I Ain’t Going Anywhere

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2017 by Mike

Here’s a little ditty in case your country band is looking for new material – especially songs that use needless profanity and indirect themes. Pardon the one-take demo feel. I am a busy dad and today it’s supposed to snow here in southeastern NC, so this was recorded between pitiful questions from my kids like, “Where’s the snow?” and “When will it snow?” Also, if my wife listens to this and considers the lyrics below the embedded video, these characters are fictitious. Don’t let the first person format fool you.

Sturgill Simpson, feel free to record this. Or maybe Lyle Lovett. Or even Jackson Browne if you’re ready for a drastic career departure – I also have a freshly penned anti-Trump protest song if that’s more in line with your current mental state. I understand. Let’s make 2017 the Year of the Unknown Songwriter.


This 9 to 5 it ain’t no way to live

And I just can’t find a fuck to give

I ain’t getting paid

I barely get laid

And my motivation’s standing on a cliff


This worthless feeling, it ain’t nothing new

Buckling down seems like the thing to do

Just when I start to stand tall

I go and piss on it all

And undermine you know who


Who cares

What’s the use

Guess my board’s blown a fuse

And there ain’t no warranty on that repair

You can try to inspire me

You can coldcock or fire me

But I ain’t going anywhere


Every time you tell me that you’re done

I hear you ain’t happy and I clearly ain’t the one

You list my inactions

And your dissatisfactions
With your mama saying “girl, you better run”


I’m supposed to shit or just get off the pot

But I can’t tell if I need to go or not

So I sit there a-thinking

Just stewing and stinking

Idling with everything I’ve got


I don’t care

What’s the use

Guess my board’s blown a fuse

And there ain’t no warranty on that repair

You can threaten to leave me

But you just best believe me

Honey, I ain’t going anywhere





After the Disney Ride

Posted in Writing with tags , , , , , , on October 23, 2016 by Mike

Returning to normal life after a week at Disney World is disorienting. The long lines are gone and the magical details that were once everywhere are nowhere to be found. My kids and I were just lying on the hammock together on a perfectly cool late afternoon and my son eased up after about 20 seconds and said, “This is boring.”

A hammock doesn’t turn in circles or flash lights and is not surrounded by animatronic forest creatures singing and jerking in place. It just sits there and sways with the breeze or moves when you want it to. It encourages relaxation and what kid wants to relax when they’ve recently been on a hardcore Disneycrack binge.


The whole Johnson crew – Day One

Disney World is fully immersive entertainment, not much different than a virtual reality headset. The sounds, sights, smells, and sensations all rocket into your nervous system simultaneously and without interruption. Not to mention the anticipation of the next sensation when your system starts to expect it and the crash when you finally make it onto a bus at the end of the day with the other shell-shocked families to ride back to your room and fall into bed.

Hauling your children down to Disney World is a blast but, do not underestimate this, it is also an exhausting trial. You will carry your daughter on your shoulders for 10 miles a day, for days in a row. You will be battered by relentless sunshine and will seek out taller visitors and try to stand in their shade for half second respites. Even if you think you are attending during the slow season, you will stand in endless lines and be herded like cattle wherever you go. If you purchase a meal plan to try and save some money and make eating more efficient, you will shovel 3000 calories into your facehole three times a day and choke down unwanted dessert so nothing is wasted. But a lot is wasted. The uneaten desserts in Disney bus-tubs could feed nations. You care on the first day; by day three you are walking away from nearly full plates because another bite would cause you to vomit and you have a Fast Pass expiring in 10 minutes and have to cross Main Street and elbow through thousands of people to get there and get in a new line.


