Amen to That

The random arrangement of letters should not give offense

I understand language is fluid and meanings of words change from time to time. That’s a frustrating for sticklers who dislike when people say anxious when they mean eager. Or pedants who’ve begrudgingly accepted that people now graduate college instead of (correctly) graduating from college.

Words change. It’s a thing. It’s called semantic shift, and it happens for many reasons. There are four kinds of shift: broadening, becoming more inclusive; narrowing, becoming less inclusive; amelioration, an upgrade in the status of the word, and pejoration, the downgrade in the meaning of a word.

We’re all aware of the annoying change in the meaning of the word literally. Nice used to mean silly and foolish, awful meant full of awe, and fizzle was the stealthy passing of gas. Listen to an old song and you’ll know the metamorphosis of the word gay.

The gentle transformation of a word’s meaning is one thing, but a heavy-handed, clumsy, forced change of the word itself is another thing. In other words, keep your hands off amen!

Recently, the representative from Missouri’s 5th Congressional District closed his prayer at the year’s new session of Congress by saying, “Amen and Awoman.”

I don’t know his motivation but he was correcting a problem that doesn’t exist. The value and contributions of women are not otherwise slighted if you let your amen be amen. Amen is not a gendered word. Amen is derived from the Hebrew āmēn, which means certainty or truth. It is found in the Hebrew Bible, and in both the Old and New Testament. It’s a universal term of agreement, even if you remove any religious context from it.

Randomly through translation to English, a group of letters were arranged to form amen. Gender is not implied and shouldn’t be inferred. Will we assign another meaning to mandate or mental or manatee or amendment? Should we start playing anagrams with our language?

Unlike congressperson, amen has no bearing on gender, and this congressman isn’t righting a previous wrong. He didn’t begin a semantic shift. He butchered a lovely word, rich in meaning and history. As a woman going through menopause I’m not offended by the use of the gender neutral words but by the mendacious manipulation of letters to fix a phantom offense.

Some words are cross cultural and moved unchanged from language to language. Amen, along with ok and huh, is one of the most widely known and unaltered words in the world.

In Arabic, you’d say amin. And in Finnish you’d say aamen. The biggest variation comes from the Portuguese, known for their hair-pulling irregular verbs: um homen. Close enough.

My history with amen comes in the form of a song, aptly named Amen, that was widely introduced to the world in 1963 by Sidney Poitier in the movie Lilies of the Field. It’s such a great movie. It was always on TV around Easter when I was growing up

Poitier plays Homer Smith, a “life-loving ex GI who one day encounters five nuns escaped from beyond the Berlin Wall,” according to the movie poster.

That description of the movie is like taking a picture of the Grand Canyon on your iPhone. It doesn’t capture the depth, dimensions, and curves. Homer Smith, in attempting to help some struggling nuns with chores in rural Arizona, gets lulled into the greater vision of the Mother Superior who dreams of a proper church building (or chapel) for the area’s flock of Catholics.

Homer gives English lessons to the nuns

As different as these East European devote Catholic women are from the roving, jack-of-all-trades Baptist black man, they develop a respect that crosses all these lines.

In a scene where the nuns are worshipping God with a venerable chant, Homer shows them how a Baptist worships right down to distinguishable but different pronunciation of amen. A-men, Ah-men. Tomatoes, tomahtoes.

It’s pivotal and joyful scene where the ice really begins to break in the way they see each other. There are some things universal and sacred and lovely. Amen is one of them. The song appears in the final scene of the movie too. This clip is the final scene, and you see Homer, with job well done, moving on. The movie has a last word: amen.

Poitier won the Best Actor Oscar for portraying Homer Smith, the first black man to win it. I’ve owned a VHS and DVD copy and have quoted lines many times. And sung the song.

This movie demonstrates the universality of the word. It’s a word that unites, brings agreement for peoples of many cultures and languages. We need more of that. Please, in the name of all things holy, leave amen alone. This is not a fight this word belongs in, if words mean anything.

Can I get an amen?


Life in the Time of COVID

I shall not die of a cold. I shall die of having lived.

Willa Cather

I write down quotes I like, mostly from things I read: books, articles, daily calendars. Even from movies. I have a page in one of my notebooks of quotes from Casablanca and The Quiet Man. When I feel like getting some wisdom or humor, I look at my quotes.

The Willa Cather quote above stuck me as having significance in the COVID-19 outbreak.

