All the Memory We Cannot See

How will you remember your time during the COVID-19 pandemic? I suppose I should clarify a bit, what I mean to ask is how is your memory of your time during the COVID-19 pandemic will differ from the collective memory of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I think that there are images that will be seared into our minds forever that occurred during this pandemic and resultant social isolation, which everyone else will remember. Certainly images of police brutality, images of collective action against said brutality, images of doctors and nurses, images of grief; these will be remembered by everyone.

But our own personal memories can be quite distinct from the collective memory. One of the greatest tragedies of death is that we lose all that person’s personal memory—their experiences and thoughts as only they could understand them. So, again, how will you remember your time during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Because personal memory is fluid, it’s nigh impossible to know how one’s memory will change as time passes. We are all sentient flesh-and-blood ships of Theseus, and paradoxically, the way that we remember something is often colored by events that have nothing to do with each other, sometimes years apart.

That said, I think I have some idea of how I will remember my experience during the pandemic, and it has to do with a book I read way back in July.

All the Light We Cannot See is a 2014 novel by Anthony Doerr. Set just before and during World War II, it follows two children, Marie Laure from France and Werner Pfennig from Germany. Werner is an electrical engineering prodigy, and as a child he is able to connect to a radio broadcast emanating from France by fixing up a radio he finds one day. The broadcast it connects to is of a French man discussing science, history, music, and the world in general on a program geared toward children. It is Werner’s favorite thing in the world.  Each broadcast ends with Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”.

[SPOILER ALERT FOR All the Light We Cannot See]

I’m going to skip over most of the book, though I highly recommend reading it. It’s fantastic. We come to find out that this French broadcaster is Marie Laure’s great-uncle Etienne, who lives in the small city of Saint-Malo. As the Nazis take Paris, Marie Laure escapes with her father to Saint-Malo, and comes to live with her great-uncle. Eventually, during the siege of Saint-Malo, Marie Laure uses her great-uncle’s old radio equipment to ask for help, which Werner, who has been forced into service for the Nazis, hears. They finally meet, and Werner gets Marie Laure to safety. He is eventually killed. The entire novel is about how connections can be formed over long distances, about how humans have a remarkable ability to find each other, love each other, and connect with each other despite barriers which could conceivably block them—including physical distance. The novel closes with Marie Laure as an old woman in 2014, walking in a park in Paris with her grandson. The following passage in particular struck me, and I think it carries a great deal of significance in our current socially isolated times:

 “People walk the paths of the gardens below, and the wind sings anthems in the hedges, and the big old cedars at the entrance to the maze creak. Marie Laure imagines the electromagnetic waves traveling into and out of Michel’s machine, bending around them, just as Etienne used to describe, except now a thousand times more crisscross the air than when he lived—maybe a million times more. Torrents of text conversations, tides of cell conversations, of television programs, of e-mail, vast networks of fiber and wire interlaced above and beneath the city, passing through buildings, arcing between transmitters in Metro tunnels, between antennas atop buildings, from lampposts with cellular transmitters in the, commercials for Carrefour and Evian and prebaked toaster pastries flashing into space and back to earth again, I’m going to be late and Maybe we should get reservations? and Pick up avacados and What did he say? and ten thousand I miss yous, fifty thousand I love yous, hate mail and appointment reminders and market updates, jewelry ads, coffee ads, furniture ads flying invisibly over the warrens of Paris, over the battlefields and tombs, over the Ardennes, over the Rhine, over Belgium and Denmark, over the scarred and ever-shifting landscapes we call nations. And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel those paths? That her father and Etienne and Madame Manc and the German boy named Werner Pfennig might harry the sky in flocks, like egrets, like terns, like starlings? That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen loosely enough? They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs, and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.” All the Light We Cannot See, Chapter 178

The above passage feels prescient in that I think it captures the sense of our time in lockdown better than I ever could, despite being written in 5 B.C. (Before COVID). As I am writing this, the world just passed 2 million confirmed deaths from COVID-19.

Many of us have been confined to our homes for the better part of a year now. This has been extremely distressing and taxing on the mental health of millions, but were it not for the technological advances alluded to in the above passage, it would have been far worse. Where would we, as a society be, without the ten thousand I miss yous and fifty thousand I love yous traveling through space above my head right now. Where would you be without the virtual connections that allow you to stay in contact with your friends, your family, your loved ones?

I’ll speak for myself; I would not have made it without being able to remotely connect with those I care about. Just because we cannot share the physical space with our loved ones, nor share physical connections with them, that does not mean that we have become untethered from them entirely. It may occasionally feel like a pale imitation of the warmth that we once shared, and by no means am I advocating for the widespread adoptions of our pandemic habits once we’re all vaccinated. But the millions of electromagnetic waves that Marie Laure refers to have been a life preserver in this vast ocean of isolation we find ourselves in.

Our society has suffered a tremendous amount of loss. We collectively are grieving on a scale not seen in decades. It is comforting to think that the souls of those departed move in and around us as well. That in our grief, those who we’ve lost move through our jackets and shirts and breastbones and lungs, that we are not alone in our loneliness, that the air itself still hums with the energy of all of humanity. It is a thought which I will try to take with me when this is all said and done. It was summarized perfectly in this passage, and it is (I think), how I will remember this awful time.

