Puppet rock (new EML video for ‘Love Control’)

Cementing his new role in our band, Jeremy Roberts did a lot (i.e. most) of the work for this video (along with his wife, who did the outfits).

puppets

Puppets? Puppets.

To shoot this video we had to spend hours on our knees, hunched over at weird angles. The attic where we filmed got warm – and then hot – and we were a sweaty mess the whole time. When it was over, we were a little drunk and slightly stoned and totally exhausted.

Ben (crouched over in pain), Pete (smiling, delirious), Steve (naked) and Jeremy (too close to the camera for his own good.)

Ben (crouched over in pain), Pete (smiling, delirious), Steve (naked) and Jeremy (too close to the camera for his own good.)

But it was well worth it.

Check it out:

Advertisements

Debut music video for ‘Fickle’

Exploding Math Lab has a new video for our new line-up, featuring new bassist and old friend Jeremy Roberts (we played together in No Labels Fit, from 2003-2006). It’s also the first tease of our debut self-titled EP, due out December this year.

It’s short and sweet, two minutes of rock’n’roll that gets directly down to business and then gets the hell out of town.

 

The Olive Garden, Live in Concert

Author’s note: This story is fiction. It is a made-up story about a fictional version of a real fake version of a real band. Any similarities between this fiction and reality, or any of the iterations of fakeness, replication or simulacra in between fiction and reality, are purely coincidental. Olive Garden, on the other hand, is both real and fake, so good luck sorting that out.

“Christ on fire it’s hot,” Fake Bon Jovi says, more or less to himself.

The sun hangs low in the sky, the air over the parking lot blacktop waves like cartoon squiggles.

Fake Bon Jovi hangs back, leaving his band to soundcheck, adjusting spiny frosted-tip spears of hair around his balding crown. He removes his sunglasses, quickly and cautiously, and checks his make-up. His cheeks are sallow, bags hanging in overlapping folds beneath his bloodshot eyes.

Slippery When Wet – the ‘premier’ Bon Jovi cover band – has just wrapped up a fortnight at sea, a residency on Royal Caribbean Pearl of the Seas. Fake Bon Jovi is barely holding it together: it’s a thick, still, sopping wet hot outside, and he’s recovering from the bowel-rending ravages of some nautical disaster: Noro or E. Coli, the ultimate result of cramming that many people together on a floating shopping mall.

Now he’s trying to get his land-legs back (the platform heels and skin-tight pleather are not helping), and on top of that Jason – yes, that’s the real name of Fake John Francis Bongiovi – has already had too many luke-warm Landsharks from the Igloo cooler behind the stage.

Huddled around the cooler, a local band attacks the free beer with the gusto of people unaccustomed to free booze. They’re scraggly, harried, showing up with girlfriends and wives who help them carry their own gear. Fake Richie Sambora is taking nips from a bottle of rotgut bourbon with the local band’s guitarist, who looks like the kind of guy who would perpetually have a bottle of cheap liquor within reach. Fake Richie Sambora holds up his guitar, presents it for inspection like some fearsome Scottish Claymore. The local guy laughs, shakes his head, picks up the guitar, smiles.

Fake Bon Jovi doesn’t approve, wishes the Slippery When Wet guys would stay in character. Take their drummer, Fake Tico Torres; his soul patch is a sloppy rhombus of hair, not like Real Tico’s flawless Clovis Point. And Fake Tico put on like fifteen pounds on the cruise. Who gets fat eating sushi? Fake Fucking Tico.

Fake Bon Jovi spits out a mouthful of warm beer. And hamming it up with the local guys, Jesus. These dirtbags barely have one set of gear between them, cabinets all torn up, showing up in work clothes. Jesus. Fake Sambora is busting out the talk box. The local guys are howling. Worse than mockery, they’re actually into it. Fake Sambora is trying to show him up; he’s trying to pull a Real Sambora. But Bon Jovi isn’t a rock’n’roll band, it’s the Jon Bon Jovi show. Any Sambora knows that. Jesus.

Now the local band’s singer comes over to Fake Bon Jovi, smiling nervously.

“Thanks, man, for – uh – having us, I guess. We’re really excited to play. So, thanks.”

