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lexington demos reconsidered, new July For Kings album update

So oddly enough, my experience with blogging over the last ten years has landed me a teaching assistantship for a “Professional Practices for Artists” class at the Department of Art Architecture and Planning at the University of Cincinnati, where I am currently enrolled in a graduate program working on an mfa (master of fine arts) I guess this means I should set a good example and blog more often!

I hope you are having a great new year. i am sitting here listening to music and eating a Reese’s cup.  My cat is with me, not coincidentally pictured here on the cover of this album:

I  listened to my sort-of-album “Lexington Demos” the other day for the first time in years. this was a limited release with an intentionally DIY aesthetic (100 signed CD-R’s) to suit the low-fi home recordings. i think there are still a few decent songs so i have made the album available as high quality (wav!) downloads on this website here. I also added a bonus track–a demo of a song i recorded about that time called “Fog”. if you bought the mp3’s before but want to upgrade to wavs, e-mail me and i’ll send you a coupon.

this was just one of those days where i go back and listen to my previous work, including songs that have not been completed or released, to determine what i might want to mine for ideas.  it seems that i always have more ideas and more songs than i have time to actually record.  this is a shame.  perhaps i can catch up at some point.

speaking of time and catching up, i have been in the studio with July For Kings as much as i can, working a the guitar-oriented rock album that will melt your face off.  but my time has been split between art-making, grad school, website-making, and writing/brain storming for solo material as well.  when i think abstractly about all the things that i do (and enjoy doing) it seems like i am reaching too far and trying to do too much.  but on a daily basis, believe it or not, i find plenty of time to relax, read books, watch movies, hang out with friends, et cetera. my girlfriend and i are watching the television series Lost and we are on the fifth season.  do not tell me how it ends or i’ll kill you.

things are going pretty well with the as of yet untitled July For Kings record.  we have ten songs in various stages of completion, all without final lead vocals.  i have some other songs i am kicking around but we have decided to do things in two phases.  first we will finish up (or mostly finish up) the ten songs we are doing now.  then we will go into another studio and do three more or so and possibly cut one or two.  this way we will all be fresh and excited for the other tracks.  nearly every album i have created, there are always a few good songs that come out toward the end of the process.

in the studio while getting guitar tones and thinking about production we have talked a lot about July For Kings’ debut, the SWIM album.  while the SWIM album was not much of a commercial success, it had a dramatic impact on my life and on the lives of a lot of other people as well.  it put me in touch with friends and fans all over the world.  after losing the record deal, in a lot of ways i just did not have the strength to carry forward the kind of bold aesthetic that we had crafted on that record.  i did not feel that way anymore, that sure about anything.  plus, i was stubborn and took pains to avoid being pigeonholed creatively by doing the opposite of what i knew people expected me to do.  since then, i am far less uptight about trying win over every single person with every single creative effort.  i am confident about my abilities to the point that i no longer feel like i have to prove anything to anyone.  i can just make stuff.

i don’t really regret any of this.  diversifying my identity has allowed me to approach albums and individual projects in a more relaxed manner, allowing more consideration for specific audience.  writing for this record, i was finally ready to re-approach July For Kings for what it was and what it should always be–a band unabashedly making powerful, emotional heavy guitar rock music.  i realize that is a big set up for those of you who loved that album so much.  whether or not it falls short of this goal, we are up for the challenge, and we are having a good time making it.

some tracks include:

  1. Orchid
  2. Kite
  3. Song 3
  4. Feather of Maat
  5. Haunted
  6. Hole in the Universe
  7. Island
  8. Climb
  9. Middletown
  10. Tarantula

i have some other things we are kicking around, but looking over this list, it’s pretty solid collection of songs.  almost all of them i wrote in the last year or so, so i think it’s going to have a cohesiveness that will be really nice.    it’s just going to be a lot of pressure in me in the studio to get the vocals right!   i am just starting to feel that now.

completing this album and doing it right is one of my new year’s resolutions.  or maybe it only counts as a goal?  can a resolution be a goal?  i hope your year is a fantastic one.

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The Joy of Trickery (This Is Not A Pipe)

In Newport, Kentucky just on the other side of the river from Cincinnati, Ohio sits a huge old mansion on a hill called the Southgate House.  When Abraham Lincoln visited the house it must have overlooked the beautiful Ohio river where you could watch the striped swimsuit bathers on the river beaches in the summers.  Now, The Southgate House overlooks Newport on the Levy, an enormous new development that is an indoor and outdoor mall flanked by fake Italian restaurants with freshly painted beige walls.  But inside the Southgate House history is everywhere; you can feel the ghosts in the cracked walls and see the aged framed portraits of mustachioed dead guys.  The word “House” is kind of misleading, as the structure underwent a massive extension to the back side at some point so that it now includes a massive ballroom.  The two-tiered room has red curtains and a speakeasy vibe, which seems appropriate when you learn that Frank Sinatra once performed on the stage where we would perform on December 17th, 2010.

To celebrate the release of my solo album Alchemy, i invited Chris Oberle, a Cincinnati area illusionist and conveniently a big July For Kings fan, to open the show.  My album Alchemy contains the word “magic” 50* times, so it seemed fitting that we would have a magician open for us.  * i just made that number up.

i had only communicated with Chris online.  Chris told me he had created his own tricks (sold by www.closeupartists.com) and crossed paths with David Blaine a few times.  Oberle seemed pretty legit so invited him to perform with us.  In the weeks before the event, Chris and i began hanging out and i got to see some amazing close-up magic.  in the first few minutes, i was a bit skeptical, as that is the natural human disposition toward magicians.  as Chris continued to perform i became a believer.  what is amazing is not only the quickness and thoroughness of his illusions but the sheer amount of tricks he can improvise with complete mastery.  cards move around, rings disappear, minds are read–and blown.  now i was feeling quite satisfied, having wrangled a real magician into performing with us at a mysterious, enormous and allegedly haunted house to celebrate the release of my dark new album.  naturally, i asked Chris the question i had been waiting my whole life to ask a magician: “can you make me disappear?”

flash forward to the evening of our Southgate House show, December 17.  by now i hope you know where this is going.  Chris performs a good opening set of illusions assisted by another magician Jason Jacobs, my friend and fellow singer/songwriter Samuel Lockridge plays an incredibly moving selection of original songs, and we are playing our set, which goes reasonably well.  I am performing with JFK members who had graciously agreed to learn and perform songs from my two solo albums Curvature and Alchemy.  Occasionally we are joined onstage by Chris as we attempt to weave some illusions into the music portion of the evening.  we closed the show with a song called “Magic”, the first track on Alchemy.  At the end of the song, there is a long dark instrumental section, which we extended for this show.  For the grand finale, Brian our bassist and John our guitarist leave the stage as my long-time drummer Dan McQuinn emerges from behind the drum set and begins wrapping me in a shiny purple cloth. This is the moment of truth.

