Monday, July 28, 2014

I took a photo of a kid dressed up as a fireman, the thousandth-ish picture I’d semi-mindlessly taken this summer at that gig. My only thought at the time was that I could’ve done the green screen editing slightly better. While we waited for the photo to print, the child’s caretaker told us he’d recently been adopted from a physically abusive household and that this was one of the first carefree days he’d had in recent memory. We handed her the photo of the kid wearing the best tentative smile I was able to coax out of him. The sight of him having even a little fun made her break down and cry. Intense! Just when I thought I was merely going through the motions to collect some cash. A little reminder to me to be open and kind to everyone I meet since most of them have some sort of struggle. I thanked her for being so sweet.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

I have given myself a decompression day. A day in a quiet town with just me and a hat and a coffee and a cell phone and the books in my backpack. I don’t feel especially interesting or especially awake, yet I feel the urge to massage some drippy black ink into my black sketchbook/notebook with its off-white pages and dark chocolate stained cover.
I left South Jersey with about a dozen photos and one deer tick. I was taking a shower and found him directly in the center of my stomach. It was like he was trying to tell me, “look, this is just WHAT I DO - I’ll at least make it easy to find me. OK, Champ?” First of all, don’t call me “Champ,” you goddamn walking disease bag.
The way he was so perfectly centered also brought to mind the idea of a painting of my stomach without any identifying features. The freckles would be there like discolorations on some newly discovered, very pale planet, the asymmetrical patches of hair would be scattered around like little brown weeds, and the tick would be the focal point, a tiny, imported invader that matches my color scheme and might add some interesting concentric circles.
I visualized this for about four seconds and then gave him a free ride down the drain and into the sewers of Tullytown. Fuck you. And don’t call me “Champ.”
I imported a wasp from Newtown into Langhorne. It left my car at the intersection of Lincoln Highway and Woodbourne Road. It seemed to take its time looking for a nicer car in which to take its next ride. He’ll find one, but they won’t be playing better music than I was. Best wishes, wasp, and thanks for not ass-stabbing my neck with your wasp juice.
Vampires are real. I’ve been close to a few. I spent that day in the Pine Barrens with my auntie and that’s one of nine million things we discussed. We also discussed the nosedive that my diet has taken recently (hello Wawa my old friend/I’ve come to milkshake you again), the beauty of Maine, the importance of not waiting for attention from those who are not readily giving it, the romantic idea of “The One” vs. the reality of lives lived with different characters in different chapters, the way one’s circle of loved ones reacts to crises. And butts. She was kind enough to point out two flocks of bikinied girls. (Like I didn’t see them already….)
We talked about the way that crises show us that most people don’t change. The people who are there for me now are the people who were there for me before. We were talking about how people with religious childhoods might be more inclined toward dichotomous thinking but true empathy requires an understanding that everybody has good and bad traits. Still, some people are healthier for you than others, especially when the shit has hit the fan. I love my vampires and they love me. But I’ve learned to listen to that sometimes faint voice of instinct when it says, “you did your part; now go do something for you.” That’s why I took this time to write. *tips hat* Hello.
A very nice lady came up to me on the bench in front of Zebra Striped Whale and asked how Marcella’s doing and how I’m holding up. She was pleased to hear that Marcella has such a big team of loved ones helping her and keeping her entertained. I noticed that she kept looking at me like she was waiting for one of us to say something profound. All I could tell her is that we’re trying our best and that I am learning things that I’ll take with me into the future. She told me she is praying for both of us. I thanked her. She came back five minutes later with a bag of gifts from The Jesus Store (this may not be the exact name). Just as I do while listening to gospel music, I looked past the religious symbolism and into the underlying human emotion. I don’t discard good will just because it’s wrapped in somebody else’s belief system.
I was surprised that this character from Marcella’s life recognized me. The Internet’s a funny thing. You make a commitment to the same hat for two years and - BANG - recognizable. When I was twenty-one, I felt like me. At thirty-one, I feel like me AND look like me. People can tell they’re talking to either a musician or, at least, a guy who wants them to think he’s a musician. Some parts of my look have been static for a few years. I’ve heard it said that people often freeze their look in the era in which they started to have a lot of sex. A lot of people in my hometown look like they’re waiting for the call from Bon Jovi about appearing in a music video in 1989. There’s still time. There’s still time.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

I’m in Marcella’s hospital room in Center City Philadelphia on Sunday and the sun is setting after a long and sometimes intense day of visiting loved ones and doctors. I want to listen to music so I grab my cell phone and see if I can load a recording I’d just uploaded. It worked! It’s 2014 and I’m listening to a recording of my grandfather and other relatives playing music in their living room in Dunellen, New Jersey in the mid-’60s. And they were good. It’s gospel songs, country songs, and between-song chatter and laughs. I never really got to know Gammy and JJ as an adult, but this document gives me a connection. My nephew will get to hear this one day and find out how much music is in his bloodline.
At one point, the tape goes further back in time to a recording of my dad tunelessly singing along to an Everly Brothers record in the ‘50s. Meanwhile in 2014, Marcella calls out from the bathroom, “what is THAT?” Things get even worse when the tape suddenly time-travels to the ‘80s and I’M singing “(All I Have To Do Is) Dream” even MORE tunelessly!
It got especially interesting and heavy when I started singing harmony with my grandfather (gone since 2007) on a song I’d just learned from him via the tapes.
Time gets us all, but we can leave some artifacts behind so later generations can get to know us if they want to. I’ve gotten into the habit of recording the stories that my relatives tell, sneakily hitting Record on my phone or camera. Once, we took our Grandma to the neighborhood in Brooklyn she grew up in during the ‘30s and ‘40s and recorded her anecdotes while walking around town and driving back to Piscataway. People take their stories with them if no one captures them.
Jenni and I were talking about meditation. She’s dedicated and does it every day. I’m not, and don’t. In fact, I have a complex about it; a sense that my brain is too loud and busy for me to ever get into that zone. She’s planting potatoes and onions and I’m playing my acoustic guitar. An hour passes. I’d spent the whole time improvising music, playing a few dozen instrumental pieces that I could’ve turned into songs if a few good rhymes had breezed past me.
She walked back from the garden and said, “you already know how to meditate.”
The guy at my favorite coffee shop cried when I gave him the latest health update. He and his wife are incredibly kind and I admire the beautiful life they appear to have built around their shop and careers as illustrators and authors. I grabbed his hand and looked into his eyes, trying to console him. Sure, I’m the boyfriend and he’s the guy with the coffee and ice cream, but I’ve known for four months and he hasn’t. He told me I’m a very brave man. I never know how to respond to that. I just follow my heart.
You can be called a lot of things in thirty-one years, all the noble things and the opposite of all those things, sometimes in the same day. This is why it’s good to check in with yourself once in a while, since you’re the only person who’s been watching your movie the whole time. And directing. I think mine is co-directed by Christopher Guest and Tommy Wiseau.
The exchange at the coffee shop reminded me that this news is like a bomb. I drive around with a peace sign on my car; bombs are not my thing. I start to feel like fucking Johnny Tragedyseed. I played a gig a few days after I found out and, before it started, my friend Gina approached me with her beautiful smile and asked how I was doing. I knew that I could cast a pall over the long night of performances if I told her about Marcella’s diagnosis. I realized in that moment that it won’t always be the right time to talk about it. So I wrote a rule: only tell those who ask. But now I’m not even sure about that. I like making people happy.
The man at the coffee shop was crying and I wasn’t. I guess people who have gone through this sort of thing can identify with that. You don’t cry all day, every day, for four months, six months, twelve months… You do that some days and, on other days, you close down a little so you can accomplish the day’s tasks. I’ve accomplished a lot. I went to work the morning after the diagnosis. Kelley Cosmosis talked to me on the Internet until I was deliriously tired, then I somehow slept and somehow went to work.
Another thing that’s happened during this period is an adjustment to my bullshit tolerance. There’s just no room for it. Maybe it’s what parents of young children go through; there’s just no energy left to respond to some guy I met at a party once who’s trying to start an argument on the Internet. Bye. I also hesitate less to sing at concert volume at red lights. But don’t expect any autotune. (Ever.)
Sometimes you’re in the shallow end and sometimes you’re in the deep end. I’m a pretty good swimmer. It’s true that most people you meet are fighting a battle or two. It’s also true that I’ve been through an unusual amount of battles recently. I wake up every day and remember that she’s dying. That’s my normal now. Still, I attended a friend’s wedding recently and didn’t feel any resentment, nothing blocking the flow of joy and love. I told myself that this is his time for a bright sunny day and I will have mine later. And more storms. He’ll have more storms. Hell, Joe and I have both filmed thunderstorms. We’re ready. But bring on that sunshine, too.
It got pretty bright on State Street when I wrote that sentence.
