Friday, April 12, 2024

Linda Wiener's Echo

When people die, they leave behind many different kinds of echoes.

There were a lot of people back in the 1960's like Ken Kesey who, for philosophical reasons, believed in living life in the moment, rather than being preoccupied with leaving a record of having lived.  Long before selfies and putting out public announcements about every aspect of your individual existence every few minutes became routine, some people decided that even just doing things like writing books was way too much of a distraction from living life now, and at least one notably bestselling author wrote two of them, and then stopped to enjoy the rest of his life.

It's very understandable why you wouldn't want to withdraw yourself socially for a year or more from what was happening around you during a decade like the 60's in order to go write a book.  Maybe if Ken had been a songwriter rather than a novelist, he would have found he could keep up with the craft while also living life, I don't know.

As I get older, life reminds me of death more often.  So many people, increasing numbers, engage in this final act, and then they leave all kinds of memories behind.  Just looking through my phone's Contacts or searching for a particular friend on Facebook, I encounter more and more accounts of people I know who died, more and more disconnected phone numbers.  

I never erase the numbers from my phone.  On Facebook, often relatives of the deceased will make a final post.  Other times, they don't.  Some people barely used Facebook, other people used it all the time, and there are lots of other reasons why someone's account might just be left hanging like that, but it always seems a bit ominous when that happens.

On TV when someone you were friends with dies, you somehow magically find out about it, and you're able to drop everything and travel a thousand miles to go to a funeral, where you meet everyone your friend was close to and have a profound experience.  I've been to a funeral like that, so I know it's not just on TV, actually.  But it seems much more commonly the case from my years on Earth that when someone I was friends with dies, unless they were famous or we were very regularly in touch and had a lot of friends in common, I might not even hear about it until weeks, months, or years afterwards.

In the movies, when someone is dying, they tie up the loose ends, make amends with people they fell out with along the way, and help those who will be surviving them figure out what to do next.  Other times they die young and suddenly, leaving all kinds of unfinished business.  (The plot line has great potential regardless.)

I have vague intentions to leave my children something when I die, but realistically, as a middle-aged man with no savings and no assets worth more than a 2019 Nissan Leaf, if I die anytime in the foreseeable future, the only thing I can hope to leave my kids are whatever streaming royalties I'll be owed until the copyrights to my songs expire.

I don't remember if it was a movie I saw, or something that really happened that I heard about on This American Life or somewhere like that, but there was a guy who unfortunately had to go and die young, leaving a teenage daughter behind, and he made arrangements to have her receive deliveries of flowers and recorded messages at various key moments of her life, like her 18th birthday.  How different from that kind of scenario might it be for my kids to see each month the source of the extra few hundred coming in, that might just be identified by some cryptic handful of letters like "BMI ROYALTIES," but will be a monthly reminder to whomever might be receiving it for the next several decades that this guy, their father, or grandfather or whoever, was a musician.  Whether they'll think that's good or bad, I have no idea.

For a frequently-posting public figure with lots of content hanging around various corners of the internet, probably for a very long time after I'm dead, barring the end of civilization, it's a little weird to look for evidence of someone's existence and find links to a couple of physical books she wrote, and not much else.  Books are great, but Linda knew so many people, studied and taught in so many places, and traveled to so many countries.

I met Dr. Linda Wiener in December, 1999, if memory serves.  Being reminded of her again this morning -- by an automatically-generated email of all things -- is particularly poignant, because of the circumstances of our meeting.

At the time, I was very actively touring all over the place, as part of the global justice movement in particular.  The invitation to do a tour of Israel was one I was profoundly uncomfortable with, but at the time I felt I couldn't pass it up -- I had to see what that place I had heard so much about was like first-hand.  I believe I suggested to my friend from the Israeli Folk Music Society that we do the tour in December, because I didn't have college gigs in December, and I figured the Jews didn't celebrate Christmas, so touring there around then seemed sensible.

The organizer of my tour lived by the Negev Desert, in the little town they call Sde Boker, so that was my home base for the two weeks or so I was there, traveling with my girlfriend from Germany, of all places.

As we spent more time in various parts of Israel, it didn't take us long to start feeling very out of place.  Israel felt like what I imagined it might have been like to hang out with Klansmen in Mississippi in the 1950's.  We met some wonderful people among the Israeli Jews who weren't like that at all, but what was overwhelming was the number of people we met who completely embraced a profoundly skewed, militaristic, and racist version of reality.

The beautiful Negev and the strange little animals in there that I've never seen anywhere else made for a wonderful escape from Israeli society for those of us staying there by the desert.  If we saw anybody once we left town, out there amid the shrubs and goat-like creatures, there was Linda and her two happy little curly-haired children, looking for bugs.

Linda went by the handle of "the bug lady," and this was not by accident.  She was an expert on bugs, having lots of degrees from prestigious institutions.  As she explained it to me, a definite layperson with regards to insects, her specialty was traveling to different countries where they were interested in transforming their agricultural systems to work with the bugs to help grow their crops, rather than using pesticides.  She said the only countries where there was a lot of interest in this sort of thing were the poor countries, and I think she had recently been traveling in Latin America and in east Asia, as well as, now, west Asia.

Aside from her happy children and her interesting field of expertise, what bonded Linda and I there in the Negev in particular, I think, was how we were both freaked out by our surroundings -- not by the desert, which was, after all, very reminiscent of parts of New Mexico, where Linda lived and where I had been many times as well, but by the social surroundings, the people.  She was diplomatic, but was as disturbed by the casual racism exhibited by so many Israelis we encountered as I was.

As time passes, memories become more vague.  I visited and stayed with Linda and her family on a number of occasions when I was passing through New Mexico in the years after we met in the Negev.  Before 2006, I had an AOL account, as did Linda.  As far as I know, I can't look back at those emails, unlike post 2006, where all of the emails we exchanged can magically be summoned.

In 2008, I know I did a concert in her living room.  I was apparently concerned I had said something that upset her husband, and she assured me that I hadn't.  I have no recollection about that, but it's in an email I found.

What I know for sure is in the years after 2008, my touring in the US was happening more and more sporadically.  With all the college gigs gone by that time, I rarely had reason to be in Santa Fe or Albuquerque -- or in New Mexico at all.  There were other people I regularly kept up with in Santa Fe, and in Albuquerque, and in the small New Mexico city of Las Vegas, but over time we've been less and less in touch, as it is with people in so many other parts of the country that I hardly ever manage to visit anymore.

It's probably been well over a decade since I was in New Mexico now, and the same can be said about many other states I used to visit once or twice a year.  2013 was the last year I did a big driving tour around the country, when I realized it wasn't going to work anymore.  That was also the year Spotify started their free tier, which was only part of the story, but a big part.  It was also the year I started doing an annual-billing crowdfunded artist support scheme I call my Community-Supported Art program, a type of phenomenon that became more familiar to more people as Patreon became more known, later on.

That was in March, 2013.  I remember it well, because it was really my last-ditch effort to make this professional singer/songwriter thing keep going, the way the music biz was evolving, as a less and less remunerative one.  And I remember how moved I was by the response of so many of my friends and fans, who stepped up to the plate and joined the scheme in their hundreds.  Linda was one of them, signing up on April 12th, 2013.  I wouldn't remember a specific date like that, but April 12th figures very prominently in a search of my email history with Linda Wiener.

Every so often Linda wrote to say something nice about something I had written in Counterpunch.  In 2016 she shared alarming news about her husband being sued by Harvard for copyright infringement, in a case that sounded totally bizarre.  I wanted to write a song about it.  It was in the middle of the first year of the Trump administration, and I guess I had too many other things on my mind to focus much on that one.  Reading online, I see that Harvard lost the lawsuit.

In May of last year, 2023, I had a friend coming over to the US from Germany who was planning to spend a couple weeks in Santa Fe, at the university.  She was wondering if I had any ideas for where she could stay, and I thought of Linda.  I guess Linda and I hadn't at that point exchanged emails for years, but growing increasingly distant from most of the people I know across the US has been normal for me for over a decade now, so this kind of thing wasn't surprising.

It was only after not getting an answer to a personal email to her, and calling only to find her phone number no longer worked, did I do a search online to find the strange little announcement about her death, of cancer, in 2020.  She was just shy of a decade older than me, so she would have been around 63.  Looking at her Facebook page it has the appearance of a Facebook account that was not regularly used.  In the last photo Linda posted of herself, she's bald, surely from cancer treatment, and wearing a sweater she just knitted in lockdown.

Discovering last year that she had died several years earlier, there was a chill that ran up my spine, as I thought about whatever Roger Waters might have been thinking of when he wrote "Ghost in the Machine."  I would just assume that when someone dies, whoever takes charge of their bank account would review what's going on with things the deceased might be subscribed to.  Did this happen?  

Having not heard of Linda's death, I also didn't know if her posthumous ongoing support for my work was intentional or accidental.  Should I be feeling this special feeling like I'm getting an annual kiss on the cheek from Linda beyond the grave?  Or should I be feeling like a thief who is unintentionally stealing from Linda's estate?  Where is this $50 coming from every April, anyway?

I remember after my housemate and dear friend Eric Mark died very suddenly at the age of 26 or thereabouts, we'd get phone calls from collection agencies on the land line that we all shared there in the apartment in San Francisco back in 1993.  It felt so profoundly disrespectful to Eric's memory to be there on the phone with some credit card company trying to explain to the caller that the person they're looking for is dead, and won't be paying whatever he owed you.  Eventually one of us lost their shit at the caller, who finally seemed to realize this was for real, and then switched gears and asked about Eric's date of death, so he could verify it and close the case.  This situation with Linda is kind of the opposite of that.

I've tried to find Linda's husband and her kids, with no success.  I thought I'd try putting this out there, and seeing if it might attract the attention of some of Linda Wiener's relatives, friends or acquaintances.  Bug Lady, presente.

Linda Wiener's Echo

When people die, they leave behind many different kinds of echoes. There were a lot of people back in the 1960's like Ken Kesey who, for...