[A BRIEF NOTE ON THE ESSAY –7/11/20– One of the weird yet interesting elements of reexamining thoughts as one evolves is that indeed, though in terms of degree and intensity or lack there of, it will vary, we evolve and sometimes we catch specific thoughts we come to regret in hindsight. In the context of writing, the writer can revise or let past work stand despite however jarring it may be to do so. My hope is to preserve the integrity of every writing in the form it was when I decided it was “finished” and representative of at least a sense of what I wanted to convey at that particular time. It’s even stranger when we completely forget something we’ve said, done, or thought in the past as is the case with this piece. I remembered writing it but actually thought I’d deleted it. Not only that. I hadn’t recalled publishing it on this website. I need to do some introspecting and ponder on how certain things can just escape us like that. Also, I didn’t remember WHAT I wrote until I began to skim it whence came my shudders for I discovered that I’d remarked on a person without properly conveying what this person meant to me. That is to say, I wrote of the person we shall refer to as Anne whom you will read about in a tone I now believe too dry and not sufficient in context. I mean I did not do justice to the unique circumstances of our relationship. Last autumn (of 2019) when I wrote this, I didn’t realize that. I bring this up because I want to make clear that I apologize and disapprove of my original description of certain aspects of our relationship. So I have omitted a little bit from the original essay and made a few clarifications. Otherwise it is exactly as it was when I finished it. Anne shall always be among those who have most touched me and influenced me and for the better. Anne was the first person to assertively encourage me to think positively. I also have a lot of great memories about her. If it happens to seem as though I wrote about her with a notable absence of sentimentality, emotion, nostalgia, my plethora of regrets concerning how poorly I treated her, et cetera, it is not due to a lack of possessing a depth of feelings. I’m not as in touch with my feelings as I used to think I was. As much as my very attraction to literature, creative writing, and art is in fact based on its role in communicating in the complex depths of personal honesty, I’ve been told more than once or twice that I can “open up” more. That’s something I’ll be working on. —Sean O’Connor]
Music, when soft voices die
Vibrates in the memory
–Dedicated to Mark Holland and Mark Knopfler
I was first introduced to the Dire Straits back in the summer of 2007, when I was 21, unemployed, and living in a hostel in Tampa. (It was not the first hostel I’d lived in. The previous summer, towards the end of it anyway, after dropping out of Florida Gulf Coast University where I’d spent the last academic year, I stayed at two different hostels in South Beach for a total of about three weeks before finding an efficiency to live in for a few months which my girlfriend at the time, Anne, in order to help me pay for it, loaned me some money. I remember waiting in the efficiency as she walked to the ATM and back, struggling to process her generosity. And then she returned with $900 in cash and gave it to the lady we were doing business with. Thinking back on it now, I feel mostly ashamed for having put myself in a situation where she would even offer to do this. On the other hand, that she wanted to do it leaves me at least with a memory of human kindness that can add to the list of reasons why one should not succumb to cynicism. A major bonus to this particular efficiency was that it was only a block or two from the condominium building she lived. I wanted to see her all the time, so her being that close to me made for an exceptionally exciting experience. Unless you count apartments on a university campus I’d never liked within short walking distance from a girlfriend before. I think the monthly rent was between $450-650 a month and included water as well as internet access. At that time I was employed– first as a barback and then as an assistant “stock manager” at Wings Beachwear, which was just a block from the beach; on my breaks I liked to walk towards it and just stare in awe…).
