Dreams Don’t Quit, People Do

My cousin Hank didn’t know he was my role model when we were growing up.  Truthfully, I don’t think he paid much attention to me.  We were more than a decade apart in age and I hung with his much younger brother Jeff.  In fact, when I recently mentioned that he had his boyhood friends punch me in the stomach to show how well I could “take it,” Hank denied it ever happened.  Of course, he wasn’t the one who took the hits; why should he remember?

Hank was older and cool, but most importantly he was a saxophonist.  I was still a kid when his band moved to Las Vegas and grabbed the town by the throat.  We heard great reviews of his playing, with lots of accolades to Barbara, his wife and the band’s singer.

Then word came back that the group would appear with Jerry on the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon.  In those days, that was “can’t miss TV” replete with every famous headliner including the Rat Pack.  Plus, this was gonna be the first time I’d get a chance to hear him play and Barbara sing.  I couldn’t wait.  Although scheduled for ’round midnight, they didn’t get on air until the early hours of the morning.  No matter–despite threats from my mother who wanted me to go to bed–no way I was gonna miss his set.

I loved what I heard.  He had the fastest fingers I’d ever seen and the horn just wailed, counterpointed by Barb’s husky crooning.

That night was the beginning of my dream to become a musician.  When the band moved back to New York, I was attending a Yeshiva high school in Brooklyn.  Hank’s willingness to sneak Jeff, me, and Frank (their middle brother, who along with Jeff and Hank is one of my best friends) into a dive off Broadway called The Wagon Wheel just reinforced my fantasy.

But like most people’s dreams, mine slunk into a corner when confronted by daily life.  I’d quit college to go into Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) and discovered I was a talented organizer and counselor and enjoyed the work.  Like most people, I continued to do what I did well.  The fact that I never had a music lesson or any experience with musical instruments didn’t help all that much either.

Fast forward through decades:  Twenty years of working in social services, raising children, and ten years of successfully writing detective fiction (another dream of mine).

Still, throughout those years, the thought of playing music never disappeared.  In fact, at one point I asked Hank to pick out a sax for me to buy.  Instead, he kindly sent me one of his, told me he never played it so I could keep it.  I can only imagine him shaking his head and wondering what the fuck I wanted it for.

What the fuck, indeed.  The sax sat in the closet for another decade while I delved into my next serial career as right-hand man to my blood brother Ron, a lawyer in D.C.

I took pleasure in facilitating focus groups, running mediations, preparing experts to testify, even editing briefs.  I was especially proud that Ron’s practice was totally committed to fighting for the little guy against powers that be.

Still, something was missing.  I needed the arts.  Since I’d burned my writing bridges, it was time to pull out the other dream and Hank’s alto.  I was sure to succeed–hell, I’d written a New York Notable novel without ever writing much more than a short story.

I found a teacher, Bob Brenner, and dug in.  And while I could actually get a sound out of the sax fairly quickly, I slowly, unhappily, discovered over the next couple of years that muscle memory wasn’t a strong suit (memory in general, actually), and learning to read music, finger an instrument, understand ‘time” and enough theory to become competent in this new language, was a brand new bag.  And not one in which I was particularly proficient.

Frankly, I was shocked.  I’d been certain that with time and effort I was sure to succeed.  Beginning at 50 years old was an excuse for a while, but some dreams ride with talent and some don’t.  Images of playing weekend gigs at Holiday Inns weren’t going to become a reality.

Part of me thought about quitting.  Just giving up.  If I couldn’t snag my goals, why bother?  But Bob knew better.  He’d surely known my fantasies were just that–fantasies.  But he also recognized and understood that the pleasure of playing music didn’t hinge on unattainable dreams.  There was more to get from making music than gigs or muscle memory or nimble fingers.  So he urged me to join a learning ensemble populated by much more experienced musicians than I.

At first I took to calling the ensemble, my Tuesday Night Humiliation Session.  But I discovered that playing with people much better than me was a growing experience.  Letting go of my pride made room for more music to enter–and I even got better.

During my writing years people continually asked what kind of book to write in order to sell to a publisher.  I always replied with a question of my own; do you want to write or do you want to sell?  Either is fine, but they ain’t neccessarily the same.