Foster absorbs sensations

Standing in lines does give you time to stop and sweat and think. Here are some realizations I made in Disney lines:

  • Remember when you waited tables and hated when your section filled up with kids? That’s Disney World but your section is miles long.
  • The poor saps in the character costumes must ponder suicide every day – the worst must be signing those little autograph books. Hey kids, Goofy’s hardly legible make-the-dude-write-in-a-puffy-mitten autograph will mean nothing to you in a few years. You will find that forgotten autograph book in a cabinet and resent your parents for enabling such a wasted youth.
  • It’s fun to test your own hidden prejudices by scanning the people around you and trying to figure out where they are from based on their fashion choices, mannerisms, and hair styles. You’ve been stereotyping more than you think!
  • When it rains, putting on a poncho after walking around for hours starts a chemical reaction under the plastic. BO2 + contained body heat3 + subtle methane emanations after all those meals = bigtime stank when you finally take the poncho off again, kinda like uncovering spoiled food.

A successful Disney adventure requires a ton of research and planning (thanks honey!), considerable logistical preparation, and up to the minute improvisation, all of which is compounded by a hurricane churning offshore. When we were there a few weeks ago, Hurricane Matthew was our constant companion.


Magic bands and an emergency flashlight provided by housekeeping

As Matthew spun ominously closer to Florida, we got many concerned texts from family and friends encouraging us to evacuate and find refuge somewhere else.  Protecting the financial investment of a family vacation and trying to fully collect on time off from work can impact your decisions, and deferring to variables like those is questionable when your family’s safety is at stake. But we decided to bunker down in Orlando and ride it out, figuring those squat solid buildings in our resort were built for rough weather and it sure beat joining a traffic jam on I-95 to retreat to another location that was just as vulnerable as where we already were.

Disney parks closed down and officials ordered curfews for people that stayed, requesting that guests remain in their rooms until the storm passed.  To pass the time, we played an endless game of Monopoly, rationed our snacks and boxed meals, watched Matthew’s colorful radar representation twirl along the long finger of Florida, and occasionally went outside to watch the palms whip and the rain pour.  As a hugely profitable business that trades magic for money, Disney started opening back up quickly – first the food courts, then Disney Springs, then the parks. We missed a day, which we tacked back onto the end without much interruption to our original plans.  At the end of the week, as Hurricane Matthew closed in on our coastal NC community, friends and family back home helped prep our yard and house while we rode rides and took pictures with cartoon characters.


Matthew tagging along

Driving home in the wake of the hurricane, after a long exciting week of fun, provided instant perspective. Trees were down everywhere, billboards were crushed, astonishing storm damage became the norm. We used porta-johns at rest areas that had no electricity or running water. Communities all around our part of the state were being flooded – floods that ended up lasting for weeks, taking lives and homes and dreams.

Experiencing a natural disaster in parallel with a Disney vacation is like being on another ride – and the ride continues. Nearby rivers have just crested while our first credit card bills arrive. People are burying drowned loved ones while we put suitcases back into closets. We look online at photos from our Disney Memory Maker plan; a Lumberton grandmother tries to salvage a photo album that has been underwater for days. We are thankful for the magic yet appreciate the contrast between the engineered fantasy and the vulnerable reality that exists just beyond the gates. Meanwhile, we relax and rest up for next time.


Playing games and climbing walls





The Untold Story

Posted in Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2016 by Mike

Empty_bookWhen a loved one dies, you’re left with photographs and whatever recollections your mind is able to drag out to inspect. But my memory is far from a dependable archive and a 2-D image in a photo album can only do so much. It’s easy to start flipping pages or wander down mental side roads that lead you far from where you meant to be. Not a bad thing, really, any introspection is a golden nugget when most days are marked by the hollow, fleeting ding of accomplished tasks.

People with home movies are lucky. Old family videos let you hear your aunt’s voice again and be reminded of the particular way her attention could go from person to person in a room, landing on each face. Or the way your cousin walked—never in a hurry, no reason to suspect that he would die young and only live on in memories and a few precious minutes of video. These are reflections that no still image could elicit.

My grandmother died a few years ago and I’m still adjusting to her complete silence. We used to talk on the phone a lot and we visited her and my grandfather often; the entire family is lucky that we got Nanny for 86 years. Now that she’s gone, I’m stuck with my own remembrances of her long biography and saddened that she will never be able to fill in one of the many blanks in the record.

