Category Archives: Personal Essays

Book A Week 1: The Human Factor by Graham Greene

Simon And Schuster, Book Club Edition, Copyright 1978

Simon And Schuster, Book Club Edition, Copyright 1978

Well, I’ve finally decided to take the plunge. Yes indeed, I just (well, two days ago) finished my first week in a book-a-week challenge, and I have to say: I feel pretty damn good about it. But before I get into the book itself, a word about the impetus behind such seeming insanity.

I must confess, I’ve never been a terribly prolific reader. I’ve always wanted to be a prolific reader, but only in the same way I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who wakes up and goes for a run at 5:30 a.m. as the sun barely begins cresting the horizon. The Theory = a pretty cool way to go about dancing on this Earth. The Practice = hitting my iPhone’s snooze button (icon?) until my dogs all but grab me by the ankles and drag me down the stairs.

Don’t get me wrong—I adore reading. In case you haven’t noticed, I do a bit of writing now and then, and when I’m not writing I am probably engaged in some form of reading. Novels. Long form journalism. Comics. Memoirs. Online essays. The backs of cereal boxes. So yeah, reading itself has never been the problem. Reading a lot in a short amount of time, however…now that’s a dust jacket of a different color.

If I had to guess (and this, friends, is a rather liberal guess) I would say I go through—maybe—10 books a year. And that would be a good year. To be sure, that’s certainly a better number than, say, someone who doesn’t read at all, but it’s not a number of which I am terribly proud. I want to read more not only because I love reading (or because I am acutely aware of the enormity of my dream reading list juxtaposed to the limited number of days each of us is granted upon this frail plane). I also want to read more because I believe it makes us all better people. And it makes me a better writer.

Personally, my brain and spirit just feel, well, different when I’m reading a lot. My observations about life are more keen and more quick to rise from those dread bottomless depths increasingly littered with the ephemera of pop-up ads, inane Facebook posts, and so much (oh so much) clickbait. It’s a cliche for sure, but there is no better brain exercise than frequent reading. And that’s the triple truth, Ruth.

As for the writing part—same. When I’m not reading with some degree of fervency, I’m also not writing (at least not in the way I want to write). The two tasks feed off of each other in some kind of weird, cerebral dance I’m still trying to figure out. Reading makes me want to write, and writing makes me want to read. Dig?

Consider the way Stephen King puts it in his most excellent On Writing (a memoir about, well, writing—seriously, read this book):

The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.

Right on. I completely understood this when I first read it more than ten years ago (!) and it still rings incredibly true today.

And so here I am, staring down the barrel of a challenge that feels at once both overwhelming and exhilarating. On one hand, 52 books is a lot of books. On the other hand, 52 books…IS A LOT OF BOOKS! Isn’t that exciting? I’ll finally read Animal Farm. And 1984. And Rabbit Run. And The Giver. And, like, a whole lot more. Yeah. It’s pretty damn exciting.

Besides, I’ve done the math. If I typically tackle books between 200 and 300 pages, that’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 to 50 pages a day. Does’t sound too menacing, does it? Sure, this means reading every morning over coffee and breakfast instead of catching up on the next installment of classic Doctor Who (I’m currently up to Episode One of “Death to the Daleks,” for those of you playing along at home), but isn’t that, like, the point?

Well, having already completed one week of this exercise I am fairly confident that I can (and will) do this. As a precaution against falling off the wagon, I’ve also decided to blog about each week’s literary conquest—so keep me accountable interneters! So, now that you know a little about this project, let’s talk a little about Graham Greene’s The Human Factor.

Dust jacket photo of Graham Greene, taken by some chap with the cool ass name Ottawa Karsh.

Dust jacket photo of Graham Greene, taken by some chap with the cool ass name Ottawa Karsh.

There are three reasons I chose this as my first book (none of which are particularly poignant):

1. Greene wrote The Power and the Glory, one of my all-time favorite novels and—for my money—one of the greatest books ever written.

2. I’ve never been entirely comfortable saying “I’m a fan of Graham Greene” knowing that I’ve only got one of his books under my belt.

3. My wife and I recently moved. As a result, all of our novels are still in boxes. This one was at the top of the first box I opened last week. Win win.

I must say, I wasn’t all that thrilled with the novel at the start. Veering quite noticeably from the spiritual and existential themes and overall ethos of The Power and the Glory, The Human Factor concerns the seemingly pedestrian life of a British secret service agent named Castle (first name Maurice). Turns out he’s got quite an interesting backstory that involves a clandestine love affair with (and eventual marriage to) a South African woman named Sarah and the adoption of her infant son as his own. There’s also a lot of angst going on about apartheid and Communism and a few other dated intricacies that sometimes confused me in their lack of context, but once given a chance, The Human Factor really begins to delight with its literary minimalism and overriding atmosphere of paranoia wedged between the gloomy hum-drum of British life in the late 70s. From the inside dust jacket:

The Human Factor marks Graham Greene’s triumphant return to the ambiguous world of deceit, illusion, treachery, faith and loneliness that is espionage…

I think the key word there is “loneliness.” That’s the emotion I didn’t expect to encounter, but it’s also the emotion that continued to fascinate and move me throughout the course of this curious little novel. Loneliness is an obvious occupational hazard here (not only for Castle, but also for the hand full of secondary characters that litter the story, including the brilliantly realized Colonel Daintry). What’s more, this loneliness is an existential byproduct that seems to be absent of any really redemptive subsequent. In other words, no one in this story is particularly convicted about what he does, yet they all bemoan the dour prospects of their respective fates. Oh sure, there’s some very pale allusions to national duty or some such folderol, but I venture to guess that everyone in this novel (most especially the protagonist) would much rather be sipping whiskey on a country porch somewhere. Yes, everyone here is a spy, but they might as well be working for the DMV.

Upon doing a slight bit of research I came to realize this was precisely Greene’s intention. His objective was “to write a novel of espionage free from the conventional violence, which has not, in spite of James Bond, been a feature of the British Secret Service.” He goes on to say that he “wanted to present the Service unromantically as a way of life, men going daily to their office to earn their pension.”

Objective, consider thyself achieved. This is indeed a spy novel with almost (almost) every ounce of sex, violence and cliched adrenaline stripped away, leaving us instead with men who are supremely unhappy with the choices they’ve made in life wandering through the mists of Britain yearning for escape that will never come. It’s a rather bleak tale that bears some hallmark passages only Greene could compose. Consider this moment between Colonel Daintry (who has just returned from a funeral) and one of his more fusty colleagues:

“I’ve come from a funeral.”

“No one close, I hope?”

“No. Someone from the office.”

“Oh well. A funeral’s always better to my mind than a wedding. I can’t bear weddings. A funeral’s final. A wedding—well, it’s only an unfortunate stage to something else. I’d rather celebrate a divorce—but then that’s often a stage too, to just another wedding. People get into the habit.”

Or even wonderfully simple lines like, “A man in love walks through the world like an anarchist, carrying a time bomb.”

All in all, an intriguing—if, at times, a bit tedious—novel. The end result is a sense of inescapable gloom that only Greene can deliver, even when his subject matter is international espionage instead of whiskey priests and broken vows.

Up Next: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’ Engle

Back On The Book: A Reluctant Return To Facebook (For Now)

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Well, it’s now day three of the 2014 FLX/WordCount Blogathon, and I’m taking this occasion to do something I never thought I’d do. Yes, Virginia, I’m returning to Facebook. Sigh.

Now, lest anyone assume this current turn of events has anything to do with peer pressure (good grief) or some inevitable surrender to a nagging realization that OH EM GEE, I really did miss Facebook after all! Let me make a few things clear:

1) I Still Don’t Like Facebook. In fact, I kind of wish it didn’t exist at all. But as my late Pop Pop used to say: “Wish in one hand and shit in the other and tell me which one fills up faster.” Look, it’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I find Facebook a loathsome, tedious timesuck (at best) and a severely dangerous and damaging privacy/solitude/mindfulness eradicator that, like some invisible alien overlord, may have already inextricably altered the better angels of our collective consciousness, and not for the better (at worst). All of the reasons I quit Facebook nearly two years ago still hold true. I enjoy the private life. Anonymity is precious. Voyeurism is an insatiable parasite that will forever gnaw at the fiber optics of your spirit. And unfettered interconnectedness is probably doing more damage than good (for examples see here and here). In short, Facebook is kind of a drag.

2) But it’s becom(e)ing a tech necessity. When I graduated from college I still didn’t have a cell phone. And damnit, I was proud of that fact. Like all self-righteous Luddites before me, I found nobility in my technological resistance. If someone needed to get in touch with me, he or she could call my house. And if I wasn’t home, that person could leave a message. Who the hell needs more than that?

Well, about three months into my post-graduation summer I had an epiphany. I needed a job. In fact, I had probably sent no fewer than 30 resumes and cover letters to dozens of area magazines, newspapers, and trade publications since leaving the halls of Temple University. One day, while painting some old home’s aluminum siding (my summer job) it occurred to me that potential employers may have been trying to reach me…but I was perched 20 feet high on an extension ladder, very far from my home phone. Then it also occurred to me that I wasn’t the only one looking for a job. There were dozens—nay, hundreds—of other graduates out there doing the very same thing. And if they had cellphones that meant they were more readily reachable than I. And that, kids, is what we call a leg up on the competition. So yeah. Shit. Looked like a needed a cell phone.

The same thing has happened with Facebook. Since making my exit I have continued to amass a respectable portfolio of longform journalism (see links above), but my audience—by virtue of no longer being on “The Book”—has shrunken. And so it is, with a heavy sigh of resignation, that I now know I must return.

3) Nonetheless, we still need to have this conversation. My choice to get back onto the Facebook horse comes at an interesting time. Just yesterday, comedian extraordinaire and ravenous social mediaite Patton Oswalt announced that he would be taking a summer-long hiatus from social media. The reasoning he outlined in his farewell post was brilliant and concise, and includes gems like:

I was reading some — not all — but some of Camus’ THE REBEL. At an airport, waiting for a flight. And this line hits me like a ton of bricks:

“Tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes.”

I’ve become my own tyrant — Tweeting, and then responding to my own responses, and then fighting people who disagree with me. Constantly feeling like I have to have an instant take on things, instead of taking a breath, and getting as much information as I can about the world. Or simply listening to the people around me, and watching the world and picking up its hidden rhythms, which crouch underneath the micro and the macro. But I’ve lost sight of them. And it’s because of this — there’s a portal to a shadow planet in my right hand, the size of a deck of cards, and I can’t keep myself from peeling off one card after another, looking for a rare ace of sensation.

Isn’t that fantastic? “…[A] portal to a shadow planet in my right hand, the size of a deck of cards, and I can’t keep myself from peeling off one card after another, looking for a rare ace of sensation.”

Or check out some of this truth:

I’ve aggressively re-wired my own brain to live and die in a 140 character jungle. I’ve let my syntax become nothing more than a carnival barker’s ramp-up to a click-able link where I’m trying to sell something, or promote something, or share something I had no hand in making.

And finally:

I want to de-atrophy the muscles I once had. The ones I used to charge through books, sprint through films, amble pleasantly through a new music album or a human conversation. I’ve lost them — willingly, mind you. My fault. Got addicted to the empty endorphins of being online.

So I need to dry out, and remind myself of the deeper tides I used to be able to swim in — in pages, and celluloid, and sounds, and people.

Patton my good man, you are spot on!

So much of what he expressed yesterday precisely mirrors feelings I’ve had (and continue to have) about this strange, strange world in which we live (and type and thumb up and like and post and tweet and blah blah blah). So please people, let’s continue to have this self-critical conversation. It may be one of the most important of our age. In the meantime, I’m going to try this Facebook thing again and see where it takes me.

