“Insomnia opens the door to previously untraced memories, makes a mockery of the good sense that possesses us at high noon, and any effort we make to channel our thoughts twists the energy, rebukes us with half-finished faces, sexless bodies; we learn again that our minds are full of snares, knots, goblins, the backward march of the dead, the bridges that end halfway and still hanging in the air, those who failed to love us, those who irreparably harmed us, intentionally or not, even those we hurt badly and live on encapsulated in our regret. The past thrives on a sleepless night, reduces it to the awesome, distorted essence of all we have met.”

–Jim Harrison, Sundog (1984)

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Athens, etc.

Fuji, EtcFuji, Etc. (2004), by Kevin Huizenga. Photo by Walter Biggins.

I do this a lot, these long drives late at night, inching my way from the Atlanta airport to my warm bed in Athens, GA. After the glitter of the Atlanta skylines—yes, there’s more than one—and the shimmer-sheen of cars sliding through the downtown light buzz, there’s suddenly a aural drop-off just northeast of town. As soon as I turn off of I-85 and onto Georgia Highway 316, the darkness envelops my car like a shroud. Other than the occasional pair of headlights cutting through the blackness on my left, or the angry red taillights blinking as I pass them, the nighttime is complete. It’s a lonely highway, punctuated by a few stoplights and overpasses. Buildings are visible mostly through the outlines caused by the light they give off—the flying-saucer glow of a gas station in the distance; the eerie frizz of a strip mall, only the facades and windows visible as if they were emerging from a swamp; a billboard lit from below, asking JESUS: IS HE IN YOU? I have to guess at looming shapes from the shadows created by starlight and moonglow. At some point, I always end up thinking about a Kevin Huizenga drawing I own, and about how art both illuminates and anticipates life.

I bought that drawing, the first original work of art that I ever bought and one of the few that I’ve ever bought directly from the artist, because I couldn’t get what I really wanted. On the back cover of Drawn & Quarterly Showcase #1, which features Huizenga’s comics, there’s a thin-lined, scratchy color drawing of a car driving through the night, lit only by restaurant signs and billboards and streetlights. The aurora commercialis drowns out the stars. In that sense, and so many others, the image feels right. Even though it’s hardly photorealistic, it understands and illuminates what it’s like to experience driving at night on an American road. In those dial-up connection days, it took some doing to find Huizenga’s contact info but I did. (He’s more prominent now.) I emailed him, asking if a print of that back-cover illustration could be purchased. Nope, he responded, but for 75 bucks he could draw a new version. I hemmed and hawed—75 dollars was a lot of money for me then—for a solid twenty seconds, before realizing that a cartoonist whose work I loved was offering a commissioned piece to me for less than it could cost me to buy a print of a cartoonist whose work I hated. Huizenga got the check that week; I got the drawing a week after that.

With the unopened package trembling in my hands, I realized that I didn’t really know what it would look like. I was as in the dark as I was driving late at night, when what’s ahead of me trembles with mystery and possibility. Would the piece be a tracing of that back cover? Would it be a half-assed pencil sketch? Would it be in color? No, no, and no, it turned out. Squarish instead of rectangular like a comics page, glossy black-ink sheen gleaming off of hard white paper stock, Fuji, Etc. was better than I could have expected. The stark contrast, lack of colors, and lack of crosshatching or shading meant that I had to fill in its gaps. To complete the nighttime, I must enter the drawing, and unfold those layers of black upon black. Tilting the paper to and fro, I glimpsed those bedsheets of ink, the muted grays outlining Huizenga’s clouds where the ink overlaps the pencil lines. As compelling as his night sky is, though, the car interests just as much, because it’s so separate from that nightscape. The car rests on white space, only the top half of the vehicle entering into the night frame. It’s in and out of the night all at once. The first time I laid with a woman, that weird and luscious drive into night smells on her skin and night touches on the fingertips, it felt just as dark, just as betwixt and between. Maybe it always does, that first time with a new person. Maybe the journey from “fucking” to “making love” is the closing of that gap between night and illumination, so that the stars and headlights brighten as one being.

Writing, lately, feels like a long and lonely drive into a mysterious night. The metaphor’s not mine—I think E.L. Doctorow got there first—but I’ll take it. I’m on the tail end of a manuscript, turning it in to my publisher (how odd to write that, and to mean it) in mid-June. The light is dim. I squint to see a few feet ahead. Deer’s eyes and the underbellies of clouds blink out at mine, both caressed by the moon and my headlights. I try to trust that I knew how to drive but am so afraid of wrecking that I can barely get on to the road. I’ve got a map, I have a general sense of where I’m headed, but midnight is settling in and I’m getting exhausted.

When the drive gets weary, I remember that, even in solitude, I have passengers that I can turn to. With the book, I have a co-writer, thank God. I couldn’t make this long road trip without him. We call each other late at night—he lives on the West Coast; I live in Eastern Standard Time; we’re always three hours apart—and check in on our progress. When phone calls won’t do, there’s always the comforting rasp of Marc Maron’s voice, or the CDs I keep stocked in my glove compartment, or staticky AM radio stuttering out country music and diatribes and the odd occasional Sun Ra blast into the cosmos.

Through it all, I flash to Huizenga’s Fuji, Etc. I think of how it will feel to turn the backdoor key, glide into my house, feel the cat purr rub against my leg before I turn on the lights to see her, and that I’ll round the hallway corner, and there my drawing will be, clarifying the mystery of my drive and my drive but letting that mystery stay present, too.

For whatever reason, it doesn’t feel like I’m truly home until I see that drawing.

