On the River

My friend and former professor, poet Patti White, posted a towboat company’s ad on the Book of Faces a little while ago:

Towing

Back in the mid-90s, my brother worked as a deckhand for the barge division of Ingram Industries. (Coincidentally, my cousin Jack, now a pilot for Delta, was a corporate/personal pilot for the Ingrams during the same era.) Mike primarily worked the Ohio and upper Mississippi rivers, working and living on a towboat for multi-week stretches, alternating with weeks at home until the next round began. Sometimes, my parents would drive to a lock on the Ohio to bring him a care package or a fresh set of clothes.

I think Mike held that job the longest of any of his gigs — he was much better at getting jobs than keeping them. In fact, I think some of that is evident in his account of the interview for the job. He told us (my folks, his eventual fiancee, and me) that at one point the interviewer asked him about working to keep the boat not just in good working order, but clean and attractive. Mike said that made sense, because the boat was a sort of floating business card for the company, and paying attention to its appearance was part of representing the company well. The interviewer told him, “You’re either exactly what we’re looking for — or a great bullshitter.” Mike smiled when he told us that story, and in retrospect, I think there was a reason.

It’s a bit of a cliche, but if you met my brother in circumstances other than his current ones, you’d probably like him. He’s bright, funny, and quite ingratiating; as I suggested earlier, he always interviewed well. He’s far more socially adept than I am, really — if I’m not performing (on stage or in front of a classroom), I tend to feel terribly awkward and unhip, and have to be prodded into socializing with folks I don’t know pretty well already. Unfortunately, his particular demons — addiction, and I suspect other, deeper ones as well — mean that even as he ingratiated himself with friends, women, and  family, he would eventually exploit them. I’ve come over the years to think of him as a sort of natural disaster — difficult to predict, harder to avert, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. However, hurricanes and tornadoes don’t typically present themselves as pleasant afternoons, and the news doesn’t usually warn us of the approach of the Mike Moores of the world so that we can take shelter. The difference is important.

Anyway, Michael held the job for a couple of years, and claimed to have received several promotions (but one never knows how accurate those claims were, looking back), leaving it ostensibly to spend more time with his wife (I think they were married by then, but perhaps not) and to begin building a new career as a law enforcement officer. He did well at that, too — for a time. And sometimes, when we were all together at a holiday or something like that, he would say that he probably enjoyed working the rivers more than any job he had held.

I don’t suppose that’s precisely an endorsement of the job, all things considered, but it’s where my thoughts have wandered this afternoon, carried along on the ripples of the splash that I saw online. If you made it this far, thanks for riding along.

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Not All Change Is for the Best…

My friend and colleague Tracy Power observes that today marks the 107th putative anniversary of Robert Johnson‘s birth. Johnson, of course, is considered “King of the Delta Blues”, and by extension, one of the fathers of rock and roll and a critical figure in the history of American music. Certainly we can trace his influence as a songwriter and guitarist through several generations of musicians, including folks like the Stones and Eric Clapton, among other Brits who adapted American music and sold it back at a substantial markup.

Robert_Johnson

The birthday boy, in one of the two extant authenticated photos. (Via Wikipedia.)

Furthermore, Johnson’s biography lends itself to legend-making, from his reported pact with Satan (trading his soul for guitar chops) to his early death (allegedly by poisoning, but with at least one official suggesting syphilis) and uncertain burial place (at least three different sites have markers for Johnson, and there’s a distinct possibility that none are accurate, and that he was buried in a potter’s field).

Unlike Tracy (and another colleague of mine, David Rachels), I’m not a blues buff — there’s some I like a lot, but a lot I can take or leave. And so I find myself with a question. As it happens, the longest track Johnson ever cut (“Terraplane Blues“) was exactly three minutes long. Yet if I see a blues band in a bar or at a festival or whatever (Hi, Michael Dearing!), it’s damned near impossible to hear a song that’s less than 8-10 minutes, with more noodling than a pasta factory. My question is, who persuaded all these folks that they have more to bring to the party than Mr. Johnson did?

