J offers… a penny for your thoughts

I was running on my familiar old trail yesterday, one of my main go-to routes, the Rock Island trail. It just reopened after being closed for the last half year for bridge repair. The trail goes right under The Penny Bridge. It used to cost the people riding streetcars a penny toll to cross the bridge to make their way to, what was then, the outskirts of Lincoln.Rock Island->

I use running time to observe, to think, to be mindful. Today, as I often do, I was remembering to be grateful that I can run and exercise. I move independently without a thought, but years of working in a rehab hospital have instilled a conscious appreciation of physical health. Wintery as it was, with a bit of a nip in the north wind, it was such a wonderful thing to have the choice to bundle up and hit the trails.

Because the year is coming to an end, I was also taking a mental inventory of things for which I am grateful. I’ve had a few recent conversations with friends about putting 2015 in the rear view. Buh-bye, 2015, and don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out. But it also occurred to me, as I was running and thinking, that attitude makes me seem anxious to put more distance from things about 2015 that were precious to me as well as the things that were not. This year gave me a few more laughs with my dear friend Nikki. 2016 will not be able to offer that pleasure. I played hand after hand of rummy with my Mother-in-law in 2015. Sunday afternoons at her dining room table passing the deal and chatting about old times with her are also never to be repeated. In 2015 I shared food, cards, music, travel, conversations, walks, runs, writing, work, laughs, tears, and life with friends and family I know I am beyond lucky to have.

IMG_0225Running along the trail I came upon some benches I had not seen before. Were they benches? They didn’t quite look right. Then it dawned on me, they were parts of the railing from the old Penny Bridge, salvaged and placed a few hundred feet from where you run under the new bridge. These pieces from the past, once essential to the bridge’s form and structure, are now a new part of the trail. They are just as important as they ever were, they simply have a new place and purpose.


Posted in Hikes | Leave a comment

2015 Joy / No Joy

Otto's trenchant summary of the year 2015 expressed with a wide yawn.

Otto’s trenchant summary of the year 2015 expressed with a wide yawn.

Night. You are driving alone and nearing your destination. A great song is playing through the car speakers. You turn up the volume. You have arrived but love the song too much to stop so you drive around the block to hear the end. Or maybe you stop, put the car in park, and sit listening in the driveway with the car running.

I have had years like that, too. Ones that were so great I would want them not to end. Years I’d like to take around the block one more time, or just sit with a little while longer in the driveway.

Not this year, though. Not 2015. A really weird year. It has flung grief, injury, and illness around like parade confetti. It has amplified little cruelties. Its lens has focused sharply on the bizarre misbehavior and stupefying hurtfulness of a few friends. All forgiven now.

And 2015 certainly shined its bright lights on my own actions, too, when I was cutting, stupid, or mean. All forgiven now?

SMDH. GMT. Yes, I am shakin’ my damn head – grindin’ my teeth at 2015 and eager to put this bastard in the rearview mirror.

Sure, there have been good times – I am a lucky person. I have had great times with friends and family, most of whom continue to daze and dazzle me with displays of breathtaking generosity and thoughtfulness. The great takeaways for 2015 are these: first, there are surprising little treasures around each corner to remind us life is worth living – like a kind word or a song; and there are huge treasures to be found in the way that friends and family can pull together to get through some real bullshit, doing their best to take care of one another.

I’m lucky. Still, Goddamn 2015.

Anyway, be decent to one another. Let stuff go. Remember the old one: “… always be kind because everyone you encounter is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

Kind of sappy – and perfectly true.


Harpo - among the things that make life worth living.

Among the little treasures that make life worth living – Harpo Marx.

So, music. There have been some real bright spots this year – but I haven’t been able to keep up. From an incomplete list, these are highly recommended:

(As always, clickable links to songs are underlined in italics.)

***Favorite records of the year:

No JoyMore Faithful. Urgent, raw, and beautiful. This record is super summery and works to conjure memories of happy old days while sounding brand new at the same time. Music as time machine, and played as if there is nothing to lose.



Hollywood Teeth and Everything New by No Joy from More Faithful (2015 Mexican Summer).

Beach House is now nearing the towering sonic realm of Cocteau Twins. I am madly attracted to this music and I LOVE both of their new releases.

BEACH HOUSE. Queen Victoria and Alex: visions in fuchsia and scarlet.

BEACH HOUSE. Queen Victoria and Alex: visions in fuchsia and scarlet.

Released in August, Sparks by Beach House from Depression Cherry; and released in October, Majorette from Thank Your Lucky Stars (2015 Sub Pop).

Sufjan Stevens made an all-timer this year that I also loved called Carrie and Lowell. It is a love letter to his complicated boyhood, and in a way, it is a requiem for his mother, from whom he was estranged for most of his life.



