Song #16 // Steven Julien, “Chantel” [Fallen]

Song #17 // Moby, “LA1” [Long Ambients 1: Calm. Sleep.]

Neither one of these songs are in and of themselves great songs. Instead they echo the soundtrack that I listened to nearly nonstop in my office for long stretches of summer 2016 as I worked on a book proposal. Those were hot days where I’d barely see anyone in the empty hallways of our empty campus. Although I tried to listen to classical, jazz, or other soft favorites, I continually gravitated back toward this free Moby download or more times than not Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports,” whose map-based cover art reminds me as much of summer in Austin as does any greenery or cockroach.

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Song #15 // Magna Carda, “The Root” [CirQlation]

Four apologies

1 The Prodigal Friend
It was the stuff of 12yo girls: friends, besties, unexplained anger, banishment, silence, and reconciliation.

It was my first adult apology. I was 32.

It’s not too far a stretch to call him one of my best friends. He was part of a regular circle. And when everyone else was busy he was almost always free and willing to go out. When he revealed that he was gay, I kissed him. I was proud to call him a friend, and proud that he considered me one.

And then one day it all stopped. I still don’t know why. Maybe he was transitioning to a new set of friends. Maybe he was dealing with new identity issues as he still hadn’t widely admitted to others that he was gay. I even heard that he no longer considered himself gay. Maybe it was a midlife kinda crisis. I honestly don’t know why.

I beat myself up for days trying to figure out what I did wrong. I felt hurt and confused, and then I felt angry. We stopped talking for years after our breakup became awkwardly apparent to me at a party where I tried to talk to him throughout the night, each time him staring at me stone-faced, as if I was despicable yet he still had enough maturity to listen to me. I had no idea he was already done with me.

And then years later, long after I became jaded and completely wrote him off even as other friends (he did this to them too) welcomed him back, he wrote me a short, succinct, and sincere email. He never explained himself, nor completely apologized in the most direct of ways. But he did admit that what he did wasn’t that cool. He said he valued my friendship. He said he’d like to take me out again. He closed by saying he understood if I didn’t want to respond.

My reaction was a cocktail of love, disdain, and self-righteousness. I sat on it for a while, told my wife about it, eventually wrote back with a “thank you” and a noncommittal acceptance of the offer that we have yet to cash in on. In fact I haven’t seen or heard from him since. The apology made me feel better up to a certain point.

But there’s still a little piece of me that hurts. That little piece sometimes thinks that it can crawl through that small crack left open. But in the end, we both know that door closed long ago.

2 No Tradebacks
The second apology was in direct response to the first. Regardless of its outcome, that initial email took guts, and came from a real place. Even though it slightly irritated me, and ultimately didn’t sway me, I could recognize that much. It became a surprise tool that I decided to put in my toolkit for another day. I had no idea I’d pull it out so shortly thereafter.

I was at Stanford and finding reasons to be unhappy at everything. The latest target was the hiring process in my program: I had just finished a PhD in the field, I had 10yrs of experience, I was coming back to a job that I had left just 5yrs earlier. And here was my program hiring people outside of our field with no experience. It felt unfair.

I tried my best to swallow it all, but bitter pills stick easily in throats, and I began holding it against the new hires, one in particular who seemed popular, capable, and not particularly interested in my concerns. In a word, I don’t think he ever did anything personal to me, but I had principles to uphold.

Eventually I figured it out. Following Apology #1 I realized that redemption and forgiveness were just a click away. I waited till a weekend and wrote it all out: how I didn’t think he belonged, how hard I had worked, and–most importantly–how irrational it all was. In another word, I was completely honest, both admitting that I was being a dick and apologizing for being such a dick. How could it go wrong?

The answer came quickly, dripping with venom. How dare I question him? How dare I think I was better? What if my own insecurities were reflected in others in the program?

I was a horrible person, twice over. I now had written proof, and I was never forgiven, by him or by myself.

3 Forgotten Facebook
Some apologies happen quickly, and their aftermaths simmer for long whiles after. Sometimes, though, it’s the other way around.

