Sharing Spirits

I invited a professor to have a drink with me and (he or she) said, “Sure, I’ll… whatever the booze equivalent is of ‘breaking bread’… with you.” This got be thinking about what the booze equivalent of “breaking bread” might be. I couldn’t think of one in the moment. The phrase “breaking bread” comes from the communion rite, and so it has an obvious spiritual connotation, but in the context of sharing a meal with someone, it also has a connotation of intimacy. It is personal and spiritual. It’s a way of bringing people closer together.

The act of drinking together, particularly wine, has the same connection with communion, and there is no doubt that drinking with someone can be a highly personal and even spiritual experience. But there is no equivalent colloquial phrase that really captures the same thing as “breaking bread.” Then I thought about just the simple phrase “sharing spirits.” The “spirit” part is right in there, and I also like the mental image it gives me of souls co-mingling.

Does this work, or is there something better? That is today’s question.


New Year’s Eve Part II

My novel, Zen Mississippi, takes place (largely)  in a fictional town called Lyonness near the Alabama/Mississippi state line. I based this town on some of the rural communities I used to drive through when I was living in Columbus, MS, particularly those along US Highway 82 in Pickens County, Alabama. I had a friend and bandmate at that time who was from Ethelsville, in that county. Ethelsville is actually much smaller than what I imagine Lyonness to be, but its location and topography is very much what I had in mind when I was writing the book (except on the MS side of the line instead of the AL side). I always had a fascination with that whole area. There is something odd and mystical about it.

Seven or eight years ago, when I was living in New York and the book was “in process,” some friends of mine introduced me to their new roommate, Daniel, and they told me he was from Alabama. I asked him where in Alabama he was from, and he was quite surprised that I had actually heard of Ethelsville and knew where it was, and that I actually knew someone else who was from Ethelsville. As I mentioned in a previous post, this town has a population of about 80 people.

So years went by, and I frequently saw Daniel at parties and around town. In a coincidence that is only mildly related to this story, I had a neighbor in my building that also knew Daniel because they’d gone to the Alabama State Math & Science high school in Mobile together (tangentially related weirdness: when I met THAT guy, it was not in my  building but at a show, and we discovered by casually talking that we were not only both originally from Alabama but also lived in the same building).

Then I moved back to Alabama a few months ago, and I sent Daniel a note saying we should hang out when he comes home to visit. He replied that I should come to his family’s New Years Eve party because it’s a big blowout. This was during the summer. By December, I almost entirely forgot about this invitation.

A few weeks ago, through mutual friends in Birmingham, I met a dude named Charlie. We have been around each other a few times but haven’t talked much. We have a lot of friends in common. I started hearing things about a New Year’s Eve party at Charlie’s parents’ farm, but I didn’t think I knew Charlie well enough to invite myself. But then I saw the event listing on Facebook, and I noticed this party was in Ethelsville. Then I noticed Charlie and Daniel were both listed as hosts and that they had the same last name. With some digging, I confirmed that they were brothers, and I realized I had actually already been invited to this party months ago.

But the strings of coincidences don’t actually even end there, though this next part doesn’t really have to do with the New Year’s Eve party so much.

During the time when I was living in Mississippi, attending MUW, I had a few poems published in the college literary magazine. I got a fan letter from a girl who was then in high school, and I wrote her back.  And then I never heard from her again, until one day she noticed that I posted a comment on Daniel’s facebook wall. This is an excerpt from an actual conversation I had with her.

Me: What a small world this is. So you know Daniel. And I know Daniel because he lived with some friends of mine in New York. AND he went to high school in Mobile with one of my neighbors. And I am obsessed with Pickens County.

Her: Daniel and I went to high school together. It was because of his status comment that I saw you. Oh, and your ex-wife is my best friend’s sister.

The fan girl, unfortunately, could not make it to the party this year, but you can see that this whole weird thing simply deepened the intrigue that led me to attend. And then, almost as an afterthought, this also all ties back to my ex-wife Doris who hardly even talks to me anymore (for good reason, but that’s another long story).