Fake Bon Jovi keeps his hands tucked in his armpits, sweat already soaking through his denim jacket. Why does Fake Sambora get to play in a sleeveless T? Mindy, their costume designer. That’s why. Frigid bitch. Fake Bon Jovi lets it drop. He looks past the local singer, sighing, and says:

“Yeah. Well, this was an unplanned stop. Kind of shit venue.”

The local singer glances at the stage, the rows of monitors, the heavy PA speakers, and looks back at Fake Bon Jovi.

“It’s a nice set-up, good sound,” the local guy says.

“Our drummer’s from here,” Fake Bon Jovi says, “so he wanted to play here. Stupid. We’re playing in Germany next.”

“That’s fucking cool,” says the local singer.

“Yeah,” Fake Bon Jovi rolls his eyes. “Cool. We’re a big deal in Germany.”

The local singer nods, takes his cue, and walks away. Fake Bon Jovi looks at his watch. Ten minutes to vocal check. Then he can finally get out of this fucking Apocalypse Now swelter and back to the hotel, maybe get a blowjob from the escort girl. Maybe not. She’ll probably want some of his coke, but Fake Bon Jovi has already torn through the eightball he scored at Myrtle Beach. Fake Tico was supposed to score some from one of his idiot hometown buddies. Fat chance. Real Tico would have had Real Bon Jovi hip-deep in blow, stat, no questions asked.

The sound guy shouts to Fake Bon Jovi and nods; Fake Bon Jovi pushes quickly through the crowd in the VIP area and jumps up on stage.

“Just fucking use the levels from last time, it’s the same — ” Fake Bon Jovi gets cut off, the sound guy winces and holds up an Apple tablet, shrugging. Fake Tico’s playing the whole kit behind him, like he’s fucking Fake Neil Peart. Oh, and now Fake Sambora’s got his goddamned talk-box going. Woaow-woaow! Whoa-whoa-whoa! The fucking noise eats up the whole bandwidth, it’s all you can hear. Fake Sambora has to blow the vowel-sounds into a tube next to his backing-vocal mic, and then it feeds into one of his little guitar pedals. He’s way too into it, Fake Bon Jovi thinks, it’s gross. Like he’s almost sucking on it. God. Can’t he just use a wah-wah pedal?

Finally, full band check with vocals. Fake Bon Jovi clears his throat and belts it out, looking out across the empty parking lot and up at the restaurants and bars, the patios and porches of apartment buildings down the block. He swings for the fences. From three blocks away you can hear people sing along, cheering, screaming. The band stops, already a crowd starts to gather.

“We’ll see you in a few hours folks,” Fake Bon Jovi says, speaking up over the small crowd that’s gathered. The crowd stays, curious. It’s a free show, and it’s too early to start drinking full on.

The sound guy nods to the local band and they start lugging their equipment on stage, laughing and joking. Amateurs.

“Sounded good,” the local singer says as he passes Fake Bon Jovi.

“Yeah,” Fake Bon Jovi says, nodding at the crowd, “they’re here for us.”

As Fake Bon Jovi heads for the enveloping cool of the hotel lobby bar, he hears the local band start to play. Some song no one’s ever heard before, one most won’t ever hear again. It’s not what people want, Fake Bon Jovi thinks. They want what they know, a chorus they can sing along to. This band, too herky-jerky. Some weird key, too much noodling, feedback. Amateurish or experimental, it doesn’t matter.

People don’t want that shit. They want Olive Garden, nothing weird, nothing unexpected.

But then he hears it. Fake Bon Jovi stops, turns slightly.

There’s actually a small crowd, gathered in front of the stage. They’re singing along. All the Whos down in Whoville, they’re actually fucking singing.

Something tugs at Fake Bon Jovi. He was young, once, a kid named Jason from a small town with a girlfriend he’d known since high school. He’d been in a band, played local bars — played his heart out for a dozen people. Loved every second of it.

But it didn’t matter; it didn’t pay.

Fake Bon Jovi remembers he tucked a bump away in the toe of his other pair of boots. He glances one more time at the locals, soaked in sweat, dancing to strange songs.

“Fuck this town,” Fake Bon Jovi says.

