Sunday, May 31, 2020

A Memphis Memory

Twenty-five summers ago, my friend Jodie and I drove my overstuffed Cutlass Ciera from New Jersey to California. I was relocating to Los Angeles for grad school. She was along for the ride. I’m not sure I could have done it without her, but our friendship almost didn’t survive that trip. America can have that effect on people, I guess.

By car, it’s possible to get from coast to coast in four days—but we took two weeks, lingering in my favorite music cities throughout the South. On a hot night in Memphis, we sat on the Ciera’s hood outside Sun Records, trying to soak in the magic of Howlin’ Wolf and Jackie Brenston, and others
long gone. The next day, it rained, and we went to the Lorraine Motel, where, in 1968, Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Recently converted into the National Civil Rights Museum, that building, with its marquee and decor preserved, seemed to silently loop that infamous moment. 

Of course, history in general seems to loop, whether we put it in a museum or not. The rain got heavier as Jodie and I left Tennessee and entered Mississippi. But scenes of Memphis kept playing in my mind. I cued up a Public Enemy mixtape. “Elvis was a hero to most,” Chuck D. rapped, backed by the rhythm of the windshield wipers, “but he never meant shit to me.” I nodded. I loved Elvis’s early records, but never got why other white people called him “king.” We’d toured Graceland a few days earlier. We’d seen the TV with the bullet hole. We’d seen the stone wall, covered in pointless graffiti. A mad king, maybe, driven there by the privilege of skin.

Down I-55, and then toward the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, I thought about other kings. Martin Luther, yes, but also Rodney, beaten nearly to death on camera a few years earlier, in the city I would soon call home. That almost accidental recording is sometimes heralded as the start of a new citizen journalism. But hatred adapts. How many Rodney King-type videos (and worse) have there been so far this year? This month?

The night before MLK’s murder at the Lorraine, he gave a transcendent speech. He spoke of a mountaintop, and a promised land, and how “I might not get there with you.” I suspect he knew the Buddhist story of the three men, dying of thirst in the desert—the one where they find a wall, and the first two climb, and see an oasis on the other side, and jump over, saving themselves. The third man, the bodhisattva, remains behind. He’s still thirsty, of course. But he’s more concerned that strangers, as lost and parched as he, might come along someday, and need help getting to the oasis hidden behind the wall.

In 2020, such selfless compassion feels increasingly elusive. What kind of promised land is premised on centuries of suffering? Maybe history doesn’t have to loop. If you’re lucky enough to be at the foot of the wall, who are you going to help over it?

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Jingle Dress Dance

When I worked at Willowbrook Arts Camp a few summers back, the Native American Arts specialists—Harold and his daughter Harmony—would always treat the kids to a performance of the Jingle Dress Dance. We all gathered under the main tent to watch and listen. Harold struck a big drum, and it rang deep as he sang. Harmony danced in a skipping motion, her dress layered in metal cones that shook like sleigh bells—incongruous and beautiful in the July heat.
Apparently, the Jingle Dress Dance originated around the time of the 1918 influenza pandemic. A man from the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe had a recurring dream of four women dancing in differently colored dresses, covered in “little metal pieces.” He told his wife, and the dresses were made, and the dance learned—and a young girl who’d been struck ill rose from her fever to dance along. A healing ritual was born from tobacco-can lids, radically repurposed to make the first jingle cones. 
A virus is invisible, and silent. So we look and listen more carefully. Walking through my neighborhood, my ears tune to every footfall. I sense the slightest break in my peripheral vision—if you’re walking, too, I might feel your presence before we’re even on the same street. Everything is fainter, but there is still sound and movement. Music is vibrating air, and dance its engine. Its waves travel to touch us, even when we can’t touch each other. And for now, that has to be enough. The beating drum. The ringing metal. The remembered connection through space, tangible in its intangibility, as we all move through this together.

