Category Archives: Music

Sunday Salon/Currently … October Surprises

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So much to tell you this week.  First and foremost, though, my thoughts are with all who are being affected by Hurricane Matthew and his aftermath. I know several of our friends and family had some stressful days this week and others are still dealing with the storms. And Haiti–my God, what a heartbreaking situation.

Speaking of storms, I can’t even with the political storm surrounding Donald Trump’s 2005 commentary about being able to grope any woman he pleases because he’s “a star.” Why anyone is shocked by this is beyond me, because all one needs to do is reference any of his rants on women (or anyone else, frankly) to know this is the Republican nominee’s true colors. I’d considered writing a post about such, but you probably have a pretty good idea of my thoughts on the matter. If not, they’re summed up pretty succinctly by the “You’re So Vain” video by the Patriotic Artists and Creatives PAC, which marks the first time ever that the incomparable Carly Simon allowed “You’re So Vain” to be used for political purposes. It’s perfect.

And in the poetry realm, Pittsburgh poet Jeff Oaks (who I was honored to read with at Acquired Taste) pens “The God Abandons Donald Trump: a dream”.  (“Now the smoke of sharpening scythes clings to your ties; the voices of the women you thought you’d smothered in gold are rematerializing.“) A great poem.

fierce-reads-fall-2016-tour-october-2016

YA author panel of Caleb Roehrig, Emma Mills, Anna Banks and Marissa Meyer being interviewed by Julie Hakim Azzam. October 4, 2016, Pittsburgh, PA. Photo taken by me.

We missed most of the Vice Presidential debates this week (Good God, was that just this week?) because we were at the Fall 2016 Fierce Reads Tour featuring YA authors Marissa Meyer, Anna Banks, Caleb Roehrig, and Emma Mills.  The Girl loves Marissa Meyer’s books, so she was the main attraction for us, but all of the authors were incredibly funny and entertaining. We especially enjoyed Caleb Roehrig, who we talked with after the event. His first novel Last Seen Leaving was published that same day and I started reading it while in line to get our books signed. I can already tell it is one I’m likely to enjoy.

the-literary-others-an-lgbt-reading-event-oct-2016There’s an LGBTQ storyline in Last Seen Leaving, which makes it a fitting edition to The Literary Others.  I’m participating in this LGBT Reading Event which is being hosted by Adam of Roof Beam Reader in honor of LGBT History Month. This week I read I’ll Give You Something to Cry About, a novella by Jennifer Finney Boylan about a family on a road trip trying to find their place in each other’s lives and the world. I loved this story, just as I loved her memoir I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted about living in a haunted house (on Philadelphia’s Main Line!) and her journey as a transgendered person.

I’m currently reading Just Kids by Patti Smith (we’re doing an event at work with Patti tomorrow night, and I’m really hoping to finish this in time) and in the car, I’m listening to The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle by Lillian Faderman.

ill-give-you-something-to-cry-aboutjust-kidsthe-gay-revolution

Writing … 
So grateful to my friend Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan, also a Pittsburgh blogger, who mentions my very short Halloween story “Extractions” in her post “Writers in Pittsburgh Are Going to Be Busy.”  This came as quite the surprise, especially since the Google Alert I have on every version of my name didn’t pick it up. Thank you, Elizabeth!

judy-blume-paperback-of-in-the-unlikely-eventblurb-in-the-unlikely-event

Another surprise was discovering that my review of Judy Blume’s In the Likely Event was blurbed (with my name!) in the paperback edition!  I can’t believe it. This was a review I’d published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in June 2015, and I had no idea about this until The Girl showed me last night. Crazy!

 

OK, time for a little reading before making the popcorn for tonight’s presidential debate and whatever surprises await us then.

 

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Mrs. Thomas’ Long Week (an encore post from The Husband, in honor of Elvis)

Cleveland Weekend - Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (21)

Longtime readers may be familiar with this post, written by The Husband. It’s one that I feature here on the blog every August 16 to commemorate Elvis’ passing, not because I’m an Elvis fan — I have a strong visceral dislike to all things Elvis, which is another post altogether — but I think this is one of The Husband’s best pieces of writing and I love it.  (And him.) Feel free to leave him a comment, if you wish.  Photo taken by me at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, August 2012, where Elvis’ Lincoln Continental is, indeed, in the building.  

Beginning 39 years ago today – early in the evening – Mrs. Thomas took to her room after crying out, quickly calling her mother and telling her to “get the hell over here” and plopping her 8-year old son in front of the television to await his grandmother’s arrival.

Mrs. Thomas didn’t come out of her room the rest of the night. Nor did she come out the next day. Nor the following day, either.

