Find Your Voice

We all need to find our voice. We listen to our parents (and whoever else is around and talking while we’re growing up) and we learn their language and their regional accents and dialects. But we decide how we want to sound: how loud or soft in tone, how high or low in pitch, how masculine or feminine, regardless of our gender.
Then, after we work out the ground rules, our ‘voice’ is more about what we say than how we say it. How  much do we want our voice to reveal or conceal? Do we throw caution to the wind in favor of honesty or hold our cards close to the vest? Do we suppress our laughter, our tears, our beliefs, our racism? Bold and brassy? Strong and silent? And what parts do joking, or shouting, or lying, take in our voice?
Artists are told to find their voice as if it’s something hiding behind a rock, and maybe it is. Artists probably think more about finding their voice because it’s such a big part of the job description. You can hear Van Gogh’s across any room he’s placed in.
For writers, it’s mostly about the confidence that only comes from writing every single day. For singers it’s more literal. It’s the difference between Louis Armstrong and Whitney Houston. They’re both capable singers but which one sounds better depends on the ears of the beholder. 
Just because you can hit a note doesn’t mean you have to, or even should. In music, the voice should be slave to the song. When the singer believes they are the master and the song is their slave bad things can happen. Really bad things. When the voice and the singer are the same, and the singer is honest, the best things happen. Like the voice in the clip above.
And like a lot of other things, our voices get stronger the more we use them.

Four Dead in Spuyten Duyvil

Four people died outside my living room window yesterday. I sometimes use this space for fiction but this isn’t one of those times – I only wish it was.
I didn’t hear the crash. It wasn’t until I heard the sirens that I looked out the window and saw the fire trucks, ambulances, police cars, boats and helicopters swirling around my neighborhood.
The neighborhood was named Spuyten Duyvil by the Dutch because this spot, where the Harlem and Hudson Rivers converge, is a treacherous place and always has been.

The story goes that in the 1640s, when Peter Stuyvesant was Director-General of the New Netherland colony, he heard about an English expedition coming to seize New Amsterdam. He ordered the trumpeter of his garrison, Anthony Van Corlaer, to spread the message up to the Dutch villages along the Hudson River with a trumpet call to war. He made it as far as the northern tip of Manhattan.
From an account first published in 1856 in the United States Magazine of Science, Art, Manufactures, Agriculture, Commerce and Trade:
“It was a dark and stormy night when good Anthony arrived at the Creek, which separates the island of Manna-hatta from the main land. The wind was high, the elements were in an uproar and no Charon could be found to ferry the adventurous sounder of brass across the water. For a short time he vapored like an impatient ghost upon the brink, and then bethinking himself of the urgency of his errand, took a hearty embrace of his stone bottle, swore most valorously that he would swim across, Spuyt den Duyvel, (in spite of the Devil,) and daringly plunged into the stream. It seems that his Satanic Majesty had overheard the oath, and coming up from his vasty deep, discovered, in the person of a little fat trumpeter, the daring individual who had braved his power; and determined to exert it to the utmost to destroy the presumptuous mortal. Waiting until the luckless wight had reached about the middle of the stream, he stirred the waters into such a commotion that the poor fellow was obliged to yield the contest.”
Most of the emergency workers had left by the afternoon and been replaced by teams of investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board and by the eyes of the media world. They’ll try to get to the bottom of the tragedy and provide a rational explanation for what happened. 
For the families and friends of the people whose lives ended down there, I doubt that any explanation will ever suffice, and the hand of the devil is probably as good as any other.

Flash Fiction Friday – The Jumper

            I don’t know why anyone, let alone a beautiful young woman, would get it into their head to think that jumping off a bridge is a good idea. There’s no accounting for taste. If you want to kill yourself I imagine that’s as good a way as any. There’s the whole illusion of flight thing (at least for a moment or two) and also the water makes things less messy than landing on concrete.
            Beautiful young women are a valuable commodity, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if that was part of what drove her to such desperate measures. I can’t help but think that there are quite a few old men like myself who’d do just about anything to keep her from following through with her plans. A few young men too, like the officer on duty.
            For all I know the officer’s happily married, or gay, or really hates the paperwork involved in a suicide. Or maybe, like me, he’s just too squeamish to watch such a horrifying incident unfold. Maybe he’s a little reckless himself. Whatever the reason, I was still shocked to see him handcuff himself to her.
            She jumped. That’s what jumpers do, right? I’m surprised the officer’s hand didn’t rip right off. You could tell he was in a lot of pain with her hanging from his wrist, kicking and screaming. You couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. All she wanted to do was end her own life and someone more powerful than her wouldn’t let her do it. That might be another of the things that drove her to desperation.
            The other cops all grabbed at her and handled her body pretty roughly, well beyond the bounds of propriety. I guess they were just trying to save their buddy and it was she that was causing all the trouble.
            The language coming out of her was also well beyond the bounds of propriety. She screamed and cursed until her face turned red and her mouth foamed. She spit at the cops and called them every name in the book, and a few that must be coming out in the next volume.
            So I was as surprised as anyone, including the intrepid officer, when they finally pulled her up and she threw her free arm around his neck and kept kissing his face until she passed out.