But now in Tampa, I had, just a few months earlier, finished a semester at Mercer County Community College back in New Jersey (where I grew up. I returned to college because it was my mother’s condition for permitting me to live with her and my stepfather at the time which was easier than trying to find a place in Boston, where Anne had moved for college. The idea was to remain as close to her as I could). Recently I also had applied to Emerson College in Boston but failed to gain admission, Anne had in fact broken up with me, (it wasn’t inexplicable; first of all, I was very unwell mentally. This was over a decade before I chose to seek therapy and medication to address my panic attacks, anxiety, and depression. This was before I valued my education. My “interpretation” if I can even grant it that much credit of romantic love was closer to expressing one’s feelings of co-dependency/emotional attachment, the ego lifting sensation of receiving and giving to someone else compliments, flattery, or exchanging phrases like “I love you.” I cried incessantly in those days and I was very quick to defensiveness and anger. My point is that it didn’t come out of nowhere. I was a nihilist before I knew what nihilism was I shall tell you more about that sometime perhaps and Anne had absolutely done the right thing by ending our relationship. She should have done it sooner in my opinion because I was an awful boyfriend. Alas, the past “is what it is.”).
Recently also, living with my friend Karen and her parents for about a month in New Tampa had not worked out (it hadn’t helped matters that despite being employed, I wasn’t paying rent or for food, I didn’t have a car, I drank too much alcohol which was also on Karen’s dime and I had the audacity of criticizing Karen for failing to “think positively” enough about matters which she was expressing frustrations about to me…) and so she dropped me off at this hostel in Ybor City, far enough from my job at the Dunkin Donuts that I had to quit (I lacked any imagination as to how I met get there), and thus my money supply was quickly very limited. Perhaps if I’d begged someone in my family back in Jersey to loan me money for a plane ticket back home they’d have offered (my father did mail me one check to help me financially in general, but after that I was on my own. A few months later when I reached out to my older brother he lent me enough money to fly back to New Jersey and pay a security deposit and first months rent someplace…) but I felt a lot of destructive emotions in response to thoughts not just of family but most people in general—especially those who could not relate to some sort of hippieish-beatnikish-bohemian ethos (whatever that even meant. Like many young adults and/or other folks who could afford to think a little more critically, I possessed many unsubstantiated as well as unclear and irrational assumptions) and frankly, I craved a sense of dogmatic independent living—no school, no parents, no girlfriend, no rules, no job, no obligations…almost like a monk, I just wanted to “be,” or like that white feather in the beginning and the end of the movie Forrest Gump floating in the air, attached to nothing but the fate of physics; I was just some conglomeration of cells, tissue, and organs “Blowing in the wind” to cite Bob Dylan; so do you see the irony of my nihilistic determinism on the one hand and my utter (and seemingly paradoxical) desire to “feel free” despite my “fundamental belief?”
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it
To feel free with expense no object!
I, for instance, would not be in the least surprised if all of a sudden, A PROPOS of nothing, in the midst of general prosperity a gentleman with an ignoble, or rather with a reactionary and ironical, countenance were to arise and, putting his arms akimbo, say to us all: “I say, gentleman, hadn’t we better kick over the whole show and scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!” … What man wants is simply INDEPENDENT choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead. And choice, of course, the devil only knows what choice.
