Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Taft Diary, pt. 2 - How to kill time in Cinci on a Saturday afternoon

Saturday morning I wake up about an hour before my alarm goes off. I put on some classical music and start my morning stretches. there is cold air blowing in around the door, despite the towel I have pushed up against the bottom of it. Today's weather will not be quite as nice as yesterday. in fact, the difference in temperature between the time I arrived here yesterday and the time I will leave on Sunday night is a difference of about 60 degrees.

I give Bill a call when I'm ready to go (about 1pm) and we head to our first stop: Everybody's Records. I'm on a tight budget, and this place gives me the shakes. I could drop a thousand dollars in here without even blinking. I've done that sort of thing before. I know I can't spend much money, so I just say no to everything, even the cool Tom Waits poster in the back of the store. or that Mindy Smith CD I don't have that's half the price here. A shopping basket would be helpful if I were to pull the things I wanted out of the used jazz section. I have everything I want from Miles Davis...except that one. and that one. oh, and here's another one I've been wanting... If I were an alcoholic, this would be my liquor store. I'm not even going to look at that Joy Division t-shirt hanging there, because that would look really great on me. Yes, Bill, I saw that new Rosie Thomas CD there. No, I don't have it yet, but thanks for asking... I browse the record albums, just because I haven't been able to do that sort of thing at a record store in years. real live vinyl. lots of it. a selection of old jazz on vinyl that makes my head spin. I remember now how I became addicted to buying music, why I spent my weekend nights in high school and college at a record store instead of out on a date. records last longer. I pull out a couple Black Sabbath albums and put them on the turntable in the back. I had to get the guy at the counter to come back and fix the dang thing. the anticipation is kind of like when a druggie wraps a rubberband around his arm and slaps the vein. then you slip the needle in and... oh, doesn't matter how bad it might be for you. it's gooood. Black Sabbath on vinyl, the same record that warned a pastor in my youth, in a vision in his shower (probably with his mistress), that all rock music was the same, that Resurrection band was just as bad for me as Black Sabbath, that they were both doing the devil's work. It was probably the one message that made me really want to check out Black Sabbath, if they sounded like Rez. "Born Again" certainly could have been the name of a Rez album, so who knows...

I'm getting even more shaky and weak, this time from hunger and the need for more sleep. Bill buys a small sack of music (including a bit of vinyl), I buy nothing while choking back tears, and we head to our next stop - Kaldi's Coffeeshop and bar. The place Linford used to come to from his appartment across the street to write old Over the Rhine newsletters and imagine the Inklings, the place Karin used to work, the place that I love to visit in Cinci, the place that is closing up for good in a few days.
We get our drinks at the bar, then go sit at a table near the back with shelves of used books still lining the walls (though much of the place is being torn down). We have a great conversation about our religious backgrounds, how we came to the place we are now, the path that led to our current beliefs. We both seem to share an appreciation for the process that faith is, rather than the "now you aren't saved / now you are" mentality of many mainstream Christians.

Kaldis only had drinks, no food, so we get directions to a local deli a few blocks away to have lunch. I don't remember the name of the place, but it had great local flavor and hit the spot just right. A much better choice than just stopping at Subway. Bill reminded me that he knew one of my closest friends through bible quizzing many years ago, and we talked about the old days of Christian rock and how so many had fallen over the years, and the odd response Christians often have to those who fall from grace.

After lunch, we head to a 5-story used bookstore called Ohio Books. I'm always amazed at how little I'm able to find in a place that has so many more books than the average bookstore. They're pretty short on Buechner books, but they do seem to have every issue of National Geographic ever made. I get a Daniel Berrigan book, put back the Merton biography I really want, and we close the store out. I discover that Bill has never been to some of the coolest CD and bookstores in the Detroit area, so we will have to take a trip to them when we get back.

We get back to the hotel and I go back to my room for a quick nap, then the three of us head back downtown for dinner with the Orchard at Arnolds...

A Taft Diary, part 1 - Friday (The original Over the Rhine)

Last weekend, mere hours after my last day at work, I took a treacherous drive down to Cincinnati for the Over the Rhine reunion show at the Taft theater, and it was certainly the best 3 days of this otherwise shitty year for me, one of the best weekends I've had in quite a few years, actually.

A severe snowstorm was forcast for Friday morning, when I was planning on leaving, so I decided to leave the night before to avoid all that. Only I hit freezing rain and icing highways just past Bowling Green, Ohio, and made it as far as Lima (doing about 35-45 mph for a few hours) before I finally pulled over and made a makeshift hotel room out of my car in front of a Speedway gas pump for a few hours. My only consolation for how ridiculous this probably looked was that it felt like the sort of thing Tom Waits would do. I've never driven through such wet weather in my life. My car was making horrible noises that at first sounded like the muffler, but were distinctly coming from the engine. A comment by a stranger at another gas station down the road made me realize it was probably my belt slipping. It freaked me out, whatever it was, and led to a fair amount of highway "help me" prayers. I just want to get to Cincinnati...

I listen to Sam Phillip new CD on the way there as she sings "I...I love you...when you're useless...when you don't do anything" and I wonder if that kind of unconditional love is even possible to share with another or to experience ourselves. It certainly sounds like a wonderful idea. Some sort of counterbalance to the thoughts and voices that insist "you're not good enough".

Just past Dayton, and the temperature starts to rise, the rain eases up a bit, and as I pulled into Cincinnati (and no sooner), the sun comes out onto a near-60 degree morning. It only took me 10 hours to make this 5-hour trip. I check into my cheap-ass motel and try to get some of the sleep I missed last night.

My friends Bill and Heidi braved the foot of snow in Detroit to leave this morning, didn't have to deal with any ice in Ohio, and made it into town just in time for us to go to dinner before the big show at 8. It is great to have friends here to share this great weekend with. Bill is one of the few people I know whose knowledge and love of music rivals and even surpases mine. We both have CD collections that number in the thousands.
We met a random stranger coming off the bus in downtown and they asked him if he knew any good places to eat within walking distance. Instead of pulling out a gun to mug us (as a random stranger off the bus probably would have done here in Detroit), he actually walked with us down to his recommended restaurant. Really nice guy. Unfortunately the place was packed, so we ended up eating at a mall food court across the street (a mall that oddly closed at 7pm on this Friday evening before Christmas. ?.). It was then, in the middle of a great conversation about old Christian rock, that Bill confessed his early love of Air Supply to us. I told him I'd never admit to that sort of thing publicly...and I won't. (*ahem*)

After dinner we walked the few blocks back to The Taft in the cool night air for what was one of the most anticipated reunion shows of my life. Over the Rhine was getting back together for one night with their original members - drummer Brian Kelly and the legendary guitarist Ric Hordinski. and they did not disappoint.

Over the Rhine has probably been my favorite group (off and on with Vigilantes of Love / Bill Mallonee) for about 15 years now. They played a key role in my post-college years as a beacon of how faith could be expressed in art outside of the confining CCM/Christian sub-culture (or "ghetto"). As such, they opened my eyes to a whole world of literature and music and way of living in this world that was a tremendous breath of fresh air to me and my spiritual life. this original line-up hadn't played together for over 10 years, and I almost forgot how special those early shows were, and how much of an impact they had on me. They delivered a reunion show that exceeded all expectations and hit the mark perfectly for me. And somehow, during the course of the show, I felt like I was regaining some sort of center again, like the "reset" button was being pressed on my life.

Someday I hope you might be true to all it is I see in you...
The music of Over the Rhine makes me long for a better life, makes me want to be a better person along the way. Not necessarily to reach higher, but to reach deeper. There is a life out here beyond what I've allowed for myself. There are people here I connect with who remind me of who I really am, where I was heading, once upon a time. There are seeds being planted right now, in this season, and this is a beginning. Where it goes or whether it grows only God really knows. but it is my prayer that something comes of all this, inside and out, that connections can be made, to others and to that life I can't refuse...

After the show I go upstairs and talk with Dave Nixon, former pastor of the Vineyard Central community there in Norwood. It is good to reconnect with him for a few minutes, and unfortunate that that will be the only real chance I get to talk with him at length.

I meet a few people from The Orchard (Over the Rhine's online discussion group), chat some small talk a bit, and then we head back to the hotel to try and get some more respectable sleep. Tommorrow Bill and I will search Cinci for some used record and bookstore action. already the weekend has been worth the price of admission and the risk it took to get here. Tommorrow things will get even better...

Monday, December 08, 2008

Rebuilding Community

(a rough draft of where I am)

Earlier this year, I wrote about listening to UnderCover's Balance of Power late into the night on my own this past spring. The first time I did this, over a decade ago when it first came out, my social circles were wide and varied. At one point in that early 90's week, I had around 10 friends over one day, and none of them knew each other. I knew each of them through a different social circle, and I was the only person each of them knew here (egotripping, I know, but it was pretty cool!). Fast forward 15 years, to that night this past spring, when I found myself at a place in my life where I didn't know a single person I could call up to come over and join me for the evening. My social circles, my community of friends, had dwindled down eventually to the point where I had all my proverbial eggs in one basket. And then that basket got knocked out of my hands, so to speak. It is a place I have never really known before. A stifling aloneness. To be sure, I still had and have friends (I've been very lucky in my life, and quite a few of my lifelong friendships have deep, strong roots, regardless how much time or distance may pass between us), but most of them are now either living out of state, or are living busy lives with spouses and children, and that depth of community is no longer here. And so, this year has been a time for me to deal with the pain of loss (and the poisonous bitterness that can accompany that, as I also wrote about), and try to begin rebuilding something of a community in my life again. Because if I know one thing about myself, it is that I need others in my life. despite my love of times of solitude, I need friends in my life. I need people who are there for me, who I can be there for, who can delve into deep waters late into the night every once in a while.

