Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Johnny Considers the Classics

The tallest building in my hometown is the jail. At five stories it offers premium views across the bay to the roiling Pacific for those of us nabbed breaking our societal contracts. I won't bore you with the specifics of my infractions. The truth is, once you're in, the details are unimportant. Much like a rose is a rose, time is time.

Fact: I only read inside. I just don't have much use for it when I'm out. I prefer to spend my days doing. One needs to hustle. I hustle. That said, I'll peruse the Racing Form or skim the headlines if given the chance, but I'm not going to tuck in with the Classics or explore, as my pal Frank once said, what the poets in Ghana are doing these days. Honestly, when I'm out, I don't give a good-goddamn. Incidentally, Frank was killed by a dune buggy. Ran him over. A truly unique death--something we should all aspire to. Unlike a rose is a rose or time is time, the end, my friend, is not the end. Endings merit special consideration. What the curtain falls on matters, and you're a fool if you think it doesn't. It's our last and most significant mic drop. If a book or movie has a weak ending you tell your boys, Don't bother. You don't want to seize up and quit while lying in bed staring into the abyss. Aspire to an end folks will talk about. Even better, a death that crosses over from the realm of fact to fiction: a death that becomes more fantastic with time, that they talk about down at Jimmy Dunn's for generations. Be open to immortality if the opportunity presents itself. Fall into the drum debarker at the mill and be rolled with a thousand tons of redwood trunks. Let your waders fill up with the Eel River, drag you under and out to sea. Drive your truck far out onto the south jetty and wait for a sleeper wave to wash you off. If you're lucky, it'll come.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Jimmy Considers Probability Theory

It began with one entry, but now there are additions almost nightly. Jimmy's dictionary of superstitions is expanding. On paper, it's perfect. Together, they conquer the distance between playing cards and slip past simple arithmetic. Except it's no longer as easy as wood, or salt, or railroad tracks. Jimmy spends each night understanding potential, what's dealt face down, the agreements: straight flush, full house. So he holds his breath, spits, runs the numbers--certain of certain dark chances. But when day breaks (and it always does) there's nothing to collect. Jimmy sits with what remains, the remainder. He sits without her, trying to steady himself, trying to quiet the vibration of a thousand shuffled possibilities.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Jimmy Makes an Impulse Buy and Alters His Space-Time Continuum

I have no five o'clock. What I mean is there's a gap. Empty space. Nothing. I never have a five o'clock. Let me explain. It was in the window of the junk shop between a case of pocketknives and a large hanging diagram of the human vascular system which is, I have to say, offensive as hell. That orderly red and blue map of comings and goings has got to be a total misrepresentation. I'm sure things look nothing like that once you get inside. Anyway, sitting there between the knives and the veins was this clock. I was drawn to the face, I think: gold numbers across polished redwood burl. Sure, I thought. Why not. A clock. I didn't have one. Didn't really need one. I've always been pretty good with time, but I thought it might be nice to have a firmer grip, you know? Boy, was I wrong. It wasn't until I got the thing home that I realized the five was missing. Totally gone. I guess I didn't look closely in the window, and the clerk was quick to wrap it in newspaper and bag it. So, you could certainly argue that I brought this all on myself. It's my fault. I didn't check. But one assumes hours are going to be where they belong, right? 

The first thing I did was stop drinking. Initially, skipping happy hour seemed sad. But when I realized I wasn't really skipping it but rather it didn't exist, I felt much better. Five A.M. is a little trickier. I can't say for sure what goes on. All I know is I'm always there for six A.M., jolted back between cold sheets. At that point, I usually figure what's the use. I'm up. I start making coffee and toast.

So, here I am. Every day, two gaps. Is it disruptive? You're goddamn right it is. But I manage. What else can I do? It's out of my hands. I don't make the rules. But I'll tell you what—I've got a hunch that somewhere in those voids, I just might.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

What the Hell, America?

I've never written anything overtly political. I can't remember ever having a political conversation/argument with a stranger. Politically, I've always kept myself to myself. Vote and keep your head down has always been my strategy. I'm changing my strategy. Too late, I know. But here goes:

What I'm feeling about the results of the 2016 election goes beyond the political. I disagreed with George W. Bush's policies and actions but I wasn't compelled to write a single word. In a democracy, there are differing viewpoints and sometimes you're going agree with your leaders and sometimes not. What I'm feeling isn't about policy nearly as much as it's about character—about fundamental decency and our national image.

America, as a relatively young country, has effected some incredibly positive change domestically and globally. We have also perpetrated some heinous acts. The short list includes slavery, an extermination policy against Native Americans, internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, and segregation. But despite these dark chapters, this is the first time I've ever been ashamed to be an American. I lived abroad for many years and was exposed to many different perspectives on America. Good or bad, I never questioned my American identity. The reason for my general optimism has been my view that, since our inception, our nation has been on a slow, difficult, path in the direction of increasing open mindedness and inclusiveness. Most of the world admires us in part for this movement. There have certainly been setbacks and growing pains, but when we make mistakes, we take stock and move forward in the direction of more liberty and more equality. We look back at our mistakes and move forward. Last night represents our first national 180. That's shameful. I understand that moving forward is scary. There is uncertainty. But it is an act of bravery and it is this kind of bravery and forward thinking that our founders seemed to have in mind. Moving back is an indication of cowardice.