at soundcheck, just a few hours before the moment of truth, we botched the illusion completely.

in the same way a rock band learns songs and practices them relentlessly until they are correct, Chris, Dan, and I rehearsed the illusion in the weeks leading up to the event until it felt right.  At first, we were instructed by a veteran Cincinnati area magician and escape artist, Phil Dalton, who Chris brought in to teach us the basics and give us pointers.  Once the trick began to shape up, we performed for John and Brian as they pointed out small mistakes until the illusion looked like real magic.  what i learned about stage and close-up illusions in the course of the few weeks during my pseudo-magician internship with Chris, is that there are few “magic” props that eliminate the need for human skill.  each trick requires a particular combination of timing, dexterity, and patience in different dosages.

all of that rehearsing seemed for naught when, with John and Brian watching again as the only two members of our audience, our sole attempt at the trick during sound-check at the Southgate House looked like an absolute joke.  we left the stage dejected.  the doors of the venue were opening and people began filing in so there was no time for another run-through.  John and Brian began expressing doubts that we should even attempt the stunt in front of a large crowd–it could be the most embarrassing, awkward ending to a concert ever.  but after a month of preparation, i decide we will take our chances and attempt to fulfill my dream of disappearing onstage, a dream that took hold when i was eleven as i watched David Copperfield perform live at a theater in Cincinnati with my father.

Where were we?  At the end of our last song “Magic”, Dan wraps me in a shiny purple cloth.  The audience is confused.  In literally a matter of seconds, the cloth drops to reveal not me but magician Chris Oberle standing on stage in my place, who points a finger and directs the audience to look up at me–standing in the balcony behind them!  a group of people standing in the balcony is completely oblivious until the moment of my appearance a mere five feet beside them.  they spin around and gasp saying “he is quick!” as the room fills with applause and the house lights come on.

“how is it done?” you might ask.  well, there are a lot of ways one might disappear and reappear or switch places with a magician: trap doors, body doubles, underground tunnels–we used none of these, honestly.  it was magic!  if i was talking about a song, i would tell you exactly how it was created, and that would enrich your experience.  this is not the case with magic tricks.

it is no coincidence that david blaine and chris angel and a host of other illusionists have enjoyed greater popularity in recent years.  we live in a paranoid society where missing the “real” truth could mean voting for the lying candidate, drinking from the water bottle that leeches toxic chemicals, or believing in a god that does not exist.  we no longer trust our government, our corporations, or our religious institutions.  And maybe we never did?  but access to a deluge of conflicting and vitriolic information has rendered us almost incapable of trust, and more vocal about our lack of faith.  ideology colors everything.  and as we slowly begin to realize that our ideologies are ephemeral and socially constructed, we cling ever more tightly to our precepts, lest they lose all of their fundamental power.

ironically, a magic trick gives us something to believe in.  we know it isn’t real, but as we are thrust into the moment, that suspension of disbelief is genuine refuge from the misery of postmodern paranoia.  and the real kicker is that the only consequence of being so completely fooled is pure joy–a net positive instead of a negative.

during my one-minute career as a performing illusionist i felt the rush that comes with breaking laws and rules, with doing something bad for the sake of being bad.  but we weren’t robbing a bank.  we were using lies and deception to bring joy into our own lives and into the lives of the audience.  as the supposedly magic purple cloth first touched my body, the timing was perfect.  it just felt right.  i knew we had nailed it.

but magicians are not the only weavers of illusion.  every act of creation is at once a truth and a lie.  every artist–including painters, songwriters, movie directors, poets, and so on–is a magician, an alchemist.  we take from reality and reconstruct a world that does not truly exist, a world that is a mere reflection, a lie of the “real” world.  we are thieves and liars of the best sort.  here is to the tricksters, to the craftsmen of ruses, to every act of amiable social deviance!  Thanks to Chris, my band, and everyone who came to the show and continues to support my music.

now you see me, now you don’t!

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college degrees, brand-building, justifications, cereals

Holy crap I have a new website! And a place to blog again. I hope you are well. It has been a long while since I have written. Let’s catch up!

I have graduated from Northern Kentucky University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, Studio Arts with an Emphasis in Painting. I have been accepted into the graduate program at the University of Cincinnati to pursue a Masters of Fine Art. That begins in the fall.

With some extra time on my hands the last few months I created this website for my solo music, and a website for my visual art. I am working on a new jfk site as well.  My old website became outdated both in terms of content and web accessibility. In the process of creating the new site I went back and dug out some extremely old blogs (from before the word blog existed, as i like to say) from the early July For Kings days.  Unfortunately I lost some photos for some posts in 2005 and 2006. But all the text is intact. If you are long-time fan (or former band member, for that matter) it is entertaining reading. Some of the writing is rather bland but it does at the very least, say what happened. Which at the time was all an “online journal” was supposed to do. I guess now a blog is supposed to be interesting. Ha!  i have created a category called Favorites for entries that were intentionally or accidentally interesting to read.

We played a July For Kings show in Dayton, OH at McGuffy’s last week with Smalltown Sleeper that confirmed our deepest suspicions–we still have fans!  and lots of them!  we were overjoyed by the turnout and really encouraged.  it had been a while since we had played with JFK (and longer since we had promoted much).  the timing is perfect as well, since I have written a more guitar-oriented, driving July for Kings album. I have demos that I am really excited about and continue to record but no, sorry, you cannot hear them as i am singing in a half-assed falsetto so as not to disturb my neighbors.  We will begin recording the masters in the next few weeks, and i will do some real singing and possibly even some throat-ripping screaming, which i have not done on an album in a very long while. I will write more about that as it unfolds. It is still early–we are expecting at least four or five months until you can hear anything–but I am excited about doing something more rocking, coming off my solo album Alchemy.  Alchemy was well-received but probably would not be described as hard rocking.  increasingly, jfk and my solo adventures are different entities, and that is very fun for me since i must constantly create, and i can’t make the same kind of pie every day because i may have adhd or add or aaaaaahhhh i want a gourmet ice cream sandwich!  wowow okay.

also, i have found that there is little tolerance for variety when it comes to artists.  we have come to see creators like companies.  artists build brands the same way corporations do, and don’t stray from their brand much (see shepherd fairey).  if you are a rock band, you have a stylistic thing and do it over and over.  if you are a visual artist, you make the same kind of painting over and over.  there are some exceptions to the rule (Picasso, Radiohead), but many times the people who have gotten away with this have done so because their entire schtick has been eclecticism.  since i am no radiohead or picasso, it is easiest to divide my life into different categories or brands, which has been a good way to direct my energy.  right now it is Alt-Rock Frontman, Prog-Electro-Folk Singer-Songwriter, and painter.  any pursuit i get into is going to have its own set of rules, so it is easiest to kind of keep those lines drawn.  i am not sure why i started writing this.  i guess i spend a lot of time justifying myself, which is what happens when you go to art school.  see how i just justified the reason i was justifying myself?!  after i get my masters degree, i probably won’t be able to think or create at all!  i will be in a paralyzing coma that alternates between self-doubt, self-justification, and fear.  i hope though, that i will have Mom’s Best Naturals Mallow-Oats cereal, my favorite new cereal.

