Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Second Annual Top 10 Books I Read This Year List

Last year, I initiated my now highly awaited best books I read this year list. And now it's back.

Once again, the disclaimer that these aren't the best books released in 2015, because who the hell only reads books that come out in a certain year? Rather, it's the best books I read this year, with the caveat that I don't include books that I've read before. By chance, a couple of books on this list did pop up on some actual best of 2015 lists, so I guess books might be the one area of pop culture that I am even close to staying on top of.

Last year, I read 83 books and the top four or five books fell into place pretty easily. This year, I hit triple digits, and from early in the year, there was a clear front runner for the number one spot. All the spots under it were pretty fluid, though. I whittled it down to 20 in contention for the top 10, wimped out and put in a three-way tie for number 10, and I could slide those 2 through 10 books around on any given day and be happy with the order. Ultimately, the unifying factor for my top books was that they were the ones with an atmosphere that stayed with me the strongest, no matter the genre or if they were fiction or non-fiction.

Looking back on my 2014 reading list, it was pretty obvious to me that it was heavily male and white. This year, there was a touch more diversity.

Last year, I wrote a little something about each book, but I think I make a dopey book reviewer, so this year, I'll just share the list with minimal yammering.

10. Soft Water - Robert Olmstead
10. The Mayor of McDougal Street - Dave Van Ronk
10. West of Sunset - Stewart O'Nan (The one book I initially gave less than a 5-star review to on Goodreads, but grew in stature for me in retrospect.)
9. Wolf Hall - Hillary Mantel
8. A Head Full of Ghosts - Paul Tremblay
7. The First Bad Man - Miranda July
6. We Were the Mulvaneys - Joyce Carol Oates
5. They Marched into Sunlight - David Maraniss
4. Freedomland - Richard Price
3. Americanah - Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche
2. Fortress of Solitude - Jonathan Lethem
1. A Brief History of Seven Killings - Marlon James (This one was on top of most Best Book of 2014, won the Man Booker Prize this year, and I was itching to read it. As soon as I finished, I wanted to read it again.)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

2015, a look back, a look ahead, blah blah blah I'm typing here so I don't bore you with a long Facebook status

I was going to write about one thing before I realized the one thing is part of a bigger thing. I mean, it almost always is, so it's not a huge surprise.

The past four years have seen a tremendous amount of growth, surprises, setbacks, and more growth for me.

Just looking at the surface items I can rattle off in bullet points with no context seems pretty impressive to me.

Like this:

  • Baby! (on the way)
  • Year two of being in a relationship, and living together, and realizing I can be in a relationship and live with someone and have it grow over time
  • Watching my son grow and be kind and smart and funny and making the most of the time I have with him even though I get sad that there isn't always enough time
  • New apartment
  • New apartment in a city I have wanted to live in for at least 20 years, a city I love that has enough to keep me busy and engaged and is on the ocean and hits almost every check mark of where I want to be
  • New job which is okay, gives me some freedom, and despite my frustrations with it at times at least has bosses and coworkers who are supportive and not dinks
  • Friends, old and new and all that, but man, I wish I had more time to see them
  • The love and support Leslie has gotten from my family, my friends, and our friends on the East Coast who have made her feel at home (and the continued love and support of West Coast family and friends
  • Probably more stuff
Good lord, that is a busy year already and totally off the track of where I wanted to take this. You are really lucky I didn't write this as a status update and that everyone gets to ignore it, except for those bot programs from Romania who used to comment on my blogs way back when people and bots used to read blogs.

But what I originally wanted to talk about, and what has brought me some degree of inner joy, and pride even, this year are the small steps I've taken that make me feel as though I will be able to travel to the place of being the person I want to be. (Sorry, there should have been a tortured metaphor warning before that sentence.)

For years, there have been things I've wanted to do, or be, yet I've held off from doing them, or working too hard to be that person, or approached it haphazardly. I'm still far from being that person, but as I've sat here getting all reflective and shit, I've accepted that I have done things this year which show I am not afraid of the journey, and that I am walking in the right direction.
Should we go into another bullet point list?

Nahhhhh, because it really isn't a lot, but it's a start.

Really, the start has been to realize that even though I am dealing (dealing in a loving, happy way, mind you, but still dealing) with everything in the bullet list, I still need to find time to do the things that make me, me. This is best for everyone, since a miserable me is a sullen, unhappy thing indeed.
Writing. Oh, how I love to think of myself as a writer, or have loved, without always doing as much as I should to, well, write. And this year I still haven't done enough. But I have tried to put some structure on it. Since starting the new, non-married phase of my life four and a half years ago, I have seen the writing come and go, sometimes even at a decent clip. I have a stack of half-filled journals filled with embarrassing revelations (even more so than this, probably) to prove it.

