American Zen: Two Years Later
It was two years ago today that I began writing the defining novel of my life and, I'd hoped and still do, the defining novel of a lost generation of rock and rollers who were born ten years too late. As many of you know, it's entitled American Zen and it was partly culled from actual experiences and conversations while the storyline was completely fictional. I cried my eyes out when one of the characters had to die and I laughed my ass off at Mike's and Billy's liberal and conservative jibes. It completely took over my life to the extent that the last Pottersville blog got deleted while I was in the homestretch. Nothing, and I mean nothing, was going to get in the way of finishing the first draft.
Two days before my so-called family gave me the old heave-ho, I'd introduced the boys to you in what was actually a curtain call in a post entitled "It's A Wonderful Life." To my closest readers, they were written very much in character and remains perhaps my favorite blog post of all time.
I'd more or less finished the book about 6 months after I'd begun it. Two Decembers ago I'd begun sending it out to literary agents and found that a lot had changed.
First of all, talent is no longer at the top of an agent's or editor's list of priorities (if it ever was). Now, I'm no longer so sure that as a result of media consolidation and almost exclusive emphasis on proven money-makers that talent is even a secondary or even a tertiary consideration with these self-appointed gatekeepers of our nation's literary culture.
15 years ago, I had no problem getting an agent's interest or even a contract for sci fi novels written at a time when I was still feeling my oats and just learning how to tell stories in prose. My informal training was in poetry and the occasional joke for Rodney Dangerfield.
Over a year later, it's stunning how how many form rejection letters American Zen has received and even more stunning is how many of these brain-dead literary agents have outright ignored it. If you don't hear from them in 8 weeks or more, that's pretty much an indication they have no wish to hear news of you being alive.
I haven't given up on Mike, Billy, Dave, Rob and Jo Jo by a fucking long shot. Because American Zen is a story that needed to be told so desperately that it almost amounted to physical pain, to the point where I could see every detail of their faces and hear the voice of the characters (Think Denis Leary as Billy the drummer, Dennis Quaid as Mike the liberal journalist, Tim Robbins as the laid-back bassist Rob, etc).
This is the penultimate chapter of American Zen (just before the Coda or epilogue.) after Mike finally gets back home just barely in time for Thanksgiving after the most soul-defining and tragic week of his life. It contains Mike's (and by coincidence, my own) loosely-collected thoughts on life in general, homespun philosophical musings that were crystallized and brought into focus through the prism of concentrated emotion. It's also one of my favorite chapters in the book. Enjoy.
Redemption and salvation never come cheaply and don’t let any religious huckster fool you into thinking otherwise. You won’t get off that easily. Oh, they may tell you your salvation will be heralded with angels playing harps when you drop some cha-ching in the collection plate or repeat little acts of contrition in a dark stuffy wooden box. Instead, salvation may come only after you wipe from your hands the dirt of your best friend’s grave. Listen to the voice of experience.
Most if not all of us live out our lives in a horizontal freefall yet convince ourselves that we still retain control over the trajectory and speed with which we live. In reality, it’s like hurtling down a dark, unfamiliar highway in an aging car with spongy brakes, a sticky gas pedal and a steering column with no power steering fluid.
That’s pretty much the perfect metaphor for this odyssey, a Grecian Formula/Flomax/Viagra commercial gone hideously over budget and over schedule. At times, it was like a stomach-displacing drop down the chute of circumstance, at other times a labyrinth that, after every left turn, led to another locked door or stairway to nowhere.
All of which summed up my life in general and perhaps all of our lives. And yet, throughout this Minotaur’s lair, Jo Jo never lost that tenuous thread nor ever let it snap, leading all of us out of that frighteningly uncertain cave into the light of life-saving revelation.
Considering how necessary those Zen-like epiphanies proved to be for all of us, I will go to my own grave believing that Jo Jo had acted with prescience that even I’m tempted to call divinely inspired. I will also go to that grave castigating myself for not staying in touch with my most beloved friend and treating myself to a front row seat to the evolution of the most remarkable human being whom I’ve ever had the honor and privilege of knowing.
And regardless of the toll this odyssey had taken on all of us in ways both great and small I will always be grateful for the chance to reunite with my old band, to get to reacquaint myself with and understand in a new light my once-neglected friends Rob, Billy, Dave and especially Jo Jo.
As for Dave, I’ve now come to realize he was the keystone that supported the weight of the arch that we made. In a way, that will always be true but at the same time and for the next three decades we made the mistake of making that perception of his role and function in the band all-inclusive. An arch can support its own burden without a keystone. Yet we chose to emotionally ostracize Dave for being the only one among us to have the courage to trust and pursue his dream, a dream that always included us at some point.
We helped eachother live and even to keep eachother alive and always seemingly at times when other people are least capable of altruism. We were there for eachother under the most inauspicious of circumstances rather than merely in fair weather both in this plane of existence and from the grave. It just took a while for that to penetrate my cynicism and apathy toward this trip.
I’ve read stories of mummified seeds that were harvested from Egyptian pyramids and that had actually grown when planted thousands of years later.
We’re talking about a thinner band of time, of course, but that week in our lives taught us of the importance and enduring nature of real friendship. Sometimes, it can be mummified through decades of neglect then fleshed out and refreshed by a chance encounter, a phone call.
Or just an email.
The other, more important lesson is that, unlike mummified seeds, human love and friendship has a brutally brief shelf life, that one cannot take health for granted, that sometimes, if friendships aren’t faithfully tended, we could arrive a day late and a dollar short.
Jo Jo taught me that in a way that religion couldn’t. And, as a consequence, Rob, Billy and I make it a point to stay in touch somehow at least once a week regardless of whatever the blender setting chaos puts our lives through.
The world is a collection of half-developed illusions in a celestial magician’s workshop. What is once regarded as unassailably real could shimmer and turn insubstantial with a minute shift in perception. The glasses are both half-full and half-empty. Depending on your view, a beautiful woman looking at herself in a mirror can turn into a skull. A statesman can be either a saint or a sinner. No two views can be held simultaneously. As with vacuums, nature abhors absolutes. We play off these half-filled vessels of truths and illusions as a glass organ player producing a ringing, cacophonous symphony of life.
Sometimes, clues and facts in our 70+ act plays are skillfully sprinkled throughout as in a movie in which the ephemera of seemingly unrelated pieces of information are put together and order reigns where there was only chaos. And when the filmmakers finish assembling the jigsaw puzzle and rescue our beleaguered and defeated sensibilities, we’re in such amazement of their ingenuity we don’t even feel chagrined at being revealed as the dullards we usually are.
But life rarely does any of us such a service. We’re left to our own pathetic devices and more often than not go to our graves no closer to understanding the dumb show’s denouement than we were able to anticipate it the day of our birth.
At Jo Jo’s apartment before the funeral, Rob brought up from his van a book about Zen. He turned to a certain page and showed me a black and white photostat of a picture. He asked me to identify the monochrome splotches, saying that it was of something that lots of people see everyday. After looking at the seemingly abstract pattern for a few minutes as the Mapplethorpe twins looked over our shoulders, the most concrete answer I could summon was, “A Rorschach test?”
Rob smiled, perhaps realizing that it was in fact the exact opposite of a Rorschach as the famous ink blot test actually encourages matrixing, or the phenomena of seeing recognizable objects in random patterns. He turned the open book back toward him as if my ignorance was typical. As it turned out, it was. Because after a few more minutes thinking about it, I finally asked Rob what was in the picture. He smiled again as he turned the book back toward me and said, “It’s a cow.”
And indeed, the cow instantly and magically materialized in the mimeograph, the snout, ears and eyes no longer hiding in plain sight.
This little Zen exercise was designed to drive home one important point: That sometimes even the most obvious truths hide from us in plain sight because our perceptions are just a little bit skewed or limited by preconceptions or crippled by none. But with a bit of gentle guidance, those truths become embarrassingly self-evident.
Ironically, Rob didn’t save any of that Zen insight for himself to save his marriage. Or maybe he did see that the bridge was out up ahead and didn’t care to realize that he was powerless to stop the crackup. As he would tell me after our week together even Zen masters aren’t all-knowing psychics. Some days you see the cow, some days you don’t.
Besides, in the times I’ve heard from him since we all went home on Thanksgiving, Rob’s been spending more and more time with a certain redhead in Delmar, New York and becoming a part-time stepdad to a twenty nine year-old woman and her precocious nineteen year-old sister. He sounds happier and has revived his dedication to Zen and Buddhism. A new running joke we now share is Rob asking me during every conversation, “Are you still seeing the cow?” Sometimes he’ll ask me in Swedish.
As of this writing, I don’t know how much of this memoir of that fateful week in our lives that I’ll be willing to share. Much of this account, obviously, is of a highly personal nature for all concerned. Plus, naturally, much got left out during those seven days, things we’d seen and heard, conversations we’d all had together.
Or perhaps it isn’t about privacy at all, and I’m just fooling myself. Perhaps I’m just continuing a thirty year-long tradition of selfishness. Maybe the reason I hardly mentioned Jo Jo to my wife was because I was deluding myself into thinking that I was keeping him and our enduring love for each other all to myself. Even for years after he married Jeremy.
But even now, a couple of months after my return home, I’m already struck and even scared a bit by what I, what we all, would’ve lost if we hadn’t gone on this improbable road trip with Jo Jo and Jeremy. I’ve never been much of a Calvinist and have never taken any stock in predestination. The present or the future, to my mind, is in a constant state of flux. Up to a point, you make your own future and every human soul has in their wallet a bill of sale for their failures as well as successes.
However, this road trip was the closest I’ve ever come to not only destiny but even a necessary one. It was as if the events of that week were guided, God help my atheistic ass, by a giant invisible hand. At virtually any point, the lessons that we had to learn about each other, about ourselves, lessons that will, hopefully, serve us and our loved ones in good stead for the rest of our lives, could’ve been lost. If we’d separated too early during the innumerable times we could’ve and had tried to, these lessons would’ve been scattered and dispersed in the formless matrix of happenstance like so much road silt.
Of course, when you have a specific goal or destination, your options dwindle as you get closer to the end. When your options get pared down to one, then it ceases to be a choice and becomes an imperative. Like getting to the end of a story you’re writing. Or like loving someone of your gender that you can’t help but love despite the conventional dictates of your sexual upbringing.
Jo Jo’s death gave us all that one choice, that inescapable and unavoidable imperative. It could be said that Jo Jo’s final wishes brought about necessary change in all of our lives except perhaps Jeremy’s.
Any fool can fall in love for the first time. But how many of us can claim that we’ve fallen in love for the last time? Damned few, I’d wager. Human nature being the way it is, even those of us who think we’ve fallen in love for the last time are susceptible to temptation. Temptation and the nagging fear that perhaps we could’ve fallen and landed better. Divorce courts are full of such woeful tales of selfish malcontent.
When it comes to love, all too many of us risk everything by vaulting over the fence and lunging for the apparently greener grass on the other side. Yet when it comes to our dreams, hopes and ambitions, we’re willing to settle and horse trade it in for a job or, God help you, the benevolent shackles of a career.
We’ll shove our chips to the center of the table and let it all ride for love while readily cashing in our dreams a bit at a time for a paycheck, promotion and a shitty 401(k).
That’s because we lack the courage to trust our dreams, the courage we show toward our fantasies and fears. I don’t pretend to understand that but my theory is this:
Fantasies are a pursuit of the usually unattainable whether it be a threesome with Venus and Serena Williams or being crowned King of Norway. Besides the addictive longing for what by rights isn’t yours, fantasies don’t require as much hard work, dedication and sacrifice as a dream. Dreams typically have a goal such as marrying that girl before someone else does or starting up a business. It’s not necessarily a work ethic issue. It’s about courage.
