Thursday, October 25, 2018

Why I Write

In a writing workshop recently, I shared a story about how when I told my mentor (Frank Pooler - there are stories/posts here on my blog about him) that I was writing a blog, his response was "What on earth for?" It took me aback, as I hadn't really thought about it. But I knew I wanted to write, be a better writer, so this seemed like a good medium to do that. It's not that I feel that my thoughts or musings are that important, it's that I want to be better. I want to be a better human, a better musician, a better man, a better husband, a better pet owner, a better artist, a better American,... and a better writer. Working on the last one moves me farther down the path of all the former.

Today, a woman replied to one of my posts on Facebook with "Seems like you want everyone to agree with you." No, I replied, that's not true. But I do hope that we can agree on some things: civility, love, kindness and compassion should rule all of our decisions. I also have held some strong beliefs over the years that have guided me: being educated is better than not; being empathetic is better than being un-empathetic, etc. And most of all: the truth is better than a lie.

That last one is the most important to me. Honesty is my plum line. If I feel someone is being dishonest with me, or if I know they are, I feel a sense of betrayal that I often cannot overcome. Sometimes it's clear dishonesty, such as when a friend once said "never tell people the truth, tell them what they want to hear." (That person is now out of my life.) Sometimes, though, it's a much subtler form of dishonesty, one that might even be a person being dishonest with themselves, rather than me.

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So when I get to the comment "seems like you want everyone to agree with you," I take stock: do I? What is that I want? Why do I post things? Why do I write?

The truth is that I post a lot of political commentary on social media. I don't expect everyone to agree with me, although I hope that the articles I post will be enlightening to someone. I certainly have no illusions, however. I take care not to post memes (which are usually out of context and/or misleading) and not re-post articles from clearly biased sites. Fox News, MSNBC, The Daily Caller, ShareBlue are too far from the center to bother with. (I know that a lot of people would disagree with some of the sites I think are fair, even calling some "fake news," so I won't mention them here to avoid getting off track.)

But at the end of the day, I keep going back to those core beliefs I have: civility, love, kindness and compassion should rule all of our decisions; being educated is better than not; being empathetic is better than being un-empathetic. Honesty above all else.

So, yes, I believe that the Trump administration is inept, corrupt and dangerous to the core, and that the GOP is complicit in the ills that he is inflicting on us. I believe that because I saw Trump as the con man he is WELL before he rode down that fucking escalator. That others didn't see it, or chose not to look at it, shocks me still to this day. That some people STILL choose not to see it is dumb-founding.

For now and on this topic, this is why I write: because I want to practice being a better American. I can't be a better American if I don't at least attempt to make the case for honesty, civility, kindness, empathy and the rule of law. If you don't want those things or if you can't see what's happening, that's on you.

Monday, October 16, 2017

To All the Women Who Said "Me, Too"

The last few days, the proliferation of "me too" posts on FB and Twitter has been staggering. One of my beliefs has always been that men are pigs, but... holy shit. The math of the "me too" revelations is staggering. It means that a man I know, or multiple men I know, are guilty of the harrassment, groping - or even rape - of women.

I have known men who were probably guilty of all of the above (short of rape,... I think). In every case, I have distanced myself from them. I recently had a discussion with a good friend over a series of comments about going out with "the boys" on a day last winter when it was raining cats and dogs. I said I'd stay home, and the comments I got back were of the "what a pussy" and "ask your husband if you can go" variety.

I'd seen these before. But this time was different. I told my friends that I would not be going, that the safety and health of my wife was more important. Furthermore I said that I didn't appreciate the negativity toward anything feminine. I explained that I owed my entire life to the women in my midst: my birth mother, my adoptive mother, her sister - my Aunt Jean, the first pastor who changed me, Mary Ellen Kilsby, ...and my wife, Lynda, who has more strength and courage than any man I have ever met. To his credit, my friend understood and agreed.

So, as I watch these protests against the patriarchical BS that has destroyed so many lives, I feel many emotions. I feel anger against the men who have done this. I feel sadness that it has happened and that I couldn't help or didn't realize how bad it was. Mostly I feel compelled to fight for the things that Mary Ellen, my mothers, my aunt, or Lynda would need.

