Thursday, April 24, 2014

Glen Campbell

One of the earliest record albums I can recall purchasing, with my own money saved from allowances and occasional lawnmowing gigs, was this one, by Glen Campbell. Glen was billed as a country artist, but he really wasn’t. He was a popster, and those syrupy string arrangements and smooth, non-twangy vocals ensured that housewives in Kalamazoo would purchase his records. Truck drivers on the road between Abilene and Wichita, too. Glen had that kind of appeal.
But my parents approved of him, and when you were eleven years old and forced to play your musical purchases on the big Magnavox stereo in the living room, that was important. And, in truth, I liked Glen Campbell just fine. I didn’t know it at the time, but there were covers of Donovan and Roy Orbison and Harry Nillson on this album as well, and they were lovely things. But mostly I listened because of the title track, which was a John Hartford song, and told the tale of a guy on the road, one of those “I love ya, babe, but don’t tie me down” songs of the ‘60s that seemed to define the times. But there were such sweet lines in that song:

I dip my cup of soup back from the gurglin'
Cracklin' caldron in some train yard
My beard a roughenin’ coal pile
And a dirty hat pulled low across my face
Through cupped hands 'round a tin can
I pretend I hold you to my breast and find
That you're waving from the backroads
By the rivers of my mem'ry
Ever smilin' ever gentle on my mind

Oh, that was lovely, and still is, and although my eleven-year-old brain had no real reference points to understand such lines, already the nascent romantic in me was picking up on the poetry, and the longing and the yearning. That was a tender song, and Glen Campbell sang it beautifully.
I bought Glen’s next few albums, too, and liked them a lot, and so did my parents, and we sat around on Sunday evenings and watched the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour on CBS, which was an old-fashioned variety show like they don’t make anymore. And so my late childhood and early adolescence is filled with memories of this man and his music. Some of it, in retrospect, was overwrought and corny. Much of it holds up just fine, and I still take pleasure in listening to it.

Today is his 78th birthday. He has Alzheimer’s now, and it’s unclear how much of this history he recalls. The mind is a tricky and sad thing sometimes. Mine is gentle with his memory, and I’m thankful for his music.


There’s a great David Foster Wallace short story called “The Soul is Not a Smithy” that is set in Columbus, Ohio, 1960. I love DFW for many reasons, but one of them is that although he never lived in Columbus, Ohio, and wasn’t even alive in 1960, his story rang so true that I shook my head in disbelief.
I was alive in 1960, and living in Columbus, Ohio, in fact. And the world that Foster portrayed was precisely the world I knew; insular, solidly and stolidly Midwestern, where not much good or bad ever happened, safe, predictable, and boring. They called Columbus “Cowtown” when I was growing up, and for a lot of years you could buy a poster showing a herd of cattle lounging in a field, with the “skyline” of Columbus, such as it was, in the background. It was a real photo, taken in the days before Photoshop. Columbus was a small city surrounded by farmland, and the photo told a true story.

My, how times have changed. The Rust Belt imploded, the factories shut down, and cities like Cleveland, Akron, Canton, Detroit, and Buffalo started hemorrhaging people. Some of them ended up moving to Columbus. Columbus was never really a blue collar town, but big corporations moved here, universities grew, government (of which there are multiple versions of the city, county, and state varieties within the city limits) expanded, people coming out of the universities stuck around and started their own companies, and immigrants started moving to, of all places, whitebread Columbus, Ohio. Astoundingly, within a few decades Columbus went from a sleepy burg of 300,000 to something like a big, cosmopolitan city of 2,000,000 people.

It’s been fascinating to watch it happen. It’s home – mostly for better, but sometimes for worse – and yes, the crime rates have gone up, the traffic has increased, and so have the taxes. And the weather is still crappy four or five months per year. But Columbus is a better place to live in almost every way. There are the usual mega-malls and big box establishments, but Columbus is a hotbed of locally-owned activity, from restaurants and coffee shops to art galleries, furniture stores, bike and scooter shops, record stores, comic book stores, tattoo parlors, neighborhood theaters, bars, concert venues, and philanthropic ventures by the dozens. Columbus is a big-hearted and good-hearted city, and there are countless organizations that have been established to simply help other people. There’s a thriving art scene. There’s a thriving music scene, and if you don’t believe me, just check out the bands and performers the national music critics are writing about these days, and where they live. There’s a thriving foodie scene and Columbus, once the tried-and-true home of the Porterhouse steak and baked potato, can now boast some of the best and most innovative international cuisine to be found in any city in America.

And then there are those immigrants. 50,000 of them are from Somalia, the second largest community of Somalians in the U.S. Tens of thousands more are from Mexico. There are sizable contingents from India, China, Vietnam, Nepal, and Bhutan. Columbus is not San Francisco, and no one would pretend that it is. But Columbus is a far more diverse city than it was a few decades ago, and I’m so thankful for the presence of neighbors from all over the world. I haven’t been able to visit everyplace I’d like to see, and there are still many countries and several continents on my bucket list. But the world has come to me.