 

 

Long Year City

Last year was a dark year, a year of the old gods. We fought the good fight and lost. The war ground on. Attrition. A slow and unstauchable bleeding. At work, we tried to hold the line, for good food, for good people, losing ground all the time.

Then our work casloppy ript Sloppy died, drowned in a weeklong deluge. We had, over the the year, earned her trust. Brought her from her nervous perch in the forest to the edge of our kitchen, fed her, and even petted her, once or twice. But Sloppy was a wild animal and would not – perhaps could not – be changed. She came as close as she did to teach her sole surviving kitten that we could be trusted. Her kitten – Biscuits – was trusting and friendly, allowing us to pick him up, play with him, take him to the vet, and eventually our baker adopted him.

It was the last thing Sloppy did, her final and instinctively devoted sacrifice. We found her body and buried her. Pete and I dug the grave. Christopher sang ‘The Pipes are Calling.’ It’s you must go, and I must bide. We poured out our liquor. And we went our separate ways that day, knowing it was over for us. When the gods cast their judgement, they cast it deep in your heart. You just know.

After that, it was just a matter of time. Some quit, some got fired. I stayed behind, to fight the lonely fight, the war against callow mediocrity and bloodless corporate cheapness. I stayed, but not heroically. I stayed out of necessity, and stubbornness, and blindedness. I stayed because my heart was too broken to move on.

Heartbroken, because last year our best friend died.

I’m just now almost able to talk about it. ‘Almost,’ meaning I can joke about it: awful, cruel jokes. But hurling hurt back at the world is not the same as coming to terms with it. My wife is getting a tattoo – the first, last, only portrait I think she’ll get – and our longtime artist could barely make it through the sketch without crying. I doubt either of them will fare better during the actual session. Tattooing – the time, the pain, the process – is often about catharsis. I hope it will be for my wife.

As for me, I’ll be getting the same portrait, in a few months when the money’s saved up and our artist has recovered. But I need something more. For three months, I’ve needed to scream and had no mouth. The death of my friend wrecked me. I woke up early, long before the sun, everyday. I woke up and I just stood in the empty kitchen, staring at the empty living room. He wasn’t there. My hands felt like numbed stumps. I walked, alone, around the collecting pond near my apartment. The gravel crunched, ospreys cried out in the trees. I picked up my guitar, strummed an old chord progression, and felt nothing. I stared at blank screens, cursor blinking, ticking away time, ticking away nothing. I tried: wrote a few weak false starts.

I was writing pointless sentences, playing boring chords, cooking meager food. All I wanted to do was sleep and I was developing chronic insomnia.

I’d stare at my ceiling, stare at the woods, stare at the road. I’d remember his face.

It’s hard. It is very hard to make yourself accountable for the grief of a dead dog. For many people, I did not try. What words could close that chasm? They’d have to be there, with me, to be me, as I stood there, in the quiet little room at the veterinary hospital, pushed the plunger on the syringe, and felt my best friend slip away in my arms. Every day for ten years, for the entirety of my marriage, the entirety of my adult life, I have woken up to his face and fallen asleep to it. Now it just a memory: his eyes, growing heavy, for the last time.

I have a picture, that I will not show you here, of his tired, swollen face. My face is pale and tired, my wife’s face is bruised from crying. A ruptured cancer in his stomach caused him to bleed out. His heart was so strong that he survived for a over a week; most dogs would have died instantly. When my wife and I adopted him, his heart was so weak he was not allowed to play, or walk more than a block. But he was, in the end, the strongest living creature I ever met. In the picture, you can see what that strength granted him: grace and dignity. He didn’t die in his sleep, or in the back room on a metal table. He waited, until we were there, to see him off. In the picture you see it, in his eyes, through the drugs: resignation, peace. He was ready to say goodbye.

He was ready, I was not.

I am still not.

.

unnamed

Maximilian Caesar Bear, 2003-2015

It is so hard to make yourself accountable to people. Dogsgrief. That should be a word. It should mean, to the lucky, to the uninitiated, a kind of secondhand mourning, a minor injury. And, to the unlucky, to those who have lost a best friend, it would mean something else. A dog is not a human, though so often my friend seemed like a human in a dog suit. They are something else, an alien intelligence, a kind martian: wiser and dumber and different than us, but no less worth our love – and thus, our grief – in their time with us.

