Thursday, June 30, 2005

A Death, a War, a Friendship

Historian Shelby Foote was, at best, a minor celebrity. Historians tend not to evoke strong emotions in the MTV generation, and Foote would have probably been little more than a footnote himself had it not been for a TV appearance in Ken Burns’ magnificent PBS documentary on the Civil War. But, for better or worse, it is the courtly Shelby Foote – the southern aristocrat who seems to have stepped out of the pages of Gone With the Wind – who remains most indelible from that landmark television event. He was the ideal PBS superstar: erudite, genteel, and a crackling good storyteller whose sly wit and keen insights revealed a mind as sharp as a Confederate saber.

When he died a couple days ago I felt like I had lost a friend. Historians – even historians who serve as talking heads on television documentaries – don’t usually elicit that sentiment in me, so I decided I needed to think about why I reacted as I did. And I realized that it was because I felt like I actually knew the man; knew him through his television commentary, yes, but knew him ever better through his own writing.

Before 1990 the American Civil War was dusty, ancient history to me. I knew it from the cursory overviews I had received in high school and college history classes – names, dates, a few famous battles, the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln at Gettysburg and Lee at Appomattox Courthouse. Ken Burns changed all that for me in 1990, as he did for millions of Americans. Burns brought it all home – the horrendous loss of life, the enormous issues at stake, the complex characters who played their parts in shaping the country we know today, and, above all, the humanity of those involved. Fifty thousand soldiers didn’t die at the battle of Gettysburg. Fifty thousand husbands and fathers died, fifty thousand homesick farmers and church members and letter writers. That was the aspect that had been missing from those boring factual overviews. And that was the aspect that Burns captured masterfully.

I later found out that Burns had cribbed virtually his entire script from Shelby Foote’s massive, three-volume, 3,000-page The Civil War: A Narrative. And so I picked up copies of all three volumes, lugged them home with difficulty, and set before myself the Herculean task of plowing through an eight-inch wide, ten-inch long, two-feet high cube of tiny print.

It wasn’t a struggle; it was a joy. Within two pages it was evident that Shelby Foote was a superb writer. And he wove together a seamless blend of political, economic, social, and military history that still provided ample room to explore the unique personalities, quirks, and idiosyncrasies of the leading players. Foote clearly understood that history is about people, and although he never lost sight of the larger narrative, he always made room for the human dramas that took place in hearts and minds as much as they did on battlefields. I loved him for that. He made history come alive.

It gets weirder, and better. A couple years after reading The Civil War: A Narrative I found out that Shelby Foote was best friends with Walker Percy. Who is Walker Percy? One of my favorite novelists, and someone who (along with folks like Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Frederick Buechner, Annie Dillard, Anne Lamott, and C.S. Lewis) helped me better understand what it means to be a real, three-dimensional Christian through works of fiction. I had been a fan of Percy’s for years, and here was a connection I had not anticipated.

Percy and Foote grew up together in the sleepy backwater Delta town of Greeenville, Mississippi. They were boyhood friends. I’ve been to Greenville, Mississippi a few times. I have an aunt and uncle and a couple cousins who live there. And I was amazed to find that something other than mosquitoes and water moccasins could hail from there. More amazingly, I was astonished to find that two literary giants could be raised a few blocks from one another. Must be something in that muddy Mississippi water.

But those two literary giants could not have been less alike. Shelby Foote was a loquacious, charming, funny cad, a ladies man, a hard drinker who liked to party into the wee hour of the morning. Walker Percy was a shy and retiring introvert, an intellectual, a deadly serious student who eventually pursued a career in medicine, and who became an M.D. in his mid-twenties. Shelby Foote, meanwhile, became a disc jockey at a Memphis radio station. Their paths seemed destined to diverge for life.

But a funny thing happened. Foote began to write. Percy began to write. And these boyhood friends began to write to one another as well – about pursuing literary careers, about families, about their hopes and dreams, about religious doubts and questions, about Percy’s later conversion to Catholicism. And they kept it up for the next sixty years, until Percy’s death from prostate cancer in 1990. Characteristically, Foote threw away the letters he received from Percy, at least the letters from the first twenty years. Percy saved every scrap he received from Foote.

Their letters – most of them, at least – have been preserved in a remarkable book called, appropriately enough, The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy. If you want a quick study in true, deep, lasting friendship, I cannot recommend it highly enough. These two men – so unalike and yet bound together by common roots and a common passion that drove them to the typewriter day after day – simply share their lives with one another. They express love and admiration for each other. They get angry with each other, and debate important and not-so-important topics, and get exasperated, and hector one another. They share the holes in their souls, their quiet desperation, the answers that faith does and does not offer. And they do it for sixty years running.

And now the remaining friend is gone, too.

In his most famous novel The Moviegoer, Walker Percy puts what must have been his own sentiments into the mouth of his main character: “...Hatred strikes me as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world. This is another thing about the world which is upside down: all the friendly and likable people seem dead to me; only the haters seem alive.”