While I have my criticisms of one-size-fits-all approaches and the continuous political gamesmanship over the response, no leaders knew with certainty how to manage the risks nor could they see clearly into the future. Individuals, however, have their own ways of dealing with trials. The resulting distress has been both great and minor, but I’ve found a ray of hope at my local “malt shop.”

Enter Don H. He is a local veteran and regular at the local Kewpee Hamburger Shop. He visits the restaurant every other Friday for lunch, proudly wearing his WWII veteran hat.

When you strike up a conversation with Don, or more likely him with you, you learn a few things. He was married for 64 years to his lovely wife and they had five children, and when he turns 100 he’s going to marry a 35-year-old blonde who happens to be a millionaire. (Go big or go home, right?) He’s pushing 95.

He will ask if you want to see a picture of his pride and joy and he’ll show you a wallet-sized version of this. Yeah, he’s got a dime-in ring and other pocket-sized amusements that make you roll your eyes and emit a chuckle.

While waiting for your double cheeseburger and fries, Don will tell you he served in Europe and was on a ship bound for the Pacific fighting when the Japanese heard he was coming and surrendered. You’ll discover that he was more than willing to hug the pretty girls lined up on the streets in Belgium when his truck drove by but the truck driver sped up instead. You’ll learn that he and his eight brothers served in either WWII or Korea. Only one was injured. He also has three sisters, making his a family of 14. Born in 1925, he grew up during the Depression and fought for his country. Don didn’t have the easiest of circumstances to start his life.

I hadn’t seen him since prior to the pandemic and the shut down of many restaurant dining rooms. But when I walked in to Kewpee’s last week to meet my sisters, I took a seat across the counter from Don. While he didn’t remember me, I knew I was in for some delightful if not repetitive stories from a delightful person. And I was correct thinking that my sisters would get a kick out of him too.

We didn’t talk about the pandemic. I didn’t ask if he was afraid to be mingling (though the restaurant was adhering to all mask and distancing requirements), being that he is in a high-risk category. Apparently he has lived enough in his life to determine that the world is not a particularly safe place.

Don was a contrast to the many stories of the older generation who have passed sadly without the ability to be surrounded by loved ones because of the precautions needed to protect people. It’s no one’s fault, it’s just a regrettable sorrow to have a life well lived reduced to a death filled with loneliness and confusion.

Don is a bright spot. Instead of gadget in his billfold, Don should have the quote, “I shall not die of a cold; I shall die of having lived life.” I hope that is after his second wedding. I told him that since he has such good taste in food, he’ll have no problem finding that blonde millionaire.

Kewpee Hamburger chains started in 1923 in Flint, Michigan. At its peak prior to WWII there were more than 400 restaurants. Only five remain, all in the upper Midwest. Legend has it that the shortage of beef during the war was the demise of many Kewpee shops.

My local shop has between 300-400 Kewpie dolls displayed. A regular will overlook them. A newcomer may be startled or even creeped out but will be sold by the food or the homemade shake or malt. Unfortunately the malted powder is made by Carnation (I saw the can) and not by Horlick’s, the company who put malted milk on the map and whose name is prominently bestowed upon the city, from schools to roads.

Maybe the shock of those dolls is helping keep Don going. Or maybe the restaurant’s motto really works: “Hamburg, pickle on top! Makes your heart go flippity flop.”

Willa Cather was an American novelist whose books were popular in the early 20th century. In her real life her family moved from Virginia to the plains of Nebraska. Her books O, Pioneer and My Antonia are about the pioneer lifestyle. The quote above is from Death Comes for the Archbishop, a book on my to-read list.

Bee Not Afraid

Winning the battle of bee confusion

I have shouldered a burden that gets heavy by July and is nearly unbearable as September draws near. It’s because I’m compelled to correct the incessant misnaming of all buzzing, swarming insects as bees.

To begin with, no one really likes any bugs. Ants are pesky, flies are disgusting, spiders trap and eat other bugs but frighten many people. Cockroaches; say no more. In some places mosquitoes are literally deadly as they carry malaria, and in places like Wisconsin they can spoil a well-deserved outdoor summer gathering, the kind we dream about all winter. Bees are one of the better insect species but have a negative reputation, mostly from their waspy doppelgängers.

