keep clean, keep communicating, keep being funny & nice
from this day forward
keep the past in the past, keep your jealousy to yourself
for richer or for poorer
max out your 401k, decide who pays the bills and how, share taxes, share accounts, don’t buy anything <$100 without checking in with her
in sickness & in health
exercise, wash your hands, don’t expect thank yous for loading the dishwasher. learn to cook. learn to snack. drink moderately
for better or for worse
you’ll think some wrong & petty things a lot — keep it in your head. learn to make sacred everday tasks, everyday beauties — the smell of her hair, the smoothness of her cheek, the calming & ennobling presence of family, the loyalty she shows friends. the love she gives you unearned
till death do us part
learn to care for her. learn to anticipate her fatigue & her worry. learn to be gracious in the little that you do. one day you’ll be reduced to a body to maintain not a personality to cherish, not a coparent or a partner. one day you’ll need help in ways you can’t imagine, in ways that you won’t notice or recognize. one day it’ll all be over, and you will have lived well thanks to her, thanks to these words today. be happy because you’ll leave her as you found her. beautiful, strong, wise, clear brown eyes, soft skin.
Daniel was the son
raised in the valley. A bucket for a
swimming pool. Air conditioning was
hosing down the cement porch,
waiting for a breeze. Him and Mom,
Granny and Papá Romulo.
Then Dad returned from the war. That’s all
I know of the war.
Raul was raised in San Antonio.
Daniel & Raul,
speaking Spanish, singing boleros,
eating raspas, and parting their hair on the side.
Los hijos de Junior y Noelia.
Tan joven, tan guapo.
They knew the valley, they knew
I came late. Learned late.
I came each summer
to Granny and Papá Romulo.
Dad in the reserves, Mom with us.
Two weeks to watch
and learn late.
Rio Grande City, Texas
I climbed the salt cedar
each morning. I could see
Roque Guerra school,
where Mom learned
English. Dogs unleashed,
dust and dress shops
and the panadería.
Papá whistled. I climbed down.
Past the cement porch,
past Granny hanging sheets
freshly wrung, flapping and damp,
between the pomegranate trees,
Javi watching from
the other side of the chain link fence,
(sin hermanos, pobre de Javi)
to a row of bricks in the backyard,
to Daniel, Raul, David, Martita,
and Papá Romulo. He had made
He sets up the cans, his heavy step
crunching mesquite pods.
We take aim.
Pebbles ding the bricks,
bounce in the dust,
Javi watches from
the other side of the chain link fence.
Pull, aim, miss. Calmate, mi’jo.
Pull, aim, miss.
Fijate, mi’jo. His weathered thick hand
on the slingshot now. Dress shirt and
dress pants, thick lenses and Three Roses
pomade, but a face and a gaze pure Olmec.
A can falls.
Papá Romulo, stepping heavily,
back to his fading aluminum
lawn chair. Grinning, rolling a Bugler.
(The bricks were put to better use
when the house burned down on
my eleventh birthday in 1980.
I was there.
Papá Romulo learned to make do
with his left hand after the stroke
in late May, 1985. Raul led us
down the hospital hall, fighting back
tears in his cap and gown.
Papá Romulo, face drooping,
voice powerful & phlegmy,
letting Raul know how proud
he was, how loved he was.)
I haven’t been to Fairgrounds
in twenty years. It’s not ours
anymore. I drive
past it, past the peyote dealer,
past the bougainvillea
and unlocked trucks
and picket fences
and hand-painted signs for
businesses long gone.
All the way to the cemetery
on the left. Where my cousin
Netito patted my shoulder,
as we carried Papá in his casket.
Where Mom and Tío Israel cried
and sang. Where the dust covers
plastic flowers and prayers
etched in stone. Where I went
the day after Thanksgiving
in grad school (just
to pay respects) and wound up
with my Tía, slicing apart
a hose tucked in the weeds,
to siphon gas from her car
to fill the borrowed lawn mower.
We can't leave it like this, mi’jo.
Dusty, dirty, like a parking lot.
The mower kicked up whirlwinds.
I gathered faded silk flowers
blown from nearby graves.
We stood under the mesquite.
She cried, and I slapped my
jean jacket clean for
the drive back to Dallas.
