Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Summons to Memphis

When I learned that Philip Carver, the protagonist of Peter Taylor's A Summons to Memphis, had moved to Memphis, Tennessee when he was thirteen years old as a result of his father's job, I knew I had to read this book. I'd learned of Taylor by listening to NPR's program Selected Shorts which featured his short story Porte Cochere. I was spellbound by Taylor's anachronistically formal yet soothing Southern cadence. Listening made me reconnect with my own time living in The South, a time where so much happened so quickly, where I'd ultimately transition into the blessed larva stage of American manhood. Yet this phase was so fleeting and so disjointed from core processes that would eventually define me. So my memories of Memphis are intense yet ephemeral. They are frustratingly difficult to conjure. They come to me as cryptic missives from the other side of a wall that is loaded with potential danger and ultimately, unconquerable.

The Carver family of Summons have settled in Memphis as Father Carver has been defrauded out of a business partnership in Nashville. My own family settled in Memphis from the more distant world of New York. And it was not failure that brought us there but rather, a lucrative opportunity for my father. There is little that parallels Phillip Carver's story and my own - other than the abyss felt by a boy headed to an alien Memphis, understanding that he must somehow make peace with the place that would be his new home, for better or for worse.

Father Carver then proceeds to derail the respective happiness of his children as they bloom into adulthood. The story begins later with this patriarch now wishing to remarry after the death of the Carver matriarch. As the story unfolds, all the Carver family ghosts unravels slowly, indicating the root of the offspring's hostility surrounding this old man's final peaceful desires. Phillip has removed himself as much as possible, living in New York, but his two sisters are hellbent on thwarting their father's last oasis of happiness and demand that Phillip make an appearance to aid them.

Phillip and I are inexplicably intertwined. Memphis is a place that we both fled for New York. Still, something claws us back. For Phillip, there are immediate fires in Memphis that need his attention. For me, the fires have long extinguished, yet in my own Proustian quest, I kick the embers, hoping for some small spark that might replicate experience and sensation.

Radio Shack Scanner 404

A few weeks ago, my family went to Hawaii to visit my in-laws. I could not join them as work forbade me (quite literally, I should add) to join them. While they were gone, I was quite lonely so for reasons that are not entirely clear, I bought a Radio Shack Scanner 404.

The scanner's features boast that it can deftly pick up police, fire, aircraft, maritime as well as amateur radio activity. The truth of the matter is you get a good deal of police and fire coverage, sporadic amateur traffic and limited aircraft activity if you happen to be sitting in the parking lot of an airport.

Nonetheless, still a good pick up. I'd recommend to all you writers out there with writer's block. Sometimes, everything I hear seems to be nothing more than administrative codes, but then you hear stories of runaways, or calls for police to assist a woman whose apartment door was open and now she's too afraid to go in. It's all real and happening right now.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Broken Ships

I was first hired by Lehman Brothers in 2001. For Wall Street, Lehman was a somewhat egalitarian place to be. I relished that I worked in the working man's Wall Street firm. My job was in expense management. They let me retreat into my life's centering identity: the little boy in the basement building models. For Lehman, I would construct mathematical labyrinths that would reveal where the firm could save money.

The culture of Lehman was such that no one should do one job for more that three or four years, lest they become jaded and stale. This was one of their few clairvoyant cultural tenants. So after four years in expense management, I had to find something different to do in the organization.

In 2004, Lehman acquired the asset management firm, Neuberger Berman. For years Neuberger Berman had been primping itself for acquisition and now finally, it was complete. Their CEO who'd orchestrated this enveloping quickly cashed out and left town, leaving behind a company filled with bitter employees who despised this Lehman Brothers who'd acquired them.

It was decided my next career path would be that of Lehman's ambassador to Neuberger Berman. I would entrench myself with them and facilitate the mechanics of their new environment. It was a disastrous move.

All from Neuberger Berman who encountered me despised me and repelled my attempts to integrate their process into the new Lehman order. I was hated by everyone at Neuberger Berman and their public stoning left me viewed as incompetent by all I'd left behind at Lehman.

Perhaps my memory's only redeeming attribute of Neuberger Berman is Roy Neuberger's dynamic support of the arts. He once said his two passions were art and finance. (I've never understood this statement as to me, it is akin to claiming passion for animal slaughter and vegetarianism in the same breath. Yet, I will forgive him for this as the offices of Neuberger Berman were filled with wonderful works of art).