But that’s not really what I came to talk with you about today.

“Here’s a dirty secret about creativity: much of it is just seizing on connections you don’t really feel responsible for”.

So says Matthewmatosis, a longform video game critic whose YouTube channel I have been a dedicated follower of for almost a decade. His videos are some of my favorite on the platform, as he takes an analytical view and delves into great detail on his subjects. I have taken more than a bit of inspiration from him in my writing.

He has a series called “Mega Microvideos”, in which he does one longform video containing several micro-essays about differing topics, though sometimes connected by one theme. The most recent installment of this series is “Meta Microvideos”, in which he talks about ‘meta’ art, the art of criticism, and finally his own channel and creative process.

During one of the microvideos contained in “Meta Microvideos”, he talks about criticism and the collective memory, as it relates to the idea of “classics”. In particular, he says:

“Many of us have at least dabbled with classical music on a rainy afternoon. So, one might be familiar with names such as Mozart, Chopin, and Satie. To us, this is all ‘classical music’, but actually, none of those men were even alive at the same time…Over time, the past gets more and more compressed until only the most important points remain.”

“Meta Microvideos”

He utilizes an analogy of ‘classics’ being peaks on a mountain, with the rising tide of history slowly drowning out all of the lower peaks until only the truly great remain, all while “Clair de Lune” plays in the background.

It was this video that inspired me to write this piece, and it was this section that caused me to link my experience of the pandemic to All the Light We Cannot See. Hearing “Clair de Lune” and talk of collective memory caused some set of synapses to fire, which allowed me to remember that passage from months earlier. Back when I first read it in July, the passage was moving, sure, but I only really considered it in the context of the novel. I didn’t really connect it to the pandemic raging around me, nor the new way of life I had adopted in the months leading up to reading it. It only occurred to me months after the fact, thanks to a video game critic. It would be easy to read this information and come to the conclusion that I’m a bit of a dummy who missed something obvious while reading a novel, then stumbled ass-backwards into a half-decent premise because of something he saw on YouTube.

I haven’t been inspired to write anything for the better part of a year now. If you can remember back as far as March 2020, you may remember folks tweeting about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a lockdown (which is far from proven, but go off, tweeters). It’s easy to think of a time when we are isolated as a time when creative work could be done; often the difficulty of writing is that we can’t find enough time when we are alone with space to think. Removing that barrier should make the task easier, right?

Well, yes and no. I think Matthewmatosis’ dirty secret about creativity is true—much of creativity is seizing on connections that you don’t really feel responsible for. I’d liken the newfound free time during the pandemic to pouring lighter fluid on an unlit fire. Without a spark, isolation and time to write don’t really do much.

Coming to that realization has been difficult. I’ve had several instances over the past 10 months where I’ve had a half-formed idea, but sat down in front of a blank page anyway in the hopes that the act of typing would cause that spark once more. It didn’t. Following these failures to write the blog post equivalent of King Lear I was quite hard on myself, taking it as evidence that I was simply incapable of writing anything worthwhile without getting lucky.

But you can’t manufacture that spark. Creativity, understanding, memory; all of these things are fueled by the forces around us, forces often completely out of our control. The only thing we can try to do is grab hold of things that make sense and hold on for dear life. I’ll leave it to Matthewmatosis once again:    

“We can’t control the circumstances around us, or the connections formed in our own minds. So all that’s really left is just seizing the good while letting the bad drift away. I think the most important skill to making something worthwhile is just recognizing when you have something good.”

The way that we process information, make memories, or be creative makes little sense. In times of upheaval they make even less sense. Hopefully vaccinations will stop the rising tide of COVID-19, and we can begin to move forward from this turbulent time. As we do so, it is important for us to be forgiving of ourselves, to cling to the things that make sense, and try to remember the things that affect you in the moment. You never know when or how your understanding of something will change, or what will change it. The only thing that we can do is seize the good, and let the bad drift away.

Christmas Time is Here: A Personal Essay

I. Christmas time is here/Happiness and cheer

I have no scientific evidence, but the idea of a “blue Christmas” (a holiday spent depressed rather than merry) seems to have more resonance in the culture-at-large this year. Miley Cyrus’s new song about feeling lonely and isolated has received a great deal of attention and acclaim. Her announcement of the song and its backstory has been liked over 50 thousand times:

It appears—to me—as though folks are more likely to acknowledge how difficult this time of year is for many, and how the collective joy of the season can paradoxically feel particularly alienating to wide swaths of the population.

Of course, I am by no means an unbiased observer. In the past couple of years, I have found the holiday season rather difficult to deal with, following a great deal of upheaval in my personal life. I have not been able to experience the same unencumbered merriment that I once did during this time of year.

Though, it hasn’t all been bad. I have been able to turn to one consistent source of comfort, which has been a sizeable chunk of my holidays for years now. I speak of Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, the soundtrack to the television special of identical name. Top-to-bottom it is, IMHO, the greatest Christmas album ever, including both exquisite covers of Christmas standards, as well as three of the best Christmas originals written this side of 1950—“Christmas is Coming”, “Skating”, and “Christmas Time is Here”.

