2022 Book 5: Lester Bangs, Psychotic Reactions and Carburator Dung.

Book Cover

I’m sure I’ve read some of his pieces at some point in Rolling Stone… actually, I’m not sure. I have seen a lot of references to this book over the years, and how Bangs is considered the best Rock critic of all time. So, it took me almost 20 years to get around to it — but I’m going to assert it has aged well. At first I was a bit put off by his overly florid and bombastic (yet mellifluous) style, I think designed to either throw the reader off the scent or to challenge them to push through to the point (10,000 words about The Fugs?) but I found I was struggling through articles about artists I didn’t know, then suddenly paying rapt attention (10,000 words about Lou Reed or Iggy Pop, no problem) to the ones whose music I understood, and it all clicked.

Bangs loved music. And he loved the people who authentically created art, he loved getting deep inside those artist’s brains, spending an inordinate amount of time to develop an intimacy with his subject, and capturing every grain. Music moved him like nothing else, and he needed desperately to tell everyone how he felt about it. He dug deep and uncovered angles and truths that were deeper than just the songs. His essay on the Clash and the early London punk scene is the best I have ever read on the subject, and it hooked me.

Ultimately, His baroque embellishments of language are best understood as evidence of his passion. He loves his garage rock, hates him some over-produced radio pablum, had a thorough knowledge of the underground garage scene in the 60’s and 70’s, some amazing insights into Jazz, and I now have a to-be-listened-to list as long as my arm.

Cool factor 5 🕶 🕶 🕶 🕶 🕶

Charlie McCoy on Desolation Row

At midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do

– Bob Dylan, from a verse of Desolation Row

I have opinions about music. I have always been highly attuned to extemporaneous playing, having grown up in households full of jazz and 60’s rock, and incorporate it a lot into my playing. The people I admire the most are the players who can take an idea and dissect it in real time, as the song proceeds, and find their way around the theme in as many different ways as possible.

I don’t know much about Charlie McCoy, but from what I do know about Bob Dylan’s recording style, He wants to lay them down quick and be done with it, and everyone does their best to learn the songs in real time & keep up with him. According to Wikipedia, they recorded 5 takes of this song. That means McCoy might have had an hour to come up with a theme, then execute this track. This has to be extemporaneous. He figured out more or less where he wanted to play in between the vocal lines, and was probably just off to the races.

Say what you will about Bob Dylan, (and I probably won’t disagree on a lot of points) but I found myself listening to this on repeat the other day, and really focusing on the 2nd guitar part instead of the lyrics for the first time, and it really jumped out at me what he’s doing here. In an 11-minute song, he methodically goes about re-inventing his part every single verse, every single line. He manages to only repeat an exact phrase once or twice throughout the entire song. An extremely impressive feat. So if you’ve read this far, I encourage you to take a pass through it and focus on the guitar and the myriad ways he moves the song forward through an ever-changing multitude of distinct arpeggios. Brilliant!

Candela 1997

It has been almost 25 years to the day since this picture was taken. On that day I realized, though the words had not yet been spoken, that I was about to be divorced.

I was in Bustamante for one of the Texas Speleological Association Grutas del Palmito restoration trips, and we took a side trip to a cave called Carrizal, which is near the town of Candela, a little ways north of Bustamante. The train tracks are still there, but only for freight, so the old train station was already in some disrepair, though it was still standing, and access wasn’t problem, so we pulled over on the way and wandered about a bit and took some shots. This was originally a slide in my old Pentax K-1000 that I got around to scanning some years later.

It wasn’t until yesterday when I put together the visual metaphor, from my vantage point in the hills, 25 years hence. I was still drinking, and would proceed that September and October to blot out the divorce and my crumbling life with alcohol, leading to a culmination on my birthday on Halloween when I came to the sudden realization that I was going to kill myself before I killed the pain.

In the photo, I am standing in front of a wall. In between me and the green grass and hills in the distance, the path through lies in ruins. They say the only way out is through (whoever they are) and so I find myself faced with crawling through the wreckage (Dave Edmunds style) – the shards and splinters of a broken life to get beyond the wall. Out in the daylight on the other side lies a pile of rubble – my past, that I must set right before I make it to the green fields beyond, and eventually the mountaintop in the distance.

Today I’m standing on the mountaintop looking down – I don’t like everything I see from on high, but I know my part in it has been a straight path through.

2022 Book 4: Eckhart Tolle, Practicing The Power Of Now

I Gathered, after having this re-homed by a friend, that this is essentially a pamphlet meant to be a guide to understanding the key points of the larger book, The Power of Now.

A very austere cover.

While his philosophy is enlightened, and presented in an easy-to-digest language here, I find it to be largely syncretic, borrowing widely from Buddhism, and especially Zen, without as much as saying so (and a couple bible verses thrown in to round things out). I’ve done some reading on Buddhism lately, as I’ve moved into a regular practice of meditation, so not much of this struck me as new thought, though I have to admit that it’s more easily digestible than parables, fables, and riddles, so I still marked some particularly poignant passages & will probably turn back to it from time to time for quotations.

I hit a couple sticking points that were off-putting — a couple passages about the duality of masculinity and femininity, and his larger thoughts on illness as a state of mind. I am a modernist who believes in medicine, and am admittedly a dinaosaur who is working hard to understand the nuances of gender, beyond their outward physical manifestations, so I will put those aside in the pile of things to leave behind.

I take away other points, particularly, the broad message of living in the present, and becoming aware of when your mind is dwelling in the past or future, and how that is unhealthy. I doubt I will make time for the larger volume, sine I’d prefer to go more directly to the source of these sorts of teachings, however arcane.

Inspirational in places, 3 of 5 rays of sunlight. ☀️☀️☀️🌩🌩

Happy Vernal Equinox From My Mammillaria

Not much else to type here. The maple tree is refusing to acknowledge that spring exists, and all the other cactuses in my cactus garden are grudgingly recovering from a couple nasty and traumatic freezes in February, but this little dude is going to town. I caught a couple macro shots in the evening sun. There’s not much for scale here – it’s smallish — maybe 4″ in diameter, so these flowers are actually tiny but I think rather lovely.

Looking forward to what look like the beginnings of blooms on a couple other cactuses — my horse crippler & claret cup are showing urges.

May the new spring bring rebirth to the world, and a happy new season to those who celebrate such things.

2022 Book 3: The End Of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking), by Katie Mack

Cover of the hardbound US edition of Katie Mac's book, the End Of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking)
At my desk at work, reading through lunch a lot of days this month.

I don’t read a lot of physics, because I really don’t do math. Fortunately, this book was short on equations, and much longer on very clear explanations of what the equations meant. The graphs and illustrations were well-presented. From sub-atomic particle quantum mechanics to cosmology, I never got lost or in over my head. This kind of material has always interested me, and previous attempts at “layman” level writing, like Hawking’s A Brief History of Time have left me giving up in frustration in 15 or 20 pages. The general understanding I got from Mack’s very clear and relatable writing may embolden me to try again.

I follow Katie Mack on Twitter (welcome to the 21st century) and my impression is that she works as much as a communicator and educator as a theoretical astrophysicist, and has the chops to talk to normal people about the extraordinary universe that some of her contemporaries lack as a result. I read this as the Webb space telescope was being unfurled and calibrated, and I can’t wait for some science from the edges of the observable universe to come down and expand on the things cosmologists like Mack are looking for. I get that it’s always an exciting time to be in astronomy or astrophysics, if you’re enthusiastic about knowledge, and Mack’s enthusiasm is one of the most fun, engaging things about this book. I hope she keeps writing!

✨✨✨✨✨ Five quasars up!

I Made Gumbo.

A while back I was making gumbo, and I took a bunch of pics with the intention of making a twitter thread about the process, but you know, I’m tired of sending content down the memory hole, so I’m putting it here to languish forever. I didn’t include a recipe, because I don’t have one. I was just… taught.

Gumbo isn’t hard especially, it’s just labor-intensive. I start the roux first — roughly 1 cup vegetable oil & 1 cup flour. I cook this over a medium high heat & stir semi-constantly. You can burn it if you stop stirring long enough, so I make sure I’m ready to stay in the kitchen for the duration. You do want it very dark brown – they say (whoever they are) that it should be the color of an old copper penny.

At first inception, it’s just bubbly and off-white. I use a stainless steel pan with a pretty thick bottom – I threw down at the Le Creuset outlet store a few years back. The thick bottom helps distribute heat more evenly and it’s less apt to burn. Stir!

Here it is midway through the process, maybe the 10-15 minute mark. It’s thickening up and starting to turn brown. At this stage, I am chopping a few veggies, then stirring, chopping a few veggies and stirring some more.

The roux in its final state, probably about the 30-minute mark. I imagine I could go a bit darker, but I lose my nerve.

I have chopped while stirring, a cup of yellow onion, a cup of celery and a cup of green bell pepper to be stirred into the roux. as well as about 2 cups of okra to be added later, with the meat.

And now, the magic happens! As soon as the roux is brown enough, add the onions, celery and bell pepper. The roux will still be very hot and the veggies will saute rapidly. The aroma at this moment is one of the finest smells I know. I bask in it a bit before proceeding.

You’re cruising from here on out. Let the roux and veggies cool a bit, then add about a quart of chicken stock, stir, add the chopped chicken, squeeze the andouille sausage out of its casing into small bite-sized lumps, add the okra and let it cook a while. Gumbo doesn’t take a ton of seasoning – several bay leaves, a good bit of black pepper,and salt. From here, all you’ve got to do is let it simmer until everything is cooked together and it thickens up a bit.I’d guess anohter 30-40 minutes. If t doesn’t thicken up enough with the vegetable oil roux for your taste, you could probably thicken it more with a bt of butter roux, but I’ve never found that necessary. The okra helps thicken it too.

Serve over a bed of white rice, top with fresh green onions, preferably in a bright Fiestaware bowl on a vintage diner table, for maximum photographic effect.

Soup of the Gods, alongside Tom Kha Gai.

2022 Book 2: Rain After Midnight

Don Skiles was my dad’s best friend. He died suddenly of a stroke at age 81 last May, and the whole world grew a little dimmer. He was an English professor, and author of one novel, poetry and 4 collections of short stories. I have looked on line for an obituary, but there’s nothing much out there, so I’ll write my own idea of one from my perspective, the kid of his best friend.

Book cover of Rain After Midnight by Don Skiles, a collection of semi-autobiographical short stories.
Cover Illustration by Don’s wife Marian Schell, who preceded him in death by several years.

Don Moved to San Francisco for the final time, from Pennsylvania, in the summer of 1976, while I was living with my dad during the long school break. Don, his wife Marian and a friend of theirs named Tim who was also an aspiring writer, stayed at my dad’s house for a couple months that summer while they got settled. I must have been 13. That summer was a time of constant uproarious laughter. Don was a lover of words – not just for their meaning, but simply the way they sounded. A funny-sounding word would set him off & his laughter would infect the entire house. Once we were perusing a map of Europe, and he pointed out the town name of Smolensk, which his simply found to be hilarious to say. No reason, just a hilarious sounding word. It was not a surprise to me to see that place-name listed amongst others many years later, when i read this book.

Smolensk, still fascinating Don by the way it sounds, umpteen years later. I felt like I was part of this story.

I put on a Firesign theater album one day that he hadn’t head of before, & when they uttered the phrase “Trussrippers will be persecuted,” it put him on the floor gasping for air. I think we all ended up on the floor, laughing with him. I will always cherish this memory of a man who helped teach me to love words and language. Not only did he set an example for me as a writer, but he genuinely and uncritically encouraged me to write, and despite me being a kid, he never treated me like one. Inspired by him, I wrote some poems and character sketches, which he read with earnestness, and once said “I admire your writing.” His influence on me and my journey to create art is incalculable. I didn’t go on to write much, but everything I’ve ever put to paper has a bit of Don in it.

3 of his books are still in print at Peleikenisis: Rain After Midnight, the novel Football and Across The Street From The Ordinary. If you can find a used copy of Miss America or The James Dean Jacket Story, grab them.

This book is about places, and his memories of them. Don has a simple way of telling you how it was, and transporting you there within a couple of paragraphs. I recall him being a massive fan of the Beats back in the 70’s – City Lights is his Sistine Chapel, and is mentioned reverently in a story here. There are also stories about his time in the Air Force in England, visits to Paris, his childhood & college years in Pennsylvania but it’s the stories about San Francisco that transport me in particular, because I was there & he gets them right. There’s obviously a lot of Brautigan in here – in fact, he name-checks him in this book twice. Don is a bit more matter-of-fact, though he possesses the same ability to write an entire novel in 2 pages.
My dad turns up, too. He finishes off a story about his early job in SF in ’62 called On Foot with the final sentences Harry grinned, a grape posied between two fingers. “You fucking English Majors,” He said, and Popped The Grape into his mouth.

I may be biased here, but 5 of 5 thumbs up. 👍👍👍👍👍

Addendum!

8-25-22

I was browsing through my book shelf a while back, and opened up my copy of the long out-of-print Miss America, Don’s first book, and found that he had left me a nice inscription that I had entirely forgotten about. II’ve been meaning to post this here for a while, and was finally motivated to do so by this nice MetaFilter post about used book stores.

2022 Book 1: Blowback

The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, by Chalmers Johnson

The last couple years, I’ve been keeping a book log on Twitter, but 280 characters isn’t that many, and hey, I need blog content, so here we go.I read 12 books last year, not a great showing. My to-be-read pile is longer than my arm.

This was published in 2000, just before the 9-11 terrorist attacks, and Johnson accurately, if not specifically, predicts that in the first part of the book, where he lays out the underhanded dealings of the CIA, the coups, the propping up of puppet dictators, the training of foreign “elite” forces who then turned on their own populations… charges against America that politically astute people have understood for a while, though he puts some specifics to the problem and seeing them enumerated – Iran, Chile, El Salvador, is crazy-making. The American military & covert causes of blowback really stack up quick.

Interestingly though, the second half of the book pivots to Americas de-facto economic imperialism, specifically in the Pacific rim countries, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and others. The blowback he talks about here is the hollowing out of American industry by offshoring jobs first to Japan then the chase of chap labor and capital around East Asia, and a financial collapse the region suffered in 1997 I knew nothing about. It was a weird pivot for the book, but the larger point was well presented. This section is a warning, a harbinger of the trade war we now seem to be entrenched in with China. I doubt I’m going to go off on an economics tangent, as a lot of this stuff was thick enough that I could only manage 8 or 10 pages a day, but I am now aware of how much I don’t know about east Asia in general. Despite the breadth of knowledge dumped here, my streak as a functional dilettante continues unabated. NEXT!

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I give it 4 stars because despite being dated, it utterly prescient.

24 years of bonus life – staying sober & doing the work.

24 years ago today, I had my last beer. It was a Sam Smith’s Taddy Porter, and it was good. Way too good. I’m not going to go into my drinking past too deeply here, but the long and short of it is, after 20 years of drinking, and at least 2 or 3 years of trying to stop almost weekly and failing, I finally picked up the phone and asked for help. The help I got came from AA. I know AA may not work for everybody, and I don’t discount the stories of the people for whom it didn’t, but when I walked through the door, defeated and out of hope, I had hope given to me by the members of the first club I joined, the Bouldin Group, in Austin, who cared enough to say “There’s a whole room full of people here who don’t want you to go out and drink today. Is that enough to get you back here sober tomorrow?” The answer was yes.

I have kept the empty bottle that contained my last drink all these years, as a reminder. It sits atop our breaker box in the garage, which just now strikes me as coincidentally appropriate. Do not open – no user-servicable parts inside.

The thing on my mind as I write this is what keeps me sober today. There’s a certain amount of “never again” that gets invoked simply by taking into account the misery and destruction of my drinking and drugging years, (AMA I’m an open book) but there’s also the emotional growth that comes from a life that includes a modicum of self examination. I’m not going to stake any claim to guru-hood, but I have put in some work. Work done in the meeting rooms, with my sponsors, with new guys who show up looking for help, and certainly not least of all, with my wife, who is also sober, and a cornerstone of my sober life. The debts of gratitude are innumerable.

Lately during the pandemic, since attendance at meeting houses hasn’t seemed like a great idea, the bulk of my group work within the program has come from a group of men that my sponsor gathers once a month over Zoom. This is a private meeting that has been going on monthly for over 10 years at his house until lately, when we switched to virtual in March of 2020. It’s a group of mostly older guys around my age, who have a shared experience, and they have really propped me up just by being there and being honest as we discuss our journeys. Rather than just having an open meeting, a member will bring a topic on a rotating basis, and for the last couple years, we’ve been sending out prompts via email prior to the meeting so everyone could gather their thoughts on the topic. This has allowed me for additional time for reflection, and kept me a bit more on my emotional/spiritual path as I reflect on these things before, during and after the meetings. Last week, my sponsor sent out a prompt on the subject of unity, the core of AA’s first tradition. Recapped & condensed, this is what he sent out:

The intention of this prompt is to tie the reading for January 3rd from Daily Reflections to Tradition One, Unity.
“It is no coincidence that the very first step mentions powerlessness: An admission of personal powerlessness over alcohol is a cornerstone of the foundation of recovery. I’ve learned that I do not have the power and control I once thought I had. I am powerless over what people think about me. I am powerless over having just missed the bus. (I don’t particularly agree with this example). I am powerless over how other people work (or don’t work) the steps.
But I’ve also learned that I am not powerless over some things. I am not powerless over my attitudes. I am not powerless over my negativity. I am not powerless over assuming responsibility for my own recovery. I have the power (am empowered) to exert a positive influence on myself, my loved ones, and the world in which I live.” 
Tradition One; “Our common welfare should come first, personal progress depends upon AA Unity”
In the context of being empowered to grow and live mature and sober lives, and in the context of our discussion of personalizing Tradition one, let’s paraphrase it as follows; “Our common welfare should come first. A healthy relationship with ourselves and those around us depends on Unity.”
The practice of the 12 steps puts our lives in order, but not necessarily our relationships. How to live successfully with others can be found in our traditions. They are the guidelines for our behaviors, behaviors being the patterns of our actions and our actions deriving from how we see ourselves and interact with those around us be it spouse, family, friends, work or otherwise.
In the context of self-evaluation and in the spirit of being empowered through your recovery and growth, take a review of the following questions and share your experience, strength and hope on how you’re doing with the practice of Unity in your personal life.
 
1.	Am I willing to sacrifice for the relationship(s) in my life?
2.	What effect do my actions have on the relationship(s) in my life? On my family?
3.	Am I a giver or a taker?
4.	Do I do unifying things? Or am I quick to criticize? Slow to praise?
5.	Do I listen when my mate or friends or co-workers have something to say?
6.	Do I admire and approve of my mate or friends or co-workers? Do they know that?
7.	Am I a healing, mending, integrating force in my relationship(s) or am I divisive?
8.	Am I a peacemaker? Or because of my own insecurity, is it critical to my ego that I be right? Can I be flexible?
9.	What must people in my life do to accommodate my insecurities?
10.	 Do I spout platitudes about love while indulging in and secretly justifying behavior that bristles with hostility? Do I sneak around and do things that my mate, friends or co-workers won’t like or will violate my our or their values?
11.	 Do I try to be understanding when my mate, friends, or co-workers rub me the wrong way or do something that upsets me, or am I abrasive and rageful?

A portion of this apparently comes from some reading he’s been doing as a member of AlAnon, and I’ve got to say how much I appreciate his taking the time to put these thoughts together for us.

I digested this for a day or two, then started writing, which is unusual for me. I might jot down a note or two, but mostly just wing it in the meetings, but I had a reaction to the first question that I felt put me at odds with its whole notion.

1 Am I willing to sacrifice for the relationship(s) in my life?

My thoughts in response:

On question 1– “Am I willing to sacrifice for the relationship(s) in my life?”

The idea of unity makes this question a non sequitur. There is no sacrifice because my relationships are my life. When I’m thinking of myself instead of those around me and how I relate to them, it’s because I’ve gone off track and am not living in the spiritual side of the program- but through the steps, especially the fact that in sobriety, I have been given back the power of self-introspection, I can USUALLY catch this selfishness before I act.

When I have obviously acted hurtful or selfish, it becomes pretty glaringly obvious pretty quickly, and again, through the power of the 10th step, I am able to accept my errors and put things to right through honest amends This is a blessing, and not a sacrifice.

We are our actions- Vonnegut said “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” So even if I don’t feel it inwardly, if I find myself in pity, I remind myself to do the right thing anyway, because outwardly, the immediate consequences of my actions, good or bad, show up in my relationships, whether I’m considering the relationships or not. So it’s right thinking to consider the relationships -the common welfare, in my actions, and act accordingly.

Even if I want to get selfish about it, I have to take heed of the fact that the common welfare includes ME!

I would only be “sacrificing” in order to act in accordance with my relationships if I was not engaged in right thought- engaging in selfishness, greed, envy… the things that led me to drugs and alcohol, and the things from which I must remain ever vigilant against, and which every morning I give over to god in my morning prayer as I ask to do his will, not mine.

Looking at this, I see a different person from the one who finally put that pint bottle down on Jan 14th, 1998. The above is of course best-case and I often fall short of my lofty ideals for myself. The point is to be mindful of when that happens, or better yet, when it’s about to happen. It’s still a journey, but I’m glad to be on it and glad to be living life on life’s terms, as my sponsor likes to say with some frequency. I’m most of all grateful to the sober people around me who cared enough to hold me up until I could stand on my own, and I’m grateful for the rails they put up that keep me from careening off track. Life is weird, life is hard, but life is good. With a little blind luck, and a little bit of faith, I’ll wake up sober again tomorrow.