Wednesday, September 9, 2015

...And Now For Something Completely Different

         At one time, this blog served a different agenda. It was an outlet; a tool for opening my inner release valve. I had loyal readers who were very supportive, and I’m still grateful for the time they spent reading each entry. Their encouragement and suggestions were always welcome, and not one of them told me to simply “get over” the past and move on (even if that’s what they were thinking).

         I've come to realize that those blog entries are over six years old, and as such, they have little bearing on the present. In essence, the blog has become dead space when it could be used for something more relevant. It will therefore be repurposed in a manner that reflects my current endeavor, which is to reacquaint myself with music as a whole.

         There was a time when I would regularly spend an entire evening spinning records and weighing their relative merits against each other. Whether it was finding a thread of similarity between two seemingly unrelated albums (The Who's Live At Leeds versus Blue Oyster Cult's Some Enchanted Evening, for instance), or trying to figure out the exact year when Iron Maiden began to incorporate progressive influences alongside their New Wave of British Heavy Metal swagger, I was always striving to raise the bar for music geeks everywhere.

        In the years since then, I have consumed a veritable shit load of music. On the average day, I hear at least three complete albums, often back to back. But aside from a couple of releases that immediately hit the mark, I end up forgetting a lot of stuff that deserves more attention. While it's true that most music doesn't move me enough to warrant a second listen, I have a constant, nagging feeling that a lot of potentially great albums are slipping through the cracks. This is particularly true of releases that are less immediate, but more gratifying over time. And as any enthusiast will tell you, those are usually the best albums of all! The problem has reached a point where, aside from the usual standbys (Rush, King's X, the Who, and Jethro Tull), there are few albums in my repertoire that get multiple listens before they fall by the wayside.

This is not an acceptable state of affairs. The "one-spin" approach to music appreciation has effectively degraded the quality of my listening experience. I'm certainly "hearing" a lot of music, but I'm not really "listening" to much at all. It would be easy to blame the digital age, especially given its penchant for immediate gratification (where pretty much every album is available to the casual listener, all the time). But I chose to follow its neon trail. This has effectively led me me off a metaphorical cliff, where hundreds of albums have become a homogenous mass, amorphous and undefined. I know there has to be more to those records than I’m hearing, but their sheer volume and availability has turned me into something I despise: a passive listener.    

       That being said, this blog is an attempt to remedy the situation. By documenting every album that graces my ears, I am creating a sort of insurance against passive listening. I have further decided to add comments for each release, which will serve a dual purpose. First, they will remind me of what I found remarkable about a particular album. This will help considerably when I go back to decide which ones require deeper consideration. Secondly, I am averse to the idea of presenting albums in a straightforward "list" format, with only a few arbitrary tidbits of information to identify them. It may be impossible to discard the notion (completely, anyway), but I have no desire to see any album or artist get lost in the multitude of entries. Thus, the comments will also serve as a means of distinction. Every release here is a unique entity, regardless of what I think of it on an artistic level. Something about these albums compelled me to spend time absorbing their contents. So out of respect for their creators, I will treat them as such.

Zach Hill & Mick Barr - Shred Earthship

I've read that Zach Hill considers this his best performance on record. That alone makes it worth a spin in my book. There was a time when Hella, Orthrelm, and Lightning Bolt occupied considerable space in my disc changer, so I was pretty psyched about hearing this for the first time.That being said, Hill's drumming, while remarkable, isn’t really distinguishable from anything else he’s done. In fact, I think some of the stuff he recorded for Hella and Marnie Stern is better developed and more interesting (from a listener's standpoint, at least). As expected, Mick Barr is delightfully indulgent in all his minimalistic glory. However, his guitar histrionics essentially mirror what he's already done with Octis and many solo outings. Despite my misgivings, Shred Earthship is compelling enough to get at least one more spin.  

Family Vacation - s/t

Powerviolence from the great state of Washington. Quite enjoyable for the die-hards among us, but probably rote and predictable for anyone else. You already know if this is your thing, so leave it at that.

Boreal Tundra - Schizophrenic Delusions

This one-man black metal project is fronted by a guy named ‘Herrwulf’, which (if my tenuous grasp of the German language serves me) means “Mr. Wolf”. The sound he has achieved here is appropriately grim and forbidding, with occasional keyboards that add a symphonic element. I’m generally not fond of music that includes the term “symphonic” as a descriptor, but Herrwulf keeps those parts to a minimum. In fact, the songs have a certain creepiness about them that is more atmospheric than anything else. ‘Schizophrenic Delusions’ might not redefine the genre, nor does it really stand out from similar albums I’ve heard this year. But it’s a competent and well-executed effort with its own appeal.      

Terror - The 25th Hour

Vicious hardcore from these Buffalo-based stalwarts. Sure, it's formulaic and by-the-numbers, but true originality is pretty elusive these days. Sometimes, I would even say it's overrated.