So this hostel where I was dropped off was owned and managed by a man named Mark Holland—a man who was in his fifties but had the sprightliness of someone in his early 40s or even late 30s. There is so much I could tell you about Mark that it could fill up a number of essays. Sadly, there’s also a lot he told me that I don’t remember. If you want an example of his capacity for charity, well, when I ran out of money he said I could stay without officially or legally ending up in debt to hin. Maybe to make me feel not so guilty about it (?), he said if I would share my poetry with him daily (he had a profoundly soft spot for struggling artists) and if I would also listen to his thoughts on music, that would be a fine enough form of “payment.” In hindsight, it is beginning to seem to me that while Mark had a massive number of people he was friendly with and spent time with, I don’t know that he had any real close friends. I wonder if I became his closet friend. I don’t say this out of vanity. We spent time together, almost nonstop, talking about everything you could imagine, for a number of weeks. He told me about allegedly losing his virginity at nine, having told a girl “if you show me yours, I’ll show you mine.” He told me about his failed marriage. His ex-wife was a devout Christian and very not into sex. Meanwhile, around 25, it began to occur to him that he was bisexual. He got divorced and tended to prefer guys but also appreciated women. His favorite brand of cigarette was Player’s Light which he discovered in Montreal where he fell in love with a guitarist who was also male prostitute and a heroin junkie. Mark considered him the love of his life and because it didn;’t work out felt very cynical about “love” when I told him about this girl back home, Ashley, who I believed I loved. (Now she is my wife; I still do.) I mentioned his Christian ex-wife—Mark hated religion. This was one reason why he loved George Carlin so much. Because he could relate to Carlin’s anti-Christian rants. It was in fact George Carlin which established our connection to each other as I had seen, lying around in his office, a set of George Carlin DVDs. Sometimes we watched them together. Another example of Mark’s hatred for religion: the act of circumcision. He believed this to be utterly immoral though otherwise he didn’t tend to be a “moralizer.” Anyway, we walked a lot and spent a lot of time together. He drove me around a lot. We went ice skating once! Yes. In Tampa! He took me with him when he went to see friends. I remember a married couple—both the husband and wife recently sober, together—who he played music with that he introduced me to once. He also had a friend who had invented a board game. He had a diner-like restaurant he loved to go to for breakfast where he often took me. And also taco place where he liked to eat sometimes for lunch and sometimes for dinner. I seem also to recall a lime soda he loved drinking.
In thinking back on Mark and my time at his hostel, understandably, you may say, I mostly think of how I was very lucky that I did not to end up homeless. But I do not spend enough time reflecting on what an awesome opportunity it was to simply to indulge in the pleasure of friendship with someone so interested simply in enjoying friendship. Frankly, with the exception of my wife, it has been a long time since I’ve known a friendship of quite this sort—the kind I see depicted in many television shows…that person or group you see every day at the bar, the café, on your couch in front of the television, at the bookstore, who’d know details about you that only your lover knew (or maybe even your lover does not know), who in fact, you’d reach out to when you got into a fight with your lover…
I think the most central aspect of Mark’s (if we suppose people have central or most fundamental aspects) was his utter devotion to playing the guitar and appreciating those he believed to be geniuses of the instrument. One of his favorites was the Dire Straits’ Mark Knofpler.
I wish I could remember how he explained to me his love for Mark Knopfler but alas all that comes to mind is that he played me two of their songs while driving around downtown Tampa in his automobile (which I think was either a dark green minivan or SUV). He played “Money for Nothing” – he raved, quite particularly, about the introduction this song, with its slow and quiet build up and then wild, explosive electric guitar segment– and “Romeo and Juliet.” (This one he played for me because he thought, my being a self-professed “romantic” that I’d appreciate it). I’m ashamed to tell you neither song moved me, at least on a notably conscious level; I thought the songs were
nothing really to turn off
yet nothing to listen to again either.
Seeds in my subconscious, however, were clearly planted, as two years later, when for a time Ashley and I were broken up (I blame, at least in part, my anger problem, my anxiety, depression, poor self esteem, et cetera, for this)[iii], and I was self reflecting, contemplating how to improve my personality and make it more attractive to Ashley so she might want to be my girlfriend again, I realized my music taste, great as Bob Dylan (who I idolized almost myopically at the time) surely is, was severely lacking. Ashley, in contrast, was, and still is, like a human Spotify or jukebox, rich with both almost encyclopedic memory of songs from a diversity of genres, but also, had and still has impeccable taste. This is one of the reasons why I fell in love with her. (She had introduced me to the group “Of Montreal”— a group I was fascinated with for a few years– during the dawn of our courting days in the second half of 2007. Ashley was also the one who, in 2015—the year we got married–, introduced me to Jason Isbell, my favorite songwriter under 40 and one of my favorites more generally. ((I think Isbell is to Bob Dylan what Dylan was to Woody Guthrie in terms of a sense of one genius poet-songwriter seeming to succeed the other). So, out of desire to culture myself musically I thought back to my old friend Mark Holland (may he rest in peace, for alas, I would get a phone call that he hung himself about a month after I left the hostel, I know not why though I have my theories—a mix of constant drug abuse, frustration with having failed to “make it” as a touring guitarist, a heart that had been broken a few times? Certainly I had failed him as a friend, leaving the hostel and not keeping in touch. Perhaps I felt too ashamed? Or maybe too traumatized by how psychologically unwell I was when he knew me, my survival, literally dependent on his charity and all…) and I thought back also on his enthusiasm for the Dire Straits. I felt compelled to give them another listen so I drove to the Princeton Record Exchange and bought a few Led Zeppelin albums, a Wilco album, and a live Dire Straits album.