We lost a lot in 2015, too much by far. It was dark for nearly half the year.

But Bear, my best friend, hated sadness. He would not tolerate crying or moping. He would press his face into yours, on the verge of speech, trying to cheer you up. He would be annoyed and ashamed at me, for the fallow months that have followed his death. A pitiful thanks for the years he gave me, the joy, the heart.

And so, 2016. My heart still feels broken, like a black meteorite stuck in my chest. But I cannot wallow any longer. Bear would be pawing at the floor, pressing his muzzle to my face, nipping at my hands, barking at the door. Bear would want rock’n’roll, and stories, and food, and adventure.

And he shall have them.

The gods be damned, he shall have them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The War

…I have a dream. I’m watching a titanic battle between my brother and the monsters of the underworld, and my brother is killing one after another with a huge shotgun. The monsters are cartoonish and murderous and it doesn’t matter how many he kills because there’s an endless supply of them.

Eventually he just runs out of ammo, I realize. Eventually the monsters will win.

Sebastian Junger, War

 

Where did July go? Evaporated in the triple digit slow cooker heat? I don’t know, but it seems likely. I’ve been head down, in the mud, working, trying to push the boulder up the hill – fuck that Sisyphus slacker – I’ve been pushing a half dozen boulders up a half dozen hills. Something’s gotta give, my wife says. I love her, need that optimism, something to cut the bitter, overproof whiskey doubt in my heart. But nothing has to give. Nothing gives until you break it. So, in lieu of a status report, let me just say things are cooking. Slow cooking, but cooking. (Less obliquely: in the fall, there’ll be new fiction – including a piece in Sixfold’s Summer 2015 release – and new rock and roll – Exploding Math Lab’s EP2 is going to be a thunderous monster. New stuff, even better than the old stuff. Guaranteed.)

In the meantime, it’s war.

Not the war abroad. No, though I mean no disrespect; we’ve all got friends and family over there, somewhere. Whatever the (shitty) politics that got them there. I’m talking about a different war, an older war. The war at home.

The war inside.

Turn on the TV, and you see the casualties. The ruined cities, monuments to the victors: apathy, complacency, sloth, and fear. ­Makes you wish the real horsemen would show up. But instead we get EL James, Guy Fieri, Jeb Bush, and Stan Lee. Yes, Stan Lee – you aren’t off the goddamn hook, no sir. Stan Lee phoned in a lot of his creations, and they’ll be clogging the bowels of Hollywood for decades to come.

I turn on the radio – ill-advisedly, I know – and you can actually hear the sound of people surrendering. It sounds like 4/4 timing, mid-tempo ‘rock’ that sounds just like mid-tempo ‘pop’ and mid-tempo ‘country.’ White flags flying over every radio station.

Okay, so it’s the mediocrity in the arts rant? Not so original. And not so bad, either, if that was the end of it. Because, honestly, if you’re going to write, or make music, or cook food, then maybe it’s not so bad to have nothing but mediocre hacks as your competition. Just lined up – dumb faces upturned – for you to trounce. And maybe, then, you could startle people out of their stupors. I remember the first time I ate real cheese. (Wait. What? Hold on, stay with me.) Unpasteurized, unhomogenized, unfuckedaroundwith. I thought: this is how the gods eat. That’s how you could make people feel.

But the war isn’t about artists versus imitators, or the stagnation of American creativity (by a school system and a broader culture that enforces safeness and timidity, no less). Those are symptoms, cropping up here and there.

The war is everywhere.

The war is at work, for example.

Last week, I fired a long time employee. There were lots of reasons. First and foremost, she made terrible food. She only knew about four or five recipes, and – even after she’d been warned, ordered, begged, not to make these things – as soon as you turned your back on her, she’d scurry around, making one of these awful creations. Cinnamon-sugar sweet potatoes, in July. Roasted vegetables, deflated and unseasoned, some raw and some cooked to shit. Broccoli salad that was 90% mayonnaise by weight (and also, for no apparent culinary reason, contained wildly expensive amounts of raw pine nuts).

