Production of my collection of essays and columns, The Art of Life, was delayed by the happy arrival of my healthy baby boy back in June. But finally, I managed to complete the editing and design process, and now the book is available, just in time for Christmas shoppers!
Check it out at my online store. I’m proud of this collection and believe that it’s a good sampler of my work over the past 13 years.
Here’s an excerpt:
InYourTown.com, October 2000
Never let “Tangled Up In Blue” catch you unaware.
Say you’re driving down the road on a reasonably sunny day, feeling passably cheerful as the sun burns through a bank of clouds — and then out of nowhere you hear those mournful chords.
The smart thing to do is to change the station right then, find something cheerful and bouncy. But if you’re like me, you’re a fool and keep listening. You get drawn in, and before you know it, as Dylan sings that line about how the only thing he can do “is keep on keepin’ on”— by then you’re a wreck, thinking of all the missed opportunities, all the lovers come and gone, all the people you’ve known who have careened like mad comets across your sky.
And then the sky seems suddenly bleak, and the sun is a cold beam of truth. And there are no shadows anywhere, as you relive your own personal traumas.
Don’t do it. Turn the dial. Listen to G. Love or Beck. Even The Cure can’t sock you like Bob Dylan on a lonely road in the middle of bright afternoon.
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you haven’t known people who flashed through your life, searing savage beauty whose aftermath is the after image of a super nova. Maybe you’ve never caught yourself wondering where they went and why — why, after all the bills you footed for them, after all the times they showed up late with no better explanation than the night was long and they took a walk before dawn — why you still miss them.
The more I think about it, the more I am convinced there were two Neal Cassadys. There was the Holy Goof, who inspired Jack Kerouac (On the Road), Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). That Neal Cassady was a manic sage and out-there poet of life, who seized the moment, who thrilled and challenged all he met.
Then there was the Neal Cassady who drifted through life like a leaf in a tempest. He couldn’t — or wouldn’t — attach to anyone, at least not for years and years. Behind him stretched a trail of tears, lovers he had left when things started to seem too good.
That Neal fractured into a million pieces. I should know, I’ve met him more than once. And every time he comes around again — tangled up in blue — I let him drift awhile with me.
In some circles, there are other names for him: nomad, drifter, liar, fool. In some worlds he is kind and blissed out, but directionless. In others he is angry, formless and righteous. He is the friend you had in high school who wrote spirals of music, then disappeared to a hut in Nebraska and later, you heard, died in a motorcycle accident, helmetless.
He is the lover who wooed you with long conversations about religion and politics and art — moved in, ran up your phone bill and left in a flurry of forgetting.
He is the nagging pain that tears at your heart — for all lost moments, the ones so beautiful they could kill you.
He and his fractured souls are why so many of us turn to writing poetry.
Or, in our weaker moments, to listening to Bob Dylan and weeping.
If we’d only been smart, we keep saying. If we’d only been smart we would have changed the dial.
A Little Less Lucy
Musings, February 3, 2009
(For LiveJournal Idol Season 5)
When we were kids, my dad used to refer to my brother and I as “Linus and Lucy,” after the Peanuts characters, Linus and Lucy Van Pelt. This was, in part, because my brother, when he was very little, carried around a blue blanket, his security blanket, much like Linus. And I suppose we bore some superficial resemblance to our cartoon counterparts: my brother, the sweet-natured dreamer, and me, the bossy know-it-all.
To be honest, I never liked that comparison. Lucy isn’t the most sympathetic of Peanuts characters. However, I’m definitely not like Charlie Brown, the perpetual scapegoat; or Sally, obsessed with her unrequited love of Linus (which would be doubly creepy, my brother being Linus, after all). I also wasn’t like Schroeder, who was always more interested in his piano than in any human connection.
Somehow, Dad never seemed to pick up on the fact that I glared at him when he called us Linus and Lucy. If he had noted it, he probably thought I looked very much like Lucy just then, so often portrayed with a whiff of smoke coming out of her head as she stewed over somebody’s inane comment.
If anything, it burnt me that my brother was the one whose artistic, sensitive side shone so brightly. I was the creative one, I thought. Or at least, I wanted to be seen that way. For the longest time, I don’t think anybody, either in my family or outside of it, saw me as anything more than a brainy brown-noser who didn’t always play nice.
In my own defense, if I yanked a football away as you were about to kick it, you probably had it coming.
From early days, I remember wishing I could be a little more like Linus. I envied my brother his ability to pull his blanket over his head at night and fall asleep, knowing himself protected from the monsters that lurked in the dark. I frantically lined stuffed animals and dolls on either side of me in my double canopy bed, including my fail-safe sentry, So Big, a doll whose hair had worn off in a mohawk. When accidentally pushed off the bed in the middle of the night, So Big would release a ghostly wail, potentially scaring away intruders. More importantly, I reasoned the monsters would get her first, since she was closer to the edge of the bed.
