This Heat Is Melting All My Verbs

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I awakened this morning to learn from MSNBC that the hottest place in the nation was not Phoenix, as it should be, but was JFK Airport in New York City.  As I am located only a little to the north of that, I reacted with something less than excitement.

This is not the weather in which poor-but-honest artist/writer/poets can carve out a sad little living by having their dog Django dance on his hind legs down by the Piggly Wiggly, or by having their dear little niece, Faith, sell matches by Town Hall.  Django danced for a while, his belled collar making a jolly noise, until it became apparent that we was only dancing because of his bare paws on the sidewalk.  And poor Faith’s tattered little gown caught fire when her matches spontaneously combusted.

Most acts of begging are far better suited for cold weather than for hot.  Hot weather is for guessing the price of the showcases on The Price is Right and for rubbing frozen peas across one’s forehead.  We are not, as a rule, as well prepared for this kind of heat in Connecticut, any more than Tulsa is prepared for the snow and ice that comes as a surprise there every winter.

The point is this:  The old concept of Summertime and the Livin’ Is Easy has been replaced with heat alerts and the sound of window units cranking away as best they can and people hiding inside, sitting next to the units, trying to guess how many appliances they can use–dare they use the microwave to heat that frozen burrito or should they just eat is as a frozen savory treat?–before they blow the fuses.

And so as it all becomes like that Twilight Zone, where the world was heating, heating, and the paint came running down the artist’s canvas, I sign off, in hopes of better days ahead, or, at least  a ride to the beach.

 

Treme Treatise (A Note on Writing)

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I don’t know if you’ve seen the new HBO series Treme yet.  It just finished its first season of ten episodes, but it is still On Demand on many cable system.  If you haven’t seen it, please stop reading this, go watch the ten hours of material and then come back and finish up here.

Treme is named of a neighborhood in New Orleans.  Like much of the city, it has a bohemian vibe.  The setting is just a few months after Katrina, when the city was especially struggling to get back to something approaching normal.  Hospitals were still closed, schools had yet to re-open.  Many thousands who wanted to get back to their homes were unable to because of lack of houses.  FEMA trailers still seemed like a blessing.

Music fills the episodes of this series the way it fills the streets of New Orleans.  As the episodes unfold, the well-meaning volunteers who have come to New Orleans are replaced by the first wave of tourists, who have come as much to see what was destroyed as to celebrate what remains.  And so music is once more a business–as the restaurants and hotels open again they must be filled with the jazz that is the city’s best known (along with the food) product.

And so musicians gather in impromptu bands, friends calling friends and friends of friends in order to put together enough musicians to play a gig on any given night in any given club or restaurant.  Musicians are also playing days on street corners, entertaining the tourists with the expected songs:  When the Saints Go Marching In, Basin Street Blues, etc.  And the tourists, entertained and amused, throw coins in the musician’s outstretched hats and toddle off down the street in the heat and the humidity.

Now, this may so far sound like a review of what turned out to be an excellent television show by the folks who also created The Wire, but it is something more geared to those of us gathered here at Agentquery–the unhappy masses of writers, yearning to breathe free.

Because the musicians are being used here in place of the writers that we are, although we, too, stand all too often with outstretched hands, begging for coins.

While watching the show, the parallel came to me.  How the musicians who played on the streets during the day played in the clubs at night, those same songs over and over again, all for the tourists.  But then, when the club closed, and after they got a little something to eat and drink at last, the musicians did not hurry home.  Instead, they lit up, sat back, had a laugh (often at the expense of the tourists) and then, inevitably, one of them would dip down a hand and bring up an instrument.

And so the music began.  The real music.  The music that could be only be played when the tourists had gone back to their air conditioned rooms and were sleeping the heavy sleep that walking too much, drinking too much and eating too much will bring.

And so the music began.  But this music, it notes unexpected, improvised, its rhythms the rhythm of the heartbeat, the air paddling in the lungs, the sexual surge, it tunes tuneless, intricate, resounding, breath-taking even in the literal sense, as the musicians dared each other, tested each other and, finally, wore each other out so that they, too, could rest.

They could not go home, you see, without playing this, their real music.  They could not go home if they had not reminded themselves of the language of music as they really spoke it, as it echoed in their hearts and ears, as if flew from lips and fingers and hearts and lungs.  Not to be reminded of this would be to fall prey to the notion that the music that was played for the tourists was the only music that they could create, that their talent and passion could go no further. Without the reminder they might in time be fooled and allow themselves to be redefined, not by the music that drove their lives, but, instead, by the songs, those expected hardly-heard songs that got the tourist to part with a bit of money, sometimes only because it was expected of them (the begrudged quarter) and, worse, sometimes because the tourist at hand, plastic beads around their neck no matter the time of year, thought–actually believed–that this was the best that they could do.

And I realized in that moment how much of my life I have spent writing for the tourists, how many springs I have written variations on “Ten Remedies for Summer Ailments”, or “Notes on Clearing Up Poison Ivy”.  I thought of all the times in which the only challenge I faced as a writer was to come up with that needed quote, or to meet ridiculous deadline.  And I thought of how seldom I had pushed myself to the limits of myself, so that I could sleep, exhausted, knowing that I could communicate in a language that was deeper, richer, more enchantingly remote from the commonweal and yet universally pertinent.

And I thought of Christopher Isherwood in his diaries, and how, even after he had written so many fine things, he had come to the conclusion that it was time for “no more toys, only tools” and how often I still settled for the toy surprises that tourists give.

The trap of the writer’s life is that, like the musicians, we have to earn a living. They play weddings, we write the same things (with the required “different slant) on a regular basis.  All that is for mass consumption, for the tourists.

The worse trap is, unlike musicians, most of us work alone.  Therefore, it is up to us to try to break through the walls of easy language/easy resolution and move beyond what we thought, until that very moment, that we were capable of.  Hitting that high note that empties the lungs, reddens the face, and leaves us staggered and dizzy as we stare at the blipblipblip of the computer screen aghast and amazed as what we have just written.

This is not to say don’t write for the tourists, the evil, overweight, ADD-addled tourists.  This is to say don’t just write for them.  When you dream your dreams of being that greatest of all novelists, most revered of all poets, the memoirist with the worst possible story to tell (I had a crazy mother, was a drug mule, a prostitute, a tight-rope walker, head of a small island nation, a toothless dentist, and a drug-addicted literary agent, all at the same time, and I lived to tell this tale…) just say to yourself “If not now, when?”  Don’t worry over agents or publishers or internet platforms or rent or love or the fact that your beloved daughter is selling matches on the street on New Year’s Eve.  Worry over the fact that, if you write just for the tourists long enough, the other words, the better words, the words with lip-gloss and minty, minty breath will leave you and go and find another author, one who writes No Matter What.  One who is old enough in spirit to remember a time, in ancient Rome, when they knew the truth about the creative storm within and the need to release it to the world.  Art, for the Romans, was never created for the sake of some tourist from Thebes.  No, they carved the truth of it in the walls, so they would not forget (and Leo the Lion roared it off the screen at MGM–but that’s another story for another time):  ars gratia artis.  Art for art’s sake.