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.

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.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

First and Best Church of Love and Jesus, Ohio Synod - Call for Members

There’s a long-standing belief in Christian circles that love and truth are inseparable. Lean too much in the direction of love and you become a wishy-washy, namby-pamby relativist who is willing to accept anything and everything. Lean too much in the direction of truth and you become a hardline, doctrinaire Pharisee without a beating heart. The greatest of these is love, but truth will set you You need both.

Every Christian believes, more or less, that they have these two attributes in balance. And Christianity, with its 2,000-year-old history and its 8,543,962 variations/denominations, encompasses virtually every belief imaginable, each of them sanctified as Holy Truth, even when they completely contradict one another.

So I’m fed up. I’m starting variation #8,543,963, the First and Best Church of Love and Jesus (FABCOLAJ, Ohio Synod). I’ll get it wrong, guaranteed, just as the other 8,543,962 variations have gotten it wrong. But I’d like to get it wrong in the direction of wishy-washy, namby-pamby love. I’d like to take a shot at that since precious few Christians seem interested in leaning that direction. And see, right there I’m blowing it. There it is: failure within the first minute. If I was a decent, loving megalomaniac and founder of a new religion I’d be gracious, and kind, and non-judgmental. But I’m not. You’re welcome to join me anyway.

I want to get away from the Truthers. Truthers bother the hell out of me. I wish they didn’t. Truthers are very upright, righteous people, full of beliefs, which they can enumerate at great length, and are very, very principled. They study the Bible and have worked out elaborate systems of morality. They are so principled and moral that they’d rather let little kids starve than allow a single gay World Vision worker help to keep them alive. And I want out.

So here’s the deal for you Truthers: You can keep the “Christian” label if you want it, and a minor prophet or two to be named later. You get to boycott, claim persecution, hold on to all the televangelists and Rush Limbaugh, host your paranoid Culture Wars conferences, and retain all profits and proceeds from the Christian Entertainment Industry. It’s all yours for the taking. Have at it.

But I get to keep Jesus. You can’t have him, and don’t you dare claim him, because your beliefs and actions don’t look anything like him. I’ll accept whatever label you want to call me. It doesn’t matter. I will take on the epithets of being judgmental, divisive, and cranky. Hell, yeah. And it’s true anyway. In spite of this bad beginning, anybody interested in signing up?

Actually, I don’t want to start a new religion. I just want to follow an old one. Anybody know where I can find it?

Jip Next Door

"At last he came out, and then I saw my own Dora hang up the bird-cage, and peep into the balcony to look for me, and run in again when she saw I was there, while Jip remained behind, to bark injuriously at an immense butcher's dog in the s...treet, who could have taken him like a pill."
- Charles Dickens, from "David Copperfield"

I like Charles Dickens for many reasons, but one of them is that a little yappy dog is a peripheral but recurring character in "David Copperfield."

This dog, Jip, has a great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandson by the name of Sammy who lives next door to me. I think of Dickens, and Jip, every time I see Sammy, or, more correctly, every time he sees me, because honestly I don't go out of my way to look for him. But he hones in on me with keen, radar-like precision.

Sammy sees me in a variety of contexts. I will, at times, stand at my kitchen window because that's where the sink is, and I use the sink for a variety of purposes, most involving running water. This sets Sammy off into a righteous fit of howling and yapping. I am in my house. Sammy is in his house. We are separated by two panes of glass, an expanse of lawn, and a driveway, but this is far too close for Sammy's comfort, and the thought of me filling a glass of water in my own home is apparently enough of a threat to result in bared teeth, menacing (to the extent that rat-like canines can be menacing) growling, and outraged barking. It's worse if I actually venture out of the house; to, say, put something in a trash cash, or, worse yet, walk the entire length of my back yard to my garage. This requires walking beside the fence that divides my yard from Sammy's, a 60-foot gauntlet that features a frothing-at-the-mouth, jumping, twirling, barking little ball of outraged fur every step of the way.

