We’re All In Your Debt Now


Jean Grey School For Higher Learning
1407 Graymalkin Lane
Salem Center, NY 10560

September 27, 2015

Ms. Aimee Mann and Mr. Ted Leo
The Both
c/o 2015 High Road Touring
751 Bridgeway
Sausalito, CA 94965

Dear Ms. Mann and Mr. Leo,

First, permit me to express how much I am enjoying your band’s eponymous debut. I have followed your respective solo careers for many years, and your collaborative efforts thus far are exemplary. The songs are intimate, but exude a mature intensity that I find most satisfying. Relaxation is a luxury in my line of work, and I maintain that one must celebrate leisure. A listening party with old friends, a bottle of Stolichnaya, perhaps a hand-picked selection of organic cronuts…there is a nary a greater feast of finery to be had, and listening to your album invariably kindles that sentiment in me. I am quite accustomed to multiverse travel–usually involuntarily–and it is my fervent hope that just once, I shall be flung into an alternate reality where my principal responsibility is to kibitz with David Grohl about The Colour and the Shape over eggs Benedict and mojitos. I remain optimistic.

Some years ago, I enjoyed considerable success as a commercial artist, and while my preferred medium differs from your own, I trust that we share an affection for depth and subtlety. Those attributes shine through most brightly in “The Inevitable Shove,” which is, for me, the pinnacle of your remarkable album. The first time I heard that chorus:

No, you can’t blame
the ones that you love
But you’re still gonna blame
the ones that you love
So now I’m steeling myself
for the inevitable shove

Oh, how my heart sung then, as it has every time thereafter! I do not wish to appear boastful, but steeling myself to avoid shoving is my area of expertise. It is a difficult and often unacknowledged practice, and the burdens I bear feel significantly lighter because after several decades of doubt and frustration, I know now that someone understands. I have attempted to discuss the matter with my co-workers after substantial field engagements, but they always seem distracted. One of them walked through me mid-sentence. Another simply shrugged and said “Sorry. It’s a tough world, bub.” I cannot avoid steeling–it is a job requirement–but I can alter my perspective on its application. When my skin hardens and the Earth is threatened with complete annihilation, I hum your lyrics to myself and they reassure me that the metallic barrier is only skin deep and not a reflection of my character.

And truth be told, I do frequently blame the ones I love;  coping with family members can be hellish. Especially sisters. But I remain a work in progress, as are we all, yes?

I appreciate your time and wait with anticipation for your follow-up album.

With gratitude,

Piotr Nikolaievitch Rasputin



A week ago today, I was hurtling down Interstate 93 en route to Boston, anticipating comedy music, Star Wars jokes, and stylish tacos. I’d just bid adieu to Granitecon, my now-annual retreat weekend in southern New Hampshire with some of my favorite humans. Lakes were cruised, games were played, and Internet concerts were streamed. Wild turkeys bobbled across our front lawn. My bed was parked in the middle of a science fiction / fantasy library. It was glorious.

My absolutely rubbish view for 3 days.
My absolutely rubbish view for 3 days.

Rather than fly back to New York straightaway, I’d elected to remain in the Boston area one more day so I could attend Nerd Night Out, a geek cabaret featuring nerd-folk heroes The Doubleclicks, comedian Joseph Scrimshaw, and ukulele songwriter Molly Lewis. I normally apply a healthy degree of skepticism to coincidences, but the fact that I was in the city on the same day they had a concert to perform was clearly cosmic premeditation.

Scrimshaw's crest - a squirrel drinking a martini and holding a lightsaber--is one of those things that, once created, has ALWAYS existed, because the possibility of a world without it is simply too grim to consider.
Scrimshaw’s crest – a squirrel drinking a martini and holding a lightsaber–is one of those things that, once created, has ALWAYS existed, because the possibility of a world without it is simply too grim to consider.

If cities can support continual waves of foot traffic and still temporarily be considered a ghost town, Cambridge somehow managed it; despite our rush-hour arrival, the roads were completely uncongested, an occurrence so rare that we should have skipped dinner and opted for some Powerball numbers instead. As we strolled out of the taqueria, an army of crunchy shell crumbs in our wake—those tacos know what they did—our ambitions and hopes turned shamefully decadent.

