1. My oldest kid got married. More of my family was in the same place than at any time since, I believe, the 1980s. The place was Detroit, but then the family was my family. Funnyman, ex-seminarian, and ace musician Jim DeWan officiated, giving the most electrifying pro-love talk since Al Green's heyday. At the dinner later on, three grandes dames were rather seriously hurt -- my aunt's leg was cut by bouncing broken glass, my ex-mother-in-law threw out her hip dancing to the Jackson 5 and needed taking away, and a paper-thin lady unknown to all crashed to the tile floor in an utter swoon -- prompting my tart-tongued ex-sister-in-law to declare: "The older generation is going down hard tonight."
I had dreaded having to stand and speak, as the occasion and my son demanded, in a bossy voice on the secrets of a successful marriage, and my lost-in-the-woods feeling only grew as I sat in my motel room shining a light into the dank thickets of my soul and putting fragmentary insights to notepaper. But in the event, my pointers, being less than heartwarming ("Number Four: Take Care of Your Body"), and voiced in a tone that slid helplessly past bossy into buffoonish, were received by my audience with snorting laughter. Thank God, they thought I was trying to be funny. As the poet said -- I was not waving but drowning! At the center of the action, coolly above its outbreaks into farce, stood my new D.I.L., who's a D.O.L.L.
2. I went to New York City for 4 days in June and the west coast for 8 days in October and enjoyed the hell out of both. Nine gigs across twelve days, and against all probability, every one went swimmingly. I was with Don Stiernberg for the eastern trip and Robbie Gjersoe for the other, making the social and the musical accompaniment first-class. In New York I had scheduled a midweek day off, on which I played strange old instruments over at Retrofrets in Brooklyn, and then went to see, consecutively within the space of 4 hours, Anat Cohen playing Armstrong music at Birdland, Amy Warren pretending to be Dorothy Parker in a Paris Review event at Strand, and my old college friend Paul Foglino performing his outrageous folk songs at a little joint not far from Strand. Our Long Island date was booked by a retiring cop, who gave me a special badge that allows me to drive drunk as fast as I want and avoid fine and imprisonment -- that shit will really come in handy. In Seattle I worked a bit with Wayne Horvitz on a years-spanning Joe Gould kind of project, involving songs and instrumental music inspired by the stories of Flannery O'Connor. (By the way, if you are in a position of eminence at an arts council, foundation, or label and the thought of a dark Flanneryesque song cycle performed by a chamber group of avant country and jazz musicians lifts your skirt, give me a ring!) Later that night, Gjersoe and I played music with Wayne and his wife, Robin Holcomb, at his new-ish club. Down In San Francisco, I got to catch up with Jenny Scheinman, and we gave some of her new fiddle music its first airing. In L.A. I got to enjoy three long meals with Dino Stamatopoulous, who is America's funniest and drunkest philosopher-king.
A few things elevated these two trips above the typical. I always avoid days off as too costly, but here they landed in interesting locales and made the expense worth it. Everywhere we played the sound situation was OK at worst and very nice at best, with well-appointed rooms and PAs, and sound guys who were almost to a man competent and sincerely effortful and allowed us to use mikes. (Direct input is for hacks, you know.) Finally, not only did Stiernberg, Scheinman, Horvitz and Gjersoe ("Three Jews and a Nut"? Scratch that, Don's a goy) push me nightly toward my personal best, some of the people that showed up to watch -- Anat, John Carlini, Noem Pikelny, Bill Frisell, and Matt Munisteri -- kept me on my toes too, just by sitting there. Making music with some of the people I most reverently admire is the sundae, and having others of the same ilk willingly listen to it is the cherry, how does that sound? Life doesn't get better.
3. Irishfest. With Liz Carroll! It just got better!
4. We got a dog. She's a mix of poodle and pit bull and my youngest son named her Acorn. One weekend in September I came home from a trip and there she lay. We love dogs but had avoided getting one for going on 15 years due to my middle son's allergies. But tests conducted early in 2012 revealed that his severest allergies were to cats, ragweed, and other items associated with dogs, not the lovable wolf-cousins themselves.