So I’ve started to record my grandfather’s voice on trips back to Hot Springs, a town that always centered around them and now centers around him, the survivor. If the first time I recorded him made him uncomfortable, it didn’t show. I took out my iPhone, readied the Voice Memos feature, pressed record, and asked him to tell me again about where he grew up. Now I will forever have that detail told through his real voice and inimitable flair. That anecdote and the time when he worked on the boats in Michigan and when he met Nanny and all of these other momentous points in his story, told casually while he cooked breakfast or thumbed through the USA Today. One day, when we return to an empty house in Hot Springs and the cemetery on the hill holds both grandparents, we may play these soundbites again and be able, almost, to share space and time with our beloved grandfather.


We drop in to see my wife’s Uncle Norman after having lunch in Sneads Ferry. While we are all together, Mema, my wife’s grandmother, thinks it would be a good time for us to go see him. Uncle Norman is Mema’s uncle, so he is up there in age, maybe 92-93 years old. He lives in a little house overlooking a finger of marsh and it is a beautiful, sunny, cloudless day.

When we enter his house, Uncle Norman is sitting on his favorite recliner, alone in his quiet and dark home, just waiting and sitting. He has diabetes and cardiac issues, with wrecked and swollen feet, numerous stents and a pacemaker—he doesn’t get around much anymore—he confesses during our visit that he basically sits there and wonders why God hasn’t brought him home yet. He’s ready to die. But as we look around and visit with him and talk about his life and look at his pictures, he starts to open up and play host. There are framed pictures around, old black and whites from his years in the service; he mentions that he was there on Normandy, storming the beach in the face of grim odds. It’s hard for me to imagine that a memory of the beach could be so sinister. Despite his poor physical condition, his mind is incredibly sharp and lucid. He sits there with these stories and no one to tell them to—like an album that never gets played or a book that never gets read. It’s a chronicle of a life that just sits and molders, and you’re not quite sure what’s there until you press play or open the cover.

As he talks about those wartime memories from over 75 years ago, I begin to think that this needs to be recorded. His small audience—including my children who are too young to appreciate it and his family who may’ve heard it before, maybe ad nauseum during every pervious drop in—isn’t worthy. He is, or was, more than the deteriorating old man before us. Surely some historian or military buff on nearby Camp Lejeune would love to hear this. Granted, the history is well documented in books and movies, but this man’s unique perspective has a shelf life and WWII veterans like him are getting rarer by the day.

I get home and reach out to a local history writer, David Allen Norris, to brainstorm and see if there is a Story Corps on a local or state level or any organization that may be collecting stories of area servicemen.  Sure enough, there is.

The State Archives of North Carolina maintains a Military Collection that gathers photographs, maps, letters, personal belongings and other artifacts from our veterans, and also manages an Oral History Program that collects their personal narratives. Military Collection Archivist Matthew Peek travels all around NC to interview veterans for the Oral History program, recording and curating them for posterity.

I speak to Matthew Peek on the phone and tell him about Uncle Norman. I get the impression that he hears it a lot, the tale of an aging veteran with stories to share. My job is to lay the groundwork—getting permission from the family, finding out the dates and details of his military service—before he drives down from Raleigh to interview Uncle Norman in his Sneads Ferry home.

Uncle Norman dies before we are able to schedule an interview.

A Tough Lesson This Father’s Day

Posted in Family, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 27, 2016 by Mike

Alice Wren’s floaties.

No one expects to jump into a swimming pool to rescue his young daughter on Father’s Day, but that’s what happened to me just a few short days ago. And let me make it clear right out of the gate: I wasn’t the hero.

We were enjoying a beautiful Sunday afternoon at the community pool with some of our neighbors. We’d ordered food, had a couple of beers, and passed a few idle hours between the water and the shade of the umbrellas. Three families, each with young children between the ages of four and eight. Our daughter, Alice Wren, is the youngest. She’s not a fan of going underwater so Alice wears floaties on her arms when she’s at the beach or pool. The swim class she took at UNCW last year helped some but she’s a long way from swimming independently and cannot tread water or keep herself afloat without inflatable assistance. She adores the older kids who live nearby, especially the girls – Veronica and Audrey – who are fun and smart and good swimmers.