Speaking of cereal, I only have one really great story since the last time I wrote a blog, and it has nothing to do with cereal.  the story takes place at the Alchemy full-band show in the historic ballroom at the Southgate House.  I will post it after this.  it seems that life is just not as interesting as it was when i was trekking all over europe during the summer.  but it would be a shame to exclude this one story, even if the telling is belated, as it contains suspense, American history, deception, philosophy and more.  all of that wrapped up in less than sixty seconds of my life.  yes, really!  the sixty seconds i was a magician.

That is the update for now.  xoxox

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Paris

i am in america looking out an airplane window at what must be a great lake. there is no horizon. the faded blue of the lake comes up into a band of white hazy clouds and becomes sky somewhere. this will be the last time i write from a plane, trian, or boat for a long while. i have been in five countries in two months. i have seen some of the greatest cathedrals and monuments and museums in the world and i am convinced i have met some of the nicest people on earth too. and i have done all this for little–not much more than my usual cost of living at home, assisted by a small art scholarship and a handful of hospitable friends and fans who graciously let me into their homes and sheltered me and fed me and escorted me around in exchange for me singing my simple american songs. for a month i have been a kind of traveling minstrel, and i have been fortunate to find small audiences and even more fortunate to now consider them close friends. my world has gotten smaller and larger at once. i see myself as more american than i ever, but more than that i have thought about the common humanity of other cultures and the things that transcend country lines, things like music, art, food, family, and friends.

in paris i stayed in a cheap but decent hotel in montmartre, an area of town which is famous in part for the moulin rouge and the behemian culture of artists it helped to inspire. artists as varied as Talousse Latrec, Salvador Dalí, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh all lived or worked in montmartre at some point. the clubs in montmartre are some of the seediest in the world, and the area remains as unpredictable and dangerous as it must have been for talousse latrec in 1900. pigalles and the boulevard de clichy strip is a far cry from the cleanliness and cheeriness of the red light district in amsterdam. the moulin rouge, however, now attracts large groups of tourists to its nightly shows and to its brightly lit red exterior where americans pose for photographs and think of nicole kidman.

my first day in paris i went straight from the train station to the hotel and then to the louvre. at the louvre i only had a few hours so i went directly to the mona lisa first. the image is so well known to me that i spotted it from within another large room when it was just the size of an ant. there, masses of asian people swarmed around pushing and shoving with cameras trying to get a photo of themselves in front of the painting. i stood there for probably five or ten minutes, longer than anyone else in that time period. i am not sure anyone was really looking at it but only looking at the idea of the mona lisa–the most famous painting in the world. i have never seen anything like it. it was as if brad pitt had just stepped out of a limo. never had mona lisa’s knowing smile seemed so hilariously perfect to me, as if saying “can you believe this?” i almost wonder if davinci anticipated this kind of scene, or if the response was similar in the quattrocento. slowly i worked my way to the front and center and became the silent motionless eye of a tornado of ridiculous excitement. and there i decided: yes. it is one of the very best, a perfect painting. the right kind of atmosphere, mystery, beauty. despite becoming a cliche and a tourist trap, the mona lisa remains a timeless masterpiece. and even if it’s only in that one corner of france, somewhere for some reason people still get very excited about colored pigment on a flat surface. that makes me smile too.

that night i had paris by night tour and a drink and an open faced french sandwich with my first ever french friend benjamin (who shares my exact birthday) and his wife. they drove me around to show me monuments and important buildings, a tour which would have been impossible in one day on foot. i was still tired from my trip from lyon so that night in montmartre i slept like a baby from babyville despite the sounds of young artists drinking and laughing drifting through my open window into the late hours.

yesterday, tuesday, was my very last day in europe. i went to the Musée d’Orsay, perhaps the second most famous museum in the world after the louvre. the orsay was at one time the most modern train station in paris, now it is home to many of the best works ever from the impressionists and post-impressionists. there i saw monet, manet, corbet, and many other artists whose names end with et but are pronounced ay. most of the artists at the orsay walked the line between tradition and modernity. i think that is the job of every artist.

what would you do, if you had just one more night in europe after a two month adventure? i took a cab to the eifel tower to get there fast enough to catch the sunset. i walked on the lawn weaving through young and old bodies kicking soccer balls and drinking wine on blankets. i found a patch in the grass with a good view and bought a bottle of cold champagne from a vendor. i watched the sky turn from blue to pink to dark blue to black and the tower turn from orange to night and the lights come on. i made an effort to reflect on everywhere i had been and all the things i had done. my thoughts turned to home. after sitting around by myself for a couple hours i finally had the guts to approach a young guy sitting by himself with a backpack. i assumed he was a solo traveler like me.

“do you speak english?” i asked
“yes” he said with an accent i could not place.
“do you want a glass of champagne? i had to buy a whole bottle but i won’t drink it all.”
“sure!” he said with genuine enthusiasm, so i sat down.
“this is going to be the last conversation i have in europe,” i told him and we talked for an hour or so. i would learn that he was from quebec, canada, and spoke a form of french that could not be understood by french people living in france. it was his very first night of a european adventure. he had just found his way from the airport.
“i saw the eifel tower so i thought that would be a good place to start!” like me when i arrived, he had no return plane ticket, and only a rough idea of what he wanted to see. so with unspoken poetry, i passed the torch. the eifel tower, i thought, is a good place to end.

