Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Memories of Uncle Bob

Last week we buried Uncle Bob. Despite the fact that the bar was ridiculously low, he was nevertheless my favorite uncle.

Two of my earliest memories are of him. I peed on him when my diaper was being changed. And I held him at gunpoint shortly after he returned from Vietnam.

Neither memory is quite real. Both are more like rememories: I remember remembering as a child peeing on Uncle Bob. And the gun incident was a story told repeatedly throughout my childhood, so much so that's it's embedded in my mind as if it were a memory.

My father's pistol was stored in the front closet of our home in Wichita. I was two and playing unsupervised. Blah blah blah. I pulled the gun on him. How's that for a homecoming after a tour of duty?

Perhaps my happiest memories are of Uncle Bob, of the summers we'd spend together at my grandparents' home in northwest Arkansas. I learned to be jealous of his attention when his son was born. In many ways I was always jealous of my cousin. But my cousin hardly registers at all in my memories of Uncle Bob.

In 1977 he gave me and my sisters LPs for Christmas. One of them was Fleetwood Mac's Rumors. I wasn't much into it at the time. But just a few years later my interest in Fleetwood Mac would soar when I rediscovered the album in high school.

I've been listening to those songs for forty years now. I still have that album. And when I listen to digital versions from the cloud, my mind still anticipates the skips and scratches that have been a part of that album, a part of my memories of that album, for forty years.

"Go Your Own Way" is, according to iTunes, my most played track from the album.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Leave No Trace

In writing reportage about the Polish People's Republic, Cezary Łazarewicz has written a universal book about the pathology of power. That this is a universal story, we can experience today as we watch the news about a boy killed a year ago at a police station.

Abuse of power, the officers' brutality, a conspiracy of silence, the attempt to sweep cases under the rug, and the punishment that never was–Leave No Trace, which describes the case of Grzegorz Przemyk, is about all of this. The same elements of pathology show up in the context of Igor Stachowiak's death at the police station. He was a twenty-five-year-old who in 2016 was arrested in Wroclaw's Market Square because he matched the description of a criminal who had escaped the police earlier. Though Przemyk's and Stachowiak's cases happened in different times and in different places, even in different dimensions, the mechanisms controlling them are the same.

In his excellent reportage Łazarewicz has focused on a thorough analysis of these mechanisms. The account of Przemyk's death and of what happened afterwards was a manifestation of the pathology of the PPR's power. Lazarewicz, to show these pathologies, concentrated on a thorough description of the events.

Leave No Trace is the result of meticulous investigative journalism that lays bare the subsequent phases of the so-the Grzegorz Przemyk case. Almost like in positivistic novels, the book begins with a detailed  description of the day Przemyk was beaten. The strong beginning is only a prelude to a double story, provoking anger and frustration in the reader.

Why double? Łazarewicz divides the book into two main themes that go back and forth but which are two distinctly separate stories. The first is the story of Przemyk's mother, Barbara Sadowska, a poet, anti-communist activist, and a victim of the communist system. The second thread clearly tells how the system first tidied up and later tried to cover up the high school student's death. And it was precisely this storyline that was so exceptionally and thoroughly examined and described by Łazarewicz.

What was most interesting was that Łazarewicz managed to discern in the sick system the human factor and it's huge impact (it really is an art when one's work relies primarily on documents), that the decisions made were hugely influenced by fear, shame, and the pettiness of the people who made those decisions during the various phases of the Przemyk case as it developed.

Read today in the context of Igor Stachowiak, Leave No Trace is not a hopeful read because it shows that it's not the system or form of government that's the greatest threat to society. Worse: it's the people.

[My translation from Polish of Rafał Hetman's review of Leave No Trace, which was awarded the Nike 2017 Literary Award.]

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Tres libros

I recently read three short books, all fiction about Mexico: the novel Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (trans. Lisa Dillman), the collection of short stories Barefoot Dogs by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, and the play so go the ghosts of méxico, part one by Matthew Paul Olmos. Olmos is an American Latino, Ruiz-Camacho is Mexican but now lives in the US and writes in English, while Herrera is Mexican, now lives in the US, but continues to write in Spanish. All three books deal with the themes of family, machismo, violence, and loss within the shady underworld of border crossings and drug cartels. In each, what is lost (or never had) weighs upon the protagonists, compelling them northward and beyond.

I became interested in Olmos' work because I had bought a season subscription to Undermain Theatre. Last month Undermain produced the world premier of part two, so I read part one before attending. Part one tells the story of the bravest woman in Mexico who becomes sheriff after a drug cartel murders the last sheriff. She is haunted by several ghosts of Mexico, including her decapitated predecessor as well as the daughter she will never have now that she's become a sheriff herself. Olmos' stage directions read like poetry, and the words his characters deliver are built on a bedrock of melody and rhythm that at times surpasses mere content. Music shifts between ambient sound design and catalyst, at times, even character. I eagerly await Undermain's production of part three next season; it promises to be just as important, necessary, and accessible.

Barefoot Dogs came to my attention when the Texas Institute of Letters awarded it the prize for Best Work of Fiction. A collection of related stories that revolve around the extended family of a Mexican patriarch who goes missing, the characters suffer their loss in personal grievings that continue to connect them together as a family despite the geographic and emotional distances between them. The writing is elegant while remaining excruciatingly raw. Familial and erotic love trip along the tightrope stretched over a chasm of apathy that threatens to swallow the characters whole should they make one wrong move. The stand-out story in my opinion is "Better Latitude," about the patriarch's mistress and their son: twenty-one pages with twice as many emotional gut punches.

Herrera's novel continues to haunt me days after finishing it. So simple a story: a woman is sent in search of her brother who had gone north and had gone missing. But its simplicity is a cover for the book's mythic proportions. And I'm still not sure where exactly in the text the transubstantiation takes place, if it ever really did. Maybe it is really just a simple story after all. But ohmygod this story is everything. Lisa Dillman has done the Lord's work by translating it. Her short Note (the entire book is only 114 pages) is eye-opening. I envy her the levels at which she's read the original and the hours of thought gone into each translated passage. I want another translation, though: this work needs to be adapted for the stage, serve as the basis of a film or of an opera. Makina needs to become one of the great archetypes of literature: the perfect blend of saint, prophet, messenger, bad ass, party girl, switchboard operator.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Cuban Fantasia

My most recent fantasy: live part-time in Havana and start an English-language walking tour, modeled after Brendan's Isherwood's Neighborhood tour in Berlin, retracing the sites and scenes of Reinaldo Arenas' last years in Cuba.

On the right you'll see the site where Reinaldo heckled world-famous novelist and sellout Alejo Carpentier during a public lecture. Around the corner--where the Santa Clara Cathedral stood until Reinaldo and his friends, in an act of charity for the artist and prostitute who lived next door and could no longer earn a living after her breasts fell, pulled it down after absconding with what post-Revolution valuables remained.

We'll walk from the Morro down the Malecón. We'll stop for ice cream at Coppelia, indulging in the flavors offered to the locals because we'll hire a Cuban national to buy them for us in CUPs. We'll tramp through Lenin Park where he read the Iliad while evading the police for months, visit the Monserrate Hotel, his home after his release from prison, and pass by the Episcopal church in the Vedado, the setting of many orgies during the mid-70s.

To end the tour, over a mojito or canchánchara, I'll read Reinaldo's suicide note as he's dying from AIDS in the US. His last written words: "Cuba will be free. I already am."

This fantasy makes me happy.

Monday, February 20, 2017


To all you Presidents of the United States of Love this Presidents Day.

And, lest we forget, the original:

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Top 10 Composers

According to the number of plays in my iTunes for all my music categorized under Classical, here are my Top 10 Composers:
  1. John Cage
  2. Karol Szymanowski
  3. Kevin Volans
  4. Samuel Barber
  5. Krzysztof Penderecki
  6. Arvo Pärt
  7. Henryk Górecki
  8. Witold Lutosławski
  9. Vladimir Martynov
  10. Sergei Rachmaninoff
As you can see, I have quite a liberal understanding of what "classical" means.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Monday Mix 011617: Lingua franca

I've studied language for most of life, even before I declared at the age of 10 that I wanted to be a writer. But decades later I'm unable to list all the languages I've studied, both formally and informally.

My go-to number is 14: I've studied, I speak 14 languages. It might be more, depending on how you distinguish among related languages, among vernaculars.

I'm going to attempt to list the 14 languages I know. (Though, perhaps, it might be more accurate to say the language that at one time I knew.)
  1. English
  2. Spanish
  3. Russian
  4. Polish
  5. Czech
  6. Japanese
  7. Ukrainian
  8. Latin
  9. German
  10. French
  11. Classical Greek
  12. ...
Hmm. Maybe it's only 11 languages. God, what a loser! This is why that stupid test I took told me I live in a bubble.

I've studied quite a bit of Sanskrit, a little Hebrew and Yiddish, and I spent a couple of months teaching myself Serbian, but I don't really count any of them.

The 11 languages listed above I consider my research languages: I can communicate in them (at least in a basic way), I can read them (though I never really developed literacy in Japanese, having only about 300 kanji under my belt), and I can translate from (most of) them, especially Spanish, Russian, Polish, Latin, German, and French.

The language I wish I spoke much better is Spanish. I adore Spanish. I studied for two years in high school, at least a year at the college level, and for a handful of years on my own or with a tutor. I'm always proud when my high school Spanish saves the day, which happens much more frequently in Germany for some reason.

Speak my language.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Monday Mix 01092017: Bowie

A year ago David Bowie died. It broke my heart. Though I never met him or saw him perform live, he helped define the context of my life and thinking, especially concerning the musical, the artistic, from an early age. I don't remember a time I didn't know about David Bowie.

The last day I spent in Berlin I took the U-Bahn to visit the former apartment he shared with Iggy during the 1970s. That was in October 2014. I had been listening to Low and The Next Day almost daily for a year. For the past year I haven't been able to listen to either entirely through.

Despite not having ever met David Bowie, his death affected me. Not in a superficial or celebrity-worship kind of way. I'm not that vapid. His artistry touched something in me that only makes sense when it's described as a soul. I was transcendent when I visited the Bowie exhibit in Berlin in June 2014, while I was living there and doing research over the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of communism in Central Europe. Bowie, for me, shaped and defined my experience of Berlin as much as Hitler and Stalin, as much as Benjamin and Grosz.

Here are my top 10 songs by David Bowie according to number of plays on iTunes:
  1. "Subterraneans" - though perhaps this isn't fair because some days I just put this song on repeat for hours at a time
  2. "This Is Not America"
  3. "Always Crashing in the Same Car" - for several months I had this song programmed as my morning alarm: "Every chance, every chance that I take, I take it on the road...."
  4. "Be My Wife"
  5. "Rebel Rebel"
  6. "Love Is Lost"
  7. "Warszawa" - the same goes with this song as with "Subterraneans"
  8. "A New Career in a New Town"
  9. "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)"
  10. "Breaking Glass"
"'Heroes'" doesn't show up until #12, but I have four different versions/covers of it that all make the top 50. (And don't get me started on people who forget to put the internal quotation marks around the title! It's ironic, you idiots!) "Lazarus" made #15. I remember last year after its release listening to this captivating track and naively musing, I wonder what David Bowie's next album will sound like, since I loved The Last Day and Blackstar so much.

Three classics that I still (can) listen to almost daily include "Stay" at #33, "Wild Is the Wind" at #34, and "Word On a Wing" at #44.

Bonus track: "Within You" from the Labyrinth soundtrack would've easily made the top 10, but I don't have it on iTunes.

What are your favorite David Bowie songs?

Monday, January 2, 2017

Monday Mix 01022017

I stopped writing. I stopped posting things on my lovely blog. But now I've decided to get back at it. To this end, I'll be posting a mix of various things every Monday. Yes: just because of the alliteration. "Monday Mix" has a good ring to it! A "mixtape," a master list, a massive infodump. At times, an actual list of things I've done or of ideas I'm thinking. Every Monday this year. Or so I intend.

Here's my first Monday Mix--my current Top 25 songs from iTunes according to number of plays. It says something of my aesthetic, my interest, my aural love. It says something about me. I hope you enjoy.
  1. "Waves" - White Rainbow
  2. "Extreme Ways" - Moby
  3. "Jigsaw Falling into Place" - Radiohead
  4. "T.Time" - Smolik
  5. "The Dream Beyond" - DJ Tsero
  6. "In a Landscape" by John Cage - Stephen Drury
  7. "Ceremony" - Radiohead
  8. "She's Going Places" - Division Kent
  9. "32 Flavors" - Alana Davis
  10. "Days Go By" - Dirty Vegas
  11. "Bedtime Story" - Madonna
  12. "In the End" - Linkin Park
  13. "Reckoner" - Radiohead
  14. "Subterraneans" - David Bowie (Brian Eno)
  15. "Smalltown Boy" - Bronski Beat
  16. "Running Up that Hill" - Placebo
  17. "Running Up that Hill" - Kate Bush
  18. "The White Flash" - Modeselektor w/ Thom Yorke
  19. "Soon this Space Will Be Too Small" - Lhasa De Sela
  20. "Dream" by John Cage - Stephen Drury
  21. "Beatitudes" - Sweet Honey in the Rock
  22. "Black Grease" - The Black Angels
  23. "Hammering in My Head" - Garbage
  24. "Nobody Knows My Name" - Rickie Lee Jones
  25. "All the Big Trees" - Jónsi & Alex
 Extra points for those who can discern a) my age, b) where I grew up, c) my religious affinity. Happy new year.