Thursday, July 31, 2008


Did you know they really exist, pack rats? Despite what certain parties might tell you, I am not quite as messy as a real pack rat--I do not preserve my surroundings with urine, for one--but I do live in a universe of private souvenirs whose meaning is clear only to me. And actually, not even, as I keep some things so long I forget why I ever had them.

This tendency is exacerbated by the fact that
a) I moved seven times in two and a half years
b) in a hasty move, which they always are, I'll throw all the remaining stuff into a box at the last minute, allegedly to be later unpacked, which it never is
c) whenever a pile of papers accumulates in my room or coffee table or kitchen chair, my quick-clean solution is to toss them into a box in the capacious garage/studio.

Now I have to deal with it.

Nothing in the world stirs up the emotional sediment more than moving. Any song I play, regardless of genre, can make me teary. That kind of goes for everything I do, actually. And it doesn't matter that I'm not leaving my house for good, that my things will remain stored here, that I'm leaving for a place I'm thrilled to be headed to, and that I'll be back in less than a year.

There is something about Going Through Stuff.

Old homes, old story drafts, old tickets, old programs, old lists, old lovers, old photos--photos I took, photos others took, photos sent to me across the country, the letters, oh the letters. Old tapes, VHS, cassettes, floppy disks, hard disks, ZIP disks, obsolete technology, all-access passes, address books never filled before becoming obsolete, an old Mac Powerbook from 1993, old journals, old trinkets, old boxes, old papers, old receipts, old bills, old statements, old promises, old articles, old scraps of writing, old love. Old life.

The old life is still in me of course; it can't be returned to, but neither can it be obliterated. All these scraps and files and shoddy archives overcompensate on both counts. The archiving impulse is a weak little fist shaken against mortality and forgetting. Universe: I was here, and I remember!

And I have the magnetic refrigerator calendar from Le Gamin in the East Village from 2003 to prove it.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


Rock'n'Roll Camp for Girls: The Book is out! Chronicle published it and it turned out great. Neighbor Nicole illustrated it, Carrie wrote the foreword, Beth Ditto wrote an amazing piece called "How to Sound Like a Vacuum Cleaner," Cynthia Nelson eloquently explains "Why I Am Not A Rock Star," and that is just off the top of my head, basically everyone I love from rock camp wrote funny and moving and most importantly useful words of advice. My contribution is a nonglamorous but pragmatic thing called "How to Spin the Web (and Not Get Caught)." The internets, they're outlaw territory.

We had a book release party at In Other Words the other night. Sts handed out chopsticks and taught the whole audience how to play a rock beat on the back of the folding chairs.

This reminded me of a certain goal I drew in January.

So yesterday after rock camp was over and everyone was filtering out I grabbed a pair of drumsticks from the giant bucket by the rock room and sneaked into the Volcano Room, a tiny windowless room where a kit was still set up. I shut the door and turned on the light and sat down behind the kit. And I did it. One-and-two-and, one-and-two-and, faster and faster, and then I tried hitting really hard, and it was incredibly loud and a little scary but in an awesome way. I could feel the sound traveling through me via my arms and feet. I heard people going back and forth in the hallway outside the door and I felt bashful despite myself so I turned off the light and slipped back out. But I was grinning all the way home.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


My friend Lena is an artist and Ukrainian and used to wear a gray coat with a huge furry collar that she called Squirrel Girl. In college we played in a band called Endor with our friends Ginger and Gillian. At one show when Lena was drumming on our cover of "The Metro" by Berlin she played so hard her hands bled. Like, blood spattered the snare. At this same show I was wearing a unisuit made entirely of duct tape. It was astonishingly heavy.

Lena drew this eleven years ago when we were still in school. Since then it has hung on the walls of many of my dwellings.

Those last few panels get me every time.

Lena has started posting Manic Cat things here, and I can't wait until a decade's worth of drawings and wood-block prints and silkscreens and mythology all get collected in a completist Manic Cat compendium. Would a book hold it all? It might need to be some kind of box set.

P.S. Ask Lena permission if you want to repost it.

Monday, July 14, 2008


At the Ambassador last week with Douglas and two fellow rock camp counselors, we had the place to ourselves, so I sang whatever showed up on the first page of the new song updates. Which, logically, was "1 2 3 4" by Feist. iPod ads be damned (or praised), I love "1 2 3 4." I can no more resist its coy charms than I can a box of Saint Cupcakes. But there's nothing like karaoke to unmask a song's weakness. Feist has a slight substance dissonance--her voice is full of it, rich and sorrowful and subtle, but her lyrics don't carry it. They tend to be half-formed, vague, and repetitive. They sound like scratch lyrics.

