Friday, October 21, 2011

Flannery, Michael and Me

After 31 years, R.E.M. announced last month that they were calling it quits. As a small tribute to them, here’s the story of my own piece of their history.
R.E.M. circa 1983: Peter Buck, Michael Stipe, Bill Berry, Mike Mills

In April 1983, I was a junior at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. We had an independent radio station that was only available through cable connections in the dorms, so it was called ACRN for All Campus Radio Network. This confused a lot of people, since the call letters didn’t start with a W like every other radio station east of the Mississippi. Nevertheless, ACRN was College Radio just as College Radio was becoming a category, and I was the co-music director that year. Among my duties was contacting record companies about upcoming artists.

One of my contacts was a real hip girl, Karen Glauber, the college rep for I.R.S. Records. In 1983, the label had a lot of cred because they handled super-cool early MTV artists like Wall of Voodoo, the English Beat and the Go-Gos. They had recently signed this obscure group of guys from Athens, Georgia, called R.E.M. The band had just released their first LP, Murmur, and they were touring to promote it, opening for the English Beat. Karen was very hyped on them.

“There’s this new band,” she told me on the phone, “and they’re going to be huge. They’re playing at Bogart’s.” (The coolest club at the University of Cincinnati.) “Do you want to do an interview?”

I had never heard of them but I said yes anyway. Are you kidding? A chance to see the English Beat live? I dug up a copy of R.E.M.'s EP, Chronic Town, and had a listen. Their sound was like nothing I’d ever heard, jangly and full of echo, the lead vocals hypnotic but completely unintelligible. My boyfriend Mark, a budding guitarist, agreed to tag along and we made the three hour drive to my hometown of Cincinnati.

Karen was waiting for me outside the club. A petite brunette from Oberlin College (“where all the free thinkers go,” my mother had told me), she possessed great enthusiasm and a laserlike focus on her future career in the record industry. We went backstage to meet the band, passing Ranking Roger, one of the Beat’s frontmen, in the hallway. Ranking Roger! I just about fell over.

So the guys were sitting around and I was introduced to Michael Stipe, who would be doing the interview. I had a crummy cassette recorder and we moved to a stairway to talk, as the English Beat were doing their sound check behind us. Really loud.

I was totally winging it. I asked some stock questions, how did you meet, what’s it like touring with the Beat, and so on. We had a laugh about both of us being in college towns called Athens. And as we talked, I became more and more fascinated with Stipe: his drawly voice, his droopy sky-blue eyes, his pillowy lips. His face was marred with pock-marks, but the golden curls that framed his face made up for that. To me, he looked like a sullen angel. I was smitten.

More stock questions. I imagined that he had already been interviewed by every goofball college radio music director in the east, and answered every boring question a hundred times, but I kept going.

“So, what are some of your musical influences?” I asked. Genius.

In his deep monotone he replied, “Ummm, I dunno. Furniture?”

Right. Furniture. Not going well here. I wanted to ask what kind of furniture? because I was so enchanted and yet utterly flummoxed, but mercifully he continued. He listed a couple of musicians (I don’t remember) and then he threw in the name “Flannery O’Connor.”

This is out of control. I've gotta bail. I don’t know who Flannery O’Connor is. A country musician? A relative of Sinead O’Connor? I nodded and thanked him and wrapped up the interview.

Of course I had read Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” in high school, but that was so long ago, who could remember that? We went backstage (oh my god, that’s Dave Wakeling!) where Peter Buck talked about guitars with my boyfriend and we chatted until it was time to start the show.

Mark and I stood up front and I watched, mesmerized, as my new crush sang his garbled lyrics and the band played raucous and determined behind him. It was, for lack of an adequate superlative, an incredible show. And then I got to see the English Beat. But to be honest, I don’t remember a thing about their show. R.E.M. had won me over.

Later, on the phone with Karen, I raved about the band and told her that, unfortunately, my interview was going to be a challenge to edit because of the thudding sound check in the background. “But wow, that Michael Stipe… he’s gorgeous,” I said.

My lovely Stipe
And that’s when she told me gently that I, as a female, didn’t stand a chance with him.