I like my neighbors. They are sweet, calm people. Sammy also barks and yaps at them incessantly, although perhaps with slightly less vigor and outrage than he exhibits when he sees me. I don't know how they stand it.

I like dogs, by the way. Really I do. Man's best friend, and all that. I get it. But I don't get Sammy. Apparently Dickens encountered his ancient ancestor and lived to write about it.

Noah and Other Sinners

“All of this should trouble the sort of Christian, I suppose, who imagines that the proper care of the Earth is strictly the domain of those godless liberal tree-huggers; that our readings of the Bible should never stir in us a sense of won...der or supernatural possibility; and that the only artists who could possibly extract anything of value from a religious text are those who readily subscribe to its teachings. To believe such a thing, of course, is to ignore one of the great recurring themes of Scripture, which is that God can and does use the most unlikely of individuals to glorify His name and advance His purposes, and is indeed rather fond of subverting our prejudices about who and what is good, moral and worthy of emulation.”

Hollywood has a notoriously spotty record when it comes to biblical epics. I’ve yet to see a Jesus movie that gets it right, and the succession of blue-eyed, passive, blissfully stoned versions of Jesus the Hippie that were paraded forth in the ‘60s and ‘70s have been succeeded by the rugged he-men and body building Gold’s Gym Jesus’s of the new millennium. Charlton Heston’s Moses always looked like he should be wearing a suit on Madison Avenue. And the various made-for-cable extravaganzas of the past few years have always struck me as more like The Fantastic Four (or Twelve) or Captain Israel than the folks I read about in the scriptures.

So now there’s a big Hollywood blockbuster out about Noah, called, appropriately enough, “Noah.” It’s caused a big stink among the Culture Warriors, chiefly because the Culture Warriors like to cause big stinks; massive critical flatus that spreads across the land like a spiritual miasma.

It should be noted that I have a number of Christian friends who review movies, some of them for a living, and they have written intelligently and persuasively about the film. This is not about them. This is about the professional fearmongers whose job it is to whip the faithful into an outraged moral frenzy. And they have done their job well with “Noah.” The film isn’t true to the biblical record. The film is blasphemous. Noah is not a righteous man in this film. God is grieved by the sacrilegious tone.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth noting again: there’s precious little to go on. The story of Noah takes up a scant three and a half chapters in the Book of Genesis. We’re introduced to Noah and told that he is a righteous man. Then we encounter the story of the building of the ark, the gathering of the animals, the devastating flood, the receding waters, and the promise of the covenant. Finally, Noah leaves the ark, plants a vineyard, gets drunk, is discovered naked by his sons, and curses one of the sons who found him naked. Thus, Noah.

There’s also a bit of commentary about him in the New Testament, chiefly in Chapter 11 of the Book of Hebrews. This, for those of you who may have forgotten your Sunday School lessons, is the Heroes of the Faith/Faith Hall of Fame chapter. It’s a long summary of the lives and deeds of many saints in the Old Testament, those ancient fathers and mothers, like Noah, who were awarded God’s favor because of their faith. Again, for those who may have forgotten, it includes (among others) a coward (Abraham), a manipulative swindler (Jacob), an egotistical prick (Joseph), a murderer (Moses), a prostitute (Rahab), and an adulterer (David). Also a judgmental drunkard (Noah).

I write that list not to be contentious, and I’m fully aware that those heroes of the faith had many positive qualities as well. But sometimes I wonder if the Culture Warriors ever bother to read their Bibles. The whole point of that list, it seems to me, is not that God’s people are perfect (for surely they are not; read that list again), but rather that they are full of faith.

It’s a tricky word, that one: faith. If you’ve got it fully figured out, let me know. You could teach me a few things. But the biblical story – let me say it again, the biblical story – of Noah is that of a righteous man, a judgmental drunkard, a man of faith. This is great, good news if you’re anybody like me.

I have yet to see this new Hollywood Noah. I think, based on what I’ve read, that it’s entirely possible that I’ll like and relate to him. I think, based on what I’ve read, that this might be a biblical epic that gets it right, even with its (or perhaps because of its) creative liberties and fanciful flights of imagination. I can’t wait to see the film.
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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Born Again

In a few weeks I will celebrate the 39th anniversary of my “Born Again” date. In certain Christian circles, the “Born Again Date” is the most important date in a person’s life. It’s the date when everything changes, and all things became new. As in new life, new creation, new family who call themselves “brothers” and “sisters.” The Born Again date is the reset button. Press it, and everything is fresh and green.

My “Born Again” date happens to be April 7, 1975. I was nineteen years old and a sophomore in college. It was springtime, and everything was fresh and green.

I recall the events leading up to that date fairly clearly. I had spent my entire freshman year in misery. My family was falling apart. My mother was a mentally ill alcoholic, my father was a serial adulterer who cared only about his dick, and I was living in Rock Island, Illinois, stuck in a small liberal arts college full of Born Again Christians who kept foisting off their Christian pamphlets on me. I stuck them in my sock drawer, and I had a rather large collection.

So I got out of there. I transferred to Ohio University, Party School U.S.A. with a world-class Creative Writing program, and partied myself into oblivion far too often, or as close to oblivion as I could get. But I kept running into Christians. I was in a new state, and I didn’t really know anybody, so I sat down in the cafeteria next to a guy with hair down to the middle of his back and a beard down to the middle of his chest. He looked safe enough, and then he pulled out a Bible. Shit. I fell in love with a cute girl who liked to party, and then she became a Christian and started toting around a Bible. Shit.

I spent six months discussing – yeah, that’s a nice euphemism for it - Christianity in overheated dorm rooms, staying up far too late. I accompanied those Christians to their worship services, and watched them raise their arms in worship, and called out “Touchdown, Jesus!” in the middle of some sappy chorus. I argued vehemently in those overheated dorm rooms. “What about the Crusades?” I would say, and “Remember when there were multiple, dueling Popes during the Middle Ages?” And they would say, “How are you doing?” and “You seem like you’re really hurting.” And they were right. They did nothing but love me when I was a jerk. So I thought I’d give their God a try. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I think I prayed the Sinner’s Prayer ten or twelve times, trying to get in the proper mood, trying to get it right. Finally I stopped trying. This was my first real prayer: “Fuck it. I give up. If you can do anything with this mess, go for it.”

April 7, 1975. The grass was turning green. The leaves were reappearing on barren trees. Born Again.

That was 39 years ago. And here’s the current state of the union: all things have not become new. I was sold a bill of goods. I was the victim of false advertising. There was no reset button, and I’m still a mess. I see the mess constantly, every day, and here’s how it manifests itself: I am angry and I don’t even know why. I am selfish and sad. People let me down, and I resent it, and I carry that resentment around and I don’t even know how to let it go, although I pray and work the 12 steps and ask for the grace to forgive. I sing “We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves” every Sunday, and it’s always true for me. Every single time. I am the person I love best. Not Jesus. Not my neighbors.

So what do I do with this Born Again business?

All I know is that I see a lot of grey. Charcoal grey, dark grey, grey so light that it almost looks white, grey tinged with blue. But not black. Not white. I am neither a new creation nor the same old jerk. I am in process. I am becoming a Christian. Born Again-ish. Sometimes barely breathing, and in need of a slap on the ass to help me take in huge gulps of air. But not dead. Alive.

In Florida last week, in the midst of impossibly bright days, swaying palm trees, fancy cars and fancy hotels and fancy people everywhere I looked, I felt horrible. I spent my glorious, highly anticipated vacation worrying about work, where I was not present, and to which I did not want to return. I was impatient and worried and unable to live in the moment for five days, and then those five days were gone, and then I regretted that they were gone. What is wrong with me?

And then I returned to work. And I worked with people who edited my writing, turned those nice, crisp, active-voice sentences into a muddled, passive-voiced mess, and I sat there and took it, and thought, “Just give me the money. All I am is a writer. I only communicate for a living. You’re the boss. It doesn’t matter what I do or think. It doesn’t even matter that I’m here, really. But since I’m here, please pay me.”

Resentment. Anger. Here’s your Born Again boy, Lord, now creaking toward my dotage. What have I done? What have You done? And why can’t we work together? And lo, there was morning and afternoon, all through the workweek, and they all blended together, and I wasted more precious days that will never be mine again, and I waxed wroth at God, and myself, and the whole fucking universe. Charcoal grey. Dark grey. I’ll even permit “midnight grey,” which is probably just a euphemism for another color. But I’m not going to write it.

Because this also happened. When I was in Florida, preoccupied, stewing in my own misery, I talked with my niece about her paintings, which are very good paintings, and I told her so. And I was encouraging, and I meant it. And I talked with my daughter, and we connected, and we enjoyed each other’s company. I’m thankful every time that happens. Really, I am. And I met a homeless guy in a park, outside a fancy hotel, and he told me his story, and I listened, and I acted like I cared because I did, and he gave me a big hug at the end of our conversation, and I let him, and I hugged him back.

Small things. Born Again things. Black shot through with light. Grey.
Almost forty years ago I expected this all to happen spontaneously, immediately. It has not. But this is the state of this Born Again-ish man. He has done something with the mess. All things are becoming new. All things. But oh, so slowly.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Flannery O'Connor

When my oldest daughter was born, I lobbied long and hard to name her Flannery. My wife would have none of it and, in retrospect, she was probably right. Flannery is a weird name, and my daughter, who ended up as the equally literary Emily, might have been subjected to scorn and ridicule. Who needs it?

But I meant well. I meant well because a woman named Flannery had shaken up my world, which iswhat good writers often do. I read Flannery O’Connor – everything by Flannery O’Connor – for the first time when I was in college. I’ve since re-read everything another four or five times. And she’s absolutely worth revisiting. Her writing is sharp, funny, sad, and bitingly prophetic, and she picks at scabs until they bleed. She was a bundle of contradictions; a shy, retiring woman who had an acidic tongue, a devastating wit that she rarely used on human beings, preferring instead the company of chickens and peacocks. She could, from a distance, look a bit like a misanthrope, but she deeply loved humanity, even if she couldn’t always stand individual human beings. She was a devout Roman Catholic in the middle of the southern Bible Belt. She died far too young, at only 39, and she was always thinking about eternity. But here is where the contradictions ended: she was a moral compass. She pointed True North. Always.

I first encountered Flannery O’Connor around the time I became a Christian. And Flannery O’Connor writes a lot about Christians. But in Flannery O’Connor’s world, Christians are bumblers, crackerjacks, backwoods charlatans, judgmental Pharisees and pious, sanctimonious haters in their Sunday finery. In her short story “Revelation,” which I try to re-read every few months or so as a sort of curative spiritual tonic, a good, upright, churchgoing, middle-class farmer’s wife goes to the doctor’s office and looks on with distaste at the detritus of humanity that surrounds her. A little snot-nosed kid sprawls across a couple seats, a trashy woman with too much makeup reads a gossip magazine, a cynical young woman who is obviously too educated for her own good reads what appears to be a big, uppity-looking college textbook. The upright, churchgoing wife makes snide, disapproving small talk with the other upright, churchgoing folk in the office until she is unceremoniously stopped by the big uppity-looking college textbook, which has been flung through the air, and which hits her square on the nose. “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” the cynical young woman tells her before she is sedated and carted away in an ambulance.

True North. Revelation. Again and again. What Flannery O’Connor understood, better than any other writer, is the smugness and pride of the religious. The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ was a concept she explored in her first novel, Wise Blood, which was about an atheist and itinerant evangelist who couldn’t stop talking about Jesus, but in fact the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ was never far from her thoughts. It’s what she wrote about constantly. It was the constant subject of her prophetic voice; the hollow, ostentatious, prideful vacuum that always, always struts and preens religiously in the absence of genuine conversion. It’s still alive and well. Some days it’s alive and well in me. And that’s why I need to re-read Flannery O’Connor from time to time.

The cynical, intellectual woman who pronounced the wart hog epithet was named Mary Grace.

Today’s is Flannery O’Connor’s birthday. I’m so glad she was born.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Fred Phelps

Fred Phelps - a miserable human being who has inhumanely inserted himself again and again into the lives of hurting people at the time of their greatest need for comfort and support - is dying. So writes his son. 

I don't know Fred Phelps, of course. I think it's supremely sad that he labels himself a Christian, and I get irritated every time the media decide to give him even an iota of attention, because in doing so they perpetuate a particular narrative that is blatantly at odds with my own personal experience, and the experience of almost everyone I know. If that's Christianity, people think, then I want nothing to do with it. And they are right to reject it. But it's not Christianity. It's not even close.

What IS Christianity - at least my take on the real deal - demands that I forgive this man. But Fred Phelps is just a particular manifestation of a specific ideology. I don't like it - I strongly disagree with it, in fact - but it's no skin off my back. Fred Phelps hasn't personally injured me. He's somebody else's boil on the butt. I have nothing but sympathy for anyone who's had to personally deal with his hatred and insensitivity. But he's just a guy on the news to me. He'll soon be gone. May God have mercy on him even though he had no mercy on or for anyone else.

Here's what's much harder: my guess is that most people have an all-too-real Fred Phelps or two in their lives. They can't conveniently dismiss them or ignore them. Maybe they're ex-spouses or ex-bosses or jerky neighbors. Who knows? The point is that they have deeply, irrevocably wronged you. They are, in fact, your enemy.

My take on the real deal also demands that I forgive those people too. Which seems absurd and impossible. Oscar Wilde makes a game of it of sorts. Forgiving your enemies is just another way of getting back at them. But I don't think that's quite what Jesus had in mind, either. This is the hardest thing to do, of course. I fail at it miserably, all the time. I'm trying, when I fail at this, which I do routinely, to ask for the grace to do what I can't do in my own strength. And sometimes - for fleeting moments, hours, perhaps even days - I can do it. That gives me hope. And when I fail to do it, I ask for more grace and start the process all over again. I don't think this will affect my enemies at all. But I think it will make me more human and more alive. I think it will make me a better human being. So I seek to do it. I've watched plenty of people destroyed by their enemies. They end up as bitter, resentful people no one wants to be around. They end up swallowed by the black hole. This is not who I desire to be. With God's help, this is not who I will be.

All of that's a longwinded way of saying that although I am tempted to hate Fred Phelps, and to exult in his passing, I will strive not to do so.

Sun Kil Moon - Benji

Mark Kozelek (under his Sun Kil Moon moniker) has released a new album called “Benji.” Along with Joe Henry’s “Invisible Hour” - a very different kind of musical experience - it’s the album I’ve come back to most frequently during the first few months of this year. I dearly love it. It also irritates the hell out of me. In other words, it’s a Mark Kozelek album.

Let it be noted that Kozelek can’t follow a narrative worth a damn. His songs start off in Ohio and end up in New Mexico, and he doesn’t necessarily connect the dots in between. He starts to tell the tale of a young, mentally handicapped girl in Akron but winds up, in his convoluted, inscrutable fashion, reminiscing about his grandmother in L.A.

He’s also inordinately fond of his dick, and he’ll tell you stories about its adventures, and name the names attached to the female genitalia with which the dick has cavorted from coast to coast, and on several other continents. There are aspects about this man that I find thoroughly distasteful.

Did I say that I really like this album? Because I do, very much. And that should tell you something about just how astounding are the positive qualities. Kozelek’s reedy tenor and deft folk fingerpicking recall a flashier Neil Young, and I’ll gladly live with a flashier Neil Young. But it is his songwriting – yes, as convoluted and self-obsessed as it is – that truly sets him apart.

What Kozelek does especially well – better than any other contemporary songwriter, in fact – is plumb the melancholy depths of memory and loss; lost relationships, lost childhood, lost innocence, lost life. He focuses on lost life particularly on this latest album, which is a nearly unremitting chronicle of quick, unexpected death, slow, lingering death, plane rides to funeral services, the funeral services themselves, the post-funeral meals, and the shattered lives of surviving loved ones and relatives. No less than seven of these eleven songs deal directly with death and funerals. Three deal with worrying about death; one’s own, and one’s parents. The eleventh is about a dick. Welcome to the life of Mark Kozelek.

I suppose it’s also worth noting that sometimes life – complex, convoluted, shocking and surprising life – can’t follow a narrative worth a damn either, and perhaps Kozelek simply travels the meandering stream to see where it leads him. Witness what he does on a long, winding 11-minute song called “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same.” In the song, Kozelek the teenager goes to a mall in Ohio, watches the Led Zeppelin film named in the title, and is caught up in the wonder of the music. That, in turn, calls to mind the memory of friends and classmates who have died tragically young, and the melancholy that has followed him all his life. Those memories then conjure the memory of the death of his grandmother. That news inexplicably caused him to laugh, and he is still haunted by the incongruity of that response. That incongruity triggers yet another one; the memory of being a non-aggressive kid who was baited into a senseless fight on an elementary school playground; of feeling remorse, of wanting to apologize to that poor, unfortunate, beaten kid with the broken glasses, wherever he might be. And that memory in turn causes him to return to the present day, to recognize the storehouse of melancholic memories that has contributed greatly to his musical career, and to look forward to a visit with the man who first signed him to a recording contract, to shake his hand, to simply thank him for the assistance he has rendered. It’s an utterly melancholy song suffused with regret and sweetness.

I would venture to say that there is not – could not possibly be – another song like that one. On one level it is convoluted, meandering, nonsensical, full of non-sequiturs. But this is the way memory works, is it not? And Kozelek has simply captured the neural jumps that take place, often more or less instantaneously, and translated them to a long folk song. It’s a remarkable accomplishment. And he does it over and over again on “Benji,” just as he has done it over and over again throughout a career that now stretches back more than two decades. He’s Marcel Proust with an acoustic guitar. He is unstuck in time, awash in memory and loss, and he is pulling at the disparate strands to weave something lovely.

He’s maddening, and he’s maddeningly gifted. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this album. But I would certainly recommend it.

La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty)

The central conceit of director Paolo Sorrentino’s lovely, haunted 2013 “La Grande Bellezza” (The Great Beauty) is so absurdly wonderful that I was ready to crown him the King of Directors and the worthy recipient of dozens, nay, hundreds of future Oscars before I saw a single minute of his film. Sorrentino posits the existence of – get this – a celebrity journalist. The journalist, one Jep Gambardella (played with rueful magnificence by Toni Sevillo), is 65 years old, rich, bored, and coasting from lavish Roman party to lavish Roman party, all due to the notoriety of a masterful novel he wrote some 40 years ago. He’s written little of note since then, but he’s apparently the Italian equivalent of J.D. Salinger, and the equally bored, pampered wealthy of Rome are happy to trot him out and entertain him as their token trophy writer and celebrity playboy. And Jep is happy to drink their wine, shag their women, and conduct an actual journalistic interview or two from time to time to break up the pleasant, hedonistic ennui.

The first crack in this hazy, nocturnal existence occurs when Jep discovers that an old lover – the great love of his life, in fact – has recently died. Suddenly lost, set adrift in a world of endless intellectual babble and banality, all theory and no reality, Jep sets out to slowly, haltingly reconnect with his roots, with his former friends who were left in the wake of decades of the endless party. He falls in love, almost against his will, experiences more death and loss, tentatively seeks out some spiritual solace, and decides, at long last, to write a second novel.

And that pithy little summary doesn’t possibly do justice to the proceedings. It doesn’t do justice to the splendor of Rome, which deserves at least co-star billing beside Sevillo. It doesn’t do justice to the brilliant, sometimes deeply silly, sometimes deeply sad sendups of modern art that Sorrentino tosses in throughout the film. It doesn’t do justice to the deep, almost boundless sorrow and despair that anchors and drives nearly every character of significance. And it doesn’t do justice to the magnificent juxtaposition of spiritual vacuousness, emotional ennui, and lavish beauty that Sorrentino sets forth in almost every scene.

This is an old-fashioned film about the meaning of life. Nothing more and nothing less. There are no special effects. The characters do not neatly break down into groups of good people and bad people. There are merely broken people everywhere who strive to do well sometimes, and sometimes don’t care. It’s a film about beauty, which perhaps can save the world (Sorrentino would seem to argue so), but which absolutely makes it a better place. And it’s a beautiful film. I’m better for having seen it. Perhaps you will be too.

Remembering Gene Eugene

When I got married 32 years ago, I wrote my own wedding vows and I wrote my own wedding song, which was performed in gritty, acoustic, blue-collar Springsteen fashion (really) by my friend Mark Sullivan. I’m sure the wealthy bluebloods on Kate’s side of the family were dazzled. Great. She’s marrying someone who aspires to be a musical factory worker. It was called “When the Veil is Packed Away” and, true to its title, it downplayed the hoopla of the marriage day and the marriage ceremony and played up the gritty dance of the long haul. And, as I made clear in the lyrics, I was in it for the long haul, baby. Tramps like us, we were born to run, and then jog, and then slow it down to a manageable saunter, but we would keep it moving, and we would be at it decades in the future.

And so we are. But I’m here to tell you that I didn’t have a clue. It was easy to say the words. Perhaps it was even easy for my friend Mark to sing them. But I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and neither did Kate, and every ensuing month and year has been a process of discovery, and recalibration, and readjustment, and recommitment. I meant the words of that song, and those marriage vows, as much as I’ve ever meant anything in my life. But I didn’t know myself. I had no idea how shockingly easily my marriage – and I – could fall apart.

And I’m reminded that some people – many people, alas – don’t make it. This is an occasion for sorrow every time, but it’s especially an occasion for sorrow when I see it happening to friends who are Christians. Nobody sets out to get divorced when they get married. Everybody goes into it assuming that it’s going to work. But there’s a particular weight of authority about Christian marriage, and perhaps a particular stigma about divorce. In any event, it’s a tragedy. It’s a matter for tears.

Here is a song by a Christian man who called himself Gene Eugene. He was the lead singer and songwriter for a band called Adam Again, a band that created and sold music within the narrow confines of the Christian music industry. It was very good music, and I don’t say that too often about songs associated with that particular industry, which tend to be simple, upbeat, and formulaic.

This song is none of those things. It’s a song about a Christian man going through a divorce. It’s a terrible song; terrible in the pain it elicits, terrible in its beauty. How does one communicate about something that is supposed to be life giving, life affirming, and that is instead a source of sorrow? How does one communicate that incongruity? All you can do is grope through sad, fantastic, inconceivable history; pull out strange but perfect metaphors, like the Cuyahoga River on fire. And then let the song slowly fall to pieces.

Gene Eugene died of a brain aneurism at the ripe old age of 39, six years after his divorce. He passed away fourteen years ago today. I miss him.