I was going to counseling earlier this year for the first time in my life, and it was ok (I certainly have always appreciated and encouraged the idea of personal counseling), but as the money started to run out, I realized that the conversations I was having in counseling were the kind I used to have with close friends, and the whole thing started to feel like emotional prostitution. Like a substitute for the real thing. Friendship with a time limit that I had to pay for. And though this counselor came highly recommended, she wasn't getting to the psychological core of things like I had hoped. (my new favorite blogger, Cary, recently wrote a paragraph about the latest Kaufman movie that just about knocked me flat with it's piercingly accurate description of my inner life. I wish I could have read it earlier this year to print out and show the counselor and say "see this, this is me. make it stop!").

In recent months, I have been exploring various community building possibilities. Last week I went to a book discussion group with 11 others who were complete strangers to me. and it was good. I signed up for this one because they had chosen one of my all-time favorite books, High Fidelity. I met some nice people and we talked for a couple hours, and though I don't know if I'll see them again for a while, it was a seed planted. It was a beginning.

Online, I've been connecting with a few people who I wish lived in this area, as they are kindred spirits and obviously interested in the same deep waters I seek out. some live on the other side of the country, some don't even live in this country, and none are within driving distance of myself.

Probably more importantly, I have been going to a church on a semi-regular basis, and getting to know some of the people there. David had been recommending Trinity to me for as long as I can remember, and I can see why. It is a very traditional (I like to say almost a "Catholic wannabe") church, without all the snazzy entertainment production or gimmicks of many modern churches, and also without the "turret's syndrome" expressiveness of some of the charismatic congregations I've known. And every single sermon I've heard there has had depth, relevance, and a few quotes from authors in my personal "hall of fame" (C.S. Lewis, Walter Brueggemann, N.T. Wright, etc. etc…). The pastor (and the new associate pastor) reads and integrates books of serious substance, and that's a rare find. I've met quite a few people there who I hope to develop a continuing deeper friendship with, as well as getting to better know a couple folks I knew before even going there. But of course even they are about an hours drive from my house, stretching the idea of a "local community" a little thin…

Speaking of David, he and Sarah came to Michigan in October for a wonderfully refreshing weekend at Trinity House. Sarah played an intimate concert (with her seemingly innumerable siblings as bandmates) on Friday night (and if there's a song that's rivaling Mindy Smith for airtime in my head, it's Sarah's "The River"), and David spoke there next morning. Getting a chance to talk with David and Sarah for a bit that weekend, listening to Sarah sing her life-affirming songs, and David speak clarity to the moment we find ourselves in as both of them bear witness to the Kingdom being lived out in life's messy everyday, I was reminded of how much I crave the kind of community they are a part of and help to create. I hope to write in more detail about that weekend, but for now, I'll just say that David and Sarah remind me of a passage from Madeleine L'Engle's book, "Circle of Quiet":
"It’s all right in the very beginning for you to be the only two people in the world, but after that your ability to love should become greater and greater. If you find that you love lots more people than you ever did before, then I think that you can trust this love. If you find that you need to be exclusive, that you don't like being around other people, then I think that something may be wrong.
This doesn't mean that two people who love each other don't need time alone… But there is a kind of exclusiveness in some loves, a kind of inturning, which augurs trouble to come.
Hugh was the wiser of the two of us when we were first married. I would have been perfectly content to go off to a desert isle with him. But he saw to it that our circle was kept wide until it became natural for me, too. There is nothing that makes me happier than sitting around the dinner table and talking until the candles are burned down."

I have sat at Dave & Sarah's dinner table talking until the candles burned low (long enough for us to have plenty of candlewax to play with and pour in various shapes on that dinner table itself!), I have experienced their "expanding love", their almost unparalleled hospitality, and the community they are a part of (in Nashville, my home away from home) and in some way share with everyone they meet. To me they are a witness to and living example of the reality of the kingdom to come. And they are a part of a much larger community of like-minded kingdom-reality seekers whose very existence as a community (worldwide) has inspired and challenged me more times than I can tell.

That bit by Madeleine L'Engle isn't necessarily just about lovers or married couples. I think it applies to all types of love, including friendships. And I think this is the warning sign I didn't heed in my own life, that my friendships of late were not expansive and inclusive ones. They spiraled down to just a few, and then less than a few, and ultimately that path leads to an unhealthy solitude that is more akin to solitary confinement within one's own skin. It was leading me towards an angry insanity (which is what lead me to counseling, which may prove to have been nothing more than a way to hang on through a pretty dark storm or two, which may be all it needed to be). And I've also been at fault with other relationships, other deep friendships I simply haven't put the time or effort into to keep alive, vital, and current.  Close friends become occasional friends as the "cares of this world" choke the life out of my days.

I've been reading through some old journals recently, and I am reminded of how deep some of these friendships have been, how much certain people have meant to me, and I am alarmed at how easily such relationships can fade into the background. One of these still horrifies me to think I carelessly let her slip out of my life, possibly for good, someone I loved very much and is now lost to me, despite repeated attempts to find her.  Community requires cultivation, and for the longest time I have just been coasting. And anyone who has coasted long enough knows that eventually you come to a stop, and you don't have to do a thing for that to happen. In fact, that's how it happens. And to get going again requires a whole lot more effort than is required to keep going. And I have to admit, I am tired. And discouraged. But old friendships tend to rekindle quickly, and deep roots are still there, regardless the surface neglect suffered.

There is a balance I haven't been able to find, let alone maintain. For most of my life, relationships have been my top priority. But one's own life needs to be lived as well, and lately I can't escape the feeling that I should be doing something "more important". I spent my whole life cultivating friendships, and I find myself ironically at this place where, because I haven't really cultivated my own life, I don't have some of the friendships I thought I had cultivated. And of course, another early warning I either ignored or didn't fully understand, from C.S. Lewis, that friends walk side by side on a common path. Friends don't generally face one another. That is a different kind of love. and in cultivating "friendships", I lost sight of the path I should be walking, of the object that could be a common focal point for potential friendships. In focusing on friends, I find I've lost some of them, like trying to grab water. Friends are there in total freedom or not at all. Trying to "hold on to" friendships can be the very thing that ruins them. People take different paths in life, and no matter how much you think the path you are on is the right one, you can't force another to walk with you on it. And in facing the friend to try, you lose sight of the path. Chase after the friend, and you can find yourself lost. And to tell you the truth, I'm not sure where I am right now (in life OR in this blog entry!). But reading through some old journals is helping me to remember where those deep roots are. And, like I said, I'm not "without" friends right now (one of my closest friends, though living days away, makes a concerted effort to call fairly regularly, for which I am grateful). The local landscape is just a little bit barren at the moment, as far as I can see. If I can find that path I should be on, I think I'll find that community that was probably there all along waiting for me.

Next week I'll be out of a job I probably shouldn't have been doing this long in the first place, and things seem a little bit out of focus right now. But I am praying, and I hope you will too, that I find that path that realigns my vision and reawakens my purpose. I feel like I'm walking in water with my toes barely touching the bottom, my head barely out drawing breath. I can't see where I am going right now, and I hope I find my way to more solid ground soon instead of in over my head. The water seems to be rising all around, and I know we've all been seeing a lot of people dipping below the surface. Sounds dire, but at some point we all dip below the surface for good, and maybe that's what these times are here to remind us. "The Jordan River is chilly and cold…I'll meet you brother on the other side". Times like this can cause one to worry about the cares of one's own life (legitimate and numerous), or these times can be the common ground out of which community is formed and grows (think: Dorothy Day's Catholic Workers). Reaching out to others can be rather counter-intuitive when one's very survival is in question, but community is, paradoxically, the only place where one's survival has a real and lasting chance.

Friday, December 05, 2008

"I’m a good listener, and I’m a better listener when people disagree with me."
-Barack Obama

Monday, November 24, 2008

"30 years ago you didn't see porn stars write books"
(Robert Weil, Norton executive editor)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Poem by Charles Bukowski

Everywhere, Everywhere

amazing, how grimly we hold onto our
ever defensive, thwarted by
the forces.
amazing, the energy we burn
fueling our anger.
amazing, how one moment we can be
snarling like a beast, then
a few moments later,
forgetting what or

not hours of this or days or
months or years of this
but decades,
completely used up,
given over to the pettiest
rancor and

there is nothing here for death to

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Anne-Sophie Mutter in Ann Arbor

This past Sunday, after attending church on my own for the third time this year, I drove out to Ann Arbor to see world-class violin virtuoso Anne-Sophie Mutter play what was rumoured to be her last concert appearance in Michigan (a misunderstanding from a French interview gave the false impression that she was retiring this year at the age of 45). It was a crisp and sunny autumn day, a good kind of day to walk around Ann Arbor. I was having a hard time fully enjoying the day, however, as job and financial concerns (among others) were flooding my mind (the place I work had just unexpectedly closed its doors, seemingly for good, two days prior). I also had 2 tickets to the show, but instead of having dinner for two at Grazi's before the show, I had a jelly bagel & coffee for dinner by myself and sold my extra ticket at a loss. Sometimes you do things on faith, and sometimes faith turns out to be a silly delusion...