But I'm also scared that I, at any point, unwittingly was part of this. Because of the huge influence of women in my life, I have bent over backward to be good to the women in my life. But all of this makes me wonder, ...what if I failed? What if at some point I enabled a "me too" moment? What if I was part of one? In all honesty, I don't remember a moment where any of that happened. But I am aware, and if at some point it happened before I was aware, then all I can offer is my deepest apologies.

So, then, to the women in my life today, this: I have always been in your corner, because I would not be here but for the women who carried me here. I owe substantially nothing to men, save for my mentor, Frank, but his main influence on me was artistic. I have no illusions about his relationships with women.

I say not "me too", but that I stand beside every one who has said that. But for you and your sisters, I would be nothing.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

On "Senseless" Violence

I keep seeing politicians and journalists using the phrase "senseless" violence. Today it hit me that part of our problem is exactly that. We somehow decry violence like that which happened on Sunday in Las Vegas as "senseless", when in reality, we need to just admit that we are a very violent society and it is precisely the attitude towards "accepted" violence (as an antonym to whatever "senseless" means in this case) that has brought us to this place.

Is there ever such a thing as "senseful" violence? So are we saying that some acts of violence (war, maybe? self-defense?) are OK in the eyes of society, but "nah, we gotta draw a line somewhere, bruh"? We worship football and our soldiers, and shrug our shoulders when police kill citizens.

It seems to me that all violence is a symptom of failure. When violence occurs, it is because there has been a breakdown in the communication and understanding prior to that point. Violence occurs when something is broken or damaged. Maybe it's something that could have been prevented with conversation, or intervention in mental health issues. The guy who killed in Vegas, everyone is saying that "he seemed so normal." Really? How can that be? Someone else said that he was withdrawn and never spoke. And no one thought that was odd and tried to step in or offer help or friendship? I don't know, I wasn't there and I certainly couldn't know what I would do in their shoes. But certainly society failed him, which is why he in turn failed society in such a spectacularly horrible fashion.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that his friends and family were responsible for the shooting. He owns that alone. But we all are responsible for the ways we fail each other. One of the greatest stories in the Christian tradition is the story of the Good Samaritan. And yet "christians" time and time again walk on by on the other side of the road. "It's someone else's problem." "He seemed normal enough to me."

Every time a shooting occurs in our country - every, single, time - it is a failure on all of us. We have failed each other. And until we step up and take responsibility for each other, we will continue to do so.  And there will be more killings, more "worst mass shooting in US history", more Columbines, Sandy Hooks and Pulse nightclubs. Gun control is part of the solution, but not the only one.

The only thing that is senseless is us.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Some Days Define "Life is Hard."

When you reach a certain age, you recognize that the cliche "life is hard" is not really a cliche, but actually is a truism. On a daily basis there are things that challenge the notion that everything is OK, that look you in the face and tell you to kneel over in pain, because of this, that or the other.

And then there are days like today, which are a thousand times worse.

One of my musical guides died today suddenly. And that was only the second worst news of the day - by far - as we learned what happened in Las Vegas, where my wife and her friends had been partying on Friday night, a matter of yards away from the horror of Sunday night.

And I found out the news on Monday morning, the day after attending the joyous music festival envisioned by my late friend Joshua Fischel, Music Tastes Good.

...and then the mind says, "it could have been us. It could have been Lynda, staying an extra day, it could have been both of us and all our friends here in Long Beach had the lunatic chosen our music festival instead.  It could have been my five friends that were there in Las Vegas at that festival, but who escaped unharmed, it could have been them."

Yes, to all of that.
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But Tom Petty died today, of what appears at the moment to be a cardiac incident (although I add that when rock and rollers are concerned, you shudder when the autopsy report is released days later. Nothing is certain.) But what we do know is that his death was not expected. And of course, all those who died in Las Vegas were ENORMOUSLY unexpected.