Death With Dignity and All of Me Wants All of You by Sufjan Stevens from Carrie & Lowell (2015 Asthmatic Kitty).

***Favorite songs of the year:

Life Like This by Kurt Vile from b’lieve i’m going down (2015 Matador). More music as time machine – this sounds like my tenth and fiftieth birthdays simultaneously.



Boxing Day Blues by Courtney Barnett from Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (2015 Milk! Records).

WTF (Where They From) by Missy Elliot featuring Pharrell Williams.

Perfect Couples performed live by Belle and Sebastian from Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (2015 Matador).

King Kunta by Kendrick Lamar from To Pimp a Butterfly (2015 Interscope).

21 december 2015

Posted in Music | Leave a comment

Proximity, the Breadth of Distance, and Triangulation

Reluctant leaves began yielding to stout chilly breezes during this last week or so. Finally they are falling in pretty bronze and yellow masses. October and November have mostly been extensions of summer, but recently the season locked in, and on a wonderfully rainy autumn day, I took a solo walk.

It was time to add a graph. Enjoy!

It was time to add a graph. Enjoy!

You’ve done this, too, I hope, on a windy fall day — tried to pluck from mid-air a drunkenly descending leaf. It is, on its surface, a frivolous thing to do – a little kid thing – and I am for it.

It can happen like this: first, you see the leaf tightly zigzagging down twenty feet or so ahead of you, and perhaps about that high in the air. Next, you begin a horizontal approach – trying to time your arrival at the spot where the leaf will be in its fluttery vertical descent.

Then you take your chance and clutch at the leaf. Of course, you don’t catch it – you just barely miss – you had no more chance catching it than you would have catching a wisp of smoke. And still, there is a thrill. Actually, an undiminished thrill – you were so close. You want to try again and begin immediately to scan the foreground for the right opportunity to triangulate.

The approach and the near miss of contact can be as exhilarating and sometimes stronger than actual contact. There is sometimes a value in sheer, delicious proximity; often there is a cherished respect for that narrow breadth of distance that makes up the spaces between us; and of course, there is the luxurious pleasure of reflecting upon the courses of events that bring us together – or almost together – the triangulation.

The songs of the brilliant band Beach House make me feel that same exhilaration. Their music celebrates the space between tones, chords, and notes as much as it revels in its ravishing sounds. It is music that proclaims its own silence and breath. It acknowledges the precious difference of closeness as it is opposed to contact – and for me it translates the often very complicated language that communicates the understanding and appreciation of that difference.

BEACH HOUSE. Queen Victoria and Alex: visions in fuchsia and scarlet.

BEACH HOUSE. Queen Victoria and Alex: visions in fuchsia and scarlet.

I am madly attracted to this music. Beach House is now nearing the towering sonic realm of Cocteau Twins. There are two particular and magnetic things that both these bands do to pull me into their spacious worlds:

First, in an intellectual way, there is a pervasive artifice of the work – this music acts upon me like my favorite European and British art and literature of the late-19th century – there is a delightful ‘meta’ quality – where the work recognizes and rejoices in itself, (is conscious of itself,) as a beautiful (or an ugly) artificial construct.

Second, from my heart and guts, this music makes me conscious and happy about the people and the things that I have been close to.

They have two new LP’s this year – released within two months of each other. Depression Cherry came in August and was featured briefly on this page in July, and Thank Your Lucky Stars came in October.

At the top of their game.

Majorette by Beach House from Thank Your Lucky Stars (2015 Sub Pop).

This is a live version from The Late Show. Jude and I have caught them in concert a couple of times and they are haunting live. Here they are gloriously imperfect and throw their vibe mightily past Stephen Colbert’s goofy introduction. Witchy.

One Thing by Beach House from Thank Your Lucky Stars (2015 Sub Pop).

Best of the year?

Elegy To The Void by Beach House from Thank Your Lucky Stars (2015 Sub Pop).

Thank Your Lucky Stars

Thank Your Lucky Stars

Best ever.

Dear Heart by Cocteau Twins from Garlands (1982 4AD).

Violaine by Cocteau Twins from Milk & Kisses (1996 Fontana).



19 nov 2015

Posted in Music | Leave a comment

Insomnia Revisited – Smoke



You knew it. The relationship meant more to you than it did to the other.

She loves me not….

It may have happened to you slowly – the realization like a jagged gutting with a blunt blade.

He loved me never….

It may have been fast, too, when it happened to you – a quick clutch at your chest and wham! Crumpled to the ground as if your feet and legs turned suddenly to ash beneath you.

Loved no more….



These are the things that keep us awake at night: The memory of the charming boy you loved; the smoky-eyed woman; the member of the family. The teacher.

And, maybe it was not someone, but something. Something you loved absolutely. And you came to know that it didn’t feel the same about you – could never feel the same. It hurts. Then it kind of goes away. And then, some of those old pains bubble up – the old pangs are the jostling ruminations of insomnia.