It’s a wonderful city; imperfect, with unresolved growing pains, and too damned cold. But I’m so happy to be here, right in the middle of it. And look: no cows.

Friday, April 18, 2014


Every year about this time the weather gets warmer and the grass gets green and the birds start singing again, and I think about my mother. Her birthday is coming up, so it’s natural to associate that with the emergence of spring and new life. But in truth, there was little of new life in her.

My mother would have been 82 this year if she had lived. She didn’t live, though. She turned 60 and then died a few days later. So I think about the anniversary of her death at this time of year as well. The official cause of death was acute ketoacidosis, which is a fancy term that simply means that one’s body doesn’t produce enough insulin, and when it’s severe enough one goes into a coma and dies. That’s what happened with my mother, although, in truth, it’s hard to know if the coma was caused by insulin or the amount of whiskey she consumed.

My mother drank herself to death. She was an angry, bitter woman, and she spent the last 20 years of her life camped out next to a fifth of whiskey. She drank to forget, and when you drink enough you pass out and you forget. That’s the way it works. Before she passed out she used to beat on people and yank out their hair by the handful and chase them around with butcher knives, but that was all really just a prelude to the desired coma. What she drank to forget was the disappointment of her own life; her shitty father, who sexually abused her, and my dad, who routinely cheated on her, and her kids, who were a source of unending sorrow and consternation. We would never amount to anything, and she reminded us of that frequently. Anger. Bitterness. Violence. Then the blessed coma. Day after day, for decades until, finally, the coma to end all comas.

Now I’m pushing 60 myself, and since I’ve been contemplating my own mortality since, oh, kindergarten, it’s probably not too surprising that my mother’s death, and my mother’s age, figure prominently in my thoughts. I’m not angry with her anymore, although I was for a long time. She was hell to live with, but I’ve come to understand that she was simply a poor, mentally unbalanced woman who couldn’t cope with her life, and who took out all her own shit on her kids.

That sounds so simple, so clinical, so very rational. But it’s not. Getting there has taken decades, and much prayer, some therapy bills, some 12-step groups, the loving support of a spouse who cares deeply for me and who is willing to kick my ass, many late-night conversations with friends and family, and probably several hundred pages of journal entries and blog posts, because I can’t really process anything without pixels. Other than that, it was easy.

But I’m ready to let her go. It’s about time. And it occurs to me that I don’t know how much there is left.

Somewhere back in the forgotten mists of history there were people who set it all in motion. My mother was a sexually abused alcoholic. My father was a neglectful, dick-centered addict. But there were people before them, priming the pump, passing on the genes, acting like the addicts they were and forging the chains. My mother’s father was an alcoholic who sexually abused his own kids, my father’s mother was an alcoholic, and on and on and back and back it goes, perhaps as far back as Addicted Adam and Everclear Eve, who enjoyed a shot of ethyl alcohol or six in the Garden of Eden, or good ol’ Og and Nog in the cave, knocking back their gin and tonics with their brontosaurus steaks. I have no idea. But the chains extend as far back as I can trace; generation after generation of futility and waste, human beings shackled to a prison wall of their own making.

With God’s help, it ends with me. And if that happens, then every prayer, every therapy bill, every 12-step meeting, every anguished late-night conversation, will have been worthwhile. I believe it can and it will.

But here’s how it starts: with forgiveness. It has to start there, impossibly, inevitably. For every bruise, every scar, physical or emotional; for the damage that was done, which was real, and lasting; for the anger and the bitterness and the drunken stupors; for the missed Christmas dinners, the missed awards that were given to the kids who would never amount to anything, the missed parenting opportunities, the missed grandparenting opportunities, for the entire lives that were missed, there is this: forgiveness.

This is how it ends with me, this chain of chains. Every day. Over and over. And messing up, and forgiving again.

This is how it ends with me.

So I think about that on these impossibly bright April days. It’s a strange combination of internal thought and external reality, but that’s nothing new, either. I look outside and inside, and I’m thankful for the promise of new life.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The $77,777,777 Question

Christians face a never-ending conundrum: the promise of new life vs. the frequent reality of the same old life. The apostle Paul, ever the rabble rouser, started it all when he wrote, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creatio...n: The old has gone, the new is here!” And ever since then Christians have been trying to figure out the implications of that statement. Why does “in Christ” sometimes look like “in divorce court, or in rehab”? Why does “new creation” so frequently look like the old disintegration and chaos? And what do we do about the disconnects between doctrine and reality?