Oh, here are two relevant videos. The first from Mr. Louis C.K., the schlub sage of our time:

And then another, slightly more academic take on loneliness and social media:

The Generalist’s Dilemma (Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Just Write What I Love)

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When I first began freelancing seven years ago, I kept stumbling upon a nagging word in many of the books I read and the conversations I had with fellow scribes (both digitally as well as in the flesh). The word was niche, and for many months I labored under the false assumption that unless I had one—as though it were a thing to be grasped and put in my back pocket—I would, essentially, be doomed. To wit, I believed that a freelance writer’s niche (neesh?) was his lifeblood. His path to success. His only reason for being. And that was unfortunate, because I was no closer to having my own niche than I was to hosting next week’s episode of Saturday Night Live.
Niches niches everywhere. Some of my most admired fellow freelancers had corned markets that included everything from the Jersey Shore to buying suits with a $100 budget. I was envious of these niche hoarders, because they offered potential editors something I couldn’t: A go-to presence on myriad, specialized topics. I, meanwhile, was starting to fear that I’d sink further and further into the cliche mold of that notorious jack of all trades, master of none.

Well guess what? It’s been seven years and I’m still without a niche. But I don’t care. In fact, I’ve come to embrace my status as a generalist. Not only has it lead to a prosperous and rewarding career as a freelancer, but it’s why I got into this writing gig in the first place, way back when I first starting reading Edgar Allen Poe in seventh grade and suddenly had the marvelous realization that writing could transport me—and my readers—anywhere. And I wanted to write about everything. Aliens who experiment with humans by sending them back in time. An elderly woman who makes some extra money as a pet assassin. Or maybe a machine that lets you experience life as a wild animal for hour-long intervals. (all DiUlio original ideas from notebooks of years gone by) Nowhere in my projected life as a writer did I weave in fantasies about cornering a niche and plying my trade like someone selling funnel cake at the local carnival. Writing for me was—and remains—an exceptionally unique gateway to infinite possibilities, and that’s why I’m still here.

Don’t get me wrong—there is absolutely nothing wrong with having a niche (or two). Those writers I alluded to earlier—the ones I admired and looked to for advice in my earliest years as a freelancer—have done a wonderful job making a living at this writing thing, and their work is always top-notch, entertaining, and multidimensional. And if embracing a niche is what brings them fulfillment—fiscally and intellectually—then way-to-fucking-go. I dig it. Keep on keepin’ on.

But that’s not me. Try as I might, I know I am never going to be the next go-to dude for articles or blog posts about dog whispering or baseball card curation or travel tips for the 65-plus set. I am just too damn interested in the variety of life that I know I will never have a niche…which, I suppose, is a niche in an of itself.

I mention this because I am currently two-days deep into the 2014 FLX/WordCount Blogathon, a 30-day challenge to write at least one blog post every day in June. I’m really excited about the opportunity, especially since Twenty Pounds of Headlines has lately felt more like Twenty Pounds of Collected Dust. (No posts since April 2011…SRSLY DiUlio?!) But when I began thinking about what to write  over the next month, I started getting minor waves of dread that only a niche-less life can inspire. What the hell would I blog about? Well, how about a little bit of everything

And so, while I ponder over tomorrow’s post, why not take some time to click around and read the wide variety of topics I’ve covered over the years, which include everything from a world renowned glass artist to a profile of Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., an explanatory feature about the country’s first Internet Addiction recovery retreat, and an inside look at the world of Philadelphia taxi cabs. Here’s to the generalists, and all of our wide-eyed variety.

Native American Pale Ale Rock (or, How I Came To Know The Great Unkown)

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The February sun had set on Saturday night and Theatre 941 in Northern Liberties was becoming quite crowded with the weird beards and biceps cartoons that can so often be found wherever the mighty blue ribbon is served. Everyone was gathered that evening on North Front Street for the first annual Pabst Blue Ribbon Art & Craft Fair, which, for the nominal entry fee of $6, promised live music, an endless well of the beer being praised, and wall-to-wall PBR-inspired wares like red white and blue quilts, beeramid cupcakes, and bottle-lid cufflinks.

I had no intention of discovering new music that night. I was there to cover the event for Beer Magazine and around 7 p.m. found myself talking to Julie Roboczi, the show’s founder and organizer. Roboczi heads up the venerable Philadelphia Independent Craft Market and had, on a whim of inspiration, decided to launch this first of many PBR fairs to come. We were halfway into a chat about the event when a broken bathroom poet arrived on the scene to declare an emergency.

“I was sent to tell you there’s a problem with the bathroom,” said the young man in a brown leather coat trimmed with sepia fur. He had appeared from nowhere, leaned in, and spoke in an easy, calculated rhythm, like the bathroom was a lady and its problem was a broken heart. He wore dark country jeans with a rolled left cuff, workingman shoes, and a hapless fedora on a curly head of hair. His wide, unblinking eyes bounced from corner to corner. “I think you’ll want to attend to its needs,” he said. And then he smiled.

The purple costume feathers sprouting from the head of Roboczi twitched in time with her mild flustering as armies of ironic sneakers marched around her and so many tattooed fists clutched cans of warming Pabst against their patch-work hoodies and striped cardigans. The music was loud, the din beneath the buzzing fluorescent lights getting boozier by the minute. A malfunctioning bathroom was indeed an urgent matter. “Well,” she said, “I think I should go see to it then. I’ll be back. Excuse me.” And then she smiled. And then she was gone. I was left standing next to the messenger.

“You don’t want that tonight,” he said, still darting his eyes, still smiling. “Lots of PBR going down easy. Lots of pissing going on, I’m sure.” He took a sip from his can of Pabst and swallowed hard. “Like lava.”

“What’s that?” I asked. His voice was low and muted beneath the thundering of some punk outfit playing loudly in the adjacent room.