Homemade wasp killer

If you are sitting minding your own business and a flying, buzzing insect promptly stings you, be careful not to say a bee stung you. It’s not likely, and I’ll probably correct you. And I’ll be correct 90 percent of the time. The culprit is probably a yellow jacket wasp. Bees get the bad rap for the super aggressive modus operandi of wasps. I think it’s the “yellow jacket” wasps wear, and the buzzing around that cause the confusion. Oh yeah, and the stinging.

But a honey bee will die when it stings you. And bumble bees are obsessed with pollinating. Wasps have no problem stinging with wild abandon. Perhaps because the contraption on the left is their biggest deterrent.

Bees only eat nectar and pollen and stick to the flower beds. Sometimes they drink water, and they use it to clean their hives. The Queen bee eats Royal Jelly, a sticky substance that transforms them from a normal bee to a queen. Science!

Wasps will show up uninvited at your picnic or crash your patio get together by zeroing in on your Diet Pepsi or pitcher of lemonade. Also on their menu: other insects like caterpillars and flies. They don’t mind grabbing a nibble on your bratwurst either so it’s your job to try not have a simultaneous bite. They like nectar too but they don’t stick to the flower beds like bees.

Pollinators are necessary for three-quarters of our major food crops, including fruits, vegetables, and nuts. An estimated 300,000 species of plants need pollinators. That’s around 80 to 95 percent of plant species. Other pollinators are butterflies, beetles and flies.

Wasps don’t produce wax. They chew wood pulp and make papier mache nests. That’s if they’re posh. Otherwise they burrow in the mud or a substance and become squatters. They set up nests under roofs, porches and decks, in woodpiles or yard waste. If you have an accidental encounter with a wasp’s nest they will come in force and sting you. It’s like a cartoon.

Bees create these highly complex colonies with one queen many worker bees called drones. Humans sometimes help out and then it’s called a hive which is used for to harvest honey and beeswax. Both are edible, while the wax has been used in human enterprise since prehistoric times. Hives have “densely packed matrix and hexagonal cells” and use them to “store food and house their brood of eggs, larvae, and pupae,” according to where I got a lot of this information. Science!

Not all bees are the same. There are honey bees and bumblebees, and the bumble is a lesser species in my book. But it still doesn’t sink the the level of the wasp.

Honeybee covered in pollen

In recap, bee superiority boils down to a few things. There are the two p-words: pollinator and predator. Bees are pollinators. Bees are builders and chemists. Bees are fuzzy and cute, their many hairs collect pollen that is brought back to the hive, synthesized to protein by nurse bees who consume it and convert it for the growing larvae who need constant feeding. Every bee has a job and they are singularly focused (busy bees). They don’t have a lot of time to eat your taco dip. And finally, bees drink water, not Mountain Dew. Queen bees eat Royal Jelly. Yellow jackets eat hot dogs.

I haven’t even mentioned the nectar and the process of making honey which are unbelievably complex and fascinating. Look that up. I’m here to sing the praises of the glorious bee so people stop confusing them with their yellow jacket-wearing evil twins.

Book critic

Book shelves in coffee shops, Little Free Libraries, rummage sale that advertise books. They are hope dashers. Hopes Dashed on the Parkway. There, that’s a great name for a penny romance. I bet I can find a copy of it in the local coffee shop book shelf. It’s written by Catherine Coulter, I think. Or is it Nora Roberts.

For those of us who enjoy a nice novel, who enjoy browsing books stores and libraries, who love cracking open a lovely piece of fiction, we cringe whenever we pop open the neighbor’s Little Free Library door. Regret at the Library Door. There’s the name of another pocket book to read while walking on the treadmill at the gym.

You’ll know how to spot one of these pocket books. They are mass market paperbacks that are approximately 4×7 inches. They usually have a busy cover; warm, pastel colors; and are well worn and well loved. Based on my mother’s habits, these books were passed from friend to friend in a plastic grocery bag, read, and passed to the next friend.

Box of disappointment

My mom loved Mary Higgins Clark and probably read all 51 of her bestselling suspense novels. Not sure she bought any of them new. All were paperbacks. Do Higgins Clark or JD Robb ever get published in hardcover? They must but seeing one is a rarity. What are the steps for Nicholas Sparks to go from the supermarket shelf to the free giveaway? How many years does it take?

If you think I’m unfairly picking on the romance genre, I’ll concede that Dan Brown, Brad Thor, and Stephen King are not immune to this congenial brand of recycling. Nor are the popular series and trilogies: Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Twilight are popular in these outlets. But even when you see them you think, “C’mon, been there done that.”

Some say publishing books wastes trees. But when you open a Little Free Library to find Moon Over Mist, Secondhand Bride, 18-year-old paperback children’s books, The Migraine Cookbook, and the copy of Dr. Spock that survived the movie Raising Arizona, you’re witnessing the worst waste of 2x4s, plexiglass, roof shingles, and anchoring cement.

All of this criticism comes from my admitted deep sense of snobbery, pretentiousness, and other keen senses that prevent me from enjoying things I deem below me. This highhandedness mostly pertains to books and food in my case. That said I don’t understand why you’d build one of these book nooks or have a bookshelf in your shop and have the most undesirable of books for people who like to read. People browsing these sites are looking for a satisfactory read, a book to add to their Goodreads list. Not a let down.

Step up your game, people. I’m not Looking for Love or Terrified in the Daylight, nor do I need Dr. Oz’s Insomniac’s Guide to Good Health. I’m not looking for Faust or Kafka; I’m looking for something good enough to give at least three stars and to recommend to my sisters.

Turd Ferguson and Abe Froman Walk into a Bar…

A stream of consciousness about the art of aliases and bowling with a free burger on the side, or the oddest book review you’ve ever read

I’m not sure what happens after Turd and Abe walk into the bar. I’m not very good at remembering or telling jokes. As good aliases, I suppose they were looking for Art Vandelay. Or the Dread Pirate Roberts, who is real only in reputation. I just like a good alias.

Urban Dictionary says Art Vandelay is an alias that can be used for almost any purpose. Most of us know it as the alias of the fictional George Costanza, the lovable “short, stocky, slow-witted bald man.” Costanza was to lying was like a marine biologist was to saving distressed whales.

So maybe the Sausage King of Chicago walked into the bar because he needed an architect. Or Turd Ferguson wanted a latex salesman. The Dread Pirate Roberts could offer some importing or exporting expertise to anyone at a barstool.

Speaking of making up names, when I was a kid out of college, I worked in the alphabet soup of the American bowling world, amateur and professional. I worked for the youth division. “The Little League of Bowling” we called it. Also housed in the famed Bowling HQ was the men’s and women’s divisions.

Bowling HQ was in a suburb of Milwaukee, down the block from one of the two famous Kopp’s Frozen Custard stands. Closer yet was one of the many many George Webb hamburger joints. There are 31 in Wisconsin. A proud sponsor of Milwaukee baseball, George Webb’s radio commercials always said, “George Webb predicts the Brewers will win 12 straight games.” Since predicting began, it happened twice. The restaurant backed up its prediction with the promise of a free hamburger.

The first time it happened was in 1987 (the second in 2018) and I went during my lunch break to get a free hamburger. It took some patience but I emerged with a free burger (I paid for my fries) and a George Webb Predicts button that a young worker gave me when I asked. Politeness. And a little female charm. I had a button collection really in need of something cool.

Though George Webb would be the name of a great alias, let’s get this story back on track.

I wrote and edited various publications at the “Little League of Bowling” and dabbled in media relations when needed. Fortunately that meant lots of travel to lots of cities hosting bowling-related tournaments. You know, the big ones with great acronyms like NJBC and NCBC (nijbic and nicbic respectively). Once in St. Louis we visited the Nabahafamu or National Bowling Hall of Fame and Museum. I was a proud member of the Bowling Writers Association of America (or bwaa) and all of the perks that came with that [insert cricket sounds]. It was an acronym-heavy industry and it produced another great one that a fellow workers once made into key chains. IOFB. The B for Bowling. The I and O for It’s Only. And you know the F-word. Saying it helped keep things in perspective when the rigors of sanctioned bowling pressed down hard. Or mostly when they took themselves too seriously.

When traipsing the country covering the sport, there were many occasions of dinner with my colleagues because us hard-boiled bowling media types needed to eat. This one guy always wanted to give tell the hostess the name for our party. It was his thing.

My Paul Molitor button

That was back before the hostess gave you the mini UFO to hold while you wait for your table. Or sent you a text informing you to rendezvous at the hostess stand when they’re ready to seat you. Back then the hostess would yell, “Smith, party of three,” and the party would present themselves and be seated.

So my colleague, who worked in the men’s division and whose name I can’t remember because it’s been so many years, would hand pick a name based on the city. In Detroit. we were the Trammells. Alan Trammell was the All Star shortstop for the Tigers. When the hostess announced, “Trammell, party of four” we followed his lead and got seated. But we also got many curious and hopeful looks by those wondering if they were lucky enough to be eating dinner with the Alan Trammells.

We were the “Molitor, party of three” once in Milwaukee. Heads did turn. I enjoyed this immensely, but I never tried it on my own because I can’t keep a straight face.

To tie this wandering story together, Abe Froman and Turd Ferguson deserve a place on a page together. They deserve to walk into a bar together. Imagine the looks.

Enter the snotty, incredulous maitre d’, saying to Ferris Buehler, “You’re Abe Froman, sausage king of Chicago?”

Wait just a moment.

Or Jerry Seinfeld saying to George, “And you want to be my latex salesman!” But Norm MacDonald playing Burt Reynolds being Turd Ferguson on Saturday Night Live was gold. I don’t get what’s funny about the name Turd Ferguson, only that the whole bit cracks me up.

Oh yeah, and read Norm Macdonald’s book, Based on a True Story. Besides throwing me down this rabbit hole of fictional aliases and bowling memories, it’s very funny and weird. It was honest and cagey and a little raw too, like the author. Oh, and without spoiling it, there’s a ghost writer who tells quite a tale. And an in-depth analysis of Macdonald’s assistant Adam Eget, who never really assisted him. How you like this book will ultimately rest on how you like Norm Macdonald.

Got a favorite alias? You should consider dining with them. Or at least their name,

The only joke I can always remember is a hilarious grammar joke. A guy goes to see a psychiatrist and all he’s wearing is cellophane wrap. The doctor looks at him and says, “Clearly, I see your nuts!”

U2 Can Enjoy the Psalms

My first dip into the Bible was Psalm 23. It starts with “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” I discovered its comfort when I was a kid wracked with irrational fears and anxieties. Goodness and mercy following me. Restoring my soul. Not fearing. Yes, please!

Although filled with thous and shalls, the language did speak to the needs of the human and the help and comfort of God.

Not all Psalms are like the 23rd. And not all translations are the same.  Here are two of Psalm 23’s verses from the Message Bible:

“You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies.                                You revive my drooping head, my cup brims with blessing.

Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life.                                  I’m back home in the house of God for the rest of my life.”

The band U2 plays a beautiful, haunting song called 40. They close every concert with it. “I will sing, sing a new song…” It’s Psalm 40. The lead singer Bono frequently reads a passage of Psalm 116 from the Message at the beginning of concerts.

“What can I give back to God for the blessings he’s poured on me? I’ll lift high the cup of salvation – a toast to God! I’ll pray the name of God; I’ll complete what I promised God I’d do, and I’ll do it together with his people.”

I found this interview between Bono and Eugene Peterson, who paraphrased the Bible into the “accurate, but readable”  Message translation. They met at Peterson’s home in Flathead Lake, Montana in 2015.  They both share their love of the Psalms and its impact on their prayer life, artistic life, and ability to be real before God.

Peterson says as a boy of 12 he read the Psalms with confusion because his religious tradition said every word in the Bible was the word of God literally and you didn’t mess with it. But he was reading about God keeping his tears in a bottle and being a rock.

“I learned what a metaphor was not by knowing the name but just by observing the Psalms,” he said, adding that he learned “imagination was a way to get inside the truth.”

Bono knew of the Psalms as a child too but in the context of hymns in his Church of Ireland upbringing. He found “rawness and brutal honesty, explosive joy and deep sorrow and confusion.”

Peterson originally began translating the Psalms for a certain person hoping for them to realize praying isn’t necessarily being nice before God but honest, which people find a hard thing.

Dishonesty, on the other hand, in Christian art is alarming to Bono. He wants to see more vulnerability which is being porous to God, and is a good thing.

“God wants truth. It’ll set you free and blow you apart,” he said noting that he’s suspicious of Christians who lack realism in art, in life, and in music.

“Feelings are perfectly normal, and you have to let them out,” Bono said. He gave the example of David who danced naked with joy before the troops even though it irked his wife.  He thinks abandonment is an important feeling to get out.

According to Peterson finding a way to cuss without cussing is important and says the imprecatory psalms found a way to do this. He stresses the need to find “some way in context to tell people how mad we are.”

