The Lucky Ones 

July 16, 2015 Chattanooga, TN

I took my daughter to have her senior pictures taken today.

We drove to the most unremarkable of places, a prefab building down a road generically named Perimeter road.

Perimeter road would turn out to be an appropriately military-like address.

My daughter is lovely. They ask her to sit for 20 shots, each slightly different than the other.

Senior picture shoots are boring.

My daughter was patient. 

I’m proud.

She’s lovely in every way, this 17 year-old girl.

She’s a dancer, a student, a feminist, a humanist, a kind and smart woman.

I know she will do well. 

What I don’t know is that for every pose there has been a gunshot, fired less than a ¼ mile away.

A live shooter.

You aren’t surprised are you?

This will happen everywhere.

When we came out to the lobby to wait, with other parents and their sons and daughters, for the next series of photos, the manager of the photo studio came over to our group and told us that there was a live shooter in the area.

He thought we should know.

Although the entire front of the building is glass, he locked the glass front door.

I know how he felt.

He had to do something.

He did the best he could do.

Everybody stared at their phones.

Nobody was surprised.

It is going to happen everywhere. 

Life went on as if everything was normal.

Nobody did anything.

They called my daughter in for the next series of photographs.

While my daughter posed, I went to the back door and found the exit.

Then I looked for a place to escape.

Then I went back to the waiting room and stood where I could see the front door.

I told myself what I always tell myself.

Being scared is no excuse for being slow.

I have thought about this day.

This is going to happen everywhere.

We left and drove to lunch as traffic snarled along every route.

We listened as the news trickled in that placed us so close to the gunshots.

We wondered if we had passed the shooter’s car, or in turn, been passed by him.

I asked her if she knew that I would take care of her.

She said yes and I let that be our truth.

I told her that if ever I told her to go, to leave as quickly as possible, that she should run and not look back.

I told her that she should never hunker down and wait.

She should escape.

I told her that I can take care of myself and that I couldn’t stand the idea of losing her.

She knew exactly what I meant and she changed the subject.

She understood.

This is going to happen everywhere.

We would learn later that while she posed next to a clock, on a steamer trunk, more gunshots were being fired at a location six miles away.

While time stood still on a giant clock, where she was leaning, five people died.

Nobody was trying to shoot us today.

We were the lucky ones.

The senior pictures will be ready in two weeks.

In two weeks nobody will be talking about a guy with a gun in Chattanooga, TN

Because this is going to happen everywhere.









Georgia 41 (someday we'll look back)  

JANUARY 26, 2010 (Originally oublished in Open Salon)

This is where I go to work every day. 

The traditional American carpet industry, is hanging on by its fingernails.

Maybe this is just justice.

At one of the plants, in a surprising moment of candor, the owner said "the people who do these jobs aren't able to get any other kind of work." and then described the process that is used to put backing on a rug or carpet and the conditions in the factories (loud, dirty, hot, vaporous), all legal by our government's standards.

The American carpet industry used immigrants and the broken as fuel for the machine.

Were they lucky to have a job?

 I've had some tough jobs but nothing like working in a carpet/rug mill.

But were they lucky to have a job?

Reports differm but it is widely agreed upon  by the people who would know that the unemployment here is at least double the national average. Some of the mills and factories are running at 25% of their usual production.

I drive by row after row of closed small businesses and empty corporate business parks.

The people suffering the most are the Hispanic mill workers who drove the uber-production of the 80's and 90's by working 12 hour shifts without overtime in non-union shops at some of the worst jobs imaginable.

In the area they call "Beaner Town", people are losing their houses.

In the middle-class neighborhoods people are losing their houses.

Would it be stating the obvious to say that the last people to feel the sting live in the huge houses in the old money status neighborhoods?

The devil you know?

One of the people I spoke with who lost his job said, "The owners will cut jobs before they will give up either one of their summer homes!"

Many of the companies in this area are actually international, and if they are local and American, only a very few that aren't giants have survived. The biggest companies have used the economic crisis to swallow up the mid-sized and smaller firms.

A lot of these companies are making the product in the USA but the money is going elsewhere.

I've heard that the economy is slowly recovering.

Not here.

What I can't understand is why nobody at places like MSNBC is showing these pictures. Maybe I missed something but it would seem like somewhere in their programming day,

maybe between "Lock Up" and "Lock Up Raw" (or whatever the hell it is called), they could go to North Georgia and turn their cameras on for an hour or two.

