Yes, Let’s Talk About “That Book”

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Over the past six months I’ve done something that I’ve never done for any appreciable length of time since the early days of parenthood: I’ve sacrificed my needs for the needs of others. I have ignored my own advice that the key to happiness is balancing responsibility to self, others and the community and decided to let the attention to self fade into the background.

I have to admit that I probably needed to balance things out, and the universe provided me with a series of opportunities to put the me-me-me side of my personality on hold.

I actually feel pretty good about it. It’s kind of nice to know that the world isn’t dependent upon me for its survival, for we’d all be in deep shit if that were true.

The service I’ve performed on behalf of others took two forms. I occupied my days working in a nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless families and children. I spent my nights editing a book called Music Reviews with a Touch of Erotica for the author we know as the altrockchick. In the process I’ve put my own writing and music projects on hold. I haven’t picked up the guitar or fiddled with the piano since last Thanksgiving.

And I still feel pretty good about it.

My daily work at the nonprofit is often draining—helping the homeless is like pushing the boulder up the hill and never quite getting there. The boulder is made heavier by a combination of unfeeling, bureaucratic processes and an indifferent society. Victories are fleeting and the struggles to help people find housing, find a job, keep the housing and keep the job are never-ending. Often you end the day wondering if there’s anything you did that made even a marginal difference for a family, but you come back the next day and take another shot at the boulder.

I think what enabled me to recharge my batteries every night and most weekends was a combination of a supportive life-partner and the opportunity to edit the altrockchick’s entire body of work.

After finally convincing her that a book would be a worthwhile endeavor, we got down to business. Our working agreement was simple: total honesty and direct communication. We agreed to avoid couching our suggestions in the form of polite requests but state them as demands for action. We assumed that each of us had only the best intentions for the other, so we’d skip the niceties and get to the point.

I opened the partnership by telling her to reopen the website and her Twitter account to reestablish her public presence. I also told her she had to decide on a consistent presentation of her pen name, which I’d seen in multiple forms (The Alt Rock Chick, Alt Rock Chick and altrockchick). Validating her status as a millennial, she went with the latter because it was the quickest to type.

Our most contentious debate had to do with pricing. We knew we had to go the self-publishing route, with all its pluses and minuses, and one plus is the author gets to set the price instead of the publishing house. She wanted to give it away for nothing; I argued strenuously for at least $11.99/print, $11.99/paperback. Her stand was all about principles; mine was all about communicating the book’s value based on the quality of content. This was a role reversal of sorts, since she’s the international marketing expert and I’m the human resources/organizational development type. We never did reach agreement on that point, but other factors intervened to render the debate irrelevant.

When I asked her what she wanted out of the book, she put great emphasis on a continuous narrative, and said she’d need to write another twenty or so reviews to achieve that. Since she had posted about three hundred reviews over the years, I had plenty of material to edit, so we agreed that she’d focus on the new stuff and I’d tidy up the old stuff.

That took about six months—and I enjoyed every minute of it. While I had to look at each post with a critical eye, her writing was often so engaging that I had to read each post more than once to get past the pleasure bias.

I did note that her earliest reviews were generally not up to standard, and her reviews of contemporary music often felt like she was holding back, trying too hard to avoid damaging the artist’s ego. While her self-proclaimed image as a dominant woman in a BDSM relationship might lead one to believe otherwise, I’ve learned that she is highly sensitive to other people’s feelings. She admitted that she tended to soften her language when she found the work of an up-and-coming artist less than satisfactory. “Everything from St. Vincent onwards is the real me; anything before that is hit-and-miss.”

That was very helpful guidance, enabling me to narrow my focus. In the end I recommended that she cut about two-thirds of the contemporary reviews and rewrite all the classic reviews that came before Nevermind, the post where I think she first found her voice. That meant re-doing all The Beatles’ reviews, to which she reacted with a healthy “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” and then proceeded to write an absolutely brilliant and thorough review of Sgt. Pepper.