It was only on the fourth day after the sudden death of her beloved Elvis that she finally emerged. Her hair was a tangled mess. Her eyes were red with traces of days-old mascara running up and down her cheeks.

She showered, got something to eat, and returned to her room for two more days.

I know this because I was an 8-year old witness to much of it.

On the evening of August 16, 1977, I was watching television when CBS News ran one of their 30-second national news briefs. A photo of Elvis Presley was in the upper right corner of the screen as the anchor – probably Roger Mudd or maybe Morton Dean – said something to the effect of, “Reaction continues to roll in from around the globe as news of the death of Elvis Presley today at the age of 42 has brought a throng of thousands of grieving fans to his home in Memphis…”

I remember turning to my mother and saying, “Mrs. Thomas is going to be in trouble.”

I was friends with Mrs. Thomas’ son, who lived across the street from our first floor duplex apartment. It was from my friend and his mother that I first learned about Matchbox cars, NASCAR racing and Elvis Presley. Shortly after the Thomases moved in, I was invited over to play. In a tour of the apartment – which took about 7 seconds, although at the time I was too young to know that we were just barely making enough income so that we were always just a little bit behind – I saw an enormous portrait hanging over Mrs. Thomas’ bed.

“Who is that?!?” I said to my friend.

I heard a gasp from behind me, where Mrs. Thomas must’ve have overheard me. If I’d have said the same thing about the enormous portrait hanging across from Mrs. Thomas’ bed – that of Jesus Christ – she would not have been as upset with me.

“Who is THAT?!?! THAT is Elvis Presley! How have you gotten this old [seven, at the time] not knowing Elvis?!?!”

I’d put that about mid-1976. Over the next year or so, then, it was rare for me to be over the Thomas apartment and not hear Elvis on the stereo, or see Elvis on the TV – as the Thomases were the first people I ever knew with a VCR.

(Which is funny because they had no more of a pot to piss in than we did, yet there was this incredibly expensive primitive video player. Might not have been called a VCR, as I don’t remember any tapes.)

Anyway, Mrs. Thomas had every single one of Elvis’ movies – whatever format it was in – and they were always on. I remember not liking the movies terribly much – even at that age I realized it was essentially Elvis Presley playing himself in some unrealistic setting like Hawaii or a 19th century western town. The music, though. Well, the music was incredible. I can’t tell you the first song I heard, but the one that I remembered liking immediately was “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck.” Just a great tune, with every element of Presley’s talents all over it. Never liked ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ [still don’t]. But all of the others I soon knew pretty well.

It became ‘normal’ to see the large bust of Elvis that rested on Mrs. Thomas’ bureau, not to mention that painting, and just accept the fact that Elvis was that important – that of course you’d have a bust and portrait of him in your house, you idiot. It was vintage 1970s; in retrospect, I swear that damned painting was on a velour canvas. I just remember it was fuzzy to the touch [although we never let Mrs. Thomas know we touched the damned thing, believe you me].

So it was on that mid-August night 39 years ago that I saw what was going on there on the TV and told my mother that Mrs. Thomas was going to be in trouble. What I meant, of course, was that she was going to be a holy emotional fucking wreck. I just didn’t know some of those words at the time, so ‘in trouble’ was my way of saying, ‘she’s going to be majorly fucked up by this news, mother.’

And, indeed, she was. It was too late to walk across the street to check on my friend and Mrs. Thomas. At least that’s what I remember my mother telling me. I remember looking at the window across the street at the Thomas’ second-floor apartment front window. The room was black but I could see the neon-like images of what was the television screen in the living room. By that time, I figured out later, Mrs. Thomas had plopped my friend in front of the TV and retired to her room. The next day, early, I walked over and sure enough there was my friend and his none-too-happy grandmother. She, no doubt, figured her days of raising an 8-year old had long passed.

I asked my friend’s grandmother how Mrs. Thomas was doing.

“Not good,” said his grandmother. “She’s crazy. She wasn’t this upset when her father died.”

Just then, I vaguely remembered one time when I overheard Mrs. Thomas calling her father something along the lines of a ‘lazy, no-good boozing prick’. I chose not to share that with my friend’s grandmother that morning. At first, I was scared for my friend. I could hear Mrs. Thomas crying in her room over the sounds of Elvis’ music.

My friend and I went out to play [back in those days, ‘what are your kids doing this summer?’ meant that moms across the country simply opened their front doors, turned to their offspring and lovingly said, ‘Get out!’]. We came back for lunch and the soundtrack – Mrs. Thomas’ shrieking with Elvis providing back-up – were still going strong. Same thing at dinner. By this point, my friend’s grandmother looked like she wanted to strangle her daughter but was afraid to open the door to her room to begin doing so.