Addendum: One of my favorite late-night driving songs.

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Commonplace (Sunday morning sermon)

In my old age I’ve gone from attending to what religion claims to know to focusing on how religion copes with unknowing. Sometimes it does this with faith. Other times it engages in practices—dance, song, pilgrimage, almsgiving, confession—that carry our lives forward. This change has freed me to be both a wholehearted practitioner of my own religion and a genuinely fascinated observer of others without any sense that, in so doing, I am flying in the face of scientific fact. If I were a physicist, I could believe just as I now do.

Religion for me has moved from a position of rivalry with science to one of companionship with art and play. I can attend a religious service in which people are burning incense and ringing bells and marching about in funny-looking dress and think to myself, This is ridiculous! But then, all play is ridiculous. Going to a Broadway musical and spending $250 to sit in a too-small seat for two hours and watch people pretend to someone else is ridiculous—and indispensable. We don’t outgrow art. The same goes for religion.

—Jack Miles, in interview, The Sun (March 2016)

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Liquor & leaves #8

Today’s liquor: bourbon & Coke
Today’s book: Cutty, One Rock by August Kleinzahler

Been ages since I had a whiskey & Coca-Cola, or a rum & Coke, or a 7&7, or anything like that, not because I’ve stopped drinking alcohol but rather that I haven’t been a regular soda drinker since high school. I grew up in Dallas, TX, the land of Dr. Pepper and Blue Bell ice cream, so I’m well familiar with sodapop floats and the exquisite pleasure of a frozen Dr. Pepper in a glass bottle on an August afternoon. But I more or less gave all that up the moment I got to college, switching one cold carbonated beverage (soda) out for another (beer). I don’t miss it. I have a Blenheim’s Ginger Ale every now and then, when I’m in a bar but don’t feel like drinking. But that’s rare. I have never regularly stocked any kind of soda in my fridge during my adult life.

But, this past weekend, my brother and his family were in town, and that young trio ached to visit the Coca-Cola Museum in Atlanta. Well, my brother ached. His wife seemed lukewarm, I wanted to check out the Civil Rights Museum, and my two-year-old nephew wanted to gambol around the dead grass and shy dogs of Centennial Park. We went anyway. Coke was calling to us.

And Coke was right. It is a delightful place, cheesy and inspired and sentimental and goofy. People in our tour group came from India, Argentina, and Australia. We took pictures with the cuddly polar bear mascot imaginable. Our tour guide’s voice was so supple, low, and husky that I had trouble thinking straight around her. (I have odd fetishes–but I guess that’s true of everyone.) I really did learn a lot about Coca-Cola. I was overwhelmed by mountains of advertisements, archival documents, devices, photos, cartoons, machinery, old soda fountains, expired syrups, labels, bottles, logos, and other ephemera. I even teared up at the “Moments of Happiness” video short that introduced us to the museum.

All of this is to say that I’m a classic American sucker after all, despite avoiding carbonated sugar drinks for two decades. Coca-Cola is in my bloodstream, no matter what I do. It’s OK to recognize that, occasionally. I laughed out loud watching my brother’s (Russian) wife get increasingly excited, so that, by the time we were in the tasting room sampling over 100 Coke-produced sodas from around the world, we basically had to drag her away… into the gift shop. (“Exit through the gift shop” is exquisitely, obnoxiously American, too.)

August Kleinzahler chafes at, and is overwhelmed by, his Americanness, too. A devotee of the blues (that most American export of all), a Jersey native who fled to San Francisco, a great poet and essayist, he’s truly American in that he hides his sensitivity and sense of beauty beneath a brawling, bruised exterior. He’s a scrapper. Here he is in this essay collection/memoir cutting wise, talking shit about his parents and the Mob, refusing to suffer fools–himself very much included. Tough guy, tough unsentimental prose. Even the title, a no-nonsense whisky with little embellishment, gives you a sense of the man.

It’s a good book, often great once Kleinzahler gets past the need to prove himself and instead gets into the quiet ambiguities, lush descriptions of plants, and the forgiving nature that seems natural to the man. In other words, when he cuts his Cutty with some Coke.

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What I’m saying is that when you try to set yourself apart from other people IN GENERAL, in your own mind, in order to soothe yourself and tell yourself that things will work out just fine for you, in order to reassure yourself that you’re sexier and better than the desperate cookie-cutter girls you see out at bars, it doesn’t actually make things any easier for you. It makes things harder. When you choose to love yourself for superficial reasons, you teach other people to love you for superficial reasons. And when you reject yourself and scold yourself for things that are beyond your control, you degrade your own ability to show up and enjoy your life. You hate your own humanity. You reject yourself for being a fucking mortal.

If you have to be shiny and superior to matter, then eventually you won’t matter at all, even to yourself.

—Heather Havrilesky, advice column (3 February 2016)

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Five for five, 2015 edition

New Year's Eve champagne

As in previous years, and in accordance to a longstanding tradition begun—with two close friendsin the wee early hours of 2002, here are my five favorite moments of 2015. Happy New Year, everyone. Please don’t do anything stupid.
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Buster Keaton #18: The Love Nest (1923)

Love Nest 1 (5)

The Love Nest was the last of Buster Keaton’s two-reelers, before his studio switched over to making features for the next decade. So, there’s an unintentional elegiac quality about the movie, even though it’s rollicking. It has crackerjack comic timing between Buster Keaton and his old antagonist Big Joe Roberts. Roberts, a mainstay of Keaton’s short films, would be dead of a stroke by the end of that year, only appearing further in Three Ages and the masterful Our Hospitality. Continue reading

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