Shelby Foote was a great writer, a rascal, a good and true friend. He was one of the friendly and likable people, and now he is dead. And the world seems a smaller and meaner place.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Shelby Foote

I was saddened to read that historian Shelby Foote passed away earlier today. He's probably best known as the curmudgeon with the southern drawl who stole the show in Ken Burns' documentary on the Civil War. But he got there in the first place because he was a first-rate historian, and a first-rate writer. His three-volume, 3,000-page history of the Civil War is still the standard, and it's the standard not only because of its meticulous research, but because of the poetic way that Foote could wield words. Even when recounting the horrors of bloodshed, Foote could write exquisitely. He was a character. He was a wonderful writer. And he was fair. His heroes were Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson for his military leadership and Abraham Lincoln for his statesmanship and his heart. I'd like to think that their differences are resolved, and that they can all toast one another (lemonade for Jackson, a mint julep for Foote) in heaven.

The Chicago Tribune on the 50 Best Magazines

Every year The Chicago Tribune publishes a list of "The 50 Best Magazines," a highly subjective ranking of the most worthwhile rags for your entertainment/edification dollar.

Here is a link to this year's list:,1,5717415.column?ctrack=1&cset=true

Why do I care? Because of #21.

Monday, June 27, 2005

What's Your Theological Worldview?

Here's a fun quiz:

Like all quizes, this one is maddening, and I'm not even sure what some of the categories mean. Neo-orthodox? Modern liberal vs. classical liberal? Whatever. It's also somewhat enlightening.

For what it's worth, here are my results:

You scored as Emergent/Postmodern.

You are Emergent/Postmodern in your theology. You feel alienated from older forms of church, you don't think they connect to modern culture very well. No one knows the whole truth about God, and we have much to learn from each other, and so learning takes place in dialogue. Evangelism should take place in relationships rather than through crusades and altar-calls. People are interested in spirituality and want to ask questions, so the church should help them to do this.

Emergent/Postmodern -- 82%
Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan -- 79%
Neo orthodox -- 61%
Charismatic/Pentecostal -- 50%
Roman Catholic -- 50%
Classical Liberal -- 39%
Reformed Evangelical -- 36%
Fundamentalist -- 29%
Modern Liberal -- 25%

These results don't particularly surprise me, since they somewhat describe the nature of my church. Ironically, I don't really feel alienated from older forms of church. I grew up as a Roman Catholic, spent many years in the Presbyterian Church of the USA, and came this close (holds thumb and forefinger up only a short distance apart) from converting to the Eastern Orthodox Church a few years back. I have great love for and respect for church history, and have a real problem with Christians who want to make it up as they go. But I certainly agree that no one knows the whole truth about God (even me :-)), that learning best takes place in dialogue with one another, and that the Church should make an effort to understand and relate to the culture in which it is living. Guilty, guilty, guilty.


We emerged from the hole in the ground that is Penn Station. Half of Manhattan seems to exist below the surface. And we ascended to 34th St. and Broadway, right in the middle of the sensory overload that is New York City -- vibrant, dirty, exciting, noisy, smelly, teeming with activity, and the loneliest place on earth. For an unreconstructed introvert like me, it’s the worst place imaginable to settle down and spend a life, but it’s one of the best places imaginable to spend four days. And since I was here for four days, I resolved to make the best of it.

And I immediately felt out of place. It was 92 degrees and very humid. I was wearing shorts and sandals, and toting suitcases, and sweating profusely. Elsewhere, New Yorkers coolly and calmly walked the streets in long pants and business suits. I might as well have had the word “Tourist” emblazoned in big letters on my back. What is wrong with these people? And how do they keep from sweating?

We found our hotel, checked in, and “freshened up” (i.e., spent two hours primping in front of the mirror for the three Whitman women; spent two minutes wiping the sweat from my brow and then 1:58 alternately pacing the hotel room and trying to read a book for me). I am still not used to the World of Women. I suspect I will never be used to it, although you would think that with all the practice it would be getting easier. But I struggled that first day, as I did every day of our vacation. I love my family. And they drive me crazy. Then we headed off to a late lunch at Ben’s Deli at W. 38th and 7th Ave., where we were served corned beef sandwiches the size of Buicks, and priced accordingly.

Thus began our urban adventure. Mostly we walked. Wow, did we walk – probably ten to twelve miles per day because we really wanted to see the city. Over the next four days we shopped for clothes (H&M and Macy’s for the girls), attended a Broadway musical (The Producers, which, by some minor miracle, I thoroughly enjoyed), dropped by Grand Central Terminal and gawked at the outrageous gothic architecture, dropped by the New York City public library and gawked at more outrageous gothic architecture, shopped for more clothes (Urban Outfitters for the girls), and toured Rockefeller Center. We visited the American Museum of Natural History and looked at dinosaur bones and meteorites and gazed open mouthed at the dazzling show at the Hayden Planetarium. We strolled through Central Park. We strolled through West Greenwich Village, and I treaded as if I was on holy ground, imagining Bleeker St. forty-five years ago when The Gaslight and Gerdes Folk City played host to a twenty-year-old Bob Dylan. We ate and drank our way across and up and down Manhattan – two kosher delis, and authentic New York pizza, and great Chinese. We splurged at an upscale Italian restaurant, where I ate lobster-filled ravioli and irritated the waitress by refusing to order a $12 dessert. Great stuff, and I was stuffed.