The next day, when it continued, I remember asking my friend what he thought of all of this. How did he feel about Elvis’ death? “He’s Elvis, man,” my friend said. “He’s Elvis and he’s dead. It’s too weird.”

That was about as introspective as we two 8-year olds got that summer. When, about a week later, Mrs. Thomas was well enough to go back to work and slowly resume what now seems, in retrospect, to have been a very sad and mundane life raising a son as a single parent, I noticed that more Elvis memorabilia had somehow been acquired. Maybe it’d always been there and I’d never noticed it. More likely, Mrs. Thomas had instructed her mother to bring the stuff with her, as her mother still lived in the house where Mrs. Thomas grew up a young girl in love with the 1950s Elvis.

Over the years, I’ve encountered others who had a similar Elvis-worship. While I thought the Elvis portrait Mrs. Thomas possessed had to be a one-of-a-kind, amazingly a few years later I saw the same damned thing over another friend’s mother’s bed – no lie. I guess that was the painting you put over your bed. While I encountered other Elvis-worshippers, Mrs. Thomas is the one I recall most vividly simply because she was the only one I witnessed suffering in the aftermath of Elvis’ actual death.

As I say, the music was something I dug right away, and always have. Throughout my life, I’ve maintained that if you don’t like Elvis, and you are American, then there is something very, very wrong with you. In your soul, I mean. I know that sounds ridiculous, but Elvis is so quintessentially American, that to not like the music [hey, I agree: the movies suck], the persona, Graceland, etc, meant that somehow you’d missed the whole point of America. At least as it existed in the second half of the 20th century. I can’t quite explain why – in words – that I feel that way. It just is.

[Note from Melissa: I’m so not an Elvis fan. Never have been. Never will be. Never liked him. I don’t get the whole mystique and appeal. Infer from that what you will. Carry on.]

So, today, on the 39th anniversary of The King’s death, I think of him and his music. I think of Mrs. Thomas, too. All of these years later – assuming she’s still alive – I wonder if this day still fills her with the kind of grief it did back then – the shock of it aside, of course. Now that I’m five years older than Elvis was when his head hit that porcelain toilet as his heart finally gave out, I still love the music, and the persona [the movies still suck, though].

I also still think that Elvis is as quintessentially American as any other icon of the 20th century. That he’d be 81 years old also reminds me just how young he was when he died.

And, just how young I was, too.

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zombies

Halloween Parade (19)

Front row to Halloween. Taken by me, October 2008, somewhere in central Delaware.

“All You Zombies” shuffles onto my Spotify playlist
as I pull into the parking garage
late for work on a Thursday
but because The Hooters are a track
on The Soundtrack to My Life
available on 45, cassette tape, compact disc
I remain seated in my car
(my paper-laden desk can wait)
because me and Jen and Seunah are singing
on a cold January night in an overheated gym
where we paid five bucks to see Philly’s hottest band
because someday they would be really, really big,
someday in our big scary future.

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Best Books of 2016 …Thus Far (33/99)

Nineteen.

That’s how many books I’ve read so far this year. That may sound impressive — especially when the average American reads 12 books per year and 27% of Americans don’t finish a single book —  but in the book blogger world, 19 books in six months is verging on pathetic.

(I know, I’m too hard on myself. This is true.)

At the midpoint of this current trip around the sun, I like to reflect on the reading year to date by sharing my favorite books of 2016 thus far.  Sometimes there’s a standout book that is a clear front-runner and sometimes there isn’t.  This happens to be a year when there is — and it’s a book that has landed among my all-time favorites.

When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Paul Kalanithi, a brilliant and compassionate neurosurgeon who, at 38, was diagnosed with lung cancer just as he was on the verge of completing a 10 year residency program, has much to teach us in his posthumously published memoir. When Breath Becomes Air is more than the journey towards one’s own lightbulb, a-ha, now-I-know-what-life-is-all-about moment of revelation that often accompanies a serious illness or tragic event. It’s about what it means when everything you have worked toward and planned vanishes at the precise moment when you are on the cusp of realizing all those dreams and aspirations.

Scorpion Tongues

Scorpion Tongues: The Irresistible History of Gossip in American Politics by Gail Collins 
This presidential election campaign is like nothing we’ve seen before … at least in our lifetimes. History tells a different story — and many of them — of political scandals that rival what we’re seeing today.

The Art of Description

The Art of Description by Mark Doty
Written by a true master of the craft, this is a fantastic book exploring how we use words to place the reader in the heart of our work.  Reading this is like taking a class with Mark Doty himself (something that is on my literary bucket list).  Until then, we have this gem.