My closet has vintage
skinny ties & guayaberas,
safe from the fire. I still wear
the gold Virgen they put
around my neck in 1982.
I’ve never removed it.
I look at the veins in my hands,
more pronounced each year,
and see Granny’s veins,
her olive skin. Your blood
is bouncy, I’d say, poking
her veins and laughing, my head
on her shoulder, her hands
on my lap.
Our hands, our blood,
write now, right now.
They lied once a year,
Granny and Papá Romulo,
each April inflating
their income for the honor
of paying taxes. Their city is named
after a river that they never crossed.
They lie side by side,
under a mesquite tree
at the far end of
A slightly different was originally published as part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge in May 2019, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars.
Back then, back there, if you were a man,
you joined the military. Dad did.
Mom has photos
of him uniformed, ramrod straight
on campus, far from home, not yet
at war. He graduated
& went. 22. An officer.
His first day, his first mission: find
a platoon presumed dead.
He did. They were.
Fifty years later, the tears
have come back for those that didn't.
The VA reached out: You can talk about it.
We're here. We'll listen. It'll do you good.
It almost always does.
These days, if you're a man long alone
with your feelings, you move slowly,
you mourn privately. After the VA,
you pull over the car to weep,
the tears coming like
a blowout. You'll be home late,
dazed by the surprise of
what you remember,
what you survived.
This is a mostly true story. He's alright. Really. I saw him just the other day.The photo, taken June 2019, shows Panel 8E of The Vietnam Memorial, where two men from dad’s unit—64th QM BN—are honored. Donald F. Leuthold (SFC, US Army) and William W. Webb (2ndLT, US Army) died during an ambush while on intel recon 06/05/1966. Click here for mental health resources, information, treatment options, and more — all accessible to veterans & veterans’ supporters.
A man crosses the street in rain,
one long last step over the curb.
His coffee cup out at an exaggerated
distance, a comically small cup
to be sheperding through the
crowded city street.
He's on time. Two more blocks.
Past the Thai place, past the laundromat,
past the diner. He'll be there soon.
Two keys -- one for the gate, one for the door.
It's an old building, tight turns on
the stairs. Small rooms. No closets.
He takes off his shoes & feels the moist cold
of his socks as he walks to the window,
twisting the fading light into the living room.
There's a chair he'll leave behind in
eight months when he moves home
(but he doesn't know that now),
brocaded, low, a color he can't name,
springs he can't ignore.
He reaches & turns on the TV. His team
almost never televised here, far from home.
His team will receive.
It's a Sunday in January. 1995.
From a project with students, using the first line of Shoulders by Naomi Shihab Nye
I love the title The Memory Police, so I was happy to wait a long time for Yōko Ogawa‘s novel to show up at the library for me. So long in fact that I was able to read another of her books — The Housekeeper and The Professor — while waiting. This was turned out to be for the best, actually, to read the books in the order that they were written and in escalating order of complexity.
The Housekeeper and the Professor focuses on three characters, the two in the title and the housekeeper’s son. The professor of the title is an elderly award-winning mathematician, who can only remember the most recent 80 minutes of his life, due to a debilitating car accident. His housekeeper and her son come to learn a new way to love and to see the world in caring for this eternally-present professor. Ogawa weaves just enough math (like amicable numbers) into the conversation to give the reader a glimpse into the world of the professor and the newly opened mind of the housekeeper and her son affectionately called Root (because his haircut makes him look like the sign for square root).
There are no big conflicts and no huge reveals. Instead, there’s a trip to the doctor’s office, a baseball game, a birthday party, homework & haircuts, comfort food & household artifacts: just the kind of slowly evolving wisdom and daily blessings that an ordinary life can give to those fully present to & for one another.
The Memory Police is also a novel based around three people: a novelist, an old man neighbor of hers, and the novelist’s editor. It’s a much darker story & world than Housekeeper. They live in a devolving world, a world in which items are disappeared, destroyed, and forbidden by the memory police from reappearing. Calendars, harmonicas, roses, books. Ogawa offers no reason for the state-sponsored disappearances, so the novel takes on a quiet and powerful suspense. It’s political story clearly, about a state’s power to shape our stories & ourselves, but there’s no exposition scene, no single Memory Policeman who reveals the machinery behind the political rulers. For some readers that lack of motivation might be frustrating; for me, it meant that I really had to live as the characters lived–that is, with very limited knowledge & no way of digging deeper. As a result, the novel read like almost like a fable, and like a survival story, one in which the novelist hides her editor, who persists in remembering objects lost, thus endangering his life, and who lives in a kind of Anne Frank hidden room in the novelist’s house.