Next thing we know, beautifully-written words to unwritten books, sinewy notes from an electric guitar in an unrecorded album or scenes from an unmade movie recede further and further back onto the dusty shelves of the mind. We fool ourselves into thinking that some day, some day, we’ll go back, dust them off and rescue them.
In the meantime, we stand in our own footprints year after year ringing up Chinese clay lawn frogs at Wal-Mart or deep-frying ersatz chicken nuggets at McDonald’s wondering what the fuck went wrong.
Or we lie awake at night in bed, occasionally looking at the person sleeping beside us and haunted by the suspicion that perhaps, just maybe, we’re holding down a life intended for someone else. Then, if you’re feeling ambitious, you can speculate as to who’s been charged with the stewardship of the life that was intended for you, one that sits unclaimed like an unknown lottery jackpot.
The sad but funny thing is we’re as ill-matched in our relationships as we are in our vocations.
And I won’t lie- Sometimes I wonder where we would’ve ended up as a band, where Jo Jo and I would’ve ended up as a couple. But speculation doesn’t afford the intellectual and emotional luxury of following through to a logical conclusion. And the older one gets, the more impossible it is to unravel that decades-long skein of life and to knit it into something else. Life has a habit of closing off, growing over and filling in avenues of possibility like implacable kudzu.
Sure, I failed and betrayed my dreams. But then I realized in Provincetown that I landed OK and Jo Jo came to the same conclusion long before he died. The guy we anathematized for betraying us and the band was the only guy who had the balls to chase his dreams.
Thank God I’m not too old to chase new dreams. And one of the lessons I learned during that road trip may sound like something that you’d see on a poster in a thirteen year-old girl’s room but this lesson is one that we still ignore all too often:
Take care of your dreams and your dreams will take care of you.
When Jeremy stayed with us for what proved to be a week (when people began calling his and Jo Jo’s cell phones in droves during Jeremy’s physical and emotional retreat), Doris, the kids and I had at times heard him quietly crying behind one closed door or another and we chose to give him that private grieving time. Obviously, Jeremy wanted him back and I can’t see how his life benefited from this road trip. All he can do is pull himself together and somehow move on, find some reason outside of our household to be happy again.
He was a big hit with the kids and he provided Doris with a temporary companion and enabler for her guilty addiction to reality TV (especially, God help us, the endless talent shows that revolve like silly satellites around American Idol). At night when he watched TV with Doris, he always wore Jo Jo’s amazing Technicolor dream coat, wrapping it around him as if it was Jo Jo himself, even contentedly smelling it from time to time.
Billy indeed made it to Liz’s house the day after we split up in P’town and, after some token attitude from his spitfire daughter Jay, it seems as if patching together his own nuclear family, while not an inevitability, certainly looks like a distinct possibility. He told me just last week that he indeed began seeing that shrink in Rhode Island and Rob, as promised, began to faithfully pick up the tab. Billy also told me something extraordinary. He’d called me up on my cell phone at one in the morning just before Christmas (Billy was always something of an insomniac) to shoot the shit.
“Mike, you remember that old kit I used when we were together? The skins with the wooden buckets?”
“Yeah,” I’d said while trying to take a piss in a dark bathroom (Doris hates it when I wake her up with the bathroom light).
“I’ve had it in a storage unit ever since I moved to Connecticut to run the old man’s business.”
“Is that so?”
“Yeah. I got it out of storage today. I kinda got infected with the bug those three times we played last November. All I need are a coupla guitarists.” He paused, then said in a loud voice that made me chuckle, “Hint, hint.”
As bleary-eyed as I was, I was glad to hear that Billy, the guy who’d been the most pragmatic and resistant to the idea of us reuniting thirty years ago, was now the one bugging me to get us an agent and a manager. Although we’d rediscovered our love for rock and roll, we still had careers and businesses to manage, families to feed. We aren’t exactly in a position to go back on the road like wealthy, retired rock and roll stars that have nothing better to do than autograph groupies’ tits.