Of those, “Christmas Time is Here” is the best, and has seen the most popularity in the 54 years since the special’s release. The song effectively straddles the line between melancholy and joy, perfectly exemplifying the conflicting emotions that the season can conjure.

Writing for The Ringer, Rob Harvilla describes “Christmas Time is Here” as: 

“forlorn-snowstorm melancholy…a joyous and heartbreaking ballad available as an instrumental (with a loneliness so vivid it feels communal) or a gentle children’s-choir spectacular (they’re not exactly in tune, but that just makes it more exquisite)”

Harvilla’s seemingly contradictory words characterize the song perfectly, and this tension between the joyous and the heartbreaking is, to me, what we mean when we discuss the feeling of emptiness that accompanies so many of us during the holidays. The desire to joyfully embrace the season in the same way as others is there, but we can’t quite tap into it, for reasons varying among different people, all colored different shades of blue come late December.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (the TV special, not Guaraldi’s soundtrack) has always been my favorite piece of Christmas-themed art, though my appreciation for it has changed over the years. I used to think that the highlight of it was Snoopy messing with Lucy during rehearsal for the Christmas play (“I’ve been kissed by a dog! Get hot water! Get some disinfectant! Get some iodine!”). I would laugh to tears, rewind the VCR, watch it again, and laugh some more. Now, I find the funniest part to be Charlie Brown’s “therapy” session with “Dr.” Lucy Van Pelt (who, by the way, is “real in”). Every line is absolutely brilliant, and is so true to life that it feels like they may have ripped lines directly from a bad session of mine.

The fact that there is a therapy scene in what is ostensibly a children’s program speaks to what A Charlie Brown Christmas is really about. In childhood I didn’t totally comprehend that A Charlie Brown Christmas was really about those who feel alone, outcast, and unable to enjoy the merriment of the holiday season. I mean, sure, on some level I knew that—in the same way that I could hear one of Aesop’s fables and give you a one-sentence descriptor of what I was to have learned from the thing. I could have told you (in the slightly sarcastic sing-songy voice of a child annoyed that they have to answer a question) that “we should be nice to people and include them so that they don’t feel alone and sad.” But I didn’t know what feeling lonely, depressed, and melancholic during the holidays really was. Christmas was a time of unbridled joy every year; a time of anticipation, excitement, exceptionally satisfying gratification, and overall contentment.

I miss those days.

II. Fun for all that children call/Their favorite time of the year

As with all children, my brother and I had trouble staying asleep through the night of Christmas Eve, often getting up at what I now recognize as an ungodly early hour.

In our defense, we didn’t have a clock in our room, and thus—this being the era immediately preceding smartphones—were unaware of the exact extent of our nuisance. However, one year in particular, our crepuscular shenanigans were indefensible.

Our parents had given us an exact time that we could come in and wake them, in order to go downstairs and open presents. But, again, being that we didn’t have a clock in our room, when we awoke in the middle of the night, we needed some way to see precisely how close we were to the sweet release of tearing open gifts.

There was something wrong with the door to our parents’ room—somehow the door was ever so slightly out of alignment with the door frame. You could still open it of course, but the door would rub directly up against the frame, and the friction it created would be…well…loud.

We must have gone in and out of there four times in the span of two hours (from 4-6 AM). I don’t know how in the world my parents didn’t snap and cancel Christmas. They would have been well within their rights to. They must have slept like two hours each that night. To make matters worse, my brother and I were SO over-the-moon excited, that we needed to get our energy out somehow. We decided to sprint back-and-forth in the upstairs hallway. The bulls in Pamplona probably make less noise than we did that morning, all while we should have been asleep.

Oh, that we could feel the unparalleled excitement of childhood again. Also, sorry Mom and Dad.

III. Snowflakes in the air/Carols everywhere

Guaraldi’s piano on A Charlie Brown Christmas is most often evocative of snow, in large part thanks to the television special to which it is inextricably linked. “Skating” is a prime example, with the piano mimicking snowfall as the notes quickly descend down the keyboard. During the special, this plays while the kids are catching snowflakes on their tongue, and that indelible image always appears when I hear the song.

While Guaraldi’s piano is undoubtedly the star, credit also must be given to drummer Jerry Granelli and bassist Fred Marshall, especially for their work on “Christmas Time is Here”. Granelli’s percussion has a roominess to it which is integral to the song—the cymbals are stroked ever-so-lightly, each strike sounding as though it rolls into the next. It feels like you’re hearing the air in the studio when it was recorded; it provides a warmth that is desperately needed to temper the melancholic key of the work.

On “Christmas Time is Here”, Marshall takes the ‘fluttering snowflakes’ duties, as his dexterous fingers navigate the double bass with precision. He and Guaraldi perfectly match in their timing at the end of the song, as both play soft yet rapid pairs of notes.

Marshall is able to be nimble and soft at the same time, and his solo during the instrumental version provides a pallet-cleanser from Guaraldi’s dominating piano. There is less melancholy in Marshall’s playing—less underlying sadness. He is integral in creating joy that exists in tandem with the melancholy.

IV. Olden times and ancient rhymes/Of love and dreams to share

Traditions are the backbone of Christmas. Christmas in different households is really all about the little variations to ancient traditions, slight alterations to the script which make every family’s celebration their own.

