Some are born to sing the blues

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I can’t sing a lick, as I’m told quite often. But my daughter has a gift with her voice. She’s going to school to train her voice, and it’s not easy to get in a full day of schooling and still do that, as well. But we have to play the hand we’re dealt in life, and play to our strengths whenever possible. I’m so proud of her.

Life imitating Art

The death of David Bowie has continued to resonate with me this week. And an example of this came from an everyday incident that turned into a haunting encounter with his music in a Chicago cemetery.

I was driving south on Western Avenue yesterday, on my way to pick up my older daughter from play rehearsal. I had a bottle of sparkling water from our garage with me, to drink it along the way. As I pulled up to a red light, I twisted the cap on the bottle and things went dramatically wrong.

The bottle’s contents were in a semi-frozen state from being stored in the garage, and the act of releasing the pressure caused a spray all over the car’s interior. In an instant, I had drenched myself without intending to.

Fortunately, the light I was stopped at on Western Avenue  is the street that leads into Rosehill cemetery, which I’ve written about many times in this space. I decided to pull into the cemetery, get a blanket from the trunk to dry myself off, and use some wipes to clear off the car’s control panel. When the light turned green I signaled for a turn, just as David Bowie’s “Lazarus” came on my iPhone shuffle playlist.

Driving into the cemetery, the initial bars of the music spoke to me. The music is haunting and beautiful, and the wail of the horns reminded me that, like David Bowie, every one of the people who are buried here have already crossed over to the next world, whatever it is.

I remembered why I was there, but only just barely. I parked the car, and got out to witness a 360-degree panorama of death, in some ways similar to the one I had experienced on Halloween just a few month ago. But this time I had a musical accompaniment, and it made things that much more affecting.

Scanning the horizon, I saw graves with inscriptions for people I’ll never know. And I reminded myself, yet again, that my stay on this planet won’t be any more permanent than theirs were. Whether I will get 69 years and two days on Earth like David Bowie did still remains to be seen. But the time will come when I will have to return to the wardrobe, as Bowie does at the end of the Lazarus video.

Do yourself a favor and watch this, if you haven’t already. With 22 million views and counting on You Tube, it’s having quite an impact.

After the song was ended, I cleaned up the mess in the car and on myself that had led me to the cemetery in the first place. I then drove away with a new appreciation for the fleeting nature of life, and the astounding work of art that David Bowie created in his final days. And an understanding of gas trapped inside frozen bottles, as well.

Art, Religion, and David Bowie

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 This is a tale about art and religion, with some David Bowie added in for good measure.

The story begins in a Catholic grammar school during the 1970s and early 1980s. The pastor of my parish was an elderly man who called every boy “Butch” and every girl “Sissy.” The priest’s name will not be used here since–as with most of my recollections–it’s not really germane to anything. But he was the leader of my church, and a figure that everyone in the parish was familiar with.

I never embraced Catholicism very much, and by the time I started high school in the early 1980s, I was going through the motions of going to mass every Sunday morning. I’d routinely find ways to get out of it, usually by claiming to go to Saturday mass instead and then driving around for an hour. My parents always went to mass on Sunday, and we (my brothers and my sister) went with them more often than not.

After I went away to college in the late 1980s, I found that even the pretense of attending mass was no longer necessary, so I stopped going altogether. My break with Catholicism was several years in the making, but by 1987 it was finally done. I became the “recovering Catholic” that I have been ever since.

In the summer of 1988, I attended a screening of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ at the Biograph theater in Chicago. It played in very few cities, and on a very few screens, because of the controversial nature of the book that it was based on. In a nutshell, the movie plays out the story of Jesus’ life, and then adds a twist as he is nailed to the cross. He is offered a chance to live as others do, with a wife and children. And Jesus is shown with Mary Magdalene and a family. And that was more than some were ready to handle, including my old parish priest.

A week after seeing the movie, I went home to visit with my family before classes began again in the fall. And, as per family custom, we all went to mass on Sunday. I hadn’t gone in a long time, but I didn’t want to create a scene by refusing to go, and so I joined in.

The mass was the same old same old until the time came for the priest’s homily, and that’s when it got interesting. It turns out that he had an opinion about the movie, and he wasn’t afraid to share it, either. The very idea that the movie showed Jesus “fantasizing on sex” (an odd phrasing, but one that he kept repeating over and over throughout the sermon) was just too much. It was a reprehensible movie, in his view, and no one in our parish should go and see it.

After years of mass attendance, and hundreds of services, I had finally heard too much. It was obvious to me that the pastor had not seen the movie at all, and had only read or heard about it from someplace else. The very limited release of the film meant that anyone in his parish could not see the movie for themselves, absent a 400-mile round trip to Chicago. And nobody should ever go to those lengths to see a movie.

