Swing easy

“The swing you swing right now exists—and it won’t for long—so pay attention while it’s happening.”

That’s W. Timothy Gallwey in The Inner Game of Golf, something that I felt I needed to read after my poor showing on the course(s) last month and something that I realize now I knew all along. Isn’t that the point? This too shall pass and all that?

Of course, the same could be said about anything. I kind of get off on that old chestnut about golf being a metaphor for life. Pick your poison: It could be anything you like, but golf certainly gets the job done. There are finite and infinite games, and you can play either with your short spell on Earth. Have fun. Be kind. Pay attention to your swing.

(And apologies if this is turning into a golf blog this summer. I’m trying to strip some things off my existence, chisel away at the barnacles of 30-plus years, just get down to the straight essentials—and maybe this is one way of doing that.)

Shanked!

I played six rounds of golf over the past four days (well, five and a half, thanks to some nasty rain in north-central Ohio). The courses were incredible, the rest of the foursome even better, and it felt great to lay down what I think will be some fine traditions for the years to come on this particular trip.

Anyway, I played four of the worst rounds of my life this weekend (well, four and a half of the worst rounds of my life). Aside from a saving grace on Saturday morning, including a much-needed birdie on No. 11 at Deer Ridge, my scorecards were brutal. Just a total ass-kicker and a very humbling series of rounds after what I thought was a nice little hot streak coming out of May. And once the dread of my game settled in, it became extremely difficult to shake. There were moments where I felt in the zone (a nice putt here, a solid par there, a necessary skin on the card), but otherwise it was a jarring experience. Topping the ball left and right! Blading it across the g—— f—— green! Just a total lack of control.

The alcohol, the hangovers, the stretch of fatigue on the back end, the challenge of these new courses: it all compounded, I guess. This was less than stellar physical shape, and that can’t be overlooked. It’s too important to come to the course with the right head on your shoulders. My main takeaway is simply that I need to practice more, to dial in the mechanics and let my mind relax once I’m on the course.

I’m writing this for the record, to remind myself of certain things. There’s a very cheesy but accurate sentiment in golf as a metaphor for life. Ups and downs. Birds and triples. Quadruples, even. There’s a bit of karmic balance that keeps a check on ego, experience and expectations. Ups and downs and then some. You can’t play a great round without having a bad one in your rearview, right? And you can’t walk away from a bad round(s) without the feeling of improvement on the road ahead. This is obvious, but it’s worth mentioning again.

It’s time to hit the range, of course. Back to basics. The game is meant to be played.

Loss of memory

“Who rivals her, among living writers of American prose, for potency and intensity and influence? If the question isn’t rhetorical, the only conceivable reply is Don DeLillo.”

That’s Leo Robson on Joan Didion in his review of her 1980s output, now given the hardback Library of America treatment. The reason I bring this up is that I’m reading Didion now (first Salvador, now Democracy), and I landed on the same point of comparison earlier this week. I’m a major DeLillo fanboi, as even a cursory reading of this blog will bear out, so the comparison is less of a side-by-side thing and more of a terrific realization that, yes, for all the literary hubbub that her name tends to dredge up in MFA classes and various off-campus events, Didion really is a master. I knew this after reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem, but I worry now that I allowed that book to be the quick end-around to “reading Joan Didion” in full. Obviously, it’s a dynamite essay collection. Yes, of course, anyone interesting in nonfiction should read it. But her work runs deeper.

Salvador was exactly the kind of thing that more broadside longform reporting needs to be: a deeply personal, embedded odyssey through terra incognita. I guess the criticism is that Didion only hung around the capital for like two weeks, hobnobbing at the embassy, but the truth of the matter is more specifically picked up in the emotion she leaves on the page. This is a book about terror. And, two weeks or not, it’s a story that can only be told with the sharp observational eye of a writer. The reporters who fly in for scene work on the front lines may or may not grasp that. Democracy, and but I’m only halfway through it, is an eerie/humorous/savvy novel about the delusions of political ambition and the fragility of memory in America. It’s just the sort of thing I go for, and its prose is what called DeLillo to mind. If you dig stuff like The Names, then Democracy is right up your alley, of course. From what I’ve picked up over the years, I guess I don’t get the sense that Democracy is mentioned with the same zeal as some of the other ca.-1980s/1990s global geopolitical paranoia novels. It should be. Or maybe I’m just overly excited as I read this one.