For a few months I spent a lot of time just listening to the CDs while driving around New Jersey. One such drive was to Atlantic City. On the way, in Shamong, I was pulled over for speeding while listening to the Dire Straits—I think it was “Calling Elvis.” On another occasion, also while listening to the Dire Straits, I was pulled over again, for speeding. In my imagination I was flying through outer space…alas, my mind was so “lost in space” that I didn’t realize I was speeding!
I was pulled over for a few other reasons during this time as well—once for forgetting to get my car’s registration renewed, once (I think) for forgetting to have proof of insurance in my car, and another time because I had failed to show up at court to answer for all these charges and thus had my license temporarily suspended; thus I was technically driving without a license and got in trouble for that as well. My license was suspended for an even longer period of time and I was fined a few thousand dollars which took me a good seven years or so (and even some garnished wages!) to fully pay off. Before I lost the license I had also been in two car accidents not too far apart from each other. The first totaled my beautiful black 2004 Honda Civic. The second one I don’t remember so well. Both occurred on U.S. Route 130 south—a thought which for many years even after I got my license back haunted me.
After a year or so of reflecting on my driving troubles it occurred to me that my head was “in the clouds” and I actually, in part, blamed the Dire Straits and thus boycotted their music for perhaps up to five years. I do not recall exactly when or even how I got over my fear that the Dire Straits music would send me once more to “La-La Land” and cause more car accidents or other kinds of problems but I think it was around 2016.
One day, I was curious about which of Knopfler’s guitar solos was most widely recognized and so googled around, searched YouTube, et cetera, and discovered a video clip from the video recording of live album Alchemy: Dire Straits Live featuring their performance of “We are the Sultans.” There is something beautifully complex and sophisticated about not just the Dire Straits in general and this song but even this particular rendition. By that I mean, it is not as simple as other pieces of music which seem to evoke more pungently simple associations in my mind (like mere ketchup as opposed to an excellent vodka sauce; I love both!). I relate it to what Phillip Lopate said of the movie Diary of a Country Priest: “an implicit offer of greater mental freedom.” He adds:
“At first I used to resist my mind’s wandering during such films…But just as in Buddhist meditation one is instructed not to brush aside the petty or silly thoughts that rise up, since these “distractions” are precisely the material of the meditation, so I began to allow my movie-watching mind to yield more freely to daily preoccupations, cares, memories that arose from some image association. Sometimes I might be lost to a personal mental thread for several minutes before returning with full attention to the events on-screen; but when I did come back, it was with a refreshed consciousness, a deeper level of feeling”[iv]
This thought along with the song, reminds me also of listening to Proust on Wednesday nights when I drive home from Mercer County Community College—one of the colleges where I work as a writing tutor. Recently for example, I recall my mind wandering to I forget what but then I heard the narrator of the Audible production of Proust’s Swann’s Way reading a passage about hawthorns and I found myself in awe:
“And it was indeed a hawthorn, but one whose flowers were pink, and lovelier even than the white…but it was attired even more richly than the rest, for the flowers which clung to its branches, one above the other, so thickly as to leave no part of the tree undecorated, like the tassels wreathed about the crook of a rococo shepherdess, were every one of them ‘in colour’, and consequently of a superior quality, by the aesthetic standards of Combray, to the ‘plain’, if one was to judge by the scale of prices at the ‘stores’ in the Square or Camus’s, where the most expensive biscuits were those whose sugar was pink…”
And speaking of associations, I love how Proust moves from the pink of the flowers, through a slight streak of sense through Combray to the pink sugar of biscuits…
