October Writing, Day 3 of 31.

I took a bike ride. On the bike I call mine, which I think is mine. My friend Jay Datema gave it to me, or lent it to me, but I don’t think he expects it back. Jay has, or had, a job in Manhattan, and rode the bike, a rusty brown Schwinn, over the bridge. I don’t know which bridge. Brooklyn, Manhattan or Williamsburgh. The bike has a wimpy bell, and Jay bought a more sturdy bike with a more commanding bell. So he gave me the old Schwinn, which I love. Jay’s a librarian. He loves books and music, and owns a Brownstone in Park Slope along with his wife, Jessica. I’ve known both of them since college. In fact, Jay lived next door to me in Saint Dorm, named after Missionary and Jungle Aviator Nate Saint, who was killed while trying to evangelize the Huaroni people in Ecuador. I had a Christian Comic book about Nate Saint, Jim Elliot and the rest of the crew who were killed. They are evangelical royalty.

Anyway, Jay loved music and was always listening to obscure British bands from the 4AD label. He smoked Dunhills and was a literature major. My taste in music was less cool. I liked old bands from the 60s and 70s. Well, I liked a few new bands/musicians like U2, the Samples, the Judybats, Bob Mould, Vic Chesnutt. I was just getting into songwriting then. Just discovering myself, starting to write good songs. I was listening to a lot of Bruce Cockburn. I had a Bruce Cockburn songbook with tablature and studied the way he played guitar. His right thumb was — is — like a jackhammer. All fingerpickers use their thumb, but Cockburn’s is especially forceful and dynamic. I studied his lyrics too. I’m sure I stole a few lyrics from him. I love Cockburn’s images. The way he is so generous with them — he just throws beautiful images around with lavish abandon.

I didn’t like going out, and was probably depressed. I didn’t do so well at Wheaton College. I slept in the day and went out at night. I smoked. We weren’t allowed to smoke at Wheaton. But I had friends, and girlfriends, and made music with my friend Brian Funck, with whom I went on to form a music partnership. It was so full of magic then. Life was so full of discovery and feeling. I just felt everything so deeply. And yet. And yet I was paralyzed in strange ways. I didn’t know how to be an adult. How do do things like wake up and go to class and do what you’re supposed to to. I learned that much much later.

About a year later, my friend Diane, who is a writer, wrote an acrostic poem based on my name, which I treasure. I don’t remember the whole thing. The “A” was “Awed and open as a babe,” and the “O” was “On a journey coaxed from dream.” Phew. On a journey indeed. Oh Diane.

So my bike ride. On Jay’s Schwinn, I went down my street to Prospect Park. There is a dedicated bike lane, but vehicles don’t really pay attention. It’s common to encounter 3 or 4 vehicles idling in the bike lane on the way to the park. I have a bit of a cold so I was sucking on zinc lozenges. Something was stuck in my wheel and I had to pull over and turn the bike upside down to figure out what it was. A man walked over to look at it with me. He was dark-skinned, wearing glasses and a ball cap. I think he was Dominican, but I’m not sure. “That’s your problem, right there,” he said, pointing to a bungee cord which had gotten tangled in the gears. “Thanks, I said,” and he walked away. It took me a minute or so to yank the thing out and I was on my way. I saw the man again a 100 yards away or so and nodded at him, but I don’t know if he recognized me. He didn’t react. I rode on to the Park.

Jay’s Bike.

October Writing, Day 2 of 31.

I live on the top floor of a house in the Ditmas Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. I’ve written about it before. They (they being my landlady and her sons, of which there are four) tell me I have the best room in the house. I think they are right. I can see the subway on winter days, through the trees, rushing down the track toward Manhattan. I can hear it now, as I type. It sounds a little like running water. A faucet not turned off. I hear it intermittently. It is not loud or clattering, it’s a calming rush. I have a skylight. I don’t thank the Lord for that skylight but I should. I will now. I did. I can see the tops of trees from it, chimneys, residual sunset glow, a couple of tenacious stars. If I open my window I hear crickets, yowling cats, children, the neighbors in their sukkah, my landlady’s son in the garage, smoking and working, tinkering, occasionally blasting Pink Floyd.

I should be happy. Can I be? Yes. I can. I thanked God for the skylight before. What else can I thank him for? I just had a carrot. It was frankly a little tasteless. I had a tuna sub before that, with lots of jalapenos on it. I am a latecomer to jalapenos, not having had them much as a child. I can thank God for my late Jalapeno discovery. Shelter. Gifts without, gifts within.