We rounded a corner and I noticed two people in their mid-20s sitting on a bench, perhaps 50 feet away. The man sobbed incoherently, rocking himself as if to find solace in the recurring motion. His companion cradled him, promising that things would be OK in a timbre that was both pacifyingly gentle and firm enough to be reassuring. She loved him, and would protect him, and it’s true that there was no map for navigating This, but they would. Together.

The concert was as peculiar and delightful as you’d expect. The Doubleclicks sang about a President comprised entirely of snakes, the virtues of attending a party so you can socialize with the host’s cat, and love (as compared to a burrito). Molly’s verses implored Stephen Fry to consider her as a surrogate mother, and touched on the karate-chop posterior assassinations employed in the Goldeneye 007 video game. Scrimshaw tackled Star Wars, being a social justice warrior, and a point of contention with which I strongly identify.


And yet, when I reflect on that evening a week later, it’s the couple on the bench that I remember most vividly. I don’t recall what they looked like, or what landmarks and storefronts were on the street, or any other details–I shared their space for only a few seconds. What lingers is his fragility, her compassion and intensity, their struggle to repair an unknown rift. A private moment played out in the most public of places.


The Sofitel Lobby, West 44th St, New York.

How May We Hate You? is a blog run by two concierges in Times Square. I was going through older posts recently and this one jumped out at me:


I made it into a fiction prompt.

Both in terms of plot and style, this story is a departure for me.



Amanda hadn’t noticed exactly when the children arrived, which was unusual because she was accustomed to juggling multiple observations like plates balanced by a uniformed circus seal. As the assistant senior concierge for the Sofitel Hotel on 44th Street—located within walking distance of the world-famous Times Square, scenic Central Park, and the renowned shopping district on 5th Avenue—she was required to practice omniscience and omnipresence at all times, or at least have the professional courtesy to fake it convincingly.

So far that week, in between dispensing advice about five-star restaurants and Broadway show tickets, she’d procured a bathtub full of Amedei Porcelana chocolate, arranged for signed photos of Nicolas Cage to preside over a guest’s bathroom (Con Air specifically, Honeymoon In Vegas optionally), rented a llama and dressed it as Boba Fett, and ensured that the strawberries waiting in a hip-hop star’s suite were all the same dimensions. She asked as few questions as possible.

But it was mid-day now, the late afternoon hullabaloo still a few hours away, and she could afford to relax just a little. Foot traffic bustled through the hallways. Guests swam in from the street, craning their necks to take in the spiral staircase, the artistically-tiled flooring, all the minute, expert-approved details of the pageantry that the entire staff worked diligently to maintain.

Her eyes swept the lobby. The children—a wiry boy of perhaps six or seven, and a girl, presumably his sister, a year younger—were fidgeting in the Business Area’s pristine leather seats, no accompanying adults in sight. The girl, whose T-shirt featured dinosaurs conducting lab experiments in space, murmured something intently to her companion while rummaging through a messenger bag the size of Wyoming. He rebuked her with the indisputable authority of an elder sibling engraved on his face: The Divine Right of the Older Brother. He pointed towards Amanda and slid off his seat, on a Holy Mission.

Amanda adjusted her heels. Please let this not be a thing. Maybe they just needed directions to the restroom. Or to take an emergency afternoon helicopter jaunt with Katy Perry. They were kids and wouldn’t have been able to book a room, but if the concierge desk had taught her anything, it was that predictable expectations were for other people.

He materialized at her elbow. “Excuse me. Good afternoon. I know you’re busy, but we need help, my sister and I. Would you come over for a moment?”

“Yes, of course. I’ll be right there.”

“Excellent. I appreciate your assistance.”  The boy tucked his shirt in and strode back to his seat, probably to review his stock portfolio while he waited.