The Who - Live at Hull

Recorded in 1970, this full set contains both hits and obscurities. As a fan since childhood, I consider myself pretty well-versed on the Who's discography. So imagine my surprise when I found three unfamiliar song titles on the back cover. The sound board mix is less than ideal, but pretty damn good considering when this stuff was recorded. Highlights include "Summertime Blues", "Heaven and Hell", and some key selections from 'Tommy' (which was probably the album they were supporting on this tour). My only gripe is the questionable track sequence, which places " I'm A Boy" between "Overture" and "1921" (??????). Anyone who appreciates concept albums knows that you don't randomly throw a non-album track between its first two songs! It's hard to imagine the band consciously ruining one of their greatest achievements this way, so I am left to wonder what the hell happened.

Plague Rider - Paroxysm

I've seen this UK group compared to Gigan, but their style isn't exactly a carbon copy. In fact, the melodies sound more like Decrepit Birth than anything else. Regardless of how that might sound, I'm digging this album a lot. It's a little spacey and atmospheric in spots, but 90% of it is well-executed progressive death metal.

Edge Of Sanity - Crimson

This eight-part masterpiece is Edge Of Sanity's defining moment, as guitarist/songwriter Dan Swano moves through various moods and textures across its 40-minute (on the nose!) run time. Every section is expertly written and performed, and nothing seems ill-conceived or out of place.  Generally speaking, this is mid-90s melodic death metal from the country that practically defined that genre (Sweden), but Swano expands beyond those parameters with a more progressive approach. Sadly, Crimson was followed in 1997 by Infernal, an album that didn't impress me much (for reasons I don't recall). Thus, I never bothered to check out anything Swano recorded under the EoS moniker beyond that point. However, hearing this amazingly dynamic record again (for the first time in many years), might convince me to give Infernal another spin.

Edge Of Sanity - Infernal

So I couldn't wait. I dug up my old CD copy of this record for another go-round. Opening track "Hell Is Where The Heart Is" hits the mark early, with complex riffs and a memorable chorus. Second track "Helter Skelter" moves along at a manic pace, with a recurring bridge that sounds like vintage Trouble or Pentagram. But then "15:36" comes off as a contrived example of straightforward stoner rock, with a cheesy melo-death chorus that doesn’t help matters. The remaining tracks (thankfully) abandon the stoner crap, but none of them comes close to the mastery of that opening salvo. In fact, most wallow in a shallow pool of forgettable riffs and dime-a-dozen melodies. Unfortunately, I'm starting to remember why this album got shelved 18 years ago, in favor of Opeth's Morningrise and my newly-acquired remaster of Dismember's Like An Overflowing Stream (with the Pieces EP tacked on for good measure). Infernal certainly has its moments, but Swano shoots off way too early and leaves us with nine tracks of uninspired wankery.

Dissection - The Somberlain

Listening to Edge Of Sanity's finer moments put me in the mood for some earlier releases that came out of Sweden's melodic death metal scene. It was between Eucharist and Dissection, and The Somberlain is where I landed. Even at this formative point of his career, Jon Nodtveidt was penning some of the genre's strongest material. His songwriting talent shows on every track of The Somberlain, with strong melodic themes that translate well across the album’s entire duration. There are three acoustic interludes that provide a short respite from Nodtveidt’s sardonic genius, but most of the album charges along at speeds that vary from a heavy plod (“Mistress of the Bleeding Sorrow”), to a mid-paced gallop (“In The Cold Winds of Nowhere”) to the speedy pummeling of “Heaven’s Damnation”. I’m sure there are nuances here that I’ve either forgotten, or missed altogether over the years, so I look forward to providing some follow-up comments the next time I take this 1993 genre classic for another spin.

Woundvac - Disgraced Convert 7”

Grinding thrash from Phoenix. Despite the lo-fi recording, the riffing here is fairly tight. I really like the dissonance in songs like “Indulge Beyond”, as it creates a powerful sense of unease. Then there are the lyrics, which show maturity in both expression and the chosen subject matter. The tone of resolve in songs like “Worn With Honor” hits hard, especially the line, “I have chosen enemies / who mistake kindness for weakness”. Well done.

Akercocke - Choronzon

Despite being a fan for several years, I only recently learned the origin of this band’s peculiar name. Apparently, Akercocke is the name of a monkey in Robert Nye’s interpretation of the German legend, Faust. Not only does this simian speak perfect English, but he’s quite articulate as well. But getting back to the band

Akercocke is probably best known for their open devotion to Satanism, and they have certainly enjoyed the notoriety that comes with it. Knowing this makes their lyrics seem a little less cartoonish and more genuine, which is certainly worth a few points.