After my "dinner", I went to church for the second time that day. I haven't been to church on any kind of regular basis for years, and here I am going twice in one day. I guess I felt like catching up a little. This time at the Catholic church my family would always go to when my brother still lived here and we were visiting him. Sometimes it is good to revisit the places in one's past, just to remember that there was life before the world started slipping all to hell...

I've only been to two classical concerts in my life (the first being Perlman 5 years ago), and it was an odd and fitting coincidence that most of the selections were the same at both. Anne-Sophie Mutter was touring in support of her recent recordings of Bach's Violin Concertos (most of the same ones Perlman had played in Detroit in 2003), and thrown in for good measure at the end of the show was Tartini's "Devil's Trill" (a piece I first listened to at a friend's place one spring after we had just gone on one of my first classical music shopping sprees at the late Harmony House Classical store on Woodward). Watching and listening to the grace and fluidity of her playing was intoxicating at times. At a concert like this which demands one's full attention, I am aware of how un-zen my mind has become, as distracting thoughts of all kinds pull me out of the present moment throughout the evening. Aside from my own thoughts, external distractions didn't help much either - the seats were apparantly spaced for children's legs, and luckily I had an isle seat. The audience also chose to do most of it's coughing in between movements, which, on the surface, seems like a good idea, but the silences in between are too important a part of the work to ruin with a chorus of coughs and chuckles at the sound of it. An occasional cough during the performance would actually have been preferrable. But these are all usual distractions at any event of this sort, and they can really reveal the muck and mire that is bubbling up at the core of one's interior life...

After the concert, I was weak and shakey from hunger and mild sleep-deprivation (a side-effect of actually making it to church this morning), with a potential headache making plans for my head later. I was going to stick around to try and meet Mrs. Mutter, but the line was ridiculous, and I realized I just wasn't that interested in this once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet one of my favourite classical performers, so I walked the chilly night streets of Ann Arbor back to my car to drive home to a more substantial meal and watch some of the World Series with my dad... and for some reason, after this evening of inspiring music, the lyrics to Mindy Smith's latest song kept running through my head, walking the sidewalks, past the coffee shops on Main, past the bookstores, past a time I used to know and love...

It’s been a hard year this fall
And I still don't know where you're coming from
And the sky keeps on spinning
The stars are running, hiding from the sun

I don't want to feel this blue
I want to be over you
I don't want to feel this blue
but love lost
If the heart needs a reason to cry for
If the heart needs a reason to lie for
there's no better reason than love lost
If the heart needs a reason to try for
If the heart needs a reason to die for
There's no better reason than love lost

It's a been a while since I saw you
I still don't know what you're running for
Guess you were looking around
For something better
or something more

I don't want to feel this blue
I want to be over you
I don't want to feel this blue
But I do
I do…

Monday, October 13, 2008

"if the heart needs a reason to die for..."

New song by Mindy Smith, who is now officially my favorite new artist of the decade. She's been my favorite new artist since her second CD, Long Island Shores, came out a couple years ago (a CD with some fantastic cover artwork that seems to fit the music perfectly, as her heartwrenchingly beautiful voice does). I have a weakness for deep, dark introspective music, especially when sung with the kind of smooth angelic voice that artists like Mindy Smith or Karin Berquest (of Over the Rhine) employ. (Over the Rhine is probably my favorite group of all time, and as a related side note, Mindy Smith was actually once a house guest of Karin & Linford in Cincinatti before her debut CD came out.) Mindy first stopped me in my tracks with a song she wrote for her dying mother, One Moment More (also the title of her debut CD), and it didn't take long for her to make her way to the top of my favorite new artist list. And in this decade, there's some stiff competition in that category...Hem would almost be at least tied with Mindy if they were more consistent the way Mindy's music has been. Hem's debut CD "Rabbit Songs" is another one that can make me stop whatever it is I'm doing just to fully absorb myself in the music, and "Burying Song" is one of the most heartbreaking instrumental pieces I can think of. But Hem is also capable of some mediocre tracks, and I've not heard anything like that from Mindy. Rosie Thomas is the third artist in my musical "trinity" of favorite new artists, very much in that same "hardcore introspection" (as OtR once put it) vein. Rosie is also more consistently good than Hem, and why I don't consider her as my favorite new artist is one of those inexplicable factors of personal subjectivity. I think Hem, when they are at their best, are far better than Rosie, even if they're not at their best nearly as often as Rosie is. but for some reason, possibly the more personal connection she projects, Mindy Smith just comes out ahead of the pack. And with her new track, "Love Lost", it is evident that she isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

In case you're interested, other artists that would make it into my Top 10 New Artists of the Decade would include Sigur Ros (if this were a more objective list, I would have to put them at the top, easily), Broken Social Scene (when they released "You Forgot It In People", they were my favorite until Mindy came along, but, although they are still one of the best indie rock groups out there, they have never matched the magic of that early CD), and Copeland (another indie/alternative group whose music and lyrics just kill me with their depth. they renew my hope in the future of new music). There are other new artists from this decade that will most likely make my list as well (Do Make Say Think has a promising future and a solid catalog so far), but there's still over a year left in this decade to decide such things. For now, I can't seem to break myself away from this computer while I listen to Mindy's new song over and over. And I can't imagine anyone could come along in the next year who could possibly offer me something better than what Mindy Smith has already delivered...

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The American Sports Mentality

(sorry for the length. I need an editor!)

Anyone who knows me knows that I am NOT a sports fan. I think a significant reason for this is that I am not a competitive person by nature. And as far as I can tell, this makes me something of an outsider in America, because Americans love their sports. it is an industry worth billions, and in America's sports obsession, it is an industry that has completely pervaded people's thinking in many other areas of life. Areas that are (in my opinion) suffering severe damage because of it.

The American sports mentality is that desire to take a side, and then beat the other side into defeat. And it doesn't care about the other side's point of view. it just wants to "win". And one of the foundation stones of this mentality is the label. just as sports teams need a name to put on the scoreboard, we feel that the need to label is justified in all areas of life. Religion is one that is affected most by this. and politics. labels are used to define and then dismiss the "opponent". labels like "Christian" and "Secular" or "Protestant" and "Catholic", "Republican / Right-Wing" and "Democrat / Left-Wing", etc... The problem is that, in the case of religion, this mentality mixes with it about as well as oil and water. One of the main foundations of just about every serious religious tradition is Compassion, which is literally "to suffer with". To put oneself in the other's shoes. To do to others as one would have done to oneself. In Christianity, we are commanded to pray for our enemies. not to pray for their defeat, but simply to pray for them. How many sports teams do you think huddle before the game to pray for the other team? Shouldn't that be completely different among religious people in everyday life? and yet how many people approach their religion as though they are on a sports team? Converting someone to the faith is often no more than a draft pick. Church membership is equated with team membership, and so often the drive to "increase church membership" isn't a drive to bring people to faith and encourage them to go to a church of their choosing, it is usually a drive to increase that one particular church's membership numbers.

The same problem pervades politics even more so. We should be working together for the good of our communities and our nation, and instead, most people on both sides of the party divide are more interested in "defeating" the other party - in "winning". But a country does not "win" unless every citizen is a part of that victory. "No Child Left Behind" doesn't work at its root because most people aren't even interested in "No Citizen Left Behind". Both sides vilify the other side, misconstrue what is said by the other because sometimes the other side believes something a little too close for comfort to the same truth that our side believes in, and no fight is very sustainable with the words "I agree", and so what's the fun of that? A foundational part of the game in sports is to tear down the opponent. And so we look for what's wrong in the other, rather than what's right. As David Dark puts it, we don't want to know that a Samaritan would do that sort of thing. And when one side is proven right on any given particular, humility goes out the door. Their "right-ness" gets thrown in the face of the other, as if they somehow just scored against the enemy. "Victory is mine!" as Stewie Griffin would say. And so, instead of an opportunity taken to bring different sides closer together in a common understanding of the Truth that eludes us all to some extent, the walls of defense are put up even stronger and the distance and divide made even greater, lest the other side "score" against us again. People begin to refuse to look at the facts, at the truth as it works itself out, for fear of being made to look like the fool for believing otherwise. This is part of the reason why some people are so stubborn, refusing even to look at obvious facts before them. In the American Sports arena, to admit the other is right in any way is equated with admitting defeat. And so instead of being grateful that the other side is right about something and we can now agree on it and come a little closer together, there is only resentment toward the other for somehow "sneaking one past us". There have been leaders in the past who have accomplished great things because they didn't care who got the credit for being right, but those leaders probably weren't very good at sports, which requires a "keeping score".