However, when tweaked and transposed to Sesame Street, "1 2 3 4" gains some concrete meaning! (Thanks Douglas, pop miner extraordinaire).

Still a cupcake. But a cupcake you can sink your teeth into. Plus the line "chickens just back from the shore."

By contrast, the depth and substance of the girls who played Saturday's rock camp show blow Feist out of the water. This was the first-ever Rock Camp Studio, where veteran campers learned not just how to play but how to record themselves. Here is a clip of the Sneak Team, ages 15-17. Formed their band Monday. Wrote and recorded this song, "Let Me Tell You," by Friday. Had the entire audience of the Bagdad Theater on their feet, and the hairs on the back of my neck thoroughly on end.

Let me tell you how I let it go

Let me tell you what you'd never know

Society saying what to be
Just an illusion of confusion that they all seem to see
Well let me tell you how I let it go

In a world of freedom I feel oppressed
For the way that I talk and the way that I dress

For the people that I love and respect

Don't know why I can't be different without being depressed

So breathe it in, as it begins

(ignorance, arrogance, negligence and sins)
So breathe it out, and do not doubt

(confidence, happiness, innocence and dreams)

...Well let me tell you how we let it go

Feist can do the Muppet monsters. Leave it to the teenage girls take on the real ones.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Guest essay today, because my brother Nate sent me this and I liked it so much I asked him if I could post it here. Nate is 31 and lives in rural Maine making various things with his own hands. One thing I really admire about Nate is how completely he considers and immerses himself in a principle or idea--not in the way of the fanatic or the dilettante, but with thoughtfulness and intellectual curiosity and conscious practice. Previously he has: originated a music/film festival (still going strong), farmed on Sauvie Island and then created his own organic farm in northern MN, and built brick stoves for rural Guatemalans, among other endeavors and adventures. While in Guatemala, he also got deep into basketry, which is the genesis of this piece, which is about much more than just baskets. (By the way, he made that basket pictured below.)

When I went to Guatemala this past winter to study basketry, I quickly learned two things: how to split twelve-foot-long caƱaveral (a native cane plant) with an oversized knife, and that handcrafts in the poor, Central American countries that I visited are virtually never hobbies-- they are simply ways to make a living. Thus, wherever I went, it was a bit difficult to explain that no, I did not necessarily want to use what I learned to make money, but rather that I enjoyed working with my hands, making useful things out of locally-available materials, and learning traditional crafts.

In our country, of course, it is largely reversed--while we have professional basket-makers, potters, bowl-carvers, weavers, knitters, and so on, by far the majority are home hobbyists, weekend artisans who engage their minds and hands creatively outside of work.

The danger in countries such as Guatemala is evident--as handcrafts become less economically viable, people quit doing them for a living. Crafts seem not to be considered a "free time" activity, and therefore they can disappear very quickly from the cultural collective knowledge. What was once an important skill is replaced in the span of a single generation by things that are shipped from far away and purchased at the store. Santa Clara la Laguna, where I made cane baskets, has traditionally been the basketry center of the western highlands, with most of the town churning out sturdy market baskets using a readily available, virtually inexhaustible material. With the entrance of the plastic basket and water-holding plastic tub, however, the demand has dropped precipitously, and now, as I heard time and again, hardly anyone makes baskets anymore, or at least not like they used to. The town has put down their special knives (my teacher and I couldn’t even find one to buy) and gone out to pick coffee, or more likely, moved to dangerous Guatemala City to look for employment, as there is suddenly very little available in town.

While we might like to think it idyllic to sit out front with the chickens running over our feet, under a shade tarp, making baskets to the smell of tortillas from inside, it is important to remember that the realities are different. Baskets are worth very little, ($2 to $5 each, depending on size), surely become monotonous to make after about ten years of the same design (which is how long my 16-year-old teacher had been at it), and offer no security or income during the rainy season, when the economy slows down and it is very difficult to get work done. But this needs to be taken within the greater context of societal change--whereas once people grew, made, and gathered much of what they needed, the newly imported Western economy has rapidly created a country of consumers. What was before resourcefully provided is now purchased, and hand-made artisan products simply cannot compete with global industry. I found that while I wanted to go to Guatemala to make baskets, they wanted to come to the USA and drive cars.

