There’s no equivalent to Mozart in writing.—Fran Lebowitz
Was inspired by the beautiful weather yesterday and sat on the porch to edit some recent material into a little collection under my musical pseudonym on Bandcamp, appropriately titled I Skugga, which is Swedish for “in the shade,” since I’ve been revisiting my college Swedish lessons during the pandemic. It’s an abstract mixtape of recent ambient experiments and field recordings.
It’s priced from 0 to pay-what-you-will, but I’m content with zero.
It’s a pleasure to share the mood.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
My storytelling life was started by a territorial gerbil and a panicked need to explain why I emerged bloodied from the kindergarten bathroom to hide my shame about surrendering to temptation and ignoring the “DO NOT TOUCH THE GERBIL” sign in large and well-articulated handwriting on the gerbil’s enclosure which, for whatever reason, was stationed there. I stepped out of the tiled bathroom, hoping for anonymity even as my hand left a trail of red punctuation marks on the harvest gold carpet, and was immediately intercepted by the classroom aide, Mrs. Hecker, who asked the fearful question.
“Why are you bleeding, Mr. Wall?”
“Umm,” I said, a whole engine room of newly installed machinery in my head groaning into action. “I cut my hand on the paper towel thing and — “
“You cut your hand getting a paper towel?”
“Uh, yeah, the towel dispenser was sharp and I slipped because my hands were wet and the floor got wet and I slid and — “ I said, starting to spin an increasingly complex tale of how I’d injured myself that would become a blueprint for future ventures into the glorious world of storytelling, first as an escape from responsibility and then as a realization that in the even-tempered, earth-toned, averaged-out world of elementary school in the seventies, words and how they were chosen and arranged could reshape reality.
“That looks suspiciously like a gerbil bite to me,” Mrs. Hecker said, examining my hand as she applied the sting of an alcohol wipe and applied a plastic bandage, and I was caught, but it was an intoxicating moment of dramatic reconstruction that worked as well for flowery lies and stories that would otherwise be flat exposition without the right pacing, pauses, and perfect adjectives.
I was a flamboyant liar as a child — a thorough and sometimes credible raconteur of alternate explanations for my ventures in stupidity — and oddly, that’s a great start for telling true stories down the line. To get away with one’s most lurid half-truths, one had to master memory, so that a story stayed consistent from listener to listener, and drama, so that you had enough time and attention to properly tease out the details that made the whole thing work.
In retrospect, it was all part of an internal effort to make sense of a world that always seemed so much duller than what seemed fair. We were born, we were alive, and life should have been about shaking the stars out of the skies, but more often, it was just feeding the chickens and taking out the kitchen compost and diagramming sentences, and my grandmother aided and abetted my escape from the mundane with her own stories and the electric moment when, apropos of nothing, she leaned into me with a menthol-scented Baltimore whisper in 1978.
“Joe-B,” she said, “Did I ever tell you I’m part Indian princess from outer space?”
In adulthood, the process of learning to tell my stories was more of a wandering path through the incoherent landscape of uncontrolled rambling to my overscripted and often overwrought attempts to be a latter-day Laurie Anderson in the early nineties, complete with a stage full of squabbling synthesizers failing to respond to their orders, which taught me how to improvise and vamp until the goddamn thing rebooted mid-story. These days, my focus is on shifting down from my comfortable 60–90 minute one-man-show format, which is probably my most natural unit of storytelling granularity, to the 20–30 minute festival narratives I perform while accompanying them with a tiny synthesizer rig that I jokingly call my “banjo” as an homage to the folk troubadour tradition, and scaling away from sprawling epics to work in the customary 7-to-15-minute story format that’s finally giving me access to ensemble storytelling shows.
My best learning moment, though, was figuring out that there’s a natural storytelling rhythm and pace that’s inherent to each of us and to the kinds of stories we tell, and that when you master the structure, it becomes easier and easier to populate the details on the fly in ways that suit your own narrative. I used to script and soundtrack in minute detail, which made for a great feeling of initial control, an anxious performance as a seemingly endless series of cues I’m afraid of missing, and a sense of disappointment at the end that I’d failed to execute the story with aplomb and humor…but now I basically work and rework, write up a 3×5 index card of keywords that highlight waypoints on the trail to the end of the story (which I keep on hand for reference, but never seem to use in performance, as the process of writing that out and recopying it as I work through a given story tends to install it in my head), and step out into the lights on a stage with a history of mostly getting it right.
In the end, the joy of a story is similar to what it was when I was very young, when I found that words make reality, even when the reality I was making was often divergent from the tale as it actually unfolded, and there’s a nice middle-ground between the comforting structure of just repeating your story from a mental script and the ego-affirming delight of stepping off the stage into the attention of the audience and being carried by their enthusiasm, and it’s something that most people can do after a moment of being foolhardy, ignoring the “DO NOT TOUCH THE GERBIL” sign in large and well-articulated handwriting, lifting the lid to the caged stories we all keep, and cornering a rodent that does not want to be held.