Look at the way so many accept the notion of a "war on terror" with a straight face. And they talk about "winning the war" - "we must win the war on terror". How do you win a war against a concept? or against terrorism, which is a tactic? these things will always be there for the using, even if somehow no one on earth were at that moment using them. If a preacher talked about this in the context of "our war is not against flesh and blood", then I might be inclined to listen, but so many in power (and their followers) act as though you can win these "concept" wars with actual bombs lobbed at actual places on earth. But I think it is the framework of sports which people look through and think they see a way to win. and it is usually simple. lob more bombs over there than they lob at us, and we win. Of course one major problem is that War Games tend to go on quite a bit past double overtime.

There are people in my life, close people, whom I never discuss politics with, even when they are begging me to take the bait. Not because I have no interest in discussing politics (I do), but I know from personal and past experience when someone is simply itching for a fight. and I've lost interest in fighting as a substitute for discussion. I see people listening to the talk shows and yelling at the tv or radio, arguing with commentators who cannot and will never hear them, and what they are doing is target practice. they are loading up on "argumentative ammo" for the next straw man who comes along that they can set up to shoot down. And I don't know about you, but I'm not real interested in being shot at. These people right from the start will not listen to what the other person has to say. they don't care. They don't care where you are coming from or why you feel the way you do about any given issue or candidate. they just want to shoot the target, they just want to win the contest. I have certainly been guilty of this on the topic of religion (pick your category), and I realize (even though old habits die hard) that it does nothing but tear others down and close them off to any new way of thinking. I had someone close to me ask who I was voting for, and when I told them, they didn't ask "why do you like that person?", they responded with a disapproving grunt, an "oh no!". and that was that conversation. One of my friends was even told by his own mother that she didn't really like talking to him lately because of who he was supporting. Too often our immediate response to another's opinion is framed in Attack-and-Defense mode, rather than from a place of unthreatened, calm curiosity and compassion. And I think this kind of mentality, this getting wrapped up in the game, in "our side vs their side", makes us lose sight of all kinds of priorities, one of which is to love others. Wayne Dyer once said "When you have the choice between being right and being kind, choose kindness". I think that about sums up why I don't "speak my mind" more often with certain people, because my mind often darkens and hardens my heart.

I suppose I'm perhaps being a little unfair in characterizing this mentality as "American", as it stems I'm sure from our primitive survival instinct, and intense competition is nothing new to humanity. From Cain and Able through the countless wars throughout history, man has been taking sides and trying to destroy those opposed to them. It's the "mob mentality" - don't think it through, don't talk about it, just go out there and defeat the enemy. It's just that, with "civilization" as well as religious conviction, there is supposed to be some sort of transcendence above our baser instincts to "kill or be killed". It is one thing that makes humanity unique and separate from animals, the ability to reason things out and talk them through with each other. And in America especially, the size of the Sports Entertainment Industry being what it is, those baser instincts are played on and encouraged with millions of dollars worth of provocative advertising and media coverage, and the quieter, calmer, more thoughtful inner life is a huge liability to their "success". More money can be made when people are riled up into a frenzied fever-pitch, and nothing does this better than the presentation and caricaturization of an enemy to defeat.

I wonder what would happen if we could somehow eliminate labels from our thinking. We couldn't simply categorize and then dismiss another based on the label we put on them. We would have to listen to what they said about what they believed, and we would be sure to find things we agree with as well as things we disagree with. In religion this happens a great deal. As a Christian, I have met and known many others who also claim to believe in Christianity, only to later learn that we have extremely different views about what that label actually means and implies. But we also have some very similar views in other areas. Being that we both claim the label "Christian", we can't simply dismiss the other based on a label. We have to talk it out and come to either an agreement, or an agreement to disagree. Unless, of course, we resort to "sub-labels" so we don't have to work so hard. labels like Charismatic, Catholic, Protestant, Fundamentalist Wacko, etc...
But if we could be rid of the "win or lose" sports mentality, we could then actually have a constructive conversation with the other. This would mean not only discussing that which we disagree on, actually trying to come to an understanding of the opposing viewpoint, but also a willingness (a desire even) to recognize (or, as David would say, "hell bent on discovering...") where the other is right and where we are wrong. And only after we do this can we talk about where we think we are right and they are wrong. An acceptance of the fact that we each and all together see through the glass darkly and don't understand as we should, and therefore need each other - even and especially the opposing view - to reach more fully toward the truth.

(side note: as if to confirm my assertion as to how pervasive the sports mentality is among us, when I was discussing these thoughts with a friend of mine, he encouraged me to blog about this, saying he thought it was a "slam-dunk argument". He wasn't trying to be funny or make a pun...I don't even think he realized what he had said...)

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Some Thomas Merton

"We are living under a tyranny of untruth which confirms itself in power and establishes a more and more total control over men in proportion as they convince themselves they are resisting error...
...The basic falsehood is the lie that we are totally dedicated to truth...that we have the monopoly of all truth, just as our adversary of the moment has the monopoly of all error.
We then convince ourselves that we cannot preserve our purity of vision and our inner sincerity if we enter into dialogue with the enemy, for he will corrupt us with his error. We believe, finally, that truth cannot be preserved except by the destruction of the enemy - for, since we have identified him with error, to destroy him is to destroy error. The adversary, of course, has exactly the same thoughts about us...

If we really sought truth we would begin slowly and laboriously to divest ourselves one by one of all our coverings of fiction and delusion: or at least we would desire to do so, for mere willing cannot enable us to effect it. On the contrary, the one who can best point out our error, and help us to see it, is the adversary whom we wish to destroy...
In the long run, no one can show another the error that is within him, unless the other is convinced that his critic first sees and loves the good that is within him. So while we are perfectly willing to tell our adversary he is wrong, we will never be able to do so effectively until we can ourselves appreciate where he is right... Love, love only, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door to truth. As long as we do not have this love, as long as this love is not active and effective in our lives (for words and good wishes will never suffice) we have no real access to the truth. At least not to moral truth."
"We too often forget that Christian faith is a principle of questioning and struggling before it becomes a principle of certitude and of peace. One has to doubt and reject everything else in order to believe firmly in Christ, and after one has begun to believe, one's faith itself must be tested and purified. Christianity is not merely a set of foregone conclusions. The Christian mind is a mind that risks intolerable purifications, and sometimes, indeed very often, the risk turns out to be too great to be tolerated. Faith tends to be defeated by the burning presence of God in mystery, and seeks refuge from him, flying to comfortable social forms and safe conventions in which purification is no longer an inner battle but a matter of outward gesture."

-Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Friday, September 26, 2008

The weight that one man's soul must carry

I think I just became a Pink fan...

To be the President is a responsibility I cannot imagine. In these past 8 years, there has been a lot of venom shot in the direction of George W, as well as a lot of venom shot in the direction of those who oppose him. I have certainly added my fair share of the former. But at this point, I also can't help but feel a certain amount of heavy sorrow for him as well, which makes it easier to remember to pray for him and the burden he carries, and will carry with him for the rest of his life. A burden, I think, that would drive most men to suicide. When asking the question that is often asked (somewhat rhetorically) in election years, "are you better off now than you were 4 (or 8) years ago?", the answer that I think most of us would have to give makes the question almost offensive in the very asking of it. Some will disagree, and I certainly admit to bias...

Before George W. Bush was ever running for the office of President, I was already hardened against him. In the mid-90's, my views on the death penalty in America did a 180. I had always been for it, in theory, but after watching the true story Dead Man Walking, and (more importantly) reading the book by Sr. Helen Prejean, I realized I couldn't be anymore and still follow the path of Christ...(again, some of you will disagree). A guitar-slinging duo called The Indigo Girls brought to my awareness this then govenor of Texas, the state that held the record, if you will, for the most executions in the nation. One case in particular stuck in my throat, and that was the execution of Faye Tucker, which the Indigo Girls sang about on their "Come On Social" album. You can look up the details of that one for yourself, but if ever there was a mis-application of the state's right to kill, this was certainly it. And if anything could possibly be more disturbing that this execution, in my estimation it was the glibness and cocky / careless attitude of the Govenor of that state who maintains his certainty that everyone who was put to death under his watch was guilty and deserved what they got. And I think it is that glib cock-sure attitude at the fact of the death of others that made him stand out in my mind as especially repulsive. And then this man went and ran for president, and won, twice, and his presidency has been marked by some of the most senseless and unnecessary death in this nation's history. Although I am voting for Obama this election (in great part because his attitude and approach stand in stark contrast to our current President), I will feel a sense of relief regardless who gets into that office come January. McCain will not take war or death lightly the way Bush seems to have done, as though the war in Iraq is a great big video game...kind of fun...