Both novels offer clear and stark lessons in memory and in the power of community, even the smallest of human interaction. They read fast, and they will linger long.
PS. Both novels are translated from Japanese into English by Stephen Snyder, the sole translator of Ogawa’s work into English. And you can read about other stuff I’ve read here.
As a kid, I wanted to be
a priest. I knew the costume,
had seen men add layer
upon layer of holiness.
I knew the sacristy,
the drawers of clothing
& cabinets of gold &
wine. A bell struck.
All rose. He walked.
All waited on him.
He had it all.
The title, the pulpit.
I never imagined myself
at fifty, feeling young,
feeling uncertain, feeling
like anything less than
a leader, a voice behind
a screen offering forgiveness.
Holiness, I hope, is
everywhere. Sin, I've learned,
is nothing to be
ashamed of unless it's
cowardice. Enter the space.
Pitchfork‘s 5-10-15 feature offers artists the chance to talk about the music of their lives, five years at a time. Here’s my headphone journey, five years at a time. I tried to find songs from that specific age, songs that serve as a hyperlink to then, not necessarily my favorite songs of all times–just of those times. So a lot of what I love that’s not here: no jazz, no country, no hiphop, no R&B. What is there shows how blessed we all are for a life enriched by music.
5: I’m old enough to remember when a home stereo was a piece of furniture, a large one. Ours was about the length of a couch, a sensible brown woodgrain cabinet, with a gently lifting lid. Inside was a radio dial, a compartment for about twenty albums, and a turntable.
Parents of five-year-olds in 1974 probably fed their children a steady diet of Carole King, Elton John, James Taylor. Jim Croce, etc. I didn’t grow up with any of that. When I was a freshman at UT Austin, two of my friends teared up at a diner when James Taylor came on — I looked at them like they were from Mars and sneered, “Doesn’t heroin usually lead to good music?” But I digress.
The turntable at Casa Garza in 1974 usually had Eydie Gormé y Los Panchos on. If you’ve been sung to at a Mexican restaurant, you’ve probably been sung to like Los Panchos did — tight harmonies, intricate fretwork, soaring choruses, big finishes. That makes me tear up. “Piel Canela” is a really catchy upbeat song, a love song that’s joyful. It took me years to recognize that Eydie Gormé’s accent wasn’t great, but then again, I’ve always had a thing for Jewish girls.
10: Sometimes after soccer games on the weekend, my parents would take us all out to have a hamburger. There was a jukebox at the place. Around this time (1979), you’d see non-discoactspulling disco into their bag of tricks. I really like disco. I’m really persuaded also by those revisionist music historians that see a not so subtle homophobic / white supremacist strain to disco haters.
The Doobie Brothers were hippies, the kind of musicians that Jim Henson was thinking of when he assembled the Electric Mayhem. “What a Fool Believes” isn’t really their sound, but then again Hotel California isn’t really the Eagles’ sound. It’s a hit. It’s catchy and bouncy. It has a buncha guys singing really high harmonies. It has a pre-chorus and a chorus. It has a bangin’ piece of modulation in the second verse that introduces a subtle but noticeable high descending keyboard line that you didn’t know the song needed. There’s no guitar solo — and at the end, it’s just Michael McDonald riffing through the fadeout.
15: I’m going to have to work sometime soon on how David Byrne shaped me for good. Sometime in high school, I began taking on my own musical tastes and not just leaning on my siblings’ impeccable musical choices. Talking Heads was a gateway into a whole lot: Contemporary bands with similarly angular sounds, the possibilities of blending art & music, of blending Africa & America, the realities of a rock band as a kind of art project, the fact that a drummer could do away with the ride cymbal altogether, the fact that there’s a loopy beauty in / to suburban spaces. Talking Heads also introduced me to Brian Eno’s vision and Eno introduced me to worlds and worlds.