Everything is out in the open.

But it is all so sad that nobody wants to look.

All of the answers to the question "what do we do?" are deeply troubling because the answers from the people living here, with the power to make the changem would continue to reward the system that has been in place since the very beginning of manufacturing in the South, where poor is better than destitute and the destitute steal to survive, and the mill owners know that desperate men serve as great sacrifices to the machines.

The churches are full, the prisons are full, and the houses are empty.

This is where I go to work every day.

Update (2015)- It hasn’t gotten any better.
 
Georgia Highway 41 (someday we'll look back)
(special guest, Annie Mosher)
 
I’m driving into a Nickel Moon
The Georgia hills will be bare soon
This is no ordinary fall
The factories and the mills
Stand silently and still
Nothing lives between the walls
 
On the streets they pray to Jesus, just to keep the little pieces
Of their blessings and amens
It’s a thin line they’re  hanging on, God is great, he’s good, he’s gone
And he’s not coming back again
 
CHORUS 
Someday we’ll look back on this
Someday
We’ll look back on this
And it still won’t be funny
 
You follow all the rules, drive your kids to school
Save for a rainy day
Until it rains all the time, and one day you find
It’s all been washed away
 
And I’m just passing through to somewhere I’m going to
I'm a tourist in the ruins
I can tell myself, it’s always somebody else
But I know my time is coming soon
 
(REPEAT CHORUS)
 
There are always dreams to dream
And stories to tell
But our memories it seems
Don’t serve us well
And it’s just as well
 
I hold my tears, aching back and 50 years
And travel like a ghost
And I wonder why some men fall and some get by
And I am luckier than most

(REPEAT CHORUS)

Words and Music by Nathan Bell copyright 2010
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  1. Georgia 41 (someday we'll look back)

The Greatest Movie Never Made (Warriors, come out and playyy) 

(Originally appeared in Open Salon)

JUNE 12, 2010

My wife says I'm "middle brow" but I think she's aiming too high.

I am proudly low brow.

I think Joe Dirt is on to something.

And not just because the movie shows, way back in 2001-whatever, that in the future Dennis Miller would turn out to be even more of an asshole revenge bully whose relatively simple intellect is now being used to piss on everybody who ever offended him and that appears to actually be everybody.

And not just because the broadcasting of Joe Dirt's adventures, broadcast over LA radio to a crowd of Howard Stern-fed misery voyeurs, foreshadows the rise of reality entertainment as a tool to further divide working class people by giving them extra tiers on the social "class" level.

You won't try to move up if there's somebody you can already look down on, right? 

Joe Dirt, despite some seriously Beavis and Butthead moments, makes a coherent statement about social structure, class war, and the fundamentally mean-spirited philosophy of the ivy-league driven ruling class.
 
Or you could watch Escape From New York.

For a low brow like me, this is a pretty exciting movie.

It has everything you could ever want in a science fiction/action/prison/fight movie.

It has the greatest set ever, a trashed  New York City, which has become a walled penal colony.

It foreshadows the explosion of mixed martial arts, and they even get to use clubs with nails!

It has a completely corrupt and self-serving penal administration.

It has an explosive device that is injected into the bloodstream and is set to go off in a mere 24 hours.

And it has the greatest action figure hero ever in the history of time, Snake Plissken.

And he's played by former Disney tween star Kurt Russell.*

*Russell also starred in the greatest low-brow car dealer movie ever made, Used Cars.**

**"At New Deal Used Cars...we're blowing the shit out of high prices!" 

 Snake has to recover the President from the gangs that now rule New York City, before the explosives in his blood stream go off and he blows up!

Things don't go as expected.

And of course, Snake doesn't know the real story, that the president has a tape that is somehow critical to the existence of humans.

And he is going to play it at the United Nations.

 And the USA will continue to rule the earth.

And because Snake just doesn't play well with others, when he does find the tape, he records over it.

The corporations don't want the president around.

 The bad guy from the government has a bad mustache.

Snake Plissken is a dead man walking and he carries it pretty well.

Who would have thought that Kurt Russell could be so damn funny?

In case you've never seen it, I won't tell you how it ends.

But it ends real good.

And for low-brow social commentary, it sure looks like we're headed that way.

Filling up the prisons and letting the government send criminals to fight for them?

Naw, that will never happen. 

But for pure low-brow entertainment, both Joe Dirt and Escape From New York pale in comparison to the white-paranoia Walter Hill flick, The Warriors.
Can you dig it?

I said...CAN YOU DIG IT?

Can you dig a movie with gangs that dress up in Yankee uniforms and blackface?

Can you dig a movie where the morally bankrupt (as gang leaders go) villain resembles a tiny Patrick Swayze dressed up as Olivia Newton John?

Can you dig a movie where the girl gang is called "The Lizzies" and not one single Warrior gets it? 

Can you dig a movie that was designed purely to scare the shit out of suburban housewives and actually did convince the right-wing morons that America was chock full of gangs of color-coordinated, fashionably dressed lower class murderers?

 Can you dig a script that is deadly serious to the point of having no sense of humor?

Can you dig a movie that has spawned websites devoted to the subway/train trip that the fictional warriors gang takes to get back to Coney Island as if it actually happened?
 
And can you dig a B movie that represented pretty accurately the divide between the haves and have-nots, the openly criminal and the institutionally criminal? 

Can you dig a movie that, despite being utterly ridiculous, points out that when you trade up to straight life you just trade one set of crime bosses for another? 

The Warriors, at least some of them, get back to Coney Island, safe from all those savage gangs.

Remember the British empire?

Can you dig it...they are back on their island, aren't they, away from all those tribes!

 White Mischief anyone?

High brow might just be British accents (with the requisite amnesia for Benny Hill). 

Life is generally low brow.

At some point all intellectualizing in the world has to give way to something that moves forward.

I have one request.

Would somebody please make a movie where Snake Plissken meets the Warriors?

Please.

For the low brows. 

Lyrics below.
 
THE GREATEST SEQUEL NEVER MADE (Warriors come out and play)
 
Can you dig it, people, can you dig it
It was gang history in the making
The Warriors rode the train from Coney Island
The city was theirs for the taking
 
He was a one-eyed man and a hardened criminal
A time bomb with hair like Jesus
He had 24 hours and not a single minute more
Before they blew his sorry ass to pieces
 
The warriors may have looked like gay biker dudes
But they were tough little queens who took no crap
And Snake Plissken was the kind of man you wouldn’t want to cross
If he fell out of the sky into your lap
 
They were headed toward each other down the New York City streets
In a filmmakers feverish wet dream
And you were looking through your fingers cause you couldn’t help but look
As those legends met up on the silver screen
 
Chorus
 
It wasn’t a night for the fainthearted
It wasn’t a night for the Christians
Things were gonna get plumb out of hand
When the Warriors met Snake Plissken
 
The warriors said “hey, aren’t you snake Plissken”
“Man everybody thinks that you are dead”
And Snake Plissken said “Hey who the fuck are you guys?”
At least that’s what I think he probably said
 
And Snake said “boys are those vests that you’re wearing?”
“Vests that you’re wearing with no shirt?”
And one of the warriors said,”Snake, you’re gonna get wasted”
Which is warrior slang for getting hurt
 
You could hear a pin drop as the tension rose up
It was building up like water behind a dike
But nothing really happened they just went their separate ways
Because the screenwriters had all gone on strike

 (repeat chorus)
Well I guess life is never quite what you expect it to be
And a lot has changed a lot these days
The Warriors all found jobs and settled down in the suburbs
And Snake Plissken is working for the CIA
 
And everywhere he goes in every language
They say the thing that drives him out of his head
“Que no eres tu, Snake Plissken”
Yo, man, everybody thinks that you are dead
 (repeat chorus)
 
Words and Music copyright 2010 Nathan Bell

Get Dead, Be Loved  


JANUARY 8, 2010 10:58AM (This originally appeared at Open Salon)

You had to know it would happen. It always happens. Big pop star dies after 20 years in obscurity, and infamy, and two or three religious conversions and a confession of (wait for it), drug use and his/her previously disparaged and ignored recordings start flying off the shelf and out of Itunes at the speed of light.

The real surprise to me was that after Michael Jackson died it wasn't really his family who started lining up to cash in, especially considering the potential for elevated familial self-worth and entitlement available from the public outpouring of grief (seriously, grief?

With all due respect to the self-ordained king of pop, being a pioneer in the field of music video and dancing really, really well isn't usually enough to require that an entire city be shut down to mourn your passing), but that they passed the "we're doing this to honor his memory" flaming torch of bullshit to the same corporate cynics who ran screaming from any mention of his name while he was alive and allowed those same rich white men a chance to fill their mid-life crisismobiles with folding money. So much folding money that it almost made being a corporate robber baron look like hard work by comparison. Okay, not that much money but a whole lot of money.

But the Jacksons, for the most part, whose father doomed them to the insanity that comes with growing up in public, tried to be respectful to their lost kin. Who would have seen that coming?

It is old news that everybody loves you more after your gone.

But all of the weeping and wailing got me thinking about all the working musicians I know who are just living the long hours and unpredictable incomes of being one of those lucky few who are successful enough at delivering a song to be allowed a chance to perform for others. 

My friend Craig is one of the "lucky" ones.

And I'm lucky to be able to call him my friend.

Craig wrote a song that was recorded by the late Johnny Cash called "When He Comes Back Again." It sounds like it might be about Jesus. But it's not really about Jesus.  And it's not really about Johnny, although it could have been.

And although it's impossible to really know where somebody else's song comes from, or what it's really about, I think it's about how the music business, and it really doesn't matter what genre (Yes, Folk Nazis, I mean you too!), can never reconcile the art with the commerce and the commerce with the human being. And how when commerce is more important than human beings the only way to win is to not play. And how not playing is the ultimate victory. And how dying makes us all saints.

And since my friend put the lyrics to a catchy melody it sounds a whole lot like an upbeat song, a summer hit, a sing along, when really it is a 12 inch blade into the rib cage of Garth Brooks era Nashville and the years that followed. My friend is sneaky like that. 

So I wrote a song about my friend.  He's one of my heroes. 

He is one of the most successful songwriters in contemporary country music. He's had songs recorded by many of my musical heroes including Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, the always underrated Don Williams and a host of others too numerous to mention. 

He was one of the writers of the song "This Old House" which will make you cry no matter how much of a hard-ass you think you are. 

He is also one of the best singers I've ever heard.

And he's a hell of a guy. 

If you've never been a musician or a writer or anybody else who has to deal with publishers, A and R men, marketing people, agents, managers or any other part of the 15-20% share world, that loves you when you're hot and hates you when you're not, you might not understand, but one of the reasons he is my hero is that he never looked over my shoulder to see if somebody more important was coming in the door. 

In the music business that would be reason enough. But there's a lot more. 

Because he says kind things first and hard truths second. And because he always owns the hard truths. And because when he says something he doesn't care if anybody agrees with him. And because he's the H.L Menken of contemporary songwriting.

And because when I called him after disappearing for 12 years, he acted like I'd never been gone. He'd been one of my staunchest advocates and had put himself on the line for me. I left him holding the ball and he's never said a word about those days or asked me why. 
Like I said, I'm lucky to have his friendship. 

And because when he realized that he had to pick up and move his entire family back across the country he just did. No complaints, no "what ifs?" 
And then, because the music biz was on life support, he just started playing gigs. He just started working harder. And because he didn't like what he was hearing on the radio he started recording what he wanted to hear. And he made the best recordings of his life. 

He drives around the country with his profane, brilliant, and infinitely kind manager, Larry. And it looks like two old bastards on a budget holiday without a pot to piss in, because in some ways that is actually what it is. But it's hard work. 

And because he's smarter than an entire shipping container full of Proust scholars he started helping other people write songs. And that was hard work, too.

And because after 40 years singing and playing he still comes alive with a guitar in his hand in a room with an audience as if he was at his first open mike and he can't believe that he gets to do this. And that's hard work, too.

But where he comes from, where they used to make American Steel, that is what the living do. They work hard.  

He's a credit to the family, the forge, the song. 

And that's why he's my hero.  

And why you should go to his website at www.craigbickhardt.com and listen.

He's pretty damn good for a live guy.  
 
 CASH IN '85 (For C.B)
 
It starts with a man in the middle of nowhere
Just him and his guitar and it gets worse from there
The stage is ringed in faded yellow plastic lights
He might make 50 bucks give or take this night
 
The room is loud and smells of whiskey
He’s an echo in the smoke and a man of mystery
He knows exactly where and who he is
And he wonders how it’s come to this

He's like cash
in 85 
 
He needs every dollar of that 50 bucks
To keep his life on wheels and gas in his truck
So he can drive 13 hours to play somewhere else
He knows those damn songs won’t sing themselves
 
Once upon a time those tunes were money
People swarmed around him like ants to honey
But now he’s fighting just to find two or three
Who don’t like him better as a used-to-be
 
The man’s like Cash in 85
Nobody knows he’s out there
But he’s still alive
Fuck ‘em all boys
He’ll survive
He’s like Cash in 85
 
Some say it isn’t fair it isn’t right
Some don’t have the stomach for the fight
You will get knocked down you will get cut
All that matters is that you get back up
Like Cash
in '85 
 
Words and Music by Nathan Bell copyright 2008
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  1. Cash in '85

Farewell to The Fastest Dog In The World (reprint) 




JUNE 16, 2010 2:54PM
(Originally Published in Dirt and Seeds)


She had been the Geezer for so long.