The following year R.E.M. headlined their own tour, as Murmur had taken off in college radio land. I had managed to put together a decent story to broadcast on ACRN, so I allowed myself a granule of credit for their success. Thanks to Karen, I went backstage again and hung out, no interviews, no pressure. I was a huge fan by then and felt more comfortable, not to mention lucky, being there. Mike Mills, the bass player, was especially friendly. When they went onstage I knew all the words.

Since the interview, I had read everything I could get my hands on by the esteemed Southern writer Flannery O’Connor. But sadly, I never got another chance to talk literature with Michael Stipe.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years After

On that sunny morning, life was lovely. My husband drove our beautiful 4-year-old son to his preschool on the way to work, and I stayed home with our baby girl. She had celebrated her first birthday just 5 days before. I took a load of laundry out of the dryer and brought it to the living room, where Emma played with her toys and I folded baby clothes as the Today Show hummed along in the background.

We were so happy then, at 8:45 a.m. on September 11, 2001 in Orlando, Florida; we were so blessed, so in love, the future looked so bright.

I don't want to think about what happened after 8:46 that morning. I don't want to remember seeing it happen on live television. I don't want to remember going to pick Charlie up at the JCC Preschool, because they were evacuating the entire JCC, because, well, you know: Jewish Community Center. Or how they thought Disney World could be a target next, and they closed everything, and so Alex came home from work.

I don't want to remember, because when I do, I get that feeling in my gut again, a feeling I had never experienced until that day, a feeling I just can't put a name to. It was horror, uncertainty, fear, anger, dread and disbelief all wrapped in the most crushing sadness, like acid in my belly, denying me my breath. Most of the day I don't remember, moving through the chores and routines, holding onto my children, both mercifully too young to understand what had happened. That night, though, after they were asleep, I went out driving alone, just me and the unbearable feeling in my gut. I ended up at my parents' church with other people who, like me, didn't know what else to do. And it didn't matter that I wasn't religious. It was all I could do.

Now it is ten years later. All over the media there are remembrances, tributes and tales. Americans will fly flags and say "never forget" – as if that were even possible – and this is how I feel:

I want none of it.

Because I'm not just an American. I am a member of the human race. And that day, a great hole was torn through the cosmic fabric that holds us together, the result of a willful act of hatred by one group of humans against another. A gash rimmed with blood, full of the screams of the dead and the wounded and their families and, truly, every one of us. All of humanity was changed – not just Americans – deeply and forever, when hatred drove those planes into the towers.

When I look back over the last ten years, I know that we, as humans, have failed miserably at mending that hole. If anything, it has grown larger, more ragged and bloody. The hatred has oozed into our media, our politics, our religion. We have gone backwards.

So on this anniversary -- a word I hesitate to use, because it should celebrate happy events, not this -- on this day, I don't want to watch the remembrances, the tributes, the tales. I do not want to replay the images in my mind. Because everything changed forever that day. We lost our innocence. It sent my husband, a former New Yorker, into a depression that lasted years. The acid ate away at me, at my self-confidence and faith in the future. Ultimately, our marriage did not survive. That is hard enough to accept, much less reliving the catalyst for it all.

Ten years later, I will sit on my back porch and close my eyes and try not to remember, because that acid in my gut is still a feeling I don't know what to do with. But I know I'll fail, and I know I'll cry, because what I will remember is how things were at 8:45 that day, when I sat on the couch folding onesies, and my baby girl stacked her toy blocks and squealed with pure, simple happiness. And I'll pray, such as I do, that someday the hole can be mended and the healing will actually start.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

No Less than the Trees and Stars

I've had this copy of the Desiderata for about thirty years. That's my best guess. I think I got it in high school, or early on in my college career at Ohio University. It's just a photocopy, and it's littered with thumbtack holes and coffee stains; recently I put it in a frame to keep it protected.

The word "Desiderata" is the plural of the Latin word "desideratum", which means "desired thing". It's a common myth that it was written in the 1600s. I believed that for years. After all, my copy says "Old Saint Paul's Church, Baltimore A.D. 1692". In truth, the poem was written in the 1920s by an American poet named Max Ehrmann (who, like many of my favorite people, was from Indiana). Here's a summary of its confusing history (courtesy of

Around 1959, the Rev. Frederick Kates, the rector of St. Paul's Church in Baltimore, Maryland, used the poem in a collection of devotional materials he compiled for his congregation. At the top of the handout was the notation, "Old St. Paul's Church, Baltimore A.C. 1692." The church was founded in 1692. 