The last three nights were long ones and didn’t come with much sleep. Here is what I was thinking about: A relationship that meant more to me than it did to the other. I loved it absolutely. It loved me not.

But I didn’t care.

I am approaching a seven-year anniversary of smoking my last cigarette. People who have given up cigarettes often mention that they still have cravings, and there are certain common “triggers” for wanting to

smoke. For lots of people, stress is a trigger. For others, it is the time after meals. For many it is when they drink alcohol.

I have two triggers that make me want to smoke. The first is being awake. When I am awake, I want to smoke. The other is when I am asleep. When I am asleep, I dream of smoking. (And I haven’t forgotten why I am here – I associate lots of music with smoking cigarettes, too. More later….)

Cigarette smoking was my terrible girlfriend – the great non-reciprocating, iconic heroine of my life. The eventual realization that I had been on the wrong end of the relationship came over me seven years ago, and that realization has punished me thoroughly. And it has punished me often.

It’s not the same, (I know, oh, I know,) as when one suffers an unrequited relationship with a person. I have experienced that. But still it seems somehow like I have lost someone, too. Cigarettes were my companions. They gave very much shape to my life between ages 17 and 43.



So now, when I find myself staring at the ceiling at 4:07 a.m. and I think about smoking cigarettes, I can recall some good times. Here are some of the old smoky ways from the old smoky heydays.

Legendary wingman, and one of my all-time dearest friends, Sweet Pete is from southern California. When we were in college together, he despised the dry cold weather of Nebraska winters. As a way to confront that hatred on the coldest nights, he and I would get a pack of Kool non-filter menthol cigarettes, a few beers, a pint of peppermint schnapps, and a package of strong Velamint peppermints.



We would brace ourselves against the cold and walk in the dark to the cemetery or to the outskirts of town. We would walk on country roads passing the little bottle and eating mints, smoking cigarette after cigarette, breathing in the icy air.

Then we would go home and talk about the darkness and shadows, and about the starry sky, and we would smoke more cigarettes.

In October 1985 Pete and I decided to try on our hobo personas and head out west. It was time to ride the rails. We found a spot near the old depot in Hastings, Nebraska where we could stay pretty well hidden and wait for a chance to hop on a freight train. To prepare for our trip, we knew we would need supplies. For supplies, we would need some money. We took up a collection. Actual hats in our hand, we went around campus and asked our fellow students for pennies and nickels.

We got enough contributions for what supplies we needed: a carton of Lucky Strikes and a bottle of inexpensive Scotch.

We packed up a few things in a bag borrowed from our friend, Amy, and we had a couple of beers at a party that some of our friends from the Theatre Department were throwing. (I was in Medea that month, playing the least believable Jason that you might ever be able to imagine. So bad was I, that, to paraphrase Woody Allen, “Euripides would never have stopped throwing up.”)

After some time at the party, we had a couple of ”going away” beers at the Olive Saloon downtown in Hastings.

It became very late and very dark.

After one failed attempt to get on a westbound freight (long story) we thanked the police officer, and headed home in the black of night to regroup.

The next morning we agreed to get on the first train we could. Just as we arrived at our secret spot near the depot, a train came by. It was heading east. We did not care. We ran toward the rumbling flat car and jumped on. By the time we hit the edge of town, we had lit cigarettes poking out of wide smiles.





Some of these wonderful songs go through my mind in the lonely insomniac hours – smoky tunes from the vintage of college days. Hello darkness. Hello dear old Pete. Hello friend.

Favour by The Wake from Harmony (1982 Factory).

–Dig Siouxsie’s collar and her fab dance moves in the video. An enormous fave.

Happy House by Siouxsie and the Banshees from Kaleidoscope (1980 Polydor).



Judy reminded me about this great one from those days.

Sex Beat by The Gun Club from Fire of Love (1981 Ruby Records).

–It’s difficult to pick just one song by XTC, but here is a favorite.

I Remember the Sun by XTC from The Big Express (1984 Virgin Records).

–Rude boy, Joe Jackson.

It’s Different For Girls by Joe Jackson from I’m The Man (1979 A&M).



–A favorite at the old Olive Saloon.

Up A Lazy River by The Mills Brothers (1952 Decca).

Crazy by Pylon from Chomp (1983 DB Records).

ICB by New Order from Movement (1981 Factory).

White Girl by X from Wild Gift (1981 Slash).

More Than This by Roxy Music from Avalon (1982 Polydor/Warner Bros.).

Perfect Circle by R.E.M. from Murmur (1983 I.R.S. Records).

–So much longing in this song’s insistent rhythms and Annie’s crystalline voice.

For the Love of Big Brother by Eurythmics from 1984 (1984 RCA).

–We could be sentimental. It was a luxury we could afford.

The Moonbeam Song by Harry Nilsson from Nilsson Schmilsson (1971 RCA).



30 october 2015

Posted in Music | Leave a comment


My mother is almost 87. This is a new wrinkle: a couple of times here lately, she’s needed gentle reminders of my name. Sometimes she needs cues to remember me at all. Cues are given only if the situation is right – and she picks right up most times. Other times it’s best to simply let conversations play out without expecting her to remember anything.

Of course, not everyone will experience age-related memory loss or dementia, but the phenomenon seems to be growing and somehow touching more and more lives around me. It’s really got its claws into my family.

Role reversal. My mother, Florence, and sister, Annette. Without the attentive care me sisters give my mom ... I don't know. Grateful.

Role reversal. Pictured here are my mother, Florence, and sister, Annette. Without the attentive care my sisters give my mom … … I don’t know. I am so grateful. Thank you, sisters.

Recently, my mother and I were in her dining room, several hands into a game – Mom has been a lifelong card player and still likes to play – and she was beating me at Rummy. It had been quiet for a stretch of time except for the sounds of shuffling, the gentle snaps of cards being placed on the table, and the counting of points.

Eventually, she cleared her throat and asked, “Do you drive a lot for your work?”

“For my work?”

“Yes. Do you drive a lot of places?”

Eventually, she cleared her throat and asked, “Do you drive a lot for your work?”

“For my work?”

“Yes. Do you drive a lot of places?”

“Not too much,” I replied.

After a half a minute she laid three aces down, then she asked, “Do you call her when you get wherever it is you are going?”

“Do I call who?”

“Your mother?”

I looked up from the cards at her and said, “Do I call my mother when I arrive somewhere?”

“Yes – or your wife or someone. If you are on the road a lot, I’m sure they worry.”

I said, “Oh, yes. Yes, I call. Sometimes. Especially when it’s a long trip. No one should have to feel worried.”

She had not looked up from the game and was really whipping me – something like 400 points to 200. She is still pretty good at cards. For at least a couple minutes I was not her son, but rather, a harmless, friendly stranger in her dining room having his ass handed to him in a Gin game.

“That’s right,” she said. “That’s good.”

Recently I caught up with a dear long-time friend. I got a chance to ask how his mom is doing. It was disconcerting because my friend’s face instantly squinted into a look of loving concern. He is worried about his mom too. And I think, in a general way, he’s worried about the seemingly inevitable loneliness that people can feel when they get older.

Then I thought of old Casals. I thought this story might make us both feel better.

I said to my friend, “You know Pablo Casals? The virtuoso Spanish cellist?”

Young. Bulletproof. Pablo Casals.

Young. Bulletproof. Pablo Casals.

My friend played a little cello back in school days. He nodded yes, of course. So I said, “You probably know he lived until he was in his late-90s and throughout his life he played cello for several hours each day. Once, when he was around 93 years old, a young interviewer asked, ‘Senor Casals, you are over 90 years old and have the reputation of the greatest cellist who ever lived. Why do you still practice three, four, even five hours a day?’ Casals answered, ‘Because I sense that I am making some progress.’”

Maybe part of why Casals played so much was to thwart loneliness – his cello was his finest companion.

It is impossible to know what will help people to not feel lonely. I feel lucky, and it’s major consolation to me, that my mom doesn’t feel lonely. She has always been her own finest companion.

The natural changes we are experiencing in the amount of daylight we receive cause me uneasiness. That, plus having mothers on my mind, has got me a little wistful. As I get a little older myself, that wistfulness is compounded by a primal sensory agitation that attacks when the season changes from summer to autumn. As a cure, I have reflective music on my mind.

Feeling uneasy? Need to do some thinking? No matter what you need to think about, it is sometimes nice to have a little soundtrack.

The B-sides, respectively, of How Soon Is Now and The Boy with the Thorn in His Side. These are pretty, piano-driven, and contemplative.

Oscillate Wildly & Asleep by The Smiths from Louder Than Bombs (1987 Sire/Rough Trade).

Sometimes knowing that others share your feelings of disquietude can help make you feel not so lonely.

Lonely Sea by the Beach Boys from Surfin’ U.S.A. (1963 Capitol).

This gets me thinking about the seasons, and about my mother.

Suite Number One for Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach – performed by Pablo Casals (1954).

Judy turned me on to this piece recently. So good, so rich, this is a meditative masterpiece – cello and piano working together with lots of minor chords and time-signature shifts.

Quartet for the End of Time (Fifth Movement) by Olivier Messiaen – composed 1940-41.

Clearly influenced by Messiaen, here is another brilliant contemplation.



Pyramid Song by Radiohead from Amnesiac (2001 Parlophone).

7 October 2015


Posted in Music | Leave a comment