Witness the fate of one Bob Coy, former pastor of a megachurch in Florida, recently deposed for “moral failures,” and now persona non grata. Coy resigned his position as head pastor last week. Now the church has deleted every sermon or podcast Coy ever delivered as pastor of the church, an audio and digital record that stretches back more than 30 years. His very existence has been expunged. Bob Coy? Who?

I don’t want to downplay the sadness and heartbreak that surely must be a part of this. Coy resigned because of a series of adulterous affairs, and adulterous affairs are bad news for any family, and certainly bad news for a pastor who is expected to lead by his or her moral example. Real people, including Bob Coy and Mrs. Bob Coy, whoever she might be, have been hurt by this. A marriage may have been irrevocably damaged. A church is reeling. I also understand why this scenario might have cost Bob Coy his job, and I’m not going to take the “Christians; the only army that shoots its wounded” tack that so many would take here. Sometimes when you mess up, it can cost you your job. It’s true all over, including the Church.

There is, however, a question to be asked: what’s wrong with those sermons?

Seriously, what’s wrong with those sermons? Why should they be deleted? Were they good, sound, godly teaching two weeks ago? Did they reflect the wisdom and nurture of a pastor who managed to stay employed for 30 years at the same church? If so, what changed?

Obviously, what changed is that a pastor’s sin came to light. And that brings the whole new creation/same old crap conundrum into sharp focus for me.

In Catholicism and Orthodoxy, there is a built-in corrective to the new life/same old crap conundrum. It’s called penance – confession – and there’s a sacramental dimension to it. The penitent person shows up at church, confesses his or her sins to a priest, and receives absolution/forgiveness. There is an explicit recognition that Christians can and do sin, and that they need to engage in the regular practice of confession, repentance, forgiveness, and spiritual renewal. In Protestant churches, however, no such formal rite exists. Confession is a private matter between sinner and God, with no intermediary required or desired. Sin – as a focus, as an acknowledged reality – takes a back seat (pew if you prefer) to new life.

The problem is that the new life - which is expected, taught, assumed – may or may not be reflected in the day-to-day thoughts and actions of individual Christians. And when it is not, there are few mechanisms, and certainly no formally acknowledged ones, to address the disconnect. And people end up leading double lives. Hypocrisy is alive and well in every part of society. You don’t have to look far or deep to see it. But the great irony is that Protestantism in general, and Evangelicalism in particular, may have been institutionally set up to foster it. Hypocrisy is in the organizational DNA, if you will. It’s not intentional. It’s not insidious. But it’s there. And it’s there because struggling Christians have no easy way to address the sin in their lives, hallelujah, praise God. There’s simply no room for it in day-to-day discourse, in the everyday life of the church.

At its extreme, it leads to bizarre scenes like the one just enacted in Florida. A beloved pastor with hundreds of godly sermons and podcasts literally disappears from public view. It’s like he never existed. Bob Coy? Who?

What does the church do with the disconnect? It’s the $77,777,777 question. Pay attention to how your church answers it.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Cadillac Man

The first day of my MBA program, lo these many years ago, I took a battery of personality tests. I don’t recall exactly what the categories were, or precisely what the results meant. I just recall that all my colleagues were blue and green kinds of men and women, and I was a yellow and red guy.

An academic advisor told me a few days later, “You probably shouldn’t continue with this program. These tests don’t lie. It’s not a question of intelligence. It’s a question of personality type, and your personality type indicates that you’re probably not cut out to be a business manager.”

Truer words were never spoken. I knew it before the tests. I certainly knew it after the tests. I continued anyway, and achieved pretty close to a 4.0 GPA, because I’m that kind of a guy, too. It really wasn’t that difficult, and when I put my mind to it, calculating various profitability ratios was just simple math. As they told me, it wasn’t a question of intelligence. It was a question of … what?

I’d like to tell you that the answer to that $64,000,000 question was “humanity,” simply existing as a living, breathing, thinking, and above all feeling human being on planet Earth, but that would probably just be the yellow and red parts of my personality talking. But that’s what those yellow and red categories measured. Emotional intelligence. Compassion. Empathy. I was off the charts, and in corporate America, it’s all about the charts, preferably pie and bar graph.

I have watched the commercial linked below a few dozen times. It fascinates me, and my reaction to it fascinates me. Because it is marketing, I assume that its implicit goal is to sell cars. It’s a car commercial, after all. See commercial, buy a Cadillac. That’s the Pavlovian consumerist response. But my yellow and red guy reaction is extreme. Not only does it not make me want to buy a Cadillac, it makes me want to proselytize the world, or at least my Facebook friends, and tell everyone that it would be in the best interests of humanity, world peace, God, country, kittens, puppies, all that you and I hold dear, not to buy a Cadillac. I hate this commercial, and I loathe the smug, arrogant son of a bitch who pitches the Cadillacs.