Shades of Blue

Shades of Blue: Writers on Depression, Suicide, and Feeling Blue, edited by Amy Ferris
An astonishing anthology edited by Amy Ferris (her Facebook posts are gorgeously written and full of inspiring kick-assery), the emotions in these essays are raw and real. These are personal, true accounts of people who have struggled with depression, suicide (either their own attempt or that of a loved one) and mental illness. As a society, we need to do a better job of telling our stories in order to help break the stigma that fosters shame and secrecy.  Shades of Blue is a damn good place to start listening.  Don’t be surprised if you find shades of yourself between these pages.

The Best American Essays 2015

The Best American Essays 2015, edited by Ariel Levy
A fantastic collection of essays by some of our best writers, including Hilton Als, Roger Angell, Justin Cronin, Meghan Daum, Anthony Doerr, Margo Jefferson, David Sedaris, Zadie Smith, Rebecca Solnit and several others.

Boys in the Trees

Boys in the Trees: A Memoir by Carly Simon
Carly Simon’s songs are ones that make her fans — of which I am one, very much so — feel as if we know her.  Here, we learn for the first time the stories behind the lyrics that we’ve been singing for years. It’s an eye-opening, often surprising, sometimes heartbreaking look at family dynamics, coming of age, betrayal, sexuality, motherhood and the publishing and entertainment businesses.

So there you have it.  The best books I’ve read this year (so far).  It’s interesting that there isn’t any fiction on this list.  This seems to be shaping up as a year dominated by nonfiction, especially essays and memoir.

How is your reading year going? Is there a standout book (or books) that will be among your favorites this year?

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #33 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 

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kicking off 99 days of summer blogging (1/99)

99 Days of Summer Blogging

Time to get this party started!

Today’s the official start to 99 Days of Summer Blogging, a little impromptu project of mine where I plan to blog every day this summer. Yes, every single day. I’ve started an editorial calendar which is already helping.  I’m using Evernote to capture post ideas for those days when I got nothin’.

Best of all, a few of you are joining me in this crazy endeavor and a few are considering it.

More importantly, today is about much more than the beginning of summer. It’s about remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms and never taking that for granted.

As if on cue, the live version of Frank Sinatra’s “The House I Live In” just came on The Husband’s Spotify.

Always a powerful song, but especially worth the listen today.

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sunday salon/currently … memorial day weekend edition

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It’s a steamy start to the summer. (And yes, while the calendar may not consider it to be summer until June 21, Memorial Day weekend is the start of summer in my book.) Yesterday my car’s thermometer said it was 95 degrees outside. I’m really not kidding when I say two weeks ago it was so chilly that I wore turtlenecks to work for three days.

I’m on our enclosed deck, enjoying being outside for as long as I can stand it. It’s humid enough to have the box fan going, which helps for now. We don’t have any grandiose plans this weekend. The usual appointments and errands. The Girl needs some summer clothes and that’s on the agenda for tomorrow.

99 Days of Summer Blogging!

99 Days of Summer Blogging

Tomorrow starts my attempt to blog for 99 consecutive days. I’m thrilled that a few of you are joining me in this little project.  (You can too. Participating is intentionally very low key. No real requirements. No linkys. If you like, feel free to use the button above for any #99DaysSummerBlogging posts.) The accountability factor makes this more daunting (can I really keep up this pace? what if I run out of things to write about? what happens on the days I have a migraine?) but also exciting.  I’m looking forward to getting back in the swing of writing every day and clearing out some of those half-baked posts in Drafts.

Big Book Reading Challenge

Big Book Summer Reading Challenge

Another summer project that I’m taking on is the Big Book Summer Reading Challenge hosted by my friend Sue of Book by Book.  I usually participate in this because it only involves reading one book that’s at least 400 pages between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Definitely doable. If you’re looking for inspiration, here’s a partial list of what I’ve read for this challenge in previous years (links go to my reviews):

America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines by Gail Collins (572 pages)
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (415 pages)
With My Body by Nikki Gemmell (462 pages)
Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver (436 pages)
And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts (630 pages)
The Years by Virginia Woolf (435 pages)

Currently Reading …
LaRoseWith 372 pages, my current read — LaRose by Louise Erdrich — is just shy of qualifying for the Big Book Summer Reading Challenge. It’s a fascinating novel about family and culture.

Currently Listening To … 

Sin in the Second City

Still listening to Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott.