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Frogs in France

i am on a train cutting a path through the beautiful french countryside going faster and faster. today i am traveling from a village outside of lyon, france to paris. it is a high speed train and now the meaning of high speed is becoming clearer as it shakes like a space shuttle. this is an odd way to travel through such a slow moving landscape. the country rolls and sways in patches of sunny green and yellow with gentleness. the word beautiful does not do it justice. perhaps the the french words for beautiful, belle and beaux are so short because there are so many things in france that need to be described this way.

when i arrived in lyon i was greeted by Jérémy, a longtime supporter of mine and a big american music fan. if not for his thick french accent i could have taken him for an ohioan–he wears cut-off tee-shirts, sunglasses and sandals and walks with the casualness and unhurriedness of someone who lives in the country. he is average height and about my age. from the airport we drove to lyon, the second largest city in paris although maybe you haven’t heard of it and i really hadn’t either.

we took a funiculare (that is the italian word but i cannot remember the french word) to the top of a mountain and looked out at lyon from the foot of a the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, a castle-like cathedral that can be seen from anywhere in the city. lyon (pronounced kind of like lee-own) is sprawling and not very tall, the way most old european cities are. it has one or two or three skyscrapers and a river snaking through many clay roofed buildings looking like tan and red-orange legos dropped onto a green shag carpet fading into the hills in the hazy distance. french cities and villages look a lot like italian cities and villages and when i noticed this Jérémy reminded me that italy is not far–they are both southern europe. the language and culture however, could not be more different. in europe you can travel less than an hour and find that everyone speaks a different language and eats different food and even in the same country they greet each other with a different amount of kisses and in a different order from left to right. in america, i told Jérémy, “you can drive for 20 hours and see the same stores, meet the same kind of people, and speak exactly the same language.”

we found our way to the art museum in downtown lyon kind of by accident. Jérémy had never been to the art museum and didn’t know where it was. i just assumed as we were walking that there would be an art museum and it would be a good one since we were in a large french city after all, and the french impressionists and post-impressionists had made arguable the most important contributions to painting ever. sure enough, in the most historic area of town we found it. unfortunately the beautiful old stone building did not have air conditioning, or the air conditioning was out of order. on one hour of sleep (as i had played a late acoustic show in london the previous night), the heat was quite uncomfortable. but i was in france dammit, and i was determined to see some great paintings. we wandered through room after room and made our best conversation considering Jérémy has only some interest in art and my tiredness made it difficult to communicate anything with enthusiasm.
“i will sleep when i get to america,” i told him when he realized how short the previous night must have been. between blinks of sweaty tired eyelids i saw some monets and pissaros and vuilliards and bonnards and other artists that i know a little more about than a lot of french people. i thought about trying to make a list of all the art museums i have been to in the last two months and realized what a daunting task this will be.

so i can name some french artists and what their main contributions to painting were. that is the only thing that prevents me from feeling completely ignorant in the company of french people.
“do you know our president?” Jérémy asked me and i responded “no” with a little embarrassment (it’s Nicolas Sarkozy, btw). but that is why people travel, right? to learn things? later that night his friends and family members would ask me questions like
“do you know our music?” or give me the name of some french singer or movie star who i could not place. france, we wikipediaed, is about the size of texas, although maybe the french know much more about texas than texans know about the french. i think that is a safe bet, if george w. was any indication. i told them that austin texas, is a current american center of progressiveness and that there area always exceptions to stereotypes. as as sidenote, the french have never heard of grey poupon.

these kind of conversations, not unlike the conversations i had in germany, holland, and england, were nearly constant for the next two days as we ate and drank and wandered around the beautiful old towns and villages of saint-clair-du-Rhône, Saint-Pierre-de-Boef, and Chavanay, described by the official website as a pleasant village at the foot of Mount Pilat. the Rhône river weaves through the area and is so blue-green it is like a ribbon strip of water cut directly from the fabric of the ocean.

Jérémy lives with his wife blondina (a local name) who is one of those people who glows warmly like a sun, and two beautiful daughters in a typical french house with stucco walls and the red-orange roof, a house they built themselves recently. sitting in the backyard you can see vineyard-covered mountains. every inch of available hillside in this area of france is covered with grapevines. over the weekend we would spend many hours in the backyard eating bread, cruissants, pork, frogs, snails, duck, more bread, patte, drinking local wines and watching the sun set behind the vineyards.

Jérémy’s friend jeff is the most french man i have ever met. maybe i am not qualified to make that kind of assessment as an american. but with the limited knowledge i acquired in three days i think it is true and i said so the other night and nobody at the table argued. jeff is pensive and stoic, with a knowing smile, very dark hair and a stubbly face. he is a jazz piano virtuoso and an amazing chef.
“everything jeff does, i do,” i said as jeff applied a large amount of homemade mayonnaise to his duck medallion and i did the same on my plate. i would follow his lead in matters of food and wine pairings throughout the weekend.

jeff’s father grows grapes and jeff worked on a nearby vineyard for three years when he was younger. the vineyards that cover the Rhône-Alpes area of france are planted on extremely steep mountainsides and hillsides that makes harvesting hard work, work that is more akin to mountain climbing–complete with a pack on your back of sticky bunches of grapes–than it is farming. it is hard to overestimate the importance of wine in french culture.

the weather is the greatest enemy of all farmers and winemakers are no exception. in some areas of france, upon the first signs of hail–which would utterly destroy a crop, authorities will launch missiles into the air to break up the ice balls. yes, missiles. i guess this is called cloud seeding and is used for various purposes in different parts of the world, but i cannot imagine a defensive military maneuver being a component of winemaking in the united states.

jeff’s father has thousands of bottles of homemade wine locked away in a cellar, bottles which would be illegal to sell on the french market since the vineyard is unlicensed.
“then what will you do with all of it?” i wondered.
“drink it. we are hoping that maybe we will inherit some of it,” jeff said. “when i was sixteen i learned about wine. i kicked the door open with my foot and stole some bottles. you can still see the…on the door. what’s the word?”
“footprint,” i said.

my acoustic guitar, which was lost in London by the airport, eventually found its way to Jérémy’s house. saturday evening i played a living room concert for Jérémy, his wife, jeffs wife nathalie and their daughter Charlotte, a wide-eyed fifteen year old who wears a lot of colors and is quickly learning english, and a handful of other friends. Jérémy plays the guitar and teaches guitar lessons, his wife blondina is an excellent singer and toured with a choir, and their friends are music teachers and pianists and clarinetists et cetera. i was a bit intimidated in a room full of musicians but i played well enough and everyone seemed to enjoy it. afterwards, they played some of their french and english songs for ME and we played some cover songs together.

“good bread, good cheese, good wine.” those are the perfect ingredients for a happy french person according to Jérémy. that combination made for one happy american too and last night my happiness was mixed with the knowing sadness of the impending end. Jérémy and company told me that maybe the french as a romantic people was just a stereotype. but that night with Jérémy and his loving family and friends with our stomachs full of the most amazing food and drinks, lying on our backs looking up at a clear warm sky translating words like milky way and satalites to french and english as we spotted shooting stars, i cannot think of a better word.