When my wife and I visited her old friends in Portland years ago I was in a bad way. I was still undiagnosed, still unpredictable, still bitter that things weren’t being given to me simply because I had made it clear that I intended to put forth some effort. I was insufferable, I’m sure.

Having said that, they really annoyed me. Like, really really annoyed me. Still do for some reason.

There was some mild drama, some partner arguments that took place in closed, shared quarters. I had a tendency back then to stomp off and skulk back only to apologize and cry. I did that. I did that to her. I did that to them. I felt bad (I still do) but it was all part of the flavor profile back then. I ruined a lot of otherwise decent memories and I don’t necessarily deserve to be forgiven for that regardless of good excuses.

And then this year I was unexpectedly on Facebook, deleting every post I’ve made on the site since 2005 (long story, pick up your data like litter) and realized I had been receiving messages even though I’d been off the site since 2014 or so. One was recent, and from the woman in Portland. It was long and I didn’t read past, “I’ve forgiven you.”

The preface to that apparent gift was that she had done a lot of processing and heard about whatever issues I was going through and came to realize that I deserved if not pity then at least forgiveness for an apology I never gave.

I deleted it. I never told anyone about it. I got mad. I got incredulous. I felt like suddenly I was owed an apology. I knew, if nothing else, that I would have been a lot better off if she had never said anything at all. No peace offering necessary. No reason to bring up the past. Just leave it alone.

4 Good Intentions
And of course I’ve yet to learn. Or grow up.

On a recent trip to our neighborhood coffee shop one bleary morning I cracked. A barista mumbling under her breath. Picking up on my mood, giving it right back. Me, not letting it go, having to say something. And she, like a professional, just walking away as her coworker picked up the pieces and I picked on myself.

My initial reaction was to never go back. I had been wronged. I had been disrespected.

But then I thought. Then I realized. I intended to go back and apologize. Look her in the eye and admit that I was an asshole, that whatever she had done or thought was nothing compared to the way I surely ruined her day. The way I’ve ruined so many days.

It was Christmastime. I intended to go back.

One day I did. And she wasn’t there. Another. No one.

And so it’s a month gone by and I still feel guilty. Less so, but still guilty. And some days, when I’m feeling good about myself regardless of how anyone else feels about themselves or about me, I consider going back and making good on that original idea. I don’t know what I expect, but we can assume it’s some sort of gratitude. Some sort of agreement that it’s in the past. That I’m a good guy just for even still thinking about it.

But there are sadder days, days where I don’t feel so outgoing. Days where I’m busy or tired, and I simply go on with life. Go on without interactions, without apologies. Because they never seem to do much good anyway.

This is an excerpt from my “Self, Help!” manuscript How to be a Good Dude.

The core of Magna Carda is from my school, St. Edward’s. From my English Writing department no less. That fact makes them cool (if not overly celebrated in faculty meetings.) I first heard them driving through Zilker Park on an errand to either drop off or pick up my daughter. I can’t recall the exact date, but I can vividly remember time slowing down as I turned the music up, thinking to myself–as I nodded along–that this was what poetry in music should sound like. It was like something I’d been hearing for years and something new all at once. I’m not even sure this is the best song off of their latest release. But it’s certainly one of the best examples (outside of Mal Devisa, of course) of what spare vocals and bass accompaniment can weave into magic.

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Song #14 // Mal Devisa, “Fire” [Kiid]

Sunlight in January. Winter blue.

Sunlight through the window. Slanted and keeping time, sliding up the wall.

Sunlight in the afternoon. Last dying breath of day. Rush out and feel. See your breath. Retreat.

Sunlight. As gentle as a mother’s touch. On a hot forehead in a dimly lit room. As gentle as that.

Sunlight in foreign tongues: German, Italian, and French. In Texas.

Sunlight in underheated rooms and breezes that seep. Listen to Elliott Smith. Light a scented candle. Sip coffee or flavored tea. Visit Chicago on the weekend.

Sunlight and a new dawn of a new day. Imagine a fresh start. Imagine what tomorrow looks like.