I made an agreement with myself to edit at least one review a day, no matter how busy I was at work or with the usual crap that comes with modern living. Often I’d do more simply because I was having such a good time.

And that’s how I screwed up the whole thing—by having a good time.

Because I was consuming the altrockchick in small bites (now there’s an image for you!), I didn’t give a second thought to considerations like word count and book length. Eventually I began assembling the book in chronological order, and one night I left off after pasting the edited reviews from 1962-1969 into the master document. When I opened the document the next day, I said to myself, “Geez, this taking an awful lot of time to load.” I scrolled down to the bottom, and saw that the master was well over 500 pages, so I thought I’d better check the word count.

200,000 words? Already? Your typical novel runs between 60,000 and 100,000. Then I looked at what else I had to add:

  • The Beatles (19 reviews)
  • The Stones (9 reviews)
  • The Kinks (15 reviews)
  • British Invasion (1 intro and 8 reviews)
  • Motown (1 intro and 4 reviews)
  • The Psychedelic Series (1 intro and 17 reviews)
  • Conversations: The Moody Blues (7 reviews)
  • Jethro Tull (10 reviews)
  • 1970’s (37 reviews)
  • The Clash (5 reviews)
  • 1980’s (9 reviews)
  • 1990’s (18 reviews)
  • Oasis (8 reviews)
  • 2000’s (9 reviews)
  • 2011-2014 (26 reviews)
  • Great Broads (1 intro, 21 reviews)
  • Jazz (1 intro, 9 reviews)
  • Blues (4 reviews)
  • Dad’s 45’s (5 reviews)

I knew I was licked, but in a stupor I went ahead and calculated the total word count, which came to 1,237,489 words, almost 2.5 times the length of War and Peace. It was time to Skype.

She’s already written about that conversation, but I’ll just say that it knocked us both for a loop. She decided to put the project on hold while she considers her options.

But you know what? I still feel good about it. I feel good even though it was all volunteer work and I know I could have picked up a few bucks teaching leadership and organizational development classes at night instead of editing a book that may never see print. I learned a lot, thought a lot, laughed a lot and gained some insight about my own musical biases. It was worth every minute and then some.

Two things she didn’t cover in her post are worth mentioning. The first was her response to a question I asked after lowering the boom about her prodigious output. I don’t have her photographic memory, but the gist of what I asked was, “Let me get this straight. During the four years you’ve been writing you’ve been working full-time—the only time off you took coincided with the blog shutdown. You’ve changed your residence twice, including a move to another continent. For a while you managed a European operation and spent a lot of time traveling. I know from our previous conversations, you have sex with your partner four or five times a week and those scenes are all-night sessions. How in the hell did you manage to write over a million words of mostly damned good stuff?”

I’ll do my best to paraphrase her response. “I don’t spend a lot of time in my life sitting around doing nothing—it sounds weird, but I need stimulation to relax. When I decide to do something that’s important to me, I get organized, focused, and then I don’t let anything get in my way. One thing that really helped me was integrating what was going on in my life with the music I was studying—I could write about the music and reflect on my life at the same time.” Now I see her looking at me raising one eyebrow and saying, “I’m very efficient, Robert,” then dropping the eyebrow and raising her hands to her face in semi-mock horror. “But a million words! It didn’t feel like that at all! I had no fucking idea! It’s obscene!”

As for the Skype call ARC mentioned in her post . . . what she failed to capture was how the moment unfolded from the viewer’s perspective, so here goes the cinematic version: When the connection kicked in, I saw a red garter strap over the bare skin of her upper right leg moving towards the center of the screen, then, as she began to ease into her chair, I saw the gleam of red patent leather surrounding her torso, followed by the reverse arc of a silver chain that led upwards to a pair of clamps attached to a pair of pink, firm nipples, culminating in a full breast shot highlighted by blonde hair caressing her shoulders and the upper edges of her breasts, and finally a beautiful and slightly wicked smile accompanying the words, “Looks like you’ve finally caught me at the right time!”