And so, it is fitting to me that, on the musical front, this time is coming to an end with a song that the Indigo Girls helped out on. This is Pink's "Dear Mr. President", and, despite my "misgivings" of some of the sentiments expressed here, in my opinion it is one of the best "protest" songs of this era (an era I find surprisingly sparse in the kind of artistic expression this song gives voice to):

Monday, September 15, 2008

Holding Onto My Dad's Old Record Collection (and keeping all of my Circular Music)

Every once in a while, I like to go to our storage room and flip through the stack of my dad's old records that we keep in there. Without even hearing a note of the music represented there, I am transported back to a time when my dad was younger, when he was holding these records, looking at the same picture on the cover, reading the same notes on the back, holding the same physical object he held half a century ago as a young man. I learn things about my dad almost vicariously this way. I've always known his love of jazz, country, blues, and classical, but those are just general categories. To hold an actual record that he listened to, and cared enough to keep through 50 years of his life and through countless moves, is an entirely different kind of understanding and experience. It's one thing to know he loves jazz, but to hold his copy of Miles Davis' Round About Midnight, or his Ella Fitzgerald or Chet Baker records, is something that "he likes jazz" doesn't hold a candle to. I'm also exposed to music that would otherwise never enter my musical universe, records that I would never give a second thought to, I look at, study, and wonder, "what was he thinking when he bought this? What is it that he likes about this?". And it's not just the names of singers and song titles, it's that this very copy was what he listened to all those decades ago, this very copy is what he held in his hands and had in his room, what he put on the stereo while living in his apartment. This is, in a way, a part of who he is. Who he once was. Something of what he experienced in his life. There are stories behind this music. Many times nothing dramatic, but things like Frank Sinatra's "The Voice" was one of the first records he ever owned. He remembers listening to Dave Brubeck's "Red, Hot and Cool" back in high school. He used to listen to the R&B (black) station all the time, and once owned almost all of Muddy Waters' singles. I know how much my record collection has meant to me, how certain records hold a special place in my life and are an indelible part of my memories, and this gives me some idea of what some of my dad's records may have meant to him. I get it. And in that, there is a connection between us that a list of names - artists and song titles - can't capture.

I remember the hours I would spend looking at my own record collection, holding the album sleeve while lying on my bed listening to it, associating the cover artwork with the music I was listening to, or sometimes just staring hypnotically at the record turning round and round under the needle arm... One of my first albums was Sweet Comfort Band's "Perfect Timing", and I would sit and listen to the music while trying to see how far back I could see the numbers pictured on the futuristic-looking cover. Or the times I spent staring at Amy Grant's picture on Straight Ahead, listening to her voice and just sort of thinking about her...and her bare feet. And I'll never forget sending my best friend Brian to Harmony House to buy the new Stryper album the day after it came out on Halloween, back in 1986, before I could drive, not knowing what I was in for. It seems tame now, but that cover with the angels dragging Satan down to hell, the fire and the pentagram and everything a true metal album cover should be...I remember almost being afraid to hold it, lest I get caught and in trouble, thrilled at the thought that I owned this evil metal album (almost unable to believe it was Christian) with even a title I could not mention to my parents (To Hell with the Devil), hiding it for years in my collection... There's nothing quite like unfolding a gatefold double album and getting lost in the world represented there in the music and the artwork.

Perhaps this love of the object itself, the history and connection I feel when holding an old record like that, might explain why I am probably the last person on earth without an ipod. I DJ weddings sometimes, and I am one of the few DJs out there that still hauls in a few cases of actual CDs, because I don't use a laptop to "DJ" the way most these days do. Perhaps it just indicates my resistance to change. A few years ago I was the last person on earth still using a pager instead of a cell phone, and if I had lived in the early part of this century, I'm sure I would have been driving a horse and buggy for the majority of the first half of it... And when the last brick-and-mortar record store closes its doors, you can be sure that I will be the last customer to walk out of its doors, sure to be clenching as many albums and CDs in my arms as is physically possible, with a look on my face closely resembling Charlie Brown's in mid-scream.

In case you haven't figured it out by now, I'm not a big fan of the digital download culture that seems to be taking over the music industry and making ancient useless artifacts of the physical and collectible objects that music was once recorded onto. It's like a bad parody of my Christian school days, when all the good kids got rid of their "secular" music, only these days everyone seems to be getting rid of all their "circular" music. Don't get me wrong - I enjoy downloading an otherwise unavailable song to add to my collection as much as anyone, and as a DJ, downloadable music has saved me from spending tons of money on CDs that I used to have to buy in their entirety when I only wanted one song. But when someone holds up something that looks like a small credit card and announces proudly that their entire music collection is right there in that tiny little cracker-like square, my heart sinks a little, realizing to myself and unable to explain to them just how much of the full experience they are missing by reducing their music to intangible and disposable (delete-able) megabytes.

I suspect I'll only be able to reach a few of you with my doomsday message, but let me give it a try...

As I posted earlier, I have a library of over 1,300 books. If you are a regular ol' book lover and want to come over to look at my books, I can point to a few bookcases that have made more than a few book lovers drool. You can take a book off the shelf, hold it in your hands, stick your nose in its pages (if you are of the booksmelling persuasion), thumb through various volumes and lose yourself for hours in these stacks. I have books that were printed many decades ago, and some that were printed not more than a few months ago. each one holds a unique feel and charm to it, beyond anything written inside. Now imagine you come over to look at my library, hearing about all these great books I own, and instead of bookshelves, I point to my computer. I've decided to get rid of all that bulky paper and now have only ebooks. IF you are a booklover, I think even the most digitally hardened amongst you will have to admit that there would be a certain amount of disappointment at the absense of an actual, physical library to browse through. (at the very least, you will agree that sticking your nose to a computer screen is retarted)

Perhaps your thing is antiques. or works of art. maybe you like gardening and enjoy plants and flowers. picture anything like this, anything that holds a physical fascination for you, and imagine coming over to someones house to view theirs, and they show you pictures of their "original Van Gogh" - or their plants...or their antiques - on the computer. That's where they've decided to keep these things, getting rid of the actual physical objects themselves. "Threw the Van Gogh painting out because I have a picture of it on my computer which takes up less space, and I can store more original works of art that way". I hope the only reasonable response to this would be the exclamation "You are an idiot".

The physical object of music - whether a record album, a CD, or collectible box set - at it's best is a piece of art. It's not "just about the music". It's about the experience as a whole, and that includes the artwork and packaging it comes in. People who don't go to record stores and just flip through the stacks just don't get that. There's an almost talismanic experience with a well-packaged slab of music that is lost on downloads. The imagination kicks in while holding an album in one's hands, and before you've even heard a note of the music inside, the experience has already begun and the mind has taken flight. The best of albums deliver on or exceed the promise of the artwork and all that, often not in the way one might have expected, and that element of surprise can get you giddy. I can't tell you how often I've been just flipping through the stacks at the local (now nearly extinct) record store and picked up an album that I'd never heard of, that was getting no airplay that I knew of, just because it "looked interesting". Some of my favorite albums have come to me that way. Music can't "look interesting" anymore in a download music world. What will the grandkids flip through when they talk about their parent's music collection? Will their parents even have a music collection to flip through and discover, or will it have been accidentally deleted long ago? The object seems obviously and intrinsically important in a way that is apparently lost on the download culture.

I say all this, and yet, to balance things out a bit, the other side of my mouth has to admit that I've been going through my stacks the past few years and getting rid of a lot of the "bulk", burning a few songs I like from CDs that don't satisfy on the whole and then excommunicating them from my collection. and yes, I frequently judge whether I buy CDs by the cover art. this is a very loose tendency with me, as exceptions abound, but I like a cover to capture my imagination and hopes, to hold some sort of promise of good things inside, to somehow give me an indication of the kind of music that is inside, and perhaps subconsciously a bad cover says "here's the first clue that, if we couldn't even come up with something good for the outside, we probably didn't do much better on the inside either". I love good packaging, and if the packaging is stupid, I'd at the very least just rather burn a copy...But ripping albums and CDs to the computer just for the sake of space?? The idea seems as ridiculous to me as the art example I used earlier. You'll never see me burning a copy of Over the Rhine's "Good Dog, Bad Dog" to my computer and tossing the original. Somehow, in a very big way, it just wouldn't be the same that way (the thought alone makes me ill). And even though I have Bob Dylan's Freewheelin' on CD, I'll never get rid of my dad's vinyl copy. not because the vinyl is worth any money (it's most definitely not), but because it's my dad's copy, from when he was young (before Dylan "got crazy with all that rock and roll") and somehow that seems incredibly important to me.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


the song that single-handedly made me a Patty Griffin fan...

It's hard to listen to a hard hard heart
Beating close to mine
Pounding up against the stone and steel
Walls that I won't climb
Sometimes a hurt is so deep deep deep
You think that you're gonna drown
Sometimes all I can do is weep weep weep
With all this rain falling down

Strange how hard it rains now
Rows and rows of big dark clouds
But I'm holding on underneath this shroud

Its hard to know when to give up the fight
Some things you want will just never be right
Its never rained like it has tonight before
Now I don't want to beg you baby
For something maybe you could never give
I'm not looking for the rest of your life
I just want another chance to live

Strange how hard it rains now
Rows and rows of big dark clouds
But I'm still alive underneath this shroud

(Patty Griffin - "Rain" - from 1,000 Kisses)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

"God is my co-pilot, and the Virgin Mary is my hot stewardess" (American Dad)

Friday, July 25, 2008

A Life Spent Reading (Pt. 1: Childhood Roots)

The other day I posted a picture of my book collection (most of it, anyway), and it got me wondering once again, how in the world did it get to this? Why do most of the people I know own just a few books, and I own over a thousand? Is there a rhyme or a reason to this exorbitant amount of literary accumulation?

For as long as I can remember, books and time spent reading have been an integral part of my life. In fact, some of my earliest memories are of my mother reading to me, her arms around me holding a book that we would both be looking at as she read and I either followed along or looked at the pictures while my imagination was carried off in the pages of books like The Velveteen Rabbit (one of my mother's favorites) and Where The Wild Things Are. My favorite childhood picture is of me, at 3 years old, sitting next to a record player with a book in front of me (only a bubble-pipe in my mouth could have made the picture any better). I like to think I was listening to music while reading (as I'm fond of saying that my life hasn't really changed since then), but I remember those books that came with a little record inside of them all too well. A narrator would read the book, usually along with wonderful sounds and character actors playing their part of the story. I had a whole shelf full of these, and I am grateful to my parents for so much encouragement in getting me to read so early in life. My mother even says that she used to read to me before I was born. She used to talk about her own love of reading as a child, saying she would often stay up all night and read a book (like White Fang) from start to finish, simply because she couldn't put it down. I remember how I was influenced by that idea and wanted to do the same thing, staying up well into the night, even that early, as a child, either in my room or in the blanket-tent/fort I would make in our living room on weekends, trying to read a book from start to finish. I usually couldn't make it through to the end the way my mother did, though. (One Saturday in 5th grade, I tried to read The Red Badge Of Courage straight through, and I have a distinct memory of wishing that book would end already, but plowing on in spite of my boredom with it. Even in childhood I was growing the roots of OCD that wouldn't let me not finish a book I started, no matter how much I wasn't enjoying it!)
My father was an English lit major during his first go at college, and in my later life now, I fully see the influence that had on me (at some point in recent years, I realized I was buying a lot of books that he already had copies of. Our interests in literature had begun to overlap). Our house always had shelves full of books, which I would play with as a child even before I was old enough to understand anything written inside of them. I think this early and constant, intimate and comfortable exposure to books certainly led to a development of a love for books themselves, as talismanic objects of wonder and enjoyment in my life. One of my favorite parts of the school year was the Scholastic book order. I can only vaguely remember anything I ordered from there (usually a Guinness book of world records was acquired yearly…something that may have subliminally led to my love of Guinness beer later in life), but I distinctly remember the thrill I felt when my stack of new books came in! (I still get something of that thrill as an adult through the magic of…) I also have summertime memories of joining the reading club at the library, where you would get prizes or something for reading a certain amount of books…

In 6th grade, in an otherwise educationally vacuous Christian school experience, I had one of the best teachers of my life. Mr. Wynn Clack was one of those teachers that you are proud to have known, someone who knew how to reach kids and get them interested in school in a way that is all too rare. One of the keys to his success was the freedom we had as students to pursue that which interested us. He had a love of history and had copies of historic newspaper front-pages hung up on the back wall that we could peruse and become familiar with without a single word of their history needing to be taught to us. We learned history because we were fascinated by these moments of history displayed before us. He loved photography, and we were allowed to bring cameras to class and take pictures at will. I took full advantage of this, possibly more than anyone else in the class, and have an album full of great childhood memories from that year. And Mr. Clack always gave us free reign of as much time as he could to read - whatever we wanted to read. Time spent reading in class was time well spent in his estimation, and looking back on my school years, I would say it was some of the best quality time I've ever spent in class. That was one year I truly loved going to school and looked forward to class time. That was also a transitional year for me in regards to my reading abilities and the kinds of books I was reading. The books I read were having a more profound (and sometimes embarrassingly silly) impact and effect on my life. I read my first C.S. Lewis book in 6th grade - an author who is still one of my top 5 favorites (I'll let you make the obvious guess as to "witch" book that was. Suffice it to say, playtime in the winter took on a whole new dimension in my imagination after that, with snow-covered tree landscapes transforming themselves into a place called Narnia). I read Johanna Spyri's "Heidi" (unaware of the "fruity" implications there may have been for a 6th grade boy to be reading such a book) and her description of the evening sky catching on fire developed in me the beginnings of a lifelong love of sunsets... (descriptions of the grandfathers meals for Heidi also inspired me to start snacking on cheese chunks with buttered bread and of those random odd influences literature can have on an open and impressionable young mind, and something I still do to this day). As a sort of counter-balance to reading Heidi, I read my first Mark Twain book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer - a book whose influence on my life probably would have horrified my parents (I took to sneaking out of the house late at night sometimes to walk to the "cemetery" about a mile from our house. If you don't know why, read the book!). I fell in love with these books and the adventures they contained more than any books I had read before. I got lost in the worlds they depicted, and I reread Tom Sawyer a handful of times - it was my guide to life as a 6th grader. I still count it as an all-time favorite.

It wouldn't be until a couple years later that a book would influence me as much, and that book was one that would influence my entire life as a teenager. A book whose influence has been shared by millions of teenagers for the past few decades, written by an author whose few books opened up a world for teenagers the likes of which had never been portrayed in literature in that way before. A book about teens that didn't focus on prom-drama or dating or changing bodily functions, but rather one where the teens were in charge of their own lives, and authority was all but absent (the kind of world most teens dream about)... A legendary classic called The Outsiders…
(to be continued...)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Books in My Life

some of my book collection. the books on the main shelf there on the left of the picture are all double-shelved. so there's a whole other case worth of books hiding back there! Unfortunately, most of my favourite books are hiding in the back behind what are probably more recent acquisitions that by default found an easy resting place in front. My near-if-not-complete collection of books by Buechner, Merton, Dillard, Nouwen, L'Engle, Percy, Dostoevsky, Flannery O'Conner, Charles Williams, and others are all hiding behind works of relatively lesser value to me. But I do love them all. the Stephen King collection is hiding in the dark of my closet where it seems to belong.
I put the shelves in the hallway up over Memorial Day weekend, and those are single-shelved (I used to have a double-shelved case there, but walking through the hallway was a bit tricky without turning sideways, so I bought some smaller shelves - suprisingly hard to find shelves that aren't a foot deep!). I have a couple hundred books elsewhere, but this is the bulk of my library.

Monday, July 21, 2008

River on Fire

I don't know where to stop with my youtube obsession, but I was just listening to this song by Adam Again and struck by how good it is and how well it holds up over the years, no matter which side of the CCM /secular divide you may be on. Christian rock has produced a lot of crap in its time, more than its fair share, but it has also produced some absolute gems that make it all worth listening to. this is one of those cannon classics that does it for me every time...

What would you say if you knew what I was thinking?
Maybe you do, but you know not to dig too deep
What if i knew what you needed for sure?
I've seen in your eyes you need more, much more
And I could be happy, and you could be miserable
I'll grab a metaphor out of the air
The Cuyahoga River on fire
What can you say? The impossible happens
What can you settle for?
What can you live without?
I remember the night I first darkened your door
And I swore that I loved you
My heart was pure
You could be happy, and I could be miserable
I'll grab a metaphor out of the air
The Cuyahoga River on fire
My open window, a dream in the dark
My fingers, your face
A spark, a trace...
I know a lot about the history of Cleveland, Ohio
Disasters that have happened there
Like the Cuyahoga River on fire

Monday, July 07, 2008

"What about love...?"

I love Youtube. Finally some video footage of possibly the most legendary Cornerstone concert ever. I remember the chills I got listening to this final song of the '93 fest, up on the hill, when Mike Knott came out in a full-blown clown outfit and sang one of the darkest songs in the CCM rock canon. The symbolism was genius, the screams chilling, and this show is still talked about as one of the highlights in Cornerstone's history 15 years later...

Sunday, July 06, 2008

"There's nothing left but ashes where there was once a stolen kiss"

Sorry for the German guy intro, but I'd kill to have a copy of this whole Flevo concert from '89. Some of the best footage I've ever seen of Rez mowing the heads off the audience with their no-holds-barred classic rock onslaught. Rez was hands-down the biggest influence in my life and Christian faith from the first time I saw them back in '84 (where they gave me my first dose of a lifetime's worth of tinnitus) through my post-college years. I didn't get a chance to see them at Cornerstone this year where they performed a reunion concert, but I am planning on driving out to Muskeegon in early August to catch the only other reunion show they will be performing at the much cheaper, much closer, and much shorter "Unity Fest". I think their days of intense, high-energy aural assault are sadly long-over (as evidenced by what little footage I saw of the Cstone performance, with Wendi looking like she was performing for little kids rather than veteran rock fans, Stu just looks old, and John just looks tired), but I'll still enjoy the trip down memory lane... Until then, excuse me while I warm-up and psych-out with a few videos from the classic years...

"Regrets half-felt and sin half-loved...I say faith is just for fools...somebody tell me, what's the use?"
Another one from the same show, I think Rez does the mellow bluesier stuff just as good as the hard stuff, and the lyrics are always genuine and hit the mark for me. but don't take my word for it, I'm as biased about this band as they come!

