Thursday, September 11, 2014

Reliving the Past

My aunt, who is in her late eighties, is in the hospital, her twentieth hospital stay in the past three years. She’s been cut open, and poked and prodded until her tiny frame is covered with bruises. And she is tiny; more tiny than I can ever remember her. She’s barely there anymore.

Yesterday she thought I was her brother, who happens to be my old man. It was probably all the medication, although it’s hard to tell. My dad has been dead for six years now, and I don’t want to be him, alive or dead. So it was a bit of an affront to be called “Bob,” although she didn’t mean it badly. She was just reliving her past. As it turned out, so was I.

I’ve avoided my extended family – both sides of my mom’s and dad’s families - for decades. It wasn’t their fault. They didn’t do anything other than treat me kindly as their grandson or nephew or cousin, whatever the case was. But my own history with my parents was so fraught with bad memories and times I’d rather forget that I consciously chose not to try to re-engage old relationships. And after a certain point – say, when your own kids move out of the house, and you haven’t seen these people since you yourself were a kid – there’s just too much that has happened to go back.

At least that’s what I thought. What changed my mind was death; my parent’s death, and other deaths. My mom has been dead for 22 years, my dad for 6, and there’s been some substantial healing in the meantime. It’s not that I’ve forgotten any of it. The memories are still fresh, and there is no forgetting. But I’m trying to forgive anyway, not because forgiveness is deserved or earned, but because it’s undeserved, and it’s what I need to do to become a more whole human being. It’s a unilateral peace offering, an extended olive branch with no hands held out to take it. And other people are dying, too; aunts and uncles, lost in the fog of dementia, cousins, dead before their time. Only a few are left. There is no more time to wait.

Over the last few years I’ve been able to spend substantial time with my aunt and uncle in Michigan. I’ve always liked them. They had a bunch of children – my cousins – and I have fond childhood memories of hanging out with them as a kid. The first time I heard Bob Dylan was when my cousin Mike pulled out his “Like a Rolling Stone” 45 and played both sides. The song, in fact, took up both sides of the record – a wondrous thing – and I’ve been smitten ever since. There were picnics and family reunions, trips to Dearborn Village, one hot summer night standing in the back yard watching a strange orange glow to the east. That was Detroit, burning down.

As my uncle, who is 90, tells me, it wasn’t always easy. He wasn’t always easy. He had a temper, and he drank too much, and he had some redneck attitudes. But I see him now – this sweet, kind old man who weeps when he remembers his dead children, and who tells me that he’s thrilled, overjoyed, to see me, and who means it – and all of that history, all of the crap from the past, melts away like snow in May. My own parents got worse. They started out, more or less in love, and their dicks and their misshapen hearts and their mental illnesses and their addictions got the better of them, and they ended up in a very dark, very bitter place. My aunt and uncle have done a 180. They’ve gotten better; old wine in old wineskins, as fine and mellow as two human beings can be. They hold each other, two shriveled bodies sharing warmth, and heat, and 66 years together, and they are deeply in love. And I am so thankful to have rediscovered these people – my past, my present. I am so glad I didn’t miss it.

My aunt is very ill. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear that yesterday was the last time I’ll see her alive. When she dies, my uncle’s heart will break. She told me yesterday – the me who might have been Andy, or might have been Bob – that she prays for me. She can call me anything she wants. Andy, Bob, whatever. She aint’ heavy. She’s my sister.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Try to Praise the Mutilitated World

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June's long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You've seen the refugees going nowhere,

you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

- Adam Zagajewski, “Try to Praise the Mutilated World”

In Iraq, they are beheading little Christian children. Why? Because they breathe. I’ve heard the feeble protests, the indignant objections. This has been going on for years, all over the globe. Why only notice now?

Just stop. It has been going on forever.

And they are beheading little Christian children. They are not better, more significant, than little Muslim children, or little Jewish children, or little children anywhere. But they are little. They are children. And they are grabbing them by their hair, stretching out their necks, testing the sharp blade of a machete – a machete! - against soft skin. They are cutting off their heads.

Carry this with you throughout your day, your days. Think about it, don’t turn away, and experience it for the unspeakable horror that it is. Cry, moan, pray.

And in your day, remember, hold up, like a rare old treasure, the slant of late summer sunlight filtered through the still green leaves of trees, the taste of good, freshly brewed coffee, the sound of Miles Davis’ trumpet, the sweet, easy company of the wife of your youth, the surprise of new friendship, new connections that defy logic and convention. Look at these ties. They do not bind. They unite. It is nothing. It is everything. It is what you have, who you are.

Remember, don’t ever forget, all the horrendous, senseless, hateful, unfathomable death down through the ages; heads on pikes and bodies stacked atop one another like cords of wood stored for the winter, the torturer’s rack, the rows of young men mown down like newly harvested wheat, bits of brain spattered against a wall, mustard gas and napalm, the mushroom cloud, the fucking sterile, efficient gas chambers of Auschwitz and Sobibor and Treblinka. This is where we live and move and have our being. Then breathe, if you can. You must. Live. Lift up, like an old treasure, your tiny shards of joy. Try to praise the mutilated world.

Blubber Songs

Chuck Cleaver, who is the impetus behind two very fine Ohio bands few people have ever heard – Ass Ponys and Wussy – recently wrote about the songs that stop him in his tracks, that reduce him to a quivering mass of blubber because of their overwhelming sadness. Some of those songs were standard mopester/unrequited love fare, and I’m fairly sure that most people can identify at least with the sentiments expressed, if not the music. Others were more surprising, and involved connections that were far more idiosyncratic and personal. Chuck listed a few of his favorites, and a couple of them happen to be my favorites, too, for much the same reasons. Given the recent spate of curse- and sob-inducing news, I thought I would compile my own highly idiosyncratic, highly subjective Top 10 Blubber Songs, in no particular order other than alphabetical.

The Blue Nile – Because of Toledo

In general, atmospheric synth bands don’t do much for me. I make an exception for Glasgow’s The Blue Nile because a) I’m a sucker for a good Scottish burr, and b) lead singer/songwriter Paul Buchanan has a wondrously supple, soulful voice that adds some needed humanity to the icy chill. All of the Blue Nile albums are worth seeking out for those qualities, but it’s the opening line of this song that slays me every time: “Because of Toledo I got sober and I stayed clean.”

I don’t know what happened in Toledo, and Paul Buchanan isn’t telling, nor is he even telling if he’s singing about Toledo, Ohio or Toledo, Spain. It doesn’t matter. But I have my own version of Toledo, which has nothing to do with Toledo, Ohio or Toledo, Spain, either, but it will do. It’s the place on the psychic map where you say, “That’s it. I have to change.” These are good if sometimes painful places to revisit, and I do every time I listen to this song.

Bruce Cockburn – The Rose Above the Sky

This song, which borrows heavily from T.S. Eliot, comes from Bruce Cockburn’s divorce album “Humans.” I’ve never been divorced, so I don’t know, but I suspect that the anger and the helplessness are much the way Bruce presents it. And sadness, infinite sadness. “Something jeweled slips away ‘round the next bend with a splash/Laughing at the hands I hold out, only air within their grasp.” At the end of a tough, harrowing album there is this song, which is perhaps the beginning of acceptance; rueful thankfulness, but thankfulness nonetheless for what has been. Occasionally you find an album that cuts through the bullshit and presents life poetically but in stark honesty. “Humans” is that album.

Bob Dylan – You’re a Big Girl Now

Another divorce album, this one from The Voice of a Generation, and arguably the greatest songwriter of the 20th century. So it’s rather ironic that the best bit of this song comes as a wordless moan. The words are certainly powerful enough; Bob Dylan recounting the parting dance, the uneasy shuffle as a husband and wife move apart from one another. The moan comes midway, his Bobness conjuring the image of his wife in bed with another man. Then comes something that can be roughly translated as “Oooohhhhhh,” but is not so much a word as an existential groan, the inarticulate speech of the heart. It’s among my favorite musical moments, even though I realize that “favorite” is a sorry excuse for a word meant to cover something so visceral and painful.

George Jones – He Stopped Loving Her Today

The reason being, of course, because he died today. By all rights, this song should not possibly work. It features country cornpone over-emoting, sappy strings, and a spoken-word interlude that is so sloppily sentimental that even the Hallmark Company would blush. It works because George Jones is the greatest of country singers, and the catch in his voice is the sound of the wind howling at 3:00 a.m. in desolate places. It also works because the sentiment is true. If you don’t know what I mean, too bad for you.

The Left Banke – Walk Away, Renee

Unrequited love, pure and simple. What makes it great is that the song was written by the then-16-year-old Michael Brown, and 16-year-old Michael Brown perfectly captured the “oh fuck, all of the meaning has just been sucked out of the universe” despair of unrequited love as only 16-year-olds can do. There are thousands of songs that express these sentiments, but this one might be the prettiest, and features a lovely little chamber-pop arrangement. Baroque ‘n roll, indeed.

Joni Mitchell – The Last Time I Saw Richard

Unrequited love, but with a few zingers thrown in. Joni feels bad about ol’ Richard, to be sure, and wants to be left alone to drink at the bar, but she’s not above throwing in a couple catty lines about the nondescript suburban woman he married and the stupid kitchen appliances he bought her. And really, those lines rescue the song from maudlin sentimentality. Anybody can write a song about feeling miserable and drinking alone at the bar. Only Joni Mitchell can turn that into a rant about the vacuousness of consumerism.

Pentangle – Lord Franklin
An old, old British folk song – some 200 years old now – given a bit of a folk/rock update by Trad band/hippies Pentangle in 1970. This is a sad, nay tragic love song, but it’s a sad love song told from the standpoint of a sailor mourning the loss of his captain. The captain – in this case the titular Lord Franklin – lost his life in a foolhardy expedition to sail to the North Pole. “Ten thousand pounds would I freely give/To say on earth that Lord Franklin did live.” This is the melody, by the way, that Bob Dylan appropriated/stole for his early song “Bob Dylan’s Dream.”

Sun Kil Moon – Glenn Tipton

Mark Kozelek only writes sad tunes. Really, he’s recorded dozens of hours at this point that could serve as the soundtrack for wrist slitters worldwide. But I’m particularly fond of this song, which finds him looking past his navel for once:

I know an old woman ran a doughnut shop
She stayed up late servin’ cops
And then one mornin’, baby, her heart stopped
Place ain’t the same no more
Place ain’t the same no more
Not without my good friend Eleanor

I haunt a few places like that. I’ve known a few Eleanors, and I miss them too. This song reminds me to remember the sweet people on the periphery.

Tom Waits – Kentucky Avenue

An early trashcan symphony that is part poetic childhood reverie and part surrealistic nightmare. In Tom Waits’ universe, the juvenile delinquents and hookers have hearts of gold. Here they play strip poker, spit on kids, flip the bird, slash car ties, and exhibit extraordinary sweetness and kindness:

I’ll take a rusty nail, scratch your initials in my arm
I’ll show you how to sneak up on the roof of the drugstore
I’ll take the spokes from your wheelchair and a magpie’s wing
And I’ll tie ‘em to your shoulders and your feet
I’ll steal a hacksaw from my dad, cut the braces off your legs
And we’ll bury them in the night out in a cornfield
Just put a churchkey in your pocket, we’ll hop that freight train in the hall
And we’ll slide all the way down the drain to New Orleans in the fall

Diamonds shining in the mud. It’s heartbreaking.

The Weakerthans – Elegy for Elsabet 

This being an elegy, one assumes that poor Elsabet, whoever she might be, is a personage of some stature. The guitars crank up in proper elegiac fashion, and the chorus swells grandly, celebrating … what? It turns out that Elsabet is a young woman who lives a nondescript life, browbeaten by her parents, watching too much TV, finally succumbing to something that may be no more consequential than terminal boredom. Whoever she is, she is a cypher, someone who has never really lived. The thing that I love – and the thing that I love about John Samson’s songwriting in general – is that this makes her a person worth eulogizing. Let every sound consecrate the whispering words that Betta never heard.

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.