[image c/o Smithsonian]

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

What We've Become

There was an article in National Geographic a few months ago, about “the largest single incident of mass child sacrifice in the Americas—and likely in world history.” According to the piece, that event occurred in Peru, almost six centuries ago, at the hands of the ChimĂș civilization.
The coverage had all the National Geographic hallmarks. The outsized, colorful photographs (in this case, of cinnabar-smeared skulls and sternums). The passive-aggressive distancing between observer and observed. “What could possibly have been the reason?” the author mused.
In the context of the last eighteen months, that voyeuristic outrage seems almost delusional. One could argue that child sacrifice is alive and well and happening in the United States—on a scale the ChimĂș could never have imagined. Sure, the mechanisms are different. And sure, the damage takes a variety of forms. But snatching babies from their parents is just a different way of getting the same result. As is letting kids shoot each other to death in schools. As is wrecking the planet they will have to inhabit longer than you.
There’s an exquisite gratuitousness to this conspiracy of old against young. Scanning the channels last night, I saw CNN do its knee-jerk Trumper-in-the-wild thing—elderly white folks, sitting in a diner so brightly retro it burned through the screen. They looked unhealthy and unhappy, as they complained that they shouldn’t be made to feel guilty because of crying toddlers in internment camps. I wondered if any of them read National Geographic
It’s a form of terrorism, really—this ransoming of innocence. On the day Thandie was born, she came out with the umbilical cord around her neck, and the entirety of my being hung by a thread as the nurses whisked her away and coaxed her into breathing. Most of us are hanging together, now, for these other kids, desperately hoping they will breathe too, and unable to fathom this cult of adults that must have its tribute. 
Please: fight back.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Getting Better

[image by Drew Coffman]

Last week an important conversation about sexual harassment happened in the world of contemporary children’s literature, and I’m so grateful I got to hear it. Over the weekend I celebrated the majesty of an all-black superhero movie and was inspired by high-school students seizing the reins of the gun-control conversation. Through it all, I’ve been thinking about voice and representation and ethics, and my own commitments and responsibilities as an unproven white guy trying to write fantasy books for kids.

Honestly, I wouldn’t want to be doing this at any other time. It’s a gift, this opportunity to learn how to be a better human through writing. Part of the charge, of course, is obvious: the golden rule, more or less. As Ishta Mercurio points out in Publisher’s Weekly, “It is such a low bar to expect decent behavior from people who create books for children.” Indeed—this industry should probably be leading the way.

But there is more to it than just behaving decently. There should be answers in the writing itself. I agree with Martha Brockenbrough: “We need new stories.”

Yes, stories are ways of documenting reality, and sometimes that means documenting its horror. But sometimes simply documenting horror is a way of re-inscribing it, whether intentionally or not. I couldn’t make it through Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why precisely because a version of that story seems to be told about powerful men and their victims all the time lately—just as now, with what I guess would have to be called poetic justice, it is being told about Asher himself.

Stories, in other words, should also be ways of thinking about what could be—and not just in the cool Tomorrowland-and-jetpacks way. Stories can be like friends who poke at our inhibitions until we try something new for a change—enduring grief for it at first, but receiving heartfelt thanks later. Stories can be the existential tricks a culture uses to remake itself against collective bad habits, or to shake off the muscle memory of evil. Creating a good one, I remind myself as I struggle with my own work, is an act not just of basic empathy, but of well-tuned imagination.

Of course, the empathy part is important too—and complicated. Write what you know—but also throw out what you know. After all, some of what you know is bad. Adam Rex, in a great Twitter thread that I mostly agree with, spoke of being “too selfish”—reminding me of something else Mercurio said, about how the book industry in general is hampered by “‘rockstar’ culture (and egos), driven both by society at large and by the economics of publishing (in which one blockbuster book often pays the bills for the entire slate of books being published in a given year).”

I come from the world of music, and wrote a book critiquing the idea of musical genius. I know something about the toxicity of rock star culture, and how there’s a fine line between aesthetic and political authority, and a finer line between authority and power. And the stubbornness of that dynamic makes me think that maybe the white male writer’s job right now is to find an elegant way to write himself into the background. Not as a gesture of false modesty or performative woke-ness, but more subtly, with fairness and generosity and respect.

Write what you know. But expand your knowledge. I keep telling myself: if you’re writing a story that comes easily, maybe that is part of the problem. As a writer, I want to take a cue from the best musicians, who understand what space is—how to be silent, how to support others in an ensemble, how to listen. It’s not that they squelch their sound when the time comes. It’s that they know when their time comes—and when it’s someone else’s time.