The movie didn’t show Jesus in the way that the priest was claiming. People might fantasize about something of their own volition, but temptation–as I understand it–comes from an external source. The devil in the movie holds out the possibility of a different life to Jesus, with the hope that he will find this way preferable to dying on the cross. But Jesus rejected Satan’s offer, and at the end of the movie he dies on the cross, instead.

The only difference between Jesus in the movie, and Jesus the way I learned the story in Catholic school, was that the fictional Jesus was tempted, unsuccessfully. The devil’s failure to persuade Jesus to give up his divinity for a domestic life instead was intended to challenge–but ultimately reaffirm–the traditional ideas about Jesus. Roger Ebert understood this, but it was somehow lost on my parish priest. Perhaps this is because Ebert had actually seen the movie in question.

I began writing this piece in the summer of 2013, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the film’s very limited–and very controversial–release in theaters. Something came up on that day, and I saved a draft of what I had written, with the  intention of finishing it off and getting it onto my blog. It wasn’t until the death of David Bowie earlier in the week that I even realized this was still here, languishing in my Drafts folder. And at this point I’d like to pivot to Bowie’s involvement in the movie, in one scene as Pontius Pilate.

Bowie was certainly no stranger to the silver screen, and his list of film roles underlines what a screen presence he really was. I don’t like like writing about him in past tense, either, but that’s the way it has to be now.

So the film’s second-worst character (after the big serpent, of course) was filled by one of the biggest musical stars of the decade. If there was any sense that this could have been a hazardous or toxic role for Bowie’s career as an artist, it didn’t prevent him from brushing them aside and taking the role, anyway. And he nailed the part, playing a Roman official with a gravitas that made you forget about his Ziggy Stardust days and his jumping around with Mick Jagger in the Dancing in the Street video.

Art, such as the Last Temptation novel and the film it was later turned into, has the ability to challenge us, and make us question who we are and what we’re all about. It has the power to change us, if we want to be changed, and the power to reinforce things that we may already know. But art’s ability to do either of these things is limited to our willingness to expose ourselves to it in the first place.

I wouldn’t have allowed a priest to tell me I can’t see a movie, not in 1988 and certainly not today. And if I hadn’t already seen the movie when I heard that ill-informed homily back then, I would have missed an interesting film and a very credible performance from an artist who’s no longer with us. And that would have been very unfortunate, indeed.

David Bowie could do it all: sing, play guitar, write music, act, and look the part of a Roman with a style that nobody else had. Dusting off an old, half-finished idea from long ago and posting it online is a humble tribute to him, but one that I’m still very glad to offer here.

Art has always been made, and will always be made, and Bowie’s role in this process is worth remembering and emulating, whenever possible.

 

On Dreams We Will Depend

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Nothing says “summer” to me musically like Van Halen’s 5150 album. I turned 18 in the summer of 1986, and was determined to enjoy one last summer before going away to college. I bagged groceries by day, drank whatever I could get my hands on by night, and listened to the fusion of Sammy Hagar and Van Halen whenever I could. Life was as good as I had ever known it to be.

Many years have gone by since then, but hearing the songs on that album–my copy at the time was a tape I had recorded from the radio station that played it all the way through on air–takes me back to that time in my life. So when I received an iTunes gift card for my birthday this summer, I first used it to address a hole in my digital music collection by downloading a copy of 5150.

The technology that now allows for cars and phones to sync with each other is far beyond what was available back in 1986. So I discovered, while driving a rental car around on Cape Cod this summer, that I could put on “Summer Nights” or “Good Enough” or any other track from the album on whenever I wanted to. Driving around the Cape is fun enough to begin with, but also being able to time warp back to the summer when life was stretching out before me was an added treat.

On June 26–the day the Supreme Court ruled that everyone had a right to get married to the person they love, regardless of their gender–I was working on a laptop computer in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. I received a text indicating that my family had made their way to a beach in nearby Truro, and inviting me to come and join them. It was nearing lunchtime, so I hopped in the car, headed toward Route 6, and turned on my music of choice. The first song to come on was “Dreams,” which happens to be my favorite song on the album.

As I drove along the highway on that beautiful summer’s day, I thought of all the dreams that had been granted on that day. For far too long, people had been wrongly denied the right to enter into a legal and (if you want) religious agreement with the person they love the most. Is it any of our business what gender that person happens to be? I don’t think so, and neither did a majority of the Supreme Court.

Growing up in the 80s as I did, many of my associations with the songs of that era are from the videos that were made for MTV. The “Dreams” video I linked to above makes it all but impossible for me to hear the song and not think of the Blue Angels. But on a sunny Friday afternoon, driving down the highway from Wellfleet to Truro with this song on the car radio and a new and improved America on the horizon, I think I may have found a competing image for this song.