So it was easy to forget.  

As a young dog, she was the fastest animal I have ever seen.

She was a sight hound with no regard for windows.

She broke at least three and weakened countless others. 

She had been a runt and was a contrary, vexing animal.

She was born on April Fool's Day.

She loved a few people absolutely.

We were her pack and she had mixed feelings about us.

In her middle age she barked so much she drove a man who lived four houses and a full street away, crazy.

He is an asshole, anyway.

It was one of her finer acts.

But truth be told, she had one of those rhythmic, throaty barks, one single bark after another that said, "I can do this all damn day until you come see what I'm doing out here."

It was usually a squirrel, just out of reach.

She never seemed to know where she wanted to be so she was either at the door waiting to go out or at the door waiting to go in. 

The first two years of her life we took her to meet other dogs at the McCabe golf course in Nashville at dusk and she would run side by side with them until she decided to pull away and then she would be gone.

She would return, still not winded, after running the entire course.

She ran with her friend Betty who was almost as fast but was clever and would roll her over to slow her down. 

It was something to see. 

She bounded like a deer and was ridiculously beautiful.

She was a combination of a collie and something like a whippet.

Or maybe a cheetah.

She was terrified of thunder storms.

She treated our children well.

She lived with cats yet barely tolerated them outside the house.

She had one true love, a woman who lived down the block that she stayed with sometimes. 

She would stand with her head in this woman's hands for long minutes on end. 

Sometimes she would let me pet her long nose with my index finger until she was hypnotized.

Mostly, she ran, bounced, ran some more, spun, chased, ran away, taunted and tantalized.

It was hard for her to relax because everything she saw made her want to give chase. 

As she got much older and her sight began to fail  she became calmer, happier, and got some of that "I'm old, fuck it, I'm jumping around anyway" verve.

She started to go deaf and couldn't be startled so she began to enjoy just walking out in the backyard.

She no longer feared thunder or hated the UPS truck.

Old age was better to her than youth.

She was always there in one of the dog beds in the living room and in her last year she stayed near us because she needed help getting up sometimes.

She had a strong, stubborn heart that worked harder as her body failed around her.

She conquered cancer, a torn tongue, and a Thanksgiving meal. 

She had her own way of doing things.

Our two younger dogs honored her, even when she could no longer physically hold sway over them, and it was comical watching her stare them down when she was on the verge of tipping over.

It was comical but it was damn impressive.

She learned to walk on a leash, finally.

After we had children, the walks got fewer and farther between and we fenced in our yards so she could still run.

And run she did.

When she was 12, my wife, Leslie, brought home a funny little brown puppy, soon to be named Molly, and she was offended.

So she stayed out in the back yard for exactly 30 days.

One day she sauntered in and acted like nothing had changed.

A year later when we added a black Belgian Shepherd-Mix puppy named Amy she was a little disgusted but the soft, happy bundle of fur went straight to her and let her know that she knew who was boss.

So she acted like nothing had changed.

Four years ago, when she was 13, after surviving cancer and the great turkey dinner debacle, my wife made an appointment to take her to the vet for a check up and said "She looks so scraggly and awful, she must be on her last legs."

We prepared for the worst.

They gave her a bath at the vet and when Leslie picked her up she realized that she wasn't near death, just really dirty.

She never became terribly affectionate but she learned to stay a little closer, until time was up and with a snort and shake of her head she would go back to her safe distance.

It was hard to know how she felt.

I know she would have done things differently.

But she was always there.


She came to us a biting, crazy puppy from the Nashville Humane Society too soon after the death of a young, affectionate, beloved dog.
Leslie wore the scars of her puppy hood on her ankles and forearms.

She was never an easy dog.

But she was our dog.

She alerted us to the presence of all moving creatures.