Actually, I know what it is. I have worked with this guy, and for this guy, too often in my 30+ years in corporate America. I can’t take it anymore. I don’t see red. I see blue and green. I see a number cruncher. I see a clown who doesn’t have a clue how to relate to human beings, including his wife or kids, because he’s too busy crunching the numbers that will buy the next expensive luxury car. I see a guy who lives for work instead of who works to live. And he is as alien to me as Godzilla. I can’t even begin to relate.

To be fair, I do realize that there is a continuum here on which all human beings fall. Very few people are pure, unalloyed number crunchers, ruthless automatons climbing one robotic step at a time up the corporate ladder. I know plenty of accountants who crunch numbers all day, and many of them are three-dimensional, fully realized human beings who have a variety of interests, who love their families, etc. And few people are the off-the-charts romantic dreamers and poets that my Yellow and Red Guy test scores would seem to indicate. While you’re babbling about computer nodes, I’m off writing Ode to a Node in my head. This is not normal, either.

But that Cadillac guy? He gives me the willies. He creeps me right out. He raises the hairs on the back of my poetic neck.

Forbes Magazine published an article several years ago that discussed the findings of sociologist Jon Ronson, who contends that the incidence of sociopathy and psychopathy is about four times higher in CEOs than it is in the population at large. Make of that what you will. Ronson would call it science. The chief psychological factor that distinguishes sociopaths and psychopaths from the rest of “normal” society is a lack of empathy.

Every day thousands of people are unceremoniously dumped on the street, the victims of number crunching. They are told, inevitably, that it’s nothing personal. And who knew? For at least some of the people making the decisions, it really isn’t. I deeply, intuitively, non-scientifically suspect that the character played by Cadillac guy is one of their ranks. This is why I can’t stand him.

This is why I would be a lousy manager. This is why I’m a lousy corporate American. Numbers are not people. Never will be. And it is people who are ultimately impacted by the numbers, every single time. You can count on it.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014


“It would seem that emotions are the curse, not death - emotions that appear to have developed upon a few freaks as a special curse from Malevolence. All right then. It is our emotions that are amiss. We are freaks, the world is fine, and us all go have lobotomies to restore us to a natural state. We can leave the library then, go back to the creek lobotomized, and live on its banks as untroubled as any muskrat or reed. You first.”
- Annie Dillard

I am a depressive-depressive. Not manic-depressive. I don’t have episodes where I want to stay up all night cleaning, or dancing, or doing whatever manic people do. I am melancholy. I wrote the epitaph for my tombstone when I was nine years old. True story. I wrote after-the-nuclear-holocaust short stories on the elementary school playground while everybody else was playing kickball. I see the world through black-colored lenses. I brood. I fret my hour upon the stage. Occasionally I shift in my chair. That is one of my manic moments. Often I feel horrible. Not physically, although sometimes that too. Psychologically. Emotionally. Spiritually.

But I’m getting better. And sometimes better scares me.

I discovered quick fixes, as many people do. Anything to feel better. And the quick fixes work, for a while, until they end up using you instead of you using them, and you find yourself weighing the quick fix on one hand and your marriage and your kids and your sanity and everything that you claim to believe as true on the other, and you actually find yourself thinking, “Well, the quick fix doesn’t look so bad.” You’re in some deep shit by that point.

So here’s what recovery looks like with the demons in the rear-view mirror, from a little piece down the road. It looks like a lot of meetings; meetings with 12-step groups, and sponsors, and spiritual directors, and therapists. It’s a multi-pronged issue, so you approach it from several different directions simultaneously. But it also looks like a lot of sitting, because that’s what we depressive people do. The sitting sometimes looks like nothing is happening, but that’s not true. What, in fact, is happening is deep melancholy; feeling like shit, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually. And just living with it. Sitting with it. Praying with it. Pounding on a keyboard with it. Not running away from it. This can be the hardest thing in the world.

All my life I have worn depression like a badge. I haven’t necessarily liked it; many days I’ve hated it, in fact. But it’s been the dues for entrance into the artistic community. Flash the badge, and enter the club. And what I need to understand now – at this critical juncture of my life, where I’m actually approaching the time where I can put this corporate drudgery in the rear-view mirror as well, and focus all my energy on creating what I want to create, on being that ARTIST – is what to do with the melancholy. Is it part of who I am? Is it what drives me, for both good and evil? Or is it something I can cast off like shackles? Good riddance, or riddance of good? Those are the questions I grapple with. Annie Dillard’s nightmare is my nightmare, too. There is a part of me that is convinced that I need to be that freak, and that losing that is to return to the creek lobotomized, as untroubled as any muskrat or reed. And I’d rather be anything than that unfeeling, vacant drone with the lifeless eyes. In the words of the infamous bathroom graffiti, I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy. You first.