My parents grabbed me, my brother, and some rattan chairs in 1960 to flee Holland for the promised land of America. Looking at a photo my uncle took of us scurrying across the tarmac, my mother recently admitted my father never told her we were departing her beloved Amsterdam until it was too late. He took that mystery, along with many others—like his days as a slave laborer in Nazi Germany—with him to his cremation urn in June 2002.
Once in Hawthorne, New Jersey—later in Edison; Horseheads, New York; Wisconsin; Michigan and eventually onward without me, as my parents continued searching for an evermore elusive American dream despite my father's credentials as a respected metallurgical engineer—I learned quickly that survival among classmates meant fitting in, fitting in so much that I eventually read the entire World Book Encyclopedia, letter by letter, to learn exactly what made the United States so great.
I learned that it was the leading producer of almost every product known to man from corn to styrofoam. I knew every idiosyncratic detail of every make of American car. I memorized New York Yankee statistics and lived, breathed and even played baseball. And yet, I never thought it strange that my college-educated father and I were the only ones going house-to-house every winter asking neighbors if they'd like their sidewalks shoveled.
I also studied how jean pant legs touched the top of a pennyloafer just right. I dreamed of a British-invasion mop-top coif whenever my parents gave me a shearing, my mother holding down my flailing body while my father buzzed the electric Sears clippers haphazardly across my skull.
I wore grey-leatherette pennyloafers and Sears catalog not-quite jeans of a brassy color. Oh, how I dreamed of blue jeans. All this outward alienness plus the fact that the slightest taunt could provoke tears only further excited the wannabe schoolyard bullies. That all this meant I was a poet and a pacifist was not at all clear at this age. And that women often came to my aid was not yet fully appreciated as a gender issue.
Simply put, running fast was the fastest runner at Clara Barton elementary—gave me a rep that saved me. I raced somebody every day during lunch hour until my younger brother with a hip disease and crutches started going to school and my mother made me his guardian because classmates would kick the crutches out from under him, laughing as he fell.
In 11th grade, a simple compliment on an essay I had written by a well-meaning English teacher changed my fate. I changed majors from exact sciences to imaginative writing. The more distraught counselors and parents became by my exchange of making bridges for making believe the more resolute I became. Contrarianism became a noble cause against society's hypocrisies: I became anti-Vietnam War, read radical literature, had a provisional escape route to Canada if drafted and ritualistically destroyed my baseball trophies. By high school graduation (1972), I had distinguished myself as an honor student of incredible mediocrity and an eight-varsity-letter long distance runner.
At U-M Flint and later Ann Arbor, I wrote outrageously liberating poetry of incredible neologistic fancifulness. Poetry readings meant being different, dressing as TV sets and reading anti-poetic recipes because Guild House and West Park readings were incredibly ho-hum and ennui was the only heart disease we knew.
Five college years and some pretentious dropping-out threats later, I had 122 credits yet was nowhere near graduating thanks to certain official requirements. I fought for my right to graduate and eventually found a sympathetic U-M advisor who helped make sense out of my haphazard choice of classes (I had taken whatever I liked, whenever) and eventually converted heavenly chaos into one that included a constellation: a diploma that reads "Independent honors degree in film and creative writing."
I pretty much considered all career opportunities as unworthy, bourgeois and, even worse, totally uncool. I acknowledged my father's life as convincing evidence—and as antidote. I placed the transparencies of Kerouac, Burroughs and Henry Miller over my life, effectively retracing the contours of a new self. George Orwell said no real writer ever considered writing a career.
I drove night shift for two years at Ann Arbor Yellow Cab, noctivagant initiation into the dark heart of human psychology. On slow nights (often) I wrote, by the Dodge Coronet's cab light, about my not-inconsequent salubrious adventures, poems and my first novel, a somewhat-rhyming epic poem-novel inspired by Homer's Odyssey. I was part of the beat-Dada-hippie-punk extended family that included Tom Waits and Lautrémont.
I moved to New York in 1978 and quickly realized I knew nothing about nothing and was ill-equipped to scramble for jobs of illusive glamour. I ended up the lowest of the lowest, a foot messenger. Working for a messenger company I learned humility, the way a nail learns about the hammer, as I wandered through New York's streets.
I struggled 16 years in New York to leave my mark. In 1986, I co-founded the Unbearables writing group in Tin Pan Alley, an anomalous Midtown Socialist lesbian-run bar with Bertolt Brecht and the Butthole Surfers on the jukebox. That the group became a travesty of a sham devoted to its own self-destruction is a disappointment but no surprise.
In 1986, I began DJing at radio station WFMU in East Orange, moved to Paris, where I DJed at anarchist-run Radio Libertaire in the shadow of the Sacré Couer, wrote, wandered, dreamt, did readings and drank my fill of soul-rotting vin rouge in the bars of Pigalle and the Marais. Back in NYC, I published a collection of short stories, Wiggling Wishbone: Stories of Pata-Sexual Speculation (Autonomedia, 1995) that with each accolade proceeded to sell even worse—itt's the trickonometry of "quality" writing, I figured. Last I looked, Wishbone sat somewhere at 1,729,000th place at Amazon.com.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, but actually evolving out of a 1996 WFMU radio special I produced on the subject of yodeling, arose an abiding fascination with this oddest of vocal techniques that takes the human voice and thrusts it from chest voice to falsetto at breathtaking speed.
Why did it interest me? It probably has to do with the fact that I began hearing it in the most anomalous musical styles—jazz, blues, Bollywood, rockabilly, punk, opera. The radio show morphed into a pop magazine article, which led to several academic articles and the Internet discovery that no one had ever—as in NOT EVER—written a book about the world of yodeling.
So, here I now stand in my Amsterdam living—room awaiting the publication of Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World, due out this fall from Routledge publishers in New York, gawking at photos of my partner, a social-activist writer, and my 3-year-old daughter, Paloma Jet on bookshelves full of my obscure eclectic and obsolete dust-gathering publications: from Ambit to Yang, Forbe's American Heritage to the anarchist Black Flag, Screw to Mennonite Quarterly, American Lawyer to Anarchy, Smudge to Smegma. Line them up just right and you have a timeline that appears like something logical, like something pointing to purpose or justification or something like that.