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tastes of england

i am sitting in a holding pen on a runway on lyon, france. i flew on the low cost express airline easyjet across the english channel from london. easy jet is not at all an easy way to travel although it is a jet, as far as i can tell. you can only bring up to 20 kilograms of luggage, it can cost over 100 euros to check bags, and they make you wait in line after line in the airport of departure and now on the runway where i have arrived. i’m in a white tent with other passengers; it is as if we have some disease and have been quarantined. i have never waited so long on a runway just to enter an airport and i’m now realizing the wait must be because of customs and i guess they are actually worried that we might have a disease. but i do not.

*** update the airports or airlines have lost my acoustic guitar. i was forced to check my guitar and it has not arrived from london to lyon. we shall see how this shakes out. but the day is a beautiful day and the sky is a perfect blue to white gradient, a vast improvement from dreary london.

i try not to stereotype. one stereotype i had hoped to disprove is that the british do not have good food. in every place i have visited i have made an effort to try the local cuisine and england is no exception.

on the front cover of the menu at wetherspoon pub, a successful chain of pubs perhaps equivalent to applebees in the states, was a beautiful photo of a dish called a Ploughman, which includes a Melton Mowbray pork pie, a special kind of pork pie which comes from a specific region of england. the picture on the menu is the classic restaurant food picture: the light is perfect and the depth of field is very narrow allowing the focus to be on the pie while the side dishes have a bit of atmospheric blur as if all the components are in some kind of dreamy food heaven beckoning you to taste. i was confident that the featured entree at one of the most popular restaurants in england would be delicious.

when it arrived it was cold, which is the traditional way to serve it. okay. but it tasted slightly like sausage, except with almost no flavor. i thought maybe sausages were just flavorful by nature, as they are in germany or the usa, but i guess there is a way to make pork into sausage while making sure no flavor accidentally sneaks in. maybe they have a strainer which removes the flavor. between the cold pork substance and the cold crust there was a layer of what appeared to be some kind of industrial window caulk or perhaps animal fat that had congealed into a hard murky gelatin. in short, weatherspoon’s Ploughman was one of the worst entrees i have encountered in europe. but i ate almost all of it because i was hungry and i slightly enjoyed the humor in it, knowing it would at least make a good bad food story later.

having little luck with restaurant food i turned my search to grocery store cookies and candy. one of the most popular cookies here in england are “digestives”. the label says “Digestives” in white lettering against a bright red background and underneath “Dark Chocolate”. “Digestives” has got to be the worst name for a cookie i have ever heard. for me, and i don’t think i am alone here, digestion is what happens after i eat. before i eat, i don’t need to think about digestion. if you’re going to call your product digestives why not take it a step further and call them “poopers” or maybe “excramentives”? i guess it’s hard to know where to draw the line, but where i draw it is with chewing or before. charleston chew–acceptable. charlston esophogus slider…eh, on the cusp.

i did have one delicious plate of fish and chips, naturally. but i think it is safe to say that england is not known for it’s cuisine.

however, none of this is or was the fault of my kind british companions tom and joe, two brothers from Bushey, just outside london. tom and joe cannot singlehandedly affect the food taste crisis their country seems to be undergoing, but they were kind enough to put me up at their place and show me around. tom introduced me to “revels”, my new favorite candy. they are like american whoppers, milk duds, raisinettes, chocolate orange, and one other thing that i cannot remember all in the same package. and it is a surprise which flavor you will get! so for someone like me who enjoys surprise and adventure, it is a wonderful mini taste odyssey that is predictable enough to be pleasing but unpredictable enough to be exciting, the same way a great pop song works. after talking for two days, tom suggested that i buy some revels for my band mates john and dan. my bassist brian ives, however, gets the more consistent tasting “Maltesers” because of his occasional aversion to fun.

we spent one evening with tom’s parents and found that we had a great deal in common. for my sake tom’s father did some independent research focused on Bushey’s rich art history which included Von Herkemmer, a german immigrant who was a painter and filmmaker and founder of an important art school in Bushey, and Lucy Kemp-Welch, the illustrator of the original edition of the classic equine book, “Black Beauty”. the next day at the very small Bushey museum, i saw several enormous canvases of masterfully painted horses, and one smaller quick painting by Lucy Kemp-Welch of a horse and horse owner near the Santa Trinita, a bridge in florence italy where i studied art last month. my eyes saw the painting but i did not feel it until my heart recognized it as florence and a bolt of something came through me, one part longing for florence and one part appreciation. the painting is actually just a sketch for a larger work, and although the sketch is lonely and nearly forgotten in a dusty corner of a small town museum it is masterfully executed in a fresh, quick style, which i prefer to her larger canvases which occasionally feel belabored. but me as an american looking at the little painting of florence italy executed by an english artist who was trained by a german i felt a connection with all these different places i have been and times i have studied and the entire history of creatively minded artists and adventurers and in this moment i knew for certain that i was on the right path.

that night i played an acoustic show at the Dublin castle, a famous bar in london which hosted acts such as Madness, Travis, and Blur as they were getting off the ground. i played one of my better acoustic sets in a while, complete with one-night-only trumpet and trombone accompaniment from tom and joe, respectively, for the song “mitral valve prolapse”. tom and joe are both extremely talented university trained brass musicians. unfortunately, i started the song a half step too low but i just went with it and forgot to let tom and joe know. joe is one of the rare human beings with perfect pitch and knew immediately my mistake while tom, who like me does not hear pitch as well as a robot, was left to struggle through the first chorus until it became clear to him what i had done. but by the second chorus everything came together in a triumphant brassy rendition that was truly special.

i am here in lyon, france for three days.

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rock and roll and raw fish in amsterdam

i am looking out at the north sea from a great ship about ten decks tall. i am on the stenaline ferry, a six hour boat ride from hook van holland (“the corner of holland”, near amsterdam) to Harwich, England. a few hours ago i left amsterdam, a city in the netherlands (the netherlands is also known as holland and people from this country with at least two names are called dutch, as is their language). it is overcast and a little chilly and there is a furious wind in my face and my hair. the ocean is choppy; “white caps” i think they call them, dot the surface of the water. i have never been on a boat this large and i have never been on a boat this far out at sea. i am sitting alone on the top deck on a blue floor near a row of round windows. if i were to cast myself over the edge right now, it would take days for anyone to notice and my body would probably never be found. i am the only one here but occasionally a mother or father and a kid find their way up the stairs and are so impressed and frightened with the force of the wind, the vastness of the sea and the speed of the boat as they look out over the rail that they laugh or smile and pretend that they will blow away, confronting the power of nature with their body and feeling their smallness although maybe they wouldn’t say it like that.