Vegetarian Thanksgiving

I picked up a 20 pound turkey and stuffed it in the fridge yesterday. Is it heresy for a vegetarian to not be bothered by that?

Birds are different, right? Fish and fowl are not the same as cows and pigs and the other animals our species eats: rabbit, deer, and the occasional reptile or amphibian. Maybe the reptiles and amphibians are more like the fish and fowl, we can call them what they are. We can eat snake or frog’s legs, like we can eat salmon or turkey, but we can’t eat pig or cow. We have to eat pork or beef instead. Some animals are far enough removed from us to make them acceptable as food names. It’s the big mammals – the cows and the pigs – that made the whole meat-eating thing too difficult for me, psychologically. And you have to draw the line somewhere. Being an extremist, I draw the line well this side of the big stupid bird.

There’s always this question with eating birds too: what if the big bird is the big bird?

Even dairy’s tough for me now. Especially as it’s a staple of my diet, and I enjoy it, and it’s one of the worst things I eat. And I can’t escape the knowledge that the same large mammals that I can’t stomach eating are being caged, tormented, drugged, distorted and squeezed dry to produce the milk necessary for the shaved parmesan that melts on top of my pasta primavera.

 One of the solutions for vegetarians are the processed meat substitutes, usually made from some variation of tofu. But here’s the big problem with Tofurkey for me: I don’t eat food that has “furk” anywhere in its name.

Birds aren’t so different, really, except they can fly. But they can’t fly far enough to escape Thanksgiving.

The Leap of Faith

I’ve been here before. Three times before to be exact. And each time a part of my life ended and another one started I’ve had to take a leap of faith to bridge the gap. One danger of taking the leap is that you might fall. Another is that you might not like where you land. So far I’ve been good on both counts.

The first leap I took was the one that got me here in 1962. I was incredibly lucky to land in a warm incubator of a family filled with the love of my parents and brothers, with lots of support and encouragement. As I was growing up I learned how to draw and write play the guitar. Life has the appearance of passing in a predictable and measurable pattern of minutes, days, and years but I’ve experienced my life in these stages between leaps. By the end of the first stage I was like most young artists: more enthusiasm than ability. Not that there’s anything wrong with enthusiasm. The first stage ended when I went away to college; it lasted 18 years.

I took the second leap in 1980 when I left home for school. I fell in love with the woman who is still by my side, leaping right along with me, and I met the people who would become my life-long friends and artistic collaborators. My brother James is the only friend and collaborator that predates the second stage. During this stage I wrote my first novel, spent a few years writing screenplays, and formed the band Late Model Humans. We recorded some demos and played at CBGBs and The Bitter End and other clubs down in the Village. It was a time of expanding consciousness in a lot of ways. This stage ended when my son was born. It lasted 15 years.

I took the third leap in 1995 when I became a father. It’s an experience so unlike any other that it couldn’t help but change everything about me, including my art. It took a lot of my time and attention, especially in the early days, to see that his own first stage was as enriching and enjoyable as possible. The experiences we shared when he was small took me back to my own childhood and reminded me that limitless options always exist. I wrote three more novels and even got one of them published. I wrote a stage play and that took me back to the dialogue-driven writing of the screenplays. Watching the staged reading of my play filled me with the same kind of excitement I felt when I played onstage with the band. When my novel was published I also felt a rush over the possibility of working as a novelist. There are times when I can barely keep up with the story in my head when I’m writing a novel. It’s like taking dictation. I also got back into writing short stories and was able to get a few of those published as well. My brother and I found a rehearsal studio in 2000 and began renting a space dedicated to our music. We recorded 5 albums worth of original music and some people even listened to it. This stage ended after 18 years.

The fourth leap happened this year. I quit a job I’d worked for 23 years and a band I’d been in for 20. My son went away to college. A lot of space opened up in life. The heaviest lifting of parenthood is probably behind me now (and I’m lucky enough to be the father of a son who only ever required very light lifting). I started a new job in a field that doesn’t interest me but even there I’ve found some new, unexpected sources of confidence and inspiration. This stage will probably last for the next 15-20 years and is most likely the last one that will be very productive. I’ve learned a lot over the last five decades and now intend to harvest whatever seeds I’ve sown over that time. I’m determined to devote myself more fully than I’ve been able to before to creative expression. I wake up each morning before I have to get ready for work and I write. The form of writing varies from novel to song to short story to play to flash fiction and a lot of it will find its way here.

I hope that you will check in with this site from time to time and that you will find something to amuse, intrigue, relax, or inspire you in my Words & Music.

Next up: Flash Fiction Friday.