A piano waiting for me. I want to play it, to learn it, to even master it. I’m far away from these goals and currently my piano has a heap of clothes on it. I’m thankful for the piano. It was a gift and I’m thankful for the friend who bought it.

I made a list this evening and on it was to write, and to to some back exercises, and to play some piano. I didn’t feel like writing, in fact I told myself it was the last thing I wanted to do, and yet here I am, writing and it feels good.

I have coffee made for tomorrow. Sometimes I do that: make coffee for the next day ahead of time. It’s not fresh and it’s not hot, but it’s ready, the instant I roll out of bed. I buy the vacuum packed 10 oz packages, which are perpetually on sale at the grocery store I frequent, called “C-Town.” In New York the supermarkets are small and have strange names. There’s one I used to go to called “Western Beef.” It had a cactus logo. Very out of place in NY. Anyway, I used to buy these huge slabs of cheddar cheese that were on sale at western beef. At C town I buy the coffee. Cafe Bustelo, in the oh so bright blocks. $2.99. Is that cheap? Around here that’s cheap. I saw a woman buying Cafe Bustelo at Rite Aid for almost $5.00 a block and I told her she could buy it for $2.99 at C-town. “Really?” She asked. “Yep,” I said. “Thanks,” she said. She told her friend who was with her. They bustled out.

I think of all the things I will miss when and if I leave New York. It’s strange that I even live here. Aaron, a friend said. “Brooklyn isn’t your thing but you’ve made it your thing.” That’s very true. There goes the subway again. A faint rush. The Q/B. Used to be an excursion line to Coney Island. Goes through an open cut. (An open cut subway is one that is below ground, but exposed to air).

I’m winding down. The will, the rush I feel from writing, is dwindling. I wish it were inexorable. I wish I were inexorable. Maybe I am.


Life is Hard And You are Going to Die (October Writing, Day 1 of 31).

I told myself I was going to write something every day in October. I’ve fallen off writing as much as I want to, and have fallen off keeping up this blog. A while ago I posted a photo every day in a given month, and it was a good exercise. I pretty much kept to it, missing only a couple of days. So, I’m going to write every day in October, give or take a day. I won’t edit too much, or think too much. The idea will be to post something. Quality will be secondary. But hopefully what I post will be decent enough.

I heard a sermon once called “Life is Hard and You are Going to Die,” Wherein the preacher kept repeating that line. I liked it. He was offering it as an antidote to the so-called “Health and Wealth Gospel,” Where preachers tell you God will give you whatever you ask for, including material wealth and possessions, if you just have enough faith, and ask. Of course life doesn’t work that way, and God, if he or she exists, doesn’t work that way. As an illustration, the preacher offered the example of St Polycarp, who was burned at the stake, and then pierced with a spear for good measure, for refusing to worship Caesar. Life is hard, and you are going to die, but hopefully not by simultaneous incineration and spear wound.

So after hearing that sermon and liking the title, I challenged myself to write a song called “Life is Hard and You are Going to Die.” Also, I thought such a song might be a good contrast to all the “Everything’s going to be all right” songs in pop music. Here’s what I got. I like a few of these lines; others are too dark or too dull, or both. These lyrics don’t reflect my state of mind. I’m much more optimistic. But a challenge is a challenge. So here are the lyrics, and here is day #1 of 31 days (or so) of writing.

Life is Hard and You are Going to Die

It won’t be ok
It won’t be alright
darkness follows day
soon it will be night

Don’t you lift your head
one day you’re alive
Next day you’re not
Blood must be shed

There’s something you can’t beat;
Neither can I
Life is hard
and you are going to die.

Trust’s a dirty word
nourish all your fears
don’t you rest assured
don’t you dry your tears

The blooms will leave the roses
The dog will run away
The kids have a runny noses
What reason should he stay?

If you’re ever tempted to think
Things are fine
I will always be here to remind you.
Life is hard and you are going to die.

Writing Class

I recently joined a fiction-writing class at the Gotham Writers Workshop. We just had our second class today. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for over eight years, ever since I moved to NYC. They have these distinctive yellow boxes with newsprint catalogs full of all the courses they offer. I’d always pick up the catalogs and leaf through wistfully, But I never took a class, first because my schedule was so erratic, and secondly because they are expensive. But since my gigging schedule is pretty empty over the next 8 weeks, I bit the bullet and joined a class. I wanted to take Fiction Writing II, but they strongly suggested I. It was a great decision, for while I had good instincts about writing, I was missing some basics. I’ve already learned a lot over the past week about how to put a story together.