The pool was pretty crowded—families everywhere, people swimming all around the pool, throwing balls, lounging on noodles, diving for coins and trinkets, dads launching their kids from their shoulders. The shallow end was crammed with the little ones, with babies held tight by their new moms and toddlers bouncing tirelessly on waterlogged feet.

I was at the table with the adults. Ted Johnson, our neighbor and friend, was facing the pool and said the words that changed everything, “Hey guys, is everything ok with Alice?” I turned around and looked into the pool and saw her instantly. She was right near the rope separating the kiddie pool from the deeper swimming lanes—it’s where the bottom of the pool begins to slope downward and the water level was at Alice’s mouth and nose, and rising. She wasn’t waving or making any noise at all, but she was certainly in trouble.

In an instant I was running towards the pool. For some unknown reason, in the small gap between the table and the edge of the pool, I shed my shirt and tossed it over my shoulder while in mid-air over the water so it wouldn’t get wet—a detail that is symbolic in ways that I don’t fully understand yet. I landed a few feet from Alice, slogged a few steps through the waist-deep water, and scooped her up in my arms. I told her she was OK, told all of the shocked faces around us that she was OK, and patted her back hard as she expelled water down my back between hard sobs. I vaguely recall turning back to the poolside table I had just left so dramatically and pointing to Ted and mouthing Thank You. We walked to the edge of the pool where Carrie, my wife, leaned down and said, “Give her to me.” So I passed my child up to her frantic mother and stood there in the shallow end like a man cut loose from his old reality, stricken and alone.

Alice ended up vomiting up more water onto her worried mother as they paced around the periphery and I returned to the table with our friends and tried to make sense of what had just happened. As we discussed and watched her condition—she seemed healthy though she was quiet and visibly shaken, understandably—the prevailing fear was the thought of potential secondary drowning. For those of you that missed that piece on your local news affiliate, secondary drowning (which we actually confused with dry drowning, as it turns out – click here for how they differ) is somewhat rare but could happen if a person takes in water, it gets in the lungs, the victim appears to be good though lethargic, the lurking danger sloshes around, undetected, the individual goes to sleep later, has an pulmonary edema in his or her sleep, and never wakes up. So, though we considered secondary drowning a remote possibility, our own crushing guilt and raw fear led us to the car and a frantic ride to the Emergency Department in Scotts Hill.

Carrie drove and I rode in the back beside Alice’s car seat, anxious to keep her awake and engaged. Our fuzzy understanding of secondary drowning led us to the conclusion that if she fell asleep, she may never wake up so it was my job to keep her awake. It was like she’d been drugged; she could barely keep her eyes open and it was all I could do to keep her from falling asleep. I sang to her, asked her endless questions, squeezed her cheeks and made farting noises, pointed out a hundred things in the passing scenery, and told Carrie to hurry. She had put on the hazards and was keeping it together remarkably well despite the fragile state of her young daughter in the backseat.

At the clinic, she was evaluated and given a chest X-ray, which came out with negative findings of fluid in her lungs. The prognosis was good and the PA said that she was going to be fine. Our pediatrician’s office had been called and their protocol for these situations was conservative, erring on the side of caution. They wanted Alice to spend the night in the hospital for observation, figuring if something did arise it would be most prudent to have her near a medical team in those crucial moments. So Carrie and Alice Wren took an ambulance to the downtown hospital—which Alice voted the coolest ride she had ever taken—and Foster and I checked off items from an unending list of things they would require during their sleepover. We drove down to the hospital to visit and resupply the girls.