That’s what love is made of……

NOTE: This is the second in my series of attempts to clear out my WordPress Drafts folder. I started this post in late June of 2015, and am completing it on August 16, roughly seven weeks later. I still have a backlog of fifty or so unfinished thoughts in the Drafts folder, and will bring as many of them as I can to fruition in the days and weeks ahead.

Running away from me

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My little one was in a hurry to get back to the ranger station and get a plastic junior ranger badge. It wasn’t anything more meaningful than that.

Even so, it felt like a metaphor of some kind. Like her youth is getting further and further away. And when that happens –as I know it must–it makes me very sad.

I first came to the Smoky Mountains when I was about her age. And I hope she comes back someday, with her own kids. But for now, I’ll just enjoy my time with her as much as I can. That’s all there is to do.

UPDATE: This was first written in the fall of 2014, and not recovered again in my Drafts folder until the summer of 2015. I lost the image I wanted to use for this when I switched cellphones in late 2014. The picture above is from an April, 2015 trip to California (Monterey, if anyone really wants to know). But perhaps not surprisingly, the feelings that inspired this draft ten months ago in the Smoky Mountains are still just as strong today, and perhaps even a bit stronger than before. I suppose that feeling isn’t going to go away.

The Summer of Crocs

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Looking at this picture is always going to make me smile. The two girls in it are a long way from wearing Crocs anymore, but they’re still good friends who will be there for each other as their lives continue to unfold. And that’s the best feeling there is. 

Spending an afternoon with my mom

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There’s a scene from Good Will Hunting that has stayed with me, more so than the remainder of the movie. In the scene, the Minnie Driver character says that she would trade all of the money she has to spend another day with her dead father. And the reason she would is because once somebody is gone, there’s no way of bringing them back. So enjoy your loved ones while you still can.

My mom was 21 years old when I was born. At an age when I was still finishing up college and enjoying the carefree (as in, child-free) days of my early 20s, my mom didn’t have that. She had me and my sister and two brothers to contend with. Not that it was an actual competition, but she had demands on her time and resources that I can’t imagine. And she did a great job of raising us, I have to say.

I’m very pleased to report that she’s still with us today. I get to enjoy spending time with her while she’s still young enough to get around without a wheelchair or a walker. And we did exactly that a week ago, for the funeral reenactment of Abraham Lincoln. It was six hours in the car to spend four or five hours with the woman who did so much for me back when I was unable–and sometimes unwilling–to appreciate what that meant. It was a trade that I was glad to make.

I know that my mom reads my blog. So in a sense, I’m writing to her knowing that she will see it and probably get emotional. I’m getting emotional writing it, myself. But on the off chance that anybody else ever finds this online, here’s a picture and a story about my mom. She, like all mothers, loved her children and didn’t get nearly enough in return for her emotional and financial investments through the years. This is a humble attempt to repay a debt that can never be fully squared. And I’m very pleased to still have the opportunity to make payments on this account.

No rain, No rainbows

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I don’t like rainy days, and I don’t think anybody does. I’m sure that some people prefer the rain, but like most people I’d rather have some sunshine, instead.

I was recently in California with my family on vacation. It’s a land of unspeakable beauty, and I envy the people who are lucky enough to live there. But they’re also in the midst of a drought that is threatening to change many things. Water is a precious resource, and if the rains aren’t falling, that’s not good.

There’s a saying in Hawaii that I added as the title for this post. It means that if you want good and beautiful things, you need to put up with the unpleasant things first. If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding. Something like that.

There was a tiny little bit of rain that fell when we were in Monterey, in the middle part of our trip. California needs more rain than what fell that day, but the end result was a tiny little sliver of a rainbow that emerged as my daughter was doing gymnastic flips on the beach near Cannery Row. And the wisdom of the Hawaiians hit me all over again. The rainbow was an added bonus that made an Incredibly lovely place even more so.

I wish many more rainbows for California in the days and months ahead. They will beautify the state, of course, but they desperately need what causes them, too.

Like a trip to the past

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When cleaning out my garage today, I came upon a cheap little portable table that has been sitting around unused for many years. A hole in the umbrella awning, and a considerable amount of rust to the table, convinced me that it was time to let it go. Wheeling it out to the alley was not easy, though. It rolled just fine, but the younger man that I was when the table was purchased didn’t want to part with a family artifact.

There were several good days once, when the weather was nice outside and we decided to enjoy a meal together out on the patio. I knew those days were fleeting, and as a result I made sure to enjoy them as much as I could. But today I said goodbye to a tangible reminder of this history.

I knew it wouldn’t be long before some came down the alley and claimed the table as their own, so I dashed back inside to get my camera and take a picture first. And sure enough, within five minutes after the picture was taken it was gone.

While my family has grown older through the years, the clothes we once wore and the table we once used and the soccer ball we once kicked around in the park have remained as they always were. Parting with these things is not easy, but so long as the memories they evoke remain in our hearts, that can never be a bad thing.