Now that’s the devil at work.

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In Which the Prof Discovers Once Again that He Is in the Right Line of Work

Although I am free of teaching duties until June, I wandered over to campus this morning to take care of some paperwork and to attend the first of the summer cookouts for faculty and staff we have on campus most years. This meant that I was in my office when my friend Justin swung by.

In the course of our chat, I mentioned that I would like to exchange my office desk for this:

But then it occurred to me that I really want to have that affixed to a mobility rig so that I can travel the halls in full Bond Villain mode. And from there, I realized that the cupholder in the current configuration could be replaced by a holder for the necessary white Persian cat. Which in turn, led me to a famous bit from Monty Python:

And that brought us to a pause, because while Justin and I are both big fans of the Pythons, neither of us actually knew the allusion Mr. Chapman is making there. We knew there had to be one, because even MPFC only was good for x amount of non sequitur, and this seemed like (x+3).

So I did a little hunting, and I believe that Chapman nicked the line, which was apparently a staple of British stage comedy. But why? How did “Dead, and never called me mother!” become a tag line?

Well, it turns out that the line is from a stage adaptation of a melodramatic Victorian novel (if that isn’t a tautology, he snickered) called East Lynne. While the line doesn’t appear in the book, it apparently was a three-hanky special on the stage, and it is reported that the play ran somewhere in the UK and/or U.S. on any given Saturday night for a forty-year period.

Ellen_Price_Wood_small

Ellen Price Wood wrote East Lynne. Fun for the whole family! (Photo via WIkipedia)

Now as it happens, the workstation that prompted this entire business costs a bit more than my department’s annual budget, so I guess I’ll have to keep waiting, but I learned something today, and the cookout was really good, so the day hasn’t been wasted. And I hope yours is going nicely as well.

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Saturday Potpourri: Commencement Edition

Woke up just a little while ago — clearly, I’m already adjusting to my post-Gradeapalooza schedule. Commencement is this afternoon, followed by the end-of-year faculty party, to which Mrs. M is contributing Southwestern/Black bean hummus. Between now and then…

***

Earlier this week, my childhood (and present) friend Michael Dearing sent me a link to what may be some of my coming music purchases. Those who know me (or have followed the blog) also know that I have a taste for off-the-wall and obscure rock music, be it garage, psych, prog, or many of the other oddball subgenres that are out there. And having grown up in the burbs of a Midwestern city as the 70s turned into the 80s, I also acquired a taste for the minor-league hard rock and proto-metal bands that everyone’s older brother seemed to have played in.

It’s this lot that seems to have inspired the Brown Acid series, a Nuggets-style collection of the bands that were spawned by the Blue Cheers, MC5s, and Stooges of the world. And I was about a 5-hour drive from the epicenter, it seems:

Much of this combustion appears to have taken place in Youngstown, Ohio […] a town that suffered from the demise of the steel industry during the decade (Bruce Springsteen’s Youngstown, from The Ghost Of Tom Joad, was written about the city), perhaps providing the impetus for the town’s youth to form bands.

“I’ve talked to guys from that part of the country, and they can’t really pinpoint why this is. There was a studio there called Peppermint [opened in 1971, and still recording today] that recorded a lot of these bands. It was a working class city, and  there’s just a weird amount of great bands and records that came out of that part of the country. Even LA and New York don’t seem to have that kind of thing happening. When I go to write the city name in the liner notes it’s like, ‘yep, another Youngstown band.'”

I’ll probably pick some of these up pretty soon. In the meantime, here’s the first album:

***

One of the things I love about traveling with the Spawn (as I did for the last couple of days) is the conversation, at least until her Dramamine zonks her out. She spent some of yesterday telling me about what she calls her generation’s “hustle culture“, where creatives (or reasonable facsimiles) spend significant amounts of time talking about all the work they’re doing in order to make it in their fields. Writers talk about the various projects on their spinning plates, musicians about their multiple gigs, and perhaps ecdysiasts liveblog their implant surgeries. All of them are creating their own mythologies of sacrifice and heroic effort in order to reach their dreams.