"Angel-dust and tortured dreams say I'd be better dead"
This one is easily my favourite Rez song of all-time, and I was at this performance, down in the very front (as I usually was at most Rez shows). I'm still asking those questions, and sometimes I hear those voices (as we probably all do at one time or another). "You chase the shadows because your hopes and dreams have been lost to the night..."
from Cornerstone 1994:

And no Rez concert would be complete without a little "talk" from Glenn Kaiser. a segment that over the years (ever since Bootleg) has somewhat oddly been dubbed "Glenn's Rap":

and since I'm already loading up this post with enough video to make your computer come to a crashing halt trying to download it, I might as well throw in this little bonus clip just for fun. Evidence proving one reviewer's claim many years ago who wrote the classic line (in response to the general idea that Stryper was the first "Christian metal" band) that Rez band was playing metal when the members of Stryper were still playing with crayons! Think of it as the encore in my little Rez Band concert blog. A 10-minute window onto prime-era Resurrection Band, a full-on full-energy blast from the past that I kind of wish was audio-only (although that double-neck guitar is classic Stu!). This is the fashion of the 70's trying to merge with the 80's on a group of 60's Jesus Freak hippies, and it can be a little painful to look at for those of us who prefer our Rez band metal to be clothed in black leather. (I could really do without the Hawaiian(?) shirt is all I'm saying...)

Friday, June 27, 2008

You have less than 5 years to live...

Have you noticed that life seems to change drastically every 5 years? How many people can look back 5 years into their life and say everything is pretty much the same? Many things might be, but I'll bet that in many other very significant ways it is completely different. 5 years ago in my life, my grandmother was still alive and I was visiting her almost every week; my brother still lived in Ann Arbor and I would see him at least a few times a month (5 years before that he was still living at home in the room right next to mine. He now lives in New York); One of my best friends was living just across the city (he now lives across the country); I was talking with or hanging out almost every day with another close friend who I now hardly talk to more than a few minutes a couple times a month; And I still had a plausable amount of hair on my now bald head! (5 years before that I had hair almost down to my ass!) WTF!?!

and 5 years from now, Obama will be into his second term as president...

If you chance to look down and see how quickly the stream of time is passing by as you walk the balance beam of your life, you are apt to get rather dizzy and maybe even filled with panic. Maybe you didn't realize you were on a balance beam before you stopped, maybe you didn't realize how easily you could fall off, how easily everything you know could change. There have been many times in my life when I have gotten that feeling and wanted to hold on to something, to somehow stop life from slipping by so quickly (usually when life is about to change significantly, perhaps the loss in one way or another of a loved one, sometimes just from listening to a song that reflects on life's quick passing - usually something by UnderCover or Terry Taylor, maybe Rush's "Time Stand Still", something like that). But there really is nothing to hold on to. It doesn't do any good to try to hang on. We worry about death, but death happens to us all the time, all throughout our lives. Life as we know it ends, over and over again, and something new takes its place. The life we know now is not going to be here in 5 years. (although, in another sense, as Buechner says, every person we once were is still there living inside of us somewhere, only they get covered up and hidden more and more as time goes by). Do you have kids? This is the easiest way to see this. Think of a newborn completely dependant and a 5 year old who can walk and talk and is probably started in some kind of a 10 year old in 5th grade listening to the latest in moral-eroding rap music that would horrify you to think of a 5-year-old listening a teenager taking drivers training, rebelling, living their own kind of life in their own private world with friends you probably don't approve of... now a young adult who can go off to war and get killed, or is more likely halfway through college at age (if all goes according to the plan) someone out on their own, working at a career...perhaps marriage, kids, etc etc... life just goes by so fast. can you believe each of those stages is just 5 years apart? 5 years is nothing. If someone told you you only had 5 years to live, you'd probably freak. but that's pretty close to the truth. Whoever you are right now will be no more in 5 years, whatever life you are living right now will no longer exist then. It's probably best not to look down and see how fast it's all flying by. People like me tend to get dizzy and a bit paralyzed when they realize it, whereas others don't think about it and just keep going along their merry way, living life as it comes and changes until they lose their balance and slip off the bar for good. And of course, as Tom Waits once said, eventually we all get to be dirt in the ground...

Merton's Mountain

I just finished reading Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain. This is a very different book from anything else I've read by him, and I certainly would not recommend this as a starting point. Not that it's not good (it is very good), but unless you are already familiar with Merton's work and thought, what he's contributed to the literary canon of meditation on the spiritual life, you might find yourself wondering why you should care about the life he is writing about in this autobiography. This is one of the first books he wrote after joining the monestary, and its early origin is evident to someone more familiar with his later work. The most obvious example of this, to me, was the way he talked about other faiths and denomonations within Christendom. He has very little respect for the "opposing" denomonations, taking what come across as cheap-shots at their "erroneous" ways of understanding and practicing the faith, and speaks of Catholocism with an almost idolatrous reverence.

There is a great 10-minute biography of Merton's life here

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Eyes of Love

A few nights ago I was sitting in this house with a few candles lighting the place, listening to Undercover's Balance of Power. I was reminded of a time nearly 2 decades ago, when this CD first came out, when I was listening to this same music blasting through the house as the night was getting late, lying in bed with 2 of my closest friends (don't ask because I'm not telling, except to say that the friend lying next to me was a hot girl...but I digress). One of the best songs on there is called Eyes of Love, and it's been sticking in my mind since playing it again the other night. "A million questions burning from the flame that melted you, begging for the answers, continue looking through the eyes of love..."

Continue looking through the eyes of love...This is one of the hardest things to do at a time when life seems determined to beat you down until you stay down. When I feel hurt or betrayed or simply left behind and "uninvited" by those I let my guard down for, those I let into my inner circle. Or sometimes just dealing with idiots in life. Idiots who often have the upper-hand, who are holding all the cards, who are in charge of things by what must surely be divine mismanagement. My first reaction to this sort of thing is anger. And bitterness (despite Paul's admonition not to let that root find soil). I ride (as Sixpence once put it) a "circle of error", in which my thoughts continue to circle back to the pain or percieved injustice I feel, trying somehow to articulate it or make sense of it. Begging for the answers, to the question "why?" or "how could this happen?". Or maybe just wanting things to be different. Wanting this to "shall pass" already. Not sure if the future holds anything better though. And then just when I needed to hear it, the lyrics to yet another profound Undercover song get stuck in my head and start to work on my heart and soul... "Continue looking through the Eyes of Love..."

It seems almost impossible to do sometimes, this admonition of Christ's to return good for evil, to pray for one's enemies, to love and pray for those who persecute you. Heck, just to love others period is a thought more than I can seem to manage at times. Trying to imagine what this looks like through the eyes of love. Trying to hold on to what Miroslav Volf calls the "Will to Embrace". But if I can somehow remove my thoughts from the mire they are in and look at the situation objectively, somehow look AT myself from OUTSIDE of myself, see what I look like in these circumstances, I have to ask myself, "what kind of person do I want to be?". Do I want to be a bitter angry man, kicking anything in my path and warning others with my whole way of being not to get too close? Are the knocks life doles out a legitimate reason to be this way, no matter how deep or hard or painful? The bitterness and rage become a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy after a time, inviting nothing but the same into one's life, a "circle of error". "Become like what you want to attract" as the saying goes.

There is, of course, a balance to be found here. One can't go around pretending to be happy while ignoring the pain one is experiencing. But, if one can find it, there is a peace and joy that goes deeper than any outward circumstance can affect...If you can find it. For me, reading Buddhist writers like Thich Nhat Hanh or Pema Chodron helps, or Christians like Henri Nouwen or Mother Teresa. People who have known the pain and trials of living while at the same time leading lives of deep love for others and for God. I see that it is possible, But as U2 once sang, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for".

Thursday, May 15, 2008

All Quotes By: David Dark

"I suspect there's something a little demonic in finding others boring or unworthy of our interest."

"No so-called friendship that required the denying of another friendship could be worthy of the name, and any joy that required the exclusion of a peer would be forever illegitimate."

"...humans whipped into a frenzy of what they take to be righteous indignation (whether by waves of nationalism, party politics, or talk radio) often have an unfortunate habit of crucifying people."

" 'He died for me' is a moving phrase, but it's often also one way of drowning out the example of the life Jesus lived and the question of whether or not we dare to apply it to the way we conduct our own lives."

"There is a righteousness that transcends our percieved self-interest, and we get to pursue it in the hope that a better self-interest (not necessarily pragmatically verifiable) will follow. We get to live in hope of a better health than we're currently defending at all costs, including, perhaps, the forfeiture of our souls."

"it's always useful to keep in mind the difference between pessimism and realism in the service of truthfulness. There is a disillusionment that revels in self-satisfied navel-gazing and the insistence that there is no warmth or comfort to be found, but there's another kind (often mistaken for cynicism) that is merely holding out for the real thing."

"the Through-A-Glass-Darkly clause (dare to do our duty as we understand it) that marks all careful speech is witnessed in Lincoln's admonition that we can only speak, see, and understand fallibly. A determined awareness of our deficient imaginations will mark all talk of God, evil, freedom, and necessity (a difficult temptation in an election year), but if a nation or its leaders are to resist the drive to consider godlikeness as something to be grasped, this confession must never be cast aside."

