Loss in an Era of Digital Music

…the blasted song in my head is receding but not leaving.

The Book of Joan, Lidia Yuknavitch

I came to popular music in an era of albums, 1960s and 1970s, what people now call “vinyl.”

Albums were glorious things. The Ohio Players issued fold out albums that were erotic and taboo for a teenager growing up in the redneck Deep South:

And few experiences equaled the rush of liner notes tucked away with the album sleeves or filling the spaces of those double albums folded out:

I have lived in and through the eras of making mix tapes, cassettes, and mix CDs—what now have become play lists.

My adolescence was defined by committing to 8-track tapes, rectangular things that produced loud “clunks” when changing tracks—even though their smaller size already hearkened the loss of the beauty that is an album cover.

I recall vividly when my best friend from high school bought a cassette player and announced the death of 8-tracks. I was angry and recalcitrant; although it would not be long before I included my 8-track collection lying in the back seat of my car in the deal when I sold my red and white 1973 Gran Torino in the days of Starsky and Hutch.

My next car had a cassette player.

I can count my years, and losses, like rings in a tree cut down near the base, by how music is packaged: album, 8-track, cassette, video, CD, digital.

These media and mechanisms of loss, and love.

A privileged survivor living beyond the curve of the dying earth, Christine, in Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan, dictates in the opening chapter, “Everyone’s last wish turned out to be love:”

may I be consumed by the simplicity and purity of a love story, any love, base love or heroic love or transgressive love or love that is a blind and lame and ridiculous lie—anything the opposite of alone and lonely and sexless, and the absence of someone to care about or talk to. The hunger for love replaced the hunger for god or science. The hunger for love became an opiate. In a world that had lost its ability to procreate, the story of love became paramount.

I began reading this new novel in the wake of a friend, a few generations younger than I, who texted me distraught; they seemed to have lost all their music, an iTunes fail—first the music gone from the cell phone and then the computer.

Loss in as era of digital music.

Stressed, anxious—this friend was unable to sleep since the realization had occurred late at night; and then my friend explained.

Some of the lost music was gifted music; this was a loss of connectedness; this was a symbolic loss of the affection we, regardless of generation, regardless of media or format, package in the music we share.

A mix tape or CD gifted is an act of love, like buying someone the novel you have just read—or giving blood.

But losing an iTunes library? When digital music doesn’t really seem to exist in any physical form anyway?

I have 1000s of songs, several 100s of albums, on an iPod smaller than a cassette tape I easily carry around all the time.

Easily carried is easily lost, a flicker, and then nothing, silence.

I have done the only thing I can do. I gathered two armfuls of CDs to take to the friend, an offering for this ritual of rebuilding a digital music library.

And there is also vinyl, sitting on a shelf, unplayed, collected like the comic books of my youth and the walls of books over my entire life.

The vinyl will be gifted as well because this is how we remain human against loss in era of digital music.

Day 2 Year 56: The Moment

I am at the annual South Carolina Council Teachers of English conference in Kiawah, SC.

This has become the “Glad You’re Alive Tour” since this conference is composed of dozens of my friends and colleagues, most of whom know about my recent car/bicycle accident but haven’t seen me in person since then.

Today is also day 2, year 56.

As I challenged myself in my most recent poem: “who writes about turning 56?”

I am not entirely sure what has spurred this burst of narcissism, this navel-gazing—aging or the accident, or some combination.

Both, I am sure, have flashed mortality before me more brilliantly than ever. The consequences of that are paradoxical, an urgency to notice every moment and a dull realization I am now confronted with way too much time far too often.

The persistent back-handed compliments of my adult life have revolved around how much I accomplish, the praise a thin veil for the nudges that something must be sacrificed to write and publish so much.

But few people ever saw the full experience of me who writes every day and then also cycles 10-15 hours a week, all year, for about 30 years.

The very perverse secret to my productivity has always been that I cram so much into every day that it forces me to be efficient and productive. My motor runs far too high, and I suffer for that with trouble sleeping and pervasive anxiety.