While the Whitman women shopped for clothes I struck out on my own, in search of the Ultimate Music Store. And since the clothes shopping went on for seemingly interminable intervals, I had plenty of time to explore. Here is what I found:

  • Rebel Rebel (W. Greenwich Village) – Nothing but punk and indie stuff, but a good selection of that. I picked up the latest Pernice Brothers album for full price and the first Matthew Ryan album (Mayday) for 99 cents.
  • Retro Records (83rd St. and Broadway on the upper west side) – Great indie selection, but overpriced. No purchases, but a nice sales clerk who knew about Paste).
  • Bleeker St. Music (Bleeker St. in W. Greenwich Village) – I don’t care if Bleeker Street Bob did know Bob Dylan back in the day. And I don’t care if he probably does have the best selection of oldies in the world. His CDs are overpriced. I’m not paying $20 for a Left Banke album, even if I am salivating to own it.
  • Other Music (E. 4th St. in the East Village) --- Right across the street from the mega Tower Records store. And “other” here means anything Tower doesn’t carry, which turns out to be quite a lot. What a fabulous store. If it’s weird, it’s here. They had a Kraut Rock section that took up a whole wall. They had an electronic and minimalist section (Steve Reich, Lamont Young, Phillip Glass) that took up a whole wall. They actually had a card for Karlheinz Stockhausen. Plus the scruffy guy in the John Deere cap who was shopping next to me turned out to be Benicio Del Torro, who ended up spending $700 at this store (and you thought I was fanatical). I ended up with a hard-to-find Magnetic Fields album, the latest from British Sea Power, and the latest from The Decemberists.
  • St. Marks Sounds (at St. Marks Place in the East Village) – Good selection of used CDs, but a little too predictable. And overpriced. I ended up not buying anything.
  • Joe’s Music (at St. Marks Place in the East Village) – Mecca. A huge selection of used CDs, reasonably priced (everything in the $7 - $10 range). I ended up with a stack that included the latest Van Morrison, a couple from Beck, and new-ish albums from Ben Harper, Martin Sexton, Sonia Dada, Teenage Fanclub, and Superdrag.

On Thursday we again played urban hikers, shunning the subway, and we walked from our hotel on W. 35th up to Central Park, and then down 5th Avenue from Central Park to the southern tip of Manhattan, through Chelsea and Soho and Greenwich Village. For what it’s worth, Greenwich Village was arty and bohemian and impossibly overpriced, the counterculture neatly packaged and tied with a bow, ready to be sampled by capitalist consumers. Soho is gentrified and full of fashion boutiques with $1,000 dresses and shiny, neatly-coiffed beautiful people who look like they should be auditioning for soap operas. In the Financial District Kate and Emily and Rachel discovered Century 21, a department store full of funky clothes at bargain (for NYC, at any rate) prices. I knew they were in it for the long haul, and so we made arrangements to rendezvous in a couple hours. I was again on my own for a while.

It was very close. I knew it was. And so I hesitated for a moment, prayed, tried to sort through my motivations and emotions to determine whether the magnetic pull I was feeling was the product of genuine sympathy and compassion or simply my own morbid curiosity. It was a little of both; I finally determined. And it was okay.

So I wandered west for a couple blocks toward the Hudson River. It wasn’t hard to find; I just followed the crowds. And there it was: the gaping, charred, steel-twisted hole that used to be the site of the World Trade Center. It’s fenced off now, and you have to get up close to peer in to see the wreckage. Tour buses pulled up beside me, disgorged their occupants by the hundreds and thousands. And I experienced one of the strangest sensations of my life. I was literally surrounded by thousands of people, and none of them were talking. A few of them were weeping. A few of them thrust flowers through the chain-link fence, leaving behind an all too fleeting memorial for all too fleeting lives. They shuffled silently alongside the fence, read the posters and placards that have been hastily erected – photographs of the towers in all their pre-9/11 glory, photographs of the towers burning, photographs of the towers tumbling to the ground. And then a wall of names – almost 3,000 names – of people who perished in the burning and tumbling. I am not a fan of wave-the-flag patriotism. I am not a fan of revenge. But I am a fan of Gordon McCannel Aamoth Jr. and Edelmiro Abad and the other 2,900 people who were killed by hatred. And so I peered through the chain-link fence at this twisted concrete field of ruins, this negation of life, and I prayed for the families of the victims and for something better than an eye for an eye, a body for a body, a tower for a tower, to fill this hole in the ground and this hole in my heart. I understand revenge. I felt the anger simply looking at that wall of names. I wanted to lash out at somebody, anybody. But I prayed for the strength to love – if not the terrorists in Al Qaeda, then at least my own family. That would be a good place to start.

Philadelphia, where we spent the first 2.5 days of our vacation, was fun as well. We did the historical tour. We ate cheese steak. We visited a great art museum. And we spent inordinate amounts of time in our hotel room, waiting to leave. Or at least I did. And I struggled.

Driving home on Saturday, it again occurred to me that I won’t have to wait long for my family to leave. Emily is heading off for college in less than two months. And so I sat around at home most of Sunday in a kind of blue funk, saddened and depressed that our vacation was over, irritated with my own irritation, wishing that I didn’t react the way I do, wishing I could be more patient, more understanding. It was bittersweet. But we survived a week together, non-stop, and mostly we got along, and laughed, and enjoyed one another’s company. That’s the truth. It wasn’t all bad, it wasn’t all good. But it was life together, and that counts for a lot. I’ll probably be ready for another four days or so in a few years.

Friday, June 17, 2005

The Arcade Fire

There's a band from Montreal called The Arcade Fire. They're a good band, and they've released a good debut album called Funeral. But I find unending humor in the rapturous Internet discussions that often center on this band. The following is an actual exchange from a music discussion board called Arts and Faith. The first two postings are from other folks; the third is from me.