"One peculiarity of the present age is that, in some cases, our powers of application are so compromised that we're incapable of recognizing as morally edifying anything that doesn't advertise itself as such."

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Friday, April 25, 2008

Undercover in '93

Apologies for the sound on this fan recording, but I found this and had to post it. Of the 12 years I went to Cornerstone, and the hundreds of concerts I've seen there, this one from Undercover in '93 ranks easily in the Top 5 (probably surpassed only by Sixpence in '95 and LSU in '94, Over the Rhine in '96, and probably one of the many Rez shows. Iona in '94 was pretty freakin great too, but I think Undercover holds rank, I think even over the Mad at the World show I saw my first year! now I'm just rubbing salt in my friends wounds...). I was practically sitting on the main stage right in front of Gym during this one, whose guitar playing is simply legendary. An incredible concert from one of the all-time greats. (I was finally able to talk my friend Andrew into going to Cstone the following year, during which he exclaimed many times, "I can't believe I almost didn't come to this!")

And I both love and hate whoever posted this video - Love them because this is the only video I think I've ever seen of my very first year at Cstone, including clips of Mad at the World, Out of the Grey (mislabeled as Over the Rhine here), and Margaret Becker... and hate them because, are you freakin' kidding me? you have VIDEO of those concerts and you only post a few seconds of them in clips??!!??

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"Remember to love your neighbor as you love yourself...and if you hate yourself, then please...just leave your neighbor alone" (Jon Stewart)

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Veronica (Remembering Nanny)

Three years ago, on the Sunday evening of this first weekend of April, My Grandmother passed away. She had been in a hospital or hospice bed for the previous 2-3 weeks, mostly sleeping, mostly out of it, mostly waiting to die. My Grandmother, in one way or another, had been waiting to die for just about the last 10 years of her life. My Grandfather had died in 1986, and shortly thereafter my Grandmother was practically coerced into making a rush decision to move out of her own apartment (where she and my Grandpa had lived for as long as I remember) to come live with one of her children, a decision based mostly in fear, justified or not. When she did that, she left most of her sense of independence and control behind, a decision she regretted for years afterward. She came to live at our house first, and during the years she lived here, I developed an even stronger connection and relationship with her than we had had before (which was always good). After she went to live with my Aunt (and Uncle before he died), I would come to visit with her almost every week. Many times we would have a lot to say, talking about the goings-on in the world, or in my life, or in the family, and many times she would share stories from her life. Many times, we would just sit there, often watching TV, with not much to say. But I knew those visits meant a lot to her, as they also meant a lot to me. I have so many childhood memories of my Grandma and Grandpa (Nanny and Papa to us). They would come over to babysit for us while my parents both went to work to support the life we had. They would bring a can of Franco-American Spaghetti over for my lunch, and we would watch Price is Right, followed by an afternoon of soap operas (All My Children, One Life to Live, General Hospital, and "as sands through the hourglass, so are the Days of Our Lives"…). Somewhere in there we would usually find time to play a game of cards, like War, or Go Fish…

That last weekend of her life, I had gone to Grand Rapids for Calvin's Faith & Music Festival. It was a long, good, and tiring weekend, with not much sleep to be had. My Grandmother was in my thoughts the whole time though, wondering if she would still be there when I got back, reminded not only by my thoughts, but also by the passing of the Pope that very same weekend. And she did hold on. She waited for me to get back, waited for me to say goodbye, to be there like I always hoped I could be in that moment. I drove the 3 hours back in the early evening alongside my close friend Carrie, who had driven out there separately for the festival as well. We were talking on the phone, planning on watching another Sopranos DVD that evening after we got back, debating whether we even had the energy to do so. When I was literally 2 miles away from the exit that would take me home, my dad called (with no idea where I was in my journey home) to tell me that they were still at the hospice, my parents and my aunt, that my grandmother was having a pretty bad day. I asked him if I should come over there (the hospice was literally one exit past mine. I was no more than 5 minutes away when he called after being 3 hours away all weekend). He said no, probably not, he'd call me if anything happened. After a moment's weary decision, I called my friend back to tell her I wouldn't be coming over for Sopranos night after all, and I headed for the hospice instead.

I walk into the room in which she lays, and my mother falls into my arms in grief, wracked with tears, watching her mother struggle for breath on her death bed…"Go to her, let her know that you're here. Maybe she'll be ok then…"

On the bed you lay, looking at me, maybe not seeing, but suffering, your breathing quick and rattled. I could already hear it when I walked toward your room. A death rattle has caught in your throat. You are dying before our eyes, your rosary wrapped around your hand. Can you feel it? Do you pray now? Or do you just struggle for an elusive breath? Can you feel my hands holding yours? Can you see me looking deep into your eyes, hoping for a glimpse of your soul? Occasionally you mouth words to me, you seem to be saying "help me". But the only help I can offer is all I am offering right now, just to be here by your side. I will share one more hour with you, and that is all we are given…

I am aware that these are your last moments, and instead of only being there with tears and grief, I remember to smile. and I know that you do see me, for I will never forget the smile you return to me. this is a better way to say goodbye. this is a better moment for both of us to remember...

Leaning back, I wonder how much longer this can go on. How long, oh Lord, will you torture her like this? Have Mercy on her, have Mercy oh Lord. Please have Mercy… It's all I really know how to pray. I lean back because I am tired. I lean back, not knowing how long we will be here with you, wondering how much I can take. I haven't slept for days. None of us here have.

It was only 2 weeks ago that I was praying a very different kind of prayer...after visiting for hours with you by your hospital bed, just sitting there, helplessly watching your withered body lay there uncomprehending and confused and wasting away, old and wrinkled and all the vitality drained away to leave this helpless suffering shell. I went out to my car in tears and I screamed at God in anger and disgust and horror stricken grief...I called him a sick fuck, that this is what he is "pleased" to bring us to after a life too short, that this is what he would bring my grandmother down to in her final days after her lifetime of devotion to him, what the fuck is he trying to prove?...and to this day, I don't know if that was blasphemy, or one of the most honest prayers I could have prayed...

Perhaps in some horrible, twisted way, the suffering of the dying is for the sake of loved ones still alive, so that instead of wondering "how could this be?" at the sudden death in the midst of a healthy life, we accept that "this must be" and we are ready for it to be over. It is a sick slight-of-hand trick on God's part, causing us to accept what should never be accepted...

I am here now, and your daughters are here too. Two daughters that have been with you, by your side, caring for you (for years now), praying for you, keeping vigil all day long. They are here now, and we will share this moment with you. You will not die alone, and for that I am grateful, for the strange perfect timing that brought me here to be with you right now...

I hold your hand, and I don't know what to say to you in this final moment with you, this last chance I will have to tell you anything I have to tell you, to say whatever it is I will wish I had said to you after you are gone. And I don't know what to say. "I love you…put your trust in God now". That's all I know how…

As we sit there with you, a loud growl comes from you suddenly, like you are giving it all to clear out that monster in your throat. And again. And then your chest slows its pace, it stops, but your heart beats on. And then a gasp for air…and still again. Looking off into the distance, do you see anything at all? You are still, and your heart beats on…Another gasp, involuntary, and you are still. The pulse, slows. It will come to a stop. And I wonder, is your mind the last to go, and how could we tell, and would you know?
Goodbye, Grandmother…

Goodbye, Nanny. Goodbye mother and father and sister and brother. Goodbye me. For you are now where one day I will be. You are now where one day all too soon we all will be, gasping for air, struggling, ending our days and our life. Just a few more days. Months, maybe even years, but moments all too soon. Death walks these halls, and though two others die here this very night, it never gets its fill. It looks to me…I'll get to you later. Or maybe not later…and for now, it is gone. For now it is only right here in the room with us…

I have a picture of you that haunts me now. In it, you are less than half my age, and now at more than twice my age, you are gone…

Birthday girl, sweet sixteen. "Come here, my daughter", your mother said to you, lying in a bed in your home like the one you lay in now, "when you come home from school today, I will have a surprise for you…" And when you come back home later that afternoon, you find your mother is dead. And now you, sweet Veronica, must take care of this family of yours…

You leaned out the window weeks ago and called out "please don't go daddy", but he left all the same, unable to deal with your mother's illness…
From a rooftop he fell, and now they are gone. And now, tonight, you join them. Less than 80 years ago, between then and now, and here you are, dead like them like you never dreamed back then you could be. Like I never dreamed I could be one day too.

…And so I look at that picture again, of you and your friends at an all-night dance marathon, at the height of the roaring 20's (what a time to be alive!)…and I realize it wasn't all fun and games for you even then, even dancing the night away. You needed the money they were playing for. You needed to win to do what you could to take care of your home…What I wouldn't give to have known you back then. The 20's. What a time to be alive…what a hard, hard time to be alive…

When Dawn
then Dusk
and Darkened Sky
exchange their hue
for one last time
if all we've said
is just Goodbye
with one last day
to live our lives
I'll hold your hand
gaze in your eyes
and pray
a thousand times
'till all we've left
are tears to dry
at daybreak
on the other side