I pull up to their home in my oil-burning, antenna-less, cosmetically-challenged 2000 Honda Civic for the nine-thousandth time and I’m still taken aback by its beauty. The visiting nurse and social worker dropped their jaws looking at just the back patio. Words can’t describe the expansiveness and warmth of this house. They are fortunate to have the resources to make things as comfortable for Marcella as possible, but I know they would live in a van if they could live in it with their whole, healthy crew. They’ve already lost a daughter to cancer a few years ago. Nature doesn’t care about what we think is fair. It seems that life does what life’s gonna do and that we have to be strong enough to weather the storms and wise enough to enjoy the sunshine.
Michael Stipe said, “I don’t have much but what I have is gold.”
By the way, I’m very proud of that car. An ugly vehicle that takes me to beautiful things is better than the inverse.
She’s doing home hospice now. I spent the night on Thursday. She and her family really designed a gorgeous space for her to live in. It has a classy brick wall in the kitchen, lots of flowers and sunlight, a new fridge, a huge, funky tapestry that she picked out, brand new beds, upgraded bathrooms. A lot of new alongside her favorite old. She even has one of my framed photographs. She has to get really fucked-up to deal with the pain. We make plenty of drug jokes. We regularly microwave a heating pad that smells like an abandoned movie theater filled with nine feet of old, burnt popcorn. Life with her is different now, but a heartbeat is a heartbeat and she has one!
One of my older family members had suggested that I don’t put myself through this stress. After all, she reasoned, we don’t have kids and are not married. My instincts told me, “stay in the chapter you’re in.” It’s been rewarding. Not easy - rewarding. I choose not to romanticize my pain. I accept that every day is good and bad, that it always was and always will be.
Another thing the voice of instinct has told me lately about both my life and my creative life is “this is the time for the heavy lifting of growth; the rewards come later.” I am at peace with that. I now see all the tectonic shifts of my recent years as educational courses, lessons about what I want from love, music, art, and the rest of life. Where I can compromise and where I can’t. Each of the chaotic moments felt like the end of the world, but having survived them all with my body, mind, and spirit intact, I feel like I approach life with a wider canvas, using more colors than before.
Having said that, I just made a dick joke on Facebook. Maybe I’m not in the deep end after all.
I drove into the cemetery where Gammy and JJ are buried. Within about two minutes, a car pulls up behind me. It’s Aunt Gail, Cousin Patti, and my Dad. We hadn’t made plans and it wasn’t the anniversary of anything relating to our family. But there we were. Almost all of my McGarvey side. I said, “maybe there IS a spirit world! They’re STILL organizing events for us!”
We all drove to Core Creek Park and sat beside the lake, telling story after story about my grandparents and of more recent adventures. I hit Record on my iPhone, hoping no one would notice. The sun was shining.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Sixty pages into Rob Delaney’s book and he’s made me belly laugh about as many times. I tweeted him a picture of my copy of the book with a homemade bookmark sticking out, the top part of which reads “Rob’s Wife’s Phone Number.” I made him laugh once. The ratio is off.
My recent two-week vacation was an anomaly; I have programmed myself to see an afternoon trip to ANYWHERE as a chance to have a memorable experience and maybe leave with a photo that I’ll keep for the rest of my life. Like life is a scavenger hunt. Why not? I worked in offices at various points between high school and the first years after college and this is why I jump on the chance to do pretty much any job that allows me to be active and outside. “Do Anything To Avoid Offices” is printed a classroom-style motivational poster in my brain.
One of the office jobs involved selling regional newspapers to the locals. I initially did this with a gaggle of my high school friends. At some point, we began to adopt each region’s accent during the calls. I can’t hear a reference to Fayetteville or Ottumwa without recalling Bill Raymond’s or my rough attempt at their accent. I have a recording of twenty or thirty minutes of these calls. (‘Cause I’m me.) It’s on cassette tape. (‘Cause I’m old.)
I wasn’t supposed to be home right now. I booked a last-minute job in Maryland because the pay was really good, but it happened to coincide with the 4th Of July holiday and hotel rooms in the Upper Eastern Shore (far from Baltimore) were hard to come by. As I type this, firecrackers muted by my walls and windows are popping off all around me like a recording of popcorn popping played at half speed. I just noticed I can see them through the window in front of my desk, too. This is disproportionately exciting to me because I grew up in a bedroom without windows. (Did you hear that, psychiatrists?)
As I look toward Walt Disney Elementary School, I can see a pretty professional-looking fireworks display. As far as I know, Walt’s head is not buried in a capsule under that school. Maybe you were about to ask.
This morning, I wrote on the Internet, “sitting on a curb watching a parade in a small town in Maryland reflecting on how much strangeness remains in my life. (It was a choice.)” I was making $23/hr. at the time. I am happy being anywhere I’ve never been. Even the gas station/restaurant/terrible arcade/convenience store I found in Delaware. I got that explorer bug. Restless Greg Syndrome. The Jimmy Legs. William Levitt’s Disease. I’ve gone out of my way to keep myself out of a grid. Some people think I have The Life. I know a multi-millionaire who wants to be me. I guess I look free. But freedom’s expensive. So I’m not always free. But on a day like this? Sure.
I’m on a dock on the Chesapeake Bay, walking back toward town. A li’l babe with big black sunglasses says, “hiiiii.” I say, “hiiii there” and keep walking. Two seconds pass, and I turn around, big, golden aviators glued to my face, and I say, “…nice shades.”
I say “babe” ‘cause she was about two.
The moment. I’ve been taking notice of how many parts of life are aided by a commitment to stay in the moment.
At work today: the first thought about checking the time and determining how much time was left before I’m free. Why? What was I to gain by going through that process? Why am I not free because I’m at work? This is not a habit I picked up from high-minded people. I switched my focus to the present and enjoyed the people at work AND the Post-Work High (PWH). I love days when I’m my own boss, playing music or selling art, but I can only get a big hit of PWH when I’m on somebody else’s time and then I’m not.
Improvising music yesterday: as soon as I let my thoughts go somewhere other than the feel of my Fender in my hands and the joy of directly expressing emotions through tones, I was gone. I can always sound “good,” but that’s not what I’m going for. Remember, you can’t spell “bullshit artist” without “artist.” I want the soul connection. You have to do enough practicing to know where the chords and the notes are, but it only has a chance of being transcendent when you can bypass your brain and broadcast live from your imagination.
I always wanted to have a device that could record my dreams and play them back the next morning. As a songwriter, my goal is to create pieces that feel like what those little dream movies would feel like.
During the four months since the diagnosis, the peace that I’ve found has been in the moments of making her feel loved or otherwise lighter through humor or good conversation. There isn’t peace in trying to project into the unknown future and trying to organize it; there’s only peace in being present.
I can remember being without a girlfriend or close friends - being closed-down - for extended periods of time. It was safe, but it wasn’t life. I gave all of myself to a yellow, Johnson brand Telecaster clone with a picture of a disappointed David Seville taped to it (think: seven seconds before shouting “AAAAALVIIIIN!!!”), and nothing to anyone else. I don’t regret it, but I don’t want to go back, either. I use it as a reference point. Maybe it’s good to know it’s an option. But I didn’t have anything to write about. These days, I seem to have nothing but intense, poignant moments. Remind me that I wrote that the next time I’m watching Conan in my underwear with sweet potato chip remnants drowning in my chest hair, OK?
I am sitting in front of a place called Play It Again Sam in Chestertown, Maryland. I slept about five hours last night and immediately drove here for an 8 AM shift. Caffeine saves the day, as usual, but not without that weird, fidgety edge that reminds you you’re operating on artificial energy. My morning was so compressed that I shaved on Route 301 while singing along to the Everly Brothers. I was proud to multi-task in a brand new way. I’m an old, worldly soul, but I am also an American and a millennial.
Millennial. 9/11 happened after the summer during which I graduated high school. Dad used to take Pam and I to the top of the Watchung Mountains to look at the World Trade Center. My mom used to ride her bike down that hill. It looked dangerous. After the attacks, I was walking around the block for exercise and three Bristol Township police cars pulled up to me to question me. Why was I walking around without a shirt on? (“Sweat.”) How long have I been in town? (“1987.”) I had been reported to the police for taking a walk. I remember people put flags on their cars en masse and then, a few months later, removed them en masse. George had previously advised them to “think for yourself” but they didn’t all listen.
“All Things Must Pass” was one of my favorite albums when I was eighteen, along with Don Everly’s freewheeling eponymous album, and R.E.M.’s forgotten “Reveal.” Everything I loved when I was eighteen still feels like a holy relic. As a guy who saw The Everly Brothers in person every few years throughout his youth and constantly heard The Beatles both in utero and in Jersey, I have very good taste. Those Everly shows must be the best gift my dad gave me. As an Old Millennial (1983), I can remember when we were encouraged to focus on one thing at a time. I think the combination of emotional openness and forced focus is why I have such a depth of feeling for that music. These days, I have the same connection to albums that I listen to on long car rides. I’m not sure if I’ve ever listened to “Redneck Jazz Explosion” or “Propellor Time” while sitting still.