My favorite lyric:


from Track 7. Spelled out like that, it's surprising, but it just doesn't have the same power.


Hmmm. I'm not convinced that it's a straightforward 'OHHHH', I think it may be more of a hybrid of your garden variety 'OHHHHH' and the slightly more sensual, open-ended 'AHHHH!'. I think it ends up as on 'Oh' but starts as an 'Ah'. I'm not really sure what the correct spelling would be though. To be honest, the more I think about it I'm not sure that they're all pronouncing it the same - some of them may be going for a simple 'Ohhhhh', but others coming out with the hybird affair just outlined above. I wish now I'd payed more attention to the individual performances of the 'Ohhh'/'Ahhh' when I saw them live - I wonder whether the nuance came primarily from the violin player and drummer, who had perhaps decided what the song needed was a step away from the relative closure of the 'Ohhhh', and felt that introducing the merest hint of an 'Ahhh' would be just enough to add an air of indeterminancy to the whole proceeding - causing the listener to be caught up in the play between the two. In fact one, can trace a progression of this play as the song unfolds. If you listen carefully, by the time we come to the end section with the accordian, the balance has tipped in favour of the 'Ahh', the relative certainity of the 'Ohhh' has been almost entirely replaced by the questioning of the 'Ahhh' - the vowel remains at the back of the throat, the lips remain open as if now signifying a question rather than the closed, raging angst the 'Ohhh'.


I hear all that, as well as intimations of an "au" sound (as in the German frau; perhaps a subliminal commentary on Hitler and fascism?), and, near the end of the song, faints hints of "Ewwww" (a closing of the lips, perhaps a squinting of the eyes), a great existential cry of despair that encapsulates in that one brief, primal moment the writings of Sartre and Camus, the paintings of Munch, etc.

There is some evidence, in fact, that there is just a hint of an "mmmm" sound in this last occurence, which would of course render the entire phrase as "Ohhhhm" (or, alternatively "Ahhhhm"). If it's the former, as I think it is, then it is of course a reference to Sivananda Yoga, and represents the universal longing for union between body, mind, and spirit.

The album gets even deeper and wiser when the band sings in English or French.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

A Musical Biography

Following a blogging trend (because I’m that kind of hip guy) I’ve decided to post my musical biography – a roughly chronological record of my listening habits.

Birth – 7 (1955 – 1962) – My parents bought me a pink portable record player™ when I was five or six years old. This may have led to later gender confusion. My first records were 45 RPMs, purchased by my parents. They included various Disney songs sung by Mickey Mouse (“I’m a Happy Mouse”) and Donald Duck (“Quack quack quack went Donald Duck/In his sailor suit/ Quack quack quack went Donald Duck/Gee I think he’s cute”). It’s amazing how this stuff stays with you. My first album was the soundtrack to the movie The Alamo (the John Wayne early ‘60s version). At one point I went around the house singing:

Back in 1836
Houston said to Travis
“Get some volunteers and go
Fortify the Alamo!”

I suspect my parents later regretted that album.

I requested several 45s for Christmas/birthday presents, among them “Dominique” by The Singing Nun (a uniquely ‘60s phenomenon in which a nun in full penguin regalia strummed a guitar and sang a French folk song very earnestly; this was actually a hit record), “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down” by The New Christy Minstrels, and “Laurie” by Dicky Lee, a tale in which a guy meets and falls in love with a mysterious, pale girl, takes her to the prom, dances with her, gives her his sweater because she’s cold, loses sight of her, and then finds his sweater the day after the prom. On her gravestone. Man, I ate this stuff up at age 7. I thought it was the coolest stuff in the world.

Age 7 – 14 (1962 – 1969) – At some point in early elementary school I acquired the aqua transistor radio. This saved my life. Exploring around my Columbus radio dial, I discovered WCOL AM, a hip station that played rock ‘n roll, and which featured a screaming pitchman/DJ named Spook Beckman. I loved Spook, and later discovered that there’s an exhibit dedicated to him at the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. Spook told bad jokes, read the weather, did commercials for laundry detergent, and in between played some of the most amazing music I’d ever heard. The first song that I can recall actually getting excited about was called “Money.” You might know it; The Beatles later covered it on their first album. But this was the Barrett Strong Motown version, and it was the first African American voice I can recall ever hearing, and it knocked me flat. “Your lovin’ give me a thrill/But your lovin’ don’t pay my bills,” Barrett sang, and I found myself hopping around my bedroom, engaging in what I like to flatteringly think of as “dance.” I liked this rock ‘n roll stuff.

Shortly after that The Beatles came along. I watched them on Ed Sullivan. I wore an I Love George button to school, but Sister Alexine made me take it off. For some reason the Walker’s, a pious, churchgoing family who lived across the street from my parents, decided to hop in the wood-paneled station wagon and drive up to Cleveland to see The Beatles in September, 1964. They invited me along. And so I attended my first concert, which was not that fun. We sat in the next to last row. Girls screamed and screamed. Being three foot ten, I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t hear anything. But I was there.

That prompted me to request a Beatles album for my ninth birthday. It was my first audacious music request. My parents didn’t like The Beatles, preferring Mickey Mouse and John Wayne. I was sure they would refuse. But sure enough, my birthday came and I opened the flat package and in it was The Beatles Second Album. I played it over and over again, and kept listening to Spook Beckman.

