Publications
All Those Glittering Notes: The Music of Richard Thompson Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

richard-thompson(San Diego Troubadour May 1, 2018)

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My favorite sentences in my favorite jazz book ever come from Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker. The lines arrive near the end when author Stanley Crouch is at his summarizing best; he notes that jazz, a performer’s art, involves “navigating a landscape in which spontaneous creation whizzes by in layered stacks.” He quotes the great bebop drummer Max Roach: “Jazz is about creating, maintaining, and developing a [musical] design.” Jazz was designed—forget, for the moment, by whom—to maximize its players’ skills as improvisors, often at what seems like the speed of light. Whether it’s such standards as the calm “Stormy Weather” or the blustery “’Round Midnight,” good jazz men and women push themselves and their ensembles to create, maintain, and develop the music—bend expectation with surprise, follow the uncommon riff or abrupt turn where it wants to go.

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Fanfare for an American Maverick: Ruth Crawford Seeger Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

15SEEGER2-master675(San Diego Troubadour February 1, 2018)

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Say the name, and the action is clear: Xerox, to copy; Google, to search; Maverick, to go it alone. The latter (the refined term is eponym) comes by way of Samuel Maverick, an early twentieth-century Texas drover who refused to brand his calves. Without a burnt-flesh insignia, cowboys couldn’t tell one cow from another. But, since Sam so hated impaling animals and upset the cattle business because of it, we honor him with an Americanly distinct word.

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The Reliably Spiritual Author Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

willner 02(Pacifica Literary Review Summer, 2017)

In Langston Hughes’ story, “Salvation,” from his autobiography, The Big Sea, he tells us that “going on thirteen” he was saved from sin—saved, “but not really.” At a special children’s meeting in the church, charged with the expectation that he would “see and hear and feel Jesus in your soul,” Langston waits while the minister asks the “little lambs” to come forward. Many do; a few hesitate. Most go to the altar. And there, by their voluntary presence, they are saved. But not Hughes and another boy, Westley. Neither budges; Langston is not feeling it. But, it’s hot, and the hymns keep insinuating, and the preacher keeps intoning, and the flock keeps expecting, until Westley finally capitulates: “God damn! I’m tired o’ sitting here. Let’s get up and be saved,” he says to Langston, and so Westly goes to the front of the church. And he is saved.

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What I Am Not Yet, I Am Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

st.-augustine-of-hippo-icon-full-of-grace-and-truth-excerpt-from-the-encomium-to-st-nicholas-pic(Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies April 1, 2017)

The first person in Western literature to write his spiritual journey is Augustine (354-430 CE), author of Confessions, (399). In this Christian autobiography, he testifies to what he knows and to what he’s been instructed by God he should know. Writing in Latin, Augustine tells the struggle between his self (bad) and his soul (good), which, he believes, mirrors the physical wounds Christ’s endured. (Christ’s self and soul were both good.) When I read Augustine, I see that his selfish choices have been so immoral and his soul so scarred that he is in danger of losing God’s grace, in danger of forgoing Heaven. These dangers are not abstract, not mere Christian principle. No, they are real, and they take place in each individual’s sinful life. Who among the growing Christian population can confess to such a sinful life? Augustine volunteers, as it were. Speaking and writing wholly for himself, he attests to his failure to live up to the virtues God commands of him, commands that all but Christ fail to uphold. But still one must try to redeem oneself by declaring and overcoming one’s sins. No small task, Augustine knows what he should do: convert, confess, renounce all competing beliefs, and receive the Holy Spirit. He must bear this news for everyone to read. Thus, if he proves himself worthy—in life and in writing—he will be saved, he will gain eternal life. Augustine must ask this not of God but of himself.

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What It Was My Father Came Here to Get Away From Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Dad Pre-War(River Teeth 18.2 Spring, 2017)

As early as I can remember, my father hated Catholics. Actually, he despised all religious people. He called believers hypocrites; priests and pastors, pimps. He rarely spoke of this enmity or, for that matter, much else personal, including his years aboard a Pacific Ocean supply ship during the Second World War. “Hurry up and wait,” he told my brothers and me. That was the only combat he faced. No story bayoneting Japs ever emerged. Maybe, contrary to my comic-book idea of war then, there wasn’t any. So, when he unloaded on religion, I was piqued by the sibilant sounds of those scandalous words, hypocrites and pimps, and the frosty certainty with which he iced his dismissal.

His disdain for God’s henchmen on earth began and ended with two betrayals—one, his body, the other, his soul, though he would have denied the latter had any substance left. Born in 1914, in Evanston, Illinois, he was given up at birth, probably by immigrants, a Bohemian mother and a Swedish father. That day, he was adopted by the childless Larsons, (another) Swedish father who was irascible and belt-prone and an English mother who cradled the baby to daily mass. They named him John Joseph Milton, the first two referencing Jesus, the third an artistic aspiration. My mother said Dad figured out long before he asked them about his adoption that he wasn’t theirs—what gave it away was his swarthy skin and his inborn suspiciousness.

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On the Best American Essays 1995: Man Versus Boy Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

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m7781-spiderman-spiderboy(Essay Daily December 16, 2015)

The surprise? That I single out the male authors. That I count twenty authors total, thirteen men. That my distaste is palpable. Find them sexist, show-off-y, self-infatuated. Was unprepared for such a response. In me. What the passage of twenty years since I first read these pieces can do. It’s the self-righteousness that’s so bothersome. The wooliness of having put it behind me or I have no doubts so no reflection turns the bearing as though the past were father to the man. How glossily several calibrate their inner Brett Easton Ellis in whom the boy demands—be he PFC, rookie, deckhand, red-shirt—to ring the remembrance.

What I mean is. John Turturro in Barton Fink. Michael Keaton in Birdman. The boy in the man who is ever what he was. Who LP’s Sticky Fingers or Blonde on Blonde with unclogged reverence. Boys in men other men admire. Who reel highlights, who wash-and-wield a Buick 6, who used to be, if not are, some woman’s used-to-be. Those literary varietals—the stooge incarnate or the male ingénue. Whose sense of self comes at the boy’s behest.

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Eliot & Faith Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

tumblr mtvbloYsOu1rpxkmvo1 500(Forth Magazine November 10, 2015)

Only later, walking back—after he attacks—do I realize that earlier, the first time by, I marked this tawny pit just as he raised his paw-lain head beside his seated keeper.

Both sat porch-fixed-safe behind a fenced-in yard—and before a rough brick, two-story duplex, dormers and posts Reconstruction-made.

Brow twitching, mouth shutting, the dog (like me) must have heard the woman whisper, “Now, Killer.” His glare more than reimbursed her: You’re too close. Get on by. I mean it.

I complied, quick-stepping, the danger flinching on my skin as though I’d stirred a serpent.

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