Sunlight and I’m romantic, living inside of the harmonies of Kings of Convenience, retreading the past in small degrees. Single digits.

There is little that needs to be said about this song, or about this artist. A solitary female voice. Bass accompaniment. One against/amongst the world. The fire that burns here is smoldering, but persistent, and no less dangerous to the touch.

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Song #13 // Blind Pilot, “Packed Powder” [And Then Like Lions]

A hard frost coming tonight and all I can think about is my daughter sleeping on the floor.

I was trying to get just a bit of reading in between the time that everyone else went to bed and I too succumbed to sleepiness when I heard her muttering plaintively, first to herself and then to anyone else listening. Within seconds I heard her shuffling in the hallway behind me.

It’s been a recent regression, her getting up in the night, her leaving her bedroom, her sleeping on the floor. It’s all compromises these days: when to let her sleep in the bed, when to push back bedtime stories, when to stop blaming her (or ourselves.)

I can now admit that I was surprised she so easily let me usher her back into her darkened room, away from the brightly lit living room and into a faint smell of urine. She collapsed onto her blanket and I laid next to her, stroking her hair in ways I haven’t exercised in years. I silently monitored her breathing, gauging when I’d be able to make my escape. It happened quickly, and I wasn’t ready to leave yet.

And so she slept, bum in the air as if she gave up midway in a half crouch, her head turned away from me. There in the halflight I could look at her and think of all the ways she was like me, and all the ways that I both loved and hated that. Eventually she turned her head back toward me and though her breathing was still heavy I knew I had missed my chance to leave.

She won’t remember this, tomorrow or the next. She’s more likely to remember me, years from now, from the misguided Internet spats I post to people I disagree with. I’m old enough now to go back and delete those, but stupid enough still to let them rush my face with hot anger. I express my strong emotions online like a broken sprinkler, spraying indiscriminately, and yet in person I dry up and lose my voice. Why?

And what kind of father do I want to be? What kind of father does it make me that my most tender moments, my most gentle and caring, are when people are asleep? Can I be that way in the light of a new, frozen day? Would it make me any better? Would it make a difference?

The only sounds now are the clicking of keys and later the turning of pages before I click off the light and wait for the heater to knock on before I slide past her open doorway, another compromise that I’ve learned to live with. The same kind she’ll have to make much later for living with me.

I’ve written about Blind Pilot so much through the years–from meeting Israel for the first time in Ann Arbor, to how their music makes me cry as winter sunlight descends behind the San Francisco hills. There’s nothing I can add here that will top those memories. But just the same, I do need to say that this song in particular is a favorite of mine from this past year. It’s beautiful, and worth a quiet listen when you’re sure everyone else in the house is asleep. If it doesn’t make you want to try again and wake up as a better person tomorrow then, well, maybe it’s not time for bed just yet.

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Song #12 // Parker Millsap, “The Very Last Day” [The Very Last Day]

Dan Patrick is the Lt. Governor of Texas, my current big dumb state.

Let me tell you how dumb Dan Patrick is. Well, I only have a minute to share a few things. He’s not important enough to waste too much time on, unfortunately he’s just loud enough that we have to hear it pretty regularly down here.

I’ll preface this by drawing your attention to Senate Bill 6, which he unveiled yesterday, that he says ostensibly “protect[s] businesses from government interference,” but in actuality allows overt and unfettered discrimination based on people’s gender (and in some cases, sexual) identities.

In introducing this new hate bill–again, aimed ostensibly and giving more freedom to institutions, but in reality prevents transgendered people from exercising what should be a basic civil right of choosing which potty aligns with their identities–Patrick said, “we are on the right side of the issue, we are on the right side of history.”

Now, something should be telling you that similar things were said on the other side of Southern lunch counters and in hiring and wage decisions of women in the workplace. Those things were said, and they were certainly “right” for a long time.

But this is right now. And I haven’t even gotten to how dumb Dan Patrick is (because, let’s face it, we have to look no farther than North Carolina to see how seismically devastating similar bullish legislation can be on the economics and reputation of a state; even for a big dumb state like Texas this level of blind hatred and insecurity can’t stand.)