“Like laaava.” He drawled. “Laaava. Pissing lava.” I wasn’t sure what he meant by this. Not in the least. But whatever he was trying to say was clearly dear to him, clearly the most important moment of that moment because his eyes stayed wide and the humor of his internal monologue registered with every slink of his puckish frame. So we kept on talking.

This, I came to find out, was none other than Todd Henkin, and Todd Henkin’s band was about to go on in thirty minutes. “We’re The Great Unknown,” he said. “But we’re different than what you’re hearing right now. It’s nothing like this.”

“This” was thudding, post-Pixies metal mixed with a dash of slick Interpol angst, the kind that comes on at 2 a.m. after one too many PBRs. “We’re more like…Americana? Or uh, or like roots style music. Lap steel and all that. I don’t know. It’s…it’s not like this. It’s not PBR kind of music, I don’t think.”

“So what kind of beer should somebody drink to your music?”

“I don’t know. Maybe an IPA? Yeah!” Henkin liked every pet theory that came to mind. And he really liked this one.

“There’s your genre right there, man,” I told him. “IPA rock.”

“Right! Yeah. We’re an India Pale Ale.” He laughed a little and tossed off the moment with a shrug. It was then I realized that I wasn’t sure about anything he was saying. I had been at the craft fair for nearly two hours at this point, and to be sure, nothing breeds suspicion quite like these sorts of No Libs gatherings. Everything is a joke and everything is a serious edict at once. Sincerity and sarcasm do a mad, opium dance of the dead and suddenly all one is left with is the certainty that nothing is certain. Ever. For all I knew Henkin was full of shit. For all I knew he could have been a solo hip-hop free stylist who dressed as a clown on stage and rapped about Kierkegaard’s latent fascination with Muppets or accountants with Dixie Cup fetishes.

Or he might not be a musician at all. Who was to say? This was Northern Liberties. This was Pabst.

“Either way,” he continued, “I don’t really like the term ‘Americana.’ That’s not it. Maybe we need another genre. Like…like native American.”

“But then people might think about American Indians,” I said, noticing for the first time a subtle scar that ran from the corner of his mouth to the dip of his five-o’clock chin. “I don’t think that’s what you’re going for.”

“But…yeah! No, that’s it! Native American. American Indians. We are American Indians. I’m an American Indian. Like Bob Dylan.”

“Bob Dylan was an American Indian?” This, I knew, was certainly not true.

But then again…

“Hell yeah! He was an Indian.” Henkin laughed again.

“Dude, he was Jewish. You’re telling me he was a Jewish American Indian?”

“Oh…wait. No, yeah. Jewish! He was Jewish.” More laughter. More mad, darting eyes. He looked at me like he was on the lamb and I was about to call the cops. “That’s what I meant. Jewish. They’re so similar, ya know? Jewish. Indian. I get ‘em mixed up. So maybe Jewish American rock? Whatya think?”

The conversation continued like this for a few more minutes until Robosczi finally returned to tell us all was right with the flushable world. I shook Henkin’s hand and told him I was anxious to hear the band. He told me to find some IPA.

Later, while waiting in the back of the theatre for some more PBR to arrive (the natives growing restless) I began to hear the copper strumming of an acoustic guitar. The thudding of a country bass. The slick slide of a lap steel. The Great Unknown was warming up. When the new batch of beer finally arrived I grabbed myself a chilled, cozi-less can and made my way to the crowded front room, where I found Henkin and Co. already well into the second song of their set.

So he was telling the truth after all.

For thirty minutes I watched The Great Unknown churn out some of the most exciting and finely crafted American music I have had the pleasure of hearing in this city. Henkin lead the outfit with his loose acoustic and sharp vocals, backed all the while by a jangly electric guitar, sweet and subtle lap steel, excitable bass, and riverstone drums. They were harmonizing three parts, laughing between beats, and moving in mountain step with one another the way one imagines wolves might if they had smiles and voices and hands to play such sweet, rollicking tavern anthems to the night.

For thirty minutes I watched The Great Unknown conjure up images of its woozy urban cowboyism played against the mossy backdrop of an American forest, or through the smoky blur of a basement in the dark, pensive Pennsylvania hills. Henkin sang about love declared to sleeping ladies and whistled his way through a number’s closing. He made Tom Waits references between songs and all the while kept darting his wide, junkyard eyes from corner to corer, just as he had done when I met him less than an hour before.

For thirty minutes I watched the members of The Great Unknown have the time of their lives, as though every number was the closing of a concert given to celebrate the end of the world. I watched them inspire some in the crowd to belt out delirious rebel yells that would make the sober eyes of nuns rattle in their heads and young women shudder for the impossibility of affection. This was the young man music for which rock and roll was first invented. The music of getting drunk when it matters the most. The music of reckless love in dusty jukebox corners. The music of being snowed in by time and guarded against its sinister march. The music of long conversations that mean nothing, save for their assurance that long conversations still exist somewhere in the hearts of the young.

For thirty minutes I watched The Great Unknown restore my faith in the possibility of accidentally stumbling upon a band that makes you want to sing until your voice is raw and stomp until your feet are blistered and ghostly. I have spent many years seeking out such possibility, going from Philly pub to Philly pub with the hope that I might leave with the desire to tell everyone about the band I just saw. Sadly, that expectation is most often met with disappointment, and I wind up wondering if anyone is yet to be discovered. But last weekend I was treated to thirty unexpected minutes of The Great Unknown, and now I know the search has been worth it. And it is worth it still.

It’s unfortunate that the indie world has become so bloated with expectation and slavish devotion to novelty and irony these days, because what so many local outfits miss in their efforts to become the next Arcade Fire or Deerhoof (fine bands in their own right, don’t get me wrong) is the bliss of being enveloped by the simple, singular pleasure of solid songwriting and a band bleeding its life on stage. Consider that just last month I watched a seven-piece group crowd the North Star with a violin, three guitars, synth keyboards and marching band drums. In all of their expected grandeur, those guys and gals couldn’t manage to eek out a single melody that came close to even the simplest lines of The Great Unknown. These dudes know how to summon the muse, and they do it damn well.