friday i was greeted and hugged heartily near the train station in amsterdam by tom and tim, two handsome bachelors in their late twenties. thomas and tim are the kind of guys who can flirt with anyone, talk with anyone, and get anyone to smile from old ladies to pretty women to bus drivers and taxi drivers. tim is a rock star. “i have led the life of a rock star,” he says. when you have a story about waking up in an alley somewhere in south america with no clothes on and not remembering exactly what happened, you have truly led the life of a rock star, despite not having played an instrument. thomas is also charismatic but more quiet, and the two have a dynamic which is hilarious, sarcastic and playful. they are the most american europeans i have met, having a free-spiritedness and idealism that evokes california. before leaving their spacious, contemporary apartment in white shoes and big sunglasses tim says “let’s rock and roll baby” with a conviction that overrides his dutch accent. this is the culture of amsterdam and in a lot of ways, i fit right in.

friday night we sat on the porch as tim grilled out and made some fancy salads and we drank heineken beer, which is brewed in holland and very popular there. thomas and i spent a lot of the night (and the weekend) sharing music for each other. in his room he has shelves with thousands of CD’s–complete discographies and b-sides and rarities ranging from groups like bone thugs and harmony to sting and mew. in europe i guess you would have to be a big music fan to have discovered albums from a relatively unknown songwriter from Ohio like me. thomas has been here in the netherlands following and supporting my work since the first independent albums i did with SWIM right out of high school. since then i went on to sign a deal with MCA records under universal umbrella, and somewhat coincidentally thomas went on to work for universal records, which is i guess the best place to work in holland if you are such a big music fan. between thomas’s connections through universal music and tim’s job as a sales rep for cocoa cola, they never wait in lines and can get into any concert or show or bar in town for free and often drink for free too and we may or may not have done just that. basically, if you are traveling to amsterdam thomas and tim are the exact two guys you want to stay with.

on saturday we went to the van gogh museum where i saw one of the best collections of post-impressionist works i have ever seen and for once on this european adventure i felt just slightly more knowledgeable than the locals, although i was excited to see a painting by van gogh that included the side of a house where thomas’s mother was born. traveling to these places and seeing the art where the artists lived and worked their legacies become much more real for me and i feel more directly connected. or as one of my painting instructors told me, it will make me feel like more of a part of the “continuum of painting”, which is a good way to put it.

after the museum i took a personal scooter tour of amsterdam with tim. they call amsterdam the venice of the north because of its network of canals. it is a beautiful old city and easy to travel by public transit, scooter, or by walking although i think scooter is the most fun and now i want one for myself. we went to vondel park where there were hoards of beautiful teenagers and twenty-somethings strumming acoustic guitars, playing bongos, and sunbathing as the smell of marijuana floated on the hot air. amsterdam is usually cloudy and rainy but it was beautiful and mostly sunny for me all weekend.

then tim and i made the obligatory visit to the red light district and saw window after window of beautiful girls for sale. these girls are not the crack-heads we have back home in the dark corners of cincinnati at night. this was in broad daylight and the amsterdam prostitutes look like sports illustrated swimsuit models. they stand around looking sort of listless and bored but smiling slightly. many of them are paying their way through college. this is the oldest job in the world and in amsterdam it is quite profitable and well regulated. red light district is one of the safest neighborhoods in the town. the police do not want any trouble there and the pimps and girls don’t either, so regular patrols and lots of cameras limit theft and violent crimes to almost nothing. all of this seems quite surreal for a someone from a country founded by puritans. tim and i spent about twenty minutes walking through the neighborhood going over the regular moral arguments for and against prostitution or at least for its legalization which was a good way to keep our minds occupied and to avoid looking at the merchandise too much until we scurried back onto the scooter reminding ourselves of our beautiful girlfriends back home.

after heading back to the apartment and eating tim’s delicious thai curry for dinner (a recipe which i will take with me back home), we hopped on a train and headed downtown where i played an acoustic show at a place called the waterhole, a medium sized bar with a good stage in a lively area of town. the waterhole is made to look somewhat american or british. the interior is weathered wood and rock posters and random things nailed to the ceiling and the walls, creating an overall aesthetic that is part CBGB’s and part Friday’s restaurant. i felt very at home there. even the very british sound guy was cranky in the way that most american sound guys are until they hear you play and realize you are actually good. toward the middle of the set, more and more people began coming into the room where i was playing. by my last song, i began stepping off stage but the crowd applauded and wanted an encore, something i don’t think i have never experienced at a solo acoustic gig. for the set i played a cross section of solo material new and old, some july for kings songs. for the encore i played “futureflies” and a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “dancing in the dark”. i wanted to have something upbeat and very american in my back pocket just in case, and it is a good thing i did.

later that night after visiting a lot of tim’s cocoa cola clients we hit the local FEBO stand. FEBO is a chain of fast food restaurants in and around amsterdam which are basically giant vending machines with fried foods instead of candy and gum. you put your money in and you open a glass window the size of a shoebox and retrieve one of many fried snacks. i suppose there are actual human beings that are preparing these fried objects and putting them in the windows for your retrieval but i have no actual evidence of this. as usual i trusted the judgement of my local escorts and was handed a frikandel and a croquette. they were both quite good. only later did i discover that one of them may or may not have contained cow eyeball or horse-meat. they do eat horses in holland but only occasionally.

we all slept soundly that night feeling a bit like rock stars which is a good way to feel and a feeling i only get every once in a while these days.

the next morning we had breakfast which consisted of breads and toppings and ontbijtkoek, a dutch spice cake which i said is “pretty good but we would only eat it for christmas and stuff” although they eat it for breakfast all the time in holland. that day we went to the beach, a beach thomas found online that claimed to be the “finest beach in holland” and once we arrived and saw the sand and felt the sun and everyone seemed happy we figured that maybe it really was the finest or certainly among the finest. tim who is a food enthusiast and proud of the local dutch cuisine and also a bit of a sadist led us to a herring vendor. a dutch specialty is souced herring which is essentially salted raw fish served on a paper plate. with diced raw onions if you are lucky. traditionally, you take the fish by the tail, suspend it above your face and lower it into your mouth for a bite. repeat until it is gone. even grandmas eat it this way, as i learned from a sign on the side of the booth featuring a smiling grandma suspending a herring a few inches from her wrinkled mouth. but i had mine the sissy way with a toothpick and onions and it was kind of gross but i ate all of it as we all laughed at the ridiculousness of the dish and probably at the faces i was making as the slimy pieces touched my tongue. thomas abstained completely. tim ate his in the proper dutch manner and loved every second of it. i was impressed.

that night holland lost the world cup as i stood in an orange hat outside a bar with all the locals. it was an ugly match and a shame and that’s all i’m going to say about that.