As the material was handed from one friend to another, the authorship became clouded. Copies with the "Old St. Paul's Church" notation were printed and distributed liberally in the years that followed. It is perhaps understandable that a later publisher would interpret this notation as meaning that the poem itself was found in Old St. Paul's Church, dated 1692. This notation no doubt added to the charm and historic appeal of the poem, despite the fact that the actual language in the poem suggests a more modern origin.

When Adlai Stevenson died in 1965, a guest in his home found a copy of Desiderata near his bedside and discovered that Stevenson had planned to use it in his Christmas cards. The publicity that followed gave widespread fame to the poem as well as the mistaken relationship to St. Paul's Church. 

The flower children in San Francisco revived it as part of the peace and love movement. Those of my generation may remember the spoken word recording by Les Crane, which reached #8 on the Billboard charts in 1971.

For me, the sentiment behind the poem articulates the way I wish to live my life. It features concepts that align with all major religious doctrines. So I felt like sharing with you, dear readers. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section... which lines resonate with you?

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be careful.
Strive to be happy.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Cheryl's Cake

(or, The Further Misadventures of a Martha Stewart Wannabe)

My friend Cheryl, from my writing group, asked me to make her a cake for her birthday. Baking is a sort of zen practice for me, and Cheryl, who is a super-zen qigong kinda gal, appreciates this fact. So I started looking up some recipes and found a German Chocolate cake that used white chocolate. Hmm, Cheryl likes coconut, let’s do that one. I decided to make the frosting from scratch as well, I like a challenge. I shopped Friday morning and planned to bake the next day.

So at 4:30 on Saturday I’ve got the kitchen cleaned up and ready to go. The kids are occupied, Dan’s in the bedroom reading, and I start taking out my ingredients. Toast the pecans. Separate the yolks from the whites. Vanilla, sugar, baking powder.

Baking powder. Where is the baking powder?

Come on, everybody has baking powder, it’s a pantry staple. I just had baking powder, I just saw it. I take everything out of the cupboards, I tear apart the spice cabinet. No baking powder. Oh, and now that I’m looking: no coconut, either. Didn’t I have all that coconut left over from Christmas? Can’t really make German Chocolate cake without coconut! Grumbling, I grab my purse and head to Von’s. Extra butter and eggs, just in case, too. Oh and while you’re out, honey, why don’t you pick up some salad stuff and some chicken, I’ll grill us some dinner, says Dan. Fine.

So now it’s 5:15 and Dan is going to want the kitchen at 6. No problem, I say. I’ll have it in the oven by then. But I’m a little agitated so I think, okay, this is for zen Cheryl, what would she do? Light some candles, take some cleansing breaths. So I light a few tealights and invite in the good cooking energy. Maybe a little glass of wine. Ahh, that’s better.

Everything’s measured out and ready to go. Time to get the pans ready. I bought two new 9-inch cake pans especially for this cake, because it’s supposed to be a triple-layer, and I just have the one Wilton cake pan. Okay, here are the new ones. Here’s the Wilton pan… oh shit. No way. The Wilton pan is… 8 inches.

I can’t have two 9-inch layers and one that’s 8! Crap. Another trip to Von’s, where I got the other two. I can’t stand it.

“Dan? Honey?”

I can’t believe he says he’ll go. He’s not real excited about it, but I think he can tell I’m frazzled, so I give him the cardboard insert from the one of the new pans and say, just get me one of these. They’re next to the syrup.

I start the batter while he’s out. My trusty KitchenAid mixer (“Emeril green”) takes care of whipping the butter and sugar and I glance over at my candles. The tealights on the windowsill are a little close to the fringed red plaid curtain, so I pick them up to move them to the other side of the sill, pushing the curtain away, and by the time I have set the tealights back down a huge flame is shooting up from the red plaid fringe and halfway up the (apparently highly flammable) curtain. It was that fast. Holy shit! I rip the curtain down and throw it in the sink, dousing it with the sprayer. Smoke has already started to rise up to the ceiling, so I grab a cookie sheet to fan it away from the smoke detector. Luckily, I had never replaced the battery since the last time when I set a potholder on fire.

Jesus, I need more wine.

Okay, okay, back to the batter. Oh, here’s Dan. He doesn’t smell any smoke or notice that the curtain is gone. Good. Grease and flour the pans. Crisco. Of course I don’t have fucking Crisco, are you kidding me? Margarine. Margarine and flour the cake pans. Dear God please let that work.

Did you know that if you try to melt white chocolate chips on 100% power they don’t melt, they cook into a hard crusty glob? I didn’t. Let’s try that again on 50% power, like it says on the instructions. Dummy.

Somehow I get the batter done, folding in four-egg-whites-beaten-until-stiff-peaks-form, and divide it among my three perfectly matched 9-inch pans: into the oven they go. Dan the grill master gets everyone fed, and I do not check my cakes until the timer goes off. Immediately I can see that they were in 5 minutes too long: the edges are too dark. The margarine probably didn’t help there, either. All that work and I overcook them. Oh well, nothing I can do now (deep cleansing breaths); let’s get to work on that icing.

I haven’t made a stovetop caramel-type frosting for years. As I get my ingredients (which, mercifully, I do have) ready, I think to myself don’t fuck this up, you’ve only got one can of evaporated milk and I think another trip to Von’s would push me right over the edge into Joan Crawford territory. No more burnt frosting! Ever!

At 8:45, I start stirring the evaporated milk, brown sugar, egg yolks, butter and vanilla over low heat, constantly like it says on the recipe. Mmm, smells yummy. At 9:00 I am still stirring and looking at this lovely caramelly liquid and wondering if it’s ever going to get thick. The recipe says stir constantly until thick. What’s thick mean, anyway? Like pudding? I mean, thick, come on, that’s pretty vague. I know from experience that too long on the heat will mean a burnt flavor, and not enough will mean a runny congealed mess. After 20 minutes of stirring I think it’s thick and add the pecans. Almost immediately I know I got it right and confidently add the coconut. Whew.

The next morning, day of the writing group, I tenderly spatula the perfect frosting onto the slightly overdone layers while Dan and I have an argument about some stupid thing, dishes in the sink or potholders too close to the flame on the gas burner, whatever. Ugh, now my cake has that bad energy in it, too, as if Von’s frequent flier miles, burnt edges and an incinerated window curtain weren’t enough. I wish I had made a double batch of the frosting to sweeten up the karma. Also because I know it’s pretty good and I have no idea what the cake itself will taste like. I pack up my creation and head to Cheryl’s, 40 minutes away on the west side.

I know you’re probably expecting me to tell you there was a car crash and my cake went splat against the windshield, or I dropped it in the driveway, or there was a sudden downpour and it was melting in the dark, all the sweet coconut icing flowing down; I don’t think that I can take it, ‘cause it took so long to bake it... no, I made it inside and at lunch I poked it with fluorescent candles (yay! I remembered the candles!) and we sang happy birthday to Cheryl. And it was pretty good. A teeny bit dry, if you ask me, and not nearly enough caramel deliciousness on top. But everyone seemed to like it just fine.

So it seems Martha’s place at the top is in no way threatened by my latest foray into baking, and I think I may take up qigong as my zen practice for a little while. On the bright side, now I get to go shopping for a new curtain. Flame resistant of course.

Yummm. Breakfast.

Monday, January 3, 2011

R.E.M. (Reality in Every Mirror)

Sometimes these things just pop into my head and I've gotta get 'em out right away. I don't think it requires a whole lot of explanation. p.s. Hope you like the new blog layout for the new year!

 (Sung to the tune of "Losing My Religion")

Oh, life is shorter
it's shorter than I
would like to think of
the lengths that I will go to
the wrinkles 'round my eyes
oh no, I've frowned too much
I need botox

That's me in the mirror
that's me looking so tired
losing all my eyebrows
trying to pencil them in
and I don't know why they all fell out
oh no they won't grow back
I look like hell
I think it's because of thyroid
I think it's pre-menopause
I think I thought I'd never age

Every wrinkle
every crease on my face I'm
slathering with lotions
trying to keep them from view
like those airbrushed and perfect girls
in all those Olay ads
I bought it up

Consider this... consider this:
approaching half-century
Consider this pic:
I look just like my mother, frail
how could my neck look like that
crepe all around
and now I look like hell
I thought that I'd never grow old
I thought that I'd beat the odds
I'd look like twenty-six for life

But that was just a dream
that was just a dream
just a dream...

Oh well... at least I've still got my hair.