Akercocke has long been considered "progressive black metal" by the press, and it seems like a fair description. The riffing on Choronzon is extremely tight and razor-sharp, with plenty of breaks for more subtle passages. The ambiance is appropriately dark and mysterious, which lends the proceedings a sort of "otherworldly" vibe. Lastly, the heaviness here suggests some death metal influence, which is tastefully executed. Highly recommended.

Pantheist - O Solitude

England’s Pantheist always held an interesting place among funeral doom’s most notable acts (e.g. Skepticism, Shape of Despair, etc). For one thing, their melodic propensity runs in a slightly different direction. It's a tough thing to describe in terms other than "melodramatic" or "overwrought", but such adjectives seem overly pejorative. ‘O Solitude' is their debut full-length, and it sets a genre standard in terms of raw emotion.

Primitive Man - Home Is Where The Hatred Is     

Punishing sludge/doom with vocals that bellow tales of a world gone horribly wrong. These guys used to be in a Denver-based group called Clinging To The Trees Of A Forest Fire, and it's a shame they never received an award for Most Appropriate Band Moniker. Getting back to Primitive Man, there has always been an apocalyptic vibe to their music; one that constantly reminds me of my own mortality.

Black Tongue - The Unconquerable Dark

I’ve seen ads where this British “doom-core” outfit are compared to a lot of bands, but only The Acacia Strain seems relevant. Mastodon? Besides using one of their song titles as a moniker, no. Meshuggah? Maybe a little bit here and there with the rhythmic syncopations, but otherwise, no. Neurosis? Whoever writes ads for Century Media must be having a good laugh at someone else’s expense, because there’s no way!  Nonetheless, this stuff is incredibly abrasive, and its “doomier” aspects are soul-scarring in depth and intensity. The songs mostly dwell in that contentious area known as “deathcore”, which will earn more than a few detractors. But as someone who openly praises Oceano and Suicide Silence (whose Eddie Hermida contributed guest vocals to one track), I am enjoying this considerably.     

The Catalyst - Freak Out The Squares

This punk/noise rock outfit hails from Richmond, VA, and its members are apparently very active in the local scene. Their sound is effects-laden, discordant, and alternates between aggressive sections and trippy jam sessions. I’m not a fan of the latter, so for me, the album tends to drag a bit. This is especially true during the longer tracks (“Thirsty Like Water Thirsty”), and even the balls-out stuff like “Just Like The Last Scene In The Karate Kid” is listenable, but unremarkable. Think I’ll pass on this one.

Torch Runner - Endless Nothing

Torch Runner is easily one of the best metal-oriented hardcore bands from the great state of North Carolina (a distinction they share with Young And In The Way). I can’t call them “metalcore” due to how that term is misapplied these days, but it would have been a perfect match 15 years ago. This stuff is heavy on conviction and venomous in delivery.       

Deafheaven - New Bermuda

Accusations of insincerity have dogged these guys since their inception, but who gives a fuck? Certainly not me, because Deafheaven has consistently churned out impressive albums the whole time. Yes, it’s essentially black metal with saccharine-sweet melodies, but the lyrics give these songs a certain bitterness that is intriguing. My fascination with this band started with the ‘Sunbather’ album, and ‘New Bermuda’ just sweetens the pot. I’ll be going back to this one for sure.   

Cloud Rat - Qliphoth

In essence, this is melodic grindcore. The “melodic” tag usually has me thinking  “catchy 3-chord bullshit”, but Cloud Rat doesn’t necessarily go that route. This works best in songs that  employ melody without making it too obvious, but there are cheesy moments here and there (“Bloated Goat”). Thus, it will not find a spot on my regular playlist.   

Guttural Slug - Megalodon

Brutal death metal from Denmark. This stuff bludgeons from start to finish. There is little point in breaking it down track-by-track, because Guttural Slug is pretty elementary in their approach. Nonetheless, they definitely play to their strengths.  

Aevangelist - Enthrall To The Void of Bliss

Blackened death that leans heavily toward the abstract. I’d say Aevangelist fits under the “avant-garde”  banner currently headed by Portal, Deathspell Omega, and Grave Upheaval. Between the dissonant riffs and unconventional song structures, this album is a definite win for me. I liked their previous two albums considerably, but this effort seems more focused and coherent.