I’ve been listening to a lot of music lately. Part of the reason is because I work in an semi-open office environment, which can be challenging when one needs to concentrate. I usually just hit Shuffle on my entire music collection and And every day, I hear at least one song that seems to describe the day — or our current situation, or something, or someone I’m thinking about, or a memory — absolutely perfectly.

These are the songs that resonated most this week:

Linking

A few weeks ago, I purchased The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson because it seems like a book I’m going to want to own. Although I haven’t started it yet, Hilton Als’ feature on Maggie Nelson in the April 18 issue of The New Yorker (“Immediate Family”) makes me want to read this very soon.

YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) has a great list of mental health resources for teens In addition to books (fiction and nonfiction), blogs, and websites, there are apps that link to immediate crisis intervention and online discussion groups.

Once in a Lifetime is a new blog to me, thanks to Keith’s and my connection through Pittsburgh Bloggers. Keith’s post “A Month of Mental Health, An Eternity of Suicide”  makes some great observations about the hypocrisy of the media’s relentless messages of perfection and its embrace of Mental Health Awareness Month.

I’m a big fan of the Netflix series “House of Cards.” In this article from The New York Times, Robin Wright may have more in common with Claire Underwood than we previously thought. #FUCU2016

Some thoughts on … well, the power of our thoughts.

What are you thinking about on this Memorial Day weekend?  

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we could all die any day

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens (65)

It’s been seven days since the news broke and I’m still listening to Prince at top volume in the car, still singing at the top of my lungs about doves crying and horses running free. I’ve exhausted my inventory of appropriate-for-work purple clothing.

My kids are perplexed at this behavior. “So, when did you become so crazy about Prince?” they half-sneer, their teenage mortification on full display.

We see this attitude frequently, The Husband and I, whenever we give off any indication that we are … well, human.  The eye-rolls when we kiss goodbye in the morning for a few seconds longer than usual with a sly slip of tongue or when we dance in the kitchen when our wedding song shuffles into queue on Spotify. To our offspring, we have no life besides folding laundry and cooking dinner, and despite our assurances to the contrary, we never did. And we certainly have no idea what it’s like to be a teenager. Never were we caught up in the adolescent maelstrom of emotions and hormones and young jungle love.

My attempts at explaining my sudden Prince obsession fall flat with my kids.  Although I wouldn’t describe myself as a passionate Prince fan, I have an appreciation of his music and his artistry.  And, like all of us who came of age in the mid-’80s, Prince’s music is an indelible part of the mixtape of my life.

Which is why, like everyone else, I was shocked upon hearing Prince had died.  Thursday was a surreal day; I wasn’t feeling well and took a sick day from work. By mid-afternoon, I felt well enough to pick up my son from school for a previously-scheduled doctor’s appointment. We were early, for once, with enough time to stop home so I could throw dinner in the crockpot.

“I texted you,” my husband said, greeting me as we walked in the house.  “Prince is dead. Flu-like symptoms, they’re saying.”

I stopped in my tracks.  If anyone knows how possible it is to drop dead of the flu in one’s prime, it’s my family. In 1985, my dad was a relatively healthy father of two teenagers when he got the flu.  Unbeknownst to any of us, the virus was silently and quickly attacking his heart and at 44, he became fourth in line on the transplant list at Philadelphia’s best hospital for when your heart breaks. He died several hours later, having been sick for less than a week.

We could all die any day. 

The aftermath of my father’s death ushered in several confusing and sad years for me.  In college, it was easy to party like it was 1999 because that represented a life we couldn’t fathom from our dorm rooms — Christ, we would be goddamned geriatrics when we turned the century, forty fucking years old.  It felt impossible, far in the future. We made a solemn, beer-buzzed pact: no matter what happened in this life, we’d be together on New Year’s Eve 1999, dancing our lives away.

We weren’t, of course. We became scattered and unknown to each other. Close friends we thought would be in our lives forever went missing, our long conversations now silent.  Instead of partying like it was 1999, we became adults, on edge and hunkered down with emergency cash from the ATM, cases of water and canned goods and duct tape, backups of our financial lives at the ready for Y2K, a moniker that could have been ripped from a Prince album.

Now on this side of 1999, in this strange year when nostalgia becomes more and more clouded with sadness and when we face our own medical crises and wonder just how much of our time and minds are left, our own Judgment Day feels closer than ever. Prince was right; two thousand zero zero really did mean we would be out of time or damn close to it.

I can’t convey all this to my wiser-than-their-years kids when they ask why I’m blasting Prince’s Little Red Corvette in my decidedly uncool red Chevy HHR as I shuttle them around town.  And part of me doesn’t want to.

Let them believe they have all the time in the world.

 

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