Then the pattern of I say I am, I say I am, I say I am going to start organizing all these dark mutterings and half-formed thoughts and start submitting to magazines and journals and zines and all that, like I think I may have done before and I'm going to keep to at least some kind of regular schedule of writing more than once or twice a month and then throwing the journal to the back of a bookcase and forgetting about it and then buying a new journal because the only thing holding me back has been a fresh notebook, again.

So here I am, now, with something resembling a writing plan, which although in its infancy, has provided me with a structure that seems workable.

Which brings me to the tea.

The tea is related to the writing. Only because I made it so. For whatever reason, I decided to start drinking more tea this year. Maybe I'm getting too old for afternoon coffee, but I still like going out for my walks, which bring me to any of a half-dozen places in town that serve tea, often in nifty looking teapots that make it seem more like a relaxing ritual than it would be if I order a medium regular in a styrofoam cup from Dunks.

And I enjoy these rituals, the walk, the quiet, the hot tea. I bring my (manly) bag with me, with its ready supply of books, and notebooks, and pens. This is the deal I've made with myself. I love these walks. I love stopping for the tea, and relaxing, and people watching, and  maybe reading my book. But I will not allow myself the tea, the ritual, unless I pull out my notebook or journal and write for thirty minutes. I shoot for five pages with some words on them, but the page count is not as important as the effort. I call these excursions my intensive mini-writers workshops. And I'll be damned if there isn't that five pages with some words on them every time. Amazingly some of the words are even good, or at least not embarrassing, or at the very least, workable into something that isn't embarrassing at a future date.

But I've done all that before, in some shape or form, even if it hasn't been as diligent or structured. The trick is the next step. It's always the next step.

This is where I reached out and asked for some help. I asked a friend, who does the writing, and the submitting, and in a very talented way, for some resources, and she sent me some resources. I know I am using them. A list of publications that can be used to find other lists of publications and so on and so forth, and there I was, one night, taking the next step, going through notebooks, finding the words that could be made or shaped into other, better words, and reviewing those few good words I've saved from the past, and reading through the lists of journals, perhaps most importantly finding in some of these journals words written by other people that simultaneously made me feel "Hey, I want to do that," and "Hey, I could do that." And I gathered and I revised and I formatted and I sent that first serious submission in years out and I filled in the spreadsheet my friend had sent me and I felt for the first time in long time that there is a structure where I can do this and it is not a series of fits and starts dragged on decade after decade.

Expanding what has been in me outward and taking steps to be who I think I can be. Trying to put structure on what have been haphazard, at best interests. Hoping I take the next step, to make me and those around me better, this is ultimately what has excited me about the past year and what I hope I continue.

At some point in the past decade I picked up a book on Buddhism, because, just because probably and I pick up a lot of books on a lot of things. Eventually I bought more books on Buddhism. I started a meditation practice that was about as consistent as my writing practice. For years, I have google searched for local Buddhist practice house temple place things and meditation practices. For years, I have never taken the step beyond bookmarking what I had found during the google searches. Several weeks ago, I took the step, and wandered (rather too loudly I was afraid as I opened the door) into a Zen practice space in Beverly. And I even went back a second time. It was a new experience, and interesting, and encouraging, and a place where I felt welcomed, even if 70 minutes of silent meditation was way longer than anything I had done before and I nearly did a face plant onto the Zen wooden floor from a leg that had fallen asleep when I stood up. I have only been a handful of times, and with baby, and work and life in general, I know I won't be, nor do I have the desire to be, taking the six month Zen Priest Silent Retreat. But I do know that I will be back. I know that at the very least it is a chance to take a step into being a part of a community, and to disconnect from the every day noise, and distraction and lights and screens and sit and just be.

Which ties into wanting to be, especially as baby is on the way, part of a community that helps and gives back. Very small steps in that this year. But every step forward is a step where I'm not standing still. I've made the decision (it's kind scary that I feel like I have to dictate things to myself) that every pay day I will make at least some small contribution to a worthwhile charity before I pay for anything else. I know that is is a meager gesture, and the next goal is to find charitable causes close to home where I can volunteer my time.

In years past, that may have seemed like a pipe dream I told myself to help me think I really am a good person. But this year, I know that is it something I can work toward, will work toward, and will achieve.

