Category Archives: My Favorite People

“The Death Ship”

I’m not sure why I wanted to post this today. It’s something I wrote in graduate school after my father died and I started reading the books on his nightstand. All quotes are from The Death Ship by B. Traven except for the Nick Cave lyrics.

How a Book Became Holy in a Dead Sailor’s Hands

Books are profane until they are last books. They look like plain things until they outlive you, when the stack is still tall and teetering on the nightstand and your side of the bed is empty. I’ve read books about ships. I’ve sailed the high seas in maritime stories. I’ve been on boats, but mostly I’ve just waded on through.

Walking down the creek, the sun splashing through the trees, I tripped forward to my death. I’d been trailing an unfamiliar birdsong, my heart transfixed by those little bird lungs. I fainted in the shallows and inhaled the current, cloudy from yesterday’s rain. Then I found myself in exile. Exile, at first made up of vague impressions: a bear on the bank, my toes turning blue with cold, a beloved woman screaming my name, a tractor pulling the ambulance that had sunk deeply in the mud.

The farm had been lit up that afternoon, all bright and clear with winter. I’d removed a tangle of branches from the egress of a lake we’d all skated on once. I’d paid no mind to the day turning dark. My work there was almost done. The waning light still seduced rocks and eddies further down the creek. My family awaited me, but so did that song in the treetops. I’d recreate it now if I could. But all I can hear are those beats of my heart, those erratic rhythms. Beating extra beats that day, budum, budum—you probably know the sound. I cursed myself as I stumbled, fell forward: “Stupid man, stupid man.”

Let me remind you: I’ve scaled water towers. I’ve climbed trees to heights unheard of. I’ve tripped acid on college rooftops. I’ve read the books that turn boys into men. And yet the truth stands: I’ve been on boats, but mostly I’ve just waded on through.

I’d worn special boots made for tramping through water, rubber soles suspended all the way from my shoulders, rubber all the way down, insulating my legs and my feet from the cold, for a time. I’d eaten eggs for breakfast, skimmed a Sunday newspaper. I’d read special books written for the dying. Books critical to my survival. Books written just for me.

Days before I joined the current—stupid man, stupid man—I lay in bed beside my wife, rereading a novel about a sailor on a death ship. The sailor had been dozing on the railing when the Yorikke’s engines went silent. Pause here to consider a fictional moment beyond this nonfictional moment. Something final is happening here:

Suddenly I was wide awake. I could not understand at the moment what it was that had made me so. It had been like a shock. Fixing my mind upon this strange feeling, I noticed a great quietness. The engine had ceased to work. Day and night there is a noise of the engine; its stamping, rocking, and shaking make the whole ship quiver. It makes the ship a live thing. This noise creeps into your flesh and brain. The whole body falls into the same rhythm. One speaks, eats, hears, sees, sleeps, awakes, thinks, feels, and lives in this rhythm. And then quite unexpectedly the engine stops. One feels a real pain in body and mind. One feels empty, as if dropped in an elevator down the shaft at a giddy speed. You feel the earth sinking away beneath you; and on a ship you have the stark sensation that the bottom of the ship has broken off, and the whole affair, with you inside, is going right through to the opposite end of the globe. It was this sudden silence of the engine that was the cause of my awakening.

Shortly after I inhaled the murky water, my blood ceased to warm my body like the steam that scalds the engines of the Yorikke. The cold slipped into my rubber suit. The pulse stopped sounding in my wrists. My vessels went still and numb. I never knew how loud a body was until it went quiet. Then I awakened on a lonely ship.

I can’t tell you yet about awakening.

As a young man I heard the ship’s engines. The engines drove me across continents. They carried me to Alaska, to England. To Haiti and the Grand Canyon. I manned the outboard motor of a fishing boat, I shuttled my children between islands in the Chesapeake. I saw the breaching of a humpback whale from the aft-side of a party cruise. So many times I ferried my family across the water.