AND to bring it all back around, my college friend who was from Ethelsville was one of the very few people who actually attended my wedding, and in fact, now that I think about it, he was likely the person to first introduce me to Doris.

Diagram below for those who have trouble following this:



When I was a teenager, most of my friends were between two and ten years older than myself. This was largely due to two things: that I played music in bars since age fifteen and that in a small town you cling to people with common interests despite age differences.

I met Walt Sheffield when he was working at Liverpool Records, where you could find cool imports and other good music that would never have found its way to Dothan, Alabama otherwise. I was 15 and Walt was 25. I was friends with some people he was friends with, etc. Over the next 3-4 years, long after Walt left the record store, we ran into each other a lot around town and got to know each other fairly well.

I had a habit in those days of going out for walks at the crack of dawn, sometimes clear to the other side of town and back. I don’t really know why I did it. It was meditative. It helped me sort through the myriad crazy things rattling around in my teenage brain. I sometimes came across Walt at these times, in the process of a similar exercise. I came to learn that he walked the same route every morning, and that he kept a list of things he observed along the route and how they changed over time. This was part of his writing process.

Walt was working on a novel, and all I knew of it at the time was that it involved a teenage boy and there was something about the impact that rock and roll had on this boy’s life. I always suspected that Walt was mostly interested in me as a kind of research project for this character. After all, I was a teenager in a rock band. His novel was never published. As far as I know nothing he wrote was ever published.

I knew then that I also wanted to be a writer. In fact, everything I knew about Walt was something I also aspired to be. He played in bands when he was in college at the University of Georgia, and he had met members of REM. He had studied philosophy, which was also an interest of mine. Even Walt’s folksy mannerisms became elements of the kind of persona that I was then developing for myself. In short, he was my role model. Never mind that he always had rather menial jobs like waiting tables or managing the produce section of a ghetto grocery store. He was smart, and he was funny, and he lived for the sake of art. And that was what I wanted to do too.

By the time I was 17, Walt was living with a couple of guys that I also knew. One was Tommy Sorrells, who a few years before had been one of my first guitar teachers. I used to sneak out of the house in the middle of the night and go hang out at their place, where we would play guitars and talk about music and writing and philosophy until the wee hours of the morning. Walt was the first person to introduce me to bands like Sonic Youth and the Replacements, who became so important to me in my own musical journey. I remember specific things he told me about writers like Walt Whitman and William S. Burroughs. I remember talking about existentialism and the beats and the early days of punk and feeling like I had been there because Walt just knew so much about everything that interested me.

After a few years, I lost contact with all those guys. But I recently was reunited with Tommy through Facebook, and I found that he ran an open mic in Tuscaloosa on Monday nights. So while I was nearby for the holidays, I made plans to drop in. We had a great time together playing music until nearly sun up just like we used to do almost 20 years ago when I last saw him. I asked him if he knew what Walt was doing these days, and he told me that Walt died in 2003 of throat cancer.

I remember walking through the mall record store with Walt once. He pointed to a poster of Michael Bolton and said, “You know–if I hadn’t met certain people in my life, and maybe if I’d never been to New York City, my hair would probably look like that now.” And I think if I had never met Walt Sheffield, my life wouldn’t look much the way it looks like now either.

Road Trip: Day 1

My trip started out on a melancholy note because one of the cats I’ve lived with for the past eight years is sick, and the vet doesn’t know what’s wrong. Tonight, there are reports that she is improving though, and she has a sonogram scheduled for tomorrow, so I’m thinking positive thoughts for a quick recovery.

In the meantime, I’m in Philadelphia. The first order of business was to meet my friend and sometimes songwriting partner George Mostoller for dinner. On the way down, I listened to a mix tape that George made me in 1994. It is still one of my favorite mixes.