Interesting things were happening in music. It was the Mythical Golden Age, that magical time in which the best music actually happened to coincide with the most popular music. And so I got the usual AM radio rock ‘n roll indoctrination, listening to The Beatles and The Stones, Bob Dylan, The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Supremes, The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, The Who, James Brown, The Kinks, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, The Beach Boys, etc. etc. But this era has been so romanticized that people forget that there was a lot of schlock, too. I uncritically loved all of it, everybody listed above, along with Herman’s Hermits, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Freddie and the Dreamers, Leslie Gore, Petula Clark, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, etc. etc.

I bought Beatles albums faithfully as they came out. I bought Simon and Garfunkel albums. My parents, having moved on from Mickey and The Duke, bought me Neil Diamond albums, which I hated, except for the song “Solitary Man,” which I liked, and still do. It was the rugged individualist motif, and I could dig that as I laid out my Catholic school uniform and prepared to dress like everybody else.

The High School Years (1969 – 1973) – Like everyone else who has gone through this experience, the musical tastes grew both more diverse and more refined. The album collection grew exponentially. People/bands I liked a lot: Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Fleetwood Mac (who were still a blues band at the time, well before the Stevie Nicks/Embraceable Ewe bleating incarnation), Chicago, Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, early Pink Floyd. Jethro Tull. I memorized the lyrics to entire Jethro Tull albums, and thought that Ian Anderson was a genius. Now, more than thirty years down the line, I still think he’s a genius. Neil Young, particularly Harvest and After the Gold Rush. Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young). My little cadre of friends and I prided ourselves on our appreciation of Celtic rock bands/musicians such as Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Tir Na Nog, Richard and Linda Thompson, and Nick Drake. Nobody else was listening to this stuff, but we were. It still sounds great to me. Joni Mitchell wrote the soundtrack to my life, and I was deeply in love with her. I was particularly enamored of a long-haired hippie named Shawn Phillips, who had an incredible vocal range and who sang songs about lovin’ your brother, man. People I didn’t like that other people liked a lot: Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane. The appreciation for those folks would come later, but it wasn’t there in high school. I bought my first jazz album, Bitches Brew by Miles Davis, which I hated.

The College Years (1973 – 1977, 1979 – 1981, 2003-2004). Okay, some of us keep going back to college, trying to figure out what we want to be when we grow up. But I’ll confine myself to the first enlistment here, the years I spent at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Athens in the mid-70s was a laid-back, hippie-infested, every-day-is-Woodstock, bluegrass and country rock kind of place, so it’s only fitting, I suppose, that I discovered bluegrass, country rock, and country music during this phase of my life. Pure Prairie League were sort of the campus house band, and they made great country rock. So did The Eagles, Poco, John Prine, Mason Profitt and The Talbot Brothers, and Jonathan Edwards. I bought a then little-known record by The Byrds called Sweetheart of the Radio, and was shocked to find shitkickin’ country music instead of the usual chiming twelve-string electric guitars. I hated it at first, but came to love it dearly, which led me down a trail to The Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, and Emmylou Harris. But the biggest musical “discoveries” during these years were Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Al Green. Of course, I knew of them before college. But I had never paid that much attention. Now I snatched up as much Dylan and Van and Rev. Al as I could find, a pattern that continues to this day. It’s difficult to name favorites, but I don’t think I would be too far off if I named those three. Oh yeah, Bruce Springsteen arrived on the scene at this time. I saw him play in front of about 100 people in 1974, shortly before Born to Run was released and he was transformed from a virtual unknown into a superstar. He was great then. He’s great now.

I also became a Christian during this time. I bought a lot of CCM, some of which is pretty good and which I still like – Larry Norman, Daniel Amos, Phil Keaggy, Second Chapter of Acts, Keith Green, Mark Heard, Tom Howard, Ed Raetzloff (who actually played some amazing blues-based guitar; where is he now?), Resurrection/Rez Band, Randy Stonehill. I went through a brief period where I only bought “Christian” music. I threw away a few “worldly” albums. Then, a couple years later, I decided that a lot of Christian music sucked (e.g., Honeytree, Evie, Amy Grant, Carman, etc.), and I went through my counter-reformation, throwing away some bad Christian music and re-purchasing a few of the albums I had tossed. In 1975 I discovered Bruce Cockburn, a Christian who made music outside the CCM ghetto. I loved him. He’s been the model for me ever since, consistently showing that it is possible to make intelligent, creative, God-honoring music that isn’t bounded by clichés and platitudes, and that isn’t afraid to ask questions, expose the sin within, and apply the truths of the gospel to the fallen world around us.

The Post-College/Pre-Kate Years (1977 – 1981) – Punk and New Wave, baby. Favorites were The Clash, The Undertones, The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, Talking Heads, Television, Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, The Pretenders. I was once wrote an Apologetics paper for a seminary class using the lyrics to the Clash’s first album as the basis for my argument for Christianity. I got an A, amazingly enough. I was never a punk, couldn’t play one if you gave me a Mohawk, stuck safety pins in my ears, tore up my clothes, and threw up all over me, but I sure loved the music. Other favorites from that time: Dave Edmunds, who played great rockabilly, Nick Lowe, Richard and Linda Thompson (just pencil them in regardless of the era), Springsteen, and the first glimmerings of the phenomenon that was U2 (Boy, which I bought when it first came out). I also discovered blues, and bought a bunch of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Robert Johnson, etc.