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cittadellarte, biella puts the fun in funiculare

i have arrived in biella, a small town in the northwest of italy. biella itself is quaint but the landscape is dramatic. they call it the piedmont region, the foot (pied) of the alps mountains (mont). if you are at someone’s feet you are generally worshiping them or washing them or kissing them or doing something that requires a bit of humility. the mountains here are looming so high and sharp like the devil tried to punch holes through a steel earth from the inside with fists of ice daggers. with that intimidation factor in mind, being at the mountains’ feet is a perfectly appropriate way to think about it.

when i stepped out of the taxi here in the gravel lot of cittadellarte, i felt as if i was in some kind of top secret military outpost. a few people were standing around staring at me from the surrounding white buildings while i waited for a tumbleweed to blow by. it never came and eventually i found my way up some stairs to a small group of people with macbooks looking at a presentation in a large white room. the network of buildings known as citadellarte is not an italian military outpost but an old wool mill which has been converted into a several affiliated ventures including art galleries, a gift shop, a cafe, a clothing line, an architecture firm that uses only biological building materials, and an artist residency program. the residency is an annual four month long gathering of a handful of talented young artists, economists, and activists from all of the world working under the supervision of an elusive, eccentric but charismatic man with a white beard who slightly resembles sean connory and calls himself michelangelo pistolleto. he has recently published a book entitled the third paradise, about his new vision for the future of the human species. i’m not making that up. cittadellarte houses all of his pet projects.

the staff prepared me a room for two nights. i feel privileged to be here since overnight stays are only available for friends of the artists and the staff. my friend maggie is the only other american here. i had dinner the last two nights at the most international table i have ever sat at with fellow artists and thinkers from palestine, scotland, bulgaria, et cetera, with diverse skill-sets all speaking english at different levels of fluency. why this reminds me of the X-men i do not know. it’s not nice to pick favorites, but i’m not always nice and my favorite person here is Alioum, from Cameroon Africa. he is about my age, tall, shy, and dark of course with a huge toothy smile. he is well dressed and the kind of person you can tell is smart because their brain shines slightly through their eyes. he and i spent most of this evening listening to, discussing, and playing music. in Cameroon, shepherds play a two stringed instrument for their cattle and for themselves when they are lonely. although not a shepherd he plays a little. coincidentally (although Alioum doesn’t believe in coincidences) we found a guitar with only two strings sitting in a corner of a room downstairs. he played it for me the best he could although it had only a slight resemblance to his native instrument. then we watched youtube videos of african artists and i played them back to him by ear with my guitar the best i could, to his great amusement. i now have a good list of West African singers to download out on itunes. Alioum is a painter as well as conceptual artist.

my american friend maggie is not an artist in the typical sense of the word; she more closely resembles pistolleto’s conception of creator as an agent of social change. what is an artist anyway? a contemporary artist is someone who makes art for other artists and rich people. artists know, but they don’t often admit it, that facebook is more entertaining than something you have to stare at for an hour to wrap your head around. maybe there are more important roles in society for people who like to call themselves an “artist”? rather than or in addition to creating something strange and avante guard for its own sake or the sake of a shrinking number of art fans, contemporary artists could make things that bring about social change through the way they are made or the way they are viewed or work within society. that is what maggie seeks to do here through developing “assignments” that force the participants to think about their role in society and their interconnectedness with other cultures and the species at large. i participated in one of them today. it was hard for me to understand all this at first too but just trust me there’s some shit going on here that is probably important.

* * *

biella is a small town with all the amenities of any italian small town including gelato, espresso, pizza, parks, piazzas, piadina kebabs and other things that begin with the letter p. but as best i can tell the most exciting part is the funiculare, and i know this because people would say “have you been to the funiculare yet”? we don’t have an english word for it so i didn’t understand what it was at first. but i heard it was so cheap it was almost free and i was sold by the first syllable anyway: fun. funicolare is pronounced funny colARE ay, which is kind of like funny car. and it turns out that funiculare means inclined train–basically a ski lift. so i bought a map and found my way to the edge of town. behind a large church near a park there is a rusted archway with faded letters on it saying funiculare. i walked under it into a small room with a turnstyle and two sets of tracks with two suspended wonkavators. oddly, i was the only one there; there was no attendant and were no other would-be passengers but the wonkavator door was open. so i walked in and sat down. nothing happened. i looked around and saw a big red button inside the car near the front window. now i already i know what you’re thinking: “whatever you do, don’t push the red button!” and that is what i was thinking too. despite not being able to understand a single word of the sign in italian by the button but i was overwhelmed by this urge to push it, which is what always happens when people are near red buttons and why i think they should never be red unless, and this has just occurred to me, that making it red was a secret ploy to get foreigners to push it. just then my right hand extended its index finger on its own and moved my arm toward the button and pushed it. immediately a loud alarm when off and without thinking i scrambled out of the car as the doors almost closed on me. the magic doors must have sensed my presence in the doorway because they re-opened. a few seconds later i reconsidered and walked back inside. the alarm went off again and this time, i let the doors close me inside the car and finally it began ascending the hill with me inside turning round and round to make sure i saw out every window. the button is indeed the button to make the car go and at the top there is an attendant watching video surveillance of the bottom. this must be one of the best jobs in biella since i am sure once a day someone like me walks in there and the attendant has a good laugh and then a couple minutes to wipe their smile off as the car ascends. it cost me 30 euro cents and was well worth it for the view of the misty town surrounded by misty mountains, or the feet of mountains.

right now i am on a train traveling from italy through switzerland where i will catch a connection in zurich and finally arrive in frankfurt germany. the roofs of the houses are going from red to brown, the bars to pubs and the landscape is becoming steadily more incredible as we pass lakes and enormous snow covered mountains. after a month of italian, i think it will be refreshing to hear another language even it if it is not my own.

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cinque terra

35401_10150221112925006_4031549_ni woke up today to another rainy day in florence. i have been mildly depressed lately missing my girlfriend, my family, my cats, my bandmates and the rain does not help. i was fifteen minutes late getting out of bed and almost missed the train. the station was wet and cold and full of screeching brakes and the cacophony of african and european languages dissolving into complete nonsense which is occasionally funny in the way that a word becomes funny and turns to nothing if you say it over and over again. on the first train it rained most of the three hour ride. at the station where we finally transferred it was cold and wet and more cold and i was regretting not bringing a jacket. the second and final train to the Cinque Terra (chinkwa-tear-a: five lands) was a quick ride. as we entered a long tunnel it was so gross out i felt as if i had picked the worst possible day to make the trip, and was thinking i would rather be in a movie theater or still in bed. just then the train came rushing out of the mountain and blackness turned to the most beautiful ocean shining so bright from the sun every stranger in our train car literally cheered outloud, our eyes turning to funnels. to the left blue sky, waves and white diamonds shrinking into a hazy horizon and to the right pink and yellow rectangular houses in impossible stacks upon stacks on cliffsides like shoeboxes in a display window. the day would remain one of the most beautiful days i have ever experienced and there was not a drop of rain and hardly any clouds until we passed back through the mountain that night. this seems like a laughable exaggeration even to me now as i type but unless i have fallen under some italian spell have been dreaming and sleeptyping, i swear to god that today i traveled by train through a magical mountain and was transported to a secret realm of timeless, perfect beauty.