George took me to Brauhaus Schmitz on South Street. The waitstaff all wear traditional Bavarian outfits. I had two very large, delicious sausages. The pictures on their website really don’t do the place justice. I should have taken some pictures, but I haven’t taken my new camera out of the box yet. But in lieu of that, here is a cell phone picture of a cat at a pet store.

George is kind of a hermit these days, so it’s up to me to keep his songs in circulation. Here is a video of me performing one of those songs.

I’m staying the night with Jason Fagone, author of Horsemen of the Esophogus. We discussed the state of contemporary short stories and Rick Moody’s Twitter story before watching Obama’s speech, followed by So You Think You Can Dance, which I’ve never seen before tonight.

I’m getting up early tomorrow to drive to Charlottesville, VA.

Facebook Holiday Project Update 1

At this point, I’ve contacted about 200 of my 629 Facebook friends. I looked at each person’s profile, looking for some information I didn’t know or could ask them about. Or I tried to focus on how I met the person, or if I hadn’t met the person, how we came to be Facebook friends. In any case, I tried to come up with at least one or two things I could say in a personal message. I also attached a blurb and link to my original blog post about the project as follows:

So I have this project for the holidays–really it is a sort of crusade to reach out personally to people on Facebook and make it more the kind of social outlet that it was when I first started using it. I hope to hear back from you. And if you think this is a good idea, please pass along the blog post.

Of the roughly 200 people I’ve contacted so far, I’d say about 60% have written back to me. In a lot of cases, one or two messages back and forth have been all I needed to feel like the connection was satisfied for a while. Some of these people told me they actually don’t use Facebook much, or that they really joined it for professional reasons. For folks like this, there isn’t much to talk about besides just saying hello. In other cases, conversations have continued for days–about old memories, family, friends, past and current creative activities. A lot of the connections have turned out to be very interesting and satisfying.

There are some days when I really don’t feel like doing it, or I’m pressed for time. I’m afraid that a few of my outgoing messages have been “phoned in,” especially when it was a person I didn’t actually know well. But even so, I have to say that the experiment has been more successful than I imagined it would be in the sense that more people have written back than I expected. Also, while I can’t say that the whole thing has gone “viral” I have seen that my blog post was re-posted by some people I knew and re-posted again by friends of theirs that I did  NOT know. So people seem to like the idea and are passing it around.

So far so good. I’ll continue to post updates as it goes on.

Project for the Holidays – Make Facebook Personal Again

When I first joined Facebook in the early summer of 2007, only a handful of people I knew were using it. Unlike Myspace or Friendster (remember Friendster?) I was really impressed with the ways it actually could be used as a social tool. I found people I hadn’t talked to since high school or college, and I had meaningful communications with them on a regular basis. I was able to keep in touch with people I rarely saw as if we still lived on the same block, and to me that is the entire purpose of social networking. The “networking” aspect is misleading.  The “social” part is what I think is most important.

For that reason, at first I vowed to keep my FB “friends” only to people I was actually friends with, or at least had been at one time. But then something happened later that Fall that sort of ruined that. I published a book. Now that I had a product to push, I was willing to friend anybody and everybody on the offhand chance that I’d make another two dollars of royalties as  result. It’s ludicrous. I probably set status updates for 75% of them to “ignore” so I wouldn’t have to look at pictures of their babies or whatever else they had to say that had nothing to do with me.

I could still use Facebook to keep up with the people that mattered most to me. I made “friend groups” so I could filter status updates based on who I was interested in hearing from or interacting with at any given time. This is useful, but it’s gradually gotten so it’s hard to tell if anyone is really paying attention to anything anybody else does on there. I know I’m missing a lot of interesting things that other people post because it’s harder and harder to sift out the content. So mostly I either feel like I’m missing something or I’m speaking into a vacuum.

So this is what I’m proposing–between now and Christmas, I plan to leave a personal message for each of the 626 (and growing) friends I have on Facebook. Just a quick connection, which I hope will spur a lasting conversation. If it’s somebody I don’t really know, I hope to learn something interesting about them. If it’s someone I rarely see or talk to, I hope to reconnect in some meaningful way. If it’s someone I see all the time anyway, no harm in saying hello.