Trump's election tells the world that the American people are on board with racism, sexism, and bullying. We've never denied that these things exist in our country, but there was the notion that we were working towards eradicating these blights, not nationally embracing them. Even if Trump is not a dyed-in-the-wool racist or a misogynist, his message has been embraced by—and has energized—hate groups. The damage has been done. These groups have been validated and emboldened. It really doesn't matter if he (eventually) denounced their support. If your message, your platform, resonates with those groups, there is something fundamentally flawed with the message. A decent person would recoil from that message. Our president-elect did not recoil.

I'm most troubled by those of us who bought into Trump's populist rhetoric, saying they voted for him not because they condone his racist, misogynistic words and actions, but because they wanted a change—to send a message to the Washington elite. Here's the thing: By electing Trump we have condoned racism and sexism. As a country, we've decided to put our desire for change above our sense of decency.

If Trump is not a bigot or a misogynist, the things he has said and done show him to be at the very least an insensitive, indecent person—someone who believes that with privilege comes unrestricted power and impunity. That sounds pretty goddamn elitist to me, America. We've chosen what we purported to detest most. We've sold our national soul to an elitist businessman for a handful of Tic Tacs and a smack in the ass. Well done, America. Well done.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Pink Slip

To consider only the expiration
Date. The end. Time. Seems wrong.
            While you were out
My life took a turn
Of sorts. I mapped it but can't explain.
Phonetics is not my bag:
I'm an area, coded, numbered, an extension.
                                 Please call.
                                 I'm home.
Message: I remember most
Sharing a cigarette with you
On a rooftop above 73rd--the Hudson, water towers.
We counted taxis. You said if we got to 100, I could
Kiss you. Smooth operator.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Johnny and Steve Take a Turn around the Country Disco Bar

Stop carrying out your intentions and watch for my signals, Steve. You're too impulsive. I'm sure you think you know where you're going, but you don't. Neither do I, the difference is I know I don't know. We may well end up where you thought you wanted to go in the first place. So, just try to enjoy moving to and fro. Listen to the music. Nice, right? What's that? Conway Twitty makes you angry? That doesn't make a single bit of sense to me, Steve—but I respect your opinion. Actually, your opinion is complete crap. It's ridiculous. Mr. Twitty was a giant among men. Look, let's just sit for a bit. I think you're getting yourself worked up again, and I'm not going to pull you off another jukebox. Remember what happened at the Tip-Top Club? Now we can't go to the Tip-Top Club. Now we're here, listening to Conway Twitty and trying not to freak the fuck out. So, let's just sit and try to have a civilized conversation.

When was the last time you had an X-ray, Steve? Never? You're not missing much. They're anticlimactic. They don't really show inside, you know? I mean, when you close your eyes, what do you see? On second thought, don't even answer that because I swear to God if you say Conway Twitty I'll punch you square in your neck. Really, Steve. Don't. Lately, when I close my eyes I see flags. A shit-ton of flags. Acres and acres of them, identical, ragged in high wind—a blue cross on a field of white. If I really try, I can wash them away. But then they're just floating in high water. What does it mean? How the hell should I know, Steve? If I had to guess, I'd say it means that I really like flags or I really hate them, or maybe it has something to do with the wild fluidity of memory and the way that, as time passes, it becomes more and more like imagination—but who knows. I could be wrong.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Dear Nobel Prize Selection Committee Members:

I gave it some time. I read. I considered perspectives. I drank heavily and sobered up. Finally, I arrived at my conclusion: It was wrong, nay, fucked up as a soup sandwich, to award Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature.

My conclusion is based on three factors:
   1)    Song lyrics are not literature
   2)    Bob doesn't need the recognition
   3)    Reading is hard

Let me preface this all by saying I agree that Dylan is a musical genius and hugely influential. What I take issue with is the categorization of what he does as literature. Literature affects a reader through narrative, imagery, and rhythm created with words. Traditionally, words are the sole arrow in the writer's quiver. (Yes, I'm aware of the historical connection between poetry and music, but poetry in a more modern sense is experienced most often on the page. And yes, I understand that spoken word artists intend their work to be performed and often blur lines between song and verse. If you committee folks felt like stirring things up, pushing boundaries and definitions, someone like poet Kate Tempest would actually have been a far more interesting choice.)