Day 2, year 56 also marks a little over a month with a fractured pelvis, a mostly stationary life that now has huge chunks of time that once was devoted to my bicycle.

I am not a stationary person. I am not one who enjoys free time.

This has been the sort of hell on earth that my existential leanings recognized was the human condition, but this experience has kicked my ass with a vengeance.

The greatest insult added to injury has been that my only refuge for exercise has been riding the recumbent stationary exercise bicycle in the past few days.

I detest exercise bicycles. I loathe exercising inside.

My life as a cyclist has had life-giving qualities I have recognized only in hindsight.

The constant motion of cycling and the hours cycling requires are irreplaceable balms for my OCD and ADHD.

And cycling outside, in the most glorious thing of this world, the sun, is my only real defense against depression. I probably have seasonal affective disorder, and nothing keeps me closer to the boundaries of happiness as sunshine does.

As awful as the exercise bicycle is, this has relieved the pain that has plagued me since being hit by the car, and I also have begun to sleep better (although I have never slept well).

Here at the conference, my return to exercise has been interrupted again, although only for a couple days, but I feel the same creeping anxiety that has defined my life for 30 years when I fear I cannot ride my bicycle as planned.

So I am here on my “Glad You’re Alive Tour,” and the thing that I know has changed in my life is I notice people looking at me as I never have before.

It began in the ER when family arrived.

Maybe it was the accident, or growing older, or a combination of both—but I see other people and myself now in ways that are more distinct.

Anxiety, you see, is being always prisoner to what may come next, to be alienated from the moment.

Day 2, year 56, and I am now being newly introduced to the moment.

The moment yesterday morning when I found on Facebook the video of my granddaughter posted by my daughter in which Skylar is telling me happy birthday, that she loves me.

After a horrifying nose bleed on the morning of my birthday, I sat on the couch and cried hard.

The moment.

I am not sure I know what to do with that, but I am more eager than ever to try.

The accident has lowered the bar, people are glad I am alive, and I am filled nearly to bursting that they are glad and that I too am glad to be here.



Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

“Do not go gentle into that good night,” Dylan Thomas

More than 27 years ago, when I was 28 and my daughter, only three months old, a drunk driver hit me while I was cycling with a friend.

The impact broke my ankle bone, leading to a long 10-week recovery over that summer. But as I lay in bed when my parents visited me after I was released from the ER, when my mother said certainly I was done cycling, my dad rejected the idea, knowing I was already planning how and when to ride again.

I have been an avid recreational and competitive cyclist for about thirty years now, completing a significant number of challenging 100-mile and 200-plus-mile cycling events and rides.

Yesterday morning, Christmas Eve 2016, as I found myself trying to stand up from the pavement on the highway passing in front of my subdivision, my sight was blurred and my left hand was bloodied; my pinkie appeared as if someone had bashed it with a hammer.

I had just watched three of my cycling companions flipping and tumbling from the impact of the car that hit me and them from behind. Another five in the group were spared.

This morning, Christmas 2016, I suspect my life as road cyclist is over.

As I have aged, this moment has been one of the things I have anticipated and feared most because it had to happen; our physical selves inevitably decline and the athlete becomes who we were and not who we are.

Now, I don’t want to sound melodramatic because I plan to continue and increase my mountain biking as soon as my broken hip allows (sooner even).

I likely will still occasionally take the road bicycle on rail trails, and have thought about using some of the insurance settlement to buy a smart trainer so my second road bicycle (now the only) has a purpose.

But I don’t want to understate either that this accident in the wake of what seems to be a year of far too many other car/bicycle accidents and dog/bicycle accidents has left me broken—yes, my hip, but also my spirit.

I am afraid.

Among our nine yesterday were 20-somethings and the older crowd in our 50s and 60s; we, the cycling community, are good people, professionals and those who wish to enjoy life.

We were riding legally 2-abreast in the far right lane of a four-lane highway. The motorist was negligent, completely at fault.

But none of that matters to the cyclist airlifted to the ER and who now lies in ICU. Another close friend and I suffered significant injuries, and several very expensive bicycles were destroyed or damaged.