More than the security that his totem blanket provided him, I envied the easy way my brother embraced life, while I felt compelled to fuss about everything. Had I been born in a different family, I would have become an analyst, or perhaps a forensic scientist. My brother’s delight in the natural world, along with the conversations we shared at the breakfast table, recounting our dreams, taught me to value the beauty and mystery around me.
While my brother is a natural storyteller, I had to cultivate my storytelling ability, spending long hours writing stories, essays and poems. My brother could pick up any instrument and learn it easily, while I had to practice painstakingly until I achieved a clockwork-like precision on piano and clarinet. There was very little passion in my playing, but what do you expect from a fussbudget?
I can’t run from certain aspects of my Lucy nature. For one, I am extremely critical, both of myself and others. This means that, no matter how well the world might think I’m doing, I’m never doing well enough to feel content. While I am infallibly loyal to friends and family, I also enjoy mocking, rather mercilessly, anything in the public arena, from bad movies to kooky fashions. My husband can’t understand this tendency, but I just can’t help myself.
Fortunately, I also exhibit some of the more positive aspects of Lucy’s personality. She was always a fiercely independent soul, who believed in herself and in her own capabilities. While I’ve had some moments of doubt, I am also strong-willed; I don’t give up easily when I set my mind to something. That’s why, since 2000, I’ve managed to lose 70 pounds and maintain a healthy lifestyle. To my way of thinking, failure is not an option.
And while I don’t have a psychiatrist booth, I am a good listener. My friends often come to me to talk about their problems and hear my untrained advice. I offer no guarantees, by the way. Take it or leave it. Five cents, please.
So I guess I have to admit, I’m still a lot more like Lucy than I am like Linus, but I’m trying to overcome my default settings, to be a more well-rounded person (and certainly, no blockhead). As a result, over time, I’ve become a little more Linus, a little less Lucy.
Life is like a comic strip, except you get more panels.
Conspiracy of Cows
The Standard-Journal, December 10, 1999
Big cows are taking over, and I want to know why.
The Associated Press carried a picture recently of the newest marketing campaign for a certain ice cream brand. Apparently, they’ve hired an oversized plastic cow to tour the country with a huge replica of an ice cream container.
And for some reason, they assume this will work.
A friend of mine is obsessed with big cows. We could be driving down the road, and suddenly, just as I’m about to switch lanes, he’ll shout, “COW!!!!”
I swerve, to avoid the cow I assume is rampaging across the road. Then I look up and see a big plastic cow, sitting smugly atop a creamery or convenience store. If the cow could speak, it would probably say, “Gotcha!”
These cows are a precious commodity. If that weren’t the case, why would college fraternities scale buildings and steal these behemoth Bessies?
Perhaps there’s something about them we don’t know. Consider this: You’ve seen these cows in various locations, and yet they all look disturbingly similar. Legs planted firmly, black and white spots gleaming, they stare blankly into space.
Who makes these cows? Does some factory churn out plastic bovines? Just how many big cows are bought every day in America?
Maybe nobody buys them. Perhaps these mild-mannered building toppings are a sort of Trojan Horse. Maybe they appear overnight on roofs, a gift from an alien race.
Maybe that’s why they’re always staring into space.
More baffling, why don’t we see other big animals? How often have you seen a huge chicken? Or a mammoth pig? Nowhere, unless perhaps in Minnesota. I drove there several years ago, so I speak from experience.
Minnesotans love huge statues. Not just Paul Bunyan, but also sports heroes, political leaders and possibly an entire barnyard of gigantic animals decorate their countryside.
Nearly every town in Minnesota brags it’s the home of the Giant Something-or-Other. Either Minnesotans are in league with the aliens or the giant statues are a navigational device. After all, they’re the only visible landmarks in all that snow.
“How do you get to Fargo?”
“Take a left at the Paul Bunyan statue, then a right at the huge ball of twine, then a left at the gigantic alien cow.”
You might think I’m crazy, but I say we’ve been nonchalant about these cows far too long. It’s time we started asking the big questions.
I urge all readers to write their congressional representatives. Here’s a sample letter: “Dear legislator, What’s with all the big cows? Are they presents from aliens or what? I’m concerned. And why does Minnesota get all that snow, when they don’t even have a decent ski resort? It’s not fair. I suggest you investigate. Sincerely, Your Constituent.”
If that doesn’t get results, I suggest we gather the cows someplace like Stonehenge and see what happens. Maybe they’re pieces to a mystical puzzle, and once we group them together they’ll herald a new age.
Either that, or we should buy tons of ice cream. Funny. Don’t know why I said that.