Early Marriage/Pre-Kids (1982 – 1986) – Very early in my marriage Kate saw me sitting on the sofa one day. “Why don’t you do something” she asked me. “I am doing something,” I replied. “I’m listening to music.” She’s since gotten used to it. Big favorites: U2, Springsteen, The English Beat, T-Bone Burnett, Tom Waits, Sam Phillips, Laurie Anderson, REM. This was also the time when I discovered jazz, thanks to my brother-in-law Bill, who gently pointed me away from the atonal fusion of late sixties Miles and pointed me to the late fifties Miles. I think I probably bought hundreds of jazz albums during these days. My favorites are the usual suspects: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Keith Jarrett, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Chet Baker, etc.

Late Eighties Through the Nineties – Lots of all of the above, plus new influences from world music, particularly from South African, Bulgarian, and Celtic sources. My favorite band of the late eighties? The Pogues, who sounded like the Sex Pistols if they had grown up in the traditional pubs of Dublin. I mostly missed the Grunge Explosion. It just didn’t do much for me; I’m too much a fan of melody. But power pop, influenced heavily by The Beatles, was (and remains) big for me, and some of my favorite bands playing that genre during this time period were The Posies, Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub, Velvet Crush, The Eels, and Michael Penn. I went through a huge New Zealand pop/rock phase for a while (The Chills, The Bats, The Clean, Bailter Space, Tall Dwarves, Straitjacket Fits, Crowded House), and to this day think that Kiwi Rock was the best thing that came out of the early ‘90s. The mid- to late-nineties saw me scooping up vast quantities of alt-country/insurgent country/roots rock music, as practiced by Steve Earle, Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, Wilco, Cheri Knight, Old 97’s, The Jayhawks, Lucinda Williams, Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams, etc. The best band of the ‘90s? Uncle Tupelo, hands down. At least I think so. Special mention needs to be paid to five of my favorites, Christians one and all, who don’t fit easily within any particular genre: Vigilantes of Love/Bill Mallonee, Victoria Williams, Over the Rhine, Innocence Mission, and Buddy and Julie Miller.

The 00s – The beat goes on. I listen to almost every genre of music imaginable, and find value in all of it (or, more correctly, in some of it in all of it). Newer bands/performers I dearly love: Radiohead, Death Cab for Cutie, The Weakerthans, The New Pornographers, A.C. Newman, Joanna Newsome, Iron and Wine, Sufjan Stevens, jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, jazz saxophonist James Carter, Amos Lee. In the last few months I’ve heard great albums from new discoveries such as Milton Mapes (that’s a band name, not a person), Deathray Davies, soul singer Raul Midon, McCartney clone Sam Ashworth, jazz singer Madeleine Peyroux, Tom Waits compatriot and weirdman Danny Cohen, rockabilly revivalist Webb Wilder, and early bluegrass/country music pioneer Charlie Poole. There’s great music everywhere. It will take me a lifetime to discover it all, and I still won’t be finished.

Friday, June 10, 2005

The Summer Chillin' Mix

Okay, the latest round of mix CDs is underway. Here's my contribution -- a CD of quieter songs (with a few staccato bursts of electric guitar feedback thrown in, just to keep you awake), suitable for contemplation, late-night navel gazing (is that lint?) and well, just about anything else you like to do at night.

1. Everything in its Right Place – Brad Mehldau – 6:55
2. Film Noir – Danny Cohen -- 3:50
3. God Bless You Kid – The Blue Nile – 4:56
4. Beyond the Reach of Love – Paul Brady – 4:34
5. Velouria – The Bad Plus – 5:37
6. Lucky One -- Gemma Hayes – 5:30
7. Contemplation Rose – Van Morrison – 5:15
8. Johnsburg, Illinois – Tom Waits – 1:33
9. Lighthouse – Joe Henry – 5:11
10. You Never Told Me That You Care – James Carter – 6:38
11. The Rose Above the Sky – Bruce Cockburn – 6:23
12. Psalms – Victoria Williams – 3:20
13. No Worries – Yankee Celtic Consort – 3:58
14. Dimming of the Day – Richard and Linda Thompson – 3:59
15. Everything in its Right Place – Christopher O’Riley – 4:06

The first and last songs are jazz and pseudo-classical takes on Radiohead. Danny Cohen and Tom Waits sing like they gargle with Drano, and make surprisingly lush, beautiful lounge music. The Blue Nile sound like Marvin Gaye if he was from Scotland. Paul Brady sounds like Van Morrison. Velouria is a jazz take on The Pixies song of the same name. Gemma Hayes, a lovely Irish lass, sounds like Joni Mitchell with a lilt, backed by noisemakers My Bloody Valentine. That's where you'll hear the guitar feedback. Van Morrison also sounds like Van Morrison. Joe Henry is my favorite songwriter, sings like a weirder version of Sinatra, and writes piano lounge ballads if the lounge was on Pluto. James Carter is a monster on the tenor sax, and this is an old jazz standard that he plays beautifully. Bruce Cockburn, another longtime favorite, heads off into the mystic, and contemplates God's mercies in the light of a divorce. Victoria Williams sounds like Olive Oyl, but I love her anyway. Yankee Celtic Consort are a Columbus band who make beautiful Celtic-inspired music. Richard and Linda Thompson are incomparably great, and this is a gentle lullaby about love and contentment that should put you in a good mood for sleep, or anything else.

