Essays and Memoirs
Quiet City: A Reverie for New York in the Time of Covid-19 Print E-mail


(The Sembrich Online, September 11, 2020)

The gestation of Aaron Copland’s Quiet City was anything but quiet. In 1939, novelist Irwin Shaw—later praised for the TV serial, Rich Man, Poor Man—wrote a play with the same title. It was workshopped by Elia Kazan and the Group Theater, a communal ensemble from which the Actor’s Studio later took wing. The “experimental drama” follows a once-idealistic young man who leaves Judaism, changes his name, marries a socialite, and achieves wealth running a department store. His materialist dream, however, leaves him morally empty.

The Mytheme of Male Desire Print E-mail


(After the Art June 18, 2020)

“I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men’s minds without their being aware of the fact.”

The Raw and the Cooked, Claude Lévi-Strauss

The greatest stories of mythic love are those most encumbered by ecstatic subjugation. Among them are the romance legends of Tristan and Isolde, Lancelot and Guinevere, and Orpheus and Eurydice. Of Orpheus’s tragic loss and demise, the tale tells of a man’s love for a woman, read princess wife queen Eros, a love so consuming that at her death he descends into Hades to bring her back. His act may grant her a second life or, after a brief flawed reunion, a second and final death. Set aside the male as hero or victim. His outcome matters less than the spell men believe they wield over women who must, to live, desire the salvific power of his love.

Growing Sugar Beets in Sonoma: Elegy for Bruce Brown Print E-mail


(Written January 2020)

Bruce died in April, 2019, and I’ve been mulling a piece to remember him by since then—not so much because of the feeling of loss, monumental to most of us who knew him over his 70+ years, but more because there is too much about him to remember. Bruce was so boisterous, so forceful, so opinionated, so funny, so adventuresome, so story-packed, so definitional or diversionary to phases of our lives, which, like a popular music era or a social movement, he became a centrality—or, at least, he epitomized some hegemony in the culture of the time. I can’t begin to think what it must have been like to have him as a partner (to Mary Dee), a father (to Street), or the eldest son, after his dad died (to his mother).

Michael Steinberg: A Remembrance & a Review Print E-mail

Mike Steinberg

(River Teeth Blog, January 3, 2020)


In December 2019, in a country torn apart by Donald Trump’s bullying and Fox News’ Pravda-like misinformation, in congressional hearings that traded in the ridiculous and the profound, in a democracy under such partisan assault it seemed to buckle before our eyes, and in the month of Trump’s impeachment, we were hit with grave news of another sort: creative nonfiction’s (and my) beloved colleague, mentor, and friend, Mike Steinberg, 79, died from pancreatic cancer, undiscovered until a week before he passed.

On Writing That Is Far Less Religious, Way More Spiritual Print E-mail

santa fe sky original contemporary abstract landscape painting by colorado contemporary artist kimberly conrad(Brevity May 30, 2019)

In my long and ongoing study of the memoir and what the form means for writers who want to capture their religious or spiritual experience, I keep coming back to an inescapable truth about the history of what we think of as spiritual literature.

This truth has two parts: first, that from 400 to 1948, there are only four primarily personal religious autobiographies whose authors intensify the passion of their religious conversion, which feels as close to verifiably authentic as each can make it in the writer’s prose: the confessions of Augustine, Tolstoy, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Thomas Merton.

All Those Glittering Notes: The Music of Richard Thompson Print E-mail

richard-thompson(San Diego Troubadour May 1, 2018)

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My favorite sentences in my favorite jazz book ever come from Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker. The lines arrive near the end when author Stanley Crouch is at his summarizing best; he notes that jazz, a performer’s art, involves “navigating a landscape in which spontaneous creation whizzes by in layered stacks.” He quotes the great bebop drummer Max Roach: “Jazz is about creating, maintaining, and developing a [musical] design.” Jazz was designed—forget, for the moment, by whom—to maximize its players’ skills as improvisors, often at what seems like the speed of light. Whether it’s such standards as the calm “Stormy Weather” or the blustery “’Round Midnight,” good jazz men and women push themselves and their ensembles to create, maintain, and develop the music—bend expectation with surprise, follow the uncommon riff or abrupt turn where it wants to go.

Eulogy for John Christianson Print E-mail

John Christianson

Eulogy for John Christianson April 2018

John and I were good friends, close friends. I knew him through the best and worst times of his life. For a time, when I was churning out article after article for the San Diego Reader, where I’ve written cover stories the past twenty years, he seemed to read every-thing I wrote, often commenting, “Great piece, Tom,” after which he’d want to discuss some quote or idea from the work. Writing is a lonely profession; when what you write is examined, even critically, you feel a great inner satisfaction, having been heard.

John enjoyed going toe-to-toe on religion and hypocrisy. Unlike most people who look askance when I say, “I have never had a religious thought or feeling in my life,” John laughed that big, barrel-chested laugh of his, somewhere between lusty adolescence and existential darkness. However, I had no idea that he grew up a Christian. The doctrine tortured him with guilt about his sins. I said why don’t you just let that neurosis go. He said he’d always wanted to but he never could. It was just too deeply ingrained.

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