The Spawn is of the opinion that some of this comes from the fact that her generation entered adolescence and awareness around the coming of the Great Recession, and have internalized an idea of struggle-as-virtue. She also compares it to the jock ethos of pushing one’s body to (and sometimes beyond) its limits to earn the scholarship or roster spot. Maybe she’s right. As a medievalist, it strikes me as a sort of public flagellation, a mortification of the flesh in the hope of some eventual salvation.

Fortunately, she also recognizes that what matters in the long run is the story, or the song, or whatever the performance is. As the saying goes, “No one wants to hear about the labor pains — they just want to see the baby.” So she keeps writing and keeps working, because that’s what people will read. The mythologizing can come later.

***

Speaking of seeing the baby, I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of The Truth About Parallel Lines, the debut novel from Jill D. Block. It’s a far more mainstream novel than I usually read, a decades-spanning look at the lives of several women of varying ages in the New York area. As I read, I found myself caring about and rooting for the characters as they face the challenges of their lives. When I talk to my students, I tell them that one of the valuable things about reading is the opportunity to inhabit someone else’s worldview, even if that someone else is fictive. This book is a fine example of that.

I also appreciated the fact that Ms. Block inhabits her various viewpoint characters in an honest, unobtrusive way. Her transparent style is reminiscent of the classical Hollywood cinema, where the viewer experiences the story without the filmmaker calling attention to him/herself. That’s something I admire, particularly in an era where I run into too many “hey-look-at-me” stylists. She’s a good read.

So if you like cleanly written, genuinely human stories, I suggest that you go ahead and get a copy of The Truth About Parallel Lines. I liked it — perhaps you will as well.

***

Well, I need to have some lunch and such before heading over to Commencement, so I’ll close for now. But I’ll close with a bit more music. Speaking of self-mythologizing, occasionally I’ll indulge in the “What’s your ‘walk-up music‘/theme song?” game, and I’m fond of asking my students that as well. Mine varies a bit from day to day, but typically winds up as one of these two, both of which make me feel like a bit of a bad-ass, even if I’m just going to talk about comma splices. So anyway, here they are, and if they help pump you up for your day as well? Great! Most days, it’s this one:

But sometimes…

Feel free to add your own in the comments, and see you soon!

 

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And as Promised…

… via David Nemeth, here’s last night’s group shot. The Spawn is seated, and one can only assume that Eryk Pruitt looks nervous because he knows I’m lurking behind him.

N@tB3May group shot

L-R: S.L. Coney, Jamie Mason, David Terrenoire, Lyndee Walker, Tracey Reynolds, Eryk Pruitt, J.D. Allen, the Prof, the Spawn of Mondo, and Greg Barth.

Hope to see you next time!

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Thursday at the Bar with Spawn…

… Not quite the stuff of Sondheim, but pleasant nonetheless.

Got my grades turned in yesterday, so today the Spawn and I picked up a rental car and headed to Durham for tonight’s Noir at the Bar. The car had satellite radio, so we cruised up here with a soundtrack of Beatles music — I appear to have reared her well.

We got to the hotel about 4, and the Spawn was suitably impressed by the valet parking and assistance from the bellman — especially when he remembered our names later as we headed to the event. For that matter, I thought it was pretty nifty as well.

We got to the venue — 106 Main — about 40 minutes before the event was to start. That was when we found out that one of our scheduled readers couldn’t make it — his train was delayed. And that’s when things got interesting.

When Eryk Pruitt, the organizer (and author of What We Reckon, which I recommend) got a hold of me some weeks back, I suggested that the Spawn might make a good addition to the roster.  Unfortunately, all the slots had been assigned. All the same, she tagged along with me. In fact, upon hearing that she was coming, Greg Barth (the Bowling Green, KY-based author of the Selena series) said that she should read her story that ran in Dark Corners a few years back. I told her to bring one of her stories with her, because one never knows when an opportunity might arise.

