call for a ride. She said she had tried to call people but no one was picking up, and her brother had abandoned her about an hour before; she had no idea where he was and it was likely that he was even further gone than she was. Neither of us knew any cab phone numbers or anything, so I offered her a ride home.

Naturally, she lived in Conway (a half-hour drive for you non-Arkansans). To make her feel better about being driven home by a total stranger, I told her I was staying with my sister in Vilonia, so it wouldn’t be too far out of my way (my sister lives Jacksonville). I also said not to worry about the degree of the favor – I told her about my birthday and how I was accustomed to the services that St. Patrick’s Day often requires. So I helped her to my car and off we went.

I’ll leave out her name, but she was a 27-year-old single mother of a 5-year-old with a “douchebag” ex living in Mayflower. She had been working at a local healthcare facility but couldn’t continue there because she’d have had to work some night shifts. This would be impossible for her, as her uncooperative ex would not take his child for any longer than the agreed-upon two weekends per month (he was at least, it should be noted, a dutiful payer of child support). She was considering going back to school for nursing, but the single-parent-with-douchey-ex lifestyle made that tricky. She couldn’t rely on her parents’ assistance, as both of them had died within the last two years (father from alcoholism, mother from a heart attack). Also making her employment difficult was her 6-year probation sentence for “possession of an instrument of crime” (specifically, rolling papers – one of the most egregiously nebulous charges available to law enforcement). So at this point I realized that not only did I prevent the disastrous consequences of her having an accident, but I also prevented her from getting a DUI which would have further complicated her already unnecessarily complex life. Perhaps the most likely outcome for her situation, though, would have been her sitting alone, in the dark parking lot, underneath the freeway – also a scenario best avoided.

She insisted she had not been this drunk in a very long time, as she only drank “once in a blue moon.” She seemed quite shamed by the situation. Her brother, a legitimate criminal miscreant on probation for terroristic threatening, had vanished during the evening’s festivities and eventually did call her; we were already as far as Morgan by then so he was SOL on getting home. Lesson learned: don’t go drinking in Little Rock if you live in Conway and haven’t planned for someone reasonably sober to get you home.

Additional important tip for this sort of thing: get your passenger’s address into your smart phone and map to it beforehand, just in case your passenger passes out. My fear early on was that I would be saddled with a sleeper. But she stayed coherent all the way back to her apartment in Conway, conveniently located close to the Hendrix campus so I didn’t have to worry about navigating any unfamiliar streets at night. I helped her to the door and she gave me a hug. She was probably as bewildered as I was that somebody would lend such a big hand to a total stranger.

Another St. Patrick’s Day, another year older, but for once I feel like I’ve actually grown a little. I’m generally a “no” person, so overcoming my instinct to leave things alone was a big step for me. I’m fairly certain I helped someone avoid a terrible fate, and an hourlong drive at 12 a.m. after a long day is a small price to pay for doing The Right Thing. Thanks, Saint Patrick, wherever you are.

Perfect Songs: “Slip Slidin’ Away” by Paul Simon

Like so many songs of my early childhood in the late 1970s, “Slip Slidin’ Away” became part of my pre-linguistic sensory experience. Instrumentally spare even for a Paul Simon recording, it nevertheless has the distinction of being a song I experience in my chest as some form of synaesthesia, of sound made into sensation. To a two-year old, lyrics are obviously irrelevant, so it’s a testament to the magic of Paul Simon’s voice and the distinctive “and three” percussion that the song makes an impression at all on someone whose cognitive abilities are limited.

It’s tempting to interpret the tune as a lullaby, but even then I knew the song was not telling me that everything would be alright. I understood the words in the title at least, and I knew it meant loss of control, of being slowly moved in some unintended direction.

Released in late 1977 as a bonus track for Simon’s Greatest Hits, Etc., the song went to #5 on the Billboard charts. It’s one of the few situations I can think of where an unreleased song was appended to a hits collection and actually became a hit itself. It didn’t make the cut onto Still Crazy After All These Years, so it seems as though Simon is saying “here’s this thing I didn’t want to tell you about.” Maybe he wasn’t sure it was good enough, or maybe he thought we wouldn’t understand or be prepared for the message.

Because the song was encoded in my memory as a sensation rather than a song, I never took the time later in life to comprehend the lyrics. I absorbed it as I do most songs – music first, lyrics last, if at all. Only within the last few years did I get around to comprehending the verses. A lot of Paul Simon’s tunes have a certain sadness laced with hope, but this one doesn’t offer much in the way of consolation. It simply presents the world as it is – a man too much in love, a woman with lowered (realistic?) expectations from life, a father who doesn’t explain himself, and then the final verse, the knock-down blow:

God only knows
God makes his plan
The information’s unavailable
To the mortal man
We’re working our jobs
Collect our pay
Believe we’re gliding down the highway
When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away

It’s a dark truth that we are, for the most part, not in control, much as we may think we are. Maybe it’s just the timbre of The Paul Simon Voice that softens the punch, but the song manages not to be completely depressing; instead it transmits a feeling of being at peace with an uncertain universe. As children, our lullabies are either unreasonably rosy (“you make me happy when skies are grey”) or strangely horrid (“the cradle will fall?” WTF, mom?), so “Slip Slidin’ Away” might make a good middle ground. It’s the kind of message children would benefit from hearing more often. Somehow I think it was beneficial for me.

UPDATE: I realized recently that the most likely definition of “Slip Slidin’ Away” is death. I was reminded of a talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh (and adapted by Chroma Key into a piece called “When You Drive“) wherein Han says, “we have the habit energy of wanting to arrive. That is why we want to go as quickly as possible…but we arrive at every moment…If we abandon the present moment, our final destination may be our death. You don’t want to arrive there.” So with that in mind, we really do think we’re gliding down the highway when in fact we’re just getting closer to death.