Growing up, we always said prayers together as a family each evening, and then in December, after our usual routine, we would sing “Silent Night”. I’m not sure when I stopped saying prayers, but my stopiing of singing “Silent Night” happened before that.

I’m not sure why, but recently I’ve had a really strong urge to learn the original German lyrics to “Silent Night”. Maybe I’m trying to tap into something historical—hoping that learning the song’s origins will help to recapture some piece of my childhood. It probably won’t. Knowing that it probably won’t is likely what’s stopping me from having learned the dang German, already.

V. Sleigh bells in the air/Beauty everywhere

Something about the way Guaraldi’s piano was recorded feels noticeably different from most other piano recordings, and it’s a large part of why numerous attempts to cover “Christmas Time is Here” have fallen short (in my opinion, anyway). Whenever I listen to “Christmas Time is Here”, I’m struck by how hard Guaraldi strikes the keys at certain points. The rising chords at the 4:30 mark of the instrumental version are a prime example; they ring out far louder and stronger than the vast majority of the song.

With the rise of the electric keyboard and the phasing out of classic analog pianos, I am guilty sometimes of forgetting that classic pianos are an instrument that makes its noise from dozens of hammers striking down upon the concealed strings and wire. Guaraldi’s style is such that you can’t possibly forget the underlying mechanisms, you feel the hammer’s strike. It’s forceful, clear, and distinct. It’s lovely. At points it sounds closer to bells being struck in rapid succession than to the “piano sound” of modern electric keyboards. I think this playstyle makes Guaraldi uniquely suited to Christmas music—being that bells are so closely intertwined with the ‘feel’ of the holiday. Its why it makes sense that the rest of Guaraldi’s catalogue (while by no means mediocre) pales in comparison to his brilliance at holiday composition.

VI. Yuletide by the fireside/And joyful memories there

In my early childhood, both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were spent at my grandparents’ house. We would have the quintessential Christmas morning experience at home, before making the ten-minute trip to grandma and grandpa’s for the afternoon and evening.

At some point in my adolescence, as my grandparents got a bit older, we began hosting Christmas Day at our house. My siblings and I were always doled out token hosting responsibilities, while my mother and father did all of the real work. My task was to build and tend to a fire, and while I was at it, satiate my grandfather by bringing him whatever he needed (this just made logistical sense, as he always sat directly next to the fire in a large leather chair). This task involved about ten minutes total, which included poking at the flame three or four times, pouring one (maybe two) glasses of white zinfandel, fetching a cracker and placing cheese on top of it, and occasionally bringing a cat to my grandpa’s lap.

My grandfather was the epitome of Silent Generation stoicism, and these incredibly small gestures were enough for him. He was content to sit by the fire, overlooking the two younger generations as the quintessential patriarch, proud of the family that he had helped build. I kept his glass full, his appetizer plate full, and the fire warm, allowing him to gaze over the merriment in front of him and smile contentedly.

Later in the evening, after all of the guests left, I was usually relieved of my fire-tending duties by my father, who often stayed awake the latest on Christmas, and was the one who watched the fire die down. I sometimes wonder what that was like, watching the glowing embers slowly fade into ash, before closing the doors on the fireplace. Should I have stayed up, played the same role of patriarch-satiater for my dad? Or, did my father like those quiet moments to himself? To reflect on the day, the days before, the years flying by, another Christmas having passed, his children one year closer to adulthood. I don’t know. I can’t know. I won’t know.

This is my third Christmas without my father, and my first without my grandfather.

VII. Christmas time is here/Families drawing near

The final 38 seconds of “Christmas Time is Here” might be my favorite part of one of my favorite songs. Guaraldi’s fingers flutter between two keys, while slowly moving the nimble extensions of his hand up and down the piano, different sets of two, falling upon the piano with the same pace and grace. They seem to press the keys softly enough that it’s almost surprising we hear any sound at all. The pitch of the fluttering notes rises, falls, and rises again, slowly fading into nothing.

On most days following work, I head northeast of my apartment to Central Park, where I like to walk around the Jaqueline Kennedy-Onassis reservoir. It’s usually fairly quiet, and the views of the Manhattan skyline simply cannot be beat:


Several weeks ago, I was walking along this route as a light snow fell, with the tiniest hint of accumulation beginning on the ground. Being the beginning of December, I was starting to work a full listen to A Charlie Brown Christmas into my  daily routine. As I made my way around the North-Eastern curve of the loop, the final 38 seconds of “Christmas Time is Here” began to play, Guaraldi’s keystrokes filling my ears. The notes paired perfectly with the light snow, as the sparse flakes in the air rose, fell, and rose again, before finally settling on the ground, all merging into tiny piles, the individual flakes becoming indistinguishable from the whole.

Perhaps…perhaps that is what it means to experience a blue Christmas. Each of us a unique flake; cold, wet, tossed about by the elements before landing on the cold hard ground.

But, at least we can fall into each other. And maybe—just maybe—we can find some comfort in the knowledge that we aren’t alone in our loneliness.

VIII. Oh, that we could always see/Such spirit through the year

Inherent Traits Affecting Tastes

Are the films we love, the artwork we’re drawn to, or the entertainment we ‘choose’, less of a choice than we think?