To Alice, her stay in the Betty Cameron Women’s and Children’s Hospital was like a resort vacation. She had a doting team of wonderful nurses, a suitcase full of toys and books and games and Wonder Woman pajamas from home, her sure and steady mother, and a kid’s recreation room that was expertly designed to distract young people from the pains, fears, and boredom of protracted hospital stays. We were very fortunate. This is an indisputable fact. And there was no greater reminder of that than walking down that long hospital corridor and wondering who was behind the other room doors. What horrors had brought those other children there? Car accidents? Cancer? How long would they have to stay? Who was getting the worst possible news? Even more, who was leaving without the gravely hurt child they had brought in? These thoughts haunt me still and I can’t help but feel that we merely stepped into that terrible place, had a peek, and were fortunate to back out of it without a scratch.


Alice cooks in the hospital’s recreation room.

Horrible stories in the news have a way of numbing us. The observer stands at a safe distance where he can make judgements and recreate the scenario in his own imagination, reacting more admirably, making better decisions, and acing the parent test the other parent flunked. Those stories make us feel comparatively safe but simultaneously vulnerable. Most parents, me included, think we’re on the ball. We’re all over it, completely tuned in to every moment. We are vigilant and the threats are kept away by the triple sentinels of laser focus, foresight, and a weird animal intuition that develops when you bear young. But we had a lapse of attention. There’s no other way to look at it. And believe me, any criticism issued from another parent pales in comparison to the criticism we’re raining down on ourselves. Any real or perceived cries of How could they let that happen? are background noise to our own defeaning, pulsating, shrieks of guilt and self-accusation. Not to each other, thankfully, since the complete lapse of attention happened on a shared watch. We co-own it and return to our combo-guilt whenever we look at her.

When seeing those same horrible stories on Facebook or the news, it’s hard to imagine that there’s a little person behind the picture that is eventually posted—the picture that was taken at school or during a candid childish moment that caught her essence, and now, in death, has to tell her whole life story in one simple image. There was a little life force behind the headlines—you lose sense of that when you read the story. It’s impossible to fully imagine what the child was like. What his little personality was like, how he or she touched and impacted the lives of friends and loved ones and classmates. And you think of the moment in those stories when you realize it’s never going to be the same—you can almost pause the scene and look at the frame of time when everything changes. The moment when the alligator explodes out of the seemingly benign Disney lagoon, when the dad closes and locks the car door while the toddler snoozes in his car seat.

When I pause that day’s events in my mind’s DVD player, I often stop at my jump into the pool—when I stripped out of my shirt. Why was my stupid shirt so important in those frantic seconds and where was that quick thinking and attention a few minutes earlier when Alice was making her way down the steps of the swimming pool without her floaties? She told us later that she was going out to be with Audrey and Veronica. She must’ve felt like a big girl at that moment and didn’t stop to think about her floaties. Once she was down the pool stairs she maybe thought she could walk all the way to them, and when she was suddenly on her tiptoes and swallowing water she couldn’t process the issue or comprehend the danger. I try not to think about what she was thinking because I can’t bear to think that she was wondering why daddy wasn’t helping her yet.

The fact that this happened on Father’s Day intensifies it all. My young daughter spent the night in the hospital on Father’s Day due to, at least in part, a momentary lapse of my attention. But another dad stepped up huge. Ted Johnson – what made him notice? There was another grown man, likely a father himself, standing practically night next to her in the pool as she inched into ever deepening water. How did he not notice? It’s not his job to see her, assess her swimming skill level, and scoop her up just in case—but he was right there? Ted had to identify her from 50 feet away and recognize the signs of an emergency situation, of a potential drowning, words that are painful to fathom or say when it’s your own kid in the water.

There’s an alternate scene that I visit sometimes. When I rewind the action to the moment where Ted is about to sit down at the table and he sits in another chair instead, one facing away from the pool. And no one notices Alice walking across the shallow end. Not one notices she’s in trouble and I can’t watch the alternate scene beyond that part. Forever, it will be Ted noticing and me not noticing and the gratitude and guilt will bubble together endlessly in a stew of memory. But I thank Ted, I cherish my friend and neighbor for having my back like no one has had it before. My love and appreciation and awe for the magic he pulled that day will endure long, long after Alice Wren has hung up her floaties. And on each Father’s Day, I hope he feels that profound gratitude.