Friday, July 30, 2010


Her lips would sometimes quiver
to the tune of a heretical chant
or obscure litany
Spoken in a dead language

She had seen the end of time
and kept her clocks synchronized
to TV news captions
And sundials in the yard

Her journals filled a bathtub
overflowing with Latin scripture
hieroglyphic footnotes
And arcane symbology

She passed the daylight hours
hidden from satellite scans
behind reinforced walls
And cinder block barricades

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Daybreak (at the Bottom of a Lake)

Interstate miles evaporated behind me as the ghostly glow of Raleigh's inner belt line approached in the distance. The house I had moved into three months earlier was on the east side of town, so I would normally wait five more exits before leaving the highway. But tonight was different. I was making a stop in the northwest suburbs, for reasons that wouldn't come clear until later in the trip. My tight grip on the steering wheel began to exert a numbing effect on my fingers as vague, ill-formed thoughts bounced around my brain like numbered balls in a lottery machine. I couldn't help but feel that the evening's outcome would be every bit as random, although an unreasoned surge of optimism had spurred me on since leaving Barnes & Noble. I now saw the book and my brief vision in the parking lot as harbingers; indications that change was near. This couldn't simply be a chance aligning of the stars. Fate was calling, and I was to be its envoy.

In retrospect, it was completely irrational. Karen's obstinacy was a matter of pride, and hoping to change her decision on any matter was like betting on a crippled race horse: pointless and needlessly painful. But at some point, I had decided that her inconsistency and contradictory behavior were an encrypted code of sorts. Maybe she was trying to tell me something that was too difficult to verbalize. Perhaps Karen's rigid will was bending under the weight of her emotions, but her certitude prohibited surrender.

Whatever the case. I had grown tired of waiting.

The drive was initially nerve-wracking, as the evening's possibilities loomed like faded spectres on an obscure landscape. But as the minutes dissipated, a sense of calm gradually worked its way through my veins. The opening strains of Trevor Rabin's "Can't Look Away" swelled through my car speakers as the evening's plan approached realization. I had already acknowledged that it was underhanded and a bit cagey, not to mention precarious. I had seen a side of Karen that was clingy and vulnerable, but she wasn't stupid. She possessed an aptitude for gauging people's intentions that bordered on the paranormal. Thus, I was going in at a disadvantage.

But against hope, I somehow maintained a cool optimism. I could still prevent Karen from making another costly decision, that being a full divorce. She had already sounded the knell, but I wouldn't acknowledge its finality. I continued to believe that this was all a reaction to the pain of feeling abandoned and betrayed. I certainly had my quirks, and some had damaged the marriage considerably. When verbal threats failed to register, Karen felt she had to up the ante. It seemed a reasonable conclusion, and I moved forward under that assumption.

As traffic slowed to a halt, I looked over to the passenger seat and began studying the cover of that crucial tome: 'Zoya's Story: An Afghan Woman's Struggle for Freedom'. Over the preceding months, I had occasionally bought books that appealed to Karen's interests. Since any attempt to call or e-mail her would likely be thwarted, I had resorted to simply leaving them in our mailbox. Admittedly, it was a peace offering of sorts; just another barren effort to ensure that the slender, tenuous threads between us would hold out for another day or two.

But in the end, the books were a prop. I was trying (in vain) to let Karen know that I was thinking about her. I wanted to acknowledge her pain and show her that I still cared. Where words had fallen flat, action would surely prevail. The entire gesture was obviously flawed and ill-conceived, but I thought restoring our marriage was simply a matter of persistence. She could only resist for so long until I wore her down, although I would never admit that my reasoning was so dense and simple-minded. More astute methods had fallen flat, and I was determined to make this attempt succeed.

Traffic gradually resumed its normal pace as I began scanning signs for the appropriate exit. Number "293-A" had a special significance, as I clearly remembered driving past it on our first date. We had eaten dinner at a Mexican cafe just off UNC's campus, and my ego and hormones had distracted me from anything but Karen's aesthetic perfection. She sat in the passenger seat, musing about some topic I had lost track of thirty minutes ago. I was simply in disbelief that someone who resembled a younger Tina Fey had started the evening by taking my hand and telling me that I was more handsome than my picture implied.

I had expected Karen to be attractive, but was flabbergasted when she initially approached me outside the restaurant. I had seen a rather stunning brunette park her Saturn a few moments earlier, and noted some similarities in her shoulder-length hair and wire-rim glasses. But I figured she had to be meeting with some other guy. This couldn't be the same woman who accepted my invitation for a date with such enthusiasm. That just wasn't in the cards.

But then she exited her car and assumed a brisk pace toward me as her high-heeled boots clicked excitedly on the pavement.


I tried to say something, but my vocal chords froze.

"I'm so sorry I'm late. My ex waited until 5 to get the kids, so I literally had to fly out the door".

My throat finally opened and attempted a meaningful exchange.

"Oh, uh...that's totally okay. I didn't think you would stand me up."

She laughed, and we embraced. Her lightly perfumed neck gave off a bewitching scent that made my heart pound like Buddy Rich on his best night. I would have been content to just hold her for that first hour, but there was conversation to be had and a meal to be eaten.

Throughout the evening, Karen never failed to intrigue me. Her stories, her witty anecdotes...even watching her spread salsa on a tortilla had me transfixed. At the date's conclusion, I looked at myself in the rear view mirror and acknowledged the inevitable. I was in love, and there was no turning back. One day, I would make Karen my wife. No matter what it took.