Maybe 2015 was a crappy year in the grand scheme of the outside world, filled with fear, paranoia, and hate. But I know if we all take a little time to be the people we want to be, and do the things that make us, us, we can make things at least a little better.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Creaky Old Man

It's the morning inventory I take now that I've landed halfway between 40 and 50. Which parts of my body are working today? Which ones are sore, or hurting, or just plain uncomfortable? Am I going to have to wear the comfortable, but not so stylish Dad running shoes if I have issues with one ankle and another toe? Will I be able to drink more than one cup of coffee without chasing it with a half-pint of Pepto Bismol? For the love of god, can't I drink even one beer the night before without becoming uncomfortably gassy? Will I be able to contort myself into position where I don't feel that twinge in my back all day?
To be clear, I'm past the point where I wake up and I expect all my moving and non-moving parts and bits to be 100 percent ready to seize the day. At 45, I have an equation of comfort where, if I can hit it, I'm more than happy to roll out of bed and not complain much.
I can accept one mild to moderately severe pain lodged in some part of my body. Or two slight to mild areas of discomfort. That ankle I sprained a few weeks ago? If all I have is some residual swelling or mild pain, I am good to go. But if I double down on the sprained ankle in concert with whatever the hell happened to the big toe on my other foot in the spring, with maybe a little bloating from eating too much fried food the night before, then I've crossed the line.
Those mornings when all I have is that pain in the exact middle of my back, or a knee that seems to exist only of bone grinding on bone, I count those as wins. On the good days, I consider it an Exercise Day. Not that I will necessarily exercise that day. Hell, I know I won't exercise on those days, but I tell myself that if I really wanted to, I could exercise.
There's also a similar inventory that takes place after a night of drinking, where in addition to all the real and imagined pains of living, I have to lay silently in bed, breathing deeply, and try to determine if there is any hangover element that will be added to my day. And this is why I hardly ever drink anymore, because that daily calculus of getting out of bed and feeling healthy doesn't need to be dragged down by the part of me that thinks I'm still 22.

But otherwise, I know its all small stuff and the aches and pains of getting a little bit older, and I'll gladly take a little discomfort in exchange for everything else I've gained as I've traveled through my forties.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

One Good Thing -- First thing's first


I don't mean this to be, nor do I have the cheerful psychological makeup to make this the daily writing exercise equivalent of a Hang in There poster or one of those bright Unicorn fireworks Ghandi-quoting message memes that fly around the social media.

There's plenty of shitty stuff going on in the world. It's okay to point out the shitty stuff. If you don't at least acknowledge the shitty stuff from time to time, chances are you will go insane.

But there's also a lot of good things in the world, at least in my world. The big obvious things like family and partners and friends. The take-it-for granted things that can sometimes suck a little bit but that I'm better for having, like a job and a roof over my head and not having been tossed in debtor's prison yet. The little things, which I imagine mostly include birds, and birds singing, and the places where birds fly to and from, and the birds not pooping on my head.

Simply, there are more than enough good things going on, from big to small to bird-related where it's possible to write about one good thing every (okay, almost every) day.

This is the totally non-binding mission I have given myself. As someone who is told should write more, I will try to write about one good thing every (okay, almost every) day. My friend Bill Woolum, for as long as I have known him, has kept up a good pace of writing about Three Beautiful Things on many days.

We will see how I do with a much more modest self-imposed goal. For today, that I'm willing to give it a shot is a good thing.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Ramones Channel 1990 maybe 1991

Ramones Channel 1990 maybe 1991

Even though
Dee Dee was gone,
making rap albums
and shooting too much
smack, it was still
the Ramones.

Even though
I had seen them
the year before,
and they played too
fast, losing the melody
for the speed, afraid
of losing the hardcore
kids, always afraid
of being passed
by, it was still
the Ramones.

Even though
I wasn't sure if
Greg was going
to make the show,
and Greg made
every show, barreling
down 44 too fast in
his Nissan to the
Living Room or
crawling up 93
in my Cavalier
to a Rat hardcore
matinee, it was still
the Ramones.

Even though
I drove through
the worst fog I'd
ever seen on the
Expressway, so
thick my 45 mph
with the highbeams
on put me about
even with everyone
else on the highway,
for a change, still
the Ramones.

Even though
I ended up at
the show, alone,
standing near the
back with all
the old guys, old
like I am now,
nursing their
Buds and nodding
their heads to
the Cretin Hop
and Rockaway
Beach, still
the Ramones.

Even though
later Greg told
me he was there
up near the stage,
away from the old
guys old like
I'm old now, bobbing
their heads like
I do now, still
the Ramones.

Even though,
still played
too fast through
the fog
and the years
and no Dee Dee
and the old men
like I'm old now,
there was never
a time to say
no to
the Ramones.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Piano Man, AntiChrist

It's tough to pinpoint the exact moment Billy Joel became my personal antichrist. It's an attitude that hardened over the decades to the point where hearing Uptown Girl while shopping at the Market Basket would send me clutching for my blood pressure medication that my doctor had never prescribed for me for just those kind of sudden onslaughts of unprepared Joelness.

I don't deny my own culpability in all this and I won't back down from my many well-earned layers of musical snobbery. But overall, I have softened over the years. Look through my record collection! You'll see a goodly number of (early) Jackson Browne and Elton John records. I no longer wage a losing war against the entire soft-rock industrial complex. There are even days when I can listen to an Eagles song, an entire Eagles song (as long as it's not Hotel California) with something approaching, if not enjoyment, at least an attitude of live and let charge $500 for concert tickets towards Mr. Henley and Company. I enjoy the music of Spoon, which, if I were forced to honestly describe it, sounds much like Billy Joel without actual Joel-like components.