Getting back on the horse.



People Everywhere

Posted in Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2016 by Mike

people_final-01My wife is a “People person” but I’m not talking about the bipeds all around us, I’m talking about the magazine. My wife wants the latest issue of People with us on any kind of trip. It’s a must, as much a sure thing as underwear or a near empty tube of toothpaste. She sometimes forgets and I will buy her one and place it with her pile of stuff to take and she will always be happy and surprised by my thoughtfulness. “Aw, honey,” she says, “a new People! Thanks!” This is a lay-up for any guy that needs points.

But even if you like to read People, a subscription is a horrible idea. I encouraged my parents to get her a 6-month subscription for Christmas last year. We are now months into the subscription and any gift would’ve been a better option. Anthrax, socks, anything.

They do not stop. A weekly circulation seems way too frequent at this point and maybe they should add words to the covers as the subscription goes on:

Month 1 – People

Month 2 – More People

Month 3 – Even More People, Wow

Month 4 – The Few Remaining People Not Yet Written About

Month 5 – People We’re Covering Again Since It’s Been Four Months Since We Last Talked About Them

Month 6 – Good Lord, What’s With All the People

So we have stacks of unread Peoples on our living room coffee table. Once in a while I will thumb through some issues, feeling awful that money from my parents and countless trees were sacrificed for the pile of fluff before me. If I stick to the stories that actually interest me, I can read a whole issue of People in 35 seconds, counting the page turns. I will read them while we are watching something on TV and offer up small criticisms as I go, surely depressing and annoying my wife. During one flip-through I may say any or all of the following: Why? Who cares? I don’t even know who any of these people are!

When you think about it, the subject matter is a well that will never run dry. We’re talking about People. People! Billions of them. There will always be billions of them. Granted, there’s a celebrity thrust to the magazine, but many of the pages are devoted to regular old people. So you’re always going to have celebrities, that’s a revolving door, and you’re always going to have people doing regular old extraordinary things. Barring a nuclear event, they will always have people to talk about. And even if there is a nuclear event, the publishers would probably unveil Mutant People just to keep the subscriptions going.

And the departments! I don’t give a shit Who Wore It Better. I don’t care how the dress looked on Taylor, nor do I care how it looked on Kimmy K – line them up side by side, each wearing the same dress that I don’t care about, and my boredom is near crippling. I don’t care what they think about current events, and I don’t need to see them selecting an apple at a fruit stand to remind me that they’re people that shop. I know they’re people that shop. And the asinine crossword puzzle that is designed for the mentally impaired? There is at least one hilarious clue in every puzzle – if you are currently bored with an issue of People, go directly to the crossword and find it! It’s there! Clue: 1980’s TV show starring Mr. T , The _ -Team (1 letter)

I am not sure what People could do to make me happier with them. I think it’s me – maybe I’m just not good with People. But I do know what we will not be getting for the last six months of the year. Good thing People has a website.

Alexander Hamilton’s Other Valentine

Posted in Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2016 by Mike

With all of the hoopla around the Alexander Hamilton musical and the exaltation of the just discovered genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda (who else gets invited to the Rose Garden to freestyle rap?), I wanted to bring another historical labor of love to the foreground. A Hamilton project that was released before Hamilton projects were cool.

Back in 2000 I was given a thick script that would change the direction of my life. I was living in Beaufort, SC at the time, working at a performing arts center as a PR guy. Besides classrooms rented out for art and dance instruction, the place featured a massive performance space that was home base for a local theater company. We were putting on a production of Shelby Foote’s Shiloh, an ambitious civil war drama that required a huge number of soldiers, which was a challenge to cast given the smallish pool of young professional actors in the tiny community. So I got a part in the play, though I’m not really an actor, and performed many other functions given the “all hands on deck” requirements of community theater. As it turns out, being a “floater” has served me well while jumping between oddball jobs along my meandering career path.

Enter Michael Bober from New Jersey. Mr. Bober, aka “The Bobester,” was an old friend of Shiloh’s Director, Peter Holland, and had come down to visit and videotape a performance. I liked Bober immediately and, at a late-night party after one of the shows, he told me about a film script he had just finished. It was a self-financed documentary film project called Favorite Son, and the title referenced the close, almost familial, relationship between George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Bober had completed the script and now hoped to shoot it in the coming months—Favorite Son was going to be something of a meta-documentary film, with fictional characters working on their own documentary film about Hamilton to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the infamous duel with Aaron Burr. (2004 was the bicentennial of the notorious event that took place in Weehawken, NJ.) Bober’s love of venerable French directors would influence the style—so it would be less Ken Burns and more Truffaut. He told me all of this while I was half-stoned and I pretended to understand his references to French New Wave film and hinted that early American History was a keen interest of mine (lies!) Though I was merely an inebriated rube nodding along to impassioned, high culture dissertations, I was so convincing that The Bobester left me the script and asked for my feedback.

So I read it, scribbling things in the margins when duly entertained or confused. I’m still struck by its breadth of subject matter. I flash to the first days with Bober’s script when I pondered how in the hell all of the information could fit into a watchable movie. Not only did it tell the history of Hamilton and the period players that helped shape that history, but there were pages and pages of dense yet lyrical script about the regional Lenni-Lenape tribe, a careful deconstruction of the treasonous story of Major John Andre and Benedict Arnold, what could be thesis notes about agrarianism versus industrialism with the Great Falls of the Passaic River in Paterson, NJ as a backdrop, and richly-detailed academic reflections on William Carlos Williams and Washington Irving, two luminary writers that wrote about the local geography and history and helped to inspire Bober’s vision. It was like everything that he researched before writing the script was interesting and must be included and imparted to the hypothetical audience. It reminded me of a time in 9th grade world history when I basically highlighted entire pages of the textbook since every bit was enthralling and worthy of remembrance and future inspection.

I mailed the marked-up script back to Bober and somehow, a few weeks later, was invited to come to north Jersey to assist in the upcoming shoot. Peter and I both went to help with the production and I felt like I’d been given a scholarship to film school.IMG_4185

One of our first tasks was to act as location scouts—a surprise considering we were two southern hillbillies who had never been to that part of the country. Being in and around New York City felt like the center of the universe. Every site was a cool place to shoot since everything was so new and exciting. We dubbed this particular affliction yokelvision, where everything looks spectacular through new eyeballs—and we both had it bad.


Our eventual locations took us all around northern New Jersey—Weehawken, Radburn, the banks of the Hudson River, the Great Falls in Paterson, Ringwood State Park—up to Tappan and Tarrytown, NY, down to the revered memorials of Washington, DC, and the Virginian presidential estates of Mount Vernon and Monticello, and to the southern tip of Manhattan—Trinity Church, the New York Stock Exchange, and finally, indelibly, The World Trade Center. We shot down in the PATH escalators and at the top of the South Tower exactly one year before the 9/11 attacks, with much of the haunting footage becoming unusable in the middle of the editing process. How could we include shots of all of those commuters riding the escalators up from the subway to their office buildings when some of them would die in the rubble a year later? And whatever we were trying to say by including these images in the first place would now be a totally different comment.

Beyond scouting, I got a lot of other production experience. Editor was my main job but I was also script super, boom guy, craft services, transportation, foley artist (if you watch the movie, I challenge you to identify the sound effect that was used in the duel the moment the bullet hits Hamilton), and about a dozen other titles and their attendant tasks. Anyone that has worked on an independent film will recognize this insane division of labor.