Even when we road cyclists are in the right, we lose versus cars.

The human body doesn’t just wither with age; the human body is quite frail against a ton of metal traveling 40 or 50 miles per hour.

Setting aside for a moment Dylan Thomas’s sexism, I am drawn to “Though wise men at their end know dark is right” because choosing to stop road cycling is wise but not acquiescence, not meekly choosing life over living.

Being human is in fact our mortality, our mutability—but being human is also having the capacity for fear.

As someone paralyzed my whole life with anxiety, I am acutely aware of irrational and rational fear.

Fear is not universally a negative emotion since it is grounded in, ironically, survival instincts— it can be our tool to “[r]age, rage against the dying of the light.”

These things can live with us in the sort of pseudo-movie slow motion of being a witness and a victim simultaneously.

As I rose out of the shock of being hit, I became aware of three other cyclists down, two appeared to be in critical situations.

We were just going out for a recreational 30 miles before spending time with families for the holiday. This is a hobby among friends.

That all seems quite trivial in the desperate moments of an accident.

Thomas ends his poem making his refrain-as-plea to his father, and as I lay in the ER, I saw my father’s hand when I looked at mine; when I tried to stand to leave, I saw my father in a hospital gown, older, struggling to dress as I was then.

So when I was home yesterday and we turned the DVR to Little Einsteins for my granddaughter, she came to me as she always does so she can hold my index finger as she twirls and dances to the opening theme.

My first response was to tell her I was hurt, but then I stood so she could dance before as she always does taking both hands and pushing me back to sitting so I can watch her watch the show.

I am already upset about the road cycling events I will miss now; this has been so much of my life.

But as I stood through the pain and watched my granddaughter twirl, I thought “rage, rage,” and know that missing those rides are pale things compared to that hand.

The Gifts and Terrors of Middle Age

As a word person, I have problems with the term “middle age” since I am apparently in middle age, but it seems unlikely I’ll make 110 years old.

And being in the fourth decade of my career, I can’t really imagine another thirty years of work.

So the word “middle” is clearly about something else, something less mathematical.

I do sit among and mostly at the center of elderly parents, an adult child, and two grandchildren just beginning a journey on this planet. And that “middle” is often about obligations—too often about financial obligations and thin margins for being responsible, dependable.

In my mid-50s, I certainly have a profoundly different view of my 20s, 30s, and 40s—the immaturity of the 20s and 30s as well as the peak decade of the 40s now much more clear in hindsight.

But those decades were also characterized by misguided and mostly selfish “adulting”—seeking all the material trappings of being an adult and successful while running roughshod over and often entirely ignoring that which truly matters.

That is the gift of middle age—a shift in existential awareness, a patience, an opening to really recognize and even appreciate.

My granddaughter Skylar is the personification of this transition into middle age. She has been demanding that I sit in the room with her as she watches Little Einsteins this morning as I try to write this post. She just handed me a small blue toy plate to hold for no real reason while she multitasks pretend-playing and performing along with Little Einsteins.

As I hurtle toward 60, she hurtles toward 3—and I am, in middle age, profoundly aware of both in a way that I could not understand time and the human condition just a few years ago.

Yet, that gift of awareness brings as well the terrors of middle age.

The human condition is finite—and the “middle” may as well represent the arc of that condition that includes a cresting and the necessary decline.

I want more than ever to be a loving witness to my daughter’s life—and her family’s lives, including my grandchildren.

But I am profoundly aware of the limited time I have with them—the reality of death, yes, but also the inevitable decline.

Maybe I can make it to Skylar at 30, and I would consider that a wonderful gift.

But given those years, I know, will be years of decline—mental and physical.

It is a very human thing, to lose one’s mind and one’s body, gradually, ever so gradually. Then all at once.

But there is more to that arc of the human experience: we come to see saying “I love” you as trivial, and then urgent, and then irreplaceable, and then quite possibly the only thing that matters.

Now Skylar is singing and dancing to Mickey Mouse’s Monster Boogie, checking every few seconds that I am watching her.