In the shippy story on my nightstand, a sailor’s vessel leaves the port without him. The cabin of the ship held all the sailor’s earthly belongings, including his proof of citizenship. He stands on the dock and watches his whole life drift away from him:

I have seen children who, at a fair or in a crowd, have lost their mothers. I have seen people whose homes had burned down, others whose whole property had been carried away by floods. I have seen deer whose companions had been shot or captured. All this is so painful to see and so very sorrowful to think of. Yet of all the woeful things there is nothing so sad as a sailor in a foreign land whose ship has just sailed off leaving him behind.

There are no homefires burning on the absconding vessel. There are no misplaced mothers. The daughters are far away, dressed in mermaid costumes. And yet the sailor wanders from port to port. But he gets to choose the manner of his homecoming, by land or by sea. Either he will stick to piers and boardwalks, or he will bounce back on the waves.

You bring nothing with you to the afterlife. You have no credentials, no documentation. And so you drown, and you pray that the bottom of the ocean lacks customs officials. You hope the red tape can’t reach all the way down. You sink, a piece of coal tied to your foot so you’ll be heavier, more efficiently submerged. Your weight is your passport. “What right have you to be here?” asks the old man of the seabeds. “What qualifies you for admission to eternity?” You can only answer, “My DNA, the science that makes up my body. The paper of my skin. The stamp of my mouth. The license that my sodden heart has earned.”

My daughter’s hand on my sailor’s cheek, my sailor’s cheek tickling her palm for the last time with its whiskers. My sailor’s rags buried in a coffin ship.

I watch them all, the members of my family, casting lines into the Atlantic. My wife washing her wintry hands in our kitchen sink. I watch and wash them all with water, as warm as I can make it. My eldest daughter, she hates taking showers, she dreads each repetitive, droning action like using a toilet, like pouring milk on cereal, like waiting for the teabag to seep. She was born without the landlubbing instinct. I can see her when she’s sailing. I can see all my children as ships because I, too, am a ship, rudderless in some uncharted ocean. My aquatic exile, can it compare to days on solid earth? Can any part of death compare to life? Can what remains of me speak the argot of those on shore? Stupid man, these are senseless questions. No sailor can commune with earthbound faces. My loved ones can’t correspond with the dead; they don’t know the mailing address of the ship I’m on. They can’t foresee my next port of call. Stupid man, stupid man. He can’t find the harbors, he can’t find the docks.

But hear me out. I’ve been with them on boats. That one with the glass bottom that could’ve cracked on any reef. That one that was sinking, that boat that was a body, her arms clasped around me. We’ve stood together on the boat circled by whales, the mother diving, the calf bobbing on the surface like a coal-black log. We’ve been to the brink and back. If it had been a daughter who had died, I would still be in the ocean right now, probing the equator, never resting till I’d searched every sunken stockhold. If it had been a daughter, I’d be scuba diving in the Bermuda Triangle right now. I’d be rooting through shipwrecks. Will she never find me in her spyglass?

When I’m scared, I look for shipping lanes. They must be around here somewhere. They must lead me home. My daughter consoles herself by lying on her back in currents of fresh water. Perhaps in the morning she’ll wake up in the ocean. I’ve been on boats, but mostly I’ve just waded on through.

We’ve had enough of life and death today, agreed? At a certain point it’s over the top, over the treetop with the last briny birdsong. Enough with these ships around the bend. There’s always a boat to be boarded, something to carry you around Cape Horn or through the Straits of Magellan. I’d have the course if I had the map.

When the kids were little, we could see a lighthouse from our home on the shore. The keeper could have turned his spotlight 180 degrees from the bay, and shone it through our windows. He would have seen children fast asleep. He would have seen a young man and a young woman reading together under lamplight. For the sake of setting us ablaze for a moment, the keeper’s ships would have shattered against the rocks. That’s too bad. Not as bad as this.

I’ve read my last book. It was a book about sailors. My final library, she’s committed to memory. She’s my final calling card, my final decimal system. I scoured her pages, I took her chapters with me into exile. Perhaps I share her vision of hell, circling my family for eternity, watching them struggle together on the seashore. I’m in a tub, in a bucket. Stupid man, stupid sailor. I’ve abandoned everything on earth: my sons, my daughters, my wife, my medical supplies, my passport, my shaving cream.

They all say it’s a terrible song. They all say it’s sentimental. No one likes this song. They all say it’s maudlin. I’m making this up. I don’t know what they all say. No one likes death. They say it’s too easy. No one likes ships. No one boards ships. No one sails ships anymore.

