I recently read an article on NOLA.com that hints at the very real possibility that we may be losing the University of New Orleans. To say that I'm not at all happy about this, regardless of any admitted resilience that I may have sometimes toward change in general, is not even a strong enough emotion. To have this formative place in my writing life be taken away from me, especially now that I'm back in the city and have rekindled my relationship with its campus and library, is heartbreaking.
I'd like to describe an experience that I had recently during a visit to the campus, which I equate to the phenomenon of "lucid dreaming." Just to be clear, the term refers to an awareness that one has while still in the dream state to the point where they can actually navigate the course of the dream. I think this is the ultimate freedom that we as imaginative creatures can have, the ability to run around inside one's own mind, and I think I may have had one of these experiences while still in a waking state on the campus of UNO.
The Earl K. Long Library is one of those places that I consider the birth of me as a writer, the birth of "Blanket," a refuge that ever since my leaving has had no substitute. In that library was where the first chunks of dialogue between Judith Blair and the Funnyman from Scenes from the Blanket came to be, written on an old Brother word processor in a cubicle downstairs, and later I would retreat upstairs to the soothing tranquility of the nighttime window desks to edit those pages. The campus of UNO is where I modeled Daniel Foster's academic career as being and home to the R.S.I.C. from The Petrified Christ, and not the campus of Loyola as is stated in the book.
These among other characters that I've created either live as a result of that campus and those professors and that university, or still dwell there in some way today.
A few months ago back when it was warmer in New Orleans, I took a drive out on a Saturday evening right around dusk to do some writing in the library. I found some private study rooms and picked one of them out from the many that lined every floor. There I would sit and work undisturbed until well after the sun went down.
As I went outside after I was done, I thought about how cool it would be to take my bike out for a spin. And after only a little bit of apprehension as random students walked by me there in the parking lot, I pulled my bike out from the back of my Jeep, placed it on the ground and started peddling. After getting the gears all set, what followed was that lucid dream of a bike ride through the empty, nighttime campus.
I rode all of the sidewalks up to the Liberal Arts building, peeking into the windows as I held myself up on the bricks, only to pedal off again to discover both new and familiar landmarks. I stopped at one point near a student-meeting place between the Liberal Arts and Mathematics building, where for some reason whenever I think about UNO and the possibility of my having had become a career academic, this location always pops into my mind. I'm guessing that I had such thoughts while standing right there many years ago, and thus that little courtyard has been imprinted on my mind ever since.
Off I peddled, taking pictures and making sharp turns as I zoomed here and there, and I felt like a kid. It was amazing. At one point I stopped at an office window that had the blinds pulled up, and on the ledge among piles of papers and books was a book on Chaucer.
I went inside to check the door, and sure enough it was the office of Dr. Kevin Marti, the same professor of the Medieval Literature that I'm writing about now in my new manuscript. Dr. Marti was one of three professors at UNO that impacted me greatly, the others being Victorian literature professor Dr. Leslie White, and the enigmatic Romantic literature professor Dr. Peter Schock. I hope one day to reunite with these men, if only for a few moments of quiet conversation, just to let them know how much of an impact they had on me as I roamed the halls of this great university so many years ago.
It was all very much like being suspended as would an acrobat on wires inside of my own skull, kicking myself from wall to wall, grabbing hold of something so I could take a look around before flying someplace else again to explore some other dark corner of my past. And the campus was dark indeed, silent and vacant on this Saturday night, and it was all just so perfect as to be at certain times overwhelming. I did a similar nighttime visit when I first returned home to my childhood house in Arabi, and being an empty post-Katrina neighborhood, it allowed me to explore the ghosts of my past undisturbed.
My childhood home is still there, however, it's just on the market to be scooped-up by someone else here real soon. And no, it doesn't look the same as it once did on the inside, but neither does my UNO home. But UNO is still there and accessible for the time being, and I sure would like to claim that building as a forever place, proving the age-old adage that you can never go home again dead wrong.