I eased onto the exit ramp as Cary Parkway unfolded in front of me. This part of the trip would take a mere ten minutes, so I took a quick inventory and conceived a plan for my approach. As noted, I usually left the books in our mailbox. What would distinguish this effort was the method of delivery. I would give Karen the book in person, thereby forcing her to acknowledge me. She would resent me for it, but it would likely become an opportunity for dialogue. I would apologize and ask if we could talk for a moment. She would acquiesce (albeit grudgingly) and lead me to the living room couch. As the conversation progressed, she would finally see what she was leaving behind: a husband who adored her. One who would stop at nothing to have her back. One who loved her in ways he had never loved another.

Time got away from me and I almost missed the turn onto Kildaire Farm. I thought of stopping off at a gas station to pick up some mouthwash and aftershave, but discarded the idea as a waste of time. I was focused on the task at hand, and couldn't tolerate distractions. It would only be a quarter of a mile before I hit Helmsdale Drive, and I had yet to sufficiently prepare. Simply put, this had to played off in a way that wouldn't reveal my motives. I had to give the appearance of acceptance, as though I knew our marriage was over and really just needed to talk. Otherwise, she would never open the door.

Of course, I had neglected to address Karen's keen perception, which would surely call me out like a sniper waving a flood light. However, I had convinced myself that she would forgo the usual scrutiny in favor of trust and faith. In the end, I still thought she wanted our marriage as much as I did. She simply refused to acknowledge it. She didn't think of herself as someone who was weak and co-dependent, and wanted to avoid giving that impression to me or anyone else. She had been walked on before. There wouldn't be a second time.

I came upon our two-level house and found the driveway empty. Karen was parked in the garage, my headlights roving over her green Mazda as I pulled closer and came to a halt. After cutting the engine and grabbing the book, I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths. I was feeling more confident now, but for reasons I still can't justify. Amidst all of this plotting and planning, the elements of clarity and logic had somehow eluded me. And sadly, I was in too deep to realize it.

I stepped out of the car and proceeded toward the house. The walk to the front door took longer than usual, as I was taking slow, measured steps to avoid looking stressed or harried. After ascending the brick steps that led to our porch, I noticed that the bedroom light was on. The muffled drone of a newscast played in the background, which meant Karen had finished her evening clean-up ritual and was laying in bed.

I took one more deep breath, then reached forward and rang the bell.

The passing seconds felt like hours. I didn't hear her fumbling with the dead bolt, or even coming down the steps. It was odd, as the doorbell was certainly loud enough to be heard from upstairs.

I reached up and rang the bell a second time.

Again, no response.

I opened the screen door and knocked lightly.


I began rapping a little harder, hoping the dog wouldn't start barking and awaken the kids. Still no answer. But as I started to turn in defeat, a noise cut through the silence and stopped me dead in my tracks. The stairs were creaking as Karen's bare feet pattered against them. I spun around and took a deep breath as the dead bolt retracted and the door swung open.

Considering the time, I was surprised to see Karen standing there in a form-fitting red shirt and dress slacks. It looked as though she had just returned from a party, dressed in a way that was guaranteed to attract attention. I looked up at her and smiled.

"Hi. Can I talk to you for a minute?"

I certainly didn't expect her to throw her arms around me, but Karen's response was one I hadn't anticipated. She seemed...nervous.

"Um...can't we do this d-during d-daylight hours?"

Since childhood, Karen had battled a distinctive speech impediment that tended to worsen under strain. She stammered, and our first several phone conversations were difficult as a result. Certain letters and syllables gave her more trouble than others, and I didn't know if I should try finishing her sentences for her or just shut up and let the stuttering run its course. Things got smoother once she explained the problem, and I came to embrace it as a unique facet of her persona. But tonight, it was to reveal something far more insidious.

"Well...I guess so, but why can't we talk tonight?"

"B-because this isn't fair."

Obviously, something wasn't right. While normally meticulous about her appearance, her hair and make-up seemed disheveled and haphazardly applied. A tiny clump of eyeliner hung from one of her lashes, and her lipstick was obviously smeared.

"Is everything okay?"

She went silent for a few awkward seconds before answering.

"Yes. B-but this isn't fair. You can't just c-come to the house without at least c-calling first."

Now I was getting suspicious. She was hiding something, and doing a poor job of it.

"You look scared. I'm not a threat to you. I just came to talk and give you something."

As I finished my sentence, I saw a man's tennis shoe on the stairs behind her. Tilting my head a little up and to the right, I was astonished to meet the eyes of an older man. Ashen-haired and roughly ten years our senior, he seemed a little dressed-down for the occasion. A gray sweatshirt clung to his muscular frame and faded jeans hung from his waist. A neatly trimmed mustache accented his upper lip, which held a contemptuous sneer.