“The Ship Song”

Come sail your ships around me
And burn your bridges down.
We make a little history, baby
Every time you come around.

A long time ago I attended a memorial service for a boy from Virginia. He had also died in an accident. He’d been standing on a seaside cliff in California when a rogue wave swallowed him alive. No teenage body to bring back from the Pacific. At the memorial service, the boy’s father pulled out a boom box. He played a rock song at full volume while howling lyrics toward the pews, like a miserable karaoke machine. The father tore off his shirt and you could see the sweat on his naked chest. Wet salt and stringy black hair. The father wanted to play the song in its entirety; he wanted to make everyone feel what he was feeling, through the music. The other mourners were embarrassed. His ex-wife pulled him off the stage, wadding his soaked shirt into her hands. Perhaps I’ll meet these drowned men on my travels.

I’ve been on ships but mostly I’ve just splashed against them. I’ve been a strong mast on a deck rocked by storms. I’ve been a regal sail, I’ve been a barnacle. I’ve been on boats, but mostly I’ve just waded on through.

For a simple sailor on the Yorikke, some days are worse than others. Here is the order of one’s shipside melancholy:

In the end I got a craving to feel a solid street under my feet. I wanted to see people hustling about. I wanted to make sure that the world was still going on in the usual way, doing business, making money, getting drunk, laughing, cursing, stealing, killing, dancing, falling in love, and falling out again. I really got frightened being alone there.

I had an ugly feeling in my throat now, when I knew the last minute had arrived. All my life I had wanted so badly to live in Australia and make good. Now my life was snatched away from me. There were hundreds of things I had planned to do some day. All over now. Too late. Terrible words: too late.

The little word “Why?” with a question mark. So what could I do, a sailor without papers, against the power of the word “Why?”

Of me there is not left a breath in all the vast world.

Now where is he? A man fine at heart and body, for ever willing to work true and honestly. Where am I? Where are all the deads to be some day? On a desolate reef.

After a shipwreck, the simple sailor’s delirious friend lets go of a rope and sinks for good into the ocean. The sailor, clutching his own rope, cannot fathom his friend’s disappearance:

I looked at the hole through which he had slipped off. I could see the hole for a long while. I saw it as if from a great distance. I yelled at the hole. . . He did not hear me. He would have come. Sure he would. He did not come up any more. . . There was something very remarkable about it. He did not rise. He would have come up. I could not understand. He had signed on for a long voyage. For a very great voyage.

Once, when I was a boy in a thunderstorm, I huddled under an upturned canoe with my parents and my brothers. We’d left the lake so we wouldn’t be electrocuted. I heard the rain beat hard against the hull. Budum. Budum. Every time the lightning flashed, I could see my family’s faces secure inside our cabin. We stayed dry within the belly of that landed ship. Traven writes, “It is not the mountains that make destiny, but the grains of sand and the little pebbles.” Drowning in an ocean or a raindrop, it’s all the same, you know. I’ve been shipwrecked in rural creeks. I’ve stumbled in the ocean. I’ve been on boats, but mostly I’ve just waded on through.

 

Literary brainstorming in Charlottesville, Virginia

I returned to my beloved hometown primarily to see my older brother graduate from med school and get married, but my secondary concern was generating ideas for my masters thesis, an original novel that’s due in two months. This means that I’ve spent the majority of my southern vacation poaching plots from every local I encounter. People I would never expect to have book ideas have written me outlines and sketched out character motivations. This town is a hotbed of unrealized literary genius.

For example!

My 21-year-old brother and his buddy run a handyman business in town mowing lawns, chainsawing everything in their path, “removing stinkbugs,” “babysitting,” and performing other oddjobs. When I jokingly asked them if they did novels, it took them less than a day to turn over a notebook overflowing with rich material, including fully developed protagonists (serial killers in love), back stories (sex abuse, murder, childhood trauma), themes (municipal corruption) and some thoughts on a prequel. But my little brother had a vague impression that my typical work is more emo, so he was sure to pencil in “(*feelings*)” where he thought my skills could really shine, e.g., “Mom addicted to painkillers, protag always starved for her affection <<-----(*feelings*)." The boys said they'd write the sex and violence scenes, and I could be in charge of all the emotional truths.