And so I go where the song takes me… the “Sultans of Swing” takes me to happiness. (Along with “Calling Elvis” I wonder if it may be the Dire Straits’ happiest song). Happiness and a lot of light…or lights (?)—as if in the prime of the day after the morning coffee has kicked in… as if at a job one loves and feels tremendous passion for. I imagine, when I hear this song, working as a member of congress, trying to convince fellow congressmen and congresswomen to vote for or against something I’m passionate about (impeaching Trump and removing him from office, abolishing the electoral college, universal healthcare…). I imagine even being president, or in his or her cabinet, part of those conversations and debates at the helm of the country’s fate, steering its wheel and navigating it for awhile through that great vast sea of time…I think, as a frame of reference, certain political TV shows, such as West Wing, Designated Survivor, and Madam Secretary (Madam Secretary being my favorite despite certain instances of corny dialogue. I enjoyed watching the complexity of the Elizabeth and Henry McCord’s marriage and raising their children in the mix of their politicking, grappling with ethics…and Henry McCord being an ethicist, the ethical contemplations were pleasantly direct…)…
About half-way into the song, there’s a piece of melody that gets played over and over, almost like a mantra that appears to “make sense”—maybe just a reiteration of commitment to rationality?– and it starts slow, as if in a state of contemplation and reflection…as if testing the idea out? There is almost an ever so slight dash of sadness to it but so slight– there’s a sense of a perceiver realizing it’s smallness in the bigger picture of life’s richness and…again…that love of “work”… the music then picks up speed, like the afternoon coffee has kicked in? Then a new melodic section starts up and makes me think about thriving professionally… whatever that could mean to each of us…. Speaking of this by the way, how many people do you know who indeed love their work? I know very few. I think my father loved having his private practice as a psychologist. I think my grandfather (on my mother’s side) loved creating and serving as chairman of a commercial real-estate company (NAI). There’s a small handful of professors I talk to who seem content, though a troubling abundance of them who seem if not unhappy with their profession, at least very unhappy with the way their academic institution is run or managed. In some cases the opposite is true. I know people who believe strongly in the administrative leadership of their institutions and even their field in general but not their specific duties.
When I worked at the grocery store I think almost 99 percent of the employees there were miserable and yet felt trapped where they were, aspiring to nothing else. Not that I ever thought they should have to aspire to something beyond the grocery store but I thought at least they should aspire to work for a grocery store where they were paid fairly, given consistent hours, and where general workplace standards reached a certain level of decency. For example, when I worked at one health food grocery store there was a genuine commitment to cleanliness and proper handling of food. Also, employees were paid more than other grocery stores paid. $11 an hour as opposed to 8.50. (Now, some four years since I got that new grocery store job—which went out of business only a few months later– the minimum wage in New Jersey is $10 an hour.) Also in contrast, the grocery store where I spent most of my food and retail years was disgusting. If berries fell all over the floor where so many dirty shoes walked upon, one was told merely to pick them up and not waste. Lettuce was filled with dead flies but I was on more than one occasion told not to wash the lettuce because it didn’t dry well and customers complained about the soggy texture. I brought this to the store director’s attention and he did not demonstrate the slightest concern over the matter…
[i] “Visions of Johanna”; from the album Blonde on Blonde; 1966
[ii] From the book: Fyodor Dostoyevsky: The Complete Novels (Centaur Classics) . Kindle Edition.
[iii] Many of the troubles accompanying the first three decades of my life I attribute at least in part to mental illness. I do not claim this to be an “excuse” from personal responsibility so much as helping one understand certain causal relationships between a person’s thoughts and actions.
[iv] From “The Movies and Spiritual Life” ; Getting Personal, pp. 282-283