Archive for March, 2014

Life is too serious to take seriously

I host an event called the Full Moon Open Mic at Metropolis Coffee every, you guessed it, full moon. Chicago’s next full moon is April 15. That’s the same day taxes are due. Beware of Werewolves and missing W2s. Here is a cut from the last open mic, in which I perform. Live. No notes. A lot of ‘umms’ and ‘likes’.

A quick reference for my fellow language nerds out there, courtesy of the Online Etymology Dictionary:

melt (v.)
Old English meltan “become liquid, consume by fire, burn up” (class III strong verb; past tense mealt, past participle molten), from Proto-Germanic *meltanan; fused with Old English gemæltan (Anglian), gemyltan (West Saxon) “make liquid,” from Proto-Germanic *gamaltijanan (cf. Old Norse melta “to digest”), both from PIE *meldh-, (cf. Sanskrit mrduh “soft, mild,” Greek meldein “to melt, make liquid,” Latin mollis “soft, mild”), from root *mel- “soft,” with derivatives referring to soft or softened (especially ground) materials (see mild). Figurative use by c.1200. Related: Melted; melting.

molt (v.)
also moult, mid-14c., mouten, of feathers, “to be shed,” from Old English *mutian “to change” (cf. bemutian “to exchange”), from Latin mutare “to change” (see mutable). Transitive sense, of birds, “to shed feathers” is first attested 1520s. With parasitic -l-, late 16c., on model of fault, etc. Related: Molted, moulted; molting, moulting. As a noun from 1815.



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Point d’interrogation

“This conviction underlies Heidegger’s “counter-logic”, the peculiar design to replace the aggressive, inquisitorial discourse of Aristotelian, Baconian, and positivist investigation with an unresolved, even circuitous, nevertheless dynamic dialectic. In Aristotelian analysis, nature is made to bear witness; Bacon tells of putting natural phenomena on the rack so as to make them yield objective truths; in French, ‘la question’ signifies judicial torture.
In Heidegger’s “questioning of being”, an activity so central that it defines, or should define, the humane status of man, there is neither enforcement nor a programmatic thrust from inquisition to reply. To question truly is to enter into harmonic concordance with that which is being questioned. Far from being initiator and sole master of the encounter, as Socrates, Descartes, and the modern scientist-technologist so invariably are, the Heideggarian asker lays himself open to that which is being questioned and becomes the vulnerable locus, the permeable space of its disclosure.
– George Steiner, from his book ‘Martin Heidegger’

“The Right to Say Nothing”

A few years back I walked out of the Wormhole Cafe on Milwaukee ave. and spotted a lovely woman surrounded by baggage trying to hail a cab. I approached her and asked if she was travelling. Indeed, she was. She had just flown from Montreal to Chicago to see the Pitchfork Music Festival. She had a strong French accent and blue-green eyes. It struck me as odd to hear such a strong French accent on somebody from North America, even though I knew millions of Frankophones hail from the province of Quebec.

I volunteered to be her unofficial tour guide to Chicago, showing her around to things like the Shedd and the Music Box Theatre when she was not at the music festival. We became good friends, have stayed in touch, and she reads this blog from time to time to see what kind of trouble my mind gets into.

Last time I saw her was two years ago, when I took a train up to Montreal for the sake of it. She worked at a cafe where you could purchase a ceramic artwork and paint it as you sipped on coffee or tea. They had hundreds of objects to choose from, from bowls to vases, statues and mugs. I chose a mug with a big Question Mark on it.

I’ve told people recently that if I die, I want to be buried in Rosehill Cemetary with a tombstone that has a big Question Mark on it, followed by my name and dates. Of course, I don’t want to die. I’m too greedy and filled with zest for life. Plus, I don’t think there’s a second chance. But that’s beside the point. I would like a tombstone that looks just like the mug:     ?       That’s my religious symbol.

When I finished painting my ceramic mug, my French Canadian friend informed me that it would have to be heated in the kiln and cooled, a process that would take up to a week. I was leaving the next day, so it was an impossibility for me to take it with me. She promised to mail it.

What resonates most with me about this memory was the english phrase she used to describe the Question Mark. She called it an Interrogation Point. In French, ‘interroger’ is a verb that means to question; it does not have the same negative/harsh connotations as the english ‘interrogate’. Nevertheless, the phonetic similarity caused me to ruminate on the sense in which all questions are a form of interrogation.

Questions are in one sense innocuous, benign. A child asks questions as they curiously explore the world. A question like ‘How was your day’ indicates you care about someone. Other questions denote wonder and astonishment- that’s the kind of question I want on my ceramic mug or tombstone.

But then there are the interrogation points. Who do you think you are? What were you thinking? How could you want to kill yourself? Where were you on the night of February sixth? A questioner, the interrogator, is someone trying to pull the answer out of the questioned. In its most extreme example, this process involves torture and forced disclosure. It involves pain. Notice the root in Spanish Inquisition. Inquisition, as in, to question. In its more temperate, yet nevertheless problematic forms, ‘to question’ puts ‘the questioned’ on the defensive. This happens in the most innocuous yet distorting of ways.

You ask me what I’m going to do with a philosophy degree. That is SUCH a loaded question. What is implied is that one must “do” something. It implies that I can’t do anything with a philosophy degree. It implies I made a mistake; I’m immediately on the defensive when faced with this question.

Asian cultures have a beautiful response to such questions. Mu. In English (and French), we don’t have such a luxury, we only have two answers: Yes and No. But some eastern languages have a third term: mu. It basically means, unask the question, or, your question is wrong. The best defense is a good offense. The word mu is designed to call the questioner into question, to make their question questionable.

But, alas, in the west, we’re forced to answer all sorts of stupid questions. The problem is is that if the question is wrong, no possible answer will be right. And the questioner, like the one who plays white in chess, will always have the advantage after making the first move.

Why am I bringing any of this up? Because today’s piece is about such a questioner. It’s a 7 minute dialogue between two lovers. One of the characters is unable to get an answer to a question, and their response to this in-comprehensibility isn’t a shift to receptivity and listening, but a further bombardment of questions.

The character reminds me of myself. When I don’t understand something, rather than pause and look, I bang my head against the proverbial wall again and again, hoping answers will fall out.

In that spirit, I’m not going to grill (notice the connotation of torment) my friend as to why she’s yet to mail me the mug after two years…

the piano in the background is me playing at the Harold Washington Library. Did you know they have free upright pianos and practice rooms you can borrow for up to an hour, more if nobody is waiting?


Running into Rhythm and Rebirth

Means Something to Me


I have to tell you the story of how I acquired the Recorder used in this work, because it’s not as simple as going to Best Buy with a credit card.

Three years ago, after graduating college and scratching my bewildered head, I chose to take an adventure. My plan was to load my bike with a tent, sleeping bag and supplies, and head south. After about a week-and-a-half of wandering, I found myself biking down Route 50 about a hundred miles south of Champaign.

Now, it was August and that summer was particularly hot. Accordingly, I needed to stop frequently to replenish my water supply. One evening, I left the road looking for a gas station to get water and stretch my muscles before the nightly ritual of looking for a safe place to pitch my tent.

As I pulled into the parking lot, I spotted a bike that looked exactly like mine: blue road bike. On it were two red panniers filled with supplies, also just like mine. Strapped to the back wheel was a tent and what looked like a guitar. Just then a tall, lanky, bearded twenty-something walked out of the gas station with a big jug of water in his hand. “Holy shit”. I said. “You’re me”.

The young man looked me up and down and said, “You’re right”.

His name was Andrew Schaeff. He had left a few weeks before from a small town in Ohio. His plan was to head west. Like me, he was uncertain where he was going, but certain he had to go.

We decided to camp together at a nearby State Park around Forbes Lake. Schaeff (as he goes by) recommended we do “stealth” camping, which meant not signing in to the official camp site, but crawling into the woods ourselves looking for an adequate spot. There we made a fire and cooked hot dogs bought from a nearby gas station, and got to discussing life, philosophy, and the Beats. At the time, Schaeff was reading Dharma Bums, which was the inspiration for embarking on his journey.


Andrew Schaeff, circa 2011

For the next three days, we camped at Forbes Lake, taking journeys during the day to the nearby town of Salem, IL. Salem is the birth place of William Jennings Bryan, for you history nuts out there, the three-time presidential candidate and (in)famous lawyer who attacked evolution in the Scopes Monkey Trial. Schaeff and I found a plaque that called Bryan ‘the Great Commoner’, and I remember trying to argue that the phrase is an oxy-moron. I was reading Nietzsche at the time.