Look, this band isn’t going to push the limits of pop music evolution. The Great Unknown probably won’t rearrange the sonic landscape as we know it or woo the critics with its visionary scope. But I can tell you this: they will make you feel, they will give you one hell of a good show, and you’ll find yourself humming their tunes long after the others have packed away their violins and cut off the power to their canned orchestras.

With the PBR fair finally winding down I managed to catch up with Henkin as he and his mates packed up for a show later that night in Center City. But before I could get a word in to tell him how incendiary their set was, he looked at me and said, “So. Did it make you want an IPA?”

Check out The Great Unknown here. Or better yet, go see them play at Johnny Brenda’s on March 7. You won’t be disappointed.

Yes (I Think) We Can: Surviving Family Brunch In A Post-Election America

“So, grandmom. What’d ya think about the election? Ya know, about Obama winning?” The question seemed innocent enough. My grandmother is 92 years old, and it intrigued me to get the perspective of a woman who had lived through everything from the invention of Scotch Tape to the iPhone; from segregated troop battalions in World War II to the election of the first African American President of the United States. In other words, I thought she might have some wisdom to impart. But before she could even form an answer in her mind, my sister Erica turned to me with a look I imagine she would have given had I just asked our grandmother to expound upon the virtues of modern day sex toy technology, or the horrors of female circumcision in third-world countries. Apparently, I had just said something inappropriate.

“Are you insane?” my sister hissed.

I looked around the brunch table for understanding, only to find my mom hanging her head in despair. “I just got your father to come out of his coma,” she said, her head cast downward at her half-eaten omelet and cooling coffee. “And you just had to bring this up didn’t you?”

It was just after noon and we were gathered for brunch at the Flying W’s Avion Restaurant in Medford to celebrate my brother Tony’s 23rd birthday a week-and-a-half late due to his law school schedule preventing him from enjoying, well, anything besides law school. It was a cool, delightful, sunny morning in late autumn, but suddenly it seemed my question had cast a pall upon the proceedings. It was a buzz kill that could only have been topped had I just vomited on the table. “I may have to kill you,” Erica whispered under her breath. My brother just laughed while my father seethed a restrained seeth behind his gold-rimmed aviator Ray Bans.

I finally understood the problem.

***

Election night 2008 had been a prickly one at the DiUlio homestead. I visited my parents for dinner that evening and thought I would stick around to watch the returns. I thought it would be fun to see the night unfold alongside the two people most responsible for my political aptitude and passion. When I got there, however, my father, a devout, registered Republican, already seemed a little tense, even though not a single state’s polls had yet closed. I was beginning to question the wisdom of my decision.

“Where’s mom?”

“She’s a poll watcher tonight. She volunteered to watch the polls. To guard them. In Willingboro.” He said this as though my mother had decided on a whim to fly down to Darfur to host a tea party for rape squads. “She’ll be home around 8:30.” He paused over the pasta he was cooking in a large pot. “I’ll tell you what, this is not going to be good. Not going to be good at all.” I couldn’t tell if he was talking about my mother’s volunteer work, the election, or the pasta in the pot. It may have been all three.

After dinner I had a few calls to make, and when I had finished, a number of state projections had come in. Obama was in the electoral lead. My dad sat on the couch with a face that suggested his mind was already going down a list of possible ways to terminate its own existence. I think I caught him somewhere between gunshot to the head and slowly feeding himself to an office paper shredder. He didn’t say anything when I came into the room, just looked up slowly with more than a trace of both insanity and despair. “Not good?” I asked. He didn’t answer, just turned back to the Fox News broadcast and its incessant, gabbing heads of expert opinion.

I didn’t press the matter. Didn’t try to cheer him up or lend any “it’s not over yet” perspective. In 27 years, I have come to know that trying to interfere with my father’s modes of coping with an unpleasant situation can be like trying to take food away from a dog mid-chew. You just. Don’t. Do it. This was, after all, the same man who once took off a brand new Philadelphia Eagles sweatshirt after watching a particularly tough loss to the Dallas Cowboys, walked into the kitchen for a pair of scissors, and then proceeded to cut the garment into small strips he then tossed into the fire, one helpless, green strand at a time.

“I can’t believe he’s going to take North Carolina,” my father said. I took a seat next to him on the couch. “What are those morons down there thinking?”

“Well, look dad, first of all, they’re not morons just because they support a different candidate than you. And besides, North Carolina hasn’t even been called yet. So you can’t say he’s won North Carolina.” I looked at the fireplace and was pleased to see that it was dark and cold and fireless.

“Nicholas…he’s won it. Trust me.”

This was more or less how it went for the next hour or so while we watched the television and waited for my mom to return from her poll-watching duties, with every state that turned blue suddenly designated the moron capitol of America. When my mother finally arrived, she was in exceedingly bright spirits, her post-volunteerism glow radiating impossibly against the closing dark of my dad’s quiet rage. “It was really a beautiful experience,” she told us. “Just wonderful. I feel so uplifted right now. Apparently, everything is going very smoothly tonight. No problems with voting or anything like that. Very good to hear.”

I knew what was coming next. “Well, I guess you didn’t hear about the Black Panthers in Philadelphia tonight.” Oh boy. “They had billy clubs. Billy clubs, Elizabeth!” Here we go. “And they were trying to intimidate voters coming from coming in.”

“No,” she said. “I didn’t hear about any of that. And I don’t think it really matters.” My mom was getting dangerously close to her “keep bringin’ me down and I’ll take you down” tone of voice. My dad wisely backed off.