It’s going to hurt, but it gets easier.
originally published 2018-03-21 via Medium.com
© 2018 Joe Belknap Wall
Yesterday, after shopping at Ikea, as I carried a big blue tote bag containing ten LED Par-20 floodlight bulbs for my lighting instruments in the lobby of the little theater I run and one small black picture frame for artist bios for our gallery exhibition away from the cash register, I paused, taking in the scent of cinnamon rolls, then remembered that they seldom live up their their promise, and continued on my way.
A young couple blockaded my escape route, but I was too tired to dart, so I bided my time behind them. As we passed into the gauntlet of sliding doors, the young man slipped back to let me pass, and as I was about to step through the last sliding door, the young lady, on a monologue to her mate, assumed, by position, that I was that gentleman, reached out, and grabbed my hand.
I looked down at my big clumsy meathook inexplicably in the control of a more slender and elegant hand than I am accustomed to holding, then looked up at her with a furrowed brow as she continued her soliloquy, her sharp eyes scanning the large parking lot for their car, then looked back at her mate, whose face was a wry and twisted concentration of I MUST NOT LAUGH.
Despite my previous feeling of urgency, I continued in this entourage across the entire parking lot, seeing my truck dwindle in the distance, even as the cuckolded mate hung back, intentionally staying out of range, occasionally covering his mouth with his hand, and the one-sided conversation, a detailed treatise largely revolving around the functional and aesthetic properties of an incorporated chaise in a large sofa, continued as well. I was pleased to hear her pronounce “chaise” properly, and wondered if I looked like a giant toddler in tow, dragged helplessly through a day of clothes shopping.
We arrived at a small silver Honda, hands still engaged, and she blipped the remote with her free hand, unlocking the car, before turning to me, recoiling in horror, and snapping her hand away from mine like someone who’d inadvertently grabbed the red-hot handle of a pot on a stove. The other gentleman in question burst into gales of particularly ragged laughter, doubled-over with his own blue bag sliding off his shoulder. The young lady, who was not at all amused, began to belabor him about the head and shoulders, yelling “You are so stupid, Aaron!” which made him laugh even harder.
I just stood there, silently, because it seemed right.
After a time, I turned and headed for my truck at the other end of the parking lot, getting a fresh grip on my own blue bag and ten LED Par-20 floodlight bulbs and a small black picture frame, and listening to the combination of pique and hilarity dwindling behind me as I found the truck, inserted the blue bag and then my person into their appropriate spots on the bench seat, and drove off.
This, dear hearts, is why the work of Jacques Tati speaks to me.
It is always playtime.
©2016 Joe Belknap Wall
So I wrote this book, and then I had a lot of unexpected life changes and I got way off track editing the draft, and I ended up expanding it in unproductive directions and vandalizing myself with a million edits and replacing the light touch of stream-of-consciousness narrative with ponderous literary pomp and then I had a bunch of additional life changes and then I got real busy and it just sat while I focused on my storytelling work on stage.
I’d revived it briefly a while back when my friend Keith Sinzinger badgered me into working on it with the very, very generous offer (since he was a master editor with faith in my stories) of being my editor, but he left us before we could roll up our sleeves to get down to it and I just left it alone, feeling sort of wrung out and sad.
Now that it’s going to be a while before I can do much stage work during the pandemic lockdown, I thought hey, I have a book manuscript—maybe I should finish that.
I have a modern car for my commute, and it’s a perfectly nice car, but for the last month, whenever I’ve needed to get out for food or essentials, it’s always been in my old Citroën 2CV, Sister Joanne. My routes, for which I should be making quick, point-A-to-point-B runs in accordance with my civic responsibility, have been growing longer and more intricate in their explorations as a way of being out of the house, out of the neighborhood, and in my element again as the kind of person who needs a little private. meditative time each day to get my bearings, bobbing gently through the side streets and swaying around the bends.Continue reading Charging Batteries
There’s something delicious about finding fault with something. And that can be including finding fault with one’s self, you know?—Pema Chödrön
One of my favorite elbows-on-the-carpet reads was the reprinting of the 1902 Sears Catalog that was one of the nifty pieces of late-seventies nostalgia that my grandmother kept in her balsam-scented telephone cabinet. Everything about it was neat, despite my steadfast belief in the world of the future as envisioned in my yard sale copies of mid-sixties Popular Mechanics magazines, and the neatest thing of all were the Heidelberg Giant Power Electric Belts.
“Joe-B, are you readin’ about those electric belts again?” she’d ask in the sweet Baltimore brogue that’s fast retreating into memory. “You and those electric belts. You know, I’d have thought you’d be lookin’ at the brassieres, but it’s always those electric belts.”
“Eighteen dollars was a lot in 1902,” I opined.
“It’s a lot now, too.”
“But for it to cost eighteen dollars in 1902…I wonder what they were for?”
“It’s right there in the description, Joe-B.”
“I don’t understand what it’s saying, though. Here, where it says ‘The suspensory encircles the organ, carries the vitalizing, soothing current directly to these delicate nerves and fibers, strengthens and enlarges this part in a most wonderful manner.’ What does that mean? What organ?”
My grandmother, who rode into the world on the tail of Comet Halley, was never one to mince words, but in response, all she could do was laugh.
“It ain’t the pipe organ in church, hon.”
She had to raise her mother-of-pearl catseye glasses to wipe away a tear.
“You talk crazy sometimes, Mama Gee. Why’s that so funny?”
“I’ll tell you when you’re older, okay? Just remind me.”
“How much older?”
“Umm…thirteen. I’ll explain it when you’re thirteen.”
© 2012 Joe Belknap Wall
I was delighted to be invited to perform once more at the North-East Electro-Music Festival held at the Center for the Arts in Homer, NY. It’s a three-day festival of electronic and electro-acoustic music that brings together some of my favorite artists in the field for a diverse selection of genres and instrumentation. This was my sixth performance at one of these events, created by the Electro-Music community, now celebrating fifteen years of bringing artists and audiences together, often in a diffuse way in which players play, coalesce, and recombine into both planned and spontaneous ensembles that challenge and engage.
The event includes performances, unstructured time to just gather with other performers and composers and talk shop, and a variety of workshops ranging from the technical to the historical and instructional. We were lucky this year to have Bill Vencil, known on Youtube as Chords of Orion, with us to perform, share his technique, and conduct a great session on how to get established as a performer on Youtube.
There’s a openness and forgiving quality to audiences at EM Fests that really push a person to open up more, and experiment more, and to try new ideas and modes on an audience that is both one of the smartest and most forgiving in the field, and I’ve been gradually drifting from doing tightly scripted, fully orchestrated combinations of stories and live, improvised soundtracks that are my best approximation of what you’d get if stand-up comedy and digital jazz got together and made a noisy, chatty baby on stage. This year, I took on unresolved plotlines, half-told tales, and ruminations uncertainty and endings.
or listen to the performance as audio:
Thanks again to everyone at NEEMFest for making this happen!Continue reading NEEMFest 2019
I’m an industrial design fanatic and a former media conservation technician, and I’m always fascinated by the way some things are just seemingly eternal, while others are indefinitely capable of maintenance, and some are just running on a lit fuse from the day they leave the factory.
I’ve got the oscillating Westinghouse desk fan my grandmother looted her savings passbook to buy in 1938, right after my mother was born, because it was unusually hot in May that year in Baltimore, and it works beautifully not because it made a pact with the devil, but rather because it is made of simple materials and simple systems, and every decade or so, I lay it out on newspaper on my workbench, dismantle it down to its components, clean out the dust and lint and hair and other greasy nonsense, change the carbon brushes if needed, clean and polish everything, apply grease and oil where it belongs and wipe it off where it does not, and it’s good for another five years. Seventy-eight years down, it’s good for another seventy-eight if someone gets it after me and takes the same care.
On the other side of the coin, I have the French blue steel crepe pan my sister bought me in 1986, which I’ve washed with soap about five times in thirty years, and barring a little warping it suffered when I was young and green and still learning the craft of cooking, it’s good for as long as someone owns it who understands the concept of seasoning and doesn’t idiotically soak it in the sink. Same goes for my slightly cheaper, but well-made, impersonations of All-Clad-type pro cookware sold as a house brand by the various stores owned by Federated Department Stores, Inc., which succeed by virtue of being slavish to the heavy build of what they cloned, unlike cheaper versions with riveted handles and heavy look but no real body.
Anything with nonstick coatings, beyond being worse than Pol Pot, famine, and child abuse, is doomed from the first day, and you’ll have the privilege of eating all that polytetrafluoroethylene in the tragic butter-free bomb-shelter-ration-grade meals you grind out without a trace of soul in those pots, not that I have a particularly strong opinion either way.
Simple materials are best. Composites are always bad, unless they’re proven over time. The rise of 3D printing makes it possible to resurrect old things with broken plastics and makes it likely that those things can have long lifespans as long as you can get the files to print new parts. Lightweight, slim, elegant things usually don’t last, though they’re pretty for a while, and fashionable, and Jean Cocteau says we’re meant to forgive fashion everything, seeing as it dies young. Old things and ingenuity work, too. The high spec drill I use as a construction worker was one I found immersed in water in a basement of a renovation project, and I took the time to strip it, wire-brush it, and replace bearings, and it’s good for another thirty or forty years, at least. I ever terrorized a coworker in my penultimate career by suddenly darting into busy traffic on a Baltimore street to retrieve a tool that I watched being run over again and again until a gap opened up.
“What the hell?” she asked, and I beamed back.
“Vintage Snap-On three-eighth’s ratchet,” I said with the delight of a lottery winner, feeling a bit sad for the poor schmuck who had it roll off their truck and delirious for myself, because those things are amazing, and it’s scuffed up from its time as a pinball and still absolutely perfect in every functional way.
Come to think of it, I’m about to be snowed in, and I think maybe I’ll stop writing on the internet for now, get that wrench out, and spend a little time giving my also permanently repairable LML Star motor scooter a little sprucing up in anticipation of a new season of zippification…which is all part of the peculiar instincts of the anti-materialist materialist making a way through the world.
Research well, buy smart, and make it last.
—writing on the lifetime of objects, 9 February 2016