This is probably the longest I've ever taken between blog posts, but I have good reason. If you follow my Facebook or Twitter feeds at all, you've probably already seen that I've been quite busy lately, so busy in fact that I haven't updated here in quite some time. Yes, this is that post, the one where I catch-up and then promise to make more regular appearances on my own website.
So, let's see how this goes, shall we?
To begin, after spending the entire month of September dividing my time between learning lyrics and working on my new manuscript, I finally did two shows with 90 To Nothing. They were both in October and both during the second-to-last Halloween weekend of the legendary New Orleans haunted attraction, The House of Shock. This was to be the final year for this long-running show, which blends stage special effects and theatrics with some of the most terrifying twists and turns that an actual walk-through haunted house could have legally.
We played for the crowds as they waited to get into the stage-show area, and it was yet another incredible culmination of hard work and preparation. Everyone was pleased, and it was during this weekend that I broke through any barriers that I might have cultivated with regard to my being able to perform again in the capacity of lead vocalist. I know what it is that I do and do well in the music scene of this city, dormant all along like so many other things in this new and unfolding tale that is my life.
Then November saw the beginning of rehearsals for the play. That's right, I was in a play. Let me explain.
When I first came back to New Orleans in June of this year, my friend Scott Frilot asked if I would be interested in playing bass in a band as part of a play that our mutual friend Gary Rucker was producing over at his own Rivertown Theatres for the Performing Arts in Kenner. I accepted immediately, wanting nothing more than to immerse myself in all that the New Orleans arts scene had to offer, my hometown where it would seem that all the inmates I’d come up with were now running the asylum. I received all of the material for the show, the songs and the script, and then it was all put on the back burner for the next three months while I worked with 90 To Nothing.
But nothing could prepare me for that November night when I first walked into Rivertown and met director Ricky Graham. I had no idea that "the director" I'd been hearing so much about would be this familiar face I'd seen for most of my adult life in the entertainment section of The Times-Picayune, alongside some of the greats of the New Orleans theatre scene. It was truly an honor to meet this man and to, for all intents and purposes, work with him for as long as I did.
The cast and crew welcomed the band as equals as Scott Frilot, Woody Dantagnan, Brian Drawe and myself settled into the pit to begin the rehearsals for the British farce that was to be Richard Bean's hilarious "One Man, Two Guvnors." And I knew immediately that this would be an experience that I would never want to end, and night after night of rehearsals and actual performances did nothing to lessen this emotion. I understand now the feeling of absolute sadness that actors claim overcome them when a film or television series wraps.
Lead Chris Marroy was astonishing and did nothing short of spoil me when it comes to seeing any future shows in this city. I have very little exposure to the New Orleans theatre community, but for me to say that I was taken aback by Chris' performance night after night would be a silly understatement. I'm sincerely hoping that any future trips and/or involvement that I may have with the local theatre scene will feature a performance equal to or as great as what Chris showed me was possible.
The rest of the cast included my lifelong friend Gary Rucker alongside Erin Cesna, P.J. McKinnie, Shelley Johnson Rucker, Lara Grice, Logan Faust, Michael P. Sullivan, James Howard Wright, Matt Reed, Kyle Daigrepont and Joshua Talley.
So, let's review. So far since coming home I've been in a short film directed by John Beyer called "Sis-Tours," joined 90 To Nothing as their new lead singer, got a request for a full manuscript from a potential literary agent, and was featured (that's right, even the musician's names were printed in the programs and on the lobby poster!) in a New Orleans theatre production. Whew.
Which brings us to the here and now, where again I am that guy who has launched a blog, not updated it as regularly as he would like due to a complete lack of personal assistance and is now promising in his latest post to keep his website updated.
And so like I said only paragraphs ago, let's see how this goes, shall we?
I should be working on songs right now, but instead I'm writing. Not that I haven't been working on songs for the past week now, because I have. It's just that this is a part of the transition, the way in which I gradually take off one of my hats and put on the other.
Just as a quick update, I've slowed down production on my new book for a few days in order to deal with a different type of wordplay. You see, where there was once output there is now input, a gradual absorption of lyrics and meter and rhythm. No, I have not crossed over into the realm of the aspiring poet, not entirely.
But I have joined the New Orleans-based band 90 To Nothing as their new lead singer!
It's been about eight years since I last took the role of a front man in a band, where I utilized my vocal abilities and what interpersonal skills I'd learned with an audience from being a singer on Bourbon Street for the better part of the six years prior to Hurricane Katrina. While it's true that I've become older and shorter of breath, I am still confident in my ability to sing! And as far as the interpersonal part goes, well, we'll see how the subtraction of alcohol since 2009 works with regard to my ability to connect with you the audience.
Of course I'm saying all this in jest, and I couldn't be more confident and thrilled to be a part of something like this now again in a city where it seems as though I'm truly picking up where I left off. I'd forgotten just how much of a network there was here, especially now that I realize that I've left some sort of mini legacy behind during my nine-year sabbatical. Where at once I used to reflect on how New Orleans must've treated mention of me as one would treat the mention of a person who'd passed away and thus had no hope of returning, now I understand that talk of me has mostly centered around the possibility of my returning to an identity and role that has already been established and is very much in place.
With new musical opportunities coming in, all of which I plan to consider and work on throughout the rest of this year, I have also been actively seeking out other opportunities to throw my music hat into the ring. On my wish list is to return to Bourbon Street as a vocalist. Although I started out down there as a bassist that eventually just sang, I have to say that at this point in my life I consider myself a much better contender to work alongside the amazing talent on that street as a singer, and a singer only.
And so I've slowed down the writing for the time being, and I do mean for the very-brief time being, so that I can give these new opportunities the time that they deserve. I've always claimed to be of these two halves, the music and the writing, and a man who does two things at once really doesn't do either of them well. So wish me luck as I jump from one side of the green grass to the other to digest some words, and then with any degree of luck, back again very soon to lay down some more of my own.
Go give the Facebook page a like at: https://www.facebook.com/90toNothing
I've always had a symbol that's brought me great peace simply by looking at it, and I'm not sure if this is a positive byproduct of my Catholic upbringing or what. That symbol is the circle with the cross in the center, extending out evenly in four quarters to touch the circumference, very much resembling the Holy Eucharist of Communion during the Catholic mass.
I've always written it at the top of pages, in the margins of journal entries, just to set my mind at ease. The significance has always been that it represents my life, a large circle with everything inside, and a cross in the center holding it all together. Everywhere I see this symbol, and by that I mean not scribbled of my own doing, I stop to regard it and wonder if possibly it's a sign that that's where I needed to be at that moment.
I had this experience almost a year ago when I re-entered the workforce, going in for an interview at an office where in the conference room, there was an entire window of this design. After getting the job, I snuck in there when no one was looking and snapped a picture. I've been on the lookout ever since.
My job is in Homewood, Alabama, and I don't know if maybe there was some city-appointed architect assigned to keep certain themes going in some of the structures, but I came across the symbol again in one of the most appropriate and eerily telling places that Ted Torres could ever find it.
In a library, the Homewood Public Library, a building that I found this week, eight months after I should have. It is as beautiful and inspiring as the Hoover Public Library, very similar in its design, and in the main study area -- where tables are spread out under the glow of individual lamps -- there is a high window that is a circle with a cross in the center. That is all.
I wanted to say a few things here about some recent news items that I have very strong opinions on, not that any of what I'm about to say hasn't already been said. I just want to go on record about where I stand on them. Some stories just don't have a shelf life as far as I'm concerned.
First I'd like to say something about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman and the incredible backlash I've seen on social media about his being just another privileged star who killed himself and so on. Quite simply put, I see my friends when I see Philip Seymour Hoffman. I see an artist that has fallen victim to a very real addiction that no one has any right to judge the validity of in any way.
And that's simply because he made good art.
I also see a man who in death doesn't need to defend himself from a group of people who are finding the need to politicize it, making divisive claims that fit into a weird Christian agenda that sees both sides posturing according to their beliefs. I have people on my Facebook and Twitter feeds that are Christians, and most of them are raging alcoholics, yet they don't consider themselves addicts nor do they care about an artist that has done what artists do. Artists die.