Dan Patrick (a big dummy who made his name not in hair gel but in radio) isn’t just interested in where people go to the potty. That’s not a civil rights issue to him. No, school choice of all things is “the civil rights issue of our time” according to Dan Patrick, who looks like Joe from the Guess Who board game.

School choice. Not fair housing. Not rights for transgender people. Not rights for women. Civil rights for Dan Patrick are the ability of parents to “choose” the best school for their children. Sounds innocuous, right? Keep in mind, though, that “choosing” is not the same as “going.” Through charters, vouchers, and mobility only available to some, school “choice” in Texas (as it has been elsewhere, most notably in my home state forever stained by future billionaire Education Secretary DeVos) is for the select few to outrun the hordes in an undesirable cohort. It’s economic segregation wrapped up in “freedom” and “choice.”

Dan Patrick is also dumb for hating women by hating Planned Parenthood, an organization whose primary purpose and activity is in widely providing women with healthcare and counseling. After falling for a fake news story about PP selling fetal tissue, Patrick launched a criminal investigation because, according to him, Planned Parenthood was profiting from abortion, and “encouraging” women to have abortions.

But even if Heaven shines down (even more than it usually does) on Texas and shows Dan Patrick the True Light on minorities and women, he’ll still stick to one thing: guns. This is Texas after all, y’all.

This past year Texas enacted the campus carry law–on the exact day of the 50th anniversary of the UT Tower mass shooting–which allows licensed gun owners to carry concealed weapons on all public universities. Needless to say Dan Patrick forwarded this particular bill not because of an explicit need or an explicit threat or even an explicit public outcry for it. He forwarded it because,well, ‘Merica (and because he’s dumb, which we’ve established.)

I’ve never met Dan Patrick. I have nothing against him personally as a man (that I know of.) Chances are we wouldn’t get along at all, but that’s neither here nor there. But I–and hopefully, we–know hatred, intolerance, and insecurity when we see it. I’d like to live in a state (and, really, in a country) where calling those things what they are is met with informed dialogue, if not agreement. Instead, down here it’s more likely met with:

Then go back to California, fairy.

Granted, going to a seldom-read blog to call an elected official “dumb,” and then cherry-picking pet policies to highlight and write about in brief uninformative ways isn’t exactly the height of maturity or eloquence. Like all my other posts, this is a first draft/best draft approach, and this one is as regrettable as the rest (read: espousing the virtues of coyote urine.) But I’ll rest a little easier tonight knowing that a small plot of the Internet is staked out with a simple declaration that people who are afraid of other people, who disenfranchise people, who make people less healthy, and who facilitate the shooting of other people are dumb. No one told Dan Patrick he had to be all of those things.

That’s just dumb.

Sorry Parker Millsap, neither you nor your music seemingly have anything to do with this tangent. My apologies (even though your tunes really brought it this year.)

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Song #11 // Lori McKenna, “Wreck You” [The Bird & The Rifle]

When I look out my window in Austin I can still see a little piece of Detroit. A little piece that rises 165ft off the ground and traveled here during Victorian times.

The Zilker moontower is within sight of my house, and is one of 17 or so remaining from 31 originally installed in Austin in the 1890s. After reading Skip Hollandsworth’s excellent Midnight Assassin about the country’s first serial killer (often called the Servant Girl Killer here in Austin) I was led to believe that the moontowers were erected in the (literal) shadier part of town in East and South Austin where traditional gas lamps didn’t provide a sense of security at night. The logic there was that new power from the hydroelectric dam would churn out electric light in areas that might be susceptible to more murders or nefarious deeds.

Apparently that theory (some ten years after the actual murders, which came and went, never to be solved) is now disputed, which is too bad because it had a nice logic to it.

But the original 31 towers were brought south just as Detroit (and apparently most everyone else in the world) was transitioning away from them. It wasn’t on par with trading Toledo for the U.P. with Ohio, but it wasn’t Michigan’s worst deal of all time either.