This song, though, is the end of a kind of era with Talking Heads. This is their third & final album with Brian Eno producing. I’ve always loved when a band sounds like one big instrument, but I’m always disappointed when the band I love no longer sounds like that band. I get growth, I get experimentation. I am disappointed for the bassist I love, disappointed for the drummer I love on a song like this where the whole thing seems hijacked by the singer-songwriter-genius & the producer-genius.
It’s organic & programmed — hand claps looped, shakers & Fairlight beats, spoken word & studio trickery, panning from speaker to speaker in whizzing flurries. A single bubbling of escalating pings, an echoing that dies abruptly.
And then a voice — not singing, but speaking. A story about change & regret, or regretting change or changing from regret. Or something else.
20: I was one of those Gen Xers whose musical tastes got blown away by Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, and David Byrne, bringing back sounds from their travels–sometimes for their own stuff, sometimes for a compilation album. That’s how I ended up in the world beat bin at Sound Exchange on the corner of 21st & the Drag my freshman year at UT Austin. The B-Boy stance of the cover got me, and I bought it without knowing a single song, artist, or even the label.
I never understood the words, and I’ve never looked them up. I could have picked any song on The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, and I chose this one. They’ve all got close rich harmonies, they’ve all got guitar work that is of another world, both rhythm & lead, support & countermelody all at once. And every now & then Mahlathini comes growling in for a verse. Every voice in place. Enduring lesson: Every instrument a rhythm instrument.
25: There is music that makes you smile, and there is music that makes you smirk. Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks work both kinds well. Their instrumentation (circus organ, saxophone, sousaphone, sometimes banjo) harken back to when entertainment was gas lit, when performers used greasepaint, when the man at the mic wore tails and knew how to make you laugh between songs. This live video, although not of the original band, gives you a sense of what it was like way back then, between rock shows that I saw a couple of times a week. Steve Carter sings with no vibrato, no front guy “filter”, no performing tricks –– like Sade, like Chrissy Hynde, like many of my favorite singers, he sings about like he talks. And his lyrics always make you feel like you’re in on a joke and like you’re smart to laugh. Here, he retells the temptation story in Genesis with Frank Sinatra as the hip but justice-dispensing God.
30: Yo La Tengo is a band that, for much of their catalog, breaks down into two kinds of songs: feedback driven lengthy Velvet Underground inspired space jams, and sensitive Velvet Underground inspired love songs. They include a married couple (the singer/guitarist, the drummer/sometime singer); they’re renowned for their Hannukah shows. They have a couple of albums that are titled with complete sentences, a creative decision that I love in any genre. I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One is their pinnacle, I think & Pitchfork thinks. On I Can Hear, the balance of movements and sounds, the arc of the album, the packaging and the moment all came together perfectly. “Green Arrow” is five minutes of countrified calm in an album that is lovely and noisy.
35: Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her is “late” mature Almodovar. Like so many of his movies, it’s a thoughtful & transgressive movie that celebrates full-contact relationships, human bodies, and art in all forms.
Michelle found a theater that was playing it — she’d already seen it but knew I’d really love it. It was about forty-five minutes away. We were the only two in the theater. Caetano Veloso sings “Cucurrucucú Paloma”, a song I knew first as a big brassy mariachi song. I had discovered Caetano through David Byrne’s seminal Beleza Tropical anthology of Brazilian music from the 70s & 80s, music that blended samba with rock & funk. I wasn’t prepared for him to take on this Mexican song, for him to move through it with such languid grace, for the cello to take center stage in a way that made me teary-eyed & woozy, and I looked over at Michelle and knew that, if I stuck with her and kept myself from doing anything really stupid, I’d have moments like this throughout my life. The rest of the movie is amazing but not nearly as good as this few minutes.
A few weeks later, for Valentine’s Day, Michelle & I each got each other the same gift–the soundtrack to Talk to Her–attached to the same non-Valentines card from the same store. Really.