“Uh huh. Okay.” He went back to watching the returns and drawing further and further into himself as if there was a calm, magical land hidden somewhere deep in his body where a smiling John McCain was ready to welcome him with open arms and a smile that suggested, “Don’t worry Ed. Everything will be okay. Here. Come rest your head on my war-weary shoulder.”

***

Needless to say, my father never found that place, and once Ohio was called for Obama, the night was over. My mother had settled in with a glass of red wine and we both stole furtive glances at the mustached man beside us now rubbing his temples every two minutes and sighing a sigh that suggested the world was, in fact, about to come to an end.

“Are you alright, Ed?” my mom asked him. I could tell by the timidity of her voice that she was thinking about the burning sweatshirt incident too.

“No. I’ve got a splitting headache.”

“Well that’s ridiculous. You’re going to let this make you sick.”

“Too late.”

“Do you want a valium?”

“No.”

“Well look, relax. It’s not going to do any good working yourself up like that.” Then she whispered to me, “I’m really worried about him. He could have a stroke or something.” I patted my dad on the shoulder and rubbed his back. If there was an entry wound, I probably would have tried to suck the Democrat poison from his veins. He needed to relax. After all, how could I possibly deal with the fallout if my farther died because of this. Oh Nick, I’m so sorry to hear about your dad. How did it happen?

Well, it began with a simple headache on election night. And then he just stroked out as soon as they called Florida. Right there on the couch. Bam. He just lost it.

Who would ever take me seriously again?

Thankfully, my dad didn’t have a stroke. He just went up to bed, signing off with the cheerful adieu of, “Welcome to the People’s Republic of America. I hope you all enjoy socialism.” Before any of the speeches were made, before any of the confetti was tossed, before any of Oprah’s tears were shed, my father slept the sleep of one last denial, wondering if perhaps when he awoke the next morning news would greet him that a mistake had been made and that John McCain was the actual victor. Or maybe the entire affair would have been a dream. Or maybe aliens would have swooped down from the sky during his victory speech and abducted the senator from Illinois for purposes of interstellar probing. Just maybe.

***

But it hadn’t been a dream, and my dad’s face at brunch the following Sunday told of his resignation to that fact. Meanwhile, my sister still had murder in her eyes.

“You always have to be the agitator, don’t you? Always have to stir it up.” The thing is, Erica had a particularly significant stake in the matter and was no more anxious to talk post-election sociology than our dad was. See, she had made it known since September that she was going to buck the paternal Republican trend and vote for Mr. Obama. I knew how significant that was. I was there when my father found out about this conviction of hers, and the entire time I had my fingers on the ready to dial 9-1-1 because of how deeply I feared his head was going to erupt into a gruesome explosion of blood and bones right there on the spot.

“Hey, everybody simmer down.” It was time I started defending myself. The tension was getting rather ridiculous. “I was just wondering what grandmom thought about the whole thing, okay? The woman’s 92, alright? Aren’t you interested in that at all? This doesn’t have to be a whole big, freakin’ ordeal.”

Silence. All eyes were now on my grandmother; my sweet, little Italian grandmother who clearly had no concept of the war zone into which she was about to walk. “Well,” she started, diminutively, “I think some of his ideas sound very good. And—”

“I’m sure the Germans thought some of Hitler’s ideas sounded pretty good as well.” It was a muted retort from my dad, but everyone heard it. Thankfully, everyone also ignored it.

“Mom, I think he means what do you think about Obama being the first black President?” My mother was steering a sinking ship. “Does that mean anything to you?”

“Oh, well, yeah. It’s…well…I mean—” and here my grandmother looked to me. “Wasn’t there a black man back in the 1800’s or something who won the election?”

Good grief.

“Mom, are you kidding me?” My mother was doing all she could not to take her mother-in-law by the shoulders and shake some sense into her feeble frame. “Are you seriously asking this? You think we’ve had an African American president before?”

“Well, Elizabeth, I was just saying…”

My grandmother may be 92, but she’s neither unintelligent nor senile. She knows fully well that no African American man has ever been elected to the office of President. She knows the historic significance of what occurred on November 4, 2008. I like to think her confusion was nothing more than the result of being blinded by the maelstrom of DiUlio chaos surrounding her that morning over brunch. It could happen to anybody, really. I mean, if I were in her shoes, I probably would have begun wondering if the Oval Office wasn’t made of cheese and that it was once run by a cat named Ginger along with his trusted sidekick Twinkles.

After my grandmother’s 1800’s comment the conversation dissolved rather quickly. My dad began raising the inevitable right-wing, talk-radio-inspired topic of questioning Obama’s proper citizenship (a petty one, for sure) while my mom gave her mother-in-law an abbreviated lesson in American political history. My sister, all the while, continued shooting me dagger glances and whispering surreptitious threats—“Sleep gangsta style tonight brother. One eye open, one hand on the gun.”—as my brother took up his usual Swiss neutrality in the entire matter. Me, I just continued enjoying my plate of strawberry pancakes and french toast with whipped cream, laughing to myself about what an interesting four years it’s going to be.

Let Us Now Praise…

Music For Coming Down:

David Mead and the Post-World-Series-Election Hangover

davidmead1

 

Fade In: Interior. Nick’s Roast Beef. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Wednesday Night. 7 p.m.

The clocks have been turned back. Another hour has been saved. Second Street in Old City is dark and desolate and wet with rain. Just one week ago to the day this place was clamorous with the delirium of hundreds in the street weeping and clapping to everyone, to no one in particular. Just one week ago to the day this place was filled with what seemed to be potential for new birth. With beer-stained hearts on fire. With senseless love overflowing. With the careless inspiration only triumph can bring forth. Just one week ago to the day, Second Street was alive.

Just twenty four hours ago, Second Street was alive, brightened by the hope of change in America, of change in the city of Philadelphia, of change in our dusty, cynical hearts. By this time yesterday, Barack Obama was already on the doorstep of victory. By this time yesterday, everyone braced for the eventual collision of history and expectation. By this time yesterday, legions of the lesser angels of our nature seemed poised for destruction. By this time yesterday, Second Street was yet another temple at which we could all worship the deity of possible hope. By this time yesterday, Second Street was alive.