When she washed dishes, she’d cram four or five times too many things into the machine, leaving you with racks of food-flecked dishes after she left. She’d go on break during the busiest hour of lunch, sitting at the computer in a room adjoining the kitchen, smiling dumbly, the way a child does when they shit their pants without even realizing it.

At one point, a few months back, she asked, ‘when you fire me, can you please give me two weeks’ notice first?’ Not if. When. She knew, in the dimmest possible sense, that she was bad at her job. She didn’t know why and she didn’t want to. She didn’t want to learn, or improve, or change in any way. She wanted to punch her time and then leave. When you told her, the way you cut vegetables is so wildly ineffective and insanely dangerous that it is difficult to watch for longer than a split second, she’d just say, ‘oh, I’ve been doing it this way for a long time.’

And there it was, the battle cry of the enemy: it’s always been this way.

Every day at work, our pay gets docked a half-hour. Why? Because, a while back, when the kitchen was run by a brigade of crackheads and slackers, employees abused the paid breaks to the point where they’d wander off, for hours at a time. Hours. So management’s solution, with their signature mix of underhandedness and cowardice, was to automatically dock all employees a half-hour. And now, that the kitchen is being run by actual cooks, who do not take breaks (because, quite simply, there is too much goddamn work to be done, at all times), why does the deduction still exist? Management scratches their head, as if this is some kind of eternal mystery. Well, it’s always been this way. It’s a felony – wage theft is a fucking felony, let’s be clear – and an insult. Management rubs their belly, eyes drifting to the buffet, conversation already stillborn and cold, I dunno, it’s just always been that way…

There’s no devil, no demon, in any myth or nightmare, as vicious and vile as that sense of complacency.

Well, you know, summer blockbusters, they’re always kind of dumb…the radio always sucks though…well, some people like unlimited breadsticks…we’ve it’s always been a man’s job…it’s always been illegal to buy beer before noon on Sunday…but marriage has always been about a man and a woman (or seven hundred women)… the shit was actually already on the floor, it was here when I got here so…well…but…you know … it’s…always….been…this….way.

We fight it. Try to educate, recruit, at least hold the line. One battle at time, dispelling one stupid myth after another, cutting down one stubborn, mule-headed motherfucker after another, on our hands and knees, shoulder deep down a clogged drain, scrubbing until our hands bleed, working harder and longer than the summer sun. I don’t think the war will ever be over. It doesn’t matter, how many fires we put out, how many rocks we shoulder up the hill, how many monsters we put down. The enemy has the sheering force of brute stupidity. He’s got the high ground, he has numbers, he’s got time.

But that’s why the gods allow evil, to give us something to fight. To prove ourselves, if only to ourselves. (Running joke: shouting ‘prove it to yourself,’ to guys who clearly have something to prove, rag-top German coupes, diamonds on their watch, running shirtless through downtown. Still, beneath the joke, a little truth: who else would you want to prove anything to?)

But that’s the story: you’re born, you fight like hell, then you die. Better than nothing, better than boredom. Better than eating at Olive Garden. So, if you’re out there, and you give a goddamn – about something, about anything – and you know what I mean, then may the gods give you their blessing, or at least stay the fuck out of your way.

12 Ways to Massacre Your Enemies on Valentine’s Day

Last month I promised several things, and – unlike the pizza guy in a mild dusting of Carolina snow – I am here to deliver, goddammit.

*

First, Short Work. ‘Mystery’ went live earlier this month at the Eckleburg Review (and, if you dig that, the Eckleburg folks had me back to talk about the writing of the piece, here). Also, I’ve added links to two stories you aren’t likely to find in your local bookstore: the novelette ‘Dear Penthouse’ – about a model struggling with mental illness, from the Conium Review – and ‘The House of the Dogs’ – about fine dining and war crimes, from Confingo, across the pond. Yes, I said ‘novelette,’ and yes, that is a thing. A good thing.

Stay tuned for two more shorts, coming in early March: ‘A Prayer for War’ delayed but most certainly coming, from Bloodstone, and ‘Horizon’ from PIF Magazine. (‘Horizon,’ is by far the most NSFW thing I’ve had published, so if you’re never been to HR for the ‘uses and practices’ lecture, make sure to read that one at work).

*

Next, Rock’n’Roll. Exploding Math Lab has an EP, and you can listen to it. Like Radiohead, we’ll let you pay whatever you want for it (including nothing). Unlike Radiohead, we won’t be mopey, pretentious pricks about it. Check it out: https://explodingmathlab.bandcamp.com/releases – I don’t write our lyrics, but I did write our track notes. Thought I’d put the English degree to good use.

And, of course, we’re playing all over this tiny Carolina town, so if you’re passing through, show up, and we’ll buy you a beer and break your eardrums. Lovingly, of course.

*

New Project(s). It’s happening, but it’s top fucking secret (that’s one step above top secret).

*

Finally: Twelve Ways to Massacre Your Enemies of Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day is the Normandy Invasion for an Italian restaurant in a town without too many fine dining options. Unfortunately for me, in this metaphor, the cooks are the hapless Wehrmacht regulars, given the impossible task of holding off the relentless Americans and their corn-fed optimism, while our cowardly Nazi superiors scamper off at the crucial moment to avoid death or capture.  Our latest chef, Oberstarzt Brian, quit a week before Valentine’s Day, after thinning our ranks with his incompetence and inexperience.  Our management seemed almost disinterested in the massive horde of hungry Americans gathering on the horizon. And, despite having no leadership, we were told we were in no position to make decisions for ourselves.  Outnumbered and underappreciated, we were hung out to dry.

Still, when the onslaught came, we gave it hell.

Why?

I can tell you this: it was not for the customers. We’re happy they had a good time, ate some good food, had a nice evening. But that has very little to do with it. We did it because no one was going to do a better job than us. Good food deserves to be made, regardless of who eats it. Once it leaves the window, we’re on to the next thing.

Now, cooking is not like playing music which is not like writing. But they share a few things. You don’t do it for the money, or the fame, or the glory. And you don’t do it for the audience. That sounds crude, and pretentious, and solipsistic, but it’s true. Ninety percent of the people who come into the restaurant want fettuccini alfredo or lasagna, not because it’s authentic or made with care, but because it’s a relatively inexpensive, because it’s two pounds of rich, fatty, carby, comfort. Ninety percent of people who like what’s on the radio, they like Nickleback’s new single, and Two and a Half Men, and 50 Shades of Grey because they think these things are edgy. It’s just helping after helping of alfredo, unlimited breadsticks, ranch dressing poured over everything.*

But this isn’t a rant about American unexceptionalism.  This isn’t what Kanye, in his stunningly inarticulate way, tried to say about Beck, or what Jonathan Franzen, in his dickishly eloquent way, tried to say about Jennifer Weiner.

Because the writers whose work I’m reading, the bands whose music I’m listening to, the chefs whose food I’m eating, they don’t give a shit what you call them. And they don’t care what other artists are doing wrong and whether the people are eating it up. They care about writing, and music, and food. They’re working their asses off, they’ve got blinders on, because they need that focus. But they aren’t doing it for me, for anyone else. We aren’t entitled to it. In all likelihood, we do not deserve it.

What I’m saying is, if I sit in traffic, listening to an awful song, that is on me. If I go to a crappy taco place – when there’s a legit Mexican joint across the street – that’s on me too. If I only pick up a book because it’s become a movie, and it bores me to tears, if I go to the movies and see some half-thought-out piece of Bruckheimer garbage, if I keep paying for cable ‘reality’ TV, all of that, that great big plate of alfredo and the slow, boring death that comes with it, that is all on me.

As an audience member, someone who loves good food, rock’n’roll, books and movies, it’s easy to blame the artists, to see them as the enemy, to see their greed and indifference as the driving force behind your own boredom. Why do we have this plastic culture? Because that’s the only one offered to us. It’s easy to wish a plague on the houses of Hollywood and Manhattan.

And, as an artist – as a cook, or a writer, or a musician – it’s easy to see the audience as the enemy, to wish them up against the wall. It’s tempting to see their laziness and complacency, their entitlement and ignorance, as the scapegoat for your shortcomings. Why have we not struck it rich? Because the audience is too stupid to understand what we’re doing.

But there are no enemies to massacre, except the ones in our heads. Laziness and greed, boredom and fear, and – the worst of the bunch – entitlement.

No one is owed anything. Not artists, not audiences.

We can go out and find the good shit, or we can make it ourselves, or we can take what they give us. We can go to our local bars and listen to live music, go to a new restaurant, go online and read something weird. Or we can go to fucking Olive Garden.

It’s on us.

 

*

Next time: ‘From the Vault’ – a true story I can’t stop telling even though I don’t remember it at all anymore.

*

 

*Yes, I know I more or less stole this from Gaffigan’s “Mr Universe” special, but – in my defense – Jim Gaffigan is unlikely to read this blog, and if you the reader recognized the theft, then at least I know you’ve got good taste in comedy.

 

Ten Years

It feels like ten years since I’ve posted something. In fact, it’s been two months. That’s not too bad if you think of this blog as monthly, a little worse if you know I was going for bi-weekly (or even weekly, a ludicrous plan). In any case, what happened? Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, the holiday gauntlet: more food and alcohol than anyone would care to see – laid out on a long table, as a cold, objective accusation – and a few thousand miles of driving. Now I’m back – back to work, and work – and it’s story time again,

*

But, first, some brief news.

-I’ve got a ‘project’ out to editors as we speak. I suppose discretion is best here, but I can say this: I’m halfway through a strange month.

-Exploding Math Lab, the very loud band I’m playing guitar for, had a listening party the other night (by which I mean a few dudes standing around in a living room). After finishing mastering, and re-mastering, we’re beginning to sound an awful lot like a real rock’n’roll band. We’ve even got a CD to give out. A physical CD! Only about ten years after physical CDs went out of style. But still, we’re pretty excited. Check us out on Facebook (don’t worry, we’re the only Exploding Math Lab out there). We should be posting some of the mastered clips really soon. Next steps: full album, world tour, catastrophic substance abuse, creative differences, tragic and mysterious death(s), cooling off period, heating up period, reunion rumors, reunion denials, actual reunion, comeback album, world flooded by melted icecaps (except for the upper half of Billionaire’s row on Central Park South).

-Those two short stories really are coming, I promise. “Mystery” – the lovechild of Chuck Palahniuk and Garrison Keillor – goes live at John Hopkin’s T.J. Eckleburg Review on February 2nd. It’s part of their ‘Salon’ series, so you’ll have the opportunity to publicly ridicule me or to make a long series of protracted inside jokes with me in their discussion forum. Yeah? Yeah. “A Prayer For War” goes live at Bloodstone Review, very soon. It’ll be worth the wait. Seriously. It was good enough, after all, to convince the very thoughtful and aesthetically discriminating editors to publish it, even though I used the phrase “motherfucking motherfucker.” Twice. Sorry Mom.

*

Okay: Ten years.

For a lot of reasons, I’m particularly struck by the ten-year span. It shows up my work, all the time, because it shows up in my life, all the time. I often think the gods dole out their rewards and punishments in deep, Homeric allotments. I also feel that karma has a ten year transit, and that trauma takes a good ten years to come to the surface. And, it’s also just a strangely firm anchoring point, in a sea of memories that slip away as soon as you try to grapple with them.

Recently, at the restaurant, we were given a new chef. If that sounds awkward, it’s meant to. It’s been a difficult transition and – since last year’s Tobin debacle – things have been tense. Our new chef is not a bad guy, he’s knowledgeable and hard-working (the opposite of Tobin, who’s equine corpse I’ll kick till Kingdom come). I like him enough not to use his real name here. Still, the situation is a bag of shit. You can write whatever you want on the bag of shit, but there is no eloquence, no articulation, that can perform alchemy. That’s no bag of gold we’ve been left holding.

And, in spite of this, our new chef comes to the holiday party, with his wife, ready to have some* drinks and take some ribbing. I go with my wife, promising to leave after a few** drinks, but eager to blow off some steam, and see my friends from work without the 120’F heat or the threat of burns, cuts, and lower-back injuries.

And, yes, I’m going somewhere with this.