Call me a lifelong Romantic, but there really are such things as tortured artists. Historically, what has tortured them is substance abuse. Addicts that were able to somehow compartmentalize their addictions to entertain us in some way created some of our favorite books, films and music.
Which brings me to one of my idols, Woody Allen. As artists, we can only dream to have been able to produce the body of work that this man has produced while simultaneously having to compartmentalize and navigate through a culture that is more than willing to be the judge and jury. I don't care what he's done, if the claims are true, or if Woody Allen is not only guilty but a heroin addict like Hoffman.
Unless we're going to do background checks on all of our artists and then judge their art accordingly, I suggest we learn to compartmentalize their personal lives much in the same way the addict does. Compartmentalizing seems to be one of Woody Allen's many talents. And after all of this, I can only hope that he can continue to produce the work that he has in this his postcard years (I call them this because all of his movies are like little postcards from around the world lately).
That's it, really. No main point. We're all addicts, we've all done shameful things, and the art is mutually exclusive and really all that matters in the end.
As I celebrate my 41st year as a part of this universe, I consider myself fortunate to have had such an experience as I've had this past week. You see, I've found where wonder still exists. And it's this wonder that keeps those of the creative temperament firmly rooted to the unreal, real word of their imaginations.
There are many tricks to getting older, and depending on what it is that you do in the universe, approaching these transitions is different for everyone. Of course there are the medical problems, the sore and aching backs and shoulders, the eyes and ears that gradually lose their factory settings. But these things are all usually treated with medicine and exercise and procedures that are designed to get you through to the next year of dedication to whatever vocation you have been fortunate enough to discover.
Jobs are jobs, and I have had many and long to have more, but my vocation is my writing. And when the wonder starts to go away, in yet another more undetectable symptom of aging, there are places like Universal Studios in Orlando to apply once daily. In my case, it was once daily for two days.
When I was a kid, my family used to visit Walt Disney World in Orlando every year for what I am only estimating was seven years in a row (the number seven is arbitrary in my mind, as it may be the number of bikes that I'd had stolen as a boy). So I have a pretty good frame of reference as to what a theme park should be, and I mean down to the smells of the place. Disney has a "facility" smell, a maintained world that is heavy on technology and the research of "vacationing" that all add up to total escapism.
It is why when I first got to the first of the two parks that make up Universal -- the section simply referred to as Universal Studios -- I was feeling as though it was all a bit ineffective. I'm almost certain in retrospect that it had all to do with the sequence of what we'd chosen to ride or walk through first, because when we got to the "E.T" ride, I was reminded of what this was all about as I sat in a car hanging from a track and drifted past speakers and animatronic figures that told me I had indeed arrived.
The day picked up momentum as we went to all of the attractions we could jam in, including "Men in Black," "Twister" and "Despicable Me," and every one of them was more thrilling than the next. I felt the wonder again, regardless of knowing that there was an entire world beyond the facade that as I kid, I knew nothing about. It all worked, and it all brought back feelings of what I now refer to as "accessible wonder."
But it didn't stop there.
The next day we visited the second of the two parks, the aptly named Islands of Adventure. And it is here that we turned a corner and saw what you see pictured above, "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter." Just the walk to this area of the park was amazing, but as we walked through the recreation of Hogwarts to get into the ride itself, I realized that the technology has become heavy on the melding of CGI and motion-simulated cars that are no less real than the real thing. I was flying through the school, on broomsticks with Harry and his friends during a rainy Quidditch match, and I had the motion sickness to prove it.
The rest of the day was a total surrender to the freedom of moving around inside of one's own imagination, as we used our Express Pass to explore "Spider Man" and "Jurassic Park" and other sights and sounds that quite honestly put me in a trance. I knew when I'd had enough. I was exhausted and satisfied.
Maybe I just needed a vacation, a reminder that there was such a thing as a vacation where people go and do things during times away from their lives. It was a very hectic week as I went to my first hockey game in Tampa right before our Universal whirlwind tour, and right before that I'd done three shows in two days in two different states with the Eskimos. But I couldn't have had a better time and gone to a better place, a place where not only was I able to reintegrate with my fellow humans and do this strange thing they called "vacationing," but also where I could remember a part of the universe where "accessible wonder" can still be found and even stored away for later use.
I don't know exactly what Hurricane Isaac has planned for the city of New Orleans, but I do know two things, and it's that lessons were learned during Hurricane Katrina and that subsequent improvements have been made.
Which is why I don't understand the media hysteria right now, and the feeling that I get that most of the national coverage, and even one-such New Orleans meteorologist (who I won't mention by name here but will say that it rhymes with Sbob Sbreck) all seem downright disappointed that this storm in fact will not be another Hurricane Katrina. Here in central Alabama, I have been as obsessed as a New Orleans native raised on hurricane-watching can be, keeping The Weather Channel on in the house, and then pulling up the local coverage on the Internet and the radio apps when I want to hear more-familiar voices. And I do this because I want to get the perspective of those still weary from seven years of recovery, the ones who certainly celebrated (as I did) upon hearing that New Orleans was recently named the fastest-growing city in the United States, and who through all of this hype understand that New Orleanians have been through this less-than-Katrina type of storm before.
Again, I don't know what the storm has in store for my hometown, but I do know that 14 billion dollars have been spent to upgrade the levee system to withstand a Category 3 storm. And believe it or not, the majority of what almost killed the city seven years ago was flood damage, inflicted upon a city unaware that the walls protecting them had not been touched in the forty years following Hurricane Betsy. So, as much as some of you news people seem to want to, please don't go signing a new death certificate for the Crescent City just yet.
But I will say that I have been as preoccupied as the city has been today, and yesterday, and probably all of tomorrow and into the next day. It's in my blood. And I do hope that my comments here aren't premature, but in all honesty, I think they got this.
NOLA ain't goin' nowhere anytime soon.
I'm still buzzing over an experience that I had a little over a week ago. What you see here was my perspective for about ninety minutes, a fifth-row center seat to the Hottest Band in the World, and it's something that I'll never forget. I felt as though I'd actually spent quality time with the band and was quite sad when they went away.
I've always said that KISS, along with "Star Wars" and "Saturday Night Live," were the three things that I was practically raised on. All three were there during my developmental years, with "Love Gun" being the first album that I ever owned at the ripe old age of five. So you can imagine how warped I was back in 1996 when KISS put the makeup back on and went on tour, during the same year that George Lucas re-released "Star Wars" in neighborhood theatres, confusing my subconscious into thinking that it was 1977 all over again like Christopher Reeve in that "Somewhere in Time" movie.
How's that for an obscure film reference, huh?
But now here I was, sixteen years and two more KISS shows later, and I was literally standing about thirty feet away from the band as I watched them do their KISS thing. I didn't know what to do with myself, and the experience was almost awkward as I stood there, watching a show that in all honesty was designed to be seen from a distance. Aside from the occasional point to my section and a few guitar picks thrown around me (I was too much in a sentimental daze to even reach for them), the band played to the rest of the amphitheatre, a facility that I turned to notice the immensity of only during breaks in my nostalgia trance.
It was one surreal episode in this life o' mine!
Case in point, I only took one picture the entire night, and it's the one that you see right here. I take that back. I took more, but then I realized that this was one part of my day that I didn't want to experience from behind a phone.
This is my New Year's post, which was inspired as I stared at the bonfire you see here on our property during our Christmas Eve celebration. "How far I've come," I whispered to myself that night after everyone had left, standing over the glowing embers with my hands in my pockets. But this is a mantra I say often.
I remember one trip back to New Orleans in late 2006, during which time I was still displaced and re-establishing my life in Birmingham, Alabama, when someone I barely knew asked me when I was coming back to the city. My reply must have had something to do with Hurricane Katrina keeping me away, and I remember his response being almost as if he was under some spell, as if he was part of some communal group hug that the entire city was locked into during that period, one that prompted him to say, "That was a year ago!"
Yes, it had been a year ago at that point, but it was still fresh in the minds of those like myself who for whatever reason couldn't just "come back" to New Orleans. It was an ironic time of great desperation and tremendous growth as I took care of my ailing mother far away from anything we were accustomed to. I would in fact spend the months following the storm in a hotel room in Tuscaloosa, Alabama before moving farther north, and it is that balcony that I still consider the starting point to where I am today.
And today I am sober, with the only new comment I have on this subject in the new year being the realization that I would give anything to be this way for parents that are still alive. Even though I know they realized I was sick, how wonderful would it have been to engage them at this level of maturity (pushed into existence as the result of Katrina) rather than the semi-volatile person that they knew as their son? My mother would in fact have to endure this person even in her latter years, with the event of her death meeting some quota of piled-up tragedy that would help push me toward sobriety. Well, that's not entirely true. The decision, as is always the case for the recovering addict, is the decision of the addict alone. But the decision was a good one, kick starting a period of productivity and awareness that has filled up my journal pages exponentially. My journal for 2006 was 109 pages. My journal for the year 2011 is now well over 500. And how strange it is to think that the documented year following the storm had so little activity, or at least, activity worthy of writing down.
The city of New Orleans has long loosened that communal group hug, replaced instead by a version of the city perhaps not entirely as it was before, but close enough by the resident's standards. Therefore, it is more than possible for Jessica and I to "come back," and our future plans include just that. But for now I am revoking my "Katrina card," satisfied here, as are my people in New Orleans, that we are all where we need to be for the time being.
Those are my reflections. What are yours? Happy New Year.
I don't remember exactly when it happened, but I do know that it coincided with another transition that was happening at the time, at least in my world. The year was 1991, and I was only then exploring life outside of what I already knew. As was the music industry. The timing was perfect.
Nirvana's "Nevermind" was just there one day, as was the first and most earth-shaking single off the record, "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The song was soon followed by most all of the remaining, radio-friendly tracks that played like the soundtrack of my life then, along with Pearl Jam and everything else that was being pushed through the system. But I was oblivious to the actual sequence of events, knowing only that I really liked the music and never really making a noteworthy transition in my mind that what came before was dead and that I was no longer a part of it. It just became "not real" anymore, replaced instead with the spirit of the music and the musicians who were making this new music, very much akin to the spirit of the 1960s in my opinion, where a Romantic introspection was taking place that was designed to eventually change the world. It was why I latched onto the charismatic Kurt Cobain as my generation's John Lennon, a perspective that wasn't unique to people my age, but one that would eventually play out in a grim parallel of death and martyrdom. It would also raise a discussion only a few years later that stayed with me to this day.
The year was 1994, and I was in one of my writing courses at the University of New Orleans when the topic came up of what Kurt Cobain meant to the youth of his generation in comparison to what John Lennon represented to his. And I remember being shocked that so many students dismissed Cobain as just another troubled addict who ended up doing the inevitable, claiming that he "took the coward's way out," and all the other stock reactions that people have who seem almost jealous that they possibly didn't have the courage to do what they really wanted to do (this is generally a very strong opinion of mine when it comes to reactions to suicides, but that's for a different piece). The result was that John Lennon -- who keep in mind, I hold absolutely dear -- won out in a landslide as to the more influential artist, and for some reason, this sent me right to our assigned journal exercise that night, an assignment that I knew would have to be turned in, and one that I knew was going to make a ripple. I don't remember exactly what I wrote (if Hurricane Katrina hadn't claimed all of my college notes and materials I'd be a much happier man, that's for sure), but I do remember the line: "Back off. We don't want or need your sympathy." And I'm absolutely positive that this was aimed directly at the Lennon sympathizers, or to those who just didn't understand what it was I did then, to the point where I felt the need to refer to myself as part of a "we," as if being a member of some Cobain cult! This was what Nirvana's "Nevermind" and the records that followed did for me, or more to the point, to me. It was an interesting time.
But perhaps more interesting was the mark in the margin made by my professor, right next to the line I mentioned, where she simply drew a red exclamation point. Yeah! At least I had one.