Billy did have a point, however. As expected, our swan song at the Rock Garden and the second set at St. Peter’s made YouTube and showed us in a more sympathetic light. The Rock Garden set, with mine, Billy’s, Rob’s and Jeremy’s permission, was posted on Drew’s and her group’s Myspace page. sExposition has a much bigger following than she let on back in Ayer and she told me when she sent me the video file of our Rock Garden set that the network that will broadcast that talent show just informed them they’d made the show. They’ll be flown to California later this year to begin their live auditions. Somewhere up in heaven, Dave’s ruining his black leather gown crying tears of joy for his little girl. We seem to have found a new audience and Drew even passed on a Myspace comment she’d gotten from a woman about my age who remembered seeing one of our shows. Another woman emailed to Drew some old Kodak pictures she’d taken of one of our gigs. After, once again, clearing it with us, Dave’s daughter had dutifully put them on the group’s Myspace site.
It almost made me cry to see pictures of us when we were young. They were of a gig that I still remembered, one that was obviously indoors. It was the funeral reception for Dave’s friend, the one we did in Leominster, the city Rob and Billy were in when Jo Jo began dying. It was especially painful in a worrying-a-sore-tooth kind of way to see our keyboardist when he was 19. It was our next-to-last gig and we were all wearing our dorky white shirts and black ties but having fun. The pictures, perhaps done with a 110, obviously weren’t taken by Annie Leibovitz but, at least on a personal level, their very raw spontaneity is what made them so appealing.
One picture of Jo Jo was an almost complete blur, which indicated a cheap camera with a slow shutter speed, but in its way it vividly captured the sheer joy with which he’d played that day and virtually every day of his life. I smiled and allowed myself a tear or two as I looked at the 12 picture photoset. Billy’s arms were also a blur as he stoically sat behind the drums; Rob and I almost touching heads and guitar necks in another picture; one shot of Dave playing on his Les Paul with just Jo Jo in the background, my two lost friends. I couldn’t believe that nature ever permitted us to be that young.
Out of us three survivors, the only one who’s benefited professionally from our “reunion” is Billy, whose garage has been flooded with business from bikers who loved his playing (especially the more sacrilegious of our two “gigs” at St. Peters. Fortunately, not all bikers are petulant Catholics.). Seeing this, he began making repairs and improvements to his business with the alimony and child support checks that Liz had put into a separate account. Perhaps I’m seeing too much into that but sometimes I wonder if fixing up his father’s garage is just plain pragmatism or Billy’s way of making peace with the old man.
One day, someone called the magazine asking for my contact information. Naturally, they didn’t give it out, even if he said he was Rob Zombie. Zombie left a number where I could reach him which my employers then passed on to me. Apparently, he was flattered that we thought enough of his music to use it to insult the Roman Catholic Church. Turns out Zombie said he liked our sound and was interested in getting us to cut a track for his new horror movie. I told him I’d think about it while I talked to the other guys.
In fact, I’d made up my mind even before Zombie had finished the sentence. I knew Rob and Billy would go nuts at the thought. They did.
I think I owe it to anyone who cares to know to reveal why Doris was so eager for some private face time with me. The night I got home with Jeremy in tow, Doris pulled back her hair exactly the way I love it, slipped on one of my dress shirts and nothing else and rhetorically asked before seducing me, “How do you like the idea of paying college tuition until you’re 73?”
She’s 46, it shouldn’t have happened but it did. And that’s why she wanted me home so desperately. It also helped explain the kids’ anxiety to have me home. They already knew that Mommy and Daddy were giving them a future playmate.
“Mike, I just wanted to say… I’m sorry for yelling at you on the phone this week. But my hormones were just out of whack. And…”
“Hun, there’s nothing to apologize for. You meant every word. Don’t apologize for being sincere.”