Among these works were several enlarged photographs of giant tanker ships being broken up on the shores of India. These photographs were in a conference room on an upper floor. I first saw these while attending a meeting hosted by man whose throat upon which I wished I could mercilessly drive my foot. Seeing the images of broken, beached behemoths made me reflect on the enormity of my own disappointment. I'd been brought into this world by creators of enduring benevolence, and yet here I was giving the best years of my life to some of planet earth's worst denizens.

Those broken ships were enormous. And they were me. And then I painted this.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Death of bin Laden

My recent post discussing the first baseball game in New York after the 9/11 attacks dealt with the collective experience of 9/11 but only in a very peripheral sense. Of course, now circumstances are such that I must again discuss this event, something I'm never completely comfortable doing. Although my experience that day was not insignificant, there are so many others whose loss, horror and transcendence from this tragedy has been articulated with more eloquence than anything I might offer up.

Osama bin Laden is dead. On the morning of 9/11, as I was fleeing the World Financial Center, after everyone had concluded that the act of flying two jetliners into a building was not the result of profound negligence, I tried to imagine who was responsible. Saddham Hussein or Osama bin Laden - these were the obvious culprits we all discussed as we made our way north up the West Side.

I'd made my way out of 3 World Financial Center with Donal Lanaghan, a barrel chested Irishman. "I'll tell you one 'ting," Donal offered in his sandpaper Dublin accent, "we're going to step on someone's neck for 'dis!"

Later as we got closer to Chelsea Peers, a man was standing in the median of the West Side Highway screaming. He'd passed into a zone where he was communicating to no one but himself, doing so at the top of his lungs. "We gonna take those mutha'fuckahs out TO-NIGHT!"

His was a primal outpouring, enormously necessary. Although the shock of the events of the past hour had not yet worn off, I could not help but to ask the question in my mind, "who exactly are we going to take out and where are they?"

It was almost exactly at this moment that I watched the South Tower go down. It was an all encompassing sight; a waterfall of debris and deafening sound. A jet fighter (I believe an F-15) split the sky above us and despite the fact that we'd just witnessed one of the world's most massive buildings collapse within seconds, the crowd on the sidewalk erupted into fist pumping frenzy. At this point I looked to the Hudson River, imagining that if the end of the world was now upon us, I should just leap into the water and submerge myself as the flames of Armageddon raged above me.


I was nursing a beer Sunday night when a good friend, a producer for CBS News, sent me an email which read: 'turn on the news - something big is about to go down'. I yawned at this message, turned off my Blackberry and went to bed.

Of course the next morning, I'd realize all that had happened. Like everyone, I immersed myself in the ocean of news reports and commentary. As the details unfolded, they seemed more unreal. The operation seemed so flawless, as though it'd been contained in PlayStation 3 rather than the world of our shared reality where nothing is ever easy and clean.

That night I watched wrestling with my son. I have no problem with my son's adoration of the WWE - at his age I was enthralled with wrestling. It is a Jungian expression of the collective pre-adolescent fixation of superhero mythology. Between the comic-book unreality of childhood and the harsh reality of adulthood, that barren wasteland devoid of superpowers - there exists wrestling, a world populated by players who are clearly defined as good or evil in a flesh and blood semi-reality enjoying scripted outcomes and bloodless battles.

Monday night, all WWE performances were sure to incorporate bin Laden's death into their bombastic routines, ultimately resulting in fist-pumping 'USA' chants. My son watched all this and asked me who bin Laden was. Fighting against the imagery of the wrestling I found it near impossible to succinctly explain to him who bin Laden was: a son of a millionaire who'd fallen under the spell of extremism. A man who some thirty years ago fought in Afghanistan against Russia, America's then enemy now ally. A man who declared war against America, a nation where he'd eventually unleash a horrific terrorist attack using plane crashes - America the nation where his own father died in his childhood. From a plane crash.

The WWE program's fist pumping patriotism was gratuitous and boundless. It echoed in an audience filled with young men, many of whom were children on the morning of 9/11. On Sunday night we also saw spontaneous celebrations on college campuses as a result of bin Laden's death. Again, these kids have no recollection of 9/11, yet seem to most acutely revel in his death. Perhaps in his death they see a cure for the amorphous and implacable malaise that has permeated our culture in the last decade.

I think back to that screaming man in the median of the West Side Highway on that September morning. His rage articulated the start of an ellipse that would require completion. And despite the questionable tactical significance of bin Laden's death, his dramatic demise completes our national anger. A new chapter of heroic mythology is created. And it would be impossible to carry on without it.