At that time it was an honest but facile response.  My musical life has taught me how true that answer really was and then some.  It’s taken close to a lifetime but I’ve finally learned that it isn’t always the “goal” that need carry the day, but the activity in and of itself.

I don’t know if what I’m about to say makes sense in today’s world, but I’m retro.  I don’t think life means all that much if you don’t go after what you want.  No matter how unlikely, unusual, or just plain difficult.  No, I’m never going to play at a Holiday Inn, but I do love playing.  Sometimes dreams don’t turn out as expected, but that doesn’t always mean worse.  Sometimes it just means different.

“Inside every old person is a younger person wondering what the fuck happened.”

The Tea Party: We Gettin’ One Lump Or Two?

There are plenty of labels people hang on the Tea Party:  patriots, idiots, people who want to stop the insanity, people who are insane, rednecks, and racists–just for starters.  Then there was an anonymous comment I read online: “Tea Party is just a nice way of saying KKK.”

Would that it were so simple. The KKK made no bones about their public hatred of Blacks.  They were founded and acted on tenets of white supremacy, and weren’t the least bit shy about using terrorism to make their beliefs crystal clear.

But from where I sit, the Tea Party’s brand of racism is, in some ways, far more insidious because its followers are unable (or unwilling) to perceive that much of the underpinnings of their philosophy is indeed racist. That is, their demands to obliterate safety nets that have been in place since Roosevelt and Johnson in the name of small government–non progressive tax programs (flat tax), limitations on growth in federal spending, etc–would result in worsening the already lousy living conditions for countless people of color and the poor of every hue.  The TPers’ obliviousness, their refusal to even acknowledge the logical consequences of their programs and philosophy, trades racist rhetoric for racist policy results, real lynchings for slowly twisting in the wind.

Worse, The Tea Party movement is a natural outgrowth of our domestic policies and ideologies.  And Progressives miss the point when they froth at the mouth about the Palins, Rands, and Bachmans-as foolish and detestable as their thinking might be.  The Tea Party is simply a naked distillation of historical and modern political thinking about race, poverty, taxes, and government.


It’s not surprising the TPers landed where they are.  How many decades have Republicans and “New Democrats” objected to Affirmative Action, citing time after time that we now live in a country that has a “level playing field.”  Or, both parties raising the specter of Welfare Queens, which conjures up big Black women living high on the hog without a care in the world.

This wasn’t begun by TPers but from the Reagan Revolution that Bill Clinton did nothing to stop or undo.  In fact, he encouraged the myths through his program “to end welfare as we know it. (Which in reality meant a huge jump in the prison population of women between the ages of 18-25 for non-violent crimes.  With or without welfare, people need to survive).  And if Democrats are honest about it, Clinton was more than willing to suspend civil liberties to invade Cabrini Green, a non-white housing project in Chicago.

So please let’s drop the pretense that somehow the TPers are more racist than traditional politicians who, in the face of institutional and individual racism, call our society’s opportunities equal for all.  If anything, the TPers are more sincere in their mistaken beliefs than the regular pols, who actually know the truth but pander to the make-believe for political gain.


Another Tea Party inheritance.  Prop This, Prop That, and trickle-down economics have been a mainstay of the Republican Party and, in their own way, post Reagan Democrats who act as if taxes have no relationship whatsoever to the betterment of people’s lives.  I’m not suggesting there isn’t government waste.  And I certainly have no truck with where a significant portion of our taxes go.  But to eviscerate the idea of taxes, to turn the word into an obscenity has its roots much farther back than the TPers, who have come by this “no taxes” mantra via decades of politically professed hatred of government.

It’s time for Progressives to champion the belief that government has the potential to enhance people’s lives. That government is a social compact between all that live here, and the definition of that compact needs relentless work.  Something we haven’t done effectively for decades.  We seemed to take too many of our truths for granted, above discussion.  But we were the only ones who stopped talking, stopped acting, and look what’s happened with issues like a woman’s right to choose, institutional racism, social responsibility-hell, even evolution.  We need to recapture lost ground-ground that has allowed the TPers to plant their flag.

We need to trumpet that race is not irrelevant, that poverty exists beyond most American’s wildest dreams, and that it existsbecause of our social structure, not because of an individual’s own doing.  We need to fight about how taxes are spent, not whether they should exist.