At a certain point in the night, our new chef introduces himself and his wife to me and my own wife. My wife and I stop cold. We already know the chef’s wife. Then we’re laughing, the three of us – the chef standing off to the side, confused – hugging and cursing in surprise, the way you do when you run into someone who knew you at a certain time in your life, someone who will, no doubt, have deeply compromising stories to tell about you . I slap the chef on the shoulder and say, ‘I have known your wife for a really, really long time.’ And the next day, it occurrs to me just how creepy that must have sounded, and I eventually find a (somewhat) tactful way of clearing up the lingering implications. But I had known her for a long time, or rather, I’d known her a long time ago.

This was before I’d gotten married, gone to New York, before graduate school. I was just out of college, occasionally mohawked and always savagely drunk. I was in a punk band, living off stolen food from restaurant gigs.I  would eventually become the kitchen manager, and pull my shit together a little bit, but not a lot; even after I got the KM job, the veggie crisper in my fridge was full of beer. Not cans of beer. Beer. I’d ladle my coffee mug in there for breakfast.

And of course, there were drugs. But that’s a story for another time (February?).

Now, I have a memory, from that time, one of the few really clear ones: It’s near two in the morning, and I’m drunk, and a little high. We’re the last band playing and a lot of the crowd has left, but there’s about a dozen people, pressed up against the stage. We’re playing our last song. Our singer, stripped to the waist, a trickle of blood on his neck and chest, beer soaked shorts, is singing into the microphone, ‘this one’s for you, this one’s for you.’ And right up front, three or four people, that I knew but not well, they start crying. Weeping, openly, tears running down their faces.

And I was new to the band, I hadn’t helped write the song and I didn’t even know what it was about – I didn’t even know all the notes, I was the bassist and I could fake about half of it – so I couldn’t do anything but play along, suddenly more of a spectator than the people in the crowd. They were more a part of the band, more a part of what was happening at that moment than I was then or would ever be. And that was okay. It was beautiful and I was grateful. It could have been the whiskey and the cocaine, but I my eyes teared up, and I threw my hair in front of my face and kept playing.

I had, right then, the idea for a story, not the whole thing, not a novel-sized epiphany. But I knew what I wanted to write about, and I went home that night, wired and drunk, and wrote until the sun came up and I stumbled into the kitchen for a mug of beer. That was me, ten years ago.

And that’s the thing. When I have that memory, when I summon it, or when it summons itself, unbidden, just showing up in the middle of some other thought like an emergency broadcast from the past, I see myself on that stage. And it’s me. Which is to say, it’s me now, with my grad school objectivity, my post-modern referentiality, thirty years of scars and book learning, a hot heart with cold aesthetics. But then? Ten years ago? Who was that guy? Joan Didion put it nicely, “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.” 

The day after the holiday party, the chef tells me how wild it was, us all knowing each other. I don’t nit-pick the nuances of ‘us;’ it feels like an honest gesture. He tells me his wife went home, riffling through stacks of old photographs, looking to see if she can find a photo of me. Ten years ago, in 2005, we all had cell-phones but I can’t remember any of them having a camera. After a while, she gave up. The chef tells me, ‘my wife says it’s too bad, she’s says it’s funny, says Ben was just a baby.’

I also went home and dug around. Turns out, I do have one photo of myself at that time. I don’t remember when it was, exactly, or which shithole club it was in. It’s a low-res shot, probably taken by the sound guy. I’ve got wet hair – a whore bath after working a shift, likely – and a t-shirt I’d stolen from my roommate that says Fuck You You Fucking Fuck. So it could have been any day of the week.

drunk

It’s clear: the guy in this picture is just a baby. A clammy, chubby-faced, sweaty-drunk baby. Smart, maybe, but surely not wise, strung out but with no clue what ‘tired’ means. I was not even close to having earned my cynicism. I think I know this guy, I think I love him sometimes, and sometimes he scares the shit out of me. Sometimes he embarrasses me and sometimes I’m so proud. He is and he isn’t me. I’m sure he felt that way about the teenager he used to be. I’m sure in ten years someone will feel that way about me.

*

Coming in February: Short Work, rock’n’roll, new projects, and 12 great ideas on how to massacre your enemies of Valentine’s Day.

*Many, many.

**Seriously, so many. It’s an open bar.