I guess I will approach this systematically, contacting my friends in alphabetical order. I’ll need to contact about 15 people a day to finish by Dec. 25. I don’t know if I’ll use the wall or send private messages. That may depend on the person. Anyway, I hope that this will catch on and others will have a desire to make Facebook about positive social interaction.

Researching My Tattoo

my tattoo
my tattoo

Several years ago, I got a tattoo on my forearm, and a lot of people ask me about it. It shows an iconic castle, a fish, and the letters “HR.” The fish represents Jesus Christ, and the letters stand for “Holy Rood,” the medieval term for the cross. The castle represents the Grail Castle, the resting place of the mythical Holy Grail.

I initially came across the image when I was doing research for my novel Zen, Mississippi, begun around 1992 and finished just recently (still unpublished, unfortunately).

The metaphor of the grail quest, borrowed from the legends of King Arthur, plays a major role in that story. The book where I found the image (The Holy Grail by Norma Lorre Goodrich” only said that it was a “medieval water-mark on paper” and that it represented the Grail Castle.

For years, that was basically all I knew about the image. I got it tattooed on my arm for all kinds of reasons, none of them particularly religious in nature. The image struck a chord with me mainly because of my identification and fascination with the knights-errant who search for the grail. It just so happens that the symbolism of Arthurian legend is intricately tied in with the symbolism of Christianity. Also, I liked having a tattoo that tied in with the novel I’d then been working on for several years (and would continue to work on for several years after that), and I just liked the way it looked—castles are cool; most people I think would agree.

Just this week, I happened upon some more information. It turns out that the image originated with one of the most infamous heresies of the Middle Ages, the Cathars who lived in the South of France in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Cathars were a Gnostic sect who believed the Catholic church had corrupted the original message of Christianity. They were also vegetarians and possibly sodomites. Many of them were massacred by the Church in the early 13th century.

Enthusiasts of the DaVinci Code and its “nonfiction” predecessor Holy Grail, Holy Blood may be familiar with the Cathars as the Gnostic sect that evolves into the Priory of Sion, the group at the heart of the grail conspiracy, according to those books.

Conspiracy or not, the Cathars did use a lot of Arthurian imagery in their symbols, and they put these symbols in all kinds of places—tapestries, pottery, etc—trying to spread the word about their beliefs. Many of the Cathars were also some of the earliest manufacturers of paper, and that’s why Cathari symbols were often used as watermarks during that time. The Cathar watermarks were also precursors to the images associated with the Tarot.

In full disclosure, I have not read the DaVinci Code (or seen the film), and I don’t particularly care to. And I’m not a believer in that particular conspiracy. I also can’t say I share many of the Cathars’ specific beliefs—or even understand them. But I do like the fact that I can now identify my tattoo with an interesting and esoteric historical event, and like the search for the grail, my search for information about this image continues.

More will be revealed.


Heard in the elevator around lunch time a couple of weeks ago:

– Where are you going for lunch?

– Mickey D’s.

– Hate yourself that much, huh?

– You have no idea.

I went to McDonalds for breakfast this morning and had the following exchange with M.

– I’m going to McDonalds.

– Are you trying to kill yourself?

– Yes, I hate myself that much.

– Poly (our cat) wishes you hated her as much as you hate yourself.

Doormat Stolen

I’m doing everything out of order today. My morning was disrupted by the apparent theft of my DOORMAT—a crime so retarded that I can scarcely believe it still. However, as doormats go, it was relatively stylish, and I had just bought it maybe a week ago. What’s even more bizarre is that this appears to have been planned. A couple of days ago, when M left for work, we saw that the doormat had been upturned. In the current context, I gather that someone was attempting to take the doormat and was interrupted by someone leaving their apartment. So they came back 2 days later to finish the dastardly deed.