She played fetch with sticks, endlessly, and could leap so high that I was certain she would be a great Frisbee dog.

She was too damn noble to chase a frisbee.

I should have guessed.

She would run in huge circles in the yard zeroing in on our legs and coming so close on each lap that she would make my pant's legs flutter.

When she ran, she was free.

She was all gypsy.

We learned to accept her.

This February, as her legs worsened, she kept me company, as best she could, during the days after my shoulder surgery. 

And she was patient when I would struggle to get her down the steps and out to the yard with only my one good arm.

It was touching because it was a patience that she had been forced to learn.

 She was that rare old dog who did learn a new trick or two.

Last weekend the light in her eyes finally went out.

Her legs stopped working most of the time.

She had faded down to almost nothing.

It had been coming for a while but how do you know?

Last weekend I watched her closely, checking her almost silent, slow breathing, touching her still soft head.

She rarely even lifted her head.

She rarely moved.

And finally, she couldn't help but ask, silently, for the help she needed.

I hate myself for the decision.

But we could help her, finally.

Next week, at dusk, on the kind of summer day where she would burst from our hands the very second the leash was removed from her collar and, in the blink of an eye,  be 100, then 200 yards away, we will take the dust and ash that is the simple remainder of a complicated 17 years, and sprinkle it across the grass that was her real home.

Her name was Lily. 

And she ran.
She was 17 years old. 

The only song for today is the sound of tags on a collar in the distance fading until the wind and the soft sound of feet on grass are all one and the same.

 She died yesterday and I didn't really understand until she was gone.

 She was one of us. 

Lily (1993-2010)
RIP (Run in Peace)

The Mouse King (or how ballet saved my life) 

Originally appeared at Dirt and Seeds, January 27, 2010

You wouldn't have recognized me.

My face was covered in full mouse.
I had flashing red eyes and a gold crown. 

My body was covered in grey fur, with a military coat and sash. My tail was 4 feet long.

And although, as 50 year old warriors go, I was mighty, battle-hardened, and attacked with purpose, I lost every time.

I was the second oldest mouse king in the history of the Chattanooga Ballet.

Hefting the wooden sword through three months of rehearsals and performances finally finished off my rotator cuff.

I'll have surgery soon.

Ballet is a young man's game.

The sword fight scene lasted 90 seconds.

Ballet is hard.

But now I have something in common with Baryshnikov, Martins, and Nuryev.

And with so many who have made grace out of incredibly hard work.

I have performed the Nutcracker with a professional ballet company.

Ballet is hard.

A little over a year ago September, in the midst of a frustrating year without a steady paycheck, and  after a second-life music career filled with one step forward, six miles back, my daughter (who has danced seriously since she could barely walk) told me that the Chattanooga Ballet needed fathers for the "party scene." She told me it was easy, and, to paraphrase, said, "you don't have to know how to dance and you'll get to be in the show with ME, please, oh please." 
I would have to put on a tuxedo and walk around the stage for about 20 minutes. I think of myself as a pretty good dad.

I said, "no."

I took her to her first rehearsal for the party scene. I walked past all of the parents to the door of the studio on my way to whatever it is I was going to do.

I changed my mind. I walked back into the rehearsal studio and saw that my daughter had been hiding a broken heart.

I thought I was a good dad.

I didn't know it at the time but my whole life had just changed. 

Despite a long career in performing as a musician I had never acted or been involved in anything to do with the theater.

I love to watch my daughter dance but I had never cared for the Nutcracker.

To make a long story a little shorter, I grew to love the rehearsals and my time spent at the studio. 

I learned to love the Nutcracker. 

I learned to understand the "why" of the Nutcracker. 

Right after the closing performance of the 2008 Nutcracker I was talking to the woman who taught my daughter's class and was one of the professionals at the company. I was telling her about how moved I'd been by the performances and how I'd never cared for the Nutcracker before but had been so taken with the performance of the dancers in the role of the harlequin during the party scene that I'd had to remind myself to finish the part I was cast to play.

 I casually mentioned that I'd like to try a ballet class if only...

By mid-January, I, a 49 year old, solid, square, physically inflexible, MAN, was taking ballet class at least once a week.

Before you say, "there are many male dancers", there are not many here.

 I was the first man to enroll in the adult class.

I suspect they would have preferred a trailblazer whose long term goals didn't end at trying not to pull a hamstring but everybody was surprisingly kind.