Her eyes recognize that she is the middle—the center of the universe.

Her eyes say this quite possibly is the only thing that matters.

Lost in Translation: More from a Stranger in Academia

Decade four and round two in academia—this time at the university level where, one might assume, things would be easier.

First, a flashback.

I am the English department chair, and the entire faculty is sitting in the high school library for a faculty meeting about standardized test scores for our school. Having entered education in the fall of 1984—the first year of South Carolina’s all-in commitment to accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing—I have taught for over thirty years under the weight of test scores.

Before the principal and the math department chair shared our students’ scores on the test-of-the-moment, the principal offered what he believed was a friendly caveat about the English scores: ” Just want you all to remember that we don’t teach grammar here,” with a nod and a smile in my direction.

Now fast-forward to my current situation where I teach two first-year writing seminars, had a now defunct role as faculty Director of FYS, and continue to co-facilitate our efforts at offering faculty develop in teaching writing.

In our Faculty Writing Fellows sessions, I am routinely addressed whenever someone mentions grammar, notably commas, with a similar caveat—although these don’t seem quite as friendly as they are marginalizing.

To be committed to critical pedagogy, critical constructivism, de-grading/de-testing, and authentic writing instruction is to be a stranger in academia.

You are tolerated with bemusement, as the mostly harmless weirdo in the room.

You aren’t credible—although you have worked for over thirty years honing your craft, taking great care as a teacher and writer to teach only warranted practices and to honor above all else the human dignity and autonomy of your students.

Nope, you “don’t teach grammar”—which is both false and used in the sort of condescending way people in the U.S. say “liberal” or people in the South say “Bless your heart.”

My urge to be abrasive always prompts me to say: “Actually I teach grammar the right way.” But I don’t say anything.

Mostly I stew—the same way I stew about writing free verse poetry under the judgmental purview of those who think free verse is a lazy person’s game.

And, I keep at it—doing warranted practice diligently despite the suggestions otherwise.

I teach relentlessly that language, its use and the forces that seek to control its use (including those who shout “grammar rules!”), is about power—as James Baldwin confronts in his brilliant defense of Black English:

It goes without saying, then, that language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power. It is the most vivid and crucial key to identify: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity. There have been, and are, times, and places, when to speak a certain language could be dangerous, even fatal. Or, one may speak the same language, but in such a way that one’s antecedents are revealed, or (one hopes) hidden. This is true in France, and is absolutely true in England: The range (and reign) of accents on that damp little island make England coherent for the English and totally incomprehensible for everyone else. To open your mouth in England is (if I may use black English) to “put your business in the street”: You have confessed your parents, your youth, your school, your salary, your self-esteem, and, alas, your future.

I don’t teach students grammar, mechanics, and usage rules; I guide my students as we interrogate the conventions of language—why they exist, how they have changed, and why each student’s own empowerment depends on their being aware and in control of those conventions and their language.

And beyond my ethical reasons for approaching language this way, ethical reasons grounded in critical pedagogy, I am motivated by a negative: I don’t want to fall into a trap confronted by Lou LaBrant:

On the other hand, we should not, under the guise of developing literary standards, merely pass along adult weariness. (pp. 276)

The prescriptive-grammarian-as-teacher, I fear, is harping on pet peeves, setting themselves up for sullying the language and their students’ passion for expression—but certainly opening themselves up for losing their own credibility because virtually all users of language are pickers and choosers about strict adherence to the so-called

My stress level is triggered each time I receive emails from a prescriptive grammarian who spells my sacred Southernism “ya’ll.”

I am a writer and I teach writing—both of which are at the core of who I am as a person.

Ultimately, then, I side with LaBrant: “As a teacher of English, I am not willing to teach the polishing and adornment of irresponsible, unimportant writing” (p. 123).

But, alas, it is this sort of principled approach to teaching, and teaching writing, that pushes me farther and farther afield of academia.

And so a stranger in academia, I eye the fire escape, like Tom in The Glass Menagerie anxious with the awareness that “the other boys in the warehouse regarded [him] with suspicious hostility.”