The historical and artistic nuances of the documentary format created even more interesting jobs to perform—applying for grants, researching historical correspondence, negotiating print usage with major art galleries. We would visit museums in Rhode Island, DC, Williamsburg, scrub through classic films like America and Birth of a Nation to drop into the timeline to support long passages, mine letters from the fathers of the country that would become voiceover to cover all spaces in between–this multi-media approach with live action, art, and film played side by side in the same sequence. All of this stuff had specific places to go and I was frequently amazed by The Bobester’s complete vision.

Regardless of the level of effort, it’s hard to attract much attention or interest without some star power. As it turns out, we had some. Michael Emerson—who ended up playing Benjamin Linus on the chronophrenic, ABC hit drama Lost—provided the voice of George Washington. Yes, it’s strange now, the thought of Ben melding with the Father of Our Country, a tidbit that should warrant a limited re-release of the film. At the time Emerson was less known although he had won an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for The Practice. Although Lost has been off the air for nearly a decade, I imagine there are people still out there rewinding scenes on their DVDs, looking for clues. I can’t tell you that there are Easter eggs in there that connect Favorite Son to Lost but I wouldn’t put it past The Bobester to have some little blue index card somewhere in his office that says, “Dharma Initiative?”–like he had a premonition and wasn’t quite sure what it meant or how to fit it in.

But not every project is going to be a smash hit. Not everything strikes like a lightning bolt and electrifies its intended audience. Alas, few people even know the film exists. It’s like a giant temple that took the concentrated labor of many men and many years to build and it’s now sitting in an overgrown and remote jungle. But let’s jump cut to another metaphor. The film is also like a bustling train station. It’s busy and fast moving, with people coming in and out, it’s a little confusing sometimes—you’re not quite sure what’s going on or where you’re supposed to be. The sound is distracting and changes volumes erratically. But by being there you can be sent off into many different cool directions—wherever you want to go. Go to the indians, go to the literature, go to the history, go to the landscape, the period art, go to the geography. It’s all there and if you slow down and look closely, there’s some beautiful stuff in every small place you look.

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Turning Music Into Stories

Posted in Music, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2016 by Mike

iphone ideas

Ten random songs came up on my run yesterday. My iPhone was tuned to Pandora’s Steely Dan station, (thus the bounty of Steely Dan songs in the following list) but the overall selection of tunes was based on sonic algorithms unknown to me.

I found myself inspired by the lyrics coming into my head and thought, if you excised certain lines from basically any song, putting focus on those lines would be a great way to generate writing ideas. Whether you’re a poet, songwriter, novelist, or unclassifiable dabbler, droughts can affect the creative juices now and then. Why not go to a readily available source (your smart phone) to help generate inspiration?

From those ten random songs, I pulled interesting lines and thought it would be a neat exercise to build stories from them, using the words as pre-selected epigraphs. So use any of the following epigraphs to launch your next great short story or novel (or short and silly Facebook post). Or pull from your own Pandora playlist, if you don’t like these. Share anything you come up with! If nothing else, you will be reminded that Donald Fagen is a master lyricist.

It was still September when your daddy was quite surprised to find you with the working girls in the county jail. I was smoking with the boys upstairs when I heard about the whole affair.

S. Dan


Woman, let’s stay together. Loving you whether times are good or bad, happy or sad.

Rev. Al Green


There’s a special place for lovers, one we understand—there where neon bends in daylight sky. In that sunny room she soothes me, cools me with her fan. We’re drifting. A thousand years roll by.

D. Fagen


Listen to the wind blow. Watch the sun rise. Run in the shadows. Damn your love, damn your lies.

F. Mac


The things that pass for knowledge I can’t understand.

S. Dan


You know, I saw Miss Lucy down along the tracks. She lost her home and her family and she won’t be coming back. Without love, where would you be now?

T.D. Brothers


I said to my reflection, “Let’s get out of this place.”



I am so into you I can’t think of nothing else.

Atlanta Rhythm Section


The mourners are all singing as they drag you by your feet. But the hangman isn’t hanging and they put you on the street.

S. Dan


Like a gangster on the run, you will stagger homeward to your precious one. I’m the one who must make everything right—talk it out till daylight.

S. Dan