The Loss of Dear Things

This has been going on for months – maybe even years. I think I am losing my hearing. Certain voices have become hard to hear – it is almost like the sounds don’t register even as I see words being formed on lips, and it is especially hard to hear some voices when there is a noticeable bit of background noise. So, I made an appointment to have a hearing evaluation.

Blue on left ear, red on the right.

As I anticipated the evaluation, I thought of reasons that may have contributed to hearing loss.

I suffered from repeated ear infections when I was younger. One ear infection episode in my mid-20s was so protracted and painful (multiple steroid and antibiotic courses) that I was damn near ready to turn in my ears for good. Just be done with them.

Earless seal. This beast seems to get along nicely without ears.

Could an ear infection from half a lifetime ago – one that lasted for several weeks – have tipped the balance toward a slow hearing loss?

Through the years I have worked at some super loud jobs, but have often worn ear protection. Would the times I did not wear ear protection have created a crack in the armor to contribute to some permanent hearing loss?

And then there are these.

A sampling of tickets stubs representing a fraction of the concerts I have attended.

These tickets stubs represent a fraction of the live music concerts I have attended over the years – mostly without ear protection. There would certainly have been a negative cumulative effect on my hearing from all the beautiful (and very loud) music I heard through the years. Could it have been a single incident? Was it Deerhunter in 2010? Stereolab several times in the 90s and 2000s? Metallica in 1989? Dead Kennedys in 1984? One of the half dozen or so times I got to see the Flaming Lips?

The evaluation was this morning. I have been thinking for weeks about what hearing loss would really mean to me. What would it be like to lose something so dear?

Then, last night, I learned that someone who was very special to me had died. (She was special to everyone who knew her, by the way.) My friend, my Dear Steffanie, had an incandescent smile and an easy laugh. She also had a very cruel disease, (as well as punishing complications that followed her disease,) that she dealt with in an almost superhuman way. A truly brave way.

We became friends in junior high school and became closer in high school. We went to the same college, and perhaps it was there especially, as we matured and our lives became more complicated – even though the trajectories of our individual lives continued to diverge – we became closer still. Our friendship, (even just thinking about our friendship,) acted throughout my adult life as a placeholder for returning to a time when things were blessedly simpler.

Learning that Steffanie had died made me want to listen to music. Music was her default mode, and she was herself a talented, joyful singer. At first, I thought of listening to sad, pretty songs sung by women. I listened to Teardrop and Song to the Siren sung by Elizabeth Fraser.

But I quickly concentrated on the news that Steffanie had died at peace, on her terms, and surrounded by family and with her friend Jon. I decided to find some upbeat songs from the time when we were young. I wanted songs that would represent youthful abandon. I disregarded the lyrics or found instrumental songs that would make me close my eyes and bob my head. Songs that I would want to play very loudly. Songs to remember times when my friend was young and healthy. Here are a few.

You, The Night, and The Music by Tones on Tail from Burning Skies EP (1983).

I’ve never felt better in my life…. The Classical by The Fall from Hex Enduction Hour (1982).

Magic, magic, magic… Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic by The Police from Ghost in the Machine (A&M 1981).

Ladybird by XTC from Mummer (1983).

Windout by R.E.M. from Dead Letter Office (IRS recorded 1984 – released 1987).

I “passed” the hearing test this morning, which is good news. I get to keep exploring what is going on there, but for now the assessment is that my hearing is normal, and, of course, the whole thing seems pretty insignificant in light of Steffanie’s passing. So I have let that go for now and instead I have been thinking about how lucky I have been to have had such friendships. Even when we’d drift apart sometimes, we could pick back up where we left off with a shared language.

I have been thinking of all the people whose lives my friend touched. I have been thinking about losing dear things. And I have been thinking that there are some things that you never lose.

Dear Steffanie, goodbye. Among other things, you were a proud redhead with a blinding grin. A teacher, a singer, mother, daughter, sister, and friend. There was no one else like you. Your very presence was cheering. You were easy to love. Thank you for the memories, dear things I will never lose. Goodbye, Dear Steffanie.

Barramundi by This Mortal Coil from It’ll End in Tears (4AD 1984).

Rest… Ma Soeur by Tindersticks from Nénette et Boni.

Friends. Steff and me at our 30 year class reunion. She would smile, and she would make you smile.

28 Feb 2018

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Three voices

Just by looking at them, you can tell they had something to say and it has been a delight to be on the receiving end of their words this winter. Even though a 100 years or so separates the lives of these authors all three created inspiring female characters that exposed the state of the state of things for women in their specific place in time. There is no more enjoyable history lesson.  This post is about the unique voices of Winifred Holtby, Elaine Dundy, and Monica Drake.

Winfred Holtby


The Land of Green Ginger was written by Winfred Holtby. I had not heard of Holtby but such are the rewards of browsing Powells. I can’t say what drew me to that particular bookcase or the specific book cradled high on the shelf, maybe it was the soft green coloring on the spine; I’m a sucker for a good cover.

The Land of Green Ginger is about tall and stately Joanna Burton born in South Africa to courageous parents. But when Joanna’s mother dies, Joanna is sent to England to be raised by her aunts. So rather than living an adventurous life, which Joanna is convinced she is destined for, she can only dream of exotic lands and plot to visit them with like-minded school chums sometime in the future.

Joanna’s plan for her free-wheeling future falls apart even further when she meets Teddy, who is soon off to fight in WW1. Despite her friends’ and relatives’ warnings (their concern is that Joanna’s desires would be sublimated by marriage) Joanna still opts for Teddy and married life.

You can feel it coming, can’t you? Teddy returns from war in ill health and worse temper. And a move to a farm in stark Yorkshire is another giant step away from Joanna’s longed-for life. And when Joanna becomes a mother to two, we understand finally that her lifelong dreams are out of reach.

Joanna is forced to take in a border just to keep food on the table, her husband takes to bed, and Joanna becomes cook, farm hand, nanny and nurse. Working 20 hours a day, Joanna can’t “take care of herself” and Teddy grumbles from bed about her failing looks. Teddy also becomes resentful at what he calls Joanna’s “unmotherly and ungrateful” response (which was simple relief) when their border offered to help her around the farm. All that and then Joanna must fake-smile through tea time when the fussy local minister visits. He thoughtlessly eats all Joanna’s sweet cakes while making mental notes about her poor housekeeping skills. Back in town the minister joyfully shares his Joanna impressions with the local citizens in that unchristian way that Christians have.

Thanks in part to the minister, village gossip begins to work against Joanna. The narrative that the locals develop about her is not one of a hard-working educated woman who is caring for her family but rather they opt for this spin: Joanna is educated (very suspicious), unwomanly (her unkempt hair and mismatched clothes is a poke in the eye to womankind), and she has taken in an immigrant border (thus they must be fornicating because you know, foreigners and educated women).

Winifred Holtby died when she was young but left behind multiple novels. I enjoyed The Land of Green Ginger but like the stark Yorkshire landscape, the storyline is often bleak, and because Joanna is such a likeable character the bad luck and the slander against her feels extra harsh. This is not a knock to Holtby’s story or writing. I was so caught up with Jonna I wanted to read more about her even after the story wrapped up, because it felt at last the clouds were being swept away.


The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy.

Great title. And a far happier and bouncier tale than The Land of Green Ginger. Hard to believe too there was only 30 years between the publishing of the two books.

The Dud Avocado has a frothy storyline from start to finish. And it is more line than story as we chase after Sally Jay Gorce through two years of balls-out self-indulgence, 1950’s style. Think of Sally as a well-to-do Holly Golightly with a generous rich uncle. Sally’s uncle has given her “two years of freedom” (aka: all expenses paid).

Young Sally wastes no time leaving St. Louis after receiving her allowance and travels to Paris on her own. This book is about one thing, Sally’s first gulps of freedom and her days of indulged youth in 1950’s Paris.

Here is a sample of Sally Jay basking in her freedom: “Frequently, walking down the streets in Paris alone, I’ve suddenly come upon myself in a store window grinning foolishly away at the thought that no one in the world knew where I was at just that moment”.

Dundy skillfully builds readers’ loyalty to Sally. For example, she created Sally so that Sally does not hesitate to call out her own flaws as they often amuse her and in turn, us. For instance, Sally struggles to dress appropriately throughout the story (she is from Missouri after all) and when we first are introduced, Sally is strolling the street in an evening dress in mid-afternoon. However, Sally thoughtfully added a practical red leather belt to the dress, feeling that made it more appropriate for daywear. Sally is simply not shy about telling on herself and she admits boldly (given the 50’s) to being a “wee bit of a nymphomaniac”.

Another charming aspect of the novel is Sally’s own voice. It rings clear and true with the snappy slang of the 1950’s. Read the exchange with Sally’s 5th or 6th crush with whom she wakes up next to one morning after a night of strenuous club hopping. Sally is silently titillated until the crush tells her ‘thankfully’ nothing happened, which feels like an insult. Sally covers:

“I’ve got the most awful hangover, so that I don’t think I shall live unless I have some aspirin.” I groaned. “Could you please go over to the basin and pour me a couple hundred?”

“Sure honey,” responds her crush on the way out the door. Then:

After he left I started to cry. Then I fell asleep again. At two o’clock I woke up, suddenly remembering I had made a date with Judy’s Frenchman, the painter.

It’s a romp from start to finish. We all could use a little more light-hearted reading, so consider picking up the story of Sally Jay Gorce, a young woman learning to embrace her freedom with good humor and Midwestern hutzpah in 1950’s Paris.


The awesome Monica Drake

The Folly of Loving Life written by Monica Drake.

When a book’s title is a truth but not a cliché, I anticipate a treat. And as it turned out, this book was more than a treat, it is the best book I have read in a good long time.

The Folly of Loving Life is a series of interconnected stories that span a few decades of a dissembling family, the mother losing a battle to mental illness, a father disappearing into drink, and two daughters realizing they have no choice but to survive on their own. The themes may sound familiar and dark but the interiors of the stories are filled with a genius touch of light/dark humor, smatterings of real love, and a good amount of hope.

Monica Drake is a Portlander who runs with the best of our city’s writers: Chuck Palahniuk, Lidia Yuknavitch, Chelsea Cain, and sometimes Cheryl Strayed (whenever, Drake quipped, whenever Strayed is not hanging out with Oprah). Palahniuk calls Drake his ‘arch enemy’ in an introduction to her novel, Clown Girl. Palahniuk claims Drake earned the title after many nights around Tom Spanbauer’s kitchen table with that crew of writers, howling with laughter at Monica’s stories. And no matter how hard the other writers tried, night after night Drake’s stories were always the best. I believe it.

The stories in The Folly of Loving Life are anchored by strong female characters. As I gobbled up these stories night after night (like that group of writers around the table) I nodded in recognition and empathized with the nearly impossible struggle the sisters faced in changing the trajectory of their lives. We come from the same place, and I know that fight, and Drake has written truth. Even more inspiring, the sisters hold onto the bits of good in their lives despite everything. And because of their tenacity, because of their intelligence and indefatigable strength, they show us exactly what the folly of loving life looks like.

What else are you gonna do? As one character states, “What could you do, with a world like that? I was in love with every minute of being alive even as I floundered.”

Read this book.

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2018 and Sweet Dreams are made of Cheese

Sweet Dreams are made of Cheese.

Happy New Year, Scramblers.

It is my last day of holiday vacation, the first day of 2018. I’m sad to see vacation end, but honestly, it’s time to get back to work. Here’s the post I meant to submit during my time off. Instead I was doing jigsaw puzzles, reading, napping, re-watching the entire Mad Men series, and other dawdling things.

My intention was to blog about the outcome of my 2017 New Year’s resolution—which was to write down all the dreams I had that I could remember. I thought about putting this post on “Other Histories.”  But, it turns out that my dreams are not worth blogging at all. DreamJudy frets about work constantly, and with good reason. She is always running late, shows up to meetings and classes unprepared, or worse – unprepared AND naked. The DreamCelebrities that make the scene are A-Minus list, at best. Okay, there was one really cool big-stadium rock-concert dream when DreamJudy got to jam with DreamMelissaMcCarthy, but Melissa’s not even a musician in real life. And yeah, Jeremy Renner is cool, but all DreamJeremy did for DreamJudy was show up and hand her a flashlight and then no trace of him for the rest of the dream. What was the flashlight for anyway? By December, in a meta-dream, DreamJudy was fretting about remembering to write her dream in her dream journal. What a worry-wart.

Funny TV personality, but alas, not a rock star

So…No, Scramblers, I couldn’t bring myself to make you read about my dreams of 2017.

Instead, let me tell you about a couple of books.

Roz Chast began what became the book, Going into Town, A Love Letter to New York as a guide for her daughter who grew up in a New York suburb and was leaving home to attend college in Manhattan. The result is a wonderful, funny, honest description of New York that is sincerely useful and hugely entertaining. She explains the layout of the borough, transportation, attractions, and other stuff. And throughout, there is no question that Roz Chast loves New York.

I tried not to plow through this book in one gluttonous read. I failed. But I know I’ll read it and pour over Roz Chast’s wonderful illustrations again and again. You should too.

I also read Chemistry, a novel by Weike Wang. This was an enjoyable book about a young chemist failing in her doctoral program while in the middle of a break-up with her chemist boyfriend. The unnamed narrator easily solves math, physics, and chemistry problems, but struggles with the fundamental elements and theorems for navigating life.

Are there fundamental elements and formulas for self-acceptance and happiness?  Perhaps a few, she finds. This is a quick, engaging read. Dr. Dan, I’m recommending especially for you. There are a few good chemistry haha’s in it, and it draws good parallels between human behavior and elemental reactions.

Here’s to 2018 Scramblers. Keep reading. Keep writing.



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This is Not a Rabbit

Sometimes the old world feels a little wobbly – half a click off its axis – and our comforting routines evaporate. Things are not as they seem. On a walk this morning, the “feels like” temperature was -11. The ground was covered in still white snow. Tall bare trees crackled on either side of the trail, and in the distance ahead of me I watched a brave and fluffy rabbit take twenty or so hops steadily forward. My rabbit then leaped on a tree trunk and scramble up to its limbs. My rabbit was a squirrel. Weird.

Ce n’est pas un lapin.

If you are lucky like me, routines take a hit because of positive life changes. In addition to other things that have taken my attention, I’ve happily had extra work this year, and we moved to a new home – so my off-kilterness is both explainable and manageable.

I gravitate towards songs to help me find some balance, and this year has provided bountiful musical treasures that were beyond my ability to harvest and bank them. All that I have missed listening to greatly outweighs what I have caught. But these are a few of note, including a couple of **recaps from earlier in the year.

**The lasting power of punk is evident here — Priests are not satisfied to simply build graceful songs from the rubble of musical bedlam. They are also taking the next step by making their sound essential. This music has consequences – the band wants you to (for the love of god!) feel something. Artistic rebellion takes the form of making beauty from chaos. Nothing Feels Natural is the title track from this year’s release by Priests (2017 Sister Polygon Records).


I love Fleet Foxes Crack Up, and one of 2017’s musical highlights was when Jude and I got to see them perform an outstanding concert supporting their new record. (The link will take you to the full album, released on Nonesuch.)

**Through luxuriously layered vocals and crafty instrumentations Moses Sumney investigates intimacy, isolation, and existence. Experience a journey inward with his deeply introspective recent release, Aromanticism (Jagjaguwar.) Try Make Out in My Car.


I keep going back to Mac DeMarco‘s This Old Dog (2017 Captured Tracks.) Chilled out and thoughtful beyond its simplistic surface, this is a great representative tune: My Old Man.

Off the beaten trails, Simon Raymonde, co-founder of Bella Union Records, and bassist of my beloved Cocteau Twins, formed a new band called Lost Horizons with former Dif Juz percussionist, Richie Thomas. The new release is Ojalá, and I learned about his new project from an interview he did with Bob Boilen of NPR. It is linkable here, AND you can listen to a beautiful song from it with vocals by Karen Peris called, I Saw The Days Go By, with barely a scroll.

**RTJ3 by Run the Jewels (self-released) probably logged the most headphone time for me this year. Killer Mike and El-P pack so many ideas and such power into 14 songs that I often found myself hitting replay at the end of one listening to begin another. This one really moves: Call Ticketron.

There is one special release from this year that has occupied my thoughts a lot. I have been concentrating on it, and here are a few ideas:

My friend Tama is a dedicated meditator. She compared the feeling of going a day without meditating to the icky-ness of going a day without brushing one’s teeth. I feel that way on days when I don’t get to take a walk. I guess it is my form of meditation. Even when walking with a companion, or with headphones on, I get the sense of clearing my mind, and I have loved taking regular walks since I was a little kid.

Fairly often, I return to the town of my boyhood. Sometimes when I make these visits I carve out a few minutes to drive familiar roads and lay eyes upon some cherished old sites. When I re-explore my hometown it seems each time to have shrunk.

For instance, I recently drove roughly the route from the house I grew up in to my old elementary school, a trip taken on foot many hundreds of times. At age eight or nine it seemed far, and in my memory the walk almost always provided at least a bit of an adventure. In fact, though, it would take perhaps six or seven minutes to walk that distance now, over 40 years later.

I think this is not uncommon. The world seems huge when you’re a kid. And to me, in memory it seems nearly paradisiacal. Returning as an adult, the un-hugeness of my own remembered world is disorienting.

Sometimes one craves the possibilities of a big world. Driving around my old town gets me thinking of all my years growing up there, when the world seemed larger. I think of fights and friendships; exploring fields and ponds on the edge of town; crushes, romances, and the little heartbreaks that did not seem little at the time.

As I drove around on that recent visit, I thought especially of the summers I used to spend there between college semesters. And I thought of a particular work of art, a movie, that inspired and helped to inform my aesthetic. When I was about 19, Jim Jarmusch’s deliberately slow and wonderful film, Stranger Than Paradise, appeared. (Click on this for a summary of Stranger Than Paradise.) It was a movie I watched repeatedly and studied. For a few of my friends and me it was a formative movie that featured characters that were extremely different from us, but they were people we recognized and related to. Jarmusch had a vision — in his strange paradise, the mundanity of everyday existence was given an exotic sheen; life’s inevitable boredoms were studied and cool.

Stranger Than Paradise

Like those adventurous walks to and from elementary school as a child, Stranger Than Paradise made the world seem huge, and the movie was something I wanted to be as familiar with as the steps covering the blocks that I walked each day as a little kid.

All this is to say, sometimes when we are not looking, we get lucky and are provided with new art work that inspires and helps to re-inform our aesthetics. In 2017, such was The Ooz by King Krule. There is no kooler kat than King Krule, and his unclassifiable music makes my wobbly world seem pleasantly bigger and full of possibility.

One Kool Kat – King Krule.

There are elements here of jazz, rockabilly, rap, and ambient. I think I will be listening to this for a long time – and I certainly do not tire of this tune — check out Dum Surfer.

It sure wasn’t perfect, but I will look back on 2017 with some special fondness. Here is hoping that 2018 provides everyone great memories, and lots more good music. Enjoy!

27 December 2017

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September Roses

Ways of expressing how music makes us feel are as limitless as our own imaginations. Recently, my friend Cathy described the experience of seeing a concert in this way:

Cathy’s September Roses

“September roses from the yard … an image of what Fleet Foxes’ show sounded like last night.”

That’s really good, isn’t it? You get the message of natural beauty immediately – even if you don’t know the band – and especially if you are familiar with the sometimes soaring, sometimes intimate, and always pretty music of Fleet Foxes.

Music can be, music is, much more than just the arrangements of notes or sounds. The image of a bouquet or a mountain forest in flames; the aroma of rich baking chocolate or a cloud of sweat; a slant of light that forces you suddenly into a squint, or the shiver of waking from a dream: these are music, too, in their simple or complicated evocations.

Music inspires us to our own expression through forms as varied as romantic dance and violent protest. Music influences personal styles as far flung as Ellington-style elegance, the pleasant messiness of neo-hippie chic, or torn up and raggedy punk.

Sometimes, though, music takes us inward – often straight into our own heads – and we focus on things like the disparities of our own self-perceptions. We may ask big questions like, “What is my place in the world?” or “What is my place in the universe?” These questions may arise from insecurities or from healthy and continual self-discovery, and the very asking of them may help us to learn about how we relate to others.

Experience the journey inward with the recent music of Moses Sumney whose newest release Aromanticism, is deeply introspective. (Out 22 September 2017 on the Jagjaguwar label.)

Deeply introspective, Moses Sumney.

Through luxuriously layered vocals and crafty instrumentations Sumney investigates intimacy, isolation, and existence. The 36-minute record took three years to make, and while the sounds are often light, dreamy, and ethereal, the thoughts that Moses Sumney provokes are heavy. The music weave guitars and pianos with unexpected live instrumentation like clarinets and flutes, and there is a mass of electronic musical mastery used through beats and looping.

At its least adorned, Sumney‘s music can remind you of the plainest (and maybe the greatest,) songs of Johnny Mathis – distilled to feature almost miraculous vocal ability. At its most complex, there is in Sumney‘s music Radiohead‘s gorgeous and dreamy saturation of minor chords. And dreams are to be desired here. In an interview with NPR, Sumney said the record took a long time to make because he was, “…sculpting the sound to  … be like a dream … I hope people will fall asleep [when they listen to it.]”


Check it out – these are gentle, confessional songs. Sumney describes Aromanticism as, “a concept album about lovelessness as a sonic dreamscape. It seeks to interrogate the social constructions around romance.” Headphones suggested. Italicized titles below are linkable to hear songs by Moses Sumney from Aromanticism (2017 Jagjaguwar):

Make Out in My Car

Lonely World

Indulge Me

Self-Help Tape

His Web site, for concert dates and links to purchase his music: 

Here’s Johnny:

An Open Fire and Tenderly by Johnny Mathis from Open Fire, Two Guitars (1959 Columbia).

27 September 2017

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