But does anybody expect it? I'm not saying this to be morbid, or to alleviate the horror of what happened in Vegas or pretend the shock about another music hero dying. There is no alleviating any of that. (I'll come back to Vegas in a moment.) I'm only saying it to point out that, not only is life hard, it's short. Way too short. We know this, all of us. Sometimes the reminders are hard and painful and cause you to double over in horror.

A man yesterday chose, yet again, to pull out a gun to alleviate some sort of pain he had and use it to make himself feel better for a moment, more powerful, more in control. That he chose to do so in a way that ended the lives of 58 people (or more) and cause suffering for thousands means that his death and his entire life was in vain. It was for naught. At the end of his life in that hotel room, there was no glory or light. There was only darkness.
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And then there was Tom Petty. I listened to his music from the throes of adolescence in the back seat of my friend's cars all the way until a few weeks ago. His music filled me - filled all of us - with joy, with longing, with wonder. I remember, after 9/11, hearing TP sing "I Won't Back Down" on that telethon that followed and marveling at how the song that he had written years earlier had so much relevance to that pain, and that helped a nation get back on its feet. And I understood so much more deeply that night that a songwriter is there to provide hope, solace, joy, when it is most needed.
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Which brings me to Las Vegas and Sunday night. I'm going to be blunt: I think the election of Trump was the death knell of our country. We were sorely lacking in a way to fix our societal ills before he was elected, and I fear we lost our last chance to do so. Instead, we elected a narcisstic attention whore who has no intention, knowledge or desire to lead.

And let's be honest: when 23 school children were killed in 2013 at Sandy Hook, and WE DID NOTHING to address our assinine gun laws, the writing was on the walls. There is absolutely ZERO chance that Trump, McConnell, Ryan or any of the rest of dipshits in DC will do anything about what happened in Las Vegas. We are screwed.
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So, what now?

We fight where we can, we win what goals we can, and we never surrender our nation. We hope that the only functional branch of government left - the judicial - will save us before RBG dies. We insist on the ideals, principles and morals of the American Idea, and hope that enough people on the other side finally begin to see the light. (The guitar player for one of the bands last night posted that he has changed his mind on gun control after yesterday. Let's pray that a lot of other people did, too.)

And we follow the principles of the lights that went before us. Honor their ideals, principles and morals.

I, for one, "I won't back down. I'm gonna stand my ground."

Friday, March 31, 2017

Dreams of Writing, a Conversation with Andrew Sullivan. ...sort of.

I had a dream last night that I ran into Andrew Sullivan at a bookstore, and he and I had a deep conversation. (There was a third person with us, who kept changing identities, but all of the identities were people who I know that have some layer of illusion in their lives.) We talked a bit about his years at Oxford, and eventually we got to the topic of the election last year and the state of our country.

I told him that I've only had one real take away from it all so far, and that is that I have come to re-evaluate humanity, not necessarily our politics. As I scratched the fur on his trademark beagle sidekick, I said that I downgraded my estimation of where we are a species in our spiritual evolution. As the third person in the conversation changed to someone I know very well whose illusions run very deep, I woke up.

When I started this blog, Frank asked me aloud, "why?"  (If you don't know who Frank was, scroll down and read some of my older posts from January 2013.)  He chuckled at the seeming narcissism of writing a blog. "Who will read it?" he asked, and "what is the point?"  I answered that I felt it was mostly about the practice of writing and honing your thoughts. Whether anyone read it was probably less important.

I've fallen out of practice. And I think the appearance of such a noted blogger as Sullivan in my dreams, someone who helped shaped my current outlook on life, society, culture and politics, is my subconscious telling me that I need to keep doing it. I need to do it for me, not for any mythical person who might read it. (Read on, unicorn.)

So, I'm back.  Thanks, Andrew.


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas

Christmas and I have a complicated relationship. Certainly, I have great memories of Christmas when I was a child: my drum set which started me on my musical trajectory, all of those years of great childhood toys. There are those hideous silver Christmas trees that I remember, the revolving light that shone different colors on the tree, all of the family meals, casseroles and the family.  I remember Christmases with Mom, Dad, Aunt Jean, my grandparents, my great aunt and uncles...

Of course, they're all gone now. Part of the complicated relationship with Christmas is that it reminds me of all of those people who are no longer here to celebrate it with me. Even my mentor Frank, who wrapped all of his gifts to me over the years in aluminum foil (an endearing quirk that I recall fondly every time I seal a leftover dish), is seared in my Christmas memory.

In the early 90's, my ex and I bought some pieces of Dickens Village houses to decorate with. We ended up giving some even nicer pieces to my Aunt. A few years back, she gave me the last of her pieces, and she passed away three years ago. All that I had bought with my ex, either for us or for my aunt, now was back with me. For a year or two, I put the pieces up with hesitance. Too many memories. And that's part of the rub, too. Christmas is about great memories, but as you get older, the tough memories are intertwined with them.

The biggest part of the complicated relationship, though, is the work. I have worked at a church on Christmas Eve since 1985, by my recollection. Since church musicians start rehearsing Christmas music in October (I'll be charitable), that is 30 years times three months, or 90 months of singing Christmas music. It's exhausting. I'm sorry, folks, but I am definitely NOT one who gets excited at the first sound of carols. In fact, they make me groan. But I soldier on because, well, it's my job.

.........

This year Lynda wanted to replace the tree with a ladder. ...yes, a ladder. Her logic (which is correct) is that our new home has no place that we can put a tree. It's sort of true, although we could move the cat post or the plant stand in the corner to make it work if we really wanted to have a tree. But her imagination pictured an old stepladder with boards across the steps, covered in green carpet, with the Dickens Village pieces covering it. Wrap it in lights, and it looks like a tree! she says. Well, here it is.


I resisted. In fact, I was kind of a pain in the ass the night it went up. But I went along, knowing that the bulk of my resistance was because Christmas exhausts me because, ...you know, the whole job thing. So tonight, I'm looking at it again.

And realizing it is beautiful. And it is a perfect representation of what Christmas has become. It is not what it was supposed to be when I was a kid: a tree. But it's sort of like a tree; it kind of looks the same. And it has the trimmings that have memories: lights, Dickens Village pieces that have followed me around these many years, including some that my aunt held.

But the ladder is old. It is stained with paint, and a little weak in the joints. The wood is weathered and gray.

It is me.  And those lights and pieces from my memory make it beautiful, give it a sense of being something greater than itself. It's not a borrowed ladder; it's a beautiful Terraced Christmas Village, complete with lights and little Dickens carolers.

Today, Lynda's granddaughter and I played with the carolers on the ladder, visiting the houses, delivering "presents", and pretending that it was a Christmas village.

Merry Christmas, Andie. I hope one day this memory carries you through a Christmas that you need a little help through. You did it for me today.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Pastors and Musicians

Whenever I've been asked by a parent "should my child be a musician when he/she graduates from high school?" my answer is always no. The reasoning is simple: it's a hard way to make a living. Your child will not become a star, the odds are way too long. Even if they figure out how to make a full-time living at it, it will be tough life, full of periods of hand-to-mouth existence.

And the upshot of the reasoning is this: if anyone is going to make a career out of it, it will be the kids who would do it no matter what anyone tells them.

You have to have thick skin. You have to love your art and craft so much that you are willing to spend countless solitary hours practicing it, forgo relationships to pursue it, and perhaps leave home for months on the road living it.  I was luckier than many in this, as I only had a few people directly telling me that I should quit, (although I do remember vividly my mother-in-law asking me one day when I was going to quit following "these pipe dreams.")

The only ones who will succeed are the ones who will do it no matter how many times I, or their parents or friends or family or society, tells them it is worthless.
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Yesterday was the last service and sermon at Grace First for our Senior Pastor, Steve Wirth, who I have worked with and under for ten-and-a-half years.  As I think on the road I have traveled with him serving this congregation, I am struck by the similarities in our chosen fields.  It is arduous and tough (and getting tougher to make a career in) calling that asks you to forgo much in your personal life.

Increasingly, I think the job title 'minister' or 'pastor' is losing its clout in American society today. It used to be that the role of the pastor in small-town America was one of the primary pillars of the community, right along sheriff and mayor.  As mainline churches see their numbers dwindle and the scandals among priests and clergy rock the church (not to mention the appearance of hypocrisy that many younger Americans sense in organized religion), the importance of the position in our communities has lessened.