And brutal.

Ballet is hard.

Dancers are completely unromantic about what it takes to float through the air.

If you don't believe me, stand on both tiptoes (demi-pointe), now pick-up your left leg and place your toes on your knee, and stay there, imagining yourself lighter then helium.

You can pick yourself up off of the floor now.

Dancers are completely romantic about what it means to float through the air.

Your second test is to run in place as hard as you can for 90 seconds while breathing only through your nose. 

 Wait, first put on a corset.

Can't breath?

Good.

Now do the test.

I'll wait while you dial 911. 

I've lifted weights for hours on end, played 4 games of soccer in one 90 degree summer day (multiple times), been hit in the face, wrestled to the ground, run  a marathon, ridden a three mountain century on a road bike (with the flu), hiked all day, lifted and loaded heavy shit for 12 hours a day, and done interval training with world class athletes.

Ballet is harder.

And it saved my life.

Because as my unemployment became an accepted part of every day.

As the music business vanished and there were fewer places for songs to go before they died.

As I started sleeping less, and caring less, and knowing less.

As I started a new, unfamiliar type of job and for the first time in my life floundered badly.

As I found myself  thinking thoughts not of living but of disappearing.

As I scorned myself for such thoughts when I had so much in my life.

It was ballet class that brought me back.

I'm not very good, even now. In the beginning I was worse but I kept showing up.

For the first two months of class my hips felt broken.

When my hips began to feel better my ankles and feet started to ache.

When my feet stopped aching they started cramping.

I needed something unlikely. 

Damn, it was fun.

I got a little better.

All of sudden, I was the Mouse King.

Maybe they couldn't find anybody else.

It really didn't matter.

I've seen the DVD of one of the performances.

The dancers look like dancers.

The Mouse King looks like a giant rat with a wooden sword.

Everybody cheers when he dies.

If you look carefully on on the DVD you can see the dead mouse king breathing. 

I wrote this song for my friend who is a real dancer. She floats.

I have class tonight. I won't be any good but I'll be there.

Sometimes when everybody thinks you're dead you're just waiting for next year.

Because next year I'll have a new shoulder and I'll be floating, I know it.

And the Mouse King will finally win. 
 
 Wheels and Wings
 
 I am carbon, I am steel
I am metal turning round and round
No mortal man knows the way I feel
As the road goes up and the road goes down
 
I’m cutting through the wind before the wave
I’m a line running right down the middle of the highway
Not looking back for those I couldn’t save
That’s the price of doing things my way
 
I am wheels
I am wings
I am rising from the ashes
And I know
Everything passes
Because I am wheels
 
I might be the question that you can’t answer
I’m the opposite of what you want me to be
Sometimes I’m in shackles, sometimes I’m a dancer
Moving too fast for you to see
 
I am wheels
I am wings
I am rising from the ashes
And I know
Everything passes
Because I am wheels
 
Words and Music by Nathan Bell copyright 2009
From the unreleased album, The Big Old American Dream

This song was used in the short film, "El Camino"  by Sami Khan that debuted at the Toronto Film Festival, 2009.
 

Workshop, Woodshed 

This blog originally appeared in Open Salon, April, 4, 2010

This is about Vitamin Water, the fiction writer Glen Hirshberg, and the poet Gaylord Brewer.

This is about writing. 

This is about the blues and how much I miss Lightnin' Hopkins and Sonny Terry.

This is about how a song that I wrote in five minutes took 35 years to find.

This is about Meacham, a workshop and literary conference in Chattanooga. 

This is about how my father says that when you put poetry and music together on the same stage music wins.

I say everybody wins.

This is about how much I love this.

I could start with Vitamin Water but since Vitamin Water is a scam and a "get" I'd rather start with the true stuff.

Glen. 

Glen is Glen Hirshberg, whose original and frightening collection of short stories, "American Morons"  has as much political as visceral punch and, as only Glen seems to be able to do, combines the much-maligned genre of horror fiction with something more daily and universal.

I've been wondering how Glen does this thing he does, making the unimaginable almost unavoidable, the horrible commonplace.


Maybe we just live in a world of easily imagined horrors that come to fruition on news programs and in the dialogue of the disenfranchised.
Glen knows that it isn't what gets you that scares you, but what might be thinking about getting you. 

 Maybe Glen just knows, that once you have a family, all of the monsters crawl out from under the bed, out from the closet and the dark of the corners, down from the silver spaceships, and up from the depths of the oceans and put on suits and ties and become flesh and blood.