Recently I began to explore the underlying reasons why I love the films that I do. I can explain why I think certain cinematographic choices are good or bad—this framing subtly reinforces the film’s message, this choice in set design serves as a portentous omen, etc. But why do I enjoy them? Why do I like films with longer takes more than those with heavy cuts? Is it because I find them more dreamlike? More realistic? I’m not quite sure, but these thought experiments have given me the chance to think more deeply about the films I love, which I find invaluable.

But when it comes to color, there is a more easily identifiable reason, and it’s caused a great deal of existential worry.

I love films that experiment with color and shades, both those which assign artistic meaning to color and those which use color to appeal to cineaste’s soft-spot for visual bliss. One of my favorite cinematic choices ever is Douglas Sirk’s costume changes for the white characters in Imitation of Life, which I’ve previously discussed here. I’ve spent multiple hours reading scholarly articles just about the use of green in Vertigo (highly recommend it). I went out of my way to go to a theater to RE-watch an obscure film from 1945 (Yolanda and the Thief), just because it was showing on 35 mm from a copy of the original Technicolor negatives. I think every film should be required to use Minnelli yellow. The reds of Le Mepris haunt my dreams:

In summation, I LOVE to look at color in film. The richer the better.

But, as many people in my life already know, I am colorblind. I have trouble distinguishing subtle differences in shade, I can’t tell the difference between certain colors, and colleagues have to “color check” graphs I make at work, so I don’t send lime green bars to the VP. Hang this image on a wall (as one roommate of mine almost did):

and all I would see is an abstract collection of dots [hopefully my editor didn’t change the image just to fuck with me]. This is a genetic trait, one I’ve had since birth. The only form of vision that I know is one with deuteranomaly.

So it begs the question: do I love rich, saturated colors so much because of my colorblindness?

As far as scientists are concerned, yep. Us colorblind tend to like yellow way more than the rest of y’all, and we tend to favor things we can see well, as one study found “colors named more accurately and quickly being more preferred”. The richer the color, the more it pops out, and the easier it is to identify. It follows that my colorblindness has directly influenced my preference for rich colors.

I found this nugget of research profoundly disappointing when I first read it. We don’t often think about the origins of our preferences, and for some reason I found it disconcerting to think that I love the things I love thanks to a blip in a genetic code. That the emotions roused in me by a lush cinematic landscape were merely an accident of nature.

The idea of nature vs. nurture has been *ahem* in our culture’s DNA for a long time; often as a point of debate against asinine socially conservative bigots. But it’s fascinating to consider just how much our genetics influence the things we think are wholly of our own accord.

Certainly our experiences shape our reactions to art. I can attest to that fairly easily. After my father died I was much more susceptible to tearing up at father-son stories. I read The Road about a year later and it immediately became one of my favorite novels ever. Would it have made the same impact had I not experienced that loss? Perhaps. But I doubt it.

People intuitively understand this. The events of our lives—both momentous and trivial—mold our outlook on the world, and it follows that what we like and dislike fits into that mold. It is far more difficult to grasp that something as personal as what gives us pleasure, what speaks to us, or what we hold dear could have been decided before we were sentient.

If you’re anything like me, you’re scared that if you think too hard about this you’ll come to hate the things you once loved, all thanks to some colorblind jackass with too much time on his hands. I know when I first realized just how much my colorblindness influences my taste in films, I found it profoundly unnerving. But I’ve come to love this circumstance of my birth.

You see, it gives me a unique perspective which allows me to appreciate beauty in a way that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to. I consider myself lucky. It’s possible that I would never have fallen in love with color in the same way I have without my colorblindness. I think of the joy that the aforementioned screening of Yolanda and the Thief gave me, and how I wouldn’t get the same rush of abject pleasure if I saw colors ‘correctly’. Would I still love it? Maybe. But it wouldn’t have been quite the same. Indeed, I first saw Yolanda in a course at college, and the overwhelming sentiment of my classmates was “Yeah the colors popped. So what?” I suppose we saw things differently.

Everyone is born with a perspective all their own. We can all find beauty in our own way, and the art that we are drawn to all speaks to us differently, even if these differences are minuscule.

Think deeply about the things you enjoy, and why they bring you happiness. Whether gathered by experience or encoded via genetics, they are what make you distinct, and they allow you to have an outlook that can only be your own. Every time someone shares the perspectives that make them unique, the world becomes a better, more colorful place.

Photographs taken from Vertigo (1958), Le Mepris (1963), and Yolanda and the Thief (1945).

Don’t You Feel Like Desperados Under the Eaves?

I love Warren Zevon’s music.  To me, he is the type of musician that blends so much of what I love in art. Attention to detail, love of the outcast, desperation, loneliness, and an immensely personal touch wherein the work you make changes depending on where you are in life.

I could write about Zevon’s entire discography in this context, but I’d need the space of a book to do so. Instead, I’ll focus on one song in particular that I feel perfectly captures Zevon. The artist, the musician, the poet, the man.

[Warren Zevon’s] musical patterns are all over the place, probably because he’s classically trained. There might be three separate songs within a Zevon song, but they’re all effortlessly connected. Zevon was a musician’s musician, a tortured one. ‘Desperados Under the Eaves.’ It’s all in there.”
Bob Dylan

“Desperados Under the Eaves” is many things. It is immensely evocative, chock-full of wordplay, and above all else a great song. I’d like to start by focusing on the poetic lyrics that Zevon penned.