Our lack of organization, our inability to reach out and connect with people who don’t share our beliefs, our preference to react rather than act, our waste of time ad homonym name calling of people with whom we disagree, and especially our blindness to the real effects of the Reagan Revolution helped create space for the Tea Party.

As much as I hate to say it, most of them are pretty genuine in what they believe.  And getting rid of their political ideology is gonna be much more difficult than comparing them to the KKK or deriding their “stupidity.”

We live in a political and cultural crossfire.  Some call it Red versus Blue.  Some call it North versus South.  Some call it Conservative versus Liberal.

I call it Truth versus Myth.  Our war isn’t against the Tea Party, but against the propagation of the myths that have infected our entire society.  For it is these myths which aided and abetted the Tea Party’s creation.

A government of the 1%, by the 1%, and for the 1%.

Writing From The Heart

I received a ton of feedback on line and off about “A Marriage Passed.”  Each one was encouraging and lovely, and I very much appreciate the time and effort people took to comment-thank you.

One thing that struck me was that many called the piece “writing from the heart” and urged me to continue to do so. I think what that meant was the degree of emotional honesty came through as clearly as the content.  And that was true.  Yet, my posts have generally been “from the heart.”  Okay, not the television one where I was having some fun.  Or the “Harbingers of Spring,” in which I rued Boston’s weather (well, maybe).  But my post about “Israeli Regime Change,” or “The Obama Conundrum,” and even the Dylan/Ochs conversation were reflections of deeply held beliefs-though written in differing styles and forms.

And while I appreciated last week’s comments and feedback, truth is, I started this site as a road back to a kind of writing, which is of my heart.

It began with the intent of shaking the rust off due to an eighteen year hiatus.  I chose nonfiction posts because it was something I’d never done.  I hoped the newness would both jack me out of silence and broaden my skills.  So far it’s done both and, while I enjoy the freedom to pick different topics, love the response to my pieces, enjoy the arguments they occasionally provoke, I still miss the hell out of writing fiction.

I miss the freedom to play inside my imagination.  I miss the people I create.  I miss hearing the different voices inside my head and the unique personalities that eventually emerge.

I guess writing novels is my safe way of experimenting with multiple personality disorder.

I’m also hungry for the interpersonal interactions and relationships in which my people engage.  I don’t miss plotting but that comes with the package and there’s simply no way to avoid it–especially since I intend a return to detective fiction.

(Excuse me while I momentarily extemporize.  It was no accident that I took up the saxophone when I walked away from writing. I liken detective fiction to jazz for a number of reasons.  For one, jazz is an indigenous American art form and I believe the same about hard-boiled.  Just as jazz upends traditional songs, it’s rewarding to create variations on the hard-boiled historical structure which, while maintaining the form, also changes it.  Most of all it’s a gift to follow in the footsteps of novelists like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Bart Spicer and Ross Thomas.  (Someday I’ll share a more complete list of the “greats” in this space.)

I walked away from publishing after several censorship battles with a major house–and thought I was done forever.  But this new age of communications has given me another shot.  Right now I’m converting three out-of-print Matt Jacob books (along with the fourth I took with me when I walked) into eBooks, which I will control.  That was my thinking when I started the whole project, but in the course of creating this space I’ve decided to bring Matt Jacob out of retirement.  I’ll begin a new novel once the earlier ones are up and running.  Frankly, the idea of playing with that eighteen-year gap tickles me.  And while I don’t imagine my older voice will be the same, (hell I haven’t stayed the same for the past eighteen and certainly my voice hasn’t), I’ll try to write books that reflect the realness of life and relationships, much as I tried to do before.

So what does this have to do with writing from the heart?  I suppose the connection is that I have to follow my heart in order to write from it.

At the same time I have no intention to give up these posts.  I’ve discovered the pleasure of stretching my abilities and have thoroughly enjoyed the reactions to the different columns.  And most importantly, there are cultural, social, political, artistic and personal issues that intrigue me and I intend to explore.

Although most of my posts won’t be about loved ones, they will be honest and often “written from the heart.”

I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any. -Mahatma Gandhi

A Marriage Passed

I never imagined writing this.  I thought Peggy, my ex-wife and mother to my older son Matt, had the Buckley gene.  I always believed she’d long outlast me since her mother lived to around 100.
I was wrong.  Diagnosed right after this past Christmas with lung cancer that had metastasized to her bones, Peggy died hours after Easter.  During the intervening months she suffered a heart attack and strokes that partially paralyzed her and robbed her of speech.  But I was able to visit her in the hospital before all of these additional insults.  We had the opportunity to come to terms with the many experiences of our relationship, including a long, difficult divorce.  We both acknowledged that whatever had occurred between us, however mistaken we had been to get married, we, at the time, honestly loved each other.  And it was that love’s spirit tempered by mature understanding and affection that was the dominant emotion both of us felt during this final physical farewell.

We hadn’t been estranged over the past thirty-odd years, of course.  We both lived in the same Boston neighborhood and we actively raised our son together.  But we didn’t hang.  And after Sue and I set up housekeeping, it often felt easier for them to conduct business and compare parental notes–mom to step-mom.

But there was some tension.  Sometimes between Peg and me, sometimes between our tribes.  During Matt’s college graduation, Peggy, her sister, her mother, Sue, my father, his partner and I found ourselves cramped shoulder to shoulder in the hotel elevator.  What little conversation there was stopped immediately when the elevator doors opened on another floor.  In walked the great attorney William Kunstler, whose granddaughter was in Matt’s class.  He took one look around and said, “I’m available for mediation.”  Peggy and I both laughed out loud the rest of the way to the lobby.

But once Matt was launched and gone, we were only occasionally brought together by one of his events or when my younger son grew older and helped Peggy with computer issues.  To Jake, who had recently spent a weekend in New York with her to watch Matt run in the marathon, Peggy was just family-or his “reverse stepmom,” as he occasionally liked to say.

Despite our longtime separate lives, after she fell ill, I fell into a slump.  Much had to do with concern about Matthew and his partner Alyssa who bore the brunt of Peggy’s caretaking, Peggy’s imminent death, my mortality, and my own internal review of history in which I found much of my behavior wanting.  My weeks were filled with lethargy, sleep, and an often futile attempt to plug along with my day-to-day activities.

This past Thursday night at Peggy’s wake/shiva, an entirely new set of feelings began to emerge.  People from every aspect of Matthew’s life-Peggy’s, mine, his own-were gathered together and old feelings of friendship, past connections, new connections with people I had heard about from Matthew but never met, generated a joy of being together along with the hurt of loss.  I saw people I hadn’t seen in over thirty years and it was as if the affection we’d had back then had somehow remained unbroken.  I felt a deep appreciation for all those who, out of my line of sight, had contributed not only to Peggy’s life but to the life of my son.  I saw the outpouring of love toward Matt by his friends, some of whom came from out of town just for the night, some of whom left a trip in Hawaii, stopped off in the LA airport to hand off their kids to a grandparent, and just kept coming East to be with Matt. Some who had been Peg’s college roommates, some of whom were her everyday friends.   And many, like me, the other side of his family.

There were tears Thursday night, but they were outweighed by laughter.  We collectively rejoiced in the breadth of Peggy’s life as much as the pain and injustice of her untimely death.

This wake/shiva turned out to only be the appetizer, the next day’s service and reception was the main course.  What stays with me from the service was the eulogy given by Chris, one of Peggy’s best friends.  His talk about their travels together revived memories of our own vacations and his love for her was moving.

But the real kicker was Matthew’s talk.  Never one to be particularly comfortable sharing his emotional life, it was as if he opened his chest and exposed his heart for all to see.  The love he expressed to Alyssa, to all those who were there, but especially toward his mother brought tears.  His talk was the epitome of intimacy that I can only aspire to.  This was truly a case where the child had outgrown the parent and I could not have been more proud or felt more love.

The reception gave her friends, his friends, my friends, the opportunity to reminisce out loud about Peg’s life, hopes, dreams.  As I stood there listening I couldn’t help thinking that the greatness of humanity has to do with our ability to love, and the greatness of love is the ability to turn individuals into communities, and that it’s only through those loving communities that the earth continues to spin.

Thank you, Peg.  Thank you, Son.

Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. ~Howard Zinn