I felt a leaden hammer plow through my stomach. My head spun madly as I staggered backward and almost fell off the porch. Fighting back tears of rage, I found the strength to look up and challenge her.

"How could you do this to me? We're still married, for fuck's sake."

"You need to leave now. This isn't fair."

Her calm exterior was clearly masking panic. I could have exploited it, but a stark vulnerability came over me and I began to plead.

"This couldn't be happening. Please tell me this isn't happening, Karen. It's all a big misunderstanding, right? Please?"

It was pathetic. I felt completely helpless as pangs of rejection and betrayal shot through my brain. A wave of nausea came over me and I fancied the idea of vomiting all over her freshly-cleaned carpet. But there was no point. It was over, and nothing I could do would change it.

After giving myself a second to muster an ounce of composure, I reached forward and handed her the book.


She started to thank me as I turned around and walked to the car. I hastily turned my key in the ignition and threw it into reverse. Rubber squealed against asphalt as I flew out of the driveway and onto the street. I turned left and made it to the next block before erupting into sobs of hatred, pain, and anger. I started thinking back to those last few moments on the porch, and regretted not charging into the house and beating that thieving son of a bitch into unconsciousness. The legal ramifications were far from my mind, and I was too distraught to entertain reason.

But even worse, Karen had won again. I was the one leaving under a storm cloud of defeat and humiliation. For her, nothing had changed...and I hated her for it.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Twilight of the Idles

I spent much of Saturday and Sunday trying to focus on the week ahead of me. I was scheduled for a business trip to Oklahoma City on Monday morning, and found some solace in preparing for the change in climate. Despite its relative latitude, the forecast was calling for temperatures in the upper 40s for most of the week. The coat that Karen had given me last Winter proved to be hot and cumbersome in anything less that blizzard conditions, so I set out to find something lighter.

It was late Sunday afternoon before I found a jacket that suited me. There were few things I resented more than packing into the late hours of the evening, so I hastily made my purchase and stepped outside the mall into a heavy drizzle. I had taken about three steps toward the parking lot when a little red raincoat jumped out of nowhere, landing both of his feet in a puddle directly to my right. I tried stepping back, but it was too late. A thin geyser of rainwater shot up to ankle-height before descending onto the cuff of my pants. As I looked down in bewilderment, a toddler's wondrous smile emerged from underneath the red hood.

For a precious second, his wide blue eyes locked onto mine. Bright images of rainy Spring mornings flew by at a dizzying pace. Three children of different ages stood in our driveway, jumping into puddles and splashing each other as joyous shouts echoed down the street. We sat on the porch, laughing and taking pictures as the youngest tried to generate a splash big enough to soak both of his sisters at once. I put my arm around her shoulders and turned to study her expression. It spoke of a rare contentment; one which I hoped was a sign of renewal...

"Joshua! Shame on you!"

Shaken from my diversion, I looked up to see a young mother pull her child from the point of impact. She seemed both embarrassed and surprised by his adept puddle-jumping skills.

"Sir, I am so sorry."

I didn't mean to be flippant, but couldn't stop myself from laughing.

"It's okay. Don't worry about it."

"But the hems of your pants...they're soaked!"

"Really, it's not a problem."

"Nonsense. Let me get you a towel from the car."

There was an amusing quaintness in her speech and mannerisms that seemed charming and anachronistic. I followed her back through the parking lot as Joshua (whose hand was now tightly secured to avoid another incident) persisted in trying to hit every puddle along the way. For the first time in several weeks, I felt myself smile.

We soon arrived at a blue SUV, which was promptly unlocked and stripped of a thin white towel.

"I keep them for when we travel with the dogs, but don't worry. This one hasn't been used."

Humored by her reassurance, I graciously accepted the towel.

"Thanks for this. How should I return it?"

She seemed amused by my query.

"It's a beach towel. Keep it, throw it doesn't matter."

I thanked her again and headed toward Barnes & Noble, which housed the nearest restroom. Along the way, I thought of Joshua and his mother, envying the apparent normalcy of their lives. Even during the best of times, my life with Karen was never typical or easy. She often seemed undecided about the merits of a "traditional" marriage over a contemporary one, but couldn't settle on a balance between the two. She simultaneously embraced the role of staunch feminist alongside a more subdued identity; a modern day "damsel in distress" of sorts. Our first conversation was over the phone, and I remember being intrigued by her confidence. I didn't understand why someone who was so independent would need a husband in the first place. Maybe a few sporadic relationships here and there, but certainly not a marriage.