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slow like a memory

it has been hot. today is the first cloudy day in over a week here in Florence. i walk and draw and walk in the sun, some days to the Santa Maria Del Fiore, or the Duomo for short, one of the grandest cathedrals in the world. it provides sanctuary from the daily bustle of tourism–a cacophony of languages negotiating an endless selection of trinkets emblazoned with “Firenze” but made in China–as well as shelter from the heat. Unlike my hotel, which proudly advertises its two-star status on its website and has no air conditioning, the sun does not penetrate the enormous stone walls of the Santa Maria Del Fiore. its coolness is an old coolness, since the 1400’s. As I learned from an old Italian businessman sitting on a stoop the other day, the church was built over a period of 200 years beginning in the 1200’s. It took so long that upon its completion, the first sections that were built had begun falling apart. It has been in a constant state of restoration for hundreds of years since, which is not uncommon for the innumerable magnificent buildings in Italy. The Duomo is an enormous, magestic space. I don’t exactly consider myself catholic or even christian anymore. But it is something that stays with you if you are raised on it. At the great risk of sounding exclusionary, I feel proud knowing that a structure as magnificent as the Santa Maria Del Fiore exists for people raised on the same spiritual principles and tenants that I was. With this in mind, Saturday I attended mass for the first time in a long while. The masses are usually in Italian or Latin but on saturdays there is an english service. A middle aged priest pontificated with an accent that reminded me somewhat of Dracula, but friendlier and more subtle. The Homily was about Luke 7, 36-50: a sinful woman weeps at Jesus’ feet and cleans them with her tears. He explains to Simon that the sinful woman is forgiven because she loves much. I thought about my encounter with a beggar woman at dinner the previous evening. She practically stole money from my hand while kissing my arm and attempting to sob dramatically. I had never been so furiously attacked by a beggar. The experience was awkward and sad and made me feel dirty partly because i have been so privileged and partly because I have been taught to distrust strangers but I think of Jesus.

* * *

here are some drawings. i wish i could make drawings as fast as i can make pictures. i miss my paints. i brought my guitar but i have little time to play it. i am also keeping a gelato diary, and i am on a european scavenger hunt for centaurs and nuns on bicycles.


I went to the leaning tower of Pisa which yes is still leaning and yes I have a photo of myself pretending to hold it up. They fixed the tower in the 1990’s apparently, so that after some 800 years of trepidation, the people of pisa are no longer worried that it will fall over. I never was worried but I guess I was too young to worry when it would have been a rational thing to do and Pisa is so very far from Trenton Ohio where nothing looms so high. I tried to imagine Galileo conducting his famous gravity experiments from the top of the tilted side. Galileo was born in Pisa, which is a much sleepier town than I expected. However, the downtown was bustling with clothing stores and restaurants and different kinds of people conversing and sharing ideas. You have to walk through the downtown to get to the tower from the train station.

In American cities like Cincinnati and Middletown the downtown areas have been largely abandoned and allowed to descend into poverty and disrepair while money is poured into suburban outlet malls and plywood houses which will collapse or be leveled in a few decades. america is a new country and maybe that explains what seems to me to be an infatuation with novelty verses a reverence for history. here in Florence (Firenze), age and the gravitas of age is everywhere. it is in the stones of the street, the surfaces of the buildings, in the food, in the air, in the people. the pride the people feel for their old structures is unparalleled. It helps that as the capital of renaissance thought and art, there are a great amount of beautiful famous old structures to be celebrated.

On one of my first nights here I was walking with some friends by one of the bridges that crosses the Arno river. We were stopped by a man who saw us taking pictures. he looked to be about fifty and wore dress pants with sneakers. he asked where we were from and we told him america and he was quick to explain that “this bridge is important,” speaking of the Ponte Santa Trinita where we stood. then he pointed further down the river to the Ponte (bridge) Amerigo Vespucci, near our hotel and said matter of factly, “that bridge is not important”. the importance correlates with age as three of the five bridges were destroyed by Nazis. but the Ponte Santa Trinita was unharmed and very old and beautiful and important. It is the oldest elliptic arch bridge in the known universe. you could feel his pride. not an arrogant pride but a congenial pride, a happy pride, a willingness to share. he lived in an apartment near the bridge and was watching the sunset waiting on an old friend to meet him. When his friend arrived they walked away together at once and were very happy arm and arm and i wondered if that was a normal thing to do with an old male friend in italy or if they were gay but regardless i wished for a second I was him and could walk happily by the Arno river watching the sunset forever and ever.

* * *

Yesterday I went back to the Santa Maria Del Fiore for inspiration, cool air, a place to sit in peace, and free entertainment in the form of Vespers, a Catholic evening prayers service consisting entirely of ancient Latin songs in Gregorian chant with organ accompaniment. during the day when there are no services the cathedrals here function more as museums of religion more than places of worship. in the afternoon people from all over the world come in in a steady stream with their heads tilted back looking awed, snapping bad flash photos of faraway frescoes while mumbling
despite “shh’s” from guards and signs that say “SILENCE”. Vespers in Gregorian chant provided a stark contrast for me, a very personal experience of the space as it was meant to be experienced.

About fifteen old men in purple robes hobbled up to the alter, all of their bald heads shining from the lanterns and hanging objects above. I smiled at once of the priests struggling to walk and he smiled back at me although I could tell it was even difficult for him to smile and it wasn’t the best smile but I forgave him for that of course. I was one of twenty attendees in a space that can hold thousands. maybe tens or hundreds of thousands if people could be poured in like holy water or stacked up like pyramidal cheerleaders or by using scaffolding. The frail voices of the old men echoed in the hallowed space, each sacred phrase lingering for over ten seconds after leaving the wrinkled lips of clergy and the wrinkled lips of the Italian women in the front pews of the small congregation who still remembered the words. not singing is also singing; silences become echoes, swirling enveloping refusing to forget or let go of the passing seconds. in this way time moves slow like a memory, slow as it must move for god.

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