My friend's four-year-old son is obsessed with traffic cones. Last week we all went to Lowe's and while his mom shopped, he spent 45 minutes in the plumbing aisle lining up orange cones in different formations, then routing the Lowe's employees around them as though the men were cars or airplanes. My friend says, try as she might, she cannot find any children's books devoted to the wonders of traffic and safety cones. She thought I might write something for her son and other kids like him. I have never written a childrens' book, but I think I could manage a literary novel about an extended family of traffic cones. Something like The Corrections, but set in a parking lot.

Stumpy and Big Mac, the two men who make the compost deliveries from my uncle’s compost farm, were especially excited when they found out I was trying to write a novel. They told me I could do a ride-along with them in the compost trucks for a week and I’d have more than enough material for my book, tentatively entitled The Adventures of Stumpy and Big Mac. At first I thought they were just teasing me for being a dork, but now every time I go over there they gush about a new plotline worthy of Tom Clancy. Without giving too much away before this thing is published, Big Mac’s latest brainstorm involves a jihadist at UVA’s graduation ceremony. We agreed that the more local landmarks I insert, the better my chances would be of getting my book stocked in New Dominion. Or in the Barracks Road Barnes & Noble. Or in Random Row Books. Or in Daedalus. Is anybody listening?

Also my grandfather gave me a 2011 World Almanac, saying that it was full of ideas.

Also I need all the help I can get, because I have no ideas.

No, I have one idea. Wishter, a 30-year-old woman with few career prospects, laments the fact that she chose writing school over medical school. In a fit of jealousy, she steals her big brother’s med school diploma, and his beautiful new wife for good measure, and opens a private psychiatry clinic in the Cayman Islands, where she makes tons of money by hypnotizing her patients into giving her tons of money as well as revealing their darkest secrets <<—–(*feelings*), emotional truths which will eventually make their way into Wishter’s bestselling memoir.

I wonder how long it’s going to take my little brother to realize I’ve been blogging about him

Whenever he runs into me in our mom’s house, he’s like, “Oh hey, Wistar. Where’ve you been? Blogging?” All sardonic. And the more I deny it, the more he insists that I blog 24 hours a day, every day of my life, for nameless people in Brooklyn. I told him he could join me and my friend Leslie for dinner tomorrow night and he’s like, “Why? So we can all talk about blogging? No thanks.” And lately he’s been alternating his blog taunting with literary taunting, like, “What you doing today? Writing one of your novels?” He is such a bully. If he knew Stephen Hawking, he’d be going up to him all, “Wassup, Hawking? You doing your hipster physics? You got yourself some theories? By the way, I like your oversized, retro, prescription eyeglasses” [hehe, high fives]. Our situation is exactly like that. Meanwhile my brother is at the gym “getting his swell on” for the spring season, so I shall make fun of him from my secret hiding place on the internet.

Baby brother, you stink and your hair is too long. You’re probably not even the hugest guy on the lacrosse team. P.S. Hurry home I’m making quesadillas.

On the death of my father

My dad liked to read my blog. In fact, the last time I saw him he bragged to my mom that he had “made it onto Wistar’s blog!” (I’d recently written a post about our mutual glee regarding the Dictionary.com snafu.) Dad also played a crucial role in the One Star Watt Turtle/Frog/Spider Saga of 2008. After a woman wrote a letter to the Charlottesville Daily Progress chastising pool owners for letting innocent creatures drown, my guilt-ridden father fashioned wooden rafts for the pool filters. He envisioned that the tiny ladders he attached would enable mice or frogs to climb to safety until they could be rescued. But Dad said the rafts hadn’t worked as well as he’d hoped so he was devising another system when he, himself, drowned.

You can imagine that I have a lot of feelings about my father’s recent, unanticipated, unfathomable death, and many of them are on the verge of being unbearable, and others are too private to express here, but there are a few things I would like to share with my people on the other side of this immortal Internet.

1) When the worst happens, it is okay to cope by picturing your loved one working really late at the office. If a week goes by and he or she is still not home, then start thinking California or New Zealand. I bet the weather is great there this time of year. I hope Dad remembered his hiking boots!

2) Diet Coke is the official bereavement beverage. My friend Mary and I decided the company should launch a new marketing campaign. Maybe the ads could show a glass of Diet Coke on ice beside a glass of fizzy tears on ice. “Can you taste the difference? No. Unfortunately I can’t taste anything right now.” That slogan needs some work.

3) When close friends fly in to be with your distraught siblings, it is probably not okay to fuck with them by yelling, “Dad’s favorite coffee mug!” when they accidentally knock one from the kitchen cabinet to the floor.

4) Online registries have provided many newlywed couples with china and silver, but a bereavement registry has even more potential. “Toilet paper, plastic cups, cheap white wine, whiskey, we’re good on Kleenex.” We also considered an iPhone app that would photograph and take notes on flower arrangements so you won’t get in trouble with your mother by just writing “flowers” in the little book. The app would be called iMsad.

5) Bringing babies to a household in mourning is always a good idea. Just make sure you dress them in their cutest outfits, or let them get into something beforehand like one greasy, adorable, unsalted visitor whom we were forced to nickname “Butter Baby.” Kids rubbed in food make good conversation starters. If you truly feel sympathetic toward the grieving family, you will sacrifice your child’s dignity to make us laugh. Puppies are also good accessories.

6) For at least the first few weeks (also known as that endless day) after you’ve lost someone (Where is he? When is he coming home? He forgot all his stuff!), don’t try to drive. Don’t try to leave the mourning compound. Don’t try to return phone calls. There’s nowhere to go, nothing to say. There’s no focus, there’s no agency. Find the safest, most loving place and just be there quietly until your legs and arms and lungs work properly again.

7) Count your blessings if you have a mother who allows you to joke about “Dad’s other family” that might show up at any minute asking for money and heirlooms.

8 ) Recall the Buddhist saying: “Before enlightenment, tote water, chop wood. After enlightenment, tote water, chop wood.” Lugging around compost buckets, trash bags, vacuum cleaners, and frozen lasagna can be pretty Zen too.

9) Speaking of toting, don’t come over unless you come bearing soup, alcohol, a Virginia ham, or pie. Exceptions can be made for people who give really good hugs or for those who possess a sick sense of humor.

10) Every email, card, text, Facebook comment, and phone call matters, even if you don’t get a response right away. Don’t be a stranger. If you feel uncomfortable getting in touch or you don’t know what to say, just remember that no one knows how to navigate death*, least of all the people who just had their hearts ripped out. And if you want to come over and be awkward or accidentally have your fly undone when you do the hugging rounds, all the better. We will find comfort in laughing at you later. Again, sacrifice.

Dad, you made the blog. I love you.

Latham Murray
1951-2009

* WTF

New feature: Why I love this questionable video

I love this questionable video because it depicts my dear friend and closest French ally Bart Calendar (site semi nsfw) whipping his shirt onto the ground (“I was just whipping my shirt onto the ground. It seemed like the right thing to do.”) during La Fete de la Musique in Montpellier, France (where I once had the pleasure of trolling bars with him). Bart never fails to bring the Nouveau Jersey to all his foreign enterprises, including getting drunk. He turns 40 on Valentine’s Day and he deserves a high-flying salute from this blog.

I dream of Christos Vangelopoulos

Because everyone needs a little Christos and a lot of mutant canary, and because my website is desperate for some color, I present you with a bit of artwork created by my dear friend (of 13 years!) Christos Vangelopoulos.

little-brother-bird

sarah-white-poster-2

face-in-hands

shannon-worrell-poster-2

I’m not in an awesome band so I couldn’t commission Christos to do a poster for my next show, but I did ask him to create our wedding program. His wedding programs will make you want to get married again and again and again.

programv2

The man himself:

christos2

I never get to see Christos because he’s always in his studio apartment dicking around with bird photos and Christmas lights, but when he does appear I feel like I’m in a still life with a supernova.