I could write a whole chapter on those three days, but I need to get to point of this tangent: on the third day, as we were about to split our separate ways, Schaeff and I came to an agreement about a certain audio recorder in his possession. You see, the recorder was originally his; he used it to record music. However, at that point in the trip, he was running low on money. I on the other hand wanted the recorder in order to document the next leg of my journey. So he sold it to me, in the woods, beside the lake.

So you see why this little recorder is so cherished. I used it throughout the past few years but have only now begun to really use it. Today’s recording is a song played by me on my tank drum. Explaining what a tank drum is a whole ‘nother tangent but suffice it to say it’s a bell-drum carved out of an old propane tank. Mixed into the song is a recording of cicadas from that summer, two years ago.

Re-purposed Propane Tank

Re-purposed Propane Tank

The cicadas are long gone, but as we enter spring this week, what better symbol for re-birth? And what better symbol for Rhythm? Rhythm and re-birth. Because the cicadas return every year like clockwork. Because their song is percussive and repetitive. Because every re-generation, they’re eternally the same.

In honor of the mystery that brings the right people together at the right time, tonight’s song is called ‘nameless’.


Ripping bark off trees

now, instead of taking a trip somewhere. how about a trip to innerspace, to a state of perfect enlightenment? i mean, why go to a fancy hotel in the south pacific, to a famous european city, when you can take an existential journey? you don’t visit rome, you become rome. turn your eyes inward instead of outward. point your lantern, not in the direction of an external destination, but illuminate the interior- the corridors of your own existence. now, many of us are afraid of doing so because we feel that all there is is emptiness and anxiety within us.
– Joe Frank

Here is another audio file. I’m experimenting with a new medium. Why not? Admittedly, the sound quality is not the best. However, it is in stereo, so if you have speakers for your computer use them instead of your phone or the built in speakers on your computer.

This piece comes in three parts. The first is a series of found sounds, random shit I’ve recorded in the past week: an electric gong, electric shaver, a shovel scraping snow, the mechanical crank on the side of the Metropolis coffee roaster, and so forth. Part two is a conversation between me and my friend Mike Glader about corrective moments during childhood. He is also the one playing music in the background, and you can find out more about Mike’s work here. The last section covers my visit to the Loyola University Museum of Art (LUMA), where there is a running exhibit on Edward Gorey, an artist originally from Chicago whose drawings are like the tales of the Brother Grimm without any discernible moral lesson. Special thanks to docent Angela Plath, whose perspicacity is matched only by her generosity.

(you might need to press play then pause, allowing it to load)

A final word. Incidentally, with an Edward Gorey postcard purchased at the LUMA gift shop, I got an autograph last weekend from one of my living heroes, Joe Frank, when he performed live at Steppenwolf Theater. Frank has been at it for several decades. “It” being writing, performing, and radio broadcast. He is 88 years old, needs assistance onto the stage, but is as strong a story teller as ever. Joe’s show airs every Sunday at 11pm on WBEZ and was the inspiration for this blog’s weekly format.

On the post card, before the show, I wrote to myself: Dear Ben. You are right where you need to be. Keep going, and one day you’ll be a great writer. Beware of guideposts. Your Friend,
After the show, I asked him to sign the post card, next to “Your Friend”. My knees were shaking as he read over the card, looked up at me and said, You want it to seem as if I have written this to you? Yes, I said. But my pen is different than yours. That’s OK, I’ll tell people your pen ran out of ink.
He signed it. Then he said his pen did run out of ink, and he signed it again. I got two signatures, and a chance to bullshit with one of my heroes.

k is for kate

of Edward Gorey

Both Edward Gorey and Joe Frank, for all their morosity, melancholy, and ennui, are profoundly childish men. In that spirit (the spirit of childhood) I’m going to begin playing with sound for the next few weeks, maybe beyond. It’s something I’m definitely not ‘expert’ in, but am super-excited about. So, please, bare with me, if it sounds bad blame it on your own speakers, and offer any constructive or deconstructive (just not any destructive) feedback. Thanks.

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Existential Chorelist (part 1)

In Edgewater

In Edgewater

(you may need to turn up the volume on your computer)

Part 0
Drum Circle

Part 1
Existential Chorelist, part 1
Conversing at Cookies and Carnitas

Part 2
Pool and Petroleum Drum

Part 3
Friends teaching Friends
‘Cookies and Carnitas’