Blessed are the Geeks: Remembering Harold Ramis

He’s the least changed by success of anyone I know in terms of sense of humor, of humility, sense of self,” the late Second City founder Bernie Sahlins, who began working with Ramis in 1969, said of him in 1999. “He’s the same Harold he was 30 years ago. He’s had enormous success relatively, but none of it has gone to his head in any way.”

Harold Ramis died today.  The first movie I ever saw him in was Ghostbusters where he played Egon Spengler, my favorite ghostbuster.  What fascinated me most about him (and the film) was the scientific approach to the paranormal: the idea that spirits, ghosts, demons, and deities not only exist but can be identified and categorized. I can’t tell you how much I wished his trusted Tobin’s Spirit Guide were a real-life text I could check out from my local library.  I dreamed of paging through a heavy, black leather bound book, reading about poltergeists, cultists, and magicians; an encyclopedia of arcane knowledge.

Most of all, Egon taught me it was cool to be a geek, to have extensive knowledge and understanding of things where other people came up short.  Peter Venkman may have had the best lines and the most nerve, but without Egon’s know-how the team would be nothing.  I hope when I show Ghostbusters to my own children someday they will glean a similar lesson from his character.

Rest in peace Mr. Ramis.

Where are the Open Letters To The Other Man?

After hearing the song “Love” by the band Daughter, I was particularly struck by these lyrics:

Take your hands off him
‘Cause he’s the only one that I’ve ever loved
Please don’t find her skin
When we turn the lights out…

I found myself wanting to write a persona poem from a point of view similar to that of the character in the song.  I was particularly interested in writing about a relationship wrecked by infidelity which occurred when said relationship was going through a rough patch.  Imagine the agony of not being sure whether the relationship could have been salvaged had it not been for the entrance of a third party.

Aside from one suspicious incident in 2006 which I could never confirm, I have not experienced the full brunt of someone having cheated on me.  With no real personal experience to draw from, I decide to do a little research.  I googled “Open Letter to the Other Woman” and read a handful of them.

Out of curiosity, I googled “Open Letter to the Other Man”, and I found nothing.  Oh, there were “Open Letters” written by men about many things, but as for a letter to their wife or girlfriends paramour, I found nothing.  No righteously angry but dignified parting shots, hell, not even an unhinged rant worthy of a restraining order.  Nothing.  What does this say about how we, as men, deal with our emotions when we won’t even write an open letter to the son of a bitch who walked into our lives and slithered away with our woman?  Now don’t get me wrong: it takes two to tango and I am not letting the person who did the actual cheating off the hook.  I just think it’s sad that even when faced with a deep, personal betrayal, many men can’t, or simply won’t express how it makes them feel.

I can’t remember whether I read this in an article or a message board thread, but someone once said that “Men are better at being loyal to one another but women are better at being emotionally supportive of one another“.  I have my doubts about the first half of that statement but I definitely agree with the latter half.  Most people are familiar with the stereotypes about the rituals a woman goes through after a break up: her friends show up, everyone has long tearful conversations about what happened, followed by the movie marathon with copious pints of ice cream.  What do us men get?  More precisely, what do us men offer each other for emotional support? Not much.

During my last semester at college I foolishly rushed into a relationship with a very lovely girl with long tresses of curly black hair, large brown eyes, and a deep olive complexion.  The whole thing fell apart in a manner of days and I felt like a complete and utter fool.  I really needed someone to talk to about how much of an awkward, clingy, insecure slob I had been to her.  A few days later I ran into a friend on my way home.  After I told him what had happened I immediately regretted it because all I got from him was a “Well why don’t ya just cheer up!“.  This confirmed my opinion that this particular friend had the emotional range of a tree stump.

Men are all too often pressured by gender norms to hold all their emotions inside.  On one hand I don’t mind society expecting me, as a man, to be emotionally strong in the face of adversity.  On the other hand I have always resented and resisted the notion that I should be a stoic block of wood on two legs.  Not only do we need to resist and reject this toxic brand of masculinity, we also need to step up to our fellow men and let them know that they need not be ashamed when the tears come.  During that last semester in college, I really wish that I had had a friend who would have at the very least put a knowing hand on my shoulder when I told him about the girl I let slip through my fingers.  I’m not saying we have to show up at each others houses with stacks of romantic comedy DVD’s and a big bag of Ben & Jerry’s (although some action flick DVD’s and a dozen chicken wings sounds    amazing right about now*).  All I am saying is that we need to step up the amount of emotional support we have for one another.  Even just being willing to listen can help.

* Yes I know this is just a stereotype and that there are women out there who would be more into action movies and chicken wings instead of romantic comedies and ice cream.  If you know any, help a guy out and send them my way will ya?

The Story Behind The Cover Art of “Between Streetlights and Stars”

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To celebrate the fact that my chapbook has almost completely sold out and I need another batch printed for my next poetry feature, I decided to offer a behind-the-scenes look at the artwork for Between Streetlights and Stars.

Putting together a chapbook requires two long and arduous tasks: 1) Writing and editing a strong collection of poems and 2) Figuring out what you want for the cover art.  When I look at a lot of poetry chapbooks, the artwork tends feature simple drawings or generic images of the countryside or a tree.  I’m not saying that to put anyone down: if you don’t have a publisher who can hire a team of graphic designers, all the decision making rests on your shoulders.  After so much writing and editing, the weight of that is more than what most writers can bear.  The poets who care very little for the cover art are the lucky ones.  The rest of us who want something striking or interesting that ties in with the themes of the book?  We’ve got an uphill battle.

For Between Streetlights And Stars, I wanted something more colorful and romantic. I started with the idea of using a silhouette of a woman’s profile, like the front cover of The Reminder by Feist.  From there I thought it would be cool to have a collage be photoshopped inside of the silhouette only to later realize the creating/finding of a collage would be a process itself.  One day while listening to one of my Pandora stations, a song by Doves came on from their album Lost Sides.

The blurry city lights inside the face was compelling and I wanted to do something like that but with a lot more color.  I searched through royalty free photo sites trying but most of what they had to offer was far too polished and commercial looking.  I wanted a photo that looked like a friend of mine had taken it, not like something out of a corporate brochure.  After a few more searches I found this wonderful photo by Ng Ian T’ang I found on Deviant Art.  Ian was kind enough to grant me his permission to use it as part of my artwork.  I changed my mind about using a silhouette and opted for a woman’s profile instead.  After a few minutes of photoshop work with a friend of mine, I had my front cover all ready to go.

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Despite my limited resources, I think it came out pretty good.  To this day, I am proud of both the poems in the book and its packaging.  Many thanks to Ian for granting me permission to use his photo.  Please visit his Deviant Art profile and check out his photography.  Also thanks to Will Cote for his photoshop skills.

I’m looking forward to my first feature in Cambridge at Stone Soup on November 4th.  I hope to see you there.

King of New York: Remembering Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground

“Rock & roll is so great, people should start dying for it.  You don’t understand.  The music gave you back your beat so you could dream.  A whole generation running with a Fender bass…” - Lou Reed, excerpt from Please Kill Me: the Uncensored Oral History of Punk.

photo-4Back in the late 90′s I was over at my friend Dave’s house. He had just gotten his hands on Peel Slowly And See, a 5 disc box set of The Velvet Underground. This gorgeous beast was everything a box set should be: the whole studio album discography jam packed with extras and a booklet with photos and in-depth liner notes. I was curious because I had been reading about the Velvets in Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gilian McCain. Despite the book’s tedious focus on the debauchery and  substance abuse, I was fascinated to learn about the early days of what influenced the alternative rock music I listened to in my youth. I had also been wondering where exactly the line of demarcation had been drawn between the music my parents liked and the music my sister and I liked. In my opinion, The Velvet Underground were a big part of that; their rejection of the flower power hippy scene was writ large both in their music and their dark, gritty lyrics. When Dave put on the first disc, I wasn’t that impressed with John Cale’s folky demo version of “Venus in Furs”.  A few weeks later I gave the Velvets another chance.  Dave put on “I’m Waiting For The Man” and boom, I loved it instantly.  Right then and there I became a fan of the Velvets.

When I finally got my copy of Peel Slowly And See, it all made sense: the dark lyrics, the noisy experimentalism, the raunchy guitars, all showed a line between the Velvets and the bands I listened to at that time.  Later when my sister and I were watching the Nine Inch Nails home video Closure, I noticed Lou Reed speaking high praises to Trent Reznor backstage.  Not only was I thinking “Oh snap! It’s Lou Reed!” but I also realized had it not been for Reed’s lyrics and John Cale’s scorched earth violin riffing on the song “Heroin” we might not have had songs like “Hurt” or “Eraser”.

I should mention that I was also in a band with my friend Dave at the time.  We played really, really small shows, but were were both bit by the bug, and eager to play live as much as possible.  Yes, I know “White Light/White Heat” is about methamphetamine, but for me it was all about the thrill of being on stage under those hot white lights and playing your heart out. I would play that song on my tape deck on my way to band practice, fantasizing about doing a gig.  Despite being a 15 minute noise therapy session for a frustrated band, I adored the vicious strut of “Sister Ray”.  Even when the chunky riffage makes room for John Cale’s electric organ solo, the song hits you like heavy metal thunder.  While the third album didn’t do it for me as much, it still had gems like “Candy Says” (sung by bassist Doug Yule), “Pale Blue Eyes” and “What Goes On”.  Their last album Loaded, left me dumbfounded as to why on earth bright and brilliant numbers like “Sweet Jane” and “Who Loves The Sun?” didn’t break the band through to the mainstream.  When loading and unloading gear for band practices and gigs I would mutter a line form “Sweet Jane” to myself: “and me I’m in a rock n’ roll band!

At the same time I started listening to the Velvets, I had long been aware that my family was planning to move to Massachusetts.  It felt good to connect with the music of the King of New York before I had to go.  Despite the snooty attitudes New York City folk have towards anyone who lives “upstate” (read: anywhere two inches north of the city) I still feel proud to be from New York state and not just because NYC has long been an epicenter of  art, culture, and commerce.  I feel proud to be from the same state that gave the world a band who provided a glimpse into hidden worlds most didn’t know about or refused to acknowledge.  I don’t care if you were born in one of the five boroughs and regard me as some suburban bumpkin; if you still skip over listening to “Candy Says” because the loneliness and heartache of it’s transgender protagonist reminds you of your cisgender privilege, you have missed Reed’s point entirely.

I don’t think Lou Reed wrote these lyrics to simply shock us; he invited us to see the humanity in the characters occupying the unfamiliar corners of our world.  The Velvet Underground were not hippies by any means, but I do think Lou wanted us to show more compassion.

Thanks for the lessons Lou.

The King of New York Is dead.  Long live the king.

Nov. 4th: I’m Featuring at the Stone Soup Open Mic in Cambridge!

I’m very excited about my first feature at Stone Soup at the Out of The Blue Art Gallery!  I was there a couple of weeks ago to  see my friend and mentor Tom Daley feature.  I’ll be performing poems from  Between Streetlights And Stars as well as some new ones.

  • Out of the Blue Art Gallery 106 Prospect Street, Cambridge, MA 02139
  • Monday Nov 4th 8-10pm
  • Suggested Donation: $4.00
  • Facebook Event Page