Any takers?

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Here's to You, Mrs. Robinson

“Mrs. Robinson -- You are trying to seduce me … aren’t you?”
-- Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate

Like many other young men who went through adolescence in the late sixties and early seventies, Mrs. Robinson made a profound impression on me. Mike Nichols’ film The Graduate was a touchstone of my youth. I identified with the rootless, young college graduate played by Dustin Hoffman – the naïve innocent who wasn’t sure who he wanted to be, but who knew very well who he didn’t want to be, and who could see through the phony, superficial lifestyle of his suburban parents and their friends. And I, uh, identified with, or at least tried mightily to imagine, what it would have been like to encounter someone like Mrs. Robinson, assuming, of course, that I was the Dustin Hoffman character. Would I have followed the same corrupt path as Benjamin Braddock? With Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson? You’re damned right I would have. Of course, I was twelve years old when The Graduate was released, 4 feet eleven inches and 140 pounds. The closest I got to wild, deviant behavior was a breakfast of chocolate milk and donuts. But those bedrooms scenes were burned into my psyche.

Anne Bancroft, who played Mrs. Robinson, and who died yesterday at age 73, spent years trying to live down that role. In the movie, she was simultaneously alluring and pathetic, a boozing, chain-smoking, bored suburban housewife looking for something, anything to make her feel alive. She had seen the future, and it was plastics, and she wasn’t interested. I re-watched The Graduate a couple years ago. And for all the sexual tension she brought to the role, there was an underlying desperation that I totally missed at age 12. Maybe you need to be 50, and not an adolescent, to get it. But for the first time I saw the vulnerability and the fear, the manic pursuit of thrills as a defense against the golden sham of an idyllic, vacant life. And I began to think, for the first time, that Anne Bancroft was a great actress.

I’m not a film aficionado. I don’t keep track of actors and actresses and their roles. But I know that every time I saw Anne Bancroft, she was riveting. She lit up the screen. Ten years after The Graduate she played Mary Magdalene in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, the only Jesus movie I can stand to watch, and the only Jesus movie where the Son of Man doesn’t come across as half Buddhist monk, half zombie. But Anne Bancroft was all woman in that movie as she was in every movie, fully alive and believable as a conflicted prostitute whose life was changed by an encounter with Jesus. She wasn’t holy, but she was lit from within, scarred and scared and on the verge of a new life. She was the most convincing Christian I’ve ever seen on screen.

Late in her life she played the insane Miss Havisham role in Alfonso Cuaron’s modern-day adaptation of Dickens’ Great Expectations. It is a role that a lesser actress would have played with over-the-top, scene-chewing abandon – cackling maniacally, shrieking out commands to her servants as she presided over a crumbling, gothic ruin of a mansion. But Anne Bancroft was simply reprising an earlier role, and she found the soul and pathos and infinite sadness that others would have missed. She was Mrs. Robinson thirty years down the line, old and cynical and broken, out of dreams, no longer capable of sustaining even the illusion of escape. It was one of the most moving, most harrowing performances I’ve ever witnessed.

So now she’s gone, this object of my childhood fantasy, this wondrous actress. I feel ashamed for viewing her as I once did. What I see now, and what I will miss the most, is her unflagging humanity, the way she brought real, human, three-dimensional complexity to every role she played. She was complicated. She was loveable. She was a bitch. I don’t know what Anne Bancroft was like in real life, but I know she was married to Mel Brooks for forty-one years. Apparently miracles still occur in Hollywood, even outside of Franco Zeffirelli movies. But I miss her, and I’m thankful for her life, and for the marvelous characters she created on screen.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Graduation Blues

Here's the final score: Krupp 17, Whitman 0

That's the number of relatives on each side of the family who attended Emily's graduation party. I really wasn't trying to keep score. I may have the number wrong on the Krupp side. I have no doubt that I got the Whitman side correct.

We mailed out invitations weeks in advance. We talked to people on the phone. A bunch of Krupp's and a handful of Whitman's said that they would be there. The Krupp's who said they would be there were there. The Whitman's who said they would be there weren't there. To put it in perspective, I have a father, a sister, and an adult niece and nephew who live within a half-hour drive of our house. Each Krupp traveled anywhere from 2.5 to 7 hours to reach our
house. One of them just had major cancer surgery, but he was there.

It reveals nothing I haven't known for a long, long time. But it saddens me. And I realize that this is nothing more than my own private pity party, but humor me for a moment. We give and give and give. We're the ones who host the Christmas family times, such as they are. We're the ones who give the presents. We're the ones who call. And it gets old, and it leaves a hole in the soul. I suppose I was hoping against hope that they could at least acknowledge that this was an important milestone for my daughter, that they could make some feeble attempt to relate to her before she leaves and those opportunities are gone forever. But why start now?

It really was a wonderful party. It made me realize how truly surrounded we are by people who love us and care about us. But for whatever reasons, I have a hard time not focusing on who wasn't there. You live with the hole, but it doesn't go away, and every so often the curtain is pulled back to reveal ... nothing.

I don't always know how to respond. What do I say to my family? Do I say anything? Do I just continue to play the game, invite them over for Christmas, pass out the presents knowing that there won't be any presents handed back to us? Do I explain to them that my wife, one of the kindest, most compassionate people I've ever known, wants to plant a boot solidly up their individual arses? And that I don't blame her, and that I'd be shopping for especially pointy boots if I got the chance?