Here are the lyrics in the first half of “Desperados Under the Eaves”:

“I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel
I was staring in my empty coffee cup
I was thinking that the gypsy wasn’t lyin’
All the salty margaritas in Los Angeles
I’m gonna drink ’em up

And if California slides into the ocean
Like the mystics and statistics say it will
I predict this motel will be standing until I pay my bill

Don’t the sun look angry through the trees
Don’t the trees look like crucified thieves
Don’t you feel like Desperados under the eaves
Heaven help the one who leaves

Still waking up in the mornings with shaking hands
And I’m trying to find a girl who understands me
But except in dreams you’re never really free
Don’t the sun look angry at me

I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel”

The first stanza/verse paints a picture of a broken man, who clearly loves drinking. The added flair of alliteration forces us to pay attention to the words in this part, rather than the music. Zevon also offhandedly mentions that he’s been to a gypsy psychic, showing us a glimpse into his thoughts on the supernatural.

As we move on into the subsequent verses, our picture of this paranoid alcoholic is sharpened. Zevon also, in a clever rhyme, reminds us that sometimes the spiritual (mystics) and secular (statistics) converge. Of course, in this case, it’s an agreement on apocalyptic prognostication, one that will still leave Zevon bitten in the behind when all is said and done. This is a motif of the first half, everything coming together against Warren Zevon. The world must just be against him personally.

There’s also a great deal of religious imagery in this opening half. Obviously there’s the “heaven help” line, as well as the the appeals to both mystics and a gypsy. But I want to focus on the Sun, and the trees that “look like crucified thieves”.

In the gospels, Jesus is crucified along with two thieves (in Luke these are the Penitent and Impenitent thieves). This line changes the meaning of the angry Sun; instead of referring to an angry ball of hydrogen and helium, it’s referring to the homophone version (Son), which when paired with crucified thieves, means Jesus.

Thus, when the Son looks angry at Zevon specifically (“don’t the sun look angry at me”), it’s referring to an angry God, one that Zevon thinks is singling him out. This plays into the persecution complex that is plaguing him throughout the song. Even if the world is ending, the motel will still be there to collect from him, because he just can’t catch a break. He can’t find a girl who “understands” him, and this complaint is lumped in with the shaking hands that indicate his alcoholism. He can’t find any freedom but in his dreams, and it’s all because the world, and God, is against him.

“Desperados Under the Eaves” has been called one of Zevon’s most personal songs, which makes sense. A struggling man, who thinks the world is against him. An alcoholic, waking up in the morning with “shaking hands” and a vague recollection of what some gypsy told him as he stares into his coffee. It’s easy to see how Zevon, who at the time of writing hadn’t released a major studio album yet, and who was an alcoholic abuser who did awful things and was a generally shitty person, could be seen in these words. He’s justifying his own failures and shitty actions by blaming them on an angry God.

If “Desperados Under the Eaves” were purely literary, I clearly still think it would be worthy of praise, even if the message of the first half is comically misguided.  But it exists as a song, and it is musically where it shines.

Thus far I’ve focused on the first half, and in that section the words dominate.  But this shifts as we move to the latter half, and something else takes over.

“Desperados Under the Eaves” is 288 seconds long. Here are all the words in the second half of the song:

“I was listening to the air conditioner hum
It went mmm…
Look away down Gower Avenue, look away”

Of course, if that was all that there was to the final 144 seconds, I wouldn’t be writing this piece. Those seconds contain a hymnal quality, with the sweeping strings, layered harmonies, and incantatory repetition of “Look away…”. It is one of the most hauntingly beautiful arrangements I have ever heard. I am not a musical theorist. I can’t give you the concrete reasons as to why it is brilliant. People way smarter than me (Dylan, Springsteen, Carl Wilson and Jackson Browne, the latter two being a part of the “Look away” harmony) recognize how incredible it is, and I’ll take their word for it.

All I can tell you is that as it crescendos and eventually fades, it arouses emotions in me that I didn’t know I could feel. Its beauty moves me in the special way all of us have been by music—i.e. a way that as of yet hasn’t been put into words, and which I highly doubt ever will.

But what makes “Desperados Under the Eaves” truly genius is in the way it frames this beauty.

This gorgeous, maddeningly perfect ending is all supposed to be coming from a humming air conditioner, in a tacky, themed motel. We have all seen these air conditioners, have all felt their mediocre cooling abilities, have all heard the rattle and hum of one of life’s least consequential items. Zevon’s genius is that he gives said item the ability to conjure the holiest of sounds—to be the source of one of the most beautiful things you can ever hear.

When Aretha Franklin passed away earlier this year, I read an amazing piece by Rembert Browne that talks about her album, Amazing Grace. In it, he says:

“Technically, Amazing Grace is art at its highest form, the work of a bona fide musical genius at her peak…For as long as I can remember hearing these songs…there’s been a moment, on each song, that Aretha does something that makes me believe in God.

More than any sermon, any text, or any life moment, it’s Aretha that keeps me a believer, in something…Over the years, it was this album that provided a light. That assurance you need in your life, that things will eventually be OK.”