Now, sitting inside Nick’s Roast Beef, Second Street is tired and alone. The bar is virtually empty. No music plays on the speakers. The Phillies already seem a distant memory. Two small televisions hang from a brick wall. One broadcasts a silent, subtitled Charlie Gibson, who guides America through replay after replay of last night’s Presidential victory, parsing every second down to the fabric of the dress Michelle Obama wore on the stage. On the other screen, a prime-time Hollywood program silently displays a montage from a new Broadway musical staring Chazz Palminteri. The disparity of the two images seems at once both obvious and obscure. There is something that connects them, I’m just not sure what that is.

More than anything else, what strikes me is how exhausted I feel—how exhausted the entire city feels—overwhelmed by a month that went by in a blur and culminated in a championship victory for a beloved baseball team and the election of the first African American to President of the United States of America. In the course of just one week, both of these events took place, and there is an overwhelming, atmospheric sense that the peak of joy has been reached, and now we must all come down. We must all swallow the bitter sweet fog of the morning after.

That’s why we’re going to see David Mead at the Tin Angel.

Some friends of mine arrive and we share a few pints over talk about quantum physics and Mr. Rogers; over the previous night’s election and the virtues of ketchup; over getting old and electric cars; over cheesesteak hoagies and the small entertaining bits of our own personal histories only we find important or funny. I know we are children of this time, I’m just not sure what that really means.

th_stage

When our rambling comes to a close we leave for the show. Two doors down we climb some narrow stairs and order some more pints. First to take the stage at the Tin Angel are The Sways, a Nashville-based husband-and-wife duo comprised of Carey Kotsionis and Adam Landry. Carey’s got her acoustic, Adam’s got his medicine-red electric, and just two lines into their first song I am struck by both the beauty of their harmonies as well as the undeniable pleasure of lines like, “Knowing what to wear doesn’t make you a lady/ Showing up at my door doesn’t make you my baby.”

It would be easy for me to call this duo a marriage between the Innocence Mission and She & Him, so I won’t. Instead, The Sways are a fragile little outfit with the icy edges of their tender sound rimmed in traces of southern attitude and rust. They’ve got California flowers in their hair, but they’ve also got dusty, Memphis boots on their feet. It’s sweet, American swaying, music perfect for the autumn and summer both. They are a pleasure to watch and I would recommend checking them out if they come to town again.

When it comes to the headliner, I am as ignorant as a man can be. Going into the night, I had only ever heard one, maybe two David Mead songs in my life; but the show came by way of a zealous recommendation from my friends T. David and Kristine Young, and since I trust their respective musical tastes so implicitly I figured it was worth the $12 admission fee. And friends, after sitting through an 90 minute set of this man’s music, I can honestly say that I would pay twice as much to see him again.

Oh that dastardly breed of man known as the so-called “Singer Songwriter” is everywhere, and usually I do not suffer him kindly. Look, he’s got a lot to live up to, so I think it’s only fair to be so critical. Every college-aged crooner strumming his acoustic guitar in a coffee shop or on a lawn full of pie-eyed ladies is cooing in the shadow of geniuses like Jackson Browne, Ricky Lee Jones, James Taylor, Joni Mittchell, Cat Stevens, or even Ryan Adams. It’s not their fault the genre has been so well mined, it’s just a fact. All of that being said, when David Mead takes to the cozy, dimly-lit stage at the Angel, my skepticism is tempered only by Dave and Kris’s admiration for him.

Now watch as David Mead lifts the glass statue of my vapid cynicism, hurls it across 90 miles of jagged rock, and allows it to shatter into pieces so small and numerous as to be indistinguishable from the air surrounding them. For the entire length of his set, I am as captivated as I have ever been by a performance. Mead is a master songwriter, crafting everything from bittersweet ballads about looking out of windows at girls walking away to traveling songs about rambling to lovers and friends in drivers seats as the landscape of America unfurls its lovely, lonely distances. He even covers “These Days”, giving an apropos nod to the man to whom I believe Mead is the obvious heir apparent.

Moreover, Mead’s stage persona is a delight. Irreverent, erudite, commanding, humorous, and humble. Watching him in the intimate confines of the Tin Angel feels like being part of a sublime secret. I look forward to nights that will surely unfold with Mead’s music lining the walls of my house and of the mornings over coffee and new love wherein his tunes will kiss the moment with the tenderness for which it begs. I’ve got him on right now, in fact, and I can think of no better soundtrack for coming down from the chaotic hand life has dealt me in recent weeks.

Check out this video of him at the Tin Angel in 2004:


Phinally: The Victory In Three Acts

 

Act I: Purgatory

It was a cold, wet Tuesday morning, and by the tone of his e-mail I could tell my friend Red Dog was not yet convinced. He needed some prodding.

I watched the slick, fast, frenzy of October’s rain prick the windows of my office, thinking about the purgatory of the situation. Of the night before when the entire city of Philadelphia seemed poised for a delirious rebirth. Of the men and women walking through Old City to their favorite watering holes clad in red and white and pale blue. Of their eyes looking to that place in the distance where victory whispered its seductions. Of the slate sky. Of the pints of beer we all consumed through five-and-a-half soaked innings of senseless hope. Of the clinical tarp eventually covering the field. Of the cruel Doppler Radar, flashing. And of each of us—the men with their clenched fists, the women with their sad eyes—walking back to our cars through the rain, heads hung low, not in defeat but in the dissatisfaction of having to wait even longer for our moment of triumph.