[Imprecatory psalms seek God’s righteous judgment on evildoers and seem to contradict the whole message of the Bible. Knowing the futility of judging others, you might scratch your head at the alarming requests of these psalms. But it’s a raw, honest way of asking to be delivered from evil.]

Bono isn’t disturbed at the Old Testament: “I don’t see God as a violent God but I think the world is a violent place and it does reflect that. It’s terrifying but real.”

The video of Bono and Eugene Peterson takes a little more than 20 minutes.  Below is U2 performing 40 at Red Rocks outside of Denver.

Good grief

January’s unexpected death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter in a helicopter accident brings up a lot of thoughts about unexpected deaths. Then about expected deaths. Then grief.

Lots of people died the same day as Kobe and his daughter. They will be just as missed by their families and friends. But because Kobe was a public figure, and outstanding athlete who brought joy to a lot of people with his remarkable talent, his life did stand out more in the public sphere. And so does his tragic death, on his way to coach his daughter’s basketball game, doing what he loved with one of his beloved daughters. He was thrilled to be a girldad.

My mom died unexpectedly. She was a few weeks shy of 83. She took the “easy chair way to heaven,” the simple, pain-free death. She didn’t feel good, sat down to rest, and slipped away. The medical examiner thought the heart attack probably took her right away. My dad, who died of cancer 17 years earlier at 65, suffered and fought and came to grips with his death.

I know which way I would chose to die but I know I don’t have that option. I do know that the grief for that unexpected loss of my mom was more difficult. With my father’s death, I comprehended that discordant phrase you hear at funerals, “It’s a blessing.”

Everyone deals with the grief of death, whether it’s expected or not, whether you left


Learn from others, but adjust to your needs

things unsaid, whether you have regrets. GriefShare is a network of support groups that helps survivors deal with this tricky thing. I’ve seen posters for Grief Yoga classes. People journal, people pray. People find creative outlets like making posters of things they love about the one they lost. Some doubt everything they’ve ever believed and have to make peace with the new life they have.

There are as many ways to grieve as there are people.  It, however, is not an easy undertaking and can take years or a lifetime. Grieving also takes time and there isn’t a normal timetable for it.

In 1969 Elizabeth Kubler-Ross broke into the art of grief writing On Grief and Grieving. She introduced the five stages of grief and loss: denial and isolation;  anger; bargaining;  depression;  acceptance. Grievers do not necessarily go through the stages in the same order or experience all of them. But the five steps brought into light a process for a task that is very important.

I sometimes accompanied my mom and grandma in the spring to the cemeteries where the family lay in rest. They’d plant flowers in May and tidy up the area. In the fall, they’d reverse the process. It was a tradition.

Some of my siblings go out to our parents’ grave and put tokens on the marker. They’ll plant and tidy up things too. And talk to them.

I know a young mother who goes to my mother-in-law’s cemetery marker and talks to her as a way of settling and comforting herself even though they aren’t related and never met.

There is one way I don’t find productive. My city has several of these homages to their

Maintained since 2014

Created in February

Almost a decade ago

dead relatives on the spot closest to where they died. These places are fastidiously and seasonally maintained.  The place where your son’s motorcycle crashed into a pole ending his troubled adulthood seems a place you come to terms with not glorify.

Bringing that grief out of the cemetery and onto the roadways for all to see seems a step beyond healthy grief. I lose the connection to a therapeutic endeavor when you memorialize the public place of death. But I admit that I could be wrong. Quite a few people do it.

Grief is complex; that’s my point. But you should do it the best way you can. It’s good for you.

Ode to the Yellow Brick Road

Reading Me:Elton John Official Autobiography has drawn me back to a time and a place, and the demise of this great rock ‘n roll album.

The time was the early 1970s. The place was the dining room of our turn-of-the-century Dutch colonial house on Carlisle Ave. That’s where the seven of us lived in a balance between goodnatured chaos and palpable friction.  In the dining room was a large table,  the hutch, the never-played piano, the sewing machine, and the record player. Our ironing board and a laundry basket of needed-to-be-folded clothes often held court there too.

I would lay on the floor and listen to my older siblings’ albums. In 1973 when Goodbye Yellow Brick Road came out, I turned 9 and had three older siblings who were 16, 15, and 13. They bought the albums that weren’t jazz or Rosemary Clooney.

I would lie close to the record player so I could move the needle over the songs I didn’t like as much rendering it impossible to fold any laundry. In my hand were the album liner notes so I could follow the lyrics, most of which were over my head because they were written by British men and not my demographic.

We – actually my oldest sister Colleen – owned both of Elton’s 1973 albums: Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Don’t Shoot Me featured

elderberry wine
Don’t Shoot Me album liner notes

Daniel and Crocodile Rock, Elderberry Wine, Blues for Baby and Me, and the best album liner notes ever created. It was a booklet with the lyrics and cool pictures of Elton and the band. The Don’t Shoot Me album cover was laid out like a movie poster. Something about the song Daniel moved my 9-year-old self in a deep way. It gave me a sense of love and loss that I hadn’t yet experienced. And in Crododile Rock when Susie went and left him for some foreign guy, I was pretty bummed.

Elton was a big deal for a while in our house. When Someone Saved My Life Tonight was released, I was one of a few 10-year-olds singing “you almost had your hooks in me, didn’t you dear, you nearly had me roped and tied..” Not all the adults were thrilled about it but I understood the meaning on only a superficial level. It was comparable to  the innuendo in some of the TV shows we watched: Love, American Style or Hollywood Squares. Just like I understood Paul Lynde was charming and funny, I knew Elton John’s songs were telling a story. I didn’t get what I wasn’t meant to get.

But back to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road; it was a double album and I loved the first one. We all did. Especially my dad. My dad played songs he liked repetitively and repeatedly  tediously. It was frequently troublesome because any of his five children could be called upon at anytime to pull up the needle on the record player to restart the song. And even a good song played ad nauseam is irritating. (Ask any of us about Lee Morgan’s Sidewinder album.)

My dad eventually commandeered Yellow Brick Road. And as much as my dad loved it, my mom did not. “John, stop playing that song about the prostitute around the kids!” she lamented when Sweet Painted Lady took its turn at being overplayed.

No song pleased him more than Bennie and the Jets. B-b-b-bennie! When I hear that song and tell my kids or friends that my dad loved that song, doesn’t convey the obsession properly.

So picture this: the fateful afternoon in that dining room when Colleen, attempting to sew yet another fantastic ’70s fashion statement, clashed with the PBR-laden Bennie and the Jets maniac. He played the song so many times in a row that my sister, frustrated that her sewing puzzle wasn’t fitting, got up and removed the vinyl from the turn table and smashed it over the vacuum cleaner. Smithereens. And silence.

It was over. For that album anyway. There were still more songs for him to ruin. He hadn’t discovered Billie Joe’s Stranger yet. Or Manhattan Transfer’s Brasil. The songs are countless. And every time he overplayed a song, it was like my dad was was saying, “I’m still standing.” (Better than I ever did, looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid.)



Book review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

bookWars leave scars. Tragedies leave scars.

Meet Oskar. Son. Grandson. Very intelligent and quirky 9-year-old boy whose dad died in the World Trade Center attack. Knowledgeable beyond his years but still reasons like a child. Devotee of Dad. Loves Mom but sometimes their grief dances collide and they have to tiptoe around each other. Goes on a discovery mission to get another piece of his dad’s life and death.

Meet Grandma. Survived WWII. Survived her lost marriage. Survived death of son. Haunted by things left unsaid. She wants to be loved and needed and Oskar fills that role. Writes her feelings prolifically.

Meet Grandpa. Survivor. Abandoner. He can’t live and doesn’t die and thinks “life is scarier than death.”  Becomes mute. Becomes the Renter. Prolific writer to his son. Selfish. Regretful.

Meet Anna. Grandma’s sister, love of Grandpa’s life. Dead since the bombing of Dresden. Alive in the turn of the century in those who loved her because all the unresolved feelings and words unsaid still haunt them.

Meet Thomas. Father of Oskar. Son of Grandma. Offspring of Grandpa. Dead. Object of everyone’s affections. Ached over. Transitional character who connects two tragedies.

There are other characters:. Mom, of course. Stan the doorman. All the people named Black in the five boroughs. New York City. Family lost in the Dresden bombings. And grief.

Grief drives this book’s plot. So many of the characters lived with secrets. And shame. And regret. This book is a stew of these emotions from all of the characters:

“She let out a laugh, and then she put her hand over her mouth, like she was angry at herself for forgetting her sadness.”

