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.