And as it happened, Amtrak’s delay was the Spawn’s gain, and she found her way onto the readers’ roster. While we waited for things to start, I was delighted to see a high school classmate, who came from her nearby home to catch the event. Thanks, Cheryl!

Once things got rolling, I led off, with a story of mine called “Frankie,” which was initially published in the NoirCon program in 2016. It’s a merry tale of goings on in a North Florida trailer park, and it seemed to go over well. Other readers in the first set included David Terrenoire, S.L. Coney, and the aforementioned Mr. Barth, who was gracious enough to call Broken Glass Waltzes one of the best noir novels he’s ever read. He even said it on mic, in front of God and everybody.

And in the midst of those, the Spawn’s number came up. She read pleasantly and effectively, drawing laughs and flinches where appropriate. I was delighted to see how well she went over. Of course, I’d be proud of her even if she hadn’t written a word in her life, but it was a blast watching her do so well.

After a break, we heard from Eryk (who gave us a new story that reminded me of a redneck Harlan Ellison tale), J.D. Allen, Jamie Mason, and Lyndee Walker, who brought the house down with her closing story about a woman in a small Arkansas town who knows how to wrap a burrito — among other things.

After that, we chatted a bit before the Spawn and I headed back to the hotel for dinner. This is the second Noir at the Bar I’ve done in Durham, and I’m already looking forward to the next one. Maybe I’ll see you there! And with luck, I’ll have a picture or two to post soon.

 

 

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We Interrupt this Gradeapalooza…

… To note that today marks my 8th bloggiversary.

Eight years ago, my parents had been buried for ten months, and my brother had been charged with their murders for eight. These were the first things I thought of every morning and the  last things I thought of each night. In between, I looked for ways to distract myself.

One of the ways I did that was by discussing/debating politics with my best friend, the Mad Dog, on the Book of Faces. He and I have almost always tried to model reasonable disagreement, although I don’t think this was so much a conscious decision as it was the willingness to recognize that both of us are human beings, and that we are neither stupid nor evil — we simply operate from some very different assumptions.

The Mad Dog also was aware that I had written a fair amount in the past, ranging from fiction and poetry to journalism and my academic work. “Why not start a blog?”, he said. “You can lay your ideas out there at any length you like.” Now, this may have been a means of decluttering his timeline, and if so, it has been only a partial success, but the idea had a certain charm.

I’ve never seen myself as being particularly good at long-term projects, and I honestly suspected that the blog would go the way of most, with a few entries followed by a trailing away as entropy took its toll. I envisioned it as being like my 5th-grade diary, which petered out after a couple of weeks. (As the joke goes, “Day 15. Cloudy. Still no word from Ed McMahon.”) But what the hell — that would be a couple of weeks with something on which to focus. Why not blog?

So I did. And much to my surprise, I still do it. And along the way to here, I rediscovered that I actually like writing, whether it’s fiction, short essays, or the pantechnicon posts of potpourri (Wow — that sounded like Stan Lee!) Heck, I’ve even been able to write enough to check an item or three off my bucket list (Publish a novel, join MWA, stuff like that), and get occasional bonuses I never would have expected (that review in the NYT.)

And in another surprising development, some folks seem to enjoy dropping by and reading what’s on my mind. I’m grateful for that, and for whatever portion of these eight years you’ve spent visiting. After all, you have a lot of other choices.

For years, I posted here each day, again I think out of the compulsion to distract myself from what had happened to my family. I don’t post as often now, and I think that’s part of my adjustment to what I called the New Normal, but I don’t see myself quitting any time soon.

I hope you’ll stick around — that way we can both see what happens.

Posted in Broken Glass Waltzes, Culture, Education, Faith, Family, Literature, Medievalia, Music, Pixel-stained Wretchery, Politics, Why I Do What I Do | 4 Comments