A fervent exchange erupted between the siblings, and Amanda crossed over. She stood directly in front of the girl, who seemed to barely notice. The five-year-old scanned the room, her head oscillating like facial-recognition mode had been activated. She was waiting.

Amanda warmed her most charming smile and shone it on the girl’s face, crouching down to meet her at eye level. “Hi! My name is Amanda. I’m here to help. Are you lost?  Are your parents staying at this hotel?”


Damn it. She could hear the future paperwork collating.

She wasn’t afraid of challenges. It was just that sometimes, the weight of her student loans, four years breathing typography and molding pixels, the shadow that passed over her when she glimpsed brilliant designs and remembered they might’ve been hers if her trajectory had veered a few degrees in a different direction at exactly the right time—all of it coalesced into a pressure point that drummed steadily on. Somehow, the exciting two-year opportunity to gopher the bizarre and the impractical had slowly metamorphosed into a five-year stint that left both her bank account and her chi resentful. Pampering was only what she did, not who she was. The frozen life her brain had cultivated still existed; she was going to get back there someday.


Amanda brushed her internal diatribe aside and faced the boy. “OK. Your sister’s a bit shy, so you can tell me—what’s going on?”

“She steals. She’s been at it for days.”

“I don’t understand.”

He helped his sister to her feet, and Amanda’s face formed a question. The girl had been sitting on at least two dozen Sofitel customer satisfaction comment cards.

Amanda chortled, relieved. “Well, listen, I know it was difficult to come tell me, but you’re not in any trouble. I’ll put these back for you, and no harm done, OK?”

It was the girl who answered. “It’s not just the cards. It’s everything.” Her face was ashen, terrified. “They need everything. They won’t tell me why. I don’t know what it’s for.”  She plowed through her cavernous bag, pausing to present Amanda with each item: a pair of iPod earbuds still in the packaging, a Snickers, shopper loyalty cards, Chapstick, a weathered Best Buy receipt, a coupon for $.50 off the leading brand of dishwashing detergent, a feather, a five-dollar bill, two postcards, an unopened zen garden mini-kit, a fridge magnet commemorating Duran Duran’s 1999 “Let It Flow” tour, and God only knew what else.

The concierge blinked at the mediocre smorgasbord. “Where did you get—“

“People’s cars. Offices. Garbage cans. The floor. They say every piece is a monument to their greatness and will be important when it starts.”

“When what starts?  Who’s telling you to steal this…junk?  Except for the earbuds, most of these things look like they came from the bottom of someone’s purse.”

“It’s only junk because it’s what I could find. If there were something better around, I’d steal that too.”

“Do you know the person who’s asking you to steal?”

The girl gawped. “I never see their faces. I don’t think they’re people.”

Her brother demonstrably glared, making sure Amanda knew he didn’t hold with any of this tomfoolery. “Would you please communicate to my sister that this type of behavior is grossly unacceptable, and that her imagination is causing her to act inappropriately?  You’re an adult; she’ll listen to you.”  Then, to her sister: “This has persisted long enough. You have to stop stealing.”

“I can’t,” she whispered, her eyes massive and pleading. “They won’t like it. They already said I couldn’t tell anyone.”

Amanda smiled reassuringly and dove into her purse for her cell, having no concept whatsoever who she was going to call.


And then, one by one, the lights went out until the lobby was shrouded in darkness. The children shivered. Amanda whipped backwards like a paper chain garland in a gale force wind, but her vision was blurred. Paresthesia set in, her feet rooting to the Italian marble tile, and puzzlement swept her, enveloping from every corner.

Outside, no one glanced at the hotel. West 44th Street hummed with the dynamic, perpetual, non-descript sounds of the Center of the Universe.

They Could Live Forever


This week, I’ve been meandering through Smoke and Mirrors, Neil Gaiman’s second short story collection. My bookmark is currently lodged behind the tale of a man who purchases supernatural assassinations in bulk. I’m approximately sixty percent of the way home, my imagination having blazed swathes through strange fields: trolls, malevolent toys, the Holy Grail, werewolves, feline deities, and other wondrous happenings. As with most anthological roads, the mileage varies: some of the stories have left me bewildered, certain I’ve missed something of critical importance nestled within the preceding pages. Others kindle raised eyebrows and satisfaction. Most have elicited steady head-nodding and subdued grinning, repercussions of consummate storytelling and typical of Gaiman’s work—at least for me.

But my favorite story thus far is a less shadowy gala than fits Gaiman’s customary horror-fantasy métier. The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories—actually a single story—centers on an obscure writer’s introduction to Hollywood culture and the mechanics of film adaptation in a town where everything is as disposable as a goldfish’s permanently-amnesic memory. Gaiman has admitted that the story is quasi-autobiographical, and it’s generally thought to be based on his experiences unsuccessfully adapting Good Omens, the stellar comedic fantasy novel he wrote with Sir Terry Pratchett. Plans for the film have festered in development hell for at least two decades.

In The Goldfish Pool, the narrator, on an afternoon break from script treatment, initiates a conversation with Pious Dundas, an ancient hotel groundskeeper with whom he forms the sole authentic connection established in the entire narrative. Pious mentions that his grandson is an ichthyologist, which prompts our narrator to remark:

“I read once that carp don’t have set life spans. They don’t age like we do. They die if they’re killed by people or predators or disease, but they don’t just get old and die. Theoretically they could live forever” 

From my armchair, I continued reading the rest of the page, but my eyes periodically flickered back to those lines.


When the last word had turned off the lights and closed down the story’s set, I decided that before traveling on, I needed to know if the ponds and streams near my house are being governed by immortal fish.


As I was disappointed to learn, they are not. Also, carp are not native to North America anyway, but that’s a secondary point when one is researching eternal life.

With an average lifespan of forty seven years, however, the common carp has more than sufficient time to write its carp-poetry, take up knitting, volunteer for school trustee, and build a coralhouse for its carpettes. As with any system, there are outliers—many koi (Japanese for “carp”) are centenarians, and one, Hanako, lived to be 226 years old.

Hanako, photographed by her last caretaker, Dr. Komei Koshihara.

I leaned back in my tattered jet-black office chair, pivoted towards the window, and gazed into the darkness. What is it about contemplation and nightfall? Silence, shade, and musing fused, and I held the echoes of a creature that could live nine generations. Laughter, hopes, struggles, dreams—in all of our time, we’ve not been able to sufficiently draw the signposts of a single life, while Hanako remained, through births and marriages, triumphs and setbacks, tears and joy. She witnessed the world’s transformation exponentially longer than any human who has ever lived.

Maybe that’s not immortality. But it’s surely close.

The Sound Of Marmots

I stare at the pixels surreptitiously chewing on my screen; the post only appears to be blank, the overly-energetic bouncing cursor a clever ruse. In the reality next door, gliding over the fields of quantum entanglement, this post has already been crafted. It’s sparked meaningful dialogue about A Significant Issue or perhaps a Gentle Glance into the Human Condition, and we all sip on a rather satisfying concoction of insight and entertainment. Fulfilled, I return to watching Season 4 of Torchwood, wondering how Captain Jack manages to perpetually save the Earth with its inhabitants so perilously smitten with inevitable coat admiration.

Just look at it. Seriously.
Just look at it. Seriously.

But in this reality, the sentences and paragraphs are still veiled. Ever the inquisitor, Facebook asks what’s on my mind. Because no reliable structures are in place, I have no answer, so I repost the question, amplifying its resonance. Seven minutes later, Jill says:

“Write on the usefulness of marmots in music videos.”

I blink.

Well, of COURSE I should.


I’ve met most of Jill’s cats, horses, and dogs, including her excitable, very-much-not-toy-sized poodle, but I can only assume she doesn’t own a marmot. I would have known. Everyone would have, because while life offers few absolutes, one of them is that marmot ownership proves too salient to be anything but a known quantity.


No, Jill is referring to a video that geek-folk chanteuse Marian Call released earlier this week as a reward for her Kickstarter backers. If support exceeded $45,000, Marian vowed that she would climb a mountain in Juneau and sing “The Sound Of Music” in her best Maria Rainer cosplay.

As the video begins, Marian spins in circles while delivering a beautiful a capella melody. At 0:26, the camera captures an unsuspecting marmot just going about its marmot-y day: enjoying the sunshine, mentally preparing a recipe for the organic, free-range flower petals dipped in grass it’ll munch on later, deciding which contractors it’ll call back about the burrow remodeling, etc.

But 5 seconds later, the significance of it all – YouTube, Kickstarter, Marian, The Sound Of Music, mountains –  smashes through the tranquil rodent’s consciousness. The marmot snaps to attention like a volatile orthodontic rubber band, its rear paws taking root to the small rock it has commandeered as an ottoman. The marmot is to be applauded both for its unwavering solider-esque stance and the fact that the rock in question looks exceedingly uncomfortable. This is devotion.

For the remainder of the video, Marian climbs trees, sings while sitting on the mountain’s precipice, saunters through the grass and rock, and tosses pebbles into a pond like a purple-sneaked Ponce De Leon. As her song draws to a close, a tourist approaches and questions her apron’s origin. One cannot help but notice that the marmot has been suspiciously absent for the entire second half of the video. Did the mountain police charge it with some manner of fabricated Standing On A Rock infraction?  Was it suddenly gripped by an overwhelming desire to reread David Barash’s seminal work Marmots: Social Behavior and Ecology (1st Edition)?  Or was it merely asleep, the result of too many consecutive pomegranate benders?

The marmot community tends to be rather bibliophilic, and most members take no small amount of pride in their collection of marmot-centered articles, selected from only the finest academic journals.

Nay, for this marmot simply knows how to make a re-entrance. As the Credits screen materializes, we realize that Our Hero has triumphantly returned!  The marmot stares contemplatively for a second, shakes its head, and bounds off the rocks into untold adventures!



I would submit to you, Internet, that while we can – and should – appreciate the cultural and historical significance of The Marian Marmot, our furry comrade is not a one-trick giant squirrel. There is no addition more valuable to the craft of music video production than the presence of our hibernating herbivorian homeslices.

Consider, for example:

  • The principal dance sequence in “Thriller” was actually led by a pair of marmots. They are not visible on screen due to a tetchy breakdown of contract negotiations.
  • The concepts for Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” video are adapted from a dream Gabriel experienced in which he was visited by The Great Clay Marmot.
  • A yellow-bellied marmot provided the keyboard tracks for “Video Killed The Radio Star.”  Because the marmot insisted on wearing a vintage crevette for the video- a demand the director could not accept – the assistant caterer for the shoot was hired to pose as the band’s instrumentalist.
  • “Money For Nothing” was drawn in real time by a Menzbier’s marmot with exceptional time management skills.
  • That impossibly high note in “Take On Me”?  A marmot.
Absolutely undoctored photographic proof of marmot involvement in Michael Jackson's
Undoctored photographic proof of marmot involvement in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

Those instances represent only a sampling of how marmots shaped our collective video chronology. But are there marmotic benefits to the modern music video director as well?


Four out of five directors agree. In fact:

  • Marmots are highly social; participating in crowd shots is a reflection on their natural extroverted tendencies.
  • Their primary method of communication is loud whistling, ensuring that one always knows where one’s marmot is.
  • Marmots tend to burrow within rockpiles, so their grunge-tinged attire is perfect for punk-pop anthem shoots. As a bonus, the band saves money on hiring wardrobe consultants.
  • They look adorable or intimidating in gold chains, whichever fits your narrative. Marmots are versatile!
  • As the originators of pop-rock’s most industrious rock moves, marmots will train your extras and blanket the proceedings with an element of style.
You know how we do.
You know how we do.


We have only clawed the surface, but I trust we understand each other, you and I. Clearly, marmots are to music videos as a tailored suit is to a media mogul.

Jill wonders how the marmot is related to the photobombing squirrel from 2009.


I have reason to suspect the connection is paramount. But like a wine of exceptional quality and limited release, marmot investigations are best experienced when they are savored.

In good time, friends. In good time.