The two months I spent there highlighted the importance of preserving traditional crafts. As plastic, recycled clothing, and other products of greater Western industry make their way around the world, they quickly replace traditional, locally-based practices that formerly filled people's needs, maintained viable local economies, and formed the substance of regional, land-based culture. In the United States, we have the resources, and often the luxury, to maintain and practice these crafts outside of economic demands. With these hand skills-- sometimes simple, sometimes astonishingly complex--we give people the opportunity to reconnect with the age-old process of making things that they need, rather than plugging into the global, industrial, faceless, fossil-fueled supermarket of plastic. There is joy in this process, and in this we also find the first glimmer of culture.

I've heard it said, "When I hear the word 'culture,' I reach for my wallet." But there is a deeper meaning to the word, outside of "entertainment," which is culture's modern substitute. Culture is something, I've also heard said, that is a product of people, the land, and time. A traditional society develops its way of life over centuries, slowly incorporating the environment into its society--the plants, animals, trees, waterways, and topography that surround it. A northern society, like one found in Grand Marais, on the shores of Lake Superior, Minnesota, would develop an entirely different set of crafts, rituals, stories, and songs from one found, say, on the shores of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, ringed by volcanoes in a semi-tropical environment. Today, however, you can go to either place and find the same pickup, the same soda bottle, the same pop music on the radio, the same clothing, tin roof, cement block, and plastic bowl. If our society can find a way to preserve traditional methods of working with nature, we also teach people to interact with their natural environment, giving them new perspectives on what it means to live in a place. We offer an opportunity for genuine culture to rise anew--the stories, songs, costumes, ceremonies, and artisan crafts that are drawn from a unique landscape, adding richness, meaning, and greater awareness to our societies.

My daily-use bowl was made by a potter from my hometown, I carved my spoon from a nearby fallen apple limb, my harvest basket is woven from a black ash tree cut down in the swamp… These little things ground me in a place, ask that I take time to know the land and environment around me, and connect me with a community of people who add to what I can do. As I learn about the natural world at hand and how I can meet my needs from its resources, I am beginning to better understand how the larger ecosystem works as well. As I gain knowledge of my environment, I am more compelled to protect and preserve it. Through crafts, I am building a relationship between the people and land around me--I am rediscovering the seeds of culture in its truest sense.

Monday, July 7, 2008


I fear that my dog has mortally injured a squirrel in my backyard. He was standing under the pear tree, tail up, ears forward, looking down at it studiously. I came over and saw the glimpse of gray fur in the brambles of hops and lemon balm that have run rampant in that neglected corner. I shooed Emmett away and leaned in for a look.

The squirrel is/was still very much alive, lying on its side, eyes wide and bright, sides heaving. I could hear its small breaths. Emmett too was panting heavily in weird concert. I would love to believe that the squirrel simply fell from the tree, and Emmett had run to it out of concern. The only visible marks on it are a tiny nick/scratch on its hindquarters and a spot of tousled damp fur on its flank. Possibly the damage inside is much greater.

I don't know what to do in this situation. "Put it out of its misery" is the typical line that comes to mind, but how would I do that? I don't have the skill or the will to bring a hammer or a knife back to the pear tree. The chance of causing greater pain seems too high. And how can any of us know what the squirrel would prefer?

When a friend's dog killed a possum in my backyard, the choice was easy. I went back to the corner where it lay and shined a flashlight on it. The possum, mostly paralyzed, barely able to twitch its paws, opened its mouth and feebly yet forcefully hissed at me. I thought, Better to die alone in peace in the dark than under the glare of human flashlight and whatever lethal implement I could improvise. And I knew its death would come soon. I switched off the light and left it alone.

This one, I don't know. I don't know how long it will lie there alive before its body gives up. I don't know what squirrel suffering feels like. I don't know how or where squirrels naturally die. Do they die alone? (Are they even social animals? They mostly seem to yell at each other.) Do they crawl away? Die at home? If not cars or predators, what gets them in the end? Do any of the other squirrels notice they're gone?

The most pressing and troubling question right now, though, is what would the squirrel want? And this is impossible not only for obvious reasons, but also because even my human projection is unsteady. To be honest, I don't even know what I would want. There's this idea that instant death is best, not even to know what hit you. But I don't know. Maybe I am so in love with consciousness and life that I would rather know and understand, even if it's only for a brief time, even if it is painful, what death feels like and what my life has meant.

I would hate for my last conscious thought to be Oh, shit.

I always want more time for everything.

Sadly, the squirrel is probably not experiencing bittersweet retrospect right now. Barring some miracle (it was only stunned! it was playing dead/dying!), the squirrel is still lying there helpless under the tree. Emmett is scratching at the back door and whimpering. And I am sitting here with a knot in my stomach, and I am not going to open that door.