And now, just like San Francisco’s cable cars, Austin is the last and only place in the world to still use and celebrate this antiquated technology. Granted, the towers aren’t as romantic as the Rice-A-Roni red boxes sliding up and down the slopes of California Street, but they have their own charm. And for a northern boy like me, they provide just a hint of home even late at night.

For more information about the moontowers, jump here.

I can still recall the first time I heard this song. It was July and I was driving to watch my daughter’s first swim lesson. The song came on a local solar-powered radio station and I was arrested. I sat through the entire thing, tried to remember a clip of lyric, and came home that night to look it up. When the album was released I was happy to read about its acclaim from afar, and to revisit the song I first heard on that sweltering day.

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Song #10 // The South Austin Moonlighters, “You, Love, & Me” [Ghost of a Small Town]

Imagine yourself in the backseat of your parents’ car. You’re driving down some rural back channel, perhaps in Canada, maybe Pennsylvania. The window is cracked open, and the roar of the galloping wind is only broken by cars passing in the opposite direction, and yet in your small ears you swear you can hear the mute button tapped with each subsequent power pole.

When I was a child I spent countless hours like this, often imagining that I had a long knife, or a scythe, and was able to simply stick it out of the racing car and chop off the tops of anything going by: poles, trees, fence posts, neon signs. Make everything clean and even.

I’ve never analyzed it much since then, nor even really returned to the memory, but just recently I was reading the opening chapters of a so-far-excellent book called Weathering by Lucy Wood, and a young girl does exactly that in rural UK.

It was an odd sensation, reading about something that not only had I not thought about for a long time, but also something that I thought was purely mine. It was the rush of emotion like when a sibling and you share a memory long squirreled away. It had the opposite effect of making me feel less original; it made me feel less alone.

Of all of the songs that teetered in and out of this year’s list, this was the last one to fall into the “keep” pile. It’s a local band (perhaps I’ll do another post on what a moon tower is in the future), and though the song may or may not stand the test of time for me or anyone else, it’s currently a fun ride, and definitely a toe-tapper as I’ve driven up and down Congress, Lamar, and Mo-Pac running errands. I make no excuses for how saccharine or cheesy it is. Despite the harmonized cliche, there’s a little Blue Rodeo hidden in there that makes me unembarrassed to roll the window down when it’s playing; it’s the kind of music that filtered into my backseat several decades ago.

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Song #9 // Robert Ellis, “Drivin'” [Robert Ellis]

No one tells you much about love. No one tells you about the guilt, and feeling of unworth. No one tells you about they inbetweens of love and hate and jealousy and sympathy and pity and need. No one draws you a Venn diagram, points, and says It’s right there!

We learn about love through songs and books and movies and TV and porn and poems and greeting cards. We learn through watching and listening, eventually feeling, around in the dark. We learn to reconcile our desires with our abilities and our capability to express it all. It very rarely turns out.

And so we stumble by ourselves, bruising and wrecking people along the way, the way an unmoored boat does more damage to other boats and docks than it does to itself, a battered but yet seaworthy vessel.

How can I explain to myself? To myself yesterday, or years ago. How can I explain to you? As a warning or a confession.

How can I receive a hug from my daughter in the evening, her love and belonging visceral in need and expression, while in the morning she saw me screaming, impatient, unable to accept the role of a father not in control in most parts of his life?

How can I receive that hug, feel so much guilt, feel so much self-loathing, feel so much sadness that comes with age, and yet squeeze her so tight? Squeeze her and tell her I love her, and mean it?

I’d listened to this song dozens of times (and liked it) before I studied the lyrics. It was then that I fell in love with it. It said everything: about the times I drove around the Presidio before heading home on Greenwich, about the times I’d run out to the football field on Sundays to watch the sun go down, about the times I needed to know everyone I loved was safe and happy even though I felt like I couldn’t make them either. And yet the longing, the waiting, wins out

This don’t feel like living
It’s just surviving.
I ain’t going nowhere
I’m just drivin’

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Song #8 // Frankie Lee, “High and Dry” [American Dreamer]

FACT: You can buy coyote urine on Amazon.

FACT: You can buy said coyote urine in gallon jugs or 4oz bottles on Amazon. (I bought a 4oz bottle.)

FACT: I just realized that I had meant to add Beck’s song “Wow” to this year’s list not because I particularly liked it, but because it’s sonicaly rich and seemed like it would be a great song for people who enjoy drugs like ecstasy.

FACT: Coyote urine is advertised on Amazon using descriptors like “PURE!” and under names like “Leg Up” and “Simply Scentsational.”

FACT: Coyote urine is black, viscous, and salty smelling. In many ways it looks, feels, and smells exactly like soy sauce that has gone putrid.

FACT: I never once thought I’d be talking about this with any kind of personal knowledge before 2016.

My sincere apologies to Frankie Lee, another alt-country entry on this year’s list. This fact sheet on the e-commerce of coyote urine had to come somewhere, I guess, and it just happened to fall on his slot. “High and Dry,” (not a Radiohead cover) to my knowledge, has nothing to do with coyotes and/or urine, but here it is. A strange kind of synergy indeed.

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Song #7 // Will Courtney, “The Pain (Song for Dennis Wilson)” [Planning Escapes]

Here’s some possible insight none of us realized we didn’t need: I’ve willingly gone out of my way this morning to go to a place that I don’t like because it brings up bad memories.

I’m out running errands with my infant daughter and stopped at a Panera for a bagel and coffee, even though the bagels have a tremendous amount of calories and the coffee occupies a ring of Hell otherwise rented out by Keurig cups.

To make matters worse I willingly added some hazelnut flavored coffee to regular because it, again, added to the sensory call-back of a decade-old series of memories. (As a side note, my best buddy in SF, Mark, had a mind game where if you were going to Hell you had to choose between only drinking flavored coffee for all of eternity OR only listen to smooth jazz from now until forever. Tough call.)

But back to Panera, where I am now, sipping on this horrendous synthetic hazelnut brew while gnawing on a French Toast bagel (French Toast?! 350 calories! Why?)

It all brings me back to South Bend at the turn of the century. I was an unknowing alcoholic, writing poetry that eventually made me hate poetry, and in love with a woman who had almost complete disdain for me most days (she famously invited me to visit her in London where she was doing study abroad, shacked up with a new guy [bloke?], and then lost contact with me for over a month. I finally called her a week before my trip and found out she didn’t want me to come. I think I still debated going to work it out even then.)

Now for some reason Panera is playing Gorillaz’s “On Melancholy Hill,” which is all kinds of confusing.

Back in South Bend I’d spend entire afternoons at the shiny new Panera, reading books on poetics next to the fake fire, drinking unlimited refills of hazelnut coffee, and maybe eating an awful sandwich and soup before going home and watching “Trading Spaces” (I was 25 going on 65.)

But none of this explains why I’m here now, and this is where I’m hoping this little entry can be accessible to the few people still reading. What is it about bad memories that still attract us after we’ve managed to escape them? Why do we still think of, and sometimes email, our exes? Why do we drive by our childhood homes now occupied by new families? Why do we re-read the old break-up notes that brought us to our knees? Why do we return to the places we ran away from?

Maybe it’s perspective, somehow thinking that we’re stronger and better in the present tense, and by returning we’re showing our power over these disenfranchised moments.

Maybe, but I doubt it. More than likely it’s an itch we can’t stop scratching. There’s something grotesquely appealing (read: flavored coffee drank on vinyl seats under orange floor lamps) about the immediate even though the longer-lasting pain is sure to remain. It all still burns, but just a little bit. And after this last cinnamon (?) crumble at least I can leave this place; move on and choose to come back (if I want to, which I probably do despite myself.)

There’s power in that, and power brings pleasure. We’re willing to pay for that, willing to alter our routes for that.

Which all brings us apropos to Will Courtney’s “The Pain,” which is one of many alt-country tunes added to this year’s list. A refrain like

The Pain
The Pain
The drinks won’ t kill the pain
The Pain
The Pain
The sea won’ t kill the pain today

isn’t exactly poetry, but somehow it all works. It’s the right thing for the right time, even if that time is nee 13yrs ago in Mishawaka, IN.

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