There was even a time, way back in the days of eight-track tapes, when I enjoyed the songs of Billy Joel. My parents had copies of 52nd Street and Shattered Glass. I would singalong to Big Shot. I was seven, and I also enjoyed the Village People's YMCA unironically. My musical tastes were far from fully formed.

I know there are many good, kind, loving people in the world, some of them are even my friends and family, who enjoy the musical stylings of Mr. Joel and I don't hold that against them. God bless each and every one of them. At this point, though, most people who know me expect me to turn red in the face and get the shakes whenever a Billy Joel song comes on the radio and would check for my pulse if I didn't.

But when it comes to the root of all Billy Joel evil, Piano Man gets at least 90 percent of the blame. Even thinking about the song, catching a whiff of the insipid singsong melody in my head makes it hard for me to focus on rationally explaining how much I hate that song.

Breathing. I'm breathing ... 

If there is a hell below, it is filled not with fire and brimstone, but with endless badly balanced stereos blaring the Satanic strains of Piano Man for 23-1/2 hours per day, broken up only by just enough of a daily dose of We Didn't Start the Fire just so I can be faced with the mindracking contemplation that there is the possibility that Billy Joel may have written a song that was even worse than Piano Man.

The damned sing-songy swaying tempo, the interminable length of the thing in the neverending American Pie vein, those awful lyrics that sound like there were written by John Updike's four-year-old grandson on a sugar high after eating a carton of Cocoa Crispies and then trying to translate a bad Bruce Springsteen song into Latin then to Russian and then back into English. The fact that no one ever sings along to the song in public. No, no, no ... every half-drunk moron who hears it come on the jukebox at the bar has to shout along to this fetid piece of musical kryptonite.

Where's my inhaler?

Joel's intrinsic need to prove that he is both a tough-guy ROCKER as well as a serious ARTIST only makes it worse. It would be easier to buy if you didn't make us try to sit through all 13 minutes of Scenes From an Italian Restaurant aka as the really long Billy Joel song that isn't Piano Man whose only saving grace is that it doesn't get played on the radio is much and if it is played in public no one really knows the words.

Still. People grow. People soften. Insufferable new music comes along to make the insufferable old music seem not so bad, or at least create an aura of misty-eyed nostalgia around it. I've seen the Youtube videos of Billy Joel approaching a level of human sincerity and pulling fans onstage to sing with him, much to the delight of the people who enjoy the music that Billy Joel plays. I approach something close to a level of appreciation for that. I mean, the video being on mute helps, but I can begin to feel seem melting of my Joelgrinch heart.

And then yesterday. I'm in Bull Moose Records in Salem and I overhear a conversation between two of the young, presumably hip record store cashiers. They are talking about how they had to shut off the music they were playing because it made one of the customers uncontrollably angry, angry, they said, like they have never seen anyone angry about a song before. I'm assuming they were playing some industrial/screech/gangsta rap/goth shit that sounds like a powerdrill mutilating cattle while yelling various forms of the words fuck and bitch over and over.

I'm just about to chime in with "shoot, the only music that makes me that angry is Billy Joel ... hahahaha" when the purple-haired cashier girl hits play on the CD player again. I hear

It's nine o'clock on a Saturday, the regular crowd shuffles in ...

Damn you, William Martin Joel. If there's a hell below.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The things we (temporarily) leave behind

I've got a little buddha amulet. I wear it around my neck, most days.

Not that I'm a buddhist, except maybe a little bit, or as much as anything else, anyway. More it's a totem I can hold on to, feel it's weight in my hand when there is the need. A reminder to slow down, take another breath. Maybe two or three.

It's a good thing to have around, most days.

It's except on the days when there are no good things to have around.

Goddamn, it's one of those moods again! And there might be a reason for it, and there might not be, and it's stupid, stupid either way and I've got nothing to say and I should say I have nothing to say but then that would mean I have something to say. At least deep down, I know it goes away quicker, whatever stupid reason set me off, and tomorrow will be better and tomorrow was not always better, so it's more of a little peak over the edge more than a long-time descent.

But it's still a day, or two, to ride out. Black, black, black and I'm a fraud and if I said anything at all it's that I'm a fraud and there is no buddha, nothing around my neck reminding me to breath two three four and its just a further proof that its all bullshit anyway and who did I think I was fooling?

But goddamn if the next day the little guy isn't around my neck again and I'm breathing two three four and even talking, talking about that little black hole that gets a little smaller and easier to cross every year.

It's almost like I know, now, that the sun

will come out

.... well, you know. And the things I left behind, if even for a day, they are still there.