A Year to Go By: Phil Ochs

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This is a song that wasn’t on the original Elektra or A&M albums, and as far as I can tell, it was never released on any later compilation. I think it’s one of his best non-political songs.

Thanks to YouTuber Krutponken

Calendar Girl

Back in the days before the Internet, the most common way to obtain the lyrics to a song was to play the record over and over obsessively (which you were probably doing anyway). The problem with this method, however, was that it was inevitable that you couldn’t make some of the words out, and you would embarrass yourself by singing the wrong words.

So plan number two was to buy a monthly magazine—I forget its name, maybe someone can remember—which printed the lyrics of the top twenty songs of the month. I remember being so excited to find this magazine. I posted a list of the top ten songs on my bedroom wall, and sung all the songs in order, pretending I was both the WMCA DJ and the radio pop singers.

This song by Neil Sedaka was the first song I remember learning from the magazine. I thought, at eight years old, that it was the epitome of brilliant songwriting.

Monday starts the week off fine. Click on the video to play.

Thanks to YouTuber nucker2001

When Nature Calls

When Nature calls, if you are lucky, you will have a camera with you. Luckily enough, I did. I was sitting on the pot of an outdoor Port-O-San-type toilet near the beautiful Ashokan Reservoir, and I almost fell off the pot with laughter when I read the sign on the inside door, facing me:

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(Click to enlarge)

The name of the toilet company, by the way, was CALLAHEAD.

Supreme Advice

One of the genres of 50s and 60s pop music was “The Advice Song,” wherein the singers would impart to their teen audiences hard-earned wisdom, like Dion’s “Keep away from Runaround Sue!” But the girl groups gave the best advice, and this Monday, Diana Ross and the Supremes give advice doubly certified by their Mamma. Click on the video to increase your love knowledge.

And if you play it three times in a row, who’s going to know?

Thanks to YouTuber matsuri777

Instrumentality, or Something Ventured

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So it’s the summer of 1960 something, before the Beatles, and you have an electric guitar because you got it for your birthday or you worked in Ernie’s candy store all year after school in order to buy it, and the band you begged together with your two high school drum and bass-playing friends gets hired to do the Sweet Sixteen of one of your classmates, and as the evening wears on it’s time to prove you’re serious badass musicians, no more of that Everly Brothers crap, so what do you play? Only one thing, obviously.

Walk Don’t Run.

The Ventures are instrumental in starting off this Monday with a kick. Click on the video to play.

Thanks to YouTuber MusicMike’s “Flashback Favorites”

Something To Crow About

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We’ve been away in the country, and each day we do a little birding. Even after all these years, I’m still a novice, and Lord knows I still can’t sort out the warblers and vireos, but I greatly enjoy it. We can hardly move an inch from our house without running into all sorts of interesting birds. Here’s what we’ve identified in the last two weeks:

Tufted Titmouse

Hairy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

White-breasted Nuthatch

Black-capped Chickadee

Dark-Eyed Junco

House Finch

House Sparrow

Song Sparrow

American Goldfinch

Northern Parula

American Robin

Northern Cardinal

Pileated Woodpecker

Blue Jay

American Crow

European Starling

Eastern Bluebird: f.

Eastern Phoebe

Wild Turkey: m, f, +8 juvs.

Cedar Waxwing

Mourning Dove

Rock Pigeon

Carolina Wren

Gray Catbird

Northern Mockingbird

Common Grackle

Chimney Swift

Barn Swallow

Turkey Vulture

My favorite find so far was the Pileated Woodpecker, a bird I had never seen before. For a few days previous to viewing it, we had come across its huge rectangular nesting holes dug into the trees, and heard its laughing call, but we couldn’t see it. Then a few days ago I heard the call very close by, and turned to see that brilliant Pileated head low on a nearby tree trunk. It was thrilling. I should have gotten a photo of it, but I didn’t—I was too afraid of scaring it away by making any movement. So the picture above is just a stock photo, but it looked exactly like that. Then a day later, a family of Wild Turkeys came tromping through our front lawn and across the street, seven juveniles following their large father and smaller mother, with an eighth straggler, a little runtier than all the rest, pulling up the rear. It was like a Disney movie. For this city dweller, it was a real treat.

A Warning

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See I went into this under false pretenses. Well, partly false pretenses. I had heard the stuff about writing being a calling, and I thought, well that’s not me, it had never called to me, I was never one of those people who as a teen wrote by flashlight under his bed covers in small scrawly pencil in a locked-with-a-key diary, one of those who just had to write; nope, not me.

And neither was I the kid whose imagination was so capacious that he had written seventeen science fiction novels by age fourteen that detailed the lust and ligaments of a planet existing but not existing at exactly the same time as this one, but in a parallel universe at right angles in a direction that we here on Earth could not even begin to fathom.