But it is, like a musician, a career that requires not just a decision, but a sense of call.  It requires a feeling that I am made to do this, and nothing the world or family or friends tells me will change me from that path.  It requires hours, week after week, spent honing a sermon in privacy, just as a musician spends hours practicing those scales.  It requires you to pick up your family and go where the call comes from.

In my nearly 30 years in music ministry, I have been very fortunate to work alongside some very good pastors.  In particular, Mary Ellen Kilsby taught me how to care for your staff and congregation, and lead through loving example.  Steve's example has been a different one.  He leads through a quiet sense of confidence, and by listening to all of those around him and trying to build consensus.  While other pastors might have had more temporary success barging into a room and screaming "this is how we are going to do this!", Mary Ellen and Steve built long-term success by encouraging all of the people around them to grow and become leaders and creative thinkers and problem-solvers.

I think Mary Ellen had an easier job in this, in retrospect.  She had a congregation that already had a large contingent of movers and shakers.  When she led First Congregational into the Open and Affirming waters, she attracted some of the best young minds and hearts in the city to the church, people that included, CEO's, corporate Presidents, Deans and Professors, Doctors and Artistic Directors, many of whom (but not all) were gay or lesbian. FCC was one of the founding churches in Long Beach, built out of brick and mortar downtown.  It survived the 1933 earthquake and calls itself "a tower of faith in the heart of the city." When Mary Ellen led the church through an earthquake retrofit, it literally became a rock.

Steve's job has been tougher.  Grace First is more of a blue-collar congregation in a blue-collar neighborhood, sprouted in the 50's as McDonnell Douglas birthed neighborhood after neighborhood of post-WWII tract homes for assembly line workers, engineers and teachers.  There are certainly movers and shakers in the congregation: bank board chairpersons, business owners, CEO's, etc.  But they are fewer and farther between than what I knew at FCC.  Steve has had to try not only to grow a church, but to change a culture.

But he has done that, as much as he possibly can. By leading through teaching, listening and building consensus, he has set Grace First up to succeed with the new generation of leaders who will come in.  Like Moses and the promised land, he won't be there to see it thrive.  But if the congregation takes its call and learns to lead, to find new ministries and new places/ways for service, then it will thrive.  And it will have been because of Steve's leadership that it happens.  I do say if, because I think the jury is out still.  There are already calls to cut the budget and go into survival mode (which ironically will be the long-term death knell of Grace First, IMHO.) But the opportunity is there.

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Personally, I am grieving this change.  Not only has Steve been a great boss, he's been a great collaborator.  He's been supportive of all of my ideas and whims, some of which have fallen flat on their face.  But some of them have flown (the Branches, Concert Series, Taste at the Point, etc.) and redefined the church and me.  

Beyond even that, though, not only has he been a great collaborator, he's been a great friend.  He was one of the first persons I spoke to at length when I decided to divorce.  We were at Lake Tahoe for a conference, and that night talking on a bench beside the lake was one of the most healing moments in my life.  He was there at my bachelor party 5 years later, toasting me with my ragtag group of friends: the Deadhead, the comedian, the recluse, the musician/photographer, the habitual chronic liar, the librarian, and the pastor.  He fit right in.  We were the beginning of a bad joke: "This deadhead, librarian, musician and pastor walk into this bar..."

One of the reasons going into music as a career can be so rewarding is that you know - even if you don't get to see it tangibly every day - that you are making a positive difference in peoples' lives.  That is the other area where the Pastor and the musician are alike.  No matter what happens in the remainder of Steve's career and life, the people of this church and this community have been forever and irrevocably changed for the better.  Steve will say it is because it was the love and justice of Jesus Christ working through him that changed their lives, to which I can nod my head. But in truth, I think it had a lot more to do with him than he will ever know.

Godspeed, Pastor Steve. I will be forever grateful for the lessons you taught me and the support you showed me. My life is forever and irrevocably changed because of you. 

To my friend, Steve: I'm going to miss the hell out of you.  Let me know when you are in town, and let's go get a beer...