I had hoped that Soundtrack Stories would be a monthly thing. The last time that I posted a Soundtrack Story - actually, the first one - was in June. I have been working on this episode since before I even started that one. This video has a few big flaws in it: two static images in the essay piece and a lack of editing for the performance piece. But I decided that I could either spend another two weeks perfecting this or I could just tell myself that I need to move on if I’m ever going to do more of these. So I hope that you enjoyed this and I look forward to your feedback on it.
Thanks to James and Jill for filming the pieces shot in Delaware, especially because I have yet to develop any skills as a director.
Kurt Vonnegut was a name I first heard in childhood. I knew he was a writer, but I wasn’t reading his books. I was a kid, not ready to encounter the lamentations and joys they contained. All I knew was the name on the cover of Timequake. I never opened the book, never attempted to discover what made some faraway man so important to my parents. I was content to satisfy my urge to read with the Goosebumps series and stories of the Star Wars Expanded Universe.
But soon I would outgrow those books. As a high school freshman, nothing could be as simple as the works of R. L. Stine would have me believe. Remembering my locker combination, learning how to conjugate basic French verbs and changing mid-day into a different uniform for gym added new complexities to my life. Dwelling in the futures imagined by second-hand storytellers would no longer be enough. In the fall of 2001, I was reunited with Mr. Vonnegut when my Freshman Literature teacher handed out photocopied packets of “Harrison Bergeron,” one of Vonnegut’s short stories. It’s a story about equality taken to bizarre extremes. It was the first work that dealt with issues important to me as a nascent idealist, and one that presented them in brilliant Technicolor. Should people be made to be as equal as we claim they are? Is equality a cause worth championing? I remember not knowing if Vonnegut wanted me to believe that equality is foolish, and feared that such an opinion may be right. It would not be the last time that Vonnegut’s words caused me to reevaluate my worldview.
For the rest of high school, Vonnegut remained a name - like Fitzgerald, Blake and Hardy - on a list of writers that I had been introduced to but did not really know. It wasn’t until five years later that I would have the chance to know why Vonnegut mattered to so many. I took an American Literature class with Dr. Michael Kiskis, source of inspiration for us at The Compass, who had us read Slaughterhouse-Five. It fucked me up. It arrived at a time of great questioning in my life. I was studying the Holocaust, learning about mutability from texts in Old English and trying to understand why there exists a god who cares more for praise than free will. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim, the novel’s protagonist, becomes “unstuck in time”. That concept took over my mind, and attempted to build a reality out of fragments confused and lonesome. It was a rough time to be Paul Riley. Still, I don’t think I would have been able to make sense of existence at that point without that book.
In the cafeteria of a company where I did some temp work this past winter, I began reading “And So It Goes,” a biography on Kurt Vonnegut by Charles J. Shields. Upon finishing it a few weeks ago, it made me want to burst out and create. Kurt Vonnegut had quit his job to make an attempt to be a writer. The biography details how hard it was to do so - the lack of money, the stress, the lack of success for years. I knew then that my own attempts to make a living at this, at sharing my thoughts to help others make sense of the world, would have to take control of the direction of my life, regardless of the uncertainties of such a life.
But the book also reminded me of an idea that I’ve been wrestling with recently: that people who create are driven to do so because they want to make a world that they can’t be in. It’s an idea that I first heard put into words by Brian Wilson - “I just wasn’t made for these times” - and explained by Ira Glass in an episode of This American Life. Glass tells stories for a living preciously because he’s incapable of doing so at parties. A man who can’t make small talk has no choice but to elevate the stories of others to artistic levels. For Vonnegut, the man who wrote, “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies - God damn it, you’ve got to be kind,” his world had too little kindness. The biography shows that much of the reason why is Kurt himself. He was rotten to his wife Jane. After quitting his job, he found space for himself to hide away from his responsibilities as a father of seven children (four of which came from his sister’s marriage, after she and her husband died on the same day). He cheated on her too.
Kurt Vonnegut’s books are full of lessons on how to be a better human being. But I believe his most important lesson comes not from Vonnegut the writer, but from Vonnegut the man. It is not important to change the lives of the people we’ll never meet or those who remain at arm’s length. We must care for those closest to us. It’s not enough to create an ideal world for others to play in. We must play there too.
Hello all. I had intended to share with you a video essay, musings on the three places I call home. I wanted to create the first Soundtrack Story video in time for today’s Trailhead. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it work.
So here’s the new plan: I’m going to share with you a snippet of what will soon be a full-length video. The video below is of me reading a piece that I had written as a senior for my high school’s literary magazine. Each year, a senior would have the opportunity to write a piece for the back page. The piece tended to be a contemplation of the end of a high school, a time of great change and great emotion for many of us. I wrote about the wall on the other side of my school. In the video, I am sitting on that wall, reading the words that I had written seven years ago.
I hope that my fellow Compass contributors are inspired by this to offer up their thoughts on saying goodbye or their words of wisdom for graduating classes across the country. Of course, I hope you offer your thoughts as well.
I am hoping to have the full-length Soundtrack Stories episode done and uploaded this week. Until then, enjoy the words of an 18 year old Paul Riley. (Great thanks to James for filming the video.)
I’m back! Sorry I was away for such a long time. Many things have happened. The main reason I disappeared was because after five years, my computer decided to destroy itself from the inside out and it took a little bit to find time to replace all of its innards. That’s finally done now and it runs better than ever but I lost every photo I’ve ever taken and every word I ever typed. Fuck. Now that I typed that out, it makes me feel really shitty. But what can you do? New beginnings I guess.
Speaking of new beginnings, another reason I was gone was because I have a new girlfriend. That has been the greatest feeling I’ve had in my entire life. That’s been keeping me preoccupied, obviously. By the way, her name is Ali and she has a twitter account. She is an artist (a really fucking impressive artist at that) and her work will no doubt be showcased here at the Compass soon. But anyway, at this current moment, I have the time to sit down and actually write something to completion.
My sister had to write a speech for her class about someone they love and deliver it in front of everyone. She chose to write about me and then sent me the transcript. I read it through my phone sitting in the parking lot of the Vince Lombardi rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, right before the George Washington Bridge in New York City. I cried. So first will be her speech and then my response. I hope you enjoy!
It feels good to be back. Feels so good, man.
Happy Kid: A Letter to My Sister
An Untitled Speech
by Elise Martino
Anthony Michael Martino. I know this name has absolutely no significance to any of you and you are probably confused, curious, and wondering to whom this person might be. This person is my brother and he is probably my biggest role model in life. All my life I have looked up to him as an inspiration. For fun, we used to drive around random places with our sunglasses on, windows down, and blasting music. Those days are some of my favorite memories. But, eventually my brother turned 18 and left for college in New York. This was hard for me mainly because it meant that I would be living at home without a sibling and when he left we didn’t get to talk as much. Sure, he came and visited a lot but even now its different since he graduated college. He left then and moved to Washington D.C. to work with an organization called Americorps and now we really can’t talk as much because he is always working and I think that’s the hardest part for me. It’s hard knowing that I will now only get to see my brother about 2 times a year. Even though I don’t get to see him, I still miss him more than words can describe and he is still the one person who keeps me going. Anthony is the kind of person who is never down in the dumps and never abandons his goals. I know he is always just a phone call away or even a skype call away, but to me, it’s not the same. He always comes home and says how much it bums him out that he had to miss his sister learning to drive, and getting her license, and growing up. I know he is my older brother, but sometimes I feel like its harder for me to watch him grow up because I know we will never get to create memories like we used to because he is an adult now and I barely get to see him. I miss having my big brother around to help me through the good times and the bad times. It seems like time flew and now all of the sudden he is grown up and living his life. I love my big brother so much and I just wish he could be around more. He has taught me so many life lessons and he is honestly the one person who I can turn to for anything.
An Untitled Response
by Anthony Martino
You are not alone in these feelings. It hurts how much we have grown apart and I can only see your life through miscellaneous bits of technology. If it is any consolation, I think about calling you every day. When we do talk, I always ask you how school is going; I ask you to tell me about your teachers and your homework and your detentions and bad grades and the pictures of sea life you draw on your tests when you don’t know the answers. I ask about your friends and what you guys do for fun. I ask about the music you listen to and the parties you go to and how our puppy is doing and what foods he eats now. Watson is a picky dog but I still need to see him eat breadsticks because apparently it is the greatest thing in the world to watch, according to your texts.
I miss you, Elise and I’m sorry I haven’t been there in person every step of the way. I wanted to be there in the car with you the day you got your license. I wanted to be at home waiting to guilt trip you after you got your first detention. I want to be there to scare the living piss out of the first boyfriend you bring home. My plan was to just sit at the kitchen table and clean all of the gigantic knives mom has in the kitchen and just stare out the window and quietly repeat the words “I hope tonight is a good night” in a whispery version of the Batman voice. I’ve thought about all these things and it kills me to know that I won’t be able to. I’m going to try my hardest to be there to help you move in on your first day of college, which no doubt will be an ivy league. At least I can get really drunk at your wedding and make a great toast and embarrass you, provided you have an open bar. I’m not going to miss that for the world.
There is a reason I left you guys though. There is a reason why I felt comfortable travelling so far away from home. It is because I knew you would make it. I knew you would be fine. And you proved me right. You’ve done everything better than me so far. Your grades are better. You have more friends than I had. You have a direction. As much as you look up to me, I have a confession to make. I have no idea what I’m doing. I run my life like a massive experiment on an hour-to-hour basis. I travel around the country so much because I don’t quite know my own place yet. Its not easy. Moving to Washington D.C. in a post-9/11 world is probably the scariest thing I’ve done and I know how much you and everyone else at home worries and I’m sorry for that. I need to challenge myself in order to keep going. I wanted to challenge you to see what you were capable of and you went above and beyond my expectations of how successful you could be. You are my role model, Elise and I am very jealous of how well you’ve navigated yourself through middle school and high school.
I’m able to stay away for so long because I know you are doing great. Yeah, you have mood swings like a mothefucker but I know on the inside, you are going to kick life in the fucking balls and prove to everyone that you are the best at whatever you set your mind to. I tried to instill that in you all these years because I was unsure that I could do it myself. I didn’t want you to make the mistakes I’ve made; I didn’t want you to miss out on anything. I wanted you to be better than me. And you are.
Working with City Year has actually made me closer to you, believe it or not. Right now, I work in the lowest performing middle school in Washington D.C. in one of the hardest neighborhoods in the country. I work in a school where the fire department doesn’t show up when the alarms go off. I get threats against my life on a weekly basis. Recently, a student told me he was going to bring a gun to school and now I may have to go to court because I am a witness. This can’t be easy hearing this when I call home. I can’t even imagine the emotional pain I’ve caused our family and I am deeply sorry for that. But when I see my kids in class, when I see them actually learning, I think about you. I think about how I want them to be just as great as you are. You are the gold-standard of excellence and I am infinitely proud of you. I see all of my flaws in these students. I see the ignorance I had in middle school. I understand how serious it was that I had to write all those apology letters to teachers for my behavior. I failed English in 6th grade, the grade I help teach now, and then I went on the become and English major in college and hopefully one day earn my PhD in literary theory. Anything can be done as long as you believe in yourself and I believe in you.
We’ve been given an amazing family and I am proud and unfathomably excited that you are my sister. You are going to be so happy with where your life is going. I am now and you’ve done everything a billion times better than I have. Don’t worry about a single thing but don’t ever give up. Keep reaching for what you can never have. Grasp towards infinite space you will never know what true sadness is. I love you and can’t wait to see where life will take you. As always, I’ll be right there next to you. I never left.
Next time I’m home, we will drive down River Road together and blast Bootsy Collins and Gogol Bordello as loud as you want.
Don’t ask why, don’t ask how, but for some reason, I am in particularly high spirits tonight. My day was average. Another student of mine came back from suspension and was suspended again within the first hour of school. I got a call from my bank saying that my credit card bill is way overdue even though I never received it in the mail. I need to do laundry and clean my apartment. My rent check got lost and I had to write a new one. I think my blood pressure is high and I have thoughts of my liver rotting and my heart exploding in my chest. But I feel good. Actually, I feel great. I am happy to be alive right now and cannot express to you enough how grateful I am to just fucking have the ability to smile and to be able to communicate to you.
So yeah! Things are things but things are good so I am good. This week is going to be lighter than the past week. I’ve had a vacation since we last talked and I am feeling worlds better about life in general. I want this week to not feel like my usual Ancient Mariner rants where push you into a chair and vomit ice-cold prose all over your shirt and then make you thank me. I want it to feel like we are slightly buzzed 17 year-olds listening to ska in the kitchen of some kid’s stupid house party. So I am going to hold off posting that one piece from last week, put up my christmas list, a piece about my favorite songs from high school, and then end with something entitled “Study Hall”. Get excited. Get excited about everything.
The Compass has been going along for some time now and changes are scheduled to take place January 1, 2012. There are some very awesome things coming and I just want to take the time now to thank you, reader, for you company. Without all of you, all of us would have nothing to do with our thoughts but get in arguments through text message so thank you so much for allowing us to fill your eyes and brain with beauty and sadness and laughs and insight for this long. We love you.
And now some links!
- This month hasn’t been the greatest for music. I mean, the things that have come out have been good but there hasn’t been a lot. Here are my recommendations: 1, 2, 3.
- The most amazing show ever conceived and executed had a reunion recently, The Adventures of Pete and Pete. Here is an amazing article Luke sent me about it. (Side Note: I was once a roadie for Danny Tamberelli (Little Pete)’s band Jounce for a night. Ask me about it some time. He’s a really cool dude.)
- Did you know that our body has radium in it?! Did you know that radium is toxic to humans?!!?! Of course you didn’t. See what else your body is made of. Not cool, human body. Not cool.
- Three beer recommendations! 1) Six Point’s Bengali Tiger, 2) Batch 19, 3) 21st Amendment’s Allies Win the War
- My students have been singing this song in class and in the halls all month. At first it was bewildering, then annoying, and now it is just funny.
- If you have an X-Box, there is no reason for you not to own Skyrim. My character’s name is Count Chocula. I am a lizard person.
- Here are 11 songs to help you get the word “ass” out of your head: