The Coronavirus and Friendship

In recent weeks, many people have been losing friends, questioning their friends’ morals, or finding their friendships strained because friends are taking social distancing less seriously than they are.

“Friends Are Breaking Up Over Social Distancing”
Ashley Fetters, The Atlantic, April 2020

The excellent Atlantic article quoted above is about how people are ending friendships over differences in attitudes regarding the pandemic and social distancing and how to avoid it. It’s well-written and worth the read. As I was reading through it, I thought of my own friends and family and it got me wondering why this is happening, and what, if anything, we can do about it. What matters, and what doesn’t?

The last two months have been a lesson in human nature. This novel coronavirus is hitting our humanity. There is a lot that is unknown about this virus, and we humans freak out about the unknown. And we freak out differently.

Social distancing is a pretty simple concept. If we stay away from each other, the virus can’t spread, and if it can’t spread, then eventually the virus will abate. Social distancing is the method we in America have decided will slow the growth of the number of cases and will give us a fighting chance to find treatments and eventually find a vaccine.

Everyone values social distancing differently. I have friends who are hunkered up at home, getting stuff delivered, and who do not go out at all. Personally, I shop for things we need and I wear a mask and try to stay away from people, and I wash my hands and have hand-sanitizer at the ready. But I have friends who poo-poo this whole thing, do not do any social distancing, and get together for social activities, despite stay-at-home orders. The Atlantic article addresses these differences in attitudes toward social distancing and how it can end friendships.

There is a factor that I believe makes these differences more perilous: we are not seeing our friends in person. We may talk on the phone, or even from time to time put together Zoom meetings, but more likely we are interacting on social media and/or chat programs. We try to understand each other and try to get others to understand our points of view, but we are not doing it in person. We are not talking to each other. We are looking at flickering letters on a screen with an occasional picture. We are isolated.

We are human. We are meant to be together, in person. We go to coffeeshops or restaurants by ourselves just to be with people, even people we don’t know, even if we are introverts. When we are with friends, we can have conversations, or we can watch a movie or concert, or just hang out. If we have conversations, they are less important than just the fact of being together.

And when we do have conversations, the conversations are immediate. We don’t just talk; rather, we see, we “read the room,” we are aware of body language and tone, and we see all these social cues because we are together. Tempers may flair on controversial topics, but we see this happening in real time, and we generally know when to back off and change the subject: “how about those Dodgers, eh?” A blown-up discussion can be diffused, and the clouds clear. Because we are together and because we are friends and we love each other, even when we disagree. It’s not about the conversation. It’s about being together, and about being friends.

No two people will agree on everything. Add more people to the mix, and the areas of agreement become fewer and fewer. This is life. This is human nature. Some disagreements are minor, such as whether pineapple belongs on a pizza. Some are fundamental, such as whether or not God exists. Friendship transcends these differences – it must, because no one agrees completely with anyone else.

Friendship endures because people are not their opinions. Opinions and beliefs can change over time as you live your life. You may find that, hey! Pineapple is not so bad. Or that, yes, you can make barbecue with beef as well as pork. Or that the death penalty may not be such a great idea. If you change your mind are you a different person? No. If anything, you are more complete. Or perhaps more jaded. But you are still fundamentally you.

A person is a soul put on this earth to try to get along and do the best he or she can, trying to do good in a world that’s hard to know what doing good is. Everyone is imperfect and is imperfectly dealing with life’s trials and struggles. Life goes on with its tragedies and victories, and we in our imperfections do what we can to do the best we can. Every person is on their own epic journey. Each person’s journey is worthy of a novel.

I believe that when you come across someone and get to know their core goodness, that person can become a friend regardless of superficial beliefs or opinions. You recognize the genuineness of their soul, and that’s what matters. Friendship is therefore honoring and respecting your friends’ souls, regardless of their opinions or beliefs.

Enter social media and enter the isolation in which social media puts us. Social media connects us, but it only does so through words on a screen, intermingled with pictures and memes. Social media gives the appearance of connection, but not the reality of connection. It is a cliché that Facebook and Instagram show the highlight reel of our lives. But it’s true. Even when true grief is shared on social media, real connection is not there. You are not there in person to hold someone who just lost their husband or child. All you can do is type “so sorry for your loss” and press Enter. Words on a flickering screen.

Social media forces us to write. Worse, it forces us to write in short bursts scattershot to a multitude rather than in long letters written to an individual or to a family. Writing is difficult in the best of circumstances when you have the space and time to fully flesh out what you really want to convey. A good writer can capture emotions and convey genuineness and can console a person to the point where it is as if they are in the room with you, consoling you in your grief, and easing your pain. Ninety-nine years ago, William Allen White, the editor of the Emporia Gazette in Emporia, Kansas, wrote an obituary for his young daughter who died in an accident. It is an amazing piece. Here is a father, writing about his daughter who was taken away too soon, and he was able to wring out the grief completely and leave us with hope and love. It’s one of my favorite pieces of literature. The singer and songwriter John Prine died just a few weeks ago, taken by COVID-19, and his death hit me hard. And yet a song he wrote called “When I Get to Heaven” made my own grief easier to bear. I can see him up there smoking his nine-mile-long cigarette, and it makes me smile. William Allen White and John Prine are writers, and as writers, they can take the insane complexity of humanity and put it into words. They are exceptional because they could write so well.

However, most people are not writers. And yet social media forces us to write, and worse, to write in small tweet-sized bursts. It is impossible to convey humanity and connection in tweet-sized bursts.

And now we are confronted with existential problems none of us have seen in our lifetimes. We are enduring events that have changed our lives in an incredibly short period of time. Over a million and a half people in this country have been sickened by a disease that we didn’t even know existed at the beginning of the year. As of this writing, one hundred thousand people have perished in the United States, a third of a million world-wide, all in just a few months. Because we have to fight this disease, over thirty-eight million people in the US have lost their jobs just in the last two months. Thirty-eight million! That is unbelievable. And in this period of true human suffering, because this disease spreads easily by human physical contact, we have been asked to stay apart from each other. To be isolated. To stay home, stay out of school and out of work, stay away from parks, from theaters, sports events, and even from our friends’ houses. Even from our loved-ones’ funerals.

We humans need physical, in-person, interaction. Even introverts like myself are missing real connection with people in person. This virus is forcing us to stop doing what we as humans must do: to be together. And this change happened in a flash.

We, as the human race collectively, do not have the full picture of exactly what this virus is and will do. We don’t know exactly how it spreads. We don’t know if someone who recovers is now immune. We don’t know if we can make a vaccine for it, and if we can, when it will be available. We don’t know exactly how to treat COVID-19. Experts who dedicated their lives to epidemiology and virology and emergency medicine do not yet have a handle on this, and that creates a huge gap of knowledge that we humans cannot tolerate. We need to know, and we need to know now! But we don’t know, and because we don’t know, we are prone to grasping at straws. And there are people who just love to provide those straws, even if they have to invent them. What we do know is, we are all affected by this, and we want it to stop.

While we are all facing this existential threat, we are all affected in different ways. The coronavirus is the root of this threat, but it spawns existential threats of its own: Isolation and lack of connection. Uncertainty. Conflicting messages. Loss of income and property. Loss of businesses, some of which will never reopen. Doubt about how it’s being addressed by society and the government. The daily increase of the number of people who died. This thing is hitting us from all sides, and it’s hitting us at our core values. We end up having different opinions about which type of hit is worse.

Except in cases of sociopathy, no one wants people to be sick or die. No one wants people to be out of work, or to lose their livelihood, or their home. Or their sanity. No one is trying to make a case for evil – certainly not our friends. Each of our friends wants to do the right thing, and address this in the best way they can. Each of us is operating on the data we have. Each of us is experiencing our own level of pain and desperation. And we will disagree on these existential threats that are unprecedented in our lifetimes, and which are hurting us now.

Because we can’t be together physically, we can’t do what we would normally do to work this out: argue at the dinner table, argue at the pub or cigar lounge or coffee shop, or argue in the public square. We can’t hug it out. We can’t even fight it out. Our human strength of working things out in person is not available to us. Even those people who are protesting stay-at-home orders in public aren’t working it out in public. The people they need to work it out with are at home. We are isolated from each other. Isolation, uncertainty, and the real threat to our lives are making us crazy, some of us more than others.

We try in earnest to figure out what is going on, to fill in the gaps, to find a way to get through this, and to disseminate what we think are the best ways to get us back on track. And we can’t do it in person.

What are we left with? Social media. Where we as mostly non-writers are trying to work out core-value fears in texts, tweets, and memes, broadcasted out to the world.

The best writers write thousand-word opinion pieces rather than try to make their points in one hundred and forty characters. Forcing important thoughts into a brief paragraph or meme squeezes out the nuance and complexity of the issue. Our opinions cannot be fully expressed in a tweet. Instead of a post being exactly what we mean, it becomes kinda what we mean – and it can and will miss the mark. It is a shell of what we really believe, because we are complex beings, not paper dolls. This inadequate shell of a post becomes a straw man when someone argues against it, to the point where we argue past each other, leaving us to struggle to explain what we really meant, sometimes to people we don’t even know. We are all arguing from a position of doing the right thing, but we differ on what “doing the right” thing is. We are forced to use small-paragraph bludgeons that are stereotypes of our real opinions to make our points. But our written opinions are incorrect because they are incomplete. To fully complete our opinions requires time, space, and effort, and we don’t do that.

The result of people with passion arguing existential ideas in word bursts online is what we are seeing on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp, etc.: sincere people and an army of trolls, all misunderstanding each other. When we are forced into this mode of communication with our good friends, friends we’ve known for years, who’ve been there for us in times of trouble and triumph, well, we get lost in a tangle of words, and we lose sight of our friends’ humanity, complexity, and genuine soul. And unfortunately, this can result in losing the friend.

I have strong opinions, and my friends have strong opinions, and our opinions can be vastly different. And yet we are friends, because we recognize and respect each other’s genuine soul. We love each other. We’re there for each other. I can say that my friends saved my life. Social distancing and stay-at-home orders have disrupted our being together at a time when there is not one of us who has not been adversely affected by this damned virus. My friends and I are experiencing genuine pain, and/or fear, and/or anger, and we can’t all be together. We can snipe at each other on social media, though. This crisis has taught me that social media is not really social at all.

As I look over the surreal world we have been chucked into just a few weeks ago, and as I look at the shocks we are enduring, the threats to our humanity, and especially at the fact that we are forced to be apart to better our chances of survival, I have to come to one conclusion: we have to refuse to lose each other. We can’t let our being forced apart break us apart. We have to stay human to each other especially now that we can’t share a hug or a handshake. Right now, our friends and our family need us, and we need them. Especially now. We need to give our friends and family a break. Friendship and love are more important and deeper than any disagreement we may have. Be there for them now, and give them a hug when it’s all over.

Our humanity will get us through this.

The Hardest Thing about Growing Older

I listen to a lot of podcasts these days. Even shows that are shows meant for radio, such as most NPR podcasts, are podcast-ified radio shows. “This American Life,” “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” Alex Baldwin’s “Here’s the Thing” are all radio shows that also have a supporting podcast. But I don’t listen to the radio – ever. Sirius-XM is an exception, but even it is not technically radio, isn’t it? It’s satellite, and anyway it is better than radio in my mind because there are no commercials.

I have a set of twenty-seven podcasts I listen to on a regular basis. Twenty-seven! Needless to say there are only a few of those I listen to regularly, and I find that I binge on some for a while, and then move to another. A week’s worth of “This American Life,” followed by a week of “Radio Lab,” followed by, say, Planet Money’s “The Indicator” and “Planet Money” itself. My regulars include the amazing “Revisionist History” by Malcolm Gladwell, “WTF” by Marc Maron, and, since I love cigars, “The Cigar Authority.” I wouldn’t normally name-drop so many podcasts, but I have friends who have asked me which podcasts I listen to, so there’s a few.

I love podcasts. I do a lot of driving, and walking, and working around the ranch, and I am a very curious man, and I love the ideas and thoughts and the takes on life that my little subset of podcasts impart to me.

Pre-podcast, of course, there was really only radio, which I listened to back in the day. The problem with radio shows is that they are on a schedule, and there’s no information about the show when it is on. I’m not into setting my schedule based on when a show is airing, and if you happen to get in the car at, say, 10:15, and you enter a show mid-way, well, you miss the intro, and even what the show is that you are listening to. It just doesn’t work for me. And it leaves me with hearing some interesting facts and insights that I find amazing – but I have no clue who said them, or who the host is, or many times what the name of the show is. While I appreciate the insights, it is frustrating to not have the full picture or context of the conversation.

One such conversation was an interview with Sylvester Stallone that I listened to on the radio about ten years ago, on, what? NPR? Fresh Air? I have no idea. In the interview he was speaking about his career and his life, and he said something that stunned me: “The hardest thing about growing older is saying goodbye to your friends.”

That quote almost stopped my heart. I was not expecting that, especially in a celebrity interview, and not from Sly Stallone. Now Sly is smart and a thinker even though he is known for action movies like Rocky, First Blood, and Judge Dredd, but, I did not expect something as profound as this. When I heard it it rang so true to me that I had to stop listening and just ponder that statement.

“The hardest thing about growing older is saying goodbye to your friends.”

Oh, that is so true. I heard this show shortly after I lost my best friend to a bicycle accident and my step-father to melanoma within a month of each other. I lost two good friends to cancer and another to an enlarged heart a few years before. These were people I loved and laughed with, and who were no longer with us. The quote brought all that into focus, and it became very clear to me: that is indeed the hardest part of growing older.

Bill Cosby was one of my favorite comedians before his scandals ruined it all. But his comedy albums of the 1960s were pure gold, and even now circumstances of life will remind me of some of his great sketches. I remember a sketch where he talked about his grandfather reading the paper. He only read the obituaries: “I wonder who died today?” It was funny of course, but isn’t that true? My parents and my grandparents said the same thing. “Oh, I see Janet passed away. That’s such a shame.” When you are a kid you don’t have any context about this. You don’t know who these people are, and they are (or were) older than dirt anyway, and in youth, death is incredibly far away. In youth, life fills you so much that death is impossible. I think back to when I was a teenager in Los Angeles, and how I would ride my bike down Angeles Crest Highway or Topanga Canyon Boulevard, sans helmet, passing cars, and I think to myself, what the hell was I thinking? Yes. No death. No one dies.

When I was twenty, I was super strong and super healthy. I worked construction and since I had no actual construction skills, I would stock drywall by taking 4×12 sheets two at a time from the front of the job site to the various rooms where they were needed. All day long. I’m sure I could have lifted a Volkswagen if I needed to. At school, I would leap down staircases one flight at a time. It didn’t seem like much at the time, but looking back…

When the soul and the body are young, the soul is clueless and the body is strong. As we grow into adulthood, into middle age, and beyond, our souls get wiser and our bodies wear. Our friendships go from new and sparkly people we just met and love to hang around with to friends we have known for decades and with whom we have weathered storms. Even if we meet someone new (like, say, only five years ago instead of forty-five) these friendships become stronger than in youth because we have decades of common experience.

And then we lose one. We lose two. When a death happens when we’re in our thirties, it’s a fluke – a “Big Chill” moment. Fuck! People die? No! Our mortality becomes real. Then, we lose a good friend to cancer. Or to an accident. My best friend died riding his bicycle down Vermont Avenue just below the Greek Theater – riding helmetless, just as I rode back in the day. Oh, that was hard. I lost my wife, which was almost unendurable. Our lives develop voids. We grow older. We lose more friends. We lose more family. We lose more people. I climbed mountains with my friends. Shot the shit. Got into trouble with them. Worked with them. Went to their weddings. Welcomed their children. Grieved with them when they couldn’t have children. And said goodbye.

My mother is eighty-three. My father, eighty-five. Most of their friends are gone. When we talk, we talk of events that happened long ago. What does that tell us? I’ll tell you what it tells me: the goal is not to ignore the now and try to make it to eighty or one hundred. The goal is to live life now. To take the time to just be, and connect, and enjoy the world you are in and the people you are with now. In the snapshot of time we are in right now, we know and love people who are here right now and who may not be here tomorrow. And to whom we’ll have to say goodbye. Or, if we are first to go, will have to say goodbye to us. I think we should make it a point to say hello hundreds of more times before we have to finally say goodbye. Because saying goodbye is the hardest thing.

The Democratic Party Should Learn from FDR

Democrats should learn and read FDR rather than just ape his program names. FDR’s acceptance speech at the 1936 convention is amazing – and you can see why he was elected to four terms. In this speech, he lays out the case that while we won political freedom in 1776, the then-current fight in 1936 is for economic freedom – and that you can’t have true political freedom without economic freedom.

It’s a long read of course. The speech was half an hour long, short by today’s standards, but way too long for modern political discussion, but if you look at the economic problems we face now brought on by globalization, automation, concentration of economic power, and the resulting transfers of wealth and power from the middle- and lower-classes to the privileged, this speech is spot-on, and should be the playbook for whichever Democratic candidate goes up against the corrupt GOP machine.

Some excerpts:

“Throughout the Nation, opportunity was limited by monopoly. Individual initiative was crushed in the cogs of a great machine. The field open for free business was more and more restricted. Private enterprise, indeed, became too private. It became privileged enterprise, not free enterprise.

“An old English judge once said: “Necessitous men are not free men.” Liberty requires opportunity to make a living-a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.”


“Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.

“These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the Flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the Flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.”

“We are poor indeed if this Nation cannot afford to lift from every recess of American life the dread fear of the unemployed that they are not needed in the world. We cannot afford to accumulate a deficit in the books of human fortitude.

“In the place of the palace of privilege we seek to build a temple out of faith and hope and charity.”

This is FDR laying our his case for his fight against the tyranny of economic privilege. Much of what he tried to do crossed some lines – but he said in response (in this speech):

“Governments can err, Presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales.”

This is greatness.

Double or Nothing?

Today marks two years since Donald Trump became President of the United States of America – and the demarcation date of my over/under on whether he would last two years. Well, despite a remarkable effort to take his own presidency down, a shut-down government, an approval rating that’s in the toilet, etc., etc., etc., he remains in office. Max Boot wrote an excellent summary today of Trump’s two years. As he said in the article, “If Trump has a saving grace, it is that he is so incompetent: A more cunning populist would be far more dangerous.” Thank God for that, at least. It was his incompetence that I thought would bring him down early. My miscalculation was that I didn’t think the GOP, in its wicked thirst for power at all costs, would rally around this jabroni. Having been raised in the Conservative/Libertarian/Constitutionalist tradition, I put way too much faith in the GOP and its purported ideals.

There’s a scene in the movie “Animal House” where Pinto, the character played by Tom Hulce, is contemplating whether or not to have sex with the mayor’s thirteen-year-old daughter. Up pops the “Devil” and “Angel” on his shoulders. The devil, of course, is saying “go for it!” while the angel is counseling to leave her be. Cut to next scene, where he wheels the girl back to her house in a shopping basket. Literally, she’s a basket case. In the end, Pinto makes the right choice.

Not so the GOP. Instead of wheeling basket-case Donnie Trump back to Mar-a-Lago, they jumped fully into bed with him, performing acts that would even make Larry Flint blush. I sincerely thought that the members of the Republican party would remember their ideals, their code, their principles, and their country, and sideline this incompetent loser. But no. As of this writing, we are two days away from a month-long shut-down of the Federal government. We are already experiencing the longest shutdown on record. This is squarely the result of the incompetence of Donald J. Trump. It lands completely on his shoulders.

To show Trump’s incompetence, I only need compare him to a “generic GOP” president – say, either Bush, or a Romney, or even a Ted Cruz. Look back at the two years we just experienced. When Trump was elected, he had both branches of Congress in GOP hands, and he had at least the benefit of the doubt that maybe he may calm down now that he’s in office. In these last two years, he had the votes and the GOP will to lower taxes, cut spending, fix healthcare, fix immigration, fix supposed trade imbalances, to name only a few. His biggest deal at the start was “Repeal and replace Obamacare!” With all the cards in his hand, he blows that one sky high. His only accomplishment was to screw up Obamacare without supplying anything that works at all. Any generic GOP president would have approached this very differently. First of all, they would have had something to replace Obamacare with. The GOP had nothing, and neither did Trump. Once they had the replacement program, the generic GOP president would have sold it. Trump did not sell anything, because he had nothing to sell – and because his heart wasn’t into it in the first place. Rather, he acted as if “Repeal and Replace” was something only the GOP congressmen wanted, so he left it all to them. And of course, he therefore blamed congress for its failure – McCain in particular. But the blame is with Trump, of course. McCain knew there was nothing there, and he ended up being the only GOP member with some shred of principle left.

Trump also unilaterally imposted tariffs on both friend and foe, completely defenestrating the conservative/libertarian hard-won principle of Free Trade. Generic GOP president would never do that. He ponied up to Vladimir Cussing Putin, for God’s sake, while insulting the leaders of our allies! Madone – imagine any Republican president choosing Russia over the CIA and our allies!

Etc., etc., etc. As I write this, it’s easy to move into trying to make the case against Trump, yet again. But really, the case was solid and there before he even was elected. He was never presidential material. Everything since has been the long parade of confirmation of his inadequacy.

Most of my Trump-supporting friends voted for him mainly because they really hated Hilary Clinton. And so just as they were blind to the reality of who Clinton is and was (not as bad as the Nutty Right lied about – pizza parlors indeed!), they were also blind to the reality of who Trump is and was (the lie about the “small” little one million dollar loan from his father, his blatant racism, ad nauseum). The case is made and more people are dropping their blinders every day.

Nonetheless, I was wrong. He is still here. My mistake was that I assumed his incompetence would catch up to him quickly, and that he would fall from grace as a result. I did not count on the GOP propping him up like Bernie Lomax from “Weekend at Bernie’s.”

I knew my “Under” was a pretty high risk, even as I took even-odds for the bet. I will, of course, honor my bet. But I offer double or nothing that Trump will not be president on January 21st, 2021. Any takers?

The Chain of Memory

The mind is an interesting thing. The other day BTO’s “Blue Collar” popped up on my Spotify Discover playlist. This is a song that I love, and I hadn’t heard it in years. The song reminded me of a similar song that my stepfather, Larry Steely, turned me onto and which came out around the same time, in the early ’70s. He had the album. The album name was eponymous, and I remembered the cover was blue, and I remembered the artist was a brother to another known musician. I  remembered the song itself was jazzy, in the mode that “Blue Collar” is jazzy.
But I could not remember the damn album name, the artist’s name, or the freaking song, for the life of me!
At first, I thought it was Edgar Winter’s brother Johnny Winter. So, I looked up Johnny Winter songs and albums, and no joy – not even close. So I thought – who else? Well, Greg Allman – “Allman” – hmm, could be the one. So I looked up to see if it was Duane Allman. So, again, I looked up Duane Allman records and albums. No Joy.
It was bugging me! Who could it be? I tried Googling “albums with blue covers” and saw a whole bunch: Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” of course, and many others. No Joy.
So, I thought, after about a half-hour of futzing around, well, maybe it’s lost forever. Larry passed away twelve years ago, so I couldn’t ask him. It looked like I hit a dead end.
Larry once told me a trick he learned from a guru when he was in India: if you need to get an answer to a question, ask yourself the question before you go to sleep, and in the morning, you’ll get the answer. This – or something like this, anyway – is something that I have done over the years. Get the “unconscious mind” or the Universe, or whatever, working for you. Sometimes, there is something you can’t just get to that’s right under the surface, and just by asking yourself the question, somehow, the mind’s magic kicks in, and later, up pops the answer.
Today, I thought “Mark Allman.” Hmm. Now, I know there was no Allman brother named Mark, but I went to Youtube and searched anyway… And lo and behold, YouTube’s search-fu came up with it. But it wasn’t “Mark Allman.” In fact, it was not a famous brother to anyone. It wasn’t even a person’s name; it was a band name: Mark-Almond. Mark-Almond!
Mark-Almond was a jazz-rock band made up of Jon Mark and Johnny Almond. The album had a grey cover, not blue. My memory added color when there was none. The song? “The City”. Such a great song, which I hadn’t heard in decades.
The chain of memory is fantastic. Here’s one song, BTO’s “Blue Collar,” which kicked off the process of digging out from somewhere in my soul “The City” by Mark-Almond.
It’s a wonderful thing.

And a Bang on the Ear

It is a cliche to say that music touches the soul, but what can I do? It does. Most of the time, though, we know why it does. I am a huge fan of Beethoven. To me, Beethoven is proof of the divine: no mere chance could have Beethoven composing The Ninth Symphony even though he was deaf. To create something so uplifting and so majestic out of nothing is an act of God. To my atheist friends, I can say that even if you can’t believe in big “G” God, you have to at least recognize that Beethoven was god, or at least had the qualities that we attribute to God – the creation of beauty and wonder from nothing. When I hear Beethoven’s music, I know why I am moved: I am listening to God.

Sometimes, though, we are moved by music and we don’t know why. We know we love the music, we know it is special to us, we know we are moved by it, but the reason eludes us.

There is a band called “The Waterboys,” which really is the vehicle of a remarkable musician named Mike Scott. He is a couple of years older than I am. In 1988, he wrote and recorded a song called “And a Bang on the Ear.” It is in the style of an Irish ballad, and it is a remarkable piece of music.

I remember the first time I heard it. It was in the mid aughts and I had just parked at a grocery store when it started to play on the radio. I thought “what the hell is this?” It just grabbed me, and I was compelled to listen through to the end. And then I had to continue to listen to the station until the announcer told me what I had just listened to. I had never heard of the Waterboys. I was surprised that it was released in 1988, almost twenty years before. How could I have missed this? I bought the CD the next day. Over the years, the my love for the song grew with each listening, and it always affected me deeply.

In the song, Scott sings about women he loved, and what happened with each. He ends each woman’s story with: “I send her my love, and a bang on the ear.” There is some question as to what Scott meant by “a bang on the ear:” does it mean a kiss on the ear? Or a cuff upside the head? The song works both ways to me, but I prefer to think of it as an affectionate cuff upside the head, like “get out of here, you!” In this context, I interpreted the last line as “I love you, but… what the hell?” I think the “What the hell” was directed at himself as much as the girl in question.

Because of that line, “a bang on the ear,” the lyrics seemed facetious to me, just a recounting of women he had known, and not that serious a song even though it is a beautiful song. It seemed like a kind of joke: here’s another lady I had trouble with – I give her a kiss and a bang upside the head. The song is even reminiscent of the Julio Iglesias/Willie Nelson song “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” one of the corniest songs ever written, or “88 Lines about 44 Women,” by The Nails. How can this particular song affect me so deeply? I didn’t know until recently.

Let’s break down the lyrics. The first stanza is about a girl he knew in school:

Lindsay was my first love
she was in my class
I would have loved to take her out
but I was too shy to ask
The fullness of my feeling
was never made clear
but I send her my love
and a bang on the ear

This was not just unrequited love – it was clueless love. He felt for this girl, but never could muster up the nerve to ask her out. How many times as this happened in our lives? It almost happened with the girl who eventually became my wife. I saw Jenny months before I was introduced, and if it wasn’t for a friend introducing us, we never would have gotten together.

The second stanza was a girl he was with when he was in a band:

Nora was my girl
when I first was in a group
I can still see her to this day
stirring chicken soup
Now she’s living in Australia
working as an auctioneer
I send her my love
and a bang on the ear

This girl got away, no reason given. I always wondered about the line “stirring chicken soup.” Why that image?

The third stanza is about a short-term, passionate relationship – passionate more on his part than hers:

Deborah broke my heart
and I the willing fool
I fell for her one summer
on the road to Liverpool
I thought it was forever
but it was over within the year
I send her my love
and a bang on the ear

The fourth stanza is about a tumultuous relationship where they both tried, and ultimately failed:

The home I made with Bella
became a house of pain
We weathered it together
bound by a ball and chain
It started up in Fife
It ended up in tears
I send her my love
and a bang on the ear

The fifth stanza is about a brief and emotionally violent affaire:

Krista was a rover
from Canada she hailed
We crossed swords in San Francisco
We both lived to tell the tale
I don’t know now where she is
Oh, but if I had her here!
I’d give her my love
and a bang on the ear

And finally, true love:

So my woman of the hearth fire
harbour of my soul
I watch you lightly sleeping
I sense the dream that does unfold
You to me are treasure
You to me are dear
I’ll give you my love
and a bang on the ear

I loved these lyrics. They reached into my soul. I would find myself weepy listening to it, and I didn’t know why. Why would a song about a series of love affaires wreck me like this? Oh, but it did. Every single time.

I took a long day trip out of town recently. These days you no longer need CD’s: all my music is on my phone. So, I spun up some tunes as I drove through the forest. The trip was strictly a pure out-and-back to get some business done in Tacoma, but Tacoma is a good five hours from home, so I had a lot of time in the car to listen to music. When I left in the morning, I realized that this was the first time I drove across the mountains since the night before my wife passed away, so I was in a melancholy mood for much of the drive. I listened to a number of songs and then I played this one. I guess I was in the right frame of mind, because this time when I listened to it, it finally hit me why the song touched me so deeply: It is not a song about lost loves. It is a song about life.

Lindsay wasn’t just the girl we were too shy to ask out. It was all the times I didn’t even ask. All the lost opportunities I had that I just never pursued, that if I had just asked, who knows what would have happened? Opportunity knocks, but sometimes you are too scared or clueless to answer. Oh, that happened to me many times.

Nora wasn’t just the perfect girl I let slip away. I realized the reference to chicken soup was that this woman would have been his life’s companion, who would have provided for him as he would have provided for her. She was more than an infatuation; this was true. Lost opportunity! Neglect! She is all the promising jobs and opportunities I started, but didn’t finish. The people I knew and loved who I should have spent more time with. People I should have appreciated more, and who are living a life maybe less fulfilling because of my neglect. People who are now gone from my life – gone to Australia, or gone from the Earth.

Deborah, who broke his heart, was all my infatuations with people and situations that just weren’t “in to me.” She was all the stupid things that I fell for, I, the willing fool. This was the religion I thought would save the world, which only broke my heart. This was the failed partnership that was built on fantasy and ended in betrayal. This was my love affaires with corporations who had no heart. The promising job that ended up almost ruining my career and my life. How many times have we put our heart and soul into something ultimately heartless? The times we thought something was there, but it turned out to be nothing at all?

Bella was every struggle I ever had trying to make things work that were never going to work. The struggle of fighting a chronic illness that always wins, in the end. The pain of seeing friends and family die after giving it all they had. Good friendships that fell apart due to the strain of our circumstances. The heart was there, the struggle real, but the cause was lost. The pain of that is unendurable, and yet we somehow find a way to endure.

And Krista is all the deep but too-brief friendships I have had. Friends who were so close, we could cross swords in our passion for the cause, live to tell the tale, and still be friends in the end. The battle is won, the project succeeds, and we share the glory of victory. And then, the fight over, we drift apart: Layoffs happen, jobs end, new opportunities knock, or new towns beckon.  Our little band dissolves, and we move on. I have way too many good friends I will never see again.

And I was blessed to have my “woman of the hearth fire.” My late wife, who was and is everything to me. And my son, whom I love beyond anything. And my true friends, new and old, who are true as gold.

The above revelations hit me all at once like a freight train hits a snowbank. All of these regrets and lost opportunities and lost people and blessings just streamed through me. My life passed before me, with the full significance of each and every event laid before me, raw and unfiltered. On the I-5 somewhere between Portland and Tacoma, I drove on, weeping in full-throttle, tears streaming as these realities poured through me. It was as close to a nervous breakdown as I have ever had, and yet it wasn’t a breakdown – it was a breakthrough.

One of the phrases used in certain business circles is “in a former life,” meaning a former job. “I was the Los Angeles rep for XYZ company in a former life.” Our lives are made up of lives. We go to grade school, and that’s one life. Then middle school, high school, college, summer jobs, each its own life. If you change schools, the new school is a new life. Each job or career is a life. Our church, our circle of friends, each place we live. Each change of circumstance is a sort of death and rebirth: the former situation is gone, and a new one starts. Sometimes the people we knew in the former life can stay with us, but most fade away, despite resolutions to stay in touch. Add to that the lives we could have had but didn’t. We missed the Olympic team, or our application to Harvard was rejected. Our life is the collection of all these lives.

 

I felt grateful for all of them. This song somehow reached into me and pulled all this out, and I felt devastated that they were gone forever, but grateful I had these experiences and knew these people. We don’t always notice the end of these lives. We just move on as if nothing has happened, or, if we know things are changing, we are in denial that everything will change. What was brought so forcefully to me is that I had to acknowledge that these lives and opportunities were over, never to return. The good side of that was that I could look at them and think “we did good,” or “I was an idiot,” or “I really miss that person.” I didn’t put them behind me, they became me, but settled, not unsettled. It was worth the weeping to see this clearly.

There was no way Mike Scott had any of this in mind when he wrote “And a Bang on the Ear.” But art, good art, rings true, and the artist puts their art out to the world, and the world runs with it. There’s a scene in the movie “Five Easy Pieces” where the character played by Jack Nicholson plays a classical piano piece by Chopin. When he finished playing, the woman he played it for said “I felt moved.” Nicholson laughs, and says it was the easiest thing he could think of, and that he had no inner feeling while he played it. She says “well, I must have supplied it.” We supply the art to art sometimes. We will see things the artist may not have had in mind. So it is with this song. Scott was writing about women, but in such a way that I was able to expand it to life without even sensing it for years. Remarkable. I’m glad he wrote it.

My Wife’s Birthday

May 10th is my wife’s birthday. She would have been fifty-four. She died on August thirty-first of last year. It’s hard to imagine that it’s been only eight months, and yet it seems like a lifetime ago.

Jenny’s birthday has always been a celebration for me, another year of her winning against Death. She was given a fifty-fifty chance of making it to twenty, let alone fifty-three. To me, every year was an accomplishment. She was more bitter-sweet about it: despite the fact that she was fighting her illnesses and disabilities every day, she felt she should have accomplished more, as if navigating the challenges of dialysis and all that it entailed wasn’t enough. That’s the problem with disability: all the effort that a person would usually spend working to achieve their dreams and aspirations is instead put into dealing with one more goddamned day.

It seems that in the minds of most people, when they think of disabled people, they immediately think about wheelchairs and crutches. In fact, if you Google “Disabled Person” (as I just did) and click on “Images,” virtually all the images are of people in wheelchairs, with a few people on crutches just for lagniappe. But there are other disabilities that are incredibly challenging, and end-stage renal disease, or ESRD, is definitely one of them. Even Jenny rebelled against the idea that she was disabled. In her heart she knew she was physically disabled, but she rebelled against acknowledging it, as if acknowledging it would give it power. It took me years to convince her to get a disabled placard because it would wipe her out to walk into buildings from a regular parking spot.

Jenny had an analogy that she used to describe how she could ration what little energy she had. She heard the analogy from someone else, and it resonated with her to the point where it became her way of explaining to people just how much effort it took just to live life. She said to imagine you have a stack of spoons – say twenty or twenty-five. Each day, you start with a stack of spoons to spend for the day. That’s your allotment of spoons. For every action you do, you take away a spoon. An “action” in this context is not to “walk the dogs” or “go to the movies.” No, it is more granular than that. An action is to: get out of bed. Take away one spoon. Brush your teeth. One more spoon. Walk to the living room. One more spoon. Each little thing would use a spoon, until some time in the day, you are out of spoons, and literally exhausted. Exhausted as in devoid of all energy. Exhausted as in tears, and then being too tired even to cry. It is easy as a healthy person, even an out-of-shape healthy person, to not consider that doing these little things can wipe anyone out. But it is true, and the amount of pure will that Jenny had to get through each day is astounding to me, and there were times she pushed beyond her spoons because she had to.

The analogy of the spoons made it clear to me what she was dealing with. This type of disability is so invisible that even living with her, I didn’t always see her struggling with her spoons. But she did struggle, every day.

Looking back on the last few months of her life, it becomes obvious that she was struggling badly. In the midst of it, we were both optimistic. We were planning on her getting set up for a transplant, and she was actively researching why it was she was so tired, and why she was in so much pain. We treated it like it was a temporary set-back. Temporary, even though she was on the transplant list for eleven years. Now I look back, and I see what was really happening that seems obvious to me now: her body was breaking down. It was breaking down after forty years of fighting kidney disease. Her soul was vibrant and willing and steeling herself forward, but the load became too great. We went to a concert last July, and she could only stay for a few songs, even though the artist was her favorite. She couldn’t go to the Sisters Rodeo in June or the Quilt Show in July because she was too tired. She missed a horse show she sponsored because she was in the hospital sick with something no one could figure out. To the very end she was looking to find out what was going on. What was going on was her body was giving out. She died of heart failure.

I have been missing her every day, virtually every moment of the last eight months. Not in a hang-dog, head down, constantly weeping sort of way, but in a more, well, just present sort of way. I’d see a movie, and know she’d have loved it. I’d watch a movie she saw many times, and I can hear her admonishment: “What, that movie again?” Every David Bowie song. A beautiful day. How our dog C.K. Dexter Haven is doing. My son. Her friends.  It is heart-breaking, but it is not devastating – except for when it is. Thankfully that is not as often as it was in the first few months. But her ghost is there in many ways. Not literally, but in things that I know she’d love and that I’d like to tell her, and in routines that are no longer routines. I went out of town on business to Las Vegas in March for the first time since she passed away and the routine is to call her every night, except, of course, now I can’t. I wanted to tell her about how things were going and all the usual things you say to your wife when you call home during a business trip. It was a hole that could not be filled. Of course I called my son and told him about the dancing waters at the Wynn and the gondolas and the perpetual sunset at the Venetian, which is great, but not the same. I recently started a job at a company I knew she would have loved. I missed her then, for sure, because I really wanted to tell her how things were going. Since I couldn’t call her, I instead took a walk out in the beautiful evening, and told her by talking to the sky. It helped.

You get the most interesting thoughts when you mourn someone you love. About a month ago I was just tired of it. Just freaking tired of it. I thought “okay, okay, okay! I get it! I get it. May I please have her back now?” And I tell you, at the time it seemed a reasonable thing to ask. I forget that it is permanent some times. Joan Didion was spot-on when she called the first year of widowhood “The Year of Magical Thinking.”

I’ve come to terms with her body’s death. Her life was shorter than it would have been sans kidney failure, but her life was an incredible achievement. She was Dialysis Girl, and she lived beyond all odds to fifty-three! I feel happy that she is no longer in pain, and no longer struggling. I’d love to have her here physically, but not at the cost of her continued decline, pain, and exhaustion. As much as I want her back, I know I’m being selfish. She is out there somewhere, I believe, free of the burden of so many years of a shortage of spoons.

Today is her birthday, and she would have been fifty-four. It is her first birthday without her. Being without her is not easy, but it is easy to celebrate her wonderful life, which we will do, later today. Happy birthday, my love.