“We were quiet on the car ride home. I turned on the radio and found a station playing “Hey Jude.” It was true, I didn’t want to make it bad. I wanted to take the sad song and make it better. It’s just that I didn’t know how.”

“Why didn’t I learn to treat everything like it was the last time. My greatest regret was how much I believed in the future.”

“Grief and loss are probably the most fearful creatures that exist. But loss shouldn’t be a fearful creature. It should be a creature of wisdom. It should teach us not to fear that tomorrow may never come, but live fully, as though the hours are melting away like seconds. Loss should teach us to cherish those we love, to never do anything that will result in regret, and to cheer on tomorrow with all of its promises of greatness. It’s easy and un-extraordinary to be frightened of life. It’s far more difficult to arm yourself with the good stuff despite all the bad and step foot into tomorrow as an everyday warrior.”

“I didn’t understand why I needed help, because it seemed to me that you should wear heavy boots when your dad dies, and if you aren’t wearing heavy boots, then you need help.”

“I try not to remember the life that I didn’t want to lose but lost and have to remember”

I said, ‘I need to know how he died.’
He flipped back and pointed at, ‘Why?’
So I can stop inventing how he died. I’m always inventing.”

Grief is real. Grief will kick your butt. Death needs to be grieved so it doesn’t haunt you. It’s a stumbing block, especially when guilt is in the stew.

Grief is such a fascinating subject. The converstations and the thought processes revealed are raw and deep and reveal the characters’ emotional and spiritual state. They seem unable to get out of the cycle of grief. Unable and unwilling. Some seem unable, some seem unwilling.

Everyone handles grief differently. I would join a support group. I would write. I would cry. And I would pray.  I’m sure I would have to overcome some unhealthy obstacles but I can’t imagine letting grief ruin me. Maybe I’m naive.

This is not a book about the aftermath of September 11, 2001 or WWII. It’s a book about how to survive tragedy and how to live again. It’s brought to the reader so poignantly and unfolds in a way to tie characters to each other. It makes you think about life and death and their scars. I recommend it!

I’m Woke and Commercial-free

Waking up is hard to do.

I’m not above trying to trick myself by setting my clock ahead 10 minutes. I’m so groggy in the morning that it takes a while to sink in that I’ve been fooled.

I prefer to wake up slowly, gently, with little birdies lightly chirping in the quiet morning sunlight.

That being nearly always unattainable, I’ve been left to artificial means: alarm clocks.

In high school my mom used to wake me up, which started gently and escalated into annoyed yelling, sometimes culminating into her reaching under the blankets to pinch my toes. It was all my fault, but I still get irritated thinking about it.

On one hand, I really dislike [despise/abhor] these artificial means of waking up. On the other hand, I’m really unimpressed  [uninspired, reluctant] with morning. I don’t have a good attitude. I’m not bright, I’m not chipper. I’m not really verbal.  And I don’t really think a good day should start with torment.

I found a solution I could tolerate. For years I woke up with the radio setting instead of the alarm setting. I set the radio for the local information station.  Some intelligent, calm people would talk about news, traffic, and weather. No music. No shock jocks.

During baseball season they talk to Brewers’ personnel and game announcers on different days. Same with the Packers during football season, and same with the Bucks during basketball season. All in all, I could wake up without causing much harm to my fragile morning psyche.

But then I started waking up to the Pella lady yelling at Packers broadcaster Wayne Larrivee about windows and attractive financing. Or the Penny Mustard dolts would be broadcasting their special brand of verbal slapstick. Maybe it was one of the Milwaukee Diamond Wars fellas. Or the “creative genius” guy. Or the Glass Doctor figuring to fix my panes, if I’m so inclined. I’m unable to list all the radio pollutants out there, but they know who they are! Don’t get me started on campaign season since I live in a purple battleground state. The result: I couldn’t push the snooze button fast enough because I really can’t do anything fast at 6:30 a.m.

As the unwanted noise amped up, I had to jump ship.

As a result, I’ve found a lovely station that doesn’t ever come in and I tune my dial there with volume at medium to low. When I wake up, there’s a low murmur of static. This station doesn’t even try to tune in itself so my morning static is gentle and clear.

I don’t know the three-day forecast or how traffic is on the inbound bypass, but there’s no yelling, blaring, toe pinching, or commercials.