Over time, I began to sense a paradox. It took awhile for the facts to align, but Karen's insecurities gradually came clear as the manifestation of two opposing personalities: the downtrodden single mother with a strong inferiority complex, and the self-assured intellectual with a sharp demeanor that bled arrogance. As we stumbled through the early stages of our relationship, I remember being caught off guard by her ability to cycle rapidly from one extreme to the other. Over the course of many conversations, she would regal me with stories of her Southern Baptist upbringing and how it ostensibly promoted her culture and character. But invariably, a particular question or comment would prompt recollections of some long-forgotten trauma, thereby derailing the conversation into a shallow abyss of indignation and self-pity. The ensuing moments appeared cathartic, as she would seemingly relive each transgression with a level of detail that was eerily vivid. In hindsight, the red strobe lights flickering through my head should have been enough to produce a migraine. But at some point, I had subconsciously learned to ignore them.         

By the time of my arrival at Barnes & Noble, I was considerably aware of the cold dampness permeating my socks. After finding a bathroom and drying myself off, I checked my watch and saw that it was almost five o'clock. My new jacket was supposedly water-proof, so I hurriedly tossed the white towel into my bag and began traversing the stock green carpet toward the door. After successfully navigating around hordes of casual browsers and strolling families, I found myself within several strides of the exit. I could finally see an end to the weekend's trial when something appeared in my periphery, calling out like a flock of sirens through a dismal fog. 

I came to a dead halt and turned to my left. The "new titles" rack stood in front of me, but only one of its twenty-odd selections had grabbed my attention. I anxiously plucked a non-descript paperback from the shelf, and began reading from the back of its pale brown jacket. 

It appeared that fate had finally thrown me a bone.        


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Ghost of a Chance

Note: My original intention was to post the following narrative as a single blog entry. The realities of time and certain personal limitations have made it necessary for me to divide the story into separate parts. I am posting the first piece now, and will have the second posted shortly.

In an unexpected turn of events, this piece has taken on a life of its own. What began as a mere 550-word account of my troubled past has rapidly developed into a trilogy. At present, the story seems to be dictating my thoughts and effort, not the other way around.

I appreciate everyone's patience on this matter. I am flattered by the encourging e-mails that have come my way since posting the first entry, and sincerely hope everyone will find the ensuing text worthwhile.

It is said that there are three sides to every story: the teller's side, the opposing side, and the truth. The following account will likely seem partial or biased, but this is necessarily so. The details are culled from my subjective experience of a tumultuous event that was life-changing, for better or worse. I can't possibly speak for the other (opposing) parties, nor can I give a third-person account of what "really" happened.

With that in mind, please note that certain names have been changed to protect the guilty.

In contrast to previous months, October of 2007 seemed fairly innocuous. Karen and I had been legally separated since July, and I was trying (in vain) to interpret her ongoing litany of mixed messages and vague implications. Despite the resolute tone that marked every phone call, her disposition often changed the moment we were in close proximity. The resentment and general acrimony would dissipate, and we would find ourselves communicating again. Over the phone, Karen repeatedly assured me that our marriage was a dead issue. She wouldn't deny having delivered the coup-de-grace, but felt no responsibility for its dissolution. She refused my pleas for counseling or other forms of reconciliation because she "couldn't" be married to me; as if she didn't have a choice in the matter because some cosmic presence was pushing her away.

In person, I would see a dramatically different side of Karen's complex persona. She never failed to greet me with a tight embrace, and the level of affection would increase if we happened to be alone. Naturally, this was rather confusing and only compounded the emotional turmoil that characterized those early months of separation. I believed that through these one-on-one encounters, she was giving me a reason to hold on. Maybe she was confused about her own feelings and just needed time to sort them out. Surely a few months alone would give her enough perspective to realize that divorce was a rather extreme proposition. I refused to believe that she really wanted it; no more than I did, at least.

As the months passed, I began to see a side of Karen that was starkly unfamiliar. While always a bit dramatic, her personality took on a belligerent quality that seemed puerile and vindictive. One of her more insidious methods involved disregarding my attempts to contact her. I had witnessed Karen's tendency to brush off friends and family members who violated her abstract code of fairness or principle, but never imagined myself on the receiving end. Even carrying out the simplest of tasks (e.g. picking up personal effects from the house) became a debacle that would go on for several days. Typically, the sequence of events would begin with my initial phone call, which would be ignored.

Every time.

Attempts to contact her by e-mail would be similarly deflected. I wanted to believe that she was just overwhelmed by work-related stress or the difficulties of managing a household by herself. However, there was a convenient irony in Karen's tendency to leave multiple voice messages (usually 45 minutes apart) whenever she needed me to sign a check or remove my name from a joint account. I eventually came to realize that she saw very little of the world outside her own suffering and dissatisfaction, and truly felt entitled to some form of universal restitution.

It was 9:00 pm on a Friday when I received a rather unexpected (not to mention uncharacteristic) call from Karen. As promised, she had put our house on the market and was in the process of painting and having some electrical work done. She didn't want my help with any part of the process, and was quick to let me know that several friends and co-workers were lending a hand. Naturally, I had a few questions about how she planned to carry out such an ambitious plan without my assistance.