For whatever it’s worth, I’m pleased the be the first patron to check out the Library of America edition from the Akron Public Library. It’s pristine. And the collection is good, too.

Masters of something

I was in Destin, Fla., last week with my wife’s family, mostly playing golf and hanging at the pool and occasionally slipping off to read Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis. I ended up reading most of the book on the plane rides there and back, and, as suspected, it made for an ideal “vacay read.” I’ve been a Portishead since a friend turned me on to The Dog of the South a few years back, and so here I am: With Masters, I’ve now read all five of his novels (incl. Gringos twice).

Of course, Portis is gone now. His final novel came out in 1991, so it’s not like he was churning these things out super late in life. But over a few decades he managed to drop five all-timers, “going at least two for five in his attempts to write the great American novel,” Kaleb Horton wrote in a great remembrance last year. He was steady. and he had a knack for dialogue that I’ve been trying to find in my own work. This past spring, I wrote a short play that’s probably going to stay tucked in some lower-rung desk drawer, but which features some two-hander dialogue lifted in rhythm and disjointed weirdness from the master himself. At any rate, reading Portis’s stuff has been a great joy. Rereading promises the same.

Masters of Atlantis is a great lens on delusion. It’s a very American book, rooted mostly in the desperate times of the 1930s: times when cult-like intrigue and conspiratorial grifts sold nicely. If that sounds familiar, it is. Like the Gnomonistic viewpoints in the novel, history runs through cycles. (Or “turnings,” as in the Strauss-Howe generational theory, something that could stand in for Gnomonism, in a way.) Access to esoteric and exclusive knowledge is something we innately crave. We prefer at once to be both inside the mainstream, operating with the crowd, and to have some intimate intelligence that keeps us at a remove, coolly monitoring the known machinations of the world. In conspiracy and New Age MLM business, we find a distinct universe. We find a home.

But it’s the tug between the two impulses that marks our 21st-century anxiety. In Portis, and particularly in Masters, the loons are working well outside the boundaries, despite earnest attempts at press coverage. Back in 2021 America, the mass delusion is coming from inside the house. It’s a weird movement that runs to metamodernism, and I think it becomes hard to pinpoint without the structural world-building of fiction. We don’t like to scrutinize our delusions in America, because the attractive pull of the grand narrative (the #resistance, the viral video, the gamification of global finance, the militarization of police) is a certain gravity that affects everyone. There’s no inside to be outside of; there’s no escape hatch. It’s the internet of things.

I’m reading Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts right now, and I think it comes close to framing this problem in our current social media vernacular. The ironic detachment/attachment to various flavors of inside baseball conspiracy (pick your interests!) is something we’ll want to grasp in 21st-c. novels. Where Portis touched down on the fringes of a certain American tradition, there are new opportunities for writers incisive enough to tackle the ways we’ve reshaped ourselves in the internet (in, say, 300 pages) without coming out and hammering away on some mindless “take.” Oyler is getting there, I’d wager, and there will no doubt be more to read about the delusional touchstones of modern communication. We’re fooling ourselves, six ways to Sunday, and Portis would have understood as much.

70

“The only theory that I have is that it has something to do with seeing your life as a journey that doesn’t go downhill but evolves in different ways. And I think I would have had more joy in my life if I had been able to think about it that way. I think it’s very hard to be both totally present and to be able to think about that. I think, sometimes, I was too preoccupied.”

I’m a big fan of Max Linsky’s work (including Brownscast), and his new project is very interesting. “70 Over 70” will feature interviews with people over 70, naturally, and he starts off with his dad—who provides the above quote in the prologue. It’s an enticing angle on journalism in an era overstuffed with lukewarm alternatives, and Linsky is a great interviewer.

He’s still accepting nominations for the series.