“I may not have meant everything I said.”
“Yes you did. Don’t forget, I’ve known and loved you for 22 years. I know that ring of sincerity. That’s because you’re always sincere.”
“Well, I’m still sorry.”
“Don’t be. Look, you told me some things you felt very strongly that I needed to hear.”
“You’re not going to make my self-effacement very easy, are you, Mike?”
“Never,” I chuckled. Doris reached across the bed and pulled me on top of her.
“Shut up and show me how you got me pregnant.”
Billy, to mention him one more time, was true to his word and indeed sent me those sound files that gave me the sourcing I needed to write that article about his scumbag ex-father in law. When I told Ari, I thought he’d ejaculate Mogan David over the phone. After hearing the files I’d forwarded to him, he told me if I didn’t write this story he’d castrate me. I told him he was beginning to sound like Jesse Jackson. Of course, it would be rash and presumptive to assume I’d led him to believe that tracking down this lead was the sole reason for my road trip. I can’t be held accountable for faulty assumptions.
The story came out just two weeks before Kincaid Enterprises would’ve finalized the deal intended to make the company $75,000,000 richer. But the furor that my article raised led to parallel investigations into Kincaid’s business practices by both Congress and the Justice Department that effectively put the skids on that Pentagon contract. At press time, we’re still waiting for Eddie to make good on his threat to sic his shysters on Ari and me. Since we got the scoop on how Kincaid was shortchanging our troops on their safety in order to save on overhead costs such as Kevlar, a lot of other places like The Nation, Vanity Fair, Mother Jones and Salon.com followed our lead and circulation has started climbing again.
When Ari was crowing about this the other day, I thought it was a good time for me to bring up the fact that I was going to be a father for the fourth time at the end of June and that a raise would be welcome. After the usual accusations of extortion, my editor in chief said he’d think about it. My next paycheck included a 5% raise, retroactive to the week before.
Anticipating my annual Christmas bonus, I took the kids and Jeremy to the music store the day after I got back to sign up Danny, Meghan and Izabella for music lessons. While we were there, my son was longingly looking at a pre-owned set of drums. Like every other drummer in the land, Danny’s first set was made of crappy plastic drum heads on Lucite. Typically, they didn’t last long with Danny’s style of drumming and his old set was more duct tape than plastic. I figured since MBNA was practically ready to move into our home anyway, why not put a few more charges on the plastic?
So I got him the drums and Izabella the bass and bass amp that she wanted (you can’t stop at just one kid without being crucified for favoritism). Meghan, thankfully, wanted to be nothing but a singer.
I realized even without Doris’ help that I was being an asshole to our kids by making them hang out there while I thought about whether I should get them music lessons. Sure, what I said about the long odds of succeeding in the entertainment business was certainly true but that still in itself makes for a crappy reason to tell your kids not to bother pursuing their dreams, no matter how transitory you suspect they may be. In a way, I was the reverse of fathers who live vicariously through their childrens’ athletic or musical careers. It wasn’t the glow of their success in which I wanted to bask as much as keep them from making the same mistake I thought I’d made by getting mixed up with Dave and his band.
But that final week in Jo Jo’s life taught me that the nine and a half months the Immortals were together was the best time in not just my life but all our lives. Why in God’s name would I want to deny them the chance to have enriching experiences of their own, to make high quality friends such as the ones that grace my life even if they never got signed?
While I was buying the drums, Danny had noticed a used Fender Stratocaster hanging up on a guitar rack and he brought it to my attention. “Hey, Dad, isn’t this the kind of guitar you had when you were young?”
I chose to ignore the unintentional jibe about my decrepitude and ambled on over to the axe. Danny was right- it was a Stratocaster that was very similar to the one that I used when I was with the Immortals. The color scheme was even the same.
“You can still play a mean guitar, Dad. Since you’re getting us lessons and instruments, why don’t you get something for yourself, too?” Jeremy looked at me, curious what I was going to do.
Out of the mouths of babes.