I have gone back and forth on my spiritual beliefs more times than I can count. Even as I write this I grapple with the idea of a higher power, the concept that there is something out there for us that binds us all, that gives us that assuring light.

I can’t go as far as to call myself a believer. I’m not. But in the moments when I fancy myself a believer, in the moments when I do think there is a higher power, I find it in the smallest details. In the crevices and crannies that on any given day seem innocuous. If there is a higher power, it comes to me in the strangest ways. It’s in an autumn breeze. In the facial expression of a loved one. A smell from an open window. The feeling of warm water on your hands. The tiniest things that reach out to you and remind you why life is this cosmically beautiful thing, which–higher power or not–we’re lucky to be living.

Warren Zevon would have never written a song that is explicitly about a religious experience. He thought himself too cool, too swaggering, too devil-may-care.

But I think Warren Zevon heard his higher power humming to him in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel. It’s why religious words and imagery pervade throughout. It’s why his complaining about the world’s bias against him ends. It’s why we’re left to rise up with music that would move heaven itself as we look away, down Gower Avenue. He heard something speak to him, reassure him that everything would be alright. He heard it in that beautiful hum.

It’s why every time I hear that hum, I find something new to believe in.

Thumbnail image copyright Asylum Records, 1976.

Milky Way, Bas (AoTW)

After a two year wait Bas, Queens rapper, label mate of J.Cole is finally back on the scene with a new album, Milky Way. This has been one of my most highly anticipated albums, and I was absolutely thrilled when it dropped. There were feelings of both excitement. and concern–what if it’s not as good as his last album? What if he doesn’t get the right features? A long list of what-ifs raced through my mind as I began to doubt one of my favorite artists.

Boy was I a fool. I was wrong to ever doubt this guy. From the first song on the album he came out swinging for the fences. Two years must have given Bas a lot of time to experiment with his sound and hone his skills, because he sounds better than ever.


From the silky smooth beat selections on songs like “Barack Obama Special”, “Icarus”, and “Tribe” (just to name a few) to the amazingly crafted flows on tracks like “Boca Raton” and “Tribe” ( anyone sensing a trend here?) Bas definitely brought his A-game this time around. In addition to experimenting with his flows, he expands his vocal range on this album.  On “Sanufa” and “Front Desk” his singing is fantastic and really fits his voice. I wouldn’t be upset if he continued to explore this in future albums, tracks, or features.


The features are perfect for this album. Going with some bigger names for the singles was a smart move as it definitely drew me into the album (even though i was planning on listening to this album already, news of these features added to the hype for me). J. Cole drops one of my favorite verses of his on “Tribe”. “Tribe is beautifully crafted and is definitely the biggest stand out from this album. When Bas and J. Cole get together on a track you should always expect greatness. In addition, A$AP Ferg absolutely kills it on “Boca Raton”. The tropical vibes from both of these songs really got me going, and I hope Bas continues to experiment with that format. The other features fit the songs they were on perfectly. Ari Lennox is sublime  on “Icarus”, and Correy C goes in on “Fragrance”. Of course I have my dream features who I think would fit with Bas, but if he keeps selecting people the way he does I will continue to be a happy man.


All in all I think that Milky Way was Bas’ biggest and best effort yet. I don’t mind waiting two years between each album if he keeps coming out with quality music like this. I have been listening to this album front to back since the day it came out, and it may have surpassed Beerbongs & Bentleys for best album of 2018 in my eyes. Keep it up Bas, you’ve got a high ceiling and I hope you keep climbing!


PS: For this AoTW I will be having a friend (Fish) tell you all of his favorite songs from Milky Way because he loves the album as much as I do. In the future there may be picks from other people, but most of the time it will just be from me. Thanks for reading!


Rich’s’ Picks:

“Tribe”, “Barack Obama Special”, “Fragrance”

Fish’s Picks:

“Tribe”, “Purge”



Check out “Tribe” here!


Mateo (A Collection of 15s Series)


*Ring ring ring ring*

Mateo heard the sound of his grandfathers music box from his bed. It sounded louder than normal. Maybe it was all in his imagination.

*Ring ring ring ring*

There it goes again. This time he was sure it was louder than the time before. Then Mateo sat straight up. ‘Wait a second’ he thought ‘that music box has never gone off by itself before…. what the hell is going on?’

Mateo bolted up out of bed and immediately recoiled in shock as his feet hit the cold hardwood floor.

As he creeped towards the window sill the music box on it began to get louder, almost as if it was beckoning him towards it.

The sun was beginning to rise, giving the situation an even more eerie feel. Mateo stopped at the window sill, waiting to see if the music box would sing to him again. Seconds were passing by but it felt like an eternity. He decided he should open the window. Maybe some fresh air would snap him out of this trance.

Upon opening the window a gust of fresh sea water from the Mediterranean basin blew into his room and he remembered how peaceful this time of the morning could be.

Then the music box started singing to him again.


Singing actually doesn’t begin to describe the affront to Mateo’s ears. It was like a blood curdling scream at that point. Mateo knew he wasn’t dreaming now. Whatever was going on, was real.

He began to open up the music box and he heard what sounded like a faint whisper.

“It’s not real. None of it. Get out while you can”

Then the singing stopped.