Take it back to the garden

One of the most reliable narratives in the independent music scene is how reliable Dinosaur Jr. has been in their second-act run that began in 2005. In every review of the heady, ass-kickin’ new record, “Sweep It Into Space,” music writers from Pitchfork to Brooklyn Vegan can’t help but mention this arc. And why not? It’s a tremendous story: The band that tore itself apart over misdirected hostilities and a near-total inability to communicate with one another managed to stitch themselves together anew—and release record after record of look-ma-no-hands slacker rock and fuzzy pothead anthems even as the new millennium dragged the rest of society into autotuned pop memes and little more than *the idea of* music for a massive, algorithmically defined audience. The new album is, again, really fucking good.

Take the lead single, the Lou Barlow-penned Garden. It’s a nod to folksy rock traditions from across the pond, with enough lyrical depth to qualify as an autobiography of the band’s recurring attempts to maintain themselves. I might say this, too: It’s fairly different than the typical Dino Jr. tenor (see also: the upbeat mellotron [!!!] on Take It Back), although it never strays too far from the band’s downy guitar-centric style. If anything else, it’s just nice to see the aforementioned friendly trajectory play out on yet another record. In the video, Barlow is playing a J. Mascis signature Jazzmaster, for Christ’s sake! If that doesn’t scream Social Proximity in an era not exactly long on that sort of thing, I don’t know what to yell you.

Do less

The tendency, more often than not, is for people to complicate things quickly and dramatically—although often without intending to complicate things. You see this all the time in writing and communication.

Simplify always.

3/2020

I give in and download the New York Times app so that I can be closer to the headlines each morning. This is late January, and the warning signs are clear that a virus is rushing across the globe. I feel compelled to watch, to study the photos, to glean some sort of meaning from the faraway fear. Even now, before everything to come, I can feel the tidal pull of something vaguely sinister and unstoppable. With the app, I figure, I can dunk my head into the slipstream of news while still in bed.

I wake up on Jan. 31: “U.S. Issues ‘Red Alert’ After Week of Skyrocketing Infections.”

Then: March. We’re getting by, and it’s just a series of dislocating conversations and paranoid exchanges about the pandemic. The word itself feels large and jagged in our mouths. “Pandemic,” like something out of a Don DeLillo novel or a memory from Pangaea. The onset time of this moment is astonishing.

I spend most of the month pacing around the bedroom in our apartment in downtown Cleveland, tied up on the phone while staring into the middle distance of the closet and discussing financial markets, epidemiological research, conspiracy theories, Italian geography, protein spikes. I express doubts. I offer uncertain empathies. Between conversations, I stumble into the kitchen and cross paths with Bridget, herself finishing a long talk with her sister or her friend in Boston. We swap the latest information, reading stray tweets to confirm our distress, shaking our heads in disbelief again. Then we walk our dog around the block and return to a glowing list of missed calls. Ding, ding, ding.

Another notification from the New York Times.

I wake up on March 11: “‘Almost Without Precedent’: Airlines Hit Hard by Coronavirus.”

There is a quiet terror in even the regular stuff like getting into the elevator each morning. Grocery shopping. Cash handling. I wrap a bandana around my face and feel the whole of society tilting as I pick up dog food one afternoon.

I tell Bridget that it’s coming our way. This compelling force. The people in Milan or Tehran or Wuhan are living in our future. Doesn’t it seem like that? What we see in the northern reaches of Italy is what will happen to us in two weeks. We’re moving along a curve now, and the curve is moving through us.

I show Bridget a photo of a burial site outside a hospital in rural Iran. “Is this what’s going to happen here? Bodies piled up in a parking lot outside the Clinic?” I pick apart line graphs, projections of a possible world. I read blog posts by Italian doctors urging us in America to act. It’s hard not to leap frightfully to conclusions, not to tie the grim exaggerations on social media into some reasoned perspective on the matter.

The future runs headlong into the present, and it’s always going to be that way.

We walk our dog, we answer the phone. We cook dinner, we work late in the dull blue glimmer of the screen.

Lockdown is imminent. “Lockdown.” Another new term, something cased in concrete and rebar, the sound of hazard alarms. We tune into the governor’s daily address—another bizarre ritual from somewhere else—and listen for clues about what this means. Begin to make new plans for your daily lived-in life.