Nor was my memory so eidetic that I was compelled, as some of my high school contemporaries were, to give a scene by scene description of the latest Italian spaghetti western movie watched, down to the camera pans and the dialogue of the characters played by Strother Martin and L. Q. Jones dying in the desert. That wasn’t me. No, nor did I carry a memo book at all times on my person, the better to record all the wonderful observations to be made every day as I wandered through the vast, immense, carnival and wheel of life, The Great Mandela, making sure I missed nothing, the follies and foibles of my fellow human beings chronicled in the unblotted scribblings of my quill.

No. Not me. I understood that. I was more wary. I entered with fewer stars in my eyes, or so I liked to think.

Writing a novel was, I thought, just a challenge. Not an earth-shaking one, but a mild challenge to myself. Something interesting, something to occupy myself in a somewhat worthwhile way, I thought. I had some time, why not? You understand? That’s all it was. And, um, no, not poetry or short stories, I figured a novel would keep me more engaged for a longer amount of time.  I was intrigued by the sheer length of the thing, the need to sustain. Heck, a poem, a short story, anyone could toss that off—right?—that was no challenge. That was like learning to play the tuba or do the shot put. You heaved a bit, put forth some effort, and boom you made your mark on the world. Seemed much too easy.

So the siren call was this: not as a calling or a sacred duty, but as a task. That I could understand. The length was the point of it. I understood it as I could understand the lure of the marathon. A sprint told of your speed, but a marathon spoke to something else. And then, too, I could understand that maybe it’s not the final product, the ten pounds of paper in my hand when I finish the thing that was important, but the journey. All those little steps accumulating into distance covered, pages written, miles tracked, chapters completed. Oh, Kumbaya, Oh, the journey. Who will I meet on the way?— the process, not the product, the opportunities for self-discovery and enlightenment. The promise (by whom?) that by writing I will access sides of myself that I had never looked at before. I would learn discipline as well. Who cares what the final outcome is, I will have traveled the road, pilgrim, I will have Machado-ed a path of my own, and I will be able to look back to see the gentle grasses tamped down by my insistent nudging through the brush. It is good, even of itself.

No, no, no, no, no. it’s a trick, it’s all a trick. I’m putting up the warning sign now. Disregard at your own peril. It’s like those bamboo finger traps, don’t you see? You put your fingers in, and the harder you try to pull them out, the more stuck you get.

After eight drafts of one yet unfinished novel, and 90,000 words of another novel that’s still in first draft, I can see what they’ve done. If you think it’s like running the marathon—here’s what they didn’t tell you: this marathon isn’t twenty-six miles. You get to what you thought was the end, and now you have to turn around and run back for another twenty-six miles. And the worst part is that there’s really no choice—you’ve come this far, and you’re stuck. You’re stuck with these thousands and thousands of words, and dozens of incomplete characters who haven’t a way out, no chance, and if you abandon them, if you dump them in a pile by your side, there’s no one to help them. So, you’ve got to throw them on your back and carry them across your shoulders, without even the benefit of Gatorade, and really at this point you’re the last person in the world who should be doing this, because frankly, you’re exhausted, and sick of the world, and certainly sick of the very ones whom you’ve been carrying. It’s not fair, and you want to drop them off right now, let them roll down onto the ground, but the problem is this: if you do, you will have nightmares every single night and even in the day, but worse than that, without them, there’s no way you can find your way back. Yes, I forgot to mention this: that place you ended up at, when you thought you had reached the finish line, turns out it was the middle of the freakin’ desert, and all memory of how you got there has been erased. It’s as if you were blindfolded, herded onto a bus, and then thrown out the back door without food or water in some insane survivalist experiment. So there are no markers back. The only thing you know is this: if there is to be any chance at all of you getting back alive, it’s only because somehow the movements of the bodies you’re carrying across your back will guide you there.

Abandon hope all ye who enter here. The only cure for a novel is another one. It doesn’t say anywhere in the myth that Sisyphus was a would-be novelist. But then again, it doesn’t say anywhere that he wasn’t. You’ve been warned.

A Questionnaire

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I was nominated by Catie Robbins at Catie Robbins’ Writing to complete this Reading Questionnaire. Thanks, Catie! My Rupert Pupkin-like fantasies have finally come to fruition!

Do you have a certain place at home for reading? 

Nope. Everywhere and anywhere. I try to have an inside book (for reading at home), an outside book (for the subway and waiting in line), and a bathroom book. (Uhhh…self explanatory!)

Bookmark or random piece of paper?