I sat in my office that Tuesday morning and thought about all of this—and also of the eventual conclusion to the game. I knew Red Dog had to be there when it happened. We had started this series together and dammit, we would finish it together as well. But I also knew it would be a hard sell. The two of us had already spent far too much time and money on this World Series, and in Red Dog’s case the sacrifice was particularly great. He’s a teacher, which means his alarm begins blaring around 5:30 in the morning, two full hours before mine even thinks about waking. He’s also a husband and a father, which means his energy output requires significantly more precise calculation than mine. Nonetheless, he needed to give it one more go. He needed to meet us at National Mechanics and finish what was started.

So I responded to his e-mail (which had the perfect subject line of “Raining On Our Parade”) explaining why I thought it essential that we take one last shot in the arm and head in to the city for the 3.5-inning conclusion of Game Five of the 2008 World Series:

Dude, that’s a great headline! I’m really surprised it hasn’t been used anywhere else…

So yeah, tonight is apparently suspended until tomorrow, to which I think, yes, I will be going out. Tonight will give me a much-needed rest and opportunity to get some things done. And my rationale for tomorrow is this: it’s only 3 1/2 innings, which means it won’t be too late/expensive a night. Granted, it could go into extra innings and last much longer, but that’s a chance I’m willing to take. I mean, the whole point of being out was so if they won it in the city we would be there! If there’s still a chance to experience that, I’m there. Had they lost and it was going into Game 6, well, that would be a different story and I wouldn’t be going out. But this is STILL GAME FIVE!!

Anyway, no worries if you can’t swing it man. I understand. Let me know. But come hell or high, raging waters, I’ll be there. And I will scream out into the night. And the city will ring with the echoes of our elation. And the curtain of our sorrows will be torn in two. And all will be right with the world.

 

Act II: So This Is What Pure Joy Looks Like

And so it was. After a few more persuasive e-mails, Red Dog decided to come out after all, and when Brad Lidge threw the final strike of the evening, the two of us did indeed scream into the night. And indeed the city rang with the echoes of our elation. And indeed the curtain of our sorrows was torn in two. And all is, indeed, right with the world.

What occurred after that game can scarcely be put into words, as Philadelphia erupted into a scene I have never before witnessed. Along with three of my closest friends (sans Red Dog, who had to go home), I walked up Market Street from Old City, getting closer and closer to the din rising from behind City Hall. It was the kind of juggernaut rumble only tens of thousands gathered in a city street can create…and it sounded glorious.

Finally reaching the pandaemonium, we saw the entirety of Broad Street pregnant with a sea of humanity. Shirtless men running up and down sidewalks, screaming until voiceless. Women whistling from windows. Trucks and SUVs loaded with dozens of rabid Phillies fans spilling out of the windows and doors. Beer and wine bottles littering every spare inch of gutter and curb. Stoplights bending beneath the weight of those who hung from them like mad gargoyles. Overturned planters. Sidewalk trees shaken by those who wanted to uproot a piece of the evening. Fireworks slicing through the perfect dark of sky to explode and rain their sublime fire upon the cheering masses below.

We stopped into a bar serving three dollar whiskeys and toasted to our team. We gave high-fives until our palms were raw. We called our loved ones and tried to paint the scene for them with hoarse voices and the distraction of car horns honking perpetually behind us. We bummed cigarettes and stopped into Nodding Head, where we enjoyed dark pints of sticky Grog and sang “We Are The Champions” and watched replays of that final pitch over and over and over again on a small television. We saw an overturned car on the sidewalk and some firemen at the end of the block trying to put out a small garbage can fire. We hugged the homeless. We made more calls. We took photos and stood on planters like warriors on hilltops of victory. We visited one last bar—the Locust Bar, to be precise—and swallowed down some lager, still watching that final pitch. Still delirious. And then we all went home and slept one of the most peaceful sleeps we had ever known.

 

Act III: Tears at Broad and Federal

I wrote in a previous post about how silly sport is, about how its triviality and inconsequential nature cause so many to feel apathetic about the thing but that these qualities are what make it so wonderful to experience. So while I realize the Phillies’ 2008 World Series victory is not going to bring about world peace or an end to global poverty, I also know (and admit shamelessly) that it was one of the most beautiful moments of my young life, and that I am forever going to recall its sublimity as fondly as I would any fortune to befall me. It is good and righteous without condition and I am thrilled to have been a part of it.

The Friday afternoon parade down Broad Street was a far tamer experience than the Wednesday evening that proceeded it, but its sunny, measured execution was the perfect denouement to a release 25 years in the making. It was a moment of unhindered positive vibrations, of love overflowing, of new tides coming in for the city of Philadelphia and everyone who was there to see the moment unfold. Leading up to the afternoon, I wasn’t sure how it was going to feel once I finally saw this team I had been watching all my life finally showered with the unconditional attention all champions deserve. But then the parade made its way down to our post at Broad and Federal, and I had my answer.

Leading the caravan was the Philly Phanatic, and when his green, fuzzy paws became visible over the thousands of red heads bobbing up and down in frenzied elation all along Broad Street, I suddenly realized I was about to start crying. This was totally unexpected and I immediately tried to hold back, tried to tell myself how silly it would seem to have a grown man weeping in the streets over something as superficial as a baseball team; but then I realized how ridiculous the reasons for my resistance seemed and I let go of my insecurities and the tears started to flow. It wasn’t just the joy of the victory, or even the overwhelming sight of thousands gathered for this singular purpose, that brought me to tears. It was the Phillies game my father took me to see at the Vet when I was eight. It was watching the 1993 World Series in my childhood best friend’s basement at the age of 12, back when it seemed baseball was the only concern worth caring about. It was the baseball my entire family signed when I turned 13. It was Eagles football by fireside while my parents trimmed the Christmas tree. It was backyard home run derbies with my little brother, both of us wishing for the impossible. It was catches with my father in that same backyard. It was the watershed of 27 years coming to me in a flash of raw, unstoppable emotion at the hands of a silly, sarcastic mascot. And it was beautiful.

Thank you Phillies. Thank you for all of this. It is without a price and it will live forever in the hearts and minds of millions. Thank you.