If you had a dog twenty or more years ago and had children in the meantime, you may have found occasion to scoff behind your sleeve at lesbians and songwriters and childless couples and other ardent caninophiles who go on and on about the crushing responsibilities of dog ownership. It turns out you and the nullipari are both right: dog maintenance used to be low-bore work, but times have changed. Maybe some of you who had pets back in the 1970s can back me up on this. In 1974 we lived on a perfectly normal residential block in a normal small town. I'd walk my dog to a little overgrown lot near our house and let her shit all over. (Later it would work its way into the ground and our water supply, and we drank it and were happy indeed.) My wife recalls going off on days-long trips, before which her dad would put the dog in the backyard with a big bowl of food. People, that was our style, in the Seventies. Our pets were our accessories, and apart from 20 minutes of leashed walking a day and bowls of food and water, they merited no special accommodations. They hewed to our schedules, like dogs, you might say. When they took sick, they'd stay sick a while, then get better. (Except once.) When we moved out to where there were no immediate neighbors, we ignored our dog even more. She would run around unbounded, sometimes disappearing for a few days before returning. When she got pregnant, we would give as many of the pups away as we could, and stick the rest in a sack and drop it in the river. When our neighbor's big watchdog broke free and came over to our henhouse, we shot him. (This incident rose to some fame in our family, since the dog crawled under a shack to die, and I, who have a soft city boy's dislike for crawling in the dust on my belly and grabbing dead things and pulling them by their tails from tight spaces, was tasked with retrieval. Our neighbor, by the way, was fully understanding when we delivered his dog's corpse back to him.)
Acorn had not been with us long before we saw that not only would this Wild West approach ill suit us and her, quick and drastic steps would need to be taken simply to keep her alive and prevent our pariahhood on our suburban block. Acorn leapt on any figure under ten feet. Small children she knocked over like tenpins. She bit, she careened, she destroyed. She gulped down metal, fabric, wood, shit, and plastic when we weren't looking. To me it was something of a miracle her species had survived to this point. Like a newborn human, she woke several times a night to complain or demand attention; she continually vomited shit and sticks. My wife brought into our lives two people, an older married couple, who worked for a franchise called Barkbuster. Once every week or two, for an hour and a half at a stretch, they stop by and sit around the dinner table with us, discussing our dog's behavior goals for the week, unveiling large-font flowcharts and terms to memorize, and examining Acorn's slow progress. These two are studiedly patient with our dog but rather sterner with us. The Barkbuster methods and philosophy are not amuse-bouches, to be taken in lightly and in a single sitting.
On the instructions of the Barkbuster team and on our own initiative, we bought a lot of things. A bully ring, a training collar, a harness, a regular collar, leashes, circular beds, a couple doz. squeaking toys and bones, a sweater, a crate, then a bigger crate, medicine, Pillpockets for concealing medicine. She was neutered, and returned to the vet several times since for various ailments, such as a torn ligament in her leg and a bacterial infection. We kenneled her for 5 days at Thanksgiving. Do you want to guess where our Acorn-related expenses stand after four months of this? $6,000. Including the furniture she has destroyed would bring it closer to $9,000. If this is a representative sample, if this dog is going to cost us $18,000 a year for the next 15 years, I'm calling my Mom in to shoot her.
5. I was on 30 Rock. This is a list of pleasure moments, not professional achievements. When a TV show or movie in production wants some work from you (as opposed to the use of work you've already done), a seasoned response is to grit your teeth and buy a jug of antidepressants before proceeding. Near-certain eventualities: protracted contract negotiations and unaffordable lawyer fees, dumb shit you will be forced to create and label as your own, ten people ineptly trying to communicate what they think they want but don't really, not nearly enough money. Reasonably likely eventualities: your work (compromised from its inception) is further degraded by rewrites from other hands, your opportunity for exposure and advancement is cropped by cruel editors and mixers so that only hard-to-hear excerpts of your glorious vision remain, the show or movie is never completed, the show or movie is completed but never released or seen. I'm being a tad broad and overpessimistic here, but not very.