If that sounds easy, it’s not. It may be the hardest thing. In some ways, writing (and art in general) is inherently selfish. But my favorite writers seem to have learned how to modulate between creative selfishness and something broader and more inclusive—like modulating between drafting and revising, or between reverse and first gear. I’m trying to learn it too.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Montavilla 2017

I was honored to be a part of the Montavilla Jazz Festival yesterday—the Quadraphonnes, as always, made my music sound so much better than it is. 

I wish I could have stayed longer, but I’m thrilled that I at least got to hear Ezra Weiss’s sextet. Everyone knows the brilliant writing, arranging, and playing of this group. But what really got me this time was the inspired programming; beginning with Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus,” and closing with John Coltrane’s “Alabama.” The latter performance brought the audience to tears, and I won’t soon forget it.

The cliched dig against jazz is that it has become “museum music.” There’s some truth to that, although museumification is not particular to jazz—it’s what happens to any art that loses its narrative. The thing is, given the volatility of human history, narratives have a way of coming around again. An electoral college absurdity here, a Russian hack there, and suddenly “Faubus” and “Alabama” sound utterly contemporary, even in their particulars.

Lord knows Donald Trump didn’t invent hate in America. Still—although I wasn’t naive about his chances this time last year, I’m not sure I thought he was capable of bringing back the D. W. Griffith-era, torch-burning kind. As a musician, I’m endlessly proud that music can beat back such ugliness whenever it recurs. As a human being, I hate that it still has to.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Once more this year

(photo credit: Newcastle Libraries)

For the past eight Christmas Eves, and the past eight Christmas mornings—except for the year we had that haymaker of a snowstorm, and everything was closed—I’ve trekked out to Parkrose to play the holiday services at the Lutheran church where I am the resident agnostic organist. I’ll be doing it again this year. 

It’s a not-quite sketchy part of town, but it’s not Multnomah Village either (and it definitely isn’t the Pearl). There are these quaint little colonial cottages with metal bars on the windows, and chain-link fences enclosing yards where broad-browed dogs prowl around abandoned Big Wheels and Barbies. Down the street from the church, someone once spray-painted the word “SNITCH” in huge black letters on the wall of a carport. I’ve always felt that it’s a neighborhood with lots of hidden stories. 

It was just before Christmas a few years back when the pastor I work for finally got the funds to purchase a new organ for his congregation—folks mostly in their seventies, who had been asking for the old hymns the way they were meant to be heard. I had a key to the church, and after the instrument was installed, I would sometimes go at night, when no one else was there, and let myself in to practice. That’s when I discovered that the building that could seem empty on a sunny Sunday morning—since the pews were never more than half-full—felt like the abyss of eternity when it was deserted and dark. 

The first time I was in the church alone at night, I turned on as many lights as I could—even the ones that were nowhere near the part I was in. But that didn’t help. It was as if the brightness only invited the ghosts out of the walls. So I turned most of the lights off again, and climbed the stairs to the choir loft, where, after feeling my way to the organ bench, I started playing in the near-dark. 

The first things I played on that brand-new instrument were centuries old—from an Advent and Christmas repertoire that had been brought to life under countless fingers before me. “Once in Royal David’s City.” “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” “Savior of the Nations, Come.” “Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending.” Beautiful, sad pieces, with melodies that were vivid once you blew the dust off. And as I played, and despite my lack of faith—which I prefer to cast as a faith in my own fallibility, or as a faith in the possibility of many truths—the music did what music does. Almost instantly, I felt at home and at peace, sitting there in the gloom, alone and listening. 

People keep saying we’re entering a dark time. I try to stay optimistic, but it’s probably true. I think a lot about the work ahead. But for tonight and tomorrow, I’m going to play the old hymns again, with all my might. And I’m going to hope for the best, for all of us. 

Happy Holidays, friends.

Saturday, November 26, 2016


At last

Now available for pre-order: Breath of Fire, my first album in eight years. Check out the free streaming track: "Flower Gun Song."

I'm honored to have been able to work on this music with David Valdez, Tim Willcox, Ryan Meagher, Andrew Jones, Todd Bishop, Dennis Carter, and Brad Boatright.