Anything. Lots of those advertising cards and jokers from the various decks of playing cards strewn around the house. Also electric bills. Note to Con Ed—how come you didn’t send me a bill this month? Oops—never mind: page 183 of The Goldfinch.

Can you just stop reading or do you have to stop after a chapter/a certain number of pages?

Given my lousy bookmarking system (see above), I try to stop at a chapter or at least at the top of a page. But usually the bookmark falls out and I end up re-reading the same fifty pages over and over. As I’m in training for my coming dementia, I feel like it’s a good use of my time.

Do you eat or drink while reading? Multitasking: Music or TV while reading?  

Magazines, yes; books, no. Also, I’ve tried to have particular mood music play while writing, but so far that experiment’s been a disaster. It just distracts me.

One book at a time or several at once? 

See above. Usually lots going on at once. Then I buckle down and concentrate on one at a time.

Reading at home or everywhere?

When I can just leave my damn smartphone at home, I surprise myself by how much reading I can get done on the subway, or waiting for a license renewal at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Reading out loud or silently in your head? 

Mostly in my head, but when I’m reading my own stuff for revision, reading out loud is a must. It used to be, in the old days, that if you were seen talking to yourself in public, you were considered a crazy paranoid schizophrenic. Now people just think you’re talking on your Bluetooth.

Ha! The laugh’s on them. I’m a paranoid schizophrenic.

Do you read ahead or even skip pages? 

No, never. I’ll abandon a book first, if I feel as if I want to skip parts. Maybe I’m not ready for it, or it isn’t the time for it. I’ll give it another try some other time in my life. (Yeah, right. I’m looking at you, In Search of Lost Time.)

Breaking the spine or keeping it like new? 

“Books are your friends,” said my mother. We don’t break the spines of those we love. Except if you’re a professional wrestler and your name is The Crusher. Then it’s okay.

Do you write in your books? 

I underline and mark off passages in the margin so that a few decades later I can go back and ask, “What kind of idiot marked up this book?”

And now my nominations for this exciting chain letter-like project that will annoy and flatter the nominees into answering:

Asylum

O at the Edges

Scribblings

On Why We Should *Not* Suffer For Our Art

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“Do we need to suffer in order to make great art?”

This question was asked the other day. A student actor was disturbed about being in an acting class where the teacher was abusive. The teacher’s theory was that one needs to “break down the students” before they can learn how to be artists. This is not an uncommon theory among acting teachers. I suspect it is pervasive in other forms of art education as well—dance, music, studio art. The theory further posits that one must be hardened to the sufferings of the soul a life of art will inevitably entail.

Please, please, please, let’s dispel a few destructive, though popular myths.

Most artists suffer whether we want to or not. It’s a tough life. No use making it tougher. Certainly, it’s no use putting ourselves in a position where we will be abused by others. So one more time, life for an artist has enough suffering all ready built into it. Don’t be afraid that suffering will pass you by unless you actively put yourself into a miserable situation. You don’t need to seek it out. You’ll have your share of suffering, I promise, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die, no need to worry on that score. So don’t allow yourself to be abused in order to experience “suffering.” Not by “teachers,” yourself, or anyone else. There are plenty of great teachers out there who are not abusive.

Is suffering good for art? Well, living is good for art, and so in that sense, we need to know what suffering is. But to dwell there? Then there will be so much else that you are not allowing yourself to feel. It’s giving yourself permission to lead an emotionally constricted life, experiencing the same suffering feeling over and over again.

Look at what Stanislavsky has to say about tension in An Actor Prepares. You can’t have a free body and voice while you’re lifting a piano. He says the very first prerequisite for effective acting is relaxation. Likewise, if you’re living with all kinds of tension and emotional anguish, you cannot give yourself with full availability to the material. Even if the material is about an emotionally suffering person, you must be free to express that artistically.  Otherwise, it’s just bad acting.

Stanislavsky talks over and over again about just how tenuous and delicate the thread of the creative state is, and how easily it can be broken. How protective of that thread we must be, exclaims Stanislavsky!

In studying the great actors, one thing always comes through in their work: the great relish they take in their role. Part of what an audience experiences when they watch great acting is the mask slipping ever-so-slightly to where the actor as a human being exists. The audience starts to think not just about the story, but about what a wonderful thing storytelling itself is. The audience members start to think about the malleability of human beings who can show such full empathy for others—human beings who inhabit their characters physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It holds out hope that there is a possibility of being understood by another.

Now an actor should never play that directly, that would just be egotism, but if an actor as a human being is, in fact, living that joy in the profession and the art, then some part of that is communicated to the audience, without the actor indicating it. That is a healing thing for the audience to feel. Art becomes worthwhile, and the audience goes home feeling more human, more connected.

And isn’t that what we are all aiming for?