40: I’m recognizing the further I get into this playlist that it’s the playlist of my desk, of my work, of my walking, of my thinking, of my writing. The drive to school is DJ’d by my kids; the soundtrack of my school gym is DJ’d by the coaches there; the soundtrack in class is DJ’d by the students. What remains is a space I recognize as meditative, a compass pointed toward thought and silence. Music that’s almost not music –– lyrics removed, verse-chorus-verse-bridge-etc patterns vanished, an aural mind set. The sound of deep, and sometimes brave, thinking. In this case again, a cello holds the place that in pop music is reserved for the rhythm section. Emerging from the waves of that resonant deep long-bowed line, like a light rotating and fading toward an away from the listener, is a woman’s voice. Beckoning? Encouraging? Enchanting? It’s one note, not even a word. It’s enough.
45: Spiritualized is not a band of subtle gestures. Big guitars, big suffering, big choruses repeated dozens of times loudly (like here at a show I saw in 2019). They emerge from a kind of acid rock group that I loved, but which developed in Spiritualized into a sound with soul. This song, however, is as one of their album titles suggests, pure phase. Voiceless looped keyboard figures, building & building, never letting up. Every couple of minutes into the song, you can pick up a new color, a new pattern, each time convincing yourself that this is the main line.
50: Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians entered my collection sometime early in my twenties. I don’t know who recommended it to me. I never put any of it on a mix tape. I’ve never listened to it with anybody. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve listened to it probably once every three days for decades. There have been entire months of my life when I’ve listened to nothing but this album. This is the first time that I’ve written about it or talked about it. Really.
It’s an austere title and a challenging idea — a mostly instrumental album but with voices deployed as sounds rather than word-vessels, rather than melody centers; an on-the-surface mercilessly repetitive album that reveals even on the first listen a variety of colors & tones, dynamics & movements, motifs & threads. Depending mostly on breath & wood, focus & perseverance, it sounds downright mechanical, like gears moving in varying rotations against & with one another. A classical piece challenging in its relentless non-swinging rhythmical patterns, it is a virtuoso ensemble piece, not a piece to support virtuosos. For 18 musicians, its most dramatic moments depend on single non-flashy entrances (of chimes usually) and abrupt exits (of woodwinds usually).
It still fills me with wonder. All of this music does.
On my thirteenth birthday, we crossed the border. Starched guayaberas
& dress slacks, shined shoes reflecting the high summer sun.
As often happened when we were down in the valley,
we occupied an entire room to feed the extended family.
Passing elote stands & kids selling chiclets, a neighborhood dusty
& busy. In Miguel Alemán, we were comfortable but conspicuous.
Clearly there for the day. A luxurious & easy crossing,
lower prices & local color. We took up the whole
sidewalk, loudly, happily. My gran'pa paid for the whole thing,
including this Virgen I wear still. "Mi'jo, que dios te bendiga."
I wrote this with my students on March 10, inspired by Maggie Smith's "Talisman". I suggested that we stick to ten lines of ten words each. If you're not familiar with the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe, click here.
In every city, there's a room full of dreams
catalogued carefully, nuances of emotion,
scenarios you can scarcely imagine awake:
Honeymoons nestled with lost loves.
Anniversaries with chores forgotten.
Illicit joy with family laughter.
They are alive & renewable. The city never runs out of dreams.
A map of the city is on a big screen, filling the wall.
Streets & fields have been removed.
A grid of addresses & numbers,
rooms & beds. All accounted for.
A man in uniform drags each dream
from the margins to a house,
through the house to a room,
through the room into a bed,
the right side of the bed for
the right dream.
He hovers, uncertain at times.
It's artful & important work,
work that takes root but not
in the mind. Someplace deeper.
Does he know the false hopes he drops
on unsuspecting people
prone, disrobed, mouths agape?
I am not imaginative in the way that fiction writers are. Still, I tried my hand at a subject that I don't understand well, explained through a lens that's not mine, in a voice I don't use often. It's a dream vision.
my mother bruises
cobblestones in San Miguel
i was there
but too far
to catch her
to hold her elbow
an inflated leathery
her glasses hid
her color erupted eye
wine dark echo
dimmed & darkened
from the original
of the original fall
the first day
yellow green rimmed
the point of contact
wrapped & clothed
her eye alone
bruised to the bone
reveals & reminds
watch my step
PS She’s fine. Really. I saw her just the other day. This fall happened twenty years ago.