I wrote two short stories in high school. One was about a young theology student returning home to his small town and, a little too full of himself and his fancy learning, spouting off at the mouth and generally acting like an ass. A humble country preacher and two elderly women at a church pig-pickin’ teach him a lesson in humility. I wish I could remember exactly what happened. I do remember a pig head grinning at the young theology student, a motif which I believe I stole from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. That was pretty brazen but maybe I altered it so it wasn’t obvious.

The other short story was taken from reality and was about my Grandmother shaving the face of her older half-sister, Ruby. I remember accompanying my Grandmother Hazel over to Aunt Ruby’s and sitting dutifully, if a bit terror-stricken, while she shaved her. While I could not wait to escape the proceedings, I also realized it was a beautiful act of devotion and love. It was a good story. I entered one of those short stories — I can’t remember which — in a state-wide fiction contest and won ..something. I can’t remember. Third place? It’s foggy. My prize was a certificate and a red paperback Roget’s Thesaurus which I used up until very recently.

Last week, the writing instructor asked if anyone wanted to bring in a short story for next week and I said I did. I think she meant who has a short story already written, not who wants to spend the next week writing a new story. But that’s pretty much what I did. I had a 500-word vignette and I turned it into a 3500-word short story. I think it’s pretty good and I’ve been alternately excited and panic stricken over the past few days trying to finish it and make something decent out of it. Some of the passages seem really good to me, and some read clunky. Forced. Like I’m in ninth grade stealing from Lord of the Flies again. Maybe I’ll put a conch in there.

And there’s always the attendant fear. Am I good enough? Will she (the instructor) like me? Will the students like me? Or not me, but the stuff I am presenting, which seems one and the same. These are the same things I hold at bay every time I play a show or go on a date or send a booking email (what if they see way down there to the real me and hate it?). Fear. It’s fear in danger of becoming self-pity. The way I’ve found to deal with it is to surrender it to God, to ask God to take it away and replace it with trust, love, service, and gratitude (gratitude’s a good antidote for most ills). God’s seen the real me, God is in the real me, and I’m in him. It’s in him that I’m home. Got to keep bringing myself home, remembering that I am home.

I printed up 14 copies of the story to my instructor and classmates who are going to mark it up and critique it next week. I’ll keep you posted.

Jersey City, NJ

Seth Godin blogs every day. I blog every, I dunno, year or something. I’d like to change that. I have a million thoughts, feelings and impulses a day I want to share, but I end up getting bogged down in a sense that I can’t tell a story unless it’s perfect. This affects every aspect of my life.

So I’m going to try, for awhile, anyway, to blog every day, about *something,* and it’s going to be good (dammit), but of course, not perfect, because that’s impossible, and I gotta learn that.

I’m holed up in my room in Jersey City, in a neighborhood called The Heights. I don’t spend much time here, because I’m usually either in NYC or en route there, because that’s where my work is, and most of my friends. It’s an ok room, nothing fancy. I have a bed, a bedside table, a desk, and a bunch of milkcrates I use to store stuff in. I have, on the wall, a big road map of the US, and a rough painting of Neil Young’s “Rust never Sleeps” album cover, done by an artist who’s name I can’t remember. All this artist does is album covers, and he does a ton of them, slapdash but cool looking.

Jersey City is directly across the Hudson river from Manhattan, about half a mile or so. You can see the buildings of lower Manhattan looming in the distance. My dad lived here for awhile when he was a kid in the late 40’s, when my Granddad was, briefly, the pastor of a church here, on Hudson Street.

JC can be rough now but it was much rougher back then, and my dad’s stories reflect it. He witnessed a murder, for instance. I can’t expound on it, cause I don’t know the details. Something about a quarreling couple and my dad cowering in the bushes across the street.

It’s weird to think of my dad — in many ways a consumate Southerner — as a stickball-playing, rough-and tumble-Northeastern kid. But for awhile, that’s what he was, until circumstances forced my migratory grandfather and his large family to pack up and head South to Virginia, and later, North Carolina. (That’s a whole other story, and maybe one day I’ll tell it. Someone should.)

I’m going to clean up now, trying to prepare this place for a subletter so that I can hit the road for tour in July and August.