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.