On the Deaths of Prince and Ali: Even More Anxiety Chronicles

Gilbert Gottfried had a joke that included the land of the one-name people—there was also the pretentious first initial people, I think, like F. Scott Fitzgerald—and there was a time I thought the joke was brilliant, especially in the context of Gottfried’s delivery.

But not today.

I have been planning to write about Prince’s death, and the role of chronic pain in that far-too-early passing.

I was sidetracked by nerd-panic over Captain America, and then Ali died as well.

I cannot claim to have been a fan of Prince. What I can say is that I was, from the very first moment I heard and saw Prince, in awe of Prince—the enormity of his gifts, the size of his presence.

Ali was a completely different story because he was an iconic target of the racism within which I was raised. I was brought up to scorn Ali.

From young adulthood until today, I have worked diligently to make amends for those facts of my life that were not my decision, but for which I still feel responsible.

Today, now, as the world has lost both Prince and Ali, I can say without hesitation that I live in awe of both men—I am driven to cold chills and tears because of the grandeur of their lives, their living.

But that Prince fell victim to chronic pain and Ali lived a deteriorated man for years hurt me to the core in a way that I understand in ways I wish I did not.


Boxing great Muhammad Ali, right, pats the head of the Artist Formerly Known as Prince during a meeting in Washington Tuesday, June 24, 1997 prior to a news conference where they were to announce plans for a benefit concert in October. The World Healing Honors will be a grand benefit concert to promote international harmony and tolerance. (AP Photo/Karin Cooper/Rogers & Cowan)

Along with my lifelong battle with anxiety, I suffer under the weight of chronic pain—and I have no real way to separate the two since I think the anxiety and chronic pain are working in tandem, a brutal cycle.

How does someone of Prince’s talent and fame end up dead and alone, fallen by his battle with chronic pain?

I don’t know the facts of Prince’s life, but I do know that anxiety and chronic pain are the twin cousins of a much more powerful and dangerous force: embarrassment.

As a tremendously privileged white male, I am not writing a pity party here, but even my privileges work to create an even greater bubble of embarrassment.

My anxiety and chronic pain make me feel weak, inadequate, and hopeless—less of a man, less human because I cannot enjoy my mortal shell.

Even on the best days and during the most wonderful moments—moments public and intimate—anxiety and chronic pain tag along, hover there, tap me on the shoulder.

In Scarcity, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir argue that the ultimate tragedy of poverty is that people living in scarcity cannot take a vacation from poverty.

That is the anchor of anxiety and chronic pain—there are no vacations, even when we stoop to proper and self-medication.

If we find ways to numb the chronic pain, we still know it is there, that it will return. Chronic pain is chronic, it isn’t a wound or affliction that will heal.

Along while Prince’s pain, I am petrified of the natural deterioration of aging, held before us by Ali’s struggle with disease.

When the mighty fall, we all must be more aware of our shared humanity, a frailty that cannot be ignored forever.

Ali was vilified for his bravado, that scorn a base code for rejecting the nerve of a black man to demand with words his own and other’s dignity.

I live in the shroud of embarrassment created by anxiety and chronic pain, but my heart is drawn to Prince and Ali as they lived, as they celebrated themselves as evidence that we humans can be glorious if we so choose.

Their public selves were the antithesis, the antidote to embarrassment for simply being ourselves.

Today, I am sad, yes, but I also feel fortunate to have been gifted these possibilities of living life freely and proudly—as Ali demanded: “You must listen to me.”

Sunday 20 March 2016 Reader: in Just-/spring?

In many regions of this planet, humans are gifted the changing seasons, including the drift into hibernation and then the rebirth of spring.

One of my favorite poems has always been [in Just-] by e.e. cummings—in part because I read the “Just” as both “only” and the root of “justice,” wondering if in fact spring is just in the human sense of that justice or more so in the less ethics-grounded justice of natural dynamics.

As we slip into spring, then, I offer a smattering of varied readings, many of which should help in meditating on our human sense of justice.