And that's when it gets really scary.

 And that is how my friend Glen writes it.

Gaylord

Gaylord Brewer is a poet.
 
He's not the usual poet.

He looks more like a career detective or  a wrestling coach.

If I was at a poetry reading and somebody needed a freezer full of deer meat moved up from the basement I would ask Gaylord to help me.
In that way we have become friends.

Where others search the room for people who can help them get published, I search the room for people who can disarm right wing militia members.
I think Gaylord is looking for the same guy.

His poetry is rich with humor balanced with the night terrors of frailty and compromise.

At Meacham this year he read quietly and steadily of a character named "Ghost" a worthy addition to the characters of Meacham's past, the Dead Man and American Crow.

As he read I lost track of the words and found in the cadence a moan that was the sound of my musical childhood, Sonny Terry hollering the beginning of a harmonica solo, letting out the devil before keying the saddest train whistle or the sound of men swinging hammers until they collapsed.

And I thought, "Goddamn, Gaylord's a blues singer!"

I only really write in my head, often while driving, so most of my songs are finished before I first start to play them and refine them. 

I drove home with my ears full of the sound of Ghost and the mostly invisible way we cross through each other's lives.

I spent the entire drive thinking that I had just heard what 35 years of playing the blues sounds like and it was a damn poet who sang it. 

That night I wrote the song "We All Get Gone (Gaylord Brewer's Traveling Blues)"

I recorded it the next night. You can listen to the recording at www.myspace.com/nathanbell

 Vitamin Water? 

I'm only a part-time writer. The rest of the time I sell things for a very, very large corporation. 

Because Meacham (they don't call it "the" Meacham) is here where I live, in Chattanooga, and because my father's coat tails stretch all the way from Iowa City, I was invited to teach a songwriting workshop at Meacham. The first workshop I've ever done by myself.

I had handouts. 

I had about a dozen people and I did okay. I told them that the music business was dead and they didn't seem to mind.

I told them that songs should be like haiku. The main idea should never be stated directly.

That's how this broke-ass two-time failure songwriter sees it. 

Then I told them not to be cynical, that humor and and an open heart were more important than rhyme and revision.

Maybe I lied.

Revision is pretty damn important.

Before the workshop began I went to the student bookstore to get a pen.

I was thirsty and the cooler by the door was filled with row upon row of Vitamin Water. 

I was thirsty and they wanted me to buy better water.

I was thirsty for something else. 

I asked the cashier if she knew that Vitamin Water was a tonic, an elixir, a modern scion of the tradition of late night charlatans selling cures on the nuclear powered radio from
across the border in Ciudad Juarez.

I asked he if she knew how much money a man like me made in his every- day-job telling people how very, very much they want something  that they don't need.

I asked her if she knew that Vitamin Water was just the beginning, and everything starts somewhere. 

I told her that I secretly hope nobody ever buys anything ever again.
 
She barely looked at me, an old man worried about things that don't seem to matter, and gave me back too much change for my Bic pen. 

I drank water from the fountain and it quenched my thirst.

When I gave my workshop I told the students not to get taken.

They all nodded their heads.

This is my blues.  That I can't protect you.

I can't protect anybody.

Not really.

None of us can protect anybody for more than a moment. 

 My friends Glen and Gaylord know this and write the warnings.

I know this but can't make myself believe that it won't be different for me. 

I used to sing the blues.

Now I sell Vitamin Water. 

 
We All Get Gone (After the Ghost poems by Gaylord Brewer)
 
 She says I don’t know you like I used to know you
Something’s changing these days
She says I hate to say it
But I liked you better the old way
 
And I say baby, I’m just fading
Watch me fading away
Cause get it right or wrong
Sooner or later
We all get gone
 
She says that river is a mighty wide river
It rolls on for miles and miles
For all you know
You won’t be crossing it for a while
 
And I say baby I’m just traveling
Watch me traveling away
Cause get it right or wrong
Sooner or Later
We all get gone
 
We all get gone
Hallelujah
We all get gone
Amen
Sooner or later
Right or wrong
We all get gone
 
Words and Music by Nathan Bell copyright 2010

Welcome to the blog 

This space will include reprints of all my older blogs from both Open Salon and Dirt and Seeds plus road journals, chainsaw poems, and whatever it is I write when I write. See you soon.