Loss, Grief, and the New York Mets

My father passed away on May 28th, 2017. The 11 or so months since then have been the longest, hardest, and most bizarre months of my life.

When you lose a loved one, one of the things that people who’ve previously experienced loss warn you about is that grief “comes in waves”. Seemingly random things will remind you of the deceased. These waves are sometimes positive, mostly negative, and you usually never see them coming.

When my father died, I was getting coffee at a local shop with an old friend. I returned home to the awful squeal of ambulance alarms and the anguished cries that you only hear when someone leaves this life. Every day on my commute to work, there’s a sticker advertising that coffee shop on the meter where I pay for my parking. Every morning, at around 5:40 AM, memories of that awful day come flooding back. It is, unequivocally, the worst part of my day.

These moments are the things that make grief such an all-encompassing experience, for months, years, decades after the initial shock of loss. Nine times out of ten, I want nothing more than to escape them.

Which is what makes the Mets’ hot start all the more odd.

My Father and I used to go on trips every summer to catch a baseball game in as many different ballparks as possible. During my teen and pre-teen years we went to 17 different stadiums in 13 cities. Much to the chagrin and envy of my siblings, it was just me and my dad who went on these excursions to embrace America’s pastime.

We spent countless hours in airports, rental cars, and hotel rooms. We ate the local cuisine with the delight and vigor that can only come after a two hour flight delay and three hours in coach. We went to all the tourist attractions in Chicago, St. Louis, and even the much-maligned Cleveland. In short, we saw a snapshot of America.

Above all that though, we saw baseball. It was a sacred experience, just a father and his son, taking in a ballgame. We shut off our cell phones, and only allowed ourselves one half-inning to snap pictures with our camera. For those three to five hours, the only things that mattered were the crack of the bat, the scrape of a slide, the low hum of the crowd, and the pop of a fastball hitting the catcher’s mitt.

Even though we saw games all over the country, and became experts on each team by the time we left their place of residence, it always came back to our beloved Mets. My Dad was born in 1962, and one of his oldest memories was racing home to watch the Amazin’ Mets of 1969 play in the World Series. His childhood home was just down the street from the elementary school, so all of his friends would come over to watch Tom Terrific battle the vaunted Orioles’ attack. By the time the last out settled into the glove of Cleon Jones, my young father had already become a Mets fan for life.

I grew up with stories about that team and the 1986 squad. We had a commemorative VHS recap of the ‘86 season in my house, and my brother and I must have watched it 200 times in our youth (you can experience it in all of its amazingly cheesy 80s glory here). I was the weirdo six-year-old who said stuff like “Mookie Wilson is my favorite baseball player” even though he retired four years before I was born.

On summer evenings, whenever my Dad got home from work, we’d throw on the TV and watch the Mets. They were usually terrible, as is the case with most Mets squads. The Mets have never really had a sustained run of excellence, so even when they have a great season, it’s usually bookended by mediocrity. It’s what makes those magical runs all the more special.

In 2015, when our beloved Mets made the World Series, My Dad took my brother and I to see game three of the NLDS at Citi Field. It was the game after Chase Utley injured Reuben Tejada on a dirty slide, typical of what I’d expect from a former Phillie. The crowd that night was unlike anything I’ve experienced before or since. It was electric. There was a stretch of three innings where we never sat down. When Yoenis Céspedes hit a three-run rocket to make it 10-3, all three of us were jumping and yelling in pure euphoria.

That was one of the greatest nights of my life. I was with my Dad, at the ballpark, and the Mets were on a magical run. It was perfect.



My father and I never got to share a Mets World Series title. It brings me comfort to know that he saw two in his life. But my first will be experienced without him. It is a fact that has brought me to tears in the past few months, a fact that almost makes me fearful of the emotional strain that will come if our Mets hoist the trophy.

I avoided ballparks all of last summer following my father’s death. It was an experience that was too entangled with him; to go to the ballpark for the first time without him was to admit that the man who had cultivated my love for the game was gone.

However, the Mets have gotten off to their best start in franchise history this year. Each new win beckoned me to the park, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that if my father were still here, we would have already bought tickets. These are the inescapable emotions during grief that make seemingly positive moments clouded and confounding. What “should” be an unblemished positive becomes an infinitely more complex sensation. A yearning for the presence of my father, so that we could share in this joyous occasion.

I went to the park on Saturday night, and witnessed the Mets suffer just their second loss of the year. The scene was familiar; the cracks, scrapes, hums, and pops were still there. Yet something was missing. Someone was missing.

Going to a baseball game will never be the same knowing that my father will never join me there again. But thus far, it is the only “wave trigger” I’ve found that lifts me up rather than tear me down. A rush of memories come back, an inexplicable typhoon of smells and sounds and thoughts of time spent with the man who raised me. Watching the Mets play is so much more than watching a simple baseball game. It is communing with my father, who I love and miss dearly. And for that, I am beyond grateful.

Let’s go Mets.


Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this piece, I highly recommend that you check out “Life, Sports, and the Pursuit of Happiness” by my best friend Michael Graziano. It’s excellent, and had no small part in influencing this essay.  I also suggest you read “The Fiberglass Backboard” by Bryan Curtis, which has helped me through the past few months in more ways than I could list here. Thumbnail image copyright Bleacher Report, 2015.