"So someone is taking care of the electrical work?"


"I thought we were hiring an electrician for that."

"Well...we don't have to."

"One of your co-workers is an electrician?"

"Um, no."

"So who is doing the work?"

A brief pause ensued.

"His, uh...his name is Eric. He's an electrician."

I was hearing Karen's tone gradually decline from indignant confidence to an awkward stammer. Out of necessity, I braced myself before proceeding with the next question.

"Is there something going on there?"

Anticipating another pregnant pause, I was taken back by an irritating giggle.

"Please! He's mama's age!"

I marveled at how the southern charm that once enamored me had become little more than a blank affectation. She went on to explain that Eric had been introduced to her by a co-worker. Given that she was struggling financially (as tends to happen when one eliminates a spouse's income from the monthly ledger), he was willing to donate his time and talent. She considered him a friend and supporter. In other words, he provided blind validation for those times when she needed to excoriate me.

"But there is something I should tell you."

Once again, I felt my stomach wind into a spring.

"I asked Eric to go through the house yesterday and remove all the knives."

A cyclonic blur of emotions came over me. She continued talking, but I couldn't focus beyond the images flashing in front of me. I heard running water and saw pink rivulets trailing from the bathtub to the white tile floor. I saw the steely glint of a paring knife on the kitchen counter and static puddles of crimson against a linoleum canvas. I heard her muffled gasps as I resignedly blotted the angry red gashes across her thighs with Q-tips and antiseptic solution.

"God, I...I'm really sorry to hear that. Are you okay?"

"I am now."

"It sure doesn't sound like it. You should probably see someone."

"I saw Dr. Gibson the other day. He gave me an antidepressant and a sedative. I'll be fine."

True to form, Karen had spent fifteen minutes with our family doctor and believed she was cured.

"You'll need more than that. Take it from someone who knows."

I was referring to my own penchant for self-destruction, which had a tendency to surface in turbulent times. Despite the difference in method (she turned to a knife, I turned to a bottle), I had always seen parallels in our respective coping mechanisms. But Karen would never acknowledge any such likeness, preferring to operate under the pretense that she was healthy and I was not.

With a petulant huff of exasperation, she proceeded.

"I don't know if you've noticed, but I'm a little busy at the moment. I'm having to sell a house by myself, you know."

I was all too familiar with this line of reasoning. She had abruptly kicked me out of our home and refused my help at every turn. Just the same, it was my fault that she couldn't keep the house and stood on the verge of bankruptcy. She "had" to do everything by herself because she "couldn't" accept my assistance. She had not made a choice in the matter, because there was no other option. Therefore, Karen bore no responsibility for the stress that had seriously diminished her quality of life.

Slighted by her insinuation, I tried (churlishly, I might add) to reason with her.

"And whose choice was that?"

A deafening pause ensued.

"You arrogant fucking prick."

Each word met my ears about a second apart, every syllable bursting with menace. I was admittedly shaken, but felt guilty for steering the conversation into such parlous territory. Taking a deep breath, I attempted to explain myself.

"I've tried to help you, but every time I reach out you push me away. I've given you everything you've asked for, and--"

"I'm done talking to you."

With a sharp click of the handset, the discussion had ended.

On Karen's terms.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

A Subtle Induction

Many years ago, I found it therapeutic to clear my mental space by conducting lengthy dialogs with a friend who lived in Siberia. He wasn't there due to an archaic system of punishment or exile; he was a true, dyed-in-the-wool Siberian. Despite his relative youth, Andrey (or "Andy", as he preferred) had a keen perspective on life that seemed ironic in its optimism. Despite living in a country that had gradually progressed toward Westernization (if "progressed" is even the correct term), he never failed to startle me with tales of a nation in disarray. 

At the time, my life's greatest obstacles were parenthood, financial anxiety, and terminal boredom. Andy's included human rights violations, imminent social chaos, and the looming spectre of economic collapse. Needless to say, every parallel he drew was similarly unbalanced and disproportionate. Over the five years that we stayed in touch, I gained more perspective from this affable young Siberian than any friend who preceded him. We lost contact over the years, but nary a day will pass when I don't think of our many e-mail sessions. We used to refer to them as "mental defecation rituals", and it remains an appropriate metaphor. 

In Andy's absence, I've decided to throw my continually recycling detritus (i.e., thoughts and experiences) onto a computer screen for the perusal of a wider audience. Many (if not all) of the posts will seem pessimistic, cynical, and/or nihilistic, with a touch of misanthropy thrown in for good measure. But keep in mind that this is my venting space, so you're not going to hear much about what is good in my life (which is a lot). Consider yourself warned... :)