Look. I’m a pretty horny hetero male with a fairly sophisticated sex life of my own, but all I could do is stammer an apology, cut off the connection then close my eyes tightly and try with all my might to implant that picture in my mind forever.

I felt REALLY good about that moment.

 

 

 

 

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Childhood Lessons

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My wife and I have great conversations after sex. The intimacy of sex makes one feel less vulnerable and more in touch with the core personality.

I also can’t think of a more exciting and satisfying way to spend my time, but that’s beside the point.

I don’t remember how we got on the subject, but I flashed back to my early childhood. My childhood was divided into two distinct eras. The years up to age eight were good years when I felt secure and had few obstacles in the way of my development. The years from eight to early teens were very bad years of domestic violence, financial insecurity and continuous embarrassment.

I’ll go to the dark place someday, but in talking to my wife about early childhood, I discovered that the things I learned in those years gave me the strength and wisdom to survive the bad years.

When I was about four or five years old, I had two best friends and a crush on a little girl. My two best friends were twins named Peter and Paul. They were alike in every way except for one important difference. Paul was born blind.

I remember my mother explaining to me that Paul couldn’t see things and I would have to help him when we played together. I don’t know if I was capable of empathy, but what my mother said made perfect sense to me. If someone has a problem, you help them out.

I helped Paul by pulling him around in my wagon, letting him spend more time feeling the toys before we started playing with them and holding his hand when playing games that required running. I never thought of him as a person with a disability, just as a kid who needed a little help.

A year later I entered kindergarten. I know I made friends there, but the only person who mattered to me was Sandy.

Sandy was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen, with beautiful blonde curls, a peachy complexion and sparkling blue eyes. She had a wonderful smile and liked to laugh a lot.

Sandy was also confined to a wheelchair.

I spent all my play time with Sandy. I don’t remember what we played, but we were inseparable, and for some reason I developed an intense pride for her. I had probably seen enough TV to know about relationships between the sexes and how important it was to men that they had a beautiful wife. There I was, only five years old, and I had already found my dream girl. I had ended one of life’s early quests at an extremely young age.

The school had a Christmas party where all the parents and children came together for an evening to celebrate the season. I looked forward to that night with great anticipation because I wanted my parents to see my beautiful girlfriend. Sandy did not disappoint, as she wore a little red velvet dress with a bright red bow in her curls that made her more beautiful than ever. I beamed with pride as the two sets of parents watched us together and smiled with what I took to be tentative consent for us to marry someday.

We moved to a different town later that year and I never saw Sandy again. We stayed in touch with Peter and Paul for a little while, but my father was entering his period of instability and there was some kind of falling out between the adults.

My friendships with Paul and Sandy shaped my personality in ways I did not understand at the time. To say that they helped me develop compassion and empathy is not accurate, because I didn’t see them as people in need of compassion and empathy. Paul was a guy who needed some help with a few things. Sandy was simply a beautiful girl who couldn’t walk. I never attached a stigma to either disability, so it never occurred to me to feel sorry for them because they couldn’t do certain things I could do. I helped them, sure, but they helped me by being my friends.

How those relationships helped me survive the bad times is more important. In early childhood, you are intensely curious about how the world works. Once you think you understand it, that understanding becomes a core part of your belief system as to how the world should work.

So, because I believed that the world was a place where people help each other out, I was able to interpret the act of people hurting each other as a temporary aberration, a deviation from the norm. I didn’t need any religious training to tell me that hurting people was wrong, for if helping people was the way of the world, hurting people had to be wrong. The person doing the hurting needed help so they wouldn’t hurt people any more.

Readers may consider that a naive and unrealistic belief in a world full of violence, but I don’t want to change it. I like a world where helping people is simply what we do.

 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons