Monday, October 17, 2011

Falcon Quest

Seatbelts, bike helmets, knee pads, safety vests... There were no such things when I was a boy.

I remember standing on the bench seat next to my father as he drove his two tone turquoise and white 1955 Ford Fairlane.  My arm was slung around his neck, and I hung on as he turned into the S curves of the Wampanoag Trail, a serpentine stretch of road on the outskirts of Barrington, the Rhode Island town I once called home.

My brother Dave and I felt the torque of that old V8 as dad put the pedal to the metal and grinned.  Our backs pressed against the tweed seats as we rolled left and right with the curves, cheering him on.

Mom didn’t drive because she was blind in one eye, and her lack of peripheral vision made her nervous.  In the eyes of my brother and me, until our sister Annie got her permit, driving was a male endeavor.

I keep inventory of boyhood events by the particular cars that carried me:

Dad driving Dave and me to see the Yankees at Fenway Park- baby blue 1959 Ford Galaxie wagon.

The family trip across the country to California- a brand new metallic blue ‘64 Chevy Bel Air wagon.

Learning to drive a stick in a turquoise 1963 Ford Falcon, a gift to Dad from the widow of an old friend.

Mom and Dad taking me out to Indiana for my freshman year of college- a gold 1970 Ford Galaxie sedan

It would bring my father a great deal of joy to know that his namesake, my brother Dave, grew up and became CEO of the largest Automobile museum in North America.  Besides the New York Yankees, our love of the automobile bonded us.  We anticipated autumn with enthusiasm because it promised the debut of all the new car models from Detroit with monikers like Mustang, Thunderbird, Grand Prix, Continental, Corvette, and Bronco, names to be lived up to.

We Madeira men had a romance with cars.

Dave and I shared the ’63 Falcon in high school, which he eventually took to college in the late ‘60s.  It was a “three-on-the-tree”, meaning it had a standard transmission whose gearshift was on the steering column.

Ford introduced their compact line, Falcon, in 1960.  The humble car was named for the bird of kings, the king of birds.  In folklore, the falcon often represents the warrior, passion, intellect, keenness, and vision.

My Falcon came to me from my mother, a generous gift and an expression of belief that I was becoming a man.

In 1973, Mom took the pocket change she had made playing piano at church, and bought me a 1964 Falcon station wagon for $150.   I parked it at parents’ house and patched the holes in the floor and the fenders with sheet metal and Bondo, and then sprayed it with metallic blue paint, and I thought it looked pretty glorious.

In truth, it wasn’t much to look at, but it was mine.   And it got me down the road, and back without much trouble for about 4 years.  Not bad for $150.  I named it Felix.

On my first trek West in the summer of ’73, I was about 45 miles from my destination when the clutch failed.  I found a mechanic and it was fixed within hours.  It lasted for as long as I kept Felix.

Every 18 months, the battery would die, and I would go to a junkyard, fork over five bucks, and walk out with a used generator, which I would install within minutes.   Maintenance was up to me; I couldn’t afford to pay for repairs that were within the scope of my technical abilities, so I learned to figure it out.

Felix was my Kon-Tiki, my whale, my Santa Maria, my literal vehicle into manhood.  Through blinding blizzards and zero temperatures, that old car faithfully delivered me to university and back home at least twice a year.  I remember leaving Barrington in the dead of night, knowing I would avoid the congestion of New York City and all roads leading there if I chose to drive in darkness.

I would drive Felix 900 miles from Rhode Island to Indiana, with an AM radio keeping me company until the signal faded somewhere on Interstate 80, leaving nothing but a black sky, the Pennsylvania hills, and the wind whistling through the cracks in the floor.

Under an ink black canopy, I watched stars fall.  On winter treks, snow flakes replaced stars, and sometimes the roads were barely traversable, but Felix and I would proceed cautiously, or so we thought.

I'd crack the little triangular vent window so commonplace on yesterday's cars, and try to cool off as the defroster kept the windshield hot, and once in a while my headlights would be so encrusted with ice that I'd have to pull over and chip away at them with a screwdriver.

Meanwhile, I'd find some groovy late night DJ playing blues or jazz, and somehow Felix seemed to pick up on the energy of the music, and we'd find ourselves cruising at 80 miles per hour.  Occasionally, a tobacco soaked voice would announce whose music was moving us, and I'd make a mental note of who it was.  Taj Mahal, Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins, Miles, or Muddy.  Sooner or later, the bend in the road would take us behind a high, lonesome hill, and the signal would distort and then disappear into the blackness.

Just as I'd lost one signal, another might appear, maybe some black preacher, hollering salvation at fever pitch, or possibly making a sales pitch.  It was hard to tell the difference between the prophets and the profiteers, but the cadence of their voices carried us down the road.

One night, the radio picked up a soulful voice from Atlanta which promised, "I'm goin' to getchoo outta th' ghet-to' an' into th' get-mo'!"

For all the gospel shouting, my soul didn't feel any closer to God Almighty, but the road seemed a little staighter and the hills seemed a little shallower.  We might've been running on fumes, but when the radio was working, Felix ran like a top.

The radio also connected me to Nashville, a place I had no romance about, nor the slightest inkling that it would one day become my habitat.  In the wee hours, old school country and western tunes would bleed through the little mono speaker hidden beneath a grille in the center of the metal dashboard.  Someone from WSM was keeping the truckers awake with twangy etudes from Buck Owens and Dave Dudley.

Those were beautiful times.

The fondness I have for that old Ford Falcon is greater than all the combined affection I’ve given to many cars I’ve owned, matched only by a Mercedes Wagon that is long gone.

I’m sentimental that way.

I like the new cars just fine, but they don’t make ‘em like they used to.  Hell, they don’t even name them like they used to!  What does Prius mean, anyway?

I would trade my Infiniti for a good running Falcon if given the chance.

The tribes of the past sent adolescent males on lone journeys, during which they would transition from boyhood to manhood.  Communing with nature, hearing the voice of an owl or a wolf, and perhaps starving just enough to be in a state of altered and open consciousness, the boy/man would return to the tribe with a word, a prize, or perhaps a vision that could be celebrated by the entire community.

Western society has substituted television and cyber-worlds for real living, and the vision quest has faded from view.  Yet, something in a boy’s heart knows he must seek beyond the borders of comfort.  Something tells him that he will find fulfillment and knowledge, excitement, and adventure if he cuts the apron strings and ventures into the unknown.

When I graduated from college, I had bachelor’s degree in Art, something I have never formally used.  Nonetheless, I returned to my parents’ home having fulfilled the task they had sent me away to accomplish.  Moreover, I returned with friendship bonds that have lasted for nearly 4 decades, stories that have served to remind me about the breath God Almighty continues to fill my lungs with, and lessons learned on the ribbon of road with that beautiful old Falcon.

A college friend hounded me to let go of Felix when I relocated to Upstate New York in 1976, and I reluctantly did so, but the lessons linger. Maybe brother Falcon had more magic under its hood than one would expect from an oil guzzling straight-six engine.  

Maybe it gave me wings.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Beat Generation

I am the baby who tumbled from the womb drumming.  I am the boy whose fingers tapped out a tattoo on a maple-topped desk in elementary school.  I am the teenager who split the calfskin head of an old Ludwig drum as my blue and gold clad fellows marched ahead, laden down with cumbersome brass tubas and silver cornets.

Be it a Sunday school class or a marching band, a book group or an English Lit class, I’ve never been swept along with the herd.  I might be singing along to whatever melody is being raised by the chorus, but the tempo in my head is always fighting with the cadence of the footfalls of the communal parade.

The rhythm in my head is upbeat and funky.  The snare drum barks with brassy insistence and the bass drum holds it all together, landing solidly on the beat, while a maraca trips erratically overhead, riding on the wind.

And the beat goes on.  

Those who love me have sometimes felt the need to explain or excuse me.  My childhood shenanigans would often elicit an exclamation of “Where did you come from?” from my bemused father.  Exasperated, my mother would plead with me to get in line with dress codes, mores, or whatever  parental vision I was supposed to be fulfilling. 

It’s no wonder that I’m marching to my own beat.  My parents set me up. 

While I was incubating in my mother’s tummy, she was playing Mahalia Jackson records, feeding my soul the music of a world that was vastly different to white bread New England. 

When she preached on Mother’s Day, it was to a congregation who wasn’t sure what to do with the idea of a woman having that kind of authority.  She was more progressive than she knew.

My father, a man’s man if I ever knew one, was somewhat of a pacifist, bringing yet another strange facet into an otherwise dog-eat-dog world.  He presided over the Rhode Island chapter of Habitat For Humanity, and he created a relief society to benefit destitute people in Haiti.

Dad was a minister in a Baptist Church, known more for what they don’t do than for what they get done.  Yet, unlike many Baptists, he preached less about Hell than of the Church’s responsibility to the poor.   He ruffled the feathers of his flock when he preached against the War in Viet Nam, and when he championed men like Martin Luther King, Jr.

Their literal interpretation of the words of Christ made them who they were.  They took faith seriously, and as such, set themselves apart from the self-centered suburbia they lived in.  They were truly “in the world, but not of the world”.

My parents were proudly Evangelical, and felt united with conscientious believers like Billy Graham and John Perkins, espousing an evangelism both theologically spoken and practiced.

There were many churches in Barrington, the upper class town we lived in.  Although Rhode Island was founded by the first Baptist, Roger Williams, being Baptist carried with it a hillbilly stigma among the bluebloods of New England.  The social climbers attended St John’s Episcopal or The White Church, an aptly named Congregational group on the banks of the Barrington River.

There were two Catholic churches, one Methodist, another less well-heeled Episcopal parish, and a synagogue just to round things out.

My parents would answer my questions about what the other churches believed with phrases that caused me to think that we at Barrington Baptist had quite a bit more truth than the rest of the town’s Christians.  “Well, they don’t really know the Lord the way we do” was the gist of it.  It was always something of a surprise for me to find out that an Episcopalian or a Congregationalist could be a “real Christian”.

My life was designed by my parents to revolve around church events several days a week.  Sunday was filled with Sunday school class, morning worship, afternoon youth group, and evening worship.  There was also Wednesday evening prayer meeting, which we thankfully were not required to attend, and Friday night youth activities in the church gymnasium.

By the time I was 18 years old, I had done enough church-going to fill the average lifetime.

When I left the warmth of my parents’ home for my freshman year of college, I sought out other Christians like them, but there were none that I could find.  At Taylor University, I recognized the religious jargon, and found some comfort in being with “real Christians”, but there was something missing.

I attended chapel services and occasionally went to one church or another on Sunday, but sleeping in seemed a more constructive option.  I let myself off the hook based on my behavior and “time served”.  I still do.

Over the years, the search for God’s presence led me in and out of a variety of traditions, from incense burners to barn burners, liturgists to improvisers.   In contrast to conventional church wisdom, the more active I became in one group or another, the less connected to Christ I felt. 

What my parents loved to experience with many, I cherish with one or two people, and more so under the low lighting of a bar than the brightly lit chandeliers of a church sanctuary.

Trying to remain a good parent to the end, my nonagenarian mother still sends me books by prominent Evangelical authors.  I’m in good company, mind you; she sends devotional books to the President of the United States!   Once, after reading something Barack Obama had said about his spiritual life, Mom told me that she was quite sure he had read the book she’d sent him.  If that’s the case, he’s one up on me.

Unfortunately, what was once meaningful jargon now falls flat when it hits my ears.  I can’t read these books.  It’s hard enough for me to read the Bible, so familiar is it to me.  But the language of Evangelicalism seems like a pair of loaded dice; I know exactly where the roll will take me.  I need something fresh.

Surprise me, God.

Once I tried to explain to my mother that I was grateful for my upbringing in the household of faith, but no longer felt comfortable defining myself as Evangelical.  She voiced her disappointment by projecting it through my father, long deceased, saying, “Your father would be mighty disappointed in you.  He was proud to be Evangelical”. 

Ah, yes, Mom will always play the Dad card.  But it never works; it stings for a moment, but it’s never a surprise.  It’s a Band Aid being pulled off, nothing more.  Dad never worried about the drumbeat I was following.  Mom feels bad that I’m not in the club any more no matter how much I explain that I am still trying to follow Christ. 

What I don’t say, but perhaps she understands, is that I can’t seem to find Jesus in that world that loudly proclaims him.  The fever pitch of the crowd makes it hard for me to hear what the Old Testament calls “the still, small voice”.   The rants of the church are about hanging on to theological and social real estate, while the whisper of the Spirit is “Let go.”

I’m doing my best to let go, by God.

I try to give my mother some comfort in the idea that she is largely responsible for my exit from Evangelical World, after all, she never let the word “Baptist” define her parameters, never caved to the status quo when it would have been convenient.  She was a pastor’s wife who didn’t limit herself to playing the piano on Sunday mornings.  The open-minded attitude she had as a young woman probably had more influence on my father’s ministry than anything else.  They were a team, trying to live out the words of Christ.

I’m their son, trying to live in the words of Christ. 

While I am trying to escape the sound of her voice, I try to silence it by reminding her that her affection for her Lutheran upbringing, with its liturgical trappings, paved the way for me to find life in the closely related Episcopal tradition.  I like the ancient prayers, concise and reflective, and empty of ego and emotion, unlike the risky extemporaneous offerings of some long-winded preachers I’ve known.

But despite my explanations and arguments, I think she is left to wonder if her son is what she used to call “a real Christian”.  Why couldn’t I have just tuned out that damned drum beat, and blended in?

A friend asked me once if I could go back to my hometown and life in the world I knew as a young man.  He already knew the answer.  Thomas Wolfe said it best, “You can’t go home again”.  Indeed, the place of my beginning is dear to me, but it is only a mirage of Home.

Home is what I hope my children sense when my arms are around them.  It is a place I see in my Dearest Companion’s eyes.  It is the vibration of a lone guitar, tuned to an open D, resonating with the room it sits in.  Home is the unmistakable pattern of two drumsticks on a calfskin head; it is the humming that accompanies Pilgrimage.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Tequila Sunset

Like a failing marriage, its walls were cracked from a weak foundation.  It had lost value and was, for me, a losing proposition.  

The good news was that I had a buyer for my home.  I was ready to be out of an edifice which had been anything but edifying.  It was the site of my marriage falling apart, and around it's perimeter, sink holes were appearing and evergreens were dying.

The bad news was the timing of the sale.  The week before closing, I was in Norway having my 59th birthday.  Actually, I was there for a pair of Emmylou concerts, but it sounds sophisticated to say that I spent my birthday in Oslo.  

The dollar was as weak as a cup of Cracker Barrel coffee, and it was nigh unto impossible to find an affordable meal to ring in my last year of fifties-hood. The gin and tonic our drummer, Bryan, bought me cost $22.  

Note to self, celebrate next birthday in America.

We returned from Norway on the Monday evening before closing.  I had 3 days in which to vacate the premises.  Having already packed some things, I was overly optimistic about my ability to get the job done.

So, on Tuesday I began arduously packing my life up, and discarding as much of what wasn't "life" as I possibly could.  It was difficult work, combing through boxes that hadn't been unpacked since we'd moved in 10 years before.  

I had a box set aside for E, as I knew I'd be unearthing artifacts which might interest her.  It had been a while since my garage cleaning episode wherein I'd discovered a part of our life that I'd forgotten, but this time I combed through happier days without reaction.

The garage held the cache of trash whose presence wouldn't be missed in my next living space.  I donned a dust mask and spent hours sorting and deciding.

The easiest task was determining what to give to charity; if I couldn't sell it on the internet, I would take the write-off and let someone else carry it off.  Tools, ladders, furniture, bicycles, and old videos were carted off by two men from Thriftsmart.

A few friends dropped in at various hours to give some muscle to my madness, and we put all the heavy items into a storage pod.  I noted that one of these good men had helped me move in two other Nashville moves.  Another had helped me move into my temporary digs during the early days of my split.  

While I'd been in Norway, a songwriter friend named Cindy came over and wrapped all my glassware and kitchen accoutrements.  El Paso, a fellow chile releno connoisseur, appeared in my front hall and offered to box up the endless ephemera of my man cave.

That night, my dearest companion invited me to dinner with her parents, who had just driven in from Texas, and her three kids, all of them gathered in Nashville to celebrate her son's wedding.  He and his fiancee had planned a simple yet elegant, family-only affair for later in the week, and they had just arrived in time for our meal.

We had a fine time, feasting on her delectable cooking, drinking red Zinfandel and eventually retiring to her living room where all three children serenaded us with original songs.  That's not necessarily atypical of Nashville, a town teeming with musicians, but when it's your kids (or those of your dearest companion), it's that much more enjoyable.

I got home fairly late, and spent a few hours dividing my possessions into "keep" and "throw" piles.  Dawn arrived sooner than I'd hoped, and I rose early, working a little before one last recording session in my studio.  Looking back, it's just crazy that I had booked the session, but it's what I do; I make my living playing on records, and in 2011, no one is turning down work.

My friend Lari came over and I played accordion and organ on a few tunes she was producing, wrapping up as a helper arrived in the form of Bryan Owings, the aforementioned gin and tonic buyer.  We've toured the world together, and on this day, we were both a bit jet lagged from our Norwegian trek, but there he was, lifting a sofa with me and encouraging me to keep a few items I was more than ready to hand off to the Thriftsmart fellows.  I was too tired to argue with him.

A recording engineer who had seen my request for moving help on Facebook, showed up and began carefully packing all the studio gear and instruments.  After a while Bryan left, and a songwriting buddy showed up to help with more heavy lifting.

You know who your friends are.

Wednesday night was the rehearsal dinner, hosted by my dearest companion at an East Nashville Mexican restaurant called The Rose Pepper.  We feasted on deep-fried avocados and spicy entrees laced with chorizo and cilantro, washing it all down with pitchers of Margaritas.  

I drove the Texans back to their hotel and then returned to the nocturnal task of sorting and heaving until 3 am.

Thursday, the day of the wedding, I woke to do more sorting, but it was the heaving that my body was more inclined to do.  I couldn't lift my head without becoming fiercely nauseous.  

I was thinking of calling my realtor and telling her that there was no way I was going to be out of my house by Friday morning, when she walked in with her friend Rusty, and announced that she'd rented a U-Haul truck.  

I lay prostrate on the floor, trying to articulate what needed to be left alone, what needed to be thrown, what needed to be put in the pod, and what needed to go on the truck, while unable to lift my eyes long enough to connect with the faces of the gracious angels come to my aid.

Rusty, whom I'd never met, knelt beside me and started speaking in tongues, and then prayed in English that God would heal me, and heal me quickly.  I had been around plenty of "tongue-talkers" in my crazy days at Love Inn and in Christian music, and to my way of thinking, it's never seemed very sensible to me.  But if tongue-talking was going to get rid of my nausea, I was all for it.

Suffice to say, God Almighty took plenty of time in getting back to Rusty about my illness.  

In the meantime, friends showed up and helped out, as I lay on the den floor between bouts of vomiting the anti-nausea medicine and the last night's tequila.  So delirious was I that my collected visions of these good people- Wayne, Bret, Steve, Mark, and even my daughter Kate- are a blur.

Occasionally, I would test my sea legs to see if I could walk two feet without stupendously hurling.  More than once, Hellers leapt aside as I caromed through the halls toward the nearest sink.

It occurred to me that I needed to rent a storage unit for all the junk in the U-Haul, so I carefully got in my car, with an empty cup in hand (just in case), and drove to a storage place.  Mickey, the woman who managed the storage place, led the way through the hot sun to show me what kind of unit I'd be renting, when I began uncontrollably vomiting once again.  I apologized and assured her that it wasn't a commentary on her business.

Discouraged, I signed on the dotted line, and got in my car.  Too weary to call my dearest companion, I started writing a text message, surrendering to the harsh fact that I wasn't going to be at the wedding, which would be occurring in less than two hours.  I had been asked to sing a song for the bridal procession, and sadly realized that that honor was slipping away.  

Halfway through the word "heartbroken" I stopped.

"I feel better", I thought.

I was sorry notto give Rusty and his tongue-talking the credit for my feeling better, butafter all the time God Almighty had taken in answering, I wasn't inclined to start singing hymns of praise.  Mother nature had taken her course, and fortunately Her schedule and the wedding were in fair enough sync.

God Almighty nonetheless had provided good friends who provided a miracle of sorts by joining in the task of moving me out of a place that never felt like home.

Speeding back to the house, where a crew had continued working, I realized I might be a few minutes late, but I would indeed be at the nuptial celebration.

I quickly showered and shaved, brushed the hell out of my teeth, and dressed up in my Sunday best.  Speeding up I-65, I called my Southern Born woman, and said I was running late, but not too late.  Wise one that she is, she had implored her talented daughters to have something ready to sing, just in case.

Nothing goes without a hitch, and as soon as I arrived at the wedding chapel, I unpacked my guitar to find that its strings had been loosened to death for the flight back from Norway.  Everyone waited quietly while I tuned.  Tick tock...

And then I sang.  

I don't even remember the song I sang.  Even while singing it, I was somewhere else, caught up in the miracle that 90 minutes hence, I'd been sick as a dog.  

We all enjoyed a lovely private evening together watching two people attempt the thing that a few of us hadn't been successful at.  


As I listened to their vows, I thought of the cycles of life.  I thought of the happenstance that brings each of us into this old world, and I thought once again that, despite the circumstances of failure and accidents, I've never for a moment believed that anyone exists without God meaning for  us to be.

I looked at this young man, full of grace and confidence, face shining with optimism, and I felt thankful for knowing him.  I thought of his mother, my Dearest Companion, and her tireless love of her children.  

Naturally, my musings led me to my own daughters, who are always with me, always in mind, always loved.  I thought of the failed marriage that had brought my girls into the world, and the house of an errant dream, which seemed so culpable in my undoing, now left groaning and empty, save the ghostly remnants of echoed unanswered prayer.

The vows were said, and I watched a tear grow in my Dearest Companion's left eye, until it spilled joyfully down the side of her face, marking a milestone in her journey.

I was emotionally full and physically empty.  I'd spent a few days purging, quite literally, and now I was at a feast, and I might add, I had an amazing appetite.  

Regarding my violent nausea, there's a part of me that feels like 'fessing up and admitting that I probably went one margarita over the line.  But maybe the truth is, I was sick of a house that had given nothing back for all it had taken.

The cycles of our lives bring us sadness and goodness. They bring love and hate, forgiveness and unforgiveness, wealth and poverty.  Life is a liturgy that is summed up in Christmases, Good Fridays and Easters, lives, deaths and resurrections, between which we make whatever we might of our desert pilgrimages and evergreen homecomings.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Bully Pulpit

I used to live near Crockett Road in Williamson County, Tennessee.  Tennesseans lay rightful claim to Davey Crockett, the famous frontiersman for whom this little patch of asphalt was named.  Anyone who grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s can still sing the Disney song “Davey, Davey Crockett, King of the wild frontier”.

A little known fact about Davey is that when he was a US Representative, he opposed Andrew Jackson’s resettling of Native Americans.  History remembers Jackson as a bully, moving the Cherokee and Seminole Nations and others down the trail of tears beyond the Mississippi.

Davey’s stand in Tennessee cost him an election, and he headed to Texas, where he died in San Antonio, defending the Alamo from Antonio L√≥pez de Santa Anna, the dictatorial President of Mexico, who history also remembers as a bully.

I was driving home from The Perch one day, all jacked up on my free refills when traffic slowed down.   I noticed a policeman and several other folks walking briskly up the hill on the right side of the road.

What’s the fuss?  I wondered.

Slowing down, I caught a glimpse of a boy thrashing another boy, literally hurling him across the otherwise idyllic landscape.  It was clear that the boy doing the bullying was much bigger and apparently the one with the power.

I wanted to pull my car over and see how it all ended, but it didn’t seem like the right thing to do, just as one shouldn’t rubberneck at the scene of an accident.

The event got me thinking.

Watching the policeman and the vigilant adults hiking up the hill as the action didn’t cease made me wonder what the real situation was.  I supposed it might have been boys at play, roughhousing as many will do.  In a perfect world, the grownups would be greeted by two laughing rascals, who were surprised by the sudden interest.

It looked like serious business.

As the grownups moved closer, the bigger boys seemed intent on finishing the business of showing the smaller boy what for.

I wondered about the dominant boy, the one getting his licks in.  In wealthy Brentwood, TN, I imagined the boy’s banker father shrugging off his son’s violence with a pat answer.  Boys will be boys, he might say, smiling, and perhaps slightly proud that his son prevailed.

Odd phrases get tossed around.  The weaker boy had it coming, asked for it.  Perhaps his father was ashamed of his son for not taking it like a man, or for not winning.

Who knows what they were fighting about?  These days, I’m just happy to see a child out in a field doing anything.  Most children seem to be flexing their thumbs sending text messages or playing games on their phones.  So, maybe the sight of two boys playing outdoors was what all the fuss was about.
Everyone remembers the neighborhood bully of childhood.  My personal bully was several years older, solid as a brick, and equally dumb.  What he lacked in brains, he made up for in brute force, and no one liked seeing him riding down their street on his fat-tired Schwinn with its banana seat, and other Hell’s Angels in the making accessories.  I wasn’t a constant target, like some children become; I just happened to be in the way on one occasion.

I can remember standing in the middle of Roberta Drive, when he rode up, stopped his bike, smiled and slapped me so hard that I rode home bawling.  If I had begged my father to do something about it, I don’t think I would have found an advocate so much as a comforter.  Dad was simply not going to kick any one’s ass, although every boy hopes his dad is capable of it.

My preacher dad was a farm boy from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, who wrestled in high school and college.  Wrestling may have been fairly scandalous in his family, whose ancestors were peace loving Mennonites and River Brethren, traditionally known for being pacifists.

Dad was a killer softball player, swinging like Mickey Mantle, hitting line drives and home runs to his boys’ delight.  But competition wasn’t his deal, other than competing with himself.  He loved the experience of a game, whether it was Scrabble™ or softball, but his attitude was so beautiful and so sportsman-like, that one never felt like he was out for blood, even when he won.

I don’t recall my father teaching me to fight, although I would have appreciated it.  I guess he figured that two scrapping sons would teach each other how to survive, and didn’t want to encourage the idea of settling things with fisticuffs.

It’s not that he was disengaged; I remember him hovering behind me, teaching me to hold a Louisville Slugger, and I remember him pitching baseballs to my brother David and me.

But teaching us combative skills just didn’t square with his spiritual philosophy, or with my mother’s either.  We were never given toy guns for Christmas or birthdays, and I never received the Remco Johnny Reb Cannon I begged for one year (further proof of the South’s magnetic pull on my soul).

Nonetheless, the neighborhood was full of guns; it was a veritable arsenal.  I would borrow Dickie Schmitt’s tommy gun, or Butchie Allen’s Luger, and off to war we’d all go, in The Woods, a few acres of marshy woodlands at the end of our street.

The Woods was the perfect place for a boy to climb trees, chop down skunk cabbage, be the hero of his own war, defeating all comers while returning home with tennis shoes full of black mud from The Brook.

It was as if no other grouping of trees existed apart from The Woods, and seemed as if all rivers and seas flowed toward our neighborhood through The Brook.

We waged war across the span of time, as knights, revolutionaries, civil warriors, and GIs.  We were usually on the same side, shooting at imaginary foes with our plastic artillery.  As the sons of pacifists, we were failures, and we reveled in being armed.

Once, my father discovered the borrowed camouflage tommy gun I’d hidden in the garage between battles.  “What’s this?” he sternly asked.  I think his concern was less that I had a forbidden weapon, and more that I might have stolen it.  It’s an odd memory, and perhaps he really was disturbed about a Weapon of Destruction under his roof.

Years later, the boy who exists down in my soul bought a real gun, a Remington Rolling Block Saddle Carbine from the 1800s, a relic to lean next to a rustic fireplace, hearkening back to days of conquest and trails of tears.  Eventually, I sold it; perhaps I’m more my old man’s son than I thought.


I have a friend who is built like a linebacker.  He can be a bit intimidating if he’s had a few drinks, because he gets surly and loud, argumentative and ungentlemanly.  Once in a while, he talks about “settling things like real men do” and teaching his son something about “how a real man deals with” adversity.

That kind of talk seems so Dark Ages to me, and I’m surprised when I hear these things come out of his mouth.  I wonder about the degree of pain present in a person’s life who wants to strike another human being.   I have a theory that bullies beget bullies, just as dictators beget dictators, and tyrants beget tyrants.

In my line of work, bullies are everywhere.  They usually have a lot of money and a badass lawyer.  The little guys like me usually have no recourse, but to take it on the chin, cut one’s losses, and hopefully avoid bawling while turning tail and heading home.  

Certainly, the temptation to be the Alpha Dog is out there for anyone, and I’ve seen the finest of Sunday churchgoers go ape on Monday, whether they’re taking the Alamo or taking back their promises.

When I think of “settling things like real men do”, I look at the best of men, my Dad.  I never heard him raise his voice to another person, never mind raise a fist.  Dad’s kindness and politeness were marked indelibly on his character, and he wasn’t about to give away his soul in the name of power, money, or property.  He talked about a spiritual inheritance whereas so many of our society speak of entitlement.

Dad’s life was a sermon.  I guess every one’s life is, to one end or another.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Getting Down With The Joneses

It was a miracle when E and I moved into our first house.  My parents gave us the $7500 down payment on what seemed like a lot of money at the time- $45,000 in 1984.  Our little log cabin on Nebraska Avenue in Nashville’s Sylvan Park was funky and warped, but cozy enough.  It was small, too, but we enjoyed it.

From Sylvan Park we followed several friends and families out to Bellevue, on the western edge of Nashville.  Wayne and Fran Kirkpatrick lived a street away, which led to a life-long friendship with them, as well as a musical relationship with Wayne.  A few hillsides away lived Bonnie Keen, who was and remains one of my dearest companion’s dearest companions. 

It was in that happy little Bellevue home that we received our two daughters, but we weren’t there long enough for them to have much memory of it.

Next came a move to Green Hills, a popular Nashville neighborhood, which gave us a fine elementary school, and a coffee shop I could walk to every morning.  The home was a large, brick cottage with an English appearance about it.  It had character, along with a damp basement, cracking plaster, and beautiful hardwood floors.

That house stood witness to a marriage that was starting to implode, and it was the site of our attempt to try and save “us”. 

Yet, the happy times outshined the sad moments, and if my children are sentimental about any place they’ve lived, it is that Green Hills house.

But greener hills, or so they seemed, called. 

I found a McMansion in boring Brentwood, with something as rare as a basement in Tennessee.  Its high ceilings would give me a perfect recording environment, and the housing division would provide E with a tennis court, and the kids with a community pool and good schools.

People were shocked and disappointed when we made the move.  One friend decried our situation, “You’re going to live among the Republicans!”

And so it came to pass.

The Land Rover and the Mercedes sat proudly in the driveway.  The piano teacher showed up on Tuesdays.  The pool key hung on the back of the laundry door.  The neighborhood association sent polite warnings about keeping things uniform, along with invitations to cocktail parties.  

Apart from Leon, the friendly neighbor behind us, we never met our neighbors, most of whom were nine-to-fives who drove through yawning garage doors at the end of the day, only to be seen on weekends, tending to lawns and gas grilles.

The neighborhood was called Raintree Forest, which didn’t sound so much like a real place as much as it did a feminine deodorant product.   The mirage of better schools and of a better life dissipated into a reality which included finding a private school to accommodate my daughters' needs which had been so well met in Nashville’s school system. 

The neighborhood was pleasant, but not vibrant.  The house was big and beautiful, but lacked character.  It had no history other than the sad story we would bequeath to these walls.

After the split, which I’ve written about elsewhere, E was smart enough to seek out humbler digs.  I felt like selling the house would bring one change too many for the kids’ already rollicking world.  I wound up staying in the big house, as it were, and indeed the sprawling 4,000 foot house was more of a prison than a home.  I went through seasons of indecision about staying or selling, and when I finally decided to let go, the property had lost an amazing amount of money.

My real estate agent gave me the bad news- “You’ll need to short sell”, she said.  Suddenly, the trajectory of an adulthood of buying, selling, and upward mobility brought me to the bottom.  Years ago, when we bought our first home, we had barely imagined being home owners.  27 years later, I hadn’t imagined a day coming when I would once again be a renter.

In the process of selling, I received a notice from a collections attorney whose name was so ridiculously close to the word cheater, I had to laugh.  This particular cheater was trying to saddle me with thousands of dollars in attorney fees that didn’t add up.   "Cheater" was well-known in the real estate and banking community, and no one was arguing with the uncanniness of his surname.  Somehow, I was led to a person who helped me to get out from under the shadow of a lawsuit, but I still shudder at the precariousness of the situation.   

A contract on my home finally materialized, and I started looking around for a new place to live.  The first place I looked at had its possibilities.  It was about 2/3 the size of my first house in Sylvan Park, and the rent was three times my old mortgage payment.

I continued looking, and while I felt good about the possibility of being debt-free, and tried to embrace the idea of starting over, the American Dream’s indelible thumbprint had pressed long and hard into my psyche.  I felt overwhelmed by what I didn’t know, and thought of how impressive my stock portfolio wasn’t.   

In the meantime, friends from Colorado had signed me up for a daily quote from a monk named Richard Rohr.  Every day, it seemed as if Richard were reminding me that ownership was a myth and that I might as well let go of everything.  I’d go to sleep at night and wonder if, like Jesus, I would wind up with a rock for a pillow.  This wasn’t what I’d signed up for, but in my heart I knew that the American Dream had never been my dream.

My Southern Born Woman was encouraging and sweet, affirming who I was, not what I’d accomplished, yet hopeful that my aspirations and efforts at rebuilding my material life would pay off.

One afternoon after leaving her place, I couldn’t find my prescription Ray Ban™ Wayfarers,  the nicest sunglasses I’ve ever owned.  Without flinching, I had sold vintage guitars that meant the world to me, rare old Ludwig drums that I’d never see the likes of again, and even the beautiful piano I’d written a few bona fide hit songs on, but somehow losing those replaceable Ray Bans was a sad thing to me.  They’d been around the world with me, and (let’s face it), gave me some needed cool factor in the face of my uncool circumstances.

I drove as the sun sank low, and I pulled the visor down and squinted.  I’m in the middle of a short sale, and I’m sad about my sunglasses!  What’s wrong with this picture? 

As is often the case with lost key rings and glasses, they turned up a few hours later under the passenger seat of my car.  I was overjoyed, frankly.  They’re prescription glasses, i.e., expensive; and they only work for me.  Anyone who finds them, assuming I lose them again, will just get a headache from wearing them.  (But they will look cool.)

A few days later, my Dearest Companion and I walked to the Belcourt Theater, a landmark in Nashville’s Hillsboro Village.   We watched “Of Gods and Men”, a beautiful film about the Martyrs of Atlas, 7 monks who were martyred in Algeria in 1996. 

Watching the portrayal of their life of simplicity, and the wholesome affection these brothers had for each other, was almost disturbing in its beauty.  In contrast to my downsizing from 4,000 square feet to 1600, here were men living in small cells, silently going about their menial tasks, and ministering to the small Muslim community with medical aid and other comforts. 

In one beautiful scene, one of the brothers walks into the kitchen where the others are waiting to eat.  He opens two bottles of red wine, and blasts Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake on a cassette player.  The joy of communion, of sharing a common cup, elicits laughter and beaming smiles from brother to brother, yet as the music gains intensity, tears of joy mingle with tears of loss, tears of the inevitable, ultimate Letting Go.

I’m writing these words midway through Lent, at which time I’ve chosen to let go of alcohol, fried food, and sugar.  I’ve never enjoyed the burn of club soda as much as in the last few weeks.  I’ve never enjoyed a “feast day” (Sundays or Holy Days) as much as in this particular Lent, when a taste of Bushmill’s isn’t taken for granted, but savored and sipped and contemplated.

There are times when I’ve flat out given up Lent for Lent.  Let’s face it; it’s a miracle that I have anything to do with “organized religion” after all the years of punching the clock in Sunday School, youth group, Wednesday night church, and a childhood of Sundays voiding out fun. 

This year, I’m embracing Lent like it’s a brother monk come to teach me something of the Spirit.  There’s a sensitivity that the self-imposed lacking has rewarded me with.  Tomorrow, I might be my brash, carpetbagger self, but today, I’m listening.  My Dearest Companion has spoken wisely of these days of letting go.  “Baby, you’re going through a death, and what better time than Lent?  Soon enough, Easter will be here”.  

I’m looking forward to Easter, at which time I am going to get sick on a few morsels of chocolate.   I’m going to take my Dearest Companion to the park before the sun comes up, and we will spread a Tennessee Titans blanket on the damp grass that overlooks a wide field, with a hilly backdrop, which will slowly glow blue to green to orange to yellow as we ponder the Resurrection of Jesus, and the power tangled up with letting go.

I’ll fire up the Coleman Stove (which I guess I won’t be letting go of) and I’ll cook bacon and eggs over its blue flame while she reads me The Times or Flannery O’Connor, or better yet, a poem of her own.   Who knows, maybe we’ll bring the Book of Common Prayer just to organize things a bit.   Maybe I’ll be done with letting go, for a season, and no doubt, we’ll lift a glass of Bushmill’s to our broken stories, while we’re thinking of Resurrection. 

And perhaps for a moment, we will bask in the joy of love and communion, and of not keeping up with the Joneses, while a tear falls, unseen behind my sunglasses.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Times They Are A-Changin’

In Tennessee, a late February Sunday morning brings with it a number of certainties.

  •            The weather will be uncertain.   It may fool Nashvillians into thinking Spring has arrived, or it might pelt us with furious and icy raindrops, and remind us that we shouldn’t really do any hoping until March.

  •       The New York Times will lay, wrapped in blue plastic, on my dearest companion’s front walk.  If I’m in the neighborhood, I’ll carry the Times into her house, separate its many sections, and read our favorite columns aloud in a particular order.

  •           Most of the South will be in church. 

  •           I will, in all likelihood, not be.

The Sunday Times is the newspaper, of course.   When I was a newspaper boy in Barrington, Rhode Island, I had one or two customers who wanted the Sunday Times, in addition to the heavy Providence Sunday Journal.   In those days, it was 50 cents.  The Sunday Journal was 35.   My brother and I each had a paper route, and if we’d gotten along better in those days, we might have realized that we had a monopoly in the neighborhood.  Who knows what possibilities that would have led to? 

Dave was clearly the better paperboy.  He was organized, and competent, with his mind on the work at hand.  I doubt that he took more than an hour a day to get his papers delivered.

I, on the other hand, took my time, waylaid by a friend here or there, occasionally even paying a neighbor girl named Carole 25¢ to finish the job for me.  My mind was on music, drums in particular, and I marched to the cadence of a waking dream, mindless about the papers I delivered.

The paper route was the vehicle by which my parents assumed I would finally learn responsibility and organization. 

I might have learned something.  I just can’t remember what.

Sunday mornings, long before Dad was getting ready for church, Dave and I were out on our bikes, filling chrome baskets with fat newspapers, careful lest we tear them on the woven wire.  Once torn, a marred newspaper would be reserved for a non-tipping or generally grouchy customer. 

My least favorite customer was Mrs. Lewis over on Brook Street, whose side porch was a toxic container of cat stench and cigarette smoke.  Sometimes, the odor would be so completely overpowering that I couldn’t stand in her house long enough to wait for her to count out the 42 cents for her Monday through Friday subscription.  Her terrible lack of hygiene paid off, for her, I guess. I always saved the most ragged newspaper for her.

Another customer, whose name thankfully escapes me, had a small but dreadfully violent dog, probably named something innocuous – Fluffy or Bubbles.  Every time I would approach its house the dog would charge me.  Once, it bit me, tearing my pant leg and the skin on my thigh.   The owner came out and cheerily said, “Oh, he doesn’t mean anything.”  I yelled, “He BIT ME!,” to which she said melodiously, “Oh, of course he didn’t”. 

On winter days in Barrington, you could expect snow, and on snowy Sunday mornings, my father would wake with his sons, lower the tailgate of his Ford station wagon, and drive us through the deep and drifting snow.  We would ride on the tailgate with stacks of Sunday Journals, jumping off and back on, quite literally relaying the news.

Those were good days, which still bond me to my father and my brother.  Dad was delivering something of a message to his sons, as we delivered the news.

All those years ago, I never perceived myself as a messenger, carrying the Sunday Journal to sleeping customers.  Indeed, we are all messengers of one thing or another.

I don’t know if such a thing as a newspaper boy still exists.  Someone delivers The Times to my dearest companion, but I suspect it’s a grown person who needs the extra income, not a boy saving for a new set of drums.

Newspapers are shrinking in size and in circulation.  The smell of newsprint, the scanning for a favorite column, folding the pages in a particular way, the sound of a rustling paper- moments our senses take for granted- they are already from an age past, heaped upon the junk pile of yesterday with the scratching sound of a vinyl record, the static of a transistor radio, and the mechanical sound of a radio dial.

Damn, we are getting old.  I wonder if our grandparents came to mourn the absence of clippity clops on cobblestone streets?  I wonder if my mother misses the crackling sound of electric streetcars; (I can remember that sound, which I identify with the city Providence, but not enough for it to have made a real footprint on my aural landscape). 

I miss the sound of recording tape running off the spool, flapping wildly, wreaking havoc.  I miss the sound of tiny hammers whacking ink onto white paper as typewriter keys are being struck, the imperfect rhythm of a furious mind at work.

Things change.

Yet, some people don’t.  I think about Mrs. Lewis in her stagnant sty on Brook Street, cigarette butts piled high in receptacles on her closed in porch.  What a metaphor!  The Closed In Porch sounds like a Tennessee Williams title.   And the clueless dog owner, unwilling to see the evidence that her pooch had indeed bit me.   It’s odd to me that the recluses and the clueless even want a paper, although Mrs. Lewis’ cats certainly could have made use of it.

Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovksy the news.  

On a recent Fat Tuesday morning, I was startled awake by an incessant knocking on my bedroom wall.  It was early, and I was groggy, but I recognized the haphazard rhythm of a woodpecker, insistently head-banging, something that I would, of course, take personally.

I pondered as he pounded.  I wondered about God’s creature visiting my home, and I decided to embrace this quite natural occurrence with a sense of spiritual openness.  No, the woodpecker wasn’t prophesying, but I took its knocking as a friendly wake-up call to seize the day, to expect a full measure of effort from myself and to listen to the world around me.  And what better timing than for Woody to be knocking away on the day before Lent, that season in which my senses would be heightened, and I might be at my most contemplative and receptive.

Just the fact, that I didn’t get out my pump-action Daisy air rifle and end the hammering signified that perhaps I was still in flux, still changing, shifting, and embracing another way to look at life. 

I sent a haiku about my morning visitor to my Southern Born Woman, who promptly researched the meaning of the species in mythology and folklore.  Among those who pay attention to the family of animals, woodpeckers symbolize the need to allow for a change of attitude, and the embracing of opportunity and creativity. 

It wouldn’t be the first time an animal has taught me something; you may have read other chapters in which I speak of the horse or the owl quietly reminding me that my journey is not over; there is more to learn and more to change.

So perhaps, I could learn from this tenacious, insistent creature, to keep knocking on doors, to continue to pursue dreams and excellence, to strive for those who depend on me, and to stay open-minded.

Good morning, Brother Woodpecker.  I’m listening.