We had a wedding and what a wedding it was

The wedding can best be summarized by our guests who filled out mad libs throughout the evening. In lieu of a live blog, I believe their combined words tell the tale:

After four years of dating, Darren finally skunked Wistar in Portugal. With the help of their ugly monkeys, Darren and Wistar finally married on December 27th in the Live Arts Church of Bunion Pad. The couple’s families were mushroomy to see the scrofulous sight. Even their dearest friends felt moist when Darren and Wistar were pronounced man and wife at last. The bride looked winterizing in a lukewarm dress, but the guests didn’t know she wore badger underneath. Darren hired a professional wedding consultant to help him with his wagon wheel, but Wistar handled his hard hat herself. When they danced to Big Dumb Sex by Unprovoked Moose Attack and Beer for My Horses by Mr. Kayak, any Little League chest protector could feel the magic in the air. In the forbidden city of Charlottesville that night, all their wedding guests knew that Darren and Wistar would joust together forever.

My sister and her boyfriend also spoke eloquently when they said, “The wedding was foggy and we were confused to be invited! May you share many eyeballs together!” I would fill out my own mad lib, but the only words I can come up with post-night-of-my-life are “exhausted,” “elastic-waist pajama bottoms,” and “the prospect of starring in another wedding is reason enough to stay married to Darren until I die.” Thank you to all the beloved silver spraypaint huffers and card-carrying cupcakoholics who made the event so fridge magnetic.

Marquee over Live Arts - Photo by Billy Hunt

The turtle frog spider picture – now with more sex appeal

When the bbf and I each posted the spider-sitting-on-top-of-the-frog-sitting-on-top-of-the-turtle-in-my-parents’-pool-filter photo on our individual websites back in August, we expected to receive a handful of comments like “Cute!” “Rad!” and “Aww.” We did not expect “Your photo inspired me to get a permanent tattoo.”

“Incredible Journey” Tattoo

Aimee Pierson of California was so touched by the story of these interspecies friends working together to survive that she wanted to spread the word about their “incredible journey.”

It would not have occurred to me to get a tattoo of this image, but I am proud and amazed that our photo made such a difference in someone’s life. And the photo will continue to make a difference at every cocktail party Aimee attends in a backless gown. And at her community swimming pool. And in her sex life.

Looking at this tattoo, I feel like I’m standing on top of a smile on top of a puppy on top of Christmas morning. Thank you, Aimee, for sharing the turtle-frog-spider love.

Bucks & Gallants live on the air with New Jersey radio and MySpace mogul Tom Scharpling!

On Tuesday night (October 14), Tom Scharpling of The Best Show on WFMU interviewed my main man (the bbf) for a radio segment called “Smash or Trash.”

Scharpling has a booming internet presence thanks to his podcast and his MySpace and his Friends of Tom online forum. I avoid the forum because I feel like it’s the bbf’s personal clubhouse and it would stop being cool the second the girlfriend started showing up with snacks for everyone. Sitcom cliches have taught me everything I need to know about relationships.

Anyway the point of “Smash or Trash” is to play a relatively unknown song on the air and then let random callers decide if the CD should live or die. On Tuesday Tom played a song called “Interesting Chinese Cigarette” by the bbf’s band Bucks & Gallants. Now that you have all the background information, here is the audio:

Podcast

Real Audio/MP3

I won’t divulge here whether the song was rated “a smash” or “trash.” You’ll have to listen for yourself. The bbf appears around the 02:34:00 mark, but everything on the show before and after that historic moment is good too.

If you’re wondering why you can’t hear me in the background telling the bbf that he left his dirty dishes in the sink or that he needs to take out the trash, it’s because I was at an arm wrestling match at the time of the interview. Thank you, Tom’s podcast, for not making me choose.

Local death by T-Rex

This morning the bbf’s mom sent a mass email saying that BABY RACCOONS were camping out in a TREE in her BACKYARD. Best of all, she included VIDEO DOCUMENTATION.

I immediately wrote back: “Mary, get your raccoon-catching net and bag those things. I want them in a UPS box on my doorstep first thing Monday morning.”

I asked the three-year-old grandchild if she had watched the raccoon video. “Yeah,” she said.

“I told Meemo to mail me the babies,” I said.

“Are you going to kill them?”

I assured her that no, I was not going to kill them. I am not a monster. Then I put on a little snuff film called The Land Before Time.