In literature, language does the work. A songwriter certainly needs to be skillful and creative with language. Songwriters also employ imagery and narrative. But the impact of the words comes from their marriage with music (voice, instrumentation) and performance. Together they make a powerful whole intended as an auditory experience. Do Dylan's words have merit without the addition of music and performance? Of course. But they don't have the impact (and I suspect they wouldn't have had the worldwide influence) without the other components. What's more, creating a literary work of art wasn't what Bob had in mind when he wrote the words. Some may argue that they find Dylan's words to have literary merit, to be wholly artistically satisfying, on their own. Fine. If you want to pore over Dylan lyrics, that's great. But it's not how he intended the words to be experienced. Separating the lyrics from the other components is like eating a basil leaf, taking a bite of mozzarella cheese, popping a bit of bread in your mouth, chasing it all with a tablespoon of tomato sauce and claiming you just ate a margherita pizza. All those individual ingredients might taste great on their own, but that's certainly not how the chef intended them to be experienced.

Giving the literature prize to a songwriter is akin to Major League Baseball awarding the MVP to a tennis star because both sports use a ball. Song lyrics are not literature just because words are involved. A sculpture might have an elaborately painted surface, but that doesn't make it a painting. The sculpture's impact is derived, in part, from its form. The painted surface is a component of the sculpture just like Dylan's words are a component of the song. Moving on.

The Nobel Prize is world recognition of the recipient's contribution and influence in a designated category. In the case of literature, the recipient likely has already achieved a level of fame within the literary world. But the awarding of the Nobel guarantees exposure to a much greater general audience. There is the opportunity for a new group of people to explore and be affected by the work. Dylan doesn't need the help. His work is ubiquitous: radio, TV, soundtracks, any college common room—opportunities abound for people to hear and be influenced by his work. There is also ample opportunity to ponder the genius and influence of Bob Dylan: numerous documentaries, MTV, VH1, Rolling Stone's lists of the most influential rockers. This just isn't the case with literature, and it needs an annual opportunity to be widely considered.

Reading is hard. It takes time and deep concentration. Poems, short stories, and novels demand a level of focus that many are not willing to give. It is solitary work. It can't (at least it shouldn't) happen speeding along the open road with the windows down. Music is amazing in part because of its immediate and profound impact. In moments, a song can change us forever and it can happen in a wide variety of contexts, many of them social. There are so many ways for people to be affected by music and lyrics every day. Many of us are plugged into it almost constantly. This isn't the case with books.

The Nobel Prize in Literature shines a brief but very bright light on a medium that is becoming increasingly marginalized. Even a successful writer is not going to spend much (okay, any) time in stadiums filled with their screaming fans. Let the pasty writers of the world have a moment in the sun. The deeply tanned rock stars won't mind if you leave them off the list of candidates for the Nobel Prize. If the committee really feels obliged to help out musicians and songwriters, add a category or two and let them actually be recognized for the amazing things that they do rather than for the things that they don't.

Jason M. Marak


Monday, July 18, 2016

The School of Embellishments

I have lied to you for years. Some subtle. Some whoppers. Sometimes you manage to recover the truth. But what does this game of loss and recovery accomplish? Light and shadow will always follow the rules, bending or lengthening as required. Candles will go on dying atop 2 a.m. tables around the world, the perpetual flickering, that uneven light, convincing couples of possibility. We are constantly cheated by the wavering. You said that, remember? Heat and light require care. But consider this: You want to believe. You want to believe that the white rabbit has vanished, but there's no magic — just flourish and imagination. She's always there, in the darkness, trembling below the hatstand, waiting for you to reach down and bring her up into the light.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Goldberg Deviations

Johann, I want you to have these. They're important.

Is this all of them? This isn't much. Listen, I appreciate the gift. Not this gift. I mean my talent. My music. That gift. But this? This is just a handful of notes. I don't think I can do anything with these.

Trust me. You can. These are the ones.

I'm sure they're some of the ones. You've heard my work — you hear everything, right? So, you know I usually use a lot more. What you're giving me here…does it have to be in G major? I'm just saying it's kind of, you know, ordinary?

These are the ones.

I don't want to be disrespectful, but you're not a musician. I'm not saying you're not creative. Heavens, no! I mean you're The Creator. I'm a fan. I think my top three would have to be, in no particular order: Light, Eve, and trout. But music is different.

Trout? Really? I've always felt like I didn't get the color quite right. And the size. I should have made them bigger. A lot bigger. Or else really, really small. Anyway, we're getting off track. You just need to put these notes together the right way, and everything will fall into place.

For the tune?

For everything. Humanity will have answers to all the big questions if you can accomplish this task.

Okay. If it's that important to you I'll noodle around for a while and see what happens, but I'm sure I'm not going to be able to come up with anything complete.

Don't worry so much about complete. Just make a moment, a spark, a little machine that thumps along and lets folks feel like there's something.


See that wino across the courtyard?

Sure. That's Timothy. He's a real turd.

He sits there because that west-facing wall at sunset turns a color that makes him feel like there is something more than his own shitty life to wake up for. Compose that. I've given you everything you need.

Can I add a few notes?




Okay. No. Got it…I might add a couple, though. Just to kind of put my own spin on it. That's cool, right?