I wake up on March 12: “U.S. to Suspend Most Travel From Europe as World Scrambles to Fight Pandemic.”

That night, I drive to a 24-hour supermarket for—what? Partly, I want to see what’s happening. I want to be involved in whatever momentum is gathering in American cities. But is there a shopping list that might help out here? Canned goods? Rice? Should I be buying jugs of water?

The parking lot is a mess. Cars idle at odd angles, and broken glass peppers the asphalt. It is midnight. But inside, the store is only half-frenzied. Toilet paper is in short supply, and milk is all but gone. I wander almost aimlessly, more like a tourist than I intended.

I get in line at checkout behind a woman who’d come for a single bottle of ketchup. She seems unsettled by the crowd, looking askance, hurrying the purchase along, but we are all a part of the same thing now. We are fusing into the future together.

Unrequited slacker shuffle

It was the “last” recorded song from The Dismemberment Plan for many years, if you care all that much about album sequencing, the sendoff tune that punctuated a weird/dazzling career on the vanguard of fringey post-punk math rock. “Ellen and Ben.” It’s a relationship parable, I think, or rather a story about a relationship *as viewed from* the outside looking in, a position rigged with misconceptions and unspoken misunderstandings. I’ve probably listened to this song a thousand times, decoding signals in the layered synth notes that move us from one verse to the next: the slides, the blurps, the quirky noises and gentle backdrop melodies that help build the narrative tension (I mean, the narrator is in love with Ellen, that much is obvious, and so what we’re witnessing essentially is an unrequited interpersonal story dredged in memory, the sort of thing that can’t be easily remediated through the present, can’t be wrung out for anything overtly meaningful).

All of this makes the final verse as powerful as it is. It’s a laid-back, fuck-all salutation, a slacker shuffle pointed toward the near future. “You know I would love a surprise.”

Mermaids in America

There’s an argument to be made, and a good one, that the late ’90s Mermaid Avenue sessions with Billy Bragg and Wilco rank among the most significant musical assemblies of late-era rock history. At any rate, this is critical stuff for those trying to understand the deeper emotional core of an America that’s either lost or forgotten, a land of simple gestures and empathies, a place where we regarded one another with some level of humanity and recognition of shared pain. It’s hard to remain in touch with that tradition without creative through-lines like the recordings that came out of this project. This is important, and the word “important” in inadequate.

I’m sure the argument’s been made.

The Woody Guthrie lyrics earn the headlines and accolades, of course, but the music too is as variegated as the loamy farmland we see from the windows of airplanes soaring cross-country. I think now of the quippy and endearing “My Flying Saucer,” which sets a jangly chord progression against shuffling campfire percussion evoking a halfway exotic mythos (featuring Jeff Tweedy on the cabasa for heaven’s sake). Toward the end of the second chorus, there’s a briefly psychedelic effect on the lead guitar, a twisting tendril on the high note (1:05), which leads into a thick down-tempo solo from Jay Bennett. It’s just that: the voodoo brew of Wilco’s in-studio experimentation with Bragg’s anti-imperialist polemics is just the sort of thing to brighten Guthrie’s legacy and shove it headlong into the turning of the millennium.

You see it again on “At My Window Sad and Lonely” from the first record, this layered and delicate landscape, windswept territory. And then in “Remember the Mountain Bed,” which takes some of Guthrie’s aching, sorrowful poetry and lays it on the lush textures of piano, organ, drum kit, the hollow heartbeat of a nostalgic and abandoned love.

Lush. What a word. It’s perfect here.

I walk above all pain.

***

I had the opportunity to interview Bragg in 2014 (I can still see myself navigating the international call on Skype, sitting in the publisher’s office at Scene while we were still at the West 9th Street address).

“Music still acts as a social medium. In the 20th century, it had a monopoly. It was the dominant social medium. It was the way that we spoke to one another as people. If you wanted to hear the voice of your generation, you knew where to listen,” he told me. “Now, that’s changed. There are many more people speaking and expressing their views on the Internet. But the fact that people are still willing to come see me play and listen to what I’ve got to say suggests to me that music’s still got that power. You know, we have something that you can’t get on the Internet. I think that thing might be communion.”