But here's what happened with 30 Rock and why I'm including it here. On a Wednesday, as I recall it was, Tina Fey's husband Jeff asked me to sing and play a piece he'd written and demoed. On Thursday he sent the file with his demo version. I listened, trying to envision how I'd sing it, then emailed him, "I think I want to do this a la Martin Short, is that OK?" That being my response to most "comedic" concepts that befall me. But, "No," Jeff replied, "we want to hear you, in your voice, like on 'Fuck This Town' and 'I Wanna Be Mama'd.'" Hired to do what I really do: fancy that!
On Friday afternoon, I recorded it at Robbie Gjersoe's house. It took 45 minutes. On Friday night, I got the note from New York, "Perfect! Thanks! This airs on next Thursday's show." Which it did. To sum up: 8 days from initial request to broadcast; about an hour's worth of work; a funny, funny bit of lasting comedy that I'm just delighted to have contributed to. The pay was a while in coming but was much more than I deserved, and Robbie got paid too. No lawyers, just friends pulling off a simple task without fuss. Thanks, Jeff and Tina! And you, Invisible Master of Destinies: much more work like that, please!
6. I read good books. Thank you Anthony Zee, Ian McEwan, James M. McPherson, Russell Banks, Ron Carlson, Rudy Rucker, Jhumpa Lahiri, and P.G. Wodehouse.
7. My wife went away to Santa Monica for 6 weeks to be in Our Town. Not long enough for the absence of the central administrator of our homestead to destroy us, not so long that we couldn't always see the end of the rainbow down the calendar. Just long enough to make an enjoyable puzzle for us, over how we would get by for a spell. If a house full of males could muddle through for six weeks, then why not ten or twenty, and if ten or twenty...might our model be scalable to where women could be altogether banished from society? The first day I gathered the gang together at the dinner table, announcing that we were entering a special Six Weeks Regime with new rules. First rule: dinner together around the table every night, affairs of the day discussed, and no Family Guy blaring from the laptop. There would be an hour of quiet reading after dinner, and a strictly observed 10PM bedroom-doors-closed curfew. A chores assignment was posted on the fridge. On the "carrot" side, we would take one weekend trip with our reduced clan, to a spot of the boys' choosing, where we would celebrate our special maleness.
The only thing that met with strenuous objection was the weekend trip. The guys were appalled at the prospect of leaving their friends and X-boxes for two days just to get all Robert Bly with dad. But the rest of it they fell into with remarkably little dissent. Two weeks in, we were humming smoothly along with the new regime, and I started wondering what I had ever seen in Donna to begin with. One parent wasn't all that different from two, and in some ways it was better. It felt a bit more orderly, at least at first. From the end of school to bedtime, 3:30 to 10, kid needs ruled, as I made meals and drove the boys from place to place for music lessons and sports. But the rest of the day, before and after, was Robbie Robbie Robbie. At ten I'd fix myself a tiny, or vaguely tiny, glass of bourbon, snuggle into the sheets, plug headphones into laptop, and sink into a Claude Chabrol or Nicole Holofcener movie, like a moony girl. It was the dead of winter, and the quiet isolation was delicious. The snow muted the street sounds, gigs were few, and the neighbors' houses were like a row of locked and little-checked P.O. boxes.
In normal times, when Donna's home, there's a lot of bustling and egging-on, and a fruitful sort of anxiety stirs our blood. There's this motivational ostinato in the air: things aren't being done fast enough, aren't being attended to by the males of the house in proportion to their number and intellect, will soon swamp us if left unchecked. But what were the things? There was keeping the house picked up. But without Donna's generative dynamo, there was a lot less to pick up, such as dresses and shoes and boutique chocolates for Amy Warren and perfume samples and coupons received in the mail that might save five dollars in 15 months' time if left in plain view. Anyway, we had weekly maid service. There were the utility bills, but I was an educated person and could surely crack that nut. There were the school parent duties, but I could hit "delete" on emails with the best of them. Tax filing, doctor visits, and home improvement projects could all easily be kicked down the road seven weeks or longer. All the other dull duties, the cooking and cleaning and ferrying and homework help, I actually loved doing, and loved also the routinizing of them into a 6-hour segment of an ordered day, past which smiled Mr. Claude Chabrol and his merry murderers. If the foundation of the house began to collapse or a tree fell, some rare catastrophe like that, then I'd be in trouble, but otherwise the predictability was delightful, and the sepulchral peace that filled my days actually brought on pleasing thoughts of widowerhood.
By the fifth week things were really going to hell. I had come very close to strangling the boys a couple times, and not a controlled, scientific, Laird Cregar sort of strangling either, but a rageful, reckless, jungle-animal flurry of hands on throat. I called up my oldest, not-yet-married son for some lunch dates and adult conversation. Not having adults in the flesh to talk to was making me bonkers. I thought about the close neighbors I got on with best, but they were youthful, good-looking women. A lunch date would definitely look bad, and, given my five grimly monastic, Chabrol-infused weeks, perhaps end worse. I called the father of one of Preston's old friends. I beat around the bush for a while with small talk, but couldn't bring myself to say, "Could you come over and talk to me for an hour?" Seemed infantile. He hung up, uncertain as to the nature of my rambling call. Flipping through my contact book, I realized -- no friends! What do you know. This was a curious lack that I'd need to address. If it took 70 or 80 cows to make one probabilistically healthful quarter-pounder for McDonalds, then -- switching the metaphor from mammal to fowl -- surely it was ill-advised of me to put all the eggs of my companionship needs into just two baskets, those of wife and oldest son. One of us was bound to sicken and die in this incestuous tangle. However, I hadn't met anyone outside these two whom I liked nearly as much.
I started ignoring Donna's calls. Who knows why. Perhaps I would create the illusion that things were bustling along so happily that there was no time to take calls, and then reality would fall in line and become happy. Maybe I'd make her so sick with worry, she'd skip out the last week of the show and come home at once. A few days before the end of the Six Weeks (the name now carried an unfortunate Maoist overtone), Donna's looming arrival settled everything back down, and I started taking her calls and cooling it with the kids. As soon as she got back it was like it had never happened. I consider it one of my year's highlights, because there's no greater pleasure in life than having successfully met a mountainous challenge, vexing though it may be in the moment.
8. I got a new guitar. A Collings D(readnought)H(erringbone)2. Pretty fair guitar, one I'm liking even better now than upon purchase. Also I got a Vox AC15 amp. Neither tool too expensive, both solid and reliable, so far.
9. My middle son started doing better in school. A big shout out to Mr. Rubin here. There's nothing that can take the place of an inspiring teacher. They're precious few and precious period. Preston didn't exactly do poorly in the ninth grade, but we were a little worried, as both grades and motivation were clearly waning. (This strangely coincided with his interest in rock music -- producing and consuming it -- waxing.) When I sat down with him to look at sample ACT English tests, he acted indifferent, put-upon, and unfocused, and it showed in his scores. Then tenth grade began, and Mr. Rubin entered the picture, and with them came an improved GPA. When he took a school-administered ACT practice test, he did markedly better than on his at-home sessions. Probably the guy is just itching to get out of here and move on. Once he's accepted into any four-year college that doesn't have Robert DeNiro on its board, I will sigh happily, dust my hands off, and help him load the moving truck.
10. I can't think of a tenth highlight.
In 2013, I'd like to have...hm, a resumption of some civil order in Syria and a denuclearized Iran, to be sure. But in the realm of the affectable, I'd like to get my new record out as soon as possible; get going with a new agency (there are a couple decent-looking choices, luckily); get cracking on some other records that are percolating in my head; play guitar more and get better at it, maybe even good enough to do some sideman chores, which would be killer; make a little more money; and hug my kids whenever they play a nice song or bring home a good grade or marry a nice lady. Happy New Year to you.