"Where's your family?," Kate's 88-year-old mom asked me at one point on Sunday. "I never see them." She moves slowly these days, but she wouldn't have missed Emily's graduation party for anything. 'I don't know," I told her. "Maybe they forgot."

Or maybe they never stored it in the ol' memory banks in the first place, which is the more likely explanation. Maybe it didn't register, in the same way that my daughter's life has never registered for them, in the same way that my life doesn't register for them. I'm not even on the radar.

My life is blessed in so many ways. I know it, and I'm thankful for it. But sometimes I miss having parents and siblings. Sunday was one of those days, and so was Monday. Now that I've written about it and prayed about it and processed it a bit more, maybe Tuesday will be better.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Graduation and Upper-Middle-Class Guilt

My daughter Emily is graduating from high school in a couple days, and I’m reading about the future plans of her classmates, as published by The Westerville North Warrior Memories Book, circa the class of 2005. Alicia is planning to double major in biology and chemistry, on her way to becoming a doctor. Neil wants to pursue a career in theater, and will study at NYU prior to his Broadway debut. Sarah will continue her studies in cello at Oberlin College. She’s been playing the cello since she was three, and has been a member of the Columbus Youth Orchestra for the past six years, with whom she has toured China and Europe.

It’s like that for page after page. I know these kids, and many others like them. I’ve watched them grow up, have seen them at countless elementary school and middle school and high school orchestra and band concerts, and now they’re ready to fly their respective upper-middle-class nests and strike out on their own. They are the children of relative wealth and undisputed privilege. They are bright, high-achieving students, and they have the means, thanks to mom and dad, to pursue esoteric, highly impractical careers in acting and symphonic music. God bless them.

Reality will slap some of them down, as it has a way of doing. Some of them will end up selling insurance in much more prosaic lives than they can now imagine. But for right now they are on top of the world, dreaming big dreams, ready to go out and take their rightful places among the elite of our society. And Emily is right there with them.

I live in that world, but I see glimpses of other worlds. Twelve miles from my house, where we go to church, there is some kid named D’Juan or Chantelle who looks at the future and sees a bright career as a crack dealer or an unwed mother. And half a world away, in Thailand, there are kids named Nongrat or Kitipong who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, who own no more than the tattered clothes on their backs.

Emily’s good friend Sunny is the youngest of her family. She is headed off to the University of Dayton. That will leave her parents as empty nesters in one hell of a nest – a 5,000+ square foot house with six bedrooms overlooking Hoover Reservoir. Sunny’s family moved there a couple years ago. Everybody leaves, then it’s time to upsize. And I’ve seen that pattern again and again here in my corner of suburbia. There are always reasons, and they always sound good for all of about three seconds. It’s an investment. You want to make sure there’s plenty of room for the grandkids. My friend John is already preparing boats for his grandkids. He now owns nine of them, collects them in the same way that he collected Matchbox cars when he was a little kid, apparently expecting a big multi-generational sailing brood.

My judgmental side is easily roused. I want to shake them out of their lethargy, tell them to wake up, realize that there is a big world out there that they can help to change in positive ways. But in truth, I can’t hold on to that attitude for long. Sunny’s parents and my friend John are good people – kind, friendly, often generous. They write their checks, often big ones, to their favorite charities. Just like me. And there are days when I wonder just how the hell I got here.

I lived in the ghetto -- or at least what passes for one in Columbus, Ohio – for eight years. I did it with my eyes wide open, quite intentionally, committed to the silly, romantic, idealistic notion that a bunch of highly educated white Christian kids from the suburbs could help transform a neighborhood rife with crime and drugs and dead-end lives. We organized neighborhood tutoring programs for the kids. We sponsored neighborhood cleanups and beautification projects. We held neighborhood cookouts, and gave away free food in the hopes that a bunch of isolated people could experience some sense of interconnectedness. And the crime went on. And the women were raped. And the silly, romantic white kids got married and had kids, and figured out that they didn’t want to raise their families in the middle of a war zone. And so they moved away, often to the suburbs, and I was right there with them. Why did I move? Because I could. And I did.

But to this day I live uneasily with that choice. There are tradeoffs everywhere. I’ve gained a stable, safe, well-manicured environment where my kids have more than a fighting chance to do something worthwhile with their lives. And I’ve also raised my kids in an environment of entitlement, where they assume that 5,000+ square foot houses and nine boats are the norm, where the limo ride to the prom is a given, and where kids like D’Juan and Chantelle are nowhere in sight. Nobody smokes cocaine in the northern reaches of Westerville, Ohio. How gauche. They strictly snort it.

Come what may, Emily is graduating at 10:15 Saturday morning. She’ll receive her diploma, and I’ll be right there in the midst of the camcorders, preserving the magic moment for posterity. At some point this weekend I’ll probably mow the lawn. I won’t mow it in neat, diagonal swaths. I’ll do freeform mowing, my own little act of rebellion. Strike a blow for freedom and creativity, and all that. It’s as dangerous and subversive as I get these days. But I’ll hope and I’ll pray, all evidence to the contrary, that something of D’Juan and Chantelle and Nongrat and Kitipong will resonate deep inside, will remind her, and remind me, that it’s a big ol’ world, full of hurting people. I can never seem to graduate from the School of Me, but I’d at least like to keep showing up for class, and look around at the other people in the room.