Another thing I want to tell you about being eighteen is that my first solo gig was for community service. I was playing piano and guitar at a now-defunct senior citizens’ home in Bristol, PA. To my ears, I didn’t become a singer until I was twenty-eight, so I gotta assume it wasn’t a very polished show. I played Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane” and “Winterlong” as piano instrumentals, I sang “Kansas City” with a feisty older lady who joined me at the microphone, and I sang a version of “Sing Me Back Home” that made an old man cry. Not sure if it was the sentiment of the song or my early vocal technique.
Another thing I did for community service was help a local pastor around his church. He was a very kind man who could see that I was just a young guy who made a dumb move. I cleaned some of his windows. He asked why I didn’t attend services and I told him that I didn’t feel comfortable being part of a club that doesn’t accept gay people. He got a little defensive but seemed to understand that I was a thoughtful man with a good heart. I sensed that he might’ve realized that I had a point. Later, he was kind enough to let me play his church’s piano. I played R.E.M.’s “At My Most Beautiful.” When my paternal grandmother (Gammy) died, I walked over to his church’s garden and felt some peace. Around the time that I was finishing up my work with him, he told me that his house burned down and his whole family died. I never saw him around after that and I always wondered if he survived the loss and what the nature of his life and faith were in the aftermath.
The God idea requires devotion to a character who either makes a lot of really sadistic moves or, at least, has a huge blind spot. A blind spot that’s very much at odds with the idea of being all-knowing and all-powerful. It is too much cognitive dissonance for me. Maybe that’s my problem and my loss. As I’ve seen so many loved ones (and their circles of friends and families) fight through so many battles I know they don’t deserve, I’m only reminded that I’ve fully lost the version of faith I was taught at school. Not just the institutions; I could smell the corruption even as a little kid and I still remember the weird way that the priest who was later convicted of molestation, Father Francis Trauger, looked at me. But even the underlying concept of Space Daddy watching us from the clouds and making sure things even out for us. Too much magical thinking for me. Science has more answers than religion does, but it requires us to be strong enough to accept news we don’t like.
I think what I believe in is the ongoing quest to have love and peace within oneself and spread it to as many people and animals as possible. The terrifying and/or liberating thought that THIS IS IT! This is not leading to something. I find it exciting and motivating to contemplate that this is one of the moments between birth and death and that we’re responsible to make decisions that will make us feel self-actualized and peaceful at the end of the day/life. I like some things that Jesus said. I like some things that Tupac said. I liked when Pylon said, “there are no answers/only reasons to be strong.”
I’m sitting outside drinking an Italian soda I bought from a pretty, endearingly high-strung girl with a nose ring that I didn’t like but respected in concept. I’m a level of tired that enhances the bags under my eyes but also simplifies my thought processes in an enjoyable way. I can’t overthink, can’t hesitate to communicate with a stranger. I’m moving through this town I’ve never seen before like I’m in a dream. Of course, if this tiredness causes me to crash my car on the way home, the ease with which I spoke to shopkeepers will no longer be the big story of my day.
I asked for “pork roll” and the whole world seemed to pause around me for about five seconds while I struggled to recall the alternate regional names of pork roll. I failed. I ordered sausage. Either way, I’m not doing my best to spread love to animals.
I’m working at an event for kids that’s been running all around the country. Various festivals and street fairs. The tour managers are a very attractive, recently married couple from the midwest. Imagine if Ken and Barbie were real people but you liked them way more than you’d think you would. They are kind, patient, and personable and it makes the job a pleasure. As Ricky Gervais’s Derek says, “just be nice.”
I love these perfect little American towns. In Philadelphia, the old sign that just says “SHOES” might have something other than a shoe store under it. Here, it has a shoe store under it. The Democratic headquarters has a big banner including the word “FORWARD” and the Republicans have a big sign with the word “BACK.” The church bells are loud and in-tune.. Older couples are sitting on benches, calmly observing the afternoon and trying to read my t-shirt. Everything is as it should be. I feel a little bit like an invader species here, but then again, I’m sharing smiles and money so I suppose I’m playing my role.